When fertility counselor Melissa Everhart decided to have a baby on her own, she didn't anticipate triplets or her ex-husband's return to Safe Harbor. Three years ago, Edmond's reluctance to have children tore them apart. But now that he's been made guardian of his niece, Melissa witnesses how tenderly he cares for the little girl.
Though Edmond doesn't believe he's father material, his sudden custody of Dawn leaves him little choice. He turns to Melissa, the warmest, kindest person he knows, for help. They begin to rediscover the love they once shared, but the betrayals of the past trouble them both. Can they find the forgiveness they both need to come together as a family?
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The man and woman sitting in front of Melissa Everhart's desk held hands as if about to jump off a cliff together. In a sense, that was what they were doing.
Be careful what you wish for, she wanted to caution them. But in her role as Safe Harbor Medical Center's in vitro fertilization and egg donor coordinator, she was already providing them with full information. Any further warning would be an unprofessional insertion of her personal concerns.
"Most people who hire a surrogate and can't provide their own eggs prefer to use a separate egg donor," she was explaining.
"Why bring in a third party?" The woman, Bev Landry, an accountant in her early forties, projected a professional image in her tailored gray suit with a rose-colored silk blouse. Only the clenched hands in her lap betrayed her nervousness as she and her husband embarked on an expensive and by-no-means-guaranteed quest to have a child via surrogacy. An ovarian cancer survivor, she had tried to adopt without success.
Bev longed for a baby with all her heart. Melissa understood that yearning because she'd shared it.
"I'm not a lawyer, but I can tell you that while surrogatesor gestational carriers, as they're termedsign away their rights to the baby, it's still safer legally and emotionally if there's no genetic link," Melissa informed her.
"That brings up the issue of legalities " Bev's husband, Mick, a rough-hewn building contractor, leaned forward aggressively. It was, Melissa judged, merely his way of taking control of a scary situation. "What protection do we have when we commissionif that's the right worda child?"
"We're fortunate that California leads the world in safeguarding your rights," she said. "I have several documents here on the subject, including new laws and court decisions favoring the designated parents."
Mick glanced at the documents she handed him, then set them aside for later. "Thanks. And I'll be the biological father, after all."
"That's right. Now let's talk about how you would select your egg donor and your surrogate." Although the hospital's brochures covered all aspects of its fertility program, the information could be overwhelming. It was Melissa's job to steer clients through the process.
If she deemed it advisable, she could also refer them to the hospital's psychologist. And, starting today, she could offer them a free session with the hospital's new consulting family attorney. Who just happened to be her ex-husband.
Her throat tightened. A year ago, without explanation, her ex-husband Edmond had given up a high-paying position in Los Angeles to join a tiny law firm here in Safe Harbor. Then, a month or so ago, he'd applied for a consulting job at the hospital. Despite her reservations, when the administrator had asked Melissa whether bringing Edmond on board in a part-time position would pose problems for her, she'd said no.
His new job meant they might occasionally have to work together, but since their divorce three years ago, they'd remained on civil terms. She respected Edmond's abilities and had always found him easy to confer with.
Except on one issue. Edmond had vehemently opposed having children. Initially, Melissa hadn't wanted them, either, but she'd changed her mind during their five-year marriage. As her thirtieth birthday approached, her longing for little ones to love had intensified to the point that she could no longer ignore it.
Hesitantly, she'd brought up with her husband the possibility of having kids. Edmond hadn't taken it well, and to her shock, he'd then gone out and had a vasectomy without consulting her. Stunned by this high-handed maneuver and devastated that he thought so little of her needs, Melissa had left him.
The man she'd believed was her true love had turned out to be fatally flawed. Unfortunately, her post-divorce attempts at finding another Mr. Right had led nowhere.
Now she was going it alone, she reflected as her hand drifted to her abdomen, where it felt as if she had a watermelon strapped to her midsection. No telling how Edmond would react when he saw her condition. But then, he'd made his choice, and she'd made hers.
She trained her attention on the computer screen and angled it toward the Landrys. "We provide photographs and profiles of our surrogates, as we do with egg donors in a separate registry. You'll have your own code to sign onto our secure website from home ." As Melissa spoke, she heard a flurry of noises outside the closed door. Hers was one of four offices opening off the fertility support program's reception area on the hospital's ground floor. Judging by the scuff of footsteps and the warm tones of her colleagues, she guessed that the hospital administrator was introducing the new consultant.
