“Do we have the red Tupperware case?” my mom asked, scanning the trunk of our silver Subaru one last time. “The one with all the beads?”
I glanced at my watch. “Mom, I told you, I got everything. Relax. It’s inside the box with the felt.” We were headed up to our cabin in Tahoe for our annual Christmas vacation, and we were already behind schedule. And being late made me itchy.
Not that I should have been in a hurry. I was pretty sure this week, unlike our normal vacations, was going to be hell on earth. See, I love the holidays—like, triple-o looove them. Fourth of July, Halloween; hell, I even celebrate National Donut Day (June first, by the way) because, well, donuts. But my favorite of them all is Christmas. Why, you ask? Well, because during the six-ish weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, the world is, inarguably and scientifically, a better place.
Sparkly lights go up on any surface that will hold a nail.
You have an excuse to indulge in wonderful things that don’t even make sense, like peppermint hot chocolate and rum balls.
People throw parties that involve wearing awesomely gaudy sweaters, and yet somehow, the glow of candlelight makes everyone look better.
And...there is a magical thing called snow that softens all the hard edges of the world.
I loved every last bit of it.
But what did I love about Christmas most of all?
Well, up until two days ago, it would have been going to our family cabin in Lake Tahoe. Built by my grandfather back in the fifties, the A-frame cottage is the epitome of relaxed mountain cool. It’s all soaring beams and knotty pine and huge windows that look out to an unobstructed view of pine trees and snow-dappled mountains.
To sum it up: perfection.
We’d go up there every year and play board games and sit by the fire and wait for it to snow. Even after my dad left us, Mom and I still made the pilgrimage. The first year without him, when I was in sixth grade, I thought it would feel lonely and weird. And it did, to some extent, but my mom did a hell of a job distracting us. I was always super into art, so she brought craft supplies and made all my favorite foods, and we started new traditions, like making ornaments and eating crab spaghetti on Christmas Day.
I know, it sounds gross. But don’t knock it till you try it. I mean, think about it: is it that much different than putting mint in your hot chocolate?
Anyway, what I’m getting at is…the cabin was my special place. A place I went during my most favorite time of year. A place we’d worked hard to pull together and turn into something that was just for us.
And it was about to be invaded.
“You okay, baby?”
I leaned my head against the window. We were almost to the cabin, and the glass was already ice-cold, despite the warm air from the car’s heater. I checked my iPhone.
Almost snow weather.
“You seem distant.”
“I’m fine, Mom.” I sat up and pulled my long, dark hair into a ponytail.
“I’m so excited all of us finally get a chance to spend some time together. Lance is really a good guy, once you get to know him.”
“I do know him, Mom. You’ve been dating for almost a year.”
A smile crept up on her lips, and her gold charm bracelet jingled as she turned onto our street. The bracelet was a gift from Lance for her birthday a month ago. That’s when she’d revealed he’d be coming with us to the cabin for the holidays.
It was strange enough to have another man step into the role my father used to have. That alone would have been enough to adjust to. Only it wasn’t just him. His son was coming too.
And the boy who’d stolen my heart in high school.
I’d made a concentrated effort to forget about him after graduation. Our hometown of Mill Valley, California, was small, so that meant holing up at home and avoiding all downtown areas where I might run into him. Then we both left for college in separate cities, and well, I moved on.
Or at least I thought I had. Until one night a year ago, when my mom proclaimed she had a date.
“I think you might know him, actually. Lance, Lance Conner? I think he had a son in your grade?”
I felt a warm, soul-melting heat clench inside of me and then drain slowly out. “Rhys?”
She glanced up from the vanity. “Yes! Rhys, that’s it. Did you know him?”
Did I know him?
Of course I knew him. Rhys Conner sat next to me in art class senior year. He was tall and good-looking in the kind of way where you couldn’t stop gazing at him. He had dark hair and eyes and that bad-boy aura that made all the girls crush on him. But it wasn’t just that. His smile, it was almost devilish. Wicked. And those cheekbones could cut glass.
