There were many things about California that Jules hadn’t been all that fond of—the thirty degree heat, the confusing money, the fact that none of the fast food places sold curry chips—but one thing that she had appreciated was the constant sunshine. Standing on the tarmac outside the Hounslow airport, a thin drizzle slowly seeping through her coat, Jules felt almost homesick.
Except that she was home now, right? You couldn’t be homesick when you were back home.
“Juliet, you’ve gotten so tanned!” her mother gushed. “And I love what you’ve done to your hair. Such beautiful highlights. It wasn’t expensive, was it?”
“No, Mum,” Jules said. Actually, it had been free—two hours of football, excuse me, soccer practice in the sun everyday had bleached streaks into it without any effort on her part. She decided to pretend it had been a salon. It would make her mother happy to think that she was starting to show an interest in feminine things.
“It’s great to have you back, Jules.” Her dad’s greeting was accompanied by a huge hug, and he was wearing the Santa Clara sweatshirt she had sent him. “They showed your finales on ESPN2. Brilliant penalty shot!”
“Thanks, Dad. I was terrified I would miss.” She grinned, suddenly a little less wistful for California.
“And you look lovely too, Jesminda,” her mother continued. “Such a beautiful shirt.” She waved a hand at Jess’s brightly-coloured tie-dye shirt. “You’ve just the complexion for it. Juliet never could wear orange tones like that. They wash her out terribly.”
For a moment, Jules was terrified that her mother would start to discuss Jess’s bra choice as well (“so lovely to see you’re wearing one with some uplift. Maybe you can convince Jules to stop wearing those sport bras, hmm?”), which would force her to die in a puddle of mortification and lust right there on the tarmac. Her Mum, discussing Jules’ breasts in front of the entire parking lot. And Jess’s breasts, as well. Discussion of Jess’s breasts would cause her to start thinking about Jess’s breasts, and the way they had looked that night after the post-match party, dark nipples and brown aureole standing out against the soft gold of her skin. The way those had felt, tasted, hardened under her touch… and Jules wasn’t going to think about that any more, because that had been a one-off thing, and she and Jess were Just Friends. And Jess was practically promised to Joe, in her own mind at least. And anyway, Jules wasn’t a lesbian.
Thankfully, Jess’s family chose that moment to arrive, everyone piling out of their cars like a giant human wave. Mr. and Mrs. Bhamra and Tony in the lead, Teetu and a very pregnant Pinky bringing up the rear. And behind Pinky…
“Jess!” Joe came pelting across the tarmac towards them, face lit up with a broad smile and barely limping at all. With enthusiastic disregard for the watching Bhamras, he grabbed Jess around the waist and lifted her a good foot in the air, swinging her around. Jess laughed, and swatted at his arms, and Jules, watching, couldn’t help feeling just the tiniest bit jealous. The weird thing was, she wasn’t sure which one of them she was jealous of.
She never casually touched Jess like that. Not anymore. Not since they had decided that the night in Jess’s dorm room after the post-match party was not to be repeated.
“I saw your tournament on TV,” Joe went on, arms still around Jess’s waist even though her feet had been deposited back on the ground. “It was absolutely perfect! You and Jules were incredible.”
He unwrapped his left arm from Jess and leaned out to give Jules a one-armed hug, pulling her in towards them. “That penalty shot was fecking beautiful!”
Jules laughed and shoved him away, trying to ignore the familiar tingle that his touch sent through her. Five months, and she still wanted to wrap her arms around that lean torso, gaze into those blue, blue eyes. Five months, and his accent still made her melt—if anything, all those months of hearing American voices made his sound even better. This at the same time that she was halfway fancying Jess! God, she was a slut! A lesbian slut! Well, bisexual slut, maybe. She couldn’t be a lesbian if she was still attracted to Joe.
And just last summer she had had that shouting match with her mother about how “wearing trackies and playing sports” didn’t mean she wanted to sleep with other girls. Right. How was it that she’d never noticed that Mia Ham was at least as sexy as Becks was—well, maybe not quite, he had gone up in the looks department now that he’d grown his hair out again—all those years that she’d had their posters on her walls? Industrial strength denial?
Just her luck that she’d turn out to be bi only to find that the two people she wanted were dating each other. Smile, Jules, she ordered herself. Just smile, enjoy being with them, and be glad that you’re home. Take what’s on offer and don’t wreck it by trying for more.
