Beyond Conception
By L.J. Sellers
Published by Xlibris
December 2001; ISBN 1401033245; 324 pages

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Beyond Conception  by L.J. SellersPrologue
Wednesday, October 18th, 2000

Elizabeth felt her palms began to sweat. She reached for a tissue and stared at the file on her desk, paralyzed with indecision. The excitement was overpowering. She felt dizzy.
She reached for her water and took a small sip, avoiding her patient's eye. The woman sat calmly, waiting for Elizabeth to speak. Ms. McClure had come to the Assisted Reproduction Clinic in good faith. How could Elizabeth violate that trust? She was a doctor!

She could feel the sweat on her forehead now. The thought of Dr. Gybbs, her chief of staff, somehow finding out horrified her more than anything. She owed him so much. He'd promoted her to Head of Genetics, passing over three male associates. Then Columbia had honored her with its Scientific Excellence award just last year. To risk all that. . . .

McClure shifted in her chair. Elizabeth glanced at the file again and took a deep breath. She cleared her throat and forced herself to speak.

"The test results show you have the genetic marker associated with cystic fibrosis."
There, she'd done it, set the plan in motion.

Her patient's eyes widened, then filled with despair. Elizabeth knew how she felt. Hearing that you couldn't or shouldn't have a baby was the most devastating news a woman could receive. She wanted to reach out and comfort her. Instead, she leaned back and spoke casually.

"Don't be too alarmed. One out of twenty-two Caucasians is a carrier. But unless the father is also a carrier, your chances of having a healthy child are still good."

"What does that mean?" McClure's light brown eyes flickered with anger.
Elizabeth understood the anger. But she couldn't let herself feel kinship with this woman. McClure had something she wanted, something she was entitled to. She had to be strong to take it from her.

  "In practical terms, it means before you have yourself artificially inseminated, the donor should also be screened for the cystic fibrosis marker." Damn, she was making it sound too easy. Elizabeth didn't want her coming back to the clinic any time soon. "The test is more difficult with the limited amount of DNA in sperm, thus more expensive. If you wait until you're pregnant, then have an amniocentesis, you're faced with the decision of either giving birth to a diseased child or aborting it. Perhaps you should take some time to read up on CF. You may decide to consider other options."

"Like what?"

"Adoption." Just saying the word made the old bitterness rise in her throat. Elizabeth swallowed hard to keep it down. "The joy of children isn't limited to genetic offspring."

God if only that were true.

The summer of her tenth birthday crashed on her consciousness like a tidal wave. Standing by her mother's grave, watching the casket being lowered, Elizabeth had wanted to throw herself in and let the earth swallow her too. But her grief then, was only the beginning. The whispering of relatives at the funeral was followed by the sudden crushing knowledge that she'd been adopted, that her beloved mother was not really hers.

Elizabeth had never considered adopting a child, even when she learned her ovaries were worthless, damaged-so she believed-by pelvic infections she'd suffered as a child. Before she could compose herself, another memory engulfed her. The drunken sweaty face of Ralph, her adopted father, grimacing in a strange blend of pain and joy as he forced himself on her.

Elizabeth felt the tremors starting, the buried rage fighting to surface. She'd never been to a counselor, never spoken of it to anyone. Even after learning she was sterile, she'd kept her silence. But the rage never diminished. It surfaced less often now, but with the same intensity.

Her patient's voice, hauntingly familiar, broke through the anguish. "Do you have any literature about cystic fibrosis that I could take with me?

"I'm sorry, I don't," Elizabeth snapped.

She had to get this woman out of her office. Just looking at her weakened her resolve. McClure had the same wide cheekbones and stubborn chin, the same wavy hair. "Here's the name of an organization you can call for information. They can also put you in touch with a support group."

Elizabeth stood and handed McClure a card, willing her to leave. She didn't want to see the woman again until she was unconscious on the operating table. Elizabeth wished there was another way, but the laparoscopy was a simple procedure and wouldn't hurt her at all.

What about afterwards, she asked herself for the hundredth time? The drugs would wipe out McClure's memory, but what if the oocytes didn't fertilize? What if the transfer failed? Could they keep her until she ovulated again?

Don't think about it, she told herself. David was a great embryologist. If anyone could make her pregnant, he could.

