Make Me Fall, page 21
Her parents seemed to forget she was even there, completely enthralled in their bickering, and Nora couldn’t remember having been happier in her entire life.
Eli would have recognized the two women standing at the arrival section of the airport just from the photos lining Nora’s house, but the big cardboard sign reading Humperdinck made it clear that Jessie and Alice were waiting for him. Somehow, the two of them had managed to track him down over his social media accounts to let him know what was happening.
It was more than he’d heard from Nora. He tried not to worry, knowing she’d left her phone charger dangling from the adaptor plugged into her car’s dashboard, but he hated that she was dealing with all this without him. Hated thinking he was going to lose her.
She’d told him she wasn’t taking the job Robin had offered, and at the time he’d believed her. But everything changed the moment she got on that plane. Her parents were facing a long recovery. She had to be at least considering it, and he couldn’t blame her if she was.
“So, you’re the neighbor who’s turned Nora’s life completely upside down,” said Jessie, who he recognized by her short stature and curly brown hair.
“To be fair, she’s turned mine completely upside down, too.” His response earned him the barest hint of a smile, but they were loyal friends holding back any signs of approval until he’d earned it.
“I can see that,” said Alice, strawberry-blond and tall in a way that gave her a natural elegance. “Don’t think that flying across the continent is enough to absolve you from all the crap you put her through.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it. Thank you for letting me know what was going on and picking me up. If you hadn’t, I’d probably be wandering around the streets of Toronto shouting Nora’s name.” He glanced at the giant windows stretching the length of the wall, noticing the heavy snow blanketing the ground. “And I didn’t exactly dress for the weather.”
He took a step forward, but the two women crossed their arms at the exact same time, subtly leaning into each other and blocking his path. He rubbed the back of his neck. This was going to be a little harder than he’d anticipated.
Alice drummed her fingers against her biceps.
Okay, maybe a lot harder. He turned on his best innocent puppy dog look. “I’m not here to talk her into coming home, I swear. And I really am sorry for being an ass.”
Jessie harrumphed. “Then why are you here?”
“Because…” He inhaled, steeling his courage. “Because I love her.”
“Okay,” Alice said with a nod. “Let’s go.”
It had been years since Nora had been so tired. Even her bones felt fragile from the exhaustion, like they could crumble to dust at the slightest touch. Her parents had been discharged only a few hours ago, with strict instructions for bed rest. Her dad’s left arm was broken and her mom had a concussion and fractured tibia. They were doped up on painkillers, covered in bandages, and arguing about everything from what route the cab driver should take home from the hospital to whether they should order sushi or Thai for dinner. It had been so long since they’d been a family like this.
It was so odd how almost nothing had changed. The furniture was exactly the same as when she’d last seen it almost a year ago, if a little more dusty. The bright throw pillows, garish paintings, and other little random splashes of color in the otherwise stuffy space hadn’t been touched. But there was something different—a sadness hovering over the room like a fog.
In truth, it wasn’t just her parents’ separation that had created distance between them all. They’d barely had any real time together since she’d eloped with Gavin and moved to Boston. She’d been so consumed by work, she hadn’t made enough time for them. In the three years she’d been living on the East Coast of the United States, she’d only managed a total of four visits home. Her family had broken down in that time. Every part of them. Their hearts, their relationships, and now, it seemed, their bodies. At least their bones would heal.
Once she’d settled her mom on the sagging, floral-patterned couch with a cup of Earl Grey, and her dad on his favorite cognac-colored leather recliner next to her, Nora made an executive decision and called in a sushi delivery order from her dad’s landline. She organized the prescriptions she’d picked up at the pharmacy on the way back from the hospital into labeled pillboxes to make sure they wouldn’t get mixed up, and cleaned the kitchen, which looked like it hadn’t been properly wiped down in months.
She wandered into her dad’s office next. Considering how bad the rest of the house had gotten, she was afraid of what she’d find. Unfortunately, her fears weren’t unfounded. Coffee mugs lined the desk and there were books and stacks of paper everywhere. She returned the books to the bookshelves, but knew better than to touch any of the papers without her dad’s explicit permission.
She was about to pick up a plate that had some kind of unidentifiable, mold-covered food on it, but stopped when she saw the photo perched on the desk behind her. It was one of her with her parents standing in front of the Ontario Science Centre. She must have been about seven or eight years old, if the terrible nineties fashion was anything to go by. Her parents had gotten her an annual pass, even though neither of them was remotely interested in the hard sciences. It was one of her happiest memories.
The weight of it all hit her at once, like she was caught in a hailstorm of emotions. She’d spent the better part of the last year being angry with her parents for their selfishness, and now she’d almost lost them entirely. They could have died in that crash. She could barely even remember why she’d been angry in the first place.
She’d tried so hard to convince herself that her parents didn’t need her, but she was wrong. They couldn’t function without her. Heck, they could barely keep themselves alive without her. Frustration seared into her skin. For months, the only thing she wanted was an excuse to come back home. Only now, home didn’t feel like home anymore. She didn’t want to leave her students, or her house, or Eli.
