We were alone.
I waited for Oliver to say something, but there was silence. When I looked over, he was sipping his wine, gazing at the photos and books around the room, utterly at ease.
The moment stretched and, all the while, my pulse raced. ‘Why did you come here?’ I finally blurted.
Oliver slowly turned, raising his eyebrows inquisitively. Immediately, I regretted saying anything. ‘I told you, I’m a sucker for a home-cooked meal.’
‘That’s not what I’m talking about,’ I replied, swallowing.
‘No?’ Oliver watched me, his expression even. ‘Let’s not beat around the bush. Why don’t you say what you really mean?’
I opened my mouth, but there was only air. I couldn’t. Not with Ethan just outside, and the truth so confusing. What could I say?
Oliver chuckled, as if he’d known I wouldn’t be able to manage the words. ‘I wonder . . . ’ He took a step closer, his expression suddenly serious. ‘Do you even know you’re lying to yourself? Or have you been pretending so long, you don’t even know the difference any more?’
I stared back, caught. There were a few feet of kitchen floor between us, but I could swear, I felt his hands on me again, the way they had been that night; the burn of his lips on mine.
More real and vivid than anything I’d felt before.
Oliver’s eyes seemed to look straight through me. ‘Don’t you see, Chloe? Life can be a whole lot more interesting, if you’d just be honest about what you want. Who you want,’ he added in a low voice, just as the door opened again and the kitchen was flooded with a blast of cold air.
‘All set.’ Ethan came in. ‘Wow, that smells amazing, babe. I can’t wait.’
I don’t speak for a moment, still caught in Oliver’s innocent smile and the slippery accusation hidden in his words.
Ethan looked between us. ‘What did I miss?’
‘Nothing much,’ Oliver answered smoothly. He grabbed a beer and sent it sliding down the kitchen island to Ethan, like a bartender in an old saloon. ‘Chloe here was just quizzing me about ideas for your birthday. It’s coming up pretty soon.’
‘Aww, you don’t have to make a big deal.’ Ethan looked bashful. ‘I don’t like to do anything.’
‘Everybody likes birthdays,’ Oliver protested. ‘Every year he’s the same,’ he added in my direction, with a theatrical roll of his eyes. ‘He refuses to do anything fun at all, takes all the joy out of it. Maybe between us, we can convince him this time around.’
‘I don’t know,’ I said hurriedly, still thrown by the sudden switch in mood. ‘If you don’t want to celebrate, you shouldn’t feel any pressure.’
Ethan shrugged. ‘I could do something. It would be fun, the three of us.’
‘See?’ Oliver raised his glass. ‘That’s more like it. Look at you, loosening up, baby brother. I can tell, this one’s a good influence.’
Ethan chuckled. ‘Yeah, she’s pretty great.’ He kissed the side of my head, hugging me against him. I felt the guilt burn, hot and accusing.
‘Too bad you already snapped her up,’ Oliver remarked. ‘Hey, Chloe, you got any friends you can set me up with?’
Slowly, he winked at me.
I stared back, my head spinning. What was he thinking, taunting me like this with Ethan standing right there? Didn’t he know what he was risking? Didn’t he care?
Oliver sipped his wine, idly leaning back against the counter. He had a curious expression on his face and it took me a moment before I realized where I’d seen it before: Sheriff Weber, with his crossword puzzles. Studying the clues, figuring out the right word to fit – the brief smile of satisfaction as he wrote the letters into place.
He was enjoying this.
The realization hit me all at once, and with it, I finally understood. Oliver wanted me to be unsettled, he liked watching me flustered and unsure. Maybe that was what he’d planned all along: asking me out, kissing me, showing up here to disrupt our evening and make me uncomfortable in my own home . . . It was a game to him.
I should have been angry, and I was – furious – but more than that, I felt a hot rush of embarrassment flood through me. I’d been so stupid! Oliver had said I was better than this, better than the rest of them, but instead, I’d been reeling with panic all week, acting desperate and guilty and weak.
I met his eyes across the kitchen. He was watching me, smiling, but now I could see the challenge in his gaze.
This was a test. He wanted to know what I would do.
I would show him, I wasn’t so easily beaten.
This was all just a game. Well, I could play too.
I forced myself to take deep, even breaths. ‘Olly, can you pour me another glass of that wine?’ I asked casually. I opened the oven, and lifted out the lasagne dish. ‘And Ethan, maybe set the table? We’re nearly ready to eat.’
‘Yes ma’am,’ Oliver saluted me. He sauntered over, offering another drink, and this time I took the glass without flinching, meeting his stare dead on. I lifted it to my lips and took a long sip, tasting the dark, rich liquid, the slight bitterness and tang. ‘Well?’ he asked, waiting.
‘It’s OK.’ I shrugged. ‘Not my thing.’
I caught a flash of amusement on Oliver’s face. He raised his glass to mine in a toast. ‘To new experiences,’ he drawled.
I felt a thrill, unfamiliar in my veins. The crackle of challenge. ‘New experiences,’ I echoed, smiling. ‘And new friends.’
We ate at the formal dining table, Ethan and I on opposite sides of the table, Oliver seated between us, at the head. I was still on edge, hyper-aware of every word and movement Oliver made, but this time, my heartbeat was racing from anticipation, not fear, as I forced myself to try and figure him out.
What was he playing at?
‘So why are you still single?’ I asked Oliver, a teasing note in my voice. ‘Weren’t those Yale girls throwing themselves at your feet?’
He grinned, his eyes bright. ‘Constantly. I couldn’t walk around campus without tripping all over them.’
‘Sounds like a safety hazard. You should come with warning signs,’ I replied, my voice arch. There, I wanted to tell him, I could keep up.
He grinned. ‘It was a liability, certainly. I drove the staff mad.’
‘Olly doesn’t do girlfriends.’ Ethan spoke up, his mouth full. ‘He keeps dating these amazing girls and then it’s all over. Who was that one I met freshman year? Lucy?’