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"Mr. O'Malley," a brunette receptionist said, rising upon Tag's entrance to H & R Lab. The place had sunshine-yellow walls covered in poster-size photos of grinning, chubby babies—he and his wife had secretly dubbed it the Willy Wonka Land of Fertility. "Welcome. We've been expecting you."
"Um, yeah." Tag had been under the impression that his requested presence was a routine maintenance thing. What was up with the warm welcome? He waved the certified letter he'd received, the one summoning him to be here at the appointed time. "Mind showing me where I'm supposed to be?"
"Sure," she said, already out from behind her desk. The twentysomething woman was so flustered, she nearly took out a potted plant. "If you'll follow me, I'll take you to our conference room."
Truth be told, Tag had forgotten the sperm Maria had insisted he deposit. When "normal" methods of starting a family hadn't panned out, they'd turned to less conventional ways—such as artificial insemination.
With Maria gone, he'd abandoned all hope of ever having a family. She'd been his world. Now he filled his days with business and his nights with ESPN and frozen dinners.
"Here we are," the receptionist said, stopping at the open door of a windowless yellow room. More posters lined the walls. This time, smiling moms and dads had been added to the grinning, chubby babies. "Um, let me know if you need anything."
"That'll be all, Diane. Thank you." The nearest of six suit-wearing legal types rose, extending his hand for Tag to shake. "Welcome. I'm Neil Thurgood, chief legal counsel for H & R. Please have a seat."
Tag warily pulled out a chair. After sitting, it occurred to him that this whole setup looked more like an ambush than a routine meeting. "Gentlemen, why do I feel like you're about to tell me my best hunting dog died?"
His stab at humor was met with forced laughs.
Neil straightened his tie. "Yes, well, interesting you should mention a death when what we're essentially here to do is celebrate a life." The guy's smile looked more like a wince.
"Oh?" Tag's pulse raced to an uncomfortable degree.
"Yes, you see, while H & R takes pride in our standards of accuracy and discretion…" The waxen-faced man paused to drink from a water-filled glass. Gesturing to a silver platter holding a sweating pitcher and more glasses, he asked, "Care for a drink, Mr. O'Malley?"
Sure. But something a hell of a lot stronger than water. "No, thanks."
"All right, then," the man continued. "As I was saying, every so often, mistakes are made, and—"
Palms flat on the table, Tag said, "I'm a firm believer in saying it like it is, so if you don't mind, could you skip the tap routine and get to the point."
"Certainly," the man alongside Mr. Wax-Face said. "What we have here is a classic switcheroo. Cryogenic storage tanks were being cleaned. Your sample was inadvertently swapped with another. Bottom line, Mr. O'Malley, you have a son."
Tag wasn't the emotional type. He didn't cry over sappy movies, and he sure as hell wasn't prone to letting a little old meeting—ambush or not—drive him to his knees. But damned if this news didn't have him shaking and tearing up like a three-year-old who'd just been given a puppy for Christmas.
After all he'd been through in losing Maria… Any chance of them having the family they'd always dreamed of sharing, any shot of his finding his way back to a normal life—here it was. A do-over. All wrapped up in a shiny blue bow.
"Forgive me," Tag said, trying to get a grip on his welling emotions. "This news comes as a shock." He had so many questions. Where was the baby? Who was his mom? Would she willingly share custody? Did the baby have his brown eyes?
"Understandable," Neil said, shoving a thick stack of papers across the table. "Now, in anticipation of your surprise, we've prepared what we think is a more than equitable settlement package. If you'll be kind enough to sign here and here—" he pointed to two signature lines "—we'll then provide you with all pertinent information on the whereabouts of your son."
Several hours later, seated at the oversize oak desk in his fourteenth-floor corner office in downtown Little Rock, Tag swiped tears from his eyes. For all of the imposing, dark-stained paneling, leather-bound books and silver-framed photos of him with some of the most powerful people in the oil world, he felt as if the confidence this room typically inspired had been swept under the vintage Persian rugs.
