Bound By Her Shocking Secret by Abby Green
MIAHADPUTup a fight, but it had been weak and short-lived. She’d had no defence. Not with that baying mob outside. She couldn’t subject her daughter to all that attention and potential danger.
Within hours Daniel had assembled a team of people who had come and helped Mia to pack what they needed. He’d also told her to write a list of things they required for Lexi and given it to another assistant.
They’d gone out through a side entrance and slipped into Daniel’s car before any photographers had noticed.
And now they were in the hushed and exclusive confines of Daniel’s apartment at Place Vendôme. The place was even more intimidating in the daylight. It looked vast. And also, more worryingly, very child-unfriendly. Especially for a toddler who had a mind of her own and could disappear faster than snow on a hot stone.
‘What is it?’ Daniel asked. He must have seen something on her face.
Mia looked around with Lexi in her arms. She was tired after all the unexpected activity over the past few hours and her head rested on Mia’s shoulder, her thumb in her mouth.
‘It’s just...not really designed for a small person.’
Daniel frowned. Then his eyes drifted to Lexi and understanding dawned. ‘Of course. Tell me what we need to do.’
Mia’s chest tightened at the use of the word we. All her life the only we had been her and her mom, and her and Lexi. But now it was different. A feeling of vulnerability swept over her again. She didn’t like it. She felt exposed. Out of control.
‘Short of redesigning the whole apartment?’ she said, half joking. ‘For a start it needs to be made child-proof. Sharp edges are out—she’s low to the ground and prone to falling over a lot. And we need a play area. She can sleep in my room. But first she needs to eat.’
The butler appeared and Daniel said, ‘Go with Paul to the kitchen and talk to the chef. He can make whatever you need.’
Her head still spinning at the speed with which their lives had been turned upside down, Mia dutifully followed Paul to the kitchen—a vast, gleaming space full of state-of-the-art equipment with an elegant dining area. There was no highchair yet, but the friendly chef made something simple for Lexi and she sat on Mia’s lap while she fed her.
After that Mia sensed Lexi was approaching being overtired and would come perilously close to having a small meltdown if she didn’t get some rest. But no way was she going to go down while everything around them was so different. The little girl was torn between exhaustion and wanting to explore.
Mia found Daniel in his study, a bright room full of bookshelves and a massive desk with three computers. He stood up when she came in and her arms tightened reflexively around Lexi.
‘I need to take her out for a walk. She’ll sleep in her stroller. I could do with some fresh air too.’
‘I’d go with you, but I can’t at the moment. I’ve got some people coming shortly, to have a look at the apartment and see what they can do to make it as safe as possible.’
The power of unlimited funds. It made Mia think of the small trailer where she’d grown up with her hard-working mother. She’d been constantly bruised from hitting the edges of tables and doors.
‘Okay, thank you.’
Daniel followed her out of his study. ‘You won’t be alone, though. I’ve got security standing by in case you wanted to go out.’
Mia looked at Daniel. ‘That’s a bit over the top, isn’t it?’
‘You’re not going without Security and that’s non-negotiable.’
Once again she knew it was futile to argue.
Mia bundled Lexi up in her coat and they went downstairs, where the stroller was waiting with a burly man called Pierre. He said, ‘Don’t worry about where I am. You just go where you want.’
They went out through a back entrance which led into an enchanting landscaped private garden, and then another entrance out to a side street. Mia sucked in the cool autumn air gratefully. They walked out to Rue de Rivoli and across it to the Jardins des Tuileries, another of the city’s most famous and beautiful parks.
Mia let Lexi out in one of the playgrounds and couldn’t stop a smile at her daughter’s carefree joy. Another pang of guilt gripped her, knowing she’d kept this from Daniel.
He could have easily thrown her to the lions today and left her to fend for herself with the press. There were plenty of men who would deny paternity until proved and try to wriggle out of responsibility. But he had stepped up without question. And he’d accepted Lexi on sight—which made her wonder about his sister and what she’d been like.
