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'Oh, stop dithering and get it over with!'
Putting the car back in gear, Emelia turned into the IVF clinic car park and cut the engine. In the silence that followed, she could hear her heart pounding.
'Stupid,' she muttered. 'It's just an admin hiccup.' Nothing to feel so ridiculously wound up about, but she was tempted to drive away again right now.
Except she couldn't, because she couldn't stand the suspense another minute. She just had to know.
She took the keys out of the ignition and reached for her handbag. The corner of the envelope stuck out, taunting her, and she stared at it for a second before getting out of the car. There was nothing to be gained by rereading the letter. She'd nearly worn the print off looking at it, but she wished she wasn't on her own
'Sam?' Her heart stalled at the sound of his voice, and she spun round, not really believing itbut he was there, not a figment of her imagination but the real flesh and blood Sam Hunter, walking towards her with that long, lazy stride, in a suit she'd lay odds was handmade. She'd never seen him in a suit before. He'd usually worn jeans or casual trousers, but he looked good in it. More than goodhe looked even more gorgeous than she'd remembered.
Broad shoulders, long lean legs, and those eyesspectacular eyes the colour of slate, fringed with sinful black lashes. They had the ability to make her feel she was the sole object of his attention, the focus of his entire world, and as they locked with hers she felt a rush of emotion.
'Oh, I'm so pleased to see you!' she said fervently. 'What on earth are you doing here? Not that I'm complaining! How are you?'
He smiled, those eyes crinkling, the tiny dimple in his lean, masculine cheek turning her legs to mush. 'I'm fine, thanks. And youyou're looking '
'Pregnant?' she said wryly, as his eyes tracked over the lush, feminine curves that had grown even curvier, and Sam gave a little grunt of laughter and drew Emelia into his arms for a quick hug. Very quick, because the firm, round swell of her baby pressing against him sent a shockwave of longing through his system that took him completely by surprise. He let her go hastily and stepped back.
'I was going to say amazing, butyeah, that, too,' he said, struggling to remember how to speak. 'Congratulations.'
'Thank you,' she murmured, feeling a little guiltywhich was silly, because it really wasn't her fault that his brother's wife still wasn't pregnant when she was. 'Sowhat are you doing here? I thought Emily and Andrew were taking some time out from all this?'
'Yeah, they are. "Regrouping" was the word Andrew used.'
She scanned his face, really puzzled now; his smile was gone, and she felt her own fade as she read the troubled expression in his eyes. 'Sowhy are you here, Sam?' she asked, and then apologised, because it was none of her business. Only, without Emily and Andrew, the presence of their sperm donor waswell, unnecessary, frankly.
'I've got an appointment to see the director,' he said.
Hence the suit. Her heart thudded and she felt another prickle of unease. 'Me, too. I was supposed to come this afternoon, but I couldn't wait that long. Sam, what on earth do you think is going on? I phoned, but they were really cagey. All they'd tell me was that it's an administrative anomaly and he'll explain. What's an administrative anomaly when it's at home?'
He frowned, his dark brows drawing together, his firm, sculpted mouth pressing into an uncompromising line. 'I have no idea,' he said after a moment, 'but I intend to find out. Whatever it is, I don't think it's trivial.'
'Sowhat, then? Any ideas?'
He gave a quiet grunt. 'Oh, plenty, but all without foundation. They've written to Emily and Andrew, as well, but of course they're away for a few more days so they haven't got it yet. And they wouldn't tell me anything, either, but as you say, they were cagey. The only thing I can imagine is there's been a mix-up.'
She stared at him for a moment, then felt the blood drain from her face. 'This is really serious, isn't it?' she said unevenly. 'Like that thing in the news a while ago about switched embryos. That was horrendous.'
'Yes. I saw the media frenzy.'
'I thought it must be a one-off, because it's so tightly regulated, butwhat if it's happened here, Sam?' she asked, her blood running cold. 'There were only the two of us there that day, me and Emily. What if they mixed our embryos up? What if this is their baby?' Her knees suddenly weak, she floundered to a halt as it sank in that the baby she'd thought of as hers and James' might not be hers to keep.
