Chapter Fourteen

As it turned out, Ellie didn’t have even one day in preparation for her talk with Reid. When her father pulled into the driveway, a black convertible sat in front of the garage.

“Oh no! Ellie, Reid’s here. I didn’t know he was coming, I promise.” Stella looked panicked.

“Dad, can you give us a minute?” Her father nodded and left them alone in the truck. “Stella, it’s okay. I’ll talk to him today and then you guys can go out like you’d planned.”

“But I haven’t gotten the present and card and stuff.”

“Then you have to decide if you can keep it a secret until you can get them or if telling him now is more important to you. I won’t say a word, of course.”

“Okay. Shoot, here he comes. I guess I’ll just wing it and see what happens.”

Reid jogged over to the truck, opened Stella’s door, pulled her out, and threw his arms around her. “Hey, baby. I’ve missed you.” He buried his face in her neck. “I’m so sorry,” Ellie heard him whisper. Stella was hugging him back. Then their arms loosened and he was kissing her. Ellie looked away. Should she just wait in the car or get out the other door since her side was blocked by their bodies? She started to scoot to the other side when her door opened.

“Hi Ellie,” Reid held out a hand for her. She took it and he helped her out of the truck. “I, um, guess we need to talk.” She nodded. Stella was climbing the front steps to the porch. She looked over her shoulder once before she opened the screen door and walked inside the house.

Would this day never end? Ellie was exhausted from the full day, probably the busiest she’d had since she came home. She limped toward the porch, her leg was screaming at her, and stumbled when it buckled beneath her. Reid caught her before she hit the ground, then picked her up and carried her to the porch. Her face burned with embarrassment. She hoped Stella couldn’t see them right now. She’d imagine all sorts of inappropriate things.

“Thank you,” Ellie said when he set her feet on the porch. “Can we do it out here?” That sounded wrong. “Talk, I mean.” C’mon Ellie, pull it together.

“Sure, if you want.”

“Or maybe we should go somewhere more private, so my parents can’t hear anything.” That didn’t sound right either. “Accidentally. I don’t think they’d purposely listen in.”

He held up one hand to stop her. “Is there somewhere close by that you’d prefer?”

“Ummm,” she considered her nature sanctuary, but that was too personal. “No, not really.”

“We could go somewhere else on the farm here, in my car, if that’s okay.”

“Okay, yeah, I guess that’d be fine. Let me text Stella so she doesn’t panic.” She fired off the text while he brought the car up to the porch. “Thanks,” she said as she plopped down into the low seat of the Jaguar. “I forgot you guys had this car.”

“I’ll never sell this baby. Stella and I love this car.”

Ellie wondered if that would still be the case in about nine months. “It’s a beauty.” Ellie pointed him in the direction of the barn. She figured it would be as non-romantic a place as possible and she didn’t want to be in the car while they talked.

He followed the dirt road around to the barn. “Just park here, it’s fine,” she said.

“All right.” He did as she suggested. He had to help her out of the car, though. Her leg wouldn’t cooperate. “Do you want me to carry you in?” She bit down on her lip, trying to decide whether she’d make it on her own. He scooped her up and started walking. Could she just sleep out here so he wouldn’t have to touch her any more after they talked? Why was her own body betraying her?

“There you go.” He set her down inside the barn. “That leg’s still giving you trouble, huh?”

She rubbed her thigh and winced. “It’s doing better every day. But today I’ve been on it too much.” She sat on a hay bale and rubbed her way down to the ankle. She was stalling. How was she going to do this?

He finally sat down beside her. “Ellie, I’m really, really sorry I betrayed you by reading your journals. It was a despicable thing to do to you.” He leaned forward, elbows on knees and hands clasped in front of him.

Minutes dragged by. He didn’t move. “I don’t know how to go forward from this,” she finally said. “How do we act like you don’t know what you never should have found out?”

“Looking back, I wonder how I could have been so clueless. But I’ve come to realize that while you may have been in love with me, you loved Stella even more. That’s what I noticed about you. Your devotion to her. That’s why I never questioned why you hung around with us. I always figured it was because of her.”

She’d been staring at him while he spoke. It was strange seeing him in the world she grew up in. He seemed very out-of-place in his dress shirt and slacks sitting on a hay bale inside an old barn. Still handsome, though. And he still smelled fantastic.

“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if you hadn’t read my diaries and I don’t know why things have turned out like they have. Maybe because you have to make choices when you’re in a relationship. Maybe there’ll be some other woman along the way who will want you and maybe she’ll let you know that. What will you do? Are you going to stay with Stella or are you only with her until someone else catches your eye?” He didn’t answer; he was still staring out into the barn. “If I said I still loved you, what would you do?”

His head turned slowly until he was looking straight into her eyes. “Do you?” She swallowed. He sat up and his whole body turned toward her until their knees touched. The moment of truth. “Do you still love me, Ellie?”

No,” she whispered. A lie, because the truth would’ve ripped them all apart.

Reid’s eyes seemed to grow in size until Ellie realized he was leaning toward her. Slowly, waiting to judge her reaction. If she did nothing, she could picture it all happening. The kiss, the first one, the next one. The ones that would make her forget everything she thought she knew about herself.

If things had been different, if he hadn’t been in love with her best friend, would there have been any chance with him? It was there for a moment, this alternate life.

Unconsciously she’d been moving just as slowly away from him; her head and shoulders bumped the wall behind her. What about her own morals? Did she believe some things were wrong, like kissing a married man, or was everything all right if it was what your heart wanted?

Her hand came up. Her hand against his chest. A little pressure. It didn’t take much. He stopped. Waited a few long seconds to see if she would change her mind. And turned away.

Maybe Reid was a great man for Stella, but he was definitely the wrong man for her. She’d made her decision. The rightness of it flooded through her. It swallowed up the little bit of regret that tried to surface. Drowned it until it was gone. Forever.

“No,” she said again. The truth, because the lie had been revealed. “The Ellie who was in love with you died in an automobile accident earlier this summer.”

His eyes found hers again and she tried to read his face. He didn’t look disappointed. He looked almost relieved. “Then those weren’t your journals I read, were they? They belonged to someone else.”

“Yes, that’s it exactly. I’m not her.”

“And I’ve never been him either–the Reid in your diary. You only saw the man I allowed you to see. And Stella probably didn’t tell you about our arguments.We’re two strong-headed people and that’s not always easy in a relationship, as you’re about to find out. Are you ready to return to the house?”

