Luck of the Irish

St. Patrick’s Day was a holiday designed specifically for alcohol poisoning and poor decisions. Or, since I hated beer and could only manage one shot before getting sick, it was a holiday designed for driving my friends to and from our favorite bar, hopefully before they got themselves sick. Luckily for me, they all lived within five minutes of my apartment.

The pub we’d been to was small, cramped, lively. The bartenders all knew us and our usual drinks, and the regulars asked how us how work was, showed us pictures of their kids, told us stories about their lives. The waitstaff was made up mostly of college kids hoping to keep themselves out of debt and to keep food on the table. Though it was popular, especially tonight, it never lost its family feel. It was, by far, one of my favorite places to go if I was going to be out late drinking, or wanted a hot meal that felt homemade.

We’d left earlier than the rest, just as the holiday rush was really hitting. Sara was draped over her girlfriend Hallie in the backseat of my car, while another one of our friends, Penny, stumbled up to her front door from the passenger seat. I waited to see her get safely inside before pulling away from the curb. “Alright, ladies, almost home, and then you can have wildly inappropriate drunk sex.”

Sara giggled. “I’m too tired.”

“That’s not what you’ll be saying when we’re back,” her girlfriend murmured. I rolled my eyes.

“You’re lucky you live so close to me.” I turned into their apartment complex, stropping directly in front of their building. “Go on, haul each other out of here.”

Sara leaned forward and gave my cheek a sloppy, wet kiss. “Byeeeee Zoeeeee!” She drew both words out as Hallie opened the door and extracted them both from their seat belts.

I watched them stumble down the path to their first floor apartment, again not leaving until their door had closed. Things had moved so quickly for them, from friends to girlfriends to roommates, and Sara was so blissfully happy, my initial envy had died out. Hallie was a pretty, sweet girl, and treated Sara right, so I liked her. Besides, if she wasn’t treating Sara right, I’d have to kick her ass, and then Sara would be mad that I didn’t let her help.

It was only ten when I got home, considerably early for a night at the bar. I had some Jameson for the occasion, given to me by me older brother, and considered taking a couple of shots and maybe hitting up Nick. Then I thought better of trying to be anything but mushy and sleepy whilst drunk, and decided just to have the Jameson and maybe watch Celtic Thunder.

The night was oddly quiet considering how close I lived to the city. The college wasn’t far from my apartment, which meant Main Street was only a twenty minute walk from me. I could see the lights from my windows, sometimes even hear the cars zooming by. Everything was so peaceful. The hush of night had fallen over the city, no sign of the St. Patrick’s Day insanity yet. After locking my door, I strolled across my living room and threw open the window, letting the cool air in.

“There we go,” I murmured to myself, pleased. The breeze filled the room with the songs of the night. Humming, I went about my nightly routine, brushing and braiding my hair, brushing my teeth, washing my face. The night was cool for Florida in March, so I pulled on thick fuzzy pajama pants and a tee shirt that was wildly too large for me. I settled onto the couch with the whiskey and a fuzzy blanket, turned on my movie, and was unconscious within the hour.

My TV had turned itself off when the noises started. I jerked awake at the sounds, waiting to hear more, not entirely sure if they’d been real or not. It was just shy of one, according to the clock on the cable box. Maybe I’d imagined it?

The noises came again, and I rolled my eyes. Someone was shooting off fireworks, and close by. Rude. After detangling myself from the blanket that I’d managed to cocoon myself in, I went to the window and leaned out, hoping to see the bright lights in the sky, but there were none. The noises continued anyway, and I frowned. Perhaps I couldn’t see them on my side of the building. Nonetheless, if I wasn’t going to get a show, there was no reason to listen to the fireworks. I closed my window and went to put away my whiskey and clean my shot glass, too awake now to try going back to sleep

Minutes later, the sirens started. I tensed. There weren’t only cop sirens; the keening whine of ambulances went by as well. They were so close, too close, definitely on Main.

Dread coiled in my stomach. I went back out into the living room, switching on the TV and pulling up the local news station. My hands curled around the remote, so tightly my knuckles were turning white, my fingers aching from the strain.

“Shots fired at local Main Street pup…”

The scene was like something out of a horror movie. Lights swirling, sirens blaring, a pristine reporter strangely out of place. Screaming, so much screaming. The building behind the reporter was so familiar, too familiar, and I felt my stomach lurch. Though the sign was sparking and dark in the background, it was, without a doubt, the pub the girls and I had just left.

The remote dropped from my hand.

I was going to be sick. I knew the staff there. I knew most of the regulars. It was a weekly haunt for the girls and myself, and the only reason we’d left early was to avoid the three am St Patrick’s Day assholes.”I was there,” I whispered, though I didn’t recognize my own voice, like it had come from someone else’s mouth. “We were there.”

My hands shook as I texted Sara, Hallie, and Penny, even though I had seen them get home safely with my own eyes. Their responses were immediate, equally shocked yet comforting, and I relaxed, just the tiniest bit. I pulled Facebook up on my phone, barely calmer, still trembling as I checked myself in as safe. I’d barely hit the button to post when there was a violent, insistent pounding on my door.

Zoe.

I ran. Nick’s voice was like nothing I’d ever heard from him before– he never yelled, and he’d never sounded so…god, afraid. He sounded afraid.

The lock was nearly impossible due to the shaking, but I managed to free it, wrench open the door, and saw Nick standing there, visibly shaken. He looked like he’d rolled out of bed and immediately run down the stairs, his hair a tangled disaster, his clothes wrinkled. My heart clenched, painfully. The reality of the situation, of how close a call that had been, swamped me, and I felt myself tear up, my throat closing.

“Nick–”

He grabbed me. Wrapped his arms around me and squeezed, as though I might disappear any second. I brought my arms up and squeezed him back, tears rolling down my cheeks, into his shirt.

“I’m okay,” I whispered, for both of us. “I’m alright.”

I started to pull back, and he followed, refusing to let go. He seemed to read my mind and kicked the door shut behind him, and then just stood there, one hand woven into my braid, one gripping my shirt at the small of my back. He was trembling, almost as much as I was. I stroked his back, trying to soothe him, to ground him.

“Nick,” I started again, but he cut me off. His hands framed my face, the kiss so deep, so hard, I forgot what I’d been trying to say. I’d never been kissed like this before, as though nothing mattered but the two of us. It was overwhelming. It was magical.

Whatever had been keeping him so still when he’d come in had vanished. He gripped me like a lifeline, pushing me into my bedroom with an urgency I’d never seen in him. I wrapped my arms around his neck and let him lead, returning the kiss while he fumbled with the doorknob. He finally managed to open the door, not bothering to close it as he maneuvered us to the edge of my bed, then lowered us both to the mattress and settled on top of me. He never let go, never moved his hands from me for longer than a few seconds. He had my pants off in a swift movement, one hand wrapped around my waist to support me as I helped kick them off.

My hands still shook, grasping at his shorts, shoving them down, trying to help him. Nick sat up only long enough to get the shorts down enough to free himself, then lowered himself again, his kisses bordering on desperate now. He held my hips tightly, almost too tightly, pushing his legs between mine. I struggled to keep kissing him as my hand scrambled toward my nightstand drawer.

Nick anticipated me, yanking my arm back to him. I wrapped my arms around his neck again, while he got a condom and ripped the packaging open. His lips moved to my neck, kissing, biting, licking a trail to my ear and sucking on the lobe. I reached down with one hand to help him roll the condom on, my other hand gripping his hair, tugging him closer. I needed the reality of him, the solidity. I needed to know this was real. I was okay, I was safe. I was alive.

His lips returned to mine, sweeter now, slower. Something shifted in the way he touched me as he took my legs and wrapped them around his waist. The urgency was still there, but his hold was gentler, more careful. He touched me almost reverently, almost lovingly, though he moved quickly. I arched as he entered me, breathless.

The slowness faded away as he cradled me in his arms, as I cradled him with my body. He kissed me the entire time, his lips never leaving mine except to kiss my cheeks, my forehead, even the tip of my nose, but always returning to my own lips. Something inside me tripped, fell, shattered, and I went with it, crying out against his lips. Nick’s arms tightened around me, and he came with me.

We both fell there, wrapped in each other, clinging to each other. Nick had dropped his face into my shoulder, his weight on top of me more comforting than anything else could have been in that moment. I stroked his hair, praying he wouldn’t notice me crying and think it had to do with him. The tears had started, and now they wouldn’t stop. I shuddered in a breath, but otherwise remained silent.

For a moment, I’d thought he’d fallen asleep, until I realized my shirt was damp. Turning my head slightly, I realized he was shaking, harder than me. He’d tucked his face so tightly into the crook of my neck that his sobs were muffled by my own body. I squeezed my arms around him, then went back to just petting his hair.

