Day one hundred and forty-two of being friend-zoned. Send rations.
Russell Hart stifled a groan when Abby twisted on his lap to call out a drink order to the passing waiter, adding a smile that would no doubt earn her a martini on the house. Every time their six person “super group” hung out, which was starting to become a nightly affair, Russell advanced into a newer, more vicious circle of hell. Tonight, however, he was pretty sure he’d meet the devil himself.
They were at the Longshoreman, celebrating the Fourth of July, which presented more than one precious little clusterfuck. One, the holiday meant the bar was packed full of tipsy Manhattanites, creating a shortage of chairs, hence Abby parking herself right on top of his dick. Two, it put the usually conservative Abby in ass-hugging shorts and one of those tops that tied at the back of her neck. Six months ago, he would have called it a shirt, but his two best friends had fallen down the relationship rabbit hole, putting him in the vicinity of excessive chick talk. So, now it was a halter-top. What he wouldn’t give to erase that knowledge.
During their first round of drinks, he’d become a believer in breathing exercises. Until he’d noticed these tiny, blond curls at Abby’s nape, curls he’d never seen before. And some-fucking-how, those sun-kissed curls were what had nudged him from semi-erect to full-scale Washington monument status. The hair on the rest of her head was like a…a warm milk chocolate color, so where did those little curls come from? Those detrimental musings had lead to Russell questioning what else he didn’t know about Abby. What color was everything else? Did she have freckles? Where?
Russell would not be finding out – ever – and not just because he was sitting in the friend zone with his dick wedged against his stomach – not an easy maneuver – so she wouldn’t feel it. No, there was more to it. His friends, Ben and Louis, were well aware of those reasons, which accounted for the half-sympathetic, half-needling looks they were sending him from across the table, respective girlfriends perched on their laps. The jerks.
Abby was off-limits. Not because she was taken – thank Christ – or because someone had verbally forbidden him from pursuing her. That wasn’t it. Russell had taken a long time trying to find a suitable explanation for why he didn’t just get the girl alone one night and make his move. Explain to her that men like him weren’t suitable friends for wide-eyes debutantes and give her a demonstration of the alternative.
It went like this. Abby was like an expensive package that had been delivered to him by mistake. Someone at the post office had screwed the pooch and dropped off the shiniest, most beautiful creation on his Queens doorstep and driven away, laughing manically. Russell wasn’t falling for the trick, though. Someone would claim the package, eventually. They would chuckle over the obvious mistake and take Abby away from him, because really, he had no business being the one who’s lap she chose to sit on. No business, whatsoever.
But while he was in possession of the package – as much as he’d allow himself to be in possession, anyway – he would guard her with his life. He would make sure that when someone realized the cosmic error that had occurred – the one that had made him Abby’s friend and confidant – she would be sweet and undamaged, just as she’d been on arrival.
Unfortunately, the package didn’t seem content to let him stand guard from a distance. She innocently beckoned him back every time he managed to put an inch of space between them. Russell had lost count of the times Abby had fallen asleep on him while the super group watched a movie, drank margaritas on the girls’ building rooftop, driven home in cabs. She was entirely too comfortable around him, considering he saluted against his fly every time they were in the same room.
“Why so quiet, Russell?” Louis asked, his grin turning to a wince as his actress girlfriend, Roxy, elbowed him in the ribs. Yeah. Everyone at the damn table knew he had a major thing for the beautiful, unassuming number whiz on his lap. Everyone but Abby. And that’s how he planned to keep it.
“I know why,” Ben said, causing Russell’s stomach to catapult itself across the bar. Before he could change the subject, Ben pulled his student-turned-main squeeze closer and continued. “He doesn’t need to give us advice on girls anymore. His powers have been diminished.”
“We’ve slain the beast.”
Ben and Louis toasted their plastic beer cups without a single glance at one other. Why was he friends with these two again? Oh right. The power of beer had brought them together. Praise be to Heineken. Smug as they were, though, Russell knew humor was their way of showing support. If it wasn’t humor, it would be sympathy, aka dude kryptonite.
“What kind of advice did he give you about us?” Roxy wanted to know, shooting Louis and Ben stern glances.
“Uh-uh.” Russell shook his head. “I’m calling bro confidentiality on you both. That includes pillow talk and supersedes any and all forms of sexual coercion.”
Ben adjusted his glasses. “That reasoning, however, should lend some insight into what you ladies missed.”
Honey leaned across the table and patted Russell’s arm. “It all worked out in the end, big guy. Who knows? You might have had something to do with it after all.”
Russell opened his mouth to respond, but whatever he planned to say withered in its inception because Abby spun in his lap again, sending the world around him into slow motion. A left jab of her scent – which after careful consideration he’d termed white grape sunlight – caught him in the chin and he barely restrained the urge to shout oh, come on, at the top of his lungs. Her big hazel eyes were indignant on his behalf, mouth pursed in a way that shouldn’t have been sexy, but damn-well was. She’d snapped her spine straight, hip bumping his erection in the process.
Please, almighty God, just kill me now.
