Her New Year Baby Secret

By: Jessica Gilmore

Sophie stared at the three beaming faces, completely flabbergasted as she took in their words, the envelope still clutched unopened in her hand. ‘I’m what?’

‘Going to the Snowflake Ball!’

‘We’re taking you as our guest!’

‘You didn’t think we’d leave you out, did you?’ Ashleigh finished, taking a glass from Emma and pressing it into Sophie’s unresisting hand. ‘Cheers!’

‘But...but...my hair. And what will I wear?’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Emma said. ‘If only one of us was an aspiring fashion designer with a wardrobe crammed full of original designs. Hang on a minute...’ She strode into the minuscule bedroom—so tiny Sophie could only fit in a single cabin bed—and pulled back the curtain that divided the crammed clothes rails from the rest of the room. ‘Ta-dah!’

‘I couldn’t wear one of my designs to an event like this! Everyone else will be in dresses like, well, like yours. Expensive, designer...’

‘And you will outshine us all in an original Sophie Bradshaw.’ Grace beamed at her. ‘Oh, Sophie, it’s going to be a magical night. I am so very happy you are coming with is. Let’s get you ready...’

* * *

Why on earth did I agree to attend this ball?

More to the point, why did he agree to attend the Snowflake Ball every New Year’s Eve? It was always the same, filled with the same people, the same talk, the same tedium. Marco cast a scowling look at the crowded ballroom. Oh, it was tastefully done out with abstract snowflakes suspended from the ceiling and the glitter kept to a minimum, but it was still not a patch on Venice on New Year’s Eve. His was a city that knew how to celebrate and New Year was a night when the stately old city came alive.

He hadn’t spent a New Year in Venice for over a decade, although there were times when the pull of the city of his birth ran through his veins like the water in the canals and he missed the alleyways and bridges, the grand old palazzos and the markets with an almost physical ache that no amount of excellent champagne and food could make up for. His hands folded into fists. Tomorrow he would return home, not just for a fleeting visit, some business and a duty dinner with his mother and sister. Tomorrow he would return for a fortnight, to host the Santoros’ annual Epiphany Ball and then stay to walk his sister down the aisle.

Tomorrow he would step into his father’s shoes, no matter that he wasn’t ready. No matter that he didn’t deserve to.

Marco took a deep sip of wine, barely tasting the richness. He wouldn’t think about it tonight, his last night of freedom. He needed a distraction.

His eyes skimmed the room, widening with appreciation as four women stopped at a table opposite. They were talking over each other, faces lit with enthusiasm as they took their seats. His gaze lingered on a laughing blonde. Her silver minidress was an interesting choice in what was a mainly conservatively dressed ballroom, but Marco wasn’t complaining, not when the wearer possessed such excellent legs. Excellent legs, a really nice, lithe figure and, as she turned to face him as if she were aware of his scrutiny, a pair of familiar blue eyes. Eyes staring straight back at him with such undisguised horror Marco almost turned and checked, just to make sure there wasn’t an axe murderer creeping up behind him.

The girl from the snow. The one who had disappeared...

Marco muttered a curse, unsure whether to coolly acknowledge her or ignore her presence; it had been a novel experience to wake up and find himself alone without as much as a note. Novel and not exactly pleasant; in Marco’s experience women clung on long after the relationship was over, they didn’t disappear before it had even begun.

And they certainly didn’t run away before dawn.

His eyes narrowed. She owed him an explanation at the least, apology at best. There were rules for these kinds of encounters and Sophie Bradshaw had broken every one. Besides, he was damned if he was going to spend the evening marked as the big bad wolf with Little Silver Dress going all wide-eyed at the very sight of him. He had a fortnight of difficult encounters ahead of him; tonight was supposed to be about having fun.

Mind made up, Marco took a step in Sophie’s direction, but she was already on her feet and shouldering her way through the ballroom. Away from him. So she liked to play, did she? He set off at an unhurried pace, following the silver dress as it darted across the crowded room and through a discreet door set in the wooden panelling. The door began to close behind her, but his long stride shortened the distance enough for him to catch it before it could close fully and he slipped inside...

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