Valentine's Secret Child
“Valentine.” Renata Thompson sighed. Dramatically. “Won’t you be mine?”
Kelly Bravo glanced over her shoulder, coffee pot in hand. “Doubtful.”
Renata let out a laugh. “Not a problem. You may be the boss, but you’re just not my type.”
Kelly filled her mug and put the pot back on the warming plate. She took the chair across from Renata. “So, then. Who’s your valentine?”
“His name is Valentine. Mitch Valentine.” Renata had the Sacramento Bee spread open on the round breakroom table. She pointed a slim brown finger at a publicity headshot of some guy. Kelly glanced at it without really looking, shrugged and sipped her coffee. “You must have heard of him,” Renata insisted. “Guy has billions. Owns a bunch of companies. Started from zip. Now he’s written a book. Making it Happen: Change Your Mind, Transform Your Life. ”
Kelly sipped again. “Sounds…uplifting. But no. Sorry. The name’s not ringing a bell.”
Renata’s mug said Shrink. She grabbed it and took a swig of the murky breakroom brew. “He’s speaking at Valley University tonight. I may have to go. Whether he changes my life or not, he is super-hot. And rich as they come. Hot and rich. Does it get any better?”
“Well, now.” Kelly raised her own mug high. “A good sense of humor. Gotta have that.”
“Honey, if he’s rich and hot, he doesn’t need to make me laugh. We’ll spend our lives shopping—and having sex.”
“I am shocked, I tell you.” Kelly put on her most disapproving frown. “Shocked.”
Renata spun the paper around and slid it across to Kelly’s side of the table. “Look.” She plunked her finger down hard right above the photo of Mr. Hot-and-Rich. “Tell me you’d pass up a chance with that.”
Kelly groaned. “Sorry. Not interested. I’m a single mom with a fulltime job. I don’t have time to go chasing after some Tony Robbins wannabe.”
“The eyes alone. In-tense. Look.”
So Kelly looked. “Oh, my. He’s very…” The words trailed off. “Not possible,” she heard herself whisper.
But Kelly didn’t answer. She stared at the photo and couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
From somewhere far, far away Renata was asking, “Kelly? Kelly, are you all right?”
She was not all right. Not in the least. Because she knew those eyes. That mouth. That straight slash of brow…
But of course he would, wouldn’t he? It had been a decade, after all.
His face, once hollow-cheeked, had filled out. His shoulders—what she could see of them—were broader. Much broader. He seemed, in the photo, so…confident. This man looked like he was ready to take on the world, a mover and shaker if ever there was one, the polar opposite of the boy she had loved.
But still. She would know those eyes and that mouth anywhere. Her thin, withdrawn video game-obsessed high school sweetheart, Michael Vakulic, had become someone named Mitch Valentine.
“God. Kelly. Are you—?”
“Fine.” Kelly forced herself to lift her head and aim a smile at the dark, exotic face across the table. “I’m fine.” She played it light, pretended to fan herself. “Whew. You’re right. The guy is hot.”
Renata’s worried frown faded. “Told you so.” Now she was looking exceedingly smug. She reached to take the paper back.
But before she completed the action, Carol Pace, the center’s business manager, appeared in the open doorway. “Renata. I need the file on the J. Carera family.”
Renata was one of the four family counselors Kelly had on staff at Sacramento County Family Crisis Center. The woman was amazing with families in trouble, but not so hot at keeping on top of her paperwork. “It should be there. Filed under C.”
“No kidding. Not there.”
“All right, all right. I’m coming…” Shaking her curly head, Renata got up and followed Carol out.
There was no one else in the breakroom. Kelly had never been so grateful to be left alone in her life.
Ordering her hands to stop shaking, she folded the paper with Michael’s picture in it, grabbed her coffee and stood on shaky legs. Once upright, she raced out the door and down the hall, sloshing coffee as she went.
At last, she reached her corner office. She darted inside, stuck the paper under her arm to free a hand so she could close the door and turn the lock.
The lock clicked shit. She leaned her forehead against the doorframe and whispered desperately, “It can’t be him, no way it’s him…”
Her heart was galloping like a hundred wild horses. She sucked in a long breath, let it out with agonized slowness and ordered her pulse to stop pounding so loud she couldn’t hear herself think.
God. Her whole body was shaking. She’d splashed coffee on the back of her hand—and her shoes, as well.
