Heat rushes to my face and I stand so quickly my chair teeters on its back legs. Four sets of curious eyes swing in my direction, and I turn, making a beeline for the bathroom.
“Millie?” Reid calls after me. “You okay?”
“Gotta pee!” I shout over my shoulder, not stopping until I’m safely inside the bathroom and the door is firmly closed behind me.
Normally I laugh when confronted with one of the dozen roosters we’ve given Chris over the past two years. But now? Not so much. The cock thing began as a joke—Chris complimented a giant rooster painting at Ed’s mom’s house, and she gave it to him on the spot—so of course every birthday, Valentine’s day, and Christmas present since has been some form of rooster décor. But even the sight of one of my favorites—a RISE AND SHINE MOTHER CLUCKERS sign I got him for his last birthday—only makes me think of the cock joke, which makes me think of penises, which reminds me of the image of Reid naked, in my bed, on top of me.
Hands on the counter, I lean in to examine my reflection and, okay . . . it could be better. My cheeks are flushed, my eyes a little glassy. My eyeliner and mascara have converged in a dark smear below my lower lids.
Kneeling, arms outstretched, fingers wrapped around the headboard—
With the faucet on as high as it will go, I clean up and splash cold water on my face. It helps a little—cooling down my skin and clearing out the haze so I can think.
It’s not that I find Reid unappealing in a sexual way—he’s gorgeous and brilliant and hysterical—but he’s also my best friend. My Reid. The guy who held my hand during an emergency root canal and dressed up as Kylo Ren when we went to see The Last Jedi on my twenty-ninth birthday. I’m close with the other guys, but for whatever reason, it’s different with Reid. Not that kind of different, but . . . closer. Maybe it’s because he always knows to find me in the true crime section of the bookstore. Maybe it’s because he has a level of intuition that I’ve never known in a friend before. Maybe it’s because we can be quiet together, and it’s never weird.
I squeeze my eyes shut; it’s hard to have an existential crisis when you’re drunk. Part of me thinks I should head to the nearest exit, but the other part thinks we should just . . . hug it out.
There’s a knock at the door and I step back just far enough to open it a crack. It’s Reid, looking sweetly disheveled with a dish towel still slung over his shoulder.
God damn it.
I straighten, hoping I look more sober than I feel. “Hi.”
“Everything okay?” he asks.
“Totally.” I lean against the doorframe in an attempt to appear casual. All this really does is bring my face within inches of his, which somehow makes me feel drunker. “You know how I am with wine. Goes right through me.”
I’m an idiot, but before I can regret what I’ve said, he’s laughing. Why does he always laugh at my dumb jokes?
“Ed and Alex are headed out,” he says quietly. “You can’t drive. Can I take you home?”
“I’m not drunk.” This statement would carry more weight if I didn’t hiccup immediately after saying it. “And I wasn’t going to drive.”
He tilts his head and a piece of soft brown hair falls forward, curling over his forehead. My brain immediately sides with Team Hug It Out.
“Come on,” he says. “You can control the radio on the way.”
It’s sunny and perfect in Santa Barbara at least three hundred days a year. We get most of our meager rainfall in early spring, and as we drive down Highway 1 at midnight—windows open and Arcade Fire blasting on the radio—it smells like a storm in the distance.
“Did you have a good night?” I ask, rolling my head to see him. It takes a few seconds for my eyes to refocus. The inside of the car is dark, his profile in shadow.
“Does it feel different?”
He turns to me and smiles, the tips of his lashes glowing gold in the light from the dashboard. “What? Tenure?”
“Yeah. Knowing you can only be fired for incompetence or gross misconduct.”
He laughs. “Define gross misconduct again?”
“Sexual harassment, murder, embezzlement . . .”
“You’re kind of making it sound like a dare.” He reaches for my hand where it sits on the console between us and squeezes my fingers. “You cold? I can turn on the seat warmers if you want to keep the window open for air.”
“I’m good,” I say, but he keeps hold of my fingers anyway. “Maybe with less time in the lab and more in the classroom, you can cut back a little. Have more time to yourself.”
“To do what? Play pinball with Ed?”
“I don’t know,” I say, “explore new hobbies, find yourself, date. You work too much.”
He turns to me again and grins adorably. “Why would I need a date when I already have you for the banquet?”
I roll my eyes. “I mean, like, in the general sense.”
“Okay, Pot. When’s the last time you went out with someone who wasn’t one of us?”
I search my memory, counting back five . . . six months, and can’t help but recall the veritable wasteland my sex life has become. I’ve been stressed with deadlines and family stuff and my brain is just looking for an escape pod, a little release. No wonder I’m having sex thoughts about Reid.
When it takes me too long to answer, he gives my fingers another squeeze. “Need me to get out a calendar? I think I have an abacus in my office.”
“I think it was Carson? The barista who worked at Cajé.”
In the dark I see his eyes narrow as he thinks. “Wasn’t he younger than you?”
“A few years,” I say with a shrug.
“Seven years,” he corrects. “And he had a nose ring.”
That was some impressive recollection, Reid. “Men date younger women all the time and get a pat on the back. Why does dating a younger guy automatically make me a cougar?”
He holds up a hand. “I am not calling you a cougar. Listen, if twenty-one-year-old college me had had the chance to bang beautiful twenty-eight-year-old you, I’d have done it in a hot second.”
A shiver moves down my spine and he notices, shifting to run a hand along my arm. “You have goose bumps.”
“Oh.” I reach over to close the window. “I guess it’s chillier than I thought.”
“So what happened? Between you and—”
“Carson,” I finish for him. “Nothing happened. He was twenty-one. There weren’t a lot of places it could go.”
“You mean, it was just sex.”
I’m thankful we’re still sitting in the dark so he can’t see me get all blushy and awkward. “My muscle tone had never been better.”
Reid barks out a scandalized laugh.
“I’m not lying. What about you? When was your last . . . you know?”
“Hmm.” He taps his thumb against the steering wheel. “My last you know. I’m not sure. You probably know my life as well as I do. You tell me.”
“You work all the time.”
“Funny thing about that,” he says with a grin. “It’s probably how I got tenure.”
I concede this with a dorky little nod. He turns down State Street, which, this time of night, is the quickest route to my house. I watch as we dart past the streetlights one by one.
“Does that make us lame?” I wonder. “That we’ve been single this long and nobody in our group is in an actual relationship? Ed and Alex date more than us, maybe even Chris, but it never goes anywhere. Is it possible we’re all enabling each other to die alone? Are we turning into a weird celibacy cult?”
“We’re definitely enabling each other.”
“But should we be worried about that?” I ask. “One of the many, many problems I had with Dustin was that he wanted a good little wife. I’m not even sure I have that gene and haven’t been with anyone long-term since him. You haven’t since Isla. Does that make us failures?”
“I think it means the opposite, actually,” he says, pulling into my driveway and shifting the car into park. He turns to face me. “Let me ask you a question. Do you love your career?”