Billionaire's Secret Baby

A Second Chance Romance

A Hamptons Filthy Rich Novel 

CHAPTER ONE

Zeke

The runway lights went by in a blur as the sleek jet touched down at East Hampton airport, and my pilot’s voice crackled over the speakers, “Home sweet home.” I nodded in silent approval… he was right. Owning a private jet made it possible to flit all over the world at my leisure. But it was Thursday night, my favorite night of the week — and now I was home. 

As we approached the private hanger that housed my jet, I spotted my Harley motorcycle inside, right where I had left it almost a week ago. Since last Thursday, I had attended a car show in LA and jetted off to Milan, where I had VIP tickets to a sports car race. But today, I was looking forward to spending the evening at the exclusive Hamptons’ Peak Club with two of my best friends, Riker and Nate.

Within moments, I was waving to my pilot over my shoulder, knowing he would have my luggage delivered to my mansion before I got home. Revving the Harley’s motor, I pealed out, and the coastal breeze wafted in my tanned face as I sped away.

When I arrived at the Hamptons’ Peak, I discovered tonight the guys were feeling friskier than usual when we decided it was a perfect evening for a no holds barred game of blackjack.

Usually, one or more of us had to drive home afterward, so we held back on the drinking, but not tonight. Even Riker was adding his voice to our boisterous laughter whenever someone cracked a borderline inappropriate joke, which he had taken to patiently shaking his head at recently.

Well, maybe not so recently, I guess, I corrected myself. Riker had gotten married to his beautiful bride, Elena, a year ago. His transformation into a calming influence of sorts over our merry little band of three had occurred shortly after his marriage. Privately, Nate and I agreed this change was a good thing. We had both known Riker for a long time, and we had never seen him as happy as he had been these last months.

I swirled my whiskey and took a sip, more to avoid laughing at Nate’s most recent joke than anything else. If I laughed any more, the boys would think the tears in my eyes were on account of the whiskey, and I couldn’t have that. Besides, my cheeks hurt.

“What would your wife say if she could see you now?” Nate asked as he dealt the cards.

“There’s a reason she doesn’t come here on Thursday nights,” Riker chuckled. “She knows I need my evening off if I’m going to be a good boy for her the rest of the week.” Riker winked at Nate, and I shook my head at the connotations of that sentence.

“She has your security CEO butt whipped man,” I smirked. Riker seemed thoroughly happy with married life, but some of the things he said just bothered me. Sometimes, he would joke that Elena “let him” or “gave him permission” to do something, and he didn’t seem to mind. I couldn’t imagine holding myself accountable to someone 24/7… and still have a smile on my face.

Well, I almost do that already, I reasoned over another sip of Crown Royal. Charles had been our family butler since before I learned how to walk, and I considered him a close confidant and friend. Since my parents had passed, God rest their souls, he often took an interest in my daily activities. Still, that was nothing like I imagined having a wife would be. I rarely kept a girl longer than a month. After that, they started to get clingy and wanted more and more from a guy, and I never wanted to be that guy to anyone. Casual was the name of the game. Besides, the active social life that came with being a Hamptons billionaire always kept me busy and entertained… At least, most of the time.

“Not whipped. Mutual respect.” Riker raised his glass as though giving a toast to the idea, but laughed along with us.

Riker followed football and Nate played for the Lexington Colonels, so when football somehow inched its way into the conversation, I gradually tuned it out. Not my thing, I thought absently, my mind drifting away from our table to activities that were “my thing”. Motorcycles, cars… and hookups. Like that one particular hookup I hadn’t been able to forget, despite my best efforts. A hookup that had been crazy – insane! – even for me, not to mention entirely unexpected.

Claudia Moore. Even all these years later, I remembered so well the day that the most beautiful girl I had ever seen came walking into my classroom, starting the school year as a new student at East Hampton Academy. Her family had not only just moved into town, but they moved into the estate next door to my family’s massive mansion. So, seventeen-year-old me regarded it as the perfect opportunity to make her my girlfriend. We spent every day after school together, doing our homework assignments. And, of course, we had also tried to dodge our parents and sneak in hot and heavy make-out sessions whenever we could.

Those were the good old days. I leaned back and stretched my arms above my head, giving my back a well-deserved break from leaning forward, immersed in the game. The good old days. Not as old as I had thought, apparently. I might be a motorcycle-riding, carefree billionaire now, and she might be a fashion model with a brand to match her elegant, refined tastes. But when our eyes had met across our adjoined lawns that night… well, it had been a throwback to the past, to say the least, and an incredibly intense throwback — a throwback that felt amazing…

Suddenly uneasy, I shook off my thoughts of Claudia and tossed back the rest of my drink. Chill, I ordered myself sternly. Hookups were a one-time thing that I never had a problem with before. And starting now with my high-school sweetheart was a bad idea.

“What’s up with you?” Riker asked, dragging me back to the pleasant atmosphere of our poker game.

“What do you mean?” I asked casually, not really in the mood to explain what I was thinking, especially to the man I had just teased and would likely see my recent escapade with Claudia as ammo to get back at me.

Nate added his voice to Riker’s. “It’s been your turn for over a minute, that’s what he means.”

“Oh.” I flipped over my card and drew another. When the resulting numbers weren’t higher than Nate’s hand or less than 21, I groaned.

“Bad luck tonight,” Riker observed when his own cards beat Nate’s.

I shrugged, glad we had decided to keep our friendly blackjack game private instead of taking it to the casino’s tables where the professionals played, and the stakes were much higher. “Just got a few things on my mind, that’s all. Well, one thing, really.” Even as the words left my mouth, I knew I was inviting unwanted questions from the guys.

  “Yeah, yeah, I guess so,” I muttered, wishing I hadn’t drained my glass so quickly. Ah, screw it. Maybe I’ll get something helpful out of them. “Alright, fine. Remember how a month or so ago I told you I had hooked up with Claudia Moore, a friend from high school?”

