A Holiday Message from Zoey and Jake McRoyan
As you know, it is Wade’s first Christmas, and we are all looking forward to seeing you. Jake and I are delighted to be hosting Christmas this year.
If you have been following my channel on YouTube, you will know that Wade is very advanced for his age and is able to roll from front to back with the greatest of ease, and is playing with toys for children twice his age. (We prefer things rated for 18 months and up.)
Thank you all for coming out for our wedding. I know it wasn’t ideal, but we really wanted to be married as soon as possible, and you were all so sweet to help us make that happen.
Jake’s football team did really well this year. All the boys are disappointed they didn’t make it to state, but they played great games, and that last one was a real heartbreaker. Head Coach McRoyan has such a nice sound to it.
Don’t worry if you missed my appearance on Good Morning America. Mom DVRed it for me, and she’s been showing it to everyone who comes to visit. All the attention is a little embarrassing, really, but it’s sweet that she’s so supportive. She could have been super judgmental, you know, because of what I write.
It’s time to feed Wade, so I’d better get off here. Looking forward to seeing you!
Zoey, Jake, and Wade
PS: Attached a couple of pictures of Wade – they were all so cute, I very nearly attached the whole album!!!!!! :-)
Attached: Wade1.jpg; Wade2.jpg; Wade3.jpg; Wade4.jpg; Wade5.jpg; Wade6.jpg; Wade7.jpg; Wade8.jpg; Wade9.jpg; Wade10.jpg; Wade11.jpg; Wade12.jpg; Wade13.jpg; Wade14.jpg; Wade15.jpg; Wade16.jpg; Wade17.jpg; Wade18.jpg; Wade19.jpg; Wade20.jpg; Wade21.jpg; Wade22.jpg; Wade23.jpg; Wade24.jpg; Wade25.jpg
A Holiday Message from Nina Geiger and the voices in her head
Nina has had a marvelous year, listening to the voices in her head. Geoff is currently writing this as Nina is unavailable.
We have noticed that these things seem to be bragging rights, so we would like to remind you that really there is no need, as long as Nina exists, you will be doing well by comparison.
Nina is still:
- a college drop-out;
- a non-smoking chain smoker (though she has progressed to cigars, because they’re “damned cool”);
- barely scraping by on terrible wages at her (admittedly awesome) job; and
- listening to the voices in her head.
PS: Met Chris Jericho last week. YOU ALL LOSE ANY BRAGGING RIGHTS YOU EVER HAD. FOZZY ROCKS. TOTALLY FROOT.
PPS: Zoey, what the hell are you playing at? If I flip through those pics really fast, I can see Wade’s entire day! Are you stop-motioning my godchild?
Attached: Fozzy.jpg; Grinch.jpg; XmasTreeFireball.jpg; STFUParents.jpg
A Holiday Message from Claire Geiger, and nobody else, for Claire is a strong, independent woman
… When did we start doing holiday messages? Are we forty?
Since attachments are obligatory, I have added a recent photo of myself and Paolo. Ignore the face he’s making.
PS: Nina – when I see you next, make sure Geoff is present, his company is far preferable to yours.
A Holiday Message from Aisha Gray and Christopher Shupe (Mr and Mrs)
We will both see you at 7 p.m. on Christmas Day, and I’m excited about our girls’ dinner Christmas Eve. Looking forward to seeing everyone. Do you guys realize it’s been five years since we were all together in one place – aside from our flying visit to Zoey and Jake’s wedding.
Please note our new addition to the family – not a baby, don’t worry, Zo, we’re not copying you. We have an Australian cattle dog. She’s a cuddler. And like baby Wade, she’s very advanced for her age. She’s already learning Latin!
This is something we do now?
Ok. Uh, got a new contract restoring the Weymouth Landing historic building.
See you on xmas! :D
PS: Do we need a boys’ dinner. Should I call Jake?
For crying out loud, I’ll see you all next week. This is completely unnecessary.
No, Lucas, no boys’ dinner is necessary. Besides, where would we go? Passmores’ is the only decent place to eat on the island.
PS: Zoey, I’m ten minutes away, stop sending me pictures of my nephew.
PPS: Text is twice as obnoxious as email. Stop it.
PPPS: For the love of god, stop tagging me on Wade’s pictures on Facebook. I get it, he’s adorable.
PPPPS: Feel free to resume this level of obsession once I go back to school, it’s only when I’m local it seems excessive.
Claire looked far too happy to be standing outside in the weather. The sky was gray, thick clouds sitting low and heavy, and the wind off the water was sharp. It wasn’t snowing, but the streets had little snow mountains on either side of the plowed lanes, dirty brown and gross. Maine snow always looked beautiful, luminous and white, in holiday cards and movies. Reality was nowhere near as pretty.
Nina gulped her venti mocha, still hot enough it burned her tongue and the back of her throat as she swallowed. The heat was a nice break from the cold air. She’d planned to wait for the ferry inside the building, but her cheap flight ran late, and now, instead of arriving early in the afternoon when everyone would be at work, she and her sister were stuck commuting with the hordes of Christmas shoppers coming back from the mainland. The ferry building was packed full of people. Nina might have been able to stand it, just to be warm, if Claire went with her, but Claire, as usual, wanted nothing to do with other people.
Nina took another big drink of her mocha, then set it on the railing. Warm was good, but it could cool a little before she lost all her tastebuds.
“I’m going to check in on Facebook again,” Nina said. “Every time we get a little bit closer, Zoey nearly explodes with joy in her quest to like it as soon as possible.”
“Don’t tag me into it. I’m sick of my phone buzzing every two seconds,” Claire replied. “There’s only so much Christmas joy I can handle.”
“Oh, lies. You’re a little Christmas elf, bursting with happiness and delight.”
“You spent our entire childhood and adolescence telling anyone who would listen that I was Satan. It would be a continuity error to change your mind now. Or is it just comparatively I’m the personification of yuletide joy, when I’m standing next to you?”
Nina didn’t have to look up to know Claire had one eyebrow dramatically raised.
Nina finished checking in – the Island Breeze was a popular check-in during the summer, but most locals didn’t bother during the winter – and, sure enough, Zoey liked it immediately.
Then the comments began.
Can’t wait to see you! :-)
Safe trip! :-D
Isn’t Claire with you? You didn’t tag her. Is something wrong? :-o
Grinning, Nina typed a reply. “Sorry, totally forgot. Claire is with me.“ She made sure Claire was tagged in appropriately.
“I hate you,” Claire said, but Nina caught the little twitch at the corner of her mouth that meant she was biting back a smile.
Nina hadn’t always known her sister so well. Time, and some physical distance, had brought them closer together. She never wanted to admit it out loud, but Claire was probably her best friend now.
“Oh, look,” Claire said. “Zoey sent us a picture of Wade, waving hello.” She tucked her phone back into her pocket with a sigh.
