Damn, she was hot. So soft in my hands, willing and ready. It would never be easier.

I rocked against her, gripping the pillow under her head as I took her mouth again. The heat of her tongue, the taste of her lips, the rhythm of her body as we grinded on each other…everything was in sync. I wanted this. It felt good. It was…

I squeezed my eyes shut tighter. I kissed her harder, hearing her moan.   

“You feel so good,” she panted against my lips as I slipped my hand up her shirt. “Hawke, please.” She nibbled at me softly again and again, teasing me. “Please…” And she put her hand on mine, guiding me up farther until I found a handful of soft flesh, and my cock throbbed painfully against my jeans.

Fuck. No bra. I could have her shirt and mine off and her skin against mine in ten seconds. 

“What do I feel like?” she whispered.

I wetted my lips, rubbing my thumb over the hard nub of her nipple. Heat rose in her brown eyes as I half-smiled. “Hard,” I teased.

She flashed me a smile, as well, biting her bottom lip. “So are you.” And she rolled her hips, making me lose my breath with the pleasure.

Slowly lifting her shirt, I bowed my head, flicking my tongue over her nipple. Her little gasps and moans, the way her body squirmed and shuttered underneath mine, cast a thick fog in my brain, turning nearly everything else off.

I wanted this. It felt good.

And she wanted this. I wasn’t her first, after all. There was nothing wrong with having sex, because it was satisfying. Experience was good for me.

It was. I was ready.

She kissed me deep, sinking her tongue into my mouth and whimpering. “Hawke,” she breathed out, reaching for my belt and starting to unfasten it. “This is torture. I want you.”

My groin was hot and pulsing, but…

I suddenly stopped breathing, my arms stiffened, and my biceps flexed so hard they burned. My stomach tightened, and I didn’t feel comfortable anymore.  

I barely knew this girl. And where the hell was I? Oh, yeah. I was upstairs in my uncle’s house, and my whole goddamn family was here celebrating Christmas for Christ’s sake. What was I doing? This wasn’t my house. I couldn’t have sex here. My mother would kill me.

I stopped kissing Jessica back and opened my eyes. She pulled my belt open and went for the fly on my jeans, but I pushed myself up and took my weight off her.

“No, stop, Jess,” I said, sitting back on my heels and running my hand through my hair. “We can’t. I’m sorry.”

Her breast, supple and beautiful, still peeked out from under her shirt, and I couldn’t even look at her face. My gut was wrenching, I was so turned on.

But it wasn’t enough to make me want to go all the way. Nothing was ever enough, and I was fucking sick of myself. Kade had his girlfriend over. They were probably off somewhere doing exactly what he wanted to do, because he didn’t worry about stupid shit like I did.

Most of the guys I knew wouldn’t hesitate to screw this girl and get it on in half a dozen different positions.

But I always found an excuse to stop.

I could hear her ragged breathing, and I knew she was probably in as much discomfort as I was, stopping so abruptly.

I still couldn’t meet her eyes. “Just not here, okay? It’s awkward.”

“That’s what you said about your house, my bedroom, the car…” she argued. “Don’t you want me?”

I finally raised my eyes, looking at her and taking in her long, auburn hair, thick, black lashes, and the sprinkle of freckles over her nose and cheeks that made her look far sweeter than she was.

But for some reason, I felt like I had never seen her before. Like we hadn’t been hanging out every day for the last week or hadn’t been in school with each other since freshman year. We’d do it, she’d go home, and she wouldn’t be on my mind, making me crave her again and again. It wouldn’t mean anything.

And for some stupid fucking reason, I kept thinking it should. Why?

My silence registered, and she pushed herself up and pulled her shirt back down. “You don’t want me?” she said again, more like an accusation this time.

“I didn’t say that,” I bit out, climbing off the bed and fastening my belt. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

I pushed my hair out of my eyes again and back over my head, the cool, silver ring in my eyebrow shifting against my skin. “There’s no problem. I just don’t jump into bed after seeing a girl for only a week.”

She was silent a moment and then scoffed, swinging her legs over the bed and refastening a button that had come undone on her shirt. “Well, you’d be the first.”

I flexed my jaw, my defenses going up. I knew she had a point, but I didn’t appreciate her not having he good manners to keep her mouth shut about it. I was already pissed at myself. I was becoming a running joke to the guys at school. I had all the attention I could ever want, always had, and more opportunities than they did to get laid, but I didn’t take any of it.

And the girls were talking.    

I approached her at the bed. “Look, it’s not you—”

“Forget it.” She stood up, cutting me off and brushing past me. She grabbed her coat off the chair and slipped it on. “The amount of work you’re turning out to be isn’t worth the money anymore.”