“Yes.” What did that last part mean?

He picked her up and hurried back to the car. They drove back to the house. He carried her inside and up the stairs while she gave him directions to the guest room where Stella was staying. She knocked lightly.

“Come in,” they heard Stella say. She pushed the door open.

Reid carried her in and set her on her feet before he went to Stella. “You were right, babe.”

Stella beamed. “I knew it!” Stella turned to Ellie. “He tried to kiss you, right?”

“How–” Ellie looked from one face to the other. “How did you know?”

Stella rushed over and enveloped her in a hug. “Because I told him to, Ellie. Actually, it’s the only way I’d agree to him coming out here. He had to agree to try. I’m sorry. That was probably a dirty trick to play on you. But I wanted to know if the girl who was in love with my husband would try to take him away at the first opportunity. I wanted to be able to trust you completely. But . . .”

Ellie didn’t feel quite right. The air, the room, everything seemed to be receding into the distance rapidly. Her eyelids drooped. She couldn’t fight it so she didn’t.

* * *

There was something cold pressed to her forehead. She tried to remove it and heard her mother’s worried voice surround her. “Oh, she’s okay. Ellie? Ellie can you wake up please?” She opened her eyes. Her mother was leaning over her. “It’s been a long day, hasn’t it sweetie. You probably did too much. How do you feel?”

Ellie considered it. Her leg ached more than usual and her head still felt a little strange. “My leg hurts pretty bad, Mom. And I still feel a little light-headed. But I think I’m good. Let me sit up.” She caught the washcloth as it slid off her forehead, but other than a little dizziness, she seemed to be all right. Reid and Stella were standing behind her mother, looking a little chagrined. She’d been set up. By her best friend. It all came back. “I think I just need some sleep.”

“Are you sure, honey? Do you want me to bring you something to eat or drink?” Her mother was still worried.

“Some water would be nice, Mom.”

“I’ll be right back.”

Ellie turned to Stella. “Are you still planning to go home tomorrow or what?”

“Well, we were thinking maybe we would leave tonight,” Stella answered.

“I think that would be a good idea.”

“You’re mad at me for testing you like that,” Stella said.

“Hurt and betrayed are more what I’m feeling. Anger might come later.”

“Ellie, I’m so sorry. Maybe it’s my pregnancy hormones, but it seemed like a good idea when I thought of it.”

“Wait. Did you just say pregnancy hormones?” Reid stepped between them, his eyes darting from Stella’s to Ellie’s. “She said that didn’t she?”

“Aw crap, there goes my special way of telling him,” Stella grumbled.

“What? Telling me what? That you’re pregnant? WOULD SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME WHAT’S GOING ON?”

“Calm down, Daddy, she’s getting to it,” Ellie said.

“Yeah, I’m getting there! I had this whole plan on how I was going to tell you, but at least I can still surprise you with the twin thing.” Stella clapped a hand over her mouth.

“She did not just say twins, did she?” Reid sat down on the bed.

“Oh crap, I just spilled that too, didn’t I? What is WRONG with me today?”

“Well, you were just in the hospital for several hours,” Ellie added.

“That’s true.”

“You were in the HOSPITAL today?” Reid’s face was turning an alarming shade of red.

“I think you’d better start from the beginning and tell him everything.” Ellie said.

So Stella did. With Ellie filling things in whenever Stella forgot something. Ellie’d had enough when they started kissing. “You guys should get a room,” she muttered. “Oh wait, I think I’m still in your room. I’ll just go then.” She got up to leave and barely made it to the door before Reid caught up to her.

“I don’t think you’re quite ready to be on your own just yet.” He wrapped an arm around her waist and they limped along like that for about three steps before he whipped her up into his arms again.

“I think you like this damsel-in-distress thing a little too much. You really need to cut back before it becomes an out-and-out addiction,” she said. He scoffed. “Unless Stella likes it, then I’d say go ahead.”

“And I’d say you’re still out of it because you’re not making any sense.”

“I am pretty tired. It was a tough day.”

“Your mom forgot your water,” he said, setting her on her bed.

“Yeah, the room service sucks but the views are amazing.”

His eyebrows pressed together. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Not really. He had some explaining to do. “Reid, why did you do that to me?”

“I think you need to ask Stella about it. She told me to try to kiss you. When your wife tells you to kiss another woman, you just do it, okay?” He was trying to be funny.

She didn’t laugh. “What if I had let you? What was your plan?”

The smile and playful manner disappeared. “I could see you fighting yourself. I was feeling pretty conflicted, too. I’d like to think that I’d have stopped it before anything happened.”

“But you can’t say that for sure.” He didn’t respond and in the ensuing silence she heard footsteps on the stairs. She held a finger to her lips to silence him.

“Ellie, I’m sorry I didn’t bring this earlier but–” Her mom stopped at the door, glancing between Ellie and Reid. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t know you had company.”

“It’s okay, Mom. I’m still not too steady on my feet so he helped me back and we’re just talking.” She turned to Reid, “Do you want to share your big news?”

He turned, excitement playing across his face. “Stella’s pregnant with twins! I’m going to be a daddy!”

“Congratulations! That’s really exciting. Do twins run in your family?”

“Not in mine, but maybe they do in Stella’s.”

“Well no wonder she hasn’t been feeling too well. Morning sickness, I presume?”

“Yep,” Ellie answered. She smiled at Reid. “Good luck getting her to eat. And thanks for helping me but Stella’s probably waiting for you. She might need help packing.”

Reid paused at the door. “Do you want us to stop in before we leave?”

“Yes, please. I’d like to see you guys off.” He nodded and disappeared.

“You okay, sweetie?” Her mom handed her the glass of water.

She took a few sips. “Just really, really tired. What were you getting ready to tell me when you walked in with my water?”

“Oh! That your uncle called and he wants you to stop by Spencer’s tomorrow to pick up your books. He’ll be there all day.”

“Good. If Dad has time, we can go whenever he wants.”

“Got it. Well, I’ll let you rest and say goodbye to your friends in peace. Sleep well, sweetie.”

“Thanks, Mom. Love you!”

“Love you too.”

