The Christmas party had been Keeley’s idea, and an impromptu one at that, thrown together mere hours after she had dramatically burst into Rebecca’s office, declaring, “We need to do something.”
“What? About what?”
“About everyone still moping about the relegation! I just had a meeting with half the team about possible sponsorships, right, and it was like funeral faces fucking everywhere. I mean, Dani didn’t mention joy even once.”
“Oh, that is serious,” Rebecca said, earning a glower from the other woman for the lightness of her tone, as if she wasn’t appreciating the full gravity of the situation. “It’s only been two weeks, Keeley. They need some time to… well, to become goldfish, as Ted would say.”
She paused for a second, wondering when Ted’s odd metaphors had begun to slip their way into her vocabulary without a trace of irony.
“I know everyone is discouraged right now, but things will get better. We’ll get through the next year in the Championship, earn our promotion, and have another chance to prove just how wrong everyone is about us. The team will be fine.”
Keeley sighed, flopping into one of the chairs in front of Rebecca’s desk. “Look, it’s been a shit season, yeah?”
“A shit year.”
“Exactly! Don’t you think having a night where we can all let loose and get absolutely pissed together would help speed up that whole ‘getting better’ process? Like that ghost-fighting exorcism thing you did to un-cursify the treatment room?”
“It was a bonfire and some mezcal. You do know there weren't any actual ghosts involved?”
“Roy told me about it — I didn’t get all the details. But it worked, didn’t it?”
And, wincing at the memory, Rebecca was forced to concede that the ritual had been remarkably effective in laying some of the team’s, er, figurative ghosts and enmities to rest, at least until she had ruined everything by calling the Man City office and requesting that they terminate Jamie Tartt’s loan to Richmond.
Not her finest moment.
She blinked back into focus as Keeley was saying, “Besides, we’re two days from Christmas, and if that’s not a good excuse for one last end-of-the-year blowout, I don’t know what is.”
“You do have a point.”
“Course I do.”
“All right, I leave it in your hands,” Rebecca said, pointedly sidestepping any responsibility for helping with the planning, and Keeley squealed in excitement and bounced around the desk to trap her in a hug. “Whatever you need to boost morale around here, it’s yours.”
“Large amounts of terrible alcohol and some colored lights?” Keeley deadpanned. “Think I can handle that.”
“Excellent.” She smiled, watching the younger woman leave, already texting madly as she talked to herself, listing off the supplies they would need. “It really is a good idea, Keeley.”
That stopped Keeley mid-sentence, and she turned back, brow furrowed thoughtfully.
“You know this whole team thing includes you, right, Rebecca? You’ve been moping around just as much as the others —” she held up a hand as Rebecca started to protest “— and maybe for you it isn’t just about being relegated, but you have been down lately, and I’m not going to let you sit up here all alone, making yourself miserable, when you could be getting shitfaced with me and the loads of other people in this building who care about you.”
It stung, the realization that she hadn’t been hiding how much she was struggling with the prospect (the maddeningly specific heartbreak) of spending the long winter holiday on her own nearly as well as she had thought.
Because, despite what Keeley said, that was the truth of it — she was alone, in the most literal sense, when she stepped away from the club, going back to an empty flat and an empty bed at the end of each day, the weight of that solitude still catching in her throat all these months after she had left Rupert.
Keeley’s eyes softened as she took in Rebecca’s silence. “And that means you are going to come to this party, and have a wicked time, and forget all about this horrendous year with the rest of us, okay?”
Rebecca sighed, intending to stand firm and beg off for the night, in no mood for festivities or, frankly, even being around other people no matter how much drink was involved, but then Keeley was pouting at her, pitiful and adorable at once, creeping closer and closer with her big mournful eyes until Rebecca relented.
Keeley wrapped her up in another distressingly long hug (god, had she looked that depressed this week?) until Rebecca murmured a quiet thank you into the other woman’s shoulder and worked to extricate herself from the embrace.
