This scene takes place roughly 17 years after the original Cloverleigh Farms Series ended, and about 15 years after the conclusion of the Bellamy Creek Series.
“Chip, slow down,” I said as my fiancé drove our rental SUV up Highway 22 at his usual ten miles over the limit. “You’re driving too fast.”
“I can’t help it. I like speed.”
He did like speed—behind the wheel, on the treadmill, and especially from the pitcher’s mound, where he could reliably throw a baseball that approached a hundred miles per hour. “I know you do, but you’re making me nervous.”
He glanced over at me and took my hand. “My driving is making you nervous? Or something else?”
“Your driving always makes me a little nervous, but . . .” I took a deep breath and admitted the truth. “It’s probably something else.”
He brought the back of my hand to his lips. “You’ve got nothing to be nervous about. They’re going to love you.” But he eased off the accelerator a little.
“You say that, but you don’t know for sure.”
“Yes, I do. I love you, so they’ll love you.”
“I’m marrying their son and they don’t even know me.”
“But they know me.”
“We didn’t even tell them about us until we were already engaged.”
“Because we couldn’t,” Chip reminded me.
That was because he played for the White Sox and I worked in media relations for the team. Players were strongly discouraged from dating employees of the organization, and vice versa. Since I was nothing if not a rule follower, I resisted giving in to the spark that had ignited between Chip and me at spring training in February—just six months ago. It had been immediate and powerful . . . he walked into a press event, and my knees had buckled. Somehow his dark eyes had found mine, and even though we both glanced away quickly, we caught each other looking again and again. Finally, he smiled, and when I saw the dimple appear in his cheek, that was it.
We fell hard before we’d even gone back to Chicago for Opening Day. In late June, we’d gone to HR and come clean. One week later, the night before we drove up to my hometown of Bellamy Creek to introduce him to my family, he’d proposed.
Did I mention he liked to move fast?
The memory of him down on one knee in the darkness of his Chicago apartment bedroom stole my breath the way it always did . . . I loved thinking about every little detail. The flicker of a candle on the nightstand making the diamond ring gleam. The rain beating against the windowpanes. The confidence in his voice as he said, “I’ve never been this happy before, Mariah. I feel like everything that’s come before this moment in my life—even baseball—has led me right to you. Will you marry me?”
I hadn’t even hesitated. He’d slipped that ring on my finger, and I hadn’t taken it off since.
Now as Chip released my hand, I studied the gorgeous diamond solitaire a moment before reaching over and rubbing the top of his thigh. I could feel the warmth of his skin through the denim of his jeans, and I felt butterflies all over again.
There was one place where Chip liked to take his time, and that was in the bedroom. He claimed this was a new thing for him, that before me he’d been all speed and no finesse when it came to sex. Of course, I’d had my doubts about that, but he swore it was true, so I chose to believe him.
I trusted him, and I loved him with a ferocity I’d only ever reserved for my dad. In fact, he often reminded me of my dad—protective, honest, strong, and so devoted to baseball it was like his religion.
That’s how I knew he was the one.
But Chip had a large, complicated family I was struggling to keep straight, with two moms—two!—I had to win over in one night—one!—not to mention one grown sister, two young siblings, one biological dad, one stepdad, at least four aunts and uncles, and a whole bunch of cousins.
“Tell me again,” I said, admiring the way the morning sun sparkled on Grand Traverse Bay to my right. We’d caught an early flight up from Chicago to make the most of Chip’s one day off, which luckily fell on a Saturday. His family was throwing us an engagement party tonight. “Your mom’s name is Robin, and she and your dad, Chuck, adopted you at birth.”
Chip nodded and adjusted his navy ball cap, which actually had a white, old English D on it—a tribute to his favorite childhood team, the Detroit Tigers. “Right. But my dad died when I was sixteen.”
Chip had told me many stories about his dad—how he’d coached all his Little League teams, was always supportive but never pushy, and taught him to love the game. His father’s sudden death had been devastating for the entire family.
