Safe and Warm

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Tremendously grateful to RandyD1369 for his early work reviewing this story, and to His_LittleGirl for final editing. Their assistance was invaluable.

—– —– —– —–

I was already highly agitated before the phone even rang, and in absolutely no mood for disruption. As Managing Director of Marketing with a major national retailer, I had been reviewing the financials on our latest sales campaign. And they were not encouraging. At all.

To avoid the usual office distractions, I had chosen to work from home that day. I needed a few uninterrupted hours to thoroughly lean into the data in preparation for an upcoming steering committee meeting.

Startled from intense concentration by the ring, my body shook. I quickly looked towards the display, hoping it was only a subordinate whom I could politely but quickly blow off. Why did I even have a land line anymore, I asked myself?

Not recognizing the number, I assumed it was just another solicitor. Irritated, I grasped the receiver and barked, “Okay, whaddya selling?”

The line was silent, as if the caller had been taken aback by my aggressive tone. A tentative female voice then asked, “Is this, ahh…Benjamin Barton?

Even informal acquaintances knew me simply as Ben, so I presumed my fears were correct. My gut told me she was a broker’s assistant seeking a meeting to discuss my finances, or perhaps yet another charity requesting a donation. But there was something about the uneasiness of her tone that gave me pause.

“And who wants to know?” I sighed in frustration.

Rather than respond to my question, she haltingly inquired, “You…umm, went to State, right?”

My agitation only grew as I then guessed she must be calling on behalf of the Alumni Association. I had given generously in the past; did they really need to assign a rookie to hit me up for another contribution? And on the worst possible day?

But if she did in fact represent the Alumni Association, wouldn’t she already have my records? Something seemed amiss. I assumed she was likely just an innocent kid, trying to make a buck doing a work-study assignment. One for which she was obviously unprepared.

Not wanting to make her the target of my frustration, I took a deep breath and replied as calmly as possible, “Guilty. I went to State.”

After a slight hesitation, she asked meekly, “So, did you, umm…go to school with…Heather Doyle?”

Heather Doyle?! Just hearing the name for the first time in ages sent tingles racing throughout me. Faded recollections and foggy fantasies left my mind swirling. Heather Doyle, my college dream girl. Heather Doyle, a fumbling drunken hookup. Heather Doyle, the specter who vanished from school without a trace.

Graduating from State twenty years prior, I had largely moved on from the entire collegiate experience, and had lost touch with all but my closest friends from that period. Nearly all casual acquaintances had slipped from my memory entirely, as had most of my sordid exploits. Yet Heather Doyle’s name and face still occasionally haunted my dreams.

With little idea where the conversation was headed, my belly tensed. My typically unflappable corporate demeanor was suddenly nowhere to be found. Unwilling to completely reveal my cards to a stranger, I responded coolly, “The name sounds very familiar, but State seems like a lifetime ago…” I let my voice trail off, trying to sound sincere but indifferent.

“I, ahh…I hate to bother you like this,” she answered softly, “but I’m…Heather Doyle’s daughter.”

Holy shit! This clearly was no donation request.

From everything I had read in novels or seen in movies, ghosts from ones past rarely visited to make the protagonist’s life less complicated. On the contrary, they typically imparted lessons most were otherwise unwilling or unable to accept without some otherworldly encouragement.

I suddenly felt like I was on a reality TV show and wondered if there were hidden cameras attempting to capture every second of my overwhelming discomfort. I didn’t know how to respond, but the ensuing silence filled me with equal measures of anticipation and dread. Desperately needing to break the tension, I slowly muttered, “Okay.”

“Well, I was wondering if, umm…if maybe we could get together sometime soon?”

The uncertain feeling within me grew exponentially upon hearing her vague request, and I rapidly broke out in a cold sweat. One thought entered my head, but it couldn’t be. It just couldn’t.

“Come on Ben, nerves of steel,” I told myself, something I often used prior to public speaking engagements. I took a deep breath, and as calmly as possible, asked, “Can you tell me what this is about?”

“Well, ahh, my mother told me you were friends…and I just wanted to talk with you.”

