The Mistletoe Pact by Jo Lovett
Then – Christmas Eve 2013
What was he on?
Dan dragged his eyes away from Evie’s gorgeous, full lips and cleared his throat.
For a moment back there, when Evie had mentioned the mistletoe and reminded him about their peck on the lips earlier on, and he’d looked at her smiling face turned up to his, Dan had wished that he could kiss her. Properly, not like the tiny kiss they’d had under the mistletoe. Which, now he thought about it, could easily have been a cheek kiss. Why had he kissed her on the lips?
He shook his head. This was middle-of-the-night madness.
‘So what are you hoping to get for your birthday?’ he asked, to break the silence now stretching uncomfortably between them. Ridiculous to suddenly be lost for conversation. And ridiculous to suddenly have noticed, properly, how attractive Evie was. She was his little sister’s best friend, who he’d known for years. You didn’t find your younger sister’s friends attractive. Although the two-year age gap was nothing when you were adults. She was still his sister’s best friend, though. She was talking. She seemed to be listing items of clothing.
‘Yes, so in summary,’ she said, ‘clothes, clothes and more clothes. I do love student life but I’m actually looking forward to having a job and being able to afford stuff. What about you? What do you want for Christmas?’
Good question. If he was honest, the biggest thing he’d like for Christmas would be to be away from his family. There was too much tension in the air. He’d love just to spend the day with friends. Which you absolutely could not do on Christmas Day when your whole family, you included, persisted in their ‘We are the perfect family’ charade. Obviously he wasn’t going to say that, though.
‘Money for Glastonbury this summer,’ he said. ‘And, yeah, clothes too. Some obscure medical textbooks that cost a fortune. The usual.’
They were nearly at Evie’s cottage now.
‘I’m kind of feeling guilty,’ she said. ‘My mum’s fab. And she’s single and she’s still quite young. If she wants to have men over, I should totally not object. I mean, I don’t object. I just really don’t like having to have breakfast with strangers in my own kitchen, or bumping into strangers on my way to the bathroom. And, at the risk of sounding like a five-year-old, I really don’t want to have to do that on my birthday, but it’s fine, I won’t have to, because he’ll be gone by the time I get up. I shouldn’t be laughing about my mum.’
‘I know.’ Dan had felt guilty too. ‘We weren’t laughing at her, though; we were laughing at the situation. Which was farcical.’ Dan really wanted to make Evie feel better. ‘And clichés are there for a reason. It’s true that no-one wants to know about their own parents having sex. I walked in on my parents doing it once, when I was about ten.’
‘Really? Selfishly, I’m very pleased. Also, weirded out to think of your parents having sex.’ Evie clapped her hands over her mouth. ‘Sorry. I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.’
She was right, actually. Dan would be astonished if they did nowadays. He’d stumbled upon some texts on his father’s phone a few years ago which had indicated that he was having an affair, and he was sure there’d been others; there was a definite ongoing polite distance between his parents. He’d always been pretty sure that his father had known that he’d seen the texts, but nothing had ever been mentioned. In Dan’s family, no-one ever talked about anything bad, like, if they ignored it, it wouldn’t be true. It didn’t work.
‘Hey,’ he said, ‘it didn’t sound bad. I know what you mean. Everything in my house is always so neat and tidy. Clinical.’ That sounded bitter, and Evie was shaking her head. He needed to try for something a bit lighter. ‘I mean, they’re in their fifties. And they’ve been married for thirty years.’ Evie was still looking unsure. He needed to be jokey. ‘When we’ve been married for thirty years it’ll be your sixtieth birthday.’
Evie laughed. ‘That’s true. Wow. It really isn’t going to be that long until we’re old.’
‘You’re right. One minute it’s the early hours of your twenty-second birthday and the next it’s your ninetieth.’
‘Yeah. In fact, I’d better get inside and get my nearly-elderly self upstairs. It sounds quiet, like they’ve gone to bed. Thank you so much for walking me back.’ She fumbled in her pocket for her key.
‘Hey. Not a problem. Happy birthday again.’
‘Got it.’ Evie held her key up and smiled at him.
Dan smiled back.
And neither of them moved.
