An Oliver Twist
My mother's kitchen smelled of baking pie crust and brewing tea, and I savored the warm scent as I walked into it, coming through the side door of the house. I went over to the counter and set down the shopping bags I was holding, and then took off my woolen mittens and leaned heavily against the counter with a sigh. I glanced over to the kitchen table and I was immediately met with two incredulous looks as my mother and boyfriend took in my appearance.
Though she was well past middle age and wearing a reindeer Christmas sweater, my mother still looked wily and strong with her gray hair and clear eyes. She lived alone in this house, set back amongst the pine trees on Clary Lake in Maine. I was an only child and my father had passed away ten years ago, and even though I knew she held onto his memory, she was quite content living here on her own. Even so, I stayed with her for part of the holidays, sometimes bringing along some company. This year, I had brought Chris, who I had been dating for two and a half years now, and his roommate, for New Year's.
Chris was sitting across from the table from my mother, his work Blackberry in his lap as he swept mildly concerned eyes over my disheveled appearance. He was a dark man, with short black hair and eyes the color of mahogany. When I first met him at one of those friend-of-a friend-of-a-friend's get-togethers, I had thought him handsome, not necessarily because of his physical attributes, but because of something intriguing about his presence. He had the ability to be commanding and subtle at the same time, and with a touch of whisky in him, the ability to charm me off my feet. Or, at least two and a half years ago.
Setting her pen down next to the crossword puzzle she had just been working on, my mother frowned at me. "What on earth happened to you, Gen?" she asked.
I ran a hand that had turned pink with cold under my nose, sniffing. "I, uh, well…got lost," I replied sheepishly.
"Where?" she asked, standing up and walking over to me.
I waved a hand towards the door I had just come through. "I took the path through the woods on the way back from the grocery store and I guess I took a wrong turn," I explained, rubbing my numb hands together. "When I realized I got turned around, I cut through the trees, and uh…got a little more lost."
"Didn't you grow up in these woods?" Chris asked, an unpleasant smile curling on his lips.
I shot him an equally unkind look, and said, "Yes, but I swear it wasn't my fault. The paths were different or something—"
"They redid the paths last year after that ice storm," my mother said, reaching into a grocery bag and pulling out a bottle of milk. She patted my cheek as she passed me on the way to the refrigerator and smiled. "It wasn't your fault, honey. It was good you got back when you did, though. It's nearly dark out."
I unwrapped my scarf from around my neck. "Yeah, I know. Mr. Nelson was out there walking his dog and pointed me in the right direction."
Mr. Nelson, a neighbor of my mother's, had been kind enough not to comment on the twigs stuck in my hair or the snow on my bum which had so plainly indicated that I had fallen right on it. I hadn't quite gotten reacquainted with the depth of the snow here in rural Maine, since the last time I had seen snow was last year. I was a city girl now, working in a tall office building in Los Angeles, somewhat content in my cramped one-bedroom apartment with nonstop sunshine and the constant smell of chlorine that drifted up through my open window from my apartment complex's swimming pool. At first, I had been delighted to see snow again, all white and sparkling in the sunlight, its clean, fresh smell coating my lungs, but now, after this three hour ordeal just to pick up some groceries, I was no longer impressed.
"Well, thank god for Mr. Nelson," Chris said. I caught the sarcasm in his voice, but my mother did not. He was prone to some unpleasant moods, which I had learned to ignore.
"Yes, he is a dear," she said. She turned to me. "Take off your coat and go sit at the table, in the chair next to the radiator. You'll warm up soon enough."
I shrugged out of my heavy winter coat and laid it on the marble countertop next to my mittens. Walking over to the table, I plopped into the seat next to Chris, which had the radiator right behind it. I immediately felt the heat on my back, and I leaned towards it, closing my eyes. Chris' phone buzzed, and I heard his fingers quickly tapping back a message on the keypad. He was a junior partner of a medium-sized law firm and thought himself a great deal more self-important than he probably was.
"And what do we have here?" an amused voice with an Irish brogue rumbled from the doorway that led into the living room.
My eyes flew open and met a pair of smiling eyes that always reminded me of a late afternoon sky – a dark, shining blue. Chris' roommate and good friend Oliver, being well over six feet tall, stooped to clear the doorway, and sat in the chair across from Chris. He folded his hands on the table and raised an eyebrow at me, expecting an answer.
I narrowed my eyes at him. "I got lost, okay?"
He seemed to be restraining a smile as he replied lightly, "Oh, sure."
"I did!" I said indignantly. "They redid the paths in the woods. Tell him, Mom." I looked over at her and she smiled absently and murmured, "Uh-huh," as she opened the oven to check on the pie in there.
"Don't worry yeself, lassie," Oliver said to me. He pointed to my hair. "Ye've got a branch or somethin' in there, though."
