“I picked them over there,” he admits, nodding to a small patch of unruly weeds at the edge of the property. When he turns back and grins, he looks eighteen again. “Mom wouldn’t let me take a rose from the suite.”
He looks me over, his gaze heated as it moves up my chest, my neck, my face. I’m wearing a new dress, and I admit I feel pretty awesome. It’s fitted crushed silk – a blaze of orange and red with small, beaded spaghetti straps. It makes my brown skin seem golden.
Our eyes meet, and I feel my smile explode across my face. We’re going to unload everything later. The anticipation of the burden being lifted makes me feel weightless.
“Ready?” he asks.
Elliot puts the car in park in front of the enormous Victorian estate, and the engine ticks in the resulting silence. Turning to me, he asks quietly, “You okay?”
It was a ten-minute drive; there’s no chance he missed my death grip on the door handle the entire time.
“Okay,” he says now on an exhale, and stops me from getting out with a hand on my bare leg, just above my knee. The touch feels loaded, and he seems to realize it at the same time I do, dragging his fingers away. “Let me.”
He hops out, jogs around the front of his beat-up Civic, and opens my door with a chivalrous flourish.
Behind him, Madrona Manor rises up like something from a fairy tale, with wide sweeping lawns framing the expansive estate. It’s a distant cry from the L&M Motel. Obviously, I could have stayed in the Healdsburg house I actually own – there aren’t any vacationers currently renting – but although we’re unburdening ourselves later, the idea of staying there alone, without Dad, seemed mildly depressing.
Elliot stands, waiting for me to climb out and finally reaching a hand forward. “Are you stuck?”
No, just silently melting at the sight of you.
I push up, letting him take my hand once I’m standing. “I’m good. Just… it’s beautiful here.”
Because it’s chilly out, I’m wearing a wrap around my shoulders, and Elliot takes one step forward, adjusting it where it’s slipped down my arm.
“There.” He runs a thumb over the curve of my shoulder beneath the wrap. His skin is lighter against mine, and the contrast in color looks perfect. “Are you going to be warm enough?”
I nod, hooking my arm through his as we make our way toward the main building. It’s midday, and the sun shimmers over the tops of the trees, leaving the edges honeyed and gold. Nestled in the hills above Sonoma County, Madrona Manor is surrounded by acres and acres of wooded property and overlooks vast fields of grapevines. Garden grounds seem to spread in every direction. In truth, I should be more curious about this hallowed place, but being near Elliot after taking a month to think about everything, having his body pressed right up against mine and knowing at any second I could stop him, turn to him, kiss him… I feel like I’m peeking over the lip of a canyon and at the bottom is a giant ball pit; I just want to dive in and play.
Inside the manor, the hall extends straight forward, with rooms coming off the main entrance. Elliot plans to go upstairs and check on Andreas in the groom’s room. I told Elliot I was driving up from Berkeley last night, when in fact I booked a town car, took a Xanax, and slept the entire ride. I arrived at the motel, stumbled into my room, and slept until my body’s alarm clock roused me exactly at six this morning.
What all of this means, really, is I still haven’t seen any of his family, and admittedly, I’m a little anxious about it. But although I’m happy to explore the grounds alone, leaving the Petropoulos clan to themselves before the ceremony, Elliot won’t have it.
“Come with me,” he says, heading toward the wide staircase. The holidays have yet to be banished to boxes and locked up until next December, and garlands remain wrapped festively around the banister. A small golden Christmas tree brightens the landing at the top. “They’re up here.”
“I don’t want to interrupt the getting-ready process,” I say, pulling back, hesitating.
“Stop it.” He laughs. “You’re joking, right? If I come up there without you, they’ll just send me back down.”
A swarm of birds explodes into motion in my chest as I hear Mr. Nick yelling at George to go grab a suitcase from the car, Nick Jr. teasing Alex about something. I can hear Miss Dina’s full, round laugh, and her voice – still the same – telling Andreas he should let someone else tie his bow tie because it looks like a “limp Peter” around his neck.
We push the door open, creaking inside, and the entire room falls silent in a hush. Andreas turns from where he’d been futzing with his tie in the mirror. Nick Jr. and Alex straighten from where they appear to have been wrestling near the couch.
Miss Dina freezes with her hand on a pin in her hair.
“Macy!” she gasps. Her eyes immediately fill. She drops the pin, cupping her hands over her mouth.
I lift my hand in a shaking wave. Seeing their faces tunnels me back a decade, like I’m home for the first time in so long. “Hi, everyone.”
Elliot pulls me close to his side. “Doesn’t she look beautiful?”
I look up at him in shock, but his lazy grin tells me he’s not at all self-conscious under their scrutiny.
“Stunning,” Mr. Nick agrees.
Alex runs over, throwing her arms around my shoulders. “Do you remember me?”
I haven’t seen her since she was three, and couldn’t possibly tell her I’ve thought about her every day since then. Laughing, I wrap my arms around her long, willowy frame, asking, “Do you remember me?”
“Don’t,” Miss Dina says, shaking her head. “I’m going to cry.”
Nick Jr. glances at her and groans. “Ma, you’re already crying.”
Elliot lets me go but doesn’t move away as everyone comes over to hug me. When Andreas reaches me, he whispers a quiet “Thanks for coming,” and I answer with my own quiet “Congratulations, meathead.”
The scene explodes back into noise as Alex launches into a debate with her dad about why she should be allowed to wear her hair up, and George argues with Miss Dina about where he can find the suitcase. Elliot helps Andreas with his tie, and Liz walks in, carrying a tray of snacks for the wedding party. She’s wearing a shimmering blue dress – clearly she’s one of the bridesmaids.
“Hey, Macy!” she says, coming over to me. At the confused stare of the rest of Elliot’s family, she reminds them that we see each other every day at work, and the room explodes anew, as they all remember what this means – that little Macy is a doctor now! – and I’m hugged all over again.
Wine is poured, Alex’s hair is brushed down, and then up again to her father and older brothers’ dismay, and the whole time, Elliot is there, his arm pressed to my arm, my twin heartbeat, a comforting presence.
“Dad,” Elliot finally says, with a quiet, rumbling laugh. “She’s fourteen. She’s wearing a floor-length gown with sleeves. She’s not going to get pregnant if someone sees the back of her neck.”
Mr. Nick glares at Elliot for a few seconds and then shakes his head at his daughter and wife. “Put it up. I don’t care. It’s just a lot of skin.”
“It’s my neck!” Alex cries, frustrated. “Tell the guys not to look if it bothers them so much.”
“Amen,” I say, grinning at her. Her grateful smile is like a sunbeam cracking through the window.
As the argument picks up again, Elliot leans down and asks, quietly, right up against my ear, “Want to walk around the gardens?”
I nod, shivering at his proximity, and he guides me toward the door with his hand on my lower back before reaching for my fingers. I feel the attention of the entire room on our joined hands as we leave, and Alex’s confused “I thought she had a boyfriend?” followed by Miss Dina’s sharply hissed “Shhhh!” and Andreas’s “They broke up, remember?” in our wake.
Elliot looks down at me, grinning. “Is it just like you remembered?”
I lean into his shoulder. “Better.”