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"I'm going to have a baby."
Ashley Roarke's statement, made to her sister and her cousin over Sunday brunch, was met by silence.
She glanced from Megan to Paige and back again, but she couldn't tell what either of them was thinking.
Paige Wilder, a family law attorney who was accustomed to responding quickly to unexpected revelations in court, recovered first. "You're pregnant?"
Megan Richmond, a research scientist, took a moment to absorb the news and consider before she said, "I didn't even know you were dating anyone."
Ashley swirled a piece of French toast in the maple syrup onherplate, focusing all of her attention on the task. "I'm not."
"Then you're going to have to explain this to me," her sister—recently and very happily married—said.
Ashley nibbled on the sweet bread while she considered her response.
Megan and Paige weren't just family, they were her best friends, and she'd always been able to count on their unequivocal support in whatever she chose to do. Though she wasn't sure they would support her in this, she also wouldn't be dissuaded.
"I made an appointment at PARC," she finally said, using the acronym for the Pinehurst Assisted Reproduction Clinic.
Megan set her cup down and turned to Paige. "This is all your fault."
"What did I do?"
"You were the one who insisted she didn't need a husband to have a baby."
"Well, she doesn't. And she certainly doesn't need a husband like CBB," her cousin said, invoking the nickname she'd bestowed upon Ashley's ex-fiancé.
His real name was Trevor, but after the breakup of their engagement, he'd been referred to as Cheating Bastard Byden, and the initials had stuck.
It was Paige who'd discovered that Trevor was cheating. She'd seen him cozied up in a booth at a restaurant with a colleague, and while she didn't want to believe he would be unfaithful to his fiancée, the evidence had been irrefutable. Ashley knew that Paige hated telling her, but she would have hated even more for the deception to continue.
Of course, Ashley had refused to believe her. She'd even— she was embarrassed to admit now—accused Paige of being jealous of her happiness. In fact, she'd been so positive that her cousin was wrong, she'd gone straight to Trevor.
She'd expected him to reassure her of his love and fidelity. And while he did insist that he loved her, and that he'd never felt about anyone else the way he felt about her, he'd also admitted that he'd been with other women.
Not another woman—singular, but other women—plural.
And Ashley had felt as if the ground had crumbled beneath her feet.
He'd tried to explain that he'd been feeling a little uncertain since their engagement, and that every woman he'd been with since had reassured him that he was marrying the only woman he would ever love, and he promised her that he would never even look at another woman after they were married.
Ashley was not reassured. As far as she was concerned, he'd made a vow when he'd asked her to marry him, and if he couldn't honor that vow before the wedding, she knew nothing would change afterward.
She didn't regret ending their relationship, but she'd been looking forward to her wedding day since she was a little girl. As she'd grown older, her dreams had taken on a more specific focus. It wasn't just that she wanted a wedding, she wanted to be married. She wanted to fall in love and build a future— and a family—with a man who loved her, too.
She'd thought Trevor was that man. And when she'd handed back his ring, she'd relinquished some of her dreams, too.
That had been almost four months ago. Since then, she'd given the matter a lot of thought. The more she thought about it, the more she resented having to put her life on hold because she'd been wrong about Trevor.
And she'd decided she wasn't going to put her life on hold any longer.
"You can't blame Paige for this," Ashley told her sister now. "I would have thought about artificial insemination on my own if I hadn't been so preoccupied with planning my wedding."
Paige wrinkled her nose. "Anything 'artificial' can't be very much fun."
"I'm not doing it for fun. I'm doing it to have a baby."
"Just because CBB turned out to be a first-class CB doesn't mean you should give up hope of finding a wonderful man to father your children," Megan said.
"I haven't given up," Ashley denied, though she wasn't entirely sure it was true. Two broken hearts in one lifetime were too many for her. "But I'm tired of waiting."
"You're not even thirty yet," Paige reminded her.
