The question of how long two people could coast on hormonal bliss, incredible sex, and everything else that went along with falling in love before something went off the rails wasn't one Colin Shea had ever bothered to ask himself. It hadn't been applicable and then, when it was, he was too wrapped up in the hormonal bliss, incredible sex, and everything else that went along with falling in love to even think about asking it.
The answer, as it turned out, was give or take three months, which was also how long he managed to avoid meeting Ally's mom. Not that Ally hadn't tried, but given everything she'd told him about Ava Darling, he'd managed to come up with some kind of plausible excuse every time the subject of lunch with her mother, or dinner with her mother, or just him being in Ally's apartment when Ally's mother came over came up.
It hadn't come up for almost a month, which was good, because he'd pretty much run out of excuses.
"Oh, hey—we're meeting Daisy for brunch tomorrow," Ally said as she rolled off him, a little out of breath and her face still flushed from sex. "Wear something nice."
Still basking in the afterglow, Colin didn't think to question that, even though the first time he'd met Daisy, he'd been wearing just his boxers and Daisy still seemed to regard him wearing anything at all an improvement. He just stripped off the condom, tossed it in the wastebasket, and said, "Okay."
He didn't even question it the next morning when Ally took one look at him after he'd showered and dressed, winced, and said, "Nicer than that."
Instead, he went back across the hall and put on one of the two dress shirts that were still clean and that Ally hadn't stolen and the bottom half of his only suit, at which point, Ally said, "Better."
In hindsight, the fact that Ally, wearing the same blue dress from her engagement toast to Daisy, looked more like someone on her way to a dinner date than to a brunch with her sister should have been a red flag, but in his defense, she looked amazing and he hadn't had any coffee that morning.
"Are you sure we can afford this place?" Colin said as they got out of the cab, noting the cream brocade drapery in the windows and the black and gold valet parking sign out front.
"Daisy's paying," she replied. The words came out of her mouth just a little too fast and a little too forced for them to be entirely honest and then and only then did the alarm bells start to ring quietly in the back of his head.
"Is she now?"
"Yep! She wants to repay us for you helping her with that thing with the crib." The alarm bells got louder. Daisy had ordered him pizza, given him a six pack of Stella, and thanked him profusely the whole time she was driving him back home and besides, that had been weeks ago. "Oh! There's our table!"
And there, sitting primly and still somehow impatiently across from Daisy, was Ally's mom, her outfit somehow perfectly coordinated with the brocade drapes.
"Mom! Hi!" Ally said, taking the seat beside her mother, not looking surprised in the least.
Ally was looking anywhere but at him, so Colin settled for leveling his betrayed expression at Daisy. Daisy just looked smug.
"It was my idea," Daisy whispered as he pulled out the chair next to her. Daisy sounded smug, too. He was never helping her with anything nursery related ever again.
Ava smiled. "So, this is your young man?"
"Colin Shea," he said, wondering if he should stick out his hand. Did you shake your girlfriend's mother's hand? "It's a pleasure to meet you. Ally didn't mention you'd be joining us." He kicked Ally's foot under the table. She retaliated by kicking him in the shin. Hard.
Ava shot a look at her oldest child, lips pursing in a moue of disappointment. "Oh, didn't she?"
"I wanted it to be a surprise," Ally said. She picked up her menu. "Ooo, they have Crab Benedict."
Colin looked down at his, tried not to wince at the prices, and hoped Ally wasn't lying about who was paying. Realistically, he could afford the coffee. Barely. Assuming it came with free refills so he could fill up on cream and sugar.
"Don't order a mimosa, Ally," Daisy said. Well, more like demanded. "If I can't have one, neither can you."
Ally's mouth started to open to retort, only to slam shut when Ava cleared her throat.
"Girls," she said with a note of warning. Then she turned her attention to him. "So what do you do for a living, Colin?"
"This and that. Lately, it's mostly been trying to get gigs for my band."
A confused, concerned frown crossed her face. "And your day job?"
"Don't have one. Though sometimes we play weddings."
Ava looked at Ally, her face a study in disappointment and disapproval. Then she sighed and said to Ally in disbelief, "Oh, Ally. Really?"
It was all downhill from there. The small talk got more and more awkward and the comments from Ava more and more pointed. On the bright side, when it was over, it was Ava who picked up the check.
Ally collapsed on her couch almost as soon as they were through the door and buried her face in her hands. "I can't believe you told my mom you don't have a day job," she said.
"She asked me what I do for a living and I told her. Did you want me to lie to her?" Warily, Colin sat down on the other end of the couch.
"Yes. No. Maybe. I just want her to like you."
And that was exactly why he'd been putting this off. "Your dad likes me."
She threw up her hands in frustration. "Dad's easy. All you had to do was follow him on Twitter to get his approval. Mom's hard. I've been trying for over three decades and I still don't have it."
"So don't try."
"Easy for you to say."
"I mean it. You can't go back to tying yourself in knots, trying to be something you're not, even if it's something she wants you to be. Be what you want to be. Anyhow, my parents approve of you."
"They're not my mom. At least the Crab Benedict was really good. I wish Daisy had let me have a mimosa to go with it, though. It would have helped me get through brunch and prepared me for meeting Dad's client with the art gallery."
"Three o' clock. I should kick you out so I can get ready."
"Or…I could stay and help you get ready."
"You stay and I'm not going to get ready."
"Sure. Can you pick us up something from Charlie Chang's?"
"I'll grab us the usual. Seven o' clock sound good?"
Colin shoveled some spare ribs out of the box and onto Ally's plate next to the moo shu pork. He tried not to think that the way she said it sounded ominous, but the hairs on the back of his neck were already beginning to stand up. After doling out the fried rice and the General Tso's, he handed her her plate and chopsticks and asked, "What did your mom say?"
"She said you remind her of Dad," Ally said around a mouthful of spare rib. "I told you she'd be rough."
"There's nothing wrong with being like your Dad," he protested.
"There is if you're my mom."
Okay, that was a fair point. "She'll grow to like me eventually," he replied. "Daisy did."
She didn't like him enough to keep Ally from springing the mom trap on him, but she liked him enough that now, when Daisy smiled at him, it was an actual smile instead of the polite rictus grin she'd given him the first few times they'd met.
"Yeah, well, Daisy's not Mom. Mom's not going to need a hand putting together baby furniture or call to see if someone can bring her pastries at midnight when her husband's out of town on business."
"Best taxi money I ever spent."
She snorted. "Best taxi money you still owe me."
"I only owe you half of it." Colin pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and took out the twenty she'd handed him to cover her part of their dinner order, which was the same twenty he'd handed her to cover his part of their bar order the week before and probably the same one she'd handed him the last time they'd had Charlie Chang's. He leaned forward, tucked the bill into her bra, and gave her a quick kiss. She had a little plum sauce at the corner of her lips. "And now we're even."
"It's okay if she doesn't approve of you," Ally said. She set down her chopsticks and gave him an almost manic grin. "I mean, we've already established that it's not like she approves of me."
"And on that note, I'm going across the hall to grab a beer. Want one?"
"Bring the whole six-pack," she replied and stabbed a piece of chicken with a chopstick. "I can't believe Mom compared you to Dad."
"On second thought, maybe I should grab the tequila."
"Doesn't really go with Chinese food."
"No, but it does go with conversations about your mom."
"We could talk about my meeting with the gallery guy instead."
"Is that a beer, a tequila, or a champagne conversation?"
"Maybe a little of each?"
"That would be a disgusting cocktail that no decent bartender would serve."
"I've dated a few who would serve it, though."
"I know your history. You've never dated a decent bartender."
"Dated a few indecent ones, though."
After they finished dinner, Ally cracked open her fortune cookie with her teeth and pulled out the fortune. "Your efforts will be worthwhile," she read out. "Let's hope so." She popped the remaining shards of cookie into her mouth and asked, "What does yours say?"
"Don't hesitate to tackle a difficult problem."
"Let's hope not."
Colin grabbed their plates and headed to the kitchen. He put the plates in the sink, took down two shot glasses he hadn't seen before, and filled them with tequila. They were shaped like skulls. Somehow, that seemed appropriate.
"I like the new shot glasses," he said.
"Daisy gave them to her bridesmaids as wedding favors. I didn't get mine until last week because I left the reception early."
"We should do something like that when we get married." When. It was always when and not if, even though technically, he hadn't asked and she hadn't answered. It was when and not if when they talked about kids, too.
"What, leave the reception early?" Ally said.
"Give people shot glasses. Do you have any limes?" he asked, looking at the basket of fruit and failing to spy anything small and green.
"In the fridge behind the baking soda."
It was half a lime in a sandwich bag, its exposed pulp a little shriveled around the edges, but it would do. He sliced it in half and put it back in the bag. Carefully, he made his way back to the table, a shot glass in each hand, the bottle of tequila under his arm, and the sandwich bag with the lime in it between his teeth.
"You could have just gone back for the lime," Ally pointed out as he struggled to set everything down without spilling or dropping anything. "Or put it on the drink tray."
Shots and bottle finally in place, he took the bag out of his mouth and said, "There's a drink tray?" Of course there was a drink tray.
"Mmm-hmm. Behind the cookie jars." Ally put a pinch of salt on the back of her hand, licked it, drained her shot, and popped the lime wedge into her mouth. She spat it out and added, "There's still margarita mix, too."
"Now you tell me. I thought you'd have finished it." He wondered if he could get away with licking his salt off her hand. Or her lips. Or, honestly, any part of her. "We should do body shots sometime. How awesome would that be?"
"You'd have to shave everything first. Body hair doesn't mix with tequila."
"And you know this from experience?"
"Two words: bartending magician."
He did his shot and winced. "This is definitely not a sipping tequila. Or much of a shooting tequila." Which he probably should have known, given that it came from the bottom shelf in a plastic jug, but he'd only ever used it in margaritas. Sucking on the sad wedge of lime helped. Barely.
"Not unless you like the taste of lighter fluid and plastic."
"Where's the margarita mix?"
"Door of the refrigerator, right where you put it last time."
"Remind me never to buy this brand again. Do we have ice here or do I need to go fetch some?"
"We are good for ice."
"Great. Let's try this again. Then, after at least two margaritas, we can talk about your mom."
"Or we could have margaritas and not talk about my mom."
He liked that plan better. Especially when that plan turned into them taking their drinks back to Ally's bedroom and abandoning them on the table when kissing became more interesting than drinking.
A list of Colin's favorite things about Ally, if he made one and if he tried to make a song out of it, would be too long for an homage to the Sound of Music. It might fit in some sort of upbeat, extended nod to "We Didn't Start the Fire" if he cut it down, though. Ally's eyes, Ally's legs, All the ways she makes me beg. Actually, extended and x-rated and definitely not something he'd play in public, but absolutely something he needed to write to play for her in private.
