"I understand you're pregnant with my brother's child."
Lilli McCall instinctively put her hand over her swollen belly and studied Maximillian De Luca. She'd reluctantly allowed him and his associate into her small suburban Las Vegas apartment. Heaven knew, she'd had several unwelcome visitors since Tony De Luca had died two weeks ago.
She'd spotted the family resemblance between Tony and Max through the peephole of her doorthe natural tanned complexion, similar bone structure. Only this man wasn't as pretty as Tony. Tony had been full of easy smiles and charm, and ultimately lies. This man's face was so hard she wondered if it would break into pieces if he smiled.
Tony had told her about his brother, Max. He'd frequently complained that his brother was cutthroat, even with his own family. He'd called him the man of steel, a steel mind and a steel heart.
Lilli had detached herself from Tony for good reasons. She wanted nothing to do with him, his friends or his family.
"Miss McCall?" Max prompted.
Taking a quick breath, she gave a slow nod, willing herself not to be intimidated by the tall man. "Yes, we got involved after my mother died, but things didn't work out between us," she said in a voice she knew was stilted, but she couldn't smooth it for the life of her.
"The details aren't necessary. As you know, my brother died in an automobile accident. He had no will and no provision for children, so"
"I didn't expect anything from him," she interjected.
He paused, his gaze flickering over her in a considering way again. "Really," he said in a doubtful voice.
His tone jabbed at her. "Really," she said. "Tony was kind to me after my mother died, but it became clear to me that I didn't belong in his world."
"Why is that?"
"I" She hesitated, her chest tightening as she remembered the fateful night that had made her break up with him for good. "We had different values. I wanted the baby brought up in a different environment."
His gaze fell to her pregnant belly. "You came to that decision a little late, didn't you?"
In more ways than he could know, she thought. "Yes, but I can focus on the baby or on my failures. Focusing on my failures isn't going to help me. So," she said, more than ready for him to leave, "since I wasn't expecting anything from Tony, you don't need to"
"That's where we disagree," he said and nodded toward the man standing behind him. "Jim, could you give me the paperwork? Lilli, this is Jim Gregory. You may recognize him as someone who has knocked on your door a few times recently."
Lilli tore her gaze away from Max long enough to look at the older man and recognized him. "I apologize," she said. "I live by myself, so I'm not really comfortable opening the door to men I don't know."
"I understand," Jim said and she thought she saw a hint of compassion in the older man's eyes. "Here it is, Max," he said, producing some papers from a manila envelope, along with a pen.
Max took the papers and pen and handed them to
Lilli. "It's a simple document. In exchange for one million dollars now and another million dollars if and when the child reaches the age of twenty-five, you agree to give up any rights to my brother's inheritance. If you should die or fail to raise the child in a responsible manner, you agree to relinquish custody of the child to a suitable guardian of my choice."
Lilli felt her jaw drop to the floor.
"It's all there," Max said. "Let me know if you have any questions."
Lilli stared blankly at the paper and felt her hands begin to shake with anger. Shoving the papers back at him, she stepped backward. "Are you nuts?"
"Should have known," Max said to Jim. "I told you she would want more money."
Stunned, Lilli continued to stare at him. "So you are nuts," she said. "You didn't hear me earlier, did you? I didn't expect anything from Tony. I don't now. And I certainly don't expect anything from you. And if you think for one second that I would let someone I've never met choose who raises my child, you're totally crazy."
"That clause is just to protect the child in the event of your death or in case you develop any dangerous habits." He placed the agreement on top of her mother's marble-top table. "Read it. Sleep on it. I'll negotiate the amount within reason."
She snatched it up to give it back to him again.
He shook his head and held up his hand. "The drama is unnecessary. It costs a lot to raise a child. It will be difficult since you're doing it alone. Think about your child's needs. Do you really want to give up everything this money can buy for your child?" He paused while her heart pounded in her chest five beats. "I'll be in touch."
As soon as the two men left her apartment, Lilli flipped the dead bolt in place. Incensed and insulted, she paced into the den. Her pulse was racing in her ears, her nails digging into her palms as she clenched her hands together. Who in hell did he think he was, coming into her home and talking to her that way?