“Sure, yes, I remember.” Riker raked the cards toward him with his fingers and began shuffling them.

“Okay, well…” I picked a piece of lent off my sleeve, trying to appear nonchalant as I would normally be about a casual night with a woman. “I’ve been thinking about it. I mean – I’ve been thinking about her. A bit.” Smooth. Real smooth.

“Really.” Riker’s gaze was all too knowing.

“Yep.” I popped the p as I flipped up my first card.

Nate took up where Riker left off. “And? Is it thinking about her as in wishing you could hit that again? Or, maybe, just missing being around her?”

“Do the two have to be mutually exclusive?” I braced myself for the snorts of laughter and jokes about old high school flames that were sure to follow.

“Of course not.” Riker set down the deck without dealing another card. “Is that all you miss about her, though?”

“No.” I cleared my throat. Now that I was talking about the woman who had been plaguing my mind for the past month, my words came easier. “I guess… those other women. All the other ones I’ve met at bars or clubs? I feel like…” I shrugged. “Two weeks, and I know everything about them. But Claudia… she’s different. She always surprises me no matter how long I’ve known her. Does that make sense?”

“No,” Nate quipped.

“Yes,” Riker told me at the same time.

“Great,” I joked, still regretting my empty glass.

“Yes, and no,” Riker amended. “Emotions aren’t supposed to make sense, especially when it comes to beautiful women. Has it ever crossed your mind that you might like Claudia?”

I blinked. “Like… like, like her?” I sounded like a stuttering high school kid all over again, but Riker had taken me by surprise. And I didn’t know how else to phrase it. No one had asked me that question in a long time, and I certainly hadn’t considered it either.

“Yeah.” Riker chuckled. “Like… like her, as in, want to ask her on a real date.”

This wasn’t the teasing I had expected, and I didn’t know how to handle it, so I turned to deflection. “She’s not in the Hamptons right now. She goes to Paris on business.”

“Ask her when she comes back, then. Or hop in your jet and go see her.” Riker leveled his gaze at me. “I’m just saying that this is kind of how I felt. After I met Elena, I couldn’t get her out of my mind… And look where that got us.” Riker leaned closer and lowered his voice. “Don’t you ever get tired of having a girl whose name you can’t remember in a month?”

“Charles does,” I snorted, and just like that, the spell was broken. What was I doing? This was supposed to be our one night out of the week to spend time as the three of us, with no interruptions from the three Ws – women, work and whatever else. The second I didn’t do, the last I could put aside, and the first I never worried about.

“Charles just thinks motorcycles are dangerous,” Nate mused. “And I’m sure he assumes having a serious relationship with a woman would be a positive change for you.”

It was more than that, but I laughed, glad our group had recovered our lighthearted mood. As we returned to our game, I couldn’t help but shoot a glance at Riker. He really had mellowed out since marrying Elena. That, and he seemed a lot more in tune with his emotions, and he had definitely become more empathetic toward others.

Could Riker be right? Maybe something more than a hookup could come out of our chance meeting. I could find out if I reached out to her, but I never reached out first. I let the women come to me. Then I followed up with expensive dinners, designer clothes, and travel by private jet  — until a prettier one caught my eye. None of that had ever impressed Claudia, and somehow, I never tried to woo her that way. That was flashy showoff stuff I did when only first impressions mattered.

With Claudia, all impressions mattered to me. That alone should have been enough to tell me these feelings hadn’t formed from a simple appreciation for a pretty face. But right now, I could feel the third glass of Crown doing its job. I was forgetting my worries and cares -  returning to the here and now with my two good friends. Claudia was a problem for another day – hopefully, the next day that she came home from Paris.

CHAPTER TWO

Claudia

A loud tapping assaulted my ears, and I glanced around me at the rows of chairs filled with waiting passengers and luggage. That’s when I realized that the heel of my own designer boot was making the nerve-racking sound. Deliberately, I pressed the offending heel flat to the ground and leaned back, huffing a sigh as I tried to relax.

An hour. That was how long I had been sitting here, waiting for that irritatingly-calm voice over the speakers to announce news about my delayed connecting flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport to the Hamptons. I guess that an hour wasn’t really that long compared to some airport delays, but it was still long enough to wear down my unusually thin patience and fill my legs with “the jitters”, as my mother often called them.

Despite the delay and all the other worries that comprised a mountain of stress atop my shoulders at the moment, I couldn’t help but smile when I thought about my mother. Mom and I had worked closely together for years, and her ingenious ideas and designs had taken the brand of designer clothes she had started all the way to Paris. She was more than just my mother – she was my friend, role model, teacher, and business partner.

Well, not as much anymore, I admitted to myself. Mom was starting to value her quiet estate in the Hamptons more and more these days, drifting away from the busy, hectic fashion scene in which she had once immersed herself.

“Attention Flight 382, Flight 382.”

My sleek black ponytail flipped over my shoulder to lay across my thick wool coat as I recognized my flight number and turned to look at the desk by the gate.

“We regret to inform you that Flight 382 has been canceled due to weather conditions. We apologize for the inconvenience, and we ask that you speak to the desk at the gate for assistance booking another flight. Transportation and accommodations –”

I tuned out the words as I reached into my handbag for my phone. Angry and tired passengers were already lining up, and I had chosen a seat reasonably far from the desk. So, by the time I gathered my luggage and walked over, I would have to wait several minutes. Instead, I stayed in my seat and phoned my mom.

“Hi, Claudia.” She picked up almost immediately, and I could hear the pleasant buzzing of the smooth jazz my mother so enjoyed in the background. “Are you about to take off?”

“No,” I sighed. “The flight was canceled.”