I quickly reached up and pulled out a twig from my tangled hair, flushing a bit. Oliver gave me a wide wolf grin and I felt my cheeks grow hot as they always seemed to do when he was around.
I never understood why he and Chris were friends; they were polar opposites. Oliver was tall and broad, fair-haired and blue-eyed with a smooth Irish complexion, traditional and good-humored and stubborn as an ox. Chris was slightly shorter with a more lithe physique, short-tempered and ambitious and a personality that could be incredibly charismatic or incredibly exasperating, depending on what day it was. They had met in college, when Oliver was new to the U.S. and Chris was at the peak of his popularity, and had shared an apartment ever since they had graduated.
Sometimes it hurt to look at Oliver. It hurt something deep in my chest, in that nook just under my heart. I didn't know how to explain it. He was attractive, but that wasn't it. He was funny and charming, but that wasn't it either, since he acted that way with everyone. But it would hit me at the most random times: when I was over at their place, watching TV with them on the couch, and he laughed at something and turned to me to see if I found it as funny as he did and our eyes caught and held for a second, when he read the newspaper in the morning with his hair mussed from sleep, sticking out in little tufts, when he said my name in his Irish accent in that deep reverberating voice, when he grinned at me like he was doing at this very moment.
"Ye look cold," he observed, cocking his head slightly to the side.
I tipped the chair back closer to the radiator and replied indifferently, "I'm fine."
"Hmmm," he said disbelievingly, and stood up. He went to a mug that sat on the counter, discarded the tea bag that was floating in it, went to the fridge, narrowly avoiding bashing into my mother, sloshed some milk in it, and added one and a half spoonfuls of sugar to it. He placed it in front of me. "Here ye are. I made it for meself, but I s'ppose ye need it more than I do."
"Thanks," I said softly, drawing the mug towards me, warming my fingers. He had known exactly how to make tea the way I liked it, and a little part of me was flattered.
I saw my mother out of the corner of my eye, a small smile on her face as she looked at the mug in front of me.
"My god, service up here is terrible," Chris muttered, frowning as he held up his Blackberry to get a signal.
I ignored him and took a sip of tea, meeting a pair of blue, blue eyes over the rim of the mug.
It was the evening before New Year's Eve. We had just finished cleaning up after dinner, and now it was time for the pumpkin pie my mother had made earlier today. Smelling of rich spices and cooked sugar, my mouth was watering.
Oliver appeared at my side and handed me a knife to cut the pie. I took it and he reached into the cabinet to get four plates. "Best cut Chris a small piece, eh?" he said quietly, near my ear. My neck suddenly felt bare. "He doesna like to eat much dessert, for fear of his delicate waistline." He made a face and pretended to puff up.
I laughed, and glanced behind at Chris, who was talking with my mother at the table. "Well, good. Then there's more for us." I cut the first piece and placed it on a plate. He lifted it and held up the next plate. "Do you, uh, miss your family back in Ireland?" I asked on a whim.
He seemed surprised at first, but a smile quickly appeared. "'Course, but I'll have told ye that I've only my sister left?" I nodded, and he continued, "Well, she's got four wee ones now and a pair of in-laws to be reckoned with and well, don't go tellin' everyone, but visitin' them is sort of exhaustin''."
I plopped another piece of pie down, and smiled up at him. "I bet," I said.
He flashed a smile back and then cast his eyes down. "Aye, well, it's been awhile since I seen 'em. It's hard to find enough time to go back, ye know? The children are taller than me now, I expect," he said, trying to sound light, but I caught the wistful tone.
"I doubt that," I said jokingly, licking some pie off my index finger, pointedly looking at the top of his head and wriggling my eyebrows.
He gave me a playful "watch it" look, and opened a drawer to pull out some forks.
"How long's it been since you've been back?" I asked, watching him put a fork on each plate.
Face guarded, he replied, "Three years, now."
I didn't know what to say, so I bit my lip. "You're…always welcome here, Oliver. I hope you know that. My mother loves company."
He didn't look at me, but his lips curved up. "Thank ye."
I was still watching his face and I knew I was not looking at him the way I should be looking at my boyfriend's roommate. More often than not, I had to check myself around Oliver. I seemed to be easily caught up in the way his hair glinted bits of red in florescent light, the way his shoulders tensed when he talked about personal matters, the way his stubble made him look like he should be in the forest, chopping down wood. Clearly my throat, I picked up two of the plates and went to the table. I put a plate in front of my mother and the other in front of Chris, and sat down.
"Looks delicious," Chris said in his most polished voice that I'm sure he used to bribe judges. My mother smiled wide and took a bite of her pie.
