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Authors: Marie Ferrarella

A Dad At Last

BOOK: A Dad At Last
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From Megan Maitland's Diary

Dear Diary,

Where to begin? So much has happened and my heart is so full. I'm finally allowed to proclaim to the world at large that Connor is my son, my own firstborn. Having him here with me is like an incredible Christmas gift to be unwrapped each and every morning!

I don't blame my father for what he did. An unmarried young girl with a baby was doomed to a terrible life back then. I'm so glad times have changed. And so very glad to discover that not only have I regained a son, but I've gained a grandson as well. My heart is filled to bursting! I even forgive the woman who perpetrated the hoax that would have only further separated me from Connor. After all, it didn't work, thank God.

It's been a very, very good year. It didn't seem so at the beginning, but it turned out far better than I could have ever dreamed. Which leads me to speculate about the year to come. Who knows what happiness is waiting just around the corner?

Dear Reader,

There's never a dull moment at Maitland Maternity! This unique and now world-renowned clinic was founded twenty-five years ago by Megan Maitland, widow of William Maitland, of the prominent Austin, Texas, Maitlands. Megan is also matriarch of an impressive family of seven children, many of whom are active participants in the everyday miracles that bring children into the world.

When our series began, the family was stunned by the unexpected arrival of an unidentified baby at the clinic—unidentified, except for the claim that the child is a Maitland. Who are the parents of this child? Is the claim legitimate? Will the media's tenacious grip on this news damage the clinic's reputation? Suddenly, rumors and counterclaims abound. Women claiming to be the child's mother materialize out of the woodwork! How will Megan get at the truth? And how will the media circus affect the lives and loves of the Maitland children—Abby, the head of gynecology, Ellie, the hospital administrator, her twin sister, Beth, who runs the day care center, Mitchell, the fertility specialist, R.J., the vice president of operations—even Anna, who has nothing to do with the clinic, and Jake, the black sheep of the family?

We're thrilled to bring you the long-awaited culmination to Connor Maitland's story and to offer the solution to the mystery of the Maitland baby in
A Dad at Last!

Marsha Zinberg,

Senior Editor and Editorial Co-ordinator, Special Projects

MARIE FERRARELLA
A Dad at Last

Prolific romance author
Marie Ferrarella
claims, “I was born writing, which must have made the delivery especially difficult for my mother!” Born in West Germany of Polish parents, she came to America when she was four years of age. For an entire year, Marie and her family explored the eastern half of the country before finally settling in New York. It was there, at the age of fourteen, that she met the man she would marry, her first true love, Charles Ferrarella.

During her days at Queens College, acting started to lose its glamour as Marie spent more and more time writing. After receiving her English degree, specializing in Shakespearean comedy, Marie and her family moved to Southern California, where she still resides today. After an interminable seven weeks apart, Charles decided he couldn't live without her, and came out to California to marry his childhood sweetheart. Marie, who has written over one hundred novels, wrote both the introduction and conclusion to Connor Maitland's miraculous reunion with his family and was delighted to participate in the Maitland family saga. She keeps her fingers crossed that her many fans enjoy reading her books as much as she enjoys writing them.

To Marsha Zinberg,
with thanks for a great time.

PROLOGUE

T
HE MOONLIGHT
surrounded Connor O'Hara like a cold shroud as he picked his way slowly beside the isolated train tracks.

Funny how things turned out sometimes.

He'd only just found out he had a son, and now that little boy's life depended on a group of men he hadn't met until a few months ago. Men who were at this moment laying their own lives on the line, shielded only by the inky cloak of night and their bravery as they crept toward the abandoned sugar factory ahead, where he'd been told to meet Chase's kidnappers.

It was asking a lot, yet they had volunteered without a single word from him.

The door to the sugar factory opened. A small ball of light, thanks to a lantern, illuminated the players for Connor.

Janelle Davis, the epitome of confidence, sauntered ahead of the man who accompanied her. In her arms was Connor's son.

Even in the poor light, Connor could see her eyes
glinting as they washed over him. She fairly glowed with triumph.

The humor that twisted her mouth was cynical. “So you came. I knew you would.” She glanced at the child in her arms. “For the brat.”

Connor had never felt hatred like this before. It clogged his throat like thick bile, almost choking him. His eyes narrowed as he looked at the woman who'd stolen his child and done heaven only knew what else. She was standing beside the tall, rugged-looking man who'd been impersonating Connor for the past few months. Petey gave no indication of being the puppet she had, with her wiles, forced him to be.

Hatred mingled with fear, fear for the child she held in her arms, the child Connor knew she could, without compunction, kill in an instant. Destroying Chase as if he were nothing more than a rag doll, a prop to further her goal.

He stalled for time. Positions had to be reached. A single word emerged from his lips as his eyes nailed her where she stood.

