The Baby Plan
There it was again. Despite the muffled voices and clatter of plates in the busy Boston restaurant, the angelic cooing and gurgling of an infant at peace in his crib floated in the air. Sometimes it echoed so loud in Tessa’s ears, she’d look around expecting to see the baby right behind her. Other times, like today, with the anticipation of the big reveal to her brother at hand, the constant reminder of her dwindling baby-making window whispered in the distance. It never ceased. Day or night—it didn’t matter anymore—the sound lingered in the back of her mind like an earworm.
Seated across from her, Owen jabbered on in painful detail about an architectural design he’d created for a client. Any other day she’d play the good little sister who’d listen in silence and nod in all the right places. Today, though, she needed the floor. And if he’d just shut up for a minute, she could drop the bomb that’d been ticking louder and louder in her brain for months. Its insistent staccato rhythm jabbed at her sensibility with the foreboding message that time was short. She needed to act now before it was too late.
Today, even in Paleo’s air-conditioned dining room, her silk blouse clung to her back from nervous sweat. She’d made up her mind, though. Today there’d be no more hemming and hawing, no more hesitant false starts and retreats, no more wishy-washy excuses. Owen had championed every decision she’d made—eventually. Today should be no different. Besides, if she held it in any longer, she’d burst.
Under the table, her crossed leg kicked and bounced. She sipped her Moscato to curb her impatience and let her eyes wander across the room. They rested on each diner and registered a silent appraisal. A few tables over, an attractive man in a black sports jacket and jeans seemed to be getting an earful from the beautiful redhead seated across from him. The woman’s enthusiastic speech earned only a placating nod of his head. Tessa wondered if they were married, if they had children.
“Hello, Earth to Tessa.” Owen waved his hand in her face almost hitting her nose. “Come on, T, what’s.…”
“I’m going to have a baby.” Spoken out loud for the first time, those words sent a rush of adrenaline through her veins. Warmth swelled from her heart as the vision that had taken center stage in her dreams for the last five years, captured the spotlight in her mind’s eye. Her arms circled her own body, aching to cradle that bundle of cooing softness.
Owen’s fork remained suspended in mid-air inches from his open mouth, his face frozen and pale blue eyes wide and staring. It took a moment for him to regain his composure enough to speak.
“You’re what? Are you sure?” He shook his head, put his fork down and rested his back against the seat. Tessa was sure the incoherent mumbles that followed were a litany of swear words, but she stayed calm.
His gaze scoured the ceiling as his voice groped for a public-appropriate response. “How did this happen, Tess? You, of all people. I can’t believe you’d let yourself get into this predicament. You never told me you were seeing anyone. Who is he? Does he know? Are you in love with him?”
Tessa shook her head to focus as much as to explain. “No, no I’m not pregnant now. I mean I plan to get pregnant.”
Her breath stilled then released as the panicked expression on Owen’s face softened to one of mere annoyance. But she wasn’t out of the woods yet. She’d only started to lay out her plan. Stalling for time, Tessa pushed the chopped antipasto salad around the plate with her fork.
“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, Owen, and I’ve made up my mind. You only need you to back me up when it comes time to tell Mom.”
“Oh, so I get the shit end of that stick. There are a million men in this city, are you saying you can’t find one man you’d be happy with?”
“In case you hadn’t noticed, relationships have never been my strong point.” A gross understatement, but whatever—“I may revisit this option sometime in the future, but since I haven’t yet been able to get a man to stick around more than a couple of months, I’m taking myself off the market for now.”
“And whose fault is that?” The deadpanned expression that went along with those biting words stabbed at her heart. As if her failures were common knowledge and to be expected. She felt her face drop and the familiar darkness whisper insecurities in her ear. No! I won’t give in to this! She pushed the insidious cloud away before it could gain a foothold on her brain.
He’d thrown a low blow, but she’d own it this time to get her point across. “Yeah, yeah, I know. I can be a little... compulsive sometimes.”
“Ha!” Owen kept eating and didn’t even look up from his plate. It was the derisive snort that pushed her last button.
Tessa’s jaw shifted, anger singed her ears as she watched him shovel the lasagna into his mouth. He could be so dense sometimes. “Don’t you see? I’m already pushing thirty-six. How long before my eggs rot and destroy my chances for the child I’ve always wanted? I need to plan ahead.” She huffed out the last sentence and flicked her hand at him for emphasis.
Owen stayed quiet for a moment, deep concentration etched into the creases in his brow. Baby steps, Tessa, don’t push him too fast. She gave him time to digest what she’d said so far and returned her attention to the eye-candy across the room.
The man’s lips puckered, one corner tugged to the side, a hungry-as-a-wolf expression alight in his face. His eyes feasted on his date rather than the meal in front of him. The redhead must’ve said something wicked to make him react like that. Or maybe not. That tight red dress with the neckline inching toward her waist, said more than her mouth ever could. But the curl of his lips, and the promise they held, had Tessa’s heart racing.
