"May I come in?" he asked politely. If he had had a hat, it would have been in hand.
"I want to talk to you."
"And hurl more ugly accusations? No, thank you, Mr.MacKensie." Ria started to close the door. He stuck out his hand and caught it.
Ria looked at him closely. What she saw made her feel better. If his appearance was any indication, he'd had a hellish day. His dark hair was mussed. His tie had been loosened and the collar button on his shirt undone. He was holding his suit coat over his shoulder by the crook of his finger. He looked haggard and worried and tired. For a man who had gone through a heated campaign with nary a wrinkle, his dishevelment was a dead giveaway that he'd suffered some recent mental anguish.
Too bad, Ria thought. She refused to be moved to pity, not after the things he'd said to her. "Just go away and leave me alone. Forget everything I said this morning."
"I never should have told you."
"Of course you should have."
Annoyed, she shifted her weight from one foot to the other, while still blocking his entrance. "Need I remind you, Mr. MacKensie, that you didn't take the news too well? You were insulting and abusive."
"That's one of the reasons I'm here, to apologize for my knee-jerk reaction. Grant me one point."
"What?" she asked cautiously.
"That my initial reaction was just a teensy bit justified."
His eyes were intensely blue. They were set off by his dark hair and tanned face. Wary of their persuasiveness, Ria lowered her gaze to his vest. But that, too, evoked memories. Was it really possible that she had once unbuttoned his vest in a lustful hurry to touch him? Had her fingers fumbled in their rush to gain access to him? She couldn't imagine reaching out to touch him now.
She cleared her throat uneasily. Reasoning that she owed him the courtesy of accepting his apology, she decided to be conciliatory. "I suppose that what I had to tell you did come as quite a shock."
"Then will you please let me come in, Ria?"
Maybe it was because he addressed her by name. She couldn't explain it to herself afterward. But for whatever reason, she stepped aside. He came in. She closed the door behind him and they were alone.
The room had changed. It was filled with golden afternoon sunlight rather than flickering firelight. The fireplace had been cleaned out and a potted philodendron with leaves as large and flat as place mats stood in front of the brass screen. A leafy ficus occupied the spot where the Christmas tree had been.
"You have a green thumb," he remarked.
She inclined her head in acknowledgment of the compliment and indicated a chair. She sat down in a bentwood rocker. Both of them avoided the sofa, looking past it as though it weren't there. The room might have changed with the season, but the atmosphere still teemed with vivid and disturbing memories of a snowy night.
"Would you like something to drink?"
"Not if that's all you've got." He nodded toward the glass sitting on the end table beside the rocker. "What is that?"
"Are you sick?"
"I get indigestion every afternoon."
"I can get you a soft drink," Ria offered. "Or something stronger."
A clock was ticking. It seemed very loud. The rocker squeaked slightly each time it moved to and fro. Whenever their eyes accidentally met, they guiltily looked away, like children who'd been caught playing doctor the day before.
Ria wished she hadn't changed out of her tailored suit and into the old jeans and T-shirt. She wished she had on a brassiere. She wished she had on shoes. She knew that she needed to take a firm stand with this man. Bare feet weren't a very reassuring platform. Her hair was a mess. After taking down her bun, she'd only shaken it out. It hung unbrushed and untamed around her shoulders.
She knew the strain of the last twenty-four hours was evident on her face. She hadn't been able to hold down much food lately. Her cheeks were gaunt. No amount of Erase would hide the violet crescents beneath her eyes. She hadn't slept at all the night before, worrying over her dilemma and planning what she was going to say to Councilman MacKensie the next morning.
In the end she had decided to take the straightforward, honest approach. And just look what honesty had gotten her. His temper. His suspicion. His contempt.
"How long have you lived here?"
She roused herself to answer his conversational question. "Going on three years. Ever since I started working at Bishop and Harvey."
"It's a nice house."
"Did you decorate it yourself?"
"This is a good neighborhood."
"The city keeps the garbage picked up and the streets repaired," she said, smiling sickly.
"Ah, well, that's good to hear." His smile was just as puny as hers. "It felt almost like spring today."