God, Eli. She could barely think straight when it came to him. He made her feel happy and safe and loved.
But none of that changed the fact her parents needed her.
The doorbell rang.
“Larry, go answer that,” Catherine instructed her dad from the living room.
“No!” Nora jumped to her feet and wiped her cheeks dry. “I’ll get it.”
She was starving and the last thing she needed was her dad spending the next twenty minutes arguing with the delivery guy about the tip, or accidentally dropping the food. Aside from the complimentary coffee and cookies on her flight, she hadn’t eaten anything in almost twenty-four hours. Her stomach rumbled in anticipation of actual food.
She opened the front door and gasped, unable to manage any other sound. She was struck silent by the absolutely impossible sight in front of her. Jessie and Alice were here at her parents’ doorstep. With Eli.
“We come bearing get well gifts for your folks,” Alice said cheerily, holding a bouquet of gerbera daisies.
“And a little something for you,” Jessie added, pointing to Eli.
Nora didn’t move. Her brain couldn’t compute what her eyes and ears were telling it. “I…I don’t understand.”
Elis’s expression twisted into something like trepidation. He was wearing the same clothes he’d had on for the last few days, looking almost as rough as she felt. Flecks of shiny white snow dusted his dark hair and shoulders. “I tried to call, but you didn’t answer.”
“So you flew here?”
The smallest hint of a smile crept onto his lips. “I didn’t know when you’d be back and there was something I really needed to tell you.”
Emotion welled in her throat, blocking everything she wanted to say. She threw her arms around his neck and sank into him. He held her tightly, pulling her into him and pressing a hand against the back of her head. It felt like falling into heaven—soft yet secure in all the right ways.
Alice cleared her throat.
“I still don’t understand,” Nora said when she finally let go of her friends. “How are you all here together?”
Jessie rolled her eyes. “I tracked him down on Facebook to let him know what was happening, but he was already on his way over.”
“Did you really think we wouldn’t take care of you?” Alice added.
Nora looked at Eli once more. “How did you get here? There weren’t any flights.”
Eli smiled. “Not out of Shadow Creek. Clem gave me a ride to SeaTac.”
Nora’s stomach flip-flopped. Seattle’s airport was almost two hours away. He’d come all the way here. For her.
And she hadn’t even let him inside yet. She moved out of the way to let them in. Eli shivered as he stepped inside, rubbing his hands against his arms. His jacket was too light for the wet, heavy snow and unrelenting cold of a Canadian winter.
“Is that the food? Don’t tip unless they remembered to give you extra soy sauce this time!”
Nora forced a smile. “I guess it’s time for you to meet my dad.”
Alice and Jessie barged ahead into the living room. They’d spent so much time here growing up that it was practically a second home for them. They were used to her dad’s gruffness and her mom’s flightiness—so much so that they often referred to Nora’s parents as endearingly kooky.
Eli laced his fingers through hers and started to walk down the hall. She stopped him with a slight tug of the wrist. “What was so important for you to tell me that you had to fly across the continent?”
He turned toward her with a grin and brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “It’s the kind of thing that needs to be said after I meet your father.”
“I never told you that my dad is kind of—”
“Nora!” her dad yelled from the living room. “Where’s the damn food? Your mother needs her miso soup!”
Nora sighed. “Kind of abrasive. Are you sure you want to go through with this? It’s not too late to run away.”
His expression grew serious. He cupped her cheek with his hand. “I know how hard it is to get a call telling you that your parents were in a car crash. I’m here for you, even if it means having to explain to your dad I’m planning on spending the night in his only daughter’s childhood bedroom.” He kissed her softly, barely grazing his lips across hers, but there was a power behind that gentleness. The kind that could dismantle her fears with its delicate restraint in a way force and aggression never could. “Besides, I give good parent. Dads love me.”
When they walked into the living room, her parents were exactly where she’d left them, only Alice and Jessie were sitting with them—Alice on the sofa next to Nora’s mom, and Jessie on the arm of her dad’s chair.
Her dad looked up from the pair of slippers Jessie had given him and locked his gaze on Eli. “If you don’t have our miso soup, you better at least have an explanation for why you’re holding my daughter’s hand.”
“Relax, Larry, that’s her neighbor. He’s a nice boy,” her mom said.
“The turd-nugget who’s been giving you grief?”
Eli smiled politely. “We’ve settled our misunderstandings as adults.”
“Have you settled your face yet or are you always going to look like you’re passing one out the wrong end?”
“Still think this is a good idea?” Nora whispered to Eli.
He swallowed, but kept his expression pleasant. “It’s very nice to meet you, Dr. Pitts. Nora’s spoken highly of you.”
“Did that praise include mention of my machete collection?”
“Dad,” Nora sighed. “You don’t have a machete collection.”
“No, but I’m suddenly inspired to acquire one.”
Everyone else in the room laughed, but Eli just squeezed her hand tighter and whispered, “Any pointers for how to win him over?”
