Candy stared at the simple but tasteful white dress with cap sleeves that Neil had put on the bed for her. A pair of strappy gold sandals sat on the floor. He loved dressing her, picking out her clothes when they went out. Neil Friessen was a sharply dressed man, who loved a sharply dressed woman, and Candy would be the first to admit that her husband had much better taste in clothes than she did.
She sat on the stool in front of the mirror in their large master bedroom, glancing into the en suite bathroom, brightly lit by the sun flowing through the skylights and windows. Then there was the walk-in closet, with shelves and racks full of clothes, many she’d never even worn. She still couldn’t get used to Neil believing she needed so many outfits. Before Neil, her wardrobe had consisted of a few jeans, t-shirts, a summer skirt—barely enough to fill three small drawers in a dresser, really. But this was just one aspect of her eccentric, complicated husband.
Today, as she sat perched on the stool, she just couldn’t bring herself to pick up the dress laid over the gold comforter of their four-poster bed. It was too fancy for just meeting a woman who might possibly carry her husband’s child. She was still stunned over what Neil had brought up the night before. As she was getting ready for bed, he had mentioned the surrogacy as if it were just another aspect of their search. A young woman would be implanted with a donated egg, and fertilized by his semen, all done in a lab. It would be clinical, with no emotion involved. Then the woman would give birth and simply walk away. A contract would be signed, she would be paid, and they would have their baby. The entire time Neil spoke, saying over and over that this was the right way to go, rambling off the legal aspects (which, of course, her mind had tuned out), she had said nothing—until he asked what she thought about his idea.
As she took in the happiness and joy beaming from him, she had been reminded of the time she took a home pregnancy test…before her ectopic pregnancy changed everything for them. This wouldn’t be her carrying his baby, a love child. It would be another woman. All Candy had been able to say was that surrogacy was, of course, another aspect they could consider. She’d never meant for this to be the only option. She’d thought they would have time to talk about other avenues. What was his rush? From that one comment, had he decided she was in favor of this ridiculous idea and wanted him to go ahead and find a surrogate?
She tried to remember everything they had discussed, because she was positive a step had been missed—namely, he had neglected to consult her about this very important decision. She glanced at the clock and sighed at the time she had wasted. Instead of changing, she ran a brush through her hair and rummaged through her closet, grabbing the first blouse she touched. It was a new one Neil had bought her a week ago, with blue and orange flowers on sheer white fabric; she pulled it on over her white tank top so that it hung loosely past her hips. She glanced at her makeup, which was organized neatly in the drawers, and stepped away. She never wore makeup, not unless she needed to attend one of Neil’s important business functions. The first time, he had hired someone to show her how to apply it.
She glanced in the mirror at her lightly tanned complexion, and the hint of natural pink in her cheeks. She looked fine—more than fine. She didn’t believe she needed to coat her face with all that color, so she slipped her bare feet into flat sandals, the comfortable ones she wore every day, and started down the ceramic tile stairs, taking in the grand entry, the faded orange adobe walls. Her husband was talking to someone, and she noticed Ana carrying a tray with a pitcher and glasses into the living room.
Neil had his back to Candy as she strode quietly across the foyer. He was folding up a newspaper and tucking it in a box by the fireplace. He looked so professional in his crisp white dress shirt, navy dress pants, and leather belt. The way he dressed screamed class and wealth, but at least he hadn’t put on a tie. Candy went down the two wide ceramic steps into their large, warm living room, decorated in browns and greens, with large windows overlooking the grounds. It was the room in the house where the family, including Neil’s parents, Rodney and Becky, gathered most nights before dinner.
Rodney and Becky owned this ten-thousand-acre estate, which had some of the best cattle ranching around these parts. It was a business venture Neil and Rodney shared, and there was a ranch house and camp at the far west side of the property, which held, at last count, five hundred head of cattle. A foreman and cook lived there all year, and the cowboys they hired stayed in the camp and never came to this side of the property. Neil had only taken her there once. She knew he didn’t like the interest the ranch hands had shown, although they were just being friendly. Neil didn’t like other men showing interest in what he believed was his, so that one time had been the first and last.
“Mister Neil, when are you expecting your guest?” Ana asked. The short, plump Mayan woman was their housekeeper and cook, and she moved a plate of cookies onto the sofa table.
