Chapter Seven

For the next few weeks Ellie worked three times a day on regaining mobility in her arm. When they put a walking cast on her foot, her focus shifted to walking. As her release neared she pushed herself more and more, determined to walk out of the rehabilitation center without assistance.

Because of the seizures, Ellie wouldn’t be allowed to drive for six months. She’d taken a leave of absence from her job. Thankfully, her insurance covered all of the medical expenses except for her deductibles.

Her mother and father arrived for the big day. Ellie couldn’t tell her mother had ever had Lyme disease. She rushed around the room packing all of Ellie’s things, smiling and talking with everyone she encountered. And silent tears rolled down both of her parents’ cheeks when she walked out the door unassisted.

Ellie still wore a walking cast. Her ankle hadn’t healed completely yet. Another week or two, the doctor told her. She still had slight pain when she put weight on it, but everyone seemed happy with her progress. For the next two weeks, she planned to relax at her childhood home.

First, they needed to stop at her apartment so Ellie could pick up some clothing, books, her camera, and most importantly, her puppy. Reid and Stella didn’t know she was being released today. She’d call them later.

Miss Ruby’s TV blared down the hall. With a lump in her throat, she knocked on her door. She’d missed the little lady. Nothing. She pounded harder to be heard over the noise. Still nothing.

Ellie hobbled to her apartment and grabbed the spare key her neighbor gave her for emergencies. She returned to the door, knocked once more, and pressed her ear to the painted steel. How Miss Ruby loved her game shows! She unlocked the door a few inches and peered inside. “Miss Ruby? It’s Ellie. Are you okay?” She heard a groan and hurried in. “Oh no!”

Miss Ruby lay on her stomach on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood. She had a gash on her forehead. Ellie knelt beside her. “What happened? How long have you been here? Ruby, can you talk to me?” Her skin was cool but not cold. Ellie dialed 911 and spoke to Miss Ruby while they waited for the ambulance.

When the paramedics arrived, Ellie stood off to the side, listening to their conversation as they placed a neck collar on Miss Ruby and prepared to turn her so they could work on her more easily.

As they rolled her onto her back, she regained consciousness with a gasp. “Ellie?”

“I’m right here, Ruby.” She leaned over one of the paramedics and smiled at her. “They’re taking you to the hospital. You’ll be fine in no time.”

Her breathing sounded wrong, raspy and shallow. “I don’t think so.” She struggled to get the words out. “I can’t feel anything from the neck down. I came in here to get some dinner and my legs just gave out on me. I hit my head on the table when I fell. I don’t want to be on a ventilator, okay? I have a DNR in my Living Will.”

Ellie panicked, what could she say? “Don’t give up, Ruby, okay? The doctors put me back together so I’m sure they can help you, too.”

“We need to get her to the hospital.” One of the paramedics wheeled the stretcher over beside Miss Ruby.

“Wait,” Ruby said. “Ellie, go get the carved chest out from under my bed, but don’t open it until later.”

Ellie retrieved the box. “This one?”

“Yes. Okay, I’m ready now.”

“I’ll call and check on you later, Miss Ruby.”

”You take care, girl.” Her eyes fluttered closed. “I love you,” she whispered.

Ellie didn’t know if she’d meant to say those last words but she responded to them. “Love you too.” She blinked tears from her eyes and followed them outside, locking up the apartment behind her before returning to her own. She handed to box to her father and asked him to take it to his truck, planning to go through it when she was in the room she grew up in.

Ellie paused in her living room, her eyes travelling over the barn photos, seeing them with fresh eyes. I’ll always be a farm girl. With a smile on her face, she limped away. She froze as she entered her bedroom. Her bed was a mess! Then she remembered Reid saying that Misty had trashed her room. She heard a whine behind her.

“Did you do this?” Misty blinked, tail wagging. “You should feel bad. My bed is off-limits.” Ellie grabbed the pillows off the bed to straighten the coverlet and found her journal, chewed on two of its corners. “You really were a bad girl, weren’t you?” The puppy jumped up in front of her. “Oh no you don’t. Get down!”

