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Pierce Avery was having a very bad day. Such a bad day, in fact, that all other bad days in his life up until this very moment seemed positively benign in comparison. Stress churned in his stomach and tightened bands of steel around his head. His hands were clammy. He probably shouldn't even be driving, given his current state of mind.
Ordinarily, his first instinct during such a crisis would be to hit the river in his kayak. On a hot August afternoon, there was nothing like catching a face full of spray to court, paradoxically, both exhilaration and peace. He'd known since he was a preteen that he wasn't cut out for desk work. Mother Nature called him, seduced him, claimed him.
As a young man, his only option had been to find a career where he could act like a daredevil kid and get paid for it. Such occupations were few and far between, so he'd had to invent his own company. Now he spent his days leading groups of college kids, fish-out-of-water high-level executives or I'm-not-dead-yet senior citizens in exploring the great outdoors.
Biking, hiking, rappelling, caving and his favoritekayaking. He loved his job. He loved life. But today, the very foundations of who he was had crumbled beneath him like loose soil in a rainstorm.
He parallel parked on a quiet street in downtown Charlottesville. School hadn't begun yet at the University of Virginia, so the sidewalk cafes were only sporadically populated. Pierce's alma mater had shaped him despite his best efforts to rebel. He'd graduated with honors and a master's degree in business administration, but only because his father had pushed and prodded and insisted that Pierce live up to his potential.
Pierce owed his father everything. Now, years later, his father needed him. And Pierce couldn't help.
Locking the car with shaking hands, he stared at the unobtrusive office doorway in front of him. A pot of cheerful geraniums tucked against the brick building soaked up the sun. An engraved brass placard flanked a modern doorbell. The only odd note was a tiny For Rent sign propped on the inside of the window, backed by antique lace sheers. Anyone or anything could have been inside. A doctor, a CPA, an acupuncturist. Maybe even a massage therapist.
Charlottesville's thriving downtown community was rich with arts and crafts as well as more conventional businesses. One of Pierce's ex-girlfriends had a pottery studio just down the street. But today, none of that was on his radar. He barely even noticed the rich aroma of freshly baked bread from the shop next door.
Pierce had an appointment with Nicola Parrish. He rang the doorbell, knocked briefly and stepped across the threshold. In contrast to the blinding sunlight outside, the reception area was cool, dim and fragrant with the herbal scent of more potted plants in the bay window. An older woman looked up from her computer and smiled. "Mr. Avery?"
Pierce nodded jerkily. He was twenty minutes early, but he'd been unable to make himself stay at home another second.
The receptionist smiled. "Have a seat. Ms. Parrish will be with you shortly."
It was exactly two minutes before his stated appointment time when the summons came. His handler nodded with another gentle smile. "She's ready for you. Go on in."
Pierce didn't know what to expect. His mother had set up this appointment. Pierce didn't want it. In fact, he'd give almost anything to walk out and never look back. But the memory of his mom's anguished eyes kept his feet moving forward.
The woman he had come to see stood, her hand extended. "Good afternoon, Mr. Avery. I'm Nicola Parrish. Pleased to meet you."
He shook her hand, noting the firm grip, the slender fingers, the soft skin. "Thank you for fitting me in so quickly."
"Your mother said it was urgent."
Unexpected grief constricted his throat. "It is. And it's not. In fact. I don't really know why I'm here. Or what you can do "
She waved an arm. "Have a seat. We'll sort things out."
Her ash-blond hair was cut in a chin-length bob. Though it swung as she moved her head, he could swear that not a single strand dared to dance out of place. She was slender, but not skinny, tall, but still a few inches shy of his height.
He scanned the wall behind her head. Harvard Law. A second degree in forensic science. Various awards and accolades. Combined with the fashionable black suit she wore, he got the message. This woman was smart, dedicated and professional. Whether or not she was good at ferreting out information and answers remained to be seen.
Suddenly, she stood. "Perhaps we might be more comfortable over here." Not waiting to see if he would follow, she stepped from behind her desk and moved to a small sitting area. Now he could see that her legs were her best asset. They were the kind of legs that made teenage boys and grown men believe in a benevolent creator.
