The Mogul’s Unexpected Baby
Will his-and-her secrets destroy true love?
Former foster kid Sloane Davenport tried to avoid an accidental pregnancy. Now, she’ll do anything to stay independent, even hide her secret baby from her love-’em-and-leave-’em one-night stand.
Billionaire playboy Ethan Hartwell is tortured by a dire secret, one certain to drive away any sane woman. But his grandmother’s ultimatum—find a wife or lose his family fortune—sends him back to Sloane, the one fling he can’t forget.
How will a marriage of convenience and an instant family transform these unexpected lovers?
Previously released as The Mogul’s Maybe Marriage.
Ethan Hartwell was not accustomed to waiting.
He glanced over in annoyance, not bothering to hide the action from the sour-faced assistant who guarded the inner office. His BlackBerry buzzed and he accepted another appointment for that afternoon. He forwarded a scheduling notice about his Seattle trip the following week.
Hartwell Genetics couldn’t afford to get left behind, not with domestic and international demand exploding for the company’s gene-based medicines.
If he was going to be kept waiting like a recalcitrant schoolboy outside the principal’s office, then he might as well get his homework done.
Another buzz. More email. Ethan cleared his throat to get the attention of the gray-haired Gorgon. “I’m going back to my office,” he said.
Before he could carry through on the threat, the door guard raised a talon to her ear. She nodded at whatever secret message she received, then leveled cold eyes toward Ethan before intoning, “You may go in now.”
Games. If he’d announced his decision to leave fifteen minutes earlier, then he would have been granted admittance that much sooner. He shoved his BlackBerry onto his hip and twitched the legs of his trousers into perfect place. For full effect, he shot the cuffs of his shirt, making sure that his wristwatch glinted in the overhead lights. He told himself that his deep breath was to complete the image, to cement the vision of Ethan Hartwell, M.D., MBA, third-generation president of Hartwell Genetics, and the most eligible bachelor of Washington, D.C., for three years running.
In reality, he merely needed a moment to clear his head before he entered the inner sanctum.
The handle turned smoothly under his lean fingers, and the door glided open in silence. Ethan’s black wing tips left deep impressions in the cream carpet as he crossed the room. He ignored the framed pictures on the wall, photographs taken with the President, with political and business leaders from throughout the civilized world. The United States Capitol was centered in the picture window behind the massive mahogany desk, as perfect as a movie backdrop. With the force of long habit, Ethan crossed behind that desk, approaching the imposing throne that housed the office’s lone occupant.
He bent at the waist and settled a faint kiss on a cheek that smelled of baby powder and lilacs. “Good morning, Grandmother,” Ethan said.
Margaret Hartwell’s eyes gleamed like agate chips as she waved him to one of her uncomfortable Louis XIV chairs. “Will you join me for a cup of tea?”
Ethan swallowed a sigh. It was faster to accept his grandmother’s hospitality than to argue with her. He poured with the ease of familiarity, placing a gleaming strainer across her china cup, dropping in two cubes of sugar, adding a generous dollop of milk. He took his own black, strong and bitter. Determined to conclude their conversation and get back to work, he said, “Grandmother—”
“I finished reading the newspaper this morning, before I came into the office,” she interrupted.
He, too, had skimmed the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times while his chauffeured car had been stuck in morning traffic. “The new treatment is performing well,” he said. “We should move on to stage-two trials next month.”
As if he needed to tell his grandmother about pharmaceutical development. As Hartwell Genetics’s former president and current chairman of the board, Margaret Hartwell chased down medical news like a ravenous greyhound. Maybe that was why she had the capacity to annoy him so much—they were too much alike: driven, determined and downright dogged about pursuing every last business lead.
“I’m not speaking about stage-two trials,” she said acerbically. “I was referring to the gossip page.”
Ethan raised one eyebrow. He and his grandmother might be united on the business front, but they were miles apart where his personal life was concerned. “Grandmother, we’ve had this discussion before. You know that I can’t control what the papers print.”
She settled her teacup in her saucer with a firm clink. “You can control the fodder you give those imbeciles. I’ve told you until I’m blue in the face—your actions have a direct effect on this company.”
He shoved his teacup away. “I hardly think that my drinking champagne on a hotel rooftop is going to influence our second quarter earnings.”
“She’s a showgirl, Ethan.”
