‘Gahd, this is so boring.’
‘I did warn you.’ Javi tugged on his daughter’s hair and pretended to watch the procession of men and women in fatigues, the yellow, blue and red of the Colombian flag splashed everywhere, from the shirts of the spectators to the face paint Javi had smeared on his cheek.
‘Why aren’t we in Miami for the real celebrations?’ Bea continued.
Javi snorted. ‘You don’t get more real than the military parade in Barranquilla on the veinte de Julio.’ He slung his arm over Cara’s shoulder. ‘What do you think? Nice guns?’ She chuckled and poked him in the ribs. He pulled back, pretending to be insulted. He pointed at his bicep. ‘This is where you’re supposed to poke me when I say “nice guns”.’
‘You’re hopeless,’ she said, losing the battle with laughter.
‘That’s why you love me,’ he quipped, brushing the loose strands of hair from her face and leaning down for a kiss.
It was a soft, quick kiss, but Bea gagged loudly. ‘You guys were supposed to stop doing that after Cara moved to Miami.’
‘You were just supposed to get used to it,’ Javi said.
‘How am I supposed to get used to it when you send me to summer camp for three weeks?’ she sulked.
Cara carefully stifled her smile. Bea had begged to go on summer camp. ‘It’s good to have you back,’ she said with a warm smile.
‘Ew, thanks step-mom.’
Javi smiled. ‘Is that a suggestion, gordita?’ He snaked his arm around Bea’s waist and squeezed. ‘Don’t steal my moment.’
Bea’s eyes went wide. ‘What? Are you serious?’
Cara smiled drily. ‘I don’t th-’ She stopped suddenly when she caught sight of Javi’s expression. She knew that lazy look with a little, lopsided smile. Wait. They hadn’t talked about getting married.
He burst into laughter. ‘The look on your face, mona!’ His smile warmed – and then heated. Was it suddenly stuffy out here? It was about a zillion degrees in Barranquilla in the middle of July. It was so hard to think – to breathe – when he looked at her like that, full of intent.
‘I thought the country was disarming,’ Gordon commented stiffly, bursting the moment. Javi blinked, then cocked his head with a chagrined laugh. Gordon stood off to one side, looking grim and uncomfortable in his sweat-drenched shirt and Panama hat that clearly knew it was in the wrong country.
‘Dad!’ Cara cried, but Javi squeezed her arm lightly.
‘I hope the military hasn’t completely disarmed,’ he said mildly, ‘and that the FARC, which has disarmed, isn’t taking part in the parade.’
Cara looked up at him, her funny, kind, tenacious boyfriend. He caught her look and raised an eyebrow. ‘What?’ he said, slipping an arm around her waist.
‘You know,’ she said, because she’d told him repeatedly that she loved how tolerantly he dealt with her uptight father, when they saw each other.
Cara had moved to Miami after only two months of long-distance and she hadn’t regretted it for a moment. She missed her English friends – and her father, despite his gruffness – but the condo in Miami was feeling more like home, the longer she spent there. And she had a cupboard full of tea and biscuits that Javi insisted on importing for her, so he wouldn’t feel so bad about dragging her across the Atlantic.
Bea was a large part of the reason Miami felt like home, so Cara would never resent Javi’s need to stay there for his daughter. She loved the father he’d become, treasuring Bea, but giving her the space and the respect to be herself. And she enjoyed the time she spent with Bea, tentatively exploring how much they could mean to each other.
Cara was happy, with her hot drummer, her almost-step-daughter and a kitchen pantry with stacks of Hobnob biscuits on one side and Chocoramo cakes on the other.
She stretched up to kiss him on the cheek. ‘I’m happy,’ she murmured.
‘With a military parade? Wait for the concert later – the food stalls!’
She made a face at him. ‘You know what I mean. I’m happy with you.’
His other arm closed around her waist and she was oddly satisfied that the parade was boring. ‘That’s good, because I’m hoping you’ll let me hang around a long time.’
