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The letter ended the same way they all did. Thank you for caring.
"I'm too damn busy to care," Tyler snarled at his secretary, who'd just deposited today's stack of heartrending pleas for cash on the corner of his steel-and-glass desk.
"You always are," Olivia Payne agreed cheerfully. With her graying hair held back in a bun, she looked staid and professionalan appearance that was entirely deceptive. She nodded at the letter Tyler held in his hand. "Anything interesting?"
Tyler fanned out the four pages of closely written text dotted with exclamation points. "Some guy wants two hundred grand to save the red-spotted tree frog. If we don't act fast, we might never see the frog again."
He picked up another lettera single-page e-mail asking for thirty thousand dollars to buy computers for a preschool and weighed it against the frog letter, as if he could somehow gauge the relative worthiness of the two causes.
The Warrington Foundation, whose purpose was to give away some of the multimillion-dollar profits earned by Warrington Construction, had hired extra staff in the new year to do the preliminary evaluations. It was their job to send polite rejections to the men who wanted bigger breasts for their wives and the people seeking donations to surefire lottery schemes.
But that still left anywhere up to a hundred potentially genuine requests for the chairmanTylerto read each day. Many of them ended with what seemed to be that mantra: Thank you for caring.
Tyler folded the first page of the frog letter into a paper airplane.
All he cared about right now was convincing the powers that be in Washington, D.C., that he was the right person tohead up their new think tank, established to determine how charities and government could work together to support families. They were looking for someone who understood the concerns of ordinary American families. And Tyler had ended up on the shortlist thanks to the foundation's good work with various children's charities.
Presumably, he was at the very bottom of that shortlist. Yet he wanted the job to an extent that surprised him and would have amazed his family, who would doubtless say he was more suited to a think tank on how to get more fun into people's lives.
Tyler flipped his hand-forged-silver Michel Perchin pen between his fingers as he contemplated his possibly irredeemable reputation. Every news report about his work at the foundation was countered by a juicy piece in the gossip pages about "playboy bachelor Tyler Warrington." He'd made a major lifestyle adjustmentdating the same woman every night the past two weeksbut he wasn't sure that act of heroism was enough. Correction: after the headline in this morning's Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he knew it wasn't.
He smoothed out the paper plane, slapped the two letters together, handed them to Olivia. "The frog's a no go. Invite the preschool to pitch at the next committee meeting."
What could be more ordinary and American than preschool?
Maybe his PR team could write an opinion piece about early-childhood education and submit it to the Journal-Constitution in Tyler's name.
Olivia tucked the letters into her folder. "I'll deal with these right after I go downstairs. Joe called to say there's a delivery for you. He sounded pretty excited."
"Just as well our security guy doesn't make the allocations." Unlike Tyler, Joe was a sucker for the attention-getting ploys to which some people resorted when they asked for money. "If it's balloons, cake or cigars, tell him to take them home to his kids." He raised his hands in self-defense against Olivia's daggered look. "Okay, okay, hold the cigars."
OLIVIA RETURNED carrying a faded green duffel bag in a fierce grip, the straps wrapped around one hand, her other arm underneath the bag. She cradled it with a delicacy that suggested its contents were at least as valuable as the Venetian-glass sculpture she'd spent hundreds on last week.
Tyler shoved his chair back from the desk, got to his feet. "What is it?"
Very gently, she slid the bag across the surface of the desk; Tyler saw the zipper was open. "Take a look," she invited, her voice curiously high.
He parted the top of the bag, peered in. And met the un-blinking blue gaze of a baby.
Wrapped in a whitish blanket and wearing a soft yellow hat so that only a little round face showed but definitely a baby.
"What the" Tyler leaped backward, glared at his secretary. "Is this a joke?"
Olivia blew out a breath as she shook her head. "A young woman came in, told Joe she had a delivery for you. She excused herself to go to the bathroom and left the bag on Joe's desk. After a couple of minutes, the baby sneezedgave Joe a heck of a fright. That's when he called me."
Tyler raked a hand through his hair. "For Pete's sake, the woman's probably still in the bathroom. Or by now, back out with Joe and wondering where her kid's gone. Take it back down."
Olivia handed Tyler an envelope, his name written on it in blue ink. "This was in the bag."
It had already been openedOlivia read all Tyler's correspondence. The paper crackled: thin, cheap, almost weightless. Yet it felt far heavier than those requests he'd been reading a few minutes ago. Tyler unfolded the page.
The handwriting was young, or maybe just uneducated, and the message brief.