“Russell gives great advice,” Abby protested and Russell would have smiled if he wasn’t busy earning his master’s degree in boner-soothing meditation. She really had no idea her outrage only made her sweeter because it looked so unnatural on her. “Remember the man on the first floor of our building? The one who used to clear his throat loudly every time we walked by?” She waited for Honey and Roxy to nod. “Russell told me the next time it happened, I should just shout TROUBLE at his door. I did. And it hasn’t happened since.”
When Louis and Ben started laughing into their beers, Russell flipped them off behind Abby’s back. What his friends knew that Abby didn’t? As soon as she’d told him the problem, he’d paid a visit to their downstairs neighbor and explained that trouble would find him if he so much as breathed in Abby – or any of her roommates’ – direction again. Hence, the single word being so effective. Russell was trouble.
But as Abby turned a bright, encouraging smile on him, swelling his heart like an inflating balloon, he recognized that his brand of trouble had nothing on Abby’s. She didn’t even know how dangerous she was to his health. Because while Abby was the package that had been delivered by mistake, he’d gone and fallen for her, despite his attempts to simply be her friend.
And maybe it was his imagination, but the loss of her seemed to loom a little closer each day. Like any minute now, she would peer a little closer and realize he was in imposter. Loss was something with which Russell was familiar. Loss had cut him off at the knees at a young age, made him hyper aware of how fast it could happen. Whoosh. Chopped off at the knees. So he was already in damage control mode, hoping to limit the fallout when she inevitably headed for a younger version of Gordon Gekko. For now, it was all about keeping a comfortable gap between him and Abby.
She scooted back on his lap to make room for the waitress who had returned with a round of drinks, and Russell gritted his teeth.
Okay. Comfortable definitely wasn’t the right word.
I have friends. I have friends now and it’s glorious.
Six months ago, when Abby Sullivan had placed the ad on Craigslist, seeking two roommates to share her Chelsea apartment, her highest hope had been for noise. Maybe it sounded silly, but apart from the Ninth Avenue traffic trundling past and the occasional shouting match on the street, her life had been so quiet before Honey and Roxy showed up. She’d been hoping for hair dryers in the morning, dishes being tossed in the sink, singing in the shower. Anything but the void of sound she’d been living with, alone in the massive space.
Then, oh then, she’d gone and done something even more impulsive than placing an advertisement for massively discounted rent in cyberspace. She’d blurted upon meeting them for the first time that she didn’t need help paying the rent; she merely wanted friends. Unbelievably, it hadn’t felt like a mistake to reveal such a pitiful secret to a couple of strangers. There had been a feeling when all three of them first stood in the same room that it would work out, like a complicated math equation that would prove itself worth the work.
Now? She couldn’t imagine a day passing without them. The guys had been an unexpected bonus she hadn’t counted on. Especially Russell.
As they walked crosstown toward the Hudson River where they planned to watch the Fourth of July fireworks, Abby smiled up at Russell where he towered over her. She received a suspicious look in response. Suspicious! Ha! It made her want to laugh like a lunatic. All the way back to her furthest memory, she’d been reliable, gullible, sugar-filled Abby to everyone and their mother. Even Honey and Roxy, to a degree, handled her carefully around subjects that might offend her or hurt her feelings. She was too grateful for their presence to call them on it, though. Sometimes she opened her mouth, the words I’m not made of spun glass hovering right on the tip of her tongue, but she always swallowed them. They meant well. She knew that with her whole heart. Maybe someday, when she was positive they wouldn’t vanish at a rare show of temper—the way people always did when she bared a flaw—she’d tell them. Until she worked up the courage however, she would stay quiet, and appreciate her new best friends for the colorful positivity they’d brought into her life.
But Russell? She appreciated him even more for getting mad at her.
Such occurrences were her favorite part of the week. Russell stomping into the apartment, grumbling about her not checking the peep hole. Refusing to go out on a Saturday night until she changed into more comfortable shoes. Giving her that daunting frown when she revealed they’d had a leak in the bathroom for three weeks and hadn’t yet called the super to repair it. He’d had it fixed within the hour, but he hadn’t spoken to her the entire time.
It was awesome.
Because he kept coming back. Every time. No matter what—no matter what she said or did—he never washed his hands of her. Never got so fed up with her admittedly flighty behavior that he skipped a hang out. Or didn’t respond to a text. He was the steadfast presence in her life she’d never had.
No one spoke to Abby at her job. She’d been hired after graduating at the top of her Yale class and placed in a silent power position at a hedge fund. Her father’s hedge fund. So she could understand her co-workers’ reticence to invite her for happy hour. Or even give her a polite nod in the hallway. At first, she’d been prepared to try anyway. Force them to acknowledge her in some small way, even if it was just passing the stapler in the conference room. Then she remembered. When she forced her opinion on people, or had an outburst, they went away, and didn’t come back for a long time.
Her coworkers assumed she sat in her air-conditioned office all day playing Minecraft or buying dresses online. And why wouldn’t they? She’d done nothing to sway that notion. In reality, however, she worked hard. Showed up before the lights came on and stayed later than everyone else. Brought work home with her and often, didn’t get to sleep. She had no choice.