Misty tried to get away from Ellie, running back and forth on the bed. She finally jumped off, racing out the door. “Puppy kindergarten! That’s what you need!” She bent to retrieve the journal. It had fallen open to Reid and Stella’s wedding day. Her scalp prickled. Misty didn’t tuck the journal under a pillow. Reid must have. Did he read it first?

She flopped down on the bed, hugging the book to her chest and waffling back and forth between mortification and anger. Finally she sighed. She wouldn’t know unless she asked him outright. And if he hadn’t read it, her questions might make him curious. She got up, dropped the offending book onto her bedside table, and finished making her bed.

Her hospital resolution to burn the journal sent her to the guest room to grab a satchel and a couple of books to read while she recuperated. She flipped on the closet light and found the bag she wanted on the floor beside the bookcase that held her library of journals. Several of the most recent volumes were missing and that answered her question. Not only had he read the one in her bedroom, but he’d taken the last few years’ worth, too.

“Sweetheart, are you about ready? We need to get home in time for Dad to milk.” Her mom stood in the doorway.

Ellie grabbed a smaller tote bag. “Yep, give me another minute. Did Dad pack Misty’s food?” Her mother nodded. “Okay, if you want to head down to the truck, I’ll meet you there in a couple of minutes.”

She thrust the diary into the tote bag and grabbed a few books. Her mother had evidently taken the suitcase she’d packed in her bedroom, so Ellie grabbed her camera bag and locked up the apartment.

Riding in the back seat of the truck, Ellie wondered what to do about her journals. Should she confront Reid or let it go? She fell asleep trying to decide.

“Ellie? We’re home, honey. Dad’s already unpacked the truck and put your stuff in your room.” Ellie blinked, yawned, and stretched.

“Sorry, Mom. I guess I’m a little tired.”

“Of course you are. It’s been an exciting day. I’ve got some beef stew simmering in the crock pot for dinner. You should probably eat and go straight to bed.”

“The only way this day could get better is if I could take a bath in that old claw-foot tub.” Ellie climbed out of the truck and headed for the front porch. Her mother beat her up the stairs and held the door open for her. The smell of her mother’s special recipe wafted around her. “Oh Mom, it’s been too long!”

Her mother smiled as she ladled beef and vegetables into a soup bowl. She set it in front of Ellie, then slathered butter on a few slices of her freshly-baked wheat bread and handed them to her as well.

“You’re not going to make me eat alone on my first night home, are you?” Ellie teased. From the small amount in her mother’s bowl, Ellie knew she’d also eat when her dad came in from his chores.

After eating two bowls of stew, Ellie carried her bowl to the sink and grabbed a towel to throw over her shoulder. Her mom intercepted the towel. “Oh no you don’t, you need to go to bed. You’re practically asleep now.”

Ellie yawned. “Thanks Mom. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

“Don’t worry about it tonight. I’m just so happy to have you home I could—I don’t know—dance maybe?”

“I’d like to see that,” Ellie’s father said as he entered.

“Okay you two, keep the party down. Don’t want to draw the cops.” Ellie kissed each of her parents on their cheeks. “I’m going to call the hospital and check on Miss Ruby, then I’m calling it a night. I love you both so much.”

“We love you too, baby.” Her mother hugged her tightly then let her go.

“Sleep well, Rosie.” Her father kissed the top of her head.

Ellie climbed the stairs to her room, smiling at the nickname her father still used with her. She dialed the hospital’s information number and asked for Ruby Jefferson’s room. After answering several questions, she was told to hold. Ellie’s knee bounced up and down, a nervous habit. Did it usually take so long to find a patient? The paramedics said they were taking her to St. Luke’s.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but there is no Ruby Jefferson listed in our hospital.”

“They said they were bringing her to you.”

“Maybe they changed to a different hospital because of her injuries or because she preferred it.”

“I think she had a spinal cord injury. She said she couldn’t feel anything below her neck.”

