Extra Type: Bonus Scenes

This content was originally exclusive to the Year Of Love In Marietta bundle, but has been released for your enjoyment here, right now! Hint: it’s better if you’ve read the books…

Meeting Mr. Right – Harlequin Mini-Romance for Woman’s World

I was thrilled when I was offered the chance to promote Prince’s Son of Scandal with a Harlequin mini-romance in Woman’s World magazine.

The first time I was paid for fiction was for a story I sold to Woman’s World long before I sold my first romance novel. I would have to dig through my scrapbook to find the year, but it was a very good day when I got that news!

When I sat down to write this one, I already knew their readers enjoy very sweet, cute-meet stories, as opposed to the high drama, emotional angst, and sexiness of Presents. I was delighted when I saw Meeting Mr. Right passed muster over on the Writing for Woman’s World blog.

Fun Fact: My mother-in-law is a lifelong reader of Woman’s World. I kept meaning to tell her this was coming out, but forgot. She called me when she saw it and said, “I thought I heard your voice as I was reading it, then I saw your name at the bottom.”

Meeting Mr. Right came out in the Nov 27, 2017 issue. You can read it below. Enjoy!

She’s known him forever…but finally meeting him is better than she ever dreamed!

“It’s me,” Carla sang out as she entered Bells & Bows, the shop owned by her best friend Veronica. “I’ll buy. They still have pumpkin spice across the street.”

The storefront of occasion supplies was full of autumn harvest and Halloween decor. A few angels and reindeer were floating in, but Carla was here to discuss taking photos at Veronica’s parents’ anniversary party tomorrow.

But the store was deserted.

“V?” Carla called, moving toward the archway into the back room where Veronica stored helium tanks, wedding arbors, and deflated bouncy castles.

A man came through. He was nice looking with brown hair and a surprisingly rich tan for today’s October’s drizzle. He wore a white T-shirt over faded jeans with a torn pocket. He wiped his hands on a cloth as he offered an engaging smile.

“Veronica ran to the bank. I’m her—”

“Bobby!” Carla blurted as she recognized him.

He stood tall and straight. “I go by Rob these days.” His gaze took a long explore of her face. Dawning recognition warmed his eyes. “Carla?”

She touched her hot cheeks. They were hard as apples, she was smiling so big.

“I can’t believe I’m finally meeting you.” She had crushed on him in her preteens without ever meeting him. Every summer, Veronica had gone to her grandparents’ farm, returning in September with stories of her legendary Cousin Bobby. He always sounded funny and kind and he lived in the most exciting places.

“V always talks about you. How’s Gary?” he asked as they shook hands.

“Still alive!” She chuckled at his knowing the name of their adventurous family pet. “Goats aren’t supposed to live this long, but he’s going strong.”

“At one point, I thought he was your boyfriend.”

“Gary?” That made her laugh again. “No, but there might have been times I thought he was my best bet.

He released her hand, but the glimmer in his eye made her think of love at first sight.

She clasped her hands together. They grew as tangled as her tongue.

“I didn’t get you dirty, did I? I’m working on the compressor.”

He was a mechanic in the army, she recalled. “I’m fine,” she murmured. “You’re in town for the party? On leave?”

“For the weekend, yes. I’ve always wanted to see Cranston. I’m glad they’re holding it here.”

“Really?” Her disappointment that he wouldn’t be here long was overshadowed by astonishment. Cranston was a small town named for its founder, her great-grandfather. It offered pretty hikes through rolling hills, big stretches of farmland and ice-fishing in winter, but tourists rarely made a point of stopping here.

“You always post such nice pictures. Is it weird that I follow you online? V likes them and they show up in my feed.”

“It’s totally fine.” She had seen him like her posts and always felt flattered. She had never found the nerve to reach out to him, though, even though her youthful curiosity had never abated. “You must see far more exotic places, though. I envy your travel. It’s a huge dream of mine.”

“Oh? What’s stopping you?”

She shrugged, sheepish. “I could make the jump to full-time freelance and should do it while I’m unattached, but I also want to share the experience. I’m waiting for the guy who wants to go with me before we settle down.” She covered her mouth, embarrassed at over-sharing, but he was so easy to talk to. “I haven’t said that aloud to anyone. Not even to Veronica.”

“Your secret’s safe with me.” The way he tucked his chin and held her gaze with a somber one made a bubble of happiness rise in her. “But it’s ironic.” He leaned on the door jamb, thumbs hooking into the waistband of his faded jeans. “I’ve always envied you and V for growing up in one spot. I’m an army brat. My only constant was my summers at our grandparents’ farm.”

Did that mean he was looking for a woman who wanted to stay in one place?

“I guess we always want what we don’t have,” she said, forcing a fatalistic smile.

“Or maybe we know what we want when we find it.” He was looking at her in a way that made her pulse thrum. He cleared his throat and straightened to pull keys from his pocket. “How about I text V to meet us at the coffee shop? I’ll buy. We can get to know each other properly.”

“I already feel as if we’ve known each other forever,” she said, half under her breath.

He paused as he held the door, crooked smile pulling into a wider grin. “So do I.”

The Russian’s Acquisition Christmas Epilogue

At Christmastime, a certain amount of secrecy was to be expected between spouses. Aleksy understood this, but he was still disturbed by the way Clair had been acting the last few days. She was both distracted, yet deeply intent at other moments, affectionate, yet suddenly turning remote.

He kept making excuses. They had been planning to quit Moscow for the holidays. That always turned the house upside down as they packed and readied for the trip to Saint Petersburg. The children needed one last visit with their friends before they could be separated from them for a few weeks. Last minute dental and hair and other miscellaneous appointments had cluttered the schedule for all of them.

Then there had been the black and white ball that Clair had organized to fundraise for her foundation, Brighter Days. She had looked stunning last night as she had announced new programs for the string of orphanages they sponsored, thanks to everyone’s generosity. Aleksy had been so proud of her he could hardly keep the front of his tuxedo buttoned, but finally all of that was behind them and they were home.

Their real home, in Saint Petersburg.

Tomorrow they would fetch a tree and begin decorating for Christmas—something the children had chattered about the whole flight here, but this house worked a type of magic on all of them. The moment they arrived, everyone relaxed. Mila found the stuffed bear she had been missing; Fredek settled in to snap together his construction blocks. Both had gone to bed early without invented delays.

Aleksy checked them on his way past and both were fast asleep.

His wife, however, was still unpacking and wearing a small frown of deep thought. Aleksy showed her the glass of wine he’d brought her and set it on the table next to the bed, placing his own vodka beside it while he moved pillows up against the headboard.

Then he turned off the light so only the glow of the lamp lit the room.

Clair turned with surprise. “I was just going to finish—”

He moved to stop her from folding a scarf, taking her hands in his own.

“You’ve been going non-stop for days. Come sit.” He wanted to ask what was going on.

As if she knew communication couldn’t be avoided, she looked up at him with a dozen emotions flitting across her expression: uncertainty, a hint of culpability, worry, conflicted hope.

“Clair, are you all right?” He hadn’t felt such a curtain between them since their earliest days. His heart lurched as he recognized this was far more than a pricey gift hidden in a closet. “Are we all right?”

