Page 34 of Staking His Claim

When he slanted her a questioning glance, she said, “In case I don’t choose them.”

“I see.”


From the look on his face, she could tell that he didn’t get it.

“In case I didn’t see the plea in their eyes, the desperation on their faces,” she said to make it clear.

This time he got it.

She knew it by the shock in his eyes.

Maybe it was the word “desperation” that did it.

Ella turned the page. Then the next...and the next...until she reached the end. “This couple has two sons...they live in an apartment in Auckland City. Both parents are professionals—like me.” She looked up to find Yevgeny’s eyes already fixed on her. Shock jolted through her. She swallowed, then continued in a slightly husky voice. “Being professionals is good—I want Holly to have a career. But I visualized her having an older sister—and a garden growing up. Kids need space to roam. Two boys and an apartment? And their parents working long hours? I don’t know. It might mean good money and a comfortable existence, but will the parents be able to give Holly—all of them—enough time?”

Yevgeny shook his head.

She set the portfolio aside and reached for the next one. Leaning back she discovered that Yevgeny had rested his arm along the back of the couch, bringing him so much closer. Tingles danced over her skin as her nerve endings went on high alert. A deep, steadying breath only made her more aware of the musky male scent that clung to him.

Hurriedly, Ella flipped open the folder and concentrated on the first photo.

This time the decision was easy. No. The family just was not right. But the following profile was much tougher to look through. The family seemed to tick off all the boxes that Ella could ask for, yet she didn’t find herself overcome with enthusiasm.

“They do look lovely—they have a daughter already.” She tried to fake enthusiasm as she paged through the file. “A garden. And two dogs.”

“Her mouth is too set—she’s a witch.” Yevgeny arched forward and pointed at the mother with the hand that was not settled on the back of the couch.

“Nonsense! She’s not a witch. She’s smiling!” Glancing up to protest, Ella could see the dark stubble on his chin, the hard angles of his cheekbones.

Yevgeny turned his head. Their gazes tangled. “But her eyes are not. And that dog looks like it can’t wait to get off her lap.”

Ella couldn’t breathe!

Feeling crowded, she glanced away...down...and focused on the photo in front of her.

The little girl wasn’t smiling at all.

Ella’s heart sank. Did that matter? Was it really significant? With a confused sigh she said, “We may be seeing things that don’t even exist.”

The instant Yevgeny removed his arm from behind her, the twisted mix of excitement and apprehension that had been fluttering in her stomach like a caged butterfly eased. She watched Yevgeny reach for the previous two portfolios, page through them and jab a finger at the family portraits. “In both of these the parents are touching each other.”

Ella looked closer—it was true. She glanced back at the third portrait in the folder still open on her lap. The parents sat far apart—a gaping space yawned between them. Despite their smiles neither of them looked terribly happy. “Perhaps it’s the pressure—they know how important this is.”

“They’re supposed to be selling themselves.”

“No!” Ella pulled away a few inches to put some distance between them. “They’re trying to adopt a baby.”

“All the more reason to put the best—the happiest—picture forward.”

She wanted to tell him that he was cynical, that he was oversimplifying the matter. But when Ella stared hard at the three faces in the photo, she realized that it didn’t work for her. There was no vibe of joy or intimacy.

Ella made her decision and shut the folder with a snap.

She wasn’t letting Holly go to this family. “They may be wonderful people. It may have been a tense day when the photos were taken. But that’s a no.”

She couldn’t take that very remote chance of sending Holly to an unhappy home.

A smile lit up Yevgeny’s face.

Was that a glint of triumph? Ella stilled. Suddenly his closeness took on a new aspect. Was the enforced intimacy deliberate? Had his comments been staged?

Was she being manipulated by an expert?

She rejected the suspicion almost instantly. She was no pushover.

Then she paused.

Who had the most to gain if she rejected all the families?

The answer came at once.

Yevgeny.

Ella tipped her head to one side and studied him, measuring and resisting the magnetic pull of that sexy bottom lip, the sculpted masculine features and the clear piercing eyes.

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