Prologue - December
‘Bored?’ Sue asked. ‘I work extremely hard.’
‘No amount of hard work can offset a lack of intellectual, psychological, or emotional stimulation.’
Sue pursed her lips. ‘I’m doing nothing differently.’
‘And that is quite likely the problem. Given your intellectual gifts and ambition is it to be expected that you would resist stagnation.’
‘Are you suggesting I need a hobby?’ Sue asked.
‘Is that what you think you need? If your life is lacking in meaning do you think the solution is to find something to pass the time?’
Sue rolled her eyes. ‘Two minutes ago, I was bored and now my life is meaningless?’
‘It’s quite possible for a boredom to be a symptom of existential dissatisfaction.’
Sue smoothed out her skirt. ‘Is it really necessary to talk to me like one of your clients?’
‘My clients pay me generously for therapy.’
‘I don’t,’ Sue said. ‘I would quite like you to be my mother for free.’
Her mother shook her head. ‘I am listening to your concerns and attempting to help you find a solution. I’m unsure how you think that demonstrates a lack of maternal zest.’
‘That you cannot tell the difference between therapy and motherhood is no surprise,’ Sue said sourly.
‘You are a grown woman, Susan, it’s natural that our relationship is different than it was when you were a child.’
Sue pursed her lips. ‘It would be natural,’ she said. ‘But it hasn’t happened.’
Her mouth sighed. ‘Well, the point remains. You seem unhappy at least in part because you have the sensation that your life is lacking… something. You dislike the suggestion that it lacks meaning. Very well. It does seem that you need some development or growth in your life to counter the ennui which you are experiencing.’
Although Sue railed against being treated as a client and not a daughter, she was mature and self-realised enough to accept that her life of late had begun to chafe. It was not the constriction of stress or the ache of loneliness – not that Sue would ever describe herself as lonely – instead it was an agitation of repetition. Despite the fact that her work was extremely varied, it felt the same. Her time off felt the same.
Perhaps that was why she took Kent’s call. Perhaps that was why she agreed to meet him for drinks. She hadn’t seen him since he’d abandoned the Meyer campaign on the night of her nomination.
They exchanged Christmas cards but not gifts. Sue resisted being friends with men that she was dating, and she certainly didn’t become friends with them after the relationship ended. That was… bizarre. Having male friends at all was the province of desperate women who thought that if they drank as much beer and ate as much pizza as the men then they would somehow earn the right to be considered dateable. Male friends were a sign of immaturity, not growth.
Nonetheless, Kent had female friends. Not the kind of female “friends” that most men had – the women they were trying to trick into dating them by blending in among them, like hunters in a blind. No, Kent actually appeared to treat his female friends as people, not prey. He was always the one reaching out to Sue. The one to send cards first. It was only a relief that he hadn’t got it into his head to send her gifts.
She hadn’t seen him, and she hadn’t spoken to him. Amy had told her he had quit over Jonah being put on the ticket. That he had apparently left in order to become some kind of hermit in the woods, did give her some slight pause when accepting his invitation.
He looked good, which was just… rude, frankly. Exes generally should look the worse off for being without you and exes twenty years your senior should look their damn age. Kent avoided the standard D.C. older man “beauty regime” of dying their hair too dark, dressing too young for their age, and drenching themselves in mahogany tan.
Instead, his hair was now a little more salt than pepper, and his skin was the kind of warm colour and depth only achieved by time spent in the open air. He had put on a little weight, which should have diminished his appearance, but instead it softened his frame which could at times border on “gaunt.” He had finally found a pair of jeans that looked good on him and the soft, ecru shirt had no business clinging to him in that manner.
He stood up as she walked over and kissed her cheek. She checked his hand – no ring. She honestly wouldn’t put it past him to get married to someone and not mention it to anyone. It wasn’t that he was secretive, it just didn’t seem to occur to him that people would like to know that he was in a biker club, or that he knew ASL, or a dozen different baffling aspects of his life.
‘Good evening,’ Kent said. ‘You look extremely healthy.’
Sue twitched. He couldn’t know about her health scare. She hadn’t told anyone. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘Your hair needs cutting.’
He chuckled. ‘Same Sue.’
‘Why change perfection?’ she asked.
It took him a couple of drinks to pull together his nerves.
‘I did call you for a specific reason,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid that I have an ulterior motive.’
Sue raised an eyebrow. ‘A man randomly asking a woman out for a drink has an ulterior motive. How shocking.’
He gave a small, nervous laugh. ‘That’s fair.’
He spread his hands. ‘I want to be a father. I have the means and resources to raise a child by myself, however due to my age, I would be extremely unlikely to be able to adopt.’
‘Please tell me this is not some ridiculous scheme whereby I pretend to be your partner in order for you to fraudulently adopt a child.’
Kent blinked. ‘It’s not.’
‘I am, in fact, seeking an egg donor,’ he said. ‘Surrogates are available but… Well. You are one of the most capable and accomplished women that I know. I believe that the product of our genetic material would have the potential to be truly outstanding.’
Sue stared at him. ‘You want me to have your baby?’
‘You egg,’ he said. ‘I would of course pay for all your medical bills.’
Sue frowned. ‘What’s wrong with my womb?’
‘Why aren’t you asking me to be your surrogate?’ she asked.
Kent spread out his hands. ‘It didn’t occur to me,’ he said meekly. ‘You have a busy job, a no-doubt active romantic life, and I’m sure that you don’t need the money.’
‘Is it because you think I’m too old?’ she demanded.
He shook his head. ‘I would have never imagined that you would say yes.’
‘Well it’s all or nothing,’ she said.
‘Okay,’ he said uncertainly. ‘There’s a clinic here in D.C. with excellent results.’
Sue relaxed slightly. ‘Naturally you are using a clinic.’
‘You seem surprised,’ he noted.
She shrugged. ‘I forgot who I was talking with.’
Kent drove her to the clinic. It wasn’t necessary per se. There was no particular reason that she couldn’t drive herself or get an Uber. It was simply that Kent offered. Sue rarely declined a man’s offer to do something for her without good cause. She was aware that there were people who considered this anti-feminist. Sue would argue that men had built the world for themselves and that any small way in which women could take back from them was all to the good. She had been told that this was a self-aggrandising argument that sought to excuse exploiting existing patriarchal customs under the guise of rebelling against them.
‘Dare I ask what is amusing you?’ Kent wondered.
‘I was thinking about that argument I had with Catherine about you opening doors for me,’ she said.
He frowned. ‘I still maintain that is merely good manners.’
‘Would you do it if you were dating a man?’
It wasn’t a joke, as such, but it was intended as perhaps a little confrontational. She had no idea how he felt about gay rights. The topic was one of many that had simply never arisen.
Kent nodded. ‘I believe so. I hope that I would show a male partner consideration and respect in small ways as I would hope to do so with a female partner.’
‘Perhaps not in exactly the same ways,’ she suggested.
He shrugged. ‘I’m not sure. It’s not a topic with which I’m sufficiently acquainted. I fear that the entire run of Six Feet Under was not adequate to the task.’
She turned in her seat. ‘You watched that?’
‘Religiously.’ He raised his index finger. ‘But not the final episode.’
‘That’s ludicrous. The ending is important.’
‘I didn’t want an ending,’ he admitted. ‘I feel that definitive endings in general are overrated. I like to imagine that after the media has finished the characters continue.’
Sue pursed her lips. ‘Fictional characters do not continue after their writer has moved on.’
‘I would like to imagine that they do,’ he said. ‘I am not alone in this. There are thriving ecosystems of different fandoms existing and interacting in glorious abundance.’
‘Is this your confession that you write fanfiction?’ she asked tartly.
He turned onto the parking lot. ‘Confession is entirely the wrong word. I have no guilt whatsoever in it nor should I.’
Sue opened and closed her mouth. ‘I do not have the energy to investigate this further.’
‘Creative outlets are healthy, Sue,’ he said mildly. ‘You should consider exploring your creative side.’
‘You are clearly creative enough for both of us and three other people besides,’ she retorted.
He got out of the car and walked around to open the door for her.
‘You didn’t have to come with me,’ she said.
He looked at her as if she had grown a second head. ‘Good Lord, of course I’m going to come with you to your appointments. It is the absolute least I can do. I hope that you realise that my support for you during this will be absolute.’
Sue took his offered hand as she stood up. ‘I hope that you realise that sounds like stalking.’
He sighed. ‘Pregnancy is entirely natural and normal; however, many women find it… challenging. I only wish to help you with those challenges.’ He tilted his head. ‘I am aware of your dislike of asking for help. I understand that you consider it to be a sign of weakness. I don’t. More to the point, I have an ethical obligation to you.’
She put her hand on her hip. ‘So, letting you “help” me is more for your benefit than mine.’
Kent blew out his cheeks. ‘Sure, if that makes you feel more comfortable. You’re accepting my support for my benefit.’
She tossed back her hair. ‘Good. Then we shouldn’t waste time out here discussing it.’
‘Are you out of your fucking mind?’
‘I don’t believe so.’
Amy threw herself back in her chair. ‘You hate kids!’
‘I do not,’ Sue said. ‘I merely have no interest in having them.’
‘Then why the fuck are you trying to get pregnant?’ Amy demanded.
‘So that Kent can have one,’ Sue said. She clasped her hands together. ‘I am curious about the experience.’
