Excerpt: In the Dark

 

Chapter One

 

Okay, so maybe I’m a little nervous, Cat Seabright admitted to herself as she wiped her damp palms on her cotton sundress. Why deny it? What was going to happen in this apartment tonight would, after all, transform her life forever. She hoped.

She leaned on the warm metal railing of the penthouse terrace and stared at the sparkling cityscape of Manhattan’s Upper East Side at night. The spacious top-floor terrace offered a panoramic view of lofty buildings stretching into the distance, all studded with innumerable glowing windows.

Muted sounds of traffic from the street twenty-two floors below competed with the seductive drone of the apartment’s air conditioner behind her. There wasn’t a whiff of breeze to stir the heavy, muggy air. The July heat was nearly as oppressive now, after ten at night, as it had been at high noon.

Cat resisted checking her watch, knowing it had been only about a minute and a half since she’d last done so. He wouldn’t arrive for perhaps another half hour yet—if his plane had landed on time and if he’d managed to get a taxi promptly and if that taxi wasn’t now sitting in snarled traffic on the bridge or in the tunnel. If, if, if.

Just get here, Greg. Get here and let’s just do it before I lose my nerve.

No. She wouldn’t lose her nerve. It would be awkward, certainly, and mechanical, but the end result was what mattered.

As Cat gazed distractedly at the glittering urban landscape, a block of buildings to the north abruptly disappeared—or seemed to as the windows winked into darkness. She straightened and stared, wide-eyed, as the lights in an adjacent cluster of buildings disappeared. Within seconds everything north blinked out as far as she could see, then the West Side in one great swath, and then her own chunk of the city suddenly turned dark.

The air conditioner rumbled to silence as Cat stood frozen. “A blackout,” she whispered. A real, honest-to-goodness New York City blackout! The day’s record heat must have placed the ultimate strain on the city’s power system.

From street level far below came a cacophony of human voices, a faint mumble that swiftly rose in volume. New Yorkers roaring their delight or disgust, or possibly both.

A blackout. No electricity to run the elevator. Which meant Greg would have to climb twenty-two flights of stairs to get to her. That thought had her sputtering with nervous laughter as she turned and made her way across the brick-paved terrace, which felt like a pizza oven under the bare soles of her feet.

Yep, that’s me, she thought, the most alluring babe in New York. A woman any man would traverse the continent for, before cheerfully sprinting up twenty-two flights of stairs. With luggage. There she was, the fairy-tale princess in her forbidding tower, devising a fitting test of endurance for all those princes clamoring for her hand in marriage.

No, not marriage, she reminded herself as she stepped through the doorway into the cool, dark living room and groped her way around the velvet-upholstered sofa. It had taken long enough—thirty-eight years to be precise—but Cat had eventually given up that particular pipe dream. There was only one thing she really wanted out of life, and she’d finally decided she’d waited for it long enough.

Had anyone thought to lay in a few candles here? she wondered, gingerly making her way through the gloom to the small kitchen, barking her shin on the marble coffee table in the process.

What would Nana do if she knew Cat had appropriated the agency’s apartment for the night? And for such a scandalous purpose? She wouldn’t be amused, that was for sure. Cat’s employer was as straitlaced as they came, hence the grandmotherly moniker. One of her first clients had nicknamed Mrs. Amaryllis Littlestone “Nana” and the name had stuck.

Nana would fire Cat if she knew about tonight—end of story. Nana’s “nurturers” were expected to comport themselves in a chaste and dignified manner, in their off hours as well as on assignment.

Up until now, Cat had never had a problem living up to her employer’s exacting standards. She was anything but a hell-raiser, and her pitifully tame love life wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. In the kitchen she felt for a drawer handle and began to carefully paw through corkscrews and chopsticks, blindly hunting for a candle and praying she wouldn’t find a boning knife or an ice pick in the process.