He laughed and rose to his feet. “There haven’t been showgirls since you were a debutante, Grandmother. Natasha is an actress. And don’t worry. She flew back to California this morning.”
“You will not walk out of my office while I am talking to you!”
He shouldn’t have been surprised by the iron in his grandmother’s voice. He knew that he brought out the worst in her, and vice versa, for that matter. All of a sudden, he was an abandoned little boy again, being chastised by the only relative who had stuck around to raise him. He was the sixteen-year-old who had been expelled from Washington’s finest private school—again—for playing tricks with the headmaster’s public address system. He was the twenty-year-old who had been thrown off the college tennis team for sneaking his girlfriend into the tournament locker room. He was the twenty-seven-year-old who had celebrated receiving his medical degree and his business degree on the same day, only to crash his Porsche into the Tidal Basin.
He was the thirty-three-year-old corporate executive, standing before his chairman of the board.
“Ethan, enough is enough. Your parties and your women are bringing down this company. They’re distracting you. And they’re not even making you happy.” His grandmother gave him the flinty stare that had sealed a thousand legendary business deals. “Ethan, I want you married by no later than my birthday.”
“This isn’t a joke.” She leaned forward across her desk. All of a sudden, Ethan became aware of the deep lines beside her mouth, the bags beneath her eyes. Her fingers were knotted as she laid them flat against her gold-scrolled leather blotter. Did they tremble because she was angry with him? Or was something more going on? He barely resisted the urge to reach across her desk, to fold his fingers around the pulse point in her wrist, to measure her heart rate. Was she keeping track of her medication? Was she managing the high blood pressure?
“Grandmother,” he said, purposely striving for a soothing tone. “I’m a grown man. I’ll decide when it’s time to marry.”
“I wish I believed that.” Her voice quaked, spiking his own blood with a touch of true concern. “I’ve tried to be patient, Ethan, but I’m terrified that I’ll die without knowing our family will continue.” She raised one trembling hand to silence his automatic protest. “I know that you’re afraid. But we can test now. We can be absolutely certain that any child you father is spared the genetic mutation.”
He had never seen his grandmother cry before. Not when two grandchildren had died—Ethan’s siblings. Not when Ethan’s mourning parents had incinerated their marriage. Not when Grandmother had been left with the responsibility of managing the company that the family had originally founded to research an end to their long-kept medical secret. Not when she had buried her beloved husband of fifty-one years.
But she was crying now.
“You have a responsibility, Ethan. To the Hartwell family and to this company. To yourself. It’s time for you to settle down.” She must have read the automatic rebellion in his expression. She sat up straighter, staring at him with the hazel eyes that were the more benign manifestation of his Hartwell heritage. “And if you’re not willing to do that, then I’ll have no choice but to step down from the board and transfer my shares in Hartwell Genetics.”
Her shares. Enough stock to influence every major corporate decision. If someone else owned Grandmother’s interest, Ethan would be forced to fight, to keep the secret of his own genetic heritage. He’d be bound to waste countless hours cajoling along new business colleagues, educating them about the corporation’s diverse pharmaceutical initiatives, all the while keeping secret its one dear mission. Ethan could kiss every one of his short-term goals goodbye while he adjusted to the change. And under a new regime, his long-term plans might never coalesce.
“You don’t mean that,” he said.
“I do. I need to know that I’ve built something that will last, Ethan, something that will outlive me.” He heard every one of her seventy-nine years in her voice. “Ethan, I need to know that you can step up to your obligations. That you will guide Hartwell Genetics through its next fifty years. If you can’t prove that to me—if you’re not married by January fifth—then I’m celebrating eight decades by transferring my entire estate to the American Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts.”
AFAA. His grandmother’s longtime pet charity.
This was even worse than he’d thought a moment ago. AFAA had no interest in medicine. They would view a massive infusion of corporate stock as a conservative investment. They would do their best to challenge every decision Ethan made to expand the corporate mission, to bring Hartwell Genetics into new markets. They’d argue for safety and security and preservation of their newfound wealth, at all costs.
Ethan sighed. He’d escorted Grandmother to the foundation’s annual charity auction only a couple of months before, at the luxurious Eastern Hotel, the one with the bar that overlooked the Washington Monument.
He swallowed hard, his mouth suddenly dry. He’d bought a drink for the auction coordinator that night. A drink, and then a hastily arranged suite on the penthouse level of the hotel.
Sloane. Sloane Davenport.