He sat down in an armchair that was more comfortable than it looked. The lawyer picked up a silver pot. "Coffee?"
"Please. Black. No sugar."
She poured his drink and handed it to him, their fingers brushing momentarily. Neither of her hands boasted a ring of any kind. Pierce drank half the cup in one gulp, wincing when his tongue protested the temperature of the liquid. A shot of whiskey might have been more in order.
The lawyer's eyes were kind, but watchful. She waited for him to speak, and when he didn't, she sighed. "The clock is ticking, Mr. Avery. I only have forty-five minutes today."
Pierce leaned forward, his head in his hands. "I don't know where to start." He felt defeated, helpless. Those emotions were so foreign to him that he was angry. Frustrated. Ready to snap.
"The only information I received from your mother was that you needed to investigate a possible case of hospital fraud from over three decades ago. I assume this has something to do with your birth?"
He sat back in his chair, his hands gripping the arms. His mother had contacted Nicola Parrish because one of his mom's good friends had worked with the lawyer in an adoption situation and had highly recommended her work ethic, in addition to her investigative experience. "It does,"
"Are we talking about a situation where infants might have mistakenly gone home with the wrong parents?"
"It's not that simple." Perhaps he should have seen a shrink first. To sort out his chaotic feelings. Lawyers were trained to be observant, not to get into a guy's head. Although in truth, he didn't want anyone inside his head. Because if that happened, he would be unable to hide the dark river of confusion that swelled and crested in his veins.
Inhaling sharply, he dug his fingernails into the thick, expensive upholstery. "My father is dying of kidney failure."
The flicker of sympathy in her blue-gray eyes seemed genuine. "I'm sorry."
"He needs a transplant. His time may run out while he's on the waiting list. So I decided I should be the one to do it. We ran all the tests, and " He stopped short as the lump in his throat made speech impossible.
Pierce jumped to his feet, pacing the small space. He noted the expensive Oriental rug in pastel shades of pink and green. The buffed hardwood floors visible elsewhere. The fireplace that had been functional once upon a time, but now framed a large arrangement of forsythia.
"I'm not his son." He'd said those words in his head a hundred times in the last three days. Blurting them aloud made the truth no more palatable.
"You were adopted? And you didn't know?"
"My mother says that's not the case."
"An affair, then?"
Pierce winced inwardly. "I don't think that's a possibility. My mother is a one-man/one-woman kind of female. She adores my dad. For a moment I thought she might be lying to me about the adoption thing. But I saw her face when the doctor told us. She was devastated. This news was as shocking to her as it was to me."
"So then the only other explanation is that you were switched in the hospital nursery, right?"
"My mother's aunt, my great-aunt, was the doctor on duty that night. I highly doubt that she would have allowed such a mistake."
"So you need me to do what?"
He leaned his forearm on the mantel, staring at a painting of Thomas Jefferson hanging on the wall above the fireplace. The former president had fathered an undetermined number of children. People were debating his paternity even now.
Pierce had never once doubted his familial connections. He was as close to his parents as a son could be, though they'd had their differences during his adolescent years. The knowledge that he was not his father's blood son had shaken him to the core. If he wasn't Pierce Avery, then who was he?
"My mother is spending every waking minute at the hospital with my father. She hopes they will get him stabilized enough to go home. But even so, her focus is his well-being."
"I've informed my assistant manager that I may need some personal time. He's extremely competent. So I have no worries there. I'll make myself available to you as much as possible, but we need you to spearhead this investigation. We've told my father I'm not a match, but he doesn't know the whole truth. Clearly, this is very important to us. We need your help."
Nikki had never seen a man less likely to need help from a woman. Pierce Avery was big. Broad-shouldered, well over six feet and muscular on top of that. He looked like he could take a mountain apart with his bare hands or scale one in a blizzard.
He was also the kind of man who instinctively protected women. She could see it in his stance. His sheer masculinity made something flutter in her belly. She was educated, independent. Financially stable. So why did the prospect of being coddled and sheltered by a big, strong man make her go weak in the knees with silly feminine arousal?
Those pesky prehistoric pheromones.
