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Caitlin sank to the cool tile floor of her tiny apartment bathroom, waiting for the nausea to subside. The crackers she kept on her nightstand helped some, but then she had to put up with crumbs in her bed.
Crumbs were a poor substitute for a warm body.
Her decision to stay in California had been rash, but not one she regretted, even though turning the moving van around had created a logistical nightmare. She'd had to find a place fast. Store everything from the three-bedroom row house that didn't fit into her new one-bedroom apartment. And redirect Luke's and her mail to the new address. Not to mention how disappointed her father had been when she'd cashed in her ticket and told him she wouldn't be coming home. She might not belong in this state anymore, but Coronado was where she'd buried her heart. And California was where she'd chosen to stay.
She had a meeting "of a serious nature" with CryoBank director Carol Livingston at eleven, followed by lunch with "the wives" at noon. And here she could barely pull herself together long enough to get dressed.
She stretched Luke's T-shirt across her legs, resting her forehead against her raised knees. The Navy had come knocking 184 days and seven hours ago.
His scent had faded. So had her memories. Now whenever she wanted to picture his face she had to look at an actual picture of him.
"I'm not ready." Not ready to let him go? Or not ready to go it alone?
Pregnancy was not the joyous event she'd imagined it to be. Not when Luke wasn't here to share it with her. She felt more alone than she ever would have thought possible. And more afraid. She had yet to tell her friends.
They weren't even her friends anymore, not really.But she had to tell somebody before she burst at the seams, literally. She needed them to feel happy for her, since she couldn't quite allow herself those feelings yet.
And what if they weren't happy for her?
What if, like her father, they thought she'd rushed into things? He wanted her home. But she wanted to at least try to make it on her own first. Before the wedding, he'd been critical of her marrying so young and of her moving so far awaybut he'd come around after meeting Luke.
And he'd come around about the baby. But her mother-inlaw? Caitlin was a mess just thinking about it.
No, her mother-in-law was a mess.
Since the death of her only child, Nora Jean loved Caitlin one minute and hated her the next. Scratch that. The woman had always hated her and no longer bothered to keep up the pretense. No woman, except maybe one she'd handpicked, would ever have been good enough for her Little Luke. The woman had had much higher political aspirations for her son's naval career. Which was why she'd told everyone Caitlin was from "old money" when she wasn't.
Nora Jean had gone ballistic when she'd learned Caitlin was the beneficiary of his stored semen. No telling how she'd react to the news that Caitlin had actually put those sperm to good use. The woman had tried to exert control over Caitlin's every decision since Luke's death.
And then there was Dottie. Luke's aunt actually had the nerve to suggest that Caitlin give his flag to his mother.
Nora Jean had had her pick of Luke's personal possessions, but Caitlin drew the line at his flag and his future babies. His mother had a deep-seated fear that given time, Caitlin would remarry and these things would become meaningless to her. Her mother-in-law didn't know her very well. She would always love Luke.
She pushed herself up from the bathroom floor with the uneasy feeling that no one was going to react quite the way she wanted them to.
She could just imagine what CryoBank wanted.
While her husband's initial deposit had been free, she'd found withdrawal and continued storage of his remaining specimen to be quite expensive but necessary if she wanted to give her child a little brother or sister someday.
She'd opted for the credit card payment plan, which was probably in default by now. Someone had canceled all her credit cards, but the bills just kept coming.
Removing her rings, Caitlin set them in the soap dish next to the sink. The only time she could remember being that frivolous with money was when it came to her wedding. Even then her father had footed the bill, just as he had for all seven years of her college educationat least those things not covered by the scholarships she'd earned. And while she wouldn't call the University of Maryland a frivolous expense, it sure felt like it when she wasn't putting that education to work for her.
Caitlin turned on the shower. The responsibilities of single parenthood would be her reality soon enough. Stripping while waiting for the tepid water to heat, she hesitated over the hamper with Luke's T-shirt in hand and buried her face in it one last time.
She'd been a widow for almost six months. Pregnant for three. Longer than they'd been married. Longer than she'd even known him.
Maybe if she didn't wear his T-shirt any more she could preserve what was left of him.
Catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror, Caitlin put a hand to the slight swell of her belly. She had loved and cherished her husband in life.
A baby was how she would honor him in death.