I watched as she picked up her purse and pulled her hair out of the back of her jacket.

“What did you say?” I asked, feeling the anger pouring out of the scowl on my face. “What money?”

What the hell was going on?

Ready to leave, she paused and turned her head toward me, looking at me matter-of-factly. “There’s a pot,” she told me. “It’s up to a thousand bucks to whoever can get you into bed first.”

A pot. A bet?

What the fuck?

No wonder. I wasn’t a stranger to a little attention, but the girls had been especially motivated the past couple of weeks. Chloe Benson “accidentally” bumping into me at five a.m in the weight room last Thursday when the janitor let me and only me in early to work out alone. Taylor Waldman getting me to give her a ride home last Tuesday, saying her car wouldn’t start but refusing to let me try to fix it.

And Jessica Flaherty here getting hot and heavy every time we were alone together the past week.

They were all playing me.

Jess fixed a cocky smile on her face. “Maybe we should encourage the guys to take part in the bet instead? They might have a better shot with you?”

I flexed my jaw, tipping up my chin.

She twisted around, swinging open the guest bedroom door. “I’ll see myself out, Hawke. Merry Christmas.”

She left, and I gritted my teeth together, resisting the urge to kick the door shut behind her.  

A bet. A fucking bet. What was their problem? A woman could say no, and it wasn’t unusual. In fact, the world expected her not to sleep around. But I was the weird one, because the world thought there was something wrong with a man who was…picky.

I should’ve just done it. Gotten it over with, and everyone would shut up. The second time would be easier, and in no time at all, I’d be enjoying it whenever I wanted and with whoever I wanted. I just needed to stop thinking so much.   

I let out a breath, crawling the walls in my head. I needed to take the edge off.

I fixed my hair in the mirror, checked my clothes, and walked out the door and down the hallway. She’d no doubt texted her pals already and by the time holiday break was over, talk would be all over school, ready to welcome me back. I couldn’t wait to get out of this town.

Jogging downstairs, I swung around the bannister and headed into the kitchen. I could hear the game blaring from the TV in the family room, laughter and hollers carrying out, and caught the faint sound of the balls on the pool table downstairs clanking together as James and A.J. opened the basement door and ran through the kitchen. Kade and his friends must still be downstairs in the game room.

Winter Wonderland played on the Echo, while Fallon and my mom stood on opposite sides of the island, stirring and seasoning whatever we were having for dessert, while Tate typed on her laptop.

My mom’s lips moved with the words as she bobbed her head, and I couldn’t help but smile a little, momentarily forgetting my anger.

She loved the holidays. And while we all usually congregated here at Madoc’s for family gatherings, because the house was so huge, I liked my house the most. My mom made everything beautiful.

Hands in floury dough, she blew some hair out of her eye and looked up, noticing me and smiling. “Hey,” she said. “I saw that girl—um, what was her name? She left suddenly. Everything okay?”

I laughed under my breath. Like she cared. She didn’t think anyone was good enough for me and probably loved seeing Jess bolt. That was the problem with being an only child. I had my parents’ undivided attention.

Walking around the island and coming up behind her, I wrapped my arms around her and rested my chin on her shoulder. “I love you, you know that? Like soooo much.”

She snorted, and I could feel her eye roll. “Aw, you’re sweet. And yes, you can have a beer.”

I grinned, and Fallon laughed. They all knew my game by now.

Walking around the counter, I pulled open the fridge and grabbed a bottle, twisting off the cap and tossing it in the trash. Mom flashed me an amused look as she continued kneading the dough, and I tipped up the bottle, taking a swig. My parents and aunts and uncles were pretty indulgent. I was eighteen, and as long as I wasn’t leaving the house for the rest of the night, a beer was fine on occasion. And it was Christmas, after all, so…

Madoc walked into the kitchen, heading straight toward me and opened up the fridge. I watched as Fallon turned her head to follow him, her eyes drifting down his back and landing on his ass. I nearly laughed even though the heat of embarrassment was rising up my neck. She hated his suits for work, and him wearing jeans and a T-shirt right now was unusual. She was soaking it in.

“Keep looking at me like that, woman, and I’m gonna get you pregnant,” he said with a straight face, still scanning the inside of the fridge.

“Ew…” James looked disgusted, holding his glass of punch.

“Daddy…” A.J. followed with a whine.

Both nine year olds turned and left, and Fallon turned back to her task, still smiling.

All of a sudden a gust of wind blew through the kitchen, and I glanced up, seeing Jared and Dylan coming through the patio doors. A few flurries danced around their legs as my cousin jumped up and down and shivered.