Granted, there were a few things that didn't put her in the best light, such as the fact that she'd even gotten involved with Tony in the first place, and the fact that she was unwed and pregnant. But everyone made mistakes. The solution was owning up to them and making the best of whatever choices have been made.
Although she hadn't intended to get pregnant by Tony, Lilli was determined to be the best mother she could be. Even with all the uncertainty and responsibility she was facing, from the moment she'd learned she was carrying a life inside her, she'd felt a little less lonely.
Lilli walked into the nursery she had begun to decorate and took a deep calming breath. She'd given the walls a fresh coat of paint and hung a puffy Noah's Ark wall hanging with removable animals. The crib was solid maple, and she'd already attached a mobile with friendly colorful butterflies and birds. With her next paycheck, she planned to buy soft crib sheets and blankets in blue for her little guy.
Pressing her hand to her belly again, she thought of Max De Luca. She'd never met a man like him.Arrogant, insulting, charm-free. At least to her. She couldn't deny, though, that in different circumstances he would have fascinated her. But lions had always fascinated her, too, and she knew better than to get into a den with one of them.
"That went well," Jim said in a wry voice as Max led the way to the black Ferrari.
Loosening his tie a fraction of an inch, Max unlocked the car and slid behind the steering wheel. Max preferred being in the driver's seat. It gave him the illusion of control. He slid into the leather seat. "Damn Tony for this," he said, even though his grief was still fresh. "He was going to be a father, for God's sake. You would think he could have at least provided for his child."
"You've been cleaning up his messes a long time," Jim said as Max sped out of the apartment complex.
"Just curious. Did you have to be a total ass to her?"
Max had known Jim since he was a child and that was the only reason he allowed the older man to talk to him so bluntly. "She surprised me," he said, shifting into fourth as he turned onto the interstate. "I was expecting one of those showgirls he went through like cheap wine."
"I told you she's a pediatric dental hygienist."
"I figured that was her day job. She had to have another angle." He shook his head. "She looked almost wholesome. I mean, aside from the bump, she had a nice body as far as I could tell. Did you notice she was wearing bunny slippers?"
Jim laughed. "Hard to miss them."
"She wasn't wearing a speck of makeup. Her hair color didn't look like it came out of a bottle. She looked soft," he said, still trying to come to grips with his impression of Lilli McCall. "Real. Not Tony's type at all."
"She must have been his type for a while."
Max felt his chest tighten in a strange way. How had Tony lucked into her? A woman like that shouldn't have been abandoned. Not if his first instincts about her were correct. "Yeah. He got lucky."
Lilli was that irresistible combination of soft and sexy that every man craved. It was all too easy to wonder how that mouth of hers would feel all over a man's body.
He felt himself grow warm at the thought and shook his head. He'd never been attracted to one of his brother's women. Turning the AC on high, he directed the vent at his face.
"I really ticked her off with my offer," he said, his lips twitching in amusement. She'd looked as if she would have gladly ripped out his vocal cords. He'd found her reaction surprising and oddly attractive.
That didn't change the fact that everyone had their price. Even a blond woman with pink cheeks, bee-stung lips and blue eyes that lit up like sparklers when she was angry. "She'll take the money," he said to Jim, shifting gear. "They all eventually do."
Max would clean up this mess. He had a lot of practice. Left to deal with his father's disastrous personal and financial choices, Max had worked nonstop during the past ten years to rebuild the family name and wealth.
His investments had delivered triple returns. The merger of Megalos Resorts with De Luca Inc. to form Megalos-De Luca Enterprises had sent the shares of his stock in the company skyrocketing. Determined to keep talent in the merged company, the new board paid the top performers eight-figure salaries.
Max's father may have been kicked off the board of the family company, but Max was determined that the next CEO would be a De Luca. Nothing would stop him. Especially not a feisty little blonde who happened to be carrying a De Luca baby in her belly.
The following evening, as she left the dental practice where she worked, Lilli winced as she flexed her fingers. Three-year-old Timmy Johnson just couldn't resist chewing on her index finger. Although she wore rubber gloves, they didn't always protect her from a chewing child.