“I dare you to send back one of you, waving, but only using your middle finger. It would re-establish you as the Ice Princess we know and love.” Nina paused for a second. “Do you think if they’d had a girl, the poor thing would be burdened with ‘Wadina’ or something like that for a name?”
“I suppose they could’ve gone with Lara, if they were feeling like honoring the dead,” Claire said.
Nina laughed. “That’s not awkward at all: let me name my child after the woman I dated before my baby-momma.”
Claire shook her head. “Because inviting everyone’s exes over to celebrate Christmas is the epitome of grace.”
“Claire, where have you been? This is what we do on Chatham Island. We date each other’s exes, and we make up and break up, and it leads to all sorts of socially awkward situations. Honestly, I’m surprised Paolo hasn’t run off with Christopher, just to keep us on an even keel.”
“If only he would.” Claire’s lip twitched again. “He’s tiresome.”
“You love that man.” Nina nudged her. “And if you ever ditch him, you know I’ll take him off your hands. It’s not that I’ve got a thing for him, it’s just, you know, there’s a precedent.”
“Why would you want my current boyfriend, when you’re not even close to being over my ex?” Claire smoothed back her hair; it stood out very dark against her white leather gloves and matching fluffy ear muffs.
There was no malice in her tone, but Nina winced anyway, then tried to cover, even though she knew Claire was fully aware of how Nina felt. “Now, Claire, you know I’m over Benjamin. I’m Facebook friends with his current girlfriend. Anyone who loves Guns N’ Roses enough to get the logo tattooed on their hip is a keeper.”
“Do I dare ask how you know about the tattoo?”
Claire stole a drink of Nina’s mocha. Either it had cooled enough it didn’t burn on the way down, or no amount of boiling liquid could injure the Ice Princess. Probably the latter, Nina decided. That was a better story.
She heaved a great sigh. “I could respond, but I kind of like that you think I have lesbian tendencies.”
Claire actually laughed outright at that. “My working theory is that you’re the best friend in Zoey’s books. Her little sexy fling when she swears off men, about halfway through the book. Each book. Zoey has a formula.”
Nina’s jaw gaped. “You actually read them?” No matter how much Nina loved Zoey, who would always be her first best friend, there was no way she could read all of her books. The first one, absolutely, she wanted to support her friend, but romance novels were not her thing.
“Only on the Kindle, so nobody can tell. They’re not great, but,” she shrugged, “not the worst thing I’ve read.”
“And just think, they started life as Twilight fanfic.”
“At least Zoey’s romances are healthier than Edward and Bella.”
Nina shook her head and dug a cigar out of her bag. She peeled off the plastic wrap and tucked it into her pocket until she found a trashcan. “I’m still shocked that not only do you read smut, but you admit it!” She gestured dramatically with the cigar before she stuck the end into her mouth and bit down.
Claire smiled. “If you think that’s weird, give it thirteen years and try being Wade.”
Now, that was a terrifying thought. “Yeah, those kinky scenes are infamous, and probably still will be by the time he’s old enough to be traumatized by it.”
“If he’s lucky, none of his friends will figure out his mom is really Chastity Houston until he’s in college.”
“And if they do, he’s got a great college essay. Win-win.”
Another Zoey message: Are you on the ferry yet? We’re so excited to see you! Love Zoey, Jake and Wade :)
“Do you think,” Nina asked, with genuine concern, “that Zoey will shortly be creating a Facebook profile for Wade?”
At that, Claire’s smile widened. “Quite frankly, I’m shocked she hasn’t already.”
The sound of the ferry’s horn rang across the water as it pulled up to the dock. Nina swung her bag over her shoulder and grabbed her mocha. Claire had an actual suitcase with her, but it rolled along smoothly next to her. Luckily, they were among the first people to board, and Nina basked in the warmth. All too soon, people crowded in behind them, and Claire nudged Nina toward the stairs. The upper level was smaller, but not as many people made their way upstairs.
Claire headed toward the windows, as always, and Nina followed in her wake, juggling cigar, bag, and paper cup. She was just taking another drink when someone bumped into her, and warm mocha splashed down her front and stained her stripey scarf.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t – Nina?”
“Lucas!” Oh, god. Of course she would bump into him literally. Of course she would look ridiculous and dirty the first time she saw him. Of course.
“Hi, how are you?” he asked, his voice warm.
“I didn’t expect to see you. But then again, why wouldn’t I? You’re here, we’re all here for Christmas. It makes perfect sense you’d be on the Minnow. After all, how else can we get to the island? It’s too cold to swim!” There was a question, Lucas had asked her a question somewhere. “But I’m good! And Claire’s good – she’s right here. We’re both good. And we’re being cyber stalked by Zoey, who seems to have taken to communicating almost exclusively through smiley faces, I think the stress of baby’s first Christmas is getting to her. But then again, what do I know? I’m not a mother, maybe giving birth does turn you into Smiley McSmilerson. Do you know anyone else who’s given birth recently? Are they this frantically delighted over everything?”
“You know,” Claire commented, “if you just breathed a little, we might’ve understood more than two words of that.”
Nina’s cheeks heated, and she sucked in a long breath. She hadn’t meant to start babbling, especially about Zoey’s baby. As far as she knew, Zoey and Lucas had broken up amicably years ago, but that was from Zoey. Lucas didn’t talk about it much. Or about anything much. He wasn’t great at keeping in touch with her. Or any of them, really. Maybe he was absolutely still in love with Zoey and all she was doing was twisting that knife hard.
She’d been cool and snarky when she met Chris Jericho for god’s sake. Why couldn’t she manage a simple “hello” when it came to Lucas?
He looked damn good, blond hair tousled, just longer than chin length. It was hard to tell under the bulky winter clothes, but it looked like he’d put on some weight since she’d seen him last, probably muscle from all the construction work. His cheeks were pink from the cold and there was a mischievous sparkle in his eyes.
“Um, so you’re good?” Lucas shot her a broad grin. “Zoey’s been smiley-facing everyone. I don’t know anyone else that’s had a baby, so I can’t tell you whether this is a mother thing or not.”
Nina tried to distract herself from her embarrassment by cleaning her scarf, but when she didn’t find any napkins shoved into her pockets, all she could do was wipe ineffectually at the spilled coffee with her gloves.
After a lengthy pause, Claire stepped in. “It’s nice to see you, Lucas. Are you ready for Christmas?”
He nodded, and lifted the big brown bag he carried. “Last minute shopping,” he admitted. “But I just have to wrap them.”
“Amazon,” Claire responded. “With the gift-wrap option.”
“That would be easier,” he said with a laugh.
“I shipped my gifts home,” Nina told him, “but didn’t want to pay Amazon to wrap them. So she’s doing better than both of us, gift-wise.” There. That was a normal sentence. Mostly.
Claire heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Yes, but I expect I’ll end up helping you wrap yours tonight.”
“Don’t act like you’re doing me a favor. It’s either help me wrap gifts or make small-talk with Aaron Mendel,” Nina pointed out.
Claire’s eyes narrowed. “When exactly did you become an evil genius?”
