I stirred the big pitcher of lemonade and checked the clock on the kitchen wall. Again.
When I saw it was after four, I set the big spoon down and picked up my phone to see if I’d missed a message from Mariah. She was driving up from Chicago and had said she planned to leave around noon, but if she’d gotten on the road by then, she’d have arrived by now.
I didn’t want to be an annoying, overprotective mom, but I still worried about her, even though she was 24 years old. Since I’d already texted twice and called once, I decided not to bug her again, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was up.
“Cole?” I called to my husband through the screen. “Can you come in here?”
“Sure, one second.”
After tasting the lemonade, I added a little more sugar and stirred again. Cole entered the kitchen from the patio and slid the door shut behind him.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“I’m a little concerned about Mariah. She should be here by now.”
“Did you call her?”
“She didn’t answer.” I bit my lip. “Should I try again?”
He shrugged. “I’m sure she’s fine, honey. She said she’d leave around noon, right?”
“Right, but it’s only a three-hour drive.”
Cole came toward me and wrapped me up in his strong, comforting arms. Even at 48, he was still in great shape, with a solid chest and muscular arms he worked hard to maintain. His hair might have had some gray, but he still had the bluest eyes I’d ever seen, and seeing him walk into a room still gave me butterflies.
“Stop worrying,” he said calmly. “She’s probably just running late. You know how she likes to sleep in. It’s Sunday. Maybe she went out last night.”
“I guess.” I wrapped my arms around his waist and pressed my cheek to his chest. “But what if she got a flat tire or something?”
“She’s a big girl. She’d call for help. Or she’d change it herself—her Uncle Griffin taught her how, remember?”
“What if she ran out of gas? You know how she lets her tank get all the way to E.”
“She’d do what anyone does—figure out how to get some gas. She’s perfectly capable.”
“What if she picked up a hitchhiker and he turned out to be a serial killer?”
“Chey.” Cole shook me gently. “Our daughter is smart, careful, and responsible. She does not make bad decisions like picking up hitchhikers. We raised her right, now we have to let go.”
“I know. It’s just hard.”
“It is.” He kissed the top of my head.
“For once, it’s me fretting about her and not you.”
He laughed. “Yeah. What’s with that?”
“I don’t know. I just have this feeling something is up. When I talked to her yesterday, she sounded weird.”
Cole stiffened slightly, as if going on high alert. “Weird?”
“Not bad weird. Just . . . different. Evasive, maybe. I can’t explain it. Call it a mother’s intuition.” I might not have given birth to Mariah, but she’d been calling me Mom since she was nine years old, and as far as I was concerned, she was every bit my child as the ones I’d carried in my belly.
Cole’s body relaxed, his voice losing its edge. “She’s busy these days. It’s July, the height of baseball season.”
“I know.” Mariah worked in media relations for the Chicago White Sox and often traveled with the team. Her job was hectic and unpredictable, but she loved it. And Cole loved that he could go see a game for free whenever he wanted to. “Maybe I just miss her.”
“I miss her too.” He kissed the top of my head once more and held me a moment longer. A shriek from outside made us both laugh as we looked out the window. We had a whole yard full of people over for a Sunday barbecue—practically everyone we loved.
Out on the lawn where we’d been married, our ten-year-old son Roan was playing volleyball with Griffin and Blair’s son, Hank, as well as Enzo and Bianca’s son Alex and his twin sister Natalia, who were all fourteen. Also playing the game were Griffin and Blair’s ten-year old daughter, Charlotte; Enzo and Bianca’s eleven-year-old son, Rocco, and their nine-year old daughter Emilia; and Beckett and Maddie’s nine-year-old, Brendan.
Over on some lounge chairs at the far end of the patio, our daughter, Marabel, and Beckett and Maddie’s daughter, Lily, were stretched out, giggling at their phones. They were both thirteen and had been best friends practically since they were born.
The youngest kids in the group all belonged to Enzo and Bianca—seven-year-old Carlo, six-year-old Adam, and four-year-old Becca. They were in their bathing suits, running through the sprinkler.
The adults, including Beckett and Maddie’s twenty-one-year-old son Elliott and his boyfriend Joshua, were all sitting around the patio table beneath a huge umbrella, sipping beers or glasses of wine and munching on snacks everyone had brought. We did this fairly often during the summer—sometimes at our house, which had the biggest lawn. Sometimes we gathered at Beckett and Maddie’s farm, where the kids loved to visit the barn and play with the animals. Sometimes we met out at the house Griffin and Blair had built by the pond, where the kids could fish or swim or take the rowboat out. Sometimes we went to Enzo and Bianca’s—they’d recently put a pool in the yard, complete with slide and waterfall, so their place was always popular.
But mostly we all just loved being together. We were family.
“Come on, let’s go outside,” Cole said. “I’m sure she’ll be here any minute.”
