Under the mistletoe with your mister or miss, make a wish then seal it with a kiss…

Amaya Montero has a beautiful son, a lovely home, and is married to the love of her life. What she doesn’t have is her husband’s heart. After a brief summer romance resulted in their son, Cristian did the honorable thing and married her. But Amaya is tired of being his obligation. She wants him to love her the way she deserves — wholly and passionately. Is that a wish too much for the mistletoe to handle?

Cristian isn’t a sentimental man but he takes care of the people he loves. Though unexpected pregnancy changed his future, he loves the life he has now. Which is why he’s surprised when Amaya announces she’s leaving him. He hadn’t realized how much he’d been taking his wife for granted. Now he must prove to her that he can love her the way she needs and that she has always held his heart.

For twelve days, Cristian woos Amaya with gifts to show his love truly is real and deep. But just as the ice around her heart begins to thaw, a figure from their past returns and threatens the delicate bond being rebuilt between husband and wife. Will Amaya’s mistletoe wish melt away? Or will the magic of the season help her and Cristian find their way back to one another? 

Chapter One

My son bounced on the balls of his feet with a level of anticipation only a five-year-old can achieve. Kane watched with eyes of tinsel and fire while the three men in our life — my husband, my father, and my brother-in-law — attempted to string colored lights around the oversized evergreen in my mother-in-law’s parlor. His excitement was palpable and I tried to absorb every last bit of it to bolster my spirit. Because after tonight, I’d be breaking my own heart when I asked his father for a divorce.

Kane studied the trio intently, his head cocked to the left. Exactly the way his father looked when trying to puzzle something out. Kane had inherited my coloring — hair like midnight, hazel brown eyes, the same golden freckles dusted all over his tawny brown skin. But his mannerisms were all Cristian.

I walked to the kitchen for something strong. My mother-in-law, Iris, had a tendency to make the coquito too strong, but tonight I appreciated the fortification. It wasn’t easy pretending nothing was wrong. Pretending my heart wasn’t breaking.

Pretending I wasn’t going to leave my husband, the only man I’d ever loved.

For weeks, I’d been thinking about it. Ever since Kane started school, the distance between Cristian and I had seemed to grow. I’d wanted to talk to him about it, but had been too afraid to ask him the question weighing on my heart. No, it wasn’t the question I was afraid of—it was the answer.

I might’ve continued to go along with the status quo for a while longer, but today I’d received the flashing neon sign I’d been looking for, though not the one I’d hope to receive. Lucy Prince, my former best friend and the love of Cristian’s life, had come home.

I’d run into her mother at the grocery store. Mrs. Prince was excited her only daughter was returning home after spending the past six years in England. Lucy’s job had given her a permanent transfer back to Catoctin Ridge. Considering the population of our little town was only in the triple digits, it was inevitable for our paths to cross. Once they did, what would happen to Cristian and me?

Six years ago, Lucy had broken both our hearts by moving across the ocean. I’d lost my best friend, he’d lost the woman he’d intended to marry. One night of comfort in each other’s arms resulted in Cristian doing the honorable thing, but this was never what he’d wanted. I was never what he wanted. Lucy’s return was a second chance for them. As much as I didn’t want to lose Cristian, the alternative was to continue a loveless marriage, one in which I’d never escape the specter of my husband’s first love. I deserved better than that and so did he. But Cristian’s fierce sense of duty would never allow him to leave me, not while Kane was still so young. It was up to me to do the right thing for both of us.

I took a long sip and let the rum warm my blood. If I can only get through tonight…

Since Kane’s birth, our families have spent the holidays together. Cristian’s only family was his brother and his mother. His father had died when he was sixteen. I was five, Kane’s age, when my mother left me, my father, and my sister for a bigger city and a man with a bigger bank account, one who didn’t want to be saddled with stepchildren. Given how small our families were, it only made sense to bring everyone together as one big happy family for holidays and special occasions. But what would happen next year, when we weren’t one big happy family anymore? What would happen when Lucy became a part of the family?

I took another sip, not wanting to contemplate it.

“You’re quiet tonight.”

Cristian’s voice, like dark roast coffee, sent the blood rushing through my veins, ratcheted up my pulse and heated me from the inside out. His hands were jammed in his pockets, his light cotton sweater rolled up to the elbow revealed strong, sinewy forearms. A day’s worth of dark stubble covered his square jaw and surrounded thick, rosy lips puckered in annoyance. But it was his eyes, like ripe blueberries ready for plucking from the vine, that made my heart wheeze.