"Thanks," the woman said quietly, tucking the card in her purse. She squared her shoulders and wiped mascara from under her eyes before turning to leave.

Elizabeth admired her composure, her refusal to cry or complain like so many of them did at the first sign of trouble. She was a sturdy woman physically, too. An inch or so taller than herself and meatier all over. Not overweight, just robust, healthy. Elizabeth felt of pang of jealousy. She had always been pale and thin from spending long hours in the lab and skipping meals.

"Good luck." Elizabeth bit the inside of her cheek. She had a sudden urge to call her back. Maybe they could become friends and eventually she could ask . . .

No. She couldn't take the risk.

The woman was gone and Elizabeth was alone again. Collapsing back in her chair, she started to tremble. It had begun. In her whole life, she had never been so frightened, and so excited. Suddenly she had to see the slides again.

She jumped up and walked briskly down the corridor to the lab. Her assistant, a young woman with one eye glued to a microscope, ignored Elizabeth as she passed. She unlocked the door and hurried to the drawer where she kept enlarged film of DNA slides. From the back, she pulled a special file marked only by initials, then inserted two enlargements into the projector.

There they were. Those single-stranded DNA probes lined up identically, like matching bar codes from the supermarket. She'd noticed the facial similarities on McClure right away, then compared their DNA just as a fluke.

Elizabeth stared, checking for inconsistencies, then smiled when she didn't find any.

There was no doubt. McClure was her sister.

Chapter One
Tuesday, Oct. 24

The restaurant's double doors burst open as Jenna reached for her keys. Damn, sixty seconds too late, she thought. Even though the place technically was closed, Jenna forced herself to smile at her late-night customers. They didn't smile back. A short heavy man, face covered by a bandanna, thrust out a gun and said, "Piss me off and I'll kill you."

Jenna's heart stopped for a full count of two, then pounded frantically as a startled cry burst from her throat.

"Where's the money?" His partner, a tall scrawny kid with a ponytail, stepped forward. Black and red paint covered his face but didn't hide a large boil on the side of his nose. Without the gun he would have seemed comical. Jenna wasn't laughing. She knew she had to respond, but her brain scampered from one thought to another and couldn't form a sentence.

"Listen bitch." The skinny kid grabbed her hair and pressed his gun, a big gray semi-automatic, under her chin. "Tell me where the money is or I'll kill you and anybody else in-"

"Everyone on the floor, now!" the short guy screamed, spit flying out of his mouth as he pivoted toward the sudden murmuring in the lounge. A bourbon fog filled the air where his voice had been. He's drunk, Jenna realized. Panic surged through her body, making her feel weak and confused. She didn't know if she was supposed to lie down or get the money. The kid dug his fingers into her scalp and dragged her across the narrow lobby into the darkened lounge. She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from screaming. Stale cigarette smoke and cinnamon permeated the air.

The kid's lips curled up, a sick sort of smile, as three guests, the bartender, and a waitress dropped to the floor. Jenna frantically tried to count how many others were in the building. Two or three guests still in the dining area, plus Antonio, the broiler cook, Evin, a new dishwasher and three, maybe four food servers. Mike had clocked out, but she suspected he was still hanging around. She thought about the phone in the office, the fact that Mike was probably using it at that very moment. Not to call the police, unfortunately, but to arrange a party or some other after-work entertainment for the crew.

The short guy seemed to read her mind. "Check the back," he shouted suddenly. "Get everyone in here so I can see 'em."

The pleased look disappeared as the kid let go of Jenna's hair. He scurried through the bar, high-stepping over the middle-aged men in suits on the floor. Jenna wished she could lie down too; her legs shook so badly she thought they'd collapse. But she stayed upright, afraid to move.

"About the money." The short guy lifted the small dark gun to her temple.

"In the till, behind the bar." Jenna forced the words through clenched teeth.

"Open it for me." His eyes darted nervously between Jenna and the men bunched together on the stained blue carpet. The top of his head was completely bald but the straggly dark curls covered the back of his neck. Even with the bandanna, he looked like a dishwasher named Bob she'd worked with in Seattle when she was still a waitress. He'd given her and everyone else the creeps.

