Home » , , , , , , , , » Sold To The Sheikh: His Indecent Proposal (Book One) by Holly Rayner

Sold To The Sheikh: His Indecent Proposal (Book One) by Holly Rayner

“Mom. Mom, I’m driving, so I need to call you back,” Mia said, looking around as she navigated the right turn out of the high school parking lot.
“You should have said something,” her mother said, before erupting in a spasm of coughs.
Sold To The Sheikh: His Indecent Proposal (Book One)
Sold To The Sheikh: His Indecent Proposal (Book One) by Holly Rayner
“I know,” Mia said, trying to keep her voice level and patient. “I’ll call you as soon as I get back home, Mama.” She took a deep breath and waited while her mother said goodbye before ending the call. Mia set her phone down on the seat next to her and turned the stereo up. She could feel fatigue in every muscle of her body. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some kind of time anomaly that only exists at that damn school,” she said to herself, coming to a stop at a red light. It seemed like every day was just a little bit longer, every weekend just a little bit shorter. Mia yawned, blinking her eyes a few times rapidly to clear the slight blur at the edges of her vision. It seemed as though there was always something that she had to do next; if she wasn’t rushing to get papers graded during her lunch break, she was hurrying to the store to pick something up for her mom, or to the pharmacy, or just dropping by the old house to make sure everything was okay there. She barely even spent time in the apartment she was paying through the teeth for. “Just a few more hours,” Mia said to herself with a sigh. She needed to get home, get laundry in the washer, and call her mom back. Then she would park herself on the couch, unload the papers she had stuffed into her backpack to grade, and catch up on the series she was following. If she was lucky, she might be able to make it into bed by midnight. Mia yawned, longing for the coffee she had left behind at her desk. As she slipped into the routine drive home, Mia’s mind started to wander; she paid enough attention to the world around her to make sure she wasn’t going to run into anyone, but she couldn’t help going over the list of things she had to get done that week—especially those she had to do over the weekend. Three years before, when she had graduated college, Mia had thought that the best possible use of her talent would be to work at an underprivileged school; there was a program that would allow her to have her student loans forgiven if she taught for five years at a school that was registered on the program, and at the time she had been convinced that it would be the best way for her to put her degree to use. At first, her decision seemed vindicated. The students responded to her, and she had won an award at the end of her first year for bringing up the test scores for her classes over the course of the school term. Her mother had come to the ceremony, and Mia had believed—truly believed—that she was doing good work. Knowing that in four more years her student loans would be paid off, Mia had enjoyed her summer and had taken her continuing development classes happily. But as she started into her second year, Mia’s responsibilities had piled up. She had moved out of her mother’s house over the summer, and found that her paychecks never seemed to go quite as far as she needed them to; there was always some surcharge, or some extra cost on her bills. No matter how she tried to save on her electricity, it went up inexorably. Mia had taken refuge in her work, but had quickly discovered that anyone who had performed well in their first year as a teacher was invariably asked and pressured into doing as much as possible. She started spending longer days at school, taking part in committees, finding herself being volunteered for this or that task, this or that group. Her students in her second year were not as easy as her first; so many of them had no interest at all in learning the material, and Mia had had to keep a sharp eye on the papers they turned in—more than half of the first-week papers had been completely plagiarized. If they’re going to copy-paste an essay about how they spent their summer, what on earth are they going to do when it comes to writing about the books they’re supposed to be reading? Late in the year, her mother had fallen ill. At first, it had just been flu-like symptoms. She had been tired all the time, with headaches that came and went with little rhyme or reason. One appointment after another with one doctor after another resulted in nothing; and Mia had found herself sucked into her mother’s problems, spending almost as much time at her parents’ old home as she did in her own apartment. Mia had barely managed to keep up with her work as the spring semester dragged on; instead of taking her break, she had been with her mother, going to the doctors’ offices, taking care of her, cooking for her. Finally, as summer break had started, Mia’s mother had gotten a diagnosis. The disease wasn’t in and of itself deadly, but it was progressing unusually fast, and Mia’s mother was coping with it poorly. More than once, Mia had wished—more fervently than she had wished anything else before in her life—that her dad could somehow still be around, still be alive for her mom. If her dad were there, the burden wouldn’t be so much on Mia—and she thought that if Dad were around, Mom might be able to bear her deteriorating health better. Now in her third year of teaching, Mia had begun to feel hopeless. She felt as though she was always rushing, as if her work consumed more and more of her time; but her pay wasn’t slated to increase until after her five-year anniversary had come. For two more years she would have to keep at it. The job that had seemed so worthy, and such a solution to the problem of her debt was actually—as strange as it had seemed when she first realized it—sending her into greater debt; because she couldn’t quite afford to keep herself afloat, Mia found herself charging things more and more onto her credit card, and making smaller and smaller payments on it. As the balance increased, the finance charges were getting larger—sending the balance higher and higher. Mia shook her thoughts aside as she realized she was coming to an intersection. The car in front of her sped up so as to make it through the yellow light and onto the other side. Mia, jittery and exhausted, slowed down and came to a stop, just as the light changed. “Come on, Mia, you can do this. In a few more hours you’ll go to bed and get some sleep.” Only to do it all again tomorrow. She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. It had to all come to an end eventually, didn’t it? The light changed to green and Mia moved her foot from the brake to the accelerator, apparently not quickly enough for the person behind her, whose horn cut through the air in a loud blast. Gritting her teeth, she stifled the urge to flip the rude driver off and instead moved smoothly through the intersection, keeping her eyes on her mirrors. The car behind her waited until it had cleared the light and then swerved around her, blaring the horn again; in the corner of her eye, Mia thought she saw the driver make an obscene gesture in her direction as he or she passed her and jerked into the lane ahead of her, but she wasn’t completely sure. “Asshole,” she muttered under her breath, taking another breath to steady her frazzled nerves again. Her mind began to wander again as the normal flow of traffic around Mia soothed her. Her mother’s diagnosis had been only the tip of the iceberg; more recently, thanks to the immune-suppressing drugs that helped to keep the worst of the symptoms under control, her mother had fallen ill with what had initially been nothing worse than a bout of flu. What started out as a nasty bug blew up almost overnight, and Mia had found herself in the hospital with her mother in the middle of the night, waiting to be seen by a doctor while her mother struggled to breathe with the fluids building up in her lungs. It had taken days of medication, IVs, a tube in her mother’s lungs to drain them, and dozens of other costly procedures before the hospital was able to discharge the older woman. And Mia had seen the bill they had given her mother; she knew that Amie would never, ever be able to pay it on her own. Mia took one hand off of the wheel to smooth her hair back away from her face, sighing at the memory of all of the bills that had come before even the most recent one. Her mother would never be able to deal with everything—never again. Mia cringed, remembering the capable, determined woman her mother had been before the illness had started creeping up on her, sapping her of strength and making everything harder and harder. It’s not fair! Mia’s mind parroted the refrain at least once a day, and each time she told herself firmly what she had learned long ago: life wasn’t fair, and focusing on how unfair it all was wouldn’t fix anything. Work—that was what fixed things. But how could she fix her mother’s situation, when the woman was suffering with a chronic disease? Mia felt a little tingle of relief when she realized she was almost home. The turnoff for her neighborhood was less than a mile up ahead, and after that it would only be another few blocks until she came to the little house she had rented. The neighborhood wasn’t the best, but she had managed to get a deal from the homeowner in exchange for agreeing to oversee some improvements to help him leave town faster. The house was tiny—one bedroom, one-and-a-half bathrooms, sparsely furnished with the secondhand items from the local charity thrift store—but it was her home, a little piece of refuge. Mia made the turn, beginning to smile to herself. Catching her reflection in the mirror, she began to give herself a little pep talk. “You’re not doing as bad as you think,” she said, her voice barely louder than the stereo playing in the car. “You’re still holding onto your job, your last performance review was pretty good, and you’ll qualify for a pay increase in a couple of years. Not too bad at all!” She looked through the windshield and spotted the stop sign where the cops usually hid out on the main street of the suburban development; Mia was always careful to make sure she came to a complete stop at that one—she couldn’t afford to deal with a ticket on top of everything else. She slowed down and pressed the brake, grimacing a little at the slight squeal she heard from the back of her car; the old sedan was gradually getting to the point when it would take more money than the car was actually worth to keep fixing it, and the sometimes noisy brakes meant another expense that she couldn’t really afford. Mia was grateful when the car obediently came to a stop right at the line, and told herself that the brakes would probably last at least another couple of months before she absolutely had to replace them or risk getting into an accident. Right when she would have pulled through the four-way stop, Mia heard a squeal behind her—far louder than her brakes—and looked in her rear-view mirror in time to see a hulking, neon yellow sports car bearing down on her. Before she could even think of taking evasive action, the car lurched, and Mia jolted forward, the seatbelt slamming into her chest, reeling her back hard enough to make her teeth snap together in her head. Mia let out an involuntary yelp, her hands tightening on the wheel as the car shook from the force of the impact and her heart pounded in her chest, adrenaline flooding through her body. She shook as the movement of the car stopped, her blood roaring in her ears, her breaths coming fast and short. “What the hell?” she said to no one at all. Shaken, Mia quickly took an inventory of herself; she couldn’t see blood anywhere, so at least she hadn’t been seriously injured. Her neck felt strange, but she didn’t exactly hurt. She was lightheaded, a little disoriented, but otherwise she thought she was okay. “Stupid bitch! You ruined my car!” The words cut through her shock and Mia realized that the driver that had slammed into her from behind was already out of his car. The impact had driven her car through the four-point stop, but just barely. With shaking hands, Mia unbuckled her seat belt and turned the key in her ignition to shut the car off. Looking in her rear-view mirror, she saw someone—presumably the other driver—stalking back and forth, throwing his hands up in the air every so often. The adrenaline surged in her system once more as she reluctantly opened the door. She swallowed against the tightness in her throat and stepped out of her car. Gathering up the tatters of her courage, Mia stepped cautiously towards the rear of her car. The driver of the car behind her was still striding around in almost-circles, muttering and occasionally shouting in anger at no one in particular. He was tall and slim, his black hair brushed back from his forehead, and in at a glance, Mia thought the man had had at least one parent from an Asian country. He was dressed in a sharply tailored suit that was probably worth more than her monthly pay, and up close the car he had slammed into hers—barely dented—was even more obviously expensive than she had originally thought. “Are you okay?” she asked, her voice cracking slightly. The man wheeled around. “Am I okay? You destroyed my car you fucking idiot. Do you have any idea how much it will cost to fix this?” The man gestured at the barely tended front end of his car. Mia cringed, glancing at the much more damaged back bumper of her own car. The turn signal had shattered, and her trunk would never be the same again. “You’re the one who hit me!” she said, anger stirring up inside of her. “I hit you? What were you, asleep at the wheel?” the man was moving around in fast, agitated circles, pacing in front of his car, shaking his head. “It wasn’t a light, it was a damned stop sign, all you had to do was look and then go!” “For your information,” Mia said, her anger increasing as the man’s tirade became more and more irrational, “there are almost always cops at this intersection and they ticket anyone who doesn’t come to a complete stop!” She looked around, wishing that those very same cops had taken the opportunity to be there to witness this particular incident. “It’s not like I can afford a freaking ticket!” “Can you afford to fix my car?” the man glanced at Mia’s sedan, scowling. “Your maximum probably won’t even cover the deductible on getting this fixed.” “You. Hit. Me,” Mia countered. “If anyone is going to pay for this, it’s going to be you.” She was shaking, adrenaline surging through her veins, making her heart thunder in her chest. She could feel tears prickling in her eyes and willed them to stay where they were at least until she had gotten out of the unpleasant man’s presence; the last thing she wanted was for him to see her crying. “I’m going to pay? Bitch, I have more lawyers than you probably have cats at your house…” Mia was still looking forlornly at the incredible damage to the back end of her car when the man’s voice came to a stop. “I don’t have any cats,” Mia said absently. “No, no of course not.” Mia glanced at the man; where just moments before he’d been yelling, stomping along the side of the road, explosive in his anger, now he was watching her with a strange look in his eyes. “Look, I overreacted, I’m sorry.” Mia stared at the man in unabashed amazement at the sudden change in his demeanor—and the apology that came with it. “It’s—I mean, I can understand you’re probably shaken up,” Mia said, shrugging. “No, no, it’s unforgiveable,” the man insisted. “It was all my fault; I wasn’t paying attention, and you’re right about that stop sign.” Mia blinked. “I just…” she cleared her throat. “I’ve seen a lot of people pulled over right here.” Mia swallowed. “So I try to make sure not to give them an excuse.” “That’s smart of you,” the man said. “How rude of me, I didn’t even get your name.” Mia shook her head, trying to jolt herself out of the multiple shocks she’d sustained in the last several minutes. “Mia,” she said, extending her hand cautiously towards the man. “Mia Campbell.” The man shook it. “Rami al-Hassan,” the man replied, bowing over her hand and giving it a gentle, barely-there kiss. “I want to apologize again for ruining your evening with my stupidity.” Mia extracted her hand from his grip, smiling nervously. “It happens,” she said as graciously as she could. She couldn’t understand what had come over the man. Maybe he’s just one of those moody kind of guys. Maybe he’s having a bad day and this is what he’s usually like, not the way he was before. “I insist that you let me take care of this,” Rami said, gesturing from his car to Mia’s. “It was my fault, and I should take responsibility for it.” Mia’s eyes widened as she felt a little wave of relief wash through her. “I think that would be okay,” Mia said, blinking in surprise. “Please give me your phone number so I can make the necessary arrangements,” Rami said, smiling down at her. Mia frowned, trying, in her addled state, to remember her number. After a moment it came to her and she recited it, smoothing her hair and clothes nervously. “Do you think you can make it the rest of the way home?” Mia looked at the damage to her car; it was all in the hind end, away from the machinery that made the car run. “I should be able to make it,” Mia told him, giving herself a little shake. “I’ll call you once I’m able to get some details about having your car fixed,” Rami said, smiling at her again. “Please let me know if you have any pain or injuries. I’m so sorry, again.” He took a few steps back and Mia took her cue to get back into her car. Mia shook her head again as she walked to the driver’s side door. She got in and put the key back into the ignition, still marveling at the sudden change that had come over the man who’d hit her. “This has been some day,” Mia muttered to herself as she started the car. Rami’s tires squealed on the pavement and she watched as his sleek, hulking sports car darted around her and moved off down the road. Mia shook her head again, unable to quite believe the whole situation that had just unfolded, and pulled onto the road proper, making sure she didn’t end up getting hit a second time as she turned the car—a little shaky, but still operational—towards her block, and her home. TWO The next afternoon, just as she was getting ready to leave the school again, Mia’s phone vibrated in her purse. She pulled it out furtively, glancing around to make sure none of her students were hanging around outside the classroom; if one of them saw her talking on the phone they’d no doubt give her a hard time about it, since she constantly had to confiscate phones because of the school’s policy about using them in class. The number that flashed on the screen was completely unfamiliar and Mia felt a low dread, thinking that it was probably one of her mother’s debt collectors, calling to follow up on one of the medical bills. I thought we had them at least current—not more than a little late. Didn’t we work out a payment plan? Mia took a deep breath, preparing herself for an aggressive and angry threat about what would happen to her and to her mother if she didn’t arrange for a payment. “Hello?” Mia closed her eyes, half-cringing already. “Is this Mia Campbell?” The voice was strangely familiar, in a surprisingly polite tone. Well, if it’s a bill collector, at least they’re going with a polite and friendly opening. “It is,” Mia said cautiously. “I’m so glad to hear your voice,” the person on the other end of the line said. “This is Rami—the idiot who ran into you yesterday.” Mia sank down into her chair, relieved. “Are you still there, Mia?” “Y-yes, I’m still here,” she said quickly. “Sorry, I just…it’s been kind of a long day. Did you need some information from me, something for the claim?” Mia frowned, reaching into her purse for her wallet; she was sure she had her insurance ID in there. “No, no,” Rami said. “I wanted to let you know that I’ve made arrangements to have your car repaired.” “Really? That was fast,” Mia said, staring down at her desk in surprise. “You must have great insurance.” On the other end of the line, Rami laughed. “Not my insurance,” he said, and Mia thought she could hear him smiling. “I’ve got a mechanic downtown who said he would be able to take care of your car. It’ll be on me—no need for either of us to deal with insurance companies.” Mia felt a flicker of doubt; her father had cautioned her, before he passed away, against ever letting someone talk her into not going through insurance companies. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? Isn’t that illegal?” “No, not at all, just expensive” Rami said. “But I can afford it, and it makes my life easier. I’ve already made arrangements for the bills to come to me—you can call the mechanic to confirm it.” Mia caught her bottom lip between her teeth and worried it, considering. “Well, if you’re willing to pay for it,” she said finally. “I guess I can call the mechanic.” Rami gave her a phone number and Mia wrote it down on the inside cover of her notebook. “I was thinking,” Rami said, as soon as Mia confirmed that she had the number and would call the mechanic after they finished talking. “It might take him a few hours to get your car sorted out. I’d hate for you to be bored.” “Oh, don’t worry about me. I can bring a book,” said Mia hurriedly. “Or—or I’m sure I’ll have work to do while I wait, it’s no big deal.” “Or…” Rami said, his voice wheedling, “I could pick you up, take you out for coffee?” Mia frowned. That wasn’t what she had expected to hear from the man who had yelled at her for being an idiot just the day before. “I wouldn’t want to put you out,” Mia said, looking around the classroom as she felt her cheeks beginning to burn with a blush. “I mean, I’m sure I can entertain myself fine.” “It wouldn’t put me out, not at all,” Rami said. “I’ve a window in my schedule, and I feel so terrible about berating you yesterday. It would be a pleasure to buy you a coffee.” Mia swallowed, pressing her lips together. “You know,” she said finally, “I—I think I’ll probably spend the time with my mom. I’ll have her pick me up at the shop. I’m sure she probably needs me to help her with errands anyway. But I appreciate the offer, and I’m so grateful you’re willing to pay for the repairs.” “Well, if you change your mind, you have my number now,” Rami said, and Mia was taken aback at how confident he sounded, despite having just been turned down. “I do, and I’m sure that if I do get bored, I’ll—I’ll call you. Thank you again, Rami, for taking care of this so quickly.” “You aren’t in pain, are you? No sign of injuries? I can speak with a physician, if you think you need one.” “No, no,” Mia said, feeling more than a little uncomfortable. “I’m fine, just a little bit sore. Nothing a hot bath won’t cure.” She took a breath. “Thank you again, but I really should call that mechanic to book in before they close for the day.” “Of course, of course,” Rami replied. “I’ll leave you to it. Remember, if you change your mind…” “I will remember! Have a good night, Rami—and thank you again.” Mia tapped the ‘end call’ icon on her screen before the man could press his suit any further. She set the phone down and sighed, shaking her head in amazement. Did he really just ask me out on a date? It had been so long since Mia had considered going on a date—so long, in fact, since anyone had asked her out on one—that the very possibility left her bemused. Mia gathered up the rest of her things, smiling bashfully at the fact that Rami had been so intent on taking her out for coffee. Thinking about the man, she couldn’t deny that he was attractive; he was taller than her by a good couple of inches, which was rare enough, and even without the tailored suit, he had had what she sensed would probably be a nice body under the clothes, lean and slightly muscled. His skin had been flawless, his hair healthy and full, his face downright gorgeous. But even if he hadn’t made a disastrous first impression on her by screaming at her, calling her a bitch and insulting her intelligence, Mia couldn’t imagine adding dating to her already-full schedule. One of her coworkers, an art teacher, had asked her out for coffee several weeks before and Mia had been forced to turn him down; she spent basically all her free time with her mother, who needed so much help around the house, in addition to being unable to drive herself to all of her appointments with the various doctors she saw. Mia had given up on the idea of seeing anyone months—maybe even years—before. When she’d been in college, she had managed to find time to date occasionally, but as her mother’s condition had worsened, she had had to spend more and more time taking care of her. Eventually the invitations had slowed down, and she had ceased to look for them. Her drive home was less eventful than the previous day’s, and Mia walked through her door relieved that the damage to her car hadn’t been worse. “At least,” she said to herself, locking the door behind her and walking the few steps to the beat-up couch she considered almost as an old friend, “It can’t take them more than a few hours to get it done.” She took out her phone and called the number Rami had given her. After two rings, someone picked up. “A-A Auto-Body, Lenny speaking.” “Hi, Lenny,” Mia said, clearing her throat as quietly as possible. “I think—I hope—someone I know called you earlier to make arrangements for a repair.” “Who is this?” Mia imagined Lenny in her head; the voice suggested a middle-aged man, and Mia felt oddly at ease. She thought he might look a lot like her dad had, years before he’d passed. “My name is Mia Campbell,” she said, feeling her heart beat a little faster. If Rami had been playing her… “I was—ah—involved in a collision with a man by the name of Rami al-Hassan yesterday…” She wasn’t quite sure how to phrase her question so as to find out what she wanted to know—had Rami actually made arrangements to pay for her repairs, or had he merely given her the contact information? If he hadn’t made arrangements, she was going to contact her insurance and try and get them to cover the repair, whether Rami wanted her to or not. “Ahh, yeah, Rami called me earlier today. Mentioned he’d been in another crash.” The man on the other end of the line laughed. “He told me to take care of everything for you—he already has payment info on file. Can I ask you for the year, make, and model? I want to order any parts I might need before I leave for the day.” Mia sighed with relief; Rami hadn’t been playing her for a fool, and had actually made the arrangements. “Uh, sure,” Mia said, trying to recall the details in question. “It’s—ah—a ’99 Volvo sedan. I think it’s an S70?” “That sounds about right,” Lenny said. “Color?” “Dark green…hunter green, I think you’d call it.” On the other end of the line, Mia heard papers rustling, and Lenny muttering notes to himself. “You can go ahead and bring it in first thing tomorrow morning,” he said. “It’s still drivable, right?” “Oh—yeah, I don’t think anything under the hood is messed up, just the back end.” She swallowed. “And you’re sure that Rami is set to pay for this, right?” “Absolutely,” Lenny said, and Mia heard the reassurance in the older man’s voice. “Rami gets into scrapes like this from time to time. I’ve told him he should trade in that Tesla thing for something more practical—or at least something with front-end collision control! But you know how some guys are.” Mia chuckled. “Yeah,” she said. “I know. So what time do you open tomorrow morning?” “Since it’s a weekend, we’ll be open from nine,” Lenny said. “I’ve got a spot in reserve for you, so if you can’t make it in right then, you’ve still got priority. Rami insisted. I can’t make any guarantees, of course, but based on what he said about the damage, I should be able to get it done in a few hours.” “Thank you,” Mia said, smiling to herself. “I’ll get it there right when you open. I don’t want to put you out.” “No trouble there,” Lenny said. Mia heard the squeak of a desk chair tilting back. “If you need someone to pick you up…” “I think I should be fine,” Mia said, waving her hand to brush the idea aside, even though she knew Lenny couldn’t see her. “Thank you so much for being so accommodating.” Lenny laughed again, a rich, hearty chuckle. “No problem,” he said. “I’ll expect you at nine. If you’ll excuse me, I should get these parts ordered for you before I leave the shop.” “Thank you again,” Mia said. “I hope you have a great night!” She ended the call feeling much more comfortable than she had when she started it. Mia plugged her phone into its charger and kicked off her shoes, striding through the small living room of her little house and into her bedroom. She flipped the light switch on and yawned, stretching and twisting against the soreness in her body, a mixture of the aches from the accident the night before and the stress of standing up and walking around in circles for most of the day. She decided to make good on what she had said to Rami—a nice, long bath would do her a lot of good. She stripped her clothes off quickly, tossing them into the hamper in front of her closet on the way to the bathroom. She turned on the water and waited a moment or two for it to heat up before she pushed the plug into the drain and let the tub begin to fill. One of the few luxuries she allowed herself was a small collection of bath salts and bubbles: it was a cheap way to give herself something nice, and Mia had justified the occasional three or five dollars based on the fact that she was buying a luxury at less than a dollar per use. She picked a jar of pink salts perfumed with sandalwood and neroli and poured about half a cup of the potent, fragrant granules into the hot water. As she waited for the bath to fill, Mia thought about the strange man who’d collided with her the evening before. Rami al-Hassan was handsome, there was no doubt about it; and obviously he was wealthy. But he seemed—at least on her first impression—like kind of a spoiled brat. He had been more concerned with the damage to his expensive car than he was with the fact that he had slammed into someone else. “Did he say it was a Tesla?” Mia shook her head in wonder; she knew in passing that that particular model of car started out at around $100,000—and with customizations was often much, much more. Her entire salary for three or more years might not be enough to buy one. And the mechanic had mentioned that Rami had gotten into more than one accident in the past. Not that that’s surprising, Mia thought, considering he had slammed into her at a stop sign and then had the audacity to yell at her for, of all things, having stopped. Mia turned off the faucet and sank down into the water, breathing in the fragrant steam and letting the tension flow out of her muscles. For a few moments, at least, she would avoid thinking about the stresses she had to deal with: her mother’s poor health and mounting bills; her unruly, unwilling students; the enormous student loans she still had to repay. She would float in the water and think about nothing at all. Mia yawned again and told herself firmly that she was not going to let herself fall asleep in the hot, soft-feeling water. Despite her resolution, Mia was so exhausted that within fifteen minutes, she had drifted out of her lazy doze and into actual sleep, the lip of the tub holding her head up and out of the water. She was never sure how long she slept, but when she awoke with a jolt—coming out of a dream that ended with a replay of the accident she’d had the day before—the water was cold around her, and her stomach was growling with hunger. She climbed out and wrapped a robe around herself, checking her phone to see that her mother had called while she’d been napping. She told herself that, since the message didn’t sound like an emergency, she would have dinner before returning her mother’s call. Mia rummaged in her fridge, freezer, and cabinets until she was able to put together a reasonable meal of rice, peas and a fried egg, liberally seasoned with hot sauce. She yawned, still tired in spite of her nap, and devoured her somewhat bland dinner, psyching herself up to tackle all of the things she needed to do over the weekend. First things first: call Mom and tell her about the car. Maybe she’ll be well enough to come and get you at the shop. THREE Lenny was true to his word. Sitting in the waiting area, Mia barely had time to get through the stack of papers she had brought with her to grade when the shop owner came to let her know the repairs were almost finished. “It wasn’t as bad as Rami had me believe,” Lenny told her with a little shrug. “Though I did notice your brakes are pretty worn in the back.” Mia blushed, too embarrassed—and too proud—to say that she hadn’t been able to afford to get them fixed. “Yeah… I was planning on getting those done next,” she said, fumbling with her papers and avoiding Lenny’s gaze. “I gave Rami a call and mentioned it to him—said it probably happened in the collision. He said he’d be happy to pay for them as well, so I’ve got one of my guys out picking up a new set of brake pads for you.” Mia nearly dropped the essays in her hands and stared at the older man in outright astonishment. “That’s—are you sure he won’t be mad? Won’t he find out? Would he—would he sue you, or try and come after me?” Lenny shook his head. “Nah, he was only too happy to take care of it,” Lenny said, brushing aside Mia’s concern with a wave of his hands. “He won’t even question whether it’s possible for brakes to be damaged like that, or I wouldn’t have done it.” Lenny grinned. “I just didn’t like the idea of you driving on those brakes—it’s asking for another accident.” “I really appreciate it,” Mia said. “I was starting to worry. I knew they needed fixing, but…” “But you’re a teacher and money’s tight.” Mia wondered how Lenny knew, and before she could ask he gestured at the schoolwork she had scattered around her, all of it in various stages of being graded. “It was my pleasure, my dear. Rami’s got more money than sense—it might as well do someone other than him some good.” Lenny left her after that, pausing only to tell her that her car would be completely finished within the hour. Mia went to her mother’s directly afterwards. She didn’t tell her mother about the accident; she didn’t want to worry Amie, and with the repairs done with no trouble to Mia, there was no need to mention it at all. The new brakes were wonderful, though it took Mia the rest of her afternoon’s errands to get used to them—if she tapped the brake the way she was used to doing, the car jerked to a stop, slamming her back against the seat with a jolt. As grateful as she was that Rami had taken care of her car, the incident faded to the back of Mia’s mind as she spent the rest of the weekend helping her mother clean up the house, taking her to the grocery store, and making phone calls to confirm the next week’s appointments. During the week, one of the neighbors, Karen, drove her mom to most of the doctors’ offices, since it was next to impossible for Mia to get time off, but on weekends, Mia took over. As the days passed, Mia found herself once more embroiled in responsibilities: trying to keep her students motivated, going to meetings she didn’t truly have time for, keeping in daily contact with her mother to make sure she was okay and hearing about the different treatments and updates on Amie’s condition. Every so often, as the days since the incident became a week, and one week became two, Mia would stop short in the middle of something with the feeling like she had forgotten something. But each time she wracked her tired brain to try and remember what it could possibly be, she couldn’t think of it. By the fourth or fifth time, Mia decided that whatever it was, it couldn’t be that important—or she would have remembered it. Of course I’ll probably find out in a week or two that it’s some bill, or some prescription I need to refill for Mom, and everything will go to crap. When no disaster reared its ugly head, Mia went on with her life. Two weeks later, she had taken care of her mother’s errands for the weekend, and had a little time to herself. Mia drove to the grocery store, doing her best to enjoy the mild afternoon sunshine; it had been a rainy morning, an absolute misery when she had first gotten up to drive to the pharmacy. There had been moments when Mia had been certain that she would hit someone: the driver who apparently didn’t believe in using his headlights in a downpour, or the woman in the Lexus who nearly swerved into Mia in an attempt to make a fast, crafty lane change. Walking the aisles of the supermarket close to her house, Mia began to relax. “It’s a sad statement on my life when crunching numbers in my head to figure out whether I’m going to eat chicken or eggs this week is relaxing,” she murmured, as she looked at the per-ounce prices on the different packages of rice on the shelf. Maybe—just maybe—she could afford to buy a little carton of ice cream; something to treat herself after the stresses of the week. Her bank account was nearly empty, but Mia needed something, and was willing to savor every last mouthful. “Hey, Mia,” someone said behind her, cutting through her thoughts. Mia nearly dropped a carton of milk in surprise, turning on her heel to see who was speaking. To her shock, Rami was standing just a few feet away, dressed in what she was sure were designer jeans, a pair of oxfords, and a button-down shirt that looked to be tailored—it certainly fit him like a glove, the sleeves rolled halfway up his forearms. Mia forced a smile onto her startled face. “Hi,” she said, putting the cardboard carton into her shopping cart before it could slip from her fingers. “I didn’t know you shopped here.” Rami shrugged. “I was in the area,” he said, a slight smile on his full lips. “I needed to pick up a few things, so I dropped in—and I’m glad I did.” He looked her up and down slowly, though not so slowly that Mia felt uncomfortably exposed. “Imagine that,” Mia said, her smile wavering for just a moment before she reinforced it, steeling herself against the nervousness she felt. “Oh—oh, God, I just realized I never thanked you for helping me get my car fixed,” she said, blood rushing into her face. Mia smacked her forehead with her palm, closing her eyes as her embarrassment deepened. “I’m so, so sorry,” she said, opening her eyes once more. “I knew I had forgotten something but my life’s been pretty crazy this past couple of weeks.” Rami nodded. “Don’t think of it,” he said, stepping a little closer to her. Mia noticed that he had a basket in his hands—but there was nothing in it. “I’m glad I ran into you, though. I hope Lenny did a good job fixing everything? He mentioned there was some damage to your brakes, too.” Mia shrugged, feeling a little guilty as she remembered the subterfuge Lenny had used to get Rami to pay for the brake work. “It’s looking great, working great,” Mia said. “I hope it wasn’t too expensive.” She frowned, but Rami dismissed the idea with a gesture. “Not at all. Way cheaper than it was to get the ding in my bumper fixed,” he said, his lips stretching into a broad smile. “I was hoping, actually—now that I’ve run into you—that you’d let me take you out for that coffee.” Mia’s blush deepened. She couldn’t quite believe that he was asking her out again. “I—like I said, I’ve been really busy…” she looked down at her cart, biting her lower lip. “Aw, come on,” Rami said, his voice taking on more warmth and charm than before. “Surely you can spare me an hour? Or are you seeing someone? If so, I apologize for being so pushy.” Mia chuckled weakly. “No, I’m not seeing anyone,” she admitted. “I haven’t really had much time to date.” She swallowed, wondering how her mouth had managed to become so dry so suddenly; hadn’t she taken a sip from her water bottle only moments before Rami had appeared? “Then, won’t you please give me a chance? I still feel terrible about running into your car, and I wanted to make it up.” Mia shrugged. “I kind of feel like you did that by getting my car fixed.” “But that doesn’t make up for me being such an ass to you when it happened,” Rami said. Mia gathered up her courage and looked at him. Rami was watching her, but there was nothing unpleasant in his gaze—he wasn’t leering, or trying to undress her with his eyes. She took a breath. “Aright, if you insist,” she said, weakly. “I guess I can’t say no to a guy who’s been so helpful in getting my car fixed.” Rami’s smile spread over his face and he came a step closer to her. “Thank you,” he said, reaching out and touching her hand. “I promise, I just want to talk to you over coffee, that’s all.” Mia summoned a smile and turned it onto Rami, swallowing her pride, misgivings, and guilt that Lenny had lied to get him to pay for her brake job. “When did you want to meet up?” she asked. Rami raised an eyebrow and glanced at Mia’s cart. “Well I’m free right now,” Rami suggested. “I mean, I can wait for you to finish your shopping, of course, but if you’re too busy…” the charming little half-smile came back and Mia found herself unable to think of anything to say in argument with his idea. “There’s a little café in the plaza,” she said, remembering a meeting she’d gone to with some of the other teachers at her school. “It’s a really nice little mom-and-pop place. We could meet there once we’re both done.” “It’s a date,” Rami said. He touched her hand again and Mia felt a tingle of something work through her; a kind of hot and cold rush. She smiled and Rami wandered away, stopping after he’d gone a few steps. “You’ll text me when you’re done, right?” “I promise,” Mia said, smiling in spite of her nervousness. “I won’t stand you up.” Rami smiled and raised one of his hands slightly in acknowledgement. “See you soon.” Mia was half tempted to draw out her grocery shopping for as long as she possibly could, hoping that if she spent long enough walking the aisles maybe Rami would give up on their date in favor of something more immediate. But her list was too short, and it wasn’t long before she was at the checkout. Mia paid for her cart, spending a dollar on a bag which would keep the refrigerated items cold in her car, before sending Rami a message to let him know she had finished. Almost immediately she felt her phone vibrate in her hand. As Mia pushed the cart out into the parking lot, she unlocked the screen with one hand and read the response. I will see you soon then! Can I order for you? What would you like? Mia unlocked the door to her back seat and contemplated the question more seriously than she would have wanted to admit. She loaded the bags into her car and tapped out a response. Surprise me! I’m not too picky. Mia smiled at the neatness of her answer. That way I don’t have to feel weird if I pick something expensive, uncultured if I ask for something plain, or poor if I ask for something cheap. He can figure out how much he wants to spend on me for himself. Mia pushed the cart into the blocked-off parking spot set aside for them, made sure her car doors were locked and slipped her phone and keys into her purse. She walked across the parking lot in the direction of the little café, several shops down from the grocery store on the other end of the big strip. Despite the fact that she hadn’t exactly wanted to have a date with Rami—and the fact that he had already seen her that day—she felt a little flicker of nervousness and looked over her outfit: a pair of soft, cotton culottes, a slouchy boat neck shirt, and a pair of well-worn boots she had bought in her last year of college, but had taken good enough care of that they had held up. She decided that, all in all, she didn’t look absolutely terrible, and then wondered for a second why she suddenly cared so much. Mia smoothed her hair and stepped up onto the curb a few stores down from the café, glancing around furtively. She strode along the walkway until she came to the entrance of Le Petit Four, and took a deep breath to steady her nerves before entering. “Welcome to Le Petit Four,” a teenage girl said from the hostess stand. “Would you like bar service or a table?” Mia smiled; she recognized the girl from her school, although she wasn’t in her class. “I’m actually meeting someone, thanks,” Mia said. She glanced around the seating area quickly, feeling a brief flicker of paranoia that Rami had set her up for disappointment; but after a moment she spotted him, seated near the window. “Ah,” Mia turned back to the girl, giving her another brief smile. “Found him.” She stepped carefully through the seating area, sidling where the tables were slightly too close together. Rami spotted her approaching and greeted her with a bright, charming smile, standing up to pull the other chair out for her. “I’m glad you agreed to meet me,” he said, leaning in and kissing her on the cheek. Mia’s cheeks warmed as she sat down with a slightly uneasy smile and spotted a drink waiting for her. “I ordered you a latte, I hope that’s okay.” Mia glanced down at the tall, white mug with its espresso-tinged foam at the top. “Thank you,” she said, meeting Rami’s gaze for just a moment before picking up the mug to take a sip. Her date had apparently ordered himself an espresso and a water. Does he really need the caffeine? Maybe that’s why he was such an ass when he ran into me the other day. “It was so nice to run into you at the grocery store,” Rami said, and Mia nodded politely, struggling to think of something to say. She realized it had been so long since she had been on a date that she wasn’t used to making small talk. “I hope it wasn’t too much trouble to get your car fixed,” she finally replied, taking another sip and setting the mug down carefully. “With a car like that, there must only be so many people you can take it to.” Rami shrugged. “It’s still in the shop, on the waiting list,” he said, before taking a sip of his water. “I have another car I’ve been using—not quite as nice as the Tesla, but it serves my purposes.” Mia nodded. “It must be really nice to have a backup,” she said, thinking just how screwed she would have been had another car been waiting in front of her at the stop sign. Her car would’ve been totaled, and she was in no position to buy a new one, even with the scanty payout that the insurance company would have offered her. “I don’t know what I would have done if I had to wait weeks to get my car fixed.” “Oh—if you’d had to wait, I would have just loaned you one of my other cars,” Rami said, dismissing the concern. “I’d have insisted on it. The accident was my fault, after all.” Mia frowned slightly in confusion, then