Cat had actually admitted to Greg on the phone that she hadn’t had sex in three years. She still couldn’t decide whether that particular item of information was likely to turn him on or, heaven forbid, earn his pity.

“Oh yeah, that’s what you want to be,” she muttered as she slammed the drawer shut and fumbled for the one next to it, “the kind of woman men sleep with out of pity.”

She’d located the junk drawer and it bore fruit: a short candle stub, the remnant, no doubt, of some intimate dîner tête à tête. A little more exploring turned up a mostly empty matchbook and a squat, wax-encrusted glass candlestick. She crammed the candle in the holder and touched a lit match to the blackened wick.

“We’re in business—romantic lighting,” she dryly intoned. “Ha ha ha.”

Whatever this night held in store for her, she was pretty certain “romantic” wasn’t part of the equation. Though the experience should shape up as a great story to tell her child someday.

You were conceived on the night of the big New York City blackout. Your daddy had to trudge up twenty-two flights of stairs because he’d promised to try and make a baby with Mommy while Mommy could still make babies.

All right, so maybe she’d stick to the three little pigs. As bedtime stories went, this particular escapade left something to be desired.

Like a husband.

No. She wouldn’t travel that mental road again, and the dead end it inevitably led to. Her two-decade search for Mr. Perfect had been a resounding failure. He didn’t exist. Neither did Mr. Almost-perfect or even Mr. What-the-heck-it’s-worth-a-try.

Brigit claimed Cat’s requirements in a mate were too exacting, that she was holding out for some impossible-to-attain ideal. Cat’s answer was always the same. Considering the alarming divorce rate nowadays, was it possible to be too picky? The last thing Cat would want to do was subject some innocent child to the emotional meat grinder of divorce, having experienced that particular hell firsthand.

Cat carried the lit candle into the bedroom and set it on the dresser next to the huge gourmet snack basket wrapped in cellophane. The contents looked tempting—everything from Godiva chocolates to blue corn chips—but she didn’t dare touch it. She had to leave this place precisely the way she’d found it or risk Nana discovering she’d been there.

When she left tomorrow, the agency’s apartment would have been restored to its previous condition, but as for herself…

Cat’s hand drifted to her abdomen. If tonight was a success and she did indeed become pregnant, her job would be forfeit within a few months anyway, once she showed. A pregnant unmarried lady? Not in Nana’s agency. But in the meantime Cat would continue to work and save every nickel toward a house in the suburbs. She had no intention of raising her child in her apartment in Tarrytown, the upper floor of a two-family house. She’d never even considered trying to conceive the baby there, under the watchful eyes and keen ears of her landlady, Mrs. Santangelo.

Selecting a suitable location had been the easy part, and she was certain Nana wouldn’t notice that the spare set of apartment keys was missing from her office before Cat could return them. Selecting a suitable sperm donor, on the other hand…

Thank goodness for Brigit. Her best friend had come through for her. They’d been sitting in the Magnolia Coffee Shop last month, their favorite breakfast spot, discussing Cat’s plight over Belgian waffles and the Magnolia’s bottomless cup of coffee. By that point Brigit had given up trying to persuade her lifelong friend of the foolhardiness of her scheme and they were in the process of vetting candidates for the honor of Chief Inseminator. The guy had to have exemplary genes, but just as important, he had to be willing to stay out of the picture once the deed was done.

One by one they’d crossed off the names Brigit had scrawled on her paper place mat, until only two remained: Cat’s old boyfriend Anton Lind, a confirmed bachelor, and Brigit’s cousin Greg Bannister.

Cat had been tempted to choose Anton, who had the distinction of being the hottest guy she’d ever dated, with his golden Viking beauty and body by Nautilus. Mentally melding her own coppery curls and his pale locks, she envisioned a darling little girl with strawberry blond hair and the pale blue eyes both parents shared. And Anton was convenient. He lived right there in the city. More important, she’d slept with him before. Of course, it had been a long time ago, about four years, but at least he was a known quantity. They had a history.

