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You Deserve Each Other: Chapter 15


Rise and Smile is closed on Thanksgiving, which is fortuitous for us because Nicholas and I put off shopping for a centerpiece until the last minute. When Nicholas was in sixth grade his art class made centerpieces out of tissue paper and candy corn, and after that it became a Rose tradition for him to come up with a new Thanksgiving centerpiece every year. He usually goes all out with big, homemade displays, but he’s spent all of November turning himself into the man on packages of Brawny paper towels and forgot.

I’m sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast when Nicholas comes through the back door. He’s in his coveralls, which I have a newfound respect for because I know how warm they keep you. He takes my favorite blue-green drinking glass down from the cupboard and fills it with two inches of water, then sets it beside my mug of tea. Inside it drops a wildflower. It’s a little worse for wear, having endured several frosts and a snowfall, but most of its petals are still intact.

“Aww.” I smile in surprise.

“It was growing inside the barn, up in the loft. Had to get a ladder to reach it.”

I don’t trust that barn. It’s crooked and about five thousand years old.

Picturing Nicholas scaling a ladder that leans on rotten wood is stressful.

“Thanks. You shouldn’t have.”

“Yeah, well. Thought it’d be nice.”

“I really don’t need flowers.”

His stare is a death sentence. “Never mind,” I’m quick to add. “I still want them sometimes, probably.”

His mouth twitches, and he eats half of my sausage burrito in one bite.

When he leaves to go shower, I admire my half-wilted flower for unfathomable reasons. There is nothing particularly interesting about this

plant. In an hour’s time it will be most of the way dead. I think I’m going to blame society for wanting it, anyway.

Societal norms have conditioned me into thinking I need these dying plants in order to feel loved and appreciated. They’re objectively useless and I know that. But it’s the thought I’ll remember, not the color of the flower or how pretty it is. The gesture of Nicholas seeing the flower, thinking about me, and going and getting a ladder in order to pick it is going to stay with me. Watching him drop it into my favorite blue-green drinking glass is going to stay with me.

When I’m finished getting dressed and ready, Nicholas is wearing a green henley I don’t think I’ve ever seen on him before, and it makes the jade in his color-shifting eyes spark. The neckline is wide enough that I get a good look at his collarbones. Good heavens. The man’s got a fabulous set of collarbones. Then I notice the rounded caps of his shoulders. The heavens are very good, indeed.

He’s whistling as he fills the sink with soapy water and starts washing dishes for the first time all year. I gape at Changeling Nicholas and give myself heart problems.

He’s styled his hair differently, letting the soft curls fall loosely across his forehead instead of slicking them back. I helplessly draw closer, until I’m definitely invading his personal space. Is it the hair? The shirt? The flower? The fact that he’s doing housework unasked? Whatever it is, he’s a hundred times hotter today. If he starts sweeping the floor and cleaning out lint traps, I might need smelling salts.

Nicholas’s busy hands in the sink fall still when I touch his face. “You have a nice jawline,” I tell him, hearing the wonder in my voice.

He blinks as he looks away. “Um. Thank you.”

“Your throat, too.” It’s a tragedy that I haven’t noticed what a nice throat he has. Who knew nice throats were a thing?

My unabashed ogling is doing things to him; his throat turns red and splotchy before my eyes. I twirl my flower and watch him do the dishes like a total creep until I get myself together. Whenever I break my gaze I feel his moving over me, and I’m pulled back in again. He keeps catching me sneaking sideways looks at him, and I’m positive he’s caught me silently mouthing Oh my god. The more flustered I get, the wider his smile grows.

I don’t analyze it too deeply when I decide I need to change into a better shirt and touch up my lipstick. It’s Thanksgiving, and that’s the only reason I camouflage my micro-bangs with a headband and curl my hair.

You have to look your best on the holidays. You have to switch out your beige bra for black lace and spritz yourself with body spray called DEVOUR ME. I don’t make these rules.

I discover a unicorn in the bathroom: he’s wiped down the sink after shaving. There isn’t a single hair clinging to the faucet. It’s the invasion of the body snatchers.

