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HOW TO Hide a Baby by Day Leclaire

 

Overview: Grace Barnes is pretending to be ugly so her gorgeous boss, Luc Salvatore, won't fall in love with her—or she with him. She's even pretending to be engaged to the nonexistent Will-William. It's worked for almost a year, which is how long she needs to work in order to fund her own business. Maybe Grace would have succeeded if unwed mother Carina Donati hadn't dumped her son on Luc and taken off for Italy. Not that Tony is Luc's. No, Tony belongs to Luc's youngest brother (of five), Brand, who takes off after Carina.
When the police arrive, Luc tells them he and Grace are engaged and babysitting his nephew for a few hours. A bit of a fib since Tony's parents aren't married and, oops, the baby is really a girl . . . Toni, short for Antonia. Who knew, considering the Salvatores haven't fathered a daughter in more generations than Toni has toes. That would have been fine if the police hadn't returned and discovered Tony is really Toni, and that it isn't a few hours they'll be babysitting, but a few days, and that Brand and Carina aren't really married. They take Toni and turn her over to CPS. When CPS shows up, Luc charms the woman, telling her that he and Grace are married.
Got all that? They're boss and assistant at work, engaged for the police, married for CPS, and just good friends in front of Luc's irrepressible family.
Then Luc's father, Dom, returns from a nine-month sojourn in Italy. He knows they're not married and assumes Toni is Grace and Luc's. Maybe they’d have skated by that if they hadn't allowed nature to take its course. Or if Grace's father hadn't interrupted them. Did I mention that Grace's father is a minister? No? Well, as you can imagine that didn't go down well. So now Luc insists they marry for real. And Grace would . . . if only Luc loved her. There's only way to convince her and that is to say the three little words he's never said to any other woman: I love you.

 

HOW TO Hide a Baby by Day Leclaire Book Chapter One

 

The Great Lie

Day 337: And all is well until now . . .

“Morning, Ms. Barnes,” the security guard greeted her with a cheerful grin. “Early to work, I see. Same as always, rain or shine.”

Grace leaned her dripping umbrella against his desk and stripped off her gloves. “More rain than shine, I’m afraid,” she observed, offering a warm smile in return.

“It is blustery out there. Did you have a good weekend?”

“Splendid, thank you, Edward.” She tucked her gloves into the pocket of her raincoat. “And you?”

“Drove to the mountains with the wife and kids. The forecast called for snow and they don’t often get the chance to see it falling. All the Thanksgiving decorations were out.” He shook his head. “It was quite a sight.”

An onslaught of memories from past holiday celebrations brought a wistful smile to Grace’s lips. Her parent’s house had always been filled with friends and family and with the odors of freshly baked pies and breads. Her father would build a huge, roaring fire and her mother would decorate the mantel with gourds and Indian corn and her pilgrim candlestick holders.

Tears pricked her eyes. Lord, how she missed all that. “The first snowfall of the season,” she said with undisguised longing. “It must have been glorious.”

“You and your fiancé ever do that? Drive to the mountains to see the snow?”

She shook her head, still lost in memories. “Never.”

“Aw, that’s a real shame.”

His expression turned pitying and right away she realized she’d made a mistake, forgotten for a split second the role she still needed to play. “I’ll suggest a drive to the mountains for next weekend. I’m certain he’ll think it’s an excellent idea.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Really. We’ll go next weekend.”

She knew the security guard didn’t believe her. His brow creased and she could see him fishing around for something more to add, something that would help salvage her dignity. Which was a laugh. After almost a full year of this masquerade, she had very little dignity left to salvage.

“Your fiancé is a lucky man,” he said at last, “having such an . . . an . . . elegant woman for his bride-to-be.”

She smiled wryly. He seemed intent on painting himself further and further into his corner. Time to put the poor man out of his misery.

“My fiancé is a fine man,” she lied smoothly. Practice certainly did make perfect. How appalling. “I’ve never met anyone more eager to please. He’ll be delighted at the idea of a trip to the mountains. Maybe we’ll rent a cabin and stay the whole weekend.”

“What’s this?” a deep, husky voice interrupted. “My Ms. Barnes is going away for a romantic weekend?”

Color mounted in Grace’s cheeks at the sound of the familiar voice. She turned to greet Luc Salvatore, struggling to hang on to the cool, calm demeanor she’d perfected these past eleven months. “Just a passing thought,” she said lightly, forced to look a long way up to meet his gaze.

