Billion-Dollar Baby Bargain

By: Tessa Radley

Prologue




W ho would have thought that a baby—cute and gurgly when his mother held him—could be such a demanding little devil? Victoria Sutton sank down onto the couch in the living room of her Auckland town house and gazed at the sleeping baby in the traveling cot with weary disbelief.

Dylan looked utterly angelic as stubby eyelashes rested in dusky crescents against chubby baby cheeks and his mouth moved gently up and down.

Oh, for a shot of caffeine.

Strong, hot Starbucks coffee. Hard to believe the whole weekend had passed without finding time to pick one up. Mandy, her secretary, would laugh herself silly tomorrow when Victoria recounted the events of the past two days.

Had it only been two days?

Propping her elbows on her knees, Victoria rested her chin in her palms, and groaned. Two days, but also two pretty much sleepless nights during which Dylan had turned her normally organized life upside down. Heavens, it seemed like she hadn’t drawn a breath since her best friend Suzy had gabbled her last bits of advice on Friday evening as Michael had tugged his wife out the front door, eager to get away for a brief romantic break to celebrate their second wedding anniversary.

Never again would she imagine that babies slept all the time!

Lifting her head from her cupped palms, Victoria scanned the normally immaculate living room and took in the chaotic disarray of toys, diapers and other baby paraphernalia. Another groan escaped. She knew her bedroom looked worse. She needed to get the mess packed up before Dylan’s parents arrived to collect him.

Victoria glanced ruefully at the apple puree smears on the winter-white fabric of the couch. And that stain on the carpet hadn’t been there before Friday, either. What had possessed her to feed Dylan in the all-white living room this morning? Had she learned nothing over the past two days?

Tomorrow first thing she’d organize to get the marks cleaned.

Tomorrow. Oh, heavens. Victoria’s hands shot to her mouth in dismay.

The weekly Monday-morning partners’ meeting…

Good grief, she hadn’t done any preparation. She thought wildly of how she’d delusionally planned to work while Dylan napped over the weekend.

A glance at the wall clock showed her it was still early. Michael and Suzy would be here within the next two hours to pick up Dylan. The whole evening lay ahead.

If she worked quickly to tidy the apartment, she might even get some work in before the Masons arrived. Grabbing a nappy bag, Victoria started to toss in toys, wet-wipes and unused diapers.

But nothing could take away from the fun she’d had with her godson. They’d played peekaboo and she’d tickled Dylan’s tummy. They’d been to the beach, where she’d dipped Dylan’s toes in the shallows while he squealed in ecstasy. They’d even shared an ice-cream cone—granted, most of it had ended up over Dylan’s face, plus a few smears down Victoria’s favorite Kate Sylvester T-shirt.

So she’d willingly offer to do it again. Her godson was adorable. A memory of his loud, growling screams in the middle of the night made her amend that statement. Mostly he was adorable.

The throaty roar of a powerful motor pulling up outside her town house unit made her pause in the act of retrieving a miniature sock from under the coffee table.

She checked the slim gold watch on her wrist. Too early for Michael and Suzy.

The doorbell rang in a long, insistent buzz. Victoria leaped to her feet, a quick glance showing that Dylan hadn’t stirred. The bell buzzed again. She shot across the room and, without pausing to look through the peephole, yanked the door open before whoever it was could lean on the doorbell again.

“Connor!”

Connor North, Michael’s best man, stood on her doorstep.

To Victoria’s annoyance her pulse kicked up, but with practiced ease she avoided Connor’s gaze. He wore a white T-shirt that stretched across a broad chest, and a pair of jeans that molded the lean hips.

“I probably should have called.”

His voice was gravelly, all male, full of edges with no smooth sweetness. Victoria knew she should reply, should agree that it would have been better for him to have called first—and then hope like blazes that he would go.

Instead, unable to answer him or steel herself to meet his unsettling pale gray eyes, Victoria fixed her gaze on the hard line of his mouth. Mistake. It had been two years since he had kissed her at Michael and Suzy’s wedding. By rights she should’ve forgotten all about the texture of his lips against hers, the desire that had spun dizzily within her.

She hadn’t.

