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It was the longest five minutes of her life.
Rowena Dahl paced back and forth in the small examination room, waiting for the nurse to return with the results of the test. Ironically enough, she'd been placed in one of the rooms usually reserved for children. A mural of hot air balloons adorned one bright yellow wall. An oversize teddy bear sat in a toy high chair in one corner of the room, a bandage covering the top of his button nose, and a Mr. Potato Head perched on top of the file cabinet.
A baby's sudden cry carried through the thin walls, then quieted to a whimper. The waiting room was packed today, and nurses were rushing up and down the long hallway. At first the nurse had mistakenly thought she'd come in for a flu shot, until Rowena nervously explained the real reason for her visit. She smiled to herself as she bent to pick up the teddy bear, then squeezed it tight against her chest. She'd been illed with second thoughts when she'd made that fateful trip to Toronto last October, worried she might be making a big mistake. But now, almost three months later, she knew in her heart that the only mistake was waiting so long to try and make her dream come true.
''Please,'' Rowena prayed under her breath. ''Please let me be pregnant.''
Her cycle had become more and more irregular over the last couple of years and set off the alarm on her biological clock. Especially when the doctor had warned this might be a sign of early menopause.
At thirty-six, she'd sifted through too many Mr. Wrongs to believe she'd ever ind a Mr. Right. Maybe she was too picky. Or simply too stubborn to give up her independence. Either way, she couldn't afford to wait for her true love to ind her any longer. She had to take matters into her own hands. With the help of her doctor, she'd chosen a reputable fertility clinic in New York City. When that didn't take, her doctor recommended a specialty clinic in Toronto that offered a new, highly successful procedure. That's where she found her perfect match. The sperm donor was forty years old, a physicist who had played semipro baseball just out of college. His medical history was clean, no genetic defects or serious diseases. According to the sperm donor proile, his hair was blond, like her own, and his eyes blue. Although he was identiied only by a number, she knew the man was six feet tall, average weight and of French Canadian descent. She'd taken great care in selecting the father of her baby. She just hoped he was fertile.
The Orr Fertility Clinic performed the insemination procedure in October. When Rowena began spotting in November, she believed it had failed. But when she'd missed her period altogether in December, she began to wonder if the procedure had been a success after all. Suspecting she might be pregnant, she could barely restrain herself from running down to Cooper's Corner General Store to buy a home pregnancy test. But with either Philo or Phyllis Cooper manning the cash register, there would have been no way to keep such a purchase secret. So she'd decided to wait until she could make an appointment with Dr. Milburn in wil-liamstown. A wait that had stretched into the irst week of January and now seemed interminable.
The door opened, and her heart leaped in her chest. But instead of the nurse, Dr. Milburn himself stepped inside. A general practitioner in his late ifties, he specialized in pregnancies and deliveries. She liked the faint, comforting aroma of pipe tobacco surrounding him that reminded Rowena of her grandfather. Dr. Milburn had always been so kind, competent and supportive that she'd chosen to stay with him rather than seek the services of an obstetrician.
He pulled a pair of bifocals out of the front pocket of his white lab coat. ''Good afternoon, Rowena. Sorry to keep you waiting.''
''Looks like you're busy today.'' Realizing she was still holding the teddy bear, she hastily placed it on the high chair. Then she turned to face him, surprised to ind her knees shaking.
''I'm never too busy to see one of my favorite patients.'' He opened her file. ''Go ahead and have a seat.''
She lowered herself into her chair, her gaze never leaving his face. Dr. Milburn didn't say anything for several long seconds, and the expression on his face made her uneasy. He'd told her that for a woman her age, the chances of conceiving through artiicial insemination were between sixty and seventy percent. That was one of the reasons Rowena had waited so long before she'd made the appointment. She'd been afraid of getting her hopes up prematurely, even with encouraging signs lately, like early morning nausea and occasional dizziness.
But what if she wasn't pregnant? What if these symptoms were all in her imagination? Rowena couldn't stand the suspense any longer. ''Do you have the results of my pregnancy test?''
''Yes,'' he murmured, still studying her chart. Then he cleared his throat and looked at her. ''Congratulations, young lady. You're going to be a mother.''
She blinked, almost afraid to believe it. ''Really? But how is that possible? I was spotting in November.''
''That's not too unusual in early pregnancy.'' A gentle smile creased his face. ''There's no doubt about it, Rowena. The test came back positive. Since you had the procedure done in mid-October, that makes you about twelve weeks along already.''
