Once Touched, Never Forgotten
Author:Natasha Tate



Shocked denial cinched Colette’s stomach into a tight knot and she couldn’t seem to draw a proper breath. As she stared at the telltale blue line, the second in as many hours, Colette’s trembling hands nearly dropped the evidence she wanted so desperately to deny.

How had this happened?

It doesn’t matter. It’s happened.

She couldn’t avoid the truth any longer. One test might lie. But two? Never. Shaking, and feeling slightly ill, she placed the plastic testing wand on her flat’s scarred bathroom counter and then braced her quivering arms against the sink.

She was pregnant.

With Stephen Whitfield’s child.

Colette closed her eyes, leaned her forehead against the cool mirror, and tried to think through her options. As if she had any.

She knew Stephen. She knew his plans for the future, and they didn’t include her. They never had. How many times had he told her of his decision to never marry or have children? He liked his solitary life, loved his freedom. It allowed him to focus on business without messy, emotional distractions.

Through a tacit, unspoken agreement, neither of them had pressed for more. Neither had asked questions the other didn’t wish to answer. The past remained in the past; they lived for the moment. It was safer that way. For today, for the duration of their affair, he’d accepted her, pleasured her, and made her feel wanted. She’d told herself it was enough.

And it had been enough.

Until she’d fallen in love.

Closing her eyes, she inhaled sharply. She couldn’t change the rules on him. She wouldn’t. They’d been too careful to avoid talk of each other’s pasts, too careful to make no demands the other wouldn’t wish to fill. Though she suspected he carried scars no mere female could heal, she certainly was in no position to try. She wouldn’t be naïve enough to offer.

But you’re going to have his child.

It didn’t matter.

No way would she be one of those women who trapped a man into marriage by getting herself pregnant. No way would she repeat her mother’s mistakes and put her child in the middle of a loveless marriage. And she knew Stephen well enough to know that he’d demand just that. He’d forfeit his future for his child, and then hate them both because of it.

Curving a hand over her abdomen, she felt a rush of protectiveness bring the sting of tears to her eyes. It didn’t matter that her baby’s father had no desire for children. It didn’t matter that their fling was supposed to be a temporary indulgence with no strings. No expectations. No future.

She’d make her child feel loved regardless of the circumstances of her conception. No baby of hers would ever feel like a pawn in a marriage built on coercion, obligation and resentment.

She had to break things off with Stephen. Today.

And she had to make it believable.

Forty minutes later, she stepped from Stephen’s private elevator and walked into his absent secretary’s front reception area. For once, Colette was grateful not to have to talk to the friendly but nosy older woman. She didn’t think she’d be able to feign cheerfulness just now.

The Whitfield Grand’s thick carpet muffled her footsteps as she continued toward Stephen’s office, making Colette’s thudding pulse sound far too loud by comparison. Feeling like she’d swallowed ten pounds of lead, and with her mouth as dry as flour, she approached his open doors along the left wall of the reception area.

She heard Stephen’s voice, raised in a heated argument with two other men whose voices she didn’t recognize, and stalled just outside his door.

“Grandfather,” Stephen said, the subtle evidence of his temper edging his delivery. “You’re making assumptions that have no basis in fact.”

“Don’t take that tone with me,” barked the Whitfield patriarch. “And don’t talk to me about facts. My sources are impeccable.”

“Your sources are wrong.”

“She may as well have you fitted with a nose ring, the way you let her lead you around.”

Colette’s pulse picked up speed. Were they discussing her?

“You’re in so deep,” seconded a third male, his tone nasally and weak, “you don’t even notice other women.”

“I’m not in deep, Liam,” Stephen ground out. “But even if I were, whomever I choose to notice is no concern of yours.”

“The hell it isn’t!” snapped his grandfather. “Would you get your head out of your pants and think for a minute? Whether you deserve it or not, you’re a Whitfield, and everything you do reflects on us. I won’t have you making a mess of things like your idiot father did.”

“Keep my father out of this,” Stephen warned in a low, dangerous tone.

“You need to cut the chit off before you get in over your head. Before you make a mistake you can’t fix.”

“I’m not cutting her off just because you think it’s time,” she heard Stephen say. “I decide when we’re over, not you.”

“As long as you do decide, I don’t give a rat’s ass when it happens. Sleep with her for another twenty years for all I care, just don’t make the mistake of thinking she’s wife material,” said his grandfather in a flat, authoritative voice. “If you learned nothing from your father, learn that.”

“She doesn’t have what it takes to make a Whitfield wife,” intoned Liam. “She never will.”

“Who said she even wants to be a Whitfield?” Stephen shot back, sounding more irritated than she’d ever heard him.

“She’d be a fool not to,” warned Liam. “Penniless nobodies never understand they’re incapable of belonging in our world. You, more than anyone, must realize that.”

“You’re using protection, aren’t you?” his grandfather continued, and Colette’s stomach bottomed out.

We used protection every time.

“Get out of my office.” When Stephen’s anger turned to cold, controlled menace, his relatives would be smart to heed the warning.