Amy poured herself a cocktail from the pitcher. ‘You’re going to do all the work and get nothing in return. What the fuck is the point of that?’
‘I’m going to experience bearing a child without having to rise one,’ Sue corrected. ‘I consider that a win.’
Amy shook her head. ‘Why is he asking you anyway? You’re way too –’
Sue narrowed her eyes. ‘Way too what?’
‘Selfish,’ Amy said. ‘You don’t have a maternal bone in your body.’
‘That’s all right then.’ Sue sipped her fruit juice. ‘He said it was because of my intelligence and resilience.’
‘Is it because you’re tall? People get way hung up on that.’
‘You say that because you’re short,’ Sue said.
‘I am average,’ Amy claimed.
Sue crossed her legs. ‘If you are average then I am a giant.’
‘I didn’t want to be the first to say you were a freak,’ Amy said.
‘Yet you did,’ Sue said.
‘I can’t believe that you’re falling for this,’ Amy said. ‘Although I guess he gets points for using “I wanna get you pregnant” as an excuse to get you into bed. That’s pretty creative.’
Sue raised her eyebrows. ‘We aren’t sleeping together.’
‘This is the twenty-first century, Amy,’ Sue said. ‘We went to a clinic. I had a ridiculous number of tests. Two weeks later we returned, I had the first hormone injection and implantation.’
‘It was a medical procedure,’ Sue insisted.
Amy pulled a face. ‘I think I’d rather just sleep with him.’
Amy shrugged. ‘He couldn’t be any worse than Dan.’
‘I never had any issues with him in that regard,’ Sue said.
‘Why did you agree with this if you aren’t even getting laid?’
Sue snorted. ‘I have no problem getting laid. I certainly don’t need to bear a child for it.’
Amy leaned forward. ‘So, the doctor was okay with this insane plan?’
‘I can’t imagine why they would have a problem.’
‘Between you and Kent that kid would come out walking with a stick,’ Amy said.
Sue narrowed her eyes. ‘Excuse me?’
‘Look, it’s no knock on you, much, but we both know that with baby shit once you hit thirty-five you are on the skids.’
‘That is a wild exaggeration,’ Sue said through gritted teeth.
Amy shrugged. ‘Hope you’ve got a cast iron contract with Kent. You don’t want him refusing the kid if there’s some kind of problem.’
‘Have you quite finished attempting to make this entire situation complex and miserable?’ Sue asked. ‘It is entirely straightforward and painless.’
‘If that useless piece of flesh masquerading as a trained medical professional comes near me with that needle, I will stick it in his eye,’ Sue growled.
‘The hormone injections appear to be working,’ Kent suggested mildly.
Sue shot him a look of pure fury. ‘That’s not funny!’
He held up his hands. ‘It was more in the line of a witty comment than a joke, but I apologise for the insult.’ He turned to the doctor. ‘I must concur with my friend. It would be best if we had another nurse.’
The nurse shook his head. ‘She’s too tight. She needs to relax.’
‘That is clearly not going to happen with you here,’ Kent pointed out. ‘Fairly or unfairly you are stressing her out.’
‘It is not unfair,’ Sue insisted.
‘Shall I leave as well?’ Kent asked.
‘Don’t be an ass,’ she grumbled. ‘This is horrible.’
Kent licked his lips. ‘Would you like to stop for lunch when we’re done here? We can go to Pax Romana.’
She scowled. ‘Are you attempting to bribe me?’
‘I am attempting to give you a nice thing to anticipate after this,’ he said meekly.
‘Can I have steak?’
He tilted his head. ‘Certainly.’
‘And dessert,’ she said. ‘I feel like cheesecake.’
‘Sounds like a hell of a lunch,’ the doctor said.
‘If I can’t drink then I am going eat as much cake as I want,’ Sue said firmly.
‘I’d be astonished if you didn’t always eat as much cake as you want,’ Kent said.
‘Are you calling me fat?’ she demanded.
He shook his head. ‘Merely a strong-minded woman who bows to no man’s judgement of how she should eat.’
Sue rolled her eyes. ‘Suck up.’
Sue’s mother was making tea in her ridiculously fussy teapot. It was an odd affectation for a woman who despised sentimentality and all forms of “unnecessary” decoration. Sue crossed her legs and tried not to tap her feet.
‘Have you taken my advice?’ her mother asked.
‘Which advice?’ Sue asked. ‘You give so much.’
They both looked around as the door was pushed open and Todd wandered in. He slid up behind Sue’s mother and put his arms around her waist.
‘Don’t be embarrassing, Todd,’ Sue’s mother said.
‘Come on, Imelda, it’s just Sue. She doesn’t mind.’
‘Oh, I mind,’ Sue said.
Todd was younger than she was and had approximately half the brain cells. Sue had disliked most of her mother’s partners over the years, but Todd irritated her on a deeper level. He was stupid, a terrible crime in Sue’s eyes, and, worse, the fact that Imelda indulged him damaged Sue’s respect for her mother.
‘You’re grumpy today,’ Todd said.
‘I won’t be grumpy tomorrow,’ Sue said. ‘But you will still –’
‘Susan, we do not weaponise Churchill quotes at the dinner table,’ Imelda snapped.
Sue pouted. ‘I would think that the education would be helpful.’
‘Did you have an argument with your boyfriend?’ Todd asked.
‘I don’t have a boyfriend,’ Sue sneered.
Todd leaned against the counter. ‘Not the one who you keep mentioning? Kurt?’
Sue bridled. ‘Kent.’
Todd picked up a banana and pointed it at her. ‘Right. Him.’
‘Kent is not my boyfriend,’ Sue said sharply.
Todd nodded. ‘One that got away, huh?’
‘No! If anything, I’m the one that got away from him.’
‘Little creepy,’ Todd said. ‘But okay.’
‘You know precisely what I mean,’ she grumbled. ‘I have no lingering romantic feelings for him.’
Imelda poured the tea. ‘Did he ever resolve his mommy issues?’
Sue folded her arms. ‘I have idea and frankly the fact that you are sneering about someone else having “mommy issues” when Todd is standing right here seems hypocritical in the extreme.’
‘I like my mommy,’ Todd protested.
‘Yes,’ Sue said. ‘Clearly.’
‘Susan, that was uncalled for,’ Imelda said. ‘Particularly since I remember quite clearly that Kent’s closeness to his mother bothered you more than a little.’
‘What’s wrong with being close to your mom?’ Todd asked. ‘I tell my mom everything.’
They stared at him.
‘Everything?’ Imelda asked.
‘Ew,’ Sue said.
They had agreed that Kent wouldn’t get in touch with her when her period was due. Too much pressure. She could see that it was difficult for him, but he did seem to agree that it was the best option. As he said, it might be months before they were successful. It was best to proceed on that basis and not set themselves up for a lot of hope and disappointment.
If there was a god, and Sue was undecided on the matter, then they had to be a man. No woman would come up with such a stupid system as periods. They were ridiculously impractical. Worse, there were already better systems in place. Cats, Kent had once told her, ovulated on intercourse. No periods for them. Admittedly they did instead roam around yelling for any males in the vicinity, but Sue felt that was probably something she would avoid.
The dreaded day passed without the expected incident. Sue told herself that it was premature to read anything into it. Kent picked her up for the pre-arranged clinic appointment and, although she could see it was difficult, he kept the conversation to current affairs.
‘How is your mother doing?’ he asked, as they waited for her appointment.
‘Very well,’ Sue said. ‘She asked after you, in a manner of speaking.’
He glanced across at her. ‘Did you change your mind?’
‘No. I haven’t told her about this.’ Sue wet her lips. ‘Your name simply came up in conversation.’
Kent glanced across at her. ‘I can’t imagine that was anything flattering.’
Sue smiled slightly. ‘She asked if you had done anything about your mommy issues.’
‘Has she done anything about her tendency to pathologise everyone she meets?’ Kent asked tartly.
‘Definitely not.’ Sue crossed her legs. ‘It appears to be a disease common to therapists.’
Kent clasped his hands together in his lap. ‘I didn’t consider you the sort of person who sought therapy,’ he said.
‘I grew up with my mother and her coterie of friends and lovers,’ she said sourly. ‘I have spent entirely too much time around therapists to ever consider them valid guides to life.’
Kent chuckled. ‘I find it quite helpful.’
‘Don’t ever tell my mother that. She would never shut up about it.’
Kent put his ankle up on his opposite knee. ‘I don’t imagine that I’m likely to spend much time in her company.’
‘Be grateful,’ Sue advised.
They sat up a little straighter as the technician opened the door and gestured to them.
‘I thought if you liked, afterwards we could go to that new waffle place,’ Kent suggested, as they stood.
‘I’m beginning to think you came up with this entire idea just so you’d have someone to eat lunch with you,’ Sue suggested.
He chuckled. ‘I do enjoy your company. However, I suspect I could have secured it more simply by just asking you to lunch and offering to pay.’
‘I do enjoy good food for free,’ she agreed.
Sue regarded her salmon silently.
‘You’re very quiet,’ Kent said, before taking a bite of his food.
‘I’m wondering how you can eat a burger with blue cheese without getting it all over your beard.’
Kent swallowed and delicately wiped his lips with a napkin. ‘Years of practice.’
‘I won’t be eating much cheese for a while,’ Sue said wryly.
