OUTSIDE, striding along the pavement with Lara at a pace in tune with his musings, Alessandro drew deeply of the night air, as if the chill might calm his desire to smash something. There were issues to be considered here, and he wasn’t likely to fight his way through if his blood was fired with unnecessary emotion.
He needed a cool, sharp brain. Illogically, Lara’s revealing response to his query had jabbed at him. He knew very well ‘nothing’ hadn’t meant nothing from him. It had meant nothing of him. He gritted his teeth. He shouldn’t allow himself to be bothered by that. He was over all that negative fallout from the past. So she’d made it clear she didn’t want him in her life-their lives-why did that have to make him feel so raw?
Obviously, from a rational viewpoint, no contact at all would be better for the child than meaningless attempts at an insincere relationship that could never develop. If her mother was happy to raise the infant without making any demands of him, it was surely a matter to celebrate.
And maybe the child would be better off. What would he have to offer a child?
He glanced at Lara’s slender jean-clad form hurrying along beside him and once again the wave of unreality engulfed him. Unbelievably, she’d been pregnant, made pregnant by him. He tried to imagine her swollen with his child, and felt a bizarre quickening of his pulse. For a crazy instant he wished he could have seen that, smoothed his hand over her round belly, felt the full, milk-laden breasts. He shook off the sensuous image. Dio, was he sick?
Only a few minutes ago he’d been lusting after her as though no time had ever elapsed, contemplating whizzing her back to the hotel and taking the erotic curves and hollows of her gorgeous body back into his glorious animal possession.
He felt his abdominal muscles clench in a silent groan of loss. Desire had to be the last thing on his mind now. She was a mother, while he was…
Sacramento. A father.
The irony of it. What sort of a father could he ever make, with his experience?
Scenes from the nightmare segment of his own childhood lurked in the corners of his mind, threatening to storm centre stage, until with a bracing of his will he banished them back to the hell where they belonged.
One thing he could be sure of. Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, the moral issues, the woman’s needs, he knew with all his heart that Fate had decreed some men should never be entrusted with the care and nurturing of little children. It was well documented that people behaved as parents as they themselves had been raised.
Though…Some opposing instinct sprang forward to conflict with the sickening suggestion. Surely it could not always be the case. Who was to say he would follow the pattern of his stepfather, when it had been his life’s work to be the antithesis of that weak, violent man?
Would he ever be driven to vent his nightly rage and fury on a woman or a child? A little girl? He couldn’t imagine himself. He’d felt plenty of anger on occasion, even fury a couple of times, but he’d never experienced a need to damage and punish others.
Almost certainly, his instinct grasped at the assurance his mother had given him. He’d always held fast to her assertion that he took after his real father, that tall, gentle figure who was no more than a shadow on the edge of his memory.
But what if he were wrong? What if he’d absorbed the poison into his child’s soul?
‘Alessandro.’ He became aware of a tug at his sleeve. ‘Slow down a bit. Do you mind? I’m having to run to keep up.’ She smiled, though there was a ruefulness in her blue eyes, as if she guessed at his turmoil.
Impossible. She’d made it clear she hardly knew the slightest thing about him. If she had, if she knew how much he’d wanted her, yearned for her, would she have dismissed him so carelessly that long-ago summer?
He made a wry mental grimace. And here she was, doing it again.
Still, he slowed his steps and presented his cool, smooth face. ‘Sorry. I was forgetting. I’m…There’s-a lot to think of.’
‘I know. Look…Look, I’m sorry to have been so tactless in the telling of it. I know this must have come as a terrible shock.’
‘It is a shock, certainly.’ But terrible? Did it have to be? That maverick thought jumped out at him, glimmering, mysterious, and he shoved it to the back of his brain to dwell on later.
As though sensing the explosive nature of his silence, she continued a nervous stream of chatter, her words misting on the night air. ‘You’ll want to have the DNA testing done. I’m ready for that, of course, though you’d never have any doubt if you saw…’
He stopped still and held up his hand. ‘Please. If I’m to have minimal contact with this-situation, it’s better you don’t tell me any details about it.’
