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“Hi,” she said again and smiled. “I, um. I got your email. I know you said I didn’t have to respond, but I have something to . . . I want to . . .” She shook her head. “Hold on.”

She pulled aside the blue tarp that had been covering his TV, and he looked at the brightly lit screen.

CARLOS

I LOVE YOU

NIK

“I wanted an actual JumboTron,” she said, “But it would have been really hard to get one of those inside your house, so I decided to work with what I had: a laptop hooked up to a TV and terrible graphic design skills.”

He took a step toward her. He kept looking from her to the screen and back to her.

“Is this for real?” he said.

She rolled her eyes at him.

“You know me too well to ask me that, come on. Would I, Nikole Paterson, do something like this as a joke?”

He shook his head and took another step toward her.

“You wouldn’t, but I had to make sure. And I wanted you to say it out loud.”

She looked straight into his eyes.

“Carlos. I love you. I’m in love with you. I realized it in the sour cream aisle at Vons last night. Isn’t that a ridiculous place to realize you’re in love with someone? Well, that’s how it happened to me. I saw the sour cream, and I laughed, and I thought about you, and I thought about how happy you make me and how much I missed you, and then I realized what all of those feelings meant, and then I felt like a fool for letting you go.” Tears were streaming down her face by that point. He wiped them away with his thumb. “So I thought I should tell you, and I’m sorry—I’m so sorry—that I didn’t realize it earlier, and that I was so skittish and scared when you said you loved me.”

He pulled her into his arms. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been this happy.

“Oh, Nik.”

She pulled back.

“Wait, wait, let me finish. I’ve spent so long being afraid of love, because the last time I was in love, the man I loved only loved one part of me, but not all of me, and I thought love meant having to sacrifice a part of yourself. But then I was with you, and you loved every part of me, even the parts I don’t like. And that scared me more, because I thought there must be some trick and that I couldn’t let myself believe it or I’d fall into the trap. But finally I realized it wasn’t a trap.”

He held her face in his hands and kissed her.

She kissed him back with so much joy and sincerity and love that he almost started crying. He pulled her down onto his couch and kept his arms around her.

“I missed you so much,” he said. “I kept wanting to call you, to say you were right and to just pretend I didn’t love you, just so I would have you in my life again, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”

She wiped her eyes.

“If you had, it probably would have crushed me. I would have pretended it hadn’t, gone along with it, and we would have done this same stupid thing for like another year or two before I finally admitted to myself how much I loved you. So it’s a good thing you didn’t.”

She kissed him again.

“How’s Eva?” she asked.

“Tiny. Beautiful. Perfect,” he said. “Jessie and Jon are exhausted but so happy and totally in love with their daughter. Thanks again for the cupcakes. Jessie really did tell me to say that; it wasn’t just an excuse to email you.”

She smiled.

“I wondered. And sort of hoped.” She took a deep breath. “Carlos, I’m still not sure if I know how to love someone, and I really don’t know if I know how to let myself be loved, so I hope you’ll be patient with me as I figure out how to do this. But I really love you so I hope you will be.”

“I will be as patient as you need me to, but I think you know how to love someone a lot better than you think,” he said.

She smiled at him and kissed him again.

“I really hope so,” she said. “I missed you so much, too. I kept trying to deny to myself how much I missed you, and how much a part of my life you’d become, and how important you were to me. And then when I realized it, it terrified me. I was so scared to feel this way. If we’re being honest, which I hope . . . ” she paused and closed her eyes for a moment. “Sorry, I just . . . ” He ran his fingers through her curls and waited for her to collect herself. She leaned her head on his shoulder for a second, sat up straight and started again. “If we’re being honest, which I hope we can always be to each other, I’m still scared to feel this way.” She laughed. “As if you hadn’t already noticed that.”

He kissed her cheek. He’d noticed. But he’d also noticed that, despite her fear, she was still here. Sitting next to him.

“And then I was scared that you wouldn’t still feel the same way. That I’d been right the first time, that it was all because of emotion and adrenaline and you’d realized you were better off without me.”

“You weren’t right the first time,” he said. “Even though I tried to convince myself you were.”

“Thank God for that,” she said.

“Thank God for that sour cream,” he said. “I can’t believe I’m going to have to be in debt to sour cream for the rest of my life. We can’t tell anyone that part of the story, it isn’t romantic at all. It couldn’t have been something sexier?”

“Like what? Eggplant? Hot dogs? Bananas?”

He laughed and pulled her against him.

“I was thinking, I don’t know, chilies, or bacon, or even your favorite rosé. But for this”—he gestured to the TV, the decorations, to Nik—“for you? I’d take anything.”

“See? That was so . . . ” She beamed at him, as tears ran down her face. “You’re much better at this romance stuff than I am.”

He wiped the tears away with his thumb and kissed her again.

“You’re doing great,” he said.

He looked around his house with a grin.

“I can’t believe this,” he said. “I’m so happy you’re here.”

“Good,” she said. “Because I can’t believe I pulled this all together at the last minute today, so you’d better appreciate it.”

And then he realized something.

“ANGELA.”

She leaned back against the couch cushions and laughed.

“Angela, indeed. She gave me the key and kept you away until I was all ready for you. I had to make my case to her first, though. Let me tell you, she was very suspicious when I called her this morning.”

That’s why they’d stayed at Jessie’s for so long.

“I bet she was. But she always liked you. Plus, she knew you were the reason I finally went to the doctor.”

She sat up with a jerk.

“You went to the doctor? Really?”

He gave her a tentative smile.

“I went yesterday.”

She threw her arms around him.

“Oh, Carlos, I know how hard that must have been for you. I’m so proud of you!”

He buried his nose in her hair. That coconut smell made him so happy.

“It was really hard. But I did it. And I’m okay. My cholesterol is a little high, but not anything my doctor is super worried about, so I’ll cut back the red meat and add more leafy greens and I should be able to manage it.”

She ran her hands through his hair.

“I am so glad to hear that. Oh! I have some news, too.”

He pulled back and looked at her, and she smiled.

“I punched Fisher in the face.”

He jumped up from the couch.

“You what? Oh my God.” He picked her up and swung her in a circle. “You are a superhero. What the fuck did that bastard do this time? I can’t wait to hear everything.”

She held up her hand and wiggled her fingers.

“He went down like a ton of bricks, it was amazing. My knuckles are still a little raw. I’m so sad you weren’t there to see it, but luckily, plenty of people walking and driving down my street did. He was so mad about that. It was so great.”

He sat back on the couch and pulled her down next to him.

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