Baby for the Billionaire

By: Maxine Sullivan

Chapter Eight

The next morning Sasha felt Nick’s lips on hers in a brief goodbye kiss, but she kept her eyes shut until she heard him leave the room. Then and only then did she carefully open them to a new morning and a new beginning, one where she knew she would have to be strong.

She loved him.

If it hadn’t been for all the smoke and mirrors caused by their forced marriage she’d probably have seen it coming. As it was, it had taken a private man like Nick to share his painful past with her to make her see what was truly in her heart.

She’d never stopped loving him.

She’d merely been convincing herself otherwise because it hurt too much to admit she loved a man who would never love her back. He couldn’t. He wasn’t the type of man to give up part of himself for love of a woman. Even now, she knew he didn’t love her. He liked her, and she was sure he liked her even more with each passing day, but there was no way she could tell him she loved him.

He wouldn’t want to know.

And his rejection of her would be far worse this time. They were adults now and their feelings ran deeper and more lasting, and to bring it out in the open would ruin any chance of a happy marriage between them.

A marriage now based on friendship.

Not love.

No, she’d have to be happy with what she had. The alternative of a divorce, or of Nick feeling uncomfortable around her was too much to bear.

Better to keep it a secret.

Of course, for all her self-talk, when he returned home that night and kissed her hello, then took the stairs two at a time to go shower and change, Sasha’s heart skipped a beat as she realized something. This morning’s kiss before leaving for work had been the first time he’d kissed her goodbye.

And now this?

Things had definitely changed for the better between them. Perhaps one day …

No, she dared not think it.

“By the way,” he said over dinner later. “I’m happy for you to redecorate my old bedroom now.”

She blinked. “You are?”

“Yes. Give it a whole new look and turn it into a spare bedroom. Do whatever you want. You’re the expert. I don’t need it anymore.”

Her insides turned soft. “No, you don’t, do you?”

He seemed much more relaxed. “Sasha, I think it’s time we had some fun. Would you like to go to a party on Saturday night? Friends of mine are celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary.”

She liked that he was asking her and not merely expecting her to go. More importantly it was as if he actually wanted to be with her.

“I’d love to go to the party with you.”

He flashed her a smile. “Good.”

That smile made her senses spin and took her right through the week, especially when he continued to kiss her goodbye and hello every day. It was as if he truly considered her his real wife now.

There were about fifty people at the party held at a gorgeous mansion overlooking the Parramatta River. Nick’s friends, Fiona and Boyd, were warm and friendly.

“We’re so sorry we missed your wedding,” Fiona said. “We were overseas at the time but it was a nice surprise when we came back.”

“Surprise?” Boyd laughingly choked. “I was totally shocked when Nick told me he was married. Who’d have thought the playboy would ever get married, let alone so quickly?” He got an elbow in the ribs by his wife. “I mean … well, you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, Boyd, we know what you mean,” Nick teased and left it at that.

Sasha was grateful Nick didn’t tell them the truth. She hadn’t cared at the wedding if everyone had known, but now it was a matter of pride.

And a matter of love.

Over the next hour Nick kept her by his side, not leaving her for a minute while they mixed with a small group of friends. They were laughing at something one of the wives said when suddenly a blonde beauty pushed through the group.

“Darling!” she squealed, throwing her arms around Nick’s neck and hugging him. She leaned back and kissed him full on the mouth before saying, “Darling, I’m back. Aren’t you glad to see me?”

There was dead silence in the group.

Sasha swallowed hard as she looked at the beautiful blonde, then Nick, seeing the shock before a mask came down over his face.

Effortlessly he extricated himself from the woman’s arms and slid his arm around Sasha’s waist and said, “Brenda, I’d like you to meet my wife.”

The other woman gasped, her eyes darting in disbelief to Sasha and back. “Your wife?”

“That’s what I said.”

The blonde’s face began to crumble. “Oh, Nick, how could you!” she choked, spinning on her heels and racing out to the patio.

The silence continued.

Nick’s mouth tightened as he turned to Sasha. “I’d better go sort this out.”

Sasha nodded. It was the right thing to do, the only decent thing to do, so why was she feeling uneasy about it all? He strode away, leaving an uncomfortable quiet.

Then Fiona took matters into hand. “These things happen,” she said sympathetically, giving Sasha’s arm a pat.

Sasha cleared her throat. “Yes, they do.”

Then one of the men started talking about something else and the conversation started up again somewhat awkwardly, everyone no doubt wondering what was going on out there on the patio and none more than herself.

She held her head high and determined to keep on doing so, but inside she was feeling less than certain. Who was Brenda, and how much had she and Nick meant to each other?

It seemed forever before he returned. His jaw was clenched as he came up and slipped his arm around her waist again, pulling her close. “Right, I’m back where I belong now.”

She knew he meant to comfort her but their relationship was such that she didn’t know which way the wind would blow. All this could be for show.