Owen took a long drink of his wine before his sharp words snapped Tessa out of her reverie. “We’re only two years apart, remember?” his voice grated. He waved a parmesan cheese stick like a baton to emphasize his animated rant. “It’s not old. You, me, we have plenty of time for a family. There’s no need to get worked up about it now.” The pained expression on Owen’s face tugged at her heart. His voice hesitated as if the words were burning their way up his throat. “You and your obsessive need to plan every detail and be prepared for every little hiccup in your life is nuts. If you’d only let things go once in a while....” Whatever he was going to say next got swallowed down with the forkful of lasagna he jammed in his mouth. What Tessa believed to be simple, logical reasoning, Owen dismissed with a shake of his head.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you, but I need your support with this. Single motherhood is so far off Mom’s radar, she’ll worry that I’ve gone off the deep end—or further off, anyway. I don’t want to make her life any harder than it is now.” Tessa reeled in her frustration and patted Owen’s hand across the table. “Leaving something I desperately want to chance doesn’t make any sense to me when I can take matters into my own hands.”
Owen leaned in and lowered his voice. His sarcastic tone mirrored in his face. “So what, you’re thinking of going the sperm bank route? Do they let you choose the donor?” His fork jabbed the air as he whisper-yelled, his eyes blazing with a mixture of anger and disbelief. “How can you be sure your child won’t be fathered by some eighteen-year-old pimply faced degenerate who sold his stuff to buy more drugs? How do you know you won’t get some kind of disease?”
“Ugh, no, the whole IVF turkey baster thing gives me the creeps.” In fact, just the thought of conceiving a child on a gynecology chair in a cold room surrounded by doctors and nurses gave Tessa the willies. “I still want to conceive my child the, um... you know, traditional way.” She flashed a peek at his face to judge his reaction. “I just don’t want any entanglements afterward. My career’s been lucrative,” she announced with pride, “and I don’t mind paying for what I want. I plan to offer a sizable reward to the donor who passes my screening with the right stuff—no pun intended. After he gets me pregnant, that is.”
Again, her eyes wandered to the tempting stranger. Someone who looks like him. His lean body, dark shiny hair, and strong jaw with a dusting of stubble, sent wanton messages to her lower belly. Tessa’s eyes followed his hand as he lowered the wine glass from his lips. The woman continued to talk while he stared, head lowered, as if in a trance.
Still holding the glass, stem between his fingers, cupping it as he would a breast, his hand moved in slow circles swirling the wine. Such a simple move, yet so alluring. Tessa’s own breasts swelled as if to meet his hand, her nipples hardened in anticipation. She imagined that hand tracing the curves of her body, caressing and exciting her most sensitive parts until she begged for more. A sharp gasp escaped, and she faked a yawn to cover it. Tessa tore her eyes away and turned her attention back to Owen. She was so far out of Hot Guy’s league she couldn’t buy a ticket in the nosebleed section of his game.
Owen pinched his lower lip, his pensive gaze distant for a moment. Then he leaned back in his seat and dabbed his mouth with the napkin. “God, Tess, you scare the crap out of me. You’re not analyzing a client’s balance sheet here. This is life altering.” The way his eyebrows scrunched together so tight, you’d think he had the worst headache in the world. “Do you have someone in mind or are you planning to have sex with any male prostitute off the street just because he has the right genes? And what about love, romance? Isn’t that what every woman wants, or is that a line you feed us poor saps to get more jewelry?”
Since she hadn’t discussed it with anyone before, airing the plan out in the open now invigorated her mind. Tessa waved away Owen’s concerns with her fork while she swallowed the clump of greens she’d been chewing. “Getting pregnant is just biology, Owen, romance isn’t necessary. My doctor assured me I’d have no trouble getting pregnant with a healthy male partner while I’m ovulating. It shouldn’t take a lot of tries.”
“Whoa, stop!” Owen’s palm flew up, he turned his head, and winced. “I’m your brother, for Chrissake. I don’t ever want to hear about your female body functions again.” He shoved his plate away and massaged his forehead until the skin turned red.
“You’ve always been a little off. Now this... this... How can you talk like that? It’s so clinical and cold. What would Dad say if he heard you?”
There it was. The instant-anger button. Tessa got ready to spit fire. Aside from the ‘little off’ quip, how dare he bring Dad into this? “Dad’s dead,” she snapped through gritted teeth. “And I don’t give a fat rat’s ass what Walter thinks. Instead of giving her the love and respect she deserves, all he does is put Mom down and make her cry—in front of her own friends, no less! It sickens me that she married such a worm.” Tessa paused and took a deep breath to regain her composure. Her hands shook as she lifted her wine glass to her lips.
The dark ruby wine eased down her throat cleansing the bad taste left there by speaking her mom’s new husband’s name. If only it could wash away the feeling of raw abandonment left by her dad’s way too early death. That, coupled with her mom’s reluctance to speak up to the man she’d chosen to replace him—as if anyone could—left a raw hole in her soul.
Tessa’s body deflated along with her voice. She wiped a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. “I’m not cold, Owen. Far from it, in fact. My heart is full of love and doting on a precious child would let me express that love.”
