Less than twenty-four hours later, I sat in my living room nursing the hangover from hell. Kara and I had gone a little bit crazy with the vodka, which was why I was still in my onesie at four in the afternoon, my head throbbing, and an enormous mug of coffee in my hands.
Kara bounded in carrying bags full of shopping, the spring in her step completely betraying her own hangover.
“Why are you so energetic?” I asked, glaring at her from underneath my dark fringe. “Why aren’t you curled up beside the toilet, you know, like normal people?”
She smiled. “I am caffeinated up to the eyeballs, and I took some painkillers earlier. I had to go out for supplies for tonight.”
“Yeah. Meg and Olly are coming over. Declan, too.”
“What?” I sprang up from my seat, almost throwing coffee all over myself. “When was this arranged?”
“Last night and this morning, I think. Lucas invited Dec over to watch a movie or play some video games, and I figured since Meg and Olly didn’t come last night, they could join us.”
“You should have checked before inviting everyone.”
When Kara, Lucas and I moved in together, we didn’t make any official house rules. However, one thing we were always clear about was – when inviting people over - we always cleared it with each other first.
“We didn’t think you’d mind,” Kara said, dropping the bags on the floor. “You and Dec got on fine last night, and-”
“It’s not about him. I'm just not up to another night of drinking after last night.”
A blatant lie. It was a little about Declan. I didn’t want him getting comfortable in York, and especially not in my house. Obviously, I knew he wouldn’t be moving in or anything, but… this transition from enemy to… almost-friend was one I didn’t plan to rush. I was still wary of him, and also, I looked like something out of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, not that I was trying to impress him. But I really didn’t need to make myself an easy target for him, just in case the grown-up side he'd shown the night before was a minor blip, and the real him came back full force.
“Cheer up, it’ll be fun! But you need to get out of your PJs. The boys will be back in an hour or so, and I need you to help me with some of this food.”
The very thought of food made me stomach contract then swirl. I couldn’t imagine eating anything for at least another twelve hours.
“Fine.” I heaved myself up with a sigh, groaning like an old woman as every muscle in my body protested at the movement. “I will shower and get dressed, but I can’t promise to be cheerful. I’m in agony.”
Dancing and killer heels are not a good combination; I was always amazed how I didn’t end up on my bum after a few drinks. Thankfully, the only suffering came the day after, when the fun was already over.
Kara had the right idea. I needed more coffee and painkillers. Immediately.
An hour later, I heard male voices downstairs, indicating Lucas and Declan were back. Someone turned on some Christmas music, and I heard Kara laughing, but I still wasn’t really in the mood for any festivities. The painkillers had dulled my axe-to-the-skull sensation, but I was pretty tired, and I’d turned my wardrobe inside out to find clothes that would give me a little confidence. It didn’t help that my best stuff was packed away, ready for when my mum picked me up in the morning for the long-ass journey back home. I hadn’t put a lot of thought into why I was stressing myself out over an outfit that would only be worn around the house. I figured it had to do with still being hungover. When you feel cruddy on the inside, it’s hard to feel good on the outside.
I eventually settled on jeans and a black, long-sleeved top. It was pretty non-descript, but the slimming effect of the black made me more comfortable. I twisted my dark hair on top of my head, where it looked sort of… scruffily cool, and slapped on some foundation and concealer to cancel out the hideous circles under my eyes. As an after-thought, I brightened up my abnormally pale lips with some lipstick, too.
I gave myself a mini pep-talk before heading down to join the others, reminding myself not to be so weird around Declan. The phrase “not douchey” was engrained into my brain, and it made me laugh to myself that I needed to keep thinking it. Throughout the previous evening, snippets of our conversation floated into my head, surprising me. If he stayed as pleasant as he was in the pub, the evening might not be so bad.
“There you are,” Kara said as I entered the kitchen where she was loading the oven with mini pizzas, and Lucas was opening bags of crisps and tipping them into bowls. Declan sat at the kitchen table, holding a cup of coffee. My eyes widened with lust at his beverage – I really needed more caffeine to get me through.
As if he sensed it, Lucas reached over and handed me a steaming mug that sat beside the kettle. “Here you go. Don’t say I never give you anything.”