It’s this detail that makes me generous enough to go start the car and get it warmed up for us. As I lumber out into the cold to switch on the ignition, I am a hero. I’m the most selfless fiancée who ever lived. I nearly slip on a patch of ice and for a split second I imagine myself in a hospital bed, leg raised up in one of those sling thingies, Nicholas fussing over me and fluffing my pillow. I don’t even complain about my broken leg. It’s nothing, I say stoically. I’m just grateful it wasn’t you who fell. Nicholas weeps at my strength. He’s never met another woman this amazing.

“Thank you,” he says as we’re pulling out of the driveway. “Nice and warm in here.” He catches me goggling at his profile again and smiles. He really is something luminous when he shows his happiness, isn’t he?

I need to get a grip. Sure, he presented me with a single half-dead flower and his hair is behaving quite seductively today, but we sleep in separate bedrooms, for pete’s sake. It wasn’t that long ago that I was fantasizing about rolling up my wedding dress into a ball and joyously watching it burn in the fireplace. In spite of any seemingly positive developments that surely won’t last, I need to focus on the game plan here.

Just as soon as I can remember what that is. He’s sprinkling some kind of witchcraft on me to make it hard to think straight.

“Where are you going?” I ask when he turns on his right blinker.

“That craft place up here,” he replies, confirming my fears. Let’s Get Crafty is the job that I really, really want and was supposed to hear a decision on three days after the interview. That was last week, and the manager still hasn’t contacted me. I think about following up with them every minute of every day, but if I have to nudge in the first place then I know they’re probably leaning toward no. At least in limbo I can nurse my delusions.

“I thought we’d just go to Walmart in Beaufort.”

He shoots me a strange look. “Haven’t you been badgering me to shop more locally? Going to Walmart for everything is the reason why all our stores in Morris have closed down.” We both think of the Junk Yard, which still smarts.

I’m a traitor to my principles when I reply, “Yeah, but the smaller stores are probably more expensive.”

“It’ll be fine.”

I’m grasping at straws. “We’re on a one-person income now.”

“Relax, Naomi.” He parks and squeezes my hand, then slides out of the car. I can’t go into this store. They’ll think I’m stalking them. They’ll recognize me. Someone will mention the application in front of Nicholas, who doesn’t know I’m still job hunting. He assumes I’ve given up because I don’t talk about it. The only news I have to report so far is bad news, which I’m not raring to broadcast. I’d planned on telling him only when I received good news, which may never happen.

This day is dreadful. The sky is the color of illness and it’s cold but all the snow’s melted, leaving behind exhaust-blackened slush. My lipstick is too much and my skin is hot and itchy and I hate my car. My pulse is a battering ram.

“What’s the matter?” Nicholas asks as he holds open the door of Let’s Get Crafty. I tug between hating the store and loving it. If I get the job, I’m going to love it here more than anything in the world. If I’m rejected, I’ll go buy every craft supply Walmart has to offer and put this store out of business. You don’t have to tell me I’m a bad person for thinking this because I already know.

“Headache,” I mutter.

“Got any Tylenol in your purse?”

“Meh.” My shoulders hunch as I troop inside, endeavoring to make myself smaller and less noticeable.

“I was thinking about a cornucopia,” Nicholas says. “Is that overdone?”

The answer is yes, obviously, but I’m not too concerned about the centerpiece for his parents’ dining room table at this moment. My eyes are darting along the ceiling corners for hidden cameras. I think of a man in a back room somewhere, eating a sub sandwich and watching me on a tiny television screen. Isn’t she one of the applicants? Wow, isn’t this sad.

Coming in here to beg for the job, I bet.

“Naomi?” Nicholas says. I get the feeling this isn’t the first time he’s said my name within the last thirty seconds. He snaps his fingers in front of my face.

“Shh!” I whisper, pulling my coat collar up to my nose. I look like a cartoon private eye. “Keep it down.”

“Why? Nobody’s in here.” He looks around. “Imagine if we’d gone to Walmart. Aisles would be packed. We’ve got this whole store to ourselves.”

Nicholas forces me to voice opinions on plastic vegetables, trying to determine if they’re too fake-looking. “Should we use real vegetables instead? I thought plastic would be less wasteful. We could reuse them.”

“For what?”

“Maybe a diorama at the office.”

Right. Eat your veggies, kids! Quite rich, coming from this man. His breath is a Twizzler.

“Real vegetables would be better,” I say. “C’mon, let’s go to the grocery store.”

