A heartbeat passed and she looked up, large blue eyes fixed right on me, and it was like seeing Jesus. Okay. Maybe not seeing Jesus, but it was definitely like being socked in the chest and hearing angels harking.
God. Damn. She was beautiful. Wasn’t that I had forgotten that, but after things ending so fucked-up between us, it felt like years instead of days since I’d seen her. Those eyes…they were astonishingly blue and clear. Stunning. There were dark smudges under them, a shade darker than her skin. I wanted to smooth them away, but managed to keep my hands to myself. But then my gaze dropped to her lips, and they parted on a sharp inhale. A faint flush spread across her cheeks and I wanted to chase it with my fingers, my mouth, my tongue…
Everyone was staring at me.
Clearing my throat, I forced myself to sit down and placed my hands on the table. I glanced at Syd. “Hey.”
Her face was blood-red. No one blushed like she did. “Hey.”
Across from me, Tanner raised a brow. Andrea started playing with a piece of bread like she was two. No one spoke, and Syd was so stiff I thought she’d break in half.
Wow, this was awkward as hell. I needed to leave.
“So, is everyone excited about Christmas?” Andrea chirped.
Tanner looked at her and said in a deadpan voice, “I am so excited.”
Her eyes narrowed shrewdly. “You don’t sound excited.”
“Well, I’m not twelve.” Tanner cocked his head to the side. “Christmas ain’t that interesting once you grow up.”
“What?” she gasped, eyes wide. “Christmas ain’t that interesting once you grow up?”
“You’re un-American,” she accused.
Syd’s lips pursed.
Tanner looked unaffected. “Man, I just like the time off from school, and the food. That’s it.”
“But it means more than that.” Andrea shook her head and curls flew everywhere. “What about the presents?”
“Yeah, I don’t think that’s what Christmas is about,” he commented.
Andrea huffed. “That is what Christmas is about. Anyone who says differently is trying to make themselves look all spiritual and shit. I keep it real.”
My gaze slid over to Syd and she looked at me, brows raised. Our eyes locked and for a moment, a sweet fucking moment, it was like it used to be. Us sitting back, listening to Andrea and Tanner annoy the living shit out of each other. We should have popcorn when those two went at it.
But then Syd cast her eyes at her glass and started fiddling with her straw, and that was a cold reminder that things weren’t normal. Syd was never this quiet, and things were never strained between us.
I couldn’t say I regretted the time with her though, because I didn’t. Hated how it ended. Looking back, there were a lot of females I’d wished I’d kept my dick in my pants with, but Syd would never be one of them.
The waiter showed up and got our drink and food order. Small talk was made, mostly on Tanner and Andrea’s end. They kept it going so there wasn’t an awkward lull in conversation, but sitting here, not talking to Syd, was wrong on so many levels.
Leaning back, I looked over at her. She tipped her chin up at the same moment and our gazes collided for another second. I sort of felt like an inept schoolboy. It was that bad. “So, your lip looks a lot better.”
She blinked. I was a dumbass.
“It healed up pretty quickly,” she said, training her gaze on her glass. “Just a little mark.”
That was good to hear. “Your jaw?”
“It doesn’t hurt at all.”
It seriously was a relief to hear that. Even drunk off my rocker, I’d been going out of my mind with worry for her.
“Your knuckles still look a little raw,” she said, causing me to look up.
Our eyes locked and held this time. “What?”
“Your knuckles,” she said in a quiet voice as she reached over to the hand I had on the table. I held my breath as she ran her fingertips over my knuckles. It was a feather-light touch, but it traveled straight through me and I jerked. She pulled her hand back, casting her gaze to the table. “Do they hurt?”
“No.” My voice sounded thick. “They don’t hurt at all, baby.”
Her lashes swept up, and her eyes darted across my face like she was looking for something, but then she looked across the table.
Andrea cleared her throat. “Did you guys hear that they’re calling for another snowstorm next week, on New Year’s Eve?”
And so that’s how the conversation went for a while. Andrea or Tanner would smooth over the tense silence with some random statement, Syd and I barely said more than an entire sentence to one another, and then the food came.
Syd had ordered a steak, but she just seemed to cut it up into tiny pieces and push it around her plate with her fork. “You’re not hungry?”
She glanced up, tucking back her hair with her free hand. “I guess I ate too much bread.”
My gaze went to the half loaf that remained and I arched a brow. “Doesn’t look like you ate that much.”
Her fingers tightened around the handle of her knife, and I wondered if she was fantasizing about stabbing me with it. “How do you know that’s not our second or third loaf?”
“It’s our first,” Andrea announced, stopping a deep conversation about the differences between the zombies from The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later.
