Rachel's Bundle of Joy
Rachel Stackham was certain she had to be the only six-months-pregnant woman in the state of Oregon who spent the majority of her non-working hours fantasizing about sex.
Why me? Rachel found herself wondering on a daily basis.
As a medical professional she knew what she needed to know about pregnancy and childbirth. And beyond being a nurse, as a mother-to-be, she’d made it her business to read all the best and most current books on the subject.
She knew very well what her top preoccupations should be at six months along and they were not sex. Uh-uh. Leading the list should be heartburn and swelling ankles—those and the bigger questions: Will my baby be healthy? And, in her case, How will I cope with single motherhood, a seriously bipolar mother of my own and my extremely satisfying but also demanding and emotionally draining career?
And yes, Rachel did know it was perfectly normal for a pregnant woman to still enjoy sex, even lots of sex. But if lots of sex is what any given pregnant woman wants, it’s helpful to have a man around to have sex with.
Rachel had no man. She planned to be a single mother in the truest sense of the word. Her baby’s father was donor #1067 at OCS—Oregon Cryogenic Services. She knew his blood type, his ethnic extraction, his height, weight and interests. And that was all she knew. It was all and it was plenty. She did not dream of finding out more, nor did she hope that some gorgeous, perfect hero of a guy would appear in her life out of nowhere and adore her on sight—puffy ankles, bulging belly and all.
Uh-uh. Rachel Stackham was a realist. She didn’t expect to be rescued by a man. She wasn’t sitting around waiting for some fabulous guy to fall crazy in love with her.
She would just like one wild night of jungle sex, please. Before she was too huge to manage it, before she got all wrapped up in juggling motherhood, family problems and her career and had neither the time nor the opportunity—not to mention the energy—for a glorious, mad night of sexual abandon.
But was she considering finding a way to act on this burning desire for a single, memorable, all-night, one-night stand?
Not a chance. The last—and only—time she went out and had a wild, monkey-sex night with a stranger, she discovered later that the stranger was her best friend’s fiancée. It was a disaster. Never, ever again was she going there. And seriously. How many men would go there with her in her condition anyway, even if she were out hunting them down?
So. What do you do when you want it bad and you’ve reconciled yourself to the fact that you’re not going to get it?
Maybe you fantasize.
Rachel did. A lot.
About Brad Pitt, shirtless. About Ben Affleck, buck-naked and giving her hungry looks…
But don’t get the wrong idea here. Rachel didn’t let herself get hot and bothered over just any handsome guy. No, no. She made a point of maintaining certain standards when it came to choosing imaginary partners for starring roles in her forbidden fantasies.
The rules went like this: Movie stars were okay. But no one in her “real life.” Not the muscular guy who lived down the street and mowed his tiny square of front lawn bare-chested, his baggy cargo shorts riding low on his lean, hard hips. And no one at Portland General—no handsome doctors, no hunky radiation techs. At the Cancer Care Center, she kept her mind firmly on what mattered.
And no innocent bystanders, either. Somehow, it seemed to her just one step beyond awful, that she might get caught staring dreamily at some good-looking guy whose only mistake was that he happened to wander into a sex-obsessed pregnant lady’s line of sight. Strangers were definitely out.
Or at least, they were until that April day at Becky & Huck’s…
It was a Friday, the first day of a three-day weekend for Rachel. When you’re in nursing, a three-day weekend is something to savor. A precious, uninterrupted span of time all to herself. Her plans for that Friday included running errands, a little shopping and then a movie…starring Brad or Ben, of course. In the evening, she would sink into a scented bath with a smile on her face and naughty fantasies in her head.
Rachel took care of her errands early and arrived at Portland’s biggest mall, Lloyd Center, at a little after ten. By noon, she’d bought herself a couple of new pregnant-lady outfits—on sale at Motherhood Maternity—and wandered through Gymboree, Gap Kids and the Children’s Place.
Becky & Huck’s was her last stop—before she took a break at the food court and made a decision about which movie to see. The store was brand-new and sold seriously upscale kids’ clothes. Out of her price range, really. But no harm in browsing.…
Beyond the store entrance, bright banners hung from the ceiling and the cheery décor was in pink, yellow and apple-green. The clerks were right there, asking if they could help her.
“Just looking…” She smiled her most beatific expectant-mother smile and headed for the banner that announced, Baby Girls: Birth to 3 Months.