"Yes. I saw some daffodils already in bloom."
Sitting on the edge of his chair, his knees widespread, Taylor stared at the hardwood floor between his feet. The fingers of one hand were nervously doing push-ups against the fingers of the other. He forced a cough. "When, uh, when did you know about, uh, the, uh, baby?"
From all she'd read, heard, and experienced firsthand about Taylor MacKensie, stuttering was totally out of character. His voice frequently rang out in the City Council chambers as he waxed eloquently and intelligently on the topics presented for the council's review. His campaign speeches had been incisive, amusing, and articulate. Reporters' questions, even the most probing or complex, never left him at a loss for words.
It was gratifying to know that he was as uneasy now as she had been that morning before entering his office. Diving off the cliffs at Acapulco couldn't compare to how she'd felt when she'd walked through that door and faced him for the first time since Christmas morning. Especially in light of what she had to tell him.
"When did I know?" Ria kept her eyes averted. "I missed a period."
He fidgeted on the edge of his seat. "I understand that happens sometimes."
"It does. But never to me. I'm always like clockwork."
This time it was she who coughed. It flustered her to talk about such personal things to this stranger. Well, not exactly"stranger." Yes, this stranger. What did she really know about him? That he was handsome. That he knew how to open a bottle of champagne correctly. That he was a good driver on snowy streets. That he could charm the pants off a woman. Literally.
She began again. "I started feeling sick...not really sick, just..." She foundered, looking for a word that precisely described that bloated feeling, that lassitude, that inability to draw enough breath, that feeling of being full to bursting even when she was hungry. There wasn't a word descriptive enough. "There were just symptoms," she said conclusively.
"Upset stomach. Emotional instability. Itchy--"
He cocked his head inquisitively. "itchy...?"
"Breasts," she supplied huskily, having to force the word through her lips.
"Oh." He looked down at her chest and kept looking in that vicinity for a long, uncomfortable time. "I'm sorry."
She crossed her arms over her stomach, wishing she could place her hands over her breasts to shield her hardening nipples from his piercing eyes. "You know the symptoms," she said shortly.
Taylor looked completely baffled. "Yeah, I guess."
"Then I skipped another period last month. I finally went to the doctor yesterday, and he confirmed my own diagnosis. My due date is September twenty-sixth."
He expulsed a deep breath. The jury had just brought in a guilty verdict. "I guess that cinches it."
"There was never any doubt about the child's father, despite what you might think of my sex life, Mr. MacKensie."
"Make it Taylor, okay?" he demanded crossly.
Just as crossly she said,"Regardless of your 'experience' with me, as you so ungallantly referred to it, I don't sleep around."
"Forgive me for saying that. I shouldn't have."
Her angry outburst had exhausted her. Her shoulders slumped, and she rested her head on the caned back of her chair. "I suppose you had every right to think that." Her soft laugh was bitter and self-disparaging. "On Christmas Eve, I was an easy lay."
"Don't say that."
"Well, wasn't I?" She raised her head and looked at him directly.
"I never thought that. Then or now."
"You thought that this morning."
He ran a weary hand down his face and blew out another gust of carbon dioxide. "We're going in circles and getting nowhere." He held her gaze for a moment. "Look, I don't think you're an easy lay. Because if you are, then I am. And I'm more discriminating than your average tomcat.
"So let's just drop whatever recriminations we're harboring, self-imposed or otherwise, and try to figure out what we're going to do about the consequences, okay?" Ria only nodded. "What about this guy you told me you're seeing? The one with the elderly mother in Florida."
"Funny, Guy happens to be his name." She was surprised that he remembered the details. "Guy Patterson. He's an associate in the firm."
"Have you told him yet?"
"Yes. As soon as I'd told you. I felt I owed him that."
Guy Patterson had taken the news of her pregnancy no better than Taylor had. Worse, in fact. He'd been livid, calling her in explicit terms the names Taylor had only implied.
"He's permanently out of the picture," she said without elaboration.
