The Baby Jackpot
Author:Jacqueline Diamond

Chapter Nine



Stacy fell deeply asleep at eight o’clock and awoke in the middle of the night with ideas buzzing in her brain. Pulling a pad from beside the bed, she began writing a notice for the bulletin board.

“Surgical nurse seeks roommate. Must be quiet, reliable, kind, funny, sweet, good in a crisis and empathetic.”

She tapped the paper with her pencil. What kind of list was that? It sounded like a description of Cole, except for the empathetic part.

She wished she hadn’t been so angry with him last night. Her snappishness about the tiramisu had obviously caught him off guard. True, Andrew would have plied her with dessert until he’d talked her into eating it, which was what she really wanted. But that had been in their early days.

Yet these were her early days with Cole. And most likely these were all the days they were going to have. No way on earth would she let him move in with her, although she appreciated his offer to pay rent.

Stacy crossed out the adjectives, jotted down the price of rent and the convenient location two miles from work, and set down the pad. She must have gone to sleep again, because the next thing she knew, morning light was filtering through the blinds.

From the living room came the blare of an animated video. High, squeaky cartoon voices didn’t usually bother her, but today they set her nerves on edge.

There was a tap on the door, and Harper came in with a tray of toast and tea. “We’ll be leaving for church soon. I thought you might need this.”

“Thanks,” Stacy said, nearly adding, “I’ll miss you when you move.” But she didn’t want to pile any more guilt on her friend.

After positioning the tray on Stacy’s lap, Harper picked up the notepad. “I’ll print this up for you and do that fringe thing so they can pull off your email address.”

Her mouth full of rye toast—her favorite—Stacy mumbled, “You don’t have to...”

“It’s no trouble. I’m glad to help.” Tearing off the sheet, Harper scooted out.

“I meant...” What? That she felt reluctant to post the notice? It was the quickest way to find a roommate. Besides, she didn’t have to accept someone just because he or she responded.

When she got out of bed half an hour later, Stacy found sections of the Sunday newspaper scattered between the living room and the kitchen. As she collected the ones that interested her, she wished she had someone there to rub her feet. Did Cole do that sort of thing?

During their courtship, Andrew had given her wonderful massages.... Why did she keep thinking about him?

Because I still don’t understand why he fell out of love with me.

Figuring it out might help Stacy prevent the same thing from happening again with a new man. Except, of course, she had yet to meet someone who’d cherish and adore her forever, and she wasn’t likely to in her condition.

It seemed like a million years ago, instead of nine or ten, that she’d first seen Andrew—at a student rally at Cal State University, Long Beach. He was an impressively built guy, and he’d been surrounded by friends. Stacy had felt his gaze flick over her, but didn’t believe he’d noticed her particularly.

A while later, when the crowd grew rambunctious—to this day, she couldn’t remember the cause they’d been protesting—she’d lost her footing. A strong hand had grasped her arm and pulled her to safety.

When she looked up into Andrew’s green eyes, she’d felt a jolt of electricity. The spark had been instantaneous and intense. The man had bowled her over, taking her to dinner, asking about her life and dreams, sharing his past as a high school football star and the difficulties of adjusting to a less exalted role as a college student in business administration.

Soon they were spending all their spare time together. Starstruck, she’d encouraged and admired him, and he’d been enthusiastic about her plans to become a surgical nurse. Andrew had a gift for making romantic gestures, for anticipating her needs and for saying the right things. Stacy had found it hard to believe she’d discovered such an ideal guy, and that he’d fallen for her.

He’d graduated a year ahead of her. Although she’d feared they might drift apart once he began working, he’d proposed. Right after her graduation, they’d had a storybook wedding.

Over the next few years, his heavy schedule of traveling for his employer and her long hours as a nurse had made it difficult to maintain their closeness. Yet just when Stacy would start to feel concerned, Andrew would surprise her with a romantic getaway or a thoughtful gift that restored her confidence. He had exquisite taste in jewelry....

She’d worried that he might meet other women when he was out of town. Her mother had advised her to trust him, warning that nothing drove a man away faster than a nagging, suspicious wife. Ironically, it wasn’t some glamorous businesswoman who stole him but a former high school girlfriend who worked in town as an ultrasound technician.

Stacy had been putting in extra shifts at the hospital, since they’d agreed to start a family once their savings reached a certain level. So she hadn’t realized he was seeing someone else until the evening Andrew presented her with the divorce papers. He told her he’d fallen back in love with Zora. She made him happy in a way that Stacy no longer did.

He hadn’t left any room for discussion. No counseling, no attempt to save their marriage. He wanted out.

Numb with shock and pain, Stacy had agreed. She still couldn’t figure out where she’d gone wrong. She missed those early years, that uplifting sense of being deeply loved and cherished. How could their bond have dissolved so completely without her realizing it?

She tried to picture Cole madly in love. All she could visualize was him crouching in the parking garage retrieving her lipstick from behind a tire. Even a casual stranger would do that.

