Another Man's Child

9 Months LaterHer baby. His heartache.Her baby. His heartache.Marcus Cartwright is rich and handsome. What's more, he's in love with his wife. And Lisa Cartwright adores her husband. Their marriage, however, is falling apart.That's because Marcus can't give Lisa the baby they've always longed for.Now he's determined to give Lisa her freedom–to find and marry someone else. To have her own child. It's a freedom Lisa doesn't want, but she can't convince Marcus of that.So Lisa decides to take matters into her own hands. She decides to have a baby. And she's not going to tell Marcus until the artificial insemination procedure is over….But will Marcus be able to accept another man's child?
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Another Man's Child


Table of Contents

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

“It’s our baby, Marcus. Yours as much as mine.”

   No! his mind screamed. The child she was carrying had nothing to do with him. He couldn’t pretend otherwise.

   He stared straight ahead, wishing she’d leave him to his numbness. He didn’t think he could hold on much longer. His wife was pregnant with another man’s baby. He felt sick.

   

   And betrayed.

   

   And jealous.

   He stood up abruptly and headed for the door.

   Jealous. What kind of man did that make him, that he was jealous of his own wife’s ability to conceive? Jealous because she was having the baby they’d always wanted—because she wouldn’t have to pretend that she, not someone else, had created their child.

   Tara Taylor Quinn knew nothing about artificial insemination until she began the research for Another Man’s Child. On the other hand, she went through premature birth with a friend of hers, an RN, whose niece was born at five months. In fact, baby Stephanie’s picture—complete with wires, tubes, tape and a warning bed—was beside Tara the entire time she wrote this book. Readers will be glad to know that Stephanie is a healthy child now.

   Tara loves to hear from her readers. You can reach her at P.O. Box 15065, Scottsdale, Arizona 85267-5065.

Another Man’s Child Tara Taylor Quinn


   

   For Michael Scott Gumser

   

   It’s the ties that bind, and our knots are forever, little brother. I love you.

   A very special thank-you to Cinci Davis and Stephanie Noel Alston

   

   May the strength that brought you through your first two years be with you always, little Stephanie.

   And may you always be surrounded by people who love you as much as your Aunt Cinci does.

   Happy Birthday!

   THE WOMAN HAD A BODY that practically begged a guy to come out and play, a glint in her eyes that dared him to win.

   And she was looking at Marcus. There was enough money among the businessmen she was addressing to buy the eastern United States twice over, but it was Marcus with whom she made eye contact.

   He shifted in the cushioned armchair he’d chosen midway around the table. He knew Julie Winters. Had always admired her genius. She had a helluva mind for numbers and for manipulating those numbers, making her one of the most successful forces on Wall Street.

   “In summary,” she concluded, “independents are the businesses of the past. Diversify your assets. Scratch your own backs before someone else scratches it for you and leaves you bleeding.”

   She caught Marcus’s eye. I’d like to scratch your back, but I’ll be gentle, her glance seemed to say.

   He had a sudden vision of Lisa’s eyes when she’d looked up at him from the paper that morning. They’d had that sad, troubled, faraway quality he’d seen all too often in the past eighteen months.

   The meeting was over. And Marcus had a question or two for Julie. She’d quoted some figures he hadn’t heard before, pertaining to the future of electronic advertising. Standing at the back of the room while he waited for her to finish, he admired the confidence with which she was dealing with one of his more overbearing peers.

   That glint was back in her eyes when she finally approached him.

   “Marcus! It’s good to see you again.” She placed a perfectly manicured hand on his forearm, her red nails glistening against his sleeve.

   “You, too, Julie. Got a few minutes? I’d like to hear more about your predictions regarding warehouse to the consumer.”

   “I have another session to get to,” she said, “but we could talk about it over dinner.”

   The woman’s smile promised more than just dinner, and his body surged to life. Tell her no, jackass. A few minutes to pick her brain is all you’re after.

   He looked at his watch, the Rolex Lisa had given him when he was still the man of her dreams. “We could meet back here in the lobby at six.”

   “I’ll be here.”

   Her bright red lips promised to make the evening one he’d remember. With one last look up and down his suited frame, she left the room.

   He tried his damnedest not to carry the vision of her lush breasts and womanly hips, encased so seductively in that black-and-red business suit, with him as he headed to the last session of the day. He was a married man. Very much in love with his wife.

   Except that every time he thought of Lisa, he saw again the disappointment, the sadness he’d brought to her eyes—to her life. He’d always been a doer, a problem-solver, but there wasn’t one damn thing he could do about that look in Lisa’s eyes.

   At five o’clock he was back in his room to shower and change from his suit to slacks and a sport coat, trading his staid navy tie for one a little more colorful. He couldn’t quite meet his reflected gaze as he took one quick look in the mirror, but he refused to feel guilty. He was going to a business dinner. That was all.

   He also avoided the picture of Lisa he’d set out on his nightstand when he’d checked in that afternoon. And he didn’t call her as he’d promised when he’d kissed her goodbye in their garage that morning, either.

   He’d come to the convention, not only to deliver his paper on multiple diversification, but to garner enough space from his lovely unhappy wife to consider the consequences of his inability to give her what she wanted most in the world. He’d sacrifice his life to save his marriage. But there were some things he just couldn’t change.

   The door of his hotel room slammed behind him as if sealing his fate, even while he knew that there was no earthly pleasure worth selling his soul for. But as he walked down the hall, his mind flashed back to the way Julie had looked at him, the way Lisa hadn’t looked at him since that diagnosis eighteen months ago. These days all he saw in her eyes was that damn sadness and disappointment. He pushed the button for the elevator.

   Julie was waiting for him as he stepped off the elevator, and her smile was as bright as the sequined halter dress she was wearing. Her eyes, dancing with pleasure, made another slow seductive tour of his body.

   “Do I pass?” he asked, smiling as he took her arm to lead her to the glass-sided elevator that would whisk them to the top floor restaurant.

   She rubbed her elbow against his side. “More than ever.”

   One soft breast brushed against him, and his body throbbed with sudden desire. She wasn’t looking at him with the embers of a dying happiness in her eyes. He could give her exactly what she wanted without even trying.

   Julie smiled politely as the maître d’ led them to an intimate table for two alongside a wall of windows in the glass-enclosed revolving restaurant. Marcus felt carefree, full of anticipation, virile again, as he escorted her, knowing she was turning the heads of the other patrons. He’d always felt like that with Lisa, too, back when they spent enough time together to accommodate dining out.

   “I have to admit, I’m surprised you agreed to have dinner with me,” Julie said an hour and a half later. They’d finished the lobster he’d ordered, their conversation almost entirely business and even more stimulating than he’d expected, and had moved into the lounge area of the restaurant. His body was humming with the wine he’d consumed.

   “You’re a very beautiful woman. I find it hard to believe you’d ever question a man’s desire to be with you.” For just a moment his gaze caressed her. Down over her gleaming bare shoulders, her lush breasts to her slim waist, and back up to a mouth made for kissing.

   “The last time we met, you didn’t seem the least bit interested.”

   The last time. That conference in New York two years before. He and Lisa hadn’t known then. “Times change.” Marcus stared at the liquor he was swirling in his glass before setting it back on the table decisively. “You want to dance?” he asked abruptly.

   “Yes.” If she minded his brusque tone, she certainly didn’t let it show as she took his hand. Along with desire, Marcus felt a surge of sympathy for her, this woman so cloaked in the aggression necessary to take her success from a man’s world that she scared off the suitors she also craved.

   The band was playing a romantic ballad, the perfect background for seduction. Marcus led Julie to a shadowy corner of the half-empty dance floor and brought her into his arms. Her skin was like satin as his hands came to rest on her bare back, her breasts soft mounds against his chest, tempting him. The sequins on her dress glittered under the muted lights. One dance. Just one dance.

   They moved naturally together, swaying skillfully to the music. Marcus tried not to notice when her nipples hardened against him, or to see the smoky knowing look in her eyes. He’d have to stop if he acknowledged them. He wasn’t the type of man who could cross that line.

   Julie’s lips parted, inviting his kiss. He pulled her closer, instead, even though he knew she could feel his arousal. She moaned, pressing her pelvis against the hard resistance of his, burying her face against his neck. Her passion was so honest it threatened his control.

   She was his for the taking. He could lose himself in her, bring her the satisfaction she so obviously hoped for. He didn’t have a single doubt he could give her what she desired. That alone was the biggest temptation.

   But still a forbidden one.

   He’d known it was going to come to this. Julie had made no secret of the fact that she wanted him. So why had he accepted her invitation to dinner? Why had he asked her to dance? Why was he torturing himself?

   He adjusted her body against him, trying to mold her softness so that she fit him better, to find that feeling of protectiveness that would come when she settled her head on his shoulder. He craved that feeling. Craved that surety that he could make everything right for her. That he could take care of her.

   Marcus adjusted the woman in his arms again, but to no avail. She just didn’t fit. She wasn’t ever going to fit.

   She wasn’t Lisa.

   And no matter how badly he wanted the release, he couldn’t take it at Lisa’s expense. He’d promised her his loyalty, and that, at least, was something he could still give her.

   With a feeling of inevitability, he pulled back from the beautiful woman in his arms. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t take the pleasure she was offering. He loved Lisa too damn much.

   

   “HEY, DOC, HOW’S IT GOING?” Beth Montague stopped outside Lisa Cartwright’s office door in the medical complex connected to Thornton Memorial Hospital.

   Lisa looked up from her desk and met her friend’s searching gaze with a shrug.

   Coming in and closing the door behind her, Beth planted one plump hip on the corner of Lisa’s desk. “The kitten didn’t help, huh?”

   Lisa shook her head. “No more than the cruise, the summer home at the beach and the season’s tickets to the theater.” Instead of filling up empty holes, the cat’s presence had pointed out what bottomless pits those holes had become. She and Marcus had both tried so hard to make the cat a reason to come home that they’d smothered it with attention. “The poor thing ran from us every time we walked in the door,” she said, shaking her head again.

   “Cats are that way sometimes,” Beth replied. “Remember I told you about Corky, the cat we had when I was growing up? He’d only come out from behind the furniture at night. I used to wait up for him sometimes, and after he got used to me sitting there in the dark, he would crawl up into my lap and purr so loud I was afraid it would wake up my little brothers and sisters.”

