(You'll want to wait to read this until after finishing Aftereffects. Oh, and particularly fun for those who have read the whole series, but not necessary!)
“Okay, so what’s the emergency?” Dan asked me, sliding into the booth on the opposite side of the table at The Rose & Crown and holding up a finger to signal the waitress. “Wait, did you order?”
Jamie shook his head. “Not yet, mate.”
It was just barely six o’clock on a Thursday evening and the happy hour crowd was already humming.
“What can I get for you?”
“Two Plinys,” Dan told her, gesturing between us. “Guinness for this guy,” he added pointing to Jamie, “and . . . what?” he asked Marcus. “A Shirley Temple? Extra cherries?”
“You’re a riot, grandpa,” Marcus mumbled. “I’ll have an IPA.”
After some good-natured ribbing and a bit of catching up, Dan leaned back with his arm draped across the booth and turned to me again. “All right. So what’s got you stress-eating bar nuts? And by the way, I wouldn’t do that,” he cautioned, pointing at the cashew I’d just picked up. “Marcus licks his fingers and double-dips.”
I tossed the cashew back onto the table, and on a gusty exhale told them, “I need your help. I still haven’t figured out what I’m giving Selene for Christmas.”
I could almost hear the screeching of brakes that ripped through the bar at my admission. Time stopped. Conversation went silent. Somewhere, birds probably fell from the sky. Three pairs of eyebrows shot up and there was a subtle shifting of bodies around our table.
“You do know it’s—” Dan turned his wrist and the screen on his watch lit up with the date. “December 13th?”
“I’m well aware,” I answered, leaning forward and dropping my head into my hands. Apparently, this situation was as bad as I imagined. “I’ve been running through all these ideas but nothing feels right. It’s our first Christmas together, our first real gift-giving occasion. I can’t blow this.”
Like an act of divine holiday magic, our waitress returned with alcohol and lots of it, materializing through the crowd and setting our drinks down on coasters in front of each of us. As we descended into our glasses, there was a general consensus around the table that, yes, I was totally screwed if I blew this.
“Okay, here’s the plan: You need a gift,” Dan said to me. “We’ll just do some research.” He pulled out his phone and opened the Google app. “What. Women. Want. 2018,” he mouthed, typing. “Here,” he said pointing to his phone. “Good Housekeeping’s 37 best gift ideas for the woman in your life. Number one, face cream.” He frowned. “Number two, a life planner.” He paused and looked up. “What the hell is a life planner?”
Marcus sat forward and held up his hands. “Isn’t the correct answer to this problem always jewelry?”
“Are you both mad?” Jamie asked. “Keir cannot give his fiancé a generic gift on their first Christmas.” Turning to me, he said, “Mate, you need to come up with something that demonstrates some thought. Some individuality.”
A sinking feeling took hold in my gut. I knew he was right, of course, which is why I hadn’t slept in a week and my brain was practically melting in my head. “What was the first gift you gave Mel?”
“Ah,” he said, nodding. “I wrote her a song and performed it for her in front of thirteen hundred people at The Fillmore.”
My heart immediately bottomed out. I could only look at the bastard and blink.
“I suppose that’s not much help,” he added quickly and with an apologetic wince.
“Not much,” I affirmed. “What about you?” I glanced over at Dan, who looked up from his phone where he was still scrolling the list for something better than face cream.
“I surprised Sarah with a piano. And above it, I hung a portrait of her I’d taken on our first date. She says she thinks it was the exact moment we fell in love.”
The grimace on Marcus’s face matched my thoughts exactly. Groaning, I rubbed a palm over my mouth. My stomach felt twisty and gross. I was so screwed.
“The most amusing part of all of this is,” Marcus said, “is that the women are probably sitting around right now, having this exact conversation. And what you just heard from these saps,” he said nodding his chin at Dan and Jamie, “that’s your measuring stick. So good luck.”
“You are such a dick right now,” I told him. I was this close to throttling his scrawny throat.
“Yeah, well, did you expect something different?” he said.
“Maybe that your seven-year friendship with my bride-to-be might be of some small use in this situation.”
“I certainly never claimed to be an expert on women.” He said it lightly, but his expression suggested there was something tighter beneath it—and nothing he would ever say to me.
Silence engulfed us again and I glanced around, feeling the weight of every Christmas wreath and blinking light and Ho, Ho, Ho resting heavily on my chest.
“Well . . . I did have one idea.” I was hesitant to even mention it because for all I knew it was just as terrible as giving Selene face cream. “I was thinking I could take her to Vegas.”
My eyes flickered to Dan, measuring his reaction. For several beats, he said nothing. Then slowly I watched his expression go from blank to wide-eyed as my meaning dawned. “Elope?”
I winced. “It’s bad. Right?”
Jamie laughed. “Depends how do you feel about castration at the hands of your mother-in-law?”
“No castration required,” I said holding up my hands. “We’d still do the whole wedding thing exactly as planned. I’m not talking about cancelling that. I’m talking about something private just for us. We wouldn’t even have to tell anyone, if she didn’t want to.”
God, was this a terrible idea? I hadn’t actually said it out loud until just now, and the response around the table was not reassuring.
Selene and I joked often about eloping because the wedding planning was reaching comedic levels of absurdity. But in truth, I think I was only partly joking. Yes, a part of me was excited to proudly holler my love for her in front of a big crowd of everyone we knew. Look! Look what I got! But there was another part of me that only needed her, and that part of me was happy to whisper my commitment between us in this small, quiet space where only we existed, because that was the only place that really mattered.
“Being married to Selene is the only thing I want. Just to stand before her and pledge myself to her and promise her a life together with love and respect at its core. Anything else I’d give her wouldn’t do justice to what she means to me.”
I let go of a deep breath and lifted my glass, feeling mildly defeated and, honestly, not even caring if my crew gave me a mountain of shit for being so whipped. I deserved it. Truthfully, I relished the feeling that I’d finally been claimed.
But instead they were conspicuously silent for what felt like an eternity. Dan and Jamie exchanged a brief look. I couldn’t tell what any of them were thinking and it drove me crazy.
“Damn, Stevens,” Marcus finally said, shaking his head. “You certainly do know how to throw down when you want to.”
I sniffed out a laugh. “So, is that a thumbs up or a thumbs down?”
Marcus shrugged. “She already said she’d marry you, so what the hell? I say do it.”
Dan hummed thoughtfully, considering this. He was, himself, a newly wed. “I can’t believe I’m saying this but I think I agree with Marcus. My wedding day was one of the best days of my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But you do get pulled in so many directions. It would’ve been nice to have a moment to just let it all sink in and enjoy the significance of what we’d done. So yeah, I get it. I think Selene would, too.”
“Seriously.” He held my gaze and I felt a knot loosen in my chest.
“I agree. It’s brilliant,” Jamie added with a grin. “And if nothing else, you’ll get a whole weekend away together—some great meals, a few shows. What do you have to lose?”
A surge of relief flooded my system and I couldn’t fight the smile that exploded across my face. I felt a little shaky and slightly euphoric at the thought that this crazy idea might not be so crazy after all—that my girl might hear me out and not think I was a total lunatic for wanting the future we envisioned together to start, well, . . . now.
“Thanks,” I told them, and I couldn’t make my cheeks go back to their normal shape. I thought they just might stay like this forever.
“Okay, then,” Jamie said, “the only question remaining is, D’ya need a few witnesses?”