“I still think she’s hooking up with a secret lover over there,” Jake says.

Brayden groans. “Don’t talk about Mom like that.”

“The whole thing happened too fast, if you ask me. One second, we’re planning a typical Thanksgiving, and the next, she’s got this trip,” Carter says. “It’s not like Mom to miss the holidays.”

“Because she’s never gotten the chance to do a damn thing for herself,” Brayden says. “Europe is crawling with tourists over the summer. A winter trip makes perfect sense.”

I stare at my plate. It’s piled with delicious home-cooked foods, but suddenly I don’t have any appetite at all. I’m not only lying about my name. I’m holding Kathleen’s secret, and if she never comes home, I’m not sure any of her children will forgive me for failing to tell them they needed to say their goodbyes.

Worse than knowing they all might hate me is feeling like they’d be right.

“You really didn’t have to help me,” Shay says. “We rotate which sibling does the dishes at family dinners, and it’s my turn.”

I shrug. “I don’t mind. I’m not a big football person anyway.”

“Shh! Don’t say that around here.” She gives a conspicuous glance over each shoulder before turning back to me with a grin. She reaches up to the cabinet over her head to slide in a big serving bowl.

It’s just the two of us in the kitchen. The boys have all gone to the basement to watch the football game. When I left them down there, Lilly was curled up on Ethan’s lap, still pretty upset about not getting to do her video chat.

I’m washing the dishes that didn’t fit in the dishwasher, and Shay is drying them and putting them away.

“Nicole?” Shay says quietly. “Can we talk for a minute while everyone is downstairs?”

“Sure.”

She grabs the bowl I just rinsed, and when she cuts her eyes to me, I feel like she’s waiting for me to say more. “It’s about your sister, Veronica.”

That’s the moment I realize she just called me Nicole and not Nic. The blood drains from my face. “What? I’m sorry, what did you call me?”

“Nic isn’t short for Veronica, is it? It would be strange for a girl to use that as her nickname when her sister’s name is Nicole.”

I stare at the sudsy water. “Very strange.”

“I thought something was off when you moved in, but then Ethan said something about your meds the other day.”

I frown. I thought the issue of my antidepressants had already been resolved.

She slides the bowl onto a shelf, turns back to me, and folds her arms. “When Mom was still picking between applicants, she told me she asked Veronica about mental illness and medication. It was the one thing Ethan insisted on. Your sister told her about you, and Mom told me. She thought it would be good for Ethan to have someone living with him who understood what it was like to love someone who struggles with depression the way Elena did.”

I look around the kitchen to make sure we’re still alone. Even when I confirm there’s no one close enough to hear us, I keep my voice low. “Why didn’t you say anything when you realized who I was?”

“I wasn’t entirely sure at first, but Mom confirmed.”

“Really?” Half the reason I’ve kept this secret was for her.

Shay’s face twists. “I know Mom’s sick. I noticed the postmarks on all the postcards were from Germany, and I started to get suspicious. Why would Mom be in Germany and pretend she’s traveling Europe? I guessed cancer. She’s been run-down, getting tired too quickly. My brothers think it’s old age, but I knew it was worse than that. I wish I’d been wrong.” She stares into space, and I can see the devastation in the set of her jaw and the circles under her eyes. She’s been carrying this alone.

“I wish you’d been wrong too,” I whisper.

“I called her earlier this week and told her I knew she was sick. She didn’t deny it. I think maybe she was even a little relieved to talk to me about what was happening.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you. I tried to convince her to stay.”

“I was so pissed at you at first. So pissed.” She shakes her head and sighs. “But then I realized it wasn’t your secret to tell.”

“I know. Can you convince her to come home?”

“I want her to. This is where she should be, but she’s scared we’re all going to have to watch her die.” She looks away. “And I understand why she wouldn’t want Lilly and Ethan to see her dying at Christmas. So . . .” She swipes at her cheeks and shrugs. “I decided to let her be until January. I want you to do the same.”

I blink at her. “You want me not to ask your mom to come home until January?”


Tags: Lexi Ryan Erotic
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