Tyler laughed. “Oh, yeah. Whoa. I can’t drive, that’s for sure.”
Lexi got to her feet and looked at the party. Kids were sprawled everywhere. The few who were still standing staggered around. “What are we going to do?” she said, starting to panic. “We don’t want your mom to know we were drinking…”
“Shit,” Zach said again, running a hand through his hair.
“Madre said we could call anytime,” Mia said, trying to get Tyler to his feet. “No questions asked, she said. No repercussions.”
Zach looked at Lexi.
“We don’t have any choice,” she said. This was bad.
He cursed again and made the call. “Hey, Mom,” he said, straightening, trying to sound sober and failing. “Yeah. I know. Sorry. But … we need you to pick us up … yeah … Tyler … I know … thanks.” He closed the phone and looked at them. “She sounded pissed.”
“It’s one in the morning,” Lexi said. If only she hadn’t had that beer. She could have driven them home and spared them all what was coming.
They made their way back to the house, where kids were still huddled around the fire. All around, on the grass, more kids were making out, passed out.
In the driveway, they stood by Tyler’s SUV. It seemed to take forever, but finally a pair of headlights appeared on the rise, turned toward them, and grew brighter.
The big black Escalade parked. Jude stepped out of the driver’s seat and came around to them. She was wearing a heavy, floor-length cashmere robe over pajamas. Without makeup, she looked pale and tired. And pissed off. Her gaze narrowed as she looked them over. Lexi had no doubt that she saw it all: Mia’s glassy eyes and misbuttoned shirt, Zach’s unsteady stance, Tyler’s droopy eyes.
Lexi couldn’t make eye contact she was so embarrassed.
“Get in,” Jude said with a sigh. “Put on your seatbelts.”
The drive home was utterly silent. When they were all in the entryway, Jude said, “Put Tyler in the media room. He can sleep on the sofa. Now I’m going to bed.” On that, she turned her back on them and walked down the hall. At her bedroom door, she paused, turned back. “Good job for calling,” she said tiredly, and then she went into her room and closed the door.
Mia immediately giggled. Zach shushed her, and they all climbed the stairs to the second floor. Tyler fell a couple of times, yelling out curses. By the time they got him onto the sofa, he was already asleep.
At Mia’s bedroom door, Zach kissed Lexi until she couldn’t think straight, and then left her.
She and Mia crawled into the big king-sized bed. Moonlight spilled through the window, illuminating them.
“Your mom looked pretty pissed tonight,” Lexi said.
“Don’t worry about it. We did the right thing. She wouldn’t want us driving.”
Lexi lay back into the pile of soft pillows, staring up at the dark, peaked ceiling. “About what Zach said … about school…” She didn’t know how to follow that up. The dream was too sharp to handle.
“The thing is…” Mia sighed. “I want to go to USC. I actually dream about it. You know? But I’m afraid to go without Zach. I wish I were stronger … but I’m not. I need him with me.”
Mia rolled onto her side and looked at Lexi. “I have a secret. About Tyler and me.” She paused. “We did it.”
Lexi rolled over to face Mia. “It? You did it?”
Mia’s face was so close Lexi could smell the beer on her breath and the floral scent of her shampoo. Her green eyes were bright. “He said he loved me. I know it’s true now.”
“Details!” Lexi said, trying to keep her voice a whisper. As she listened to Mia’s story, Lexi couldn’t help thinking about Zach and how much she loved him, and she wished she hadn’t pushed him away now.
“I guess you’re officially the last virgin in our class,” Mia finally said.
Lexi closed her eyes, feeling strangely adrift, as if she’d missed some boat that everyone else was on. What if Zach only said he understood her reluctance? What if someday he just … found someone else to love?
Beside her, Mia started to snore.
Lexi thought about sneaking out of bed and going to Zach’s room. She’d never done that before—she’d promised both Jude and Mia that she wouldn’t do it—and usually it was an easy promise to keep. But tonight, she felt his absence keenly. They had so little time together. It was late December already. No matter what they all said—what they dreamed aloud—they wouldn’t be going to school together. Beginning in September, they would only see one another on breaks. If then.
She closed her eyes and dreamed of Zach, remembering the times on their beach …
She came awake with a start.
Zach was peering down at her, his blond hair falling forward. “Come with me.”
She took his hand. It was just that simple. He pressed a finger to his lips, said sshhh as they tiptoed down the hall toward his room.
She could have stopped him, pulled back as she’d done so many times before, but suddenly all her reasons for holding back felt silly. Whatever he wanted, she wanted. She couldn’t bear the thought that she might lose him. She wanted to be everything to him while she could, so he would keep on loving her.
She followed him up onto his big bed, with its impossibly soft sheets and the airy goose-down pillows. Moonlight spilled through the open window, pooling on the white cotton.