Dear Mr. Warrington,
I know you are kind and generous and you help lots of people. Please can you adopt my baby? I just can't do this. Thank you very very very much for caring.No signature.
So much for the she's-still-in-the-bathroom theory. Tyler read the letter again. Damn.
With a caution that would have amazed the college buddies he played football with every month, he advanced on the duffel. The infant was still there, still staring. It had worked one little hand loose and was clenching and unclenching a tiny fist against the blanket.
Hey, kid, if you're frustrated, how do you think I feel? "What the hell am I supposed to do with you?" he said, the words rougher than he'd intended.
The baby blinked, and its mouth moved. If it cried now Tyler would be screwed. He patted the small hand as gently as he could, while he tried to think of words that might soothe. Snatches of nursery rhymes flitted through his head but were gone before he could catch them. "I meant heck," he said at last.
The kid still looked worried, so Tyler moved out of its line of vision. He looked out the window, over Peachtree Street, where courier bikes scraped between cars and vans with no margin for error, and the crosswalks thronged with business-people. No place for a baby.
"We have to find the mother," he told Olivia. "Ask Joe to send up the security-camera footage."
"I already did, but he doesn't think it'll help," she said, cheerful now she'd handed the problem to Tyler. "The woman wore a woolen hat pulled right down, and she had a scarf wrapped around her face. It's cold out, so Joe didn't think anything of it."
"Someone has to know who she is," Tyler persisted. "We'll give the tape to the police. And you'd better call social servicesthey can take the baby until the mom turns up."
"And they say you're just a pretty face," Olivia marveled.
"I don't know why that young woman didn't go to social services in the first place." She chuckled. "I mean, do you know anyone less suited to looking after a baby than you?"
"You," Tyler returned sharply. Stupid to let her "pretty face" comment needle him. He might not be an expert on diapers and drool, but he knew he could do whatever he set his mind to. And that made him good for a whole lot more than simply doling out the money his brother Max made in the family's "real" business. Which he was about to prove by winning the job in Washington, D.C.
Olivia, who'd never married, never had kids, and as far as Tyler knew, was having too much fun to regret either omission, laughed at his insult.
She didn't know about Washington. She and Tyler's mom were close enough that there was no chance she wouldn't spill the beans. No one knew, not even Tyler, officially. The news that he was under consideration had come from his cousin Jake, who had reliable political connections. But the whole thing was so sensitive, so confidential, there was no way Tyler could do what he knew would work bestjump on a plane to D.C. and talk them into giving him the job.
All he could do was continue his strategy of raising his profile in the mediahis political profile, not his social profile. He glared at the duffel from his safe distance.
"The press will be all over this," he told Olivia, "no matter how fast we palm the kid off to social services."
"It can't be as bad as today's story." She ruined the comforting effect by snickering.
Two women Tyler had dated in the past had gotten into a tipsy argument at a nightclub a couple of evenings ago, apparently over which of the two he'd liked besthe barely recalled either of them. In a misguided attempt to emphasize her point, one had slugged the other with her purse.
None of that would have made the newspaper if one of the women's pals hadn't posted the purse for sale on eBay. The purse had been of supreme disinterest to most of the world, but the bidding inAtlanta was fierce and the story had spread in the media as one of those quirky "I sold my grandmother on eBay" tales. Tyler could only hope it hadn't reached Washington.
He needed damage control, and he needed it now. Pacing in front of the window, he tried to think of a political angle he could play up with the baby that might counter the gossip. How about a photo opportunity of him handing the baby to social services, commenting about the challenges facing young mothers?
Then it hit himor, rather, smacked him in the head with a force that left him dizzy.
There wasn't just one political angle to the baby story, there were dozensthe foster system, parenting, money, infant health, who knew what else?that he could tap into. This was his chance to show the world how well he understood the concerns of families.
"On second thought, don't call social services," he told Olivia. "Nor the police." He grinned at the duffel, suddenly feeling a whole lot warmer toward its occupant. "We need to get the baby out of the bag."
"We?" she said, horrified.
"You," he amended.
She backed off. "Uh-uh, no way."
Tyler directed his most cajoling smile at her. "Please." She rolled her eyes, but came back and reached into the bag. He steadied it while she lifted the baby out. Olivia held it in a grip that he judged possibly too tight, but the baby didn't protest, so Tyler bowed to its superior knowledge. He looked around his office, all hard surfaces, sharp corners, glass and metal. "How about we spread the blanket on the floor," he suggested, pleased with his own parental-improvisation skills.
