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You never know what's going to happen when you wake up in the morning.
You think you do but you don't.
That's what Jack Sawyer believed now. Less than a week ago, he'd opened an innocent-looking envelope and his life changed in the blink of an eye.
Settled at his desk on a typical Monday morning, he was sorting through a pile of mail while sipping his coffee and a letter marked "Personal&Confidential" caught his eye.
He tore it open, read it andbam!
A meteor might have landed smack dab in the middle of his sleekly decorated executive office. In the middle of his sleekly decorated life.
The letter had come from a firm called Dynamics, Inc. He couldn't place it at first. When he finally did, he cringed.
Dynamics, Inc. was a sperm bank where he'd impulsively made a donation two years ago. It had been a bleak, frightening moment in his life. Diagnosed with an inoperable tumor, the prognosis had been grim. Given only a few months to live, Jack faced a sad truth. For all his accomplishments and worldly success, he wondered if he'd achieved very much at all. For one thing, he'd never married and had children, a fact he deeply regretted at that moment.
There had been plenty of lovely, marriageable women in his life and plenty of chances for commitment. Maybe too many choices. Jack didn't know why, but something always held him back. Somehow, at the last minute, he always sidestepped walking down the aisle, claiming he wasn't ready. Or deciding that the woman in question just wasn't "The One." Maybe he just didn't want to make the changes a real commitment would demand.
His lifestyle wasn't suited to marriage and maybe his temperament wasn't either, he thought. He'd bounced around foster homes most of his childhood, some kind and some cruel.
He'd never felt part of a real family and had never known close, loving ties. No wonder he thought relationships were hard. Work was easy and life was never boring, traveling to the world's greatest cities, where his skills and vision as an architect were always in demand.
But during that dark time, Jack couldn't kid himself. No one really cared who designed a skyscraper or even a monument. Children were the real legacy. Without that bequest to the future, all his worldly accomplishments didn't amount to much.
Or so Jack had felt as he faced his mortality. Donating to a sperm bank seemed some small consolation. There had been some extra scrutiny, due to his medical situation, but finally, he was accepted as a donor. Jack had been thankful and relieved. If he was going to leave this world without having children the traditional way, at least his DNAand perhaps even some portion of his spiritwould live on.
A few weeks later, Jack happily learned he wasn't a doomed man after all. A cloud on his MRI had caused his condition to be misdiagnosed and his tests results had been inaccurate. With luck, he would live a long life and had time enough to marry and have children if he wanted the usual way.
Jack sat back and had a good laugh. A sperm bank? What in the world had he been thinking?
He contacted Dynamics, Inc. immediately and withdrew his donation. The organization told him that his genetic material was never given out and Jack was relieved to hear it.
And that was that.
Or so he thought.
Now, two years later, the laboratory had written that they'd made a mistake. A recent audit revealed that Jack's sperm had in fact been administered at least once before it was removed from the bank.
It took Jack a few moments to consider the full implications. Once he did, he was nearly blown out of his cushy leather desk chair.
Some unknown woman out there could have become pregnant with his "donation" and given birth to his baby!
What did this all mean? What should he do? Could he even find out this woman's identity and what had happened to her?
Within seconds, Jack was on the phone to his attorneys. "Why look for trouble?" he was told. "The chances are incredibly slim, Jack. Less than one in a million."
Jack had to agree. But he couldn't let it rest. He felt nagged by a strange stirring, down deep in his gut. He had to know for sure if this particular long shot had come in. The information was confidential, but the high-powered law firm that represented him was good at pulling strings and coaxing open sealed files.
After a few days of anxious waiting, his gut instinct was validated. Jack was stunned to learn that he was indeed a father.
Rachel Reilly was the child's mother and the baby, a little boy born about ten months ago, she'd named Charlie. But the investigators hired by Jack's attorneys had found out precious little more.
Rachel Reilly was single, twenty-nine years old, a clothing designer who specialized in children's wear. She'd been living in Manhattan and working for the same clothing company since she'd graduated college. But a few months ago, she sold her city apartment, pooled all her savingsincluding a small inheritance from her mother's recent deathand bought a house inVermont. The small village she'd chosen was just over the NewYork state border. She'd quit her job and moved there.
Jack couldn't believe it. All these months, at least until recently, he'd been living in the same city as this Mystery Mom and his own son. He could have passed them on the street, sidestepping the baby's stroller. Now that he'd known they existed, they were in the middle of nowhere. Where in the world was Blue Lake? He'd dug out a road atlas and could barely find it, a tiny dot in the midst of the Berkshires.
