Make Me Fall, page 20
“No,” she said forcefully. “It’s not dumb at all. It’s a fantastic idea. You could fundraise the difference. You’ve already got some experience with that under your belt, and I could help you.”
He smiled. “Wouldn’t that be frowned upon? Helping a rival college?”
She laughed. “You matter more to me that any sense of loyalty I might have to Shadow Creek College.”
“Because you’re not sure you’re staying there?” He almost didn’t want to know the answer. She’d told him she wasn’t taking Robin’s offer seriously, but she’d been unable to look him in the eye when she’d said it. He hadn’t wanted to make the drive back awkward by bringing it up earlier, but he couldn’t sit here now making plans for the future when he didn’t know if she would be around. He couldn’t let himself feel the way he did about her if she was going to leave him without a single glance backward.
“It’s hard to not at least consider a job offer like that. I have friends back home. My dad.”
“So you’re thinking of taking it?”
“No. I mean, I don’t think so. But it’s a big decision. It’s not the kind of thing I can say no to without mourning over it. I miss my life back in Toronto, and passing this job up makes me feel like I’m losing that part of my life all over again.”
“But you have a good life here, too. Julia and Clem and everyone else adore you.” I adore you, dammit.
She sighed. “The way you feel about Jake? That’s how I feel about Alice and Jessie. And my dad’s really struggling right now. I’m worried about him.”
Eli’s phone buzzed with a text, saving him from saying something he would regret. “It’s from Jake. He says there’s another emergency at the Holy Grale. Do you mind dropping me off there instead of going home?”
“Yeah, of course,” she said, pressing down on the gas even though she’d driven exactly the speed limit for the last four hours.
They were already close to town and it didn’t take long before they’d pulled into the Grale’s parking lot. He’d expected her to just drop him off, but she parked the car and got out.
“You don’t have to stay,” he said.
“You’ll need a ride home. Besides, I could use a drink after driving for that long.”
The after-work happy hour crowds were already filling up the place, but he spotted Jake near the bar. Clem and Julia were there, too, talking excitedly about something. Whatever it was, he hoped it wasn’t going to swallow up the last of their operating budget or require another all-nighter.
“Hey, you’re here,” Jake said. “Come on back with me.”
Eli turned to look at Nora, but Clem and Julia had already latched on to her arms and were dragging her toward the mezzanine. He followed Jake to the brewery room, his anxiety multiplying with each step.
With the din of the bar muffled by the heavy wood doors, Eli listened to the purr of his machines. Nothing sounded off. “What’s going on?”
Jake didn’t answer. He poured two pint glasses from an unmarked keg and handed one to Eli. “Taste this.”
Fuck. Nothing made him angrier than an off-batch. He sipped the amber liquid, letting the flavors coat his mouth and tongue, searching for the defect. There wasn’t one.
“This is my Matrimoni-ale.” It was an exclusive brew he’d developed that they reserved for wedding receptions hosted in their courtyard.
Jake grinned so wide, he looked like he was five years old. “I know.”
Eli stared at his best friend for a moment before finally cluing in. “Shit. You did it?”
“Yep. I finally proposed and Clem said yes.”
“That’s awesome! Congratulations!” He gave Jake a one-armed hug, careful to not spill his beer all over him. “I’m so happy for you.”
This time, he really meant it. Jake had been engaged once before to a woman who made him miserable, but his relationship with Clem was different. They were meant for each other, even if it had taken the pair forever to figure that out.
Eli took another long sip of beer, letting himself sink into the flavor and enjoy the perfect blend of hops and malt he’d created. “You really had me going there. I thought I was coming back to a disaster, not an engagement.”
Jake laughed. “Not a total lie. Tom called in sick, so you’re on your own tonight. And you better hurry up, because we’re almost out of Lord’s Work Lager.”
“I’ll get on that soon,” Eli said. “But first I have a better idea of how we can celebrate. I’ve got something I’ve been saving for just this occasion.”
Jake held his pint glass up and clanked it against Eli’s. “Whatever it is, I’m in.”
Nora had worried about what kind of problem was waiting for Eli downstairs, but Clem and Julia seemed way too excited for it to be anything truly bad. They led her up to the library room, far from the noise of the main floor, and shut the door behind them.
“What is going on?” Nora finally asked.
Clem’s cheeks turned bright red while Julia didn’t even try to hide the gleeful expression on her face. “Jake proposed,” Julia crowed, grabbing Clem’s left hand and holding it up. A deep blue sapphire sparkled on her ring finger.
“Congratulations!” Nora hugged Clem. “That’s so exciting.”
“And kind of overwhelming,” Clem said. She looked shell-shocked with her hair curling like a dark cloud around her face.
“It’s a good thing you have the best event planner in town as your friend,” Julia said. “You just need to trust me.”
Nora couldn’t help but laugh. When it came to organizational skills, Julia was the complete opposite of Eli. But the way they cared deeply for their friends and threw their hearts and souls into everything they did was completely alike. “You’re in good hands. All you need to do right now is bask in the moment. And give me all the details of how he proposed.”
