:: mistletoe and wine ::

One of my fellow hanfic authors, Becca, has run an advent calendar every December since 2007. When she announced in November 2009 that she would be holding another advent calendar that December, I knew immediately that I wanted to participate. I chose to write an outtake from Defying Gravity as my advent story, and worked on it as I wrote my NaNoWriMo novel. At its completion it became not only my first one-shot in just over two years and my first Christmas story since 2005, but also my longest one-shot to date. It was posted to the 2009 advent calendar on December 17 2009.


“I need you to do something for me.”

Schuyler paused in drinking her coffee and looked up at me over the rim of her mug, one ginger eyebrow raised. “That’s a lovely way of asking me to help you out, Taylor,” she gently chided. “I’m pretty sure your mother taught you better manners than that.”

“Oh, for crying out loud,” I muttered. “Can you help me out with something?” I asked, deciding that actually using the manners Mom had drilled into me was for the best right now. The absolute last thing I wanted or needed was for Schuyler to refuse to help me out. “It’s pretty important.”

“That’s better. And it depends on what it is. I’m not about to try and break into Fort Knox, for example.”

I swallowed hard and looked down at my own mug, itself half-filled with black-as-pitch coffee. “I need you to borrow one of Isobel’s rings.”

Now the other eyebrow went up. “I see. And you can’t do this yourself?”

“Of course I can’t. For one, I wouldn’t know which one to pick out. And secondly, if it’s me asking, she’s going to suspect something’s up. I don’t want her to figure things out until it’s time to actually ask her.”

“Asking what?” Schuyler asked, brow furrowed, seconds before it finally dawned on her. Her mouth dropped open in what I could only assume was surprise. “Oh my God. You’re going to propose?

“At some point,” I replied. “Probably not before the end of the year, but I will eventually ask her.”

Schuyler grinned triumphantly. “Didn’t I tell you months ago that you’d be good for each other? I have never seen Isobel this happy, and it’s all your doing.” She leaned forward across the table and stared at me, her green eyes burning into my blue. “And not to mention that your own mother told me that you are the happiest she’s seen you since you were a kid. Not even Gabrielle or Damian were able to make you feel this way.”

I knew that Schuyler was right – I was happy. Through my head drifted snatches of the first song I had ever written, as yet untitled and stored away in the deepest recesses of my mind, penned at three in the morning in a hotel room in Philadelphia when I should have been asleep. It was a song that would never have been written if Isobel hadn’t come into my life.

“So what do you need me to do?”

Schuyler’s question jolted me back to the present. I shook myself mentally and answered her.

“If she lets you borrow one, and I see no reason why she wouldn’t, make sure it’s one that fits her perfectly. No sense in her not being able to wear her own engagement ring because it’s too big or too small. And don’t let on why you really want to borrow it.”

Schuyler nodded once. “Gotcha. Do you have any idea what sort of ring you’re going to buy her?”

“Nope. But I’m sure it won’t take me very long to figure it out.”

I watched Schuyler take a quick look at her watch. “I don’t have to be anywhere in particular today, so here’s what we’ll do.” She quickly finished off her coffee in one long swallow and put her mug back down on its saucer. “I’ll come back to your apartment with you and talk to Bel, borrow a ring from her, and then if you like we’ll go back out into the city and see what we can find by way of an engagement ring. I have a decent idea of what she likes and what suits her, so between us we should be able to find her something.”

I quickly finished off my own coffee, dropped a couple of dollars on the table for a tip, and followed Schuyler out of the coffee shop and onto the footpath. “I need to come up with a reason to be out of the city for a day as well,” I said as Schuyler and I walked toward the nearest subway station. “I didn’t exactly make the best impression on Issie’s dad at Thanksgiving, and I want to make things right.”

“So you’re going to fly up to Maine, then?”

I nodded. “That’s the plan, yeah. I’ll pick a day before Issie and I fly down to Tulsa for Christmas, and I’ll ask Mr. Reynolds for his blessing. That way, if I end up asking Issie to marry me while we’re at my parents’…” I looked down at the footpath and shrugged. “At least then, I won’t feel like he hates me.”

“Oh, I’m sure he doesn’t hate you. Trust me on that. Mr. Reynolds is a pretty forgiving person.”

Isobel was sitting at the kitchen table in the apartment typing away on her laptop when Schuyler and I walked through the front door. “Oh, hey you guys,” she said as she looked up from her work. “Where did you two get to?”

“Went out for coffee,” Schuyler said as Ratchet came padding out of the bedroom and up to me, and started sniffing at my jeans. “Bel, can I borrow something?”

“Sure you can,” Isobel agreed, and stood up. “What do you want to borrow?”