Which is why she’d ultimately crossed Anton off the list. The last thing she needed was her baby’s biological father running into them at the park, wistfully recalling the relationship they’d once shared, dropping by for unexpected visits. Confirmed bachelor or not, she could see him becoming nostalgic for the good old days and renewing their emotional involvement once they’d made a baby together.

That left Greg, Brigit’s Cute Cousin, which is how Cat had thought of him the one and only time she’d met him, at her and Brigit’s high school graduation. He’d been twenty-two then, tall and handsome, with a confident, easygoing manner so at odds with the blustering immaturity of the boys her own age.

Nevertheless, she hadn’t thought of Greg in twenty years until Brigit had offered him up for stud service.

“He’d do it,” Brigit had stated with confidence. “Greg is the most laid-back guy I know. And I mean, he’s even hotter now than he was back when you met him. If he weren’t my cousin, I’d jump him.”

A one-night stand with the Cute Cousin. Oh my. “He lives in Alaska, right?” Cat had asked.

“Yep. Settled there after college. He’s an engineer, something to do with the oil pipeline. You know,” Brigit had added with a suggestive smirk, “I hear there are a lot more men than women in Alaska. You just know that boy’s gonna be ready for you. He’ll get the job done in one shot.”

After that, the arrangements had been fairly straightforward. Brigit had run the idea past Greg, who did indeed remember Cat. “The redhead with the granny glasses, right?”

I wear contacts now, she’d wanted to tell him, as if that made a difference. The important thing was, he’d agreed to do it. When Brigit had put Cat on the phone, Greg had told her he was scheduled to fly into New York soon, on a date that coincided with Cat’s fertile time of the month, as it turned out. Talk about kismet!

If she didn’t get pregnant tonight, Cat thought, stripping off her sundress and underwear, she was back to square one. Because unless she was willing to fly to Alaska for another try with Greg, an expensive proposition, she’d have to find someone else.

Before getting into the shower, she slipped on her seersucker robe and placed the keys under the welcome mat in front of the apartment door. She was glad now that she’d thought to tell Greg to look for them there in case she didn’t answer the doorbell. If his plane was delayed, she might be asleep when he arrived.

She took a short, cool shower, washing the sweat and grime of the sweltering day off her body. She didn’t linger under the spray, knowing that the building’s water pump was out of commission for the duration of the blackout. The only water available to the upper floors was whatever remained in the rooftop tank.

Cat finished toweling off in the bedroom, staring at the negligee she’d laid out on the bed, wishing she’d packed something less… actually, something more. More fabric, more coverage. More modesty. She sighed deeply. This scrap of deep green silk had been a gift from Brigit, a good-luck token for what Cat’s friend undoubtedly envisioned as a night of unbridled passion. All Brigit had requested in exchange was a full accounting. “I mean all the juicy details, girl. I want to be able to picture every drop of sweat.”

Imagine, someone getting vicarious thrills hearing about Caitlin Seabright’s love life. “Ha ha ha,” she said, as she lifted the filmy garment and slipped it over her head. It slithered over her body and fell to her ankles with a muted whisper of gossamer silk.

Cat examined her image in the mirrored closet door by candlelight. Flimsy little spaghetti straps were all that held the thing up. A side slit exposed one leg practically to the hipbone. The neckline of the sheer mesh bodice plunged nearly to her navel, secured with a silk cord that crisscrossed through little loops that only went as high as the undersides of her breasts.

She yanked the cord as tight as possible, but the sides of the bodice refused to meet. No doubt that was the intention. She tied a bow under her bust and glanced at her reflection—and blinked in awe.

The corsetlike lacing caused the gown to hug her torso. And it did something truly remarkable to her breasts, which she’d always thought of as, well, pretty unremarkable. It crowded them together and hiked them up until they practically burst out of the skimpy bits of fabric that theoretically were supposed to cover them. Even by candlelight her nipples were clearly visible beneath the sheer dark green mesh.

