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"Damn your eyes, where did you come from?"
Alexandra Knight plucked at the run climbing the right leg of her panty hose, sending it racing even farther up her leg. When she'd pulled on her hose ten minutes ago, they'd been perfect. And she knew for a fact that there wasn't another pair anywhere in her apartment since she'd already dragged these ones out of the laundry in desperation.
She checked her watch. She was already in the underground garage of her apartment building. If she went upstairs and changed into a pantsuit, she'd chew up ten minutes, minimum. But if she swung into the convenience store near her downtown Melbourne office, she might make her first meeting. If she hustled.
Decision made, she strode the final few feet to her car and beeped it open. She reversed out of her spot with a rev of the engine, then shot up the ramp and into the street.
The parking gods were smiling on her and she drove straight into a space in front of the minimart on St. Kilda Road. She was out of the car and heading for the door in no seconds flat.
She had three pairs of panty hose in hand when she hurried out the door two minutes later, only to find the sidewalk blocked by a tall blond man attempting to wrangle a complicated-looking stroller that had become entangled with one of the many bags hanging from its handle. She sidestepped, her thoughts on the day ahead. Her corporate client Jamieson was keen to have the contract of sale she was negotiating on their behalf signed off by the end of the week, which meant she had to redraft the contract by this afternoon so they could"Alex."
She turned instinctively.
"Jacob," she said, one foot on the curb, the other in the gutter, stunned by the unlikely coincidence of seeing her ex. Her gaze dropped to the small body strapped securely in the stroller he was pushing. There was no missing the resemblance between man and child.
He was a father.
Jacob, the man she'd lived with for seven years, the man who had refused to even discuss having a child with her, had had a child with someone else. Some other woman.
For a moment Alex could do nothing but blink.
She had begged him to reconsider his anti-child stance. They'd fought over it so many times she'd lost count. He'd always been so adamant. So certain, even when they were packing their things and going their separate ways.
She dragged her gaze from his baby to his face. He had the grace to look sheepish.
"I thought you might have heard through the grapevine," he said.
But she hadn't. If she'd known She had no idea what she would have done.
"How old is he?" she asked. Amazing how calm her voice sounded when the rest of her was reeling. "Four months."
She flinched. She and Jacob had broken up eighteen months ago. That meant he'd met someone and gotten her pregnant pretty damn quickly.
"Congratulations," she said, even though she wasn't feeling the least bit congratulatory. "What's his name?"
And her. What's her name, this mysterious, magical woman who got you to cough up your DNA when I couldn't even get you to discuss becoming a parent after seven years together?
"Theodore. Teddy for short."
"That was your grandfather's name, wasn't it?"
He was blushing. And she'd run out of things to sayexcept for the one burning question that her pride would never allow her to ask: why not me?
Hadn't he loved her enough? Had she been missing some vital, essential ingredient that had stopped him from fully committing to her?
Her hand curled into a fist. She wanted to hurt him. Punch him in the face. Grab him by the lapels and demand to know why, how, when. Instead, she forced her hand to relax and made a show of checking her watch.
"I really have to go if I'm going to make my first meeting. Good luck with everything, Jacob."
She stepped blindly into the street.
"Alex. Before you go. Just in case you thoughtI mean, it was an accident," Jacob said.
"What?" Despite herself, she lingered and turned to face him when she should have gotten in her car and driven away.
"Mia didn't realize she'd missed a pill and then we found out she was pregnant. So, you know, all this was unplanned." His gesture took in his child, the stroller, the tangled diaper bag.
"Well. I guess that makes it all okay," she said.
She escaped to the sanctuary of her car. Except it wasn't really a sanctuary, since Jacob remained where he was, watching her, an expression on his face that was an equal mix of guilt and defensiveness. Alex concentrated on starting the engine so she could get the hell out of here.
She pulled over the moment she was around the corner and out of sight. She stared out the windshield, her hands gripped the steering wheel so tightly that her knuckles ached.