When Lexi got bored with the swings and slide, Mia took her back to the apartment. There were already a couple of trucks parked outside and delivery men carrying boxes inside.
When she got up to the apartment she saw nothing much changed at first, but then she noticed that the sharp edges of the tables were covered in thick pieces of foam. Also, some smaller tables and objets d’art had been removed.
Paul appeared in the doorway and said, ‘Let me show you to your suite of rooms, Ms Forde.’
Mia checked Lexi quickly. She had fallen asleep in the stroller, so she put a blanket over her and left her, having learnt from previous experience to make the most of these snatched moments.
She followed Paul, saying, ‘Please, call me Mia. I don’t stand on ceremony.’
He inclined his head and then led her further into the apartment, down a thickly carpeted hall to a door at the end. When Mia went inside it was hard not to let her jaw drop. There was a massive bedroom with a four-poster bed. An en suite bathroom led to a dressing room. And then, back in the bedroom, Paul opened a door that was cleverly designed to match the wallpaper into a smaller anteroom.
‘Mr Devilliers is suggesting that this could be a good room for the nursery?’
A fluttery bird of panic beat at Mia’s chest. ‘Thank you, but Lexi’s cot can go in the bedroom. We won’t be here for too long, so there’s no point going to all the trouble of setting up a nursery.’
‘As you wish. The cot should be set up within the hour.’
Back in the main part of the apartment Lexi hadn’t moved, still deeply asleep. Mia placed another light blanket over the hood of the stroller, creating a kind of cocoon.
She went over to the window and looked out. Her thoughts flew to the future when, once access arrangements had been made, Lexi would inevitably have a room and a life here of her own, without Mia. It made her feel hollow inside. Because now more than ever she had to come to terms with the fact that those very deeply secret dreams she’d once had of having a happy family would never come true.
She’d allowed herself to fantasise about it with her first boyfriend. He’d told her he respected her. He’d told her he loved her. And she’d been so grief-stricken after her mother’s death, and desperate for connection, that she’d believed in him and his words and she’d projected her fantasy onto a relationship that had been a cruel lie.
It was only after he’d humiliated her and exposed her dreams for the fantasy they were that she’d realised how desperate she’d been to believe in a fairy tale. And that she’d never really loved him.
But she hadn’t realised that bit until she’d met Daniel and—
Mia whirled around. Her jaw felt tight from thinking of the past. She relaxed it.
She pointed towards the stroller in the corner. ‘She’s asleep...worn out after all the activity.’
‘And you? Are you okay?’
There was a flutter near Mia’s heart. She crushed it. Never more than right now did she need to remember the past and the lessons she’d learnt.
‘I’m fine. I didn’t say thank you for taking us in. I don’t know what we would have done if—’
Daniel waved a hand. ‘It’s nothing. I was hardly going to leave you defenceless. Lexi is my daughter.’ Then he said, ‘There’s something you should know.’
‘I’ve put out a statement to quell the media interest, but I’ve added a piece at the end.’
Mia looked at Daniel. ‘What, specifically?’
He walked over and handed her his phone. She took it and looked at the screen, where there was a press release. It said:
Daniel Devilliers and Mia Forde are very pleased to announce that they have a child from a previous brief relationship and that they are happily reunited. They ask for privacy at this time. Thank you.
Mia’s jaw went slack. She almost dropped the phone. She looked up as Daniel took it out of her hand. She tried to make her mouth work, but nothing came out.
She tried again. ‘Happily reunited?’
A dull roaring was building in her head. Daniel had manoeuvred her and Lexi with such skill and ease...
Words spilled out. ‘I actually gave you the benefit of the doubt when you said you hadn’t tipped off the press.’
Daniel kept his voice low, mindful of the sleeping child.
