Dee glanced at the clock, and then reached for the ringing phone with a sigh. “You're in big trouble,” she said, not bothering with a hello; not bothering to see if it would be him or not. (It would be him. She always knew when it was him – just knew.)
“I know, I know,” John said. “Big, big trouble.”
Dee shifted the phone against her ear, music and shouting a bubbling riot somewhere behind him. “Are you at a bar?”
“I might be,” John said.
“Where?” Dee asked. “You're in Stamford, right?”
“I am, I am,” John insisted. “But,” he added, “you know how it is, Dee-Dee, when you're as popular as me...” He draws the word out, singing it at her. “You tell people you're in town and all of a sudden things get out of control.” He gasped, or hiccuped – Dee couldn't tell.
“And now you need me to come and get you,” Dee said, looking down at the ragged pyjama pants she'd pulled on. “John, it's freezing out. I’m ready for bed.”
“I can get a cab,” he protested. “It's no trouble. Mostly I just called to say I love you, Dee. And that I might be slightly in – in... uh, drunk, when I get to your house.”
“You're slurring your S's,” Dee said, amused.
“I'll get a cab,” he said.
“No, I'll come and get you. Where are you?”
“Um,” he said.
She waited while he explained how he'd been pulled into it, some guys he knew from college had remembered his birthday and knew he was in town, and he'd protested, mostly, even after he'd finished the first beer, and the second – but after the third it got harder to protest, and then the fourth beer had been the one that led to the pool competition...
She wrote down the name of the bar and reluctantly slid out from beneath the blanket she'd tucked over her legs. “Don't drink anymore,” she said sternly. “I'll be there in like – fifteen minutes. Drink water or something.”
“I love you,” John said apologetically.
She dropped the phone into the cradle and let herself giggle for a moment before she got dressed again.
The streets were mostly empty, snow crusted in dirty lumps by the sidewalks. Christmas lights were still up, throwing coloured webs over the icy pavement. The bar was still crowded, people milling about in the frigid air when things got too stuffy inside.
She saw John leaning against the brick, a wide grin on his face, his jacket hanging loose off one shoulder, an unlit cigarette pinched in his fingers.
She hurried over to him, her coat pulled tight around her. “Pike!” she shouted, slipping a little on a wet patch of snow.
“Hey, Dee!” he cried, eyes bright. “That was fast.”
“Get in the car,” she said, not unkindly. (It was hard to be mad, even after he'd promised he'd drive straight to her place after work, even when it was the last night she'd have the house to herself before her parents got back, even after he'd called her so late.)
“I won thirty dollars,” he said, letting her pull his arm over her shoulders.
“You can use it to buy me a big apology dinner,” she said, leading him towards her tiny car.
“I already spent it,” he said forlornly.
She pushed him into the backseat and he laughed and curled his legs up so he'd fit, his head on the seat behind the driver's seat, feet braced against the door.
“How many have you had?” she asked, sinking behind the wheel again and starting the car.
“A lot,” he said tiredly. “I'm sorry.”
“No, it's okay.”
“I promised you I'd come see you.”
“You did promise,” Dee tutted. “I was going to spoil you for your birthday, and everything.”
“Yeah.” She grinned and shook her head. “Not now. Not when you don't even call to say where you are. I thought you'd been in an accident, and then I realised no, you're a drunk and you're just at bar –”
He laughed and thumped the back of her seat with his fist. “I should have called,” he murmured. “I'm sorry. I won't do it again.”
“That's right, you won't,” Dee declared. She craned her head to look down at him as she stopped at a red light. “I should make you sleep on the couch tonight.”
“Please don't,” he murmured. “I can't get these pants off without help.”
“Ever the charmer,” she said, grinning as the light turned green. “Don't expect sympathy when you're hungover tomorrow.”
“No, I won't,” he said.
There was a thump as he shifted, rolling about on the backseat. “Your car is too fucking small,” he complained.
“It's fine when you're back there by yourself,” she said.
He laughed. “I love you,” he said. “I'm gonna marry you someday.”
Her heart jumped in her chest and she looked in the rear-view mirror. It was too dark to see him. She could hear him hum something under his breath.
“Oh,” she said. “You are?”
