She thought she'd found the perfect man in her dangerously seductive boss, Eduardo Cruz, but "Get out!" wasn't exactly the morning-after treatment she'd hoped for.
Holding her wilting bouquet, Callie waits for her groomher best friend, a man she'd never kissed, or even wanted to kiss.
But once the eminently powerful Eduardo knows about the bump concealed under Callie's oversize, secondhand wedding dress, there's no way he's going to let her walk up the aisle with someone else.
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Callie Woodville had dreamed of her wedding day since she was a little girl.
When she was seven, she placed a long white towel on her head and walked down an imaginary aisle in her father's barn, surrounded by teddy bears as guests and with her baby sister toddling behind her, chewing on flower petals from a basket.
At seventeen, as a plump, bookish wallflower with big glasses and clothes hand-sewn by her loving but sadly out-of-date mother, Callie was mocked and ignored by the boys at her rural high school. She told herself she didn't care. She went to prom with her best friend instead, an equally nerdy boy from a neighboring farm. But Callie dreamed of the day she would finally meet the darkly handsome man she could love. She knew that somewhere out there in the wide world, he waited for her, this man who would wake her with the sensual power of his kiss.
Then, when she was twenty-four, that man had come for her.
Her ruthless billionaire boss had kissed her. Seduced her. He'd taken her virginity, as he'd already taken her heart, and for one perfect night she was lost in passion and magic. Waking up in his arms on Christmas morning, in the luxurious bedroom of his New York brownstone, Callie thought she might die of pure happiness. For that one perfect night, the world was a magical place where dreams came true, as long as your heart was pure and you truly believed.
One magical, heartbreaking night.
Now, eight and a half months later, Callie sat on the stoop outside her former apartment on a leafy, quiet street in the West Village. The sky was dark, threatening rain, and though it was early September it was hot and muggy. But her cleaned-out apartment felt almost ghostly in its emptiness, so she'd come outside to wait with the suitcases.
Today was her wedding day. The day she'd always dreamed of. But she'd never dreamed of this.
Callie looked down at her secondhand wedding dress and the wilting bouquet of wildflowers she'd picked from the nearby community garden. Instead of a veil, pearl-laced barrettes strained to hold back her long, light brown hair.
In a few minutes, she'd marry her best friend. A man she'd never kissedor even wanted to kiss. A man who wasn't the father of her baby.
As soon as Brandon came back with the rental car, they'd be wed at City Hall, and start the long drive from New York to his parents' farm in North Dakota.
Callie closed her eyes. It's best for the baby, she told herself desperately. Her baby needed a father, and her ex-boss was a selfish, coldhearted playboy, whose deepest relationship was with his bank account. After three years of devoted service as his secretary, Callie had known that. But she'd still been stupid enough to find out the hard way.
A car turned off Seventh Avenue onto her residential street in the West Village. She saw an expensive dark luxury sedan and watched it go by, then exhaled. It wasn't Eduardo's style of car, and yet, as clouds covered the noonday sun, Callie looked up at the sky and shivered. If her ex-boss ever found out their single night of passion had created a child
"He won't," she whispered aloud. Last she'd heard, he was in Colombia, developing offshore oil fields for Cruz Oil. After Eduardo possessed a woman in bed, she was pretty much dead to him, never to be remembered again. And though Callie had witnessed this scores of times during her time as his secretary, she'd still thought that she might be different. That she would be the exception.
Get out of my bed, Callie. She'd still been naked and blissful and sleepy in the pink light of Christmas morning when he'd shaken her awake, his voice hard. Get out of my house. I'm through with you.
Eight and a half months later, his words were still an ice pick in her heart. Exhaling, Callie wrapped her arms around her baby bump. He would never know about the life he'd created inside her. He'd made his choice. So she'd made hers. There would be no custody battle, no chance for Eduardo to be as domineering and tyrannical a father as he'd been a boss. Her child would be born into a stable home, with a loving family. Brandon, her best friend since the first grade, would be her baby's father in all the ways that counted, and Callie would be a devoted wife to him in return. In every way but one.
She'd been doubtful at first that a marriage based on friendship could work. But Brandon had assured her that they didn't need romance or passion to have a solid partnership. "We'll be happy, Callie," he'd promised. "Really happy." Over the months of her pregnancy, he'd worn her down with kindness.
Now, as Callie leaned back against their suitcases on the stoop, her eyes fell on her Louis Vuitton handbag. Brandon kept telling her to sell it. It would look ridiculous on the farm, she knew. It had been a gift from Eduardo last Christmas. Totally unnecessary, she'd wept, amazed that he'd noticed her gaze lingering upon the shop window months before. I reward those who are loyal to me, Callie, Eduardo had replied. A woman like you comes along only once in a lifetime.
Squeezing her eyes shut, Callie turned her face upward, feeling the first cool raindrops against her skin. Such a ridiculous trophy, a three-thousand-dollar handbag, but it had been a hard-won symbol of her hours of devotion, of their partnership. But Brandon was right. She should just sell it. She was done with Eduardo. With New York. Done with everything she'd once loved.
Except this baby.
A low roll of thunder mingled with the honk of taxis and distant police sirens on Seventh Avenue and the hiss from the subway vent at the end of the street. She heard another car pull down the street. It stopped, and she heard a door slam. Brandon had returned with the rental car. It was time to marry him and start the two-day journey to North Dakota. Forcing her lips into a smile, she opened her eyes.
Eduardo Cruz stood beside his dark Mercedes sedan, powerful and broad-shouldered in an impeccable black suit.
The blood drained from Callie's cheeks.
"Eduardo," she breathed, starting to rise. She stopped herself. Maybe he couldn't see her pregnant belly. She prayed he couldn't. Wrapping her arms loosely over her knees, she stammered, "What are you doing here?"
