His child needs a father—and a mother.
When Mark Taylor learns that he has a two-year-old son, the only thing on his mind is finding the boy and bringing him home to Boston. He hires a private investigator, who tracks the private adoption and locates Jared with his mother, Dionne Black, in Idaho. Mark travels to Boise to meet his son and initiate custody proceedings, but when he comes face-to-face with the woman who has been raising his son for the past two years, everything changes. He knows that tearing Jared away from the only mother he has ever known would leave emotional scars, so he suggests the only solution he can think of—marriage, for Jared’s sake.
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It was already early evening as Mark Taylor rode the elevator from his office on the twentieth floor to the mall far below. His briefcase was full, and his mind reeled with discovery, exhibits, and testimony for his upcoming trial—the trial that would be a turning point in his career. He’d been waiting a lifetime for this opportunity, working hard and keeping focused. And his efforts were about to pay off in a big way.
He paid scant attention to the people around him. He didn’t have time for distractions. He’d grab a quick takeout dinner on his way home and eat it while he worked on the case, as he’d done every night for three months. There’d be plenty of time for friends and family later, after his career was established.
Someone darted in front of him—a child—cutting him off and almost making him lose his footing. As he regained his equilibrium, a woman standing in front of the jewelry store caught his eye. There was something about her… Something familiar.
She turned slightly, giving him a better view of her face nd just like that his feet stopped moving and he lost his train of thought.
He stopped walking and stared at her for a long moment, wondering if he could possibly be imagining her. Marianne Holt had disappeared from Boston without a word three years earlier and taken Mark’s dream of a home and family with her. He hadn’t heard a word from her in all this time, and he’d long ago learned how to ignore thoughts of her when they surfaced.
She looked slightly different—her hair had grown from the short cut he remembered—but it was her. He’d have recognized her anywhere.
His heart picked up its pace while he hesitated, trying to decide whether to approach her. He didn’t have time for this, but Mark had never been one to run from a confrontation and the one he deserved with Marianne was no exception.
He made his way through the crowd and came to a stop behind her. “Picking out an engagement ring?”
Eyes wide, she whirled to face him. She was as lovely as ever. Maybe even lovelier, though how that was possible, he didn’t know. She barely breathed his name. “Mark.”
A thousand conflicting emotions tore through him, but he ignored them all. “Surprised?”
“I don’t know why you should be. I worked in this building the entire six months we were together.” He didn’t point out that she knew firsthand about the long hours required to move up in a large law firm. She’d been every bit as ambitious as he was.
She glanced away, then met his gaze again. “Actually, I’m here for a conference with an attorney in another firm. I thought you’d have gone home by now.”
He checked his watch automatically; it was later than he’d thought. “I see. And you figured you’d be safe.”
“Something like that. This is later than you usually stay.” She laughed uncomfortably, glancing behind her as if searching for an escape route. Her deer-in-the-headlights act only lasted a moment before she pulled herself together and she turned back into the Marianne he remembered. “Are you still working your way up the ladder at Jamison & Spritzer?”
“One rung at a time,” Mark admitted. “I have a chance to make partner if I can just keep my feet to the fire. And without a home and family, that should be easy enough.” He ignored the bitter twist of her mouth and asked, “And what about you? Still practicing law? Or did you give that up along with everything else?”
If his barb found its mark, she didn’t show it. “I’m still practicing. I can’t imagine not being a litigator. This case I’m working on right now is a really great one.”
Her devotion to her career had always been a sore spot between them. Not that Mark had wanted her to give it up. But while he’d indulged in fantasies about a future with a home and children, she’d been planning a life that didn’t include those things—without mentioning that fact to him.
Even after she’d made her feelings clear, Mark had clung to the hope that she’d change her mind…until she’d suddenly ended their relationship by disappearing without a word. Now, three years later, here she was again.
“Well,” he said, “as long as you’re happy.”
“I am, and obviously so are you.” She sidled a step away. “It was nice to see you again, Mark, but—”
Resentment Mark had kept buried rushed to the surface. “Don’t you think I deserve a few answers before you disappear again?”
Her gaze flew to his. “Answers?”