Clem grinned. “God, I’m so lucky to have you two.”
“Details!” Julia said. “And don’t leave anything out.”
Nora’s phone buzzed. She reached inside her purse and ended the call without picking up. Whatever it was about could wait.
The phone buzzed again instantly. “Sorry,” she murmured, pulling out her phone to see who was calling her so insistently. It wasn’t just a half-dozen calls she’d missed. There were text messages, too. All from Jessie.
The one blazing on the front of her screen was so bizarre, she had to read it twice before the words even made sense.
Answer the phone! Your parents are in the hospital.
“Everything okay?” Clem asked softly.
“I…I don’t know.” The phone buzzed again and she answered the call immediately. “Jessie?”
“Oh thank god! You need to answer your phone when I call!”
“What’s going on?”
“I just started my shift an hour ago and I saw your parents. They were in a car accident.”
Nora’s heart beat so fast, if felt like it was about to burst out of her chest. Jessie was a nurse in one of the emergency departments back home. “Both of them?”
“That can’t be possible. Mom’s in Italy.”
“I don’t know how,” Jessie said. “But they’re here. I saw them with my own eyes. They’re alive, but I don’t know much else. I’ve only got a few minutes and I’m using it to book you a ticket home.”
“Oh my god.” Nora covered her mouth with her hand. Her legs were shaking. Clem and Julia rushed to her side.
“There’s only one flight out of Shadow Creek today that will get you here, and it leaves in forty minutes. I’ve just booked it and sent the details to your email. Don’t thank me, just get to the airport.”
Nausea rose in Nora’s chest as she ended the call. Her limbs felt cold and hollow.
“What’s the matter?” Julia asked.
Nora had to swallow back the panic in her throat before she could answer. “My parents are in the hospital. I need to go.”
“I have to catch my flight. It leaves in forty minutes.”
“I’ll take you,” Julia said, hooking her arm around Nora’s and leading her toward the exit.
“I’ll let Eli know,” Clem offered.
Oh God. Eli. She didn’t even have time to find him before she left. “Thank you.”
“Don’t worry,” Julia said, dragging Nora down the steps. “It’s going to be okay. I promise.”
All Nora could do was put one foot in front of the other and hope to God Julia was right.
The back door to the Holy Grale banged open before Eli could light the waterproof match he’d saved for this very occasion. Clem burst through and stepped out onto their back patio, which, aside from him and Jake, was completely empty. The grounds were beautiful, but no one willingly came out here when it was raining this hard.
“This is where you are? I’ve been looking all over for you.” She brushed her thick hair back from her face, revealing wide eyes. “Are you smoking cigars?”
Eli laughed. “If you’re worried I’m corrupting your fiancé, well, you should be. But not with cigars. Something even better that won’t ruin his breath for your post-announcement make-out.” He held up the unlit firecracker and grinned.
Clem, who could usually find the humor in his and Jake’s antics, didn’t crack a smile.
Jake cupped her cheek with one hand, looking her in the eye with the kind of intensity that seemed to lock out everyone around them. “What’s the matter?”
She was upset, Eli realized. Panicked even. She turned to Eli. “Nora’s parents were hurt. She’s flying to Toronto right now.”
“What? I don’t understand. Her parents aren’t together. They’re not even in the same country.” His own words sounded distant in his head, like he was watching the conversation happen from afar. Memories of the night he’d gotten the same kind of call about his own mom ten years ago hit him like a thousand knife blades.
“I don’t know,” Clem answered. “But her friend Jessie called her twenty minutes ago from the hospital. Nora’s already on her way to the airport. We tried to find you, but—”
He cut her off with an angry curse. None of this made sense. “I need to go after her.”
Clem shook her head. “You won’t get to the airport in time to make the flight.”
Eli raked his hand through his hair. He couldn’t let her deal with this alone. Not after she’d been there for him. Not when he didn’t know if she would come back. Everything she loved was in Toronto, and if her parents were hurt…
Shit. He hadn’t told her he loved her yet.
“Maybe not Shadow Creek Airport,” Jake said. “But I bet there’s still some flights from Seattle that would work.”
Clem nodded and grabbed Eli by the arm. “My car’s out front.”
“You would do that for me?” Seattle was almost two hours away, and rush hour traffic would be picking up right around now.
Clem smiled. “Of course, but I’m doing it for Nora, too. Now let’s go.”
It was almost ten in the morning by the time Nora finally stepped off the plane. Between the long drive back from Portland and the three-connection flight to Toronto, her legs felt like they’d been fossilized. Every part of her was stiff and sore.
She pulled out her phone, which was a silly thing to do since the battery had died before she even made it to the airport in Shadow Creek, but it was a normal, instinctive thing to do and she desperately needed normal right now. She’d managed to get an email off to her department chair before her phone died, explaining her absence and ensuring she had coverage for her classes. At least all the stress of meticulously preparing her labs and lectures months in advance would make it easy for a replacement to step in at the last minute.
She hadn’t gotten the chance to call Eli, though. Thinking of him felt like a warm blanket had been wrapped around her shoulders, warding off the winter chill. God, she hoped he would understand why she took off without telling him first.