Mia started to pace in front of him, and that drew his eye to her tall body. She was wearing a long button-down dress. Dark red with golden flowers. A belt around her slim waist. The buttons were open low enough that he could see the tantalising vee of her cleavage. She wore that battered leather jacket she seemed to love so much.
Soft, flat ankle boots gave the whole look an effortlessly chic and bohemian élan. He remembered that she’d always been self-conscious about her sense of style, or what she saw as her lack of style. But she had style in spades.
Her hair was down. She wore practically no make-up. It reminded him of the first time he’d seen her at that photoshoot. She’d reminded him of a lioness, with her green eyes and wild hair. She resembled a caged lioness right now.
She didn’t seem to have heard him. ‘I can’t believe I trusted you enough to let you do this to us—’
She stopped. Looked at him.
He said, ‘I didn’t tip off the press and I added the piece about being reunited at the last minute because it will be the most expeditious way of getting the press off our backs.’
She put her hands on her hips. ‘How, exactly?’
Daniel curbed the urge to cover her mouth with his until all that spikiness was turned into passion.
‘Because,’ he said, ‘if the press thinks we’re back together they’ll be interested for a while but they’ll soon grow bored. But if you’re here and we’re not a couple they’ll hound us until they find out more.’
Mia looked suspicious. ‘Lexi and I could stay somewhere else.’
‘It’ll be exactly the same as it was at your apartment. I can provide better protection here.’
Mia started to pace again. Eventually she stopped. Bit her lip. And then said grudgingly, ‘I guess I can see some logic in that.’
She folded her arms, and Daniel had to grit his jaw against the urge to drop his gaze to where he could already imagine the swells of her lush breasts. Dieu. He was no better than a schoolboy.
‘But how long exactly does this charade have to go on before they lose interest? A week? Two?’
Daniel saw the trepidation on her face. The sense of things being out of her control. And he almost felt sorry for her. Until he remembered that she’d kept his child from him for eighteen months. Lexi was a rapidly forming little human being, with spades of personality, and up until now she’d had no father figure.
That reminder firmed his resolve. ‘For as long as it takes for this story to no longer be a liability.’
‘But...that could take weeks.’
Daniel shrugged, trying not to let Mia’s huge green eyes affect him. Eyes big enough to drown in. Eyes that had captured him from the moment he’d seen her.
‘I doubt it,’ he said. ‘There’s bound to be another story that takes precedence. They’ll move on.’
‘But right now they think that we’re a couple.’
‘Yes. And to that end I propose we take the heat out of the story by appearing in public together as soon as possible.’
She was suspicious again. ‘What do you mean as soon as possible?’
The colour faded from Mia’s face. ‘This evening?’ Her voice was a squeak. He remembered how reluctant she’d been to appear with him in public before—in his world—and how he’d found it refreshing after being with women who had maximised their relationship with him to improve their own social profile.
But Mia had never wanted that kind of exposure. In spite of the fact that she would have got a lot out of it professionally to be seen on his arm. At the time he hadn’t looked too deeply into her reasons for why that might be, but now... Now he cursed his lack of foresight.
It hadn’t mattered before, because they’d broken up and no one had been much the wiser, but this was very different.
‘We should talk before we appear together,’ he said.
‘About why you were always so averse to being seen with me in public. If you have any skeletons in your closet you need to tell me now, Mia, because they will find them.’
‘If you have any skeletons...’
Mia felt claustrophobic. She needed air. She instinctively moved towards the windows and opened them, stepping out onto the small balcony outside.
Within seconds she heard shouting from the square below and looked down to see people—mostly men, as far as she could make out—with cameras in their hands, tilting them up towards where she stood.
She hadn’t even fully grasped who they were or what they were doing until two big hands went to her waist, pulling her back inside. Daniel closed the window again and faced her. Mia felt a little shaky, but she feared it was more from the imprint of his hands on her than the photographers.
‘The same paparazzi. They’ve followed you here.’
Mia felt hot. Constricted. Daniel held out a hand. ‘Here, give me your jacket. I’ll get you some water.’
