Best Laid Plans
“Damn your eyes, where did you come from?”
Alexandra Knight plucked at the ladder climbing the right leg of her pantyhose, sending the run racing even further up her leg. When she’d pulled her pantyhose on ten minutes ago, they’d been perfect. And she knew for a fact that there wasn’t another pair of pantyhose anywhere in her apartment since she’d already dragged this pair out of the dirty washing basket in desperation.
She checked her watch. She was already in the underground garage of her apartment building. If she went upstairs and changed into a pant suit, she’d chew up ten minutes, minimum. But if she swung into the convenience store near work on her way in, she might just make her first meeting. If she hustled.
Decision made, she strode the final few meters to her car and beeped it open. She reversed out of her spot with a rev of the engine, then she was shooting up the out ramp and into the street.
The parking gods were smiling on her and she drove straight into a spot right out the front of the mini-mart on St Kilda road. She was out of the car and heading for the door in no seconds flat.
She had three pairs of pantyhose in hand when she raced out the door two minutes later, only to find the sidewalk blocked by a tall blonde man attempting to wrangle a complicated-looked stroller that had become entangled with one of the many bags hanging from its handle. She sidestepped, her thoughts on the day ahead. Jamieson were keen to ensure that the contract of sale she was negotiating on their behalf was signed off by the end of the week, so she had to make sure the redraft on the contract was finished this afternoon so they could -
She turned instinctively.
“Jacob,” she said stupidly, one foot on the curb, the other in the gutter. Her gaze dropped to the small body strapped securely in the stroller he was pushing. There was no missing the resemblance between man and child
He was a father.
Jacob, the man she’d lived with for seven years, the man who had refused to even discuss having a child with her, had had a child with someone else. Some other women.
For a moment she was so stunned she could do nothing but blink.
She had begged him to reconsider his anti-child stance. They’d fought over it so many times she’d lost count. He’d always been so adamant. So certain, even when they were packing their things and going their separate ways.
She dragged her gaze from his baby to his face. He had the good grace to look sheepish.
“I thought you might have heard on the grape vine,” he said.
But she hadn’t. If she’d known... She had no idea what she would have done.
“How old is he?” she asked. Amazing how calm her voice sounded when the rest of her was reeling.
She flinched. She and Jacob had broken up eighteen months ago. Which meant he’d met someone and gotten her pregnant pretty damn quickly.
“Congratulations,” she said, even though she wasn’t feeling the least bit congratulatory. “What’s his name?”
And her. What’s her name, this mysterious, magical woman who got you to cough up your DNA when I couldn’t even get you to discuss becoming a parent after seven years together?
“Theodore. Teddy for short.”
“That was your grandfather’s name, wasn’t it?”
He was blushing. And she’d run out of things to say - except for the one burning, urgent question that her pride would never allow her to ask: why not me?
Hadn’t he loved her enough? Had she been missing some vital, essential ingredient that had stopped him from fully committing to her?
Her hand curled into a fist. She wanted to hurt him. Punch him in the face. Grab him by the lapels and demand to know why, how, when. Instead, she forced her hand to relax and made a show of checking her watch.
“I really have to go if I’m going to make my first meeting. Good luck with everything, Jacob.”
She stepped blindly into the street.
“Alex. Before you go... Just in case you thought... I mean, it was an accident,” Jacob said.
“What?” Despite herself, she lingered and turned back to face him when she should have gotten in her car and driven away.
“Mia didn’t realise she’d missed a pill and then we found out she was pregnant. So, you know, all this was unplanned.”
His gesture took in his child, the pram, the tangled diaper bag.
“Well. I guess that makes it all okay,” she said.
She walked the final few meters to the sanctuary of her car. Except it wasn’t really a sanctuary, since Jacob was standing on the sidewalk watching her, an expression on his face that was a fifty-fifty mix of guilt and defensiveness. Alex concentrated on starting the car so she could get the hell out of there.
She pulled over the moment she was around the corner and out of sight. She stared out the windshield, her hands clenched so tightly on the steering wheel that her knuckles ached.