Stella and Reid came in shortly afterward to say goodbye. Reid gave her a hug, told her not to be a stranger, and went to put Stella’s bags in her car. Stella sat down. “Reid told me you guys talked a little more and that you’re still confused about tonight.” Ellie nodded. “You have to understand, Ellie, that your father called out-of-the-blue saying that you wanted Reid to take care of your dog after your accident. Reid, not me. I didn’t know why that was. Had you changed in the years we’d been apart? Maybe decided that you weren’t going to walk away after all? And you’ve become exotically beautiful, too. Reid even mentioned it. So, I panicked. Especially now that I’m pregnant I needed to know if you’d changed. And, I’ll admit, it was kind of a test for Reid as well. I didn’t tell him that, of course. But if he followed through with anything, that would’ve given me a lot to consider.”

“I have changed in the past few months and we haven’t really talked about it but you’ve changed too, Stella. All through college you seemed to trust me, even though you supposedly knew that I was in love with Reid. When you showed me your engagement ring, I told you that he’d shown it to me, in his bedroom, and you just laughed. Was that fake? That trust?”

“No. I did trust you. And Reid. But I’m a divorce lawyer. I’ve represented hundreds of women, mostly, who are divorcing their husbands for things like unfaithfulness. All of these scenarios kept coming into my mind and I couldn’t shake them. I came here, hoping to get to know you again and lay those demons to rest once and for all. Then I found out I was pregnant and I panicked. I felt like I’d run out of time to figure it out.” She paused. “It really seemed like a good plan when I thought of it at the clinic today even though Reid didn’t agree. Maybe he was right. Can you forgive me?”

Ellie thought about it for a moment. Wasn’t forgiveness an act of the will? Hard to do, but easier than trying to forget it ever happened. Stella waited, eyes pleading. “Yes,” she finally answered.

“Oh, thank you!” Stella jumped up and threw her arms around her. Ellie hugged her back. “I promise I won’t ever test you again like that. I hope someday you can forget I ever tried.”

Me too, Ellie thought, drawing away. “You take care of yourself and those little ones, Stella.”

“Thanks, El. For everything. Call me if you’re in town and we’ll go for lunch or something.”

“Sure thing.”

“I guess I’d better go.”

“Yeah, I bet Reid is wondering what’s taking you so long.”

“See you around?”

“Bye, Stella. Drive safely.”

Stella waved as she walked out the door. Ellie listened as she hurried down the steps, heard the screen door slap shut, and then the sound of the tires on the gravel as they drove away. They were finally gone and she was relieved. Now she needed to put Misty outside again. After she rested for a few more minutes. She closed her eyes.

It was pitch black when she woke up and she needed to use the bathroom. She flipped the blankets off, thanking her mother for them, and glanced at her alarm clock. It was just after three in the morning.

When she returned to her room she quickly changed into pajamas and climbed back into bed, settling onto her side. Misty jumped over her legs and wriggled into her arms. She stroked the soft fur a few times and closed her eyes. A brief shake of the mattress caused her to open them again. Something pressed against her legs. She reached down to find a bigger dog curled up in the crook of her knees. She stroked his head and ears a few times. “Welcome home, Jack.”

Chapter Thirteen

Ellie’s phone chimed. “I hope that’s her. I’m starting to get really worried.” She’d kept her phone right beside her for the last two hours, worried she’d miss a response. Stella had been in Urgent Care for over five hours. Ellie and her father had gone to the bookstore, spent time talking to her lawyer uncle, and picked up their new dog in that time. To kill another hour, and because they thought she wouldn’t want to smell the food anyway, they’d driven to Culver’s and picked up supper to go. They took their meal to a nearby park and were eating at a picnic bench, allowing Jack to get out but keeping him on the leash so he’d stay close.

Ellie sighed as she read Stella’s text. “She says it’ll be even longer. They want to run some tests before they release her. Should I go to be with her and you can run Jack home?”

“If you think she’d like you with her, we can certainly do that. Why don’t you ask her?”

Ellie typed her reply and sent it. A few moments later, she heard back. Stella would like for her to come, but didn’t want to pull her away from anything. She read the message to her father. He nodded. “Tell her you’ll be there in about twenty minutes.” She sent the message. They weren’t completely finished with their meal, but she knew they weren’t far from the clinic.

Jack was lying quietly at her feet. She tried to share a french fry with Jack, but he sniffed at it and turned away. She knew he’d have to go through a bit of a depression in his new setting as he let go of his old life and embraced his new one. “It’ll be okay, Jack,” she murmured to him as she scratched his ears. “We’re good people too and I already love you.” His ears perked up as she spoke, his eyes meeting hers briefly before looking away. She pinched off a bit of her burger, with cheese melted on it, and offered him that. He accepted it readily and even rose to his feet, sniffing the air around her. She laughed and pinched off another bite for him.

“Don’t spoil my dog, kiddo.” Her father smiled, but she knew there was a grain of truth in the tease.

“Oh Daddy, you know he’ll never be allowed in the house while we’re eating. How many chances will I have?”

“If I know you, there’ll be plenty.” But he didn’t complain when she gave him the rest of her burger. She couldn’t eat the whole thing anyway. And she wanted the dog to know he could trust her.

Fifteen minutes later, she walked into the clinic and asked for Stella. It took her a few minutes to follow the directions she was given, but eventually she found the right area. A nurse escorted her to Stella’s room.

Stella was sitting up in the hospital bed watching television when she walked in. “You look better already! How do you feel?”

“Much better! They even brought me some soup and I ate it all. Everything still tastes a little off, but maybe that’s what pregnancy does to me.”

“Maybe. What kind of tests do they still want to do?”

“They’ve ordered an ultrasound because I’m measuring bigger than what I should be for six weeks along.”

“Huh, well maybe you’re further along than you thought? How cool would that be? Just skip some of those queasy weeks and get to the baby sooner.”

“Sounds too good to be true so I won’t believe it until they tell me.” She put her hand in front of her mouth like she was trying to hide and leaned toward Ellie to whisper, “But I sure wouldn’t complain if that turns out to be the case.”

Ellie chuckled. “Do you know when they’ll be doing the ultrasound?”

“It was supposed to be done about an hour ago, but there was an emergency so it got pushed back a bit. Which is fine. If it were me having the emergency, I’d want others to be patient and understanding. In the meantime, I’ve been googling different ways to tell Reid. Some people have waaaay too much time on their hands. I don’t want to wait longer than I have to so that I can plan some elaborate scheme. I’ve decided that I’m going to buy a stuffed animal made for a baby, wrap it up really nice, and have a card for someone who’s expecting attached to it. Maybe I’ll take a picture of the pregnancy test and throw it in the card, too. As proof. I left it sitting on my bathroom sink because I keep looking at it to make sure I haven’t dreamed this up.”