“Oh. That’s too bad, but I suppose it’s for the best.” I heard the sound of a door opening, and the resulting rush of wind was loud even over the phone. “It’s definitely a nor’easter…no doubt about that.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” I agreed, finding a new calm even as the nor’easter outside grew in rage. There was no reason to be impatient with Mother Nature, and complaining about a flight canceled for safety was just as childish. I did need to decide what to do, though. 

I didn’t want to sleep here in the airport, and searching for a hotel room just for the night when home and my mother were only 80 miles away felt like a waste of money and time. “Um…” I drew out the word, weighing my options. “I think I’ll just rent a car for the evening and drive home.”

“Are you sure, Honey? I know it’s only a two-hour drive, but in bad weather and traffic –”

“Yes, I’m sure,” I said, pressing my phone between my shoulder and ear so I could get my things together. “I’ll be careful, I promise. See you in a couple hours?”

“Alright. I would be a bit disappointed if I had to eat this fresh pot of clam chowder all by myself,” my mother joked.

“Clam chowder? Now I definitely have to come home tonight!” We shared a chuckle, then said our usual “I love yous” and ended the call. Filled with new purpose, I joined the flow of passengers in the same boat and strode down the long stretch of walkway in between the gates.

The airport’s car rental area was packed, and for a while, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to get a car at all. Luckily, the staff kept things moving, and I was able to roll out of the place about half an hour later in a little silver Toyota Yaris.

Once I had fought my way through the multitudes of disgruntled drivers also trying to escape the airport, I breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed – but just a bit. The mountain of worries I had mentioned may have had a landslide that freed me of one problem, but the majority of the treacherous, winding paths I would have to sort out were still gnawing at me.

One of the wheels ran over an invisible pothole along a darkened street. Instinctively, I laid a hand over my stomach as the car jolted, comforting the growing baby inside me.

Pregnant. It had taken me six positive pregnancy tests to start using that word, even in the privacy of my mind. Saying it out loud— that would take even longer. Besides, I had no idea who should hear it first. My mother, from whom I usually hid nothing? My best friend, Tammy, who might be able to give me the advice I needed, or at least the comfort I sorely wanted?

Or… or the father? The man with whom I had spent a single, passionate night, forgoing protection in favor of burning need and desire?

The father. “The father,” I murmured, testing if the words sounded better spoken aloud. They didn’t. I couldn’t imagine Zeke Blackburn having so much as a dog, let alone a child. We dated for a year during high school, but we broke up after graduation for a reason – multiple reasons, actually. “Zeke” and “responsibility” didn’t go together. And while I had always had goals and pushed myself toward a successful career first in modeling, then fashion, Zeke had always known he would inherit his parents’ estate and investments. His inheritance let him live the glamorous life of a billionaire without working for any of it.

I didn’t blame, envy or, otherwise judge him, I really didn’t. Zeke had passions and hobbies, things he loved to do. He was an active person with lots of friends. But Zeke had always been able to do whatever he wanted without worrying about money or things that might tie him down.

The wind gusted against my little rental car and the tires touched the line between lanes of the road. I nudged the car back into the lane proper and devoted both hands to steering this time, feeling drained. I had gone years and years without making a truly bad decision, and then just within the last few months, I had made many – most of them involving other people. There was Zeke, and then there was Leon, my French financial partner.

Ex financial partner. And just ex in general. He was so handsome, genteel and motivated, and when we had shaken hands over our intention to sell and market my brand of designer clothes in Paris as partners, something else had sparked between us. We hadn’t just worked closely, we became close friends. And when he asked me out, I said “yes.”

I had kept saying yes until I had found out that he was bisexual and he was seeing a man behind my back. It had been a betrayal on two levels – professional and personal, and I was still recovering from both. I had to find a new financial partner soon, somehow… but I didn’t have many connections in Paris yet, and most of our contacts here knew my mother as the businesswoman who originated our brand — not me. I hadn’t really proven myself, not yet, and people were hesitant to back me without a partner.

Except, maybe, Zeke. Funding my business would hardly make a dent in his bank account. And as much as I hated to admit it because I had never been one to use someone for their money, maybe that had been a factor why I had been so willing to reconnect with Zeke a month ago.

“Reconnect,” I snorted to myself, flicking on my high beams since the storm clouds were blotting out the setting sun. I might have wanted to reconnect when I saw Zeke across the lawn that night, but then we had just… I don’t know. Maybe I really needed to unwind and get out some of the overwhelming stress I had been feeling lately. 

As childish as it seemed in retrospect, Zeke had helped me do that beside the large pool next to the guest house out of sight of my mother’s windows. I never meant to get pregnant, especially not after I had been forced to buy out Leon’s share of the business or throw in the towel.

My eyes softened and I went back to driving with one hand to lay a hand on my stomach. No matter what happened, I did know one thing. I was having this child. The idea of being a single mother terrified me, but my baby would have the best grandma in the whole world. Besides, if I had learned anything about myself from my ambitions, it was that I could succeed at anything to which I put my mind. My child would have not only my full focus, but my whole heart as well.

Feeling a little better, I checked the time left on the GPS I had pulled up on my phone. Just forty-five minutes more, and I would be settled on the couch with a bowl of chowder, chatting with my mother. 

Mom… the reason I hadn’t told her about my pregnancy yet, was partially because I didn’t know how to even start. She and I shared a love for fashion, but she was much more conservative than me, and Mom had always disliked Zeke. 

Every time I went home to the Hamptons, I heard about how Zeke Blackburn had woken her up by zooming in and out of his driveway at all hours of the night, Zeke Blackburn had thrown yet another loud party, or Zeke Blackburn had yet another new Harley in the driveway. She would not be happy to learn that he was the father of my unborn child. She would support me and love me as she always had, but she wouldn’t be happy.

Let’s just focus on the finances for now, I decided. I couldn’t – wouldn’t – change the pregnancy, but I could work even harder to find a replacement for Leon so that my child would grow up comfortably, and my mother could continue to live in the old family estate.

