Matt Dalton held his breath. The doctor removed his glasses, and tapped them against the document in his hands, his blank face conveying nothing of the opinion he was about to render.
“Mr. Dalton, based on this report, I’d say there’s about a ninety-nine-percent chance this boy is your son.”
Matt’s pulse raced. It’s what he expected, but the doctor’s words of confirmation made it real. Holy Christ, he had a son. He was a father. Nothing so profoundly life-changing had ever happened to him, and it took his breath away.
He stood up, shoving one hand in his pocket and extending the other to the doctor.
“Thank you,” he managed, his throat tight. “It’s good to know for sure.”
In his heart, he’d known it was true from the instant the boy’s grandmother had opened the photo album and slid it across the table in front of him. There was no mistaking the resemblance – the wide-set smoky blue eyes, the cocky lopsided grin. Yeah, he’d seen those before.
The doctor folded the paper, tucked it inside an envelope, and handed it to Matt. “Best of luck to you,” he said, patting Matt’s shoulder.
On rubbery legs, Matt somehow made it out of the office and to his car. He rested his head against the steering wheel, and sobbed. He was a dad – the father of a high school teenager who was now horribly scarred for life, and missing part of a leg.
His shoulders shook with regret for the son he’d never know, and with pity for the son whose hopes and dreams would be forever altered.
The call had come out of the blue, shattering his day before it even got started, waking him from what he remembered was a pretty good dream. The dream had turned into a nightmare when a woman he didn’t know started crying and babbling about a boy, an accident, and a stroke.
Matt had been stunned. Still was. He was in a fog, trying to understand what had happened and figure out what to do, hardly able to absorb it all. A woman, a girl he’d barely even known, had given birth to his child. Unbelievable.
As he pressed the accelerator and shifted gears, the Audi quickly exceeded the speed limit. His heart beat a little faster. He wanted the speed, the rush of adrenaline that shot through him. The open highway would help clear his head. He inched the window down and let the sharp wind blast against his face.
Then he remembered the accident – the event that had started all of this. Well, the event that had led him to learn of his parenthood, anyway. Inexperience and alcohol had been factors in the accident, but so had speed. Sobering, he reduced the pressure on the gas pedal and moved to the right lane. He took the long way home, trying to sort a thousand thoughts and feelings.
The grandparents had called him as a last resort. They needed help. Obviously, the kid did, too. But did he need a father who was a complete stranger? Would that add more trauma to the situation? Did they really want him to play a role in the kid’s life, or were they just looking for someone to help pay for expensive health care and physical therapy?
Matt put off the calls until evening. He couldn’t remember if he’d ever asked for a family meeting. Probably not. His life just didn’t have those kinds of ups and downs. But this was big, and he wanted his family’s support. He’d given it a lot of thought – had thought of little else – and he was prepared to do whatever it took to meet his son’s needs, hire help if necessary. Even so, they were a close family, and a new member would affect them all.
At his parents’ house the following night, Matt glanced around the dining room. It was already set up, a plate of cookies on the table. Coffee and tea on the sideboard. A formal room with heavy drapes, a large mahogany table and elegant cushioned chairs, all the serious family discussions happened here.
His mother folded him into a hug, then stepped back to get a better look at his face. Her fingers smoothed what he knew were deep frown lines creasing his forehead.
“Just relax, honey,” she told him, rubbing his arm. Clearly she assumed he’d assembled them as a result of a problem. To put it mildly.
Pattie and Scott, Matt’s sister and brother-in-law, filed in with Matt’s dad. After the usual hugs and handshakes, they all helped themselves to drinks. Scott sauntered to the sideboard looking relaxed and carefree, as usual. Pattie, on the other hand, was practically jumping up and down with nervous energy. Her blonde ponytail swished back and forth as she filled a cup and plate. Once they settled into their chairs, expectant eyes turned to him.
His sister spoke first. “So what’s up?” she asked, a false lightness to her tone.
Matt let out a shaky breath and waited for Pattie to chew the chunk of cookie she’d just bitten off. Choking was a definite possibility.
