The Baby Jackpot
Author:Jacqueline Diamond

Chapter Two



Stacy’s walk on the beach carried her all the way to the harbor. Since she didn’t feel like going home yet, she treated herself to a pita supper at the Sea Star Café by the pier. Seated outside, she relaxed in the salt air, watching sailboats glide to and from their moorings, listening to the slap of water and the indistinct voices of tourists sauntering along the wharf.

Her thoughts kept returning to her unplanned reaction to Una’s good news. Once upon a time, Stacy had longed for her own babies, but only if she could raise them in a loving marriage such as her parents shared, and her sister had found. Sure, other women raised kids alone—including Stacy’s roommate, a fellow nurse. But Harper, the widowed mother of a young girl, hadn’t chosen to be a single mom.

Stacy wanted more for her biological kids. And she’d given it to them. A stay-at-home, Una had a wonderful husband, Jim, and an adopted two-year-old daughter. There’d be family support and full-time nurturing, like Stacy’s mother had provided.

At twenty-eight, Stacy hadn’t given up on happily-ever-after. But most programs required egg donors to be under thirty, so she’d felt some time pressure. As for her own future, she still didn’t understand how the deeply caring relationship with her husband had fallen apart after only four years. True, the excitement and romance of their early days had naturally faded, but she’d considered that temporary, due to her busy schedule and Andrew’s having to travel for an international investment company.

She’d believed she’d found the kind of enduring passion that had nourished her parents’ marriage for more than three decades. But Andrew had fallen out of love, he’d said, and relit an old flame with his high school girlfriend, who was now his wife.

Surely there must be a man who could love Stacy with the same ardor her father felt for her mother, but since Andrew’s betrayal, she found it hard to trust anyone. As for having kids, it might happen. Or it might not.

She felt a little ashamed of her reaction today, although she supposed she should have expected it. Her light-headedness might also stem from the arrival of her period. She’d seen a few signs this morning marking the end of her cycle.

She wished Dr. Rattigan hadn’t witnessed her meltdown. He had been awfully sweet, though.

My favorite scrub nurse.

It might not sound like much of a compliment to anyone else, but it boosted her spirits.

Some of the nurses considered him a cold fish. In Stacy’s opinion, reserved was a better word. Cole tended to observe people with a slight smile, as if he found them a fascinating alien species. So today, when he’d loosened up, it had been all the more special. She felt lucky to work with him.

As she walked back to the hospital, Stacy put in a call to Una. The mom-to-be was bubbling with high spirits. Judging by the happy noises in the background, she and Jim must be surrounded by family and friends. Stacy kept the conversation short and upbeat.

Afterward, she felt glad that she’d called, but let down, too. She’d expected to share in the joy when Una became pregnant, and instead she felt like an outsider.

She drove north to the apartment complex where she shared a two-bedroom unit with Harper and her six-year-old daughter, Mia. As Stacy mounted the outdoor steps, the mouthwatering aroma of baking drifted toward her, along with the chatter of children’s voices through an open window.

“Quit dropping sprinkles on the floor!” That was Mia, a take-charge little personality.

“I missed my mouth, okay?” replied a boyish soprano.

“Stop eating all the cupcakes!”

“I only had two. Anyway, Aunt Stacy won’t care.”

That must be Reggie Cavill. Although not really Stacy’s nephew, he might as well be. His late mom, Vicki, had been best friends with Stacy and Harper through high school, and they’d stayed by her side through her pregnancy and birth. Since her death in a car crash a few months ago, Reggie lived nearby with his real aunt, Dr. Adrienne Cavill, who also happened to be Stacy’s ob-gyn. He often visited them and sometimes spent the night.

Glad to arrive home to a happy, noisy household, Stacy opened the door to a blast of yummy scents from the kitchen, to her right. Mia Anthony was perched at the table, her honey-brown hair falling around her face as she bent over a platter piled with cupcakes. Beside her, Reggie had managed to smear chocolate not only on the tip of his nose but also in his hair. As usual, he wore a solemn expression that made him seem older than five.

“Did I hear somebody mention my birthday?” Stacy teased, setting her purse aside.

“We did!” Reggie said artlessly.

“Are you ready for dessert?” Mia asked.

“Absolutely.”

Stacy took scant notice of the toys and picture books littering the living room. It held a mishmash of furnishings, anyway, her delicate white sideboard and floral armchair nearly lost beside Harper’s heavy, curved brown sofa and dark-wood entertainment center. As old friends, they’d made the best of things for the past few years, combining their meager budgets and housefuls of furniture.

