When I walk out of the clinic at seven, it’s dark, and the lights in the parking lot reflect off the freshly fallen snow. I look around and guess we got about six inches—a lot for this early in the season. Lilly will be thrilled. The first snow of the year is always the most exciting.
When I pull into the drive, there’s only a fine sheen on the driveway and the rest has been shoveled to the side. My lawn service guys plow my drive during the winter; they must have been here already. Looks like some good came of my word with the owner about their negligence last year.
When I get into the house, there’s Christmas music playing. I freeze. I haven’t heard Christmas music in my house in years. I don’t ever put it on, and the holidays themselves are spent at the family cabin, where there’s always someone else to play DJ. Surrounded by family, I can handle the songs that make my heart ache.
It’s good to hear it in my home again, and that surprises me. I associate Christmas and everything that goes with it so closely with Elena’s death, and though I’ve tried to overcome that for Lilly’s sake, it hasn’t been easy.
I find Lilly and Nic in the kitchen cutting shapes into rolled-out dough.
“Daddy!” Lilly says. “You’re home!” She runs to me, unconcerned about the flour coating her hands, and throws her arms around my waist, getting little handprints all over my dress pants.
“Hi, baby.” I kiss the top of her head and breathe in the smell of her strawberry shampoo. This is the way it should be—Lilly getting excited about Christmas and dancing around the kitchen to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” I can’t let my own holiday demons destroy the day for my daughter.
“Did you have a good day, Daddy?”
I smile. Sometimes she sounds so grown-up. “I did. I delivered two babies and helped one baby stay in her mama’s belly.”
She frowns. “Why would you do that?”
“She wasn’t ready yet. It’s safer for her in her mommy’s tummy for now.”
“Any girl babies?”
I have to grin. As far as Lilly is concerned, the only babies that count are the girls. “One girl, one boy. How was your day?”
“It was perfect! Nicky picked me up from school and then we drove to the lighthouse. Did you know Nic loves lighthouses?” I didn’t, but Lilly doesn’t slow down to let me respond. “She said ours is the prettiest she’s ever seen, and I told her my great-great-grandpa built it. That’s right, isn’t it?”
I nod. “That’s right.”
Lilly prattles on. “When we got home, we did homework and had hot chocolate, then built a snowman, and Nic let me make snow angels while she shoveled the driveway.”
I look to Nic, curious to see what she thinks of Lilly calling her Nicky, but it doesn’t seem to faze her. “You shoveled that whole driveway by yourself?”
“Lilly and I sang Christmas carols the whole time, so it went fast,” Nic says.
“I hire a company to do it, and I have a four-wheel drive, so I can always make it in and out of the garage even if they don’t get here in a timely manner.” Which happens too often.
She shrugs. “It was fun and a good workout.” She rubs her right shoulder. “Maybe too good. I’m already getting sore.”
“You do enough,” I say softly. “You don’t have to add lawn work to your list, okay?”
She nods. “Got it.”
“Are you ladies about done with the cookies?”
“This is the last batch for the oven,” Nic says. “They need to cool, and then Lilly and I will decorate them tomorrow after she gets home from school.”
I get the impression the review of the timeline is more for Lilly’s benefit than mine. Not that I’m surprised. I’m sure waiting a full day between baking the cookies and decorating them is killing my little princess. I nod and look at my daughter. “Sounds fun.”
“She’s going to let me put the food coloring in the frosting!” Lilly says, bouncing on her toes. “And then we get to take them to family brunch on Sunday.”
“That’s awesome.” I turn to Nic, and my breath catches. She has a little bit of flour on her nose, her hair is pulled up into a sloppy bun on her head, and her cheeks are pink, as if she came in from the snow seconds ago, not hours. Again, I’m struck by how perfectly she fits here and how foolish I’d be to try to replace her.
I’m not supposed to like seeing any woman other than my mother and sister with my daughter. I’m not supposed to imagine the woman could find a role here as something more than temporary help. I decided a long time ago that Lilly and I were good with the family we had. A serious relationship with a new woman would mean introducing Lilly to someone who might leave her. I won’t do that to her again. Losing one mother was bad enough. So why do I feel like I’m standing at the edge of a cliff, confident the life I want is waiting in the water below? Why do I suddenly want to take a risk I was never willing to consider before?