Saturday, January 15, 2011
THE BABY PROJECT
“The Andreas brothers have arrived.”
As the secretary’s announcement came through the speaker phone, attorney Whitney Ross turned from the window in her father’s law office. The gathering January storm clouds above the New York City skyscrapers concerned her, but the Andreas brothers’ visit would be every bit as tumultuous.
Gerard Ross pressed a button on his phone. “Tell them I need five minutes.”
He caught Whitney’s gaze, his green eyes bright with something she decided was a cross between trepidation and humor.
“You’re enjoying this.”
“Not enjoying exactly.” He grimaced, leaning his round body back in his office chair. He rhythmically tapped the blotter on his cherry wood desk. “How about if we say Stephone used his will to accomplish a few important things?”
Though Whitney had never met Stephone Andreas’s sons, Stephone had been a close friend of her father’s. He’d come to dinner at least once a month from the time she was six, and had talked about “his boys” incessantly. So she suspected she knew what was going on. The senior Andreas had always believed his three sons needed a kick in the pants and it seemed he’d finally found a way to give them one.
“You persuaded Stephone to use his will to force them to grow up.”
“This is about more than growing up. All three are smart. All three are good businessmen. Any one of them could take over the family holdings. But not one of them has a sense of loyalty or family.”
“And this is where the will comes in?”
“Yes. Stephone gave everything important to his oldest son, Darius. Whether or not that divides them for good or forces them to unite all depends on whether Darius takes the reins like a true leader and unites them.”
He rose and headed for the black leather sofa in the comfortable meeting area in the corner of his big law office. After he sat, he patted the spot beside him, indicating this is where she should sit for their upcoming meeting.
“But before I bring the brothers in, there’s something you need to know. Missy had something put in her will for you that Stephone agreed would also go into his.”
Whitney took the seat he’d offered. “Missy put something in her will for me?” She wasn’t surprised. Missy Harrington had been her roommate from the time they were freshman at university the whole way through law school. With an alcoholic mom and a dad who’d left when Missy was young, Missy had adopted Whitney’s family. For seven years, she’d shared every holiday and most of her vacations with the Rosses. Though Whitney had hardly seen her since she introduced Missy to Stephone, when they’d run off to Greece together, Whitney and Missy had a strong bond.
“She didn’t exactly leave you something. In accordance with Stephone and Missy’s wills, you and Darius got shared custody of their son.”
Her stomach squeezed. “What?”
“Okay. Look. It’s been three years since the accident that took Burn and Layla. And though I hadn’t known Missy and Stephone would die so soon when I let them put this provision in their wills, it’s still time you came back to the land of the living.” Her dad pulled a small envelope from one of the files in the stack on the coffee table. “She left this note for you.”
Her hand wrapped around the envelope and she paled.
“Stephone wanted Darius to raise their son, but Missy was adamant about you having joint custody. The Andreas brothers are rich and spoiled. And they don’t even know their father had another son. It’s anybody’s guess how they’ll react when they find out. I believe that Missy made you co-guardian to assure Gino was also in the hands of someone she trusted.”
“But I don’t know Gino either! When Missy and Stephone moved to Greece, we lost touch. I’ve never met Gino. I’ll be no better for this baby than his brother.”
He caught her hand. “You might not know Gino, but Missy knew you. She knew you had a sense of family. A sense of right and wrong. You’ve also been a mom. You’ll get to know Gino and, as young as he is, Gino will grow accustomed to you too.” He squeezed her fingers. “Besides, you need this.”
She tried to bounce off the sofa, but her dad held fast to her hand. When she faced him her eyes were blazing. “No! I don’t need this! I’m fine!”
“You’re not fine. Otherwise, getting custody of Gino wouldn’t make you angry.”
He pressed a button on the phone on the coffee table that sat in the center of the circle made by the sofa and three black leather chairs. “Cynthia, bring in Gino, please.”
Whitney’s heart stopped. Her stomach rolled. Her head spun. For the past three years, she’d avoided even being near a baby. The scent of baby powder, the feel of snuggly blankets, the sight of someone so tiny, so helpless, and so beautiful would have been her undoing. And now her father wanted her to take a baby into her home?
The side door opened and Cyndy Smith walked in carrying six-month-old Gino Andreas in a baby carrier, along with a diaper bag and duffle.