Kent’s expression was sympathetic. ‘I think there are hard cheeses that are considered safe.’
‘You’ll have to make up for it with chocolate,’ Kent advised.
She considered it. ‘I do like chocolate.’
‘That’s the spirit,’ Kent said. ‘Are you… Are you regretting the decision?’
‘No,’ she said immediately. ‘Are you?’
He shook his head. ‘When they said that you were pregnant, I wanted to jump up and down.’
‘One day I would like to see you do that.’
He smiled sheepishly. ‘You were already a little… disturbed. I didn’t want to add to it.’
Sue ate a mouthful of fish. ‘It is a significant undertaking and it will certainly change my life, at least for nine months.’
‘Change can be good,’ Kent suggested. ‘There’s no growth and development without change.’
Sue rolled her eyes. ‘You sound like my mother.’
‘I’ve never been accused of that before,’ he chuckled.
‘It will be an experience,’ Sue said.
‘I’m grateful that you agreed to this,’ Kent said softly.
‘Say that when you’re holding your baby,’ Sue said gruffly. ‘Anything can happen between now and then.’
Kent shuddered. ‘You’re right.’
‘Do you have a preference for gender?’
He leaned forward. ‘I know that I’m supposed to say it doesn’t matter, and I will love my child irrespective of their gender, but I would very much like a little girl.’
Sue rolled her eyes. ‘You want a daddy’s girl.’
‘Presumably if I have a son, he would be a daddy’s boy,’ Kent pointed out. ‘Through lack of choice if nothing else.’
‘Then why? Women are paid less, receive worse medical care, and are judged more harshly.’
‘I would hope that all three things will improve by the time my child eventually enters the job market!’ he protested. ‘You make it sound as though I’m breeding livestock.’
Sue’s lips twitched. ‘I am merely being practical. For a man who prides himself on being rational and scientific, you have a peculiar romantic streak.’
‘I’m multifaceted,’ he said sweetly.
‘That is certainly one way of describing it.’ Sue pulled a face as her cell chimed. She pulled a face as she checked it.
‘Do you need to go?’ Kent asked.
‘No. I’m off work. If she can’t comprehend that then that is her problem,’ Sue said sourly. ‘I’m better than this.’
He touched her hand. ‘What’s going on?’
Sue hesitated a moment, but who else would understand better than Kent?
‘It’s work,’ she equivocated.
He smiled conspiratorially. ‘I promise I won’t tell anyone.’
‘What is wrong with you?’ Imelda asked.
Sue returned to her seat. ‘Bathroom breaks are perfectly natural, mother.’
‘Throwing up breaks aren’t,’ Imelda said. ‘Todd heard you.’
Todd nodded. ‘You okay, Sue? You eat some bad sushi?’
‘I didn’t throw up,’ Sue said firmly. ‘You’re imagining things.’
Imelda rolled her eyes. ‘You have always been a dreadful liar, Susan. I tried to teach you better techniques since lying is a social skill, but you never mastered them.’
Sue waved this off. ‘This conversation is boring, and I have an appointment in forty minutes. We can either have brunch or argue.’
‘Pretty sure I’ve seen you girls do both,’ Todd said.
Sue narrowed her eyes. ‘Do not call me a girl.’
‘You can call me a girl,’ Imelda said, squeezing his ass.
‘If I were to throw up, this would be why,’ Sue complained.
Todd grabbed a piece of toast from the plate. ‘Where’s your date?’
Sue crossed her legs. ‘I don’t have a date.’
‘You’re all dressed up,’ he pointed out.
She narrowed her eyes. ‘Some of us take pride in our appearance.’
Imelda carefully dissected her eggs. ‘Susan, two weeks ago you accused Todd of being vain. You are being inconsistent.’
‘He is being inconsistent,’ Sue said.
Imelda ate a mouthful of eggs. ‘For the past couple of months every time you come to Sunday brunch you are excited about a mysterious appointment afterwards.’
Sue crossed her legs. ‘You are reaching, mother.’
‘And you are dissembling, daughter.’
‘Is it wrong that I hope my daughter actually is developing a social life?’ Imelda asked. ‘That she enjoys a life with interests besides work?’
‘I have a social life,’ Sue protested. ‘I have friends and I have interests.’
‘Name three of each,’ Imelda said. ‘People you work with don’t count as friends and research for work doesn’t count as an interest.’
She waved her hand dismissively. ‘I don’t have to justify my life to you.’
Imelda folded her arms. ‘Uh-huh.’
‘I don’t know why I come here,’ Sue said eventually. ‘All you do is harass me.’
‘Hey, your mom loves you,’ Todd said suddenly. ‘She just wants you to be happy.’
Sue rolled her eyes. ‘Mind your own business, Todd.’
Imelda had the decency to look faintly embarrassed.
‘I wasn’t sure that you would still want to do this,’ Sue admitted.
They were walking along a wide but rough-hewn path. Kent had his hands tucked in his pockets as he walked.
She adjusted her scarf. ‘Now you’ve already got what you wanted from me.’
He grinned at her. ‘I think you are teasing me.’
She had forgotten how much she liked that grin. It made him look younger and lightly roguish. She tried not to smile but it was impossible.
‘Perhaps very slightly,’ she said.
‘I hope that I haven’t treated you like some sort of… brood mare,’ he said. ‘It certainly wasn’t my intention.’
‘Not at all,’ she said. ‘I have had boyfriends who were less enthusiastic to spend time with me.’
He gently nudged her shoulder with his. It was an oddly intimate gesture. It would have bothered her once. Now warm little sparks skipped up and down and spine.
‘Your approval can be quite a high bar to clear,’ he said.
‘I will not apologise for high standards,’ she retorted. ‘You are hardly known for your low standards either.’
He shrugged. ‘I’ve honestly never thought of it that way. In any event, here I am, sixty-five years old, and single. There are no ladies lining up to date me, irrespective of my standards.’
Sue was quiet for a moment. ‘I thought that you were quite content to be single.’
‘I’ve made my peace with it,’ he corrected. ‘I cared a great deal for Julie. I would have been happy to spend my life with her.’
Sue touched his arm awkwardly. ‘I was sorry to hear about her.’
Kent blew out his cheeks. ‘It was… difficult.’ He shook his head. ‘From time to time it becomes quite acute but it’s less often now then it was.’ He set his shoulders. ‘However, I must move on. I’m no longer young. My projected life expectancy is ninety-two. Having a child now means that, barring anything unexpected, my child will be twenty-six when I die. That’s relatively young but by no means a traumatic age.’
Sue nodded. ‘I was twenty-three when my father died.’
‘I didn’t know that,’ he said quietly. ‘I hope that I didn’t say anything distressing.’
She shook her head. ‘I only mention it to agree with your assessment that twenty-six is not an age at which lifelong trauma is likely.’ She looked ahead at the buildings which were now quite close. ‘How old were you when your father passed?’
‘Six,’ he said. ‘My parents were already separated, and I had little to do with him beforehand. I mourned the concept more than the man.’
‘I see,’ she said. ‘That explains your mommy issues.’
He rolled his eyes. ‘I like my mother. We get on well. You have far more issues with your mother.’ He gestured at the buildings. ‘Would you like to go inside and see the alpacas? It’s a little cold for them to be wandering around outside.’
She raised her eyebrows. ‘This is all your ranch?’
He chuckled. ‘Of course. It’s a business, Sue, not a hobby.’
‘Are you making money?’ she asked bluntly.
‘Good. Show me your alpacas then.’
Sue sighed as she sat up in bed. After lying awake for over an hour remaining felt like wasting time. She walked downstairs intending to make herself a drink of calming green tea. Despite her usual yoga and meditation before bed, she was unable to clear her mind. Despite usually falling asleep as soon as her head touched the pillow, it was now impossible to find a comfortable spot in which to sleep.
She leaned against the countertop, warming her hands around her cup of tea. It was tempting to assume that the entire issue was hormonal. The hormone treatment to aid conception had certainly resulted in some memorable fluxes of emotion. But they had been fluxes. They had arisen suddenly, but they had also disappeared as quickly. This… issue had developed slowly and showed no sign of dissipating.
Going to Kent’s ranch had been far more fun than she would have ever imagined. It had been a long walk around the perimeter, but she enjoyed long walks and she had very much enjoyed their talk. Sue was not a particular fan of animals in general, but she had observed that Kent was. She had never seen him interacting with a baby, but watching him affectionately greeting the alpacas, gently petting them, and patiently feeding them, filled her with certainty that he would be an excellent father.
He kissed her cheek, when she got in her car. It was nothing new and it was nothing surprising. She found that she was expecting it. Waiting for it. The same way she had been waiting for the occasional moment when his hand brushed against hers. Or his hand in the small of her back as he helped her up a steeper incline.
Sue sipped her tea. She was not an introspective woman but neither did she deceive herself. There was a clear pattern to her responses to Kent. Despite the fact that it wasn’t a pattern that had repeated often, it had repeated enough to be clear to her This was going to be… difficult. But she was a grown woman and she had made a commitment.
‘I’m sorry, what?’ Selina Meyer asked.
Sue sighed. Internally, mostly, but still. ‘I am pregnant, but I will need minimal time off as I will not be keeping the child.’
‘Abortion is still legal,’ Selina said. ‘Just about.’
Sue clasped her hands together. ‘I am not giving the child up for adoption, Ma’am, I am acting as a surrogate for a friend.’