   Lisa smiled. She’d heard a few stories about Beth’s favorite childhood pet.

   “Of course, he got a lot bolder as he grew up. Anyway, maybe you guys just needed to give the kitten more time. Cats are great companions.”

   “It wasn’t the cat, Beth. It was us.” She hesitated, almost loath to admit the rest. “One night last week Marcus and I spent half an hour talking baby talk to the thing, trying to coax it out from under the bed to play with this new squeak toy Marcus bought. Suddenly we looked at each other, sitting on the floor in our work clothes acting like a couple of idiots, and it hit us what we were doing. And the worst part was, we couldn’t even smile about it. It was just too…pathetic. So Marcus found another home for the cat the next day. A home where it’s allowed to just be a cat.”

   Beth’s cheerful blue eyes filled with sympathy. “Okay, so you haven’t found what works yet, but you will.”

   “I wish I could be so sure.” Marcus hadn’t called after his meetings in New Jersey the day before as he’d promised. He’d phoned, instead just as Lisa was climbing into their big empty bed that night, and he’d been different somehow. Nothing she could name exactly, just a little distant, evasive, as he’d answered her questions about the day. She’d hung up with the unsettling knowledge that no matter how much she loved her husband, no matter how solid their friendship was or how completely she believed in them as a couple, their marriage was in serious trouble.

   “Have you tried to talk to him again about the possibility of artificial insemination? It’s the perfect answer, you know.” Beth was a doctor, too, though not a pediatrician like Lisa, and she ran a fertility clinic at Thornton. Not only was she Lisa’s friend, she was also the doctor who’d overseen the months of testing she and Marcus had been through in their attempts to have a child.

   “I’m not going to mention it to him again,” Lisa said. Her stomach became tied in knots just remembering what had happened the first time she’d broached the subject with Marcus. She’d already tried talking to him about adoption, she’d brought home pamphlets on fostering a child, and both times Marcus had refused even to discuss the issues with her. But he’d discussed artificial insemination, all right. She still remembered the stricken look on his face.

   Beth’s brow furrowed. “It sounds as if nothing else is working, hon. What could it hurt to talk about it to him again? The clinic’s designed for couples in your position.” Tragically widowed while still in her early thirties, Beth had never had children of her own. Now she spent her life helping others to do so.

   “I can’t, Beth. He’ll just tell me that if I’m dissatisfied with what he can and cannot provide, then I’m free to leave him for someone who can satisfy me. The worst part is, I think he really means it. As much as he loves me, he would just let me go. He’s so eaten up with self-hatred he can’t even look at things with an open mind. And I can’t hurt him anymore. He sees his sterility as his ultimate failure, and I can’t continue to rub it in his face.”

   “Do you think he’s failed you?” Beth asked.

   “No!” Lisa had no doubts about that. “I’m a doctor. I know he had nothing to do with the fever that rendered him sterile. I love him, Beth, flaws and all. But…”

   “But?”

   “But I just can’t see either one of us being happy without a child. It’s what we both want more than anything on earth, what we’ve always wanted. Hell, Marcus and I were planning a nursery before we even planned our wedding. Every big decision we’ve ever made, every goal we’ve set, has been influenced by the family we’d planned to raise. I just don’t see how we can keep a union that’s been built on such a foundation from toppling over.”

   “Answer one question for me.” Beth’s eyes were piercing.

   “Sure. If I can.”

   “Who do you love more, need more—your husband, or the baby he was supposed to give you?”

   “That one’s easy. My husband. He’s my best friend. I can’t imagine a life without Marcus.”

   Beth stood up, nodding. “Then you’ll find your answer, Lis.”

   “Even though there’s a part of me, a part that’s been there as long as I can remember, who needs to be a mother, too?” Lisa asked the question softly, almost afraid even to say the words out loud.

   Beth’s eyes warmed with concern. Lisa knew how much her friend was pulling for her and Marcus. The three of them had formed an unshakable bond that first year after Beth’s husband had been shot waiting in line at a fast-food restaurant. She and Marcus had insisted that Beth move in with them, and for six months they’d both taken turns sitting up with their friend on those nights when the demons had become too fierce for her to face alone. That had been more than five years ago.

   “I understand your reluctance, Lis,” Beth said now, “but you need to talk to him again. Have him come visit me. Maybe if he sees how much he’ll be involved in the process, if he understands how scientific everything is, he’ll come around.”

   Lisa smiled and nodded as her friend left, but she knew she wouldn’t do as Beth suggested. She’d never known Marcus to look so beaten as he had the night she’d tried to talk to him about giving him a child through artificial insemination. She’d never seen him so angry. Or so hurt. No, she couldn’t do that to him again.

   

   TWO DAYS LATER when she unpacked Marcus’s suitcase and found the shirt rolled in with his other dirty clothes, she was tempted to change her mind. She picked up the shirt slowly, staring blankly at the lipstick-stained collar for a moment, her mind masked with disbelief. It couldn’t be.

   Standing there, unable to move, to look away, she felt frightened—and stupid. Had Marcus…? Surely he hadn’t…No. Of course not. He wouldn’t. Not ever.

   And then she remembered his phone call from New Jersey. Not only had he not called when he’d promised, he’d been strangely evasive.

   She blinked, surprised when a tear splashed onto the incriminating collar. Had they come to this, then? Had they really come to this? Were their ties of friendship, their loyalties to each other, in jeopardy? Was the love she’d cherished for more than a decade going to slip through her fingers right along with her dream of having a child? She dropped the shirt as if she’d been burned.

   And then just as suddenly picked it up again. The lipstick was still there. She could see it through the blur of her tears. She just couldn’t believe it. And didn’t know what to do about it. This happened to other women, other couples. Not to her and Marcus.

   “Nothing happened.”

   Lisa jumped. She hadn’t heard Marcus come upstairs.

   “Something apparently did,” she said, throwing his shirt in his face. It was too much. To lose Marcus on top of everything else was just too much.

   He grabbed her arm as she pushed by him. “Nothing happened, Lisa.”

   She looked up at him, this man of her dreams, and even blinded by tears of anger and disappointment, she knew she still loved him. After ten years of marriage, after eighteen months of anguish, even after finding another woman’s makeup on his clothes, she felt the impact of him clear to her soul. “Her lipstick’s on your collar.”

   Marcus dropped her arm and bowed his head. “We had dinner—and one dance. That’s all.”

   It was enough. She knew him that well. Wrapping her arms around her middle, she warded off the darkness that threatened to consume her. “You wanted her.”

   “She wanted me. And yes, I guess part of me wanted her, too, wanted to be with a woman who didn’t know I could only do half the job.”

   A sob broke through the constriction in Lisa’s throat, and she backed away from him.

   “Who was she?” She willed herself to speak calmly.

   Marcus swore and strode over to her, grabbing her arms, forcing her to look at him. “Nobody. She was nobody, Lis. Just a woman. Any woman who’d looked at me the way she did would probably have had the same effect. Which, in the end, was no effect at all. Because she wasn’t you.”

   “Was she pretty?” Lisa couldn’t let it go.

   “She was pretty, sure, but so are you. And you’re the one I want to be with. You’re my best friend, Lis.”

   She studied his face, his blue unblinking eyes. “Are you sure about that?”

   “Absolutely.”

   His gaze bore into her, telling her things mere words couldn’t, and suddenly some of the tension that had held her rigid, barely able to breathe, drained away, leaving her feeling weak and helpless. She sank against his chest.

   He held her silently, his hand rubbing the back of her head soothingly as she soaked the front of his shirt with her tears. He was still wearing his business suit, and Lisa burrowed her arms beneath his jacket, taking comfort in his lean hard strength, letting his love console her, just as it had done for well over a decade. She needed him more than life itself. And she felt it all slipping away.

   “I love you, Lis.” His voice was thick through the whispered words.

   “I love you, too.”

   But she knew that love might not be enough, not if he refused to believe in the strength of that love, not if he continued to blame himself for something he couldn’t help and was convinced that she blamed him, too.

   

   MARCUS LAY FLAT on his back, staring at the shadows the moonlight made on the ceiling as he listened to Lisa breathing beside him. He’d made love to her that night, giving her everything he had to give, and she’d been smiling when she fell asleep in his arms. But still, he knew that what he had to give wasn’t enough. It was never going to be enough. Because no matter how often or how expertly he made love to her, he was never going to leave behind the seed of that love. He was never going to impregnate his wife. He wondered how long it was going to be until she started to think about leaving him for a man who could.

   She stirred in her sleep, snuggling up against his chest, and Marcus automatically put an arm out to pull her close, settling her head in the crook of his shoulder. He used to love these moments in the night when he lay awake and cradled her, glorying in the knowledge that this gorgeous, intelligent, caring woman was his. Until he’d met Lisa, the only kind of affection he’d known had come in terms of discipline, respect and loyalty—necessary, but so cold. It had taken years before he’d really believed that Lisa’s body curled warmly and lovingly into his was something he could count on for the rest of his life.

   Now the feel of her against him was merely a reminder of how he’d failed her, of what he couldn’t do, of things he couldn’t make right.

   Being careful not to disturb her, Marcus got up from the bed and went downstairs, hoping to dispel his demons with a shot of whiskey. But after the second shot, he knew the hope was in vain. He sat alone in the living room of the home where he’d grown up, where his father and grandfather had grown up before him.

   He had it all. He’d taken the family shipping business and turned it from a solid respectable venture into an enterprise that far surpassed even his father’s vision. Cartwright Enterprises had been through many transitions since its inception almost two centuries before. His early ancestors had made the family’s first millions in whaling and sealing, and the generation following them were glorified Yankee Peddlers. His grandfather had expanded into imports and exports. Marcus’s father had doubled the Cartwright shipping fleet before a car accident had taken his life—and his wife’s, as well.

   But in the eight years since Marcus had taken over, Cartwright Enterprises had become a business of the nineties. It owned several of the companies it had once shipped for. It was no longer just the middle man.

