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Simon Bradley didn't like surprises.
In his experience, any time a man let himself be taken unawares, disaster happened.
Order. Rules. He was a man of discipline. Which is why it only took one look at the woman standing in his office to know that she wasn't his kind of female.
Pretty though, he told himself, his gaze sweeping her up and down in a brisk, detailed look. She stood about five foot four and looked even shorter because she was so delicately made. She was tiny, really, with short blond hair that clung to her head in chunky layers that framed her face. Big silver hoops dangled from her ears and her wide blue eyes were fixed on him thoughtfully. Her mouth was curved in what appeared to be a permanent half smile and a single dimple winked at him from her right cheek. She wore black jeans, black boots and a bright red sweater that molded itself to her slight but curvy body.
He ignored the flash of purely male interest as he met her gaze and stood up behind his desk. "Ms. Barrons, is it? My assistant tells me you insisted on seeing me about something 'urgent'?"
"Yes, hi. And please, call me Tula," she said, her words tumbling from her delectable-looking mouth in a rush. She walked toward him, right hand extended.
His fingers folded over hers and he felt a sudden, intense surge of heat. Before he could really question it, she shook his hand briskly, then stepped back. Looking past him at the wide window behind him, she said, "Wow, that's quite a view. You can see all of San Francisco from here."
He didn't turn around to share the view. He watched her instead. His fingers were still buzzing and he rubbed them together to dissipate the sensation. No, she wasn't his type at all, but damned if he wasn't enjoying looking at her. "Not all, but a good part of it."
"Why don't you have your desk facing the window?"
"If I did that, I'd have my back to the door, wouldn't I?"
"Right." She nodded then shrugged. "Still, I think it'd be worth it."
Pretty, but disorganized, he thought. He glanced at his wristwatch. "Ms. Barrons"
"Ms. Barrons," he said deliberately, "if you've come to talk about the view, I don't really have time for this. I've got a board meeting in fifteen minutes and"
"Right. You're a busy man. I get that. And no, I didn't come to talk about the view, I got a little distracted, that's all."
Distractions, he thought wryly, are probably how this woman lives her life. She was already letting her gaze slide around his office rather than getting to the point of her visit. He watched her as she took in the streamlined office furniture, the framed awards from the city and the professionally done photos of the other Bradley department stores across the country.
Pride rose up inside him as he, too, took a moment to admire those photos. Simon had worked hard for the last ten years to rebuild a family dynasty that his father had brought to the brink of ruin. In one short decade, Simon had not only regained ground lost, thanks to his father's sloppy business sense, he'd taken the Bradley family chain of upscale shopping centers further than anyone else ever had.
And he hadn't accomplished all of that by being distracted. Not even by a pretty woman.
"If you don't mind," he said, coming around his desk to escort her personally to the door, "I am rather busy today
She flashed him a full smile and Simon felt his heart take an odd, hard lurch in his chest. Her eyes lit up and that dimple in her cheek deepened and she was suddenly the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. Shaken, Simon brushed that thought aside and told himself to get a grip.
"Sorry, sorry," Tula said, waving both hands in the air as if to erase her own tendency to get sidetracked. "I really am here to talk to you about something very important."
"All right then, what is it that's so urgent you vowed to spend a week in my waiting area if you weren't allowed to speak to me immediately?"
She opened her mouth, shut it again, then suggested, "Maybe you should sit down."
"Fine," she said with a shake of her head. "Your call. But don't say I didn't warn you."
Pointedly, he glanced at his watch.
"I get it," she told him. "Busy man. You want it and you want it now. Okay then, here it is. Congratulations, Simon Bradley. You're a father."
He stiffened and any sense of courtesy went out the window along with his sense of bemused tolerance. "Your five minutes are up, Ms. Barrons." He took her elbow in a firm grip and steered her toward the door.
Her much shorter legs were moving fast, trying to either keep up or slow him down, he wasn't sure which. Either way, it didn't make a difference to him. Beautiful or not, whatever game she was playing, it wasn't going to work. Simon was no one's father and he damn well knew it.
