Read an Excerpt
Marek Rangel glanced at his watch and pushed aside the papers in front of him. It was the morning of the second day of April, a sunny, spring day. Two minutes until his appointment with the opera singer. He had no idea why Camille Avanole had requested to meet with him or even how she had gotten through to his private line. He didn't attend the opera and it wasn't on the list of charities of his family's foundation. He had been tempted to refuse to see her, but, out of courtesy, he had decided he would meet her briefly.
He gazed around his corner office on the twenty-second floor in the building that was headquarters for his company, Rangel Energy, Inc. His secretary was to interrupt them if Ms. Avanole ran over the allotted thirty minutes he had agreed upon.
A light knock on the door brought him to his feet.
His secretary thrust her head into the room. "Camille Avanole is here."
"Tell her to come in," he said, stepping away from his oversize antique mahogany desk.
A vivacious black-haired woman approached him with her hand extended. A smile revealed white, perfect teeth; she had a sparkle in her enormous, thickly lashed blue eyes. The plain black dress she wore with a black scarf wrapped casually below her neck was striking. She had an inviting presence, as if she were about to share a delightful surprise. Suddenly, Marek's interest stirred.
"Mr. Rangel," she said. "I'm Camille Avanole."
Her warm hand was soft, yet her handshake was firm. At the moment of contact, he was jolted by an electric response, an intense awareness that he had not felt with any woman since he had lost his fiancée. Realizing he was staring, he released her hand.
"Please have a seat."
Marek focused on her interesting walk. As she crossed the room, he noticed her tiny waist. Her beauty had to be an asset to her career.
"Just call me Marek," he said, certain this meeting would be brief and he would never see her again.
Two antique velvet wingback chairs stood in front of the mahogany desk. Marek sat down facing her. She crossed long, shapely legs that had to be the best-looking legs on the opera circuit.
"Are you in Dallas for a performance or is this your home?" he asked politely, noticing she had the largest eyes he had ever seen. Striking, spellbinding eyes.
"I'm back in Dallas this spring for a performance I'll have soon."
He had the feeling of being studied as intently as a bug under a microscope.
"So what is the mysterious reason you wanted to see me that we couldn't discuss on the phone?"
Her smile vanished and she straightened. He could add the word compelling to his description of her. He couldn't imagine her playing any part on stage except the star; she would steal the show even in the background. Even while sitting still, she exuded energy.
"You lost your brother and your fiancée a year ago this March. I'm sorry for your loss," she said.
"Thank you," he replied stiffly, waiting and wondering why she had brought that up.
"I knew your brother," she said quietly.
Surprised, he focused on her. "How's that?"
"We met at a New Year's Eve party. You had a very charming brother."
"Yes, Kern was charismatic, fun," Marek said, his mind racing. Had she and Kern secretly married? He dismissed that notion immediately. Kern would have told him. "Let's cut to the chase here. What does your knowing my brother have to do with your asking for an appointment to talk to me?"
"I'm going to give you a shock and I'm trying to lead into it instead of just hitting you with it all at once."
"At this point, I'm ready for you to hit me with it," he said, unable to fathom what she might be about to tell him.
She pulled out a picture to show him. He looked at a baby boy with big dark eyes who was smiling. Marek's breath left him as if he had received a blow to his midsection. The picture looked like dozens he had seen at his parents' home. The baby had big brown eyes like his brother, tangled black hair, the same color his brother's had been, the same color as his own. Marek looked up. "Who is he?"
"I think you already know," Camille answered quietly. "He's my son. Your brother was his father."
Even though that was what he had already guessed, it was another hard blow to his midsection to hear her declare it.
"I can see a resemblance, but Kern would have told me. I'm sorry, I find this difficult to believe. It could be a coincidence he looks like my brother. How old is this child?"
"He's six months old now. Noah was born October 4, last year."
"Six months old," Marek repeated, dazed. He stared at the picture in disbelief, an icy chill setting in as he wondered if this was a play for money. "Kern never said a word about knowing you. He would have said something to me."