"You! Outta there first," he shouted over the counter. Jenna held her breath. Her bartender, Nate, was an opinionated man who spent his free time writing letters to the editor and arguing philosophy for sport. Slowly, he crawled out from behind the bar without a word. Jenna let out some air. Thank God he'd kept his mouth shut.

As she stepped toward the register, an older waitress who'd been with Geronimo's since it opened, hurried into the lounge from the smoking section in the back. She was waiving a bill. "Anybody got change for a twenty? They should leave me the whole thing as big a pain in the-"

Carmen stopped short. Her jaw fell open when she spotted the men in suits on the floor. She turned to speak to Jenna. Her mouth snapped shut, then open, then shut again.

"I'll take that," the creep said, stepping away from Jenna to reach for Carmen's twenty, " and anything else you've got in your pockets."

Jenna winced. Most of the evening's receipts were walking around with the servers who acted as cashiers. As soon as "Bob" and the kid realized it, they'd turn their guns on her crew. Fear snaked through her gut. They could be killed. It happened all the time. People gunned down during robberies for no apparent reason. She thought about Nate's five-year-old twin boys and Carmen's three teen-age daughters. The devastation to those kids if these people didn't come home.

Jenna fumbled for her key to the till, hoping to distract Bob with a drawer full of cash. But Carmen didn't hesitate. She silently handed over her black-zippered wallet. Bob snorted and shoved it back.

"Take out the money and hand it to me."

Carmen mutely followed orders. Bob's eyes widened at the stack of bills. He thumbed through the cash with one hand, letting the checks and credit slips fall to the floor. He turned greedily as the rest of the crew shuffled in, hands above their heads, eyes darting wildly. The kid had a grip on Tami, an eighteen-year-old waitress who sucked back tears with little gulping noises.

Bob ordered the cook and dishwasher to the floor. Evin, a high school boy with a nose ring, threw himself down in a heap and buried his face in the carpet. Then Bob turned to Tami and held out his hand. Gulping and shaking, she struggled to unzip her cash caddy. With a disgusted grunt, he grabbed the black pouch out of her hand, then pointed his gun at Mike. Eyes averted, Mike silently handed Bob his cash and lay down. Steve quickly followed.

The silence was a heavy presence, like a third gunman robbing them of their spirit. It broke Jenna's heart to see her friends so intimidated. Her closing crew was usually so boisterous, she had to keep shushing them so the guests wouldn't hear their dirty jokes and raucous laughter. Even the roar of the dishwasher had stopped. Jenna knew there were still guests on the other side of the wall that separated the lounge from the main dining area, but no one had made a sound.

The register drawer that Jenna had been fumbling with suddenly popped open with a loud ping. Startled, the kid jerked and fired a round, shattering the mirror behind the bar as the gun roared to life.

Tami screamed and burst into tears as glass flew everywhere. Jenna's knees buckled but she held on. Ears ringing, she refused to collapse or cry out or let her bladder go, as she so badly wanted to. Even though some of the crew was older, she was in charge and everyone counted on her. Jenna desperately wanted to believe that if she kept herself together no one would get hurt.

Tami continued to wail as Jenna grabbed up the cash in the bar till. Subconsciously she counted. Six twenties, four tens, a bunch of fives and about thirty ones . . . around two hundred. She passed it to Bob, who grabbed it with one hand and stuffed it into his half-zipped jacket. Tami kept sobbing, a thin choking sound.

"Shut up!" the kid shrieked, kicking her in the ribs. "Quit crying or I'll shoot your stupid mouth off."

Tami screamed in agony. Nate rolled on his back and sat up. "Leave her alone." His voice shook like an eight-year-old standing up to the class bully.

Let it go, Nate, please, Jenna silently begged. You have children, blessed little boys. Don't get yourself killed. She wanted to say something, bring the attention to herself. As badly as she'd always wanted them, she hadn't been lucky enough to have children yet. She didn't have a husband either-or brothers and sisters. There was no one to miss her if she didn't come home. But Jenna's throat wouldn't cooperate, except to swallow meekly.

"Who the fuck you talkin' to?" The kid snarled, hostility quickly overcoming his surprise that someone would resist him. "Do you see this gun?" He shoved it in Nate's face. "This means I'm in charge. I do what the fuck I like."

"Just don't hurt anybody," Nate begged, still sitting, his hands pressed against the floor. "You've got all the money, just leave us alone now."