“I want to look at everything they’ve got here first.” His eyes are round and marveling as they take in way too many options. He’s Martha Stewart now. I’ve lost him to the nuances between basket cornucopias and ones made of wire and we’ll be in here for two hours deliberating.

I’m ruthless in my quest to leave. “Cornucopias, Nicholas? That’s your pilgrim great-grandfather’s centerpiece. Modernize it a little. Go minimal with a simple red apple.”

He wrinkles his nose. “That won’t be impressive. It’ll look like I didn’t try at all.”

“Welcome to my life. It’s easier over here, I promise.”

I shouldn’t make self-deprecating comments like this because they bolster the stereotype that I have no aspirations and I’m a thoughtless layabout, but it’s become an odd habit.

He drags a finger up my spine, which he knows gives me the chills, and smiles when I jump out of my skin. He continues to browse at one mile per hour. Every time we round the corner into another aisle my stomach tightens with worry that the manager is going to come out and ask if we need any help. It’s unavoidable. These small businesses are too darned friendly.

Twenty years later and with zero help from me, Nicholas has filled a basket with supplies to build our own birdhouse in the spring, which I can’t wait to see him never touch, plus a bunch of random bits and bobs marked down to fifty percent off. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do with it all, but he’s a sucker for those neon green discount stickers. “You never know,” he says, whistling as he drops a package of blue buttons and rose appliques into the basket. He needs an intervention.

The next aisle is wedding decorations. We both freeze at the threshold.

“I think I saw pinecones back that way,” I say, and he nods hastily.

“Yeah, let’s go look at the pinecones again.”

We’re quivering cowards and we know it. We end up grabbing four mesh bags of pinecones (which we could get from our yard for free) as justification for avoiding the wedding aisle. I’m tired. My nerves are frayed. I beg him to just choose something and be done, so he gets a cookie jar that looks like a turkey. We’re going to stuff it with the pinecones. It’s a half-assed choice and he’s heart-broken to show up to dinner with a centerpiece that doesn’t blow everybody’s minds, but I’m finding it hard to breathe and Nicholas’s arm is probably stinging with red marks from my iron grip. I’ve been picking at him to get him to move it along.

“All right, you go check out. I’m going to wait in the car.”

Nicholas doesn’t hear me. I’m dragged up to the register and all the blood in my body flees the country when I see who’s behind the counter.

Melissa.

I want to groan, but I force a smile instead. My skin is two hundred degrees. My organs are cooking like a casserole.

“Hey, Naomi,” she greets me jovially. Straight away, that pleasant tone’s got me shifty-eyed. Maybe her boss is close by. God, I hope not.

“Hey, Melissa! So great to see you! How’ve you been? New job, huh?”

“Just started Monday! I’m so lucky, you know? Nobody’s hiring.” She gives me a great big smile that is totally alien on her generally hateful face.

I want to run out of the store. Just started Monday. The job she’s got now is the job I applied for. Melissa was in the pool of contenders. Melissa beat me.

And no one called to tell me I lost the job. It hurts extra because the woman who interviewed me was so nice and sympathetic. Maybe she thought she’d wait until after the holidays to break the news, so that I wouldn’t spend Thanksgiving crying in a closet.

“Congratulations,” I make myself say. “I hope you like it here.”

“Oh, I love it. In fact …” She takes her time ringing up the pinecones, hands moving in slow-motion. “I heard you applied here, too. Wouldn’t that be fun, huh, if we both worked at the same place again?”

Nicholas turns his sharp gaze on me.

My voice is small. “I think they only had one position open.”

Melissa knows this, of course. “Oh, that’s right. Good luck with the job search.” A gloating smile curves the edges of her mouth as she coasts a knickknack over the scanner.

“She’ll find something,” Nicholas inserts smoothly. “We’re waiting for the right fit. Can’t just accept any old job that’ll have her—especially at businesses that will probably be closed within a year.”

Melissa’s eyes darken. I’m so grateful to Nicholas, I could cry.

“Luckily, I don’t find myself in that position,” she says, all uppity-like.

“Let’s Get Crafty is doing superb.”

Nicholas makes a show out of glancing around the empty store. “Sure.”

Her peppy tone falters, the ice showing through. “It’s Thanksgiving. Of course we’re not busy today.”