“Don’t tell me you trust her?” sputtered his grandfather, oblivious to the danger.

Stephen’s silence lanced Colette’s chest.

“He trusts her!” he exclaimed in audible disbelief. “Damn it, you’re smarter than this! What if she gets pregnant?”

“She wouldn’t.” He ground the words through clenched teeth. “She knows I’d never bring another Whitfield into this world.”

“Like that would stop her.”

“It would,” Stephen snapped. “She respects my boundaries, just like I respect hers.”

He’s right. She willed them to hear, remembering the walls she’d tried to erect between them. The barriers to intimacy she’d never wanted crossed. But then Stephen had stared at her with his scorching, sultry blue eyes and agreed to every demand she made, convincing her that she was the one in control even as he burned through her heart’s icy layers.

Whitfield dismissed his grandson’s claim with a patronizing grunt. “All women want commitment. How do you not know that?”

“Colette’s different.”

She’d thought she was, too. But she’d been wrong. She’d ended up loving him despite her vows not to, and now the pain of leaving him would be permanently lodged in her heart.

“She’s smart enough to make you believe it,” said Liam. “I’ll give you that.”

“And she’s got legs that go for miles,” added his grandfather. “So I can understand a bit of temporary blindness. But enough’s enough. You’re risking too much with that trash.”
“You’re done here,” Stephen bit out. The telltale squeak of Stephen’s chair as he pushed back from his desk was immediately followed by the protest of leather and wood as the two other men stood. “I suggest you leave. Now.”
“This isn’t over,” Liam said, his voice moving closer to Colette.

Desperate not to be seen, Colette ducked behind the open door, squeezing silently between wood and wall while the Whitfields passed by. Her pulse thrashed noisily against her ears and she held her breath until the two men boarded the elevator and then descended out of sight.

Her breath escaped in a silent, unsteady thread and she closed her eyes, trying to regain her bearings. She stood without moving for several anguished minutes, or maybe it was hours, until her cell phone chimed against her thigh. Reaching to silence its betraying ring, her numb fingers fumbled and missed. It chimed again, the distinctive ringtone she’d set for Stephen making her stomach twist with dread.

“Colette?” Stephen called from his office, his chair squeaking again as he stood. “Are you out there?”

She lurched from behind the door, scuttling back toward the elevator so she could approach his office as if she’d just arrived. Trepidation tightened her throat, but she forced a calm tone regardless. “Hey,” she said when he appeared at his door, his dark head nearly brushing the top casing and his broad shoulders blocking the light from his windows.

He slid his phone into his pocket and strode toward her. “We must be on the same wavelength.”

Before she had a chance to avoid him, he’d closed the space between them and reached for her. Both hands, wide and firm, threaded through her hair and tilted her mouth toward his, lifting her up to her toes. His lips caught hers and the lush warmth elicited the same shock of response it always did. Every part of her body reacted. Heated.

His scent and taste conspired to make her lose her focus, and for a moment she allowed herself to savor the delicious probing of his kiss, the commanding sweep of his palms as he stroked her back from shoulder to hip. She swayed unsteadily when he withdrew, his soft exhalation warming her half-open mouth.

“I missed you this morning,” he said against her lips as he bumped her pelvis with his. “I missed waking up next to you.”

She heard the smile behind his words and closed her eyes, mustering her strength. “I had to be at work early,” she said. “I’m just heading back for the afternoon shift now.”

He must have heard something in her voice, because the same concerned note that had lulled her into complacency suddenly colored his tone. Leaning back, he peered into her face. “So why are you here?” His blue eyes glittered with fresh fury while his jaw knotted. “Did my grandfather or cousin say something to you?”

Blinking against a sudden blur of tears, she sucked in a steadying breath. Don’t fall apart now. You can do that later. “No. I just … I needed to talk to you,” she managed, swallowing hard.

His hands drifted from her waist up to her arms, a hint of wariness clouding his expression. “About what?”

“I …” She inhaled his lovely scent, gulping air to no avail. She couldn’t seem to stop her body from shaking. “I need to sit down.”

Wordless, he ushered her into his large masculine office and over to the brown leather chair angled before his desk. He pressed her into it, his palms bracketing her upper arms. He squatted before her, his expression incrementally more concerned as his thumbs caressed the skin beneath her white T-shirt sleeves. “What is it?”

After a few moments of torturous silence, while she struggled to find the right words, he inhaled sharply and dropped his hands to the leather armrests.

“You want to break it off, don’t you?” he said, his expression an inscrutable shield of blankness.

She dipped her head in a single nod and dropped her gaze to her tightly knit hands. “It’s time.”

He stared at her in silence for several long beats before speaking, his voice cool and remote where before it had been warm. “Care to tell me why?”

“We promised no questions.” She hauled in a breath and forced herself to meet his blue eyes. “And we both knew this—”

“You’re right,” he interrupted, surging to his feet and walking toward the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the Thames. “You don’t owe me any explanations,” he said in a clipped voice as he stared out over the sun-drenched water.

