Authors: Carol Burnside
Kate. Somehow, her simple gesture steadied him through a receiving line of sorts and the sentiments of well-meaning folk intent on expressing their sympathy. Finally, they reached the hired car again, and he remembered seeing her waiting in the back of the vestibule, slipping away when the line’s end was in sight. “Where’s Kate?”
His mother’s head jerked around at the alarm in his voice, her gaze searching the vicinity. “I don’t see her or her bodyguard. Where could she be?”
an, she was tired. Right now she’d do just about anything for a good long nap. Kate opened her eyes and groaned as the muffled sounds of people talking came closer to the limo. Her few minutes of rest were over. Glad no one was inside to witness her awkward movements, she scrambled to a sitting position on the long side seat and crammed her toes back into her pumps. They pinched her puffy toes, and she winced.
At that precise moment, the door swung open and Rio ducked his head inside, then out again.
“She’s in here.” His voice sounded relieved.
Once his mother was seated, he joined them, sitting opposite Kate. “You were making a face before. Are you in pain again?”
“Again?” his mother leaned toward Kate. “What kind of pain, dear?”
“No kind at all. Rio was imagining things.” She wasn’t about to draw attention to the edema starting in her feet and hands and have them fuss over her, or worse, insist she move into Hawthorne House. She’d missed her walk today and had sat too long in one place, that’s all.
She could feel his gaze on her, though he wore dark glasses. He looked like some secret agent in his dark suit and shined black shoes. It didn’t take much to imagine him reaching inside his chest pocket and producing a badge. Why did he have to be so appealing? A flush rose from her chest and she lowered her gaze, concerned that he would notice the interest in her eyes.
They rode along in silence, until the car took a ramp onto C-470 heading north. Kate turned questioning eyes on Rio. “We’re making another stop?”
“I’m sure no one feels up to cooking today. We’re meeting my aunt and uncle for a quiet lunch so Mother can visit with them awhile. They have a ranch just over the Wyoming line and need to get back to their livestock tonight.”
“I see.” She couldn’t sit another hour with her feet in these shoes. Already her toes felt like the blood was being squeezed out of them. “Why don’t you drop me off and I’ll catch a cab home. I don’t want to intrude on your family time.”
Rio shook his head. “I dismissed the rest of Cody’s team. Right now, he’s our first line of defense. It’s better if we stay together for the time being.”
“We won’t be long, dear.” Margaret chimed in. “You need to eat something. Then we’ll take you home so you can rest.”
Kate acquiesced and tried to relax, but traffic slowed to a crawl, then stopped completely as emergency vehicles cleared an accident off the road ahead. Conversation inside the limo died as well. She could see from their faces that Rio and Margaret were reminded of the accident that took James and Allie’s lives.
She wished for something witty or charming to say to distract them but had never been much good at such things. Even back in high school when most girls were all giggly and gaga over everything, she hadn’t been the sort prone to nonsensical nattering. Who could muster such energy while juggling school, housework, homework, and a part-time job? Not to mention trying to corral two rambunctious brothers.
If only she could elevate her feet without drawing attention to the swelling there and in her ankles. Desperate to feel some relief, Kate eased out of her shoes as surreptitiously as she could. She bit back a moan of pleasure as the vehicle began moving again.
At the restaurant, Kate scrambled to put her shoes on as Rio and Margaret exited the vehicle. Rio turned back to offer her a hand at the very moment she grimaced in pain. Uh-oh.
“Are you okay?”
She flapped a dismissive hand as if she weren’t panicking. “I’m fine. Really.”
It was the “really” tacked on that was her mistake. She could see it in the way Rio’s brow furrowed. His gaze raked her from head to toe, over now unmistakably swollen toes and feet and …
“Rio, look how puffy her hands and ankles are.” Margaret peered around his shoulder, concern evident on her features.
Kate was both annoyed and embarrassed. “I can’t get them back on.”
“Need some help?” He slipped back inside and slid toward her, making the interior seem much less roomy all of a sudden.
“No. I mean, they won’t fit.” Fat tears rushed to the surface and she brushed them away.
“Of course they won’t. She’s been on her feet too long. Rio, take Kate home.” Margaret’s voice held the same take-charge tone Kate had perfected out of necessity when caring for her brothers. “Get her things together and bring her back to Hawthorne House. She needs to stay off her feet. You can have the driver stop for something to eat on the way home.”
