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His lips are soft and, despite the coldness of the night, surprisingly warm

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His lips are soft and, despite the coldness of the night, surprisingly warm. The kiss is gentler than I expected. Sweet and almost nervous. I respond at once, surprising myself. At this, Finch would have pulled me into him and run his fingers through my hair, but James holds back, keeping his hand on my face. I let myself melt into him, stepping forward so that my body leans against his. Only then does his kiss become stronger. His hands slide around my waist and I let him open my lips with his tongue, startling at the strangeness of it but amazed by it all the same.

It should have been perfect; the moonlit scene sparkling under a thousand glittering firework stars, the gentle lapping of water, and the two of us, so perfectly suited to one another. And for someone else, I know the kiss would have been. Even as in love as I am with his cousin, Lissie is right. James is one hell of a kisser. But something feels off. Strange.

James pulls back, the taste of his lips still on mine. He creases his brow pensively. Looking down, he raises his hand to his lips.

'Did that feel -'


He looks surprised by my answer. For a second my stomach drops, worried that I've misjudged my feelings for his. Then he smiles.

'Worse than that. I mean, the kiss was good,' he says, seeing my face fall. 'But it felt like I was kissing family – like I was making out with TJ or Finch!'

'It felt nothing like I was kissing Finch.' I say it before I have the wherewithal to stop myself.

'Too much information,' he says, pushing me away and grimacing.

'You said it yourself. It felt wrong. It felt like I was kissing Cricket.'

He smirks at this, cogs turning in his twisted imagination.


He holds his hands up into the air. 'Hey! I got dumped tonight and kissed a girl, only for her to tell me she preferred kissing my cousin - the same cousin whose ass I'm gonna kick tomorrow over breaking my best friend's heart. It's been a big night. You gotta give me something.'

He pulls me into him and wraps his arms around me, his shoulders shaking with laughter. 'Oh god, Martha. Think of all the heartbreak we could have saved ourselves if we'd just done that six months ago.'

I can't help but smile. He's right. If we'd done that months ago, I'd never have chased him down that first night back in Hopton and found myself in Finch's path. But leading me to Finch's path had also led me here. And could I ever regret having James in my life? Even if it wasn't how I had originally thought it would be.

Looking back to that girl then - the one who had never been kissed, and found it hard to even speak to a boy - I would have been so embarrassed by our kiss that I would have ruined the beginnings of my friendship with James by shutting him out. If it wasn't for Finch walking me to class on the first day, I never would have met Cricket, or Elodie, or Anna-Beth. I never would have tried out for the cheer team to tear Savannah down if it hadn't been for the pep rally. I would never have held James' hand as he cried over Elodie. I never would have fallen in love.

'I don't regret how it worked out,' I say, pulling back and looking out at the dark skies above me. 'If you'd have kissed me last summer, we would never be where we are now. I'd take triple the drama and the heartbreak to have you as my friend.'

He laughs, but tears prick his eyes.

'This year, I'm going to focus on me,' I announce as we climb the steps up to the house.

James stops as he reaches the veranda. 'Get back to England, you mean?'

I shake my head. 'Unless you're there, I'm not interested. No, I mean forget about boys. Give myself some time off love, and refocus on Oxford.'

We push open the kitchen door quietly, whispering low. Birdy's bag and four pairs of shoes are on the floor. Two figures sit in the dark living room, TJ beside Finch, who is crouched low, head in his hands.

I pull James back to where we can't be seen. 'I need you to do something for me. Please don't get angry.'

'But -'

'But nothing. I'm the one he hurt,' I whisper.


'I love him, James. God knows why, and I wish I didn't. But I do. And I love you too.' My voice cracks. 'You and him fighting won't make me feel better. It will just make the situation harder. Be angry with him, but just do it quietly and in that brooding way you do. Ok?'

Taking a deep breath, I walk out into the kitchen, clearing my throat as I reach the living room. When Finch looks up, my head swims. His brilliantly green eyes are rimmed red and his face is blotchy in the moonlight. My heart strains, despite knowing it's my heartbreak hurting him. I hate myself for being so weak. He leaps to his feet, but TJ holds him back.

TJ's the first to break the silence and speak. 'Lissie is upstairs in bed. You should go too, Martha.'

Finch whispers wildly at his brother who hushes him.

I fix TJ with a horrified stare. 'I don't want to sleep in the same room as her,' I say, swallowing back the lump that was forming in my throat.

'You can have my bed,' Finch mutters.

'Why the hell would I want your bed,' I say sharply, aiming to wound. From the way his face crumples, I know I've achieved that.

'Martha - ' he starts, but I drop my gaze.

'We talked about this, Attie. Not tonight,' TJ says.

'But I need to talk to her!' Finch says, his voice louder and echoing through the empty house. His eyes brim with tears again and are wild with desperation.

TJ hushes him and James looks wildly at the stairs. Waking our parents won't do anything but intensify the situation.

'TJ's right,' I say, not able to look Finch in the eye. 'Not tonight.'

Breaking free from TJ's grip, Finch crosses the room and takes my hand in his. They shake the same way as they did last night.

'I'm an idiot,' he whisper. Hot tears hit our entwined hands and I struggle to decipher mine from his. The pain in my chest intensifies.

'Finch,' says James, putting his hand on Finch's shoulder. The other hand rests on the small of my back. A small gesture of solidarity. Despite his cousin's interference, Finch keeps hold of my hand as though afraid of letting it go.

'You heard her,' James says again, gentler this time as tears run over Finch's cheeks. 'Not now. Leave her alone.'

'But I love her,' Finch says weakly, his voice entirely stripped of its trademark cockiness. The rawness is the final straw and I break, ripping my hands out of his and taking the stairs two at a time.

Instead of turning left to my room, I race down the other side of the corridor to the one place that I know I'll be able to cry without questions.

As I shake Oscar awake, he grunts. His blonde hair sticks up in strange angles and his eyes squinting, barely able to open. When he sees it's me, he relaxes back into the sea of pillows.

'What the hell, Mats,' he mumbles, his voice soft and sleepy. 'You drunk?'

I nod and let out a sob.

He props himself up on his elbows. 'Do you want to talk about it?'

Shaking my head, I strip off my socks and coat. Oscar throws back the covers, letting me crawl into his bed.

'Everything looks better in the sunlight,' he whispers, kissing me on the head. 'And until then, I'm here.'

Oscar lets me curl into him, only once complaining that my hair smells of cigarette smoke as I cry myself to sleep.

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