The estate needs some work, too, I reminded myself. Much of the once-pristine and beautiful grounds had become overrun by weeds and undergrowth, the roof needed re-shingling, and both the house and guest house needed repairs inside as well. Before my father had passed a few years ago, he had done much of the work around the place himself. But Mom had never gotten around to hiring anyone after he died, and now we didn’t have the money for that.

My fingers wrapped around the wheel, gripping it as firmly as I was determined. It all came down to our brand’s future in Paris. Find a financial backer, promote the brand, sell the clothes, get the money to fix the house, and take care of my baby. It’s that simple. I had a few more financial contacts to call. I would figure this out and make things work. You have too… there is no other way.

Until then, I needed some caffeine if I was going to finish this drive. I’d never heard of Roadside Brews, but it had a big cup of coffee for a sign and the neon letters OPEN blinked in the window. The wind gave my car another playful push as I pulled into the parking lot. Wrapping my coat snuggly around me, I stepped out of the car.

It was cold, but I just squared my shoulders and marched toward the door. My career in modeling had given me plenty of practice in dealing with cold. If every outdoor photoshoot waited for the perfect weather, I would have been out of a job half of the year.

I sighed loudly. “Oh, sorry,” I told the woman in line in front of me, realizing I must look like I was impatient with the wait. "I've just got a lot on my mind."

The woman gave me a smile. "Oh, don't worry about it. I think anyone out during this storm has something on their mind. Mine is money, what's yours?"

"Money, my career, and a man," I admitted wryly. All those problems had multiple layers of complexity that I would have to solve before my life was back on track, but I didn’t need to share my entire sob story with this lady who had her own problems to solve.

"What are you getting?" the woman suddenly asked when it was my turn to order.

"Just a medium coffee with cream," I told her in surprise, thinking she was asking for a recommendation or something.

"Two medium coffees with cream," the woman told the barista.

"Oh no, thank you, I can get my own," I protested. Hadn't she just said she had a money problem?

"Too late," the woman said with a smile before she handed me a steaming cup of brew. "I needed a smile today, and doing a little something kind for someone did the trick. Besides, it’s almost the holidays.” She gave my arm a pat. “Good luck." 

An invisible bell tinkled as the woman turned and walked out of the quaint shop. I was left standing at the counter with my cup of coffee warming the cool skin of my hand with a bemused look on my face.

“Thanks,” I told the cashier, even though I hadn’t technically ordered anything. She didn’t hide her amusement at the whole exchange and sent me out of the shop with a warm smile of her own.

I settled into the driver’s seat, holding the key aloft with one hand. For a moment, I watched as the street lamps flickered on and a pale light glinted across the cold metal of the Toyota’s hood. Then a slow smile inched across my lips.

That woman had helped me more than she knew. If she could smile and buy a stranger a cup of coffee even amid her own troubles, I could go home and put on my widest smile for my mother, trust in the love we shared, and believe that everything would turn out alright.

I took a sip of the coffee, turned onto the main road, and pointed my high beams toward home. And I had a little inkling my uplifted mood had nothing to do with the caffeine.

CHAPTER THREE

Zeke

My leather loafers skidded on the luxurious mahogany floors as I did a double-take. Fingertips just spanning the open doorway into the large formal dining room, I leaned against the elegant archway, which was also made of mahogany. There was a lot of polished wood paneling in this mansion. “Hey, Charles,” I began, addressing the elderly, suited man with the duster in his hand. “Will you–”

“I’ll have the car out front in half an hour,” Charles cut me off with one of his urbane smiles. Then he went back to waging war against the dust that had accumulated on the old family portraits that littered the walls.

“Thanks!” I called as I started to turn away, but then I did another double-take – or was it a triple-take? “And, uh, Charles, I might have mentioned this once or twice or a hundred times before, but you don’t have to wear a suit around the house anymore.”

“It’s your late parents’ mansion, not any ordinary house, and they would have expected it of me.” Charles chuckled and turned back to his work.

I rolled my eyes. My parents wouldn’t have minded what Charles wore, but the man was as old-fashioned as his years. I wasn’t going to win arguments about his attire, but I couldn’t help but bring it up from time to time.

A banging from behind my closed bedroom door stopped me in my tracks. Robbers? Or maybe that girl I slept with two months ago had come by for round-two. It wouldn’t be the first time a one night stand came back to haunt me. 

I realized I was wrong on both silly accounts when I opened the door to my massive room. The sound was coming from a loose piece of molding that framed the windows. It was flapping in the same raging wind that had prompted me to ask Charles to give me a ride. After all, it was Thursday night again — time for another evening of fun with my friends at the Hamptons’ Peak. Tonight, though, I would have to go by car instead of riding my Harley. 

Glancing down at the floor as if to validate what I was thinking, I smiled to myself. Both of my bikes were safe from the storm and actually, they were right underneath me if you didn’t count the layers of elegant wood flooring, support beams, and concrete between my bedroom suite and the garage.

I shrugged and quit staring at the floor to glance over my clothing options hanging in my closet. There would always be other days – days with blue skies and sunny weather – to ride the shoreline roads of the Hamptons to my heart’s content. Besides, if I didn’t give Charles something to do every once in a while, he would spend all his time puttering around my old estate alone.

I called it “old”, but as I tossed my clothes haphazardly into the closet, I had to admit that Charles had done an excellent job of taking care of the mansion both during my parents’ lives and after. The loose piece of molding still smacking against the window might be the only item on the property that wasn’t in pristine condition.

Sometimes, I wondered why Charles stuck around. Not that I minded his presence, despite the occasional scolding he gave me when I pulled into the garage too fast or disappeared to Europe without letting him know I was leaving. I hated to admit it, but there were too many empty rooms in this house for a man to live alone – almost too many for two men. 