Joe and Jess were pulling her toward the cars, Joe regaling them with the triumphant saga of Hounslow girls’ team, and their surprise climb to third place in the national league. “We’d have been number one if I’d had you two, but still, third!”
Jules grinned, gave Joe a congratulatory punch in the arm, and went.
The Bhamra family didn’t usually do Christmas parties, but this year the Paxtons had invited them to theirs, and enough time had passed since Mrs. Paxton’s embarrassing scene at Pinky’s wedding that everyone had jumped at the invitation. Pinky was the gleeful centre of attention, soaking up congratulations on her pregnancy with a smile that somehow managed to combine pride and smugness—Teetu, when congratulated, looked torn between pride and nervous terror.
Tony had brought a “friend” from Uni, a tall, skinny Indian boy with a tiny gold hoop in one ear who was studying to be a lawyer. Several of Jules’ cousins were heavily engaged in flirting with them, with varying degrees of obviousness. Tanveer.. or was it Tanvar? Well, whatever his name was, Tony’s boyfriend was regarding Vicki’s ample and ostentatiously displayed cleavage with something that was either awe or horrified embarrassment. Jules wasn’t entirely sure which, but from the way the poor boy kept inching backwards away from her, she was betting on embarrassment. Since Jess was currently occupied talking to her father and Joe—Jules thought they were probably lobbying to get Joe further into his good graces before announcing that he wanted to date Jess—and Tony was busy fending off his own attacker, Jules decided that it was up to her to rescues Tanners’ virtue.
“Hey, Vicki.” Jules stepped up behind her cousin and nudged her in the arm. “Your mum wants you. Aunt Ema hasn’t seen your pictures from this summer, so you’re supposed to go and fetch them from the car.”
Vicki’s face fell noticeably. “Oh, she’s not! The ones from Spain?” Sighing with put-upon reluctance, she turned to go. “Didn’t Mum email them to her? She emailed them to every-bloody-one else.”
“Aunt Ema doesn’t have email, remember? She hates computers.”
It wasn’t a complete lie, Jules consoled herself, as she watched Vicki stalk away. The Harlans’ never-ending series of photo albums hadn’t made the rounds yet, and her aunt was certain to break out the pictures from this summer’s vacation at some point between now and dinner.
Tony’s friend was visibly relieved. “Your ah, sister-“ he began.
“Cousin,” Jules corrected him.
“Your cousin is very… aggressive.”
“Just ignore her. She’s after you because you’re one of the only good looking guys here not related to her.” Jules smiled, and hoped it didn’t sound like she was flirting. “Jess filled me in on you two—she swore me to secrecy, so don’t worry.”
“Good, then you can go and find your own man.” Tony detached himself from his own admirer, whom he had reduced to a state of glassy-eyed boredom with a play-by-play description of the World Cup, and grinned at her, collecting his date by the arm and pulling him away to ward the buffet table.
Jules considered heading back to the sideboard herself, but decided that she didn’t really want another mince pie or chocolate biscuit. What she wanted was to find Jess and Joe. For so long in California it had been just the two of them, Jules and Jess, J-squared, with Joe as the never-physically-present-but-frequently-s
Jess and Joe were no longer by the fireplace with Mr. Bhamra—he was now deep into a discussion with Jules’s dad—and a quick glance around the living room failed to turn up either of them. Probably they were off in some upstairs room making out, while she was stranded alone in the middle of a mass of relatives, half of whom wanted to know if she’d found any nice boys in America.
No, part of her wanted to snap. No, I didn’t. I found a nice girl. But she’s got someone else.
But she didn’t say that, of course, and everyone kept asking. And then Aunt Karen really did break out the photo albums, so that they could all look at a sunburned Vicki and John—always unsmiling, so nobody could see his braces—posing in front of half the buildings in Madrid.
It was almost a relief when her mother sent her upstairs to fetch down Pinky and Teetu’s coats.
It wasn’t until Jules had the door to the coatroom—actually her old bedroom, pressed into service for the evening—open that she realised she ought to have knocked first.
Jess and Joe were on Jules’s bed, right underneath the old poster of Mia Hamm. Jess was on Joe’s lap, half twisted around, her back to the door, and Joe, eyes closed, was kissing the side of her neck, face half buried in dark hair.
