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'You've decided to do what?'
It was Friday afternoon, the end of a grueling workweek, and Ella McLeod desperately wanted to put up her swollen feet and relax.
Instead, from the depths of the sofa in her town house living room, Ella bit back the rest of the explosive reaction that threatened to erupt. She hoped wildly that her sister's next words would settle her world back on its axis so that the nasty jolt of shock reverberating through her system might just evaporate.
As if the sight of Ella's swollen belly prodded her conscience, Keira's gaze skittered away and she had the good grace to look discomforted. "Dmitri and I have decided to go to Africa for a year."
Ella shifted to ease the nagging ache in her lower back that had started earlier at the law chambers. Keeping her attention fixed on her sister fidgeting on the opposite end of the sofa, she said, "Yes, I understood that partyou and Dmitri plan to work for an international aid charity."
Her younger sister's gaze crept back, already glimmering with relief. "Oh, Ella, I knew you'd understand! You always do."
Not this time. Clearly Keira thought this was a done deal. It was rapidly becoming clear why Keira had dropped in this evening. And Ella had thought her sister's anticipation about the baby's imminent arrival had driven the surprise visit .
How wrong she'd been!
Gathering herself, Ella said slowly, "I don't quite understand the rest. What about the baby?" The baby.
The baby in her belly that Keira had been so desperate for. Keira's baby. A baby girl. Keira and Dmitri had been present at the twenty-week ultrasound when the baby's sex had been revealed. Afterward the pair had gone shopping to finish buying furnishings for a nursery suitable for a baby girl.
Yet now that very same baby girl suddenly appeared to have ceased to be the focus of her sister's universe.
"Well" Keira wet her lips "obviously the baby can't come with."
It wasn't obvious at all.
"Why not?" Ella wasn't letting Keira wriggle out of her responsibilities so easily. Not this time. This wasn't the course of expensive French lessons Keira had grown tired of or the fledgling florist business that Ella had sunk money into so that Keira would have a satisfying career when the one she'd chosen had become impossible. This was the baby Keira had always dreamed of one day having.
When Keira bit her lip and tears welled up in her eyes, a familiar guilt consumed Ella. Before she could relentas she always didshe said, "Keira, there's no reason why the baby can't go with you. I'm sure you'll find people in Africa will have babies."
The tears swelled into big, shiny drops. "What if the baby becomes ill? Or dies? Ella, it's not as if this is a five-star beach resort. This is aid work in a poverty-stricken part of Africa."
Refusing to be drawn into her sister's dramatics, Ella leaned forward and tore a tissue from the box on the glass coffee table in front of the sofa, then passed it to Keira.
"Do you even know what kind of infrastructure exists? You could ask whether a baby would be safe." But Ella suspected she was fighting a losing battle when Keira failed to answer. She tried again. "If it's so unsafe, then what about your own health? Your safety? Have you and Dmitri thought this through? Do you really want to be living in a war zone?"
"It's not a war zone," Keira denied hotly. The tears had miraculously evaporated without a dab from the tissue that drifted to the carpet. "Credit me with some sense. It's Malawi. The country is stablethe people are friendly. It's poverty and illiteracy that we will be fighting."
So much for Keira's claim that it would be impossible to take a child there. But Ella knew she'd lost the battle; Keira had already made up her mindthe baby was not going with her.
"So what will happen to the baby?"
Keira's eyes turned pleading, just like those of Patches, the beloved spaniel from their childhood.
"No! It is not staying with me." Ella made it a statement. A firm statement. The kind she used when delivering an ultimatum to opposing counsel.
Keira opened her mouth.
The baby chose that moment to kick.
Ella squeezed her eyes shut and suppressed a gasp at the hard jab against her ribs. Perspiration pricked at her forehead. She rubbed her side.
Thrusting the pain away, she opened her eyes and said to her sister, "Have you spoken to Jo about your new plans?" Ella suspected Jo Wells, the social worker who had been involved in helping arrange the paperwork side of the adoption for Keira and Dmitri, would be as floored as she was by Keira's change of heart.
"Dmitri is right. We're too young to become parents," Keira said, sidestepping Ella's question. "We haven't even been married a year."
Drawing a deep breath, Ella said slowly, "A bit late to come to the conclusion that you're not ready to be parents."
Nine months too late to be precise.
Ella patted her own swollen stomach and watched mercilessly as Keira flushed.
"This baby is due next week. All your life you wanted to get married, start a family that's why you did an early childcare course." It was why Ella was now stuck across the sofa from her sister like a stranded whale with a bulging belly. "How can you walk away from your child now?"