He’d said similar things constantly since the crazy Christmas when they’d fallen in love, but there was something different in his tone that day. Was it this marriage idea? Had he got so drunk with his brothers last night that they’d talked him into getting married again, despite his messy first marriage? She didn’t want it to feel expected. She knew what his previous marriage had done to his self-respect. He was gradually coming to trust that he was all she needed in a partner, but she didn’t expect he’d get over years of obsessing about his past mistakes in seven months of a new relationship.
When they all agreed they’d had enough guns and berets and armoured vehicles, they took a taxi to the riverside park where there was food and family games and music – and people, masses of revellers eating and drinking, dancing and shouting to each other as the mighty Magdalena River flowed past on its way into the Caribbean. One of the large groups was familiar.
‘Cara, Bea, mis amores,’ Mamita called, fussing over them with kisses and hugs as though she hadn’t picked them up from the airport yesterday. Cara still only understood about half of what Mamita said. Mamita spoke as though Cara understood and Cara pretended to understand and there was so much good feeling between them that it never mattered.
‘I’ll go get food,’ Javi volunteered, which wasn’t surprising. What was surprising, was that Gordon offered to go with him. Cara glanced between them and Javi leaned down to kiss her cheek. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll look after him. I think he just wants to find the whisky.’
They returned fifteen minutes later and Cara had the impression that Javi had bought out all of the food stalls as though he hadn’t been home in months. In reality, they’d been to Barranquilla three times since Christmas. Javi’s recording studio was one reason, but Cara also knew his family was growing more important to him. They’d grown important to her, too.
Cara juggled arepas with pulled pork, corn on the cob and a bag of fried potatoes. Even Gordon couldn’t pretend he wasn’t enjoying his empanada.
‘Put those down for a minute,’ Javi said and grabbed Cara and Bea by the wrists and dragged them to a small fountain. He held up two tattoos of the Colombian flag with a smile. Bea rolled her eyes, but didn’t complain when he wet the back and held the first one onto her cheek.
When Bea was done, she slipped away, returning to the rest of the family. ‘I don’t want to witness him drooling all over you. He loves anything with a Colombian flag on it,’ she sniffed.
Cara grinned and met Javi’s gaze. She offered her cheek and he settled the tattoo onto her skin with far too much care. ‘Better?’ she asked when he removed the back.
‘You can’t improve on perfection,’ he murmured and gave her a quick, hard kiss.
She drew back. ‘What’s up with you?’
‘Nothing,’ he replied, far too innocently. ‘Want to put one here?’ He lifted his shirt and she poked him in the ribs. Their laughter became sloppy kisses, which became harder kisses until Javi drew back with a sigh. He glanced back at his family. ‘I forgot how awkward it is to have them around.’
‘I’m hungry, anyway. No more kissing until after I’ve eaten something.’
He gave her a mock salute. ‘Bien claro, señorita!’
After eating, Javi trounced Cara and Bea in a game of tejo, tossing his disc into the clay target with lethal aim. Cara jumped a mile in the air every time one of the targets exploded. Javi gloated while Cara grumbled about the absurdity of a game that used live gunpowder.
A brass band played the national anthem and various other rousing tunes as groups, the men in white suits and the women in frilly dresses the colour of the Colombian flag, performed traditional cumbia dances.
Javi predictably dragged Bea over to the musicians and it wasn’t long until he held all of the onlookers in his thrall, a traditional drum between his thighs. If she hadn’t known better, Cara would have thought the band, with their wrinkled faces and loud shirts, were old friends of Javi’s. But it was the drum that was his old friend and everything else about him was just irresistibly contagious—and she should know.
Camilo and Mamita danced with the sedate, practised steps of many years of marriage. Javi watched them with a lopsided smile that gave Cara shivers inside. She drifted to stand with her father, squeezing his arm. If Gordon had ever danced with anyone, it would have been Cara’s mother.
To Cara’s shock, he turned his head and murmured, ‘They’re good people.’
She grinned at him. ‘They’re the best people.’
He held her gaze for a long moment, speculation, scepticism and perhaps a little hope in his expression. Then he nodded and turned back to watch the musicians and the dancers, saying nothing about the odd moment.