“It’ll be fun, you’ll see,” Keeley said, radiant with victory, blowing a kiss on her way out the door and calling back “Wear something that shows off your gorgeous tits!” just before she disappeared from sight, leaving Rebecca to bury her face in her hands and groan, wondering what precisely she had gotten herself into.
She learned later, as she followed the thumping bass and snatches of laughter through hallway after hallway, that Keeley had commandeered one of the executive boxes for the party, clearing out as much of the furniture as possible and bedecking every remaining surface with Christmas lights that flashed Richmond colors, to rather striking effect.
About half the players and the entire coaching staff were already milling about, chatting and drinking, and Ted’s face brightened as he spotted her from across the room, raising his plastic cup in a salute.
Before she could respond or, more importantly, locate the vodka, a blur of hair and glitter that some part of her brain vaguely recognized as Keeley was launching herself forward and upward to land an enthusiastic kiss on Rebecca’s mouth.
Staggering backwards under the unexpected weight, Rebecca looked desperately to Roy, who was leaning against a nearby wall, for explanation. He gestured to the space above her head with one of his crutches, smirking slightly as her gaze traveled up to the small green sprig of mistletoe stuck to the top of the doorframe.
“A warning might have been nice,” she muttered in his direction when her mouth was freed, and he shook his head, chuckling.
“Nah, way too entertaining to see that startled-deer look in your eyes as you try to suss out what kind of party you just walked into.”
Keeley was rebalancing herself, speaking quickly as she ran a thumb under Rebecca’s lip, edging the lipstick she had smudged into a crisp line again. “Sorry for the ambush, I’m just so happy you came! You look fucking hot, by the way.”
“Are you greeting everyone that… warmly, or is there some sort of criteria you’re using to decide who’s worthy of the mistletoe?”
“Just snogging the ones I fancy,” Keeley responded with a grin, steering Rebecca towards the table bearing the copious amounts of alcohol that had been promised. “There’s more where that came from, if you want it.”
As it turned out, Keeley was quite invested in spending the night luring unsuspecting people together under the mistletoe (which had been hung in several strategic positions around the room), a ploy that was met with a predictable amount of resistance by the assembled footballers until Roy barked, “Oi, the lady says you kiss, you kiss, or I’ll rip this plaque off the wall and ram it so far up your arse, you’ll —”
“It’s the law of Christmas!” Keeley chimed in before he could complete his threat, and what started as grudging participation in the tradition soon devolved into some kind of drinking competition, with different numbers of points assigned to different body parts, the exact rules of which Rebecca couldn’t follow but which she was more than content to watch play out from a safe distance.
“I, uh, wouldn’t really rip anything off the walls, ma’am,” Roy said as she took up position next to him in one of the quieter corners.
“I know, Roy. I appreciate that.”
They proved decent company for each other, trading observations about some of the weirder activities happening in the room (like Beard and Higgins starting a full-throated singalong and subsequently a mosh pit when the third verse of “Fairytale of New York” kicked in over the speakers) and then falling into stretches of comfortable silence, neither of them feeling pressured to push the kind of small talk that made so many other office parties unbearable.
Keeley joined them after a while, slipping her arm through Roy’s and kissing his cheek while he tried not to look pleased, contemplating her work.
“What do you think, too many lights? Looks a bit like a crime scene, really.”
“No, it’s perfect,” Rebecca answered. “And you were right, this is exactly what everyone needed. Not a funeral face in sight.”
“Yeah? What about you, then? ’Cause standing in the corner all night with this one —” Keeley gestured to Roy, ignoring his scowl when she continued with “no offense, babe, but you’re not always the most brilliant conversationalist — was not at all what I had in mind for you.”
“Really, Keeley, I’m fine. More than fine. We’re having fun.” Rebecca looked to Roy for an assist, and he shrugged his agreement, which of course did nothing to convince Keeley that she was being as truthful as she could be.
“Come on, there must be someone here you wouldn’t mind snogging, just for tonight. Everyone knows mistletoe kisses don’t mean anything unless you want them to.”
