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The sterile double doors of the hospital whispered open as Bel Rochester approached, wiping her free hand on her jeans and gripping her overnight case like a sweaty lifeline in the other. It wasn't every day you walked into a hospital a single woman but walked out a single mother. Pregnant with your sister's babies.
Lucky the whole thing had happened so fastbarely six hours had elapsed from the moment the clinic called to say her levels were optimum to her stepping out of the black taxi on Chelsea Bridge Road. The crazy chaos meant she hadn't had time to get nervous. To indulge in second thoughts. Anyway, she wasn't a woman to second-guess herself once she'd made a decision, and she'd done enough thinking for a lifetime.
She made her way to the busy admissions desk and waited patiently while the woman behind the desk finished directing phone calls. Her eyes strayed down a long corridora corridor she'd walked a few weeks ago when the hormone treatments first beganand she wondered which of the hospital's dozen labs currently housed Gwen and Drew's two remaining IVF embryos.
Her niece or nephew.
Her future children.
'Sorry, love. Can I help you?'
She snapped her attention back to the woman behind the desk. 'Belinda Rochester' she smiled, sliding her appointment letter onto the counter 'I'm being admitted today for an embryo transfer.'
No, that wasn't weird to say. At all.
The woman consulted the flat screen monitor on her desk and checked the letter before absently returning it. Then she nodded and confirmed, 'Dr Cabanallo? Fertility department?'
Stupidly, the word 'fertility' still made her blush even though what was about to happen to her was about as un-sexy as anything possibly could be. Induced uterine preparation, assisted implantation, fostered maturation. Hardly the stuff of romance.
Not that she had much to compare it to.
She cleared her throat. 'That's right.'
The admissions clerk nodded. Then she looked discreetly at the large empty space around Bel and smiled kindly. 'No one with you, love? For support?'
Would she need a support team? It hadn't occurred to her. She'd become so accustomed to doing things solo. Gwen would normally have been her support of choice, but her sister's death two years before was the whole reason Bel was here now. When she and Drew had gone down with the ferry while travelling through south-east Asia, they'd left behind no instructions regarding the remaining IVF embryos they had on ice. And, although there was a tick in the box next to donate on the clinic's signed consent form that determined what happened to any unused embryos, Bel had fought all the way to the High Court to make sure that they were donatedto her.
It was worth every sleepless night, every invasive question and every last pound of her grandmother's inheritance to secure custody and keep the babies together. There was no way they were going to someone else while she breathed.
They were Rochesters.
Renewed purpose pushed the momentary uncertainty out of the way. She lifted her chin and smiled breezily. 'Nope. It's just me.'
Exactly why the court case had been so fiddly. She'd had to convince three consecutive magistrates not only that she had a familial right of first preference to her sister's embryos but also that she was fit to be their parent. Despite being technically unemployed. Despite being, for all intents and purposes, estranged from her own parents. Despite being single.
Did she have support?
Nope. Not a whit.
She would have said whatever it took to make sure Gwen's embryos didn't go to strangers. Or into a furnace. The law was a hard blue line and she'd balanced precariously right on top of it.
'Fill this out, please.'
The clerk slid a clipboard across the stylish countertop for her admission details, her eyes already sliding away to the next client.
Instinct made Bel turn as the smell of fresh earth reached her on a slap of cold London air. The whisper-quiet hospital doors had admitted a manbroad-shouldered, lean-hipped. He strode towards them, pushing fingers through damp brown hair, his scuffed work boots squeaking on the polished hospital floor. He was the complete cowboy cliche, only missing the Stetson.
Who got around like that in London?
Bel's eyes drifted down long demin-clad legs to those boots. They'd genuinely seen time out in the fields and were unmistakably the source of the eau d'earth since the rest of him was straight-from-the-shower spotless. The familiar scent gave her flagging spirits the tiniest boost.
Outdoors. Her favourite place in the world.
Not that she'd be getting out of her flat and into the wilds much once she was heavy with child. Another sacrifice she'd willingly make to raise her sister's children. Though not without some sorrow.
As she lifted her eyes, she realised he'd tracked her glance down to his mud-crusted boots. She quickly returned to her paperwork as he spoke to the admissions clerk.
'Russel Ives is expecting me.'
Every hair on Bel's neck stood on end and she sucked in a breath as painful as the coldest blast of Thames-chilled air. Australian. Not American.
She hadn't heard the Aussie accent for two years, since they'd lost Drew. To hear it now, on a stranger, on this day of all days She blinked rapidly past the unexpected sting in her eyes.
Tanned fingers shot out into mid air to halt the clerk's speech. Her mouth snapped shut with an audible click. Bel felt heat on her bent head and glanced up from her mountain of admissions paperwork to meet two male eyes. They should have been prettythe ash of the tempestuous skies outside and with lashes to rival her ownbut they were flat and lifeless. And they were staring right at her.
'Do you mind?' His voice was as empty as his eyes.
Bel stiffened immediately at the presumption. She gave him her best up yours smile. 'Not at all. Say whatever you want.'
His silent glare was all the answer she got.
God, he even looked a bit like Drewin the heavy-lidded shape of his eyes, the furrowed brow. Who knew, maybe all Australian men looked a little bit alike? Colonial origins, small founding gene pool and all that. But this man's arrogant manner was nothing like the charming Aussie her sister had fallen in love with, even if the single eyebrow lift was straight out of Drew's playbook.
