Matt nodded, running his palm across the smooth high-gloss polish of the conference table in front of him, barely listening to the attorney drone on and on about all the legal ramifications, all the what-ifs of Matt’s sudden introduction to fatherhood.
“Now, you’ll need to get access to his birth certificate, social security number, insurance. There’s a lot to consider here, Matt, other than paternity and guardianship. You might want to consult a professional counselor before you take this on. This kid’s going to come with some issues. Get some advice. I’ll consult with Lauren Rollins here in the firm. She handles adoptions and this sort of thing. Also, don’t forget, you’ve been kept in the dark on this, and you could make some demands of your own. You’ve got some bargaining leverage if it turns out you want something they don’t want to allow.”
Matt did an internal eye roll. “Uh-huh.” He stood up and shook Richards’ hand. “Thanks, Walt. I’ll let you know if we need to proceed with anything that requires legal assistance.”
He headed for the door, very aware of the whispers of his dad and the lawyer behind him.
His dad caught up with him in the lobby. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go have some lunch. There are a couple of places down the block.”
Matt spent every second of the five-minute walk stewing over the issues. He sure as hell wasn’t interested in a lawsuit or making any demands on the Thompsons. But he was ready to do something, and he was tired of everyone warning rather than encouraging him.
The closest restaurant was a simple deli. “This is fine,” Matt said, pulling the door open with a little more force than necessary, causing a bell to clang rather than tinkle against the glass, and a number of heads to swivel his direction.
Ignoring the looks, he moved into line. His thoughts were still racing when he turned from placing his order and found himself face to face with a knockout gorgeous woman. He stopped short as his mind went blank then quickly switched gears. Damn. It was Snow White in the flesh. The creamy skin, faintly colored cheeks and large doe eyes looked like they’d walked right out of a Disney movie.
“Oh, hey, sorry.” Matt smiled, shoving his change into his pocket as he stepped to the side. She stepped the same direction and they almost collided.
With an exaggerated attempt at gallantry Matt asked, “May I have this dance?” She flashed him a smile that made his pulse jump. A small but deep dimple appeared to the side of full lips as they widened.
Before Matt could dodge to the other side or think of anything intelligent to say, he saw his father extend his hand to the man beside her.
“Hey, there. It’s Jerry, right? School superintendent? I think we’ve met at the Chamber.”
The man smiled and nodded. “That’s right. Good to see you again.”
“David Dalton,” his dad said. “And this is my son, Matt.”
Matt shook the man’s hand, but struggled to drag his gaze from Snow White, standing beside him.
“Very nice to meet you. This is Kate Austen, one of our principals.”
She gave them a polite smile and extended her hand. It was small and soft. Very feminine, but the grip was firm. A little hum surged through Matt, and he probably held on just a beat too long, he realized, when her eyebrows rose slightly. He was pretty sure her eyes held a glint of amusement.
“Nice meeting you,” Matt murmured. “So you’re–”
“Could I take your order?” a shrill voice sounded behind him. They were holding up the line.
“Ah. Guess there’s no dancing in line today,” he drawled, tilting his head toward the impatient woman manning the counter.
Snow White gave a light laugh. “It seems a little cramped anyway. I’d probably just step on your toes,” she said, playing along.
Matt grinned. “Enjoy your lunch.”
“Thanks. You, too,” she said, stepping up to the counter.
Matt had no choice but to turn and follow his father to an empty table in a back corner. With no view of the counter. Too bad. And too bad it was the middle of the afternoon in a sandwich shop instead of Saturday night at a bar with music and a dance floor. He might’ve been able to convince her to dance with him then. It’d been a long time since he’d met anyone as interesting at first glance. One thing was for certain – she sure as hell didn’t look like any principal he’d ever had.
He shook his head. No time to indulge in those fantasies right now. He had way too much to think about. With a sigh, he turned his attention back to his dad and the issue at hand.
“You all right?” his dad asked around a mouthful of pastrami.
Matt wiped a hand across his chin. “Sure. I’m fine.”
“You seemed a little upset at Walt’s office.”
Matt put down his sandwich and picked up his Coke, thinking a beer might’ve been a better choice. He looked across at his dad, and saw concern etched in the lines on his face. His throat constricted, and he set the glass back down.
This could be him some day, sitting across a table from his own son trying to help him with a problem. His mind wandered. What would it be like to grow up without a dad? Had Brady ever thought about him, about who his dad was or where he was? Would he have come looking for him some day? Thank God Matt wasn’t married, no family of his own. A surprise son would be a much bigger problem then.