“Why?”

Janelle shrugged a slim, careless shoulder. Her eyes told him she was enjoying this a great deal. She liked having the upper hand.

“Not all of us are born rich.” The smile turned cruel. “A girl's gotta look out for herself.”

Her hold on the baby tightened, and her eyes slid
to the suitcase Connor held in his hand as Chase whimpered. “You have the money?”

He raised the case. “Right here.”

Her sharp eyes looked around. There were no cars in the area save the one Connor had parked in the distance. Just the way she'd told him. “And you're alone.”

His expression never changed. Neither did the loathing he knew was in his eyes. “Those were your instructions.”

She laughed shortly, toying with him, ignoring her husband Petey's growing agitation. “Too bad you couldn't have stayed back at your ranch, Connor. Would have saved us both a lot of time and grief.” The smile vanished. She was all business. “Take the suitcase, Petey.”

But Connor held the case back as Petey reached for it. “Give me my son.”

“Paternal affection. How touching,” she mocked. “Maybe we should have asked for more than five million, Petey. Looks like the daddy of the year would have been willing to fork it over.”

Connor knew he had to get Chase away from Janelle. The plan couldn't go forward as long as the baby was in danger.

Tired, anxious, Petey looked at his wife. What was she trying to do? They had what they came for within their reach. Why was she playing games? “Damn it, Janelle, just give him the kid.”

The exasperated look on her face cut him dead. It told him what a fool she thought he was. “Take the case first, you idiot.”

Connor handed the suitcase to Petey.

Eagerness replaced anger. Petey dropped to the ground, placing the suitcase before him. Hands shaking, he opened it. Cross words were forgotten as he looked over his shoulder at Janelle. “It's here. You were right. It's all here.”

Janelle stepped forward to see for herself. The suitcase was filled with neat stacks of carefully bound bills, all facing in the same direction. “We won't know if it's all there until we count it.”

“It's all there,” Connor told her through tight lips. “I wouldn't endanger the life of my son.”

Her expression was smug. “No, you wouldn't. All right, close the case and get on your feet, Petey.” He did as she ordered. “Aim the gun at his belly. Anything goes wrong, shoot him and then the baby.”

With a mocking smile on her lips, she handed Connor his son.

Taking Chase into his arms, he had no time to wonder at this newfound fatherhood or unwrap and examine any of the emotions that were sweeping over him as he felt the weight of his son in his arms for the very first time.

It was now or never.

Moving swiftly, Connor pushed Janelle out of his
way and ducked into the protective shelter of the sugar factory.

In the background, the sound of shouting was followed by a single exchange of gunfire.

CHAPTER ONE

“I
F YOU KNOT
those fingers together any tighter, we're going to have to call in one of the doctors from the hospital to surgically untangle them.”

Startled, lost in her thoughts, Lacy Clark looked up to see Megan Maitland standing beside her in the living room, smiling compassionately at her. She hadn't heard the older woman approach.

Self-consciously, Lacy realized that she'd been knotting and unknotting her hands, an outward sign of the inner turmoil that had been going on for what seemed like half an eternity. Ever since Connor and the others had left to meet the kidnappers.

She'd pleaded to go with them so she could see what was happening firsthand instead of having her imagination run riot. But Connor had insisted that having her there would put them all at risk, so she'd agreed to stay behind, dying a little more with each tick of the grandfather clock in the hall.

“Sorry,” she murmured.

Lacy dropped her hands to her sides. Her fingers might no longer be tangled, but that didn't relieve the knot in her stomach. She couldn't stand being in
the dark like this anymore. She'd been in the dark for so long now, about so many things, this added uncertainty was almost intolerable.

Where were they? Where was her son?

Pressing her lips together, she looked toward the door. Her whole world was out there somewhere, beyond her reach. Beyond her ability to do anything about it. Somewhere, lost in the night, was the baby who had been missing from her life these past eleven months while she'd wandered through a haze of amnesia, thanks to Janelle. The baby who could very well continue to be missing forever if Connor and the others didn't succeed with their plan.

What would she do if she never saw Chase again? Her heart felt as if it was twisting around in her chest.

“You've nothing to be sorry about.” Megan gave Lacy's hand a warm squeeze, knowing what the young mother must be going through. “They'll bring him back to you, I promise.”

They'd set up vigil here in the Maitland house, Megan, her daughter Abby, her daughter-in-law Camille, Shelby Lord and Lacy, to wait for the men who had gone to retrieve that one small, lost child and bring him safely back.

To bring back the grandson Megan hadn't found a way to acknowledge yet. Not without upsetting life as everyone here knew it. A life that had already suffered so many storms, so many onslaughts these
last few months. It seemed almost more than one family could endure.

But they would. That was what made them strong and made them Maitlands.

