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