Oliver slid a plate in front of me and sat next to me. He lifted his fork and I couldn't help noticing his hands were big and masculine and I found myself wondering if they were warm, if he had callouses from working construction, if my hand fit inside his, how those hands would feel running up the sides of my body…my eyes widened and I promptly took a large bite of pumpkin pie.
"Slow down, Gen," Chris laughed.
I swallowed, slightly embarrassed, and said, "Sorry."
"Let a lass eat, Chris," Oliver said before putting a large piece of pie in his mouth.
Chris chuckled and waved a hand, "I'm just kidding," he said casually.
"This really is delicious, Mrs. Grey," Oliver said, nodding to my mother across the table. He glanced at me and I gave him a small appreciative smile.
I clicked off the bathroom light after I had washed my face, brushed my teeth, and put on my nightie. I stepped into the hallway and gasped when I saw a dark shadowy figure in front of me. I quickly reached and flicked on the bathroom light in order to see more clearly.
"Oh, jeez," I breathed, putting a hand to my chest. "You scared me."
Oliver grinned at me. "Sorry, Gen."
Something about the way he said my name made me very conscious of the fact I wasn't wearing a bra and that my nightie was exceptionally short. I tucked a strand of my hair behind my ear and tried to act calm and collected. "It's okay," I said. I edged out of the doorway of the bathroom and paused before continuing down the hallway towards the room Chris and I were sharing. "Well, goodnight, then."
I made the mistake of looking back when he replied, "G'night," in that rumbling voice. He was wearing boxer shorts. Red plaid boxer shorts. That was it. Had he no decency? This was my mother's house. What if she came out of her room and found him standing here in boxer shorts? My god. My god, he had some muscular arms. And such a smooth chest.
He caught me looking and there was a flare of something in his eyes. It passed between us and we both paused, looking at each other, the silence of the house deafening. The hair on my arms prickled and goose bumps ran over my flesh. He shifted, and I stood stock still like a deer in headlights. Finally, I shook myself and licked my lips. I gave him a pathetic wave and turned to pad down the dark hallway.
What had just happened? I thought he was attractive – I always had - but in that moment, I didn't just want to jump his bones, I wanted to run my hands over him, find out what that stubble felt like under my hands, what color the flecks in his irises were, what his skin smelled like. That was lust, mixed in with some other, very complicated things.
I shook my head, opening the door to the room. This was crazy. I was with Chris and Oliver was Chris' friend. Nothing should, or would, ever happen.
Chris was already in bed, turned on his side, dark eyes flashing up to meet mine when I entered. I closed the door, turned off the bedside lamp, and crawled into bed beside him.
"Goodnight," I said, turning on my side as well.
He reached behind him and squeezed my arm. "Goodnight," he said.
The night passed with a great deal of tossing and turning on my part, desperate attempts to fall asleep only to be jerked awake by visions of dark blue eyes and red plaid. I sighed exasperatedly more than a few times, and Chris muttered in his sleep each time I did.
I decided to get up around dawn; the sky was brightening outside our small window. I slipped on a red sweatshirt and jeans, and then patted around for a decent pair of shoes. I grabbed two boots and slipped out of the room. Making my way to the kitchen, I sat in a chair to put on my boots. I had taken two different ones, one black and one brown. I shrugged to myself. Oh, well.
Putting on my coat, I ventured out into the backyard where the grass was heavy with dew, splashing onto the toes of my boots. The air was crisp and it was quiet except for the wind rustling the branches of the trees. I made my way down to the dock that stretched out on the lake and enjoyed the clunking of my boots on the old, worn-down wood. There was a bench at the end of the dock, and I sat down after brushing snow off of it.
I sat there for some time. The sun rose over the horizon, a burnt orange color tinged with the dark pink of the clouds rising with it. A bird chirped in the trees, sounding surprising chipper on this cold winter's day. I found myself thinking about Chris. When I looked at him, I just saw Chris. Chris, with his sardonic sense of humor and fluctuating feelings of tenderness towards me. Unintentionally, our life together had settled into a monotonous routine. Routines were good - I even liked them - but when I thought of years and years of our life as it was now, I felt a sense of dread.
Then my mind turned to Oliver, Chris' complete opposite. Booming, unaffected laugh, twinkling eyes, and that smile full of warmth. God, I had to stop thinking about this.
Surprised, I turned to find Oliver walking a good ways down the dock towards me. Speaking of the devil. He was wearing sweatpants and a gray hoodie with sneakers, ready to go for a run.
"Thought I'd give ye fair warnin' this time," he smiled, stopping in front of me. "I didn't startle ye, did I?"
I shook my head and smiled back tentatively, not knowing how to act about last night's…whatever it was. Nothing, I told myself. It was nothing. "Good morning," I said.
He breathed deeply and looked out on the lake, his breath making a cloud as he exhaled. "Thought I'd go for a quick run. Need to work off ye mum's fine cookin'," he said lightheartedly. He looked down at me. "What are ye doin' up so early?"