Jacob was a father. He had a beautiful baby boy. With someone else. A woman named Mia, who had "forgotten" to take a pill or two and forced Jacob into a position he had adamantly, passionately, avowedly claimed he wanted to avoid for the entire duration of his relationship with Alex.
He'd named his child Theodore, after his paternal grandfather. He was even on child-care duty, pushing one of the contraptions he'd once dubbed a "blight on civilization" because of the way they choked supermarket aisles and cafes.
She could hear her own breathing, fast and harsh as though she'd just run a race. She told herself that the past was the past and that what Jacob had done once they'd split was nothing to do with her. But not for a minute did she believe it.
The thing wasthe thing that stung so bloody bitterlywas that he'd always been so certain about what he wanted. He'd informed her six months into their relationship that he wasn't interested in having children. By then she'd loved him so much, wanted to be a part of his life so badly, she'd convinced herself that he would change with time. Lots of men did, after all, and they'd both been only thirty. She'd told herself that once he saw his friends have kids, he'd understand the joy and challenges that children could bring. The love and hope and energy. All she'd have to do was wait him out.
And she had. She'd concentrated on achieving partnership at Wallingsworth & Kent and back-burnered her baby dreams until the issue had become a wedge between them.
And now Jacob was a father, and she was single and thirty-eight and still looking for the man she'd left Jacob to find. A man she loved who loved her and wanted to have the family that had always formed the cornerstone of her hopes and dreams.
For the second time that morning her hands curled into fists and she pounded them once, twice, three times against her steering wheel.
An electronic beep drew her attention back to the moment. She blinked, looking around to identify the source of the sound. Her gaze fell on her bag and her brain clicked into gear. Her phone. That's what the sound was. She pulled it from her handbag and touched the screen. It was her legal secretary, Franny, letting Alexandra know her first client had arrived and was waiting in reception. Alex laughed.
A client. Right. She had a meeting scheduled. Hell, she had a whole day scheduled. And here she was, thinking that the world had contracted to only her and the sick, angry feeling in the pit of her stomach.
She took a deep breath, then texted a quick reassurance that she was five minutes away.
Seeing Jacob pushing a stroller had dredged up a lot of the old feelings she thought she'd put to rest. But she didn't have time to sit in her car and gnash her teeth. People were relying on her.
She continued to talk herself down as she drove to the office.
She might feel justifiably angry and cheated by the way things had turned out, but it wasn't as though she was out of options. At thirty-eight, she had at least five good childbearing years ahead of herMadonna had had her second child at forty-two, after all, and Geena Davis had had twins at forty-seven. Alex was fit and healthy and active. There was plenty of time for her to find Mr. Right and have the family she'd always wanted.
Plenty of time.
Ignoring the flutter of panic behind her breastbone, Alex reeled in her feelings and focused on the day ahead.
Plenty of time.
Eight hours later, Alex waited on the examination table as her doctor washed her hands after Alex's annual physical. As it had all day, her mind circled back to the encounter with Jacob. She made it a policy not to brood. It was a huge waste of energy, and it never changed anything. She had better things to do with her time and emotion. Still, she couldn't erase the image of Jacob and little Teddy. To be so close to everything she wanted and yet be so far removed.
Dr. Ramsay turned back from washing her hands. "Okay, we'll check your abdomen, then we're done. Hands by your sides, please. And a nice relaxed belly."
"Sure you don't want me to beg or fetch?" Alex asked.
"As if you'd listen to me anyway." Dr. Ramsay smiled, the lines around her eyes deepening.
She'd been Alex's doctor for ten years now and she always managed to fit Alex in, no matter how crazy her work schedule.
Dr. Ramsay's expression grew distant as she pressed down on Alex's lower belly.
"Let me know if you feel any pain or discomfort."
"How's that?" Dr. Ramsay asked, pressing near where Alex imagined her ovaries were located.
Over her bladder this time.
A few more pokes, then her doctor was done. "You can get dressed now. So unless there's anything else you were worried about, we're finished."
Alexandra sat up, swinging her legs over the side of the table.