“Yes! Oh, Aleksy, of course we are.” She touched her forehead to his breastbone in a kind of apology, but that shadow of doubt colored her voice and stayed in her eyes when she looked back up at him. It stayed like a damp cloak across his shoulders even as she wrapped her slender arms around his neck and brought herself up to kiss him.

He hesitated, thinking he shouldn’t let her use sex as a distraction, but that’s not what this was. As her lips met his, she wasn’t arousing to divert. Her soft mouth was a plea against his. He felt the need for reassurance in her as easily as he felt the softness of her hair under his palm, or the warmth of her narrow back as he curved his forearm to pull her into him.

It wasn’t unusual for his wife to make advances. They were as sexually active as a couple could be when sharing a home with a seven and four-year-old. But Clair was usually teasing and playful when she came to him, not needy and urgent.

Alarmed concern hit his chest anew, making him kiss her back with perhaps more desperate force than he had showed in a while, but there was something, some obstacle. It needed to be dissolved in the heat of their love for one another. He could feel it.

Talk, he thought, but she flicked her tongue against his, inciting him, inviting him to take control and he did, picking her up and carrying her to the bed. They tugged at clothing until they were naked in the warm light. He had locked the door, had intended intimacy, but he had expected lazy lovemaking, not the kind that made his skin feel like fire scorched his hide.

Clair needed this, though. He could feel her giving up to his dominance, letting him drag at her hair so her throat was arched to his lips, proving her utter trust in him and moaning with agreement when he used words like, “Mine.”

When he sucked her nipple, she arched like it pained, but pressed the back of his head, urging him to keep pulling at her. It made him insane, the ache in his flesh was so profound he nearly howled with need.

“Oh, Aleksy,” she gasped, shifting to open her legs and fisting her hand around him, making him throb, drawing his thick, hard flesh where she wanted it.

As he felt her slippery opening against his tip, he distantly thought about a condom. “Are you back on the Pill?” he managed.

“It’s okay,” she gasped, lifting her hips to make the penetration happen, and brought his mouth to hers. “Make love to me. I need to feel you…”

He slid into her with one deliciously wet thrust and her nails prickled his shoulders. Her breath broke as she climaxed, body bowed with the force of it. He nearly lost himself, he was so taken aback.

“Oh, Clair,” he breathed, thrusting and watching, enthralled by how deeply aroused she was, how responsive and abandoned to his lovemaking. It was so erotic he was on the brink, fighting to hold back so she would catch up and join him, wanting to lose himself, but wanting her with him—

“Oh, Aleksy. It’s so good.” She writhed beneath him, her arousal not waning, but growing with his until she shattered again.

He barely stopped himself shouting his fulfillment, groaning instead while he discarded all other restraint, thrusting deep and joining her in a profound place that he only ever found with her. It held him in thrall for long, powerful heartbeats and took a long time to finish and fade. When he collapsed on her, both of them shivered in silent ecstasy for several panting breaths, waiting for calm to find them.

He stayed inside her, liking the sensation that no barriers existed between them. No condom, he recollected, brain barely sparking. She had been on the Pill for most of their marriage, but a few weeks ago, when they’d all had the flu, she’d missed a few. They’d had to start using condoms again while she waited for her period and could get back onto birth control.

But she hadn’t had a period. She had gone to the doctor a couple of days ago to ask when she should.

Aleksy came up on his elbow, body slipping free of hers, which was a pity, but he felt like a bucket of cold water had just been thrown across his back.

“Clair, are you pregnant?”

Clair had just been about to confess it. It wasn’t a complete surprise that she was pregnant. Not when they’d accidentally made love without protection before she had realized she’d missed her pills for several days when she’d been sick.

But they hadn’t been planning a pregnancy at all. They had agreed rather firmly that making a baby should be put off for at least a year.

“Do you mind?” she asked, suffering that awful worry that had been dogging her since her appointment with her doctor three days ago.

No.” He shook his head, his shock evident, but something wonderful was lighting his expression as he began to assimilate this news. “Of course not. Why would I mind? I’m just…speechless.”

“I know! But we agreed—”

“Clair.” He had such a loving way of saying her name sometimes. Her husband was not a man for endearments, but he could make her name sound like the most tender, sweet, darling, love of my life, angel, piece of my heart… “Is this what has been bothering you? Yes, I know you well enough to sense when something’s off with you,” he scolded with a disgruntled look. “You’ve been acting strange for days. I thought— It doesn’t matter what I thought. Why would you think I would mind? I’m dumbfounded,” he admitted with a flash of a rueful grin, “Because no, we weren’t planning this. But I’m thrilled. Ecstatic. A baby? Really? You’re sure?”

She nodded and his arms tightened around her as he rolled her close and tight against him, both of them laughing, sharing a look then laughing harder.

“It’s crazy, right? I mean we can barely keep our sanity with two children,” she said.

He made a scoffing noise, always confident in his ability to handle chaos.

“But I am worried about them,” she confessed softly. “If I haven’t been myself, that’s why.”

Waiting to conceive had been her idea, her preference that Fredek and Mila have their new parents to themselves before introducing an infant. They’d already been through so much, being orphaned under such terrible circumstances. Mila, thankfully, was young enough she would forget most of it, but Fredek was only starting to trust this life they were trying to give him.

She watched sober thoughts flicker across Aleksy’s expression, making his scar stand out briefly as he shifted to pull her under the blankets with him and drew her against his cool, naked skin.

Neither of them liked to dwell on the hard start their children had had. Poor Fredek had been left alone to care for his toddler sister, both of them abandoned in a shack where they had nearly starved to death waiting for the return of a mother who’d been killed by a boyfriend who had abused all of them.

“I feel like I keep going back on my promises to you,” Clair confessed in a mumble.

“What do you mean?”

“I said I knew we couldn’t save all of them. Couldn’t give all of them a home.” Being an orphan herself, she felt all the lost hope in every pair of eyes. She had experienced the same streak of envy she saw in one child when another was adopted and they were overlooked. “Then I talked you into adopting Mila and Fredek.”

“Clair.” Again it sounded like he caressed her with her name. “I wanted them as much as you did. You know that.”

It had been just after Christmas last year when they’d met the pair. As Clair traveled with Aleksy, she often made a point of visiting local orphanages, offering resources and trying to bring them all up to a standard of care that she could live with. Out of the blue, as she’d been visiting one near the Georgian border, little Mila had rushed up to her, crying, “Mama!”

Mila had backed off abruptly as she realized Clair only bore a passing resemblance to her lost mother, but the moment had imprinted the small blond girl into Clair’s heart. Then a young boy, skinny with dark eyes and a stern little mouth, had come to fold his arms around Mila, saying, “It’s not her. Come back to the toy box.”

Little Mila had clung to her brother, crying, and Clair had cried when she heard how the boy had scalded his arm so badly while trying to cook for his sister, he had nearly lost it to infection. She hadn’t been able to stop thinking about them and made an excuse to bring Aleksy to the home before they left, wanting one last chance to check on them.

Fredek, perhaps sensing the bond that had formed between his sister and Clair, had approached Aleksy and said, “It’s okay if you want Mila and not me.”