With no luggage to collect, she went straight to the taxi line and asked for a ride to the hospital. She stared at her phone the entire way. Somehow, holding it made her feel a little less alone, like a call from Eli or her friends or parents could pop on the screen at any minute. Except, it couldn’t. She didn’t have her charger, and for all she knew her parents wouldn’t ever be able to call her again.
Please be okay. No matter how much her parents frustrated her, she would give anything to know they would have another chance to nitpick about her clothes or her life or her job.
The familiar sights of the city she grew up in were a comfort, at least. She’d wanted to come back here for so long, but apparently she’d forgotten how bad the traffic could be in big cities. It was amazing how she could forget something like that in such a short time.
When she finally pulled up to the hospital, the agonizing slowness of her trip gave way to the frantic bustle of a busy emergency room. Loud voices, strange beeps, and distant cries of pain swirled around her as she looked for someone who could tell her where her parents were.
She turned to see Jessie, dressed in pale blue scrubs. “Oh, thank God you’re here.”
Jessie pulled her into a hug. “I’ve seen them. They’re stable, but your mom’s been moved to a specialized ward for some additional tests. I’ll take you there now.”
Nora stomach seized. “Why?”
“She banged her head pretty hard, but it’s going to be okay,” Jessie said calmly. “It’s a good thing the doctors are taking extra precautions.”
Nora tried her best to believe her as they walked through the chaotic hallways. Within a few minutes, they’d arrived at her mom’s room.
Jessie gave her one last hug. “I have to get back to the ER, but I’ll find you when my shift’s over. I’ll let Alice know you’ve arrived, okay? She was here with them last night but had to go in to work this morning.”
Nora nodded. She squeezed a dollop of sanitizer from the wall-mounted dispenser onto her hands and entered the room. It was a small space that smelled like antiseptic, with big windows, linoleum floors, and a simple monitoring unit next to the bed. And in the middle of it all were her parents. Her mom lay awake on the bed, batting a hand at her father, who was standing next to her with a sling on one arm and fussing with the settings on the adjustable bed.
Even though she was looking right at them, it was hard to believe her parents were here together. She hadn’t seen them in the same room in over a year, and now they were bickering like they were still an old married couple. “Mom? Dad?”
“Nora?” Her mom’s eyes lit up, but she sounded weak. “What are you doing here?”
“Jessie called me.” She walked to the bed and gingerly hugged her mom.
“I always liked that girl,” her dad said, now messing with the blankets at her mom’s waist. “She’s a good influence on you.”
In any other circumstance, Nora would have laughed. Instead, she hugged him, too. He’d never been one for physical affection, offering a distant pat on the shoulder whenever she’d accomplished something important or skinned her knee, but this time he hugged her back, holding her long enough to make her feel every bit of the emotion he usually kept locked up behind his gruff exterior. “Tell me what happened.”
“Some fool didn’t know how to take a proper left turn,” her dad grumbled.
“Yes, and that fool was your father.”
“Hush, my little goldfish. You were distracting me.”
Nora’s head spun. That was the pet name her dad used to call her mom—a teasing reference to her short attention span and golden hair. She was suddenly flooded with memories of her mom cooking terrible, over-salted pancakes on the weekends, cajoling her dad to dance with her in the kitchen whenever one of her favorite songs came on the radio. The way her dad would protest until the sway of her mom’s hips broke down his defenses.
“I still don’t understand. What are you even doing together?”
Her parents looked to each other. Their smiles were giddy. Guilty, almost. Like teenagers caught making out beneath the bleachers. “It’s kind of a long story,” her mom supplied, reaching for her dad’s hands.
Nora shuddered, realizing exactly how her mom had distracted her dad in the car. It was an image no woman should have to have about her parents. And it still didn’t make sense. “You were supposed to be in Italy.”
“I was. And it was terrible. Just like the yoga retreat, and my trip to Argentina. And New Orleans. And all the other places I dreamed of visiting when I finally retired.” She patted her husband’s hand. “And finally I realized there was nothing wrong with those places. It was me. I didn’t want to do all those things alone. I was sitting on the edge of the Fonte Gaia in Siena, soaking in the beautiful architecture and watching two pigeons fight over an overly large scrap of bread someone had left on the sampietrini, and then I remembered what you asked me the day I left Shadow Creek.”
Nora frowned. “I don’t remember.”
“You asked why we never tried to compromise. Sitting there, with the sun on my face, I realized I didn’t have a good answer.” She looked to Nora’s father once again and took his hand. The smile that passed between them was so warm, the fear and worry that had wrapped like ice around Nora’s heart finally thawed.
“So you’re…back together?”
“We’re not putting labels on it right now,” he dad said, so thoroughly out of character that Nora had to laugh again. “Now help me with these damn tubes. They’re all tangled up.”
“They’re just fine. Leave them alone and give Nora some money to get me a coffee.”
“You’re not allowed coffee yet.”
“Fine, then.” Her mom threw her arms up, setting off a frantic beeping sound from her monitor. “I’ll have a latte.”
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