Up there on the list was the way she'd bite her lip when she was close to coming and wanted to hold it off for a little bit, the way she was doing right now. Ally had his hand trapped under hers, two of his fingers inside her, his thumb massaging her clit while she dictated the pace with the press of her hand against his. He kept his other hand occupied with her left breast, palm resting on the soft curve of the underside, index finger tracing the outline of her areola.
Ally sped up the rhythm of her hand, increased the pressure. Not long now. He curled his fingers and twisted them until she was panting and swearing, clearly done holding anything back. Ally's body tensing, her back arching up off the mattress, her hand clamping down hard on his to keep him in place while she fucked herself on his fingers? That was in his top three favorite things, easy.
The way she patted the top of his hand with hers before letting her arm flop back lazily at her side wasn't in the top ten, but he didn't hate it. She smiled at him, her face flushed and damp, and he grinned back. "Watching you come is the best part."
"Really?" she said, sounding like she didn't quite believe him, but wanted to.
"Really. It's almost got me ready to go again." And by almost, he meant he was half hard and it wouldn't take much to get him the rest of the way there.
"I could go for twice in one night." Ally rolled to her side and flung a leg over his hip. She reached down to stroke his balls. "As long as you're up for it."
"Keep that up and I will be." He kissed her, leisurely exploring the seam of her lips. She still tasted a little like the margaritas they'd been drinking.
Ally wrapped her fingers around his shaft, working him with firm, even strokes until he was all the way hard and thrusting up into her hand, and he thought, not for the first time, that she'd undersold herself when it came to hand jobs.
"Condom?" she asked, breaking off the kiss.
He knocked over the remnants of his margarita in his rush to grab one, but he could clean it up later.
Ally took the packet from his hand with a grin, tore it open, and rolled the condom on with admirable efficiency. Then she climbed on top of him and lowered herself onto his dick and started to move and god, she was incredible. He tugged her down so he could kiss her again.
"I love everything about you," he said. He meant every word.
He got to see her come again, just before he did. It was awesome.
"What do you think it would take to get your mom to like me?" Colin asked, breaking the comfortable post-coital silence.
They were still in Ally's bed, their margarita glasses still on the table and, in the case of his, still tipped over on its side with its contents now dripping onto the floor. Ally lifted her head off his shoulder and frowned. "You want to talk about my mother now?"
"At least I didn't talk about her while we were having sex?" he offered up, sheepishly.
"Pretty sure if you had, we'd never have sex again. And weren't you the person who was just saying she'd grow to like you eventually?"
"You didn't seem so sure of that, so it's possible I may have been overly confident in my assessment."
"Why does it matter? Are you going to ask her for my hand in marriage?" Her dad had already offered it, unprompted, the first time they'd met face-to-face.
"Well, when the time comes, I thought I'd ask you first, but it would be nice to have her blessing."
"The holidays would be pretty awkward without it."
"Then you'll just have to suffer the awkward holidays."
"You really think I can't get your mom to like me?"
"Not after today. I bet she'll tolerate you eventually."
"She'll like me."
"Want to bet on it?"
"I bet you that, by the end of the year, I'll have won over one Ava Darling."
"That's a sucker bet, but it's your funeral."
After a lifetime of "Can't you be more like your brother?" and "You could learn from Kieran's example, you know!" the last thing Colin wanted to do was ask his older brother for advice, but unlike Colin, significant others' mothers were something Kieran had experience with.
Kieran, for reasons beyond Colin's comprehension, still had a landline. Not only did he still have a landline, he refused to get a cellphone. But, as it was Saturday and he wasn't at work, chances were he'd be at home.
One ring, two rings, three rings…
"Hello, Shea residence. This is Kieran speaking."
"You know you sound like you're about eighty when you answer like that, right?"
Predictably, his brother sighed, loud enough that Colin could practically hear his eyes roll. "Hi, Colin. Why are you calling?"
"Can't I call my big brother just to talk?"
"The available evidence would suggest the answer to that is no. I'm surprised I still recognized your voice."
"Quick question: how did you win over Sarah's mom?"
"Diane's always liked me. No winning over required."
"Of course she did," Colin muttered under his breath. How were they related? Let alone only fifteen months apart.
"Sorry, you broke up there, could you repeat whatever you just said?"
He could, but he wasn't planning on it. "What about…what was her name? Emily? Erica? Her mom. She always had you come over on Sundays for pot roast."
"Erin? My high school girlfriend Erin?"
"Why are you asking me about Erin's mom?" Kieran sounded genuinely confused. More so than usual. "I haven't even thought about her in years. I haven't even thought about Erin in years, and I lost my virginity to her after prom."
"No reason," Colin said, giving up.
"Wait, this is about your girlfriend's mom, isn't it?" His brother started laughing. And didn't stop. "She doesn't like you! You've met a woman who doesn't like you! Oh, that's perfect."
He didn't need to sound so gleeful about it. Then again, he might still hold a grudge over Julie Sampson, even though Colin had told him repeatedly that he wouldn't have gone to homecoming with her if Kieran had thought to mention that he'd asked her out first.
"Fine, we got off on the wrong foot. Any suggestions?"
"I don't know what to tell you. Try getting to know her, I guess."
"Other than expensive brunches at fancy restaurants, what does your mom like?" Operation Win Ava Over was underway, at least in Colin's mind. He had a notebook, a stack of pens in different colors, and had already listed everything he remembered Ally ever saying about her. It was mostly a litany of filial woes, which wouldn't be much help. At best, it might tell him topics to avoid, but he was pretty sure that the biggest item, Ally's choice of stylists, wasn't a topic likely to come up.
"Broadway. Art museums. Jake Adams. Neiman Marcus. Champagne. Throwing large parties."
"Can you give me a little more detail?"
"I don't know. Mom stuff. She likes Shalimar. I've been giving her a bottle for Christmas every year since I turned fifteen. Her favorite color is aqua."
"Favorite reading material?"
"Okay, so what else can you tell me about her?"
"Flattery won't get you anywhere unless your pictures show up in the society pages. Then it will get you everywhere."
"Does it count if it's in the background of someone's wedding reception?"
"Too bad, because the band ended up in a few. You're in one of them." Ally blanched and winced, and he hastened to add, "Don't worry. You're just a blur of pink."
"My point is, I should get to know your mom."
"We didn't do this before I met your parents."
"We didn't have to." Colin's parents were simple: his Dad liked beer, poker, and listening to the police scanner and his mom liked gardening, quilting, and the entire true crime genre. Plus, they were so relieved that Colin was serious about someone that all Ally'd had to do to win them over was show up to his mom's birthday party. That she brought a gift was just a bonus.
"I'll call her and arrange dinner," Ally said. "Can't be much worse than brunch."
Ally grabbed her red coat off the hook and tossed him his jacket. "Come on," she ordered. "We're going to be late." She'd chosen a restaurant that, based on the reviews and their consultation with Daisy, was classy enough for Ally's mom to be seen at and not so classy that Colin and Ally couldn't afford to eat there.
He thought about reminding her that she was the one who'd looked at the clock an hour and a half ago and decided they had time for a quickie before they had to get ready but thought the better of it when she started frantically motioning at him to hurry up. First, it wasn't like he'd argued with her, and second, it was kind of his fault that it took them longer than Ally'd anticipated because he was the one who'd suggested they could save time if they shared the shower.
Though the shower blow job was her idea.
"It's sure to go better than last time," he said as they got into the cab. "This time, I'm prepared."
The very tall, very blonde, very attractive woman approaching them looked vaguely familiar. Not familiar enough to for him be able to put a name to the face, though, which was enough to for a sinking sensation to start making itself known in the vicinity of his gut. He looked over at Ally, who had a slight frown of concentration on her face, like she was trying to place her as well.
That probably wasn't good.
She reached their table. He knew her all right. Not that he remembered her name, but he knew her. Biblically. In fact, he wouldn't be sitting here if it wasn't for her.
"Colin, right? And your sister! And this must be your mom," she cooed. Ava's eyebrows were practically in her hairline and somehow managed to climb even higher as the woman said to her, "I hope it wasn't a bad fall? They seemed pretty worried."
"No, it was fine. Just a little bruising and a lot of…soap. Soap everywhere," Ally said, sounding panicky. "Right, Mom?"
Ava made a noncommittal hum and gave Colin a basilisk stare.
The woman nodded sympathetically. "You can't be too careful. Especially after a certain age. Anyhow, it's so nice to run into you! And, oh! Colin, I'm single again, so if you ever want to call me, it's the same number. Maybe we can make up for not getting to have breakfast!"
"Good seeing you, too," Ally said through gritted teeth.
Ava waited until the woman was out of hearing range before saying, very calmly and very politely, "Allyson, what on earth is your explanation for that?"
"Long story?" Ally said.
"We have plenty of time," Ava replied, and the smile that followed was terrifying enough for Colin to contemplate fleeing the restaurant.
Ordinarily, Ally's attempts to come up with a plausible story without telling the actual truth left him in stitches. This time, as she hemmed and hawed and looked frantically around to see if their wine was arriving any time soon, and the look on Ava's face grew stormier and stormier, he was worried it might leave him in literal ones.
"Ally helped me out of an awkward dating situation," he said, interrupting before Ally could finish. "Entirely of my own making and one-hundred percent my fault."
"Is that true, Ally?"
"And this was a breakfast date she got you out of?" Ava said archly, clearly aware it was no such thing.
Colin winced. He looked at Ally. He looked at the approaching sommelier. Then he sighed, prepared for the worst, and said, "No."
"So, Colin, the awkward dating situation Ally helped you with was getting a woman out of your apartment after you'd spent the night with her?"
When you put it that way, it sounded bad. "Yes."
"Was that the only time something like that happened?"
"He helped me find Jake Adams as a thank you," Ally said, sounding desperate.
"Is that so? Tell me, how did the two of you end up together? Wasn't it shortly after you broke things off with Jake at the reception?"
"Mom, he's why I broke things off with Jake at the reception."
"Oh, Allyson, really?" The disappointment in her voice was palpable. She took a sip of her wine. Then she sighed heavily and took another, longer sip.
"I love Colin, Mom. I didn't love Jake."
Ava sniffed. "And I loved your father and look how that turned out."
The silence through the remainder of the meal made him miss the awkward small talk from their brunch date. And, for the first time in his history with Ally, when the waiter came by after they'd finished their food, his girlfriend had absolutely no interest in the dessert menu.
"It could have been worse," Ally said as they climbed up the stairs to their floor.
"Another one of your exes could have shown up."
"Or Jake Adams, so your mom had the direct comparison right there."
"He's in Europe. I think he's started dating some Italian politician's daughter. Mom told me about it a week or two ago."
He stopped on the third-floor landing. "Do you want to go back out and get dessert?"
"Can it be dessert and cocktails?"
"It can absolutely be dessert and cocktails."
"Got any plans for Thanksgiving?" Ally asked, still frowning at the pumpkin sitting, gutted and ready to carve, on the table in front of her. They'd been invited to a Halloween party one of Ally's friends was throwing and were sitting in his apartment with the pumpkins the invite said were the price of admission.
