Chapter One

 

I WAS lying on the floor in my living room when the door opened and Pete walked in. I knew it was him because I recognized the hiking boots next to my face.

“You made no sense on the phone.”

This news did not surprise me. I was more than a little distraught.

“Tell me exactly what happened,” he ordered. 

I didn’t lift my head off the hardwood floor. “I went to meet Dante at the baggage claim at LAX, and he was kissing her.”

“Who?”

“Cassandra.”

“His partner.”

“Yeah.”

“Are you kidding?”

“Does it look like I’m kidding?” I asked him. As I was lying on the floor in the middle of my apartment, I was hoping he’d get it. 

“Shit.”

I let out a long sigh. I was a mess. 

“And?”

“And what?”

“And what did he say when you confronted him?”

I snorted. “He said they’d been in love for a while; he just could never figure out the best time to tell me.”

He sounded like he was going to hyperventilate. 

I tilted my head back so I could see him. “Pete?”

“Jesus, Noah.”

He was taking the betrayal almost worse than I was. 

“Sit down,” I told him because he was making me nervous, “and put your head between your legs before you pass out. Take shallow breaths.”

“Oh God,” he gagged.

As I watched him flop down on my green burlap couch and put his head between his legs, I smiled for the first time in three days. Leave it to my friend to out-diva me. He was much more dramatic than I would ever be. 

“You alright?” I asked him after a few minutes of listening to him breathe. 

“When should he have told you? When should he…. I’ll tell you when fuckin’ Dante Cerreto should have told you—maybe right before you drained your life savings to have his sperm put inside your sister so you two could have a baby together!” he roared angrily, the bitterness there in his voice.

“I didn’t tell him.”

“What?” he shouted at me after a minute or so delay. “Sit up and look at me. Goddamnit!”

I moved just enough for what I was doing to be called sitting. It was more of a slouch. 

“What part didn’t you tell him?”

“Any of it.”

“You didn’t tell Dante that your sister agreed to carry his child so the two of you could have a baby? That’s the part you didn’t tell him?”

“That would be it.”

“Oh my God, Noah!”

“I didn’t have time,” I defended myself. “Did I mention the kissing?”

“But it’s done,” he gasped. “Sarah’s pregnant and now… Did you show him the sonogram pictures? Did he see his daughter?”

“No.”

“No?” he yelled at me.

“No.”

He just stared at me. 

“What?”

“Noah.” He sounded pained and exasperated all that the same time. “Holy shit! Do you know what you’ve just done? I mean, right now I hate the man, but I can’t hate him completely because he doesn’t even know what he really lost!”

“Pete—”

“He’s out you and your kid and—”

“Take a deep—”

“Noah, it’s not fair! You haven’t given the man all the facts!”

“Why are you defending him?”

“I’m not defending him but he needs to know!”

“Stop yelling.”

“Noah!” he yelled again.

“Did I mention the kissing?”

There was a long moment of silence where he took a deep breath and basically tried to calm down enough to carry on a conversation. 

“Okay, so lemme get this straight—you haven’t seen the son of a bitch in six months while he’s been undercover doing God knows what with God knows who, and today, the day he’s supposed to come home…  today he tells you that he’s in love with someone else?”

“Well, technically showed me first then told me, but yeah.”

“Noah!” he barked. “You couldn’t say anything to him?”

“No.”

“So what, he loves someone else?”

“Right.”

“And that someone is who again? Cassandra?”

“Yep.”

“That is his partner, right? She’s a CIA agent too?” 

I grunted.

He made a noise in the back of his throat that sounded phlegmy.

“Don’t sound so disgusted.”

“Why the hell not?”

I had no idea what I was even saying; my whole world had just turned upside down.

“This is such bullshit,” he groaned.

“It makes sense, I guess. I mean, he spends more time with her than anyone else. I’m sure it’s the natural progression of things.”

“Noah!”

I groaned loudly.

“He’s gay!”

“Apparently, he’s bi.”

“Since when?”

“Since Cassandra.”

“Oh God.” He sounded like he was going to throw up.

 “Take shallow breaths,” I suggested for what felt like the tenth time. 

“It’s nice to see you’re fine with all of this.”

“Yep,” I muttered, slumping to the floor in a puddle.

“So this is your plan, then? Curl up and die?”

“Yep.”

 “Okay,” he muttered, and I heard the couch creak with his weight being lifted up off of it. “So he has no idea that Sarah agreed and you’re both gonna be fathers?”

We had gone together to see our doctor a year ago when the idea of a surrogate had first occurred to me. I told Dante that if my sister Sarah agreed that it would be her egg, standing in for me, and his sperm, and together we would have a child. “He knew I was talking to Sarah, but he doesn’t know she said yes. The only reason I told you was because if I didn’t tell someone I was gonna go—”

“Sure.” He looked hurt. 

