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"Will you donate your sperm so I can have a baby?" Corrie Edwards asked her boss.
At his family's cabin in Minnesota's snowy woods, Sam Barclay didn't know whether to laugh out loud or head to the lake for ice-fishing.
Six weeks ago, he'd driven to the cabin to escape the holidays, take a vacation from his veterinary practice, forget his broken engagement and get a perspective on his life.
"You are kidding, right?" His veterinary assistant didn't understand how much the question unsettled him. He'd called off his wedding because his fiancée had hidden her abortion from him.
"I'm serious, Sam," Corrie answered with a determined look. "I didn't drive four hours in this weather without a good reason."
She was still dressed in her yellow parka, snowflakes melting in her curly red-brown hair. He and his partner had hired her three years ago as a veterinary assistant after they'd bought the clinic.
Studying the brightness of her blue eyes, the dance of freckles across her nose, he felt a tightening in his gut he didn't want to recognize. This was Corrie for heck's sake! He was her boss. They talked about animals, the weather and life in Rapid Creek. They'd never had a "personal" conversation.
But you shared, one out-of-this-world, earthshaking kiss, a nudging voice inside his head reminded him.
That had been two years ago before Alicia.
"Take off your coat and tell me what this is all about. I'll make a pot of coffee."
As Corrie slipped off her parka and hung it over a straight-backed chair, Sam noticed the way her blue sweater fell over her breasts, how the fabric hung free of her very slim waist. Her legs were long in herstretch leggings and high boots.
Desire kicked him and forced him to concentrate on making coffee in the galley kitchen. Still, he was aware of Corrie gravitating toward Patches. His brown-and-black mutt had the distinguishing attributes of a Labrador, but about ten other breeds mixed in, too. Jasper, a small buff-colored cocker spaniel who trailed into the cabin with Corrie, had settled down in Patches's big bed. His dog didn't seem to mind. Patches flopped down in front of Corrie, thrilled to have her scratch his ears.
For some insane reason, Sam suddenly wondered what Corrie's touch might feel like
"Something wrong?" she asked, glancing toward him.
The cabin was too small to hide a sound or much of anything else.
As her eyes roamed over his face, dropped to his flannel shirt and jeans, he had the feeling she was sizing him up or else his genes?
He felt heat crawl up under his scruffy week-old beard. "Nothing's wrong. The coffee will be ready in a few minutes."
As he lowered himself beside her on the sofa, he felt her tense, saw her shoulders square a bit, her chin go up as if she were ready for a fight or an argument.
Corrie, a fighter?
It was as if her question had unlocked a box that he'd always designated for steady, melt-into-the-background Corrie Edwards and someone else had popped out.
Gently, he asked, "So you want to be a mother?"
When she looked at him, her eyes were shiny with emotion. "I've always wanted to be a mother. I've just never met the right man. I don't think I ever will. I'm not getting any younger."
His protest came easily. "You're only thirty-three." A year older than he was.
"Thirty-three might be young as far as the rest of my lifetime goes, but in child-bearing years" She shook her head. "I have a classmate in Minneapolis who's thirty-eight. She got pregnant and was doing just fine, then all of a sudden she developed preeclampsia. She almost died. I have another friend in St. Paul who's thirty-five. She just had her first baby. Her daughter is six months old, but she never imagined raising her would be so difficultthat she wouldn't have the energy she used to have. She's so exhausted day after day."
"That doesn't mean you'd be like that."
"I know. But I really want to be a mother, Sam. A mom like my mother was to me. Each year that passes my eggs are getting older and I'm not as fertile. I don't want to end up childless because I didn't do this soon enough."
"And my sperm qualify because ?" He waited, needing to know why she'd come to him.
She laid her hand on his arm. "You're " She paused and flushed a bit. "You're great-looking.You're a good age. And you're wonderful with Kyle. I've seen you with him."
His nephew Kyle, who was five, was one of his favorite people. In fact, he liked kids as much as animals. They didn't have ulterior motives and their reactions were honest.