Actually, having Guy out of her life was a relief. Older by fifteen years, he was somewhat stuffy. She was tired of his staid, conservative ideas. Their conversations were boring, because he directed them to topics only he was interested in. When you got right down to it, Guy was a persnickety old maid, and not much fun to be around. The only reason she was dating him was that nobody better had come on the scene. She wouldn't have chosen this earth-shattering way to break it off with him, but she was glad it had been done so irrevocably.
"You could have passed the child off as his," Taylor said tentatively. "Why didn't you?"
"I never would have done that," Ria exclaimed, taking umbrage. "What kind of woman do you think I am?"
"All right, I'm sorry."
"Besides, I couldn't have deceived him even if I'd wanted to. Guy had a vasectomy years ago."
He'd made no secret of it. When their relationship had developed into more than that of working associates, he'd told Ria that he might consider marriage, but children were out of the question. There was another reason why Guy couldn't possibly be the father of her baby, but she'd let Mr. MacKensie think what he would.
"Has this ever happened to you?" she asked suddenly.
"You mean fathering a child? No. How 'bout you? Have you ever been pregnant?"
"No." She wondered why she was pleased to know that this was new to him too. There was no explanation except that she would have hated knowing she was one of a group of unfortunates. Taylor's Tarnished.
He studied her carefully for a moment, but lowered his eyes before asking,"Did you come to me for financial assistance?"
"Financial assistance for what?"
"Any number of things."
"Abortion. Is that what you plan to do?"
Ria turned her head, giving him her profile. Tears were glistening in her eyes. They reflected the light of the setting sun coming through the window.
"No. Mr. Mac--No, Taylor. I believe in living with my mistakes, not burying them. And for your information, abortions come cheap these days."
"I was only asking because the timing is right. I know there's a deadline before that, uh, solution becomes unfeasible."
"Are you sure you're not suggesting that's what I should do? Before you answer, I should warn you that that's a rhetorical question. I won't be having an abortion." She turned her head and looked at him squarely, almost defiantly. "Why else do you think I'd come to you for money?"
"To help with supporting the child, before and after it's born."
"I earn a very good salary, in addition to the commission I make on each job. Thank you very much, but I don't need your money, Mr. MacKensie." Leaving her chair, she picked up the Alka-Seltzer-coated glass on the end table and made a beeline for the door across the room.
Taylor followed her. Her kitchen was alive with a jungle of plants. He had to swat aside a leaf as he went in. She was rinsing out the glass in a stainless-steel sink.
"Why do you bristle at everything I say?"
She swung around to face him. "Because I find everything you say offensive."
"Well, pardon me, ma'am, but I'm not quite myself today." His tone of voice bordered on loud. "Forgive me for pointing out that we're a little old to be caught 'in trouble' like a couple of teenagers. This didn't happen in the back of Dad's Ford after the prom."
"That's why I don't see why we can't be adult about it and stop throwing blame on each other."
"We can. But the idea of a baby is going to take some getting used to. You've had weeks to reckon with it. It's new to me. Don't expect me to be my normal, glib self today. I've suffered a shock."
"So have I!" she yelled back. "It's not your body that is going through all these changes, it's mine. Think about the adjustments I've had to make."
"I can appreciate that," he said, striving for calm.
"You have a damn funny way of showing it."
"I said I was sorry."
"Then stop making unflattering innuendoes about my milking you for money, etcetera. I'm willing to live up to my obligation. Why aren't you? We share this responsibility equally. We were both on that couch. We both enjoyed it. It was a simultaneous--"
Horrified at what she heard herself saying, Ria turned her back on him again. Her cheeks were on fire. She hadn't blushed before or since Christmas Eve. It seemed that she'd packed a lifetime of blushes away and saved them all for Taylor MacKensie.
Her heart was thudding. Her mouth was dry and her palms were wet. In her ears she heard a roar as loud as crashing waves. In fact, it felt as though they were ebbing and flowing through her burning earlobes.
It took a moment for her to collect herself. "All I meant is that I'm willing to assume responsibility for my actions that night," she said in a shaky voice. "It's not going to be easy for me to have a baby, but I am and that's that. You don't know me very well or you never could have thought I'd have an abortion." She shuddered.