“And if that scum manages to escape somehow,” Abby said to Lacy as she came up on her other side, “there isn't a rock in this state big enough for Janelle and Petey to crawl under. We'll find them, Lacy. I promise.” She added her vow to her mother's.

Shelby joined the tight group, her indignation at the kidnapping riding another fresh wave. Both her brothers, Michael and Garrett, were with Connor tonight. She laid one hand on Lacy's shoulder and one on Abby's. “Hell, with our combined resources and efforts, we could find a red ant in a mile-wide strawberry patch. One bitch, her henchman and a baby shouldn't be any problem.”

“We're getting ahead of ourselves,” Camille softly warned them. She looked at Lacy. “There isn't any reason to believe that Jake, Connor and the others
haven't
been successful.”

Lacy knew what they were trying to do and she was grateful to all of them. But it still didn't quell the uneasiness she felt. The uneasiness that continued to grow.

“If they've been successful, why haven't they called?” She heard herself demanding.

Strong, terse, the voice hardly seemed to belong
to her. But she'd been through a great deal these past few months.

This last year and then some, she amended mentally. She'd had Connor's baby in secret, only to be forced to leave him on the doorstep of Maitland Maternity Clinic for his own good. And she'd lost eleven months out of her life when Janelle had assaulted her in that alley behind the hospital, leaving her for dead. Leaving her to wander through the misty, cottony world of amnesia when she came to, with no knowledge of herself or the child she'd left unguarded.

Lacy looked accusingly at the silent telephone on the coffee table. “Why isn't the phone ringing right now?” It didn't seem like an unreasonable request. “There're five of them. One of them's got to have a cell phone—or change for a public phone.” She knew the answer to her own question. “They're not calling because something went wrong.”

Watching Lacy, sharing her agony, Megan felt her heart contract.

She'd been like that once, Megan thought. Forty-six years ago, pregnant, unmarried and deserted by her baby's father, she'd been just like Lacy. Scared, frightened and not knowing where to turn. So she had turned inward and somehow found the will to go on. Like Lacy, she would have kept her baby once he was born. But unlike Lacy, someone she'd trusted with all her heart had taken her baby from her at the
moment of birth and lied to her. A lie that would come back to haunt her.

Her father had told her that the son she'd had as a result of a young, impetuous romantic interlude with Clyde Mitchum had been stillborn. After she'd cried an ocean of tears, she'd pulled herself together and found the strength to continue. Not just continue but eventually win the heart of William Maitland and, with him, forge a dynasty of her own.

Now that wonderful family she and her late husband had created were there to offer their support to her whenever she needed them.

Megan couldn't help wondering how far that support could be stretched. Once they knew Connor was not her long-estranged nephew but rather her long-lost son, would that support break down? Or would it rally and grow stronger still for the adversity the situation represented?

She could only pray for the latter. One way or another, she would have her answer soon enough.

But right now, it was her grandson she was concerned about. Her grandson who had to be rescued and brought back to the fold. The details and explanations could be handled later. First things first.

She slipped an arm around Lacy's thin shoulders, feeling as if, in a way, she was somehow stepping into the past and comforting herself.

“There are dozens of reasons they haven't called, Lacy, and none of them are bad.” A slight smile
curved her lips. “And no matter what the television commercials would have us believe, not everyone carries around a cell phone in their hip pocket.”

“And even if they did,” Shelby interjected, “it doesn't necessarily mean it's working. Garrett can't remember to charge the one I gave him to save his life. Says it's a nuisance.”

Lacy sighed, praying they were right. That it was just a matter of not taking the time or finding the opportunity to call. Maybe they were, even now, on their way home. Home with her son.

But she couldn't calm down.

The agitation was growing steadily, threatening to consume her. “Well, right now it's a nuisance I really wish he'd put up with.” She could only hope that didn't come out as short as it sounded. Lacy knew that Connor didn't own a cell phone, but that shouldn't have prevented him from finding a way to call.

She looked at the telephone again, willing it to ring. It remained silent.

He wasn't calling because something horrible had happened. She just knew it.

Unable to remain still, she began to pace again, her eyes all but riveted to the front door with every step she took. Why weren't they back yet? The meeting was for midnight. It was past two.

Unable to remain on the sidelines any longer, Shelby checked her pockets for her car keys.
“Maybe I'll just take a ride up to the sugar factory to see if everything went the way it should have.”

Megan instinctively took a step to block her way. “No.” It was an order. “It's too dangerous.”

Shelby looked at the Maitland family matriarch. Years ago Megan had taken Shelby and her brothers and sister under her wing when their own parents had abandoned them. Though she had arranged for the children to be adopted by friends of hers, Megan had always been like an aunt—or at times a second mother—to the Lord children. Shelby realized there was no point arguing, but she wasn't happy about doing nothing.