He felt himself flush, knowing he had sounded cold, inhuman even. He could sense her shock, but it was better for all their sakes if he didn’t have to think of the child as a person. Her eyes widened at his clipped tone, but then she nodded in hasty agreement.
A chill like ice settled in his chest. How ironic, that the woman he’d desired above all others was anxious only to see the last of him. ‘I’ll-investigate the testing procedure here and do my part separately,’ he said, a little less curtly. ‘I believe we can-co-ordinate the process.’
‘All right. Fine.’ She glanced at him in appeal. ‘Please, Sandro, don’t be so angry. You look like a thundercloud.’
Her use of his affectionate name stung like crazy, and brought all his resentment and outrage back to the surface. He expelled an incredulous breath and turned to her, flinging out his hands. ‘What do you expect, Lara? You have kept a child-My…My-’ He smote the air. ‘Hidden for five years. I am-’ He reefed a hand through his hair. ‘I am blown away. Of course it’s a shock. It’s a responsibility.’
‘Well, I think I know something about that.’ There was an emotional tremor in her voice.
He stopped and grabbed her arms, forcing her to face him. He could feel the life force pulsing through her slim, vibrant flesh. ‘This wasn’t how it had to have been, though, was it, tesoro? You could have had my support. If you’d wanted to…If you’d really tried you could have contacted me.’
‘I did really try. Do you think I wanted to be alone?’ Her mouth twisted and there was a vulnerable quiver in her voice. She lifted her hands and gave him a little push.
He turned away, unwilling to imagine the difficulties she must have endured, the hardships. Unwilling to acknowledge…Oh, Dio. He was flooded with the most excruciating guilt.
For an instant he covered his eyes with his hand, swamped by the damning images. Her beauty on that long-ago beach, his desire, her innocence…
He shook off the useless thoughts and forced them back behind the firewalls of his conscience.
‘All right, I’m sorry.’ Even he could hear the gruffness in his voice. He resumed his stride, and evaded her gaze, a violent chaos in his heart. Guilt and remorse for what he’d done, the trouble he’d made for her, and, undermining his anger, a treacherous sort of tenderness. If he once looked into her eyes he wouldn’t be able to resist touching her, holding her, and it could only lead to the pathway now forbidden for all eternity.
An honourable man did not seduce a woman, leave her pregnant, then seduce her all over again at the first opportunity. Especially after she’d rejected and dismissed him for the second time.
Regret speared through him for the passion he would never taste again. Per carit'a. What had he ever done to deserve this?
He noticed they’d turned off the route they’d come, down behind the shops and caf'es and galleries, and had plunged into a maze of leafy little personal streets. He was insanely tempted all at once to take her hand, feel her slim palm in friction with his, but he controlled himself. That would be too much like affection. Affection was not what he could afford. She had made her embargoes clear. She didn’t want him in her life. Not now, and never again.
They were passing what looked like a schoolyard, with painted swings and slides and childish paraphernalia. She turned her head, then paused as something inside the brick-and-iron fence caught her attention, causing him nearly to bump into her. The sudden proximity brought him an intoxicating whiff of her hair.
‘Oh, look,’ she said. ‘Damn. See that? They’ve forgotten to cover the sandpit.’
He hadn’t meant to growl. It was probably the unwelcome realisation of what the place symbolised. Six years ago she’d never have paid the slightest attention to something as mundane as a schoolyard. He supposed mothers cared about such things.
His lip made an involuntary curl, and he decided for his sanity’s sake to cull all thoughts of the situation from his mind. Concentrate on the here and now.
To make up for his impatience he made a polite display of peering into the dimly lit grounds with interest.
Across the playground, brick buildings loomed, grim and Victorian in the shadowy dark, lit by occasional security lights protruding from under their eaves. The yard looked ghostly, with shifting drifts of moonlight under big, spreading pines.
He followed her gaze and managed to determine a pale patch under the trees. Before he could make proper sense of it, she had lodged a toe onto the base of the fence, and was hoisting herself up onto the brick fence post. In another second she was down on the other side.