He stepped closer, trapping her against Edward’s desk, an intent expression riding his handsome features. “Not a good one, if this blush is anything to go by.” He ran a slow finger along her cheekbone, his broad shoulders eclipsing her view of everything else. He’d cut them off from the rest of the world, and it made her nervous. Very nervous. “No need to jump into these things if you aren’t ready.”

She heard the concern in his voice and her brows drew together. She felt like a heel, worrying Edward and Luc with a conversation about an imaginary romantic interlude with an equally imaginary fiancé. “Thanks for your advice,” she stated flatly, hoping to end the discussion before she got in any deeper.

“You’re welcome.” Cupping her elbow, Luc escorted her toward the elevators. “Why all this sudden talk about a weekend trip with what’s-his-name?”

She shot him a look of annoyance. “His name is Will . . . William, as you know full well.”

“And is Will-William dragging you off to his mountain lair to have his wicked way with you? Is that what you were telling Edward?”

“That’s none of your business.” She faced the bank of elevator doors, refusing to so much as glance his way. Not that it helped. The mirror-bright shine on the gold lobby doors reflected the determination in his expression. “And don’t think I missed the look you and Edward exchanged,” she added for good measure.

“First, it’s my business if I choose to make it my business.” He positioned himself in front of her, blocking the doors. “And second, what look are you talking about?”

Why, oh why didn’t the stupid elevator arrive so she could put an end to their conversation? She fixed her attention on the red silk tie knotted at his throat. As usual, it was slightly askew. And as usual, she valiantly resisted the temptation to straighten it. With each passing day, however, the temptation grew stronger. One of these days she’d give in. If she was lucky, that would also be day three hundred and sixty-five on the job.

Aware she couldn’t get out of answering his question, she said, “You know the look I mean. That man-to-man, women-are-such-fools one.”

“Ah. You mean our look of mutual concern.”

Her gaze flashed upward, locking with his. It was a mistake. He could melt ice with those eyes. Her annoyance didn’t stand a chance. It evaporated like mist beneath a hot sun. “My personal life is none of your business,” she managed to say. Finally succeeding in breaking eye contact, she leaned around him and stabbed the elevator call button again. Pointless, but it gave her something to do other than talk to Luc’s tie. “And it’s most certainly none of Edward’s.”

“On the contrary. You elected to share your personal life with Edward, so you have no one to blame but yourself if he offers an opinion.” His long, lean fingers brushed her jaw, tilting her chin upward until she had no choice but to look at him again. “And whether you believe it or not, everything about you is my affair.” He made the sweeping statement with such utter sincerity it left no room for doubt.

Her breathing stopped. “Why would you care if Will . . . William and I went away for the weekend?” She still choked every time she uttered her fictitious fiancé’s name. And Luc, darn him, took due note.

At long last, the elevator arrived and the doors slid open. He stepped aside so she could enter first, then keyed the lock for the top floor. “Is he pressuring you?”

She knew exactly what he meant, but lifted her chin and gave him a bland smile anyway. “Pressuring me? Whatever do you mean?”

He turned on her, disapproval carving his features into a stony mask. “To have sex, as you well know. And don’t bother with that innocent expression and the coy lies. You’re not good at it, Grace.”

She fought to keep a straight face. Little did he know. Over the past year she’d become unbelievably adept at lying. And if her father ever found out, it would break his heart. “I refuse to discuss this matter further,” she announced in no uncertain terms. “I repeat. It’s none of your business.”

He hit a button on the elevator and the car jerked to a stop. “Don’t do it, Grace,” he urged in a husky voice. “Don’t go away with him on a whim. You deserve better.”

She glared at Luc, sick of her deception. How she wished she could be herself instead of guarding every word she uttered. But she couldn’t and it left her with no choice but to drag their discussion out to the bitter end. “What could be better than a snow-covered mountain chalet buried deep in a redwood forest?”

His hands snagged the collar of her coat, rubbing the buttery wool along the length of her jaw. “For your first time, I think a suite at the Ritz in Paris overlooking the Place Vendôme would suit you best.”

She stared in alarm. He’d never made such personal remarks before, never touched her like this or gazed down at her with such a smoldering expression. The sudden change in their relationship unsettled her. “Who said it would be my first time?” she asked weakly, an odd tension gathering in the pit of her stomach.

“I say.”

She didn’t dare argue the point. Not when he was right. “I happen to think snuggling with my fiancé in front of a roaring fire with nothing between me and a bearskin rug but a scrap of lace sounds perfect.” She could hear the tension in her voice now, but for some reason couldn’t bring herself to end the strange and intimate conversation.

