The bonfire stood tall, its yellow-orange flames stretching towards a seemingly extra black sky. Its crackling was drowned out by the foosh of salty waves sweeping across the shore just a few meters away, by the ridiculous pop music in the background, by chatter and laughter. Its crackling was nonexistent to everyone else, but I heard it and in my state of near-drunkenness, I thought it meant something.
When I was drinking, everything meant something. Especially when he did them.
Hot air brushed my face and I exhaled, pushed some curly hair behind my ear and then drained the strong vodka mix. Shorts had probably not been the smartest decision for a New Year's Eve beach bonfire, but nothing could be done about that now. There were less mosquitoes around the fire.
“You're a little too close to that thing.” A firm grip on my arm tugged me away from the flames. I squeaked, losing my footing and tumbling backwards onto Mason. I spun around a little too quickly, but he hadn't released my arm and I was able to stand up straight.
“Right. You're drunk. Need some water?”
I pouted and shook my head. “Are we going to count down soon?”
He bent his head to look at his phone and I released the breath I'd been holding since my back had connected with his chest. He was wearing a white V-neck tshirt, pale jeans and a black and white hoodie. I tugged my own closer, wanting to get nearer to the fire again. We were all barefoot on the sand.
“I guess we can set up to count down in another half hour. Come inside with me, let's get some glasses and stuff.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “You never want my help.”
Mason chuckled and grabbed my wrist. “I also don't want you tripping over your feet and into that inferno. Plus, Chris is off with Amanda, so you'll have to do. Come on, you drunk.”
I yelped when he pulled me towards the house. Alcohol raced through my system, tangling my feet and making me cling to Mason's arm. His hard bicep flexed under my grip and I gulped as he straightened me again. Dark eyes narrowed on mine, serious for a few seconds before he chuckled and shook his head. His face was close enough that his breath shifted my hair. He pushed it back behind my ear.
“You need a hairpin for that.”
I pouted. Again. “I do not. It's cute.”
Mason laughed again, linked our arms and half-dragged me off. He didn't say it wasn't cute, I thought, ridiculously pleased.
We toweled sand off our feet before stepping into his house. Mason lived on the beach with his parents. He was their only child and privileged and it showed – from the sprawling balcony that overlooked the sea, to the sleek, silver-blue Audi that was parked with his parents' cars off to the side. I'd seen Mason's room a few times when I'd visited with Chris. It was larger than even mine with a Queen sized bed, an impossibly thin TV with various game consoles on the floor, a private shower and closet space to die for.
“He's not your typical rich boy, though,” Chris had told me the first time I'd tagged along. “Haven't known him too long but I know he's honest. And that's enough.” Chris and I had been best friends since birth but finally split up when we went to different universities. Mason was one of his first new friends. Sometimes I felt like I'd joined their group and not the other way around, but it worked. It had been almost a year and we had kind of a unit going on.
“I put some drinks in the fridge. Could you grab them?”
I nodded and did as he'd asked. The kitchen was immaculate and it made me wonder if it was ever used. Mason moved around, organizing the food, champagnes and wines that his guests had brought while I leaned against the mahogany and jade counter, sipping cold water. “Lots of people here tonight.”
He scoffed. “Yeah. Lots of people I don't know.”
“You know everybody,” I corrected.
“I know you and Chris. I'm acquainted with the balance.”
I giggled, ignoring my now burning ears and trying not to feel important. He glanced over and rolled his eyes. “Why the party then?”
“Something to do.” A paused and then “I've had birthday parties like every other kid but they never meant much. Figured maybe a New Year's thing would be different.”
“It's the same. I'd be happier if it was just us watching movies til midnight.” He shrugged. “It was worth a try though.”
I shrugged my hoodie off my shoulders and went even warmer than I already was when Mason let himself look at me for a few seconds longer than he usually did before he went back to handling the food. I wasn't especially dressed up, in shorts and a Superman tshirt. My curls were back in a messy ponytail and my turquoise manicure just a little chipped. Even so, Mason had a way of making me feel like I was the only girl there.
When I was drinking and needed to be monitored, anyway. Some days it surprised me how quickly he'd started copying Chris' overprotective attitude towards me. Chris, who'd had more girlfriends all year than I'd had boyfriends in my entire life, treated me like a piece of crystal.
“Let's get this stuff outside. It's almost count down time.”
I nodded and followed behind Mason's tall, lithe form, clutching a large platter of quartered chicken sandwiches, veggies and dressing.
