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'Ben, would you consider being my sperm donor?'
Ben Sullivan's head rocked back at his best friend's question. He thrust his glass of wine to the coffee table before he spilled its contents all over the floor, and spun to face her. Meg held up her hand as if she expected him to interrupt her.
He coughed. Choked. He couldn't breathe, let alone interrupt her! When he'd demanded to know what was on her mind this wasn't what he'd been expecting. Not by a long shot. He'd thought it would be something to do Elsie or her father, but..
He collapsed onto the sofa and wedged himself in tight against the arm. Briefly, cravenly, he wished himself back in Mexico instead of here in Fingal Bay.
A sperm donor? Him?
A giant hand reached out to seize him around the chest, squeezing every last atom of air out of his lungs. A loud buzzing roared in his ears.
'Let me tell you first why I'd like you as my donor, and then what I see as your role in the baby's life.'
Her no-nonsense tone helped alleviate the pressure in his chest. The buzzing started to recede. He shot forward and stabbed a finger at her. 'Why in God's name do you need a sperm donor? Why are you pursuing IVF at all? You're not even thirty!' She was twenty-eight, like him. 'There's loads of time.'
'No, there's not.'
Everything inside him stilled.
She took a seat at the other end of the sofa and swallowed. He watched the bob of her throat and his hands clenched. She tried to smile but the effort it cost her hurt him.
'My doctor has told me I'm in danger of becoming infertile.'
Bile burned his throat. Meg had always wanted kids. She owned a childcare centre, for heaven's sake. She'd be a great mum. It took an enormous force of will to bite back the angry torrent that burned his throat. Railing at fate wouldn't help her.
'I'm booking in to have IVF so I can fall pregnant asap.'
Hence the reason she was asking him if he'd be her sperm donor. Him? He still couldn't get his head around it. But 'You'll make a brilliant mum, Meg.'
'Thank you.' Her smile was a touch shy. It was the kind of smile that could turn the screws on a guy. 'Not everyone will be as understanding, I fear, but ' She leaned towards him, her blonde hair brushing her shoulders. 'I'm not scared of being a single mum, and financially I'm doing very well. I have no doubt of my ability to look after not only myself but whoever else should come along.'
Neither did he. He'd meant it when he'd said she'd be a great mother. She wouldn't be cold and aloof. She'd love her child. She'd fill his or her days with love and laughter, and it would never have a moment's doubt about how much it was cherished.
His chest burned. An ache started up behind his eyes. She'd give her child the kind of childhood they had both craved.
Meg straightened. 'Now, listen. For the record, if you hate the idea, if it makes you the slightest bit uncomfortable, then we just drop the subject, okay?'
His heart started to thud.
She had her bossy-boots voice on and it almost made him smile. He gave a hard nod. 'Right.'
'Right.' Her hands twisted together and she dragged in a deep breath. Her knuckles turned white. Ben's heart thumped harder.
'Ben, you're my dearest friend. I trust you with my life. So it somehow only seems right to trust you with another lifea life that will be so important to me.'
He closed his eyes and hauled in more air.
'You're healthy, fit and intelligenteverything I want for my child.'
He opened his eyes again.
She grinned. 'And, while you will never, ever get me to admit this in front of another living soul, there isn't another man whose genes I admire more.'
Behind the grin he sensed her sincerity. And, just like every other time he visited, Meg managed to melt the hardness that had grown in him while he'd been away jetting around the world.
'I want a baby so badly I ache with it.' Her smile faded. 'But having a baby like thisthrough IVFthere really isn't anyone else to share the journey with me. And an anonymous donor ' She glanced down at her hands. 'I don't knowit just seems a bit cold-blooded, that's all. But if that donor were you, knowing you were a part of it '
She met his gaze. He read in her face how much this meant to her.
'Well, that wouldn't be so bad, you know? I mean, when my child eventually asks about its father I'll at least be able to answer his or her questions.'
Yeah, but he'd be that father. He ran a finger around the collar of his tee shirt. 'What kind of questions?'
'Hair colour, eye colour. If you were fun, if you were kind.' She pulled in a breath. 'Look, let me make it clear that I know you have absolutely no desire to settle down, and I know you've never wanted kids. That's not what I'm asking of you. I'm not asking you for any kind of commitment. I see your role as favourite uncle and nothing more.'