"Hey!" She finally dug the heels of her boots into the lush carpet and slowed his progress a bit. "Wait a second! Geez, overreact much?"
"I'm not a father," he ground out tightly. "And trust me when I say that if I had ever slept with you, I would remember."
"I didn't say I was the baby's mother."
He didn't listen. Just kept moving toward the door at a relentless pace.
"I would have worked up to that little declaration slower, you know," she was babbling. "You're the one who wanted it direct and fast."
"I see. This was for my benefit."
"No, it's for your son's benefit, you boob."
He staggered a little in spite of knowing that she had to be lying. A son? Impossible.
She took advantage of the momentary pause in his forced march toward the door to break free of his grip and step back just out of reach. He was unsettled enough to let her go. He didn't know what she was trying to pull, but at the moment, her eyes looked soft but determined as she met his gaze.
"I realize this is coming as a complete shock to you. Heck, it would be for anybody."
Simon shook his head and narrowed his eyes on her. Enough of this. He didn't have a son and he wasn't going to fall for whatever moneygrubbing scheme she'd come up with in her delusional fantasies. Best to lay that on the line right from the start.
"I've never even seen you before, Ms. Barrons, so obviously, we don't have a child together. Next time you want to convince someone to pay for a child that doesn't exist, you might want to try it on someone you've actually slept with."
She blinked up at him in confusion, then a moment later she laughed. "No, no. I told you, I'm not the baby's mother. I'm the baby's aunt. But you're definitely his father. Nathan has your eyes and even that stubborn chin of yours. Which does not bode well, I suppose. But stubbornness can often be a good quality, don't you think?"
The imaginary baby had a name.
But that didn't make any of this situation real.
"This is insane," he told her. "You're obviously after something, so why not just spill it and get it over with."
She was muttering to herself as she walked back to his desk and Simon was forced to follow her. "I had a speech all prepared, you know. You rushed me and everything's confused now."
"I think you're the only thing confused here," Simon told her, moving to pick up his phone and call security. They could escort her out and he'd be done with this and back to work.
"I'm not confused," she said. She read his expression and added, "I'm not crazy, either. Look, give me five minutes, okay?"
He hung up. Wasn't sure why. Maybe it was the gleam in her blue eyes. Maybe it was that tantalizing dimple that continued to show itself and disappear again. But if there was the slightest chance that what she was saying was true, then he owed it to himself to find out.
"All right," he said, checking his watch. "Five minutes."
"Okay." She took a deep breath and said, "Here we go. Do you remember dating a woman named Sherry Taylor about a year and a half ago?"
A thin thread of apprehension slithered through Simon as he searched his memory. "Yes," he said warily.
I'm Sherry's cousin, Tula Barrons. Actually, Tallulah, named after my grandmother, but that's such a hideous name that I go by Tula
He was hardly listening to her now. Instead his mind was focused on those nebulous memories of a woman in his past. Was it possible?
She took another steadying breath and said, "I know this is hard to take in, but while you two were together, Sherry got pregnant. She gave birth to your son six months ago, in Long Beach."
"She what? "
"I know, I know. She should have told you," the woman said, lifting both hands as if to say it wasn't her fault. "I actually tried to convince her to tell you, but she said she didn't want to intrude on your life or anything, so."
Intrude on his life.
That was an understatement. God, he could barely remember what the woman looked like. Simon rubbed at the spot between his eyes as if somehow that might clear up the foggy memories. But all he came up with was a vague image of a woman who had been in and out of his life in about two weeks' time.
And while he'd gone on his way without a backward glance, she'd been pregnant? With his child? And didn't even bother to tell him?
"What? Why? How?"
"All very good questions," she said, smiling at him again, this time in a sympathetic fashion. "I'm really sorry this is such a shock, but"
Simon wasn't interested in her sympathy. He wanted answers. If he really did have a son, then he needed to know everything.