“That sounds like a fun way to tell him. Have you guys been talking?”

Stella’s eyes lost a little of their sparkle and her smile faded. “We talk every night and text through the day. It’s mostly insignificant stuff, but he’s apologized more than once so I’m taking that as a hopeful sign that he wants to stay with me.”

“I can’t imagine him with anyone else. It’s always been you Stella, for as long as I can remember.”

“But he didn’t know you were in love with him, too. Now he does. I don’t know if that changes anything. Why would he want to stay with me, when he could have you?” Tears filled her eyes and she blinked them away.

“No, Stella, he can never have me. I was in love with him a long time ago. But that was before a lot of things.”

“Like what?”

“Like, it was before he showed me your engagement ring. Before you got married. Before he read all of my journals without permission.” She pressed her lips together, remembering. “It’s going to take a while to forgive him for that last one. I should let you read them all so that you guys can talk through anything you need to. Then I’m going to burn the blasted things. I never imagined anyone, especially him, ever reading them.” She paused. “Were you ever in love before Reid?”

“Yes, once. Why?”

“Well, imagine that you put all of your feelings about that guy down on paper and then years later he gets to read them. You don’t feel that way about him anymore, but now all of that is out there between the two of you and you can’t really talk it through and so it just sits there, worming it’s way into your friendship. And every time you catch him looking at you, you wonder if he’s thinking about what you used to dream about.”

Stella was quiet for several minutes. “I’ve never thought of it like that but I can definitely see your point. I don’t need to read the journals, Ellie. I’m pretty sure I can imagine it well enough. And I don’t think I want to be talking with Reid about your journals in the future. You two will have to hash that out between you. And I’d really like for you to do that before Reid and I try to work it out. Because I need to know that he’s really there for me and this baby. Not that he’s secretly hoping that you two have a chance someday.”

“I’d hoped we could just act like it never happened, but I guess I see your point. I’ll talk to him about it the next time I see him.”

“I think that’s going to be tomorrow, so be prepared. I’m going to tell him to come out and pick me up for dinner tomorrow and then I’m going home. I’ve really enjoyed hanging out with you, but I really want to spend the rest of my vacation at home. I’m actually excited to start planning the nursery and stuff.”

The door opened and a woman came into the room, pulling a large cart with a monitor and some other things on top. Ellie leaned toward Stella. “You get to see your baby now!”

Stella grabbed her hand and didn’t let go. “I’m so nervous. I’m glad you’re here.” Ellie squeezed her hand in reply and smiled.

The ultrasound technician introduced herself and began to set up the procedure. She asked Stella to pull her hospital gown up and then squirted a clear gel over her lower abdomen. She explained what she was doing as she went. “Now, Stella, I want you to know that this is new equipment so I’m still learning how to work with it. And right now, your fetus is very small and has a lot of space to hide in. It may take me a few moments to try to find him or her but when I do, I’ll turn this screen toward you so you can see your baby.” Her voice sounded distracted as her hand adjusted the wand she held pressed against Stella’s belly. Then it froze and she began tapping buttons.

Stella’s eyes darted between the technician’s face and Ellie’s. Her expression grew more and more serious as the moments flew by. “Is there a problem?” Her voice shook.

The technician glanced at Stella and then returned her focus to the screen. “Oh, no, no, I’m just trying to get everything in order.” Her hand relaxed and she withdrew the wand. “I told you before that this is a new machine and I’m trying to learn it. But there’s someone who’s worked with it a lot more than I have and I want her to come in. Is it okay if I go get her?”

Stella nodded and the woman turned off the screen, rose, and left the room. Stella stared after her. “Something’s not right, that’s why she left, isn’t it?” Her soft voice sounded frightened.

“We don’t know that. She might have had trouble getting the baby to stay still long enough to get a picture.”

Stella shook her head. “No, something’s wrong.” She closed her eyes. Ellie pressed Stella’s hand between both of hers. The door opened and two women came in. The technician was followed by an older woman.

“Hello, I’m Dr. Rebecca Stern.” She shook Stella’s hand, then Ellie’s, and then clicked on the machine as her hand swept the wand up and over Stella’s abdomen. “Now let’s take another look.” She paused and began to click buttons and adjust the monitor. “There you are!” Stella’s shoulders relaxed and she sighed audibly. “And there you are!” She clicked more buttons before turning the screen toward Stella. “We found out why you’re measuring bigger than you should. Take a look at your twins!”

“TWINS!!” Stella and Ellie shouted simultaneously.

The doctor pointed out the two babies on the screen. “If you look carefully, you’ll see that they’re identical. They share the same sack.” Her finger drew a circle along a thin white line on the monitor. “Here’s baby #1,” she traced again, “and baby #2. Now, if you look at the two in comparison, you’ll see that one of the babies is quite a bit bigger than the other. Both have heartbeats, so both are alive, and you can see them moving. But you need to be aware that occasionally one of the two won’t survive. It’s possible that the littlest one may not make it. Sometimes it just depends on whether he or she is a fighter.”

“What happens if it doesn’t make it?” Stella stared at the screen.

“Usually your body just absorbs it when they’re very small like this. And the surviving baby is fine.”

“Hang in there, little one.” Stella’s eyes flitted between the screen and her abdomen. “Don’t give up. Fight!”

The doctor took some more measurements very quickly and recorded them. She printed out some pictures and handed them to Stella. “These are for you to keep. You need to call your obstetrician and tell them you’re pregnant with twins. They’ll set up appointments differently for you. And will try to help you prepare for an earlier delivery than what you thought. Twins generally do not go full term. You need to be prepared for the possibility of confinement–bed rest–during the last few weeks too.” She wiped the gel off Stella’s abdomen as she spoke. “Do you have any questions?”

“Tons, but I think I’ll save them for my doctor,” Stella answered.

“Sounds good.” She shook their hands again. “Take care of yourself and congratulations!”

“Thank you.” Stella waited until they left the room and then studied the pictures in her hands. “How am I going to tell Reid now?”

“Just put the pictures in the card or in the box and let him figure it out,” Ellie said.