“I see.” The woman paused, then whispered. “Try the University of Kansas Hospital.”

“Okay, thanks,” Ellie whispered back. She looked up that number and started over. This time she was immediately transferred. A man answered. “Yes, I’m looking for Ruby Jefferson.”

“May I ask who’s calling?”

“Ellie, umm, Elanor Thompson.”

“Thank you, Miss Thompson. I am David Marsh, one of the chaplains. I’m sorry to have to inform you that Miss Jefferson passed away earlier this evening.”

“Oh no!” Ellie’s voice cracked. She tried to swallow. “She was such a sweet, lovely person.” The chaplain offered his condolences. “Thank you. She tried to prepare me today, but I kept telling her she’d be fine.”

“She must have cared a great deal about you, Ellie. She listed you as her only contact. She also said you had her will and would know how to proceed.”

Was her will in the box she gave Ellie? “Okay, I’ll call tomorrow to make arrangements, if you don’t mind. I’m a little overwhelmed right now.”

“I understand. Again, please accept our condolences on Miss Ruby’s passing.”

Ellie pushed the end button, then hoped she’d remembered to thank the chaplain again. The square box, a little taller than a shoebox and about four times as wide, sat on the bed beside her. Part of her wanted to see what was in it tonight. But only a small part. Mostly she wanted to crawl in bed and remember Miss Ruby.

She picked up the box and groaned. Was it always this heavy? She didn’t recall having any trouble lifting it earlier today. Adrenaline maybe? She carried it to her desk and set it down, taking a moment to trace the name engraved across the top: Jefferson.

Ellie crawled into bed and said a prayer of thanks for Miss Ruby Jefferson. Maybe she’d left instructions about what kind of service she wanted inside that box. She fell asleep trying to recall the first time they’d met. A few hours later she jolted awake. She’d forgotten to call Reid and Stella!

Chapter Six

Reid called Stella as soon as he was in his car. “Meet me at Ellie’s, you’ve gotta see this!” She complained at first, but with an exaggerated sigh she gave in. He got to the apartment ahead of her so he took Misty for a short walk.

He didn’t see Miss Ruby that day, but he heard her television through her door as he passed it. He fed Misty and made sure she had plenty of water in her automatic waterer. He replaced her soiled puppy pad next. She ate a few bites, lapped a little water, then went straight to her doggy bed and collapsed with a tired sigh.

Stella still hadn’t arrived, so he took the trash out to the dumpster. He saw her drive up and waited for her to park so they could walk in together. “How was your day?” She hadn’t put on any makeup so he assumed she’d stayed home.

“Relaxing for the most part. I worked for a couple of hours this morning, but after that I just took it easy. I even watched a couple of Cary Grant movies.”

“Oh yeah? Which ones?”

An Affair to Remember.”

“With Deborah Kerr?”

“Yep. And then My Favorite Wife.”

“Is that the one with the actress he ended up marrying?”

“No, you’re thinking of Every Girl Should Be Married.”

“If you say so.” He let her in the apartment and ushered her to the guest bedroom. “Ellie said I could look at anything in here. You won’t believe it.”

They stood in the middle of the room, slowly turning to look at the bookcases lining the walls. Ellie organized them according to subject and then alphabetically by last name. She had bookcases labeled for History, which Reid headed toward, and Classics, which drew Stella, along with Fiction, Philosophy, Sciences, and Fine Arts. All the books were in excellent condition for their age. Under the window, Ellie had a bench with pillows for a reading nook. In one corner, a leather chair sat beside a floor lamp for nighttime reading.

Stella held a blue-leather, gold-embossed book in her hands. She drifted to the window bench while she opened it. “She really said we could read anything in here? I think these must be pretty expensive.”

“She told me to help myself. What did you find?”

The Romance of King Arthur.”

“You know you really don’t have time to read the whole thing.”

“Yeah, but I can pretend.”

