The next three decades of Abby Herbert’s life are as carefully planned out as the last three were. Best career ever? Check. Great friends, one of whom she lives with in a stunning Tribeca apartment? Check. Perfect man to share her dream family? Surely just a matter of time. But then she gets devastating news from her doctor—if she wants to get pregnant, she needs to get started on that by…well, yesterday. On the bright side, she has the perfect person in mind to be the father.
Tech entrepreneur Marcus Ross has been harboring decidedly not-friends feelings toward Abby. He doesn’t want to lose her and, knowing his feelings are one-sided, he’s been trying to move on. When he learns about the curveball Abby’s just been hit with, he promises to be there for her however she wants him to be, even if the idea of fatherhood is a little complicated for him right now. But it isn’t long until boundaries start to blur, and a deal struck between friends starts to turn into something perilously close to feelings that could change everything…
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"So, I wanted to talk to you about something tonight ..."
There's a strange edge to my best friend and roommate's voice tonight, but I've just walked in the door after a thirteen-hour day at the office and I'm so hungry I can barely think straight. As curious as I am about whatever's going on with Abby, I need to get organized before we talk.
It's Monday night. That means we eat dinner early because Abby meets her gaming friends online at 8:00 p.m., and it also means that it's my turn to cook. Tonight, I'll be "cooking" Thai, courtesy of Seamless.
"Just let me quickly get this order in, then I'll be all ears, I promise. Do you want the chicken laksa? Or do you feel like seafood tonight?" I double-check the detail, because while I know her orders by heart, the chicken versus seafood in her curry-soup debate has been going on for a while and still seems far from settled.
"Chicken, please. And listen, I've thought about this a lot, and I have my reasons — this isn't a whim."
"Sure ... spring rolls?"
"Most definitely. Actually, can you get me a double serving?" unexpected
"No, wait ..."
"Let's get a double and if you don't finish them, I will."
I finish the order, then set the iPad back down onto the coffee table and turn to face Abby. We're sitting on the couch in our usual places, our postures mirrored. I'm on the right, next to the armrest where the remote controls live, because according to Abby I'm a control freak and I need to drive the TV. Abby is on the left, because it's closest to her bedroom and thus her bathroom, and she seems to pee every five minutes.
"Now, what were you saying?" I prompt her gently. Abby's gaze is distant as she absentmindedly runs the pad of her finger around the rim of the half-full wineglass she's nursing. Before she can speak, the iPad makes an odd sound — a notification I don't immediately recognize. Abby raises her eyebrows and points to the device.
"Check it," she says pointedly. "It might be a problem with the dinner order and I cannot deal with Hangry Marcus tonight."
I flash her an apologetic smile and reach for the iPad, but the notification isn't some obscure Seamless error — the only thing on the screen is a Facebook message. When I recognize the icon, I almost put the iPad right back down ... but then the words on the screen actually register in my brain.
Warwick Chester wants to connect with you.
I turn the iPad to Abby, who squints at the screen, then gasps. For a long minute, we just stare at each other in disbelief. Then I set the iPad firmly on the coffee table, screen down.
"No," I say. My voice is rough, so I clear my throat, then try again. "Just ... no." I draw in a sharp breath, then huff it out heavily. "Yeah. Let's just forget that even happened. Now, what did you want to talk about?"
"Are you kidding me?" Abby squeaks. "No, we are not talking about my thing right now. Are you going to open the message and see what he has to say for himself?"
"No," I say, but my gaze keeps drifting back to the iPad. "Fuck. I don't know. Do you think I should?"
I move to reach for the iPad again, but hesitate at the last minute. Whatever this message says, it's too little, too late. Maybe I should just block him.
"Hey," Abby says softly. "Let me?"
Warwick Chester is my biological father. He was an excellent parent, right up until a few weeks after my seventh birthday, when he left for work and never came home.