“Probably around the same time you started liking me. I’m just not sure which happened first.” Nina shot her the sunniest smile she could manage.
Claire huffed and pointedly looked back out the window. “It’s going to snow soon,” she said, apropos nothing. She was probably right, though. She generally was, and not just with the weather. Nina knew she was giving them the semblance of privacy. It was really quite a kind thing for her to do.
Still, Nina was uncomfortably aware that her sister would be able to hear every single word she bumbled over as she tried to talk to Lucas.
“So, did you really meet Chris Jericho?” Lucas asked.
Nina nodded. “Uh-huh. He was really cool.”
“I remember watching him in WWF back in the day. So, how did you meet him?”
“Well, I manage a music venue, and his band played there. I think you’d actually really like it. The building used to be this old vaudeville theater, and they kept most of the details intact when the owners remodeled it to add the stage. There’s a couple balconies and really intricate design work on the columns.”
“That’s great.” He shifted his weight. Did he move a little closer? It felt like he moved closer, and Nina’s skin buzzed. “I don’t know if you saw my email, but we got that contract to restore the Weymouth Landing building, and the owner really wants to preserve as much of the old architecture as possible. I think,” he ducked his head, looking a little abashed and absolutely adorable, “we got it because they know I’m really into that, maintaining the old work.” He paused, then looked at her with another smile. “Do you have a picture of your venue? I’d like to see it.”
“Yeah, there’s some on my Facebook, but I think there are better ones on the website. I’ll send you the link.” He nodded, and Nina found herself nodding along a little. What the hell was she doing? She cast about quickly for something else to say, but too late. They’d fallen into yet another awkward silence.
“You should visit some time. You can talk about music and buildings and wrestling, and anything else that seems pertinent,” Claire suggested, proving that even with her attention focused outside, she absolutely was listening to every word.
“Claire!” Nina hissed. God, she almost wished they were outside, because she knew her cheeks had to be bright red.
“What?” Claire’s tone was guileless.
Nina huffed and shot her a glare. “Lucas doesn’t want to visit me. Don’t make things awkward.”
“I could visit,” Lucas said. He stepped a little to the side, letting a couple pass behind him, then set his shopping bag down at his feet. That definitely put him closer to Nina. For a ridiculous moment, she imagined she could feel his warmth even through their layers of winter gear.
“But not because Claire made you, that’s just weird. I won’t hold you to it,” Nina rushed to assure him. “Claire’s invoking her Satan powers at this holy time of year. She feels threatened by the Christmas joy and tries her best to counter with evil and mischief.”
Lucas rolled his eyes. “I’m not scared of Claire. She can’t make me do anything.”
“You say that, but Paolo will always do the YMCA dance at parties for her amusement, I swear, she’s got some kind of mind control over him.”
“If I did,” Claire commented, “he would never do that dance again.”
“Oh, right, that’s for my amusement,” Nina said, and that got her a laugh from Lucas. She couldn’t help her proud little grin.
“Where is Paolo?” Lucas asked. “I wouldn’t mind seeing his dance.”
“Paolo is entertaining the O’Connell clan with his buffoonery this Christmas, I’m afraid.” She smiled a little. “I’ll be seeing him for New Year.”
“Claire cannot live without New Year’s smoochies with her man,” Nina told Lucas, lowering her voice and leaning into him as if she imparted some great secret. Immediately she wished she hadn’t. She’d left herself wide open for Claire. They might be friends the majority of the time, but it still wasn’t like Claire to let the opportunity for a sharp joke go. Most of the time, Nina loved that about her sister.
Unfortunately, Claire was the only one who had any idea how she still felt, and that was about to blow up in her face.
(Plus, Lucas smelled really, really good. She didn’t need to be noticing that.)
Claire shook her head. “Now, Nina, don’t be bitter. I’m sure Benjamin’s girlfriend will be there, and you might just catch her under the mistletoe!”
Relief swooped through Nina, and it was all she could do not to mouth “thank you” to Claire.
“Am I missing something?” Lucas asked.
“Oh, Claire’s new theory on my barren love life is that I’m having a torrid affair with Benjamin and his girlfriend. Honestly, you make one harmless comment about a girl’s tattoo and suddenly everyone has theories as to why you might have seen it!”
They all three were laughing by the end of her diatribe.
Jake rested his hand lightly on Wade, marveling in the steady rise and fall of his breathing and the quick, light beat of his heart. He still couldn’t believe this was his baby, scrunchy face and loud voice and all. What a kid. He hoped Wade liked all the same things he did. He had this dream of coaching his son’s football team.
More than that, though, more than anything, he wanted his son to be happy.
He wasn’t sure how to be a good dad, but he hoped he would figure it out as they went.
Jake left Wade sleeping in his crib, nightlight on, baby monitor in place, and eased the door shut behind him before he headed down the hall to their bedroom. The only reason Jake got the chance to put Wade to bed by himself was that Zoey was getting ready to go out. She hadn’t been out by herself since the baby was born. He wasn’t sure, but he thought this might be good for her.
Jake stopped in the doorway, and grinned. Good for him, too. Zoey wore a dark blue silk dress, just long enough to hit her knees. Her arms were bare, pale skin soft and freckled. Even though the dress was loose, it still skimmed along her curves, showing off her breasts and hips. With her hair pulled up into a loose bun, her neck was bare, and he wanted to kiss her there, ladder kisses down the side of her throat, just the way she liked.
He crossed the room and dropped a kiss to the top of her shoulder. “You look beautiful,” he told her.
“Oh.” Zoey set down her eyeliner and turned to look at him. “Thanks.” She chewed on her bottom lip, a nervous habit that she said she hated because it made her seem too young, but had never been able to break. “Are you sure I should be going out? Helena said she’s not going to leave her baby until he’s at least one. Wade’s barely six months.”
Helena was, in Jake’s humble opinion, the root cause of every worry, anxiety and insecurity Zoey had about parenthood. “Helena talks too much, you’ve said so yourself. But if you really want to stay home, I’ve got plenty of ways we could amuse ourselves.”
Zoey gave him a look that was all too familiar, exasperation and frustration and, strangely, this shyness he didn’t understand. It wasn’t like they’d never had sex before. They were husband and wife. They had a baby for Christ’s sake. But lately, she acted like she didn’t want him to see her naked.
She’d always been enthusiastic in bed, but they hadn’t had sex for months. Not since before Wade was born. Jake didn’t know what he’d done wrong. At first, he’d been afraid of touching her, worried that he would hurt her. Childbirth was gross and weird and painful, even though all he’d done was stand next to her bed, feeding her ice chips and letting her squeeze his hand until she cracked his fingers. After that, he was careful when he touched her, even just a hug, even just a kiss on the forehead. He didn’t want to hurt her.
But she was active again now, taking cardio classes and meeting up with her friends on the mainland while Jake worked. And she’d started writing again. That had to be a good sign, right? She wrote such sexy scenes, she couldn’t write them if she wasn’t ready to have sex again.