He could still see Sloane’s delicate, self-conscious smile as she admitted that she’d never done anything like that before, never gone off with a man she’d just met. He had silenced her confession with a kiss, not willing to admit to himself just how much her innocence attracted him, how much her shyness drew him in.
Since the auction, he’d picked up the phone to call her half a dozen times, but he’d never followed through. He hadn’t wanted to hear regret when he identified himself. Hadn’t wanted to think about the conversation they’d shared in the dark, the talk that had gone on, sleepy and comfortable, long after their bodies were sated. Hadn’t wanted to remember waking up alone, with just a memory of her honeysuckle scent on the pillow.
He cleared his throat and shifted his weight, ordering his body to relax, to forget the only night that stood out from the past year’s slideshow of one-night stands. “AFAA,” he finally forced himself to say.
His grandmother’s eyes glittered as she tapped a thick manila folder on her desk. “I have the papers here, Ethan. Zach drew them up.”
Zach Crosby. Ethan’s best friend. His grandmother’s personal attorney.
Ethan turned on his heel and left, ignoring his grandmother’s sharp remonstration, ignoring her secretary’s petulant frown, ignoring the buzz of his BlackBerry. Seven months to find a bride. And he had absolutely no doubt that his grandmother would follow through on her threat if he failed. He was certain of that. She loved him, and she would do whatever she thought best to save him. Even if he didn’t want to be saved.
* * *
Sloane Davenport gasped as her computer screen flickered, giving one heart-stopping moment of blue-screen warning before it died. Damn! That was the third time today. And she had no way of knowing if her email had been sent before the stupid machine crashed. No way of knowing if her résumé was heading out toward a prospective new employer. No way of knowing if she might finally be making her way out of the mess that enveloped her.
She stood slowly, bracing her palms against the kitchen table before she folded her fingers into fists and rubbed the small of her back. The dull, throbbing pain had returned. She grimaced and picked up a saltine from her chipped plate. Nausea swirled through her belly, but she forced herself to chew slowly, to swallow an entire glass of water when she was done.
Two and a half months. She should be past the morning sickness any day now. That’s what the book said, the dog-eared volume that she kept on her coffee table like a family Bible.
She shrugged and reached for the stack of papers beside her computer. Bills. Fortunately, she kept her checkbook on paper. No chance for her ancient computer to ruin them.
Not that the curling slips of paper offered any great comfort. At least she’d managed to send her rent check on time. She glanced at the air conditioner that chugged along in the kitchen window of her tiny basement apartment. Her landlord covered utilities. No need to worry about electricity or water.
Student loans, though, were another matter. She’d sent off a tiny payment, along with a note explaining that she’d send more, as soon as she was able.
Like that was going to happen anytime soon. Expenses related to the baby had barely begun, and Sloane was already overwhelmed. Soon, she was going to have to buy some new clothes. She wasn’t showing yet, but it was only a matter of weeks. Her jeans were already snug in the waistband, and she’d left the button unfastened as she worked at her kitchen table.
She’d have to get some decent groceries, too, as soon as she could keep down more than crackers and ramen noodles. For now, she had to hope that her expensive prenatal vitamins were doing their job. She glared at the white bottle on the counter.
And she’d have to scrape together money for a doctor.
She’d fit in her first prenatal visit just before her insurance ran out. Two months had gone by, though, two visits that she owed herself, owed her baby. She tried to believe that she could wait until she had a new job, until she was insured, but as every day passed without her landing a new position, she became more and more afraid.
She rubbed her fingers across the thin fabric of her T-shirt, letting them curl over the tiny life that lurked inside. Would she have handled things differently with AFAA, if she’d known that she was pregnant?
Her cheeks flushed as she remembered taking the subway home from the Eastern that morning after the auction. She had tottered down the steps to her apartment, her feet pinched in unaccustomed high heels. Despite her exhaustion, despite the awkwardness of slipping out of the hotel suite unseen and unheard, despite the heart-catching memories from the night before that kept drowning her, she’d caught herself with a goofy smile on her face. She had sung out loud in the shower as she got ready for work. Silly songs. Love songs.
Oh, she knew that Ethan Hartwell didn’t love her. He couldn’t love her. He was famous and rich and the toast of the gossiping town.
But there had been something in his eyes when he’d come to stand beside her at the bar, where she’d granted herself a well-deserved break after managing the most successful fundraising auction in AFAA history. There’d been something in the set of his jaw as he gestured for the bartender to make her another vodka gimlet. Something in the curve of his lips as they bantered, as she flirted.
