WHEN HER BEEPER WENT OFF, DEIDRE HALL WAS busy torching a church. "That's it!" cried the 47-year-old actress, well-known in soapdom as Marlena Evans, the endlessly troubled—and, lately, demonically possessed—shrink on Days of Our Lives. Tearing off flame-retardant clothes, leaving full satanic makeup in place, she threw on sweats and raced from the NBC studio to her Los Angeles home, where her husband, TV producer Steve Sohmer, 53, waited with an overnight bag. Nine hours later, at 3:34 a.m. on Jan. 19, their second son, Tully, 7 lbs. 11 ozs., arrived, as Hall says, "in the sweetest and gentlest way."

Sweet and gentle, yes. Conventional? No. For giving birth that morning at Cedars Sinai Medical Center was not Hall but Robin B. (she asks that her last name be withheld), a 32-year-old surrogate mother, who some two years back had carried the couple's first child, David Atticus. (In between the two boys, Robin, a divorced mother of three from outside Los Angeles, gave birth for another couple, whose identity she does not want to disclose.) "She's a gift from God," Sohmer told PEOPLE in 1992. Now, feeding Tully, Hall calls Robin "a dreamy mom." Adds Robin, the third parent in this peculiar new-age family portrait: "I think it's rare that women can bond this way. My heart went out to Deidre because of her infertility."

Hall's inability to conceive had all the makings of a real-life drama. During her second marriage, to TV executive Michael Dubelko, she underwent six unsuccessful rounds of artificial insemination. After that was she diagnosed with endometriosis, a painful condition in which fragments of the uterine lining move into other parts of the pelvic cavity. The unhealthy tissue was surgically removed, and Hall then opted for more surgery—six futile and costly attempts at in vitro fertilization. During the last of these, she nearly lapsed into a coma. The emotional distress, she believes, significantly contributed to the 1989 demise of her marriage. Two years later her doctor advised her to stop trying altogether. Undeterred, she and Sohmer, her new fiancé, discussed adoption. But he suggested surrogacy instead, the controversial procedure in which another woman would be artificially inseminated with his sperm. "That way," he said at the time, "we could get to know the mother." And once Hall got over what she calls "my fantasy of having my own child," she agreed that one biological tie was better than none. And so, in 1991, through the Center for Surrogate Parenting in Beverly Hills—a 14-year-old agency that screens and matches parents and surrogates—they met (and fell in love with) Robin.

For most infertile women, the story would have ended with the birth of that child. Hall, however, wanted a second. "We're older parents," she says. "We knew we wouldn't be here all David's life and we wanted to give him a sibling." Thus before David was even born, Hall asked Robin "if she'd do it again" about two years later. The young mother, as she puts it, "was in pregnancy mode" and agreed.

But before starting on Tully, she had that other couple's child to deliver—and not only, she explains, for the $12,000-plus fee. "I felt I had to stay pregnant or else I might change my mind for Deidre and Steve. I felt I had an obligation to David. I see my own children together, and I can't imagine them alone. I knew the only way David could have a full-blooded sibling was if I gave him one."

But this time out the merry parental trio encountered extra stress. Hall was preparing for an unusual lawsuit, trying to recover $800,000 she had loaned to her psychotherapist, who died of cancer without repaying the money. Robin had decided to enroll at a community college and also became involved with Michael Chambers, the vice president of an electrical contracting firm and a born-again Christian she had met through her church.

Sensing the relationship might become serious, she told him of her plans to carry babies for the two couples—even before their first date. Chambers admits "it kind of caught me off guard." But he proceeded to fall in love with Robin—and to live with her decision. "It was a hardship on us, but it also gave me a close-up look at her character," he says. And she got a reassuring snapshot of his.

They became formally engaged last June, shortly after a home pregnancy test confirmed that Robin, after four attempts, was pregnant with Tully. In L.A., Hall and Sohmer began to prepare 21-month-old David for the arrival. Half an hour away, Robin and Michael began to cope with reactions within their church. Acquaintances would ask when they were due. Others asked when they would, uh, marry. Close friends knew about the arrangement and, as Robin says, "they were supportive." Nonetheless, gossip spread. In her later months, church leaders quietly asked that she refrain from taking part in leadership activities, and Robin agreed. They told the truth to church members they expected to see again. By the ninth month, she says, "I just really wanted my life back."

But there were complications to get through first. On Jan. 18, Robin began to feel unfamiliar stabbing pains on her right side and she checked into the hospital. "They gave her an epidural, and she breezed through the delivery," says Hall. Not so the emergency appendectomy that followed four days later.

But at Tully's bris (the Jewish circumcision ritual), Hall told assembled guests that despite all difficulties—physical and psychological—both moms were pleased. "For two nine-month periods, I would put Robin in her car and watch her drive away with my children," Hall says tearfully. "When I left the hospital last week, Robin turned to me and said, 'Now I know how you felt watching me drive away. What makes it easier is knowing how much you will love them.' "

And it helps knowing, too, that she will remain, as Hall says, someone who "passes through their lives, a member of the family"—even if the precise nature of the relationship will, for now, remain vague.

"We'll explain it to the children when they're old enough to understand," says Sohmer. The important thing now is for these unconventionally conceived boys to become brothers. So far, says Hall, so good. There hasn't been a trace of sibling rivalry. "David," says Hall, "wants the baby to sleep in his room."

BETSY ISRAEL
LORENZO BENET in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Lorenzo Benet.