Returning for His Unknown Son by Tara Pammi

 

CHAPTER ONE

“I THINKWEshould get married.”

Priya Pillai looked up from her desk to find Christian Mikkelsen, genius tech whiz, general mayhem-maker and absolute playboy, leaning against her desk and considering her with an intensity that she couldn’t ignore. Her heart kicked in her chest at the ridiculous proposal he’d just thrown at her, as casually as he’d asked her yesterday if she’d accompany him to a conference in Switzerland. His blue eyes, usually alight with mischief, glinted with resolve.

Christian, other than being her boss and the CEO of Modi Mikkelsen Tech, was her dead fiancé’s best friend and the man she’d come to count on the most in the last few months. Despite the fact that they’d never been close before Jai had died a year ago.

With his long legs stretched out in front of him, broad shoulders filling her vision, his physicality was becoming harder and harder to ignore, without counting the fact that he possessed a charming playfulness that was distracting at the best of times. He had the usual piece of wood and tiny chisel in his hand. His gaze flipped to her face and to the block of wood, back and forth, as he carved her face.

At first, she’d found it disconcerting to find his intent gaze on her. Jai had once mentioned that it helped Christian focus a lot of his unending energy with his hands occupied like that. Christian was a genius when it came to numbers and code, seeing patterns where no one else could. But it wasn’t until Priya had seen the miniature he’d carved of Jai’s face, the depth of character he captured, that she’d realized how much more there was to Christian.

How much more beyond the good looks, easy charm and razor-sharp mind.

Shaking her head, Priya shifted her focus back to her computer screen. She was so close to figuring out the bit of algorithm that had been blocking her for days. Taking a sip of her coffee, she hit Compile. Only then did she turn her attention back to him. “It’s too early in the morning for your jokes, Christian,” she said, keeping her tone casual. Warning herself to not betray her increasing fascination with...every nuance of his face, his gestures and the barely contained energetic vibe he gave out.

But she couldn’t help noting that while he looked immaculate in a crisp gray suit with a blue tie that she’d bought him two Christmases ago, he hadn’t shaved this morning. Dark blond bristle covered his jaw, and dark smudges brought out the blue of his eyes.

Whose bed have you rolled out of this morning? she wanted to ask. The supermodel Stella or the soccer player Ellen?

Really, if she thought about it—which she did far too much—Christian was at least an equal-opportunity playboy. He didn’t seem to have a particular type—or rather any woman who interested him was his type—and he...

“Why are you looking at me like that?” he prompted, running a hand over his jaw. His brows drew together, forming that line between them that she wanted to trace with her finger, that she sometimes wanted to touch with...

She stifled a groan and looked away.

What the hell was wrong with her? Where were all these useless and inappropriate thoughts coming from? When had she started collating a database of Christian’s likes and dislikes in a woman?

She’d thought she was solving the problem of an overly protective parent, at times stifling the breath out of her. Mama had always been a lioness because of Priya’s poor health. Her heart condition, the numerous trips in and out of the ER as a child and adolescent...had made sure her mother was always in hyperdrive.

But with the period of depression that had followed Jai’s death, she’d caged Priya, treating her like a precious vase rather than a living, breathing person.

Only Christian had recognized her grief. Only he had given her the space to mourn, instead of needing her to be okay for his own peace of mind. And when it had been time, he was the one who had dragged her, screaming and kicking, back to join the living.

She’d come to work for Modi & Mikkelsen Technologies as a solutions architect—something she’d planned to do after graduating when Jai had been alive. She’d moved out of her parents’ house and into Christian’s apartment with minimal fuss from Mama, because, of course, Christian’s reassurances held more weight than Priya’s own. She’d even gone to a couple of parties with Christian and his friends and, for the most part, enjoyed herself.

But this... This was a trap she hadn’t ever imagined she’d fall into.

Not for a second had she foreseen that sharing a space with him would lead to the kind of intimacy she both craved and was terrified of. Or that she’d have front-row seats to Christian’s love life. And no, she wasn’t jealous.

To be jealous of his girlfriends meant she wanted Christian’s attention in the first place—as fickle as it was. She didn’t. Seeing him live his life with a revolving door of girlfriends only reminded her of what she’d lost when she’d lost Jai. This was loneliness, nothing else.