Aleksy had been defeated on the spot.

He and Clair had been talking about trying to conceive, but once the adoption process began they decided it would be easier on the older children if they weren’t competing with a baby for attention.

“I’m not worried about how Mila will react,” Aleksy said as though speaking both of their thoughts, stroking her hair and rubbing his chin against her brow.

“But Fredek,” Clair said on a heavy sigh, knowing they were completely attuned in their concern for their son. “I don’t want him to feel like we don’t think he’s ours. Like we needed our own baby or something like that.”

“I know,” Aleksy agreed, then dipped his chin, grinning at her. “But seriously. How did this little miracle even happen?”

“The flu,” she said, wrinkling her nose.

“Am I crazy to think that’s when we started to gel as a family?”

“No, I feel that, too.” Clair smiled remembering it, even though they’d all be miserable. First the children had been sick, then the virus had hit her and Aleksy with a vengeance.

This is parenting, she remembered thinking. It wasn’t all about hugs and eat your vegetables and reading aloud. It was helping a little girl put on clean pajamas after being sick and bringing her to your bed so you could monitor her even though you felt horrid yourself.

Until that night, Clair had occasionally slept in Mila’s bed with her, but she hadn’t brought her into their own. Aleksy hadn’t said anything as the little girl had softly cried herself to sleep, even though he’d been restless and achy with the same low-grade fever that had flattened all of them.

Mila had finally settled and suddenly Fredek had been at the side of the bed.

“I’m sorry, Clair,” he whispered. “I was sick on my sheets.”

Before Clair’s eyes were properly open and her foot snaking toward the edge of the mattress, she heard Aleksy behind her. “Son, I don’t think either of us has the energy to change a bed right now. Climb in here with the rest of us and we’ll all try not to be sick in this one.”

Fredek had hesitated, then had settled between his sister and Aleksy, asking Aleksy in a whisper so faint Clair barely heard him, “Are we dying?”

“No, son. It’ll pass. Do you want to put your hand on my chest so you can feel me breathe?”

Gone were the days when Clair and Aleksy slept nude. Both wore pajamas in case they had to get up with the children. She had peeked through teary eyes as Fredek placed his pale hand against the dark blue of Aleksy’s T-shirt. His little shoulders had been tensed, but now sighed with relief.

They’d all slept deeply after that, waking very late in the morning.

Clair had still been achy, but the children had been firmly on the mend. When Mila sat up and giggled, Fredek admonished her in a whisper. “Shh. Let Mama and Papa sleep.”

Aleksy had grumbled, “Papa bear is awake and hungry.” Then he had scooped both children in one long arm into the wall of his chest and threatened to eat them.

After much giggling and wiggling, they all rose and managed to keep down a little breakfast, then spent a very lazy day watching television and dozing, finally getting back to normal by evening.

Since then, Fredek had been calling them ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa.’ They had all been bonded in a very unique way that was incredibly precious to Clair.

“I want this baby so much,” she said to Aleksy, settling her ear against his chest where she could hear the steady beat of his heart. “But I don’t want to lose our son.”

“We won’t,” he promised her.

Aleksy was still thinking about it a few days later, as he and Fredek brought in firewood. Clair and Mila were in the kitchen, singing English carols and setting the table. Christmas was still a few days off, but with the tree sparkling and snow falling outside the window, it was a perfect moment of magic and bliss. He found himself wondering how he had come to this point when a few short years ago, his heart had been a lump of coal, his view of life very bleak.

He had been convinced he’d never have a family, yet Clair had come along as a first miracle and here he was with children and a new baby on the way—

He noted his son’s enthrallment with the gifts and ruffled the boy’s hair. “No peeking,” he teased.

Fredek dragged his gaze off the tree and his expression was very grave. “Does Mama have the flu? I heard her being sick.”

They had planned to tell the children on Christmas Eve, but looking into the dark eyes of his son, so worried and disturbingly mature, Aleksy made the executive decision that a man-to-man chat was in order.

Sitting on the coffee table so they were eye-to-eye, he said, “She’s fine, but she’s going to have a baby. Sometimes being pregnant makes a woman sick. I don’t know why that happens, but the doctors say it’s not something we need to worry about too much.”

“A baby?” Fredek’s straight little brow puckered into heart-wrenching dismay.

Aleksy swallowed, caught off guard by how much turmoil it caused him to see his son react with anything less than joy.

“This doesn’t affect your adoption, Fredek.” He hoped that was the reason for Fredek’s consternation, but the boy’s expression didn’t clear. “You’re still our son,” Aleksy spelled out. “We’ll just be a bigger family.”

“I know,” Fredek said, dark brown eyes growing shiny with anxiety. “But I don’t know how I can take care of a baby if you and Clair die. I’m just a boy. I can’t work. I don’t have money. Mila is too young to help. She still needs me.”

“Oh, son,” Aleksy breathed as comprehension dawned. His embraces of the boy were usually playful wrestles, but as he reached for him today, it was pure love. He grabbed his son and held him tight to his chest. “You should be a boy and not worry about these things.”

Pressing him back, he tried to reassure Fredek with a look, but it wasn’t enough. He could see that Fredek was too scarred by the loss of his birth mother to believe bad things didn’t happen.

Sobering, Aleksy tried honesty. “Your mother is very healthy. I believe we will both be alive and taking care of you and your sister for a very long time. But we have plans in place if something awful were to happen. You know Grigori and Ivana?”

Fredek nodded. He enjoyed playing with their grandson when they were in Moscow.

“If Mama and I couldn’t take care of you for any reason, they would take you. You wouldn’t go back to any orphanage. And I have set aside money for you and Mila. One way or another, you will always have a house of your own. You’ll always have food.”

Fredek was not wholly comforted. He needed time, Aleksy supposed. No, what he needed, Aleksy realized on Christmas morning, was a sense of command over his own destiny. Aleksy had told Clair about the chat so she wasn’t too hurt when their son showed reserve at the news of her pregnancy. Mila squealed with enough excitement for both of them, but Fredek only hugged Clair for a long moment, his little face pensive.

Aleksy was a man of action. He felt a need to do something for all their sakes and it struck him that Fredek probably needed to feel like he could handle the responsibility if it were thrust upon him.

With a new year before them, he and Clair began looking for ways to foster independence in both their children. It seemed counterintuitive and was definitely messy when milk was spilled or dishes weren’t washed properly, but it made a terrific difference in Fredek. As the year went on, whether he was practicing a call to emergency services or learning how to swing a hammer as they framed an addition to the house, the boy’s confidence grew by leaps and bounds. He even went to work with Aleksy a few times, so he began to understand that he was not without resources or—Aleksy was so used to it, he took it for granted—power.

Thus it was a completely different boy who reacted with easy aplomb when Clair went into labor unexpectedly as Fredek arrived home from school the following September. The chauffeur had dropped him then left to fetch Aleksy from work. The nanny was still en route, having been hired weeks ago and not due to start until tomorrow.

“I’ll call the ambulance, Mama. Then I’ll tell Papa to meet you at the hospital. Mila and I will be fine here alone.” He spoke with his father’s air of command.