She stared at him for a moment. 'I know you, Ben. I promise your name won't appear on the birth certificate unless you want to. I promise the child will never know your identity. Also,' she added, 'I would absolutely die if you were to offer me any kind of financial assistance.'
That made him smile. Meg was darn independenthe'd give her that. Independent and bossy. He suspected she probably thought she made more money than him too.
The fact was neither one of them was crying poor.
'I know that whether you agree to my proposition or not you'll love and support any child of mine the way you love and support me.'
That was true.
She stared at him in a way that suddenly made him want to fidget.
She curled her legs beneath her. 'I can see there's something you want to say. Please, I know this is a big ask so don't hold back.'
Her words didn't surprise him. There'd never been any games between him and Meg. Ben didn't rate familynot his mother, not his father and not his grandmother. Oh, he understood he owed his grandmother. Meg lectured him about it every time he was home, and she was right. Elsie had fed, clothed and housed him, had made sure he'd gone to school and visited the doctor when he was sick, but she'd done it all without any visible signs of pleasure. His visits now didn't seem to give her any pleasure either. They were merely a duty on both sides.
He'd make sure she never wanted for anything in her old age, but as far as he was concerned that was where his responsibility to her ended. He only visited her to make Meg happy.
He mightn't rate family, but he rated friendshipand Meg was the best friend he had. Megan Parrish had saved him. She'd taken one look at his ten-year-old self, newly abandoned on Elsie's doorstep, and had announced that from that day forth they were to be best friends for ever. She'd given his starved heart all the companionship, loyalty and love it had needed. She'd nurtured them both with fairytales about families who loved one another; and with the things they'd do, the adventures they'd have, when they grew up.
She'd jogged beside him when nothing else would ease the burn in his soul. He'd swum beside her when nothing else would do for her but to immerse herself in an underwater worldwhere she would swim for as long as she could before coming up for air.
And he'd watched more than once as she'd suffered the crippling agony of endometriosis. Nothing in all his life had ever made him feel so helpless as to witness her pain and be unable to ease it. His hands clenched. He hadn't realised she still suffered from it.
'I'm concerned about your health.' Wouldn't her getting pregnant be an unnecessary risk at this point? 'That's what I want to talk about.'
He shifted on the sofa to survey her more fully. She held her glass out and he topped it up from the bottle of Chardonnay they'd opened during dinner. Her hand shook and something inside him clenched. He slammed the bottle to the coffee table. 'Are you okay?' he barked without preamble.
She eyed him over the glass as she took a sip.
His tension eased. She wouldn't lie to him. 'But?' 'But it's a monthly problem.' She shrugged. 'You know that.' But he'd thought she'd grown out of it! Because that's what you wanted to think. His hands fisted. 'Is there anything I can do?'
Her face softened in the dim light and he wanted to reach across and pull her into his arms and just hold her breathe her in, press all of his good health and vitality into her body so she would never be sick again. 'No doubt Elsie's told you that I've had a couple of severe bouts of endometriosis over the last few months?'
His stomach rolled and roiled. He nodded. When he'd roared into town on his bike earlier in the day Meg had immediately sent him next door to duty-visit his grandmother, even though they all knew he only returned to Fingal Bay to visit Meg. Elsie's two topics of conversation had been Meg's health and Meg's father's health. The news had been chafing at him ever since.
'Is the endometriosis the reason you're in danger of becoming infertile?'
'Yes.' She sat back, but her knuckles had turned white again. 'Which is why I'm lusting after your genes and.'
'And?' His voice came out hoarse. How could fate do this to his best friend?
'I don't know what to call it. Maybe there isn't actually a term for it, but it seems somehow wrong to create a child with an anonymous person. So, I want your in-their-prime genes and your lack of anonymity.'
Holding her gaze, he rested his elbows on his knees. 'No fathering responsibilities at all?'
'God, no! If I thought for one moment you felt pressured in that direction I'd end this discussion now.'
And have a baby with an anonymous donor? He could see she would, but he could also see there'd always be a worry at the back of her mind. A fear of the unknown and what it could bring.
There was one very simple reason why Meg had turned to himshe trusted him. And he trusted her. She knew him, and knew how deftly he avoided commitment of any kind. She knew precisely what she was asking. And what she'd be getting if he went along with this scheme of hers.
