December 24, 2014
All right, Dean thought, staring at the red wreath made out of beads on Trina’s front door. This is not going to be easy. I need a plan. Maybe a speech. A speech would be good.
He didn’t have a speech.
He took a few minutes out on the porch before opening the door to try and think of a speech.
But he had nothing.
Just the mad stupid pounding of his heart and few song lyrics he couldn’t get out of his head.
The front door was pulled open and there was Trina, her face rosy. Her hair pulled back in a ponytail that fell down over her shoulder.
“Why are you standing out here?” she asked, glancing around their front porch. “You hiding presents?”
“No. Just thinking.”
“Thinking? You do that better in the snow, do you?”
“You are so weird.” She pressed her warm lips to his cold ones and pulled him in at the same time.
“You’ve been drinking,” he said, smiling against her mouth, kicking the door shut behind them.
“Just a little.”
He kissed her again, slipping his tongue into her mouth, and she moaned, melting against him in an instant. That’s what Trina did, she melted against him. She just went boneless.
He loved it. Hard.
“Maybe more than a little,” she whispered.
“Drunk Trina is kind of my favorite Trina.”
“You only say that because she’s easy.”
“Shhh, that’s my drunk girlfriend you’re talking about.”
He kissed her again. Wrapping his arms around her as if he could absorb her through the leather of his coat, the shearling beneath that. His stupid suit and his skin beneath that. Into his blood, that’s where he’d absorb her if he could. Right into the heart of him.
That’s where he’d carry her.
“I missed you,” he said.
“I know, I missed you too. Four days is too long, isn’t it?”
“The fourth day was the worst,” he agreed. “I almost drove to the Canadian border to meet you.”
“I would have liked that.”
She kissed him, slipped her arms around his waist, under his coat, resting her hands on the top of his butt.
“Hey.” He broke the kiss, though that was the last thing he wanted. But they had some serious ground to cover tonight. And that wouldn’t happen with her hand on his butt. Nothing would happen with her copping a feel.
“There’s something…” He got distracted by the sight of an open cooler on the kitchen island between the living room and the kitchen. “What did you do?”
She clapped and spun, and he ducked back to avoid getting sliced by the end of her ponytail. “I tried to recreate the ice sculpture at your parents’ party.”
“Are those snowballs?”
“How many did you use?”
“Thirty-two. Artfully arranged. And there’s a flashlight in there somewhere that will probably short-circuit at some point. Not quite as good as the tree falling over, but it should prove to be exciting.”
“Everything with you is exciting.” He stroked back the ponytail so it was flat between her shoulder blades. “I like your T-shirt.” It was Santa and Rudolph wearing Batman and Robin costumes. He truly didn’t know where she got these things. But over the last year she’d gathered a lot of Christmas stuff. After years of boycotting the holiday, she was all in this year. She was a one-stop Christmas shop.
“You better change,” he said. “Or we’re going to be late for the party.”
“Right,” she said. “About that. I’ve decided we’re not going.”
“Not going?” Part of him, he couldn’t lie, leapt with excitement. He nearly pulled off the damn tie and flung it over his shoulder. “You’ve been talking about this party for weeks. You’re excited about the party.”
“I know, but—”
“We’ve been practicing.” The calluses on his fingers had calluses.
“And that’s been great. So wonderful.”
“Yule log, Trina. Yule. Log.”
“Ah ha, we don’t have to leave the house for a yule log either!”
She slipped her fingers through his and led him into the kitchen. The counters were full of party food. Olives and sausage rolls. Shrimp. Cheese cut into little cubes with toothpicks sticking out of them.
“What is going on?” he asked, snagging a chip as she tugged him past.
Trina opened the fridge with a flourish. “Ta da.”
He ducked down and looked into the old Frigidaire. On the top shelf there was a huge brown lump. “Oh God, Trina, is that—”
“A yule log!” she cried.
Yes. Of course. A yule log.
“That is amazing, but all of this food will be at the party too. And an open bar. Drunk Trina loves an open bar.”
“I’ve got that covered, too.” From the cooler on the kitchen island she grabbed a Bud and twisted off the cap. “For you.”
She grabbed the beer she’d been drinking from the counter and gave his bottle a tap with hers. “Cheers. Merry Christmas, baby.”
“Merry Christmas,” he said. “But why are you doing this?”