Jules felt frozen, pinned like a statue in the doorway. Walk away, her brain screamed at her. Close the door and walk away. They’ll never know you were here. But she couldn’t make her fingers close on the doorknob. She couldn’t make her feet move.
It was like that night last summer, in Germany, when she’d seen Jess and Joe almost kiss outside the club. Except that now, she knew what Jess’s hair felt like under her fingers, knew the way her skin tasted, knew what it was like to kiss the hollow right under her ear, exactly the way Joe was doing now. Knew what it was like to feel Jess’s hands sliding up under her shirt, startlingly dark against the white skin of her breasts, part of her wishing they were Joe’s and part of her amazed that this felt so exactly right.
Joe nuzzled against the side of Jess’s neck, making her squirm slightly, and Jules felt a throb of arousal run through her. She must have made some sort of sound, because the two of them looked up then, to see her standing like some sort of bloody peeping tom in the doorway.
“I… sorry. I’ll just be going now,” Jules stammered out, her face feeling hot with mortification and a desperate sort of enviousness that she knew made her a jealous little slag. She was worse then Vicki—not just hitting on a guest, spying on her two best friend while they made out.
“How long have you been watching?” Jess asked, and Jules thought that she could hear accusation and embarrassment in her voice. The words from their long ago fight over Joe seemed to hang in the air, absorbed into the room’s walls months ago and simply waiting to be released.
“Only, only a second, I swear.” She took a step backwards, reaching out to pull the door shut, and Joe got to his feet, pulling Jess along with him.
And just like that, she was frozen again. There was a little part of her that couldn’t help always listening when Joe spoke, still hoping to hear the words she knew now would only be said to Jess.
“We,” Joe started, “we were just talking about you. You and Jess and…” he trailed off, and looked down for a second, apparently unable to come up with the proper word. “Things.”
“Things?” Jules heard herself asking. All arousal was gone now, replaced with pure misery. Jess had told him about the post-match party. About what the two of them had done that night, excited and victorious and probably just a bit drunk on nasty American beer. And now she’d gone and lost her friendship with Joe on top of turning things with Jess all awkward.
Jess had come up beside her, and was sliding an arm around her shoulder. It felt good, friendly, sisterly even. “I couldn’t keep pretending it never happened. Last time I tried to live a lie I just got everybody around me into trouble.” The kiss she planted on Jules then was anything but sisterly. She missed her mouth, lips landing on the corner of her jaw and sliding upward and over, until she caught Jule’s lip between hers and Jules found her own lips opening, tingling with sensation. Jess tasted like her mother’s mince pies, and like Joe.
The kiss was over before Jules could even begin to kiss back, and Jess was puling away from her, looking back towards Joe, who was staring at the two of them as if he were in the presence of something awesome.
“What?” Jules managed to ask.
“You always wanted Joe,” Jess blurted out, “and I know you want me, and we can’t tell my family because they haven’t even heard about Tony yet and they’d go spare, but when it’s just Joe and me, there’s something missing.”
She pulled a silent and suddenly hopeful Jules over to the bed, and now the two of them were standing on either side of Joe, and he was looking down at Jules with those blue, blue eyes and saying, “What Jess is trying to get out is that it feels off without you here.” And then Joe kissed her. Right on the lips. It only lasted a moment, but for those handful of seconds time seemed to stretch out like syrup, everything suddenly hot and silent and her ears were ringing and Joe’s lips tasted like Jess.
They were sitting on the bed now, all three of them, and Jules wasn’t quite sure when they’d gotten there. “But… wait. You two want me here, with you. As in, all three of us, like some, some, like Guenevere and Arthur and Lancelot in that miniseries? Neither of you mind?
Joe actually smiled. “Jules, do you know how many men in England would be paying good money to be sitting right where I am now?”
“Jerk.” Almost by reflex, Jules shoved him, hard, knocking him sideways into Jess and sending all three of them to the floor as the pile of coats underneath them started to slid. The thump when they hit was muffled by the layers of Burberrys and down jackets.
They looked at the tangle of coats, and then at each other, and suddenly all three of them were laughing. Five minutes ago the air had been filled with an erotic charge, two minutes ago it had been laden with tension. Now Jules just stared at the coats littering the bed and floor and the handful of down drifting through the air and the brown glove that had fallen directly atop Joe’s crotch and giggled uncontrollably.
“Right, so,” Joe said after a moment, when they had all gotten their air back. “Are you two going to do that kiss thing again?”