“Sure.” He lifted his shoulders in a deceptively casual shrug. “How about telling me where you went when you left here?”
Marianne took her time responding. Annoyingly cheerful music and chatter of passersby filled the silence, and when her answer finally came, he could barely hear her.
“I went to Idaho.”
“Idaho?” He rocked back on his heels, trying and failing to imagine Marianne in the rural setting. “Why there?”
“I had business there.”
“What kind of business could possibly have drawn you to Idaho?”
“Family stuff. Nothing important.”
Mark turned his attention to the window display and tried to digest that bit of news. Something didn’t feel right. Marianne had never been overly attached to her family. In fact, she’d hardly mentioned them. “I thought your parents lived in Florida?”
A flicker of a smile teased her lips. “They do. It was…someone else.”
“I see. Someone else who was so important you disappeared on me without a word.” He said the words slowly, turning them over in his mouth as if that might suddenly help him understand. But it made no sense at all. Marianne had turned up her nose more than once at the thought of spending birthdays and holidays with his lively bunch of relatives. He couldn’t imagine her suddenly developing a yen for family ties of any kind. “It must have been something extremely important.”
She shrugged as if it didn’t matter. “It was.”
He held her gaze, almost daring her to look away. “Don’t you think I deserve a better answer than that?”
“It’s the only one I can give you.” She sounded defiant, but her gaze faltered ever so slightly.
Another man might not have noticed, but Mark had spent years learning to recognize when a witness was trying to hide something. He also knew how to drag out the truth when it was necessary—and it was necessary now, if only for his own peace of mind. “So, you just woke up one morning and realized it was time to go to Idaho.”
“Something like that.”
“I didn’t realize you were so spontaneous.”
“I’m usually not.”
“And have you been in Boise all this time?”
“No.” She lifted her chin a little higher. “I left there two years ago and went to San Francisco.”
That sounded more like the Marianne he’d known. “Is that where you live now?”
“Does it matter?”
“Chalk it up to morbid curiosity,” he said with a bitter smile. “You know how I hate loose ends. Are you married?”
“No. Are you?”
Her expression faltered for a moment. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah? Well, so am I.” He took a chance and touched her arm lightly. “I loved you, Marianne. And I believed that you loved me. I thought we were building a future together. It took a while to come to terms with losing you, but I managed. Now, I just want to know why.”
She drew away from his touch. “I had some things I needed to deal with.”
“Things.” She laced her fingers together and waited while a young couple looked longingly at a ring in the window. “Personal things,” she said when they moved away again.
“We were talking about getting married,” he reminded her. “What was so personal you couldn’t share it with me?”
“You wanted a different life than I did, Mark,” she said softly. “Talking to you wouldn’t have helped. It would have just made everything more difficult.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.” He ran his fingers through his hair, putting three years’ of frustration into the action. “It’s interesting that you’d turn away from the man you claimed to love and turn to a family you never saw. What could they do for you that I couldn’t?”
Her eyes darkened with anger. “This is all water under the bridge. I don’t see any point in talking about it.”
“Well, I do.”
She took another step away.
Mark knew she intended to walk out on him again. He made an effort to pull himself together, to hide the anger, hurt, and overwhelming sense of waste. “I don’t want to get back together with you, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’m just curious about what made you leave, and why you chose Idaho of all places. It’s been three years. What can it hurt to tell me now?”
She sent him a wary glance. “I had things to think about.”
Great. Back to square one. But if she thought he’d give up, he had news for her. “Like what?”
He shook his head quickly. “Don’t give me that, Marianne. I might believe you took a month to think things through. I might even understand two or three. But thirty-six? And what about letting me know what you decided…or are you still thinking?”
“There’s no need for sarcasm,” she warned.
Mark made an effort to drop it. “Look,” he said carefully, “I just want a few answers. You ran out and left me completely in the dark. We were fine one day, and you were gone the next. So, what happened?”
She sighed heavily and glanced away again. “You haven’t changed at all, have you?”
That stung, but he didn’t want her to know that it did. “I guess not. Put yourself in my shoes for a minute. What if I’d been the one to disappear without a word? Wouldn’t you want an explanation?”