“Oh my gosh, he’s going to flip out! Two babies, Ellie! We’re having twins!”

Ellie laughed. “I know, I was here!”

“I just can’t grasp it. Double everything! TWO nurseries?!”

“Well, maybe not. I believe I’ve heard that twins like being together and if you separate them it’s harder for them. And for you in that case.”

“Oh, yeah, I think you’re right.” She threw the blanket off. “Where are my clothes? We need to get out of here.”

“Whoa, I think they have to tell you that.” She put the blanket back over Stella.

“Fine. Where’s my nurse button.” She dug it out from under her elbow and pressed the button several times.

“I’ll call my dad and tell him to come back for us,” Ellie said, digging her phone out of her pocket.

“Okay, but don’t tell him about the twins. I want Reid to know first. Or, I guess it would be third since I found out first and you found out second.” Stella talked and talked. She seemed to be in chatterbox mode, so shocked from finding out she was carrying two babies instead of the one she expected. Ellie let her talk, trying to be calm in the storm of excitement surrounding her friend.

 

Chapter Nine

(Writer’s Note: I apologize for the time-lag in getting this next chapter out. I’m afraid I was suffering from writer’s block and needed some time to step back since my original plan changed while writing Ellie’s story. I hope to add a new chapter each week now that I’m back on task. Thanks so much for reading!)

A light tap on Ellie’s door had her scrambling to put the lid back on Miss Ruby’s box and set it aside.

Stella stood in the hallway. “Did I wake you up?”

“No, come on in. Did you get enough sleep?” Ellie sat on her bed so Stella could have the chair in front of her desk.

“I guess so. I’ll get by for a few more hours anyway.” Her leg bounced rapidly, a nervous habit that Ellie remembered from their college days. “Do you feel like getting out? I’d love to sit on the porch or something. It’s so peaceful out here.”

“Yeah we could do that, or we could take our old Ranger for a spin. Its top speed is about five miles per hour so it’s pretty safe, even with me driving. We could take a short tour of the farm.”

“I would love that!” She jumped up from her chair, grabbed Ellie’s crutches, and thrust them toward her, drawing Ellie’s camera bag strap over her shoulder as soon as her hands were free again.

Stella drove while Ellie gave her directions. They stopped often so Ellie could get pictures. At first there was a lot of small talk revolving around Ellie’s memories growing up in the country. But soon all their conversation focused on photography. Stella seemed genuinely fascinated, asking question after question.

Finally, Ellie turned to Stella, holding the camera out. “Would you like to try? I’ve set it on auto, so all you have to do is point and click.”

Stella bit her lip. “Are you sure? I don’t want to break it.”

“Keep the neck strap on. If you drop it, it won’t fall far.” Ellie slipped the strap over Stella’s head. “Have fun. I’m going to wait in the Ranger.”

“Um hmm.” Stella’s reply probably meant she hadn’t even heard her, but Ellie hobbled to the Ranger anyway. Miss Ruby’s box and the letters it contained made her impatient to get back and she wished Stella would hurry.

Stella, however, seemed to have honed in on a maple leaf clinging to the tree. Ellie had a better lens in the bag for close-ups. But that meant she’d have to walk over there again, switch lenses, and probably have to explain the process. She sighed and reached for her crutches just as Stella turned to approach the Ranger. Ellie smiled, relieved, and waited for Stella to climb inside.

“Thanks! That’s was fun!” She handed the camera back to Ellie. “I think I got some interesting shots. To me anyway. You’re probably much better and will think my pics are lame.” She chuckled as her eyes darted to Ellie’s and away.

“I doubt that. Besides, it’s what they mean to you that matters. We’ll take a look inside. I have my editing software installed on my laptop.”

“Yay! I can see them bigger!”

Ellie and Stella returned to the house shortly before supper. Both volunteered to help but Ellie’s mother shooed them from the kitchen. They ended up on the porch swing, swaying gently as they listened to the birds singing from the nearby trees. Stella’s phone buzzed and she dug it out of her pocket, grimacing when she looked down at it. She typed for a few seconds and then put the phone away again.

“Reid?”

“Yeah, he wants to know how it’s going.” One side of her mouth curved up. “Wanna guess what I told him?”

Ellie considered it for a moment. In their college days, when Stella got angry she’d clam up, hardly saying anything or answering in one-word statements. Ellie smiled. “Fine?”

“Bingo!” Stella shrugged. “He probably won’t get it. He never does.” Her phone vibrated. “But we’ll know in a sec.” She studied her phone for several seconds. “Huh, I guess maybe he does get it. He’s apologizing again and wants to talk. I’m going to say that we’re getting ready to eat and I’ll call him later.” Her fingers moved rapidly across the phone’s screen.

Ellie’s mom called them to dinner shortly after. Stella said she was starving but didn’t seem to eat very much. Then, after everyone finished eating she shooed Ellie’s parents from the room while she did all of the dishes, even drying them and putting them away, with Ellie’s help.

They ended up back in her room with Stella at the computer editing her photos and Ellie on her bed going through Miss Ruby’s box again. She didn’t pick up the letters because she didn’t want to start crying. Instead, she opened a small photo album. It was an older style where the photos nested against each other so that she had to flip each one up to see the next one. The old photos were yellowing.

The first several were of Miss Ruby and a well-dressed man. She must have been in her late teens or early twenties. Ellie studied the young woman’s face in the photo. She had been very beautiful. Several pictures later, the young woman’s figure had changed. From the way her hands were placed against her belly, it was obvious she was pregnant. A thin, gold band glittered on the fourth finger of her left hand.

Ellie smiled at the happy face staring back at her from the photo. Miss Ruby glowed.

Stella yawned, stood, and stretched. “I can’t concentrate. I’m so tired all of a sudden.” She walked to Ellie’s side and looked over her shoulder. “Who’s that?”

“Miss Ruby as a young lady. A young, pregnant lady.”

“It’s hard to imagine her young, isn’t it?” She leaned closer. “I only met her once, I think, when Reid couldn’t get over to feed Misty one time.” She chuckled. “He told me I’d have to get past the ‘guard dog’ but she was very sweet to me.”

“To me too,” Ellie replied. She flipped the picture up and found baby Madelyn tucked in her mother’s arms. Miss Ruby’s smile said it all. Ellie’s heart ached with the joy in the new mother’s eyes. Would she ever know that kind of happiness? A sniff brought her out of the moment. She turned to find tears streaming down Stella’s face. “What’s wrong?”

