Make Me Fall, page 14
Her mom gasped. “It’s a lot more complicated than you think.”
“Really, Mom? I’m pretty sure having sex with a visiting scholar in normative ethics is pretty straightforward. You either do it or you don’t. You either care about your marriage or not.” Nora’s hands shook as she spoke, unleashing all the anger and hurt she’d been holding back for the last ten months. She’d never exploded like this before. She’d always treated her mom with kid gloves, but it had been a long week and she didn’t have it in her to soften her edges anymore.
Her mom opened her mouth like she was about to protest, but she didn’t say anything. She walked into the room, sat down on the bed, and dropped her head into her hands.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I shouldn’t have yelled.” Nora sat down beside her and rubbed her mom’s back. She’d forgotten how fragile her mom was.
Her mom reached for her hand. “No, I’m sorry. You should never have been put in the middle of this. It’s not fair to you.”
Nora squeezed her mom’s hand. “I’ve always been in the middle.”
“Maybe it’s time for that to change. The situation with your father and I…it’s complicated. We’re all still getting used to what it means.”
“Do you…do you miss him?”
Her mom paused for so long, Nora wondered if she’d forgotten the question. “Every day, but what you don’t understand is that I missed myself just as much.”
“Why didn’t you try to work it out? Why couldn’t you just compromise a little bit? Wouldn’t that be better than throwing away your marriage?”
“I know you’re angry at me, but our marriage wasn’t working. I’ve put off all my dreams for thirty-five years—thirty-five amazing years, don’t get me wrong—then one day I woke up and realized I was nothing but gray hair and regret. I’m old, sweetheart, but I’m still alive. I can’t keep forgetting that. I need to follow my dreams before it’s too late. Can you understand that?”
Nora’s heart seized. “Yes, I can understand that.” All too well.
Most days, Eli invited a healthy dose of chaos into his life. It was a good way to keep himself on his toes. Keep his mind from wandering to places it shouldn’t go. But the days leading up to the SPCA fundraiser had been absolute hell. Not just because of the millions of calls lighting up his phone, or because he had no idea what the heck he was doing and didn’t want to let Julia know that when she’d just started to a have a little faith in him. But because he didn’t have Nora.
She was the one person who made him feel calm amid the chaos. The last stitch that kept a seam from ripping apart. The one who would know if he’d forgotten to put out the sign-up lists for the blind auction, or remember to have enough napkins around. But she’d been busy with her mom for the last few days, so instead of relying on her, he’d had to trust in his ability to scramble at the last minute and perform under pressure. No matter how hard he worked to get this fundraiser organized, he was pretty certain there would be something he would forget at the last minute. More likely, many somethings. And the event was starting in half an hour.
The SPCA volunteers were setting up in the parking lot while he’d run back inside to the supply room to grab some extra plastic forks and knives, paranoid that the amount he’d ordered might not be enough. Unfortunately, he had no idea where in this bloody supply room the plastic cutlery was.
Eli, neck-deep in the bottom shelf, didn’t bother to turn around. He knew Jake’s voice better than his own. “Yep, just looking for more cutlery.”
“You ordered four hundred sets of plastic forks.”
“What if it’s not enough?”
“We’re only serving hot dogs and hamburgers. Nobody even uses forks to eat hot dogs and hamburgers.”
Eli pulled back onto his heels, accidentally banging his head on the metal shelf. He rubbed his head while Jake chuckled. “I just want to be prepared.”
“Things are going to be great. Having the event in the parking lot was genius.”
A thread of pride wove through Eli’s jittery, nerve-wracked limbs. Jake’s opinion, along with Julia’s, meant everything to Eli. Nora’s, too…
He ignored that quiet little voice in his head. “Thanks, man.” Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted the bright yellow box of cutlery on the bottom shelf a row over and reached for it triumphantly.
