Home > Just One Look (Escape to New Zealand, #14)(2)

Just One Look (Escape to New Zealand, #14)(2)
Author: Rosalind James

She’d booked the vacation, too. She’d arranged for the time off, and the resort was in Mexico, far enough away that she couldn’t get called back in. She’d pre-purchased scuba lessons, and the booking reference was printed out and tucked under the ribbon. The whole idea had been the result of their last conversation like this, which had happened on Thanksgiving, for similar reasons, and right here.

Turkey was overrated, though, and Chinese food was great. Who didn’t love Chinese food? Plus, it was ready when you were, whatever time that happened to be.

She told him, “Hang on,” then jumped up and went over to the cash register. Only a few solitary customers remained in the hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Well, it was eight o’clock on Christmas Eve. “Hey, Mr. Wong,” she said. “Can I please get some hot and sour soup? Right away?”

The man looked over his half-glasses. “Surgery?”

“Yes. A long one.”

“Coming up.”

She went back to Kristoff, sat down again, and said, “Sorry. Starved. Continue. I’m listening,” she added, because it was true that sometimes, she zoned out. He tended to explain things slowly and with too much detail, while she just wanted to get to the meat of the issue and move on.

He didn’t smile. He waited so long, in fact, that she started thinking about the little girl she’d operated on this morning. A subdural hematoma—brain bleed—after a hard fall during her first time ice skating, which had produced symptoms the next day that her parents had passed off as the flu. By the time they’d brought her in, it had been touch and go. She’d done a craniotomy, though, and the girl was recovering well. Little bodies healed fast. Still, she might just check in again, after the restaurant but before the presents or whatever. Nobody should lose their baby girl on Christmas.

Kristoff said, “Hello. Still talking here.”

“Oh.” She blinked her way back. “Sorry.”

“You know last year?” he asked. “When you missed Christmas dinner?”

“Yes,” she said. “I remember. Sorry. I was …”

“Yeah. Know what my present was?”

“Uh …” She tried to remember.

“It was a ring.”

“No, it wasn’t. I’d remember that. It was a coat. Really nice. I appreciated it. I mean, it was after Christmas, but I still appreciated it.”

“Know why it was a coat?”

“Because you thought I needed a coat, being kind and loving and all? Since my old one was about ten years old, and I never managed to get around to replacing it?”

“It was a coat,” he said, “because I took the ring back. I never even bothered to try.”

“OK,” she said slowly, getting the scalp-prickling again. “Why?” It was good he had backed off. She didn’t need to get married. It just felt like more pressure, another way she could fail to meet his expectations. Even hearing about it after the fact made her panicky. She wasn’t going to say that, though.

He said, “Because I thought it wasn’t going to work. Or I wasn’t sure. But I thought, hey, Kristoff, you’re only twenty-nine.”

“Because I robbed the cradle. How could I help it, though? There you were, all beautiful and wonderful and all.”

He didn’t smile. “I thought, she finished her fellowship barely a year ago. She’s still finding her feet. Give it another year. Well, I’ve given it another year. I’m thirty now, and here we are again. And here’s the main thing. There’s somebody else.”

The blood drained from her head. Not literally. A touch of hyperventilation, that was all. Not enough carbon dioxide in the blood. “What?” she asked. Stupidly, because that wasn’t a sentence you misheard.

“You know what everybody tells me about you?” he asked.

“No. And I don’t care. Who, exactly, else?”

“Everybody tells me something different, that’s what,” he said. “But almost the same, too. ‘You must have balls of steel, dude, to take that on. Little bit of a dominatrix thing, maybe, because there’s no way she’s not the boss.’ That’s one. Or how about, ‘You the man candy?’ Then there’s the person who said, ‘She’s brilliant, and beautiful, too, in her own severe way, almost like a statue. I hope she goes home and relaxes with you.’ I told her that we don’t live together, that I decided a little space was a good idea when we moved down here, and she said, ‘I can imagine it’s difficult. Surgery’s such a grueling profession. So important, but so hard on the surgeons. And on the people who love them, because surgeons can be hard to love.’ Which was a nice way to put it. Everybody saw it but me, but I’m seeing it now, and I can’t stop.”

“Are you seriously sitting here with me on Christmas Eve,” she said, “and giving me the backstory on your new romance? I can tell who said that last one. That’s not anonymous. That was the ‘somebody else.’” Yes, there was still no blood in her head, but also—who did this? What part of “charming, thoughtful, and sweet” was this?

No part, that was what. On Christmas Eve?

He said, “I’m explaining that I don’t want to cheat.”

“Who is this person?” It didn’t matter. She asked it anyway.

He hesitated, then said, “Not a surgeon, obviously. Notice how you can tell, because of the focus on others? But the woman I’m falling in love with. And, yeah, I beat myself up about that at first. I thought, sure, she’s blonde and pretty and sweet, and sure, she looks at you like you’re all she wants, but she’s not Elizabeth. And then I realized—”

“That you didn’t want Elizabeth.”

“Yes. No. That I don’t want high-octane, not anymore. It started out exciting, but three years in, it’s just exhausting. I want a normal life.”

She should be getting mad. Why wasn’t she getting mad? Why was it that all she could do was sit here like a lump of clay? “I’m not high-octane,” she tried to explain. “I’m very quiet, in fact, and I have a …” She took a breath and tried saying it again. “I have a normal life. Busier than some, that’s all. But I have a … I have a house. I exercise. I have friends. I have you. That’s normal, all of it. I’m not a freak. I’m not!”

He took her hand. That hurt, because she could tell he was trying to make this easy on her. Even breathing was hard, like she had shards of glass in her lungs. His voice was gentle when he said, “Elizabeth. You have one friend. Two, if you count his husband. You have a townhouse with no plants. Who has no plants? Not on the balcony. Not on the patio. Not on a windowsill. Your kitchen is the least homey place I’ve ever seen in my life, including at the hospital. And, see—I want plants. I want a dog. I want kids. I want to build a fire in a wood stove, not just push a button, and I want to have somebody curl up on the couch with me and listen to it crackle. I want a kitchen that smells good, because somebody’s cooking in it. I want to come home and have the person I love there with me to share my life. I’ve loved you. I have. But that’s not enough. I’m on hold, always waiting for you, and I can’t live my life on hold.”

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