Knowing he’d be here with Lance made me feel torn. I wasn’t crazy about Lance, but in the end, I just wanted my mom to be happy. She’d been so angry and sad after my dad left that she hadn’t come out of her room for two weeks. I couldn’t blame her. He was an architect and had run off with one of his building engineers, some woman named Vicki. He never even said goodbye or anythinghe just packed up his things and left on a Tuesday. He never reached out, but then again, I don’t know what I’d have said if he did. How can you abandon your wife and kid?
I threw my energy into helping my mom move on. I wanted her to be happy; really, I did. So when she started dating Lance, I just shut my mouth and didn’t say anything. I figured the likelihood of things working out with them was low. But now, a year into it, I couldn’t hide from Rhys anymore. We were spending a week together after not seeing each other for almost four years.
In high school, I’d sat next to him at our table in art class, keeping almost silent for the first week. He barely noticed me, busy making a name for himself within the hierarchy of the room. At first, he concentrated his attention on a girl at the table next to ours, Bree Henderson. Bree was who Rhys should have wanted. She had pale ivory skin, strawberry blond hair, and was one of the most beautiful girls in our grade. Since she was captain of the dance team, I’m pretty sure she was taking art as an elective to keep up her GPA, not because she was actually into it. I, on the other hand, needed to do well because I was trying to get into Henning College of the Arts, which was super competitive.
I managed to stay under Rhys’ radar for almost a month, despite sitting right next to him. During that time, we covered drawing, which he was surprisingly good at. Now, we were moving onto a unit about collage.
I liked collage. We were using magazines to find photos, and it was soothing to spend time searching for just the right color for your project.
I was working on a mosaic of a large butterfly, with the wings made up of pictures of lakes and trees and nature.
I looked up, Rhys’ honeyed voice interrupting my concentration. Both his arms were crossed as he leaned into my personal space. He smelled different than I expected, kind of like soap.
I rolled my eyes and frowned at his observation. “Yup.”
I turned to him.
His face was close, his eyebrow slightly lifted, one corner of his mouth tucked up like it was poised to curl into a smile but…didn’t.
“Why?” I ask, sticking to single words.
He leaned back on his stool. “I wouldn’t have thought you’d choose butterflies, that’s all,” he said with a shrug.
My skin prickled as heat travelled from my face to my toes. I hated that I wasn’t immune to him.
Just like every other girl.
I shrugged, mimicking his movement. “What’s wrong with liking butterflies?”
His lips graduated into a smirk. “A little cliché, don’t you think?”
I frowned at the jab. “More like classic. Butterflies have been symbols for growth and new beginnings since, like, Roman times.”
“Is that why you like them?”
His eyes fell onto my lips, and I could barely hear him. “Huh?”
“Huh. I bet you have a tattoo of one, don’t you? Where is it? Your ankle? No...your parents probably would see it. Lower back?”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m seventeen.”
I just looked at him.
“No? That’s too bad.” He glanced off into the distance for a second and then locked eyes with me, lowering his voice. “You know, I’ve got a guy.”
“I’m not getting a tattoo.”
“Aw, come on, Hayes. You afraid it would hurt?
He lowered his voice further. “Chicken?”
His whisper had a seductive edge, and it made me feel all kinds of things.
“I’m not chicken. I just don’t want anything that much.”
He tilted his head at me.
“You know, like, forever. You should only get a tattoo if it’s something you want forever.”
Keeping his eyes locked with mine, he sat back and pushed up his sleeve. On his exposed forearm, an intricate script spelled out a woman’s name.
“Who’s that, a one-night stand from summer camp?” I immediately regretted my sarcasm. I had to admit, it was a beautiful tattoo. The script was simple, delicate but strong. And his forearm wasn’t bad, either. Tan, with a light dusting of dark hair and a few veins wrapping the musculature in the sexiest way.
Did I just say sexiest?