Nicholas doesn’t even have to reply. He raises his eyebrows, smiling guilelessly. It’s more effective than a smirk. It’s an expression I’m well acquainted with and it usually fills me with rage, but weaponized against Melissa I’ve got to say, it’s looking more and more attractive.

“So …” She pretends to have trouble with a price tag, drawing this exchange out. “Burn any more poisonous flowers lately, Naomi?”

Nicholas stiffens. I’m going to stab her with the pin of her name tag.

“Actually, I haven’t had time. Been pretty busy.”

“Doing what? You don’t have a job.”

“Maybe we’re having lots of sex,” Nicholas cuts in, annoyed. “Maybe we lose track of the days because we can’t stop banging.” I let out an unladylike snort, both because what he’s said is delightfully inappropriate and also so untrue that it kind of hurts. “Not really your business, is it?”

Melissa abandons all pleasantries. “That’s about what I’d expect to hear from you. Lot of sex happening around your office, and I know that from experience. I wouldn’t be shocked if you’re screwing that dental hygienist, too. You and Seth both. The company you keep says a lot about you.”

“Oh, for crying out loud,” I snap. I’ve always been quick to lend my sympathies whenever she wanted to gripe about Seth (which was often), but seeing her here in this new setting, wearing a vest covered in trillions of craft-related buttons, it’s just too much. I’m not rolling over and letting her punish us anymore. “This again? You dated the guy for, like, a month and a half. I’ve had to hear about this since May. Your grudge exhausts me, Melissa.”

“Oh, my apologies! Have I not recovered from my heartbreak fast enough for you?”

“If you need closure with your ex, then go tell him about it.” Her mouth opens, but I raise my hand. “Listen, I’m sorry Seth is an asswipe who cheated. You didn’t deserve that. Honestly, you could do way better and he isn’t worth being this upset over. But nothing that happened to you is our fault.” She gives Nicholas a dirty look and opens her mouth, ready to shoot off, but I beat her to it. “There will be no more attacks on Nicholas, you got me? I don’t want to hear this shit ever again.”

As for Nicholas, I don’t think he’s ever been more stunned in his life.

He’s giving me the same look I was giving him this morning. I’m being green-henley’d.

Melissa’s movements grow jerkier as she stuffs our purchases into a bag. “Can you double-wrap that?” Nicholas asks, and we both derive sadistic enjoyment from watching Melissa double-wrap the cookie jar.

“And then double-bag it?” he adds.

The savagery is so skillfully subtle, you could almost call it art.

She triple-bags it. “Is that good enough?”

He flashes a charming smile. “Perfect.”

Her glare cuts to me, and for once I don’t do the thing I always do when she and Nicholas are having a clash. I don’t chew my fingernails and apologize with my eyes. Instead, I give her airs like I am Extremely Important and have Places To Be. I invoke my inner Deborah Rose and scare myself to the core.

“Well, good luck with your life,” Melissa says nastily after we pay and get our bags.

I decide to be the bigger person. “You, too, Melissa. Good luck. I hope this job works out for you.”

Nicholas decides to not be the bigger person and takes a penny from the take-a-penny, leave-a-penny station as we walk away. I’m in awe of his cattiness.

“Enjoy your Thanksgiving!” he calls over his shoulder.

“You two are assholes!” she calls back. “You deserve each other.”

I send her a thumbs-up. “Thanks!”

We’re barely out the door when we can’t hold our laughter in anymore.

We throw our stuff in the car and tumble inside, peeling out like we’re fugitives making a getaway. I give him a high-five. “You. Were.

Awesome.”

“Thank you, thank you.” He grins. “You were, too.”

“I’m so glad I don’t have to hang out with her anymore.”

He glances sideways at me. “She is right about Seth, though. I’m really tired of defending him. I feel … I don’t know. I’ve never broken up with a friend before.”

I’m not exactly a fan of Seth. He’s nice half the time, but for the other half he builds himself up by tearing Nicholas down. “You’re allowed to defend yourself when people hurt your feelings. You deserve to be around people who are good to you.” Coming from me of all people, this statement is so outrageous I half-expect a lightning bolt to shoot down from the sky and strike me dead. I’m right, though: he deserves friends who actually act like friends. And so do I, for that matter. “You know that, right? Give yourself permission to put yourself first.”