“Hey, I know this is a busy time, but there’s something important I need to ask you,” Jake said as Eli rose to his feet. Jake stood in front of him with a little velvet box in his hands. Inside was a rose gold ring with a deep blue, oval sapphire in the middle, surrounded by tiny, sparkling diamonds on the band.
Eli gasped and clutched his hand to his heart. “Yes! Yes! A million times yes. I never thought this day would come, but it’s true. Best friends do make the best marriages!” He wrapped Jake in a massive bear hug. “I think I’ll need to get the ring resized to fit my massive hands.”
“You’re such an ass,” Jake muttered into Eli’s ear. When Eli let him go, he could see just how nervous Jake was in spite of his attempt to loosen his mood a little. “Honestly, what do you think?”
“I think I don’t know the first thing about rings. It looks beautiful to me, but why aren’t you asking Clem’s sisters about this?”
Jake rolled his eyes. “I did ask them. Chastity and Clover dragged me to the jeweler, pointed at this ring, and threatened to castrate me if I didn’t buy it.”
From what Eli knew about Clem’s sisters, that sounded about right. “So why do you need my opinion?”
Jake’s jaw tightened. “I’m not asking your opinion on the ring. I’m asking your opinion on whether I’m doing the right thing. I’ve already gotten Clem’s family’s opinion on everything, but they’re her people. You’re my people.”
For once, Eli didn’t have a joke or sarcastic remark ready. “You love her,” he said simply.
Jake nodded. “Of course I do. But I’ve screwed up an engagement before. What if it’s too soon? What if—”
“You love her,” Eli said firmly. “She loves you. I’ve never known two people more right for each other. You’re only feeling nervous because this is the best thing that’s ever happened to you. It’s normal to feel nervous. But I know Clem, and I know that it doesn’t matter how you propose or whether the ring is perfect, because she loves you. And you love her. Some things are simple.”
Jake’s shoulders loosened, like the tension had unspooled from his body. He gave the ring one last glance before snapping the box shut and sticking it in his pocket. “Thanks, Eli. I mean it.”
“Anytime. As long as I get to give the best man speech,” Eli said. “I’ve been saving that story about you dancing naked at that toga party in college for years.”
Jake groaned, but his smile was back. “You know I’ll get the same revenge on you one day.”
“Not a chance. A wild horse can’t be tamed,” Eli said, but his stomach lurched and in that moment, he’d never hated himself more. The only thing a real friend would be feeling right now was pure happiness, but a sticky, nauseating jealousy had slid beneath his skin, covering him like an oil slick.
Jake shook his head as he turned to leave. “One day, man. I’m telling you, one day.”
Eli had never considered the idea of marriage—not because he was against it on principle, but because he’d been so busy working toward his dream of opening the Holy Grale it had never crossed his radar. Plus, there’d never been a woman who made him think of the future. Until Nora.
And she didn’t want him.
For the last few weeks, he’d been spending so much time with her, she was as regular a part of his life as breathing. They’d blasted through hours of The Red Zephyr on Netflix. Shared dinners almost every night he wasn’t working at the Grale. Even worked through the details of tonight’s event. As friends. She was a great friend—selfless, kind, and funny. But that would never be enough. He wasn’t falling for her. He’d already fallen, like a skydiver withou
As much as Nora was grateful to have her own space again, she was sad to see her mom go. She’d missed her these last few months. Not that she ever got to see her more than a few times a year, but the resentment she’d had about her mom’s role in her parents’ separation had added an extra layer of distance. It was good to remember that, for all her kookiness and short attention span, her mom still loved Nora fiercely. She couldn’t imagine how hard it was for Eli and Julia to have lost their mom when they did.
Eli. Her heart still did that little stutter step when she thought about him. God, it would be so much easier if she could figure out how to make that go away.
