Cole rests his hand on my shoulder with a small smile. He isn’t mad… In fact, his eyes look bright and happy all of the sudden.

“When do you want to go out, exactly?” I ask, resigned to my fate. If my mom is okay with it and it will make her worry a little less, I’ll go willingly. It should be okay. It’s Cole. I muster up a small, sincere smile so they don’t think they’re forcing me to go with him.

“Ten,” he chirps, leaning back against the chair like he’s getting comfy.

I furrow my brows. “You’re going to spend the entire morning with us?” I ask. “What about Alexa and her family? Won’t they miss you?”

Alexa Soto is a Guardian, and she’s like a sister to Cole. Her family took him in after the deaths of his parents, who were Guardians as well. She’s also the girl Thelma is currently interested in. And I’m pretty sure she hates my guts. There’s no way she’s okay with Cole ditching her to hang out with me.

He rolls his eyes. “I never spend Christmas with the Sotos. On Christmas Eve, I join them for dinner and exchange gifts with them, and then today I’m out of their hair.” The way he says it makes it clear he has been keeping them at a distance his entire life. With both of his parents gone, he must worry about the Sotos dying or leaving him if he grows too attached.

So why is he trying to get so close to me?

I don’t know why I’m analyzing it so much. I should be flattered; Cole is actually a really great guy. At that thought, I suddenly realize that my shoulder is pressed into his side. He hasn’t moved in a while, so we must have settled that way when he sat down.  It was so comfortable I didn’t even notice.

“Mandy? Are you okay? You look kind of dazed.” Dad’s voice drives me back to reality.

My face immediately floods with heat and I jerk my body to the left, trying to lean casually on the other arm of the chair, but I slip off. Cole must notice how flustered I am because he laughs under his breath so only I can hear. I can’t bring myself to look at him.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just waking up still,” I say, chuckling forcefully. I manage to drag my eyes up so I can look at my parents and Thelma across the coffee table.

Cole laughs again, this time loud enough for everyone to hear. “Of course,” he says, his tone placating. He’s letting me get away with it. Thank God. “We put coffee on for you, but forgot to put it in your hands. Silly mistake,” he says. When he stands and heads to the kitchen, Dad glares at him.

I can’t help but laugh, relaxing a little. “Are you being mean to Cole, Dad?” I ask.

He pouts and crosses his arms over his chest again. The reindeer on his ugly green- and red-striped sweater scrunches its face up with the action. “The vibe he gives off… I don’t like it. It’s like he isn’t really a very nice guy, so he’s trying too hard to impress us. I think he likes you,” he says, accentuating his pout.

An intense flutter courses through my body, setting me on edge in a way that isn’t entirely bad. You’re spot-on, Dad, I think. Cole is never this kind to me, and he likes me.

Thelma laughs nervously. “He’s actually kind of gruff, rough around the edges,” she confesses. She never passes up an opportunity to poke at my love life. It’s like her personal soap opera. “But he’s really gentle around Mandy.” She looks at me triumphantly, clearly pleased to point something like this out to me, as well as to my parents.

Mom squeals quietly. She actually seems to like Cole. On the other hand, Dad looks a little panicked, like he was hoping to be wrong before.

“Tj,” he whines. “Don’t say that…”

“Hush,” Mom hisses. “He’s finally coming back.” She drops her tone to a whisper. “He may be the world’s slowest coffee prepper, but he’s so cute!” I roll my eyes at my mom’s words.

“Here,” Cole says, handing me the mug. I can’t help but notice it’s the coffee addict one he gave me for my birthday. A smile tugs at the corner of my mouth, and Cole’s smile in return is blinding.

Averting my eyes, I raise the mug of too-light coffee to my lips and taste it. Urk! Too sweet. His expectations come across loud and clear in his expression, and I can’t bring myself to dash his hopes, so I put on my best smile. “Mm! Perfect.”

He seems to believe my act because he smiles even brighter. He looks cute.

“Where are we going?” I ask, taking another sip of the coffee.

Cole grins. “You won’t need to change for it,” he says, snickering. He’s enjoying my PJ shorts too much.

I narrow my eyes at him suspiciously. “I don’t really feel like I can trust you on that,” I mutter. “I’ll be changing before we leave.”

He pouts. “You don’t trust me? Besides, you look really cute today.”

Ducking my head, I try to fight the smile threatening to take over my face, and try to keep my face expressionless instead. Dad lets out an astonished gasp, though, and I burst out laughing.

“The audacity,” Dad mumbles. “Calling her cute.”

Mom and Thelma both start laughing and patting his back. “You’re right, though,” Thelma muses. “Cute isn’t good enough for our Mandy…”

“Hush, you!” I mutter to her playfully.

We exchange gifts soon after that. I wasn’t planning on seeing Cole anytime soon, so I haven’t had the chance to wrap his gift yet. Despite the warning, he insists on having it now.

“Here, I’ll even close my eyes,” he says, placing his hands over his face.

I head down the hall to get it out of my room. It isn’t much, or even very nice-looking, but it is the only thing I could think of. I don’t know that much about him… But I did spend most of the last week in my self-pitying bubble working on it, after learning how to knit last month.

When I return to the living room, I place the gift in his lap. “Merry Christmas, Cole,” I murmur.

He uncovers his eyes before I straighten back up, and our gazes meet directly. “Thank you,” he says, his tone serious and his eyes dark with emotions I don’t want to see.

See you on the next page!