She remained silent for so long, he began to give up hope. Just when he was ready to forget about trying to tie up loose ends, she turned a troubled gaze in his direction. “If I tell you, will you leave me alone?”
“Yes, of course.”
“You won’t like it.”
“Maybe not, but what difference can it make now, other than to fill in the blanks I’ve been carrying around with me?” He tried to soften everything about his expression—his eyes, his mouth, the set of his jaw. “I’m not going to get angry with you, Marianne. Like you said before, it’s water under the bridge.”
“Okay.” She took a steadying breath and studied his face for another moment, then seemed to come to a decision. “I was pregnant.”
The music faded and the people around them disappeared. Disbelief, joy, anger, excitement and bitterness all corkscrewed together in his stomach. But outrage rose to obliterate everything else. “You were pregnant?”
She nodded without looking at him and lifted one hand to pluck nervously at the shoulder of her blouse. “Yes.”
“Was it my baby?” He could barely get the words out.
He tried to make sense of what she was saying, but his mind felt like sludge. “Then why did you disappear?”
“I had to think,” she said in a near-whisper. “I had to decide what to do.”
What to do? What choices were there? Only two—one of which Mark found utterly unthinkable. And he knew without being told which one she’d made. Never before in his life had he wanted to hit a woman, but never before had he looked into the eyes of the woman who’d killed his child.
Somehow, he managed to find his voice. “Shouldn’t that have been a choice we made together?”
“You weren’t pregnant.”
“It was my child.”
“And my body.” She met his gaze steadily. “My choice to make.”
“We’re talking about a life, Marianne. A human being, not a possession you can get rid of because it doesn’t fit the color scheme of your apartment.”
Anger flashed in her eyes. “I know you don’t think much of me, Mark. But I can’t believe you’re so willing to assume I decided on an abortion.”
The roaring in his ears quieted and hope took the place of blind fury. “You didn’t?”
“I decided not to. I carried the baby to term.” She rested her hand on the narrow ledge outside the store and half-smiled at him. “It was a boy.”
He had a son. Hope pushed aside every other emotion and made his hands tremble. Tears of joy burned his eyes. “When can I see him?”
“You can’t. I don’t have him.”
The spark of hope died. “You gave my son away?”
“I thought it would be best for everyone.”
His heart hammered in his chest and a sharp pain pierced his head behind his eyes. “Did it ever occur to you that it might not be best for me, or for him? That I might want to raise him?”
“With your career?” Marianne laughed and brushed a lock of hair away from her face. “Get real, Mark. You wouldn’t have had time for him, either. No matter what you say, you’re as married to your career as I am, and I thought he deserved a life with parents who would put him first. Besides, I didn’t want to see you.”
“You wouldn’t have had to see me,” he said, clenching his fists until the stubs of his nails bit into his palms. “Where is he? What agency did you use?”
Marianne’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“Because I’m going to find him, and I’m going to get him back.”
“Oh, no.” She shook her head and backed away. “You can’t.”
“If you think that, you don’t know me at all.”
“You can’t raise a child alone. Not with the hours you work.”
“He’s my son, Marianne. Maybe you don’t want him, but I do.”
“He’s been with his new family for more than two years,” she argued. “As far as he knows, they’re his parents. I haven’t even seen him.”
“Is that supposed to make me change my mind?” He laughed harshly. “I don’t care where he’s been. I don’t care who he’s been with. You’ve stolen two years from me, and that’s time I can’t ever get back no matter what happens now.”
Marianne drew herself up and faced him, no longer an ex-girlfriend but the attorney he’d always respected. “You can’t just show up and take him from them. There are legal channels you’d have to work through, and that’s if you can find him to begin with. I can’t even tell you where he is. I don’t know.”
The ache in his head grew stronger. “Don’t talk to me about right and wrong, Marianne. Was it right for you to give him away without even discussing it with me?”
“Maybe not, but I can’t turn back the clock and change that. What’s done is done—”
He cut her off, drawing on his last hope. “Is the adoption final?”
She didn’t say a word
“No, but it’s nearly final.”
“Then you have the names of the attorneys involved. I want them. And their contact information.”