Unable to sit still, he got up to pace the room, elated by the morning's news, but also terrified. Having been born into a big family, with plenty of boisterous backyard barbecues and holidays spent crammed around his mother's dining-room table, Tag had always wanted to be a dad, but he'd figured he'd get a heads-up on the whole parental thing. Somewhere around nine months.
Clearly, the suits at the lab had been terrified of a drawn-out, publicized lawsuit. Luckily for them, Tag could give a flip about assigning blame or being awarded a few bucks. The amount the lab had given him would more than pay for college tuition at a top-notch school.
Chuckling, he covered his face with his hands. This woozy, queasy sensation gnawing at his stomach was temporary. Just as soon as he held his little guy in his arms, Tag was going to be A-okay.
He walked over to his desk and punched the intercom button on his phone. "Alice, cancel everything for today. I'm headed for Valley View."
"Valley View?" His mind's eye clearly saw the middle-aged woman's raised brows—at least, what was left of them. She plucked them into severe lines dyed the exact shade of her also-dyed strawberry-blond hair. He knew, because she took off every six weeks to have it all done. "What do you have going on out there?"
"If I told you, you wouldn't believe me." Especially since he hardly believed it himself. What if the lawyer's news turned out to be a cruel mistake? Valley View was a quaint town about thirty minutes northwest of Little Rock. Its claim to fame was antiquing, candy shops and bed-and-breakfasts—none of which had anything to do with the oil industry. His usual travels took him to Houston. Oklahoma City. And his busybody secretary knew it.
"Try me," Alice urged in person, pressing the disconnect button on her cordless phone. As the office gossip, she couldn't stand being left out of the loop.
"Let's just say that when I get back, I may need you to add a few duties to your daily schedule." Like changing diapers!
"This is heaven," Olivia Marshall said Friday afternoon, arching her head back to drink in late-winter sun and the intoxicating, earthy scent of soil exhaling after a bitterly cold January. "I could sit out here forever."
For February, the day was a treat. Temperatures in the high sixties without a breath of wind. Purple and yellow crocuses already bloomed in the garden around her small, still-covered lap pool. A few more days like this and redbuds would transform her winter-drab, forested backyard into a pink wonderland. On the brick patio circling a glass-topped table were her two best friends, Gabby and Stephanie.
Since Olivia had met Gabby and Steph in Lamaze class during their third trimesters, their four babies were about the same age, varying within a few weeks of the four-month mark—a boy for Olivia, twin girls for Steph and a boy for Gabby, too. Typically their get-togethers included their little ones. With the infants slathered in sunscreen and lounging on a blanket in the sun, the women shared homemade sangria, chips, salsa and plenty of laughs. A white picket fence separated the babies from the pool, meaning that even if all four magically figured out how to crawl, they'd still be safe.
"In the words of my handsome husband," Gabby said with an easy smile, "I concur."
Olivia rolled her eyes.
"I saw that." Scowling in Olivia's direction, Gabby said, "Just because you had a couple of bad blind dates doesn't mean you should swear off men forever."
"Stay out of it," Olivia said more tersely than she'd planned.
"What gives?" Steph asked before taking a sip of her wine. "I'm no expert on the law like you and Dane, but I'm pretty sure that on a day as gorgeous as this it's a crime to be bitchy."
"I know, and I'm sorry," Olivia said, "but those two dates Gabby set me up on proved all I needed to know—man is the enemy." She stood and headed for the picket-fence gate, unlatched it, then plucked her baby from where he'd fallen asleep on the blanket. Cradling him against her chest, she made the short walk out of the safety enclosure and relocked the gate.
"Right," Gabby defended. "The dates you asked me to get for you."
Shrugging, Olivia reclaimed her seat at the table. "I was high on love. Attending your wedding was the equivalent of OD'ing on frosting. You and Dane are the exception, not the rule."
"I don't know," Steph said, absentmindedly stirring her sangria with her straw, "Michael and I had an amazing marriage. I'd love to somehow find that sparkle again—especially if the guy knows how to change diapers."
