Having Tanner Bravo's Baby
Nigel was nowhere to be found.
Crystal and an increasingly distraught Doris had searched every inch of the older woman’s apartment about six times. They’d checked outside in the parking lot, under all the cars. They’d closely examined the small spaces between the photina hedges that rimmed the walkways. They’d raced down the sidewalk between the complex’s buildings and scoured the central courtyard with its swathes of emerald grass and pretty weeping willow trees. They’d even gone all the way to the rec room, and opened all the cupboards and checked under all the furniture. They’d beat the bushes around the pool area, too.
No sign of an overweight pug-nosed long-haired cat with a smoky-gray outer coat and creamy fur beneath.
Finally, they’d returned to Doris’s living room, where Crystal’s neighbor wrung her hands and cried, “My poor, poor baby. Where have you gone?” A tear cleared the boundary of her lower lid and tracked a shining trail down her brown, creased cheek. “Oh, Crystal. He won’t last a day outdoors. I know he’s got an attitude. He thinks he’s king of the world. But really, he’s just a fat, fuzzy sweetheart with no survival skills beyond a crabby meow when he wants his dinner….”
“He’s okay, I know it,” Crystal insisted for the hundredth time.
“Oh, you’re a darling to say so, but—”
They both heard the low, cranky “Rrreeow?” at the same time and turned in unison to face the open arch to the entryway. Nigel sat there, his expression aloof, his fuzzy explosion of a tail lazily twitching against the floor tiles.
“Nigel!” Doris cried. She ran to him and scooped him up, gathering him close against her heart. “Where have you been? You’ve scared us to death!”
The cat let out another cranky meow and acquiesced to be scratched under its almost non-existent chin.
With the back of a hand, Doris swiped tears of relief from her cheeks. She turned grateful eyes Crystal’s way. “Oh, thank you, thank you…”
Crystal laughed. “For what? I didn’t do anything. Nigel seems to have found himself.”
“True, true.” Doris laughed in relief and happiness. “He did, didn’t he? But you were here with me while I was so afraid. I can’t tell you how much that meant at a time like that.”
“Well, I know you’d be there for me, too, if I needed you.”
“I would. I swear it,” Doris passionately declared. “Anytime.” She stroked the cat’s thick fur. “Oh, where did you get off to, you bad, bad boy?” The cat started to purr, a deep, rough sound. Doris sighed. “I suppose we’ll never know…”
Now the crisis was past, Crystal glanced at the small gold-and-ebony clock perched on a spindly side table. It was six-forty-five.
“Oh, no,” she muttered. “Tanner…” He was probably waiting at her door, thoroughly annoyed, wondering where the hell she’d gone off to now.
Doris frowned. “Excuse me?”
Crystal put on a smile. “Oh, nothing. Really. I invited someone over. I have to get going.”
“Someone?” Doris hugged the fat cat, her still-moist eyes now sparkling with interest. “A man? A date?”
“Uh, not exactly.”
Still cuddling the big cat, Doris trailed her to the door. “Not exactly a man?”
Crystal laughed again. “Oh, he’s a man all right. But it’s not exactly a date…”
“Hmm. Well. You’ve been here more than two months. It’s about time you had a man around.”
In lieu of an actual reply, Crystal made a non-committal noise in her throat.
Doris said, “You have a lovely time, Crys. And thank you again.”
“Glad to help.” She pulled open the door, and smelled…
“Smoke!” Doris sniffed the air. “I smell—”
“Yikes! The lasagna…” Crystal took off.
Doris called after her, “If you need me—”
“Thanks!” Crystal sent a wave back over her shoulder as she reached her own front door.
It was open. So was the kitchen window.
“Tanner?” She stepped cautiously past the threshold.
“In here.” He was leaning against the counter in the kitchen area, hard arms folded over his chest. The oven door was open. And the lasagna sat on the cooktop, burned beyond recognition.
“Oh, God…” Crystal groaned.
“I got here on time.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry…”
“I heard the alarm, smelled the smoke. I called your name—loud. When you didn’t answer, I thought you must be passed out from smoke inhalation. But when I got in here and got the windows open…no sign of you.”
She knew how his mind worked. He’d been a private detective for too long. “You probably thought I’d been kidnapped, trussed up in a burlap bag and dragged off to who-knows-where, while my lasagna was left to burn.”
“Something like that.”
“Honestly, Tanner. I’m so, so sorry.” Ugh. She was not only pregnant and unemployed with four hundred and twenty-three dollars and sixteen cents in her checking account, she’d made Tanner worry for her safety. And her apartment reeked of burned lasagna. Did it get any worse than this? She met Tanner’s dark, watchful eyes. Oh, yeah. It got worse. There was still the big news to break. She explained, “The neighbor’s cat ran away. I went to help her find him.”
