The moment Luke saw her he knew he had won.
There was no way the judge would award custody of Gordie to this woman. Rachel Carstairs looked as if a breeze would blow her away...he’d seen will o’ the wisps with more substance.
His gaze raced up patent leather shoes, slim ankles, nice legs, the anonymous drape of a raw silk suit and screeched to a halt.
The face. She looked as if she’d just been through the wring cycle of a washing machine. Twice. The pronounced pallor drew him to her eyes. Grey verging on black, their expression transfixed him. Lanced with strain. Lanced with something else he couldn’t define. If he had to guess, he would put it down as acute apprehension. The blonde hair pulled back off her face accentuated her fragility. Her slimness underscored it.
Rachel Carstairs had aimed for poise and sophistication. She had achieved the look of a child playing dress up. She looked as if she needed taking care of herself...as if she wanted this to be over as much as he did.
What he saw, added to what he knew about her, equaled defeat. Hers.
The head on encounter lasted for one beat of a hummingbird’s wings. In that second Luke absorbed signs of stress that grated on his already tense nerves. She was as taut as copper wire in a fuse box.
The sight of her belied his original thought that she was after money. Luke had inherited his grandfather’s shrewdness in assessing people. The ability had never served him wrong. This child-woman was an innocent.
The thought that maybe in some curious way she wanted Gordie just for the baby’s sake, was like sand in his eyes. Seeing her, put a face on an image he had found easy to hate. When he had been informed she was taking him to court over custody of his nephew he had been furious. Now the image her action had sketched, of a selfish conniving woman, had to be deleted. Rachel Carstairs looked as defenseless as his ten-month-old-nephew.
Her lawyer steered her a little to one side, talking earnestly. Luke’s eyes flickered incredulously over her choice of legal representation and he let out a long heavy breath. The man looked as if this was his first case...as if he needed a hand to hold himself.
Babes in the wood, the pair of them. Instinct wove uneasiness into Luke’s premise. The whole thing was turning into a farce.
* * *
Rachel looked at the broad back as he went into the courtroom. That was Luke Summers? He seemed capable of bringing up a dozen children on his own...and enjoying it. The epitome of sturdy dependability, he showed her up like light did flaws.
For one impossible moment when their glances had collided, she had felt he was offering her more than met the eye. Sympathy, understanding, friendship. Rachel shook her head to clear it. They were antagonists. Jet lag was affecting her hormones strangely. Strength and power reaching out to cocoon her had to be a figment of her overtired imagination.
Fear threaded through her overtired brain and she wondered if her urge to return, to fight for custody of Chris’ son had all been one big mistake.
She’d imagined a man holding on to the child out of duty, resenting him as he grew, as her own father had resented her after her mother had left. She hadn’t wanted that to happen to Gordie. Now intuition yelled that she had presumed too much. Rachel had a suspicion intuition was right.
Fatigue tugged at her like an insidious tide. Rachel fought the urge to give way to it. If she as much as closed her eyes now she would prove that human beings could fall asleep on their feet.
The plane from Bangladesh had been delayed in Hong Kong for twenty four hours. Purported as engine trouble, rumor heightened tension by hinting at threat of a bomb. By the time they had finally landed at Los Angeles Airport it had been six thirty this morning. The hearing was scheduled for eleven in Santa Barbara. She had called Dyan Jenks, her lawyer, from MRA headquarters in Bangladesh just before leaving the country. When she had wanted to know why the hearing couldn’t be held in Los Angeles, he had mumbled something about jurisdiction and the law. The Diamond Bar where Gordie lived now was in Santa Barbara County, and so the hearing would be held in the Santa Barbara County Superior Courthouse.
Which meant her journey wasn’t done at Los Angeles International Airport. Hurrying through Customs, Rachel had inquired about flights to Santa Barbara and rushed to a national terminal.
Her luggage hadn’t presented a problem. She had none. Just a backpack, stuffed with toilet articles and a rumpled change of clothing.
It had taken forty-six tense minutes airborne to get to Santa Barbara Municipal airport. Hurling herself into a taxi she’d explained the reason for haste to the driver. Tuning into her urgency with the enthusiasm of a man starved for adventure, he had made it in record time to the nearest mall and agreed to wait for her.