Mia shrugged off her jacket and handed it over. Daniel went to the drinks cabinet and Mia checked on Lexi, trying to gather her wits as she did so. Lexi was still out for the count. It wouldn’t make for a pretty night later, but right now Mia was willing to bend the rules.
It was all hitting home—just how much their lives had changed and were going to change further. On some level she’d known this, but she’d been blocking it out. Like a coward. She had never expected Daniel to say that they were a couple again, though.
And yet she couldn’t deny that the logic behind it did make sense. She’d seen how some other more high-profile models had been sucked into the maelstrom of various scandals, and she’d always thanked her lucky stars she wasn’t at that level of fame.
But now she was the one in the headlines, and Daniel was obviously realising that she was a potential liability.
They spoke at the same time. Mia accepted the glass of water Daniel offered, took a breath and said, ‘I wasn’t averse to being seen with you because I was afraid of press attention. I have nothing to hide...not really. Beyond growing up with a single parent in a trailer park in the shabbier end of Monterey, California.’
‘You never spoke of your father. Is he around?’
They hadn’t spoken of him because Mia had been deliberately keeping Daniel at arm’s length last time. But now she knew she had no choice. And if she had a skeleton this was it. Mia put the glass down on a nearby table.
‘The truth is that I don’t know who he is.’
Daniel frowned. ‘How is that possible?’
‘I know that might be hard to understand, when you come from a world where you can date your ancestors back to the dawn of time.’ Mia’s voice was tinged with bitterness.
Daniel’s eyes flashed pewter and his jaw clenched.
Before he could say anything Mia held up a hand. ‘I’m sorry, that wasn’t fair.’ She lowered her hand. ‘The truth is that my mother always clammed up whenever I asked her about him. She never gave me a name. Didn’t want to talk about him. Ever. It was only after she died that an old friend of hers told me that my mom went to a party after high school graduation. She was drugged and woke up the next morning dishevelled. Not feeling well. Sore. She fell pregnant as a consequence of that night. Her friend told her she should go to the police, tell them that something had happened to her, but my mom was so ashamed that she wouldn’t. Her parents were strict, religious. They would have thrown her out. She moved to California and had me, and brought me up by herself.’
Mia looked at Daniel, expecting to see disgust or horror. But there was an expression she couldn’t read on his face. He said, ‘I’m sorry. That can’t have been easy. For her or for you.’
Mia shrugged. ‘I didn’t know anything else, and she was a good mother. She made up for the lack of a father.’
Until she’d died, and Mia had felt so unmoored that she’d blindly sought out the first port in a grief-stricken storm.
‘Is there a chance your father knows about you?’
‘I guess...whoever he is...he might have heard something... But, given the circumstances, I don’t think he’ll be coming forward, do you?’
The bitterness in Mia’s voice was hard to hide. She wasn’t responsible for her parents’ actions, but she’d always felt a little tainted by what her father had done. How he had violated her mother.
‘That still doesn’t explain why you were always so reluctant to step into my world with me. What was that about, if not fear of the press?’
Mia went cold.
No way was she going to tell Daniel about her ultimate humiliation.
She avoided his eye and shrugged minutely. ‘You were—are—rich and powerful. I just had no interest in that world. It was that simple.’
Daniel made a snorting sound. ‘Things are rarely that simple. It was more than mere lack of interest, Mia.’
Damn him. She glared at him. ‘It’s really none of your business and it has no bearing on anything now.’
Daniel leaned against the back of a couch and crossed one ankle over the other. ‘Now I’m really intrigued.’
Mia wanted to stamp her foot. She recognised the obstinate expression on Daniel’s face all too well. He would push and probe until she gave up all her secrets.