Barely twenty-four hours after receiving the investigator's report, Jack was on his way, and the same map sat crumpled on the passenger's seat beside him. Against all the good advice he'd been given, Jack refused to send a professional investigator. He knew had to follow this trail himself, wherever it might lead. He had to see his son and this mystery mother firsthand, not the blurry image taken through a tele-photo lense.
He'd been driving for hours and had turned off the highway some time ago, traveling now on narrow two-lane roads that wound through the mountains and valleys of southern Vermont. It was late September and cooler than it had been down in New York City, the hillsides looking as if they'd been lightly touched with a paint brush.
He drove through wooded stretches and small towns and through valleys where the view opened up to green pastures dotted with big red barns and lazy-looking cows. Lush green trees arched over head and handmade signs on the roadside advertised Pick your own apples and Fresh Eggs, Milk&Cheese, reminding Jack he hadn't eaten anything since he'd left the city early that morning. But he didn't want to stop, too intent on reaching his destination.
He knew he had to be close to Blue Lake by now. Close to seeing his son.
Charlie. He liked the name. He said it out loud to himself in the car, over and over again.
Jack couldn't wait to see the little guy with his own eyes. To touch him, or hold him. To hear the sounds he made, even the crying. He didn't have any trouble picturing the boy. It was simple. Jack envisioned a miniature version of himself. Logically he knew it may not have turned out that way, but he couldn't help it.
He did have trouble picturing Rachel Reilly. What did she look like? Was she tall or short? Dark or fair? Slim or curvy?
More importantly, what kind of woman was she? What kind of woman opts to get pregnant through a sperm bank, anyway? Some homely, lonely, forever single type, without any hope of having kids the usual way? Some radical Amazon who holds a grudge against men on principle? Some uptight prude who just hates sex, period?
He didn't want his son to be raised by any of the above. He wasn't sure what his rights were in the situation, but he had money. Plenty of money. For better or worse, it's not the best man who wins, Jack had learned, but usually the guy who can afford the best lawyers.
Even if she wasn't some nut case or recluse, what kind of mother was she? Jack had barely known his own mother before being dumped into the social service system. He couldn't stand the idea of his boy being raised by any woman who was less than idealwho wasn't warm, nurturing, loving. All the things a mother should be.
If Rachel Reilly wasn't a good motherwasn't a great motherhe'd get his son away from her before you could say X chromosome.
No matter what it took.
Finally, a sign for Blue Lake appeared on the roadside. Jack turned and found himself driving down the town's Main Street. He cruised down the avenue slowly, surprised to see the quaint, old-fashioned architecturewell-kept shops and restaurants on a busy main thoroughfare. There were awnings and flower boxes, wrought-iron street lamps and a town square with a big white gazebo in the middle.
If Rachel Reilly had to stick herself in the middle of nowhere, at least she picked a pleasant middle of nowhere. He scanned the numbers on the doorways, trying to find her address. Finally at the end of the thoroughfare, he came to number 533, a Queen Anne style Victorian with a wraparound porch and a turret on the third floor.
Freshly painted, the house was an eye-popping combination of pale pink with magenta shutters and a yellow door with touches of violet blue and bright white trim. Just this side of overdone, but the English style garden in front and white picket fence lent an overall effect that was fanciful and stunning.
A hand painted wooden sign hung from a post in the middle of the garden:
Pretty BabyUnique treasures for babies&toddlers ~ Clothing, Toys, Furniture and More! ~ Made with a loving touch.
A loving touch. He liked that phrase. So far, so good. But Rachel Reilly might not have anything to do with this store. He couldn't jump to conclusions.
There was plenty of space to park in front, but Jack drove down the street and chose a spot out of sight. His carwhich cost more than most people made in a yearseemed as conspicuous as a rocket ship. He didn't want to draw attention to himself if he could help it.
The information from the investigators hadn't included anything about a baby store. He studied the house some more, deciding there must be an apartment on the second and third floor. Maybe she lived up there. Maybe he should just sit and wait for her to come in or out of the building, like a real PI would do.
But Jack had never been big on patience. He'd driven all day and was dying to catch even a glimpse of his son. Maybe someone working in there could give him some information.
He checked his image in the rearview mirror. Chocolate brown eyes stared back at him. He never had trouble attracting women and more than a few had told him he was handsome. But Jack didn't see it. Especially not today.
He'd started the drive early and now looked worn out and even needed a shave. Well, there was no help for it. The grubby look was sort of country-like, wasn't it? Helped him blend in with the scenery?
Pocketing his car keys, he and climbed out. At the last minute, he pulled off his leather jacket, trading it for a gray sweatshirt he spotted behind the driver's seat. He tugged it on and pulled up the zipper. There, instant "working man," he thought. His black T-shirt was expensive but nondescript. His jeans had cost a small fortune, but had the fashionable worn out look that wouldn't give him away.
