Luke looked horror-stricken. “What?” He took the fragile, fluted glass of golden bubbles from me. Sniffed. Tasted. Went white and then red.
“That isn’t funny!” Luke stared around the crowded room—we were at a party at his partner Rod’s house—looking ready to punch someone. “How fucking dare—”
Nobody would fucking dare. Nobody was paying us a bit of attention. Everyone was laughing and talking and, yes, drinking. A lot of drinking at cop parties. Supposedly one out of every four cops on the street had some kind of alcohol or drug abuse issue. Not that I judge. I am the last person in position to judge.
The flavor of the bubbles still snapped and stung against my tongue. I could practically taste the rainbow. Hello darkness, my old friend…
“It’s okay,” I said quickly. “Just get me something else. Get me a ginger ale.” Asking for sparkling cider from a half-looped vice cop wearing a Santa hat had probably been a bad idea anyway. I should have stuck to my usual tonic water with a twist of lime, but sparkling cider had seemed more festive.
Luke’s gaze shot back to mine, searching, afraid, remorseful. “I should have tasted it first.”
I laughed. “Come on. Seriously? I don’t need a poison taster. I’m not going to fall off the wagon because I have a sip of champagne.”
If anything, he looked more aghast, and listening to the echo of my words, I got it. Because shades of the old days. The bad old days when I’d insist I could still have a drink and be okay. That wasn’t what I meant. I had been sober five years. I knew better than anyone I couldn’t have a drink and still be okay. Or at least, I couldn’t choose to drink and still be okay.
But this…this involuntary ingesting of alcohol, that was a completely different thing.
“I mean,” I said quickly, “It isn’t just about the alcohol. In fact, the booze is the least of it.” Which is ironic, but true.
“Right,” Luke said equally quickly. “I know. Of course.”
And he did, but…
Once I would have been hurt by his fear, but learning to forgive myself had made me gentler with others. And there was no one I wanted to be gentler with than Luke who now looked guilty and apologetic as though he’d let me down with that flash of instinctive alarm.
He hadn’t. Because truth? My tongue still tingled from that sudden, unexpected taste of forbidden fruit. For one dizzying moment it was as though that slightly dinged silver disco ball overhead had fallen to the shag carpet, split open, and spilled out cartoon butterflies and flowers, fireworks exploding glitter-hearts and rainbows and twinkling stars—thrilling and sickening at the same time. Like Alice stumbling through the Looking Glass, martini glass in hand.
Man, I still missed drinking.
And, man, I’d happily do without it for the rest of my life.
Happily avoid doing anything that made Luke look so worried—worried and angry. He was back to glaring around the crowd, waiting for some joker to burst out laughing and admit to spiking my drink. That wasn’t going to happen because that wasn’t what had happened.
But cops are not trusting people. When you see the worst of people, day in and day out, you start to expect the worst from everyone.
I put my hand on his arm. Luke’s hazel eyes jerked back to mine, instantly alert, instantly attuned to whatever I needed.
“Hey. It’s okay,” I insisted. “It was an accident. Nobody’s—” I broke off as a blonde girl in a dress about the size of an elf’s uniform, stumbled against me.
“Sorry!” she said, and glared at the guy who had knocked into her. He didn’t even notice, red-faced and laughing so hard he was nearly doubled over. The elf and I exchanged grimaces.
I edged toward Luke, who nodded at the girl, and frowned down at the champagne flute as though he still found it suspicious but couldn’t figure out how to charge it. He met my eyes. “Ginger ale, you said?”
I took a breath. “Or we could just…split?”
I was afraid he might be disappointed, but no. He brightened. “Right? You think so too? Because we did the thing.”
“We did the thing,” I agreed. Put in an appearance, supported Rod’s efforts to impress Cara, his new girlfriend, had displayed a judicious amount of holly jolly as befitted the season.
But if I had to listen to “All I Want for Christmas is You” one more time maybe I would start drinking.
“You wouldn’t mind?” Luke added, and I got that he was making the point that he didn’t think he needed to drag me out of there because liquor had touched my lips; doing his best to erase my memory of his initial reaction, that flare of clear and present panic.