A big grin spread across the kid's face. Then wham-he kicked Nate in the nose so hard and fast, Jenna didn't know it was happening until she heard the bone snap. Her last-minute dinner of chicken soup heaved into her throat. She was the only employee still standing and she didn't know how or why.

Please let them leave now, please let them leave, she silently begged. It wasn't really a prayer, more of a distraction. Like listening to headphones while the dentist drilled her teeth.

One of the guests, who had been quietly hiding, suddenly bolted for the front door. Bob whirled and fired twice into the lobby. Jenna heard a shout and the soft thump of a body hitting the carpeted lobby. Her legs buckled and she went down. The bar tile was wet and cold under her knees, yet Jenna wanted nothing more than to press her body against the floor, close her eyes, and wait for it to be over.

"Nobody moves for at least five minutes!" Bob bellowed, jerking his gun from one person to another. His voice had an edge of panic. The kid started to say something but Bob cut him off. "We're outta here." He stepped backwards toward the lobby.

"But we're supposed to lock 'em in the freezer." The kid hadn't moved.

"Forget it, let's go!"

The kid looked at Nate, shrugged, then kicked him again before running out. Not until the front doors slammed did Jenna's body relax. She fought the urge to cry great gulping sobs at the sheer relief of being alive. After many deep breaths, she willed herself to get up and call 911.

The guest, a small man in his early forties, had been shot in the right side of his chest. Except for the blood oozing from the hole where his pocket had been, he was perfectly still. Jenna knelt next to him and checked for a pulse, a breath.

Nothing.

She cursed softly, hot tears still pressing the back of her eyes. She couldn't remember a thing she'd learned in the mandatory CPR class she'd taken just eight months ago.

Steve had followed her up front, then vomited after one look at the wound. Nate, the only other person who would have been helpful, was bleeding almost as badly. How do you stop bleeding in the chest? she thought frantically. To hell with that, the man wasn't breathing. Four minutes. The number popped into her head. The brain could only survive four minutes without oxygen. She had to get him breathing or breathe for him until the paramedics arrived.

Jenna forced herself to think about the first aid class. She remembered practicing on a big plastic doll. The instructor, a good-looking guy in white, had turned the doll on its side and checked down its throat for blockages. Thank God, some of it was coming back to her.

"Is he dead?"

Jenna looked up to see a blonde woman in a teal jogging suit hovering a few feet away, fighting hard to control herself.

"I'm not sure. Do you know him?"

"Yes."

"What's his name?"

"Arthur." The woman sobbed and turned away.

Jenna regretted the delay. Some of her crew had gathered around and started asking questions, but she tuned them out. If they weren't going to help, at least she wouldn't let them get in her way. Here I go, she thought.

She grabbed Arthur's shoulder and rolled him on his side. She knew there was a preferred method for handling victims but couldn't remember and didn't have time to think about it. At least two of his four minutes were already gone.

Blood, red and frothy, oozed out his mouth. Jenna suppressed her revulsion. She pulled open his lower jaw and tentatively worked two fingers around his mouth. Other than his tongue, his mouth seemed empty. Check the back of his throat, she reminded herself. Jenna pushed her fingers farther in, fighting off the urge to gag. Soft spongy tissue filled the top of his esophagus, blocking his air pipe.

"Shit." The man was going to die. Where were the paramedics? Blindly digging with two fingers and a thumb, Jenna tried unsuccessfully to get a grip on the chunk of slick, wet tissue. Again and again, her fingers slipped off as she tried to pull it free. Thoughts of having to do a tracheotomy fanned her panic. Could she cut open his windpipe to save his life? Oh Jesus. Jenna groaned out loud. They hadn't covered anything like this in management training.

With a desperate lunge, she shoved one finger between the blockage and the back of his throat, hooked her nail under and pulled hard. A small gasp of air escaped as the tissue came free. Arthur promptly vomited up the evening special: halibut with cranberry butter. The onlookers moaned and turned away. Jenna fought her own urge to puke. Her eyes burned and filled with tears as she cleared her throat again, then gently lowered him to his back.

The wet sucking noise of lungs fighting for air was sweet music to her ears. Jenna pressed her hand gently to the left of the bullet wound and felt a faint pulse.

