Authors: Ellie Darkins
Nine months to change her life...
PA Rachel Archer has every little bit of her life planned down to the letter—it’s the only way she can feel safe. Until gorgeous artist Leo Fairfax tempts her to live on the wild side, just for one night...
That night changes both their lives forever, when they discover Rachel’s pregnant! Now, bound by their beloved baby bump, lone wolf Leo must convince Rachel that not only is he here to stay, but he’s dedicated to winning her heart!
“Here I am, right on track. Or was, until...”
“Until you met me.”
She nodded, but something about the familiar intimacy in his voice, the hint of remembered laughter, made her smile.
“So your first instinct was to make a new plan. You need it.”
“I...I do,” she admitted. “It seemed the only way to make sense of this whole situation. But seeing it through your eyes, it’s clear I need it a little too much, that there are times when going with the flow or being more flexible can have their place. But it’s not something I can just turn off. And trust me, I’ve never felt more like I need a plan than I have this week.”
“So we’ll work something out together.” His voice sounded rough, low, and she looked up to catch the concern on his face, mixed with a distance she hadn’t felt from him before. He shook his head, and when he looked back at her his expression was lighter, sunnier.
“When do we start?”
He laughed and leaned back on his arms, one of them nudging slightly behind her back. “How about not right this minute? If we say we’ll make a start today, is that enough of a plan for now?”
“It’ll do.” She grinned.
Some of you might recognize Rachel, the heroine of
Bound by a Baby Bump
. She started life as a minor character in another story, but I was so captivated by her that I decided she needed a book of her own.
I knew from the start that Rachel was the consummate organizer—always together, always in control—and so it seemed clear what she needed to shake up her life: a baby! From there I had the enviable job of crafting a hero who would challenge her, push her and make her face her past. Leo, with his commitment to chaos, is just the man.
It was a pleasure watching these characters grow together, facing their past and creating a family, and I hope that you enjoy their journey as much as I have.
BOUND BY A BABY BUMP
spent her formative years devouring romance novels, and after completing her English degree she decided to make a living from her love of books. As a writer and editor her work now entails dreaming up romantic proposals, hot dates with alpha males and trips to the past with dashing heroes. When she’s not working she can usually be found at her local library or out for a run.
Also by Ellie Darkins
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For my family
He commanded her to feel his gaze on her skin, to glance over and meet his eye. To make a connection with him. He’d been watching her for hours, biding his time until he could have her complete, undivided attention. Since the moment he’d first seen her striding round the room, her tablet computer and Bluetooth headset at odds with her black silk evening dress and staggeringly sexy heels, he’d been transfixed.
The curve of her calves, the gleam of her skin and the fluid movement of her hair had caught his attention, but it was her fierce concentration that had held it. The way she’d managed the room and everyone in it with a gentle nudge here and a subtle pull there. With a glance at her watch and a whisper in the ear of a member of staff she’d averted disasters, negotiated tricky situations and ensured that every person she spoke to ended their conversation with a beaming grin. No doubt the charity the gala was fundraising for would make a fortune.
Under normal circumstances, the thought of a to-do list and a watch filled his belly with apprehension, an unwelcome reminder of school days that had tormented him at the time, and still threatened the occasional nightmare more than ten years later. But worn as an accessory by a woman who seemed so effortlessly powerful, it was suddenly incredibly sexy.
He’d waited for the perfect moment all night—watching groups where she was conversing, catching her eye across the room; at one point, he’d even headed towards her with a determined stride—only for her to abruptly change course and disappear into the kitchen. And now she was putting her head together with one of the other guests, consulting her tablet, tucking a curtain of shining hair behind her ear.
She laughed, and the sound reached him as clear as if the room had been silent. Her face creased, her head dropped back, and humour radiated from her like a wave. He wanted to make her laugh. He was unreasonably jealous of the person who had inspired the sound, a man with pure silver hair and a walking stick.
The string band had started playing in a corner of the ballroom, and a few couples were heading towards the dance floor. His eyes flickered towards them, and he wondered whether she’d accept an invitation to dance.
In the moment that his eyes left her, he felt her look at him.
He whipped around to try and catch her gaze, but her eyes had already dropped to her tablet, as she scrolled up and down. She glanced at him again, and this time he caught it. He turned, his hands in his pockets, and his body relaxed under her stare, turning his stance into something languid and louche.
He walked towards her, smiling, still refusing to look away. He would hold this contact until he could get his hands on something more solid.
Just a couple of steps away from her, he was hit with unaccustomed nerves. It had been an age since he’d felt nervous talking to a woman. Things were pretty easy-come-easy-go in his love-life, much to the satisfaction of everyone involved. Nerves were thin on the ground when the most you were looking to gain or lose was a few nights or weeks of fun. The prospect of commitment, of expectations, of being caught in a situation with no simple way out—only the fix of her eyes on his kept a shiver from his spine.