“I thought you were still there.”

He whispered it into me, clutching me even more tightly. I stayed silent, waiting.

“You told me you were going there, with Sara and the others, and I didn’t know if you’d come home, and when I heard the shots–”

“I thought they were fireworks,” I murmured.

“I wanted them to be.” He shuddered, clutching me again, and I switched to stroking his back. “But when I heard the sirens–” he choked for a moment. “When I turned on the TV, and it was– it was you there, screaming, even though it wasn’t really you.”

I nodded. “I understand.”

He shook his head. “I had to check. I had to know. I had to be sure.”

My heart clenched, and I turned to press a kiss wherever I could reach. It ended up being the side of his head. “I’m okay. I’m alive. You didn’t lose me.” When he didn’t say anything further, I kept reassuring him, pressing kisses to his hair, rubbing his back slowly. “I’m safe. I’m here. The others are okay, too. We’re all a little shaken, but we’re all okay.”

He nodded, then rolled, pulling me against him on our sides. I nestled into his embrace, suddenly overwhelmed by everything that had happened. My eyes drooped shut from the exhaustion.

“I don’t want to lose you,” he murmured, so quietly I barely heard him. “I can’t lose you. I love you.”

His words, so soft, barely a breath, seeped into my fogged mind. I didn’t know if I was already asleep, dreaming, but it felt real. Warm, a little cloudy, but real. I squeezed Nick closer.

“I love you, too.”

Before I could find out if he’d heard me, before I could see his reaction, my exhaustion won out. Sleep settled over me like a blanket, and I gave in to it.

 

 

 

 

My Valentine

***Extremely NSFW for sexual content. Safe reading!***

My back hit the wall as Nick lifted me, a giggle escaping as he pressed his lips into my throat. I spread my hands across the broad expanse of his bare shoulders, grazing my nails across his smooth skin. My giggle cut off on a gasp as he bit down, and I sighed, winding my fingers through his hair. His lips traveled up the side of my neck to nibble at my ear.

“Beg,” he growled, pressing his hips into mine, effectively keeping me from sliding down the wall. My legs closed around his waist, my bare skin against his denim jeans, as I moaned.

Without bothering to answer, I cupped the back of his head and pressed my lips to his, sucking on his bottom lip. I wanted to distract him. I wanted to destroy him. I wanted him to lose that ever-present control and be wild.

Nick grabbed my wrists and slammed them against the wall, cuffing me with one hand while the other trailed down to stroke my breast. “Beg,” he demanded again. Desire pulsed through my body.

“Make me,” I purred back, wickedly rocking my hips.

His growl deepened. I felt it on my skin, rushing through my blood, pulsing between my legs. Wrapping his arms more securely around me, Nick hoisted me back up and carried me over to my bed, dropping me right in the middle of it. I began to giggle again, my pulse racing. I could see Nick’s arousal straining against his jeans, his eyes so dark they were nearly black, his hair tousled from all my pulling. He looked downright feral as he crawled up my body, his eyes dark and glinting at me.

My breathing sped up, frantic now, a rush of excitement. Desperate, I reached for him, my hands landing on his bare upper arms, grabbing, pulling–

 

I jerked awake, disoriented, with no idea where I was. My arms were folded on a cold table, my face smooshed into them, a jacket draped on my shoulders. I lifted my head to look around, alarmed to find myself at work still, on lunch.

“Morning, Sleeping Beauty.”

Scowling, I turned to Nick, who had apparently seen me sleeping and decided to sit next to me. He was the last person I wanted to see. Especially after that dream. I scrubbed my face with my hands to coax feeling back into it. It felt like I’d been sleeping for hours.”God, how long was I out?”

“Judging by your usual routine, you have ten minutes of lunch left.” With the hand that wasn’t being used to shove pizza into his mouth, Nick rubbed my back. “Relax.”

Odd that he’d know my routine, I mused, but somehow comforting. I rolled my shoulders, trying to bring myself back to the present. “When did you get here?”

“About one twenty.” He took another bite of pizza, staring me down. “You didn’t even move. I was worried you’d finally worked yourself to death, but you were still breathing.”

“It’ll probably happen.” I arched my back, and suddenly realized the jacket on my shoulders wasn’t mine. Mine was in my lap. Confused, I hunched back over before the jacket could fall off of me, pulling it around to figure out whose it was. It was basic, black, a thin but warm material, with a colorful logo on the front, and a cast list on the back. It looked an awful lot like a dance team or color guard jacket. I glanced at Nick, who was engrossed in his phone. “Yours, I assume?”

Turning, he realized I was holding his jacket, and a brief flicker of emotion crossed his face. I couldn’t identify it before it vanished again. “Yeah. You were shaking.”

My brain stalled. “Thank you,” I managed, and handed his jacket back to him. As he took it from me, our hands touched, and visions of my dream flashed through my mind. My eyes flashed to his lips for a breath of a second, before I snatched them away again. “Any Valentine’s plans tonight?”

“Nah.” He’d gone back to his phone, but at least I’d gotten an answer.

Nick lived in the apartment above mine, and that had been the foundation of our friendship. He was never far away, reliable, trustworthy, but still (more often than not) an ass. Somehow, I rarely ever saw him at work. He flirted on occasion, or ate lunch with me as he had today, but it was spread out. Our relationship straddled a bizarre line of familial and friendly, the flirting between us like that between best friends– cute, fun, but overall meaningless.

Pity, since I had a raging crush on him– one that had deepened over the past month and a half as he proved himself to be a dependable friend.

“There aren’t girls lining up at your door to be your Valentine?” I teased, trying to ignore the little flutter of hope in my chest.

“Just you.” His blunt statement made me choke on my own spit.”What about you? Sara coming over for a hot date?”

Oh. He still thought we were a thing, after that New Years kiss. I didn’t blame him; if Sara had been down for it, I might have had something to look forward to after work tonight. Alas, Sara had no interest in anything more than flirting, and kissing to get back at Nick. One time.

“Unfortunately that was a one time deal,” I told him. “She threw me over for a cosplay queen.” I said it as airily as I could, tossing my hair over my shoulder. It still stung that Sara had chosen someone else over me, but she was happy, and that was what mattered.

“That sucks, I’m sorry.” He sounded like he meant it, the teasing glint in his eyes vanishing, replaced with concern. It only lasted a split second, but it was enough that I caught it.

Emotion rushed through me. All of a sudden, I couldn’t stand sitting next to him. Hiding my feelings–however unwarranted– was easier when he was being a snarky ass. How was I supposed to handle him being genuinely nice? How could I maintain the indifferent facade?

I pushed away from the table and stood up, snatching my jacket from my lap.”Anyway, I’m gonna head back to work. If you’ll excuse me.”

“Later, Zoe.”

Work passed in a daze after that. I was distracted by both dream and memory, so much so that I didn’t even remember the drive back to my apartment. All I knew was that when I got back to my apartment complex, I was frustrated, exhausted, and fueled by my own bitterness against happy Valentine’s couples everywhere.

It was like a flashback, walking into my apartment with groceries, my mood sour. My Christmas tree was still up, now decorated with hearts and pictures of loved ones by my now ex roommates, who had finally gotten places of their own and left me, once again, with my own apartment. All mine, to myself. Alone.

I was walking, contained bitterness, wasn’t I? Like a human espresso. I’d heard that somewhere before, and couldn’t help but find it accurate.

With a puff of breath, I blew the hair out of my face and set my bags on the kitchen counter. My Valentine track record was awful at best, downright embarrassing at worst. Being alone was depressing, but hell, I could celebrate some self love with a nice meal, chocolate, and a glass of sweet red wine.

As I had at Christmas, I hauled my laptop out of my room and set it up on the dining room table. An entire playlist of love songs blasted from my iTunes, a combination of show tunes, duets, pop songs, and John Denver– still my favorite. Singing shamelessly, I poured myself a glass of wine, lit a few candles around the room, and started dinner.

I changed into sweatpants and a tank top, prepped my pasta sauce and left it to simmer, and poured myself a second glass of red, and still had a good hour left on my playlist. While on a normal night I’d have just let it play and scrolled through social media and called it a night, but it was Valentine’s day. My sauce still had another hour or so to simmer, and after dinner I was planning on a candle lit bubble bath. There was plenty of time to watch a sappy romantic movie. But which one?

Indecisive, I pulled a few to choose from, and went back to the kitchen to pull together an appetizer for myself. I was stirring my sauce, a slice of bread with smoked salmon on it in one hand, when a knock at my door caught my attention. “Just a sec,” I called, returning the lid to my pot and putting the food back on its plate. Once again, I realized a little belatedly that my music was blasting, and I’d been singing along– and not quietly.

