I blink. “What are you talking about?”
He tucks his hands in his pockets and tilts his head to the side. “If I only fell for you because you were pretending to be her, she should be my dream girl, right?”
“No. I get it.” He holds up both hands. “She’s hot, I won’t deny that. And she’s been an amazing help getting Elena’s things sorted for me.” He lowers his voice. “But her blush isn’t as pretty and her smile doesn’t make her eyes dance. The smell of her doesn’t get my gut in knots and turn me on.”
I draw in a breath and it comes in shaky, as if the air itself has jagged edges. “Ethan.”
“I know you, Nic—maybe better than you know yourself. I know how to make you laugh and how to turn you on. I know you like the same sappy books Elena did and that you take in coffee like it’s oxygen.” He steps forward and cups my face in his hand, wiping away a tear with his thumb. “I know that you warm up every room you’re in and you love taking care of the people around you.” He swallows hard. “And I know how you feel about Lilly.”
“To the moon and back,” I say on a ragged exhale.
“Exactly. And I know you’re the kind of person who wouldn’t let Lilly’s asshole father keep you from doing right by her.” He pauses a beat. Maybe he’s waiting for me to reply, but I can’t. My throat is too thick with tears. He wipes the tears from my cheeks. “I don’t regret my years with Elena. I loved her, even when I did it badly. And she gave me Lilly.” He shakes his head, still holding my face in his hands. “I only regret that the guilt and fear her death left in me almost made me lose you.”
“You never lost me,” I say, looking into his eyes. “A love like this is too big to lose.”
He lowers his mouth to mine and kisses me, and I wrap my arms around him and trust love. One more time.
“It’s a turkey baster,” Ava says. She frowns at Teagan, who laughs so hard she nearly falls out of the booth.
Ava waves the turkey baster in the air and tries to scowl at Teagan, but her disapproval isn’t very believable since she can’t stop smiling. “You’re a bitch.”
We’re sitting at the back of Jackson Brews for our biweekly girls’ night out.
“I guess I should make an announcement,” Ava says. She’s the guest of honor tonight as the birthday girl, and her words slur just a little bit.
Tonight, it’s Ava, Teagan, Veronica with her newly popped baby bump, and me. Sometimes Shay comes, and those nights are always extra special, but she couldn’t make it tonight. She and Kathleen spent the day in Grand Rapids on the last of this round of chemo treatments. The woman is exhausted, but she’s a fighter, and if anyone can kick cancer into submission, it’s Kathleen.
“I want to hear your announcement,” I say. “Spill.”
“Since it’s my birthday, I decided to get myself a present.”
“You deserve it,” Teagan says. Her words are a little slurred too. What can I say? We’ve been having a good time tonight.
Girls’ night is the best night.
Well, next to date night. And Nic and Lilly night. And just every freaking night of my life right now. I’m in a sweet spot, and I know it. I’m enrolled in classes at the community college, falling in love with a cute little town and all its gossipy residents, slowly repairing my relationship with my sister, and believing for the first time in a long time that happiness is something I can feel rather than a mask I need to wear.
“What kind of present?” Veronica asks.
“A baby.” We stare at her. “I decided I’m going to have one,” she says, as if that explains everything.
“Like, immaculate conception or . . .” Veronica says.
Ava scowls at my sister. “Okay, bitch. I’m fully aware of the missing piece of this puzzle, but I’m thirty years old, and that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon. But I couldn’t conceive the entire time I was married—”
“A blessing in disguise,” Teagan says.
“—so I feel like I should start trying now,” Ava finishes.
“Trying . . . to get pregnant?” I bite my lip. I don’t want to be a bitch, but Ava was still single last I checked.
“Yeah, ’cause who needs a dude to do that?” Veronica says.
Ava shakes her head. “Listen. I swear I’m not crazy. I’ve already been married and that didn’t work. As nice as it would be to find a guy to spend my life with, it’s not necessary. But pregnancy and a baby? That’s something I want to experience.” She smacks the table and grins. “I want a family, and I’m not getting any younger, so I’m making one myself.”