All I remember from the first weeks after he disappeared was feeling impatient. I was so sure that he loved us too much to leave us forever, so I knew it was only a matter of time before he came back.
It's been twenty-five years, and the message Abby is reading right now is his first-ever attempt to contact me. Warwick did show up at my grandfather Don's funeral last month, but he sat at the back and left as soon as the service ended. He didn't even acknowledge me or my twin brother, Luca. I wouldn't have seen him at unexpected 12 all if I hadn't joined Mom onstage to support her as she read the eulogy.
It was a confusing day even before I noticed Warwick. My grandpa Don loved his family fiercely, but he had a mean streak, especially with me and Luca. Mom was devastated to lose her father, but my feelings on his passing were more complicated. I didn't have the brain space to try to figure out how to feel about Warwick's presence that day, so I chose to simply ignore it.
"It's a group message to you and to Luca."
I guess that makes sense, as much as any of this makes sense. "Do you remember when he first left?" I ask her quietly.
"I was, what ... five years old? I do remember sitting in the tree house with you and Luca while you tried to figure out where he'd gone."
"You cried with us," I say softly. Abby offers a sad smile.
"I remember wishing that I knew where he was. I thought I could go just get him for you guys."
Abby, Luca and I grew up in Syracuse in upstate New York. My mom and stepdad, Jack, still live in the house I was raised in. On the other side of the small park next door, Abby's parents still live in the house she was raised in. Abby's two years younger than me and Luca, but for as long as I can remember, she and I have been best friends.
It's fitting that she's helping me navigate this, because she's been there for all the other key moments in my life, too.
"Should I read this to you?" she asks.
"Does he want a kidney?"
"What? No! Why would you even think that?"
"Seems odd that he's suddenly messaging us on Facebook like a long-lost camp buddy," I mutter. "He wants something, right?"
Abby extends the iPad toward me, and I take it with a sigh.
Dear Marcus and Luca,
Maybe it's unfair of me to drop into your lives again like this, but Don's passing last month has left me in a difficult position. Now that he's gone, I'm going to lose track of you altogether if I don't speak up and take the chance that one or both of you might be willing to try to rebuild some kind of a relationship with me.
I have no excuses for my absence — only a depth of regret and sadness that is impossible to convey in this message. Will you consider a call with me?
I exhale, then set the iPad on the table again. Abby throws her arms around my waist and rests her cheek against my chest with a sigh.
Abby smells like strawberries. I think it's her shampoo, and I really like it. In fact, I like it enough that I'm momentarily distracted by it. We are firmly just friends, although for a brief moment earlier this year, I hoped we might become something more. That's passed now and the only throwback to that phase of my life is that sometimes I notice cute details about her ... like the fact that she smells heavenly all the time.
"I'm sorry," she whispers. "I can't even imagine how you're feeling right now."
"I'm fine, Abs," I tell her with a quietly confident laugh. Of course I'm fine. I'm thirty-two years old, for God's sake. I have a great apartment and amazing friends and I'm the co-owner of a software startup that's growing so fast my life feels like some delicious dream.
Abby isn't fooled for a second. She sits up to stare at me, and the piercing look in her big brown eyes forces me to interrogate my own reaction.
The pain of it finally hits — and for a second, I don't feel like a successful thirty-two-year-old man at all. Instead, I feel an awful lot like the seven-year-old kid who kept sneaking out of bed to sleep on the rug in the foyer because he needed to keep an eye on the front door in case his dad came home.
"Don't even bother pretending this isn't a huge fucking deal," Abby says flatly. "We've been friends for way too long for that macho bullshit. You know what? You need a drink."
I laugh weakly and rub my chest, trying to push away the awful, uncomfortable emotions bouncing around in there. All at once, I'm confused and resentful and upset and ... hopeful. I need to squash that last one real quick.
"Yeah. I guess I do."