Nora shook her head. “You’re doing great. Turd-nugget is actually a compliment. If he really didn’t like you, you’d already be in tears and clutching the remaining tatters of your self-esteem.”
“So…” Eli drawled as he followed Nora past the doorway, lugging his quickly packed bag over his shoulder. “This is the infamous childhood bedroom of Nora Pitts.”
The room was filled with bookshelves, and posters of boy bands from the nineties.
“Infamous? Only if you’re referring to the time Jessie stole her mom’s bottle of limoncello when we were thirteen and got us all drunk during a sleepover.”
“I’m both curious and a little creeped out thinking about you as a pre-teen cuddling your stuffed koala while chugging Italian liqueur.”
“Let me spoil the surprise by admitting I threw up all over the floor and tried to cover it up by dumping my mom’s perfume to cover the smell, even though I hate the smell of patchouli. She’s bought me that perfume for every birthday since.”
“I had no idea you had such a wild streak.” He set the bag down on little bench in front of the mirrored vanity and looked at the brightly colored walls that were so different from the austere white décor of her home in Shadow Creek. “Or a thing for pink.”
Nora groaned. “My parent’s birthday present when I turned ten. I didn’t have the heart to tell them I hated it.”
He pulled her into his arms. She sagged against him, finally dropping the defense she’d been holding up for so long. “I brought you something that I think you’re going to appreciate.”
“You already brought yourself,” she mumbled into his chest.
“Something even better. Hang on.” He let her go to rummage in his bag. “This.”
He held up a long white phone charger and her eyes went wide.
“Oh my god, thank you!” She pulled her phone from her purse and plugged in. “My battery died before I even made it to the airport and neither of my folks have cell phones. I’ve never felt more naked.”
She kissed him, and it took every ounce of his self-restraint not to turn it into something more. Even in their exhaustion, passion smoldered between them, heating his blood with need. But he knew that wasn’t what she needed right now.
Her phone beeped, signaling it finally had enough of a charge to turn on. She turned it on and scrolled through her messages. Her eyebrows knitted together right before she let out a little gasp.
“Yeah,” he said sheepishly, running his hand along the back of his neck. “I might have sent you a few dozen texts.”
“No, it’s not that. It’s…” She turned the phone toward him, revealing a photograph of a laboratory that was so high-tech and pristine, it looked like it was from a movie set. The kind of lab any scientist would kill for.
He swallowed the lump of nerves in his throat. “Robin isn’t taking no for an answer?”
“No. In fact, she’s upped the salary offer to…well, to a lot.”
“And you’re considering it?”
She sat on the edge of the mattress and dropped her head into her hands. “No. I don’t know.” Her words trailed off into a yawn.
“You need to get some sleep.”
She looked down at the twin mattress set on a white-painted, wrought-iron frame, letting out a soft sigh. “I don’t know how much sleep we’ll get on this.”
“As much as I hate that I won’t be able to defile you in your childhood twin bed, I know you won’t sleep well if I’m cuddled up next to you. I’ll sleep on the floor.”
She started to protest, but he shook his head. There was no arguing with the bags under her eyes and pallor of her skin.
She yawned, then said, “We should at least talk about—”
He spun her toward the bed and gave her a gentle nudge. “Sleep now. We can talk tomorrow.”
Maybe by then his stomach would be able to handle the conversation they needed to have.
Over the last thirty hours, Eli had cooked so many meals and stuffed them ins
His basic renovation skills had been truly helpful, though. He’d installed a hand-held shower attachment and safety bar in their main-floor bathroom. He’d also moved the mattress down to the living room and taken care of anything that could be considered a trip hazard.
By the end of his second day there, they’d gotten Nora’s parents as settled as they could in their home, though Eli hadn’t made much headway in winning her dad over. He didn’t blame Larry. Despite the man’s obstinacy, he had a special bond with Nora. He’d watched his only daughter get hurt in the past.
But it wasn’t Larry who Eli needed to win over. It was Nora. He still hadn’t found the chance to tell her what he’d come here to say. She’d worked herself so ragged taking care of her parents there hadn’t been a right time. Unfortunately, time wasn’t something they had a lot of right now. It had been five days since he’d been at the Holy Grale. It was the longest he’d ever been away, and even though he wasn’t eager to leave Nora, he needed to get back. Besides, she had things covered here. Other than serving as a human pincushion for her dad’s sharp barbs, he wasn’t much use here.
“Hey,” he said gently, sliding a bowl of chicken noodle soup in front of her on the kitchen counter. “You need to eat something.” It had been hours since she’d had any food, and darkness had already invaded the night sky.
She looked up from her phone with a sweet smile. “Thanks.”
Her hair was pulled into a messy bun and exhaustion still painted the planes of her face with shades of gray. He never thought he’d use the word “unkempt” to describe her, but being around her parents seemed to wear her down like coarse-grit sandpaper. Seeing her family dynamic made him understand her so much more than before. She might be Catherine and Larry’s daughter, but she was the caretaker in the family. The responsible one. There was a lot of love in her family, but that didn’t make up for that kind of weight being put on her shoulders.
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