“A ring.”

I saw Isobel raise an eyebrow. “Okay…”

“I swear I’ll give it back. It’s just for something I’m working on, and I want to check I’ve got it right.”

Isobel shrugged. “Well, I’m not sure I’ve got one you can use, but I’ll see what I’ve got in my jewellery box.”

While the two of them were poking around through Isobel’s jewellery, I picked up my laptop from its shelf and opened its lid, bringing it out of standby as I walked across to the couch. The moment it had loaded completely I hopped onto Expedia and started hunting for a flight from New York to Portland. If I was going to do this, I had to do it right – and if that meant going back to Maine for a day to ask Mr. Reynolds for not only his blessing but also Isobel’s hand in marriage, then that was what I had to do.

Isobel and Schuyler emerged from the bedroom just as I found a flight that would get me to Portland well before Isobel and I would be due to fly home for Christmas, and I quickly put my laptop back into standby. “Thanks for letting me borrow this, Bel,” Schuyler said. “I should have it back before the weekend.”

“Oh, take your time with it,” Isobel said, her tone almost dismissive. “I hardly wear it anymore. Only on special occasions.”

“But it fits you, yeah?”

“Well enough that I can slip it on and off my finger without any problem.” Isobel looked at Schuyler almost inquisitively. “What exactly are you planning, Ms. Hannaford?”

Schuyler held her right index finger up at Isobel and shook it slightly. “Ah-ah-ah Isobel, that’s my business and not yours. You’ll find out soon enough.”

Isobel let out a defeated-sounding sigh. “Oh, all right. But you’d better not keep this to yourself forever! You know I hate secrets.”

Schuyler came up beside me as I stood up, and she palmed the ring off to me. “I promise you’ll find out fairly soon,” she assured my girlfriend. “Just don’t try prodding either of us for clues. You won’t get a thing out of anyone. It’s meant to be a surprise for a reason.”

Isobel pulled a face, and I quickly pocketed the ring. “And I hate surprises just as much as I hate secrets.” She spotted me bending down to collect my car keys off of the coffee table. “You’re going out again?”

“I still haven’t started my Christmas shopping, Issie. There’s about two-and-a-half thousand dollars burning a hole in my bank account, and it isn’t going to spend itself.” Never mind the fact that about a thousand of that is going on your engagement ring once I’ve found one that’s perfect, I thought.

“I’ll come with you,” Isobel volunteered.

“I’m buying yours first, Issie. And believe me when I say that this is a surprise you’re not going to mind me having kept from you.” I went over to her and caught her up in a tight hug. “I should be back in an hour or so.”

Being as I had randomly decided to drive back into the city, rather than take the subway again, it took us a little longer than I would otherwise have liked to get to the jewellery store that Schuyler had told me about during the subway ride home to Brooklyn. To my eye it looked completely unassuming, but Schuyler evidently had felt otherwise.

“I can’t tell you the number of times Isobel has come in here,” she said quietly as we entered the tiny shop. It was brightly lit inside, with glass-fronted cabinets lining the walls, and waist-high display cases surrounding the sales floor. “Every one of our days out shopping since you guys came home from the tour, she’s come in here to look at the rings.” She looked at me, one eyebrow raised. “Have you two even discussed this?”

I nodded. “We have, yeah. She told me that she does want to spend the rest of her life with me. And I want to spend the rest of mine with her.” I leaned down to look in one of the display cases, squinting against the bright lights set just below the glass top. “I just need to work up the nerve to ask her.”

“Can I help you?”

I looked up and into the stern face of a saleswoman. “Actually, yes you can,” I said as I straightened. “I’m looking for an engagement ring for my girlfriend.”

“I see.” She eyed me, and I began feeling as if she were judging me as someone who she believed couldn’t afford to shop in her little establishment. “And how much were you looking to spend on this…engagement ring?”

Two can play at this game, you stupid bitch, I felt like shouting, but I held my tongue. “I didn’t have an exact figure in mind, to tell you the truth,” I said as I took my wallet out of my back pocket, opened it and pulled out my Visa Debit card. “Let’s say…around a thousand dollars, maybe give or take a couple of hundred?” I started toying with it, making sure I showed her the front of the card long enough for her to catch sight of the name imprinted in silver beneath the expiry date – Mr. Jordan T Hanson. Compared to my brothers I was something of a mystery, but my last name was fairly well known in both the music and photography circles. If she didn’t put two and two together, she was either ignorant or incredibly stupid.

She caught on pretty damn quick. “You wouldn’t be related to the band Hanson, would you?” she asked, not losing the stern demeanour for even just a second.

