The curdled cream in my coffee should’ve been the tip-off that today was going to be craptastic.
Because I couldn’t start the day without a caffeine kick, I stopped at a lovely little café on my way to work—only to get to the counter and realize my wallet wasn’t in my purse and I had no way to pay for the overpriced latte I felt compelled to order.
So I ran back out to the parking lot and managed to scrounge up enough spare change to pay. Of course, by the time I went back to claim my drink, my latte had been scooped up by someone else and I had to wait an extra ten minutes because seven more people were now ahead of me in line.
Fortunately, work wasn’t far and even with the delay, I was still early. I’d hoped to have half an hour before my shift to do some reading in preparation for my upcoming statistics class. But no problem. I could fit that in during lunch instead of being social.
Just one more course after this and I’d have all the admission requirements for the master’s of nursing program at the University of Minnesota, where I’d applied for next fall. I’d been working as a nurse full time for four years, and now, at twenty-six I was ready to go back to school and pursue something new.
Latte in hand, I stepped outside into the drizzle that had begun during my wait. Ominous dark clouds loomed low as I rushed to my car. Setting my coffee on the roof, I rooted around in my purse for my keys. The light rain quickly became a downpour, soaking my hair and plastering my scrubs to my skin, and still, I couldn’t find my damn keys.
Which was when I lost my grip on my purse. The contents scattered over the parking lot, and my keys rolled under my Corolla. I had to get on my hands and knees to retrieve them, mashing my chest against the ground right into a puddle of dirty rain water.
By the time I finally managed to get all my things together—apart from my lipstick and a compact that had rolled into a sewage grate—I was approaching officially late status. And I had a staff meeting at nine thirty. In my frazzled state, I forgot about the coffee on my roof, which miraculously stayed in place—until I hit the first stoplight, when it promptly dumped all over my windshield.
I made it to work with little time to spare, looking like a drowned rat and completely uncaffeinated. Thankfully, I had an extra set of scrubs in my locker for just such mishaps.
Discombobulated but determined to keep it together, I managed to semidry my hair with the hand blower in the women’s bathroom, although the time I’d spent with the flat iron this morning was completely wasted.
I was on my way into the conference room for the morning staff meeting when an attractive man in a suit, wearing glasses—I’d always had a bit of a weakness for men with glasses—called my name.
Turned out he was from my husband’s lawyer, sent to deliver the final divorce papers. After six years of marriage, the asshole didn’t even have the common courtesy to bring them to me himself, or schedule a time for us to meet and sign them. I hadn’t realized we’d reached this kind of communicationless impasse.
I spent the entire meeting trying to hold back tears—of embarrassment, of anger, of frustration.
A pervasive feeling of emptiness clung to me like climbing vines, making the day drag. But I didn’t want to go home, aware my only company would be my dog, Merk, and as much as he was a good listener, I needed more than that right now.
I didn’t think my day could possibly get any worse.
I was horribly wrong.
At the end of my shift, I make my customary final stop at the nurses’ station to review end-of-day paperwork. Ashley, who works the reception desk, is staring up at an MRI brain scan, her hands on her hips.
“What’s this?” I ask, moving to stand beside her. The shadows on the scan don’t look particularly good.
“Stroke. Came in less than an hour ago.” She glances over her shoulder at me. “You on your way out?”
“Yeah.” My gaze snags on the name at the bottom of the scan. The clipboard slips from my hand and clatters to the floor. “Oh God.”
“Lilah? You okay?”
I shake my head, unwilling to believe what I’m seeing. This can’t be happening. Not today.
Ashley puts a hand on my shoulder. “Do you know him?”
I nod, swallowing back a terrified sob before I can respond. “Yes. What room?”
“Let me check.” She rushes to the board, finds the room number, and repeats it twice. “Do you need me to come with you?”
“No. I’m fine.” That’s not even close to true. The man I love like a father has suffered a stroke.
