Home > A Holiday Set-Up

A Holiday Set-Up
Author: Noelle Adams

 

 

1

 

 

Most people don’t have a nemesis, but I do. His name is Rafe Archibald.

On the first day of kindergarten, he stole my chocolate cupcake. In sixth grade, he won the big essay contest while I ended as the runner-up. All through high school, he was my academic rival, and in college he dated all my friends.

After graduation, I hoped to be rid of him at last, and I had two blissfully Rafe-free years while he was in graduate school in Durham. But then he got an environmental engineering job just outside Green Valley, and he moved into the apartment across the hall from me.

For the past four years, he’s been inescapable. I see him in the hallway. At the coffee shop down the block. At Millhouse, our favorite bar. The only people you normally encounter so often are family, coworkers, romantic partners, or close friends. He’s none of those things. Still, no matter how much I try to avoid Rafe, he’s always, always around.

Case in point, a Sunday morning at just before eight should be free from unwanted hallway encounters. Rafe usually sleeps in on the weekends, so if I get going early, I don’t worry about his making an appearance. Those morning hours on Saturdays and Sundays are usually safe.

Today, however, things go wrong.

I’m planning to go sailing with the guy I’ve been dating for the past month. His name is Ted, and he’s exactly my kind of person. Cute and smart and serious and not prone to obnoxious comments or sarcastic expressions or constant teasing. He’s walked to my apartment door to pick me up instead of texting me to come down, and we’re stepping into the hallway when Rafe’s door opens.

It’s directly across from mine. Eight feet away. When he comes out, I have no choice but to lay eyes on him.

When I see him in the mornings on weekdays—which is woefully often—we’re both on our way into work, so at least we’re dressed and ready for the day. Today is different.

He’s clearly just rolled out of bed. He’s got chin-length, wavy, dark brown hair, and it currently looks like he went to sleep with it damp. It’s kinked and tangled and sticking out in all directions. His startlingly blue eyes are heavy-lidded, making him look sleepy and sexy both. He’s got a dark five-o’clock shadow, and he’s wearing nothing but a pair of ten-year-old sweats.

The sweats are from our high school football team, and I know for sure he’s had them since he was seventeen because there’s a stain on one thigh from where one of my pens accidentally exploded on him in calculus class.

I maintain to this day it was an accident, although he has a different story.

His wide, mobile mouth quirks up into a pleased half smile when he sees me. “Julianna.” He speaks in his characteristic drawl. Everyone in the world calls me Jules—everyone except him. He always uses my full name, no doubt because he (mistakenly) believes it annoys me. The truth is I like my full name better than my nickname and always have. “You’re up early today.”

To anyone else, that might come across as a friendly greeting, but I know better. He’s got an amused, slightly mocking expression on his face, like he’s secretly laughing at me. “I’m always up this early. You’re the one who’s out of bed several hours earlier than normal.”

“Ah. Yes. Sadly true. But fortunately I’m not planning to stay out of bed for long.”

He steps out of the doorway, and it’s then I see what’s caused his early rise today. A very pretty young woman follows him out into the hallway. I haven’t seen this one before, but she’s clearly spent the night.

Rafe doesn’t sleep around in a typical “player” fashion. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t pick up random women in bars or mess around with hookup apps. I’ve never known him to have a one-night stand. But he has one monogamous relationship after another, and none of them last more than two months.

The best label is serial dater.

At the moment, I almost feel sorry for the woman. She’s tall and slim with long, wavy brown hair and a slightly turned-up nose. Her expression makes it clear she adores Rafe and believes herself to be the luckiest girl in the world for having caught him.

That fatuous look won’t last long. They always leave crying eventually.

Maybe he’s honest with the women. Maybe he tells them it’s casual and they’ll never have a future. But they’re clearly all hoping for something more from him, and he never gives it to them.

I’d think that eventually his reputation would catch up to him and that the women in town would get a clue. But so far they haven’t.

“Where are y’all off to so early?” Rafe asks, his eyes moving between Ted and me. He pushes a hand through his messy hair as if his fingers might bring it to some sort of order.

“We’re sailing.” I sidestep closer to Ted.

“You have more energy than I do.”

“Clearly.” There’s only the slightest sardonic edge to my tone, but it makes Ted look at me curiously.

Rafe’s smile widens into a smug grin I know all too well. “Isn’t sailing kind of risky?”

I frown, convinced there’s a punch line coming but not immediately recognizing what it is.

Ted, being Ted and not knowing better, takes Rafe seriously. “Why would it be risky? We’re going out on the lake.”

“Sure, but Julianna has been known to get seasick on the lake.”

“I didn’t—”

“You spent three hours puking over the side of the boat.” Now Rafe is chuckling, low and faintly taunting.

My cheeks flush hot. Even my ears are too warm. I like Ted. I’m trying to impress him. I don’t need one of my most embarrassing memories from high school to be flaunted in front of him by one of my least favorite people in the world. “It was a windstorm,” I grit out, aiming a glare at Rafe before I turn to explain to Ted. “I don’t normally get seasick when I sail on the lake. The weather was really bad that day.”

He nods, appearing unconcerned by Rafe’s teasing. “That makes sense. I’m surprised you even went out in bad weather.”

“We shouldn’t have. It was stupid. It was Leo Magnusson’s boat. Do you know him?”

“I’ve met Leo.” Ted didn’t grow up in Green Valley like so many of my social circle. He moved to town a couple of years ago.

“He was just sixteen. He was showing off for Lily—not that she had a clue. She asked me and Joey to come along. I knew the weather looked bad, so I didn’t want to go, but I was… talked into it.”

I was dared into it. By Rafe. It still makes me angry that I caved to his taunting, especially given how miserable the whole episode turned out for me.

“It didn’t end up being much fun for the rest of us,” Rafe says, reading my thoughts like a book. “With you hanging over the side, heaving for hours.”

Leave it to Rafe to bring up an incident so mortifying to me, for no other reason than to have some fun at my expense. “I promise I had a worse time than you did. And if I wasn’t an incredibly gracious person, I would have puked all over you. You deserved it.”

For the past year, I’ve been trying not to argue with Rafe too much or give him the satisfaction of knowing that he’s gotten to me. My resolution has been to keep cool and contained whenever I’m around him, as if he matters no more to me than a pesky mosquito.

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