Reid wandered from one bookcase to the next, his eyes traveling over the titles. He glanced in the closet as he passed and stopped. More bookcases. He flipped on the light. A dehumidifier hummed in the background. These books definitely looked fragile. He read the titles. Charlotte’s Web, Winnie the Pooh, the Chronicles of Narnia, and several volumes from the Nancy Drew Mysteries series. He crouched to see the bottom shelf and found a row full of unlabeled books. He drew one randomly and flipped it open.

 

January 20, 1998

Dear Diary,

Today was soooo boring and January is soooo depressing. But Mom made pizza so that’s good at least. Now I have to finish my homework. And more chores. I hate cows.

Love,

Ellie

 

Reid smiled. She’d dotted all of her I’s with little happy faces.

“What’d you find in here?” Stella’s voice just behind him made him spin around in surprise. She smirked at him, glancing down at the book still open in his hands. “You’re reading her diary? That’s just wrong! Put it back where you found it and leave her past alone.”

“Jeez, Stella, calm down. She was just a kid so I’m not reading anything juicy. And I didn’t know what these books were until I opened one. It’s going back, okay?” He put it away where he’d found it. “See? Her secret about hating cows is safe with me. I promise.”

Stella’s frown deepened. “You should know better than most people that childhood can be full of memories that should be left in the past. If you’d read something horrible would you be able to act like you didn’t know when you’re around her again?”

Reid bristled. “Of course I could. If I reacted every time I met an abuser I’d have been thrown in prison a long time ago. I HAVE to act like I don’t know a lot of stuff every time I enter a courtroom. Just like you do.”

“Still, respect her privacy, Reid. These aren’t out in the room for a reason.”

“I put it away, okay?”

“Good. Are you ready to go home? I’ve got an early morning.”

“Just about. I’ll take Misty out one more time. See you at home.”

She kissed him lightly and left.

Reid followed her to the door, then returned to the journals. He could tell from the covers—kitties, iridescent butterflies, horses, and other critters—which ones contained childhood memories. Her teen years were probably in the fluorescent colors. He chose a simple gray book, the first of many volumes, and carried it with him when he took Misty outside.

As the puppy did her business, his gaze wandered around the parking lot. No silver Jetta. Stella’s on her way home. He unzipped his jacket far enough to grab the journal from under his arm then stood under a lamppost to read it. He didn’t notice the silver car parked across the street. Didn’t know Stella had pulled over to take a client’s phone call. Didn’t know she watched him now.

August 26, 2002

Today was the first day of high school. It was as humiliating as it always is. No one ever wants to sit next to me. The good thing is that in English a black girl talked to me. I hope we can become friends. Her name is Tamara but it’s pronounced like ta-marra with the accent on the “m.”

Fingers crossed!

 

August 27, 2002

Tamara and I ate lunch together after English class. At one point, she looked over at me and asked what the heck I’d done to my hair. When I told her I just washed it, she looked surprised and asked me if I had white parents or something. Evidently no one’s told her about me because when I said yes her mouth dropped open. Then she told me to ask my folks if I can go to her house after school so she can show me how to do my hair the right way.

 

August 28, 2002

Well, no surprise. Mom and Dad won’t let me go to Tamara’s house until they meet her parents so they’ve invited them to the farm for dinner on Friday. I want to crawl under a rock and die. I don’t think ANYONE has parents as embarrassing as mine!!!

 

August 29, 2002

Tomorrow night Tamara’s family is coming over and she’s bringing her hair stuff to my house. This should be interesting.

 

August 30, 2002

Wow, where do I start? This morning I got up and Mom was in the kitchen making breakfast. She asked me if I had any suggestions for dinner and I told her to make a roast or something. She asked me if black people like roast and I told her that I thought everyone liked roast. I don’t know if that’s true of everyone but it certainly was of Jeremy and Barbara who were both WHITE! No wonder Tamara’s mouth fell open! She was adopted from New York City when they lived there. Their family just moved back to Missouri this summer. I think I have a best friend for the first time E V E R!!! Oh, and it turns out that I’m not supposed to wash my hair too often. And when I do, I’m supposed to moisturize it with oils so it won’t break off all the time like it does now. Tamara even styled my hair in nice ringlets that she says frame my face. I’m so excited! Someone who’s like me!

