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Doors had become a problem. Even the extra-wide entrance to the Safe Harbor Maternity Clinic scarcely looked big enough for Kate Evans to waddle through with her seven-month bulge.
She didn't recall having this much trouble getting in and out of cars or buildings during her first pregnancy, but five years ago she'd been only twenty-two. Everything had been easier then.
At the check-in desk, Kate waited behind a rail-thin young woman—perhaps one of the clinic's fertility patients—and a heavyset woman in her late thirties. Judging by the size of the older woman's midsection, she would probably precede Kate into the birthing unit at the medical center next door to the clinic.
Although giving birth to her son Brady had been the greatest thrill of her life, Kate wasn't looking forward to labor and delivery. Partly because of the pain, of course, but also because this time the doctor would be placing the baby in another woman's arms.
Even though Kate had chosen to do this of her own free will, that was going to hurt.
The line moved quickly. After signing her name and confirming her payment information, Kate headed for the elevator. She entered it right behind the heavyset woman, whom she vaguely recognized from previous visits.
"When are you due?" the woman asked as the doors closed, isolating the two of them.
"Mid-December." Kate marveled at the poor judgment of whoever had decided to line one wall of the elevator with a mirror. It showed her wispy brown hair, the slightly smudged makeup beneath her amber eyes, and the Jupiter-size swelling where her waist used to be. "You?"
"November. Next month," the woman added in amazement. "Gosh, I can't believe I'm nearly there. Three years of fertility treatments and now my baby's just a month away."
"Congratulations." To Kate's relief, the doors opened on the second floor. She preferred to avoid the baby-related conversations that naturally sprang up between expectant mothers.
Vain hope, she realized as the woman paced beside her along the hallway. "You see Dr. Rayburn too, don't you? I'm Rosemary, by the way."
"I'm Kate." She hoped her brisk tone would discourage further inquiry. Too bad, because under other circumstances Kate would have enjoyed getting to know this friendly mother-to-be.
"My husband couldn't take off work today," her companion continued. "He hates missing these appointments. I don't recall seeing your husband or significant other."
Kate rejected the usual white lie—"He travels a lot"—in favor of the truth. "Actually, he's dead."
"Oh!" Rosemary's mouth dropped open. "I'm sorry. How horrible for you that he died while you're pregnant."
"He died two years ago."
At the office labeled Mark Rayburn, M.D., Kate eyed the doorway dubiously. "I could swear that was wider last month."
"You have to pick your angle." Rosemary eased through. "Your husband left a sperm sample?"
Kate followed her inside. "No. I'm a surrogate."
"Oh. But how can you bear to…" Rosemary broke off. "It's none of my business, really." She headed for the counter.
Kate hung back, but her brain finished the sentence automatically. How can you bear to give it up? Also, How can you carry someone else's baby? She heard those questions often, along with the nosy, How much are they paying you? and the disdainful, What kind of mother are you, anyway?
The kind who wanted to help an infertile couple have a baby. The kind who, much as she'd have liked to do it for free, could certainly use the money to start her son's college fund and go back to school to become a nurse. Plus, in all honesty, she happened to be the kind of person who sometimes leaped before she looked.
Boy, had she leaped off this cliff, Kate conceded. She still didn't quite dare peek at the rapidly approaching ground below.
Yet by all reasonable measures, things were working out fine. Two months from now, a baby boy would get his chance at life and she could move on to build a future for herself and Brady.
After Rosemary sat down, Kate signed in. This clinic sure required a lot of paperwork, she reflected, but that seemed to be standard these days.
"You're here for an ultrasound?" the receptionist asked.
"Not that I'm aware of." In the office interior, Kate glimpsed nurse Lori Ross's familiar freckled face. "Lori, what's this about an ultrasound?" she called.
The nurse's startled expression showed a hint of alarm, or was that Kate's imagination? "Dr. Rayburn thought it might be a good idea."
"Is something wrong?"
"No. Not at all." But there was a trace of anxiety in Lori's voice.
The nurse hurried away, leaving Kate to take a seat. Since there were only two other women in the room, she had no trouble finding a spot far from Rosemary, who was leafing through a parenting magazine.
Kate tried not to worry. Lori had a lot on her mind these days, what with planning her Christmas wedding to a handsome neonatologist. She was probably worried about some detail or other.
