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LAUREL WOODALL had been sure that asking a man to father her babywithout any sexual privilegeshad 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 home-work, 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 pretty matter-of-fact. I could say, "I wasn't mar-ried and I wanted a child, so I asked one of my best friends if he would be your daddy." There are plenty of other al-ternative families around."
"That means our children would have to know, too."
"Yes, I suppose so. But you could explain the circum-stances 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 to-night 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 comfortable 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 respon-sible than he is."
They grinned at each other, as in love, Laurel suspected, as they'd been on their wedding day. That was another rea-son 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 hesitation 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 sar-donically.
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, some-thing 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, contribution 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 may-be 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 Caribbeanand 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 con-vinced 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 supple-ment 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 be-hind her eyelids when she let herself into her small house in Lake City.
LAUREL DIDN'T TELL anyone what she planned. Not her fa-ther, 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.
Caleb was different. She wouldn't tell him when he called or she responded to his e-mails, but in person, it would be hard not to. Fortunately, he was out of the coun-try, as he often was, so she hadn't had to make an excuse to avoid seeing him.
She didn't know what he'd say, whether he'd under-stand or would try to talk her out of a decision she'd al-ready made. He was less predictable than her dad or her sister.
Part of her wanted to tell him. He'd been the most amazing friend she'd ever had, and had been since the second week of their freshman year of college.
Laurel still remembered the first time she'd seen him. Their dorm at Pacific Lutheran University had a rec room in the basement, complete with a Ping-Pong table and a dozen sagging sofas and chairs too grungy even for the local thrift store. She had wandered down, feeling shy but forced herself to pretend to be outgoing she might actually be popular. A bunch of kids were draped on the sofas, one reading and nodding in time to music that played through her headphones, some arguing about whether any curricu-lum should be requiredhow funny that she remembered thatand two boys played Ping-Pong.
One of those two was in her intro to psych class. They'd sat next to each other and exchanged a few words, so she felt comfortable pausing to watch the game. Until the sec-ond boy aced his serve and taunted the guy she knew, then grinned at her. She looked at him, he looked at her and, It wasn't true love at first sight, even though the girlfriends she made in the weeks to come believed through all four years that she had a crush on Caleb Manes. What they'd done was fall into like. There was a connection. They were instant friends, this tall, lanky boy with curly dark hair and electric-blue eyes and former high school nerd Laurel Woodall, in those days carrying an extra twenty-five pounds.
She could talk to Caleb; he really listened. And he talked to her, telling her stuff no guy ever had before. They advised each other through girlfriends and boy-friends, first kisses and breakups. He'd slipped a note into her hand when all the seniors in their graduation robes milled like sheep impervious to attempts to herd them into order. She had waved and smiled at her dad, snapping pic-tures, then peeked at the note.
Friends forever, it said.
She'd felt a tiny glow of warmth and relief at his reas-surance that somehow they would stay connected even though they were going in different directions. Caleb had signed up for the Peace Corps and was going to bum around Europe with a buddy until he had to report for training. She had a summer job lined up and was heading to law school at the University of Washington come fall.
But, friends forever. Of course they would be.
They almost hadn't been. The irony was, she'd been the one who tried to shut him out, along with all her other friends. But Caleb hadn't let her, a fact that to this day still filled her with misgiving and relief and probably a dozen other emotions mixed into a brew as murky as folk cures for hangovers: weird looking, vile tasting, not so easy on the stomach, but in the end, settling in there.
They'd never been quite as close as when they could drop by each other's dorm rooms and later apartments at PLU. But that would have happened anyway. By the time he came back from Ecuador, she hadn't seen him in two years. They were adults, embarked on careers, or at leastin her casea job. He'd become engaged once, although the wedding had kept getting postponed and never did happen. Once his import business took off, Caleb had bought a house on Vashon Island, a twenty-minute ferry ride plus a half-hour drive from her north Seattle neighbor-hood. She saw him maybe once a month. Sometimes less.
They were casual friends, Laurel concluded, refusing to listen to any dissenting voices. She had no obligation to tell him anything.
It had taken her so long to work up the courage to ask Matt to donate sperm, her most fertile time of the month had come and gone. So now she had a month to second-guess herself, suffer daily panic attacks and pray that he and Sheila didn't change their minds. Laurel didn't think they would, but that fear had to be part of those panic at-tacks that hit her unpredictably.
She'd be sitting on the Metro bus she took every morn-ing to work at the downtown law firm, hip to hip with some old lady gripping her purse and shooting glares at every-one who walked down the aisle, or some guy in cornrows blasting rap from headphones and bobbing in time. She'd be minding her own business, looking out the window and seeing the cross streets pass, wishing she'd had time for a second cup of coffee. She'd vowed to save her money and not stop every day at the Tully's on the corner where she got off, but maybe today,