As she flirted…
Sloane sighed, remembering how easily the words had come to her, as if she were blessed by some daring goddess of romance. For once in her life, it had been simple to talk to a man, to tease him, to taunt. A little amazed, she’d watched Ethan lean close to her. She’d lowered her voice, bit her lip, dipped her head. When he’d settled a finger on her chin, raising her face to his, she’d felt the promise radiating from his hand. She’d registered the heat that had cascaded over her body in a sudden, astonishing wave.
She’d tasted whiskey on his lips, smoky liquor that swirled through the clean citrus tang of her own drink. Without conscious thought, she’d drunk in more of the flavor of his cocktail, of him. The touch of his tongue on hers had sent an electric tingle down her spine, and she’d shuddered, grateful for his firm hand on the small of her back, steadying her, drawing her closer.
One hour, another drink, and much banter later, he’d turned away to the bartender, said something that she couldn’t quite catch. She’d seen the flash of a silver credit card pass between the men, and minutes later, the exchange of a plastic room key.
Another kiss had sealed his invitation, that one rocketing across the tender velvet of her mouth, curling through her belly, trembling into the vulnerable flesh behind her knees. She’d found some witty words to reply, and then she was grateful for the fiery hand that he cupped against her nape, for the scorching iron of his body next to hers as he led the way across the bar, to the elevator, to the penthouse suite that he had so effortlessly secured.
His ease had given her the confidence to do all the things she wanted to do. She didn’t need to wonder if she should say this, if she should do that. Instead, she’d trusted herself. She’d trusted him. For one perfect night, she was more comfortable than she’d ever been with a man. It was more than just the sex, more than the amazing things he made her body feel. They had actually talked, hour after hour, lying next to each other in the dark, sharing stories of their very different pasts. Everything just felt…right.
In the morning, though, she’d snuck out before he was awake. That’s what women did—at least according to movies, according to the newspapers, to the tabloids that feasted on men like Bachelor of the Year Ethan Hartwell. She’d snuck out, gone home to shower, made it in to the office no more than thirty minutes late.
Thirty minutes that her boss had spent waiting for her. Thirty minutes that he’d spent building a furious argument.
Didn’t Sloane know that AFAA had an image to uphold? AFAA project coordinators could not fraternize with prominent playboy bachelors in public bars where donors—discerning donors, conservative donors—could see them. AFAA project coordinators certainly could not slink off with their conquests, leaving nothing to the imagination about their destination. AFAA project coordinators could never threaten the long-term success of an organization as traditional and staid and sedate as the foundation—not when offended donors threatened to rescind their pledged funds because of the immoral behavior of AFAA staff.
AFAA project coordinators could be replaced without a second’s hesitation.
Even now, weeks later, Sloane grimaced at the memory.
Before she could collect her notes and head to the library with its working computer terminal, her doorbell rang, making her jump in surprise. She never had visitors. When she looked through the peephole, she nearly sank to the floor in disbelief.
Ethan Hartwell. As if she had summoned him with her recollection of that one night.
That was absurd, though. She’d thought about that night almost nonstop since March. Mere thought had never brought Ethan to her door before.
Heart pounding, she ran her fingers through her hair. Thank goodness she’d taken a shower that morning, brushed her teeth, even remembered to floss. She glanced down at her trim navy T-shirt, took a second to fiddle with the button on her jeans, sucking in her breath to camouflage her incipient baby bump. He couldn’t tell, could he? Not yet. No one could, she reasoned with herself.
The doorbell rang again, long and insistent. She set her jaw against the demand. What did Ethan Hartwell want with her? Why had he come now? She thought about not answering, about letting him go away. He could phone her, if he really needed her. Her number was listed.
But then, she remembered his hazel eyes, the ones that had first snagged her attention at the Eastern. She remembered his rich voice, reverberating to the marrow of her bones. She remembered his broad palms, curving around her hips, pulling her closer….
She threw open the double locks, just as he was raising his fist to knock.
“Ethan,” she said, proud that her voice was steady, bright, with just the perfect brush of surprise.
“Sloane.” He lowered his hand to his side. His eyes flared as he took in her face, as if he were confirming a memory. He licked his lips, and then he produced the same devastating smile that had completely sunk her back at the hotel. “May I come in?”