Occasionally, the silence was filled by a girl I met at the Hamptons Peak. The rest of my time was spent out and about. Honestly, even when my parents were alive, I had often felt lonely when I spent too much time hanging around the estate.

But not always. There had been one whole year when that loneliness had disappeared — a year where laughter, delicate footsteps, and flurries of dark hair had filled this room and the halls. Granted, I was often looking at that hair from the back while Claudia and I ran out the back door as my parents came in through the front. But I wouldn’t change any of the times we had spent here even if I could. I only wished they had been longer. But I was set to inherit my parents’ fortune here in the Hamptons, and Claudia had a career to pursue. So, we had drifted apart.

Then, we came back together. I still couldn’t get that night out of my head, but that was okay. When Claudia came back from Paris again, I would go next door and… well, that was about as far as I had gotten with that plan. 

If past encounters with women had taught me anything, though, it was that I could be pretty smooth when I wanted to be. And I was sure I would think of the perfect words to say when the time came.

For now, if I didn’t want to start my evening with a lecture. I needed to get a move-on. Charles didn’t mind taking on chauffeuring as one of his many duties, but he did mind tardiness. And I had used up a lot of those thirty minutes he had mentioned on self-reflection.

I speed-walked around the room, gathering a pair of designer jeans and a black leather jacket — appropriate for the weather and the upscale atmosphere of the Hamptons Peak. Just as I fastened my favorite watch around my wrist, I spotted the Bentley stopped outside on the looping driveway, its headlights illuminating the fountain in the center.

I made it all the way down to the front door before I realized that I had left my bedroom lights on. Oh well. Charles would notice when he got home and turn them off. He was always discreetly following me around the mansion, tidying up behind me.

“Whoo!” I exclaimed when the wind nearly closed the passenger door on my foot. “Do you think it’ll snow?”

“I think it’s a bit early in the year, yet, for snow. It’s still too warm.” Charles expertly pulled the car around and started heading down the driveway, paralleling the rows and rows of decorative trees.

“Warm?” I muttered as I shrugged off the jacket I had found necessary to wear just for the short dash between the house and the heated car.

“Warm. So, are you meeting Riker and Nate tonight?” Charles shot me a sideways glance.

“Like always.” Charles knew that perfectly well. What was he playing at?

“Oh, I was just curious. I’m still hoping that one day you’ll walk through the door with a decent woman on your arm. You can’t marry a motorcycle, you know.”

I shook my head. The way he accented “decent” made me wince. “Maybe one day. I’ve never –” I caught myself when Claudia’s name popped into my mind and told him, “I’m not ready to settle down.” 

“You are settled down, Zeke. This is your estate, you live here, and you’ve never once mentioned leaving. Having someone special in your life doesn’t mean you have to stop traveling or tinkering with your bikes.”

“Maybe.” But most wives of the guys I rode with hated that their husbands put themselves in danger when they took off on their Harleys. My mind raced, searching for a way to change the subject, but I drew a blank. So, I did a mental shrug and glanced out the window.

Wow, we just now only reached the end of the driveway. I swear, this had become almost a daily discussion between Charles and me. And this evening it felt longer than usual.

Charles stopped before pulling onto the main road, waiting for two bright headlights that had just appeared to the right. The compact car slowed. Then a turn signal flicked on, so Charles started to roll toward the road.

Both cars turned at the same time. Our Bentley headed toward the highway, and the other car turned down the driveway of the Moore estate, my next-door neighbor. I caught a brief flash of sleek white paint before a hideously loud snap, and a series of quick, heart-stopping cracks came from somewhere behind us outside. For a second, I thought we had hit something.

We hadn’t, but something had hit the other car. The wind had torn a branch from one of my trees and united with gravity to fling it forcefully onto the roof of the white car.

“Charles!” I was out of the Bentley before Charles even had time to stop, struggling my way through the chaotic weather to reach the other car. The wind howled through the torn roof and shattered windshield – no, wait, those cries didn’t belong to the wind.

"Claudia?" An entirely new spike of adrenaline rushed through my body when I slid to a stop at the driver's side window and recognized the woman uncontrollably crying seated behind the wheel.

Surprise flitted across her tear-stained face, but the appearance of help did nothing to calm her. "I'm stuck!" Frantically, she grasped at the wheel, the seat belt, the center console and anything, and everything else she could reach in an attempt to escape the sagging dashboard.

"Hey, it's okay, it's okay," I consoled her, ready to pry this car apart with my hands if that was what it took to free her. It might come to that, because the door didn't budge when I pulled the handle. "Are you hurt?" I tossed a glance over my shoulder in search of Charles, knowing his cell phone was in his pocket. But everything had happened so quickly his old bones were just now getting out of the car.

"Yes, no, I mean I’m not sure…” Claudia wouldn't remove her right hand from her stomach.

"I'm calling 911," I decided as Charles rushed to stand next to me.

"No, no," Claudia insisted, taking a deep breath but still visibly shaking all over. "I'm okay. Really. Nothing hurts, I'm just stuck."

I scanned the damage. The branch still rested on top of the car and the smashed windshield, but it shouldn't be blocking her from getting out. The door must just be jammed from the impact. “Can you roll down the window!” 

The window was half-broken, and I could tell Claudia didn't understand why I wanted her to roll it down, but she pressed the button anyway. Glass ground loudly, but the window disappeared. I brushed the jagged shards away with my sleeve. Gripping the door frame with one hand and the handle with the other, I tugged.

Every muscle strained as the door gave a loud crunch. I staggered backward when it creaked open, but I returned to Claudia's side in a flash. "Okay, it's okay," I said soothingly as a fresh bout of tears gathered in her emerald eyes. 

Then, I pressed the seat belt release and took Claudia's hand so she could use it for balance as she extricated herself from the crumpled dashboard. Her long dark hair whipped in the wind and stung my cheek as she wrapped her arms around me and let me lift her, pushing herself free with her legs. 