"Nothing major. I have noticed my periods have been getting heavier over the past few months. More cramping, that sort of thing."
"Unfortunately, that's something that happens for a lot of women as they age. You're, what, thirty-nine this year?"
"We'll keep an eye on it and if it becomes a problem we can look at your options. But given the average age of menopause is fifty-one, it might be an issue that will simply resolve itself."
Alex laughed nervously. "Menopause? I'm not even forty yet."
Dr. Ramsay shrugged. "But you are on the tail end of your fertility, and quite a few women go into menopause in their forties."
"But I haven't had children yet."
Dr. Ramsay looked startled. "Oh. I didn't realize that was something you wanted. I always assumed you were a career woman."
"No. I mean, I am. I love my career. But I want a family, too."
There was concern in Dr. Ramsay's eyes now. "I see. Well, you probably don't need me to tell you that the clock is ticking."
"I've still got a few years up my sleeve yet, right?" Alex asked.
She hesitated a beat before speaking again. "Why don't you get dressed and we can discuss this further?"
The curtain hissed shut between them. Alex tried to push beyond the growing sense of dread as she reached for her clothes. It took her two attempts to button her skirt.
Dr. Ramsay was seated at her desk when Alex opened the curtain.
"Grab a seat," the doctor said, patting the chair she'd pulled up alongside her desk.
Alex sat and folded her hands into her lap. "Why do I feel as though I've been called to the principal's office?"
Dr. Ramsay drew a diagonal line on the paper in front of her, sloping from the top left corner down to the right. Then she jotted some figures along the horizontal and vertical axes of her impromptu graph.
"Here's a crash course in female fertility," she said when she'd finished her sketch. "When it comes to having babies, the quality of the egg is what's important. The current understanding is that fertility as well as egg quality hit their peak at around twenty-seven. From then onward, it's a steady decline. After thirty-five" Dr. Ramsay tapped the appropriate point on her downward-sloping graph "fertility drops off dramatically. Statistically, the likelihood of a woman in her early forties having a successful pregnancy with her own ovum is only ten percent."
"Ten percent?" Alex repeated.
"But I'm only thirty-eight right now. Where does that place me on the graph?" Alex leaned forward urgently.
Dr. Ramsay tapped a spot scarily close to the bottom of her sloping line. "At about thirty-five percent. But remember, these figures are averages. There are always people who fall outside of the norm."
Alex stared at the tiny indentation the doctor's pen had made in the page. Thirty-five percent. She had a thirty-five percent chance of getting pregnant and successfully carrying a child to term. And next year that figure would drop again.
"I thought I had more time. I mean Madonna. And Geena Davis. And I'm sure I read about a woman in her early fifties having triplets. "
"Unfortunately these high-profile late-in-life pregnancies give women a false sense that having a baby is as simple as deciding the time is right and going for it. Many, many older women have to resort to IVF to get pregnant in their late thirties and early forties. Many fail and are forced to look to donor eggs."
Alex's palms were damp with sweat. For so many years she'd dreamed of being a mother. She'd drawn up a list of names, she'd even bought her sensible, safe sedan with an eye to the future. She'd always assumed that she would be a mother, that when she was ready, her body would cooperate and she'd get pregnant.
"Are you telling me that it might already be impossible for me to have a child?" she asked. It was hard to get the words past the lump in her throat.
"Without invasive tests, without you having tried and failed to conceive for an extended period of time, it's impossible for us to know how fertile you are. What I'm trying to say and perhaps not doing a very good job of it is that if this is something you want, Alex, you need to move quickly. The sooner the better as far as your body is concerned."
Alex smoothed her hands down her skirt. She could feel how tense her thigh muscles were beneath the fine Italian wool. Her belly muscles were quivering and she was frowning so fiercely her forehead ached.
"I see," she said.
And she did. She saw Jacob's baby boy, his big blue eyes taking in the world, his fingers clutching the edge of his blanket.
So small and soft, so full of promise.
All the rage and resentment and bitterness that she'd suppressed this morning rolled over her.