Reid skimmed through the rest of the book, but it was pretty boring. Sleepovers, manicures, make-up, and gossip filled the pages. He drove home with the next five volumes in his car.

 

You Might Be a Writer if . . .

Here’s my southern (I grew up in Oklahoma) spin to 10 Ways to Know You’re a Writer:

 

You Might Be a Writer if . . .

10. You’re “in the zone” so you run the “Fluff” mode for a load of towels in your dryer several times hoping your family will think you’re doing laundry.

9. Your kids are down to wearing their swimsuits before you fold that load of towels.

8. You don’t answer the home phone, but you will read texts, because you don’t want to leave your novel long enough to find the cordless phone that is migrating around the house.

7. Your husband interrupts your writing, so you look at him while he talks, but you’re still editing that last sentence in your head.

6. Your favorite book is a Thesaurus.

5. You own a laptop, a netbook, and a tablet with a wireless keyboard and mouse so that you can take your writing with you wherever you roam.

4. You get irritable if you’ve gone a few days without your writing “fix.”

3. It doesn’t matter if anyone ever reads what you’re writing.

2. You hope everyone wants to read what you’re writing.

1. Your plot changes because the fictional characters you created won’t cooperate.

 

Now, just so you know, I’ve never procrastinated to 9s extreme. I probably should be more like 3, but then I wouldn’t have a blog with my name unabashedly attached to it.

And I may have the most stubborn characters in the world because 1 happens to me all the time.

Thanks for visiting!

Chapter Five

One Saturday afternoon Stella walked through the door. She wore jeans, a t-shirt, sandals, her hair up in a ponytail, and dark sunglasses.

“Stella!”

She put her hand on her hip. “I’m incognito. How did you recognize me?”

“You forgot the blonde wig.”

“Dang! I knew I forgot something.”

Ellie laughed. “What’s up, girl?”

“You’re sure looking better than the last time I was here.”

“I’m moving to rehab on Monday. I’m pretty sure I won’t look very good once they get their hands on me.”

Stella winced. “That bad, huh?”

Ellie thought about pretending it wouldn’t be a big deal, but she didn’t want to lie about it. “Pretty much. But I want to walk again, so . . .” She shrugged.

“I wish there was something I could do to help.”

“You guys are taking care of Misty for me. I’ll owe you for life just for that.”

“You’ll owe Reid. Not me.” Stella’s lowered lip trembled and she bit down on it.

Ellie reached out and touched her friend’s arm. “Stella, what’s wrong?”

Stella took her sunglasses off. Her eyes were red and swollen from crying. “You know that Reid and I had only dated a couple of months before we met you, right?” Ellie nodded. “So I feel like you’ve been a part of us all along.” She took a deep breath. “And I knew you were in love with Reid.”

Ellie’s hand flew to her mouth and she shook her head rapidly, mortified. How did she know?

Stella pulled Ellie’s hand away from her face and held it pressed between her own. “It’s okay, Ellie. I’ve known almost from the beginning. I’d see the way you looked at him when you didn’t know I could see you. But you never tried to get him away from me. Ever. Did you?”

“I couldn’t do that to you. You were my best friend.”

“I hope we can get that back. But first I wanted to be totally honest with you. I knew why you stopped coming over after we were married. I think Reid wondered about it sometimes, but I understood.” She looked down at Ellie’s hand. “I don’t think I could’ve stepped aside if I were in your shoes. I’m very self-centered sometimes. But you were always the kindest, sweetest, humblest person I knew. Is that why you didn’t tell him? Why you didn’t even try?”

Ellie had to clear her throat and swallow several times before she could speak. “The two of you were perfect for each other. I couldn’t figure out why you let me hang around anyway and I sure didn’t want to lose your friendship.” She squeezed Stella’s hand. “I thought about it a lot. Believe me. But in every scenario, I lost something I couldn’t stand to lose.”