A surge of joy shot through her, and her eyes blurred with tears. ''I can't believe it. This is so '' But she couldn't put her feelings into words. After so many years of living on her own, she was inally going to have a family again. To the outside world, her life probably seemed perfect. She owned a successful business and a comfortable home in the small village of Cooper's Corner, Massachusetts. But she'd been so alone for so long.
''Here,'' Dr. Milburn said, reaching over to hand her a tissue.
''I've never been happier,'' she said at last, wiping her wet cheeks with the tissue. ''Thank you.''
He sighed. ''I hope you'll still feel that way when you hear what I have to tell you.''
Apprehension fluttered through her. ''What?''
''I was hoping we wouldn't need to have this discussion,'' he began, then took off his bifocals and folded them in his hand. ''But I'm afraid it's unavoidable now.''
Her ingers gripped the armrests as she prepared herself for another roller-coaster ride. ''Please just tell me, Dr. Milburn. Is something wrong?''
''There was a problem with the insemination procedure. A mistake, actually.''
''A mistake?'' she echoed.
''Nothing to be too alarmed about,'' he assured her. ''My ofice discovered it when the clinic sent a copy of your records here.''
''I still don't understand.''
He hesitated for a long moment. ''It turns out that you were not inseminated with the donor sperm you selected, Rowena.''
She stared at him, trying to make sense of his words. ''How can that be possible?''
''I wish I knew.'' He closed her file. ''In my experience with the Orr Fertility Clinic, they have stringent veriication procedures. That's one of the reasons I recommended them to you. Unfortunately, a fluke occurred in your case, due either to human error or some kind of computer malfunction. I've contacted the clinic and they're naturally very concerned and trying to discover the source of the mix-up.''
She didn't care about the Orr Clinic. She cared about her baby. ''So who is the donor?''
He lifted his narrow shoulders. ''That's something that may remain a mystery. Apparently, there is no proile available on the man. At least, not one that has been discovered yet.''
She looked at him in disbelief. ''You don't know anything about him?''
''I'm afraid not.''
She took a deep breath and tried to comprehend what he'd just told her. She'd spent countless hours picking out the perfect father for her baby, and now fate had stepped in and taken that choice away from her.
Concerned by her silence, Dr. Milburn leaned forward and placed his hand over hers. ''I know this is quite a shock, but let me assure you that all the donations to the Orr Clinic are required to undergo rigorous screening for medical and genetic defects, as well as all sexually transmitted diseases. The specimens are quarantined for a minimum of six months to ensure the safety of the patients receiving them. There's absolutely no reason to believe you won't deliver a perfectly healthy baby.''
She barely heard him. ''So it could be anyone.'' ''Yes,'' he confirmed. ''It could be anyone.'' A strange numbness enveloped her. But despite her shock, she still wanted this babymore than anything.
He stood up. ''Give yourself some time, Rowena. I'm going to skip my usual first pregnancy spiel because I think you have enough to handle right now. But I'd like to see you again in two to three weeks, and we'll go from there. In the meantime, I'm going to prescribe some prenatal vitamins for you.''
She nodded, her mind still grappling with the news he'd just given her. Choosing to become a single mother hadn't been an easy decision. She'd weighed all the pros and cons. Considered all the possible scenarios.
Except this one.
She'd even taken some comfort in the thought that she could picture the donor in her mind. His blond hair. His blue eyes. His six-foot frame standing in the batter's box. Maybe it was silly, but it had made the whole procedure seem a little less impersonal.
Now the image she had of her baby's father was a blank. An awful, fuzzy blank. She didn't know anything about himhis height, his background, his occupation. Not even an identiication number.
The doctor stood and walked to the counter, then scribbled out a prescription on his pad. He tore off the top sheet and handed it to her. ''Here you go. You can schedule your next appointment with the receptionist on your way out.''
''All right,'' she replied automatically.
He started to say something, then turned and walked out the door without another word.
Rowena placed her hand over her abdomen. Before long she'd begin showing. The baby inside her would be oblivious to a world of sperm donors and medical mix-ups and French Canadian baseball players. This baby needed her.
Almost as much as she needed it.
Alan Rand's heart raced as he eased himself into the shallow end of the indoor swimming pool. Taking a deep breath of chlorine-scented air, he forced himself to let go of the concrete edge. He knew it was ridiculous for a thirty-four-year-old man to be terriied of the water, but waves of panic lapped at him like the tepid water against his bare chest.
