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One sigh said it all, and for Deanna Lambert that sigh filled an entire storypast, present and future. She stared at her face in the mirror for a full minute, unsure what the face staring back was telling her. Do it? Don't do it? Keep your fingers crossed and hope for the best?
"You're no help," she groused at her image, then pulled up her red tank top and finally assembled the courage to look at her belly yet again. She brushed away another tear. Ups and downs now. That's what her life was about, ups and downs. "I wish I knew what to do. Wish somebody would just say, Deanna, do this." But situations like hers didn't come with a set of instructions. Only regret. More regret than she knew what to do with. And pain. Dear God, the pain nearly crippled her.
Assessing her belly, Deanna's new daily routine, she splayed her fingers over the warm flesh, willing herself to feel the child just beneath her fingertips. It was silly of her, of course, but this baby was her only connection to Emily, and she wanted desperately to hold onto that connection, feel that connection the way she used to. Count on it.
She couldn't, though. Not any more. But this baby it was different. A hope she wasn't ready to accept. Permission to move on. A blessing ready to be claimed.
Another tear trickled down her cheek and she swatted at it with the back of her hand.
"Part of me wants to go and find him. He's your daddy." At least, biologically he was. "And maybe he would want to know about you." But the truth was, men who made sperm donations didn't want to know. It was an anonymous gesture, often for the money and sometimes out of generosity. Or ego. So which was it for Braxton Alexander? she wondered. The unbearable weight of not knowing was dragging her down. The unbearable weight of carrying her cousin's babya baby who would never see his or her motherwas dragging her down ever deeper.
"Resolve it immediately," Dr. Brewster, her obstetrician, had warned her. "Your blood pressure is borderline high, you're not getting enough sleep, you've lost three pounds. Regardless of whose baby you're carrying, you're that baby's lifeline. You've got to take better care of yourself. So figure out what you need to do, and do it."
Kindly old doctor. And he was right. She had to figure out what to do, and do it. "But darn," she murmured, as she backed away from the mirror and pulled down her top, "why couldn't somebody just tell me what it is I should do?"
She was in this alone. Carrying a mistaken babyher cousin's child who, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was not the progeny of her cousin's husband. However a mistake like that could be made in this age of technological wizardry. Oops, wrong sperm, Mrs. Braxton. We're terribly sorry.
A mistake that had cost Emily her life, as it had turned out.
"It would have been good," she said to the baby. "Even if Alex didn't want you after he found out, Emily would have been the best mother anyone could have because she wanted you so badly." Even after three miscarriages and a stillbirth Emily had never lost hope. "And I would have helped you raise her." Deanna ran her hand over her red tank top to smooth the wrinkles but more to acknowledge the love she felt every time she touched her belly.
And she did love this child. She didn't feel equal to the task of motherhood, and hadn't ever even thought of herself in those terms, to be honest. But that didn't negate the feelings she had for Emily's baby. And those only grew stronger every day. Along with the irrational guilt. Survivor's guilt, she'd been told. "So, the question remains, should I tell your father about you, or let him exist as the anonymous donor he was?"
Stupid question. Anonymous donors wanted anonymity, presumably. But something was pulling her in a direction she knew she should resist. "OK, so maybe we could go there and simply watch him for a while, see what kind of man he is. What kind of genes you'll be getting from him. No harm in that, is there?"
No harm except the emotional one that kept her hanging onto something she didn't understand. Dr. Brewster was right. She had to resolve this. But by going all the way to Tennessee? Specifically, Sugar Creek? That's where the investigator she'd hired said he was living now. One law firm, a private investigator and some pretty formidable legal maneuvering had gained her a little information, more than most women had when they made their selections from the information inside the catalogs, and that should have been enough. But it wasn't.
And maybe that's because she really did want to know, or simply because hanging onto a man she should never, under any circumstances, meet meant putting off the inevitablefacing what happened next.
All she wanted to do was see him. Nothing else. And wasn't it her right to know more about the father of the baby she carried? OK, so maybe it wasn't. But she was curious. What, specifically, she wanted to know about him, she had no clue.