“Hm,” he breathed. “But pretend to be surprised when I really ask.”
She grinned, her fingers tightening on the wheel. “You'll have to sober up, first,” she said. “I'm not marrying a drunk.”
“My parents are home,” Dee breathed in protest, but she didn't let go of John. She tightened her fingers so his coat pulled tight against his shoulders.
He kissed her again. He tasted like beer, and they'd had too much and even the walk back to her place hadn't been enough to sober them up.
“We'll be quiet,” he whispered.
“You can't be quiet,” she muttered, dragging fingers through his hair. “You talk dirty and you talk loud.”
He snorted against her neck, leaning his weight on her, pinning her against the front door. “I'll whisper,” he promised. His mouth moved wet against her skin. “Hm?”
“My parents are just dying to have something against you,” Dee said. “You're too good and wholesome in front of them. They know you're full of shit; they just don't have the evidence yet.”
“You need to get your own place,” he groaned. His hands slipped under her shirt, cold on her warm skin.
She shivered. “I know, I know.”
“When are they going away again?”
“Easter,” Dee breathed. She closed her eyes and let her head fall back.
“I haven't had you to myself since Christmas,” he said painfully.
“Well, Valentine's Day is like the halfway point,” Dee said helpfully.
He growled and nipped her skin, sucking gently.
“No hickeys!” Dee yelped. She shoved him and he stumbled backwards down the front steps.
“You nearly broke my neck,” he said indignantly.
She giggled and reached for him, staying on the top step so her head was above his, and pressed a warm kiss to his brow. “Go home, John.”
“I'm too drunk.”
Dee sighed and twined her fingers into his hair again, rocking against him slowly. “That's entirely your fault.”
“Not entirely,” he mumbled. “My girlfriend had some say in it.”
Dee giggled and quickly stifled herself. She kissed him slowly, her hands cupping his face. “You can't come in,” she groaned. “They'll kill you.”
“Just let me sober up,” he whispered. “I can't drive home like this; not with the roads still all iced up. Let me in for a glass of water, and then I'll go. They're asleep, they won't know anything.”
She breathed a short, disbelieving sigh, but dug her keys out of her pocket. “I don't know what I’m going to do with you.”
He tripped on an untied shoelace as he followed her back to the door, clutching her to stay upright. “I could give you a few ideas.”
“If they catch you, you're on your own,” she warned. “And quiet, okay? Shh...” She crept in, John's feet shuffling on the floorboards behind her. “Don't turn any lights on,” she whispered.
His hand slipped up under her shirt again as they tiptoed to the kitchen, fingertips sliding along the waistband of her jeans. “Your parents love me,” he murmured in her ear. “They think I’m respectable.”
“Only because, so far, there's no evidence to the contrary,” Dee said. She filled a glass with water and handed it to him.
“S'pose we'd better keep that impression,” John said. He swallowed loudly, draining half the glass. “Want them to think I’m good enough for you.”
“Right,” Dee agreed, taking the glass from him and finishing the last couple of mouthfuls herself. She filled it again.
“If I can stay in their good books, maybe they'll let me marry you someday,” John added.
Dee looked up at him over the top of her next swallow, her breath fogging the glass. “What?”
He nuzzled her neck. “What,” he said.
She tapped the glass down on the counter, water sloshing over her hand. “You said that at Christmas, too,” she said. “Talking about marrying me.” She tugged his hair so she could see his eyes, the blinds over the sink sending striped light across his face. “Are you proposing?”
“No!” he said loudly.
“Shh!” she insisted. She listened for any noises from upstairs, but it was silent.
“But would you say yes, though?” he asked.
“Are you asking?”
“No. Not in your parents' kitchen. Definitely not.”
“Well, I’m not giving you an answer until you officially ask.”
“That means yes,” John said, burying his face against her shoulder.
“It does not.”
He chuckled tiredly. “Does so.”
John twisted the cap off another beer for Dee and took a swallow before he passed it to her.
“I saw that,” she said lazily, blinking at him, one arm half-draped over her eyes, against the sun.
“You saw nothing,” he said. He stretched out on the blanket beside her with a sigh. “I think,” he said, “if I tried to get up right now, I'd fall over.”
