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Jennifer Rodriguez stared up at the office building in downtown Midland. Inside was her salvation, the only person in the world who might be able to help her in this time of crisis. Though she hadn't seen him since that day almost a month ago, she was hoping Ryan Madison remembered his promise to her as she'd left him at the hospital in San Antonio.
If there's ever anything I can do for you, don't hesitate to call.
He'd taken her hand as he thanked her, though she couldn't understand his gratitude. She'd walked into his life, dropped a bombshell of atomic proportions, then walked away. The chaos she d wreaked on Ryan Madison's life would reverberate for years to come. Jennifer sighed softly. The only satisfaction she d found in the completed assignment was that she d tried to help a little girl who wanted nothing more than to grow up strong and healthy. Ryan had been tested but was only a remote match.
But then just days later, a compatible donor had unexpectedly been found, a nearly perfect match for Lucy. Yesterday, Carolyn St. Clair had called from the San Antonio office of Finders Keepers, her voice filled with excitement, to say Lucy was so much better that she would be going home the very next day. She also passed on the good news that she and Ben Mulholland had exchanged wedding vows in Lucy s hospital room. They d be a real family now.
Jennifer thought back to the day she met Ryan, a day so full of startling revelations. She d never expected to become so emotionally entangled in a case, her concern for both Lucy Mulholland and Ryan Madison weighing heavily on her mind. In truth, she hadn t had a case of such magnitude since she d started working in the tiny private investigations irm in downtown odessa. That was probably because the Mulholland case had been her irst real casesort of.
She'd begun work at Budnicki-Morales Private Investigations a week after she d graduated from the university of Texas-el Paso, leaving her family and hometown for an exciting life of her own in a brand-new city. The two veteran investigators had advertised for a bookkeeper and ofice manager at the campus job placement center and she d found the possibility of working for private investigators intriguing. And odessa was just far enough away from el Paso282 miles to be exactthat her parents' interference in her life was minimal.
Carmen and diego had been so proud. She was the irst Rodriguez to graduate college. And with a degree in accounting, she d always be able to ind work, setting a ine example for her four younger siblings. But from the irst time she d balanced the books for the two crusty old P.I.s, she d known that she wasn t cut out to simply count the company s pennies. She wanted to be an investigator, just like Ralph Budnicki and Roy Morales.
She got her irst break when Lily and dylan garrett started referring work from Finders Keepers in San Antonio. The workload doubled almost instantly with missing persons cases for the two licensed P.I.s and Jennifer found herself doing more and more investigative work. Recently she d been promoted to assistant investigator by Ralph and Roy and had begun taking night classes to get her P.I. license.
She d worked the Mulholland case from start to inish, and though a licensed investigator should have been the one to approach Ryan Madison, both Ralph and Roy thought Jennifer better suited to handle such a highly charged emotional situation. There was a beneit to being the only woman in the ofice.
Right now, Jennifer was thankful for the fates that had put her in Ryan Madison s path. She smoothed her palms over the bodice of her cotton dress, ran her ingers through her perpetually windblown hair and started toward the front entrance to the ofice building. She d reviewed her strategy over and over again, planning the exact words she would say to him, the perfect way to convince him to go along with her plan.
But there was one part of her plan she still hadn t re-inedthe exact moment to tell him she was pregnant. Should she just blurt it out at the start or should she chat for a few minutes before carefully steering the conversation in that direction? Should she offer an explanation about the baby s father or would it be better to gloss over that particular lapse in judgment?
At this point Ryan seemed her only hope. The prospect of telling her parents had been hanging over her head like a dark cloud for months, and it was only after she met Ryan Madison that she d decided on a strategy. He had a good heart. Though he d wanted to deny all she d told him about his parentage, in the end, he d done the right thing. He d tried to give Lucy Mulholland a chance at life.
She stepped inside the quiet, air-conditioned lobby and headed toward the elevators, plucking at the damp fabric of her dress. For early October, the weather in West Texas had been unbearably hot. Though she wanted to appear fresh and conident for this meeting, she knew she looked damp and wrinkled.
As she rode the elevator to the seventh floor, she tried to slow her pounding heart. Was she really so nervous asking for his help, or was the prospect of seeing Ryan Madison again too much to bear? She couldn t deny she found him attractive. Not just physically, though his broad shoulders, narrow waist and long legs were not lost on her. Nor was his handsome face, the high forehead and sculpted cheekbones, the impossibly straight nose. On the outside he appeared supremely conident, but she'd seen a side of him that Jennifer suspected he didn't show to the rest of the world. A side he kept hidden behind his striking hazel eyes. There was a vulnerability about him, and a depth of character that wasn t apparent at irst glance. He d probably had his share of women, but she wondered if any of them knew the real Ryan Madison.
