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Judson Philips sat on his back porch looking at the sunset. He appreciated the longer days and shorter nights of mid-March, for time seemed to pass more swiftly than during the dreariness of winter. He needed the healing that the passage of time would bring.
Rick, his big German shepherd, sat beside him, occasionally rubbing against his leg. "Come on, boy, no use procrastinating. It has to be done, so let's do it." He patted Rick on the head, got up and went inside. He'd never realized how big that house was or how lonely he could be in it. With Rick beside him, he ran up the stairs and opened the door to his parents' bedroom.
For the first time in his life, he was alone in every sense of the word. Being adopted and an only child, he'd been the apple of his parents' eyes. They doted on him so much that, until he finished high school, achieving his independence had been one long struggle. When he was seven or eight years old, he had often fantasized about leaving Baltimore and becoming a saxophone player with a jazz band and traveling around the world.
He opened several chests of drawers in his parents' bedroom and found nothing of particular interest. He wasn't sure what to look for but decided to search in the bottom of his mother's closet. He found a two-foot square cardboard box with four drawers tucked away. He sat with it on his parents' bed and opened a drawer.
The sight of his father's passport gave him cause for hope. The phone rang, breaking the silence and startling him, much like a child caught in mischief.
"Hello," he said, expecting to hear the voice of one of his mother's friends calling to console him.
"How's it going, man?"
"Scott! Not so good," he began to unburden himself. "You know I loved my parents, and they certainly loved me. But I never got the courage to ask them about my birth parents, because I didn't want them to think I was unhappy or that they didn't do enough for me even though I never stopped wanting to know where I came from. Now they're both gone, and I'll probably never know. I feel…I don't know…but it's as if I have no ties. I don't belong with…hell! You know what I mean. I've just begun looking through my folks' papers."
"You gonna try and find your birth parents?"
Judson squeezed his eyes shut. "I have to," he said.
"I understand. I'm with you, man. You know that."
"I almost forgot why I called you. I know it's early after what you've just been through with Aunt Bev, Judson, but I thought it would do you good to get out. Tomorrow's my birthday. And my folks are giving me a party at the Hilton. Remember? What do you say?"
"Uh…all right. I'll…I'll be there." He'd forgotten about Scott's birthday. "Thanks for reminding me. I've…had a lot on my mind."
"I know that, buddy. I'm glad you'll come."
Judson hung up. Scott Galloway had been his close friend since kindergarten, and he couldn't think of anyone more reliable as a friend. He opened a second drawer and discovered a stack of papers, brown and dry with age. His heartbeat accelerated when he found an old newspaper clipping of a birth announcement. He discovered whoever it was about was born in Hagerstown, Maryland.
"Hmm." Why would his parents keep the newspaper clipping?
The next morning, Friday, Judson bought Scott a digital camera to replace one he'd lost, had it wrapped and delivered by messenger. He arrived at the party a few minutes after nine that evening, and Scott met him at the entrance to the ballroom.
"Judson," Scott greeted him. "Thanks for that terrific camera." He took it from his pocket. "Just what I needed. Uh…I have someone I want you to meet. Marks has been stalking her for the last hour."
Judson seemed indifferent. He tried not to let his frustration show, but he certainly felt like it. "Happy birthday, Scott. Sorry, but I do not want to meet another one of your cute buddies."
"This one isn't a buddy and you'd better not call her cute. She's a coworker and a friend, and you definitely want to meet her." He tapped Judson's shoulder. "Trust me."
Scott took Judson's arm and pushed him through the throng of birthday well-wishers, but suddenly stopped. "Judson Philips, this is Curtis Heywood."
"Judson Philips? Well, how do you do? You're precisely the man I need to see."
"How's that?" Judson asked.
"I've got a malpractice suit, and I had planned to call you, but meeting you through a mutual friend suits me better."
Judson handed Curtis Heywood his card. "Thank you. I'll be in my law office Monday morning." He couldn't spend more time with the man because Scott nudged him on.
He saw her from a distance. If she wasn't the woman Scott intended to introduce him to, too bad. The closer he got to her, the more certain he was that he wanted to meet her. But with her looks, he couldn't see how she would be unattached.
When he and Scott were about ten feet from the woman, Judson drew in a deep breath. For the first time since his college days at Harvard, he felt himself vulnerable to a woman. She turned in his direction and glanced directly at him. Her large brown eyes, shaded by long, silky lashes that fanned against her cheeks, seemed to calculate everything about him in that brief look. She focused quickly on the two men who had been standing in front of her.
Scott tapped his hand on the woman's shoulder and said to the two men with whom she'd been talking, "Excuse me, Pat, Orson," and stood between them and the woman. "Heather, I want you to meet my very best and oldest friend, Judson Philips. Judson, this is Heather Tatum, one of my colleagues. Heather is a lawyer, the same as you, Judson, except that she's also a special envoy with the State Department."
"I'm delighted to meet you, Ms. Tatum," he said, letting charm supersede his nervousness. "Scott hasn't told me any more about you than what he just said, and I suspect there's much more. Would you explain for me what a roving ambassador does?"
"I'm glad to make your acquaintance, Mr. Philips. Scott hasn't told me anything about you either, but I read the papers. I've also seen you on television." A smile softened her dazzling features and seemed to make her flawless dark brown skin glow. "As for being a roving diplomat, that only means that I do odd jobs in foreign countries at the behest of the president and the secretary of state. My father calls me a diplomatic gofer." The latter brought laughter from the three of them.
"I had to drag Judson out here," Scott said. "He lost his mother very recently, and he isn't crazy about big social gatherings anyway, so I'm flattered that he's here."
"I'm sorry about your mother, Mr. Philips. How recently did she pass?"
