God, something or someone, or life in general radically fucked up Easter. What the hell kind of guys has she slept with? Not the good kind. Maybe much older than her. Easter doesn’t seem to know what an authentic relationship even looks like. Sex seems … sex seems a whole world of fucked up for her. She has to do it when someone asks for it. She looks at it as the only reason worth seeing her for in the first place, the only reason worth having a relationship, anyway. If you could call it that. “Truth? I’d probably just fuck you for a while,” she’d said to Henry. Jesus.
Jax. Jax all over again. Jax walking out of Henry’s apartment that first morning, Jax saying he wasn’t worth it. Jax hurting, Henry could see it in those blue eyes, but running anyway. Jax doing things because he felt like he had to. Jax, the most brilliant man Henry’s ever met, convinced he was only worth a quick fuck.
No idea — either of them — that sex could be something more than getting off. But Easter seems to love when he just holds her. Especially when he holds her tight and gets her off at the same time. She comes hard and gets all dreamy and doesn’t want him to move. “No one’s ever held me like that before,” she had said. Christ on Christmas. What the fuck kind of things has she done?
Like Jax. He never told Henry. Henry always suspected he didn’t want him to know, and never asked. He figured out some of it: he got fucked — or used for fucking — by way too many guys. There were drugs somewhere. Easter is probably the same.
And he’s got to fix her, like he fixed Jax. Because he’s falling in love with her.
Good chance she’ll run off and break him, too.
He holds her tight and buries his face in her hair. He wants to keep this one the way he wanted to keep Jax. He wants her safe and happy, to laugh and hold his hand and cuddle, and yes, fucking make love to him. And he wants it easy the way it was with Jax; those familiar routines moving around each other: who makes the coffee, who buys the cream. Farmer’s market on Saturday morning and brunch on Sunday. That certain way you fold each other’s socks. All those small details. He wants that.
They settle into something regular: her house after school, sleeping at his apartment, plenty of riding, hanging out with Wills and Crispin, teasing Alexander, eating at home. His mother pets and coos over Easter, who seems to love it. Her relationship with her mom, whom he’s never seen her call, doesn’t seem all that healthy. Aunt Georgia’s always over — of course she’s always over at the Culliver house, because if Easter hasn’t figured out that his mom’s hooking up with her she’s willfully blind. Henry takes her out on the weekends, drinking and dancing, usually with Wills and Crispin in tow, meeting their other friends: the Jasper twins, Isabel and her new boyfriend, Delia and Baylor.
She always comes up with an excuse when he suggests Audie and Calhoun.
They come home and Henry holds her while he makes her come again and again, any way he can, as long as he’s gentle and careful. Easter starts to get it. She starts to want him, him, not the sex. One night, she’s been wearing a tight dress over a black corset all night, one that pushes her tits up incredibly. Henry hasn’t stopped staring. They’re both a little drunk, and he wants his hands and mouth on her breasts, desperately.
They start the way they always do, half-naked, gentle kissing, but since Easter’s taken off the corset she’s already bare-chested and her hard nipples against Henry’s chest make him crazy. His hands tangle in her hair, and that makes him crazier. When he thumbs one of her nipples, Easter actually purrs. Fuck it, he’s the totally self-indulgent kind of drunk and he fucking loves tits. So, careful to keep his arms around her, he slides down, catches her nipple in his mouth, and sucks. And god, it’s so good. Easter has amazing tits anyway, high and round and full, and Henry loves them filling his mouth. He holds Easter close to him, because she’ll whine if he doesn’t, and sucks hard, then lightly; he uses his tongue every way he can think of. She arches toward him. When he flips over her and wraps his lips around her other breast, she gasps. His sucks turn lazy and Easter hums with pleasure as he simply lies still and sucks, flips her on her back and returns to the other breast.
“I’d do this all night if you let me. It’s making me so hard.”
By now she’s playing with his hair and moaning.
He slides up to her ear. She whines, so he strokes one of her nipples with his thumb as he lies half on top of her. “Let me do that to your pussy.” Henry makes his breath tickle her. “I haven’t gotten to lick your pussy yet, Easter. Please?”
“Then lemme suck your cock at the same time.”
“No. This is for you.”
“But you’d be so far away, Henry. I couldn’t touch you.” He melts.