“I don’t know how to do that.”

“I’ll help. And if Seth doesn’t clean up his act, I still have the number for those movers. I’ll set you up with them. We’ll put you in some ripped jeans and … ta-da! BFFs in no time.”

He smiles.

“Whatever you want to do about Seth is your choice,” I say, “but if you ever need backup, I’m your girl. Say the word and I’ll scare him so bad, he’ll never step out of line again.”

He picks up my hand. Kisses my knuckles. “Thank you,” he murmurs.

All good things must come to an end.

It’s the solemn decree ringing in my head as we sit down to Deborah and Harold’s table. A feast spans before us, which should encourage some measure of happiness, but it doesn’t because we’re all about to have our legs trapped under a wooden slab together for the duration of an extra-long meal, and that means extra-long conversation.

I know what the topic’s going to be. It’s Deborah’s favorite one.

Nicholas and I have been doing a fine job of avoiding it when we’re alone, as evidenced by our chickening out in the wedding décor aisle.

“Have you sent out the invitations yet?” Deborah launches right in, piecing bits of dark turkey onto her husband’s plate. He’s not permitted to make his own plate because he’s “bad at portion control.” The diet she’s got him on now forbids stuffing, white meat, and potatoes, and he looks like he might cry. “It’s nearly December.” Her eyes flick to Nicholas, then me. There’s accusation in them, clear as day. She thinks it’s my fault the invitations haven’t gone out.

Nicholas does exactly what I would do. He pretends he doesn’t hear her.

Then, when she repeats the question, he pretends he doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

“Invitations?” Like it’s a foreign word he doesn’t understand.

I shovel gobs of mashed potatoes in my mouth. I’m a lady. I have manners. No one can expect me to talk with my mouth full.

Deborah appraises Nicholas over her wineglass, eyes shrewd. “Your wedding invitations, darling. We still haven’t gotten ours.”

“Do you need an official one?” he asks faintly. “You already know the date and venue.”

“I need three invitations: one for my memory book, one for your baby book, and one for the family records. Besides, everybody else needs theirs as well. All your aunts and uncles. Every day, it seems, I’m getting a call.

Where’s my invitation? Am I not invited? The men at your father’s club, and all their wives, are in an uproar! They feel personally slighted. You can’t leave anyone out, Nicky. It’s rude.”

I don’t know any of those people she’s referring to. Nicholas doesn’t know most of them, and the ones he knows, he doesn’t like. I don’t think there’s actually an uproar; more like Deborah’s trying to gauge what’s going on here, so she’s making shit up.

“Frankly, you’re putting me in a bad position,” she goes on. “People know I’m orchestrating this whole operation, and when you neglect your duties it reflects poorly on me.” She touches her necklace. It’s a heart with four birthstones to represent everyone in her family. “So if you’re not going to behave responsibly for your sakes, do so for mine.”

Nicholas withers. It’s not a visible withering—for all outward appearances, he’s fine. His face is calm, his tone bland. But I feel it like a sixth sense: he’s hating this. We’ve just sat down and he wishes he could run out the door, but he can’t. He’s stuck being Nicholas Rose, Perfect Son, and after all these years the role is wearing him down.

“Harold,” Deborah barks when he tries to steal a roll. “You know you can’t eat that.”

“You gave me too many green beans,” he whines. “There isn’t even any seasoning on them.”

“Seasoning makes your bowels disagree with you.” She turns curtly from him and says to Nicholas, “You’ll come over sometime this week with the invitations. I’ll help you address the envelopes myself, if no one else will.” Nice little dig at me. “You’ve got to get those out if you expect your RSVPs in time. Some guests have to make room in their work schedules to be able to travel here for the wedding, and you waiting until the last minute to supply this information is extremely inconsiderate. I wouldn’t be surprised if my friend Diana from college can’t make it, now that there’s barely any time left to prepare.”

“You haven’t just told your friend when and where?” he asks. “You’ve known it’s going to be at St. Mary’s on January twenty-sixth for months now. One p.m. You could’ve just told her yourself.”

“That’s not how things are done! You have to send proper invites. This isn’t some trashy Las Vegas wedding, Nicholas. You’ll conduct yourself accordingly.”