Marianne ran her fingers through her hair, a sure sign of agitation. “I shouldn’t have told you. I should have known you’d act like this.”
Mark had gone beyond caring what she thought of him. “Tell me now,” he said coldly, “or I’ll take you to court to find out. It’s up to you. I want every detail—his date of birth, the name of the hospital where he was born. Everything.”
She looked as if she could cheerfully kill him, but he knew that he’d worried her. He hoped she’d want to avoid a messy personal lawsuit—especially one that was sure to get media attention. That the same love for her career that had made her decide to give his baby away would convince her to cooperate.
She glanced at her watch and shook her head. “I’m late. They’ll be waiting for me upstairs.” She turned to walk away, then added, “I’ve told you all you need to know, Mark. For all our sakes, leave it alone.”
Mark let her go, but he wasn’t about to take her advice. He had right on his side. He also had connections and training. The law no longer turned a blind eye on the rights of a child’s birth father, and he intended to take full advantage of that. He’d find out who was handling the adoption if it killed him, and he’d find his son. No court in the land would stop him.
Exhausted after a full work week, Dionne Black stopped the stroller and unfastened the harness that barely contained Jared’s squirming little body. August heat shimmered on the distant foothills, now golden-brown with drying wild grasses. A slight breeze stirred the tops of the cottonwood trees along the river bank and made it more pleasant here than inside Dionne’s tiny apartment with its woefully inadequate air conditioner.
The faint sounds of nearby traffic mingled with the cries of children clambering over playground equipment. Joggers passed her on the trail huffing slightly, and she caught snatches of conversation as walkers in groups passed. She loved bringing Jared to the park in the evenings. It gave her a good excuse to slow down for an hour or two.
Lifting her excited son from the stroller, she started to wrap her arms around him for a hug, but he wriggled away, demanding to play. She smiled, telling herself she should know better than to expect cuddles from the energy-packed two-year old before bedtime. Jared had more vigor and curiosity than she and Brent could ever have imagined.
She pushed away the sadness that always came when she let herself think about Brent. “All right, Jared,” she said, letting the toddler down, “get moving. Let’s work those wiggles out.”
Jared started across the grass like a wind-up toy with wheels spinning. The breeze lifted a tuft of his dark brown hair as he made his unsteady way across the lawn.
Dionne had always loved living in the heart of Boise, but lately she’d begun to wonder if she should move to the suburbs. There, she’d be able to let Jared run and play without worrying that he’d dart out into the busy streets.
Some days, like today, she wondered whether she’d be able to keep up with him. Brent was supposed to be here with her, helping, chasing, laughing, teaching Jared about being a boy. But the accident last year had taken Brent from them and Dionne was on her own.
No amount of wishing could change that, and she’d made a vow to be happy, if only for Jared’s sake. Besides, Brent wouldn’t want her to mourn forever. She could almost see him scowling at her and the clouds in his clear blue eyes.
I’m fine, she told him silently. I’m just tired. Her work at the insurance agency often left her exhausted, physically as well as emotionally. One of these days, she promised herself, she’d go back to school and get her degree so she could work with disadvantaged children as she’d always dreamed. But right now she had to bring in a steady income, and that meant doing the monotonous work she hated so much.
Tucking her keys into her pocket, she started after Jared. “Don’t go too fast, cutie. Mommy can’t keep up.”
He giggled over his shoulder and ran a little faster on his unsteady legs. “Over ‘dere,” he said, pointing toward the jungle gym.
Of course he wanted to climb. Jungle-gyms, stairs, cabinets—Jared didn’t care, as long as he could go up and then jump down again.
“How about the swings instead,” she suggested, catching up to him and holding out a hand to help him over the low concrete barrier that separated the playground from the rest of the park.
Jared shook his determined little head and scowled up at her. “Me do it.”
“All right, you do it.”
The breeze stirred the air again, tussling his dark hair as he worked his chubby legs over the step. Finally successful, he beamed up at her. “Swing.”
“Okay. Let’s find one with a belt so you won’t fall out.”
He toddled across the sand, and she had to hurry to catch him before he moved too close to the flying feet of other swinging children.
