His Daddy's Eyes
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“I knew your sister…in the biblical sense.”
A sudden piercing image of Julia and Lawrence together made Sara’s stomach heave. “I…don’t understand why you’re telling me this. You know she’s dead, right?”
He nodded. “I just learned of her accident. I’ve been looking for her for about two years.” At her questioning glance, he added, “I’m thinking of running for public office and I didn’t want any surprises. You know…blackmail.”
“That’s crazy. Julia would never do anything like that.”
“I didn’t know. We only spent one night together and…we didn’t talk much.”
“So why are you telling me this now? Why do I need to know that Julia had an affair? She wasn’t perfect but she was my sister, and I loved her.” Tears began to gather in her eyes. “She’s dead. Isn’t that punishment enough for her sins?”
He started to put out his hand to touch her, but let it drop to the bench.
“There’s a chance I might be Brady’s father,” he said softly.
People often ask me where I get my ideas for stories. I wish I knew for sure. This particular story has been in my head for years, but it never felt right to me until last summer when my son, Jon Paul, asked me what my next book was going to be about. We were strolling down a quiet street in La Grande, Oregon, and I started rattling off my idea about a judge, his private investigator buddy and a baby. The more I talked, the more real the characters became. When I asked Jon Paul what he thought of the premise, he told me, “Write it, Mom.” So I did.
As my heroine, Sara, came into focus, I realized she shared some of my daughter Kelly’s positive attributes. Both have a ready smile and nonjudgmental attitude that make them easy to love. And both learned at a tender age that the strong go on—chin up. Or, as Sara says, “You just do the best you can.”
The only problem I had in writing this book is that several of its secondary characters have very strong voices and personalities that can’t be overlooked. It became apparent early on that Bo, my hero’s best friend, was a hero in his own right. And to my surprise another character popped out of nowhere with a spunk and energy that seemed the mark of a heroine. You know what that means…a sequel.
I hope you enjoy reading this book and come to care about these characters as much as I do. The ending may surprise you—I know it did me.
His Daddy’s Eyes
For Kelly and Jon Paul, with a mother’s love
SUPERIOR COURT JUDGE Lawrence Bishop III slammed his gavel.The three staccato repetitions dropped a curtain of silence over the proceedings. The opposing lawyers, who up to that moment had seemed poised for fisticuffs, turned to him with a combination of supplication and censure in their eyes.
As the third Bishop male to wear the black robes of a judge, Lawrence, who was “Ren” to everyone except his mother, had grown up hearing stories of courtroom theatrics. But in the two years since his father’s death and Ren’s subsequent appointment to the bench, he’d become weary of prima-donna headline hounds, such as defense attorney Steve Hamlin.
Hamlin, an up-and-coming name in Sacramento political circles, had a well-practiced smile that garnered female groupies. His defendant, a soon-to-be third-time offender, slumped in his chair like a lump of unformed clay.
Peter Swizenbrach represented the plaintiff—in this case, the State of California. If one believed the evidence—and Ren did—the lump was guilty of serial stupidity, which normally wouldn’t be punishable by life in prison unless it included using a gun, which this did.
“Gentlemen,” Ren said, his voice carrying as he meant it to, “do either of you see a jury in this room?”
The lawyers looked at each other as if suspecting a trick question. Tentatively, each shook his head.
“Then, who the hell are you playing to?” Ren barked, nodding toward the dozen spectators. “The audience?” Three young women—obviously Steve Hamlin groupies—in the front row squirmed as if he’d called on them to speak. “Because if you can’t control yourselves, then I will ask them to leave. I,” he stressed the word regally, for he was king of this particular corner of the world, “am not impressed.”
The two attorneys scurried to their respective tables to regroup.
Ren stifled a sigh. The bench was every lawyer’s dream job—and an important step in Babe Bishop’s not-so-secret political agenda for her son—but some days Ren would have traded it for a window job at the post office.
Before he could muster enough energy to begin round two, his clerk, Rafael Justis, a bright, young Hispanic who took no small amount of razzing about his name, handed Ren a folded piece of paper the size of a postcard.
Ren opened it. The familiar scrawl brought a peculiar quickening of his senses even before he read the cryptic: Gotta talk. Ren swore softly under his breath, then lifted his gavel a second time. “We’ll take a twenty-minute recess.”
REN TOSSED HIS ROBE on the brass-and-mahogany coat rack that had been his father’s, then paced to his office window. The view of downtown Sacramento from the third-story wasn’t impressive—no prestigious law firm’s corner office with a vista of the river. But it was an improvement over his previous digs: a tiny cubicle in the basement of a fifty-year-old federal building, where he’d researched environmental law.