She stared at his wide shoulders, the crisp lines of his charcoal suit, and the sleek, muscled transition from buttock to leg. “This is what we agreed to,” she started again. “Remember? We said—”

“I said you were right.” He shoved his hands deep in his pockets and turned back to face her, the sunlight glinting blue against his black hair. “If you want to end things, I won’t stand in your way.”

His easy capitulation, expected as it was, still hurt more than she’d have thought possible. “Thank you.”

“We never claimed this was supposed to last,” he said in a harsh voice, while the muscles in his jaw twitched. His silk sleeves bunched up around his wrists and she could see the knots of his fists within his pockets. “I won’t pressure you for more.”

She tamped down a flutter of irrational hope. An irrational, crazy hope that he’d beg her to stay. To marry him. To bear his children no matter what the powerful Whitfield family thought about her suitability. “Do you want more?” she whispered.

“Is that what you think?” he asked, withdrawing his hands from his pockets and striding toward her with ominous swiftness. He leaned to grip her upper arms, his gaze trapping hers. “Do you think I want more?”

She forced herself to maintain eye contact, to keep her impossible dreams buried too deep to see. “Do you?”

“Of course I don’t!” he said, releasing her as if he’d been stung.

She inhaled sharply, pressing her shoulderblades against the back of the chair while her hope died a swift, brutal death. She’d been right not to tell him. Right to break things off. It was better this way, to be the one who did the rejecting first. Even so, shards of pain dug deep and shallow breaths serrated the back of her throat.

“I don’t want a messy nightmare of a relationship any more than you do. You know that.”

“That’s what I thought,” she said, while a wail of pain knotted silently within her chest.

His brow furrowed as he drew to a stop at the far side of the desk and turned back to her, his expression a queer blend of apology and grim resolve. “Though I can see how you might have believed otherwise.”

She looked at him without blinking, her mind racing with all the things that still remained unsaid.

“I’ve hardly been acting the part of cavalier, detached lover lately.”

“No.” She pushed the word through her tight throat, praying that she sounded normal. Aloof and indifferent and strong, despite the fact that her scarred heart had been wounded anew. “You haven’t. But I haven’t been, either. So I guess we’re both to blame.”

He stared at her, his blue eyes unreadable and the muscles in his jaw and neck taut. “This hasn’t been a typical fling for either one of us.”

It’s been my only fling. A fling that’s left me pregnant. “No.” She’d thought with Stephen, a notorious playboy who used women for pleasure and then discarded them without a backward glance, she could keep her heart safe. She’d thought that with her eyes open and her boundaries firmly in place she could indulge in a passionate affair without getting hurt.

She’d been wrong.

“I’ve barely given you a minute to yourself these past few months,” he finally said. “No.”

“And it’s hard to find the space we need to think when we’re on top of each other all the time.”

When she remained quiet, her heart thrashing like a wounded bird beneath her ribs, he rounded the desk and squatted before her yet again.

“What I’d prefer,” he said quietly, as his intent gaze searched hers, “before we rush into anything drastic, is a little time apart to reassess. We don’t have to end things right now. This minute. We can take some breathing room and decide how to move forward once we get our bearings.”

“Move forward?” she whispered, her pulse rioting hard within her chest. Her throat. Her hands.

“Damn it. I know that’s the wrong way to phrase it,” he said, straightening again and running a hand through his hair. “But I’m not finished with you yet.”

“Not finished with me?” she repeated in a thin voice.

“That’s not what I meant. What I …” His voice trailed off with a muttered curse. “Hell, I don’t know. I just know I like how we are together. Can’t we just keep things the way they are?”

How could they keep things the way they were when he had no desire for more? When she was going to give birth to his child, their child, in a few frightfully short months?

“It’s good, what we have. Isn’t it?” He bent to collect her unresisting hands. “Just because we’re never getting married or angling for that whole happy family illusion doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the benefits of each other’s company. There has to be a way that we can keep things the way they are without getting all tense and emotional about it.” His eyes searched hers. “Right?” “I …”

“I have to go to Paris for a couple of weeks, and it sounds like the timing couldn’t be better.” He pulled her up from the chair and hauled her close for another swift, bruising kiss, his hands gripping her upper arms with tensile strength. Withdrawing enough to study her expression, he stared deeply into her eyes. “We’ll find something that works for both of us when I get back. I promise. Just don’t make any big decisions until I return.”

There were no big decisions to make, because they had already been made for her. She’d never agree to keep what they had, not if he had no desire for more. She had a child to think about now. A child who deserved more than a father who viewed happy families as illusions and thought love made things too tense and emotional.

No matter how much it hurt, she had to be realistic. Sex was not love, and she wasn’t foolish enough to confuse the two. Rejection and hatred were hard enough for an adult to manage; it was unbearable torture for a small child who wanted nothing more than to be loved.

So she remained silent, her insides trembling with the realization that she’d never risk putting her sweet little baby through the pain she’d been subjected to. She’d die first. And if it that meant being alone forever, she’d do it. As a mother with a child to protect, she couldn’t allow herself to entertain thoughts of romance or fairytale endings. Men who didn’t want to be fathers had no place in her or her child’s precious life.