Clair wasn’t in such pain or panic she allowed that to happen, but she was very proud of how cool-headed he was. She called the mother of one of his friends, a woman who lived nearby. She had already agreed to sit the children when the time came. An ambulance wasn’t necessary, but the chauffeur did come back for Clair and Aleksy did meet them at the hospital.

Their younger son was born healthy and loud just before midnight. Aleksy went home for a few hours to relieve their sitter and brought the children to the hospital when he came back the next morning.

Mila instantly fell in love, insisting on holding her little brother and saying reverently, “Look at his eyelashes, Mama! And his fingernails are so little.”

Fredek watched Aleksy fumble his way through his first diaper change and gave him an askance look. “I suppose I have to learn to do that, too?”

“I suppose you do,” Aleksy told him, then, as he swaddled the infant, asked, “Ready to hold him?”

Fredek nodded and gathered the boy into the cradle of his arms, studying his little brother’s face for long seconds before he glanced at Clair. “You’ll show me how to give him a bottle?”

“I will,” Clair promised, distantly thinking with a pang that she’d barely figured out breastfeeding, but of course she would. The picture of her older son holding her new one, Aleksy’s fatherly hand on his shoulder and her daughter beaming up at all of them was something she would keep in her heart all her life.

Fredek smiled and kissed the baby’s cheek. “Hello, little brother. Welcome to our family.”

And when the season turned to Christmas again, and Fredek was making out his wish list, the gift he wanted most was, Another Baby.

Bonus Scene His Blushing Bride Wedding News

Piper texted her mom that she was staying in L.A. to visit and would be home on a later flight. She didn’t say who she was visiting, though.

She set her phone in her lap and glanced at Bastian as he worked to downshift the gears on his convertible, peeling off a freeway exit into heavy traffic that made her heart stop.

Actually, her heart was racing a mile a minute.

“You really want to do this?”

“Hells yeah. Why? Second thoughts?”

“No,” she said firmly. She was a little drunk from the mimosa at breakfast, though. She had walked into the restaurant with Bastian’s hand in hers and sheepishly grinned at Skye and Chase’s raised brows.

“Hello, again,” Skye had said with a narrow-eyed study of Bastian’s bed head and rumpled shirt.

“I should have introduced you properly last night,” Piper said. “This is Bastian Bloom. His sister, Liz, married Blake Canon this June. Skye grew up next to Blake’s place,” she told him. “And you’re acquainted with Chase’s younger brother, Flynn, of course.” She blinked up at him with false sweetness, silently laughing at the way he stiffened.

Bastian probably would have said something frosty and protective, but Chase said, “That’s incredibly refreshing, getting labeled Flynn Goodwin’s big brother. Nice to meet you.” He offered to shake, inviting them to take seats at their table as he did. “You live here in L.A.?”

“Used to.” Bastian gave Piper a tender, hungry, male look as he held her chair. “But I will be moving to your hometown as soon as I can arrange it.”

“Really?” Skye brought her hands together in delight.

“Please don’t tell anyone yet,” Piper hurried to say. “I need to tell Mom first. I just… Well, I was so upset last night. I wanted you to know everything’s okay.”

“Tell your mom…what exactly?” Skye looked between them.

Piper glanced at Bastian, still feeling his proposal was surreal.

“We’ll be going ring shopping soon as the stores open,” he confirmed, hand stroking over her shoulder and grazing the tails of her hair. “And I have to admit, your remark to your fans last night about locking her in—” He glanced at Chase and nodded at Skye. “—made an impression. I’m not waiting a year,” he warned Piper. “Six months. Maybe.”

Chase threw up his hands. “Everyone we know is marrying before we do.”

“My fault. I know,” Skye bemoaned, giving Chase’s arm an apologetic squeeze. “I thought we’d need more time to be sure so I set the date for after the series. You know, being optimistic that he’ll be in it. But now it seems so far off.”

“Oh, you’ll be in the series,” Piper assured Chase. “Dad is sure of it.”

Chase grinned. “I’ll do my best to prove him right.”

Chase had ordered the champagne and orange juice, but had to rush away with Skye to catch their flight. Piper had sipped her drink while Bastian nursed a coffee and they planned the rest of their day.

And decided with whom they would share their news and how.

Which sent them climbing the mansion-covered hills of L.A., excitement bubbling inside Piper like the fizz of champagne.

“Sure?” Bastian prodded. “Because asking your friends to keep a secret until you can talk to your mom is one thing. Once we do this, we’re all in.”

“I know. That’s why I want to make sure you’re sure.”

He slowed even more as he entered a neighborhood of even grander mansions surrounded by stone walls and tall palms and an air of fairy dust.

“I’ll be dead honest with you, Piper,” he said, turning into a drive where he was stopped by wrought iron gates protecting a courtyard with a fountain. The house was a behemoth of modern architecture sporting a four-car garage and a putting green off to the side.

“This is Liz’s ex-husband’s place?”

“Yeah. He’s rolling in it. But money doesn’t make a marriage and that’s why I have never felt bad about denigrating the institution to my sisters. They both know how unhappy Liz was, despite all this. It made it okay for me to refuse to get married and risk that same misery. But Petra is different. When I left Marietta, she was really mad at me for breaking things off with you. I’ve been feeling like a heel ever since. There was a part of me that figured she needed to grow up and see the world through the same cynical eyes I’d developed, which wasn’t fair to her. I really want her to know that I’ve turned around. Telling your parents and my family, that’s going to be fun and I can’t wait to do it, but even if she was in Marietta, she’d be the first I’d want to tell. Since she’s here at her Dad’s…”

“You really love her a lot.” Her heart melted.

“Yeah, I do,” he said with a rueful grin. “Half the time I think she’s still the little brat who threw up on my shirt and talked me into keeping her class ferret for summer break—cute animals, but they stink. But she’s becoming an adult. One who is smart enough to know better than to look up to me, but she does anyway. I can’t stand to let her down.”

“You’re going to be an amazing father someday,” she told him, leaning across to kiss him. “If I did have any doubts, they just evaporated.”

Something moved in his blue-green eyes. A light of tender excitement.

“You want kids? Because I should have asked—”

She nodded. “Unless—”

“No, I do. Maybe not tomorrow, but sooner than later. Let’s get married and settled and…”

They were both nodding like bobble-heads, which made them laugh.

He grabbed his phone from the console and thumbed through it for a moment, then pressed a button and brought it to his ear. “Hey Dean, it’s Bastian. I’m at the gate. I need to talk to Pet a minute. Let me in?”

A pause, then the gates slowly parted until they were fully open.

Bastian pulled around the fountain, stopping at the bottom of the stairs as the front door opened.

It was a grand staircase with big, wooden doors that dwarfed the slender Petra as she came out. She was a nymph in a little summer dress, blond hair flowing loosely, eyes widening as she recognized Piper.

“What—? Are you here to say hello?” She cocked her head with confusion as she came down the steps.

Bastian climbed out of his car, slamming the driver side door and coming around the back of the car as Piper climbed out on her side.

“Yeah, just a social call,” he said laconically. “I thought you might like an introduction to my girlfriend. Or, well, I guess you’re my fiancée, aren’t you?”

