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Chapter One

'Twas the Night That Changed Everything

Matt

The smell of evergreens and sugary treats that I can only define as the smell of Christmas hits me full in the face as the door swings open after only two knocks. A pleasant warmth curls around me, but I don't have time to dwell on it before Whitney forcibly drags me inside.

"Goodness gracious Matt, we were afraid you'd forgotten us for a while there!" My coworker's hug is brief but surprisingly suffocating, and I fake a swat at her arm when she finishes.

"Wait, who are you again?" I say teasingly, and she smacks my shoulder, for real. "Sorry, traffic was a nightmare." A wide grin spreads across my face, and I raise a hand in greeting to my fellow members of Studio C. "Hey Whit, Stephen, Jason." More faces appear from the kitchen and dining room. I give similar greetings to Natalie, Stacey, Adam, James, and Jeremy as they poke their heads in. I hang my jacket up and try to let the cheerful mood wash over me, but I can't help the spike of worry that there's one face missing in this crowd.

"Is Mal late too?" I ask when Mallory doesn't appear after a few moments.

"Oh, nah, she's around here somewhere," Natalie answers, before hollering. "MALLORY!"

"Natalie, what do you—" I hear Mallory's voice before I see her, and I feel a grin spread across my face as she emerges from the hallway. "Oh, hey Matt, you did make it," she says, throwing me a dazzling smile. I don't know how she does it, but one of those smiles never fails to light up the entire room. Is it any wonder I fall a little bit more in love with her every time I see one? 

"Traffic," I say again, jamming my hands in my pockets for want of something to do with them. No. Don't go down that train of thought, Matt. Leave your crush at the door before you end up doing something stupid. Again. "Merry Christmas." The words are polite; safe.

"Merry Christmas," she replies distractedly, throwing a glance over her shoulder back into the kitchen. The grin slips off my face as she calls to Whitney about rolls being finished, and my friends begin to drift back to what they were doing before I arrived. I allow myself to get caught up in the flow of the casual party. With all the stress that surrounded the holidays, a party with good friends and no expectations was certainly one of the highlights of this time of year. It was a celebration in and of itself, an acknowledgment of our successful Christmas show at Studio C, last night. We'd done an excellent job this year if I said so myself. Still, the image of Mallory—her infectious smile, her hair beginning to escape from the confines of a thick ponytail, her soft sweater starting to dip off one shoulder to reveal the thin t-shirt underneath—haunts my mind the entire night.

Dinner is a loud but joyous affair, but I find my concentration slipping as the conversations veer into more somber territories. A headache begins to pound behind my eyes, and I excuse myself right after dessert, hoping a few minutes of quiet would ease it.

The distance between the dining room and the living room is successful in muffling most of the conversations, though I do hear a hearty burst of laughter every few minutes. Sitting on the couch turns into more of an undignified flop, my limbs heavy with exhaustion. Along with the general busyness that characterized this time of year, I'd only managed to get two hours of sleep last night, and I was starting to feel it. I sigh and watch the flames flicker in the fireplace, pleasantly distracted by the mindless activity.

I hear Mallory's laugh over the others' and close my eyes, allowing my thoughts to drift back to places they really shouldn't. I can't stop, though; I never can. I think of Naturally, of how tightly I'd held her, how she'd pressed against me, and how I'd hoped in those moments—with my lips firmly on hers—that maybe, finally, we could make something more of our friendship.

And yet Naturally had come and gone, along with half a dozen other sketches where Mallory and I had shared kisses or near misses. Nothing had blossomed between us, no matter how much I wanted it to. I shut my eyes and groan. Mal had never given me any indication she wanted anything more from me, and as much as I loathed it, I learned to live with it. So I watched the parade of men in and out of her life, wishing that she'd look, just for a moment, at the one who'd been next to her the whole time.

"Matt?" It takes me a moment to realize the voice is not in my thoughts, and my eyes snap open. For a moment I'm afraid that Mallory was reading my mind and feel a surge of panic, before dismissing my paranoia. She stands in front of me now, beautiful as ever, carrying two steaming mugs.

"You all right?" she asks. She sits delicately on the couch next to me, closer than I thought she would—on the middle cushion rather than the end opposite me. "You disappeared on us."

"Yeah, sorry about that," I say, straightening up subconsciously. "Just... getting a headache."

"Oh," she says, before suddenly appearing to realize that she still has two mugs. "Here. I thought you might want some."

I wrap my hands around the mug gratefully, taking a deep breath before tasting the hot cider. "Thanks, Mal," I say with a sigh. "Sorry for bailing on you guys. I got all of two hours of sleep last night," I explain ruefully. "There was a massive car accident outside my apartment, and there were sirens blaring all night. I could fall asleep right here."

"You and me both," Mallory replies, and I could almost swear she shifted closer to me. "One of my neighbors set off the fire alarm making fish sticks at three in the morning." I can't help a bark of laughter, and she rolls her eyes at me. "Nobody got hurt, but it got everyone out of bed."