“Not that I like it being spread around,” I started, even though I knew very well that the exact opposite applied, “but yes, I am. They’re my brothers.”

And just like that, the saleswoman’s stern exterior melted right away.

“Well then, let’s see what we can find that’s within your budget,” she said, her tone now turning warm and inviting. “Is this your intended?”

Me?” Schuyler asked, and I couldn’t help but noticing that she sounded a little taken aback. “Oh no, I’m dating his twin brother,” she said. “And I know for a fact that Mark is nowhere near popping the question. I’m just along to give Taylor here a few pointers. Isobel’s my best friend, so I have a decent idea of what will suit her.”

“Ah, I see. Let’s see if we can narrow things down a little – what sort of metal does she prefer?”

And so began a barrage of questions that seemed to last forever. Schuyler ended up fielding most of them, being as I knew little to nothing about women’s jewellery.


A prod in the side roused me from my musing, and I looked over at Schuyler. “Oh, sorry Sky,” I apologised.

“Time to pick the ring,” she said quietly. “I found a few that Isobel would like, but I can’t make the end decision. That’s all up to you.”

I swallowed hard and stepped up to the nearest display cabinet, which had four distinctly different rings set out on top. My gaze was drawn instantly to the second one along. “That one,” I said, pointing to it. “I think that’s the one she’d like. Could I have a closer look?”

I soon had the ring in my right hand, and I fished my glasses case out of my messenger bag. “Just let me get my glasses on,” I muttered as I popped the case open one-handed, took out my glasses and slid them onto my face, settling them over my ears and on the bridge of my nose. Now that I was able to see the ring up close without squinting, I knew it was perfect. It was set with a single diamond, and had scrollwork engravings on the band that almost looked like seashells. “This is white gold, right?” I asked as I turned the ring over and around in my hand.

“It is,” the saleswoman confirmed. “The diamond is a quarter-carat, round brilliant cut.”

I looked at Schuyler. “I really think this is the one,” I said quietly. “What do you think?”

“Like I said, this is your decision. Nobody can make it for you.” She took the ring from me and examined it closely. “But I think you’re right. It’s perfect for Isobel, and she would love it.” She looked up at me and smiled secretively. “Though in all honesty she would love whatever ring it was you got her, purely because you bought it for her.”

“Yeah, you’re right.” I turned back to the saleswoman and held out the ring to her. “I’ll take this one,” I said. “And…” I shoved my hand into my left back pocket and pulled out the ring that Isobel had loaned to Schuyler. “If possible, could it be sized to match this one? I don’t know what ring size Isobel wears off the top of my head, and this ring does fit her pretty well.”

“I can have that arranged for you.”

“Thank you.”

Fifteen minutes later, with my bank account nine hundred-odd dollars lighter, the saleswoman’s assurance that my chosen ring would be ready in a week, and both of Isobel’s rings in the jeweller’s possession, Schuyler and I walked out of the jewellery store and headed for my car. As we walked, I flipped my phone open and started hunting through my phone directory in search of Isobel’s parents’ home number. It was her mother who answered once I had dialled, her distinctive English accent resonating against my eardrum when she spoke.

“Hello, Reynolds residence; Marian speaking.”

“Hi Mrs. Reynolds, this is Taylor Hanson calling,” I said as I followed Schuyler down the footpath. “I was wondering if I would be able to speak to Isobel’s dad?”

“Oh, hello Taylor,” Mrs. Reynolds said. “I’ll just grab Thomas for you.”

“Thanks Mrs. Reynolds.”

The next voice I heard belonged to Isobel’s father.


“Hi Mr. Reynolds. I was wondering if we could meet up in Portland one day soon? There’s something I need to ask you, and I don’t think it’s appropriate to ask you over the phone.”

There was a silence on Mr. Reynolds’ end of the telephone line for around thirty seconds. “I’ll be in Portland on the thirteenth of December,” he said at last. “After you’ve booked your flight here, give me a call and let me know the flight number and the time it lands, and I’ll meet you at the airport.”

In my head I quickly counted out how many days there were until the thirteenth of December, and decided there were more than enough days during that particular period of time to pick up Isobel’s engagement ring before I flew up to Maine.

“I’ll be there,” I promised.

As arranged, mid-morning on December thirteenth I caught a flight from New York’s LaGuardia Airport up to Portland. It was a work day for Isobel and a day off for me, and so I knew I wouldn’t be missed so long as I didn’t miss my flight home that afternoon. Isobel’s engagement ring, which had been collected from the jeweller’s two days earlier, was currently hidden away in a pocket of my jacket, only to be brought out if I needed to show proof that I was completely serious about my intentions.

