“Da da …” she says with a grin.
Nate looks like he’s in shock. I’m not sure if he’s going to pass out, cry, or swallow his tongue.
It’s just conditioning. She doesn’t really connect that word to him yet, but she can say it—thanks to me. And it’s her first official word.
That incredible smile eases up his face as his gaze moves from her to me. I smile back. Not a gloating smile, just genuine happiness. It’s the Jenna-died-but-Morgan-will-adore-you-forever smile. I can’t really articulate how much I want him to have something special in his life last forever.
“You’re awesome,” he says in a choked whisper. And he’d never admit it, but those are the beginning of unshed tears in his eyes.
This feels like butterflies in my tummy and orange and red popsicles on hot days. Like my life makes sense again. Maybe I’m here to make Nate smile. Maybe I’m simply here for Nate, and he knew it, even Griffin might have known it, before I was ready to admit it.
After a few more seconds of total bliss, he slides his wallet out of his pocket and thumbs through a wad of bills, depositing three hundreds on the counter.
“Who just happens to have three hundred dollars in their wallet on a whim?”
“People who pay cash for everything.” He takes Morgan back with a goofy grin permanently pinned to his face.
My lips twist to the side. “I can’t take your money. The look on your face was enough. Besides, you’re right, a dishwasher isn’t a necessity. And I don’t cook much on my own.”
“Thought you were renting. Shouldn’t that be something your landlord replaces?”
“Probably. I don’t want to ask.”
“Why not?” He sets Morgan back down, and she crawls straight to the sofa to stand up again.
“My landlords are my ex-fiancé’s parents.” I still don’t say Griffin’s name aloud.
“So? If you’re paying rent, they should fix or replace it.”
I nod, not really agreeing to anything, just acknowledging that I heard what he said. “Whatcha doing for dinner? Wanna order pineapple and jalapeño pizza?”
“Excuse me?” He chuckles. “You’re a cheese girl.”
“Maybe. I’ve never actually tried pineapple and jalapeño. It just sounds disgusting. But maybe it could be my jam. You once knew a girl who liked it. I might like it too.”
He does a crappy job of hiding his apprehension, but I keep my chin up and what I hope is an irresistible smile on my face.
“Order it. But you’re buying with your three hundred dollars.”
Grinning, I grab my phone from the counter. “I think there’s an online coupon I can use. You know … since I’m buying.”
And so it begins. My friendship with Nate Hunt. It doesn’t start on a school bus this time. It starts over a large pizza, a smiley baby girl, and lounging on the sofa watching hockey together after he puts Morgan to bed.
I make stupid comments like I don’t understand the sport—just to get a rise out of him—and he playfully nudges my leg, giving me a narrow-eyed look. Just before eleven, he walks me to my car after it’s been warmed up because … yeah … he started it for me fifteen minutes ago.
“Thanks for the pizza,” he says.
I laugh. “Anytime. I had fun watching those guys hit that disc thingie with those paddle thingies around the ice.”
“You are no good. Zip. Zero. One hundred percent trouble.”
“But you love me, right?”
Oh shit …
I said that. But I meant it in a playful banter kind of way. My gaze drops to my feet as I scuff my boots against the driveway dotted with a few patches of caked-on snow.
“Yes. I do.”
My head snaps up, jaw dropped.
Nate slips his hands into his pockets, shoulders lifting to his ears in an innocent shrug. “Always have. Always will.”
“Nate …” I say because all other words fail me.
Keeping his hands in his pockets, like they’re there to keep him out of trouble, he bends forward and kisses the top of my head. Staying there, he murmurs, “It’s not an expectant love. It’s not a romantic love. It’s not an inappropriate kiss. It’s not even my daughter saying my name.”
Turning his head, he rests his cheek on my head. I press my hands to his chest.
“It’s just what’s always been in my heart. You died, but I lived and so has my love for you.”
“Nate …” Yeah. That’s all I’ve got.
He smiles. “It’s an innocent love. It’s a beautiful love. I think it’s even an eternal love. But … I don’t know yet. Maybe in another lifetime we’ll see. We’ll find out if our souls share something that transcends time or if they are nothing more than epoch.”
“E-p-o-c-h. It’s a memorable event or period in time.”
“Epoch …” I grin. “I definitely think this is epoch. But I also think it could be transcendent … and that would be e-p-i-c.”
He reaches behind me and opens my door. “Drive safely.”
“Safe.” I start to get in my car and stop. “It’s weird.”
“It’s been over a month since my fiancé left, since I told you that I was sleeping with a knife under my pillow. A month since you knew I was going to have hypnosis to remember what happened. But you just …” I shrug, face contorted in confusion. “You never asked. Like you just stopped caring. I feel like everyone stopped caring. It’s like the moment my parents gave up on me being anything extraordinary.”
Nate has this unexplainable look on his face. It’s odd. Cautious? Contemplative? “How’s all of that going?”
I cough a laugh. “Are you serious? How’s all of that going? I’m not dead, that’s how it’s going, but gee … thanks for asking a fucking month later.”
“Seriously! What has to happen for the people who supposedly love me to give more than two shits?”
“You have video cameras in your house, yet my safety doesn’t warrant so much as a ‘Hey, are you locking your doors?’ or ‘Has that psychopath tried to get near you again?’”
“No!” I throw my hands up in the air. “Because he’s dead!”
He. Fucking. Nods!
“Then you’ve been safe.”
My head whips back like a close encounter with a bus on a busy street. “He’s. Dead.”
Nate nods again. A slow nod with that look. That cautious, contemplative look. “That’s a relief.”
“What’s going on, Nate?” My breaths turn shallow, and I feel weak in the knees.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you’re not reacting in a normal way. I say Doug Mann is dead, and you have no questions. None. Not ‘Are you serious?’ Or ‘When? Where? How?’ How, Nate. The normal reaction is to wonder how he died. Heart attack, cancer, car accident, or a knife to his heart. My knife, Nate. I took a knife and a bottle of Xanax to his apartment.”
His eyes narrow, wrinkling the skin around his eyes.
“I was going to kill him because the hypnosis didn’t work. I was going to kill him because that’s the only way I could live. That’s the only way I could feel safe. That’s the only way I could ease my conscience that no one else would die at his hands.”
He’s sorry. That’s all wrong. What is going on?
When I start to speak, he brings me into his arms, stifling my attempt to speak. I don’t want a hug. I want answers. I want to know how the two men who have claimed to love me the most just abandoned me when I needed them the most.
I pull back. “Nate—”
“Shh …” He drops his head, hovering over my lips, one hand sliding into my hair, palming the side of my head while he rubs the knuckles of his other hand over my cheek, rendering me speechless and breathless.
The pad of his thumb slides over my bottom lip, jumbling my thoughts. His thumb trails downward, his lips follow in its wake.
When his thumb rubs my neck, just below my ear, my eyelids surrender, finding solace in memories of a lifetime ago. I grab his arms to steady myself when his lips press to my neck.
This is what it feels like.
To be cherished.
To be adored.
To be loved beyond words.
To be young.
To be alive.
“Swayze,” Nate murmurs against my ear, “you’re safe because those who claim to love you actually do love you.” He kisses my neck.
He kisses my cheek and lets go of me, turning and not giving a glance back as he makes his way up the drive. “Goodnight.”
I think it’s time to revisit Dr. Albright. Then I change my mind. She’s called me once a week since my failed hypnosis session, just to see how I’m doing. There’s no pressure to go visit her. There’s no pressure to share anything at all with her. Sometimes the only thing I share is a new recipe gone wrong and why wasted food is the reason I eat out so much.