“Any minute now,” Neil replied as he glanced at his watch before noticing Candy where she lingered beside the bookshelf. “Candy, I didn’t hear you come in,” he said. His gaze lingered on her as he took in what she was wearing. His expression was questioning. This was the first time she had chosen something different than what he’d set out for her. Before, it had been helpful for him to pick out her clothes when she didn’t know what to wear, but now it seemed as if he was dressing her up to meet a mistress. She said nothing.
“Your parents, will they be meeting this woman, as well?” Ana asked.
Neil turned to Ana, distracted, and said, “No, not yet.” He stepped around the sofa, closer to Candy, and Ana took that moment to slip out of the room. “Why aren’t you wearing the dress that I set out for you?” he asked.
“I didn’t want to wear a dress. What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”
“You’re not wearing makeup, so what have you been doing for the past hour?” He sounded annoyed.
“I was thinking,” she said as she moved around the sofa toward one of the large windows. She leaned in and stared at the small black car pulling up out front.
“What were you thinking about?” he asked. She could feel his heat as he stepped up behind her.
She shrugged. “Just some things. Besides, what should it matter what I wear? Is there something more going on, here?”
This time she met his gaze, and humor filled his expression. She wasn’t amused, though. She was ready for a fight, though their fights usually led her to a place she loved to be—making up with him in bed. He put his hands on his hips, and she knew he was about to start in on her and maybe push a little harder. He never let things go, not after everything they’d been through, fighting their way back to each other from hell. Her connection with Neil was everything she’d every wanted, but at times his worry about her could be smothering.
Fortunately, he was stopped from pushing his agenda, as far as dressing her went, when the doorbell rang. Candy glanced out the window and noticed two women as Neil yelled out, “I’ll get it, Ana.”
She didn’t move from her spot by the window as he went down the hall. Charm oozed from her husband as he spoke, and then, as expected, she heard a woman laughing. Neil had that effect. She rolled her eyes, knowing no one could see her, and listened to their voices and footsteps as they approached.
“Candy, this is Maria and her mother, Carmen,” Neil said as they entered. The two women stood beside Neil and followed him after he gestured to the sofas. “Come in, sit down, please. Could I offer you a glass of lemonade?”
“Si, senor. That is very kind,” the older woman said. She was slim and attractive, with jet-black hair woven with silver threads, pinned back at the sides with two barrettes. She was pretty and looked so neat and tidy in her red skirt and white blouse. Her daughter, Maria, was a young woman, and she smiled brightly up at Neil. When her gaze slid over to Candy, she blushed. Her hair was long, dark, straight—not wild and out of control, like Candy’s. She was slim, with long legs, and curvy in a way men must have loved.
Neil poured two glasses of lemonade, and Maria smiled in a coy, shy way that stirred all Candy’s insecurities. Her stomach was starting to hurt, maybe from how tightly she’d been holding on to everything, bottling up her feelings. Having a woman here who would carry her husband’s child…it was almost more than she could bear.
“Candy?” Neil gestured to another glass as he poured.
“No,” she said, shaking her head and crossing her arms in front of her. She took only one step from her spot by the window before deciding to stay where she was.
Neil set the glass down and strode around to the fireplace, facing the women. “I’m glad you agreed to come. My wife isn’t able to have children, and we want a family—a child of our own.”
Maria, sitting right beside her mother, cast Candy a sympathetic look, and Carmen patted her daughter’s hand. “My Maria is strong and young. She can carry your child, Mister Friessen,” she said boldly.
Candy had never considered that Neil would talk openly about her condition this way, in front of strangers, and it stung—never mind the fact that this was why the women were here in the first place. “How old are you, Maria?” she asked.
Everyone turned her way. Maybe they’d forgotten she was there. She couldn’t help feeling like a third wheel, considering how Carmen darted a glance between her and Neil as if she’d already figured out who made the decisions in their relationship.
“Maria is nineteen,” Carmen said with authority, as if talking down to Candy.
