Cleo thought she’d be upset or concerned when her father told her not to worry about coming by today. But instead, all she felt was relief. Her mom was in good hands and, while she knew this didn’t eliminate all of her responsibility, or even more than a little of it, it did allow her to go straight over to Olivia’s without guilt. When Cleo got to Olivia’s house, the first thing she saw was Andrew unloading something from Noah’s truck. Noah stood nearby, looking a little grumpy. As she got out of her car, she could hear them arguing.
“I’m getting it off tomorrow,” Noah said. “I can handle a little lifting.”
“This isn’t a little lifting,” Andrew said as he took the box out of the bed of the truck and staggered slightly under the weight. “It might kill you.”
Cleo hurried over to Andrew and took the other side of the box. “Cheers,” Andrew said as they steadied the weight.
“What is this?” Cleo asked.
“Noah’s Christmas gift for Mia arrived a little late,” Andrew said. “And apparently he thinks he’s building a swing set today in the cold and with a cast on his hand.”
She turned to Noah with a raised eyebrow as he reluctantly led them to the side of the house, where they set the box down in a protected area. “I didn’t say I’m going to build it today,” Noah argued. “I said maybe I’ll start it today. I have too much to do, anyway.”
“None of which he should be doing,” Andrew added.
Noah glared at him, but Andrew just smiled at Cleo, who gave him a tight hug. “How are you?” she asked.
“Better than this morning,” he admitted. “I’m…”
He searched for the words for a moment, then finally just sighed. “It is what it is,” he said. “And maybe I’m closer to getting out than I was a year ago.”
The “Or maybe not” hung unsaid between them. But Cleo wasn’t going to be the one to say it. So instead, she gave him one last squeeze, then let go and turned to hug Noah hello.
“Liv’s testing recipes in there,” Andrew said to Cleo as they started walking back toward the front door. “I can’t help noticing that she chose all the things that I like. But if she’s trying to cheer me up, it’s working.”
The fragrant scent of cinnamon and ginger met them at the door to Olivia and Andrew’s apartment. Cleo’s stomach growled. She hadn’t eaten anything before leaving the house.
She pulled off her coat and kicked off her shoes, then went into the kitchen, where Olivia was pulling something out of the oven. She turned as Cleo came in.
“Cleo!” she said, putting the tray on top of the oven and sliding another in. “Try one of those orange ginger cookies and tell me what you think. Be honest.”
She pointed to a plate of deep brown cookies sitting on the counter. Cleo picked one up and broke it in half. She took a bite and tried not to moan obscenely at the warm, citrus flavor.
“Amazing,” she said, eating the other half in one bite. “Charge way too much for these.”
Olivia flushed at her praise, then pointed at a small loaf that was already half gone. “That’s a cinnamon loaf. I think it’s way too sweet, but Andrew liked it.”
“Give Andrew a bag of sugar and a spoon and he’ll be satisfied,” Cleo said with a laugh.
“Why? Is there one available?”
Andrew’s voice came from behind her and she spun around to see him and Noah walking into the kitchen. He went over, took a small piece of cinnamon loaf, and handed it to Noah. “Try this,” he said.
Noah took a bite and his face went still. If Cleo hadn’t known him for decades, she wouldn’t have been able to spot the way he was trying hard not to grimace. But it was so obvious, and as she looked at Olivia, she could see the amusement there too.
Noah swallowed the piece diligently, then looked at Andrew, who was waiting expectantly. “It’s… sweet,” Noah said.
“I think that loaf is all yours,” Olivia told Andrew.
He picked up the loaf, still in its baking pan, and pulled a fork out of the drawer. Then, as Noah looked on, disgusted, he sat down at the table and began eating the loaf from the top down.
“I forgot about that,” Noah said.
Andrew looked up at him as Cleo and Liv did the same. “The sweets,” Noah continued.
Cleo was about to say something about Andrew’s Starbucks order, but there was something in the way Noah and Andrew were looking at each other that made her pause. “You used to buy me a chocolate bar every day,” Andrew said.
Noah smiled, his missing tooth obvious as he did so. “A Hershey bar,” he said. “From the high school vending machine.”
“The first time I tried it, I hated it,” Andrew admitted. “It had that vomit taste American chocolate has.”
“You should have told me,” Noah said. “God, I didn’t want you to feel obligated to-”
Andrew held up a hand, and Noah stopped talking. “It grew on me,” he said slowly. “After some time. I… I got to really love them by the end of high school.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Cleo saw that Liv had paused what she was doing and was watching too.
Andrew was still looking at Noah as he twirled the fork in his hand. “I went back home for uni,” he continued. “And I’d bring bags of them back with me. My friends refused to eat them, so they were all mine.”
He and Noah were just looking at each other right now, and Cleo wasn’t going to be the one to break the spell of whatever was happening here. But it didn’t look like either of them was going to say anything else. Instead, Andrew just took another bite of the cinnamon loaf.
“Are you all sure you don’t want any?” he asked.
And just like that, the air was back in the room. Cleo shook her head. “Totally sure,” she said. “Though, if Liv’s fine with it, I’m going to eat three more of these cookies.”