SIX MONTHS LATER
Warmth encapsulates me, and I sigh as I snuggle closer to the source. The band around my waist tightens, tugging me free from the fog of unconsciousness.
I jolt awake in the wrong bed. “Shit!”
For the third time this month, Julian and I failed to stay awake after staying up way too late doing things that would have my mother attending confession on my behalf for the next five to ten years.
Julian rubs the sleep from his eyes before sitting up against the headboard. I quickly become distracted by his chest and the toned muscles rippling as he readjusts the pillows behind him.
He cups my cheek. “Keep looking at me like that and you’re never making it out of here before your mom wakes up.”
My heart skips a beat or two as I lean into his touch. “I should go.” Yet I can’t muster up enough willpower to pull away from Julian’s touch.
To most people, my mom’s rule of not living with someone until marriage might sound archaic—and I wholeheartedly agree—but I don’t plan on challenging her Old Testament beliefs anytime soon, especially when it won’t matter a few months from now.
Julian reaches for my hand before I have a chance to slide off the bed. “We could solve this annoying problem by getting married today.”
I burst into laughter, only to stop when he doesn’t do the same.
“Wait. You’re not joking?”
He traces my ring finger, making me shiver. “Definitely not.”
“You want to get married today?”
“Last night’s weather report said it should be a sunny day without any clouds or afternoon summer storms,” he nonchalantly announces.
I blink a few times before speaking. “You checked the weather report last night?”
“And the day before that.”
“How long have you been doing that?”
He doesn’t blink as he says, “Ever since I bought your ring.”
My eyes threaten to pop. “My ring?” I jump on top of him, trapping his body beneath mine. “You bought me a ring?”
His bright eyes could rival the sun streaming through the crack in the blinds beside us. “Yes, but you said you wanted to wait until next—”
“¡Vete a la chingada! ¡Necesito verlo ahora mismo!”
The best laugh pours out of him. “You’ll have to find it first.”
“You hid it?”
“Of course. I already caught you snooping around the bedroom last week, so I couldn’t take any risks.”
My cheeks burn. When I found a jewelry insurance receipt underneath the seat of his truck after he spent the weekend in Detroit with Rafa, I was curious about what Julian bought. While my mind immediately jumped to a ring, I talked myself into assuming he had purchased a classic pair of diamond studs for my upcoming birthday.
Still, I snooped around his room, although my search came up empty.
He kisses my forehead. “If you find it, it’s all yours.”
I jump off the bed with a squeal before searching Julian’s bedroom from top to bottom.
The ensuing mess could compete with my sister’s bedroom. “It’s somewhere downsta—”
I take off for the stairs, leaving Julian behind to pick up after me, although based on his laughter, he doesn’t seem to mind.
I check every square inch of Julian’s house, including the inside of the grand piano, the cramped spot behind the toilets, and every pot, pan, and appliance big enough to hide a ring box.
¡Necesito verlo ahora mismo!: I need to see it right now.
Where is it?
Either he got smart after I found all his pro-con lists hidden throughout the house, or he never hid the ring here to begin with.
You should have known he would trick you.
My feet are heavy as I head toward the stairs, ready to admit defeat.
“Find it yet?” Julian’s deep voice echoing off the high ceilings startles me.
I follow the sound of his voice into the living room, where I find him leaning against the shelf that displays a few of his prized trophies, including his Little Prince book collection and the two trophies I gave him.
Wait a minute…
I checked behind the trophies but never inside them.
Way to go, Dahlia.
I stand on the tips of my toes and grab the Second Best trophy off the shelf.
I could have sworn—
He swaps the one in my hand for the First Choice trophy I gave him last Christmas.
My eyes widen at the wood box tucked inside. I fail to control the shakiness in my fingers as I reach inside for the custom-made jewelry box.
“Did you…” I choke on the rest of the sentence as Julian goes down on one knee.
He sets the trophy on the floor beside him before holding out his hand. I place the jewelry box in his open palm. At this angle, I can take in his craftsmanship, including the impeccable and intricately carved details.
He lifts the lid to reveal a beautiful diamond ring nestled in a velvet cushion. The vintage design resembles a flower, with a brilliant solitaire diamond surrounded by a circle of marquise-shaped diamonds that resemble petals.
My vision blurs, and I desperately blink away the tears, praying they don’t fall before he has a chance to speak.
The ring is perfect.
He is perfect.
And both of them are all mine.
The box shakes in his hand. “I practiced my speech a hundred different times, but nothing felt right, so I’m going to wing it and hope you say yes.”
I already said yes thirty minutes ago, during his spontaneous scavenger hunt, but he doesn’t need to know that.
I’m not that generous.
“You told me you wanted to wait a year before we talked about marriage, but I don’t think I can last another day, let alone one hundred and eighty-seven more, before asking you to be my wife.”
My lungs stall as he spins the crank on the side of the box. The opening notes of my favorite song start playing as he plucks the ring from the box and raises it so I can get a better look at the exact one I would have chosen for myself.
“You may have started out as my rival, but you’re so much more than that. You’re my business partner and best friend. My greatest challenger and the biggest, brightest green flag there is…and hopefully, my future wife.”
The tight ball in my throat disappears as I break into laughter. His hand holding the ring trembles as he stares up at me with sparkling eyes and the softest smile.