His eyes half closed and he bent closer. “Making love on top of dead animals doesn’t appeal to me. And with your skin, nothing but silk will do. Something low cut and simple.” He released her collar, the back of his hand stroking a leisurely path across her cheek and jaw. “Better yet, why don’t we try a feather mattress and nothing between us at all. What do you say to that?”

She shivered beneath his touch, horrified by the magnitude of her reaction to him. Where was her control? Where was her detachment? “Luc . . .” His name escaped on a breathless sigh.

His mouth curved upward. “Is that a yes?”

Her eyes widened in panic and she inhaled sharply, fighting the desire sweeping through her veins like wildfire. “No!”

“Just checking.” He released her, putting an entire two inches worth of breathing space between them. “So good old Will-William the accountant from San Jose—”

“San Mateo!”

“—wants sex beside a roaring fire and is offering a chalet, champagne, and dead animals to get his way. Is that about it?”

He hadn’t been serious about making love to her, she realized then. He’d merely been teasing again. He didn’t really care, not on a personal basis. The knowledge bit deep. It didn’t matter what he thought of her, she tried to convince herself. It didn’t.

It didn’t!

“Maybe,” she said in a hard, tight voice, “that isn’t what he’s offering, but what I’m offering.”

She stepped farther away from him and jabbed the button to resume the ride, but not before she saw anger flash across Luc’s face. Good. Let him be on the losing side of a disagreement for once. She faced the elevator doors again, seeing her metallic reflection the way he must see it.

She’d kept her hair rinsed to a nondescript shade of brown and still twisted it into a tight knot at the nape of her neck. The tinted glasses she wore had proved most effective this past year, swamping her delicate features and concealing her leaf green eyes and high, arching cheekbones. Her experiments with makeup only added insult to injury. The foundation she’d chosen gave her face a pallid, sallow appearance. And completing her disguise were her clothes, the businesslike suits a size too large, downright frumpy, and ranging in tone from a dirt brown to navy and black.

It was absolutely perfect.

It also made her want to cry.

This past year had given her an acute awareness of how cruel the world could be toward unattractive people. All her father’s little sermons about vanity, about it being a person’s inner beauty which counted most, came home to roost. Never again would she judge by appearances alone.

“I didn’t mean to upset you,” Luc said at last. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s quite all right.” She sounded stilted and couldn’t help it. And though she’d just vowed to never again judge by appearances, she couldn’t help wishing—wishing with a passion that shocked her—that he could see the “real” her.

The elevator slowed and the doors opened. Luc stepped forward, blocking her avenue of escape. “I’ll just say this one last thing. You shouldn’t sleep with him unless you’re sure. Very sure.”

He stepped off the elevator, leaving her openmouthed and fuming. Before she could dart between the doors, they closed with a snap, forcing her to endure a return trip to the lobby. Just as well, she decided with stoic resolve, since she’d left her umbrella leaning against Edward’s desk.

Five minutes later, she returned to the executive floor and hurried to the reception area outside Luc’s office. She disposed of her coat and umbrella in the office closet and sat at her desk. Removing a bright red marker from her drawer, she took more than her usual delight in crossing off one more day from her year-long sentence.

She looked up to see Luc standing at his door, watching.

“You do that every morning. It’s almost as though you’re counting the days until . . .” He shrugged. “Something.”

She stared at him, stricken. “Nonsense.”

His eyes narrowed. “It’s not nonsense. What are you counting down to?”

“Nothing,” she repeated. Had she somehow given herself away? She couldn’t have.

“That’s twice today,” he stated ominously.

She swallowed. “Twice?”

“Twice today you’ve lied to me.”

He frowned and she froze. His frowns, rare though they were, worried her. A lot. They invariably preceded an explosion. Only once had that explosion been directed her way, and she’d decided then and there it would be the last time she’d give him cause to exercise that infamous temper of his.

“I don’t like it, Grace,” he said softly, a certain menace marking his voice. “Don’t lie to me again.”

She didn’t dare respond, didn’t dare dwell on what would happen should he discover the deception she and Dom had instigated, especially considering it was aimed directly at Luc. She could only pray he didn’t find out. Because if he ever did . . . She shuddered.

So, what had tipped him off about her latest fibs? And why weren’t they working today? She thought she’d gotten rather good at evading the truth, but perhaps months and months of practicing such a bad habit had caused a short circuit and she was all lied out. Or perhaps Luc’s dislike of them had finally rubbed off on her.

Her father would be delighted, were he to know. Grace was horrified.

