With the Bake From Scratch magazine open in her lap as she sat by a saltwater infinity pool, Willa Richardson sipped from a glass of pineapple-infused aloe chunk water and tried not to think about how much everything around her cost. The blanket-sized towel she was lounging on was cashmere while the lounge chair she reclined on was brand new and made of completely recycled material according to the stamp on the side.
At one end of the pool was a gentle fake waterfall, the saltwater flowing by as a couple other women sat on the rocks. One of them was splashing her swollen feet in the water, holding her round belly. Over toward the far end of the infinity pool, another woman was finishing a lap around the pool and walking up the ramp. The towel the nurse held out to her was almost too small to go around her waist, so the nurse grabbed the next size up to switch out for her.
Willa touched her own small, barely there two-month bump. Ooof. She wasn’t looking forward to the Blimp Stage, as some of the women called it.
After three months here at the facility, she should’ve been used to the Estate’s fanciness. In any case, all the expenses were paid for and she didn’t need to worry about it. But it was hard to not see dollar signs over everything after twenty four years of checking under vending machines for spare change and counting out pennies to pay for parking tickets.
“Hey, Willa, it’s time for dinner. And it’s getting cold, so let’s go inside, okay?”
She looked up at Cristopher, one of the many medical personnel that staffed Bell Rock Estate. A nurse by trade, Cris was popular around the Estate because he was sweet, patient, and never got short with anyone when they were extra hormonal. Around here, that was a big deal. Willa and a couple of other women were on his personal daily caseload, which meant he checked in with them throughout the day.
She grinned up at him. “Well, hey, stranger. Where’ve you been all day?”
He held out a hand to take her glass, his tousled blond locks falling in his eyes. “Off doing extremely important things. Like paperwork. And keeping Katie from eating all the gummy worms.”
“Ooo, nice,” Willa said. Closing the magazine and handing him her glass, Willa looked out at the view beyond the pool. The sun was setting over the dramatic red rock formations, casting everything in a crimson and gold light. Personally, while she appreciated the clean, sleek, and expensive surroundings, she thought the landscape around the Estate was even more impressive.
Tucked away in the desert outside of Sedona, Arizona, Bell Rock Estate had once been a private residence for some super incredibly rich people, but it had been bought by Rising Hopes Fertility Enterprises. They had built a couple more buildings on the grounds, so now there were five buildings, each one designed to meld somewhat into the surroundings. From here, there was a beautiful view of the rock formation that gave the estate its name.
Standing up, Willa dropped the magazine on the chair and then stretched her arms over her head for a second. Her back ached from sitting for an hour.
Cris glanced over at her. “Need me to book you a massage?”
Willa wasn’t sure why she hesitated. A massage sounded wonderful. Massages were free here, on the daily if you wanted them. And they were the best kind--not only did you get the massage, but the masseuse helped you stretch, taught you ways to relax your muscles, spoke to you about helpful posture--if you wanted it. Or you could sleep. Of course, it was different from a normal massage because they had to be aware of the babies, but still. These were the best of the best.
And it just felt so wrong.
Willa had never gotten a massage in her life, and now...they were mundane.
It felt so completely not like her.
“No, I’m fine, but I’m actually thinking of trying out that pregnancy yoga thing,” Willa joked as they started toward her apartment. Cris’ caseload all lived in apartments D1-E3, so it made it easy for him to check in with them. He’d probably stop by some of the others after dropping her off.
Cris gave her a delighted look. He’d been trying to persuade her since she got here. “Really?”
“Really, I think you finally wore me down,” Willa said, laughing. It was another thing that felt wrong, but at least it would give her something to do. She was used to earning her keep.
“I was also thinking, I remember in the brochure they mentioned being able to take some online classes--could I sign up for a business one?”
Trying to save up the capital to one day open her own business was one of the driving forces behind Willa looking into this program, and while she’d studied and planned for years for that, it wouldn’t hurt to learn even more if the classes were free.
“Sure, we can get you signed up in the morning. Someone’s been making a lot of plans today.”
“Well, I’m all settled in now and used to the routine I guess, so I’ve just been thinking about how best to use my time here.” Whoever knew that there could be a limit to how long you enjoyed a vacation?
