Page 47 of Staking His Claim

It had worked out. She earned a good living...she had a retirement plan...her town house was paid off...she worked for herself and was answerable to no one.

She wanted for nothing.

But along the way she’d become more ambitious. Her schedule had become crowded.

There was no time left for...Ella.

When had she last taken a vacation? She’d always loved movies. When had she last taken the night off and gone to watch a movie and share a tub of popcorn with Keira or a friend? And, for that matter, when had she last actually met up with any of her friends? Ella couldn’t even remember. Most of the people she socialized with these days were her work colleagues.

“I don’t think I’m the right person for the job,” Ella found herself saying. “But I have a colleague who might be a perfect fit. Let me call your office later with his contact details.” There was immense satisfaction in watching the CFO sputter for words. Ella rose to her feet, and gave the pair her most gracious smile. “Thank you so much for considering me. I do appreciate it, but I think Mark Stanley will be a much better fit for your company.”

And she was going to rewrite her business plan to focus on the work she did best—and enjoyed most. But first she was going to see if she could find Yevgeny and Holly.

She was going out to play in the park.

* * *

Yevgeny spotted Ella approaching long before she reached them. There was something about the way she moved that had clued him in that it was Ella when she’d still been a speck in the distance.

“You were worried about the baby. You thought I’d screw up.” Partly annoyed by Ella’s inability to give up control but also pleased that she’d been worried enough about the baby to come to the park, Yevgeny grinned at her from where he was sprawled on a picnic blanket on the grass in the shade of an ancient oak.

“I wasn’t worried.”

Yevgeny didn’t believe that for one minute. “So why did you come?”

She glanced away. “I thought it would be nice to be outside on such a lovely day.”

He snorted in disbelief.

“I did. Honestly! I—”

She was talking so fast that Yevgeny found his grin growing wider. “Slow down!”

Ella stopped talking abruptly and gave him a sheepish smile. Her dimples appeared. Then she sank down beside Holly, who was sound asleep on the blanket. She touched the baby’s cheek with one finger and Holly made a snuffling sound.

Ella quickly withdrew her finger. “I don’t want to wake her just yet.”

“How did the meeting go?” he asked.

“Fine.” Her face tightened.

Not fine, then. His good humor faded. “There was a problem?” He couldn’t help remembering his criticism of her priorities. It made him feel guilty.

“No.” She paused. “Not really.”

“There was a problem.” There was no doubt in his mind.

She turned to face him. The bright gold eyes were dulled by specks of unhappiness. Something was bothering Ella. And Yevgeny was surprised by the wave of protectiveness that swamped him.

“What went wrong?”

She hesitated. “Nothing. The meeting went fine. I was the problem.”

Stretching out beside Ella and the baby, he propped himself on his elbows. Keeping his eyes intent on her face, he asked, “What do you mean?”

“It’s hard to explain.” She shrugged.

“Try,” he prompted, sensing quicksand ahead.

“I’m not sure I understand myself.” She looked away.

Yevgeny sensed this was not the time to push her. Above them the wind rustled through the leaves. He could hear blackbirds chirruping.

“Something has changed.”

The admission surprised him. “You were treated different than usual?”

She shook her head. “That’s not it. It’s me—I’ve changed.”

He studied her, seeking signs of the change she was talking about.

The wind caught at her hair. One hand brushed a recalcitrant strand back behind her ear. Except for a mussing from the wind’s touch her hair was sleek and styled. The black business suit Ella wore was smart—even though by virtue of sitting on the picnic blanket she was showing far more leg than the designer had ever intended to be revealed in the office.

His eyes traveled down the length of leg encased in sheer stockings. Until he reached her feet. She’d kicked her shoes off. Already scraps of grass clung to the stockinged soles of her feet.

She might look the same...

But he would never have imagined that Ella he’d known before sprawled across a picnic blanket in a suit, her hair wind-tousled, her shoes abandoned.

She had changed.

“If you want the truth, I like the change.”