She says this like Nicholas has failed her and ruined this wedding by not moving heaven and earth for some lady named Diana. Ten to one, he has never met Diana. Deborah just wants to show off whatever mother-of-the-groom outfit she’s picked out for herself. A dazzling dress to outshine mine.

“I’m taking care of the invitations, Mom,” Nicholas says amiably.

“Don’t worry.”

“Don’t tell me not to worry, Nicky. It’s my job. And don’t be ridiculous

—I’m helping you get this matter settled once and for all. Come by Wednesday after work. We’ll make an evening of it! I’ll have the woman make those tiny pizza bagels you love, and we’ll work until midnight if we have to.” Note how she doesn’t invite me to come, only him. I’m all ready to tuck into my food and forget where I am when I’m suddenly transported back to Let’s Get Crafty, and how awful I felt when I saw Melissa behind the counter. I had to process the loss of the job at the same time that loathsome Melissa was rubbing it in, and it might’ve killed my whole day were it not for Nicholas rescuing me. Instead of leaving the shop in a foul mood, I left laughing.

“Actually, Nicholas and I are booked solid next Wednesday,” I answer for him.

Deborah eyes me curiously. “Doing what? Addressing the invitations?”

I can’t commit to that. My relationship with Nicholas is a split hair.

Sending out invitations makes the wedding all too real, and I still can’t visualize walking down the aisle at St. Mary’s. I can’t visualize a priest’s echoing, monotone instructions for how to treat each other during marriage, and I can’t visualize myself in that A-line dress I don’t love. I can’t see myself staring up at Nicholas and hearing him say the words I do. I don’t think Nicholas can picture any of this, either, which is why we’ve been dancing around it for so long.

“Fishing,” I improvise. “In our canoe.”

Deborah coughs on her food. Harold’s hand shoots out, considers patting her back, but grabs a roll instead and stuffs it down his pants for safekeeping. I don’t blame him. The green beans suck.

“You don’t have a canoe, Nicholas,” she says, like I’ve just told her we’re shedding all material possessions and running off to join a cult.

Nicholas looks fatigued, so I answer for him again. “We do! It’s a lot of fun. Nicholas took it out on the pond the other day.”

She’s aghast. “Whatever for?”

She’s not addressing me, thirsting for a reaction from her son. I’m right about my hunch: this man’s in need of a rescue. It requires a different strategy than him rescuing me in Let’s Get Crafty. Mrs. Rose isn’t Melissa.

I don’t give a single solitary shit what this woman thinks of me anymore, but Nicholas does, so I have to approach it with finesse. It’s going to cost pride points.

“For canoeing in, of course,” I tell her without a hint, even a whisper, of insincerity. Tonight, I am Shakespeare. “There’s all sorts of studies that say canoeing is good for you mentally and physically. They call it a

‘meditative sport.’” I don’t know if I’ve made up that terminology myself or if I’ve heard it somewhere and kept it around subconsciously, but either way I’m proud of myself for producing it on the spot. Meditative sport.

Sounds legitimate as hell.

I reach for the yams, but Deborah slides the dish away. “Don’t eat those, dear. Your future children will come out orange.” She leans over her plate until the ends of her bob come perilously close to getting in her gravy.

“Nicky. Have you registered for wedding presents yet? I need to include it in the announcements at the church. I’m having them put it in every Sunday bulletin, and I’m thinking about asking the Beaufort Gazette to write a little something about you, too.”

Nicholas sucks in a breath, but I squeeze his knee lightly under the table. I’m his knight in shining armor. That’s my role here. I’m slowly understanding that it was always supposed to be my role, but I didn’t realize it and missed my cue the first time my charge was under attack by fire-breathing mothers. I’ve got some lost time to make up for. “Deborah, this turkey is sooo delicious. What’s your secret?”

Her secret is that she didn’t cook it, someone else did, but she’s so taken aback that she has to respond. “Oh. I … uhh … butter. And spices. And plenty of love!” She smiles dotingly. It’s full of shit. “Love’s the most important ingredient of all.”

“I agree. Love is so important.” I’m not going to leave her alone for a second. I’m going to occupy every square inch of space in this conversation and for once in his life, Nicholas will be able to finish his food while it’s still warm. He won’t be squirting honey into his tea tonight to soothe his throat after two solid hours of talking, talking, talking. “It’s a shame Heather couldn’t be here. I’d love to finally meet her.” Heather split town on her eighteenth birthday and only comes home when she can’t maneuver out of it. From what I’ve heard, she and Deborah have had an extremely tumultuous relationship ever since Heather was a teenager and Deborah was the horror of all parent-teacher conferences.