“Ugh, that wind!” She ripped off her hat, goggles, and pulled down the zipper on her jacket. Her brown hair was pulled back in two French braids, and her cheeks were as red as apples.

Jared pulled the door closed and pulled off his hat, too, whipping it against his leg to get rid of the snow. They must’ve been out snow-mobiling.

“I’m going to check that alignment in the morning,” she told him, pulling off her jacket. “It’s definitely pulling to the right.”

I heard a chuckle and looked over at Kade who’d just come up from the basement. “I’m going to check that alignment in the morning. It’s definitely pulling to the right,” he mocked her as he grabbed a chocolate-covered pretzel off the counter. “You try hard, though. A for Effort, kid.”

Dylan scowled, looking away, but her dad, Jared, walked toward Tate, standing at the counter, and paused to pick up a broccoli crown off the relish tray and flick it right at Kade’s face.

It bounced off, and Kade jerked back, losing his shitty-ass grin. I watched with mild amusement.

“Cold?” Tate turned away from her computer to her husband who approached.

A guy of few words, Jared simply grabbed hold of her and pulled her back into him, burying his face in her neck.

“Oh, my God, get off me!” She laughed, squirming and bring her shoulders up to shield her neck. “You’re freezing!”

He just smiled, not letting go, of course.

“Game’s on,” Madoc told him, taking his fresh beer. “Wanna go watch?”

“No.” Jared’s made a face. “Do I ever?”

Madoc sighed. “I just keep hoping.”

“Come on,” Kade told him. “I’ll watch with you. Let me get something to drink first.”

Madoc left, Kade pulled a Coke out of the refrigerator, and I took another drink of my beer. Everyone else was happy and relaxed tonight, but I was going to need another five of these, at least, to cool down. The anger was festering.

I didn’t give a shit if someone didn’t like me or had it out for me, but I didn’t like being a joke. People at school were talking and making assumptions. Maybe it was unusual, abnormal even, for a guy to turn down sure thing after sure thing, but I liked girls, and I wasn’t impotent or whatever else they were saying… I had wanted Jessica. I wanted all of them when I had them under me.

But the truth was, they could’ve been anyone, and that’s what I didn’t like. I didn’t crave Jess. Or Ashton or Sara or Rachel or Tiff or anyone else. I didn’t think about them when they weren’t around, and I wasn’t starved for when I could get my hands on them again.

And if it wasn’t going to be epic then why waste my time?

Five months until I graduated. I’d be outta here and away from this small town bullshit soon enough. New scenery. Fresh faces. I just needed to stay out of trouble in the meantime.

Five months.



What was the matter with Hawke? He was normally happy and easy-going, but right now he looked like my dad when he was mad. Like in his head he was wrapping a wire hanger around someone’s neck tighter and tighter again and again.  

I grabbed a carrot stick off the tray and plunged it into the dip. God, I was bored. Kade had his girlfriend downstairs, Hawke was clearly in a bad mood, Quinn was with her parents in Chicago for the night, taking her grandma to see The Nutcracker, all my friends were spending Christmas Eve with their families, of course, and Hunter was supposed to be here hours ago. He wasn’t going to show. I knew it.

And if he did show, his head would be somewhere else. I’d only seen him a handful of times in the last six months since he’d moved an hour away to his grandfather’s, and every time I saw him, he was more of a stranger. We talked less and less, and he barely looked at me anymore. The only one he was normal with was his little sister.

He and Kade hadn’t even gotten to meet on opposite sides of the football field last fall, our schools being rivals and all. We’d had to forfeit due to half the team getting into trouble for something stupid.

I glanced over at Hawke and the beer in his hand. I wanted one. Pretty much my last resort if I wanted to have any fun for the rest of the night. Madoc had a whole refrigerator with extra soda and beers downstairs, and he hardly seemed to notice when his sons and nephew skimmed a few. My parents weren’t as indulgent, unfortunately. They said I got into enough trouble without alcohol, and I needed to set a good example for my little brother.

Eye roll forever.   

I stood up to go for the basement door, but when I turned, Kade blocked my path. I looked at him, staring down at me.

Dark blue eyes with a ring of green around the pupil, blond hair messy for once, angular jaw that made his cheeks look sunken just enough to pronounce his cheekbones. Even more so lately.

He was beautiful. Always beautiful, always guarded, and I’d always been drawn to him, because he was like a mystery. What was he like when he felt safe enough to open up?

I was kind of worried about him now, too. He was losing weight. Ever since his brother left, he was working out all the time, but he wasn’t eating enough to counter it, and it showed.  