I wish I’d never gotten out of bed today. I wish there were no today.
I race to his room, heart in my throat, body humming with adrenaline. But when I get there, I don’t find Martin Kase’s wife, my second mother, as I expected. No, sitting in a chair next to the bed, head down and looking lost, is their son. My stomach fills with concrete as I take in not aghost but theghost from my past. Ethan.
My mouth goes instantly dry. My legs feel suddenly wooden and weak at the same time. I can’t seem to take a full breath. Or get a handle on the sudden, violent rush of emotions that paralyze me. I feel raw, as if my nerve endings are all exposed, and the air makes my skin feel like it’s on fire.
This is all too much. I’ve already taken too many punches to the heart today. And in this moment I feel like I’ve barely recovered from the punch he delivered eight years ago. My heart aches exactly the way it did the night he called to tell me it wouldn’t work anymore. Wewouldn’t work anymore. That all the years we’d been together—through my dad leaving when I was just a child, all of high school, every single first-time experience, prom, helping him pack for college—all of it meant nothing. He needed to focus on hockey, on making the NHL, and I was a distraction he couldn’t afford.
Ethan pushes up from the chair, his massive body unfurling. Good God, he’s filled out. Sure, there have been pictures on social media, and I’ve caught glimpses of him on the ice when I’ve accidentally turned on a hockey game—any time he plays I’ve made a point to turn it off. But nothing could ever prepare me for being this close to the man who took my heart, crushed it, and gave it back to me in pieces.
He’s still uncommonly beautiful, more now than he was when we were teenagers. I swear his shoulders are twice as broad as they were a decade ago. I can barely hold his eyes without being submerged in a deluge of memories I thought I’d buried long ago. I’d nearly forgotten how arresting his eyes are—okay, that’s untrue—but it’s been a long time since I’ve been hit with the full force of them. The vibrant blue with a halo of amber edging the iris, the burst of gold that colors nearly a third of his right eye draws me in and briefly holds me captive, just like it always did when we were younger.
“DJ.” It’s just my name. Two small syllables. But the effect of his voice is bone jarring. I feel the grit of his pain like sandpaper on my heart.
I fight to keep my voice even. “I go by Lilah now.” The words leave my mouth before I can call them back and find a different, more appropriate greeting. I shift my gaze away, anywhere but him. Martin looks frail in that hospital bed, and I wish Jeannie were here, a lifeline I can cling to, something to keep me from being torn apart from memories I don’t have the strength to handle. After all, the present is already crushing me under its weight.
“I didn’t realize Martin had been admitted until a few minutes ago. How long have you been here?” I lock down the emotion and switch gears to professional mode. This I can do. This I am good at. I read through the chart at the end of the bed, then cross the room to check the monitors—though my mind barely registers the numbers.
“I don’t know. Awhile, I guess. I just got into town and then…this happened.” I can feel Ethan’s eyes on me. I self-consciously touch the end of my ponytail, having given up on wearing it down by lunch. My scrubs are a size too big, and my running shoes are old and scuffed, my good ones still soaked from this morning. I look as bad as I feel, and I hate that I care about the way he perceives me and that it’s even a thought, with Martin hooked up to monitors, his prognosis uncertain.
“His vitals are good, but we won’t know anything long-term quite yet. Where’s Jeannie?”
“Mom stepped out to get some coffee.” He rubs the back of his neck, as if he’s trying to ease the tension. “So you’re a nurse here?”
The fact that he has to ask, that it’s not something he knows, feels like another shot to the chest. Maybe he’s making small talk, but it still hurts to be reminded that he knows nothing about my life.
I look down at my scrubs, as if they hold the answer to his question—which in a way they do, considering the hospital name is emblazoned on the pocket over my heart. At my silence he clears his throat. “I thought you were at Mercy in Minneapolis.”
“I transferred a while ago.” I’ve been here since just after the New Year. The last time Jeannie mentioned Ethan was two weeks ago. She’d said something about hoping he’d come for a visit before the hockey season started, not that it would make a difference to me since he never made an effort to see me when he blew in and out of town.