“I can’t wear this,” Cat whispered. She turned. The side view was equally majestic. “Can I?” She’d never owned a nightgown like this, a garment that had absolutely nothing to do with sleeping. Good grief, what would Greg think of her?

What did he already think of her, a single woman who’d arranged to be impregnated by a virtual stranger? She struck a pose, one hand on her hip. The long slit parted to reveal the entire length of her leg. Tugging off her hair scrunchie to release her ponytail, she shook her head and watched her wavy red hair fluff around her face, just grazing her bare shoulders.

Cat had never seen herself like this, as some sort of seductress. She couldn’t deny the heady sensation that had her adjusting the gown’s bodice to see just how outrageously provocative she could make herself look.

What would it hurt to play the part, just for one night? she thought, lifting her hair at the nape and watching other parts of herself lift as well. With luck, she wouldn’t even see Greg again after tonight. Did it really matter what he thought of her?

Yes. Anything was better than pity.

“Well, that’s settled, then,” she told her X-rated reflection. “For one night you get to be Delilah.” Then it was on to the glory and glamour of diaper rash and strained peas.

Cat had kept the windows closed as long as possible, trying to hold in the residual coolness, but it was getting warmer by the minute with the air conditioner off. She went around opening them now, letting in the humid outside air and the faraway street noise. She thought she heard the crash of breaking glass, and wondered how much looting damage the morning would reveal. She loved the city, but sometimes she hated it, too.

She flopped onto the queen-size bed, over the quilted bedspread, and grabbed a magazine off the nightstand to fan herself with. Looking down at her supine form, she marveled that everything was as high and perky as when she’d been standing. A miracle of engineering, this nightie. Greg would probably want to study it carefully, she mused, smiling around a yawn. He was, after all, some sort of engineer. Another plus—good gray-matter genes to pass on to Junior.

The candle stub still burned, but there wasn’t enough light to read by. All she had to occupy her mind was her own nervous anticipation. She would have been a fraction cooler without the skimpy negligee, but she drew the line at waiting for Greg in the altogether.

She squirmed, trying to find a comfortable position in the heat. Fighting back another yawn, she let her eyes drift shut, just for a moment.

*

A FEATHERY SENSATION running up and down Cat’s arm coaxed her to wakefulness. After a while it stopped and she felt fingers on her brow, stroking her hair.

She opened her eyes and came fully awake with a start. A big hand settled on her shoulder, heavy and reassuring. The room was pitch-dark except for the faintest glimmer of moonlight from the wide-open windows. The candle must have burned out while she’d slept.

She could barely see the man sitting next to her on the bed, but her other senses compensated. She detected the warmth radiating from his large body. The subtle, agreeable scent of fresh sweat on clean skin brought to mind all those stairs. A hint of tobacco smoke clung to his clothes.

“I figured you’d want me to wake you.” His voice was a low, rich murmur. “You must’ve dozed off waiting for me.”

She nodded, and realizing he couldn’t see her any better than she could see him, said, “Yeah, I… l guess I did.”

Even though she’d expected him, now that he was actually there, the enormity of what she was about to do became a great weight, paralyzing her.

“Traffic is an unholy mess, with no streetlights and the party animals out in force,” Greg said. “I couldn’t stand inching along, so I ditched the taxi and walked the last few blocks.”

He probably wasn’t even aware he was rubbing her upper arm as he spoke. It was the intimate caress of a friend, not a stranger. Well, this wasn’t the first time they’d met, after all. Cat felt herself relax fractionally, a small miracle considering the nature of this rendezvous and the fact that she was wearing the most brazenly sexual getup Brigit Bannister had been able to find. And Brigit knew where to look.

For the first time, Cat was thankful for the blackout.

“I’m sorry you had to walk up all those stairs,” she said.

Cat sensed he was smiling. She had the distinct impression this man spent a lot of time doing that.