His friends thought he was the luckiest man in the world.
He was. Just not like they thought.
“You’re right,” Zoey said and turned back to her make-up. Jake stood behind her, watching her in the mirror on her vanity. “Helena does talk too much. I should go out and see my friends.”
He smiled and put his hands on her shoulders. “Good. You should have fun with the girls.” He glanced at the clock. “When are you meeting them?” He pressed his thumbs against the back of her neck, on either side of her spine, and pushed in lightly, rubbing at the tight muscles.
“Women, Jake. Not girls. And in about half an hour at my parents’ restaurant.”
“So we have a little time.” He dropped a kiss to her shoulder, and then another to the side of her throat, his hands drifting lightly down her arms.
She sighed, but not in a good way. “I have thirty minutes to finish getting ready and get there in heels. In the snow, Jake. That’s not helping.”
He stiffened and pulled away. He started to snap back at her, but bit down on his tongue instead. He didn’t want to pick a fight, and he didn’t want to say something dickish to her.
Part of him wanted to ask what he’d done wrong. Part of him wanted to ask whether she even wanted to have sex with him anymore, except that sounded stupid. But Jake wasn’t an idiot. He knew just because they were married, just because they had a kid, that didn’t mean anything. Look at his own parents.
“I’m sorry,” Zoey said. “I didn’t mean to snap. I’m just stressed about Christmas – maybe it was stupid to host with us still adjusting to having Wade, and we haven’t really seen our friends for five years, there’s so much that could go wrong. I just want everything to be perfect for Wade.”
Jake took a deep breath and forced a smile. “It will be,” he said, trying – and, he thought, failing – to sound reassuring. “You’re doing everything in the world for Wade.”
God, he was a shit. Jealous of his own son. There was something seriously wrong with him. For a terrible moment, he wanted a beer, wanted it so bad he could taste it, thick malt and hops on his tongue, that slightly bitter aftertaste. He shook his head.
“You look nice,” he said again, weak as it was. “Have fun.”
Zoey looked at him in the mirror, an expression he couldn’t read on her face, but he turned and walked away.
“I can’t believe you haven’t started vaping, Nina,” Aisha said. Dinner was over, and they sat around the table, comfortably full, with fresh drinks – alcoholic for everyone but Zoey, her parents let them bring in their own wine – and the dessert menu. “Everyone’s into it. It’s as near to smoking as you get without actually smoking.”
Nina shrugged. “I am not a sheep. Plus, cigars are cool.”
“No, Nina, they’re not,” Claire said. “Can anyone think of a cool cigar smoker?”
There was a long pause, during which not a single name was submitted.
Nina frowned. “Zoey, you’re being very quiet today. Let’s talk about you instead. What terrifying kink are you writing about this week?” She paused, looking thunderstruck. “It has never occurred to me until this moment that you’ve probably tried everything in your books with Joke.”
Zoey rolled her eyes. “Not everything. And don’t call him ‘Joke’. I don’t let him call you ‘Ninny.’”
Nina waved her off. “Not everything,” she repeated. “So you’ve definitely tried some things? Please tell me it wasn’t that thing with the playing cards.”
To everyone’s surprise, Zoey’s only response was to burst into tears.
“So that’s probably a yes then,” Nina said cautiously. Then she shuffled closer and patted Zoey on the shoulder. “Don’t cry, Zo. I think it’s way cool you write porn.”
“It’s not porn, it’s romance!” Zoey replied, sniffling. “Sexy romance.” Her face was already blotchy. Zoey was not a pretty crier.
“Yes, romance, with lots of throbbing thises and engorged thats.” Nina nodded, then glanced at Aisha and Claire. “Feel free to jump in at any time, I don’t think I’m doing a good job of comforting her.”
Claire raised her eyebrows. It was impossible for Nina to expect her to be comforting. She didn’t do comforting at the best of times. And if she was honest, Aisha wasn’t much better.
“I think,” Claire began, taking a quick sip of wine, “that this probably isn’t about porn–uh, romance.”
“It’s Jake!” Zoey wailed.
Ah, there it was. Of course it was Jake. Zoey’s angst was always related to the men in her life. Always.
“What’s he done?” Aisha face hardened. “Is he cheating on you? If he is, I can get Christopher to beat him up. Christopher works out.”
“So does Jake,” Zoey sniffed. “His abs are perfect.”
Claire tilted her head. That was … interesting.
“He’s not cheating,” she decided. “What’s happening, Zoey?” No sense in letting everyone get worked up for the wrong reason.
“He’s just so perfect! He works out every day, every inch of him is perfectly toned, he’s a sponsor at AA now, he’s coached the team to a winning season… he’s just perfect.”
It was all Claire could do not to roll her eyes.
Aisha wrinkled her nose. “And you’re crying with joy?”
“Does this look like joy?” Zoey asked, indicating her blotchy face.
“No. No, it does not.” Nina gave her a helpless look. “Zo, you’re going to have to start making sense here. You’re clearly upset, and Jake is the cause, except he’s perfect so…” She shrugged. “I don’t get it.”
Claire sighed. “Zoey, are you feeling inferior?” She very nearly added that Jake had made her feel not good enough when they dated, but that would open a whole can of worms that she really didn’t want to bring to the already-emotional table. Instead, she carefully dampened a napkin with her water and passed it to Zoey.
Nina shot her a look of surprise, but Claire just raised an eyebrow in response. She wasn’t good at comfort, but logical responses were one of the things she did best.
“It’s not just that. I don’t even know who I am any more!” Zoey pressed the damp napkin against one eye and then the other, wiping away her tears, but also smearing her mascara.
“Start at the beginning,” Aisha said. She reached across the table and took Zoey’s hand. “We’re your oldest friends. We’re here to help.”
“You won’t get it, you don’t have a baby.” Zoey crumpled the napkin in her other hand
Claire exchanged a look with Aisha and Nina. She hoped one of them would have a response to that, because the only thing Claire could come up with a little too biting.
“Just tell us anyway,” Nina said.
“I belong to a Baby and Me group, for new moms, and all the other moms are so together. Everything comes so naturally to them, and they have such strong opinions on everything, and I read three articles and come away with a dozen different ideas on the same thing, I just – it’s not even that really. They’re just moms. Like, that’s it. Hi, I’m Helena and I’m Toby’s mom. I still want to be Zoey, writer, Benjamin’s sister, Jake’s wife, Wade’s mom, but they’ve completely committed to just being a mom, and I feel like I’m not good enough because I still want other things.”
That was absolutely ridiculous. If Zoey wanted other things in her life, she should take them, and to hell with the other mothers. Claire did not, would not ever, understand Zoey’s desire to fit in, to be accepted.
Then a pang struck her. Yes, she would have told them to bite her and done exactly what she wanted, but that had never been Zoey’s way, and she was clearly hurting.
“That’s…” Nina began, and Claire and Aisha eyed her hopefully, but she seemed to run out of words.