"As it happens, I don't. Everyone else in my family made their plans without me this year. You?"
"Probably whatever it is Mom decides we're doing. What do you think about making it look like Pinocchio? The stem's long enough."
"I think if you were going to do that, you shouldn't have cut it from the top. You can't use the stem for a nose now unless you're willing to glue the top back on."
"You're probably right."
"We could trade pumpkins." His was sitting untouched in front of him. "The stem's not as long as the one on yours, but you could always say it's Pinocchio from before he got a taste for lying."
She looked at his pumpkin, then back at her own, and sighed. "Maybe I'll just make a regular Jack O'Lantern."
"Or you could do that."
"Pass me a knife, I'm going in."
Colin passed her a knife. "You could skip your mom's and we could spend Thanksgiving here," he suggested. "Maybe watch a movie, stuff ourselves on takeout, and go to bed early."
"Sounds nice, but it's Eddie's first official Thanksgiving with the family. I have to be there." She stabbed the knife into the pumpkin and began sawing out an eye. "Daisy's going to need moral support."
"If you need to escape, you can always text me and I can call you claiming there's an emergency."
Ally's friends were also, it turned out, largely Daisy's friends. They'd barely made it through the door and set down their pumpkins before one accosted them.
"So this is Colin," the tiny woman with a squeaky voice dressed as Minnie Mouse said, handing Ally a jello shot and tipping one back on her own. For some reason, she looked vaguely familiar. She peered drunkenly at Colin, nose wrinkling. "What's your costume?"
"Colin doesn't have a costume," Ally said.
"I did!" he protested. "There may have been a slight incident with it while we were getting ready. It was a pirate costume. Look, I still have the eyepatch." He pulled it out of his pocket and put it on. "There. Now I'm an undercover pirate."
"What happened to his costume?" she asked Ally.
"Broke the zipper on the pants and popped the buttons on the shirt and didn't have time to fix it," she said. "Colin, this is Katie. Katie, Colin. Katie was one of the bridesmaids at Daisy's wedding."
That explained why she looked familiar. She was one of the women in the wedding photos, drowning in an ocean of unfortunate pastel satin. "Pleased to meet you," he said.
"Daisy was right," Katie said to Ally. Her mouse ears were slightly askew. "He is dangerously sexy."
"Daisy said that?" he said to Ally, feeling like he'd missed several somethings somewhere in the conversation.
"She did," Katie said earnestly. "Jello shot?" she added, thrusting one in his direction. It was blue. He'd take it.
"Is Sheila around?" Ally asked. "I want to introduce them."
"In the kitchen. I think. Oh! There's Jamie! See you, Ally. Nice to meet you, Colin!"
"Sheila's the host, right?" Colin asked as they made their way through the crowd.
"Co-host. She and Jamie got a place together after Daisy's wedding. Jamie's the one who answered the door."
Sheila and Jamie, it turned out, had partied hard at the reception after Ally'd left, and had, after waking up naked together the next day, decided to give things a shot. As Sheila explained, "We weren't having a lot of luck with guys, we've known each other our whole lives, and the sex was great, so we figured why not?"
"I'm impressed," he whispered to Ally.
"They seem happy," she said, popping a rum-soaked gummi bear into her mouth. She held out the paper cup containing the rest of them. "Want a rummy bear?"
"It looks liked they pulled their bloated candy corpses out of the Harbor."
"That's the rum. It's appropriate for a pirate."
"Sure, what the hell." They looked like a crime scene in a candy store, but they tasted pretty good. He reached over and popped another one.
Colin regretted the rummy bears the next morning as he stumbled into Ally's kitchen in search of Advil and a glass of water. Other than that, the party'd been fun. At least, he thought it had. It was kind of a blur from about the sixth bloated gummi bear corpse until they'd made it home and he'd had his revenge on Ally for her wanton destruction of his costume. Her French maid outfit would never be the same.
He found one of the garters on the kitchen counter. So that's where it had gone.
Ally stumbled out a few minutes after him, groaning. "I'm never having jello shots again. Pass me the Advil, would you?" He slid the bottle down the counter towards her. "They really liked you. Sheila wants us to go out with them Friday night. Even Katie texted me her approval."
"Now if only there was a way to win over your mom."
"Lost cause, buddy. But Dad and Daisy like you and like they say, two out of three—"
"Ain't bad. I know."
"Your mom's taking you out to brunch a lot," Colin said, watching from the bed as Ally went through her underwear drawer in search of a bra. Once a week at a minimum since their disaster of a dinner.
"I think she thinks she can stage a subtle intervention. It's not going to work, but it's free food." She slipped her arms through the straps of his second favorite of her bras, the sheer turquoise one with the pink lace trim. "Plus I get to talk you up."
"Is it working?"
"No, but at least she's no longer actively trying to get me to dump you."
"That's something, I guess."
Ally pulled on a sweater and wiggled her way into a pair of jeans. "She only tried the once and that was over the phone. Want me to bring you back something? Mom's paying and the place has good pastries."
"I could eat a croissant."
She leaned over and kissed him. "See you in a couple hours."
After she left, he made coffee and the bed, in that order. Then he pulled on his jeans from the night before, bundled up the rest of his clothes, and headed across the hall to 6A to change. They'd already decided to consolidate apartments when his lease came up in March, but this worked out for now. Besides, it gave him somewhere to hide on those rare occasions when Ava actually visited Ally's place. Once he moved in, he'd have to hide in the closet.
Love you, he texted. Tell her I'm awesome.
Ally responded with, I have. She doesn't believe me. ;) Then she added, Gotta go. She's here.
He smiled and tucked his phone into his pocket.
"I've changed my mind about the nursery," Daisy said in lieu of hello, voice slightly strained and manic through the phone. "The dark wood wasn't working for me."
Colin glanced at the clock. At least she'd waited until after noon to call. He looked over at Ally, still slumbering peacefully beside him, mouth slightly open and drooling on her pillow. "Just a minute," he said as quietly as he could and eased his way out from under the warm, comfortable covers and into the chill of an apartment where the thermostat was set to as low as possible. They probably should have slept at Ally's. He made his way to the bathroom and shut the door. "What's up?"
"Did I wake you up?"
"Yes. Luckily, I had my phone on vibrate, so you didn't wake Ally. The dark wood isn't working for you."
"It's gloomy. And the paint's too dark. The painters are coming tomorrow. The new crib gets here today. Can you help me put it together? Eddie's all thumbs. Plus he thinks the first crib looked fine."
Getting in the middle of a potential marital squabble about nursery decor didn't sound like a smart move, but on the other hand, Daisy might have a wealth of information about winning over their mom. And if he helped her out again, maybe she'd be willing to put in a good word for him with Ava. Still… "My band's practicing at eight."
"The crib will be here by two-thirty."
Daisy opened the door before he was finished knocking. "The crib's inside. I've got the screwdrivers ready. Eddie won't be home until six," she announced. "Hurry up and come in so I can close the door. It's freezing out and I don't want the dog to escape like he did last time."
"Does Eddie know you're switching cribs?" Colin asked. Cotton, Daisy's small, white, incredibly dim dog, had been bouncing up and down between Colin's feet since he'd come in, so he leaned down and scratched him behind the ears.
"He does. I already gave the other one to someone in our birthing class."
She led him to the soon-to-be nursery, sat down heavily in a white gliding rocker that hadn't been there the last time he'd come over, and threw her swollen feet up on the matching ottoman with a sigh, Cotton hopping up on what little remained of her lap.
"The rocker? We've had it for weeks. Eddie's parents gave it to us along with the changing table." She motioned at the back wall where, sure enough, there was a shiny new white changing table. "I think his mom didn't like the dark wood theme, either. She's also paying for the painters."
"Who can argue with that?"
"Exactly." She shifted uncomfortably. "God, I can't wait until the stupid baby gets here. I'm so over being pregnant."
He stared at the assembly instructions that might as well have been written in Latin and grabbed what looked like the piece he was supposed to start with. "One more month, right?" The weeks before and after Daisy's due date were blocked out in red on Ally's calendar.
"The longest month in the world and I still have to get through Thanksgiving next week. You should be thankful Mom didn't invite you."
Ouch. "You're welcome to skip Ava's and eat at my place. Fair warning, there's not a lot of seating and I will be eating takeout. Probably leftover takeout."
Daisy's eyebrows drew together in a frown. "You're not going somewhere?"
"Nope," he said, trying to figure out where the next piece of crib he was holding was supposed to go and which of the many screws he was supposed to use when he figured that out. "Everyone in my family is going out of town. My parents are going to Hawai'i." Nope, not that screw. This one, on the other hand…
"I could ask Mom if there's room for one more."
"And take away Ally's escape plan?"
"Ally has an escape plan? Why don't I have an escape plan? Maybe I'll go into labor early and can skip the whole thing."
"My sister-in-law tried that once to get out of a Shea family Christmas, but it was just Braxton-Hicks. She did manage to miss New Year's Eve, though."
"I mean it about asking Mom. Maybe if it comes from me, not from Ally, she'll change her mind." A guilty look crossed over Daisy's face, followed by panic. "Oh god, please don't tell Ally I told you that."
Ally's plan for the day had been working on a street scene for her dad's friend's gallery, which was the same thing she'd been doing for the last three days, so Colin grabbed a jar of spaghetti sauce, a loaf of bread, and some pasta on his way home from Daisy's. While he was at it, he grabbed a box of stuffing mix and a can of cranberry sauce for himself for Thanksgiving. Those were always the best parts of the meal, anyway, and they didn't require a lot of cooking.
"How's Ralph's paint job coming?" he asked after letting himself into 6C.
"Ralph's done," she said. "But now I'm working on Rosie. Why did I decide her outfit was paisley?"
"It's a mystery. You hungry?"
"Good, 'cause I bought all the makings for spaghetti."
"How was Daisy?"
"Sick of being pregnant and nesting even more aggressively than previously."
"That sounds right. Do you think I could get away with just making Rosie's skirt paisley?"
He came up behind her and peered at the sculpture. "Probably. Black sweater or red?"
"Then definitely. Red would have clashed with Ralph's purple suspenders."
After dinner, Ally went back to painting Rosie while Colin killed the hours left until the rest of the band was supposed to show up by relaxing on the couch with her paper and trying to figure out how to ask her about Thanksgiving. Luckily, she gave him an opening.
"Hey," she said, "could you go out and get a couple of bottles of wine? I'm supposed to bring some for Thanksgiving but I don't know when I'll have time to leave the house and I forgot to get them on my way back from the salon."
"Red or white?"
"Both. Mom gave me a list to choose from. Buy the expensive options. I think it's a test."
"So, speaking of Thanksgiving, did you ask your mom to invite me?" he asked, voice casual, as he pretended to read the Globe's editorial section while watching for Ally's reaction. Say what you will about taking your kid on not-so-sanctioned stakeouts, but those lessons learned did come in handy.