“Look, Matt, I don’t know what to tell you,” his father said. “I don’t know where this is going, but it looks to me like you’re already emotionally involved. At this point, I’d say do what your gut tells you.”
It was telling him he couldn’t eat a damned thing. He pushed his plate aside and toyed with the straw in his glass.
“Maybe I should just send money for now, and see what happens.” Watch from the sidelines, a voice said inside his head.
“Well, you could do like Walt suggested and get some other professional opinions. Maybe contact a psychologist. Just so you know what you’re getting into. Let’s face it. You don’t know Brady, and you have no experience with kids.”
Matt shook his head. No. That was a wimpy-assed cop-out. He could talk it over with a hundred people, and it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference. He had to do something. And curiosity had been gnawing at him ever since his mother had asked if he’d met Brady.
“I want to meet him,” Matt said. His mind was made up. Again. “I’m gonna head on down to Freeburg. I want to meet him before they send him to the burn center.”
“Listen, why don’t you come for dinner and we can go over everything. Talk to Mom, give yourself some time to think.”
“Don’t need to.”
He heard his father suck in his breath.
“At least let me or Walt go with you. Come on, Matt. You don’t know these people or what you’re getting into. I heard everything Walt told you. I can go with you–”
“Dad, do you really want to do that? I mean, what are you afraid of? What do you think is going to happen?”
“I have no idea. I just think it’s better if you’re not alone – if you have someone to help you think things through. When do you want to go?”
His dad sighed. “All right. But I need to get some things finished up back at the office. I should be able to wrap up around four-thirty. Come by the house. I’ll be ready by six.”
Matt returned to the Premier Printing offices with his dad. He checked in with the head press operator and foreman. The jobs scheduled were pretty routine – nothing that should demand his or his dad’s attention in the next day or two.
His father had taken over the high-end print shop and bought out the owner several years ago. When Matt came on board, the internet was quickly expanding and replacing printed materials. At his urging, they’d retooled the plant to expand their offering, and now printed custom labels and packaging for some big-name clients. Their timing was dead-on, and the results had been lucrative. Twice, they’d expanded the plant.
Matt spent a few minutes in his office, but didn’t accomplish much. His mind was too full of Brady. He canceled a couple of appointments for the next day then left. He couldn’t wait to get on the road.
At home, Matt strode to his bedroom and yanked open his closet. Pulling out a small suitcase, he began flinging clothes into it. He phoned the Thompsons, and made plans to meet them at the hospital the following morning.
It was a two-hour drive south to Freeburg along a lonely stretch of two-lane highway bounded on both sides by fields and farmland. And not much else. An industrial town largely populated by blue-collar factory workers and farmers, it had stopped growing a couple of decades ago. The information age had left it in the dust. Matt didn’t know a lot about the town, or the people there, but he understood it wasn’t the sort of place most people he knew aspired to live.
Matt and his dad ate dinner at a familiar chain restaurant then checked into a motel near the hospital that had seen better days, but was clean and well-kept, and offered free coffee around the clock. He figured he wouldn’t get much sleep anyway, so he indulged in a cup as he sat in the lounge and thought about tomorrow – and what he would say to his son. How did a man introduce himself to his son sixteen years after the fact?
At eight sharp the next morning, they stepped off the elevator onto the fourth floor of St. Mary’s hospital. Brady’s grandparents, Helen and Don, were already there, sitting with two other people. Seated in a wheelchair, Don looked weak, but he seemed to recognize Matt.
Tension strained Matt’s smile as he introduced his father. Then Helen introduced an attorney, Greg Peters, and a social services case manager, Susan Singer. Four to one, Matt thought. He glanced at his dad, glad he’d brought him after all.
“Is Brady’s doctor going to make it?” Matt asked.
“A little later,” Helen said in a vague tone that set Matt on edge.
“There’s a room down the hall here where we can talk privately,” Ms. Singer said. She ushered them into the room with a small conference table.
Helen spoke up, addressing Matt. “You mentioned you wanted to get some clarification on some of this before you agreed to help with Brady’s care, so I invited Greg and Susan. I hope you don’t mind.”
“No, of course not,” Matt said. “But I’d like to visit with the doctor also. And I’ve made up my mind. I want to meet Brady.”
They all exchanged glances.
“I told you before,” Matt said impatiently, “I’m not interested in simply writing a check. If I’m going to be involved, he’s going to know why. He’s going to know I’m his father.”
