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Secrets of Paternity

By:Susan Crosby

Secrets of Paternity
Susan Crosby


Caryn Brenley waited until dark before staking out the beautiful home in  San Francisco's upscale Forest Hill area. She might be a rank amateur  at such intrigues, but two things she did know: first, she had a better  chance of seeing someone arrive home on a weeknight after five o'clock  than before it, and second, night provided better cover for someone to  sit in a car and observe unnoticed. This late in October, with the  switch back to standard time, night came early.

She didn't have to wait long before a silver van pulled up to the  residence she was watching from across the street and down a few houses.  The garage door opened and the van disappeared inside. Caryn clenched  her steering wheel. Would the driver have to come outside and go up the  stairs, or was there access from the garage to inside the house?

Her question was answered quickly when two children, a boy about eight  and a girl about five, emerged from the garage followed by a tall,  slender woman in a black business suit.

He was married. With children.

It changed everything.

Before the woman and children went into the house, a Mercedes pulled up  beside them. The kids jumped up and down and waved. The woman smiled.  Again the garage door opened-

A motorcycle pulled up behind Caryn's Explorer. In her rearview mirror  she saw a man in full biker gear climb off the bike and head to the  nearest house, the one in front of which Caryn was hiding in plain  sight. He grabbed the contents of the mailbox and jogged up the stairs.

She went back to watching the family greet each other, but she focused  on the man in the business suit who'd just arrived across the street.  Husband. Father. He wasn't as tall as she would have imagined, although  his hair was dark, as she expected. There was no way of checking out his  eye color from where she sat, and his dark suit and overcoat didn't  show his physique well.

Now what? She'd come to satisfy her curiosity, to see him for herself.  But short of marching up and asking his name, she couldn't know for sure  that he was James Paladin, her son's biological father.

Maybe she should leave well enough alone-

No. As appealing as that sounded, she couldn't. Paul made a promise  nineteen years ago. He could no longer keep that promise, but he would  expect her to. She expected it of herself. That's why she was here,  skulking like the amateur sleuth she was.

The family went into their house together, the man carrying the little  girl, her arms wrapped around his neck. She gave him repeated kisses on  his cheek.

The fire went out of Caryn. There had to be a more subtle way to get her  answers than confronting the man to verify that he was James  Paladin-someplace away from his family. Then when she knew for sure, she  would tell Kevin. The choice had to be his, a tough decision for an  eighteen-year-old, especially one who'd been to hell and back in the  past year.

She drummed her fingers on her steering wheel as she considered  possibilities, then decided to go home and come up with a solution for  another day. Maybe she could come back in the morning, follow him to his  work and see if there was a way to determine his identity there. She  would have to call in sick, herself. Lose a day's wages and tips,  something she couldn't afford to do.

Resigned, Caryn started her engine, shifted into Reverse and released  the emergency brake just before she spotted the biker hurrying back down  the steps. He looked straight at her. She grabbed the map from the seat  beside her and buried her face in it, not wanting him to get too close a  look, in case she had to stake out James Paladin again.

She heard his motorcycle rev but kept her map raised, waiting for him to  pull away first. His engine cut out, then a sharp knock on her window  startled her, panicked her.

The map went flying. Her foot slipped off the brake. The Explorer rolled backward.

"What the-? Stop!" He banged on the hood. "Hit the-"

She jammed on the brakes. Metal hit metal. Then came silence. Hot, heavy, condemning silence.

Even through her closed window she could hear him swearing, succinctly, menacingly. Her heart thundered, deadening his words.

What had she done? She'd never had an accident. Never had a ticket. And the one time she needed to blend with the surroundings-

She stopped the thought. Took a breath. Then she shoved the jumbled map  aside and looked out her window at him. Okay, she thought as her heart  thumped a little slower and her hearing returned. Okay. What was done,  was done. While she stared at the man, he ripped off his helmet and  tunneled his fingers through his dark hair. Eyes, green and direct,  drilled her. The angles of his face sharpened beneath a several-days'  growth of dark beard.

She rolled down the window and tried to smile.                       


Given the driver's reckless behavior, he expected a teenager. Instead  the idiot who'd just creamed the fender of his two-month-old,  custom-detailed Screamin' Eagle Harley-which he'd just gotten out of the  shop from a previous accident-was a woman, one closer to his own age of  forty-two. He cataloged her, as he always did with people at first  meetings: auburn hair, straight, chin length and with bangs. Slender and  small boned. He couldn't judge her height precisely, but average or a  little taller. Hesitation hovered in her blue eyes as she said hello,  her inflection turning the single word into a question.

He rested his fists against the top of her window frame, not trusting  himself not to yell at her and turn her into a quivering mass of  contrition. Terrorizing wasn't his style-most of the time, anyway-but,  damn, he'd waited almost a year for that bike. A year. And this was the  second time in a month he'd been hit.

Finally he gave her a "stay-put" look and went to assess the damage.  Fender bent straight into his tire, just like the last time.

He grabbed a notepad and pen from the saddlebag, copied down the woman's  license plate number, then stared at the asphalt until he was calm  enough to talk to her.

"I'm so sorry," she said as he approached.

He met her gaze. Turquoise eyes, he noted, not blue. And she wore red lipstick. He hated red lipstick.

"You startled me when you banged on my window. My foot slipped-"

"I knocked," he said, correcting her. "Not even loudly." So much for  being a Good Samaritan. He'd seen the map and thought she was lost.

He flipped open his notepad to an empty page. "Your tailgate is dented, by the way."


"You can see for yourself."

She didn't budge. Was she afraid to get out of the car? He looked that intimidating?

"We need to exchange insurance information," he said.

After a few seconds her body language changed, not in a sexual way but a  casual can-we-be-friends pose-except she looked too nervous for it to  be real. What was going on?

"Could we just keep this between us," she said, "instead of involving the insurance companies? I'll pay cash for the repairs."

Ah. Afraid of being canceled by her insurance company-or maybe having  her license pulled? Should he sanction her game by going along with her?  Or would the world be better off without her on the road?

While he debated how to answer her, he peered into her SUV. Spotless.  Not a single scrap of paper or water bottle or straw wrapper. She wore a  white blouse and black knee-length skirt, like a waitress's uniform.  Not the serial-accident type, at least not at first impression. So, what  was her story? A husband who wouldn't tolerate another accident?

He dropped his gaze to her left hand. No ring. As he looked, she touched  her thumb to the vacant spot, as if a ring was still there.

He'd made her wait long enough, he decided. And his silence hadn't made  her tip her hand, anyway. He admired that-grudgingly. He widened his  stance and crossed his arms. "You want to pay cash, it's fine with me."

Her shoulders dropped, her relief palpable. "How much do you think it will cost?" she asked.

He shoved the notepad and pen toward her. "Why don't you put down your name, address and phone number. I'll send you the bill."

He knew by her expression she wouldn't write down anything, even though  she poised the pen above the paper. After a few seconds, she angled the  tip away.

"Could you get an estimate over the phone now?" she asked.

"Doubtful." He didn't know why he was stringing her along. He knew the  answer, probably to the penny, if the damage was what it had been the  last time. He was just reluctant to let her go. Maybe it was the way she  wouldn't back down even though he seemed to terrify her.

"Can you try?"

He was entertained by her discomfort. She obviously wasn't used to  intrigue or she would've realized he could track her down through her  license plate, whether she gave him her name or not.

He unzipped his jacket, pulled out his cell phone and pressed a button  until the right number appeared on the screen. The phone rang twelve  times before it was answered. "Yo, Bronco," James said. "It's Paladin."