The imaginary child who’d haunted her dreams returned to her mind. A toddler, with her the same dark hair and blue eyes as hers, ran toward her with open arms. A sweet-faced child haloed with an aura of innocence and trust. If only she could share this snapshot with Owen, he’d understand.
“I want to cuddle and comfort the little tyke, show him the world, care for him when he’s sick, kiss away the pain of his scraped knees, applaud his achievements. You know I’ve always wanted a family, since we were kids. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.” The daydream faded to emptiness. “I need this, Owen. Now. Before it’s too late.”
Owen matched her pleas with his own gentle appeal. “And you can have it, Tess,” he said. “Look at you. You’re a beautiful woman and you’ve kept yourself trim and fit. If you’d just let your guard down and open yourself up to people, you could get married and....”
“No Owen.” Tessa’s voice came out dead and emotionless. “That’s not part of the plan. And don’t get creepy on me.” A few drops of wine spilled from the glass as the stem caught on the table and she fumbled to right it. Heat flushed her face. Her eyes darted again to the other table.
Oh, God, he caught me. Tessa’s head sunk into her shoulders, the burn in her face deepened as Mr. Hot Guy tipped his glass to her with a smile that hinted at an inside joke. He sat alone now while his date sashayed her way to the ladies’ room. Thank God for long hair. Tessa let it fall forward to hide her face.
With hopeful anticipation, Tessa watched a slideshow of conflicting emotions play over Owen’s face until his patience was restored. Forearms on the table, his long exhale made the candle centerpiece flicker wildly. “Okay, so what’s the plan? How do you intend to find this walking sperm bank?”
He’s softening. That’s a good sign. Tessa’s mood brightened and her excitement poured forth in a torrent of words. “I think I found the perfect place to start looking. You got the reminder email about the all-class reunion, didn’t you? There’ll be lots of men there.” Images of the boys she’d secretly lusted over in high school floated in her head. With any luck, at least one of them would still be available and perhaps open to her proposal. After all, she wasn’t asking for a commitment, it was just a business transaction.
“The reunion, huh? I suppose you think it’s going to be like shooting fish in a barrel, don’t you? Have you forgotten what high school was like?” His sarcastic reminder of her struggles to fit in put a slow leak in her balloon of confidence. Owen drained the last drop of wine into his glass and signaled the waiter for another bottle. “No offense, T, but I don’t recall you ever being elected home coming queen. Did you even date in high school?”
Tessa’s back straightened, her chin jutted out in defiance. “Sure, I dated. Just because I wasn’t one of the groupies in your jock crowd doesn’t mean I didn’t date or have friends. Besides, you’d already gone off to college during my junior year. For all you know, I was the hottest chick in school.”
Owen’s raised eyebrow and pursed lips spoke volumes. “So what, you’re going to walk up to some guy at the dance and tell him you want to have his baby? You do realize how that sounds, don’t you?”
“No, of course not.” She squirmed in her seat. “It’s just, you know, I don’t want the hassles of a relationship or the drama of custody issues. And if I approach one of my friends or coworkers, it would be uncomfortable. You don’t shit where you eat, Owen.” Tessa popped the last olive from the salad into her mouth and gave the waiter her dessert order without turning her head. Was it just her imagination, or were Hot Guy’s eyes searing into her from across the room?
Tessa hoped Owen’s silence and contemplative expression meant he’d run out of objections. His chest rose high then lowered along with his head. He looked up, and, at last, she caught a glimpse of the white flag of surrender. “So, do you have a date for the reunion?” he asked.
Yes! Tessa knew she could count on Owen seeing things her way. Assured now that she had his support, the weight of this cinder block of anxiety locked inside her, lifted.
“Well, I thought I’d stick with tradition and see if my handsome big brother would be my date. Unless he has other plans?” Please say you’ll go, please say yes.
“Huh, Sophia would have my nuts in a vise if I went without her, but there’s no reason the three of us can’t go together. Just promise me, Tessa.” His finger pointed in her face as his eyes implored hers. “Promise me you won’t proposition anyone with this crazy scheme of yours at the dance, okay? Promise me I won’t have to kick anyone’s ass for being mean to you.”
“I promise.” One hurdle down. Still, a host of preparations lay ahead before she’d reach the finish line. A thundercloud of doubt and worry had hovered in her brain for the last three years. Now that her secret was out in the open, and she could count on Owen being a buffer with her mom, a ray of sunshine let a patch of blue poke through.
Ready to dive into her dessert, Tessa gestured with her spoon and reminded him of her specific qualifications. “Besides, I’d have to make an in-depth assessment before choosing the right man to father my baby.”
Tessa threw a quick sideways glance to the other table and noticed that Hot Guy and his date had left. But the fantasies he’d stirred played in her mind like a naughty movie on a loop. Tessa Banks, the imaginary porn star, she snickered. Content for the moment in her bubble, she bounced in her seat and allowed the big spoonful of chocolate lava cake to titillate her other senses.
With Owen’s support in her pocket, the path to phase two had been cleared.