I threw my arms around him then took my drink. “My hero.”
“Heavy night?” Declan asked as I thudded down at the table opposite him.
“Yes. Really heavy. I may need to find an AA meeting.”
He nodded in understanding, and gestured towards his own coffee. “Same. I’m sticking to non-alcoholic drinks tonight.”
“No way, bud,” Lucas interrupted. “Boys’ weekends don’t work if one of them stays sober!”
“This isn’t a boys’ weekend,” Kara pointed out. “There are, in fact, girls here, too. And since Olly is gay, technically, the girls outnumber you!”
Olly wouldn’t have minded being counted as a girl. He had better hair and better legs than all of us, anyway.
While Kara and Lucas engaged in a good-natured argument, I caught Declan staring at me across the table. “What?”
He shook his head, smiling. “Nothing. I just didn’t realise how easy it would be to fit back in around here. It’s like I was never away with those two messing around, and us watching from the outside.”
“I like it. That they haven’t changed, I mean. I hope in twenty years they’ll still be chasing each other around the kitchen, arguing about random crap.”
I ducked as cake mix flew across the room from a spoon Lucas held in his hand.
“Stop!” Kara giggled, wiping her face, where the mixture had hit her. “We have guests, behave yourself.”
“Yes, dear.” Lucas grinned and placed the spoon on the table, his eyes alight with what looked like an urge to lick Kara’s face clean.
“Time for a shower,” she said. “Eden, can you keep an eye on the food, and pop the sausage rolls in when the pizzas are done?”
As Kara left the room, I looked up at Lucas. “What’s with all this food? Did she get a bit carried away?”
“You know what she’s like. When people are coming over, she turns into her mother.”
True story. Kara’s mum could have given Mary Berry a run for her money when expecting guests. One of my favourite things about going home, especially at Christmas, was visiting Kara’s family home and being force fed homemade cakes and biscuits. My own mother wasn’t much of a baker. Or a cook, actually. In fact, if I wanted a proper home-cooked meal, Kara’s was the place to be.
“If my stomach wasn’t spinning like a washing machine I’d be only too happy to rip into this stuff, but right now-” I trailed off, scrunching up my nose at the idea. Even the smell of the baked goods made me queasy.
My stomach didn’t settle for most of the evening, and even though I sort of wanted to cry off and go to bed, I stayed down in the living room with my friends, partly because I didn’t want to be rude, and partly because Meg seemed quite taken with Declan, and I wanted to see what happened. I considered warning her about his tendency not to be able to take anything seriously, but considering the distance between Southampton and York, seriousness probably wasn’t an option. Meg enjoyed men the way most people enjoy a Friday night drinking out on the town. It had to be done once a week, and she had to have as many as possible. Not sex with all of them, obviously, but she didn’t have any issues with one night stands.
Me? I’d been single so long, I was sure my virginity was growing back. It wasn’t that men didn’t show any interest in me, I just hadn’t found anyone I wanted to get involved with, and I never did one nighters. My mother had instilled “old-fashioned values” into me, mainly by making it alarmingly clear of all the possible things that could come from having sex. She had me when she was young, and was adamant I wouldn't go down that road myself. Fear of becoming a schoolgirl mother meant my legs stayed firmly clamped together at the knees until I was seventeen, when I had a “proper” boyfriend.
“We should do something ridiculous.” Meg leaned back against the sofa, forcing me to lift my feet up onto the couch out of the way. “Since there’s a bunch of us here, and we don’t all know each other.” She paused, casting a flirty smile at Declan who sat beside me on the couch. “Let’s play truth or dare.”
A chorus of groans rang out around the room from everyone apart from Olly, whose eyes lit up at the suggestion. “Ooh, let’s!”
“We’re nineteen, not thirteen,” Kara said, rolling her eyes. Lucas clicked the remote control to turn down the Christmas music; the only sign of the season in the house since none of us would be there to celebrate the big day.
“I agree.” I never liked the game when we were at school; it was a tool for cruel people to taunt the weak members of the group, and to mock those who never had anything cool to reveal as a truth.
People like me.
“I think we should do it,” Declan said, and for the first time all weekend, I got a flashback of the guy I used to know. I shifted slightly in my seat because he was looking at me again. “Unless… you have something to hide?”
