Bella blinked, noting she was detaching herself and knowing she wasn’t as strong as she’d hoped for. Her name blew in the wind, and she turned slowly to see Gabe rushing toward her, panic in his eyes, getting closer and closer. Something inside her unfurled, relaxed, and for a few precious moments, she didn’t feel bad anymore—she only felt safe with him by her side and able to finally let go.
So she did.
“No hospital,” she said for the third time. “I’m fine. There’s hardly any damage, I barely hit my head, and it was just the shock that took me out. I’m embarrassed enough.”
Gabe cursed. “What if you have a concussion? Whiplash? You passed out, Bella! Now is not the time to be stubborn.”
She waved a hand in the air for dismissal. “For a few seconds. My neck doesn’t even feel sore. Honestly, it was a bump, and if you hadn’t been there, we probably wouldn’t have even called the police.”
They’d already gone through the dog-and-pony show, with the cops taking a report and Bella refusing medical attention. There was minor damage to both cars, so they exchanged insurance cards and drove away. He’d finally lost his shit and insisted they drive to her house so she could at least rest and decide from there. Under the threat he was calling Avery and Taylor ASAP, she’d grudgingly agreed to go home for a cup of tea and to prove she was fine.
She sat on the floral couch, her feet up on the ottoman, her fingers clutching the teacup. He’d insisted she cover herself with an afghan—he’d read warmth was good for shock—and already checked WebMD for all the horrible things that could happen to her after a minor rear-end accident.
He was freaking out.
“You need to report every accident in case something happens—it’s Insurance 101. What if I call Dr. Petrosky to come take a quick look at you? Make sure you don’t need a CAT scan.”
He would’ve enjoyed her laugh if he’d been in a better space. “My pediatrician? Are you serious right now?”
“Why? He’s fine for Zoe! He’ll at least be able to confirm you’re okay!”
She gave a long sigh and settled back onto the couch. “Gabe, I appreciate your concern, I really do, but you’re starting to make me nervous. Can you just grab some tea and sit down with me? You can ask me a bunch of questions where I can prove I remember my name and family history. If you want to see my eyes dilate, there’s a flashlight in the top drawer.”
He rubbed his head, gave her a grudging stare, then stomped into the kitchen. He hated tea, but he made a quick cup of coffee with the Keurig and settled down next to her with enough space to make them both comfortable. “People don’t pass out after minor car accidents,” he muttered. “Trust me, I’m not the nervous type, but I think if your sisters hear what happened, they’ll want you to get checked out.”
Her sigh was soft and a tiny bit sad. She stared into her cup with a broody look. “Honestly, it was more my reaction to the noise. The crash startled me, and I’d been thinking about some stuff, and it just hit me all at once. You have to trust me. I’d never put Zoe at risk by being too prideful to go to a doctor. Okay?”
He relaxed a bit. She never messed around where Zoe was concerned. Slowly, he nodded. “Fine, but you have to promise to tell them.”
“I will. How was the floral appointment?”
He made a face. “You really want to talk about work when you’re recovering?”
“Yes, I really want to talk about work. Did you finalize the bouquet?”
“Devon did an amazing job. I was going to text you pics, but I’ll show you now.” He flicked through them, and she made low, murmuring sounds of approval that made his muscles clench. He switched to thinking about serial killers to give his poor body a break.
“Brilliant. Adele will love it.” She sighed and glanced at her watch. “I have to leave at three forty-five to get Zoe from the bus, and I wanted to squeeze in some paperwork at the office first.”
“Yeah, I was heading there, too, but I think you should just rest for a while. You can work on your laptop right here.”
“I keep telling you, I’m fine. Stop trying to treat me like a delicate china doll that’s ready to break.”
He snorted. “You? Trust me—you’re more like the WWE wrestler chick–doll that’s ready to kick some ass. I just feel like you don’t need to push your luck with a bad day.”
Her sudden paleness made him worried again. Those blue eyes widened, haunted by something that leached away the normal warmth and sparkle.
