“I do not love him. I just…I think he’s changed in the last five or so years. I’m not entirely opposed to giving him a second chance.”

I can feel her eyes on me and do my best not to feed into the attention, tearing my pancake apart and stuffing piece after piece into my mouth.

“Do you think that’s wise?” Monty says, and I note the worry in her voice.

I push off the counter with a heavy sigh, sliding my plate away from me, my appetite lost. “Probably not, but worst thing that happens is he breaks my heart again. I already know how to clean that mess up, so maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.”

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, Denny.”

“I know it is, but it’s giving me the courage I need to finally go after what I really want from him—sex. Besides, we could always just do the whole no-strings-attached thing. We don’t have to turn it into something more.”

She laughs dryly. “Don’t fall for that one. I did, and look where it got me.”

“Where? Happy as hell? Madly in love with a walking, talking sex machine? Don’t even try to complain about that.”

Her cheeks heat again and she ducks her head. “Hush.”

I gather our plates and rinse them off in the sink while Monty cleans up the mess I made with the batter.

“For what it’s worth,” she starts as she slides the butter back into the fridge. “I think you have a really good judge of character. If you think this guy of yours has changed, maybe he has. Go after it. See where it leads. Lord knows you need to find yourself a man and settle down soon before you become an old spinster.”

“Oh my gosh, you catch yourself a man and suddenly we all need to immediately follow suit.”

“I caught myself a man and a kid.”

“How’s that going anyway? Playing mom?”

She sighs contentedly. “It’s amazing. I love the little rascal, and his dad.”

“I love seeing you so happy, Monty. It’s about time.”

“I agree.” She tucks the syrup away and closes the cabinet. “Now explain this…exchange you’re doing for a job.”

“Ah, yes, that.” I load the plates and skillet into the dishwasher before turning to her. “Well, I promised him I’d be his date to some charity events and to the wedding—which, by the way, you’re coming to—in exchange for him giving me an exclusive for the paper. He’s notorious for not doing interviews, so it’s kind of a big deal, like get me that promotion I’ve been after for months kind of big deal.”

“That one with the cushy office?”

“That’s the one, sis.” I shoot a finger gun in her direction. “A few measly dates are totally worth the exclusive.”

She opens her mouth but snaps it closed again just as quickly, shaking her head. Her lips tuck inward, like she’s trying to keep them from moving on their own.

“Out with it,” I demand.

“I-I…I…”

“Montana Andrews, tell me right now.”

“Fine.” She holds her hand up. “Fine. It’s just that…is the interview worth the potential heartbreak?”

Is the promotion going to make things easier for me in my field? Yes. Is it going to give me a few extra bucks a month to squirrel away for my student loans? Hell fucking yes. Are the games I have to play with Shep in order to get it worth all that?

“I don’t know, but I’m willing to find out.”

She nods, her lips still pressed tightly together. “Just be careful, Denny.”

I grin at her. “Where’s the fun in that?”

Fifteen

Six years ago, December

Denver: You didn’t.

Denver: PLEASE tell me you didn’t!

Shepard: I don’t know what I didn’t do, but if you say I didn’t do it, I definitely didn’t do it.

Shepard: God, that was confusing.

Shepard: What are you going on about?

Denver: I got my Christmas present today. There are HOLES in the box.

Shepard: IT IS NOT CHRISTMAS, YOU HEATHEN! Last I checked Christmas was celebrated December 25th, and it is most definitely only December 23rd.

Denver: If you think I’m waiting TWO WHOLE days to open this, you’re clearly on drugs.

Shepard: Cocaine. It’s the rich man’s drug.

Denver: I’M OPENING IT!

Shepard: SPOILER ALERT: it’s not a puppy. I just put the holes in there to be funny and confuse you.

Denver: WAY TO RUIN THE SURPRISE!

Shepard: I got my gift too, but I’ve been waiting to open it like the goddamn gentleman I am. Does this mean I get to open it?

Denver: I’m 9% certain you’re not allowed to say “goddamn” when referring to a Christmas present.

Shepard: Only 9%?

Denver: Ugh. I meant 97%. OBVIOUSLY.

Shepard: Of course. How could I not know that?