As she lowered herself onto the chair, Kate felt her abdomen ripple. At this stage, the baby was squeezed too tight for his earlier acrobatics, but she loved the reminder that there was a real little boy in there. Artie, she'd nicknamed him. His parents had chosen the name Arthur, after one of his grandfathers.
If only she could hold Artie in her arms and gaze into his cute face, Kate thought with a rush of longing. She pictured his tiny mouth working as he nursed, the way Brady's had. But she wasn't going to breastfeed this baby. She doubted Esther and Tony Franco would even want her to express milk for him, not that she blamed them. Once he emerged into the world, Artie would be their son, not hers.
Except that wasn't entirely true. Not only had she carried him for all these months, but he'd been conceived through artificial insemination using Kate's egg.
Initially, she'd intended to carry a baby that wasn't genetically related. But she'd sympathized when she learned that Esther Franco had suffered premature ovarian failure in her early thirties.
Since then, doubts occasionally crept in, especially when Kate's sister Mary Beth began fuming about how unfair it was that she had to lose all contact with her future nephew. Well, the Francos—both attorneys—had insisted Kate sign a contract almost as long as the telephone book. Like it or not, she'd committed to giving up her baby.
For reassurance, she popped open her overstuffed purse and dug for her wallet. She needed to gaze at a photo of the precious little boy she already had.
Bad move. Out tumbled a toy car, a wad of receipts and a brochure from the California State University, Long Beach nursing program.
"Here. Let me." To her surprise, Rosemary trundled across the room and grabbed the toy car rolling across an adjacent chair. Had it made the plunge to the floor, neither of them could have retrieved it without help.
"Thanks," Kate said thickly, and hoped the other woman didn't notice the huskiness in her voice.
Rosemary handed her the toy and settled onto a neighboring seat. "You have other children?"
"My son's in kindergarten," Kate conceded, shoving everything into her purse. "You?"
A headshake. "My first." Rosemary drummed her fingers on her knee. "Do you mind my asking why you decided to do this?"
"I don't mind." Kate had answered that question often enough before. "While I could still stand on my feet all day, I worked at a beauty shop. One day between customers, I read a magazine article about a woman who carried a baby for another couple. It sounded so miraculous. Then my next client was a pediatrician, Dr. Forrest, who works at the hospital here, so I asked her opinion. Turned out she knew a couple who were desperate to have a baby, and, well, the whole thing seemed like destiny."
She didn't mention Tony Franco's position as staff attorney at the Safe Harbor Medical Center. He and Esther, a prosecutor with the Orange County District Attorney's office, had a right to decide for themselves how much to reveal to others about their new baby.
Nor did she care to admit that "desperate to have a baby" no longer fit the situation. Initially, Esther had seemed wild to become a mother and a friend, even inviting Kate to her house to suggest ideas for the nursery. Since then, however, either her interest had waned or she'd been overwhelmed by her workload. She hadn't joined Kate at checkups for months, leaving that task to her husband, who attended whenever some last-minute crisis didn't intervene.
On each occasion, Tony had asked concerned questions about Kate's care. Afterwards, he'd sent her gift certificates to her favorite store so she could buy treats for herself and Brady. Sometimes he seemed like the only parent who was truly involved.
Surely all that would change once Esther held the baby, though. Once she took the planned leave from her high-pressure job, there'd be plenty of time for mother and baby to bond.
Rosemary's next query was right on target. "Any second thoughts?"
Kate took a deep breath. "A few. I guess that's unavoidable, but this experience has been good for me. My husband died suddenly in an off-road vehicle accident, and I had trouble visualizing my future without him. This pregnancy has helped me move on. It's like getting a fresh start."
"That's beautiful." Rosemary might have said more, but Lori appeared and called her name. "Thanks for putting up with my curiosity."
"No problem. It's only natural."
Once the other woman left, Kate restored her purse to order. Thank goodness the conversation had taken her mind off the unexpected ultrasound. Now, as she thought about it, her palms prickled, and she was glad Lori returned quickly to call her in.
"What's up?" she asked as the nurse weighed her.
"Dr. Rayburn just wants to confirm something." Seeing a pucker form between the nurse's eyebrows, Kate got the impression she wanted to say more. Instead, Lori swiveled and led the way to a room with an ultrasound machine next to the examining table.