Selina sat back in her chair. ‘Jesus, I would never do that. No friend is worth that much fucking pain and misery.’
‘It’s not entirely selfless,’ Sue admitted. ‘I am curious about the experience of pregnancy, but I have no inclination to raise a child.’
‘Don’t forget that,’ Selina said, pointing a pen at her. ‘When you actually give birth all these fucking hormones kick in trying to fool you into thinking that you actually want the kid. Don’t fall for that shit.’
Sue pursed her lips. ‘He mentioned legal papers. I think it’s wise to get everything in writing.’
Selina nodded. ‘First thing I learned in law. Nail that shit down.’ She screwed up her eyes. ‘Wait, your friend is a guy? How do you know this isn’t some creepy bullshit to get you pregnant and control you?’
Sue considered her reply. ‘Because Kent would never do that.’
Sue nodded. Selina thought about it.
‘Yeah, I don’t see him pulling that shit either.’ She shuddered. ‘I wouldn’t let him fuck me though.’
Sue kept her own counsel on that. ‘We went to a clinic,’ she said. ‘It was all medical and above board.’
Selina pulled a face. ‘Well that doesn’t sound like any fun at all.’
‘You can stay here,’ Imelda said. ‘It’s less than forty minutes to D.C.’
‘We would end up killing each other,’ Sue said briskly.
Todd nodded in agreement. He had a mouthful of cereal.
Imelda pulled a face. ‘We are quite capable of giving each other space and respecting boundaries.’
Sue sipped her tea. ‘I have said no. You are continuing to push. How is that a demonstration of respecting my boundaries?’
‘That was merely an explanation,’ Imelda said firmly. ‘If you’ve not going to stay here then what are you going to do? Moral indignation will hardly keep you warm and dry.’
Todd swallowed his food. ‘Can you take your landlord to court?’
‘That would take months at minimum,’ Sue said. ‘I’ll find somewhere else. In the interim I have a friend that I’m going to ask until I find something permanent.’
Imelda raised her eyebrows as she took a tray of cookies from the stove. ‘You’re going to approach a friend and ask for help?’
Sue stiffened. ‘He has a ranch in Alexandria. There is plenty of room.’
Imelda waved Todd back as he reached for a cookie. ‘That is hardly my point. Since when are you happy to ask anyone for help?’
Sue took a deep breath. This was probably as good a time as any and as bad a time as any. ‘Kent owes me, and this will be in his interest.’
‘Whoa!’ Todd widened his eyes. ‘The boyfriend who isn’t.’
Imelda put her hand on her hip. ‘What do you mean, Susan?’
Sue shrugged. ‘I’m acting as a surrogate for him.’ She took in Todd’s blank expression. ‘Kent wants to have a baby. He doesn’t have a partner, and he believes that my intelligence, resilience, and various physical attributes deserve to be passed on.’
‘It took you long enough to admit it,’ Imelda said, shaking her head. ‘How many weeks pregnant are you?’
‘Twelve,’ Sue said. ‘Pretending that you knew is beneath you.’
‘I knew that you were pregnant.’
‘Because of the puking,’ Todd said helpfully.
Imelda waggled her hand. ‘There were other issues. Honestly, Susan, when I told you to do something meaningful with your life this isn’t what I meant.’
Sue snorted. ‘This is nothing to do with you, Mother.’
‘How is it nothing to do with me? You’re my daughter. You are carrying a child, one of the most profound experiences that a woman can have. You intend to hand that child over for someone else to raise. A fundamental breach of nature.’
Sue rolled her eyes. ‘I’m not fourteen. This weak attempt at provocation will not work. I know that you have little or no reverence for childbirth or childrearing. I once heard you say that pregnancy was an animal act on a par with urination and sleep. You have also said, many times, that there a great many people who should not attempt to raise children because they were simply not capable.’
Imelda folded her arms. ‘I did not mean you.’
‘Nonetheless, it applies,’ Sue said. ‘I have never wanted children. Kent always has. I am confident that he will be an excellent father. If anything, there is some risk that he may be over-indulgent, but he will be loving, kind, and always present. He deserves this. Any child would be fortunate to have him as a father.’
Todd leaned back against the counter. ‘Why aren’t you dating this guy if he’s so amazing?’
‘Because I’m not some cave woman who considers “good fatherhood material” as the primary important characteristic in a partner!’ she snapped. ‘It’s completely irrelevant to me whether a man is good with children.’
‘But you’re in love with him,’ Todd said. He looked at Imelda. ‘Right?’
‘Susan knows that,’ Imelda said quietly.
Sue felt herself grow hot. ‘That’s irrelevant too.’
‘Would you prefer the main house or the guest house?’ Kent asked.
Sue tilted her head. ‘You have a guest house?’
‘It’s not big,’ he said. ‘In summer months we rent it out for events mostly, but we’re out of season.’ He scratched his head. ‘Probably less disruption for you to stay in the main house. Then if you decided to stay until after the birth you won’t be disturbed by moving or annoying visitors.’
Sue opened and closed her mouth. ‘I was only thinking about an interim stay while I find somewhere else.’
He nodded easily. ‘Sure, but moving is stressful and you’ve got enough going on already. If you decide you prefer to stay that’s fine too. There’s lots of room.’
He gave her a tour of the house while the movers carried her boxes upstairs. It was pretty much what she would’ve guessed for him. She especially liked the library with its hundreds of books and comfortable leather couches.
‘I hope this is going to off-limits to any sticky-handed little child,’ Sue said.
He chuckled. ‘For some considerable while I think. More for avoiding a book dropped on the head as anything else.’
Sue winced at the thought. ‘I once pulled a pan of warm milk over my feet. My father had to throw me in the sink and fill it with cold water.’
Kent shuddered. ‘Were you badly scalded?’
‘A little pained,’ she said. ‘No scars. Did you have many accidents when you were a child?’
‘The usual I suppose,’ he said, showing her into living room. ‘I broke my arm falling out of a tree.’
Sue bumped against him. ‘That was very irresponsible of you.’
‘I’ll try not to do it again,’ he promised.
Sue settled into her bedroom. It was large and comfortable, although she was of late more impressed by the attached bathroom than the large screen television. Kent had put her small bookcase in the corner, next to the dresser. At home she never read in bed but here this seemed like it would be acceptable. She and Kent had only dated for a few months and certainly didn’t live together at any point. Nonetheless she was sure that he would need his space and she certainly did. She would leave him the living room in the evenings, and she would relax in her bedroom.
There was a creak as the door opened a few inches. Sue leaned forward, and saw a giant, silver, fluffy, one-eyed cat. The cat swaggered across the room, sniffing at Sue’s belongings. Kent hadn’t specifically mentioned having a cat, but she should have expected it.
‘Hello,’ she said, as the cat jumped onto the bed. Sue was quite sure that the bed shifted under the weight. She held out her hand and allowed the cat to sniff her hand.
There was a tap on the door. The cat ignored it.
‘Sue? I don’t suppose that there’s a cat in there?’ Kent asked.
‘Yes. It just jumped off the bed and hid underneath,’ Sue said dryly.
She heard him groan.
‘She doesn’t much appreciate having her leg treated. May I come in and fetch her?’
‘Of course.’ She sat up a little as he entered the room. ‘Why does her leg need to be treated?’
He shut the door behind him and knelt down by the bed. ‘She was bitten by a rat. One might think that she would have learned her lesson after the squirrel, but evidently not.’
‘Is that what happened to her eye?’
He emerged from the bed with the cat in his arms. He joggled her onto her back, deftly dabbed a swab over her leg, and then put her down. She threw him a look of disgust over her shoulder and stalked away.
‘That should teach you,’ Sue said, trying not to laugh.
‘I’m evidently a very difficult person to live with,’ he said, standing up. He brushed back his hair. ‘I was wondering if you’d like to join me for dinner?’
‘That would be very nice, thank you.’
Kent smiled, a warm and genuine smile. ‘Good. It’ll be nice to have some friendly company.’
Sue nodded. Friendly. Right.
It was a disaster. Sue hurled her clothes aside as she hunted for something, anything, that would fit her. Outside her room, she heard Kent clear his throat.
‘Is there something wrong?’ he asked. ‘We need to leave in the next few minutes.’
‘Nothing fits!’ she snarled. ‘I was barely showing and suddenly now I’m huge and nothing fits and I don’t know what to do!’
There was a moment of quiet from the hallway before he replied.
‘Can I come in?’ he asked meekly.
She was expecting perhaps some practical advice or an injunction to calm down and be less… hormonal. Admittedly that didn’t sound much like him so much as it sounded like her mother. Or her, come to that.
She wasn’t expecting him to gently pull her close and wrap his arms around her. She wasn’t expecting herself to rest her head against his chest.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I should have taken you to buy some maternity clothes. We’ll go after the clinic appointment. Is that okay?’
‘It’s not your fault,’ she mumbled. She felt warmth spreading across his back as he rubbed her back.
‘We both know that it is,’ he said. ‘It’s my responsibility.’
She snuffled. Feeling like a fool. ‘What are we going to do for now?’
Kent gently let her go, took a step back, and looked at her thoughtfully. ‘It won’t be stylish, but I have some sweats that’ll fit.’
She pushed back her hair. ‘Thank you.’
He kissed her forehead. ‘I’ll get them.’