Seeing Nick on the other side of the door might not have been the last thing I expected, but it was close. Like a fantasy and a nightmare both coming true at once, He stood in what he’d worn to work: sweatpants and a tee shirt, both black. His hair was mussed from the wind blowing through the outdoor hallway of the apartment building, uncommonly cold for Florida.

“We have to stop meeting like this.” Nick smirked at my quip, and I stepped back. “Come on in, I’ll feed you in exchange for you not reporting me to the landlord for being a nuisance.”

Nick strolled into my apartment, chuckling. “Smells great.” At home, he wandered into the kitchen to check out what was cooking, and I was close behind.

“Thanks.” Moving past him, I got a spoon and scooped up a sample of the sauce for him. “Veal marinara, a family recipe. Spicy and meaty.” As I offered it, his hand once again closed over mine, to take the spoon from me. “Careful, it’s hot.”

He tasted it, apparently decided it wasn’t that hot, and then ate the piece of  veal I’d managed to snag for him. “It’s good. It’s really good.”

I beamed. “Thank you.”

“I guess you can talk me into staying.” He winked, and in his easy way, strolled back out of the kitchen to the living room. “Having a movie night?”

“More like having a crisis,” I said, munching on my smoked salmon and toast again. “Haven’t been able to decide what I want to watch. There’s smoked salmon, by the way, if you’re already hungry. The sauce has another hour or so.” He shrugged, engrossed in the covers of the DVDs, as I set the plate on the coffee table. “Do you want a glass of wine?”

“Nah, but I’ll take a soda if you’ve got one.” He inspected my movies, reading the back of Pride and Prejudice.

“Coming right up.”

Moments later, I returned with a glass of diet Coke– something I’d learned to have on hand since we started to hang out more often– and my own glass of ice water. After setting the glasses on coasters on the coffee table, I snagged another appetizer and dropped down onto the couch. “I’ve had a glass and a half of wine already, in case you’re wondering.”

“My plan to seduce you just got ten times easier.”

My hand stopped halfway to my mouth. “Pardon?”

“Do you have any movies that aren’t sappy romance movies?” He turned and, seeing the shelf of movies under my TV, started to sift through them.

Chocolat isn’t even really a romance movie,” I pointed out, “and it’s Valentine’s Day. I’m putting on a love story, and you can ignore it if you really want food.”

“I can think of better things to eat.”

Ignoring that, I leaned over him and pulled a few Disney movies from the shelf that I hadn’t pulled before. “Here, choose Disney, since you didn’t like any of those.”

Hunchback,” he said immediately. I sighed.

“Still not technically romance, but it’s one of my favorites. You got lucky.” I took the movie and started setting it up.

“Not yet, but I hope to.”

Whipping around, I glared outright at Nick.”Are you enjoying yourself?”

“Immensely.” Like a true gentleman, he started putting the other movies away.

My dream replayed itself in my head at light speed. Brushing the stray hairs from my face, I went back into the kitchen to stir my sauce, leaving Nick to do whatever it was he was gonna do. It didn’t actually need to be stirred, but I was so damn hot and bothered, I could have cooked the sauce on me instead of the stove.

Relax, Zoe, I told myself, resting my head against the cool door of the freezer. He’s just a guy. He’s your friend. Calm down.

A friend who’d grabbed me, fried my brain my kissing me, not once, but twice. A friend who teased me relentlessly. A friend who kept making subtle passes on the eve of a holiday dedicated to love.

A friend who needed a taste of his own medicine, I decided.

The idea ripped through me, carrying me back out into the living room. Nick had migrated to the couch, sipping on his soda, watching the menu screen while he waited. He set his glass down as I reached him, looking up like he was about to say something. I didn’t give him the chance as I dropped to the couch beside him– closer than I usually sat, almost in his lap. Grabbing Nick’s shirt, I yanked him to me, planting my lips on his.

Oh, hell. He was electric, and I was on fire. His hands came up to my face, cradling it, then slid down to stroke my neck. The fire blazed brighter, hotter, too intense. My hands tightened in the fabric of his shirt as I finally fulfilled my fantasy of biting, gently, on his lower lip.

Before I lost all sense of control, I yanked myself away. It was like dragging myself out of a tar pit. I wanted to go back, to lose myself in him, to drown in him. Wanted, needed, yearned for it.

Yes, best to pull away now, before I made a stupid decision and complicated everything.

“There, now it was my idea,” I said, and reached for the remote.

I got about as far as leaning forward before I was yanked back and pushed into the cushions of the sofa. Nick was on top of me before I could breathe, before I could think. His lips went right back to mine, right where we’d left off. His hand went into my hair, fisting there, tugging. I mewled against his lips and arched up, grabbing onto his shoulders. He shifted, his lips going to my neck, and my breath caught. My dream, for a split second, a reality. He bit, roughly but not painfully, and I melted underneath him.

It was payback, I decided, when he pulled away and grabbed the remote, hitting play and returning to his corner of the couch.

“You know what–” I sat up, frustrated, burning, a hair’s breadth from desperate. “You are, by far, the most frustrating, confusing, infuriating–”

“I take it you enjoyed that, then?”

Realization struck me. Where I was out of breath and burning alive, Nick was calm and collected. Doubt began to creep in. Had that just been a power play? Did he just use my feelings against me to one up me?

I tried to corral my thoughts, but couldn’t stop myself from asking, “How are you not affected by this at all?”

“It’s called hiding it,” he said, staring at the TV as the first song of the movie hit its climax.

I sputtered, my brain refusing to wrap around his words. “But– but– why?

Nick smirked. “Because.” He gestured toward me, his expression downright smug. Infuriatingly smug. “Look how frustrated you get.”

Not sure whether I was going to kiss him or strangle him, I launched myself at him. He grabbed me mid lunge and effortlessly shifted me, dragging me onto his lap. His arms clamped down around mine in a hug, restraining me but keeping me close. Smiling now, he leaned down, our foreheads touching, his lips millimeters from mine. “Look how wild you get.”

I sat back, content to be in his arms. “Goodness, if I’d known you wanted me wild, I’d have acted on the impulse to bone you in the kitchen at the New Year’s party.”

His arms tightened around me. “That would have been interesting.”

Smirking, I tucked my head into the crook of his neck.”Yeah, if I’d had any alcohol, we’d have been caught in a very compromising position.”

“Like tonight?”

Scoffing, I shook my head. “Wine and I are good friends. I’m barely buzzed.”

“Then I didn’t do my job right,” Nick said. I laughed.

“Maybe you can try again later,” I told him. “I’m going to stir my sauce.”

“I’ll stir your sauce.”

“Hardy har har,” I called, disappearing into the kitchen.

I could still hear the music from Hunchback, and was cheerfully singing along with Quasimodo as I stirred and sampled the sauce. I added a hit of chili flakes, a pinch of basil, and stirred a little more, not hearing Nick creep up behind me.

His arms snaked around my waist, startling me. I tensed up, only to melt when his lips brushed my neck. Leaning back, I tilted my head, giving him more access. He bit down again, giving me a short jolt and making me gasp. It was heady, dizzying.

He took the spoon from my hand, which I’d already forgotten about, and covered the sauce again. I started to reorient myself, only to be yanked around and pushed into the counter beside the stove, Nick’s lips on mine again. He slid his hands up my sides, shifting my tank top up, up, until he broke the kiss to yank it off and toss it across the room. I grabbed his shirt and dragged him back, starved for something other than food.

Weightless. I felt weightless. Nick lifted me up effortlessly, high enough that I could wrap my legs around his waist as he turned– and pressed me into the wall. I dragged his shirt off and threw it somewhere, probably wherever my shirt had gone, and satisfied the dream of running my hands across his shoulders and back. His skin was hot against mine, his muscles rippling under my hands as he moved to support my full weight. I bit my lip and tried to stifle my moan, to no avail. Nick pressed his hips harder against me, and I moaned again, higher this time, not bothering to bite it back as I slid my hands into his hair.

“Beg,” He said, his lips against my throat. Breathless, I grinned.

“Make me.”

My heart leaped as Nick all but growled into my neck. Heat rushed over my skin, anticipating his next move. He lifted me, and I clung to him, giggling low in my throat, then leaning down to kiss him. The real thing was so much better than my dream had been. The taste of him, something that bordered sweet and savory, filled me.

I buried my face in his neck as he carried me, biting down and sucking gently– not hard enough to leave a mark, but enough that I got a reaction. Nick sucked in a breath, his arms tightening around me. I tilted my head back to stare at him. Seeing the near feral look in his eye, my grin widened, and I began to laugh again.