She winced. What was the matter with her? It was all for show.

All at once Brenda appeared at the open doorway, tears streaming down her beautiful face as she gave a loud sob and ran through the room to the front door. Every pair of eyes watched her, then all those eyes seemed to turn and look at her and Nick.

Sasha wanted to sink through the floor.

“Let’s dance,” he rasped, taking her drink and handing it to Boyd. Then he led her toward an area set aside for dancing.

He pulled her into his arms. “Don’t ask.”

“Nick, I—”

“Later. Right now I want to dance with my wife.”

She kept quiet but as she looked into his angry blue eyes she had to wonder if there was a reason he had called her his wife.

Was it to remind her that he was married to her?

Or was it a reminder to himself?

Thankfully by the time they’d finished their dance, the commotion Brenda had caused had receded into the background. Everyone had gone back to enjoying themselves and she was touched that some of the ladies seemed to be going out of their way to be nice to her.

She just hoped it wasn’t from pity. She couldn’t bear that. Not when she’d seen so many others pity her mother over the years.

They stayed at the party for an hour after that, more out of pride than not, Sasha knew. Once in the car, she couldn’t hold back any longer. She had to know.

“Do you love her?”

Nick’s hand stilled on the ignition key. “Of course not.”

“She loves you.”

His mouth tightened as he lowered his hand. “She thinks she does. She’ll get over it.”

Just like she had got over him years ago?

Just like she would have to get over her love for him now?

“That’s so hard-hearted, Nick.”

“What do you want me to say, Sasha? I’m married now. I can’t help her.”

Pain wrapped around her heart. “Would you help her if you weren’t married?”

He shot her a hard glance. “No.”

Is that all he had to say?

“Look, she went overseas and married someone else, and now she’s walked out on that marriage after six months and is pretending she still wants me? No way.”

She swallowed hard. Couldn’t he see what was right in front of him?

“Maybe she really does love you.”

He made a harsh sound. “Sure. Brenda came back through that room knowing everyone would feel sorry for her. Don’t you think a truly brokenhearted person would leave by the back door and away from prying eyes? Does all that sound like love to you?”

Her heart began to fill with relief. “No, I guess it doesn’t.”

“I was the one who broke it off. Brenda was a fling, that’s all. I would never have married her.”

“Never?”

“Never.” He reached out and put his hand over hers. “I’m glad I’m married to you.”

She ignored the warmth of his skin against her own. “Why?”

He blinked. “Why?”

“That’s what I said.”

Withdrawal came over his face before he turned back to put the key in the ignition. “There’s a whole heap of reasons.”

Yes, and none of them were love.

He glanced back at her. “Sasha, don’t let her get to you. She’s someone from my past and I can’t change that. But don’t let her into our future, okay?”

He was right.

“Okay.”

He waited a moment more, his eyes reading hers as if to be convinced, then he started up the engine and headed for home.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come with me to my parents’ place?”

Sasha placed her hairbrush down on the dresser and looked at Nick. “No, I’d only be in the way.”

The Valente men were getting together at Cesare’s apartment now that Alex was back from London. And Isabel was having Sunday brunch with a friend, so it was no use going with Nick just to sit and listen to the men talk business.

“You wouldn’t be in the way,” he said, a touch of gruffness to his voice.

Tenderness filled her but she tried not to show it. She’d accepted what he’d said about Brenda and it was forgotten. Now she just wanted to get on with her life.

With Nick.

“No, I’ve got lots of things to do here.”

He went to kiss her then stopped to hover just above her lips. “So you’re okay about Brenda?”

“Yes, I am.”

And she was.

He kissed her then, a long lingering kiss that was meant to reassure her.

And it did.

Until she answered the phone an hour later and a woman asked to speak to Nick.

“He’s not here at the moment,” Sasha said, her fingers tensing around the handset. “Do you want to leave a message?”

“Tell him it’s Brenda.” The woman’s pause was definitely for effect. “I’m returning his call.”

Sasha held on to her composure. “His call?”

“Nick called me a little while ago and said to call him back. I thought it was from this number. This is his parents’ old number, right?”

Her words implied that she knew his parents’ number very well.

Sasha drew herself up straighter. “Yes, this was Cesare and Isabel’s house. It’s mine and Nick’s now. I’ll pass on the message that you called.”

Her hands were shaking as she hung up the phone and for a moment she felt a silly sense of triumph. Then it hit her.

Nick had called Brenda.

To meet with her?

Or to tell her to leave him alone?

All at once Sasha’s doubts rose again like weeds in a garden. She tried to mentally cut them off at the roots but they went too deep.

Was Nick lying?

She’d believed him about not being in love with Brenda, but was she being a fool to be so accepting? Had she wanted to believe him because of her love for him? Had it blinded her to his faults? Made her weak to his lies?