 I shrugged. “Tired, I guess.”

He jerked his head toward the other room. “The lights are up. Kane’s waiting on you before he flips the switch.”

I left my cup on the table and stood in the doorway next to Cristian. The room lights dimmed. My father counted to three and Kane toggled the switch on the remote. The tree lit up in a splendid array of colors that blinked a random pattern.

“Are they supposed to do that?” I asked Cristian out the side of my mouth.

He chuckled quietly. “I don’t think so. But look,” he pointed to Kane, whose face was as bright as the tree, “I don’t think anyone will gripe about it as long as he loves it.”

“They do spoil him,” I laughed.

Cristian turned toward me, his head tilted to the left. “I think that’s the first time I’ve heard you laugh in weeks.”

The smile stilled on my lips. I looked up at him and there went my heart and its stupid stutter.

“Amaya! Cristian!” Iris called out in a singsong voice. “Under the mistletoe with your mister or miss, make a wish then seal it with a kiss!

We both looked up at the piece of greenery hanging over our heads, then back at one another.

I wish you loved me. The thought came without effort to my mind.

“It’s a silly superstition,” Cristian said, aiming an eye-roll at his mother.

“C’mon, bro,” Cristian’s brother, Rey, snorted. “Since when do you need convincing to kiss your wife.”

My heart stopped, my cheeks flamed. Cristian gave me a quick, chaste kiss on the lips, then laughed. “Everybody happy now?”

 I’m not. My heart was shattering, but I played along with the joke. For Kane. For the family. For Cristian. For everyone but me. That would change tomorrow. I would do the right thing for me and for Cristian. I would give him back to Lucy.


CHAPTER TWO

Despite a third cup of coquito, I didn’t sleep well at all. I was in a funk while we drove to St. Monica’s for Mass, my nerves jangling. My knee bounced while I sat — in the car on the way there, in the pew, in the car on the way home. Cristian laid a hand on it and I flinched.

“What’s going on with you?”

I couldn’t put it off any longer. “We’ll talk when we get home.”

Kane bounded off to change while Cristian and I made his lunch. I set it in the playroom and turned on Moana. It should occupy him long enough to give his dad and me privacy.

“So you want to tell me what’s going on?” Cristian pulled out a chair for me at the kitchen table and sat in the one next to it. I walked around and took the seat opposite him. His eyebrows lowered.

I licked my lips and twisted the marquis diamond on my finger. “You’re not happy here. I don’t know if you ever have been. I’ve tried really hard to make it work. I thought, in time, things would change.”

“What are you talking about?” His brows crushed together. “What do you mean I’m not happy?”

“You never wanted to marry me—”

“Of course I did! I wouldn’t have asked otherwise.”

I looked at the ring, the one he’d bought when we agreed to get married. Not when he’d asked. He’d never actually asked. “Consider this an early Christmas gift.”

His face paled, his mouth dropped. His gaze was filled with cold rage.

“Leaving me?” he growled. “That’s my early Christmas present? Is this some sick fucking joke, Amaya? Because I don’t get it.”

I sucked in a deep breath and raised my chin, mustered all the calm I could. “I’m calling it your Christmas present because this is me freeing you.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“You only married me because I got pregnant. You only stayed because of Kane.” I licked my lips again, my throat suddenly the Sahara. “You are a good man and a great father. But I think five years is long enough.”

“Long enough for what?” He ran a hand through his hair. “You’re not making any sense.”

“Long enough for you to have met your obligation to me.”

“My obliga—what the hell are you talking about, Amaya?” His voice turned deadly. “Is there someone else? Is that it?”

His voice cracked on the last word, simultaneous with the break in my heart. “Not for me, no. But for you—”

He exploded out of the chair. “I have never — never — even so much as looked at another woman. I married you, I made a promise to you, to my son. There’s never been anyone else.”

“There has,” I said quietly. “Lucy. She’s the one you love, the one you wanted to marry. If I hadn’t gotten pregnant, you two might’ve—”

“Stop.” Cristian faced me and gripped the counter, his palms backward, knuckles turning white. His jaw tightened. “Why are you bringing up Lucy? I haven’t even seen her in years.”

