Page 9 of Staking His Claim

He studied her. To be truthful her eyes were luminous. Gold-brown with a hint of smoke. Like smoky honey. And the flush gave her pale cheeks a peachy warmth he’d never noticed before. She looked almost pretty—in an ethereal, fragile way that did not normally appeal to him.

In the spirit of reconciliation he felt compelled to add, “And I will care for her.”

“A procession of big-bosomed careworkers is not what I had in mind.”

Reconciliation was clearly not what Ella had in mind. He suppressed a knowing smirk at how quickly the fragile act had lasted and gave in to the urge to provoke her. “You have something against motherly, homely women?”

The look she gave him would’ve frozen the devil at fifty feet. “I wouldn’t describe a Playboy centerfold model as homely.”

This time he allowed himself to smile—but without humor. “I will need some help with the baby...but you may rest assured the criteria for hiring her caregivers will not be physical attributes. I will make sure that the women I employ will be capable of providing her—” he glanced at the baby and realized he didn’t yet know her name “—with all the womanly affection the infant will require.”

“You will need a wife.”

Yevgeny forced a roar of laughter as Ella repeated the ridiculous suggestion. “The child will have far more than a young, struggling couple could ever give her—I don’t need a wife to provide it.”

“I’m not joking.” Ella pressed her lips together. “And I’m not talking about the possessions you can give her—I’m sure you could provide a diamond-encrusted teething ring. But she deserves to have two parents who love her unreservedly.”

His laughter ceased. “You’re living in a dream if you think that happens simply because a child has two parents.” His own mother was living proof of that. To ease the turmoil that memories of his mother always brought, Yevgeny stretched lazily, flexing his shoulders. He noticed how Ella looked away. “She will have to make do with me alone.”

That brought her eyes back to him. “Forget it. It’s not going to happen—I won’t let it.”

“It’s not only your decision. Fathers have rights, too.” He lifted his lips in a feral, not-very-amused grin. “I’m stepping into my brother’s shoes.”

“As you pointed out, I’m the mother. The legal birth mother.” Did she think he’d missed her point? Yevgeny wondered. “I get to make the decisions,” she was saying now. “I need only to consider the best interests of the child.”

The look on her face made it clear that his solution was not what she considered in “the best interests of the child.”

He froze as he absorbed what she was getting at. “How can that be true? This is the twenty-first century!”

“Quite correct. And a child is no longer a chattel of the head of the household.”

The eyes he’d been admiring only minutes earlier gleamed in a way that caused his hackles to rise.

“So I have the final say in who will adopt the baby,” she continued, “and it won’t be an arrogant, unmarried Russian millionaire!”

“Billionaire,” he corrected pointedly and watched her smolder even as his own anger bubbled.

“The amount of money you have doesn’t change a darn thing. She’s going to a couple—a family who wants her, who will love her. That’s what I intended when I agreed to be a surrogate for Keira, and that’s what I still want for her— I’ll make sure the adoption agency is aware of that requirement. You’re not married—and you’re not getting the baby. End of story.”

Her bright eyes glittered back at him with the frosty glare of newly minted gold.

A challenge had been issued. And he fully intended to meet it.

Ruthlessly suppressing his own hot rage, he murmured, “Well, then, it seems I’ll just have to get married.”

Yevgeny watched with supreme satisfaction as Ella’s mouth dropped open.

War, Yevgeny suspected, had been declared.

* * *

Ella did a double take. “You? Get married? So that you can adopt a child?”

She hadn’t thought Big Brother Yevgeny could surprise her. She’d thought she had his number. Russian. Raffish. Ruthless. But this announcement left her reeling. What would this playboy Russian billionaire want with a child, a girl child at that?

Which led her to say, “But you don’t even want a girl.”

Something—it couldn’t be surprise—sparked in the depths of those light eyes. “What made you think that?”