Not everyone wanted to brave the first sleeting snows of winter for a drive out to a ranch on Timberline, but some of the teachers carpooled and the neighboring ranchers weren’t the least bit phased. If they had an excuse to visit and enjoy some pot luck on a day when they couldn’t work anyway, well, a full-on blizzard probably wouldn’t stop them.
Meanwhile, her sister-in-law, Holly, seemed to have decided that if she couldn’t marry a rich, famous athlete, hosting his engagement party carried almost the same cache. She had decorated with yellow and orange streamers and carved pumpkins, dried flowers and pine cones. She was basking in hostess duty, greeting and taking coats, while Skye helped her mom organize all the food that poured in with the guests.
“Tell me about the proposal,” Piper persuaded, following Skye into the kitchen with a tray of her mother’s butter tarts. She had driven out with her parents and everyone was excited to see her father for the first time since his retirement from teaching.
Piper had taken over his position as music teacher and she had been overwhelmed her first year, looking to Skye for help with everything from how the computer system worked to where the music stands were kept. They’d become fast friends. Piper was young and shy—the birthmark on her face had always set her apart a little—but she was confident and funny when she was in her element and so great with the kids.
She would be gearing up for the Christmas concert already, Skye thought with a pang. Technically she was still on a leave of absence, but now that she had this rock on her finger, she knew in her heart she had to quit her job. She just wasn’t ready to make it official yet. She was holding off until she left in January.
But this ring, and all it meant, was where she was going and that felt right. Scary maybe, but right.
“He said he was going to wait until we were back here,” Skye confided. “But as he went to pack the ring he changed his mind. He took me into the living room and said he had meant to make it a big, romantic thing, maybe up on Copper Ridge or when we were here at Mom’s for Christmas, but he wanted me to know we can make good memories wherever we are. Then he went down on one knee.”
“Oh my God, Skye.” Piper covered her heart and blinked.
“I know.” She grew teary remembering it.
Chase was gorgeous whether he was scrubbed up like today, sweaty from practice, or rolling out of bed unshaven first thing in the morning. In that moment of proposing, however, he’d had a look in his eye that had undone her.
“It was exactly what I needed. I was already homesick, but that made me realize I can’t put myself into a state of waiting, thinking that this is the only place I can be happy. My home is with Chase wherever he is. Which isn’t to say I’m not thrilled to be here through the holidays,” she added with a conspiratorial tilt of her head. “And I want to get in as much visiting as possible. We’re having a Christmas party in a couple of weeks. I’ll email you. Is Chelsea coming today?”
“She said she’d try to make it, but wasn’t sure—” A small commotion at the door turned their heads and Blake Canon came in with his son, Ethan.
“Oh! I have to say hello to Blake. I’ll be right back.” Skye touched Piper’s arm on her way out of the kitchen and into the melee in the front room.
Piper watched her go, wistful. It wasn’t the same at the school without her, not that she wanted to make Skye feel any more homesick by saying so. Skye had become a really close friend, though, and she missed her.
Everyone did, she thought ruefully, watching Blake give her a brotherly smirk as she threw herself at him. The rancher was the epitome of tall, dark and handsome, wearing a plaid shirt and jeans along with a fresh shave and obviously very friendly with the family, shaking hands with Skye’s brother, Stan, and greeting Chase with the same warmth.
Piper watched it all, feeling as she often did: like an outsider looking in. She loved her mom and dad, but it was just the three of them and her parents had started traveling since her father’s retirement. She wholeheartedly condoned it, but it left her feeling a bit left behind and lonely.
At least she had a good job that kept her active, she thought ruefully, as Blake’s son came into the kitchen with a crock pot.
“Hi Ms. Tierney,” Ethan said. He was more into athletics than band, but Marietta High was the kind of school where all the teachers knew all the students by name. “Dad made chili. Do you know where we can plug this in?”
“Let’s make a spot. Is your Aunt Meg coming home for Christmas?” she asked, not just making conversation. She’d met Meg through Skye’s ‘book club,’ which was really a wine club, but the evenings were always lively and fun when they got together.
“She was going to try because I was supposed to be away for a whole month and she didn’t want Dad to be by himself all that time, but I’m coming home for actual Christmas so she said she probably wouldn’t come after all.”
“That’s too bad, but you’re going away? Vacation with your Mom’s family?” she guessed.
“Yeah, my uncle is getting married in Mexico, so everyone is going. Not just Sonya and Bob,” he said, mentioning two other students from school, “but my cousin from California, too. Petra. We always have a lot of fun when we’re together so we’re pretty stoked.”
Piper could tell. Since when did teenaged boys offer responses of more than one syllable? She managed to inch over enough dishes on the dining room table to make a space for him to set down the crock pot.
“Except Petra’s dad has twin boys now, so she’s worried she’ll have to babysit. And I guess they’re my cousins too, so, uh, maybe I’ll help.” He shrugged ruefully.
Piper privately smiled, thinking, Good job, Blake. Along with knowing all the students, all the teachers knew which ones were the troublemakers and which ones were the good kids. Ethan was solid gold. She rewarded him by saying, “I think Flynn and some of the other big kids are in the barn, playing ping pong.”
“Sick. I’ll, um, head out and say hi.”
Piper nodded and watched him go, thinking, Someday. Someday she’d meet Mr. Right and have a great kid of her own. Someday.