He stayed silent as he kicked my door closed, his expression darkening. A shiver ran through me, my heart racing even faster. I felt the first pang of desperation as he tossed me onto the bed; it pulsed through my heart, a blazing arrow, and shot down to my core. His focus on me was so intense, his eyes darkened nearly to black. For a moment, he just stared at me from the foot of my bed, as though trying to read me. My gaze held his steadily. Whatever he was looking for in my eyes, he found it. Agonizingly slowly, he climbed onto my bed and crawled up my body.

I reached for him, grasping his shoulders and pulling him down to kiss me, but he dodged, going for my neck again. His hands busied themselves with my breasts, making me arch, craving more. I wanted him on me, around me, inside me. He was going too slowly; I wanted, needed him, more, faster, now.

His lips traveled down as his hands shifted back. He made quick work of the clasp of my bra, flinging it away as his mouth latched onto one of my breasts. I gasped and arched higher, pulling his hair even as I pressed him closer to me. One arm wrapped around me, holding me securely, as his other hand slid down between my legs.

Whatever noise I made, it amused Nick. I was too busy getting lost in what his hand was doing to notice him sliding further down my body, hooking a finger under the waistband of my sweatpants. He stopped only long enough to pull them from my legs, before resuming his place on top of me, one hand between my legs, the other holding him up.

He watched my face, I couldn’t imagine what for. I couldn’t imagine much of anything. My vision blurred, then darkened, and I shut my eyes, bowing off the bed and up against him. I was close, too close, and I didn’t want this to end yet. Wrenching open my eyes, I grabbed his wrist and shifted until he dropped onto his back, and I rolled on top of him, straddling his hips.

If I’d thought that straddling him would somehow be better than his hand between my legs, I was both right and wrong. He felt right there, as though we fit together, but feeling his arousal against mine was more intense than his hand had been. I lost my edge for a moment, lost my train of thought, lost everything but the sensation of him underneath me.

Nick noticed. He rocked his hips under me, and I whimpered, dropping my hands to his shoulders. His hands latched onto my hips as he rocked again, and again, watching me unravel on top of him. I’d been planning to drive him as wild as I felt, to make him as desperate as I was. Now all I could think of was where this would inevitably lead.

Pressing a hand to his chest, I leaned over to my nightstand and yanked open the top drawer. Cursing, I rummaged through the contents, until I found what I was looking for: an unopened box of condoms.

“You’re such a Girl Scout,” he muttered, and I realized, with no small amount of satisfaction, that he was just as out of breath as I was.

“Safety begins with me,” I responded, just as breathlessly, and ripped the box open.

He laughed, but it cut off as I slid down his body. I’d gotten my bearings back, and I wanted to get him worked up. I held one condom in my hand as I dragged his sweatpants and boxers down his legs. They landed with my sweatpants on the floor behind me somewhere, but I was focused on his erection. Nick’s eyes widened a fraction as I took him into my mouth.

I delighted in his reactions. His hand went to my hair and pulled, trying to bring me closer, but I wanted to tease him. I backed off, licking, kissing, before taking him in again. He went tense, his breath too even, like he was forcing it. I smiled, knowing I’d won. Though he tried to conceal it, I’d managed to affect him. It was enough, a delightful thrill in my chest, a heady feeling that made me twice as impatient as I had been before. After sliding the condom onto him, it was my turn to crawl up his body.

Nick flipped me, too quickly for me to stop him, mounting me easily. His strong legs pushed mine apart, and I lifted my hips. He rubbed against me, driving me insane, before slowly pushing into me.

I choked on my own breath, blind, but deliriously happy. My eyes had shut somewhere along the lines, but I didn’t care. Even if I opened them, I would barely be able to see him. My legs tight around his waist, I dragged my nails up his back, then pulled him down to kiss me as he moved. I breathed out his name, quiet at first, then louder, until I was almost sobbing it. Nick dropped his head against my shoulder and let go, crushing me to him as his hips seemed to move of their own accord. He drove me up, and up, and finally– finally– over the edge. I nearly blacked out, I might have screamed, I wasn’t sure. He tensed for a split second, and then found his own release as aftershocks rocked through me.

We collapsed together, spent, his weight warm and wonderfully heavy on top of me. I threaded my fingers in his hair, petting him as he recovered. Content, I allowed myself to relax, dazed but unquestionably happy.

“Happy Valentine’s Day, Zoe” Nick murmured into my shoulder. I smiled, pressing a kiss to his temple.

“Happy Valentine’s Day, Nick.”

A New Year’s Treat

Being the Designated Driver meant I couldn’t get drunk. It didn’t, however, mean I couldn’t make other awful decisions at the New Year’s Eve party.

Christmas had come and gone in a flurry of lights and work and controlled chaos. It had gone so quickly that my apartment was still decorated in Christmas everything. Part of me wanted to ask Nick’s help taking them down, but after the Mistletoe Incident, I’d taken to actively avoiding him.

That, at least, didn’t matter… I had someone to flirt with, hug, and on occasion, kiss cheeks with. Sara was one of those women who made other women seriously question their sexuality. Barely taller than me, she was daintily built but surprisingly strong. She had glitter festively sprinkled in her blonde pixie cut, her shimmery makeup highlighting the crystal blue of her eyes, her lips pink and slightly pouted. More than that, she was a damn good friend, a great listener, funny, witty, sharp as a whip. She knew what she wanted and she wasn’t afraid to take it. I admired that about her.

She’d convinced me to DD with her to a friend’s New Year’s party, and since I didn’t want her alone or driving drunk on New Year’s, I ditched the idea of sleeping through the whole ridiculous holiday, glittered and glammed myself up, and played chauffeur. We accidentally twinned, too, both in shimmering black dresses and sky high, glittering heels, although hers were shocking pink, and mine here electric blue– matching my lipstick, since I’d decided to go all sorts of daring tonight.

Not like anyone was going to care that I was super daring. Most of them were obliterated, sucking face, or downright ignoring me and my ginger ale. I’d disappeared into a corner anyway, blatantly ignoring most of the people there and playing on my phone.

“Looks like you’re having a blast.”

The dry sarcasm that floated past me made my heart sink even as my stomach clenched. I looked up to see Nick leaning against the wall in front of me, looking slick and put together in all black. “Nick,” I greeted curtly, nodding and forcing a smile to my lips. The Mistletoe Incident was still haunting me. I hadn’t heard from him for days afterward. From what I could gather, it may as well have not happened at all. “You clean up nicely.”

“Same to you,” he retorted. His eyes traveled up and down my body– my mind sneered at him, but my traitorous body lit up like a candle, every cell suddenly painfully aware that he was here, he was damn attractive, and he had kissed me barely a fortnight ago.

“Zoe, there you are, I was–” Sara appeared like an archangel come to rescue me, as though the throng of people had simply opened up and spat her out for me. She cut short when she saw who I was speaking to. “Oh, hi Nick, I thought you weren’t coming?”

He shrugged. “Taylor and Brett talked me into it.” He looked over to the two men hosting the party, linked arm in arm by the fireplace, champagne in both of their hands. I personally appreciated how one’s tie matched the other’s shirt, and vice versa. “Plus I’m driving a few people home, so.” He shrugged again, the gestured to the both of us. “Nice.”

“Thanks,” Sara grinned, then turned back to me. “I’m marginally drunk and want to dance with you. Let’s go.”

I smiled, genuinely charmed, as Sara linked her arm through mine and dragged me to the next room, where a dance floor, a cheap rainbow disco ball, and a fairly respectable sound system had converted Taylor and Brett’s dining room into a dance room. The music was a mix of dance pop, electro-swing, and the occasional holiday song, keeping the party lively. Sara pulled me toward the wall across the crowd from the door, then crossed her arms.

“You aren’t even tipsy,” I observed, still smiling.

“Nick was flirting with you,” she said bluntly, proving my statement despite blatantly ignoring it. “You’ve been doing everything but actively hiding from him for two weeks, and he has the balls–”

“Neither of us knew he was going to be here,” I soothed. “It’s fine, Sara. I can handle myself. He’s not gonna turn into the big bad wolf and gobble me down whole or some shit.”

“No,” Sara agreed, visibly relaxing– I hadn’t realized how tense she was until she wasn’t– “but still, he should be less… less…”

“Of a gigantic prick?” I supplied.

“I was going to say of a complete asshat, but yes.”

I pulled Sara in, wrapping my arms around her. “It’s okay, babe, I’ll be fine. We’ll just dance together for a little while and show him how much cuter you are than he’ll ever be.” Winking, I lead her to the dance floor, and we started to jam out.

