Authors: Colleen Hoover
“Have you decided what you’re doing for Emerson’s birthday?” Allysa asks.
Allysa and Marshall threw a first birthday party for their daughter, Rylee, that was so big, it was worthy of a Sweet Sixteen. “I’m sure I’ll just let her have a smash cake and give her a couple of presents. I don’t have room for a big party.”
“We could do something at our place,” Allysa offers.
“Who would I invite? She’ll be one; she has no friends. She can’t even talk.”
Allysa rolls her eyes. “We don’t throw kids’ parties for our
. We throw them to impress our friends.”
“You’re my only friend, and I don’t need to impress you.” I hand Allysa an order from the printer. “Are we doing dinner tonight?”
We get together for dinner at least twice a week at their place. Ryle occasionally pops by, but I purposefully plan my visits on nights he’s on call. I don’t know if Allysa has ever noticed. If she has, she probably doesn’t blame me. She says it’s painful watching Ryle when I’m around because she also suspects he still has hope for us. She prefers to spend time with him when I’m not present.
“Marshall’s parents are coming into town today, remember?”
“Oh yeah. Good luck with that.” Allysa likes Marshall’s parents, but I don’t think anyone truly looks forward to hosting their in-laws for an entire week.
The front door chimes, and Allysa and I both look up at the same time. I doubt her world starts to spin like mine does, though.
Atlas is walking toward us.
“Oh, God,” I mutter under my breath.
a god,” Allysa whispers.
What is he doing here?
he look like a god? It makes the decision I’ve been weighing that much more difficult. I can’t even find my voice long enough to say hello to him. I just smile and wait for him to reach us, but the walk from the door to the front counter seems like it’s expanded by a mile.
He doesn’t take his eyes off me as he makes his way over. When he reaches us, he finally acknowledges Allysa with a smile. Then he looks back at me as he sets a plastic bowl with a lid on the counter. “I brought you lunch,” he says casually, as if he brings me lunch every day and I should have been expecting it.
Ah, that voice. I forgot how far it reaches.
I grab the bowl, but I don’t know what to say with Allysa hovering next to me, watching us interact. I glance at her and give her the look. She pretends not to notice, but when I don’t stop staring at her, she eventually yields.
“Fine. I’ll go flower the…
.” She walks away, giving us privacy.
I turn my attention back to the lunch Atlas brought. “Thank you. What is it?”
“Our weekend special,” Atlas says. “It’s called
why are you avoiding me
I laugh. Then I cringe. “I’m not avoid…” I shake my head with a quick sigh, knowing I can’t lie to him. “I
avoiding you.” I lean my elbows onto the counter and cover my face with my hands. “I’m sorry.”
Atlas is quiet, so I eventually look up at him. He seems sincere when he says, “Do you want me to leave?”
I shake my head, and as soon as I do, his eyes crinkle a little at the corners. It’s barely a smile, but it causes a warmth to tumble down my chest.
Yesterday morning when I ran into him, I said so much. Now I’m too confused to speak. I don’t know how I’m supposed to have a full-on conversation with him about everything that’s been going through my mind over the last twenty-four hours when I feel so tongue-tied around him.
He had the same impact on me when I was younger, but I was more naïve back then. I didn’t know how rare men like Atlas were, so I didn’t know how lucky I was to have him in my life.
I know now, which is why it terrifies me that I might screw this up. Or that
might screw this up.
I lift the bowl of pasta he brought. “It smells really good.”
good. I made it.”
I should laugh at that, or smile, but my reaction doesn’t fit the conversation. I set the bowl aside. When I look at him
again, he can see the war in my expression. He counters with a reassuring look. Not much is said between us, but the nonverbal cues we’re trading are saying enough. My eyes are apologizing for my silence over the last twenty-four hours, he’s silently telling me it’s okay, and we’re both wondering what comes next.
Atlas slides his hand slowly across the counter, closer to mine. He lifts his index finger and skims it down the length of my pinkie. It’s the smallest, most tender move, but it makes my heart flip.
