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Ethan Hartwell was not accustomed to waiting.
He glanced over in annoyance, not bothering to hide the action from the sourfaced assistant who guarded the inner office. His BlackBerry buzzed and he accepted another appointment for that afternoon. He forwarded a scheduling notice about his Seattle trip the following week.
Hartwell Genetics couldn't afford to get left behind, not with domestic and international demand exploding for the company's genebased medicines.
If he was going to be kept waiting like a recalcitrant schoolboy outside the principal's office, then he might as well get his homework done.
Another buzz. More email. Ethan cleared his throat to get the attention of the grayhaired Gorgon. "I'm going back to my office," he said.
Before he could carry through on the threat, the door guard raised a talon to her ear. She nodded at whatever secret message she received, then leveled cold eyes toward Ethan before intoning, "You may go in now."
Games. If he'd announced his decision to leave fifteen minutes earlier, then he would have been granted admittance that much sooner. He shoved his BlackBerry onto his hip and twitched the legs of his trousers into perfect place. For full effect, he shot the cuffs of his shirt, making sure that his wristwatch glinted in the overhead lights. He told himself that his deep breath was to complete the image, to cement the vision of Ethan Hartwell, M.D., MBA, thirdgeneration president of Hartwell Genetics and the most eligible bachelor of Washington, D.C., for three years running.
In reality, he merely needed a moment to clear his head before he entered the inner sanctum.
The handle turned smoothly under his lean fingers, and the door glided open in silence. Ethan's black wingtips left deep impressions in the cream carpet as he crossed the room. He ignored the framed pictures on the wall, photographs taken with the President, with political and business leaders from throughout the civilized world. The United States Capitol was centered in the picture window behind the massive mahogany desk, as perfect as a movie backdrop. With the force of long habit, Ethan crossed behind that desk, approaching the imposing throne that housed the office's lone occupant.
He bent at the waist and settled a faint kiss on a cheek that smelled of baby powder and lilacs. "Good morning, Grandmother," Ethan said.
Margaret Hartwell's eyes gleamed like agate chips as she waved him to one of her uncomfortable Louis XIV chairs. "Will you join me for a cup of tea?"
Ethan swallowed a sigh. It was faster to accept his
grandmother's hospitality than to argue with her. He poured with the ease of familiarity, placing a gleaming strainer across her china cup, dropping in two cubes of sugar, adding a generous dollop of milk. He took his own black, strong and bitter. Determined to conclude their conversation and get back to work, he said, "Grandmother"
"I finished reading the newspaper this morning, before I came into the office," she interrupted.
He, too, had skimmed the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times while his chauffeured car had been stuck in morning traffic. "The new treatment is performing well," he said. "We should move on to stagetwo trials next month."
As if he needed to tell his grandmother about pharmaceutical development. As Hartwell Genetics's former president and current chairman of the board, Margaret Hartwell chased down medical news like a ravenous greyhound. Maybe that was why she had the capacity to annoy him so muchthey were too much alike: driven, determined and downright dogged about pursuing every last business lead.
"I'm not speaking about stagetwo trials," she said acerbically. "I was referring to the gossip page."
Ethan raised one eyebrow. He and his grandmother might be united on the business front, but they were miles apart where his personal life was concerned. "Grandmother, we've had this discussion before. You know that I can't control what the papers print."
She settled her teacup in her saucer with a firm clink. "You can control the fodder you give those imbeciles. I've told you until I'm blue in the faceyour actions have a direct effect on this company."
He shoved his teacup away. "I hardly think that my drinking champagne on a hotel rooftop is going to influence our second quarter earnings."
"She's a showgirl, Ethan."
He laughed and rose to his feet. "There haven't been showgirls since you were a debutante, Grandmother. Natasha is an actress. And don't worry. She flew back to California this morning."
"You will not walk out of my office while I am talking to you!"
He shouldn't have been surprised by the iron in his grandmother's voice. He knew that he brought out the worst in her, and vice versa, for that matter. All of a sudden, he was an abandoned little boy again, being chastised by the only relative who had stuck around to raise him. He was the sixteenyearold who had been expelled from Washington's finest private schoolagainfor playing tricks with the headmaster's public address system. He was the twentyyearold who had been thrown off the college tennis team for sneaking his girlfriend into the tournament locker room. He was the twentysevenyearold who had celebrated receiving his medical degree and his business degree on the same day, only to crash his Porsche into the Tidal Basin.
He was the thirtythreeyearold corporate executive, standing before his chairman of the board.
"Ethan, enough is enough. Your parties and your women are bringing down this company. They're distracting you. And they're not even making you happy." His grandmother gave him the flinty stare that had sealed a thousand legendary business deals. "Ethan, I want you married by no later than my birthday."
"This isn't a joke." She leaned forward across her desk. All of a sudden, Ethan became aware of the deep
lines beside her mouth, the bags beneath her eyes. Her fingers were knotted as she laid them flat against her goldscrolled leather blotter. Did they tremble because she was angry with him? Or was something more going on? He barely resisted the urge to reach across her desk, to fold his fingers around the pulse point in her wrist, to measure her heart rate. Was she keeping track of her medication? Was she managing the high blood pressure?
"Grandmother," he said, purposely striving for a soothing tone. "I'm a grown man. I'll decide when it's time to marry."
"I wish I believed that." Her voice quaked, spiking his own blood with a touch of true concern. "I've tried to be patient, Ethan, but I'm terrified that I'll die without knowing our family will continue." She raised one trembling hand to silence his automatic protest. "I know that you're afraid. But we can test now. We can be absolutely certain that any child you father is spared the genetic mutation."