Silently, she stepped to the side. She caught his scent as he strode past her, something like pine needles under moonlight, something utterly, completely male. She waited for a familiar twist of nausea to leap up at the aroma, but she was pleasantly surprised to find that her belly remained calm.
Not that her body didn’t react to him. Her lips tingled as she sucked in a steadying breath. Her heart raced enough that she half expected him to turn around, to glare at her chest, disturbed by the noise. The thought of his eyes on her chest only stirred her more. She bit her lip as her nipples tightened into pearls, and she crossed her arms over the navy jersey of her shirt.
Faking a tiny cough, she asked, “Can I get you something to drink?” She couldn’t make him coffee. She didn’t trust her rebellious stomach around the smell as it brewed. “Some tea?” she asked.
He shook his head. “No,” he said. “I’m fine.” He strode to her couch as if he owned the place.
She’d lived in the apartment for nearly three years. In all that time, she’d never realized how small the space really was, how little air there was in the room. She watched his gaze dart toward the diminutive kitchen, to the tiny table with its mismatched pair of chairs, to the narrow counter. He glanced toward her bedroom, and she had a sudden vision of him literally sweeping her off her feet, carrying her through the doorway, easing her onto the double bed’s crumpled sheets.
She flexed her fingers and reminded herself to breathe. Gesturing at the living room, she said, “Not quite the Eastern, is it?”
He ignored her question. “You left the foundation.”
She bridled at his tone. “I didn’t think I needed your permission to change jobs.”
He ignored her sarcasm. “I tried to reach you there, yesterday morning. All they’d say was that you left a couple of months ago. I guess the auction was your last fling?”
She flushed. He had no way of knowing that the night they’d spent together was special to her. Precious, in a way that words could never make him understand. Her vulnerability rasped an undertone of challenge across her voice. “Why do you care? Why were you calling me, anyway?”
In the dim light, his hazel eyes looked black. “Your name came up in conversation. I wondered how you were doing.”
“My name came up,” she said, fighting a tangle of disbelief and excitement. “After two and half months? Just like that?” She hated the fact that her voice shook on the last word.
He closed the distance between them, settling a hand on her arm. She knew that she should pull away, keep a safe distance. But she didn’t entirely trust her suddenly trembling legs.
“Let’s try this again,” he said. “Sit down.” He must have heard the note of command beneath his words, because he inclined his head and gestured toward the sofa as if it were something elegant, something worthy of royalty. “Please.”
She took a seat, pretending that the action was her own idea, even as she was grateful for the support against her back. She longed to cradle one of the throw pillows in her lap, to hide behind the cushion. Instead, she folded her hands across her belly, trying to summon a calm that she could not feel past her pounding heart. As he sat beside her, she tried to think of something to say, anything, some everyday conversational gambit that would pass for normal between two consenting adults.
He spoke before she did, though, his tone deceptively mild. “How far along are you?”
She clutched at her T-shirt. “How did you know?”
“The vitamins.” He nodded toward her kitchen counter, toward the white plastic bottle that announced its contents in bright orange letters. “The book.” She blushed as his gaze fell on the coffee table. He insisted: “How many weeks?”
“Ten.” She watched him closely while he flashed through the math, waiting to see anger light his eyes, denial tighten his jaw. She didn’t see either of those emotions, though. Instead, there was something else, something she had no idea how to read.
He set his shoulders. “Is it mine?”
She nodded, suddenly unable to find words. Hormones, she thought as tears sprang to her eyes. Stupid pregnancy hormones.
Wonderful, Ethan thought. That made two women he’d driven to tears that week.
He hadn’t expected this. Not once, in all the times that he’d thought of Sloane, had he imagined that their one night together had led to a baby. A baby that was half Hartwell genes. Half a potential for such a disaster that his breath came short.
They’d used protection, of course. He wasn’t an idiot. But he was a doctor, and he knew the statistics: Condoms failed, three percent of the time. Three percent, and after a lifetime of luck, of practice, of protection, he’d just lost the lottery.
He had come to Sloane that morning with mixed emotions, determined to maintain his independence, even as he gave lip service to his grandmother’s edict. He had thought that he and Sloane could get to know each other better. After all, in the past year, she’d been the only woman he’d thought about once he’d left her bed. The only woman he’d ever wanted to confide something in, confide everything in. Which, of course, had made him vow never to contact her again.