He cleared his throat, his heart hammering. “There’s no good place to start, so I’m just gonna say it. A few days ago I found out that I have a sixteen-year-old son living in Freeburg with his grandparents.”
There. He’d dropped the bomb. He picked up his coffee mug and sat back, letting them absorb the announcement. Looking around the table, his gaze met four sets of wide, startled eyes and stunned expressions. Pattie’s mouth dropped open, but Matt thought he saw a hint of amusement lurking in her eyes. He knew she’d be the least surprised. She’d been just ahead of him in high school, and they’d shared a few secrets.
His mother broke the silence, her words slow and soft. “I’m . . . pretty sure I heard what you said, but I think I need to hear it again.”
Matt leaned against the table. “I got a call last week from the boy’s grandmother. Apparently the mom, a girl named Lori, is out of the picture, and they’ve been raising him.”
“Wow,” Pattie exclaimed. “Just like that? After all this time?”
His father held up a hand. “You’re going to have to back up a little, son. Who’s Lori?”
Matt swallowed hard, shaking his head. “I really don’t know, Dad. A girl I hooked up with at a party in high school. I remember being at somebody’s house, drinking lots of beer, and having sex with a cute blonde girl.”
His mother gasped. “Oh, Matthew!”
“I vaguely remember the party. I think she was a friend of John Robinson’s cousin.” There were so many parties like that, Matt recalled. In high school he’d been a second-tier jock – a level down from the fastest crowd. He was a good student. Still, he’d been popular, and he’d seen his share of action.
“Let me get this straight,” the pitch of his mother’s voice rose. “You had unprotected sex with a girl you didn’t even know when you were in high school? And she got pregnant? And she had the baby without telling you?”
“Pretty much. But I didn’t know it was unprotected. She told me she was on the pill. I do remember that.”
“And that’s it? You never saw her again?”
“Right.” He certainly hadn’t been the only one. That’s what the whole party was about.
His mother covered her mouth with her hand, and stared hard at him He could see tears well in her eyes. Damn. He knew from experience that making his mother cry was a sin not easily forgiven. He sucked in his breath, ready for this to be over.
“I cannot believe this,” she said, her voice trembling.
His father cut in. “All right, look. How do they know you’re the father, and why did they call you now? What do they want?”
“I know I’m the father. I had a DNA test done. Got the results yesterday. That’s why I left the office a little early.” He took the photos out of his pocket and passed them over to his father. Matt watched his dad’s face.
He looked hard at the photos then silently passed them to Matt’s mother. Matt felt his dad’s gaze return to him.
It was only a second before his mother gaped at him. “Oh, my God. He looks just like you.”
“Yeah. That’s what I thought.”
“Where’d you get the pictures?” his father asked.
“I went to see the grandparents, Helen and Don Thompson. They showed me a bunch of photo albums and let me take a few of the pictures.”
“You went to see these people? By yourself?”
“Well, yeah. I thought I should at least check it out.”
“Uh-huh. And now what?”
“Now I need to figure out what to do.”
His father’s gaze was relentless. “Why now? What do they want you to do?”
Matt glanced around the room before meeting his father’s eyes. He’d known that question was coming, and he’d prepared for it. Still, the words stuck in his throat. He forced them out, his voice hoarse and strained.
“He was in a car wreck a couple of weeks ago. The driver was another teenager. He was drunk, and was killed. Brady, that’s my son’s name, was in the front passenger side. The car rolled and caught on fire. Brady got banged up and burned pretty bad. He lost part of his left leg, just below the knee. It was crushed under the dashboard.”
“Oh, no,” his sister breathed.
“I’m sorry. I know this is a shock, but they’ve asked me for help, and I feel like I need to do something.”
“What?” his mother whispered. “What can you do?”
“Well, he’s still in the hospital, but they’re expecting to fly him to the Connelly Burn Center in San Francisco by the end of next week.” Matt stood and gripped the back of his chair. “Here’s the deal. The grandparents haven’t been successful in locating their daughter. The grandfather had a stroke a couple of years ago and has trouble getting around. I guess Brady helped out a lot with him. Apparently the shock of the accident has triggered another stroke, and he’s in pretty bad shape. Sounds like it’s too much for the grandmother to handle on her own.”
