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Something was wrong. Or at least different. Thomas Worthington-Yates pushed his dinner plate away and sat back in his chair. His gaze swung from his mother-in-law to his father-in-law and back again. The table was set with exquisite china and fine linen. The food was excellently prepared and beautifully presented. He'd arrived on time and Adam and Nina Russell greeted him with the same welcoming arms they had since he first appeared on their doorstep nine years ago, head over heels in love with their daughter, Ruth. Nothing was out of place or unexpected. Except the weird vibe that permeated the room.
"You don't like the food?" he asked.
Both of them looked at their plates, but neither took a bite to eat.
"The food is fine," Adam said.
"Then why aren't you eating it?" Thomas paused. "Are you feeling all right?"
"We're fine," Nina replied.
"What is it then?" he asked.
Nina lifted her eyelids to look at him, then quickly dropped them to stare at her plate of uneaten food.
"Nina? Adam?" he prompted.
"Thomas, we want to talk to you " Nina stopped.
Thomas steeled himself. Never had his in-laws had a problem talking to him about anything. They were friends. More than friends. They were family. Nina and Adam weren't the stereotypical in-laws. They were more like his real parents. He was glad to have them. Since Ruth died, he'd remained close to them.
"What do you want to talk about?" Thomas asked, sitting back the way he did in his office overlooking the Baltimore Harbor.
"About a grandchild." The words came out in a rush.
Thomas closed his eyes for a moment and waited for the feeling of loss to wash over him. It came each time he thought of Ruth and what her death had robbed them of. The feeling of loss was there, lighter in intensity than it had been at the beginning, but still present. His chest felt hollow, as if his heart had been buried with his wife and was no longer part of his anatomy.
"I'm sorry," Thomas said, "I can't get pregnant right now."
"I know you meant that to be funny," Adam said. "But we're serious."
Thomas sat up in his chair, leaning forward on the table. His father-in-law's expression was serious, without a flicker of amusement. "What do you mean? You know I'm not seeing anyone seriously."
"We do," he said.
"And you know adoption is the only way I could possibly provide you with a child and that could take years."
"There's another way," Nina stated.
"What?" He looked from Nina to Adam. "What other way?"
That day two years ago came back to him. It was a perfect day. It was supposed to be a happy day, but it ended tragically, taking his wife, his unborn child and his ability to ever father another child. His in-laws knew that. They were the only ones who knew it.
"Thomas, don't get upset," Nina warned. She placed her hands on the table, straddling her plate, as if she needed to hold the mahogany wood to the floor.
Thomas waited. It took her a while. He wanted to shout at her to get it out, tell him what she was talking about.
She'd spoken so softly, he could hardly hear her. "What did you say?"
"She said surrogacy," his father-in-law supplied, his voice strong and confident.
"Absolutely not!" Thomas exploded. He shot up from the chair, throwing his napkin on the table and leaving the dining room. The emptiness in his chest had become a rock. Now it weighed him down, forcing him to review what could have been, but now could never be. He needed a drink.
Thomas knew the Russells' home as well as he knew his own. He went straight to the library and subsequently to the bar. Filling a highball glass with ice, he added scotch and slung it to the back of his throat. Seconds later, his in-laws followed him.
"Think about it, Thomas," Nina continued. "This is the last chance we have of being grandparents. And it's your only chance to father a child of your own."
"Don't you think I know that?" He was rarely angry or harsh with the Russells, people he loved. While he'd never called them Mom and Dad, they were ideal in-laws, never butting into his marriage or pitting their daughter against him. When Ruth died, they were there supporting him, even though they were grieving as well. "I'm sorry," he apologized. "I didn't mean to sound so bitter. It's just that without Ruth " He stopped, unable to finish the sentence.
"We met someone who is willing to be a surrogate." Nina said after a moment. "She doesn't want children of her own, and will sign a contract to carry your and Ruth's baby. You can even be at the birth then you take your baby home."
Thomas heard the hope in his mother-in-law's voice. He also realized they'd thought about this for a while. They'd even researched it to the point of finding and interviewing a surrogate. He wondered how long this had been going on and how many women they had talked to.
"If you don't want the child, we'll raise it." She offered him a solution to what she thought might be his misgivings.
"I would be part of my child's life," he said.
Nina's shoulders dropped in relief. He knew she thought her argument had been won. "Of course, you would. And you'd be a great father."
Thomas raised his hands, stopping whatever else she was about to say. "I don't want a surrogate."
"We'd stay in touch with her. We'd answer all her questions, go with her to doctor's appointments."
"She could even stay here with us," Adam suggested.
"I won't have it," Thomas said. "The two of you know you don't need that kind of stress in your lives."
"We can handle it," Nina told him.
"Like you did with Ruth?" He took a moment to gaze at both of them. "You were on pins and needles every day of each of our attempts to get pregnant. And Ruth had a better chance of success because she had several embryos that we froze. What would it be like with a surrogate and only one frozen embryo left?"
"Thomas, what about the embryo?" Adam asked. "You can't just let it sit there."
"I can," he said. "I don't have time to babysit a surrogate right now."
"We understand that you're a busy man," Nina said. "Adam and I are willing to take care of everything. You don't have to be involved if you don't wish to."
He stared at them both, then took another swallow of his drink. "You can't," he said.
"We know we can't do anything without your permission," Adam said. "But once that's given"
"I'm not giving it." He slammed the glass down on the bar. Nina jumped slightly. Thomas saw the look of disappointment on their faces.
"Give it some time," his father-in-law said. "Give yourself time to get used to the idea. Talk to the woman. Think about holding your own child."