It was four songs later when we finally dragged ourselves back into the living room to be social. Sara vanished in half a second to go refill her blood stream with alcohol. Facing the pulsing crowd, I felt my heartbeat spike even further, somehow, despite it already beating wildly from dancing. The room seemed to shrink around me, people everywhere, and so much noise I couldn’t hear myself think. My breath hitched. Designated driver or not, I wasn’t going to last til midnight at this party if I didn’t find somewhere quiet, and now.

Side stepping couple after couple, I managed to worm my way through the living room, past the host couple with a polite smile, and into their kitchen. It was, blissfully, empty.

I sucked in a breath as I all but ran to the opposite side of the room, snatching up a paper cup from the open bag of them laying on the counter and filling it with water from the faucet. Rather than drink it, however, I just stared into the cup, trying desperately to pull myself together.

Why had I come? I hated parties. I hated people, in large quantities, in small spaces. Everything always became too loud and too close and too overwhelming. On top of that, I was rapidly developing the migraine of the century. I set the cup down on the counter, then proceeded to lean on it with my hands over my face.

“Playing hide and seek with Sara?”

“Oh god not you,” I whispered into my hands.

“Sorry?”

I turned to Nick and shook my head. “Sorry, I just got overwhelmed. So many people and so much noise tends to give me headaches.”

“That sucks.” Somehow he looked genuinely concerned, despite his indifferent tone.

“Yeah. I came to–” Hide had been the next word on my tongue, but I derailed it as quickly as it came– “to take a minute for myself.”

“Won’t Sara miss you?” Nick leaned against the counter and I glared up at him.

“She’s a big girl, she’ll be fine.” I picked up my water and swirled it around some, still not drinking it. “But she’s not exactly getting home without me, since I drove her here.”

“I bet your after party will be twice as fun.” The smirk he was giving me finally clicked in my mind, his intentions suddenly clear. For a split second, outrage fired through me, not only for me, but for Sara. Then, as I thought about it, an idea formed. It slithered into my mind like the smile that slid onto my lips.

“Yeah, I sure hope so. She looks damn fine in that dress.”

Nick’s smirk widened into a grin. “You should go find her.”

“I will.” Abandoning my cup, I strolled out the door and back into the living room, looking for my sparkly angel. I spotted her with a full drink in her hand, chatting away with the host and hostess, and strode over to her. “Excuse me–”

“Zoe!” She turned with impeccable balance, her eyes clear, her face decidedly lacking the drunken flush she should have had. “Hi babe!”

“Hi,” I said, scrutinizing her face. “How many drinks have you had since we left the dance floor?”

“Oh, none, I got to talking with these two and it kind of just slipped my mind that I had it…”

“Perfect,” I chirped, grabbing her drink and setting it on the mantle. “Could you do me a solid and kiss me?”

“I– what?” She looked like I’d just asked her to take a bat to a baby seal, and I inwardly winced.

I grinned–well, grimaced– trying desperately not to grit my teeth. “Nick thinks we’re dating, it doesn’t have to be super intimate or anything, just enough to–” But my words were cut off by Sara grabbing me by the arms, yanking me in, and planting her lips against mine.

Oh.

Whatever devious plans I’d had completely slipped my mind, along with every other thought I’d ever had or would ever have again. My hands landed on her hips to steady myself, and then clenched there, holding on for dear life. I felt light headed as she pulled me just a little closer, tilting her head slightly and deepening the kiss. My chest felt tight, my legs weak. Someone wolf whistled, and one of the hosts said, “Yes, girl, get it!”

It was over as suddenly as it had begun. Sara stepped back and looked over my shoulder, her lips vaguely blue tinted from kissing me, and grinned, the expression close to savage. “Does that clear things up?”

“No,” I said softly, just as Nick’s voice said “Exceptionally” behind me. I stared at Sara in a daze, trying to sort out the strange desire to grab her and drag her away, and the urge to turn around and kiss Nick until he felt as dazed and tongue tied as I felt right now. In the back of my mind, that small, rational part of me was running around screaming what the fuck? at the top if its lungs.

“Girl, drag him.” Brett was the one who spoke, which I only knew because he had the gold shirt and the black tie, while Taylor’s shirt was black, his tie gold. Otherwise I barely knew them well enough to keep their names straight. “Was he hitting on you?”

I wasn’t sure if he’d been speaking to  me or to Sara, but I answered anyway. “And then some.” I turned trying to arrange my expression enough to look sour, but too busy spacing out over that kiss to pull it off. Nick looked particularly smug, which helped me by a whole lot. I turned coldly away from him and looked at Sara. “Anyway, love, I’m going back to my hideaway corner.” She made a kissy face at me again, which I returned, before striding past Nick with my head up and the haughtiest expression I could manage on my face. Nick snorted.

Back in the kitchen, I drank about four cups of water, contemplating pouring a fifth down my shirt to douse the flames of desire coursing through me. “Calm your tits, Zoe,” I muttered to myself.

“I dunno, Sara seemed to enjoy exciting them–”

“WILL YOU STOP THAT!” I whipped around and threw my cup directly at Nick’s face, failing spectacularly and causing him to actually laugh. “Stop sneaking up on me, it’s downright creepy.”

“Just because you weren’t paying attention doesn’t mean I was sneaking up on you,” Nick pointed out, scooping the cup up off of the floor and dropping it in the nearby trashcan.

“Following me around, then.” Almost growling, I grabbed another cup and filled it up with water, drinking it just so that I didn’t have to say anything else to him.

“It’s almost midnight,” Nick stated. “Don’t you want to track down Sara and get your midnight kiss?”

“If I kiss her again I’ll spontaneously combust, and blowing up the host’s house would be rude.”

I didn’t realize he’d been moving in on me, so when I turned around to find him practically on top of me, I almost yelped. “What?”

“It’s almost midnight,” He repeated, “and you’re not going out to kiss Sara, so…”

I would have– should have– said no. I would have pushed him away and told him to go stick something sharp and spiky where the sun didn’t shine. I would have, should have, had every opportunity to, and instead, I heard the shouted countdown and stalled. I watched his hands come up to my face, cradling it; I watched him move in that last bit of space, pressing his body against mine, trapping me between him and the counter; I watched his face come down toward mine. Through all of that, I could have stopped him.

Instead, I closed the distance between us, grabbing his shirt and dragging him down, just as the crowd outside began to shriek and cheer. Happy New Year.

It was the same fire that had lit me under the Mistletoe. I clenched my fists with his shirt in them, as his hold tightened on me. His hand dove into my loose curls and closed there, pulling slightly, keeping me close. I felt the electric shock jolt through my body, the heat pooling in my core. My breath hitched as his other hand dropped to my ass and pressed me harder against him, proving to me that I wasn’t the only one being dangerously affected by this moment.

For a split second, rational thought jumped ship, and I thought about letting him take me here, in a stranger’s kitchen, surrounded by people. The thought startled me back to reality, enough to cut off the kiss. Drawing back, I pressed my hands against Nick’s chest, keeping him from trying that move a second time.

“Happy New Year,” he said smirking.

“Happy New Year,” I replied, breathlessly.

 

 

Seasonal Seasonings

Things were going to be festive if it was  the last thing I ever did. Even if I had to sacrifice a Christmas goose to Santa to get them that way, I was going to create the best Christmas I could, under the circumstances.

Florida weather wasn’t particularly Christmasy, to say the least. Midway through December, and we were still in the high eighties. People slathered on sunscreen and had holiday pool parties. It was downright weird. The winter darkness with the summer weather was really screwing with my seasonal depression, though thankfully, not for the worse. It was relieving to have energy in December for a change. The Christmas spirit, however, was noticeably lacking.

It was fine, I told myself, pulling into the parking lot of my apartment complex. I had a tree, had festive decorations, even had presents (wrapped ones! Not just boxes from Amazon! Amazing) to put beneath the tree and bring everything together. So despite not having snow, or family, or even my closest friends, at least my apartment would look cheerful.

I hauled the box with my tree under one arm, the bag with new ornaments and decorations over my opposite elbow, and made my way up to my apartment. I smiled at people who passed by, though I didn’t really register who I was looking at. I hoped as I trudged down the hallway toward my door that no one had tried speaking to me. I really wasn’t in the socializing mood anyway. I wanted to put up my decorations, maybe drink some hot chocolate (or whiskey, whichever) and bask in my festivity. I was going to sprawl out under my Christmas tree and soak in the artificial light until every inch of me radiated with holiday cheer.