“That’s not necessary,” Kate protested. “I just need to rest for awhile, and then I’ll be fine. Honest.”
“I’m afraid I must insist, dear. You’ll relax more if you don’t have to worry about preparing meals and the like.”
“You know she’s right.” Rio said, keeping his voice low so only Kate could hear him. “It’s best for the baby.”
Kate shot him a stricken look, not finding the sympathy in his gray eyes the least bit comforting. Best for the baby, perhaps, but definitely not best for her.
io couldn’t figure Kate out. At first he’d thought her greedy, but she lived modestly and he saw no evidence of extravagance in her life. He would’ve thought she’d be happy to be pampered for awhile. Instead, she was fiercely independent and acted like they were punishing her.
He’d carried her into the house, glad the reporters were absent for once and not here as witnesses, and deposited her on her bed with the extra pillow elevating her feet. Following her instructions, he’d found her suitcase and opened it beside her, then proceeded to fetch the various items she called for. Surely she had enough stuff in that bag to last her a month of Sundays by now. “Is that everything?”
“Ah, no.” Kate’s gaze darted around the room, and he could swear her skin was pinker.
“Just point me in the right direction. What do you need?”
Her gaze bounced off him and wandered again. “Um ... underwear.”
“Oh.” He stared at his feet, his mind racing for alternatives to her moving from the bed.
“I can get them. It won’t take but a second.”
“No way. Just watching you hobbling to the bathroom hurt me.” Hell. It was bad enough having to carrying her, feeling her soft breasts pressed against his chest, inhaling the feminine scent that was part soap, part shampoo, part essence of Kate. It had done strange things to his insides that he still hadn’t fully recovered from. He didn’t need to know what kind of things she wore closest to her soft, fragrant skin. “Tell me which drawer. I’ll bring it to you.”
“Good idea.” She beamed at him. “The top middle one in the dresser.”
Rio slid it out and off the track before his gaze dropped to its contents. Oh, man. He’d been in Africa too long, been without a woman way too long when the mere sight of bras and panties in a drawer made him imagine what they’d look like on a woman eight months pregnant. Never thought he’d see the day, but had to admit the mental picture wasn’t an unattractive one when the woman was Kate.
She cleared her throat, jolting Rio into realizing he’d been staring at the bits of silky scraps and lace. He shrugged, refusing to apologize for being male, and broke the silence with the first thing that came to mind. “You’re ankles are looking less painful.”
“See? I told you I just needed to put them up for a few minutes and they’d be fine. There’s no need for me to leave here.”
He sat the drawer beside her. “Whoa, now. I didn’t say they were fine, just better than before. Mom will have a fit if I don’t bring you back home with me.”
“But you don’t want me there any more than I want to go. Surely you can convince her this isn’t necessary.”
“I never said you weren’t welcome at Hawthorne House, and it is necessary. You can’t stay off your feet if you’re constantly having to get up for drinks and food and ...” He forgot the last of his sentence when Kate’s chin wobbled and her eyes grew damp.
Damn. Her eyes had filled in the limo, and he’d had to fight back the same urge to fold his arms around her.
Before he could figure out the proper course of action, she bounced her fists off the mattress. “Augh. This is ridiculous. Women have babies all the time without going on bed rest and having people hovering over them. I’m not a hothouse flower and am perfectly capable of taking care of myself.” She drew in a shuddery breath and released it though pursed lips, her eyes beseeching him to understand.
Rio had seen the same look of frustration recently, when a famous football player had been felled by heat stroke and had to adjust his safari plans around his health. Accustomed to being at the top of his game, he’d been a wounded bear for the duration of the trip. Kate was a runner, active and athletic. She’d already adjusted her life to provide James and Allie with the child they so craved. Cutting back on the most basic of activities had to be difficult.
“Under ordinary circumstances, I’m sure you manage just fine,” he assured her. “This situation is anything but. Your body is giving off warning signs. You need to heed them, and I can help. It’s my responsibility.” The weight of it hung on his shoulders, thick and ropelike, but the more time he spent with Kate, the less heavy it became. Maybe he was getting used to his fate.
Kate studied his face, then nodded. Blinking rapidly, she looked away and reached into the drawer only to withdraw empty fingers. “Don’t mind me. It’s not that I’m not grateful. It’s just that no one has offered to take care of me in a really long time. Losing control takes some getting used to.”
“I get that. The last few days I’ve felt like someone jerked a rug from under my feet, and I can’t get my balance.” He felt especially off-kilter around Kate. Unfortunately, he couldn’t avoid her.