Half the parking lot was covered with a white tent when she arrived at the Holy Grale, so she’d had to park on the street over a block away. But it was worth it. Eli had done a spectacular job. There was a grill and long table full of buns, plates, and condiments near the entrance. Next to that were four huge cages with a handful of people around peering inside. Music blared in the background, kicking up the energy. She didn’t even stop to look for Eli after she paid her five-dollar admission fee. Her heart was already completely and utterly fixated on a new object of obsession.
A woman in a bright blue polo shirt opened the cage and pulled out a gray kitten with tiny white paws. “This is Mittens. He was found wandering in a state park all alone two months ago, and no one’s come to claim him. Do you want to hold him?”
Nora grinned. “Yes!”
The kitten’s fur felt like the softest blanket as he squirmed in her hands, and Nora’s heart melted like warm butter. She cooed and petted the little guy as he tried to crawl up her neck.
“You know,” the SPCA volunteer said, “he is available for adoption. In fact, all the animals here are ready for new, loving homes.”
Nora sighed. “I wish I could, but I’m not allowed pets in my rental.” Still, she found it really hard to hand the little guy back to the volunteer. With regret making her arms unnaturally heavy, she passed him over and—
Nora nearly fell over as two identical blond children flew past her and pressed their faces right against the bottom cage. The volunteer seemed to take it in stride, not even losing her balance as she wrangled the kitten and the kids.
“Girls! We are not getting a puppy!” Nora turned to see Clover looking panicked and running toward the cages.
“I’m calling him Jimmy,” one of the girls said.
“No! Her name’s Princess SparkleButt,” the other said, struggling against her sister for a better view.
Clover tried to pull the girls back, but they clutched the metal wires like their little fingers were handcuffs. Finally, she gave up and sighed. “Oh, hi, Nora.”
“These are your girls?” Nora said, too shell-shocked by the whirlwind of action to do anything but state the obvious.
Clover brushed a strand of curly blond hair off her face. “Some days, I’m pretty sure they belong to Satan, but yeah, these are Ellie and Millie.”
The girls turned and preened. “Our teacher calls us Little Hellions.”
“It’s a term of endearment, honey,” Clover said with a grimace. “Have you been inside yet? There’s a spa trip up for auction that I really want to win, but my mom keeps outbidding me.”
Nora laughed. “I guess I’ll have to check it out for myself.”
She left Clover to pry her girls from the animals, which seemed like a lost cause once the volunteer released the slobbering bulldog for them to pet. After stopping to wash her hands in the bathroom, she explored the silent auction. The spa trip did look appealing, but she liked Clover and didn’t want to add to the competition. Plus, after taking care of those kids, Clover deserved it. Instead, Nora wrote her bid down for a beautiful watercolor painting from a local artist.
“Good choice. I painted that myself.”
Nora turned at the sound of Eli’s voice. “No you didn’t. It says right here that Vince Regenery painted it.”
“And maybe Eli’s not my real name after all.” He grinned and she gave him a playful shove. “Okay, fine. I didn’t paint it, but I did ask the artist to donate something for the auction. That counts a little, right?”
She laughed. “Sure. Maybe. Either way, you’ve done a really great job tonight.”
His shoulders straightened, and his expression sobered. “Thank you. I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Yeah, you could have. You just needed a nudge in the right direction, but the ideas and work were all yours.”
He ran his hand against the back of his neck, like he was nervous. It was so odd to see him that way. A part of her wanted to pull him into a hug, but the other part of her knew it wasn’t the time or place for that. He had things under control. A little nerves weren’t a problem.
“Hey, did you get your free hotdog yet?”
She grimaced. “I’m not hungry.”
“Yes, you are. You just don’t like eating mass-produced factory foods from a giant shared grill, or using condiment bottles that other people have used.”
Her cheeks flushed. “Do you have any idea what goes into a hotdog?”
“Unicorn farts, magical deliciousness, and unnamed animal by-products. But you’re not having just any old hotdog. Come on.” He took her by the wrist and led her outside.
