“Look what Nana sent me,” Lilly says. She rushes to the counter opposite where Nic’s been working and grabs a postcard. “It’s from Paris!” she says as she brings it to me.
The picture on the front is of the Eiffel Tower lit up against a dark sky. I flip it over and read the note from Mom.
Isn’t it beautiful, Lilly? The lights twinkle at dusk. I hope you get to see this someday.
I frown and show it to Nic. “That’s weird. It’s postmarked from Berlin.”
She glances at it and shrugs. “I bet that’s where she was when she mailed it.”
Shrugging too, I hand it back to Lilly. “This is awesome. You can add it to your others.” I’m grateful Mom’s taking the time to send these. It’s such a small gesture, but it means the world to my daughter.
“Can Nic take me to bed tonight?” Lilly asks. “I love the voice she does when she reads Pete the Cat.”
“I’m taking you to bed tonight, goofball,” I say, pinching her nose lightly between two fingers. “I always take you to bed when I’m home to do it.”
“Fine, but you have to read me two stories.”
“We’ll see how well you brush your teeth, and then we’ll enter into story negotiations.”
She giggles. “I’m the best brusher!”
Nic places the last of the cookies on the tray and slides them into the oven. There are already a couple dozen laid across cooling racks on the counter. She punches the buttons to set the timer. “Well, it’s that time, Lillypad. Why don’t you head up and see if you can get your PJs on before your daddy makes it up there?”
Always one for a challenge, Lilly squeaks and runs out of the kitchen, scrambling when her socked feet make her slip on the hardwood floor.
Nic turns to me. “I hope it’s okay that I let her play in the snow. She was so excited, and I knew you wouldn’t be home until after dark.”
“It’s great. I’m glad she got to play.” I shove my hands into my pockets. I want to touch Nic. I want to wipe the flour from the tip of her nose, then cup her face and thread my hands into her hair until I’ve made a mess of it. But I want to do all that without fucking up anything else, and life just doesn’t work like that.
She rubs her shoulder and winces. “I’m starting to think I should have worked my way up to the whole driveway.”
“Here.” Just like that, my hands are out of my pockets and touching her. I sweep her hands away and nudge her to turn around so I can dig my thumbs into her shoulders. I can tell she’s sore because she tenses against the pressure. “Try to relax.”
She tilts her head forward and takes slow, steady breaths. “Do you need any help getting Lilly to bed? You have to be exhausted after such a long day.”
“No, I like to do bedtime when I can. I miss it all too often, and she’s growing up fast.”
“You’re a good dad, Ethan.”
I swallow hard. I don’t want to care what she thinks of me as a father, but those words mean so damn much. “Have you thought any more about next week?”
I nod. “And the weekend. I wasn’t just being polite when I said you’d be welcome.”
“I think I’ll come to the cabin for dinner if I wouldn’t be intruding.”
I find the knot in her shoulder and dig into it with my thumb. “You won’t be intruding, and you’ll make Lilly’s day when she finds out you’ll be there.” I want to tell her she should stay the whole weekend. I love the idea of her hanging out with my family. I could see her sitting in front of the big stone fireplace sipping coffee with Shay, her smile warming the whole place.
“I’ve never been to a big family Thanksgiving,” she says. “I can’t decide if I’m excited or terrified.”
I still. “Never? What about your family?”
She tenses under my hands. “I don’t have a big family. Always dreamed about one, though.”
The stereo flips to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” I want to spin her around and pull her against my chest, to feel what it’s like to dance again, to have a woman curl into me again. Not just any woman. This woman.
“The nanny search is still a bust,” I say softly. I don’t want to stop talking, because as long as we talk, I can stand here. I have an excuse to touch her.
“I’m sure you’ll find someone.” She rolls her head to the left, and I dig a little deeper into her right shoulder, and she moans.
I want you to stay. The words are right there on my tongue, but I can’t ask until I’m sure that’s what I want. Would I be asking her to stay until Mom returned? To stay indefinitely? I’m so conflicted—my fears about the long-term are at odds with what would be best for Lilly in the short-term, and what I want for my daughter is at odds with my own desire.