Make me fall, p.15
, page 15
“Different isn’t always bad. Sometimes, opposites bring out the best in each other.”
God, she wanted to believe that. Eli did make her feel calm and special and safe. But her parents had been madly in love once. “And sometimes they destroy each other.”
Julia’s eyes widened, but she wasn’t looking at Nora. “Oh shit.”
Nora turned to see Eli behind her, anger flaring in his brown eyes. “That’s what you think of me? After all this time, you think I’m going to destroy you?”
He stormed off before her shock had worn off.
“I should go after him,” Julia said.
Nora put her arm out to stop her. “No. I will.”
She handed Mittens back to SPCA worker and ran after him. She caught up to him just before he stepped into the brewery room. “Eli, wait.”
He stopped with his hand on the door. The muscles in his back and shoulders tensed beneath his T-shirt.
“I didn’t mean that. Not the way you think.”
“How did you mean it?” He didn’t turn around, but the low growl of his voice left no doubt about his expression.
“I…” She didn’t know what to say. Didn’t really know how to defend herself.
He pushed open the door and shut it behind him.
Panic tightened her throat. She wasn’t good at confrontations. She didn’t know how to make Eli understand. But she couldn’t just leave him like this.
She cracked open the door and followed him inside. “Eli, I’m sorry.”
He rubbed his forehead, not meeting her eyes. “I know you are. I am, too.”
“What do you mean?”
He walked toward her and slid his hand behind her neck, drawing their foreheads together. “I thought I could do this. I thought I could be the guy who understood when you said you wanted to just be friends, but I’m not. I can’t do it, Nora. I can’t just be your friend when I’m falling for you. It hurts too fucking much.”
His breath was warm against her skin. She squeezed her eyes shut. “What are you saying?”
“I’m done. No more cuddling on your couch. No more wondering how your day went. No more going to bed wishing you were with me. I know it makes me an asshole who doesn’t understand the word no, but if I can’t be with you as your lover, I can’t be with you at all. At least not right now. Not until it stops feeling like I’ve been stabbed in the gut every time I look at you.”
Hot, sticky tears slipped down her cheeks. She wanted to scream. Beg him to change his mind. But how could she without making it worse?
He kissed her forehead and let her go, turning his back to her once more. “Just go. Please.”
His whispered words were so strong, so certain, they sliced right through her heart. She wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand. All she’d wanted was to keep their misguided romance from tearing them apart, but now she’d lost him anyway.
“Death cannot stop true love,” Nora mumbled along to her television before shoving another scoop of Chocolate Cherry Garcia in her mouth.
Her phone buzzed and she paused the movie long enough to type a quick I’m fine into her phone.
You’re watching The Princess Bride again, aren’t you?
Nora ignored Alice’s text, threw her phone onto the couch, and turned the movie back on. Her friends seemed to have a sixth sense for when she was moping in front of the TV watching her favorite movie.
The truth was she had been watching her favorite comfort movie a little more than normal this past week, but tonight she’d only cried at the legitimately sad parts instead of throughout the whole thing. That was progress, as far as she was concerned. Alice and Jessie had been there for her, but lately it felt like the phone calls and texts weren’t enough. She wanted them on the couch with her. She wanted to be back home in Toronto. She’d given Shadow Creek a chance, and even though she was just starting to find her place, she’d gone and screwed that up. Maybe she needed to finally accept that coming out here was a failed experiment.
She set down her bowl of ice cream on top of a coaster and picked up the Pringles can.
Her phone buzzed again, but this time the vibration signaled an email coming through, rather than a text. There was a time in her life that her career was so busy, she would wake to at least a hundred emails every morning, but since moving to Shadow Creek, she rarely got any after five p.m.
She pulled up the email on her phone and sat up straighter. It was from Dr. Lo, the professor she’d studied under for her PhD. It had been ages since Nora had heard from her, but it was the subject line that caught her attention.
Job opportunity for you.
Nora’s stomach clenched as she cradled her cell phone like it was a bomb about to go off. Dr. Lo hadn’t even bothered with the usual pleasantries—not that Nora blamed her. It had to be a bit of a disappointment that one of her top students had landed a coveted tenure-track position at a top research university, only to wind up at a college in the middle of nowhere that had more coffee kiosks than lab space. Instead, the email jumped right into the job description.
Chief scientific officer for a startup company developing novel materials for green energy applications—in Toronto.
Nora rubbed her temples. This was amazing and terrible all at the same time. It wasn’t an academic job, but it was one that would bring her back home.
Following in her parents’ footsteps and becoming a professor had been her dream from the time she got her own microscope as a present for her fourth birthday. Sure, teaching had its drawbacks, but once in a while she was able to inspire a student. And as frustrating as it was to write grant proposal after grant proposal, she loved running her own lab and designing her own projects. If she went to work for someone else, she’d lose all that control.
But you’d be home.
Her doorbell rang and she jerked back with a start.