Luckily, they found an empty chair complete with safety strap, and within just a few minutes she had him swinging gently.
“More,” he cried. “Go high, Mommy.”
“You are going high,” she assured him. High enough, anyway. In protest, he arched his little body, pushing against the harness that held him in place. “You have to sit still,” she warned, “or Mommy won’t push anymore.”
When he bucked against the restraint again, she caught the swing and held it. “Sit still, Jared.”
His face puckered into an unhappy scowl and for a moment she thought he’d cry. He tried to twist in the seat to see her. “I wanna… I wanna go high.”
“You were going high,” she said gently. “Now, sit still or you’ll have to get out.” She wondered if all two-year olds were so determined to go higher and faster, or if he’d inherited the trait from one of his biological parents. The possibility made her shudder.
Jared folded his tiny arms and scowled at her. “High.”
“Shall we get you out?”
“Will you sit still, then?”
He looked so serious, she had to bite back a smile. “Either you sit still, or Mommy will get you down. Those are your choices.”
They indulged in a silent battle of wills for a few seconds until Jared eventually, reluctantly, gave in. He shifted back in his seat and held onto the front of the chair. “Push, Mommy.”
“Good boy.” She gave him a gentle shove and let her gaze travel to the benches facing the playground.
If anyone had asked, she couldn’t have said what it was about the man sitting there that bothered her. He’d been here every evening for the past week or more. He looked innocent enough—just a kindly middle-aged gentleman taking a rest on a park bench—but every once in a while, when he didn’t think she was watching, she could swear he was following Jared with his eyes. Tonight, he had someone with him. A younger man of about thirty wearing a dark suit.
Dionne told herself to relax. She’d been more nervous than usual since Brent died, and she didn’t want to overreact. It was probably all perfectly innocent. Maybe the younger man was his son. Maybe they were enjoying the park and the breeze, just as she was. But she couldn’t shake the inexplicable apprehension that pumped through her veins with every heartbeat.
To the best of her knowledge, the man hadn’t ever followed her home, but she took every precaution to make sure she and Jared were safe. She never stayed late, always took a circuitous route to her apartment, and avoided deserted streets. She’d even started carrying a can of pepper spray.
And now there was a second man—
If anything, the younger one seemed even more menacing. She studied them circumspectly so she could describe the younger man in as much detail as she could have the older one if the need arose. Dark hair. Thirty to thirty-five years old. And he looked tall. Even sitting, he towered over his companion, and his legs, stretched out in front of him, reached halfway across the sidewalk. She paid only slight attention to his clothing—that didn’t matter as much as his features—but she was too far away to get a good look at his face.
This evening, instinct was telling her to get Jared out of the swing and take him home. Home, to the safety of their tiny apartment with its deadbolt locks on the doors. She hated the idea of keeping Jared cooped up all day at the babysitter’s and all evening, too. But she couldn’t bear the thought of anything happening to him. She might not want to be a nervous Nellie, but she didn’t want to stick her head in the sand, either.
She waited until a woman she recognized from her building started herding her children away from the playground. Then, ignoring Jared’s protests, Dionne stopped the swing, unbuckled the restraints, and managed to hold him close until they got back to the stroller.
She forced a friendly smile and started a conversation with the other woman, falling into step beside her as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Only then did she dare to send a surreptitious glance over her shoulder, hoping she’d find the men chatting casually or watching someone else.
But what she saw sent a finger of ice down her spine. The younger man had risen to his feet and had even taken a few steps after them. The older gentleman was speaking quickly, urgently, motioning him back to the bench, but both men had their eyes locked on Dionne as she took Jared home.
Mark watched the petite blonde woman disappear into the trees with his son. His son. It had been two weeks since Marianne dropped her bombshell, but he still hadn’t gotten used to the idea that he had a child. It was even more difficult to believe that the active little boy he’d just watched was his flesh and blood, in spite of the physical resemblance to his nieces and nephews.
“Don’t frighten her,” Saul, the private investigator he’d hired to find Jaren, growled as he tugged Mark back to the park bench.
Mark sat reluctantly, though every cell in his body urged him to go after them. Saul was right. He didn’t want to tip his hand too soon.