Luc didn’t wait for a reply, a huge relief since she had none to offer. Instead, he returned to his office and closed the door with gentle emphasis. She stared blindly at her calendar. Four more weeks. That’s all she had to get through. Just four more weeks.

In just under three of those weeks Dom Salvatore would return from his twelve-month sojourn to Italy and appoint a relative to take over her job. One quick week of training and Grace could open Baby Dream Toys. Her dearest wish—her mother’s dearest wish—would finally be realized.

She focused on the calendar. She could do it. Just four more weeks of lies and half-truths, disguises and evasions. Easy, right? Maybe so, if not for one small problem. Once she left Luc’s employ, would she still consider the shop worth the cost she’d paid?

The question nagged at her, had been nagging for months now. When she’d first agreed to Dom’s plan, she’d wanted her own business so badly she hadn’t paused to weigh the consequences. She’d had plenty of time since to reconsider her hasty and ill-planned decision. And now she wasn’t so sure she’d made the right choice. Using deceit to attain her goal, even a lifelong dream, went against the grain.

She was living a lie, and she’d never been more uncomfortable in her life. Worse, she liked working for Luc. He was a fantastic employer. Generous. Intelligent. Creative. She’d even found their frequent battle of wills challenging. If not for the lies, it would be the perfect job.

A small sound caught her attention and, looking up, Grace noticed a beautiful young woman standing in the doorway of the reception area. She carried a huge diaper bag over one arm. In the other she clutched a baby.

“May I help you?” Grace asked, shoving her glasses higher on her nose.

The young woman shot Grace a suspicious glance, then shook her head. She peered around rather frantically. Her gaze landed on Luc’s door and the plaque that read Luciano Salvatore, and she released an exclamation of relief. Eyeing Grace with a measure of defiance, she sidled toward Luc’s door.

Grace stood. Uh-oh. Something about this didn’t look right. A young woman, infant in arms, acting as though Luc’s door held the answer to all her prayers?

“Excuse me, but do you have an appointment?” she asked, though she could guess the answer to that one. This little entrance had “surprise visit” written all over it. She released a silent sigh. How would Luc take to his newly discovered papahood? Despair, sharp and intense, swept through her. She already knew how she felt about it, the sick, sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach all too clear an indication.

More to the point, when had her feelings for Luc changed? When had she begun to care?

There was no mistaking the young woman’s resolve. Her gaze shifted from Grace to the door as though judging her chances of winning a footrace. The instant Grace came around her desk, determination glittered in the woman’s dark eyes, and she literally threw herself at Luc’s door. Yanking it open, she launched into a spate of very loud Italian and slammed the door behind her.

Grace’s mouth fell open.

“Ms. Barnes!” Luc’s roar rattled the rafters an instant later. “Get in here.”

It took her a split second to gather her wits sufficiently to obey. Then she, too, charged the door and threw it open. Mother and infant had found sanctuary in Luc’s arms. Between sobs the woman poured out what appeared to be a most heartrending story. Luc fired off a quick question and the woman stepped back, her Italian loud and furious. Startled from a sound sleep, the baby burst into tears, his wails competing with his mother’s shouting.

“You bellowed?” Grace asked, relieved when both mother and infant fell silent.

He stabbed a finger at her. “Don’t start. Go down the hall and drag my brother, Brando, out of his office. I want him in here. Now.”

She turned to leave, only to discover Brand standing behind her. “What’s all the shouting?” He took one look at the woman at Luc’s side and stiffened. “Carina?”

The sudden realization that the child was, in all probability, Brand’s and not Luc’s, grabbed Grace’s full attention. Fighting to ignore an overwhelming sense of relief, she slipped farther into the room, watching this latest development with intense interest.

Brand crossed to Carina’s side and started to take her into his arms. Grace could tell the instant he noticed the baby. It took precisely two seconds for the significance to sink in. “What the hell is this?” he shouted.

“What does it look like?” Carina shouted back. “It is a baby.”

The infant in question started crying again. Grace, realizing the door to Luc’s office stood open, turned to close it. A gaggle of secretaries had gathered in a loose semicircle, listening with open mouths. “I’ll get security,” one of them offered, and darted down the hallway before Grace could stop her. With a sigh, she shut the door. One problem at a time.

“Enough!” Luc thundered. “I want quiet, and I want it now.” To Grace’s astonishment, all obeyed, even the baby. “Excellent. Now. Do you think we could get to the bottom of this mess?”

“Fine. Your brother, he is a pig.” Carina announced, breaking into a long litany of passionate Italian.

“English, please,” Luc requested.

