That's My Baby!
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“Absolutely.” The route made her nervous, though. She knew it only too well. But it was only a coincidence that the first time she set foot back in New York since leaving her parents’ estate, Nat would lead her back in the direction of the Hudson Valley, straight toward Franklin Hall.
“Like I said, I hope you got money,” the driver said. “For all we know, the guy’s headed for Vermont to see the leaves.”
“I doubt it.”
“You ever seen the leaves?”
“Yes.” She’d taken a trip through Vermont in the limo with her parents the October she turned nine. The long black car had seemed to take up far too much space on the narrow back roads, and it had looked ridiculous sitting parked on the village square in one of the hamlets where’d they’d stopped for hot cider.
She’d been aware of people staring, but she’d grown used to that. She’d ignored them and gazed longingly at three children playing in a yard full of red, yellow and orange leaves. They’d rake them into piles and then dive into them, scattering the leaves in an explosion of color before raking them up and starting all over. Their laughter had made her feel so completely alone.
Her memory clicked over to a crisp fall day in Aspen. Nat hadn’t really understood why she’d begged him to help her gather leaves into piles and jump with her right into the middle of them. But he’d helped her do it, anyway. The lonely child within her had loved every minute, and she’d loved Nat for being such a good sport about it.
“My wife’s after me to take her and the kids up there next weekend,” the cabdriver said, breaking into her reverie, “but I told her I do enough driving during the week. Besides that, it’s bumper to bumper on those little back roads. The word’s out about those leaves.”
“You should take her, anyway,” Jessica said, suddenly feeling sorry for the woman who had no passion in her life. “Get a sitter for the boys. There are some nice bed-and-breakfast places up there. It’s a good spot for couples.”
“You mean couples with bucks. Those cozy little inns aren’t cheap. My wife would probably rather have a new couch.”
“Ask her. I’ll bet she’d rather have the weekend.”
“I’ll bet she’d rather have the couch. You’re gonna have that for a good ten years or more. The weekend’s over and done, and you’ve got nothin’.”
“You have memories!” Jessica protested, battling now for this unknown woman’s right to be romanced, at least once in her life. “They’re worth more than anything.”
“I don’t know. You can’t sit on memories. Listen, we’re headed out of the city entirely. You sure you want to keep going? This is turning into an expensive ride.”
“That’s okay. Keep going.” As they left Manhattan behind, she could hardly believe the direction they were taking. They’d left the Hudson Parkway to follow the familiar route that wound along beside the river. If they kept going like this, they’d drive right past her parents’ estate.
“High-priced real estate up here,” the driver said.“But what I always think about, especially this time of year, is that story about the Headless Horseman. Sleepy Hollow, and all that. That story scared the daylights out of me when I was a kid.”
“Me, too.” She hadn’t thought about it before, but now she realized that when she allowed herself to think about the person stalking her, she felt sort of like Ichabod Crane trying to escape the Headless Horseman.
“My boys love that story, but kids today don’t scare so easy, I guess.”
“I guess.” Jessica wondered if Elizabeth would grow up braver than she was. Her self-image of strong independence grew shakier the closer they came to Franklin Hall.
Less than a mile from her parents’ gate she told the driver to slow down. At last she’d allowed her instincts to take over, and they had told her exactly where Nat was going. By the time the left-turn signal on the cab ahead of them flashed in the darkness, she was prepared for it. For reasons she couldn’t begin to imagine, Nat was going to Franklin Hall.
“Pull over under that tree,” she told the cabbie. “I’ll get out here.”
“What are you gonna do?” He pulled off the road as she’d asked, but gone was the camaraderie they’d established. He sounded nervous and suspicious again. “I can’t let you get out here, in the dark. And you sure as hell can’t follow him into that place. They got one of those automatic gates, and there are probably Dobermans running around or something. I should never have agreed to this. You’re some psycho or something, aren’t you?”
Jessica’s teeth chattered from the adrenaline rush of being so close to Franklin Hall again, but she tried to stay calm. “I can follow him into that place,” she said. “I used to live there. I know the gate code.”
“Look, I’ll prove it to you. First let me pay you what I owe.” She glanced at the meter and handed him some bills, along with a generous tip.
He looked a little happier upon seeing the money. “Just let me take you back to Manhattan, okay? I won’t even charge you. But I can’t leave a woman on a lonely country road like this. If I was to read about you in the papers, I’d never forgive myself.”
Jessica watched the taillights of the other cab disappear down the winding lane leading to the main house, which was obscured by trees. “Okay, you can pull over to the gate now. I’ll show you I can open it.”