A split-second freeze of the hand holding the paintbrush, a slight widening of the eyes, then, "No. Did you want me to? I thought you had plans."
"You mean the plan to hang out in my apartment watching movies and eating takeout?"
Ally turned around and looked at him. "Daisy said something, didn't she."
"I'm sworn to secrecy."
"Fine." Ally crumpled. "I asked Mom and she asked me why I thought that was wise then told me she'd already ordered the turkey and it wouldn't possibly be large enough." She swirled the paintbrush in the water and set it down to dry. "It's eighteen pounds. There are four of us. Daisy's eating for two, but that's still a lot of bird if you ask me."
"You're still welcome to eat at my place. I've added stuffing and cranberry sauce to the menu. If you join me, I could even get some deli sliced turkey and instant mashed potatoes."
"Pie could be made to happen. Pumpkin or pecan?"
"Tempting, but I think me skipping would make things worse. Can I bring you back leftovers and we can watch something and make out on the couch? Mom has us eating at three, so you wouldn't even have to get takeout."
"Okay, but I get to pick the movie."
"We're having Thanksgiving over here," Daisy announced. They were back in the nursery, Daisy having begged him to help with the post-painting rearranging. "Move the dresser a little to the left. Wear what you wore to brunch."
"To Thanksgiving," she said impatiently.
"I thought Ava wanted to welcome Eddie the family."
"She did, but I decided I wanted to have Thanksgiving here, where I don't have to travel."
"Where you'll have to cook and clean, though."
"I'm a million months pregnant. Mom's going to have the turkey brought over, Eddie's cooking it, and nobody's going to make me do dishes."
"So you're coming, right? A little bit back more to the left."
He shuffled the dresser over another inch. "To Thanksgiving?"
"Perfect. Yes, to Thanksgiving."
"Are you doing this for me, or are you trying to keep Ava off your back and using my presence as a distraction?"
She shrugged. "Both? You don't have to come if you don't want to, but doesn't turkey and stuffing sound better than takeout?"
"I already bought stuffing and it depends on the takeout. Does Ally know about this?"
"No. I'm only insisting we change it to here if you're coming."
"What happened to not wanting to travel?"
"It's not worth it without someone to distract Mom. Don't forget that stress is bad for the baby."
He shook his head and laughed. "Fine. I'll come. Are we supposed to bring anything?"
"Just have Ally say you helped her with whatever she brings. And bring plenty of wine for Mom."
"All Ally was bringing before was the wine and, as it so happens, it's already been purchased."
"Good. Can you throw in a pie?"
"Not if it's homemade. I don't know how to make one and Ally doesn't have time. However, I can pick one up from the bakery. Anything else you need me to move?"
A broad, entreating smile on her face, Daisy said, "The armoire? Please?"
"Guess whose Thanksgiving plans have changed?" Colin said as he came through the door.
"Everyone's. I know. Daisy called," Ally answered without looking up from the piece she was working on. This one was a park scene and she was carefully putting the last little details on a seagull eating spilled popcorn next to a bench. He liked the seagull. He'd decided its name was Bradford and it had a nice little nest in the suburbs. Maybe in Waltham. A little bit inland, but still easy commuting distance to the sea.
"Did she tell you I'm supposed to bring pie?"
"No. Are you sure you want to do this?"
"No, but Daisy's very persuasive."
"She played the pregnancy card, didn't she?"
They were the last to arrive at Daisy and Eddie's on Thanksgiving day, Ally carrying the pie, Colin with the box containing several bottles of expensive wine that Ally swore she'd pay him back for once she had time to hit the cash machine.
"You're late," Daisy said, taking the pie from Ally and putting it over on the sideboard.
"How are we late for a three o' clock dinner?" Ally protested. "It's not even two."
"Mom's been here since noon. You left me alone with her. I needed backup."
"Isn't that what Eddie's for?"
"Eddie's busy with the turkey. It's his first time making one."
"Where is Mom, anyway?"
"Helping Eddie. I told her he didn't know what he was doing so she'd leave me alone."
"Does Eddie know what he's doing?"
"Is that Ally?" Ava's voice rang out from down the hall.
"It is, Mom. It's Ally and Colin." Daisy called back.
Ava emerged from the kitchen a moment later, impeccably dressed in seafoam green, a thick rope of pink and gold pearls around her neck, and matching earrings poking out from beneath her perfectly styled blonde hair. The look was only slightly marred by the Christmas-themed apron she had on over it. "Ally!" she said, giving her daughter a wide smile. "And Colin," she added as a frosty afterthought.
"We brought the wine!" Ally replied with forced cheer. "Colin bought it!"
Ava reached out and brushed at Ally's hair. "Bangs again? Really? You know you'll just start growing them out again. Did he get the wines I requested?"
"Yep. He used the list you sent and everything."
"Thank you, Colin. Ally, can I get you to help me in the kitchen?"
"Sure." Ally grabbed the wine from him. "I'll just take these," she said and followed Ava back down the hall.
"Thank god," Daisy muttered. "I need to go sit down."
They retreated to the living room, followed by the dog, who got so excited when Colin scratched his belly that he pissed all over the corner of the rug and Colin's hand. Nice to know at least someone was happy to see him. "Want me to clean that up before I go wash myself off?" he asked.
"There's Nature's Miracle and a towel in the basket next to the TV. Don't worry, he does this a lot when he gets overstimulated. I don't know what he's going to do when the baby comes. I don't even know what I'm doing with him when we go to the hospital. His usual dog sitter's on vacation, he can't stay at Mom's, and Dad's allergic."
He sprayed the damp spot Cotton had left and blotted it with the towel. "We could watch him. Our building's dog-friendly."
"Have you cleared that with Ally?"
"He can stay at my place. No clearing necessary." He'd just have to make sure he didn't leave anything he cared about on the floor.
Daisy let out a relieved sigh. "Thank you. If she gets upset, tell her it was my idea." She scooped up Cotton and nuzzled his face with her nose. "You're going to be a big brother soon, yes you are!"
On that note, he excused himself to go scrub the dog piss off his hands.
It was clear, even before they carved the turkey, that Eddie wasn't what one would call Top Chef material. The potatoes were on the gluey side, the cranberry sauce was served up still in the shape of the can, and the green beans were closer to olive drab than green. The gravy was good, at least. Ava had been responsible for the gravy. Given the dryness of the turkey, he had to give thanks for her for that.
"Do you remember," Ava said, her cheeks a little pink after her second glass of wine, "the Thanksgiving when you girls decided to make all the sides so your father and I didn't have to spend our Thanksgiving in the kitchen?"
"And we started a grease fire and we ended up finding an open diner because we'd ruined all the food with the smoke and you ended up having to have the kitchen repainted?" Ally said. She stabbed a pile of shriveled green beans and shoveled a forkful of them into her mouth.
Fondly, Ava said, "I tried to salvage as much of the turkey as I could, but it was a complete loss."
"Didn't you insist we take Home Ec the next year so we'd never repeat that?" Daisy asked. "It ruined my 4.0."
"Not mine," said Ally. "I took art as my elective again instead."
"You also never had a 4.0."
Ava smiled indulgently at them both, then said, "Oh! We should talk about Christmas."
"We'll have a newborn at Christmas," said Daisy.
"Which is why I'm offering to host. I know last year, you and Eddie did your own thing, but this will be my grandson or daughter's first Christmas. Let me take care of everything. Ally will help."
Ally paused with her mashed potatoes halfway to her mouth. "I will?"
"Of course you will! You're going to be an aunt! You didn't have anything planned, did you?"
Ally gave Colin a helpless look and said, "Nope," even though they'd talked about spending it at his brother's, back when it had looked like they'd be spending Thanksgiving apart.
With an arch smile, Ava looked at him before proclaiming, "Well then, it's settled!"
Colin refilled Ally's glass of wine. Then, after a brief pause, refilled his own.
"Ally, don't feed Cotton table scraps," Daisy said, breaking the sudden lull in the conversation. "I don't want to have to pay another huge vet bill because he can't digest something."
Somewhere in between the main course and dessert, Cotton started rushing between the dining room and the front door, his movement accompanied with increasingly frantic yelps.
"We can take him out," Colin offered, desperate to get away from yet another tale of the Darling family, odds three to one that Jake Adams would come up in any given story.
To his surprise, Eddie said, "Why don't the two of us take him? I think Daisy had something she needed to talk to Ally about."
"I did?" Daisy said, tilting her head at him.
"The thing. Remember?"
"Oh, yeah. The thing. Right."
"Man, she does not like you, does she?" Eddie said. At least he sounded sympathetic when he said it.
"That's an understatement."
"You should have seen her when she found out Daisy and I were dating again," Eddie said, watching Cotton piss against a lamppost. "It was right after Daisy's dad filed for divorce. Daisy said she thought Ava was going to have a stroke when she told her about me."
"She didn't trust me. Not after—well, Daisy says you've seen the engagement party toast."
"I have. Multiple times, in fact."
"Once she was sure Daisy was sure she knew what she was doing, Ava came around. She will with you, too."
"Let's hope so," he said. It was easier, Colin thought, for someone like Ava to come around to someone like Eddie, high school misdeeds notwithstanding, than someone like him. Eddie had a good education, a steady job, and Ava had known him since he was a kid. Still, it was a nice thought. "At this point, I'd settle for her standing me by the time Ally and I decide to have kids." Two years, tops.
"You've talked about that?" Eddie sounded surprised.
"We're still arguing about numbers. I think we should have three, she thinks we'd be fine with one, so I suspect we'll settle on two. We're probably going to see how it goes with you and Daisy before we make any firm plans."
"I offered to watch Cotton when they have the baby," Colin said once they were back home, laden down with leftovers and both still tipsy from several glasses of wine. He put the container of turkey in the fridge and set the container of mashed potato on top of that. Too bad there hadn't been any leftover gravy.
"Did you remember he pees on everything?"
"In fact, he'd just pissed on my hand when I made the offer. He can sleep at my place."
"Good, 'cause I don't trust him with my rugs. Or my duvet."
Eddie called on their way to the hospital, telling Colin that they'd left Cotton in his crate and to get the keys from Ally. Colin looked at the clock. It was 3:42 in the morning. He nudged Ally with his elbow until she grumbled and opened her eyes wide enough to glare at him.
"Wake up," he said. "You're about to be an aunt and we have to go collect a dog."
"Do I have to?" she muttered. Then her eyes flew all the way open. "Holy crap. Daisy's having her baby! Now?"
Daisy and Eddie had left instructions, dog food, and a pile of dog toys on their coffee table. Cotton had pissed all over the crate bedding. Colin weighed the option of leaving it to stink up the Vogel laundry room against spending the next couple of hours washing and drying it. Thankfully, he had Ally with him to tell him to just throw it out so they could go home.
