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With his cell phone in a white-knuckled grip, Matthew Kincaid watched his son through the glass panel of the hospital room's door.
Three-year-old Flynn sat up against his pillows, his halo of dark hair haphazardly framing his little face. Two of his aunts, Matt's sisters Lily and Laurel, sat on either side of his bed, talking and playing with him. Since his wife's death a year ago, Matt's family had been extraordinary. They'd rallied around and given Matt and Flynn any extra support they'd needed.
It wouldn't be enough this time.
And all the wealth the Kincaids had amassed over three generations in shipping meant little in that room where his son was confined.
Despite the pale tone to Flynn's skin and the tired smudges under his eyes, onlookers might not guess how compromised his health currently was. Might not guess that his aunts had been through a decontamination process before being allowed in the private room, to avoid any germs gaining access to his weakened immune system.
As he watched his son try to learn the hand game Lily was teaching himsuch a nice, normal activity for a little kid Matt fought back the ball of emotion rising in this throat. He'd just come from a meeting with the doctors who'd laid out some chilling facts: Flynn's little body was still struggling to recover from the aplastic anemia. If his blood work didn't improve with the treatments they'd been using so far, they'd have to look at more drastic options.
Including a bone-marrow transplant.
A layer of ice settled over his skin, as it had done when the awful words had first been mentioned. Flynn was so youngtoo young to be facing such a procedure. And that was assuming they could even locate a compatible donor. The ideal option would be a sibling, but Flynn had none. Next best was a parent, but Matt's penicillin allergy had relegated him to being a last resort. The doctors didn't want to risk transferring the potentially life-threatening allergy to a three-year-old. Antibiotics were Flynn's only hope if he developed an infection.
Intellectually Matt could understand why the doctors didn't want to gamble on losing such a basic treatmentthey'd explained in detail about documented cases of allergies transferred with marrow transplant. But it didn't make him feel any better. He wanted to be able to do something, anything, to help his little boy.
He curled his hand into a fist and pressed it to his solar plexus in a futile attempt to relieve the ache. When his son needed him the most, he'd failed him, and the knowledge was almost too much to bear.
He knew his brother and sisters would insist on being tested to see if they were a match, and Matt would welcome their offers, but the doctors had been pessimistic about the likelihood of a match being found there.
Which left only one option. One other person who had that primary link with Flynn. His biological mother.
He gripped the phone more tightly, took one last look at his little boy playing with his aunts and walked down the corridor to find some privacy.
Checking her watch, Susannah reached for the pages spurting from her printer. Twelve minutes till the meeting with the directors of the bank and the other key teamssince it was in an office down the hall, she'd easily make it. She'd stayed up late all week working on the new public-relations plan for the bank's rebranding, and was quietly confident they'd love it. Re-branding was a big move for the bank, and the PR angle was the biggest project Susannah and her team had handled, but they'd created strategies that were sure to get the reach they needed and generate a strong community buzz.
Her cell chirruped and she grabbed it as she slid the other arm into her jacket.
"Susannah Parrish," she said, scanning her desk to ensure she had everything for her presentation.
"Good morning, Susannah." The unfamiliar male voice was strained. "This is Matthew Kincaid."
The name immediately stilled her, brought a heaviness to her chest. Matthew Kincaid. Husband of Grace Kincaid, the woman to whom she'd handed her newborn baby. Memories of that day, of that special time in her life, crowded in, past the barrier she'd erected to keep them at baythose few short hours she'd had with the newborn boy, his precious warmth and softness pressed against her. A sliver of time before she'd passed him to his new parents forever, giving them the gift of a baby, and saving her own mother from financial ruin.
Then her brain kicked into high gear.
"The baby," she whispered, her heart clutched tight. "Something's happened to the baby." There was no other reason he could be calling.
An uneven breath came down the line. "He's sick."
Sick? Her stomach swooped. He would only have turned three a couple of months ago. She dropped the folder on her desk and sank into her chair.
"What's wrong with him?" Though she hoped for something simple, logic dictated he wouldn't be calling over a head cold.
"He's had a virus," Matthew said, his voice sounding unnaturally rough, "and his body hasn't recovered properly."
That tiny little baby she'd nurtured in her womb was suffering. The thought was almost intolerable. "What can I do?"
"I was hoping you'd ask. There's an outside chance he might need a bone-marrow transplant. The best place to find a good match is a sibling or a parent, but I'm not an ideal donor." He paused and cleared his throat before continuing. "My brother and sisters will want to help, but"
"How soon do you need me there?" she said without needing to think it through.
"You'll come," he said, as if confirming it aloud. And in those words she heard the massive relief he must be feeling.
"Of course I'll come. How soon?"
"The transplant isn't a definite yetthe doctors want to get the tests done and be ready to move if it does become necessary." There was a slight hesitation before he added, "But I'd appreciate it if you could come as soon as you can get away."
Pulse pounding through her body, she looked around her office, then at her watch again. She was owed time off, and her assistant was up-to-date and capable of covering for her. Taking leave without advance notice might cost her career a few points, but if that precious baby needed her, there was no contest. She could make this presentation, then hand everything over to her assistant and make a flight this afternoon.
She opened her bottom drawer and withdrew a vacation request form. "You're still in Charleston?" she asked.
"Yes. You're not?"
"Georgia now. I'll arrange leave immediately and get an afternoon flight." Her head was already buzzing with the arrangements and what she'd have to hand over to her assistant before she left the building.