In the nearest store Rachel had grabbed the first suit she’d seen in her size, some shoes, and a pair of stockings. Paying for them had eaten into her precious hoard of traveller’s checks. Changing out of her travel stained pants and top had eaten into her precious time. But it had to be done. She had to project respectability.
Jumping into the waiting cab, Rachel had tried to breathe deeply, relax. The snarled up traffic didn’t help. Her heartbeats measured each passing second aloud as her last conversation with her counsel, Dyan Jenks, came to mind. Calling him from Hong Kong had been an experience in itself. The conversation had been punctuated with static but the message had been clear. If she didn’t make it, they would lose.
The cab had spilled her out at the steps of the courthouse at exactly ten forty five and her lawyer had introduced himself. Vaguely she had noted the exterior of the courthouse looked like a castle out of a picture book. She looked at Dyan now, and felt her fear increase. He was nothing like the assured woman with Luke Summers. He looked as nervous as she felt, his restless pacing and uneasy smiles not helping her waning self-confidence the slightest bit.
* * *
Myrna Hasting’s hand on Luke’s sleeve intimated it was time to go in. He wished the woman would stick to words to communicate with. He was in no mood for body language with its accompanying insinuation that his lawyer had a large hole in her private life that he would fill nicely.
Entering the courtroom Luke looked around. The judge had agreed to a closed courtroom, which meant at least they wouldn’t have a crowd gaping at them, unwanted publicity.
The room wasn’t very large. One glance encompassed the rows of seats, the wooden railing separating the principal players from the rest of the room, two large tables, four feet apart, facing the massive oak desk behind which the judge would preside. The flags of the United States and the state of California flanked the wall behind the judge’s chair. The room reeked of judicial solemnity, the portent atmosphere making Luke even more restless.
What he really needed was air. Of the kind untainted with drama. He was just an ordinary man with an ordinary ideal. Live and let live. He had coped with his brother and sister-in-law’s death, with the dramatic change in his lifestyle. He had taken to instant fatherhood though nothing in his bachelor life had prepared him for it. To accept what couldn’t be changed took maturity not sentiment. He had plenty of the former and doing what had to be done came naturally. But this heaped helping of drama he could have passed up on.
The woman’s assumption that she could walk in and take Gordie as if he was a box of chocolates had enraged him. As far as Luke knew Gordie’s mother, his sister-in-law Chris, had seen this cousin only once when they were both children. Rachel Carstairs only communications had been brief scrawls on exotic postcards. She hadn’t come to the wedding or visited Chris at the ranch.
What was the group she worked for called? MRA? It was some sort of relief organization. The thought that she wanted money for her good deeds had been the only other reason he had come up with for her claiming custody of Gordie. Imagination had sketched a picture of a missionary type with a pith hat, khaki trousers, leathery skin and a burning zeal to change the world.
Rachel Carstairs looked as if she couldn’t change her shoes without help.
Luke let out another heavy sigh. There was no sense in getting riled up now. He needed to keep a clear head on his shoulders, say the right things. Turmoil wasn’t like him. Neither was worrying over a perfect stranger.
The courtroom closed in on him. The collar of his one hundred percent cotton shirt irked him. The grey wool suit irked him. The whole damn world irked him. The designer tie felt like a choke chain. He wrangled with the urge to yank it off. Myrna had insisted appearances counted. He stood up, went outside for a breath of air.
Why should the future of a baby hang on a stranger’s decision? What did a dealer in black and white justice know about emotions as delicate as spun silk? About a baby that looked at you with your dead brother’s eyes? About commitment and honor. About last wishes that no one had thought necessary to legalize. About love.
Judge Erica Wentworth, Myrna had assured him, was the best. She wouldn’t be swayed by the fact that he was a man and a single one at that. It was no longer taken for granted that women were automatically better parents. Rachel Carstairs would have to prove a great many other things first. He had so much more weighing in his favor. Commitment, dependability, affluence.
One could never be sure, though. Luke couldn’t afford to take any chances where Gordie was concerned. Misgivings nagged like a strand of chicken caught in his teeth. In an unreachable spot.