So Henry flips around. She tastes perfect, like the ocean and something rare and wonderful he can’t quite figure out. Her lips wrap around his cock. He only has to rest his tongue directly on her clit and lick her softly: Easter will come quick and hard if he does. And by now Easter knows that if she takes his whole cock in her mouth and sucks him hard and fast a few times he’d go almost immediately. By some unspoken agreement, neither one does it. Henry feels Easter take hold of his shaft, wrap her lips around his head, and suck lazily. And fuck it feels good. He licks her carefully until her clit peeks out, then sucks on it just as slowly. She arches towards him and digs her nails into his thigh.
Time turns blurry. Neither stops or really changes what they’re doing, but instead, both build slowly until Henry is finally moving his hips on her and Easter’s bucking at his mouth. Then both do what the other wants so badly: Henry’s tongue meets Easter’s clit and licks her roughly; she tenses and muffles a loud keen of pleasure as she takes in his whole cock. He’s gone as soon as his tip hits the back of her throat, but he licks her again and she comes on his lips, arching and shaking. They each ride out their orgasms and when they finish, Henry flips back around and Easter burrows into his arms.
He’s finally getting through. And she’s falling in love with him.
He does it, finally, Christmas night. She’s been in Charleston for three days, but drove straight to the Cullivers’ on Christmas afternoon. Everyone got presents from her, and she got presents from everyone else, and he had her, and she was his.
They’re standing in the bedroom. She has her back turned; she isn’t paying attention when Henry says it: “I love you, Easter.” He’s wanted so much to say it earlier, and has caught himself about to toss it off casually a hundred times. But he wanted her to know he meant it.
She turns, surprised. “I love you too, Henry. I didn’t think —”
“I wanted you to know I meant it when I said it.”
“So you made me wait?!”
“Yes?” Oh shit. That sounds really stupid.
“You are such an idiot!” She kisses him hard. “I thought you’d never say it and I was too scared!”
“Make love to me?”
Now she kisses him for real. “Henry, I thought you’d never ask.”
Henry wants it slow. He senses that she does too but he can’t stand it anymore and he doesn’t think she can either. Their clothes come off; they wrap around each other and Easter kisses him, full of nips and begging. Henry sucks on her lower lip, nips it hard, then sucks the hurt place. Easter loves that mix of pleasure and the tinge of pain, he’s found. She likes the soothing part the best. He wants to suck her tits but she pulls him back to her mouth and her hand closes on his cock. Easter’s soaked when she arches up to his finger at her entrance. So wet and tight and he’s going to feel that on his cock. He moves her hand.
“You can’t touch me.”
“Why? That’s not fair.”
“Because I know I get to be inside you, and I won’t last.”
He goes back to kissing her. He strokes her clit some, just to get her ready, hoping his cock will be enough for her to finish. When he starts to slide his finger in and out of her she stops him.
“No. Use your cock.”
“Easter, I might hurt you.” She’s so small and He’s — well — not.
“Pet me so I’m close?” She asks for things now. She never used to ask.
He strokes her with his thumb until she starts to tense, then kneels between her legs. “Are you sure, honey?” He’s going to hurt her.
Finally, he doesn’t have to say no anymore. His cock nudges at her entrance. Easter purrs and moves on it, trying for the right angle, then guiding him inside. He sees her wince for a second and she tenses, but then relaxes and oh my god, she’s wet and hot, and even tighter than he imagined. Henry lies down and kisses her. He doesn’t dare move until she rocks her hips, asking for it. He remembers suddenly how close she’s gotten and begins moving slowly in and out of her. Her nails rake down his back — they’re going to leave marks — her legs lock around him and she cries out. Easter’s tense and hot and begging. When Henry thrusts in earnest she comes hard on his cock, waves clenching and relaxing on him, holding him tight and letting him go, again and again. He can’t last through it and he thrusts once more, deep, and explodes in her. She calls his name again when he empties himself into her. So fucking good to come inside a woman. Easter is all wet heat, still tight as she comes down. As he finishes, he touches his forehead to hers and they stay like that for a long time. He whispers it again: “I love you.”
“I love you too.”
He doesn’t move until he slips out, and they go to sleep.