My eyes narrowed. This wasn’t the Declan who had asked me about university life the night before. This was a slightly upgraded version of my nemesis. Not in total dickhead mode, but enough to make me remember how he used to be. It was like the mention of high school games made him regress.
I shrugged. “No secrets here.”
“I guess we’re playing then.”
“Yay!” Meg clapped her hands, and pulled herself up from the floor, shuffling towards our oversized coffee table and pulling out our stash of paper and pens.
Meg handed each of us a pen and piece of paper. “I say we write down five dares each, fold them up and put them in a bowl. When someone gets a dare, they can pick one out. As per the rules, there is no backing out of dares without paying a heavy penalty, which will be decided by the group.”
I didn’t remember that rule, and looking at the faces of my oldest friends, they obviously didn’t either. Nobody said so, though. Instead, we all set about making up five dares, then tearing up our paper and placing them in a bowl that used to hold crisps.
“Okay, who’s first?” Meg asked, still bouncing a little with excitement. Her enthusiasm made me laugh, in spite of my misgivings about playing. I had to admit, everything she did, she did without holding back. She was an all or nothing kind of girl. When she set her mind on something, she would not only put her all into it, she wouldn’t stop until the job was done.
From the way she kept puffing her enormous chest out at Declan, he was in a lot of trouble.
Meg flicked her blonde hair over her shoulder. “Fine, I’ll go first.”
I was sure she’d use her turn to ask Declan something completely inappropriate, but instead she turned her attention to Olly, grinning. “Truth or Dare?”
“Who was that guy who kept texting you last night?”
Olly’s eyebrows rose almost as high as his blond hairline. “You’re such a hag for asking that question.”
Meg giggled with glee. “You have to tell me!”
Lucas and Kara cast a puzzled look at me, as if I might know. If Olly hadn’t told Meg, he wouldn’t have told anyone. Usually when there was a man in his life, he didn’t spare any details. Not even the stuff we really didn’t want to know.
“Why so coy?” Kara teased. “Are you messing around with someone you shouldn’t be?”
His face flushed, and I laughed out loud. “Oh my God, you are! Who is it?”
“It’s nobody you know. Just… someone from class.”
“Ooh, is it that guy that sits behind you?” Meg asked. “The one with the gigantic muscles and fuck-me eyes?”
“Behave. He’s a got a girlfriend.”
Olly gave a deep sigh, but his lips twitched. “Fine. It’s the guy with the fuck-me eyes, okay? There’s nothing going on between us, so get that thought right out of your heads now. But he’s soooo gorgeous!”
“Wait.” Kara tilted her head to the side. “If there’s nothing going on, why is he even texting you?”
Trust Kara to push the issue. Of course, him sending what I assumed were inappropriate messages to a guy with a girlfriend was a bad thing, but Olly was a grown up. Well over the age of consent, and fully capable of making his own choices.
“It’s not like that,” Olly said, though there was clearly more to the story than he let on. “I’ve answered the question so we should move on. Declan.” Olly eyed the stranger in our group, obviously eager to learn more. “Truth or Dare?”
“I’ll take a dare.”
He leaned over and picked up one of the folded scraps of paper. As he read the words, he laughed. “Okay. It says ‘kiss the nearest person of the opposite sex to your left’.”
My heart leapt right into my throat. Based on our seating arrangements, either myself or Meg could have been the up for the task, yet since she was on the floor by my feet, Declan looked right at me. My heart rate kicked up a little higher. A lot higher. So high I thought I might need an ambulance.
His face. If anyone was being dared, it was me. I knew that look. Come on, Eden, you know you want to. I hated that look, mostly because it caused my insides to ignite in a way I hadn't been prepared for, but also because it took me way back.
The nice guy I’d started to get to know disappeared without trace, and we both knew why. We both remembered.
I shook my head. “No.”
“I’ll do it,” Meg said, rising up onto her knees.
“There you go. Meg will do it. I need a drink.”
I didn’t wait around to see the outcome. I shot out of the room like I’d been fired out of a cannon, and landed in the kitchen taking slow, deep breaths.
Jesus. I never expected to feel that way again.