“I’ll pull over there.” He guided the car across the road and stopped, his headlights shining on the ten-foot-tall gates with the scrolled letters FH worked into the intricate design. “But you’re not opening that gate. I know the kind of people who would live here, and you’re not that kind.”
“Appearances can be deceiving.” She opened the car door. “You can stay here until I open the gate, and then go on back. That way you’ll know I’m inside the protection of the fence.”
“What if you’re attacked by dogs?”
“There aren’t any dogs. At least not the last I heard.” She opened the door and got out, hefting her backpack onto her shoulder. “Thanks for bringing me out here,” she said. “And do ask your wife about taking that weekend trip to a bed-and-breakfast.” She closed the door.
He rolled down the window and stuck his head out. “You just show me you can open that gate. When you can’t, I’ll take you back to town, no questions asked. You can stay at the Y.”
She turned to smile at him. “Thanks. You’re a nice man. But I won’t need to do that.” She still wasn’t sure what she would do once she was inside the gate, but that was her first step. The code came back to her the minute she stepped up to the keypad, and she punched it in without hesitation. The gates swung slowly open.
“I’ll be damned,” the cabbie said. “Who are you, anyway?”
“Doesn’t matter.” She gave him another smile. “Goodbye.”
“This’ll be one to tell the guys.”
A chill passed over her. “Please don’t. Don’t tell anybody about this.” She had no idea how close her stalker might be.
“Look, if the police question me, because somethin’ bad happens, then—”
“They won’t. I’m just asking you not to gossip to the other cabdrivers. Can you promise that?”
“Yeah, I can promise that. Better get in there. The gates are closing again.”
“Take care of yourself.”
She turned and ran through the gates before they clanked together with a sound that brought back that familiar feeling of claustrophobia. Once again she was a prisoner of Franklin Hall.
NAT HAD PREPARED himself for wealth, yet he was still blown away as the cab pulled up in front of the floodlit colonial mansion. In bandbox condition, the exterior was the color of ripe wheat, and the ivory trim looked as if it had been freshly painted that morning.
Jess had once lived here. The knowledge sent adrenaline rushing through his system, sweeping aside the fatigue of a transatlantic flight. Surely her parents would be able to tell him where he could find her.
The circular driveway had taken them up to an elegant entry, but the big draw of the house was obviously the view from the back, which sloped steeply down to the Hudson. On the way in, he’d caught glimpses of the majestic river through the trees, and the driver pointed with excitement when a barge, lit up like a Christmas tree, glided past, its engines thrumming in the night air.
Nat’s real estate training kicked in. He quickly calculated what the house alone must be worth, not even considering the grounds. Even in the dark they appeared extensive and manicured. The newspaper business had been good to Russell P. Franklin.
“Nice place.” The cabdriver switched off the engine.
“Not bad,” Nat agreed. But impressive as the house was, he wouldn’t want to live in it, and he couldn’t picture free-spirited Jess here, forced to spend her childhood behind locked gates. He was beginning to understand how lonely she’d been as the only child at Franklin Hall.
Opening the car door, he was greeted by the friendly scent of a fireplace in use. That heartened him, although he doubted the setting was as cozy as the living room at the Rocking D in Colorado. But he didn’t need cozy right now. He needed information. He hoped to God her parents had some.
He turned toward the driver. “Listen, I don’t know how long I’ll be, so I’m sure you could wait in the house, where it’s warmer.”
“Nah. Thanks, anyway, but I’d rather stretch my legs and have a smoke, if it’s all the same to you. I’ll be here whenever you’re ready to go.”
“Okay.” Nat was too impatient to argue the point. “Knock on the door if you change your mind.” Leaving his backpack in the cab, he exited the car and mounted the steps to the front door, which looked as proper as a starched shirtfront. He lifted the brass knocker and rapped twice.
Almost immediately a uniformed butler opened the door.
Nat introduced himself. He was ushered quietly inside and relieved of his leather jacket. The butler had a strong British accent, and Nat remembered Jessica mentioning him. Barclay. Her father had hired him away from the Savoy.
The foyer lived up to the promise of the outside. A crystal chandelier sprinkled light over antiques that had been waxed and buffed until they shone. A table against one wall held a small bronze that Nat thought might be famous. He wasn’t up on art, but it looked familiar.
On a larger table in the center of the large entry, a bouquet of fall flowers filled a blue-and-white urn taller than a two-year-old child. Nat would bet the flowers were replaced every day. Their scent mingled with the tang of paste wax, and something else—maybe the smell of money, Nat thought. The contrast with the poverty he’d recently left made the elegant setting seem almost obscene.