She had a nasty suspicion that she knew whator rather, whowas behind the change of heart. Dmitri's big brother. Yevgeny Volkovoy.
Bossy big brother. Billionaire. Bigot.
Ella couldn't stand the man. He'd been furious to discover that Dmitri had gotten married without his say-so. He'd caused poor Keira endless tears with his terrifying tirades. Only by signing a post-nuptial agreement that allowed Keira the barest of maintenance in the case of divorce, and skewed everything in favor of the Volkovoy dynasty had Keira escaped his ire. Ella'd had a fit when she'd learned about the contractand her alarm had grown when she read the terms. But by then it had been too late. The marriage was a done deal.
And Keira hadn't asked her for her expertise or her help.
Of course, Yevgeny hadn't been in favor of the baby plan, either. Ella had known from the moment he'd switched to Russian. Dmitri had gone bright redclearly he'd been less happy with Big Brother's opinions.
Now it sounded like Big Brother had finally gotten his way and managed to persuade Dmitri that he wasn't ready to become a parent.
Shifting again to ease her body's increasing discomfort, Ella tried to stem the emotions that were swirling around inside her. Disbelief. Confusion. The beginnings of anger. None of this cocktail of emotions could be good for the baby. And, even though Ella had never had any intentions of having her own child, she'd taken great care of this one. She'd eaten wellgoing to great lengths to cut out her four-cups-a-day coffee habitshe'd even shortened her workday and made certain she'd been in bed by ten o'clock each night. She'd even taught herself to meditate so that the baby wouldn't be contaminated by her stressful workday thoughts.
All because she'd wanted to make sure the baby was perfect. Her gift to Keira.
A gift Keira was now returning. Unborn, rather than unwrapped.
How did one return a baby, for heaven's sake? A baby that was a week away from becoming a live person? Which brought Ella to.
"You're not leaving for Africa before the baby is born." She made it a statement. "There will be decisions that have to be made before you go."
Panic turned Keira's eyes opaque. "No! I can't."
"What do you mean you can't?"
"I can't handle those decisions. We've already booked our tickets. You'll need to make the arrangements."
"Me?" Drawing a deep shuddering breath, Ella went cold. "Keira, this is a baby we're talking aboutyou can't just walk away."
Her sister's gaze dropped pointedly to Ella's very round stomach. "You're still the legal motherthe adoption doesn't kick in until twelve days after the baby's born. You know that, Ella. Because you told me so yourself."
Of course she knew it. Knowing stuff like that was part of her job as one of the most respected family lawyers in Auckland. But the knowledge was only just starting to sink in that Keira was planning to leave her holding the baby!
"Oh, no!" Shaking her head, Ella said emphatically, "The only reason I lent you my body was so that you could have the baby you always dreamed of having. This is your dream, Keira.
Your baby." My nightmare. Then, in case it hadn't sunk in, she added pointedly, "Yours and Dmitri's."
"It's your egg."
"Only because you can't" Ella bit off the words she'd been about to utter. Too late.
Keira had gone white.
Driven by remorse, Ella propelled her colossal self from the sofa and reached for Keira. Her sister was as stiff as a wooden block in her arms. "I'm so sorry, sweetheart, I shouldn't have said that."
"It's the truth." Keira's voice was flat. "I don't have eggs or a uterusI can't have children."
"So why" Ella almost bit her tongue off. She tightened her hold around her sister.
"Don't worry, you can ask. No, I'll ask for you. 'Why are you doing this? Why are you going to Africa without the baby?' That's what you really want to know, isn't it?"
Ella inclined her head.
"I'm not sure I can explain." Keira shrugged out of her hold.
Given no choice, Ella let her sister go.
While Keira gathered her thoughts, Ella became aware of the stark silence that stretched to the breaking point between them across the length of the sofa. A silent divide. It might as well have been the blue-green of the Indian Ocean that stretched beyond Australia all the way to Africa that yawned between them because her sister had already retreated mentally farther than the arm's length that separated them.
Then Keira started to speak. "This is something both Dmitri and I have to do." The blank, flat stare she fixed on Ella was a little unnerving. "I have to find myself, Ella. Find out who I am. All my life I wanted to teach little childrenand have my own houseful of kids at home." Her eyes grew more bleak. "But things didn't go according to plan."
"I loved my job at Little Ducks Center"
"Keira." The pain in her sister's voice was unbearable.
But Keira carried on as if she hadn't heard. "I couldn't work there after the car accident after I found out the truththat there never would be any babies."