‘Hi, I’m Rachel Archer.’ The words arrived in a rush as soon as he was within arm’s reach and she stuck out her hand for him to shake.
‘Leo.’ He just managed the one word, though it felt as if all breath had left his body at the feel of her hand in his. He observed her closely, looking for any clue that she was as affected by this meeting as he. But she had dropped her eyes, pulling her hand back—was that a fraction of a hesitation?—and glancing down at her tablet.
‘So, are you enjoying crashing the party?’ She gave a throaty chuckle with the words, and he absorbed the sound, revelling in the delicious heat it inspired in his body. He was so focused on that sound that he almost missed the meaning of her words.
‘Crashing?’ he asked with a raised eyebrow and a smile. ‘Says who?’
‘Says me.’ No laugh this time, though a perfectly polite smile was still on her lips. He wanted a real one. ‘Tonight is strictly invitation only, though if you are here to contribute
to the Julia House hospice, I’m sure we can make an exception.’
He returned his hands to his pockets; it was on the tip of his tongue to tell her that he was there in place of his father, who was unwell and couldn’t attend. Normally, ‘representing the family’ wasn’t something he was interested in, but his father had promised the organisers that the family would be there with a generous donation—for a good cause he had been known to make an exception. He was intrigued, though. How did she know he was crashing—had she been asking questions about him?
‘I want to know more about why you think I’m crashing.’
‘Well...’ she said, pulling up another page on her tablet. ‘I planned the guest list. I sent the invitations, checked the RSVPs and wrote the table plan. There wasn’t a single Leo to be seen.’ Her eyes left her screen, and she looked him up and down, her eyes travelling from his face to his shoes, faltering slightly at his belt and chest. Encouraging.
‘Ah, so I must be crashing. I take it your lists are never wrong?’
‘Never,’ she agreed with a good-tempered nod, and just the merest hint of another chuckle.
‘Then I suppose I’ve got some making up to do. What will it take?’
‘Well, apart from your considerable contribution to Julia House, which I’m sure is already in hand...’
‘I want an explanation.’
It was his turn to laugh. ‘That’s all?’ But she didn’t look equally amused. In fact a worry line had appeared between her brows, and she glanced again at her screen.
‘Tonight has been planned and re-planned, checked and double-checked. I want to know how you’re here, and how I didn’t know about it.’
He wanted that line gone. Wanted any evidence of discomfort wiped from her face. He still wanted to make her laugh.
‘I’ll tell you everything. Every dark secret and trick of the conman’s trade.’ He raised his eyebrows, attempting melodramatic villainy, and was rewarded with a lift at the corner of her lips. ‘All you have to do is dance with me.’
* * *
Rachel rested her hand stiffly on his shoulder as they started to move to the music, wondering—again—why she had agreed to this. She let her gaze travel up from his collar, over a tanned throat, blond stubbled jaw and endearingly crooked nose. Up to a pair of eyes as blue as a baking summer sky, and then remembered.
Somewhere along the line, somewhere between guest list and dessert, her system had fallen short. He was probably standing in for someone—she had a shortlist of faces she’d been expecting to see but hadn’t. But how had she made it to eleven o’clock without realising something was wrong?
‘So,’ she prompted, trying to keep her mind on the job, rather than on the confident way Leo was leading her around the floor, or the scent coming from his skin. Something salty, natural and that had, she guessed, never been anywhere near a Selfridges counter.
She faltered for a second as she caught him looking at her, and felt her cheeks warming under the intensity of his interest. She stilled, suddenly hyperaware of the pressure of his hand around hers, of his arm at her waist, the sound of him breathing close to her ear. Only the subtle squeeze of his arm reminded her she was supposed to be dancing. Forcing her feet to move, she glanced over his shoulder and spotted her boss, Will, and for a moment she was worried she was about to be caught slacking. But one look at his face told her she had nothing to worry about. He had eyes only for Maya, his partner, and she smiled. She couldn’t help but take a little credit for the happiness that was radiating from them both. She was the one who’d engineered Will into taking a cookery course he wasn’t interested in, all because it was run by a woman he definitely was.
She’d watched that relationship blossom, from first meeting to their elation tonight, and felt a little pang of...what? Loneliness? No, that wasn’t it. She had friends—she’d even shared a flat with her best friend, Laura, until she’d bought her own place a year ago—right on track for her five-year plan. Sometimes she even managed to schedule time for a date or two.
But she didn’t have
, whatever it was that made it look as if half the light in the room were emanating from them.
