Prologue

 

 

THE sun was starting to creep over the horizon when Reiko awoke. She could tell what time it was by the faint rays of light filtering through the blinds, illuminating her small bedroom. There was no need to look at the clock. She was a creature of habit and had always risen at dawn, eager to start her day long before anyone else stirred. She lay on her futon for a few more minutes, enjoying the warmth of the thick down comforter that covered her frail body. Soon, she would have to fling it off and brave the frosty air to begin this momentous day. It had been a decade since she had awoken with such a feeling of anticipation, and she forced herself to rise, knowing it would take more time to achieve the desired result because she would have to do it herself. 

The okiya was silent as she moved about slowly, preparing her morning tea. Reiko remembered a time when the dawning had resonated with the tittering voices of young women on the brink of maturity. The geishas in training, the maiko, had occupied her every waking moment since she had taken over as okaa-san of her own house fifty years ago. Her days had been productive then, abounding with important decisions that could improve or destroy someone’s life. She had trained a legion of women in the ancient art of being a geiko and had ruled with an iron hand, but time had been her enemy and the modern world her undoing. The traditions that were an integral part of her universe since she was fourteen years old no longer applied in this century when transactions were completed on cell phones and e-mails. The mizuage was a thing of the past, and the services of a geisha no more necessary than the hefty price tag that came with equipping them. The kimonos and obis that had cost thousands of yen and had once lined the walls of one room, had been sold one by one to support her, now that she could no longer count on the income generated by the karyukai. The disadvantage of living well into her eighties was that she’d run out of money, and the meager amount she received from her government pension was hardly enough to keep a tiny sliver of fish in her rice bowl. 

Yesterday’s phone call had been a most welcome surprise, and an opportunity she had jumped on with the eagerness of a sixty-year-old. Her arthritis and assorted aches and pains were forgotten in the momentary rush of excitement at being at the center of an undoubtedly protracted negotiation. Fujiwara-san had been very specific about his needs, and Reiko was pleased that, once again, she was in a position to provide a service. 

She adjusted the magnifying mirror and gazed at her face dispassionately. Who was that old lady with the skin of a desiccated mushroom? No one she knew. Reiko’s mental picture of herself had not changed through the years. She was still the beautiful geisha who had elicited voluminous praise from those who had been lucky enough to be graced by her elegant presence. Her mizuage had broken records, and when Hiro Fujiwara, Ken’s father, had paid the astronomical figure to become her patron, she’d reached the pinnacle of her career and had become a legend in Kyoto. Now, Hiro’s progeny needed a favor, and she was not going to dishonor his memory by greeting Ken-san as an old crone. The white rice powder would hide every wrinkle and imperfection, and the black wig would cover the sparse white hair that barely concealed the mottled skin of her ancient scalp. She reached for the pot of paste and poured water into the dried out concoction and began to mix it with her gnarled fingers. It would take some doing, but she would be presentable in approximately one hour, in time to wrestle with the only formal kimono she had left. By the time her visitor arrived, she would be more than presentable for the tea ceremony she intended to perform with the grace and panache of a geisha in her prime. 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

“IT’S a wrap,” Max said, stepping away from the camera and removing his glasses. “You can relax, Sloan.” 

Relax? What a concept. I hadn’t relaxed in over three months, so his words were meaningless. I pulled out several tissues from the box on the dresser, attempting to scrub off the foundation and lipstick without the creamy solution that would have made the task easier and less damaging to my skin. 

“I do plan on using your angelic face tomorrow, so please use the makeup remover, and stop trying to obliterate your features,” Max said, giving me dagger looks. “I don’t want to deal with any red marks.”

“You can airbrush them away,” I said, reaching for the jar of cream, however, and applying the white goop liberally. “What are we shooting tomorrow?”

“Sunglasses.”

“That means I can get blitzed, and no one will see my eyes.”

Max stopped looking at my current photos on his computer and gave me the raised eyebrow. “What’s going on, Sloan?”

“Nothing.” 

He wandered over to my side of the room and gathered me in his arms. “What’s the matter, darling? You’ve been out of sorts for weeks.”

“I’ve got stuff on my mind.”

“Is it Cole?”

“Isn’t it always?”

“I mean medically speaking? Any new developments?”

“You can’t get any blinder than blind.”

“Stop being a sarcastic shit, and tell me what the hell is going on at your house. You’ve lost weight, and even though you’re still the most beautiful face around, you’re starting to fray around the edges. You’re not doing anything stupid, are you?” He reached for my arm and pushed up my sleeve. 

“Get your hands off me!” 