"Yes!" Tears burst from her swollen eyes and she quickly wiped them away. "Get me some clean towels," she shouted, not daring to look up at the expectant, frightened faces.

"Here, I brought some, "a gentle, unfamiliar voice said. Jenna looked up and accepted towels from a man she'd never seen before. He must have been there all along, she realized, ready and willing to help. What seemed like hours had actually been a few minutes. Jenna noticed the camera hanging from his neck and wondered who he was. She didn't ask. Pressing the white towels against Arthur's gaping red wound, she willed the paramedics to arrive. Nobody was going to die on her shift. The incident report was going to look bad enough as it was.

*****

Eric Troutman had quietly taken pictures while Jenna worked on the wounded guest. He still got pangs of guilt about observing and recording other people's trauma. But this was the best story he'd ever witnessed, and he couldn't let it go without at least a couple of shots. If she'd asked him to help he would have. But Eric had been grateful to see the manager take charge. The sight of blood made him queasy, and he would never have been able to stick his fingers down that guy's throat. He had witnessed a lot of suffering, both personally and professionally, but witness was the key word. Florence Nightingale he wasn't.

He was no Arthur Brentwood either, thank God. The poor man. Fear had overcome his common sense, making him bolt for the door, instead of staying huddled behind the service cart. Eric didn't really know Brentwood; he had only been interviewing him and his wife for a magazine article he was working on.

Jenna McClure. He'd learned her name from one of the restaurant staff after she'd taken off in the ambulance, refusing to leave Brentwood's side. Eric was impressed with the woman. She was more than just good copy. She was someone he wanted to know. Someone he could respect. He'd stopped by the hospital long enough to find out Brentwood's condition and was now headed downtown to the police station hoping to find Jenna. He had visions of an in-depth interview and a front-page story in the Oregonian. Maybe even a second piece, a personality profile, for Northwest Lifestyle. His lagging career needed a good jolt.

Eric had never regretted his decision to leave the paper three years ago. He'd always hated the pressure of daily deadlines that forced him to write a story before he had all the information. Nobody had ever told him the whole truth anyway, not the cops, the criminals, or the victims. After ten years on the crime beat, the stories all started to sound the same. He'd become so desensitized to people's traumas that he had asked a woman who'd been stalked and finally stabbed by her ex-husband if they had tried marriage counseling. The woman had burst into tears and called him a prick. Eric had gotten falling-down drunk that night for the first time since college. He'd given notice at the paper the next day and never looked back.

But sometimes he missed the excitement, the adrenaline rush of being a half step ahead of a big breaking news story. The year he'd won the Pulitzer had been the best and the worst of his life. His series on abusive foster parents and the Children's Services personnel who looked the other way had generated the largest response the paper ever had. Before the ruckus died down, the Children's Services director had been replaced, and a citizen review board had been established. But the children still haunted him.

Eric shuddered and reached for the radio, needing to shake off the bruised images. The radio was gone. It had been stolen a few weeks back and he hadn't replaced it yet. So he sang the chorus of "I Feel Good," an old James Brown song, over and over.

It was his own fault the radio had been ripped off. After he sold his police scanner and CB radio, he'd quit locking his car, figuring no one would bother a '72 Firebird. If they did, he wanted to make it easy. Used radios were cheap and easy to come by, windows were not. He could afford a nicer car, but couldn't bring himself to spend the money. Not yet, anyway. His Firebird still ran fine and had a good working heater. Someday, when the old Flame died, he'd get something nice. A newer Cutlass maybe.

The downtown streets were deserted at one in the morning except for an occasional party car, the occupants oblivious to everything but their own music. Eric ignored the speed limit signs. After working the crime beat for years he knew most of the cops and could probably talk himself out of a ticket if he had to. He was determined to get to the police station before they finished questioning Jenna. He had to see her tonight. The compulsion was overwhelming, and Eric never ignored his instincts. It was more than just a story. Jenna was too special to let her slip away, unexplored.

When she walked out of the Robbery Division and into the lobby on the second floor, Eric was surprised by her attractiveness. He hadn't noticed during the chaos. He'd been aware of the overall package, her athletic build and sun-kissed complexion, but hadn't really taken in the caramel-colored eyes and sensuous, unpainted lips. She'd let her hair down too, a thick mass of curls that matched her eyes and seemed slightly out of control.

