Noah was already halfway across the town common by the time Cleo caught up with him. He was a little unsteady on his feet and weaving through the crowd, which was now slightly thinner as the night got later. She could see him ahead, his brown leather jacket draped over his broad shoulders, which were hunched against the cold air.
“Noah!” Cleo called, “wait up!”
She got close enough to put a hand on his shoulder, but he wrenched out of her grasp. “Leave me alone, Andrew,” he slurred.
“Do I look like fucking Andrew?” Cleo demanded. She caught his arm and he stopped. “Noah, please.”
He shoved a gloved hand roughly across his eyes. “Cleo, I can’t do any of this. I just want to go home.”
“You’re going home, I promise,” Cleo said. “Come on.”
He stumbled and she caught him, conscious of the people around them. A few were very determinedly watching the choir sing, but there were definitely eyes on them.
She locked eyes with Nancy, who she knew from the general store. Nancy was shaking her head and tut-tutting with her sister Sal. Cleo stared at her hard, not moving her gaze until Noah was back on his feet. Unfortunately, he immediately stumbled again and she was forced to look away in order to care for him, the one person here she actually gave a shit about.
“Cleo, I think I fucked up,” Noah said as she pulled him to his feet.
She draped his arm over her shoulder and felt grateful for every inch of her six-foot frame. Still, he was heavy and getting heavier.
“Yeah, hon, I think you did,” Cleo replied through gritted teeth. Fuck, how was she going to get him home?
Someone was making their way toward the two of them. Cleo groaned silently, bracing herself for whatever comment she was about to get. But instead, she felt Noah’s weight lift off of her a little as the figure lifted his other arm around their own shoulder.
“Rough night?” Roman asked as he hefted Noah upright.
Noah was fading. “Heyyy,” he said with a little smile.
“Hey bud, what did you take?” Roman asked. Cleo didn’t know him all that well, but the serious look on his face wasn’t one she recognized from her few trips to his shop.
“Just drinks…” Noah mumbled, his head falling onto Cleo’s shoulder.
“You’re sure?” Roman asked. “Nothing else? I’m not going to judge you man, I just want to be sure you’re safe.”
“He was drinking whiskey from a flask while we’ve been here,” Cleo said. “He put a little in both of our hot cocoas.”
She reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the flask, which felt way too light. A quick shake confirmed it was empty.
“He finished this. But I don’t think it was anything else. Just alcohol.”
“Nothing else,” Noah mumbled.
Roman paused, and Cleo could see him doing some quick mental math. “Were you drinking before you got here?” he asked.
“No-” Cleo started to answer, but Noah nodded.
Roman looked around quickly, then locked eyes with someone in the crowd. A woman was standing by the cocoa table with a few kids, and Cleo recognized her as Roman’s wife.
“Do you know where he lives?” Roman asked Cleo.
“Right up the street. I was about to walk him home.”
“Let me grab the car keys and I’ll give you guys a ride.”
Roman and Cleo walked Noah over to a bench that someone had just vacated, leaving popcorn bags and empty paper cups behind. Noah slumped down on the bench and Cleo sat down next to him as Roman went to get the car keys from his wife.
“I’m sorry,” Noah muttered.
“It’s okay,” Cleo lied, knowing it was anything but.
Roman came back a minute later. “I’m parked in the lot, about halfway down. Do you think you’re good to get there?”
Noah nodded miserably and they helped him to his feet. It was a slow process, and Cleo could feel the eyes on them the whole time.
“It’s okay,” she told Noah. “Everything is fine.”
“I fucked up,” he said.
“You sure did,” Cleo replied.
“Yeah, well, they can get fucked.”
Roman laughed, and Cleo surprised herself by laughing too. “Fuck this town,” she said.
“No, I love this town,” Noah argued.
“Get in,” Roman said, opening the door of an old truck. Cleo helped Noah climb into the backseat, then got in front with Roman.
It was a short ride to Noah’s house. The light was on in Olivia’s apartment, and through the shades, Cleo could see the faint silhouettes of her and Andrew in the living room.
“He never loved me, did he?” Noah asked softly.
“I don’t know who you’re talking about, man,” Roman said apologetically. “You need any help from here?”
“We should be good,” Cleo said, though she wasn’t entirely confident she could get him up the stairs.
“You sure?” Roman asked.
“Not at all,” Cleo admitted with a shaky laugh.
“I’ll help you guys,” Roman said. “My kids are perfectly happy on the common right now so I got time.”
“Do you two know each other?” Cleo asked.
“Professionally,” Roman replied. “I own the house of pizza, so I’m friendly with Keegan’s staff. And I knew his dad pretty well too. Great guy.”
Noah let out a muffled sob at this and Roman flinched. “Shit, sorry.”
He got out, then opened the back door and helped Noah stumble out. His movements were businesslike and confident, and Cleo was struck with gratitude that this guy she barely knew had gone out of his way when her friend was hurting.
“Come on, big guy,” Roman said. “Almost home.”
Noah’s eyes focused a little. “Roman?”
They steered him up the front steps and into the dark hallway.
“Upstairs or down?” Roman asked.
Cleo nodded toward the staircase, then fumbled for the light switch. She flipped it, but the hallway remained dark.