He pulls his hand back and clenches his fist as if he might have felt the same thing I did. He clears his throat. “Can I call you tonight?”
I’m about to nod when Allysa suddenly bursts through the door to the back, wide-eyed. She leans in and whispers, “Ryle is almost here.”
My blood feels like it freezes in my veins. “
” I don’t say that so she’ll repeat it. I say it because I’m shocked, but she repeats herself anyway.
“Ryle is pulling in. He just texted.” She waves a hand toward Atlas. “You have ten seconds to hide him.”
I’m sure Atlas can see the absolute fear in my expression when I look at him, but he very calmly says, “Where do you want me?”
I point to my office and rush him in that direction. Once we’re in the office, I second-guess myself. “He might come in here.” I cover my mouth with a shaky hand while I think, and then point to my office supply closet. “Can you hide in there?”
Atlas looks at the closet and then looks at me. He points at the door. “In the closet?”
I hear the front door chime, and I’m filled with even more urgency. “Please?” I open the closet door. It isn’t the most ideal place to hide an actual human, but it’s a walk-in closet. He’ll fit just fine.
I can’t even look him in the eye when he moves past me and into the closet. I could die right now. This is so mortifying. All I can do is murmur, “I’m so sorry,” as I close the door.
I do my best to compose myself. Allysa is chatting with Ryle when I exit my office. He greets me with a nod, but his attention is back on Allysa. She’s digging through her purse for something.
“They were in here earlier,” she says.
Ryle is tapping his fingers impatiently.
“What are you looking for?” I ask her.
“Keys. I accidentally brought them with me, and Marshall needs the SUV to get his parents from the airport.”
Ryle looks irritated. “Are you sure you didn’t set them aside when I told you I was coming to get them?”
I tilt my head, focusing on Allysa. “You knew he was coming?” How could she forget to tell me he was on his way here when Atlas showed up?
She reddens a little. “I got sidetracked by… unexpected events.” She holds up her hand in victory. “Found them!” She drops them in Ryle’s palm. “Okay, bye, you can leave now.”
Ryle makes a move like he’s about to go, but then he turns and sniffs the air. “What smells so good?”
His and Allysa’s eyes meet the bowl at the same time. Allysa pulls it to her, cradling it. “I cooked lunch for me and Lily,” she lies.
Ryle raises an eyebrow. “
cooked?” He reaches for the bowl. “I have to see this. What is it?”
Allysa hesitates before handing him the bowl. “Yeah, it’s chicken… baraba doula… meat.” She looks at me and her eyes are wide.
She is such a horrible liar.
?” Ryle opens the bowl and inspects it. “It looks like shrimp pasta.”
Allysa clears her throat. “Yeah, I cooked the shrimp in… chicken stock. That’s why it’s called chicken barabadoulameat.”
Ryle puts the lid back on and looks at me with concern as he slides the bowl across the counter back to Allysa. “I’d order pizza if I were you.”
I force a laugh, but so does Allysa. Both of us laughing makes our reaction seem way too compulsory for a joke that wasn’t even funny.
Ryle’s expression narrows. He takes a couple of steps back, a suspicious look in his eye. He must be used to the two of us having inside jokes that he isn’t a part of, because he doesn’t even question us. He spins and walks out of the flower shop in a rush to get the keys to Marshall. Allysa and I both stand as still as statues until we’re sure he’s left the building and is way out of earshot. Then I look at her incredulously.
? Did you just completely make up a new language?”
“I had to say
,” she says defensively. “You stood there like a lump! You’re welcome.”
I wait a couple of minutes to make sure Ryle has had time to leave. I walk out front to ensure Ryle’s car is gone.
Then I regretfully walk into my office and head to the supply closet to inform Atlas he’s in the clear. I exhale before opening the door.
Atlas is waiting patiently, his arms crossed as he leans against a shelf, as if being hidden in a closet doesn’t bother him in the least.
“I’m so sorry.” I don’t know how many apologies it will take to make up for what I just asked Atlas to do, but I’m prepared to say it a thousand more times.
“Is he gone?”
