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Asher laid a molded latke on the sheet of wax paper on the counter, then checked his watch again. Shit. Maggie had been gone for over twenty-five minutes. Not only that, she’d been agitated when she left. She’d tried to put on a good front, but he could read through her, had seen the frown under her smile.
Ruth was frowning, too, forming a misshapen oval out of a clump of the mixture.
“Doesn’t have to be perfect, honey,” his mom said. She glanced at the microwave over the stovetop. “Unless there’s a packout at the deli, Maggie’s been gone a little long.”
“Do you think she’s okay?” Ruth asked in a worried voice.
He rinsed his hands in the sink before looking at his cell. No texts or frantic voicemails. “She’s probably just enjoying the fresh air.”
But after ten more minutes, all the latkes were formed, and still no Maggie.
He opened his “find your friends” app. The little Maggie dot was… inside the house?
A quick search, and he found her phone on top of the desk in the guest room they were sharing on the top floor of the brownstone. The room he and his twin brother David had shared when they were little, long ago converted into a den-with-a-murphy-bed arrangement. His gut twisted. Damn it. Had Maggie taken a wrong turn? Or mixed up Pierrepont Street with Pierrepont Terrace?
Yeah, she was a grown adult who searched for lost people in the woods on the regular as a search-and-rescue volunteer, but still, he didn’t like the idea of her wandering around at night, in the snow. He swore.
His mom poked her head in the bedroom door. “Everything okay?”
“She left her phone,” he said.
“I’m sure she’s fine,” his mom said. “Though she seemed upset when she left.”
“Uh, do you think so?” Maggie might not want him to admit her feelings to his mom.
“Ash. Honey. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s reading my kids, their partners included.”
“Yeah, I know.” Alex had loved Sarah for that, but Maggie was more guarded. “She’s embarrassed about the schmaltz overheating, I think.”
His mom came over and gave him a big hug. “I love you. So much. But she’s not upset about the latkes. It’s about fitting in. Didn’t you say she’s not close to her parents? It can be hard to trust this much love when you’ve never had it. Even Alex struggled at first.”
He thought back to Alex’s initial family gatherings. “He was definitely worried you wouldn’t approve of our age gap.”
“And there’s always a measure of wanting to impress your love’s parents. Which is something you haven’t had to do, given neither Alex or Maggie had a relationship with their mom and dad.”
“I felt the pressure with her brother and sister, though,” he grumbled.
“You’re not entirely without experience.” She winked.
He shot her a playful glare. “I should go look for her. Mind if I take your car? I won’t be fast enough if I’m on foot.”
“Help yourself. And if you can fit it in, let her know that she doesn’t need to worry around your dad and me.” She shook her head. “Actually, don’t worry about it. I’ll find the right time to tell her myself.”
Five minutes later, Asher was circling the block, looking for a hot pink beanie with a rainbow pom pom on it. Maggie and Ruth had taken up knitting over the fall, and the hat was a joint effort.
It took him ten minutes to find her, power walking down Montague in the opposite direction of his parents’ house. She was empty handed, but looked no worse for wear. Relief flooded him.
He pulled into a parking spot a few yards ahead of her, then rolled down the passenger-side window and let her catch up to him. “Hey! Cutie! You lost?”
She whirled, planting her hands on her hips. “You startled me!”
“And you had me worried, wandering around without your cell.”
She winced. “Forgot it in my rush to leave.” Her mouth flattened. “I can’t find schmaltz anywhere. I’ve tried the place your mom recommended, and another place across the street from it. The clerk there suggested I try the gourmet grocery store a few blocks down.”
“Why don’t we call it a loss? We know Mom has vegetable oil.”
Maggie crossed her arms and fixed him with a no-damn-way look. “You heard her when I mentioned I couldn’t eat schmaltz. That they don’t get quite as crispy. I’m not going to be responsible for everyone else having to eat second-best latkes.”
“Okay, then. Give me a sec.” He rolled up the window and joined her on the sidewalk. Light snow swirled around them. He cupped her cheeks and bent down to kiss her. “I love you.”
“I love you, too. But you needed to get out of the car to tell me that?”
