Reed Sullivan wasn’t an easy man to read.
Not that the two women waiting in line behind him at
the drugstore in Orchard Hill weren’t trying. In the security camera on
the wall he saw one nudge the other before motioning to the small
carton he’d pushed across the counter. The pharmacy tech held any
outward display of curiosity to a discreet lift of her eyebrows as she
dropped his purchase into a white paper bag.
Apparently men didn’t buy paternity test kits here
He didn’t begrudge any of them their curiosity. Most
of the time he appreciated that particular trait inherent in most women
almost as much as he enjoyed the way they could change the atmosphere
in a room just by entering it. He had a deep respect for women, enjoyed
spending time with them, was intrigued by them and appreciated them on
so many levels. He did not leave birth control to chance. And yet here
he was, making a purchase he’d never imagined he would need to make.
He paid with cash, pocketed his change and left the
store, by all outward appearances as cool, calm and confident as he’d
been when he’d entered. Out in the parking lot, a bead of sweat
trickled down his neck and under the collar of his shirt.
Reed understood profit margins and the challenges of
zoning issues. Those things always made sense in the end. This was
different. Nothing about this situation made sense. Gnawing worry had
jolted him awake at 4:00 a.m. It didn’t require great insight to
understand the cause. It all centered around the innocent baby he and
his brothers had discovered on their doorstep ten days ago.
The very idea that someone would abandon a baby in
such a way in this day and age was ludicrous. And yet there the baby
had been, unbelievably tiny and undeniably alone. Reed, Marsh and Noah
were all confirmed bachelors and hadn’t known the first thing about
caring for a baby, but they’d picked the crying infant up and
discovered a note.
Our precious son,
Joseph Daniel Sullivan. I call him Joey. He’s my life. I beg you take
good care of him until I can return for him.
precious son? Whose precious
The handwritten note hadn’t been addressed. Or
Reed wasn’t prone to self-doubt, but now he wondered
if they should have performed a paternity test immediately. He should
have insisted. What had he been thinking?
He hadn’t been thinking. None of them had.
They’d spent the first week fumbling with formula
and feedings, diaper changes and sleep deprivation while doing
everything in their power to determine what the infant in their charge
needed and wanted.
Joey had a lusty cry he wasn’t afraid to use, and
yet before his first night with them was over, he’d looked with
burgeoning trust at the three men suddenly thrust into this new and
foreign role. He didn’t seem to mind their ineptitude.
Until that night, Reed and his brothers hadn’t
considered the possibility that one of them might have become a father
without their knowledge. To make matters worse, they had no way of
knowing which of the women from their respective pasts might have been
desperate enough to leave Joey in such a manner. The million-dollar
Which of them was Joey’s father?
Reed placed the small paper bag containing the
paternity test kit on the passenger seat and started his car. As he
pulled out of his parking space, the impulse to squeal his tires was
strong. He quelled it because he was the middle brother, the one who
thought before he reacted, who kept his wits about him and his head out
of the clouds, the one with nerves of steel and the willpower to match.
Minutes later he was on Old Orchard Highway, a few
miles from home. The sunroof was open, the morning breeze already
fragrant and warm. The radio was off, the hum of his car’s engine
little balm for the uncertainties plaguing him today.
That first night, he, Marsh and Noah had put their
heads together and had come up with a schedule for Joey’s care, as well
as a plan to try to locate his mother. It hadn’t taken Noah long to
find the woman from his past. A daredevil test pilot, he’d realized
soon after coming face-to-face with Lacey Bell again that covert moves
weren’t her style. Joey wasn’t Lacey’s baby, and therefore Noah had
been certain he wasn’t his, either. That hadn’t kept him from pulling
out all the stops to rekindle the love affair of his life. Noah and
Lacey had eloped two nights ago.
Paternity came down to Marsh or Reed.
They’d hired a private investigator to follow clues
and leads regarding the whereabouts of the women who seemed to have
disappeared into thin air. Under ordinary circumstances, he and Marsh
didn’t talk about their sex lives. If not for Joey’s arrival, Reed
wouldn’t have known that Marsh had spent an idyllic week with a woman
named Julia Monroe while on vacation last year or that she’d seemed to
disappear into thin air as soon as the week was over.