Finally scoffing, he moved to the side, bowed, and waved me along in dramatic gesture.

Yeah, okay. Asshole. Keep hiding some more.

I heard a phone ring, and I grabbed hold of the basement door, hearing Fallon’s voice.   

“Dad, hey!” she burst out. “You almost here?”

I stopped and turned, wanting to hear this. Her father Ciaran lived outside of Chicago, and Hunter lived with him. They were supposed to be on their way here for Christmas Eve.

Everyone glanced at her, half-listening, but Kade watched her intently, knowing the bomb was about to drop.

She turned, walking away from the island and lowering her voice. “Are you okay?” she asked Ciaran.

Releasing the knob, I watched her, everyone in the kitchen quieting as she listened to whatever her father was saying.

“Well, let Hunter drive then,” she urged. “I’ll turn down the bed, and you can climb in as soon as you get here.”

Kade was shaking his head, breathing harder, and his scowl growing deeper. Oh, no.

“Put him on the phone,” Fallon demanded.

I could hear Ciaran’s gruff cough on the other end and then his voice, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying.

“Dad, it’s Christmas Eve.” Her voice cracked, and her head fell forward. “I want my son home in his own bed. Put him—”

But she stopped and listened like Ciaran had interrupted her. Her shoulders fell, and she let out a sigh, hanging up. Then she immediately started dialing again, making another call. Hunter probably. After a minute, though, no one answered, and she hung up again.

Hunter. What is the matter with you?

“Fallon?” Juliet was frozen, her hands still in dough as she looked at her friend, concerned. “You okay?”

Fallon sniffled and pulled her head up, letting out a breath. “My dad’s tired,” she said, turning around and getting back to the counter. “Says he’ll drive down in the morning instead.”

“And Hunter?” Kade pressed.

Fallon wouldn’t look at him. “He’s not answering. Ciaran says he’ll bring him with him tomorrow.”

“What time tomorrow?” Kade bit out. “Nine, after breakfast? Noon, after presents? Maybe he’ll make it after we’ve finished dinner like on Thanksgiving?”

“Kade.” She stopped him, turning her head toward him. “It’s not your concern. I will handle your brother. He’ll come around. We just need to give him time.”  

But Kade shook his head, and for once, I shared his doubt. I knew Hunter would make friends at his new school and ditch us more and more, but I didn’t think he’d be so inconsiderate on a holiday. His parents missed him.

Kade set his Coke down and whipped around, pulling open the basement door. I had to jump out of the way not to get hit. He descended he stairs, calling over his shoulder. “Hawke!”

My cousin and I exchanged a look, and he sighed, setting down his beer before disappearing down the stairs after Kade. They never included me, but that didn’t mean I didn’t push my way in. I followed the boys, closing the door behind me. 

We reached the bottom of the stairs, two of Kade’s and Hawke’s friends playing video games on the couch, while Kade’s girlfriend, Danielle, sat on a stool at the bar, head bowed to her phone. She looked up, spotting Kade and smiling.

He grabbed the remote off the table behind the sofa, switching off the TV. “Let’s go,” he told his friends.

They turned around, looking confused, but Danielle was already on her feet and grabbing her purse.

“Out to the cars!” Kade yelled when they didn’t move. “Now!”

The guys stuffed whatever they were eating into their mouths and jumped up, picking up their coats.

“What are we doing?” Hawke questioned.

But Kade just pulled his sweatshirt off the hook and followed his friends out the French doors leading to the outside. “Screw this,” he mumbled as Hawke and I grabbed more sweatshirts off the coat hangers and jogged after him. “My parents are gonna be pissed all night. My mom’s crying. He’s ruining Christmas. I’m going to get him and bring his ass home.”


“You think he’s just going to get in the car?” I argued, the snow crunching under our shoes as we hugged ourselves against the bitter cold. “We’re not dragging him back, Kade.”

“Then stay here,” he shot back, leading us around the house to the front and the driveway. He didn’t want his parents to see him leave. “As a matter of fact, you should. Because I’m gonna knock some sense into that selfish little prick who thinks he’s so much better than us.”

“You mean better than you?” Hawke retorted. “And stop calling him little like you being 98 seconds older makes any difference.”

I rushed up to Kade’s truck, pushing my way into the backseat and squeezing between his two friends. Danielle, of course, was already planted in the passenger seat, no doubt working hard to ignore me. I wasn’t her favorite person.

One of the guys moved to close the door, but Hawke stayed rooted, in the way.

His eyes bore into me. “Get out of the car, Dylan.”


