“But he was the one driving the car that killed her. Almost killed you, too.”
I swallow thickly, my gaze dropping to the glass in my hands. “It wasn’t his fault.”
“I know. They said the roads were slippery.”
“I said the roads were slippery,” I tell her, looking at her sharply. “I was there, Aurora. It wasn’t his fault.”
“But why keep him working for you, after all that?”
Guilt. It’s guilt.
It’s the lie.
It’s the fact that Nicklas was never driving at all. That it was me behind the wheel. That it was me who drove off the road. That it was me that killed my wife.
It was never him.
And yet his own guilt over his affair with Helena, his guilt over the fact that his actions caused me to lose control, and the fact that no one would ever believe him over me, made him take the blame.
So my guilt is two-fold.
One, for killing my wife.
Two, for making Nicklas a villain in the public eye.
And he was a villain. Perhaps he still is. He’s threatened many times to ruin me, to write a book, to tell the truth. But he also knows that in order to protect my family, I will lie until the bitter end, and my lies are stronger than his truth ever will be.
Because in order to tell his truth, he has to tell all of it.
He’ll have to throw Helena under the bus.
It’s not something I’m willing to do.
And I can only hope the same stays true for him.
So I keep Nicklas employed because if I didn’t, he would have nothing. He would have no job, no future. It’s all part of the bargain. He’s universally hated as the man who killed Helena, and it’s true, it doesn’t matter how many times I tell the world that it was an accident, they still blame him. Just as they would blame me, if they knew the truth.
I glance up from my glass at Aurora’s searching face. There’s nothing but curiosity and concern in her eyes. Something tells me that of all the people in the world, my secret would be safe with her.
But I can never test that theory.
I clear my throat and give her a tight smile. “Let’s just say I believe in second chances.”
For anyone else but me.
She frowns at that. “It’s just weird.”
Her eyes roam around the room as she thinks. “I guess … because I see him with you and it’s apparent that he despises you.”
“A lot. And it’s also apparent you don’t care for him either. That, I totally understand. I don’t like him either. He’s rude. Ruder than you are, I should say. I don’t know, it’s just a bizarre relationship to me but obviously none of my business, so...”
I sit back in the chair and tap my fingers along the glass. “I’m sure it looks that way. I’m sure a lot of things look a certain way when you have no idea what’s happening underneath.”
“Kind of like you,” she remarks, taking a large swallow of her drink.
“What does that mean?”
“You know what I mean.” She gives me a steady look. “This is the first time I’ve been able to talk to you like this. To get even a hint of the man you are inside. Who you really are.”
I bristle at that. One moment I’m being blinded by her smile, the next she’s pissing me off by prying and overstepping her boundaries. “I think you’re assuming too much. Again. And anyway, what about you? At this point you know more about me than I do about you. I have a resume to go on, but that’s it. I can’t find any other information on one Miss Aurora James.”
I’m watching her carefully so I notice that the spark in her eyes falters just a little and that she’s calculating something, trying to figure out what to say. It’s curious, considering how regularly she just blurts out what she’s feeling.
“Not everyone can be found on social media,” she says, looking down at the ridiculously pink bedspread.
“I can see that. So then tell me. Where did you grow up?”
“A town you’ve never heard of.”
“It’s barely even a town.”
“Just tell me the name. You have something to hide?”
She glances up at me, her eyes sharp. “No.”
“Then tell me.”
“Fine. It’s Windorah. In Queensland.” And her accent magically becomes extra Australian. She snarls. “Hey. Don’t make fun of my accent.”
“I didn’t say a word,” I say in protest, raising my palm.
“Figures the only time I make you smile is when I’m talking full-on Aussie,” she says, shaking her head.
“Back to the questions. You never went to school. Or if you did, it’s not on your resume.”
She shrugs. “I didn’t think school was for me.”
“But you’re terribly bright.”
She bites her tongue. The pink sliver of it peeking through her teeth makes a hot chill run over my skin. “I guess I should take whatever compliment I can get, huh?”