took another sip of her latte to cover her expression. “One of your others?” she asked. She had known—it was obvious—that Rami was wealthy. But he was so young; how wealthy could he be? “Yeah, I have a dozen or so cars,” Rami said, shrugging as if the actual number didn’t much matter. “In fact, if yours had been too badly damaged to fix, I could’ve just given you one. I don’t drive half of them.” Mia wanted to ask: Then why do you have them in the first place? But she knew the answer already; he had them because he could. “That would have been too generous,” she said instead, before changing the subject. “Have you been here before?” Rami shook his head. “It reminds me a little of this American-owned café I used to go to in Paris,” he said, glancing around the little room. “Most of the cafés are French-owned, obviously, but this one was a little off the beaten track.” Rami met her gaze once more. “I studied there for a year; I didn’t get too much studying done, to be honest, but I learned to speak some French.” Mia nodded, wondering to herself if agreeing to the date with Rami had been a complete and utter mistake. “It must have been wonderful to live in Paris,” Mia said. “I always wanted to visit, but just never really had the money to put a trip together.” “Oh, it was great,” Rami said, beaming. “I went out almost every night. All the best clubs—really exclusive places, full of models.” Mia kept her smile on by sheer force of will, wondering why Rami felt the need to mention models to her. “I had this little flat in the middle of the city, threw parties every week and ate some of the best food of my life.” Mia simply smiled and nodded—she had no idea what to say. “What did you study in college?” she asked, trying desperately to change the subject. “This and that,” Rami said, shrugging indolently. “I went for Finance, with a minor in Art History. You?” Mia smiled. “English Literature and Composition, with a minor in Sociology,” she replied. “So basically, you knew you wanted to be a teacher from the beginning?” Rami asked. Mia shrugged. “More or less.” Mia considered. “My dad always used to—well, he encouraged me to write, and to read, and told me that no matter what, if I knew how to communicate effectively, I could accomplish anything. So I thought it would be good to give other kids that message.” “My parents wanted me to go into finance because they wanted me to be an asset to the family business,” Rami told her. Something came over his face, an expression that Mia couldn’t quite read, but it was gone so quickly she didn’t have time to try and interpret it. “Mostly I just partied and hung out with friends.” Mia tried again not to frown. It finally occurred to her who Rami reminded her of, and why her feelings towards him were so conflicted: he was exactly like the guys who had belonged to the most exclusive frats at college; boys who were heirs to family fortunes, living on trust funds; guys who never seemed to have a care in the world. Rami started into stories of his college years and Mia forced herself to listen, not wanting to be rude to the man who had paid to fix her car and asked her out on a date—even if she hadn’t exactly wanted to accept the invitation. “Oh man, you should have seem my mom’s face when I crashed the Lexus. She wanted me to go without a car for a month!” Rami shook his head, laughing to himself. “But my dad told her that it wasn’t right for me to be seen walking around or taking the bus, it would bring the family’s reputation down and people would think we were poor.” Mia drained her latte as quickly as she could without appearing to gulp at it, feeling like she needed an excuse to leave as soon as possible. Why in the world does he think all this is going to impress me? Is he even trying to impress me, or does he just do this with everyone? Mia smiled and nodded at stories about the thousand-dollar bar bill that Rami had managed to accrue on his twenty-first birthday, the apartment his parents had bought and furnished for him when he graduated, the details of a life so opulent she couldn’t begin to imagine living it. But as their conversation went on, Mia was surprised to find Rami’s stories included some details she wouldn’t have expected—not from the man who’d called her a stupid car-wrecking bitch, nor from the bragging man-child she’d sat down for coffee with. “Spring break of final year, I went on a trip with Habitat for Humanity,” he said, when she had tried to open the topic of vacations, hoping that he would tell her something about his family rather than what he spent his money on. “I flew a bunch of the members of my frat down with me, and we spent a week seeing which of us could work on the most houses.” “That’s a good kind of competition to have,” Mia said with a grin. “Well, we pretty much competed over everything—you know how guys can be, when they’re in a group together.” Mia nodded; she knew all too well. “How many did you rack up?” She asked, raising one eyebrow slightly. “Eight! More than one a day. I came in second to my friend Lachlan, but I got the second-place prize we agreed on.” “And what was the prize?” Mia asked. Rami grinned wryly. “It was a pair of those water wings—you know, like they give to kids when they’re learning to swim?” Mia laughed out loud. “OK… What was first prize?” “A spice rack.” Mia shook her head at the silliness of the prizes. “The idea was that we were competing for the sake of it. The prizes were just a formality.” Mia thought that with the kind of money the boys in Rami’s frat had at their disposal, it was all well and good for them to compete just for the sake of it; they needed something to keep things interesting. “That’s great,” she said, laughing again. She had finished her latte, but in spite of her earlier misgivings, she suddenly didn’t want to leave. “That’s really…” she chuckled. “God I just realized I’ve been telling you all about me,” Rami said, bringing a hand to his forehead. “I haven’t asked a thing about you, sorry. Please tell me about yourself, Mia.” Mia shrugged, startled by the change in tactics. “There’s not all that much to tell,” she began, fumbling in her mind for something that might be even a little relatable to the wealthy, somewhat spoiled man sitting across from her. “I’ve been a teacher for three years, working at the public school. Honestly, I don’t really have a life!” Mia laughed nervously. “I don’t know if you’re aware how much time teachers end up working outside of school hours…” “Oh, it’s a ton, I know,” Rami said, nodding. “I had to get tutoring from one of my teachers when I was in high school, in order to get the grades I needed. The guy was just constantly busy.” Rami reached across the table and gave Mia’s hand a little squeeze. “I’m grateful that you took some time to sit and talk with me.” “Well, between that and my mother…” Mia started to say, and then paused. “Demanding mother? Mine is, too.” Mia shook her head. “No, she’s very ill,” she said quietly. “My father passed away when I was a teenager, and we’ve no other family around who can help her out. One of the neighbors helps her get to doctors’ appointments during the week, but she’s got a chronic illness which is really taking its toll on her.” Rami frowned, looking sympathetic. “That must be really difficult for you, being torn in two different directions by your career and your mother?” “It is and it isn’t,” Mia said, taking a breath to push down the stress that just remembering her mother’s condition stirred inside of her. “She—I feel like I really owe her. My dad, too. I was adopted when I was little, and I kind of—I almost feel like I owe them more than I could ever owe my biological parents, because they chose to take me in.” “You’re a good daughter,” Rami said with a comforting smile. “I’m not such a good son.” A troubled look flicked over his face, before disappearing in an instant. “My mom is fond of telling me what a disappointment I am.” “She has high expectations for you, then. That’s not—I mean, it could be worse.” Rami nodded quickly. “She has high expectations of me. And my father… his idea of showing love is to buy me a car.” Rami shrugged. “I don’t think I’ve heard either of them say ‘I love you’ more than a handful of times in my life. Not to me, at least; maybe they tell each other all the time....” For a moment, Mia felt almost pity for the wealthy man; even if she had been struggling ever since her father had died, she had at least known that both of her parents loved her dearly. “Do you think you’ll ever have kids?” Mia wasn’t sure why the question occurred to her. “I’ve thought about it,” Rami said. “I would want to give a child everything I never had—the love, the attention, you know?” Mia nodded. “It’s sort of funny,” she said, glancing around the room. “We sort of grew up with opposite problems. You grew up with more money than anyone could ever use, but not a lot of actual love, and I grew up with all the love I could stand, but almost no money.” Rami grinned. “So you’d want to make sure your child could have all the things they ever wanted—the toys, the private school, all that.” Mia shrugged. “It doesn’t seem to have done you that much harm,” she admitted. “It makes it harder to know how to feel about people,” Rami said slowly. “I want to find someone to spend the rest of my life with—but I don’t really know how to read people. So many of my friends are just interested in money, but I want someone who would stay with me even if something happened and I was broke next week, you know?” Mia considered the idea before nodding. “Yeah, I guess it could be kind of hard to live in that world,” she agreed. Her gaze fell on an antique clock mounted on the wall and she realized that they had been talking for far longer than she’d expected. “Oh—oh God, I’m so sorry, but if I don’t go now, all of my frozen stuff is going to go bad,” she smiled apologetically. “I wish I could stay a little while longer, but that’d be half my money down the drain.” “No, I understand,” Rami said, getting to his feet. “I hope you’ll have an hour or two to spare sometime soon, so we can talk again.” Mia took the hand he offered; but instead of shaking it, he pulled her closer to him and she smelled the expensive cologne clinging to his skin as he kissed her first on one cheek, then the other. “I hope so too,” Mia said, though she wasn’t sure of how she felt about him, or when she would ever have any free time to spend on a date again. She made sure both her phone and wallet were in her purse before hurrying out of the café and to her car. She barely even thought about their conversation as her mind filled with all of the things she still had to do that evening. FOUR Mia managed to get her groceries home before the frozen goods had melted. While the much-anticipated carton of ice cream was a little soft on the sides, she thought it would be okay after a few hours in the freezer. She went about her chores, loading the washer with the clothes she would need for the work week and cleaning up the dishes from her breakfast that morning. She wasn’t in the mood to face more chores, but getting them finished would give her at least a little peace of mind. As she wandered around her house, going from task to task, she began, almost involuntarily, to think about Rami. It was bizarre that someone like him, with all the money anyone could ever dream of, would ask someone like her—a broke, struggling English teacher—out for coffee; more so that he wanted to see her again sometime. Rami could ask out literally any woman he wanted and probably get a ‘yes’, Mia thought, as she finally sat down to look over the pile of papers she had still to grade. “He was just being nice. He probably felt guilty for going off on me, or whatever.” That made more sense. Figuring that she would probably never hear from Rami again, Mia went about the rest of her afternoon focused on her regular routine. She was beginning to consider what to make for dinner when she heard her phone ringing. Assuming that it must be her mother, Mia dashed through the living room and into her bedroom where her phone was charging. “Shit, shit, shit,” she muttered as it rang a fifth time before she got to it. “Please don’t let it be a heart thing. Or a lung thing.” When she picked up the phone, however, the screen lit up with Rami’s phone number. What could he want to call her about so soon after their semi-date? Mia considered letting it roll over to voice mail, then decided against it; maybe she had left something behind at the café—her ID for school, maybe. “Hello?” Mia sank down onto her bed, attempting to cover the breathlessness in her voice. “Mia! I’m glad you picked up.” “Sorry,” she said, with a flash of guilt. “I was on the other side of the house, my phone was charging in my room.” “It’s all good,” Rami said. For some reason she couldn’t quite understand, Mia pictured the well-dressed man leaning back in a chair somewhere, lounging, completely at ease. She shook her head, clearing the mental image away. “I actually wanted to ask you for a favor.” “A favor?” Mia felt irritated. Of course, the only reason Rami had asked her out for coffee, or paid any attention to her at all, was because he had a favor in mind. “Yeah, I know—I probably should have mentioned it back at the café, but it didn’t really cross my mind until about an hour ago. Listen, promise me you won’t just hang up when you hear what I have to say.” Mia pressed her lips together, glancing at her phone in instinctive distrust. “I’m listening,” she said finally, sinking back onto her bed. “It’s kind of a weird favor, so please—just hear me out, okay?” “I will hear you out,” Mia replied. She felt a low stirring of dread at what Rami might be about to ask her. She did owe him, in a certain respect; he had paid for her car repairs—and for more than the damage he had actually done—out of his own pocket. But the accident was his fault. If he hadn’t paid out of pocket he would have had to go through insurance. That wasn’t a favor—it was for his convenience. “Okay,” Rami said, and for the first time since she’d met him, he actually sounded a little uncertain. “I want you to be the mother of my child.” “What?” The word left Mia’s mouth in a near-shriek. “I barely know you!” “Not—it’s okay, Mia. I don’t mean like, a baby-mama or anything like that.” Mia’s mouth opened and closed without any words leaving it. She stared up at her ceiling in shock. “Maybe you should explain to me what exactly it is that you mean,” she said. “I want to pay you to carry a child for me,” Rami told her, speaking slowly. “I’ll pay for the doctors, the treatments, everything.” “And why, exactly, do you need a child?” Mia couldn’t get over the initial shock of what he had proposed. “I want to raise a child the right way, and there’s no better time than now.” Mia reflected in silence for a long moment, remembering their conversation about children during their “date.” She would never have imagined that the outcome of that conversation would be Rami asking her to carry his child. “In addition to paying for all of the medical costs, I would of course pay you.” “Wait—wait, you mean…” Mia felt her indignation rising again. “No, not that—no. I would want you to conceive through IVF. But I would be paying you a monthly allowance, so that you wouldn’t have to work. I want you to be completely healthy and stress-free right from the start. I was thinking maybe a hundred thousand a month, plus the medical bills and maybe extra for your groceries?” Mia’s eyes widened and she stared at her phone in amazement at the figure he mentioned. “One hundred thousand a month?” A voice in the back of her mind suggested that with that kind of money, she could close out all of her mother’s bills and pay for years of medication. “Of course, I’d pay you a larger sum once the baby is delivered,” Rami continued, as if he hadn’t quite heard her question. “I was thinking an even million, but if you think that you’d need more to give up a child you’d borne…” Mia could barely even think, much less speak. A million dollars, after earning a hundred thousand a month for nine months or more. “This is crazy,” Mia said, shaking her head. “Why do you want to pay me to carry a baby for you?” “It seemed like a pretty good deal,” Rami replied. “You get money that you need, I get the kid that I want. If it’s not enough money I can talk to my accountant…” “No, no it’s not—it’s not the amount,” Mia said quickly. “It’s more that it just seems so bizarre to be paid to do something like that.” “People do it every day,” Rami said. Mia could just picture him shrugging at the other end of the line, as if offering someone two million dollars—maybe even more—was the most casual thing in the world. “Plenty of wealthy women don’t want to carry their children, or can’t, so they hire a surrogate and pay them. I’d want you to keep quiet about it, of course.” “It’s just that…it seems so weird,” Mia finished, bringing her hand up to her forehead. “I really need to think about something like that, Rami. It’s a kind of a big favor you’re asking.” “Like I said, if you think you need more money to be able to do it, I can work something out.” Mia shook her head. “I just—it would mean changing everything in my life, and—and I’m not sure if I’m even ready to be pregnant. Or to give up a kid that I’m carrying. Just…let me have some time to think about it, okay?” “Take all the time you need,” Rami told her. “It is kind of a big favor, I know. But I hope you’ll agree to it.” Mia barely remembered what she said to end the call; she was fairly certain she agreed to get back to him when she had made up her mind, but her brain seemed so thoroughly frozen by the magnitude of what Rami was asking—and the staggering amount of money he was offering her in exchange—that she couldn’t be sure of the words that came out of her mouth. The rest of her chores, everything she intended to do that evening, fell by the wayside. Mia simply lay in her bed, staring at the ceiling, trying to digest the incredible phone call. Part of her cringed at the idea of carrying a child that she would give up once it was born. Even if she wasn’t being paid to have sex with someone—and Rami had managed to make it clear that he wanted her to undergo IVF—the notion of being pregnant, giving birth and then never seeing her child again, was unthinkable to Mia. I would be no better than my birth parents, she thought, bitterly. But then—she wouldn’t just be giving the child up. The child’s life wouldn’t be like hers at all. Mia thought back to the bleak, institutional orphanage—the group home—the location of her earliest memories. If she did agree to carry Rami’s child, that baby wouldn’t be housed in a sterile, featureless crib, wouldn’t eat the same bland, if nutritional, meals three times a day, wouldn’t play with an ever-changing bunch of kids she barely knew—some of whom were badly beaten, still bearing scars of abusive parents, both mental and physical. Any child that Mia carried for Rami would be guaranteed all of the luxuries that wealth had to offer. Hadn’t she told Rami that she wanted that for her own children, or at least as many of the finer things as she was capable of providing for them? Mia couldn’t deny that the money Rami was offering for carrying his child was almost absurd in its generosity. A hundred thousand dollars a month, with her medical bills taken care of, would allow her to clear her mother’s debts in record time. She could take a sabbatical and get away from the school that had become more like a prison to her. “With the million at the end, I could go back to college, get another degree in something else.” Even more than that—she could pay off her own debts. She could buy a house, something modest, but something that was hers outright. With a better job, no debt to hold her down, and her mother’s care covered for at least for a few years, Mia could actually consider finding her own partner, having her own child. But then, her mind countered, she didn’t know how pregnancy would treat her. She had no idea what kinds of genetic diseases her birth parents had bequeathed her, no clue of how her birth mother had weathered her pregnancy. There were countless ways that a pregnancy could go wrong. She knew she was lingering on the worst-case scenario, but there was a small chance she could die if there were severe complications. Mia thought grimly that if Rami came up with some kind of contract, she would insist that on a clause stating that if Mia were to die in the process of carrying the child or giving birth to it, the remainder of the money would be paid to her mother. It was full dark outside, and Mia realized she must have been deliberating Rami’s offer for at least a couple of hours. She told herself to keep thinking it over, even though she was already halfway convinced that it was the best option open to her. To appease her growling stomach, she went into the kitchen and began to make up a plain but healthy meal of garbanzo beans, curry, and rice. She considered the benefits, risks and negatives of Rami’s offer. “If I was getting a hundred thousand a month, I could certainly afford to eat half decently,” Mia said, thinking out loud as she stirred the little pot of curry. “I wouldn’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn every day, and I could spend more time with mom.” Rami had said he wouldn’t want her telling anyone about their arrangement, but she would have to tell her mother something. She couldn’t just start paying off hospital bills without giving any hint of where she had gotten the money. As she ate, Mia began to lean more and more towards accepting Rami’s offer. It answered every last thing that she needed in her life at the moment, and while the idea of being pregnant was more than a little frightening, Mia couldn’t deny that she would be in the best possible situation to deal with anything that came up in a pregnancy. She knew Rami wouldn’t skimp on medical care for his unborn child—and by extension, the mother of said child—when he was paying so dearly for the baby he wanted. She was realistic enough to know there were some complications even modern medicine couldn’t prevent, but she liked her odds much more than if she had somehow managed to get pregnant in her current situation, with no outside support. After she had eaten and washed her dishes, Mia picked up her phone and took a deep breath before dialing Rami’s number. The call connected on the second ring. “Mia! I wasn’t expecting to hear from you for a day or two. Is everything okay?” Mia smiled as she heard the genuine worry in his voice. “I’m fine,” she said. “I’ve just been giving a lot of thought about what you asked me.” “If you’ve come to a decision this fast… Mia, if you need time to really consider it, please, by all means, don’t rush.” “I want to do it.” The words were out of Mia’s mouth before she could stop or change them in any way. “I mean—I have some…concerns, and there are some things that I want to make sure of, but…it’s the best offer I’ve ever had and probably the best I’ll ever get.” “You could always find a rich man to marry you,” Rami suggested playfully. “When am I likely to do that?” Mia laughed. “I only ever leave my house to work or run errands. You’re the first rich guy I’ve ever run into at the supermarket.” Rami laughed with her. “Do you really think you want to do this? I don’t want you to feel like you have to.” Mia