"We could arrange for you to have the tests in Georgia." He spoke the words slowly and she heard his reluctance before he admitted, "But I'd prefer you to be here in case there's a crisis."
"I'd want that, too." Besides, she wouldn't be able to focus on anything here if she stayed while waiting on results. "Which hospital?"
"St. Andrew's, but send me your flight details and I'll pick you up from the airport."
Form in hand, she was on her feet, heading down the hall to her boss's office to get the request lodged before the presentation. "I'll ensure I'm there today."
"I'll see you then. And, Susannah," he said, voice deeper once again with emotion, "thank you."
"No need," she said as she knocked on her manager's office door, and ended the call.
Several hours later, she was wheeling her carry-on suitcase through the arrivals gate when she caught sight of Matthew Kincaid. At just over six feet, with closely cropped dark hair and a swimmer's body encased in a deep navy business suit, he was hard to miss. She remembered him clearly from a meeting she'd had with him and Grace before they'd signed the contract for surrogacy, and now, as then, he stole her breath.
However, she dismissed the reactionit was irrelevant to her reason for being here.
Matthew saw her as she drew closer and gave her a tight nod of acknowledgment then reached for her suitcase. "I appreciate you coming so quickly."
"I'm glad to do it," she said truthfully.
The walk to the car was made in silenceshe had too many questions to know where to start and Matthew appeared to be lost in his own world. During the pregnancy, she'd had much more contact with his wifeGrace's excitement about the baby had made her easy to talk to. Perhaps it would be best to save her questions for Grace.
She looked up at the blue Charleston sky. It had been almost three years since she'd been back. Georgia was where she chose to live, but Charleston was where she'd been born, where she'd grown upit would always be home.
Once they were in his car and fastening seat belts, she asked, "Grace's with him now?"
A shudder seemed to race through his body, and then the only movement was the rise and fall of his chest as he looked through the windshield at the other parked cars, sunglasses hiding his eyes. He didn't turn to her as he spoke. "My mother is with him. Two of my sisters were there this morning but my mother swapped with them at lunchtime." A muscle in his jaw workedhe was so tense that she worried he would shatter into shards. Then he added, "Grace passed away a year ago."
Of its own volition, her hand lifted to cover her mouth, to smother the gasp that would otherwise have escaped. "How?" she asked from between her fingers then regretted it. The how was irrelevant when a man had lost his wife, and a little boy had lost his mother.
"Small plane crash." Still, he didn't look at her or make a move to start the car, simply sitting motionless in the shadowed light of the car's interior.
"Oh, Matthew, I'm sorry." She'd always thought of them as the perfect couple, a husband and wife with the world at their feetgorgeous, rich, successful and in love. It seemed to go against the laws of nature for them to be so cruelly separated by death.
"Don't be sorry. It's not your fault." His words were loadedhe blamed someone for his wife's death, that much was clear. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask, but she had no right to pry any further into a topic that must cause intolerable pain. Having carried a child for this man did not alter the fact that she was a stranger. A stranger who needed to remember her boundaries and not be lulled into a false sense of intimacy because they had one thing in common. Matthew Kincaid deserved privacy in his grief for his wife.
Taking a mental step back, she sat up straighter in the plush passenger seat and brought the conversation around to the most pressing issue. "Tell me what's happening with Flynn."
With restless fingers, he tapped a rhythm on the steering wheel. "He had a parvovirus."
"I thought" Feeling a little foolish, she stopped.
He tilted his head and looked at her. "That it was a virus dogs caught?" He gave a small, humorless smile. "I thought the same. There are lots of them, apparently, and Flynn caught a different strain. In children it can cause slapped-cheek syndrome. And that's just what it looked likeas though someone had slapped the poor kid's cheeks. Apart from that it seemed like he had pretty mild flu symptoms. Nothing out of the ordinary."
"But ?" she asked when he paused.
He rubbed a thumb across the grooves indented in his forehead. "But he didn't recover fully. He was lethargic and tired and just not himself. When I took him to the doctor they did some tests and found his white blood cells were low. Not critical, but by the next test they were even lower. They just kept dropping. The doctors said they expected the problem to be transient. That his bone marrow would start producing again." He grimaced. "But it hasn't."
"Have they tried other treatments?" she asked, but knew they must have if they were contemplating something this drastic.
Matthew nodded once. "They haven't had much effect so far. The doctors suggested screening the family for a compatible donor. In these cases the best possibility for a match is a sibling with the same parents. Next best chance are parents. After that the chances of compatibility get less."
"Which is where I come in."
"Which is where you come in," he echoed, lifting his sunglasses to sit on his head and turning to her. "He doesn't have a sibling and my penicillin allergy means they're reluctant to even consider me as a match at this stage." He spoke the last words almost through gritted teeth.
"You need his biological mother," she said, then bit down on her lip, feeling strange. She hadn't used that term to describe herself since the day she'd given birth to him and needed to fill out forms. She'd always felt good about giving him to such a loving couple, and considered him Grace and Matthew's child.
Now, just Matthew's.
His jaw clenched and released. "In retrospect, it was lucky Grace's eggs wouldn't take and we used yours. If they had, our options would be greatly reduced."
She swallowed. Grace had been hit hard by her inability to carry a child, but finding she couldn't use her own eggs, that she wouldn't be the biological mother of her own child, had devastated her. Grace had come to her, offering more money to contribute her eggs, but it hadn't been the extra money that had swayed her. Having lost a baby when she was younger, Susannah knew the value of the gift of life.