“You call me a liar? You lied to me for seven years. You kept my son from me for seven years!”

Now Steve approached them again. “Wait a minute, Eva. You said he didn’t want anything to do with Aaron and that’s why you refused to seek him out for child support.”

Eva had the nerve to throw her brother an annoyed look. “He didn’t want anything to do with Aaron. He didn’t even want children back then. He still doesn’t.”

“I said I didn’t want children,” Alexei said through gritted teeth. “That does not mean you can’t tell me I have one.”

Her brother came to stand beside him, shaking his head at Eva. “You can’t not tell a man he has a son!” Steve pursed his lips together in obvious disappointment. “And here I was thinking you had grown up, that you’d finally gotten some sense in your head—“

She cut her brother off with a vicious glare. “I swear to heaven, Steve, if you take his side in this, I will never talk to you again. You don’t know anything about me. Neither of you do. You don’t know why I did what I did or what I’m willing to do to protect my son.”

Alexei once again stepped in front of her brother. “I do not care why you did it, because trust me in this, Eva, when my lawyers are done, you will not have a son to protect. I will have full custody and I will never again let you see him.”

Eva swung at him, a surprisingly adept, open-fist punch that connected with his face at just the right angle to send him stumbling a few steps. “You can go to hell, Alexei Rustanov! I will never, ever let you anywhere near him.” Her voice sounded as vicious as she looked.

He recovered from the punch with a shake of his large head. And he was just about to tell her exactly who could go to hell and whose lawyers would send her straight there, when small fists began pummeling his mid-section.

“Leave my mama alone!”

Chapter Twenty-Three

EVA hadn’t been able to sleep on the plane rides from Dallas to London and then on to Milan, which meant she hadn’t slept in almost twenty-four hours. She also hadn’t eaten, and that had probably been a mistake, because by the time Alexei showed up, the only things keeping her on her feet were adrenaline and fear. Perhaps because of this, when he’d started throwing around threats and accusations like she had known he would back when she was actually considering telling him the truth, she had shot past trying to reason with him to screaming at him before straight-up punching him.

At first it felt good, to finally be able to literally hit back at him after keeping her real emotions under lock and key for weeks. But then Aaron came out of nowhere and started throwing wild punches of his own at Alexei, and the world suddenly went into slow motion. Luckily for Aaron, Alexei was so stunned by his son’s sudden appearance that he froze, not responding to his physical attack in any way that could get Aaron hurt.

“Aaron, no!” Eva pulled him away from Alexei and said. “Run back to the apartment. He can’t go in there. That’s the only place you’ll be safe.”

“No!” Aaron said with a stubborn shake of his head. “I can’t let him hurt you.”

“He’s not—“ Flustered, she got down to her knees in front of him on the narrow stone sidewalk. “He’s not going to hurt me.”

“Then why did you yell at him and punch him?” Aaron asked, still breathing hard. “You never yell. Or hit.”

“Aaron, remember when we talked about how if something dangerous happened, you’d have to listen to and do everything I said, no questions asked?” She bit back the tears in her eyes, not wanting to scare him any more than she already had. “This is one of those times. Now, please go back into the apartment building.”

Aaron’s response was to throw his arms around her neck. “No, mama. I’m not leaving you.”

He began to cry, which destroyed what was left of her frayed nerves and made her cry, too, because she couldn’t figure any way out of this. Even if she managed to get Aaron back into the building, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to keep him safe from Alexei or his uncle. However, she was sure if she didn’t run with Aaron, she’d have to give Alexei the full custody he wanted. If she didn’t, either he or his uncle would have her taken care of and give Aaron some bullshit story about how she’d met with a tragic accident.

So she cried into her son’s soft curls, because she didn’t know how to protect him or how to keep him with her. And she was so tired and just sick to death of being confused and scared all the time. It felt like she was having a nervous breakdown. And she couldn’t even begin to make herself stop crying, even for Aaron’s sake.

Suddenly, strong arms wrapped around them, and the next thing she knew, both she and Aaron were pulled as a unit into Alexei’s lap. “Stop crying,” he whispered in that stern way of his. “Stop crying.”

God help her, his arms were like a blanket of comfort, and just like his embrace had quelled her panic attack in the hotel suite, she immediately began to calm down, sniffling like a baby against his shoulder, until she and Aaron both stopped.

As soon as they did, Steve came to stand above them, his mouth in a terse line. “Can we move this into the apartment now? All the neighbors are looking out their windows at us.”

* * * *

Alexei still wasn’t quite sure what had happened. One minute he was determined to snatch Aaron away from his duplicitous witch of a mother, and the next moment he had them in his arms.

He’d seen Eva get angry. He’d seen her laugh uncontrollably. But he had never seen her cry before. Especially not like this, with huge sobs that just about ripped through his heart. He couldn’t take it, couldn’t stand to see both her and his son in pain, and the need to comfort them overwhelmed his desire to punish Eva.

Then somehow he’d ended up in the living room of Steven’s apartment, sitting in a wing-backed leather chair, with a plate of homemade pasta in red sauce on his lap. Across from him, on a beige couch, sat Eva, who he couldn’t help but notice was now sporting dark circles under her eyes and looking much more tired and withdrawn than the last time he saw her. He suppressed his immediate instinct to worry about her and wondered if he’d ever be able to reconcile all the opposing feelings she dredged up in him. Anger, pity, hate, love. She had him flipping back and forth seemingly every other minute. And at that moment, he wanted to both hurt and protect her.

“Here is your plate, Eva,” Maria told her sister-in-law. The small African-Italian woman had a round moon face and a heavy accent, which matched her overall nurturing demeanor. But most telling about her personality was the fact that despite what happened outside, her first order of business had been to get them set up with plates of pasta, even after Steve had explained he and Eva wouldn’t be joining them for lunch, because they “had to talk.”

“Really, you didn’t have to do this,” Eva said.

“Yes, of course I must do this. You are very hungry after all the crying, no?” Apparently, she had been one of the people watching the entire scene unfold from their window. But unlike Steve, who had made his embarrassment clear, Maria patted Eva on the shoulder. “I am Italiana. I have seen much worse. Do not listen to Steve. He is the one always insisting on being embarrassed. We Italianos are happy to make a show.”

Maria’s words were kind but did not seem to any way alleviate Eva’s own embarrassment. She changed the subject, leaning hard on her friendly Texas accent, when she said. “Well, I’m just going to apologize for all of that and say I’m happy to finally have a plate of this homemade pasta of yours. Aaron’s been going on and on about it for weeks.”

“If I had known he would be such big fan, I would have made it for him earlier in the summer. I am glad you are here with us to taste it.”

At the mention of Aaron’s name, Alexei’s eyes drifted back to the gangly boy with the café au lait skin, who was still standing in the doorway. Even if Alexei hadn’t been told of his existence before meeting him, he would have known this was his son. He had many of Eva’s features, but the green eyes and the way he carried himself—it was like interacting with a bi-racial version of himself at seven-years old. Pride swelled in Alexei’s chest, thinking about how the boy had come to his mother’s defense, and refused to leave, even when she begged him to. That alone told him everything he needed to know to love him.

“Are you my dad?” Aaron said, as if reading his mind.

Eva froze, but Alexei looked his son in the eye and said, “Yes.”

Aaron took a few steps toward him, stopping at the edge of the red and gold Tuscan area rug. “And you was mad because mama didn’t tell you about me?”

Alexei welcomed the hot rage that question rekindled. It reminded him why he was here and why he had no business feeling anything but disdain for Eva St. James. “Yes, that is exactly why I was mad.”

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