Jacob was a father. He had a beautiful little baby boy. With someone else. A woman called Mia, who had “forgotten” to take a pill or two and forced Jacob into a position he had adamantly, passionately, avowedly claimed he wanted to avoid for the entire seven years of his relationship with Alex.
He’d named his child Theodore, after his paternal grandfather. He was even on child-minding duty, pushing one of the prams he’d once dubbed a “blight on civilisation” because of the way they choked supermarket aisles and cafes.
She could hear her own breathing, fast and harsh as though she’d just run a race. She told herself that the past was the past and that what Jacob had done once they’d split was nothing to do with her. But not for a minute did she believe it.
The thing was - the thing that stung so bloody bitterly - was that he’d always been so certain about what he wanted. He’d informed her six months into their relationship that he wasn’t interested in having children. By then she’d loved him so much, wanted to be a part of his life so badly she’d convinced herself that he would change with time. Lots of men did, after all, and they’d both only been barely thirty. She’d told herself that once he saw his friends have children, he’d understand the joy and challenges that children could bring. The love and hope and energy. All she’d have to do was wait him out.
And she had. For seven years, concentrating on achieving partnership at Wallingsworth & Kent and back-burnering her baby dreams until the issue had become a wedge between them and they’d finally gone their separate ways.
And now Jacob was a father, and she was single and thirty-eight and still looking for the man she’d left Jacob to find. A man she loved who loved her and wanted to have the family that had always formed the cornerstone of all her hopes and dreams.
For the second time that morning her hands curled into fists and she pounded them once, twice, three times against her steering wheel.
An electronic beep drew her attention back into the car. She blinked for a moment, looking around vaguely to try to identify the source of the sound. Her gaze fell on her bag and her brain clicked back into gear. Her phone. That’s what the sound was. She pulled it from her handbag and touched the screen. It was her legal secretary, Franny, letting Alexandra know her first client had arrived and was waiting in reception.
A client. Right. She had a meeting scheduled. Hell, she had a whole day scheduled. And here she was, thinking that the world had contracted to just her and the sick, angry feeling in the pit of her stomach.
She took a deep breath, then she sent back a quick reassurance that she was five minutes away.
It had been...shocking to see Jacob pushing a stroller. And it had dredged up a lot of the old feelings she thought she’d moved on from. But she didn’t have time to sit in her car and gnash her teeth. People were relying on her.
She continued to talk herself down as she put her car into gear and pulled back out into traffic.
She might feel justifiably angry and cheated, the way things had turned out, but it wasn’t as though she was at her last prayers. At thirty-eight, she had at least five good child-rearing years ahead of her - Madonna had had her second child at forty-two, after all, and Geena Davis had had twins at forty-seven. Alex was fit and healthy and active. There was still plenty of time for her to find Mr Right and have the family she’d always wanted.
Plenty of time.
Ignoring the flutter of panic behind her breast bone, Alex reeled her feelings back in and focussed on the road and the day ahead.
Plenty of time.
Eight hours later, she waited on the examination couch as her doctor washed her hands after performing her regular pap smear. As it had all day, her mind ranged back to the encounter with Jacob. She pushed the thoughts away, concentrating very deliberately on the evening ahead instead. First there was the racquetball game she had scheduled with Ethan, then there was the work she planned to finish up at home.
She made it a policy not to brood. It was a huge waste of energy, and it never changed anything. She had better things to do with her time and emotion.
Dr Ramsay turned back from washing her hands. “Okay, we’ll just check your abdomen, then we’re done. Hands by your sides, please. And a nice relaxed belly.”
“Sure you don’t want me to beg or fetch?” Alex asked.
“As if you’d listen to me anyway.” Dr Ramsay smiled, the lines around her eyes deepening.
She’d been Alex’s doctor for ten years now and she always managed to fit Alex in, no matter how crazy her work schedule.
Dr Ramsay’s expression grew distant as she pressed down on Alex’s lower belly.
“Let me know if you feel any pain or discomfort.”
“How’s that?” Dr Ramsay asked, pressing near where Alex always imagined her ovaries were located.
Over her bladder this time.