As the shadows grew longer, the crowd drifted towards the stage, where a vallenato band was setting up, testing the sound with jaunty blasts of accordion. Gordon grimaced.
‘This would be much more fun for you if you’d dance,’ Cara said with a sympathetic smile.
‘I’m not going to dance,’ he snapped.
Javi returned from a drinks stall with Bea and shoved something that looked suspiciously like whisky into Gordon’s hand. He said a gruff thanks and Javi gave Cara a wink. She wasn’t so sure getting her father drunk was the best idea, but it might be an improvement.
The crowd broke into cheers when the band started playing and everyone grabbed a partner. Javi grasped Bea’s hands first, twirling her around, their feet moving in time. Was Bea smiling? Cara couldn’t be sure, but, even if that was a smile on Bea’s face, Cara would pretend she hadn’t noticed.
All of this emotion, the pride, the love, the confidence, would all pour out of her later when she lay down to sleep, Javi plastered to her back, as he liked to be, regardless of the temperature. She would gush about the beautiful ache she felt, seeing Javi and Bea’s relationship blossom, how good it felt to be a part of this. Javi would mumble sleepily, his hand heavy on her waist. Then she’d drift off without realising it and at some point during the night, she’d wake up boiling and poke him until he rolled away. Then a panicked hand would stretch back and grab her hip and he’d go back to sleep.
They were in a good place. She still couldn’t believe she was so happy with her long-haired charmer, with his tropical songs and cheeky smile.
He tugged her into the dancing crowd and something in his eyes got her thinking of weddings again. Why had this suddenly struck her today? She wasn’t desperate to get married, was she? Not so soon, not when a few short months ago they’d been so shocked to find they had things in common.
He pulled her close and they fell into the familiar rhythm of the music. Although Cara would probably never wear a short, flirty skirt and heels and her hips just didn’t sway like a Colombian’s, no matter how much she practiced, she knew he would rather dance with her than anyone else in the crowd. He told her with every touch, every smile.
She could picture herself married to Javi.
A new song began and both of their heads snapped up. It was one of Javi’s hits and the band was waving and gesturing madly to him. Cara gave him a kiss on his cheek and a pat on his backside to get him moving towards the stage.
The news that Javi Félix was here spread through the crowd. His hand clamped around her wrist and he raised his eyebrows.
She shook her head slightly. ‘They want to see you,’ she insisted.
‘They want to see us both – together.’
A murmur ran through the crowd and the band stopped playing for a moment, before starting up again with the gentle guitar from the beginning of the song that had started it all – the moving, festive, tropical song Javi had written and Cara had recorded with him, before they’d ever met. The song was true to its title – Nostalgia – that day.
Cara gave a small nod and followed Javi towards the stage with a smile, but the band stopped playing again before they reached the stage. To her shock, when they started up again, they played the beginning of a different song – a special song, that had started as a private declaration of love, delivered by video on Christmas day. It had since become a hit in its own right, professionally recorded with Javi’s signature percussion. Cara still preferred the original version, raw and sweet and so real it had made her heart pound.
She stopped suddenly. ‘Did you plan this?’
He burst into laughter. ‘I swear I didn’t.’ His smile was wry and self-deprecating and she didn’t quite understand the irony. He pulled her close. ‘You don’t have to come up on stage. No one’s expecting that.’
She sensed the phones snapping away pictures as they talked, but she was getting used to the amount of attention they usually garnered in Barranquilla. And today felt suddenly important, although she wasn’t sure why, yet.
She took his hand and headed in the direction of the stage. ‘I love performing with you,’ she said.
His grip on her hand tightened and, when she glanced back, the look on his face was so soft, she nearly stopped to kiss him again. Would they always be surprised by how much they loved each other?
The cheers grew deafening as they stepped up onto the stage. Cara had done this so many times, now, that she was barely thinking of her prosthetic leg, of the fear that could steal her breath and make her stomach heave. She had so much more to think about that day.
As they sang Nostalgia, Cara was reminded of Camilo and Mamita, dancing together with the ease that came from a lifetime of practice. She wanted a lifetime of singing with Javi. She wanted to look back on this in twenty years’ time, from wherever they found themselves, and sing this same song in harmony.