“Not your fault,” he said. “Unless you’re somehow responsible for the blackout?”

She felt herself returning his smile. “Well, I was running the air conditioner.”

“That had to be what did it.” He chuckled, the sound somehow bold and impish at once. Cat knew that if there was a shortage of women in Alaska, it was because they were all flocking to this man.

Tentatively she reached out to touch his face and encountered his jaw, rough with beard stubble.

“You’re trembling,” he said, closing his warm fingers over her icy hands.

Well, what did he expect—nerves of steel? He pressed a tender kiss to the backs of her fingers, then to the tips. She was unprepared for the feel of his mouth, like sun-warmed satin.

The scanty moonlight hinted at bold masculine features and short, dark hair that was a bit unruly on top, as if the waves refused to be tamed. Twenty years ago Greg had worn his hair fairly long, enhancing his boyish good looks. This shorter cut no doubt complemented the rugged maturity the past two decades had carved into his face.

Sensing his eyes on her, she speculated that perhaps Greg possessed better night vision than she. The mattress dipped as his weight shifted. She felt his inquisitive touch on her face, a whisper of sensation tickling her eyelashes. He traced her nose, her mouth, the shape of her chin. His fingers moved to her throat and lower, skimming over her breasts without the slightest hesitation. Cat held her breath, knowing Greg felt the frantic drumming of her heart and wishing she could be as blasé as he. Far from sharing her agitation, he seemed sublimely at ease.

“This is some outfit,” he said, toying with the crisscrossed lacing.

She cleared her throat. “I was hoping you’d like it.”

“I like it. Wish I could see it.” His hand glided down her rib cage to her hip and thigh, treating the rest of her to the same unhurried inspection. The feverish imprint of his fingers seemed to linger everywhere he touched.

Mustering her courage, Cat sat up and moved over, making room for him to stretch out on the bed. She offered a quavery smile, though she knew he couldn’t see it. “Don’t feel you have to spend a lot of time on conversation or, um—” she swallowed hard “—foreplay. We can just, you know, get down to it. If you want.”

For the longest time Greg said nothing. She searched his shadowed features, in vain. Finally he said, “I don’t think this is such a good idea.”

His words struck her like a fist to the gut. “What? You… you don’t want to…?”

“I’m just not into it. Don’t take it personally.”

Humiliation scalded her face and stung her eyes. He’d changed his mind. He’d come all this way, climbed all those stairs, for one purpose only. And now, now that he’d gotten to inspect the woman he was supposed to make a baby with…

“But it’s… it’s all arranged.” Her voice climbed a couple of octaves. “I mean, if we’re not going to have sex, then what am I doing here?” She tugged at the bodice of her negligee in an inane effort to cover herself.

“We both know this wasn’t my idea.” His tone was not unkind, which somehow made it all the harder to bear.

“Yes, well, I’m so sorry to disappoint you. Excuse me.” She started to rise, but he stopped her.

“Hold on. Is that what you think? That I don’t find you desirable?”

“Don’t worry,” she snapped, “I won’t take it personally.” She tried to spring off the bed, but he caught both her arms. She turned her head, unable to face him even in the dark.

“Just so we understand each other,” he said, “it’s not you. It’s the circumstances.” She didn’t respond, and it soon became clear he wouldn’t release her until she did.

At last she said, “The circumstances?”

“I’m accustomed to being the… initiator, I guess you’d say. This sort of thing just goes against my grain. Trust me.” Slowly he trailed one knuckle down her throat and along her freshly minted cleavage. “I find you very desirable.”

The simple caress stole Cat’s breath. She felt her nipples tighten against the silk mesh covering them. Her body’s response shamed her. If Greg truly thought she was so damn desirable, he’d do what he’d come here to do, what he’d promised to do, bizarre “circumstances” notwithstanding. Brigit had described her cousin as the most laid-back guy she knew. He’d said nothing on the phone to indicate he had a problem with the circumstances.