Eric shook his head. He'd sworn never to get hung up on a woman's looks again. The gorgeous ones were always trouble. Fortunately, she wasn't really his type. The executive-style matching skirt and jacket were a turnoff. Eric hated suits on anybody, male or female. They intimidated him, made him feel instinctively rebellious. But as she stood there, eyes blinking, Jenna looked so tired and vulnerable, Eric wanted to put his arm around her. Instead he offered his hand. "Eric Troutman, freelance journalist."

She hesitated, then leaned forward and gave him a quick but powerful squeeze. "Jenna McClure. What do you want?"

"To buy you a cup of coffee. Hear your story." He smiled his best you're-gonna-love-me smile.

"You don't waste any-" She stopped, her eyes suddenly filled with recognition. "You were there, with the camera. Quite a story, huh?" The comment was meant to be sarcastic, but her voice shook with emotion.

"You were amazing," Eric said softly. "You saved that man's life right in front of my eyes. I had to take pictures. It's what I do."

"I have to go home and get some sleep." She turned away.

"Tomorrow?" Eric started to feel desperate. He was losing her. "I'll buy you lunch. Anywhere you like."

Jenna turned back, lips pressed tightly together. Little flecks of dark brown glinted against the lighter shade of her irises. "I just spent two hours with the police, going through the whole ugly thing over and over. I really don't want to talk about it anymore. I'm sorry but I have to go now."

Eric reached for her arm, but Jenna jerked away. Eric wanted to kick himself. The poor woman had just been robbed at gunpoint; the last thing she needed was some stranger grabbing her. "I'm very sorry ma'am. I shouldn't have done that."

Oh shit, why he'd call her ma'am? Women under fifty hated that. He tried again. "You've had a rough night. Do you have a ride home?"

"I can call a cab." She turned and walked away.

Eric called after her. "Sooner or later you'll talk to someone from the press just to get them off your back. I'd be honored if you'd let it be me."

Jenna stopped and turned. "Why you?" Her expression was stern, but her eyes smiled. He was getting through. Or maybe she liked his perseverance.

"Because I was there. Because I won't ask you stupid questions like, 'How did it feel to have that gun at your head?' Because," Eric paused for dramatic effect, " I know what a hero you are, and I have an obligation to share that triumph with a public starved for some good news amidst the growing sludge of everyday horrors."

Jenna threw back her head and laughed, an uninhibited roar. A desk clerk looked up and smiled.

"What a load of crap," she said finally. "You're gonna make a buck off someone's misfortune just like everybody else in the news business." She half smiled. "I'll think about it. In the mean time, I'll take that ride if it's still offered."

*****

Jenna had never felt so tired in all her life. Not even after the first time she'd done a full hour on the stair-stepper at Gold's Gym. At least a heavy-duty workout made her feel stronger, more worthwhile. At the moment, standing in the middle of the police station at one in the morning, she felt diminished as well as exhausted.

But the reporter seemed to vibrate with energy. And that grin, what was that about? Jenna chewed the inside of her cheek as they headed outside. He was attractive and charming in his own way, but she wished she hadn't accepted his offer of a ride. She would have to do the interview now as a payback. Where would they meet? The idea of sitting in a public restaurant made her uneasy. Maybe she could cancel at the last minute; tell him she got called into work. The thought of going back into Geronimo's also filled her with dread. Jenna shivered.

"Are you all right?" The concern in his voice warmed her heart, but the trembling in her arms and legs wouldn't stop.

"No, not really."

He moved in closer and put his arm lightly around her shoulder. "Let me buy you a drink. If anybody ever needed one, you do."

Jenna let him guide her across the empty downtown street to an older, slightly beat-up car. She had no idea what make it was and didn't care. It was big and comfortable, and Eric had opened the door for her, which seemed amazingly sweet at the moment.

They drove in silence for a few minutes, Jenna thinking that under any other circumstances she would never get into a car with a man she didn't know. Yet after what she'd been through, Eric felt as safe and comfortable as a cup of hot chocolate.

A green station wagon with a glowing yellow taxi light was the only other car on the street. In an hour when the bars closed, there would be a little surge of traffic, but nothing else was open. Even with a population of 130,000 and more than its share of world-class runners, Eugene was still a small town.

