Her hands land on her hips. “Now you’re mocking me?”
Easing Morgan to sit on my lap, I bounce my knee a little. “I’d never do that. Thank you for watching Morgan. Drive safely. Have a nice weekend and a happy birthday.” After a few seconds of her not moving, I glance in her direction. The pained expression she has kills me. It’s not my intention to hurt her, just the opposite. My attempt at respecting her wishes by giving her whatever she thinks she needs or wants is to keep from hurting her.
But right now I get the sense that she doesn’t know what she wants or needs. I lay Morgan onto her new play mat, with padded sides that keep her contained, and make my way to the lost girl standing idle like something frozen in time.
Swayze stares at my chest, unblinking. I want to pull her into my arms and make promises that aren’t mine to make.
“What’s your favorite cake flavor?” I murmur, hoping my reverence conveys my sincerity.
“Chocolate.” She keeps her gaze locked to my chest.
“What’s the best birthday present anyone has ever given you?”
She shrugs. “Nothing stands out.”
“Well, that’s sad.”
Her head eases up until I have her full attention. “I miss you.”
I flinch at the pain in her voice because I don’t know how to make it go away.
“I love Griffin. I’m marrying him. I love his family. And they love me. But …” Her jaw works side to side a few times. “I miss you. And I don’t know why.”
My fingers draw into fists, fighting the urge to touch her. She’s not mine to touch.
“I’m here.” I search for a smile that’s reassuring, probably a million miles from hitting the mark because I miss her too. “As your employer. As your friend. As whomever you need me to be.”
She nods slowly, confusion still embedded in her forehead. “I need you to be…” eyes closed, she shakes her head “…an answer.”
Don’t touch her. Don’t. Fucking. Touch. Her.
“What’s the question?”
Blinking a few times, her shoulders lift into a subtle shrug. “I’m not sure yet. But maybe I’ll know soon.”
I can’t decipher that cryptic statement, so I force myself to trust that everything will work out in time. If there’s some divine or cosmic reason for all of this, it will be revealed.
Surrendering to patience.
Living for the unknown.
Embracing the unexpected.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers, letting her gaze drift to the floor.
“For waking the dead.”
Morgan fusses. I glance back at her, rubbing the back of my neck. “You didn’t wake the dead. You comforted the living.”
Biting her lips together, she nods. It’s more of an acknowledgment nod instead of one that says she understands. We surpassed logic and any sort of true understanding the day she confronted me in the waiting room of Dr. Greyson’s office. My best friend is a twenty-one-year-old woman. There’s no logic to be had.
“Have a nice birthday. Make your wish big. Blow out all your candles. You deserve …” My thoughts drift into the past. “You deserve a long, wonderful life.”
“Long,” she echoes me.
“Wonderful.” I smile.
“Goodnight …” Her mouth opens to say more, brow wrinkled.
Goodnight, Professor? Goodnight, Nate? Who am I to her?
After a little sigh, she relinquishes a sad smile. “Goodnight. Happy Birthday to you too.”
I nod, watching her walk to the door. She doesn’t look back. As much as it pains me, maybe she should never look back.
I wish for the police to find the right evidence to toss Doug Mann’s murderous ass in prison for the rest of his life. Then I blow out all my candles at once.
Wish granted. Right?
“Happy Birthday.” Griffin kisses my neck and whispers in my ear, “Did you wish for your grocery store guy to let you blow his candle later?” He bites my earlobe while his family looks on in adoration.
I giggle, elbowing him in the ribs.
“Whispering sweet nothings to my daughter?” My mom smiles like she really believes it.
“Absolutely, Krista.” Griffin winks.
“Are we on for dress shopping Tuesday? They’re open until nine. So as long as your boss doesn’t run late, we should have plenty of time to try things on.”
I return a tight smile to my mom. “Actually, I have an appointment Tuesday night.”
“An evening appointment?” She eyes me with suspicion.