After being named Managing Director a few years prior, “old friends” seemed to suddenly come out of the woodwork. Acquaintances from high school and college regretted that we lost touch, of course, but either needed grandbetting yeni giriş a job or had investment opportunities I just had to hear about. I relaxed, chiding myself for overreacting.

My young caller was likely just seeking an internship with my company and needed someone with a high-ranking title to use as a reference. When I was her age, I may have done the same.

The tension in my body dissipated as I exhaled. “Sorry, but I’m really busy at the moment. Why don’t you email me your resume and I’ll pass it along to Human Resources with a personal note.”

“But I’m…I’m not looking for a job,” she stammered abruptly.

The uneasy feeling came roaring back, only ratcheted up tenfold. My pulse quickened as I again contemplated the possibilities. I cautiously inquired, “So…may I ask what are you looking for?”

“I just wanted…” she began almost breathlessly, but was unable to finish.

I was on pins and needles. Although I didn’t want to be a callous jerk, I needed the facts. “Listen, I don’t mean to be rude…but your timing really sucks.” I felt like an asshole for being so direct, but the suspense was killing me. “I’m knee deep in preparation for a meeting which could decide my future. So, unless you have anything else to share with me, I really need to go.”

“Please don’t go!” she pleaded. The desperation in her voice sent shivers down my spine. I then heard a slight gasping sound, which completely unnerved me. She clearly was in tears.

Hesitantly, I offered, “I’m still here.”

Time seemed to stand still before she mumbled the seven words that would change my life forever, “I think…you might be my father.”

Boom! My young caller had, essentially, lobbed a live grenade my way, but there was nowhere to duck for cover. I had an uneasy inkling that this might be where the conversation was headed almost from the start, but hearing the words aloud was beyond belief.

When she first asked about Heather, I sensed it was no ordinary call. Sure, I was a bit of a horndog in college, but who wasn’t? But getting a one-time college hookup pregnant as a result? Things like that happened to other guys, not me. I was on the fast track at work. If my career trajectory held, it was not beyond the realm of possibility that one day I might assume the mantle of CEO. I had plans.

Yet somehow, I was on the phone with a young woman who might be my daughter. Just what the hell was I supposed to make of this? I was floundering. And the Steering Committee meeting for which I had been so diligently preparing? All thoughts of it had flown out the window completely.

If the insinuation was true, how could I not have known? After two decades? Wouldn’t Heather somehow have found a way to share the news?

My rational side screamed, “DNA test,” but at that moment the very idea made me feel like a heel. My dad had always stressed the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions, so of course I would handle things like an adult. Or I hoped I would anyway.

After taking a couple deep breaths to regain my composure, I asked, “May I have your name?”

“Kristin…umm, Kristin Doyle,” she stammered.

As if in a business meeting, I responded casually without barely a thought, “Nice to meet you, Kristin.” Given the gravity of the situation, I didn’t want to lead with a ton of accusatory questions and come off like a prick. Grasping at straws, I finally asked, “So, how’s your mom?”

“She’s okay,” Kristin replied plainly. Clearly, she was not going to make this easy.

I couldn’t outwardly acknowledge that she might in fact be my daughter, but I didn’t want to flatly deny the possibility either. At least I had learned something from working closely with corporate lawyers over the years. Left with little wiggle room, I chose mundane conversation.

We chatted for a while, and I eventually learned Kristin and her mom lived in a small town about 100 miles from my own. I was reluctant to mention Heather again and thankfully Kristin steered clear as well. After the initial nervousness, Kris seemed to grow more comfortable the longer we spoke. By the end of our chat, things were still slightly awkward, yet pleasant.

Before hanging up, we made tentative arraignments to get together in the near future. I also provided my cell number and personal email address. A small part of me hoped she would simply vanish, much like her mom had, however the larger part really wanted to meet her. Deep down, I had to know the truth.

After the call I was completely drained, both physically and mentally. I felt like I had run a marathon while somehow simultaneously binge-watching emotional chick flicks. I was a hot mess!

As I lay in bed that evening, I contemplated the conversation. My ex-wife Carol and I tried to have kids for a few years before we finally threw in the towel. She was maniacal as we practiced every baby making technique, scientifically tested or otherwise. Although we went at it like grandbetting giriş rabbits, it just never happened.