Mr. Reynolds was waiting in Arrivals after my flight had landed and I had made it through security. I suddenly felt nervous, more than I ever had before, and I took in a deep breath before walking up to him. “Mr. Reynolds?” I asked tentatively, as if I were unsure I was actually talking to the right person.

“There you are, Taylor,” he said. “How was your flight?”

“It was good,” I replied as we left the terminal, walking out into the chill December air. I immediately zipped my jacket up to my chin and shoved my hands into my pockets, wishing I’d asked Mark if I could borrow one of his scarves. In that moment I was very thankful that I would be spending Christmas in Oklahoma – while it did get cold there during the winter, I could usually handle the weather there better than I could on the east coast.

“Now, as I understand it, you’ll be flying back home this afternoon?” Mr. Reynolds asked as we headed through the carpark.

“Yes, sir. My flight’s at four-thirty.”

“And I take it Isobel has no idea you’ve come to meet with me?”

I shook my head. “No, sir. It’s about her anyway.”

“I see.” We had reached Mr. Reynolds’ car by this point. “In that case, why don’t we go out to lunch, and you can tell me all about it. I’ll drop you back here in time for you to catch your flight home.”

“That sounds good to me,” I agreed.

At lunch, as soon as we had both placed our orders, I told Mr. Reynolds exactly what I had come all the way to Portland to say.

“Mr. Reynolds, I’m sure you’re already quite aware of this…but I love Isobel. I have since the day I saw her for the first time, and I know that she feels the same way about me.” I looked down at the table, at my hands. “You asked me at Thanksgiving what my intentions were toward her, and to be completely honest I didn’t have an answer at the time. I’m ready to answer that question now.”

As soon as those words left my mouth, I raised my head and met Mr. Reynolds’ gaze as steadily as I could. “I intend to marry Isobel one day, Mr. Reynolds, and for that I’ve come to not only ask your blessing, but also for Isobel’s hand in marriage.”

I could tell right away that Mr. Reynolds was taken aback by my admission. “I see,” he said slowly. “And you’re completely sure about this?”

“Sure enough that I bought her an engagement ring,” I replied, and reached back to my jacket to dig in its pockets. I found the small ring box and took it out into the open, placing it on the table between us.

“May I see?”

“Yeah, of course,” I consented.

My permission granted, Mr. Reynolds eased the ring box open and looked at the ring. “You have excellent taste,” he commented.

“I had a bit of help,” I admitted. “But the final choice was all mine.” My words, I knew, could apply to either the ring or to Isobel. “I don’t intend to marry her straight away,” I said. “I’m not sure yet when I’m going to ask her, but I won’t leave her hanging forever.”

I sat there silently as Mr. Reynolds examined the ring, dreading his response more and more as the seconds ticked by. I knew very well that being in our mid-twenties, Isobel and I were more than old enough to marry without permission, but at the same time I was well aware that Isobel’s parents could make things very difficult for us if they so chose to. Isobel’s mother liked me, I knew that much was true, and so I was certain she would have no objection to our marriage. It was her father that I was worried about.

After what felt like an eternity, Mr. Reynolds snapped the ring box closed once more and placed it back on the table. “I know all too well that the two of you are legally old enough to marry without permission,” he said at last. “This being said, Isobel is my youngest daughter, and I have never been completely comfortable with the idea of her growing up.”

Oh great. He’s going to say no, I thought in disappointment. I’ve wasted my money coming here.

“But it looks to me like she’s found herself someone I would be proud to have as a son-in-law.”

I looked up so fast I thought my neck would break. “Are you saying what I think you are?” I asked, barely daring to believe it.

Mr. Reynolds nodded. “Taylor, you not only have my permission to marry Isobel, but also mine and Marian’s blessing on your union. That you have come all the way up here to Maine to seek my blessing and my daughter’s hand in marriage shows to me that you are completely committed to and serious about making Isobel your wife, and that is something I look quite highly on.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you, Mr. Reynolds. Thank you so much.”

“You are quite welcome, Taylor.”


I closed the front door of the apartment after signing for the package that had just arrived and walked through the living room into the kitchen. It had arrived just in time – Taylor and I, along with his sister Jessica would be flying out of New York the next day, and contained in the white, red and yellow Royal Mail mailing box I carried was something that in my experience always made Christmas complete. Taylor was sitting at the kitchen table with his laptop open and typing away furiously, and I dropped the box just behind his computer. He looked up in surprise, and I gave him a big smile.

“What the hell is that?” he asked as he lowered the lid of his laptop.