"How long have you lived here?" Eric wanted to know, as if reading her mind.

"Five years. Up until tonight, I couldn't imagine ever wanting to move."

"Where are you from?"

"I moved here from Seattle, but I was born and raised in Astoria." Jenna shuddered as the memory of Bob's voice and the pressure of the gun played in her head. She'd left Seattle to get away from an escalating crime rate. Eugene had been her first choice because it was close to her mother who lived in Florence, a small town on the coast, sixty miles away.

"A real native. By the way, where are we going?"

"Riverside Apartments. You know, just past Valley River Center."

"I was going to buy you a drink, remember?" Eric glanced over with a look she couldn't read.

"I think I'd better go home. I'm starting to feel shaky."

"You're entitled. I couldn't see what was happening from my chicken-shit place on the floor, but it sounded rough in there."

Jenna was silent. Every response she came up with sounded trite. Earlier, the police detective had referred to the robbers as "the clown and the cowboy." It bothered her that the men had nicknames, as if it were all a game, not to be taken too seriously. She might not ever be able to talk about this night, she realized.

Jenna shivered again. The heat of an Indian summer day was long gone, replaced with the chill of an October night. She wanted desperately to be home.

"Should I turn on the heat?"

"Please."

"They'll get these guys. I have a good friend in the department who never gives up."

"What if they do? I'll have to testify. I'll have to sit in the same courtroom with those assholes." She fought for control, but her fear gathered strength and volume, pouring out in an angry stream. "There's only a fifty-fifty chance they'll ever go to jail and if they do, they'll be out again in a few years. Our justice system is insane. O.J. Simpson was acquitted for Christ's sake!"

"I know how you feel."

"I'm not sure you do."

Jenna didn't think she would ever feel safe again. Nobody was ever safe anywhere. The papers proved it every morning. Innocent people gunned down by some lunatic having a bad day.

The car slowed, and she realized they were almost there. They turned into the complex and Jenna pointed to the left, her throat too dry and tight to speak. Suddenly the thought of being alone in her apartment terrified her. What if someone had broken in while she was gone? What if he was hiding and waiting? Jenna knew she was being ridiculous but couldn't get the image out of her mind. She understood now why people moved out of town or joined isolated communities that had little contact with society.

She swallowed hard. "Will you walk me up please? Maybe take a look around my apartment. I'm not ready to be alone just yet."

"Of course." Eric pulled into a visitor's space and shut off the engine. He reached over and found her hand. "I'll stay as long as you need me too. Scout's honor, I mean that in the most gentlemanly way."

*****

She smiled when he said that, and Eric was pleased that she trusted him. He tried to imagine how vulnerable she must feel and failed. He hadn't been physically threatened since his big growth spurt at age twelve and didn't know what it was like to be afraid for his life. But this woman needed him to make her feel safe. It would be tough not to take her beautiful face in his hands and press his mouth against those luscious, trembling lips. But he wouldn't violate her tender trust in him no matter how badly he wanted her.

Jenna's hands shook so much she couldn't get the key in the lock. Eric gently took her keys and opened the door.

"I'll check everything out first." He opened the closet door in the foyer and stuck his head in to demonstrate his intentions. "You should get a blanket and a glass of wine and get comfortable on the couch."

He watched Jenna for a moment to make sure she was still functioning, then methodically went through her apartment. He could have cheated, feeling quite confident that no one was in her apartment, but he didn't. Jenna had asked him to make her feel safe, and he wouldn't let her down.

Her bedroom was a little messy, with books and clothes scattered around. But that was all right, superficial clutter he could deal with. The bathroom sparkled with a recent cleaning, and Eric was relieved. Not all women were as clean as they liked you to think, and he really couldn't stand a crusty bathroom or kitchen.

The most surprising think about her apartment was the sparseness, the lack of knickknacks, the wide-open wall spaces. It looked as if she hadn't lived there long.

Jenna had done exactly as he'd told her to and was sitting on the couch, feet tucked up under her, wrapped in a big comforter with a bright red and purple print.

"I poured you a glass of wine too." Her smile was gone, and she sounded far away. "It's a cheap bottle of white Zin that's been in my fridge forever. I don't usually drink much."

"Me either. But thanks, it sounds good right now." Eric stood for a moment trying to decide if he should sit next to her on the couch or in the rocking chair by the window. He wanted to be comforting, but without making her uneasy.