“You'd better stay down, then,” Dee said, propping herself up on her elbows to drink her beer.
“I could so manage that,” he muttered, rolling over to trail his mouth over her skin, down her stomach.
“Don't!” Dee giggled, shoving him away. “We're not alone on this beach, you know.”
John sat up and reached for the cooler, pulling another beer out of the ice. “Alone enough,” he said. “Nobody comes down this far.”
“I'm drunk,” Dee complained, trailing a wet thumb down the neck of her beer. “By the time the fireworks come on, I'll be asleep.”
“We could make our own fireworks,” John said, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively.
“I set you up for that,” Dee said.
“Nicely,” he agreed. They clinked their bottles together and rested back on their elbows, gazing back at the waves rolling in. After a moment, John reached over and pulled the string ties at the back of Dee's neck undone. Her bikini top sat loose against her bronzed skin. She eyed him warily, but didn't move.
He sipped his beer again and dug his toes into the sand by the blanket. His fingers trailed over her palm and the inside of her wrist, turned up to the warmth of the sun.
“Don't,” she moaned. “We're in public.”
“I'm not doing anything,” he said. He hiccuped a little and then laughed, setting his beer down in the sand. “No one's around.”
“The moment this bikini comes off, a whole crowd of people will come over the top of that sand dune,” Dee said, but she eased down onto her back and closed her eyes, squirming a little as her swimsuit slid across her skin and fell to the blanket.
“I'm too drunk for this to last very long,” he mumbled against her skin. He grimaced and reached for his beer. “You taste like sunblock.”
“Sorry,” she said. The beer and the sun had combined to make her sleepy. She stretched out on her back, arms over her head, and closed her eyes contentedly as John's mouth trailed over her chest.
“I'm drunk,” John complained.
“I'm almost naked,” Dee croaked. “That's worse.”
He laughed and slid on top of her, cupping one hand behind her knee so her leg draped around his waist. “Look how far you've fallen,” he said. “Eleven months with me and you're drunkenly pawing at me on a public beach.”
“I am not pawing at you,” Dee protested. “You, on the other hand...”
He kissed her. “You taste like beer,” he said.
“That's all you, baby,” she muttered.
He laughed and rested his weight on top of her, his chest bare against hers. He pinched her ring finger gently, his thumb rubbing against her skin.
“What are you doing?” she murmured against the top of his head.
“Measuring,” he answered.
She blinked up at the blue sky, remembering two previous drunken half-proposals. “What for?”
“It's a secret,” he said.
“It's the worst secret ever!” Dee said, her throat dry from the heat and the beer. “You've asked me twice.”
“I have not!” he protested. “I'm just testing the waters.”
She laughed and shoved him, reaching for her bikini top. “Well, I’m getting hot,” she said. “I'm goin' for a swim.” She grabbed her beer and struggled to her feet, a wave of dizziness hitting her.
John struggled up beside her. “Not asking,” he said. “But if I did...” He stroked his thumb over her finger again.
“You'd better get one that fits,” Dee said, pulling her hand free. She sauntered ahead of him on the sand. “Else, I might say no.”
John's face was rosy, and the cheeky grin on his face told Dee he'd have his hands all over her if she got close enough. He sat between her brother Jordan and her sister Lucinda, and neither of them seemed particularly interested in sobering up either.
Dee's father had retired to the couch to sleep off their Thanksgiving meal, and her mother pottered around in the kitchen, humming to herself and pretending not to notice how much her children were drinking in the dining room. Francis and Aram disappeared to the den, arguing between fits of laughter as they sorted through their father's record collection.
“I just need a little something,” Jordan said, patting his stomach.
“You ate the entire turkey,” Lucinda retorted. “How can you be hungry?”
“It's a drunk hunger,” Jordan answered, getting to his feet and swaying slightly. “You'll understand what that means when you get a few legal years of drinking under your belt.”
“I could drink you under the table any day,” Lucinda said, leaping to her feet.
“Why don't we ask Mom what she thinks?” Jordan asked, opening his eyes wide.
Lucinda pointed a warning finger at him. “Don't you dare.” She followed Jordan into the kitchen, and suddenly John was beside Dee, his hands wide against her back, fingers curling into the soft fabric of her best sweater.