Pulling in a deep breath, Rebecca prepared to make her excuses as to why, as kindly meant as Keeley’s suggestion was, it wasn’t going to make her feel any better, or ease the ache that came with seeing everyone else lose themselves so easily in the spirit of celebration — would, in fact, only underscore how unmoored she felt, surrounded by other people’s happiness and not quite able to touch it herself.
But before she could try to explain, Roy was tugging on Keeley’s hand, leaning down to whisper closely in her ear and drawing a fit of surprised giggles with whatever he said. He shot Rebecca a meaningful glance and flicked his head towards the rear door, a gesture to which she could only mouth thank you and make her escape while Keeley was still distracted.
She found her way outside, the cold air shivering through her, sharp in her lungs, and kept walking until she hit the railing on the far side of the stand. She had forgotten how quickly the temperature dropped after sunset at this point of the year, and her breath frosted out in white bursts in front of her, slowly fading into the half-dark that overlay the pitch below.
It was strange to see the stadium so lifeless. Devoid of supporters and the noise and action that came with matches, it became a wilderness of open space, so much so that when she stared out over the edge of the railing for too long, a wave of vertigo started fuzzing the edges of her vision.
Closing her eyes and dropping her head, Rebecca waited for the sensation to pass, which probably would have been easier if the cold hadn’t caught up to the rest of her body and set it trembling, and if she didn’t already feel pathetic enough about how she was spending the evening — brooding out here in the dark, freezing, willfully making herself miserable, as Keeley had said — this would be the proverbial anvil falling to make that point abundantly clear.
Dimly, as she was still trying to sort herself out, she heard the sounds of the party heighten for a moment, spilling into the night, and soft footfalls echoing down the walkway and then stopping a respectful distance away, and, reading something familiar in the presence, she was not surprised at all when it was Ted who spoke behind her.
“Thought you might want this.” She turned to him, still a bit unsteady, and saw that he was holding out a coat. “I didn’t know where to find yours, so I brought mine. It might not be up to your usual standards of style, but I figured anything would be better than catching your death out here.”
Rebecca nodded gratefully, accepting the offer of warmth, half-smiling as he stepped closer. “Fashion’s all about confidence anyway, isn’t it?”
Ted’s eyes crinkled with laughter even as he scrunched up his face in feigned confusion. “Now where have I heard that one before?”
He helped her navigate her arms through the sleeves and ran the zip up the front, gently nudging her fingers out of the way when her hands wouldn’t stop shaking long enough to do it herself.
“Looks good on you,” he said, nodding, and she rolled her eyes but hugged the wool around herself more tightly all the same. “There’s something in the pocket for you there, too, if you dig around a little.”
Ted, infuriatingly, only shrugged a shoulder in response and waited while she worked her numb fingertips through the folds of fabric until they finally landed on the edge of an unmistakable paper box, this time wrapped with ribbon, and the small tremor that rushed through her now as she withdrew the present from its hiding place had very little to do with the chill of the winter air.
“We already did ‘biscuits with the boss’ this morning,” she said quietly, looking at him in question.
“Oh, I know, this is just a little something extra for Christmas. This way you have some rations in case we don’t see each other until the new year.”
He was already brushing off the gesture as nothing, as he always did — and it was no less maddening, still, to be faced with his relentless kindness, his goodness, while he made light of it, like the weight of carrying that much care for other people didn’t fall heavy on him at all — and she laid a hand on his arm to draw his eyes to hers so that when she said “Thank you, Ted” he would understand what it meant, that the words encompassed all the things he had given to her so freely.
For the biscuits, and for the coat, and for… this, the simple act of staying, Ted standing next to her while the wind ruffled through his hair and looking at her like it wasn’t ridiculous, whatever it was they were doing out here, shivering together in the muted light of the empty pitch.
Looking at her like he was in no hurry to return to the others, like there was nowhere else he wanted to be, and Rebecca supposed it was companionship, this notion she was struggling to put a name to, but it felt more abstract than that, harder to map the shape of, and, when she realized her hand was still resting on his arm, a searing shyness cut through her, and she had to look away, shoving both fists deep into the pockets of her borrowed coat.
