Abigail Bennett was the definition of unexpected. She was one year on the wrong side of the knife blade that was thirty, but if she turned up at your restaurant and ordered a glass of wine, even high-heeled and clad in a black sheath, you’d card her every time. Petite and narrow-waisted, with a pixie flip of hair the exact color of coffee beans, Abigail could easily pass for sixteen in a pair of ripped jeans and an Abercrombie T-shirt.
Not that she liked looking younger than her age. In fact, most of the time Abigail hated the constant reminders that no matter what she did or where she went, she would not be taken seriously. This explained the harsh line of bobby pins that held her wayward hair out of her face as if the severity of it could add years. It also explained the almost-dowdy clothes, the earth-toned makeup, and the hard, thin line of a mouth that could have been very beautiful.
Once people got past the fact that she wasn’t a teenager, Abigail looked very much like the ideal kindergarten teacher. Her stature and dress were the opposite of intimidating, yet there was a spark in her dark eyes as if from time to time a match was struck behind the velvety chocolate of her corneas. These eyes could freeze hell over with a well-timed look, a piercing arrow of unmistakable meaning. But there was also the hint of tenderness in Abigail that translated into quiet strength when paired with the sharp edges that were inevitably unveiled before anyone had a chance to form a false opinion of her. But then again, maybe it was all a facade. She didn’t let people get close enough to find out.
In reality, Abigail was not a kindergarten teacher, nor could she remember a phase in her life when she ever wanted to be one. She was an accountant. Numbers were stable, unchanging, and best of all, incapable of being mysterious or of forcing people to act and think and feel in ways that they would not normally act and think and feel. Numbers were predictable; people were not. And because Abigail trusted the reliability of her chosen field, she was good at her job, meticulous and capable of holding the smallest detail in her mind for as long as it was useful.
During tax season Abigail worked more hours than anyone else at her firm, and that was saying a lot. It was why she was made a partner after only five years with the company and why she occupied one of two corner offices, the one with a view of the swampy man-made pond that graced the complex of professional stucco buildings on Key Point Drive. Johnson, McNally & Bennett was a Rosa Beach institution, and though Blake Johnson and Colton McNally could claim most of the honor behind their prestigious position in the community, Abigail knew she filled an important and indispensable role. Southern Florida had its share of widows and divorcées, and for some not-so-surprising reasons they preferred to have a woman handle their money. Abigail was happy to oblige. It kept her busy and the firm in business.
Keeping busy was what Abigail did best. When she wasn’t working, which averaged sixty hours a week, she was either running or reheating days-old Chinese takeout in a dented wok. Both activities were little more than a personal experiment; they were representative of the only two things in Abigail’s life that she really, deep down hoped to accomplish someday: run a marathon and learn to cook.
The marathon was a goal that she had already partly achieved. On the day of her twenty-ninth birthday, she ran a half marathon in Miami. Abigail could have easily completed it, and in fact, the finish line was in sight only two blocks ahead when she realized it was enough to know that she could do it. Crossing the finish line would have meant that she ran for someone else, that she ran for the glory, the recognition.
So Abigail had slowed down a little and then a bit more until someone thrust a cup of water in her hand and yelled, “You’re almost there!” She smiled her thanks, sipped the water, and folded herself into the crowd while all eyes were watching the other runners throw their arms into the air for the last few triumphant yards.
The cooking, on the other hand, was little more than a pipe dream. Abigail’s greatest accomplishment was adding a diced chicken breast and some soy sauce to leftover chicken chow mein. It was too salty. But propped on her counter in an antique, wrought-iron bookstand was a Williams-Sonoma cookbook with full-color photographs and extensive instructions on how to cook homemade delicacies like potato gnocchi with wild mushroom sauce and baked clams with pine nuts and basil. Every morning, while she waited for the last few drops of coffee to drip into her Gevalia carafe, Abigail would thumb through the glossy pages of the cookbook and imagine what it would be like to make a wine reduction sauce as the sound of laughter filled her apartment. Someday, she told herself.
And though there were many somedays in Abigail’s life, she tried not to let the particulars of her existence get her down too much. It didn’t matter that she didn’t have a boyfriend. It didn’t matter that every day plodded on with the same pitfalls and small successes. It didn’t matter that her apartment was quiet but for the hum of her empty stainless steel refrigerator. It was the life that Abigail had chosen, and she was a grim optimist, resigned to the path she was on --- she was getting exactly what she had always wanted. So what if it was tilted heavily toward work, personal discipline, solitude? So what if it left little room for the things other people craved? So what if her cupboards were as bare of exotic ingredients as her apartment was bare of cheerful company?