hesitated before replying. “It’ll give me a chance to pay off my mom’s debts and take care of her; to really give her the care she needs. It’s enough money to do that and take time away from work. It’s the best option I have.” Mia took a deep breath. “There are a few things I want to make sure we’re clear on, but it’s really generous of you.” “Like I said—if you need more than I originally stated, I’m willing to pay.” Mia shook her head; she wasn’t sure Rami would ever understand the value of the money he was throwing around. “It’s just…there are a few conditions,” Mia said slowly, sitting back on the couch. “I would want to make sure that if—if something happens to me…” “Nothing will happen to you,” Rami said confidently. “You’ll have the best medical care in the world.” “Even with the best medical care, women do sometimes…die…having children,” Mia said, pushing aside her own worry on that subject. “And if that did happen to me, I’d hope you would agree to pay my mom for the cost of—of burying me.” “Of course, I will make sure she receives the full amount of whatever is left,” Rami said. “I don’t think we’ll have to worry about that, but you’re right to put your own mind at ease.” Mia smiled, relieved that agreed with her condition. “Also, my mom will have to know what I’m doing. She won’t tell anyone else, and I won’t, but if I suddenly get pregnant and come into a ton of money…” Mia shrugged, looking at herself in the mirror over her entertainment center. “Right—right, I understand. We wouldn’t want your mother thinking you’ve turned to a life of crime.” Mia chuckled. “I was going to say prostitution, but that’s technically a crime.” Rami laughed. “Also, you—you’re clear that we’ll be doing this through IVF. You’re not…you don’t expect me to…” “Oh… No, no, I don’t expect you to suddenly start having sex with me. I have a doctor in mind, one of the best in the field. She will take care of everything for both of us.” Mia let out a breath she hadn’t been aware she was holding. “Well, in that case… I think that covers everything,” she said, smiling brightly. “When did you want to start? I’ll need some time to take care of things at work…but then, that doesn’t really affect you does it. Oh God, I’m babbling, sorry.” Rami chuckled at the other end of the line. “You just made a huge decision, Mia, I’d be surprised if you weren’t babbling,” he said, his voice full of warmth. “Oh—there was one other thing,” Mia said. Her cheeks warmed with a blush as the thought occurred to her. “Why did you ask me to do this?” “What do you mean?” “I mean, why me in particular? I’m sure there are lots of other women who would be completely willing, and who wouldn’t have any of the conditions I have—who are probably prettier than I am…” Mia frowned at her reflection. “I know we don’t know each other very well, but there’s something special about you, Mia. You have this…warmth about you,” Rami said, speaking slowly, thoughtfully. “I noticed it the first time we met. You’re so—open, and kind, and sweet. And you’re much prettier than you seem to think.” Mia’s blush deepened and she felt relieved that Rami couldn’t see her. “I wanted someone who would be…nurturing, I guess. I didn’t want someone who would just take my money and “turn up”, as it were. I thought with you, you would make the baby the top priority; that you’d care about it, and take care of yourself for his or her sake. That’s the kind of start I want for my child.” Mia felt her eyes stinging with tears and bit her bottom lip, taking a slow breath to push the reaction down. “That’s—thank you. That’s one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me.” “I’m honored that you’re willing to do this for me, Mia. You’re a generous, big-hearted person, and I will owe you a debt for the rest of my life.” Mia smiled, taking another breath and exhaling slowly. “So…” she said, “how exactly are we going to do this?” “First, I will need you to meet with my accountant to arrange the first transfer to your account,” Rami said. “Then, when you’re ready, we can book a consultation.” Rami paused for a moment. “How much notice will you need to give the school that you’re planning to go on leave?” Mia considered the question. “I think I need to give them a month,” she said. “But I can go to appointments and things during that time—especially if you can find someone who’s willing to see me on a weekend.” “That can definitely be arranged,” Rami said. “Oh I’m so excited! Mia, you have no idea. You’re an angel, really. Thank you so much. I’ll contact my accountant to let him know he needs to meet with you. I’ll tell him to call you, and he should be able to see you after work one day soon.” Mia nodded. She couldn’t quite believe she had made such a momentous decision in such a short time—but now that she had made the choice, she was glad that Rami wasn’t going to put her on hold to wait for a long negotiation or anything else. She wanted to get down to the business of carrying his child as quickly as possible. FIVE Mia sat in the waiting room at the OB/GYN Rami had enlisted for the complicated and delicate task of overseeing her pregnancy. She looked around at the other women, men—and a few children—waiting for their own appointments. Rami would be there soon, Mia told herself firmly as her heart fluttered in her chest. She no longer questioned why she felt better when Rami was around, especially for the appointments. At first she had told herself it was because she felt weird being in the waiting room alone, thinking everyone would assume her to be her some kind of unwed mother—which technically, if she successfully became pregnant, she would be. Thankfully Dr. Farber had put her at ease, making it clear to her that she didn’t regard what Mia was doing as strange in the slightest. In her first meeting with the OB/GYN, the doctor had sat Mia down and said, “Rami has explained to me that you’re a friend, and you’ve done him the honor of agreeing to be the carrier of his child. I think that’s very noble of you—especially considering you could have asked for much more money than you did.” As she waited for Rami to arrive, Mia tried to tell herself not to be disheartened by the fact that it had been three months and she had yet to become pregnant. It can take up to a year, Dr. Farber said. Or multiple years. At lunch after their initial consultation, Rami had told her that he was more than happy to continue paying, no matter how long it took for her to become pregnant. But Mia had set a deadline for herself: if after a year of trying she still hadn’t become pregnant, she would end her contract with Rami. It didn’t seem right to keep taking his money when she wasn’t sure if she would ever conceive at all. While teaching had been stressful, it at least meant that Mia had plenty to occupy her mind; now that Rami’s payments made it possible for her to spend more time at home, and with her mother, the only things she had to think about were her mother’s illness and the fact that she wasn’t pregnant yet. Mia smiled to herself when she remembered her mother’s reaction to the news that the bills and debts were going to be a thing of the past. She had gone to her mother’s house as soon as the first payment had deposited in her account. Mia had found her mother asleep on the couch, a faint rattle in her breath—the lingering effects of the pneumonia. “Mom!” Mia had tried to keep her voice quiet enough not to completely startle her, but Amie Campbell had nearly fallen off of the couch anyway. “Mia, baby,” Amie had said, smiling at the sight of her daughter. “It’s a little early for you to be here, isn’t it? Lord, I should’ve set an alarm.” “No—no, Mom, you’re fine. I am early, and if anyone can see you in your nightgown it’s me, right?” Mia’s mother had chuckled weakly, sitting up with a struggle. “I have amazing—awesome—just…just great news,” Mia had said. “Did you win the lottery or something? Tell me!” Mia had taken a deep breath to steady her rushing heart. “Something like that! Mom, you don’t have to worry about the bills anymore. In fact, I think we can probably take you to that expert in New York, if you want.” Mia had taken another breath. “I’m going to be making a hundred thousand dollars a month for…well, for a while.” “What?! How are you going to do that, baby girl?” Amie’s confusion deepened into a frown. “Please tell me you’re not escorting or something?” “No, no, no—no, Mom, I’m not—I’m not doing anything like that,” Mia had said, blushing. “I am going to be a surrogate mother for someone’s child.” “Whose child?” Mia had worried at her bottom lip slightly. “A really wealthy man by the name of Rami al-Hassan. He wants to have a baby, and he’s asked me to carry it for him. He’s paying all of the medical costs, and he’s giving me a monthly payment for my trouble.” “A hundred thousand a month is a lot of trouble,” Amie had said, looking at her daughter dubiously. “And let me guess, you have to conceive ‘naturally’?” Mia’s blush had deepened as she shook her head. “No, we’re going to do artificial insemination, or IVF. No…sex.” Mia’s mother had smiled slightly, giving her daughter a knowing look. “Taking the best part out of the situation, eh?” Amie had taken a deep breath then and exhaled, ending on a spasm of coughing. “As long as you’re not doing something you think is shameful, I think it’s a wonderful thing that you’re getting paid to bring a life into this world.” The door to the OB/GYN office opened and the bells attached to it clattered and chimed. Startled out of her thoughts, Mia looked up to see Rami walk in. He was as well dressed as ever, in a pair of designer jeans, oxford shirt, Ray Bans—which he took off as soon as he was inside—and polished, wingtip shoes. Mia had grown somewhat accustomed to the reaction of the other patients in the room whenever Rami arrived; she was sure that next to him she looked like the ultimate frump, dressed to a much cheaper budget, with no makeup, and her hair pulled back in a bun, ponytail, or braid; they were as mismatched a couple as anyone could have imagined. “How are you feeling?” Rami sat down in the chair next to her, looking her over quickly. To her relief, Mia didn’t see even a flicker of disapproval in his glance. “I’m okay. A little nervous,” she replied, smiling slightly. “What if…” “Nope, don’t go there right now,” Rami said, interrupting her. “We’re going to see what Dr. Farber has to say. Just because it didn’t work one way, doesn’t mean it won’t work another way.” “I just feel really terrible,” Mia told him. She pitched her voice lower. “If I can’t get pregnant, I hate to keep taking your money.” Rami shrugged. “It’s an investment cost,” he said, giving her a quick, charming smile. “My dad has had a bunch of investments that didn’t pan out. It happens. Let’s wait until we know for sure that you can’t conceive to start feeling bad, hm?” Mia smiled in spite of her nervousness. “Okay,” she said, smoothing her hair back from her face. “I promise I won’t start feeling guilty until then.” “How’s your mother doing?” he asked. Mia’s smile deepened. “Well, all her bills are cleared,” she said quietly. “We’re working on getting her an appointment with a renowned specialist in New York City.” Rami nodded, smiling broadly. “If you’re going to New York, then you’ll need some new clothes,” he pointed out, gesturing to her outfit. Mia blushed. “I can’t—I don’t want to spend the money on something like…” “Then I am taking you shopping after this appointment,” Rami said firmly, with an air of absolute confidence. “We’ll get lunch and I will make sure you’re properly attired for a trip to New York.” “Rami—you’re already paying me so much…” Mia felt her cheeks burning as she looked around the room to make sure that no one was listening in. “I don’t want to take more of your money.” Rami shook his head. “I insist. It’ll barely cost me anything at all, and I want to see you in nicer things.” Rami smiled. “Not that you don’t make these clothes look like they should be on the runway.” “Oh hush,” Mia said, rolling her eyes. “Ms. Campbell? Mr. al-Hassan? The doctor will see you now.” Mia stifled a giggle as she stood up. Rami gestured for her to precede him through the door into the office proper, and Mia took a deep breath. Even if she was hesitant to accept Rami’s offer to take her shopping, the conversation had helped distract her from her nervousness. They followed the MA back to Doctor Farber’s private office, and Mia reminded herself that they still had plenty of options. Dr. Farber was a tall, slim woman with graying blonde hair, bright blue eyes, and a slightly hoarse voice from smoking through the first decade of her medical career. She rose as Mia and Rami came in, and Mia admired—not for the first time—the way her white coat looked over her simple but elegant crew-neck tee shirt and tailored slacks. “Good morning,” the doctor said, smiling at them both. “Can you close the door behind them please, Alicia?” “What’s the news, Doctor?” Rami asked as he sat down. “Well, as I’m sure you’ve both realized, our first attempts haven’t taken,” Dr. Farber said. “This does happen sometimes, and there’s no one to really blame for it.” Dr. Farber looked at Mia as if she had divined some of the guilty anxiety Mia was feeling. Mia thought that the older woman had probably worked with enough women to predict their reactions before they had them. “Do you have any idea why it’s not working?” Mia asked, trying to keep her voice level. “Sometimes it doesn’t work and we don’t know why,” Dr. Farber said. “But your initial fertility tests show you’re both plenty fertile.” Mia suppressed the urge to worry at her bottom lip. “I want to keep things as slow as possible—it’s better that way for both of you, and healthier. But the next step is IVF.” Mia took a deep breath; when she and Rami had had their first consultation with Dr. Farber, after they’d each done their separate blood tests and other exams, the OB/GYN had said that she wanted to take it as slowly as possible with them; both Mia and Rami were young enough that more aggressive methods of conception were probably unnecessary. Mia’s monthly cycle was fortunately as regular as a train schedule, so for the first month she had just charted her cycle, taking her temperature several times a day, every day, to pinpoint the moment she would ovulate. When the moment came, she had hurried to the doctor’s office, calling ahead to inform the staff that she was ready for her first attempt. Once she was ready, they had put a catheter inside of her and flushed her full of Rami’s semen. It was one of the most awkward, uncomfortable, and strangest experiences of Mia’s life, but she had lived through it; at least it hadn’t exactly hurt. When the first attempt didn’t take, the doctor suggested that Mia could take some of the milder fertility drugs to increase the number of eggs she was producing. She had done as she was advised, and for two more cycles had gone to the doctor when she was ovulating and experienced the discomfort of having Rami’s sperm flushed into her. Now that neither of the “enhanced” attempts at artificial insemination had taken, Mia had begun to wonder if there was something that the tests had simply failed to take into account. Not for the first time in her life, she wished that she knew something about her birth parents; some fraction of their medical history, something that might explain why it was apparently so difficult for her to conceive. “Now,” Dr. Farber said, jolting Mia out of her thoughts. “IVF is a lot more intensive than regular artificial insemination. I’m going to need you to follow the directions to the letter, Mia, and it would be best if you can make sure you get as much rest as possible.” “She’s on sabbatical from work,” Rami said. “But her mother is ill, and Mia takes care of her.” Dr. Farber nodded. “I understand you feel obligated, but if you can afford it, try and see if you can find someone else to help her out for a couple of months,” Dr. Farber suggested. “You need to have as little stress as possible in your life.” Mia shrugged. “It’s not—it’s really not that big of a deal,” Mia said. “It’s not a major stress…and I think I’d be more stressed if I didn’t take care of her myself.” Dr. Farber hesitated, before nodding. “If you think it’ll be easier for you this way, that’s understandable” she agreed. “In the mean time, I want you to make sure you’re eating well, and staying as healthy as possible. IVF can put a lot of stress on the body.” Mia pressed her lips together and glanced at Rami, he was nodding along with the doctor’s recommendations. “Okay,” Mia said, steadying herself. “Let’s go over what that is going to entail.” She took a notebook out of her purse and listened as the OB/GYN began to explain the process, and what Mia would have to do. There would be more intensive tests, more medications to take—medications Mia would have to inject. The idea was less than thrilling, but looking at Rami, remembering how much he was paying her, and how much he wanted this child, Mia pushed aside her misgivings. She had already managed to pay off her mother’s medical bills and her student loan debts in the space of three months. In another few, she would hopefully be pregnant and able to pay for her mother’s treatments—maybe even put a down payment on a house. For that opportunity, she could handle daily shots, the blood tests and the ultrasounds. Imagine if you were diabetic, she thought to herself, writing down the instructions Dr. Farber was giving her. You’d have to inject yourself and stick yourself with needles every day and no one would be paying you for it—they certainly wouldn’t be paying you a hundred thousand dollars a month. As they left Dr. Farber’s office after setting Mia’s next few appointments—appointments she would mostly be attending alone—Rami turned to her. “You didn’t think that I was going to just forget about taking you shopping, did you?” Mia blushed. “How did you even remember that after that huge information overload?” “I’d already researched the process and kind of knew most of what she was going to say before she said it,” Rami admitted. “We really don’t have to do this,” Mia said, brushing her hands against her skirt self-consciously. “Oh but we do,” Rami said, grinning. “Especially since we just got bad news. A good shopping trip will take us out of the blues.” “Are you even serious right now? Am I the type of woman you think can just spend money and feel better?” Rami looked at her in disbelief. “Every type of woman is that woman,” he said, shaking his head. “And secretly every type of man is that man, too. Men just usually spend their money on different things.” “Like expensive cars?” Rami grinned again. “Cars, stereos, tools…” He shrugged. “And for some, a nice suit here and there.” Mia sighed as Rami held the door open for her. “If you’re going to insist,” she told him, rolling her eyes at the extravagance of it, “the least I can do is give in gracefully.” Rami laughed. “So shall we go to Nordstrom first, or Saks?” Mia sighed, shaking her head with a little smile. “First I kind of want to eat. Then you can take me to as many department stores as you can stand.” Mia followed Rami in her car, thinking about all of the things that would go along with receiving IVF treatments. She couldn’t even estimate the cost. Artificial insemination alone had been so expensive—she couldn’t imagine how much more the hormone shots, ultrasounds, blood tests and all the other elements of the more aggressive treatment would be. “But if he wants to pay for it, then that’s his business,” she told herself. Their first stop was at a tiny boutique restaurant; the kind of place Mia had rarely seen, let alone visited, before Rami had come into her life, but Rami always insisted on taking her to lunch after their appointments, and he was a man of expensive tastes. Hesitantly, Mia pulled up to the valet stand. Even after three months of valet parking, she still couldn’t get used to it. She had her tip money ready, and handed it with her keys to the gawky young valet, averting her eyes from the inevitable questioning glance when he spotted what kind of car she drove. “You know, lots of rich guys drive clunkers,” Rami said, as he greeted her by the restaurant’s entrance. “It’s not like anyone’s going to notice.” Mia smiled. “I’m sorry, I still feel weird handing over a mid-nineties Volvo to a guy in a suit.” “Then don’t drive a mid-nineties Volvo,” Rami suggested. “Right, because it’s totally responsible for me to spend money on an expensive car right now.” Rami laughed, taking her arm and leading her towards the entrance. “Once you’ve had the baby, you can be as irresponsible as you want. And if you need more money…” “I am not going to ask for more money just to buy a car when the one I have is still perfectly functional,” Mia said flatly. “I’m just saying, you could. Especially with this IVF stuff; it sounds like it’s going to be really tough on you.” “Rami, stop,” Mia said, blushing as she started to feel more than a little guilty at his generosity. “You take me out to lunch after every one of these appointments, you’re taking me shopping for clothes… I already feel like you’re being too generous.” “Lunch is nothing,” Rami said. The woman at the hostess stand smiled warmly as they approached, and Mia saw her give Rami a long, appreciative glance. Rami turned to the woman and smiled. “I believe I have a standing reservation? Rami al-Hassan.” The woman nodded and keyed Rami’s name into the tablet in front of her. “I see that right here, Mr. al-Hassan,” she said, with a slightly smaller, but still polite, smile. “Just the two of you?” Rami nodded. “Right this way.” Mia could never quite get used to the feeling of walking into a high-end dining room, even having followed Rami’s lead into a more than a dozen of them over the course of their partnership. She tried not to feel too conspicuous and out of place as the hostess navigated them around islands of white linen, silver, and glittering crystal. They sat down, and the hostess gave each of them a menu—they had a choice of à la carte items or a lunch-sized tasting menu. “How long do you want to be here?” Rami asked her. “Considering we were in Dr. Farber’s office for over an hour and you didn’t forget about going shopping, I don’t think it matters how long we’re in here.” Rami grinned. “You’re starting to figure me out!” Mia laughed. “Maybe a little bit,” she admitted. “The tasting menu here is amazing. Seasonal, incredibly fresh—the chef is just a wizard.” Mia looked over the fine calligraphy on the menu in front of her and saw a dozen things she barely recognized, names and cooking terms that she could parse mingled with others that she wasn’t sure she could pronounce. “No wine, though,” Mia said, glancing at the suggestions that accompanied the various dishes. Rami shrugged. “Have you really missed it?” Mia considered. “Not really. One of these days though, after this is all over, I’m going to do one of these tasting menus the way it’s really supposed to be done.” Rami chuckled. “You’ll have a million dollars. You could do all of the tasting menus in the U.S. with that—wine included.” The waiter arrived at their table and both Rami and Mia ordered the tasting menu. Out of courtesy for Mia, Rami got water with his meal. Mia relaxed as one perfect, tiny item after another arrived at their table: salads perfectly dressed with vegetables