Giving him a quick kiss, I grabbed the lemonade pitcher and followed him out on to the patio. After leaving the pitcher on the table in the shade we’d set up as the bar, I poured myself a glass of white wine and joined our friends. Cole took the seat next to me and held my hand in his lap.
About twenty minutes later, the sliding door from the kitchen opened. “Anybody home?”
“Mariah!” Relief washed over me, and I smiled as I rose to my feet. “I was so worried! You said you were leaving at noon, and I—”
I stopped and stared. Mariah wasn’t alone. Following her onto the patio was a tall, handsome man with dark hair and an athletic build—and she was holding his hand.
“Yeah, we got a little later start than we planned.” Mariah laughed and exchanged a sheepish smile with the guy—the kind of smile that gave me the feeling they’d probably spent the morning in bed together. The blush in Mariah’s cheeks added weight to the hunch.
It sort of shocked me, since she hadn’t really dated anyone seriously since graduating from college, and she’d never brought a guy home to meet her parents, let alone her large, extended Bellamy Creek family—her honorary uncles and aunts and cousins.
I glanced at Cole, who was staring at both of them intently, like he wasn’t sure if this was a dream or a nightmare. As Mariah tugged the guy forward, I looked more closely at his face. He looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place him. He also looked a bit older than Mariah—I guessed he was at least thirty.
“Mom, Dad, everyone, I want to introduce you to someone.” Mariah’s smile shone brightly as she glanced at the attractive guy holding her hand. “This is Chip Carswell. My fiancé.”
My jaw dropped. I think every jaw at the table dropped.
I blinked at them. “Your . . . your what?”
“My fiancé.” Mariah laughed nervously. “God, that sounds so crazy.”
“You don’t have a fiancé,” said Cole, like he was confused.
“I do now. See?” Mariah held out her left hand, where a big fat diamond ring sparkled in the sunshine. Then she looked up at Chip adoringly once more, and he gazed back her her with an equal amount of affection in his eyes. “Chip proposed last night, and I said yes. We’re getting married.”
I still felt frozen, but also sweaty and my heart was pounding hard.
“Wait a minute. Did you say Chip Carswell?” Griffin asked. “As in the pitcher for the White Sox?”
“Yes,” Chip answered with a quick nod.
“Holy shit.” Enzo grinned. “This is awesome.”
“Did you say married?” Cole’s voice sounded strange. I put a hand on his shoulder.
Mariah laughed. “Yes, Dad. Do you need your ears checked?”
“You can’t get married. You’re too young!”
Our daughter rolled her eyes, a familiar gesture that made her look even more like the teenager she used to be. “Dad, I’m twenty-four.”
Cole shook his head. “Impossible. I just taught you to ride a bike yesterday.”
She laughed. “Nope. That was a while back.”
I found my voice. “This—this seems so sudden. I’m trying to catch my breath.” Smiling at Chip, I laughed a little as I came forward to embrace him. “Forgive us. We’re very glad to meet you.”
He gave me a slightly awkward hug in return. “I understand. It’s nice to meet you too.” When he released me, his face relaxed into a smile, revealing a dimple in his cheek. “Mariah is always talking about her family. I’ve been begging her to introduce me.”
“I know it seems out of the blue,” Mariah said, slipping her arm around Chip’s waist. “But we’ve been dating ever since spring training—that’s where we met. We just couldn’t say anything because players are not supposed to date employees of the organization. But we came clean with the management last week, and it’s all good. And since he had today and tomorrow off, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring him up here.” She giggled. “But I didn’t realize we’d be engaged already.”
“I sort of surprised her with that,” Chip said apologetically. “I just couldn’t wait any longer.” The look he gave her told me everything I needed to know.
“Well, my goodness—congratulations, you guys!” Blair jumped out of her chair and rushed forward, hugging Mariah and then Chip. “This is wonderful news!”
“Thanks,” Mariah said breathlessly, hugging her back. Then she went over to Cole and poked his shoulder. “Say something, Dad. You look shocked.”
“I am.” He looked at her in disbelief, but I saw the twinkle in his eye. “Married?”
She nodded and smiled, radiantly happy. “Yes. Married. Can you handle it?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Didn’t think so.” Sighing, he got to his feet and scooped her into his embrace. “I’m happy for you, sweetheart.”
My throat tightened as I watched father and daughter hold onto each other. After releasing her, Cole came over to Chip and shook his hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“You too, sir. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Mariah laughed and poked her dad’s shoulder. “I told him you were a pitcher in your day too.”
Cole groaned and gave her the side eye. “In my day? What am I, an old man now?”
She shrugged, poking his ribs. “Well, you are the father of the bride.”
“Oh my gosh, the first wedding of the next generation!” Bianca jumped out of her seat to embrace Mariah and then Chip. Everyone else followed suit, offering hand shakes or hugs, and we called the kids over to give them the news.
“A toast!” Maddie cried, holding up her glass.
