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Dr Paul Armstrong was deeply concerned.
His sister Olivia Armstrong Mallory could have never, by any stretch of the imagination, been described as robust or even glowingly healthy, but she sat in his office today, turning to him not just as her older brother, but as the chief of staff of the Armstrong Fertility Institute. He knew talking about this wasn't easy for his sister. She'd addressed half her story to the crumpled tissue she held in a death grip between her fingers in her lap.
How many times since he'd begun to work here had he heard this same story before? Too many times, and yet, not enough to become insensitive to it.
Olivia wanted to become pregnant and all her attempts, she had confided quietly, had thus far failed.
Even as he listened to her haltingly pour out her heart, Paul began to suspect that there was more to all this than she was telling him. Something beyond the hunger to have a child.
"Olivia," he pointed out gently, "you're being too hard on yourself. You're just twenty-nine—"
Eyes full of misery and unshed tears looked up at him. "And I've been trying to get pregnant for five years, Paul. Five very long, disappointing years."
This, too, he'd seen over and over again. The anguished faces of frustrated women, pleading for help, asking him to make the most natural of dreams come true for them. He'd never imagined he'd see this look on the face of one of his sisters.
"Olivia, there are other avenues. You could adopt a child," he tactfully suggested.
But he could see, even as he said it, that for Olivia, this wasn't the solution. She pressed a small, fisted hand beneath her breast, pushing against her incredibly flat belly. "I want to feel life growing inside me, Paul."
Though his heart went out to her, Paul felt bound to tell her what he told every woman or couple who came in to see him with this same dilemma. "It isn't all roses, Livy. There's a very real downside to being pregnant." Assuming, he added silently, that he could even get her there.
Olivia shook her head, her sleek black hair shadowing the adamant movement. "Don't you understand I don't care?" Reaching across the desk that separated them, his sister took his hands in hers in supplication. "I really want to be pregnant. Help me, Paul. Whatever it takes, help me."
The force of her words had him wondering again. He had to ask. "Olivia, is everything all right?"
Releasing his hands, his sister drew herself up in her chair as she squared her shoulders. "Everything's fine, Paul."
Her words only reinforced his concern. "You said that much too fast."
Olivia inclined her head. "All right, I'll say it slower. Every-thing's-fine." She deliberately drew out the sentence, saying it in slow motion and awarding it a host of syllables.
He would have laughed if he wasn't so concerned. "Livy, I'm your brother. You can talk to me."
"I am talking to you," she insisted. "I'm telling you that I want to have a baby. As the chief of staff you should be able to understand that." Blowing out a breath and clearly struggling not to cry, Olivia asked, "Now, can you help me?"
Though he had a tendency to be oblivious to the obvious at times, the irony of the situation did not escape Paul. The daughter of the famous fertility expert Dr. Gerald Armstrong was infertile. Somewhere, the gods were chuckling.
If he ever helped anyone at all, Paul thought, he should be able to help his sister.
"Yes," he answered gently, "I think there's a good chance that I can." Of late, there had been a number of allegations of wrongdoing, rumored to be made by a former disgruntled employee, of eggs and sperm being switched, research that was held suspect and too many multiple births, all of which had caused a cloud of suspicion to be cast over the institute and the work they'd done over the years. Paul had been going out of his way to try to right all of this. He began by luring the world-famous Bonner-Demetrios research team away from a prominent San Francisco teaching hospital and getting them to head up the institute's research operations here.
Just in time, he thought, looking at his sister.
"We've just scored a coup and managed to get two top-flight physicians to join our staff here. Both of them have been on the cutting edge of fertility research for some time now. I'm going to refer you to one of them."
Olivia nodded, desperately trying to draw hope from her brother's words. "What's his name?"
"Dr. Chance Demetrios. If there's any way possible for you to wind up getting morning sickness, he'll find it," Paul promised with a quick smile. Paul wrote a few words on a pad, then tore the page off and held it out to her. "I know he doesn't have patients today until later. Are you willing to go now?"
Olivia looked down at the slip of paper her brother had given her, unable to read a single word. She sincerely hoped that another doctor would have no trouble deciphering the hieroglyphics. "Are you sure he can see me?"
Paul smiled the shy, boyish smile she remembered so well from their childhood, the smile she recalled gracing the lips of her protector. Derek, their other brother, was always the one in the foreground, gregarious, loud and charming. But it was Paul she always felt she could count on. Paul was the dependable one who spoke little, but meant every word he said.
"Yes," he assured her. "I'm his boss. Chance'll see you." Rising, he came around the desk and squeezed his sister's hand. "Sure there's nothing else you want to tell me?"
Olivia stood up and did her best to smile. "I'm sure."
That wasn't good enough for him. Paul tried again. "Maybe there's something you don't want to tell me, but should?"
"Only that I love you." Olivia rose on her toes and brushed a quick kiss to his cheek. Backing away, she held up the note he'd just given her. "Thank you."
Paul sincerely hoped that Chance was the magician the man claimed to be. "Anytime," he replied.
His sister left his office, closing the door behind her. Paul went back around to his chair.
He'd just managed to sit down when the door flew open again, this time without a perfunctory knock or even the pretense of formality. His other sister, Lisa— the head administrator at the institute—burst in with just a tiny bit less noise than a detonating cherry bomb. Ordinarily, she vacillated between looking harried and looking pleased because another happy couple had left the institute, pregnant and satisfied. Now she looked as if she was about to bite someone's head off.
"Do you know what he did?" she demanded angrily, slamming the door closed with a bang.