They spend the day after Christmas on the traditional post-Christmas day foxhunt. Everyone dresses to the nines. Full hunt gear: Henry in a black frock coat and white breeches, Easter in a regular black coat and buff breeches; both wear canary vests, stock ties with plain pins, and shined black boots. Wills shows up; so does Quinn and his two boyfriends, Amory and Ellis. They ride hard. Easter spends most of the time, when she isn’t glued to Henry, joking with Quinn.
After the ride and a nap, Easter announces that she wants to paint. Wills and Crispin are going drinking — they asked the both of them to come, but she pleads exhaustion from the ride. “We were just out for six hours on horseback this morning, Henry. I’m not getting plowed tonight.”
“Fair.” He grins. “But I am.”
“I’ll be waiting up.” She grins back.
He’ll get to have her again tonight. He turns away so she doesn’t see him hardening at the thought.
The three of them hit Kickstarter’s, and they’re good and smashed by the time they wash up at Frog and Toad. It’s one of those dreary December nights Savannah doles out sometimes, forty degrees and a miserable, pissy rain that can’t decide if it wants to start up in earnest or stop altogether. They tumble in the door, laughing about something. Henry sees the headful of dark curls first.
“Hey, y’all! Audie and Calhoun are here! Audie! Calhoun! Buy us a goddamn round of shots!”
Audie turns on his barstool. The color drains from his face. Henry always believed that was a metaphor — you couldn’t see people turn pale, especially people as naturally pale as Audie. But Audie literally, actually pales in front of Henry. He stutters out an “Oh god.”
“What?” Wills knits his brows. He drops Crispin’s hand.
He knows that voice like he knows his own name, and it’s full of heartbreak and love and sadness and hurt and everything, everything wrapped together at once. A head of spiky blond hair leans around Audie. A set of wide blue eyes blinks, and they’re full of love and regret and everything else, and, oh my God, it’s Jax, Jax is here, Jax is sitting next to Audie in a random bar in Savannah on the day after Christmas.
“You motherfucker.” Wills’s voice is low and seething, and he runs. Audie gets between them. Wills knocks him to the side and he has his fist drawn back when Crispin grabs him in a wrestling hold and pins him back. “Lemme go, you bastard!” Wills begins struggling and kicking. “You know what he did! And what the fuck are you doing out with him, you asshole? You motherfucking traitor? You know what he did to Henry!”
Jax and Henry stare at each other across the bar. Henry hasn’t moved. Neither has Jax.
“He called me.” Audie straightens his jacket. “So I came. You of all people should know I don’t put up with that team Henry and that team Jax bullshit, Wills, and don’t do me the disservice of thinking I would.”
“You know what he did!” Wills is still trying to twist away from Crispin, who keeps him pinned. Thank God Crispin went all-state in wrestling.
“I’m so sorry you found us here. I’d hoped Jax and I could have a quiet time to talk about everything that’s happened.”
“You know what happened!”
“You think you know what happened.”
“I know what happened! That blond asshole wanted to fuck other people!” Wills leans around Audie and spits at Jax. Jax keeps staring at Henry. His eyes are filling.
“You know it’s not true. I know it’s not true, and Crispin knows it’s not true. So does Henry, if he thinks about it. Why are you the only person in the room insisting on it? Everyone knows you’ve always hated Jax.”
“Even if you did save my life that time, for which I remain eternally grateful.” Jax’s voice is faint.
“Fuck you.” Wills spits at him again.
“We’re going home.” Crispin begins pulling Wills out of the bar. His voice is far away.
“You and I aren’t finished.” This seems directed at Audie.
“I certainly hoped you would give me enough credit to expect that I would pick up my phone when an old friend calls. Especially an old friend I’ve missed terribly. I don’t take sides. I understand why you do and I respect that, I really do. I’d do the same in your position, Wills. But I’d hoped you’d do the same in mine.”
“We aren’t done. And you stay the fuck away from Henry, you bastard, you hear me? Brother, I will kick your ass five ways from Sunday if I find out you’ve been talking to him. If Crispin didn’t have me pinned I’d be dragging your ass out of this bar.” He looks at Jax, level. “He’s finally happy. I will kill you.”
Crispin finally gets him out the door.
Audie looks from Henry to Jax. Henry still hasn’t spoken.