Her eyes stung all of a sudden and she had to turn away from the microphone to hide her feelings. All of this because of a tiny comment in response to Bea’s teasing? She got all emotional when the family was together.
Javi reached for hand and held tight. After they’d sung the final notes and the cheers of the crowd drowned out the distant drone of threatening thunder, he leaned down to kiss her cheek. She turned her head, catching him on the lips, and the cheering grew even louder as they kissed, in front of Javi’s family, his home town, and, via the phones trained on them, the entire world.
‘You okay?’ he asked, pulling back only an inch.
She nodded. ‘I love you,’ she whispered.
His hand squeezed hers. ‘I love you too, mona. Always.’ She stared into his eyes, so familiar, and yet there was a glint in them she couldn’t interpret. The way he said ‘always’, his voice rough, reached straight into her heart.
He pressed another quick kiss to her mouth and turned to say something to the band. They started up This is not a Love Song once more and Javi sang his latest single to the screams of the adoring crowd. But he wasn’t singing to the crowd. He sang to Cara, raising his hand to her cheek, using his voice to convey the enduring truth of the song he’d written from the heart.
When he finished the last line, she wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d dropped to one knee and proposed. She was almost disappointed when he didn’t. What had come over her? She would hate a sudden, public proposal. It was a serious life decision, one they should make together.
It just sounded a little unromantic, when she put it like that. But he didn’t propose and Cara shook herself inwardly for even thinking he would.
Javi thanked the band and then the crowd, holding up a hand in a wave as they prepared to leave the stage.
‘Gracias, Barranquilla!’ Cara called into her microphone, to the familiar smiles and cheers that resulted when she horribly mispronounced the name of his hometown. The first fat drops of rain fell as they skirted the crowd.
When they returned to the spot at the back of the crowd, where Bea and Gordon, Javi’s parents, his brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews were standing, they were oddly silent, watching them. Cara glanced at all of the expectant faces. Javi cleared his throat. Thunder bellowed again and Mamita gestured pointedly at him.
He jerked his head at Bea and, with a wide-eyed nod, she pulled a paper bag from behind her back and handed it to Cara. She eyed her quizzically, but opened the paper bag. She grinned to see two carimañolas, her favourite little fried torpedoes of yucca dough.
‘Uh, thanks,’ she said, still feeling the gazes of every member of Javi’s family. She pulled one out and bit into it. At the collective gasp, she glanced in confusion at the carimañola, but didn’t see anything odd about it. She took another bite and chewed slowly, too confused to enjoy the treat she always enjoyed when they visited Barranquilla. She felt one drop, then another of rain and wondered why they were all staring instead of preparing for a Barranquilla deluge.
She glanced into the paper bag and nearly choked when she saw it. Javi fumbled for the paper bag as it slipped out of her fingers. He snatched it firmly in his hand on the third attempt.
‘I hope that’s not indicative of your answer,’ he said in a low voice.
She nearly choked again, chewing hurriedly and wishing, for once, the carimañola wasn’t so deliciously starchy. ‘No!’ she cried. The rain became more persistent. The crowd dispersed urgently, but the Rodríguez clan were rooted to the spot.
‘No?’ he said loudly, over the rain. His brow was furrowed and his expression grim.
‘No!’ she called again, hurriedly dropping the treat back into the bag that he held and taking his face in her hands. ‘Not, no! Yes! Absolutely. Definitely.’
Her heart melted into a puddle in her chest as Javi’s expression softened unbearably. What had happened to discussing this like adults? Wasn’t she still worried his previous experience of marriage would make him wary? Didn’t she need to build him up to this?
And since a few hints had been enough to harden her own resolve to marry him one day, why not tomorrow? Why not right now? In the tropical summer rain?
She stroked her thumbs across his cheeks, tracing the gorgeous cheekbones that made half the world giddy over him. Too bad, world. He’s mine. ‘Say something,’ she whispered.
He opened his mouth and hesitated for a long time. ‘I- I practised a- a speech, but I don’t think I can get it out. I love you, Cara. You’re my family and you know what family means to me, now.’
