For the first time, I hosted Christmas Eve with my mom’s and Dahlia’s help. The last time all of us were together at my house for the holidays was before my dad died, so I’m a bit overwhelmed when everyone floods my kitchen bright and early in the morning with supplies to make tamales.
Cooking is a whole-day production filled with music, laughter, and too many embarrassing stories from all of our childhoods. By the time we finish dinner and the clock hits midnight, an antsy Nico drags us all toward the living room to open presents.
My godson tears at the wrapping paper with more speed than a superhero, revealing his gift. He squeals before jumping into my arms. “You’re the best tío ever!”
Dahlia plucks the Formula 1 VIP paddock passes from the floor. “Nice choice.”
“You could have been the best madrina ever,” I tease.
When I mentioned going fifty-fifty on Nico’s gift this year, Dahlia scoffed and told me there was no way she would go cheap on her godson.
We may be dating now, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up our competition anytime soon, she said.
I should have expected a response like that from her after spending eight years trying to one-up each other with our presents, but I was still surprised.
She nudges me with her hip. “Don’t count me out of the competition yet.”
I don’t know how she will top my gift. After spending a month hearing Nico talk about his favorite Mexican driver, Elías Cruz, I knew I had to get him a VIP behind-thescenes pass for Christmas. Although he is a relatively new fan of Formula 1 thanks to his nanny, Ellie, who watches races religiously, he has quickly become a superfan.
“Good luck topping that.” I kiss the top of Dahlia’s head before taking a seat on the couch.
“I got one for you and Ellie too.” I toss Rafa the gift I kept hidden behind the couch until Nico opened his.
“One for Ellie? Why?” Rafa scowls.
“Um…because Nico said she’s going on the summer trip with you?”
The vein in my cousin’s neck looks ready to burst as he stares at his son. “Is that right?”
“You said I could do whatever I wanted.” Nico places the VIP lanyard around his neck.
“I said you could do whatever you wanted. Not invite whoever you wanted.”
“I want to do cool stuff with Ellie, so she has to come. Duh!” Nico poses beside me while my mom snaps a photo of us.
Lily laughs. “He got you there.”
Rafa’s eye twitches as he pulls out two more paddock passes from the gift bag and grumbles a quick thanks. Everyone knows he will go along with whatever Nico wants so long as it makes his son happy, including taking his nanny on a summerlong trip around the world, even if he hates every second of it.
“You’re welcome for the tickets. Be sure to send us photos and videos of Nico and Ellie freaking out.” I wink.
He brushes his eyebrow with his middle finger.
“Please. No fighting on Christmas Eve.” My mom tsks.
“Sorry, Ma,” Rafa and I say at the same time.
“My turn,” Dahlia announces as she passes Nico a small, wrapped box. “Here you go.”
“Thank you!” He rips at the red-and-white striped paper with glee before screaming.
“What is it?” Rafa leans forward to check out the tickets Nico keeps clutched in his iron grip.
My godson throws his arms around Dahlia’s neck and squeezes her until she is about to turn purple from lack of oxygen.
“Easy there.” I pull him away. “What did she get you?”
“Tickets to see Duke Brass in concert!”
“What?” my mom gasps.
“Whoa.” Lily gapes. “Way to make us all look bad.”
Shit. Those tickets are impossible to find. I tried to score a pair for Nico myself without any success.
Rafa’s eyes remain permanently wide. “How did you get those?”
Dahlia shrugs. “I know a guy.”
“What organ did you sell?”
“A nonvital one.”
I whisper in Dahlia’s ear, “You better be fucking joking.”
She doesn’t bat an eyelash. “We were born with two kidneys for a reason, Julian.”
Her shoulders hike.
I glare at her.
She nudges me. “A light guy who worked on my show before is now part of the production crew for the tour, so I contacted him and begged for a pair.”
“Best gift ever!” Nico jumps around and waves his arms in the air.