“Right. Well, I noticed that every time I talked about how excited I was about the party, you seemed to get less and less excited.”
“That’s not true,” he lied, and she shot him her patented litigator look. “Okay, it’s true. But it’s only because Dad and I are still trying to be civil, and that’s exhausting, and—”
“Your brother is there,” she filled in for him. “And he’s a jerk and you hate ties.”
He slumped, sad that he’d somehow managed to ruin all her excitement. “I do hate ties, but once a year I will suffer a tie for this party because I know you love it.”
“I do.” She whispered a kiss across his cheek. And then the other one. And then his mouth.
He hummed low in his throat, loving her sweetness.
“But I love you more.”
He groaned and set down his beer so he could wrap her up in his arms. “I love you, too. So much.”
“So ditch the tie, babe. You’ve got something here you can change into, don’t you?”
“Are you sure?”
“Totally sure. Now go.”
Dean practically sprinted into the bedroom, where he kept a lot of stuff. He ditched the tie and the suit and slipped into a worn pair of jeans and a long-sleeve henley. He sighed with relief when he kicked off the pinchy dress shoes.
“All right, here’s the deal,” he said, stepping back into the warm living room that glowed with the lights from the tree. “This year we don’t go, but next year…”
He stopped because Trina was standing next to the island, holding out a small box wrapped in red and green paper. A lopsided bow was falling off the top.
“I was going to do this later,” she said. “But I’m so nervous I just want to get it over with.”
“Isn’t gift giving for the morning?” Crap. This was why he needed that damn speech. The gift he’d wanted for her, the real one, he’d been unable to get, and he was worried there was some bad stuff working behind the scenes to keep it from him. From her.
“Please,” she said, shaking it out at him.
“Well, if this is an engagement ring, the answer is yes.”
“You didn’t… It’s not.” She looked utterly stricken.
“Relax, baby.” He kissed her lips. “That’s my job.”
And frankly, he was pretty sure she wasn’t quite ready for that. It had been a slow-moving courtship, but by her birthday, he thought. In the summer. He’d give her his grandmother’s engagement ring. She’d like that.
Which made the fact that he’d failed to get her the gift he wanted to give her even worse.
He tore open the paper and flipped open the small white box. Inside, on a little piece of cotton, was a key.
A house key.
“Move in with me,” she said, and then blushed. “Please.”
He could make a joke, tease it out a little bit, but she was so clearly on edge and he didn’t want anything to put a shadow over tonight.
Because what he had to tell her kind of had that shadow thing covered. And it was a freaking shame too, because she’d been excited about this Christmas. The first one in years.
“Come here.” He reeled her in, against his chest. Where she belonged. “Of course I’ll move in. I can’t wait.”
She slumped against him, laughing a little. “I don’t know why I was so nervous,” she said.
Because we’re still sorting through the poison from our fathers.
“I love you,” he said again, because he couldn’t say it enough. “But there’s something we should talk about.”
“Uh oh. I don’t like that voice.” She pulled away from him. She liked distance when they talked about serious stuff, and he liked her right up next to him. It was something they were working on. The compromise was he held her hand and she let him. “What’s wrong?”
“There’s a gift I wanted to get you,” he said.
He watched her eyes go wide. “That gift?” she asked, the blind panic in her voice plain to hear. Well, it was good to know he was right about his grandmother’s engagement ring. Now was not quite the time.
“No. Not that gift. The key is the right move for us right now.”
“Because it’s not like I don’t want…that gift. I just… Well, I thought we’d talk about it more. You know? Have a few discussions.”
“A pro/con chart?”
“No. Well, not unless you wanted it.”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “You have it already, don’t you? You’ve started a pro/con list about getting married.”
“If it makes you feel better it’s mostly pro.”
He kissed her and then leaned away, otherwise it would be another hour before they talked about this. “That’s not the gift I wanted to get you. I wanted to buy you that land, the acreage your dad owns that our parents fought over. The land the oil people were interested in. It’s not much—I mean, we could build a house on it someday, but that’s about it. It’s mostly grazing for your dad’s herd. And the mineral rights are pretty significant. But I wanted you to have it. To know that it was going to be in good hands. To know that it wouldn’t cause any more rifts between our families.”
“You wanted to buy that land.”