she must have eaten before, only they’d never tasted so good; game, meat and fish in three-bite portions, all cooked to perfection; sauces that danced bright, rich flavors across her tongue. Over the many courses, she and Rami discussed which shops they would go to, and their plan once inside each one. “At Nordstrom I will have to make sure my personal shopper is there. She is sure to know exactly what will be best for you even as you start to show—although, maybe we’d better go shopping again if you start to outgrow your clothes.” “Rami,” Mia said, blushing as she took a bite of medium rare filet of grass-fed beef, “No. I will buy my clothes with my own money from a maternity store if I have to. I am not going to let you take me on another shopping spree.” “How are you going to stop me?” Rami asked with a little grin. “I’ll refuse to go and by then I’ll be so heavy you won’t be able to make me.” Rami laughed. “Fine. Only this once. But I think we’d better go to Macy’s too, for some everyday things.” “This was just supposed to be for New York! You are not giving me a whole new wardrobe, Rami. No, you’re not doing it.” “It’s my money,” Rami pointed out. “I can spend it how I like.” “I don’t want you spending it on me in the first place!” Mia looked around, taking a sip of her water to cover the embarrassment she felt at raising her voice. “I just…I’m not used to this, okay? I’ll let you buy me clothes for New York because you’re insisting on it, but please don’t make me feel guilty by giving me a lot of clothes I don’t need. No one ever sees me except you, my mom, Dr. Farber and the people at the grocery store.” “Okay Mia, you win,” Rami said, though a gleam in his dark eyes suggested that he hadn’t quite given in on the idea of giving her a complete wardrobe. “So just Nordstrom and Saks, maybe Bloomingdales?” Mia sighed. “Fine,” she said. “But I’m giving you a limit. You’re not spending more than…a thousand dollars. Okay?” Rami shook his head. “Not going to agree to that; what if I find the perfect everyday dress for you and it’s three hundred? That’s almost a third on just one thing!” “You are not buying me an ‘everyday dress’ for three hundred dollars!” Mia insisted. “Let me use my judgment,” Rami said firmly. “I won’t buy more than you can wear in New York for like… a week. That’s how long you’ll be there, right?” Mia sighed, putting the plate in front of her aside. “Yes,” she said. “Okay. A week’s worth of clothes, that’s it.” She still felt weird accepting extra gifts and attention from Rami, but after three months of meeting with him on a regular basis, she knew arguing about it wouldn’t get her anywhere. SIX “How are you feeling, baby girl?” Amie asked. Mia sighed as she sank down onto the couch, wincing as a pillow pressed up against the injection site on her buttock. “I’m tired,” she admitted. Mia had been prepared for the fact that IVF would be demanding on her body, what with all the hormones and the monitoring, and Dr. Farber had given her fair warning. But she hadn’t counted on just how exhausting it would all be; how much the injections would hurt. Mia had avoided telling Rami about it in too much detail because she wasn’t sure he could handle the reality of the process—and she didn’t want him thinking she wasn’t up to the task. “How long do you think this is going to go on for?” Her mother inquired, hesitantly. Mia licked her lips and shrugged, shifting so that her weight was more on her other hip. “The doctor says it can take multiple cycles. Even with everything…” she shrugged again. “It’s not perfect. Sometimes the implanted eggs don’t take, sometimes they can’t get the eggs out in time.” “But you’re being careful.” It was almost a question. “Oh absolutely. Dr. Farber said she wants to make sure I’m still able to have babies of my own after this is done.” Mia laughed bitterly. “Because surely if I’m resorting to IVF now, I’m going to be able to have babies of my own later on the natural way, no problem.” Mia’s mom bit her bottom lip. “Have you and Rami considered that?” Mia blushed. “No, we’re keeping it strictly business between us. If we did it that way it’d feel like…” Mia squirmed. “Like prostitution?” Amie cut in. Mia nodded. “Well, you know… some women try the artificial way for years and then give up…and find themselves pregnant the old-fashioned way.” “I just…sometimes wish I knew about my birth parents,” Mia said, looking down at her hands in her lap. “Not because I care about them or anything—I don’t even remember them, or know…” why they gave me up before I even had a chance to know them, her mind finished—though she didn’t say it out loud. “But I mean, my bio mom had to have conceived me naturally, right? If she was fertile…” “Sweetheart, if your birth mother was able to conceive, you’ll be able to conceive.” Mia laughed again, shaking her head. “I don’t know that, and neither do you.” “It’s your first cycle, baby girl. Give it a good chance, a good few times, before you start worrying.” “But Rami is paying me so much money for this. If I can’t even get pregnant…” Mia’s eyes stung with tears. “I’ll feel like a failure, like I wasted his time.” “And what does Rami say?” Mia took a deep breath and sighed. “He says that if it doesn’t work out, no harm done,” Mia replied. “That he would just consider it an investment that didn’t pan out.” She frowned, picking at imaginary lint on her jeans. “But that doesn’t make me feel any differently. If I can’t have kids this way…maybe I can’t ever have kids.” Mia’s mom gave her a quick hug. “Well, if that happens, like your Dad and me, you’ll adopt. And you’ll make some little girl or boy’s life as special as you can, and give them love.” Mia nodded, resting her head on her mother’s skinny shoulder. “You’re right,” she replied. “It won’t stop me from feeling like I basically robbed Rami, but at least…if I can’t get pregnant…at least it’s another option.” * * * Four weeks later, Mia found herself in Dr. Farber’s office again, with Rami at her side. “Welcome back,” the doctor said as they sat down. “How are you feeling, Mia?” Mia smiled weakly. “Like I’ve been scoured by a Brill-o pad,” she said. Dr. Farber nodded sympathetically. “Yes, implantation can feel like that,” the doctor agreed. “Are you feeling tired, achy, nauseated?” Mia shrugged. “Not any more than usual.” She felt her eyes stinging with tears and looked up at the ceiling, taking a quick, deep breath. The hormones she’d been taking in order to produce the eggs for the procedure were taking their toll on her; Mia had had to stop watching a movie just the day before because she couldn’t stop crying. “Well, your blood tests have come back within normal range, which you’ll be pleased to hear, I’m sure,” Dr. Farber’s voice was reassuring, and Mia tried to suppress the nervous feeling bubbling up inside of her. Rami reached over and took her hand in his, giving it a quick squeeze. “What about the eggs?” Mia asked finally, steeling herself for bad news. “They’re doing wonderfully,” the doctor said. “Exactly what we wanted to see. And the fertilization is looking positive. We’ll know for sure that it’s set in another twenty-four to forty-eight hours, but right now it’s looking very promising.” Mia sighed with relief. “So then they can be implanted?” Rami’s voice sounded almost as anxious as Mia’s. “Absolutely. You’re going to have some more discomfort, I’m afraid, but as long as nothing interferes with the fertilization, the embryos can be implanted in the next three days or so. We’ll only implant a few of them—the rest can be frozen for another attempt.” “I really hope we don’t need another attempt,” Mia said wearily. She glanced at Rami. “I’m actually starting to think I should’ve held out for more money from you.” Rami grinned. “I’m perfectly willing to pay you more,” he told her. “Just name your price.” Mia gritted her teeth, trying to suppress a flare of anger that she knew was totally disproportionate. “I don’t mean it,” she said finally. “I’d just…really love to get on with being pregnant. I don’t think it could be any more uncomfortable than what I’ve already gone through.” Dr. Farber laughed, giving her another sympathetic look. “Many of my patients feel that way,” she said. “And most of them say, once they do get pregnant, that they were right about it.” “Good to know it’s all sunshine from here,” Mia said, smiling weakly again. “So once we implant the embryos, you will be waiting for two weeks,” Dr. Farber told them. “And then you can take a pregnancy test to see if they have taken.” “Two weeks?” Rami sounded somewhat shocked. “But if she has fertile eggs, and the embryos are implanted inside of her, how could she not become pregnant?” “There are still many things which could go wrong: sometimes the body rejects the embryos, sometimes the uterus doesn’t cooperate, and sometimes the embryos don’t work their way down into the uterine wall the way they need to. If the embryos—one or all of them—implant as is required, it takes two weeks for the hormones to be strong enough to detect in a pregnancy test.” “More waiting,” Mia said, trying to keep the sarcasm out of her voice. “I’m getting so good at waiting, I’m becoming a pro.” “You’ve been incredibly patient, and understanding of everything, Mia,” Dr. Farber said. “Yes,” Rami agreed. “I really appreciate how willing you’ve been to go through this for my sake.” “Well, with an offer like the one you made…” Mia took a breath and exhaled slowly. “I’m just hoping we can make this work. I’ll feel terrible if we can’t.” “It can take time,” Dr. Farber cautioned her. “Don’t get discouraged if the treatment isn’t successful this first round. It often takes several cycles to conceive this way.” “I want to make sure we’re doing this the safest way possible,” Rami said. “You’re sure you have enough sperm and enough eggs—and that there won’t be any need for her to take the kinds of hormones she did before?” “We should have enough fertilized eggs to do at least three cycles,” Dr. Farber said. “If we’re more conservative, maybe four or five.” “Oh man, I so hope it doesn’t take five cycles,” Mia said flatly. “Without wanting to upset you, it might,” Dr. Farber told her gently. “Which is why I don’t want you to feel down on yourself if it doesn’t happen this time. There’s a science of reproductive medicine and there’s an art, and sometimes the science isn’t enough.” Mia took a sip of the water Dr. Farber had given her. “Okay,” she said. “I won’t get all worked up if it doesn’t happen this time, I promise.” “And remember, both of you, that if it gets to be too stressful, we can take a break for a few months,” Dr. Farber said. “That’s right, Mia,” Rami told her, giving her hand a squeeze. “A break would be as much a part of this as the active part.” “You are not going to convince me to stay in your pay when I’m not even actively trying to get knocked up,” Mia told him firmly. “Too much stress reduces the chances of successful conception,” Dr. Farber repeated. “If we’re not able to get it in three cycles, I will insist that you take a month off—maybe even two—to get the hormones out of your system and build your body back up. And that’s part of this process. It isn’t my place to advise on your monetary arrangement, but from a medical point of view, if Rami is paying you for this process, he should be paying you for that, too.” Mia looked from the doctor to her benefactor and decided that no matter how logically she argued with them, neither was going to budge on the issue. “Okay, fine. When can I come in and be implanted?” “Another two days and we’ll know for sure. We’ll be in touch very soon, don’t you worry.” SEVEN “Okay,” Mia said, setting her phone down on her bathroom counter. “I want you to know that this isn’t any less weird the fifth time than it was the first.” Rami laughed on the other end of the phone, the sound echoing from the speaker. “Well you won’t let me be there in person, so what choice do I have?” Mia rolled her eyes and tried to fight down the blush that warmed her cheeks. She had agreed to call Rami when she took a pregnancy test after the first cycle of artificial insemination; now on the second cycle of IVF, she would have thought that she couldn’t have a single shred of modesty left—and yet she still felt strange handling her urine while she had him on the phone. “I can’t believe you’re actually awake for this. What were you doing last night?” Mia felt a flicker of envy that throughout this process, Rami’s life had not been nearly as interrupted as her own. I didn’t go out much even when I wasn’t trying to get pregnant, Mia reminded herself. “For your information, I stayed in last night because I knew I would be waking up early to do this with you,” Rami told her, sounding haughty. “I’m sure the models at the club were just heartbroken,” Mia said wryly. “I wouldn’t know,” Rami countered. “I haven’t been hanging out with them.” “Lies. Filthy lies.” Mia took a deep breath and took the cap off of the test applicator. She looked at the tiny cup and exhaled. “Okay, dipping the applicator now.” “How long do we have to wait?” “The directions say three minutes,” Mia replied. She held the fibrous tip of the applicator in the liquid for a moment to make sure it absorbed, then quickly took it out and put the cap back on. “Starting now.” She set the timer and sat down on the edge of her tub. “So, what were you up to last night?” Rami inquired. “Oh God, this small talk,” Mia said, shaking her head. “I ate at a restaurant with Mom.” “How’s she doing?” “Better,” Mia said, smiling to herself. “The doctor in New York gave her some recommendations on who is best to see around here, and gave her some fresh information to give to the new doctors. We’re hopeful.” “That’s great! Have you started looking at houses?” Mia bit her bottom lip. “Kind of. Not seriously, yet. I guess I’m sort of…waiting to see if I’m going to be pregnant anytime soon.” “Yeah,” Rami’s cheery tone quieted slightly. “That’s something to consider.” “I would love to see you baby-proofing your house when the time comes,” Mia said, trying to lighten the mood. She had been to Rami’s penthouse apartment once. As the months had passed, they had become more and more comfortable with each other, and one afternoon Rami had invited her over to see his place. Whenever she remembered it, Mia was torn between shock and amusement at how incredibly grand it was. “All that expensive furniture getting covered in scotch-guard; all those priceless cabinets with those ugly locks on them. It’ll be hilarious.” “I might abandon the idea completely,” Rami said. “Get another place and start over.” “Now, see, you say things like that and you have no idea how ridiculous it sounds to someone who isn’t so insanely wealthy.” Rami chuckled. “Everyone I know thinks it makes more sense to get a house out in the country instead of trying to make it work here.” Mia shook her head. “With the exception of me, who do you know who makes less than, say…half a million dollars a year?” “Hmm,” Rami considered. “I don’t think I know do know anyone. But hey—you’ve already made more than half a million this year. You no longer count.” Mia’s eyes widened. “I did not even realize that,” she said. “You’re right.” “You’re one of us rich kids too now.” Rami laughed. “You can’t talk shit about me anymore!” “Yeah, well actually…” but before Mia could finish her sentence, the buzzer on her timer went off. “Okay, here goes,” she said. She stood and walked the two steps from the bathroom to the counter. Looking down at the test applicator, her heart sank. After a pause that seemed to go on forever, Rami broke the silence. “What does it say?” Mia took a deep breath. “Not pregnant. That’s what it says. It says, very clearly, ‘not pregnant.’” Mia trembled and sank onto the floor of the bathroom, her vision wavering as tears began to form in her eyes. Rami sighed. “Dr. Farber said it’s not unusual for it to take up to five tries, Mia,” he said, his voice full of sympathy. “Sometimes even more.” “What the hell is wrong with me?” The words left her in almost a wail. “Why the hell isn’t this working?” “Let me come over,” Rami said. “I’ll bring you breakfast, and we’ll watch something—something with no babies in it.” Mia brought her knees up to her chest and hugged them tightly, waves of grief washing through her. “What’s wrong with me, Rami?” “Nothing is wrong with you, Mia. It just takes time. That’s all.” “It’s been six months!” “Some people have to keep trying for years,” Rami reminded her. “You have to stop beating yourself up about this, it’s not healthy.” “It’s not healthy? Neither is pumping myself full of hormones to ovulate, or producing fifty freaking eggs at one time! None of this is healthy, or normal, but it’s supposed to be—it’s supposed to work.” Mia shuddered as a sob worked through her. “You need to just…just give up on me. Please, just find someone else; it shouldn’t be too much trouble.” “Mia,” Rami’s voice was so soft down the phone. “Come on. I know it’s tough. I know you’re tired. Please just let me come over. I’ll bring you some food, and I promise we won’t talk about this or even think about it for the rest of the day.” “I just feel like a freak,” Mia said, sniffling as her nose began to run. “I can’t do the single most important thing a woman’s supposed to be able to do.” Mia’s abdomen shook as another sob wracked her. “Shh, Mia, it’s okay. You’re not a freak, you’re a wonderful woman. God knows this is a really tough way to get pregnant, Dr. Farber’s told us both a dozen times.” “Doesn’t make me feel less like a failure,” Mia muttered, closing her eyes and resting her forehead against her knees. “You’re not a failure. Come on. If you don’t want to stay in, let’s go to a museum, or a park or something. You need to get your mind off of this.” After a long, pensive pause, Mia wiped at her face and took a deep breath. “I guess,” she said finally. “Okay. You can come over with breakfast and we’ll figure out what to do from there.” “Good,” Rami said, and Mia thought she could hear him smiling. “As my contractor I hereby order you to not even think about babies or pregnancy for the next forty-eight hours, do you hear me?” Mia laughed weakly. “Right up until we meet with Dr. Farber again and tell her I’m still just as un-knocked-up as ever?” “Exactly. Get a shower. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” As Mia showered, she tried not to think too much about why she felt fluttery all over that Rami was coming round. “It’s just a comfort to have him here, that’s all,” she told herself as she rinsed conditioner out of her hair. She had started taking prenatal vitamins on Dr. Farber’s recommendation during the first IVF cycle, and her hair had never been thicker, her skin more radiant. She stood under the showerhead for a long moment, letting the hot water sluice down her body. Mia had told her mother on more than one occasion that she and Rami were keeping things strictly professional between them, but after six months of seeing each other—even if mostly in the context of medical appointments—she had to admit to herself that her initial negative impressions of Rami’s boastfulness, his ostentatious displays of wealth, had all but vanished. He’s really, weirdly, one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever met. Mia turned off the water in her shower and reached for a towel, wrapping it around her body in well-practiced movements. She had always found the rich guys at her school irritating—sometimes extremely so. Though they had all been so attractive she couldn’t help imagining what it would be like to date them, it had left a bitter taste in her mouth when one member of the school’s most exclusive fraternity had managed to get a drunk driving charge overturned with nothing more than a phone call; a feeling she had thought she would forever associate with the extremely wealthy. She had found out later that the same frat brother had later nearly killed a family of four when he’d gotten into a car accident while once again driving under the influence. He had been charged, and convicted of the offence—and yet, he’d gotten little more than house arrest and court-mandated attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous. Mia dressed quickly, shaking her head at the fact that she was pulling on a pair of designer jeans over a pair of underwear that had come from Target. When Rami had taken her shopping for the trip to New York City, she had drawn the line at him buying any kind of lingerie for her; that had seemed entirely too intimate a purchase for someone she was only—at best—friends with. Rami had been appalled at the fact that she was going to wear cheap underwear underneath expensive clothes, and had tried to insist that he could just give her his card and leave her to consult with his personal shopper on her own, but he had finally relented when Mia threatened to return everything if he kept it up. By the time Mia heard Rami’s knock at her door, she had pulled her thick, dark hair into a bun, and even managed to straighten her slightly messy living room. She knew Rami didn’t judge her for the tiny rental home she lived in, or even for her shabby, secondhand furniture, but somehow she felt as if he should. She hurried to the door and let him in, smiling as much as she could manage after the bad news of only thirty minutes before. “I told you that you’d be able to wear those clothes for years,” Rami said, nodding at her outfit. Mia blushed; she wouldn’t admit it to him, but she had worn the outfit just because it was him coming over. Had it been her mother, she almost certainly would have stuck with pajamas, or her comfortable old jeans. Rami came into the living room weighted down with a box full of diner-bought breakfast delicacies—nothing fancy, no four-star restaurant fare—and Mia felt such a strong wave of relief at the realization that she nearly began crying again. “You’re so kind,” she told him as he set the box down on her coffee table. She could smell eggs, hash browns, something fruity—and she could swear there were pancakes in one of the Styrofoam containers, too. “I wanted to bring you coffee, but I then I realized that’s probably a terrible idea, so I got hot chocolate instead,” Rami said, pulling a big Starbucks cup out of the box. “You like the Salted Caramel, right?” “You’re going to make me cry!” Mia took the big, thick paper cup from him and plucked the stopper out, sniffing at the heady aroma. “Nope, no crying,” Rami said, wagging a finger at her. “We’re going to watch stupid movies and you’re going to eat as much breakfast as you can possibly stand, and then if you want to go for a walk or go someplace else, we’ll do that.” “Okay, you’re telling me I can’t cry and then you say all these nice things that are guaranteed to make me cry,” Mia said warmly. “That’s not even a little bit fair and you know it.” Rami chuckled. “I didn’t say I was a fair client.” Mia laughed. “That’s more like it. Now sit down and I’ll get plates, forks and knives from the kitchen.” “Do you even know where to find plates, forks and knives in a kitchen? Have you ever been in a kitchen?” “I’ll have you know that I’ve served myself plenty of meals in my life,” Rami said, crossing his arms over his chest. “I even know how to wash dishes.” “I’ll believe that when I see it!” Mia say down on the couch and draped an afghan around her waist, tucking it under her feet to keep them warm. True