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"If I can't have a kitten," said Kimmie, "how about a daddy?"
Jan Garcia, R.N., nearly spit her morning coffee into the windshield. She quickly swallowed, grateful the car was stopped at a red light. Of all the concerns on her mind this morning, how had her seven-year-old daughter managed to hit on the one that troubled Jan most?
Returning her cup to its holder, she regarded the girl belted into the passenger seat beside her. Intense frown lines puckered Kimmie's forehead beneath straight dark bangs. Uh-oh. She'd seized on a theme and her daughter had the tenacity of a bulldog.
First tactic: make light of the matter. "You're kidding, right?"
"Fiona has a daddy. She used to live with just him and no mommy," Kimmie said earnestly. "I bet he'll bring her to school today."
"And I'm bringing you." This morning she'd pressed Kimmie's pink blouse and the ruffle on the pink-and-tan skirt, and applied a curling iron to her daughter's long dark hair, the same color as Jan's. Still, a little girl couldn't be expected to appreciate how much love her mommy lavished on her.
"Now Fiona has a daddy and a mommy," Kimmie continued stubbornly. "Why can't I have both?"
When the light changed, Jan eased the car forward. Thank goodness she was driving through a quiet section of Safe Harbor, because she had to force herself to focus.
That's what I get for trying to do the right thing. Concerned about how her daughter would adjust to starting second grade at a new schoolthey'd recently relocated from Texas to CaliforniaJan had made a point of getting together last weekend with an old friend and coworker, embryologist Alec Denny, his new wife, Patty, and his six-year-old daughter. Even though Fiona was a year younger, Jan thought knowing a girl at the new school might help soothe Kimmie's anxiety.
Good intentions didn't always work out as expected. She should have remembered daddies had become a frequent topic of discussion since Kimmie read a book about a girl finding her father.
Next tactic: change the subject. "I'm sorry you can't have a kitten at our apartment. I promise to look for a place that accepts pets. But I'm starting a new job, so it may take a while."
"I miss my kitties." A world of sadness laced the little girl's voice, making Jan sorry she'd switched to such a painful topic.
"We were only fostering those kittens till they could find good homes," she reminded her daughter.
Big green eyes regarded her hopefully. "We can do that here."
"No pets means no pets. Not even foster kittens." To her right, between two-story stucco buildings, Jan glimpsed the small harbor that gave the town its name. "Look. Isn't that pretty?"
"Huh." Moodily, Kimmie shifted the backpack on her lap and stared straight ahead.
She 'll adjust. Maybe if Jan repeated that about a dozen times, she'd believe it herself.
When world-renowned fertility expert Dr. Owen Tartikoff, Jan's former boss from a previous job in Boston, offered her a position as head of the new egg-donor program at Safe Harbor Medical Center, she'd leaped at the chance. She'd be working with a top-notch medical team that included some old friends.
Another factor in moving West was being close to family. Jan had grown up half an hour's drive from here in Santa Ana, where her mother, brother, sister-in-law and two nieces lived. Her mother had even volunteered to pick Kimmie up after school whenever Jan needed her.
There was one major drawback. Jan preferred not to think about him right now. Okay, if she weren't in total denial, she would have contacted Dr. Zack Sargent as soon as she saw his name on the hospital's staff roster. But what did you say to the man who'd dumped you when you needed him most and married someone else while you were still hurting? By the way, I didn't give up our baby for adoption like I said I would, so get over it?
Sooner or later, Jan would have to tell him the truth. When she did, she could picture Zack getting all rigid and judgmental; he was good at that. She doubted he'd want to be a part of their lives and, although that posed problems in its own way, she was glad.
Kimmie didn't need a reluctant daddy. She didn't need to play second fiddle to Zack's wife and any kids they'd had in the intervening years. Jan didn't intend to let him break Kimmie's heart the way he'd broken hers.
All the same, she dreaded the inevitable confrontation. If she'd been smart, she'd have let him know about Kimmie while they were still safely in Texas, and while she had time to change her mind about the move. How come she was so good at planning her professional life and so lousy at dealing with her personal one?
She drove past the stucco Civic Center buildings and joined a line of cars inching into the elementary school's parking lot. When Jan enrolled Kimmie last week, the assistant principal had given her a map. Arranged like a fork with three detached prongs, the school's low white buildings lay between City Hall Park and the middle school.