“Stupid,” Aisha finished for her, with all the tact and diplomacy that was available to her. A modicum more than Claire possessed. Or perhaps less, because Claire had bitten her assessment back.
Nina tried again. “If everyone just committed to only being moms when they gave birth, no mother would ever achieve anything. For instance, your parents wouldn’t have their restaurant. Aisha’s parents wouldn’t have the bed and breakfast. I think probably all the other moms feel about the same as you – I mean, there’s usually a zealot in every group, no matter what kind, but that one aside – most people probably want more, and they’re just trying to fit in too.”
Claire nodded. That was a good point to make, and Nina was able to say it in a way that hopefully wouldn’t alienate Zoey.
“Even if they do only want to be mothers, that doesn’t mean you have to give up everything else in your life,” Claire added, careful with her words. “You get to decide what kind of person you want to be. Don’t listen to them.”
“Plus,” Aisha said, “you’re already rebelling from them. I saw on Twitter you’ve just started the final book in your latest trilogy of p–of romance.”
That made Zoey smile. “One day I’m going to get a retweet from Katherine Applegate.”
Claire tipped her glass at Zoey. “It’s good to have goals,” she teased.
“I got retweeted by Michael Grant,” Nina said. “I said I was going to sue him for the emotional distress reading his books caused me. He took it as a compliment.”
“It was a compliment,” Claire said.
“True story,” Nina replied.
“You know, I’m glad you’re having an existential crisis, Zoey. For an awful minute, I thought we were back in high school and you were going to be torn between two loves, what with Lucas still on the island.” Claire smiled, taking the sting out of her words. “He’s still devilishly handsome, isn’t he?”
Zoey waved away her words. “That’s all ancient history. I barely see him now, although he and Jake hang out quite often.”
Well, that was a surprise, and Claire clearly wasn’t the only one startled by it.
“Lucas and Joke have a bromance?” Nina looked aghast, and Claire took another drink of wine to hide the smirk she could feel.
“Yes.” Zoey wet a clean napkin and wiped under her eyes, cleaning away the last of the smeared make-up. “They have next to nothing in common, but still, they hang out and do man-things.”
“Man-things?” Nina sounded even more taken aback. “What would that be?”
Zoey shrugged. “I don’t know. They watch movies with lots of explosions in. They teach Lucas’ dog tricks. They talk about man-things.”
“Essentially, man-things means movie night, playing with a pet and talking about their feelings?” Nina grabbed her glass of cider and took a big swig.
Claire leaned forward. “Now, Zoey, we know that your main characters go a bit sapphic halfway through act two, are you a little concerned that your husband is going Brokeback with your ex?”
Zoey laughed. “Not really.” She paused for a second. “Jake did cry at the end of Brokeback though. But no. Lucas was seeing a girl from the mainland a few months ago, but that ended.”
“And he’s not seeing anyone now? Except for your husband?” Claire prompted.
“Jake is his only date,” Zoey replied.
Claire glanced over at Nina. Her sister was quiet, slumped in her seat, but obviously, at least to Claire, listening to every single thing Zoey said about Lucas. There were times when Nina frustrated her, and this was one of them. Now that she knew Lucas was single, it was the perfect time for Nina to kindle a romance between them. Zoey obviously wouldn’t mind.
Though, perhaps Lucas still harbored lingering feelings. Claire returned her focus to Zoey, determined to feel things out for her sister. “You know, we never got the whole story – how Lucas ended and how Jake began. It must have been quite amicable, if Lucas is friends with Jake now.”
Zoey shrugged. “Well, it wasn’t amicable at first. Lots of yelling and avoiding each other, and then a bit more yelling.”
“And who finally called it quits?” Claire pressed.
“Claire!” Nina hissed. “Stop.”
“No, honestly, it’s fine,” Zoey replied. “Water under the bridge. Lucas and I weren’t right for each other. We couldn’t ever figure out how to love each other without hurting each other. He ended it, but by the time he did it, I was about to anyway. I didn’t see him for quite awhile, he just dropped out of my life, and then when he did reappear, it was because of Jake. I was already seeing Jake at that point, and he and Lucas had become friends.”
“So, we will never hear an anguished wail of ‘Oh, Lucas,’ from you again then?” Claire asked.
“When did I ever do that?” Zoey asked, laughing.
It took quite an effort not to roll her eyes. “Approximately once a day during high school.”
“Claire! You’re being mean!” Nina said.
“I’m not, I’m being you,” Claire retorted.
“No, I think she’s right.” Zoey smiled at Claire. “Only now I’m writing books – instead of chapter one over and over again – so I get rid of my drama that way.”
“Except for tonight’s little session,” Aisha said.
“Oh no!” Nina said, her tone filled with mock worry. “Maybe it’s us and not the guys that make her so dramatic!”
“I think it’s the island,” Aisha said. “The drama seemed to taper off after my first year at college. I blame the island.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Claire said.
“On the note of drama,” Aisha went on, “Zoey and I exchanged emails privately a few weeks ago. We were just wondering when Claire was going to finish with Paolo so Nina could date him.”
“That’s funny,” Nina said, “Claire and I had the same conversation this morning. We’ve agreed that February seems good. Probably Valentine’s day.”
“He’s all yours,” Claire said, nonplussed, but a frisson of warmth slid through her when she thought about the texts he’d sent. Ridiculous boyfriend, missing her so much already, as if he couldn’t stand to be apart.
“Oh, sure, take the fun out of it for me.” Nina huffed and slumped in her chair.
“That is the evil thing to do,” Claire said, voice flat.
“Well, I’m sorry, I’m going to outsmart you. Maybe I don’t need to take your exes, maybe I’m ready to start dating Aisha’s brother.” She turned to Aisha. “Is Kalif single?”
“Gay,” Aisha replied. “Maybe Jake and Lucas could invite him to their next man-night.”
“We could set him up with Aaron?” Zoey suggested. “I know he’s not gay, but I like the theory that he’s just being a dick to every woman he’s ever known because he’s fighting the gay. It’s better than the idea he’s just a dick.”
“God, no,” Nina said. “We don’t hate Kalif. Why would we do that to him?”
Aaron. Claire had to work to keep the sneer off her face. He was a piece of work, and she was already tired of being in the same place as him.
“I think I’m ready for dessert,” Aisha said. “What’s good, Zoey?”
“Chocolate,” Nina piped up, nudging Zoey. “Anything chocolate, of course.” They laughed, some old private joke floating between them, and Claire indulged them with a smile.
It wasn’t until they were alone, walking together back to the house, that Nina’s good mood disappeared and she turned on Claire.
“Well, the Ice Princess returned tonight, didn’t she?” Nina snapped.
Claire snugged deeper into her coat. The wind off the water was bitter, and she was glad they didn’t have far to walk. “What does that mean?”
“It means you were really pushy with Zoey’s feelings.”
“You weren’t much better. But,” she said, perking up, “I think we were both more tactful than Aisha.”