Kate shook her head, the ghost of a smile on her mouth. She reached into the drawer again and stuffed a handful of lacy bras in the corner of her suitcase.
He was curious about that smile. “Was it something I said?”
“No.” She shrugged. “I didn’t expect us to have things in common, I guess. You’re better at hiding what you’re feeling than I am.”
Yeah, he’d perfected his mask of indifference as a small boy.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to hit a nerve.” She turned her attention to stuffing panties in a front pocket of the suitcase, and he pretended not to notice.
“What makes you think you did?”
“When you’re stressed, a little vein in your neck stands out and sometimes your jaw tightens. Just now it was both. Not that most people would notice, but I’ve kind of trained myself to pay attention to little things like that.”
He wasn’t about to admit the difficult day had worn down his normal resistance and her nearness, coupled with her repeated forays into her underwear drawer, had his nerves stretched tight. If she kept going, a part of his anatomy would be swelling too.
He breathed easier as she zipped the case closed.
“There. All done. You know, I could use this as my go bag to the hospital. We can store it in the closet and forget all about this moving nonsense.”
“Nice try, but no dice.” He returned the drawer to its slot in the dresser, carried her bag to the waiting limo driver and returned for Kate.
She turned serious dark eyes on him, eyes that saw too much. “I’m not sure either of us is ready for what lies ahead.”
awthorne House was beautifully furnished, the atmosphere restful but a little strained, and her bed comfortable. Kate couldn’t fault her surroundings for her restlessness or the baby’s. She attributed it to the certainty that she was somewhere she didn’t belong, doing something that not only could turn out badly, but would.
From day one, Allie and James had been friendly and kind but didn’t cross certain boundaries. Each understood their relationship with Kate would end when the baby made his appearance. She understood why they came to her OB-GYN appointments but looked to each other rather than her when discussing the baby with the doctor, why they didn’t look at her while marveling over a growth spurt or finding joy in a sonogram. She was relieved when Allie talked about nursery decorations but didn’t invite her to see the room. Even Allie’s daily inquiries into the pregnancy were a reminder to Kate that the child inside her belonged to someone else.
Rio hadn’t been around for all that. He wouldn’t know the subtleties of keeping her at a certain distance. She’d have to make sure he understood them.
Living in the same house with the baby’s new guardian crossed the boundary, but that couldn’t be helped until she saw her doctor. Meanwhile, she had to keep an emotional distance from the Hawthorne’s while subjecting Rio to enough of the pregnancy experience to bond him to the child he would be responsible for raising. He’d said she had nothing to worry about in reference to him taking the child and seemed sincere, but she didn’t know him well enough to take his word for it.
Just as she was about to abandon her sitting position on the large four-poster, a soft knock sounded at her door. “Come in.”
Margaret entered, her face showing the strain of the day. She approached the bed where Kate sat, propped up with pillows. “Just checking on you. How’s it going?”
“Much less puffiness now. I told Rio this wasn’t necessary.” Kate’s wave indicated the suite, but she meant the house and her move here.
“I’d appreciate you giving him a little leeway. This particular responsibility doesn’t come easy to him.”
Kate hesitated, choosing her words carefully. “I don’t think I can. Carrying a child for someone else without becoming attached to the fetus is like walking an emotional tightrope. I can’t jeopardize my ability to remain detached.”
Margaret shook her head. “No, of course you can’t. It wasn’t fair of me to ask. I’m afraid I’m not thinking straight today.”
“I understand. It’s a difficult day all around.” At the look of sadness on Margaret’s face, Kate sought to distract her. “Does Rio have something against kids?”
“It’s not that. Let’s just say my first marriage wasn’t the stuff of a young girl’s dreams. Even as a teenager, Rio was adamant about never marrying or having children, so taking on this child has been a shock for him.” She patted Kate’s hand. “But don’t you worry. He’ll do what’s right.”
“I wish I could be as sure as you.”
Margaret’s smile was wry as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Even as a child, Rio pushed himself to do the right thing, to be good, almost to the point of perfection. His father was not an easy man and didn’t have the patience to deal with a child. At times I worried ...” She broke off and shook her head. “Well, that’s all water under the bridge. He had to grow up too fast and that’s my fault.”
Kate was curious about the “had to” part but held the questions pushing against her tongue. Rio’s formative years were none of her business, but she gathered his hadn’t been any more idyllic than hers. His ability to raise her cargo wasn’t any of her business either. James and Allie had trusted him. That was all that mattered.