Victoria swallowed.

The memory of the taste of him, the hardness of his body against hers, was so immediate it could’ve happened yesterday. Despite her every effort to pretend it had never happened at all.

“Connor…” she croaked, wishing he was a million miles away.

Why had he come? They didn’t have the kind of relationship that allowed for casual drop-ins. To be honest they didn’t have any kind of relationship at all.

Since the wedding the two of them had developed an unspoken pact of practicing avoidance: when one arrived at the Masons’ home, the other departed within minutes. The passage of time had not dulled the hostility that crackled between them. A dislike that they both colluded to conceal from Michael and Suzy—and Dylan.

She tried again. “Connor, what are you doing here?”

Carefully, with immense composure, she raised her gaze from that hard, tight mouth and met his gaze. To her astonishment he didn’t look anything like his usual arrogant, assured self. He looked…

She took in his pallor, the dull flatness in his gray eyes. He looked shattered. “Hey, are you okay?”

“Victoria—” He broke off and shoved his hands in his pockets.

At least he seemed to have no difficulty remembering her name these days, Victoria thought wryly. But it wasn’t like Connor to be at a loss for words. Usually the sarcastic quips rolled off his tongue. She frowned. “What is it?”

“Can I come in?”

Victoria hesitated. She didn’t particularly want him in her home. But he was…he wasn’t himself. “Sure.”

Leading him into the living room, she felt a flare of embarrassment at what he must see. Toys. Baby blankets. Dirty plates. She would’ve preferred Connor to see her home as it normally looked. Elegant. Immaculate. “Excuse the mess.”

He didn’t even glance sideways. “Victoria…” That soulless gaze was focused on her face with an intensity that was awfully disconcerting.

The need to fill the awkward silence made her blurt out, “Can I fix you a cup of coffee? Not that it’s anything like Starbucks, but I was about to make myself—” she stopped before she could reveal that one small human had reduced her to a caffeine-craving wreck “—a hot drink.”

“No.”

“Tea?”

He shook his head.

She moved toward the kitchen, which opened off the living room, flipped the kettle’s switch and opened the fridge.

“I don’t have beer. Would you like a cola?” she offered with reluctance as his footfalls sounded on the tiles behind her. She wished he’d waited for her in the living room. There wasn’t enough space in the kitchen for the two of them.

“Please.” He rubbed a hand over the back of his neck and shut his eyes. An instant later they flicked open and she glimpsed…pain?

Victoria swung away and yanked the fridge door open. She stared blindly at the contents before reaching for two cans of cola. Shutting the door, she said more curtly than she’d intended, “So what do you want, Connor?”

His mouth twisted. “Certainly not sympathy.”

She flicked him a rapid once-over as she set the cans down on the counter. He made no move toward the drinks. A ring of white that she hadn’t noticed before surrounded his lips.

What was wrong with him? “Why on earth would I offer you sympathy?”

It couldn’t possibly be about his former girlfriend. That had been over two years ago and no one ever spoke about Dana or Paul Harper, Connor’s former business partner who had pinched his live-in lover while Connor had been out of the country on a business trip.

What Victoria had gleaned of the affair had come from a soft-focus women’s magazine feature on Dana and Paul not long after Suzy’s wedding. Connor’s ex had been nominated for a business award, and was quoted gushing about how happy she was, how she’d “come into herself.” There’d been an accompanying spread of photos showing the couple at home in a modern Italianate mansion, all glass and marble.

Yet according to stories in business publications, Harper-North Architecture hadn’t thrived well under Paul’s leadership after Connor had walked out. In fact, Suzy had once told Victoria that Paul Harper still owed Connor money. Victoria had surmised that the only thing keeping Connor from placing Harper-North—and Paul Harper—into receivership must be his intent to squeeze every cent he could out of Paul Harper.

By contrast, there’d been quite a splash in the media about The Phoenix Corporation, the waterfront development company that Connor had floated. Reading between the lines, Victoria had gathered that he’d turned what for a lesser man might have spelled disaster into a multimillion-dollar success story.

Yet a sense that something was not quite right closed in on her, as he rubbed his hands over his face in a manner she could only describe as helpless.

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