Beside her, Steven beamed. “Yeah, Mom really goes all out for Christmas,” he observed, reaching out to touch a branch of the enormous Christmas tree that filled one corner of the room. Soft white lights twinkled between the assortment of homemade ornaments, silvery tinsel, and gold-laced crimson ribbons. Garland strung with that same ribbon graced the mantle above the fireplace; a trio of white candles sat at the foot of the fire bed, lending a warm glow to the stockings hanging above.
Tricia shook her head as her gaze moved around the room. “I could never do this,” she sighed. “Everything’s perfectly placed. It’s not too much, you know? It’s gorgeous, but understated.”
“Well, my mom is an interior designer,” Steven reminded her as he draped one arm around her shoulders and drew her close. “Of course, this year she had some help. Liz has turned into a real holiday nut like that new friend of hers – Enid, I think?” He gestured to the pine garland lining the mantle, which had been sprayed with flocking. “And Jess just loves snow. Funny, considering how much she hates the cold.”
Tricia shivered, closing her hands around the warm mug of apple cider that she held. “Well, either way…” Her voice trailed off, and she sighed. She rested her head against her boyfriend’s shoulder. “I’m not sure how this evening could get any better!”
Steven smiled, lifting his own mug of warm cider to his lips and taking a long, satisfying swig. It made him very happy to hear just how much Tricia had enjoyed their evening – he’d wanted to make it special for her, because it was their first Christmas together. He’d taken her for dinner and dancing at the Valley Inn, and they’d stayed until the restaurant had closed for the evening. Their trip back into town was long and leisurely as they talked about everything under the sun: school, friends, family, their dreams and wishes for the holiday season. It was one of the things he loved most about her, the way he could talk to her about anything, no matter how serious or silly.
He was reluctant to take her back to her home. He didn’t want their night to end, and he hated the thought of leaving her in such a sad, lonely house. He’d glimpsed it, briefly, when he’d picked her up that evening; their lone holiday decoration was a limp-looking tree covered in ancient, mismatched, handmade ornaments. A few cheerily wrapped presents lurked underneath, but it was nothing like the bounty under the Wakefield tree. It almost made him feel guilty – but Tricia’s reaction had wiped away those ignoble thoughts.
He looked down into her smiling, happy face, love radiating from her expression, and couldn’t resist the sudden urge to kiss her. She giggled, surprise shimmering down her spine, and she tasted like cinnamon and apples.
He broke away with a soft sigh. “I wish you’d reconsider spending Christmas with us,” he murmured.
She shook her head. “It’s a day for family,” she replied quietly, “and I want to spend it with mine.”
Steven frowned, but didn’t push the subject. Her father was a drunken mess most of the time, and her wild child of an older sister had gone MIA again. Tricia deserved better than them, but no matter how many times they disappointed her, she continued to love them wholeheartedly, and unconditionally.
One day, he vowed silently, I’m going to whisk you away from all of that, and never let you know such profound disappointment again.
Tricia’s eyes crinkled with concern. “Steve?” she asked softly. “Is everything okay?”
He shook himself from his thoughts. “Yeah, everything’s great,” he replied. “It’s perfect, in fact, because we’re together.”
She smiled, her cheeks flushing as she pressed her face into his shoulder. “You spoil me,” she said, her words muffled in his sweater. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure this is real, and not a dream.”
He chuckled, combing one hand through her hair. “I enjoy ‘spoiling’ you,” he remarked, “but really, I’m the one who’s being spoiled. You are so precious to me, Tricia, and my life is all the better for having you in it.”
She closed her arms around his waist. “I – I don’t know what to say,” she confessed.
Tell me that you love me, he wanted to respond, aching to hear those words fall from her lips, but instead he said, “You don’t have to say anything. Just stay here with me.”
She looked up at him, her eyes searching his for a long moment. “Okay,” she finally agreed. “For a little while.”