“Aww, for crissakes, Pete, I can’t deal with you falling apart too. I told you because I love you and because you’re my best friend and not because you’re just anybody so don’t—”

“I know—I know,” he cut me off, hands up, silencing me with the quiet he had called for. “I’m sorry.”

I took a breath. “Okay.”

“So what, he really has no idea?”

“Nope.”

“You’re sure?”

“Positive.”

“Why didn’t you get word to him?”

“How?” I asked pointedly. 

“Oh, that’s right.”

“When he’s working, you know I can’t just pick up the phone and call him.”

“It’s all that CIA bullshit.”

“Yeah.”

“God, Noah, I’m… I don’t know what to say.”

“Me neither.” I laughed, sounding a little unhinged.

“You should have told him when you saw him.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s the right thing to do and because he deserves to know and because he might stay if you told him.”

“You’re rambling.” I grinned. “How many times did you just say because?”

“Don’t count my words, listen to them.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Noah, go find him and tell him and get him back.”

“He loves her; I don’t want him.”

“You want him. You’ve always wanted him.”

I knew that. I was lying to myself to think anything different. 

“You glow when he’s around. Even after four years, you still glow.”

“And now I won’t.”

“The holidays are coming.”

I lifted my head up to see his face. “What does that have to do with anything?”

His eyebrows rose, and just for a moment I smiled. “I just don’t want you to commit suicide or something.” His voice was both gentle and caressing.

“Can’t,” I moaned. “I’m gonna be a father. I can’t actually even follow through on my plan to lie here until I die. I will eventually have to get up.”

“When?”

“Who knows?”

He nodded. “Okay. You wanna move into the apartment under me and Rick? I own it, as you know. I’ll rent it to ya dirt cheap until you get the money together to buy it,” he promised me. “It’s got two bedrooms and that’s all ya need, one for you and one for the baby.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” I agreed, my cheek back on the floor, pressed to the cold wood. 

“And that way whenever you need help, we’ll be there.”

I had such amazing friends; it was too bad I had terrible taste in men. “I love you guys, you know?”

“Yes, I know, darling, and we love you back.”

I flipped him off for the darling. 

“Okay, I’ll be back in an hour with Rick.”

“I’ll be here.”

When he shut the door behind him, I closed my eyes again. 

Pete made me get up and eat something when he returned with Rick Baylor, the love of his life, just as promised, an hour later. As soon as they left, I went back to the floor. My friend Moe, short for Maureen, came with her husband Phillip the following day. They both sat on the floor with me as I told them about the baby. 

“If I see him on the street, he’s a fuckin’ dead man,” Phillip swore. They were strong words from a CPA. 

Maureen cried and held my hand, and after a while it was hard to tell which of us got dumped. They ordered pizza and we had shakes to wash it down.

My older brother Luke flew in from Denver just to check on me, which was a complete surprise. He wasn’t as concerned about me being on the floor as everyone else was. The man had grown up with me and knew I wasn’t the suicidal type. He told me he knew I had to work through stuff and to call him when I wanted to visit. He promised to send me a ticket. I told him I was dumped, not homeless and penniless. 

“Just lemme do something nice for you, asshole.”

I had rolled my eyes, but after he gave me the guy clench, I agreed. Before he left he set up the TV on its side so I could watch without moving. It was very considerate.

Finally, I decided I had to actually attempt to tell Dante about the baby. It was, as Pete had said over and over, the right thing to do. 

It turned out that his cell phone number was no longer in service. Since our providers were not the same, I had no way to check the status of his account. I went to the bank, got into our safety deposit box, and called all the emergency numbers in his address book. I reached only different voice mails within the bureau. I drove to Dante’s parents’ home in Sonoma, but found that it had been put up for sale. There were no signs of life. I remembered them saying they were thinking of moving—scary that everything in my life had changed all at once. I was hurt that they had left without even a goodbye to me, as I had always thought we were close. Funny how nothing had been like I thought. When I drove to the family winery, there was a new name out front that I didn’t recognize, that having been sold as well. No one at the office had ever heard of the Cerretos beyond the fact that that they were the previous owners. Pete was upset that I had no closure, that I had no contact with anyone. Even my letter to Dante’s office in Virginia came back as non-deliverable by FedEx. It was like he vanished.

I finally called his boss, Agent Mitchell Beck, which I had been told never to do, and was told that Dante had been transferred after his last assignment. Beck thought maybe he was abroad working on a task force.

A month later I got a letter from Paris with dissolution papers in it. He had signed everything over to me: the house, the car, and all our assets. All he wanted was his freedom. I returned everything in the enclosed envelope, including, much to Pete’s shock and outrage, my platinum wedding ring. It had meant something when we exchanged vows in Toronto; it didn’t mean anything anymore. If Dante wanted to wash his hands of me, I would do the same. By that time even Pete agreed that sharing my good news was futile. I walked around in a daze for the following two weeks. 