Abby fetches two glasses of Scotch from the liquor cabinet, and passes me one as she returns to the sofa. We knock our glasses together, down the drink and share a matching grimace at the burn. She sets her empty glass onto the coffee table in front of us ... and for maybe the first time since she moved in with me two years ago, she actually uses the coasters.
I know that gesture is just for me, and I laugh softly. Abby smiles reluctantly too, then murmurs, "That message makes it sound like Warwick has been in contact with Don for all of these years, keeping tabs on you guys. Do you think that's true?"
"No fucking way." I shake my head without hesitation. "Don would have mentioned that at some point over the last twenty-five years. It's not like he shied away from talking about Warwick." Sure, pretty much everything Don had to say about Warwick was an insult, but he still mentioned him enough that I know it would have come up in conversation if the two men were still in touch.
"What are you going to do?"
"I don't know. Does he deserve a reply? There'd be some kind of poetic justice in me just ignoring him, the way he ignored us for all of these years. Right?"
With anyone else I'd be embarrassed at my bitter tone, but Abby won't judge me. That's not how this friendship works.
"Maybe you just have to do whatever feels right here. If ignoring him feels right, then go right ahead."
"There's no chance I'm going to fucking call him." I sigh. I run a hand through my hair, then rub the back of my neck. "I do need to call Luca, though."
A fleeting shadow crosses Abby's face.
"Well ... maybe you need time to process this on your own before you talk it through with Luca." Abby gnaws her bottom lip, and there's a crease in the space between her brows — a sure sign she's worrying about something.
My gaze drops to her hands on her lap — she's tapping her fingers against her thigh. I reach for her hand and squeeze it. "Hey. This is annoying, but I'll be fine."
She nods, but she's still unsettled. I'm touched by the depth of her concern, even if I am a little confused by it.
Hmm. Something else is going on here.
"What was it you wanted to talk to me about tonight?"
She shakes her head. "It's nothing. Anyway, we're not talking about it tonight. Not now."
I know Abby better than I know myself, so I'm very familiar with that stubborn tone. I'm concerned enough that I want to push her some more, and maybe I will ... once I've had a little more time to get my head straight after that message from Warwick.
I pick the iPad up again, load the message and stare at it. I click on Warwick's profile picture, and his face fills my screen. He's standing on his own at the front of a bluestone building, his head cocked to the side. He's wearing jeans and a knit jumper. He's smiling, but the smile doesn't quite reach his eyes.
It's eerie staring at a photo of Warwick Chester because it's like getting a glimpse of the future. Warwick would be in his sixties now, and Luca and I are identical twins who share most of Warwick's facial structure and that same dark, curly hair. Warwick's hair is still thick, but sprinkled with silver. Luca wears his hair long now and keeps it perennially pulled back into a man-bun, but Warwick and I have a similar hairstyle — we both leave our curls longer on top, but the back and sides are a little shorter.
I click on his Facebook profile, hoping to find more photos, but he's locked the profile down ... and I'm sure as hell not ready to send him a friend request.
Several minutes pass where we don't speak. The silence is gentle — Abby and I know how to be quiet together. There's freedom in the easy, familiar rhythms of my life with her. This isn't the first tough moment we've navigated together, and it won't be the last.
"I really do need to talk to Luca," I say eventually.
Abby nods, but that odd look passes over her face again. Her fidgeting returns in an instant.
And both times this happened I was talking about my brother.
"Did you have a fight with him?" I ask.
"Me and Luca are always fighting." She laughs weakly. Well, that's certainly true. Abby and Luca are great friends, too, but they bicker like siblings sometimes — the kind of messy bickering most people grow out of by adolescence. Their "arguments" are always good-natured and innocent, though. What's confusing is that there's nothing innocent about the guilty shadow on Abby's face.
"You're clearly anxious whenever I say his name, Abs," I say softly.