But sometimes, alone in her apartment with the shades drawn tight, Abigail would stand in front of the full-length mirror on the back of her bathroom door and relax enough to admire what she saw. Tousling her wet hair and practicing a self-conscious smile that showed her teeth --- her impossibly white, perfectly straight teeth that were a genetic legacy instead of the result of extensive dental work --- Abigail could almost pretend that she was ten years younger and that the world was unfurling itself before her.
For those moments in the steam and warmth, dark ringlets of hair curling around her temples as if she were some Grecian empress, Abigail wished much more for herself than what she had. She wished that she could rewind the clock and find Abby, the girl she used to be, perched on the cusp of her life instead of entrenched in the middle of it with no apparent way out.
Every once in a while, she could gather the courage to admit that it would be a very different life if she had it to do all over again.
When Abigail first came to Johnson & McNally, she had a chance at a different life.
It was no secret around the office that Colton McNally had a thing for the new accountant. He was twelve years older than Abigail and divorced, and that seemed somehow estimable according to Abigail’s less-than-high expectations. It wasn’t that she would settle for just anyone, but she also didn’t enter into much of anything with a long list of prerequisites.
In truth, Abigail found Colton very attractive. She thought his salt-and-pepper hair was distinguished --- even though she suspected it came from the hands of a very talented colorist as he wasn’t quite forty --- and she liked the way his tailored suits fell across the straight line of his shoulders. Best of all, he was nothing like the immature, self-absorbed boys Abigail had dated in college. They had nearly turned her off of men altogether. So when Colton turned his attention toward her, Abigail let him flirt. For a while, she even stopped wearing the stern bobby pins so that her dark curls framed her rather nicely arched forehead.
And yet Abigail wasn’t naive. She knew that her employer loved her because of the photo. It would have been too much to ask for Colton to love her, or at least think he did, because of herself. But while she probably should have been reticent of attention resulting from such a faint and improbable notion, Abigail accepted --- almost expected --- the source of Colton’s desire.
The photograph in question hung neatly squared and centered on a fabric-covered board adorning the west wall in the reception room. It was a concession to the more traditional bulletin board, replete with employee photographs that were intended to look candid but often looked overposed.
Abigail knew of the board, she even shot glances at it whenever she could to detect updates and changes, but she was not aware upon settling into her position that tradition dictated a spot for her photo front and center ASAP.
It was her third day of work, and Abigail was immersed in balancing infinitesimal details and worlds away from the air-conditioned office she inhabited when Colton startled her with a quiet “Ahem.”
Her head was bowed, and her forearms rested on endless pages that sprouted like an unruly crop of paper weeds across her generous desk. Abigail blinked and raised her eyes, just her eyes, in time to be blinded by the flash of Colton’s expensive Canon. He laughed and snapped a few more pictures for which she cleared off her desk, sat up straight, and smiled, thin-lipped and toothy and even coy, trying them all in the hopes that one would be right.
But the next day, Abigail was surprised to see that the photo gracing the quasi bulletin board was the first of the batch. She knew she was looking at herself because seeing the small, hunched form over the crowded desk was a sort of déjà vu --- she had been there before. If not for that, Abigail would have never believed that the woman staring back at her was her own reflection. The woman in the photograph had luminous --- there was simply no other word for them --- luminous black eyes of the starry-sky variety: endless and opalescent and dark like a time before the genesis. Like the event horizon of identical black holes --- no way out, but no matter, for who would ever want to leave? Beneath the twin universes of those eyes, her lips were slightly parted, pink and full and evocative of bruised raspberries. Her skin glowed faintly (fluorescent light reflecting off all that white paper?), and her shadowy curls were framing and soft. The woman was lovely.
But what unnerved Abigail the most was that Colton had caught her at a moment between. A rare, uncovered moment between expressions: a moment of evaporation before the advent of her surprise became the dutiful smile that spread across her face in the split second after the shutter snapped. This woman was a living mystery.
Abigail wished she knew her.
One day, a few months after she started at the firm, Abigail went into Colton’s office to ask him a question about the tax return of a dual citizen living out of country. It was a legitimate question, but Blake’s office was closer than Colton’s, and her admirer acknowledged that fact the second Abigail rapped her knuckles on the doorframe. She realized almost too late that her presence would be read as an invitation, and sure enough, a smile unfolded across Colton’s face like a flag pulled taut in a billowing wind.
“Come in, Abigail! Why don’t you close the door behind you? There’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about.”
Abigail did as she was told and crossed the plush, carpeted floor of Colton’s office with her heart stuck fast in her throat.
“But first --- ” Colton set aside what he had been working on --- “what can I do for you?”