The silence lengthened between them — not uncomfortably, but the earlier ease of their meeting was lost, and Rebecca was all too aware of her pulse humming at the base of her throat, quicker than it had any right to — before Ted rescued the fallen thread of their conversation.
“Nice night, huh?”
Somewhere inside, a clutch of voices (drunkenly jumbled and joyful and young) launched into another chorus of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” the traditional lyrics traded for a litany of abuse as the team listed all of the very creative, increasingly rude things they wanted to give to the clubs remaining in the Premier League.
“They’re a spirited bunch.”
“That they are.”
“It seems they’ve moved on from the mistletoe, at least.”
“Yeah, what was that? I couldn’t make heads or tails of the rules y’all play by over here — kinda like your football, if I’m being honest,” Ted said, shaking his head. “But I got suckered under there one or two times myself. Learned that Beard is a surprisingly gentle kisser. Very soft lips.”
She laughed, loud and long and completely inelegant in her surprise over the specificity of that detail, and Ted chuckled along with her, looking pleased to see her like this, so unreserved, swiping at her eyes to catch the tears that threatened before they could roll down and freeze on her cheeks.
“I’m sorry I missed it,” she said, wondering if anyone had had the wherewithal to capture the moment on their phone. “I think I fared a bit better than you, but Keeley was adamant about finding me someone to… I don’t know, have fun with tonight, I guess.”
“Well, we’re having fun, right?” This close, their arms just brushed when Ted leaned in to prompt her for a nod of confirmation, and Rebecca’s skin pricked at the contact, electric even under all the layers that insulated them. “There you go. Mission accomplished.”
It didn’t seem important, somehow, to mention that Keeley had been angling for an entirely different sort of fun than what she and Ted were currently engaged in.
“I was starting to feel like the spinster aunt everyone is desperate to marry off.”
Ted clicked his tongue. “Never really understood why spinsters got such a bad rap. I mean, a strong, independent woman choosing to live her best life sounds like hashtag ‘goals’ to me.” He paused, like he was contemplating his next words carefully. “Keeley just wants to see you happy. We all do.”
“I am happy.” Ted’s mouth twitched, but he had the decency not to comment on the strain evident in her voice, the forced lightness in her tone. With a sigh — she was fooling neither of them, here — Rebecca amended, “Happier than I was, anyway.”
“Then that’s something to celebrate.”
Finding nothing to say in response, trapped under the softness of his gaze, she simply nodded.
“And, if I may be so bold, no one would ever mistake you for a spinster aunt.”
“I thought you weren’t a fan of that whole spinster stereotype.”
“I’m not. Doesn’t mean that I’m blind, or that I don’t see you, though.” Ted cleared his throat.“Now, we can keep arguing about all sorts of hogwash the patriarchy puts out into the world, or you can just accept the compliment, boss.”
Rebecca was all too happy to take the out he was offering and steer them towards any other topic to talk about, landing on the most obvious question before she could think better of it.
“So you're staying here for Christmas? I thought you might go back to Kansas for the holiday.”
“Uh, yeah, I was going to, before the… well, before,” Ted said, wincing slightly as he avoided the word, and Rebecca nodded her understanding, remembering the slick, sick feeling that came with saying ‘divorce,’ even now. “We thought it might be too much, or too soon, so we’re giving things some more time to settle before I visit.”
He shrugged, playing at indifference, like it didn’t bother him to be left on his own in a country still half-strange to him, but there was something defeated in the line of his shoulders, the way he curled in on himself just a little as he stared past the railing to the rows of seats stretching, almost endlessly, beneath them.
“I’m sorry. It’s hard to be so far from family this time of year.”
“Yeah. But you know, it’s okay. This place is starting to feel like family, too.”
He looked back at her then, smiling faintly, but there was an edge of hurt in his eyes that he couldn’t quite conceal, so familiar to Rebecca that it made her ache for him.
