Mother. Mother? Mother! Motherhood!

Barbara Ulrich, to this point in her life, had never associated this concept with herself. Even as a small child playing with dolls, she was not their “mother.” They were things her parents had given her. Eventually, she wrecked them, as she did all her toys.

Her mother, even her father, had worried about that. They were concerned that, as an only child, Babs had no sibling to relate to. Dolls were supposed to stand in for the missing siblings.

As time went on and each dismembered doll joined the burial ground of the rest of Babs’s toys, her parents acceded to her every request and demand.

They should have worried about denying her nothing.

Now, if things ran their normal course, Barbara would be a mother. Her child could not be flung into a corner and forgotten. Her baby could not be discarded when she tired of it. She could not treat her child as she had her toys.

For one thing, it was against the law.

It was now just a couple of hours since her doctor had dropped the bombshell. Slowly, she was assimilating all the implications of this new possible role fate had flung at her.

Barbara sat before the mirror at her dressing table. Over frilly step-ins she wore a lacy slip. It accentuated rather than obscured her body’s perfect lines.

If she allowed this pregnancy to progress, her life would change. Her life would change in ways she had never planned.

She had seen grossly pregnant women. Inwardly she had laughed at their awkward, ungainly attempts at such normally simple acts as walking or sitting down or picking things up.

The alternative: an abortion. But she’d been there, done that. She remembered it all too vividly. She dreamed about it-always that little head, crushed beyond recognition. Never again.

In addition, there was that intriguing question: who was the father?

It certainly wasn’t her husband. God knows how long it had been since they’d had sex together.

And yet her husband had no other woman on the side. In all candor, Barbara knew that while she might have an equal somewhere, no one could be better in bed than she. No, it was that other bugaboo: work. Al Ulrich had singlemindedly given himself to Adams Bank and Trust. He had risen through the ranks to branch manager.

And beyond that, Thomas A. Adams, president and chief executive officer, was about to open a new branch in one of the most dangerous locations in near northeast Detroit. Al Ulrich had not only applied for the position, he was campaigning for it. He was not playing the sycophant; Al Ulrich genuinely admired-almost worshiped-Thomas Aquinas Adams.

When she’d realized how intertwined her husband and his bank had grown, Barbara had erupted like an uncorked volcano. Her husband’s reaction was to cut her out of his life as far as any intimacy was concerned.

Not that she much cared, but, as far as she knew, Al had not been, was not, sexually unfaithful to her. She knew he had near unlimited opportunity. But for whatever reason, he did not cheat.

Having completely suppressed all memory of what little she had known of her mother’s affairs, the same could not be said for Babs. Thus the pertinence of the question: who indeed was the father of the child she was carrying?

There were four possible candidates: the bank’s president and its three executive vice presidents. That all four worked for the same firm, indeed in the same building, was some sort of tribute to Barbara’s sense of brinkmanship. Not only did she chance this volatile juggling in a tight, localized area, she was reasonably sure none of the four was aware of the other three.

Inevitably, someplace down the line, she would begin to show. At which time her husband would explode in righteous indignation. Probably there would be a divorce. Al certainly would not support her or her bastard child. She would have to lean on the real father-whoever he proved to be.

In any case, all four men were quite wealthy. Any of them ought to be able to support her and her child in a manner into which Barbara was eager to ascend.

Thus her hesitation. She didn’t want the child, but she would not abort it. And she did want all that the child could extort from its father.

Barbara wasn’t facile in math. But it didn’t take an expert to figure that in the time frame given by the doctor, two of the four men were the more likely nominees. However, the doctor’s estimate of the time of conception was an educated guess, only slightly more reliable than a weather forecast. In that elastic expansion, all four qualified.

Until this moment, Barbara had not gauged the enormity and frequency of her infidelity. To touch base, as it were, with all four suitors, and to have each believe he was her one and only indiscretion, was, she felt, an impressive feat. Not to mention that all four could qualify as father of her unborn child.

As her stream of consciousness progressed, decisions pertaining to her baby gained momentum. Supportive images flooded her mind as fully developed as Orville Redenbacher’s popping product. Why stop with one father for her child? Why not try for all four?

It would be the acid test proving or disproving that none of the four knew about the other three. If each candidate thought he had no competitor in his trysts with her, then each would believe he was the father.

And then what?

Each might support the child as his own. And that would come about either voluntarily or through threats.

What was the worst-case scenario?

All of the four would learn of the others’ involvement. But … what the hell, one of them was the father. Of that there was no possible doubt. And whichever one it was, Daddy would be wealthy.

She could not imagine any of them actually being willing to marry her. Fine. She had no inclination to marry any of them. Send money.

There was, of course, one major fly in this pie: Al Ulrich. Her husband would know with certainty that he was not the father. And he was not likely either to keep silent or to accept any responsibility for the child.

He would, in short, be the stumbling block. Somewhere along the way, Al would have to be dealt with. A practical deadline for handling Al would be any time from the present until she began to show.

But first to inform the paternal contenders.

She immediately ruled out use of a computer or any of the other current miracles of technology. This had to be a better-kept secret than those devices could ensure.

Not a letter. Unforeseen, unexpected, and disastrous things came about when the U.S. Postal Service was involved. An envelope could be misdelivered, or opened by the wrong person-a wife, say.

No, it would have to be a note, hand-delivered by her at tonight’s party.

To celebrate the opening of the new, perilously located branch, Tom Adams was hosting a dinner party tonight in his posh riverfront apartment. Invited were his three executive vice presidents and their spouses. Also invited were Mr. and Mrs. Al Ulrich and Nancy Groggins and husband. Either Nancy or Al was to become manager of the controversial new branch of Adams Bank.

Her plan to deliver the message by hand invested new import in the party. Till now, Barbara couldn’t have cared less about the gathering. She assumed the party’s purpose was to be a final sifting of the two contestants, Al and Nancy-sort of an audition to see how they handled themselves in the spotlight. It would never have occurred to her that Tom Adams might merely want to honor a couple of faithful-even courageous-employees. A statement as it were that their willingness to give of themselves was noted and appreciated.

In actuality, this indeed was the purpose of the party.

Hitherto it had made no difference to Barbara which applicant was chosen. Now the realization dawned that, yes, there was an element of jeopardy here. What if Al got the job? What if he were harmed? It was a charged neighborhood, fraught with peril.

What if he were killed?

She shuddered.

But … it would go a long way toward solving her problem.

She wondered idly if such a thing could be … arranged.

She dismissed the thought. One thing at a time.

There was tonight’s party with its newly invested importance. And how to deliver a message to four people among a total of one host and ten guests, with no one being the wiser.

A challenge, no doubt about it. But Barbara thrived on challenges, risk, and living on the edge.

She took from her writing table four sheets of unmarked stationery. Each note would be identical. There would be no addressee, nor any signature. Just a precaution. Each prospective father would know the message came from her; she would make certain of that.

The message would be brief and to the point.

She was in the very earliest stage of pregnancy. The addressee was the father. She was not interested in marriage to the father of her only child, nor in an abortion. But something would have to be worked out. And soon. Oh, and because of the relationship-or lack of it-between Barbara and her husband, as Barbara had explained at the beginning of their affair, Al would know for certain that he was not the baby’s father. Something would have to be done about Al.

That should do it.

Now for this evening’s ensemble. She would be at her seductive best.’

Damn the wives. Full speed ahead!