He hadn’t seen her, but how often had he thought of her? I didn’t want to know. “Lucy’s mother told me she accepted a new job with her company. She’s moving back from England.”

His eyes bored into mine, his head cocked, face twisted in confusion. I hurried on to get this out before I fell apart. “I’ve been thinking about us for a while now, how it’s not working. And when Mrs. Prince told me about Lucy, I took it as a sign. You can have another chance with her. I’m freeing you to pursue it, because I know you would never do it on your own. You’re too…responsible. I love you, Cristian. I want you to be happy.”

“You love me so much you want to break up our marriage, destroy the home we’ve made for our son, set me up with an old girlfriend? You think that would make me happy?”

I sniffled. “She’s not just an old girlfriend. She‘s the love of your life. The one you’re meant to be with and we both know it.”

“She left me,” he spat. “Dumped my ass. Abandoned both of us to see the world. Obviously it was not meant to be.”

 “Well, now she’s back. I don’t want to be the one standing in the way of a second chance. I would rather we split now, amicably, and keep our friendship for Kane’s sake, than continue on the way we have been.”

“And just how do you think we’ve been?”

“You resenting me, me wondering when you’re going to leave. This way will hurt in the short term, but be better for all of us in the long run.”

He scoffed. “You think it’s better for our son that his parents aren’t together?”

I took another steadying breath. “I think it’s better for Kane to see his parents happy. We don’t make each other happy. You don’t love me.”

“Of course I love you, you’re the mother of my child!”

“I know you love me that way. But I deserve more. And so do you.”

I stood and walked over to him, then placed a hand on his chest. “I thought I could love you enough for both of us, but I was wrong.”

“Amaya—”

I tilted my head back to look at him. “Do you know you’ve never told me you loved me?”

“That’s not true.”

“It is. You’ve given me cards and signed them ‘Love, Cris’. You’ve said, ‘I love your hair like that’ or ‘I love how you taste’. You’ve replied to my declarations with “Love you, too”. But you’ve never said those three words first in five years of marriage.”

His lips parted and his Adam’s apple bobbed. “That’s not true. Amaya—”

“You’ve never kissed me, not outside the bedroom.” I took a step back and let my hand drop. “Last night, you couldn’t even bring yourself to kiss me under the mistletoe.”

“I kissed you!” he shouted. “I kiss you all the fucking time.”

“You peck me. You give me a tiny, closed-mouth kiss hello and goodbye. The only time you kiss me like you mean it is when we’re in bed.”

“Okay, so I’ll kiss you more.” He threw his hands up. “I show you I love you, but if you need to hear it, then I’ll say it more often.”

“It’s not enough.” I choked back my tears. “You deserve more. I deserve more.”

“Amaya, don’t do this,” he rasped.

“I think it’d be best to keep the disruption to a minimum for Kane. But I also need you to move out. We can come up with something to tell him.”

“Amaya,” he growled. “It’s Christmas. You can’t do this—”

 “I wanted to wait until after the holidays, but I can’t spend one more minute going along with this charade. I can’t spend one more Christmas morning watching you go through the motions with me, opening your thoughtful, practical gift to me, all the while hoping—” I swallowed back the rock lodged in my throat, “wishing it was—”

I couldn’t finish. He took a step forward. “Wishing it was what?”

Your grandmother’s ring.

“It’s not important.” I shook my head and moved back. It was one confession too far for now.

His chest rose and fell in short rapid breaths as he glowered at me. But I stood my ground. I even smiled, though where I got the will to do it is a mystery.

“You’ll see,” I said. “It’s all going to work out the way it should.”

He stared at me a long, hard moment, then spun on his heel and stomped out of the house, grabbing his keys off the counter on the way out. The windows rattled in their frames from the force of his door slam. A few seconds later, he peeled down the driveway. Only then, did I let myself breathe normally.

“Mommy?” Kane stood just outside the kitchen. “Is Daddy mad?”

I wiped the tears drying on my cheek and forced a smile. “Not at you, sweetheart. He was — late — for something, so he had to leave.”

That seemed to satisfy him. I wrapped my arms around my middle and watched what was left of my heart skip down the hall.


CHAPTER THREE

I slammed my palm against the steering wheel and howled in frustration. How could Amaya do this? She was ruining everything we have, and for what? Because she can’t get over her damn insecurities about Lucy? Christ, it’s ancient history!