With another deep breath, she pushed off from the door, turned and made herself walk to her desk. She set her coffee cup on the stone coaster, where her nine-year-old daughter, DeDe, had personally painted a stick-figure deer along with the words, Mommy, you’re a dear in shiny pink letters.
The newspaper slid out from under her arm and flopped to the floor. Swearing under her breath, she grabbed it up, slapped it down on the desk and whipped out a few tissues from the box by her computer monitor.
She wiped the coffee off the back of her hand and then slipped off one tan suede shoe and then the other, to try and get the coffee off of them. Were they ruined? She’d take a brush to them when she got home. But at the moment, a wrecked pair of shoes was the least of her problems.
Michael. Oh, God. Michael…
Her phone rang. She punched hold without picking up, then buzzed the receptionist. “Melinda, I’m in the middle of something here.” Well, it was true. And it was something big—even if it wasn’t the least work-related. “Could you take that call for me and get a message? And hold my calls until further notice…Yes. Terrific. Thanks.” She hung up and dropped into her swivel chair.
The section of paper was right there on the desk pad in front of her, folded and folded again, the pages slightly disarranged now.…
Gripping the chair arms in white-knuckled hands, glaring at the folded paper, Kelly swung the chair sharply back and forth. Such a seemingly harmless thing. The Sacramento Bee for Tuesday, February 13th. Innocuous. Mundane.
Yet it threatened to change her life and the life of her only child. Forever.
DeDe, in pink tights and a tu-tu, beamed at her from the picture on the corner of her desk. That one had been taken at one of her dance recitals last fall. Next to it, there was one of DeDe and Candy, the ancient black mutt that had showed up on their doorstep five years before and swiftly become one of the family. DeDe, seven at the time the picture was taken, had her arms around the dog’s neck. She was smiling wide, proudly displaying the gap where she’d lost two front baby teeth. There were others pictures of DeDe, on the bookcase as well as on the credenza. Two of them showed Kelly and DeDe together, one was of DeDe with her uncle Tanner and another of DeDe, Kelly, Tanner—and Hayley, who was Kelly and Tanner’s long-lost sister. They’d found Hayley just that previous June…
Kelly closed her eyes, sucked air through her nose. She could look at all her office pictures again. And again. A thousand times. But eventually, she’d have to open that paper. There was, in the end, no escaping the image there. The truth had to be faced.
With swift, determined movements, she hauled her chair in close to the desk and spread the paper wide.
And there he was again. Michael.
Older, bigger, stronger, more confident, more…everything. But still. It was Michael. She was certain.
She touched the face in the picture, closed her eyes, whispered fervently, like a prayer, “I tried, I swear. I tried to find you. I knew I would find you. At first. But I never did. And somehow, over the years…Oh, God. I’m so sorry. But I had started to think it was never going to happen…”
She was sagging again, kind of crumpling into herself. Not good. She needed to sit tall. Once more, she drew herself up. She reached for the phone and dialed her brother’s cell.
Tanner answered on the second ring. “Tanner Bravo.” Tanner was a private investigator. He owned his own detective service, Dark Horse Investigations. He’d been looking for Michael all along, with no luck.
“It’s me.” Her voice came out sound absurdly small.
“Kell. You okay?”
“I’m fine,” she insisted. “Look. I was wondering. Do you think you could come over tonight, keep an eye on DeDe for a couple of hours?”
“Got a hot date?” Tanner was forever teasing her about her dateless state. As a rule, she teased him right back, razzed him that he ought to find someone nice and settle down.
Right now, though, she didn’t feel much like teasing. “Har-har. And no. It’s not a date. There’s this guy speaking at Valley U. A motivational thing…”
“You need motivating?”
“One of the counselors here at the center recommended him.” Well. Renata had recommended him. Though not exactly for his skills as a speaker.
“Do I get a free meal out of it?”
“Slow-cooker pot roast. Biscuits. For dessert, Vanilla ice cream and oatmeal-raisin cookies.”
“Right answer. You’re in luck. I don’t have anything going on after five. What time d’you need me?”
She scanned the article in front of her, looking for a time. “Uh, the program starts at seven-thirty. Come at six. We’ll eat before I go. I should be home by ten at the latest.”
He agreed he’d be there and they said goodbye.
She hung up feeling guilty for not telling him that the motivational speaker just happened to be Michael.