“I’m sorry,” Max said softly. “If you would be kind enough to tell me what’s going through your lovely head, then maybe I’d leave you alone and not assume the worst.”

“Cole wants a kid.”

“What?”

“His old man has been driving us crazy with this need for an heir.”

“Well, unless something has changed, and one of you has sprouted a uterus, I don’t see how that’s possible.”

“When you have the kind of money Ken Fujiwara has, you think anything can be bought.”

“In case you aren’t aware of this important fact, surrogate births are illegal in New York State.”

“Is that so? I wonder if Ken knows that.”

“Sloan, you’re not seriously considering this, are you?”

I could see the concern in Max’s eyes, and I knew he wasn’t paying lip service. The man had been nothing but kind to me since we met five years ago, and he took me under his wing. Working together hadn’t changed anything. He was still my mentor in the world of fashion photography and a devoted friend. Although he’d accepted my relationship with Cole and had respected my boundaries, it was apparent to everyone that I continued to be his “beauty.” The primo photo shoots and contracts somehow managed to come my way, and I knew that all I had to do was give him one sign I was interested in starting up the intimate relationship we’d had long ago, and he’d be right on top of it, or below it, depending on his mood. He was twenty years older than me, highly respected in his chosen field, and a renowned Dom for those who participated in Manhattan’s BDSM world.

My association with Max Leavitt had made me a household name, earning me millions as the face for Klas Cosmetics, but at the root of our friendship was a sexual attraction that had never faltered on his part, even though it had been snuffed out on my side by my love and commitment to Cole Fujiwara, my partner. Nonetheless, I knew Max cared. He’d understood the demons I’d wrestled with when we’d first met, most of which had been tamped down by my satisfying relationship with Cole. Lately, however, dark thoughts had begun to taunt me in the most frightening way. Max’s inspection wasn’t too far off the mark, which made it rankle even more. 

“I’ve no choice but to consider a child since Cole and his father have been arguing about this issue for months.” 

“Didn’t you tell me that Cole was terrified he’d pass on the gene that’s caused his blindness?”

“It’s always been the reason why we’ve never talked about starting a family. Besides, Cole’s sisters had agreed that whosoever had the first grandson would be amenable to retaining the Fujiwara surname. Ken and his illustrious ancestors would be appeased by a male heir. The line would continue and the pressure on Cole would lighten up.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“They’ve had females so far. Ken Fujiwara has four granddaughters?not one man-child in sight.”

“Shit.”

“My sentiments exactly.”

“Why is he bugging Cole again?”

“There’s a company in New Jersey that can do PGD.”

“What the hell is that?”

“Preimplantation genetic diagnosis.”

“English?”

“It’s a new method of genetic screening that is performed before an embryo is implanted in a womb. Several genetic mutations or diseases can be ruled out so that only healthy embryos are retained and implanted, thereby eliminating the trauma of abortions performed in the past, when testing had to wait until the third or fourth month of gestation.”

“It sounds like a godsend.”

“It also allows for gender selection. Ken will be guaranteed a grandson if they go this route.”

“You appear quite knowledgeable on this topic.”

“I have been immersed in medical lingo for the last four months, Max. It’s all Cole and his father talk about.”

“You poor thing,” Max said, practically cooing and drawing me closer. I lay against his broad chest and sighed in relief for the first time in weeks. It was so good to be able to share my thoughts with someone who knew the dynamics of my relationship with Cole and wouldn’t judge me for my concerns. 

“What do you want, Sloan?”

“I’d like this to go away. It’s not that I have anything against children. I love Cole’s nieces, but this whole surrogate business is macabre. It’s like something Hollywood conjured: Avatar meets Frankenstein.”

“What bothers you the most? Having another responsibility, or is it because a stranger will be carrying Cole’s child? Maybe the entire concept of becoming a father is abhorrent.”

“It’s so premeditated and cold, Max. Shouldn’t parenthood be a spontaneous and joyful event?” 

“First of all, you’re both men, so there’s nothing spontaneous about this decision. Secondly, given Cole’s genetic problems, you can’t afford to be mysterious. The last thing you want is a child with retinitis pigmentosa. I understand where Cole is coming from.”

“Intellectually I do, too, but my emotions are all over the place.”

“Why?”

“We expected Cole to lose his eyesight, but he’d been holding for a long time, so we became rather complacent. When he went completely blind last year, it was still a shock. Coming to terms with irreversible darkness has not been an easy thing for him. I’ve been learning how to deal with Cole’s mood swings.” 

“Has he been difficult?”

“He’s had a lot of bad moments. Bringing a child into the mix won’t be a simple decision. The bottom line is the kid’s going to be one more item I’d have to deal with on a daily basis.”