As the car rolled forward Jan grumbled under her breath about an oversize vehicle hogging an extra space. Mercifully, she found an empty one, although it was a tight squeeze for her red sedan.
"Got everything?" she asked as she cut the engine. She'd downloaded a list of recommended supplies from the school's website and checked it twice. Still, in the stress of preparing for her first day at work, as well as the start of school, she might have overlooked something. "Paper? Pencils, markers and glue? Lunch?"
"Mischief," Kimmie said as she shrugged on her backpack.
Her door half-open, Jan hesitated in confusion. Then she noted the well-worn teddy bear in her daughter's grip. The school encouraged students in the early grades to bring a favorite stuffed animal on opening day.
"Absolutely. We can't forget Mischief." Chuckling at her misunderstanding, Jan got out, smoothed her tailored aqua dress and straightened the matching jacket.
Parents and kids, the smaller ones also toting stuffed animals, streamed toward the buildings while cars continued prowling for spaces. The website had advised parents to use the middle-school lotclasses didn't start there until tomorrowor park a block away at the community center. Busy day for everybody, Jan reflected, grateful she'd found a spot so close.
In the distance she glimpsed Fiona clutching a panda on one side and her stepmother's hand on the other. Alec prowled alongside, video-camera recording his daughter's arrival for the start of first grade. To Jan's relief, Kimmie was too short to see them through the crowd.
At moments like this, she wished her daughter had a loving father. Not just at moments like this, either. Maybe someday Jan would meet the right guy. After all, she was only thirty.
Resolutely, she turned her attention to the map. Mrs. Humphreys's second-grade classroom lay at the end of the right-hand building, and there it was, straight ahead.
In the doorway stood a smartly dressed woman a little taller than Jan's five foot three, her broad features warm with welcome as she greeted a blond boy and patted his green dinosaur. "Brady? I'm delighted to have you in my class this year."
"Me, too," he said in a high voice, speaking as the dinosaur. "I'm Sneezer."
The boy's mother, hanging on to a little girl, added playfully, "He packed plenty of tissues in case Sneezer starts snuffling."
"Meeting everyone's stuffed animals is fun. We'll take a class picture that I'll post on my web page. It's downloadable." Glancing at Jan, the teacher said, "Hi, I'm Paula Humphreys."
"Jan Garcia." She ushered Kimmie forward. "We just moved here from Houston, so this is quite a change for Kimmie."
"For Mischief, too," the girl added solemnly. "I'm sure you'll both feel at home very soon." The teacher indicated a wall of photos inside the classroom, depicting raccoons, brown bears, opossums, bobcats, coyotes, skunks and other native wildlife. "As you can see, I love animals."
"Me, too!" Brightening, Kimmie hurried inside, holding up her teddy so it could see the pictures.
Jan retreated to make room for new arrivals. Although her mothering instinct urged her to stay, it would be best to leave while her daughter was occupied. Besides, she faced her own challenges this morning.
As she walked toward the parking lot, Brady's mother, a short brunette with a warm smile, fell into step. Jan slowed to accommodate the toddler.
"I overheard your name. You're new at the hospital, aren't you?" the woman said. "I'm Kate Franco and this is my daughter Tara. My husband, Tony, is the staff attorney."
"It's good to meet you." Jan was glad the woman had introduced herself. "There must be a lot of hospital employees with kids here."
"Quite a few," Kate agreed. "Oh, there's one of them now."
Following her gesture toward a third-grade classroom, Jan nearly forgot to breathe.
Near the doorway stood a man with tawny hair as thick as it had been seven years ago, while the September sunlight gave his skin a bronze glow. She had no time to prepare before intense green eyes, the same color as Kim-mie's, fixed on her with a startled expression.
"That's Dr. Zack Sargent, one of the obstetricians," Kate noted. "Would you like me to introduce you?"
Swallowing a lump in her throat, Jan dredged up the words. "No, thanks. I'm sure I'll meet him at work."
What was he doing here? He and his wifeher name was Rima, Jan had heardhadn't been married long enough to have a third-grader. "Which kid is his?"
Nodding at a dark-skinned girl in jeans and an aqua T-shirt, Kate said, "That's his stepdaughter, Berry. Her mom died when she was five and he's been raising her alone."