“I'm hungry too,” he murmured.
“You're drunk,” Dee said, wrinkling her nose at the booze on his breath. “Cool your jets, Romeo.”
He grinned and kissed her. “Ah, come on,” he said. “Your parents love me.”
“They do like you some,” Dee admitted, wrapping her arms around his neck and lifting herself onto her toes to kiss him.
“Your mom keeps giving me a look,” John says, raising his eyebrows. “Like a, 'What are your intentions, John Pike?' kind of look.”
“Oh, really?” Dee asked. She glanced over his shoulder at the open doorway, but Jordan and Lucinda were still bickering, Jordan rummaging through the fridge. “Just what are your intentions?”
He backed her against the table, his hands low down on her hips. “I've got a decent future planned out,” he insisted. “Marriage, a house, kids.”
“Oh really?” Dee grinned up at him, butterflies in his stomach. “When did I agree to all this?”
“Well, you haven't, yet, because I haven't asked you,” he said. “But when I ask, you'll be ready for it.”
“What if I’m ready for it now?”
“You can't handle me yet, sweetheart.”
“Jesus,” Dee whispered, shoving him. She giggled. “You think a lot of yourself, don't you?”
He grinned and kissed her cheek, making it wet, his lips smacking against her. “I think a lot of you,” he said. “And if you can cook a Thanksgiving meal as well as your mom can, I’m set for life.”
“Whatever,” Dee said. “When we're married, you're doing the cooking.”
The globe in John's bedroom was dull, burned out, and music rose through the floor from the apartment below. The windows were shut tight against the summer heat, and the air conditioner gurgled wetly, breathing cool air over Dee's bare skin.
“What do you want to do for our anniversary?” John asked, his voice half lost in the pillow beneath his head.
Dee smiled up at the ceiling. “I don't know,” she said. She traced her fingers over his hand, which was flat and warm against her stomach. “Two years is a long time, huh.”
“Practically an eternity,” John agreed. “Still not really sure how I feel about you, though.”
“Whatever,” Dee said, rolling over. “You've proposed to me four times over the past eighteen months.”
“I have not,” he said hotly, opening his eyes and watching her settle herself beside him, her face close to his.
“You have. Talked about it, anyway.”
“Talking about it isn't the same as doing it.”
She trailed her fingertips over his back. “You will though, right?” she asked. “Because I don't want anyone else to ask me.”
“Who else is going to ask you?” John asked suspiciously. “Have you got other men chasing after you?”
“If you take much longer asking me, I might,” she said, grinning at him.
He growled and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close, skin sticky against hers. “Dee,” he murmured in her ear, close and soft.
“Yeah?” She felt her heart lift a notch in her chest, beating against her breast.
His lips brushed her temple. His arms tightened around her. “Will you – will you get me another beer?”
“Oh!” She pulled away and reached back to try and slap him.
He rolled over, laughing. “I'm not proposing to you while I’ve got no pants on,” he said.
She laughed and sat up, raking her hair back over her shoulder. “Good,” she sniffed. “I'd turn you down, anyway.”
He grinned and reached for her, tracing his hand over the bare skin of her back. “Sure you would.”
“I'm tired,” Dee breathed. She kicked her shoes off, the buzz of drinking and loud music having worn off long ago. Now she just wanted to sleep.
John started the car and glanced over at her. “I'm not ready to go home yet.”
“I am,” Dee groaned.
“Let's just drive for a while.”
“We have to drive all the way home,” she said. “New York City to Stamford isn't enough for you?”
“Nah,” he said. “Let's go somewhere else.”
She leaned over and sniffed him.
He jumped and looked at her with wide eyes. “What are you doing?”
“Smelling you to see how drunk you are.”
“I'm fine to drive,” he promised, grinning at her.
“No, I’m not questioning your driving ability,” she said. “Just your sanity in general.”
He laughed and put his arm around her. “Come on a little road trip with me, Dee-Dee.”
She mumbled a half-hearted protest. “Where?”
“I've got an idea or two up my sleeve.”
Dee didn't mean to, but she was tired, and content, and she found herself drifting off to sleep. John was quiet, steering the car smoothly over the road, the radio murmuring. She felt him take her hand and she curled into him tightly.