I looked away, and he rolled the sleeve back down.
The bell rang, signaling the end of class. He rolled up his collage of black-and-white photos and threw his backpack on.
“See you tomorrow, Hayes.”
When we got to the cabin, I learned something new: Mom had given Lance a key.
“He wanted to come up early and turn the heat on for us. I figured why not. I told him how much you hate waking up early,” she explained. “You’re not mad, are you? I thought it was sweet for him to offer.”
I held back a sigh. “No, it’s fine.” I didn’t care that Lance had a key. I cared that Rhys had shown up before me. Because that shifted the power dynamic between us.
And I needed to retain all the power I could during this trip. I needed to stay strong.
We dragged our suitcases up the front steps, but before my mom put her key in the lock, the door swung open.
Lance was standing tall, grinning widely, dressed in jeans and what looked like a brand-new, red flannel shirt.
“New shirt, Lance?” I asked as he ushered us in and we exchanged hellos.
“How’d you know?” he asked, beaming.
“Tag’s still on it.” I pointed at the XL sticker on the front.
He laughed and pulled it off. “Oh, ha ha, whoops. Thanks, Lily.”
They started to chitchat about the drive up, but my mind went elsewhere. I was distracted, scanning the cabin for evidence of Rhys. When I didn’t see any bags or anything, I started to wonder if maybe he hadn’t come. It was a possibility I hadn’t considered: maybe he’d opted out.
The thought hit me in a way that was strange and unexpected. An ache almost. Was I disappointed?
“Rhys is in the bedroom,” Lance offered, breaking me out of my haze.
I looked up at him.
“Oh, uh, hun,” my mom cut in, “I know there’s a trundle bed, but maybe they want, you know, their privacy. Since they’re both adults.”
Lance rubbed the back of his neck. “Of course. Right. Lily, I can tell Rhys to take the loft.”
“No, no, it’s cool.” I turned to hide my flaming face. “I’ll take the loft. No big deal.”
I grabbed my bag and headed upstairs, going left when I’d normally go right. Truth? I was a little miffed that Rhys went ahead and claimed the bedroom. I mean, it was our cabin. But then again, maybe I’d luck out and he’d end up staying behind that closed door all week.
I threw my stuff into the guest dresser and put my toiletry bag on top, but I still needed to make up the loft bed.
And the linens were kept in Rhys’s room.
I paused in front of the mirror before heading to see Rhys, fluffing my hair to the best of my ability and using some lip gloss from my toiletry bag. This was so strange. It’d been almost four years since I’d seen him, and my stomach was doing flips. I told myself it was nerves, not excitement. I couldn’t be excited to see Rhys. This was dumb. After all, I’d changed a lot since high school, and he probably had too.
The door to my bedroom was closed, so I paused outside and debated what to do. Part of me wanted to just barge in. After all, it was my room, not his. But on the other hand, I wasn’t really keen on catching him with his dick in his hand.
I took a deep breath and went with a quick knock.
I knocked again and waited a few seconds. Still nothing, so I tried the knob.
It twisted, so I slowly pushed the door ajar, averting my eyes and reaching out with my voice. “Rhys? Are you in there?”
I pushed the door open a little more. There was a man sitting on my bed, headphones on and his back to me, sorting clothes in his suitcase.
“Rhys,” I said again before I heard the muffled music and realized he probably couldn’t hear me. I took a few steps forward and tapped him lightly on his shoulder, holding my breath.
His shoulders twisted in my direction, his navy T-shirt stretching over the broad expanse of his back. He’d grown. His shoulders had broadened, his muscles developed. Where before he’d been athletic and lithe, now he was dense and strong.
As he turned, his face tilted up, and his eyes connected with mine.
Almost immediately, my cheeks felt like they were on fire.
Fuck. He was sexy as hell.
It took only a split second before his eyes registered me. As he did, the corners of his mouth ticked up in cool amusement. “Well, well, well,” he said, slowly removing his headphones. “Liliana Hayes.”
