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"So," Lori Sumner said, looking over her notes, "the official position of the agency is that marital status is secondary to placing the right child in the best home."
Pilar Estes Fletcher smiled, her dark hair an inky froth of curls about her pretty face.
"Absolutely," Pilar said, confirming Lori's assessment. Lori made a note, adding this latest detail to the research she was compiling for a story assigned to her by her employer, The Richmond Gazette. Originally the series of new Tiny Blessings stories were to have been written by the newspaper's star reporter, Jared Kierney. Unfortunately, a mining disaster in the far corner of the state had temporarily called Jared away. It seemed like a God-given opportunity to Lori, because, as a single woman with a strong desire for a family, she'd been thinking about the possibility of adopting a child herself, hence the focus of her story.
A sound at her back had Lori lifting her head. Pilar rose to her feet. "Can I help you?"
Lori glanced over her shoulder. A girl stood behind her, a pink bundle clasped against her chest. Small in stature and dressed in jeans and an oversized T-shirt, the girl appeared to be little more than a child. Obviously of Hispanic extraction, she rocked nervously side to side before lurching forward.
"Her name is Lucia," she announced in a thick, tear-clogged voice.
The next thing Lori knew, the girl bent and dropped the pink bundle into her arms! Notepad and ink pen scattered as Lori accepted the slight weight.
"I can't keep her!" the girl exclaimed, before lapsing into Spanish.
Pilar came swiftly around the desk and the two conversed for several minutes, but Lori neither saw nor heard them, her entire attention centered on the bundle that now moved in her arms. A tiny fist appeared, poking out of a small, fluffy blanket. Gasping, Lori stared as that tiny fist waved, and the edge of the blanket fell away, revealing a perfect little face, reddened and scrunched. A baby. Brand-new from the looks of her.
Lori's breath caught. She knew, knew, that God had brought her here today because of this infant, for this infant.
"Hello," she crooned. "Hello, my darling. Hello." eyes and whispered, "ThankYou, Lord. Oh, thankYou."
Lori rose to her feet as Ramon Estes strode into the understated luxury of the small waiting room, his long, purposeful strides lending an air of command to his demeanor.
Of Puerto Rican extraction and medium height and build, his face sculpted in aristocratic lines, the young attorney bore himself with grace, confidence and charm.
Confronted suddenly with the power of his presence, Lori wondered if it had been wise to come here on her own like this. From the instant that Yesenia Diaz had dropped her baby into Lori's arms, Lori had been certain that God had brought little Lucia to her. She'd never dreamed that Yesenia might change her mind, and she could not accept the idea of fighting a custody challenge in court when this could so easily be resolved by simple logic. Why hire legal counsel when it was so obvious that she was the best mother for the baby she was trying to adopt? Determined to make Ramon Estes and his client see that, Lori sent up a silent prayer, unconsciously lifting her chin.
Ramon inclined his head as if accepting a challenge. Even the man's thick, glossy black hair seemed tailored, from the meticulous side part to the neatly squared tips of his sideburns. Feeling unkempt and faded by comparison, Lori resisted the urge to smooth her plain brown hair and tug at the collar of the soft, mauve silk blouse that she wore with pleated gray slacks.
"Miss Sumner," Estes said in greeting, his accent delicately flavored with Spanish. Lori smiled wanly in return as he swept a hand toward the door through which he had just entered. "This way, por favor."
The Spanish, she felt sure, was a subtle but pointed reminder of the cultural divide between them, for she knew for a fact that Ramon was born in Virginia. He would soon learn that she had nothing but respect for the Latin culture with its strong work ethic, innate pride and emphasis on family. In fact, she counted several Hispanic friends among her most devout Christian brothers and sisters and even knew Ramon's own family from church and the Tiny Blessings Adoption Agency.
Ramon himself was another matter entirely. Lori could not recall seeing him in church except for at his sister, Pilar's, wedding last year. The two had formally met only days earlier, introduced by a mutual acquaintance at the Starlight Diner back in Chestnut Grove. Lori had learned then that her universe was threatening to come undone. While she had stood there thinking him the most attractive man in town, Ramon had baldly announced that baby Lucia's birth mother, Yesenia Diaz, intended to stop the adoption and reclaim her child.