They spent almost an hour listening to the attorney sing the praises of Brady’s grandparents, and Ms. Singer warning of all the potential problems that lay ahead for the boy.
By the time the doctor joined them, Matt’s head pounded. He and his father shook hands with the doctor, and exchanged pleasantries until Matt was ready to explode.
“Doctor, I’d like to hear the details of Brady’s condition and prognosis. I understand you’re planning to send him to the Connelly Burn Center in San Francisco.”
“Absolutely, Mr. Dalton. We do recommend that he be released from St. Mary’s and continue treatment for his burns at Connelly. I’ve already spoken with doctors there. It’ll probably take four to six weeks to complete the grafting and reconstruction. It’s a tedious process.”
Matt swallowed hard. “Okay. Is that done on an out-patient basis?”
“No. It’s a live-in facility. Many patients travel quite a distance to be there.”
Matt nodded. “Tell me about his condition.”
The doctor rubbed his jaw, and held Matt’s gaze. “Well, first and foremost, he’s going to make it. His leg is healing well. Obviously, he has some challenges. Disabilities. He’ll either be confined to a wheelchair, or he’ll need to be fitted for crutches or prosthesis. And you’ll need to decide how to handle that. Again, it’s a long process to get the piece right and learn how to use it. Internally, all of his organs are fine. There’s no reason he can’t go on and lead a reasonably normal life.”
Reasonably normal, Matt repeated in his head. What the hell did that mean?
Matt walked into the room behind Helen, his heart pounding. A standard hospital bed crowded by machines and equipment dominated the small space. The lights had been dimmed, giving the room a slight greenish tinge. Only the steady chirping from one of the machines broke the heavy silence.
Matt’s first glimpse of the figure lying in the bed was partially blocked by the boy’s grandmother. She approached the bed with a backward glance at Matt. She whispered a few words, then stepped back, making way for Matt to move up. He was so nervous his jaw clenched, and he had to force himself to smile at the boy, whose face was only half visible under all the bandages.
Blood swooshed in his ears. This was harder than he expected.
“Brady,” Matt said softly. “I’m so very glad to meet you. I know this is going to be a big shock for you – it was for me, too.” He cleared his throat and touched the boy’s arm. “I’m your father.”
Even on that half-a-face and single blue eye Matt could see the emotions running through his son. His eye widened as his startled gaze shifted to his grandmother. Helen gave him an encouraging but watery smile, and nodded her head.
Brady stared at Matt. “For real?” he asked, his voice almost croaking.
Matt’s smile widened, and he blew out the breath he hadn’t even realized he’d been holding before. “For real,” he said. “How are you feeling today?”
“Um. Okay. Better, I guess,” he mumbled.
“Brady, you understand the extent of your injuries and what’s happened, right?”
Matt watched as the boy closed his eye and nodded. He thought the lump in his throat might choke him.
“That creates a whole lot of challenges for you and for your grandparents, and they’ve asked me to help out.” He leaned in close, his hand tightening just a bit on Brady’s arm. “And I really want to do that.”
He waited a minute for any reaction. There wasn’t much.
“You think that’s gonna be okay with you?” he asked when the silence stretched.
“Why?” Brady asked. His voice was strained, and Matt could see tears building in the kid’s eye.
“Because I’m your dad, and I’ve missed out on a big chunk of your life. I need you to understand, Brady, until your grandmother called me a week ago, I had no idea you existed. I never knew I’d fathered a son.”
The eye glared at him, and tension filled the room.
“So here you are – sperm donor to the rescue. Jeez, I didn’t know all I had to do to get a dad was get my leg cut off.”
Helen gasped. “Brady,” she said, a warning in her tone.
Matt wished she’d leave. He wasn’t surprised by Brady’s response. Typical teenager. He let out a heavy sigh, and propped a hip against the bed.
“The truth is, I really didn’t even know your mom. I was shocked to find out about you. I’m not blaming your mom. She did what she thought was best at the time.”
He looked over at Helen, who’d gone rigid with bright pink splotches on her cheeks. She also glared at Matt. And he knew instinctively, if anyone was to blame, it was Helen. She’d been the one to convince Lori to have the baby, and to have it on her own. Guilt was written all over her face.
He held her gaze for a moment then turned his attention back to his son.
“You should,” Brady muttered. “You should blame her.” He said it quietly, under his breath, but Matt heard each word.
After lunch and a short visit with Brady, Matt left his dad at the hotel for a nap, and he went back to the hospital.