He had to admit, reluctantly swinging over after her a few resistant seconds later, she seemed as lithe and supple as she’d been six years before. No one would ever suspect she’d been swollen with child, as the saying went. The curve of her hips and long, slim legs still looked every bit as graceful in jeans. In fact, for a few seconds, when the feminine swell of her bottom had been deliciously defined as the fabric had tightened against her, he’d been reminded…Smooth and taut as a peach.
If only…If only his memory of seeing her nude weren’t still so sharp.
She cast him a glance over her shoulder, alluring as sin while at the same time innocent, and it struck at his memory with an almost visceral bittersweet punch.
It was just the way she’d looked at him that faraway summer. Exactly the way.
‘Here,’ she said. ‘Look.’
In a few strides he caught up and stood beside her, bemusedly gazing down at a large rectangular depression filled with sand. ‘So?’
‘It should have its cover on. I s’pose the janitor must have forgotten.’ She glanced about her. ‘I think I know where they keep it. I’ll just run over and see if it’s there.’
She turned and walked away in the direction of the buildings. As she receded from him and stepped into a pool of dark shadow her pale fall of hair remained a visible, beckoning gleam. Then she disappeared around a corner.
He took off after her, cursing, wishing it had all been different. As they had been before, without complications. Why did she have to bother with schoolyards? Why couldn’t they just be lovers again, with the world on a string?
‘It’s around here,’ she called. ‘Do you mind giving me a hand?’
Perhaps it had been a mistake to kiss her in the brasserie. This was a school, hardly an erotic setting, but as he followed her into a shadowy alcove under a staircase in the deserted place the air suddenly sprang alive with sexual overtones. In spite of the taboo aspects of the occasion, echoes of rules and discipline and good behaviour, even worse, her now being a mother, that kiss simmered in his blood like a provocation.
Whatever she said, she couldn’t deny her response to it. She’d wanted him.
‘Oh, look, it’s here.’ She turned for an instant to glance at him, and the awareness in her eyes sparkled with as much promise and exhilaration as the bubbles in a fine prosecco. His heart rate quickened.
In the dull light cast by the security lamp he saw a wooden frame with a tarpaulin nailed across it, leaning against the rear wall.
She reached out to seize an end of it, then let it go at once with a little exclamation, sinking her teeth into her plump lower lip, then sucking at one of her fingers.
His blood stirred.
‘Here,’ he intervened, stepping forward to lift the modest frame from her, unavoidably brushing her with his body. Electricity thrilled through him, and he guessed she’d have felt the same little frisson.
‘Careful of splinters.’ There was huskiness in her voice, a sensual inflection she couldn’t conceal.
He carried the frame easily across the asphalt to the grassy spot where the sandpit lay under the pines. ‘You’re very public spirited,’ he observed. ‘It’s a fine night. Would it matter so much to have left it?’
She took the opposite end and helped to slide the cover into position. Then she straightened up, dusting her hands, wiping them on her shapely, denim-clad thighs, and gazed at him across the pit. In the moonlight her eyes were shadowy and unknowable, her face a pale heart shape.
‘It keeps the cats out. Vivi plays in here with her friends.’
Vivi. The name seared his heart with a violent pang, but he ignored it and maintained his smooth expression.
Still, the name must have flared in there like an incendiary device, because somehow it sparked a wave of conflicting reactions. Regret was one of them, almost a savage, furious grief, and, underneath it all, the elusive old magic that had drawn him to Lara in the first place, now more potent than ever.
Sacramento, admit it. Desire.
Somehow in the hour since she’d informed him and shattered his peace of mind, she’d managed to acquire an added mystery, a primitive feminine power that attached to her being a mother. The mother of his-
He quickly suppressed that sentimental add-on. His nothing. His mistake.
Still, it had all created some upheaval inside him at a deep level. Despite his anger, the hurt, he felt possessed with a need to touch her, to make claim of her in the shadowy deserted schoolyard.
They stared at each other across a silence taut with vibrations.
Lust took a sweet ferocious hold of his loins, and against all reason he took a step towards her. A breeze stirred the pines and ruffled her pale hair, but she didn’t move from her spot as he approached. She watched his advance around the children’s playpit, her eyes glittering with awareness in her white face, her ripe mouth grave and expectant.