A nearly constant supply of sex with an attractive woman would sound wonderful to most men. That is, until they were repeatedly forced to deal with the fallout. When the test strip again showed negative, so too became her attitude. And I, of course, was always to blame. The combined stresses of work, my MBA studies, and Carol’s endless badgering made the marriage unbearable. We were divorced just days after our seventh wedding anniversary.

I barely slept that night. When I reluctantly arose in the morning, I went in search of my college yearbooks. I found them buried between other oversized volumes on a shelf I hardly ever visited. I slowly flipped the pages of the one from my freshman year and eagerly searched every image. Nothing.

Heather Doyle. I closed my eyes and repeated the name to myself a dozen times. I vividly recalled a gorgeous young woman matching that name, with abundant blonde hair and deep green eyes. Taller than most of her peers, the glow from her flowing tresses was like a beacon which pulled me in.

Although Heather’s likeness was becoming clearer in my mind with every passing second, I found no evidence of her actual physical existence upon the pages of the annual. I knew she was real, but this all felt so surreal. Perhaps my reluctance to acknowledge the obvious was just a defense mechanism, having been jilted so long ago.

Being the boss, I could have easily amended my schedule to take a day off to meet with Kristin, yet I needed time to assess the situation. I contemplated contacting a lawyer to cover my bases, but decided to first wait and see how things played out. I hadn’t shared the news about Kristin with anybody. I certainly didn’t want to alert anyone unnecessarily in the event things went sideways, which seemed like a distinct possibility.

The more I thought about Kristin, and the possibility that she might be my daughter, the more I wanted to meet her. The very idea that I actually fathered a child with Heather Doyle was simply mindboggling.

After exchanging a few texts, Kristin and I finally settled upon a date and time. She chose a locally famous diner near her home, just off the main thoroughfare that ran between our towns.

Although I had grown slightly comfortable with the fact that I may have fathered a child with her, I truly hoped Heather would not be joining us. Meeting Kris would be enough; I didn’t need to deal with seeing an old flame as well. I never inquired, but prayed Kristin would spare me that drama – for a short time anyway.

I arrived early and sat in the parking lot for what seemed like hours, nervously tapping my fingers on the steering wheel. All alone, I felt almost adrift on a raging river without a paddle – which definitely was not my typical modus operandi. About fifteen minutes before our agreed upon meeting time, I exited my car and walked towards the entrance. A gentleman should never keep a lady waiting.

Sitting quietly at the booth, I attempted to appear calm on the outside, yet inside I was deeply troubled. I was willing to accept my future, even as I was first forced to reconcile my past.

While I had been unable to find pictures of Heather Doyle in the yearbook to validate my memories, the second I saw Kristin, snapshots were no longer needed. Gazing intently towards the doorway, the statuesque young woman I spied entering the restaurant needed no introduction. She was nearly the spitting image of my freshman dream girl.

Kristen’s eyes slowly scanned the room, until they finally fell upon me. I gave her a wave, and her cheeks instantly reddened in recognition. Her head hung slightly, and she slowly began moving in my direction.

As she approached, I rose from my seat in welcome. “Hello.”

Arriving at my table, Kris gave a nervous smile. “Hi.”

I had been around a few really stunning women in my life, but wow! The young lady before me had a natural beauty, the likes of which I had never seen. Thankfully, my business training kicked in, and I extended my arm, “Ben.”

Taking my hand, she replied softly, “Kristin.”

The moment our palms touched was magical. Energy flowed from her fingertips into my body like she was plugged into a live outlet, and my every hair stood on end.

We shuffled uneasily for a few seconds, before silently taking our seats across from one another. As she sat, I spied a bulging manilla folder under her left arm, and pondered just what may be inside.

I had rarely ever been tongue-tied; however, at that moment I was dumbstruck. Nearly all of my life, I had been the cool dude, or so I thought. The guy in control. Composed. Calm. Yet there I was, completely unnerved by someone half my age.

Physically, she represented everything I ever wanted in a woman. Yet from our recent conversations and correspondence, I had also learned she was sweet, sensitive and smart. Not insignificantly, grandbetting güvenilirmi she may also be my daughter.

“So, umm, thanks for coming,” Kris muttered quietly, a forced smile evident on her pretty face. She clearly was trying to be strong, yet still appeared amazingly vulnerable.