Lucy’s mother still lives in town and I see her on occasion, but I never ask about Lucy. She’s my past; Amaya is my present and my future. 

Amaya. She’d been my best friend. All three of us were, until Lucy decided to take that scholarship to Oxford the summer before our Sophomore year of college. She broke up with me after three years of dating because “long-distance relationships never work”. She hadn’t wanted any attachments holding her back. I was devastated. She never even knew I had planned to ask her to marry me. I’d even asked my mother for the family ring.

Amaya had known. Lucy had all but abandoned her, too, in pursuit of her dreams and that summer, we took comfort in each other’s arms. I’d lost myself over and over in Amaya’s soft, wet warmth, each climax pushing Lucy further and further out of my mind. It’d worked. My scarred heart and wounded ego healed. Until Amaya showed me those two blue stripes and my entire world upended.

I did the right thing. I wasn’t going to abandon Amaya the way Lucy had, the way her mother had. I married her, built a life with her, loved her the best way I could. Now that wasn’t good enough for her?

I jerked the wheel to the left, tires squealed as I turned onto my mother’s street. We had to make sacrifices, sure. Adult responsibilities trump youthful dreams.

Now Amaya was pushing me away, punishing me for living up to my responsibilities. What the fuck? So what if I rarely said ‘I love you’? Those are just words. Actions speak louder, and providing a good home and financial stability should’ve been the equivalent of shouting my love from the rooftops.

Maybe I didn’t kiss her the way she wanted, but she could’ve said something. I parked in the driveway and switched off the engine. I’d never seen my father mauling my mother, but it didn’t mean they weren’t in love.

I let myself into the house and cast a glance at the tree we’d trimmed last night as a family while I headed toward the delicious aroma emanating from the kitchen. What the hell happened between then and now?

“Mami?”

“Cristian?” My mother wiped her hands on her apron, a delighted look on her face. “What are you doing here, mijo? Amaya and Kane with you?”

“No.” She must’ve seen something on my face, because hers pinched in alarm.

“Sit.” She directed me to a chair. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

Fury warred with hurt in my chest. “Amaya’s leaving me.”

Mami’s expression would be comical if it weren’t such a tragic situation. “What? Why would she want to do that?”

“She thinks I don’t love her.”

Que mosca le picó a esa? It’s not like you’re rolling on the street with other women. You’re a great husband and father. You take good care of them.”

“That’s what I said!” I spread my arms. Vindication stoked my ire. “But apparently I don’t show it the way she wants. I don’t kiss her like a fool or tell her I love her enough.”

“Bueno,” Mami said with shrug. “You are bien seco with her.”

I gaped at my mother. “That means more than taking care of her and my son?”

“Amaya adores you. It’s written all over her face. You, on the other hand, play things close to your heart.”

I grunted. “Lucy is back. Amaya believes it’s a sign that Lucy and I are supposed to have a second chance, that I still love Lucy.”

Ridícula. You and Lucy were never to be.”

I thought we were at one time, but things worked out the way they were supposed to.

“Lucy dumping me was the best thing that could’ve happened. I mean, my life isn’t exactly as I’d planned. But I have Kane and Amaya, and that’s all I need.”

Mami smiled. “Maybe you should be telling Amaya that.”

“She should know,” I grumbled. “And if she had doubts, she should’ve asked me. Not thrown me out.”

“Amaya left you?” Rey entered the kitchen, snickering. I’d smack the smirk off his smug face but even though I’m twenty-four, Mami wouldn’t hesitate to use the old fly swatter. And that ain’t made of plastic.

He opened the fridge and took out a can of beer, then another. He handed me one, then sat down. “So she finally got smart, huh?”

“What are you talking about?”

Rey took a swig before he answered. “You married her because you knocked her up. Noble of you, big brother. What have you done for her since then?”

“I work, I provide for my family. She and Kane don’t want for anything.” I jabbed my finger on the table after each point.

“Cristian,” Mami said, putting her hand on mine, eyes filled with compassion. “I think what your brother is trying to say — women need more than things to feel secure. She needs to know she’s your queen. Have you treated her like a queen?”

I blew out an exasperated breath. “I thought I did. Guess it wasn’t good enough.”