Candy started around the easy chair closest to Neil. “That’s very young for what you’re offering to do. I wonder if you’ve really considered all the ramifications,” she said. She didn’t need to look at Neil to know he wasn’t pleased, but at least he wasn’t saying anything to undermine her—well, not yet, anyway. “Maria,” she continued, “have you thought about what might happen if you become pregnant and decide you can’t go through with it? I mean, you’ll carry a baby inside you for nine months and then be expected to walk away and have no contact with the child. Are you telling me, honestly, that you can do that?”
Maria’s smile faded. She was watching Candy with an odd look in her light brown eyes. There was something there that was young and old at the same time. She was beautiful, and her face had a radiance that Candy found attractive. There was innocence, but also something that suggested this young woman was experienced beyond her age. Then again, perhaps Candy might have been reading too much into her expression. It was an awkward situation.
“Of course it won’t be easy, but, to me, this is a gift, something I can offer a childless couple who could give their child everything,” she said.
“You’ll be paid, though, of course,” Candy added.
Carmen turned, giving Candy all her attention. “My Maria understands, very clearly, what this is about.” She gestured with the flat of her hand to Neil. “My daughter will sign your contract, and you will pay for all medical care and living expenses, and she will be compensated for her time. This is a business arrangement, nothing more,” she said.
The woman was blunt, and Candy watched Maria closely as her mother spoke for her. The young lady glanced at her hands, which were folded together in her lap, her expression neutral, giving nothing away. Candy wondered what was really going on in her head.
“We won’t begin anything until the contract is signed and all the terms are agreed to,” Neil said. “My lawyer will handle all the details, and there’s mandatory counseling, as well.”
Candy wondered if her shock showed on her face. Why was this the first time she was hearing of this? She wanted to pull Neil aside and say something, but she realized, as she looked back at Carmen, who was watching her intently, that the sharp woman had picked up on her confusion.
“Yes, we understand the counseling, but perhaps your wife does not?” she said.
To Candy, her words sounded callous and undermining, but Neil must have interpreted her another way, as he looked to Candy, stepping closer and sliding his arm around her waist. “My wife understands everything,” he said. He held her tightly for a moment, and she wondered whether he had picked up on how stiff she was as she did everything to hold herself together and not snap at him. He walked over to the sofa table and picked up some papers she hadn’t even noticed were sitting there. “This is the contract—what is expected of you and what you can expect from me. Take the time to carefully look it over so that you understand what you’d be agreeing to. This will be overseen by my attorney, of course, but you’re welcome to have your own lawyer look over the contract. I think you’ll see that I’ve been extremely generous.”
Neil held out the contract to Maria. She hesitated for a moment, maybe wondering whether she should take it. When her mother went to reach for it, Neil pulled back. “No, I’m sorry, Carmen. This contact must be agreed to in its entirety by your daughter. She needs to understand clearly her responsibilities, otherwise this won’t work. You’re welcome to support your daughter and be there for her emotionally, but the details of this must be understood and agreed to solely by her.”
Carmen pulled back in her seat and gestured to Maria. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. Maria, take the papers. You need to read them over.”
Candy just watched the exchange. Her alarm bells were going off. There was something about the mother and daughter that seemed problematic. Neil was so astute in business, but when she looked over at him, his expression was that of a man pleased with where things were headed. What was wrong with him? He would have been all over this if it had been some ordinary business deal.
“Thank you for coming by. If I could have your answer by Friday?” Neil added.
This time, Maria stood up and said, “Of course, Mister Friessen―”
“Neil,” he said, interrupting her with his characteristic warmth. “Please call me Neil.”
“Neil, yes. I will read this carefully, but if you would like my answer now, it’s yes. I can’t imagine it changing. I just knew when I spoke with you on the phone that you sounded like a nice man, and now, meeting your wife…well, I’m very excited.”
She had talked to him on the phone? Candy couldn’t hide the warmth in her cheeks, so she turned away, not considering how rude it would appear. She needed to have more than a few words with Neil. This was something they needed to discuss together, not with strangers.
“Thank you, Neil—and thank you, Missus Friessen,” Maria called out to her softly.
Candy turned around with her hand to her chin. The two women were watching her from the stairs, and she had to look away. She could feel Neil’s eyes on her, but she wasn’t about to look his way, because then he’d know how angry and hurt she was. Right now, in front of these woman, that was a vulnerability she couldn’t show.
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