"We met at a New Year's Eve party over a year ago," she said in her silky soprano voice. "Kern charmed me. We had mutual friends, so I felt safe leaving with him. It was an exception in my very structured lifetwo nights of passion that I'd never had before and never since. We used protection, but I still got pregnant. I've managed to keep the publicity low-key. It hasn't been difficult to keep the baby out of the spotlight. An opera performerat least at my current levelis not the same as a movie star. I have only recently had more success and more fame."
"I find it difficult to believe this baby really is Kern's."
"He is. You can have a paternity test. The DNA should give you an answer."
Marek could not stop looking at the picture of the baby.
"What's his name?"
"I'm still amazed Kern didn't tell me."
"He said he was going to tell you, but he probably never had the chance."
"You're right." Unable to sit still, Marek stood and walked to the window to stare at the picture while questions raced through his thoughts. "Kern had a baby. How long before the flight did he know?" Marek asked.
"The evening before he left I told Kern I was pregnant, so he didn't know until the day before the plane crash."
Marek drew a deep breath. "Was this on his mind when he flew to Denver?"
"I'm sure it was," she answered.
Marek felt as if he had had another blow. A year ago in March, his brother had had a flight to a horse sale in Kansas City. Marek had intended to fly to Denver to pick up his fiancée, who had been there for a wedding. Instead, Kern had offered to pick her up after leaving Kansas City. On the way home they had been caught in an unexpected storm. When the plane had crashed, both had been killed. Now he wondered how much his brother's thoughts and attention had been distracted by the news from Camille. Marek continued staring at the baby's picture. He remembered Camille and turned to find her sitting quietly.
"Thank you for telling me," Marek said, crossing the room. "I'll think about the paternity test. Since you're telling me now, I assume you want me to do something. We might as well get to the point of this meeting."
"I've had time to think about this. I can support Noah. What I want is for Noah to know the Rangels. Kern was such a cowboy. I want Noah to have an appreciation for ranching, so he will understand his father better. I think he should know his father's family."
Marek had received one surprise after another. If she really didn't want money, he would be shocked. He figured this was a ploy to get him to let down his guard.
"I'll have to think about this and talk to my attorney."
She smiled. "I hope you don't need an attorney. I felt you should know, and there was no good way to tell you on the phone or by email. Even in person, it's a shock. But what's done is done."
"The crash was a year ago last month. Why did you wait until now to tell me?"
"I was busy caring for Noah and undecided what to do.
I was away from Dallas, and I wanted to tell you in person. I knew I would be back. Also, it's given me time to really think this through. You could help by being a father figure for your nephew, too."
Marek drew a deep breath at the thought of the responsibility she wanted him to take. Yet if this baby was Kern's, a part of Kern, Marek wanted to know him and watch him grow up. A part of Kernthe thought twisted his insides. He looked at the picture again. Why hadn't Kern told him? He probably had planned to when he returned from the flight.
"Kern never knew this baby. You'll take good care of him. Maybe it would be better if I just stepped back out of the way," Marek said stiffly. He still harbored a kernel of doubt that this was Kern's baby and expected her to make an effort to pull him back into being part of the baby's life.
"I hope you'll come see him. Of course, what you do now is your choice. And I'll take the best care of him I possibly can. If you ever want to see him, you'll be able to contact me."
"That's good to hear. Do you have parents who are living?"
"Yes. My parents live in Saint Louis." She smiled, remaining poised. "Your brother told me how different the two of you were. I supposed I'd hoped you would react the way Kern did, but you're not Kern."
She reached into her purse to withdraw a piece of paper. She held it out to him. "Your brother sent me an email, and I printed it out. This is a copy of it. I've made an effort to preserve it for Noah."
For the first time, Marek began to believe what she had told him. He was reluctant to read the email. He was certain his life was about to take another unexpected turn. Drawing a deep breath, Marek quickly scanned the message.
When I return from Denver, we'll go to dinner. I want to be with you when Noah is born. Perfect name. I can't get used to the fact that I'm going to be a dad. Super-mega-duper! I'm overwhelmed, overjoyed. I want to be a big part of his life. Already love him. I want to be with you. My deepest gratitude for telling me. I'll call tomorrow night. We didn't plan this. Miracles happen. I'm overjoyed.