Ren had chosen law school because it was expected of him, but he’d wound up falling in love with the law, not the circumspection of it. Although his favorite professor had urged Ren to take up teaching, Ren couldn’t bring himself to disappoint his parents, so he’d sought a compromise: environmental law. The pay sucked, but it gave him a chance to champion a cause he believed in.
For fifteen years, Ren quixotically tilted at bureaucratic windmills. Then, to his immense surprise, a small court battle over salmon spawning grounds two years ago stirred a media frenzy, and Ren became an overnight celebrity. Pretty heady stuff at age forty, but damn unnerving, too. Looking back now, Ren understood the impetus behind his crazy lapse in judgment, which no doubt was the subject of this upcoming meeting—a meeting Ren hoped would bring resolution to two years of haunting guilt.
A noise outside his chamber door made his stomach clench, and he ran a hand nervously through his hair, causing a wedge of ash-brown hair to fall across his view.
A soft knock preceded the opening of the door. Ren turned, motioning the visitor to a chair. At five foot ten, one hundred eighty pounds, with sandy brown hair and hazel eyes, Bo Lester epitomized the word nondescript, an invaluable trait in his line of work.
“Howyadoin’, Ren?” Bo called amiably before plopping like a sack of potatoes into the leather wingback chair opposite Ren’s desk.
No more grace than when we were students, Ren thought, smiling. He quickly sat down in his high-tech desk chair—a Christmas gift from Eve, his future bride, and leaned over to shake hands. “Long time no see,” Ren said.
“Did I pull you out of court? I told that Mexican kid I could wait. It’s your money, and you know I don’t mind wasting it.”
Ren grinned. Robert Bowen Lester Jr., or “Bo,” as he preferred, liked to come off as a redneck hillbilly. He was, in fact, the only son of one of the country’s top financial gurus, Robert B. Lester Sr. But Bo had broken with his family shortly after college when he’d chosen law enforcement over what he called “legalized money laundering.” Today, Bo was one of the top private investigators in northern California.
“You have some information, don’t you?” Ren asked, feeling as if he were swimming in shark-infested waters.
Bo shifted positions, hunching forward to rest his elbows on his knees so he could face Ren eye-to-eye. Ren found the posture ominous.
“You found Jewel.” Ren’s comment was a statement, not a question.
Damn. A worst-case scenario. He and Bo had discussed this possibility from day one. As long as Jewel lived somewhere outside the Sacramento area, Ren wouldn’t feel any need to contact her. He could stay out of her life, as—so far—she’d stayed out of his.
But now that option was gone. This was a town that lived and breathed political scandal. What would happen to Ren’s career if Jewel decided to embarrass—or even blackmail—him? His mother’s hopes and dreams would be destroyed. Babe would kill him if she found out. And Eve…Ren didn’t dare think what his future bride would do to him. But he could be sure that whatever form her retaliation took, it would probably wind up on the six o’clock report. Eve Masterson was the popular anchor of the Channel 8 news team.
Bo rapped his knuckles on Ren’s desk. “Don’t get too far ahead of me on this, old friend. That’s only part of the news.”
Ren sat back and took a deep breath. His friend knew him well. “So tell me.” Ren was pleased his voice didn’t betray the fierce humming in his chest.
“Well, I’ve got bad news, and even worse news. Which do you want first?”
“Cut the crap, Lester, just tell me.”
Bo’s wiry brows waggled, but his smile faded as he took a folded piece of paper from the breast pocket of his wrinkled cotton shirt. He slowly opened it. “First off, the name she gave you—Jewel—was pretty close. Does the name Julia Noelle Carsten ring a bell?”
Ren’s heart thudded against his ribs. Jewel had a full name. His gorgeous sex goddess, his first-and-only one-night stand, had a name. Julia. Such a pretty, innocent name for someone with a body like hers.
“Julia Carsten,” Ren repeated aloud. He searched his memory, which included a long list of miscreants. “Nope. Never heard of her.”
Bo smoothed the paper across one knee, out of Ren’s line of sight. “Her married name was Hovant,” he added casually.
“Married?” Ren croaked, lurching to his feet. His chair crashed backward into the bookcase behind his desk.
Of course. Why else would she disappear without so much as a word? Ren retrieved his chair and sat down, feeling both relieved—Jewel couldn’t very well resort to blackmail when her own reputation was at risk—and yet, let down.
Ren looked at Bo. The man who’d just simplified Ren’s life and eased his guilty conscience wasn’t looking very pleased about it.
“Oh, God,” Ren groaned. “What else?”
An invisible weight of some extraordinary measure pressed on Ren’s chest making it impossible to draw a breath.
“She can’t be dead. She’s too young.” Even as he said the words, Ren knew they made no sense.
Bo passed him the paper, which Ren saw was a copy of an obituary. Four inches of tiny print. A four-inch lifetime.
“How?” he asked hoarsely, trying to comprehend the unthinkable.
Bo cleared his throat. Ren felt himself tensing.