As I unlocked my door, I realized that I was being too bitter about this whole ordeal. I strode into my tiny, one bedroom apartment, setting– more like dropping– the boxed tree in the corner where I wanted to set it up, and huffed, blowing the wispy hair that had escaped my ponytail out of my eyes. That wasn’t the way to go about Christmas decorating. I thought bleakly about my family up north, and felt a twang of… I supposed it was nostalgia, maybe homesickness. I couldn’t afford to fly home, and they couldn’t afford to come see me; my mother wanted to stay with her parents as their health deteriorated, my brother had work. I hadn’t even heard from my father or my sister, not since Thanksgiving (and god, that had been lonely and awful, I did not want a repeat of that on Christmas). My friends, of course, would be spending the holidays either working or with their families, as they should have been. Even my roommates were ditching me, although their families were considerably closer than mine, and they could afford to go visit.

So it seemed tree, wreath, and carols were going to be the best I could do this year.

My bitterness turned sharply to sadness, and I sighed. It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen my family recently. I wished I hadn’t– at least, not for the reason I had seen them. Visiting a grandfather who didn’t even know his own name half the time, let alone mine, was by far the hardest thing I’d had to do this year, even harder than saying goodbye to my family and moving (half on a whim) to Florida. On the other hand, I was going to see them come New Year’s, as they’d planned a not-so-surprise Disney trip for the lull after the holiday rush. It wouldn’t be the same as having them for Christmas, but it would be something.

I turned on the light in the living room, then set up my laptop on the coffee table, pulling up the Christmas music on my iTunes. The silence was killing me, so why not play a little something to put me in the decorating mood? Run Run Rudolph rocked out of my speakers, lifting my mood instantly, and I grinned.

Dancing, I set out to make myself that hot chocolate, and a snack to graze on while I put up the tree. I sang along and twirled, not even bothering to keep quiet. If someone didn’t have the Christmas spirit, they could come to my door and actively fight me.

Still singing with the upbeat tunes, I unboxed my tree and set about assembling it. Though in all honesty, it was more like wrangling it. Every branch had to be unwound and spread out into a sort of droopy fan pattern to even begin to resemble a real tree, and there were several parts to it. “Why on earth did I go with the plain tree?” I asked myself sourly, realizing that once I was done manhandling the tree itself, I’d have to wind endless lights around it. I whined, vaguely to the tune of the song that was playing. Stupid tree. Stupid lights. Stupid Christmas.

Nearly an hour later, my chocolate cold and forgotten, the sky dark, and my bra tossed across the room in a fit of discomfort and frustration, I was finally getting somewhere with the lights. I had reimagined the lyrics to nearly every song that had played, swearing profusely halfway through lines, muttering in the rhythm of the lyrics and promising the tree a swift death. I finally understood why my mom had dropped ninety bucks on an LED tree. No lights, no fire hazard, the branches changed colors, it could be set on a timer, none of this untangling, bulb checking bullshit…

My singing/swearing combo got cut off by a sharp rap on my door. Throwing back my head, I squeezed my eyes shut, praying to achieve the level of patience I needed to apologize to whichever neighbor had finally gotten tired of me belting Christmas music (and shouting curses). They didn’t deserve the backlash of my decorating frustrations, I reminded myself as I went to the door. Maybe I could even sweet talk them into helping me with this catastrophe.

“I’m so sorry, I’ll turn it down–” I hadn’t even opened the door all the way when I started talking, but when I saw the man on standing on my threshold, my brain stalled. “Nick?”

I worked with Nick. He was a friend outside of work, too, but not a very close one. A head or so taller than me, a little on the wiry side in build, he swayed slightly back and forth, having to actively look down to meet my gaze. “Hey.”

I just stared at him. How in the actual hell had he found me? Also why, that was another question I’d like answered, why had he found me and knocked on my door? Realizing that I was being profoundly awkward (and probably rude), I forced a smile to my face. “Hi! Good to see you, come on in.” I stepped back, allowing him to enter, and realized what an utter disaster my living room was. “I’m decorating– if you can call it that– so everything is kind of everywhere.”

“Decorating,” Nick said, grinning at me and making air quotations. I shrugged. “And singing, apparently,” He said, leaning down to see what song was on my iTunes. I’d completely forgotten about the music and tuned it out, but suddenly realized that a Muppets’ cover of Little Saint Nick was rocking out of the speakers, and I smiled.

“Yeah, I love Christmas music.” Okay, this was just awkward. It didn’t help that I found him distressingly attractive; I was actually ready to pinch myself to see if I’d fallen asleep and started dreaming that he was here. “Go ahead and have a seat. Can I get you anything to drink?”

“Meh.” He shrugged, but didn’t move to sit, standing in the middle of the room, his hands in his pockets. “I’m fine. Thanks.”

“Kay.” I frowned as I caught sight of my bra laying awkwardly behind a chair. He probably couldn’t see it from where he was sitting, but he could see me without said bra, and that was downright weird. “So ah.” I gestured awkwardly to him. “How?”

He gave me an incredulous look. “What?”

“How are you here?” Stunningly polite, I thought to myself. “And why?” Why, indeed. More like gee, Zoe, why are you a human disaster? Why can’t you talk like a normal person? Why are you so awkward?

“I live right upstairs,” Nick said, as though it were obvious. He’d even pointed up to prove his point. “You didn’t know that?”

“If I’d–” wait, no, sarcasm was rude, I’d already been rude, tone it back. “No, I didn’t.” Better than I wouldn’t have asked if I’d known at least. “That still doesn’t answer why you’re here.”

“You were swearing– loudly, by the way– so I figured you could use help.”

Figures. I’d lured him down like a siren, but rather than my singing, it had been my less-than-spectacular vocabulary. “Oh. Yeah. I ah…” I waved my arm at the tree. “It wasn’t cooperating. It’s still not cooperating. It’s a hot mess.”

“You’re a hot mess.”

“What?” I turned, startled, and he gave me a decidedly blank look.

“What?” He parroted, and then looked back at my tree. “It’s short.”

“I’m short,” I reminded him, breezing past him to continue my light winding adventure. “And it’s my tree.”

“That’s just sad.” I stuck my tongue out at him. “Real mature.”

Taking a deep breath, I fisted my hands on my hips and turned to face him, glowering at him. “Did you actually come here to help me, or did you just recognize my voice and think, ‘Oh, I’ll go fuck with Zoe, that’ll be entertaining’?”

“Believe me, if I’d come here to fuck with you, you’d be wearing less clothing.”

Typical Nick response to a question that had been  completely innocently intended. I dropped my face into one of my hands. “You’re impossible, do you know that?” When I looked back up at him, he was grinning at me, mirth lighting up his eyes. “You’re damn lucky I like you, or I’d have already kicked you out. I’m still thinking about it.”

“Nah you need my help too badly.” Cocky, Nick strolled past me and picked up the abandoned string of lights that lay on the floor, dangling from the tree branches.

“Says who?”

“I’m sorry, was ‘Jesus Christ you useless piece of shit, no don’t fall off the tree I just put you on’ not a cry for help?” He delivered it so casually, without even mocking my voice, that I felt my irritation simmer down.

I waved him on. “Fine, if you think you can get them to follow orders, be my guest. I’m gonna start putting other decorations up.” I turned on my heel, sweeping my bra up off the floor with a strand of garland as I headed toward my bedroom, leaving him to sort the god-forsaken tree lights out.

Moments later, I returned with my bra on, the garland draped over my arm, and a box of ornaments Mom had let me bring from home. Nick was carefully sliding the strand of lights into the tangle of fake branches inch by inch, and I stopped to watch him. He was so careful, his large hands cradling the fragile lights gently, poking the branches to make them lay a specific way and support the wires. I set my box on the couch and opened it, pretending not to steal glances at him. It was weird having him here, in my home, when we’d never been particularly close– sure, he’d eat lunch with me and a few of the other girls sometimes, or he’d come chat with me on his way to go do something else, but usually we just saw each other and waved or said “good morning” and that was it. I knew virtually nothing about him, had no idea how to act around him. Every time he was around I found myself tripping over my words or going entirely silent, and whenever I actually spoke, he would find a way to tease me, using my own words against me. If I hadn’t known better, I would have compared him to a five year old with a crush.

As if.

My music was still going, shifting into some of the slower songs. I had a particular fondness for John Denver and the Muppets’ CD, and started singing as soon as the music began, the nostalgic melodies boosting my energy so that I could decorate despite my shyness around Nick. I didn’t even notice him stop hanging lights as I hung my wreath and stocking, draped garland over the tall doorway, and finished draping garland on the bar counter separating my kitchen and living room (by Command hooks, because I was a Classy Lady). I turned to get a few of the snowflake ornaments I’d bought today and caught him staring at me, his face weirdly serious. My voice faltered. “What?”

Nick blinked at me. “Nothing. I was just listening to you.”

“Oh.” I frowned as I retrieved the box of ornaments. “You looked awfully serious. Lost in thought?”

“Sure.” He shrugged, and I sighed. Conversation over apparently.