Ramon ushered Lori along a narrow hallway and past one closed door and another to a third. Slipping ahead of her, he thrust the door wide and stepped aside. Awareness shivered through Lori as she moved by him, her shoulder brushing lightly against his chest. He directed her to a seat, one of a pair of club chairs upholstered in soft tan leather and arranged in front of a neat, gleaming desk. As she sank into her chair, she placed her voluminous bag on the floor and glanced around.
Once a town house in an upper-class urban neighborhood of stately Richmond,Virginia, the gracious old building had been updated and divided into private offices. Opulent in the standard of a bygone era, with marble floors, dark, glossy woods and brass fittings, the place reminded Lori of her own apartment building in the suburban community of Chestnut Grove to the east.
The office was fairly small. All four walls, excepting the two bare windows, were lined with bookcases. A computer occupied a rectangular table abutting the desk, which held several small framed photos of Ramon's parents, sister Pilar and brother-in-law, Zach, as well as his soon-to-be-adopted niece and nephew, who would shortly be joined by the child Pilar now carried. Ramon Estes was evidently a proud and caring son, brother and uncle. Lori took hope from that.
He walked around the desk and lowered himself into a comfortable brown leather chair. After adjusting his cuffs, he brought his hands together in the center of the desk and simply looked at her.
For a moment Lori could do nothing but look back, taking in the rugged contours of his face. Just short of rawboned with a high forehead, square jaw and chin, prominent cheekbones and a neat, slightly jutting brow over deeply set eyes, a nose neither too long nor short and lips neither too full nor spare, his was a compelling visage.
Lori fought the urge to smooth her hair again by tucking one side behind her ear. She was not here to impress anyone with her own bland looks; she was here to make Ramon Estes see reason, and through him, hopefully, his client. She opened her mouth and, without preamble, began to speak, laying out the first of her well-rehearsed arguments.
"I am twenty-seven years old."
The black slashes of his eyebrows shot upward, telling her how very abrupt the statement had sounded. Grimacing inwardly, she watched him lean back into his chair and wave a languid hand, each movement controlled and calculated.
"And I am thirty-two. Now that we have established ages, I expect you will come to the point."
Lori rolled her eyes. "The point is, I have a full decade on Yesenia Diaz. She is only a senior in high school, while I am a mature woman well established in my career as a reporter."
Ramon fixed Lori with a gaze that, though intense, gave away nothing. "My abuela was but eighteen when she gave birth to my mother, and she turned out well. In fact, I know of no finer woman than my own mother." He had made his point. Age would not be an issue in this; he would not allow it.
Words tumbled out of Lori's mouth without forethought. "At least your grandmother was married to your abeulo," she snapped, letting him know that she could claim a little Spanish, at least.
He tilted his head, retorting dryly, "Congratulations. I was unaware that you had married."
"Of course I haven't!"
"Then, I fail to see how Yesenia's marital status applies. That was your implication, wasn't it?"
Lori bit down on her tongue, determined to be more circumspect in her comments. "II only meant that at her young age your grandmother must have been especially grateful for the help of your grandfather."
Ramon smiled that blinding white smile of his. "No doubt. As Yesenia is grateful for the help of her family."
Lori caught her breath. "II thought they were unsupportive."
"So did Yesenia. Otherwise she would not have acted so rashly in giving up her child. But such is not the case. The Reynaldas are most supportive."
"I see." Lori bit her lip.
He sat forward suddenly, brushing back the sides of his coat and bracing his elbows against the desktop.
"How much do you know about Yesenia's situation?"
"II know that she lives with her aunt and uncle." Ramon nodded. "Her aunt, Maria Reynalda, is the sister of Yesenia's mother. Both of Yesenia's parents and her baby brother were killed when the bus they were riding in took a curb too sharply and tumbled down a ravine in central Mexico. Yesenia was eleven years old. She lived essentially on the streets of her small village for some months, spending a night here, a night there, catching a meal with whatever neighbor could afford to share with her, until word of the tragedy made its way here to the Reynalda household in the U.S."