I drop to my knees and cradle his face between my palms. “Yes.”
His lips crash against mine, the ring forgotten as he claims my mouth, sharing a thousand unspoken promises while he kisses me.
Julian was and always will be my first choice, and I plan on spending the rest of our lives showing him that.
He breaks away from the kiss, leaving me breathless as he slides the ring up my ring finger before kissing my knuckles right above it. “What do you say about getting married today?”
I gasp. “Without a dress?”
“Yes or no, Dahlia?”
“Shouldn’t we discuss the pros and cons of not having a traditional wedding—”
He lets out a half groan, half growl that has me breaking out into a fit of giggles.
“Fine. Let’s get married.”
The Founder’s house—now known as our home—is buzzing with activity as our families rush to prepare for a spontaneous wedding. None of them seem too surprised by the idea, which proves Julian had this whole thing planned all along. From my sister having the perfect bridal bouquet already prepared to Josefina being easily able to secure a wedding license on a Saturday of all days, every piece falls into place.
“Beautiful.” My sister snaps a photo of me staring out the window at the gazebo.
Josefina and my mom have their arms wrapped around each other, dabbing at the corners of their eyes while staring at me.
“You all are going to ruin your makeup,” Lily chides before taking another picture.
“Que bella.” Josefina sniffles.
“Mija.” My mom comes over and pulls me into a hug that Lily catches on camera.
I hold out my hands and motion toward Lily and Josefina, who both join our hug.
“Be careful with her hair.”
“And her dress.” Josefina watches out for the satin train.
My sister must have stalked my Pinterest account because every detail, from the lace veil to the white dress she randomly had in her closet, matches what I pictured for myself.
Piano music playing outside pulls us out of the moment.
Lily places the camera on a side table. “That’s our cue! Julian should be walking out now.”
I stay glued to the window, but Lily pulls me away before I get a chance to sneak a peek at my future husband.
Que bella: How beautiful
My sister herds us outside the room and down the stairs before stopping in front of the double doors leading out to the deck and yard beyond.
Flowers and candles line the pathway straight to the gazebo, which has been decorated like another one of my dream boards. Julian remains oblivious to my ogling as he stands beneath the dangling flowers hanging from the top of the gazebo, wearing a deep blue suit that blends into the lake behind him.
That’s my future husband.
My vision turns misty, and Lily warns me about ruining my makeup for the tenth time tonight.
She reaches into the pocket of her dress and pulls out a yellow rosebud. “I thought your bouquet could use a little piece of Dad since he couldn’t make it.” She tucks the rosebud in the center.
My eyes itch. “I thought you didn’t want me to cry.”
“Sorry! Remember to take your time and walk slowly so you don’t fall on your face and break another arm.”
She straightens my veil with a giggle before heading outside to join the small crowd gathering around the gazebo. There are less than twenty people at our impromptu wedding, and I couldn’t be happier.
All I need is Julian, an officiant, and a couple of witnesses for the paperwork, all of whom are from our family.
Rafa tips his chin in my godson’s direction, and Nico runs his hands over the piano keys once before he hits the first few notes.
“Don’t you dare cry,” I chant as I step outside.
Everyone’s heads turn in my direction. I can barely hear the music over the thumping of my heart, and the only thing keeping my feet moving is the man standing underneath the gazebo, staring at me like I hung the moon shining above us.
My heels click against the wood steps as I step underneath the gazebo Julian hand-carved, taking in the candles and flowers covering every surface.
Julian lifts my veil while Lily reaches for my bouquet, freeing my hands for him to grab.
He leans in and whispers against my ear, “Eres la mujer más hermosa de todas.”
Goose bumps break out across my arms, and I lean back with a smile, taking him in.
I’ve seen Julian look happy, but right now, he practically glows from the emotions pouring out of him.
“Ready?” He gives my hand a squeeze.
I glance at Josefina, who must have gotten an officiant’s license at some point, before tilting my head toward the mastermind behind this whole operation.
“You had all this planned out, didn’t you?”
He lifts my hand and kisses it. “Jaque mate, cariño.”
Butterflies scatter, making my stomach feel light and bubbly.
“We are gathered here today to witness the marriage of two soulmates destined for one another. And while some couldn’t physically be here today with us, we know they’re here in spirit.” Josefina tips her head toward the side.
Eres la mujer más hermosa de todas: You’re the most beautiful woman of all.
Jaque mate, cariño: Checkmate, sweetheart.
I follow her gaze to the table beside the gazebo, where someone placed a photo of our fathers hugging in front of Lake Wisteria.
Since I don’t want to put my waterproof mascara to the test, I blink a few times before I turn toward Julian again.
The world stops around us as we stare into each other’s eyes. I barely pay attention to the speech Josefina recites, too caught up in our own moment to care about the traditional vows. Julian and I already shared our private promises hours ago after he made love to me following his proposal, so this display is more for our families than anything else.
I follow along and repeat after Josefina whenever Julian squeezes my hand.
She tucks her phone into the pocket of her dress and announces, “You may now kiss the bride.”
My heart threatens to burst from the rush of emotions overwhelming me, but I’m not given a moment’s reprieve before Julian loops his arm around me and claims his first kiss as my husband.
Best checkmate ever.