I went back to humming as I hung snowflakes on the garland, slowly moving back into singing, and blatantly ignoring Nick as he finished winding lights onto the tree. Just as I had, he occasionally insulted the string of lights, or muttered swearwords under his breath. It brought a grin to my face, though I valiantly suppressed my giggles.

“Your tree is done.”

I turned and saw my sad, sparsely branched tree sparkling in the corner, and gasped. “It’s so pretty!” I set down my last few ornaments and dashed over to the tree, smiling at the warm lights, and feeling somehow as though those lights were inside me, too. “Thank you so much. It looks lovely. And you put the star on!” I pressed my hands to my cheeks. “It’s Christmas!”

“You’re such a weirdo.” Nick reached over and ruffled my hair, pulling more of it loose from its ponytail. “Happy to help, have fun decking out the rest of it. I’m going back up to my apartment. Later.”

“Thank you, really,” I insisted, turning to hug him. I hadn’t hugged him often before, but his hugs were really nice, especially with him being so much taller than me. I was surprised he hugged me back, but he did, swaying me a little. When he moved toward the door, I followed, planning on locking the door behind him, but he stopped. “What?”

Nick pointed up. “Your garland has mistletoe.”

I looked up at it, confused, only to realize that he was right. I’d hung that garland because it had been the right length, and had a bow in the middle, with what I’d assumed was holly hanging from it. Mistletoe honestly made more sense, but that hadn’t been my intention. This  was all sorts of awkward. “Huh. I honestly didn’t even realize that was mistletoe. Oops.” Nick snorted. I looked back at him and smiled. “Come here, I won’t bite.”

He frowned, but I’d already raised up on my toes. Leaning in, I gave him a prim peck on the cheek. “Merry Christmas, Nick.”

That, I had assumed, would be the end of it. I turned away, expecting him to leave, deciding that locking the door could wait. I didn’t make it far. Nick’s arm came around my waist, and I found myself yanked against him, his lips pressed firmly to mine.

My mind went blank. Completely. His lips were soft, his arms strong. His other hand found its way into my hair, gripping my ponytail and pressing my lips closer to his. My eyes fell closed as my hands came up to grip his shoulders as I forgot myself and gave in. Heat flooded my chest and neck, up to my face. My heart seemed to swell in my chest, so full I was afraid it would burst.

As suddenly as it began, it ended. Nick pulled away from me, leaving me in a kiss-fueled cloud of confusion. I opened my eyes, staring at him in blatant shock as he smirked at me. “Merry Christmas, Zoe.” With that, he strolled out the door, shutting it firmly behind him. I stayed frozen where I was for another few moments, with my hand over my pounding, aching heart.

“Oh,” I managed, a good five minutes after Nick had left. “Okay. Bye.”

The Fruit of Hell

It began as it always did. We were nearly a yard apart, sitting on opposite ends of the couch. I played on my phone, reading some smut-riddled fan fiction, while he fiddled around on his laptop– role playing, Facebook, whatever– and the cat chewed on the wrist strap of my phone case, curled up in my lap. She, at least, still liked me.

I refused to look at him. We were friends. Just friends, apparently, despite everything that had gone on the past few months. My face stayed deceitfully blank despite the spear of hot rage that shot up from my chest and into my throat. How could someone hold me, kiss me, touch me, the way he had, and feel nothing? How could he so easily move out of a… whatever we’d been, into a friendship, when merely two weeks before, I’d been ready to tell him I–

No, not now. Now was absolutely not the time to think about that.

It didn’t help that I found him so damn attractive. His dark eyes stared into my soul, his smile could turn me into a puddle at his feet. He was lean but strong, and taller than me. He could easily lift me, and had on occasion. Even sitting as far away as he was, I could sense him, like another part of me. I tried to tune out his presence entirely, but it was nearly impossible. I wanted to move over, pull him by the hair, and punch him directly in the face. Except I didn’t, not really. I wanted to kiss him until he came to his senses. The fact that I wanted to kiss him again, when I’d come here with the intention to prove that I could just be his friend, infuriated me even further. I was supposed to be acting like an adult here, supporting his decision, showing him that there were no hard feelings. No hard feelings, indeed. There was certainly nothing hard here.

God, I was bitter.

I scrolled down even though I hadn’t read a word of the story on my phone. I’d read it before anyway, which was why I’d chosen it in the first place. I’d known full well I wouldn’t be able to focus on someone else’s romantic, sexually fulfilled journey to happily ever after. Not while mine was crumbling to dust before my eyes. The cat seemed to sense the thinly veiled resentment rolling off me despite my carefully constructed, indifferent mask. Deciding she’d be better off at my feet, she jumped down and splayed herself across my toes, trilling for attention.

“What, are you feeling neglected?” I cooed at the kitten, stroking her ears. She was a beautiful cat, lithe and lean, grey tabby markings covering her ears and back like a cloak, while the rest of her was stark white. Turning my back to effectively cut off the source of my irritation, I scratched under her chin and smiled at the sweet sound of her purr. “You just want attention.” I slid my hand down over her belly, rewarded with her curling in on my hand, attempting to bite at it. I kept sliding it just out of reach and then going back, giggling as we began an easy, playful routine.

I didn’t hear him move. I didn’t expect him to, either; so it was with no small amount of surprise that I felt his hands come down on my arms, his chest pressed to my back. He tucked his cheek onto my shoulder with a grin, startling me so that I couldn’t move my hand away from the cat quickly enough. I found my fingers trapped by her declawed paws, her tiny teeth going in for love bites.

“That’s right, bite her!” He encouraged the cat, his body pushing mine down, giving the feline better access. “Bite her, bite her, bite her…” He was so hyper, so enthusiastic, I should have been outraged, and yet all I could focus on was his closeness. His warm heat against mine. So close, close enough to–

I forced myself to remember my anger. “You’re incorrigible,” I told him, giving him a shove. “Careful, or I’ll bite you.”

He gave me a devious grin, and began to let me up. I retrieved my hand from the cat and pushed back, expecting him to go back to his computer, but I was wrong. Oh, how very wrong I was.

His teeth closed over the soft spot where my neck met my shoulder, firmly taking hold, but not hard enough to really hurt. I gasped, frozen, caught between the urge to fight him off and the urge to pull him closer. Traitor, I thought viciously, as my body went pliant, heat pooling in my belly.

With a dark chuckle, he peeled himself off of me. “Like that?” I turned to glare at him, my temper spiking at the smirk that still graced his lips. Part of me wanted to slap him, to throttle him for making me feel, making me want. How dare he go back on what he’d said, toy with me, play me, treat me like…

An idea swirled in my mind. As he turned back to his computer, I realized he had given me the rules to his game. Rules I could play by better than he did. The same smirk still curving his lips ghosted onto mine. He wanted to play? Let’s fucking play.

I moved like a shot, launching myself toward him, bracing myself on his arm and his thigh. Silently, I dragged my lips up his neck with agonizing slowness. “That was mean,” I purred with my lips grazing his ear, then nipped my way back down. I heard his sharp inhalation and smiled against his skin. He rarely showed any emotion, rarely had a visible reaction to anything– but here he was, taken by surprise as I had been, caught off guard, and showing me everything I needed. I slid myself into his lap, straddling his thighs. His hands came to my hips, gripping me tightly as he stared, glowered almost, up at me. The blank facade was in place as ever, but I could see the darkening of his eyes, sense the effect I had on him. I smiled, fueled by both my anger and that traitorous desire to touch, to taste, to take.

He bucked deliberately under me, sending my thoughts and my heartbeat skittering away. I lost my composure for a split second, shutting my eyes and sucking in a breath as I felt him pulsing between my legs, and felt the responding rush of heat race up my neck and down my thighs. Though I recovered quickly, it wasn’t fast enough. Now he had the reigns, and he knew it. The corners of his lips were curved up, just enough that I knew he’d read me. Damn.

I gathered my wits and lifted my hips from his, only to be yanked back down forcefully. With a whimper, I arched my back, painfully aware of how hard he was, and how much that was turning me on. He wrapped a hand in my ponytail, yanking on my hair, knowing full well what it did to me. Delicious shivers ran down my neck and back, my lips parted, and before I could stop either of us, he had pulled my face down to his. Our lips met, as they always had, in a dizzying, electric daze. It was like the first time, every time, no matter how many times we kissed. I hated it, resented it, yearned for it. The moment our lips joined, I knew I’d lost the battle.

That didn’t mean I couldn’t put up a valiant fight.