"Couldn't sleep," I said, shrugging. A gust of wind sent a chill down my spine and I hugged myself.
"Why is it ye always look so cold?" he laughed, sitting down on the bench next to me. His thigh brushed against mine.
I grinned. "I don't know. I guess I'm just not used to cold weather after living in L.A. for so long."
"Hmm," he replied with a faint smile. He squinted up at the sky, which was beginning to fill up with light gray clouds. "Looks like it might snow soon."
"Yeah?" I glanced up as well, noticing the gray clouds. I inhaled deeply. "I guess it does smell like it's going to snow."
He raised an eyebrow at me in amusement, a trademark of his. "Ye can smell snow comin'?"
"Of course," I responded matter-of-factly. "You can't?"
He laughed loudly and it resounded on the lake, a rich, pleasant sound. "Nah, I can't. Perhaps I wasn't born with that particular talent."
I balled my hands into the sleeves of my jacket. "Perhaps." I nodded back towards the house, and said teasingly, "Weren't you going to go for a run?"
"Yes," he said, standing up. "But ye distracted me."
There was a little twinge in my chest, but I managed to hide it from appearing on my face. "Oh, I'm sorry," I answered sarcastically.
"Ye going to have breakfast waitin' for me when I get back?" he grinned down at me.
He laughed again. "I do at that." He suddenly reached a hand towards my face, hesitated, thumb hovering over my cheekbone. The smile was still on his face as he very lightly cupped my face. My breath left me and I stared up at him. "Get inside and make yeself somethin' warm to drink."
I made an incomprehensible sound. My heart was beating and I felt its pounding in the pulse in my throat.
"I don't wanna be comin' back to yer frozen corpse. What a waste that would be, eh?" he said with a saccharine smile. His hand stayed where it was for another moment, and then he took it back. "Ye've got two diff'rent shoes on, ye know?" he added. He turned and walked back towards the house as I sat where I was, trying to remember to breathe as I looked down at my mismatched shoes.
I was eating Lucky Charms at the kitchen table, flipping through my mother's Reader's Digest, when Oliver returned from his run. It was still early, and Chris and my mother were still asleep.
"This is yer idea of breakfast?" Oliver said disbelievingly as he shut the door, wiping an arm of his sweatshirt across his forehead.
"What?" I said defensively, turning the page of the magazine. "Were you expecting a gourmet meal?"
"Och, god no," he said, going to the cabinet to get a bowl. "I haven't enough faith in yer cookin' to expect anything 'gourmet', love."
I threw a piece of cereal at him as he approached the table and narrowed my eyes. He laughed and set down his bowl and spoon. "Sorry, sorry," he apologized insincerely. "Couldn't have managed a bit of toast or somethin', though? I'm starving."
I jutted the box of Lucky Charms at him. "Nope."
He grimaced at it.
"Look, there's a leprechaun on it," I said helpfully. "That means it's Irish."
"You'll love it."
"God, ye kill me," he muttered, but poured some into his bowl nonetheless. He stared at the cereal, and then poked a marshmallow gingerly with his index finger. "What the bloody hell are those?"
I plucked one out of his bowl and crunched down on it. "Marshmallows," I explained.
He looked at me with an endearing mix of confusion and amusement on his face. "Oh, yeah, of course."
I grinned at him, slid the milk over to him, and returned to reading the page in front of me. We sat in comfortable silence for a few minutes, and when I finished the Reader's Digest, I pushed it over to him. He smiled in thanks and opened it. It was our normal routine in L.A. whenever I slept over at their place. Chris always slept a little later, so Oliver and I ate breakfast together while reading the paper, switching sections when we were finished reading them.
"Well, isn't this a picture of domestic bliss?" Chris' voice came from the doorway. We both glanced up at him casually. He had just taken a shower, his hair still wet and his jaw slightly raw from shaving. "What's for breakfast?"
Oliver held up the cereal box. "Lucky Charms, man."
Chris came over and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek before sitting down next to me. "You convinced Ollie to eat Lucky Charms?" he asked me disbelievingly, laying a hand on top of mine, and turned to look at Oliver. "I thought sugary American cereals were beneath you?"
"Well, Gen told me they were Irish," Oliver said, standing up a bit abruptly, making the chair scrape against the floor. "I'm gonna go take a shower."
It began to snow heavily by mid-morning. It started to gather in the corners of the window panes, and steady gusts of wind whistled through the cracks in the house. We all put on extra layers and cranked up the heat.
"I can't believe that tonight, a new year starts," my mother mused as she chopped some onions for tonight's dinner.
"I know, time passes so fast," I said, sipping my tea from over by the fridge.
