“Yes, Elena was compassionate,” Kathleen says softly. “She felt very deeply about all those she cared for.”
“When did she die?” Another personal question, and I hope I’m not overstepping into rudeness, but I feel like I should know more than I do.
“Three years ago this Christmas.”
My breath escapes me in a rush. They lost her at Christmas. “That’s awful.” I shake my head. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for them. I had a tough childhood, and there’s something about the way Christmas is idealized that makes all the tough things hurt even more on what’s supposed to be a magical day. There were always good people who tried to make the day as special for Veronica and me as for other children, but there’s no protecting a child from the heartache of a lost parent.
“It was awful.” Kathleen lifts her head and meets my eyes. I wait for her to tell me more—about Elena or the cause of her death—but she doesn’t.
After the silence grows too intense, I take a breath. “Are you all packed?”
“I think so, but I keep remembering little things I’ll need.” She pushes back from the table, stands, and walks over to me. “I wanted to thank you again before I go. For everything.” She tries to smile, but it wavers, and her eyes fill with tears. “If it weren’t for you . . .”
“You don’t have to do this,” I say softly. “You can tell them the truth. You can stay.”
She wraps her hand around my wrist and squeezes. Her jaw hardens and she pastes on the smile she was struggling to find a moment before. “And miss my chance to see Europe? No thank you.”
I’m not sure what to say, so I just nod. I may not agree with her decision, but it’s not mine to make. Obviously, I don’t know the details of all her family has been through, and all I can do is trust her judgment. “It’s never too late to come home. Just remember that.”
Her smile stiffens, and she releases my wrist. “I have to run some errands and then I’m having lunch with my daughter. Will you be okay without the car until this afternoon?”
“I still have Lilly’s car seat, and I don’t have to return my rental car until tonight, so I’m fine.”
“Did Ethan tell you we’re having family dinner at my house tonight?” She shakes her head. “Well, my son Brayden’s been living there for a couple of years now, but I still think of it as my own, I suppose. All of my children will be there.”
“I didn’t know that.” I make a mental note to adjust the week’s meals. The chicken and rice dish I had planned can wait until tomorrow. “I’m glad you’re getting together with them before you leave.”
“Me too.” The tears return to her eyes. “I hope you’ll come too. You know Ethan and Jake, but I’d like you to meet my other children. You’ll see them a lot while you’re here.”
“I—” Should I tell her about me and Ethan? Tell her that there’s no need for me to meet everyone since he’s already looking for my replacement? Is that really what she needs to be thinking about as she begins the battle for her life? No. I can’t bring myself to add another worry to her list. “It’s family time. I don’t want to intrude.”
“You know my secrets,” she says. “You’re officially family.”
If I had a family for every time someone promised that, I’d never be alone, but despite a past that should probably leave me jaded, I relish her words. I like this woman. “If Ethan’s okay with it, I’ll come along.”
She shakes her head and squeezes my wrist again. “For one more day, I’m the boss of this family, and I say you come.”
The dryer buzzes, and I pull out the laundry and pile it into a basket. I’ve been flitting around the house all day, doing this and that. My first real day on the job and I didn’t need to go grocery shopping or prepare dinner, so I felt a little lost while Lilly was at school. Despite the fact that I know I’m temporary and shouldn’t feel like I have anything to prove, I hate to sit around or even run errands for myself on my very first day, so I cleaned showers that didn’t need cleaning, scrubbed toilets that didn’t need to be scrubbed, and mopped floors that were already sparkling.
Kathleen went with me to get Lilly from school so we could drop off my rental car. When we got home, I was ready to put on my childcare cap, but Lilly wanted to hang out with her nana and I was left to feel unneeded again. I decided to wash the little bit of laundry I’d seen in Ethan’s laundry room and practically paced until I could pull them from the dryer and busy myself again.