Here’s the thing. People talk about the fine line between love and hate. Turns out, it was a lot finer than I realised, especially as an inexperienced fourteen-year-old. At a Christmas party not entirely dissimilar to the one I was at with my uni friends, fourteen-year-old me had to kiss Declan during a game of Spin the Bottle. Imagine the scene. A bunch of silly, hyped-up kids messing around at a friend’s house, playing games. When I spun the bottle and it pointed at Declan, something weird happened. My stomach, which I assumed would churn with sickness over kissing someone I loathed, had gone all fluttery and weird. It completely threw me, and when he kissed me – my first ever kiss – I was so freaked out, I couldn’t make my lips move. I froze, and he used that moment as his new ammo to attack me. I became the girl who didn’t know how to kiss.
Now, five years later, I’d had plenty of practice, but not nearly enough to block out how humiliated I was that day. It was quite bad enough to realise I had some kind of twisted crush on Declan, but entirely another to have him use the most embarrassing experience of my life as a massive joke.
Just as he’d regressed while playing Truth or Dare, I’d regressed at the memory of being metaphorically kicked in the gut by him.
“Go back to the game,” I told him, tilting my head forward so my hair would hide me. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
“I didn’t kiss Meg.”
“It really doesn’t matter to me whether you did or not.”
It didn’t. I didn’t still feel that way about him. I wouldn’t, not just because he was slightly less of a twat than he used to be.
“I do need to fulfil that dare, though.”
My head snapped upwards. “So fulfil it with Meg. I’m not kissing you, Dec.”
His eyes softened, even though I shot him a look loaded with poison. “Kara was right,” he said. “We’re nineteen, not thirteen. Or… fourteen.”
Urgh. Still couldn’t take a hint. Actually, I’d given him more than a hint, and even though he’d dropped the daring, baiting look, I felt naked when his eyes were on me. Like he saw every thought in my head. I was an open book, and he’d read every chapter, storing away snippets of information for later use.
“Precisely. We shouldn’t be playing games like this anymore.”
“Or we could just loosen up and enjoy it for what it is. Come on, Eden. Give me a chance. I’ll prove I’ve grown up since we… since I… ”
“Totally humiliated me for an entire year?”
“Can’t I just take your word for it?”
As he took a few steps towards me, my pulse spiked again and I tried not to visibly gulp at his closeness. We’d never been this close. Close enough for him to put his hands either side of me and ensure my focus didn’t wander away from him. He didn’t do that. But the idea of it shot sparks through me.
What in the hell is happening? Have I been single so long that a man getting this close makes me want to pounce on him? But it wasn’t just any guy. It was him. Some part of me was firmly tethered in the past, to the ridiculous, adolescent feelings I used to have for him.
I made a mental note to do a psychological study on myself after the Christmas holidays because those feelings couldn’t be normal. Crushes on guys who are gorgeous and sweet? Sure. Crushes on guys who are irritating and occasionally downright hurtful? Not so much.
“Listen, I know it’s several years too late, but I’m sorry. I don’t want you to hold that stuff against me forever.”
I shuffled my feet backwards; a futile gesture since I was already backed up against the sink. “Apology accepted.”
“So, what do you say? Can we get this dare over with so everyone else can keep playing?”
“Meg wants to kiss you.”
“Meg wasn’t sitting next to me. You were.”
His blue eyes connected with mine, and I thought… I thought I saw something different there. Something real. In the old days, he might have flipped out about me walking out on him, or more likely he’d have taken the attention away from me rejecting him by turning the joke on me. Instead, he came to talk.
Don’t overthink this. It’s just a game. A dare. Kiss him, hell, it’ll get it out of your system. Maybe when you’ve let that non-kiss from before go, you won’t be so weird about him.
When Declan smiled again, I rolled my eyes and followed him back into the living room where my friends were sitting around, munching on the treats Kara had provided. Empty trays, cupcake wrappers, plates and cans were scattered all over the place, and yet they still found room for more.
“She couldn’t resist me,” Declan announced, causing me to glare at him, but he started to laugh. “Relax, Eden. I’m just messing.”
“Whatever, let’s get this over with.”