   And like his father before him, Marcus had done it all for the son to whom he would one day pass his heritage. He was a Cartwright. One of the Cartwrights. His ancestors, English gentry with everything but money, had come to the New World with dreams and determination. Through the early battles with Indians, the revolutionary war, the Civil War and both world wars, the Cartwrights had remained strong, determined and successful, each generation continuing and surpassing the achievements of the one before. And from the time he was old enough to understand, Marcus had worked hard to fulfill his responsibility to his birthright, to ensure that the breath of his ancestors, when he passed it on, would continue to thrive.

   But unlike his father, who’d worked for financial power, Marcus had worked like a madman for another reason. He’d done it to buy his freedom, to have the time to be at home with his family when he had one, to make it to every school play, to watch each and every game, to attend all recitals, birthday parties and Christmas pageants. He wanted to make enough babies with Lisa to fill the rooms in the home he was born to, and to dispel forever the emptiness of his boyhood.

   He didn’t look back on those lonely years with any fondness. His parents had been interested in raising the Cartwright heir, not a child.

   Marcus reached for the bottle and poured another inch of scotch. His mind turned to his sterility, and he tried for the millionth time to think about the alternatives Lisa had talked about soon after his diagnosis. But as hard as he’d tried, and God knew he’d tried, he just couldn’t consider them rationally. He felt the rage coming, felt it in the sudden heat in his veins, in the tenseness in his muscles. Why? By what cruel twist of fate did he have to be the one to end the Cartwright line, to silence forever the voices of his ancestors? He who wanted children more than wealth, who understood their value in a way his father never had?

   He’d worked hard all of his life, earning an honest living when, in his position, it would have been surprisingly easy to do otherwise. He gave to charities. He upheld the faith of his ancestors and never balked when there was a task to do. He’d never left a job unfinished in his life.

   So why had he been robbed of the ability to do the one thing he wanted most to do? There were plenty of men out there who didn’t want children, who fathered them without even knowing or caring. Yet it was Marcus who’d had that privilege revoked. His wife who had to look elsewhere to get his job done.

   Marcus strode around the living room, trying to outdistance his demons. And as always, as the rage within him continued to boil, he was seized by the desire to just pack his bags and leave this town for a place where the Cartwright name meant nothing, where he could hide from his shortcomings—and his heritage. Where he could live out the rest of his days, if not in happiness, at least in peace. He’d have gone, too. If it wasn’t for Lisa.

   Marcus took one last swallow from the crystal shot glass, then hurled it into the fireplace where it shattered into a thousand glittering pieces, reminiscent of the dreams he had once been foolish enough to have.

   DREAMS. LISA HAD always had two of them. One was to grow up, get married and have babies as sweet as her little sister, Sara, had been. Lisa had been an only child, a somewhat lonely child, until she was ten years old. And then Sara had come along, surprising them all, like a ray of sunshine that continued to shine in Lisa’s heart long after her baby sister was gone.

   Lisa’s second dream, also a by-product of Sara, was to become a pediatrician. So at least she had realized one of the two. And as the weeks passed, she immersed herself more and more in her work. Marcus was never home anymore, and on the rare occasions when he wasn’t working late, he kept busy in his den or out on the grounds, rarely smiling and hardly looking at Lisa at all.

   So Lisa volunteered for an extra shift on call. She added to her already full patient load; she offered to cover for whatever physicians were on vacation or taking a long weekend to spend with their families. Anything she could do to stay busy, to keep her mind occupied, to ignore the fact that Marcus was slipping away from her. He still made wonderful love to her—Marcus had always had an incredible sexual appetite—but he didn’t gaze into her eyes while they were making love anymore, nor did he linger in her arms afterward.

   Pushing away the fear that had become her constant companion, Lisa pulled some recently delivered X rays from their folder, placed them up on the view box beside her desk and flipped on the light so she could study the results. Her heart sank.

   Little Willie Adams’s back was broken; he wouldn’t be playing Little League any more this season, and probably not next, either. Depending on the damage to his spinal cord, he might never be playing it again. Reaching for the phone, she punched in the number for one of the best neurosurgeons she knew, all the while thinking of the little redheaded boy lying so still in the hospital bed across the street. Willie was one of the patients Lisa saw gratis, courtesy of state welfare. He was one of six kids, the only boy, that his mother was raising single-handedly. His father had run off before Willie was born. The one good thing in Willie’s life was his success in Little League.

   Lisa pulled into the gate at home two hours later, weary in body, but even wearier in soul. She’d spent an hour with Willie until Dr. Shea had come; she’d told Willie and his mother Willie’s prognosis, she’d answered all of his mother’s questions and watched Willie’s face turn to stone, but she’d never seen him shed a tear. Considering the amount of pain he was in, that was amazing in itself, but to have just had his one hope of getting out of the ghetto snatched away…

   Lisa left her Mercedes in the circular driveway, then trudged up the steps, her briefcase weighing on her exhausted muscles as she let herself in. It was late, long past dinnertime, and she knew Hannah, the parttime housekeeper who saw more of Lisa and Marcus’s home than they did, bad left hours before. She started to call out for Marcus, needing him desperately, but closed her mouth before she wasted her breath. He’d been out until midnight or later most every night lately, attempting to keep Blake’s, a family-owned chain of department stores in Rhode Island, from going bankrupt. She didn’t begrudge him the time. Not really. She knew her husband well enough to know how good it made him feel to be able to help save someone else’s dream. Especially since he couldn’t seem to save his own.

   But that didn’t stop her from needing him.

   Taking her briefcase into the home office she shared with Marcus, she shrugged out of her suit jacket and rubbed the stiff muscles along the back of her neck. Sometimes she wondered if she was meant to be a doctor. She’d never been able to develop that impenetrable shell they’d talked about in medical school.

   “Rough day?”

   At the sound of Marcus’s voice she whirled around, filled with the instant warmth that still came to her every time he walked into a room.

   “Yeah.” She didn’t elaborate as she once might have, rubbing at her neck again.

   He looked relaxed, wearing slacks and a polo shirt, instead of one of the suits he always wore to work. She wondered how long he’d been home and was instantly disappointed that she hadn’t been here with him. The gorgeous Connecticut June weather was perfect for evenings sitting out under the stars, sharing a drink. Or more.

   His eyes were loving, sympathetic, as he moved closer to her.

   “You want to tell me about it?” He pushed her hands aside and began massaging her tense muscles with the expertise born of experience.

   Lisa bowed her head, giving him easier access to her neck. “A patient of mine, an eleven-year-old boy, broke his back today playing baseball. He was sliding into home and the catcher fell on top of him.”

   “God, the poor kid.” Marcus’s hands continued to work their magic.

   “He’d just had an offer from a city team. He’s good, Marcus. And he’s inner city. Baseball was his one shot out.”

   “He’s young, Lis. He’s got time to mend.” Marcus pulled her fully into his arms and Lisa soaked up his strength, nestling her head into her usual place on his shoulder.

   “He’s paralyzed. The damage may be permanent.” As she said the words out loud, words she hadn’t yet had the heart to tell Willie or his mother, the dam inside her broke and she started to sob, not only for the stalwart little boy lying so still across town, but for the man who held her, for the permanent damage that long-ago fever had done to him, for the damage it was still doing to them.

   Marcus held her until her emotion was spent. And then he started to kiss her, long, slow, tender kisses. The healing kind. Offering her forgetfulness in the one way that always worked. She clung to him desperately, and when they moved upstairs to their bedroom, arms wrapped around each other, she gave him all the love within her, all the passion only he could raise. He was her husband, her lover, her best friend. And just as she was going to do everything in her power to help Willie Adams, including footing his bills anonymously if she had to, she was going to do whatever it took to fix the problems between her and Marcus.

   Her life’s work was saving lives, but her life was nothing if she didn’t have her soul mate beside her, sharing it with her.

   

   WITH HER NEWFOUND RESOLVE still burning inside, Lisa approached her tenth wedding anniversary the following week with optimism. She checked in on Willie that morning, satisfied that he’d come through his second surgery better than they’d hoped, and then took the rest of the day off. She had some primping to do.

   Stopping at the mall on the way home, she wandered through a couple of exclusive lingerie shops until she found just what she was looking for—a black pure-silk teddy. Marcus was a sucker for silk.

   “Will there be anything else, Mrs. Cartwright?” the saleswoman asked when Lisa handed over her charge card.

   “Is that lavender bubble bath?” Lisa gestured toward the display beside the counter.

   “Yes, ma’am. It’s not too overpowering, though, and it’s full of moisturizers. I use it myself. Would you like to try some?”

   “Sure, why not?” Lisa said, feeling a little decadent. These days she rarely had time for more than a quick shower, let alone a leisurely bubble bath, but her husband had always liked the scent of lavender. And she’d bet he could think of a few interesting things to do in a lavender-scented tub. He was wonderfully inventive.

   She hurried home and stayed there only long enough to pack a few things for herself and a bag for Marcus. Telling Hannah not to bother with dinner, she jumped back in her car and headed out of New Haven. She knew exactly where she was going. Haven’s Cove, the beautiful private resort on the coast between New Haven and Milford. It was the perfect place for her and Marcus to celebrate. If the memories they’d find there didn’t remind them of all that they were to each other, nothing would.

   She spent half an hour or more reacquainting herself with the grounds, glad to see that little had changed since the last time she’d been there, and then whiled away the afternoon in the salon, treating herself to the works. She was going to bring the hungry look back into Marcus’s eyes.

   At five o’clock on the nose, she sent a telegram to Marcus: MEET ME AT HAVEN’S COVE. I NEED LOVIN’. And then she waited.

   Some of the best hours in Lisa’s life had been in the cabanas at Haven’s Cove. It was where Marcus had first told her he loved her. Where, months after they’d become lovers, she’d finally seen the knowledge of her love for him dawn in his eyes. Where he’d asked her to marry him.

   And now she hoped he still believed in them enough to join her.

   

   MARCUS WAS BEAT when he arrived back at his office. He’d just come from an afternoon meeting that had lasted twice as long as it should have. The Rhode Island department-store venture had to be pulled into the nineties if it was going to have any hope of surviving, and George Blake, the old gentleman who sat at the helm of the family business, while seemingly agreeable to every suggestion Marcus and his team made, was having a hard time letting go of the only way of life he’d ever known.