“Do you need —?”
“Margaret —.” They spoke over each other, Kate acquiescing first. “Go ahead.”
“I was wondering if you’d like a snack or something. It’s been a long time, but I still remember how perpetually hungry I was when pregnant.”
“That would be nice. I was just going to say I needed to stretch my legs a little. Oh, nothing strenuous,” she jumped to assure Margaret upon seeing a frown of concern forming. “I’m just feeling a bit antsy and need to move around a little, maybe get a glass of water and a change of scenery.”
“Of course, dear.” Margaret moved to the doorway and pushed a button on an intercom box that had escaped Kate’s notice. “Rio, could you come up to Kate’s room, please.”
Rio’s affirmative answer had a faraway quality to it. Kate tried to ignore the tiny leap of excitement in her veins brought on by his voice invading the intimacy of her bedroom. Her hormones were all wacky and this situation wasn’t helping. She had to set some ground rules or return to her own place as soon as possible.
Kate abandoned the bed and padded to the door barefoot, trying not to wince at the tightness that lingered in her feet. She might have overstated the restorative power of putting her feet up, but hoped Margaret wouldn’t notice. “Why did you call for Rio?”
“Oh.” Margaret whirled to face her, a hand pressed against her chest, indicating she hadn’t heard Kate’s approach. “You shouldn’t be on your feet, dear. He can carry you downstairs.”
“That’s not necessary. Truly,” she rushed to assure, hearing Rio’s rapid footsteps on the polished hardwoods in the hallway. “I need to move around on my own.”
“Sorry. No can do.” Rio’s voice arrived before his big body filled the doorway. “I spoke to the doctor earlier. She wants you off your feet for at least twenty-four hours and stairs aren’t allowed. I’m to bring you in Monday morning if the swelling hasn’t subsided by then.”
“You spoke to my doctor?” Anger filled Kate before a part of her grudgingly admitted that he had every right to do so. Her body was on loan. She didn’t have the right to protest the invasion of privacy, but it didn’t stop her feeling resentful. One thing she hadn’t signed on for was Rio as her caretaker. He was too ... tempting. “Will you carry me into the bathroom every time I need to go, too? I should warn you that happens with alarming frequency these days.”
She could have sworn there was a slight flush to his skin, but his eyes glittered with determination and humor.
“If necessary.” He stepped through the door, hooked an arm behind her knees, another around her back and swung her against his chest without so much as a grunt. “So. Where to?”
The swiftness of his moves caused her to instinctively throw her arms around his shoulders. She could do without his big, warm body so close to hers, without his hand slipping into the natural holding place at the top of her rounded belly, a breath away from her breast. And she could so do without breathing in his scent. Mint and citrus and something darker. The result of some fragrance mixing with light perspiration and testosterone, perhaps, but a blood-pressure-raising manliness that was appealing. Definitely had to set boundaries here. She parted her lips, prepared to begin that task, but halted at the sight of Rio’s eyes looking into her own.
“Take her downstairs, dear,” Margaret said before Kate could recover. “She needs a snack and something to drink.”
Kate found her voice and protested them waiting on her, but Rio wouldn’t be swayed and Margaret backed him up all the way downstairs. By the time he’d deposited her with care on the sofa and pushed the lever to transform the section into a recliner, Kate had to admit defeat for the moment. The man was beyond stubborn, with a well-developed protective side.
She couldn’t fault him for the latter, especially since that protectiveness extended to his mother. He shooed Margaret upstairs to rest and prepared Kate a tray with more than enough cheese, fruit, crackers and herbal tea. Kate thought he’d leave her then.
Instead, he tuned the TV to a music station, handed her the remote and sank into one of the plush chairs angled toward a massive formal fireplace. “Chose what you like.”
“What you picked is fine. Restful, but not so much that I’ll be tempted to nap.” Before her belly had gotten so round, she’d often chosen a faster beat like they played at the gym. But this was nice. She plopped a grape into her mouth, suddenly ravenous, and for the next two songs, was content to listen and eat. Rio didn’t seem to mind the dearth of conversation and occasionally munched on aged cheddar.
“This is an old Paul Simon tune. Has a definite African feel,” he said, as another song started.
“Do you miss it?”
“Not as much as I thought. Africa never felt like home.” He fell silent again, staring at the plush carpet as if it held the answers to life’s mysteries.