"I'm flattered, Corrie, really I am. But becoming a father this way" Her hand on his arm was damn distracting. He had the feeling she didn't even know it was there. After all, they were just boss and employee. They'd always pretended that kiss had never happened.
She removed her hand from his forearm. "You don't have to be a father in the real sense. I mean, this could just be a business arrangement. You donate your sperm and that's that."
He'd donate his sperm and that was that? "If you got pregnant and I had a child, don't you think I'd want to be in his life?"
"I don't know. Would you?"
He thought about Alicia, what she'd done, the sorrow he'd felt, the absolute sense of betrayal. He couldn't imagine having a child and not wanting to be part of his or her life. "Do you know how sticky this could get?"
"Or not." She put the emphasis on the not. "If I became pregnant, if I have a baby, I would want a male role model in his or her life. You could fit in that way. As I said, I've seen you with Kyle. You'd be great. But I also know your brother Nathan said you're researching setting up veterinary clinics in foreign countries. If you decide that's something you want to do, you wouldn't have any strings tying you here."
"A child is one awfully big string."
Corrie studied him. "I thought men just wanted to donate their sperm then shirk responsibility."
"Where did you get your opinion of men?"
Corrie's cheeks reddened. "It doesn't matter where my opinion comes from, does it? I just don't believe becoming a father is on most men's agendas when they have sex. They walk away as soon as something goes wrong as soon as they see someone else they'd rather be with."
Sam wanted to shout, That's not true. My mother was the one who walked away. But he didn't. Corrie's opinion was Corrie's opinion. Something obviously had happened to her to make her believe it. Hadn't he himself concluded in the past few weeks that he was destined to be a bachelor? His father had trusted a woman and she'd walked out on her husband and kids. Sam had taken a chance on love and had been hurt just as badly.
"Let me tell you something, Corrie. If I were to father a child, I would not shirk my responsibility. That's something you'd have to decide whether you could live with or not."
Her eyes widened. "I never expected you'd want to be involved."
Because after their kiss in the tavern that New Year's Eve they'd ignored the chemistry, ignored the possibility of connection? Why had he ignored it?
The answer came swiftly. He'd sensed Corrie had walls he'd have difficulty breaking down. Besides neither of them had wanted to tamper with a boss-employee relationship that worked. Apparently neither of them had been ready for a relationship much more intimate than that.
He was aware of a pleasant scent that always seemed to surround Corrie, something like peaches and vanilla. It must be a lotion she used or a shampoo. Right now, inhaling it, studying her heart-shaped face, the wild mass of auburn curls, the scent wrapped itself around him.
Needing that cup of coffee, he rose to his feet and went to the kitchen. Her gaze followed him, and he found himself unnerved by her proposition. He should just say no. Why was he even considering it?
Because becoming a dad, even in this way, could give purpose to his life? A purpose it didn't have now?
Jasper suddenly decided he'd had enough of a nap. He stood, shook himself and came trotting over to Sam to look up at him expectantly.
"What can I do for you?" Sam asked, eager to change the subject, at least for a little while until he got his thoughts together.
"Whenever I go to my kitchen, he wants a treat. I have a few in my coat pocket."
Before Corrie could rise from the sofa, Sam said, "I'll get them." He went to her coat and found a bag. He took out a treat. The pup stood up on hind legs and danced around Sam until Sam dropped it into his mouth.
"You haven't told me why you're taking care of Shirley Klinedinst's dog."
The expression on Corrie's face changed and her voice lowered. "Shirley passed on two weeks ago."
"Oh, Corrie, I'm sorry." He knew Corrie and the older woman had gotten close. Shirley's old farmhouse on the outskirts of town had been too much for her to handle and had fallen into disrepair. Shirley had had no relatives in town and Sam knew Corrie had stopped in at least once a week to check on her and help out.
