Authors: Rowan Coleman
“What’s that?” he asked. “Oh, God, you’ve had a baby. Of course, how foolish of me. Here I am trying to let you down gently. I should have known you would have moved on, met someone else—started a family.”
“Oh you idiot,” Natalie seethed. “I told you I had something to tell you, didn’t I? While you were in Italy, I was here on my own. Pregnant.”
She realized he still didn’t understand what she was saying. “About nine months after our weekend in Venice, Jack, I gave birth to a baby boy. To your son.”
Jack’s jaw dropped.
“Congratulations, Casanova,” Natalie said. “You’re a father.”
“A disarmingly sweet tale of motherhood and reluctant love.”
“Brilliant…moving and funny.”
Another Mother’s Life
The Accidental Mother
A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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New York, NY 10020
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2007 by Rowan Coleman
Originally published as
The Baby Group
in Great Britain in 2007 by Arrow Books, a division of Random House
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Pocket Books Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Mommy by mistake / Rowan Coleman.—1st Pocket Books trade pbk. ed.
Originally published: The baby group. London: Arrow, 2007.
1. Unmarried mothers—Fiction. 2. Businesswomen—Fiction. 3. Motherhood—Fiction. I. Title.
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For Kate, Steve, and their son Oscar
Born 11 August 2006
atalie Curzon had been stuck on the Northern line in the half dark on the day she met the man who would completely change her life in the most unexpected way.
She had been feeling sticky, hot, and mildly anxious on that unseasonably warm April morning because she knew that she was going to be late for her meeting with the lingerie buyer at Selfridges, a meeting it had taken her and her business partner, Alice, months to arrange. Natalie didn’t want to be late for that meeting; who knew how long it would take to rearrange it?
First she noticed the man looking at her, or rather she felt his gaze as she read over her presentation notes again. For a second or two she kept looking down at the words without reading them and then as she looked up he looked down again, rattling his newspaper to smooth out the pages. Natalie saw him shift slightly in his seat as he studied his paper with infinite care.
Natalie wondered if he had been admiring her. It would be
nice if he had, but she remembered only too well the time she had thought that the whole world was admiring her because everybody she passed was staring and smiling at her. In fact, it had turned out that her wrap dress had slipped open at the front, revealing a gray and much machine-washed bra to the public at large. The incident had caused her considerable embarrassment and her friends and colleagues much hilarity, not least because she was the codirector of a sexy lingerie company. She had never again gone out in public in anything less than her finest underwear.
After giving herself a quick once-over to check that she was fully dressed, Natalie decided she could let herself think he was admiring her. He probably wasn’t, he was probably scrutinizing the Tube map over her left shoulder. Still, even the possibility gave her a small inner glow. She would have let the moment pass without incident, taking enough satisfaction in a potential unknown admirer, and never given him a second thought. But as she looked back down at her notes she sensed the man watching her again.
The second time she looked up, he did not look away. Hesitantly, Natalie glanced over her shoulder to see if he really was looking at something else. When she looked back he was still watching her, and this time he smiled. Natalie returned the smile instinctively. He was about her age—perhaps a little older—dressed in a good, dark blue tailored suit. His left hand was bare and there were no telltale tan marks on his ring finger. He wasn’t handsome exactly, but he had something about him, a kind of mobility in his face that made him interesting to look at, with his closely shaven pale skin and slightly ruddy cheeks. He had thick, dark, longish hair that curled over his collar, and as he held Natalie’s gaze she noticed he had very dark eyes, almost black.
“This is a nightmare,” he said lightly, gesturing generally at their predicament. His skin glistened with a light sheen of perspiration that made Natalie worry that her nose was shiny.
“It is dreadful,” she replied with a resigned shrug.
“That’s my whole afternoon blown now,” he said, before adding decisively, “you know, now I come to think of it, what’s the point in me going back to the office at all? I’m going to take the rest of the day off.”
“You’re probably right,” Natalie replied, thinking he must be someone quite important if he could just take time off like that. She thought about her meeting; it had taken her and Alice weeks and weeks of persuasion to get Selfridges to even consider stocking their lingerie. She looked at the man and wondered if he was going to continue this conversation or let them both slip back into the silence of strangers.
“I might as well take the rest of the day off,” he repeated, almost to himself. He shifted in his seat restlessly, looking as if he couldn’t stand to spend another second stuck on the Underground train. Natalie sympathized.