He smirked, causing some kind of split in my brain. Half of me wanted to smack him with a serving tray, and the other half wanted to plaster my lips across that grin.
“You ready?” Declan’s hand hovered by my hip, and again, my heart thudded in my chest. I begged my body not to let my feelings show on the outside. I gave a single nod of my head, and his hand connected with my waist.
I still couldn’t bring myself to look into his eyes as I tilted my head up, but I didn’t close them either, afraid he’d move away, laughing, leaving me humiliated. Again.
Declan took a step closer, expression serious, then pressed his lips against mine. Soft. If my nerves hadn’t been on high alert, I might not have even felt it.
That’s it. Done. Relax.
I started to pull away but the hand on my waist moved up to the back of my head, drawing me back, drawing me further into the kiss. His move surprised me, sending blood pulsing through my veins. He was so gentle, and when his tongue slid into my mouth, there was no way I could stop myself touching him. I reached out, forgetting other people were in the room, and let myself have the moment I never realised I wanted so badly.
His kiss was like nothing I’d ever imagined. I’d imagined it would be awkward, maybe even clumsy since my head was always in a constant battle between fighting my feelings and wanting to get closer. In reality, it was neither of those things. It was easy, and this time, I remembered how to move my lips.
As we broke apart, I took in a sharp intake of breath, like I was trying to breathe him back in. I dropped my hands from him as my surroundings came back into focus. The stares of my friends burned through me, and I didn’t want to even look at Kara. It had to be obvious how into that kiss I was.
“Wasn’t so bad, was it?” Declan asked, flashing that smirk at me again.
Instead of my default reaction of getting defensive, I raised an eyebrow and gave a smirk of my own. “Not bad.”
“Sorry, do you need us to leave?”
Meg’s voice broke into our private cocoon of… whatever it was. Lust was possibly too strong a word, but I felt something from Declan I’d never felt before. It happened the second his hand moved to my head, holding me in place, and something in the way he looked at me seemed different.
I shook my head to clear the fuzziness, and when I turned to Meg, the spell was broken. She looked at me like I’d stolen her favourite pair of shoes and replaced them with Crocs.
Declan is not your ‘shoes’, Meg. And he might not be mine, either, but apparently I’ve waited to get my feet into them for a long time. I will not apologise.
Also, I still wasn’t sure he was worth fighting over, so instead of acknowledging her glare, I said, “I’m kind of tired. I think I’m just gonna go to bed. We’ve all got long journeys home tomorrow.”
It was barely nine, but after my heavy night and subsequent hangover, followed by that kiss, I was done. I needed to curl up in bed and not deal with the scrutiny of my friends. Waves of curiosity crashed into me from Kara and Lucas, but I didn’t know enough to answer their questions. All I knew was that I’d kissed my unlikely, unfathomable childhood crush, and my mind was brimming with memories of our past text message sessions.
And the sensation of his lips on mine.
“It’s too early,” Olly said, tugging on my sleeve like a small child trying to get my attention. “Don’t go yet.”
I smiled. “I’m sorry. I honestly don’t know how I’ve lasted this long. I’m knackered. I should get some sleep.”
Olly’s famous pout crossed his face, but he realised he wasn’t going to win this one so he pulled me into a tight hug, squishing me against his skinny frame. “Okay, beautiful Eden, I will let you go. I hope you have an amazing Christmas!”
“You too, babe. I want to hear about everything you got up to when I get back!”
“Like you could stop me.”
Laughing, I released him and instinctively turned to Meg. It didn’t look safe to approach her, but I really didn’t get why. It wasn’t my fault she threw herself at Declan and he turned her down. Actually, that might have been the problem. I usually faded into the walls when she was around. Me with my less-than-perfect figure next to her; I was hardly competition.
“Have a good Christmas, Meg.”
She nodded stiffly. “You too.”
Yup. Hugging was not an option. Maybe there was something in the air making everyone act crazy. Could mince pie and mulled wine do that to people? I needed out of my living room.
But first I had to say… something to Declan. Goodnight? See you soon? Cheers for reminding me how freaking amazing kissing is?
I glanced up at him, and he said, “Can I walk you to your room?”
