First Lady (Wynette, Texas #4)(5)

by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Once again, the worm glanced down at the folder. “You sent her money for a number of years.”

No matter how hard Mat tried to hide it, sooner or later people figured out that he was a soft touch, but he didn’t believe a kid should have to suffer for her mother’s bad judgment. “Sentiment. Sandy had a good heart; she just wasn’t too discriminating about who she slept with.”

“And you contend you haven’t seen her since the divorce?”

“There’s no contention about it. I haven’t seen her in nearly fifteen years, which makes it really tricky for me to be the father of that second baby she had last year.” Naturally it was another girl. His entire life had been haunted by female children.

“Then why is your name on both children’s birth certificates?”

“You’d have to ask Sandy that.” Except no one was going to ask Sandy anything. She’d died six weeks ago driving drunk with her boyfriend. Since Mat had been on the road, he hadn’t learned about it until three days ago when he’d finally gotten around to checking his voice mail.

There’d been other messages as well. One from a former girlfriend, another from a casual acquaintance who wanted to borrow money. A Chicago buddy needed to know if Mat was moving back to the Windy City so he could sign him up for their old ice hockey league. Four of his seven younger sisters wanted to talk to him, which was nothing new, since Mat had been in charge of them from the time he was a kid growing up in that tough Slovak neighborhood.

Mat had been the only male left after his father had walked away. His grandmother had kept house while his mother had worked fifty hours a week as a bookkeeper. This arrangement had left nine-year-old Mat in charge of his seven younger sisters, two of whom were twins. He’d struggled through his childhood hating his father for being able to do what Mat couldn’t—walk away from a house that held too many females.

The final few years before his escape from the Hell House of Women had been especially bad. His father had died by then, putting an end to the fantasy Mat had entertained that he’d come back and take charge. The girls were growing older and more temperamental. Somebody was always getting ready to have her period, going through her period, getting over her period, or sneaking into his room late at night in quiet hysterics because her period was late, and he was supposed to figure out what to do about it. He loved his sisters, but being responsible for them had suffocated him. He’d promised himself when he finally got away that he’d turn his back on family life forever, and except for the short, stupid time with Sandy, that’s exactly what he’d done.

The last call on his voice mail had come from Sid Giles, the producer of Byline. It was another plea for Mat to come back to the L.A. tabloid television show he’d left last month, but Mat Jorik had sold out his credibility as a journalist once, and he’d never do it again.

“. . . first step is to bring me a copy of your Judgment for Dissolution of Marriage. I need proof that you were divorced.”

He returned his attention to the attorney. “I’ve got proof, but it’ll take me a while to get my hands on it.” He’d left L.A. so fast that he’d forgotten to empty out his safe-deposit box. “It’ll be quicker if I get a blood test. I’ll do it this afternoon.”

“ DNA test results take several weeks. Besides, there’ll have to be proper authorization before the children can be tested.”

Forget that. Mat wasn’t going to have those birth certificates come back to bite him in the ass. Even though it wouldn’t be hard to prove he was divorced, he wanted the blood tests to back him up. “I authorize it.”

“You can’t have it both ways, Mr. Jorik. The girls are either yours or they’re not.”

Mat decided it was time to go on the offensive. “Maybe you’d better explain why this is such a mess. Sandy’s been dead for six weeks, so why did you just get around to letting me know about it?”

“Because I didn’t find out myself until a few days ago. I took some diplomas into the frame shop where she’d been working and heard what had happened. Although I’m her attorney, I hadn’t been informed.”

Mat considered it something of a miracle that Sandy’d had an attorney, let alone that she’d bothered to make out a will.

“I went to the house right away and spoke to the older girl. She said a neighbor had been watching them, but there was no neighbor in sight. I’ve been back twice and still haven’t seen any sign of adult supervision.” He tapped his yellow pad and seemed to be thinking aloud. “If you’re not going to take responsibility, I’ll have to call Child and Youth Services so the girls can be picked up and put into foster care.”

Old memories sifted over Mat like steeltown soot. He reminded himself that there were lots of wonderful foster parents, and the chances of Sandy’s kids ending up with a family like the Havlovs were slim. The Havlovs had lived next door when Mat was growing up. The father was chronically unemployed, and the family survived by taking in foster kids, then neglected them so badly that Mat’s grandmother and her friends had ended up feeding and bandaging them.

He realized he needed to concentrate on his own legal entanglement instead of past history. If he didn’t get this paternity issue straightened out right now, it could hang over his head for months, maybe longer. “Hold off on that phone call for a couple of hours until I check things out.”

The attorney looked relieved, but all Mat intended to do was grab both kids and take them to a lab before they got turned over to social services and he had to deal with red tape.

Only as he followed the directions the attorney gave him to Sandy’s house did he remember his ex-wife’s mother. She’d been relatively young, as he recalled, and a widow. He’d just met her once, but she’d been impressive—a college professor out in Missouri or someplace who seemed to have little in common with her wild daughter.

He picked up his cell phone to call the attorney back, then caught sight of the street he was looking for and set it back down. A few minutes later he was parking the Mercedes SL 600 two-passenger sport convertible he’d bought with his sell-out money in front of a dingy bungalow in a run-down neighborhood. The car was too small for him, but he’d been deluding himself about a lot of things at the time, so he’d written the check and squeezed inside. Getting rid of it was the next item on his agenda.