Paul had always found it was best to remain calm in the face of anyone's tirade. If he remained calm, he could assess the problem more accurately. "Who?" he asked mildly.
Lisa looked at him as if he'd suddenly turned simple on her. "Derek, of course."
"Of course," Paul echoed. Taking a breath, he patiently pointed something out—and not for the first time. "Lisa, contrary to legend and a handful of fair-to-bad movies, just because Derek and I are twins does not mean that I automatically know what he's thinking, so, no, I don't know what he did." And then he smiled indulgently at her. "But I'm sure you're going to enlighten me."
Lisa let out a loud huff and Paul would have been hard-pressed to say who she was angrier at right now, Derek or him. "He's gone off on his own, that's what he's done."
He was going to need more of a hint than that. "As in… he left?" He sincerely doubted that Derek would just run off at such a difficult time and leave his siblings to deal with the entire mess. But he had to admit that he and Derek often marched to completely different drummers and there were times when his brother's actions and motivation completely mystified him. Not only that, but of late, he seemed to be preoccupied.
"No, as in going off and hiring someone to— Now wait a sec—" Lisa held her hand up in case Paul was going to interrupt her "—I want to get this straight. 'Someone to help us repair our image.'" Then Lisa fisted her hands on her hips. "I'm head administrator here and Derek's gone and hired a PR manager without so much as saying boo to me."
Paul sighed. He lived and breathed his work to the exclusion of almost everything else, except for his family. Very seldom did he come up for air, much less to mingle in the everyday dealings of running the institute.
Paul asked his fuming sister, "What do you mean?"
"Public relations, Paul," she said, even more annoyed. "Derek went and hired a damn spin doctor."
"So what's the issue?" he asked, confused.
Lisa threw up her hands in desperation. "For such an intelligent man, you can be so dense sometimes. The point is, Derek is the chief financial officer—he isn't supposed to hire anyone without consulting us. Major positions are supposed to be filled by the three of us evaluating the candidate for the job, remember?" She didn't wait for him to respond before she went on. "If you ask me, I think Derek's beginning to envision himself as Caesar."
Lisa was the youngest and as such, she was given to exaggeration. "Dial it down a notch, Lisa. I don't like Derek doing something like this without consulting us, either, but I think it's a stretch equating him with Julius Caesar."
"I'm not equating him with Caesar," she protested. "I think Derek sees himself as Caesar. The bottom line is," she said with a toss of her short black hair, "we don't need a PR manager."
Paul nodded. "At least we're in agreement about that."
It never occurred to her that Paul would see it any differently than she did. "Good, then fix it," she demanded. When he raised an inquisitive eyebrow, Lisa pressed, "Unhire her."
Even though terminating this unwanted new employee was his first inclination, Paul did want to be fair. That would mean talking to Derek and finding out just what his brother was thinking when he hired this person. "Where's Derek now?"
Lisa sighed. "I have no idea. You know how he is, social butterflying all over. But I do know where the new girl is," she said triumphantly. "She's in Connie Winston's old office," she said, referring to a recently retired officer of their board of directors. Lisa was clearly not finished with the topic. "You know, Derek's got no right to constantly usurp us like that."
Paul had always been ready to go the extra mile, giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. "Derek probably doesn't even realize that's what he's doing. You know he gets impatient when things don't go as fast as he thinks they should." Paul shrugged philosophically. "He doesn't have the patience of a scientist."
Lisa pounced on her brother's words. "Good thing you do. Now get rid of this woman and give Derek a piece of your mind when you find him."
He laughed, shaking his head. "If I gave all the people who I think deserve it a piece of my mind, I wouldn't have any mind left to use for myself."
Lisa's frown was back. "So then you're not going to tell Derek that he's got to stop making unilateral decisions?"
"I didn't say that, did I?" His eyes held hers until Lisa shook her head. "I'll talk to Derek," he told her, then added, "not that I think it'll do any good."
"You're probably right," she was forced to agree. "But you never know, maybe we'll get lucky. But first," she emphasized, "you have to give that woman her walking papers."
There were times when Lisa was like a hungry dog with a bone. She just wouldn't let go. Which meant he'd get no peace until he gave in. Paul rose again. "Connie Winston's old office, you said?"
Lisa nodded. "The three of us are supposed to be running this clinic. It's the Armstrong Fertility Institute, not Derek Armstrong's Fertility Institute. If anything, it should be Dad's name, not Derek's."
Paul put his hands on his sister's arms, trying to settle her before she got riled up again.
"Take a deep breath, Lisa—and calm down. There are a hell of a lot worse things going on in the world. Derek playing king is really just small potatoes in comparison."
"Emperor," Lisa corrected doggedly.
He closed his eyes for a moment. He was not going to get sidelined with semantics. "Whatever."
Paul was fully aware that if he even attempted to put off this woman's termination, Lisa would continue bedeviling him until such time as he would make good on his promise. His sister meant well, he thought, but she tended to get far too worked up. Still, she was right. Derek shouldn't have just gone off and hired someone without even running the idea past them. This was a completely new post his brother had created.
Did they really need someone to try to restore the institute's good name? Or rather, their father's good name even though it wasn't imprinted on the front of the building?
Dr. Gerald Armstrong had always been a little larger than life when it came to the public eye. Paul was not ashamed to say that he revered his father and the groundbreaking work he had done. He'd gotten away from the boy he had once been. The boy who, when he was growing up, felt his father was accessible to everyone but his own family. He knew his mother felt that. Gerald Armstrong was always far too busy making a name for himself to enjoy the name he had already gotten, almost by accident: Dad.
Still, that was all water under the bridge now.