Women tended to side with women. What if the judge didn’t think a man was capable of nurturing an infant. What if Rachel Carstairs used her haunted eyes as weapons? What if the real issue was lost?
The real issue was love. He loved Gordie. The ten-month-old baby was all he had left of his brother. Luke’s grief had emerged from the chrysalis of shock, as fully fledged determination. He wanted Gordie to grow up on the ranch, in the shade of his care. He wanted the child to know his heritage. He wanted nothing bad to ever touch Gordie’s life again.
Myrna’s smile of welcome as he returned to his seat put him in mind of a fat cat that gets to choose between a canary and cream. Any minute now she would start purring and washing her face.
“Did you get a look at her?” His lawyer’s voice portrayed glee.
He had gotten two. The second one had shown her sitting apart from her counsel. Not talking. Not moving. Her counsel was saying something. Luke felt she wasn’t listening.
For the first time since he had hired Myrna, Luke was irritated by her self-possession. The woman was a barracuda. She would show no mercy.
He wanted Gordie. Not blood.
The judge’s entrance fast forwarded the drama. Luke detached himself from the scene, willed himself into the role of impartial outsider. It was the best way he knew to help himself.
Both counsels presented their cases. Both clients wanted the same thing. Custody of ten-month-old Gordon Summers.
He was called to the stand, reminded of the oath he’d taken. Myrna gave him an it’s-in-the-bag smile and Luke realized he hated rapacious women with too white teeth. But then he’d wanted the best lawyer.
“Mr. Summers would you share with the court, the details of the twentieth of July?”
Luke cleared his throat. His eyes swerved to Rachel Carstairs. She sat on the edge of her seat. For the first time she was looking straight at him. Not through him. The look in her eyes were twin drills, boring into his brain.
“I was spending the weekend on the ranch I co-owned with my late brother.” The words conjured instant pain. “My brother and sister-in-law had decided to fly to Palm Springs for a charity gala.” Another pause, longer this time. The muscle throbbing in his jaw made it hard to sound matter-of-fact. “Their plane crashed ten minutes after takeoff. It exploded on impact. There were no survivors.”
He looked her way again. Her stillness tugged at him. Both arms were wrapped around her body. As if she was cold. As if she wanted to shut out the scene he had just painted. In that moment Luke knew that she had loved Chris. The thought landed on the top of his already high pile of doubts, escalating his uneasiness.
They should have found another way of sorting out their differences.
“Thank you Mr. Summers. Did your brother ever mention writing a new will after the birth of his son?”
“No.” Rob’s joy had made him oblivious to the fact that death didn’t respect happiness.
“So, Gordon Summers has no legal guardian?”
“According to the will your brother made after he got married, he left everything to his wife. In the unlikely eventuality of their dying together, he named you as sole beneficiary. Is that right?”
“Will you tell the court about the latest provisions you have made for your nephew Gordon Summers?”
Luke cleared his throat. They had gone over this so many times but still the dammed words stuck in his throat.
“I have drawn up a deed gifting Gordon half the Diamond Bar. I have also formed a trust for him, with all the money my brother and his wife left. In the event of my death, while I’m single, Gordon will be my legal heir as well.”
Luke hated the way it came out. He wasn’t trying out for sainthood. He was just doing what had to be done.
Myrna wasn’t through yet. “Mr. Summers what did you do after the tragedy?”
“I took a month’s leave of absence from my job.”
“To do what, Mr. Summers?”
“To be with the baby.”
Did the judge have children? Did she know how much a baby could miss warm loving parents? Gordie had fretted, lost weight, cried for no reason at all. His baby eyes had turned to the door every time someone had come in. Searching for his parents. For the cherishing, comforting warmth of their presence.
“Why did you feel the need to take care of the baby yourself?” Myrna’s eyes told him he was doing beautifully. Strange he had never noticed how cold blue eyes that particular shade could be. “Surely someone else, a housekeeper, would have done just as well?”
“I have a housekeeper to help me. Hannah Rodriguez helped raise Rob and me. I just wanted to be with Gordie.”
“And now the one month is over, do you plan on going back to work?”
Myrna was sharp enough to cut herself.
“No. I plan on working from the ranch. Luckily in my line of work it can be done.”