She didn't need to wear a ratty old rag anymore, and tossed it into the hamper to prove it.
An hour later Caitlin was ushered Carol Livingston's poinsettia-filled office. In a state where street-corner Santas dressed more like surfers. Caitlin had almost forgotten this was the week before Christmas.
"Come in, Mrs. Calhoun. Caitlin." The CryoBank director yet another door, leading from her paneled office to a windowless boardroom. Two men stood as the women entered.
Their names escaped Caitlin as soon as they introduced themselves as attorneys with the law firm of such and such.
"Carol?" she asked with the same mock familiarity the woman had used with her. "What's going on?"
Surely these men had better things to do than harass her for past-due storage and withdrawal fees.
"Perhaps you'd better sit down," the woman suggested.
Uh-oh. That didn't sound good. Caitlin's knees buckled at the precise moment one of the lawyers rolled a padded leather chair underneath her. Thankfully, it broke her fall.
But he may as well have pulled it out from under her when he said, "It's my duty to inform you, Mrs. Calhoun, that you were impregnated with the semen of a man other than your late husband."
Caitlin looked from him to the other two. "What? Would you mind repeating " He couldn't possibly have said what she thought he'd just said. It just wasn't possible. A minute ago she'd walked through the door, pregnant with Luke's baby. Now he was telling her
"The baby you're carrying is not your husband's."
The blood drained from her face, leaving her light-headed.
Not Luke's baby?
Caitlin doubled over, and someone shoved her head between her knees. They were talking to her and at her and around her, but she couldn't understand a word they were saying.
She started to hyperventilate and Carol Livingston called her secretary to bring a paper bag. The younger woman rushed in and pushed a crinkled sack into Caitlin's face. "Breathe!"
From between her knees, Caitlin held the bag to her nose and mouth. It smelled like a tuna-fish sandwich. Normally she liked tuna, but under the circumstances it turned her stomach.
"Breathe, Caitlin," the director ordered. "That a girl. Breathe into the bag."
In and out. In and out.
Eventually she sat back up.
In. The brown bag emptied. "Sperm banks do not make those kinds of mistakes," she muttered through the paper. Out. The brown bag inflated. "I read your brochure cover to cover." Removing the smelly sack, she looked from one to the other. "You use a handprint reader"
The biometric identification device recorded a 3-D measurement of the donor's hand. Along with the computerized system, the sensor identified a donor by his handprint and not just by a number or a card.
"This was a clerical error unique to our military deployment project and the processing of thousands of men at one time. " Carol cleared her throat. "Your doctor's office received the wrong sample. I assure you nothing like this has ever happened before"
"But you're saying it has happened. To me!"
"We will, of course, cover any and all expenses related to this pregnancy," the lawyer who'd pulled out her chair said.
"And/or termination." This from the one who had been quiet until now. He circled to the opposite side of the table, where he sat down across from her. "If you so choose," he added as if that were a foregone conclusion.
Caitlin put a protective hand on her stomach.
She wore a fitted black, button-down shirt with three-quarter sleeves untucked over black slacks. An outfit she'd chosen because the feminine flare gave her room to breathe.
But at the moment it felt uncomfortably tight around the un-buttoned waistband.
She didn't like the quiet lawyer so much.
He pushed a piece of paper across the mahogany table toward her. "This check should be more than enough to cover your expenses. You just need to sign here ."
It was a generous offer but not that generous. She'd be a fool to accept it. She needed to talk to someone.
"Who is the father?"
"I'm afraid we have to protect our donor's anonymity," Carol Livingston said. "But he has been contacted and should he wish to get in touch with you we can make that arrangement"
"What about my anonymity?"
"It's up to you"
"If it were up to me" Caitlin cut herself off.
She didn't know what she'd been about to threaten.
She didn't sound very threatening.
She sounded terrified.
Closing her eyes, she took a couple more deep breaths. "I don't know," she muttered in a somewhat calmer tone. Much calmer than she was feeling. "I don't know anything about him."
"I can have one of our techs pull up some data. I'm afraid our military profiles are not as comprehensive as our donor profiles, which include baby pictures, family medical histories and several personality tests. You'll find out little more than the color of his hair and his eyes."
"I'm afraid I'm going to have to insist you sign this paper first, Mrs. Calhoun," the not-so-quiet lawyer said.
