He toys with the strap of my tank top. “I would never do that with you, Mae. That’s not what this is.”
“This is complicated by a lot of things, but let’s start with the fact that our parents are best friends and we live hundreds of miles apart.” I chew my lip. “Sorry. I don’t mean to get all intense.”
“Are you kidding?” He bends at the knee so we’re eye to eye. “The only way to do this is to be open about it. Even if you feel like we didn’t move too fast last night, we definitely went from zero to sixty. Talk to me.”
I guess there’s no point delaying this conversation. “I know you want to tell everyone about us, but are you sure about that?” I slide my hand under the hem of his T-shirt, seeking warmth. He swallows a groan, and distracts me momentarily with a deep, searching kiss that makes an ache drop from my pounding heart into my navel. “I don’t want everyone to get overly invested before we even know what this is.”
From Andrew’s nod, I know I don’t have to explain myself. I grew up with a prime example of a relationship that didn’t work. Even the simplest of breakups can get messy, and I don’t want anyone here to feel forced to choose sides if this doesn’t work out perfectly right out of the gate.
Resting his lips just at the corner of my mouth, he says, “Then why don’t we just keep following this for a bit before we say anything to anyone? I’m so happy right now I feel hammered. But I’ll try to play it cool.”
The problem is, I don’t know how to do that, either. I’ve essentially handed my heart over to the person who’s had it on reserve for half my life, and I’m terrified that he doesn’t realize what he’s holding.
Footsteps come to a stop just a few feet away from where we’re hiding in the curtains, and Andrew goes still, eyes wide. My lungs turn to concrete.
“Hello, whoever is there,” Andrew says, wincing. “Was just, uh, checking this window lock.” As he reaches past me to rattle the lock, we stare wide-eyed at each other, probably both praying that it’s Kennedy or Zachary and we can pretend to be playing Sardines again.
But then a throat clears, and I have to admit neither of the twins would clear their throat and sound like a grown man.
“I know a good locksmith.”
Andrew throws back the curtain, blowing out an enormous breath. “Oh, thank fuck.”
Benny laughs. “Should I even ask? What were you two doing in the curtain?”
I put a hopeful shine on my words: “Fixing locks?”
But Benny’s not having it. “Is that what the kids are calling it these days?”
“Making out,” Andrew says with a shrug. “But you are sworn to secrecy.”
“I feel like I’m carrying a lot of secrets lately.” Benny eyes me sideways.
Andrew notices and looks back and forth between the two of us. “What’s going on?”
I shrug like, Benny said it, not me.
“Mae’s going through some stuff.”
“Good or bad?” Andrew asks, turning to me, immediately concerned that I’m hiding something from him.
“Oh . . . I’d wager good,” Benny says, raising his eyebrows meaningfully at me.
Over Andrew’s shoulder, I give Benny the thumbs-up. Behind Andrew’s back, Benny does a dorky little dance of celebration. He stops abruptly when Andrew turns back to him. “But I was coming to warn you guys that Miles is looking for Mae.”
“And you knew to find us in the curtains?” I ask him.
Benny turns to leave and grins at us over his shoulder. “It was pretty easy to follow the giggles.”
• • •
I find my brother on the porch, sitting on the swing, scrolling through his phone. He looks up when he hears my footsteps and drops it into his jacket pocket, tucking his hands between his knees. “Hey.”
It’s freezing out here, and fresh out of the shower, I feel like I’ve just stepped into a walk-in freezer. Teeth chattering, I cup one hand around my warm mug of coffee and use the other to zip my parka up to my chin.
“Benny said you were looking for me.”
Miles pauses, blushing, and in an instant I know what this is about. Why didn’t I see this coming?
I sit down next to him on the swing, bumping his shoulder with mine. “What’s up?”
“I was right last night, wasn’t I?” he asks, and then looks at me. My brother got our mother’s enormous eyes and he knows how to use them. He can make them round with innocence or narrow them in mischief. Right now, he winces a little, looking mortified to be asking me this but also, I know, hoping I won’t lie to him.
“Right about what?” I ask, wanting to be sure.
“That you and Andrew are hooking up.”
“Yes,” I say simply.
“Does Theo know?”