“You’re riding with me.” He jerked his head behind him, toward Jax’s ancient Mustang that was now Hawke’s. “Come on.”

I just sat there, disbelief all over my face, I was sure. What the hell? What did it matter who I rode with?

“What?” I heard Kade laugh as he climbed into the driver’s seat. “Hunter’s not around, so you’re taking his place as her babysitter?” He slammed his door shut and looked over at Hawke. “She’s fine. Everyone needs to get the hell off her back.”

“Yeah, we got her, man,” Stoli added on my left, both of the guys chuckling.

Hawke pushed closer. “Yeah, no offense, and I like y’all as friends,” he said, “but you’re the last people I want around my female family members.” And then he glared at me. “Out! Now!”

I growled under my breath and gritted my teeth, but I hauled myself up and out of the car. If I argued, he’d just call my dad outside, and given the choice, Jared Trent only trusted me with Hawke. I wasn’t winning this one.

Putting my feet on the ground, I slammed the door closed and turned to walk for Hawke’s car.

“I wouldn’t let anything happen to her,” I heard Kade say to him behind me. “She’s my cousin, too.”

“No, she’s not,” Hawke retorted, his words resolute. “Not really.”

And then he turned, following me toward his car.

Sparing a glance behind me, I met Kade’s eyes. He was unreadable. Like maybe pissed off that Hawke would insinuate that his connection and responsibility over me was stronger than Kade’s, but also like maybe he couldn’t argue with it, either. We weren’t blood, not like Hawke and I were. Kade and Hunter’s dad was my dad’s stepbrother, whereas Hawke’s dad and my dad actually shared a biological parent.

So Hawke was right. While Kade had always been a fixture in my life, like a real cousin would be, I looked at him and Hawke far differently. My connection to them wasn’t the same.  

I crossed my arms, sighing. “Where the hell’s your girlfriend anyway?” I grumbled to Hawke as we climbed into his car. “You need distractions, so you can focus less on me, for crying out loud.”

He didn’t answer, his jaw flexing as he started the car. Kade peeled out of the driveway, kicking up snow as he descended down the moonlit white driveway.

Hawke stayed frozen. “How the fuck are we always getting wrangled into his stupid shit?!” he barked.

I just stayed still and silent. I watched Kade’s taillights grow smaller in the black night punctuated by sporadic flurries. If I argued, he’d argue more, and we’d never be on our way. He’d get over whatever he was really mad about soon enough if I didn’t give him the fight he was looking for.

And after a few moments, as predicted, he shifted the car into first and took off so fast, my head slammed back into the seat, and I had to grab the door to steady myself. What the hell was his problem tonight?

“Did you know about the bet?” he asked, staring at the road ahead.

I immediately glanced over at him. The bet. I closed my eyes, exhaling a sigh. Shit. I’d forgotten all about that.  

“I found out right before holiday break,” I admitted quietly.

“And you didn’t warn me?” He shot me a glare. “Thanks a lot.”

“Why do you think I got into it with Jemma Ledger last week?” I shot out. “She’s the bitch who organized it. I wound up in detention until the end of January for that fight.”

His scowl softened as realization hit. “That fight was about this?”

“Yeah.” I shrugged. “I was defending your honor.”

He snorted, and I instantly relaxed. That was a good sign.

I hadn’t told anyone what the fight was about to avoid embarrassing Hawke and getting our parents worried, but plenty of people saw me start it. I was trying to control myself and my mouth, but she deserved it. She’d come up with the bet, because she was mad Hawke didn’t want her, and I hated bullies. I just saw red as soon as I found out.     

“You could’ve just told me,” he said.

“I was planning to.” I reached for my seatbelt, realizing I hadn’t put it on yet. “I just…I thought it might make it worse if you knew.”

“Worse? Than standing there like an asshole without a clue?”

Yeah. Ok. Point.

“I thought maybe you had trust issues or something,” I told him, seeing Kade’s taillights ahead grow bigger as we caught up. “Finding out nearly every girl in the school is trying to get you into bed for a bet might really do some damage.”

Not that they weren’t all already doing that anyway, but their intentions were no longer pure. It wasn’t unusual for an eighteen year old guy to be a virgin, but it was when they looked like Hawke. Everyone wanted him, and no one understood why he wasn’t making the most of it. Jemma Ledger felt shunned and wanted to make him a joke.

“God, she is a bitch, isn’t she?” He shook his head, letting out a breath. “And I don’t have trust issues. There’s nothing wrong with a guy being particular about who he screws around with.”

“Hell no.” I chimed in. “I’m still a virgin, after all.”