He sent the older man a sidelong glance. “You’re absolutely certain that was him?”
“Absolutely positive.” Saul rested both arms on the back of the wooden park bench. “He was relatively easy to find, it being a private placement and all.”
“Tell me about the woman again.”
“Her name’s Dionne Black. Widowed. Husband was killed in a car accident about six months after the boy went to live with them. They were trying to get their ducks in a row, so to speak, so they could adopt him.” Saul’s lips curved in a tight smile. “The husband being gone might make your case easier to win.”
Mark had a brief flush of sympathy for the woman, but who was he kidding? He knew he’d do anything to get his son back—even use the woman’s misfortune to his advantage. But he wasn’t naive, either. Mr. Black’s death might make the judge sympathetic to the widow. A vicious divorce would have served Mark better.
“What else do we know about Mrs. Black?”
“She works at Intermountain Health Providers,” Saul replied. “It’s an insurance agency with an office in the Mead building downtown. She’s been there for a couple of years, working in their claims department. That might work in your favor too. Some judges still take a dim view of working mothers.”
“Yeah. Maybe. At least she didn’t sit back with her hand out waiting for someone else to take care of her and the boy after her husband died. That says something about her.” Mark thought about how she’d looked back at them as she spirited his son away and wondered what kind of care-giver she was. His first impression was positive, but you never could tell about a person.
Saul crossed his legs and let his gaze travel toward the river. “She has no family to speak of. An uncle somewhere in California, but both parents are gone. Father deserted the family when she was little. Mother passed away when she was sixteen.” He flicked a glance at Mark and added, “Her in-laws are still alive, but they live in Arizona.”
Mark thought that might work to his advantage, as well. He turned his gaze away from the trees. “Did you get financial records?”
Saul pulled a folded document from his shirt pocket and passed it over. “I have the rest here, too. Where the kids goes while she’s working, her home address, the whole nine yards.”
Mark scanned the document quickly, noting that Dionne Black didn’t have many resources to draw upon. While she earned a reasonable salary and didn’t have a lot of debt, she wouldn’t be able to afford a lengthy court case.
“So what’s next?” Saul asked.
“Next,” Mark said, tucking the woman’s financial records into his own pocket and holding out a hand for the rest of Saul’s information, “I take a trip to the courthouse and get the ball rolling. The sooner I get the custody suit filed, the sooner I can take Jared home with me.”
“You want me to keep watching them?”
“Absolutely. She looks stable enough on paper, but I don’t want to take any chances on her bolting after the constable serves the complaint.”
“You got it.” Saul stood and spent a few seconds readjusting his shirt tail inside the waistband of his polyester slacks. He glanced at Mark, then at the nearly empty playground. “Of course, she’ll be more cautious now that you’ve drawn attention to us. I might need a little more for expenses…” Another quick glance. “In case I need to rent a car or take other precautions to keep a low profile.”
Mark pulled out his checkbook and flipped it open. “How much?”
A small price to pay, considering what was at stake. Mark wrote the check and handed it to Saul with a warning. “Don’t let her know you’re watching.”
“I got you this far, didn’t I?” Saul said, stuffing the check into his pants pocket. “You’ve seen your kid. And if it wasn’t for the mistake you made, she wouldn’t have even noticed me.”
Mark stood to face him, but he had to look down to meet the man’s eyes. “She must have noticed you before this or she wouldn’t have taken off like that.”
Saul drew himself up to his full height, which put him about even with Mark’s shoulders. “Maybe. But she’s never gotten spooked before.”
With effort, Mark bit back a defensive response. Much as he’d like to, he couldn’t deny Saul’s accusation. He had made a mistake by starting after her. He just hadn’t been able to stop himself.
He muttered something about checking with the detective the following day and started toward the far entrance of the park—the opposite direction from the one Dionne Black had taken with his son. He turned his face into the slight breeze and hoped it would wipe away some of the tension that seemed to knot every muscle in his body. But it didn’t help. He had to struggle against the urge to double back and find the address Saul had given him, just to see where his son lived.
Until he had the court documents on file, he’d be smart to ignore his heart and stay as far away from her and Jared as possible.
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