ANOTHER MAN'S FAMILY
Safe Harbor ultrasound technician Zora Raditch has made some big mistakes, but sleeping with a man just before divorcing him takes the cake. And then she discovers she's pregnantwith twins. Struggling to deal with an unplanned pregnancy and accept that her ex wants nothing to do with her, Zora finds that the only man she can count on is her handsome and headstrong housemate, Lucky.
Luke "Lucky" Mendez wants to protect Zora and her babieshe knows her ex won't suddenly turn into the husband she needs. But being a friend is a lot different than stepping in as a father. Can Lucky prove to Zora that he's the family man she and her babies deserve?
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It was the first time Zora could recall agreeing with Lucky Mendez about anything. Although their truce surely wouldn't last long, she appreciated his good judgment this once.
"No way are you letting that creep move into our house," the male nurse told their landlady and housemate, Karen Wiggins. With his striking dark hair, muscular build and flamboyant tattoos, Lucky made an odd contrast to the pink streamers festooning their den.
"Everybody hates Laird Maclaine," Zora added as she arranged baby shower prizes on a side table. Being seven months pregnant with twins, she had to avoid any strenuous activity. In fact, as one of the shower's honoreesalong with two of their former housematesshe could have dodged setup duty, but she refused to take the easy way out.
"He's the only one who responded to the notice I posted on the bulletin board." Atop a step stool, Karen tied a bunch of balloons to a hook. In shades of pink and purple, each balloon proclaimed: Baby!
"We have a vacant room and the rent's almost due," she continued. "It's either Laird, or I post on the internet and we fend off the loonies. Unless you guys can produce another candidate, fast."
Lucky hadn't finished castigating the topic of the conversation. "One drink and Laird's telling raunchy jokes. Two drinks and he's leering at any lady who walks by." His lip curled. "Three drinks and we call the police."
"For a staff psychologist, he doesn't have a clue about how decent people act," Zora threw in.
"I don't care for him, either, but there are bills to pay." Karen, a financial counselor at Safe Harbor Medical Center, where they all worked, had inherited the five-bedroom home from her mother the previous December. Forced to take out a loan to repair the run-down property, she'd advertised for roommates. The arrangement had worked well despite the diverse personalities who'd signed on.
So far, three of the women had become pregnant, but the other two had married and moved out, unlike Zora. There was little chance she would marry the father of her babies, because he was already married. He was also her ex-husband, with whom she'd foolishly and, just before finalizing their divorce, trustingly had sex in the belief that her on-again, off-again high school sweetheart still loved her.
Zora rested her palm on her bulge, feeling the babies kick. How ironic that she'd gotten pregnant by accident at the worst possible time, after she and Andrew had tried for more than a year to conceive. They'd been on the point of seeking fertility treatments when she'd discovered he was cheating on her.
"We have plenty of other colleagues," Lucky persisted. "You guys are in a better position to meet them than me, since my office is out in the boonies." Lucky worked in the medical office building adjacent to the hospital.
"I've tried, but Oh, yuck!" Karen broke off as a breeze through the rear screen door carried a fetid whiff of decomposing vegetation and fish from the estuary behind the property.
Zora nearly gagged, too. Karen praised the marsh ad nauseum because it provided critical habitat for plants and small animals, as well as for California's migratory birds. However, despite the cooling weather at the end of September, it stank. "Who left the door open?"
"I must have forgotten to close it after I swept the patio." Lucky shut the glass slider with a thump. "How about renting to that receptionist in your office?"
"She declined." Descending from the stool, Karen stood back to assess the position of the balloons. "She prefers to save money by living with her parents. Speaking of money, if we don't find anyone by next month, I'll have to divide the room rent among you guys and Rod."
Their fourth and newest housemate, anesthesiologist Rod Vintner, had gone to pick up the party cake. He'd also gone, in Zora's opinion, to avoid anything approaching hard labor, although he had promised to clean up afterward.
"We could use the spare room as a nursery." Lucky cast a meaningful gaze at Zora's large belly. "If someone would inform her ex-husband that he's about to be a father and owes child support, she could afford the extra space."
"Don't start on her," Karen warned, saving Zora the trouble. "Go set up the chairs in the living room."
"Yes, ma'am." With a salute, Lucky strolled off. Zora tried to ignore the muscles rippling beneath his T-shirt and the tight fit of his jeans. The man was a self-righteous pain in the neck, no matter how good he looked.
Surprisingly, he hadn't brought home any dates since they'd moved into the house last February. Or none that she'd observed, Zora amended. Since Lucky occupied the downstairs suite, he could easily slip someone in late and out early without the others noticing. Men did things like that.
"You can stop staring at his butt now," Karen said dryly.
"You can lie to anyone else, including yourself, but spare me." The older womanforty-two to Zora's twenty-ninetightened the ponytail holder around her hair, which she'd dyed black this month. "Was that the kitchen timer?"
"I didn't hear anything." Zora adjusted a gift-wrapped box with a slot for envelopes. The front read: Nanny Fund. They planned to share the services of a specialist nanny among the three new moms and their collective total of six infants. Well, they did work at a hospital noted for its fertility treatments, although only one of the pregnancies had high-tech origins.