to his word, Rami returned a moment later with plates and cutlery, just as Mia took her first sip of the rich, satisfying hot chocolate. Looking up, she feigned shock, acting as though she might drop her cup at the surprise of seeing the wealthy man with plates and flatware, waiting on her. “Ha-ha,” Rami said sarcastically, settling himself a few feet away from her on the couch. “I told you I could find my way around a kitchen.” “I stand corrected,” Mia said primly. Rami served her a full plate of her favorite comfort foods, then turned on the TV, pulling up Netflix and selecting the TV series Firefly. In no time at all, or so it seemed to Mia, her grief at having once more failed to conceive began to evaporate, as she took bite after bite of the greasy, satisfying breakfast and let herself be drawn into the drama and action of the series. Once or twice, as one episode rolled into the next, Mia found herself looking at Rami. She had never been unaware of the fact that he was objectively attractive, with his almond-shaped, heavy-lidded eyes, full lips, and sharp jawline. His thick, black hair was always immaculately cut and styled, and Mia thought that even without his tailor-made clothes, Rami would have looked breathtaking. But even if he was the best looking man she had met in years, that fact had at first been irrelevant to Mia—he had screamed and ranted at her right after the accident which was his fault, and at their first “date”, had come across as an annoying braggart. And yet, while neither of them had ever said anything about having feelings towards one other, Rami had, over time, become a friend, and Mia’s sense of how attractive he was had increased as she lost the impression of him being nothing more than a spoiled, extravagant, trust fund kid. Mia knew that any thinking about how attractive, or how kind, or how funny Rami was, was stepping into dangerous territory. She knew that, at the end of the day, there was nothing more between them than a contract. Rami was generous and kind enough to make sure she was as happy and healthy as possible throughout the process, and he was, she was now convinced, a genuinely good person. But he had let slip to her on more than one occasion that before he had decided that what he really wanted was to have a child, he had gone out clubbing at least three or four times a week, staying out until the early hours of the morning and sometimes going home with a woman he’d met only hours before. Rami was wealthy enough that he had only to crook his little finger and women of all kinds would throw themselves at him. He was so far out of Mia’s league that she would never have imagined him becoming a friend until it happened; she certainly couldn’t realistically imagine him being anything more. “What do you want to do now?” Rami turned to her after they’d watched three episodes of the series—each an hour long. “Are you seriously planning on spending the whole day with me?” “Why not? I didn’t have anything planned.” Mia frowned. “You didn’t?” Rami shrugged. “If we were pregnant, then of course we were going to celebrate the hell out of that. If we weren’t, I thought we might both need cheering up. So I just didn’t plan anything for today.” Mia stared at Rami in astonishment. “You really surprise the hell out of me sometimes.” “Still? I’d think a smart girl like you would have me figured out by now,” Rami told her, giving Mia a teasing grin. “Maybe I’m not as smart as you thought,” Mia replied, sarcastically. “Or maybe I’m more mysterious than I thought,” Rami countered, and Mia laughed. “So what do you think? We could watch a few more episodes, or go to the park…or shopping?” “Oh my God, no—you are not taking me shopping. I refuse. I will not get out of the car if you try to take me to the mall again.” Rami laughed. “Fine. I still say you would feel better with a new pair of shoes—it always works for my mom. But whatever you want to do.” Mia considered it for a moment. “There’s a Monet exhibit at the city art museum,” she said hesitantly. “Then let’s go see it,” Rami replied. Mia smiled, sighing happily. Even if nothing ever did come out of her relationship with Rami, other than business and, hopefully, a baby, she would be grateful for the rest of her life for how he treated her with such kindness and generosity. It was more than just the money he spent on her; it was the fact that he had made the effort to remember her favorite non-coffee drink at Starbucks, or that he was willing to spend all day making every effort to cheer her up when in all fairness he should be even more bitter and depressed than she was. “Let me put on my shoes,” Mia said. She had originally planned to take her mother to see the exhibit, but even though Amie Campbell was now getting better care, it remained impossible to predict if she would be well enough to face an outing on any given day. Mia was glad that Rami was willing to go with her, so she wouldn’t have to go on her own, or miss it entirely. She had no idea if Rami was actually interested in art, but neither did she want to ask. If she found out that he hated museums, or Monet, she would feel even more indebted to him for doing something with her just to keep her mind off of her growing sense of failure. EIGHT Mia fidgeted as she sat in the waiting room of Dr. Farber’s office. For the third time since they had decided to pursue IVF, she had two weeks previously gone to the office, taken off her clothes, and undergone the minor surgery of having fertilized eggs inserted in her uterus. She and Rami had agreed that after the way she had fallen to pieces after the previous negative result, they would ask the doctor give her a more sensitive test in the office, where they would be able to discuss the next steps, no matter what the result. Mia wouldn’t admit it to Rami, but she was beginning to think that the hormones she was taking to manipulate her menstrual cycle were making her lose her mind. She couldn’t stand the guilt as month after month passed without yielding a single positive result. While she was overjoyed that neither she nor her mother was in debt anymore, Mia couldn’t help but think that she was wasting Rami’s time and money; that he would be better off finding someone who would be able to become pregnant in a matter of weeks. “Why haven’t you just tried to find a wife? Isn’t it possible for you to have like, an arranged marriage or something?” Mia had asked during one of their lunches a few weeks prior. “That is so incredibly offensive,” Rami had replied, his voice a deadpan. They both laughed. “I mean, yeah—arranged marriages are a thing, especially for members of the monarchy…” “Wait—wait—what?” Rami shrugged off the disclosure of being a member of a royal family. “I am so far away from the crown it’s not even worth mentioning,” he had told her. “But it is part of the reason my family’s so rich.” “So are you like, a Shah or something?” “I am a prince, thank you very much. Prince Rami al-Hassan: rich and utterly useless member of the royal family of the Principality of Al-Andalus.” “You do realize that if you’d just told me I was having a royal baby, you could totally have cut my payments down to like, half of what you’re giving me,” Mia had joked. Rami rolled his eyes. “Seriously? You seem way too sensible to go for the whole starry-eyed ‘Oh my God he’s royalty’ thing.” “Oh I totally am,” Mia had agreed. “But it would make a hell of a story later on. I could tell everyone I had a royal baby and not tell them which royal family it was for.” “And they would never believe you!” “They wouldn’t have to, it would be true,” Mia shrugged. “Besides, if I’m walking around with a million bucks from it, how can they deny it? Where else would I have gotten a million bucks?” “The lottery?” “Stop poking holes in my story!” Mia had thrown a rosemary napkin ring at Rami, laughing as it landed right in the open neck of his button-down shirt. Mia started as she heard the clinking, tinkling noise of the door opening. Looking up, she saw Rami come into the waiting room of Dr. Farber’s office. He spotted her and sat down right next to her without even sparing a glance for anyone else. “Do you only ever wear your nice clothes when you know you’re going to see me?” Rami asked. Mia blushed. “Well you bought them for me,” she said. “I figured you’d enjoy seeing me in them.” “You don’t wear them otherwise?” “They’re expensive,” she pointed out, shrugging. “If I wore them all the time, I’d wear them out.” Rami laughed. “You could always buy yourself some more, you know,” he said. “You told me you’re up to date on all the bills for you and your mom; I can’t imagine what you’re doing with the rest of your money.” “Well I’m putting some of it into savings,” Mia said. “I buy food, for me and Mom. And I bought a new couch the other day!” “How exciting, a new couch,” Rami chuckled. “It is exciting,” Mia told him, pouting slightly. “It’s the first brand-new piece of furniture I’ve ever bought. And I picked it out myself, without having to pick from whatever the secondhand store happened to have in.” “Okay, okay,” Rami said, holding up his hands in an admission of defeat. “In that case, I am very proud of you for doing what most women in their right mind would have done within three months of making a hundred thousand dollars a month.” Mia rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m never telling you anything again,” she said, pretending to be much more offended than she actually was. “Belittling my accomplishments. As soon as they get the baby out of me and you give me my delivery bonus, I am never speaking to you again, Rami al-Hassan.” “Ms. Campbell?” came a voice from the doorway. Mia jumped and glanced at Rami; it was the moment of truth. She steadied herself and stood, reaching out and taking the hand that Rami automatically offered her. They walked through the door into the office proper in silence, and Mia could feel her heart pounding in her chest as every step brought them closer to the exam room and Dr. Farber’s office. Mia could feel her hands and feet tingling, her arms and legs flashing hot and cold as the blood rushed through her body. Rami gave her hand a sympathetic squeeze as they approached the dark, hardwood door of Dr. Farber’s office. “It’s going to be okay, Mia,” he murmured as they came to a stop and the medical assistant knocked on the door. “Come on in,” Dr. Farber called, her voice muffled by the door. The MA opened the door and Rami gestured for Mia to enter first. Mia took a deep breath and walked to the chairs on the other side of the doctor’s desk and sat down, feeling as if her knees might give out if she had to walk any further. Rami sat down in the other chair and the assistant closed the door behind them quietly. “I have been holding it for twenty minutes,” Mia said, squeezing her thighs together. “Is there anything we need to talk about before we get this show on the road?” Dr. Farber laughed. “Just that if the test shows you aren’t pregnant, that is not the end of the world,” she said. The older woman extended a parcel towards Mia. “It’s basically like the regular old home pregnancy test. Pee in the cup, dip the applicator, put the cap back on, and wait.” Mia nodded and snatched up the packet, standing quickly. She turned and walked out of the room without looking back, hoping to make it to the bathroom before her knees gave out underneath her. After three failed attempts at artificial insemination, and two failed cycles of in-vitro fertilization, Mia was beginning to feel truly desperate—and truly guilty. Rami’s comments about how little she spent the money he paid her had touched close to the bone. Mia extracted the plastic cup from the parcel Dr. Farber had given her and locked the bathroom door. She was by now so experienced at taking pregnancy tests that she could confidently get through the process without spilling anything anywhere. And yet, she found herself feeling awkward as she went through the usual steps, glancing around the little bathroom at the generic, unthreatening botanical prints on the walls. Once she had collected enough urine, Mia put the cup aside and flushed the toilet. In truth, Mia hadn’t been spending the money as wildly as she could have because some part of her thought that if she couldn’t conceive, she’d want to give as much of the money as possible back to Rami. She knew she would only feel more and more terrible if she kept failing, and if she quit altogether, she would at least be able to have the pride of saying that she had given him some kind of refund. After cleaning up, Mia brought the applicator with her out of the bathroom and hurried back to the doctor’s private office. “It’s been a minute,” Mia said as she stepped through the door, closing it firmly behind her. “Then we’ve got four more,” Dr. Farber said. “Oh God, the hardest four minutes of my life,” Mia said, setting the capped test applicator down on the tray that the doctor had provided before sinking down into her chair. Rami reached out and gave her hand a squeeze, and Mia tried to take comfort from the gesture. “Don’t hold your breath, Mia, you’ll pass out,” Dr. Farber said, smiling encouragingly. Mia mirrored the woman’s smile weakly, glancing around the little office. Rami and Dr. Farber managed to maintain their small talk while the minutes passed, but Mia couldn’t force herself to participate. She was too wrapped up in what the test would reveal. Three times now she’d gone into the sterile room adjacent to Dr. Farber’s office. Three times she had waited while the catheter containing the embryos was prepared. Three times she had lain on the table and gone through the discomfort of the catheter being inserted while the embryos were implanted inside of her. If none of the embryos had taken this time, Mia didn’t know if she could keep doing this; whether or not Rami was okay with continuing to pay. The doctor’s alarm beeped, and Mia couldn’t even bring herself to look at the test. Dr. Farber picked it up, looked at the result and set the test down. “What does it say?” Rami asked. “Unfortunately, it’s a clear negative,” Dr. Farber said gently. Mia’s head fell forward and she didn’t even try and stop herself. Tears gathered in her eyes and she let them fall, dropping down to stain her skirt. “Mia,” Dr. Farber said quietly. “I’m sorry,” Mia said, pulling her head back up and sniffing. Dr. Farber extended a box of Kleenex towards her; Mia snatched two tissues out and wiped her face, blowing her nose. “I think it might be time for you to take a little break, Mia,” the doctor said, keeping her voice level and calm. “But—but I don’t want to just give up,” Mia told Dr. Farber and Rami, more tears flowing from her eyes in spite of her desire to keep them in. “We’re not giving up,” Rami said, reaching out and gently patting her shoulder. “It’s just a break. These cycles have been tough on you.” Mia blew her nose again, snatching up another tissue to mop at her face. “I don’t want you to think you’ve wasted all this money.” “It’s not a waste,” Rami told her firmly. “We’re doing practice runs. What have I told you about investments?” “But what if…what if I can’t conceive at all?” Dr. Farber cleared her throat. “I think a break is in order, for a month or two at least. Once your system is clear of all the hormones and you’ve had a chance to rest up, we can look at some ways to optimize your IVF,” Dr. Farber said. “Even if you’re perfectly healthy, even if you could normally conceive just fine naturally, it can be very difficult to make IVF happen.” Mia swallowed the lump she could feel in her throat and nodded. “Of course I’ll keep paying you—this break is part of the process,” Rami said. Mia shook her head quickly. “No—no, if I’m taking a break, I can live off of what you’ve already given me. I’d feel terrible taking your money while I wasn’t really doing anything.” “Well, let’s compromise, then. At least let me pay you for the month,” Rami said. Mia sighed. “I know you’re going to insist and I’m so tired I can’t argue,” she said. “I just feel so terrible, like I’ve wasted everyone’s time.” “Not at all, Mia, you’ve put in so much effort, and I really am grateful,” Rami said, giving Mia a little smile. “Have some water and take a moment to get yourself together a little bit. I’ll settle things with Rami and we’ll set a date for you to come back in and begin the next attempt, okay?” Mia took a deep breath and nodded at the doctor. She stepped out of the office and went into the hallway, sitting down and closing her eyes. Grief washed through her in waves as she thought of all the time, all the money, stress and effort that had been put into the project of getting her pregnant—and nothing had come from it. What if I can never get pregnant on my own, either? Sure I could adopt, but I wanted—so wanted—to have a baby of my own, too. I didn’t want to be like my birth parents. I wanted to be a committed and present mother, from conception onwards. Tears slipped from beneath her eyelids and Mia focused on breathing, struggling to regain some of her composure. A few minutes later Rami left the office and found Mia in the hallway, bringing with him the purse she had left behind. “It’s okay, Mia, really,” Rami said as they walked down the hall together. “I know,” Mia said. “I’ll be okay, it’s just that right now—I’m really tired, stressed out, and I feel terrible.” “Do you want to come to lunch?” Rami offered. “I could make arrangements for you to get a massage, maybe a pedicure?” Mia smiled weakly and shook her head. “I think what I really want is to be alone for a little bit,” she said. As they left the building, she turned to Rami and offered her hand. “I’ll be in touch in a couple of weeks, and we can…talk about the next steps, I guess. I just kind of want to focus on helping mom and not think about babies for a few days.” Rami smiled, and instead of shaking her hand he pulled her into a quick hug and kissed her on the cheek. “I totally understand. A couple of weeks. And if I don’t hear from you, you’ll hear from me,” he said, releasing her from the embrace. “Don’t let this get you down, Mia.” Mia summoned another smile and nodded. “I’ll try,” she said. She turned away from him and found her keys in her purse as she walked towards her car. Almost as soon as she had the driver’s side door closed behind her, a sob rolled up through her chest, and as Mia turned the key in the ignition, the tears began to flow once again. She had always worked hard, always studied and done her best. Mia had almost never, in her entire life, failed at something that she had worked to accomplish. The fact that she couldn’t manage to get pregnant—something she had seen dozens of women who were less intelligent, less educated, less determined than her accomplish easily—felt like the most elementary failure of her entire life. Mia drove away from the doctor’s office without any idea of where she wanted to go. She didn’t want to go to her mother’s house—she didn’t want to burden Amie with the news. Although she had told Rami that she wanted to be alone, she couldn’t imagine going back to her own, tiny house; she thought the silence there might drive her insane. Mia turned in the opposite direction from the roads that would take her back to her house and drove aimlessly for what seemed like an hour. She had a full tank of gas, and plenty of money to refill if she somehow managed to empty it. Mia was almost tempted to get on the highway and just keep going until she had somehow outrun her sadness. Instead, as the album she’d blindly put on the stereo came to an end, she turned in at a strip mall that seemed oddly familiar. There was a grocery store, a few chain shops that sold cheap, fast-fashion clothing, a liquor store, and at the end, crumbling in its decay, a low, hunkered-down bar called “Jake’s Place.” The name stirred something in Mia’s mind and she tried to place it. As she pulled into a parking spot, she remembered she’d been there once before, in better times, before her mother’s health had declined so sharply. It was one of the favored spots of some of the teachers she’d worked at the school with. Mia shut off her car and got out, walking quickly towards the worn entrance of the bar. It was mid-afternoon and she didn’t think there was any risk of running into anyone she knew. The front door squeaked loudly on its hinges as Mia opened it, and the few people gathered at the dimly lit bar looked up. The place reeked of old cigarettes, though Mia didn’t see anyone smoking inside, along with stale beer and the sharp tang of spilled liquor. She took a deep breath and walked hazily towards the bar. She felt guilty; she knew that the last thing she needed right now—on a physical level—was alcohol. She was trying to get pregnant, after all. It would be better—healthier—for her to go home and just cry into her pillow. At worst, she could have a glass of wine. Mia sat down on one of the empty stools as the sound system played a warbling, slightly distorted folk song about “the best-ever death metal band out of Denton.” A female bartender, her face greasy, eyeliner smudged, looking as though she’d gotten out of bed maybe an hour before, approached, and Mia gave the woman a little smile. “I need a shot of tequila,” Mia said. “You look like you do at that,” the woman said, sweeping her bleach-blonde hair back and binding it with an elastic. The bartender reached behind her and plucked a squat, clear bottle labeled Patron from the front of the top shelf. Mia glanced down at her outfit; obviously the bartender was more alert than she seemed if she could determine from Mia’s clothing that she had the kind of money to spend on top-shelf alcohol. Mia watched as the woman deftly poured a shot, moving a salt shaker from the staging area to a spot next to Mia’s hand and taking a couple of slices of lime from a caddy and placing them on a little plate. “Oh God, thank you,” Mia said, taking her wallet out. She barely ever dealt in cash anymore; she only had her card. “Do you want to keep it open? We have a two-shot minimum.” Mia bit her bottom lip; she knew she shouldn’t be having even one shot of liquor, much less two. “Sure,” she said. “Keep it open. I’ll keep it to two.” The bartender glanced at her with faint skepticism in her eyes and took the card, moving off to respond to a call for another round. Mia licked the space between her thumb and forefinger on the back of her hand and sprinkled some salt onto it. She had done shots only once before, in college. It was the night of her twenty-first birthday, and Mia had gotten so sick that she’d never quite been able to take anything from a shot glass since. Despite her sense of trepidation, Mia licked the salt, knocked back the shot, and took a hard bite out of one of the lime wedges. The tequila went down like liquid fire, warming her from the inside out. It felt like something loosened inside of her. Mia exhaled, half-expecting a plume of smoke to leave her lips. She felt a flicker of guilt, but that didn’t stop her from raising her hand to signal the bartender. The woman approached quickly. “Can I have another shot, and… I guess a Coke to chase it with?” “Not a beer? We’ve got a deal on Tecate when you buy Patron.” Mia shook her head. “No thanks, just a Coke,” she said, licking her lips. She could still taste the sharp, sour-bitter lime. The bartender poured another shot and evaluated the amount left in the