She watched him go. Forehead kiss. Her stomach twisted.
Kent had to offer Sue his arm for her to get out of the car. If this was what she was like at four months, then she dreaded to think how large she would be by the time she was giving birth.
‘I’m sorry that you’re having such an unhappy time,’ Kent said, shutting the door.
She shook her head. ‘I’m fine,’ she said, squeezing his arm. ‘I shouldn’t have let you see me that way.’
‘Please don’t say that,’ he said softly. ‘I hope that we can be honest with each other. Or that you can be honest with me. I’m sure that you have no desire or interest in any issues of mine.’
Sue nodded. ‘I hate hearing about other people’s problems.’
He chuckled. ‘I remember.’
‘Nonetheless, I am happy to hear yours, if you have any,’ she offered. ‘I will misuse the power of my position to destroy anyone who upsets you.’
‘I love that you can do that,’ he said, waggling his eyebrows.
Sue giggled. She never giggled. ‘You used to be able to do that,’ she said, looking away.
‘True,’ he said. ‘Although I suspect that you are much better at destroying people than I am.’
‘Years of practice,’ she said airily.
‘Hey Sue, who knocked you up?’ Jonah asked.
Next to him, Amy slapped her hand over her eyes.
‘What?’ Jonah asked. ‘I’m expressing an interest. You keep telling me I need to do that to look more like a regular guy.’
‘Regular guys don’t ask women who knocked them up!’ Amy hissed.
‘She got divorced, right? Everyone was talking about it in the office,’ he argued.
Sue narrowed her eyes. ‘Mr Vice President, if you ever want to speak to President Meyer again, you will shut the hell up immediately.’
‘Okay,’ Jonah said stubbornly.
‘I love your dress,’ Beth said sweetly. ‘It’s so stylish! When I was pregnant, I couldn’t find anything attractive to wear. Was it expensive?’
‘Outrageously,’ Sue said in satisfaction. ‘The man I am carrying the baby for paid for it. He said that purchasing my maternity clothes was his responsibility, and I agreed.’
‘He didn’t pick it did it?’ Amy asked doubtfully.
‘You sold your baby?’ Beth gasped.
‘Of course not.’
Amy waggled her hand. ‘Well, kinda.’
Sue rolled her eyes. ‘This conversation is dull. I’ll see you at the weekend, Amy.’
Jonah sniggered. ‘You girls dating now?’
‘I miss dating women,’ Beth mused.
Sue sighed as she clomped up the stairs to her bedroom. She could hear thumping and rustling from somewhere upstairs. She considered calling Kent’s name, but the idea of engaging in any kind of conversation was exhausting.
A door along the corridor from her own was open and seemed to be the source of the sound. Through the open door, Sue could see a sliver of a room where the wallpaper was being steamed off. Ugh. Decorating. Sue was not a believer in doing anything herself that a professional could be paid to do.
She went into her room and sank gratefully onto the bed. Erdos the cat, curled up on the pillow, chirped a greeting without lifting her head or moving in any way. Sue kicked off her shoes and lay back on the bed. After a few seconds, Erdos walked across her chest and curled up in her armpit.
‘That is very unhelpful,’ she grumbled.
Kent tapped on the door as he opened it. ‘I was going to ask if you wanted some tea. I’m not sure how you’d manage to drink it.’
‘With sufficient motivation I can drink anything,’ Sue said. She raised her head a little so that she could see him. ‘What motivation would it take for you to rub my feet?’
‘You can buy me a coffee sometime,’ he said, moving a chair around so that he could sit down.
‘That seems cheap,’ she said, laying her head back and closing her eyes. ‘Are you bad at foot rubs?’
‘I just like expensive coffee,’ he said.
Sue sighed quietly as he took off her socks and began rubbing her feet. ‘That’s nice.’
‘I’m glad you asked,’ he said. ‘I’m not always sure when offering would be inappropriate or unwelcome.’
Sue stretched out her arms. ‘I suppose it’s more difficult for men now,’ she said. ‘You poor babies.’
Kent chuckled. ‘Only in that men can no longer pretend not to know that their behaviour was wrong. It was always wrong and women’s… distaste for it hasn’t changed. All that has changed is that now men are being forced to confront it.’
‘That was the right answer.’
‘Hard day?’ Kent asked.
‘A long day,’ she said. She opened her eyes and looked at the ceiling. ‘Have you ever done this before?’
‘Am I that bad?’ he asked.
Sue shook her head. ‘The reverse.’ She propped herself up on her elbows. ‘Why are you single, Kent?’
The look that crossed his face made her wish she hadn’t asked.
‘I don’t know,’ he admitted. ‘I have asked myself the same question a number of times. I can only assume that I am significantly deficient in some way that I haven’t identified.’
Sue shook her head. ‘It’s not that.’
He shook his head. ‘I don’t know what to tell you.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Sue said honestly. ‘I didn’t mean to… Tell me what you’ve been doing in the other room?’
He smiled. ‘I’m getting the nursery ready. I know that it’s a little early but… I’m excited. I’m not going to lie.’
She returned his smile. ‘You haven’t talked much about it.’
Kent shrugged. ‘I didn’t want to talk about myself too much. I thought it might be… inappropriate to be too excited when I talked to you about it.’
Sue sat up fully. ‘You can talk to me,’ she said. ‘I’m not doing this reluctantly or unwillingly.’ She put her hand over his. ‘I want you to be happy to be having this baby.’
He rubbed his thumb along the back of her hand. ‘I am. I’m terrified. I’m worried. I’m sure that I can do it and I’m sure that I can’t. But it’s a good kind of terrified.’
She smiled slightly. ‘You can do it. I know you will do it and you will be wonderful.’
Todd cupped his chin in his hands. ‘Why are you carrying this around?’
‘I asked to see it,’ Imelda said.
‘But see, it’s been folded and refolded a bunch of times,’ he said. ‘And it’s a little grubby. She’s been carrying it around in her purse.’
Sue ignored him. ‘I don’t know how people claim to learn anything from ultrasound images. You might as well try to see the future in tealeaves.’
Imelda smoothed the paper out. ‘That is an extremely poor comparison, Susan, and unworthy of you. Anyone would think you were saying the first thing to cross your mind in an effort to distract attention from the fact that Todd has a point.’
‘Todd never has a point,’ Sue said.
‘You just don’t want to admit that you’re curious about your baby,’ he said cheerfully.
‘She’s not “my” anything,’ Sue said firmly. ‘I’m simply carrying it for a while.’
Imelda snorted. ‘Susan, that “it’s not mine I’m just holding it” didn’t work with pot when you were seventeen and it certainly doesn’t convince now.’
‘If she’s not your baby then why did your put your hand on your tummy just then?’ Todd asked.
Sue narrowed her eyes. ‘It hurts.’
‘If you think that hurts wait until the birth,’ Imelda said.
Sue took a banana from the fruit bowl and unpeeled it. ‘Why do mothers always delight in boasting about how painful childbirth was?’
‘Because traditionally we haven’t gone to war,’ Imelda said tartly. ‘When you have given birth, you’ll boast about it too.’
Sue took a bite of the banana. After she swallowed it, she shook her head. ‘I’m going to be on as many painkillers as humanly possible. If a c-section didn’t have such a long recovery time I would do it unconscious.’
‘You don’t mean that,’ Imelda said. ‘After nine months of carrying a child, putting in all the hard work, you wouldn’t check out of the denouement.’
‘Don’t tell me what I mean,’ Sue said, scowling.
‘I will tell you what you mean when you are clearly lying to yourself.’ Imelda waved the ultrasound. ‘Todd is right. You’re carrying this around in your purse. It has finger smudges on it. You’re telling yourself that you have no interest in this foetus and it’s not true.’
Sue tightly folded her arms. ‘I’m not… uninterested. But there is a difference between having a… clinical interest in the development and feeling a sense of ownership.’
‘He’d understand,’ Todd suggested. ‘If he’s as great a guy as you say then if you tell him he’ll understand.’
Sue stared at him. ‘Tell him what? There’s nothing to say. I’m vaguely curious? How is that something that he needs to be told?’
Imelda clasped her hands together. ‘Susan, this is a complex situation, your feelings for Kent, your feelings for the foetus, and your relationships for both are very complex but you are refusing to admit that. You need to face them, and you need to deal with them.’
Sue gritted her teeth. ‘I am dealing with the situation, Mother. I deal with it every day.’
One of the alpacas was birthing. Kent had been out in the stable with her for a couple of hours when Sue made him some lunch and a mug of tea. She made her way carefully across the ranch to the stable balancing the tray and avoiding the curious attention of the other animals. They had grown used to her gradually, moving from fear, to familiarity, to playful affection.
She bumped open the stable door and then shut behind her. The light was low and diffuse. The air carried the scents of vegetation, dung, and the various animal smells that she knew now was the natural perfume of the alpacas. As she stepped forward, she saw the cria slide to the floor with a shrill bleat.
‘I brought you some lunch,’ she said.
‘You’re a ministering angel,’ Kent said. ‘But uh…’ He held up his arms for her to see the gore on them.
‘Not a problem,’ Sue said briskly. She put the tray on a hay bale and held half the sandwich out to his mouth.
He grinned and took a bite. ‘I’m going to end up with food in my beard.’
‘Covered in blood and I don’t know what, but breadcrumbs are worrying you,’ she said, shaking her head.