If he agreed to be her sperm donor it would be him helping her become a mother. End of story. It wouldn't be his child. It would be Meg's.
Still, he knew Meg. He knew she'd risk her own health in an attempt to fall pregnant and then carry the child full term and give birth to it. Everything inside him wanted to weep at the thought of her never becoming a mother, but he couldn't be party to her risking her health further. He dragged a hand back through his hair and tried to find the words he needed.
'I will tell you something, though, that is far less admirable.' She sank back against the arm of the sofa and stretched her legs out until one of them touched his knee. 'I'm seriously looking forward to not having endometriosis.'
It took a moment for her words to reach him. He'd been too intent on studying the shape of her leg. And just like that he found himself transported to that moment ten years ago when he'd realised just how beautiful Meg had become. A moment that had started out as an attempt at comfort and turned passionate. In the blink of an eye.
The memory made him go cold all over. He'd thought he'd banished that memory from his mind for ever. That night he'd almost made the biggest mistake of his whole sorry life and risked destroying the only thing that meant anything to him Meg's friendship. He shook his head, his heart suddenly pounding. It was stupid to remember it now. Forget it!
And then her words reached him. He leaned forward, careful not to touch her. 'What did you just say about the endometriosis?'
'You can't get endometriosis while you're pregnant. Pregnancy may even cure me of it.'
If he did what she asked, if he helped her get pregnant, she might never get endometriosis again.
He almost hollered out his assent before self-preservation kicked in. Not that he needed protecting from Meg, but he wanted them on the same page before he agreed to her plan.
'Let me just get this straight. I want to make sure we're working on the same assumptions here. If I agree to be your sperm donor I'd want to be completely anonymous. I wouldn't want anyone to know. I wouldn't want the child to ever know. Just like it wouldn't if you'd gone through a sperm bank.'
'Not all sperm banks are anonymous.' She shrugged. 'But I figured you'd want anonymity.'
She had that right. If the child knew who its father was it would have expectations. He didn't do expectations.
'And this is your baby, Meg. The only thing I'd be doing is donating sperm, right?'
'I'd be Uncle Ben, nothing more?' 'Nothing more.'
He opened and closed his hands. Meg would be a brilliant mother and she deserved every opportunity of making that dream come true. She wasn't asking for more than he could give.
He stood. 'Yes,' he said. 'I'll help out any way I can.'
Meg leapt to her feet. Her heart pounded so hard and grew so big in her chest she thought she might take off into the air.
When she didn't, she leapt forward and threw her arms around all six-feet-three-inches of honed male muscle that was her dearest friend in the world. 'Thank you, Ben! Thank you!'
Dear, dear Ben.
She pulled back when his heat slammed into her, immediately reminded of the vitality and utter life contained by all that honed muscle and hot flesh. A reminder that hit her afresh during each and every one of Ben's brief visits.
Her pulse gave a funny little skip and she hugged herself. A baby!
Nevertheless, she made herself step back and swallow the excess of her excitement. 'Are you sure you don't want to take some time to think it over?' She had no intention of railroading him into a decision as important as this. She wantedneededhim to be comfortable and at peace with this decision.
He shook his head. 'I know everything I need to. Plus I know you'll be a great mum. And you know everything you need to about me. If you're happy to be a single parent, then I'm happy to help you out.'
She hugged herself again. She knew her grin must be stupidly broad, but she couldn't help it. 'You don't know what this means to me.'
'Yes, I do.'
Yes, he probably did. His answering grin made her stomach soften, and the memory of their one illicit kiss stole through heras it usually did when emotions ran high between the two of them.
She bit back a sigh. She'd done her best to forget that kiss, but ten years had passed and still she remembered it.
She stiffened. Not that she wanted to repeat it!
Good Lord! If things had got out of control that night, as they'd almost threatened to, they'd
She suppressed a shudder. Well, for one thing they wouldn't be having this conversation now. In fact she'd probably never have clapped eyes on Ben again.
She swallowed her sudden nausea. 'How's the jet lag?' She made her voice deliberately brisk.
He folded his arms and hitched up his chin. It emphasised the shadow on his jaw. Emphasised the disreputable bad-boy languorthe cocky swing to his shoulders and the loose-limbed ease of his hips. 'I keep telling you, I don't get jet lag. One day you'll believe me.'
He grinned the slow grin that had knocked more women than she could count off their feet.
But not her.