Page 65 of Staking His Claim

She shouldn’t be feeling like this....

So empty.


Like her guts—her heart—had been ripped out.

Get over it. For once, Ella found the bracing words didn’t work.

So she tried reason instead. Her daughter would still live in the same city, not across the ocean in another world.

And she would stay in touch with the baby.

That made Ella feel better.

While Holly would not call her mom, she would always be Holly’s tummy mummy—Yevgeny had made that clear. She felt a lump forming at the back of her throat. The alternative, cutting all ties to the little girl, would be so much worse. It was not an option—not for Holly.

And not for her.

Yet the night he’d made love to her, Yevgeny had offered more. He’d asked her to marry him. She had said no in a way that had brooked no argument. For one wild, magic moment Ella considered what might have happened if she’d accepted.

Then she shrugged it away. The moment was past. He would not ask again. Why should he? He had what he wanted....

Holly.

Why would he want her? He didn’t even like her....

Why could it not have been different?

She quickly stifled that thought. That would mean that she never agreed to act as surrogate for Keira and Dmitri, that Holly had never been born, that she would never have gotten to know Yevgeny better.

And those were things she could not contemplate living without now.

Because she loved Holly.

As for Yevgeny...she was so confused about the swings of emotion he aroused in her. Anger. Passion. Empathy. And something she feared to name.

So when his arms came around her, the lighted Christmas tree, the gaily colored packages, all dissolved in a blur of tears as Ella started to weep uncontrollably.

                      Twelve

“Hey, don’t cry,” Yevgeny whispered against Ella’s hair, and his arms tightened around her.

She snuffled. “I’m not crying.” And she felt him smile.

“Sure you’re not.” He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. After a moment he added, “Thank you for my Christmas gift. It is without a doubt the best present I’ve ever received.”

“My pleasure.” Ella found she meant it. With her tears stanched, she lifted her head and warned him, “But you better make Holly happy.”

His expression deadly serious, he said, “My offer is still open. If you marry me and come live with us, you’ll be able to gauge for yourself how happy she is.”

Ella’s heart leaped, and then settled into a rapid beat.

The offer was unbearably tempting. Looking away, she focused on the flickering of the Christmas lights. There was something about the powerful emotions that Yevgeny stirred in her that made her suspect she was falling in love with him. Heck, not falling...fallen.

She was in love.

It had been so long, she’d forgotten how it felt to be in love.

And back then it had been so different. Young love. This time it was deeper...less impulsive. Yet Ella knew if she accepted Yevgeny’s proposal she needed to be sure that her love was strong enough for both of them. There could be no going back because Holly would suffer.

Of course, they shared that bond. She loved Holly...and Yevgeny loved the baby, too.

But, despite his proposal, Ella was under no illusion that he loved her. He never had. Could he learn to love her in the future? Was it worth taking a chance on that? Could she love enough for two?

“So what do you think?” he asked at last.

“I’m scared,” she said honestly, switching her gaze back to find him still watching her with that unnerving intensity.

“Scared? You?” There was disbelief in his voice. “But why?”

Not ready to confess that she wasn’t sure about the wisdom of going into a marriage where he didn’t love her, she said instead, “I don’t know that I’d make a very good mother.”

He reared back and looked down at her. “What makes you think that? You’re wonderful with Holly. I didn’t think that at the start but you’ve managed to convince me. Your love for her is evident every time you look at her.”

“My parents haven’t provided the best template, but to be truthful, that’s not the only reason I think I’d be a hopeless failure as a mother...and wife.”

“Who was he?”

She gave him a startled look. “How did—” Ella broke off. Then, “What makes you think there was a man?” she hedged.

“Your reaction.” Yevgeny’s brow was creased in a frown of concern, and his hold loosened, giving her more space. “Tell me who he was.”

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