She smiled through the prick of tears. She knew what family had always meant to him, even when that had been a source of pain. ‘I don’t need a speech,’ she said, amazed it was true. ‘I love you, too – and all the rest of your family.’
‘I want to marry you,’ he finally said, simply. The sky punctuated his sentence with a flash of lightning.
Cara’s tears began in earnest. ‘I want to marry you, too,’ she said through a hiccough. She jumped when cheering and clapping erupted from Mamita and the rest of the family. She draped her arms around Javi’s neck and peered out at them. Javi’s brothers had a teasing glint in their eyes, but they applauded enthusiastically. Bea looked surprisingly relieved – probably that it was over.
And Gordon… her father had a sheen of tears in his eyes. He met her gaze and Cara’s tears started up again with an undignified snort. He nodded once, with a small smile that communicated a range of emotions and Cara understood that Javi had spoken to Gordon about this already. Her heart beat faster as she realised she would keep discovering reasons she loved Javi for the rest of her life.
‘Are you going to put the ring on?’ They spoke at the same time.
‘Kiss first, then ring,’ Cara said and tipped her face up.
‘I like your priorities,’ he said and dipped his head. Cara clutched his neck and held him tight as his arms closed around her. His hand tightened in her shirt. He buried the fingers of the other hand in her hair and kissed her, hard and deep and as long as they dared. He pulled away reluctantly. ‘I hope that was okay. I didn’t want to embarrass you, but… family.’
She grinned up at him. ‘It was perfect. Any way you asked me would have been perfect.’
‘Even up on stage?’ he asked with a raised eyebrow.
She chuckled. ‘Yeah, I think I could have lived with that, but this was better.’
He leaned down to whisper in her ear, ‘I’ll embarrass you on stage another time. This was too important.’
‘Maybe I’ll embarrass you on stage another time.’
‘Are you going to put the ring on already?’ Bea called out. ‘I spent a whole afternoon picking it out with him and we’re getting wet!’
Cara turned with a smile and enfolded Bea in a hug. ‘Thanks, Bea.’ I love you, too, you know. ‘Whose idea was it to put a ring in the bag of carimañolas?’
‘Mine, of course,’ Javi said with a grin. ‘Your eyes light up every time we stop at the frutería. I wanted your eyes to light up.’
Bea crossed her arms and sighed. ‘Her eyes light up every time you walk in the room, Dad,’ she grumbled.
He turned to Cara as the family piled in to hug and kiss them. ‘Is that true? I thought you always looked like that.’
‘You’re a pretty bright light,’ Cara said with a dry smile.
He fished the ring out of the paper bag. ‘Let’s see if her eyes light up,’ he said to Bea as he held the ring in his fist.
‘It’s probably covered in cooking oil,’ Cara said, stifling a gleeful grin. But when he opened his hand, she had no more banter. It was an image she wanted to remember for the rest of her life: a beautiful swirl of sapphires and diamonds, representing a promise she trusted with her whole heart, and, behind that, Javi’s eyes, watching, waiting and holding her, as he always would.
A crack of thunder heralded a fierce stormy wind and torrential rain. Around them, the family shrieked and ran, but Cara held Javi’s gaze for as long as they could, until the rain poured down their faces.
She held out her hand and he slowly slipped the ring onto her finger. He tugged on her hand until she fell against him and he wrapped her in a warm, wet embrace. ‘Alone at last,’ he said with a smile in his voice. ‘Can we just stay here and let them all run away?’
She pulled out of his arms and gave him a playful shove. ‘In the middle of a storm? I have plans for a long life with you!’
He caught her hand. ‘Given my current luck, nothing can happen to us.’
‘It’s not luck, it’s love,’ she said with a soft smile. ‘It’s always love, Javi.’
‘You going to write a song about that?’
‘Maybe. I’ll need some tips on writing love songs. It’s a good thing I’m marrying a songwriter.’
‘You don’t need any tips. You know you’re brilliant.’
‘Inspiration, then?’ she suggested.
He grinned, tugging on her hand in the direction of the carpark. ‘For that, I’m at your service.’