“Something I bought a couple of weeks ago,” I replied. I went across to the draining rack and fetched a sharp knife so that I could get the package open, took it back to the table and drew the tip of the knife along the packing tape. The box popped open as soon as it was completely unsealed, and I put the knife down. As soon as Taylor caught sight of what was inside the box, I saw what looked like recognition dawn on his face.

“Holy shit,” he whispered as he folded down one of the box flaps. “Where did you find these? I haven’t been able to get them anywhere in the States – I wanted to get some for Christmas this year.”

“I had to order them from England,” I replied. I took out the box of Christmas crackers, opened it and took one of the crackers out to show Taylor. The ones I had picked out were silver and white, and had little Christmas trees, wrapped presents and tiny stars dotted across them. “Got fifty of these little beauties for fifty-four pounds and ninety-nine pence.”

“In dollars, please.”

“A bit more than eighty-five bucks.” I grinned. “Expensive, but it was fucking worth it.” I eyed Taylor suspiciously. “And how the hell do you know about Christmas crackers, anyway?”

“My brothers recorded their Christmas album in England,” he replied. “Specifically, we went to Reading for a month. When the album was finished we got treated to an early Christmas dinner.” He tapped a finger on the box of crackers. “And these were a part of it. My parents usually get a box of them every Christmas, but this year I offered to buy them instead. I was going mad trying to find somewhere that sold them.”

“Well, problem solved.” I put the cracker back in its box and closed it up again. “I’m going to make sure I’ve got everything packed and ready to go. Don’t come in our room until I tell you it’s okay.”

“Going to wrap my presents, are you?” Taylor asked with one eyebrow raised.

“Who says I even got you anything?” I retorted jokingly. I picked up the box and went into our bedroom, closing the door behind me, and surveyed the scene laid out before me. Our flight was the next morning, and yet I hadn’t even started my packing yet. My suitcase lay open on my bed, and a large pile of unfolded clothes sat next to it, taunting me.

Taylor and I would be spending two weeks at his parents’ house, over both Christmas and New Year’s, and as much as I was looking forward to it I was also very nervous about it. The fact that Taylor belonged to such a large family didn’t phase me in the slightest – I had almost the same number of siblings as he did, and in the place of the aunts, uncles and cousins that he had warned me routinely descended on the house every Christmas I had reams of nieces, nephews and in-laws to contend with. It was spending my first Christmas with who would one day hopefully become my in-laws that worried me. I knew very well that Taylor’s parents liked me a lot, enough that they had welcomed me into their home during the summer tour when they had only met me once, but that didn’t make my nervousness abate much. If anything, it made it even worse.

Letting out a sigh, and running my fingers through my hair, I picked up the first item of clothing atop the pile and folded it, dropping it into my suitcase.

The next afternoon, Taylor, Jessica and I were met at the airport after our flight by their parents. My Christmas crackers had passed scrutiny at the security checkpoints in New York and in Tulsa, which had relieved me greatly. The only thing I had to worry about now was inquisitive fingers poking around at them between now and Christmas Day, but I figured if I kept the crackers far enough out of reach there wouldn’t be any problems in that department. As we walked through the terminal out into the carpark I could hear Taylor and Diana discussing the Christmas tree, which by the sounds of things hadn’t gone up yet. And it wasn’t long afterwards that the usual insulting of Taylor kicked off – something he thankfully took in his stride.

“Better make more popcorn before Christmas Day, if past years are anything to go by,” Jessica remarked. “Because I can almost guarantee that Taylor will eat the lot before anyone else gets a chance.”

“Hey!” Taylor protested.

“It’s the truth, though,” Jessica informed her brother. I could hear the smirk in her voice as she spoke. “You’re a freaking bottomless pit.”

“Jess is right, Tay,” Diana informed her son. “I’m sorry, but I do have to take her side this time.”

“I am not a bottomless pit,” was Taylor’s response.

“I would beg to differ on that,” Walker said without even turning around. “I seem to recall a certain son of mine managing to eat a full two-thirds of his mother’s blackberry pie at Thanksgiving last year, all in the one sitting, and then following that up with half of his aunt’s apple crumble.”

As if in response to this, I heard Taylor let out what sounded like a long-suffering sigh. “Is this ‘Pick On Taylor Hanson’ day or something?”

I decided it was time to get in on the ribbing, and I smirked to myself. “Of course it is,” I informed my boyfriend. “Haven’t you checked your calendar lately?”

Taylor’s response? A mutter that sounded suspiciously like ‘assholes’.

At the house, I went straight upstairs to Taylor’s room with my suitcase and backpack so I could unpack. I still had to wrap his Christmas presents, not having had the time to do it back in New York. He came upstairs about five minutes after I’d unzipped my suitcase, and I knew wrapping Taylor’s presents would have to wait until he had disappeared again.