“So you sure there’s nothing between you and Lucy?” Rey sipped from the can and lifted an eyebrow. I really wanted to slug him.

“No.”

“Why not? You were going to propose to her once before. Maybe this is your second chance.”

I shot him an irritated look. “You been talking to Amaya? Because that’s the same crazy shit she was spouting.”

My mother slapped me upside the head. “Language, Cristian.”

I rubbed the spot she smacked. “Sorry. I’m just — puñeta. Frustrated. I don’t know where any of this is coming from.”

Rey sighed. “Mira, I’m not trying to be an as—,” he looked at my mother and cleared his throat, “a jerk. But I’ve noticed over the past few months a change in her. She’s lost her spark, man. Even Mami noticed it.”

I looked at my mother, who shrugged. “A woman needs to know she is treasured and desired. Have you shown her that?”

I couldn’t tell them what she’d said to me. I was ashamed, because Amaya was right. I’d fallen short. “I could do better. I will do better. Kane needs both his parents. I can’t let her go. I have to figure out a way to make her to stay.”

Mami sat back and cocked her head to the side. “Do you want her to stay because it would be best for Kane? Or do you want her to stay because you can’t live without her?”

“’Cause, if it’s not the latter,” Rey waved the can at me, “then let her go. She’s trying to do you a favor by giving you a chance to find happiness. Give her the same.”

I squinted my eyes at him. He was barely twenty-two, in his last year of community college, still living at home, and never had a single serious relationship in his life. “Dame un break, when the hell did you become a love expert?”

A sly grin spread across his face. He didn’t answer, just drank another sip of beer.

Mami stood. “Come, have lunch with us. You can’t think on an empty stomach.”

CHAPTER FOUR

It was dark by the time I returned home, hands full with half the arroz con pollo my mother had made for dinner. I let myself in the back door and set the dish on the counter. From upstairs came the sound of splashes and giggles. I could listen all day long to the lyrical trill of my son’s laughter, but it’s the huskier laugh following it that gave me pause. I crept up the stairs and stood by the door of the bathroom, where Amaya leaned over the tub to rinse Kane’s hair. Music played from the MP3 sitting on the toilet tank, John Lithgow’s ode to bathtubs loud enough to cover my footsteps. I took advantage of my unannounced presence to drink in Amaya as she took care of our son.

Her wild curls were held back with a bandana and she wore a sleeveless tee over yoga pants, her freckled face scrubbed clean. She hummed along with the music and I was struck with a memory of her rocking Kane in her arms late at night shortly after we came home from the hospital.

She’d been humming to him then, too, an old Ella Fitzgerald song. The purple glow from the nightlight bathed them both in an ethereal aura and I remember catching my breath, thinking to myself how lucky I was to have two beautiful angels in my life. I don’t think I ever told her that. There were a lot of things I didn’t tell her.

I didn’t tell her how the little notes she used to stick in my lunch bag made me smile, or how disappointed I was when she stopped. I never told her how scared I was when we heard the heartbeat for the first time, how the simple squeeze of her hand froze the panic rising when it truly hit me for the first time that I was going to be a father. I never told her how content I felt when she’d lean her head on my shoulder while we watched TV, or how I always chose horror movies when it was my turn to pick because I loved how she’d bury her face in my chest.

My heart took a swan dive into my stomach. I loved everything about her, but I never told her and now it might be too late. I knew the answer to my mother’s questions, and if I could kick my own ass for it taking so long to realize, I would.

I didn’t want to live without her. I can’t live without her.

* * * * *

Bath time was one of my favorite activities. It was just Kane and me, a little Singin’ in the Bathtub, laughing and splashing, all ending with a bedtime story and sweet-smelling little boy. But Kane was getting older and more insistent on his privacy. These moments wouldn’t last, their end coming faster with the prospect of all the time I’d be spending away from him once Cristian and I finalize the separation.

“Okay big boy, you dry yourself, I’ll be right outside the door.”

“Daddy!” Kane exclaimed. I almost dropped the music player I’d just unplugged.

“Hey, mijo,” Cristian said, pushing off the jamb. How long had he been there?

“Will you read me a story?” My stomach knoted at Kane’s request, but how could I begrudge my son wanting time with his father?

“Sure. Why don’t you get your pajamas on and hop into bed, I’ll be right there.”

Kane grabbed the towel I passed to him and covered himself, running out with a yell. “Don’t look at my wiener!”