Jennifer stepped off the elevator and came face-to-face with a wide glass door. Fine lettering told her she'd found the placeMadison drilling and oil. Drawing a deep breath, she stepped inside and crossed the plush reception area to the front desk. ''Good afternoon. I'd like to see Ryan Madison.
The receptionist frowned. ''do you have an appointment?
''No,'' Jennifer said. ''But I called earlier and his secretary told me he d be in the ofice after lunch.
''Then you have a delivery for him? she asked.
''Not exactly. At least not right now. But I do need to talk to him.
''I'm sorry, miss, but I'm afraid he can't see you without an appointment.
''Can you just tell him that Jennifer Rodriguez is here? I m sure he ll agree to see me.
The receptionist regarded her suspiciously, then nodded and pushed a button on her phone. ''Connie? Would you tell Mr. Madison there's a Jennifer Rodriguez here to see him. She waited, examining her perfectly manicured nails as she did. Jennifer glanced down at hers, nibbled short and unpolished. ''What? Well, yes. I'll show her right in.'' Jennifer gave her a smug smile before she trailed after her toward Ryan s ofice. He met them both at the door, a look of astonishment on his face. ''Miss Rodriguez. This is a surprise.
''You remember me, she said, gulping down the tremor in her voice.
He took her elbow and showed her into his office. ''Of course I remember you. Though that whole day was a blur, I do remember you.
She sat down in a chair and watched as he circled the desk. He wore a tailored suit and silk tie. His tanned skin contrasted sharply with his starched white shirt, and his hair, just a bit too long, brushed the collar of the shirt in boyish waves. The difference between the man she d met at the drilling site and this man was startling. She d remembered him as solid, rugged, with a blue-collar attitude about him. But this man was smooth, sophisticated, nothing like the man she d pictured as she laid out her plan.
Jennifer pushed out of the chair, realizing that she was completely out of her element here. ''II shouldn t have disturbed you. I know you re probably very busy and
''Please,'' he said, ''don't go. I've actually been thinking about you.
She slowly lowered herself back into the chair. ''Did you know Lucy is going home from the hospital today?
''Really? Ryan asked. ''I haven t talked to Ben since that day in San Antonio. I took the blood tests, then came home the next day. Carolyn called me later in the week to tell me they found a match. I m glad Lucy s doing well.
''Carolyn and Ben got married, she commented.
''They were engaged once, a long time ago, and the case brought them back together. She drew a deep breath. ''Kind of like it brought us together. ''Right, he murmured.
A long silence spun out around them as Jennifer scrambled for another topic. ''How are things going with your parents? Have they explained everything?
''They ve tried to rationalize their side of the story, Ryan replied, ''but I m not really interested in hearing their excuses. The bottom line is they paid ten thousand dollars for me in a supermarket parking lot. That s all I really need to know.
''They re your parents, she said, distractedly iddling with the strap of her purse. ''They've loved you for twenty-seven years. I think that should count for something.
''Thanks to them, I ll never know my real parents the Mulhollands. They re both dead. He met her gaze squarely. ''Did Rhonda and Jeffrey ask you to come here? Or are you here for Ben and Lucy?''
Jennifer shook her head. ''I have a personal reason for coming. She clasped her hands on her lap and drew a steadying breath. ''Remember, at the hospital, you told me that if there was ever anything you could do for me, I should just ask?
''Don't tell me you've got a client who needs a kidney transplant, he teased.
His smile warmed her blood and made her heart beat a little faster. Asking for a kidney would probably sound less ridiculous than her own request. Was she crazy to think he d agree? Maybe it was all the hormones racing through her body that had rendered her temporarily insane. With a silent curse, she rose to her feet, ready to make her excuses and leave. But the moment she turned toward the door, a wave of dizziness washed over her.
Jennifer covered her eyes with her hand and reached back for the chair. She hadn t eaten lunch, and with the baby, if she didn t eat something every hour or two, she got light-headed. In a heartbeat, Ryan was out of his chair and around his desk. He grabbed her arm and slowly helped her over to the sofa. ''My God, you're as white as a sheet.
''II'll be fine,'' Jennifer murmured. ''I just need something to drink. A glass of juice maybe. Or a cookie.
''Lie down,'' he said, fluffing a pillow behind her. ''I'll go get you something.
Jennifer groaned and flopped back on the pillow as he hurried out. ''Why not just barf on his shoes? she muttered. ''That would get his attention. She closed her eyes and swallowed back a wave of nausea. For most of the day, she managed to forget the implications of her pregnancytelling her parents about the baby, preparing for childbirth, raising a child as a single mother. And then the baby would speak to her from the womb, reminding her of how radically her life had changed over the past four months. And how much it would change over the coming months.
''Ay, chica estupida," she murmured. "You stupid girl. How did you ever get yourself into such a mess?"