She wanted to touch him, suddenly — to feel for his hand in the dark and take it in her own and pull him back from the lonesome distance she could see him withdrawing to and impress upon him just how much she meant it when she said that they were a family, that he had made the team one despite themselves, that he was the single steadfast thread holding all of the rest of them together.
But she wasn’t that person, not demonstrative in the way people like Keeley and Ted could be with their affection — it had never been easy for her to be open — and any urge in that direction felt reckless and strange and something to bite back, and so she did.
Instead, she knocked her shoulder against his and said, “It’s hard to imagine Richmond without you now. In fact, I don’t even want to think about where we’d be if you hadn’t accepted this insane job offer.”
Ted just blinked at her. “I appreciate you saying that.”
“I’m not saying anything, Ted. It’s the truth.” She glared at him, annoyed that he was forcing her to be so artlessly sincere. “Take the compliment before I change my mind.”
“All right, all right,” he said, hands raised in surrender, laughing softly, the hurt she had seen hidden away again when she studied his face for it. “Thank you, Rebecca. And, you know, back at you on not wanting to think about where we’d be without… all this.”
“Bad karaoke and kissing Beard under the mistletoe?”
He ignored her teasing, drawing out the pause until her eyes sought his, and he answered pointedly, “Among other things.”
“Oh,” she said, more breath than voice, watching the condensation hang in the air. “Well.”
“Anyway, Christmas in London seems pretty darn special. Beard and I got ourselves a dinner date, and before that I figured I’d just poke around the city. I still haven’t seen Abbey Road, you know.”
Rebecca didn’t understand his continued fixation on that particular tourist trap, but she was relieved they had returned to safer ground, words no longer charged with layers of meaning that she would rather not have to sift through.
“It’s like a different city on Christmas Day, with everything closed down. Quiet, more intimate, and you see a side of life here you normally wouldn’t, as long as you don’t want to actually go inside anything. Or use public transportation.”
“Sounds like some good old-fashioned adventuring time. Wouldn’t want to miss the chance to get the full local experience.”
“I’m not sure the locals quite match your enthusiasm for it. It is a nice time to get out and about, though.”
“What about you? Big plans with your family, or…?”
So much for that safer ground.
“No, not really,” she said hesitantly, already wishing that a better story, any rosier version of reality, had come to her more readily. “I wasn’t planning on doing much of anything.”
Ted’s eyebrows had drawn together sharply, as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. “You’ll be here? By yourself?”
“It’s just another day, isn’t it?”
And now she was the one pretending she didn’t care, like confessing to the emptiness of her life, the wasteland she had been left with after twelve years of marriage, wasn’t absolutely gutting.
“The truth is, I… lost touch with a lot of people, being with Rupert. It was just the two of us for a very long time. And now it’s just me.”
She almost laughed then, because Ted was the one who looked wounded, like every word was paining him, and she recognized the expression from the night of the gala, when she had first talked about Rupert and ended up crying into his shoulder, and somehow this was becoming a bit of a pattern for them, wasn’t it?
Every team celebration seemed to find them on the outside eventually, one or both skirting the edge of a breakdown while all the hurts they had tried to suppress clawed to the surface and came rushing out, the release overwhelming and terrifying until it met the breakwater that lay between them and eased again.
Ted didn’t push for details, didn’t say anything, just lifted his palm lightly to her back, the faint press of his thumb barely palpable through the thickness of her coat, holding things (holding her) together in that gentle way of his without guessing that this was precisely what would break her.
“I don’t miss him — I don’t. But…” She had to stop, swallowing hard, hating the brittle edge to her voice.
“You miss having someone,” Ted finished softly, and she saw her own grief reflected back to her in the wistful set of his mouth. “I get that.”
She had never said it out loud to anyone else — not to Sassy, not to Keeley, her closest friends — and she waited for the embarrassment to come, the regret of giving too much of herself away, even as she knew it never would.
The truth of the matter was that she didn’t mind it so much, this sharing of feelings, when the person hearing it all, navigating the flood with her, was Ted.
Because it was Ted.
And that was knowledge that verged on the unbearable, like trying to catch lightning, and she didn’t know how to hold it in her hands without letting it burn her to the quick.