Cristian unsuccessfully stifled a laugh. I scolded him, though I could barely contain my own humor. “Don’t encourage him.”

“He’s a comedian, that kid.” He trailed me to our bedroom. “I think he gets it from my brother.”

“Probably.” Rey was the quintessential good-time guy. Not like Cristian, who took his responsibilities seriously. Well, I wasn’t going to be his responsibility anymore. I dropped the player on the dresser and whipped around. “You can’t stay here after tonight.”

His features pinched. “I’m sorry I walked out. Can we please talk about this?”

I shook my head. “There’s nothing left to talk about, at least not as far as you and I are concerned. Tomorrow, while Kane is at school, I’d appreciate it if you’d pack your stuff and leave. We can trade off next week. I’ve already told my sister.”

“So like that, it’s over.” He snapped his fingers and I flinched. “Five years gone.”

I wanted to wipe the trouble off his face, give him my comfort like I’d always done, though that’s what got us into this situation. Had I not been trying to comfort my friend after his painful break up, I wouldn’t have gotten pregnant. But then I wouldn’t have Kane and I couldn’t ever regret his existence. I pulled a slip of paper out of my pocket and handed it to him.

“What’s this?” He glanced at it, then leveled a stormy gaze at me. “Are you fucking serious, Amaya?”

“I got it from her mother,” I said, stepping to the other side of the bed. “That’s Lucy’s new number and her address. I really think you need to see her.”

“I don’t want Lucy. He balled up the paper and tossed it aside. “I want you.”

I refused to meet his eyes. “No, you don’t.”

He muttered a string of curse words, mostly in Spanish. “I love you. I’m sorry I didn’t say it sooner. But I do. Believe me. I love you.”

I brought my eyes up and shuttered my gaze. “I believe you love me. As Kane’s mother. But I need more. I deserve a chance to find someone who can love me for more.”

The muscle in his cheek ticked. Then he gave a quick nod. “I’ll read Kane a story, then take the guest room.”

He walked out. My heart fell to my feet, my eyes slid to his side of the King bed, which would remain empty tonight. I could stretch out, luxuriate in all that room. Eventually, maybe, I would. But tonight, it wouldn’t quell the emptiness. It wouldn’t make up for missing the feel of our ankles entwined, the way his foot rubbed against my calf, the absent weight of his arm resting across my middle. I’d never again fall asleep to the rhythmic beat of his heart under my cheek or wake up to the nudge of his arousal against my bottom.

I picked up his pillow, intending to give it to him. But I brought it to my nose and inhaled. His faint scent clung to the cotton case as it did on everything he touched in this room, triggering a carousel of memories starting with the first time I knew I was in love with him. We were sixteen and it was the anniversary of his dad’s death, so we’d skipped school and walked the trails to Cunningham Falls. Lucy refused to cut class, but she asked me to keep him company. We barely spoke, but to this day, I can still feel the grief pulsating off of him. A cold spring rain took us by surprise and without hesitation, he draped his jacket over my shoulders and pulled me close to him as we hid out under an outcropping of rock. The jacket smelled like this pillow — a combination of spice and sunshine. I had felt him shudder while water streamed down his cheeks, his tears mingled with the drops falling from his wet hair. He was so beautiful at that moment, so vulnerable and sad, and I had the compelling urge to make everything better. I had taken his hand, but said nothing. He finished his quiet mourning at the same time the rain let up and we never mentioned it beyond the grateful smile he gave me. I fell head over heels for my best friend’s boyfriend that day, a secret I tried to hide for a long time. I breathed in once more. His scent will dissipate soon enough, but I fear the memories will take longer to fade. Much longer.


CHAPTER FIVE

The next morning, I waited until I heard Amaya shuffle down the stairs before I got out of bed. I entered our bedroom and washed up in the master bathroom, then dressed for work. I had no desire to be at the office, but I was already taking leave the few days before and after Christmas. As it was, Amaya expected me to leave work early today so I could pack a bag while Kane was at school.

I stared at my reflection. I wanted to be resentful, angry, and I am. But not at her. At myself. I failed her and I needed to make it right. If only I had a frigging clue how.

I poured coffee into a travel mug and slung my messenger bag across my chest while Amaya bundled up Kane. Maryland winters could swing from one extreme to the next and we’re currently in an icy snap. Still, I laughed at how wrapped up the poor kid was.