Nina huffed. “You completely interrogated her over her breakup with Lucas, what was that all about?” She jerked open the front door, and warmth washed over them.
“I was being your sister.” Claire started to unwind her thick scarf, and gave Nina a fond look. She had done the sister thing very well tonight, if she said so herself.
Nina’s mouth gaped open for a second, but before she could actually respond, Aaron walked out of the kitchen carrying a mug of something. He smirked when he saw them, lifted his mug, and opened his mouth. Nina beat him to it.
“Greetings, asshat. I hope Santa brings you coal. Coal filled with herpes,” she said, and his smirk disappeared.
Claire grinned. Nina, too, did not suck at the sister thing.
Zoey wakes up both Jake and Wade, unable to sleep any longer. She takes almost 1GB of high quality pictures of a confused, over-tired baby, surrounded by wrapping paper. Jake drinks his first gallon of coffee.
Sarah Mendel “accidentally” wakes Aaron and Nina, by singing Christmas songs on the landing. Aaron politely asks if this can wait another three hours. Nina makes the same request, but not as politely.
Claire takes hot chocolate and her iPhone to her widow’s walk, where she listens to anything but Christmas music and watches the sun rise.
Nina clambers up the stairs, finds Claire’s bed empty, and curls up in it for more sleep.
Christopher and Aisha wake up. Their activities are best left to the imagination.
Claire finally comes down from her widow’s walk, wakes Nina and points out they cannot hide in her room all day. Nina counters, stating that “Perky Mendel” and “Sleazy Mendel” are downstairs. They compromise on facing the family no later than 9:30 A.M.
Claire states they really should go downstairs.
Aaron Mendel shows up in Claire’s room, stating he has been sent by his mother to fetch them. Claire politely enquires whether he did, in fact, receive coal filled with herpes. He replies in the negative. Both Geiger sisters sigh. Nina then perks up when she realizes he probably already has herpes, so all he needs is the coal.
Zoey finally gets Wade down for a nap. Jake falls asleep on the couch. Zoey receives a text from Claire asking where one might locate one (or several) lumps of coal. Zoey decides this is a “man-thing” and wakes Jake up.
Zoey’s parents, Jake’s parents, Benjamin, and Benjamin’s girlfriend, Izzy Chaplin, turn up for a family lunch. Zoey is nearly beside herself. Wade is cranky. Jake wishes he could be cranky, but puts on a smile for his family. Jake drinks his second gallon of coffee.
At lunch, Aisha asks if Kalif is seeing anyone, because she’s convinced that Aaron Mendel has homosexual tendencies too. “I knew it!” is Kalif’s response. Aisha hurries to tell Kalif she’ll never forgive him if he takes up with Aaron Mendel, because Aaron Mendel is a dick. Her mother stifles a laugh, then calls her on her language at the table.
Jake, as requested, turns up at the Geigers’ house, and furtively sneaks several lumps of coal to Claire. He is too tired to care why he is doing this.
Nina and Claire photobomb every attempt by Sarah Mendel to capture the joy of Christmas with Aaron as the subject.
Zoey keeps checking the Christmas decorations. Everything is perfect, but she can’t stop looking for a flaw. She knows she’ll find one right before the guests arrive. The first guest isn’t due for another three hours.
Benjamin and Izzy show up early, with dessert from Zoey and Benjamin’s parents. Zoey is pleased to see them, and when they sit on the couch with Jake, immediately whisks coasters under their drinks.
Zoey brings out the photo albums, one for each month of Wade’s life so far. Well, Izzy asks.
Zoey takes up position at the front door. Aisha and Christopher arrive right on time.
Lucas turns up with flowers for Zoey, a stuffed giraffe for Wade, and Jake’s favorite soda, in real glass bottles.
Finally Aaron Mendel is distracted long enough for Claire to sneak the coal into his bed. In her neatest writing, she writes may contain herpes on a sticky note and sticks it to the coal. It takes her another three minutes to extract Nina from the insult-barrage she is giving Aaron.
Claire and Nina are late. Zoey bites her tongue and gives each of them a hug.
Zoey and Jake’s house was cozy, well-lit, and decorated to the hilt. It was small, but clean and neat. Nina thought it was going to be a great home for Wade, and any hypothetical-but-really-basically-guaranteed future babies, to grow up in.
Wade himself was actually in Nina’s arms. It was terrifying. He didn’t seem to pick up on her terror, and contented himself with drooling on her. Nina was frozen to the spot, scared that any movement might make her suddenly prone to baby-dropping. Thankfully, Benjamin and Izzy had moved to her side to make conversation. Or to spot her, depending on how much faith they had in her baby-holding abilities.
“Isn’t he adorable?” Izzy asked. “I think I want about six when I’m ready.”
“Six?” Benjamin repeated, doing little to conceal his terror.
“Sure. Not now, not necessarily with you. First I’m going to finish college, then I’m going to travel the world – might work as a roadie or something – and then when I’m ready to be a grown up, I’m going to have lots of kids. Stop panicking. I’m not going to drag you at gun-point to Vegas for a wedding followed by baby-making.”
“No, Vegas weddings are usually followed by black-out drinking binges, I hear,” Benjamin said.
“Sadly, you are not to be the Erin Everly to Izzy’s Axl Rose.” Nina laughed, which shook Wade a little, but he didn’t seem to mind, just gurgled happily in her ear. “By the way, everyone thinks we’re in a threesome.”
“By ‘everyone’, you mean my sister, and by ‘thinks’ you mean you implied,” Benjamin said.
“Claire started the rumor, I just perpetuated it. I just thought I’d warn you in case she needs to have a heart-to-heart with you about it and you accidentally confess to something much more debauched.”
He shuddered exaggeratedly. “We don’t have those kinds of conversations, not least of all because if I told her anything it would end up in her book.”
“I want to be in her book,” Izzy said. “I’d love to say to people ‘hey, you know that totally hot kink scene by Chastity Houston? Yeah, that’s me!’” She paused and leaned closer to Nina. “We tried that playing card thing, you know.”
“That would be what is known as an overshare,” Benjamin said. “Look at Nina’s face. She’s dumbstruck by the level of information you’ve just shared.”
“Oh no,” Nina said, trying not to laugh so hard she dropped Wade. “No, I’m dumbstruck that you’re using your baby sister’s book for sex advice.”
Zoey hadn’t even realized it was snowing, much less that the wind had kicked up strong enough to shake the house, when the power went out. There were cries of dismay from everywhere, people’s voices too loud, strained, now that there was no cheery Christmas music in the background.
For a moment, Zoey’s eyes burned, and she fought tears. She’d had such high hopes for this gathering. She wanted to prove herself to Jake’s parents that she could embrace her inner Martha Stewart and be a gracious and entertaining host of a party where nothing went wrong. She needed to prove it to them. To her Baby and Me group. To herself.
“Guys, I’ll go check the breakers,” Jake said. “Everyone try to stay still, the last thing we want is someone falling over.”