Now that Harper had landed a better-paying job assisting Dr. Nora Franco, she could probably afford a larger place. Stacy hoped they wouldn’t move anytime soon, although that might be more comfortable for Harper and Mia, who shared a bedroom.

“Since you like both flavors, we made vanilla cupcakes with chocolate icing,” said Harper, drying her hands at the sink. An athletic five-foot-nine, she didn’t seem the least tired after working all day and then picking up the kids at the hospital day care center. The woman was an inspiration.

“You are so thoughtful,” Stacy said. “Thank you so much, all of you.”

“Hold on.” Harper plucked a box of twisty birthday candles from the counter. “Back off, kids. I’m gonna set these suckers on fire.”

“Hurray!” Reggie hopped up, nearly overturning his chair.

Stacy rushed to steady it, and planted a kiss atop his fuzzy head. He’d had a rough time, this little kid, with an absent father and an emotionally turbulent mom.

Harper began sticking candles into the cupcakes. “Somebody count.”

“One, two, three!” shouted Mia.

“Four, five, six!” cried Reggie.

“That’s enough,” Harper said. “Right?”

“Plenty.” Stacy didn’t care about the candles. She was simply enjoying being there with her unconventional family. A duo of adorable handmade teddy bears watched the proceedings from a corner table. One wore a white coat and stethoscope, the other a pink nurse’s uniform and cap.

They’d arrived yesterday from her mother and sister’s boutique in Utah. Although Stacy had grown up in Orange County, her parents had moved to Salt Lake City to be near their elder daughter, her husband and their four children.

As the candles caught fire, the children stared with fascination at the tiny flames. “Don’t forget to make a wish,” Harper said. “I bet I can guess what it is.”

“That one already came true.” Stacy had leaned on Harper for support during her sojourn into the egg donor experience. “Una’s expecting!”

“Wonderful.” Harper nodded at the candles. “Well, wish for something else, and get a move on before the wax drips.”

Closing her eyes, Stacy wished for...fun. She’d spent too much of her life worrying about other people, loving, losing, falling short, hoping and stressing out. It was time to enjoy being young, healthy and free.

Fun. Keeping that word in mind, she blew.

The candles winked out, drawing cheers from the children. Everybody grabbed a cupcake and began peeling away the paper. For the next few minutes silence reigned while they ate.

As she licked icing from her fingers, Stacy listened to Mia start in on a familiar theme: she wanted to adopt a kitten, like a couple of her school friends. The apartment complex didn’t allow pets, however, so that was out of the question. It took all of Harper’s persuasive abilities to draw her and Reggie into a discussion of which cartoon to watch before bedtime.

As much as Stacy loved spending time at home, watching kids’ shows wasn’t the kind of fun she’d wished for. She ought to check out that club, after all. She might even meet a guy. She refused to torture herself with fantasies about Mr. Right—just someone to make her feel desirable again.

From the moment Stacy had filled out the egg donor paperwork, she’d lost interest in dating. There had been too much else going on. Then, after taking fertility hormones this month, she’d been warned to avoid sex for the rest of her cycle. If the harvesting procedure had missed any microscopic eggs, the risk of a multiple pregnancy would be high.

Getting her period today would mark a fresh start. A re-birthday. When Stacy excused herself and went into her bedroom to change, she tucked a package of condoms into her purse. Not that she intended to go home with a man. Seeking reassurance after her divorce, she’d foolishly jumped into bed with someone she didn’t care about, and suffered an emotional backlash afterward.

But playing it safe never hurt.

* * *

IT WAS A QUESTION Cole dreaded.

“What kind of doctor are you?” asked his dance partner, a perky blonde woman. With the club brightened only by swirling lights, and echoing with Elvis Presley’s baritone, there’d been little chance for conversation before they hit the floor.

“Men’s doctor,” he shouted over the music.

Her pretty features scrunched. “Come again?”

Why fight it? “Urologist.”

The response was immediate. “Ick!”

It’s not what you think. But how did he presume to know what she thought? So Cole merely shrugged.

The woman—he thought her name was Billie, but he might have misunderstood—gave him a look that said Did you flunk out of every other possible specialty?

“Thanks for the dance,” Cole told her as soon as the song ended, and returned to the table he shared with Laird and Ned Norwalk from Dr. Tartikoff’s office.

