ILL YOU have my baby?
No. Susan Kennedy shook her head, her layered shoulder-length hair tickling her neck and cheeks. That wasn't quite the line she wanted.
Can I have your baby?
Nope. She dusted the buttons on the telephone with one long slim finger. Misleading. Her
to have a baby wasn't in question.
So how about
May I have your baby?
She toyed with that one, actually dialed Chicago's area code before disconnecting this time. Her goal wasn't to ask his permission but to request his participation in the most monumental event of her life. At the same time she had to make it clearâabundantly, in-your-face clearâthat she was asking nothing from him.
Other than the initial ten-minute participation. Grinning, Susan amended that last thought. There was no way any physical shenanigans between her and Michael would take less than an hour. They did sex very well.
Which probably meant she was asking for more like
hours of his time. Michael always claimed Susan had a way of making everything seem easier than it really was. Shorter than it was. Less expensive
than it was. When she'd budgeted one thousand dollars for their trip to the Poconos, he'd counted on two.
Damn thing was, she'd somehow managed to run through every dime of the two-thousand dollars, just as he'd predicted. And Michael, being Michael, had never said a word.
Stupid, smug man.
Stupid enough to father her child? In spite of the fact that they'd been divorced almost as long as they'd been married?
He had to. Period. No other option was acceptable.
So how did she convince him of that?
Would you lend me a sperm?
That didn't sound like too much to ask. And “lend” seemed so harmless, so...not-permanent.
But she wasn't planning on giving it back.
All the more reason to call him today. Because “lend” wasn't what she wanted at all. She wanted him to
it to her, willingly and for keeps, and as Michael always gave her wonderful gifts for her birthday...
January 21. Her birthday. She glanced at the office around her, the plaques on her walls, the windows overlooking the icy Ohio River, Cincinnati, Ohio and Louisville, Kentucky all at once. Sinking into the soft leather of the high-backed maroon chair, she sighed and hung up the phone. Gloomy suddenly, she reached down to pet the red setter snoring on the floor at her feet. She couldn't believe she was actually thirty-nine years old. For a person who'd always loved birthdays, she was doing a damn good imitation of hating this one.
Someone dropped a coffee cup in the hall. Hearing
it break, Susan hoped it had been empty. Annie, the setter who made her way to Susan's office every morning, didn't even budge at the noise. The dog was getting old, too, nearly thirteen. Susan's soul mate.
She didn't kid herself, though. In spite of the fact that Susan had known Annie since puppyhood, the dog didn't come to her every morning out of some incredible bonding experience they'd shared. No, Annie just preferred Susan's soft carpet to the cold but beautiful ceramic tile that covered the other floors of Halliday's. It was one of the largest, privately owned sporting goods supply companies in the world.
Susan jumped as the phone rang, echoing in her bright, luxurious, tomblike office.
“Hello?” She grabbed it after the first ring, eager for distraction, praying it wasn't Michael calling to wish her a happy birthday. She wasn't ready to speak with her ex-husband. Not yet.
“Hey, old woman, how about lunch?”
“Seth?” Holding the phone away from her ear, Susan grinned. “You in town?”
“Haven't missed a birthday yet, have I?”
“Well...” Susan used her best corporate attorney's voice to disguise how thrilled she was that he'd made it back. “I seem to recall there were those first two...”
Seth snorted. “Before I was born doesn't count.”
Annie rose slowly and lumbered out to the hall, and as loneliness invaded the room, Susan's spirits plummeted again. “Lunch would be good. Can you go now?” she asked.
“At 9:30 in the morning?” Seth laughed, then stopped abruptly. “Something wrong?”
“Nope. Just don't feel like working today.” Which was something wrong.
“I've got one call to make, and I'll be there,” Seth promised immediately.
“Thanks.” Tears in her eyes, Susan hung up the phone. As much of a pain as it had been growing up the only girl with five brothers, Susan was glad she had Seth. He was two years younger, the brother who came directly after her. She'd picked on him all the years they'd lived at home. She'd known she could get away with tormenting him. After all, Susan was the girl, the princess. And while she wasn't allowed to do any of the fun things they didâlike go to the batting cages or play catch or go golfingâthe boys were all under strict orders not to bully her. So she'd bullied Seth relentlessly. Even when he'd topped her by a foot and forty pounds.
She wasn't sure just when she'd started leaning on him instead.
“THANKS FOR meeting with me, Michael.” James Coppel, of Coppel Industries, offered Michael Kennedy his hand.
“I'm happy to be here, sir,” Michael shook his hand before taking a seat in Coppel's penthouse office suite. He'd just flown in from Chicago.
Although he was careful to do it covertly, Michael took in the opulence around him, his heart rate quickening.
Susan should see this,
was his first thought. Only his ex-wife could understand the importance of his being there, in that affluent Georgia office suite.
Only she would know what it meant to him. He caught a glimpse of himself in an ornate, gold-framed mirror that took up most of the opposite wall and was surprised by his reflection. Well-groomed, dark-haired, he looked...at ease. As if he belonged there.