“You know, if you wanted, we could spend the day together. Finally take that tour you promised me a little farther from the press room,” he said, and she was already shifting away from him, feeling his hand fall away. “It wouldn’t be anything fancy, but —”
“Ted, I don’t think that’s —”
“Look, don’t answer right now, okay? Just… sleep on it. The offer’s there: yours for the taking, or not. No questions asked, no strings attached, no arm-twisting.”
He looked so serious, so quietly hopeful, that she couldn’t help saying, “All right, I’ll think about it.”
“I can throw in some biscuits to sweeten the deal.”
“I think that constitutes arm-twisting, Ted.”
“Ah, it was worth a shot.”
Neither could find anything much to say after that, and the cold was beginning to seep past even the thick weave of Ted’s coat, raising goosebumps in a trail down her neck.
“Do you want to go back inside?” she asked.
“Yeah, we probably should before we freeze solid out here.”
“And I should give you back your coat.”
She felt for the zip, starting to shrug her arms out of the sleeves, but Ted stopped her hand, fingers cold over hers. “Keep it, at least until you warm up again. It looks better on you, anyway.”
The clip of her heels echoed against the walkway as they made their way back to the party, Ted a half-step in front of her (to help block the wind, he said, and when she argued that she was the taller and more warmly dressed of the two of them, he simply smiled and shook his head) and moving to open the door when he stopped short, so suddenly that Rebecca collided with his back.
“What is it?” She steadied herself against his shoulder, and then, when he didn’t answer, squeezed it lightly in concern. “Ted?”
“Oh, uh… nothing. Sorry, are you okay?”
“Fine, are you?” When he hesitated again, Rebecca got the distinct feeling that there was something he was trying to keep from her, specifically, and a thrill of unease stirred in her chest. “Just tell me what’s wrong.”
Ted turned to face her, finally, his expression apologetic. “Well, it seems that Keeley didn’t miss a trick when she was decking the halls. Or the doorways.”
He pointed upwards, mirroring the gesture Roy had used earlier, and Rebecca followed along helplessly, knowing before she saw it that one more sprig of mistletoe had been fixed to this doorframe, and they stood centered squarely underneath it.
“But, uh, there’s no one here besides us, so no one would know if we didn’t… well, I mean, it’s kind of a goofy tradition anyway. Like, who discovered that scrubby little plant and thought, oh yeah, that seems romantic and not at all weird to make people —”
Ted’s anxious rambling was picking up speed, spinning down detours that were already difficult to keep up with, and Rebecca knew that, uninterrupted, he could keep them wavering here on the threshold all night before he simply asked, or let her get a word in edgewise.
And so, body operating a half-beat before her brain, she leaned in and pressed her lips firmly to his to stop his mouth, tasting his surprise and her own as Ted’s hand came to rest on her hip, a single burning current of warmth supporting them both as he began to return the kiss.
It was enough to make her break contact, ducking her head away but putting no other distance between them. The instinctive thought that flickered through her mind — he’s your gaffer, for fuck’s sake — faded before it landed, chased down by the realization that it hadn’t felt awkward or wrong or complicated at all, to be kissing Ted.
It had just been… nice.
“You were saying?”
“Was I?” Ted sounded a little dazed, his hand still lingering on her hip until she gently eased it away. “Maybe we should go in separately to, uh, avoid…” he suggested, gesturing vaguely upwards again.
“Please, we’re not children,” she said, rolling her eyes. “By the sound of things, no one will even notice —”
She reached past him to push open the door, only to be met with an immediate eruption of “Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!” from all sides, Keeley heading up the chant and beaming at them from her place at the center of the throng.
“I probably should’ve mentioned that Colin and Richard had their squirrelly little faces pressed up against the window waiting for us to come in,” Ted said quietly in her ear.
“Yes, that would have been helpful information.”
With the scrutiny of the entire team focused on them, urging them on, there was nothing to do but give in and do it all again.