“Lucky you,” she said, a touch wistfully. She glanced at the woman sitting to her right who was quite obviously eavesdropping on their conversation to pass the time. Natalie couldn’t work out if the man was chatting her up or not. Maybe he was just being friendly, because if he was chatting her up he wasn’t being very obvious about it. If she wanted to know for sure—and frankly she did—then she had to try to think of something to say that would elicit a reaction from him that would make his intentions clear.
“I should get back,” she said. It wasn’t exactly the alluring and inviting sentence she was reaching for, but it was the only one that came out. She tried again. “I run my own design company called Mystery Is Power with my business partner and best friend, Alice. Lingerie, sexy but very high class, you know the kind of thing. We’re really busy at the moment, but I must admit on a day like this and after being stuck in here it would be nice to be out in the fresh air…”
The man looked impressed but not embarrassed or intimidated by the word “lingerie,” and he didn’t snigger like a schoolboy. Natalie liked that about him, because it was surprising the number of fully grown men who did snigger or blush when confronted with the posh word for underwear.
“Then don’t go back,” he said, smiling with one corner of his mouth. He had a very nice mouth and a pleasant smile.
Natalie sat back in her seat. She wished she could be sure whether or not he was chatting her up. The ambiguity annoyed her slightly. The thing was, she liked him, or liked the look of him at least. She liked the fact that he talked to strangers on a train, that he seemed impulsive yet in control of his own life. Of course, that could mean that she was trying to establish a flirtation with a psychopath, but at least that made him more interesting than the average man. She was trying to think of something else to say when he spoke again.
“Come to lunch with me,” he almost commanded, before adding with a tad less certainty, “if you like, I mean. I know a really nice little Italian restaurant quite near to this station.”
Natalie looked back up at him. Now was not the time to be enigmatic.
“Are you asking me on a date?”
“I am,” he said, as if he had only just decided himself. “Do you mind?”
She smiled at him; he was a strangely appealing mixture of confidence and vulnerability.
“Why not,” she replied, deciding that Alice would approve of her seizing the moment, even if it meant several hundred apologies and an extensive period of groveling.
“I’m Natalie, by the way.” She held out her hand for him to shake.
“Jack Newhouse,” the man said, taking her hand. His fingers were strong and warm. “Pleased to meet you.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, too,” she said.
And then the train moaned into life and began to ease slowly into the tunnel.
There was no way Natalie could have known that from that moment on, her life was about to take a new and very different course.
Once they were out of the Tube and in the sunshine he relaxed a little more, talking to her easily. He was very charming and there was a spark about him, as if he were brimming with life and energy, that was very compelling.
“This place isn’t at all glamorous,” he told her as they made their way into the small restaurant, where tiny red glass lanterns hung from the fishing nets that adorned the ceiling. “But it serves excellent, honest food.”
“I love Italian food,” Natalie said as they ate. “Well, to be honest, I love food. But especially Italian—somehow I’ve never quite managed to go to Italy. I keep meaning to, but being self-employed makes taking a vacation so difficult.”
Jack looked almost personally affronted.
“That’s impossible,” he said. “You must go, you have to. Italy is the most beautiful, most wonderful, warm, fabulous country in the world. The best food, the best culture, the best-looking people—mostly.”
Natalie laughed at his enthusiasm. She liked the way he approached life, as if he were open to any eventuality. He had an indefinable air about him she couldn’t quite quantify. It seemed that, despite his boldness earlier, he wasn’t used to seducing women, because unlike some he didn’t trot out a parade of hackneyed phrases
and clichéd lines. He was very easy to be with and talk to. The conversation flowed so comfortably that they might have known each other for much longer than just under an hour. And the more relaxed he became, the more Natalie was attracted to him.
“My mother is Italian,” Jack said. He paused for a second as if he had just remembered something rather troubling, but then his smile returned and he went on. “She’s a genuine Venetian, would you believe? All my childhood holidays were spent there and my mom and dad live just outside Venice now, they retired there. In fact, I am one of the few men entitled to be a gondolier because you have to be born there to be one, and I was.” He paused again and then added regretfully, “When I was a boy all I wanted to be was a gondolier.”
“So why aren’t you?” Natalie said, smiling at the thought of Jack in a stripy top and straw hat. “I bet you do a great ‘O sole mio.’”
“Who knows, I might be one day,” Jack said, and they both laughed, their eyes locking. It was Natalie who, disconcerted by the sudden intensity in his eyes, had to look away first.