“It proves you aren’t dead inside,”her cousin had said when Priya had confided this sudden, inexplicable fascination with Christian. “You’re twenty-two and horny, that’s all. Christian’s a seriously hot guy. Your reaction is nothing but normal.”

“Go away, Christian,” she said, rubbing a hand over her face. “Unlike you, I have a boss to answer to.”

“Oh, didn’t you hear? Grandpa and the board are looking for reasons to kick me out.”

“What? That’s preposterous. You and Jai breathed new life into this company.”

He shrugged. “Apparently, I’m bringing a lot of bad publicity to their door, what with all my many and varied affairs. Really, it’s just that old dog Chatsworth with a stick up his ass. He doesn’t like the fact that I dumped his daughter.”

He looked down to find Priya glaring at him. Eyes warm, he assumed this angelic air that made her grin, despite the state of near constant alertness she needed to adopt whenever she was with him. He’d always been good at making her laugh, despite her determination to keep him at a distance. To dislike him even, in those first two years after Jai had introduced them.

“Oh, come on, Pree, is it my fault if the woman thinks I’d have proposed to her after only a month of dating? While I agree that Samantha’s both beautiful and brainy, did she forget my reputation? And for the record, she was the one who pursued me.”

“Imagine that,” Priya added dryly, but her mind was churning away.

While she’d isolated herself for months after Jai’s accident, Christian, on the other hand, had hit the party circuit hard. Which was saying something since the man was already an inveterate playboy. It was as if without Jai’s solid, unflappable presence to ground him, Christian became wilder and wilder. No wonder Mr. Mikkelsen had threatened to eject him from the company.

Because the one thing Christian did hold dear was MMT. The tech company that Jai and he’d built through high school and college. That had become the backbone of Mikkelsen Technologies in the last decade.

“While I agree with you that Ms. Chatsworth can do a lot better,” Priya said, grinning, “it’s possible she saw something worth loving even in you, Christian. Greater miracles have been known to happen.”

“Now you’re just kicking me when I’m down,” he said, mock hurt in his voice. But the warmth in his blue eyes made her feel as if she’d won a prize. “The thing is I’ve got to beat the old man at his own game. And you’re the only one who can save me, Pree.”

This time, Priya didn’t have to fake her disbelief. “Save you, Christian? I’m far too much of a realist for that.”

“So you do agree that I need saving?”

There was something in his question that felt off to Priya. That held a depth, a hunger she didn’t want to delve into.

She could feel his gaze sweeping over her face, as if he was waiting to see if she’d take the bait.

Ducking her gaze, she made a show of tidying her desk, searching for something to bring their conversation back to neutral ground. “If you want the truth, you’ve been a bit out of control recently. I can’t blame Ben for trying to bring some—” she cleared her throat when he raised that devilish brow “—balance back into your life.” And because she should have said it long before now, she added, “I don’t know what I’d have done without your support over the past year, Christian.”

“You’d have survived.”

“You have more faith in me than I do,” she added. On an impulse, she took his hand. His fingers had a deliciously abrasive texture, thanks to how incessantly he played with pieces of wood and his chisel. Sensation coiled deep in her belly, a cavern yawning wide open for more. She let go immediately. “I’m sorry for not being a better friend to you. For not realizing sooner that you lost Jai, too.”

He pushed a hand through his hair, not meeting her eyes.

She cleared her throat, wondering if she’d made him uncomfortable. No, grief wasn’t something Christian shoved away. Then why? “You look a wreck, Christian. Ben has a good reason to worry about you.”

“I’m not one of his precious horses for him to corral and be quietly led back into my stall.”

“And if Jai were here to say you’re spiraling out of control, Christian?”

He pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes and let out a breath. “I’m not interested in settling down, Pree. Not for anyone. Damn it, I’m only twenty-four years old.” Those penetrating eyes pinned her. “But I wasn’t joking when I suggested we get married. It solves more than one problem.”

As if the very universe was helping him support his case, her cell phone chirped. Priya looked at the screen to find Mama’s anxious face peering up at her. Priya slammed it facedown. It continued to chirp, the sound progressively getting on her nerves, until she thought she might scream.