Dahlia bats her lashes at me. “Aw. You could have been the best padrino ever, but no. I didn’t need your help.”
I press my lips against her ear and whisper, “Keep talking like that and I’ll make your ass match the wrapping paper you chose.”
Her face turns beet red, catching my mom’s attention as she snaps a photo of us.
“For the photo album!” My mom grins.
Everyone continues to open their presents. Each time I pass one of mine out, Dahlia perks up, only to deflate with poorly concealed disappointment as I hand it to someone else.
It’s not until most of the gifts have been opened that she reaches under the tree and grabs a box with my name written on the tag. “Here. This one’s from me.”
“You got me something?”
Her cheeks turn pink. “Yes.”
I carefully undo the wrapping paper, taking my sweet time solely because I love Dahlia’s rare display of shyness.
“It’s not much,” she rambles when I fold the wrapping paper into a perfect recyclable square.
“Can you hurry up already? Some of us want to get to bed before Santa gets here,” Lily announces.
“Yeah!” Nico high-fives her. “What she said!”
“All right.” I laugh as I flip the lid of the box open and reach inside. “What did you get…” My voice drifts off as I pull out her gift.
I spot two main differences between the Second Best trophy Dahlia gave me as a graduation gift and this one. The first is that this trophy is far larger, and the second is that the plaque has a different inscription.
Dahlia peeks over at me. “Do you like it?”
I fight the tightness in my throat as I say, “I love it.”
“I know it’s probably silly, but since you kept the last one…” Her voice trails off.
“It’s perfect.” I wrap my arm around her and kiss her, earning a retching noise from Nico, a round of oohs and ahs from our mothers, a sigh from Lily, and Rafa grumbling something to himself.
She breaks the kiss first. “How long do you think it will take before they stop doing that every time we kiss?”
“They have nearly a decade to make up for, so I give it at least a few years before they settle down.”
Dahlia groans. “God help us.”
“This again?” She grabs the black eye mask from me.
I press my foot against the gas pedal and take off toward the Historic District. “I’d hate to ruin your Christmas surprise.”
Her knee shakes as she places the mask over her eyes. I carefully navigate the icy roads leading toward the Founder’s house with the truck, being mindful of the sharp turns and slick pavement.
Dahlia doesn’t speak up until the next song finishes. “I should have known you had something else planned after I was left empty-handed.”
“Did you think I wouldn’t have gotten you something?”
“I don’t know, but I wasn’t about to complain after the whole DreamStream thing. That’s worth like ten presents in one.”
I park outside the Founder’s house and turn the car off. “I already told you. The DreamStream deal was all because of you and your talent, not me.”
I doubt she will believe me until she meets with the team herself after the holiday break, but it doesn’t hurt to emphasize her success whenever her self-doubt comes creeping up again.
Dahlia waits inside the truck while I go around and open her passenger door. She shivers against me when I help her out into the chilly night.
I interlock our elbows and lead her toward the house.
She tucks her mittens into the front pockets of her coat. “Did you buy me another house?”
Her teeth chatter as we walk through the gate leading to the backyard. “A private jet?”
“Do you want one?”
She laughs. “No, but I bet you’d get me one if I asked.”
I trace the tip of her reddening nose. “You’re finally starting to catch on.”
“The amount of money you have is sick.”
“So is my love for you, but I don’t hear you complaining.”
I push against the small of her back. “Just a few more steps.” I lead her toward the perfect spot and let go. “Now, stay right there and don’t take your mask off.”
“Okay?” She blows hot air while I rush to flip the outdoor switch. I return to find her right where I left her.
My fingers tremble as I slide the eye mask over her head.
She gasps. “Julian.”
I tuck the eye mask into my jacket pocket. “What do you think?”
She takes a few steps toward the gazebo and pauses. “You made this?”
I slide my hands into the front pockets of my jeans. “Yup.”