"How fatherly." Jan struggled to grasp what this meant. For years she'd carried an image of her former fiance as a happily married man, but Zack was widowed. Yet he obviously had strong parental instincts.
What was that going to mean when he learned about their daughter? She'd assumed he would want as little to do with Kimmie now as he had when, early in Jan's pregnancy, he'd signed papers waiving his paternal rights.
When she glanced back toward him she saw Zack turn in her direction. Mercifully, the teacher in the doorway finished talking to another parent and reached to shake Zack's hand. While he was busy, Jan made an excuse to Kate and strode along the walkway as fast as her high-heeled pumps would carry her.
Her heart thumped, leaving her breathless. Even after all this time, her fingers remembered the softness of Zack's hair and the rough texture of his cheeks in the morning. She hadn't expected this deep-down yearning Or this jolt of fear.
While he apparently hadn't seen her with Kimmie, he must be wondering why Jan was at the school. She'd omitted any mention of her daughter from her resume or Facebook page, focusing strictly on business. She'd hoped to dodge him until she could select the right opportunity at work, but that possibility had flown out the window.
She was going to have to face her former fiance sooner rather than later.
What had Jan been doing at school this morning? As far as Zack knew, she'd never married and he'd heard nothing about children.
He speculated about her reasons as he prepped for surgery later that morning. Giving up a child for adoption might sound easy in the abstract, but Zack had seen patients suffer stress and self-blame years after relinquishing a baby. He'd experienced some of the same pangs himself. The fact that Rima was a single parent with a daughter had been part of the initial attraction, a way to atone at least partially for his mistakes.
And he'd made big ones.
It wouldn't surprise him if Jan had eventually adopted a child, perhaps a preschooler from a troubled home. Which gives us even more in common than a shared passion for the egg-donor program. And a painful past he'd like to put behind them.
Earlier, her stunned expression when their gazes met had reverberated through him. Regardless of the public setting, he'd nearly gone over to talk to her.
To apologize, again, more thoroughly than the brief conversation they'd had over the phone when he'd tracked her down months after their breakup, late in her pregnancy. It had taken Zack much too long to learn the truth about the allegations against her, which had led to their parting, and to realize how wrong he'd been. By then her anger toward him had hardened into an impenetrable wall. And he'd made commitments to someone else who needed him badly.
All the same, the sight of Jan today had punched him in the gut. He'd forgotten how vibrant she was. That rich dark hair, those teasing eyes
Zack brought himself up sharply. They had to establish a new relationship as fellow professionals, able to discuss medical issues without distractions.
"Is everything all right, Doctor?" Surgical nurse Stacy Raditch was already scrubbed in for the operation.
"First day of school," he said. "It's hard to see my little girl growing up."
"Berry's such a darling!" The young nurse always made a point of chatting with his daughter at staff events. "What grade is she in?"
"Third." Glad for the change of subject, Zack kept up a desultory conversation as they went into the operating room. He then spoke with the patient, who was undergoing a microsurgical procedure called a tubal anastomosis to reverse a tubal ligation that had rendered her sterile. After her previous marriage to a man who didn't want children, she and her new husband were eager to restore her fertility.
Using a surgical microscope and other specialized tools, Zack would reopen her fallopian tubes to allow fertilization. "As I told you, there's a high rate of success with this procedure," he assured the woman. "You may even be able to become pregnant naturally, without in vitro."
"That would be wonderful." Her hair hidden beneath a cap, she smiled up at him weakly. "Our insurance doesn't cover those high-tech infertility treatments, so."
Zack touched her shoulder reassuringly. Her situation wasn't unusual. The miracles accomplished by modern technology came at a price. That was why he was pushing to establish a grant program for infertile patients. If he or one of the other obstetricians who agreed with him managed to win the hospital's promotional Hope Challenge, they'd have a $100,000 charitable donation to start their fund.
Only three months to go. The physician achieving the highest pregnancy rate with infertile patients could choose where to donate the prize money. Zack was only in fourth place so far, in part because he devoted a lot of his time to learning new surgical and implantation techniques rather than scheduling additional patients. Of the three doctors ahead of him, only oneDr. Paige Brennanopenly backed his plan.
He resolutely cleared all other considerations from his mind. He faced a delicate surgery requiring precision to reconnect tissues by stitching them together.
Right now, this patient was the only one that mattered.