Except now he needed a woman. He needed a wife. And Sloane had been the first person to cross his mind when Grandmother issued her ultimatum.
He had fooled himself, thinking that everything would be simple. They could go out on a few proper dates. Stay out of bed, difficult as that might prove to be. Even as Ethan had built his plan, he’d been wryly amused by the thought that Sloane worked at AFAA. If, after a month or two of testing the waters, he found that he and Sloane truly were compatible, then she would be the perfect ironic tool to rein in his grandmother’s plan. He would put a ring on Sloane’s finger, and AFAA would lose the potential for a controlling interest in Hartwell Genetics.
Except the stakes had just been raised. Astronomically. And Sloane didn’t have the least idea what was going on. She had no concept of what heartbreak her future might bear. Ethan set his jaw. There were tests, as his grandmother had reminded him. Tests that could be run as soon as Sloane reached her fourteenth week.
He’d let the silence stretch out too long between them. He had to know: “You’re alone here?”
Again, she nodded. He tried to identify the emotions that swirled into his relief at that saving grace: pleasure, coupled with a surprisingly fierce possessiveness. She was alone. Unattached, he knew they both meant.
“Good,” he growled.
The single word sparked a fire beneath Sloane’s heart. Sure, she’d dreamed about sharing her news with him. She’d written silly scenes inside her head, of Ethan finding her a few years from now, after she had built a career, had proved to herself and the rest of the world that she was strong and independent. She had let herself fill in the impossible details— she would be playing in the park with their baby, their happy and carefree and perfect child, when Ethan just happened to walk by, taking a stroll on a brilliant spring morning.
But in her heart of hearts, she had known that could never happen. Ethan would never be there for her, would never share this baby with her. They’d only spent one night together, and they’d taken every precaution to make sure that she would never end up in this precise condition.
Besides, she’d done her research after the night they’d spent together, following up on all the gossip that she had vaguely recalled when she saw him at the Eastern bar. She had forced herself to read the articles about his playboy lifestyle, the stream of women in his life, the flirtations that splashed across the society page.
Sloane’s daydreams had to be impossible. Right?
“Sloane,” he said, breaking into her swirling thoughts. “I should have been in touch before. I know this sounds sudden, but I’ve been thinking about you since that night. A lot. When I woke and you had left, I figured that I would accept what you obviously wanted.”
He reached out and settled his broad hand across her belly. The tips of his fingers ignited tiny fires beneath her shirt, and she caught her breath in pleasure and surprise. He flexed his wrist, using the motion to glide near, to close the distance between them. “But everything is different now.”
His mouth on hers was unexpected. She felt the power within him, a coil of energy. Her body reacted before her mind could parcel out a well-reasoned response. She leaned toward him, drawn to his touch like a starving woman to a feast. His tongue traced the line between her lips, and she yielded without any conscious decision. Her fingers fluttered from the shelter of her lap, tangled in his hair, pulled him closer to her.
The motion of her hands seemed to free his own; his fingers were suddenly hot as they slipped beneath her T-shirt, searing as they danced across her still-flat belly. He cupped one sensitive breast with his hand, rasping the lace of her bra against her flesh. Her body had never been so responsive, and she gasped in surprise. She folded her fingers over his. “Just a moment.”
Ethan dropped his head to her shoulder, cradling his cheek against the pulse that pounded by her ear.
This was madness. He’d come here, planning on being the perfect gentleman. He’d intended to wind back the clock, to give them both time to get to know each other, space to explore their true potential together. He’d meant to build on the amazing foundation they’d established back at the Eastern, that endless night of talking and loving and talking some more.
He couldn’t help himself, though. Even knowing that she was carrying his baby. Especially knowing that.
He tensed his arms and pushed himself away just enough that he could look into her eyes, into a blue so deep that he felt like he was drowning. He spoke before he even knew that he was going to say the words. “Sloane. Marry me.”
“What?” Sloane couldn’t believe that she had heard him right. He reached out to trace a finger along her lips, but she turned her head aside. How could he have read her daydreams? How could he have known the secret stories that she told herself, just as she was drifting off to sleep?
“Marry me,” he said again, as if those two words made all the sense in the world.
He couldn’t mean it.
Sure, she’d imagined him proposing, once he found out the truth about their single night together. She’d pictured red roses and dry champagne, a sparkling diamond ring fresh out of some teenager’s fantasy.