“It is an incredible place,” he told her. “You never tire of just looking at it; even the grubbiest back alley is a work of art.”
“It sounds wonderful,” Natalie said, thinking briefly of her own far less appealing girlhood.
Jack watched her over a small vase of three red carnations, tapping his forefinger impatiently on the tabletop. He glanced at his watch and Natalie wondered if he had somewhere else he had to be. As much as he seemed to be enjoying her company, he also seemed to find it impossible to be still.
“You’re an impulsive kind of woman aren’t you, Natalie?” he asked her.
Natalie shrugged. “I suppose I must be,” she said, feeling the thrill of the unknown bubble in the pit of her stomach. “I’m hav
ing lunch with a virtual stranger after all, and a pretty strange stranger at that.”
“Have dinner with me this evening.” Once again it was more like a command than a request, but this time there was no uncertainty at all in his tone.
“Dinner?” Natalie raised an eyebrow; that wasn’t exactly her idea of impulsive.
“In Venice,” Jack added, his voice light but his eyes crackling with raw energy. “Naturally.”
Natalie held his dark-eyed gaze for a long moment and knew without question that as soon as she had caught his eye on the Tube he’d been planning to ask her that question. What she most wanted to know was why. Why had he singled her out?
“Why not?” she said instead, being very careful not to let her nerves show. “Why ever not?”
Alice would kill her. She could be very reasonable about delayed trains and hectic schedules and even unplanned lunches with attractive strangers, but she would not be amused by Natalie taking off for the weekend with said attractive stranger. It would be the “stranger” part that would upset Alice, causing her to lecture Natalie at length about potential serial killers and con men and to remind Natalie that she had promised not to get herself into any more silly scrapes after the Paris incident.
But somehow, whatever Alice’s warnings and remonstrations might be, Natalie knew she had to go to Venice with Jack Newhouse.
Natalie felt Jack’s gaze on her as she watched the sun setting behind St. Mark’s Basilica. Jack had reserved them a table on the terrace at Cip’s Club, at the Hotel Cipriani, situated on an island just across from St. Mark’s Square. He spoke to all the waiters in
Italian. He could have been discussing the waterbus timetable for all Natalie knew, but the rhythm and the tone of the language was certainly beguiling. The animation and sheer joy in his face as he spoke his second language lit him up from the inside.
“This is marvelous,” Natalie said, tearing her eyes away from the impossibly beautiful view to look at Jack, whose skin glowed in the golden light of the setting sun. “You are a very lucky man to have this place in your life.”
Jack looked thoughtful for a moment, dipping his head.
“It’s almost too much,” he said, without looking at her. “The more joy or beauty there is in your life, the more you have to lose.”
Natalie didn’t respond for a moment. Just as she thought she had this man figured out, he would do or say something to throw her. In that second he looked so intensely sad that she thought he might even shed a tear.
“I’d rather have happiness for a little while than never at all,” she said softly.
Then his hand reached across the table, his fingertips stopping a few millimeters from hers. They still hadn’t touched each other, not since they’d shaken hands on the Tube. The anticipation tingled between them like a promise. Which was why Natalie put the slight tension she noticed in his jaw and shoulders down to his nervous English genes kicking in.
“Natalie,” Jack said. “I have to tell you something.”
Natalie felt her own muscles contract. That was the kind of line that usually prefaced a breakup. It would be a record even by her own standards to get dumped in Venice by a man she had only just met. The terrible thought occurred to her that it might be her, and the awful mistake of bringing her here, that had made him feel so low a moment ago.
“You do?” she said cautiously.
“I don’t want you to think that I’m this kind of man,” Jack said, gesturing around him with his wineglass.
“What kind of man?” Natalie asked.
“I don’t usually bring women I hardly know to five-star hotels on the Continent for dinner. I don’t want you to think I’m a…a cad, I suppose.”
“A cad?” Natalie had to choke back laughter.
“Don’t laugh.” Jack smiled ruefully, looking down into his wineglass.
“I don’t get you, Jack,” Natalie said. “But I like you. I really like you.”
When Jack looked back up at her, his expression was intense.
“You must know that I very much want to take you to bed,” he said. “But I don’t expect it. If you like I can get you a water taxi back to the airport and you’ll be home before dawn.” A hint of that smile lightened his mouth once again. “Or you could stay here with me for the weekend. Like I say, I don’t expect it. But I want it. I want you.”