"But I'm no closer to having a husband and a baby than I was at twenty," she pointed out to both of them. "I was devastated when I found out that Trevor was cheating on me. But I'm not sure if I was really heartbroken by his betrayal or because he derailed my hopes of having a child. And I began to wonder if one of the reasons I accepted Trevor's proposal in the first place was that he seemed to want marriage and a family as much as I do."
"That doesn't excuse what he did," Paige said fiercely.
"No, it doesn't," Ashley agreed. "But it made me realize that I want a baby more than I want a husband."
"But your engagement only ended four months ago," Megan said gently. "You have to give your heart time to heal."
"How much time?" Ashley wanted to know. "How long am I supposed to wait until you'll trust that I've considered all the angles, that this is what I really want to do?"
"More than four months," her sister told her.
"We know how much you want a child of your own," Paige chimed in. "And how much love you have to give. But I think we're both concerned that this is an impulse, an emotional response to the breakup of your engagement."
"I'm going to have a baby, and nothing either of you say is going to change my mind now," Ashley assured her.
"I don't want to change your mind," Paige said. "I just want you to rethink your options."
"The Pinehurst clinic has a reputation for excellence and a record of success."
"I know it does," her cousin admitted. "But did you know that Cameron Turcotte is back in town?"
Her cousin's question seemed to come from out of the blue, but Ashley knew the remark wasn't unintentional. Because even after twelve years, just the mention of his name was enough to make her heart skip a beat, but she wouldn't— couldn't—let Paige know it.
"Who?" she said instead.
"I know you saw him at the reunion," Paige said, referring to the high school reunion they'd all attended a few months earlier. Although Cam had been two years ahead of Ashley in school, the party had been open to all former graduates in celebration of Hill Park High School's one hundredth year anniversary.
She shrugged. "So we talked."
"And maybe your…talk…had something to do with his decision to come back to Pinehurst."
Megan frowned, and Ashley knew her sister had concerns about Cameron's return—specifically how it would affect Ashley.
"Is it true, then, that he's going to be working with Elijah Alexander?" Megan asked.
"So Cam's back," Ashley said. "So what? What does that have to do with anything?"
"It just seems to me that someone who spent so many years in medical school would have a pretty good idea about how to make a baby," Paige teased.
Ashley didn't doubt that it was true, but she had no intention of letting her mind wander down that dead-end path.
Cameron Turcotte had been her first love, her first lover, and even way back when they were both in high school, he'd been a creative and considerate partner. He'd also broken her heart, and she wasn't going to forget that for a few horizontal thrills. Not even if he'd given her any indication that he was interested in a reunion of that kind, which he hadn't.
"You seem to be forgetting that one of the reasons Cam and I split up was that I wanted to have kids and he didn't."
"He didn't want a baby twelve years ago," Paige pointed out. "I wouldn't be surprised if he's changed his mind since then."
"Well, I've changed mine, too," Ashley said. "I'm no longer looking for a marriage proposal or even a relationship. All I want is a sperm donor."
"You're really not interested?" Megan asked skeptically.
"I'm really not interested."
But while Ashley's voice rang with conviction, her heart wasn't quite so certain.
When Cameron Turcotte first contacted the real estate company, it was to inquire about available rental properties in the area. Since he wasn't convinced that the move back to Pinehurst would be a permanent one, it seemed logical to rent rather than buy. But he didn't want an apartment; he wanted a house, a place to go at the end of the day that was his alone without neighbors above and below him. Unfortunately, house rentals were apparently rare in the area and Tina Stilwell hadn't sounded optimistic about his prospects.
But she'd called earlier in the day to let him know that the owners of a house she had listed might be willing to consider a one-year lease in the hopes that the housing market would pick up within that time and ultimately result in a higher sale price for the home.
Since Cam had committed to a one-year contract with Elijah Alexander—a trial period for both of them, with the possibility of buying into the practice at the end of that term if it was what they wanted—he figured a housing lease for the same amount of time would be ideal. So it was that after a ten-hour day, he wasn't heading back to his parents' retirement community bungalow, where he'd temporarily taken up residence, but following a much too perky real estate agent through the front door of a gorgeous stone and brick two-story.