He, Ally, and Cotton were all asleep in his bed the next time the phone rang. This time, it was Ally's. She flailed to answer it, sat bolt upright, and let out a quiet scream.
"It's a girl!" she said, phone still in hand. "Olivia Ava Vogel."
"There goes my plan of winning your mom over by naming our firstborn after her." Colin reached out and scratched the dog behind its ears. "Ask them what she weighs."
As someone had to look after Cotton, Ally went to the hospital by herself for the first visit.
"Check out the competition," he said to the dog, holding up one of several texts Ally had sent him of her small, red, wrinkly, screaming, adorable niece. "I know it doesn't look like it, but they're going to think she's cuter."
Cotton just whined and batted at Colin's hand with a paw.
Later that afternoon, Ally called in a favor with Sheila so that Colin could see the baby. "He pees on things if you don't watch him," Ally said, handing Cotton over. "See you in two hours!"
Olivia was just as small, red, wrinkly, and adorable as she looked in her photos and every bit as loud as Justin had been. "I think she has your nose," he said to Eddie. It was Colin's turn to hold her, and even though she weighed less than the dog, she already had a strong grip on Colin's finger. All the better to wrap him around it.
"You really like babies, don't you?" said Ally.
"Who doesn't like babies? Babies are awesome."
"Isn't she beautiful?" Ava said. She was as perfectly dressed as ever, though a little red around the eyes. "I can't believe I'm a grandmother!"
Daisy gestured towards her mom with a small nod of her head and Colin reluctantly handed over the baby to her grandmother. "She's gorgeous," he said.
Beaming down at the baby, Ava said, "She's absolutely perfect."
In the cab back to Sheila's, he slung his arm around Ally, saying, "I'm telling you, three is the right number."
"Says the person who isn't going to be pushing them out of their vagina. Ask me after we've had our first and I've seen what's happening with my pelvic floor. Then we can talk."
"That's everything packed," Ally said, two days before Christmas. "Clothes, presents, toothbrush."
Colin pushed her ponytail aside and kissed the back of her neck. "How long until you need to leave for Ava's?"
"What did you have in mind?"
He slid his hands from her shoulders down the front of her shirt to cup her breasts. "Giving you a proper send-off."
"Mmm-hmm." He undid her top two buttons and slipped his hands under her shirt, tracing the edge of her bra with his fingertips. "You'll be gone four whole nights. I'm going to need something to remember you by."
"You're going to be gone for two of those." But she undid the rest of the buttons and eased the shirt off her shoulders before turning to face him. "You going to help me get the rest of the way out of this?" she asked, eyebrows raised and chin tilted up.
"Tempting, but maybe I want to leave you trapped in it, helpless while I have my way with you." He backed her into the bed, crowding her against it until she fell backwards onto the mattress, arms still tangled in her shirt.
"Show me what you've got," she said with a grin.
Colin grinned back, then he reached down and unbuckled her belt. "I should keep this in case it comes in handy later," he said, pulling it off and draping it over the headboard. He knelt between her legs, kissing his way down her stomach as he tugged her jeans to her ankles. Colin kissed the front of her bright blue satin underwear, licking her through the thin fabric. If her hands hadn't been trapped, he was pretty sure she'd have used them to push his head down.
"Not bad," she breathed. "Keep going."
Obediently, he licked harder, giggling when she managed to get her hands free and, as expected, shoved his head down. He ducked back, pressing a kiss to her thigh.
"Before we go any further, we need to lose these panties," he said, tugging them down to join her jeans around her ankles. He looked at her, taking everything in. "You're gorgeous."
"You're talking to my vagina," Ally replied.
Colin ran his thumb along the side of her clit and followed it with a swipe of his tongue. Then he raised his head and said, "I know."
He ducked his head back down and neither of them said much at all for a while. His mouth was occupied with Ally and Ally's mouth was occupied with making incoherent noises. His knees were starting to cramp and so was his jaw, but it was all worth it when she shuddered around him, her hands tugging at his hair till it hurt, her thighs clamping tight against his face.
"Up here," she said, breathless. "On your back. My turn."
Ally kicked off her jeans and underwear while he did as he was told, then started in on his. "Shirt off," she ordered, working his jeans and boxers down his thighs, stopping when they were just below his knees. She tilted her head, pursed her lips, then reached up and grabbed her belt from the headboard, looping it around his wrists and then back through the bars.
"I thought I was supposed to be the one having my way with you," he said as she did up the buckle. She was still in her bra, the same bright blue as her abandoned underwear.
"You snooze you lose," said Ally. She kissed him and grabbed a condom out of the basket next to the bed, straddling his thighs as she rolled it on.
"This doesn't feel like losing."
Stretching up, Ally reached out and wrapped her hands around his bound wrists. She grinned and slid up his body and when she slid back down, he was inside her. She tightened her thighs and clenched her body around him. "If I'm doing it right, you should feel like you're losing your mind."
She rocked her hips and set the pace. Colin was just along for the ride, but what a ride it was.
The sound of a witch's cackle woke him.
"Why's your mom calling?" he muttered into the pillow before his brain caught up with the fact that he was at his place, not Ally's, and it was his phone ringing, not hers. It was still Ava Darling calling, at least according to the big white letters on the screen. Ally must have added the ringtone when she'd added Ava's contact information. "Why is your mom calling?" he muttered as he fumbled at the screen. "This is Colin Shea," he said, once he'd actually managed to answer it. He sounded like his brother, which was a terrifying thought.
"Colin, this is Ava Darling. Did I wake you?" Ava's voice was threaded with exhaustion.
He looked at the clock. Six-thirty. It wasn't even light out yet. "It's fine," he said, sitting up rubbing his eyes. He reached over and turned on the light, worry starting register as the fog of sleep dissipated. "Is something wrong?
"Do you know if Allyson had her flu shot like she was supposed to?"
Ally had not had her flu shot. Ally was supposed to have had her flu shot, but the day she'd planned on going in, they'd overslept and stayed in bed and after that, she'd been busy working on the series for the gallery. "She hasn't had a chance."
"She's unemployed. How can she not have had a chance to have a flu shot if she's unemployed?"
"She's self-employed, not unemployed. What's going on? Is Ally okay?"
A pause, a sigh, then, "Ally woke up in the middle of the night burning up with fever and came into my room complaining that everything hurt before throwing up on my duvet. She says you have a key to her apartment. Can you bring a few of her things? I'll send a cab for you."
He let himself into 6C, dragging his battered gym bag with him. Ava had said Ally would need at least a couple of changes of clothes, and as she was sick, that would mean mostly pyjamas. Easy enough. He pulled open the bottom drawer and dug through an impressive roster of lace teddies and see-through nightgowns until he found the comfortable flannel PJs she'd stashed at the bottom. Just one pair, but he'd throw in a pair of his sweats. Underwear. She'd need underwear. Bras. Did people wear bras when they had the flu? And that was a stupid question that he probably should have known the answer to, but as he didn't he packed a few just to be safe.
Pyjamas, underwear, bras…
Socks would be good. T-shirts? Also good.
After a minute, he put Ally's shirts back in her drawer, went back across the hall to 6A, and pulled out three of his oldest, rattiest, softest t-shirts, the same exact ones she'd been trying to steal since they'd started dating. He also packed all the cold medicine in his medicine cabinet on the theory that no one should have to brave any kind of store on Christmas Eve. Then he went back to Ally's apartment, did the same with her medicine cabinet, and started a pot of coffee.
Yawning, Colin looked at the microwave clock. It hadn't even been an hour since Ava called and he'd already managed to pack everything. He breathed in the coffee fumes and watched bleary-eyed as the level of coffee in the carafe slowly rose and wondered if it would have been better to just buy a cup of coffee or wait until he arrived at Ava's. Speaking of, he should call her now and have her send over his ride.
The taxi let him off in front of an enormous, expensive-looking white house decked out with tasteful, expensive-looking holiday decor. The wreath alone probably cost more than he'd spent on anything Christmas-related in his life. The lights framing the eves and windows weren't on, but he was willing to bet the cost of that wreath that every single one of them was white.
Colin shouldered his gym bag and headed to the glossy red front door. Fuck, it was cold out. He'd still been half asleep when he'd thrown his clothes on and it was at least ten degrees cooler than it had been the day before.
Ava opened the door at the first knock, an exhausted "Thank you," coming out of her mouth before she'd even shut the door. She had no makeup on and was wearing what looked like upscale gym clothes. "Would you like a cup of coffee?"
"Please," he said, setting down the bag. Then added. "After I've used your bathroom."
She motioned with her left hand. "Down the hall on the right."
After he'd finished, he washed his hands and splashed some cold water on his face in an attempt to wake himself up enough that he wouldn't fall asleep in front of Ally's mom. Thank god that she'd offered him coffee. He'd had two cups before the cab picked him up at Ally's, but either they hadn't kicked in yet, or he was tired enough that he'd need another two or three just to keep his eyes open.
Ava, he noticed when he rejoined her, didn't look all that much more awake than he was.
"I apologize for the mess," she said once they were in the kitchen, though the closest thing to a mess was the single unwashed glass next to the sink. "I haven't had a chance to tidy since Ally woke me up." Ava opened the cabinet next to the enormous gas stove and took down two white china mugs. "Cream or sugar?"
"Both. Thank you."
She poured the coffee, adding liberal amounts of cream and sugar to both mugs. "I don't usually indulge in sugar, but I've been awake since three. I admit, I thought this part of parenthood was behind me decades ago. Oh!" Her eyes widened. "Damn it. I still need to call Daisy and let her know to stay home."
He pulled his phone out of his pocket. "Why don't I text her in case they're actually managing to sleep while Olivia sleeps?"
A look of relief washed over her face. "Thank you. This isn't how I envisioned spending my granddaughter's first Christmas."
"How's Ally?" he asked, texting Daisy the basics and telling her to text him or call Ava if she had any questions.
And Colin knew he was supposed to go to Kieran's house tonight. He knew he needed to go home, wrap the presents he'd picked up two days ago when he realized he still hadn't shopped for anyone who wasn't Ally, pack for the night and head to his brother's, where he'd stuff himself with roast beef before spending the night on the world's least comfortable hide-a-bed and waking up to Justin using him as a bouncy house and Justin's sister, Emelie, burrowing through the presents. He knew that. He was even looking forward to it.
Neither that nor the fact that all he'd have to wear was sweats and a shirt that barely passed the sniff test, unless he wanted to raid what he'd packed for Ally, stopped him from saying, "Do you want me to stay and help?"
"I'm sure you have your own family obligations." But it didn't sound like a no.
"They'll understand. Besides, my brother missed my band's first gig for a PTA meeting, despite promising me he'd show. He owes me."
The house was even larger than it had looked on YouTube. Ava gave him a quick tour, mainly to show him where Ally's room was and where he'd be staying, which was conveniently just the next room over. "This was Daisy's room, but she and Eddie were going to stay in the main guest room with Olivia," she explained.