   Marcus didn’t have to take the time to consider the man’s feelings. Not legally. But he couldn’t just take over a man’s life’s work and leave him with nothing. He wanted Blake to understand the changes, to be able to continue to sit at the helm of his company after Marcus had him set up and running again. So he was taking the time to teach the man what it had taken himself four years at Yale, and three times as many in business, to learn. Or at least an abridged version thereof.

   He’d realized halfway through the meeting what day it was. He’d been putting in so many long hours for Cartwright Enterprises the past couple of weeks that the days had all started rolling into one. Not that he minded. To the contrary. The only time he didn’t have doubts about himself these days was when he was working.

   But he still didn’t know where the first half of the month had gone. Someone had mentioned a golf date when they’d taken a break for lunch, and it had suddenly dawned on Marcus that it was the middle of June. The sixteenth to be exact. His anniversary.

   Or maybe it hadn’t suddenly dawned on him. Maybe he’d been unconsciously trying to forget. He wasn’t sure there was much to celebrate. Not for Lisa, anyway. Not anymore.

   He’d had coffee with his wife early that morning and she’d read the paper just like every other morning, not giving any indication that she’d remembered what day it was. She sure as hell hadn’t wished him happy anniversary as she had all the other years since they’d been married. And when he’d tried to call her at lunchtime, he’d been told she wasn’t expected in her office at all that day. Which meant she was either out exhausting herself in the free clinic or volunteering her time at the hospital. Anything to stay away from home. Not that he blamed her. The emptiness there mocked him, too.

   “A telegram came for you about an hour ago, and your other mail is there, too,” Marge, his secretary of thirteen years, said as he let himself into his suite of offices on the top floor of Cartwright Tower in downtown New Haven. She’d been with him since his sophomore year at Yale, when he’d begun working his way up the ranks at Cartwright Enterprises. She’d been working for him the year he’d met Lisa; had been at his wedding, too. “There’s also a stack of letters for you to sign, and Paul Silas wants you to give him a call.”

   “Thanks, Marge. Give yourself double overtime this week and go home. You don’t owe me all these late nights.”

   “It’s okay, Marcus. The twins left a couple of weeks ago to take summer jobs at the University of Connecticut—they’re getting ready for their freshman year—and the house is so quiet it’s depressing. I’d just as soon be here as home.”

   “Where’s James?” Marcus asked.

   “He’s in Florida for a month, overseeing the construction of a new shopping complex outside Orlando. I almost wish he hadn’t been promoted to project manager.”

   Marcus smiled at his middle-aged secretary’s uncharacteristic grumbling. “You don’t mean that, Marge. You’d have to give back that boat he bought you last summer.”

   Marge grinned. “You’re right. I don’t mean it. But I’m telling you, Marcus, for once I think you and Lisa have the right idea.”

   “About what?”

   “About not having children. It hurts bringing them into this world, they take years off your life with all the worry they cause, and then they just up and leave home, not caring that they’re breaking your heart as they go.”

   “And if you could, would you trade away any of the past eighteen years with them, Marge?” he asked softly.

   She smiled, her pretty features lighting up. “Of course not. Don’t mind me. I guess. I’ll go home and bake some cookies. I promised the boys I’d send them some before the weekend.”

   “So why not take tomorrow off and deliver them yourself? Storrs is only an hour away, and you’ll feel a lot better once you’ve checked up on them.”

   “Am I that obvious?”

   “Maybe I just know you better than most,” Marcus said, envying her sons. He wasn’t even sure his folks had known he was gone when he left the family home for a dorm room at Yale.

   “But what about the Rhode Island group?” Marge asked, frowning. “Aren’t you all meeting here tomorrow?”

   Marcus shook his head. “We postponed it until after the weekend. George wants a couple of more days to study the manuals for the computer system we’re installing at Blake’s. So take the day off.”

   “Yes, sir!” She was grinning from ear to ear as she tidied up her desk and gathered her purse.

   Listening to her humming, Marcus headed on into his office and the tasks waiting there for him. Maybe the telegram was something urgent. Anything to take him away from New Haven and the empty house he knew he’d find if he went home. Of course, with all the time he’d been spending on the Blake venture, he had enough pressing work on his desk to keep him busy well past midnight. With that comforting thought, he opened the telegram.

   MEET ME AT HAVEN’S COVE. I NEED LOVIN’.

   Marcus stared at it, hardly daring to believe the words. But there they were, all neat caps, teasing him with long ago memories. Good memories.

   He read it again. MEET ME AT HAVEN’S COVE. I NEED LOVIN’. What full-blooded man could turn down an invitation like that?

   Especially when the woman issuing it was Lisa?

   The love of his life.

   And when the man was feeling such incredible relief that the woman wanted to celebrate their anniversary, after all. He broke every speed limit in Connecticut as his Ferrari ate up the miles to Haven’s Cove.

   

   THE CABANA SMELLED of Lisa. It amazed him that after ten years of marriage, he could be aroused merely by the scent of his wife.

   “Lis?” he asked, letting the door close behind him. He was eager to see what she had planned for them, prepared to change her mind if it wasn’t bed in the next ten minutes.

   “In here,” she called from the direction of the bathroom.

   Marcus shed his jacket as he headed across the room, the splashing of water luring him on. It sounded as if she was in the bath. As he recalled, the bathtubs at Haven’s Cove were huge. He’d played out a few fantasies in one of them on their honeymoon.

   They’d been so filled with dreams back then. Dreams that had turned to ashes. He stopped outside the door. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

   “Marcus, come on. The water’s wonderful,” Lisa called, her voice husky with desire. It was all the invitation Marcus needed. All the invitation he’d ever needed. His wife to want him.

   Lavender. The air was filled with lavender. Lisa was sitting in the enormous porcelain tub surrounded by bubbles, a piece of skimpy black silk hanging haphazardly from the towel rack above her. Her dark hair was pinned up on her head, with a few wispy tendrils, damp on the ends, falling down around her face and shoulders. The glistening skin of the tops of her breasts was just visible above the white foam.

   She’d never looked so desirable in her life. Not even the first time he’d scen her naked, when her young ripe body had been much more beautiful than he’d even imagined.

   “Hi,” he murmured, staring at her.

   Her big brown eyes were sultry-looking, telling him she was his to command, to do with her as he willed. There was no sadness in them now. No disappointment lurking in their depths.

   Marcus stepped out of his shoes and dropped the rest of his clothes in a pile at his feet in one quick move. Lisa’s eyes widened, and for the first time in a long time, Marcus was proud of his body. Sexually, he knew no other man could please her more than he did. Because no man could love her more.

   “I hope you didn’t call for room service,” he said, lowering himself, facing her, into the warm water.

   She shook her head, her eyes filled with a hunger room service couldn’t assuage. “I waited for you.”

   “Good.” He slid his hands up her calves to thighs that were still as smooth as the day he’d married her, holding her gaze with his own. “Your skin’s like satin.”

   She smiled slowly, the smile that had brought him to his knees the first time he’d seen it and kept him there ever since. For a woman who had come to him almost innocent, she had the art of seduction down to amazing perfection.

   Skimming his hands over the sides of her hips, he found her waist and almost circled it with his big hands. Every time he felt her slenderness, her femininity, he was filled again with a need to cherish her, to protect her from whatever hurts life might throw her way.

   He’d just never counted on being one of those hurts.

   His fingers continued their exploration, up her rib cage to her breasts. He cupped their exquisite softness, knowing the feel of them, and yet finding their familiarity wildly exciting. They were his. She was his. Right here. Right now.

   “You’re as beautiful now as you were the first time,” he said.

   She reached for his swollen penis and caressed it. She chuckled softly, a sweet husky sound. “You remember that first time? I wanted you so badly it was driving me crazy, but I was scared to death you’d think I was easy.”

   Marcus smiled, too, remembering. She’d been such a contradiction, seducing him and crossing her knees at the same time. “All I could think about was getting between those gorgeous legs of yours. You’d been tempting me all summer, running around in shorts so short they revealed more than they concealed.”

   “They did not!” she said, pretending to take offense.

   “Oh, yes, you were a little tease,” he returned, and then he immediately availed himself of the treasures the shorts had promised that long-ago summer.

   Her hand had fallen away from his penis, and now she reached for him again. “Oh, Marcus, please…”

   He gently pushed her hand away, completely caught up in his memories of the past, the invincible feeling he’d had the day he’d married her. “Not yet, my love.”

   “But…” She frowned up at him as he placed his finger against her lips.

   “Let me.” He spent the next hour, in the bath and then out on the bed, showing her how much he adored her.

   Her eyes were slumberous with passion, with a peace he hadn’t seen in months, when he finally entered her and found his own bit of paradise.

   “I love you,” she whispered in the aftermath, her body still clinging to his. Her words warmed his heart as thoroughly as she warmed his body.

   “I love you, too,” he said. He looked at her and saw she was smiling. And at that moment, Marcus had all he wanted. “Happy anniversary.” They fell asleep, locked in each other’s arms.

   

   MARCUS STAYED IN BED with Lisa for most of the next twenty-four hours, loving her, laughing with her, debating with her about everything under the sun—except the life awaiting them outside the door of their cabana. They explored each other in ways they never had before, made love in ways that were achingly familiar and ordered whatever outside sustenance they needed from room service. He wanted to draw out their time at the cabana forever. To never let the honeymoon end. Because he was afraid of what came next.

   As long as they were in the cabana, he was everything Lisa wanted. It was only outside those doors that he failed her.

   “Can I ask you something?” Lisa said, looking up from the crossword puzzle she’d found in the morning paper that had been delivered along with their breakfast. She was dressed in his shirt from the day before, propped on a mountain of pillows in the middle of the bed.

   He set the business section of the same paper down on the table beside him. “Sure,” he said, but he wasn’t sure. The shadows were back in her eyes.

   “If you’d known ten years ago that we couldn’t have a family, would you still have married me?”

   “Does it make a difference?” He wished he was wearing more than the sweats Lisa had packed for him. He had a sudden urge to head back to the city.

   She shrugged, laying aside her puzzle. “I think it might.”

   “I suppose, if you’d known then what you do now, if you’d been content with that knowledge, then yes, I’d have asked you to marry me.”

   “Why?” Her beautiful brown gaze bore into him, telling him how badly she needed answers, allowing him no choice but to give her the truth.