But in her dreams, they had known each other for longer before he proposed. They had indulged in a thousand conversations, countless discoveries of every last thing they had in common. They had filled days —and nights—with laughter, with secrets. They had built a flawless base for their future. He had left behind his reputation for womanizing, finally content to stay with one true…love?
That was all a wonderful dream. But dreams never did come true. Certainly not her dreams, not the dreams of a foster kid who’d spent a lifetime being shifted from unloving home to unloving home. Her old defensiveness kicked in just in time to save her, to remind her that she had to protect herself and her baby, that no one else would ever do that as well as she could. She tugged her shirt back into place, willing her flesh to stop tingling. Roughening her voice, she demanded, “Are you insane?”
His eyes flashed as he drew himself to his feet, and she tried to read the expression on his face. Guilt. Or embarrassment. “I’m trying to do the right thing,” he said, his voice strained.
She wanted to believe him. She wanted to think that this could really be happening to her. But seriously. Ethan Hartwell? Hartwell Genetics billionaire? Bachelor of the Year?
Her silence seemed to feed something within him, something angry and hard. His jaw tightened. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a sleek wallet. Two fingers scissored out a business card, a perfect white rectangle. He crossed to her kitchen table, and she tried to read what he was thinking from the tense lines of his back.
His eyes were hooded when he turned around to face her. “Think about it, Sloane. I want to do what’s right. A paternity test, and then a proper wedding. You won’t get a better offer.” He didn’t wait for her to reply. Instead, he let himself out the door, closing it with a crisp finality.
He truly must be nuts. One minute, he was the astonishing, charming man she’d met at the Eastern, the man who had convinced her to spend the night with him, all because of his easy smile, because of the instant kinship that had sparked between them.
The next minute, though, he was a cold professional. A doctor and a businessman, driving a hard corporate bargain. Demanding a paternity test! He didn’t believe her. He thought that someone else could be the father, that she made a habit of picking up random men in hotel bars.
She’d show him. She’d take that business card and tear it into a hundred pieces. She’d flush it down the toilet. She’d grind it up in the garbage disposal. She stormed into the tiny kitchen.
Her tirade was cut short, though, drowned by the sight that met her astonished eyes.
Ethan’s business card was centered on her dead laptop. Beneath it were five crisp hundred-dollar bills.
Five hundred dollars. More money than she’d seen since AFAA had kicked her out the door. Money that Ethan had no obligation to leave. Money that he could have made conditional, could have held out to demand her submission.
In one heartbeat, Sloane’s anger turned to shame. Really, what reason did Ethan have to believe her, about paternity or anything else?
Sure, they’d shared the most intimate night two people could share. She was carrying a baby as proof. But had she found the courage to contact him in the intervening ten weeks? Had she summoned the internal strength to reach out to her baby’s father, to tell him the truth? What if Ethan hadn’t come to her that morning? How much longer would he have gone on, not knowing? Weeks? Months? Years?
All things considered, Ethan had actually reacted quite well.
What had he just said? He wanted to do what was right. Even after she had shut him out. Even after she had kept him from learning the truth. His first instinct had been to take care of her. To take care of their baby. He’d acted nothing like the playboy she’d read about, nothing like the man-about-town who was splashed across the gossip sheets.
Tenderness blossomed inside Sloane’s chest, unfolding like a snow-white rosebud. There was something between them, some emotion stronger than all the half-truths, deeper than all the avoidance and uncertainty.
The corners of her lips turned up as she heard his earnest tone. Marry me.
Could he really mean it? Did she dare say yes?
She didn’t have any model in her past for marriage. She hadn’t grown up with a happy mother and father, with the sort of easy family life that she dreamed about after watching movies, after reading books. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to trust someone enough to want to spend the rest of her life with him.
To love someone that much.
Oh, it was far too soon to say that she loved Ethan. She knew that. But she could say that she was powerfully drawn to him. That he made her feel safe. Protected. And, more than that, he made her feel desirable. Desired. He made her feel more alive than she ever had before.
Biting her lip, Sloane picked up the five crisp bills and folded them lengthwise, creasing them between her thumb and index finger. The sleek business card continued to glint its challenge from the table’s surface.
Did she have the courage to make the phone call? Did she have the strength to reach out to Ethan, to tell him what she was thinking? After a lifetime of tamping down any strong emotion, of shutting down her feelings to protect herself, could she possibly take the next step?