“Mr. and Mrs. Franklin are in the library,” the butler said. “If you’ll follow me.”
As Nat walked down the hallway, an Oriental carpet that looked old and priceless cushioned his steps. He glanced at the gleaming railing on the stairway spiraling up to the second floor, and a vivid image of Jess sailing down the banister tugged at his heart. She’d only gotten away with it once, she’d said, but she’d never forgotten the joy of risking the forbidden.
He’d been having trouble finding evidence of her in this formal setting, but the banister looked as if it had been made for sliding down. Still, she’d probably never swung on a tire in the backyard or played hopscotch on the front walk. He was glad he’d seen this place, if only to understand Jess better.
His last picture of her tortured him—her long red curls tousled from lovemaking, her brown eyes filled with angry tears. Don’t you love me enough? she’d cried.
He’d left without answering the question, which effectively gave her an answer. He’d heard some object hit the door and shatter after he’d closed it behind him.
For Jess, love meant marriage and children. He hadn’t been willing to give her either one, because he’d thought he’d be lousy at it. He still thought so, but she’d haunted him the entire time he’d been gone. Another worker in the refugee camps, a sweet and willing woman, had offered herself. He’d gladly accepted, but to his chagrin he discovered that he couldn’t make love to anyone but Jess.
Finally he’d faced the truth. Sometime during the year he’d been seeing Jess, while he’d thought he was guarding his heart, she’d crept past the gates and set herself up as a permanent resident. He could either live the rest of his life alone, or he could try to overcome his fears and give Jess what she wanted.
Bad risk though he was, she’d been eager to take a chance on him once. He wondered if she still would. In the refugee camps he’d dealt with people who’d been ripped away from loved ones by force and had to scratch for every bit of human connection. After witnessing that, tearing himself from Jess seemed like ego run amok. He’d been offered so much, and he’d foolishly rejected it.
The thought of having kids still scared him to death, but maybe, in time, he could get used to that, too. If he expected to create an adoption program for war orphans, he’d be a real hypocrite if he didn’t at least consider that option for himself.
But first he had to find Jess. And he had no clue where she was. For seventeen months he’d pictured her in her little Aspen apartment. When he hadn’t been able to locate her there, he’d gone slightly crazy.
The butler paused in the doorway of the library to announce him, and Nat was so lost in thought, he nearly ran into the guy.
“Mr. Nat Grady to see you, sir,” the butler said.
“Show him in, Barclay,” boomed a voice from the interior of the room.
The butler stepped aside and Nat tried to control his eagerness as he walked forward. These people could lead him to Jess.
Russell P. Franklin, a robust, silver-haired man, rose from a leather wingback in front of the fireplace and came toward him, hand outstretched. Mrs. Russell P. remained seated in her wingback. She strongly resembled Jess, but Nat assumed the red hair was a beauty-salon copy of the color she’d been born with. Still, he couldn’t help thinking that this might be how Jess would look in twenty-five or thirty years. He wanted to be around to see that.
Adele Franklin smiled a greeting, but at the same time she surveyed him carefully. Under her scrutiny Nat remembered how grungy he was in comparison to his hosts. No doubt their sweaters and slacks were everyday casual wear, and they probably cost three times what Nat would spend on his hotel room tonight. Good thing neither Adele nor Russell knew yet that he had designs on their only daughter, or he’d probably be thrown out on his ear.
“Glad to have you stop by, Grady,” Russell said. His handshake was warm and firm. “Come over by the fire. What will you have? A drink, something to eat?”
“Scotch would be great.” Nat didn’t plan to drink much of it, but he’d been a real estate broker long enough to know the value of accepting someone’s hospitality if you wanted to make the sale. This might turn out to be the most important sales call of his life. He would have preferred a beer, but this didn’t look like a beer-drinking household.
“Good.” Russell looked pleased as he signaled to Barclay. “And have the cook rustle up a few sandwiches,” he added. “This man’s been existing on airplane food.”
Airplane food was gourmet fare compared to what the refugees had to eat, Nat thought. But this wasn’t the time to tell them that. “I hope you’ll excuse the way I look.” He stroked his beard. “I came straight from the airport.”
“No excuse necessary,” Russell said. “A man involves himself in a cause such as you have, he doesn’t have time to worry about appearance.”
“It does rearrange your priorities.” Nat sat on a love seat positioned between the two wingbacks and directly in front of the marble fireplace. The stout logs crackled smartly, as if aware of the honor of adding heat and ambience to Franklin Hall.