She did want to stop hurting, though, and maybe that's what this near obsession was about. Losing his cousin, her best friend, had turned into a pain she didn't know how anybody could endure, and she was looking for anything to make it stop. Maybe that's what finding Dr. Braxton Alexander was about, at least in part. Something to keep her occupied until something else made sense.
"So, we go to Sugar Creek," she said to the baby, looking at the already packed bags by her front door. They'd been packed for days, and she'd gone this far several times before. Then stopped. But today was different. She could feel it in her resolve, in her heart and, yes, in her belly. Today she would carry those bags to the car, climb in and head south. All the way to Tennessee.
"But before we leave, I need to stop by the cemetery and tell Emily what we're going to do," she told the baby. "Emily," she whispered, as tears started welling again. "I really don't know what I'm doing, and I'm so scared "
"Welcome to Sugar Creek, Tennessee," Deanna said on an ambivalent sigh. This was it. She'd done it. Well, part of it. She'd managed to get herself here. As far as the next part went, she had options and she wasn't ready to decide which one to choose. So for now she was here to work. At least, that's what she'd tell people. Reports to do, financial donor sources to track down, people to hire who would implement her programs. Her temporary lease here was for a month and she'd brought enough work with her to keep her busy for three, so the part about coming here to work wasn't a lie. Nurse researcher with plenty to do.
Now, stepping out of her car and raising her binoculars to look down the south face of the mountain at the lay of the little town, she noted how the quaint buildings stretched pleasantly up and down Sugar Creek Highway. There was an outcropping of foothills and more green trees than she'd ever seen in any one place in her life jutting out prominently in any direction she looked other than the main part of town itself.
"It's very pretty. And it's got a grocery store, cafe, general merchandise store, and beauty shop. I think we'll have a nice month here." With or without tracking down Braxton Alexander.
Even though she'd never lived in one, Deanna loved small towns, loved the whole countrified experience. As a nurse researcher, she'd devoted her entire career to finding ways to make healthcare better in areas where it wasn't easily accessed. Places like Sugar Creek, which sat in a beautiful, secluded valley a hundred miles from anywhere. It wasn't the beauty of such places that caught her attention when she took on new assignments but the seclusion, because her job was to bridge the medical gaps.
"But this town is one of the lucky ones," she said. "It has a doctor. Your daddy." Your daddy Odd how that was so easy to say. "Judging from what I read about him, he's very good." And she'd read everything she could find. A few articles he'd written about general surgery, some accounts of awards he'd received. Nothing about why he'd given up a lucrative New York City surgery to isolate himself here. As a GP, no less.
Midday carried with it a cool June breeze, and a chill washed over Deanna as she lowered her binoculars and, once again, thought about what she was doing here. Chasing Brax-ton Alexander. This wasn't just a small change of direction for her. It was a total life-changer.
She was having this man's babya baby she'd never planned on havingand sitting on a mountaintop hoping to catch a glimpse of him somewhere.
How much more perverse did life get than that? She tilted her face to the sky and, for the first time in weeks, actually felt a little bit of relaxation slide down over her.
"I'm pretty sure I'm glad we came here, but I suppose there's a lot still to be determined." She liked talking to the baby, particularly here. Possibly because she was so close to the daddy. Or maybe because she'd put physical distance between herself and everything that reminded her of Emily.
"Now we're going to have to figure out what we're going to do next for real'" She laid her hand on her belly. "So, here are our options. We can watch and keep quiet. Try finding a way to meet him. Or we can always play it by ear. See what happens. Hope for the best."
However it worked out, she had a whole month ahead of her to find the answer and act on it. Or not.
"She's making eyes at you, boss." Joey Santiago led the chestnut mare into the stall then took off her lead before he stepped out and latched the door behind him. Brushing his hands together to shake off the dust, he said, "They all do it. Big brown eyes, so many expectations. You've let them have their way with you once too often, and now you pay for it every time you come in here."