“Not if he’d chosen you.”

Ellie shook her head. “That was the worst of the bad scenarios.”

“How so? You’d have the man you loved.”

“But I’d lose my best friend. Even worse, I’d have betrayed my best friend. How could I live with that guilt? I don’t think I could’ve, which would have driven a wedge between Reid and me, too. I just couldn’t hurt you like that. Besides, how many times do we think we can’t live without something or someone and it turns out we can survive just fine? I moved on, Stella, even though I’ve missed you terribly.”

“I’ve missed you, too, El. There’ve been so many times I wished I could tell you things. But I didn’t want to hurt you. And . . .” She blinked several times, then shook her head and looked out the window. “Never mind. I can’t say it.”

“I thought you said you wanted to be honest with me. You can tell me anything.” They locked eyes. Ellie’s eyebrows rose. “Please?”

Stella let go of Ellie’s hand with a sad smile. She stood and paced the room, fiddling with her pony tail, her face showing the war within. She stopped in front of the sink and stared at her reflection in the mirror. “Do you remember the year I took you for a full makeover for your birthday?”

“Yes.”

“I’d hoped it would give you some confidence if you got a new hair style and learned how to apply your makeup to play up your beautiful face.” She turned toward Ellie. “You had no idea how gorgeous you looked. Then I watched your self-esteem fall even more when Reid didn’t seem to notice. I knew that day how much he loved me because every other man stared at you. Except for him. He told me later that he’d shown you my engagement ring before he asked me and I ached for you again. Especially when he admitted he’d talked you into trying it on to see if it fit.”

Tears streamed down Stella’s face. The pitch of her voice rose as she tried to finish. “I was so jealous of you.” Ellie’s mouth fell open and Stella huffed a laugh, wiping tears from her cheeks. “I knew you’d probably make him so much happier than I could and one time, after Reid and I argued, I almost broke up with him. I came so close to telling him how you felt. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. It was only because I was furious with him that I even considered it. But I still felt, feel, guilty.” She retraced her steps, sitting down beside Ellie and taking her hand again. “I’m so sorry, Ellie.”

“For what? You didn’t do anything but love a man who loved you. And I’m glad, Stella. I’m glad you two are happy.”

“I’m not so sure about that.”

Ellie blinked, trying to figure out what to say. “You’re not happy?”

“We argue a lot. This morning I woke up and could tell Reid hadn’t come home last night. I called him. Did you know that he’s been sleeping at your apartment?”

NO! I had no idea!” Ellie’s stomach churned.

Stella squeezed her hand. “He says he’s not sleeping in your bed. He says he’s been staying because Misty’s been so lonely. And I believe that’s true to some extent. But today I accused him of running away from our problems and he lashed out. He said that both places had bitches living in them but only one of them was hard to live with.”

Ellie’s blood boiled. He’d called her friend and her dog a bitch! Granted, Misty was a female dog, but still.

“Are you mad at me?” Stella’s voice dropped to a near whisper. “Because I know I deserve that.”

“I’m mad at Reid. I hope you said something back.”

Stella’s gaze fell to the floor. “I told him maybe he should just move in with you permanently.”

Stella!”

 “Well I didn’t really mean it.”

“Does he know that?”

“Yes. We’ve talked since then and he’s bringing Misty to our house for a while today so she can get out and we can work through this.”

“Good. You know, if Misty’s causing problems between you two, I can ask my parents to take her to the farm for me. I had no idea I’d be here this long, Stella. Honestly. Or I wouldn’t have asked you guys to help with her.”

“I have to admit, when your dad called and said you’d asked for Reid, my first thought was that maybe you’d decided to try for him after all. But you’re still the same, aren’t you? You could barely look at him when we were here the last time.” Ellie nodded. “So why did you ask for him?”

“I don’t remember doing that. My parents say I told them to call Reid, but I don’t recall it at all.”