“That photo is so beautiful it scares me.”

“Scares you? Why?”

“Because I might be pregnant but I’ve been trying not to think about it.”

Ellie was quiet for a few moments. “You haven’t told Reid, I’m guessing.”

“No. I haven’t taken the test. I bought one. I even have it with me but I’ve been afraid to use it.”

“Maybe knowing one way or the other would be a relief.”

“Maybe.” Stella wiped the tears from her cheeks. “You think I should take it now?”

Ellie shrugged. “Only if you’re ready and you want to.”

Stella took a deep breath. “Okay.” She took a few steps toward the door. “Can I bring it in here and we can read the results together?”

“Sure, if that’ll help.” Stella nodded. “All right. I’ll stay put.”

Ellie returned to the photo album, flipping through the pictures faster now. Maddie grew up quickly and Miss Ruby matured through her thirties. One of the photos showed Miss Ruby holding a birthday cake with a big 4-0 on it. A teenage Madelyn sat near her mother, a tolerant smile on her face. There were only a few more pictures after that one and the rest of the album was empty.

So sad, Ellie thought. Maddie had so much to live for. Evidently she’d found a man who loved her. And she’d had a baby. A girl. Ellie flipped the last of the empty album sleeves over and found a pocket attached inside the back cover of the photo book. It was obvious from the bulge that something was inside. She flipped it open, removed a stack of pictures, and froze.

Baby pictures. Only much more recent in age. Not pictures of Maddie. Ellie’s heartbeat sped up. She stared at the baby, nestled in the arms of a woman she’d known all her life as her mother. She flipped through the pictures quickly. Not possible.

No way, her brain insisted. Yet the pictures were the proof. She recognized them. There was another album downstairs in the bookcase with copies of these same photos inside. Ellie, growing older, growing up. She’d found her grandmother. Or rather, her grandmother found her. Why didn’t she tell me?

“Ellie?” A voice broke through her confusion. She turned to find Stella standing beside her, looking at the photos with a puzzled expression on her face. “Isn’t that you?” Ellie nodded and handed the photos to her. Stella handed her the pregnancy test and sat down on the bed beside her. She found the latest pictures. The ones taken last Christmas. Downstairs in the family room. Beside the Christmas tree. “These were in that box?” Ellie nodded again. “Why?”

“I think Miss Ruby was my grandmother.” Stella handed the pictures back and she returned them to their pocket. “Her daughter, my mother, died in a car accident around the time I was born and Miss Ruby decided to give me up for adoption. It’s in the letters she wrote.” She pointed to the box.

“Wow!”

“I know.” She glanced at the plus sign on the pregnancy test. “Did you read the results yet?”

“Yeah. I was right.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Be the best mom I can be.” She smiled. “I’ll need to tell Reid, of course.”

“I always thought he’d be a good father.” She paused. “If you have any girls, you might want them to get a lock for their diaries, though.”

“Definitely!” Stella hugged Ellie tightly for a few seconds before letting her go. “Wow, what a weird day. I find out I’m having a baby and you find your biological grandmother.”

“Yeah, a few days too late.”

“She must’ve had a reason not to tell you. Don’t you think? How long have you known her?”

“I met her at my apartment complex. We moved in around the same time. That can’t have been a coincidence now that I know we’re related. I wonder how much my mom knows.”

“It sounds like we both need to have some conversations tonight. I’m going to my room and call Reid.” She paused. “But you know what? I’m not telling him over the phone. I want to think of a special way to surprise him.”

“I think that’s a great idea.” Ellie hugged her friend again. “I’m really happy for you, Stella. You’re going to be a wonderful mommy.”

“Mommy . . . wow.” Stella’s eyes were wide as she left the room.

Ellie put the photo album back in the chest, then changed her mind. If her mom tried to deny it, she might need to show her the proof. Although she couldn’t imagine that. Her mom had always told her the truth whenever she’d asked questions in the past. She put the album back and shut the lid.

Ellie found her mom reading in the living room. “Whatcha got there?”

“Pride and Prejudice.”

Ellie plopped down on the ottoman in front of the chair. “You should have that memorized by now.”

Her mother shrugged. “I probably do. Certain parts anyway. But you know how much I love Austen. Are you okay?” She marked her place in the book, closed it, and placed it on the table beside her.

Ellie took a deep breath. “I just found out Miss Ruby was my biological grandmother.”

Her mother’s eyes softened. “She didn’t want me to tell you, sweetie. It was one of her stipulations for the adoption. But I sent her pictures of you through the years. We stayed in touch.”

“How did we end up in the same apartment complex?”

“You probably got to know her well enough to know that when she makes up her mind to do something, there’s no stopping her, right?” Ellie nodded. “When I told her you were moving into that complex, she went to the owner and bought the whole place!” She chuckled. “The poor owner probably didn’t know what hit him.”

“She bought the apartment complex?”

“Yes. And then kept the management staff that was already in place.” She rose from her chair. “Come with me. There’s more you should know.” Ellie followed her into the office and watched as she opened the lock box. Her mother rifled through some files until she found what she’d been looking for. “This is your grandmother’s will. Her lawyer wants you to call him.”

“What? When did you talk to him?”

“I talk to him often. He’s your Uncle Jim.”

“Oh my gosh! How many people knew about this?”

“Just your uncle, your dad, and I.” She put her hand on Ellie’s arm. “Are you okay, honey? I’m sure this is overwhelming.”

Ellie shook her head. “I’m still trying to grasp it, I guess. But Mom, I wish I could have really known her when she was alive. I don’t understand why she wanted to keep it a secret.”

“I don’t have an answer for you. She didn’t tell me.”

“She lost her daughter and then she gave me away.”

“I don’t think we can imagine the pain she was experiencing, honey. And she wanted you to have a good home.”

Ellie took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m glad she gave me to you and Dad. I don’t regret my life at all. I guess I just wish I could’ve had you, Dad, and Miss Ruby. There must have been so many stories about my biological mother that I’ll never know now.”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” her mother whispered. She kissed the top of Ellie’s head—a familiar, loving, comforting gesture—and then left the room.

Ellie sat down behind the desk and opened the manila envelope. She read through the papers as best she could. She wanted Stella to look them over with her. She’d be able to tell her, in plain English, what they said. But that would have to wait until the morning.