"It'll be a good year," Chris said with a meaningful look at me from the kitchen table. I blinked at him, not comprehending what he meant.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Oliver tense and he set down his coffee mug down a little harder than necessary on the counter. Chris glanced at him, but turned his attention back to me and gave me a small nod. I was more than a little confused now. What in the world was he hinting at?
My mother came to stand next to me and nudged me gently with her elbow in question when Chris looked down at his Blackberry. I shrugged, mouthing, "I don't know." She wriggled the fingers on her left hand and raised her eyebrows.
Oliver's jaw clenched and he turned to look out of the large bay window, shoulders set.
The power went out as I was in my room, struggling to zip the back of my dress. I froze mid-action, letting my eyes adjust to the dark. It was around five o'clock and it was already dark outside the small window. Managing to zip the dress halfway up, I went into the hallway towards the kitchen, where the others were. My mother had found a candle and its small yellow light cast shadows on the walls.
"Well, that's a bummer," my mom's voice drifted over to me. I saw her shadowy figure over by the kitchen table.
I heard Chris huff from that direction, too. He didn't like inconveniences. He was the guy who wanted to speak to the chef in a five star restaurant when his steak was too rare…when he had asked for it rare. "Damn snow," he mumbled.
"We won't be having our dinner, it seems," my mother said, not sounding too upset. "When the power goes out here, it can take a while for it to come back on."
"How long?" Chris asked her apprehensively.
"Oh, sometimes a couple of days," she responded. Chris made a sound. "This house is so far from town that it's often not a priority. Not to worry, though, I have plenty of non-perishable food."
"What about the generator, mom?" I asked. "Did you ever get it fixed?"
"I forgot to get it looked at before winter came," she answered. "Oliver's down in the basement right now, giving it a look."
"Great," Chris muttered under his breath, face illuminated by the light of his Blackberry. "My phone is running out of battery, too."
I rolled my eyes at him, but it was too dark for him to see. My mother said something reassuring to him. There were footsteps behind me and Oliver traipsed into the kitchen, flashlight in hand.
"Doesn't look good, I'm 'fraid," he said, stopping next to me. "It's gonna have to be replaced, I think."
"Perfect," was Chris' response.
"Chris, relax," I said softly. "The power will come on soon."
"I'm sorry I'm not used to the power going out—"
"I didn't—" I managed before he interrupted me.
"I didn't grow up in backwater Maine," Chris shot nastily to me.
It felt like a slap. My mouth opened and closed without any sound coming out. What an asshole.
"That's all right," my mother said, levelheadedly. She picked up the candle and waved a hand. "Come into the living room, everybody. We can build a fire."
Chris followed her and once he had left the kitchen, I took a step forward to go into the living room, but not before a hand took my elbow and another zipped up the top half of my dress. Warm fingers brushed my neck, and my heart raced despite my best efforts to control it. The fingers curled around my shoulder.
"He's a bloody wacker when he's scared," Oliver said quietly from behind me.
Snorting at the term, I replied, "Trust me, I know."
"But he should never talk to ye like that," he said. "Never." He squeezed my shoulder, let it go, and gave me a nudge towards the living room.
There were only two logs remaining for the fire, which wasn't enough to get us through the night. Oliver put on his jacket to go out and get some more from the small woodpile my mother kept in a shed near the house. He gestured to Chris who was sitting on the couch. "Come on and help me gather some kindling, man," he said.
"Huh?" Chris grunted.
"The fire won't start without some," Oliver said.
Chris groaned and made a show of getting up from the couch. "Ugh, it's blizzarding out," he complained.
"All the more reason to do it now before we're snowed in," Oliver said patiently.
Eyebrows raised, Chris repeated, "Snowed in?"
I walked back into the kitchen and slipped into my boots that were by the door. I grabbed my coat, and shrugging it on, I poked my head into the living room. "Don't worry, Chris, I'll do it," I said, feigning kindness that fooled no one.
"What? No," Oliver protested. He pointed at my legs. "Ye've bare legs, lass."
I zipped up my coat. "Yeah, well, Chris seems to be afraid of snow," I replied, turned on my heel, grabbed the flashlight on the counter, and opened the kitchen door.
Snow immediately hit my face and legs and I trudged through a good foot of it, going around to the other side of the house. The forest was denser on this side, and with any luck, there were some little sticks that hadn't been thoroughly soaked through yet that could be used as kindling. I ducked into the trees and squinted at the ground, running the flashlight's beam back and forth.
"Idiot," I said harshly into the wind that was lashing my hair to and fro. "Should've put on pants. Freakin' Chris."
Gathering what I could find in my arms, I deposited the sticks by the side of the house, where they were sheltered from the storm. I saw Oliver to my right, coming out of the shed with an armful of logs. He came over and laid down the logs against the side of the house next to the kindling.
"Think that's enough?" he asked, motioning to the wood.