He steered Helen to an empty corner of the cafeteria. It was the only opportunity he’d had all day to speak to her privately. And he wanted some answers. He sat down facing her.
Her lips were pursed and she seemed to be avoiding his eyes. She clearly expected Matt to lash out at her.
As soon as they sat down, she spoke, her voice trembling. “You have no right to judge me, Matt. It was a very emotional situation, and getting you and your family involved would only have made it more stressful and complicated.”
Matt knew it was her own culpability that made Helen defensive, and he tried to stay calm.
“Helen, I’m not judging you. I’m just trying to understand. Why did you want Lori to have a baby when she was only eighteen years old?”
“Why?” Helen’s eyes flashed. “Because you don’t throw away a baby! You have no idea how much I wanted another baby, how many times I prayed to God to give me another child. Do you know what it’s like to want something so badly and be denied? Lori was my only baby. What if Brady was her one chance? Her one baby? And she threw him away?”
Matt swallowed hard as Helen swiped at the tears running down her cheeks.
“I couldn’t stand to see that happen,” she whispered.
“So she had the baby because you wanted it.”
“Of course not! I never tried to take her place as his mother.” She folded her hands on the table, clenching and unclenching them. Her eyes wandered to somewhere past his head, and Matt could see the pain lingering in them.
“We thought she could handle it, that living at home with us to help her, she’d be all right. But we were wrong. At first her friends thought the baby was a novelty. They’d come over to see Brady and play with him, but after a while they stopped. They went on with their own lives. And then Lori didn’t fit in anymore.”
Matt ran a hand over his face. “Did she go back to school?” he asked.
“She did, but nothing was the same. She was behind, and people made fun of her, called her mommy – and worse.” Her eyes snapped back to Matt’s. “Whore-y Lori I believe was the worst I heard.”
Matt closed his eyes, and leaned against the table. Shit.
“I thought our position in the community would protect her,” Helen went on, her voice worn and distant. “We were church leaders, involved in this club and that group, always volunteering for something. But it didn’t matter. It made no difference to those kids.”
Matt handed her a napkin and she sniffled into it.
“The thing I keep wondering about is why she lied and told me she was on the pill,” he said. “I had a condom in my jeans pocket, but when I tried to get it, she told me not to worry about it, that she was taking the pill. Why would she want to get pregnant?”
Helen shook her head. “She didn’t lie. It was an accident. She was taking some other medication at the time and just missed the part about that making the pills less effective.”
When Matt let out a groan, Helen touched his arm. “I don’t regret Brady being here, Matt. I’m sorry that Lori couldn’t handle it, and that we’ve lost her. I miss my daughter. But Brady has been a joy and I wouldn’t trade him for anything.”
Matt perched a thigh on the table while Helen continued.
“I know you’re thinking we should’ve told you. You might think that now that you’re a mature adult. But what about when you were an eighteen-year-old kid? I’m sure the last thing you were prepared for was becoming a husband and father. You had your whole life ahead of you – college and a career. A baby would’ve messed up your life just like it messed up Lori’s.”
He studied Helen’s face for a moment, and felt sympathy for everything she’d been through. Crossing his arms, he gazed out the window. He knew she was right.
“I love that boy,” Helen said.
Matt’s gaze snapped back to her as he sensed the urgency in her voice.
“I only want the best for him. This may sound odd, but I want you to take Brady. Even before the accident I’d been thinking about contacting you. Thinking that he needs a dad. I’ve got Don to take care of, and Brady’s growing up. I can’t give him all the things he needs now.”
Matt shook his head, trying to grasp what she was saying. All this time he’d been going about his life, going to work day after day while his son was just two hours away leading a completely unknown life. It was so surreal.
Helen stood also and reached out to touch Matt’s arm. “I want you to get him out of here. Get him into a good school where he can make something of himself. He’s too good for this town. I won’t let these people ruin him the way they ruined Lori.”
Matt frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, you know how people think. Trouble breeds trouble. Sow trouble, and that’s what you’ll reap. You know she wasn’t the only one going to those parties, but she got caught. As soon as Lori got pregnant, they pegged her as bad news, and now that Brady’s been involved in this mess, I’m afraid they’ll torment him, too. The one who was driving is dead, so who do you think will take the blame, hmm?”
You can read the beginning of Unexpected Legacy here: http://www.amazon.com/Unexpected-Legacy-ABNA-Entry-ebook/dp/B00B9N85QS/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1365640514&sr=1-1&keywords=darlene+deluca
Buy it to read an ending you'll love!