Marek felt weak in the knees. This was Kern's message. Marek looked up at Camille, who gazed back steadily. He was certain now that she had given birth to Kern's baby. There was another Rangel in the world. Until this moment, Marek hadn't fully believed the baby was Kern's. Now he couldn't doubt it.
Marek felt another tight squeeze to his chest, this time as if his heart had been grabbed by a giant fist. He missed Kern terribly, and this brought back all the incredible pain of his loss. With thoughts of Kern came remembrance of Jillian. He hated the knot in his throat. Making an effort, he struggled to get his emotions under control before he looked up or spoke. Finally, he raised his head and handed back the letter.
"That definitely sounds like my brother. Super-mega-duperone of his favorite expressions. Thank you for showing me the message."
"That's fine. That's a copy. If you want it, keep it."
"Thanks," he said, dropping the paper on his desk. "I'll take it to show my sister. I would like a paternity test just to settle any questions that would ever arise. This is Kern's baby. That message is Kern talking. There's no mistake."
Smiling, looking happier, she nodded. "We can do a paternity test. I expected you to request one."
"This has been almost as big a shock as if you told me I have a son. My brother and I were close. I assume you haven't contacted my sister because I would have heard from her."
"No, I didn't because in what little time we were together, your brother talked far more about you."
" She's seven years older than I am. Kern and I were closer, but she'll want to know about Noah."
"If you and your sister decide you want to see him, we can arrange that."
He nodded. He felt as if his breath had been knocked out of him. He needed to think about the baby and make decisions about what he wanted to do.
"You won't always live in Dallas, will you?" he asked.
"I've only been in Texas three times in my life. I'll leave here the end of June. I'll be singing in New Mexico in August, so I'll stay there."
"And you'll take the baby with you."
"Yes, of course, but I still hope that he can get to know you and your family as he grows. If he does, you would be a good father figure for him, I'm sure. Kern would have been a wonderful one."
"You could have gone on with your life and never told me," Marek said, looking into her wide crystal-blue eyes. "There's no way I would have found out. Now you'll have to share Noah."
She studied him intently. "It wouldn't have been right. I couldn't do it. I thought about doing that because it would have been infinitely easier, but I love Noah and want what's best for him. The day will come when he'll want to know his father. Since he can't do that, he will want to know his father's family. I truly think you'll be a good influence. The ranching aspect has to be good for a growing boy. If he gets to know you and know ranching, I'll feel as if he knows part of his father."
"I agree with that, and I'm glad you made that decision,"
Marek said in a tight voice, trying to control his emotional reaction to her statement. "Will you be in town if I want to get in touch with you?"
"Yes. In June I perform here in Dallas. Then in July I'll go to Santa Fe for my August performance. After that I'll go home to Saint Louis through September so I can be with my family. I have a voice teacher here in Dallas that I like very much, so I may be in Texas more often than I have been in the past."
"You have a busy schedule. Thank you for calling me. You didn't have to share with us at all," he said again, still amazed she had done so.
"At first I was shocked by the news of my pregnancy. I thought it would end my career, and I was torn up over trying to figure out what to do. I felt uncertain about telling him. We only knew each other that one weekend. But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted Kern and the Rangels to be part of my baby's life."
As she walked to the door, Marek accompanied her. When she paused, he turned to face her, once again briefly caught in the blue of her eyes. She was a beautiful woman, and he understood why his brother had been attracted to her. "I'll talk to my sister. Also, I'll let my parents know. Thank you again for telling me," Marek said.
"I'm sorry for both your losses, your brother and your fiancée."
"Thank you," he replied stiffly. "I'll be in touch after I've talked to my sister."
She nodded. "I'm glad to have finally met you and glad you know about Noah. I'm sure I'll hear from you."
He watched her walk away and turned to go back into his office with his thoughts swirling. How much had Kern had his mind on the fact that he was going to be a father instead of concentrating on his flying? Had that news been a factor in Kern's crash?
And another baby in the family, and this time not only a little boy, but Kern's baby. He thought how delightful his two little nieces were. Now they would have the girls and Kern's little boy.
Marek canceled his appointments and called his pilot to fly back to the ranch to talk to the person he had been close to all his life.