“He have an audition as Ralphie’s brother?” I joked.

Amaya hid a smile, her face soft for a moment at the reference to our favorite Christmas movie. Then it vanished. She kissed Kane on the forehead, the only visible patch of skin. “Have a good day.”

She didn’t say goodbye or even look at me. I ushered Kane to the car and at his insistence, tuned to the Christmas music channel. We’d pulled into the drop-off line at school, the Muppets performing their version of the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” when it came to me. How I could prove to Amaya she’s the one. Today marked exactly twelve days until Christmas. It didn’t leave much time, but I could pull it off.

After dropping Kane off, I went to the office and took care of a few things before asking for additional time off. Request granted, I drove to my mother’s. I’d need her help to do this.

* * * * *

“You think this will work, mijo?” Mami looked skeptical as she fried the tostones.

I savored the unctuous aroma, my kind of comfort food. Amaya wasn’t keen on plantains. “It’s like they want to be a banana, but they can’t quite get there,” she’d told me once. I chuckled to myself at the memory, winced when I realized I never told her how her humor and quirkiness are more reasons I love her.

“It’s got to. I can’t lose her.” I threw my head back and heaved a sigh to the ceiling, silently praying it would work. “I have to do something big and romantic.”

“A grand gesture,” my mother said. She smiled at me, then drained the tostones on a paper towel. She flattened them with a ceramic plate. “Like in all those romance movies.”

“Yeah.”

She placed the plantain pieces in salted water, then took a seat opposite me and picked up her tea cup. “So what exactly do you have planned?”

“Today is exactly twelve days until Christmas morning. Each day I’m going to give her a gift to show I do love her and to remind her of how good we are together. First, I’m going to cook her favorite meal and surprise her when she gets home from school.”

My mother barked out a laugh. “You’re going to cook?”

I bristled at her teasing tone. “I know my way around the kitchen. I’m not helpless.”

She held up her hands. “If you say so. What about Kane?”

I gave her a lopsided grin and raised my eyebrows. “I was hoping his Abuelita could have him over?”

She clucked her tongue. “Of course. Mi pequeño nieto is always welcome. What do you plan on making her? Can I help?”

I shook my head. “No, thanks, Mami. It has to come from me. I’m going to make eggplant parmigiana. Should be easy enough. I’ve seen her make it a thousand times.”

My mother laughed again. “I’m only a phone call away.”

I grimaced. Despite my mother’s efforts, cooking had never been a strength of mine. “The next night won’t be much easier, not for me. I’m taking her ice skating.”

Mami quirked a silver eyebrow. “She likes to ice skate?”

“She asks me every year to go with her and Kane.” I dipped my head. “It’s not something I like, so I always decline. She hasn’t asked me yet this year, not at all.”

I hoped by doing an activity she loves, but which I’m not crazy about, would show her I’m serious about her. I may fall on my ass, literally and figuratively, but I had to try.

I went over the list I made, Mami making suggestions here and there, and offering her and my brother’s help. She loves Amaya like a daughter, always has, and even though she hasn’t said it I can sense her sadness and disappointment in me. When I got to the last item, tears filled her eyes.

“I have always wondered,” she said, standing and moving to the stove. She reheated the oil in the pan. “It should’ve been hers, not Lucy’s. But I figured you had your reasons.”

“Not good ones,” I admitted.

She dropped the soaked plantains onto the pan and fried them a second time. “While you eat, I’ll go get it for you.”

“Aren’t you going to eat?”

 “Later, when my stories are on.” She turned to me with a twinkle in her eye. “Maybe I will be inspired with an idea to help you. You know, something like this happened to Claudia. She thought Angel only married her because her father blackmailed him. It took her dying to make him realize how much he loved her for real. Thank goodness, she wasn’t really dead.”

“So did they live happily ever after?”

Ay bendito. He slept with her twin sister Veronica, thinking it was Claudia, and got her pregnant. Claudia ended up shooting him and now she’s on the run with Carmelo, her father’s ranch hand.”

She paused, spatula in hand, her forehead wrinkled. “Well, maybe it’s not quite the same as your situation.”

I laughed, but only half-heartedly. Amaya wouldn’t kill me, but there was no doubt she could break me. And it’d only be what I deserved.