“Damn,” came Nina’s voice. “And here was me thinking it was a perfect time to suggest an obstacle race.”
Zoey took a deep breath. “I have plenty of candles,” she said, pleased that she managed to keep her voice steady. “I’ll light them, and we can use the fireplace if we can’t get the lights back soon.”
After all, they were well stocked with candles. She’d gotten at least one per gift from each of the members of her Baby and Me group. They were mostly all holiday scents – peppermint, sugar cookie, pine tree and cranberry – seasonally appropriate but she was pretty sure the mix of scents was going to be a mess.
Zoey lit the last of the candles in the living room, and then headed into the basement to check on Jake. It was eerie, heavy shadows that seemed to sway toward her whenever she moved her flashlight, and that weird silence that actually felt like pressure in her ears now that she was painfully aware of the lack of all the background noises she normally ignored. She shivered. If the power didn’t come back on soon, they should probably light a fire and corral everyone in the living room. The rest of the house would get cold.
“I don’t think it’s the fuses,” Jake said. He fiddled with something, then smacked the fuse box closed.
“Whole neighborhood went dark,” she told him, stepping closer. “Must be the storm.” He looked amazing in a white button down shirt, the sleeves rolled up now, and dark jeans. She reached out, hooked one finger in his pocket, and tugged him closer. “Hey.”
“Hey.” He sounded a little confused. Well, she’d just have to show him what she wanted.
Zoey set the flashlight on the ground, light pointed away from them, and stepped into his space, reaching up to lightly grip his arms and pull them down until his hands rested on her waist. He looked down at her, surprise evident in his expression. She smiled, then rose up on her tiptoes and kissed him.
Immediately he responded, hands gripping her tight, mouth opening against hers. She sank into him, one hand threading into his hair, barely long enough for her to tug on, grown out a little just because she liked it, the other tugging lightly at his shirt, fingers teasing the buttons. He was gorgeous, her husband, so sexy.
Jake slid one hand around to the small of her back, pulling her flush against him. Zoey smiled against his lips, then broke off the kiss so she could nibble along his jaw, freshly shaved and still so smooth. She slipped her hand beneath his shirt and splayed her fingers wide across his stomach, her thumb rubbing a line along the top of his jeans.
“Wait,” Jake drew back, and then carefully moved her a step away from him. She frowned at him, squinting a little when he stepped closer to the flashlight. “Is this the only time you want me? When the lights are out and I could be anyone?”
Zoey gaped at him, speechless for a long moment, then burst out, “What? Jake, no! Why would you think that?”
“Because of pretty much every single thing you’ve said or done in the past six months!” Jake pressed his knuckles into his temples, then took a deep breath. When he continued, his voice was quieter. His shoulders slumped. He looked defeated, and she wanted to cry. “Face it, Zo, you don’t want me. I was just your rebound when you and Lucas didn’t work out, a nice simple guy who wouldn’t cheat, and who you didn’t love enough to break your heart when it didn’t work out. But then we got pregnant, and neither of us is the type to quit when that happens. So you agreed to marry me, and you figured we’d have a marriage just like my parents – obligatory – but hopefully Wade’ll never notice. I’m sorry, I don’t know if I can do that. I love you, and I’ll do anything for you, except for live with you when you don’t love me.”
“Oh, Jake. No! No, that’s not it at all. God, I love you so much and you’re just so perfect, it’s kind of intimidating.” She stepped forward and took his hands, half expecting him to pull away, but he let her lace their fingers together. “I had a really good talk with the girls last night, and they helped me figure things out. It’s not that I don’t want you, it’s just that I don’t see how you would want me. I’m so confused about who I am – Claire said I was having an ‘existential crisis’, and you’re so sure of who you are and what you want, I feel… inadequate.”
“You shouldn’t. I love you, no matter what. I love you when you know exactly what you want, and I love you just as much when you don’t. I’ve felt so lonely, Zo, being around you, but feeling like you’re not here with me, and you don’t want me to touch you – and given that you’re writing again – am I not good enough? Am I just boring?” He ducked his head.
“Oh, god no. My writing is not about us at all. And some days, when you’re at work, all I can think about is what I want us to do when you get home, I have it all planned what I’m going to say and do and wear, and then Wade wakes up screaming, and when you get home, I’m covered in spit-up, and I haven’t had time to brush my hair, and… well, it’s not exactly a scene in one of my books, is it?”
“Yeah, but it can be perfect in books. I like us, me tired from work, and you with messy hair. And besides, you’re the girl I’ve loved all my life and you’ve chosen to spend your life and have kids with me. Honestly, there is nothing in the world that’s sexier than that.”
“Really?” Zoey asked, breathless.
He nodded. She couldn’t help herself. Zoey wrapped her arms around him as best she could and kissed him again, teeth and tongue.
“It smells like Lush’s evil twin in here! I’m contemplating lighting my cigar just to combat the smell.” She waited for Zoey’s impassioned admonishment, but nothing was forthcoming. Where in the world had Zoey disappeared to? Nina fully expected her to be rushing around, making sure no one did anything to hurt themselves.
“Don’t do it,” Lucas said quietly. She hadn’t even noticed him sneak up on her. “You’re allergic to smoke, Zoey will hit the roof, and you don’t even want to. I’m stopping you for your own good.”
Nina laughed and turned to face him. “Thank you.” He looked good in the candlelight, smiling at her, features sharply defined by the shadows the flickering light shot across him.
His smile widened. “If you want to get some air that doesn’t smell like a bong owned by Christmas elves, we could head outside.”
She pretended to give it some thought. “So I can either choke on sweet smog or freeze to death?”
“Yes. Hurry up, Nina.”
“Ok, let’s go outside.” Nina grabbed her coat and tugged her wool hat down over her ears. By the time she thought she was warm enough to survive the weather, Lucas was waiting. He opened the door for her with a gallant – and ridiculously dramatic – gesture.
As cold as it was, coming outside wasn’t a terrible idea. The sky was cloudy, the snow falling heavy, the wind strong, but they were sheltered by the bulk of the house, and the snow was beautiful in a cold, sharp way.
Nina shivered and shoved her hands into her pockets. “While we’re waiting for the hypothermia to set in, I want to hear all about your new relationship.”
“What relationship?” he asked.
“You know, you and Jake, getting cozy, watching movies and having ‘man nights.’”
Lucas laughed so hard he had to brace himself against the porch railing. “Don’t hate. He braids my hair and I paint his nails while we watch Meg Ryan movies.”
“That’s about what I thought.” She nodded. “No, seriously, I thought you two couldn’t ever be friends. You know, you stole his woman, you thought he stole her back, then you stole her back again, then–”
“Yeah, Nina, I was there.” He sighed. “It was a mess, wasn’t it?”
Nina narrowed her eyes. “So really, you and Joke are BFFs now?”
Lucas lifted one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug. “Weirder friendships have sprung up on this island.”
She didn’t expect him to have an easy answer, but it came immediately. “You. And your sister.”