“Even subconsciously you’re in love with him.”

“I’m not in love with him, Stella. He’s a married man. I gave him up a long time ago. I want you two to be happy and have kids and all of that. I’m still hopeful I’ll find someone who isn’t too picky about piddly things like legs that are the same length and who finds scarring attractive.” She winked. “It could happen, right?”

Stella laughed. “So it wouldn’t bother you to see him on a regular basis again? Because I really miss you.”

“I think I could probably handle it. Do you think he could handle three bitches?”

Stella giggled, relief evident on her face. “I sure hope not. It’ll be way more fun.”

* * *

The next morning Ellie’s parents showed up after breakfast to spend the day with her. It had been two weeks since she’d seen them. As soon as her mother walked in, she understood why. Every step caused obvious pain and when she smiled, only half her face worked.

Fear locked Ellie’s body down. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t move. Her heart raced in her chest and she felt nauseous. Mom’s had a stroke! The door swung open again and her father rushed in.

“I told you to wait for me, babe!” He helped his wife to a chair, then turned to Ellie. “Your Mom has Lyme disease, sweetie. We just got the diagnosis yesterday and she’s on antibiotics, but it’ll take a while for all of the symptoms to go away.”

Ellie put a hand on her chest, trying to slow her heart rate. “But she’ll be okay? Eventually?”

“That’s what her doctors say. And you’ll never hear it from me, but your mother can be stubborn at times.” He winked at his wife.

Her gaze travelled to her mother. “You wouldn’t let Dad tell me you were sick?”

“We didn’t want you to worry. You have enough to deal with.” Her mother spoke slower than usual and her words slurred a bit, but Ellie understood. Anger flared within her.

“I know why you kept it from me, Mom. But if I got Lyme, would you be okay if I didn’t tell you?” Her words and the sharp tone in her voice betrayed her irritation.

Her father knelt beside her mother’s chair, taking her hand as tears formed in her eyes. “You’ve got a point, Ellie, and we’ll take that into consideration if something like this ever happens again, but we are your parents and we still have a responsibility to look out for you the best way we can. Your mother wasn’t hospitalized. She wasn’t dying. We did what we thought was right.”

Ellie accepted the admonition. She’d over-reacted and hurt her mother in the process. “You’re right, Dad, and I’m sorry. Mom, will you forgive me? I was scared and then angry, but I should’ve kept my mouth shut. I love you.”

“Of course I forgive you. I love you too.” Her mother leaned forward to squeeze Ellie’s hand.

“All right, enough of that mushy stuff.” He reached behind him. “Ellie, I brought your favorite card game, Mille Bornes! And I’m going to attempt to break my previous record of coup-fourrés.”

Ellie groaned. Mille Bornes was her dad’s favorite game, not hers. And if he broke his previous record, it wouldn’t be much fun for her mother and her. But within a few minutes, the three of them were laughing and razzing each other around the table like they had while she lived at home.

They ordered Chinese food delivered for supper that evening and had just finished eating when Ellie’s favorite therapy dog arrived with Reid. Misty licked at Ellie’s face for a few seconds before she turned her attention to the leftover rice on her plate.

After several minutes of chit-chat between the four of them, her dad announced that it was time for them to head home. Reid took Misty for a quick walk while they said their goodbyes.

“Mom, please take care of yourself. Rest, as often as you need to. Please?”

“I’ll try, sweetie, I promise.”

“Dad, you’ll make her rest, right?”

Her father laughed. “When have I ever been able to make her do anything she didn’t want to do?”

“Drive safely and let me know when you get home. We all know how dangerous those back roads can be.”

“We will. But it’ll be after ten before we’re home.”

“I’ll be up. You guys take care of each other until I see you again.”

“Okay, sweetie. We love you!”

“Love you two, too!” Her mom and dad laughed. Her forehead furrowed at the awkward alliteration then she shrugged it off.

When Reid came back in, Ellie played with Misty while they talked about her parents and her mother’s illness. Reid had gotten to know them a little during the weeks he’d been caring for Misty.

