“Isn’t this a treat? My four favorite kiddos in the world, here with us for the holidays.” My father stood at the opening to the living room as a fire raged behind us.
“We’re not really kiddos anymore, Dad.” Aubrey laughed and glanced around at the rest of us before reaching out to take Lucas’s hand. I couldn’t help but notice the way they watched each other. Their fall semester of being apart had to be hard while he was building a career with the Washington Caps and she was stuck in Providence with the rest of us. Beyond hard.
I glanced over at Layla, my sister’s best friend, losing the conversation as my eyes moved across her. Her long dirty-blonde hair splayed out over her shoulders, and her dark blue eyes were filled with excitement. Beautiful wouldn’t do her justice.
Christmas was my favorite time of year. Namely, because my family would gather up and we’d stop bitching and bickering for a few days.
My mother wouldn’t nag Aubrey about her weight until after the first of the year, and my father would take time off from teaching and his practice to invest in us once again. It was just right, good, whole.
“Hey, you have too much eggnog?” Layla reached over and tugged at the blanket I had wrapped around my legs.
“Me? Nah, I don’t drink that crap.” I winked at my mom as she scoffed from beside the fire where she stood.
“I made that myself, Jayce Robert Moore.” She put her hand on her narrow hip and tilted her head to the side.
“Oh damn, you got the full name pulled out on you.” Layla put her hand over her mouth and chuckled as everyone else teased me.
I could almost see her sitting there at six years old, ten, fourteen, seventeen, twenty-one. How long had I loved this girl?
“My whole life,” I whispered and got up, needing more air than was available around me.
“I was just teasing, baby.” My mom walked toward me and touched the side of my face. “You’re feverish. You okay?”
“Too much eggnog,” Lucas said and everyone laughed.
My folks weren’t too thrilled with Aubrey dating someone out of state, but they were trying to deal with it. The last thing any of us wanted was for her to quit Providence University before her last semester and head out to Washington, but from the way things were looking, that was exactly what we were headed for.
I wasn’t too sure how I felt about that. She was my best friend, my closest companion, my sister. Losing her would happen eventually, but I prayed it wasn’t now. With Lucas gone, life was a little lonelier than I’d expected. I needed to put more energy and effort into making friends on the baseball team or nurturing my relationships with the guys on the hockey team. I’d spent most of the fall rolling solo or tagging along with Aubrey.
Something had to give.
“I’m fine.” I touched my mom’s hand and pulled from her hold. “I’m going out back to get a little bit of air.”
“I’ll come with you.” Lucas jogged up beside me as we walked through the large house my parents had worked their whole lives to build. He wrapped his arm around my shoulders and gave me a knowing look. “What’s going on, dude? I know you well enough to know something is up.”
“Nah, man. I love the holidays. I just got a lot on my plate right now.” I shrugged and pushed the door to the back patio open. It was freezing in Maine this time of year, and a thick blanket of snow sat on the yard, covering the world in white for as far as I could see.
I breathed in deep and walked carefully toward the railing at the far end of the porch.
“You sure? You seem a little unsettled. More than usual.” He moved up beside me and gripped the railing.
“Yeah, man.” I glanced over at my best friend and bit my tongue. I wanted to let it spill. All of it.
“All right, well, you know I’m here, right?” He pushed his shoulder against mine.
“Yep, I know.” I let out a long sigh and let my eyes move across the yard slowly, pulling from the serenity around me. “How’s your injury doing? You think you’ll be back on the ice this spring?”
“Oh yeah. I’m one hundred percent again.” He ran his fingers through his dark hair and glanced up toward the sky. “You need to decide between hockey and baseball, Jayce. Trying to manage both of them is too much, dude.”
“Yeah. It’s starting to drag on me, for sure. My grades slipped last semester and I fucking failed Chemistry again. I have this semester left, and I’m not sure I’m going to pass it no matter what I do. Somehow, the science genius gene skipped me by. Aubrey stole it in the womb, I guess.” I forced a laugh.
“Layla and your sister are both great with science. Stop thinking you gotta drag this load alone, man. You know there’s no way for one man to win a game alone. Get a team of people around you that can support you and hopefully make you smarter and more prepared.”
“I hate to bother anyone, man. I’ll figure it out.”
He gripped my shoulder and squeezed. “Or you’ll do what I said and get some help, Jayce. Besides, it would be a great excuse for you to hang out with Layla. You still got the hots for her. I can tell. Hell, we all can.” He laughed and released me.
“No way, man. No one knows how I feel about her. Not even my sister.” I moved to the edge of the stairs and glanced over my shoulder. “Is my sister moving to Washington with you after the holidays?”
He didn’t hesitate. “Yeah, she’s going to talk to you about it soon, but she’s worried about how everyone is going to react.”
I forced my selfishness deep down inside of me and tried to find some semblance of happiness that Aubrey’s life was moving forward. I wanted her with me. Needed her to be.
“I get that.” I crossed my arms over my chest. “I figured after you got hurt last semester and she flew up there ten times over the fall that she’d be moving soon.”