“My English, it is not so good.”

“Really? Brand’s Italian is even worse.” He eyed the baby grimly. “I see you managed to overcome the language barrier despite that small obstacle. I think introductions are in order. Don’t you?”

“Luc,” Brand spoke up. “This is Carina Donati. Carina, my brother Luciano, and his assistant, Ms. Barnes.”

Carina acknowledged them with an abrupt nod. “Buon giorno.”

“Carina and I . . . Well, we met at UC Berkeley,” Brand confessed. “She’s a foreign exchange student.”

“Not anymore,” she interrupted, hugging the baby to her breast. “Now I am statistic. Unwed mother.”

Brand turned on her. “And whose fault is that?”

“Yours!” She offered him the baby. “You do not believe you are the papà?”

His hands balled into fists. “I damn well better be!”

“Children,” Luc stated softly.

Grace crossed the room and held out her arms. “Why don’t I take the baby?” she suggested, hoping to remove the poor infant from the field of battle. To her relief, Carina handed over her bundle without a single protest, and Grace retreated to the far side of the room.

Brand addressed Carina, speaking at a more moderate level. “I phoned. You wouldn’t answer any of my calls. I came over to the house. They said you’d moved out and hadn’t left a forwarding address. I went everywhere I could think of to find you. It was like you’d vanished off the face of the earth.”

Carina planted her hands on her generous hips, scorn flashing in her magnificent eyes. “Of course I vanished. You lied to me!”

“The hell I did. What did I lie about? Because I guarantee, I didn’t.”

“What about Giovanna Carducci?”

“You left me because of Giovanna Carducci?”

Tears filled her eyes and she pointed a trembling finger. “See? He admits it.”

“I’m not admitting anything,” he protested hotly.

“That’s enough,” Luc interrupted once again. “Let me see if I have this straight. You and Carina met, fell in love, had a falling out over someone named Giovanna Carducci—”

“No!” Brand denied.

“Sì!” Carina insisted.

“And,” Luc seized control of the conversation once more, “unbeknownst to Brand, Carina conceived . . .” He gestured toward Grace and the baby.

“Tony,” Carina supplied.

“Tony. Does that about cover it?”

“Sì,” Carina agreed. “In a nut case.”

“Nutshell,” Brand corrected.

She tossed her hair over her shoulder. “Whatever it is, I don’t care. The big man, he is right.”

The “big man” sighed. “I hesitate to ask this, Carina, but what is it you want?”

As though on cue, the tears reappeared. Brand took one look and pulled her into his arms. “Sweetheart, what is it? What’s happened?”

“My mamma in Italy, she is very sick,” Carina confessed, her voice breaking. “I must go to her. But I cannot.”

Brand stared at her in bewilderment. “Why not?”

She pulled free, glaring at him. “Why not? You look at my sweet little Tony and ask, why not? I come from a very small village. My relatives are old-fashioned. If they ever find out I have a baby with no husband, I would be disowned. So I come up with solution.”

“Which is?” Luc asked.

Helpless tears flowed down her cheeks. With a cry of distress, she snatched Tony from Grace and repeatedly kissed the tuft of black hair peeking out of the blanket. Then Carina thrust the tiny bundle at Brand. “Tony is also yours,” she said, choking on a sob. “You take care of our baby while I am in Italy. When my mamma is better, I will return and be an unwed, deserted mother once more.” Dropping the diaper bag to the ground, she pushed past Grace and fled the room.

“Wait!” Brand started to follow, then realized he was somewhat encumbered. “Son of a—”

“We need to discuss this,” Luc began.

“Later.” Brand fumbled awkwardly with his armload and shot his brother a look of anguished pleading. “I have to stop her.”

“Mr. Salvatore?” Edward filled the doorway. “Is there a problem?”

“Yes, there is,” Luc said. “Call down to the front desk. There’s a young woman, petite, long dark hair, and probably crying. I want her detained. She’s . . .” He glanced at the baby. “She’s left behind a rather important package.”

“Right away, sir.” Edward spun on his heel and disappeared.

“Brand—” Luc began.

“No, there isn’t time.” Without further ado, Brand dumped the baby into Luc’s arms. “You watch Tony. I’ll go get Carina.”

“Wait one damn minute. Come back here.” But it was too late. Brand was gone. Luc stared in dismay at the baby, before glancing at Grace. A gleam appeared in his eyes, one that didn’t bode well for her. “Why, Ms. Barnes,” he practically purred, advancing toward her with his most charming, determined smile. He held out the baby. “Look what I have for you.”
 

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