Sensing the struggle she'd created within the younger woman, Megan mitigated her words with logic. “Besides, they might be on their way home already, and you'll wind up missing them. No sense in driving up there for no reason. Better to stay put.”

“All right.” Shelby relented, slipping her keys into her pocket. “I'll give them another half an hour, but after that I'm out of here.” As if to back up her position, she took out her cell phone and held it up for inspection. “And I've got a fully charged cell phone, so if they do show up while I'm gone, you can reach me the minute they walk in.”

“I'll go with you,” Lacy told her. Megan opened her mouth to protest, but Lacy wasn't about to be talked out of it. “I can't take this waiting any longer,
Mrs. Maitland, and if I pace anymore, you're going to have a path worn through your tile.”

Megan shrugged carelessly. As if that mattered. “I was getting tired of that pattern anyway,” she quipped. “And I know how you feel.” Her eyes held the younger woman's. She saw doubt. “I really do.”

There was something in the older woman's eyes that spoke to her, though for the life of her, Lacy didn't understand how Megan Maitland could have the vaguest idea what it was like to be an unwed mother whose child had been kidnapped. Megan, who together with her husband had founded the prestigious Maitland Maternity Clinic, where the country's rich and famous came to have their babies, rubbing shoulders with desperate young women who had their backs up against the wall and nowhere to turn—women for whom the clinic had originally been created. But Megan Maitland was far removed from the world Lacy knew. She could easily buy and sell half the people in Austin without blinking an eye. How could she possibly know what it was like to be so destitute that she had nowhere to turn?

But she did have somewhere to turn, Lacy reminded herself. She had a job as a chef at Austin Eats Diner. Shelby Lord had taken her in and given her that job when she had amnesia. After a blow to the head had restored her memory, Shelby said nothing had changed. The job was hers for as long as she wanted it.

So she had a job and friends now, friends who had been eager to help reunite her with her baby. Friends who were willing to risk themselves and the ones they loved to do it. She might not have money like Megan, but she was rich in her own way. Rich in friends.

Lacy smiled. Maybe she had more in common with Megan than she'd thought.

“Wait.” Shelby held up a hand to stop the other women from talking. “Table the talk about driving over to the sugar factory, I think I hear a car. Two cars,” she amended.

Lacy was at the front door before Shelby finished speaking, pulling it open in time to see the two cars that had driven up and turned off their headlights.

“They're back,” she cried, running out to meet them, her heart hammering wildly.

“Wait, Lacy,” Megan called.

Her back to the house, Lacy didn't hear her. She didn't hear or see anything but the tall man coming toward her.

Moonlight outlined his long frame and the tan Stetson he wore. In the dark it was difficult at first to see that he was holding something in his arms. Or what that something was.

Her mother's heart told her even before her eyes could adjust.

Lacy didn't remember crossing the last five feet to Connor. Didn't remember her feet hitting the ground
in a dead run. All she was aware of was that her eyes had filled with tears, making it difficult to focus.

She could have made her way to her son's side blindfolded.

Lacy clutched Connor's arm, looking into the face of her sleeping son.

“You found him,” she sobbed. “And he's so big.”

The baby she remembered holding to her breast had been almost a newborn, certainly not this thriving child with his fair hair and rounded face.

As if in response to her voice, Chase opened his eyes, looking at her with wonder. A sweet smile moved the small, rosebud mouth.

Something warm opened up smack in the middle of Connor's chest. He had trouble dealing with it. “He knows you,” Connor said.

Lacy wanted to say yes, even though she knew it was almost too much to hope for. She and Chase had been apart for so many months. Important months. But for the moment, she told herself that it was true.

“He had a very sweet disposition,” she murmured, taking her son into her arms.

It felt like heaven.

She hadn't realized until this very second how much her arms had ached for this small weight. How much her heart had ached to feel the baby's heart beating next to hers.

Happiness threatened to overwhelm her. It was almost more than she could humanly stand.

“Oh, thank you,” she murmured, raising her eyes to Connor and the men who were gathered behind him. “Thank you all for bringing my baby back to me.”

“Can we hold the thanks until we get into the house?” Garrett Lord requested. The month-old wound in his shoulder still ached, and he needed a painkiller.

Belatedly, Connor realized that Lacy had rushed out in her bare feet. Sometimes the woman didn't have the sense she was born with. She could hurt herself on the stony drive.

“Get inside before we add a sprained ankle to the list of things that've gone wrong for you,” he ordered, slipping an arm around her.

Some things might have gone wrong, Lacy thought, but other things had gone very right. She had her baby back, and Connor, however temporarily, was in her life once more. There was no way she felt in the wrong tonight.

“Throw away the list,” Lacy told him. Without being conscious of it, she leaned into Connor as they walked to the house, absorbing the strength that radiated from him. “All that matters is that you found Chase and brought him back to me.”

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