“If you value your sanity, don’t go into the living room anytime within the next two hours,” he said as he lifted his suitcase up onto the bed. “My mom’ll drag you into decorating the tree. Skya, Isla and Alli have all probably been roped into it already.”

“I like decorating trees,” I said with a shrug as I took some T-shirts out of my suitcase. “Surely it can’t be all that bad?”

“You’ve never decorated a Hanson Christmas tree, though. We don’t have a lot of decorations because they keep getting lost or broken, so we make most of our own each year. And my younger siblings can be very particular about how the tree is done up. Zoë especially has very specific ideas about it all. She goes somewhat crazy if nothing goes the way she wants it to.”

“So she throws a tantrum?” I asked.

“In the way that only a nine-year-old girl can,” Taylor replied.

Taylor went back downstairs after he had finished unpacking, pulling on a jacket as he left the room, and I deemed it safe enough to start wrapping his presents. I’d bought him paperback copies of the fourth and fifth books in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish and Mostly Harmless, and I had also put down quite a bit of money on the DVDs of the first series of Torchwood. I had caught him streaming Torchwood online once or twice, so I knew I’d chosen that particular present well.

“Diana?” I asked as I went into the kitchen with Taylor’s presents in hand. “Do you have any wrapping paper I can use? I still haven’t wrapped Taylor’s presents.”

“There should still be some around here,” Taylor’s mother replied. She gave the contents of the pot she was guarding one final stir before wiping her hands off on a tea towel. “What did you buy him?”

“Books and DVDs,” I replied. I set the two books and the DVD box set down on the kitchen table. “Two Hitchhiker’s Guide books, and the first season of Torchwood. I know he loves Doctor Who, so I think he’ll like this show.”

“Oh, he definitely loves Doctor Who.” She went down into the living room for a couple of minutes, coming back with a roll of wrapping paper and a sticky tape dispenser. “That particular addiction is my doing. Doctor Who was one of my favourite TV shows when I was in college, and I ended up passing it on to Taylor.”

“So I’ve got you to blame, then?” I asked jokingly, and Diana gave me a smile.

“I suppose you do.” She went back to the stove, leaving me to wrap the presents. “Oh, Isobel, you’ll have to tell me how your family celebrates Christmas – I’d like to include some of your traditions this year.”

I quickly taped the last bit of paper down on Taylor’s books and got up from the table. “Well, dinner is very British because my mum, my oldest brother, my sisters and I are all English,” I started. “Dad and my little brother are the only members of my family who weren’t born in England. My mum does up a turkey and a leg of ham, and Dad cooks up lots of vegetables – peas, carrots, green beans, brussels sprouts and roast potatoes, mostly.” I leaned against the kitchen bench and sneaked a peek into the pot on the stove. “Dessert is a plum pudding that my mum hides a real silver sixpence and charms of a wishbone, a thimble and an anchor in when it’s being mixed, and that my dad douses with brandy and sets on fire.”

“That sounds delicious,” Diana commented. “I’m sure I’ll be able to find a Christmas pudding somewhere. What about Christmas crackers?”

“Yeah, we have those too,” I replied. “Taylor told me all about how he discovered their existence. I bought some online and brought them here with me, if that’s okay – he said that he was having trouble finding them here in the States.”

“Oh yes, that’s perfectly all right,” Diana assured me. “It was his turn to buy them this year anyhow. You just saved him the trouble.” Another smile, and she went back to stirring the pot.

Bright and early on Christmas morning I was woken by a rather insistent poking in the side, and I cracked one eye open to see Taylor’s youngest sister staring at me. “Hey Zoë,” I said as I worked at waking up. “You’re up early.”

“Yeah, because it’s Christmas,” she informed me.

“Is it?” I asked, feigning ignorance. “I thought it was Easter.” Remembering that the night before I had gone to bed before Taylor had, I looked to my right to find that his side of the bed was empty. “Hey, where’s Taylor? He’s not up already is he?”

Zoë shrugged. “I don’t know. I haven’t been downstairs yet.”

“So you came in here just to wake me up?”

She nodded and grinned. “Yep!”

I gave Zoë a poke of my own and rolled onto my back so I could sit up. “Well then Miss Zoë, I think it’s about time we made an appearance, don’t you?” I asked her as I eased myself upright. “Go walk amongst the commoners for a while.” I looked at her and raised an eyebrow. “What do you think?”

Downstairs, the house was nothing short of mayhem. The adults of the family, along with the girlfriends of Taylor’s brothers, had all congregated in the kitchen and dining area, with Avery and Mackenzie sitting in the living room staring at the presents stacked beneath the Christmas tree.