Silently Eduardo stepped onto the sidewalk. His long-limbed, powerful body moved toward her with a warrior's effortless grace, but she felt every step like a seismic rumble beneath her.
"The question is" his dark eyes glittered "what are you doing, Callie?"
His voice was deep, with only a hint of an accent from his childhood in Spain. It was a shock to hear that voice again. She'd never thought she would see him again, outside of her haunted, sensual dreams.
She lifted her chin. "What does it look like I'm doing?" She jabbed her thumb toward the suitcases. "Leaving." Her voice trembled in spite of her best efforts, and she hated Eduardo for that, as she hated him for so much else. "You've won."
"Won?" he ground out. He slowly circled her at the end of the stoop. "A strange accusation."
Beneath his gaze, her body shuddered with ice, then fire. She stiffened, glaring at him. "What else would you call it? You fired me then made sure no one else in New York would hire me."
"So?" he said coldly. "Let McLinn provide for you. You are his bride. His problem."
A chill went down her spine.
"You know about Brandon?" she whispered. If he knew about her coming marriage, did he also know about her pregnancy? "Who told you?"
"He did." He gave a harsh laugh. "I met him."
"You met? When? Where?"
Eduardo gave her a hard smile. "Does it matter?"
She bit her lip. "Was it a chance meeting or "
"You might call it chance." His casual drawl belied the cold accusation in his eyes. He looked up at the expensive town house behind her. "I stopped by your apartment and was surprised to find you had a live-in lover."
"He's not my"
"Not your what?"
"Never mind," she mumbled.
Eduardo moved closer. "Tell me," he said acidly, "did McLinn enjoy living here? Did he relish living in the apartment I leased as a gift of gratitude for the secretary I respected?"
She swallowed. A year ago, she'd been living in a cheap studio in Staten Island, so she could send most of her salary to her family back home. Then Eduardo had surprised her with a paid yearlong lease for a gorgeous one-bedroom apartment close to his own expensive brownstone on Bank Street. Callie had nearly wept with joy, believing it was proof that he actually cared. She'd later realized he'd only wanted to eliminate her commute so he could get more hours out of her.
"What could you possibly have to say to me now?" She frowned. She'd been home all weekpacking boxes, directing the movers, being informed by the airlines that she was too pregnant to fly, calling car rental agencies. "When were you even here?"
"While you were in bed," Eduardo ground out.
Her heart lifted to her throat.
"Oh," she whispered. It suddenly made sense. She slept in the bedroom, while Brandon had the couch. "He never mentioned meeting you. But why? What do you want?"
His black eyes glittered at her. He was staring at her as if she were a stranger. Noas if she were a bug beneath his Italian leather shoe. "Why didn't you ever tell me about your lover? Why did you lie?"
"You hid his existence from me. The very day after you moved into this apartment, you had him move in with you. But you never mentioned him, because you knew it would make me question your commitment and loyalty."
She stared at him then her shoulders sagged. "I was afraid to tell you." She swallowed. "You're so unreasonable in your demand for absolute loyalty."
His mouth was a grim line. "So you lied."
"I never invited him to move in! He he surprised me." After Callie had called Brandon in North Dakota to tell him about the apartment her generous boss had just leased for her, he'd shown up on her doorstep the next day, telling her he was worried about her in the big city. "He missed me. He was going to get his own place, but then he couldn't find a job ."
"Right," Eduardo said sardonically. "A real man finds a job to support his woman. He doesn't live off her severance package."
She gasped at the insult. "He's not like that!" Throughout her pregnancy, Brandon had cooked, cleaned, rubbed her swollen feet, held her hand at the doctor's office. All the things that she'd have wanted her baby's real father to do, if he'd been anyone besides Eduardo. She scowled. "In case you haven't noticed, there aren't many jobs in New York for farmers!"
"So why stay in New York?"
Soft, lazy raindrops fell around them, pattering against the hot sidewalk. "I wanted to stay. I hoped I would find a job."
"And so you have. As a farmer's wife."
"What do you want from me? Why did you comejust to insult me?"
"Oh, didn't I mention why?" His eyes were cold and black. "Your sister called me this morning."
A chill went through her.
"Samicalled you?" Callie's conversation with her sister last night had ended badly. But Sami wouldn't betray her. She wouldn't. .would she? She licked her suddenly dry lips. "Um. What did she say?"
"Two very interesting things that I could hardly believe." Eduardo took a step closer to her on the stoop and said softly, "But clearly one of them is true. You're getting married today."
Her body started to shake. "So?"
"You admit it?"
"I'm wearing a wedding gown. I can't exactly deny it. But how does that affect you?" Her lips trembled as she tried to shape them into a mocking smile. "Mad because you weren't invited?"
"You sound nervous." He slowly walked a semicircle around the end of the stoop. "Is there something you are keeping from me, Callie? Some secret?" He moved closer. "Some lie?"
She felt a contraction across her body, her belly tightening. Braxton-Hicks contractions, caused by stress, she told herself. Fake labor, the same that had sent her racing to the hospital last week, only to have the nurses sigh and send her home. But it hurt. One hand went over her belly; the other went to her lower back as she panted, "What could I possibly have to hide?"
"I already know you're a liar." A beam of golden light escaped the gray clouds and caressed his handsome face, leaving dark shadows beneath his cheekbones and jawline as he said softly, "But how deep do your lies go?"
The wilted bouquet of wildflowers nearly fell from her numb fingers. She gripped them more tightly in her shaking hands. "Please," she whispered. "Don't ruin it."
Her teeth chattered. "My my " My life. And my baby's life. "My wedding day."
"Ah, yes. Your wedding day. I know how you used to dream about it." He looked down at her. "So tell me. Is it everything you hoped it would be?"