She supposed she should be grateful. At least he wasn’t sleeping with her out of pity!

Cat pushed his hands away. “Look, thanks for the gallant effort, but you don’t have to lie to spare my feelings. I know I’m nothing special.”

“Gallant, huh? Never been accused of that one before.” Without warning he grabbed her hand and brought it to his crotch. Reflexively she tried to pull away, but he held her palm firmly against the distended fly of his jeans.

His erection felt enormous under her hand, as rigid as a wooden club. His fingers wrapped around hers, forcing her to measure the length and breadth of his arousal. For a moment she was too stunned to move, to breathe. Even her heartbeat seemed to falter.

Greg leaned into her, his voice a husky murmur in her ear. “Just so we understand each other.” He placed a soft kiss on her temple. “It’s not you.”

Shaken, Cat pulled her hand away, and this time he let her.

Okay. It definitely wasn’t her.

As that knowledge sank in, she began to experience the same intoxicating sensation she’d felt earlier posing in front of the mirror. The power of her feminine appeal.

This man desired her. His body craved her. It was his mind that was putting up roadblocks. She supposed in his own way he was as uncomfortable with this whole situation as she was. He needed to be made to feel like the—what did he call it? The initiator.

What would Delilah do?

Cat shifted into a comfortable cross-legged position, trying to project a nonchalance she didn’t feel. “I have to admit, in a way, your decision’s a relief,” she said, reaching back with both hands to lift her hair off her neck as she’d practiced in front of the mirror, wishing there were enough light for Greg to appreciate the total effect. “Gosh, is it ever hot in here.”

“Yeah, it is. Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why is it a relief? Us not…” He made some sort of hand motion, which she suspected was just crude enough to make her glad she couldn’t see it.

She shrugged and leaned back on her palms. “You know. All the pressure of an arrangement like this, the lack of spontaneity.”

“I know.”

“I mean, talk about sex by the numbers.”

“Yeah.”

“When we both know you’re not into it.”

“Right.”

“And chances are, I wouldn’t even get aroused.”

Silence.

“So it’s a big relief,” she said. “I think there’s a pint of Haagen-Dazs melting in the freezer. You want to split it?”

“No. That wouldn’t be a problem,” he said stiffly.

“What wouldn’t be a problem?”

“My being able to get you aroused. No reason to assume that would be a problem. If we were going to do it.”

“Which we aren’t.”

“Right.”

“So we’ll never really know for sure, but that’s neither here nor there. I think it’s mocha chip and I’m not going to let it go to waste.” She scooted around him to the edge of the bed.

His voice held no trace of a smile. “We do know for sure. I know for sure, all right? It wouldn’t be a problem.” His hand bumped her as he spread his arms. “Trust me on this.”

“Sure.” Rising, she muttered under her breath, “If you say so.”

He grabbed her arm as he came to his feet. He was as tall as she remembered. Taller. “What was that?”

“What?”

“What you just said.”

“I said, ‘sure.’”

“You said, ‘if you say so.’ I heard you.”

“So why are you asking what I said if you heard me? Do you mind?” she said, tugging on her arm.

He didn’t let go. “You don’t think I could do it. You don’t think I could turn you on.”

She pasted on a patient smile, knowing he’d hear it in her voice. “Listen. Whether you could or whether you couldn’t isn’t really relevant, is it? We’re both relieved to have the pressure off. I’d just like to relax with a bowl of ice cream. If that’s all right with you?”

He dropped her arm. “So that’s it, then. You aren’t even curious.”

Her prolonged exhalation was as eloquent as the words that followed. “You know what? Actually, I know you could do it.” She patted his arm, inching in the direction of the ice cream. “There’s not a doubt in my mind.”

Cat didn’t need light to know Greg was gaping in indignation at this blatant attempt to assuage his fragile masculine ego. Outrage rolled off him in waves. But all she heard in his voice was fierce determination as he growled, “Just for the record,” and pulled her into his arms.


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