But all of that is kid stuff, and we aren’t kids anymore. Theo is a nice guy, and I love him because we’re practically family and I sort of have to, but we’ve grown into such different people that sometimes it seems like the only things we have in common happened more than a decade ago.
More importantly (read: pathetically), I’ve never been into Theo, primarily because I’ve had a crazy, silent, soul-crushing crush on his older brother for what feels like my whole life. Andrew is kind, warm, gorgeous, and hilarious. He is playful, flirty, creative, and affectionate. He is also deeply principled and private, and I’m pretty sure there’s nothing that would turn him off a woman faster than knowing she made out with his younger, womanizing brother while under the influence of eggnog.
Benny, the only other person in this house who knows about my feelings for Andrew, watches me expectantly. “So, what happened?”
“We were tipsy. We ended up in the mudroom, the three of us: me and Theo and his tongue.” I shove the tip of my thumb into my mouth, biting it. “Tell me what you’re thinking.”
“I’m trying to understand how this happened—this isn’t like you at all, Noodle.”
Defensiveness flares briefly but is almost immediately extinguished by self-loathing. Benny’s my Jiminy Cricket, and he’s right: that isn’t like me. “Maybe it was a subconscious shove: I need to get over this stupid Andrew thing.”
“You sure about that?” Benny asks gently.
Nope. “. . . Yes?” I’m twenty-six. Andrew is twenty-nine. Even I have to admit that if anything was ever going to happen between us, it would have happened by now.
“So you figured, why not Theo?” Benny asks, reading my thoughts.
“It wasn’t that calculated, okay? I mean, he’s not exactly hard to look at.”
“Are you attracted to him, though?” Benny scratches his stubbly chin. “That feels like an important question.”
“I mean, lots of women seem to be?”
He laughs. “That isn’t what I asked.”
“I guess I must have been last night, right?”
“And?” he asks, grimacing like he isn’t sure he wants to know.
“And . . .” I wrinkle my nose.
“Your expression is telling me it was terrible.”
I exhale, deflating. “So bad.” I pause. “He licked my face. Like, my entire face.” Benny’s wince deepens, and I point a finger at him. “You are sworn to secrecy.”
He holds up a hand. “Who would I tell? His parents? Yours?”
“Have I ruined everything?”
Benny gives me an amused smile. “You are not the first two people in history to have drunkenly made out. But maybe this was a catalyst in a way. The universe is telling you to move on, one way or another, where Andrew is concerned.”
I laugh because this feels genuinely impossible. How does one move on from a man so kind of heart and fine of ass? It’s not like I haven’t tried to get over Andrew for, oh, the past thirteen years. “Any idea how?”
“I don’t know, Noodle.”
“Do I pretend like nothing happened? Do I talk about it with Theo?”
“Definitely don’t ignore it,” Benny says, and as much as I was hoping to get permission to put my head in the sand, I know he’s right. Avoiding confrontation is the Jones family’s biggest vice. My parents could probably count on one hand the number of times they’ve maturely discussed their feelings with each other—which is probably what their divorce lawyer would tell you. “Go wake him up before the day gets rolling. Clear the air.”
He glances out the window, at the sky that is reluctantly brightening, and then back to me. Panic must be bleeding into my expression, because he puts a calming hand on mine. “I know it’s your nature to smooth out problems by avoiding confrontation, but it’s our last day here. You don’t want to leave with that lingering between you. Imagine coming back to that next Christmas.”
“You’re the most emotionally intuitive locksmith alive, you know.”
He laughs. “You’re deflecting.”
I nod, tucking my hands between my knees and staring down at the worn wood floor. “One more question.”
“Mm-hm?” His hum tells me he knows exactly what’s coming.
“Do I tell Andrew?”
He rebounds a question right back: “Why would Andrew need to know?”
I blink up to his face and catch the gentle sympathy there. Oof. He’s right. Andrew doesn’t need to know, because he wouldn’t care one way or another.
I’m praying that everyone is still asleep when I sneak back out of Benny’s room, and for the most part, the house is silent and still. My plan: Wake up Theo, ask him to come talk to me in the kitchen—no, not the kitchen, too close to the mudroom—before anyone else is up. Clear the air. Make sure we know it was a fluke, nothing to be weird about. It was the eggnog kissing! Definitely nothing anyone else needs to know about.
Am I being too paranoid about a sloppy kiss and a boob grope? Without a doubt. But Theo is like family, and these things tend to get messy. Let me not be the proverbial stick of dynamite in this comfortable chosen-family dynamic.