Her father squeezed her hand again. “Your mother and I have been keeping Gino during the Andreas funerals, but it’s time you took him.” He rose and accepted the baby carrier from Cyndy. “Thank you, Cyn.”
She nodded and her blonde hair bobbed. “You’re welcome, sir.”
As Cyn left the room, Whitney’s father set the carrier on the sofa, pulled Gino out and presented the dark-haired, dark-eyed baby boy to her. “He’s yours, Whitney.”
Knowing there was no arguing with her father or he’d send her back to therapy, Whitney slid the envelope into her jacket pocket and took the six-month-old with shaking hands. He immediately began to cry.
“Don’t cry, sweetie,” she crooned, automatically pressing his head to her shoulder to comfort him. “It’s okay.”
Her instinctive response to his crying amazed her, but she wasn’t surprised by the pain that sliced through her – the memories that flashed through her brain. Her daughter had been a tiny blonde with huge blue eyes. She’d rarely cried. Except when she missed her mother. She’d loved bananas and puppies. To Whitney she’d seemed the smartest baby on the face of the earth.
Tears filled her eyes. Her stomach tightened.
She couldn’t do this.
Maybe she did need more time with Dr. Miller?
But before she could say anything to her dad, the office door opened. Wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a cable knit sweater, Cade Andreas entered first. Behind him was Nick, the dark-haired, dark-eyed brother who most resembled the senior Andreas. And finally Darius. Taller than their father, but with eyes and hair as dark as his, striking in his expensive business suit, Darius was very clearly the leader of the group.
Their expressions were solemn, yet strong. Almost arrogant. The head of the Andreas family was dead. They now controlled one of the largest shipping conglomerates in the world.
Or so they thought.
She glanced at the baby in her arms. For the first time in three years she felt a swell of protectiveness only a mother could feel, and she understood why Missy had given her custody along with Darius. The Andreas men were strong. Maybe too strong. And babies needed love.
The question was did she have any left to give?
“Are you kidding me?”
Darius Andreas gaped at Gerard Ross, his deceased father’s attorney, then his daughter Whitney Ross, a tall, cool blonde with gray-blue eyes who looked nothing like her short, round father. The pair sat on the black leather sofa. The Andreas brothers sat across from them on three black leather chairs. Beside Whitney was a baby carrier and inside the carrier was a baby boy who looked to be only a few months old. His black hair and dark eyes marked him as an Andreas as clearly as Gerard Ross’s pronouncement did.
“I assure you, there’s no joke.” Gerard leaned back, getting more comfortable. “This little boy is your father’s final son. There are four of you now.”
He picked up the will and began reading again. “It is my wish that the remaining two-thirds share of Andreas Holdings be divided equally among my four sons: Darius, Cade, Nick and Gino.”
His final half-sibling was a baby!
Darius sucked in a breath, forcing that to sink in, but it wouldn’t. His brain had frozen. He was stunned, speechless, and working not to lose his temper over something he couldn’t change. Silent Nick and Cade appeared to be equally shell shocked.
Finally, the business sense Darius had trusted his entire life came to his rescue. “I want a DNA test.”
The smooth leather sofa sighed when Gerard sat forward. He looked down at his entwined fingers then caught Darius’s gaze. “Your father might not have married Missy Harrington, but he’s named on the birth certificate as Gino’s father. Had Missy not died with your father, you might be fighting her for the company right now.”
“I still want DNA.”
“I understand you’re surprised—“
“Surprised? How about shocked? First, our father calls us to the hospital after the accident to tell us that he gave one-third interest in the company to his first administrative assistant. So we’ll never fully own our own damned company. Then he tells us we have no sense of family and unless we pull together we’re going to lose everything he built. Then he dies. Just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “Now you’re telling us there’s a fourth brother?”
“Mr. Andreas, the very fact that you didn’t know your father had another child is proof that your sense of family leaves a bit to be desired.”
Darius nearly cursed. Who was his womanizing father to tell him that he had no sense of family? His father had abandoned his mother. Hell, Stephone had abandoned him until he was in his teens. And then he’d only appeared in Darius’s life because he wanted to assure that Darius went to a good university so he could be groomed to work for Andreas Holdings.