He pressed a kiss to her cheek before guiding her over to the living room sofa, where they sat with their cider and cuddled together in front of the Christmas tree. They had the house to themselves – Steven’s parents were at the holiday party thrown by his father’s law firm, and his sisters were at their respective best friends’ houses – and so they simply sat there, enjoying the stillness of the air.
After a while, Tricia carefully removed her shoes, pressing the elegant straps of her sandals over her heels and curling her legs under her long, crimson dress as she snuggled into Steven’s side. It was heavenly, the feeling of warmth and love that enveloped her as she toyed with the handle of her empty mug. For a moment, she could forget the dreary Christmas that awaited her at home, and pretend that she was a part of this world, her boyfriend’s word of casual elegance and bountiful presents, of homemade apple cider and Christmas cookies, of fresh-smelling wreaths and gold-laced ribbons and velvet couture.
It was a happy dream, and a comforting one; she was afraid that if he asked her to spend Christmas Day with him again, that she wouldn’t be able to resist. It would be too easy to slip into this world and start believing it was real, that she belonged to a healthy, whole and hale family full of love and kindness, that she’d get everything her heart desired, even the things she felt selfish for wanting.
But it was too good to be true – and she was all too aware of the reality that awaited her outside the Wakefields’ cozy home. She’d have to leave soon enough, if only because Jessica was bound to return at some point and shatter this lovely moment by making her displeasure over Tricia’s presence crystal clear. Steven had tried to tell her on numerous occasions that, deep down, his youngest sister was a nice person, but Tricia had yet to see it for herself.
Just as she was drudging up the strength to face this less-than-pleasant reality, Steven spoke, breaking the silence that permeated the room.
“You want to look under the tree?” he asked casually, sliding a sidelong glance in her direction.
She chewed on her lower lip as she contemplated his question. He must’ve had a good reason for asking it, because he was not ostentatious about showing off his relative wealth. “Okay,” she murmured, unfolding her legs and smoothing down the front of her dress as they stood.
He took her hand as they crossed the room towards the Christmas tree, and together, they gazed down at the overflow of gifts that surrounded it. There were boxes and bags of all shapes and sizes, wrapped in the prettiest patterned paper she’d ever seen, and for a moment, she felt wistful. What is it like to have so many presents greeting you on Christmas morning? she wondered. There had never been this many gifts under the Martin family Christmas tree, not even when she and her sister were kids.
“Ah,” Steven breathed, swooping down to pick up a long, narrow box wrapped in gold paper. “I was wondering where this had gotten to.” He turned to her and pressed the gift into her free hand.
For a moment, all she could do was stare at it. “You bought me a present?” she choked out, her eyes wide with shock and surprise as she lifted her gaze to meet his. “You didn’t have to do this!”
“I know,” he replied sheepishly, “but I wanted to.” He tugged on the hand still ensconced in his own. “Go on, open it.”
Hesitantly, she let him go, turning the package over and over in her hands before finding a free corner to tear at the paper. She quickly divested the box of its paper, contemplating it for a long moment before prying it open.
“Oh, Steven,” she breathed, running her finger along the delicate silver chain nestled inside, “it’s beautiful!”
“You like it?” he responded, sounding unconvinced.
“I love it!” she returned, lifting her eyes to meet his. “You really didn’t have to do this, Steve! Dinner and dancing and being here with you has been just heavenly. This is like the icing on the cake!” Her momentary happiness faded from her features. “But… I don’t have anything to give you in return.”
He touched her face. “Well, you gave me something anyway,” he mused. “I don’t think you’ve ever been more beautiful to me than you are at this moment.” He traced his thumb over the crest of her cheek before cupping the back of her head and drawing her close, leaning down to meet her lips with a sensuous kiss.
Her head was spinning, her heart fluttering in her chest as she clutched at the box and wrapped her arms around him, never wanting to let him go. “I love you, Steven,” she whispered against his mouth, the words pouring out of her before she had a chance to stop them.
“I love you, too,” he replied, capturing her lips in another long, sweet kiss.
