My eyes widen. “Then why did you stop?”
His mouth turns down. “I was mowing the lawn one day when her solicitor came by, and he threatened me with trespassing. Said if I went onto her property again, it was an insurance liability and he would be forced to prosecute. Nobody ever came to take care of her house after that. When the tree fell onto her porch, I decided enough was enough.” His jaw clenches. “I had the HOA send her notices of violations.”
My heart pounds. “You’re the one who reported Aunt Maggie?” I try to slide out of his arms, but he’s not having it.
“Hear me out first, Mallory,” he begs. “I was trying to get the attorney to see that her house needed upkeep and to let me take care of it. But he simply ignored the notices at first. So I sent more. And more. At some point, I kept thinking, surely they will take care of the property. Surely they’d rather let me take care of it than let it fall into disrepair and mired in legal issues.”
I shake my head. “But Aunt Maggie got all the notices. They were in a drawer in her kitchen.”
“I never sent a notice to Maggie, not before she left and not after. I sent every single one to her attorney’s office. He must have come and put them in the drawer at some point, maybe after realizing you would be taking possession. I swear to you, Mallory. I would never do anything to intentionally hurt Maggie.”
And I believe him. “I just can’t believe Thad Lagget would neglect his duty to care for the property.”
“Her attorney wasn’t Thad Lagget.” Nick narrows his eyes. “Her attorney who handled her estate was Lester Stills. I think someone else took it over for probate, but I’d bet my law degree Mr. Stills was with a management firm pocketing her money every month. But what could I do? I couldn’t risk trespassing.”
A pained expression flits across his face, and I know it must have been hard for him, unable to help Aunt Maggie. I hug him to me, rest my head on his chest. “You did your best, Nick. She would have appreciated that.”
But then I lean back and ask, “How come the notices stopped when I took over the property? I mean, the porch is fixed now, thank you, Mikey and my first paycheck, but I’ve still got periwinkle shutters and a number of infractions.”
Nick’s cheeks sport twin spots of red. “About that, well, I’ve been meaning to tell you…I’m not just on the board. I’m the president of the HOA.”
Oh my God. I can’t help the belly laugh that has me doubled over. When I can catch my breath, I notice Nick has his arms crossed, staring down his nose at me.
“Hey, now, we’re not all bad. You know there have to be rules and order, right?”
I laugh again. “I can’t believe I’ve been sleeping with the president of the damn HOA all this time.”
He walks back over to the sauce and gives it a few more quick stirs. “That’s not the only thing you’ve been doing with him.”
So true. Delicious thoughts of other things I want to do to him tonight, and calling him Mr. President while I did them, make me full-on blush. Totally adding that to tonight’s demand list.
I grab a set of tongs and pull out a strand of linguini, testing it for doneness. It still needs a bit more time, so I hop onto the counter and cross my legs. “How did you end up living in the suburbs in the first place? This isn’t normally where hot, single men tend to congregate.”
He stops stirring for a second but then begins again as though nothing happened. He doesn’t turn around to look at me before answering. “Oh, I’m sure you don’t want to hear about that.”
My antennae are up, and I know in my marrow that it’s important how he ended up living here. So I say as nonchalantly as possible, “Of course I want to hear this story. Spill, Nick.”
He flips the burner to warm before leaning against the stove. “It’s not a friends-with-benefits sort of story, Mallory.”
My heart is pounding in my ears because I know what he’s saying. What he’s asking. If I want to get to know him more, to learn his secrets, I’m going to have to admit there’s more going on between us than just hooking up.
A part of me knows I’m not ready to take this any further, that I’m just starting to figure out who I am outside of my marriage, what I want in life. But another part wants to know everything there is to know about Nick, wants to know what he was like as a child, what he dreamed of being when he grew up.
Which is why I’m not shocked when I hear myself whisper, “So tell me.”
Hello, relationship line, don’t mind me as I try not to freak the eff out as I mosey across you.
Nick holds my gaze for a beat, maybe two, then nods. “I was engaged when I was in college.”
My breath hitches. Of all the things he could have said, I would never have guessed that. I can’t say anything, the parallels between our lives whizzing through my mind at warp speed.
“We were both in law school together…” He pauses, clearly trying to gauge how I take this information, again so similar to Karl and me, but I don’t even blink. I am a stone. “We planned to head to New York and start our own firm together.”
The hits just keep coming. My throat feels scratchy and tight, and all I can do is nod for him to continue.
“But then we got pregnant just before graduation and, well, New York was no longer important to either of us. Instead, we planned to buy a house in the suburbs and start a family, build a much smaller law practice so we could spend more time with the kids.”
I manage to drag in a shaky breath and ask, “You’re divorced? With kids?” I never saw Nick with any kids, and we’d practically been living in each other’s pockets for the last several weeks. There were no pictures of a family in his offices. No one mentioned a family… My eyes widen. Oh God, no.
“I wish I were divorced with kids,” he says, and I shatter. I just break into a million pieces. “She died in a car accident, pregnant with our first.”
I can barely see, tears blurring my vision and wetting my cheeks, but I manage to get off the counter and find him, wrap my arms around him, pull him against me. And sob.
When I think there are no more tears left to cry, I lean back and wipe the wetness from his face, too. “Were you—”
“Driving? No. She was. But I was sitting beside her.”
I squeeze him again. I can’t even imagine what that must feel like, sitting next to your wife and child as they die before your eyes. He survived a nightmare, a literal nightmare, but he found a way to move on, the strength to heal.
“Is this the house you bought together?” I gesture at the space around us. “Is that why you’re always so neat and tidy, everything in its place? Like she would want?”