Laird had disappeared. Ned Norwalk, a tanned blond who went surfing most mornings before work, was slouched in his chair. “Not a keeper?”

“She didn’t seem impressed by my specialty,” Cole conceded.

“You should try telling her you’re a male nurse.”

He’d never considered Ned’s occupation in that light. “I get ‘ick.’ What do you get?”

“They assume I’m gay.” Ned shook his head. “Why do they think I’m here dancing with women if I’m not interested in them?”

“Surely you have plenty to choose from.” In the cafeteria, Cole often saw him surrounded by female nurses. “You have a lot of attractive friends.”

“My friends go and marry doctors,” Ned responded cynically. “I’m surprised one of them hasn’t snagged you yet. But you’re new. Give ’em time.”

Cole had intercepted a few interested glances, and pretended not to notice. He’d always kept his work and his private life separate.

That made his sensitivity toward Stacy even more surprising. He simply liked her, that was all.

In a break between songs, Ned remarked, “Now, there’s one I wouldn’t mind getting to know better. Oh, damn. Laird beat me to her.”

Before Cole could see who he meant, a waitress in a Hawaiian-print top and minuscule shorts blocked his view. “Refill?” She indicated the icy, blue-tinged glasses in front of them.

“What’s in these?” Cole hadn’t had a chance to ask earlier.

“Why do you care?” Ned asked. “They’re great. Make mine a double.”

The waitress nodded.

“I care what chemicals I... Just curious.” Cole regarded the woman expectantly.

She rattled off the ingredients. “A Blue Hawaiian contains rum, pineapple juice, blue Curacao liqueur and crème de coconut, garnished with a cherry and a pineapple wedge.”

One more couldn’t hurt, he supposed. “I’ll have a single.”

She departed, unblocking Cole’s view. Writhing bodies and spinning lights commandeered his field of vision. Among them, he spotted Laird’s muscular shape gyrating close to his companion.

The scattered lighting coalesced into a soft glow, illuminating the woman. It picked out a hint of gold in her light brown hair and cast a rosy hue across her fair skin. Stacy must have recovered from her earlier shakiness. Still, dancing and drinking weren’t what the doctor ordered.

Dancing and drinking with Laird were definitely not what this doctor would order.

The rapid beat of the music gave way to a slow rhythm. As the King’s voice wove a seductive spell, Laird’s hand claimed Stacy’s waist and he eased closer. It seemed to Cole that she stiffened slightly before yielding.

“Wonder what she’s doing here?” Ned mused. “She didn’t seem interested in coming.”

“You invited her?”

“Her and a few others. Guess it wasn’t my lucky night.” Cole’s friend regarded him assessingly. “You could cut in.”

“Why would I do that?”

“You can’t take your eyes off her.”

The waitress set drinks in front of them. After she moved away, Cole searched for the couple, who soon circled into view. Stacy winced as they got a little too close to another couple, and the other woman bumped her. Laird ought to pay more attention to his steering and less to the revealing V of Stacy’s blouse.

“You think this calls for a rescue operation?” Ned must have noticed Stacy’s predicament, too.

Tempting, but she’d probably come with a group of friends. Cole wasn’t about to make a fool of himself by playing knight in shining armor to a damsel who’d brought her own backup.

He made a quick scan of the restaurant. In the dim interior, it was hard to pick out individuals. There must be several hundred people packing the dance floor and the ultramodern chairs and tables, their faces hazy beneath the spherical lighting fixtures. Above them, wall sculptures shaped like surfboards—or maybe they were surfboards—and tiki carvings loomed like fog-shrouded landmarks.

Laird had locked his arms around Stacy’s waist. Rather than encircling his neck, she kept her arms in front of her protectively, bent at the elbows and nearly crushed between them. Why didn’t the oaf respect her attempt to maintain a distance?

Irritated, Cole glanced at a straw lying on the table beside his slushy drink. The crushed ice might yield a pea-size pellet, he calculated, and he was a pretty damn good shot. Too bad he’d outgrown schoolboy pranks.

“You’re right,” he said. “She needs rescuing.”

“Laird’s full of himself,” Ned agreed. “Go for it, Doc.”

Cole rose to his feet and took a moment to adjust to the shifting light and the buzz of alcohol from his previous two drinks. Stronger than he’d realized, they were just hitting his circulatory system. Nothing he couldn’t handle, though.

Getting his bearings, he carved a fairly steady course between the tables toward the dance floor.