My team may have helped me put it all together, but I was present for the whole process.
“It’s stunning.” She reaches out to stroke the column.
“Glad you think so.” I walk up the steps and stop in the center of the platform.
Dahlia follows while gawking at all the details. “It’s exactly like the one Gerald designed for Francesca.”
“I made a few modifications.” I trace over a wood-carved dahlia that would have been a rose if I had stuck to Gerald’s original design. Thankfully, my mom had a different idea, which added a personal touch to the piece.
Her eyes shimmer. “I love it for so many reasons, but most of all because you made it.”
I pull her against me. She melts into my embrace, our bodies molding together as we get lost in another kiss.
At some point, snow begins to fall around the gazebo, covering the ground like powdered sugar.
“A white Christmas! It’s been years since I had one!” She takes off running.
I stay under the gazebo, watching her spin in a circle while attempting to catch snowflakes with her tongue.
Nothing in the world is more beautiful than Dahlia laughing up at the sky, standing in front of the house I plan on turning into a home with her.
I let her have a few minutes of fun before I loop my arm around her waist and pull her toward the Founder’s house.
“Where are we going?”
“What? Why? We just got here!”
“We’re not going anywhere.” I open the back door and walk inside while dragging her behind me.
A sigh escapes us as our fingers and toes start thawing.
Dahlia pokes at my chest. “What did you mean when you said we were going home?”
I wave around the living room. “You’re standing inside it.”
And blinks some more.
“We’re keeping the house?”
“I never planned on selling it.” I bite down on my tongue.
I shake my head.
Her gaze bounces around the room, probably mirroring her thoughts. “Why?”
“It’s been mine for years.”
Her mouth drops open, but no words make it out.
I take a deep breath. “Do you remember your answer during the Strawberry Sweetheart pageant? The one about if you had three wishes?”
Her eyes widen.
Catching Dahlia by surprise is easy, but making her speechless? A difficult feat I never thought I would accomplish.
And for my last wish, I’d want to own the blue Founder’s house, she said in earnest, after wishing cancer never existed and being able to have one last conversation with her father.
Her eyes shine, not from the moonlight streaming through the wall of windows, but from the strong emotions threatening to consume her.
“I never forgot.”
A single tear rolls down her cheek, and I kiss it away.
“You made my wish come true without me realizing it.” Her voice cracks.
When the Founder’s house was put on the market a few years ago, I purchased it without hesitating. At first, it was a stupid way of seeking revenge on a woman who had every right to move on with someone else. But every time I planned on tearing it down, I stopped myself and considered how hurt Dahlia would be if she returned to find it gone.
Thankfully, I never went through with the plan. I’m not sure Dahlia would have forgiven me for it, and the way everything worked out was so much better.
“But what about the For Sale sign we drove by after you helped get rid of my engagement ring?”
“I texted Sam about the favor while you were eating the nieve from Cisco’s.”
“You’re joking.” She pauses before speaking again. “And you asking me to help design it…”
“Was originally because my mom begged me to find you a job to help you through a tough time.”
Her bottom lip trembles. “You could have picked any house for us to work on, but you chose this one.”
“I knew you wouldn’t resist working on this house…even if it meant teaming up with me.”
“Why didn’t you tear it down years ago?”
“That was the original plan.”
“What stopped you?” She wraps her arms around my neck.
She laughs, and I swallow the sound with my lips. I kiss her forehead. Cheeks. The corner of her mouth and the curve of her neck. Everywhere my mouth can reach, I kiss, all while Dahlia does the same.
“What do you say about making this place ours?” I drop a kiss on the base of her neck.
“Tempting, but you know how my mom feels about living with someone before marriage.”
“That can easily be arranged.”
Her eyes roll. “Ask me again in a year.”
“I’ll hold you to that.”
Until then, I plan on making this woman mine in every sense of the word.
Mine to love. Mine to marry. Mine to cherish for as long as we live.