A defensive wave sweeps briefly over me. “No. And please don’t tell him. If we decide this is going anywhere, we’ll tell everyone ourselves.”
Miles nods at this and turns his eyes out to the snow-covered front yard. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing here?”
“Because you know Mom will have no chill about this.”
The thing about moving home is that I went from independent adult back into kid mode. Mom still does most of the cooking because she loves it. She does most of my laundry because she uses the activity to unwind while she’s thinking about how to fix one of her paintings. Of course, I love these perks but they mean I can’t complain that she also never thinks twice before giving me her two cents on every aspect of my life.
“Trust me,” I say, “that is reason number one why I’m not saying anything yet.”
Miles takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “I think Theo is in love with you.”
“What? No, he isn’t,” I say.
“How do you know?”
I laugh dryly. “Theo is used to everyone wanting him. I don’t. He’s the kind of guy who wants what he can’t have.”
I watch Miles absorb this information, and then he seems to understand, nodding slowly. “Okay. I just—I don’t want him to be upset.”
Kissing my brother’s temple, I tell him, “You’re a good boy.”
He pretends to be grossed out by this, pushing me away, but turns back before leaving. “Hang out with him today.”
“Because I think he misses you.”
I suppose it’s fate, then, that Miles and Theo broke the bowl we always use to hold the scraps of paper for picking teams. Ricky grabs his cowboy hat instead and this time, when Theo’s name is pulled out, mine is the one that immediately follows. Andrew throws me a little womp-womp face, but I’ve got no doubt that he and Miles are going to crush the scavenger hunt; their team has the killer combination of Miles’s doe eyes and Andrew’s ability to charm a stranger into doing anything.
Which is good, because this year’s list is heavy on the video evidence, including:
• A stranger singing “Jingle Bells”
• A dog doing a trick
• Someone reciting their Christmas list
• A teammate performing an act of kindness
Theo comes over to me, holding the list and smiling shyly, and it’s disarming. How can this self-conscious turtle be the same guy who licked my face and refused to talk to me the next morning? It’s impossible to reconcile. We used to text about everything—homework and school, his soccer practice and my art projects. He’d complain about the snow and I’d send him a photo of my mom’s garden, still in bloom. We haven’t done that for a really long time. I wonder if he misses it.
I really don’t want Miles to be right about this.
“Guess you’re stuck with me,” he says.
I smack his arm, laughing. Too high, Mae. Too fake. And Theo knows me too well for it to go over his head: he pulls back in mild suspicion. But he’s also not the kind of person to ask about it in front of everyone—or ask about feelings in general—so we’re left standing in awkward silence as the rest of the teams are formed.
And then we’re off—piling into Ricky’s van. Up front, Andrew puts on Nat King Cole’s Christmas album, and we all sing along badly, perusing our lists, making fun of Ricky driving like a grandpa, and already excitedly talking about how amazing dinner will be later.
We barrel into town, finding a parking spot in a small lot and tumbling out of the van and into our teams. With instructions to meet back at the van in two hours, Ricky releases us, reminding us to be polite, get permission before taking pictures of people, and “If you want to just give up now, that’s fine. Kennedy and I are going to win anyway.”
Theo turns his back to the rest of the group, and we form a two-person huddle. The feeling of being this close to him shouldn’t be weird—I know him just as well as anyone else in my life—but I can’t shake the heavy awareness. It isn’t just about hooking up with him in a past reality, or the fact that I’m now hooking up with his brother. It’s the layers of things that Theo doesn’t know, and the truth that I feel like I got to know him even better—and not for the best— the first time I lived this week.
He holds the list, scanning it with a finger. “We should start with the quick stuff. The candy cane prop,” he says, reading further. “A picture of us both wearing Santa hats. A picture of a moose on something.” He looks up at me. “These should be pretty easy.”
Especially since I know where to find most of these things, I don’t bother to add.
“Lead the way.” I smile up at him, but it’s forced. Everything feels forced between us. I hate it.
He turns, heading left from the van onto Main Street, and I look behind us to where Andrew and Miles are headed in the same direction, but crossing the street to give us some space. When our eyes meet, Andrew winks. It’s soothing, like water to a parched mouth, and the perfect reminder that even if we have to navigate this carefully, we get to navigate it together.