The timer buzzed. "There!" Karen said with satisfaction. "I knew it would sound any second."
"You must be psychic." Zora waddled behind her past a table displaying shower-themed paper plates and napkins.
"I have a well-developed sense of when food is done. Call it experience." In the kitchen, Karen snatched pot holders from a hook and opened the oven, filling the air with the scents of orange and lemon, almonds and balsamic vinegar.
Karen set the tins of Mediterranean muffins on the stove to cool. "I'd better start on the finger sandwiches. Only two hours before the guests are due, and I have to dress." She tied an apron over her blouse and long, casual skirt.
"I'll finish the vegetables." From the refrigerator, Zora removed the containers of celery, carrots and jicama that she'd cut up earlier, along with sour cream to mix for the dip and peanut butter to fill some of the celery sticks. "Would you get the olives and an onion soup packet from the pantry? I'm too big to squeeze in there."
"Gladly." Karen angled her slender shape around the narrow bend that led to the storage area. "Just black olives, or green ones, too?"
"Both." Zora lowered herself onto a chair, grateful she could still reach the table around her abdomen. A railing underneath allowed her to prop up her swollen ankles, but nothing alleviated the strain on her lower back. It ached more each day.
She hid her discomforts, determined to continue working as long as possible. Being an ultrasound tech meant standing on her feet all day and angling her midsection so she could scan the patients, but she was saving her paid maternity leave for after the twins' birth. Two months leftif they didn't arrive early.
After retrieving the requested items, Karen spread out her sandwich fixings on the counter. Through the kitchen's far door, Zora heard the scrape of folding chairs being opened and placed around the front room. She respected Lucky's work ethic; he always pitched in with an upbeat attitude. If he could only master the art of minding his own business, he'd be well, tolerable.
Footsteps thudded on the carpet, announcing Lucky's return. His short, military-style haircut emphasized the strong planes of his face, which reflected his Hispanic heritage. "Where are the chair covers hidden? Someone else stored them after Anya and Jack's wedding."
"Upstairs in the linen closet," Karen said.
"Can I ride the stair lift or is that only for mommies?" Lucky teased. Both women narrowed their eyes at him, and he lifted his hands in a yielding gesture. "Just asking."
"Go play somewhere else," Zora muttered.
"Alone? That's no fun." With a rakish grin, he dodged out.
"You two should swap rooms so you could be downstairs," Karen observed from the counter. "Let him ride the stair lift if it gives him a thrill."
"I can't afford the extra rent." Lucky's large room commanded a correspondingly larger price. While Zora didn't care about having a personal patio exit, she did envy him the private bath. Karen had one, too, upstairs in the master suite, while Zora shared a bathroom with Rod and Melissa.
Or, rather, with Rod and whoever moved into the room Melissa had vacated when she'd remarried her ex-husband.
Some people have all the luck. A sigh escaped Zora. Too late, she tried to cover with a cough.
"A pickle chip for your thoughts," Karen said.
"No, thanks." Zora popped a black olive into her mouth.
"You really are entitled to support," Karen observed. "I wonder whether you'd have faced your ex by now if Lucky weren't such a nag."
"He has nothing to do with it."
"You're stubborn," was the reply. "Seriously, Zora, how long can you keep this secret? I'm amazed Andrew's mother hasn't spilled the beans."
"Betsy doesn't know." Zora's former mother-in-law was the nursing supervisor at the hospital. The kind-hearted lady had suffered through the loss of two beloved daughters-in-law, thanks to her son's faithlessness.
Zora wondered whether Betsy was being more cautious about bonding with Andrew's third wife, a Hong Kong native he'd met on a business trip while he was married to Zora. Unexpectedly, tears blurred her vision. How could he cheat on me? And then, just when I was ready to let him go, trick me into believing he still loved me?
"Betsy sees you in the cafeteria every day," Karen reminded her.
"She's aware that I'm pregnant," Zora agreed. "But she has no idea who the father is."
Karen stuck a hank of black hair behind her ear. "She isn't stupid."
"But I doubt she believes Andrew is capable of of being such a grade-A jerk." Damn those tears stinging her eyes again. "Aside from my closest friends, most people accept my explanation that I made a mistake after my divorce. I let them assume I picked up a guy in a bar."
"And that's better than admitting you slept with Andrew?"
"It's better than admitting I'm a complete chump."
More footsteps, and Lucky reappeared. "They aren't there. Let's skip the seat covers."
"I refuse to have guests in my house sitting on ugly folding chairs," Karen said.
The man tilted his head skeptically. "What's the big deal? People have been sitting on folding chairs without covers since the dawn of time."
"No, they haven't." Hastily, Zora shielded the relish tray from his attempt to grab a carrot. "Hands off!"
"Evidence found in caves throughout northern Europe indicates that Neanderthals shunned folding chair covers as a sign of weakness," Lucky said. "And why so stingy with the veggies?"
"I'm still arranging these. Go eat a corn chip." Zora indicated a bag set out to be transferred into a large bowl.
"I'm a vegetarian."
"Corn is a vegetable."
