Bonus Story: Love at First Hate | Author Denise Grover Swank Bonus Story: Love at First Hate | Author Denise Grover Swank
Denise Grover Swank
Denise Grover Swank

Bonus Story: Love at First Hate

WARNING! If you haven’t read Love at First Hate there WILL be SPOILERS! 


The Bonus Story

Love at First Hate bonus chapter by Angela DeniseCal’s nervous. I know this because he’s staring out the window, rubbing the bridge of his nose like an old man pushing his glasses up. I can’t help but laugh at the thought. What with his kvetching about social media and the boatloads of fan mail he and his father get about the Bad Luck Club, Cal kind of is an old man…you know, for an immensely hot human being who’s still in the first half of his thirties.

“What?” he asks, self-conscious. His hair is a little rumpled, the way I like it, and he’s wearing a ridiculous reindeer Christmas sweater—because I kind of, sort of, implied my nephew, Aidan, is into Christmas. I mean, what little kid isn’t into Christmas?\

“It’s Thanksgiving, but you’re looking out the window more than a kid on Christmas Eve. Admit it. You’re sweating over impressing a six-year-old.”

My sister, Mary, and her son, Aidan, moved to Asheville about a month ago. We’ve done everything we can to help them get settled and make up for the extreme douchiness of Mary’s soon-to-be ex-husband, now known as Deadbeat. This means Cal has met Aidan before—several times, actually—but Aidan is…well, he’s hard to impress. He’s paid far more attention to Harry’s turtle, Edward, than he has to my boyfriend. Or to my housemates, for that matter. My house is a little chaotic for Aidan, and his mind probably goes into overdrive every time he steps inside, attempting to figure out how order can be established. Spoiler alert: it can’t. At any given time, Tina might flounce out of her room with a face mask on, terrifying all of us, or Harry might go on one of his tears about something. He may be less of a conspiracy theorist than he was before his three years in the Bad Luck Club, but there’s nothing wrong with his imagination. As for me? My office is literally the couch, although it is currently a perching spot for Cal’s dad, Bear, and Nicole and her boyfriend, Damien.

Nicole and Damien appear to be arguing about something—not an uncommon occurrence—and Bear is good-naturedly joining in every now and then with observations only peripherally related to what they’re discussing. Harry, quite rightly, has abandoned them and is pacing the living room in a way that suggests Cal isn’t the only one feeling stressed. His mother decided to spend Thanksgiving with her new boyfriend and rather than join them, he opted to stay with us. Yay, us!

Tina, alas, is not here. Family gatherings are taken very seriously in her big Italian clan, and she drove back to North Adams with her brother and his family.

Blue, who was an original Bad Lucker, is at Thanksgiving dinner with the Buchanan clan, along with my middle sister, Maisie. We considered combining the two events, but Maisie and I decided it would probably be too much for Aidan and Mary (and maybe everyone), so we agreed to share custody of our sister and nephew. We shook on it and everything. They got dinner, and we get dessert. (Of course, I had to see Maisie and her family and ooh and ahh over my niece’s impressive cheeks, so we also stopped by earlier in the day to see everyone.) The whole dessert arrangement is really for the best, because Bear is an excellent baker, and it gave Cal and me another chance to vie for the Star Baker spot. We each made an apple pie and plan on holding a vote on whose is best. My only chance to win is via sympathy votes, or maybe drunk votes.

“Damn straight, I want to impress him,” Cal says, setting down the bit of curtain he’d held up. “He’s your nephew, and I’m not the slightest bit ashamed to admit that I want him to like me.”

I have no snarky comeback to that. It’s one-hundred-percent adorable. I pull him to me for a kiss, and I instantly hear footsteps hurrying off in the other direction.

“Oh, Harry,” I say, pulling back slightly, taking in the twinkle in Cal’s eyes, “you don’t have to get your briefs in a twist. That one was intended for public consumption.”