“Too much info.”

I laughed to myself and reached over the back seat, grabbing two sodas from the cooler he’d packed for sledding that morning and handed him one.

“But,” I added. “You don’t want me to lose mine before you lose yours, because you’re older and now that would definitely be embarrassing.”

“No problem.” He smiled, holding the wheel and cracking the top of his can. “Between me, your dad, and your uncles, you won’t be alone with a male who isn’t family for like years yet.”

“A male,” I repeated, nodding. “So women are okay then?”

The soda in his mouth went splattering across the dash and windshield as he laughed and coughed and pulled the can away. “Jesus.” He set the can down, wiping off his mouth.  

“Got-chya,” I teased, grinning.

He shook his head, but he was still smiling. Mission accomplished. He was in a good mood again.

Very few things had the power to piss Hawke off, he was like a Shaolin monk. Very zen most of the time.

I turned my head out the window as we overtook Kade in his truck. No need to follow him. Everyone knew where Ciaran’s place was anyway.

Kade glanced down at me, but immediately turned back toward the road as if he hadn’t seen me. I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Flaherty’s an asshole,” I told Hawke, referring to the girl who’d left earlier and still looking up at Kade. “Don’t give her a piece of you. Not one single piece. None of them deserve it.”

“You’re like my mom,” Hawke teased. “No one will be good enough for me.”

“That’s not true.” I faced forward again, seeing the flurries flying up at the car in the headlights. “Someone will be. Someone will want every single thing about you and look at you like you’re all they want to see forever.”

No one looked at me like that, and I talked so big. Why didn’t I have the guts to be tough on myself the way I was tough on Hawke?

“Can you go faster?” I asked, itching to get away from the weight of Kade’s presence on my right.

The engine revved, and I saw Hawke shift into fifth as he pulled ahead without another word. Everyone sped through the darkness, getting on the highway and getting off again, and I turned up Run DMC’s Christmas in Hollis, realization hitting that I was missing the movie tonight. I watched Die Hard with my dad every Christmas Eve after James went to bed. Dammit.

Finally, after another forty minutes, Hawke slowed, letting Kade take the lead. We all pulled up to Ciaran’s gate, and Kade reached out his window, punching in the code. His grandfather’s large iron entrance creaked open, and a weird sense of unease suddenly hit me.

Hunter won’t be forced back home.

Yes, Kade was right. His brother was being selfish and inconsiderate to their parents, but I also knew Hunter, and he wasn’t mean. Maybe there was something more we didn’t understand. I missed him, but he deserved the benefit of the doubt. Kade was simply going to turn this into a brawl that tore him and his brother farther apart.

“Here we go,” Hawke mumbled as we all pulled up in front of the house. He shut off the car, and we both got out, the wind howling over the sprawling hills surrounding Ciaran Pierce’s estate. Following Kade to the door as his friends and girlfriend stayed behind in the car, he glanced back at Hawke and me.

“Just stay in the car.”

But I charged on after him. “You’re going to need someone to talk to him after you inevitably screw things up.”

“Oh, he’ll come home,” Kade spouted confidently, a little snarl on his mouth.

“Of course he will,” Hawke added with a chuckle. “Especially since you look like you’re going to ask so nicely.”

Kade took out his set of keys and unlocked the door, stepping inside and immediately punching another code into the keypad by the door. Hawke and I followed him in, closing the door behind us as Kade deactivated the alarm. There were probably keypads at all the entrances. Kade and Hunter’s grandfather didn’t have the cleanest past, and although he was now retired, he definitely still took precautions to keep himself and his family safe. Lingering enemies and all that.

It was all very cool. From a distance.

But he was good grandpa. I’d give him that.

“Grandpa?” Kade called out. “You awake?”

His voice echoed in the vast space, the foyer splitting off into various rooms, a high ceiling, and a wide staircase. The clock chimed, and I knew it had to be eleven by now.

“Hunter?” I called.

But only silence and darkness greeted us back. They could be asleep, I guessed.

Following Kade, we traipsed up the steps, down two different hallways, and finally came to a door that I assumed was either Hunter’s or Ciaran’s bedrooms. Hawke and I stayed back while Kade cracked it open.

No lights shone from the room, but I caught sight of a large desk with monitors, headphones, and a DJ 2-channel controller.

Hunter. It was his room.

We walked in, and a buzz spread under my skin, making the hair on my arms stand up at the familiar scent. I smiled to myself and inhaled. Wood, construction paper, a hint of some strong chemical cleaner like the one he used to use to clean his electronics, and fresh sheets.  

