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The Paternity Proposition(11)

By:Merline Lovelace

Not that Julie had all that many choices. It was either jeans or her trusty black slacks. She went with the slacks, pairing them this time with a sleeveless blouse in rusty rose and a black leather belt accented with hammered Peruvian silver. Dangly silver earrings added a finishing touch and gave her the armor she needed to confront the redoubtable Delilah Dalton. She hoped.                       


When she answered the bell, Alex approved of her choice. Although …  She couldn't help noting that the admiring gleam in his eyes lacked last night's intensity. So did his friendly greeting.

"Good morning."

"Morning," she replied, trying not to feel as though he'd doused her with a bucket of dirty dishwater.

Okay. All right. So a night's reflection had convinced him to put the skids on the hunger that had almost gotten out of control again? So he was already regretting his suggestion she remain in the city for the entire week? One of them had to exercise some common sense. Or so she was telling herself when he offered an apology.

"Alex will be a few minutes. He got stuck on a phone call from Madrid."

"Oh." Belatedly, she noticed the absence of the small scar. A totally ridiculous relief bubbled through her. "Not a problem. I'm in no hurry. How are you this morning, Blake?"

"Good so far," he replied with a crooked grin. "We'll see how long that lasts after brunch with mother."

"Oh, sure! Make me more nervous than I already am."

"Alex warned you about Delilah, did he?"

"Not in so many words. But one of my partners knows her, or knew her way back when your folks first started in the business."

"From what Mom's told us, those were pretty wild days. 'Course, I'm sure the stories she related were highly edited versions."

He was really nice, Julie decided as she responded to his smile. Calm, comfortable, and easy to talk to despite those show-stopping good looks.

Unlike his brother, she gulped when the door opened at the other end of the hall. Just the sight of Alex Dalton's electric blue eyes and strong, square chin made her pulse stutter.

She pondered her reaction to the two men during the short drive through the bright Oklahoma morning. She was darned if she could understand why charming, handsome Blake stirred only mild feminine interest while his twin brought out her wild side. Bad enough that the uncharacteristic side of her had conquered common sense and a lifetime of caution last year. She'd come within a breath of letting it do the same thing last night. Even worse, she silently, contrarily, idiotically regretted that she hadn't!

She'd fallen asleep with the taste of Alex Dalton on her mouth and the undeniable realization he was the real reason for her jaunt to Oklahoma City. Not the lucrative business deal he'd offered. Not Dusty's solemn promise to behave. Just sitting here in the Jag's butter-soft leather seat, with his thigh so close to hers and his tanned hand resting on the gearshift mere inches away, raised little pinpricks of awareness.

She was still feeling their prickle when they pulled into the curved drive leading to a Italian renaissance masterpiece. Her eyes widening, Julie took in a three-tiered fountain a good twenty feet high, a profusion of marble columns and a facade decorated with elaborate cornices.

Alex pulled up at a shallow flight of steps leading to the monster front door. Blake was out of the backseat and holding out a hand to assist Julie before she got her seat belt undone. The Dalton boys were nothing if not courteous.

"Welcome to Casa Delilah," Blake said with a rueful smile.

She gave the sumptuous facade another sweep. "Not Casa Dalton?"

"Alex and I had struck out on our own before our mother went, uh, formal."

"Thank God," Alex muttered as he keyed in a code on a discreetly disguised keypad.

The code must have triggered a silent signal because they'd barely stepped into a soaring, two-story foyer before an honest-to-God butler materialized. Complete with frock coat and white gloves, no less! He crossed the black-and-white tiles in a stately tread and bent an approving nod on the Dalton brothers.

"You're right on time. Madam will be pleased."

"Wouldn't do to keep her majesty waiting."

Alex's drawled reply upped Julie's pucker factor by several degrees. The unabashedly curious glance the butler sent her way only added to it. Alex supplied the introductions.

"Louis, this is Julie Bartlett. Julie, meet Louis. He was major domo to Prince Albert of Monaco until my mother's last jaunt to Europe."