For a second, the cold, the wind, and the darkness all disappeared, banished by thankful hands clutching at my sides. The scent I had missed so much from my high school days wafted about me and Claudia’s familiar warm, slim body was wrapped securely in my arms, where she belonged. Strange that an accident that had very nearly ended so badly could make things feel so right...

Then I had to grab the twisted door of the car for balance as those hands that moments before were thankful gave me a hard and unexpected shove.

“Get off me,” Claudia snapped with a glare that could have frozen the rain in midair. Had the trauma rattled her to the point she wasn’t thinking straight. My brain was too confused by her reaction to process that thought. So instead of saying something comforting and understanding, I pointed out defensively, “You grabbed onto me!” As an after thought I added, “But I’m not complaining.” 

Claudia whirled around and took off through the rain, making a beeline for the warm lights framed by the columns of her mother’s front porch.

“Claudia, wait!” I sprinted past a very bemused Charles. Even with her head start, I could have caught up to her. I wanted to reach out and grab her arm. Maybe, I would whirl her around to see those tears mixed with rain. Her face would be glowing under the porch lights, ready for me to kiss everything away.

Instead, I stopped like a gust of wind had slapped me in the face when she yelled, “Stop following me!” I just stood in the pouring rain, watching her fumble with her keys until she managed to get the door unlocked and disappear inside without glancing back over her shoulder at me.

“Zeke!” Charles called. “I’ll be in the car. When you’re done staring at the door, feel free to join me.”

I heard him, and I knew how ridiculous it looked, me standing here getting drenched. But I couldn't bring myself to move until the porch lights went out, leaving me alone in the darkness.

“What was that all about?” Charles asked when I finally slid into the passenger seat after turning off the car Claudia had left running. 

“I wish I knew,” I answered truthfully, thoroughly confused and more than a little hurt.

“Do you still want to go to the club?” Those gray eyes sent a distasteful glance at the puddle of water my soaked apparel was leaving on the pristine seat.

“Yes… I mean, no… I mean not until I change first.”

We drove back down the meandering lane to the house and stopped under the side carport. I ran in to get changed, leaving Charles standing next to the running car shaking his head. When I returned, not even a trace of water remained inside the Bentley’s interior. Charles looked over at me approvingly, put the car in gear and we headed on our way.

I found Riker and Nate at our usual table. I let them have their fun and tease me about being late while I sipped at the drink they had ordered for me, then explained everything when they finally let me get a word in edgewise.

“She just ran off,” Nate stated in disbelief. “After you tore the door off the car to save her.”

“I didn’t tear the door off, I just… oh, never mind. Yes, she did,” I confirmed.

“What the hell?” Nate asked the question I had been thinking since she had shoved me away.

I just shrugged, hiding the full measure of how off-balance the encounter had left me. So much for being smooth and knowing exactly what to say.

“The accident probably just scared her,” Riker reasoned. “You said she was crying. Just go over tomorrow and see if she’s okay. Besides, the branch fell off one of those big old trees all up and down your driveway, right? I’m not saying that’s your fault, obviously, just that it gives you a good reason to go apologize and check on her.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” I wasn’t convinced. Claudia’s cool head had gotten us out of some pretty sticky situations involving parents when we were in high school. And what little catching up we had done since then hadn’t indicated that she had changed. It just felt like there was something more to the sheer terror I had seen in her eyes. Not even terror, really. More like worry, but not the usual I-forgot-something worry – that sick-to-your-stomach, all-encompassing worry that cut deep like a knife. I had only felt that worry during the difficult times preceding my parents’ passing.

“Then it’s settled.” Nate gave me a friendly slap on the back and went to get another drink.

Riker leaned his elbows on the table and sent a glance after Nate to make sure he was out of earshot before speaking. “Are you okay?”

“I just think something is going on with Claudia, and it worries me… that’s all.” I turned my beer in slow circles, absentmindedly noting the artistry on the label.

“Buddy, she has a business and a mother to take care of. Sometimes when I come home to the Hamptons after the work week, Elena and the kids just greet me with a ‘hello’ kiss. Then she makes sure that I have some space when she knows things have been tough at work until I can shift gears and get into family mode. My point is, of course, there’s something going on with Claudia, and it may or may not be any of your business. If you care about Claudia, then just go see her tomorrow, say you’re sorry… even though the accident with her car wasn’t your fault.”

“I do keep those trees along the drive trimmed regularly.”

“I know… That’s beside the point. Just ask what you can do to help.” Riker drained his glass and stood. “I’m going to get cards. Be back in a minute.”

I didn’t ask which cards. Any game we played this evening would get my mind off Claudia, and that was what I needed tonight – to step back, have a good time and take a breath before I went to see her tomorrow. Besides, Nate was making his way back to our table, and any more Nate advice would do more harm than good.

Still, even as we settled in for a game of Texas hold’em, I couldn’t entirely shake the feelings of unease Claudia’s reaction had given me. Something was up. I was sure of it. Riker said it might have nothing to do with me, which was true, but… well, I was curious and concerned. Tomorrow I was going to find out one way or another. Maybe there would be something I could do to help.

CHAPTER FOUR

Claudia

“Too much salt?”

“What? 

“Oh, no, it’s yummy. I was thinking of something else, ” I assured my mother hastily, taking another bite of my flatbread, egg and spinach sandwich. This was a classic and  healthy breakfast my mother had fixed for as long as I could remember. I wasn’t making faces at the quantity of salt – I was screwing up my face at memories of my behavior last night.

Zeke had rushed to my rescue, jumping out of his vehicle into the freezing wind and rain to help me, and I had literally almost shoved him into the car he had helped me escape. My mother made the best flatbread breakfast sandwiches imaginable, and she had also taught me the meaning of gratitude and karma. My behavior had been unacceptable and childish, and regret had gripped my heart the instant I slammed the door shut on Zeke last night.