Stress tightened like a shoelace around Abby’s stomach, but she breathed through it. Tonight was for fun with her friends. Tomorrow morning would be soon enough to face her responsibilities.
“It’s the shoes, isn’t it?” Russell demanded, encompassing Abby, Roxy and Honey with a dark look.
“This always happens in the eleventh hour. You girls started limping around and we just have to watch it.”
Ben sighed. “Here we go again.”
“No, really. I think I’ve finally figured it out.” Russell swiped impatient fingers over his shaved head. “You ever heard of sympathy pains? When my sister-in-law gave birth, my brother swore someone was firing a nail gun into his stomach. To this day, the guy has never been the same.” He pointed at Abby’s electric blue pumps. “Women wear these evil creations around to confuse us. Sure, they make a girl’s legs look good, but that’s the black magic, my friends. They want us to feel their pain and not understand why.”
Louis turned, walking backwards on the sidewalk so he could face them. “I have to admit, I’m with Russell on this one.” He smiled at Roxy’s outrage. “You could go barefoot and it wouldn’t make a difference to me.”
“I’ll round it out with a third agreement,” Ben chimed in. “I like Honey in her Chucks.”
That statement earned Ben a kiss from Honey and a groan from Russell. “I’m thrilled you assholes have found a way to use my amazing logic to earn points.”
Abby loved the familiar argument simply because it was familiar—a routine she had in common with others—but she had to admit her feet were throbbing. After a night of dancing, the crosstown walk was giving her blisters. She wore heels all day at the office, but they were sensible and low-heeled. Nothing like the stilettos she’d borrowed from Roxy. In fact, now that she’d acknowledged her tired feet, every part of her seemed to sag with exhaustion, as if she’d finally given her bones permission. “I can end this argument right here,” Abby interrupted with a weary, but determined smile. The group stopped to watch as she slipped off her shoes and placed her bare feet back onto the cool sidewalk with a hearty sigh. For some reason, everyone’s gazes swung to Russell who – God love him – was frowning at her like she’d just crashed his beloved truck.
“A new tactic, gentlemen. Take note.” Their four friends laughed at Russell’s ominous tone, but Abby stayed pinned under his scowl. Although now, his scowl had a hint of uncertainty behind it. “Put them back on, Abby. You’re going to step on something. Broken glass, or—”
Abby breezed past Russell. Honestly, he worried constantly for no reason. They were only a few blocks away from the river and the streets were well lit. What was the worst that could—
Her feet left the ground, her gasp cutting off as she was cradled against Russell’s big chest. His expression was hidden, thanks to the streetlights shining blindingly above his head, but Abby knew from experience, he would be annoyed. She couldn’t prevent the smile from spreading like wildfire across her face, feeling as if it reached as far as her chest. It seemed impossible, but somehow she’d earned a place among these people who cared about her. Friends. Good friends. The kind you can’t live without.
Especially Russell. Her favorite.
“You were put on this earth to make me crazy, Abby. You know that?”
“I’m not sorry about it,” she whispered. “Does that make me a bad person?”
“No. It makes you a woman.”
She muffled her laugh with the use of Russell’s shoulder. “Men make women crazy, too. It’s not a one-sided affair.”
He frowned down at her. “What would you know about it?”
That question coming from anyone else might have embarrassed Abby, but for all Russell’s bluster, he never judged her. Not for her lack of a love life, anyway. Shoes were another matter altogether. “I know things.”
“Things, huh? Maybe Louis and Ben should spend more time at their own apartments.” His arms flexed as he hefted her higher, with minimal effort. “Do you actually like watching the fireworks or is this just a patriotic custom we’re upholding?”
“No, I love fireworks.” She tilted her head back and looked at the sky. “Everyone forgets over the course of the year how incredible fireworks are. You know? They forget until they’re standing beneath them again. You don’t like them?”
He stared ahead as he answered. “I like that you like them.”
Abby smiled, knowing Russell would have to be extra gruff for the remainder of the night to make up for that slip. And needing to torture him a little over it. “That’s how I feel when you make me watch the Yankees.” She laid a hand against his cheek. “It’s worth it just to see your adorable man eyes light up.”
His sigh was sharp, but she caught the corner of his mouth kicking up. “All this time, I thought you were enjoying it.”
“The blooper reel is my favorite.” Drowsiness settled more firmly over her and she stifled a yawn against his shoulder. “Also, I love when kids in the audience catch foul balls.”
“Crowd. It’s called a crowd.”
She hummed in her throat, eyelids beginning to weigh down. “I knew that. Just seeing if you were paying attention,” she murmured.
Russell chewed his bottom lip a moment, worry marring his features. “You’re so tired lately, Abby. Everything okay?”
“Totally fine,” she lied. “Just going to rest my eyes a minute.”
Positive he would wake her up when they reached the Hudson, she wound her arms around his neck and dozed off. It was the first time she’d slept in three days.
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Tessa Bailey lives on Long Island with her husband and young daughter. When she isn’t writing or reading romance, Tessa enjoys a good argument and thirty-minute recipes.