Eli was the only person who came to her door. Without stopping to think, she ran to open it. If he was here, maybe he’d forgiven her. Maybe—
“Clem?” Nora stared blankly at the unexpected face on the other side of her door. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s October 22nd,” the woman said simply as she reached for Nora’s arm.
Clem gave her a gentle tug. “The Red Zephyr night. The season finale of the fourth season. You were supposed to catch up on the episodes and come to our viewing parties. Tonight’s the last one, and you can’t miss it.”
“But what? Julia’s waiting in the car and you know she doesn’t like to be late.”
Nora hesitated. After her fight with Eli, she didn’t think she’d ever see Clem and Julia again. But she couldn’t bring herself to say that out loud. “I haven’t finished catching up on the episodes.”
“Then you’re going to have to deal with spoilers, because everyone’s at my place waiting for you, and you have no idea how hard it is for me to come up here to your door.”
Nora frowned. “Because you don’t want me to come?”
“No, of course I want you to come. Everyone wants you to come. I meant because I literally had to come up to your door. I wouldn’t do that for just anyone.” Clem shivered. “So let’s get going.”
Julia honked from the car and waved.
“We’re not taking no for an answer,” Clem said.
“Okay,” Nora answered, realizing that Eli wouldn’t be there if Nora was still invited. The last thing she wanted was to push him away from his friends, but it would make the evening a little less awkward if she didn’t have to deal with him. “I’ll grab my coat.’
It was a short drive over to Clem’s place. Unlike the classic sixties bungalows lining Nora’s street, Clem’s house was a beautiful old craftsman just around the corner from the Holy Grale, with a stately porch and huge elm trees along the yard.
The inside was just as beautiful, with original moldings and hardwood floors. Nor
Clem’s front living room was filled with people already. Her sisters were there with their husbands, who, to Nora’s surprise, were identical twins. Lisa and Lorenzo were chatting amiably on the couch, briefly stopping their conversation to say hi. Jake was laying out snacks on the coffee table.
No one else was here. Nora let out a breath, unclenching her stomach, finally relaxing. A part of her desperately hoped Eli would be here so they could make things right, but the other, bigger part of her was too afraid to confront him. Too afraid of what he would say when she tried to apologize again.
“Who needs a drink?” Clem asked.
Half the people in the room raised their hands or shouted requests.
“I’ll help,” Nora offered, wanting to be polite, but also secretly wanting to check out Clem’s kitchen to make sure it was clean before she dove into the snacks on the coffee table. Nora followed her through the heavy old door off the living room and froze.
Eli was there, dumping a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos into a bowl. “Hey, Clem. Nora.”
His voice was so impassive, she didn’t know what to say. There wasn’t a hint of emotion—happy, sad or angry—to go by.
She swallowed the lump in her throat. “Hi, Eli.”
She wanted to ask him if he wanted her to leave, but he picked up the bowl and walked past her into the living room without another word. Like her presence was so insignificant, he didn’t even care.
For the next two hours, Nora tried to follow along with the story on the large flat-screen TV, but found herself sneaking so many glances at Eli that she eventually gave up trying to follow the plot. He didn’t look at her. Not once.
And the worst part was, this was what she’d wanted. She was the one who wanted distance. To be able to hang out like this with their now mutual friends without it being awkward. He was respecting her wishes still. She just didn’t expect it to suck so much.
By the end of the show, everyone around her was abuzz with excitement, talking about the plot twists and surprise ending. Nora tried to play along and act excited, but her heart wasn’t in it. She was tired and ready to go home.
“Hey, Eli,” Julia called out as she was slinging on her coat. “Can you give Nora a ride home?”
He met Nora’s eyes for the first time all evening, and she felt like her heart was going to explode. “Sorry. I’m heading straight to the Holy Grale after this. But I’ll see you around.”
“Yeah, sure,” she said as bravely as she could. “See you around.”
“So while the results are still premin…preimin…” Nora took a deep breath and willed her brain to remember the word she’d said out loud a million times before. If she was going to deliver this conference presentation in the ten measly minutes allotted to her, she couldn’t trip up over simple words. “Preliminary.”
She gave herself a quick thumbs-up in the full-length mirror of her closet door and continued running through her slides. When she reached the final acknowledgement slide, she checked the timer. Twelve minutes and thirteen seconds.
Shoot. She rubbed her forehead and steeled herself to do her tenth run-through of the evening. The conference presentation was still a week away, but she wanted to be prepared. Plus, it wasn’t like she had anything else to do on a Friday night anymore except shave off two more minutes from her presentation. She reset her PowerPoint to the beginning slide and set the time on her phone. “Thank you for that lovely introduction, and to my colleagues for their excellent presentations. I’m Dr. Nora Pitts and—”
Her doorbell rang. Excitement flickered in her belly. She was smart enough to know it wasn’t Eli, but the only other people to ring her doorbell lately were Julia and Clem, and right now she could use a little cheering up. She shut her laptop and made her way to the front door, but her excitement disappeared the moment she opened it.