“Don't crash,” she murmured.
“I'll try not to.”
She woke again when he nudged her, and the air was cold and heavy with the smell of brine and seaweed.
“Rise and shine,” he said.
She sat up, disoriented, and caught sight of the silvery surface of the ocean, the pink hue in the east. “Where are we?” she asked. She rubbed her eyes and fumbled for John's hand as he got out of the car, pulling her gently after him.
“Take another look,” he said, and she looked out at the beach and recognised it, pale in the early dawn. He'd kissed her here before – their first kiss had been here, knee-deep in the water with the sun setting in the sky.
She blinked at him. “How long was I asleep?”
“Long enough,” he said. He grinned and took her hand again, leading her down to the beach. Dee found herself blinking back tears, her breath hitching in her throat with anticipation, heart drumming in her chest.
“Our anniversary isn't until next weekend,” she said, her voice sounding thick and strange.
“I know. But you fell asleep, and I was driving, and I just – I found myself coming here.” He grinned at her and pulled her to where the sand was flat and smooth, shells and pebbles dotted along the shoreline. “You were really out of it,” he said, pulling her close and kissing her. “I thought you'd wake up before we go here. You must be getting old.”
“I was tired,” she said softly, ignoring his joke. She felt awake now. Wide, wide awake. She shivered in the early-morning air and curled her toes into the wet sand.
“I'm going to do this properly,” John said, and Dee thought he sounded a bit nervous. “On one knee and everything.”
She blinked, her eyes still watery. “Go on then,” she croaked. “Down you get.”
“Give me a moment,” he said. He kissed her, fingers stroking the small of her back. “Dee,” he said.
Her vision blurred for a moment and her eyes spilled over. She wiped her tears away, frustrated and embarrassed, but didn't say anything.
He took her hand and sank to one knee in front of her, and the rising sun caught the diamond in its little black box.
“Dee,” he said again, “I love you. You're my best friend, the only girl I have ever loved, the only girl I will ever love. I want to wake up beside you every day for the rest of my life. I want to come home to you every night. I want to spoil you on every single one of your birthdays. I want to have a home with you and I want to have a whole bunch of kids with you.” His hand tightened on hers. “Dee, I want to marry you,” he said earnestly. “Please, will you be my wife?”
She opened her mouth, but her voice had no strength. She laughed and wiped her eyes with her free hand. “Yes,” she said.
“Finally,” he said, and he pulled her down into the sand and kissed her.
She laughed breathlessly, clutching him tightly. “Finally,” she sobbed.
“Yeah.” He laughed and buried his face against her neck, and she didn't know if he was crying or if it was simply the moisture from her own tears on her skin.
“Hey,” she croaked. “Put that damn ring on my finger, right now.”
He grinned and took her hand, slipping the diamond over her finger. It shone pink in the morning sunlight.
“Luci helped me choose it,” he said. “Blame her if you hate it.”
“No,” she said, wiping her eyes again, unable to look away from the ring on her finger. “I love it, it's beautiful.” She kissed him. “I love it. Almost as much as I love you.”
“Can't hope for much more than that,” John said.
“Of all the times you've asked me to marry you, this one is my favourite,” Dee said.
“Hey,” John said sternly, hands on her shoulders. “Those other times absolutely did not count. That was just – thinking aloud.”
Dee leaned into him, her knees pressing into the wet sand. “Whatever,” she said. “Every time you get drunk, you ask me to marry you.”
“Well, I'll have to pester you for something else, now,” he said, staggering to his feet and lifting her into his arms.
“Kids,” Dee said.
“Yeah.” He ran for the surf, and she shrieked and clawed at his shoulder, laughing as he threatened to throw her to the waves.
He swung her in his arms. “Want to go home?”
“Not yet,” she said. “I want breakfast. Waffles. With syrup and strawberries.”
“How rich you do you think I am?” he asked indignantly. “I just shelled out for a diamond, I can't afford waffles.”
She laughed and hugged him, letting her toes touch the water below. “Please?”
He breathed a sigh against her ear. “Okay,” he said. “It's lucky you're cute and I’m generous.”
“You're the best husband ever,” Dee said. She grinned against his cheek as he laughed.