I nodded, teeth chattering, and said, "Yeah, but we'll probably need some more kindling."
He followed me back into the woods, and we scoured the ground for good pieces of wood, most of which had already been covered by snow.
"I could've done this meself," Oliver said, crouching down to free a branch from its blanket of snow. "Ye didn't have to come out here in yer dress and all."
"Yeah, well," I exhaled sharply. "I couldn't stay in there with Chris acting the way he was."
He was silent for a moment before standing up and saying, "Ye don't deserve to be miserable, Gen."
My head popped up and I stood up, too. "I'm not miserable," I said, rubbing my cold nose.
"Sure ye are," he said, face cast in shadows. "I haven't seen ye smile around Chris in months."
"I—we just have been going through a rough patch," I explained weakly. I snapped a branch in half and nestled the two pieces in the cradle of my left arm.
"Hmm, I don't think he sees it that way," he mumbled, running a hand over the top of his hair.
I narrowed my eyes at him. "What do you mean?"
His brow furrowed. "Come on, Gen."
"What?" I said, frowning.
"The way he's been talkin' of gettin' a new place, that 'it's gonna be a good year' comment," he waved a hand at the house, "anyone can see it plainly."
"Are you saying he—"
"—is gonna ask ye to marry him?" Oliver finished for me. "Yes."
My eyes widened and I nearly dropped the branches I was holding. "No," I said slowly. "He doesn't want to get married until he's in his thirties. He's told me that a million times."
"Aye, well, it seems he's changed his mind," he said gruffly.
"My god, I didn't – I didn't expect that," I said, dazed. I leaned against the trunk of a tree. "I—"
"Don't do it," Oliver said suddenly, face stern in the dim light.
Startled, I replied, "What?"
"Don't say yes," he reiterated, staring at me intently.
Blinking a snowflake out of my eyelash, I tried to decipher the look on his face. "I don't know. I'd—I'd have to think about it."
"Ye shouldn't have to think about it," he said roughly.
"Shouldn't have to—"
Throwing his hands up, he said irately, "Ye should already know if ye want to marry someone or not. There shouldn't be any 'thinking' involved."
I was a little shocked at his tone. "Well, I can if I want to," I said, defensive.
He made a scoffing sound and bent to pick up a small branch. "Fine, do what ye want."
"I will," I huffed.
"What's it to you, anyways?" I asked heatedly. "If Chris does ask – which he might not – than that's between him and me."
"That's just dandy," he said, putting a hand up in surrender. "I won't butt in, then."
He coughed and there was an awkward silent moment. "How often do ye two make love, then?" he asked abruptly.
"What?" I nearly shrieked, dropping a stick.
Looking innocent, he explained, "Nothing, it's just a good measurement of one's relationship."
"What?" I repeated. "What happened to not butting in?"
"I decided I couldn't do it," he said straightforwardly.
"Oh, did you? Did you decide that?" I snapped. The skin on my legs had gone numb, but the heat from my growing fury began to spread from my cheeks to the rest of my body.
"I did," he said, chin up.
Shaking my head, I turned towards the house. All the clever things I had to say escaped me.
"I did because ye're obviously incapable of seein' straight," he said behind me.
I whirled around. "Now you're insulting me?"
"I'm not insulting you," he retorted, taking a step in my direction. "But goddammit, ye're such a—ye're such a bloody infuriating…muppet!"
"Excuse me," I interjected, raising my voice. "A muppet?"
"I wasn't finished," he said, determined. "Ye're a bloody infuriating muppet because—well, because ye – ye don't realize the consequences of yer own actions, woman. If ye said yes, ye two would move into a new house and that would be that. We'd never see each other—"
"Yes, we would –"
"No, no, we wouldn't," he interrupted. "Do ye really think I get up so damn early in the mornings just to for the hell of it? Just to eat some bloody toast and read the bloody sports section?"
I opened my mouth to reply, but he answered the question himself. "No, I don't, ye idiot. I get up to see ye half-asleep with yer hair all mussed because ye look—ye look so damn ridiculous."
I looked up at his looming shape. "I—" I croaked, not being able to find anything to say.
"Do ye think I stay in on Friday nights just to watch some stupid television episode with ye and Chris?" he continued forcefully. "No, I don't. I stay up until Chris goes to bed and ye and I are alone, even if it's for only a coupla minutes, because I wait all day for that moment. So, don't pretend like I don't have a say in this matter. I know ye're not happy with him, Gen. I know ye're not."
Heart pounding in my chest, I swallowed and said, "You—"
"And don't think I haven't thought about Chris in all this. Ye're his girlfriend, for god's sake, but I – I—" he paused, looking over my face. "—I look at ye and I just don't care."