Tears scalding her eyes, she pressed her fingers to her lips, her other hand going instinctively to shield the baby.
No! She couldn't hand it over to thembut if it wasn't hers
Sam studied her in concern, his eyes drawn to the slender hand splayed protectively over that gentle swell. Please, God, no, he thought. The other batch of embryos had all died before they could be implanted into Emily, but if Emelia was right, then they'd been hers, her last chance to have her late husband's child, and when this baby was born, she'd have to hand it over to Emily and Andrew, and she'd be left with nothing. All the plans, all the joyful anticipation would be crushed with a few words.
It's not your baby.
The memory scythed through Sam, and he slammed the door on it and watched as another tear spilled over her lashes and tracked down her face. Oh, Emelia.
He lifted his hands and smoothed the tears away with his thumbs, gutted for her. 'It may not be that,' he offered without conviction, his fingers gentle.
'It must be,' she said, her voice expressionless with shock. 'What else could it be?'
What else, indeed. He dropped his hands and stepped back. 'Come on, let's find out,' he said, impatient now to get this over with. 'It might be something else entirelysomething to do with the fees, perhaps.'
'Then it would be the finance people dealing with it, not the director,' she pointed out logically. 'No, it's something else, Sam. Something much worse. I think it must be the embryos.'
Her smoky green eyes were still glazed with tears, her lashes clumped, but she sucked in a breath and her chin came up, and he laid a hand on her shoulder and tried to smile. 'Why don't we find out?' he said again, more gently, turning her towards the entrance, but she hesitated, and he could feel her trembling.
'Sam, I can't do this on my own.' 'Then I'll come with you. They can't stop me.' He felt her hand grope for his, and he threaded his fingers through hers and gave a quick squeeze. 'Ready?' She nodded, tightening her grip. 'OK. Let's get some answers.'
She felt shocked.
Shocked and curiously light-headed.
She shook her head to clear it as Sam ushered her out of the building into the spring sunshine. Odd, it had been cloudy before, and now it was glorious. How ironic, when her world had been turned upside down.
'Sowhat now?' she asked, looking up at him for guidance and grateful for the feel of his hand, warm and supportive in the small of her back.
'Well, I don't know about you but I could do with a nice, strong coffee.' He smiled, but the smile didn't reach his eyes. They were strangely expressionless, and she suddenly realised she didn't know him at all. Didn't know what he was thinking, how he was feelingwhich under the circumstances wasn't surprising, because she wasn't sure what she was thinking, either.
She tried to smile back, but her lips felt stiff and uncooperative and her eyes were prickling. 'Me, too. I haven't had coffee for months but suddenly I feel the need.'
'One car or two?'
'Two. I'll go straight on from there.' And it would give her the next few minutes alone to draw breath. 'The usual place?'
She nodded, and got into her car, following him on autopilot, curiously detached. It all seemed unreal, as if it was happening to someone elseuntil she felt the baby move, and then reality hit home and her eyes filled. 'Oh, James, I'm sorry,' she whispered brokenly. 'I tried so hard for you. I really tried.'
She felt something thin and fragile tear inside her, the last tenuous link to the man she'd loved with all her heart, and she closed her eyes briefly as she pulled up beside Sam, giving her grief a moment. It was a gentle grief, a quiet sorrow now, and it was her constant companion. She was used to it.
Was she? Probably not, but she smiled up at Sam and got out of the car and let him usher her in. They'd gone, as usual, to the riverfront cafe they'd all frequented in the past. Before, she'd always had fruit tea. This time, settling into a chair opposite Sam, she had a frothy mocha with a chocolate flake to dunk, and a sticky Danish pastry, also laced with chocolate.
And, boy, did she need it. Those few minutes in the car had given her breathing space but they'd done nothing to change the truth. A truth neither of them had come up with. A truth that changed everything.
She looked up and met his impenetrable slate-blue gaze, and wondered if her child would inherit those exquisite and remarkable eyes.
It was a different sort of mix-up entirely, something that had never crossed Sam's mind.