I hear Harry sigh, and although I don’t want to look away from Cal just yet, I can see my friend in my mind’s eye, his hands on his hips. “I think your opinion and my opinion of what is appropriate in public are very mismatched.”

I shrug and tilt my head, my eyes still on Cal’s. “Fair enough.”

 A grin steals over his face, and we both start laughing at the same time. None of us, and I include Harry in this, are about to forget the time he walked on in Cal and me getting busy in the back seat of my car. Okay, to be fair, I suppose you can’t say he “walked in” on us since the car was outside, but we do have a very long driveway.

“Ha, ha, very funny,” Harry says.

 We finally turn to look at him, and I take in the sling he’s wearing, a small head peeking out of it.

“Um, when did you get a turtle sling, and how come I didn’t know about it?”

“Did you somehow avoid hearing about the turtle sling?” Nicole asks, getting up from the couch with an annoyed backward stare at her boyfriend. I don’t take it too seriously, though. All of this is just a prelude to them banging it out at her apartment. That’s what they do, she confided in me with quite a bit of pride—fight and bang it out. Constantly.

Sometimes people like to…ahem…overshare with me because I used to write for a dating blog. Not that I mind.

I still do some freelance work for Beyond the Sheets, actually, although they have become much tamer (and more boring, according to Tina). It’s the kind of work I do to remind myself I’d much rather be working on my new vocations—writing fiction and working on my new blog: The Fogey Report. Yes, I, Molly O’Shea, former dating columnist, enjoy writing old people’s stories, and given the blog’s moderate success, some people enjoy reading them.

“I wanted it to be a surprise,” Harry says with a sort of pout, which makes me laugh again. Because I guess Cal’s not the only one who cares about impressing my nephew.

“You’re totally using Edward as bait,” Cal accuses.

“You’re just jealous you didn’t think of it first,” Harry says.

Cal’s grin says he’s not wrong.

Good God, that grin. I’d say it’s not fair for someone to look like him, but he’s mine, so I have decided this is one instance in which I’m okay with life being unfair. In fact, I’m guessing I did something pretty great in a previous life.

“You should have worn Ruby in a sling,” I say, bumping him with my hip. “Can you imagine?” He and his dad adopted their hound dog mix together, and she has to be at least sixty-five pounds. And wiggly. Very wiggly. She’s currently at home at the Cluster, where she has already enjoyed one turkey meal, this morning, and will undoubtedly get a second one when Bear returns home. I imagine she’d like being in a sling almost as much as Harry’s poor turtle seems to. Having lifted his head out to study us, Edward decides we’re unworthy and pulls it back into his shell.

Meanwhile, Cal wraps an arm around my waist, pulling me closer and making me squeal.

“How about I wear you in a sling?” he asks, lifting me slightly off my feet. “Would that earn me brownie points? Because I’ll totally do it.”

“No, thanks,” Harry says. “I have enough scarring images burned into my retinas.”

Nicole, who has gone into the kitchen without coming back with anything, approaches the door and peers through the sidelight windows. “Hey, their car is pulling up. I’m going to get your sister drunk.”

“I highly doubt that,” I say. “I’m pretty sure she can count the number of times she’s been drunk, or even tipsy, on both hands.”

Nicole gives me a sharp-toothed smile. “Not after I’m done with her.”

I shrug again, because I don’t actually object to this plan. If there’s anyone who needs loosening up, it is undeniably my big sister. Although I love Mary, she’s the kind of person who has lists to keep track of her lists. That’s why her current situation, newly single and in a new house, job, city, is so difficult for her. Maybe Nicole, with her candy-pink hair, razor-sharp personality, and unpredictability, is exactly the kind of friend she needs.

Turning to the couch, Nicole barks, “Out the back.”

Bear points to himself, slightly puzzled, but Damien is already sighing and pulling to his feet. Clearly this is something they have discussed previously because he doesn’t look surprised or particularly upset. He knows more about her Mary plan, whatever it is, than I do. “You have to wear the corset this time,” he says.

