“I’m sorry, what?” I don’t know why, but that was the last thing I expected him to say. Maybe it’s because Karl would have never gone out of his way to befriend an eccentric old lady. Hell, Karl would have never befriended an eccentric old lady even if she was in his way.
“We’d have dinner together once or twice a week.”
For a second, his words make so little sense that I’m convinced he’s speaking a foreign language. When they finally do sink in, I’m stunned.
“Wait a minute. You had dinner here twice a week?”
I think about the barely contained mess of the first floor versus the ruthless organization of his place and can’t help but wonder how that could even be possible.
“Mostly we ate at my place,” he says with a sad smile. “But Maggie always brought the wine and the dessert. Her brownies were the best.”
“They were the best.” The salted-caramel drizzle she always put on them was amazing. “And so was her lemon cake.”
“God, yes.” He lets out a lusty sigh that makes me shift in my seat. “I used to eat her lemon cake for breakfast for the next two or three days after she would make it. For lunch, too, sometimes.”
Something about that admission makes him…more human. He seems to do everything exactly the right way according to the powers that be, but the fact that he ate cake for breakfast and lunch…I don’t know. I guess it makes him feel more real in all the best ways.
I move over to the chair next to him and pour some of the now-open bottle of wine into both our glasses.
“You ever going to tell me why you were such a dick when we first met?” I ask. I really want to know, as I realize my first impression of him was very far from the person I’m getting to know.
He holds my gaze. “Why didn’t you ever visit her, Mallory? You see now she had mental-health concerns. No one ever visited.”
I swallow down the bile rising in my throat. Boy, he doesn’t mess around, does he? I know I should be upset at the accusation, but honestly, I love the directness. I wonder, if Karl had been this direct, if I’d have risen to the challenge instead of constantly trying to anticipate how he was feeling, what he needed.
So I answer with equal directness. “Because I’m a terrible niece.”
There. It can’t be said more clearly. And oddly enough, I feel better admitting I let her down. My shame is in the open now, for all to see, and unlike my impending divorce with secrets tucked everywhere, it is liberating. I made a mistake, and I will regret it for the rest of my life—if not for the fact that I know Aunt Maggie would roll over in her grave if I don’t forgive myself and move on.
But he deserves to hear the full truth first.
“She always insisted on meeting me in New York, said it was an adventure for her, and I thought nothing of it. And when I was younger, she said she loved leaving her house to come to ours.” I shrug. “You’re right, though; I should have visited her anyway. I should have known something was up. Suspected something.” I wipe at my eyes. “She was my favorite person in the whole world, and I was too consumed with my own shit to see she was suffering. So yeah. I’m a terrible niece.”
He doesn’t interrupt me once, but as I wind down, he leans forward and places his large, warm hand over mine on the table. “I’m sorry.”
My eyebrows shoot up. “Why are you apologizing? I was the one who neglected my aunt.”
He leans back again, and his gaze softens. “Because I shouldn’t have rushed to judgment. Because Maggie had an excellent sense of people, and she adored you. And worse, because I took her to several Hoarders Anonymous meetings, and the one thing everyone mentioned was the secrecy surrounding their compulsions. Of course you didn’t know. Because Maggie didn’t want you to, Mallory. And I should’ve realized that.”
The wind rustles through the large elm tree above us as we sip our wine in silence, his words settling in my chest. I vow to spend some time tomorrow researching hoarding disorders. Just to feel closer to Aunt Maggie. She obviously felt she needed to keep a big part of her life hidden from me, and even though it’s a little late, I want to show her memory that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. That I would have understood.
“This is a huge undertaking,” Nick says at last. “You shouldn’t have to do it alone. I could come over and help a bit, if you want.”
I shake my head. “I appreciate the offer, but I can do it on my own.”
“She meant something to me, too, Mallory. It wouldn’t be an imposition to help.”
I shake my head again, my throat too tight to say more. But he seems to get it. I can’t ask for help and now, with my history, I have trouble accepting it as well.
I glance at Nick under my lashes and can’t help wondering if things had been different, if I had visited, if I had left Karl sooner, would we have become friends? Would we have taken Aunt Maggie to those meetings together? Would the three of us have shared a bottle of wine and laughed into the evening over a slice of lemon cake?
“Thank you,” I say softly, reaching for a piece of cheese and nibbling on it.
“For what?” he asks, sounding genuinely surprised.
“For taking care of Aunt Maggie when I wasn’t here.”
Nick just shakes his head, though, and there is a genuine gentleness in his eyes. “It was no hardship and nothing to thank me for. Maggie took care of me at least as much as I took care of her.”
I start to ask him what he means by that when my phone lights up with a text message from Karl—who, apparently, is pulling into my driveway right now.
I can feel all the blood drain from my face even as my heart goes wild.
“What’s wrong?” Nick asks, sounding alarmed as he leans over, as if to catch me if I suddenly faint.
“I’m fine.” Okay, that’s a lie, but I need it to be true.
I don’t want to see Karl right now, don’t want to have this argument with him before I even get the chance to hire a divorce attorney.
“You don’t look fine.” Nick reaches out and squeezes my hand.
“Yeah, well, what else is new?” Part of me just wants to ignore Karl—he came all this way without so much as texting me to see if I would be home, so why shouldn’t I just hide back here and pretend that I’m out?
It’s a good plan, except the last thing I need is for Karl—a very litigious attorney—to get hurt on my front porch. I’m barely keeping my head above water right now as it is. I can only imagine what it would be like trying to do that and fight off a lawsuit from my obnoxious almost-ex.