“Try not to drop it, drunk,” he teased.
“Whatever,” I answered, glaring holes through his back. He pushed the balcony door open and stood against it for me to walk through. I tried to ignore the electricity in my tummy as I brushed past his body. “I want another drink for all this hard labour.”
“I can give you better than that,” he answered, setting the trays down on one of the long tables and glancing at his watch. “Fifteen minutes to count down.”
“We should get Chris.”
“He's occupied. You've been entrusted to me for the night.”
I rolled my eyes. “I don't need you to babysit me. Plus, you have guests.”
“They probably don't even remember whose house they're at right now. Get another drink if you want. I'm gonna do a round and then we can go get a great view of the fireworks.” I ignored the flip flop of my tummy as I mixed vodka and juice in a plastic cup and watched Mason move through the crowd of people. Girls were tripping over themselves to talk to him, but he hardly noticed, preferring to chat briefly to smaller groups before moving on.
There was just something about the way he moved – almost swaying, but still purposeful, knowing exactly where he wanted to go. The huge flames continued to lick the darkness, simultaneously causing an orange glow and dancing shadows to shift across the beach. Even so, I could only see the effect on Mason – the glow that radiated from him, the reflection of the fire in his dark, dark eyes when he glanced over, the way his face became shadowed as he moved back over to me.
“Let's go. God, Sadie, I can smell that drink.”
I could only swallow another sip as we walked away from the crowds.
Mason's house was miles east of the downtown docks. Every year, way too many people gathered to watch the lengthy, extravagant fireworks display that started at midnight and lasted for the better part of two hours. Police and ambulances would surround the general area waiting for someone to faint at least, or be trampled at the worst, but there had never been such an event. Not that I'd heard of, anyway. I had never been. I watched the show every year, but from far away at my or Chris' place. This would be my first time seeing it fairly close up and from the beach. My first time seeing it with...
“Watch your step. We're going up some stairs soon.”
We were on the eastern side of the house. I dragged my fingers along the cold, gently curving concrete walls. The corners were dark, mostly hidden from the bonfire. The path we were walking along was slim and cut through bunches of flowers that Mason's mother tended to lovingly. I stuck as close as I could to his back, trying not to trip over my feet or bump into him. It was a wasted effort. Somewhere between me draining my plastic cup and shaking my head to recover from the rush of potent vodka, Mason stopped and I slammed into him, causing him to grunt and tip forward. He managed to catch both of us against the wall.
“Sadie!” I blinked, still shaking my head from the rush. Everything about my body raced. Maybe gulping the last of it had been a bad idea. “Sadie?” Mason's hands were wrapped around my shoulders. He was annoyed. I could tell. In the pale, barely-there lighting that was coming from God-only-knew-where, I saw that the corners of his lips were turned down, that his brows were tucked tightly together, that his eyes were slightly narrowed as he gazed at me. “Sadie? God, are you ok? You need to quit the drinking.”
“It's finished.” I giggled. Something about his anger tickled me. Maybe it was just nerves. Maybe it was his closeness. Maybe. I could have stopped myself from wrapping my arms around his chest and pushing my face into his hoodie, but I didn't. He exhaled and ran a hand over my hair. I couldn't keep track of his heart rate over mine.
“Let's go. Come on, up the steps. One at a time.” They felt a lot steeper than they actually were. There was a wall to the right. The railing on the left was high, intricately woven steel and cold to the touch as I grabbed at random curls even though Mason's arm around my shoulders was firm. “We're stopping again.”
I nodded and paused on the landing. A lock clicked open. The room we walked into was wrapped in one-way glass – we could see out, but out couldn't see in, and we were high up anyway. “Wow,” I breathed. The tiled floor was chilly but clean. There was a messy bunk bed off to one side, scattered scuba diving gear, a small fridge, a desk and chair and a small bathroom. The desk was covered with drawings. A large sketchpad lay open in one corner. “This room must be amazing during sunset.”
“It is. Here's some water.” Mason walked over to where I was standing – by the glass wall, facing the sea and bonfire.
“Sorryyy for being a drunkie,” I apologized, sipping. He chuckled and nodded. Mason leaned against the glass, crossed his arms over his chest and looked down on the beach. The silvery moon and the orange fire struck his profile simultaneously and set my heart on its toes. He was gorgeous. I couldn't help the sigh.
“You okay?” He looked over, raised eye brow. “More water? Something to eat?”