She worked late three nights a week for two reasons. One, she earned a little more money working after five and two, she didn't really have anything else to do in the evenings. It wasn't as if she were a party animal. She'd left that brief period of her life way in the past.
Pulling her keys from her purse, she walked toward her trusty four-year-old blue Toyota Corolla. Just as she neared her car, two men stepped in front of her. They both appeared to be in their twenties and they looked so much alike they could have been brothers.
"Lilli McCall?" one of them said.
The one man looked vaguely familiar, although she couldn't recall his name. One of Tony's friends? She tensed. "Why do you ask?" She backed away.
Both men took a step toward her. "We're hoping you can help us."
She bit her lip and took another step back. "Iuh." She cleared her throat. "How could I possibly help you?"
"We're here about Tony," one of the men said with a shrug. "He left some unpaid debts. We knew you two were close and we were hoping you could help us."
She shook her head. "I broke up with Tony a long time ago."
"Not before he knocked you up," the other guy cracked. "That baby's gotta be worth something to the De Luca family. Tony must have left you something."
"He didn't," she said, even though her throat was squeezing tight with fear. "Look at my car. It's four years old. I'm working as a dental hygienist. Do I look like someone who is loaded?"
The men frowned. "Maybe you're hiding it."
Frustrated and afraid, she shook her head. "I'm not. Just leave me alone."
"It would be a lot easier to leave you alone if we got our money." One of the men pulled a card out of his pocket and walked toward her.
She wanted to run, but her feet seemed to grow roots into the pavement. The man pressed his card into her hand. "Call me if you find something. We'll check back in case you forget."
Her heart racing, she watched the two men leave and felt sick to her stomach. How much longer would they harass her? And how many more of Tony's so-called business acquaintances were going to show up at her door?
Taking a deep breath, she walked quickly to her car and got inside. Maybe she should move out of town. That could be expensive, though, and she'd like to keep the few friends she'd made over the last couple of months. The idea of being surrounded by strangers after she had her baby unsettled her.
She mulled over a dozen different options as she drove through a fast-food restaurant and ordered a milk shake. After she got home, she sipped on it and changed into a tank top that covered her pregnant belly and a pair of terry cloth shorts. Then to drown out her disturbing thoughts, she turned on the television to watch a rerun of her favorite medical drama.
Five minutes later, her doorbell sounded. She sighed, hoping it was her best friend Dee, off early from her second job as an aerobics instructor. The doorbell rang again before she could reach it. She looked through the peephole, but her porch light wasn't on. She could only make out the shadow of a man.
Fed up, she pounded on her side of the door. "Go away! I don't have Tony's money. I"
"Miss McCall," a male voice cut in.
Lilli immediately recognized that voice. Mr. Steel, she'd named him. She bit her lip. "Lilli," Max De Luca said again. "Can I come in?" She glanced down at her outfit. It was far from swimsuit bare, but she knew she'd feel more comfortable wearing something else. Armor would work. "I'm not really dressed for visitors."
"This won't take long," he insisted.
Swallowing a groan, she opened the door. "I don't think we have anything else to"
Max walked past her. He was dressed in a black suit that probably cost more than her car. Meeting him again, she could see why Tony had resented his older brother. Max was taller, his shoulders were broader, and he oozed enough confidence for a dozen men. Lilli suspected he was the type who would command any situation no matter how he was dressed. Despite the hard edges of his face, there was something sensual about the shape of his mouth. His thick black eyelashes gave his dark eyes a sexual cast.
If he were inclined, she would bet he could reduce a woman to melted butter with just a look. There was nothing boyish about him. He was all man and he would want a woman as tough and confident as he, a raving beauty. Lilli knew she would never make the cut.
Max stared at her, his dark eyes flashing. "Why do you keep talking about my brother and his money?"
She met his hot, hard gaze. "Since Tony died, some of his business acquaintances have been asking me to pay off his loans."
He frowned. "You? Why you?" His expression turned cynical. "Were you involved in some of his business dealings?"