This is crazy, she thought giddily, curling her free hand into his hair, this is absolutely insane – we’ve only known each other for a few short months – ! It didn’t matter. He was wonderful – handsome, patient, generous – and she loved him, heart and soul. Her guard had fallen and her heart had opened, and she was happy to let him in.
In that moment, she would’ve done anything with him – but mercifully, perhaps, the front door opened and light flooded the foyer, announcing the arrival home of his family. “Hello!” Mrs. Wakefield called. “Is anybody home? Steve, are you here?”
It was the hardest thing he’d ever done, but somehow, Steven managed to disentangle himself from his girlfriend, fighting the urge to dive right back into her all the while, and reply back: “Yeah, Mom – we’re in here.”
Tricia clutched the jewelry box close to her chest as Steven ran his hands through his hair, both of them resisting the embrace that still brewed between them as his parents entered the room, breaking the heady moment.
“Tricia, how lovely to see you again!” Mrs. Wakefield said, greeting Tricia warmly and drawing her into a brief but friendly hug. “How are you doing, dear?” Mr. Wakefield acknowledged his son and walked over to start a fire in the fireplace. Tricia became aware of a faint chill in the air, one she hadn’t noticed while she had been wrapped up in her boyfriend.
“Just fine,” Tricia murmured shyly. “It’s wonderful to see you, too, Mrs. Wakefield.” She gestured to the tree. “I love the way you’ve decorated your home.”
“Why, thank you!” Mrs. Wakefield cooed. “You’re so sweet to say so.”
“Um, Mom,” Steven interrupted, taking a step forward, “I should probably take Tricia home soon.” He checked his watch. “It’s getting late.”
“Of course, dear,” Mrs. Wakefield murmured. She turned to Tricia. “You’re welcome to come by tomorrow, if you’d like.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Wakefield,” Tricia returned quickly, averting her eyes and searching the room for her shoes. “Maybe I will.” She scurried off when she spotted them, not wanting to be drawn further into the pending invitation – it had been hard enough to turn Steven down, but if his mother encouraged her, too?
She stepped into her shoes, lifting one foot at a time to secure each strap around her heels, careful not to look at Steven or his parents. She just couldn’t allow herself to become even more drawn into their world – not when she was so acutely aware that she didn’t belong.
With hasty goodbyes, the young couple left the Wakefields’, slipping out into the darkened evening. They were silent during the drive to the other side of Sweet Valley, where the Martins lived, and the silence only continued when Steven pulled into her driveway.
Finally, Tricia reached over to take Steven’s hand. “Thank you,” she said quietly, giving him a squeeze. “I don’t think I’ve ever had such a wonderful night.”
“Me, either,” he murmured. “Trish – ”
“Steve – ” she said at the same time, and they laughed.
“Go ahead,” she insisted with a gentle tug of his arm.
He took a deep breath. “I guess I just wanted to say that – I love you, Tricia. I know we haven’t known each other that long, but I’ve never felt this way about another person before,” he confessed. “I feel so close to you.”
Tricia flushed, grateful for the darkness that shrouded them. “I feel the same way,” she admitted in a rush. “I love you, Steven, not only because of the necklace, but – for everything.”
He squeezed her hand reassuringly. “I’m glad you like the necklace. I picked it out all by myself.”
She smiled. “It’s perfect,” she proclaimed. “I’ll never take it off.”
He considered her response. “Good,” he finally said.
Another patch of silence stretched between them as they sat in his car, still holding each other’s hand, their fingers laced together tightly. Neither one of them wanted to let go, but eventually, Tricia realized that she had to return inside.
“I guess I should go,” she murmured reluctantly, leaning over to press a kiss to his cheek. “Thanks again for the wonderful evening. Merry Christmas, Steve.”
He caught her before she could pull away completely, his mouth finding hers in the darkness, and he pressed an electrifying kiss to her lips, one that she felt all the way to the tips of her toes.
“Merry Christmas, Trish,” he whispered softly.