Syd shot her friend a look, and I hid a grin. Andrea shrugged and turned back to Tanner. “The infected are not the same as the zombies in The Walking Dead.”
Tanner shook his head. “Is there really a difference?”
I shook my head as she went into a deep description of the differences. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Syd grin as she speared a piece of steak with her fork. She glanced at me. “The infected are different,” she whispered.
A smile pulled at my lips and tugged at my heart. “I believe you.”
She met my stare for a moment, and then attacked another piece of steak, dipping it into her mashed potatoes.
“Are you going to your grandparents for Christmas?” It was a stupid question to ask. She always did, but I wanted to say something.
Syd nodded. “My parents want to leave Christmas Eve and stay the night with them. How about you?”
“Grandpa is coming down this year, doing the Christmas morning thing with us.”
“Wow. He’s driving down from Morgan County by himself?”
“Yep.” Pride filled my voice. “The man is as old as dirt, but he’s still running around like he’s twenty.”
“Your grandpa is so funny. Remember when he tried to build a redneck playground in your mom’s backyard with the crane?”
I laughed. “Yeah, Mom wasn’t too happy about that.”
“Neither were the neighbors.” Out of habit—and I knew that was what led to this—she pried off half the shrimp off the skewers and placed them on my plate. She didn’t even seem to realize she’d done it until she was done, but then her brows knitted and she fell silent.
I already missed the ease of conversation and felt the chill like a harsh arctic wind. “I told Mom about going to vet school.”
“What?” She dropped her knife as she twisted toward me. “You did?”
Thrilled with the fact I had her full attention, I ignored Andrea and Tanner, who’d stopped arguing for five seconds. “Yeah.”
“Well?” Excitement turned her eyes into shining sapphires. “What did she say?”
The dreaded conversation had happened about fifteen minutes after I’d walked through the door when I’d gotten back from Snowshoe. And approximately fifteen minutes after that, I’d started drinking. “Ah, she wasn’t too thrilled about it. There were tears, but I think in the end, she knows it’s what I want.”
“She cried?” Syd winced. “Oh, no.”
I nodded. “She seems better with it now, but I think it’s going to take a little bit for her to get used to it.” Leaning back, I spread my legs until my thigh pressed into hers. Totally on purpose, and she didn’t shy away. I took that as a good sign. “I’m glad I finally got it out in the open. It’s really because of you.”
“Me?” she squeaked.
Tanner tilted his head to the side, brows raised.
I was going to punch him in the face later. “Well, you know, after we talked about it, I knew I had to say something to her soon. You…you gave me the courage to do it.”
I was seriously going to spin-kick him in the balls, but Syd smiled—smiled so widely and beautifully that Tanner’s balls might be safe. “That’s great,” she said. “I’m happy for you. Really. I know that’s what you want, and you’ll be great at it.”
Pressure clamped down on my chest, and there was so much I needed to say. Now wasn’t the right time, but I had to say something, because I was two seconds from climbing all over her. “What are you doing afterwards?”
“Nothing,” Andrea answered for her. “She’s doing absolutely nothing.”
Syd slowly turned to Andrea, and I wanted to hug the damn girl. “So you have nothing to do,” I cut in before Syd could say anything. She turned back to me, and I felt like everything came down to this minute. If she said no, then I knew it was done. My muscles seized like I was about to hit a high slope. “Can we—?”
“Kyler Quinn,” a smooth, throaty voice interrupted. “Hot damn, it’s going to be my lucky night.”
The dinner had started off in the seven different circles of hell, but over the course of the meal, I’d relaxed. Not completely, because sitting next to Kyler was a true test of self-control. I was torn between wanting to crawl into his arms and wanting to kick him out of the booth.
But with him looking at me like I was the only thing he needed in his life? I was starting to side with the crawling-into-his-lap part when a voice made to get guys drop their pants slithered over my skin like snakes.
Forcing my gaze away from Kyler’s dark brown eyes, I saw a girl I barely recognized. Took me a few minutes to remember her name was Corie. We’d gone to high school together. Had no idea what she’d been up to over the years, but I remembered who’d been up her several times in high school.
My gaze traveled over her red, skintight sweater. Corie had boobs dreams were made of. She looked at me, and I knew she dismissed my presence outright. Like there was no way the fact that Kyler was sitting next to me at a table meant anything.
Any other time, this probably wouldn’t have bothered me. If anything, I was used to random chicks approaching Kyler everywhere we went. The boy was well-traveled, but right now, after everything? Yeah, it did not make me feel warm or fuzzy.
Andrea muttered something under her breath as Kyler turned slowly. “Hey,” he said evenly. “How’ve you been, Corie?”
Corie popped a hand on her hip as her red-painted lips spread into a smile. “I’ve been good. Haven’t seen you around lately. Guess you’re home for Christmas?”