Lori closed her eyes, horrified by what she was hearing. She, too, had been orphaned and at an age even younger than Yesenia, but at least the state had stepped in to make provision for her, such as it had been.
"I didn't know how Yesenia came to be here or why," Lori admitted softly. "There was no reason why I should. One moment I was talking to your sister and the next Yesenia thrust this perfect little darling into my arms. It seemed meant to be, ordained."
In fact, when her editor had assigned her to take over the series of stories about the Tiny Blessings Adoption Agency for the newspaper, Lori had been silently ambivalent. Tiny Blessings and the scandals revealed by the murder of its founder, Barnaby Harcourt, the previous year, were old news. Besides, the new series of personal stories was the brainchild of Jared Kierney, the unofficial star reporter at the Richmond Gazette, so he should have been the one sitting there interviewing Pilar when Yesenia had burst into the room. Instead, Jared had been called out of town to cover a major mining accident in the southwestern corner of the state, so it had been Lori there that day when Yesenia Diaz had interrupted her interview with Pilar to tearfully surrender her newborn infant.
Lori had been certain in that moment that God had put her in that place at that time for a reason. All of her life Lori had craved a family of her own, and after she'd impulsively blurted out her desire to adopt Lucia herself, Pilar had calmly laughed and turned the tables. Suddenly the reporter had been the one being interviewed!
Despite being single, within seventy-two hours Lori had been certified as a foster parent and taken her unofficial daughter home. In a twinkling, all the years that she'd spent in foster care had made sense. Adopting Lucia seemed fated by God, preordainedbut apparently not to Ramon Estes.
He shrugged. "You were closest. It was that simple. Yesenia sought out Pilar because she felt she could trust her, and when she saw you there, she thought you must be a coworker."
Lori shook her head. "I don't believe it was nothing more than chance! Lucia belongs with me. I know it in my heart. And I can give her a good home." She ticked off all the reasons this was so. "True, my apartment is small, but it's more than comfortable for the two of us, and when she needs more room, I'm sure I'll be able to afford it. My work hours are flexible. I have a wonderful sitter coming in."
"She belongs with her mother," Ramon stated flatly.
"But Lucia has been with me for three months! I am the only mother she's ever known. I couldn't love her more if I'd given birth to her myself!"
Ramon pressed his temples with the thumb and forefinger of one hand as if she'd tried his patience. "No one doubts that, I'm sure, but the fact remains that you did not give birth to her, and the young woman who did deserves a chance to raise her daughter herself."
"Yesenia isn't even out of high school!"
"She's in her last year, and the Reynaldas will see to it that she graduates. Many young mothers begin with less."
Lori snatched a deep breath and steeled herself to make what seemed to her to be her best argument.
Pilar had apologetically confessed to Lori that Ramon had taken the custody case primarily because Yesenia was an illegal alien. Surely, despite the tragic circumstances that had brought her to this country, Yesenia did not want her status known.
"And if Yesenia is deported?" Lori asked, fighting to keep the tremor out of her voice. "What then?"
Ramon stiffened. "Are you threatening to turn her in to Immigration?"
"I'm only asking who would support her and her child if she has to return to Mexico? If the Reynaldas are her only family, would she leave Lucia behind with them?"
Ramon relaxed back into his chair again, adopting an insouciance that put Lori's teeth on edge. "I wouldn't pin my hopes on Yesenia being deported, if I were you. It's already being addressed. Immigration issues are my specialty, you know, and I'm quite confident that the circumstances of Yesenia's entry into this country will carry enough weight to overcome any technical illegality."
Lori gulped, dismay sweeping over her. She wanted to doubt him, to believe that this was more bluff than sound assessment, but in her heart of hearts, she knew that he was very likely correct. And yet, she could not believe that Lucia's appearance in her life was mere chance. She firmly believed that God had plans for His children. Surely His plan for Lori was not to break her heart!
"I love her," she whispered, picturing Lucia's tiny face.
"I would ask you to consider one more thing," Ramon said, his voice taking on a surprising gentleness.
"Lucia should not be deprived of her cultural identity."