No, she didn’t want to believe any of that, but the scenario was all too familiar. Memories of her parents’ marriage were always at the back of her mind, her father always so glib at assuring her mother he was working when he was out with his latest girlfriend. Her mother always accepting his assurances. Sasha was certain her mother hadn’t always believed him, but she’d forgiven him anyway.

Was this the same situation between her and Nick?

Was she like her mother?

And was Nick more like her father than she wanted to admit?

All at once she had the urge to go see her parents. Perhaps by merely being around them she’d find she was just being silly.

An hour later her mother’s eyes lit up with surprise when she opened the door. “Darling, what are you doing here?” she said, giving her daughter a kiss. “And where’s Nick?”

“He had to go see Cesare about work,” Sasha said, stepping inside.

“Men! Your father’s not here either. He went into the office to fix something or other. On a Sunday, too!”

Sasha turned to hide her face so that her mother couldn’t read the suspicion in her eyes. Was that just an excuse? Was her father out with his latest mistress?

“Anyway,” Sally said. “It’s just us girls today. We can catch up over coffee.”

“That would be nice, Mum,” Sasha said, regretting having come now. Instead of doubting her suspicions about Nick, this visit was only reinforcing that she could never be like her mother and so accepting of her husband’s lies.

And if she couldn’t trust Nick, then how could she stay married to him?

They chatted over coffee on the patio until Sasha’s cell phone rang. It was one of the contractors handling the renovations. “Let me just get a pen and paper,” she said, looking around for her handbag, remembering she’d left it on the kitchen table.

Sally waved her toward the study.

Sasha nodded and entered by the French doors, hurrying over to her father’s desk. By the time she ended the call, she had the feeling this particular contractor was going to be more trouble than he was worth.

She sighed as she turned to leave and knocked into the bookcase, causing a large vase to fall on the carpet and break.

“Oh no,” she muttered, crouching down to pick up the pieces. She hoped it wasn’t irreplaceable.

Suddenly she realized there was some rolled up paper in the vase that had now spilled out. She picked it up. Her father wouldn’t be pleased to have his things all over the place, though why he would tuck them in a vase like this—

A shiver of apprehension slid down her spine as the paper unraveled and the name “Valente” caught her eye. She didn’t mean to pry but the words “correct figures” had been written in pencil at the top of the paper.

Then she noticed another sheet of paper underneath it, looking like a duplicate of the top sheet except that the numbers were different.

She blinked, then reread them. Was she seeing what she thought she was seeing?

She swallowed hard. Oh God. It hadn’t been enough for her father that she had married Nick. Porter had falsified the numbers to win the contract by undercutting the other tenders by one hundred thousand dollars. No wonder these papers were hidden away.

God, did Nick know? Was that why they’d delayed signing the contract a few weeks ago? She shook her head. No, if Nick knew he’d have done something about it.

Definitely.

“What are you doing with those?” her mother suddenly said in an accusing tone.

Sasha’s head shot up, trepidation filling her. “You know, don’t you?”

Sally rushed toward her and snatched the papers to her breast. “Know what?”

“That Dad falsified the numbers to win that latest contract.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“Mum, I saw the paperwork. It’s there in black and white.”

Her mother flushed, then paled. “Darling, you can’t say anything. Promise me you won’t.”

Sasha gasped. “I can’t make a promise like that. What Dad did isn’t only morally wrong, it’s illegal.”

Sally’s face screwed up. “Yes, and he could go to jail. Oh dear God.”

“Maybe he should have thought of that.”

She grabbed Sasha’s arm in desperation. “Darling, you can’t do this to your father. He can’t go to jail.” She began to sob. “Besides, the deal’s already—” another sob “—signed and delivered and—” sniff “—no one’s ever going to know. Not unless you tell them.”

“I can’t not say anything, Mum.”

“He’s your father.”

“Yes, and I’m married to a Valente.”

“The Valentes have plenty of money. They won’t miss this.”

Sasha couldn’t believe she was hearing this. “Mum, I can’t—”

“Darling, look, don’t do anything yet. Think about it all first. I’m sure you’ll see that remaining quiet is the best thing.”

“Mum—”

“Promise me, darling,” her mother said, her voice getting shrill. “At least promise me you won’t do anything just yet. Give me a chance to speak to him. I’ll get him to pay back the money somehow.”

Sasha was torn and confused and she just wanted to be alone for a while to think things through. “I don’t know.”

“Getting the contract freed up other monies and your father has the money to pay the Valentes back now. He’ll have to find a way to do that without raising suspicion, but I promise he’ll rectify the situation.”

Could she believe that?

Did she even have a choice?

She sighed. “Okay, I won’t do anything yet.”

Her mother hugged her. “Thank you, darling, thank you. We’ll sort things out, you’ll see.”

Sasha made a hasty exit after that. It was hard to believe her father had done such a thing.

It was even harder to believe her mother was sticking up for him.

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