“Oh. My. Gawd!” Petra squealed, throwing herself at him so he oofed and stepped back to catch his balance. Just as quickly, she thrust away from him to hug Piper. “Really? You two are really getting married? Does Mom know?”

“No, she doesn’t,” Piper told her. “So I’d appreciate it if you kept it a secret until we can get home and I tell my own Mom. She doesn’t even know I was seeing him,” she added ruefully, thumbing toward Bastian.

So many emotions chased across Petra’s face it was comical. She didn’t want to keep quiet. Her eyes bugged out over Piper’s confession that she had kept such a monumental secret from her mother, but then she said, “Well, I guess since you told me first, I can try to hold it in.”

Neither of them explained about Skye and Chase, just let Petra hug them each again before explaining that Bastian had to pack since he was heading back to Marietta with Piper.

“I wish I was coming with you,” Piper said with a little pout. “It’s nice to see Dad and my little brothers, but—” She shrugged. “I miss everyone there. But I’ll be home in a week. Can you wait until I’m there to tell Mom?” She brightened.

Bastian snorted. “No,” he said firmly.

“Oh, come on,” she wheedled very prettily, Bastian looked at Piper and Piper knew how Bastian had wound up with a ferret for six weeks.

“We’ll wait until you’re home to get married,” Piper said, which made Petra laugh and roll her eyes.

“Fine. But tell me exactly what she says. I wish I could see her face.”

They hugged it out and some eight hours later pulled into Piper’s parents’ driveway, tired from a long day, but both letting out a breath that was pure relief.

“That’s a great sound,” Bastian said as Charlie barked from behind the gate. “I missed that knot-head.”

“He’s been thinking the same thing, I’m sure,” she said, earning a grin.

Her parents were enjoying an iced tea on the back porch and stood as they realized Piper had brought someone with her. Charlie recognized him right away and danced ecstatically around Bastian, refusing to stand still for a proper petting.

“Who— Oh, my goodness. Wherever did you find him?” Piper’s mother asked, coming forward to greet Bastian with a warm grasp of his arms and a kiss on his cheek. “Are you back visiting your family?”

“You could say that,” Bastian said ruefully as he shook her father’s hand. “Wondering how you feel about me becoming part of yours, actually.”

“I don’t—” Her mother started to say while her father frowned.

“As my husband,” Piper clarified, blurting out the rest in a rush. “We were dating when he was here in June and now…” She showed them the ring she wore, still so new she barely breathed each time she looked at it. “We’re engaged.”

“Oh! Piper!” Her mother covered her heart with two hands. “Oh! I didn’t— Piper!” She backed into her chair and sat down abruptly. “Land sakes! I wondered. You’ve been so glum, but—! You might have warned me!”

Her father was busy shaking Bastian’s hand so hard he was liable to rattle it right off. “So you’ll be wanting the guest room again?”


“I can stay at my sister’s,” Bastian said.

“Dad,” Piper said more firmly. “He’s staying with me.” She rolled her eyes.

“Worth a shot,” her father muttered.

Liz’s reaction the next morning was a suitable mixture of joy and admonishment with a glance of warning toward Piper. “Sure you know what you’re doing?”

“I’m marrying him for his family,” she assured Liz, exchanging a hug around her baby bump. “His sister is awesome and his niece is a riot. You’re pretty nice, too,” she assured Blake as he congratulated her with a kiss on her cheek.

“That kid just kicked me,” Bastian complained as Liz hugged him.

“Yeah, we’ve got a barrel racer in here,” Blake said, setting a hand on his wife’s belly.

Over coffee, Piper explained to Liz that she and her mother had been looking at dates for the wedding, hoping to make it in September.

“You guys can’t really travel, so we’d like to do it here. In town, I mean, as opposed to California, so your family will still need to come to us,” Piper said. “I imagine your parents will stay with you again? With you being due soon, we thought we should run everything by you, see what you think.”

Liz blinked. Slowly she turned her head to look at her brother. “You’re really serious.”

“What did you think?” he asked, sitting back and taking on a look of impatience.

“That you’d be engaged for five years!”

“Since when do I drag my feet once I’ve made up my mind?”

“Fair point, but…” Liz was genuinely flummoxed. She quickly rallied, moving to the calendar to flip the page. “Babies come when they come,” she said. “But I’ll do my best to be there and of course Mom and Dad can stay here. They were going to come once the baby is born anyway.”

Liz made it to the ceremony. Barely. Bastian and Piper married on the third Saturday in September at Saint James, planning to put off their honeymoon until school was out for Christmas break. On the Tuesday before, as Piper was dismissing her class before lunch, Petra poked her head into the band room.

“I’m going to the hospital.”

“Oh no! What happen— Oh!” Understanding dawned as Piper read Petra’s excited grin. “Ethan is going with you?”

Piper nodded vigorously. “Funny thing is, I heard it from Darby Stacks. She was getting her cast off and said she saw Mom and Blake checking in. I had to ask permission to look at my phone and…” She waggled the device in the air. “It’s happening!”

“I’ll text your uncle that he’s going to be an uncle again,” Piper said, grinning in anticipation right along with Petra.

“Already did it,” Petra said. “But keep your phone handy. I’ll let you know soon as the baby is here.”

After dinner that evening, they went to the hospital to meet Lucy Canon, who became the youngest guest at their wedding at a mere five days old.

As Piper held the tiny little girl against the satin of her white dress, she glanced into her groom’s eyes and could have sworn she read the same thought echoing in her own mind.


Bonus Scene The Bachelor’s Baby At The Wedding

The weather cooperated beautifully for Liz and Blake’s wedding.

Meg took in the sway of the wildflowers in the light breeze, the slopes of the bowl verdant and colorful from the recent spring rain, and the popcorn clouds against the blue, blue sky. Blake had bought a new suit and Liz wore a simple white sheathe with a lace overlay and mid-length sleeves. A ribbon under her breasts accented her baby bump, but in the cutest possible way. She had a handful of white rosebuds woven into her hair and the most adoring smile for Blake.

He looked incredibly tender as he spoke his vows.

If only their parents could be here, Meg silently yearned. That was the only way the day could have been more perfect.

After the ceremony, it became the kind of party ranchers lived for: good food, good music, and good company. Blake had rented a giant tent in case the weather turned, and tables were set up beneath it, but aside from a couple of speeches and a toast by the father of the bride, the reception was casual. The food was buffet, kids ran too and fro, and everyone mingled freely.

“Meg!” Petra called, coming to where she and Linc were finishing up some mighty fine barbecue and trying to decide if they had room for dessert.

“Hi, sweetie. Having fun?” Meg asked, smiling at the girl Petra had with her. Her long dark hair and native features were vaguely familiar.

“Do your remember Carly? She was at the toboggan party at Christmas. She lives on, um, which ranch is it?”

“Oh, your dad is Tom Matsch,” Meg realized. “One of Blake’s best friends growing up,” she explained to Linc. “It’s nice to see you again, Carly. Are your parents here? I’d love to say hello.”

“They’re coming back. They went home to do the chores, but um, Petra told me you’re expecting twins?”

