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Why Peter had assumed Jessie Chandler would enjoy the limelight as much as her twin sister had, he didn't know.
She stood as still as the lectern beside her, with her focus frozen on Peter's lower jaw, the toddler she'd been holding when Peter had called her to the stage asleep in her arms.
Stage fright. Great.
He glanced at the red-robed graduates sitting in front of the makeshift stage. Beyond, a sea of relatives and friends lined the football-field bleachers. Watching. Waiting.
Jessie's parents perched in the first row, seemingly holding their breaths right along with him. He was sure sitting through the memorial to Clarissa was tough enough for the Chandler family. She was killed in the New York lab fire only a year ago. The grief over losing Jessie's twin still had to be raw. And now by calling Jessie up on stage to present the scholarship in Clarissa's name, Peter had made everything worse.
Just another reminder that he understood equations and hypotheses a whole lot better than he understood people. He sure never understood Clarissa.
He brought his attention back to Jessie.
Her gaze was still locked on his lower jaw, her eyes even bluer up close. And behind her stage fright, he sensed a compelling sadness that made him want to take her in his arms and comfort her. The breeze whipped her shiny golden hair around her face. She adjusted the sleeping toddler in her arms.
Why had she carried the boy to the stage with her? What if the kid woke up and started screaming or something? Wasn't Peter just thinking things couldn't get more awkward for the family? A screaming child would probably do it.
He needed to get this over with. Quickly. He placed his hand over the microphone to prevent pickup. "If you want, I can read the name for you."
She set her chin and drew in a shaky breath, still not meeting his eyes. "I can do it."
He set the envelopes on the lectern. "Okay, the top envelope contains the recipient's name. Can you announce it and give the second envelope to the graduate?"
"I'd like to say a few words first."
He blinked. Apparently, she didn't own that determined chin for nothing. He lowered the microphone for her and moved out of her way. "Go for it."
She stepped forward, the crowd hushing to listen. "My sister would be so proud that every year a scholarship in her name will help students who love chemistry as much as she did."
Peter let out a fascinated breath. She was pulling herself together like a champ—without her twin's flare for drama, but with a vulnerability that tugged at him.
"Our family thanks Trenton Research Laboratories for their generous scholarship and Dr. Peter Sheridan for driving all the way from Madison to present it." Her soft voice ringing clear and unpretentious, she took the sheet of paper from the envelope, her face crumpling as she struggled with her emotions.
Tensing, Peter took a step toward her to help her out.
But a teary smile broke free. "I'm thrilled to announce the first recipient of the Clarissa Chandler Scholarship is Stacy Meyers."
The crowd erupted in a cheer. Several beach balls took to the humid air to be carried away by the breeze. Apparently, high school graduation in Noah's Crossing, Wisconsin was a different animal from the quiet ceremony that liberated him from boarding school twelve years ago.
The sturdy boy in Jessie's arms burrowed his face deeper into her neck.
Luckily, the kid seemed to be a resolute napper. Peter began to relax a little, the tension in his shoulders easing.
A tall, thin girl ran across the stage to the lectern, her face wreathed in smiles. She accepted the envelope from Jessie and hugged her without squashing the little guy in Jessie's arms.
"I'm so proud of you, Stacy." Jessie guided the excited teenager to the microphone, then stepped back alongside Peter.
Peter caught a breath of her scent. Fresh citrus. Very nice. He noted the same fair skin, patrician nose and high cheekbones as her twin, but Jessie let her hair hang free. Everything about her seemed gentler, warmer, less driven than her sister with the killer ambition and single-minded purpose. And Clarissa lovingly moving her hand over the child the way Jessie did? He couldn't imagine it.
Stacy Meyers held the envelope aloft to give everybody a good view. "I promise to work hard and make Jess and her family and everybody in Noah's Crossing proud of me." She gave Jessie another hug, shook Peter's hand as she thanked him, then ran off the stage and down the steps.
Peter finally breathed a relieved sigh. All was well that ended well, right? He'd done what he came to do and could soon get back to his research.
The little guy Jessie held shifted and turned his head, the breeze tousling his reddish-brown curls.
Jessie stroked his back. He was a cute kid.