She put everything back in the envelope, carried it upstairs to her room, and added it to the envelopes and photos in Miss Ruby’s box.

It took her a long time to fall asleep that night.

Chapter Eight

Reid tiptoed past Miss Ruby’s apartment. Her television was off and he didn’t want to explain why he was coming over so late. Not to mention the journals he held under his arm.

It was three in the morning and he’d spent the past two hours in his car, reading the last few volumes of Ellie’s diaries. A nagging fear ate at him, telling him he needed to return her property before she came home. He let himself in and flipped on the lights. Misty didn’t meet him at the door.

“Mis-ty, come here girl,” he sang. Nothing. He went to the kitchen. Her food and dishes were gone. “Uh oh.” Ellie’s bedroom door stood open. He flipped on the light and peeked inside. Her bed looked perfect again. He slipped a hand under the pillow he’d stuck her journal under. All he felt were smooth sheets.

He hurried to the guest room, barreling past the bookcases to the closet. Pausing for a moment, he reached for the light switch. A bag lay just inside the doorway. His heart dropped into his stomach. He knelt in front of the bookcase where the earlier journals should have been. It was empty. She knew. And she’d taken the rest of them with her. What can I do now? She’s going to hate me.

Then again, why should he care? It wasn’t like they were ever close. He put the books back on the shelf and left the room. But he did care. He sat on the couch across from her barn photos. It was dark in the room, he hadn’t turned on the lamp. His phone buzzed but he ignored it.

Reid rubbed his hands up and down his face, exhausted but trying to reason it out. Many of her journal entries mentioned him. Sometimes it was just in passing—a sentence stating that the three of them ate lunch together that day—but sometimes she’d recounted whole conversations that he didn’t even remember.

When they’d first met, her opinion of him had been low—cocky, dismissive, rude—but she’d slowly changed her mind and began to respect, admire, and even fall in love with him. And he hadn’t been trying to get any of that from her. He’d just been himself and she’d just been Stella’s friend. That’s why it bugged him. He wasn’t that nice guy to her anymore. He’d ruined that by deliberately invading her privacy.

His phone buzzed again and he dug it out of his jeans pocket. It was a text from Stella. Ellie just messaged me. She was released today and meant to call and tell us but Miss Ruby had an accident and died this afternoon so that distracted her. She has Misty with her.

Oh, and she had a special message for you. She said to tell you you’re a jerk for reading her journals and she wants them all back in her apartment before she gets home. And that now she can never see you again for the rest of her life.

Reid threw his phone on the floor. It bounced once, flipped over, and landed face up on the thick carpeting. A new line popped up and he leaned over to read it. You deserve worse and if you’re not home in an hour I’m going to tell her where you are.

He plucked his phone up off the floor and sent a reply. We’ll talk when I get home. And you’re both right. What should he do? He tried to come up with a reasonable excuse for reading her journals. He could remind her that she told him he could read anything in the guest room. No. He’d known they were off-limits but read them anyway. Maybe he needed to tell her the truth.

He typed another text to Stella saying that he’d be late because he was going to call Ellie and apologize.

It can’t wait until morning?

She texted you in the middle of the night. She’s obviously awake.

I’m just saying that people are more emotional at night when they’re tired. She might take it better in the morning.

I’m going to explain what happened and apologize. I’ll tell her that you didn’t know. I don’t want you to lose her friendship.

Don’t worry about that we’re closer than ever. And she knows I told you not to read them so leave me out of your convo.

Okay fine.

I really think you should wait until she’s slept, but it’s your funeral.

I’ve thought about it but she’s just going to be madder in the morning if I don’t explain.

Reid chickened out and decided to text her instead of calling. He didn’t think he could stand it if she started crying of anything. He wrote out paragraph after paragraph, each time erasing them and starting over. He settled on a few simple sentences. I put the rest of your journals back. You’re right it was a jerk thing to do. I’m sorry. Can I explain? He sent the text and waited. A moment later it showed as delivered and after a few seconds more he knew she’d read it. Will she respond? Five minutes passed. Ten. Fifteen. He paced the floor.

Are you in my apartment?

Please leave and give my key to Stella when you get home. I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t enter my apartment again without her. And right now I’m too angry to talk about this. Maybe later when I’ve calmed down. Goodbye, Reid.

Goodnight Ellie. And I’m really sorry.

He sent the text and waited but it didn’t even show as delivered. She must have shut off her phone as soon as she sent her last message.

Reid left the apartment, locking the door for the last time. As he passed Miss Ruby’s door he paused, remembering the spirited woman who’d questioned him the first time he’d arrived. Rest in peace, Miss Ruby.

He experienced an unsettling sense of finality as he pulled out of Ellie’s apartment parking lot. He debated with himself all the way home and finally decided she probably wouldn’t forgive him. He also knew he deserved it.

Reid opened the door to his home and found the couch made up with sheets, a blanket, and his pillow. Great, Stella was in another one of her moods.

“I can’t believe you texted her tonight,” Stella said, approaching him with her hand out, palm up. “Especially after I told you she’d had a rough day. You don’t think of anyone but yourself, do you?” He dug in his pocket for Ellie’s key and threw it on the couch. She glared and went to retrieve it.

Her condescending attitude set him off. “I’m not sleeping on the couch tonight. If you want to, you can.” He stomped past her and into their room, slamming the door behind him. Stella’s lamp was on but she hadn’t been in bed. It was still “company-ready” the way she made it every morning. He turned on his lamp, undressed, climbed into bed, and waited for Stella to come in so they could talk it out. He listened for that squeaky board in their wood floors to give her away. Nothing. Not a sound.

He glanced at his watch and yawned. It was 3:45 in the morning. He rolled toward Stella’s side of the bed and clicked off her lamp. He did the same with his, then turned on his side and closed his eyes.

Almost immediately a picture flashed through his mind of his father carrying his mother to their bedroom when she had been too ill to walk. His dad still mourned her even ten years later. He’d always wanted that kind of love in his marriage and yet he doubted his father had ever treated his mom the way he’d just treated Stella. He threw off the sheets with a groan and rolled out of bed. He needed to apologize. Especially since she was right.

The lights were off in the living room and he flipped on the hall light in case Stella was asleep. The couch was empty. Even the sheets and pillow were gone. He checked out the guest room. Also empty. On the dining room table he found her phone and a note.