And then, like some invisible force was propelling him, he lifted his hand and traced the line of her cheek, carefully, because it felt like she was precious. Her beautiful smile grew and her lips parted. She tipped her face up towards his, and, slowly, he lowered his head and kissed her, like there was no other possible course of action.
The kiss was only fleeting, and it wasn’t enough. He leaned down again, and she reached up to meet him.
He pulled her into him, one hand on her back and the other in her thick, soft hair, and felt her arms go round his neck.
They kissed for a long time. So good.
He wished she didn’t have her coat done up so tightly or such a thick scarf around her neck. He moved backwards a little and started to unwind the scarf and undo her coat buttons. Evie sighed and slid her arms around him, inside his open jacket.
He let her scarf fall to the ground and kissed her lips again, and then kissed across her jawline, and inside the curve of her neck. He heard her gasp a little as his hands moved up, and felt her grip his back.
He shifted a little so that they could reach each other better, and heard something.
It took him a moment to focus, and then he realised that someone was calling, ‘Good evening,’ from somewhere quite high. He looked up and saw a face at an upstairs window of the cottage at the bottom of the lane, the house on the corner. That would be Mrs Bird.
Evie moaned slightly, reached up to kiss his lips again and began to loosen his belt.
‘Mmhmm,’ he said, and pulled away.
Evie opened her eyes, but didn’t stop with the belt-loosening. She had the most gorgeous just-been-kissed look on her face.
‘Evening, Mrs Bird,’ Dan said loudly, letting go of Evie and putting his hands on hers over his belt, to stop her.
Evie froze. Dan indicated towards the corner with his head.
Evie pulled her hands away from his jeans, really fast, and then turned round, really slowly.
‘Don’t let me disturb you.’ Mrs Bird’s cackle carried very well in the still air. ‘Happy Christmas.’
Evie turned back round to face him again and screwed her face up. ‘Oof,’ she said.
‘So.’ Evie didn’t move. She looked dazed. Like he felt. It was hugely tempting to suggest going for a walk somewhere a little less overlooked, to carry on where they’d left off. It was also hugely ridiculous, because Evie was Sasha’s best friend and he’d known her forever, and in three days’ time he was going back to London. Plus he really wasn’t up for any kind of relationship right now, and she’d pretty much just said that she only wanted serious relationships. So they should just say goodnight to each other now.
‘Happy birthday for tomorrow,’ he said.
‘Thank you,’ she said after a pause. ‘Goodnight, then.’
‘Goodnight.’ He bent down and picked up her scarf and gave it to her.
‘Thank you.’ Evie took it and started to feel in all her pockets. ‘What did I do with my key?’
‘You were holding it when we…’
She nodded. ‘Yep. Maybe I dropped it.’
Dan pulled his phone out of his pocket and switched the torch on and they both crouched down.
‘It isn’t here,’ he said eventually. He looked closely at Evie. She had her lips clamped together like she was trying not to laugh. ‘What?’
‘I think it might be…’ She stood up and covered her face with her hands. ‘I think it might be inside your clothes somewhere.’
‘Oh.’ Dan stood up too. ‘Um, okay. Well, I’ll just check.’
In the end, he found it tucked between the top of his jeans and trunks waistbands. Evie still had her lips pressed together when he handed it to her.
‘Thank you,’ she said, and then she started giggling. How was this the first time that he’d ever noticed the dimple on the right-hand side of her mouth?
He laughed back at her. God, he wanted to kiss her again. And a lot more.
And now she wasn’t laughing any more and nor was he.
They stood and looked at each other, Evie smiling a little, and Dan’s lips, he was pretty sure, mirroring the curve of hers.
Time to go.
‘Goodnight,’ he said. He needed to say something light, to break the tension. ‘Only eight years to go until our wedding day.’ Maybe not the best weak joke to have made, actually, given the circumstances.
Evie nodded, put her key in the door, turned it, opened the door and said, ‘Already planning my wedding dress. Night,’ before slipping inside.
Lucie and Sasha were still up when he got back to the house.
‘I went for a walk,’ he said. ‘After I saw Evie home.’