“I just think you would have been a natural teacher. Or at least a history major or archeologist with your love of Greek gods. You’re always teaching the girls something, your brain is like a library.”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” she says with a twitch of her shoulder.
She’s being purposely obtuse. “And your mother? Your father? What did they do? Did you have any siblings?”
The corner of her mouth quirks like she’s just eaten something sour. “Well, my mother was a whore and my father was a drunk. That’s who they were, that’s what they did. And thank god I had no siblings because I barely survived myself, just by the skin of my teeth. I’d hate to think what would have happened if I had a sibling to take care of.”
I’m stunned. Sure, Aurora is a little rough around the edges when it comes to decorum and she definitely lacks a filter. But she seems so worldly. Put together.
Are we both wearing masks?
“I’m sorry,” I say quietly, feeling horrible that she had to admit that to me.
“Don’t be sorry,” she says with a sigh, picking at the lint on her tights. “It is what it is. Life hands you lemons, you make lemonade, yadda yadda, right? My father did love me, so I knew that much. I had that much. But he died when I was ten. Then my mother was left to raise me and I rarely saw her because she honestly wanted nothing to do with me. So it was just me in that shanty with the leaking tin roof, in the middle of the fucking outback. Thank god it hardly ever rained.”
She glances up at me, raising her chin, as if I’m pitying her. “To answer your question more fully, I didn’t go to school because I dropped out of the last year of high school. I didn’t have any fucking money for university anyway. But it’s fine. There are books and online classes. I learn what I can when I can. Just for fun. And when I did save up enough money, it was to get the fuck out of dodge.”
“Dodge? Is that a town?”
“It’s a saying. I was in Brisbane for a while, which yes, is a town, and I was waitressing and after that I came straight to Paris.”
I stare at her. I stare at her because I can. I stare at her because I’m putting puzzle pieces together in my head.
I stare at her because she’s beautiful.
“Anyway,” she says, finishing her glass and placing it on the bedside table beside the unicorn clock. “I think it’s best I go to bed before I really start telling you my life story.”
She gets to her feet and instinctively I reach out to grab her hand. She stares down at it but I can’t tell if she’s disturbed or not. But I don’t let go. I should. I really should. But I don’t.
“I’d like to hear your life story one day,” I say, my voice coming out in a harsh murmur, as if part of me wished I didn’t say it.
She stares at me a moment, her gaze lingering on mine. Warm and melancholy at the same time.
“I’d like to hear yours, too,” she says.
Then she gives my hand a squeeze and walks out of the room.
The room grows cold without her in it.
December has always been a curious time for me.
That lead-up towards Christmas and the holidays that you can’t ignore, even if you try. And, god, how you try.
For the last seven years I’ve spent it with families that aren’t my own.
Before then, I said fuck you to the holiday. I said fuck you to a lot of things.
And then before that, I was just hoping my father would be sober enough to come home. I’d hoped my mother would be kind enough to wish me a Merry Christmas. In the end, I was often alone, staring out the window at the baking desert and listening to Christmas songs on the crackly radio, dreaming of snow and trees and presents and places that seemed so impossible.
I should be happy that I have a job that I love, with kids that I love (because, let’s face it, it’s impossible not to), in a charming country that’s slowly growing on me.
And I am happy, don’t get me wrong.
But there’s something about the holiday season that creeps in like the cold through cracks in the floor. It turns you inward until you’re lost in your own introspection. It unearths the past before it buries it again in snow. It makes you feel things you don’t want to feel, like all your nerve endings are exposed.
Loss. If you’ve lost anyone or anything, then you’ll feel that loss most of all.
I feel the absence of so much that it’s hard not to fall deeper into the void that’s growing inside me.
And then there’s love.
Love that I don’t have, that I’ve never had.
Why do I feel this loss inside me will always be solved with love?
“Aurora?” Clara says to me, and by the way she says it I think she may have been calling me for a while.