Understanding washes through me like a tidal wave. “You were praying in the waiting room.”
A laugh pops out of Vale’s mouth, not born of amusement but of bitter self-castigation. “I’ve been praying to God since my dad was first diagnosed. I’m afraid I used up my allotted prayers on that stupid fucking jump into Lollerman’s Creek.”
There’s no thought to my actions, just instinct. My hand reaches over, pries into her clenched hands, and pulls one of them over onto my lap. I lace my fingers through hers, give a reassuring squeeze. “I don’t think that’s how it works, Vale. Besides, who’s to say that one of your prayers didn’t land on the Big Guy’s desk and that’s what led him to the clinical trial at Duke? Huh?”
Vale reactively squeezes my hand, and while I don’t hear it, I feel an amused chuckle in that action. “You always have an answer for everything.”
“It got us out of a lot of trouble with your dad and Oliver’s parents when we were younger, that’s for sure.”
Another small laugh from Vale, and she makes no effort to move her hand from mine. Her head tilts to look out the passenger window, and we sit in comfortable silence until we get to her apartment, where our hands finally part.
I put the car in park and switch off the ignition. Vale exits the car and doesn’t say a word as I get out too. It’s dark outside, the light on her stairwell is burned out, and I’m going to walk her up. In fact, I’m going to make sure she gets something to eat, then I can leave knowing she’s been taken care of.
And it feels good…not going to lie.
To take care of her, have her dependent on me. The man that she cut out of her life so long ago.
I’m not sure if this is validation, or maybe it’s retribution on my part that she has to depend on me in this moment, but it’s driving me to walk up those apartment stairs with her.
Vale unlocks the door, pushes it open with a soft creak, and I walk in right behind her. She doesn’t even blink twice but drops her purse to the floor as her shoulders seem to be pulled way down by fatigue and gravity.
“You need to eat something,” I say as I step past her and into the tiny kitchen with stained-by-time, cream-colored linoleum that is curled slightly at the edges.
She doesn’t argue and follows me. I open the refrigerator and hear the scrape of a kitchen chair as she pulls it out, then her sigh as she sits. “I’ve got to get up in almost five hours,” Vale says tiredly. “I figure I can hit the gym, train my two morning clients, and then head back to Duke. I’ll need to talk with Bruce and let him know I won’t be in today at the arena.”
“Bruce will be fine with that,” I say as I pull out some turkey from the fridge, along with a jar of mayo. “Where’s your bread?”
“Cupboard to your left,” she says automatically.
I lay my materials down on the chipped Formica counter mottled blue and gray and reach for the cabinet. After grabbing the bread, I turn to look at her pointedly. “You need to text your clients right now and tell them you’ve had a family emergency and you won’t make it in tomorrow.”
“I can’t just bail on them,” Vale argues, but I hold up a hand, point my finger at her.
“Text them now, Vale. This is a legitimate excuse to cancel, and you need the rest. Especially if you plan to park your ass at the hospital all day tomorrow, which I expect you will.”
She stares at me.
I stare back at her and then growl, “Text. Now.”
It’s a definite surprise that she immediately capitulates, pulling her phone out of her pocket. I turn around so she doesn’t see the triumph lighting up my eyes and I make both of us sandwiches. Pulling two bottles of water out of the fridge, I lay the simple meal on the table and take a seat.
We eat in silence, not because there isn’t anything to say but because we’re both starving and exhausted. I inhale my sandwich and Vale isn’t far behind me, chugging half her water bottle after she swallows the last bite.
She gives me an almost shy smile as she wipes her mouth and lays the napkin on the plate. “Thank you.”
“Just a sandwich,” I say as I rise from the table and grab the plates, turning to take them to the sink.
The scrape of her chair against the floor indicates she’s risen. I hear her soft footsteps come up behind me, and just as I’m setting the plates in the sink, her arms come around my waist from behind. She presses her cheek to my back and my breath freezes in my lungs.
“No,” she says softly. “Thank you for everything. Being there when I called, coming to the hospital. Staying all night…holding my hand. For the ride home, and yes, for fixing me dinner. I’m not sure why you did it or why you think I deserve it, but just…thank you.”
A stab of something close to painful longing pierces the center of my chest and I have no will over my body. It turns in her embrace so we come face to face. My arms go around her, folding over her lower back, and I pull her in to me. Her cheek goes to my chest, just below my collarbone, and her hair feels soft against my throat, which seems to be clogged with weird and poignant emotion brought on by her vulnerability and my need to save the day for her.
For a blessed moment, I don’t question all the hurt between us.
I simply hold her.
After several long moments, Vale stirs in my arms and I loosen my hold. She pulls her head back, followed by her chest, and leans back to look at me. Her eyes are tired, but it doesn’t diminish the beauty of the fern-colored irises boring into me. I think she may say something, maybe another expression of thanks, but then she lifts up on tiptoes and presses a kiss to my lips.