Griffin’s gaze cuts to me from the other side of the kitchen where he’s busy helping Sherri serve the cake and ice cream. “What appointment, Swayz?”
“You said Dr. Greyson didn’t think he needed to see you anymore,” Griffin says.
I did say that. “Yeah, didn’t I mention that he also recommended I see this psychiatrist who works at the university? He thought she might connect with me better because …” I mumble the final words, hoping the race to get cake will distract everyone from my story that doesn’t need to be told.
“Because she’s a woman?” Mom asks.
Because I’m reincarnated and she’s written books about it. “I guess she’s experienced similar things that I have experienced.”
“Did she have a friend die suddenly too?” Sherri gives me a sad smile.
Griffin, however, refuses to stop eyeing me with clear distrust. He knows my therapy is about Daisy. Not my dad. Not dealing with Erica’s death. So I avoid eye contact with him.
“I’m not entirely sure. Dr. Greyson didn’t go into a lot of detail. He just thought we’d be a better fit for whatever reason. I trust him, so I didn’t ask that many questions. I guess I’ll find out more when I see her Tuesday.”
“Want me to come with you?” Griffin asks, forcing me to look at him. “I don’t like the idea of you walking around that campus alone at night.”
He has a valid point that I can’t argue in front of our family. “I have a can of pepper spray.”
“Swayze, I’d rather Griffin be with you.” My mom gives me the usual motherly don’t-be-stupid look.
“You’re going to be bored.”
Griffin strips me of my lies and maybe even my clothes with his narrowed stare and twisted lips. I squirm a bit.
“I’ll have just one scoop of ice cream.” I go for the distraction.
“One scoop, huh?” He drops the ice cream scoop.
Why did he do that?
“Griff!” I squeal when he scoops me up instead of the ice cream, tossing me over his shoulder.
“One …” He smacks my ass. “Two …” Another spanking.
Our family looks on from the living room with amusement as Griffin hauls me up the stairs.
“Nothing inappropriate. Children in the house,” Sherri yells.
“Griffin! Put me down.”
Smack. Smack. Smack.
It’s beginning to sting. A guy with his strength and large hands cannot smack a delicate ass like mine, twenty-two times, without impairing my ability to sit for several days.
“Twenty-two.” He tosses me onto the bed in his old room.
I rub my backside. “What’s gotten into you?” My smile fades when he shuts the door and leans back against it, jaw clenched, arms crossed over his chest like he left his sense of humor out in the hallway.
“A new shrink? What the fuck, Swayze? I thought you were fine. You’ve been assuring me you’re fine for quite some time. What made you go see Dr. Greyson again, and what the hell is going on that he felt the need to refer you to someone else?”
My head whips back. “Sorry. Did I catch you off guard like you dragging me up here to lecture me on my birthday?”
He pushes a quick breath out of his nose. “Really? You want to talk birthdays with me?”
“No. Low blow is lying to me.”
I fist the blanket on his bed. “I’m not lying to you.”
“Omission of the whole truth is lying. You led me to believe that you were done with therapy.”
“Is me being done with therapy a condition of our relationship? Our engagement?”
He answers with a look that makes a hairline fracture in my heart. I like the you-are-my-whole-world look. This bears an uncanny resemblance to the you-forgot-my-birthday look. Not my favorite look.
“What are you going to talk about with this new therapist?”
How I’m on the verge of losing everything that matters, and I can’t seem to stop the self-destruction.
“How abusive my boyfriend is to me.” Regret backhands me so fast it feels like I just hit a car head on. And the deafening silence that falls between us confirms the fatalities.
I can’t look at him another second. The pain in his eyes makes it impossible to breathe. Griffin would never hurt me. Ever. It was a poorly delivered joke laced with more revenge than sarcasm.
This toxic thing called fear keeps driving a wedge between us. I keep driving a wedge between us. The harder I try to hold onto him, the further away he slips.