The clothes were so darling. Infant Capri sets of organic eyelet cotton; ruffled creations accented in the softest, prettiest lace; tiny dresses with patchwork tops; a downy-soft baby cardigan embroidered with flowers and trimmed in bright ribbons…
And wasn’t there just something about baby clothes? Especially baby clothes like these, so sweet and unique and beautifully made. They were the kind of clothes a loving grandmother or doting aunt might create and they spoke to Rachel of hope—for the future in general and for her unborn child, specifically.
Okay, she was doing this solo with no man to lean on. And true, her mother was not going to be the kind of grandma who knits darling sweater sets and begs for a chance to baby-sit. The future didn’t look perfect by any means. But still, Rachel and her little one were going to do just fine.
Setting her Motherhood Maternity bag between her feet, she picked up one of the embroidered, beribboned sweaters. It was fluffy as a kitten’s belly, downy as a baby chick. She shook it out and held it high—and saw that a man was watching her.
He was right across the display stand from her, directly in her line of sight as she admired the tiny sweater—and he was gorgeous! A tender mouth, thick blond hair. He wore a lightweight cobalt-colored sweater that clung to his broad shoulders and made his blue eyes look deep enough to drown in.
Before she could remind herself that this was real life and he qualified as an innocent bystander—which made him not someone she ought to be drooling over—he winked at her.
That incredible guy winked at her. And she let herself smile at him.
At that point, she caught herself. She cleared her throat, dropped her gaze and—with slow, exacting care—refolded the sweater and laid it gently back in place on the display table.
Was he still looking at her?
Oh, of course not. She sternly applied herself to the task of admiring a pair of sea-green snap-on pajamas. Really, this was so silly. She must have imagined that wink. Or maybe he had something in his eye.
Since she was studiously looking down, she had a clear view of his pricey-looking, elegantly casual brushed-leather shoes. He hadn’t moved.
Well, so what? A man can buy baby clothes, can’t he? He was probably a new father, here to pick out something special for his darling baby girl. Yes. That had to be it: a very yummy loving dad.
“I think I need an expert.” The hunk—whose voice was as smoothly masculine as the rest of him—had spoken.
Surely not to her.
She dared to look up—and right into those waiting laser-blues. He smiled. It was the perfect fantasy-man smile: a sexy hitch at one corner of that achingly sensual mouth.
That did it. She was throwing all her principles to the wind. Innocent bystander or no, he’d get the leading role in her dreams tonight.
He said, “I think you’re it.”
What did that mean? Her pulse suddenly racing, she made a vague noise in her throat and slid a glance at his ring finger. Bare. And no telltale pale crescent where a ring should have been. So. Not a dad, then, after all? Or at least not a married dad.
“An expert?” she asked warily.
“That’s right. An expert. On baby clothes…”
The faster her heart beat, the slower her mind seemed to be working. It took her a moment to put it together. “Ah…” She brushed a hand over her rounded stomach as a self-conscious laugh escaped her. “Well, I’m not an expert, really. This is my first.”
“Your first…” He said it softly, as if the fact that she was having her first child was the most wondrous thing in the world. And it was, to Rachel. What she couldn’t figure out was why this heartbreaker-handsome stranger seemed to think so, too.
They stared into each other’s eyes, neither speaking. Bi-zarre. If she didn’t know better, she could almost start to think he was coming on to her…
“Congratulations,” he said at last.
“Uh, thanks. I’m…excited about it.”
“I’ll bet. So. Your opinion…” He had a tiny outfit in each hand. He held them up: a sweet yellow romper and the cutest pair of pink corduroy overalls appliquéd with butterflies. “Which one do you like the best?”
Rachel ordered her heart to slow down and her cheeks to stop flaming and set her mind on applying her supposed expertise. After a moment, she shrugged. “I’m not much help, I’m afraid. They’re both so cute. Either one would be just right.”
He glanced at the romper and then the overalls—and then at her. “Can’t choose, huh?”
“Nope. Better go with your instincts.”
“I will,” he said, still looking right at her. “I do.”
There. That. Definitely.
The man was coming on to her.
And so what? Get a grip, girl, she commanded herself. It’s called flirting and he’s clearly a master at it. He probably flirts with every woman he meets. “Well. Uh. And how old is your daughter?”
“No daughter. A niece. She’s two months old. The most beautiful, brilliant little girl in the universe.”
A niece. Not a dad, after all, but a doting uncle. And judging by that bare ring finger, an unmarried uncle...
“Mine’s a girl, too,” she heard herself saying. “The ultrasound was just last week. I watched her suck her thumb…” Rachel cut herself off. Really, was that more information than the poor man needed, or what?
Apparently not, because he said, “You’ve actually seen her?”
“Is she gorgeous?”