It wasn’t Eli, and it wasn’t Julia or Clem, or anyone else she wanted to see either.
“Well, are you going to let us in?” Gemma dangled a bottle of merlot from her hand like Nora was a puppy being offered a dog treat.
“What are you doing here?” she stammered.
“Book club,” Rose, who was standing next to Gemma, said with an exaggerated roll of the eyes. “We’re reading The Fountainhead, remember?”
Nora shuddered. Annie, who was standing behind Gemma and Rose did the same. “I told you I’m no longer interested in being part of this book club.”
“Oh, come on,” Gemma said, stepping into the small foyer. “It’s not like you’re doing anything else on a Friday night. I’m sure you can whip up something tasty. Don’t you have frozen hors d’oeuvres in freezer just in case?”
Nora winced, just long enough for Rose and Annie to follow Gemma inside. “Wait.”
When Gemma gave no sign of listening, Nora stuck out her arm to block her. She’d never done something so bold.
“I’m not hosting book club,” she said once more, articulating every word in the commanding voice she normally reserved for her lectures. “All you’ve done from the moment we met was take advantage of my hospitality when it suited you, and treat me like dirt when it didn’t.”
“You can’t possibly be that sensitive,” Rose said, though a hint of doubt had softened the normal bite in her tone. “We’re doing you a favor. It’s not like you have anything else to do tonight. We thought you’d like the company.”
It was Nora’s turn to roll her eyes. For months, she’d been desperate for these women to like her. Now, she didn’t care. Maybe she didn’t have the easiest time making friends, but at least she finally knew she deserved more than whatever crumbs they were willing to throw at her. “You thought wrong. Please leave.”
“You heard her. You’re not welcome here, so go.”
Nora’s head whipped up at the sound of Eli’s voice behind the women. He pushed his way between Gemma and Rose, and set his hand on Nora’s shoulder. She was too shocked to say or do anything but stand there like a gargoyle. But despite her frozen exterior, every inch of Nora’s skin felt like a lightning rod, crackling with electricity. She was hyperaware of Eli’s touch. What the heck was he even doing here?
Rose scoffed and trotted down the porch steps. Gemma smirked before following.
Annie hesitated. She glanced to the red sports car the other women were climbing into before turning back to Nora. “Hey, I’m sorry. I know we haven’t been great friends to you and I told Gemma and Rose we shouldn’t have come, but they were kind of insistent.”
Nora nodded. “Thanks.”
Annie offered a tentative smile. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”
Eli slammed the door before Nora could say anything else. The instant the women were out of sight, his hand left her shoulder.
“I had that under control,” Nora whispered, scared to look at him. Scared that if she did, he would disappear like a figment of her imagination.
She finally looked up at him, but his gaze was fixed on the door behind her, as though he were too scared to meet her eyes.
She inhaled deeply. “Then why are you here?”
“I just… I don’t like the way they treat you. No matter what’s going on with us, I don’t want you to forget that.”
Emotion welled in her throat. She reached her hand toward his chest. “Eli—”
He stepped back and shook his head. “Where’s your phone?”
“Your phone,” he repeated.
“On the counter,” she answered, as confused as ever.
He walked into kitchen and picked up her phone. “Passcode?”
He held the phone out for her to tap in the four digits to unlock the screen. She frowned but complied, then handed it back to him. “Is something wrong?”
He shook his head, but
An image of a smiling couple with their foreheads pressed together against a teal backdrop appeared on the screen, the words Summer of Love written at the top in bright, looping script. “This is a book.”
He nodded. “The book you’re supposed to be reading for the Books and Brews meeting Sunday night. Julia said you told her you weren’t coming.”
Nora sighed. She’d told Julia she couldn’t make it to the next meeting, claiming she needed to prepare for her conference next week. But that had been nothing but a convenient excuse. She couldn’t bring herself to walk back into the Holy Grale when he didn’t want her there.
And now he was here, acting like he knew what was best for her when he’d barely spoken a word to her in the last week. A thread of annoyance pierced through all the other emotions swirling inside her. “So you decided to one-click the book on my account?”
“It was three bucks. I’ll pay you back, as long as you go to the meeting.”
Her shoulders sagged, suddenly feeling too heavy for her body. She reached her hand toward him, wanting to feel him again. Wanting to erase all the anger and hurt between them. “Eli—”
He backed away before her fingers made contact. “I should go.”
She dropped her hand, disappointment burning like acid in her lungs. “You don’t have to.”
He raked his hand through his hair. “Yeah, I do. Things aren’t right between us and maybe they’ll never be. But that shouldn’t keep you from the book club. I don’t want to be the reason you lose out on those friendships. Please?”
It was the please that broke her. He still cared about her, in spite of how she’d hurt him, and she didn’t know how to make things right. What if she never could? Tears prickled her eyes. “Okay.”