‘Viscera makes you think that I look dramatic and dashing,’ he said before taking another bite. ‘Breadcrumbs merely make me look messy.’
Sue looked past him to the alpaca and her child. ‘I’m surprised that you didn’t call the vet.’
‘If things had gone on much longer then I would have,’ he said. ‘Or there was any sign of distress.’
Sue gave him a sip of tea. ‘Have you midwifed many babies?’
He licked his lips. ‘This is… seven.’
‘A veritable expert then,’ she said.
He smiled. ‘You tease but I think you’re secretly impressed.’
‘Not that secretly,’ Sue said. ‘I wouldn’t know where to start even with a dog, never mind an alpaca.’
‘You’d do your research just as I did,’ he said. ‘But uh, gotta say that the sandwich and tea really do help.’
Sadness crossed his face and he looked away.
‘What?’ Sue asked.
He shook his head. ‘I enjoy having you here.’
‘I enjoy being here,’ she said. ‘I suppose… There’s something I should probably tell you.’
His shoulders stiffened. ‘Oh.’
Sue drew her brows together. ‘Why the tone?’
Kent licked his lips. ‘You’ve been a lot happier recently, despite everything, a lot more relaxed. I should have assumed that you would meet someone sooner or later. I rather hoped that it would be later. That you would stay here a while longer. It was selfish.’
‘You could tell that I was in love but not who with?’ she asked. ‘You’re an idiot.’
Kent frowned. ‘You talk about work, about Amy, your other female friends, about your mother, and your family. You never talk about another man. How am I supposed to know who it is if you never talk about him?’
Sue rolled her eyes. ‘I never talk about him because I’m talking to him.’
He stared at her. ‘You’re in love with me?’
She crossed her arms tightly. ‘I know, it’s ridiculous.’
‘You’re in love with me?’ he repeated. ‘I’m in love with you.’
It was Sue’s turn to stare. ‘You are?’
‘I wasn’t going to say anything,’ he explained. ‘I was worried it would… ruin things. That you might think it was creepy.’
Sue pressed her hand to her forehead. ‘What do we do now?’
Kent shrugged. ‘Talk, I suppose. But first I should get washed up. I’m covered in alpaca.’
They sat on the couch. Sue put her hand tentatively on top of his.
‘This is… difficult,’ Kent said.
‘It’s always difficult with you,’ Sue said wryly.
‘Children aren’t exactly something you can compromise on,’ he said apologetically. ‘Even ignoring our history -’
‘It’s a long time in the past and we’ve both grown since then,’ she said quickly.
He sighed. ‘Sure. Nonetheless.’
She rested her hands on her belly. ‘You can’t be with someone who doesn’t want a child,’ she said quietly.
Kent leaned against her. ‘It wouldn’t be fair to you or her. You’d resent her and she’d feel it.’
Sue slapped his knee. ‘You don’t know that.’
‘A child is a huge responsibility, Sue,’ he said. ‘And they demand a massive amount of attention. You didn’t enjoy sharing my attention with my cat, you’d hate sharing me with a child.’
‘Your cat was very demanding,’ she said, trying not to smile. ‘What happened to him?’
‘Time,’ Kent said with a shrug.
Sue took his hand between hers. ‘I’m sorry. I know you loved him.’
He nodded. ‘Grief is the price we pay for love.’
‘Does that make you feel better?’
Sue kissed his cheek. ‘We have a few months before the baby is born. Perhaps we can work something out.’
‘Your optimism is inspiring,’ he said. ‘Baffling, but inspiring.’
‘Because it’s weird,’ Sue said. ‘That’s why.’
Amy wiggled her toes as the nail technician sat down in front of her. ‘You shouldn’t kink shame.’
‘You do all the time,’ Sue said. She couldn’t see her toes, nonetheless there were standards to maintain.
‘He’s into pregnant women. You’re pregnant. It’s a perfect match.’
Sue looked at her askance. ‘He’s one of your clients, isn’t he?’
‘I really don’t see how that can possibly be relevant.’
‘I think it’s extremely relevant if my best friend is attempting to pimp me out to her clients.’
Amy waved her free hand. In her other hand she was holding a glass of Martini. ‘He’s a potential client yes.’
Sue shook her head. ‘He would do well to focus his passions of a less ephemeral object of desire.’
Amy sipped her Martini. ‘Uh, you are totally not ephemeral. You are totally solid.’
Sue narrowed her eyes. ‘I was referring to the concept of pregnancy,’ she said. ‘It’s hardly sustainable is it? Pregnant women have a tendency to give birth, at which point they are no longer pregnant.’
‘Totally unlike everyone else,’ Amy said. ‘We never get wrinkles or fat or any damn thing.’
‘I have no intention of it,’ Sue said smugly.
Amy flicked her eyes over Sue’s stomach. ‘Uh-huh,’ she said.
‘I didn’t say anything!’
‘Shut up anyway.’
The furniture store was cluttered with far too many customers and far few store assistants. Nonetheless, one attached themselves to Kent and Sue as they were looking at cribs. Sue supposed that it made sense. Who else would spend money on furniture like an expecting couple? So many things to buy, many of which Sue suspected nobody would ever use.
She didn’t mind. Kent was more excited than she had possibly ever seen. There was a happy flush in his cheeks, and he bounced when he rushed from one crib to another. He had a dozen questions for the assistant. She saw the assistant glance at her two or three times. Trying to work out what the dynamic was, she supposed.
This was going to be Kent’s life. He was going to be a wonderful, committed, and attentive father who would have no time for her. It was what he did. His focus was absolute. When they had dated, his focus had been on her. She had found it too much. Too intense. She hadn’t understood it and she hadn’t appreciated it.
‘Sue, are you okay?’ Kent asked. He tipped up her face and dried it with a Kleenex. The genuine concern in his eyes made her step back.
‘I’m fine, thank you,’ she said, straightening her back.
‘Are you tired? We can do this another time.’
‘I’ll get a chair,’ the assistant offered, and rushed away.
Kent tucked his hands in his pockets. ‘If you tell him that you feel faint maybe we can convince them to give you some ice cream.’
She smiled back at him. ‘I’d kill for a stiff drink.’
‘Not long now,’ he said. ‘Two more months.’
‘I am going to get so drunk,’ she said seriously.
Kent laughed. ‘I hope you’ll go out with Amy. She’ll look after you.’
The assistant returned with a collapsing chair. Sue sank into it gratefully.
‘Amy can’t keep up with me,’ Sue said with a sniff.
‘You’ll be nine months out of practice though.’
Sue stuck her tongue out at him. He grinned at her.
‘Ugh,’ she groaned, and looked down at her belly. ‘Your daughter is kicking me again.’
‘She’s getting strong,’ he said. ‘Can I?’
Sue looked at the assistant. ‘This is respect. Asking if he can feel the baby kicking.’
The young woman smiled. ‘That’s nice.’
‘I’m terrified of her,’ Kent said, delicately putting his hand on Sue’s belly.
‘You should be.’ She put her hand over his. ‘Okay, I can’t sit here all day.’
Bethany. Sue looked at herself in the full-length mirror. Kent had asked her if she thought it was a nice name. He had a shortlist, but his preference was Bethany. Bethany Sasha Davison. Knowing that she was pregnant with a girl she had mostly taken in her stride. Knowing she was pregnant with a girl named Bethany… That was something else. That was real. Bethany was going to be a person with likes and dislikes, with her own distinct personality, and her own path in life. Sue was holding a human being in trust. Kent’s daughter.
Until now, the baby had been a concept. An idea. Now she had heard Bethany’s heartbeat. Felt her kick. Kent had spent days decorating the nursery. Days putting together furniture. Bethany had been real to Kent from the first. His hope. His love. He had asked Sue to be a part of that. He had trusted her.
There was a crash from downstairs and muffled swearing. Sue hid a smile as she went out into the hallway.
‘Are you destroying the house again?’ she called.
She walked down the stairs and into the kitchen. Kent had been cooking dinner but was now clearing up broken glass.
‘I’ll have you know that I could have gone to dinner with a rich pervert,’ she announced.
‘I rather assumed that you could always do that,’ he said. He looked up at her. ‘I imagine you could make an absolute fortune as a dominatrix.’
She put her hand on her hip. ‘Would I have to touch anyone?’
‘No. I understand that’s not necessary.’
‘Perhaps I’ll consider that when I’m back in shape,’ she said. ‘Although Amy was trying to fix me up with a rich pervert just this morning.’
Kent say back on his heels. ‘Pervert seems a little judgemental,’ he said mildly.
‘I am very judgemental,’ she said. ‘I take pride in it.’
‘I’m only suggesting that sexual variety is the spice of life,’ Kent said.
‘And some spices are so utterly overwhelming that the merest hint of them is more than enough,’ Sue said.
Kent stood up and put the mess away. ‘I’ll go lock all my whips and chains away.’
Sue smiled slightly. ‘I understand those more than being attracted to a woman purely because she’s pregnant.’
Kent tilted his head and thought about it. ‘There’s a history of female fecundity being fetishized. What is more a symbol of female fertility than pregnancy?’
‘That’s gross,’ Sue said. ‘I am more than my ability to bear children.’
Kent shrugged. ‘I’m more than my ability to father them, but there are at least equal amounts of art devoted to representations of male fertility.’
She leaned against the counter. ‘Men do love their first and best toy.’