Peter studied the baby's high forehead, his wide-set eyes, his prominent nose and the small, diamond-shaped birthmark on the baby's lower left jaw.
A birthmark exactly like his own.
Hearing Dr. Sheridan murmur, Jessie looked into his frowning eyes. He stared at Jake as if he couldn't believe what he saw. A chill shaking her, her own focus snagged on the man's birthmark she'd been trying to ignore ever since walking on stage. The birthmark that was just like Jake's.
She swept her blowing hair away from her face with her free hand. Maybe she could believe the identical birthmarks were a coincidence if Jake wasn't the spitting image of the man—high forehead, rich auburn hair, deep brown eyes, right down to the cleft in his chin—or maybe if Clarissa hadn't worked at the Madison lab with Dr. Sheridan before she'd moved to the New York branch.
Dr. Sheridan turned his questioning gaze on her. "When this is over, we need to talk." His deep voice was a command.
Why would she want to talk to him? If he was Jake's father, what could she possibly have to say to the man her sister said was unavailable and completely uninterested in being a dad? With a shake of her head, she clutched Jake's warm, chubby body a little closer, turned and walked carefully down the stage steps, passed her father and sat down next to her mother. She stole a glance at Dr. Sheridan.
He'd taken his seat among the dignitaries on stage, his focus locked on Jake. The only word to describe the look on his face was shock.
Shock? What did he have to be shocked about? Shock was her thing.
Dad leaned to pat her arm. "You did us proud, Jess," he whispered.
Mom clasped Jessie's hand. "Are you all right?"
Jessie nodded vigorously to discourage conversation.
But Mom didn't let that stop her. She drew closer to whisper in Jessie's ear. "Jake looks just like him. What if ?"
"He wants to talk," Jessie whispered back. Mom frowned.
Jessie glanced over her shoulder. Had friends and relatives filling the row behind her noticed how much Jake looked like Dr. Sheridan? It seemed impossible to miss.
Sighing, Mom settled back to listen to the program.
As if she would hear a word. Knowing Mom, she was busy putting the entire situation in God's hands.
Too bad Jessie couldn't. Not with her mind whirling with questions. If Dr. Sheridan was Jake's daddy, why hadn't he sent somebody else to present the scholarship? Was he curious to see his son? Had his "uninterested in being a dad" attitude changed?
A shiver snaking down her back, Jessie raised her gaze to the stage, past the valedictorian at the lectern to the magnetic, auburn-haired man sitting to the left. She shifted on the uncomfortable chair in an attempt to ease the pain in her hip. Why hadn't she insisted her sister tell her everything about Jake's father?
That was easy. She'd been so desperate to accept the wondrous gift her twin had offered, questions had been the last thing on her mind. Down deep, she hadn't wanted anything to get in the way of her raising Clarissa's beautiful baby boy.
She stroked Jake's back, her heart flooding with love and gratitude to the sister who'd given Jessie's life meaning when she'd thought it would never have meaning again. I love you, Rissa. If Dr. Sheridan is Jake's daddy, you picked a man with great genes. But what does he think we need to talk about?
Applause startled her as the valedictorian took his seat. Dr. Sheridan didn't seem to notice, absorbed in Jake as he was. People on stage took their places to hand out diplomas.
All Jessie could think about was the intensity on Dr. Sheridan's face when he'd said they needed to talk. Now, that potential conversation loomed so ominously, she had trouble breathing. What possible good could come from it?
Before she said one word to him, she needed to talk
to Will Kennedy. He was a lawyer. He could tell her if the adoption papers were in order and whether she might have anything to worry about if Dr. Sheridan really was Jake's daddy. She glanced at her watch. Will would be at the diner right about now for his daily piece of pie. If she hurried, she could catch him.
Red robes flapping in the wind, students began filing across the stage amid cheering and clapping and bouncing beach balls. Dr. Sheridan headed for the side stage steps.
Jessie grabbed her purse and turned to her parents. "I'm going to walk back to the diner."
Dad pointed at the cloudy sky. "You'd better ride with us."
"It's too far for you to carry Jake," Mom insisted, concern in her voice.