"Corn chips do not occur in nature," he responded. "Just one carrot. Pretty please."
She flipped it toward him. He caught it in midair.
"Try the closet in my bathroom for the covers," Karen suggested to Lucky. "Top shelf."
"I have permission to enter the inner sanctum?" he asked.
"It expires in sixty seconds."
"Okay, okay." He paused. "Before I run off, there's one little thing I should mention about today's guest list." Zora released an impatient breath. "What?"
"I invited Betsy."
"You didn't!" Keeping her ex-mother-in-law in the dark at work was one thing, but around here the babies' paternity was no secret.
Karen turned toward Lucky, knife in hand. "Tell me you're joking."
He grimaced. "Sorry. Spur-of-the-moment thing. But your motto is the more the merrier, and besides, Betsy's a widow. If she's interested in renting a room, that would solve all our problems." With a carroty crunch, off he went. "Unbelievable," Karen said.
If she hadn't been so huge, Zora might have given chase. She could easily have strangled Lucky at that moment. But then they'd have to find two new housemates.
"I'd say the cat's about to claw its way out of the bag," Karen observed. "Might as well seize the bull by the horns, or is that too many animal metaphors?"
"Considering the size of the rat we live with, I guess not," Zora growled.
Karen smiled. "Speaking of rats, if you'd rather not confront Andrew-the-rodent yourself, don't forget you can hire Edmond to do it." Edmond Everhart, their former roommate, Melissa's husband, had been Zora's divorce attorney.
"That'll only create more trouble." Zora scraped the onion dip from the mixing bowl into a container on the relish tray. "Andrew'll put me through the wringer."
"If that's your only reason for not telling him about the babies, I'd rate its validity at about a three on a scale of ten." Karen trimmed the crust from a sandwich.
Zora dropped the spoon into the mixing bowl with a clunk. "He's the only man I ever loved. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt."
"Zora, what benefit of what doubt?" Karen retorted. "He dumped you in high school, married someone else, then cheated on her with you after he ran into you at your class reunion. Let's not forget that he then cheated on you with what's-her-name from Hong Kong. Why on earth would you entertain the fantastical notion that Andrew will ever transform into a loving husband and father?"
With a pang, Zora conceded that that was exactly what she did wish for. While her rational mind sided with Karen, the infants stirring inside her with a series of kicks and squirms obviously missed their father. So did Zora.
"It can happen," she said. "Look at Melissa and Edmond. Three years after their divorce, they fell in love again."
"They'd quarreled about having children. Neither of them cheated on the other," Karen persisted. "Andrew can't be trusted, ever."
She spoke with the ferocity of a divorcée who'd survived an abusive marriage. It had taken more than a decade for Karen to trust a man again. She and their housemate, Rod, were still easing into their relationship.
"People can change." Despite a reluctance to bring up her family, Zora wanted Karen to understand. "Did I mention I have a twin?"
"Really?" Leaning against the counter, Karen folded her arms. "Identical or fraternal?"
"Identical." Zora wasn't about to reveal the whole story, just the important part. "But we quarreled, and we aren't in touch anymore. All I know of her is what Mom passes along." Their mother, who lived in Oregon, loved sharing news.
"Go on." After a glance at the clock, Karen resumed her food preparation.
"Nearly ten years ago, Zady ran off with a married man." Zora inhaled as deeply as she could, considering the pressure on her lungs from the pregnancy. "They live in Santa Barbara. He split with his wife and now he's devoted to Zady. They have a beautiful house and a couple of kids."
"Was there a wedding in there?" Karen asked dubiously.
"I'm sure there was, although she didn't invite me." The rift had been bitter, and there'd been no move toward reconciliation on either side. In fact, her mother said Zady had chuckled when she'd learned about Zora's divorce.
"So the guy married her, and you believe that if lightning struck your twin, it can strike you, too?" Karen murmured.
Zora's throat tightened. "Why not?"
"Because Betsy's about to arrive with her antennae on high alert. If I'm any judge, that woman's dying to be a grandmother."
"And she'll be a terrific one." The elder Mrs. Raditch did all the right grandmotherly things, such as baking and crocheting, a skill she'd taught Zora. "But."
"You're running out of buts," Karen warned. "Unless you count Lucky's."
"The way you guys battle, you're almost like an old married couple."
"We're nothing like a married couple, old or otherwise." Zora could never be interested in a man with so little class. Outside work, he flaunted his muscles in sleeveless T-shirts and cutoffs. While she didn't object if someone had a small tattoo, his body resembled a billboard for video games. On the right arm, a colorful dragon snaked and writhed, while on the left, he displayed a buxom babe wearing skimpy armor and wielding a sword.
Whenever she pictured Andrew, she saw him in the suit and tie he always wore as an international business consultant. He had tousled blond hair, a laser-sharp mind, sky-blue eyes, and when he trained his headlight smile on her, Zora understood why some poor fools became addicted to drugs, because the euphoria was irresistible.
At the image, vague intentions coalesced into a firm decision. "Andrew's the man I married. This this liaison with what's-her-name is an aberration. Once the kids are born and he holds them in his arms, what man wouldn't love his own son and daughter?" And their mother.