“I did. And I thought your dad would agree once I told him what it was for. But when I went and talked to him earlier today, he said he’d sold it.” He pulled her in closer, trying to stave off a freakout if that was what was about to happen. “And I know Josh has been leaning hard on him for that land. And I know that your dad is feeling a lot of guilt over his relationship with you, and I don’t know if maybe he sold Josh the land for some stupid amount of money so he could give that money to you.”
“Do you think my dad would do that?”
“When it comes to you, right now, your dad doesn’t make sense all the time.”
“Dad said Josh offered him three million.”
“Oh my God, he did it,” Dean breathed, his stomach in knots. “He sold the land to my asshole brother. Okay.” He grabbed their beers and put them in the sink. “Go get your shoes.”
“We need to go talk to your dad. It’s probably not too late to reverse the sale. Or whatever. Or maybe we should go talk to Josh. Crap. Three million is so much money. We could ask my mom, maybe, but I don’t know if she’s got that.”
“You want to buy the land back from Josh?” she asked.
“What else are we going to do?” He looked at her. “Why are you so calm? It’s freaking me out that you are so calm right now.”
“Because Dad didn’t sell it to Josh. He gave it to me.”
She walked back into the living room, to the tree with the lights and the ornaments, all newly bought this year. She pulled from the branches two envelopes.
One envelope had her name on it and the other envelope had his scrawled across it.
“What is this?” he asked.
“Dad told me about the offer from Josh, and he told me it was tempting so he could give me three million dollars, but that he knew I’d be heartbroken. So he gave me the land. To do whatever I wanted with it. I was talking about it with your mother when we were up in Fort McMurray, and when we got home she gave me this.”
She handed Dean the envelope with his name on it.
“I didn’t open it,” she said. “I was waiting for the morning.”
“I’m so relieved your dad didn’t sell that land,” he said.
“I’m so touched you wanted to buy it.”
He wanted to pull down the moon for her. Buying that land seemed easy.
The envelope in his hand crinkled in his grip. “Open it,” she said. “Now I’m dying of curiosity.”
He tore open the seal and pulled out five pieces of paper.
“It’s a land deed,” he said, rifling through the papers.
For you, the letter said in his mother’s handwriting. My dear Dean. I know you don’t want any part of Dad’s company, but I want to leave you something. Something just for you, for the future. This is the last of my family’s original ranch. My mother deeded it to me with the promise that I would never sell it. And I haven’t. It’s the same promise I am asking you to make. That’s the only string attached. Please don’t sell it. Otherwise it’s yours, in good health.
“She’s giving me some land. Wow, two hundred acres. The last of her mom’s original ranch.”
“Is this a map?” she asked, as one of the other pieces of paper slipped from his hand. They held it together, pulling it straight. “That’s the creek,” she said, “between our properties. That’s the land Dad just gave me.” She pointed to all the land west of the creek. The land east of the creek was marked off in pink highlighter.
“And that’s the land Mom gave me,” he said. The acreage connected at the creek, and together it meant they had roughly three hundred acres of Wyoming.
“Oh my,” she breathed. He glanced over at her and saw the tears in her eyes, and he couldn’t quite hide the tears in his.
It was a legacy, and it was theirs. Without strings. Without poison.
“What a gift,” she breathed. “What a beautiful gift.”
You are, he thought, watching the red Christmas lights turn his skin to rose. You are the gift.
She glanced up and met his eyes, a smile slowly illuminating her face.
“I love Christmas Eve.”
“Come on,” he said, glad to be laughing. “You’re just saying that.”
“Nope. It’s true. As of right now, it’s my favorite day.”
“We fixed it?”
“You fixed it. It was all you, baby.”
He disagreed, but she was kissing him. And taking off that Santa shirt. And then his shirt came off too and he couldn’t remember what he was disagreeing with. It seemed like a bad idea to disagree with a girl who was taking off her pants.
That night they ate yule log for dinner and they played each other their favorite songs on the stereo. She asked him to move his guitar in first thing in the morning, and he told her he had bought her a piano. An old standup he’d found outside of Laramie. That was his Christmas gift to her.
They lay in each other’s arms and held hands, watching the tree and the snow gather at the edges of the window.
“Merry Christmas, Dean,” she whispered.
“Merry Christmas, Trina.”
And it was. And it would be. Forever.