Ted kissed her this time, a perfectly chaste, almost mechanical, over-in-a-blink brush of lips on hers that hardly counted as anything, to the disappointment of everyone — even, Rebecca would have been forced to admit through the unexpected pang of loss in her stomach, to her.
“I’ve had hotter kisses with my nan,” someone grumbled in the back, which was promptly answered with the distinct sound of a thwack to the head and a “That’s disgusting, mate” as the footballers lost interest in the spectacle-that-wasn't and drifted away, the noise in the room slowly returning to a more festive level.
“Ouch. I haven’t gotten a review that bad since I screwed up my blocking and accidentally pushed Shelley Ford off the stage during our eighth grade production of The Music Man,” Ted said, grimacing. “Terrible thing. I’ve never been able to listen to ‘Ya Got Trouble’ the same way since.”
“Well, no damage done tonight.” Rebecca paused, then added wickedly, “Unless you think we should add ‘completely killing everyone’s mood’ to your list of casualties?”
“You saw the opportunity and jumped on it — lock, stock, and barrel. Fair play, I gotta respect that,” Ted laughed, one hand to his chest to show that her teasing had hit its mark. “Maybe throw a smidgen of my pride onto that list too.”
Catching a ripple of movement in her periphery, Rebecca turned and saw that Keeley was watching them curiously, her eyes bright, like she knew something that no one else did, and Rebecca grew conscious of what she and Ted might look like from another angle — how close they were standing, still barely across the threshold of the room, and their easy laughter, the easy rhythm of everything between them that sent another confused flash of adrenaline through her.
“... Earth to Rebecca?” Ted bobbed his head into her line of sight. “Thought I’d lost you there, boss.”
“Sorry, just woolgathering. I think I’ve had enough excitement for one night.”
“I hear you on that. I’ll walk you out?”
She nodded, and Ted took the lead, reaching back for her hand as they worked their way through the crowd so as not to get swept in different directions. His fingers were colder than hers, and her grip on him tightened instinctively, trying to pass along warmth, and she wasn’t quite able to ignore the stutter-step of her breathing when Ted squeezed back lightly in kind.
It was strange, this holding and being held, and neither one trying to slip free from the touch, like nothing she had ever known with Rupert.
Like nothing she had known with anyone, really, Rebecca thought, and burned until they made it out of the room, hands slowly untangling once they cleared the crowd.
They stopped at her office in order to collect her things, Ted finally reclaiming his coat so that he could walk her to her car, each step through the meandering hallways of the club drawing the night out longer, and longer still, until they reached the car park and had no more reasonable excuses to fall upon for delaying their departure further.
“Ted, I —” she began, at the precise moment Ted was starting to say something, and she held up a hand, needing to go first, the next words leaving her in a barely-controlled rush. “It’s just that there are far more interesting things to see in London than Abbey Road.”
His whole forehead creased with thought as he puzzled out her meaning. “And this is... are you offering to show me…?”
“I suppose I am.”
The force of Ted’s smile at her answer threatened to split his face in half, and he couldn’t quite contain a whoop of happiness, all of it a display of pure, enthusiastic delight she had seen from him a hundred times before that felt entirely new when directed at her.
“Yes, well, you promised me biscuits if we spent Christmas together. I’m not made of stone,” she huffed defensively, ready to take it all back for the way Ted was looking at her now, soft and sure where she was so muddled, hardly knowing what she was doing by volunteering to spend so much time in his company.
“I’ll have to remember that.”
He leaned in, a cloud of breath heating the bend of her neck, and she almost expected him to kiss her again — properly this time — almost wanted it, the same reckless need to touch him rising in her unbidden, but instead he simply tucked the end of her scarf more securely into her collar, saying, by way of explanation, “Letting the boss turn into a popsicle wouldn’t be good for anyone.”
He walked away then, calling a goodnight over his shoulder, and Rebecca watched him go, fixed in place long after he had disappeared past the gate, filled with the wild, nameless feelings that came with standing on the cusp of something, edging over — to be both fearful of the fall that waited on the other side and, somehow, racing straight to the heart of it, eyes open at last.