“The inquest called it—”
“Inquest? Why was there an inquest?” Ren asked sharply.
“Fancy speedboat. Too much power, not enough lake. Rammed an exposed rock and burst into flames—”
Ren shuddered at the graphic image.
“—the inquest ruled it an accident, but the investigating officer told me Dr. Hovant was known for his temper. Some people think he might have let that temper run away with him.”
“Murder-suicide?” Ren asked, almost choking on the words.
“Something like that, but no way to prove it.”
Ren tried to digest the information, but it wouldn’t stay down. “Her husband was a doctor? What kind?” he asked, as if it mattered.
Bo shrugged. “A specialist with a whole bunch of letters after his name. Julia had been a nurse before she became Mrs. Hovant.”
Questions percolated in Ren’s head like toxic runoff, but Bo didn’t give him time to sort through them.
“It happened last July. I asked around the marina. Everybody remembered the crash. One guy said the boat blew up like a grenade.” Bo shook his head. “You could ask your fianc?e. They probably have it on tape. The media eats up this kind of thing.”
As usual, Bo didn’t bother hiding his disdain for Eve or her job, but Ren ignored the jibe. “Why do they think it was intentional?”
Bo shrugged. “I guess that’s what happens when you air your dirty laundry in public. According to my source, the Hovants were known to get into shouting matches. Seems their marriage had been rocky for the past few years—which, I guess, might explain why Jewel-slash-Julia did what she did with you.”
“This obituary says she was survived by her son, Brady. Stepson, right?” Ren asked, looking up. “The woman I made love to was nobody’s mother.”
His comment seemed to startle Bo, who frowned and tugged a small wire notebook from his hip pocket. After flipping through half-a-dozen pages, he looked up. “You’re right. She didn’t have the kid when you were together. He was born later.”
Ren froze. “How much later?”
Bo fumbled with the notepad. “October? November?”
Ren and Julia’s tryst had taken place the Friday after Valentine’s Day. February, March, April…he mentally counted. “I repeat—how much later?”
Bo flipped pages. “Bingo! Brady Hovant. No middle name. Born November twelfth. Eight pounds ten ounces. I forgot to mention the aunt. I talked to her, too.”
“The kid’s aunt. Julia’s sister. Sara Jayne Carsten, age thirty-one. Runs a bookstore near the K-Street mall. She’s got custody of the kid.”
Ren frowned, trying to wade through a river of swirling emotions.
Bo sat forward. “Hey, man, this doesn’t mean anything. Think about it. Julia obviously slept around. And she was married. There’s no reason to think…I mean, you didn’t…hell, man, this is the age of AIDS—tell me you didn’t have unprotected sex.”
“Of course not.” Ren glared at his friend. “I used a condom.” He frowned, trying to remember. Not that it was hard to recall with photographic—some might say pornographic—clarity the night in question. “All three times.”
“My, my, aren’t you the stud.”
“Shut up. She’s extraordinary.” Was. Jewel is dead.
Ren picked up his phone and pushed a button. “Mr. Justis, court is over for the day. We’ll reconvene tomorrow morning.”
Bo looked at him, frowning. “This has rocked you.”
Resting his elbows on the desk, Ren put his head in his hands. “I never met anybody like her, Bo. Cool and direct on the outside, steamy and wild on the inside. Damn. She was incredible.”
“You fell hard, didn’t you?”
Ren looked up. “If you mean, was I in love with her?—no. Not even close. Love and sex are not synonymous, my friend. She was gorgeous, wild and hot, and I can definitely say I’ve never had sex like that before or since.” Bo’s hoot made Ren scowl. “That was not meant to demean my fianc?e in any way. You don’t marry a woman like Jewel.”
“Dr. Hovant did,” Bo said, rising. “Fat lot of good it did him. If the rumor mill is right, all they did is fight—right up to the moment he drove his boat into a rock.”
Bo crammed his notebook into the back pocket of his rumpled canvas slacks. “Well, looks like your secret’s safe. Bullet dodged. Case closed.”
Ren picked up a pen and made a series of hatch marks on his blotter. Nine of them. “Are you sure?”
“Why not? If Julia knew who you were she obviously didn’t tell anybody, because we haven’t heard anything in two years. She never even mentioned your name to her sister.”
“How do you know that?”
Bo produced a disreputable-looking cotton baseball cap from his other back pocket. “Because I’m a professional. When I visited Miss Carsten at her place of business last week, she never blinked when your name came up.”
Ren’s blood pressure spiked. “You asked her about me?”
Bo made a face. “I told her my friend collected first editions, which is true. I said he was pretty well known for his collection. True again. I said his name was Lawrence Bishop III, and asked if she’d ever heard of him.” Bo smiled, apparently picturing the encounter. “She laughed and said, ‘If any of my customers have numbers associated with their names, it’s more likely the result of a problem with the law than hereditary honor.’”