bottle. “I’ll leave this with you. There are three or four shots left,” the woman said as she half-filled the plastic cup with ice. “Let me know when you’re done with it.” Mia nodded and took up the saltshaker again. Mia barely noticed the other bar patrons; she listened to the music playing over the sound system as she knocked back her second, third, and fourth shots, drinking her Coke between them. She finished off the bottle and decided it was probably a good idea to take that as her cue to leave; she knew better than to even consider getting into her own car. She flagged down the bartender. “Can I get my tab and can you give me the number of a cab company? I’ll figure out my car situation later.” The bartender chuckled. “We always folk keep their cars here if they’re too drunk to drive. Don’t worry, no one’s going to tow it.” The woman ran her card and Mia looked blearily at the numbers on the check, her head swimming as she tried to focus enough to determine what a good tip would be. Finally she decided it was pointless and added twenty dollars to the tab before signing the bottom. “Your cab should be outside for you in ten minutes,” the woman said lowly, taking up the folder and checking the slip. “Come back any time,” she said with a pleased grin. “I’m not normally much of a drinker,” Mia said. “It’s just…it’s been a rough six months.” The bartender nodded. “Honey, we’ve all been there. Next time you have a rough six months—hell, a rough week—come on in and see me. I’ll make sure you’re looked after.” Mia nodded, accepting the advice. She gathered up her purse and made her way out as steadily as she could manage. NINE Mia was surprised to see it was already starting to get dark outside by the time she exited the bar. “Jeez, how long was I in there for?” She was barely aware that she’d spoken her question aloud. In the corner of her eye Mia saw a blurred movement off to her left and turned instinctively towards it, only to see Rami appear from round the side of the bar. Mia staggered backwards in surprise, tumbling gracelessly onto a bench. “What are you doing here?” “What am I doing here? What are you doing here?! You’re supposed to be trying to get pregnant! I spend all this money on fertility treatments, and making sure you have everything you need, and what do you do with it? You come and get shitfaced!” “Rami, no. This is the first time I’ve had anything to drink in—in—I think it’s over a year!” Mia’s face burned as the blood flooded into her cheeks. She scowled at Rami, feeling guilty and angry in equal measures. “I told you I didn’t want you to keep paying me while we took a break. If you have such a problem with me doing this when we aren’t even trying to conceive right now you can just—just...go to hell. That’s what you can do.” “How do I even know you haven’t been drinking all along?” Rami asked. “You stay at home, but you could’ve been drinking gallons of wine, or whatever else there.” “You’ve been to my house! Did you ever see any alcohol anywhere?” Mia wished the cab would arrive already; she was exhausted and dizzy, and she was fairly certain that as soon as she was safely alone, most of the alcohol she’d consumed would come right back up out of her stomach. “And you—how did you even know where I was?” Through the fog that had descended on her brain, Mia remembered other odd instances: the time Rami had appeared when she was having trouble at the pharmacy getting the medication the doctor had prescribed for her mother; once when she had been out shopping and Rami had just happened to be in the same store; and finally the chance encounter at the grocery store that had started her on the path to becoming the potential mother of his child. “Did you follow me here?” Rami’s eyes widened and he looked away. “Answer me!” “OK, before you start making a scene. The truth is…I’ve been having you followed,” he said quickly. “What? Wh—what the hell—why would you do something like that?” Uninhibited, thanks to the tequila, Mia’s anger quickly rose to boiling point. “That’s sick! What the hell were you thinking?” “Well, it started because I wanted to know why you brushed me off when I asked you out,” Rami said, shrugging. “Yeah I know it’s a little fucked up, but I was curious, so I had a guy follow you around. And when I found out you weren’t seeing anyone, I thought…” he shrugged again. “You thought what? That I’d be the perfect choice to be your baby mama?” Mia’s hands shook and she suddenly wished that she were alone; her stomach was pitching and heaving inside of her. “I wanted to protect you, once you—once I knew you were going to be carrying my child. You don’t exactly live in the safest part of town, you know.” “At least no one in the part of town I live in is having me stalked!” Mia stood up unsteadily, looking around to see if the cab would arrive. “I can’t believe this. I really can’t believe…. No, you know what, I can believe it. I just can’t believe I was so stupid that I didn’t even think you might be doing this.” Mia almost cried out with relief when the bright yellow flash of a taxi appeared in the parking lot, coming straight to the bar. “Don’t even try and talk to me right now, Rami al-Hassan. I am so damn furious that I could spit on you, but you wouldn’t be worth it.” “You call for a cab, Ma’am?” Mia didn’t even glance at Rami as she nodded, fumbling slightly for the door handle. Rami moved closer, and opened the door for her silently. Without thanking him, Mia climbed into the cab and gave the driver her address. She focused on staring straight ahead, struggling to control her nausea. TEN After her one day of excess, Mia returned immediately to her near-dry lifestyle; the tequila hangover was more than enough to convince her that she didn’t want to drink for a long time. The morning after, she saw that she had three calls from Rami and two from her mother. She called her mother back to let her know that she was okay, but couldn’t bring herself to deal with either Rami’s accusations or his apologies, whichever he wanted to exchange. She felt so violated; the knowledge that he had had her followed for months, and that he obviously didn’t see anything wrong with it, hurt her more than she could have expected. Didn’t he trust her? “You don’t exactly live in the best part of town.” The words played in her head over and over as she nursed herself through the hangover, eating toast and drinking tea. It took days for her rage at Rami’s high-handed manipulation to ebb, and once Mia stopped being so angry with him, she didn’t know what to do with herself. She had enough money in the bank to last at least a few months, even with her mother’s bills. If she had to, Mia knew she could go back to working at the school. The semester was almost over but she had heard more than once from the administration that they’d take her back, no questions asked. And yet, the mere thought of going back to the grind of grading papers, trying to inspire students who in many cases had already given up on learning, made Mia’s heart pound with dread. Rami called her every day, three times a day, the first week after their fight. Mia refused to answer, letting the phone roll over to voicemail every time. Initially, afraid of what he might have to say to her, she had deleted his messages unheard. But after a week of avoiding him, her curiosity won out. Rather than simply deleting the voicemail, Mia listened to one that had been left at ten o’clock at night. “Mia, I can’t tell you how sorry I am for what I did. I know—I know it was the wrong thing to do, but I really, truly just wanted to protect you. I know you’re angry, but I hope you still want to go through with this. Please call me back.” Mia stared at her phone in shock. Rami wanted her to try again? After everything they’d been through? After that fight? Her mind spun with questions: could she trust him not to have her followed again? Could she handle continuing the treatments, having her body full of artificial chemicals to manipulate her cycle? Did she even want to have anything to do with Rami anymore? The next time he called, she didn’t let it roll over to voicemail. She answered the phone, boredom and exasperation making her brave. “Rami, I need time to think. Please don’t leave any more messages on my phone, I won’t listen to them.” “Mia—can’t we just meet up and talk about this in person?” “Rami, I’m still exhausted, and upset. I don’t know what I want to do. Give me more time.” She hung up before Rami could say anything else. One week became two, and Rami no longer left any messages, but continued to call her three times a day. Mia answered once every couple of days, and only to tell him that she still needed time; that she couldn’t—wouldn’t—meet up with him in person. We’re supposed to be taking a break from treatment. I’m supposed to be resting and relaxing, not stressing myself out, Mia thought resentfully, every time Rami called. Apart from visits to her mom and the occasional trip to the grocery store—looking over her shoulder all the time, trying to discern if someone was following her—Mia basically didn’t leave her house for three weeks. The very idea that Rami might still have someone on her tail, informing him of her whereabouts and what she was doing, made it impossible for her to feel comfortable. Even in her own home, where she knew no one could be hiding in a convenient closet (she checked), or sitting outside waiting for her to leave, she felt strangely conspicuous. She told her mother that she and Rami had decided to take some time off from the treatments, to give her body a chance to build back up. Amie didn’t question the idea at all, and in fact seemed almost relieved. When Mia checked her bank account and saw a new deposit for one hundred thousand dollars, she nearly called the bank to reverse it. But she couldn’t quite bring herself to do something that would so clearly sever what was left of her relationship with Rami. * * * Mia sat in her living room, pretending to watch TV, drinking an herbal concoction Dr. Farber had told her would be safe to continue drinking throughout her pregnancy—when and if that ever happened. She had liked the taste so much that even though she no longer realistically thought she would ever be pregnant, she had taken to drinking it when she wanted something hot. Without warning, Mia’s heart started racing. She looked around the room; the walls felt so much closer than they had only minutes before, her living room seemed too quiet even with the TV on, and she had the sudden suspicion that if she tried to leave the house, she would find the doors locked from the outside. “I have to get out of here,” she said, putting down her mug and standing up quickly. “If I stay in this stupid house for even five minutes longer I’m going to lose my mind completely.” Mia went into her bedroom and grabbed her jacket and purse. She unplugged her phone, slipped it into the dark confines of her purse and hurried through the hallway to the front door. For a terrifying moment, she was unable to turn the deadbolt latch, and Mia’s heart beat faster and harder inside of her at the thought that, ridiculous as it was, her suspicion of being locked in from the outside was somehow accurate. The next instant, the lock turned over and Mia pulled the door open with a hard jerk. She locked the door behind her and darted down the three steps to her car. Her keys clinked and clattered and nearly fell from her anxious hands, but she managed to unlock the driver’s side and get inside, buckling her seat belt in an automatic movement. On an impulse, Mia drove out of her neighborhood and headed east on the main road, traveling past the school without even sparing a glance to see if the PE class was outside. She drove towards the ocean, to the piers; it was the only place she could think of, the only place that would be open enough, broad enough, and far enough away from her confining house to give her the relief she craved. There was almost no one there in the middle of the week, so she was able to find parking with no problem. Her heart started to slow down to normal speed as she walked away from the parking lot and out onto the pier itself, the wind blowing her hair back from her face, the seagulls screaming to each other and at the few people below, catching thermals to swoop and dive. Mia took a deep breath and followed the walkway to the end of the pier. She looked out over the water, towards the horizon, and leaned against one of the pilings, letting the sheer openness of the scene in front of her trickle through her brain, infecting her with a calm she hadn’t felt in weeks. As her panic cleared, Mia started to think about her situation. “I can’t keep living like this,” she said to herself quietly. “I can’t. It’s just too much.” She took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly, imagining—for an instant—that she was blowing the few, fluffy clouds gathered over the ocean away from her. She had two choices, she thought. On the one hand, she could go back to Rami on the basis that they keep their relationship strictly professional; she could take his money and refuse to go to lunch with him, or spend any time with him which wasn’t directly related to her conceiving. She could just make the whole arrangement nothing more than a business transaction. Or, she thought, worrying at her bottom lip, I could break it off completely. I could tell him to find someone else, that obviously I’m not a good candidate to be the mother of his child. The money would absolutely stop coming in if she did that, but Mia was less concerned about money now than she would have ever thought she could be when she had started the process. If she broke things off with him entirely and refused to continue the contract, Mia knew that she would never see Rami again. They’d part ways completely, and she not only wouldn’t have a child to show for it, but she would lose a man who she had come to consider something of a friend. He had done so much for her, above and beyond what they’d initially agreed. “I’d have to leave town,” Mia muttered to herself. It wouldn’t be too difficult with the money she already had in her account. She could go to a new town, pick up a new teaching job, and just ask her mother to never again mention the six months or more she had spent as someone’s unsuccessful surrogate. Catching a blur of movement on the right-hand side of her peripheral vision, Mia turned instinctively. She’d gotten so lost in her thoughts that she hadn’t even seen the person approaching. As she turned completely to confirm that it wasn’t anyone coming after her for some reason, Mia saw—instead—that the figure was none other than Rami, dressed down in jeans and a hoodie. Mia stared, for a moment unable to process what she was seeing, begging her brain to discover that she was mistaken. But in spite of the more modest-than-usual clothes, she knew for certain this was her boss, her client, her friend; the man who right at that particular moment, she least wanted to see of anyone in the world. ELEVEN Mia’s shock dissipated with a few heartbeats, and adrenaline surged through her body as she remembered the reason why she had broken off her agreement with Rami in the first place. Son of a bitch had me followed again! Mia’s heart began to pound not with panic but with anger, and she turned away from the pier railing, watching as Rami took up a position off to the side, leaning against another piling. She strode towards him, trembling with the anger that crackled through her veins, determined to confront him about manipulating her. Wasn’t it enough that he called her three times a day? That she felt like a prisoner in her own house? Why couldn’t he just leave her alone? Mia gritted her teeth, her hands tightening into fists as she advanced on him. An impulse ran along her arm, to raise one of her hands and let it fly at the back of Rami’s head, but she held back. Instead, Mia took a breath and tapped him on the shoulder. Rami turned around, looking startled. “What, were you just going to pretend like you just happened to decide to come to the pier too? Why are you still having someone follow me? Can’t you just leave me alone to think about what I want to do, what I need?” Rami threw his hands defensively, his eyes widening in the face of her anger. “No—no. I know you won’t believe me, Mia, but I really, genuinely just came here on my own. I know now that it was screwed up to have you followed; no one has been watching you for weeks!” “Why would you pick this spot then?” Mia countered, not missing a beat. “I just kind of always liked it here. I’ve always come here when I needed to think,” Rami said, shrugging. He let his hands fall to his sides. “Look, I know I was wrong to have you followed. As soon as you went home that night I told the guy I’d hired that I didn’t need his services any longer.” Mia peered at Rami’s face intently. To her surprise, she could see faint lines around his eyes, a puffiness to his face that she hadn’t noticed before. “Well okay, say I believe you” Mia said uncertainly. “Why have you been calling me three times a day, then?” Rami smiled weakly. “Well first of all, because I wanted to try and make amends,” he said. “You never gave me a chance! But also, because I do still hope we can work things out between us on the issue of having kids. I still want you to be the mother of my child.” Mia shook her head. “But what if I just can’t conceive? You’d be wasting your money.” Rami shrugged. “If you can’t get pregnant this way, we can take some of the fertilized eggs and just…I guess…put them in a surrogate. Or something. We could go to another country and see a different doctor there.” Mia considered the suggestion; with her mother’s condition still uncertain, she wasn’t sure she could just up and leave the country. But at the same time, she had been working so hard to become pregnant, she wanted to try every possibility before she gave up on it completely. Even more than that, seeing Rami in person made Mia realize that she had genuinely missed being around him. The feeling of comfort she had being in his company, the feeling of safety she had been missing, even in her own home, once everything had gone so badly between them, was something she didn’t want to lose. The feelings had crept up on her so slowly that she hadn’t really given herself the space to examine them; she had pushed them aside, so consumed was she with the need to fulfill her obligation to Rami, so guilty over the money he had paid, that she hadn’t let herself realize that she felt better, and happier, just being around him than with any man she had ever dated. Acting on impulse, before Rami could say anything else, Mia plunged forward. She closed the short distance between them, throwing her arms around Rami, and before she could even question what she was going to do, pressed her lips to his. Rami stood very still, and Mia felt the first stirrings of low dread start up in the pit of her stomach as she realized she might have crossed an unforgiveable line. But then, just when she would have pulled back and run away down the pier, unable to face the disappointment of knowing for certain that Rami didn’t return her feelings, Mia felt his arms coil tightly around her waist, holding her close. He began to kiss her back, and Mia relaxed against him, feeling the firm flesh of his lean body through his clothes, the warmth of him. How long they kissed, Mia never knew. She was so content, wrapped up in Rami’s arms, feeling his body pressed to hers, that she thought she could have stayed that way forever. They parted, caught their breath, and before a word could be said they began to kiss again. Mia felt her feelings shift from comfort and relief to desire. Her body tingled all over, heating up as Rami’s hands moved slowly over her curves, in a lingering, loving caress, as they held one another at the end of the pier. “I don’t know if I’m going too fast,” Rami said, breaking away from Mia’s lips and panting slightly. “But can we go back to my place? This is a little public.” Mia laughed breathlessly and nodded, more than willing to continue in private. Her knees felt weak as she separated from Rami at her car. “I’ll follow you,” Mia said, smiling. Her whole body tingled as she got into her car, anxious and keen to be alone with Rami as soon as humanly possible. Even before she had agreed to be the surrogate mother of Rami’s child, Mia’s sex life had been entirely academic, and since she had wanted to make sure any child she carried would be Rami’s child, it had been easy for Mia to agree to remain celibate while they were trying. But after more than a year with no more physical affection from the opposite sex beyond a hug or a kiss on the cheek, Mia’s body was more than ready to leap at the opportunity Rami had suggested. Mia was in such a hurry to get out of her car when they arrived at Rami’s upscale apartment building that she nearly tripped over the curb. Rami was at her side in an instant, catching her by the shoulders, pulling her close and kissing her again before Mia could even fully recover from the near-fall. He pressed her against the side of the car, his arms tight around her, his lips claiming hers so thoroughly that she couldn’t have broken away to speak even if she had wanted to. She could feel the buzzing hum of anticipation crackling through every nerve, her whole body exquisitely awake, on the edge of completion with all of her clothes still on. Rami led her to his private elevator and Mia had to prevent herself tapping her foot in impatience as it made its way silkily through the floors from the garage level to his penthouse apartment. “Oh God,” she muttered, still panting slightly from the heady kiss Rami had given her moments before, “it’s been a really long time for me.” Rami grinned, looking almost wolfish in his delight. “Me too,” he said. Mia rolled her eyes. “Liar. You’ve been going after models and sycophants this whole time.” Rami shook his head, his dark eyes serious. “First, I stopped because I wanted to sort of… save myself…for the sperm collections,” he said, blushing slightly. “Then I felt bad about having sex with anyone while you had to stay celibate… and then…” he smiled, one of the most genuine, beautiful smiles Mia had ever seen on his face. “I couldn’t even think of having sex with anyone but you—and I thought that I would never get the chance, but the idea of anyone else was just…” he shrugged, shaking his head. “So then, let’s take it slow?” Mia felt suddenly shy, worried that she had somehow lost whatever kind of skill she might have had in the months she had been without experience. “As slow as you want,” Rami told her, reaching out to take her hand in his as the elevator came to a stop. They both hurried down the hall towards the door to his apartment, and Mia almost giggled, giddy at the prospect of being alone with Rami, of seeing him without all of his expensive clothes—although, on this one occasion in all the months she’d known him, he wasn’t in something she recognized to be designer. He was dressed like any guy off the street, but still looked like himself: still handsome, still kind, still beautiful and familiar, even without the tailored clothes and shined shoes. The door closed behind them and Rami swung Mia into his arms, kissing her once again. His hands wandered all over her body, and Mia felt herself becoming more and more