“Not at all.” I smiled because I appreciated that show of confidence—and because I understood and sympathized with his initial fright. We had only been together—really together—for three years, but I felt sometimes like I’d known Luke my entire life.
Anyway, we both liked parties well enough, but what we really liked, what we really wanted—what we really needed—was a little home alone time. I’d been away in Tuscany for the past eight days, so the last thing I’d felt like was going out, let alone attending a Christmas party peopled solely by members of LAPD and their plus-ones, but when you marry a cop, you marry his partner.
“You grab our coats, I’ll say goodnight to Rod,” Luke said.
* * * * *
When I came out of the pool, Luke was waiting with my robe—hot out of the tumble dry cycle, and I shivered into it, chattering out, “It’s colder than I thought.”
The water had been a delightful 89 degrees, but the night air? Frigid.
“It’s fifty-nine tonight, you nut.” He wrapped his arms around me and kissed me. “You’re going to have pneumonia for Christmas.”
“N-n-nah. I’m p-p-part s-s-snowman, r-r-remember?” I kissed him back. His mouth was cold and tasted like cocoa. Funny to think there had been a time I had not liked the taste of cocoa unless it had peppermint Schnapps or raspberry vodka added to it. Now cocoa was part of our wintertime routine and I loved it to the last drop.
“S-s-so many s-s-stars tonight!” It was the truth; the night sky was glittering—almost crackling—with flecks of diamond dust. I’d seen two shooting stars while I’d been swimming. Good omens, if you believed in such things.
I believed in such things.
“Fireplace or fire pit?” Luke asked.
He laughed, keeping his arm around me. “Come on, Frosty.”
After I’d showered and we were settled before the fireplace in the den, drinking our cocoa, I said, “You don’t have to worry about tonight. I’m okay.”
He said at once, so I knew I was right in thinking it was still on his mind. “I know. I know that. It wasn’t about you, Tim—”
But, of course, it was. It was all about me and the number of times I’d let him down—let us both down before I’d found my way out of that dark, dark wood. Found the way out for both of us because when you love someone, you’re trapped with them.
“And you really don’t have to apologize.” I smiled at him. “Were you worried the whole time I was gone?”
Tuscany was the first trip overseas I’d made on my own since getting sober. We’d traveled a couple of times together—our honeymoon in Ireland had been the last time. At first, I hadn’t trusted…well, I won’t say myself, because I did trust myself in the ordinary course of things, but I didn’t trust the universe not to throw something at me I wasn’t prepared for. Alcoholics and boy scouts prefer to be prepared.
So I wasn’t at all surprised that Luke hesitated, smiled ruefully. “I was worried, yes, but not because I thought you couldn’t resist the famed Tuscan wine. Your sense of direction is so shitty, and things have a way of happening to you. That’s what worried me.”
I laughed because both were true. “Yet here I am, safe and sound. And sober.”
“Yes.” He kissed me softly and then less softly. “Bed?” he gasped out, the third time our lips met.
“I thought you’d never…”
But as I started to push up from the sofa, he caught my arm, tumbling me back against him. He said with sudden urgency, “Tim?”
He looked so serious, so earnest. “I've got to say it."
I said warily, "Okay. Say it."
"When we got together again, I really thought I couldn’t love you more than I already did. I just couldn’t imagine—but every day, every year I love you more. And that’s why if I seemed to-to freak out—I didn’t think it was even possible to be this happy with someone. And it's all so fragile. It can all change in an instant. There are no guarantees. That's all. It's not about trusting you or faith in you or confidence in you. It's about knowing only too well how lucky I am.”
It’s not an Irish folk song, but it might as well be: When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose. We both had everything to lose. Everyone had everything to lose, because nothing lasts forever.
“It’s the same for me,” I said.
His gaze—the warm color of the firelight--searched mine.
I said, “Life is unpredictable. Nobody knows better than us. A lot of things aren’t in our control, but this one thing—this is. I’m not saying I stay sober for you because that’s not true. I stay sober because I want to be present and accounted for in my life. But the best thing about that life? You. And I wouldn’t risk what we have together for all the tea in China--or all the whiskey in Ireland.”
I would have been too corny to say what I was thinking, but it was the truth: even when my glass was empty, my cup was full.
The star atop the tree was still shining when we went down the hall to bed.