Light from the January sun shone through the opaque windows and reflected off the surface of the pool, making him wince at the brightness. The young instructor, a woman just out of her teens, dove into the pool on the opposite end and gracefully swam to where her small class of beginning adult swimmers stood gathered together in the water.
She pushed the wet hair out of her eyes, then flashed a toothy smile at her wary students. ''Good afternoon. Is everybody ready for our second lesson?''
Alan forced himself to nod along with the rest of the class.
''Okay,'' she said, effortlessly treading water as if she preferred swimming to standing. ''Let's get started with ten bobs.''
Alan swallowed the fear that threatened to choke him, then took a deep breath and plunged into the water. A moment later, he broke the surface for another gasp of air. He swiftly bobbed up and down nine more times, not allowing his irrational phobia to overwhelm him. He'd faced much worse.
If he could beat cancer, he could do anything.
That was one of the reasons he was here today. After his diagnosis three years ago, he'd made a list of everything he'd wished he'd done in his life. Things like mountain climbing, and flying to Venice, and learning to swim. Ever since his recovery, he'd been methodically going through that list, determined to accomplish everything on it.
He bobbed into the water an eleventh time, then a twelfth, pushing himself past the limit. It was how he intended to live his life from now on. Both at his work as a senior editor for a successful Toronto publishing company as well as in his personal life. No more standing on the sidelines for Alan Rand.
When he bounced out of the water for the ifteenth time, he saw a familiar face smiling at him. Bradford Haley, Jr., his old friend and lawyer, stood in a suit and tie on the wet tile floor next to the edge of the pool.
''I called your office, and your secretary told me I could ind you here,'' Brad said.
Alan heaved himself out of the swimming pool, relief flooding him at the unexpected reprieve. He grabbed a fluffy white towel with the words Fleming-don Aquatic Centre emblazoned across it in blue letters. He swiped the towel over his face as water ran off his body and down his long legs. His black swimming trunks clung to his hips in a way that left little to the imagination. The instructor stood staring at him until he caught her gaze. Then she hastily looked away, a blush on her freckled cheeks.
Brad smiled. ''Still impressing the ladies, I see.''
''They really love it when I flail around in the pool and pretend I'm drowning,'' he said wryly. ''So what brings you here, Brad?''
''You told me to contact you as soon as I had any information on your case.''
''And you probably wanted an excuse to skip out on a boring meeting.''
Brad grinned. ''You know me too well.''
''So what did you ind out?'' Alan asked.
''I'm afraid the news isn't good. I contacted the Orr Fertility Clinic as you requested, but they were apparently unable to locate your, uh ''
''Deposit,'' Alan supplied the word, knowing Brad was curious about why his friend would go to a sperm bank in the irst place.
''Right,'' Brad said. ''Anyway, when I finally convinced them they could either tell me now or wait until they received a subpoena, they relented. Of course, they can't release any medical records because of confidentiality laws, but I was able to see their financial records.''
Alan tensed. ''And?''
''And on October eighteenth of last year, a woman from Massachusetts purchased deposit number two eight four six.''
Dread filled him. ''My number.''
Brad nodded. ''If it makes any difference, the Orr Clinic apologized profusely for the mistake and told me the employee responsible will be ired.''
''I don't want their apologies,'' Alan said, his voice rising. ''I just want to know what the hell some strange woman is doing with my sperm!''
His words echoed over the pool, and his classmates all stopped swimming to gape at him.
''I think that's obvious,'' Brad said softly, as they both turned away from the pool.
A chill swept over Alan's wet body. ''She wants a baby.''
Brad cleared his throat. ''I take it you didn't intend for your deposit to be donated?''
''No.'' Alan hadn't told anyone about his visit to the Orr Fertility Clinic. Three years ago, most of his friends had been worried about climbing the corporate ladder or buying the latest sports car. Few of them knew about his battle with Hodgkin's disease, but those that did, like Brad, couldn't help but reveal their uneasiness around him. Hell, he'd been uneasy, too. And scared as hell.
When the oncologist had advised him to make a deposit at a sperm bank in case the treatments left him sterile, he'd done it without question. Then he'd forgotten all about it until the day he'd received a telephone call from the Orr Fertility Clinic in early January. That's when this nightmare had begun.
''Tell me what you know about this woman,'' Alan said as the class behind him began to practice back-floats.
Brad shrugged. ''Not much. Her name is Rowena Dahl. She lives in a small town in Massachusetts. In October, she came to Toronto and paid a visit to the Orr Clinic, which means she probably had the insemination procedure done here.''