‘Fine. If you must know, it was my first boyfriend. He was rich. Very rich. He came from a family that could date itself back to the Mayflower. I worked as a waitress in the local country club and he saw me there...and seduced me. Then he dumped me. It turned out the only reason he’d spoken to me was to get me into bed. He never intended on having a relationship with me because I was, in his words, “trailer trash”. He led me to believe that he wanted me in his world, that he was prepared to introduce me to his family, while at the same time he was getting ready to announce his engagement to a far more suitable woman. The worst thing was that I fell for it. It wasn’t long after my mom had died and he offered a sense of connection. I thought I wanted to be accepted by him and his world.’
‘Are you saying I reminded you of him?’ Daniel’s voice was like steel.
Mia swallowed. She couldn’t in all honesty say that, because at no point had Daniel ever reminded her of him. But he had stirred up enough powerful emotions and sensations to make her scared enough to keep him at arm’s length.
‘No, you’re nothing like him. He was a coward. I’m ashamed to admit I allowed him to—’
Daniel stood up and shook his head, cutting her off. ‘No, don’t say it. He took advantage of you, Mia. He saw a beautiful young woman, and maybe a chink of vulnerability, and exploited it.’
Mia hated the emotion that climbed up her chest at Daniel’s perspicacity.
‘Is he also the reason why you don’t like gifts of jewellery?’
She nodded. ‘He gave me what he told me was a diamond necklace, but it was just cubic zirconia. All part of the act to make me think he wanted more than sex.’
Daniel said a rude word in French. To Mia’s surprise, she didn’t feel exposed or newly humiliated after telling Daniel—she felt vindicated. Lighter. But then she’d never told anyone else what had happened to her, and to realise that it was Daniel she’d just confided in... Now she felt exposed.
Suddenly eager to move on from the past, Mia asked, ‘This evening...where are we going?’
‘It’s the Paris Ballet’s gala night at the Palais Garnier.’
Mia was immediately intimidated at the thought of the stunning Paris opéra building. It was one of the most iconic landmarks of Paris and she’d never been inside.
‘But I couldn’t possibly go—what about Lexi?’
‘Paul’s daughter works as a nanny but she’s between jobs at the moment. She can babysit.’
‘That’s convenient.’ In Daniel’s world, everything fell into place. Mia shouldn’t have forgotten that. She said, ‘I’m not going anywhere until I meet her and feel that I can trust her with Lexi.’
‘Of course. I’ve arranged for her to come in an hour—that should give you plenty of time to see how you feel about her and see how she interacts with Lexi.’ Daniel looked at his watch. ‘I have to take some calls in my study. You’ll find a range of dresses for this evening in your dressing room. It’s a black-tie event.’
He was turning to go and, feeling claustrophobic again, Mia said, ‘That’s if I go.’
The tiniest of smiles played around the corner of Daniel’s mouth, making Mia remember how it had felt to be kissed by him. All-consuming. Drugging. Addictive. She’d never forgotten.
She half expected him to say something smart, arrogant, but all he did say was, ‘Of course. Only if you feel comfortable enough to leave Lexi for a few hours.’
He turned and left and Mia felt curiously deflated.
There was a sound and movement from the stroller in the corner. Lexi was waking up. Mia welcomed the distraction—anything to avoid thinking about their new situation and the very real possibility that she would be appearing in public in a few hours on Daniel Devilliers’ arm.
Mia smiled at the woman, who was just a year or two younger than her. They were sitting cross-legged on the floor of Lexi’s new playroom, watching the toddler wreak happy havoc around her. ‘She likes you.’
Lexi was besotted with her ‘new friend’ Odile, Paul’s daughter. The young woman was clearly experienced, and had already managed a mini meltdown with an equanimity that had given Lexi no alternative but to calm down.
Much to Mia’s chagrin, it wasn’t looking as if she’d have an excuse to duck out of accompanying Daniel to this event. Nevertheless, she said a little hopefully, ‘Are you sure it’s not putting you out to babysit at such short notice?’
Odile smiled. ‘Not at all. To be honest, I’m saving to go travelling next year, so every extra euro helps.’