“Here,” he said, handing her a small pink-wrapped box.
“Christmas isn’t for two days. I don’t have your present.”
“We might not have another chance to be alone,” he said.
Her hands were shaking slightly as she opened the box. Inside, on blue velvet, lay a thin silver band with a tiny sapphire chip.
“It’s a promise ring,” he said solemnly. “The lady at the store said it’s what you give the girl you love. It means I want to marry you someday.”
Lexi stared down at it, feeling tears start behind her eyes. He did love her. As much as she loved him. When she lifted her gaze, all the love she’d hoarded since childhood was in her eyes. She gave all of it to him, all of herself. “Do you have some condoms?”
“Are you sure this is what you want?” he said. “Because if you aren’t—”
“I’m sure,” she whispered, taking off his shirt. “Love me, Zach. That’s what I want.”
Jude had very few Christmas memories from her childhood. Here was what she remembered: quiet mornings in the big house on Magnolia Bluff, a fake tree decorated by professionals, a single designer stocking hanging from the mantel. Breakfast had been catered. There had been gift openings, of course—a short, silent affair with Caroline sitting perched on an expensive gilt chair, her foot tapping nervously on the hardwood, while Jude sat cross-legged on the floor. A few solemn thank-yous were passed back and forth, and then the whole ordeal was done. When the last gift was revealed, her mother had practically run for the door.
Once, when her father had been alive, she recalled writing a letter to Santa … but that kind of whimsy had died with her dad.
Jude did things a little differently in her own home. Since motherhood had surprised her with its powerful pull, she’d become a holiday junkie. She decorated from corner to corner, until the entire house looked like a catalog spread. But it was Christmas morning that she really looked forward to, when the family came together, their cheeks creased from sleep, to open presents. In those early morning hours, with her sleepy, grinning children settled around her, she could see the result of her efforts. Her twins would remember these times with fondness.
Now, though, the boxes and papers and bows were put away, and they were at the table, eating their traditional holiday meal—eggs Florentine with fresh fruit and homemade cinnamon rolls.
Last night, in a burst of holiday cheer, snow had come to the Northwest, and the view outside was a gorgeous tableau of white and blue.
Jude had always loved snow days, and when they came for the holidays, it was a double bonus. Today, after brunch, the whole family was going ice skating down at the pond on Miller Road. It would be a good time, she thought, to have a serious talk with the kids about what had happened the other night at the party. It had taken a superhuman effort not to rail at them, but she had managed it. Still, there was some talking to be done, some ground rules for senior year to be reassigned.
She was so deep in imagining how she would conduct this conversation, what she would say to them, that she hardly heard what Zach had just said.
She turned to her son, who was busily buttering one of the cinnamon rolls she’d made. “What did you say?”
Zach grinned. From across the glittering expanse of their formal dining table, with his blond hair messy from sleep, he looked about thirteen years old. “A promise ring.”
Silence fell. Even Miles frowned. His hand paused midreach. “Excuse me?”
Across the table from Zach, Mother straightened. “Excuse me, did you say a ring?”
“It’s really pretty,” Mia said, pulling a frosted bit from her cinnamon roll. She popped it into her mouth. “Mom? Are you having a stroke?”
Jude had to force herself to remain calm. Her son—her not quite eighteen-year-old son—had given his girlfriend a ring for Christmas. “And what exactly are you promising Lexi?” She felt Miles lean toward her. His fingers closed around her wrist.
“It means I promise to marry her someday.”
“Oh, look. We’re out of fruit,” Miles said evenly. “Here, Jude. I’ll help you get some more.” Before she could protest—she still felt frozen—he led her out of the dining room and into the big kitchen.
“Shhh,” he said, pulling her behind the fridge. “They’ll hear you.”
“No shit,” she said. “I want him to hear me.”
“We can’t come down on him about this.”
“You think it’s okay for our son to give a promise ring to a girl he’s been dating for three months?”
“Of course I don’t. But it’s done, Jude. A fait accompli.”
She pushed his arm away. “Great parenting, Miles. Do nothing. What if we’d found out he was doing her**n?”
“It’s not her**n, Jude,” he said tiredly.
“No. It’s love. Or so he thinks.”
“It is love, Jude. You can tell that by looking at the kid.”
“Oh, for God’s sake.”
“I’m not going to have this debate with you. If you want to throw yourself on the sword, go ahead, but don’t expect me to suture you up when you start bleeding.”
“Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. He was in a jewelry store, shopping for a present for his girlfriend, and he got swept away by romance. That’s all. It happens to men, too, unevolved as we are.” He pulled her toward him. “Sadly, our son is an idiot. They should have told us this when he was born. That way we could have lowered our expectations.”