My boss, Vincent Carmichael, came and got me out of bed and out of the house at the beginning of the third week. It was enough already; I was going to be a father and mother all rolled into one. I was about to be somebody else’s whole world. It was time to snap out of the funk. I was dressed and at the office the following morning. I could not say no to the man as he had actually made a trip to my house. I had never worried that he would fire me—I had been the first person he hired when he opened his business five years before—but I felt bad that I was taking advantage of his good will. 

“You never treat anyone bad, Noah,” he told me. “But I need you back at work. No one gets me like you do. It’s why you’re my right-hand man.”

And it turned out that working, being back outside, doing the landscaping that I had done all my life, helped to clear my head. 

Over the weekend I signed a lease with Pete for the apartment downstairs from him, and my friends moved me out of my old life and into my new one. I got a good offer on the house, and my pregnant sister Sarah moved in with me. She and I together created a nursery that was baby enough to be cute but didn’t make me go into sugar shock every time I walked into the room. When she caught me eyeballing the clown that our Aunt Janice had sent for the baby shower four months later, she burst into laughter.

“What?”

“God, Noah.” She exhaled deeply, caressing her swollen abdomen. “I wish I was gonna be your kid.”

The shower had been fun, a coed party instead of the by-the-book type of all-girl get-together. Now, after gorging on fried food, pink cupcakes and ice cream, playing dumb games and opening gifts, my sister was exhausted, and so was I. She was sprawled out on the couch, her feet propped up as I finished cleaning and kept tabs on Pennywise.  

“Woman, your hormones are whacked out,” I told her. 

“No.” Her voice was soft. “You, Noah Wheeler, are a very good man and your daughter is very lucky.”

I smiled at her. “Just because the clown freaks me out?”

“No, because you have always wanted kids, and even though Dante walked away, you saw your chance and never once had a doubt.”

“And what about you? When my angel is born, are you sure that you’re gonna be able to give her to me? She’s half yours, ya know?”

She shook her head. “I’m just filling in for you, love. If I were gay, I would expect you to do this same thing for me.”

“Carrying a baby for nine months and filling a cup is not exactly the same thing, Sarah Belle.”

Her smile was wistful and rare. “It is to me.”

She was luminous at that moment, until her brows furrowed and she made a face like she’d taken a bite of a lemon. “Okay, the clown has to go.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “It’ll kill us in our sleep.”

“Oh God.” She giggled. “Get it out of here!”

I kept looking over my shoulder at it in the back seat the following morning as I drove it and some other things to Goodwill. I was sure I saw it move. 

That night, as I had dinner with my sister, laughing, talking about how we would both survive the impending visit from our parents, I realized that nine months after Dante Cerreto had walked out of my life, I was still alive. I never would have thought it was possible, but the most important person in my life had actually not even been born yet. 

“You’re gonna be okay,” Sarah told me.

And I was. Everything was finished and ready for the baby. I had gotten on with living. 

Sarah’s water broke in the middle of the night, and when she freaked out, I became her rock. I had no idea I even had it in me. But I held her hand and talked her through the C-section that came eight hours after the doctor tried to turn my stubborn breech baby for the first three. My dear sweet sister, who had wanted everything to be natural during the awe-inspiring miracle that was childbirth, ended up begging everyone in the room, including me, for lots and lots of drugs. She wanted nothing to do with the mind-numbing pain. I wanted them to give her some extra something, but after the first dose, she was a happy bunny again instead of a harpy from hell. 

When my daughter finally made her appearance, she was beautiful and perfect, and I named her Grace after my grandmother, whom I missed so much. Having lost her to breast cancer a decade ago, I prayed that night that I would always be there for my own baby. I put Dante’s name on her birth certificate because it was the right thing to do, even though I didn’t give her his last name. Sarah signed over all her parental rights to me, the adoption legal and binding, and my little girl, Grace Anita Wheeler, was going home with her Daddy. I loved her more than I thought it was possible to love another human being, and my pain over Dante finally began to wane. Compared to her, no one even came close. 

My parents, who had started out concerned over the choices I was making, left two weeks later certain that I actually knew what I had gotten myself into. Sarah left a month after them, ready to begin her adventure in the Peace Corps. She was excited to start her life, her dream. She was happy for me, loved Gracie, but wanted nothing to do with babies or parenting. Watching her walk away from me in the airport terminal was bittersweet. I would miss her even as I was looking forward to being alone with my baby. 

“I will be the best father I can be, sweetheart,” I told the love of my life. 

I was certain she winked at me.