She was still too achingly beautiful. His beautiful, elusive torment.
‘Lara,’ he said thickly. ‘Larissa…’
He seized her arms and pushed her back into the shadows, up against the trunk of a pine, and kissed her wine-sweet mouth fiercely. She didn’t resist. Her soft lips delivered their own fiery response, and parted to invite him in. She raised her arms and linked them around his neck, and to his intense, grateful pleasure he felt her soft, pliant body yield to him in encouragement.
Like a starving man he covered her face and throat with his kisses, plundering her mouth with his lips and tongue until he was drunk with the taste and scent of her.
In this deserted, pine-scented place there was no watcher present to inhibit him. His hungry hands roamed free and bold, and he could have groaned with the pleasure of the feel of her curves under his palms. Her little sighs and moans, her erotic writhing drove him on to explore her pale body under her clothes, but he willed himself to maintain control, and firmly kept her hands from wandering.
He broke from her lips to swiftly unbutton her shirt. He heard her gasp as her bra was laid bare, and it spurred his passion for the glistening pale beauties swelling from the confining lace, their skin translucent in the frosty light. His mouth watered to taste them.
Her breath was coming in fast little trembling pants, her breasts heaving in voluptuous excitement.
Still possessing some degree of perspective of the place, he’d only intended to look, perhaps just once to feel, but her bra catch was set alluringly at the front. Barely before he was aware of what he was doing, the devil in him had unfastened the bra and allowed her breasts to spill into his hands.
Ah, that soft resilient flesh like no other. He kneaded them in his hands, then bent his head, unable to keep from kissing the scented skin. The taut nipples begged for his lips, and he tasted the delicate treasures one at a time, relishing their erotic stiffening in his mouth, his lust fanned by Lara’s moaning responses.
He was almost unbearably hard now inside the constraints of his underwear, and the possibilities of plunging inside her slick heat for release began to assume a firmer reality. Aching for her nakedness, he slipped his fingers beneath the band of her jeans and felt for the button.
The yellow flare of a passing car’s headlights swept the trees, and she froze in his arms. He covered her with his body, pleasurably tortured by the feel and fragrance of her, her face pressed into his neck, her heart thumping against his chest, the faint dew of moisture on her silken skin.
The lights disappeared, and he was ready to push her down onto the aromatic pine needles, but she stiffened in his arms.
‘What are we doing?’ she whispered hoarsely. ‘This can’t happen now. It can’t happen.’
Disappointment surged through him. ‘Ah, but you want me, carissima. Don’t pretend.’
‘It can’t be like before, now, though, can it?’ she said violently, then jerked away from him and started adjusting her clothes. ‘We have to grow up.’
The unpalatable words lodged in his gut. ‘Do you think there is any other way for us?’ His voice echoed in the silent schoolyard, rough with unassuaged hunger.
He watched her tug the vest across her breasts and zip it, as though that might quell his passion for them, then he turned sharply away to wait for his pain to subside.
Too late, he could have told her. Far too late. For better or worse they had both crossed the line. There would be no going back.
The silent walk to her house was alive with a turmoil of unspoken communications. Passion simmered, unresolved, but it would find a way. Whatever she thought. Didn’t she understand? This was what they were all about.
At her gate she paused, and bit her swollen lip. ‘That shouldn’t have happened,’ she said in a low, emotional voice. ‘You’re only in town for a few days. I can’t just-be your-convenient woman.’
Despite his frustration and the dark chaos he was floundering in, he wanted to laugh. As if there had ever been anything convenient about Lara Meadows. Instead, though, he controlled himself and said gravely, ‘Well, a lot can happen in a few days, tesoro.’
He heard her sharp intake of breath. She examined him with such obvious suspicion in her narrowed gaze he had to restrain himself from seizing her again. The temptation to steal another sweet, scorching taste of her lips was overwhelming, but he resisted. Leave her hungry. It would only fan his own flames, and God knew he needed to think.
A lamp shone over the porch, and there was a faint light glowing from the upstairs rooms. Despite his reluctance to tear himself away from her, he felt relieved she didn’t invite him inside.
The truth was, he didn’t care to look inside that sleeping house.