Olivia’s apartment door opened, letting in a sliver of light. Andrew peered out, worry etched on his face. “What happened?” he asked, rushing into the hallway. “Is he okay? Who are you?”
“Go away, Andrew,” Noah mumbled into Cleo’s shoulder.
Cleo shook her head and Andrew stepped back like she’d slapped him.
“Leave it, Andrew, it’s okay.”
Olivia appeared in the doorway now. “What’s going- um, hi Roman.”
“Hi.” Roman said, “Uh, I’m just helping out. Didn’t know you were neighbors.”
“Yeah, he’s my landlord.”
“And you’re his boss.”
Roman nodded. “That works.”
“Is he alright?” Olivia asked.
“He’s trashed,” Cleo corrected.
“Here, come in here,” Olivia said, opening the door all the way. “You’ll kill yourselves on those stairs.”
“No…Mia…” Noah protested weakly.
“Is fine,” Olivia said firmly. “She’s asleep in her bed. And you’re going into mine. We’ll talk in the morning.”
“I love you, Liv,” Noah slurred.
“I love you too, sweetie. And I’ll wait till tomorrow to murder you.”
Olivia ran a hand down Noah’s face and he leaned into the touch, eyes closed. “I’m through here,” she said, leading them toward her bedroom. “I can take him from here, Cleo, Roman. Thanks so much for getting him home safe.”
Roman shrugged. “No problem,” he said. “Happy to help.”
Olivia nodded sadly. She hooked an arm around Noah, who was teetering between Cleo and Roman, and steered him into her bedroom.
“I’ll walk you out,” Cleo said.
It had only been a few minutes, but the air felt sharper and colder than it had on the common. “Thank you so much,” Cleo said as Roman climbed into his truck.
Roman smiled sadly. “Like I said, I’m happy I could help. I like Noah, hopefully he can clean it up from here.”
The engine roared to life and Roman backed out of the driveway and drove away, tail lights disappearing around the corner.
Cleo stood in the driveway for a minute, shivering in the cold night air. It was bracing, and she took a few deep breaths before making her way into the house, not wanting to face whatever scene was currently happening.
It was actually quiet when she walked in. Olivia’s bedroom door was shut and Andrew sat on the living room couch, staring off into space. Cleo sat down next to him and squeezed his hand.
“It’s okay,” she said. “It’ll be okay.”
He gave a short, bitter laugh. “No, it’s not,” he said. “It’s never going to be fixed. Or normal, or whatever. He hates me. And I don’t blame him.”
“He doesn’t hate you,” Cleo said. “You hurt him, yeah. But you didn’t destroy him.”
“Did you see him? Jesus Christ, Cleo, you don’t call that destroyed?”
“Yeah, it’s bad. But it’s not about you, Andrew. And it’s not on you. You can’t control his actions, good or bad.”
She was quiet for a second, then decided to just spit it out. “You let him go back then. There are consequences to that. It’s not the end of the world, but you have to live with your decisions, you know?”
Andrew sighed, tears brimming in his eyes. “Yeah, I know.”
Cleo wrapped an arm around him and ran a hand through his perfect hair. “It’ll be okay,” she insisted. “We’re heading home in a few days. You’ll feel better there. I know I will.”
Celine was waiting for Roman at the hot cocoa table when he got back to the common. She didn’t say anything, just wrapped him in a hug and held onto him tightly.
“You okay?” she asked after a moment.
He didn’t answer right away, wanting to stay wrapped in the smell and feel of her for just a little longer.
“You’re a good man,” Celine said.
Roman could see some eyes on him. Not as many as there had been when he was helping Noah and his friend get home, but enough. Fucking nosy people.
He made eye contact with Nancy, who was unfortunately right behind Celine. “What a mess,” she said. “Such a shame, he had a good father too.”
Roman froze. He’d been thinking it but hadn’t said it. Instead, it had come from Celine, who had loosened herself from his grip and turned to face the stunned Nancy.
“No one needs your input right now, Nancy. Now shut up, leave my husband alone, and don’t you dare approach Noah like I know you were going to. Otherwise, I might mention to Mrs. Fletcher that she’ll want to do a closer inventory at the general store.”
Nancy’s face paled in the light of the Christmas trees, but she said nothing. Celine shooed her away with the flick of her wrist, and Nancy huffed and walked away.
“Damn, Mom,” Jamie said behind her.
“Don’t swear, Jamie,” Celine said, but Roman could see she was smiling. “I’m going to get your brother and sister. It’s time to head back.”
She walked toward where the two youngest were being spoiled by their next-door neighbors. Jamie turned to Roman. “Is Mr. Kelly going to be okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, don’t worry, bud,” Roman replied. “He’s going to be fine.”
Jamie stood there for a second, then caught his dad in a tight hug. Roman was shocked for a second, then quickly recovered and held his son. He wasn’t about to let this slip past him.
“Thanks for helping him,” Jamie whispered. “Everyone was just whispering and I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
“He’ll be okay,” Roman said. “He’s just in a lot of pain right now.”
Jamie nodded against him and Roman squeezed his son harder. “Don’t ever lose that compassion, Jamie,” he whispered. “Hang onto it tight.”