"It's a wonderful neighborhood, close to the local schools and parks, convenient to shopping, entertainment, and pretty much anything else you'd want," she told him.
And only a short drive from Dr. Alexander's offices, he'd noted.
"I can walk through with you, if you want," Tina said, as she led him from the living room through the dining room to the kitchen at the back of the house, from plush carpet to glossy hardwood to cool travertine. "But I find a lot of clients prefer to look around on their own."
"I'll wander, and let you know if I have any questions," he said, accepting the spec sheet she'd taken from the upright display on the long granite counter in the kitchen.
The agent nodded, pulling out her BlackBerry as she settled at one of the high-backed stools lined up by the breakfast bar.
He exited the kitchen through another doorway, passing a family room and den as he made his way toward the stairs. On the upper level he found four bedrooms, all of them generously sized with lots of windows to ensure plenty of natural light.
The master bedroom at the back of the house was enormous—or maybe it just seemed so because it was devoid of furniture, as were all the other rooms in the house—with a huge walk-in closet and a four-piece ensuite bath of gleaming marble and glistening chrome. Returning to the main part of the room, he wandered over to the pair of wide windows overlooking a professionally landscaped backyard complete with a stone patio, pond, and decorative beds filled with colorful blooms and greenery.
Best of all, there was still a lot of open space, enough room for a child to run around. Several children even, he thought, and sighed with regret that his marriage hadn't worked out quite the way he'd planned.
When he'd proposed to Danica Carrington, he'd known that she was focused on her career to the exclusion of all else; she'd made no secret of the fact that children weren't part of her plan. He'd married her anyway, certain that she would change her mind when she held their baby in her arms. But it hadn't happened that way at all, and after three years of desperately trying to make their marriage work, he'd finally given up and she'd eagerly walked away.
He pushed aside the disappointments and continued his tour. There was no reason to think of Danica now, to continue to mourn what had never been anything more than an illusion. He was determined to put the past behind him and make a fresh start in Pinehurst, to make a new life with Madeline.
And one of the most attractive features of this home, from his point of view, was its move-in condition. The walls were freshly painted in neutral colors, the carpets were pristine, the hardwood unmarked and the cherry kitchen was a chef's paradise.
Not that he was a chef, by any stretch of the imagination, but he enjoyed experimenting in the kitchen. And he knew he would enjoy experimenting in that kitchen, with its top-of-the-line stainless steel appliances, luxurious island and two sets of French doors opening onto a cedar deck.
Tina tucked her BlackBerry away when he paused at those doors to survey the backyard more closely.
"Any thoughts?" she asked him.
I want it, was the first thought that came to mind.
"It's probably a lot more space than I need," he said instead.
"It is spacious," she agreed, choosing to put a positive spin on his negative comment. "More suited to a family than a single man, but definitely a good investment."
"It's certainly been immaculately maintained."
"It's a three-year-old custom-design by Armstrong & Sullivan, built by Carson Construction," she said. "The owners are both young professionals who, from what I understand, spent more time at their jobs than at home."
He knew what that kind of life was like—and the toll it could take on a marriage. But all he said was, "Either they've taken minimalist decorating to a new level or they've already moved out."
"Moved out," she admitted, with a smile. "The wife got transferred to New York City, the husband took a job offer in Los Angeles, and they left me in charge of the house."
And Cam would bet the proceeds were to be split down the middle, along with all their other shared possessions, with a significant chunk from each side going to their respective bloodsucking lawyers.
Yeah, he'd been there, done that, too.
Of course, when he'd met Danica he'd thought she was the type of woman he wanted, someone who had ambitions and dreams, who wanted more than to be a wife and a mother.
Someone who didn't remind him of Ashley Roarke.
Since he'd been back in Pinehurst, it seemed as if everything reminded him of Ashley. Every street and shop and landmark brought back memories of times they'd spent together.