“I am,” Meg said ruefully. Her hand automatically went to her middle, which was competing size-wise with Liz’s, despite the fact she was two months behind her sister-in-law’s due date.

Linc stretched his arm across the back of her chair and he sent her a glance of warmth and pride.

“That’s really cool,” Carly said, and sent a nervous glance to Pet.

“I was telling her how busy my Dad’s new wife was after her twins came,” Petra explained. “Of course, Ethan and I will come and help out when we can, but Mom will have a new baby, too, and I thought you might want to know someone else in the area.”

“I could, like, get off the bus at your place after school,” Carly offered. “Or ride over on the weekend, even if you just wanted an extra pair of hands. I have my first aid and I helped Mrs. Heath when she broke her arm and had a new baby. Also, I’m in 4-H and take care of my own horse.”

“And horses are really expensive and you could use the money?” Meg teased.

So expensive,” Carly agreed with a wide-eyed, pleading look that made Linc snort.

At that moment, Liz’s brother came up to their table, the infamous Uncle Sea Bass. He’d been in town a couple of weeks and was ridiculously good looking in the wholesome California way that Liz and Petra wore so effortlessly. He and Pet typically ribbed each other mercilessly, but today Petra stiffened at the sight of him.

He gave his niece a cool, sidelong look and set an open bottle of beer in front of Linc. “That micro-brewery I was telling you about.”

“Thanks,” Linc said, turning the bottle to read the label.

“If Ms. Tierney was here, you could ask her to be a reference for Carly,” Petra said with lift of her blond brows and a pert tension around her mouth.

“Being Tom’s daughter is good enough reference for me,” Meg said mildly. “I’ll definitely keep you in mind, Carly. I’m sure we’ll be grateful for some help.”

Carly smiled, but Pet kept that displeased look on her face as she nudged her friend into leaving the table and the tent.

Meg glanced at Bastian. “What happened there?”

“Just a disagreement,” Bastian said, gaze flinty as he drank from the second bottle he’d kept for himself. “What do you think?”

Linc sampled and they traded opinions for a minute before Bastian was called away by one of his nephews to show the other kids how he could juggle.

“I was wondering why Piper wasn’t here,” Meg murmured as Bastian walked away. Meg had known the music teacher very distantly when they’d been at school. Piper had been a few years behind her, but once Piper started teaching, she’d begun coming to Skye’s book club meetings. Meg was only in town for the odd one, but those evenings were always quality time with really awesome women.

“The woman from dinner last week? He’s just staying at her parents’ house, isn’t he? They’re not dating or anything. Why would he bring her to his sister’s wedding?”

“Are you really that naïve, Linc Brady?”

“No.” He let his disparaging chuckle go into the neck of his beer bottle. “Neither is his seventeen year-old-niece, apparently.”

“I’ll have to call Piper, see if she’s okay. She is on the naïve side. Mmm, Skye is coming back for our wedding. We’ll all get together and I’ll find out what happened.”

“This is nice,” Linc said with a chuck of his chin at the boisterous crowd. “But I’m glad we’re keeping ours small.”

They hadn’t wanted to compete with Blake and Liz’s ceremony and hadn’t had time to organize anything big anyway. They were getting ready for the babies and the ranch was non-stop work this time of year. Meg was trying to put in a small garden, but Linc was insisting on doing all the work…

“And you’re still okay with small? Even after seeing all this?” he asked. He’d asked her more than once if she was sure she didn’t want a bigger wedding. “You obviously have a lot of friends,” he added as she waved at someone across the tables.

“We do, but… I’ll take small and fast over big and waiting. I just want to be married.” She leaned across and he met her with a kiss. The important people would be there. Skye was flying in and Linc’s aunt was coming with one of his cousins. Blake was giving her away.

“Good. Me, too,” he said.

Bonus Scene The Bachelor’s Baby Baby News

Blake came back from doing Linc’s chores with Ethan and had work to do outside, but couldn’t make himself leave the house. He put the game on, but much as he was rooting for Chase, he couldn’t stop thinking about his sister, Meg.

Liz was bustling in the kitchen. She let him hug her, but moved away almost immediately, really silent and withdrawn. He had an idea the kinds of heavy thoughts that were weighing on her. His were just as dark. Even Petra, doing her homework at the kitchen table, was uncharacteristically quiet. Ethan brought his own books down to join her and left out his earbuds, which wasn’t like him. He was obviously as anxious for news as the rest of them.

Blake hated this. He felt really helpless and, damn it, Meg deserved better. More.

Blue jerked to his feet with a rattle of his collar and a low, “Woof.”

Blake veered from pacing the living room rug to follow Liz to the window over the sink.

“It’s them,” she said over her shoulder to the kids. “If they let her out of hospital, that’s probably good news.”

Nevertheless, her knuckles were white where she gripped the edge of the sink. When Blake put his arm around her, she slid hers behind his waist and hugged herself into him, tense as she waited for Linc and Meg to emerge from Linc’s truck.

Blake unconsciously set his hand on Liz’s growing bump, needing the feel of that firm warmth, wishing for a little kick to reassure himself their own baby was safe and sound.

“Oh, look at that smile,” Liz said as Meg leaned into Linc and they started toward the house.

Blake chuckled, tension dissipating into relief as he took in the way his sister was beaming up at her fiancé. He’d had some doubts about Linc at first. He was still doing everything he could so Meg knew she had options beyond marrying a man she barely knew, but Linc was proving himself to be as solid as they came. Right at this second, things looked like they were working out just fine.

* * *

Linc had never been one for drugs, but he figured this was what if felt like to be high. His entire body was buzzing with elation, his feet not even feeling the steps as they walked into the mud room and fended off the ever-friendly Blue.

“Everything is okay?” Petra appeared in the doorway, backing up to give them room to come into the house, but she was so sweetly anxious, her slender hands wringing with such genuine caring, Linc felt a rush of affection for her.

For everyone here as they looked so concerned, searching his and Meg’s expressions, worried for her and him and their baby. Babies.

The love he felt for Meg in that moment, for bringing him into the heart of her family, for giving him a family of his own, was out of this world.

“Everything is very okay,” he said, exchanging a look with Meg as he drew her in front of him, hooking his arm across her collarbone and another around her waist, whispering against her ear, “You say it.”

She hunched a little as though trying to contain her excitement, then blurted, “It’s twins!”

For a second there was dead silence. Ethan’s mouth fell open. Blake’s expression went blank. Liz’s eyes popped open.

Then Petra squealed, “Are you serious?” She gave Linc’s elbow a little joggle, demanding he look at her. “Are you? Serious? Twins? Oh my gosh!

And they all laughed at how she leapt up and down.

“Oh, I want to hug you, but I’m afraid!” she said to Meg. If the girl had had a tail, it would have wagged like mad.

“I’m fine,” Meg assured Petra, forcing Linc to loosen his hold so she could embrace her, then Liz, then a still speechless Blake.

Ethan fist-bumped Linc and said, “Dude,” before hugging his aunt. “You’re really okay?” he said, ducking his head a little because even at barely fifteen he was taller than she was.