My index finger punched a hole in my flatbread as my grip tightened at the thought of what could have happened and the reason I had utterly panicked. What if a branch had fallen across the driver’s side? What if it had crushed the dashboard into my stomach? What if part of the branch had stabbed me? I might have needed to go to the hospital, and then my mother would have found out I was pregnant in the worst way possible. Or unthinkably, I could have lost my unborn baby. 

Those two scenarios had been all I could think about last night. A rational human being would have just grabbed her phone to call for help or climbed into the backseat to get out, maybe. But I hadn’t been rational by any stretch of my imagination.

And then Zeke had shown up through some twist of fate, my knight in shining armor and also one of the last people I wanted to see at that moment. I was hysterical and panicking. All I wanted was to get out of the car — reassured that both the baby and I were safe. For a moment, I found that safety in Zeke’s arms.

Then, I realized what I was doing. I was clinging to the baby’s father, the father who was clueless about our child, and who was probably wondering why I was freaking out over nothing after I had escaped without a scratch.

No matter how sudden the realization, pushing Zeke as hard as I could was not the correct way to handle things. I just didn’t know what to say or even where to begin. There was no simple, plausible explanation as to why I had totally lost every ounce of sense I possessed, so I didn’t try to manufacture one.

There’s a word for that; I realized as I nibbled a bit of protruding egg from the side of my sandwich. Selfishness. I told Zeke nothing and left him out there in the rain without so much as a thank you because it was the easiest thing for me to do at the time.

I really needed to find a way to apologize today. I could avoid bringing up the pregnancy, although I would still have to decide about that eventually, but Zeke deserved an apology from me. It would be the right thing to do.

 First, though, I stuffed the rest of the sandwich in my mouth. “Hey Mom, I’m going to take some pictures of the car before I call the rental company. Thanks for breakfast!” 

“Okay, be careful. It’s still windy out there.” She shook her head. The smooth, dark hair I had inherited following the motion as she wiped her hands on her apron before collecting my plate. As I left the house, phone in hand, I heard her muttering something about “that boy” under her breath.

I knew exactly who “that boy” was. Even though Zeke couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with the falling limb, my mom still blamed him. Especially when she heard that he had been leaving just as I was pulling in our drive. To her, that coincidence seemed too unlikely. Nothing I could say was going to change her opinion of him and his motorcycles, so why even try? I had no reason to defend Zeke to my mother.

“Well, I guess that’s not entirely true,” I said softly, slipping a hand inside the pocket of my comfortable hoodie to rub my belly. “I might have a reason.”

The car sat in the driveway just where I had left it. Seeing it again brought all the memories from last night back as freshly as though it had all just happened – except, hadn’t I left the car on? Zeke must have turned it off, which was a relief. I had already done enough damage to the rental car without also leaving it running all night. What if it had caught fire or something?

I moved around the car, giving it a wide berth to snap the photos I would undoubtedly need to send to the insurance company. My heart sank with every picture. The accident wasn’t my fault. It was just that — an accident. No matter, I still had the feeling it would end up costing me money I didn’t have.

Finished, I flipped through the pictures to make sure I had captured all the evidence I needed. The last one I took was of the partially-crushed hood and shattered windshield, and I zoomed in on it a little. What the… what was that dark shape in the background, behind the car?

I raised my eyes and noticed Zeke was approaching me. Somehow, seeing his face with a less stressful expression made me realize exactly how worried he had been for me last night. “Oh… hi,” I said awkwardly, shutting the backlight off and stuffing the phone in my pocket. Don’t be rude. I cheered myself on. This is what you wanted – a chance to apologize.

“Hi,” he responded, and I couldn’t help but notice again how much deeper his voice had become since high school. He stopped in front of me, and for a moment, we both stood still, feeling the tension between us. “I just wanted to come say hi and make sure you were okay,” he said cautiously, as though he expected me to burst into tears. “And apologize,” he added before I could answer. “I had Charles give that tree a good scolding about tossing limbs around.”

The image of Zeke’s butler talking to a tree drove away the sour look thoughts of phone calls and insurance agents had given me. “I’m sure it’ll never do such a thing, again, then. I’ll never forget some of those scoldings we got from Charles. But he was never mean.”

Zeke chuckled and relaxed his shoulders, but he still looked worried. “Seriously, Claudia, if there’s anything I can do to help, let me know. I saw it happen, and I’d be happy to talk to your insurance company or pay for the damage.”

“The car is actually a rental, so you would be talking to the rental company. But I’ll keep that in mind.” Of course, he would be happy to pay for the damage; he could probably buy hundreds of this exact make and model of car if he wanted. Stop it, I commanded myself. This whole situation had me on edge, but that was no reason to be judgmental and sour for no reason. “I also want to apologize.” I crossed my arms against the wind and also to comfort myself. “My flight got delayed and then canceled, and I had to drive the rental car here from New York City, and then that branch fell, and… yesterday was just a long day.” I opened my mouth to say more but shut it again before rambling on about all my other problems. All of which were sensitive subjects that I wasn’t ready to discuss today.

“It’s okay. Really, it is,” Zeke promised when I gave him a sideways glance. “It was one of those weird situations when you react different than expected. You’re okay, I’m okay, and the car – the car’s not okay, but that’s okay. You know?”

I did know, and I couldn’t help but grin and roll my eyes. Zeke had a way of making me laugh no matter how dire or inappropriate the circumstances. It was one of the things that had drawn me to him in high school.

“Are you sure there isn’t anything else I can do to help? I feel really bad that the tree was on my property.” The earnestness in his voice deepened my shame at the way I had treated him last night.

“Well… maybe you could hang around while I call the rental company?” I suggested. “That way if they want to speak to you, you’ll be right there and I won’t have to give them your number or anything like that?”