Passing him the papers, Abigail lowered herself to balance on the arm of one of the leather chairs facing the wide, black walnut desk. But Colton raised an eyebrow at her, motioned that she should cross behind the desk to stand beside him.
They had flirted before, secret half smiles conveyed across crowded rooms and careful conversations littered with possibilities. And it seemed that the unmistakable chemistry between Colton and Abigail was a favorite topic around the watercooler, boasting far more people in favor of a match than against it. It was impossible for Abigail not to get caught up in it a little. But she also couldn’t help being cautious, and suddenly, with the door closed and Colton looking far more handsome than she remembered from only the day before, she knew that he was a man who wouldn’t play games for long.
Colton waved her over again and Abigail moved slowly, explaining about the nonresident and his recent payout from a life insurance death benefit. She had just gotten to the part where he intended to give enough of it away to slip below the line of taxable income when Colton grabbed her wrist and, in one smooth movement, pulled her forward until her face was inches from his. He studied her, still smiling, then kissed her full on the mouth as if he had been intending to do so for a long time.
It wasn’t that Abigail didn’t want to kiss him back. Actually quite the opposite. It wasn’t even that she was stunned by the inappropriateness of such a gesture. Instead, it was a Tic Tac that ruined everything, a burning little grain of peppermint that she inhaled when Colton’s lips touched hers.
She drew back, pulling out of Colton’s embrace and coughing violently until tears collected at the corners of her eyes. Abigail struggled for a moment, choking mutely as she watched Colton bolt out of his chair and grab her upper arms. When the breath mint was dislodged from her throat and she could feel it hot and peppery on her tongue, she knew it was a very small thing that would be significant in ways that might cause her years of lament.
“I’m sorry,” Abigail murmured, utterly mortified for one of the first times she could remember. “I . . .” She couldn’t continue.
Colton stared at her, concern and disbelief gathering foglike across his forehead. At first, Abigail thought he might fold her into his arms, that the almost-pitiable comedy of what had just happened would become the sort of story they laughed about months down the road when they told people the tale of how they came together. But then Colton laughed, rubbing his hands up and down her arms. The moment shattered and fell away, disappearing in a shimmer of doubt that made Abigail wonder if she had merely dreamed it.
“As long as you’re okay,” he boomed. And then he sat back down and pretended nothing had happened. He never mentioned it again and neither did she.
Eighteen months later, Colton married Marguerite, the receptionist who was hired at the same time as Abigail. Marguerite was a few years younger than Abigail, but she looked much older due to a succession of bad dye jobs and what appeared to be a lifetime of sun damage spotting her skin. Colton seemed happy; from what little Abigail could discern of her boss’s marriage, he genuinely longed for companionship and Marguerite’s horselike laugh didn’t turn him off so much that he considered her a poor match.
Although it was against her nature, shortly after the happy couple’s beach wedding, Abigail went through a brief stage where she fixated on what might have been. The entire office had once been invited to Colton’s sprawling house only a block off the ocean, and Abigail could almost picture herself the mistress of his columned colonial. What sort of a woman would she be if she were Mrs. McNally? What would she look like offering guests a second martini and lounging in some bright sari that she had bought on their honeymoon in Belize?
It was a nice scenario, but Abigail wasn’t one to waste too much energy on regret, and she abandoned such nonsense the same way she set aside every other impossible dream: she placed it firmly out of her mind. A few years later when Blake and Colton approached her about being a partner, she was even able to congratulate herself that her business card would read Johnson, McNally & Bennett instead of Johnson, McNally & McNally. She convinced herself that it was much more satisfying this way.
For his part, after their less than romantic encounter in his office, Colton was nothing but a gentleman to Abigail. He treated her with the same respect, the same quiet yet somehow condescending pride of a father figure. Abigail was reduced from a possible lover to the discarded role of a dependable daughter. It was a character she was rather good at playing.
Lou Bennett was a father when he could have been a grandfather.
He met Melody Van Bemmel at Chevy’s Café a week after he turned forty-five. It was nearly a blizzard outside, and she blew into the warm restaurant off-balance and trembling as if she were a leaf driven by the vicious wind. When the door slammed behind her, Melody gasped, stomped her booted feet, and flung the hood of her parka back. She smiled shyly, looking around as if her entrance had been staged, as if she were taking her place beneath the spotlight and now that she was front and center she had forgotten her lines.
Everyone in the café glanced up at her for the blink of an eye and then turned back to their coffees and specials of the day without a second thought. Everyone except Lou. He had fallen in love the moment Melody raised her hands to turn back her hood. They were little hands swimming in a pair of men’s work gloves that were so big on her fingers they nearly slid off. Lou imagined they were his gloves. He wished they were.