“Good idea.” My head was still spinning, and I had a million questions for Mariah—I wanted to know all about their romance and more about Chip and exactly how he’d proposed—but I knew there would be time for all that later. I poured her a glass of wine while Beckett grabbed a beer for Chip. All the kids scrambled to get cups of lemonade or pop, and gathered around the table.
“How about it, father of the bride?” I teased, coming to stand at Cole’s side. “Want to say a few words?”
He nodded, even though his expression was a little nervous as everyone got quiet. “Sure. First, I want to welcome Chip to the family. Sorry if it took a minute for the shock to wear off. Mariah has always liked a surprise, but this was a pretty big one.”
Mariah smiled at her dad and tucked herself against her fiancé’s side. He put his arm around her shoulder.
“I’ve always known this day would come, it just sort of snuck up on me,” Cole went on. “But it is my firm belief that the best guys are all baseball players—especially pitchers.”
Chip grinned, making his dimple appear. “My dad would agree with you on that.”
“That’s right,” Enzo interrupted excitedly. “Your dad is Tyler Shaw, right?”
Chip nodded. “He’s my biological dad, yes. He and his family live a little north of here, actually.”
“Oh, shoot! If I’d known, I could have invited them!” I exclaimed. Tyler Shaw had also been a Major League pitcher, and I vaguely recalled meeting him at Griffin and Blair’s wedding. He was married to the wedding coordinator at Cloverleigh Farms, where they’d been married, and one of her sisters had been a bridesmaid. It made me smile at what a small world we lived in, how connected we all are. It also made me happy that Chip’s family lived so near.
“We were going to invite them to come down,” Mariah said. “But Chip thought it might be too much.”
“I’ve also got a little sister and brother,” he explained.
“Next time.” I smiled at him. “I can’t wait to meet them.”
“Second,” Cole went on, “I want to say how proud we are of you, Mariah, and how excited we are to see you take the next steps in your life—even if it seems like you just took your first steps yesterday.”
My throat closed again. Mariah’s eyes grew shiny, and around the table, I heard more than one sniff.
“Finally, I just want to say that even though marriage isn’t always easy, I think everyone around this table would tell you it’s the best thing they’ve ever done.”
“Definitely,” agreed Griffin.
“Without a doubt,” said Beckett.
“I mean, if we’re not counting the time I stole home to win the—” Enzo cut off when his wife elbowed him in the gut. “I’m only kidding, babe. Of course it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.” He slung an arm around Bianca’s neck and kissed the top of her head before raising his glass with the other hand. “Per cent’anni.”
“Per cent’anni,” the rest of us chorused happily as we all lifted our glasses and then took a drink.
“What’s that mean?” Chip wondered. “Per cent’anni.”
“It means ‘for a hundred years,’” Mariah explained. “It’s Italian. Not that we’re all Italian here, but it’s sort of a tradition in our family to say it when someone gets married.”
“It brings good luck,” said Bianca with misty eyes, “whether you’re Italian or not.”
“Got it.” Chip smiled. “I’ll remember that.”
* * *
Later, after everyone had gone home, Marabel and Roan were in bed, and Mariah and Chip were settling in to her old bedroom for the night, I slipped between the sheets next to a pensive Cole. He was staring up at the ceiling, his hands behind his head.
“Hey,” I said, resting my head on his chest. “You okay?”
“I guess. It’s crazy, you know? To think she’s ready to make that kind of leap.”
“I know. But remember what you said to me earlier? We raised her right, and now we have to let go.”
“Yeah, but that was when I thought she had a flat tire, not a fiancé.”
I laughed, planting a kiss on his shoulder. “I understand. But he seems great. And he adores her.”
“He’s so much older.”
“Only ten years. That’s not too crazy.”
“He’ll be gone all the time.”
“She travels with the team.”
He was silent. “I like him too. It’s just hard to imagine that anyone is actually good enough for her.”
“I know.” I snuggled closer. “But something tells me he is, and they’re going to be deliriously happy together. Just like you and me.”
He wrapped me in his arms. “That’s all I can ask for.”
I sighed, imagining a wedding. “We’re going to be the mother and father of the bride.”
“I know. It’s weird.”
“And then grandparents.”
“Okay, let’s just stop right there.” Cole flipped me beneath him and stretched out above me. “I’m not ready to be a fucking grandpa yet. I still want you like we’re newlyweds.”
I laughed softly. “Shh. What if they hear us?”
“Don’t care.” He pressed his lips to mine. “Life’s too short to worry that people will hear you enjoying it.”
“I love you,” he said, making my heart race like he always had, like he always would.
“I love you too,” I whispered. “Sometimes I still can’t believe you’re mine, that we have this family and such good friends, and this is our life.”
He grinned. “It’s a good life, isn’t it?”
“It’s the best.” I wrapped my arms and legs around him and held on tight.
I hope you enjoyed the Bellamy Creek Series as much as I did! Look for a brand new small town series from me beginning August 2021. If you’re wondering who Chip Carswell is, maybe you haven’t read the Cloverleigh Farms Series yet! I’ve got you–start here with IRRESISTIBLE!