My lips began to tremble, whether from emotion or the cold, I didn't know. I felt like a frozen statue, standing here, staring at him, my eyes wide. He was obviously waiting for me to say something, but I had no words. I bit down on my lip and quickly turned and walked to the side of the house, carelessly tossing the sticks down with the rest.
Oliver was right behind me; I felt his presence at my back.
"I just don't care," he repeated, and he dropped the flashlight he was holding. It fell with a muted thud in the snow.
Big hands grabbed my upper arms and whipped me around. I stumbled over the sticks at my feet, but Oliver jerked me to the side and pressed me against the side of the house. Everything froze for a moment as the wind blew up my dress and tossed my hair wildly around my head and I gripped his forearms. We looked at each other and even though the light was faint, the look on his face was undeniable and my heart suddenly hurt. One of his hands smoothed itself down the side of my head.
"I—" I said feebly.
In one swift movement, he slid the hand into my hair and gripped it hard, and then a pair of warm lips captured mine with a ferocity I hadn't expected. There was a moment of confusion on my part – was this really happening? – but that moment passed quickly. I slid my hands up his arms and kissed him back hard. It wasn't like kissing Chris at all. That felt methodical and expected, but this…this was blinding heat and a feverish, desperate attempt to let each other know how the other felt. I could taste Oliver's frustration with me and the feelings he had suppressed for the past couple of years. He could probably taste all my nights that had turned restless at the thought of him and the way my brain ceased to function whenever he walked into a room.
The wind wasn't even cold as it lashed against us. Oliver pressed the length of his body against mine, and I could feel his warmth though both of our winter jackets. He smelled like pine trees and a wood fire. His hands skimmed down my sides and settled on my hips. He bit my lip and I made a sound against his mouth, and his hands glided down to grab my bum and lift me up so I could wrap my legs around his waist. He pushed me against the wood of the house and ran his hands up my thighs, lifting the hem of my dress, kissing me until I had to break away, gasping for breath. He wasted no time, though, and bent his head to kiss my neck. His stubble scratched the sensitive skin there, tickling me, and I let out a breathless giggle and tilted my head against the house. One hand came up and yanked my jacket's zipper down to expose the neckline of my dress. I inhaled sharply and he was kissing me again before I knew it. His hand slipped into my dress and I squirmed. A low growl sounded against my lips, and I snaked my arms around his neck, smiling to myself. I felt feverish. I couldn't catch my breath. I couldn't think. I couldn't do anything but melt into him.
There was a voice in the distance, but we paid no mind to it. I barely heard it over the rushing of blood in my ears. It said something again, this time closer, and we froze. There was a hurried moment when we broke apart. I regained my feet, pulled down my dress, readjusted my coat, and picked up the flashlight off the ground, while he cleared his throat and shoved his hands into his deep jacket pockets.
"Gen?" my mother's voice sounded again. She came around the corner of the house, her flashlight sweeping over us. She waved and said, "Oh, good, you found some wood. Come in, what's been taking you so long?"
I shrugged, flushing, hoping my mother couldn't see the color of my cheeks with her flashlight. I glanced at Oliver, who was grinning to himself as he picked up the firewood.
"Might want to stay out here a tad longer and cool yerself off before ye come in," he murmured in that rich Irish burr as he passed me. "Even I can tell yer red as a tomato."
The evening passed with me drinking too much champagne and eating pretzels compulsively, Chris commenting on how "quaint" it was to be sitting by the fireside, my mother smiling to herself as she refilled the snack bowls, and Oliver sitting in an armchair watching my every move. It was the most uncomfortable, most awkward situation I'd ever found myself in, but no one seemed to notice except for Mr. Calm-and-Collected over there.
We had found a decent number of candles, and with the fire crackling, the living room was basked in a good amount of light. We had played two rounds of Scrabble to pass the time, which I had lost because with the mix of emotions and alcohol, I didn't care one bit that I had no consonants.
I wasn't quite sure what I was feeling. A little dizzy, to be sure, but underneath that, I was still flustered by what had just happened outside. I hadn't expected anything to happen between Oliver and me, no matter how much we had grown to like each other over the years. But the things he had said, the tugging at my heart when I saw him help my mother cheat at Scrabble, the indifference I felt towards Chris as he held my hand and texted on his phone at the same time…my god, when did things get so complicated? And Oliver was acting so calm, like it was any old day. Goddammit. I wish I could be so freaking relaxed. A cold sweat was breaking out along my spine, so I downed the rest of the champagne in my glass in one gulp.
"It's nearly midnight," my mother said excitedly, looking at her watch. She took a sip of champagne and stood up. "We've got about three minutes."
Chris suddenly looked a little restless, and he leaned forward and refilled his glass. I refilled mine, too, and stood up, avoiding Oliver's eyes, and walked over to my mother. She took my arm and said in hushed tones, "I might be getting old, hun, but I've been watching Oliver all night and he hasn't stopped looking at you."