“Bella? I was just joking. Did I say something?”
She stared out at something he couldn’t see in the distance. She placed her tea carefully down. “I’ll be right back. Just want to hit the bathroom,” she said woodenly.
He nodded, watching her go, checking to see if she looked steady. Damn, it was as if she’d seen a ghost. He’d been half joking, but he did wonder if certain days were better cut short when one had a gut instinct of wrongness. Not that a minor car accident should scare her. But it was the way she’d looked at him right before she passed out in his arms. Like she was trapped in a horror movie of her own making. It’d sent a cold trickle down his spine. Well, it wasn’t like it was Friday the thirteenth. It was just February—
His thoughts stalled out. A tickle of memory reared up and became a flash flood.
Six years ago.
February twenty-second. The day her husband had died.
He sucked in a breath and placed his own mug down. Son of a bitch. He remembered when Avery first told him. They’d all been acting weird and jumpy, and Bella had called in sick, so he needed to take over a last-minute consulting appointment. He’d made some joking comment about her going to play hooky, and Avery quietly told him this was the date Matt had died in the crash. She also said they never discussed it. The sisters remained silent witnesses of the anniversary that had taken the man Bella loved, allowed her the isolation she seemed to crave, and moved on the next day like nothing had happened. Each year was the same, so he’d followed the pattern and never questioned anyone.
He’d felt it wasn’t a great way to deal with grief, but he was no therapist. God knew everyone needed something different to soothe the ravaged pain of losing who they loved.
He froze as the realization slowly leaked through him.
Her car accident.
She’d experienced a crash just like her late husband had years ago. What type of horrible nightmares had that dredged up? No wonder she’d passed out. Had she imagined her husband at that awful moment? And had she honestly expected not to be affected by any of it? To work and pick up Zoe and finish her day like it was a normal one? To be so deep in denial, she didn’t have to fall behind or deal with those emotions that might be silently tearing her apart?
He heard the door open, and she walked back into the room. “I better get going. Thanks for being there, Gabe. I promise to tell my sisters about it.”
He hesitated, wondering if he was going to push her down an unknown path that could either help her heal or destroy her more. His nerves prickled, and he cleared his throat, waiting for courage.
It was the blankness in her expression that made him act.
“I didn’t realize today is the anniversary of when you lost Matt,” he said casually, walking to the bureau. He picked up the one picture always displayed: the two of them staring down at Zoe wrapped up in a blanket. Their faces were full of the love and wonder of first-time parents at the beginning of their journey. He imagined getting that chance with Bella and losing her too soon. That type of anguish could morph and change every year but never disappear. “Makes a bit more sense now why you passed out. I can’t imagine the type of memories that crash brought up.”
The silence screamed. He kept his back turned to give her the space, not knowing what to expect.
“How did you know?” she ripped out in a half whisper.
“I should have remembered sooner. Avery told me when I first started working here when I began to ask questions. I never meant to invade your privacy, but she thought I should know.” He slowly moved away from the bureau and jammed his hands in his pockets. “Thing is, she said no one talks about it. She said it’s easier for all of you to try and forget.”
“Forgetting is good in some ways,” she said. “At least it helps you function in the world.”
“Agreed. But other times, it’s like there’s this splinter throbbing under your skin, and if you keep ignoring it for long enough, it gets infected. That’s how grief works sometimes. Letting it bleed clean hurts, but that’s how it can heal better.”
He dared a look. Her eyes were curious as she stared back at him. It was as if she were caught between two different reactions, and he wasn’t sure which one would tip her over.
“I went to a grief counselor, and she told me the same thing. I began to journal things—memories I had about Matt when we were together. Suddenly, I was writing more and remembering all these tiny things that I’d forgotten. I began getting stronger. I got out of bed. Eventually, I even got back to work and was able to be alone with Zoe.” A faint smile curved her lips, but it only made Gabe ache from the sheer pain it obviously masked. “Finally, I didn’t need the journals anymore, and it was easier for all of us not to talk about it. Not on the day he died.”