But no. She wasn’t absolutely sure the man was Michael, not yet. She needed to see him in person first, needed to be beyond-a-doubt certain about this before she got everyone all stirred up.
Mitch Valentine was speaking in the Sociology Center, an auditorium called Delta Hall. The hall had theater-style seating for at least a thousand and when Kelly arrived at twenty after seven, a good half of the seats were taken.
Quite a crowd for a self-help speaker on a Tuesday night. Was Renata here somewhere? Kelly hoped not. The situation was tough enough. She didn’t need the added stress of trying to behave normally for one of her colleagues.
Kelly dithered—upstairs or down? Front, center or at the rear? More people filed in around her.
Finally, frazzled no end, a bundle of nerves at the prospect that Michael might be in the same building with her, that in ten minutes she would see him in the flesh, she chose a seat about a third of the way up from the stage. Close enough that she should be able to tell if the man named Mitch Valentine was actually Michael.
And far enough back that she doubted he would pick her out of the crowd—again, if he did turn out to be Michael. And if he remembered her.
It was possible, after all, that he was Michael and he’d totally forgotten he was ever passionately, possessively in love with a girl named Kelly. He’d clearly moved on. And he didn’t know about DeDe. Yet.
What was there to hold him to the memory of those long-ago days?
Next to her, a college-age girl wearing a shearling jacket and boots that looked like they belonged on an Eskimo, giggled and turned to the girl on her other side, “Hottie. I’m so not kidding. Fully doable. You should have gone to the reception before. He shook my hand. God. Those eyes. That voice. I think I came. And you know how I feel about the damn required lectures. But here I am. And you don’t hear me complaining…”
Her girlfriend was not impressed. “I’ll wait till I see him. And I still hate these lectures.”
“Trust me,” said the girl in the Eskimo boots. “You get a look at him, you’ll change your mind.”
The two put their heads together and started whispering.
Kelly tuned them out. Michael had always had a fine, deep voice and beautiful eyes. Most people hadn’t noticed, back then. They saw a skinny, withdrawn teenager and never looked beyond that.
So was that more proof that she’d found him, at last?
Wait, the voice of caution warned. Get a look at him. You’ll know soon enough.
It was warm in the hall and her nerves weren’t helping her cool down any. She wiggled out of her winter coat and draped it over the back of her chair.
By the time she faced front again, the lights were dimming over the seats—and getting brighter on the stage, brightest of all on the podium, stage center. A man came striding out of the wings: tall, thin, gray hair…
Not Michael. Or even the man she suspected might be Michael.
The gray-haired man stepped up to the podium to polite applause. He introduced himself as the head of the Sociology department and then launched into a glowing introduction of the evening’s guest speaker.
Most of it had been in the paper that morning.
“Mitch Valentine is living, breathing proof that the American Dream really can come true. At nineteen, he designed his first video game. How many of you ever played DeathKnot or Midnight Destroyer?” Hands went up all over the hall. The professor smiled. “From there, he moved into software development, then created a job search engine for students. Many of you here tonight have or will use FirstJob.com before you send out those resumes. From there, Mitch moved into desktop publishing. Now, at twenty-eight, he owns two publicly traded companies with headquarters in Dallas and in Los Angeles. And he’s written a book about how he did it.”
Her heart was beating too fast again. Michael would be twenty-eight now….
And the video games. They hadn’t mentioned the video games in the paper, had they?
The department head was still talking. About how Mitch Valentine had started from nothing, lived on the streets of Dallas, turned his life around. How he had no formal education beyond a high school diploma, and yet…look at the man today.
And then, at last, he said, “And now, it’s with great pleasure and sincere admiration that I introduce to you…Mitch Valentine.”
There was roaring. It was partly the applause and it was partly the blood spurting so fast through her veins, it made a rushing in her ears.
A tall, broad-shouldered man in a dark suit with a snow-white shirt and a lustrous blue tie strode confidently across the stage. She thought, Chestnut-brown hair, like Michael’s…
He stepped up to the podium under the hard gleam of the spotlight. And he spoke.
“Thank you, Dr. Benson. I’ll do my best to live up to that glowing introduction…”
She’d known for certain in her mind when he face the audience, but when he spoke, she knew in her heart.
The final shreds of her doubt unraveled and dropped away.
He was Michael. She had found her daughter’s father, at last.
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