   “Because even back then you were the best friend I’d ever had.” He moved over to the bed, taking her hands in his. “I’ve never been able to talk to another person the way I can talk to you, Lis. I’ve never cared as much about another person’s happiness as I do yours.”

   She smiled, but her eyes brimmed with tears. “Then where are we going wrong now?”

   “It’s not a perfect world, Lis. And you didn’t marry me at peace with the idea of never having a family.”

   “But I would have, Marcus. You have to believe that. I care the same about you as you do about me. You’re right, it’s not a perfect world, and our lives aren’t turning out to be the perfect fairy tale we envisioned, but we still have each other. Why can’t that be enough?”

   “Can you honestly tell me that you’re content facing the rest of your life childless?”

   Her gaze dropped to the covers across her knees. He had his answer. And so did she.

   But she was looking at him again when she finally spoke. “I can tell you this, Marcus. I can’t bear to face the rest of my life without my best friend.” She began to cry.

   Her tears broke his heart and he wiped them away with the pads of his thumbs. “Shh.”

   “I’m scared, Marcus. I’m so scared I’m losing you.”

   If truth be known, Marcus was more than a little afraid himself. “I’m right here, honey. And I love you more now than ever. We’ll get through this, Lis. Trust me.” Even as he said the words, he feared how empty they might prove to be. He loved her. More than life. But he was no longer sure he could make her happy.

   

   AT TEN THAT EVENING Lisa’s beeper sounded. One of her welfare patients had acute appendicitis, and Lisa had to rush back to town to perform an appendectomy.

   But she took the memory of the past twenty-four hours with her, along with a large dose of hope. The bond between her and Marcus was too strong to be ripped apart. Somehow they were going to find a way to be happy together again.

   She grabbed a couple of hours’ sleep on the couch in her office after the surgery and then started her morning rounds. But only after calling Marcus and telling him how much she loved him. He was on his way into work, as well, but said he’d be home early that evening.

   And he was. That evening, and several after that. But as the days passed, it was getting harder and harder for him to pretend he was happy there in that huge house. Its emptiness taunted him with what would never be. She knew it must, because it taunted her.

   “Let’s move,” she said one night almost two weeks after their anniversary. They were both in their home office, working at their respective mahogany desks on opposite sides of the room, but Lisa had a feeling Marcus wasn’t concentrating any better than she was.

   He looked up from the page of figures he’d been studying when she spoke. “Move? Move where?” he asked, frowning at her. “I’ve lived here all my life. Why would I want to move?”

   Lisa told herself not to be intimidated by that frown, nor by his logic. They had to do something.

   “That’s exactly why. You’ve lived here all your life. Maybe we need a change.”

   He set his pen down on top of the papers in front of him. “What kind of change?”

   “I saw this new development out on the edge of town today—you know where the old whaling museum used to be?” Lisa couldn’t look at him as she continued, feeling herself starting to sweat. “It’s called Terrace Estates and it’s a beautiful gated community. The condominiums are larger than most single-family homes, and they’re all set back from the street about a hundred feet, some more, with separate gated yards. There are three community sports complexes, a PGA golf course and even a couple of fine restaurants all within the community walls. And there’s twenty-four-hour security, too.”

   “I didn’t realize you had a problem with our security. Why didn’t you tell me you’re nervous here alone?”

   “I’m not!” Lisa said, afraid to tell her proud husband the real reason she’d gone to see the new community. And even more frightened by the fact that there were things she could no longer discuss with him.

   She and Marcus seemed to have made an unconscious agreement after they’d left Haven’s Cove two weeks before to stop talking about what ailed them. It was as if by ignoring the problem, they could pretend it didn’t exist. But it did exist, and Lisa feared that if they didn’t do something soon, she was going to lose Marcus.

   “What is it, Lis? I always thought you loved this place.”

   He sounded disappointed. “I do love this place. I always have. But Terrace Estates might suit us better.” She sneaked a peek at him. He was still frowning, obviously confused. “It’s an adult community, Marcus. I just thought we might be happier there.”

   He didn’t say anything. But the tightening of his jaw told her he now understood her motive. He sat silently at his desk, his fingers steepled in front of him, his chin so rigid it could have been carved from stone. Lisa longed for him to look at her, to give her some hint of what he was thinking, what he was feeling. Day by day, he was closing himself off to her. And day by day, her heart was breaking.

   “I’ll take a look at it.” She jumped when he finally spoke, his voice without inflection, and his eyes, when she met them, were just as empty.

   “Tomorrow?” she asked, desperate enough to keep pushing.

   “Fine. Set up a time.”

   They were the last words he said to her that night. Although he reached for her when he finally climbed into bed beside her sometime after midnight. And while she went willingly into his arms, she didn’t find the joy she’d found there two weeks before. And once again, when he reached his peak, his gaze was locked, not on her, but on the wall behind her head.

   “THE WALLS ALL HAVE double insulation to insure your privacy, in spite of the common wall between you and your neighbor. Of course, since we’re all adults here, we find we have little problem with noise…”

   The woman continued with her friendly sales pitch, but Marcus had a hard time concentrating on what she was saying. The four-bedroom unit she was showing them certainly appeared to live up to her praises, but for the life of him, Marcus couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to live there. The Cartwright mansion might be empty, it might be quiet, but at least there he could breathe. The moment he’d driven Lisa through the ornate gates of Terrace Estates, he’d felt like he was suffocating.

   They’d.been stopped by a security guard immediately. Their names were on the visitor list and the guard sent them on through, but if they lived there they’d have to show a pass to the security guard every time just to get to their own home. Their guests would have to do the same. It reminded Marcus of a prison.

   But if this was what Lisa wanted.

   He looked at his wife as she followed the Terrace Estates representative into a double walk-in closet. Lisa had come straight from work and was wearing the soft yellow suit he’d bought her last Christmas. The cropped jacket showed off her slim waist, and the short skirt complimented her long gorgeous legs, reminding him of the last time they’d been wrapped around him. She’d cradled him lovingly, but without ecstasy. He was losing her, slowly but surely.

   “Marcus! Look at this closet! It’s big enough to be another bedroom.” Lisa sounded almost as enthused as the Realtor. Didn’t the place seem as barren to her as it did to him? Had they really grown so far apart?

   “It is large,” Marcus replied, glancing inside. It seemed like a lot of wasted space to him. And it was along the wall the unit shared with the place next door. He couldn’t imagine listening to some stranger scraping hangers along the clothes bar every morning. Couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to.

   “Oh, and come see the bathroom!” Lisa called from the other side of the master suite.

   Marcus made the proper noises as she pointed out the sunken bathtub, the separate Jacuzzi and shower stall. Very nice, very modern, but he just didn’t see how any of this was going to help things. Their problems went a lot deeper than empty rooms. Lisa was only fooling herself if she didn’t see that.

   “What do you think?” Lisa whispered to him as he peeked into the ceramic-tiled shower stall.

   “We’ll buy it if you want it.” He’d never been good at telling her no.

   With her hand on his shoulder, she turned him to face her. “Do you want it?” she asked, her big brown eyes filled with love—and doubt. The Realtor had tactfully disappeared.

   “I want you to be happy.”

   Lisa’s eyes filled with tears. “I am happy, Marcus. As long as I’m with you,” she whispered.

   Looking down into her lovely face, Marcus could almost believe her. “Then let’s go home,” he said, putting his arm around her as he walked her out. Her hand slid around his waist, pulling him closer, and he tried to convince himself that she wasn’t ruing the day she’d fallen in love with him.

   “Disappointed?” he asked, glancing over at her as they left Terrace Estates behind them.

   She shook her head. “Relieved. I love our house. I’d have hated living there.”

   “But you’d have done it.”

   “Yes. But, oh, Marcus, it’s just…I miss you. I miss the time we used to spend together.” She stared out the windshield.

   They’d been together almost every evening for the past couple of weeks, but Marcus knew what she meant. They were together in body, but in the ways that mattered, they were more apart than ever. Since their anniversary, they’d been hiding from each other—thinking before they spoke, weighing every word to make certain they didn’t voice the thoughts that were tearing them up inside.

   “Let’s go to the club,” he said suddenly. “We haven’t gone dancing in months.” He needed to hold her. Just hold her.

   She turned, to him, her face alight. “What a good ideal I’d love to.”

   He grabbed her hand, holding it under his on the gearshift between them. “Dancing it is,” he said, and he turned the car along the road toward the country club. Disaster had been averted once more.

   But as he drove her home later that night, as he took her upstairs, undressed her and made slow intimate love to her, Marcus was stabbed again with the guilt that was corroding everything good and dear in his life. What right did he have to deprive her of the family she wanted, the family she’d always dreamed of having? What right did he have to deny that family the chance to thrive under her great store of love? What right did he have to keep it all for himself?

   None. No right at all. He simply wasn’t ready to face the alternative. To live his life without her beside him. He’d been taking care of Lisa since the first day he’d met her, when she’d been trying to carry too-big boxes into her sorority house the August before her sophomore year at Yale. He’d taken one look, relieved her of her burden and decided then and there that she needed watching over. By him. He’d been watching over her ever since, this gorgeous woman who was physically weaker than he and therefore in need of his protection. But he’d known almost from the first where the real strength in their relationship lay. Within her. He drew his strength from the love she gave him so freely. And, God help him, he wasn’t sure he could give that up.

   He held her long into the night, listening to her breathe softly beside him. But sleep eluded him. His own selfishness left too bitter a taste.

   LISA’S THIRTY-THIRD birthday fell on a Sunday in the middle of July, and for once she wasn’t on call. Marcus woke her with a kiss when the sun was peeking over the horizon. He set a warming tray laden with two covered plates, a single red rose and an envelope on the night table beside her.

   “Happy birthday, sweetheart,” he said, kissing her once more before he straightened.

   He was wearing nothing but a pair of cut-off sweats, and desire pooled in her belly as she ran her gaze up his long muscular thighs.

   She lifted the comforter and smiled at him. “Come back to bed, Marcus…”

   The omelets Marcus had made for them were still warm, if a little tough, by the time they got to them, but Lisa enjoyed every bite. Hannah provided enough deliciously cooked meals to get them through the week, but they cooked for each other on weekends. Lisa always enjoyed those meals the most.