“Stella said she saw you yesterday.” Reid shifted in his seat.

“Yeah and I’m so glad she stopped by. She said you’ve had to sleep at my house because of Misty. You know I can get Miss Ruby to check on her at night. You don’t have to go to all that trouble.”

“The first time it happened I was watching TV on your couch and Misty fell asleep on my chest. I figured I’d finish NCIS and leave. I woke up a little after five.”

“I can’t believe you fell asleep during NCIS.”

“I know, now I’ll have to watch that episode again because I don’t know what happened to Ziva.”

“I love Ziva. I hated when—”

He held up a hand. “Don’t tell me anything. I’m only on the eighth season.”

“Oh. Wait, have you been watching my DVDs too?” Irritation swelled inside her. She hadn’t thought it would get so complicated having someone watch her dog. Of course, she often wondered why they didn’t just take her to their house. Maybe Stella kept an immaculate home and didn’t want the puppy messing it up.

“No, I brought mine from home. Why? Do you own all of them?”

“Yes. I guess you can watch mine if you don’t want to buy them.”

“Thanks but I think I want them all in my collection. And speaking of collections, I love your barn photography. Especially the center one. It’s your home isn’t it?”

Ellie smiled. “Yes, but how did you know I took them?”

“I guessed, but I also saw your cameras in the bag by your desk.”

The conversation had gone from okay to a little creepy. She wondered what else he’d gone through in her home.

“Okay, that freaked you out a little, I can tell. I promise I’m not going through your stuff.”

She sighed. “That’s good. I think you’d be freaked out too if I went to your house and started looking through your things without your permission.”

“Point taken.” He held his hand up, palm toward her. “I solemnly swear not to look through anything else in your home.”

She nodded. “Thank you.”

“Okay, don’t freak out some more, but I did have to go in your bedroom and remove that little devil,” he pointed to Misty, “from on top of your bed. She made a mess, but I cleaned it up and pulled the door shut so she couldn’t get in anymore.”

“Did you close the guest room door too?”

“Yes. And you should know that it took a great deal of self-control not to go snooping in there.”

“I give you permission to snoop away in the guest room. I just don’t want Misty to chew up anything in there. I’ve been buying those old books since high school. Some of them are irreplaceable.”

His face lit up. “You just made my night!” He looked at his watch and yawned. “Is it time to go?”

Ellie laughed, kissed Misty on her head, and handed her to Reid. “Thanks for bringing her tonight. She’s actually great therapy.”

“Glad to do it. I didn’t know if you’d be allowed visitors during rehab so I figured this might be her last shot until you’re released. What are your plans when you’re finally free?”

“I’ll probably head out to the farm for a couple of weeks. I’m not sure when I’ll be released to go back to work. Tomorrow I’m supposed to get my arm cast off. I’ve been told my wrist and elbow will be locked up from not moving for the past eight weeks. And I’ve got to have both arms before I can get around on crutches.” She touched her nose. “At least I had a good plastic surgeon to fix my face.”

“You sure did! I almost didn’t recognize you without that Jimmy Durante nose.”

Ellie looked at Misty. “If you love me, you’ll bite him now.”

Reid laughed. “Well, take care, Ellie. I’d better get Misty home before Miss Ruby chews me out. You’ve got a good watchdog living next door.”

“She’s a great neighbor. Thanks again for bringing Misty over. I owe you big time.”

“Yeah, well, you might have to bring dynamite to get me out of your guest room.”

Ellie narrowed her eyes. “I have a coworker with a Rottweiler named Dynamite.”

Reid tucked Misty under his arm, protectively. “Don’t worry, she’d never do that to us. Dynamite would eat you for lunch.”

“Goodbye Reid.” Her dry tone made him smile.

After he left Ellie fell back on her pillows, exhausted. It had been a long but enjoyable day. And she’d managed to carry on a conversation with Reid that wasn’t too uncomfortable. That was progress.