"Why did you bother to tell me about the baby at all?"
She came around slowly, clearly mystified by his question. "You didn't want to know that you had fathered a child? I considered it my moral obligation to tell you."
"Your integrity is admirable."
"But you'd just as soon I hadn't involved you," she said with a humorless laugh. "Won't the ski bunny like it?"
"The ski bunny?"
"The woman who got ticked off when you didn't go on the ski trip with her."
Lisa. Ria had wondered later what Lisa would have thought of Taylor's Christmas Eve. Would she have been jealous? Or had she been making it with a ski instructor at the same time? Were they sophisticated enough to tell each other about their escapades? Had he regaled Lisa with a detailed account of their lovemaking, perhaps for the purpose of stimulating her?
The thought made Ria ill. She pressed one hand against her stomach and covered her mouth with the other.
Taylor jumped as if he'd been shot. "What's the matter?"
She drew a deep breath through chalky lips. "I'm a little queasy, that's all."
"Sit down." He yanked a chair away from the table.
"I'm fine, really."
"Sit down." The order was issued in a terse, authoritarian voice that Ria was too weak and woozy to argue with. He pulled out a chair for himself and dropped down into it, plowing his hands through his hair and cursing. "Don't scare me like that again. Can I get you something?"
"No." She glanced up at him. He was glaring at her sternly. "All right. A cracker. That helps settle my stomach sometimes."
She told him where he could find a box of saltines in the pantry. He shook crumbs all over the table as he wrestled two crackers out of their cellophane package. The box fell to the floor when he bumped the edge of the table with his thigh as he sat back down. Nibbling the cracker, Ria began to laugh.
"What?" he grumbled.
"For a man who's so adept at uncorking champagne, you don't handle saltines very well."
He smiled with chagrin. "Well, I've had more practice with champagne than with pregnant ladies."
Ria sobered instantly. She dusted salt off her hands as she said softly,"I'm sure you have."
It surprised them both when he reached across the table and covered her hands with his. "Please don't take offense," he said. "I didn't mean anything by it."
She stared at his hand. It was a beautifully masculine hand. Blunt, well-trimmed fingernails. Her stomach experienced a sinking sensation when she remembered those very hands moving over her body, massaging the breasts that even now ached to be touched. Those fingertips had stroked the secret-most part of her body, lifting her toward ecstasy, taking and giving pleasure in equal quantity.
At least she thought he'd taken pleasure in caressing her. She hoped so.
Discomfited by her thoughts, she brought her head up and looked straight into his blue eyes. "Did you tell Lisa about me?"
"Of course not." He abruptly withdrew his hand from hers.
"I don't think I could have stood that." She felt weepy, as she had in the last several weeks, and hoped to heaven she didn't burst into tears over the thought of him and Lisa having a good laugh at her expense.
"I'll confess to going out with a lot of women, but I'm not a complete jerk, Ria."
"I thought you might have used Christmas Eve to make Lisa jealous."
"Did you use it to make Guy jealous?"
"I don't play games like that."
"Neither do I."
She saw that he was telling her the truth. "I didn't tell anybody."
"You had to tell Guy when you told him about the baby."
"I wasn't specific about the date. I didn't name you. Are you still seeing her?"
"What will she think of the situation?"
"It isn't any of her business."
Ria stared at him, aghast. "She may beg to differ."
"It isn't like that between us."
He'd felt free to take another woman to bed on Christmas Eve without having to grapple about it later with either his conscience or his steady lady friend. That typified more than anything what a casual, forgettable event their lovemaking had been for him. Ria's heart was aching around the edges, as though the border of her soul had been trespassed.
"Now that we've acknowledged our dual responsibility for this child," he said,"and eliminated abortion as an alternative, what do you suggest we do?"
Ria steadily held his gaze. "You're going to marry me, Mr. MacKensie."
Excerpted from Tidings of Great Joy by Sandra Brown. Copyright © 1994 by Sandra Brown. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.