   She and Marcus sat across from each other on the unmade bed, the warming tray a table between them. Or rather, she sat. He was sprawled on his side, propped up on an elbow, taking up the whole length of the bed, and still naked.

   “You’re beautiful, you know that?” he said, munching on her last piece of toast.

   “I’m glad you think so.”

   “I know so.” He motioned to the envelope still propped against the bud vase on the tray. “That’s for you.”

   Lisa reached for the envelope slowly, excited, but just a little afraid to see what was inside. Marcus wasn’t a card man. In all their years together, he’d only given her two. One on their first anniversary and one for Valentine’s Day. She still had them both.

   The intent way he was watching her as she slid the card from the envelope only increased her trepidation.

   The front was simple, an airbrushed picture of a sailboat. She opened the card.

   Every day of my life, I celebrate the day you were born. Love, Marcus. He’d written the words in his familiar scrawl. The rest of the card was blank.

   Tears filled Lisa’s eyes as she read the words again. She hadn’t realized how much she’d needed that reassurance.

   She looked across at her husband, smiling through her tears. “Thank you.”

   Removing the tray from the bed, he tumbled her onto her back and showed her the truth of his words.

   

   “HOW ABOUT WE MOVE this party to the shower? We have exactly half an hour before we have to be somewhere,” Marcus said almost an hour later.

   Lisa glanced at the clock. “Where could we possibly have to be at nine-thirty on a Sunday morning?”

   Marcus just grinned and headed across the room to her dresser, pulling out a pair of white shorts and a blue-and-white crop top. “You ask too many questions. Now get your pretty rear into the shower and then into these clothes.” He tossed them on the bed.

   Two minutes later she heard him singing in the shower. With one last sip of coffee, she went in to join him. In spite of her efforts to draw him out, Marcus remained closemouthed about where they were going as he hurried her out to his Ferrari. Lisa giggled, enthralled with this playful side to her husband. Marcus hadn’t been so lighthearted since before—

   No. I’m not going to think about that. Not today.

   “We’re heading toward the ocean. Are we going to Angelo’s?” she asked, naming her favorite Italian restaurant.

   Marcus shifted the Ferrari into fourth and grinned at her.

   “But, Marcus, we just ate breakfast.”

   He kept his gaze on the road, still grinning.

   She thought about Angelo’s succulent pasta. The bottomless basket of freshly made Italian bread. “I suppose we could walk on the docks awhile and work up an appetite.”

   If anything, his grin grew wider. The man was infuriating. Didn’t he understand that she didn’t want to spoil a perfectly wonderful meal by being too full to eat it?

   “You don’t want to walk on the docks?” she asked.

   “I didn’t say that.”

   “That’s the problem. You aren’t saying anything. Going to Angelo’s is a wonderful idea. I want to go. I’m just not hungry yet.”

   “Did I say anything about going to Angelo’s?”

   He’d stopped the car at the marina. And right in front of her, bobbing in the deep blue ocean, was a sleek beautiful sailboat with a huge red ribbon blowing from the masthead. But the name, written in large gold print across the stern, was what finally reached her. Sara.

   The name she’d chosen for their firstborn, in memory of her little sister.

   “She’s ours?” she asked, still staring at the boat. She’d always wanted to learn to sail. And Marcus had always promised to teach her. But somehow they’d never found the time.

   “Happy birthday, Lis.”

   Excitement bubbled up inside her. Excitement and hope for the future. Their future. This was something they could do—together.

   “Are we going to sail her today?”

   “Unless you’d rather go straight to Angelo’s,” Marcus said, his eyes twinkling.

   Lisa punched him in the arm, then threw her arms around his neck, kissing him full on the mouth. “Thank you, Marcus.”

   “You like her?” he asked, and she heard the hesitation in his voice. There it was again, his questioning his ability to please her. She just didn’t know how to convince him that he still made her happier than any other person on earth. That it was something he did just by loving her. She cursed his parents for teaching him that he had to earn affection, for showing him that if he was ever cause for disappointment, he’d lose that affection. For convincing him that he was responsible for everything—even those things beyond his control. For making him doubt that he was worthy of his wife’s love.

   Lisa looked at the Sara again, the shiny white bow trimmed with royal blue. “It’s perfect,” she said, giving him another hug. She’d just have to keep showing him until he believed again.

   “In that case, Dr. Cartwright, let me teach you how to sail.”

   They didn’t go far, they didn’t go fast, and at times, Lisa was more of a hindrance than a help, but she loved every minute of it. The boat was just the right size for a two-man crew, and Lisa was delighted when she discovered the cabin below, complete with a tiny kitchen, an even tinier bathroom and a queen-size bunk.

   “We’ll christen it soon,” Marcus called down from the deck where he was busy maneuvering them toward Long Island Sound. Lisa smiled. He’d read her mind—as he often did.

   She was exhausted but happy when they finally docked the boat in the slip just before sundown. She couldn’t remember a day she’d enjoyed more. The Connecticut shoreline beckoned them, the lush green banks blending into the vivid blue sky as if rendered on canvas by a painter.

   Lisa’s skin was a little tender from so much time in the sun, her cheeks and hair were filled with salty ocean spray, her clothes were damp and wrinkled, and she felt great. She watched as Marcus went forward and secured the Sara to the dock. The wind had blown his hair into casual disarray, his polo shirt had come untucked from shorts that were no longer white, and his skin had a healthy golden glow. A secret little thrill washed through her as she watched him. He was gorgeous—all man—and he was hers.

   A pretty young woman standing with a baby on her hip on the deck of the boat across the dock from the Sara smiled and waved when she saw Lisa on the deck. Lisa waved back just as a toddler came running up and clutched the woman’s leg, saying something Lisa couldn’t hear.

   With a shrug and another little wave, the woman took the child’s hand and led him away. Probably to the bathroom, Lisa thought. She wondered if the woman knew how incredibly lucky she was.

   And she was so young. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-two or -three. A whole decade younger than Lisa. And she already had two children. Lisa blinked back the tears that sprang to her eyes, quickly wiping away the couple that spilled over, cursing herself for her weakness. She lived a blessed life, with a man she adored. It was enough.

   “Let’s get this thing bedded down,” Marcus said, his voice clipped. He’d come up behind her.

   Lisa swung around, stricken. Marcus looked from her tear-filled eyes to the other boat, where the woman and her children had been standing only seconds before, and then turned away. His shoulders were as stiff as his Puritan ancestors’. Lisa knew he’d seen the whole thing.

   Cursing herself again, Lisa ran her hand along his back. “Marcus—”

   “Leave it, Lis.”

   He didn’t look her way again as he instructed her on furling the sails.

   Lisa helped Marcus secure the Sara in the slip, eager to learn everything she could about caring for their new boat, but much of the glow had gone from her day. Marcus was beating himself up again, and this time it was her fault. Suddenly thirty-three felt ancient.

   A MONTH LATER Marcus gave Lisa another surprise, though he wasn’t there to share it with her. She went in to see little Willie Adams again, the eleven-yearold ball player with the broken back. She’d talked to Marcus about the boy weeks before, and he’d agreed that they would finance the boy’s treatment, but so far, Willie’s physical-therapy sessions had been a complete waste of time. She’d been particularly worried because the boy’s lack of progress stemmed more from his defeated attitude than it did from his injury.

   But when she entered his room at the hospital that morning, he was wearing a baseball glove and tossing a ball between it and his free hand, in spite of the cast that kept most of his torso immobilized. His red hair was combed into place for the first time since she’d admitted him, and he was grinning from ear to ear.

   “How you doing today, Willie?” Lisa asked, taking the chart from the end of his bed to see what could have brought about such a miracle. Had the boy regained some more feeling in his legs? And if so, why hadn’t she been called? She’d left instructions to be informed the minute there was any change.

   “Hi, Doc. Watch,” Willie said. He shoved the covers down past his toes, and slowly began to rotate his right foot. And then, a bit more quickly, his left.

   Lisa watched, her heart thumping. Finally. Now he had hope.

   “That’s great, Willie!” she said, as the boy started on his right foot again. “How does it feel?” She. ran her hand over the boy’s leg.

   Willie shrugged, his freckled face breaking into an embarrassed grin. “I guess I can feel it a little better,” he said. “It kinda hurts.”

   Lisa helped him settle the covers back over his partially paralyzed limbs. “Well, don’t overdo it, buster,” she said. A week ago she’d been begging him to try to sit up.

   “But I gotta work hard, Doc. Danny Johnson says that if I’m better by next summer, I can come to his Junior League training camp.”

   “Danny Johnson?” Lisa asked, suddenly understanding—and falling in love with her husband all over again.

   “He’s a pitcher for the Yankees, Doc, the best, and he runs a camp for promising teenage baseball players every summer.”

   He’d also gone to college with Marcus. “Teenage players?” Lisa smiled at the boy. “You won’t be thirteen until the summer after next.”

   Willie grinned. “I know. Ain’t it great? I’ll be the youngest guy there, but Mr. Johnson talked to my coach and he says I’m ready.”

   Lisa replaced the chart at the end of Willie’s bed. “Then we’ll just have to make sure you’re better by next summer, huh?” That gave them a year. And as there was no longer any sign of permanent damage to Willie’s spine, she figured they could just about make it.

   Lisa tried to wait up to thank Marcus that night, but by midnight, she knew she was going to have to go to bed without him. Again. She was on call starting at six the next morning, and her young patients deserved to have her well rested. It wasn’t their fault that her husband would rather be in meetings with strangers than at home with her. In the month since her birthday, he’d hardly been home. And he hadn’t touched her at all.

   

   “SOMETHING TELLS ME this is more than just a friendly visit,” Beth Montague said when Lisa took a chair in Beth’s office late the next afternoon. The office was light, airy, with a white carpet and a lot of blond wood. And comfortably cool, despite the August heat.

   “I’m losing him, Beth.”

   Beth was silent for a moment, her gaze darting toward the framed picture on the corner of her desk. Lisa knew it was a picture of John, Beth’s late husband, and that her friend could fully understand the pain of losing the man you loved. “Have you tried talking to him?” Beth finally asked, her eyes unusually somber.