“Love it,” Cris said as they entered the courtyard the buildings were grouped around. In the middle was a glass-sided, modern cafeteria slash gathering space where many of the women hung out together in the evenings before retiring to their respective “apartments.” They were more like fancy hotel suites than actual apartments, but that was what the Estate called them.
Golden light spilled out from the cafeteria and she could hear the hum of voices even from outside. The window panes had been closed against the upcoming chill of the desert night, but there were no shades, so she could see everyone moving about, getting dinner from the buffet meant to satisfy every possible craving.
There was nothing the Estate hadn’t thought of.
“Your nutritionist said you should add more calcium to your diet,” Cris said as he stepped forward to hold the door open for her. “And maybe actually try the collard greens.”
Willa wrinkled her nose. “Fine, I’ll eat more yogurt.” She pointed a finger at him, shaking her head. “But no to the collards. They look like grass that a dog chewed up and spat out. It’s nasty.” That was her opinion of collards when she was four and first encountered them, and that opinion was highly unlikely to ever change.
“Well, yeah, when you put it that way,” Cris said with a laugh.
Music played quietly over the speakers, alternating between genres and styles. Willa had heard a rumor that used to play only classical music, but there had been a small rebellion. Now they played all sorts of music, and they even had a form on the Estate’s app where you could submit song requests.
“Hey, do you think maybe they’d let me bake sometime?” Willa asked. Since she was now in the mood to be useful, it seemed logical that she could put in some time in the kitchen. She was hardly even showing, so it wasn’t like her stomach was going to get in the way; she had thought that by month two she would actually start looking pregnant, but it just looked like she had a food baby. So far, she hadn’t even needed to switch over to the maternity clothes that the Estate provided.
Cris looked thoughtful. “I can ask...but I don’t want you overdoing it, so let’s just take it slow, okay? Also, I know I remind you all the time, but make sure to put on sunscreen every time you go outside. I know you were outside for most of the afternoon.”
“I reapplied,” she said, rolling her eyes. Willa had learned her lesson the first day by the pool, when she forgot to sunscreen her feet. She had gone barefoot for two days after that. Naturally, Willa was very fair skinned and covered in freckles. Her hair was long, almost to her waist, and slowly turning golden-red in the daily sunshine. Usually she kept it back in a braid.
“Okay, okay, it was just a reminder.”
“Worrywart,” Willa teased, walking backward away from him toward the cafeteria line.
“Intelligent and cautious!” he called as he headed off in another direction, toward a table where other nurses had gathered.
Willa went through the line, picking up pork tenderloin, roasted sweet potatoes, lentils, and a kale salad with raspberry vinaigrette, along with a smoothie and a cup of yogurt. Everything smelled delicious, and she hoped her occasional nausea didn’t rear its ugly head.
She was doing better than some of the other women who were still in their first trimester; she had been told by her midwife and her OB as well as Cris that things would get better during the second trimester. They all said it was like a mini vacation between the roughness of the first and third parts of the pregnancy process. Willa just wanted to be able to smell eggs and sausage in the morning without feeling like she needed to find the nearest bathroom.
“Am I the only one who went for the salad?” she asked as she sat down at one of the four-person tables. Two of her friends, Jamie Rodriguez and Lana Eastwood were there, already partially through their meals. Lana was on Cris’ caseload as well, so the two of them had met their first day. She and Willa were both from the east coast; Lana was from Atlanta, Georgia, while Willa was from Charleston, South Carolina. Both of them were planning on starting businesses once they finished their time at the Estate.
Jamie was already on her third month, but the three of them had met during a painting night a few weeks ago and had become fast friends, bonding over their complete inability to paint desert landscapes.
“I like to treat my tastebuds well,” Jamie said, her dark brown wavy hair bouncing against her shoulders as she jabbed her spoon toward her plate for emphasis. “Which is why I went for an extra helping of lasagna instead.” She was from Phoenix, where she was planning to return for grad school once she was finished with the surrogacy program. Her goal was to become an environmental lawyer, which sounded great to Willa.
“I already finished mine,” Lana said with a gentle smile.