In the kitchen, Stacy put the kettle on to boil. Closing her eyes, she inhaled the lingering scents of pesto sauce and garlic. What a delicious dinner he’d brought last night. She wished she hadn’t been so rude about the dessert.

What was Cole doing this morning? she wondered.

When the tea was ready, she settled in to read the paper. On the bottom half of page one, folded so she hadn’t seen it before, was a picture of Cole, his eyes keen and his lips parted as he spoke into a microphone.

Pride surged through Stacy. Then she read the headline, “Man’s future in doubt? M.D. cites low sperm counts.” While he’d mentioned speaking on the subject, she doubted he’d done so in such an inflammatory fashion.

The article began with the same provocative angle as the headline, but the rest sounded more like Cole: calmly informative. Stacy considered clipping it to give to him, until it occurred to her that the public relations office would no doubt secure plenty of copies.

Moving to the sports section, she saw that an Orange County gymnast was in an international competition to be aired in about ten minutes. She switched on the TV in the living room.

A newscaster was droning on about a bill scheduled to come before Congress that week. Then she heard the anchorwoman say, “If you’re worried about our budget problems, here’s even scarier news. In another generation or two, there might not be enough young people to pay taxes, according to a California fertility expert.”

Cole appeared, broad-shouldered in his white coat as he faced the camera. “We hear reports from around the globe that sperm counts are dropping.” An almost imperceptible blip was followed by: “We could be in trouble.”

Back to the anchorwoman. “That’s the word from Dr. Cole Rattigan at Safe Harbor Medical Center. He cites statistics that show...”

The words blurred as Stacy realized that this was no longer a local story. It had made the network news.

Whether Cole liked it or not—and he probably hated it—anything he did was likely to be broadcast. Such as revealing that he’d impregnated his surgical nurse. That was all Stacy needed, for her parents to see her embarrassing situation played up like some cheesy reality show. Her father would be horrified. Both her reputation and Cole’s would be dragged through the gossip mill.

Until this moment, she hadn’t realized how much she’d been hoping that somehow, despite her protests, Cole would wind up as her new roommate. Glumly, she faced the fact that, for both their sakes, she couldn’t let that happen.

* * *

“REFUSE ALL INTERVIEWS and don’t post any comments online unless Jennifer or I approve them first,” Owen Tartikoff warned Cole on Monday afternoon. The fertility chief, fresh from surgery judging by the strong smell of antiseptic, had stopped by Cole’s office in the medical building.

“Too bad. And here I was planning to write a blog about the imminent end of the human race,” Cole deadpanned.

“You may think this is funny, but the media will twist anything you say.”

“They already have,” Cole pointed out. He had no intention of writing or saying anything about the Daddy Crisis, as some hyperventilating reporter had called it. Somehow, even on a Sunday, the fearmongers had dredged up a few experts to comment pro and con. Each time, the TV stations reran clips of Cole’s remarks.

He clung to the hope, as Jennifer’s email had suggested, that today would bring fresh news to fill their gossip-casts. Never before had Cole wished so hard for a senator to commit some deadly sin or a celebrity to get caught shoplifting.

“I’m just offering friendly advice.” Owen tried his most intimidating stare on Cole. “Keep it low-key.”

“You sure you don’t want me to give any more lectures?” Cole asked. “How about one called ‘Teach Your Sperm to Do the Conga’?”

“You’re enjoying this,” Owen growled.

Only the part where I’m having fun at your expense.

“If you light a fire, don’t complain when it gets too hot.”

“Point taken.”

Nurse Luke Mendez, who went by the nickname Lucky, glanced meaningfully through the partly open door. They had a waiting room full of patients, with several prepped in examining rooms.

“I’ll let you get to work.” With that, Dr. T. departed, his aura of power fraying around the edges.

That day and the next, Cole arrived early and stayed late, treating more patients than usual. The publicity had inspired a flood of calls. Lucky referred many of the men to other urologists for preliminary workups. However, they tried to squeeze in those patients whose infertility had defied diagnosis.

Cole had nearly forgotten about Peter Gladstone, until Tuesday around 6:00 p.m., when he picked up the day’s final chart and recognized the name of the biology teacher who’d fended off the reporters. A check of the man’s records and medical history showed that his previous doctor had ruled out the usual problems. Neither his age—thirty-one—nor his medical history waved any red flags.

In the examining room, Cole shook hands with the blond teacher, exchanged pleasantries and conducted a physical exam. Normal protocol. He could double-check the other doctor’s findings, but he didn’t like to subject a patient to costly duplicate tests.

He also wanted to assess how Gladstone was dealing with infertility. For many men, difficulties with becoming a father delivered a serious blow to their sense of worth. Some became depressed and angry and avoided friends and relatives with children. Others tried to compensate by going overboard in their work, sports or other activities. If a patient had trouble coping, Cole referred him to counseling and to support groups such as Resolve.org.