“I’m gonna ask her to marry me, dude.”
Shock rolled over me, though it shouldn’t have. “Wow. When?”
“In a few minutes. I spoke with your dad this morning while you were still sawing logs.” He shrugged and slipped his hands into his pockets. “He’s not real happy about the idea of her transferring schools and missing her last semester here, but he understands. I’m not so sure how your mom is going to handle it.”
“You only spoke to my dad?” I smiled sarcastically. “I’m going to go make some popcorn and get a front row seat for this. My mom is going to hand you your ass.”
He chuckled and shrugged. “Then she’ll hand me my ass. I love your sister with a fire inside of me that just keeps getting hotter and hotter, man.”
“Ugh. Come on, dude. She’s still my sister.” I walked toward the door, slipping a little and riding the slide to the door. “We’re going out back after all this shit so I can whoop you in a little game of hockey.”
“Oh yeah? You guys got a lake out back somewhere?”
“Yeah. We’ll have to drive out to it, but it’ll be worth it.” I grabbed the door and almost ran into Layla. Her fitted cream-colored sweater and tight blue jeans left her looking like sin.
“There you guys are. Telling secrets? I want in on it. What are we doing?” She pressed her hands to my chest and walked toward me, forcing me back out on the patio.
I wanted so badly to tell her how beautiful she was, how incredibly sexy she’d grown up to be, but knowing her, she’d punch me in the gut and laugh. She was aggressive, ballsy, and confident like nobody’s business.
“I’m asking Aubrey to marry me in a few minutes.” Lucas’s smile was so wide, it had to hurt.
“Really?” Layla shut the door behind her and plowed into Lucas, wrapping him in a tight hug. “That’s great news!”
“Yeah. It’s time.” He squeezed her and set her back down as she turned to me.
“Are you happy about it?” She reached out and took my hand.
Lucas winked at me from behind her and walked back into the house.
“I don’t know.” I pulled her toward me, forcing her to slide across the ice. “I’m happy for her. I’m worried for me.”
“You’ll miss her.” It wasn’t a question.
“So will you.” I reached up and brushed her hair off her shoulder. “I’m glad you came to spend some time with us this year.”
“As if I’d miss it.” She pulled her hand from mine and smiled. “Let’s go in and watch this go down.”
I nodded and moved to open the door for her. “You think she’ll say yes?”
She laughed and walked in. “That’s a joke, right? She’s liked Lucas since freshman year. She’s totally going to say yes.”
I moved into the living room behind Layla and slipped my hands onto her shoulders, rubbing softly as she glanced back toward me with warmth in her eyes.
Maybe losing Aubrey would be all right if Layla and I remained in contact. I was being incredibly sensitive about all of it, but I couldn’t seem to help it. My sister was my rock, and I was hers. What the fuck did it mean now that she didn’t need me? She had Lucas and he would be her foundation, her centering. But who would be mine?
Lucas glanced around the room and moved to stand in front of the fire as Aubrey stood up to go to him.
“You guys know that I’ve had a huge crush on Aubrey for three years now. Just last year, I figured out that she might actually like me a little bit too.”
We all chuckled.
“What are you doing?” Aubrey’s voice softened like it used to when she was scared to walk down a dark hall after a scary movie.
My heart ached in my chest, and I pulled Layla back, wrapping my arm around the top of her shoulders. We didn’t usually show affection outside of the occasional hug, but I needed her in the moment to remind me I wasn’t losing everything. I was being a tit. Plain and simple. I just wasn’t sure how to stop myself.
“Leaving last year to play for the Caps was supposed to be the best day of my life, but it wasn’t. I’ve missed you every minute of every day since I left.” Lucas reached out and pulled my sister close to him, turning them a little so we could see them both.
My mother and father moved closer, wrapping each other in a hug as my father’s eyes filled with tears.
“I want you with me, baby.” Lucas reached into his back pocket and pulled out a little black box before moving down to his knee.
My sister’s soft cry left my heart melting. I wanted the best for her, no matter what that looked like. Lucas White would take care of her and give her anything she could possibly want. I couldn’t have chosen a better guy to love my sister for the rest of their lives.
“Lucas,” Aubrey choked out as she glanced over at me and narrowed her eyes. “You knew about this and didn’t tell me?”
“Nope. I had no clue.” I smiled a genuine smile for the first time that day.
“He didn’t.” Layla reached up to grip my hands where they were clasped as I held her tightly. She knew I needed someone. I was just grateful that she was okay being that person for the moment.
“Aubrey, marry me, baby. Let’s finish up your degree and start our lives together. Be mine forever?” Lucas lifted the ring as my sister let out another soft cry.
“Of course. I love you so much.” She got down on her knees and wrapped him in a hug, kissing him as they fell over onto the floor near the fire.
“Oh shit. That’s my cue to leave.” I released Layla and walked toward the kitchen as everyone else hustled out behind me. My sister wasn’t one for a public display of affection, but this moment was one that called for it.
They didn’t need an audience, though both of them were used to one.