Realizing that her friends were closer to the end of their meal while she was just starting, Willa shook her head. “Don’t let me keep you if y’all are tired.” Her arms did the southern thing where they waved while she talked and some of her yogurt accidentally flicked off her spoon and hit Jamie’s nose.
All three of them stared at it for a moment--well, Jamie tried, looking rather cross-eyed--then started laughing.
“Whoops,” Willa said, flushing. “Sorry about that.”
“You’re all good,” Jamie said, wiping it off with her finger. The bold girl then licked the yogurt right off. “Mmm, strawberry, excellent choice.”
Willa couldn’t help but laugh. This was why they were friends. “You’re ridiculous.”
“Mhmm.” Jamie shrugged. “Anyway, I don’t mind staying. What exactly would I be rushing off to?”
“Me neither,” Lana said, stacking her plate and bowl. “I’m not tired yet.”
“Don’t upset the mommies by staying up too late now, Lana,” Jamie said, giving her a mischievous look. The ‘mommies’ was Jamie’s nickname for their caseload nurses. Apparently Jamie had quite an independent streak and didn’t like how the nurses were always trying to educate and coax them into “healthy habits.” Jamie often said if it wasn’t for the large reimbursement stipend, there was no way she’d have signed up for such a controlling surrogacy program.
Willa thought it was nice of them to offer everything they did, but, admittedly--it could be a lot sometimes. But hey, at least she liked Cris. Jamie wasn’t such a fan of her nurse, Teresa, who was, to put it nicely, very much a rule follower.
“Somehow I don’t think it’ll be me upsetting them,” Lana replied with quiet amusement.
Willa’s laugh came out as a half-snort, and it was lucky she’d just finished swallowing her water. As Jamie gave both of them a flat look, Willa held her hands up, green eyes wide in a picture of perfect innocence.
“Whatever,” Jamie shrugged. “Someone needs to make sure they don’t get bored.” She tapped her fork against her plate restlessly. “I don’t know how they stand it.”
“I have to agree with you there, although I guess it’s different when it’s their job,” Willa said.“I asked Cris if I could bake in the kitchen today. And I’m planning to sign up for an online class too. I just...need to do something.”
“If he lets you, I wouldn’t mind helping out,” Lana said with a small sigh. “I’m getting a little bored of relaxing, too.”
“If you’re bored, you should do something fun, not work,” Jamie said, rolling her eyes. “You could bingewatch your favorite TV show while getting your feet massaged. Or listen to podcasts while eating all the frozen yogurt you want.”
“Cris would have something to say if I tried to eat that much froyo,” Willa said, rolling her eyes. “And baking is fun.”
“Not when it’s your future lifelong career,” Jamie said, getting up from the table. She popped one hand on the hardwood and then pointed around to the beautiful sunset scenery outside. “Enjoy this vacation on someone else’s dime while you can. You can bake til you drop later.” Grabbing her tray, she grinned. “Like me. I’m about to go make a bunch of paper footballs and see if I can launch one into Teresa’s beehive.”
“Her hair’s not a beehive,” Lana said, but she was smiling just a bit.
“Good luck.” Willa gave her a thumbs up and dug into the sweet potatoes on her plate as Jamie headed off to begin her plan.
“She does have a point,” Lana said, “In her own way. We’ll probably never have time for just ourselves like this again.”
“I guess,” Willa said. Some of that time was set aside for tests, check-ups, prenatal care, and anything else the program required, but Lana was right. They did have a lot of free time that neither of them would most likely ever see again as business owners. Sometimes they joked about how they should set up in Savannah or Wilmington and join their handmade candle shop and bakery together.
Lana must’ve picked up on her mood because she reached out and put her hand over Willa’s. “But hey, if you want to make cupcakes and Cris will let you, go for it. No one here is going to say no.”
“Except Teresa,” Willa said with a quick smile.
“Aw, she’ll be too busy picking paper footballs out of her hair to notice.” Lana winked.
Laughing, Willa decided that she would go ahead and try to get into the kitchen some time that week. If Cris shut her down, she could always try asking her midwife Deidre or her OB Dr. Ueda. Both of them had a little more pull than Cris, especially Dr. Ueda. Maybe if she was very clear about how she might go stir crazy, they’d let her do it?She could always hope.