"You're hungry, and upset, and imagining things," she says lightly, but she's an infamously bad liar. Something is definitely going on. I know Abby and Luca aren't romantically involved — Luca is happily married, and Abby literally could not be less his type. Luca's husband, Austin, is a chef and restaurateur and, undoubtedly, the love of my brother's life.
I reach for my phone, and Abby squeaks, "What are you doing?"
Curiouser and curiouser.
"I'm going to call Luca."
I'm bluffing because Abby tells me everything, and I'm momentarily certain that she's about to blurt out the truth of what's really going on. Instead, she gnaws her lip while I pick up my phone to place the call, and picks at imaginary fluff on her hoodie to avoid looking back toward me. Luca's phone rings and rings, but eventually goes to voicemail. Typical — he never answers his damned phone.
"It's me. Have you seen your Facebook messages? Take a look, then call me back when you can."
Abby is visibly relieved when I hang up, which only makes me more determined to know what's going on.
"Spill your guts, woman. What's he done this time?"
The intercom sounds and I sigh at the relief that crosses Abby's face.
"Don't think I'm dropping this," I warn her. When we settle back on couch, food in hand, I look at her expectantly. Abby squirms.
"There is something I need to talk to you about," she admits reluctantly. "But I really can't talk about it tonight."
"Don't let that shit with Warwick put you off. I was in shock for a minute there, but I'm good now. Let's talk."
"I know you're okay, but you've had a really full-on night, and I'd rather we just wait and discuss it tomorrow. Can we please just watch some TV and relax for a while?"
My eyebrows rise. "Aren't you going into your cave tonight?"
Abby makes her living creating digital content about video games, and via a series of screen dividers, she's converted part of her bedroom into an office that doubles as a studio for her videos — aka "the cave." Her schedule is set in stone, and Monday night she always retreats for a marathon session of gaming-for-fun. She'll periodically, reluctantly, vary her routine on other days, but she never misses Monday night's leisure gaming.
"Not tonight," she says quietly.
"Abby, seriously. What the fuck is going on? I'm going to worry until you tell me now."
"It's nothing to worry about, I promise. I just feel like hanging out with you tonight." She gives me a hopeful look. "TV?" I sigh and reach for the remote, then navigate to the media center to load the sci-fi series we've been watching. "No, not sci-fi," she says. "Let's watch the news for a while."
I nearly choke on a spoonful of my curry. I feel like I'm in a real-life Twilight Zone tonight.
"Sure. Isn't that what you like to watch when I'm not around?"
"Exactly. 'When you're not around.' You're clearly 'around' right now." She shrugs and reaches for a spring roll, and I narrow my gaze at her. "Abby, I do not need your pity news watching."
"It's not 'pity news watching,' if that's even a thing. I just thought it might be your turn to choose."
"If we're supposed to be taking turns, I think mine is several years overdue," I say, still not convinced.
Abby's laughter fades just a little. Her eyebrows knit. "I'm not that bad."
"You're that good." I'm laughing again, and I click the button to load the sci-fi show, anyway. "You've trained me so well."
"Maybe you've actually started to like sci-fi?" she suggests, and I grimace.
"Or maybe it's Stockholm Syndrome. In any case, let's just see if these mutants can escape the starship tonight."
"They aren't mutants, they're aliens," she says, then she settles right into the couch with a sigh of pleasure as the show begins, but she can't quite help but correct the rest of it even as the theme song starts. "And it's not a starship, it's a time machine. Have we even been watching the same show?"
I chuckle to myself and settle in to watch the awful show Abby inexplicably loves. My workload is insane right now. It's a testimony to just how much I adore my best friend that I sit through this shit several nights a week, just because she likes it.
A few minutes into the episode, Luca texts.
I saw the message. Really need to talk to you, anyway. Drinks tomorrow night?
"Is that Luca?" Abby asks. Her voice is so high I'm sure dogs six blocks away just howled. I raise my eyebrows at her and she flushes.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Unexpected"
Copyright © 2019 Lantana Management Pty Ltd.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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