A very small part of me is happy he’s here—for Jeannie and Martin. But the bigger part, the part that he discarded so carelessly all those years ago, is hurt that this is what it’s taken to get him in the same room as me for the first time in almost a decade.
He shoves his hands into his pockets, then withdraws them, smoothing them over his thighs. “I figured you’d be working on your residency by now.”
I can’t tell if it’s a dig, or if I’m interpreting it that way because this day has been full of them. “Sometimes we have to readjust our goals.”
“Yeah. Don’t I know it,” he mutters.
I don’t have a chance to ask about the deeper meaning of that, or stoke the already awkward fire raging between us, because we’re interrupted.
“Delilah!” Jeannie’s holding two coffees, one in each hand. When our eyes meet, I see every worry and question. From her fears about Martin to my interaction with Ethan—all of it passes in the few seconds before she opens her arms for me. Like a mother would. Like she’s always done.
And I fall right into that offered solace, because I feel as though I’m a ball of wool, unraveling into a darkness that doesn’t seem to end. I wrap my arms around her, seeking comfort, not just for Martin, but for everything that’s happened today.
The possibility that I could lose the man I’ve come to see as a father—after my own dad left my mom, me, and my five siblings behind in search of a life that didn’t include us—is excruciatingly untenable. Even after Ethan and I broke up, Martin was the one who helped make sure I wasn’t getting ripped off when I bought my first car, taught me how to fix my leaky sink, and always had a smile and a hug whenever I came over to visit. I don’t know if I can handle this—not with the way the rest of my life seems to be falling apart, too. Especially with Ethan standing here, hints of the boy I once loved hidden behind those arresting eyes. It took me long enough to finally get over him disappearing from my life and now I wonder if I ever really did get over him at all.
I have years of pent-up frustration, resentment, and disappointment churning in my head and in my heart, and all I want to do is throw it all at Ethan. But there are more important things going on right now.
“It’s okay. Shhh, Delilah; he’ll be all right,” Jeannie says quietly, rubbing slow circles on my back.
I realize I’m crying soundless, body-shaking sobs that I’m unable to control. I’m embarrassed and angry with myself that I’m falling apart like this when clearly it’s Jeannie who needs the support.
When I manage to pull myself together enough to release her, I ask brokenly, “What can I do for you? Why don’t I go to the house? I just finished my shift; I can feed Flower, bring you a change of clothes and anything else you might need for tonight.” My offers are clearly unnecessary, especially with Ethan being here. I don’t like this feeling, like I’m not needed. I’ve always been the one Jeannie comes to when she needs something.
“I thought Flower ran away,” Ethan says from behind me.
It’s such a normal question in such an abnormal situation.
“Turns out the new neighbors across the street put in a cat door and Flower took to sleeping in their basement, until they discovered the raccoons in the area were using it, too.” Jeannie touches my arm. “Remember when the babies got into their fridge while they were away for the weekend?”
“Their entire kitchen was a mess!” We giggle and then Jeannie brings her hand to her mouth, stifling a sob.
“Martin helped us clean it all up before they got back,” I say softly.
Jeannie turns to Ethan, who I’ve been trying desperately not to look in the eye, and says in a wavering voice, “What if he’s not okay?”
Ethan steps up and pulls her into his broad chest. “I’ll be here to help, no matter what happens.”
I don’t understand how he can do that when he’s living in Chicago, but maybe he’s placating.
“I’m so glad you’re coming home,” Jeannie says.
My stomach dips and then flips. I finally meet his gaze again. Raw emotions make him look older than twenty-seven. My questions must be evident in my expression.
“I’ve been traded to Minnesota,” he explains.
I feel like I’m taking slap shots to the heart left, right, and center today. And this might be the one that finally does me in.
THE GOOD LUCK CHARM releases August 7th, 2018
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