Any fear of crusty condiment bottles and heavily processed animal by-products faded to the back of her mind at his touch. His fingertips against her wrist felt like a brand. He’d been so respectful of her space and wishes, but she could barely manage to do the same.
In that heartbreaking moment, she realized that these last four days apart weren’t enough to quell the desire she had for him. She was going to need even more distance from him if she had any hope of keeping their friendship true. And, God, that sucked.
He led her to the barbecue. Jake, wearing dark aviator shades, was manning the immaculate grill. He looked up at her and gave a quick wave. “Hi, Nora, good to see you again.”
“You, too,” she answered. She hadn’t gotten to know Jake much when he was still living with Eli, but he’d always been friendly and polite, and seemed to have a calming influence on his friend.
“See?” Eli pointed to the grill. “That spot on the upper right corner has not been touched by anything yet.”
She had to admit, the grill was meticulously clean and the food smelled delicious, but she wasn’t comfortable with picking a wiener or patty from the stacks in the giant aluminum tray countless other people had probably reached into with their bare hands or coughed on.
With a shudder, she snuck her little container of hand sanitizer from her purse and rubbed some between her palms. “It looks great, but I’m really not hungry.”
He raised his eyebrows, seeing right through her. “You say that now, but you haven’t seen this yet.” He bent down to the cooler near Jake’s feet and took out a small package wrapped in brown paper.
“What is that?”
“Organic, antibiotic-free turkey dogs with no unnamed animal by-products. But it definitely has some magical deliciousness.”
Nora laughed. “Okay. Magical, organic turkey dogs. I’m impressed with the level of quality you’re putting out here for a fundraiser.”
Eli shook his head. “Nah, everyone else is getting no-name, super-value pack wieners with all the additives and animal by-products. This one’s just for you.”
“For me?” Her throat was tight and her sudden frown made her regret tying her hair back into such a tight ponytail.
“Of course, for you. Assuming you’ve got your appetite back.”
It was such a sweet gesture, she didn’t know what to say. No one had ever been so patient with her. So accepting. In the short time she’d known him, he’d gone from her worst nightmare to the person who made her feel like a queen. And it scared her. “Yes, please.”
A few minutes later, she
“Hey, Nora!” Julia, standing with Clem, Lisa, and Lorenzo, was waving to her from across the lot.
“Looks like you’re being summoned,” Eli said. “Go on, but we need to talk later. Okay?”
She nodded, unsure what was so important that they needed to talk about but too distracted by Julia’s increasingly eager hand gestures to ask. With a small wave to Jake and Eli, she made her way over to her friends with a ridiculously large smile on her face.
The next couple hours passed in a flurry of laughter, good conversation, and more than a little bit of spying on the silent auction. She didn’t get the chance to see much of Eli, other than occasional glimpses of him running around and chatting with the SPCA volunteers. And aside from one incident where Clem’s nieces accidentally let a guinea pig loose, the event had gone off without a hitch. Luckily, Nutmeg didn’t make it very far in her escape attempt before Eli and one of the volunteers managed to collect her in an expertly rigged trap out of a cardboard box and some string.
By the end of it all, Nora didn’t really want to leave, but she still had a stack of lab reports waiting for her back home to grade. But she couldn’t leave without one last visit to Mittens.
“You’re petting that kitten like you’re getting ideas,” Julia said.
“He’s just so soft and sweet,” she said with a sigh as Mittens batted at her hair.
“You know, you could say the same thing about my brother.”
Nora flattened her lips into a hard line. Julia hadn’t pried much into her relationship with Eli before now. “He’s a good man.”
“I know that. I just wanted to make sure you knew that. The two of you have been spending a lot of time together lately.”
Mittens purred and stretched as Nora scratched gently behind his whiskers. Until her mom’s impromptu visit, she hadn’t realized how dependent she’d come to be on Eli. Casual dinners after work. Netflix marathons. “I care about your brother. A lot. But none of that changes the fact we’re not the kind of people who would work out in the long run. We’re too different.”
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