Okay, that wasn’t a total lie, but it was just another layer to his unsettled mood.
Her hand slid from his as she pulled her coat tighter over her chest, crossing her arms. The slight breeze picked up strands of her low ponytail and sent pieces dancing around her shoulder.
“You don’t have to say anything, Eli. No words will bring him back and I won’t fall apart if you mention his name. He died doing what he loved, but I’m getting along.” She offered a tender smile. “You and I used to be so close.”
She inched closer, still holding his eyes with her own. Eli swallowed, but held her gaze. Nothing could make him turn away from such beauty. She’d always been able to captivate him with no effort on her part.
“All I need right now are friends,” she told him, her bright blue eyes searching his. “Can you handle that?”
Could he handle being her friend? He could, but there would be that secret silently settling between them, forming an invisible wedge.
Her pleading eyes tugged at his heart and he couldn’t deny her.
“I can handle that,” he told her with a brief nod.
She cupped her gloved hand over his cheek and the warmth spread throughout him. “I’m glad you’re back, even if it is for a short time.” She flashed him a knockout smile, then dropped her hand and pulled her coat back around her as if to shield herself against the chilly breeze.
Nora may act like everything was fine, but Eli’s body was still reeling from her innocent touch. Everything about her gesture had been harmless. And yet he could still feel her softness as her hand slid against his cheek—even though he hadn’t felt her bare skin.
“I’m so relieved the surgery was a success,” she told him, turning to walk again. “I’ve been a nervous wreck since we found out he’d have to have it.”
Eli kept his pace slow so she could remain by his side and in case there was a skiff of snow on the walk. He didn’t mind the cold; he would’ve walked anywhere she wanted to go if she’d just keep talking to him. He’d missed spending time with her. Because even though they’d parted ways, she’d always been so easy to talk to, so understanding and compassionate. They’d been best friends at one time and he’d yet to find anyone else he shared such a strong bond with outside of his family.
“I honestly was, too,” Eli told her. “I knew he was in good hands here, but you never know when something can go wrong.”
“How did you manage to get off work for so long?” she asked, stopping beside a small silver SUV. “That wasn’t much notice considering they told him yesterday he’d be having surgery.”
“I requested an emergency FMLA.” When she gave him a questioning look he clarified. “A family leave of absence. It’s for twelve weeks. If Dad is better before then, I can return, but that’s the limit I can be gone.”
“You like it in Atlanta?” she asked.
“I love Atlanta,” he told her without hesitation. “Even though I just settled in a few months ago, I love the hospital, the staff. I love the city itself.”
A slight smile tipped one corner of her mouth. “You were always so eager to leave.”
Yeah, he’d had it all figured out. First graduation, then the army, then seeing the world.
But his plans got a bit derailed and he’d gone back into the army before getting out and looking for a job in his field.
So far, he’d accomplished every career goal he’d ever wanted. But what about his personal life? What goals had he worked toward or even set for himself outside of his career?
“I’m not a small-town guy,” he told her. “I knew when I left I wanted something more.”
This topic was starting to venture into a territory he truly didn’t think either of them was ready for so he nodded toward the car he’d seen in her drive. “This you?”
“Yeah. I may be back later, but right now I need to go home and lie down.”
Not for the first time he noticed she was a bit pale, which only showcased those dark circles beneath her eyes even more.
“Are you feeling okay?”
She sighed and nodded. “Yeah, just tired a lot lately.”