I lean my head on the back of the couch and smile, content to just bask in her presence for the moment. I might only be able to love her from afar, but it was worth it. "Are you going home for Christmas?" I ask her, suddenly curious.

"Me? No thank you. Christmas for our family involves every third cousin twice removed, and it gets way too crazy for me." Her gaze appraises me. "You?"

"Yeah. Just a couple days, though. I'll be back before you know it." She smiles at that, and I can't help but smile back. I have the sudden urge to tuck that stray lock of hair behind her ear, but though my hand twitches, I stop myself.

"Those Arizona girls won't stand a chance," she jokes, and I bite my lip to keep my mouth shut. I could run into a thousand supermodels, but I had no desire to look twice at any of them when the one that I wanted was right here in front of me.

She looks away and I can tell the silence has gone on too long. "What about..." I start, wracking my brain for the name of her latest boyfriend, "Luke?"

"What about him?" she asks, looking at me sharply. "Oh, him? No, we broke up ages ago." 4

"Oh." I feel relieved at that; I'd only met him once, but I hadn't liked him. I had to admit that part of that dislike was down to jealousy, but I didn't think he was good enough for Mallory anyway. Then again, was I good enough for her, either? She didn't seem to think so. "Sorry about that."

"He was an idiot."

My mind was spiraling in on an ever darkening train of thought, and I'm beyond relieved when Mallory changes the topic to something lighter. I make myself focus on her face, and my depressing thoughts fade into the background.

"I feel like I haven't talked to you in ages," I admit when we hit a lull, setting my now-empty mug on the coffee table. "At least about things unrelated to work."


Matt

The smell of evergreens and sugary treats that I can only define as the smell of Christmas hits me full in the face as the door swings open after only two knocks. A pleasant warmth curls around me, but I don't have time to dwell on it before Whitney forcibly drags me inside.

"Goodness gracious Matt, we were afraid you'd forgotten us for a while there!" My coworker's hug is brief but surprisingly suffocating, and I fake a swat at her arm when she finishes.

"Wait, who are you again?" I say teasingly, and she smacks my shoulder, for real. "Sorry, traffic was a nightmare." A wide grin spreads across my face, and I raise a hand in greeting to my fellow members of Studio C. "Hey Whit, Stephen, Jason." More faces appear from the kitchen and dining room. I give similar greetings to Natalie, Stacey, Adam, James, and Jeremy as they poke their heads in. I hang my jacket up and try to let the cheerful mood wash over me, but I can't help the spike of worry that there's one face missing in this crowd.

"Is Mal late too?" I ask when Mallory doesn't appear after a few moments.

"Oh, nah, she's around here somewhere," Natalie answers, before hollering. "MALLORY!"

"Natalie, what do you—" I hear Mallory's voice before I see her, and I feel a grin spread across my face as she emerges from the hallway. "Oh, hey Matt, you did make it," she says, throwing me a dazzling smile. I don't know how she does it, but one of those smiles never fails to light up the entire room. Is it any wonder I fall a little bit more in love with her every time I see one? 

"Traffic," I say again, jamming my hands in my pockets for want of something to do with them. No. Don't go down that train of thought, Matt. Leave your crush at the door before you end up doing something stupid. Again. "Merry Christmas." The words are polite; safe.

"Merry Christmas," she replies distractedly, throwing a glance over her shoulder back into the kitchen. The grin slips off my face as she calls to Whitney about rolls being finished, and my friends begin to drift back to what they were doing before I arrived. I allow myself to get caught up in the flow of the casual party. With all the stress that surrounded the holidays, a party with good friends and no expectations was certainly one of the highlights of this time of year. It was a celebration in and of itself, an acknowledgment of our successful Christmas show at Studio C, last night. We'd done an excellent job this year if I said so myself. Still, the image of Mallory—her infectious smile, her hair beginning to escape from the confines of a thick ponytail, her soft sweater starting to dip off one shoulder to reveal the thin t-shirt underneath—haunts my mind the entire night. 

Dinner is a loud but joyous affair, but I find my concentration slipping as the conversations veer into more somber territories. A headache begins to pound behind my eyes, and I excuse myself right after dessert, hoping a few minutes of quiet would ease it.

The distance between the dining room and the living room is successful in muffling most of the conversations, though I do hear a hearty burst of laughter every few minutes. Sitting on the couch turns into more of an undignified flop, my limbs heavy with exhaustion. Along with the general busyness that characterized this time of year, I'd only managed to get two hours of sleep last night, and I was starting to feel it. I sigh and watch the flames flicker in the fireplace, pleasantly distracted by the mindless activity. 

I hear Mallory's laugh over the others' and close my eyes, allowing my thoughts to drift back to places they really shouldn't. I can't stop, though; I never can. I think of Naturally, of how tightly I'd held her, how she'd pressed against me, and how I'd hoped in those moments—with my lips firmly on hers—that maybe, finally, we could make something more of our friendship.

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