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"I'm pregnant," Ellen announced gleefully.
"You're what?" Not the reaction Ellen was probably looking for, Leah Williams thought. That her younger sister, thirty-two, happily married for six years, was carrying a longed-for child should have been great news. As it was, Leah absently poured orange juice, intended for four-year-old Mary Grace's cup, into her bowl of muesli.
"Oh, sh Sorry. I'll eat it. Maybe I can pour it Darling, just a minute."
The life inside Leah's abdomen gave a kick, as if the baby could sense the turmoil Ellen's words caused.
"So we'll be pregnant together," Ellen continued, "and we'll have new babies at about the same time. Mine's due December first. I think. Anyhow, our kids will be cousins and really close in age ."
I never planned on keeping this baby. This was your baby, Ellen.
"Ellen, hang on. I need to deal with cereal." She put down the phone. Ellen was pregnant. How was Ellen pregnant? And what was supposed to happen to the babyEllen's baby, for crying out loudthat Leah was carrying? Of course, Ellen had made her wishes clearLeah would keep the baby.
She picked up the phone and said, "Mary Grace, I'm going in the other room for a minute."
Her daughter, who had Sam's hay-colored hair and Leah's dark eyes, nodded without looking up from her bowl. She ate with deliberation, as she did everything.
Leah stared out the window. The two acres of peach orchards on which the small historic farmhouse sat had been Sam's promised land. Leah loved the little three-bedroom house, loved to gaze out over the fertile valley at the snow-draped mountains.
Stifling a sigh, she put the phone to her ear.
First things first. Though she wasn't sure what should come first.
She spoke to her sister. "You're thinking I'll just keep this baby."
"Well, it's up to you," Ellen said. "But I thought you'd want to."
Leah walked back over to the windows that fronted the tiny living room. Gazing out at mountains far to the north, she asked, "How did you come to be pregnant?"
Ellen's husband, River, was a Desert Storm veteran. After leaving the military, he'd changed his name and taken up organic farming. Then, he'd met Ellen, and ever since they'd been trying for a pregnancy. After more than three years and no baby, they'd figured that they were, as a couple, infertile, and, unwilling to go to a fertility clinic, they'd asked Leah to have a child for them, the sperm to be provided by River's half brother, Mark.
Leah had drawn the line at conceiving a baby the natural way with Mark Logan!
River and Ellen, talked through every step of the process and reassured that no fertility drugs, for instance, would be used, had finally agreed that artificial insemination could take place in the office of a nearby Delta midwife, Kassandra Warner.
"You're pregnant," Leah repeated. "With River's child."
"Yes. Of course." Ellen paused. "You will be our midwife, won't you?"
"Yes," said Leah. She was ready to put down the phone and be alone and thinkor maybe just scream. Granted, Ellen hadn't planned this. Ellen and River had believed that they couldn't conceive a child together. Nonetheless, the situation seemed so typical. Ellen was flighty and unreliable, and Leah had allowed herself to be persuaded to conceive and carry a child to give to her sister and River, and now this.
She had to get off the phone. But there was still one question to ask, because the child she carried Well, the baby had another biological parent. "Does Mark know?"
A pause. "I hadn't thought to let him know. I guess I should, because River and I won't be the parents of your baby. You will be. I'll call him. Right now. Go back to Mary Grace."
Leah sank onto an antique love seat by the window. Once again her gaze was drawn to the distant mountains. Mark Logan.
She'd known him for years, though just as an acquaintance. Women throughout the San Juan Mountains and north along Colorado's western slope swore he was like a brother to them, that he was the best guy there was. Men respected him. And everyone agreed that he was the most capable mountaineer and back-country guide in the area.
Leah found him abrasive. For whatever reason, she'd never felt comfortable in his presence. In any case, he'd never tried to secure her good opinion. He had been Ellen's choice as a father for the child Leah now carried. Ellen's and River's. Leah definitely would have picked someone else. But she'd gone along with the baby project because Ellen and River had been desperate, and Leah had wanted to give this gift to her sister.
Well, it could be worse. Mark could come to Paonia and fight her over this child. Luckily for her, that wasn't going to happen. After having donated sperm to this project, he'd returned to his mountain home and hadn't looked back. He would leave the hard decisions to her.
Now, she must make them.
"Leah?" She'd already seen by the caller ID that the call was coming from Mark Logan's cell phone. So the deep, slightly gravelly voice should have been no surprise.
"Yes." She couldn't work up any friendliness, hadn't yet recovered from Ellen's announcement. Obviously, Ellen had wasted no time getting hold of him.
"You and I need to talk. I'll be down there by five-thirty. I'll take you to dinner. Can you get a sitter?"
This was what she so disliked about the man. He hadn't asked if she was free. He hadn't asked if she had money for a sitter. He'd just tried to take charge. Well, he could be as dictatorial as he liked, but it wasn't going to work with her. "No. I can't get a sitter. You can have dinner and come to the house after Mary Grace is asleep. Eight-thirty will be fine."
Silence. Then, "Okay. Can I pick anything up for you on the way?"
"No, thank you."
"I'll see you then."
"Baby," Leah said as she studied herself in the mirror, "it's you and me."
She smoothed a hand over her belly, admiring her maternity clothes. They'd been made by a Paonia designer, actually sewn in Paonia as well, and her red flared pants and matching tunic at once slimmed and emphasized the beauty of pregnancy.
She considered whether to wear her hair up or down and finally settled on a single braid down her back.
Mary Grace came into the room, carrying one of her stuffed animals, a unicorn named Secret. Unlike several of Mary Grace's other animals, Secret did not talk. He could keep a secret.
"You look pretty, Mommy."
"You are always pretty," she told her daughter.