And just as quickly as he longed for her, Lou hated himself for it. She was a child. Her eyes were too clear, her skin too bright for her to even look twice at a man whose own skin was as deeply lined as those etchings he had seen on display in the American National Bank. But when she caught his eye, when her lips pulled up slightly just for him, Lou knew there was nothing that could be done about it. He was hers, even if she never acknowledged his existence. Even if he loved her in secret until the day he died.
As it turned out, he didn’t have to. Melody came to Lou in the most natural, ordinary way: she brushed against the edge of his life and found herself inexorably pulled in. He didn’t even know he was drowning until he felt himself reach for her and cling for dear life.
They were married less than a year later, and though Melody was not as young as Lou had imagined, when she walked down the aisle in a confection of white, a little shiver crept up Lou’s spine because she did not look twenty-five. Twenty years, he thought in the second before the preacher asked him if he would have her and hold her until “death do you part.”
Lou said, “I do” without hesitation, but somewhere in the back of his mind he faltered. There was a nagging suspicion, an accusatory guilt that made him wonder if he had made her the happiest woman alive like she claimed or if he had involuntarily ruined her life.
It took Melody almost six years to get pregnant, though they tried to make a baby on their wedding night. She saw doctors and gynecologists and fertility specialists, but no one could tell her why her womb would not swell with a child. For a while, Lou entertained the possibility of joining her at one of her appointments, but those sorts of things made him unbearably uncomfortable. He avoided the conversation he knew Melody wanted to have the same way that he avoided the drawer where she kept her neat pile of lace-trimmed underwear.
When Lou was fifty-one, Melody’s cheeks took on a greenish hue in the early morning, and the waist that he so loved to encompass in his enormous hands began to expand. She wouldn’t admit it at first --- maybe she was scared to hope --- but Lou knew almost immediately. Something about Melody had changed, the scent of her skin or the complexity of the air around her when she entered a room. Maybe both. Either way, Lou was relieved. It wasn’t him, it had never been him, and now she would be happy. They would be a family.
Lou didn’t think much about the baby until the doctor handed him a tiny, tightly wrapped bundle with a pink cap sliding down over her lashless eyes. They were two little commas, those eyes, a break amidst all the words that comprised his many years of life, though certainly not a beginning or even an end. Lou stared at her and realized that he had planned on having a son.
“Abigail Rose,” Melody called weakly from the bed. She smiled at him with all the energy she could muster, and her eyes were dancing with tears. “Rose for my mother and Abigail because it’s the most beautiful name I’ve ever heard. I think we’ll call her Abby.”
What was there to say? It was a fine name, and Lou hadn’t wasted a single thought on another. “Pretty,” he said finally and brushed his lips tentatively across the soft forehead because it seemed like the right thing to do.
I didn’t know what to do with her.
She was cold, her skin was so cold, and she seemed dirty to me. I wanted to wash her hair and make her lips look pink again instead of the sickly gray that taunted me for not getting here sooner. For not paying attention. For not being everything she needed me to be.
When I got over the initial shock, when I had cried so hard I had emptied myself of every fighting, aching thing inside, I moved her arm half a degree and sat on the edge of the bathtub so I could be near her. There was nothing to be afraid of. This body beside me was only an empty shell; she was gone, and yet I wanted to be close enough to study every detail. I wanted to imprint her on each scribbled page of my memory so that when they took her away, I could remember how her collarbones rose in mirrored harmony and almost met in the shadow of her long neck.
My skin was tight from crying, and I could taste the salt from my tears when I licked my lips. There was blood, too, and it was insulting somehow that I could feel the metallic tang of life on my tongue when hers was spilled beneath me. Then I felt a jolt of shock at the blood in my mouth. How did it get there? Had I bled with her? Had I inadvertently touched where she lay broken and partaken in some unholy communion?
I raised my palms and studied their whiteness, then put them to my face and knew: the edges of my mouth were cracked from forming the scream that tried to clear a way for my heart to leave my body. It would have climbed up through my throat and escaped --- it wanted to; I could feel it thrashing around, dying for an exit, a way to escape this pain --- but it was held fast by each vein that anchored it to my fingers, my toes, the rest of my numb body. The blood in my mouth was my own.
It took me what felt like hours to reach for her. And when I did, her fingers were firm and limp like molded plastic as I wrapped my hands around them. I fought back my revulsion and reminded myself of who she was. Rubbing her lifeless hand between my own warm ones, I willed her to squeeze me back even as I knew she never would. A longing stabbed through me and was gone: I want to be where you are. But that was impossible.
I would have to live in this new reality.
I didn’t know what to do without her.
Excerpted from THE MOMENT BETWEEN © Copyright 2011 by Nicole Baart. Reprinted with permission by Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.