Usually, the nurse lingered to chat about her wedding plans since, in a small way, they involved Kate's baby. As Lori's best friend since high school, Esther was matron of honor, and the reception would be held at her and Tony's home overlooking the harbor. If Artie arrived on time, he'd be the tiniest guest at the event.
Today, however, the bride-to-be was all business. "You know the drill. Disrobe, put on the gown, push the green button to tell us you're ready."
"Tony isn't coming?" Kate asked.
"I think he's tied up."
Well, that wasn't unusual. "What about Esther?" she asked as Lori started for the door.
The nurse paused. "Excuse me?"
"Surely someone told her about the ultrasound."
"Well, no." Lori shifted from one foot to the other. "As a matter of fact, she's in Washington, D.C."
"At a conference or something. The doctor will be right in." She breezed off, leaving Kate more unsettled than ever.
Dr. Rayburn appeared soon afterwards. A powerfully built man with kind dark eyes, he served as hospital administrator in addition to seeing patients, yet he never seemed in a rush.
After asking how she felt—fine—and whether she'd encountered any problems—she hadn't—he instructed Kate to lie back for the ultrasound. "I thought I'd conduct this myself," he noted as he spread cool gel on her stomach.
"Why? Did you find some…?" She couldn't finish the sentence.
"Nothing to worry about." As he moved the small paddle across her stomach, images swirled on the monitor. "I was reviewing your file as a matter of routine, and I think the technician may have misinterpreted something."
Her throat tightened. "What?"
"Just a moment… There!" He examined the screen. "I was right. The technician confused an umbilical cord with a certain portion of the male anatomy. That is definitely a little girl."
Relief pumped through Kate. Was that all? "Oh, it's a she!" Not Artie, but… The name wasn't up to her. "Shouldn't the Francos be here for this?"
"Yes, they should." Dr. Rayburn tapped notes into a computer terminal. "It says here you haven't started your childbirth classes. If you wait any longer, you won't have time to finish."
"Esther's my birthing partner. She promised to set it up." And hadn't, obviously.
"There's a session starting tomorrow night." Dr. Ray-burn regarded her thoughtfully. "I can sign you up now."
"Okay. Thanks." Watching him input the information, Kate supposed she could ask her mother to accompany her. She'd need someone to be with her in the delivery room.
"Have you talked to either of the Francos this week?" the obstetrician asked.
"No." Although his position as hospital administrator made him Tony's boss, Dr. Rayburn was her doctor. Hesitantly, she said, "I'm not sure what's going on. This last month or so, I hardly hear from them."
"In this kind of situation, communication is essential," he said. "I'm going to call Tony's office and advise him that you're stopping by with some news. Or I can tell him about the gender myself if you'd prefer."
"No, I…I really need to get straight about who's going to be my birthing partner."
A few minutes later, Kate was en route to the hospital next door. Despite the awkward weight around her middle, she enjoyed strolling the short distance and inhaling the sea breeze from the small-boat harbor for which the town of Safe Harbor was named. It lay only about a mile away, visible from the upper stories of the medical center.
Her thoughts returned to the news that she carried a little girl. How exciting! Not that a boy wouldn't be wonderful, too. Still, Kate had never had a daughter.
Even if she's only mine until she's born.
As she entered the lobby, she saw a scant handful of people occupying the comfortable couches or browsing through the glass-front gift shop. It was a far cry from a few weeks earlier, when the news media had packed the place.
They'd been covering an influx of young mothers surrendering babies under the state's Safe Haven law, which was designed to encourage women not to abandon infants under unsafe conditions. Most had come after an Internet reporter named Ian Martin confused the name Safe Harbor with Safe Haven, implying that the medical facility offered special services.
As staff attorney, Tony had appeared on T V, explaining how the law protected the mothers from prosecution. Naturally, he's been busy, Kate thought. I'm not the only thing he and Esther have to worry about.
As she rode the elevator, she recalled the first time she'd met the couple, in a conference room here at the hospital. Esther had been tall and striking, thin as a model, with sleek sunlit hair and a tailored linen suit. But it was Tony who'd strode forward to clasp Kate's hand, his green eyes welcoming. He would make a wonderful father, she'd known instinctively.
Now, as Kate stepped onto the fifth floor, Dr. Ray-burn's question echoed in her mind—Have you talked to either of the Francos this week?—along with something else he'd said: In this kind of situation, communication is essential.
Had he been referring only to the gender issue? Kate wiped her palms against her maternity jeans and approached the administrative suite.