A few more minutes, then her doctor was done.
“You can get dressed now, unless there’s anything else you were worried about?”
Alexandra sat up, swinging her legs over the side of the examination couch. “Nothing major. I have noticed my periods have been getting heavier over the last few months. More cramping, that sort of thing.”
“Unfortunately, that’s something that happens for a lot of women as they age. You’re, what, thirty-nine this year?”
“We’ll keep an eye on it and if it becomes a problem we can look at your options. But given the average age of menopause is fifty-one, it might be an issue that will simply resolve itself.”
Alex laughed nervously. “Menopause? I’m not even forty yet.”
Dr Ramsay shrugged. “But you are on the tail end of your fertility, and quite a few women go into menopause in their forties.”
Alex gripped the edge of the examination table. “But... I haven’t had children yet.”
Dr Ramsay looked startled. “Oh. I didn’t realise that was something you were hoping for. I always assumed you were a career woman...”
“No. I mean, I am. I love my career. But I want a family, too.”
There was concern in Dr Ramsay’s eyes now. “I see. Well, you probably don’t need me to tell you that the clock is ticking on that score.”
“But I’ve still got a few years up my sleeve yet, right?” Alex asked.
Dr Ramsay hesitated a beat before speaking again. “Why don’t you get dressed and we can discuss this further?”
The curtain hissed shut between them. Alex blinked, then reached for her clothes. It took her two attempts to button her skirt.
Dr Ramsay was seated at her desk when Alex opened the curtain.
“Grab a seat,” the doctor said, patting the chair she’d pulled up alongside her desk.
Alex sat and folded her hands into her lap. “Why do I feel as though I’ve been called to the principal’s office?”
Dr Ramsay drew a diagonal line on the paper in front of her, sloping from the top left corner down to the right. Then she jotted some figures along the horizontal and vertical axes of her impromptu graph.
“I’m going to give you a crash course in female fertility,” she said when she’d finished her quick sketch. “When it comes to having babies, the quality of the egg is what’s important. The current understanding is that female fertility as well as eqq quality hit their peak at around twenty-seven. And from then onwards, it’s a steady decline. After thirty-five,” Dr Ramsay tapped the appropriate point on her downward sloping graph, ”fertility drops off dramatically. Statistically, the likelihood of a woman in her early forties having a successful pregnancy with her own ovum is just ten percent.”
“Ten percent,” Alex repeated.
“But I’m only thirty-eight right now. Where does that place me on the graph?” Alex leaned forward urgently.
Dr Ramsay tapped a spot scarily close to the bottom of her sloping line. “At about thirty-five percent. But remember, these figures are averages. There are always people who fall outside of the norm.”
Alex stared at the tiny indentation the doctor’s pen had made in the page. Thirty-five percent. She had a thirty-five percent chance of getting pregnant and successfully carrying a child to full term. And next year, according to her doctor’s hastily drawn graph, that figure would drop again.
“I thought I had more time. I mean...Madonna. And Geena Davis. And I’m sure I read about a woman in her early fifties having triplets...”
“Unfortunately these high profile late-in-life pregnancies give a lot of women a false sense that having a baby is as simple as deciding the time is right and going for it. Many, many older women have to resort to IVF to get pregnant in their late thirties and early forties. And many fail and are forced to look to donor eggs.”
Alex’s palms were damp with sweat. For so many years she’d dreamed of being a mother. She’d drawn up a list of names, she’d even bought her sensible, safe sedan with an eye to the future. She’d always just assumed that she would be a mother, that when she was ready, her body would cooperate and she’d fall pregnant...
“Are you telling me that it might already be impossible for me to have a child?” she asked. It was hard to get the words past the lump in her throat.
“Without invasive tests, without you having tried and failed to conceive for an extended period of time, it’s impossible for us to know how fertile you are. What I’m trying to say and perhaps not doing a very good job of it is that if this is something you want, Alex, you need to move quickly. The sooner the better as far as your body is concerned.”
Alex smoothed her hands down her skirt. She could feel how tense her thigh muscles were beneath the fine Italian wool. Her belly muscles were quivering and she was frowning so fiercely her forehead ached.