Hmm. How do you acknowledge an intro to a butler? Nod? Shake hands? Julie took her cue from Louis, who smiled and said politely, "A pleasure to meet you, Miss Bartlett."

"Same here."

"Madam is in the green salon," he informed them. "She's expecting you, so I won't announce your … "

"I'm right here."

The voice boomed through the cavernous foyer. The woman it belonged to was tall and slender and showed nothing of the hardscrabble roots she'd come from. At first. Once Julie got past the piles of gloriously upswept black hair and five or six carats of sapphires in the woman's ears, she got a glimpse of the hard-packed Oklahoma clay beneath Delilah Dalton's glittering surface.

"So you're the woman my son hooked up with in Mexico last year," the matriarch said, cutting straight to the chase.

Since there wasn't a whole lot to say in response, Julie merely nodded.                       


"Are you Molly's mother, Ms. Bartlett?"

The blunt question provoked instant and irate responses from her sons.

"Oh, for God's sake!"

"Back off, Del!"

"That's okay." Julie's reply was cool and level. "I understand your concern, Mrs. Dalton. I've provided Alex with the answer to that question."

The woman's glance whipped to her son. "Well?"

"Julie says she's not Molly's mother," he replied.

"And you believe her?"


His mother hissed, clearly dissatisfied with that simple response, and Julie waited for Alex to explain that she'd supplied evidence last night to confirm matters. He surprised her by withholding that bit of information.

"Now how about you retract your fangs?" he said instead. "The issue of Molly's parentage aside, Julie's our guest and future business partner. And I believe you invited us for brunch."

Louis faded discreetly away while Delilah matched Alex stare for stare. Her earrings caught a stray sunbeam filtering through the fanlight above the door. The sapphires' brilliant hue was the exact color of her sons' eyes, Julie realized, almost as dazzled by the square-cut studs as she was confused by Alex's reticence concerning the DNA sample she'd provided.

Evidently there was more going on between mother and sons than she was privy to. Somehow she'd managed to land squarely in the middle of whatever it was. She didn't care for the sensation of being caught between these two powerful personalities. Three, if you counted Blake. He might be more restrained than his twin but Julie suspected all three Daltons would close ranks immediately if they perceived a threat from outside their circle.

She was seriously considering departing the scene and leaving them to sort out their own mess when Delilah led the way to a sitting room decorated to resemble a soft, misty garden. The green salon, obviously. A silver coffee service occupied place of honor on a coffee table set with inlaid marble. With an obvious attempt at graciousness, Delilah gestured to the tray.

"Brunch will be ready shortly. Would you care for coffee while we wait, Miss Bartlett?"

"Yes, thank you. Just black."

She started to tack on a suggestion that they dispense with formalities and use first names but before she could frame the words, footsteps sounded in the hall. A moment later all eyes turned to the young woman who appeared at the door with a baby in her arms.

"Ahh," Delilah crooned, the stark planes and angles of her face softening. "Here's Grace with our little angel."

Grace being the nanny, Julie guessed. Or au pair, they called them these days. She looked to be in her midtwenties, maybe, with silvery blond hair and liquid brown eyes that smiled shyly at Alex and Blake.

Julie registered the details only briefly before her gaze dropped to the squirming infant in the nanny's arms. As an only child, Julie had no nieces or nephews to compare the baby to. Nor had she spent much time around other folks' kids. Yet even she could see this particular infant was a heartbreaker in training. Especially when the baby lifted a head topped with pale peach fuzz, gurgled happily and treated everyone present to a toothless grin. Julie was instantly and completely charmed.

"Isn't she beautiful?" Delilah asked with an unmistakable challenge.

She'd get no argument there.

"She certainly is."

The matriarch's glance sharpened but before she could follow that thrust with another, both of her sons moved toward the baby. Alex got there first. The hands that had sent ripples of delight down Julie's spine last night were incredibly careful as he transferred the infant to his arms.