"Adam, Ruth and I tried for years. You know that. The doctors say you need more than one embryo to assure success and there is only one left. It would be foolish to have a surrogate, with all that entangles, when the chances of the embryo surviving are so low."
"They're low, but they're not zero," Adam said.
"Thomas, it's the only chance we have." Nina's voice was low and desperate.
"Promise me you'll think about it?" Adam asked.
"All right," he said. "I'll think about it. But don't get your hopes up."
Nina smiled for the first time that night. Thomas felt a little happier, too. He loved his in-laws the same way he had loved his parents. Nina and Adam both had heart conditions and Thomas didn't want anything to happen to them. He'd lost his parentsfirst his father to cancer and then six months later his mother died of a heart attack. After seven years of marriage, Ruth had died in a car accident. He had to admit his in-laws made some good points. He felt his heart beat a little faster.
"By the way, who is the surrogate carrier? And why'd she agree to do this?"
"Her name's Meghan Howard," Adam answered.
Thomas finished the rest of his drink with a single gulp. Could this night get any worse? he wondered. He had to fly to London in three hours and now he was dealing with people who wanted a legacy and wanted him to spend his free time with a woman he didn't know.
"How old is she?"
"She's thirty. Ruth was twenty-nine," her mother reminded him. "She would have been thirty when the baby was born."
If she had lived, Thomas thought. Her birthday was a month away when the accident happened. She was three months pregnant. Longer than any of the other pregnancies had lasted. And then the accident had taken everything. Or so he thought.
But now, there was a chance. One last chance. Should he take it? He hadn't thought about the last embryo. He'd known it was there. The promise of life he and Ruth had created. When she died, Thomas had given up. His unborn child had died with his wife. But now there was a chance. A slim chance. One last possibility. What would Ruth want him to do? He'd be a single father. Was he ready for that? he wondered.
Thomas poured another drink and took a sip. He focused on Ruth's face in his mind. He missed her. They'd had such plans. And life had played an awful trick on them. But she'd left behind one last chance for them. One embryo remained viable. His in-laws had brought the idea to his mind. He could still father Ruth's child, but did he have the courage to do what she'd want without her?
Day thirty of her job search, Meghan Howard thought. It was nearly noon and she was finally dressed. At least today was better than the last twenty-nine. And she had no job interviews to be humiliated by. Every company seemed to be downsizing. She was having less and less luck finding positions and even worse luck getting interviews. Social workers were not a necessity it seemed. If she didn't find a job soon, she'd have to move out of the city, maybe even the state. Everywhere she went, people just weren't hiring.
She'd had one "job offer" from a middle-aged woman and her husband. Meghan shuddered, refusing to think about them. Their proposal was too outrageous to consider.
Who approaches a stranger in an office and asks them to have their grandchild?
Well, they weren't exactly in the office. She'd stepped into the office to ask for directions to her next job interview. Even though she'd lived outside of Baltimore all her life, there were areas of the city she'd never been to. It was only as she left the office that she caught sight of the wall of medical information. She'd seen the brochures and not seen them. Only when the couple started talking did she realize that all the brochures and even the posters on the walls had to do with surrogacy and egg donation.
Meghan had left the office with her map in hand. The couple followed her into the corridor and onto the elevator. She nodded at the older woman as she stepped aside to give her room. Forgetting them almost as soon as the doors slid open, Meghan headed to the closest coffee shop for a latte and to study the maps until it was time to go to her next appointment. The couple had come in behind her and sat at her table. To say it was a memorable conversation would be like saying the polar ice caps were made of wedding cake icing.
Now, glancing through the windows, Meghan saw the mailman. He was early today. She thought of leaving the mail in the box. All she got were bills and junk mail. Still, going to the mailbox gave her a moment when she didn't have to think of her current situation.
She sorted through the bundle of envelopes confirming her thoughts on its contents. The last one in the group was a square-shaped envelope from Suzanne. Meghan's heart lifted when she recognized her sister's handwriting.
She opened the cream-colored envelope in the living room and pulled out the card. On the cover was a photo of a mother holding her baby. "Happy Mother's Day" was written in script across the bottom. Meghan smiled, blinking away tears that clouded her eyes and made the words on the paper swim before her eyes. Meghan could hear Suzanne's voice as she read. Her sister could have been in the room, her voice was so clear.
You are not the mother of my body, but of my choice.
An accident of birth bonded us together.
You did not carry me for nine months, but for all my life.
Happy Mother's Day.
Emotion rushed over Meghan, clogging her ears and making her heart beat faster. She sat down on the sofa. Reading the card a second and then a third time, Meghan laid it on the table and leaned back. Grabbing a throw pillow, she hugged it to herself, pulling her knees up to her chest.
Suzanne had been her life since their mother died. She was only twelve years old at the time. Meghan was twenty, just out of college and working her first job, but she refused to be separated from her sister.
Thankfully Suzanne was out of school now and had a job of her own. Of course, she was living clear across the country in California and working in television. With the cost of living out there and her entry-level salary, she couldn't afford to help Meghan out. And Meghan would never ask.
For years, she had been the caregiver and supporter of her younger sister. Suzanne was just starting her working life. Meghan would only let Suzanne know her situation if she had no other option. Right now, severance pay would cover her expenses for the next few months. Her savings, however, were extremely low. She'd been using every penny she had to educate her sister and pay the monthly bills.
Just when she thought she'd be able to save for herself and return to schoolbangshe'd lost her job and her only source of income. The outrageous proposal came back to her. It was crazy to even consider it, she thought. Sitting on her sofa, Meghan recalled the conversation she'd had with the couple the day before.
"We saw you come out of the surrogacy agency," the woman had said. "And we recognized you. We went to a lawyer and he recommended that agency."
They both nodded.