“Obviously,” Nicole responds.

Then he nods to all of us—and yes, we are all watching him, even Edward, who has popped his head out of his shell again—and heads out the back.

“You’re making him leave before dessert?” asks Bear, sounding more scandalized by that than by whatever shenanigans they’re planning for later.

“Oh, he’ll have dessert,” she responds, making Harry groan.

If he could cover Edward’s ears, I’ll bet he would.

“So we’re out one voter for our contest,” Cal says, glancing at me. “And I’ll bet Damien would have totally given you a sympathy vote.”

“Oh no,” Nicole says conversationally. “Neither of us could really be called sympathetic.”

Fair enough.

“And you let her graduate from the Bad Luck Club?” I ask Cal, lifting my brows.

His smile impish, he says, “It’s not called the Good Citizen Club, and from where I’m standing, her luck seems just fine.”

“Thank you,” Nicole says. “Finally someone with sense.”

I see my sister approaching through the windows, Aidan slightly behind her, and realize that we’re all clustered around the door like a group of psychopaths. Well, except for Bear.

“Be cool,” I say.

“I was born cool,” Cal says, giving me another squeeze. Bear gives a hearty laugh from his position on the couch.

“Be serious,” I amend.

Cal laughs a little, and Nicole (thankfully) leaves her position and heads back into the kitchen, muttering something about alcohol. Harry is frozen in place near us, but thankfully he does have Edward.

Mary raps on the door, and being that we’re extremely close, I barely need to move to get it open.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” she says, her tone a bit strained. It’s still strange to me to see her like this—unmoored. For my whole life, Mary has been this beacon of stability. Not that I’ve ever really wanted stability, or sought it out, but it’s been weirdly reassuring to know that she’ll always be the same. Steadfast Mary, married to obnoxiously average Glenn. Except now she’s not. Which means, for the first time in my life, I need to step up and help her.

I hand off the dish she gives me—a legit silver-lidded dish with a slightly obnoxious turkey design, not a plate with tinfoil over it like I would’ve put together—and Cal gamely takes it so I can hug her. She squeezes me back, her hand still linked with Aidan’s, and when I pull back, I lower down onto my haunches so I can greet him properly.

He’s messing with his zipper, something he does when he’s feeling nervous or uncomfortable, but he stops when he sees me.

“Hi, Aunt Molly,” he says. “Mom said I should say Happy Thanksgiving.”

Mary exhales heavily, but I smile at him.

“You don’t need to say anything, buddy. We’re just happy you’re here.”

He glances around, and his eyes widen when he sees Cal’s sweater.

“Doesn’t he know it’s Thanksgiving, not Christmas?”

Cal groans and shoots me an accusatory look.

Okay, fine, I’d forgotten Aidan’s whole Christmas doesn’t start until Thanksgiving thing.

“He just has a thing for reindeers,” I say, which earns me a poke from Cal.

But Aidan’s already moved on, and his gaze lands on the turtle sling. Edward’s head is out again. His eyes light up. “Edward has a sling.”

Cal releases a slightly defeated sigh, and I stand up and take his free hand as Mary shuts the door and Aidan heads over to talk to Harry. It’s unseasonably warm, so neither of them have a coat.

I’ve memorized Cal’s hands, and yet it still gives me a thrill to hold them—to feel this callus and that one, and to know he’s earned some of them making furniture for us. “He’ll come around,” I say softly, walking with him as he approaches the kitchen. This requires me to leave Mary alone, but I know Bear will immediately draw her into conversation. It’s his God-given talent.

Nicole slips past us, two drinks in hand, and I can only assume one of them is intended for my sister. Her wicked grin confirms it.

Cal shoots a glance at me, his eyes warm and full of anticipation. “I do have a little surprise for Aidan.”