I giggled. “I'm okay.” I looked away when his eyes settled into mine. Heat crept up my face and my ears tingled. We lapsed into silence but I was sure he could hear my heartbeat.
“Sadie, I don't trust people.” I knew that. Anyone who cared to know anything about Mason could deduce that pretty quickly. “When Chris and I met this spring and he kept talking about you, I thought he was an idiot.”
My eyes shot up but he was looking beyond me. He was probably staring his memories in the face. Probably seeing Chris for the first time – the way Chris had described it to me on our first weekend after university.
“I made a new friend,” he said as we sat down to ice cream. The mall buzzed around us.
I giggled. “You sound like you're in prep school.”
Chris laughed. “Shut up.” A silent beat while we took the first tastes of our desserts and then “He needs a friend, Sadie. He seems cool, just closed off.”
“How did you start talking to him?”
“He was drawing in this huge sketchbook and I told him his stuff looked good. Showed him mine and just kept bothering him after that.”
“He doesn't like talking.”
I rolled my eyes. “You always start talking to random people.”
He chuckled. “I make good decisions where friends are concerned though.”
I grinned. “Can't say no about that.”
“He always showed me sketches he had done of you. I could have sworn you were just stringing him along.”
“That's why you never wanted to meet me?”
“That's what he told you?”
I scoffed. “He didn't have to. And when we met, it wasn't hard to pick up. You give off a vibe... like a forcefield.”
When Mason laughed I wanted to melt into the floor. His eyes were closed, head tossed back and strong arms still crossed but not as tightly. I smiled and looked down. The height made me feel a little unsteady.
“Before we met,” he continued, and I leaned on my right shoulder to face him. His face was relaxed and he smiled at me almost fondly. “Before you and I met, Chris said that he had to look out for you all the time. I told him he was being conned.”
His shoulders shook with a silent laugh. “But when we hung out some more, I saw why.”
“Because I'm a drunkie?”
“Because you're naïve.” Ouch. “You think everything is going to be okay. That you'll get the fairytale ending. That nobody is going to break your heart. That nobody is going to take advantage of you when you drink.” At that he narrowed his eyes at me. My ears burned and I looked down. His cold palm flattened against my cheek and he turned my face up. “And...”
Screams and explosions shocked us out of the moment. I spun away from him. Fireworks shot up into the black sky and popped loudly. Noise from the party downstairs swelled with laughter and squeals and “happy new year!!”. I was so mesmerized by the pinks and greens and yellows from down by the docks that I didn't realize Mason had moved until he was standing beside me, our shoulders barely touching. We didn't say anything for long minutes, simply staring as the huge colours swallowed the room.
“Happy new year, Mase.”
“Happy new year, Sadie.” He faced me and I turned with him. I didn't expect his hand to take up its earlier post on my cheek. I closed my eyes, letting my head droop into his fingers, memorizing his skin and his scent and his nearness. The kiss on my forehead surprised me even more. I wrapped my arms around his waist and his lips stilled, but he didn't move. We watched the fireworks like that for a while, his thumb brushing across my face every so often, his other arm loosely draped around my waist, his mouth pressing a fresh kiss to the same spot every minute or so.
“You're falling asleep,” he chuckled in a low voice, catching me as I started out of a doze. I felt my feet moving before I tumbled into a tangled mess of sheets on the firm bottom bunk.
“Who sleeps here with you?” I felt him laugh more than I heard him. Fireworks continued to pop down the beach. I couldn't see them as well from the bed, but I couldn't comprehend standing at the moment. “Well?”
“Demanding, aren't you,” he teased. “I stay here alone. I liked the bunk bed when I was younger so my parents bought it.”
“But you're an only child.” He was quiet for a few seconds and I opened my eyes. “I'm sorry, Mase... I wasn't thinking.”
“Nah. I am an only child. I just always hoped there'd be someone here with me.”
“I'm here with you.” I sat up too quickly and shook my head to halt the spinning. It didn't totally work. He laughed and nodded. “I am.”
“I know you are, naïve little drunk.” He leaned beyond me to adjust the pillows and lowered me to them by my shoulders before sitting at the other end of the bed to watch the rest of the fireworks. They flashed across the room like magic and I sank into the pillows.
The sparks played across Mason's relaxed face, animating his handsome features in a way I never wanted to forget. His brows were at ease, mouth turned up in a small smile, arms folded lightly across his body. No forcefield tonight... Just fireworks.