Then she begged off, saying she needed a nap. Colin couldn't argue with that. The temptation to collapse on the bed and sleep until at least noon was strong. But someone needed to be up in case Ally needed something, and he'd volunteered to help.
The bag he'd packed for Ally was still downstairs where he'd left it. He fetched it, trudged back up the stairs, and hesitated outside Ally's door for a moment, torn between wanting to check on her and not wanting to risk waking her. Wanting to check on her won out. Colin opened the door as quietly as he could, carefully setting the bag down just inside before tip-toeing over to the bed.
He'd seen Ally in all kinds of situations. He'd seen her completely plastered and he'd seen the corresponding epic hangovers. He'd seen her doubled over with cramps and, on one memorable shared occasion, doubled over with food poisoning. But he hadn't seen her sick like this before, not even after the incident with the bad shrimp.
She was curled up on her side beneath a mountain of blankets, face pallid, cheeks flushed, and her forehead sweaty enough that her bangs were stuck to it. He must not have been quiet enough when he came in, because she whimpered, bloodshot eyes fluttering open.
"Colin?" she croaked out, sounding just as bad as she looked or worse. "What are you doing here?"
He sat down on the edge of the bed. "Your mom called me. I brought some of your things. How are you feeling?"
"Awful." She struggled her way to sitting up. "Water?"
He looked around, relieved to spy a glass of it on the bedside table, placed neatly on top of a coaster. Ally drank about half of it in a couple of greedy swallows before handing it back to him and collapsing back onto the mattress.
"Hungry?" he asked.
Ally shook her head. "No, but I'm cold."
He looked at the mountain of blankets. "Do you want me to warm you up?" She nodded, so he got into the bed, cradling her against his chest. "You're a furnace," he said. A shivering, sweaty, furnace, and also kind of a smelly one. "I can't believe you feel cold."
"I'm going to get you sick, too."
Colin had thought of that. He'd also thought about the epic amount of bodily fluid they'd swapped before she'd left for her mom's and figured that he'd already been thoroughly exposed to whatever she had. "Unlike you, I had my flu shot. My sister-in-law's a nurse. She insisted on it." Sarah had, in fact, threatened to come by his apartment and jab him herself if he didn't get one before being around her children.
It didn't take her long to fall back to sleep, her breathing slowing into soft, slightly congested snores. It didn't take much longer for Colin to doze off himself.
The sound of a throat quietly clearing woke him. Colin blinked, squinted, and, for the second time that day, took a minute to figure out where he was: Ava's house, Ally's childhood bedroom, Ally's childhood bed. He held his finger up to his mouth, glancing pointedly at a still-sleeping Ally. Ava looked at him, a pained expression on her face, and pantomimed something that he suspected was supposed to be him getting up.
Reluctantly, Colin untangled himself from Ally. She was still close enough to dead to the world that all she did was grumble a little and roll back into the space he'd vacated. He pressed his fingertips to her forehead—yep, still burning up—and followed Ava out of the room.
"She said she felt cold," he said by way of explanation once they were downstairs. "And," he admitted, "you woke me up about two hours after I went to bed." He'd been working on a song for Ally to go along with her Christmas present and had lost track of time without her there to drag him to bed.
Ava sighed. "I appreciate you staying to help, Colin, but the last thing I need is two sick people to look after. Go and wash your hands."
He thought about pointing out that the exposure horse had well and truly left the barn the day before, but thought the better of it when he thought about the possible implications of that statement. "I brought hand sanitizer," he said. "I'll make sure to put it in her room."
"I put bottles in every room in preparation for Olivia," said Ava. "There's already a bottle on the dresser."
Lunch was cold cuts and crudités Ava had obviously intended for that night's dinner. Colin drank another cup of coffee, still groggy despite the unintended nap. He helped Ava make her bed and put the duvet cover Ally'd puked on in a bag to send to the cleaners.
"She's always had a tender stomach when she gets sick, long after she was supposed to grow out of it," Ava said as they folded it up. "It's cast iron otherwise."
"I've noticed. The cast iron part, not the sick part. This is the first time she's been sick like this since I've known her."
"Do you know where she picked it up?"
He paused and thought, then, somewhat reluctantly, said, "Probably at her dad's earlier in the week. Ally's on a deadline—the gallery wants another one of her sculptures—so we haven't been out much, but she went to his condo for a solstice dinner. My band had a solstice gig, so I didn't go." He pulled out his phone and checked Twitter. "In fact, according to his tweets, he has, quote, 'whatever's going around.'"
"It would be his fault," she muttered.
Ally spent most of the day asleep, stumbling to the bathroom every few hours and sitting up long enough to choke down the chocolate pudding Ava had produced from somewhere. He and Ava took turns checking in on her and at some point, he called Kieran to give his regrets.
"Sarah wouldn't want me there anyway," he said. "If I've caught it, I'm already contagious and she'd skin me alive if she had to deal with a sick Justin on his birthday."
For dinner, Ava went ahead and cooked the roast she'd been planning on cooking. "I might as well," she said as she stuck it in the oven. "It's not like it will keep until Ally's recovered."
It was good. Better than Sarah's. Not that he'd tell Sarah that, of course.
By nine o'clock, he was yawning. By ten o'clock, he was ready to go to sleep. He looked at Daisy's old bed with its wicker headboard and looked at the huge empty dollhouse across the room from it, which was in no way creepy, and decided to take his chances in Ally's bed instead.
When he woke up Christmas morning, his back was killing him, his head had joined forces with his back, and Ally's sweaty face was pressed against his chest, her arm slung over him, trapping him in the bed. It wasn't all bad—no one was using him as a bouncy house and Ally's curtains were open, giving him a spectacular view of the sunrise. As long as he was trapped, at least he'd have something to look at other than the wallpaper.
The room reminded him of Ally's apartment, just not completely formed. Instead of sculpted street scenes, the art that was clearly hers consisted of brightly colored tropical flowers and birds that should have clashed with the dainty floral wallpaper and antique furniture but somehow worked.
Ally whimpered and opened her eyes. "You're still here," she said, giving him a weak smile.
"Merry Christmas," he said, smiling back. "I'd kiss you, but you're still contagious. I'm probably not even supposed to be sleeping here." He settled for brushing her hair back from her face.
"Pass me a tissue?" He reached over her and pulled one out of the almost empty box on the nightstand. Then, as soon he'd it handed to her, slathered his hands with Purell. Ally blew her nose, making a loud, disgustingly liquid sound as she flooded the tissue. He grabbed the last tissue from the box and handed it to her. "Thanks," she said. Then she coughed into his shirt. "Sorry."
"Don't worry about it." He'd just have to put on one of the ones he'd packed for Ally and beg Ava to let him use her washing machine. And find him a toothbrush. And deodorant. He was almost as rank as Ally.
Ava had already made a pot of coffee when he finally got out from underneath Ally, got out of the bed, and went downstairs.
"How's Ally?" she said, pouring him a cup of it. She raised her eyebrows. "I noticed you weren't in Daisy's room this morning. You'd left the door open."
"Her nose is still running like a faucet and she sounds a little more Kathleen Turner than usual. Scratch that, a lot more Kathleen Turner than usual, but her forehead feels a little bit less like she's on fire. Oh, and she's out of tissues."
"There's a box in the hall closet. Drink your coffee. I'll take care of it."
While she was out of the room, Colin wandered to the living room and sat down to look at the tree. Like the outside of the house (he'd been right about the lights), it was decked out in tasteful white lights. Unlike the outside of the house, the rest of the decorations were a mishmash of ornaments that looked surprisingly homey and out of place in the room. A child's handprint in pink glazed clay, Ally's name and the year 1987 on it. A matching one for Daisy, this one in green, the handprint smaller and the year the same. Old ornaments that were mostly ribbons and beads, the kind his grandma had had on her tree. A bedraggled-looking felt Santa and his reindeer marched alongside several clipped on birds, and the whole thing was wrapped in the kind of garish silver garland that had gone out of style decades ago.
He was a little surprised that it didn't have tinsel.
"I let the girls pick out an ornament each year," Ava's voice came from behind him. "And, of course, I had my own from when I was a girl."
"It's not what I'd expected," he admitted.
Ava reached out and touched a brass angel, leaving it rocking gently amidst the branches. "I suppose not," she said, then added, a touch defensively, "I am allowed to have a bit of fun with my decor, you know."
"Can't argue with that."
"I'm thinking of making bacon for breakfast."
"Can't argue with that, either. If you like, I can handle the eggs. I spent six months as a fry cook after high school."
Ally stumbled downstairs while they were finishing breakfast, swaying a bit and grabbing the doorframe to steady herself. Hastily, Colin got up and put his arm around her, guiding her to a chair as far away from where he and Ava were sitting as he could manage.
She stared sadly at their plates. "If I could smell anything, I'd be jealous right now."
"You sound awful," he said. "Do you want some orange juice?" Ava had a huge container of it, fresh squeezed, that she'd intended for mimosas. Ally had been drinking it since yesterday.
She nodded and slumped in the chair.
"You shouldn't be up," Ava said.
Ally gave her a pitiful look. "I thought I felt better."
After drinking her juice and choking down a few spoonfuls of hastily-prepared oatmeal, she let him steer her back to her bed. "Stay," he told her, risking a quick kiss on her forehead after tucking her in.
"Would you like to watch a movie?" Ava asked. Ally was needing less hands-on care than she had the day before, which meant the two of them had a lot of time to kill, and there was only so long you could spend doing laundry and wishing your extended family members a Merry Christmas over the phone.
"Sure, what the hell."
The TV room, unlike the rest of the house, wasn't styled to within an inch of its life. In fact, it was downright cozy. There was an easel in one corner, a half-finished painting of a beach scene on it, and a pile of paints and brushes to rival Ally's on the small table beside it.
"Is that yours?"
Ava glanced up from the shelf of DVDs next to the TV. "Yes."
"Thank you. I've decided to get back into painting. I was an art major, you know." He hadn't known. He knew Ally had planned on being one but ended up majoring in business with a minor in art, even though she hated business. "It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street?" Ava asked, pulling out two DVDs.
"Do you have A Christmas Story?"
"Ally's father got it in the divorce."
"It's a Wonderful Life, then."
George Bailey had just rescued Angel Clarence when a clatter came from upstairs. "I'll go check on her," he said. "Keep watching if you like. I've seen it a million times."
Ally was fine, but her water glass was not. "I bumped the table on my way to the bathroom," she explained in between coughs.
"Don't suppose you happen to know where your mom keeps the broom and/or the vacuum?"
"Downstairs in the closet closest to the front door."
Ava poked her head in just then. "Is everything all right?"
"It's fine, Mom, just knocked over a glass."
After fluffing Ally's pillow and tucking the blankets around her, Ava said, "I'll get the broom."
"I'm sorry you're stuck here," Ally told him after Ava had gone.