Windows on either side of the fireplace looked out on the inky flow of the river and the dark shore beyond, where only an occasional light showed signs of civilization. Books, mostly leather-bound, lined the other three walls of the room. There was even a rolling ladder to reach the top shelves.
Adele and Russell each had a book resting on a table beside them, a bookmark inserted in the pages. Then he realized there was no television in the room. Apparently the Franklins still believed in reading as a way to pass an evening.
Nat’s career in real estate had centered primarily on land, but he’d handled a few homes, and some had been real showplaces. None of them equaled this house. The cost of running Franklin Hall for a day would probably feed a refugee family for months.
Adele leaned forward. “You are quite a humanitarian, Mr. Grady. The rest of us may have sent a little money over to help those poor people, but you invested something far more precious—yourself. I commend you.”
Her voice startled him. Jess’s voice. He wanted to close his eyes and savor it. “I don’t really think of it that way, Mrs. Franklin,” he said. “I just had to go.” And not only to escape his demons concerning Jess. That was another thing he needed to settle with his ladylove. If she’d found out about his work in the refugee camps, she probably thought he’d only run away from her. But his decision to help the war-torn country was far more complicated than that.
“Call me Adele,” Jess’s mother said with a warm smile.
Her eyes were gray, not brown like Jess’s. But otherwise she reminded him so strongly of her daughter that he couldn’t stop looking at her. She wove her fingers together in her lap the way Jess did, and when she spoke she wrinkled her forehead slightly, as if putting real thought into what she was about to say. He remembered loving that about Jess.
“By all means,” Russell said. “Let’s not stand on formality.”
At that moment Barclay arrived with Nat’s scotch, a tray of sandwiches, and what looked like mineral water for Adele and Russell.
“Here’s to your dedicated efforts on the part of the refugees,” Russell said, raising his glass toward Nat. He took a swallow and sat back. “Now, why don’t you tell us what you have in mind?”
“I’ll be glad to.” He was passionate and absolutely sincere in his dedication to the war orphans foundation, but he’d used it without remorse as his ticket into Franklin Hall. Once he’d discussed the foundation, he planned to casually mention Jess. He forced his attention away from Adele and concentrated on Jess’s father.
Russell had brown eyes the color of Jess’s. But where her gaze had reminded him of a wild fawn’s, Russell’s could have belonged to George Washington when he led his troops across the Potomac. The man was a fighter and an empire builder. No one who looked carefully into those eyes would underestimate Russell P. Franklin.
Nat thought briefly of his own father. Nobody underestimated Hank Grady, either, least of all his son. Nat especially didn’t underestimate his father’s ability to be cruel. Yet Nat had been fed and clothed. Now he appreciated the luxury of that.
Shutting out the image of his father, Nat carefully outlined his plan for a foundation that would oversee the welfare and possible adoption of the orphaned children he had recently left. He had several potential backers in mind for the project. If Jess had still been living in her apartment, as he’d expected when he’d called from London, he wouldn’t have put Franklin on the list and risked causing Jess problems. But she hadn’t been in her apartment. The phone had been disconnected.
Both Russell and Adele seemed eager to hear the details of his plan, and he realized that getting their support for the foundation was a done deal. He was happy about that, but it wasn’t the most critical part of the interview.
“We’d be honored to have the Franklin Publishing Group be part of that effort,” Russell said when Nat finished. “I’ll talk to my accountants in the morning and see how much of your budget we can cover. Your ideas are well thought out.”
“Thank you.” Nat smiled. “I’ve had a lot of thinking time.”
“Some people could think for years and not come up with a practical scheme,” Russell said. “I appreciate dealing with someone who has a head for business. Philanthropy is a fine thing, but some of these confounded do-gooders quiver at the very idea of fiscal responsibility, and that makes me nervous. It’s too easy to pour money down a rat hole if you don’t have some checks and balances in place.”
“That’s why it was important for me to be over there so long,” Nat said. “I’ve lined up some excellent people who are ready to help run the program.”
Russell nodded and sat back in his chair. “Are you planning to approach other backers about this while you’re in town?”
“Yes, I am. But I wanted to see you first.”
The older man regarded him like a benevolent uncle. “I’m sure you’ll get the backing you need. But I should probably warn you that not everyone is as liberal as I am. You might want to shave.”
“I probably will.” Growing a beard had been practical when hot water and shaving gear had been scarce and cold wind had chapped his bare skin. He’d also blended in better with the refugees, and after a few months, the beard had seemed natural to him. Now that he was back in this country, seeing it in the mirror every day would serve to remind him of his mission. Still, Russell had a point. And then there was the matter of Jess. She had very tender skin….
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