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LAUREL WOODALL had been sure that asking a man to father her babywithout any sexual privi-legeshad to be the hardest thing she'd ever done.
But no. That conversation paled in comparison to this one.
Asking said man's wife whether it was okay with her was definitely worse.
The two sat across their dining room table from Laurel, their chairs placed so close together that their shoulders touched.After dinner, they'd sent the kids to do homework, take baths and get ready for bed. Sheila and Laurel had cleared the dirty dishes and loaded the dishwasher, chatting in the way of two people determined to pretend they didn't feel at all uncomfortable with each other, even though that was a flat-out lie on both their parts. Then they'd poured coffee and returned to the table.
Laurel took a deep breath, clasped her hands in her lap and said, "Well, I assume Matt told you what I wanted to talk about."
Sheila, a freckle-faced redhead, nodded. "Um, how do you feel about it?"
It. Great word. It could sum up anything from a brightly wrapped package to a great big favor. Like the donation of sperm, the fathering of a baby. But it, little tiny word that it was, implied the request was nothing special.
Beside his wife, Matt all but quivered like a tuning fork. He must know what she thought, but not necessarily what she'd say.
"I have a few questions."
"Of course." Laurel smiled as if they were talking about vacation plans, not something so desperately vital to her.
"Would your child know Matt was his father?"
"That would be entirely up to you. I was hoping that heor shewould." Secretly, she wanted a girl. "That we could be prettymatter-of-fact. I could say, "I wasn't married and I wanted a child, so I asked one of my best friends if he would be your daddy." There are plenty of other alternative families around."
"That means our children would have to know, too."
"Yes, I suppose so. But you could explain the circumstances to them the same way."
"Are you expecting Matt to take any real role as father?" "Again, that would be up to him, and to you, of course. If he was around, a friendly uncle kind of figure, that would be great. Am I expecting him to want joint custody or every other weekend? No."
"Wow." Sheila looked into her coffee cup as if for answers.
Wrong beverage. No tea leaves there. Laurel leaned forward. "What if I were sitting here tonight telling you I'm pregnant? Wouldn't you gather my baby into your family, the way you always have me? If I were asking you to be godparents, "
"I wouldn't hesitate," Sheila admitted. "But, this is different."
"I asked Matt because I know him. I'm com-fortable with him. And, well, honestly, because your kids are so fantastic."
It was the right thing to say. Sheila's face softened.
Matt puffed out his chest. "I'm a proven stud." His wife elbowed him. "They are fantastic, aren't they? Although I'm inclined to think I'm more responsible than he is."
They grinned at each other, as in love, Laurel suspected, as they'd been on their wedding day. That was another reason she'd asked them. Their marriage was solid, their relationship trusting. Sheila wouldn't wonder even for a second if there was anything funny going on between her husband and Laurel.
She sighed then. "I'm sure most of my hesita-tion is based on some kind of atavistic response. You know. He's my man, and I don't want to share his genes. But another part of me knows that's silly. He wants to do this for you, and it's not as if I don't love you, too, so, Sure. Okay."
Breath catching, Laurel sat up straighter. "Really? You mean it?"
Sheila smiled. "I said yes, didn't I?" "Oh, bless you!" Laurel's chair rocked as she jumped to her feet and raced around the table to hug first Sheila, then Matt. "This is so amazing! It's really going to happen. Wow. I'm in shock."
"You're crying," Matt said in alarm.
"What? Oh." She swiped at tears. They didn't matter. Nothing mattered but this. Knowing that soon, she'd be a mother.
Eventually she stopped smiling and wiped away the tears enough so that she could tell them what she knew about the procedure.
"You could go in with Matt," she said to Sheila.
"Help him, um, you know."
"Produce the little guys?" Sheila said just a little sardonically.
The big, brawny, bearded guy blushed, Laurel would have sworn he did. "Yeah. That." She didn't actually want to think about that part of the "procedure." It was too close to sex, something else she never, ever thought about. Not when she could help it. "If you were there, it would be as if, oh, as if his, uh, contri-bution came from both of you."
"I don't know. That seems weird. Well, all of it does. But I'll think about it. Okay?"
Laurel nodded. "Now, how about some dessert? I made a coffee cake today."
Stomach knotted with the aftermath of nerves and maybe a new case of themshe was going to have a baby!Laurel still smiled and said, "Sounds great."
This had been the hardest part, she reminded herselfand kept reminding herself, even after she'd said goodbye to Sheila and Matt's brood, hugged both of them again and gotten behind the wheel of the car.
She'd had alternatives in mind, but Matt had been first on her list. They'd been friends since she'd taken her first job after the rape in a legal aid office. He was great: smart, good-looking in a teddy-bearish way, gentle, kind and healthy. She knew his parents were still alive and going strong in their seventiestonight Sheila had mentioned they were on a cruise in the Carib-beanand that his grandmother had lived into her nineties. She knew him. The essence of him.
Of course, she'd considered going the sperm bank route. Had even called a couple of places. She'd almost convinced herself that she balked because she could never know how much in each donor's profile was true and how much false. Graduate student in astrophysics. Sure. But maybe he worked at the local Brown Bear car wash. I.Q. of 154. Uh-huh. And how did he measure it? An online pop quiz?
But that wasn't really it. Some of those donors probably were graduate students who needed some bucks to supplement their fellowships. No, what mattered was that they were strangers.
However clinical the procedurethere was that word againshe would still be taking a part of him inside her. Her skin crawled at the idea.
But a friend, A friend for whom she had no sexual feelings. That was different. She could hug Matt, and his sperm she could accept.
And he'd said yes. They'd said yes. Tears burned behind her eyelids when she let herself into her small house in Lake City.
LAUREL DIDN'T TELL anyone what she planned. Not her father, not her younger sister. Once it was a done deal and she was pregnant would be soon enough. They couldn't try to talk her out of it then.
And they would. Even Matt had, in his gentle way.
He'd cleared his throat apologetically. "I know you don't see a sexual relationship in your near future. But you're still young, Laurel. It's not as if your childbearing years are passing. You've done a lot of healing. You'll do more. Becoming a parent with someone you love, "
She'd shaken her head. "No. It's not going to happen, Matt. And, I need someone to love. Someone I can love."
She guessed the certainty in her voice had swayed him. Or the plea, she wasn't sure. All she knew was, she didn't want to argue with anyone else. Explain. Justify.
Nope, she would just announce, "I'm pregnant," and have faith they'd be happy for her.