I nod, but rather than exit the closet, Atlas grabs my hand, pulls me in and closes the door.
Now we’re both in the closet.
closet. But not so dark that I can’t see the flicker in his eyes that indicates he’s holding back a smile.
Maybe he doesn’t absolutely hate me for this.
He releases my hand, but it’s so cramped in here for the two of us, parts of him are grazing parts of me. My stomach knots, so I press my back into the shelf behind me in an attempt not to press into him, but it feels like he’s draped over me like a warm blanket. He’s so close, I can smell his shampoo. I very calmly try to breathe through my nerves.
“Well? Can I?” he asks, his voice a whisper.
I have no idea what he’s asking me, but I want to answer with a confident
. Rather than blurt out my consent to a question I don’t even know, I silently count to three. Then I say, “Can you what?”
“Call you tonight.”
He jumped right back into the conversation we were having out front, as if Ryle never even interrupted us.
I pull in my bottom lip and bite down on it. I want to say
because I want Atlas to call me, but I also want Atlas to know that me hiding him from Ryle inside of this closet is probably on par with how the rest of our interactions will go since Ryle is always going to be in the picture, considering we share a child.
“Atlas…” I say his name like something awful is about to follow it up, but he interrupts me.
“Lily.” He says my name with a smile, like nothing I could possibly add to his name would be awful.
“My life is complicated.” I don’t intend for it to come out like a warning, but it does.
“I want to help you uncomplicate it.”
“I’m scared your presence is going to complicate it even more.”
He raises an eyebrow. “I’ll complicate
“His complications become
complications. He’s the father of my child.”
Atlas dips his head ever so slightly. “Exactly. He’s her father. He’s not your husband, so you shouldn’t allow your concern for his feelings to persuade you to give up what could be the second-best thing to ever happen to you.”
He says that with such conviction, my heart feels like it’s tumbling down my rib cage like a Plinko chip.
The second-best thing to ever happen to me?
I wish his confidence in us were contagious. “What’s the
-best thing to ever happen to me?”
He looks at me pointedly. “Emerson.”
Hearing him call my daughter the best thing to ever happen to me makes me damn near melt. I hug myself and
hold back my smile. “You’re going to make this difficult for me, huh?”
Atlas slowly shakes his head. “Difficult is the last thing I want to be for you, Lily.” He moves and the door begins to open, spilling light into the closet. He faces me with one hand on the door and the other on the wall. “When’s a good time to call you tonight?” He seems so at ease with this conversation, it makes me want to pull him back into the closet and kiss him so that maybe some of his assurance and patience will seep into me.
My mouth feels like cotton when I say, “Whenever.”
His eyes settle on my lips for a beat, and I feel the look all the way to my toes. But then Atlas closes the door, shutting me alone inside the closet.
I deserved that.
A mixture of embarrassment, nervousness, and maybe even a little bit of desire is flooding my cheeks. I remain unmoving until I hear the faint chime of the front door being opened.
I’m fanning myself when Allysa opens the closet door moments later. I quickly drop my hands to my hips to hide what Atlas’s presence does to me.
Allysa folds her arms across her chest. “You hid him in the closet?”
My shoulders fall with my shame. “I know.”
She sounds disappointed in me, but what would she rather I have done? Reintroduced them to one another? “I mean, I’m glad you did it, because I’m not sure how that would have turned out, but… you hid him in the
. You just shoved him in here like an old coat.”
Her rehashing the moment isn’t helping me recover from it. I move toward the front of the store with Allysa on my heels. “I had no choice. Atlas is the one guy on this earth Ryle would never approve of me dating.”
“I hate to break it to you, but there’s only one guy on this earth Ryle would approve of you dating, and that’s Ryle.”
I don’t respond to that because I’m terrified that she’s right.
“Wait,” Allysa says. “Are you and Atlas
“But you just said he’s the one guy Ryle would never approve of you dating.”
“I said that because if Ryle had seen him here, that’s what he would have assumed.”
Allysa folds her arms over the counter and looks crestfallen. “I’m feeling very left out right now. There’s a huge gap you need to fill in.”