‘Right,’ said Sasha, like he was being weird. Yep, he was acting like someone who had something to be guilty about, over-explaining things.
‘Goodnight, then,’ he said. Any other evening it would have been nice to share a nightcap with Lucie and Sasha in the absence of the rest of their family, but right now wasn’t the moment for it.
As he passed the sitting room on his way to bed, he heard his mother speaking. Hissing, actually. He caught the words her and attractive. His father’s reply was indistinct but he had a very snappish tone to his voice. Dan took a deep breath and got himself up the stairs, fast, to his childhood bedroom, to lie awake for hours feeling angry with his father and sad for his mother, like he’d done too many nights in the past. This was why he didn’t come home much any more.
* * *
Two and a half days later, Dan crunched across the snowy green with the rest of his family. Evie had been right about the white Christmas. It had snowed properly yesterday, Christmas Day, and again this morning.
Since he’d started at university, Dan had always been relieved to get to Boxing Day, because it meant that he could leave the next day without comment. He just had this walk and one more family meal this evening to get out of the way, and that was it; he’d be off first thing in the morning.
‘Helloooo.’ Mrs Bird from the corner house was doing huge whole-arm waves at them. ‘How wonderful to see you all together. Let me take a photo of you. Wait, wait, wait where you are.’ She stepped outside her front door, wobbled, saved herself on the doorframe, and said, ‘I might just get my stick.’
‘Be careful.’ Dan’s father jogged over to her, ever the perfect gentleman, externally, anyway. ‘You don’t want to fall on ice and have to have another hip operation.’
The six of them stood for the photo, in front of the tree in the middle of the green, arranged by Mrs Bird with Dan’s parents in the middle, Lucie and Sasha on either side of them, and Dan and his older brother Max on the ends. Portrait of a perfect family.
‘What a wonderful picture you make,’ said Mrs Bird. She waved her camera at them. ‘Would you like a copy of the photo?’
‘Thank you; we’d love one.’ Dan’s father smiled at her and she visibly fluttered while Dan gritted his teeth. His father held his arm out to escort her back to her house, while the rest of the family waited next to the tree.
Dan was laughing at something Lucie had said when a snowball landed squarely in his chest. Sasha cheered and Dan looked over to see Evie on the other side of the green at the corner of her lane, outside Mrs Bird’s house, doing what looked like a victory haka.
‘Seriously?’ he said, bending down to collect snow. ‘I don’t think so.’
Dan’s throw missed Evie, who was as good at dodging as she was at throwing, it turned out, and hit her mum, who’d just rounded the corner onto the green, holding hands with Jack.
‘Good God,’ said Dan’s father from behind him, having safely deposited Mrs Bird. ‘Three days. And only about fifteen years younger than her. For Jenny, that’s a serious relationship.’
Dan felt his shoulders go rigid. He was pretty sure that Evie and her mum would both have been really hurt if they’d heard his words. And his father’s patients would be very surprised by their dependable, lovable local GP being snide. Plus, the hypocrisy: how could a man who seemingly regularly cheated on his wife criticise someone who had a lot of short-term relationships where no-one got hurt?
Dan walked away from his father, towards Evie, her mother and Jack, and said, ‘Morning. Sorry about the snowball, Jenny. It was meant for Evie.’
‘No problem,’ Jenny said. Dan turned to speak to Evie in response to some boasting about how she’d been right about the snow, and Jenny whipped a huge snowball down his neck.
‘Okay. War,’ Dan said.
Twenty minutes later, they’d trashed the previously beautifully white-snow-carpeted green and they were all soaking wet and laughing except for Dan’s father, who was standing to one side, checking his watch and his phone.
And Dan had realised a few things. One, it was really nice to see his mother having actual fun. Two, even in the middle of a snowball fight he couldn’t help registering Max’s limp when he ran, and feeling the familiar crushing guilt. It was eight years ago now, when Max was eighteen and he was sixteen, and still he hated being reminded of the accident and its impact on Max. And three, Evie really didn’t seem like just his younger sister’s best friend any more.
Their pact from the other night popped into his head again and he wondered briefly what they’d both be doing on Evie’s thirtieth and whether they’d still see each other much by then.