“Mom, why isn’t Taylor here?” Zoë asked as the two of us entered the kitchen.

“He wasn’t feeling well last night,” Diana replied without looking up from her morning coffee. “Why don’t you go and tell Ave and Mac to come out of the living room and have some breakfast? They’re not opening any presents until they’ve eaten something.”

“Okay Mom.”

“Thanks love.”

“I didn’t know Taylor wasn’t feeling well last night,” I commented as I climbed up onto a bar stool. “He didn’t say anything to me.”

“He does this every Christmas,” Zac informed me. He set a mug of coffee down in front of me. “Well, he has done ever since he got sick. Gets a bit mad for him in the days leading up, so the night before Christmas he goes and sleeps over at the old house so he can ‘recharge his batteries’.” He said these last three words while making air-quotes with his middle and index fingers. “He’ll be fine once he gets back over here.”

“Okay, thanks for letting me know,” I said, before taking a tentative sip of my coffee. “Thanks for the coffee, Zac.”

Taylor didn’t come back to the house until well after everyone else had opened their Christmas presents. I had something from Schuyler and from everyone in the Hanson family, and had even received gifts from Alli and Isla. There was still a small pile of gifts left under the tree, and all but one or two of them had Taylor’s name on them.

“Hey, are you feeling okay?” I asked him when Diana brought him home. He was a lot quieter than usual, though I knew I could probably put that down to the weather. It was almost time for lunch to be served, and the festivities were in full swing – Mark and Zac were playing Guitar Hero III: Legends Of Rock, which had been one of Zac’s presents from his parents, one of the girls had put Snowed In on the stereo, and people kept popping in and out of the kitchen. It was just immediate family and the girlfriends this morning and afternoon – I had heard talk of extended family and friends dropping around for a party in the evening.

He looked over at me once he had taken his hoodie off. “I am now,” he replied, before stepping across to me and wrapping his long arms around me. “I missed you,” he whispered.

“I missed you too,” I told him, before glancing up at the ceiling. “Oh, would you look at that?”

“Look at what?” Taylor asked – the only words he managed to get out before I kissed him hard on the lips.

“Mistletoe,” I replied once we had separated.

“Oh, like you needed a reason,” he mock-scoffed, before returning the kiss in kind.

“Taylor?” I heard Zoë ask, and Taylor looked down at his right. The youngest of the Hanson children stood there in her Christmas dress, hands clasped behind her back.

“Hey Zo,” Taylor said quietly.

I watched as Zoë tipped her head to one side and start studying her brother. “Mom said you were sick last night,” she said. “Is that why you didn’t come to church?”

Taylor closed his eyes for just a few seconds. “Zo, there’s a lot of reasons why I don’t go to church,” he replied. I could tell that he was trying not to sound too exasperated at his baby sister. “But yes, that was the main reason.”

“Why were you sick?” Zoë asked.

“I’m still sick, Zo. I just manage to hide it really well.” And with these words, he took Zoë’s small left hand in his much larger right hand and led her upstairs.

“I think he’s about to tell Zoë why he’s sick,” Diana explained when I raised an eyebrow. “He’s been waiting for the right moment for some time now.”

“I guess this was the right moment,” I said quietly.

Lunch was on the table just as Taylor and Zoë returned downstairs, with Taylor taking his place between me and Mark. “This all looks amazing,” Alli commented after grace had been said. “Diana, you have outdone yourself once more.”

“It does look amazing,” I agreed. Christmas for me was usually so overwhelmingly British that I was thankful for the opportunity to spend it elsewhere this year. I had every intention of convincing my mother, the next time I saw her, to back down on our family traditions just a bit – as appreciative as I was of my roots, I was proud to call myself American through and through, and I wanted Christmas to reflect that.

“I want to talk to you for a little bit after lunch,” Taylor said in a low voice as dishes were passed around the table. He caught a bowl of peas as Mark passed it to him and spooned some out onto his plate. “It’s pretty important.”

I took the bowl from him as he handed it to me and dished out some peas onto my own plate, before handing the bowl off to Zac. “Just so long as we’re back inside before dessert,” I agreed. “I think your mum bought a Christmas pudding – she told me she wanted to do something like that this year.”

Before anyone got down to the important business of eating, though, there were Christmas crackers to be pulled. One by one, loud cracks echoed around the dining room, until everyone at the table had a brightly-coloured paper crown on their heads, had read out the jokes contained within their crackers, and were trading and examining the cheap, somewhat ridiculous toys that had fallen out onto the table.