Like his brothers, Reed liked to keep his private
life private. There was only one woman, and one night, he couldn’t
account for. She was a waitress he’d met on a layover in Dallas during
a business trip last year. She’d told him her name was Cookie—now he
wished he’d asked a few questions. Could she have left Joey on his
doorstep a year later?
He and Marsh had hired a P.I. with an impressive
success rate. But so far every lead Sam Lafferty had followed had
turned into a dead end. At least, once Reed and Marsh determined which
of them was the baby’s father, Sam could focus on finding one woman
instead of two.
The test kit slid to the edge of the seat as Reed
approached a banked curve in the highway. Behind him a red car that had
been a speck in his rearview mirror a few seconds ago was closing in on
him fast. The sports car came so close to his bumper he braced for a
rear-end collision. All at once, the car swerved across the double
yellow line and began to pass.
Up ahead an eighteen-wheeler was barreling around a
curve straight toward them. An air horn blasted and tires screeched.
The driver of the Corvette cranked the wheel to the right, thrusting
his car back into Reed’s lane. With no other place to go, Reed took the
shoulder of the highway. He braked, but it was too late. His tires
broke loose. And he started to spin.
Around and around he went, on the highway and off,
from one shoulder to the other. Gravel churned and dust rose. He
somehow missed an oncoming vehicle but clipped a highway sign with one
of his mirrors. When he finally came to a complete stop, his engine was
racing and so was his heart rate. He gripped the steering wheel, his
foot pressed hard on the brake.
The dust was settling when he noticed that another
car had stopped a short distance ahead of him on the opposite side of
the road. The door opened. The next thing he knew, a slender,
sandal-ensconced foot touched the ground.
hit the pavement running.
She raced across the highway toward a silver Mustang
sitting at an odd angle along the side of the road. The driver was
looking at her through the windshield, his eyes narrowed and his jaw
set. She stood back as he got out, and watched as he opened his fists
and unclenched his fingers, straightened his arms and rotated his broad
shoulders as if checking to see if everything was still operational.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
He didn’t answer, making her wonder if he was in
“I’m calling 911. I’ve seen a lot of accidents and
you could have whiplash.”
“I don’t need an ambulance.” His voice was steady
and deep, but the way he put a hand on the back of his neck made her
wonder if he was more shaken than he was admitting.
“It’s best to err on the side of caution,” she
insisted. “Adrenaline and shock can mask an injury like whiplash or a
spinal column misalignment.”
With a grimace, he said, “My back is fine. And I
don’t have whiplash.” In his early thirties, he had short, sandy-blond
hair and wore a gray dress shirt, the sleeves rolled partway up his
“You just never know,” she argued. “The stiffness
wouldn’t necessarily set in until later.”
He circled his car, his face impassive as he ran his
hand over the Mustang’s hood.
“Trust me. I’m fine.”
“If you say so, but if I were you, I’d be stomping
my feet and shaking my fist and swearing at that jerk who ran you off
the road. You could have been killed! The creep had no right to drive
like some bat out of hell. Jerks like him think they own the road and
everything in their path.” Catching him looking at her, she said, “Some
women cry at emergencies. I get mad. I have a temper. And don’t tell me
it goes with my hair.”
She thought he might smile. When he didn’t, she
heard herself say, “It’s what my boyfriend used to say. My
ex-boyfriend. Peter. Cheater Peter.” She had to clamp her mouth shut to
keep from continuing. What was wrong with her?
“That explains the ex,” he said in a deep smooth
voice that gave little away. As he examined his loosened mirror, he
asked, “Are you an EMT?”
She’d been in the process of smoothing her hands
down her shorts and straightening her tank top, and had to stop for a
moment to wonder at his question. “Oh,” she said. “You mean because I
said I’ve seen a lot of accidents. No, my most recent career jag was
driving a tow truck for my dad’s wrecker service near Traverse City.”