“Isn’t it true that this will affect your chances of promotion? That you were next in line for a vice-presidency?”
She was really going all out.
“Isn’t it also true that your boss agreed to your proposal if you took a pay cut?”
Damn. She was trying to make him appear a hero. There was no need for that. “Yes.”
“So, why are you doing all this?” Self-confidence dripped from every word.
“Because I want more time with Gordie.”
Myrna’s smile was a masterpiece of triumph. “That will be all your honor.”
The opposing counsel approached him. He was asked if he was married, if he planned on marriage in the near future. None of the questions had one quarter the impact of Myrna’s. Luke realized the man was even more ineffective than he had first suspected.
Rachel Carstairs was called to the bench.
Luke frowned. He could have sworn she swayed. The little fool. Was she drunk? On drugs? She straightened so quickly, he didn’t think anyone else had noticed.
Dyan Jenks was questioning her, “Ms. Carstairs would you tell the court where you were when you got the news of your cousin and her husband’s death?”
“Bangladesh.” She cleared her throat.
“When did you get the news?”
“The thirtieth of September.”
“Why did it take almost nine weeks for the news of your cousin’s death to reach you?”
“Letters always take a while to get to us. This one took longer than usual because we were in an area cut off by floods.”
“What was your first reaction?”
“That I had to get back, take care of the baby.”
“But you couldn’t leave right away?”
“No. We were in an acute relief area. It took another five to six weeks after I got the news for the situation to be brought under some sort of control and extra help to arrive. I left as soon as I could.”
Jenks nodded as if he’d just scaled Everest. “The defense rests your honor.”
The naive idiot. He hadn’t even scratched the surface yet. Luke’s hand tightened into a fist as Myrna got to her feet. A bloodhound closing in on its quarry couldn’t have been more eager.
“Ms. Carstairs, were you and your cousin very close?”
A pause. “No.”
“When was the last time you saw her?”
“When I was twelve.”
“So, you were not at her wedding?”
“Ms. Carstairs will you tell the court what work you do?”
“I’m a medical aide with MRA, an organization that provides medical relief in disaster areas all over the world.”
“And when did you join MRA?”
“Four and a half years ago.”
“Since then you have not returned to the States, even on vacation. Isn’t that right?
“You have to look for a job here don’t you?”
“Tell me, Ms. Carstairs, do you own any property in the United States? An apartment, a condo, anything you can call home?”
“Ms. Carstairs have you ever taken care of a baby, other than in the course of your work?”
Luke shifted uneasily in his seat. Each reply was a nail in her coffin. Myrna’s tones dripped honey as she moved in for the kill.
“Then how do you plan on taking care of your cousin’s son?”
“I can learn.” The statement held the punch of a feather.
“What are your job prospects, Ms. Carstairs? What will you and the baby live on while you get some kind of basic training? Who will you leave the baby with while you go to school? To work?”
“I have some money of my own.”
“So, your plan is to take the baby from where he is well cared for, from people who love him, leave him with a stranger, or in a day care center while you work. Do you think you can earn enough to rent a place and support yourself and a child, or do you plan on claiming welfare?”
“I can manage on what I have.”
“Have you resigned from MRA, Ms. Carstairs?”
“No, I haven’t thought as far.....”
“Exactly,” Myrna cut in triumphantly, “You haven’t thought enough about anything. No further questions your honor.”
Luke expected anger, defeat, frustration. Some shred of emotion. He wasn’t prepared for stoicism. There was no expression whatsoever on Rachel Carstairs’ face as she stepped down. Who or what, Luke wondered thunderstruck, had taught her that kind of self-control?
Both lawyers presented closing statements. The judge declared a fifteen minute recess before rendering her decision.
He heard Jenks ask her if she’d like to step outside, get a cup of coffee.
“No thank you.”
Her voice bothered him. It didn’t go with the rest of her. It was rusty, chipped, oddly husky. It was in his blood, a teasing torment. Like a saloon girl’s in a fifties western.
Her stance bothered him. She could have been carved into Mt. Rushmore. Not once had she looked around the courtroom, shown any interest in her surroundings. He had been curious about her. Damn it, why wasn’t she the same way?