The room fell silent while everyone processed what he’d told them.
“So they want money?” his dad asked finally.
Matt heaved a sigh. “I suppose so. They didn’t come right out and ask for it. But yeah, they mentioned nursing care and long-term rehab. The thing is, if I step in and get involved, I don’t want to simply write a check.”
“What do you want?” Pattie asked.
Here it was – the moment of truth. He took a deep breath. “Medical care is better here than in Freeburg, and so are the schools. If he agrees to it, I’d like to move him up here with me. And I’d probably need some help from all of you.”
That opened the floodgates, and everyone began talking at once.
Matt moved to the sideboard, refilling his coffee, letting them talk and process the news. His hands were unsteady as he poured the coffee. When he turned back to the table, they fell silent again.
One glance at his dad’s stern face, and Matt could tell he’d dropped about a mile and a half in his regard. Matt’s throat clenched. He knew his parents were proud of him, had always prided themselves on getting two kids into adulthood with no serious mishaps or trouble. Didn’t feel too great to burst that particular bubble.
“Jesus Christ,” his dad said, shaking his head. “This isn’t what I was expecting.”
“Yeah? What were you expecting?”
His dad let out a heavy sigh. “I don’t know, that you were moving or getting married or needed some money, I guess.”
“This is probably more complicated than any of those. I’m sorry about that, Dad. I can hardly believe it myself. It was stupid. I was a stupid kid.”
“I can’t argue with that. You’re probably doing the right thing now, but let’s make sure. I’ll set up some time with Walt Richards. Let’s see what he has to say. Maybe someone in the firm has experience with this kind of thing.”
Richards had been his dad’s corporate attorney for years. Probably didn’t know much about guardian law, but it wouldn’t hurt to have some legal advice.
“Oh, David. Really,” his mother chided. “You can talk about that later.” She got up from her chair and in three quick steps threw her arms around Matt.
“Of course we’ll help,” she said as she hugged him tightly. “I want to meet this boy.”
His mother was a slight woman, a good foot shorter than him, but those were the most comforting arms he’d ever been wrapped in.
She pulled back and gave Matt a watery smile. “Did you get to meet him, honey?”
Matt shook his head. “Not yet. Didn’t think it was a good idea. He’d want to know who I was and why I was there. I sure as hell couldn’t tell him I was just stopping by to decide whether I want to be his dad or not.”
“You know, he might not want to leave his home and his grandparents. Maybe the right thing for now is to help pay for the care.”
“I don’t know, Mom. He’s been through such a traumatic experience. He’ll never be the same. Never be seen as normal again. It’ll be tough. I can tell the grandparents love him and they’ve done their best, but I’m afraid this is way more than they can handle.”
“You have some time to figure out the details, right?”
“Well, don’t rush into anything. If you choose to have him move in with you, I’m available to help sit with him or get him to doctor’s appointments, whatever. Like you said, the doctors are better here. With those kinds of injuries I’m surprised they haven’t moved him already.”
He kissed the top of her head. “Thanks, Mom.”
“Me, too,” Pattie called out. She stood up and hooked her arm through Matt’s. “All I do is run kids around these days. What’s one more?”
Some of the tension drained, and Matt let his shoulders relax. He was lucky to have a great family. His thoughts drifted to Brady. He knew very little about his life, the rest of his family. Did he have extended family who’d helped give him a solid upbringing and a sense of belonging? He thought of what the kid had missed by not having these grandparents in his life to love and spoil him. They doted on Pattie’s kids, were always going to their school programs, celebrations and sporting events.
The more he thought about it, he didn’t really care what the attorney had to say, or the doctors, for that matter. He’d made up his mind. As long as Brady agreed, his son was coming to live with him.
Unexpected Legacy is available in digital or print formats at Amazon, the Apple Store, and Barnes & Noble online.