Proof of Their Sin(3)By: Dani Collins
Enrique carefully draped the dark violet stole over her bare shoulders, shaking his head with wonder. “Look at this detailing. What a time to be alive.” He set familiar hands on her hips, taking in the pink and blue pastes studding the elaborate chenille and floss that ended at her waistline. He didn’t seem to notice she was disguising a pregnancy behind the structure of the dress.
Good. The whole purpose of this exercise was to let the father of her baby know about his child’s existence before the rest of the world found out.
As Lauren absorbed the reality that she would be seeing Paolo again, a flood of excitement sent a subtle rush of heat and color under her skin. She saw it happen in the full-length mirror as she turned for a final look. It made her squirm internally with chagrin that she couldn’t stop the reaction. Always, always she reacted to that man and it was so wrong. Her thoughts of him almost tipped into memories of their night in Charleston and the sting in her cheeks ached with shame.
She tried forcing herself back into the cone of denial she’d occupied since The Morning After, but it was tighter than this dress. The lovemaking shouldn’t have happened, but it had. There were consequences. She had to face them.
Which meant facing Paolo.
To combat her reaction at the prospect of seeing him, she took a hard look at her appearance. Where her grandmother had been blond elegance, Lauren was dark with elfin features accentuated by her new hair.
What would Paolo think? Of the hair and the news?
She never knew what to expect from him. The first time she’d met him, at a bar here in New York five years ago, he’d been warm and admiring. The second time, at her wedding to Ryan half a year later, things had gone so wrong it had been nothing but chilly brush-offs after that. She’d been convinced he hated her and, after his nasty set-down at Ryan’s thirtieth birthday party, she had returned his antipathy. When Ryan had disappeared three months ago, however, she’d made one despairing call from Charleston and Paolo had materialized before her. He’d revealed an incredibly tender side when he’d broken the news about Ryan with sincere regret, so protective of her he had whisked her to the privacy of his nearby penthouse.
Where he had made love to her with unexpected and abject passion.
So would he regard this baby as exciting and wonderful? Or would he be the iceman about it? Would he blame her? Or see her as something he wanted?
Oh God, was that what she was doing? Trying to make herself into something that could fit into his world? Suddenly she saw herself as she was: a rube playing dress-up, sidling out of her element with the intention of taking life by storm without possessing the capacity to actually do it. Her confidence plunged.
“Don’t look so terrified,” Enrique scolded. “You have every reason to hold your head high.”
Lauren couldn’t think of one person who would agree. Not her mother, certainly not her mother-in-law. Paolo hadn’t said a word to her since. That didn’t bode well.
Her stomach rolled with anxious fear and she automatically lifted a protective hand to her abdomen.
Enrique’s gaze followed.
Too revealing. She was falling apart.
“I haven’t eaten,” she offered, which was true. The baby deserved better. She ought to take off this costume and stay here for a proper meal and an early night.
“They’ll have a buffet at the ball, but will this tide you over?” Enrique’s assistant offered a candy from a roll of them.
Lauren stared with bemusement at that particular candy appearing before her at this particular instance. With a tremulous smile, she took one. As the O-shape and scorched-caramel flavor landed on her tongue, Mamie’s spirit came into the room.
Do it, chérie. Take a chance. Live your life.
Lauren took a deep breath and her flagging confidence rallied. She couldn’t let Mamie down.
She secured the antique earrings weighing down her lobes then adjusted her grandmother’s diamonds across her collarbone and, with all the terrified dignity of Marie Antoinette approaching the guillotine, made her way to the Grand Ballroom.
* * *
Paolo Donatelli surveyed the charity benefit his mother had begun hosting on an annual basis when his father had still been alive. Whichever country they happened to occupy in December became the location of a White Tie Ball complete with full orchestra, champagne fountains and a midnight supper. The Donatellis could then retreat to Italy for a family Christmas confident they’d done their duty by the local economy, their position in society, and the cause du jour.