“Where the hell is he?” Kade grumbled as we all took in the empty room and made bed, but it was a rhetorical question. He wasn’t in the house, so the question begged to be asked. If he didn’t cancel on Christmas Eve to stay with his tired grandfather as Ciaran suggested, where was he then?

The three of us trailed around the room, snooping, and my heart started to ache a little. God, I missed him. I missed talking to him. I missed coming into his room and seeing what he was up to.

There was a desk with robotic parts on it, as well as some tools, and another table with a huge piece of butcher paper and an incredibly intricate maze in black Sharpie as tall as me designed on it. There was some audio/video equipment on another table lining the wall, a table with books open and spread out detailing ATVs and other vehicles, and two cushioned chairs holding a fish tank, beakers and flasks, and clear tubes.

I laughed to myself. He was still an enigma. I couldn’t make sense out of any of this stuff.

I stopped next to Kade at a desk full of binders, notebooks, and some map detailing “desert habitats in China“. “Nothing has changed,” I mused.

And to my surprise, I saw Kade’s expression soften as the wind hissed outside. “It seemed like every year growing up, teachers would ask us to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up.”

I nodded, remembering. “Yeah, Hunter never had one answer.”

“Nope.” Kade shook his head, agreeing as he picked up a paperback and glanced at the back cover. “It took a whole page just to list everything he wanted to do. He didn’t understand the difference between a profession and a hobby.”

Still doesn’t, by the looks of things. Even at seventeen. But that was Hunter, and maybe he had the right idea. Hobbies were passions, and why do something every day for the rest of your life unless you’re passionate about it, right?

“Alright, fuck this.” He tossed the book back on the desk. “Let’s go.”

Hawke and I made for the door, and I turned to take one last glance, but I spotted Kade still at the desk. He picked up the paperback again and slipped in into the middle pocket of his hoodie. I narrowed my eyes on him. It was quick and sly, and I wondered what he was doing.

He turned toward the door, and I immediately turned away before he had a chance to see me seeing him. Normally I’d just think it was Kade stealing something of his brother’s to inconvenience or piss him off, but it wasn’t the first time I’d seen him swiping a book, and it wasn’t always from Hunter. What was he doing? Saving up for a bonfire?

We walked back down the stairs, and I heard a click, like the cocking of a gun.

“Kade?” A gruff voice burst out, and we all suddenly stopped.

Ciaran stood at the bottom of the staircase in his emerald green paisley robe, a fireplace poker in one hand and a pistol in the other.

“Jesus Mary Joseph, boy,” his grandfather said, lowering his gun. “I could’ve killed you. What are ya doin’ here so late?”

Kade brushed past us, descending the rest of the stairs. “Looking for Hunter. It’s fucking Christmas. He needs to come home.”

He took the gun out of his grandfather’s hand, uncocked it, and set it down on the small table.

Ciaran started coughing, a weezing sound filling his lungs as he covered his mouth. 

“You okay?” Kade asked.

He cleared his throat, swallowing. “Aw, I’m fine. Just a cold. Which is why I couldn’t come tonight. Couldn’t get you kids sick, too.”

Hawke and I joined them at the bottom of the stairs, and Kade nodded at Ciaran. “Alright, well, call me in the morning. I’ll come back and get you. But Hunter’s coming home tonight,” he added. “Enough of his bullshit. It’s Christmas, and Mom wants him home—”

“He’s not here,” Ciaran interrupted.

I dropped my eyes.

I knew it.

Kade lifted his chin, defiant. “We’ll wait.”

“He’s snowboarding with some friends,” Ciaran explained. “And he won’t be back for a few days.”


I stepped forward. “He’s missing Christmas?” I asked. “He wouldn’t do that to his parents. Hunter would never hurt Fallon like that.”

“Check the garage,” Ciaran told us, holding Kade’s stare. “His car’s gone.”

Kade and I charged into the kitchen, through the mud room, and pulled open the door, walking into the large six car garage. Ciaran’s cars and motorcycles all sat in pretty lines but no black ’68 Camaro. The one Ciaran had given Hunter when he moved in with him last summer. Kade got to keep the truck they shared, so Hunter had needed a car, of course.

“I fucking knew it.” Kade’s eyes narrowed, and he looked furious. “Just blowing off Christmas like he blew off Thanksgiving. What the hells’s the matter with him?”

“He’s a good boy,” Ciaran said, having followed us into the kitchen. “Like you. Just give him a chance.”

Kade didn’t listen to any more. He spun around and walked out of the garage and back through the kitchen, leaving. I turned to follow him, but I stopped, noticing something on the wall.

I held up my hand, running it down the cold, black material.