This is news to me, but I’m not exactly surprised. Cal’s forever trying to surprise me. I’ve been nosy since birth, so it’s a hard task, but that’s never stopped him. First, he made me a kitchen table. A kitchen table. I’m still a little shocked that one got past me. When the person you spend this much time with manages to make a huge piece of furniture on your watch, not much can be said for your investigative skills. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, he told Bear about my work in progress, and Bear mentioned my novel on a major morning show he appeared on to talk about the Bad Luck Club. I’d be pissed, but honestly, I think they helped me land a book deal. Lest you think poorly of my perception skills, there are several would-be surprises I have caught: my twenty-ninth birthday party at Dos Sombreros, the airplane-shaped cake Bear made to celebrate the sale of my book, and the singing telegram Maisie ordered to celebrate my move back to Asheville. The guy was dressed as a leprechaun and carried a fake pot of gold, which he waved around while he sang “Killarney.” Needless to say, I caught it all on tape, including Harry backing away with a look of horror.

But this one? No clue. But if he has something planned for Aidan, I can only hope it’s a quiet surprise. Aidan’s not the kind of kid who likes it when people jump out from behind furniture and shout things at him.

Then again, I cannot imagine a world in which Cal would ever do something like that, even if he didn’t know that Aidan is on the spectrum.

“You and your surprises,” I say, bumping him with my hip. He sets Mary’s covered dish down at the end of the kitchen counter, next to our dueling pies, and then surprises me by grabbing both of my hips, his hands so large and wide they easily span my waist.

“You’re driving me crazy with that, you know.” His eyes get even darker, almost like black holes, sucking me in.

“Oh, I know,” I say with a smile. “Don’t try to distract me from our contest. My apple pie will be judged superior.”

“Well, you do have your nephew and your sister to vote for you, so I’d say you have an unfair advantage.”

I laugh a little at that. “Aidan would never give me a sympathy vote. He’s much too literal. Plus, there’s whiskey in it. I probably shouldn’t even let him have any.”

“It’ll all have cooked out. Plus, my dad gave me pacifiers dipped in whiskey when I was teething, and I turned out okay.”

“Do not under any circumstances tell Mary that,” I say, laughing. “Also, I feel morally obliged to tell you the jury’s out on whether or not you’re okay.”

“I take that as a challenge.” He squeezes my hips slightly, pulling me a little closer, then glances at the open archway in the kitchen and sighs and releases me. “Later.”

“Later,” I confirm.

We walk back to the living room, pausing by mutual agreement in the threshold to take everything in. Bear’s talking to Harry while Aidan “plays” with Edward, who has been allowed out of the sling and returned to his terrarium, and Nicole has backed Mary into a corner. To my surprise, my sister has accepted the drink, and it’s already a third empty. Interesting.

Since Nicole’s plan, whatever it is, seems to be progressing, I tug Cal’s hand toward the other group.

Aidan looks up from studying Edward, who is making an excruciatingly slow voyage to a stalk of celery on the other side of his habitat.

“Aunt Molly, why’s his name Edward? That’s a strange name for a turtle.”

Being around new people is hard for him, so he sometimes defaults to directing his questions at people he knows.

I glance at Harry. “Yes, Harry. I’ll admit I’ve been wondering the same.”

“Oh, no reason,” he says, but his shoulders do this nervous twitch thing they do when he’s trying to hide something.

“Oh, Harry,” I say. “I’ve been living with a Twi-hard for months without even knowing it.”

Harry shrugs. “It’s a good name.”

It’s not a confirmation, but…come on, it’s a confirmation. He one hundred percent named his pet turtle after a sparkling vampire in teen novels. If only Tina were here so we could torment him properly.

I say this out loud, and he sighs. “Yeah. I miss her too.”

“You know, a box turtle can live up to forty years if it’s cared for properly,” Aidan says. He shoots an almost accusatory look at Harry, which is maybe the first time he’s looked at him directly.

“What does that entail?” Harry asks, his tone instantly nervous.

“Well,” Aidan starts, and the two of them travel into some conversational black hole about box turtles.