* * *
The judge’s decision was explicit. “Ms. Carstairs, I’m afraid wanting a child does not assure good parenting these days. Your lifestyle is not suited to an infant. The court feels of the two of you, Mr. Summers will be the better guardian. He will, I’m sure, be more than generous as far as visiting rights are concerned.” Something in Rachel Carstairs’ expression pierced the judge’s formality. Her glance softened. “I’m sure on reflection you will agree with me that what Gordie needs is a settled home. Look at it this way. Instead of one, Gordie now has two caring adults, interested in his welfare. If you could both combine forces with his interests at heart, everyone will be a winner.”
Myrna’s stranglehold, the smacking buss on his mouth, caught Luke off-balance. By the time he got away from her, the bench beside theirs was empty.
He rushed out of the courtroom. The silent corridor yielded no clue to her whereabouts. On the steps of the courthouse he found Dyan Jenks staring at the tail lights of a disappearing cab. Luke caught at the man’s sleeve.
“Ms. Carstairs. I need her address.”
Dyan Jenks was not a good loser. “That’s confidential information,” he said pompously.
“I have some effects of her cousin’s that she might like. Family mementos and so on. Give it to me.” Luke was through explanations. Into demanding.
Dyan hesitated. The man in front of him didn’t seem the kind to take no for an answer. Impatience snapped in the navy blue eyes. Irritation crackled from every pore. The clenched fist didn’t look as if it could stay in the pocket much longer.
No one was paying him to be a hero.
“Are you familiar with State Street?”
* * *
Rachel knew it shouldn’t hurt so much to lose something that had never been hers. Looking back now she had done it all wrong.
Wrong clothes, wrong lawyer, wrong attitude. She was so full of hindsight she could write a how-not-to book.
A wry smile skimmed her lips as she thought of the hurdles she’d cleared in the last forty eight hours, the final result. She had made it on time against innumerable odds. And lost.
Losing was a comfort zone, something she had become used to. All her life.
Leaning against the black vinyl seat, Rachel let the events of the past few weeks race by her.
The first thing she had done after hearing of the tragedy was send a telegram to the ranch, telling the brother she was arriving to care for the baby. Chris’ mother had died two years ago. Her father was in a home for the terminally ill. As far as Rachel knew, she was Chris’ only living relative capable of caring for the baby.
Luke Summers hadn’t shared the opinion. His answering telegram had been equally long and explicit. ‘No need to return. Gordie is my responsibility now. Best he grows up at the Diamond Bar. I intend to start adoption proceedings immediately. Very nice of you to offer.’
Nice hadn’t been why she wanted Gordie. News of the tragedy had plunged her into the darkest despair. The one person who had cared for her had been snatched away. In the blackness of her grief a pinprick of light had appeared, illuminating the path she had to take now. By caring for Chris’ son she could repay the one bright spot in her life: her cousin’s love and friendship. Gordie would receive all the love stored in her heart for so long and finally she would have someone of her very own.
The brief smile that touched her lips mocked the pain she felt. Judge Wentworth’s verdict was a rerun of her life story. Fate had again placed her outside the portal of a loving one on one relationship. The firm reminder that she didn’t meet the criteria for membership in that particular club had been issued so often it shouldn’t hurt at all.
But it did.
She had to admire the skill with which Luke Summers’ lawyer had made her look like a stupid, selfish woman. She wasn’t entirely ignorant about a baby’s needs. Nursing sick children had taught her a great deal about them. Often a really sick infant had been left with them for a couple of days, and it had been Rachel who had willingly played substitute mother.
Nor was she as destitute as they had made her out to be. Her father had left her a lump sum of money. It would have provided for a place of her own and live in help. Gordie wouldn’t have lacked for anything. She would have seen he got the best.
Acting with the purest of instincts didn’t buy one insurance against failure though. The scene in the courtroom had left her with a bad taste in her mouth, a feeling of absolute inadequacy. The sooner she got back to the only work she was good at, the better.
Rachel bit her lip. By losing the case she felt she had let Chris down and lost the opportunity to have someone to love. Someone of her very own. What was it Chris had said to her in one of her letters after the birth of her son? “I want you to be Gordie’s godmother. You’re the only one who will fit the role. We’ll make it official when you come home.”
