“I want us both to keep our secrets until then.”
Only when my stomach sinks do I realize I’ve half planned to tell Ethan the truth. I have to find a way to try, don’t I? “I hate the lie, Shay. I want to tell Ethan.”
She nods. “You should. But not until after Christmas. Christmas is hard enough for him, and I’m afraid . . .”
“Jake told me Elena had a heart attack, but that’s not true, is it?”
Her big brown eyes are filled with tears. “That’s what Ethan tells everyone. We love him too much to call him on the lie. Besides, technically, I guess it’s true. She had a heart attack . . . even if she made it happen.”
I squeeze my eyes shut. Poor Ethan, losing his wife to suicide and then finding himself with a lover who struggles with depression. I’m not suicidal, and I’m so hyper-conscious of not abusing drugs to cope that I rarely even drink, but I understand why seeing me with those pills would have upset him. “I planned on leaving in February. I’ve applied for all these jobs so he would never have to find out the truth.”
Her face wilts. “You can’t leave, Nic. Please don’t. I think he’s in love with you.”
“I know I’m in love with him. Which is why I can’t keep lying.”
She squeezes my hand. “Just one month. For my family. Please? And then I’ll help you tell him, and we’ll work together to get Mom home.”
“What’d we miss?” Shay asks when we make our way down to the basement to join the rest of the family.
I feel eyes on me from across the room, and turn to see Ethan. He’s seated in one of the dark leather recliners with his feet up and Lilly sleeping in his lap. His eyes don’t leave mine when I look at him, and my stomach flutters as I wonder if he’s thinking about where I’ll sleep tonight.
I rush to action rather than give that question any thought of my own. I cross the room and crouch next to his chair. “I’ll get her to bed.”
He’s still studying me. “It’s fine. I’ve got her.”
“I’ll help.” I reach out to bring Lilly to her feet. She’s a sleepwalker, and I know from experience that I can guide her to the bedroom without having to wake her completely.
Ethan ignores me, keeping her in his arms as he stands. I suppose her fifty-five pounds is nothing for him, but my heart squeezes a little at the sight of this big man carrying his growing baby girl.
I follow him up the stairs and down the hall. When he opens the door to the bunk room I’ve heard so much about, I smile. “Wow.”
The little room was clearly decorated for Lilly and Lilly alone. There are mermaids all over the walls, and the bunk beds are draped with blue and green tulle.
He carries Lilly to a bed and tucks her in. We leave the room, and he closes the door behind him. When I turn to head back downstairs to join the others, he takes my wrist and tugs me back. “I’m glad you’re staying tonight,” he says softly. “I don’t like the idea of you driving on those roads.”
That squeeze in my heart releases, sending a thousand butterflies to go wild in my stomach. “I just don’t want to be in the way.”
“You’d never be in the way, Nic.”
I need to figure this out. I’m so off balance trying to navigate these feelings for him and keep my lies straight at the same time. I want to believe Shay’s right and I can keep the secret through Christmas without losing Ethan.
“Would you come on a walk with me?” he asks. “I need some fresh air.”
It’s stopped snowing, and the clouds have cleared out of the night sky. The moon reflects off the freshly fallen snow and lights up the night. I bundled up in my coat, gloves, hat, and scarf and followed Ethan out back, and now we’re walking the path to the pole barn that sits on the backside of the property, snow crunching under our boots.
“I keep thinking about your tattoo,” he says after long minutes of silence. “I can’t stop thinking about it, actually.”
He leaves the words to hang on their own in the air, and I don’t know what to say. Now that I’ve had confirmation about Elena’s suicide, I’m terrified he’s going to look at me and see the wife he couldn’t save. But as much as I don’t want him to worry about me or to think I’m in a bad place, I also don’t want to sugarcoat who I am or the struggles I face. That’s what I do every day when the smile everyone expects from me is pasted on my face.