“Of course. And healthy, from all indications. She has all her fingers and toes. And she’s active.” She felt a tiny flutter of movement beneath her ribcage on the right side. She put her hand to the spot. “Very active…”
He shook his head, a musing look on that wonderful face. “Modern medicine. Amazing—and I’ll bet your husband is thrilled.”
She gulped. “No. No husband.”
There was another silence—distinctly dreamy—as they gazed at each other some more. And then it came to her: this guy was about to ask for her number.
No, she thought. Better not go there. A blue-eyed hunk like this one could break her heart without even breathing hard. And wasn’t it odd, him trying to pick up a pregnant lady? Men in real life never hit on a pregnant lady. And even if her stomach had been flat, she was not at her most alluring. Not by a long shot. She wore stretch jeans with a preggie-panel and a loose white cotton shirt. Her short mousy brown hair was scraped back with a headband. Her makeup? A smudge of lipstick and a few dabs of mascara. She just knew her nose was shiny…
Uh-uh. There was absolutely no logic to this fabulous-looking man putting a move on her.
She picked up her shopping bag and grabbed a tiny wool hat from the stack near her free hand. “You know. I love this hat.” She waved it at him.
“Cute.” He gave her a nod.
“And I just realized, I really have to go…”
He saluted her with the romper, looking friendly and relaxed—and totally unfazed by the fact that she was suddenly waving a baby bonnet at him and backing away. “Thanks,” he said easily. “For the advice.”
“Really. No problem…” Clutching the little hat in one hand and her shopping bag in the other, she made her escape by zipping around a floor-to-ceiling divider into the toddlers section.
As soon as she got away from him, she wished she’d stayed. What could it have hurt to have stayed and chatted with him for a few minutes more? What had he done wrong?
The answer, on both counts, was nothing.
It was being pregnant, she decided. Being obviously pregnant and him still seeming attracted. Since she’d started to show, men in general displayed less and less interest. Not that men in general had been beating down her door before she got pregnant. But at least they had, on occasion, looked twice.
Nowadays they looked three times: first at her face, then at her stomach—and then right past her.
Except for this guy. He was different.
Point for him, right?
And the truth was, she did have a shy streak, one she’d battled all her life. So that was part of it, too—why she’d hurried off like that.
Now, looking back, she could see that it was so not a big deal—having a friendly conversation with a handsome man she’d just met. If she had it to do over again, she’d have handled it differently. Been more relaxed, more natural…
As she wandered on up the Toddler aisle and back down, headed for the check-out counters, she promised herself, grinning a little at the unlikelihood, that next time some gorgeous hunk flirted with her, he was going to get better treatment.
A moment later, she realized her chance to keep her promise was upon her already. He was waiting in the check-out line. She stepped in behind him.
He turned, smiled—this time full-out, both sides of that sexy mouth lifting. “Hey.” He held up the romper and the overalls. “Decided to get them both.”
“Good idea.” She stuck the bonnet under her arm and held out her hand. “I’m Rachel. Rachel Stackham.”
“Bryce Armstrong.” His warm, strong fingers closed over hers. They shook.
She let go reluctantly as the clerk said, “Sir? May I help you?”
He handed over a credit card and his purchases and then he turned back to Rachel. They chatted about the weather—rainy—and the Trailblazers—headed for the finals this year, no doubt about it—as the clerk rang up first his sale and then hers.
It just seemed the most natural thing, to stroll on out into the mall together. They started toward Nordstrom for no particular reason that Rachel could think of—she certainly hadn’t planned to go there that day. She glanced at him beside her and knew she had to say goodbye—at the same time as she wished they could just stroll along side-by-side forever.
She was so focused on Bryce that she didn’t move out of the way fast enough when a woman loaded down with shopping bags came right at her.
“Whoa, careful…” Bryce took her arm to pull her out of the way before she got bopped by one of the bags. A thrill shivered through her at the contact and she beamed him a grateful smile as the woman paused to apologize.
“No harm done,” Rachel told her.
The woman lurched on, bags bouncing, and Rachel turned back to Bryce. They stared into each other’s eyes. Again. She could smell his aftershave. It was a green kind scent. Fresh. Subtle. She liked it.
Endless seconds passed before she realized she was leaning in close, gripping his strong arm as if it—and he—belonged to her. “Ahem. Well…” She extricated her arm from his and stepped back—gesturing rather wildly over her shoulder, toward the ice rink and the escalators at the center of the mall. “I seem to be going the wrong direction for some reason…”
“No problem. We’ll just turn around and go back.”