"Her lawyer called me after she was taken to the hospital and said he had instructions to bring Jasper to me if anything happened to her at least until her estate is settled. Apparently she made some kind of arrangement for Jasper in her will. I said I'd take care of him, of course."
As soon as Jasper finished crunching on his treat, he ran over to Corrie and jumped up onto the sofa beside her. She laughed and hugged him and Sam felt himself touched in some way. Oh, he saw Corrie with animals every day. She handled them confidently and expertly. But seeing her with Jasper now was different somehow. In his mind, he imagined her growing large with child, cuddling the baby after it was born, chasing after a toddler. The Corrie Edwards he was seeing today was very different from the one he'd summarily dismissed the past few years.
Was the change in him today, or was it in her?
Or had the question she'd asked him changed his perception of her? Maybe that question had made him see her as a woman rather than an employee.
"You can't drive back this evening, you know."
Her head came up and her gaze locked to his. "Why not?"
"You're going to be snowed in. The crews won't clear this road until the snowplows take care of the interstate."
"I have four-wheel drive."
"Be realistic, Corrie. It's already getting dark. What if you get stranded? There's no cell phone reception. You couldn't even call me."
She looked down at the little cocker spaniel, and he knew she was thinking about Jasper, too. She wouldn't do anything to put that animal in harm's way. "I didn't plan on staying. I didn't bring extra clothes"
"Or a toothbrush?" he teased. "What?You were planning to run in here, drop that question on me, then run out again? Why didn't you just wait until I came back? Nathan and Sara's wedding is next weekend, and I can't miss it."
"I heard about the wedding. But honestly, that's another reason I drove up here today. I thought it might be awkward working together until you gave me an answer. I didn't want you to feel pressured."
"Once I give you my decision, we'll still be working together."
"I know. But if you don't want to do it, we'll just go on as if I never asked."
In other words, Corrie wanted him to give this plan of hers serious thought without any distractions.
Sam's knee brushed hers as he shifted toward her. "You want me to consider your idea seriously."
Her eyes grew shiny. "This means a lot to me, Sam."
He knew Corrie had lost her mom shortly before taking the job with him and Eric, but he didn't know much else about her background. "Do you have brothers or sisters family?"
"My dad is in Minneapolis. But we're not close. I always wanted brothers and sisters. You're lucky to have two brothers." Corrie sounded wistful.
"Nathan and Ben are great when they mind their own business. But every once in a while, they're not busy enough with their own lives and think they have to poke into mine." Sam was the youngest, Nathan the eldest and soon to be a newlywed. These days Nathan's fiancée, Sara, and his son Kyle were his sole focus. Ben was the middle brother, an Assistant District Attorney in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a cynic about women and life.
"When I was a kid, Ben, Nathan and I were like the Three Musketeers. One for all and all for one. I can't imagine not having that support. Were you lonely?"
"Sometimes," she admitted. "But that's why I took in strays and found them homes."
He'd always known Corrie was a woman who cared deeply. He could tell because of the way she handled animals. Now he saw there was a depth to her he'd never noticed before. Depth and natural beauty.
If they had a baby together
The thought was running around in his head as if it might want to find a permanent place there. Sitting so close to Corrie, he had the sudden desire to stroke her hair behind her ear, to taste her pretty pink lips
"We should probably take the dogs out before the snow gets any deeper and the temperature drops for the night," he decided gruffly.
As he went to the hook beside the door for his ski jacket to brave the January night, he couldn't help thinking about the fact that Corrie wanted to have his baby. The idea definitely fed his ego.
But it also created turmoil.
Because of what Alicia had done?
He had to figure out the answer before he could give Corrie a yes or a no.
* * *
Corrie was ready to jump out of her skin.
Spend the night with Sam Barclay in his cabin? She'd never imagined that in her wildest dreams. Well, maybe she had. Maybe that was the problem.
She felt Sam's gaze on her as she pretended to watch Jasper romp in the snow. After Patches chased him, the smaller dog returned the favor. All the while, she knew Sam was trying to figure out exactly who she was.