He managed to get the blanket out from around the baby, who turned out to be encased from head to toe in yellow terry. "We'll use your office," he told Olivia.
"My floor has slate tiles." With the unnaturally pointed toe of her shoeand with undisguised triumphshe nudged the plush rust-colored carpet that enhanced Tyler's luxurious work space. "Yours is much more suitable."
Too bad she was right. He spread out the blanket, smoothed it confidentlybecause looking after a kid wasn't rocket sciencethen nodded at Olivia, who knelt down to lay the baby on its back. She rubbed her own back as she got to her feet. "Now what?" she said.
Tyler looked down at the infant. Two short, pudgy arms waved at him, but there was still no crying. Thoughtful of the mom to give me a well-behaved kid. "You'd better organize a crib or whatever it is babies hang out in."
"You can't be thinking about keeping this child," Olivia said, shocked.
"Of course not. Just until we find the mom." At least a few days, he guessed, even if he put a private investigator onto it today. Maybe as much as a week or two. He would call his PR manager, tell her to arrange some media opportunities for him right awayjust as soon as she found someone to get him up to speed about kid-parent issues.
"But" Olivia shook her head, nonplussed "you don't know the first thing about looking after a baby."
"That's what sitters are for. Call an agency, see if you can get someone immediately."
"I didn't even know you liked children." She was practically wringing her hands with worry, which Tyler considered an overreaction.
"I only have to like this one." He didn't even have to do that, but he was willing to try.
Olivia picked up a pad and pen off the desk. "Then I guess we need to think about food. Special baby formula." She jotted that down. "And diapers. They go through those pretty fast." She shuddered.
The baby hiccuped, its face contorted. Hell, was it about to puke? They did that all the time, didn't they?
"We should call a doctor," Tyler said. "Find out if the kid's okay before I make any plans." He pulled out his handkerchief in case of an emergency wipe-up situation. "Call that woman we gave money to last year. The pediatrician doing the kidney research."
"Great idea." Olivia's voice warmed. "She's a real peach." Tyler frowned. "Are we talking about the same woman?"
"Dr. Bethany Hart."
"That's her." He would have described Bethany Hart as more frosty than peachy. And she was quite possibly the most ungrateful woman he'd ever met. The Warrington Foundation had granted her a generous sum for her research into childhood kidney disease which was part of a wider research project at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, attached to Emory University. Instead of the thank-you letter most people wrote, she'd sent Tyler a curtly worded missive to the effect that if he was at all serious about helping young kidney patients he would give a lot more money.
Unlike everyone else, she'd accused him of not caring. Tyler had found her ingratitude refreshing.
Just a couple of weeks ago she'd written to him again. The money, intended to cover her salary, along with admin support and the use of lab facilities and equipment, was almost gone: she'd asked him to renew her funding. She'd enclosed a comprehensivein his opinion, boringreport on her work to date, and had invited him, rather insistently, to visit a bunch of sick kids in the hospital.
"She may not be your biggest fan," Olivia said with rare diplomacy. She'd read the pediatrician's letters, too. "But she sure loves kids."
Tyler had noticed the way Dr. Hart's blue eyes lit up when she talked about the children she worked with. "Then she'll want to check out this baby."
He didn't plan to give her a choice. Bethany Hart might have complained about the amount of money she'd received, but no one else had offered her a dime. The foundation had given more than her presentation to the Philanthropic Strategy Committee had merited.
Tyler had swayed the PhilStrat Committee in her favor. Not because she'd wowed him with her presentationdespite her obviously high intelligence, she'd been inarticulate to the point where he'd been embarrassed for her. Definitely not because of that spark of attraction that had flared between them, despite her frostinesshe never let that kind of thing get in the way of business.
When she'd bumbled to the end of her appalling pitch, she'd shot Tyler a look of angry resignation that said she might have messed up, but it was his fault.
He shook her hand as she left, and couldn't help smiling at the furious quiver in her otherwise stiff fingers. Which enraged her further. She looked down her nose at him as she said, "You haven't heard the last of me."
He sighed. "I was afraid of that."
She reeked of do-gooder earnestness, coupled with the kind of instinctive, misguided courage that led people to pursue hopeless causes without, unfortunately, actually losing hope.
So Tyler had believed Bethany when she said he hadn't heard the last of her. During the PhilStrat Committee's deliberations, he'd cast his vote in her support largely to shut her up.
Now, as it turned out, that might have been a smart move. He needed her discreet cooperation over this baby and he expected her to give it, however reluctantly.
Because Bethany Hart owed him.