“Where’s home for you?” She shouldn’t ask, but somehow, knowing Allie’s baby had a place to call home was important to her. “Here?”
His gaze roved around the room. “Sometimes. It’s nice, but doesn’t suit me for long periods of time. I prefer things on a more modest scale.”
That didn’t answer her question, but she decided to let it go for now. “According to your brother, Allie designed the Taj Mahal of nurseries for your nephew. I’m sure it’s properly outfitted, should you choose to stay here for awhile, I mean.”
Rio pushed to his feet and peered through plantation shutters toward the entrance gate. “I’ve been thinking it might be best if we all left here. Those reporters don’t show any sign of letting up, especially now that folks are coming forward wanting to adopt ‘nobody’s baby.’” He gave the term air quotes. “This is a hell of a thing. Not exactly something you’d make note of in a baby book, is it?”
“Nobody’s Baby? That’s what they’re calling him?” It felt surreal, hearing the same term she’d used in the attorney’s offices. She finished off her tea and returned the cup to the serving tray.
“Mom thinks it’s because I haven’t formally claimed him. She says I should hold a press conference.” He turned to her and canted his head to one side. “You think it would make them back off?”
“I don’t know, but it would lessen the impression that this child is coming into the world without anyone to care for him. A formal press conference implies you’d take questions, doesn’t it? Most of the ones lobbed at me are ridiculous and pure sensationalism. You could probably walk out to the gate, make a statement and leave it at that.”
“Maybe.” He resumed his watch on the front gate. “I suppose this kid could read about all this one day on the internet. He’ll see what the press said about him, see the pictures.”
“Oh. I hadn’t thought about the pictures.” Inside Kate, her cargo stirred and pushed outward, forming a lump on her belly. Pictures weren’t part of the deal. The child was never supposed to know or see her. “You’ll explain it to him, won’t you? My role, I mean. Don’t let him romanticize my part in his birth.”
Now would be a good time to segue into those boundaries.
“I guess I’ll have to.” Rio pivoted to face her again and pointed at her stomach. “Aw, man. What’s ... that?”
The half-disgusted, half-fascinated look on his face forced her to cough into her fist to cover a laugh. “I believe your nephew is stretching his muscles. He’s probably getting pretty cramped in there these days.”
“Holy … that’s a foot.” He crossed to stand beside her, reached toward the area above her navel where the faint outline of a tiny foot showed through the thin T-shirt knit of her maternity top. His hand hovered inches above the area. “Does it hurt?”
“Not really. It’s more a feeling of pressure, except when he pushes on my bladder or crowds my lungs. That’s somewhat uncomfortable.” When Rio eased his hand away, Kate caught it in hers and placed it over the foot outline.
So much for those boundaries. She couldn’t exactly lecture him on setting parameters while instigating close contact, but Rio was worse than her about calling his nephew “it” or “that.” He needed to connect with this child. All at once her cargo pulled back, then pushed out again. “He’s pretty active this afternoon.”
“I’ll say.” Rio’s throat worked as he swallowed, but he didn’t take his hand away. The warmth of it penetrated her clothing and her skin. His thumb slid over the protrusion and the baby’s foot fluttered. “Did that tickle?”
“Not me. Can’t speak for A.J.” No, a tickle wasn’t exactly the sensation Rio’s touch made her feel.
“That’s what Allie called him, short for Albert James. She used to get close and talk to him, hoping he’d recognize her voice after he was born.”
“Hey, A.J.” Rio spoke to her tummy with a self-conscious glance in her direction, then took a deep breath. With him concentrating on her cargo, she closed her eyes, letting the sweetness of the moment imprint on her memory. She might never feel this again. This wasn’t her child, her joy to cherish. But just for one second, Kate needed to experience the wonder of being pregnant and sharing the miracle of it with a man, even if the scenario was far from a fairy tale.
Lost in the tender cocoon of fantasy, Kate jolted when Rio moved his hand away.
“I’m sorry.” His voice was low and full of concern.
It took Kate several heartbeats to let go of the fantasy. “Why? I placed it there.”
“But I shouldn’t have kept ... your expression ...”
“My expression?” She couldn’t seem to string more than a few words together at a time.
“You looked so sad.”
“I wasn’t.” She met his searching gaze and held it.
“It’s understandable. This must be difficult for you.”
“No. It’s the way I want it. Oh! Not James and Allie being gone. I didn’t mean that.”