Look back on a hundred other mornings here, and I’m usually awake in the kitchen, quietly cheating at solitaire while Ricky, Andrew and Theo’s dad, munches on cookies and zombie-sips his coffee, slowly coming to life. Maelyn Jones, you and me are two peas in a pod, he’ll say once he’s verbal. We both wake up with the sun. But this particular morning, Ricky isn’t up yet. In his place is Theo, bent over a giant bowl of Lucky Charms.
It’s still disorienting to see him with short hair. For as long as I can remember Theo had dark, wavy surfer hair he’d sometimes pull into a short ponytail, but it’s gone, cut off only days before we all arrived at the cabin. Now I stand in the doorway, surrounded by strands of metallic garland and tissue paper holly the twins and Andrew hung up yesterday morning, staring at the top of Theo’s short-haired head and thinking he looks like a stranger.
I know he knows I’m here, but he doesn’t acknowledge me; he’s feigning a deep fascination with the nutritional information on the cereal box in front of him. Milk drips from his chin, and he swipes it away with the back of his hand.
My stomach turns to stone. “Hey,” I say, folding a stray dish towel.
He still doesn’t look up. “Hey.”
“You sleep okay?”
I cross my arms in front of me and am reminded that I’m braless, in pajamas. The linoleum floor is freezing beneath my bare feet. “You’re up early.”
One bulky shoulder lifts and drops. “Yeah.”
When I blink, I suddenly see what’s happening with clear eyes. I’m not dealing with Lifelong Friend Theo right now. This is Next Morning Theo. This is the Theo most girls see. My mistake was in assuming that I’m not most girls.
I move to the coffeepot, stuffing a filter in, filling it with dark roast, setting it to brew. The deep headiness of coffee fills my head, and, for only a breath, it distracts me from my angst.
I glance at the empty Advent calendar on the counter— empty not because yesterday was Christmas but because Andrew loves chocolate and finished it five days ago. His and Theo’s mom, Lisa, made some sort of cookie bars on the first day of vacation, but they’ve barely been touched because nobody is willing to risk a tooth after watching Dad crack one of his.
I know every dish in this kitchen, know each potholder, towel, and place mat. This place is more precious to me than even my own childhood home, and I don’t want to tarnish it with stupid, eggnog-soaked decisions.
I take a deep breath and think of why we come here: To spend quality time with our chosen family. To celebrate togetherness. We drive each other crazy sometimes, but I love this place; I look forward to coming here all year.
Theo drops his spoon onto the table, clattering me back into this tense, loaded room. He shakes the cereal box over his bowl, refilling it.
I try to engage again: “Hungry?”
He grunts. “Yeah.”
I give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he’s embarrassed. Lord knows I am. Maybe I should apologize, make sure we’re on the same page. “Listen, Theo. About last night . . .”
He laughs into a bite of cereal. “Last night was nothing, Mae. I should have known you’d make a huge deal out of it.”
I blink. A huge deal?
Briefly, I imagine hurling the closest object within reach at his head. “What the hell is that—” I begin, but footsteps stop my tirade and save Theo from getting brained by a cast-iron trivet.
Ricky comes into the room, letting out a gravelly “Mornin’.”
He grabs a mug, and I grab the pot, filling his cup when he reaches out expectantly, and we shuffle toward the table: our familiar little dance. But then Ricky falters, unsure where to sit with an unexpected Theo in his chair, and he pulls out another one, sitting with a relieved groan, inhaling his coffee.
I wait for Ricky to say it. Wait for it. Maelyn Jones, you and me are two peas in a pod. But the words don’t come. Theo’s created a pocket of cold silence in the ordinarily warm space, and a tiny flicker of panic sparks beneath my ribs. Ricky is the King of Tradition, and I am the obvious heir to his throne. This is the one place in the world where I’ve never questioned what I’m doing or who I am, but last night Theo and I went off-script, and now everything is weird.
I glare across the table at him, but he doesn’t look up. He tucks into his Lucky Charms like a hungover frat boy.
Theo is a dick.
I am suddenly blindingly furious. How can he not even have the balls to look at me this morning? A few drunken kisses should be nothing to Theo Hollis, a scratch that’s easily polished. Instead, it feels like he’s deliberately gouging deeper.
Ricky slowly turns to look at me, and his questioning expression penetrates my peripheral vision. Maybe Theo is right. Maybe I am making too big a deal out of this. With effort, I blink and push back from the table to stand.