Keira ducked away from Ella's enfolding arms.
An unwelcome sense of rejection filled Ella. Followed by emptiness. Instantly she scolded herself for her selfishness. She shouldn't feel hurt. Keira was suffering.
Yet, despite all her empathy for her sister, the most important question still remained unanswered: What about the baby? The baby I helped create to fulfill your dream? "But Keira, you will have a baby nowand you have a husband who loves you."
Wasn't that enough?
Eyes softening, Keira admitted, "Yes, I was very, very fortunate to find Dmitri."
Ella hadn't been so sure of that in the beginning. In fact, she'd foreseen nothing but heartbreak ahead for her sister. The arrival of Yevgeny Volkovoy in Auckland had been big news. Not satisfied with inheriting millions from the hotel empire his father had built up, the Russian had expanded the dynasty by building up the best river cruise operation in Russia. In the past few years he'd expanded into ocean cruise liners. With the planned expansion of Auckland's cruise ship terminal, it was not surprising to learn that Yevgeny intended to secure Auckland as a voyage destination. What had been surprising had been learning through the newspapers that the Russian had fallen in love with New Zealandand planned to relocate himself permanently. He'd sent his brother to New Zealand to secure corporate offices and staff them for Volkovoy Cruising's new base. At first Ella had been less than impressed with the younger Volkovoy. With all the Volkovoy money Dmitri threw around, Ella had considered him spoiled and irresponsible. Nothing fortunate in that. Yet there was no doubt that he loved her sister and thankfully he'd lost that reckless edge that had worried Ella so much at first. But heading off to Africa without the baby was not the right thing for Keira. The baby.
Ella's hand crept to her stomach.
Mindful of how much her sister hated it when she nagged, Ella tempered her outrage. "You can't just leave a baby for a few months or even a year and hope it will be there when you get back."
"I know that, Ella." Keira's brows drew together. "Don't try to put the guilts on me. I'm not ready for a babyneither of us are."
Ignoring her sister's unfair accusation, Ella tried to fathom out what Keira's response meant. Did she intend to give the baby up for adoption? Shock chilled Ella. Had her sister thought this through? She would hate to see Keira suffer when it one day came home to her what she'd lost. Perhaps Keira needed to be reminded of that.
"If you're thinking about giving the baby up for adoption, just remember it's not going to be easy to find a surrogate again if you decide you want a baby when you come back from Africa."
She certainly wouldn't be doing it again. She shouldn't even have done it this time. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb decision. That's what came of making decisions with her heart rather than her head.
Keira flicked back her pale silver hair. "We can do what Yevgeny suggested when we first talked about you being our surrogateput our names down to adopt a baby."
She'd known Dmitri's high-handed brother was behind this!
The ache in her lower back that had been worsening all day, intensified. It wasn't worth arguing with Keira, pointing out that putting down your name didn't guarantee a baby because so few became available for adoption. And when one did, the legal mother had the final say. She alone could choose whichever couple she wantedthere was no waiting list, no way to predict who she would choose.
But right now Keira's future plans were not her concern.
"And what about this baby?" Ella knew she sounded angry. But, damn it, she was angry. Yevgeny made her blood bubbleeven when he wasn't present. Just the mention of the man was enough! "You can't just dump it"
"I'm not dumping it You're the legal mother. I know you'll make the best decision for the baby." There was an imploring expression in her sister's eyes that caused the hairs at the back of Ella's neck to stand on end.
Oh, no! Keira had planned to leave the baby with her and come back to claim it. Panic prickled through her. "I can't keep the baby."
Keira's eyes teared up again. "I know I shouldn't have expected you to. But you always wanted the adoption of the baby to us to be an open one. So I hoped you would consider "
"No!" Panic swamped Ella. "We have a surrogacy arrangement"
Keira was shaking her head. "But Ella, you explained we can't actually adopt the baby until after you sign the consent to give her up on the twelfth day. As the legal mother, you're entitled to change your mindbut so are we."
She'd explained the legalities too well to her sister. Ella swallowed a curse. "You can't change your mindbecause I can't keep this baby."
A wave of sick helplessness engulfed her.
Keira sighed. "We already have. We're not ready to raise a child. I don't even want to think about the decision you're going to have to make, but you have to do what you feel is right, Ella. It's your body, your b"
"Don't tell me it's my baby!"
Keira looked doleful. "I think I always knew deep in my heart that you wouldn't agree to keep her, and I've made peace with that. Even though I had so hoped.. " Her little sister's voice trailed away.