aroused, her skin heating up and her heart beating faster and faster in her chest. She thought that she might not be able to remain upright if Rami’s strong arms left her, if his lean, muscled body moved even slightly; Mia clung to Rami as if for life itself, losing herself in the kiss, uncaring of how long they stood there. Rami broke away from her lips and looked into her eyes. “I’m in love with you, Mia, do you know that?” Mia blinked, stunned and momentarily too aroused to process what he had said. When his words filtered through the haze of desire that filled her mind, Mia smiled, relaxing against him almost bonelessly. “I think I’m in love with you, too,” she admitted. Rami kissed her again and Mia made no move at all to stop him as he began to lead her away from the foyer of his apartment and towards the bedroom. * * * The next morning, Mia woke up in Rami’s arms, warm and comfortable, her body still tingling from the pleasure of their lovemaking. She could feel a lingering soreness deep down between her hips, but the ache was sweet; she couldn’t imagine any pain she could have enjoyed more. “How are you this fine morning?” Mia smiled, turning over to face Rami. “I think this is probably the most comfortable bed I’ve ever been in,” she said, stretching against his body under the sheets. Rami chuckled. “It should be, it cost enough,” Rami told her. He pulled her closer to him and brushed his lips along her temple. “I’m hoping—if this is not too much too soon—that you’re going to spend a lot more time in this bed.” Mia snorted. “I want to take it slow,” she said, considering. “I don’t…want to just—start out basically living here or something like that.” “But a few nights a week? Maybe?” Rami looked into her eyes hopefully. Mia laughed. “You must have been really deprived,” she said, poking him in the ribs playfully. “If you’re this bowled over after last night.” Rami kissed her lightly on the lips, his hands beginning to wander over her body with more than just playful intentions. “Or maybe you’re just that great in bed,” Rami suggested. “On top of being patient, kind, conscientious…” Rami kissed softly along the column of her throat, and Mia felt her desire reawakening under the heat of Rami’s touches. “I’m still a little sore,” she said apologetically. “We’ll have to…go slow this time, if we do it again.” Rami smiled against her lips. “I will go so slow with you,” Rami murmured, covering her body and claiming her lips. Mia found that it was just as easy to fall into his rhythm and flow, as it had been the night before. TWELVE “Are you sure you’re okay, Mia?” Rami spoke from the doorway as Mia sat on the bathroom floor, slumped over the toilet for the third time that morning. “Do I look okay?” Her voice came out harsher than she intended, but she felt so exhausted that she couldn’t make herself apologize for it. “I feel like someone dropped a damn boulder on me and told me to swim upstream.” “I think you should see Dr. Farber,” Rami said firmly. Mia groaned, another wave of nausea washing through her. “I think I need to see an exorcist,” she told him, hanging her head over the toilet bowl. “Wait, wait,” Rami cried. Mia swallowed, turning her head to look at Rami, hearing the excitement in his voice. “What? Make it fast, I’m going to puke again in like, a minute.” Rami came into the bathroom proper, sinking down onto his knees next to her. “Think about it for just a second,” he told her, his voice almost shaking. “You’ve been sick every morning this week. You’re better in the afternoons. You’re tired all the time, and yesterday you cried over that Petco commercial.” “That commercial is so sad though!” Mia frowned in irritation, even as the import of Rami’s words began to sink in. He was right; she was only sick in the mornings, she was exhausted, and felt as if any little thing might make her cry. Mia’s mouth fell open and she stared at Rami. “I think…I think I have a pregnancy test in my purse,” she said quickly. “You carry one around in your purse?” Rami shook his head in amazement at her. “You really have been dedicated to giving me a kid.” “It’s from before,” Mia said. She hadn’t given any further thought to becoming pregnant once she and Rami’s relationship had become something that went far deeper than business. They had decided after their first night together that they would wait the full two months before talking to Dr. Farber again about starting IVF once more. Now—if Rami’s suspicion was correct—they might have a reason to call her sooner that they’d expected. Rami stood quickly and left the bathroom. Mia sat up, put down the seat and flushed the toilet to dispose of the last of the evidence of her illness. Either she had completely taken care of the nausea with her vomiting or the excitement of possibly being pregnant was enough to suppress the sickness. As she struggled to get up onto her feet, before sinking down to perch on the edge of Rami’s bathtub, she realized she no longer felt the dreadful lurch in her stomach. Rami returned after a moment, holding a slim box that bore the logo of one of the most sensitive pregnancy tests on the market. He opened it and spilled the contents out onto the countertop, looking at Mia. “Have you already peed this morning?” Mia tilted her head to the side, giving him a long look. “I am not doing this in front of you,” she said. “I have seen every inch of your body,” Rami argued. “And now you’re getting squeamish about peeing in front of me?” “Yes! That’s—that’s completely different!” Mia blushed, looking away. Rami could see Mia wasn’t about to change her mind. “Okay, fine, but as soon as you start the timer, you’re going to let me in, right?” Mia grinned. One thing had improved immeasurably since they had become boyfriend and girlfriend, rather than just being a client and a contractor: she won far more arguments. “I’ll let you in as soon as I’m ready,” Mia said, gesturing for him to leave. Rami looked for a second as though he might resist, then turned on his heel and left, closing the bathroom door behind him. Mia suspected that he would be waiting just on the other side, but if he could deal with hearing her using the toilet, that was fine by her. Mia had taken so many pregnancy tests over the course of her partnership with Rami that she didn’t need to read the directions, but to help steady her sudden burst of nerves at the prospect of finally being pregnant, Mia forced herself to read them anyway. She took a deep breath and picked up the collection cup, moving to the toilet once more. Instead of hanging over it, she sat down and followed the instructions on the slip. She dipped the tip of the applicator into the cup, holding it there to make sure it was completely saturated, before replacing the cap and flushing the rest of the “sample” down the toilet. “Okay, five minutes,” she called to Rami. Proving her suspicion, Rami came through the door less than a second after she announced the start of the timer. “If that test isn’t positive we are taking you straight to the hospital to see someone,” he told her firmly. “If that test is negative I will let you take me anywhere that promises to make me stop puking in the mornings,” Mia agreed. She sat once more on the edge of the tub while they waited for the minutes to tick down, feeling somehow more anxious than she had with any of the previous tests. “It would be kind of funny if it was positive,” she said, smiling slightly. “Why would it be funny? It was kind of the reason we got together.” “Because, you big dope, we haven’t even been trying to get pregnant. All that time and money spent on drugs and treatments and you end up knocking me up from purely recreational sex.” Rami stared at her for a moment and then laughed out loud, leaning against the wall. “When you put it that way, yes. Very funny.” He shook his head. “All this time and all it would have taken was convincing you to sleep with me a few times. Who’d have thought?” “We don’t know that it’s positive yet,” Mia said, feeling anxious again. She had been so sure, so many times over the course of their attempts, that she would finally be pregnant; now that she was showing actual symptoms, she couldn’t quite let herself believe it was possible. Rami’s phone alarm beeped, and Mia jumped up from her seat on the edge of the tub, hurrying to the counter before Rami could get there. She looked down at the applicator and the answer, printed in black and white on the result window, nearly made her fall to her knees. Pregnant. “Oh. Oh. Oh, my God.” She turned and reached for Rami, sagging against him in relief. “We’re—I’m—Oh my God, Rami, I’m pregnant.” Rami’s arms wrapped around her and he brought her closer to him, holding her tight, unable to find the words to express his emotions. For a long time, Mia could do nothing but stand there, letting him support her as a torrent of shock, joy and relief washed through her. THIRTEEN Despite her initial relief at the fact that she was, in fact, capable of becoming pregnant, within hours of discovering that it had finally happened, Mia began to wonder what the next step with Rami would be. “So there’s one thing that I am kind of…perplexed about,” Mia said to him the next morning, as they sat on the couch having a light brunch together. “What’s that, sweetheart?” Rami set his coffee cup down, turning all of his attention onto her. “So—obviously you still want to have the baby, right?” “Of course I do!” Rami nodded fervently. Mia pressed her lips together. “Well…as you know, originally, the plan had been for me to…to give the baby to you when it was born, right? And for us to go our separate ways.” Rami waited for Mia to say more, looking at her intently. “So I guess what I mean is, when that happens, what are we going to do about…us?” “Oh. Yeah, that is a very good question,” Rami said, reaching out to pull her closer to him on the couch. “Well,” he began, taking a deep breath and exhaling. “If you’re interested in being the child’s mother…we could raise him or her together.” “We’ve only been together for a couple of weeks,” Mia pointed out. “Do you think we can do this together? I know you were thinking of raising the baby on your own.” “I can’t think of anything better,” Rami told her, smiling. “It can’t help but be even better for the baby to have both a father and a mother that loves it, right? And between the two of us—you know how to give our child all the love in the world, and I can make that he or she never wants for anything. It will be ideal, won’t it?” Mia couldn’t help but agree. She didn’t hesitate as Rami brought her mouth up to his, kissing her hungrily as his hands took her cup and set it aside next to his. Mia’s clothes fell away and she was more than happy to spend the next few hours continuing to celebrate their accomplishment in finally getting pregnant. Some time later, in the afternoon, Rami reached for his phone. “Who in the world are you calling?” Mia asked him, watching from the bed where they had spent the past few hours making love. “Dr. Farber,” Rami said with a little grin. “I assume you still want to see her, right?” Mia laughed. “I wonder if she’ll find it as funny as we do that after all that stress, strain, discomfort and money, you knocked me up the old fashioned way?” “If she has any sense at all,” Rami said, holding the phone to his ear while he waited for the call to connect, “she’ll laugh her ass off.” Mia turned onto her side, stroking her hand over her abdomen. She could barely believe she was actually pregnant. She remembered what her mother had said to her, months before, just when she and Rami had agreed to start the IVF and Mia had started to become anxious about their lack of progress; even if Mia wasn’t able to conceive artificially, she might find she was able to the “natural” way. “We have to tell my mom soon,” Mia told Rami. He nodded, and Mia watched as he convinced the receptionist at the office to put him on the line with Dr. Farber. “I’ll hold,” Rami said agreeably. Mia feasted her eyes on him, clad in only his pajama pants. He was even more gorgeous underneath his expensive clothes than she had imagined, and every time they made love together she realized more and more just how lucky she was to have him. “Hello! Dr. Farber. I have some interesting news for you.” Mia curled up as Rami delivered the news, giggling irrepressibly at the doctor’s victorious shriek—which could be heard even several feet away. Once the doctor had congratulated the two of them on finally achieving their goal, Rami was transferred back to the front desk to schedule the first ultrasound session and fetal checkup. He was barely off the phone before he was in bed with Mia again, holding her close to him. “Don’t even tell me you want to go again already,” Mia said playfully. “It’s not like I can make you more pregnant at this point,” Rami pointed out. “But I know you need your rest. Do you feel like eating something finally?” “Now that you mention it, I am starving to death. How dare you deprive me of food!” Rami slipped out of the bed quickly. “You are going to stay right there, and I am going to cook you whatever you want to eat. Or if you want something I can’t make, we can order in.” He grinned. “This is what the rest of my pregnancy is going to be like, isn’t it?” Rami nodded. “I might even get you an assistant, or—what’s it called? A doula?” Mia laughed, shaking her head and burying her face against Rami’s pillows for a moment until she was able to catch her breath. “Just make me breakfast and I’ll stop complaining,” she told him. FOURTEEN Mia’s first scheduled check-up was the six-week ultrasound, and by the time it rolled around she still had not told her mother that she was pregnant. Dr. Farber had advised the two of them to wait until at least the twelve week milestone before making an announcement, as miscarriages were more frequent up until that point, but Mia’s gut feeling was that if everything looked okay at the appointment, they would announce it sooner; maybe even right afterward. Just as they had so many times before, Mia and Rami waited patiently for their appointment—although now they were sitting in a different waiting room. “You know, if I’d known I was going to be spending so much time hanging out in waiting rooms when you asked me to have your baby, I would have told you to take you hundred thousand a month and walk away,” Mia told Rami. “You could have negotiated for more!” Rami pointed out. “And anyway, now you’ve got any money you want at your disposal.” Mia rolled her eyes. “Not in payments; it’s still your money.” Rami grinned at her as if he was enjoying a private joke, but Mia couldn’t get him to tell her what was so funny. When they were finally called through, Mia went directly to the exam table, while Rami took one of the two chairs adjacent to it. They had barely waited a minute before the tech came in, launching into all of the expected questions as she made her way over to the cart containing the ultrasound equipment. “Is this your first baby? Are you hoping for a boy or a girl?” “It’s our first,” Rami said, giving Mia’s hand a squeeze. “And we don’t care whether it’s a boy or a girl, as long as it’s healthy.” “And how did you two get together?” the tech inquired. Mia looked at Rami and suddenly the laughter burst out of her so forcefully she thought she might void her bladder and thereby ruin any chance of getting her ultrasound done that day. She fortunately managed to hold back, shifting uncomfortably on the table, as Rami told the tech a carefully edited version of the events that had led them to the office that day. “Imagine that!” The older woman laughed. “Well, you’re getting your baby after all; let’s just see how it’s coming along, shall we?” Mia focused on the woman’s reactions, ignoring the wet, cold feeling of the gel on her belly. She could feel her heart beating faster, a low kind of dread working through her that for whatever reason the baby might not be okay. But the older woman’s face quickly broke into a smile. “Do you want to see what he or she looks like? Way too early to know if it’s a boy and a girl—at this stage it looks like a little sea creature.” Mia giggled at that and the tech turned the monitor for her and Rami to see. The baby was little more than a blob, a blur in a pool of darkness on the screen, but Mia felt the tears coming nonetheless. “Oh—oh Rami, isn’t it beautiful?” Mia turned to look at the man she loved, only to receive a second shock: he wasn’t watching the screen but was holding a tiny jewelry box open to show a ring, with a bright, glittering diamond in the center of the band. “Will you marry me, Mia Campbell?” Rami said, smiling. Mia’s mouth fell open and she stared at him, unable to speak for a long time. She thought she might faint as an overwhelming wave of emotions washed through her: joy that she was actually pregnant, relief that the baby was healthy, and finally incredulity that Rami was choosing this moment to propose. “Yes! Of course! Of course I’ll marry you,” Mia said, tears flooding down her cheeks as Rami slipped the ring onto her finger, where it fitted perfectly. “Oh my God this is… I think I need to pee because…. Oh God I don’t know if I can breathe.” The tech leaped into action, helping Mia off of the table and escorting her to the tiny bathroom in the exam room. Mia cleaned herself up and came back to find Rami waiting with a bottle of cold water for her. “I think this is probably the best day of my life,” Mia said, shaking her head in disbelief. A moment later, when some of the shock had passed, she turned to Rami. “We have to tell Mom.” “About being engaged?” he asked. “About all of it—the engagement, the baby—the whole thing. We have to tell her right now.” “Let me just get some blood from you first, dear, and then you can run off to wherever you have the energy to go.” The technician called a medical assistant to take care of obtaining the blood samples needed to make sure the pregnancy was indeed progressing normally. Mia was barely able to sit still through the stick and blood draw. “Oh my God,” Mia said over and over, looking at her ring. “You jerk! You totally had this planned all along, and that’s why you were grinning like a fool when you told me I had access to all your money now.” Rami laughed. “Do you like the ring?” Mia smiled, looking at it. “It is way too expensive,” she said, glancing at him, “but I love it.” They drove straight to Amie Campbell’s house, Mia almost exploding in her urgency to tell her mother the news. She barely gave Rami time to park the car before she unbuckled her seat belt and darted out of the car, straight through the front door. “Mom! Mom, you will never guess what’s happened.” Her mother was standing in the kitchen with a cup of coffee in hand. “Mia, are you okay? What’s wrong, sweetie?” “Nothing! I’m pregnant! And engaged!” Her mother stared at her in shock for a moment that seemed to last an hour, before Rami’s polite knock at the door broke the silence. “Can I come in?” he asked, opening the door just a crack. He had met Mia’s mother before, but it had only been a lunch date. “Can you come in? You can come in any time you want, Rami al-Hassan!” Mia’s mother hugged him, giving him a quick but affectionate kiss on the cheek. “Then I take it you approve?” Rami grinned at Mia. “I absolutely approve,” Amie said, hugging Rami and then hugging Mia. “I couldn’t think of anything I would want more than to see my little girl happy—and I’ve never seen her happier in my life.” Mia’s mother kissed her and then hugged Rami once more. It was only a brief visit at Amie’s house that morning. While her health was rapidly improving, Mia knew Amie still didn’t have very much stamina for long visits. Once they’d taken their leave, exchanging more hugs and kisses with the frail older woman, Rami took Mia by the hand to lead her back to the car. “Okay. I want to tell my mom now,” Rami said quietly. “You mean you haven’t told her about any of this?” Rami grinned. “I think—I hope—she’ll be happy to know about it now that it’s a settled thing. I didn’t want to get her hopes up until I knew I was going to have a baby and everything was the way it should be.” “I think I’ve got enough energy for that,” Mia said, taking a deep breath. “Do I look nice enough to meet her?” She frowned, looking down at her outfit doubtfully. “You look perfect,” Rami said, leaning in to kiss her on the cheek. “Just perfect.” FIFTEEN As Rami pulled into the long, winding driveway that led to his parents’ home in town, Mia started to doubt his assertion that she would be just fine. She had known Rami was wealthy, but his penthouse apartment was nothing in comparison to the sprawling grounds and enormous house looming at the end of the drive. “Are you really sure about this, Rami? Do you want to tell her yourself, alone?” “No, I want you to meet her,” Rami said, giving her hand a squeeze as he led her through the front door. Mia brushed imaginary lint from her blouse, worrying her bottom lip. “Where is my mother?” Rami directed the question to a waiting member of the domestic staff, who was dressed in livery nicer than anything Mia had owned before meeting Rami. The aide pointed up the stairs. Rami led Mia up the grand staircase and down a long hallway to what must be his mother’s room. Mia took a deep breath as Rami knocked and then opened the door. “Mother? Mother, it’s Rami. I need to tell you something.” Mia stopped short as a woman appeared, stepping through a pair of French doors leading to another room. She was beautiful: ink-black hair, huge, dark eyes, and a body that appeared so lush and toned Mia assumed it must been under more than one surgeon’s knife. The older woman wore a long, dark purple dress, sandals, and full makeup. “Who is this?” The woman asked, pointing to Mia. “Mother,” Rami said, smiling slightly—looking perhaps half as nervous as Mia felt. “This is Mia Campbell. She is my fiancée, and she will be the mother of my child.” The woman’s eyes widened, and her exquisitely groomed eyebrows knit together. “That is impossible,” she said, and Mia noticed the woman’s voice becoming sharp. “Campbell? That is a common name. You are a prince.” “Mother, I love her,” Rami insisted. “She is the mother of my future child. I am going to marry her. I am never going to be in the line of succession anyway; what does it matter who I marry?” “You are correct that you will never be in the line of succession,” Rami’s mother said bitterly. “If you marry this girl, we will disown you.” “Disown me! What do you mean? What are you saying, Mother?” “She’s not a suitable wife for a prince, Rami. You will not marry her. Even if you are not your father’s true son, neither of us will allow you to sully the family’s name by marrying a commoner like this.” “What do you mean, not my father’s true son?” “We never wanted you to find out like this, but you were adopted. You only have our name by grace, and if you do not obey us in the matter of your marriage, you will forfeit any right to keep it.” Mia looked from Rami’s heartbroken face to his mother’s, feeling as though someone had cut her legs off at the knees. Her head spun and her heart pounded in her chest; she felt the world become more and more distant, darkness swirling all around her. Mia wondered how she could possibly be party to such wonderful news and such terrible news all in the same day…

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