Staking His Claim

By: Tessa Radley

One

“You’ve decided to do what?”

It was Friday afternoon, the end of a grueling workweek, and     Ella McLeod desperately wanted to put up her swollen feet...and relax.

Instead, from the depths of the sofa in her town house living     room, Ella bit back the rest of the explosive reaction that threatened to erupt.     She hoped wildly that her sister’s next words would settle her world back on its     axis so that the nasty jolt of shock reverberating through her system might just     evaporate.

As if the sight of Ella’s swollen belly prodded her conscience,     Keira’s gaze skittered away and she had the good grace to look discomforted.     “Dmitri and I have decided to go to Africa for a year.”

Ella shifted to ease the nagging ache in her lower back that     had started earlier at the law chambers. Keeping her attention fixed on her     sister fidgeting on the opposite end of the sofa, she said, “Yes, I understood     that part—you and Dmitri plan to work for an international aid charity.”

Her younger sister’s gaze crept back, already glimmering with     relief. “Oh, Ella, I knew you’d understand! You always do.”

Not this time. Clearly Keira     thought this was a done deal. It was rapidly becoming clear why Keira had     dropped in this evening. And Ella had thought her sister’s anticipation about     the baby’s imminent arrival had driven the surprise visit....

How wrong she’d been!

Gathering herself, Ella said slowly, “I don’t quite understand     the rest. What about the baby?”

The baby.

The baby in her belly that Keira had been so desperate for.     Keira’s baby. A baby girl. Keira and Dmitri had been present at the twenty-week     ultrasound when the baby’s sex had been revealed. Afterward the pair had gone     shopping to finish buying furnishings for a nursery suitable for a baby     girl.

Yet now that very same baby girl suddenly appeared to have     ceased to be the focus of her sister’s universe.

“Well—” Keira wet her lips “—obviously the baby can’t come     with.”

It wasn’t obvious at all.

“Why not?” Ella wasn’t letting Keira wriggle out of her     responsibilities so easily. Not this time. This     wasn’t the course of expensive French lessons Keira had grown tired of...or the     fledgling florist business that Ella had sunk money into so that Keira would     have a satisfying career when the one she’d chosen had become impossible. This     was the baby Keira had always dreamed of one day     having.

When Keira bit her lip and tears welled up in her eyes, a     familiar guilt consumed Ella. Before she could relent—as she always did—she     said, “Keira, there’s no reason why the baby can’t go with you. I’m sure you’ll     find people in Africa will have babies.”

The tears swelled into big, shiny drops. “What if the baby     becomes ill? Or dies? Ella, it’s not as if this is a five-star beach resort.     This is aid work in a poverty-stricken part of Africa.”

Refusing to be drawn into her sister’s dramatics, Ella leaned     forward and tore a tissue from the box on the glass coffee table in front of the     sofa, then passed it to Keira.

“Do you even know what kind of infrastructure exists? You could     ask whether a baby would be safe.” But Ella suspected she was fighting a losing     battle when Keira failed to answer. She tried again. “If it’s so unsafe, then     what about your own health? Your safety? Have you and Dmitri thought this     through? Do you really want to be living in a war zone?”

“It’s not a war zone,” Keira denied hotly. The tears had     miraculously evaporated without a dab from the tissue that drifted to the     carpet. “Credit me with some sense. It’s Malawi. The country is stable—the     people are friendly. It’s poverty and illiteracy that we will be fighting.”

So much for Keira’s claim that it would be impossible to take a     child there. But Ella knew she’d lost the battle; Keira had already made up her     mind—the baby was not going with her.

“So what will happen to the baby?”

Silence.

Keira’s eyes turned pleading, just like those of Patches, the     beloved spaniel from their childhood.

“No! It is not staying with me.” Ella made it a statement. A         firm statement. The kind she used when     delivering an ultimatum to opposing counsel.

Keira opened her mouth.

The baby chose that moment to kick.

Ella squeezed her eyes shut and suppressed a gasp at the hard     jab against her ribs. Perspiration pricked at her forehead. She rubbed her     side.

Thrusting the pain away, she opened her eyes and said to her     sister, “Have you spoken to Jo about your new plans?” Ella suspected Jo Wells,     the social worker who had been involved in helping arrange the paperwork side of     the adoption for Keira and Dmitri, would be as floored as she was by Keira’s     change of heart.

“Dmitri is right. We’re too young to become parents,” Keira     said, sidestepping Ella’s question. “We haven’t even been married a year.”

Drawing a deep breath, Ella said slowly, “A bit late to come to     the conclusion that you’re not ready to be parents.”

Nine months too late to be precise.

Ella patted her own swollen stomach and watched mercilessly as     Keira flushed.

“This baby is due next week. All your life you wanted to get     married, start a family...that’s why you did an early childcare course.” It was     why Ella was now stuck across the sofa from her sister like a stranded whale     with a bulging belly. “How can you walk away from your child now?”

She had a nasty suspicion that she knew what—or rather, who—was     behind the change of heart. Dmitri’s big brother. Yevgeny Volkovoy.

Bossy big brother. Billionaire. Bigot.

Ella couldn’t stand the man. He’d been furious to discover that     Dmitri had gotten married without his say-so. He’d caused poor Keira endless     tears with his terrifying tirades. Only by signing a post-nuptial agreement that     allowed Keira the barest of maintenance in the case of divorce, and skewed     everything in favor of the Volkovoy dynasty had Keira escaped his ire. Ella’d     had a fit when she’d learned about the contract—and her alarm had grown when she     read the terms. But by then it had been too late. The marriage was a done     deal.

And Keira hadn’t asked her for her expertise...or her help.

Of course, Yevgeny hadn’t been in favor of the baby plan,     either. Ella had known from the moment he’d switched to Russian. Dmitri had gone     bright red—clearly he’d been less happy with Big Brother’s opinions.

Now it sounded like Big Brother had finally gotten his way and     managed to persuade Dmitri that he wasn’t ready to become a parent.

Shifting again to ease her body’s increasing discomfort, Ella     tried to stem the emotions that were swirling around inside her. Disbelief.     Confusion. The beginnings of anger. None of this cocktail of emotions could be     good for the baby. And, even though Ella had never had any intentions of having     her own child, she’d taken great care of this one. She’d eaten well—going to     great lengths to cut out her four-cups-a-day coffee habit—she’d even shortened     her workday and made certain she’d been in bed by ten o’clock each night. She’d     even taught herself to meditate so that the baby wouldn’t be contaminated by her     stressful workday thoughts.

All because she’d wanted to make sure the baby was perfect. Her     gift to Keira.

A gift Keira was now returning. Unborn, rather than     unwrapped.

How did one return a baby, for heaven’s sake? A baby that was a     week away from becoming a live person?

Which brought Ella to...

“You’re not leaving for Africa before the baby is born.” She     made it a statement. “There will be decisions that have to be made before you     go.”

Panic turned Keira’s eyes opaque. “No! I can’t.”

“What do you mean you can’t?”

“I can’t handle those decisions. We’ve already booked our     tickets. You’ll need to make the arrangements.”

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