"Not pay for it, Joey. Enjoy it." Beau leaned over the Dutch door of the stall and gave the mare a couple of lumps of sugar, like he always did. It's what he'd done as a child every time he'd spent a few days or a few months here with his grandfather, and he'd continued doing it after he'd moved in for good when he'd been a teenager.
"And they love you for it."
"Horses don't love," Beau protested. "They merely get used to certain things." The way he had, growing up. "Come to expect them. Recognize them when they're being offered."
"You're wrong there, Beau. They love, just like we do. You can see it in their eyes."
Joey had been here for as long as Beau could remember, doing odd jobs, gardening, taking care of the few horses his grandfather always kept, and taking care of Beau's grandfather after his stroke. He was also part of the two-man team who had raised him when his dad had gone off on benders and wherever else it was the old man had gone to avoid life, responsibility and, most of all, fatherhood.
"Some of us don't love, though," Beau countered, still cringing over his marriage fiasco nearly two years later.
"You loved," Joey countered. "Just not wisely. But with a horse you don't have to worry about duplicitous intentions. A carrot and a few kind words will get you unconditional love for ever. And even if you don't yet have a taste for falling in love again, that's going to change. Just in your own time."
"Or in no time," Beau quipped, preferring not to think about Nancy. Two years later, he still did, though. It was inevitable, he supposed, because of the way she'd changed his life. But all this love talk made him nervous. He wanted to climb up on one of these horses and ride so hard it knocked the memories right out of him.
Joey, a stocky man with thick black hair, shook his head as he peeked over the half-door in the next stall at Nell, who was ready to give birth any time. "I watched you at the races last spring, in Kentucky. Watched you get so excited when Donder almost won the Derby. I saw love in your eyes for that horse, Beau. I know you're not dead in your emotions like you think you are. Just holding it back."
"Emotionally dead is easier."
"Or safer. But that's going to change. Mark my words, when the time's right to move on, nothing's going to hold you back."
"I've been ready to move on for two years." And everything was holding him back.
"And yet you haven't," Joey quipped. "Strange how that works, isn't it?"
Joey was right, of course. But Beau didn't have to admit that out loud because, in ways he didn't want to deal with, he was just fine being held back. It kept him away from the possibility that what he'd gone through once could happen again. Admitting you'd been so blind and, on top of that, so insanely stupid on so many levels. No, there would be no repeat acts for him, and the only way to guarantee that was to keep his distance. Big distance.
"What's strange is standing here talking to you about my love life when I've got fences to mend out on the back forty." Barring emergencies, no more patients for the day and no house calls for the evening. With any luck he'd be so worn out by nightfall that, for once, a good night's sleepout therewould come easily. Then he'd get an early jump on it in the morning and be back here by noon to open the clinic. But he had to quit talking first. And quit moping as well.
"So which one you running away from? Thinking about that whole mess you had with your wife, or the problems you've got going with Brax?"
Leave it to Joey to turn one emotional train wreck into two. He loved the man, knew he only wanted to help. But, damn, not this way. "I've got no problems with the old man," Beau snapped. "Just a difference of medical opinion." Big difference of opinion.
Joey chuckled. "Your way, his way. Two stubborn men who don't want to budge. Glad the extent of my medical knowledge doesn't go beyond applying a bandage and some good, old-fashioned horse medicine."
True, they were alike in a few ways. Stubbornness for stubbornness, maybe they did match up, but only a little bit. "OK, so maybe we have some similarities. But the old man thinks he can practice medicine again, and I know he can't. It's time for him to retire."
"Two peas in a pod. Actually, let's make that two peas in separate pods since you're not seeing eye to eye on pretty much anything right now."
It bothered Beau more than he let on. He liked being here, on Brax's land, close to nature, in a place where no one could touch him. It let him remember the best times of his life when he and his grandfather would go out to mend fences together then stay over for a camp-out.
He missed those uncomplicated days. Missed his once uncomplicated life. But the complications came from so many directions nowsome of his doing, some from Brax's physical condition. Too many bitter pills to swallow.