I didn’t want to say, “Glad to be here,” because that wasn’t entirely true. Feeling the need to respond, I shared, “Nice to finally meet you.”

Kristin’s face glowed momentarily, before she turned to nervously look out the window.

Neither of us spoke for a short period. While I held my gaze directly upon her, Kristin’s eyes drifted everywhere but back at me.

I knew I needed to step up with something. Anything. I had heard a forecast on the radio during the drive, so I shared, “So, they say thunderstorms are on the way.”

Kristin looked towards me and nodded enthusiastically, “Yeah, I heard that too.”

I understood the reaction completely. Anything to momentarily delay the serious conversation awaiting us was a welcome distraction. We bandied about the weather for a minute, then awkwardly moved onto other equally mundane topics.

As we spoke, my eyes wandered. Kris had what appeared to be natural blonde hair, which flowed halfway down her back. Much like her mother’s, from what I remembered. Her facial features were striking, with an angular jaw and high cheekbones. Her green eyes reminded me of tender new plant shoots on a cloudy day, yearning for sunshine. I didn’t want to stare but found in nearly impossible not to. Kristin was simply stunning.

But could she be mine? The thought gave me pause. Kristin’s long, graceful neck and button nose evoked images of my mother. Might I have inadvertently passed along some of the family genes that helped sculpt this vision?

I was quite certain an intelligent woman like Kris did not randomly ask men if they were her father, so this had to be a watershed moment in her young life. I was trying to be open-minded regarding the possibility of fatherhood, yet I was extremely anxious.

By conventional standards, I knew I was considered at least reasonably attractive. Standing nearly six foot two, with a medium to solid build, I usually stood out in a crowd. With a respectable head of light blondish-brown hair, and deep green eyes, I typically had little trouble engaging women.

Since the very first call, I had been curious of exactly what Heather had shared with Kristin about our “friendship.” I wasn’t sure how to pose the question, but finally blurted untactfully, “So, what did your mom have to say about me?”

I had to repress a chuckle when Kristin responded, “She said you two dated for a while and you were a really nice guy.”

“Dated?” Not the way I would have put it, but absolutely how I would have labelled it to my own child in a similar situation. I promised myself to never wreck the illusion for Kris, no matter what happened. I was pleased Heather described me as a nice guy anyway.

If I ever met her again, I would congratulate Heather for raising such a well-rounded kid. While I had only experienced a small sample, I was a good judge of character. Kristin certainly was the real deal.

“Do you want to see pictures of my family?” she asked enthusiastically.

“That would be great,” I nodded, feigning excitement.

Kristin’s face glowed as she lifted the manilla folder from the seat beside her, then placed it upon the table between us. Very slowly, she began thumbing through a series of snapshots.

From the clothing, the first photographs were clearly dated, but I distinctly recalled the smiling face captured on film. The same beautiful girl I remembered from freshman year. A shiver ran down my spine.

The Heather in the slightly washed-out shots was a beautiful woman, and the apple clearly had not fallen far from the tree. Kristin was like a younger, almost impossibly prettier version of her mom. My eyes rapidly darted up and down, from the still pictures of a girl I knew years before to the striking face before me. It was evident they were related.

Subsequent pictures had Heather alongside an adorable blonde toddler, which evidently was Kris. I didn’t know if they were shared intentionally to suck me in or not, but they almost stopped my heart. I truly wished I too had been there.

Freshman year of college was a defining period for me, no doubt for most of my peers as well. Being away from home for the first time and experiencing life without parental supervision was amazing.

Campus was abuzz the first few weeks, as I made friends and found my way. It was in philosophy 101 lecture that my world turned.

There were only a few sessions of the class offered, so just shy of 500 students packed into the hall that Spring semester, all eagerly anticipating the words of the esteemed Dr. Patterson. While he shared pearls of wisdom, most of us scribbled copious notes, often just pretending to understand.

Early in the lecture, my focus was intense. However, as time dragged on throughout the hour, my eyes wandered. Like I had done in church as a kid, my gaze tended to seek out attractive women. Just a few seats to my right, I spotted the crown jewel of the room. A tall, alluring blonde, who at the moment appeared equally disinterested.

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