“So you left?”
“No.” I laugh, but it’s really the most painful laugh ever. “I stuck around for two years. I would have stuck around for the ’til death do us part,’ but he didn’t want me there. I was a reminder of what he was, what he lost, and who he would never be. He didn’t want to be touched. Not a kiss. Not a hand stroking his hair. Eventually, even a smile pissed him off. Depression turned into verbal abuse. I took all the hard licks of his words, and they bounced off this protective shield I’d built around myself, waiting for my Alex to come back to me.”
“Yep. On our anniversary no less. Gotta hand it to him, he’s always been a bit poetic with his timing. On our first anniversary after the accident, we watched our wedding video. He asked me to go get his wedding band, and before I could react, he said, ‘Oh, that’s right. I don’t have a fucking finger to put it on. Maybe it will fit around my dick. I’m pretty sure it’s atrophied from lack of use.’ So I got served papers on our second anniversary, and two days later, when I refused to sign them, he had a friend come help him throw all of my stuff out onto the yard.”
He flinches. “Did you sign them?”
“Ha! I hate that you have to ask that, but I know you’ve seen the stubborn side to me. Yes, I signed them.”
“And he was calling you last week?”
“Yes. He’s tried several times. I’m not going to talk to him. All the awful, cruel things he said to me finally settled into my conscience and my heart after I moved to Minnesota. I owe him nothing. His parents still live around here. I think my dad still has coffee once a month with his dad. If Alex had an emergency, my dad would’ve called me.”
“Maybe he wants you back.”
“Maybe he just needs a verbal punching bag.”
The waiter brings our food, and we don’t talk about Alex again.
“Did you grow up in this house?” I ask, pulling into the driveway of the two-story, beachfront home with a wraparound porch. It’s a great house—and far from cheap.
“No. We lived in Providence.” She gets out. “Brr …” She jogs to the porch, trying to open the door. “Of course it’s locked. Come on …”
We wind our way around to the back, lights from a string of houses reflect off the water.
“How the hell did he pass out in the yard, but all the doors to the house are locked? I’d bet money that he locked himself out.” Ellen yanks on the door.
“We’re locked out?” I ask.
“Here.” She hands me her purse. “No.” Bending down onto all fours, she crawls through a doggy door.
I chuckle, shaking my head. The porch light flicks on, and she opens the door. “Where’s the dog?”
“He’ll be here tomorrow. He’s my grandparents’ dog.”
“This is quite the retirement home for a tailor.” I step into a large kitchen of cherry wood, white granite, and stainless steel.
Ellen flips on a few more lights. “It’s been in my dad’s family for three generations. After my mom died, he moved here to renovate it … and fish.” She smiles, slipping off her jacket. “My grandparents stay here most of the summer. This is where I spent my summers when I was younger. But to answer your burning question, my great grandmother was the daughter of a wealthy man who happened to own a lot of land—the kind that was rich in petroleum. She and my great grandfather moved from Oklahoma to Providence. Shortly after my grandfather was born, they built this house.”
I follow her around the main level of sprawling wood floors beneath scattered oriental rugs. She flips on the light to the master bedroom. It’s immaculate.
“I’m wondering what you were worried about. This place looks spotless.”
“Lori …” She mumbles, poking her head in the adjoining bathroom. “She and Forrest look in on my dad. I bet she tidied up earlier today. I hope she didn’t come across his nudie-girl magazines.”
I raise a curious brow.
Ellen shrugs. “He’s a guy. Don’t all heterosexual men like looking at naked women?” She moves toward me in the way that I’ve come to expect—maybe even need.
I have no tie, but she’ll find something about me that requires her little adjustments.
“I’ve not taken on the role as spokesman for all heterosexual men, so I’m going to decline comment.”
She starts with my collar, making sure it’s folded just so … then her hands slide down my shirt. “I’ll rephrase, counselor. Do you like looking at naked women?”
Her hands ease around my waist and slide into the back pockets of my jeans, leaving her breasts pressed to my chest.
“You’re grinning.” She gives me a look that’s both playful and challenging. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
My hands remain idle at my sides. If I touch her, I won’t be able to stop. And as incredibly sexy as she is when she’s messing with me—teasing me—I can see the wear of the past two days in her slumped posture and tired eyes.
“I’m imagining you naked, that’s why I’m grinning.”
She sucks in her upper lip, making her lower lip look pouty.
“And now I’m leaving so you can get some sleep.”
Her head juts back. “Leaving? You’re not staying?”
“My stuff is at the hotel, and I fly out at six in the morning, using a commercial airline, which means I’ll need to be to the airport by four-thirty or earlier.”
Taking a small step back, her hands slide out of my pockets. “You’re right.” She shakes her head, eyes closed. “I’m not thinking. Clearly I do need sleep.”
I don’t want him to go, but I can’t ask him to stay. For everything that he’s said or done that’s upset me—including evicting me—he’s more than made up for it by getting me here and staying for two days.
“Do you need anything else before I fly home in the morning?”
“I’m good.” You. I need you before you leave. And I fear that I’ll need you after you leave. But those aren’t my biggest fears.
I close my eyes as he cradles my head. He does it with such tenderness, yet there’s this fierce strength to his hands that makes each time he does it feel urgent—important—like he’s seconds away from telling me something that will change my life.
“Call me if you need anything. Okay?”
I nod, closing my eyes because here come the tears. Fuck you, tears! You weren’t invited to this going-away party.
My hands cover his as I hold in the sobs. He erases them with his thumbs and kisses my forehead.
“Why the tears, Elle?”
Elle. Don’t call me Elle right now. Ellen. Ms. Rodgers. Annoying tenant. Or even Seven. But Elle feels too personal when I need to make a break.
“Are you worried about your dad?” he asks.
I’m very worried about my dad. But these tears are not his. I shake my head. “You’d better go. I told you if you stayed I would fall …” In love. “Now’s not a good time for me to fall.”
With an intense look, he nods once. “You’ll be home before you know it.”
I laugh, pulling away and walking away. While filling a glass with water in the kitchen, I say the words, but I don’t look at him. “I won’t ask my grandparents to take care of him. They’re too old. My mother is dead. I am an only child.” I stare out the window to the reflections dancing along the water. “This could be life-changing for him. We don’t know yet. But if it is life-changing for him, it will be life-changing for me. If he can’t live unassisted …”
“You will move home to take care of him.”
I nod and turn to face him. “I feel like we’ve been trying to be something for weeks. And if you wouldn’t have shown up with your stupid cape on, ready to walk on water for me, I would have let us die in that parking lot. I was prepared to let that happen. That’s why I packed up my stuff.”
Swatting more tears, I let a painful laugh escape. “But you had to put on your Superman cape, and no girl in her right mind can resist falling for the superhero. So my tears are selfishly for me because you have a son who doesn’t want us together and I have a father who I know, in my intelligent therapist’s mind, will need me here.”
Flint rests his hands on his hips, staring at his feet. “You’re going to quit your job?”
“I don’t know,” I whisper. “But if he needs me, then I’ll find a job here.”
He rubs a frustrated hand over his face before looking at me. “It’s the right choice. You do what needs to be done.”
“But …” He closes the distance between us and presses his hand to my cheek. “Anything … if you need absolutely anything, you call me.”
What if I need you?
I force a smile as he pulls me into his body. Grabbing the collar to his shirt, I lift onto my toes, and he meets me in the middle for a heartbreaking goodbye kiss. When the desperation wears away and we come up for oxygen, I keep hold of his collar, resting my forehead against his chest.