Secrets of Paternity

By: 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.

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