He didn't like the feeling of going "undercover" like this. Deception wasn't part of his character. But under the circumstances, it was probably wiser. He didn't know anything about this woman beyond the bare essentials. He had to find out more about her before he could decide what to do.
She held all the cards in her hand.
She had his son.
The sound of the bell on the shop door made Charlie stir in her arms. He'd just about dropped off but the noise disturbed him. Now she'd have to pace a few more moments while singing a few more verses of "Rockin'Robin"before he would conk out and she could set him down in his porta-crib.
This mother-shopskeeper juggling act was tricky. Some days it seemed like a complete disaster. But she had made the right choice, Rachel kept reminding herself. Things would work out. Eventually.
Having Charlie with her in the store hadn't seemed to hurt sales any. Most people enjoyed seeing a real live baby amidst the baby paradise she'd created in Pretty Baby.
If some customers got impatient or even walked out, what could she do? Charlie was her priority. She'd purposely designed the shopdesigned her entire lifeso that her son came first. He was with her all day and had his own daycare room where he could sleep, eat, play and do everything a ten-month-old needed to do.
Besides, it was best to let them browse a while before she pounced. There was so much to look at, most people forgot what they'd come in for.
Rachel hummed and paced and soon felt Charlie's body heavy and slack, his breathing deep. She set him down gently and tiptoed to the doorway.
"I'll be right with you. Just one more second," she called out softly to her customer.
"No problem" a deep male voice called back. Rachel returned to Charlie and pulled a light blanket over him. Men shopping alone at her store were unusual. They rarely had any idea of what they wanted, or even the age and size of the baby they were buying for, looking a little lost among the tiny outfits and fluffy toys. They would put themselves totally at her mercy and take just about anything she suggested.
It was tempting, but she never took advantage of them. Sure that Charlie was finally asleep, Rachel lightly kissed his forehead, inhaling his sweet baby scent, then stepped out into the shop. She spotted her customer wandering around the toy section. He didn't look the type who would whip out a gold Am Ex card and put her in the black for the month. But there hadn't been much business today and she welcomed the sight of him. And what a sight indeed.
He was tall, with thick dark hair and impossibly broad shoulders, outlined by a gray sweatshirt jacket he wore over a T-shirt and worn jeans. The floppy velour bunny in his handone of her handmade originalsseemed totally out of synch with his dark intensity. He looked over at her, his brown eyes curious, taking her in, his expression unreadable.
Rachel felt self-conscious and pushed her curly hair back from her face with her hand. Between the store and Charlie, she didn't have much time to bother about her appearance. The past few months, she'd gone from urban chic to basic hygiene. But what could you do? Out here in Blue Lake, she didn't worry about things like that. Not the way she did while living in the city.
Rachel quickly checked her T-shirt and denim long skirt, looking for apple sauce or spit up stains. All clear. That was some comfort. Summoning her best shopkeeper smile, she stepped forward. "Hi. Can I help you with something?"
He didn't answer right away. He looked at the stuffed rabbit in his hand and quickly put it down.
"I'm just browsing. I was passing through town and thought I'd stop in and take a look around. The store is very eye-catching."
"Thanks." Rachel smiled, not sure he meant it as a compliment. "I thought the painted lady look might be too much. But it does attract attention."
He nodded. "Just about stops traffic. Is this your shop?" Rachel smiled proudly. "I opened about a month ago."
"Very nice. You make all this stuff yourself?"
"I design most of the clothes and toys. I look for other items that are handmade or really unique. And I paint all the furniture. I do room murals, too," she said, glancing over at the far wall that was painted with a scene of a nursery rhyme,
"Hey Diddle, Diddle." The opposite side of the store was painted with the tea party scene from Alice In Wonderland and behind the cash register, there was a magical, misty garden, filled with flowers and fairies.
"You're very talented."
Rachel smiled and shrugged. "I'm okay. Painting is the fun part. I haven't gotten any calls yet for the wall murals, but business is picking up."
He didn't say anything, just slowly smiled, deep dimples creasing his lean cheeks that were touched with five o'clock shadow. He had a dimple in his chin, too, she noticed. Just like Charlie. She wondered if her son would grow up to be half as handsome as this guy. She'd have to teach him not to be a heartbreaker.
"Do you own the building, or just lease this space?"
The question seemed a little odd, but maybe the guy was into real estate or thinking of opening a shop in town himself.
"I own the building," she said simply.
Before she could say more, Charlie's sharp cry cut through the air. The man turned to listen, his expression shocked, as if he'd never heard a baby before.
"That's my son. He's taking a nap. Or was taking a nap. Can you excuse me, please? I'll be right back."
"That's okay You'd better go check on him." The man watched her dash off. Still looking stunned. Surprised she had her baby with her? Maybe