So no, she wasn’t lonely, but maybe she was curious. Intrigued enough by the possibilities that when the surfy-looking blond who’d been casting looks in her direction all night had asked her if she wanted to dance, she’d looked him up and down and considered it.
And she’d been intrigued enough by what she’d seen to fight down the urge to tell him that this wasn’t in her schedule, but to send him a smile instead.
There wasn’t actually much left of her schedule tonight. That was the benefit of being chronically well organised, she supposed. When everything was planned and prepared in advance, she could just sit back and watch all the results of her hard work fall into place. Like with Will and Maya: the consequences of her plan had far exceeded her expectations, and she’d only had to intervene a couple of times to keep everything moving in the right direction. Better still, her boss had barely even noticed her involvement. The sign of a great executive assistant, she told herself. Her work was practically invisible.
She was so engrossed with watching the results of her meticulous planning she almost,
, forgot where she was and what she was doing.
That was until a warm, rough fingertip found its way under her chin and tilted her face upward.
‘Should I be worried about the competition?’ Her eyes snapped back to his, and she was taken aback again by their intense colour, and the way he looked at her, as if there was some part of her he was trying desperately to see.
‘So who were you watching?’ he asked, reminding her of his question.
‘Jealous?’ She drew out the word with a smile, enjoying for a moment the control that it gave her. She didn’t even know yet what she wanted to do with this blatant expression of interest, other than enjoy it for a moment. ‘I’m just enjoying a plan coming together.’
‘You planned that?’ he asked, as her boss leant down and kissed Maya gently on the lips. The kiss itself was chaste enough, but the blatant bedroom eyes on both sides nudged it towards obscene.
‘I may have helped a little.’
‘Well, I prefer your attention here,’ he said, attempting to soften his words with a cheeky grin.
‘Demanding, much?’ Okay, so her attention wasn’t such a ridiculous thing to expect. But she didn’t want him thinking he could just demand what he wanted and expect her to deliver. And she still wasn’t sure how she felt about his attention. Attracted, sure. But meeting a party crasher with a cute smile and a devastating way of watching her hadn’t featured in her plans for tonight. She’d had no advance warning, no time to think about what she wanted to do.
‘Absolutely.’ He remained completely straight-faced and Rachel recognised the challenge. ‘But I think if you’re going to agree to dance with me, it’s only fair you give it your full attention.’
‘Perhaps. But you’re not holding up your end of the bargain. The dance was in exchange for an explanation. So spill. How did you get in without me knowing about it?’
‘Grappling hook,’ he replied, deadpan and with no hesitation. She let out a laugh, leaning back against his arm, letting the humour arch her body and soften her indignation.
He teased and she laughed, until she could feel the tension of the night leaching from her body. She’d not checked her watch since he’d led her to the floor, and she had no idea how long they’d been up there. And she was dangerously close to not caring. His humour, the naughty light in his eyes, was forcing the strain of preparing this evening from her limbs, demanding she enjoy herself. That she enjoy
. Eventually, when she’d laughed off his latest suggestion for how he’d joined the party—something about an international jewel thief—he leaned in close, until she could feel his warm breath disturbing her hair, and the minutest brush of his lips against her ear. With a little shiver, she suspected the time for games was coming to an end. ‘Someone asked me to attend on their behalf. I couldn’t say no. Are you going to throw me out?’
His reply prompted a hundred questions in her mind, but the one that sprang unguarded to her lips surprised even her: ‘Where would you go if I did?’
His lips parted slightly and he chose his words carefully, she guessed, not wanting to break the connection crackling like electricity between them. ‘That depends.’
Of course she was meant to ask ‘on what’, but the blatant suggestion in his eyes made her falter, suddenly aware they weren’t playing any longer.
‘Would you come with me?’ he asked, deadly serious. He had given up on the dancing, too, and his hand had drifted up to her cheek, his thumb skittering across her skin. She had pulled her gaze away, unable to bear the close scrutiny of those huge, clear blue eyes, but now it snapped back up as she took a little half step away from him.
‘I can’t. I’m working.’ She didn’t even think before she spoke. The words came to her lips automatically as her heart rate spiked and her breath hitched. Her arms tensed where they rested against his body as she started to register the risk she’d taken coming up here with him. This man was chaos. She could see it in the haphazard drape of his tie and his mismatched cufflinks. The fact that even without being invited to the party he had got her away from her to-do list and onto the dance floor.
Her whereabouts and every action had been meticulously planned for the whole evening. She’d been in the right place and at the right time, with the right files and figures for just about every one of the past eighteen hours. She was currently partway through the hour that she’d marked ‘Networking, socialising, misc.’ And when it came to an end, she had planned to run through a couple of details with the venue manager before leaving for the night. Alone.