“I found a parking spot. No point in giving it up to avoid a couple of blocks on foot. Plus—” He held out his arms, motioning at the shops and houses. Electric menorahs glowed in windows and Christmas lights brightened railings and trim, casting pretty colors on the usually dingy street snow. December was one of his favorite times of the year in Brooklyn. “We can walk together. With the lights, the shop window decor, the snow? It’s romantic.”
She relaxed against his chest. “It is. Much better than me making your parents’ kitchen reek of singed chicken fat.”
He chuckled, trying to shelter her from the cold as much as he could. “It would have smelled like that no matter what,” he said. “Part of the charm of latkes.”
“I didn’t realize how stressful it would be, meeting your family,” she said, so quietly that the winter wind almost swallowed her words before they got to his ears.
“And I didn’t realize you felt that way. I should have been more in tune,” he said. “Can I help?”
“I don’t know.” He felt her take a deep breath. “I’ll tell you, though.”
She stepped away and tugged him down the street with a mittened hand. Part way along, they walked past a wedding boutique. “Oh, wow. That dress is over the top. Do you think I could pull off something like that?”
He shut his eyes, and held his arms up in front of his eyes to hide the display from view. “Aren’t I not supposed to look at wedding dresses?”
Yanking his arms down, she scoffed. “Oh, as if I could afford something from a store with the word atelier in the shop name.”
“We’ll buy whatever dress you love.” The one that had caught her eye was a fabric confection. Layers of gossamer floof shot with glittery threads. With their wedding not being until the summer, and Maggie leaving most of the details up to her friend Emma, he hadn’t talked to Maggie about her gown.
“That’s not your usual style,” he said. “But you’ll look gorgeous in whatever you choose, be it a glittery cupcake like that, or something sleek.”
“I haven’t decided,” she said. Her expression went soft. “Glittery cupcake might work for me.”
“Then go for it. Though really, whatever you come up with will be amazing. I just want to be married to you,” he murmured.
“Me, too.” She sighed, and started walking. Trudging, really. “Maybe we shouldn’t have set such a far off date.”
He squeezed her hand, almost undetectable through his glove and her mitten. “We wanted to go slow.”
“I know.” She shook her head. “You’re absolutely sure you want to marry me? We can make an interfaith wedding work? And the life after it, for that matter?”
His heart skipped a beat, initially panicking that she was having second thoughts, but no, her questions were necessary ones. It wasn’t the first time one of them had broached the subject, but it was important enough to rehash as often as needed. “I think we can, as long as we keep talking to each other and prioritize compromising. Don’t you?”
Another uneven thump in his chest. “You don’t any more?”
Her hand tightened in his. “Of course, I do. But meeting your parents, seeing up close what your life was like when you were here, when you were with Alex—I want to make sure we’re on the same page.”
“We are, love.”
She took a deep breath. “And I really wish I’d known how hard it would be to wait to become your wife when we booked our venue for July. I want to promise to love you forever this year, not next…” She cleared her throat. “Enough daydreaming. We need that schmaltz. I refuse to let your mom down.”
“You never could, love. My mom doesn’t care about the food. She just wants the experience, and for you to feel you’re a part of things.”
But he could see Maggie process his words.
The gourmet grocery store came through for them. Bag in hand, they hurried back to the car. He managed to park a half-block from his parents’ brownstone. It was one of the smaller buildings on the street, three stories plus the garden suite that they rented out now that he and Ruth didn’t live there. And it had an excellent doorway at the top of the stoop, deep and wide with plenty of room to steal a kiss from his fiancee before they went inside.
He backed Maggie against the side wall took off one of his gloves so that he could feel her soft skin under his finger tips. Her cold cheek and chin.
Kissing her like he hadn’t tasted her in days, he coaxed a moan from her lips. He unwound her scarf, and trailed his fingers down the column of her neck.
She went up on her toes, clinging to his shoulders and pressing into him.
Heat flooded him. He smiled against her mouth. “We should probably continue this later.”
“Probably.” She stared at him. “Asher?”
“I meant it. I really do wish we could get married this year.”
With all of ten days left in the year, it seemed like a wish, indeed. Except…
“This is the time of year wishes come true, Maggie.”