Then a deep, familiar voice rumbled through her. Melissa's skin prickled. Edmond. If only she wasn't still so sensitized to his nearness. Maybe agreeing for him to join the staff had been a mistake. Too late to change her mind now.
"Oh, my goodness!" Bev tugged an ultrasound photo from beneath a few papers on the desk. "Is that twins? No, there's a third one. Triplets! Incredible."
Her husband craned his neck to study the image. "Somebody hit the jackpot."
Melissa's cheeks heated. "I shouldn't have left that in view."
"I'm sorry." Bev set down the image. "I didn't mean to invade anyone's privacy. That woman is so lucky!" Is she? "Actually, it's me."
Bev's mouth flew open. "Seriously? I noticed you were pregnant but I had no idea it was triplets. How far along are you?"
"Four months down, five to go." According to Melissa's obstetrician, multiple births usually resulted in early deliveries, but she was trying to think positively.
"Your husband must be excited," Mick said.
Melissa tilted her head in a half nod and hoped he wouldn't notice her failure to respond further. "Do you have questions about what we've discussed so far?"
"Once we've chosen the surrogate, how many fertilized eggs would be implanted?" Mick said. "I mean, assuming more than one is usable."
"That can be a difficult decision," she told him. "Multiple pregnancies are risky. On the other hand, only implanting one embryo lowers the odds of success. In the U.K. and Australia, doctors are limited by law to transferring a maximum of two embryos."
He scowled. "Are there any restrictions in California?"
"No." Trying to ignore the increasingly loud chatter from the outer office, she said, "However, our doctors limit themselves to implanting a maximum of three embryos, for medical and ethical reasons."
"But the embryos won't all attach, right?" Bev asked.
"Not usually." She certainly hadn't expected them to. "Twins or singletons are much more common than triplets."
From the outer office came the squeal of the high-spirited receptionist, Caroline Carter. "I had no idea you were Melissa's ex-husband!"
Edmond replied in a low tone, something about "good terms." All the same, Melissa's face was flaming. "Sorry for the disturbance," she said to the Landrys.
"No need to apologize," said Mick. "We're the ones who changed our appointment at the last minute." They'd been scheduled to meet with her in the afternoon.
"It didn't occur to me that this might overlap. We have a new legal consultant at the hospital." At a tap on the door, Melissa started to rise. When her abdominal muscles protested, she put a hand on the desktop for support.
"Please don't exert yourself. I'll get it." Uncoiling from his chair, Mick crossed the floor. Since he was closer, she yielded without protest.
Melissa braced for this encounter with Edmond. They'd run into each other occasionally since he'd arrived in town and they'd exchanged polite how-are-yous. He'd represented one of her housemates in a divorce, and another, briefly, on a custody issue. She'd assured her friends that he was an excellent attorney, which was true. But this was her home territory.
Just say hello and it'll be over. For now. And if she remained seated, she might be able to save her startling news until they were alone.
Mick opened the door. "Don't mind me. I'm the butler," he joked to the imposing administrator, Dr. Mark Rayburn, a large man with black hair and power eyebrows.
"Pardon the interruption," Mark said. "We have a new attorney on staff and today's his first chance to meet everybody. We'll just be a sec."
"No problem." Extending his hand, Mick introduced himself and his wife.
The slim, strong man Melissa had once loved moved past Mark, and cool brown eyes met hers from behind steel-framed glasses. It was lucky that her clients were comfortable chatting with the newcomers, because her voice got stuck in her throat.
As always, her ex-husband was impeccably groomedeven in July, he wore a jacket and tie. Being in the same room made her keenly aware of his light, spicy scent and the breadth of his chest.
And it also made her aware of how much she missed curling against him at night, missed talking over the day's events and missed his logical insights. Once, she could have tracked his reactions to people and events as easily as her own. It was disorienting, to have no idea what he was thinking right now.
What was wrong with her? It must be the emotional effect of maternal hormones. She'd long ago resolved any lingering sense that she belonged with this man.
"Good to see you, Melissa." He sounded slightly hoarse.
"You, too," she managed. She ought to rise, but if she did
At Mark's subtle prompting, Edmond greeted the Landrys and handed them his business card. "If you have any legal questions, I'd be happy to schedule a free consultation here at the hospital. I have office hours Monday mornings and Thursday afternoons."
"Maybe later," Mick said. "We're still in the early stages."
The administrator indicated they should move on. Just when Melissa figured the encounter was over, Edmond swung toward her. "Okay if I stop by in a few minutes? There are a few matters we should discuss."