“I think this is my cue to leave. Jax, I’ve missed you. You know what we talked about. Henry, good to see you, though I wish it could have been under better circumstances.” He picks up his umbrella and follows Wills and Crispin out the door.
“Buy you a drink?” Jax’s voice is small and tentative.
Henry reminds himself that 6’2 men do not cry, much less in bars, much less when they see their exes. “Yeah.” He slides onto the barstool Audie vacated. “I should punch your pretty face in.” His voice comes out choked.
Jax cracks a small smile. “It’s always my ‘pretty face,’ y’ever notice that? I’ll know you’re serious when it stops being pretty.”
Henry can’t help himself. He smiles back. Then Jax is in his arms. “Oh my god. Oh my god.” He says it over and over, like he’s chanting it.
“I missed you so much.” Jax’s eyes spill over. “I missed you. It hurt so bad. It was the biggest mistake of my life and I couldn’t take it back. I was too scared to be away from you that way, Henry. I wasn’t lying. I was too scared to do it. And I hurt every single day.”
“It hurt so bad, Freckles.” Henry holds him tight, the way he always did. He always needed to protect Jax.
“I’m so sorry.”
He says the words he never thought he’d ever say. “It’s okay, Jax. It’s all right.” He tightens his arms around him. “It’s all right.”
“I wanted to wake up every morning and pick you and I couldn’t and it hurt worse than anything. I only did it — I only did it because I didn’t think I had a choice. I didn’t think I could be with you without being with you. But I couldn’t not be with you, either.” Jax swipes at his eyes.
“I worried every single goddamn day.” And he couldn’t tell anyone, there had been no one to tell, other than mentioning it to Audie. How do you say you’re terrified for your ex? He hesitates. “Was it — was it bad?”
Jax lets him go and looks away. “It was bad. I’m clean, if you’re asking. Not that you’re asking. I talked to Audie. I know, Henry.”
It slams him. Easter. Oh god, how could he have forgotten Easter?
Henry finally gets it together enough to order them drinks. “So he explained?” He keeps his voice careful. He’s breaking. Oh god. Jax is sitting next to him. He can’t have Jax. He can never have Jax again. Henry can’t get air.
Jax swirls his finger in the water a drink’s sweated onto the bar. “He said you’re with a beautiful girl who you’re madly in love with. Easter. The one who’s like his sister. He said she’s happy and he’d do anything for me but he’ll kill me if I fuck with that. So Merry fucking Christmas to me, right? I’m not gonna lie. I moved down here to go to Savannah School of Law. But we both know why I really moved down here.”
Henry cannot cry. Henry will not cry. Their drinks come. Henry drains his and asks for another. He does not answer Jax.
“Yeah. Well.” Jax stands up after Henry’s long silence. “I guess I’ll get out of here. I still love you, if it means anything.”
Henry finally chokes it out. “I’m trying not to cry, you idiot. I’ve been trying not to cry. And it means everything.”
“Henry, I fucked up and I missed my chance, okay? Just let me go live with it.” Jax turns his back.
Henry grabs his hands. “No.” He clenches his teeth. “No. I will not let you go fucking live with it. We’ve been broken up for one year, seven months, and fifteen days and I have missed you for every single fucking one of them.”
Jax’s eyes fill. “You did the math.” But he shakes himself and pulls his hand away. That mask drops down again, the angry one, the one he used to see so often, the one that Jax uses to push Henry away in a misguided attempt to save himself. “It doesn’t fucking matter. You’ve got her. And I’m happy for you, Henry. You deserve it. You do. I told you from the goddamn beginning you deserved better than me. And I’m happy you’ve finally found it.” He smiles a little bit. “And with someone Audie loves, too. You can’t get a better recommendation.” Jax pulls him close and kisses his forehead. “I love you. And I’d’ve picked you. I told you a long time ago. The only way I wouldn’t pick you is if I was really, really scared. That’s why. And by the time I knew I’d made a mistake it was too fucking late. But I’d’ve woken up every single morning and picked you.”
Jax drops cash on the bar and walks out.
Henry can’t do anything but let him go.
He can’t do anything but go home.
Easter’s stretched out on the couch reading. “Did you and Wills have fun?”
“Baby girl.” Henry barely manages to get the words out. “We have to talk.”