“Sloan, babies aren’t items. In any case, you have the money to hire a full-time nanny.”

“We could have a housekeeper, a chauffeur, and a butler,” I pointed out, “but Cole wants none of that. He insists on doing everything and will only accept help from me. Lately though, I’ve been doing most of the work around the apartment.”

“And a baby will just add more to your plate.”

“Which is quite full, I might add.”

“Oh, Sloan,” Max crooned, rocking me gently. I was comforted by his mothering. I didn’t even know I’d missed it, but the truth was I was overwhelmed by my responsibilities with Cole and hadn’t realized how bad it was until now. “Am I wrong for being so selfish?”

“Sloan, you’re one of the most selfless people I know. I haven’t seen your brand of caring since the early days of the AIDS epidemic.”

“He’s not dying, Max.”

“No, but you seem to be. Your contented aura is fading, darling. How’s your sex life?”

“None of your damn business.”

“I hope your needs are being met.”

“Give it a rest, will ya? It’s all good.”

Max cradled my face and kissed me on the lips. “Tell me.”

I sighed and turned away. Not ready for that discussion either. Somehow, telling my former lover I wasn’t getting much action seemed highly inappropriate, although he knew me well enough to have guessed I wasn’t floating on a cloud of sexual satisfaction. Far from it. Cole’s libido had been waning since we started the discussion on babies. There wasn’t anything I hadn’t tried to bring the excitement back into the bedroom, but my efforts had been futile. I was living like a monk. All work and no play made for a very unhappy Sloan. 

“Listen, I’ve got to get going,” I said, reluctant to leave Max’s cozy embrace but a little concerned that my body was starting to react to the close proximity. And he knew it too. The bastard was taking full advantage and shifted his legs to get closer. “Really, Max. I’ve got to go.”

“What’s so pressing?”

You! “Ken and Eileen are stopping by after dinner, and I was requested to attend the meeting.”

“It sounds like a command performance.”

“It’s probably more of this baby shit.”

“Keep me informed, will you?” 

“I’ll do that,” I said, relieved when he stepped back. “What time do we start tomorrow?”

“Be here by ten.”

“You got it.” 

 

 

THE cab ride from Max’s studio in Tribeca to our apartment in Chelsea was too short to suit me. I wanted more time to mentally prepare myself for this meeting with Cole’s parents. Unfortunately, traffic was light since most of the business commuters had long gone, and the cab was in front of our apartment building in no time. It was close to seven in the evening when I inserted my key into the lock. I hoped my in-laws hadn’t arrived yet because I wanted to shower and change. They were still a little judgmental about my decision to become a fashion model instead of pursuing my career in graphic arts, but the money was too good to pass up, and although Cole would never lack for funds, I preferred to pay my way. Modeling was a short-lived career anyway. The demand for a younger fresh face would be coming any minute now, so I had to take advantage of every opportunity until then. However, the less they saw of my modeling the better the outcome of the evening. It wasn’t smart to show up with any residual eyeliner, and I knew that in my haste to get away from Max’s probing questions, I probably missed a few spots. 

I heard voices when I stepped into the hall and realized they were already here. My leather rucksack ended up on the table by the door, and I entered the living room prepared for a confrontation. Freddie came up to me immediately, wagging his golden tail and nudging my pocket by way of greeting. I rubbed his head and slipped him a small knot of rawhide before walking up to Cole, who lifted his face for a kiss. 

There was a young woman standing between Ken and Eileen. She was staring at her feet, so I only saw the top of her head. She had jet-black hair that covered her face as it fell forward in a silky curtain. 

“Sloan,” Cole held my hand tightly. “I’d like you to meet Noriko Evans. She’s agreed to surrogate for us. She’ll be the mother of our son.”

I heard what he said, but the explosion going off in my head after his appalling pronouncement rendered me speechless. The mother of our son. What in hell? 

Noriko looked up and broached a tentative smile. Her hazel eyes slanted upward but were lacking the epicanthic fold more common in Japanese. Her complexion was flawless, practically glowing with good health, and devoid of any make-up but for a faint hint of blush over her prominent cheekbones. Her lip gloss was a light shade of peach, emphasizing her plump mouth. Bone-straight hair with long bangs that brushed her eyebrows framed her face perfectly. “Hajimemashite, Sloan-san,” she said in a soft, melodic voice. 

I gaped at her. 

“I’m very pleased to meet you,” she said, switching to perfect English. She stretched out her hand, hoping to obtain a polite handshake, but my body refused to cooperate. I nodded curtly and left the room.