"Come sit down, you're making me nervous." Her honey-colored eyes twinkled for a second.

Eric eased himself down on the couch, leaving a foot and a half of space between them. Now what? he wondered. Do I make small talk? Ask her about herself? Or do I encourage her to talk about the robbery? This wasn't exactly a date. Eric suddenly felt inadequate. He picked up his wine and drank it down. He noticed Jenna had already finished hers.

"Can I get you another glass?"

"No thanks."

"Do you want to talk about it? I'm a good listener."

She shook her head. Her eyes misted over, and her lips pressed together in a tight line. Eric realized what Jenna really needed was another woman. A good friend, someone who would let her cry on their shoulder. He could do that.

Eric eased over and gently draped his arm around Jenna. Her body relaxed.

"Tomorrow will be better. I promise."

*****

Jenna leaned against him, instinctively knowing she could trust this man. In a moment she started to cry. She was too exhausted to be embarrassed. She gave in to the sobs, purging herself of the day's poisons. Eric stroked her hair and whispered soothing sounds. His kindness made her cry harder.

How long had it been since she'd felt someone's arms around her? The warmth of Eric's body, the softness of his flannel shirt, the faint scent of men's after-shave. It seemed so natural, so necessary. How long had she lived alone without the simple touch of another person? What if today had been her last?

Jenna reached up and kissed him on the cheek.

"Thank you," she whispered, hoping he would not misunderstand, yet wishing with all her heart he would stay.

"My pleasure." He tried to sound casual, but his voice betrayed him. His eyes search hers for understanding.

She kissed his mouth this time, with only the slightest touch, feeling her lips tremble as they met his. His body tensed, and her own heart began to hammer. Eric's lips swelled against hers with a heat that made her lightheaded. But he held back, giving her a chance to change her mind. Jenna couldn't have stopped herself if she wanted to. It felt too wonderful. Her other choice was to let him leave. And that she couldn't bear. She pressed her mouth against his, letting him know the depth of her need.

Eric responded with equal passion, his big hands pressing her into the circle of his strength. Slowly and gently, he melted the tension from her body with his touch. In time, everything around her disappeared, including the horror of the day. Jenna's only awareness was Eric, his strength, his passion, his tenderness.

Her own quiet joy came as a surprise, bringing tears to her eyes. Jenna would have been content to simply not be alone.

Copyright 2001 L. J. Sellers
Reprinted with permission. (back to top)

Synopsis

Jenna McClure, tired of waiting for Mr. Right, decides to have a baby on her own—a decision that brings her face to face with sociopathic fertility doctors who threaten her life while playing God with her genetic material.

Dr. Elizabeth DeMauer thought she'd never have a child. Then Jenna walks into the clinic, and suddenly, everything changes. Elizabeth decides to steal one of Jenna's eggs, a simple procedure that the "donor" should have no memory of. But from the beginning, things go terribly wrong.

Reverend David Carmichael MD thought he'd put his past behind him when he founded a secluded Church in which he could practice both his faith and his embryological skills. Then Elizabeth, his longtime friend and lover, called in a huge favor, and his peaceful little world spun out of control.

Eric Troutman didn't think he'd ever find a life partner. Then one night in the midst of a restaurant robbery, an incredible woman steps into his life. After she just as quickly disappears, Eric becomes obsessed with finding her.


Reviews

Wonderful!! I loved every page of it. Jenna and Eric are well-drawn and believable, and the plot is well-researched but not too technical and downright interesting,
Mark Adams, Maui News

"Beyond Conception is plotted and paced masterfully. Every character has a different set of motives, yet they are weaved gracefully into one story. This is one of the few novels I've read where the climax is really 'climactic.'"
Agent, Writers House

Excellent. Sympathetic and believable protagonists; multi-dimensional villains; good dialogue; and a tight, fast-paced and interesting plot line—forceful and well written.
Judy Sawyer, Editor, Advanstar

(back to top)

Author

L.J. Sellers is a senior editor for a pharmaceutical trade magazine in Eugene, Oregon, by day, Evenings and weekends, she's a novelist, scriptwriter, stand-up comic, mother of three, and an avid cyclist.

Buy Beyond Conception at Amazon.com

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