‘I’m afraid that we can be rather simplistic in some ways,’ he agreed. He licked his lips. ‘I could take you out to dinner.’
‘I wasn’t fishing for a dinner invitation.’
He shrugged. ‘I get so caught up in the ranch and preparing for Bethany. I’m afraid that I don’t give you the time you deserve.’
Sue swallowed. ‘You have a lot going on.’
‘That’s no excuse.’
‘It’s a pretty good excuse.’
Kent tucked her hair behind her ear. ‘I’m so glad that you moved in.’
Sue kissed him. ‘Me too.’
After a moment he kissed her. ‘I don’t know what we’re doing,’ he murmured.
‘Neither do I.’ She bit her lip. ‘We have enough to worry about. Let’s not worry about this.’
Sue woke in darkness, heart pounding, back aching, fear sweat prickled across her body. She scrabbled for the cell on the stand beside her and dialled the number without thinking.
‘Susan? What’s wrong?’
‘I don’t know! I had… I had a bad dream… I just… I’m sorry… I’m sorry…’
‘I’m driving over,’ Imelda said.
‘No… You don’t have to…’
‘Susan, I will be there in half an hour,’ Imelda said firmly. ‘Make sure that there is coffee in the pot.’
Sue rubbed her eyes with her hand. ‘Thanks, Mom,’ she said quietly.
Imelda was there in twenty minutes. She must have broken the speed limit all the way there. That wasn’t anything new. As soon as Sue opened the door, she wrapped her arms around Sue and held her tight.
‘I’m sorry,’ Sue said.
‘Stop that,’ Imelda said, rubbing her back briskly. ‘Let me close the door and then take me into the kitchen. I can’t be doing with living rooms.’
Imelda pursed her lips as she looked around the kitchen. ‘It’s too modern,’ she said. ‘But I suppose it’s passable.’
Sue perched on a stool and sipped her warm tea as Imelda made herself a coffee.
‘Alright,’ Imelda said. ‘Tell me what happened.’
Sue shook her head. ‘I had a bad dream.’
‘About the baby or about Kent?’
Sue stared at her. ‘Why do you assume either?’
‘Because you called me instead of calling for him,’ Imelda said. ‘Something profoundly upset you, but you didn’t feel comfortable talking to him about it.’
Sue shook her head and sipped her tea. ‘It was horrible.’
‘After you were born, I had nightmares for months,’ Imelda said. ‘They slowly reduced in numbers, but I still have them occasionally.’
Sue looked at her. ‘You have nightmares about me?’
‘Nightmares tend to reflect our fears,’ Imelda said. ‘It’s hardly surprising that losing you would be something I fear.’
‘That doesn’t sound like you,’ Sue muttered.
Imelda sighed. ‘It’s a little after three in the morning, Susan, if we cannot be honest with each other at this moment, when can we?’
‘I dreamed that Bethany died,’ Sue said. ‘That I gave birth and she was stillborn. It was horrible.’
Imelda leaned over to squeeze Sue’s hand.
‘I was screaming and screaming.’ Sue shook her head. ‘I don’t know why.’
‘You and I have always had a complex relationship,’ Imelda said. ‘That’s not surprising given that we are both strong and independent women. I brought you up to be confident and firm in your opinions. Nonetheless, there were certain life experiences that I looked forward to us sharing and bonding over.’
‘I got married,’ Sue said.
‘Yes, you did,’ Imelda said. ‘You took off with that stupid boy on holiday and came back married.’ She shook her head. ‘This isn’t about me.’
‘Everything is about you,’ Sue said wryly.
‘I’m here, aren’t I? I’m here because you’re afraid.’
‘Losing the baby would break Kent’s heart,’ Sue said.
‘You didn’t have a nightmare about his pain,’ Imelda said. She looked at her hands. ‘Contrary to what you think, I very much enjoyed being pregnant and I fell in love with you the moment I held you. I wanted that for you. Perhaps that is blurring my judgement.’
Sue shook her head. ‘I’m not you. I’m having Bethany for Kent.’
They turned when the door to the living room was pushed open. Kent, sleepy and dishevelled, padded through, rubbing his face. He looked blankly from Sue to Imelda and back again.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asked, dread edging his voice.
Sue shook her head. ‘It’s okay. Nobody died.’
‘Hello Kent,’ Imelda said.
‘Uh, hello,’ he said. ‘Sue, do you… want me to stay or…?’
‘No.’ She pushed herself off the stool. ‘You go back to bed, I’m fine.’
He didn’t look convinced, but he nodded anyway. ‘Okay. Just call me if you need me.’
Sue kissed his cheek and shut the door after him.
Sue was struggling through the front door when she heard a howl, a hiss, and a scrabble of claws on the kitchen tiles. A cloud of angry fur erupted from the kitchen, screeched across the living room floor, and scrambled up the stairs.
‘What just happened?’ Kent asked, breathlessly from the kitchen doorway.
‘Was that Erdos?’
Kent pushed back his hair. ‘I think that she must’ve been in another fight.’ He sighed. ‘Which way did she go?’
‘Maybe you should let her calm down?’
‘Very probably,’ he said. ‘But she might have been badly injured. I need to find her and check.’
‘I’ll help you look for her,’ Sue offered.
‘Are you sure? You’ve only just got home. You must be exhausted.’
She waved him off and started climbing the steps. ‘You search the bedrooms. They have all the weird nooks. I’m not looking under the beds.’
‘If you see her just call,’ he said. ‘Please don’t try to catch her.’
‘I have no intention of touching her,’ she said. ‘I’ve heard of cat scratch fever.’
Sue had been in Kent’s study before but only briefly. It was very much what she would have expected. He had never given any impression that it was particularly private or secret, so she simply walked in, alert for any sign of a fluffy tail or errant whisker. She scanned the shelves and the desk before pulling back the chair to look underneath. As she did, she disturbed a folder from the desk. As it fell, she caught it, but it opened as she put it back on the desk.
She saw her name.
Name of the respondent: Susan Wilson-Levinson.
‘I’ve found her,’ Kent called.
‘Okay,’ Sue said, sitting down in his chair. ‘Why do you have something here addressed to me?’
She closed the folder while she waited for him to come to the study. The last time she had been a “respondent” was during her divorce. It was not a pleasant memory.
Kent was a little pink in the face as he entered the room. ‘I can’t see any injuries besides a ripped claw sheath. There are lumps of grey fur outside though, so I think she gave a rat something to think about.’
Sue nodded. ‘Your cat is a thug.’
‘She’s a strong female character,’ he said with a smile. ‘What were you asking? I couldn’t quite work it out.’
‘I knocked this off the desk,’ Sue said. ‘It’s got my name on it.’
He took the folder from her and glanced at the paperwork. ‘Oh, it’s just the paperwork for surrendering Bethany. My lawyer drew it up a while ago.’
‘Surrendering?’ Sue echoed.
He sat on the edge of the desk. ‘I know, it’s an unappealing phrase.’ He put the folder down. ‘The time never felt right to discuss it with you and I certainly don’t foresee you running off with Bethany.’
‘But what does it mean, surrendering?’
Kent scratched his scalp. ‘Giving up your maternal rights. If something happens to me, you don’t want to suddenly find yourself legally responsible for a child.’
Sue nodded. ‘That makes sense.’ She straightened up. ‘I should have my lawyer look at it.’
‘That’s a good idea,’ he agreed, handing her the folder. ‘Thanks for helping me look for Erdos. If you get changed, I’ll make you some tea.’
Amy was staring at her cell phone when Sue was beckoned into the lawyer’s office. Sue glanced at the other woman as she stood up, but Amy merely waved a hand at her.
Sue was ushered into a large office and took a seat opposite a glossily dressed and expensively made up woman.
‘Ms Wilson-Levinson,’ the lawyer said. ‘I’m Samira Khan. Ms Brookheimer asked me to look over this for you.’
‘Yes,’ Sue said. She was firmly of the impression that the less she talked, the less time she would take up and could be charged for.
Ms Khan crossed her legs at the knee. ‘It’s quite standard. One of my colleagues has dealt with a number of these and says that the paperwork has no surprises and nothing he wouldn’t expect.’
‘Good,’ Sue said.
‘The timing however,’ she said, ‘is… odd, as are other details of the arrangement. If I were Mr Davison’s lawyer, I would warn him that he may have left himself open to a challenge from a… creative lawyer wishing to break the agreement.’
Sue frowned. ‘How so?’
‘Typically, surrogate arrangements are signed right at the beginning and made with relatively young women who have already birthed at least one healthy child and with whom the prospective parent has no existing relationship. None of those apply to you,’ she said.
‘I don’t understand,’ Sue said stiffly.
Ms Khan folded her hands in her lap. ‘A cynical person, such as a lawyer seeking to break an existing agreement, or a woman with a speciality in abuse cases, might suggest that far from acting as a surrogate for a friend, you are being subjected to an act of psychological violence. That you and Mr Davison are having a child together but that forcing you to sign away your maternal rights is the supreme act of control. You would never be able to leave because he would have complete legal control of your daughter.’
Sue stared at her. ‘Look at the date on the agreement. He has had it for months. He didn’t mention it to me. I found it on his desk. He didn’t ask me to have his child. He asked me to donate my eggs. I offered to carry her. He could never do the things that you are suggesting. I would never let anyone. He has never raised a finger to me, and he never would.’