Mia knew what that was like. She’d scrimped and saved to fly to Europe to further her modelling career and see something of the world. The fact that she’d got no further than France was a twist she hadn’t expected, but when she looked at Lexi now her heart swelled with so much love she couldn’t regret anything.
A shadow darkened the doorway and Mia looked up to see Daniel.
Lexi toddled over. ‘Hi, Man! Play!’
Daniel smiled and Mia’s heart hitched.
‘Not right now, mignonne. I need to speak to your Mama.’
Odile expertly distracted Lexi and led her over to look at some toys. Mia stood up and went out of the room, closing the door behind her.
Daniel lifted a brow. ‘Well?’
Mia sighed. ‘She’s perfect. Lexi loves her.’
‘Okay, then, we leave in an hour.’
Mia wished she could avoid this, but she couldn’t. He was Lexi’s father, and if she wanted some kind of order restored in their lives she would have to go along with his plan. For now.
The strapless dress was ice-blue. It was low-cut enough to make Mia want to tug the fabric over her breasts, but the other dresses hadn’t been much more discreet. The material hugged her torso just under her breasts, and then fell in soft swathes of material to the floor. It was elegant and romantic.
She’d managed to tame her hair back into a rough chignon, and she’d applied a little more make-up than she’d normally wear, using it like a tool that might give her some sort of illusion that she was working and not playing herself.
The thought of appearing in front of the world’s press on Daniel’s arm was intimidating, but it also touched on a very secret part of her where she’d once allowed herself to dream that possibly her relationship with Daniel was different from the experience she’d had before, and that perhaps she could allow herself to let him bring her into his world gradually, until she built up her trust again.
But then she’d seen the article in the paper about his ‘arrangement, not engagement’. Just in time—before she’d made a complete fool of herself. Again.
Her reaction to the article had exposed her enough. This time she was prepared. Under no illusions. Daniel could not hurt her again.
Mia shut down her circling thoughts. Slipping her feet into high-heeled silver sandals and doing them up, she gave herself a last once-over and picked up the clutch and matching cape.
Daniel was finding it hard to keep himself from mentally undressing Mia. There was a discreet slit in her dress and a tantalising length of toned golden thigh, tempting him to place his hand there and move it higher, to the apex between her legs where he would feel the throbbing heat at the centre of her body.
He shifted in the back seat of the car, his own body throbbing in response. She’d taken his breath away when she’d walked into the reception room a short while before. He’d seen her transformed before, from her more casual aesthetic into something far more sleek when she was working—but he’d never seen her transformed for him. For a date.
Other women had. But not Mia. Because everything about being with her had been different. Challenging. She’d made him work to be with her. But it had been worth it—and not just on a carnal level. That had been the most surprising thing.
Mia turned to look at him now and her scent tickled his nostrils, light and fresh but with a musky base. Not unlike her. His first impression of her had been that she was sunny and carefree, but as he’d got to know her she’d shown more complex layers.
She said, ‘I’m not wearing any jewellery. Will that be an issue?’
When Daniel had first seen her in the dress he’d automatically known that diamonds would show it, and her, off to their best advantage. And he’d known exactly which ones.
He looked at her. ‘You wouldn’t mind wearing it?’
She avoided his eye and he felt a physical surge of anger again at the thought of what her so-called boyfriend had done to her. Trailer trash.
‘It wasn’t the jewellery I had an issue with, it was the gift. I didn’t want to be made a fool of again.’
Unable to help himself, Daniel reached out and touched Mia’s jaw, making her turn her face towards him. ‘He was the fool, Mia. Never you.’
He saw her throat work as she swallowed. Saw the flare of emotion in her eyes making them brighter green.
‘You don’t need to say that.’
The urge to kiss her in that moment was huge. Daniel almost shook with the effort it took not to tug her close. But they were pulling up outside the majestic Palais Garnier now, so Daniel reluctantly took his hand down and said, ‘We’re here.’