He shrugged then, looking rueful. “Back to work, huh?”
“Well,” she confessed. “It’s my day off, actually.”
“I’m a nurse. Oncology.”
“That would be Cancer care, right?”
She nodded and volunteered, “Radiation Oncology at Portland General. We have one of the best Cancer Care centers in the state…” Busy shoppers milled around them. Mall music and the tempting aromas from Starbuck’s drifted on the air. Maybe, instead of strolling the mall forever, they could just stand right here and chat until the end of time…
He said, “You love your work. I can see it in those big brown eyes.”
She smiled a little at his flattering tone, but when she spoke her smile had faded to a somber line. “It’s tough sometimes. I’m right there, while people are dealing with something that could—and too often does—take their life.”
“Sounds very rough.”
“Yeah. But there is a certain…reward, I guess, in helping make it better for people going through a hard time, as painful as it can be to watch some of them slip away.”
“You’re brave,” he said quietly.
“No. My patients. They’re the brave ones.” She shook herself. “And I have got to get going…”
He just stood there, looking scrumptious. “One more thing…” She knew what it would be. “I wonder…” He looked charmingly hesitant.
She couldn’t help prompting, “What?”
“Well, I was thinking, maybe coffee—latte, espresso, your choice. Sometime when you’re not so rushed…”
She felt warm all over. A good kind of warm. She dared to tease him, “Coffee and pregnant ladies don’t mix. Caffeine’s not good for the baby.”
He leaned a little closer, bringing with him another faint hint of that tempting aftershave. “Tea, then. Fruit juice. Whatever. I’m flexible when it comes to beverages.”
She looked down, innate shyness surging to the fore. “Oh…”
“So…” He waited until she dared to look up at him again. “Will you let me have your number?”
Oh, what was the harm, really? Not only was he perfect fodder for her fantasies, he was so easy to talk to. And she wanted to see him again. “Tell you what. Why don’t you give me your number?”
Frowning a little, he studied her face. “I don’t know. I think you have a shy side...”
She winced. “That obvious, huh?”
“Not obvious at all. It’s very…charming, to tell you the truth.”
She laughed, her cheeks warming. “Yeah, right.”
“No. Seriously. It is. But I’m afraid it just might keep you from picking up the phone and dialing my number. Or maybe you just don’t want to see me again—for whatever reason. If that’s what’s up here, I’d appreciate it if you went ahead and laid it on me right now.”
“No. No, really. I will call you.”
He gave her a sideways look, then agreed, “Fair enough.”
The business card he handed her was on thick gray vellum stock. She ran her thumb over the embossed lettering. Armstrong Industries, it read. “Hmm,” she said. “Bryce Armstrong, CEO. Very impressive.”
He gave her a look—indulgent, good-humored. “What can I tell you? I’m a spoiled only son and also the boss.”
Armstrong, she thought as she glanced at the card again. Bryce Armstrong. The name was vaguely familiar….
She almost asked him where she might have heard his name before. But no. She had promised she’d call him. If they ended up seeing each other again, she’d learn more about him.
Shifting her purchases to one arm, she stuck the card in a side pocket of her shoulder bag. The purse slid down her arm. She backed away from him, grinning, hands out, dangling her purse and her purchases from either hand. She felt kind of magical, right at that moment—graceful and pretty in spite of her big tummy and scraped-back hair. The world, all of a sudden, seemed chock-full of possibilities.
Truly, just when she’d given up hope that she’d ever meet a really great, handsome, fun and easy-to-be-with guy…there he was.
Across the display counter from her at Becky & Huck’s.
Whatever happened next, he had made her week—heck. He’d made her month.
“Call me,” he said again.
“I will,” she promised, still backing away. “I will, I’ll call…” She raised her hand to wave, though her purse was dangling from her arm and it made the gesture awkward and jerky. She didn’t care how awkward she looked. She didn’t feel awkward. She felt like a swan. “You’ll be hearing from me…”
He gave her a wave in response and turned to go.
And right then, as her purse dangled free from her arm, someone grabbed it.
“Wha—?” Somehow, she managed to catch the strap before it slipped past her fingers. “Hey!” She whirled as the snatcher—a skinny guy in baggy jeans—gave it a hard yank. She yanked right back, “Don’t!”
The guy didn’t listen. He stepped toward her. She shrank away, sudden terror shivering an icy trail down her spine. “No…” It came out a whisper of fear and frustration.
His bony hand came toward her. He shoved her—square in the chest. The breath flew from her body. She sucked in air, and somehow managed one sharp, helpless cry as her feet flew out from under her and she went down.
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