“Would you like some coffee?” Coppel asked, relaxing in his chair as he surveyed Michael. The man's hair might have grayed, his skin wrinkled, but he'd lost not an inch of his imposing six-foot height in the seven years Michael had known him.
“Certainly,” Michael replied. He wasn't a coffee drinker, didn't like what the stuff did to his stomach, but he'd been in business long enough to know that he had to appear as relaxed as his boss.
Though close to seventy, Coppel was a legend. A genius. The man had never missed a beat in the forty years since he'd purchased his first exterminating franchise. He'd built an empire that had interests in just about every industry in the country. Other than film. Coppel had even been smart enough to stay out of Hollywood.
If Michael had ever allowed himself an idol, Coppel would have been it.
The coffee was delivered and with one polished wing tip resting on a suited knee, Michael sat back to calmly sip the dreadful stuff.
“How old are you, boy?”
“Thirty-nine.” Legally, Coppel had no right to ask that kind of question, and .they both knew it.
“And you've been with Smythe and Westbourne for how long?”
Michael would bet every dime of the half million he'd saved over the past seven years that Coppel
knew exactly how long Michael had been with the Coppel Industries' investment firm. To the day.
“And in that time you've gone from director of finance of one branch to financial director of the entire operation, showing a three hundred percent increase over the past two years.”
“Yes, sir.” Michael was damn proud of those figures. They'd cost him. A lot.
“Mind telling me your secret?”
Michael knew he'd finally been asked a legitimate question. A question he could answer with deceptive simplicity. “Integrity toward the customer.”
Coppel snorted. “I run an honest ship, young man. Always have. How do you think Coppel became the name it is? Honest business in a dishonest world. That's how.”
And that was something Michael had known. Even before he'd earned his MBA, Michael had chosen the company for which he wanted to work. And set about being the candidate they'd choose when the time came.
“I take that one step further, sir,” he said now, no longer aware of the opulence of the room or the other man's stature.
He had Coppel's complete attention.
“Each customer is different, with individual needs. My teams have been taught to treat the customer as a person, to sell him not what we have to sellânot what, in the short run, makes us the most profitâbut what he truly needs. It hurts the small picture, sometimes, when we don't make a killing right off the bat. But in the big pictureâ”
“They go away happy,” Coppel interrupted him, eyeing Michael with interest. “They come back. They bring their neighbors with them.”
“Over and over again,” Michael said with the conviction of seven years' worth of figures to prove his theory.
“Lose money to make money,” Coppel said.
“Building a whole new level of trust, a new approach to doing businessâwhich, I suppose is really an old-time traditional approach.”
“At least at Smythe and Westbourne.”
The other man nodded. “So you think you can determine what the customer wants.”
“How?” Coppel might be testing him, but he was intrigued as well.
“By becoming the buyer instead of the seller.”
Coppel nodded, his brow clearing. “You put yourself in the shoes of the consumer.”
“And realize that just as all people aren't the same, all consumers and their needs aren't the same, either.”
Looking down at some papers spread in front of him, Coppel said, “You appear to have a real talent in this area.”
Michael didn't know about that. He thought his real talent lay in profit-and-loss margins and personal infrastructures.
“What about your family?” Coppel asked. “How much of your time do they require?”
And for the first time since he'd been summoned to this interview more than a month ago, Michael allowed
himself to hope. He wanted a move up to one of the bigger, more diverse companies in the Coppel holdings. He needed a new challenge.
“None, sir,” he said with the confidence of knowing he had the right answer. “I'm divorced.”
“No children?” It was a well-known fact that Coppel didn't believe a man should desert his children. Which was why he'd never had any of his own.
Nodding, Coppel broke into a small, satisfied smile.
“You have anybody else who might want a say on your time?”
You got a lover?
Michael read into the question.
He saw women occasionally, but he'd been sleeping with Susan again, on and off, over the past three years, although they'd been divorced for seven. He couldn't seem to find a passion for anyone else.
“Any dependents at all?”
What is this?
Michael shifted in his seat, suddenly uncomfortable. He sent a sizable amount of money to his parents and brother and sisters back in Carlisle, but that was nobody's business except his.
Eyes narrowed, Coppel sat forward. “I'm thinking about offering you a new position, a move from a subsidiary company to Coppel Industries itself.”
Michael didn't move a muscle. Didn't breathe.
“But the position I have in mind would require constant travel, and I won't even consider offering it if that meant you'd be shirking personal commitments. I don't break up families.”
Coppel had come from a broken family, had his
father run out on him, been forced to quit school and provide for his ailing mother. He'd entered high school at nineteen after his mother passed away. He'd put himself through college exterminating bugs, and the rest was history. Not only history, but public knowledge now that Coppel was one of the top businessmen in the country.
“I have no one,” Michael said.
HE MADE HIMSELF WAIT until he was pacing the gate at the airport before calling Susan. Just to keep things in perspective.
Only to find that she wasn't in her office. A hotshot corporate attorney, Susan was out slaying dragons as often as she was in.
Picturing his ex-wife in her dragon-slaying mode, he grinned as he hung up the phone.