He unfolded his arms and hooked his hands on the counter behind him. Mildly, he suggested, “Next time turn off the oven first.”
“Yeah. Good idea.”
“Did you find the cat?”
“We did. More or less—actually, the cat found us.”
“Ah,” he said, meaning he didn’t understand but didn’t really care, either.
There was a silence. They regarded each other. As always when she looked at him, she thought of sex—of the feel of his skin beneath her hands, of the fullness and warmth of his lips on hers, the rough scrape of his beard-shadowed cheek against her own, of the rich taste of his mouth, of the delicious, complete way he filled her, the way he moved when he was inside her...
His dark eyes had gone black as midnight. She knew his thoughts mirrored hers. Her body yearned for him. Ached for him.
Three steps separated them. It would have been so easy, just to take those steps, to wrap her arms around his strong neck, to offer up her mouth to him.
She cleared her throat and tore her gaze away.
“Crystal.” He said her name low and rough—but somehow gently, too.
“What?” She knew she sounded like a sulky child. And still, she didn’t face him.
“Look at me.”
“Right.” She sucked in a slow breath and made herself do it.
“What’s going on?”
I’m pregnant. It’s yours, she thought, but all that came out was, “I, um…”
He waited for her to say more. When she didn’t, he shrugged, a lazy movement that made her want to touch him, to spear her fingers up into his nearly-black hair and drag those amazing lips of his down onto hers. Hard.
She sucked in a steadying breath and silently reminded herself that no matter how much she wanted him, they were not having sex tonight.
Finally, he spoke. “I turned on the fan that goes with the heater and a/c.” Now he mentioned it, she could hear the soft drone the fan made. “And I opened all the windows.” He gestured beyond the counter that marked off the kitchen, toward the living area and the wide window that looked out on the lawn and the willow trees. “It should clear out the last of the smoke in no time.” An almost-smile tugged at one corner of that sinfully sexy mouth of his. “It’s a…real pretty view, out that window. Real nice.”
She felt worse than ever. He was actually making small talk. He didn’t know what was bothering her, but he sensed something was. So he was trying to put her at ease—Tanner, who had been suspicious of her from the first day they met, who guarded his heart from her as fiercely as she did hers from him. Tanner. Who never made small talk.
But he was now. He seemed to sense that she had something huge going on. And since his mind always went down roads of darkness and destruction, he probably imagined the worst: she’d done murder, or she was dying of some incurable disease.
Please don’t worry, she wanted to tell him. It’s nothing as bad as all that…
But then he would demand to know what “it” was.
And she would have to tell him, It’s just a baby. Your baby. That’s all.
Which was fine. Perfect. Exactly what she’d asked him there that night to say.
Yet still, she didn’t say it.
He straightened from the counter and approached her slowly, as if he feared any sudden move might make her whirl and run. When he reached her, he lifted both hands and—oh, so gently—clasped her shoulders.
She melted at his touch and ordered her traitorous body not to sway toward him. “Oh, Tanner…”
He looked deep into her eyes. “Something’s wrong, isn’t it? I mean, really wrong.”
“Um, well, I…”
“It’s not like you to invite me over for dinner. It’s not…what we do.”
“I know.” It wasn’t fair. On top of the killer hotness thing he had going, he was being so kind. So understanding…
“So what’s up?” he asked. “Come on. Tell me. If there’s something I can help you with, I’m on it. You can count on me.”
You can count on me…
She believed him. He was like that. Often brooding and grim. Suspicious by nature and by profession. But solid in a crunch. The kind of person who would never walk away from his responsibilities.
I should just tell him. Why couldn’t she just tell him? She opened her mouth to do it.
“I quit my job today.” The words kind of slipped out: the wrong secret, revealed in place of the one he really needed to know.
He let go of her shoulders and stepped back. “That’s it? That’s what’s wrong? You quit your job?”
“Well.” She looked down, and to the side, and then forced herself to meet his eyes again. “It is bothering me.”
He gave her a puzzled frown. “You need a loan, is that it?”
She drew herself up. “Me? No way. I’ve quit jobs before. I’ll manage until I find another one. I always do.”
“But that’s why I’m here, right? You invited me to dinner because you wanted to tell me you quit your job?”
“Uh. Not exactly. But I did. I quit. Today. This afternoon.”
He raked a hand back through his hair. She watched his bicep bulge with the movement and imagined sinking her teeth into the silky skin there—but gently. Teasingly…
“Okay,” he said patiently. “Then…you’re going to tell me all about it?”
“Why you quit.”
She needed a moment to gather some courage. “How ‘bout a beer?”
“A beer.” He looked at her as if she’d lost a large section of her mind.
She wiggled her fingers in the direction of the living area. “Go sit down. I’ll bring it out to you. I have to put the garlic bread in the oven, anyway.” Her glance fell on the blackened slab of lasagna and she muttered, “I think we’re going to need lots of bread.”