"Why now?" he demanded. "Why did your cousin wait until now to tell me, and why isn't she here herself?"
Her eyes filmed over and he had the horrifying thought that she was going to cry. Damn it. He hated when women cried. Made a man feel completely helpless. Not something he enjoyed at all. But a moment later, the woman had gotten control of her emotions and managed to stem the tide of those tears. Her eyes still glittered with them, but she refused to let them fall and Simon found, unexpectedly, that he admired her for it.
"Sherry died a couple of weeks ago," she said softly.
Another quick jolt of surprise in a morning that felt full of them. "I'm sorry," he said, knowing it sounded lame and cliched, but what else was there to say?
"Thanks," she said. "It was a car accident. She died instantly."
"Look, Ms. Barrons."
She sighed. "If I beg, will you please call me Tula?"
"Fine. Tula," he amended, thinking it really was the least he could do, considering. For the first time in a very long time, Simon had been caught completely off guard.
He wasn't sure how to react. His instinct, of course, was to find this baby and if it was his son, to claim him. But all he had was this stranger's word, along with memories that were too obscure to trust. Why in the hell would a woman get pregnant and not tell the baby's father? Why wouldn't she have come to him if that child really was his?
He scrubbed one hand across his jaw. "Look, I'm sorry to say, I don't really remember much about your cousin. We weren't together long. I don't see why you're so sure this baby is mine."
"Because Sherry named you on the baby's birth certificate."
"She gave the baby my name and didn't bother to tell me?" He didn't even know what to say to that. "I know," she said, her tone soothing.
He didn't want to be soothed. Or understood. "She could have put anyone's name down," he pointed out. "Sherry didn't lie."
Simon laughed at the ridiculousness of that statement. "Is that right?"
Tula winced. "All right, fine. She lied to you, but she wouldn't have lied to her son. She wouldn't have lied about Nathan's name."
"Why should I believe that the boy is mine?"
"You did have sex with her?"
Scowling, Simon admitted, "Well, yes, I did, but"
"And you do know how babies are made, right?"
"That's very amusing."
"I'm not trying to be funny," she told him. "Just honest. Look, you can do a paternity test, but I can tell you that Sherry would never have named you as Nathan's father in her will if she wasn't sure."
"Her will?" The silent clang of a warning bell went off in his mind.
"Didn't I already tell you that part?"
She shook her head and dropped into one of the chairs angled in front of his desk. "Sorry. It's been a busy couple of weeks for me, what with Sherry's accident and arranging the funeral and closing up her house and moving the baby up here to my house in Crystal Bay."
Sensing that this was going to go on far longer than the original five minutes he'd allowed her, Simon walked around the edge of his desk and took a seat. At the very least, he was now in the position of power. He watched the pretty blonde and asked, "What about the will?"
Tula reached into the oversize black leather bag she had slung over her shoulder. She pulled out a large manila envelope and dropped it onto his desk. "That's a copy of Sherry's will. If you look, you'll see that I've been named temporary guardian of Nathan. Until I'm sure that you're ready to be the baby's father."
Her voice, her words, were no more than a buzz of sound in his head. He read through the will quickly, scanning until he found the provisions for the child Sherry had named as his. Custody of minor, Nathan Taylor, goes to the child's father, Simon Bradley.
He sat back in his chair and kept rereading those words until he was fairly certain they'd been burned into his brain. Was this true? Was he a father?
Lifting his gaze to hers, Simon found Tula Barrons studying him through those wide, brilliant blue eyes. She was waiting for him to say something.
Damned if he knew what it should be.
He'd been careful, always, in his relationships with women. He'd had no desire to be a father. And yet he had a vague memory of being with Sherry Taylor. The woman herself was hardly more than a smudge in his memoriesbut he did remember the night the condom had broken. A man didn't forget things like that. But she'd never said anything about a baby, so he'd forgotten about the incident.
It was possible.
He might really have a son.