Okay. Fine. He had a point. Still, Lucas and Joke. And it wasn’t like she was going to tell him he was right or anything.
He continued after a moment of her not saying anything. “Jake’s AA group meets in an old church. It got damaged in a storm, needed work done, but they don’t have much money. Jake asked me if I could help out.” He shrugged again. “It wasn’t a big deal. He pitched in on a lot of it, we got to talking.”
“And so a bromance was born,” she finished.
He grinned, then put on a very serious expression. “Now explain you and Claire.”
“Same thing. Claire’s satanic cult was out of cigars, I was local, she borrowed some of mine, and we’ve been praising Beelzebub together ever since.”
He schooled his expression into one that almost looked serious. “All hail our lord of darkness.”
Nina laughed. “Is it a sad and sorry state of affairs when my best friend is the Ice Princess and yours is Joke?”
“On that subject, why did Jake borrow coal from me? He said it was for Claire.”
“I guess she was nice this year, and didn’t get any.” Nina chewed on the inside of her lower lip, wishing she was biting down on the end of her cigar instead. She didn’t want to be that girl, the one who pined for an unrequited love forever. And besides, Lucas really shouldn’t be her unrequited love. Benjamin should be the one she couldn’t get over – after all, he was her first love, she’d lost her virginity to him, she’d run away over him, hell, she was the first person Benjamin had seen after he’d regained his eyesight. But somehow Benjamin had been relegated to friend, she occasionally noticed when he looked particularly good in a picture on Facebook, but it was Lucas that she pined for. And he probably still pined for Zoey. What Zoey and Lucas lacked in big life events, they made up for in dramatic break-ups and tearful reunions. Each week of their lives as a couple had more drama than the entire run of Dawson’s Creek.
It was weird, though. Seeing him again, it was so easy to fall back into conversation with him. Banter. Flirting. Whatever they were doing. They hadn’t talked in awhile, but it sort of felt like they’d been talking every day.
Why hadn’t they been? They’d stayed in touch for awhile after she left, emails and texts, sometimes a call, but he didn’t like the phone much. Sometimes, late at night, when neither of them could sleep, they’d have a good talk about the stupidest things, the deepest things, but … And she wasn’t really great at long emails. She wasn’t the writer, that was Zoey.
To be honest, she wasn’t even sure who’d reached out last. And though there were times when she’d think of him, wonder what he was up to, wish she could tell him about something she’d done, their lives had gone very different places. And she’d had fun, made friends, had a good number of adventures. She needed to break away from the island, from that small town mentality, everyone knowing her business.
She wasn’t the person she’d been in high school, and that was good. You weren’t supposed to stay the same.
Lucas wasn’t the same either. She just liked this Lucas just as much as the old one.
Nina twisted her fingers against the fabric inside her pockets. She wasn’t going to do this. She talked to people. She hung out with rockstars and dealt with the press. She could handle this crush of hers. Worst case, he said he’d always love Zoey and she’d have her answer. Best case.
Well – wait! Lucas was saying something and she had missed it. “I’m sorry?”
“I asked if you were naughty or nice this year,” he asked. One side of his mouth turned up higher than the other when he grinned like that, teasing. Promising. Nina felt something stir inside her, nerves taut still, but in a very good way.
She could do this. She knew how to flirt. “It’s hard to tell, when Claire’s my only available yardstick.”
“Well, I guess Claire’s been nice. After all, she invited me to come and visit you.” His smile widened.
Nina didn’t stop to think about it before she asked, “Do you want to? Or were you just being polite?”
“If I was just being polite, I wouldn’t have brought it up again.” Lucas stepped a little closer and lowered his voice. “It’s been nice seeing you, Nina. Especially without all the usual Chatham Island complications.”
She gestured around them, her fingers just brushing his sleeve. “We’re standing in a storm mid-blackout.”
He didn’t move away.
“And yet nobody is drunk, nobody is in the bathroom crying, and no couples have broken up. I consider this a win for Chatham Island.”
“Give it time, Aaron Mendel is on the island.” She gave a little laugh, but it died fast when he spoke.
“Aaron Mendel was never our problem,” Lucas said. There was something in his tone that made her want to tremble, to use overblown purple prose to describe the expression on his face, but that wasn’t her. She wasn’t that woman.
“He tried to steal Zoey,” Nina countered, sharper than she meant.
“Zoey is now Jake’s wife, so I think I’m over it.” He paused for a second. “I’m over Zoey.”
Oh. Oh. He smiled at her, watching her closely. Waiting for her reaction to that, she realized, and she couldn’t help it, she grinned back, and nudged up closer to him.
His hair curled messily at the edges of his knit cap. Nina reached up and tugged on it, just a little, and ran her thumb along his jaw. He’d shaved earlier, but she could already feel stubble scratching lightly at her skin. Her breath steamed when she breathed out, mixed with his. It was so cold her lips hurt, but she wasn’t about to stop and smear on chapstick. It’d just get rubbed off in a minute anyway.
That made her heart give this stupid little flutter.
“I missed you,” Lucas said, voice light as air, and he slipped an arm around her waist. They were separated by layers of clothes, but the hug felt good.
Nina tipped up her head and kissed him. Cheesy as it was, her eyes fluttered closed the moment their lips met, and she pressed closer, tucking their bodies together. He was deliciously warm there in the cold darkness, solid and real. He smelled amazing, too, subtle cologne and just a hint of fabric softener around his collar.
Lucas opened his mouth against hers, and he deepened the kiss. She wrapped one hand around the back of his neck, fingers pressing into his skin, urging him closer still.
They kissed for a long time, until she was breathless and shivering from more than the cold. As she drew back, slow, reluctant, he cupped her face in his hands.
“Nina Geiger, before this goes any further, there’s one thing I have to know,” Lucas said.
“Ok?” She tried hard not to sound as shaken by the kiss as she felt.
His lips twitched, but then he gave up being serious and laughter threaded through his words. “How do you really know about Izzy’s tattoo?”
Nina grinned and kissed him again.
Claire didn’t let up on her teasing until they were nearly to the house, but Nina could not care less. Not about Claire’s teasing, not about the snow still falling around them, driven by the wind until the drifts came up past the top of their boots, not about how the skin around her mouth felt a little raw from the scrape of Lucas’ stubble while they kissed. They’d made out on the porch until neither of them could stand the cold again, then stole kisses whenever they had a moment alone for the rest of the party. She’d left with a date the next night, another one for New Years, and a couple of times that they thought a visit might work, and Nina couldn’t stop grinning.
As Claire and Nina approached the house, the front door slammed open, and Aaron Mendal stormed out, wearing pajama pants, snow boots, and a heavy sweater.
“What the hell is this?” he demanded, brandishing several lumps of coal.
Claire raised an eyebrow, just the one, it made her look like a Disney witch – but the new kind, which were hot and evil, rather than the dried up hags of yesteryear – and smirked. “Santa: he knows.”