“I mean, don’t bring up Veronica.”
Her big brown eyes go wide. “Oh, shit, Nic. I didn’t even think about it. I’m so sorry.”
I draw in a shaky breath. “It’s okay. I just don’t want to be put in a position where I have to tell more lies.”
“I’ll be more careful. I promise.” She reaches out to squeeze my hand. “Please don’t be mad at me.”
“Of course I’m not mad at you. I just panicked a little.”
She tugs her bottom lip between her teeth, and in that flash, she looks uncharacteristically vulnerable. “Well, good. Because I’ve been so much happier since you’ve been here. I have friends, but it gets lonely in this tundra.” Her smile widens and all the vulnerability vanishes from her eyes, replaced by her usual playfulness. She laughs. “I guess I’m trying to say, I think I’m falling in love with you.”
I laugh too, but I squeeze her hand. “I love you too, Teag.” I wish I’d been more focused on friendship in college and less focused on finding my happily-ever-after. If I hadn’t been so obsessed with making myself a family, I would have avoided so much heartache and maybe even had friends I could call family. “What made you move to Jackson Harbor, anyway?”
She shrugs and toys with her straw. “I got a job here.”
I narrow my eyes. “You’re a nurse. There are jobs everywhere. I thought you went back to Virginia after college.”
“I did. Briefly.” She drags her bottom lip between her teeth and studies her ice water for a long time before lifting her gaze to mine. “You’re not the only one who needed to get away from your hometown. Jackson Harbor is good for that.”
I frown. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Nope.” She pastes on a plastic smile. “But thanks for asking.”
“I’ll try again when you’re drunk,” I say.
“Drunk, in private, and in the mood for a good cry,” she says.
“Damn.” I wince. She must be running from something worse than I thought. “Got it.”
“Are you going to talk to Ethan?” she asks, shifting the subject back to me. “Do you think last night changes things?”
“Last night doesn’t change anything.” I swallow. “I’m actually hoping we can avoid another conversation about our relationship as employer and employee. I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to have a conversation about how it’s probably not appropriate for me to fantasize about him in his bathtub and then come to a screaming orgasm when I realize he’s watching me.”
She tries to bite back her giggle, but that only makes the laughter come out in a snort, which makes her laugh even harder.
“I hate you,” I say.
“Too late. You said you love me. No take-backs.” She’s still holding my hand and gives it another squeeze.
“Are we still on for tomorrow? Ethan isn’t on call, so I have the whole night free.”
“Yes! Oh my God, your twenty-fifth. I can’t wait. What are we gonna do? Wanna go to Grand Rapids? They have better dance clubs there.”
I wrinkle my nose. “I’m not sure you know this about me, but I’m not really into the club scene. I thought maybe we could just come here and have a couple of beers and some fried food.”
“And maybe run into your sexy employer on your night off?”
I roll my eyes. “Since it is my night off, he’ll be with Lilly and not at a bar, so no. That wasn’t part of my plan.”
“How disappointing. I want big things for you on your birthday, including orgasms that don’t require the use of your own hand.”
“Yeah, well, maybe next year,” I mutter.
“Okay, so Jackson Brews it is. And then maybe we can go shopping on Sunday. Think of all the Christmas sales!”
“I feel like this is just you trying to give me a makeover.”
She throws her hand against her chest. “Me? I would never.”
I shrug. “Whatever. Maybe I need one.”
“To seduce Dr. McBroody Pants?”
“To feel good about myself without a Dr. McAnything telling me I’m hot.”
“Hashtag goals,” she says, tapping her water glass to mine.
“You need to come home.”
“Nicole,” Kathleen says, “I know you’re not the type to be comfortable with a lie, but—”
“This isn’t about me.” I sink into the couch and press my warm mug of coffee against my cheek with one hand and hold my phone to my ear with the other. Lilly’s at school and Ethan’s at work. I’m alone in this house with the ghost of Ethan’s wife, but it’s my lies that are haunting me. “It’s about love.”
“What does that mean?” She sounds weaker every time I speak to her—which isn’t often. After that first week, her calls have become the exception rather than the rule.
“Lilly loves you, possibly more than she loves anyone else, and the love you show her in return will lay the foundation for all the great loves of her life.” I swallow hard. As sappy as my words sound, I know they’re true. I’ve been thinking about this since the night Lilly got sick. She was so upset after getting off the phone with her grandmother that night, and I realized what Kathleen isn’t around to see for herself—that her absence is its own kind of drawn-out goodbye.