Proof of Their Sin(8)

By: Dani Collins

“Of course,” Isabella said magnanimously. “And please accept my sincere condolences.”

Appearances again. It seemed Lauren was just as guilty as the rest of the world. Sickly guilty, if she let herself dwell on it, which she tried not to. She woke in a cold sweat too often, worrying her husband’s death was her fault. Ryan hadn’t been happy about her request for a divorce. Had it made him extra reckless when foiling those terrorists?

Pressing the suspicion to the back of her mind, she accepted the condolences for the sake of Ryan’s family, squeezed Isabella’s hand with appreciation and avoided the delving look Paolo turned on her. Ten minutes, she swore to herself. Then she could wrestle herself out of this dress and all the other confines of her life. She would be a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, able to fly into places she’d never dreamed when she’d been a lowly silkworm tied by emotional threads to her grandmother’s estate of maple trees.

“Why here, then?” Paolo asked as he steered her toward the dance floor, his tone growling with disapproval. “If you only wanted a few minutes of my time?”

“I—” She had to pull herself together as he set confident hands on her, leading her into a waltz. It had been years since she’d taken the lessons, imagining dancing with Ryan in Vienna when she joined him there, but the trip had never materialized. Nothing truly exciting had ever happened to her.

Except discovering she was pregnant with this man’s baby.

Lauren faltered, probing her memory for the steps and searching for a clear thought in the haze that closed in with Paolo’s disconcerting presence.

Wide shoulders filled her vision. His clean-shaven jaw tempted her lips to lift and taste. He’d been stubbled and masculine and hot, so unquenchably, passionately hot. Demanding when he took control. Skilled and confident and ravenous. Like a wild animal let out of his cage, running her to ground and feasting on her.

Her breath shortened and sexual heat suffused her, making her quiver, filling her nostrils with his familiar scent. It had only been the one night. How could she know his dark, espresso scent so well she could find him blindfolded in this heavily-perfumed crowd?

“You’re making a fool of yourself,” he muttered.

The words sliced through her, withering a very sensitive nerve. She knew she lacked experience and sophistication. Why else had her husband cheated on her? Paolo didn’t need to rub it in, though.

Lauren flashed him a livid glance from eyes that burned, but he wasn’t looking at her. He wasn’t aware she was melting under his touch.

“Be a merry widow for your next husband,” he said scathingly. “Ryan deserves better.”

Ryan had lived a double life.

“He had his mail delivered to his mother’s,” she said, shying at the last moment from shattering Ryan’s precious image. He was dead and he’d died with honor even if he hadn’t entirely lived so. “The invitation was forwarded in a packet they sent to me.”

It had been postmarked the day Ryan had gone missing. The engraved envelope was one she’d seen annually and always wound up throwing away because her husband had never been home to take her.

“Initially it only meant that you’d be in New York. I wanted an appointment to see you in your office, but your schedule was booked and my grandmother’s closet is full of dresses like this. When else would I wear one?”

Pride had made her do this. Pride and a perverse desire to thumb her nose at expectations and propriety. Frances Hammond had come home pregnant with her head held high. Lauren Bradley intended to leave the same way.

She lifted her chin, daring him to take that away from her.

Nothing. Not one iota of reaction. Only a disinterested, “Why did you want to see me?”

The moment of truth. She waited until he’d spun her so her back was to the majority of the crowd, making lip-reading from across the room less likely. “I needed to tell you that I’m...” She found the Italian word she’d looked up especially. “Incinta.”

If the language switch caused him any confusion, he didn’t show it. In fact, he showed little reaction at all, beyond one contemptuous glance down his nose.

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