Cal’s father gestures to us, and we follow him to the couch. The message is clear—Mary is doing okay (presumably), Aidan and Harry could talk about this for hours, and he has something to tell us.

Once we’re seated, he claps his hands on his thighs. “It’s official, kids,” he says, as if I weren’t edging up on thirty and Cal weren’t thirty-three. “Bear’s Buns is going to have a storefront.”

“What?” I ask, glancing at Cal. But he looks as surprised as I am. I mean, both of us knew things were going well. In fact, after Bear’s appearance on TV, his in-home bakery has gotten so much business, he’s had to turn orders away.

Not Dottie Hendrickson’s, though—as Cal has pointed out to me, he has remained Tea of Fortune’s supplier through his baking boom. Cal thinks it means something, and I agree, although my snooping has revealed nothing on that front. If Bear and Dottie are interested in each other, they’re keeping it to themselves. Which is their prerogative, I guess.

Doesn’t mean I have to like it.

He shrugs a little. “Dottie happened to mention to me that the hookah store next to hers was closing up shop. I contacted a few people, and boom, storefront.” His grin stretches wide. “This is really happening, kids. All that positive visualization has worked.”

Cal hms deep in his throat, as if to say he has his own opinions about that.

“I’m hoping you’ll help me with the build, son? I’d like to open in spring.”

Cal’s response is to pull his dad into a hug. I coo, because, come on, it’s adorable, and snap a picture of them on my phone.

“Oh, get in here,” Bear says, gesturing, and I do.

“Hey, what’s with the lovefest over there?” Nicole calls out. “I thought we were going to have dessert.”

I see Aidan put his hands over his ears, and Mary flinches and takes a step toward him. But she stops as Aidan launches into another box turtle story. Her glass, I’m shocked to see, is empty.

Nicole notices it too. She takes it from her, not waiting for a response from us, and heads back to the kitchen.

“Let’s not tell everyone else just yet,” Bear says quietly. “The papers haven’t been signed yet, and I don’t want to jinx it.” He develops a worried look. “Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything yet.”

“No, Dad,” Cal says, clapping him on the shoulder. “You absolutely needed to tell us.”

I glance over at Mary again and see Nicole’s back with a full glass of alcoholic something or other for her. What are they drinking, anyway? Spiced wine? Lighter fuel?

I expect Mary to turn it down, but she doesn’t.

Shit, things must be worse than I thought.

“This is one of the very few times I’ll ever say this,” I tell Cal and Bear, pulling Cal up off the couch, “but Nicole’s right. Let’s get people started on dessert.”

Because if Mary’s tipsy, maybe she’ll throw a vote my way for old time’s sake.

“I know your angle,” Cal whispers in my ear, and I pinch him.

He jolts a little and laughs under his breath.

“I’ll get the plates and forks ready,” Bear says, heading off to the kitchen. I’m sure he’s also going to primp his already perfect pies. They’re not in the competition, but c’mon, we all know they won anyway.

I lead Cal over to Mary and Nicole, who are still talking.

Seriously, what is Nicole up to, and why is it working? I’ve known Mary my whole life, and I still don’t know the trick of getting her to confide in me. Maybe it’s the little sister-big sister dynamic, but other than our breakthrough moment this summer, we’ve never really had many heart-to-hearts.

I catch Mary saying Glenn’s name before we reach them—ugh, Glenn. One could argue she should have known what she was getting into, marrying a man named Glenn.

I can imagine his online dating profile:

Likes? Matching socks. Perfectly creased pants. Missionary style sex, ten minutes long, no foreplay.

Dislikes? Fun.

Yeah, his inbox will surely be flooded now that he’s single.

“Hey, Mary,” I say, grabbing her arm. “Are you ready for dessert? Cal and I are having a little pie competition. Pro tip. Vote for the one with the slightly messed up crust. Ugly pies always taste better.”

 She glances at me, her eyes slightly wild. “Pie?”