Those piercing eyes of his scanned her face. Finally, he grunted. “Sure. Bring me a beer.” He turned for the living area and the blue-covered futon that served as her sofa.
A few minutes later, she joined him.
He took the beer from her and set it on the coffee table without drinking from it. “Okay. Tell me. What’s up with you quitting your job?”
“Nuts?” She offered the bowl she’d brought from the kitchen.
He gave her a steady, unblinking look. “No, thanks.”
“Fine.” She set the bowl down. “It’s like this. Maybe Kelly told you. I hate my boss—I mean my ex-boss.”
“A law firm, isn’t it? You were working for Bandley and Schinker—family law, right?”
“They have a pretty good rep.”
“They seemed okay, as law firms go. It was my boss I hated. I took the job when I first got to town.”
“Yeah, I remember that.”
“I hated it from the beginning. I don’t think I’m really cut out to work in a law office, even one with a good reputation. But I hung in, thinking I could make it last until I found something better.”
“I can see where this is going. Tell me more about the ex-boss you hate.”
She blew out a breath. “My former boss is tall, blond and square-jawed. Handsome if you don’t count his personality. Married. And a total weasel. He was always putting the make on me. In ways I’m sure he considered subtle. Until today. Today, he crossed the line and tried to kiss me. After I finished gagging, I told him I quit. That was it.” She tried a bright smile. “Not an especially original story, huh?”
Tanner did not smile. “What’s his name?”
His flat tone and the unreadable look in his eye told her way more than she wanted to know. “Uh-uh. No way. I know how you are, Tanner. And I’m grateful we’ve reached the point where I’m one of the people you feel responsible for. But in this case…you’re not.”
“You said he tried to kiss you. That’s harassment. The least you can do is sue the bastard.”
“I only told you all this because…well, I don’t know exactly why I told you. But I do know I don’t need any help with this issue. I’ve done what I had to do, which is to quit. I’m finished. It’s over. End of story, time to move on. Are we clear on that?”
“Sure.” His voice was flat, his eyes more so.
God. What had possessed her to tell him about her horny jerk of an ex-boss? She never should have told him that. Incredible, the things you say when you should be saying something else.
“I want your word,” she demanded darkly. “I mean it. I don’t want you to find out who my boss was, I don’t want you to track him down. I don’t want you do anything. Except listen the way you just did. That’s all I wanted. Honestly. Just for you to listen.”
“No, it’s not crap. It’s…a woman thing. Women actually appreciate a friend who listens. For a woman, sometimes, it’s all she needs. Someone to listen.”
He picked up his beer then and poured about half of it down his throat. She watched his Adam’s apple slide as he swallowed. Then he leaned back against the futon, and studied her, looking the way she imagined a hungry panther might look as he regarded his lunch.
When he didn’t talk for about thirty seconds, she said, “Don’t give me the Clint Eastwood routine, okay? This is my business, which I shared with you. Mine. Get it? Mine. Nod if you can hear me.”
A count of ten. And, at last, with obvious reluctance, he dipped his head.
She said, “I mean it, Tanner. Promise me you’ll stay out of this. Stay away from my ex-boss.”
“I don’t like it. It’s not right. That SOB was out of line. Someone has to step up and show him what’s what.”
“Got that. Understood. And you are not that someone. Because this is not your business. Now, give me your word you won’t try to find out anything about him, won’t approach him, won’t contact him, won’t do anything to him.”
Just when she was certain he wouldn’t agree, he said, “All right. If that’s how you want it.”
“It’s how I want it.”
“Then fine,” he grumbled, looking like he wanted to break something. “You have my word.”
The buzzer on the stove went off. “That’s the garlic bread,” she said brightly. “Let’s eat.”
Crystal cut the lasagna, just to see if some of it might be salvageable. It wasn’t. But at least there was plenty of bread and salad.
She offered Tanner wine or another beer. He chose the beer. She left the bottle of wine on the counter.
He looked at her sideways. “You’re not having any?”
It was a great opening. Or at least, as good a one as she was likely to get. She might have gently segued into how she wasn’t having wine because she was having a baby…
But in the end she only said, “No, I’m not,” and that was it. He didn’t look at her strangely, or ask if there was something she wanted to tell him. He only pulled out his chair and put his napkin across his hard thigh.
They ate. It didn’t take long.
When the meal was over, he helped her to clear the table. She was bending to put the last plate in the dishwasher when he came up behind her.
Her breath tangled inside her chest and her skin was suddenly all prickly and hot. She shut the dishwasher door. “Coffee?” she asked as she straightened up.
“No, thanks.” He slid those big, warm hands of his under her arms and clasped her waist.