I said goodnight to everyone, all of them staring at me with a mix of confusion and amusement on their faces. Even to Kara and Lucas, it was bizarre. Neither of them were privy to the information that Declan and I had been in touch for a while. After he stopped communicating, I was pretty damn thrilled they didn’t know.
Declan followed me to my room, as if walking me home after a date. The idea made me giggle.
I shook my head. “Nothing. It’s just… why did you want to walk me to my room?”
“Honestly? I didn’t really think it through more than getting away from Meg. And now you’re going to make me go back down there without you to protect me.”
He stuck out his lower lip, and the urge to suck on it totally blindsided me. Need to get away from him. Need to think.
“Well, I’d invite you in, but I wasn’t kidding when I said I’m knackered.”
I let my gaze lurk on his now muscular arms, and any chance I might feel those arms around me made me cave. Such a pushover.
My room was a mess; my bags were scattered over the floor, and I may have given away my indecision about what to wear as my wardrobe doors were open and none of my remaining clothes were hanging up. They were dropped in a heap I hadn’t had time to clean up. Declan didn’t say anything about my lack of organisation. He didn’t say anything at all. I sat down on my bed and gestured for him to do the same.
“So, you’re going home tomorrow?” he asked, perching awkwardly on the end of the bed. I wished he'd move a little closer or something. The way he sat hunched over made me uncomfortable, like he couldn't wait to get away.
“Yeah. My mum will be here around lunch time tomorrow, we’ll have lunch here, and then drive back.”
“If you want, I can save her a journey. I mean, I’m driving home tomorrow, too. I can take you. Lucas said he and Kara already booked their train tickets before I arranged to come up, but if you need a lift, I’ll take you.”
Lucas and Kara could just about afford train tickets. My mum always offered to pick me up because it was cheaper, and we shared the driving on the way back. But Declan was already in York, and if it saved Mum the effort of the long drive, it sort of made sense to go with him.
But would we kill each other on the journey? It was one thing talking for a few minutes in a pub, or in the kitchen. But over four hours in a car was a completely different matter. If he pissed me off, there was a good chance I’d whack him, and we’d end up overturning the car.
“I’m not that bad,” he said, and again I caught that glimmer of hurt I saw in the pub the night before. This time I knew I didn’t imagine it, however brief. I couldn’t possibly be hurting him, though. Not with nothing more serious than a minor moment of indecision. He’d done way worse to me and I’d brushed it off. I never forgot, but if I got over him making snide comments every time I ate a cake during my youth, he could forgive me for having to weigh up his offer.
“I’m sorry. I think it’s a good idea. Thanks. I’ll just give my mum a quick call to tell her she doesn’t need to come.”
Declan waited while I pulled out my phone and told Mum I was getting a lift back. I very carefully omitted who was giving me a lift; that was a conversation best had face to face. Mum was familiar with my yo-yo emotions about Declan, in fact, she was probably more in tune with them than I was. I blushed like a twelve-year-old at a One Direction concert every time I mentioned his name, whether it was to say something good or not.
As predicted, my mum was thrilled not to have to get up early for the drive, and I promised I’d let her know what time I expected be home.
“All sorted.” I placed my phone down on my bed, and looked up at Declan.
I can’t believe I just kissed him. I can’t believe I want to do it again.
I had to fight my body’s urge to crawl across the bed and wrap myself around him, winding my arms around his neck, letting my fingers tease his hair, especially the stubborn part that had refused to stay flat to his head the entire time I’d known him.
I swallowed hard, forcing the image out of my mind. If just one kiss made me feel this way, what would happen if I had more time with him?
“So, what time should I pick you up?”
Blinking, I tried to bring myself back to the present. Reality.
“I don’t mind. What time do you plan to leave?”
“Around ten, if that’s okay with you.”
I nodded. “Perfect.”
Declan opened his mouth as if he had something else to say, but then closed it and stood up. “Okay, I’ll see you in the morning.”
He paused by the door, turning back to me, again as if he wanted to speak. Instead he smiled before leaving, closing the door behind him. Before I had time to start twisting my mind in knots trying to figure out what he was thinking, my phone beeped.
Declan Fox: Goodnight, beautiful Eden
A dopey grin crept across my face and I typed back: Goodnight, Declan x
A virtual kiss is better than nothing, right?