I sucked on his bottom lip, sinking my teeth into it, delighted when his hands tightened on my hips. He rocked again, and I readjusted, rocking with him in a way that made me nearly delirious with pleasure, but wouldn’t give him the satisfaction he was looking for. His hands slid up to squeeze my breasts, gripping them firmly, almost painfully in his long, lean hands. My hands danced under his tee shirt, my nails scraping across his skin. He grabbed the hem of my thin hoodie and wrenched it off of me, lunging for my neck again. His hand cradled the back of my head, the other bracing the small of my back, his lips gentle, nibbling at the side of my throat. I struggled not to let the intimacy of the position pull me in, fought to keep the fire of betrayal in me, despite the swell of my heart and the fluttering of butterflies in my belly. He had always known how to seduce me. Bastard.

Seizing his tee shirt, I pulled, determined to have him more vulnerable than I was, but he returned the favor, pulling my tank top up as well. We heaved breathlessly, not even bothering to look at each other as our shirts went flying. I pulled his hair and pressed my lips to his again, letting more of the fire inside me pour out. It only seemed to fuel whatever was urging him on. He laid me back in his arms again, this time leaving a blazing hot trail of love bites down to my breast. The bra had been intended to remind him of just what he was missing out on, and I realized, with a mix of satisfaction and shame, that it had done the job remarkably, and then some. His fingers grasped at the clasp frantically, and all I could do was pull him closer and laugh as he struggled to free me. He growled– literally growled– as he successfully unhooked my bra and all but ripped it off of me, not bothering to look where he tossed it as his mouth closed over my nipple.

I swallowed another whimper as he toyed with me. This was not putting up a good fight, but I wasn’t going to stop it for the world. Maybe I was selfish and cruel and pitiful, but I could wallow in guilt and self hatred later. Now the only thing I could focus on was the way he gently pulled me closer to him, rolling his hips under mine, filling me with an impossible need. I pulled his hair again, the anger starting to sneak in again. I couldn’t tell which I wanted to do more– pull him closer or rip him away.

His lips came to mine again, and I bit down on the bottom one, harder than I’d intended to. He jerked back. I’d never been rough with him, always content to let him lead, let him have the control, let him do the marking. I could tell I’d startled him, maybe even hurt him. The combination of lust and rage surged to the forefront of my mind, and I grinned. He had done more than open the door when he’d first bitten me; he’d obliterated the door entirely, and now he could face the consequences.

I shoved him to the side, catching him once again off guard. He fell back, pulling me with him, fisting a hand my hair and dragging me down to kiss him. He was just as brutal, worrying my bottom lip in his teeth. I swept my hand down over the tight bulge in his shorts and was rewarded with an involuntary thrust of his hips. “Now who’s mean,” He demanded, his voice infuriatingly steady despite his hips still rocking under my hand.

Grinning wildly, I grabbed his wrists and planted them beside his head. I knew he could get out if he tried, but I also knew he was enjoying this too much to do so. I put my face inches from his, just far enough away that he couldn’t kiss me, and hesitated, deliberately out of his reach. “You have no idea,” I whispered, gazing into his dark eyes. With that, I sat up, removing myself from him completely. I snatched my phone up from where it had fallen, startling the cat, who had taken to napping during our heated session. She stared at me incredulously, as I imagined her master was doing, while I entered my pass code and went serenely back to reading.

There was a heavy pause, in which I managed to steady my breathing and replace the cold, detached facade I’d learned from him. The satisfaction of having led him on as he’d led me on countless times before kept a faint smirk on my face, and soothed both the unsated lust and the simmering resentment I had for him.

He rose, and I felt triumph surge as I listened to him disappear into another room. I didn’t pay attention to which, didn’t really care, as I reached over to grab my discarded clothing and redress myself. If I was lucky, he’d take long enough for me to leave unnoticed. I could leave with the final victory, my dignity still mostly intact. A part of my brain cried out furiously that I was still not satisfied, but I ignored it. I could throw myself at him and be the most ridiculous hussy that ever lived, or I could walk out with my head held high.

Neither, apparently, had crossed his mind, however.

I was already yanking down my tank top when his hand came around my arm. I turned, prepared to argue, to fight, until I saw the look of unbridled lust on his face. It startled me, stalling me. He was in the same boat I was in, I realized, a little sadly. Selfish, cruel, and pitiful. Ruined by his lust just as I was ruined by mine.

We weren’t fighting each other anymore. We were fighting ourselves. And, in all honesty, I didn’t have the strength– or maybe I just didn’t have the will– to fight anymore.

Decided, I grabbed his shirt in my hand and dragged him down. The air seemed to shift between us, going from stubborn to desperate. He had my shirt in his fist, his other hand at his side, while I shoved my hand into his hair and pulled him closer, closer, as though we were going to melt into each other.

He had me back on the couch in seconds, my shirt once again being launched across the room as he feasted on my neck and breasts. He didn’t need to bother with my bra, as I was already wrangling it off myself, tossing it carelessly after my shirt. Wrapping my legs around his waist, I pulled him down onto me, wanting our skin to touch. He resisted, and I clawed my nails down his back. He settled then, growling again, flushed and sticky and wonderfully heavy against me. His hands went to the fly of my jeans, prying them from my legs without moving his lips from my throat. His skin was deliciously hot between my thighs as I returned them to his waist, and I shivered, heat rushing to my core. With an impatient noise, I grabbed him by the hair and pulled until he came up to kiss me again. I wasn’t paying attention when he shimmied out of his own shorts, but I did notice him hook a finger under the lace of my panties and tug. Lifting my hips, I released his waist again, not letting him pull far away as I drank from his lips, my hands framing his face.

We were naked then, bare in front of each other as we had been only a handful of other times.Before, we’d always been more focused on teasing each other, or too frantic to get off that we didn’t bother getting undressed. The few times we had managed to get naked, things never seemed to last long enough for either of us. It seemed more intimate now, somehow. I felt my emotions surge, but fought them, smashing them back down with every bit of internal strength I had. He stared at me as he panted, and I realized what he’d been holding this entire time: a condom. I felt my heart flutter, and shoved that away, too. He was a smart man. He was always safe.

I watched him slide the condom on, my heart still racing, and then locked eyes with him. I had never been able to read him well, but I knew, somewhere in my heart, that despite everything, despite choosing someone else over me, he felt something for me. It may have been purely physical, but for me, it was enough. I reached up as he came down on top of me, pulling him close as we began the familiar dance, kissing him with every ounce of passion I could muster. He was the first man who had never hurt me, the only one who managed to drive me wild and satisfy me at the same time. He left me writhing, stole my breath, brought me up and up and up– and when I shattered, he shattered with me, both of us rendered silent by the force of our orgasms.

I collapsed, shaking, his weight warm and blissfully heavy on top of me. I felt the rush of emotions again and didn’t bother to stop them, allowing the hot, bitter tears to escape, thankful that my breathing was already unsteady. I traced the line of his back, gently, bringing my hand up to rest in his soft, sweat slicked hair. He had tucked his head into the curve of my shoulder, and seemed to be in a sort of post-coital daze.

Turning, I pressed a kiss to his temple. This had stopped being a battle, I realized, the moment I’d opened my arms to him. It was a goodbye.

I sneaked my one, miraculously free hand up to rid my eyes of the tears, hoping that my climax-flushed face would hide any other signs of my crying. He recovered with a kiss on my shoulder, sitting up and pulling out of me. His face was blank, but when wasn’t it? Taking my arm, he helped me sit up, and then rose to dispose of the condom. Evidence, my mind whispered to me, but I ignored it. I gathered pieces of my clothing and began to pull them back on, clenching my jaw to keep from losing my composure. I knew if I let go now, I wouldn’t be able to stop. He’d see me. He’d know. I was dressed before him, pulling together my purse and phone as he dressed himself, and waiting for him by the door.

His stoic expression mirrored mine. I wondered if his was a mask, as mine was, but pushed that thought away, too. With more effort than I thought I could manage, I managed a pleasant, almost affectionate smile. “I’ll see you at work.”

“Yeah.” We stared at each other for another long moment, before he leaned down, impossibly, and touched his lips to mine. Sweetly, gently. A goodbye. “Take care.”

“You too.” He held the door as I walked out, and I heard it shut, after a moments hesitation, behind me. I didn’t look back as I walked to my car. I didn’t even look back as I drove away. Despite the agonizing ache in my chest, I didn’t look back. I didn’t have to. I knew he wouldn’t be there. He never was.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, into the silence, into the sunset, into the void that was my heart. I wasn’t sure if the apology was for him or for that poor girl who he had betrayed, or even  for myself. Bitter tears, once again, began to run down my cheeks. I pulled over and let them fall, letting myself finally, finally let go. The sobs that wrenched me were pitiful, shameful, but I didn’t care. I was selfish and cruel, but I cried nonetheless.

At least, I told myself bleakly, I had never admitted that I loved him.