He had never seen his grandmother cry before. Not when two grandchildren had diedEthan's siblings. Not when Ethan's mourning parents had incinerated their marriage. Not when Grandmother had been left with the responsibility of managing the company that the family had originally founded to research an end to their longkept medical secret. Not when she had buried her beloved husband of fiftyone years.
But she was crying now.
"You have a responsibility, Ethan. To the Hartwell family and to this company. To yourself. It's time for you to settle down." She must have read the automatic rebellion in his expression. She sat up straighter, staring at him with the hazel eyes that were the more benign manifestation of his Hartwell heritage. "And if you're not willing to do that, then I'll have no choice but to step down from the board and transfer my shares in Hartwell Genetics."
Her shares. Enough stock to influence every major corporate decision. If someone else owned Grandmother's interest, Ethan would be forced to fight, to keep the secret of his own genetic heritage. He'd be bound to waste countless hours cajoling along new business colleagues, educating them about the corporation's diverse pharmaceutical initiatives, all the while keeping secret its one dear mission. Ethan could kiss every one of his shortterm goals goodbye while he adjusted to the change. And under a new regime, his longterm plans might never coalesce.
"You don't mean that," he said.
"I do. I need to know that I've built something that will last, Ethan, something that will outlive me." He heard every one of her seventynine years in her voice. "Ethan, I need to know that you can step up to your obligations. That you will guide Hartwell Genetics through its next fifty years. If you can't prove that to meif you're not married by January fifththen I'm celebrating eight decades by transferring my entire estate to the American Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts."
AFAA. His grandmother's longtime pet charity.
This was even worse than he'd thought a moment ago. AFAA had no interest in medicine. They would view a massive infusion of corporate stock as a conservative investment. They would do their best to challenge every decision Ethan made to expand the corporate mission, to bring Hartwell Genetics into new markets. They'd argue for safety and security and preservation of their newfound wealth, at all costs.
Ethan sighed. He'd escorted Grandmother to the foundation's annual charity auction only a couple of months before, at the luxurious Eastern Hotel, the one with the bar that overlooked the Washington Monument.
He swallowed hard, his mouth suddenly dry. He'd bought a drink for the auction coordinator that night. A drink, and then a hastily arranged suite on the penthouse level of the hotel.
Sloane. Sloane Davenport.
He could still see Sloane's delicate, selfconscious smile as she admitted that she'd never done anything like that before, never gone off with a man she'd just met. He had silenced her confession with a kiss, not willing to admit to himselfjust how much her innocence attracted him, how much her shyness drew him in.
Since the auction, he'd picked up the phone to call her half a dozen times, but he'd never followed through. He hadn't wanted to hear regret when he identified himself. Hadn't wanted to think about the conversation they'd shared in the dark, the talk that had gone on, sleepy and comfortable, long after their bodies were sated. Hadn't wanted to remember waking up alone, with just a memory of her honeysuckle scent on the pillow.
He cleared his throat and shifted his weight, ordering his body to relax, to forget the only night that stood out from the past year's slideshow of onenight stands. "AFAA," he finally forced himself to say.
His grandmother's eyes glittered as she tapped a thick manila folder on her desk. "I have the papers here, Ethan. Zach drew them up."
Zach Crosby. Ethan's best friend. His grandmother's personal attorney.
Ethan turned on his heel and left, ignoring his grandmother's sharp remonstration, ignoring her secretary's petulant frown, ignoring the buzz of his BlackBerry.
Seven months to find a bride. And he had absolutely no doubt that his grandmother would follow through on her threat if he failed. He was certain of that. She loved him, and she would do whatever she thought best to save him. Even if he didn't want to be saved.
Sloane Davenport gasped as her computer screen flickered, giving one heartstopping moment of bluescreen warning before it died. Damn! That was the third time today. And she had no way of knowing if her email had been sent before the stupid machine crashed. No way of knowing if her resume was heading out toward a prospective new employer. No way of knowing if she might finally be making her way out of the mess that enveloped her.
She stood slowly, bracing her palms against the kitchen table before she folded her fingers into fists and rubbed the small of her back. The dull, throbbing pain had returned. She grimaced and picked up a saltine from her chipped plate. Nausea swirled through her belly, but she forced herself to chew slowly, to swallow an entire glass of water when she was done.
Two and a half months. She should be past the morning sickness any day now. That's what the book said, the dogeared volume that she kept on her coffee table like a family Bible.
She shrugged and reached for the stack of papers beside her computer. Bills. Fortunately, she kept her checkbook on paper. No chance for her ancient computer to ruin them.
Not that the curling slips of paper offered any great comfort. At least she'd managed to send her rent check on time. She glanced at the air conditioner that chugged along in the kitchen window of her tiny basement apartment. Her landlord covered utilities. No need to worry about electricity or water.
Student loans, though, were another matter. She'd sent off a tiny payment, along with a note explaining that she'd send more, as soon as she was able.
Like that was going to happen anytime soon. Expenses related to the baby had barely begun, and Sloane was already overwhelmed. Soon, she was going to have to buy some new clothes. She wasn't showing yet, but it was only a matter of weeks. Her jeans were already snug in the waistband, and she'd left the button unfastened as she worked at her kitchen table.
She'd have to get some decent groceries, too, as soon as she could keep down more than crackers and ramen noodles. For now, she had to hope that her expensive prenatal vitamins were doing their job. She glared at the white bottle on the counter.
And she'd have to scrape together money for a doctor.
She'd fit in her first prenatal visit just before her insurance ran out. Two months had gone by, though, two visits that she owed herself, owed her baby. She tried to believe that she could wait until she had a new job, until she was insured, but as every day passed without her landing a new position, she became more and more afraid.
She rubbed her fingers across the thin fabric of her Tshirt, letting them curl over the tiny life that lurked inside. Would she have handled things differently with AFAA, if she'd known that she was pregnant?