She didn’t bother telling him that prior to working
for her dad she’d spent three years with a trendsetting marketing firm
in L.A. This stranger didn’t need to hear how much trouble she’d had
deciding what she wanted to do with her life. Reverting to small talk,
she asked, “Do you live in Orchard Hill?”
“A mile from here.” The breeze ruffled his blond
hair and toyed with the collar of his shirt.
“I just moved here two days ago,” she said. “In all
likelihood, my mother is rearranging the furniture in my new apartment
as I speak, while my father adds to his ever-growing list of all the
reasons buying a tavern in this college town is a mistake. So, did your
life pass before your eyes?”
Reed did a double take
at the talkative woman who’d stopped to make certain he wasn’t hurt.
shorts that fit her to perfection and a white tank top that made her
shoulders appear golden. A silver charm shaped like a feather hung from
delicate chain around her neck. Her hair, long and red and curly,
freely in the wind. When he found himself looking into her green eyes,
wished he’d have started there.
His gaze locked with hers, and the
air went oddly still. In the ensuing silence, he wondered where the
the summer breeze and the traffic had gone.
Her throat convulsed slightly, as
if she was having trouble breathing, too. “You’re not much of a talker,
you?” she finally asked.
“Normally,” he said, “I’m the one
asking the questions.”
She took a backward step
“Are you a lawyer?”
do I look like a lawyer?”
shrugged one shoulder. “It’s
just that lawyers tend to ask a lot of questions.”
not a lawyer.”
Virgo?” she asked with a small
to think about that one
because astrology was hardly something he put stock in. “My birthday’s
Scorpio. You water signs are
deep. And moody. Obviously.” She shook herself slightly and said, “If
sure you aren’t hurt, I’ll be going.”
smile she gave him went
straight to places that made a man stop thinking and start imagining.
intimate and dangerous, not to mention off limits, given his present
glanced back at him as she
opened her car door, and said, “Two-Z-X-zero-three.”
Corvette’s license plate
number.” She started her car, and through the open window said, “It’s
two-X-Z-zero-three. I happened to notice it when the jerk flew by me at
city limit sign.”
“You happened to notice
a photographic memory for
those kinds of details.” With that, she drove away.
got back behind the wheel of
his car, too. When the coast was clear, he made a U-turn and continued
home. He drove more slowly than usual, the entire episode replaying in
mind, from the uncanny near miss, to the chance encounter with the
Florence Nightingale along the side of the highway. He wondered if he’d
met anyone with a photographic memory.The
woman had asked if his life had
passed before his eyes as he’d spun out of control. He hadn’t seen the
of either of his brothers or his sister, or of their parents, killed so
tragically years ago, or the first girl he’d kissed, or even the most
woman. He hadn’t seen his oldest friend or his newest business
image in his mind as he’d spun to what might have been his death had
further by the realization,
he pulled into his driveway and parked in his usual spot beside Marsh’s
cut the engine then felt around on the floor until he located the test
moment, he sat there looking
at the sprawling white house where he’d grown up. Beyond the
hundred-twenty-year-old Victorian sat the original stone cider house
great-great-grandfather had built with his own hands. Ten years ago
his brothers and younger sister had converted the sprawling old barn
bakery where they sold donuts and baked goods, and fresh apple cider by
or by the gallon. There was a gift shop, too, and sheds where their
equipment were stored. Behind them was the meadow where thousands of
parked each fall. From here Reed could see the edge of the orchards,
and soul of the entire operation.
hadn’t planned to move back to
Orchard Hill after college, but life had a way of altering plans. Reed
man who wasted a lot of time or energy wondering what he’d missed.
family business into the current century was one of his proudest
His brother Marsh knew every tree on the property, every graft and
that needed to be pruned. Reed knew all about business plans,
laws, health inspections and zoning. He’d been the one to have visions
he could picture Joey
following in his footsteps one day. What was shocking was that he wanted Joey to
follow in his footsteps. Until they’d discovered that little kid on
doorstep ten days ago, Reed hadn’t realized how much he wanted to pass
legacy of Sullivans Orchard and his business acumen to another
would be proud if Joey was his
With that thought front and center
in his mind, he went up the sidewalk and through the unlocked screen