It finally stopped. They both stared at the company phone on the desk. Right on cue, it started ringing.

Priya pushed her fingers through her hair, swallowing a growl of frustration.

“Don’t tell me you aren’t a little bit flattered to realize you’re the first woman I’ve ever proposed to,” Christian teased, putting himself between her desk and her.

And his distraction worked.

Her hand on her heart, Priya fluttered her lashes. And threw in a mock gasp for effect. “Oh, my! How cynical of me to not realize what an honor this is. The first woman that the unconquerable Christian Mikkelsen proposed marriage to. Maybe I’ll get a sash which says that and wear it every day.”

“It would certainly be an improvement,” he said, his gaze doing a quick sweep of her beige pantsuit.

She craned her head toward him and lowered her voice into a theatrical whisper. “Your proposal needs a little work, Christian. Keep trying and the twentieth woman might just accept.”

He pushed off from his position, making her solid wood desk shake.

The framed picture of Jai she had on a tiny wooden shelf shifted and fell forward. Priya reached for it and her fingers clashed with Christian’s. The frame balanced there, in both their palms. Her heart ached, but she was used to that hole. What Priya wasn’t expecting was how the glide of Christian’s fingers on her wrist sent a spark of sensation down her spine.

She pulled away, her skin jumping at the contact. Her heart began thudding urgently. He’d straightened up but he was still there, close enough to touch. The scent of him filled her nostrils and the warmth of his body beckoned. Her skin tingled with an awareness that Priya couldn’t ignore. She swallowed, wondering if she was slowly losing her mind.

“I’m serious, Priya.”

His matter-of-fact tone sent relief crashing through her. Thank God he hadn’t noticed her ridiculous reaction to him. Thank God that he was just as unaware of her as he’d always been. For years, she’d been his best friend’s shy, geeky girlfriend and then fiancée.

This attraction was unwelcome. He was her fiancé’s best friend—granted, the fiancé who’d been dead now for close to a year. When Jai had been alive, she’d always got the feeling that Christian thought of her as an annoying sister or cousin he had to put up with, for his best friend’s sake.

But now Christian was her...friend.

Surprise hit her in the gut. Somehow, over the last few months, Christian had become a bigger and bigger presence in her life. From dragging her back to work, from feeding her mother lie after lie that she was too busy working, thereby saving her from Mama’s stifling concern, to letting her stay at his penthouse apartment, challenging her mind by throwing unbelievably innovative problems at her... He’d been gradually guiding her out of her grief-stricken shell.

Beneath the arrogance and the ruthless charm he used so skillfully, Christian hid a heart of gold.

Maybe it wasn’t that strange that their grief over Jai’s loss had brought them closer together. After all, they’d both loved him, adored him. But this attraction for Christian that she’d begun to feel recently, this was not okay. If he got even a whiff of it, he was going to tease her endlessly—mock her like there was no tomorrow. Just the thought of it made her face burn.

“Come back to me, Starling. You’re off in some other land again,” Christian said, his voice unusually grave.

Priya bristled. “Stop calling me that,” she said automatically. Just as he’d intended.

It was a game between them since the first time they’d met. The bird was native to the Pacific Northwest area. A small, frail thing that had a beauty of its own. The nickname had always grated on her—maybe because it suited her.

“Fine, I’ll call you a crow, then,” he countered, as he always did.

Her mouth tilting up at the edges, she met his gaze. Those sensuous lips stretched into a wide smile—a real one that touched his eyes. Turning him from a simply good-looking man into a strikingly gorgeous one. Something arched across the distance between them—something far too real, something full of an ache and longing. Chest tight, Priya looked away before he could realize all of that came from her.

Which meant it was time to answer him seriously. “I don’t want to overcomplicate things, Christian.”

“It won’t.” He sighed. “I’m sick and tired of the board using any and all means to control me. You know it was a problem even when Jai was here. For every new direction we wanted to take the company in, they came up with a million excuses. And you...”

“What about me?” Priya said, tilting her chin up. An expression in his eyes made her spine snap with steel. She could stand his mockery, his teasing, but not his pity. “You don’t have to fight my battles, Christian. At least, not anymore.”