“Saw them on the scan high fiving each other,” she assured him.

He grinned. “That’s so cool.”

“I might not think so on labor day, but yeah. We’re…” She looked at Linc and her eyes teared up.

His did, too. Shit.

“We’re thrilled,” he said for her, voice catching. “Shocked, but thrilled. Jeez, Meg, you really have to stop blindsiding me like this,” he teased.

“Yeah, this was all me,” she retorted, wearing the same silly grin they’d both been sporting since leaving the hospital.

Liz wiped beneath her eyes and smiled wide, too. “I’m so happy. Relieved and happy. You’re staying for dinner? Kids, can you set the table?”

“Congratulations,” Blake said with a strong, heartfelt handshake.

“Thank you,” Linc said, sincere because he felt acceptance in that handshake. Genuine welcome to the family. It moved him. He almost told them he and Meg would marry as soon as possible, but they’d decided in the truck to wait until after Blake and Liz’s wedding. They would keep it small, not wanting to steal their thunder when they were so close to tying the knot themselves.

Talk turned to the wedding over dinner anyway, when Petra said, “I guess you’re not going to marry my Uncle and have his babies after all.”

“Hell no, she isn’t,” Linc drawled, thanking Liz as she passed the mashed potatoes.

Meg chuckled, glancing at Liz. “Your brother is coming to the wedding?”

“Oh, he better,” Petra blurted, not giving her mother a chance to reply. “I told him I’d post his deepest darkest secret online if he didn’t.”

“You’re taking your life into your hands with that one, baby girl,” Liz warned, then shrugged at Meg. “He’s really hard to reach right now. Still in South America, but he’s due home any day. He kind of does whatever he wants, but I think he’ll try to make it, if only because he’s worried I’m marrying too fast. Even younger brothers can be overprotective and annoying.” She sent a sweet smile to her husband, batting her lashes, before sharing a grin with Meg.

“Did I ever use those words?” Meg said with mock innocence, hand going to her chest. “I don’t think so.”

“Take more broccoli,” Blake urged, offering his sister the bowl. “You’re eating for three.”

Over their chuckles, a cheer sounded from the television in the other room. Blake got up to turn it off, pausing long enough to note, “They won. I’ll have to watch the highlights later. Chase is going to take them to the series, watch.” He clicked off the TV and came back, saying as he took his seat, “I’m used to seeing you and Chase on TV, but it’s weird to see Skye there, isn’t it?”

“Right?” Meg agreed.

“Flynn goes to games when school is out. He’s been on TV,” Petra said.

“Chase’s little brother? Are you seeing him?” Meg asked.

“What? No.” Petra blushed, looked to her mom, looked hideously self-conscious.

Ethan stuffed a big scoop of mashed potato in is mouth and pinned his lips over it, eyeing Petra circumspectly.

“I mean, I see him at school. We talk. Sometimes,” she mumbled, ducking her red face. “He’s graduating and going to college next year. Said I could probably get his job at the pizza place if I was looking for something in September.”

Linc watched Liz’s expression grow thoughtfully concerned while Blake bristled with fatherly umbrage.

They hadn’t found out the sex of their babies, but in that moment, as he caught a glimpse of teen parenting, Linc wondered how he would be reacting in fifteen years or so, especially if the twins were girls.

Meg’s hand touched his thigh and she gave him a look that suggested she was thinking along the same lines. Which told him that they were closely connected enough that, when the time came, they would weather whatever came at them together.

He closed his hand on hers, felt her ring press into his palm, and looked forward to making his life with her.

Bonus Scene Blame The Mistletoe Baby News

Liz was pleased when Meg came home for a long weekend, and not because she was emptying her bedroom to make room for Petra. They were well on their way to having a great sisters-in-law relationship. They had found a lot of common ground over Christmas and Liz was eager to get to know her better.

Which is why she felt bad about keeping her little secret.

Her very tiny, smaller than the strip on the wand secret. She was pregnant.

The news had come in the middle of a really hard couple of weeks in January. Liz had taken Petra back to California where she had explained to her mother and sister that she was uprooting her life for a man they had met once, years ago. Meanwhile, as she rattled around her former life, she had found herself questioning whether it had all been a dream.

But she had talked to Blake every night and when he told her how much Crystal had been pressuring Ethan to come to Texas, and the sorts of legal options he had—all of which were expensive and guaranteed to provoke more ill-will—Liz had been drawn back to him.

It had been impulsive and maybe a little juvenile. She couldn’t do anything. Given their complicated family history, she absolutely had to sideline herself from weighing in on custody and what anyone ‘should’ do. There wasn’t anything concrete she could do to help.

But she had wanted to be with him.

He’d woken her the first morning with a soft kiss on her mouth. “Feels good to wake up and have you here. I was afraid you might not come back.”

“I shouldn’t have come. Now I don’t even want to go back there to finish the move. The whole drive here I kept thinking that I should have stayed to organize things, but…” She cupped the side of his face, falling in love all over again. “I needed to be here with you.”

With so much going on for both of them, she’d lost track of when her period should have happened. A few days into that troubled week, she’d realized she was late and hadn’t wanted to mention it to Blake because what if she was wrong? She’d held her breath for two days, until he’d had a meeting with a lawyer in Bozeman. While he’d been tied up, she’d bought a drug store test and crept into the ladies’ room in the mall like a desperate teenager.

Except she had desperately wanted a positive outcome.

When Blake had walked out to the waiting room thirty minutes later, he’d worn a grim expression. He didn’t want to rain legal hell onto Crystal, but he had to fight for what Ethan wanted. It was one of those days when he felt the entire world was against him, Liz could tell.

“What’s wrong?” he’d asked sharply as he got a look at her red eyes.

“Absolutely nothing,” she’d said through a wobbling smile. “You got me pregnant.”

His stunned expression had been priceless.

“I thought about it a couple of times, but I figured you would tell me…” He drew her into him, voice astounded and filled with emotion. “Are you serious? We’re having a baby?”

She had nodded and he’d crushed her close, wordless while his heart had pounded against the side of her face and his strong hands had molded her to his frame. When he finally drew back to look into her eyes, his were wet.


“Don’t get your hopes up, okay? In case—”

“We’re not going to think like that,” he said, hugging her again. “Right now, our lives are perfect. Ethan is still with us, Petra’s on her way. Right? No issues there?”

“It’s all good,” she assured him.

Given Ethan’s paternity, Crystal had a different view of things than Dean did about Petra. And Pet had the Flowers streak of stubborn determination. If she wanted to live in Marietta, she was going to live in Marietta. Liz was meeting with the counselor at the high school tomorrow to complete the paperwork on Pet’s transfer.

Blake hugged her again. “Thank you for this. I needed to quit focusing on the What Ifs and be happy for what we have. We’re good. We’re so good, Liz.”

They were. Crazy good, because everything seemed to fall into place over the next week or so. Ethan convinced his mom to respect his wishes, Crystal and Blake hammered out a new visitation schedule, and Petra arrived.

They told their kids and swore them to secrecy at the same time, which made both teenagers groan with complaint at not being allowed to tell anyone.

Which had kept Petra griping all the way to the airport to pick up Meg. She was dying to tell someone.