"Eleven days ago. Thanks for your kindness." He didn't want to stand there staring at her like a love-struck school boy. He looked at Scott, who seemed overly satisfied with himself. "What time is your dad supposed to make that champagne toast?"
"Probably as soon as Mom is sure everybody has seen her dress."
Heather looked at Judson. "Do you think he's serious?"
"I certainly hope not. Aunt Ada is what you'd call a woman of substance. She is by no means frivolous."
"Excuse me a minute," Scott said and disappeared.
"Scott got me by the arm and told me he wanted me to meet a colleague," Judson said to Heather. "I saw you before we got to the middle of the room, and I decided that if he wasn't going to introduce me to you, I didn't want to meet whoever else he had in mind."
"Thank you. Where did you go to law school?" she asked him, changing the subject.
Her grin and the wicked glint in her eyes gave him cause to exercise self-control. "What's amusing?" he asked her.
"We could never enjoy a Harvard-Yale game together."
"Say no more."
"You bet," she said, still grinning. "We lead 62–58. The eight ties don't count. I assume you played quarterback."
His eyebrows shot up. "Why do you assume that?"
"Because you look like one. Quarterbacks lead the team, and most of them are type-A personalities."
"I'm not sure I should thank you," he teased.
Their repartee ended when Scott's father stood and gave the toast. After the toast Scott rejoined them. "Being the oldest of three and the only boy carries much responsibility," Scott explained sarcastically. "At least that's what my parents have been trying to make me believe for thirty years. You're lucky that you were an only child," Scott said to Judson.
"I was lucky to be anybody's child," he said, but Heather's puzzled expression made him wish he hadn't uttered the thought aloud.
As the evening wound down, Heather seemed ready to leave.
"May I take you home?" Judson asked, anticipating her mood.
"Thank you," she said, "but I'm leaving tomorrow for Egypt, and I don't have much time. I've enjoyed meeting you. Good night."
Judson was admittedly a bit stunned. Wealthy, successful, handsome and a heart-stopper at thirty-four years of age, he was unaccustomed to rejection by anyone.
He stared at Heather's departing back. "Well, I'll be damned."
Scott rushed up to Judson. "What happened? Aren't you taking her home?"
"It appears she's very busy."
Scott's face contorted into a frown. "Didn't you two get along?"
"I thought we did, but she blew me off." He lifted sfirst one shoulder and then the other in a shrug. "Looks like I'm losing my edge."
Judson allowed himself a rueful smile. "Not to worry, buddy. She made a dent, not a chasm."
Scott looked into the distance. He'd known Judson since they were five years old. "Yeah," he said, mostly to himself. "If you say so."
Heather Tatum forced herself to walk out of the Americana Ballroom without looking back. She was not immune to Judson Philips's charm. Quite the contrary. But she had her own agenda, and he was not part of it. After years of study and long hours of work at the State Department, she had just begun to reach her goal of rising in the foreign service to become an ambassador, and she did not intend to be sidetracked by a charismatic, handsome, perfect specimen of a man.
Lord, but he's gorgeous, she thought to herself as she got into the waiting limousine, one of the few perks that came with her job. The evening had been fun. Indeed, Scott Galloway knew how to give a party. She'd liked his friend. Judson Philips had a masculine aura that set him apart. He knew who he was and exuded confidence.
"I'm going home, Garth," she said to the driver, leaned back in the soft leather seat and told herself to get her mind on something other than Philips.
She took out her cell phone and telephoned the woman who cared for her father at the family home in Hagerstown, Maryland. "How's he doing, Annie?" she asked the housekeeper who doubled as her father's caretaker. "He didn't seem to be in a good mood when I talked to him this afternoon."
"He's in a better mood. He even watched the baseball game until the Red Sox started knocking home runs. Don't you worry, Heather. You know I take good care of your father."
Heather smiled to herself. Annie had worked for the Tatum family since Heather was ten years old and had remained with them after Heather's mother had run off. She'd often wished her father would have married Annie, who clearly adored him.
"I know you do," she said. "I have a morning flight to Cairo, but I'll see you when I get back."
"I'll be here."
She hung up and began mentally sorting out last-minute details for her trip. She didn't believe in leaving anything to chance.
Heather walked into her room at the Ramses Hilton Hotel in Cairo shortly after noon that Sunday and looked around. As she always did, she tested the hotel bed for firmness. Satisfied, she went to the window and looked out. In the distance, she could see the great Giza pyramids west of the Nile and what looked like miles of sand. What a different world from Baltimore.
As she began to unpack, she glimpsed a large bouquet of calla lilies in a vase painted with the likeness of Queen Nefertiti. She adored calla lilies and had decided that if she married, she would carry them as her wedding bouquet. She made a note to thank the hotel management. She used the phone in her room to check in with the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Then she hung up her clothes and took a shower. From the time she departed from the Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport until she walked into her room at the Hilton, eighteen tiring hours had elapsed. She ordered a sandwich and a pot of tea from room service and turned on the television.
When her sandwich arrived, she tipped the waiter, then got in bed and watched the news while she ate and drank her tea. Weariness caught up with her. She turned off the television, and when she put her head on the pillow, she noticed a note against the side of the vase and jumped out of bed to open it.
I wish you a safe, pleasant and fruitful mission.
How on earth? What a resourceful man. And what a thoughtful one. She must have made an impact on him, as well. She smiled as she happily fell asleep.
She arose early the next morning, refreshed and ready for work. As she always did when in an Islamic country, she wore a white pantsuit—white was inoffensive and was appropriate for every occasion—with a pale yellow, sleeveless blouse and white shoes. She deferred to local customs to the extent that she could without compromising her values, but she refused to cover her hair or give up her three-inch heels.