"Hey, I volunteered."
"Thanks for not leaving me alone with my mom. She hovers. And thanks for taking care of me."
"That's what boyfriends are for."
"Pretty sure none of the others thought that."
"Not even Jake Adams?"
"Maybe Jake Adams," she allowed. "But none of the rest of 'em."
Colin finished picking up the biggest chunks of broken glass and dumped them into the trash. Then he took Ally's phone off the charger and set it on the bed next to her. "Here. If you need anything, stay in bed and just text me. I'm at your beck and call. Well, beck and text."
"Okay. What have you been doing down there?"
"We're watching a movie."
"Mom making you watch It's a Wonderful Life?" Ally asked. She blew her nose again and tossed the tissue into the growing pile by the bed.
"How did you guess?"
"She makes us watch it every year."
"So does my mom. There's just no escaping it."
They finished It's a Wonderful Life and put on Miracle on 34th Street, which he had managed to go his entire thirty-one years without seeing. He kind of zoned out during it, grabbing a scrap of paper and a pencil off the coffee table and jotting down more potential song lyrics for Ally instead of focusing on the literal trials and tribulations of Santa Claus.
"What are you doing?"
"Working on music. Kind of. I've been trying to write Ally a song to go along with her Christmas present, but I don't have my guitar with me, which kind of puts a damper on it."
"There's an old ukulele of Ally's in her bedroom closet."
"Thanks for the offer, but no. It can wait until I get home."
"If it wasn't directly below her bedroom, I'd offer you the piano, assuming you play, but she needs as much sleep as possible."
"I play. Mom made both of us take lessons from the age of five. I'm decent, but I like the guitar better. Maybe when Ally's awake, I can play you both some carols."
Ally claimed she felt well enough to join them for Christmas dinner, which was leftover roast from the night before for Ava and Colin and Campbell's Chicken Noodle soup for Ally. Colin watched her eat, unable to keep a dopey smile off his face. Ally looked awful, slumped over the bowl in her rumpled flannel pyjamas with her hair lank and greasy and her lips and nose red and chapped, but she still looked beautiful.
Throughout the meal, he noticed Ava watching him with a considering look on her face. He wasn't sure if that was good or bad.
"You want to go back to bed?" he asked Ally as he cleared away her half-eaten and abandoned bowl of soup.
"Do I have to? I'm so bored up there," she said. "It's Christmas."
"If you want to move to the couch, I've offered to play a few carols on the piano."
She looked up at him, eyes wide and pleading. "Can you make me a hot toddy, too?"
"I'll make her one," said Ava. "Your boyfriend wouldn't know where I keep the alcohol."
"She keeps it in the cabinet above the fridge."
"Want me to carry you to the couch?"
Ally gave him a grateful look. "God yes."
"You reek," he told her as he scooped her up.
Her head flopped against his shoulder. "Good thing my nose isn't working, but I'd still murder my own mother for a shower right now." After a beat, she added, "Sorry, Mom."
"How's this sound: I play a few carols, then I carry you upstairs and help you shower while Ava changes the sheets on the bed, then I tuck you in and keep your mom company for a while."
Ally tightened her arms around him and kissed the side of his neck. "Really, really good."
Showering Ally was different from showering with Ally in that it was a lot more work and a lot less fun and somehow took a lot longer. She sat on the floor of the bathtub while Colin shampooed and conditioned her hair and ran a soapy washcloth over her body, soaking through his shirt in the process.
"Ready to rinse?" Colin said.
Ally was shivering, even though he'd cranked the thermostat in the room up as high as it would go. He should have suggested a bath. He'd remember that next time he had to take care of her, because there would be a next time. There'd be a lot of next times. A lifetime of next times.
"Yep," she said, burying her face in her soapy knees.
Ava was done with the sheets by the time Colin and Ally were finished with the shower. Colin toweled Ally off, helped her into her bed and, as promised, tucked her in.
"I love you so much," she said.
"I love you, too." He kissed her forehead and handed her a tissue then, after thinking about it, tucked the whole box of them next to her pillow. "Wish me luck with your mom," he said, tugging off his wet shirt and grabbing one
"I dunno, you seem to be getting along pretty well without it."
"Don't jinx it."
"You really are pretty good on the piano," Ava said when he joined her in the living room. She had a glass of wine in her hand and was staring at the Christmas tree.
"I'm a little rusty. There's not exactly room for one in my apartment, though I do have a keyboard. You should hear me on the guitar sometime."
"Would you like a glass of wine?" she asked.
"Red or white?"
"Whichever you're having."
"White it is, then."
A Riesling, specifically, poured generously into a glass and then thrust in his hand.
"Tell me about yourself," she said. "Not just what Ally's told you to say."
"Not a lot to tell. I've lived in Boston my whole life, which you know. My dad's a cop, which you also know, I have one brother—older—and my mom mostly stayed at home with us, except when she decided to go to night school for some reason when I was in elementary school. My brother has two kids, a boy and a girl in that order. He's an accountant and my sister-in-law's a nurse."
"That doesn't tell me anything about you, now does it?"
"Thought about going to college, applied and was accepted to a couple, decided to take a year off after I graduated from high school instead, and never got around to enrolling. Despite Dad's best efforts, I had no interest in going to the police academy, and obviously, neither did Kieran, thus ending a long line of cops. All I've ever wanted to do is play music, but it's hard to make a living doing that, so the band plays weddings and bar mitzvahs for as long as we can stand it, then we take a break where we try to play places other than the roof of my apartment building until those of us without day jobs get low enough on funds that we have to go back to weddings and bar mitzvahs. They're not my favorite things in the world, but they do pay the bills."
Colin finished his glass and poured himself another, much smaller one. There was not, he noticed, a lot left in the bottle. Then he added, "I'm planning on playing a lot more of them while Ally tries to get her business off the ground. I like it more than she likes marketing and at least it's still playing music, even if it's not my own. What else do you want to know?"
"How did you and Ally actually meet? And don't give me that nonsense she's said about living across the hall. Half the time, she doesn't remember the names of our old neighbors."
"Can I plead the Fifth?" What little Ava knew about his hook-up history was already way too much.
"You could say that. The important part is that she ended up helping me out with something, I ended up helping her out with something else, and we spent a lot of time just talking and hanging out. I fell in love with her without meaning to and I guess so did she."
"Do you know where I met Ally's father?" Ava took a sip from her enormous glass of white wine and looked at him, her eyebrows raised.
Colin shook his head.
"After a Jethro Tull concert." Her mouth curled down and her nose wrinkled as she said it. Her face, he realized, was as mobile as Ally's.
He tried to picture it and couldn't. Honestly, he couldn't picture her at anything other than Cats or the opera or maybe Neil Diamond. "No shit? Jethro Tull?" Elton John. If he squinted, he could picture her at an Elton John concert, though maybe that was the grand piano in the living room talking. "You don't seem like the Jethro Tull type."
Her response was to stand, wine glass still in hand, and walk over to a cabinet. She set her wine down just long enough to open it and pull something out, then it was back in her hand. Ava sat back down next to him and handed him a faded photograph of a woman—presumably her—in a short dress and tall boots, her long blonde hair parted down the middle. That woman looked more like the Jethro Tull type. She also looked disconcertingly like Ally.
He was trying for surreptitious when he looked at Ava, but he was pretty sure it ended up closer to gawking. In his defense, he was trying to resolve two very unresolvable things and the cognitive dissonance was real. Ava now looked everything like Ally and nothing like Ally. Probably because she didn't seem to be anything like Ally.
Of course, his dad used to say women turned into their mothers, usually after a fight with Colin's mom after a visit from his grandma.
"We bumped into each other in the crowd after the show, he retrieved my purse from where he'd knocked it out of my hands, and we spent the next forty-eight hours in a whirlwind of conversation, marijuana, and hormones. Then we spent the next several years trying to keep it up."
"Wow." He started laughing. He couldn't help it. "That is. That is not what I was expecting."
"Were you expecting a debutante ball and an extended courtship?"
"More like high school sweethearts, you wearing his letterman's jacket, prom night, the whole deal."
"I wasn't always a boring old woman, you know. I dated my fair share of musicians and art students before I settled down, but never anyone with a letterman's jacket."
"I'm starting to see that. Does Ally know?"
"Lord, no. We always told them we met on a blind date set up by one of my girlfriends. It wasn't that far from the truth—I bumped into him trying to catch up with her."
"How did you go from that to"—he gestured around the spacious, magazine-ready room they were sitting in—"this?"
"Oh, the usual way. We got married and had our girls, I went from graphic design and album covers to interior design and decorating people's homes, and Terry gave up on managing bands and went into real estate."
"You are a lot more like Ally than I knew."
"Everyone else thinks she's more like her father."
"You should tell her about your misspent youth. I think she'd be proud of you."
"It's hardly something to be proud of."
"Ally wouldn't think so. In fact, I think she'd be relieved. You're a lot for her to try to live up to."
"You really do love her, don't you?"
"Everything about her. Even the bad stuff."
"And when she gets boring, like me?"
"Ally could never be boring. And you"—he poured the remainder of the bottle into her glass—"as it turns out, are far from boring."
She let out something between a chuckle and a derisive sniff. "Ally’s father wouldn’t agree with you."
"First, he's wrong. Second, I'm not him."
"No, I suppose you aren't."
"Anyhow, you should be more worried about Ally getting sick of me than me getting sick of her." He frowned into his wine glass. "Though you'd probably be happy about that. "
In the awkward silence that followed, Colin gulped down the rest of his wine and regretted giving Ava the last of the bottle. He really hadn't meant to say that out loud.
Ava startled him with a genuine laugh and a pat on the knee. "You might be surprised."
"Even if I tell you that she broke things off with me once before because of Jake Adams?"
Her eyes widened, then she frowned and drew back slightly, staring at him with an odd look on her face. "Really?"
"That's a long, complicated story for another day, but suffice it to say that I probably deserved it."
"Here," she said and handed him her glass. "I'll go open another bottle."
"I've probably had enough."
"Nonsense. You've had a glass and a half. I counted."
She came back with champagne, which she popped with an alarming degree of enthusiasm. "These aren't the right glasses for champagne," she said as she poured them each a more than healthy amount. "But what the hell? Cheers." She lifted her glass.
He lifted his in return. "Cheers."
"Thank you for staying," she said. "And for keeping me company today."
"Thank you for letting me stay. And for feeding me. And for finding me a toothbrush and letting me use your laundry room." He'd shaved with Ally's razor and used her deodorant. He smelled like baby powder, but it beat stale sweat.
"Can I tell you something?"
"Sure. Especially if it involves your erstwhile rock n' roll lifestyle."
"I want to apologize for misjudging you. I worried that Ally was making the same mistake I did with her father. No mother wants to see their child get hurt. Ally would disagree with this, but despite what she thinks, I'm not always afraid to admit that I was wrong. You have my blessing. Just don't tell Ally about her father and the Jethro Tull thing."