“Great idea. Will you come to the house and let me make you a cup of coffee while you call?” Zeke motioned up the long driveway we had walked so many times together in the past. “I’m sure Charles will be glad to see you.”

“Um…” I did some quick mental math. My mom had made coffee, but I had left part of the cup sitting on the kitchen counter. That meant I was probably well under the daily limit of 200 mg of caffeine that I had read was safe during pregnancy. A few polite sips from a cup of coffee made by Zeke would be just fine for the baby and me. “Sure, that sounds perfect. And I would like to see Charles…You know… just to tell him hello.”

We walked up the drive, hands in our pockets to ward off the wind as we chatted about old times. I liked this. Old times were easy and safe for me to talk about. If we could just keep this up, it would be fantastic.

No such luck. “So, do you still live in Paris, or have you come back to the Hamptons?” Zeke asked curiously. “You’ve been home a lot more than usual lately.”

Instead of giving him a straight answer, I went for a teasing response. “Oh yeah? You’ve been looking out your bedroom window at my house again, haven’t you?”

“Oh, I can’t take the credit.” Zeke shifted his glance from side to side as we entered his mansion, whispering dramatically, “Charles’omniscient gaze sees all.” I giggled and high-fived myself for bringing up the subject even though I doubted it was always Charles who was doing all the checking.

“Alright, let me see if I can find the right number to call.” I seated myself on one of the barstools at the kitchen counter, one toe just brushing the floor and one balanced on the middle barstool rung. After a second, I realized the room was totally silent and looked up to see Zeke staring at me. 

“I forgot you always sit like that.” His voice was so low that my ears only caught about half of what he was saying. By the time my brain filled in the rest of Zeke’s words, he had already turned to his high-end coffee maker and was pouring fresh beans in the grinder.

Fantastic. Now I could make this phone call that could financially destroy me while thoroughly flustered. My thumb physically shook while I tried to calm my racing and confused heart, missing the “Contact Us” link twice before striking true.

“Oh,” I muttered, after reading the instructions that had appeared on the rental car’s website.

“What is it?” Zeke’s familiar cologne made me dizzy when he brushed my shoulder as he set the cup down on the counter beside me. “I assumed you still like cream and sweetener with a shot of vanilla flavoring?”

I nodded and hoped the way my teeth caught my lower lip made it seem as though I was concentrating hard on the call instead of masking my hitched breath. “Looks like I actually don’t need to inform my insurance company. And the rental company. And I guess… Well… I can just fill out this accident report form online and not call them at all.”

“The rental company has insurance too. But you’ll have to read through the fine print of both  policies to figure out who pays what when,” Zeke commented. When he caught the suspicious stare I shot him over my cup, he asked, “What?”

I blew on my steaming brew. “I don’t know… seems like you’re pretty familiar with these things.”

 “I ride motorcycles, remember? Insurance is just something I have to deal with sometimes.”

“Mhm.” He was right, though. As with anything financial, this situation was all set to turn into a big mess. I wanted to handle that mess on my laptop in my mother’s living room, not on my phone’s tiny screen while Zeke distracted me with every movement and comment, so I stood up. “I should get going. I need to get this accident report filed before 24 hours... Thanks for the coffee. And I guess I missed Charles…” I took one more hasty sip of the hardly-touched cup before turning away.

“Wait!” Zeke called, jogging after me. “Can’t you stay for a couple more minutes? I’m sure Charles is here somewhere… cleaning probably.” 

“Maybe later. Is that path still there between the hedges?” Of course, I knew it was, but I pretended to be busy with my phone so I wouldn’t see the deep brown puppy dog eyes Zeke was undoubtedly sending my way. 

“Yes, it’s still there. I’ve never let it grow over.”

“I’m sorry, but I really have to go handle this.” My determined momentum took me out the back door before he could argue further.

“Come on now. Just hold on for one second!”

I glanced back to wave one final goodbye, and my hand nearly froze in midair at the sight of Zeke leaning one shoulder casually against the left pillar of the large wraparound deck, arms crossed as he watched me head for that secluded path between our properties. 

Now, I understood the oh-so-quiet comment he had made when I sat down at the coffee bar. When we were in high school, we would always kiss on the back porch, cutting our time as close as possible to when his parents were supposed to arrive home. Then I would run, giggling, and sneak home through the hedges undetected. Or at least that was what I had thought. And undoubtedly Charles had seen us and remarked to Zeke. It didn’t matter really, that was a long time ago. What did matter, though, was that every time I had looked back, Zeke had always been standing in exactly the same position as he was today. 

Only this time, I didn’t get that kiss.

My hesitation gave Zeke time to catch up to me and grab my hand. “Look, even if you don’t let me do anything else, at least let me buy you dinner. We could catch up, and it would make me feel better about the tree. Please?”

I gazed into his eyes, my resolve melting like warm butter. “Alright, fine.”

“Great.” For a moment, I thought I might get that kiss after all, but Zeke turned away, tossing back an “I’ll call you” that echoed in my ears the whole way home.

“Did you get what you wanted?” my mom asked when my boots left the rug and thudded on the hardwood floor.

“What?” I asked, startled. Had she seen me go with Zeke?

“The pictures,” she reminded me, wiping her hands on her apron.

“Oh. Yeah, I think so.” Not really. Truthfully, there was so much more I wanted. Right now, though, I needed to focus on needs, not wants. Needs for me, my mother and my unborn child – that was all that mattered right now.

My mother went upstairs, and I took the opportunity to rub my tummy. “You’re going to be the cutest baby ever,” I told the tiny growing life. “And I’m going to do my very best to be the best momma ever, and you’re going to have the best grandma in the world, and we’re going to be happy together, with or without your dad. Okay?”

My tummy growled as the breakfast sandwich settled, and I couldn’t help but laugh at the unexpected response. I was still chuckling when my mother came downstairs. But for now, that funny moment would stay our little secret.

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