Hunter’s ski jacket.

I flipped over the season pass tag hanging of his zipper and then looked down, also spotting his snowboard. Snowboarding, huh?

I looked up, meeting Ciaran’s eyes. His lips pursed, and he knew I knew. He was lying.

Keeping my mouth shut, I stalked past him, through the foyer, and out the front door, following the boys.

“Kade?” I heard his grandfather call out the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Kade didn’t respond, and I almost told him about the jacket and the snowboard, but I knew it would only make the situation worse. I needed to see Hunter on my own and talked to him. I could get through to him.  

Hawke walked for his car, but Kade charged up to his and pounded the roof in anger. I stopped, seeing Danielle still inside the car, looking at him with a mixture of confusion. She didn’t know what was wrong. 

“Hey.” I approached Kade. “He needs you. I know he does. He just thinks you don’t need him.”

He scoffed, shaking his head. “I don’t,” he bit out. “And that’s not his problem anyway. The little shit is jealous and needs to get over himself.”

Jealous? “Jealous of what?”

Kade rested his forearms on the roof of his car but turned his head toward me, holding my eyes.

But then he just opened his door, climbing in and ignoring me.

“I’ll see you in the morning. Tell my mom I went out,” he told me.

I opened my mouth to argue, but he slammed the door on me, started the car, and sped off. I watched as he raced down the driveway and slowed, waiting for the gate to open.

Kade didn’t know it, but he ran away just as much as Hunter did. Every time I thought he’d talk to me, his defenses went back up, and he ran off with his friends or some girl that wasn’t me.

I ground my teeth together, staring after him. What if, one day, those two came looking for me only I wasn’t waiting around to give them time of day anymore? What if they had to beg me for a bit of my attention?

Stomping through the snow, I climbed into Hawke’s warm Mustang, the heaters already blowing hot air inside.    

He started the car as I put on my seatbelt. “Let’s get back to Madoc’s,” he said. “I’m starving.”

But I didn’t feel like people right now. “Actually, can you just take me home?” I said quietly. “I want to be in my own bed tonight.”

He didn’t reply, only shifted the car into gear and took off, making good time as he sped through the cold night. The snow trucks were out, clearing and salting the roads, and I just stared out the window, both of us quiet.

I missed Hunter. I missed Quinn. I hated that guys kept their distance from me, because they either found my dad or me too intimidating. And most girls thought I was silly, because being able to race cars or add a lift to a Jeep might’ve been a super cool trait when I was in elementary school, but it wasn’t admirable in high school.

I liked who I was, and I didn’t want to change, but I was starting to feel like less and less people wanted me in their lives. Not that it was their fault. They were moving on. I just didn’t understand why it was without me.

And next year, Hawke would be gone, too.

I stared at my reflection in the window, and my stupid French braids. Jesus, how old was I? Why would any guy want me when I still looked eight? I yanked out my rubber bands and pulled apart the braids, my long brown hair falling around my body, and my long bangs falling around my cheeks.

Juliet got me a gift card to the salon last Christmas. Was it still good? It was about time I used it.

I wasn’t going to seek Hunter out. Or Kade. They’d find me when they wanted to find me.

When they needed me. If ever. Fuck it.

Hawke dropped me at my house, telling me he’d be back at eight in the morning to get me and bring me back to Madoc’s, and I texted my mom, letting her know I was home and would be back in the morning.

But as I unlocked my front door, I noticed a bundle wrapped in a red ribbon sitting on the chair on the porch. Picking it up, I pulled the ribbon loose, and unwrapped the cloth, finding an old cassette tape inside.

I twisted my head, looking around, over my yard and up and down the quiet snow-covered street. Christmas lights glowed inside houses, but there was no movement on the lane and no cars passing by. It was quiet.

Looking back at the tape, I saw Hunter’s writing labeling the tape with one word: Crescendo.

Was it an actual mixed tape? I couldn’t help it. I broke into a smile and laughed to myself.

And then there was a note under the tape.

My colors would look good on you, Pirate.

Colors? What?

Then I noticed what the tape was wrapped in. The cloth. I held it up and fanned out the red and black T-shirt, seeing St. Matthew’s Knights written on the front with the school crest in the middle.

I immediately snorted, trying to hold in my laugh.

“In your dreams, Knight!” I shouted out at the empty street, smiling. The Shelburne Falls Pirates and Hunter’s school, the St. Matthew’s Knights, were rivals, and I’d take my black or orange any day over his black and red.

But…I fanned out the shirt again, looking at it. I looked good in red, too.

Aw, what the hell…I could always use more shirts to sleep in.