Her stomach curled. His former playbook.
Sobriety brought her back to the whole purpose of today's visit. This wasn't a day to be messing with the minds of egotistical foreigners. But it galled her to concede even something as simple as an admissions desk, so she took just a tiny bit longer than necessary pulling her papers together and tugging the loaned clipboard to her chest, then she stepped quietly away and crossed to one of the comfortable waiting room couches to finish the forms.
Maybe his wife's in here somewhere, dying of cancer? Reasonable Bel forced her way forward to try and justify the man's appalling manners. Maybe he's dying of something himself? Her eyes flicked up briefly and assessed the back view of him. Fit, strong, excellent carriage. Amazing in jeans. No, that body wasn't the slightest bit ill. And as he ran his agitated left hand through his freshly washed hair, she confirmed something else, too.
Just a jerk then. The simplest solution was often the best. Wasn't that what Gwen used to say? Thinking of her sister helped take her mind off the unsettling feelings that being treated like crap engendered. If she wanted to be treated like dirt she could go home to her parents.
She got it free there!
It was part of the reason she'd made the decision to raise her sister's babies as her own. A chance to have someone look at her as if she meant something. Something she'd not had for over two years since losing the people closest to her. She slid her hand low on her flat belly. In a couple of hours she was going to have two lives nestled in thereGwen and Drew's DNA but her children. And Rochesters. Just a bunch of frozen cells right now, not even human in the eyes of the law, but family in the eyes of their biological aunt.
Their about-to-be mother.
Bel's heart tripped and thumped hard in its recovery. Even thinking the word was a huge adjustment. What did she know about mothering? But the alternatives were purely unthinkable. Disposal, donation or eternity suspended in ice. Either way, that was her blood being banished from the family. And Bel was determined that no more Rochesters would feel the sting of not being wanted.
Her loud sigh achieved the unimaginable and drew the admission clerk's gaze off the man in front of her. Mr Personality had finally finished his long discussion and now leaned on the admissions counter, waiting, as she had. Refusing to yield an inch more to some overly decorative tourist, she pushed to her feet and returned her forms to the desk, clattering the clipboard down noisily right next to his elbow.
The clerk gave Bel her full attention now, her attempts at engaging the man visibly fruitless. 'The doctor will see you now. You know the way?'
Bel smiled. 'Thank you. Have a nice day.' It was directed to the clerk but purely for the benefit of the Wonder from Down Under. A little lesson in etiquette for him.
The clerk reached out and squeezed her hand. 'Good luck, yeah?'
Bel nodded, but as she turned towards the corridor her gaze collided with a pair of male eyes, still flat but harbouring a strange new quality.
Was that a hint of regret? Was he possibly embarrassed by his dreadful manners earlier? She glanced at the rugged, closed face and doubted it, then she pulled her overnight bag up into a death grip, turned towards the corridor and let her long legs carry her off.
She was halfway to the ward before it dawned on her that she was no longer the slightest bit nervous.
'Is it too late to vote for drugs?' Bel asked with less quaver in her voice than she felt.
She looked at the array of probes, tubes and long, long needles laid out beside her and asked herselfagainwhether staying conscious was the right decision. But if there was no conception to be around for, then the transfer was as close as she was going to get to the moment Gwen's embryos became hers. Besides, her specialist had elected to go in through her belly button rather than up the birth canal given her status and that made it possible to watch the procedure with only a local anaesthetic.
The nurse added a nasty-looking hypodermic to the tray.
'Far too late.' Dr Cabanallo smiled at her.
'But going up has to be easier, surely. Isn't that what it's designed for?'
A nurse chuckled but the specialist's eyes widened in horror. 'And risk ruining my first ever miracle birth? Surely you jest.'
Ah, yes Apparently the virgin jokes just never got old. Though the jury was still out on which Dr Cabanallo thought was more miraculousa virgin having a baby in the first place, or a girl from Chelsea still being intact at twenty-three. It wasn't the first time she'd faced that silent scepticism.
'Right,' she said lightly. 'I forgot this was all about you.'
'Well, of course it is, Belindadid you not read your agreement before you signed it?'
Despite the banter, she and Marco Cabanallo got on brilliantly. She'd shopped three IVF clinics until she'd met and clicked with the man now fiddling around with her midsection.
'Okay,' he said, lifting his head from a brief inspection in a microscopic device across the room. 'Let's get this party started.'
Somewhere down the hall voices were raised. One nurse turned to frown towards the unusual interruption as the other attended the specialist. The voices continued and drew closer. Dr Cabanallo lifted his head. So did both nurses. So, finally, did Bel.
'What the hell ?' He stripped off his gloves and stormed from the theatre as two suited men, one security guard and one ominously familiar face appeared on the other side of the observation glass.
The Wonder from Down Under.
His eyes widened and his brow formed more lines than a topographical map as he saw her propped up on the table. But the surprise quickly turned dark as she stared back at him. Bel glanced down at her gown to make sure everything important was covered now that there was a room full of strangers along for the ride. With the exception of an iodine stained square of her flat belly visible through the window cut in her blue gown, it was.
Dr Cabanallo's heated entry into the viewing room muted immediately as he spoke in a low tone to the men in suits. He glanced up at Bel, then back at the two men and shook his head, his waving hands testament to his Italian origins. Bel frowned, then looked back at the stranger, whose eyes had not left hers. As if he was studying her for the slightest reaction. Or trying to figure something out.