Taylor led me out onto the back verandah after the table had been cleared of all lunch plates, promising his mother that we’d be back inside before dessert, and we sat down on the porch swing side-by-side. He had his hands clasped loosely in his lap and was staring out into the backyard. “I got a job offer back in October,” he said, his tone idle. “Someone I knew in college has his own production company, and he’s asked me to become the studio producer for one of the southern branches.” He reached for my left hand with his right, intertwining our fingers. “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime – I’m never going to get this sort of chance ever again.”

“Where is it?” I asked, dreading his answer a little. When I saw he wouldn’t look at me as he spoke the next part, I knew I had every reason.

“It’s in Australia, in a city called Wollongong.”

I suddenly felt cold all over, and deep inside I felt my heart begin to slowly crack in two. He’s leaving me, I thought. He doesn’t want to be with me anymore. That’s why he’s taking this job.

“Oh,” I said softly, my tone sad and heartbroken. “Wh-what did you tell them?”

“Well, now, here’s the thing. I basically told my old classmate that if he wanted me to come and work for him, he would have to sweeten the deal considerably.” He started smiling as the next sentence left his mouth. “I told him that I would only accept his offer of employment if my wife was included in the deal.”

“Your wife?” I asked, my tone completely disbelieving. Was there something he wasn’t telling me? “But you’re not married…” And with those words, I realised exactly what he was saying. My hands went to my mouth, one over the other. “Oh my God.”

“Issie…” He took in a deep breath. “You are my entire world, Issie. You are my reason for living – the reason why I’m still breathing, why my heart is still beating.” His voice started to shake, and I knew he was getting nervous. “Y-you make me happy to be alive. Until I met you, I never appreciated the second chance I got three years ago – I sure as hell do now. You make it all worth it.” His eyes dropped closed for the briefest of moments. “I-I love and adore you with all that I am, and I don’t want to live even another second without you.”

These words spoken, he stood up and went down on one knee in front of me, taking a jewellery store ring box from his pocket at the same time. “Isobel Lynn Reynolds…” A pause, and he took another breath. “Will you come to Australia with me, and will you do me the honour one day soon of walking down the aisle to become my wife?”

“Holy shit,” I whispered after he had opened the ring box. “You…you’re serious, aren’t you?”

He nodded. “I am completely serious. I want to spend the rest of my life with you, Issie. I’ve never loved anyone as much as I love you.” He just looked at me for a few seconds. “So what d’you say?”

I couldn’t speak, so I nodded. Tears had started streaming down my face, and I didn’t even attempt to wipe them away. He gave me a smile and got back up on his feet, sitting down next to me once again. “Now, are you completely sure?” he asked jokingly.

“Just get it on my finger already,” I whispered. He did just as I had told him to, sliding the engagement ring onto my left ring finger, and I almost immediately hugged him harder than I ever had before. “Thank you,” I murmured in his ear, and I felt him smile. “Thank you so much, Tay – this is the best Christmas present ever.”

“You are so very welcome, Issie,” he said softly, and gave me a quick kiss. “Come on, let’s go tell everyone the good news.”

Back inside we went, hand in hand, and Taylor whistled in an attempt to get everyone’s attention. “Excuse me!” he shouted over the din. When this didn’t work, he increased the volume of his voice considerably. “Hey!

“Inside voice, Taylor,” Isaac said absently once all the noise had died down.

“Well, I wouldn’t need to shout if you lot would just shut up once in a while,” Taylor retorted. “Everyone, Isobel and I have some good news.”

“Then tell us already,” Mark said. “It’s almost time for dessert, and Mom said we couldn’t have any until you two lovebirds came back inside.”

Taylor looked at me for the briefest of moments. “Isobel and I are getting married,” he said.

“I knew it!” Jessica shouted. She got up from her seat and ran over to Taylor and I. “I knew you two would get married one day,” she said as she hugged me tight.

That Christmas, I decided, was easily the best in living memory. I had a beautiful diamond ring on my finger, my amazing and incredibly gorgeous boyfriend of nine months was now my fiancé, and as far as I was concerned life could only get better.

“You do know that you’re completely amazing, don’t you?” I told him during dessert. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the diamond in my engagement ring catching the light from the chandelier overhead, throwing dancing patterns onto the walls.

“You’re even more amazing,” Taylor informed me. “And I’ll tell that to anyone who asks.”

Almost in response, I picked up my glass of white wine, clinking it against Taylor’s. “Merry Christmas, Taylor Hanson,” I said with a smile.

“Merry Christmas, Isobel Reynolds,” he replied, before leaning in close and giving me a kiss – one that I knew had nothing to do with the mistletoe that was hanging from the ceiling above our heads.

~ fin ~