“Yes. It’s this thing people make for the holidays. Don’t ask me why. I’m more of a cake girl.”

Mary smiles, but it’s a pinched look. “I brought cupcakes because I know you prefer cake.”

“I didn’t bring anything,” Nicole says, taking a sip of her drink.

I glance at her cup, which is full of something red. She certainly brought that, although Mary’s the only one she’s offered it to.

“Well, you’re in luck,” I say, “because Bear made enough pie to feed an army. To the kitchen with you.” I gesture as if herding sheep.

Nicole rolls her eyes but heads that way.

“Everything okay?” I ask Mary. “Nicole hasn’t bothered you or asked you to invest in a pyramid scheme, has she?”      

“No, nothing like that,” Mary says with a forced laugh. “She’s…nice.”

Laughter burbles out of me, because I have never once heard anyone refer to Nicole as nice. “Just don’t tell her that,” I say.

“Why not?” Mary asks, her forehead furrowing.

“She definitely wouldn’t take it as a compliment,” Cal says. He pauses, does the nose rubbing thing again, then says, “Hey, Mary. I have a little gift for Aidan. Would it be better to give it to him before or after dessert?”

“A gift?” she asks in confusion. “Christmas isn’t for a month. We’re going to see you before that, aren’t we?” The look she gives me is something next door to panic, like she’s worried we’re going to move, abruptly, just after she relocated here to be close to Maisie and me.

“No, nothing like that,” he says, his cheeks slightly pink. “I thought maybe it was something he could use before Christmas.”

There he goes again, being adorable.

Mary sweeps some of her short hair behind her ears, thinking. “I guess after dessert. If it’s something that holds his interest, then we’ll be able to stay a little longer. It’s just…” A hand sweeps across the room, encompassing our slice of chaos, “a little much for him, maybe.”

“No insult taken, sister mine,” I say, hooking arms with her and Cal, and walking them toward Harry and Aidan. “It is a little much for Cal at times, too, and it is very frequently too much for Harry, but they’re good sports.”

Harry is showing Aidan his turtle’s hat rack, something Cal created for him, and Aidan looks both puzzled and fascinated.

“I’d never seen a turtle wearing a hat before,” he says. Right now, there’s a little Santa hat on Edward’s head, and shockingly, he’s tolerating it.

I keep trying to convince Harry to join Instagram. He could one hundred percent go viral with pictures of Edward and his hat collection, but Harry couldn’t be less interested.


Cal didn’t want anything to do with Bear’s Bad Luck Club TV appearances. Nor does he stay involved with other clubs the way Bear does.

“You guys ready for dessert?” I ask.

I have to repeat the question a couple of times before Aidan answers, and then he says, “Harry and I need to wash our hands very well. Otherwise we could get salmonella if he hasn’t kept Edward clean enough.”

Harry’s eyes go wide with hurt—being accused of anything except strict cleanliness is a true insult for him.

“Aidan doesn’t mean it like that,” Mary says quickly, only for Aidan to cut in. “Oh, I do, Mom. It’s a real problem. People get salmonella from turtles all the time.”

Somehow we manage to get them both cleaned up without any kind of argument breaking out, and we join Bear and Nicole in the kitchen.

They look very satisfied with themselves.

My pie and Cal’s have been cut into little pieces, and there are six small plates on one side of the table and six on the other. There’s a fishbowl in the middle, plus a bunch of note cards and pens. A little sign sits on either side. Pie 1. Pie 2.

“Hey,” Cal says, “my presentation was a key component to my victory.”

“Ha-ha, sucker,” I say, giving him a hip bump again, just because I like to drive him a little crazy.

“It’s no huge loss. They both looked pretty amateur,” Nicole says.

Cal puts his hand to his chest, pretending to be wounded, and we all sit down around the table, Mary choosing a spot at the end for Aidan. It’s closest to the living room, so if he decides he’s ready to go back in there and play with Edward, he won’t have to pass a bunch of people.