She stifled a silly, hungry little gasp. “I have these great cookies. Dark chocolate with white chocolate chips….”
He bent close. She felt the lovely heat of him. He was already hard. His erection brushed against the small of her back, making her yearn and melt for him.
“No cookies.” He brushed her hair to the side and kissed her neck.
Oh, those lips of his…
She sighed, even though she tried not to. He ran his hands slowly along the twin outward curves of her hips. Her body went molten. What was it about those hands of his, about those lips, about the feel of his body touching hers?
Oh, yeah. Chemistry. So good. So right…
“Tanner,” she said on a breathy, drawn-out sigh, bringing her hand up, clasping the back of his head, pulling him closer when she should have been pushing him away. His hair was so silky, so thick. She speared her fingers into it. “Tanner…”
“Mmm…” His stuck out his tongue and licked the side of her neck. Then he nibbled where he’d licked.
She couldn’t stop herself. She wiggled back against him and he groaned, pressing himself more tightly into her, letting her feel what he wanted to give her.
Oh, she was losing it. Losing it again… She groaned in arousal and frustration.
It was the third time she’d set herself the task of telling him, and the third time was supposed to be the charm, wasn’t it? She’d sworn she would tell him this time, no matter what. And yet, here she was, her hands in his hair, her body arching, her neck stretched to the side for him, inviting him to kiss her there some more.
He trailed nipping kisses upward and then he licked her earlobe.
“Oh, God,” she whispered.
He made a low, masculine sound of arousal and agreement. “The feel of you,” he said rough and low. “The scent of you. You drive me crazy, you know that?”
“Oh, Tanner. I know. I’m so sorry.”
He made a low sound that might have been a laugh—or a groan. “Sorry, huh?”
“It’s the same for me.”
And then those amazing hands of his were on her shoulders. He turned her until she faced him. Her body instantly curved close to him. She lifted her mouth to his, helpless at that moment to do anything else.
He still smelled faintly of smoke from the ruined lasagna. But he also smelled…delicious. So tempting in that way she could never quite define. He smelled so very masculine. It was a clean scent. A scent that drew her, that made her yearn, made her forget all over again that he was all wrong for her.
She couldn’t get enough of him, at the same time as she felt shamed deep within herself. After all, she’d sworn, she’d vowed that tonight was going to be different than all the other nights.
Yet here she was, willingly wrapped in his arms. What a total fool she’d been to imagine it could go otherwise.
And then he kissed her. His mouth covered hers and the last wispy remnants of the real world, of her obligation to tell him he would be a dad, floated away. There was nothing but the feel of him, the taste of him, the strength in those hard arms around her, the softness of that beautiful mouth as he kissed her.
It was long and deep and wet and wonderful, that kiss. Like all his kisses, starting from the first one, on a night in early March outside the dance studio where his niece, DeDe, had just finished a recital. They’d gone to his place that night.
Afterward, they’d talked about how the night had been just something that had to happen, something they needed to do, to get their yen for each other out of their systems.
Something they would never do again…
He raised his head—but only to slant it the other way and kiss her some more. She could never get enough of those kisses of his. It was probably pointless to even try.
But then he lifted his head a second time. And when he didn’t immediately begin kissing her again, she let her eyelids drift open.
He was looking down at her, his eyes so dark—black as a night without stars. “When I touch you, I only want to touch you some more.” His arms encircled her and his magical fingers traced erotic patterns at the base of her spine. “It’s always like this. From that first day we met—the day Candy died, remember?”
Candy was his niece’s dog. She’d been a sweet old mutt. “Yeah. I remember. I felt so sad about the dog. And DeDe was inconsolable. And then you came in…I wanted to jump you right there. I felt terrible about that. I mean, DeDe had just lost a pet she loved. And all I could think of was getting my hands on you. All over you.”
His chuckle was low and much too sexy. “I was suspicious of you, showing up out of nowhere the way you did.”
“I also couldn’t wait to touch you, to do all kinds of shocking things to you.”
“It was the same for me.” She ran her palm down the muscular shape of his arm. Below the sleeve of his black knit shirt, his skin was warm as living silk. She sighed at the feel of him.
His dark brows had drawn together. “But there’s something on your mind tonight, isn’t there?”
Her throat locked up. She gulped to clear it.
“Isn’t there?” he asked again. “I mean, beyond your ass of an ex-boss who I’m not allowed to beat to a bloody pulp.”
Her heart, which a minute ago had slowed to the deep, insistent rhythm his kisses inspired, was now thudding hard and hurtfully under her ribs. She had a sick, sinking feeling low in her belly. She was going to do it. Now.
She had to do it. Now.
“What is it? Just tell me.” His voice was so soft.
And right then, before she could allow herself to back away from it again, she opened her mouth and pushed the words out.
“I’m pregnant,” she said.
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