   Lisa shook her head. She’d been reading a pamphlet about artificial insemination when he’d come in late one night a little over a week ago, and the frozen look on his face had been haunting her ever since. “It’s a little difficult to talk to someone who’s never around.” Her throat thickened with tears. For weeks he crawled into bed at night long after she was asleep and was up before she awoke.

   “John and I couldn’t have children, either. Did I ever tell you that?”

   Lisa’s head shot up. “No! I thought you’d just been waiting until the clinic was up and running.”

   Beth shook her head, glancing again at the picture of her husband. “We were genetically incompatible. I miscarried a couple of times after we were first married, but neither one of us expected to hear the doctor tell us that I’d probably never carry a baby to term, and that if I did, chances were it would suffer severe defects.”

   Lisa was shocked. She’d never guessed. Beth and John had always been so cheerful, so obviously happy with their life together. “How did you get over it?” she asked.

   Beth shrugged. “It was hard at first, of course. But we’d both come from big families, and neither one of us had ever had a burning need to produce a child. Quite the opposite, as a matter of fact. We appreciated the peace we found alone together. But still, having a family was the natural course of things, so we’d decided to do it while we were still young—that way we’d have a lot of golden years afterward. Naturally, when we were first told we couldn’t have children, we suddenly wanted them a lot. But once we got used to the idea of a whole lifetime of golden years, it wasn’t so bad. We had more time for each other than our friends did—their time was taken up with feedings and diapering and pacing the floor with crying infants. As it turned out, I’m thankful for every moment of that time.”

   Lisa gaped at her friend. “You amaze me, you know that? You’ve been through so much, but you’re one of the most cheerful and optimistic people I know.”

   “Well, look at my life.” Beth waved a hand at the room around her, the walls adorned with plaques, commendations and many many baby photos—Beth’s success stories. “How can I not be happy? I have a job I love, friends enough to chase away the loneliness, enough money to do what I want to do—and I have memories of a love most people are never lucky enough to find. But then, you know all about that once-in-a-lifetime love. You and Marcus are in with the lucky few.”

   Lisa nodded.

   “And that’s why I can’t just sit back and watch you two fall apart.”

   “I can’t watch it, either, Beth. Which is why I’m here.” Lisa smoothed a wrinkle from the skirt of her pale blue suit. “I’ve got to do something. A lot of Marcus’s problem is that he knows how badly I wanted to have a child, and he thinks his inability to give me. one is cheating me out of my life’s dream. I’m sure that’s why he won’t consider adoption. He seems to think that would be shortchanging me, raising another woman’s child when I’m perfectly capable of giving birth to my own.”

   “I guess that makes some sort of sense,” Beth said. She leaned her forearms against the edge of her desk and folded her hands in front of her ample chest, just as she had the day she’d told them that Marcus was sterile.

   “He’s against artificial insemination, too, of course, but you know Marcus,” Lisa rushed on. “He’d make a wonderful father. And with insemination he wouldn’t have to feel guilty anymore. He wouldn’t have to feel like I’ve been cheated.”

   Beth spread her hands wide. “That’s what I’ve been telling you all along, Lis. I’ve thought artificial insemination was your answer from the first, but it’s not me you have to convince.”

   Lisa sat back hard in her chair. “I know. So how do I convince my husband that it’s a good thing to impregnate myself with another man’s seed?”

   “You’re a doctor, Lis. You know that part of it is little more than a medical procedure, like getting someone else’s blood. We have blood banks. We have sperm banks. Legally, and every other way that really counts, the baby would belong to Marcus.”

   Lisa knew that. She crossed one leg over the other. “How is the donor selection actually made?”

   Beth pulled what looked like a homemade catalog from a pile in front of her and tossed it to the outside edge of her desk, just within Lisa’s reach. “You look through there and you pick one.”

   Lisa took the catalog, opening it slowly. She scanned the first couple of entries. “These listings are incredibly thorough,” she said, glancing up at Beth. She’d expected to see physical characteristics, medical history, maybe even an IQ, but the records also contained notations of schooling, of likes and dislikes, habits.

   “But remember, they only represent the final product of one particular genetic toss-up, mixed with an unknown environmental upbringing. There are no guarantees.”

   “No, of course not” Lisa continued reading. If only she could find one with eyes of Marcus’s particular shade of blue, with his rich brown hair and quick mind.

   “The one on page forty-nine is probably what you’re looking for. If I didn’t know better, I’d say Marcus was the donor.”

   Lisa shut the book. “I’m not really in the market.”

   Beth rocked back in her chair. “Fine. But if you ever decide you are, page forty-nine’s there.”

   Shaking her head, Lisa tried to make herself think clearly, to not let herself hope for—or want—something she couldn’t have. “Page forty-nine. It’s really that impersonal, is it?”

   “Yep.”

   “But what about the donors? Couldn’t one come back looking for his child?”

   Beth shook her head. “Not here they can’t. In the first place, a donor must sign a waiver before the process is ever begun. And then, as soon as all medical tests are administered and the man is cleared for donation, all records are destroyed.”

   “Destroyed? They aren’t locked in some cabinet somewhere or sent out into cyberspace?”

   “We destroy them, as is the common practice at most fertility clinics.”

   Lisa folded her hands, rubbing her thumbs together. Back and forth. Back and forth. “So what happens after a donor is chosen?” She was just curious. It was fascinating what medical science could do.

   “The mother has a physical, blood tests for HIV, rubella and so on.”

   “I just had my yearly last week, and I’ve been having that blood work done each year since Marcus and I first started trying to have a family,” Lisa said.

   Not that it mattered. She couldn’t seriously consider any of this. Not without Marcus’s support. She folded her arms across her chest.

   Beth smiled. “I thought you weren’t in the market.”

   “I’m not.” She couldn’t be.

   “Well, if you were, you’d need to get out your ovulation kit again, back to the old basil thermometer every day. And as soon as you begin ovulating, you have an ultrasound done and a blood test to show your hormone level. Then come to see me within the next twelve to thirty-six hours. But remember to give me at least an hour to thaw page forty-nine.” Beth grinned.

   “That’s really all there is to it?”

   “For you it is. The important forms have already been signed.”

   “They can’t be.” She knew Marcus had to sign a waiver, allowing her to have the procedure done. Because, legally, married to her, the baby would be his responsibility, too.

   Beth pulled a thick folder from a cabinet behind her. “Remember that first time you two came in here—professionally, that is?”

   Lisa remembered back to the day she and Marcus had first come in for testing. They’d been so full of hope. Beth had asked them if they were willing to do whatever it took to have a baby. They’d both replied with an emphatic yes. And she’d given them each a stack of papers to take home, red tape that could slow down the process if they had to stop and sign for each procedure. They’d signed them all that night and Lisa had returned them the next day.

   “There wasn’t anything about…”

   “Yes, there was. I have his signed waiver right here.” Beth pulled a sheet of paper from the file.

   Frowning, Lisa leaned forward. It was Marcus’s signature all right. “But he wouldn’t have…”

   Lisa thought back to that night. Marcus had gone into the office the minute they’d arrived home. He’d come back out with the completed stack of papers in record time and tossed it on the hall table, as if it wasn’t the least bit important. He’d just wanted to be done with it, so sure that they weren’t going to need anything but the basic tests to set their minds at ease, certain they’d conceive as soon as they quit trying so hard. He hadn’t read the papers.

   “It’s notarized,” was all she could think of to say, still staring at the form. The other information had been typed in. Marcus had simply scrawled his signature across the bottom.

   Beth was nodding. “I had it done here, along with a stack of other things. At the time, I really didn’t think we were going to need it.”

   Lisa remembered Beth saying much the same thing that first day. She’d thought that having the tests would simply help them relax and let nature take its course. It was probably the only thing Marcus had heard that whole afternoon. The only thing he’d wanted to hear. Which was another reason it had hit him so hard when they’d finally learned the truth. Until that point he hadn’t even allowed the possibility of sterility to enter his mind.

   “He didn’t read what he was signing,” Lisa finally said.

   “Were you with him?”

   “No.” She’d been in the bathroom, drying tears she didn’t want him to see. Because she’d had a feeling, even if he hadn’t, that they had a problem. She was a doctor, and her instincts had been crying out for months. Oftentimes a couple couldn’t conceive while trying too hard because they made love strictly to have babies. She and Marcus had always made love because they couldn’t stop themselves.

   “Then you don’t know that he didn’t read it, Lis. It’s possible that he read what he was signing and, dismissing it as an impossibility, signed it, anyway, just to avoid further discussion. Marcus has always thought he could control the world, or at least his part of it.”

   Lisa smiled sadly. “He’s always been able to until now.”

   Beth’s eyes softened. “So what’s it going to be, Lis? Are you going to pull out that ovulation kit?”

   Lisa looked at the paper again. At Marcus’s scrawl across the bottom. Unable to speak through her tears, she shook her head.

   OLIVER WEBSTER was worried. His thirty years as a professor of law at Yale had in no way prepared him to deal with the problems facing his daughter’s marriage. He had no idea how to help Lisa and Marcus, what to even suggest to them. But he knew someone who might have more answers than he did. Lisa’s friend, Beth Montague. He had a hunch just talking with Beth would make him feel better. It usually did.

   He stopped by her office on his way home from his volunteer shift at the hospital. He’d been taking a stint every week since Barbara had died, having found during his wife’s prolonged illness how badly the hospital was in need of volunteers. Helping other people who were suffering as she had made him feel a little closer to Barbara. But lately he’d been looking in on Beth on a fairly regular basis, as well.

   Her office door was open and she was sitting behind her desk engrossed in a textbook that looked as big as his law tomes.

   He tapped lightly on the door. “Am I interrupting something?”

   “Oliver!” Her head shot up, her studious expression replaced with a welcoming grin. “I was wondering if you were going to stop by. How were things on the ward this afternoon?”

   It pleased him that she remembered his schedule. “Rosie Gardner’s back in. She’s developed an infection at her dialysis sight, but they’ve got it under control.” He shoved his hands into the pockets of the tweed jacket he wore even in the heat. “I, uh, wanted to talk to you about something. Do you mind if I sit down?”

   “Of course not. Have a seat.” She came around the desk and joined him. “What’s up?”