“I see,” she said.
And she did. An image filled her head - Jacob’s baby boy, his big blue eyes taking in the world, his fingers clenching and unclenching around the edge of his blanket.
So small and soft, so full of promise.
All of a sudden all the rage and resentment and bitterness that she’d suppressed this morning rolled over her.
She’d given Jacob seven years. Seven of her best years, according to Dr Ramsay’s graph. And he’d said no to children again and again, and now he had what she’d always dreamed of and she was left to face the possibility that she would only ever be a godmother to her friends’ children.
It was so unfair, so bloody cruel...
Alex realised Dr Ramsay was watching her, an expectant expression on her face.
She’s missed something, obviously.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“I said I’d be happy to jot down the names of some good books on the subject for you,” her doctor said.
“Yes. That would be great. Thank you,” Alex said.
She waited while Dr Ramsay wrote down a couple of book titles, then somehow found the strength to make polite small talk as the doctor saw her to the door.
She drove to the gym on auto-pilot. It wasn’t until she was pulling on her lycra leggings and hooking the eyes on her sports bra that she registered where she was and what she was doing.
She sat on the bench running down the middle of the change room and put her head in her hands. She didn’t want to run around a racquetball court and exchange smart-ass banter with Ethan between points. She wanted to go home and curl up in the corner with her thumb in her mouth.
She pressed her fingertips against her closed eye-lids and sighed heavily. Then she pulled on her tank top and laced up her shoes and shoved her work clothes into her gym bag. As much as she wanted to go home, she couldn’t leave Ethan hanging. Not when he was probably already standing on the court, waiting for her. She’d made a commitment to him - and she always honored her commitments.
Shouldering her bag, she made her way through the gym to the wing that housed the racquetball courts. As she’d guessed, Ethan was already on the court, warming up. She eyed him through the glass panel in the door, for once not feeling a thing as she looked at his long, strong legs and well-muscled arms and fallen-angel’s face.
She smiled a little grimly. After months of telling herself that it was really, really inappropriate to have a low-level crush on her fellow partner and racquetball buddy, it seemed that all it took to neutralize his ridiculous good looks and rampant sex appeal was the news that she might have left it too late to have children.
She tucked her chin into her chest, squared her shoulders and fixed a smile on her face. Then she pushed the door open and entered the court.
“Hey. Thought you were going to chicken out on me,” Ethan said as she threw her bag on top of his in the corner. A lock of dark hair fell over his forehead and he brushed it away with an impatient hand.
“Sorry. Got caught up,” she said.
“No shame in admitting you’re intimidated, Slowpoke,” Ethan said, his dark blue eyes glinting with amused challenge.
Most of the women in the office would turn into a puddle of feminine need if he gave them one of those looks, but she’d been building up her immunity from day one. It was part of their schtick, the way he twinkled and glinted and flirted with her and the way she just batted it all back at him, supremely unimpressed by his charmer’s tricks.
According to their usual routine, she was supposed to rise to the bait of him using his much-disputed nickname for her but she didn’t have it in her to return serve tonight. Instead, she concentrated on unzipping the cover on her racquet before turning to make brief eye contact with him.
“Let’s play,” she said.
The sooner they started, the sooner this would be over.
He raised his eyebrows. “Don’t want to warm up?”
She took up her position on the court.
He frowned. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “You want to serve first...?”
Ethan’s gaze narrowed as he studied her. She adjusted her grip on her racquet and tried to look normal. Whatever that was.
Finally he shrugged and moved to the other side of the court. After all, it wasn’t as though they had the kind of friendship that went beyond the realm of the stuffy oak-paneled offices of Wallingsworth & Kent and the racquetball court. They might be the two youngest partners, and they might see eye to eye on most issues that came up during the weekly partner’s meetings, but she had no idea what he did in his down time - although she could take a pretty educated guess, thanks to office scuttlebutt - and vice versa. Their friendship - if it could even be called that - was made up of nine-tenths banter and one-tenth professional respect.
He was the last person she would confide her fears in.