"I'll be fine," Jessie said impatiently. Would her parents ever stop treating her like a victim who needed to be coddled?
Adjusting her son in her arms, she stood and strode out of the stadium as if her life depended on how fast her gimpy leg would carry her.
Reaching the sidewalk, she heard Dr. Sheridan holler her name.
Heart pounding, Peter caught up with Jessie just as she swung around to face him, her hand flying to the little boy's head as if to protect him. Peter's blood pressure shot up a few more points. She, obviously, thought he was a threat.
He was acting a little crazy. The idea that this child could be his son was crazy. Clarissa would have told him she was pregnant after their night together, wouldn't she?
But if Jessie had nothing to hide, why did she run away? Did she think he wouldn't pursue her? That he wouldn't have to know? "Jessie, is this Clarissa's child?"
She took a step back.
Peter studied the baby's hair so much like Peter's mother's. The nose and chin cleft like his father's. "He looks like me. He even has the Sheridan birthmark."
Jessie stared at him as if he'd sprouted an extra eye in the middle of his forehead. "He's my son."
Peter stared her down. Shiny, luminous eyes.. wide with fear? Her breaths were fast and shallow. Her soft lips clenched tight as if guarding a secret.
He wanted to reassure her, tell her everything would be okay. Dragging a breath, he struggled to regain his focus.
The timing. Ever since he'd spotted the child's birthmark, his mind had been spinning to figure out the timing. If he was right, Clarissa would have been two months pregnant when she'd transferred to the New York lab. "He's about eighteen months old, isn't he?"
Jessie's eyes flinched.
Enough of a reaction to confirm he was right on the money.
Thunder rumbled low. He could smell the ozone in the air.
"I'm in a huge hurry." Jessie glanced away as if she couldn't wait to make a break for it. "I have to take care of something at my diner."
He shook his head. "Don't you think I have a right to know for sure that I have a son?"
She shuttered her gaze. "I I don't have time to talk right now."
Attempting to tone down his frustration, he studied the lines puckering the creamy skin between her eyes. "I need to know if he's Clarissa's son. How much time can a simple yes or no take?"
Finally, she looked at him as if she'd made up her mind. "My diner's on Main Street. If you need to talk to me, stop in in a half hour or so." She turned, intent on leaving.
He couldn't let her go not yet. Somehow, he had to make her trust him enough to give him an answer. "Jessie if he is Clarissa's."
Pausing, Jessie gave him a nervous glance.
Good. He had her attention. But if the baby was Clarissa's what? He clenched his jaw. "I would have taken responsibility for him.. if she'd told me she was pregnant."
Swinging around to face him, Jessie shot him a questioning scowl.
"She didn't tell me," he repeated. The boy murmured.
Peter watched the child's tiny nose crinkle as if chasing a laugh in his dreams. Unexplainable warmth welled inside until he thought he'd choke on it. He reached to touch a chubby finger.
Jessie jerked out of his reach as if his touch would contaminate the kid.
Peter met her eyes. Sad eyes brimming with indescribable pain and fear. He felt like a heel for making her feel so threatened. But her actions gave him his answer. "The boy is Clarissa's. And mine."
She shifted her stance, biting her lip rather than confirming or rejecting his words.
Her silence was all the confirmation he needed.
"Mama?" The little guy raised his head and stretched, his back arching, his little butt jutting out.
"Hi, sweetheart," Jessie said softly. "You had a nice nap, didn't you?" Wary eyes on Peter, she kissed the baby's forehead.
The child gave her a smile that would make the sun seem dim in comparison. Then the boy turned his deep brown, Sheridan eyes on Peter.
A grin traveled through him like a beacon of light, and he wondered if the buttons on his shirt would pop with the pride swelling his chest. Odd, considering how little he'd had to do with the child's existence. "What's his name?"
"His name?" Jessie swallowed. "His name is Jacob Maxwell Chandler."
Posted August 4, 2012
I felt so bad for Jess and her inabilty to have children. However by adopting her sister's child, she was e entually able to meet the right man. Both she and Peter had a lot of issues to deal with, but it all worked out in the end. Got to lo e a story with a happy ending.
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Posted December 22, 2012
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