After a sarcastic snort, Olivia wadded up her paper napkin and tossed it at her still-grinning friend.
Using his iPhone for a map, Tag had found the single-level, redbrick colonial home housing his son in under forty minutes. He'd have done it in less if it hadn't been for a wreck on Rodney Parham. In Valley View, Hampstead Farms subdivision was newish, but the contractor had had the foresight to leave plenty of trees. The lots were at least an acre, giving the winding blacktop roads a country feel even though there was a T.G.I. Friday's and Walmart a mere mile away. Each home had been designed to look old. No shortage of brick, paned windows or shutters. All lawns were flawless. Probably the kind of neighborhood where it was frowned upon to leave old cars parked on the side of the quiet streets.
Five minutes in, past a lake complete with a gazebo, spraying fountain and swans, Tag had finally found the address he'd been given.
He stopped and let his Hummer idle in the middle of the road as he took it in. The place had a circle drive, in the center of which was a formal garden featuring a three-tiered white marble fountain. This time of year, only purple pansies and a midget-tulip thing were in bloom. He could only imagine what it would look like when spring had officially sprung.
While his initial instinct had been to charge right up to the front door, demanding to see his child, the two cars in the drive alerted him to the fact that the woman raising his child wasn't alone.
On the ride over, he'd had a business contact do a quick search on Olivia Marshall's background. Impeccable pretty much summed her up. Summa cum laude bachelor's in political science from Brown. Harvard Law. Fresh out of school she'd been hired by one of the top criminal defense firms in D.C. Five years in, with a truckload of stunning courtroom victories, she'd left D.C. for a downtown Valley View firm. Why? The aunt and uncle who'd raised her lived in a swanky Hot Springs retirement village. Only ninety minutes away, but still, not near enough to share an average weeknight dinner. Neither were in poor health. While Tag's pal hadn't had time to do a full financial inquiry, it took but a lick of horse sense to know the woman had to have taken a major pay cut. Not that it looked as if she was hurting, but still.
A sharp rap on the passenger-side window made him jump. "Holy crap on a pancake," he grumbled under his breath, clutching his chest. Like he wasn't already jumpy enough.
He pressed the down button on the window to find a thirtysomething woman with teased blond hair, a red velvet jogging suit and a diamond pendant dangling between what had to be surgically enhanced boobs. Somewhere at her feet a dog yapped, but the car was too high for Tag to catch the exact breed other than snappy and annoying. "Yes?"
"Are you lost?"
"No, why?" His annoyance level was off the charts.
"I'm Leona with the Alert Neighbors committee and seeing how I live right across the street, I couldn't help but notice you loitering."
He shrugged and said, "It's a free country."
"That may well be," she replied, "but here in Hamp-stead Farms we look out for each other, and you, sir, look suspicious. Please be on your way, or I'll call police." Never having lost her gracious smile or tone, she waved a rhinestone-covered cell.
Sensing this situation would best be squelched with sugar, Tag matched Leona's Southern hospitality with a little of his own. "Look, I'm sorry to have been rude. I'm actually a smidge frustrated, since I've been going around and around looking for a particular house, but having little luck."
"Why didn't you say so? What's the address?"
He told her.
She laughed. "Why, honey, that's right across the street. Are you a friend of Olivia's?"
"Um, yes." Assuming she peaceably allows me access to our son.
"Then you must be here for Lady's Day," Leona said with a flirty giggle, "but you're obviously no lady."
He forced a chuckle.
"Just pull right on in the drive." Pointing at Olivia Marshall's home, Leona resembled a flight attendant displaying a 737's emergency exits. Trouble was, for Tag, there was no easy way out. He needed to do this deed with military precision. Walk right up to the front door and make his intentions known. Seeing as how Ms. Marshall was an attorney, she should understand that since he'd never given his consent for his sperm to be used, she shouldn't have a legal leg to stand on when it came to sharing custody. "Thanks, will do."