"Certainly." All very professional, although everybody in the officeplus the cheerily nosy receptionist lingering outside the doormust be aware of the undercurrents.
When he held out his hand, there was no avoiding it. Melissa stood up, big belly and all.
Edmond's jaw dropped and his body went rigid. His double take might almost have been comical, had she not felt his shock so keenly. Melissa had prepared herself for his disapproval or anger, or perhaps indifference. To her surprise, she caught a glint of pain.
His gaze went to her left hand, to her ringless third finger. But he could hardly draw conclusions from that. Pregnant women often removed their wedding rings to accommodate puffiness.
He cleared his throat. "I'll talk to you later, then. Nice to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Landry."
As Mark ushered Edmond out, he regarded Melissa with concern. He didn't miss much, she reflected, and she smiled in an attempt to reassure him.
With a nod, the big man closed the door. She hadn't fooled him. She wasn't fooling anybody these days, except maybe herself. Oh, quit overthinking this.
The Landrys resumed their seats and Melissa did the same. Returning to their discussion, she said, "You might try listing the qualities that are most important to you in an egg donor and a surrogate. That will guide your choices."
Her suggestion had the desired effect of pushing the interruption from their minds. When the clients departed a quarter of an hour later, Melissa had recovered her equilibrium.
She reached for her cup of tea, to find it empty. Although an hour remained until lunch, she was starving, and she'd already finished off the crackers in her desk. These days, she found herself eating more than enough for four. Her doctor insisted her weight gain was healthy, but Melissa had trouble adjusting to her rotund body shape. At five-foot-eight, she'd always been tall and slender. Well, she was still tall.
The slightly open door swung wider, and she forgot to breathe. Then she saw with relief that her visitor wasn't Edmond.
Karen Wiggins, the fertility program's financial counselor and occupant of the adjacent office, handed her a cup of white liquid. "It's almond milkfifty percent more calcium than cow's milk."
"Thanks, Mom," Melissa teased. Ten years her senior, Karen was a nurturing friend as well as her landlady.
"How'd it go with the ex?" Karen lingered near the desk. This month, she'd dyed her shoulder-length hair reddish-brown, which Melissa preferred to some of her friend's more flamboyant choices.
"Smoothly. Oddly. I don't know." Staying alert for approaching footsteps, Melissa added, "He'll be back any minute."
"I'll talk fast. Did you pay attention to the guest list for Saturday?"
"No. Should I?" Melissa and three other coworkers rented rooms in Karen's large home. This weekend, one of their group, nurse Anya Meeks, was getting married there. "As long as we have enough food, who cares?"
"You don't mind that Edmond's invited?"
That was a less-than-welcome surprise. "I had no idea. I wasn't aware he knew Anya and Jack that well."
Karen shrugged. "Anya posted on her wedding website that he'd brought them together. You'll recall she hired him to arrange for Jack to waive his paternal rights after she found out she was pregnant. That set off a whole chain of events leading to " She hummed a few bars of "Here Comes the Bride."
"Oh, that's right." Several months ago, Anya had asked about a lawyer to help her explore giving up her baby for adoption and Melissa had recommended Edmond. "That hardly qualifies him as Cupid." She sipped the milky liquid, enjoying its slight vanilla flavor.
"She led me to believe she'd already told Jack about the pregnancy." Edmond peered through the doorway, his brown eyes alight with amusement at slipping into the discussion. "I dropped off what I assumed was routine paperwork to Jack andbam! Fireworks."
Despite an instinctive tensing at his appearance, Melissa had to smile at the image of her normally unflappable ex-husband facing Jack's outrage. "You smoothed things over."
"Not entirely. It was among the more awkward moments of my career," Edmond said. "But all's well that ends well."
"And you're coming to my house on Saturday?" Karen asked.
He gave a start. "The wedding's at your house?"
"The address is on the invitation," Karen pointed out.
"I didn't check where it was. I figured I'd GPS it." A puzzled line formed between Edmond's dark eyebrows. "By the way, why did the invitation come with nose clips?"
Both women laughed. "You'll find out," Karen said.
Aware that Edmond disliked being kept in the dark, Melissa explained, "The house is next to an estuary. The smell of decomposing vegetation and fish can get a little ripe."
"Dare I hope the wedding's indoors?" he asked. "Nose clips don't work too well with glasses."
"It is," she assured him.
"Glad to hear it."
Karen scooped up Melissa's empty mug. "Later, guys." Then she left them alone.