"It seems to me that our first step will be to subpoena hospital records," she said calmly. Pierce Avery wanted immediate action. That much was evident. So she would try to be accommodating.
Her would-be client grimaced. "The hospital was a private facility. In the mid-nineties, it was bought out by a corporate entity, absorbed and ultimately bulldozed."
"Nevertheless, the records had to be preserved somewhere."
"That's what we're hoping. How long will it take you to get them?"
Nikki frowned. "You seem to have the misguided notion that you are the only case I have to consider." His single-mindedness was understandable, but unacceptable.
"We can pay."
Nikki felt her hackles rise. "I don't like it when rich people throw their money around and expect everyone else to jump."
He glanced at her expensively framed diplomas. "Harvard isn't exactly cheap, Ms. Parrish. I doubt you've ever clipped coupons."
She willed her anger to subside, regulating her breathing until she could speak without inflection. "You'd be surprised."
He stared at her. "I've never cared much for lawyers."
One by one, he was pushing each of her buttons. Teeth clenched, she glared. "Are you always this obnoxious?" She stood, smoothing her skirt.
Pierce closed the small distance between them, running a hand through dark hair that was thick and a little shaggy. "Are you always this difficult?"
Their breath comingled. She could see a pulse beating in the side of his neck. His deep-brown eyes were too beautiful for a man. "I rarely brawl with my customers," she muttered. "What is it about you?"
He stepped back. It irked her that her reaction felt more like disappointment than relief. "I'm not myself," he said, looking somewhat abashed.
"Is that an apology?"
"I still don't like lawyers."
"You can't really afford to be choosy, can you?"
His eyes flashed, "This wasn't even my idea."
"No," she drawled. "Your mommy made you come." She taunted him deliberately, curious to see if he would tell her to go to hell.
Instead, he surprised her by laughing out loud, his entire face lighting with humor. "This is the first time in my life that I recall ever paying to be insulted."
She shook her head, bemused by the almost instant connection between them. A negative kind of rapport perhaps, but a definite something. "I do believe you bring out the worst in me."
"Bad can be good."
He said it with a straight face, but his eyes danced. "I don't flirt with clients," she said firmly, shutting him down.
"Why is this office for rent?"
He shot the question beneath her defenses, leaving her gaping and struggling to find an ambiguous response. "Well, I " Damn it. She was cool and deadly in a courtroom. But that was with hours of preparation. Today she felt quicksand beneath her feet.
Pierce cocked his head. "State secrets?"
She sighed. "Not at all. If you must know, I've sold my practice. I have an offer to join a firm in northern Virginia, just outside D.C. With one of my law professors."
"I hear a but in there somewhere." His curious gaze belied his earlier gruffness.
"I asked for time to think about it. I've been out of school for six years. Never taken more than a long weekend for vacation. Burnout is such a cliched word. But that's where I am."
"You must be pretty sure of your decision if you've already sold your practice."
"I'm not. Not at all. But even if I don't take the offer. I'm ready for something new. I'd like to work as legal counsel for a nonprofit."
"You can't get rich doing that."
"Have you ever heard the phrase follow your bliss? I want to live my bucket list as it comes not wait until I'm old and half-dead."
"I can relate," he said, shoving his hands in his pockets.
She doubted it. He had silver spoon, heir-of-the-manor written all over him. She glanced at her watch. "We'll need to continue this later." she said. "I have another appointment."
"Doesn't matter," he said. "I've found out all I need to know. You can give me your whole attention. I like that."
Was it her ears, or did every word out of his mouth sound sexual? "I'm beginning a vacation," she said slowly.
"Yes, I know. And some deep introspection, I can help you with that. Whatever your fees are, I'll pay them. And together we'll exhume the skeletons in my closet that honest to God, I'd rather not meet. But in the meantime, I'll help you become more of a human being and less of an uptight lady lawyer."
"I haven't said I'll take your case. And besides what qualifies you to help me unwind?"
He adjusted the portrait over the fireplace until it hung perfectly straight. Then propped a hip on the corner of her very expensive desk. "You'll see. Ms. Nicola Parrish. You'll see."