"I think this counts as a Christmas miracle and my lips are sealed."
"So," she said, primly, but with a sparkle in her eye. "When will you be making an honest woman of my daughter?"
"When we get around to it. We have a roadmap. First moving in together when my lease is up, then getting married, then kids. Though we haven't agreed on how many of them yet. But we've agreed on the rest of it. Just have the timing left to figure out."
"Elope," she advised. "Do you know how much work it is planning a wedding?"
"According to my brother, a lot. But I do have a band already lined up. Short a guitarist and singer, but the bass player makes a decent substitute for one of those. I might even be able to convince them to play for free."
The light streaming in from the window hurt his eyes. Colin squinted, groaned, rolled his head into the pillow to try to block it out.
"You okay?" Ally asked in a worried rasp.
"Your mom and I killed a bottle of wine and a bottle of champagne last night. My head is killing me and I think my mouth's made of about ninety percent cotton and it's possible that I talked a little too much. We were talking until two in the morning."
"Wow." She sounded stunned. He didn't blame her. "My mom got you drunk?"
"I think she likes me now. I guess we'll see when she wakes up."
"She's already up. She poked her head in about an hour ago."
"She says we should elope."
"I told her we're going to move in together. I told her we'll eventually get married. I'm pretty sure I told her how many kids I want. I think I even told her what was on my list of names."
"You haven't even told me that."
"I'm saving it for when we actually need it and you haven't told me yours, either. How are you feeling?"
"Awful, but way less awful than yesterday," she said. "I'm ready to go home."
"Nope. Tomorrow at the earliest," he said, yawning. "Don't overdo it. I'm not ready to take care of you solo."
"I'm not eloping," Ally said. "Daisy's not the only one who gets to have a wedding."
"I'll make sure to tell your mom."
"We're not eloping," Colin said, pouring himself a cup of coffee. "Ally vetoed the idea."
"Oh well, at least I tried."
"I had an idea for Christmas," he said, digging in the pantry for the bread he'd seen in there when he'd made Ally some herbal tea the day before. "Want toast?"
"Christmas was yesterday," Ava pointed out. "I had scrambled eggs."
"I think I'd throw up if I even saw an egg right now."
She snorted. "Ally doesn't get her cast iron stomach from her father's side of the family, not by any means. You were saying about Christmas?"
"Assuming you don't get sick, you could have everyone come over and celebrate it on New Year's Eve. It's a Saturday, so it doesn't matter if Eddie's paternity leave's over, Ally should be past being contagious by then—though I wouldn't recommend letting her breathe on anyone—and I'm pretty sure that, if you keep watering it, the tree will last at least that long."
"Would you be coming with Ally or do you have other plans?"
"That depends. Sheila and Jamie are having a party, but we already replied as a maybe and I wouldn't go without Ally, so I guess it comes down to, do you want me to come?"
"Well, it was your idea. Besides, I can't think of a better way to welcome you to the family. Unofficially. Have you considered an autumn wedding?"
"First, one of us has to get around to officially proposing."
"How long until I'm not contagious and we can make out again?" Ally burrowed her feet between his thighs and the couch cushion and rested her head against his shoulder, yawning a little, even though it was only eight o'clock.
"The internet says as soon as tomorrow, but Sarah says we should wait until New Year's."
"Yeah? What do you say?"
"I say you should be getting to bed. You're still recovering."
She groaned. "God, you're as bad as Mom. I'm fine." Then she yawned again. "Okay, maybe I'm a little tired, but you have to join me."
"I still need to do the dishes and wrap presents."
"You can do that in the morning."
"In the morning, I have to go to Kieran's for Justin's birthday party." He kissed the top of her head.
Ally snuggled closer. "I could just stay here and watch you wrap things."
"Then you'd fall asleep and I'd have to carry you to bed. Besides, I'm wrapping them in 6A and it's just me putting things into gift bags." Colin gave her ass a gentle slap and pushed her off him. "Up."
He ended up carrying her to bed anyway, just for the hell of it.
They'd set a twenty-five dollar limit on gifts for each other. Colin had happily gone a little bit over that when he'd spied a vintage butterfly tray with matching coasters in the half-off section of the antique mall. He wrapped them in bright blue tissue and slid them into the most glittery gift bag he'd been able to find—hot pink and garish—then he tucked the card with a draft of the lyrics and IOU one song written on it in beside the tray and set the bag next to the rest of the gifts for his family, every tag saying From Colin & Ally on it. Ally's carefully-wrapped and beribboned packages, still under Ava's tree, said From Ally & Colin.
Next year, they should pick an order and stick to it. Probably alphabetical. It always made sense having Ally come first.
He looked around his apartment, making a mental list of what, other than clothing, books, CDs, and musical instruments, would make the move from 6A to 6C with him. Some of the lamps, yes. The bed, no. He liked his couch, but there was no room for it and it didn't go with the 6C decor. Kieran might want it for the basement, though. Then he'd get to visit it.
New Year's Eve dawned bright and early—well, cloudy and early, or at least early for them. Colin hit snooze twice before grudgingly acknowledging that 10:17 was as late as they should push things.
"Wake up, sleepyhead," he said and brushed a chaste kiss across Ally's chapped lips. They could make out properly after they brushed their teeth and Ally put on some chapstick. "Ready for Christmas 2: Electric Boogaloo?"
"No," she grumbled as she pulled the covers back up to her chin.
Colin yanked them back down. "Tough, because I promised Ava we'd be there by noon." Which didn't leave a lot of time for making up for lost make out time. It was possible that the last press of the snooze button had been a mistake.
"Daisy will kill us if we're late. She texted me last night. Mom's driving her nuts fussing over Olivia already."
"Think she'd forgive us if we promised to provide Ava with a granddiversion to fuss over next year?"
"Maybe, but it's not going to happen. Daisy says I don't want to be pregnant in the summer and I believe her." She pushed herself up on her elbows and looked at him. "But I am open to considering a honeymoon baby so she can fuss over my pregnancy. You think an August wedding would give us enough time?"
"Wait, Ally, are you proposing?"
"Yep. Hey Colin, wanna get married next year?"
Screw it. He was sick of not kissing her and Ally's sense of smell still wasn't one-hundred percent back so she could handle a little morning breath. He leaned over and kissed her, not at all chastely this time and it was totally worth it. "Yes," he replied when they finally came up for air.
"Good," said Ally, and tugged him back down again.
They managed to make it to Ava's on time, albeit by the skin of their teeth. Ally'd thrown on a turtleneck to hide the marks he'd left on her neck and he'd thrown on a sweater to hide the wrinkles in the dress shirt he hadn't had time to iron.
"Thank god you're here," Daisy said on opening the door. "Go distract her somehow, I need a break."
"Hey Mom," Ally called out. "Guess who's engaged?"
A happy, ear-piercing squeal rang out from the other room, causing Daisy to stare at them both, her jaw dropping open. "What just happened?" she said. "Why did Mom make that noise? Have I missed something? Doesn't Mom hate you?"
"We bonded when Ally was sick," Colin said. "I'd say it's a long story, but that's all there is to it, really."
Ally kissed him softly on the lips. "Congratulations," she murmured.
"It's New Year's Eve and you've obviously won her over."
"Ally!" Ava descended upon them, eyes alight as she wrapped Ally in a tight hug, practically bouncing. She squealed again, "I'm so excited for you! And Colin!" She released Ally and embraced him next, leaving traces of pink lipstick on his cheeks. "Go ahead and leave your bags here. We can bring them up later." Then she looped her arm through Ally's and led her off in the direction of the kitchen. "Ally, you have to tell me everything," she said as they retreated.
"This is so weird," Daisy said, still looking utterly perplexed. "Eddie and Olivia are in the living room. Come on, let's get started."
"She's really starting to fill out." Colin had Olivia balanced on his outstretched legs, her little feet kicking in protest as he changed her wet diaper. "Aren't you?" he told her, fastening the tabs and pulling her onesie back down. She'd already spit up on her Christmas dress and the back up her parents had packed.
"He really likes babies, doesn't he?" Daisy said to her sister. "You can hand her back now," she said to Colin.
"You should see him with his niece and nephew," Ally replied. "He's even worse when they get bigger."
Daisy took Olivia back, asking, "So when's the wedding?"
"August," he replied. "The exact date depends on venue availability, but we don't want anything big."
"You could have it here," Ava suggested. "The backyard has plenty of space. Besides, it would give me an excuse to have the landscaping updated. Ally, what do you think about a gazebo?"
Ally's eyes darted to him then back to her mother then back to him. "Let her have this," he whispered.
"A gazebo sounds great."
"Here, Colin," Ava said, taking a slim, square package from under the tree and handing it to him. "You haven't opened anything yet."
Inside the perfectly wrapped cream and gold brocade paper with its mass of curled ribbons was a pristine LP, Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick.
"First pressing," Ava said.
Ally raised her eyebrows. "I didn't know you liked Jethro Tull," she said.
He looked at Ava and grinned. "People can be full of surprises."
Ally gave him music, too, Lionel Richie, The Definitive Collection, with a promissory note for a sculpture of his choice. "I'd have given you Ralph and Rosie, but someone actually bought them from the gallery."
"I told you that you could sell them," he said, then, for the benefit of the room, added, "All three of her street scenes sold."
"Well it would seem all kinds of congratulations are in order," said Ava. "Ally, I'm so proud of you."
Ally frowned, then wrinkled her nose and tilted her head. "You are?"
"Of course I am, Allyson. Though I do hope you do something about those bangs before your wedding."
"Definitely Mom and not a pod person," she whispered. "I was starting to worry."
"I'd like to propose a toast," said Ava. "Eddie, could you bring the bottle of champagne that's in the refrigerator and the glasses? There's sparkling cider for Daisy, seeing as she's nursing."
"I could pump and dump, Mom," Daisy muttered.
Ava waved her hand. "Don't be ridiculous."
"Mom, she can pump and dump," said Ally. "Eddie, leave the cider in the fridge. I'll get the glasses."
She poured full glasses for herself, Eddie, Ally, and him, and a half glass of Daisy. "Olivia did just nurse," Ava said, "and I suppose a little bit won't hurt."
"Not according to my OB/GYN," said Daisy.
Beside him, Ally stifled a laugh.
"It's been an eventful year for our family," Ava said. "First we welcomed Eddie, then Olivia, and now we're closing the year by welcoming Colin. I've become a mother-in-law, a grandmother, and soon I'll be a mother-in-law again. And while we don't always see eye to eye, and I know it doesn't always seem like it, I wouldn't change any of you for anything. To family"—she raised her glass—"to new beginnings"—she raised it again—"and to Ally and Colin!"
With a clink of their glasses, Daisy and Eddie echoed, "To Ally and Colin!"
He touched his glass to Ally's and grinned. "To us, I guess."
Ava beamed and raised her glass one last time in his direction. "Welcome to the family."