“For decades our father preached that we shouldn’t take family troubles to outsiders.” He rose. “Yet it looks like that’s exactly what he’s done.” He reached for the baby carrier. Now that the shock was receding, things were beginning to sink in and make sense. He didn’t really need DNA to tell him this was his brother. His father had been living with a thirty-year-old woman. It was no shock she’d gotten pregnant. Gino had all the physical markings of an Andreas. With his father’s name on the birth certificate and Gino’s name in the will, this little boy was family. And his father wanted him to care for him. So he would. Unlike his two brothers, Darius always did want their father asked.
“We’ll take our brother and go now.”
Whitney held back the carrier. “Dad?”
Gerard said, “There’s more.”
Darius just barely controlled his rising fury. “More?”
“You, Darius, get custody of Gino but you share it with Whitney.”
He turned his heated gaze on her.
Her yellow hair was probably pretty, but she had it rolled in a tight, no-nonsense bun at the back of her head. Her gray suit hid any hint of the body beneath it. He caught the gaze of her blue-gray eyes. In spite of the fact that she dressed to downplay her appearance, Darius felt a click of attraction. And it was mutual. He saw the flicker in her pretty blue orbs.
“It’s up to you how you divide Gino’s time. If you want to have him three days a week and Whitney four, or if you want to have him for two weeks a month and Whitney two, whatever you choose is up to you two. But she will vote his share at your board of directors meetings.”
This time Darius did curse. But he quickly pulled in a breath, struggling to rein in his temper, and glanced again at Whitney. The click of attraction he’d felt when he’d first looked into her eyes turned into a current of electricity that zapped between them. They were definitely attracted.
If this were any other day, any other time, any other circumstance, he would have pursued her. Peel off a few layers of clothes, take down her hair and he was just about certain he’d find paradise.
But those eyes, those pretty Persian cat eyes, told him to forget it. It didn’t matter if they were attracted to each other. They had a job to do. Raise Gino.
Whitney stayed perfectly still under Darius Andreas’s scrutiny, though warm, sweet attraction hummed through her. She ignored it. He was a gorgeous man with his dark, brooding good looks, tailored suit made to accentuate his broad shoulders and trim hips, and commanding personality. Any woman would react to him. Simply from the way his other brothers hadn’t even spoken since introductions were made, it was clear that Darius was the brother in charge. And that was very sexy.
With piercing his onyx eyes boring into hers, she suppressed a shiver. But she wasn’t worried about falling victim to the attraction. Attractions frequently grew into relationships and relationships made people vulnerable. The pain that had followed the loss of her husband had been indescribable. She’d never put herself through that again. She’d never even let herself get close. She couldn’t be attracted to Darius Andreas. She refused.
Darius squeezed his eyes shut in disgust and popped them open again. “All right. Fine.” He motioned for Whitney to follow him. “Let’s go.”
“If this baby’s on the board, he’s working for a living.”
Whitney’s dad laughed. “Very funny, Darius.”
“I’m not laughing. My father left the company in a sad state. There’s work to do. And nobody’s excused. Since your daughter has his vote, she’ll pull his share of the duty.”
“Dad,” Whitney interrupted her father. “It’s okay. I’ve never been one to shirk my responsibilities.” She straightened her shoulders and looked Darius in the eye, accepting his challenge. If he thought he’d intimidate her on day one, he was sadly mistaken. She could handle a little work. “If everybody’s working, then I will too.”
“All right,” her dad agreed, “but before anybody leaves there’s one more thing.”
Darius turned. His dark eyes were ablaze now.
Whitney’s dad looked from Darius to Cade to Nick and back at Darius again. “With your father’s former assistant in possession of a one-third share of Andreas Holdings, and four brothers sharing the other two thirds, you don’t have to be a math scholar to know that individually none of you has controlling interest in the whole company.” He glanced from Darius to Cade to Nick again. “Your father has instructed me to allow the benefactor of the final one-third interest to remain anonymous until she decides how to handle her position. She’s in her seventies, so she may simply want to sit back and enjoy the profits. But if she decides she wants to be active in the company, you had better be united or Andreas Holdings will end up being run by somebody other than an Andreas.”
Don't forget to go to susanmeier.com to read What Came Before...The beginning of Darius's story!