Liz might have let her open to Meg if she hadn’t already had the ache of one miscarriage weighing on her heart. She knew whatever would be, would be, but until she was more certain that she would go to term, she wanted to keep the news to herself.

Fortunately, Petra didn’t dwell on what she couldn’t talk about. She filled the silence with every other topic under the sun, including how she was getting together with kids from the school to work on the set decorations for the Christmas concert. This led to some questions for her new Auntie Meg.

“So you know, um, Skye Wolcott, right?”

“She’s one of my best friends. She grew up on the ranch next door. Not the one that’s for sale, the other side.” Meg hitched in her seat to see Pet in the back. “Why? Oh, she and Chase gave you and Ethan the lift from the airport at Christmas, right?”

“Yeah, he’s super nice. But, um, what’s his brother like?”

“Flynn?” Meg shot a look at Liz.

“Interesting question, Pet,” Liz said, mom instincts redlining. “Why would you ask that?” Pet had been in Marietta one week!

“No reason.” That casual tone was highly suspect. “Just, I met him at Christmas when we were tobogganing. Remember he was there with Skye and Chase and the Wolcott kids? He seemed nice and I saw him today. He was like, You go here now? I was like, Yeah. My mom is marrying Ethan’s dad. He was like, Cool.”

Liz exchanged a look with Meg. Oh, the deep conversations of youth.

Petra missed their silent amusement because they’d come into range for her phone. She let out a laugh.

“Uncle Sea Bass wants to know if you’re off your nut.”

“My brother,” Liz explained to Meg. “I sent him a Save The Date email. He’s been traveling in South America so this move of ours has blindsided him. Tell him to come to the wedding or I’ll never speak to him again,” she instructed Pet.

“I’ll tell him I won’t speak to him. Carries more weight,” Petra said, tapping her screen. “He better come to the wedding. I miss him so much.” This led her to relay a few of her favorite Day Out With Uncle stories. They typically involved terrifying amusement park rides, action movies, and shopping. He spoiled his niece and nephews relentlessly, but not just materially. They adored him and Liz really wished he would quit playing the field and settle down.

She glanced at Meg again, considering, but Meg’s life was in Chicago.

“Auntie Meg, you should marry Uncle Sea Bass,” Petra said with a sudden lunge forward. “Wouldn’t that be hilarious, Mom? Can you imagine me and Ethan trying to explain that? It’s taken all week to explain to the teachers how Ethan is my cousin, but also going to be my stepbrother.”

“Let’s get your uncle to my wedding before we start arranging his own,” Liz said.

“He’s really good looking,” Pet informed Meg. “And super nice.”

“I look forward to meeting him and having his babies,” Meg said, making them both laugh.

While Liz indulged a wistful moment. Being pregnant with Pet’s Aunt Stella, then raising their girls together, had not only strengthened their own friendship, but had been a much-valued support in those early days of motherhood. Their daughters were as tight as tight could be. Liz would love nothing better than to have something like that with her new sister-in-law.

But Meg was dedicated to her career and Bastian wouldn’t even be back state-side for another few months. At least Liz had Blake and, honestly, he was already such a great dad she knew she wouldn’t need anyone else. It was just a nice thought.

She tucked it away like an old valentine and made the turn to take them home.

Bonus Scene Hometown Hero Wedding

“Good thing we kept the wedding small,” Skye said facetiously, sending a look to her groom.

Chase shook his head ruefully at the crush of people swelling the walls of the Graff hotel. They’d tried to limit the guest list to family and mutual friends, but apparently they knew a lot of the same people. They could barely move between the tables to greet all their guests.

“Can you imagine if I’d invited the team?” As it was, Chase had invited a handful of close friends he had played with over the years and they’d all accepted with their wives. This was the wedding of the year, apparently.

“Oh, hey! I’ve been trying to work my way to this table all evening,” Skye said as they finally waded toward Blake and Liz, Meg and Linc, Piper and Bastian, Ethan, Petra, and Flynn—Chase’s best man who had defected from the head table at his first opportunity.

Meg stood to hug her. Carefully. She had a newborn in a sling across her front and her face was still round with pregnancy weight. She looked tired, but glowed with happiness. Linc handed off the baby he held to Blake and stood to kiss Skye’s cheek and shake Chase’s hand, congratulating them both.

“Oh my gosh,” Skye exclaimed softy, admiring each of their twin boys in turn. “Should you even be out of hospital?” she asked Meg.

“I told her to stay in bed,” Linc said.

“We’ve been home for a week and I feel pretty good, just tired. The way I put it to Linc was, they’re keeping me awake anyway. We might as well show them off.”

“Agreed. They’re adorable,” Skye said with a last fond look before taking in Liz and Blake’s infant daughter—another new addition she hadn’t been home to meet until now. She wouldn’t trade watching her husband win the World Series for anything, but she often wished she could be in two places at once. She hugged her old friend and his new wife, Liz. “Blake, she’s beautiful!” she said of their daughter.

“She got her mama’s looks,” Blake said with a warm look at Liz, then shook Chase’s hand. “Congratulations Chase. On your marriage and the series.”

“I’m pretty much the luckiest man alive,” Chase said with his typical off-handed modesty.

Piper and Bastian stood up to offer their congratulations. Skye hugged her friend warmly, pleased to see her still beaming with happiness.

“Back at you,” Chase responded dryly to Bastian. They hadn’t seen each other since the morning in L.A., after Piper had poured out her broken heart to Skye, left glumly for her room, then texted early the next day, asking if they could meet for breakfast. She had arrived at the restaurant with a sunny smile, holding hands with Bastian, both of them plainly, extravagantly, in love.

“I can’t believe you all got married before me!” Skye said with a chuckle, thinking of all those nights when her ‘wine’ club had been a ‘whine’ club about the dearth of good men in their lives.

“Uncle Sea Bass says I have to finish high school before I’m allowed to get married or we would be too,” Petra said with a look so earnest and somber Skye believed her for one heartbeat. Until Pet nudged Flynn and said, “Right?”

“She’s barely even my girlfriend when she says things like that,” Flynn drawled, then the two made faces at each other.

Skye had privately been worried the pair were making a difficult choice trying to keep their relationship going while Flynn was off to his first year in college—and she could only imagine how Liz felt about it. But she’d had a heart to heart with her young, new brother-in-law yesterday, as they were finalizing some wedding plans. He’d said that maybe he and Petra were too young for such a serious commitment, but pointed out that Chase wished he been with Skye all this time. Flynn didn’t see the point in failing at a bunch of random relationships so he could come back to one that worked. He preferred to keep this one going as long as they could.

Kids these days. Too smart for their own good.

“Well, we’re happy for you,” Chase assured everyone, hooking his arm around Skye.

She leaned into him, winding up tangling gazes with him, able to read his thoughts. Maybe soon they’d be joining their friends in new parenthood as well as marital bliss. They hadn’t been using any sort of protection since his big win, hoping for another kind of win. A new Goodwin. Soon.

For now, she was happy simply to be back in Marietta, married to the man she loved and surrounded by friends and family.

Bonus Scene Hometown Hero Engagement

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.