My eyes widened, but I kept them trained on the floor. "Oh?" I replied lightly.
"Has something happened?" she asked.
I laughed, "Oh, no, nothing's happened."
She gave me a discerning look but let it go. Chris stood up and came over, glass in hand.
"A minute and a half," he said, his voice a little higher pitched than usual. It made me look at his face and I realized he looked anxious.
Oliver stood up as well, and we all stood near the fireplace with our champagne glasses. Oliver's arm brushed mine and I jumped, but quickly recovered, hoping no one had noticed. I looked up at him, but for once, he wasn't looking at me. His eyes were focused on the fire, but the small upwards curve of his lips did not escape my notice.
"One minute!" someone announced.
I blew out a breath and tucked my hair behind my ears. This night needed to be over soon. Not that I'd be able to sleep, though. I was sure vivid dreams of being pressed against the side of houses and warm hands on my skin would keep me from sleeping fitfully.
"Thirty seconds," Chris said, pulling the sleeve of his expensive navy sweater up to see his watch.
We waited with bated breaths, and finally it was "three, two, one…Happy New Year!"
Chris kissed me full on the mouth. He tasted of champagne. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Oliver kiss my mother on the lips, too, and she laughed, embarrassed and flattered at the same time. We all toasted each other, and Oliver gave me a nod when his glass clanged against mine.
There was a sudden gasp from my mother, and tearing my eyes away from Oliver's, I noticed Chris had gotten on one knee and was holding up a small, velvet, black box. He caught my eyes and popped it open, revealing a bright, glittering diamond ring. My hand went to my mouth as I stared at it.
"Gen – Geneviève, will you marry me?" I heard him say.
A pregnant pause, three bated breaths, and the ticking of the grandfather clock in the corner.
"Chris," I said slowly. I dropped my hand from my mouth. "No, Chris. I'm so sorry."
His face turned to stone. He stood up. "What the hell, Gen?" he asked sharply. I just stared at him, and he snapped the little black box shut. "Why not?"
I bit my lip and surprised myself by letting out a loud laugh. "Because," I explained, looking up at Oliver with a silly grin, "I'm a bloody infuriating muppet."
Chris left the house promptly after my rejection. Though the rental car had been sheltered from the blizzard by the garage, the small, twisting roads had not been, and I could hear the tires spinning in the snow when I went into the kitchen to wash the dishes.
My mother had gone to bed soon after Chris stormed out of the house. She didn't seem overly concerned, and bid Oliver and I goodnight with a shrewd smile. Once she left, I looked at Oliver and was overcome by a whoosh of lightheadedness. He just blinked those blue eyes at me and watched me, clearly entertained by something. I smoothed down my dress, swallowed, and grabbed the bowls of snacks. "I better clean up a bit," I tittered.
He grabbed the glasses and followed me into the kitchen. Candles on the counter flickered as we walked by them and disturbed the air. I placed everything in the sink and he gently placed the champagne glasses next to the bowls. I turned around and he took my chin in his hand and tilted my head up to his.
"Ye didn't say yes," he said softly.
My lips twitched. "No, I didn't."
"Was it my comment about the frequency of yer love-making?" he smiled down at me.
"No," I smiled back, closing my eyes for a moment. "It was because of some exasperating Irishman telling me he woke up early to eat breakfast with me."
Color rose into his cheeks. His hands slipped into my hair and he bent his head. "Was it?" he whispered, lips brushing against mine. "Well, then."
His mouth hovered close to mine, and I could feel his breath. My breathing sped up.
"Happy New Year," he told me.
"Happy New Year," I replied, and closed the gap, kissing him until I tingled all over.
The next morning, we ate Lucky Charms without milk because the power hadn't come back on yet and the milk had gone bad. We read yesterday's paper, since the mailman certainly wasn't going to trudge all the way up to the house in four feet of snow. I didn't even bother to see if Chris had managed to get the rental car down the road.
The fire had dissolved into embers overnight and the morning was cold. We each had three layers of clothing on, looking a bit ridiculous. The snow outside of the bay window had slowed to a gentle drifting and the sun was beginning to show through the thinning clouds.
"Want to read this section?" I asked, handing my part of the paper to him over the kitchen table.
He took it from me, brushing his fingers against mine.
"Good god, yer hands are freezing," he said.
I rubbed my hands together. "I know," I said. "They always are, no matter what."
"Hmm," Oliver rumbled. He opened the newspaper with a flourish and shot a grin my way. "Don't worry, lassie, I'll keep 'em warm."
Just a little one-shot :) I was just struck with a sudden urge to write this – hope you guys liked it! Fictionpress was being uncooperative, so I apologize if the formatting is off. I appreciate any feedback!
Hope everyone has a Happy New Years!