Okay, so Dante was willing to concede that maybe she wasn’t as mercenary as he’d first thought, and he was also willing to accept his culpability in the matter if, indeed, she did turn out to be pregnant with his baby. But she’d better be serious about not expecting anything more from him because he for damned sure wanted nothing to do with her or the baby. If he ever decided to have kids someday, the mother he chose for those children would be as far removed from Cleopatra Knight as night was from day. He would do his duty and pay whatever money she needed to raise her child. But that was it. No emotional commitments were required or expected of him, and he was satisfied with that.

Cleo sat at her kitchen table staring at the damp stain on the wall above the refrigerator with a tub of melting ice cream forgotten in front of her. The front door opened and Cal stepped in, bringing with him the fresh smell of wind and rain.

“Hey.” He removed his coat and tossed it carelessly over the back of the couch and grabbed a spoon from the drying rack on the sink before sitting down opposite her and helping himself to her softening chocolate-mint ice cream. “I don’t know how you can eat this stuff in the middle of winter. It’s freezing out there and you’re sitting in here eating ice cream.”

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She shrugged listlessly, barely hearing him. She sat with her cheek resting in the palm of one hand, one foot tucked beneath her butt and the other swinging in circles above the floor. She looked like a cranky child.

“How did it go?” Cal asked softly, displaying more sensitivity than she would ever have given him credit for.

“I got fired.”

“What?”

“You heard me.” She shrugged again.

“Aw, man. Hon, I’m so sorry to hear that. What a complete dick that guy is! How could he fire you?”

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“He thinks I’m some . . .” She heard her voice thicken with tears. “I don’t know. Some opportunistic, mercenary, money-hungry bitch or something.” She shoved the ice cream aside and folded her arms on the table before burying her face in them and giving way to the tears that had been threatening all afternoon.

Cal rubbed a hand up and down her back as she cried, her sobs quiet and her tears plentiful.

“I don’t know what to do,” she confessed after a few long moments of cathartic crying. “I don’t know what to do.”

“We’ll figure it out, Cleo.”

“I have no job, no savings . . . how can I take care of this baby? I can’t move in with Luc and Blue. It would be so unfair. Just when they’re starting to get their lives sorted out, along comes the family failure with another setback for them.”

“Don’t think like that,” Cal said. “Think solutions. Not problems.”

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“What the hell does that even mean?” she asked, her voice seething with frustration. “How am I supposed to ‘think solutions’? What solutions? There are no solutions right now, Cal. So how about just letting me wallow for a few lousy moments?”

“Wow.” He sat back and took another spoonful of ice cream. “I’m going to assume that’s the pregnancy talking.”

“It’s not the pregnancy,” she denied, as even more tears threatened. Where was this endless supply coming from? Surely she should have run dry by now. “It’s everything. You’ve never really grown up, Cal. You don’t know how to deal like an adult. So all you have are these preppy teen words of advice that don’t mean squat in the real world.”

“And this is mature behavior?” he fired back, waving his spoon up and down in her direction. “This crying-fest, while you lash out at someone who cares about you instead of at the real object of your frustration.”

“And how am I supposed to lash out at him? He had me kicked out of his office before I even had a chance to properly talk to him.”

“What, like, literally kicked out?” His eyes widened.

“Called security and had me escorted out of the building,” she confirmed, and his jaw dropped.

“Seriously?”

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“Yes. I felt so . . .” The tears overflowed again as she remembered the mortifying moment she was marched out of his office and back to her own desk. “Humiliated.”

“That guy needs his ass kicked! Tell your brother about it.”

“No.” She could hear the panic in her own voice. “No, Cal. Luc doesn’t hear about this. He’s not to know who the father of this child is.” She was too embarrassed to let Luc know what a colossal mistake she’d made with Dante, and she couldn’t ruin a friendship he held dear.

“But what will you tell him about your job?”

“I’ll tell him I quit or something. It’ll be easy enough for him to believe of his loser sister.”

“Come on, hon,” Cal said. “That’s hardly fair. This wasn’t your fault.”

“Please just leave it for now.”

Cal nodded reluctantly and Cleo reached over to squeeze his forearm gently.

“I’m sorry I snapped at you, okay?”

“Yeah.” He shrugged. “I’m sorry I wasn’t grim enough to suit the occasion.”

She giggled wetly at the lame joke, and Cal grimaced before reaching into his pocket for a handkerchief.

“Jesus, blow your nose,” he said. “Look at the state of you. You’re such an ugly crier, Cleo.”

“Shut up,” she laughed, and blew her nose gustily. At that moment she just appreciated his presence so much that she couldn’t hold back an impulsive hug.

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