Denver: On the count of three, let’s both open them.

Shepard: Too late.

Denver: CHEATER!

Shepard: I was kidding.

Denver: One…

Shepard: Two…

Denver: GO!

Denver: Oh duck. HOLY DUCK, SHEP.

Shepard: I’m 9% certain I did not send you a duck.

Denver: Are they all signed?!

Shepard: Yes.

Denver: OH MY GOD!

Denver: But how?!

Shepard: I bought a Sharpie and signed them. Duh.

Denver: No you didn’t. I see the letter of authenticity.

Denver: How did you get your hands on these?

Shepard: eBay. Did you know people are super nerdy and super into their signed comics? I had no idea there was that much out there.

Denver: This had to have cost a fortune. You really shouldn’t have done this.

Shepard: It was nothing. I mean, sure, I’ll be working until I’m 70 to pay off the debt, but it’s no big deal. You’re worth it.

Shepard: I hope.

Denver: Thank you. Seriously. This means the world to me.

Denver: Did you open yours yet?

Shepard: No. I’m waiting until Christmas because I’m a goddamn angel.

Denver: 9% certain, Shep. 9%.

Denver: So…did you open it?

Shepard: It is 7AM. Are you insane?

Denver: Um…IT’S CHRISTMAS! Wake your ass up!

Shepard: I told you Santa wasn’t real. Go back to sleep. He won’t be mad.

Denver: Get up and open it!

Shepard: How can you live thousands of miles away and still be so damn demanding?

Denver: It’s a gift. Now move.

Shepard: I’m going, I’m going.

Denver: WELL?

Shepard: Will you give me a damn minute? It’s really hard to pee with morning wood.

Denver: I’m sorry, but are you texting me while you’re touching your dick?

Shepard: No. I’m not touching it. I’m sitting down.

Denver: You’re SITTING to pee?

Shepard: It’s easier in the mornings! STOP JUDGING.

Denver: I didn’t say a thing.

Denver: What about now?

Shepard: I’m going to kiss you so hard.

Denver: That doesn’t have the same effect now that I know you’re madly in love with me.

Shepard: Like, Denver. I LIKED you.

Denver: GASP! Did you just use PAST TENSE?

Denver: …but you’re totally kidding, right?

Shepard: Guess we’ll see.

Shepard: I find it very funny we both sent each other comics for Christmas.

Shepard: I love these. I’ve never read a comic before (my brother wouldn’t let me touch his) so I’m pretty excited about these.

Denver: Did you open them?

Shepard: More demands. *eye roll* Hang on.

Denver: *waits impatiently*

Shepard: Well well well.

Denver: WELL?

Shepard: This might be my favorite Christmas present ever, and I once got a guitar AND an iPhone the same year.

Denver: Do you still like me?

Shepard: Yes, Denver. I still like you. I’m really fucking excited you’re coming here for college.

Denver: That’s four whole years I get to annoy you.

Denver: I’m coming early too. I got a journalism internship.

Shepard: The one for Bradford?

Denver: Yep.

Shepard: You’re telling me we get to spend the entire summer together too?

Denver: No way!

Shepard: Best. Christmas. Ever. (Unless I end up hating you.)

Denver: I doubt it.

Denver: You’re, uh, you’re kind of my best friend, Shep.

Shepard: You’re kind of my best friend too. I don’t call you Bucky for nothing.

Denver: Bucky and Cap were totally lovers, not besties.

Shepard: So you’re saying you want to bang me?

Denver: OMG. No.

Denver: Merry Christmas, Captain.

Shepard: Merry Christmas, Bucky.

Shepard: We’ll come back to that banging thing later.

Denver: It’s almost midnight on the east coast.

Shepard: Wow. Thanks for telling me. All of our clocks actually stopped working.

Denver: Smartass.

Denver: I was telling you that because being honest is my New Year’s resolution and I have something I’d like to confess.

Shepard: Of course you’re one of those people who believe in NY resolutions. Of course you are.

Denver: Shut up.

Shepard: Sorry (not). Confess away. I’m all ears.

Denver: I’m not going to pussyfoot around it like you did.

Shepard: I don’t know…this feels like pussyfooting to me.

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