Now, she wouldn’t even have that.
The stereo in the cab blared out some discordant sounds. The latest music? She supposed so. The cabbie whistled while he checked the road for any tiny gap to leap into. Not that they made much progress but evidently the man thought weaving was more fun than standing still. As Rachel looked out at the streets of Santa Barbara the scenes blurred. Her mind insisted on re-tracing the events that had culminated in today’s defeat.
When she had shown the telegram to Dr.Tim Atwell, the lead member of the team, he had told her she needed a good lawyer. Dyan Jenks was the result of a long distance telephone call to a friend of his. She had hired him to start legal proceedings for custody of Christina’s son. Hiring a lawyer long distance hadn’t been the best thing to do, but it had been the only option available. Dyan had been chosen by Tom Atwell’s friend because he was Dr. Atwell’s friend’s nephew. No one had mentioned he was still wet behind the ears.
But blaming him was no use. She had lost on her own account.
Like a rat on a treadmill, her mind refused to leave dejection alone. The reminder that she was one of those destined to prove a human being could be an island, stung. Rachel wondered detachedly how long it would take her to learn her lesson, stop these futile attempts to have someone to belong to.
Her whole life was strewn with reminders, if she still needed them. Her mother hadn’t wanted her. She had left when Rachel was ten. Her father had had no use for her. At first she’d tried to make him like her. Later she’d known that was impossible and accepted it. There was no doubting it. She’d always gotten a failing grade in personal relations.
Best stick to what she could do well. Impersonal aid was her forte. Rachel let her mind trace over the last few years. In her last year in high school, a volunteer with MRA had come to Wilson High. The slides he’d shown had been mind boggling, the talk that followed powerful. There was a desperate need for medical aid abroad.
Rachel had been hooked by the lecture. Medical Relief Abroad had been started in the early seventies, by a group of doctors in America who had dedicated themselves to suffering humanity. From the original nucleus of ten the organization had grown to five thousand and consisted entirely of volunteers.
While they were working, volunteers were provided with living expenses. When they returned after their tenure they were given a thousand dollars for each year spent abroad, and every assistance in job placement. Colleges offered special scholarships and grants to volunteers who wished to continue their education.
There had been no hint of glamour about the work. Dr. Steve Hanks, the speaker, had emphasized the rigors of living in undeveloped villages, the health hazards, the backbreaking work. It called, he’d said, for a special kind of personal commitment.
Rachel had contacted him the following week. At the first interview it had been suggested she was too young, but Rachel had stood her ground. Convincing the selection committee that her slight build and frail looks were misleading, had taken a while. The medical assistant’s course she had completed through the high school ROP program had helped. So had her counselor Mrs. O’Brien, who had convinced Dr. Hanks Rachel was mature enough for relief work.
A thorough medical examination had been followed by an intensive course in basic medical procedures. Her father hadn’t objected to her going. If anything he had seemed relieved. The day after she’d graduated from high school, Rachel was on her way to Bangladesh, the stiff, awkward, unemotional parting with her father a frozen island of memory.
Work filled the void in her life, assuaging the physical loneliness. The gratitude shining out of dark eyes too poor to offer any other payment convinced her she had found her niche. Immersing herself in the people, the work, and the new way of life, Rachel told herself it was all she ever wanted. Very rarely did the thought that there was more to life than caring for others surface.
Over the years she and Dr. Tim Atwell had been the only constant members of the team. A twelve month stint was the norm for volunteers. Whenever the others had talked of home and plans for the future, Rachel had kept very quiet. Every year she had applied for, and been granted an extension. Her accumulated vacation time she’d spent travelling in neighboring Nepal, and the north of India on cheap railway tickets, and in buses.
The telegram informing her of Chris and Rob’s death had taken fifteen days to reach her. The team had been up to their eyeballs in disaster relief. The floods had worked havoc in a country that had barely learned to toddle. There was so much to do. But for Rachel it had been time to come home.
Tim had contacted two doctors with private practices in Los Angeles, both of whom had agreed to help her with jobs in their clinics. Now it was no longer necessary to get in touch with them. The money she had left would last till she got on the next plane back to Bangladesh. Back to the only life she knew.
She was drunk from exhaustion.