“Heather!” Deborah nearly fans herself. I’ve hit the jackpot. “Shame is right. It’s beyond shameful she wouldn’t come home for Thanksgiving.

I’ve begged. Her father’s begged.”

Harold frowns as he shovels food into his mouth, probably wondering if he did in fact do any begging. He gives up thinking about it and sneaks a piece of turkey.

“It’s like we’re nothing to her!” Deborah continues. “I always tell her on the phone that it’s lucky we have Nicky, or else we’d be all alone. Our Nicky understands the value of family.”

She pauses and looks at him, preparing to speak to him directly, so I say,

“Yes, he does. Nicholas is a good man and I couldn’t be prouder of him.

You did a fine job raising him. Wow, this cranberry sauce is something else! I haven’t had cranberry sauce this tasty in forever. The way my mom always made it was bleh.” I make an exaggerated expression of disgust.

This gets her full attention. Deborah pounces on any opportunity to put herself above my mother. She hates that Nicholas is going to have a mother-in-law more than she hates Harold’s ex-wife. And she literally had a priest come bless Harold’s house after they got together, to rid it of Magnolia’s essence.

“Thank you. It’s true, not many people know how to fix it properly.”

“Including you,” Harold grunts too quietly for her to overhear.

I take a bite, then make a savoring noise. “Mmm. Divine. I’m not sure I’ve ever told you, but this dining room set reminds me of a French castle.

I feel like Marie Antoinette when I sit here, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

Her eyes light up. “That’s the inspiration!”

“You don’t say! Solid job.” I raise my glass and do a mock toast, which she reciprocates to my mingled wonder and horror. I don’t dare look at Nicholas because I know if I do, whatever I see on his face is going to make me laugh.

She starts to tell me more about her table and chairs, which I respond to with enthusiasm and a great many questions. I weave compliments about herself, Nicholas, and her knack for interior design wherever I can fit them.

Sucking up to Deborah was easy as breathing when Nicholas and I first started dating. I’d been out to impress, and I didn’t know her very well.

Everything’s easy when your eyes are innocent and you don’t spot the hidden dangers. My eyes aren’t innocent anymore. I know exactly who this woman is. We have a history now. The sugary compliments still flow like they used to, but I’m summoning them through a different channel because my goal is different. My priorities are different. Nicholas deserves one holiday in which he isn’t nagged to death.

When Deborah excuses herself to the kitchen to fetch the dessert, I gasp for air and gulp down all my cranberry juice, plus a glass of water. I brave a glance to my right and my heart skips.

Nicholas’s eyes are resting on me. They’re warm with gratitude, and that gratitude makes my exhaustion worth it. I’ll go ten more rounds with Mrs. Rose if it means I get another look like that at the end.

When Deborah glides back in bearing a cake the size of a small island, I’m already laying the groundwork to pump her ego. “Mmm, that looks incredible!” I don’t even have to lie. I didn’t eat much of my dinner because I was so busy gabbing, and the cake smells like heaven.

“Doesn’t it?” She’s glowing from my praise. Deborah cuts two pieces of cake and slides them onto two small dishes. One she keeps for herself, and the other she gives to Nicholas. “Salted caramel apple cake. It’s a Rose family recipe, passed down from generation to generation.”

“I can’t wait to try out the recipe myself.”

Her smile is tight. “Someday, when you’re a mother, I’ll let you in on the secret.”

Lovely. Using a recipe as leverage to get grandchildren. Still, I rub my hands together and say, “Until then, I guess I’ll have to be content with simply eating the cake and not baking it!” I scan the table for another plate.

“I want some, too,” Harold insists.

“Hush,” Deborah scolds him. “You know you can’t have this much sugar. Think of your bowels!”

I wish she would stop forcing us all to think of Harold’s bowels.

I scrape cold food around on my dinner plate to make room for a slice of cake. But as I reach for the cutting knife, her hand closes over mine.

Her skin is warm. Human.

But her eyes are cold. “I don’t think you should, dear.”


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