“I want you to know that I understand everything you’ve done, all the decisions you’ve made up till now, and I want you to recognize that I won’t attempt to take this baby from you. But I also want you to acknowledge that I have some rights here too.”

“You were perfectly willing to give those rights up just a few weeks ago,” she reminded him, and he leveled a steady look at her.

“And just like you, I changed my mind.”

“So, now what?”

“You can’t continue living in that apartment, Cleo. The stairs are dangerous, and the mold is a health hazard. And the walls are so damp you can’t tell me it doesn’t leak during the winter. It can’t be good for you or the baby.”

“I’ll be moving in with Luc and Blue next month.”

“I don’t want you to dismiss this out of hand . . . ,” he began, his cautious tone setting off alarm bells in her mind and making her sit up a little straighter. “But I’d like you to consider moving in here.”

“Absolutely not.” It was a knee-jerk response, but she really didn’t want to even deliberate over the pros and cons of his proposal.

“I know it seems preposterous, but my plan has merit.”

“I don’t think you’ve fully considered this plan. The baby won’t be here for another six months; that’s time enough to agree on some kind of joint-custody arrangement.” The thought of sharing her baby’s time with him wasn’t at all appealing, but she did acknowledge that he had rights in this situation despite the documents he’d signed. She could only hope that he changed his mind again before she gave birth.

“The baby is already here, and I want her to have the best possible care even before her birth,” he told her.

“I can do that,” she insisted.

“I can do it better.” She gasped at that arrogant proclamation, which embodied everything she had feared about his involvement. This was Dante Damaso taking charge and railroading her.

“How dare you? I’ve been taking care of myself quite fine up until now, with absolutely zero support from you. One little letter and suddenly you’re ready to play dad? And what if you change your mind again next week? Or next month? Or years down the line? How do I deal with the fallout then?”

“I told you I wasn’t really sure what I’d like my actual role to be, but I do want to be a part of that child’s life.”

“As what?” Frustration made her voice shrill. “His uncle? A friend of the family? Figure out what you want before you drag my baby into your life, Dante.”

“I don’t know what I want. All I know is that I would like an opportunity to work it out, and I still have six months within which to do that. In the meantime, you moving in here would help me make that decision while simultaneously solving the immediate predicament you have with your living arrangements.”

“I don’t want to live with you.” She shook her head, still unable to believe he was suggesting such an outlandish notion. Yet his eyes were deadly serious.

“You know how much I travel. I’m hardly ever here, so you’d have the run of the place. You can make yourself at home, have friends over, live comfortably, and I can be sure that you’re safe and well taken care of while you’re pregnant with my kid.”

It was a completely insane idea. She wasn’t going to allow him to manipulate her like this. Not while she still had options.

“And what happens after the baby’s born?” Her question seemed to stump him, and he ruminated over it for a few moments before replying.

“We’ll work something else out. Find a suitable home for you both. I’ll help with that, and if you have reservations about me helping with property, I’ll be more than happy to put it in the baby’s name.”

“Why not just do that now?” she asked.

“By the time we find the right place and complete all the paperwork, your pregnancy would be too advanced. And where would you live in the meantime? With Blue and Luc? Do you think that’s fair? Being a burden on them like that? Besides, there’s no name to put on the papers yet.”

Oh, he had all the answers today.

“It wouldn’t be a good idea for me to live here, Dante.” She pushed herself away from the table. “I’d like to leave now, please.”

He nodded, the muscles bunching in his jaw as he fought to keep whatever emotion he was feeling under wraps. He tossed aside his napkin.

“Very well.” He helped her shrug into her jacket and then lifted his phone up from one of the kitchen counters.

“James, we’ll be down in a couple of minutes. Meet us at the elevator.” He hung up without another word and waved her ahead of him. “After you.”

The sun was just starting to set half an hour later, when Dante walked Cleo up to the security gate of her building. An unsavory-looking young man was hanging out next to the gate. He was smoking something that smelled a little too aromatic to be a cigarette and jerked his chin at them when he saw them approach.

“’Sup?” he muttered and then looked away from Dante’s intimidating glare.

“Thanks, Dante,” she said firmly, hoping to send him back to the car, where James stood waiting. He was having none of that, though, and lifted an unimpressed brow at her words.

“I’m walking you to your door,” he said, glancing at the lurking boy with palpable distaste. “For obvious reasons.”

“It’s not that bad,” she protested. “They’re all mostly students.”