The way my full name slowly rolled off his tongue made me feel tight and bubbly, my core boiling uncontrollably. It was so strange to see him again. He was the same, but different. His grin was still taunting, teasing. Like he always had a secret. His voice, clever and thick, was a visceral vapor that quickly seeped through my skin and grabbed hold of me inside.
It was shocking and unnerving, but familiar and warm at the same time.
I steadied myself as he examined me up and down. His eyes penetrated me like laser beams, like he knew the shape of me, even under my jeans and sweater. It was strangely intimate, considering we hadn’t seen each other in years.
“I need sheets,” I explained.
Rhys cocked one eyebrow in confusion.
“For my bed.”
His mouth widened into an easy grin. “Yes, that’s generally how they work.”
I pushed out a huff and tried to explain. “The closet.” I nodded toward the corner. “That’s where we keep them.”
He angled his head and sparkled his eyes at me. “Don’t let me get in your way, Hayes.”
I paused and then retrieved the sheets while Rhys went back to sorting his clothes.
“Thanks.” I passed him again, but then stopped and hovered between him and the door. “Don’t you think we should talk about it?”
He got up and put some clothes in the dresser without looking at me. “Talk about what, Hayes?”
I stared up at the ceiling and swallowed. Ugh. He wasn’t making this easy. “I don’t know. Your dad, my mom? I mean, it’s strange, right?”
Rhys turned and leaned back on the dresser, crossing his arms. “You look good. You still doing the art thing?”
I held the sheets in front of my chest. “Yeah. I’m in my senior year at Henning. Graphic design major.”
He nodded. “That’s awesome. You were always super talented.”
I scoffed. “Hardly. Trust me, I’m nothing without Photoshop. You’re the one who was super talented.”
He untangled his arms and gripped the dresser behind him, looking up at the ceiling. “Eh.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “Oh, my God, shut up. You had so much talent. Remember that charcoal drawing? The one of the magnolia blossom?”
He lowered his face. “You remember that?”
“It was insane! Seriously, do you still have it? Because, hand to God, I’ll buy it. Right this second.”
He threw back his head and chuckled. “Yeah, right. My dad made me toss all that stuff as soon as I brought it home from school.”
“What?” I exclaimed. “No!”
“’Fraid so. Said the shit was clutter.”
How anyone could have said Rhys’ artwork was clutter was beyond me. “Mom said you were in school in Chicago. Are you at the School of the Art Institute?”
He laughed. “You must be kidding. There’s no way Lance Conner’s son would be an artist. I’m at the University of Chicago for business.”
I blinked at him. “Business? Seriously?” That didn’t fit him at all. Not the Rhys I knew, at least.
He scowled. “I didn’t have a choice. It was that, or he was going to cut me off.”
Huh. For some reason, it really surprised me that Rhys had given in to that threat.
“I was eighteen,” he offered as an explanation.
I guessed that made sense, thinking back to that time. God, high school felt like so long ago.
“Lily?” my mom’s voice travelled up from the stairs. “Are you up there?”
Rhys and I locked eyes for half a second, and I felt a wave of panic before I realized we weren’t doing anything wrong.
I pulled the door open. “Yeah, Mom. I’m just talking to Rhys.”
She finished her ascent and came into the room. “Hi, Rhys, honey,” my mom said, looking past me. “We’re so glad you could make it.”
“Me too, Mrs. Hayes.”
“Please, I told you to call me Gail, Rhys.”
His lips parted into a grin as he glanced at me. “Of course. Gail. Thank you again for having us.”
He was being so...cordial. It gave me flashbacks to how he’d been with Ms. Hansen, our art teacher. He’d also had her wrapped around his finger.
“You settling in all right, Rhys? Do you need blankets or anything?”
“No, Gail. Lily was just showing me where the extra blankets were, actually, but thank you.”