Peter, however, seemed clear-headed and focused. Becoming a father had been important to him all his life, he explained. “My dad’s been a great role model. We played sports together while I was growing up, and he’s the person I turn to for advice. I always planned to have that kind of experience with my own children.”

“What about adopting?” Cole asked.

“Not much chance for a single guy.” The man folded his arms, emphasizing his well-developed muscles. “Also, my mother’s hooked on genealogy. She’s traced our family history back a couple of centuries. We’ve been an interesting bunch, including an inventor, a Revolutionary War hero and a buccaneer, which I guess is a pirate. My sister doesn’t want kids. I hate to think the line would end with me.”

“Family history can be important.” Not that Cole had any personal experience with that. His mother had been adopted by a narrow-minded couple against whom she’d rebelled. As far as he knew, she’d never tried to find her biological family. He hadn’t been close enough to his father for discussions about ancestry.

Irrelevant.

“You mentioned sports,” he said. “Is that in your medical history?” He could only recall a reference to regular exercise.

Peter shrugged. “I’m an assistant wrestling coach, if that makes any difference.”

“It might.” Cole jotted a note. “You’re a wrestler yourself?”

“All through high school and college,” Peter confirmed.

“Ever get injured?” he asked.

The teacher chuckled. “I never met a wrestler who didn’t. Bruises and strains come with the territory. Nothing severe, though. My dad insisted on proper equipment and training techniques.”

“He was your wrestling coach?”

“For a while.”

Cole disallowed his twinge of envy at this father-son bond. He was here to help the patient, not indulge in regrets over matters beyond his control. “Ever take a blow to the balls?”

This time, Peter laughed outright. “Is that medical terminology?”

“Sometimes it’s best to be direct,” Cole replied with a smile.

“Well, yes, sure.” Abruptly, all mirth vanished. “Could that be what’s causing this?”

“It’s a remote possibility,” Cole said. “Since nothing else has shown up, I’d like to test you for antibodies to your own sperm.”

The teacher regarded him in bewilderment. “How is that possible?”

“Sperm is usually protected from the immune system by a mechanism called the blood-testis barrier,” Cole explained. “Sometimes an injury breaks through this barrier. In that case, the immune system may form antibodies to the sperm.”

“You said that was rare.”

“It’s found in less than one percent of infertile men,” Cole agreed, “although the incidence is higher when they’ve had surgery on their reproductive tract. I don’t see that in your case. But the wrestling might have caused it.”

“This test—is it invasive?” The man swallowed. “Never mind. I’ll do whatever it takes.”

His determination to become a father, even without a woman in the picture yet, was striking. Although Cole tried to avoid becoming overly invested in his patients, he hoped he could help.

“We need to test a sperm sample for antibodies,” he assured him. “Nothing invasive.”

“Let’s do it.”

Cole summoned Lucky to arrange for the specimen. Then, in his office, he made notes in the patient’s file. The problem was that even with a diagnosis, treatment for male antibodies was controversial and uncertain. He supposed they’d cross that bridge when and if they came to it....

A tap at the door announced an unexpected visitor. Ned Norwalk popped in, his teeth gleaming white in his tanned face when he smiled. Although they’d hung out together at the Sunbeam Saloon, this was the first time the nurse had paid him a visit. “What’s up?” Cole asked.

Ned dropped into a chair. “Just making sure we’re on the same page.”

“About what?”

“Stacy.”

Irritably, Cole recalled Ned’s comment at the nightclub: There’s one I wouldn’t mind getting to know better.

“What about her?”

Ned spread his hands placatingly. “I’m looking for a place, so we discussed her ad for a roommate. When she confided that she’s pregnant, I put two and two together. She refused to say anything about the father, but I saw you two leaving the club, and the timing is right.”

Cole pried apart his clenched teeth to ask, “And?”

“I wanted to let you know I’ll take good care of her.”

Considering Ned’s reputation for gossiping, Cole did not feel reassured. “You will, eh?”

The nurse hurried on. “People will assume I’m the dad, which lets you off the hook. With all this publicity, I figured you’d appreciate that.”

A swell of anger nearly choked Cole. He did not want to be let off the hook, and he hated the idea of another man living with Stacy. “You figured wrong.”

Ned regarded him uneasily. “You don’t like the idea?”

“Correct,” Cole muttered. Then he remembered the first lesson he’d learned about Stacy: not to control her. He struggled to moderate his tone. “I should discuss this with her. Any idea where she is?”

“I saw her on the elevator a few minutes ago. She got off on the second floor. Something about an ultrasound.”

The exam wasn’t scheduled for another week and a half, but there must have been a change in plans. Was she having problems? Cole sprang up so fast he banged his thigh against the edge of the desk. “I’d better go.”

“Yeah. Glad we had this little talk,” Ned said as Cole hurried past him. “Guess I’ll find another place to live.”

“Excellent plan,” he snapped.

He supposed he should have been more diplomatic, and more careful about revealing his paternity. Sworn the man to secrecy, too. But right now, Cole didn’t care.

He had to find Stacy.