Something that should never have happened, an accident which he'd always taken positive steps to avoid in his personal life for very good reasons, and which he'd trusted the clinic to be equally careful of, but it seemed they'd failed, because this woman sitting opposite himthis very lovely, warm and gentle womanwas pregnant with his child, and she wasn't going to be handing it over to Emily and Andrew, as he'd feared, because it wasn't Emily's baby. It was Emelia's. And his. Our child.
He looked away, his eyes carefully avoiding the smooth, pretty curve containing a bomb that was about to blow his life apart. His child was growing inside her bodya body he'd had to force himself to ignore on every one of the occasions they'd met in the past eighteen months. Very few occasions. Hardly any, really. Just enough for her to get right under his skin and haunt his dreams.
His eyes dropped to the gentle but unmistakeable swell of their baby, and something elemental kicked him in the gut, just as it had when he'd held her. Almost as if he'd known
Damn. He couldn't do this. Not again. And it wasn't how it was meant to be. It was supposed to be quick and clean and straightforward. His brother couldn't have children. This had been something he could do, a way to give them a desperately wanted child which he could legitimately love at a distance and have no further responsibility towards except in the role of uncle.
Tidy. Clean. Simple.
And then this. Some administrative anomaly that had totally changed all the rules.
He yanked his eyes away from the evidence and put his own feelings aside for now. He'd deal with them later, alone. For now he had to think of her, the woman carrying not her husband's child, but the child of a comparative stranger. And that wasn't going to be any easier for her than it was for him, he realised. Probably a damn sight harder. They said it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, but to lose twice? Because she was losing James again, in a way, her dream replaced with a living nightmare, and that was just downright cruel.
He met her eyes, the muted green smudged slightly with tears of pain and bewilderment, and his heart ached for her. 'I'm so sorry, Emelia.'
'Don't be,' she said softly. 'It's not your fault.'
His voice was gruff. 'I know, butthinking it had worked, thinking all this time you were having his baby, and then to be told it isn'tyou must be just gutted.'
She felt the familiar grief amongst this new rash of emotions, but also guilt, because the man who was the father of her child was sitting opposite her and even now, with the shock of this revelation, she realised she was aware of him with every cell of her body, as she'd been aware of him every time they'd met.
She tried to speak logically, to find something sensible to say to this man when James seemed so long ago and all she could think about now was Sam's baby growing inside her womb
Stick to the facts!
'Sam, really, it's OK,' she said eventually. 'I never really expected it to work. The sperm quality wasn't good, James and I knew that from the beginning. It was always going to be a long shot if we tried it, and I know it sounds stupid but I was astonished when I found I was pregnant because I never really expected it to happen, so in many ways maybe it's for the best.'
Not from where he was looking at it, but maybe she had a different perspective altogether. She shrugged, her slender shoulders lifting in a gesture almost of defeat, and he had a crazy urge to gather her up in his arms and tell her it was all right, she didn't have to be brave, it was OK to be angry and sad and confused. But then she spoke, and it seemed she wasn't being brave at all, she was being honest.
'It's been harder than I thought. My in-laws were starting to suffocate me. They were completely taking over, as if it was their baby,' she told him, realising in surprise that, despite the sadness she felt that she wasn't carrying his child, for the first time since James' death she felt free.
Free of the suffocating and controlling interference of Julia and Brian, free of the obligation to share her life with them for the sake of their grandchild. She hadn't realised how much she'd started to resent it, but now, it was as if someone had opened the windows on a hot summer's day and let in a blast of cool, refreshing air.
But the air had a chill in it, she realised as her emotions see-sawed and righted, and it dawned on her, that instead of her in-laws, she'd be linked to this man, this strangerthis charming, handsome, virile stranger with the unsmiling mouth and stormy eyesfor the next twenty years or more. The feeling of relief was short-lived, and was rapidly being replaced by some very confusing emotions.
'I'm sorry,' he said softly. 'It must have been very difficult for you from the beginning, this whole process. Emily said you were struggling with all the emotional stuff.'