   “I’m more than a little concerned about Lisa and Marcus. The last time we had dinner together, all three of us, was two months ago. They’re both working themselves to death.”

   Beth grimaced, her round features serious. “I know.”

   “The thing is, I know what the loss of a child, or the loss of the ability to have a child, can do to a marriage.” It chilled him even to think about that time in his life.

   “I know you do.” Her eyes brimmed with sympathy.

   “Eighty percent of the marriages that go through it fail afterward, did you know that?”

   “I didn’t, but I’m not surprised. I also don’t think Lisa and Marcus are in that eighty percent.”

   Oliver smiled, feeling better already. “Somehow I didn’t think you would. And I remember John saying that once you’d made your mind up about something, everyone involved may just as well accept it as fact.”

   Though Beth’s husband had been several years his junior, he’d enjoyed his conversations with his younger colleague. It was through Oliver’s connection with John that Beth and Lisa had first met. During one of her mother’s bad spells, Lisa had accompanied Oliver to a university function where John and Beth were in attendance. Lisa had just started her residency at Thornton Memorial Hospital at the time, and Beth had immediately taken her under her wing.

   “So, are we going to have dinner or do you have to hurry off?” Beth asked. Her plump cheeks had a way of dimpling when she smiled that made him feel like smiling, too.

   “Dinner, most definitely,” Oliver replied, offering her his arm. He refused to dwell on the twinge of unease he felt as he escorted Beth out to his car. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the friendship he and Beth had developed over the past year. Neither of them was looking for passion; each respected that the other had already had that once-in-a-lifetime privilege. But neither had mentioned the friendship to Lisa, either. Oliver wasn’t sure how his daughter would feel about his befriending a woman almost young enough to be his daughter.

   Almost, but not quite, Oliver reminded himself as he sat across from Beth at their favorite Chinese restaurant. At fifty-three, he still had a lot of years ahead of him. And if dinner once a week with a woman who made him smile made those years happier ones, where was the harm in that?

   

   “I GOT ALL THE FIGURES you needed, Mr. Cartwright. A couple of the properties look promising for Cartwright warehouses. The rest I’d leave alone.”

   Marcus glanced up from the report he’d been studying to find his long-haired executive assistant at the door to his office. “Thanks, Ron. Leave them there on the table, will you please?” He returned his attention to his report.

   “Yes, sir.” Ron Campbell did as he asked and then hesitated by the door.

   Marcus looked up again. “Was there something else?”

   “Not really, sir. It’s just that, I hope you don’t mind my asking, but you and Mrs. Cartwright aren’t planning on moving, are you, sir? That property you had me check in Chicago is residential.”

   Marcus swore silently, tired to the bone. He should have done that investigating himself. He knew how thorough Ron was, too thorough to simply call for terms as Marcus had asked him to. Which was the reason Ron had reached such an elevated position within Cartwright Enterprises at the tender age of twenty-five, in spite of his ponytail.

   “We’re doing a lot more business in the Midwest. I thought it might be beneficial to have a home there,” he said. “Even the nicest hotels get old after a while.”

   Ron nodded and left, not looking completely satisfied, and Marcus couldn’t really blame him. He traveled to Chicago once, maybe twice, a year. Certainly not enough to warrant a home as nice as the one he’d had Ron check on. But Ron didn’t need to know that Marcus wanted the house so that he’d have a place to go when he gave Lisa her freedom. A man of action, he wasn’t sure he was going to be able to exist in their current stalemate much longer. More importantly, he didn’t think Lisa could, either.

   

   LISA COULDN’T SLEEP. She’d been restless ever since she’d stopped by Beth’s office earlier that day, but the restlessness solidified into guilt as soon as she climbed into bed and turned out the light. Rolling over to Marcus’s empty side of the bed, she flipped on his bedside lamp and flopped back down to hug his pillow to her breasts. She kept thinking about page forty-nine, and every time she caught her mind dwelling on that anonymous specimen, she felt as if she was being unfaithful to her husband.

   Where was Marcus, anyway? It was almost one o’clock in the morning. She needed his arms around her to chase away the uneasiness of the day, to surround her with his love and convince her they weren’t falling apart.

   Beth and John had overcome childlessness quite successfully, happily, even. Surely the love she and Marcus shared was every bit as strong. Still clutching Marcus’s pillow, she rolled over and looked around their room. Elegant to the core, it could have been showcased in House & Garden magazine, and probably had been when Marcus’s parents were still alive.

   But her gaze didn’t fall on the matching Queen Anne furnishings or the professionally decorated walls and floor. She glanced, instead, at the little gold jewelry box Marcus had bought for her at an antique fair on their honeymoon, at the Norman Rockwell original she’d surprised him with for his thirtieth birthday, at the numerous photos on her dresser and his. At the his and hers rocking chairs they’d laughingly picked out together when they’d gotten engaged. They’d planned to rock their babies in those chairs—and grow old in them together.

   But there weren’t any babies to rock. And Lisa wasn’t putting much stock in their growing old together, either. Not lately.

   The light was still on and Lisa was lying awake in their bed when Marcus finally came in, pulling off his tie, almost an hour later.

   “Hard night?” she asked softly.

   “This dragging George Blake into the nineties—I don’t know who it’s hurting more, him or me,” Marcus said with a self-derisive chuckle, sitting down to untie his shoes.

   “He’s still fighting you on things?” Marcus looked like he’d aged ten years in the past twelve months. There were new lines on his forehead and around his eyes.

   “Sometimes. But it’s even worse when he doesn’t. Today he was as docile as a lamb, and I hated to see it. The man built an empire from a single five-anddime store. He didn’t do that by sitting back and taking whatever comes. And every time I have to tell him that his way won’t work anymore, every time he nods and gives up without a fight, I feel like I’m killing part of a legend.”

   Lisa watched him unbutton his shirt. She loved Marcus for caring about an old man’s feelings, but she hated seeing him beat himself up over it. “He didn’t work his entire life to have the Blake’s department stores go bankrupt.”

   “You’re right, of course.” Marcus stepped out of his slacks and tossed them on the valet. “It’s just been a long day.”

   Padding naked to the bed, he clicked off the light and slid in beside her.

   “Thanks, Lis. I was beginning to feel like the big bad wolf.”

   “You’re a good man, you know that, Mr. Cartwright?” Lisa asked, taking him in her arms automatically, before she remembered that they weren’t doing that anymore. She tensed, afraid he would push her away.

   “I bet you say that to all the guys, don’t you?” he teased, reminiscent of the old days when he’d been completely confident in his ability to give her whatever she wanted. But tonight, as he leaned over to kiss her, there was no sign of the arrogance that usually accompanied the remark.

   It had been so long since Marcus had touched her that Lisa’s entire body responded to that first stroke of his lips. The blood surged in her veins. Her nerves sang in anticipation—and relief. She’d obviously misread the last month of abstinence. Marcus still wanted her, he’d just needed her to come to him. Another first. But one she could live with. Pushing the thoughts of the day from her mind, she gave herself up to the magic that only Marcus could bring her.

   This was all she needed. All either of them needed. They could make it through anything else when they shared a love this passionate.

   It took her a moment to realize that Marcus wasn’t sharing her passion. His body was ready, she could feel his rigid penis against her thigh, but he’d stopped kissing her and was pulling her gown down where it had ridden up over her hips.

   “What…” Her voice trailed off as he pulled away from her and lay back, his shoulders propped against the headboard.

   “I’m sorry,” he said.

   The words sounded so final.

   She sat up, facing him. “Marcus? What’s wrong?” Had something terrible happened that he hadn’t told her about? Something more than George Blake’s coming-of-age? She wanted to turn the light back on, to see his expression more clearly than the moonlight coming through the window allowed, but fear held her paralyzed.

   “We can’t go on this way, Lis.”

   She wasn’t ready. “What way? What are you talking about?”

   “Us. Our lives. Both of us working ourselves to death, neither of us happy.”

   Lisa had to touch him, to draw her strength from him, just as she always did when life looked as if it was going to be more than she could bear. “I love you,” she said, putting her hand on his thigh, soaking up his warmth.

   “And I love you.” His hand covered hers, his fingers wrapping around her knuckles. “But don’t you sometimes wonder what your life would be like with someone else? Honestly?”

   Lisa snatched her hand away, attacked by a vision of that lipstick on his shirt collar. Did he think his life would be better with someone else? That his need to fill his empty house with a passel of children would just vanish?

   “No,” she finally said slowly, firmly. “I’ve known since the moment we met that you were the only one for me.” There was no room for pride in the desperation she was feeling; maybe that would come later, but for now she wasn’t going to give up on all that they were together without a fight.

   “But back then, we thought I could give you everything,” he said. “And while I can still provide your creature comforts, we’ve got to face the fact that I’ll never be able to give you the one thing you want most to have.”

   Relief flooded through her; another woman wasn’t the problem. “You’re wrong, Marcus,” she said softly, rubbing her hand along his thigh again. “You are the one thing I want most to have. You always have been. That hasn’t changed. And it never will.”

   With a muffled oath Marcus stood up and pulled on a pair of sweatpants. “We can’t keep avoiding the issue here, Lisa. You can’t tell me you’re happy, that you’ve been happy these past months. I know you too well. And I can’t continue to get up at dawn every morning to avoid the sadness I know I’m going to see in your eyes.”

   Lisa sat frozen. Feeling nothing. “What are you suggesting?”

   He ran his fingers through his hair, his frustration spilling over into the room he paced. “I don’t know what to suggest, or I’d have done something long before now. It looks to me like we’ve tried everything there is to try, Lis. And it’s just not working. Maybe it’s time to face the fact that there’s nothing to do, nothing that will make this better for both of us. Hell, I didn’t want to get into this tonight” He strode over to the window, a lion caged.

   “Are you telling me you want a divorce?” she asked. She’d never felt so numb.

   “No! Yes. I don’t know, Lis.” He turned to look at her, his blue gaze piercing. “How do you know when it’s over?”

   Somehow she held his gaze without flinching. “I’m not sure. I never thought it would be.”

   “Every time I look at you, I know I’ve failed you,” he said, finally coming back to sit on the edge of the bed beside her.

   She cupped his face. “Oh, no, Marcus. Never. Never have you failed me. Not in any way that matters. What’s happened is not your fault.”

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