‘I have to ask,’ Ms Khan said. ‘This is designed to be irrevocable. I will support any woman choosing to give a child up for adoption or acting as a surrogate. I will also support any woman trapped in an abusive relationship. I’m sure you think that you’re not the type. Nobody ever thinks that they’re the type.’
Sue smoothed out her skirt. ‘I see. Please, bring Amy in, she’ll tell you that this isn’t the situation.’
‘You don’t have to prove anything to me.’
Sue pursed her lips. ‘So, your legal advice is that the paperwork is standard?’
‘It is,’ she said. ‘I would also advise that you take some time to think about it before you sign.’
Sue nodded. ‘Thank you for your time.’
Amy glanced across at Sue. ‘Are you going to tell me?’
‘No.’ Sue stared out of the window.
‘Jesus, what could she possibly have said to piss you off this much?’
‘She accused Kent of being a controlling weirdo forcing me to sign away my maternal rights as a way of keeping me under his thumb.’
Amy scowled. ‘What? That’s fucking insane.’
‘Yes. It is,’ Sue said firmly. She folded her arms tightly. ‘Drop me off, would you.’
‘How’re you gonna get home?’
Sue rolled her eyes. ‘I’m pregnant, Amy, not incapable. I’ll get an Uber.’
Amy shifted in her seat. ‘I don’t want Kent coming after me for not taking you back home.’
‘I’m a grown woman and I want to get out here,’ Sue insisted.
Amy pulled over. ‘Are you sure that you’re okay?’
Sue shook her head. ‘No.’
Sue had never sat in a coffee shop just watching the world go by. She had heard all the jokes about people writing in coffee shops, but she wasn’t doing that. She wasn’t doing anything other than actively trying not to think and trying to ignore the ringing and chirping of her cell phone.
It was the smell of coffee and almond was what made her turn her head. Perhaps she had registered the familiar sound of his keys clicking lightly in his pocket or the slight scrape as his left heel caught the floor.
‘You didn’t get me a cake?’ she asked, as Kent sat down beside her.
‘I was going to,’ he said, handing her a coffee. ‘But it occurred to me that you might have already had one.’ He stirred his coffee. ‘Would you like one?’
‘I’ve already had one,’ she admitted.
He smiled. ‘Sneaky.’
Sue sipped her coffee. ‘Did you call?’
‘Me and probably half a dozen people,’ he said mildly. ‘You’re one of the president’s most senior staffers. When you panic Amy and then suddenly stop answering calls and texts people get a little… nervous.’
Sue winced. ‘I didn’t mean to panic anyone.’
‘Okay.’ He sipped his coffee. ‘I’ll just let them you’re okay, shall I? Or would that be premature?’
‘I’m not being terrorised by a long-distance sniper or someone holding my mother hostage,’ Sue said dryly.
‘I’m sure that Amy won’t be in the least bit annoyed to know that you’re making jokes about it.’ Kent didn’t look at her as he texted.
‘You’re angry,’ she said quietly. ‘I’m not a child, Kent. I should be allowed a few hours of peace and privacy.’
He nodded. ‘Okay. That’s fair. But maybe tell people that’s what you’re doing next time?’
She took a breath and let it out slowly. ‘I just needed some time to… clear my head.’
Kent put his hand over hers and squeezed it gently. ‘You want me to go?’
She shook her head.
‘Amy said that the lawyer upset you.’
Sue snorted. ‘She irritated me with a lot of nonsense about how you might be forcing me to relinquish my parental rights to control me.’
‘What? Do people do that?’
She took a sip of coffee. ‘I have no idea. I certainly hope not. But she had a point.’
Kent blinked at her. ‘Excuse me?’
‘She said that legally you would be able to do what you wanted with Bethany,’ Sue explained. ‘And you will. You would be able to… move to Australia with her without telling me.’
‘Too many snakes and spiders,’ Kent said.
She lightly poked his forearm. ‘This is serious.’
Kent took a bite of his cake. ‘Why would I do that?’
‘It’s not that you would,’ she said. ‘It’s that you could.’
Kent was quiet for a few seconds. ‘Why does that bother you?’
‘I don’t know,’ she admitted. ‘But it does.’
He licked his lips. ‘Okay.’
He touched her hand. ‘I don’t want you to sign away your rights if you’re not one hundred percent completely happy doing it.’
‘Don’t be sorry.’ He kissed her softly. ‘But can we go home? I was driving around looking for you for almost three hours.’
Sue stared at the bedroom ceiling. The nights were always quiet here but now she could hear Kent shifting around in his bed. After a few minutes, she got up, pulled off her silk headscarf, and padded out of the room.
She didn’t knock on Kent’s door but instead opened it slowly. The moonlight cutting through the window bathed the room in shades of grey and black. She saw him lean up on his elbows to look at her.
She saw his lips part and heard him draw breath. She put her finger to her lips, and he cut off the word before he spoke. As she walked over, he pulled back the covers.
Sue pulled her nightshirt over her head, dropped it to the floor, and straddled Kent. His hands came automatically to her hips. He kissed her tenderly. She sighed against his cheek. He dropped his face to kiss her throat and chest.
She felt him against her. She gently pushed him away and he lay down.
She watched his face as she opened. He was smiling in a way that she’d never seen before. She returned the smile.
It wasn’t dramatic. A week into Sue’s maternity leave, her contractions began. Kent timed them. When the time was right, he made her a packed lunch, took her prepacked bag to the car, and escorted her to the car. As he drove to the hospital, very carefully and just below the speed limit, Sue made phone calls letting all the relevant people know what was happening.
She was told that everything was proceeding as it should. As her contractions increased in speed and intensity, she was given pain medication, although not as much as she would have liked.
Imelda and Todd arrived. Sue saw them on the other side of the window.
‘Go tell her I don’t want her in here while I’m giving birth,’ she panted.
‘What about Todd?’
Sue smacked his arm. ‘That is not funny, Kent.’
She watched through the window as Kent walked across to them. Todd held out his hand to shake, because Todd was an idiot. Her mom looked pissed. There was a short exchange and Kent held up his hands defensively. Imelda was probably complaining that Kent was going to be in the room for the birth, but she wasn’t. Sue hadn’t been surprised to find out that her father hadn’t been there for her birth and that was her mother’s choice. Her choice was different.
Kent returned, and Sue had him shut the drapes.
‘They’re going to get some lunch,’ Kent said. ‘There’s a restaurant down the street that has an excellent rating on Yelp.’
‘I’m giving birth and they’re going for lunch?’ Sue demanded.
Kent laughed. ‘You won’t let them in here! What do you expect them to do, stand around for hours doing nothing?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘That’s exactly what I want.’
He kissed her forehead. ‘You’re insane and I love it.’
Sue closed her eyes. Breath in. Breath out. Breath in. Breath out.
‘Shall I ask for more pain meds?’ Kent asked.
‘No.’ She had his hand between hers. ‘It doesn’t hurt that much.’
The mattress dipped as he sat down. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘I don’t know.’ She bit her lip. ‘I just… Something is going to go wrong. I can feel.’
‘It’s okay to be nervous,’ Kent said gently. ‘I’m nervous too.
She looked up at him. ‘I don’t think I can do this.’
He smiled slightly. ‘You’re already doing it. It’s a little late to change your mind.’
‘I don’t mean that.’ She swallowed.
‘Okay. What do you mean?’
There was a foetal heart monitor. She had seen the flow of Bethany’s heart beats.
Sue forced out the words. ‘I don’t know if I can sign away my right to be her mother.’
Kent squeezed her hands. ‘Sue, you don’t have to worry about that now. You don’t even have to think about that now.’
‘I’m scared I’m going to wake up and she’ll be gone,’ she said quietly.
‘Hey, that won’t ever happen,’ Kent promised. ‘I would never do that to you.’
‘I’m not saying this because of hormones,’ she insisted. ‘I’ve been struggling with it for a while.’
He chewed his lip. ‘Okay, look, you’re giving birth, Sue. If you decide that you want to stay in Bethany’s life, then you’re going to regret spending her birth worrying yourself sick. So don’t. Concentrate on her birth. Anything else we’ll work out later.’
‘We’ll work it out?’
‘Yeah.’ He kissed her softly. ‘I promise.’
Sue blew out her breath through her pursed lips. ‘Is this supposed to be so difficult?’
‘Let’s try again,’ the nurse said. ‘It’s new for both of you.’
Sue looked up as Kent came back into the room with the bottle water she’d been craving. ‘Your daughter is unable to understand how to feed.’
‘I didn’t know you were going to breastfeed,’ he said, putting the bottle to her lips. He held it up for her as she took a gulp.
The nurse said nothing but there was a look that Sue didn’t care for at all.
‘I’m doing my best,’ Sue said.
The nurse gathered her things together and slipped away.
‘A lot of women struggle with it,’ Kent said. ‘She’s only two hours old. I’m sure that you’ll manage. You’re astonishingly stubborn.’
Sue stroked the back of Bethany’s head. ‘I meant what I said before. I… I don’t think I can sign my rights away.’
‘Then don’t,’ he said.
Sue closed her eyes for a second. ‘I hope that you’ll let me be a part of her life.’
Kent smiled. ‘I was hoping you’d be part of my life, too.’
‘You don’t rid of me that easily,’ she said. ‘I’m astonishingly stubborn.’