Now is the time, she thought. She'd had hours to come to terms with the idea of the baby being her child instead of Ellen's. Now she had to break the news to Mary Grace.
"Ellen doesn't want our baby?" Mary Grace asked, after Leah had tried to explain what was happening.
"It's not that she doesn't want our baby. But she's having one of her own. So I'm going to have this baby, and you will have a brother or sister."
Mary Grace frowned thoughtfully. "This way is better," she said. "It makes more sense."
Having a mother who was a midwife, sometimes being taken to births in the middle of the night, Mary Grace had a strange maturity. She gave off a sense of knowing and wisdom. Leah found her daughter to be wholly remarkable and hoped the baby she was carrying would be as easy as Mary Grace had always been.
This is crazy. I did not plan to have a baby myself.
She said, "What story tonight?"
Leah heard his vehicle pull up on the dirt drive. She opened the front door and watched him come up the walk, his blond hair a bright spot under the stars.
Mark's blue eyes took in her appearance in one sweeping glancethen he seemed to dismiss her.
She stepped back, holding the door open, and he came in, giving the foyer with its old-fashioned wainscoting the same sort of look he'd given her. She shut the door and led him into the living room. Her furniture was lodgepole pine, most of it crafted by Sam. Sam had been able to do so many things, and Leah had loved him. But his sudden death hadn't caused unending grief so much as a sense of being overwhelmed, of needing to swim, swim, swim to keep her head above water.
The weighted windows were shaded now by blinds designed for energy efficiency, and they were keeping the house warm against the chill March night. Summer would be here soon, summer which meant more work in the garden and longer days with Mary Grace by her side and trips to the river and the swimming pond.
How am I going to earn enough to support two children?
She gestured Mark toward the couch. "Can I get you anything? Water? Tea?" She had beer in the fridgeprimarily for River when he and Ellen came overbut felt disinclined to offer it. This was simple nastiness on her part. It wasn't his fault that Ellen and River had so unexpectedly conceived a child. "Beer?" she finally said, relenting.
"Water would be great. Thank you."
She went to the kitchen and poured one for him and one for herself. Stalling for time, she took half a lemon from the refrigerator and garnished each glass with a slice. Added ice. She returned to the living room, handed Mark one of the glasses and sat down in the rocking chair at one end of the couch.
He drove straight to the matter at hand. "We need to decide what to do. You live here. My work is in the San Juans." He was a backcountry tour guide who operated a chain of huts through the mountains. "There will be a lot of traveling back and forth in order for us to share custody, but obviously that's what needs to happen."
Leah was momentarily dumbstruck. Then, she gave a brief, raw laugh. "Obviously?"
"You and I have conceived a child," he said in that same matter-of-fact, knows-what-is-best-for-everyone way. "I don't expect you to raise our child on your own."
"I could put the child up for adoption." Leah could not bring herself to say "our" and thought it wrong to say "my." In any case, she had no intention of putting the baby up for adoption, but she wanted to hear his reaction to the possibility.
"I wouldn't go along with that," he said.
"I'm not sure you have any choice in the matter." Who did he think he was?
"Let's say that I would prefer to keep better track of my sperm."
"I like that word. Prefer" she emphasized.
His smile didn't reach his eyes. "My preferred plan for the child you are carrying is that you and I share in its future."
"I have a child already," she said, "and we're doing just fine without help." She blocked out memories of the months after Sam's accident, of the shock of discovering she was alone in the world, that she was a single parent, which she'd never planned to be.
In the hours since Ellen had announced her pregnancy, Leah had imagined many scenarios involving the baby she herself carried. None of those scenarios had involved Mark Logan.
Now, despite the discouragement she couldn't help giving, part of her felt shame that she had so discounted him. Did she believe she could do a better job raising the child alone without the father's input?
But I don't like this man.
That didn't necessarily mean he would be a lousy father. If she meant to keep the baby, she should at least welcome this man's willingness to be part of the child's life.
Mark studied her and drank his water. Leah Williams was beautiful, no doubt about it. He was curious to see what the child they'd conceived would look like. Would their baby have her dark auburn hair and brown eyes? Or would it take after him? Ellen's and River's announcement had more than irritated him. He hadn't donated his sperm lightly. He had counted on them to raise the child.
It had occurred to him that she might want to give the baby up for adoption. He'd been prepared to take over as a single father rather than let her do that. He just didn't like the idea of having a child out there and not knowing what had become of the life that was part of him.
He said, "If you want to give the child up for adoption, I am willing to take the baby."
"Rather than see himor hergo to a home with two parents?"
She was toying with him. She must be. He decided to let her play out all her rope. "Yes."
Abruptly, she said, "I'm keeping this baby."
"And I'm glad you want to be an active father." This, Leah knew, was very close to a lie.
"Then, that's settled," he said. "And you can count on my paying child support as well."
"I suppose," she said with a visible lack of enthusiasm, "you may attend the birth. In fact, it would be my preference that you do."
He smiled suddenly, transforming his face from hard and forbidding to Well, Leah's stomach flooded with warmth. "I'm excited," he said. "I didn't plan on this happening, but I'm glad to have another child."
"Another?" He was divorced, she knew. Her heart quivered oddly. Every nerve in her body seemed to come alive at his wordshis assertion that he wanted this child. Must be the hormones.
"I have a daughter. Camille. She's sixteen. She lives with her mother in California. As for this baby, there's still the problem," he said, "that we live in different communities. I don't expect the baby to be separated from you fifty percent of the time while you're nursing."
Fifty percent? "You have joint custody of your daughter?" Leah asked.
"No." Bitterness crept into the single word. "We had a fairly serious custody battle, and Sabrina won. I get eight weeks a year visitation and may speak to her on the phone once a week."
Leah gazed at him in surprise. "Why so little time?"