Like I said, lists upon lists, strategies upon strategies.

“The rules are simple,” Bear says. “Taste both pies and vote for the one you like best.”

“Do we get to vote?” I ask. “Because I’m totally voting for myself.”

Cal laughs. “Are you holding out hope that I’ll feel bad and vote for yours? Because otherwise our votes will cancel each other out.”

“Totally hoping,” I admit.

We all dig in. My pie isn’t bad, actually, although it’s miles from what Bear has waiting for us. Actually, Cal and I are sort of torturing everyone, making them eat our pie when they could be chowing down on Bear’s Buns’ finest, but they’re friends and family, so they don’t complain.

“Okay,” Bear says after a while. “Time to vote.”

We all do, and even though I fleetingly consider voting for Cal’s—it is better—I put in a vote for mine instead. Because, what the hell, someone has to.

Bear reads out the results, and Cal and I exchange glance as he gets to the last slip. Cal’s only one ahead, which means he probably did vote for mine. Mary is too literal to vote for the pie that isn’t the best and Nicole is too…well, Nicole.

Bear starts laughing, and I catch a glimpse of my nephew’s crooked kid writing.

“It looks like Cal’s our winner. This last person abstained from voting for either of them.”

“I don’t really like apple pie,” Aidan offers. “Can I have a cupcake?”

We all laugh, and I concede the win to Cal. I don’t feel the need to be a sore loser because there will be a next time. And a next time. And a next time.

Throughout dessert, Cal shoots me nervous looks, and I know he wants to tell me about his surprise or maybe show it to Aidan. But everyone’s deep into their desserts, as if we all didn’t down huge turkey dinners earlier, and he knows it’s not time.

Finally, when we’re all finished, and Bear has gathered the plates, I nod to Cal. “Now. Let’s do it now.”

It’s the perfect time. Bear’s fussing with the dishes, Mary and Nicole are wrapped up in conversation again, on drink three or maybe four, and Aidan, who long since abandoned the dessert table, is organizing Edward’s hats. Harry is eyeing his computer as if he’s ready for some post-dessert Googling.

Cal nods, looking nervous suddenly, although I already know he has absolutely no reason to. Cal is like the MVP of making people presents. The table we just had our dessert feast on is proof of that.

“He’s going to love it,” I say. “And you. It’s very hard not to love you. Trust me, I tried.”

He grunts at that. “Not hard enough.”

“No, but if you really want, I can give it another try.”

“No, thanks. I’m quite content with being loved by you.”

I press a kiss to his cheek. “Come on.”

I take his hand, and we walk over to Aidan.

“Aidan,” I say. He tries another hat before I manage to get his attention.

“Aunt Molly, Edward has more hats than Mom does. I’m going to make him a hat for Christmas.”

He seems so genuinely thrilled when he says this, I find myself beaming back at him.

“Speaking of Christmas,” I say, “Cal has an early present for you.”

Aidan’s brow furrows. Darting a glance at Cal’s sweater, he says, “You must be really confused. It’s Thanksgiving, not Christmas. We’re not supposed to start celebrating until tomorrow.”

Maybe not the warmest response, but he did direct the comment to Cal, not me. That’s progress.

“It’s not a Christmas gift, bud,” Cal says. “It’s a just-because gift. Is that okay?” 

Aidan gives this some thought, then nods. “A just-because gift is okay. Where is it?”

  There’s a little glimmer in his eye, universal to children everywhere —scratch that, people everywhere—who have just been told they’re getting a present.

Cal glances at me, a slight lift to one side of his mouth. “Tina’s room.”

A small laugh escapes me, because of course it’s in her room. She’s been gone for a day and a half.

“Should we get Mary?” Cal asks.

I glance into the other room, but Mary is halfway into yet another drink (Cal’s totally giving her a ride home). She’s talking to Nicole, and I’m mostly convinced Nicole’s intentions are good, so I decide to give her a little more adult time. Given she’s now solo parenting, she probably needs it. Just like I need my Aidan time.