My mom rubbed her hands together, and I silently prayed she couldn’t see my cheeks flushing. Rhys made me crazy the way he’d just seeped back into my life, like it was no big deal. “Well, then. Listen, your father and I were thinking it might be nice to go and get a tree today while it’s still clear outside. What do you think? You guys want to come?”
“That sounds like fun, Gail. We’ll be right down.”
“Excellent,” my mom said, without even glancing at me. “Well, we’ll see you in a minute, then.”
I waited until my mom had gone and then whipped my head around to Rhys. “What was that?”
His grin had vanished. “What?”
“You were… You were being so...” I paused. “Nice.”
“I’m a nice guy. You know, you never told me your mom was so hot, Lily.”
“Oh, my God,” I yell-whispered. “Do not ever say that again.”
“What, that your mom is hot? She is.”
“Rhys, wait, I need to be clear about something.”
“Clear about what?” he asked, not so innocently, as he stepped toward me.
I took half a step back and realized I was pinned against the wall. I closed my eyes as I took a hit of his scent. The soapy smell instantly took me back, and I had to use all my might to keep my knees from wobbling. Rhys was only inches away from me, and my body was helpless against him. I was like a junkie who’d been abstinent for years but then realized: all that strength I thought I had? All the power I’d felt in moving on?
It was fake. Not real.
The truth? College had pulled me from Mill Valley. It hadn’t been my willpower or mental resolve.
I’d been saved because I left. Because leaving is what you do when you’re eighteen.
I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about him during that first semester at Henning. Truth was, he was all I’d thought about.
“Lily.” He put his hands on the curve of my hips and angled his face toward mine and
“Are you still scared of me?”
I swallowed, my heart thumping in my chest. Was I? Maybe. Maybe not. He felt dangerous. Or maybe that was just me. Around him, I felt like gasoline.
I knew one spark would ignite me. And possibly incinerate me.
But how good would it feel to burn at the hands of Rhys Conner? Even now, he’d barely touched me, and I felt like my insides were combusting.
My mind was flooded. I should have stopped. Slowed down. Pushed him away. Taken a moment to think.
But I didn’t.
“Rhys,” I whispered, need thickly wrapping itself around my vocal chords so I could barely speak. I felt like I was going to pass out.
His eyes, heavy and hooded, searched my face, landing on my lips.
My nerve endings tingled all the way down to my toes, and I closed my eyes, unable to look at him. It was too much, too many sensations, too much want, too much everything.
I felt him bend his lips to my ear. “You’re staring at me like you want me to kiss you, Liliana,” he taunted quietly.
My lips parted to respond, but I couldn’t make a sound. Only Rhys Conner had ever managed to make me feel so wobbly with desire.
He pulled back. “I’m not sure if it’s such a good idea. Good ol’ Mom and Dad might not approve.”
I felt a twist in my stomach. He was feigning disapproval? That was hilarious, since he was the one even suggesting it. The ridiculousness of it gave me strength to respond.
“What happened to the Rhys Conner I knew who never cared about what other people thought?” I looked up to see how my comment landed.
He grinned. “Touché, Hayes.”
“Lily?” my mom’s voice rang out. “You guys coming?”
“Shit,” I said.
Rhys gave me a hard look. “Let them go. Let’s stay here.”
For a moment, I absolutely was on board. Until I got hold of my senses. I couldn’t do this.
“Lily?” My mom’s voice called up the stairs.
“Come on,” I said finally. “We have to go.”
Rhys rolled his eyes.
He sighed. “Okay, fine. Just...stall them for five minutes, okay?”
I quirked my head at him, and he gestured to his pants, where a very clear hard-on was holding court. Shit. He was turned on? Like, for real? By me?
I tried to play it cool. “Oh. Right. Gotcha. No problem.”
I pretended to have lost my jacket. By the time I piled into Lance’s Lexus SUV, Rhys was ready. On the way to the tree farm, my mom played Peter, Paul, and Mary on the stereo, and Rhys just stared out the window, ignoring me.
Talk about hot and cold.