“What if I just stand like a shield in front of you to give you breathing space?”

Something about the angle of his head when he said it twisted her gut. Priya shot to her feet, frustration leeching away any calm she’d felt this morning. “Mama came to see you again?”

“Your parents came to see Ben. She—” Christian cleared his throat “—waylaid me on my way to work. She said they’re canceling their trip to India, that she doesn’t feel comfortable leaving you here by yourself. Your dad couldn’t get in a single word.”

Priya banged the table with her fist. “They’ve planned this reunion for the last decade. Her entire family’s coming—her sister from the UK and her aunt from Australia... Damn it. How do I get it into her head that I’m fine? That I don’t need a keeper?”

“You marry me,” Christian said, swooping into the space. Blocking her agitated steps. “Look at me, Pree.”

When she didn’t, he tilted her chin up. She had no idea what he saw in her face, but it made him take a step back. He rubbed a finger on his temple. “You trust me, don’t you?”

The thread of barely there hurt in his voice arrested all other concerns.

No, that wasn’t possible. Of all the upside-down things in her world, there was no way Christian could be hurt by her opinion of him. And yet, the longer she remained quiet, the more something deepened in his eyes. “Of course I trust you.” Then she laughed into the building silence because there was no way she could let him realize it was herself she didn’t trust. “I’m not the one with a billion-dollar empire tied to his brain and his name.”

He regarded her thoughtfully, that frown still in place.

“I see the logic in your plan,” Priya added, shoving aside her own confusion. “I’m just...”

“What is it, Priya?”

She rubbed a hand over her belly, recognizing the knot of fear there. “Okay, fine. We can do this...convenient-marriage thing. I’ll sign whatever prenup you want me to.”

“Please don’t insult me and our relationship by using that as a shield. You and I both know I’d trust you with every single dollar to my name.”

She nodded, knowing it was unfair. To them both. “At the end of it, I...” She looked into his eyes, and it felt like she was diving deep into something both terrifying and exhilarating, but she couldn’t stop. “I don’t want to lose you, Christian. As a friend, I mean. I couldn’t bear it if we...messed this up.”

He didn’t laugh it off like she thought he would. Or mock her. Or tease her. Or tell her that she was needlessly worrying about a nonexistent issue. That there was nothing to blur the lines in their relationship.

He simply gathered her to him—like he’d done in the hospital when she’d fallen apart after Jai had died.

Priya buried her face in his neck and breathed in the scent of him. Instinct overrode common sense as she wrapped her arms around him. He was warm and solidly male. His body around hers was both familiar and terribly exciting.

Because this time, it wasn’t simply solace she felt. Her belly rolled and every muscle in her urged her to get closer, to press harder against him. It was more, so much more. Something dangerously close to naked desire.

“I promise I won’t let anything come between us,” he said, breathing the words into her hair, and before she could blink, he put her away from him.

When he looked at her again, his expression was smooth, steady. Not an ounce of the emotion she’d heard in his voice or the need she’d imagined in the press of his arms around her. No sign of the tension she’d felt in his back and shoulders.

He was the Christian the world knew—smooth and shallow with a ruthless edge.

“I’ll arrange for a license as soon as possible.”

She nodded, still chasing that emotion in his face. It was like a roar in her head—this need for what she’d found in his voice just moments before. Even when it wasn’t the quietly sensible thing she always did.

“Just remember why we’re doing this, Pree. Your parents can go on that trip to India without feeling guilty. I can get the board off my back. And you can continue to live in the apartment. I won’t even be in your hair once we land that collaboration with the Swiss team. The infrastructure itself will take six months to get set up and needs a lot of oversight.”

“And your girlfriends?” The question burst out of her mouth before Priya even knew she was thinking it. She could feel the heat creeping up her cheeks. “Forget I said that. None of my business.”

“Are you sure?” he asked in a soft, silky voice that sent a prickle of heat all along her skin.

Priya nodded, though she wasn’t sure whom she was trying to convince. There was that demand in his eyes again. As if compelling her to ask him. As if he knew. “Of course I’m sure, Christian. Your love life is none of my business.”

For the rest of the day, Priya wondered at how it was the strangest thing a woman could say to the man who’d just asked her to marry him.