Was she really going to sell out for the color of the father's eyes? Caitlin brushed her engagement ring with her thumb. Working the center stone around, she closed her fist over those diamonds and emeralds until she felt them dig into her palm.
"Caitlin," Carol Livingston said, breaking through her thoughts, "while I can't legally or ethically give you a name, before you make any decisions about the pregnancy I do want you to know that this man and your husband share genetic markers that suggest they're related. Very closely related."
"How close?" Caitlin demanded.
The loud lawyer with the check cleared his throat.
The director hesitated, looking to him for direction.
"Possibly a first cousin. Or a half brother," the lawyer who had pulled out her chair spoke up.
"My husband doesn't have any brothers. Or cousins " Actually, that wasn't true. The funeral was just a blur, but Luke's father had been there with family . His third wife, Maddie. His sister, Dottie. A brother, John.
And John had a teenaged son, Keith.
Keith would be a first cousin.
But not a sperm donor.
Caitlin would have invited her groom's family to the wedding, but Luke had produced a list with only two names. His mother and his aunt. Naturally she'd assumed there were no other living relatives. Even then he'd spent the entire reception keeping her away from the woman he'd called his crazy aunt.
Caitlin didn't even know his father was alive until after the honeymoon when Luke said something that made her realize they were estranged, otherwise etiquette would have demanded they invite him. But her dream of reconciling father and son was lost along with her husband.
Luke Senior, or rather Big Luke, as he'd insisted on being called at the funeral, had one of those booming personalities that couldn't be ignored. Nora Jean had had the bad manners to pick a fight with her ex-husband at their son's funeral. But Caitlin's own father had been there to protect her from the worst of it. And someone, she thought maybe Big Luke's brother, John, had escorted Luke's father out the door.
Big Luke was on his third wife. Did that mean he had three families? And how many sons?
The pushy lawyer clicked his ballpoint pen.
All Caitlin wanted was out of this room. Her heart was pounding. Her head was pounding.
There was no question in her mind she was going to keep this baby. This baby that wasn't Luke's. No, this baby that was Luke's no matter what they said.
Brother. Cousin. Hope.
She touched the check, looked at the amount again. Thirty-five thousand dollars. She could get through the pregnancy with that money. Or she could walk out of here with nothing. Contact an attorney of her own. Sue for even more money. Wait months or even years before she saw a dime. While her private life became a public spectacle?
She took the offered pen, but still she hesitated.
What was she doing? "And, of course," the pushy lawyer continued, "if you sign the check, all future storage fees will be waived. If not, all past-due receipts will have to be paid today or your husband's specimen will be destroyed."
Was he blackmailing her? With her dead husband's semen? She did not like this guy one bit. Caitlin scribbled her name on the dotted line and sensed the relief from the others. All Caitlin felt was a wave of nausea that all the crackers in the world wouldn't settle.
Without another word Caitlin picked up the check, and Carol Livingston handed her off to her secretary. With a quiet click, the director's office door closed behind her. The secretary in turn walked Caitlin down the hall and handed her off to one of a half-dozen very busy techs.
The young woman turned over a document with all personal data blacked out. The simple form had been filled out by hand.
He was thirty-two years old.
Brown hair. Green eyes.
Height: 6'3". Weight: 229 lbs.
Except for the age differenceLuke had been twenty-eightthe description fit her husband perfectly.
The DNA comparisons provided even less info. She had no idea what she was looking at. Pictures of actual chromosomes? Forty-six chromosomes, twenty-three pairs. What did that tell her? Biology had been one of her two favorite subjects throughout school. Still, as a bio-chem major, she was no expert in genetics.
"I'm afraid I don't know what any of this means." There was a chart of some kind with two lines running superimposed over similar peaks and valleys. In the top right-hand corner, the chart listed twenty as the overall percentage of matching genetic markers. "Where does it say half brother or first cousin?"
"Mathematically," the tech explained, "if two men are half siblings, twenty-five percent of their genes should be identical, first cousins, twelve and a half percent. But because inheritance is random, any given gene could be compared to a coin toss."
"In other words this could be a cousin or a half brother?" The tech set the chromosome shots side by side. "The Y chromosome is the only genetic information that is identical in males of the same father. All male relatives of paternal lineage share the same Y chromosome."
This man and her husband had the same Y chromosome.