Ren knew he should have been relieved, but for some reason felt more peeved than pleased. Bo turned to go. “Wait a minute. You’re not done.”
“Yes, I am. You hired me to find your love goddess. I did. It’s not my fault she’s dead.” Bo wedged the cap on his head.
Ren rose and walked around his desk. “Bo, I need clarity on the matter of this child.”
His friend snorted. “What kind of clarity? You used a condom. You were a good bad little boy. End of story.”
“You don’t find it the least bit unnerving that I spend the night in the arms of a stranger in early February and nine months later said stranger gives birth to a child?”
“But you said—”
“Condoms have been known to fail, Bo. And I was asleep when Jewel left, maybe she took the…evidence of our encounter with her. For what purpose, I don’t know. Maybe hubby was sterile and she needed a sperm donor. I don’t have a clue, but I’m uncomfortable with loose ends and this one seems like a big one.”
“Actually, he’s pretty little,” Bo said, leaning down to demonstrate a height somewhere near his knees. “Cute as a bug. Curly brown hair. Big blue eyes.”
Ren pictured a photograph hanging on his upstairs wall: his father leading a toddler—Ren—with curly brown hair and big blue eyes down a dock to the family boat. “You saw him?” he asked.
“Yeah. At the bookstore,” Bo replied. “The aunt takes him to work with her instead of using a baby-sitter. Go see for yourself.”
The idea made Ren’s knees buckle. He parked his butt on the desk and gripped the edge while he forced his brain to recall the paternity cases he’d tried. “What’s his blood type?”
“I don’t know. A, B or O, I suppose,” Bo said flippantly.
“Could you narrow that down?”
“How? Medical records are confidential.”
“Come on, Bo. You hack the telephone company’s records all the time. All I want is his blood type, although I suppose I’ll probably need a DNA match to go to court. Maybe you could ask the aunt.”
Bo’s mouth dropped open. “Have you lost your frigging mind? There ain’t no way that woman would voluntarily give you a drop of that baby’s blood if it meant you might wind up taking him away from her.”
Lowering his voice, he added, “Listen, Ren, get a grip. Chances are, like, one in six zillion this could be your kid. Maybe Julia and the doc had a spat, and she ran up to Tahoe to get back at him—but odds are the kid’s his. If not, she’d have come looking for you as soon as she found out she was pregnant, right?”
Ren had no way of knowing what Julia would do; he didn’t know Julia—only Jewel—and their relationship hadn’t involved much talking. “I never told her my last name.”
“Big deal. If she didn’t recognize you from the salmon thing, she sure as hell couldn’t have missed your dad’s funeral or when you were appointed to the bench.”
“Not to mention the fact I see your ugly puss in the papers every few days thanks to that news bimbo you’re engaged to.”
“Eve is co-anchor of the Channel 8 news, Bo—I hardly think she deserves that kind of disparagement. But you do have a point. We are photographed quite often. If Julia had wanted to reach me, she could have found a way.”
“Exactly,” Bo confirmed. “My old man used to tell me ‘Don’t trouble trouble ’til trouble troubles you.’”
Ren snorted. “Very profound.”
“Hey, people pay big bucks to hear Robert B. Lester Sr. talk. The point is, you’ve got a nice life. Don’t rock the boat.”
A part of him wanted to agree, but the problem with Bo’s nautical metaphor was that Ren’s boat was sinking fast from a broadside hit by an eighteen-month-old iceberg.
“SARA J., I’M NOT GONNA tell your sorry ass again, you can’t be giving stuff to every person that comes asking!” Keneesha said with finality.
Sara ignored her friend and continued putting books into the box she was sending to the homeless shelter. Daniel Paginnini was due to arrive at the bookstore any minute to pick them up, and she wanted to be sure she included as wide a range of titles as possible.
“Leave her be, Keneesha,” Claudie St. James said, rocking back and forth in the bentwood chair. “You know how she gets. Sara’s a woman on a mission. And I don’t mean position.”
Claudie laughed at her own joke. Sara smiled, too. For her age, which Sara guessed to be twenty-five, and profession—prostitute—Claudie could, at times, be downright childlike. Perhaps that was what endeared her most to Sara.
Claudie rocked a little faster, her small feet coming off the colorful braided rug that delineated the story corner where Sara regularly read to her customers’ children and to her 18-month-old nephew. At the moment, Brady was sound asleep in his soft-sided playpen behind her desk.
“Don’t talk dirty in front of the child,” Keneesha said, her tone surprisingly maternal. To Sara’s knowledge, neither woman had children, but ever since Brady had arrived in Sara’s life, the two hookers had become veritable founts of wisdom on how to raise children.
Claudie snorted. “The child’s snoring like an old man, or is your hearing going?”
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