Reid,

I’m glad I have two weeks off. I guess I’ll use it differently now than what I’d planned but maybe it’s better this way. I’m going to spend a couple of days with Ellie since she’s invited me. I need to return her key anyway.

Let’s use this time to figure out if we still want to stay together. Because what happened tonight . . . well, I’m tired of arguing with you. 

I’ll see you when I get back. To pick up my clothes if nothing else.

Take care,

Stella

Reid carried the note and her phone with him as he checked the garage. Her car was missing. It was the middle of the night and she hadn’t slept. What if something happened to her on the way? He turned on her phone.

Ellie, he texted, this is Reid. Stella’s on her way to your place right now. We got into an argument. Would you please let me know when she gets there? I just want to know she arrived safely.

She’s already here, Ellie texted back.

He sighed, his shoulders slumping forward in relief. Okay thanks. She must have left immediately after their fight to already be there. He looked at his watch. Six a.m. already? Maybe he had fallen asleep. Maybe he’d dreamed about his parents. It was going to be a long week, but Stella was right. They couldn’t keep going like they were.

* * *

Ellie dropped her phone on the bed, a rueful smile on her face as her eyes met Stella’s. “He’s worried about you. That’s gotta mean something, right?”

Stella shrugged. “Maybe.” Her eyes were bloodshot and puffy from crying. Ellie’s eyelids felt like they were made of sandpaper every time she blinked. “I’m sorry I kept you up all night, Ellie. I just didn’t know what to do and I didn’t want to go to my parents’ home. They’d want me to file for a divorce tomorrow if they knew how much we argue.”

“And you weren’t frightened of him at all? Never worried that he was going to hit you or something?”

“How many times do we have to go over this? No, Ellie. Reid would never strike a woman. He tossed your key, yes. But not at me. Away from me. He was very angry, more so than I’ve ever seen before, but he never stepped close to me, never tried to intimidate me. He knew reading your journals was wrong and you caught him. He knew I’d be mad too. But I’ve been so emotional lately. And so stinking tired. The last case I handled just wore me out.”

“Then I’m glad you came here.”

Stella’s gaze dropped to her hands clasped in her lap.“I’ve had this vacation planned for months. I’d hoped Reid would take some time off too, and he tried but one of the partners in his firm is on vacation this week so he could only get next week off. I’d been researching resorts when he came home. But that doesn’t matter right now. We should probably try to get some sleep. You look exhausted.”

Ellie admitted to herself that Stella was right, while she waved off her friend’s fears with a smile. “You’re more important than sleep. But you look like you’re about to fall off the bed!”

Stella laughed. “Maybe, but I’d be asleep before I hit the ground so I probably wouldn’t notice.” She stood up and stretched. “Thanks again for listening and letting me crash out here with you for a few days. I’m really looking forward to hanging out.”

“Me too. It’s been too long.”

“I hope you can get some sleep, El.”

“Don’t worry about me. It seems like I sleep way too much anyway.” She smelled bacon. “Mom’s got breakfast ready. Would you sleep better with a full stomach?”

“Mmmm, yeah, maybe.”

Ellie hopped up. “Then let’s go pig out!” Ellie’s stomach growled as the two women made their way to the kitchen. Her mother had pancake batter waiting beside a griddle. And there were scrambled eggs with green peppers, mushrooms, and onions in a covered pan, still warm, with crispy bacon on a nearby platter.

While Ellie made the pancakes, Stella searched for plates and silverware. She could have told her where to look, but she had a feeling Stella wanted to see everything anyway. Minutes later they sat at the table, full plates in front of them. Neither of them spoke as they ate. Ellie had a hard time keeping her eyes open and she suspected Stella was having the same problem.

In an almost dream-like stupor, they made their way back to their respective bedrooms. Ellie fell asleep almost immediately.

She awoke a little after one that afternoon, feeling groggy. The house was quiet. She got up and went to the window. Leaves fluttered to the ground with each gust of wind. She’d missed their peak color, but trees dressed in dull yellows, reds, and oranges still surrounded the farm. She opened her window to catch the breeze, picked up Miss Ruby’s box, and returned to her bed.

Her fingers traced the carvings that covered the beautiful wood box. Why did Miss Ruby want me to have this? Then she lifted the lid. Inside were pink envelopes bundled together with rubber bands. She could tell from the faded colors that some of them were much older than the others. She picked up a set. The first one of the bunch had “Madelyn Elizabeth Jackson, 4/16/70 – 4/19/88” written on it in a delicate, feminine cursive. Ellie paused to count. She was barely eighteen when she died.

My sweet Maddie,

Today my heart is weeping. How can you be here one moment, and gone the next? How can 18 years be enough? They weren’t. Not for me and not for you. What of your dreams to be a writer? To be a wife? To be a mother?

I don’t know how to go on and I’m not sure I want to. I miss you so much. I’ll love you forever, sweet girl.

Mom

The creases in the letter were torn in places, probably from being folded and unfolded over and over, and there were warped spots in the paper where Ellie imagined Miss Ruby’s tears had fallen. Did she have other children or was she all alone after her daughter died? She should’ve visited with her more while she was alive. She must have been so lonely.

Folding the letter carefully, she slipped it back into the envelope and opened the next one.

Sweetheart,

I’m planning your funeral and I feel like I’m dying too. I ache all over from the tears that rarely cease. I’m empty inside. Poured out with my tears.

Your Aunt Rita is helping me by going through your pictures. Each one is another knife piercing through the haze of my grief. You were such a beautiful baby, a happy toddler, an inquisitive child, and a loving daughter. I wish you hadn’t tried to grow up so soon. And that I’d known you had a beau. Who was he? Why didn’t you introduce us? I don’t know if these questions will ever be answered.

I signed the papers today. I found her a loving family. She isn’t to know about us, but I’ve requested regular updates and pictures. For you. And I guess for me too. Maybe I’m hoping to see you in her someday. Maybe that will bring some peace.

And you’re right; she is beautiful.

I love and miss you more each hour,

Mom

Ellie read each letter as Miss Ruby documented her struggle to deal with her daughter’s death. She only got through the first bundle before she had to take a break. They were heart-rending to read. Why did Miss Ruby want her to have these? She could only guess that it was a way for her to preserve the memories of her daughter.

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.

 

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.