“Naw. C’mon, Aidan, your surprise just-because gift awaits.”

He glances over at his mom, sees her laughing, and then scampers over to Tina’s room with us. Cal shoots us another nervous look and then opens the door.

“Holy shit—” my gaze hits Aidan “—ake mushrooms. That is ah-mazing.”

And it is. Cal has made Aidan a fort—a tipi style tent, with a carved wood frame. There are freaking fairy lights inside too.

Aidan regards it with interest, then turns to Cal. “Is this tent for indoors or outdoors?” he asks the reindeer on his sweater.

“What do you want it to be for?”

“I don’t like camping outside. There are too many bugs. Did you know nearly 700 million people contract mosquito-borne illnesses each year?”

“Then it’s for indoors,” Cal says. “I thought.” He scratches the back of his head. “Actually, I thought you might like a more permanent setup for your cool-off zone.” Emotion clogs my throat. Aidan needs a place to recharge sometimes, when he’s feeling overloaded, and this…this tent is a place I’d like to hang out. It’s beautiful.

Aidan studies it seriously for a moment, then turns to Cal. “Mom would tell me to say thank you, Uncle Cal, but she wouldn’t need to say that this time. Thank you.” Turning to me, he says, “Can you tell Mom I’m in my cool-off zone? I’m going to stay here for a little while, then maybe we can go home.”

He disappears into it, and I tug Cal into the hall. It’ll be time to send Mary and Aidan home soon—with plenty of supervision and help, depending on how much Mary has had to drink—but for now I lead Cal further down the hall, out of sight of the others, and put my hands around his neck. For a moment I just study him—his deep, dark eyes, his mussed-up hair, that ridiculous sweater—and then I pull him to me. He doesn’t need an invitation. His lips are demanding, but so are mine, and we war to perfection. He slides a hand over my hip, pulling me closer, and for a moment I just savor in him. In his thoughtfulness. In the way he can say so much while saying so little. Then I pull away slightly so I can look at him again.

“He called you uncle,” I say.

He called me uncle,” he repeats, his tone full of awe.

“That’s a beautiful thing you did for him,” I say. “But you really need to stop surprising me. I have to insist on it.”

“Oh yeah?” he says, squeezing my hip. “What are you going to do about it?”

“You don’t even want to know.”

  His lips tick up. “I think I might.”

“Now, now,” I say, tapping his bottom lip, gasping when he sucks in my finger. “You are just being greedy. You already won the pie contest, and you know what that means…”

What it means is that he gets to pick our next non-bed sex place. We like to keep it creative.

He pulls back from my hand. “Trust me, I’ve already been thinking about it.”

“Well, let’s get out there so we can end this shindig and have some alone time. I just have one thing to ask you first.”

He lifts his brows.

“Do you have any idea what the hell Nicole is up to?”

He cocks his head. “She hasn’t told me anything, but I have an inkling.”

 I gesture with my hand. “Inkle away.”

“Dad says he thinks she wants to start her own Bad Luck Club.” He grins. “I think she has her sights set on your sister.”

Huh. At least she’s not trying to get Mary to sell, like, Tupperware or something.

“I think that might be weirdly okay,” I say. “In fact, I dare say I might support her in this endeavor.”

“You’re totally weird.”

“Yes,” I say, “and you’re totally stuck with me. Uncle Cal.”

He laughs, his Adam’s apple bobbing in a way that’s both adorable and sexy. “I see what you did there, and I like the thought process behind it, but please never call me that again.”

I’m laughing too when I pull him to me for another kiss, and we’re just getting into it when I hear footsteps and a groan that could only be Harry. Somehow that only makes the moment more perfect.

And to think…five months ago I thought I was a shoo-in for the Bad Luck Club. Now, I feel like someone’s lucky penny. Actually, I’d rather be my own lucky penny. Let’s go with that.

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