I’d lost a parent too—my mother had died from a blood clot giving birth to me. While I didn’t remember her, I still grew up with an aching sense of loss, especially in my early childhood. My father remarried when I was nine, and lucky for me, I wound up with the most wonderful bonus mom in the world. I thought of her as Mom, I called her Mom, and I loved her like any devoted daughter would. She was so loving and generous, she’d often share sweet stories with me about my biological mother, whom she’d known and admired. And while my experience was different than Chip’s, I felt like losing a parent was something we understood about each other that brought us closer.
“I wish I could have met your dad,” I said.
Chip glanced at me with a boyish smile. “He’d have loved you.”
“So after he was gone, you moved up here to be closer to your mom’s family?” During our whirlwind courtship, I’d heard this story before, but often the conversations were cut short or the details were lost because we couldn’t keep our hands off each other.
“Yes. I did my senior year up here. That’s how I met my biological father, Tyler Shaw—he was one of my baseball coaches that year, although I had no idea who he was when we met.”
I shook my head, marveling as I always did at the coincidence. Tyler Shaw had grown up here, but had gone on to be one of the most storied MLB pitchers of his time. He’d retired right before Chip’s senior year and happened to be visiting his hometown that spring, so he spent a fair amount of time coaching his own son without ever realizing it.
Although Chip had always known he was adopted, he’d never known the full story—he’d had been given up at birth by his biological mom, April, because she and Tyler had only been eighteen at the time and they were in no position to be parents. April was heading off to college, and Tyler had been drafted to San Diego. Beyond that, Chip said, they’d only ever been friends. Apparently, his conception was the result of a one-time moment of insanity the summer after they graduated from high school.
But there had clearly been something there, since they ended up falling in love eighteen years later, getting married, and having two more kids together—Chip’s little sister Frankie and his brother Jonah.
“I’ll never forget the afternoon when April and Tyler came to our house to meet me.” Chip shook his head. “It was so fucking surreal, meeting my biological mom for the first time, and then on top of it, realizing who my dad was. My mom and sister and I were all in shock.”
“But everyone got along?”
“Yes.” Chip laughed, a deep and reassuring sound I loved. On the mound, he was all business, and I never saw his granite composure crack. But off the field, especially with me, he was quick to smile and joke. “It was really amazing—April and my mom got to be great friends. In fact, April planned my mom’s wedding to Ned a few years back.”
“I love that. And your sister Cecily is how old now?”
“Cece is twenty-eight. A few years older than you—which I’m sure she will give me shit about.”
I laughed. I was twenty-four and Chip was thirty-four, and for some reason, people liked to make a big deal about him being ten years older. I thought the age gap was hot. “What does she do again?”
He grinned. “She’ll say she’s something fancy like a filmmaker, because she went to fancy-ass film school, but mostly she does wedding videos.”
“So she does make films,” I chided.
“I suppose. I just like to mess with her. Actually, she’s really good,” he admitted. “April recommends her to everyone.”
“So April still works full-time as a wedding planner?”
“Actually, I think only part-time now. One of my cousins sort of took over.”
“And she belongs to . . .”
“Mack and Frannie.” He laughed again, glancing at me. “You’re still trying to get them all straight before we arrive? It took me like a year, babe.”
“I know, but this is really important to me. We only have one night, and I want them to like me. If I remember who’s who quickly, I feel like it will help.” I pulled my phone from my bag so I could take notes. “Tell me one more time who’s who at Cloverleigh Farms.”
“They’ll like you anyway, but okay. Cloverleigh Farms belongs to the Sawyer family. There are five Sawyer sisters, and April is one of them. The oldest is Sylvia, and she’s married to Henry DeSantis—he’s the winemaker at Cloverleigh. Sylvia had two kids from her first marriage, my cousin Whitney—she’s about CeCe’s age, and they’re good friends—and my cousin Keaton, who’s a little younger. They all work for Cloverleigh in some way.”
I typed in the information about the DeSantis family. “Got it.”
“And then Henry and Sylvia had two more kids—Steffan and Claudia, and they’re both in grade school. I think. Shit, wait.” He frowned. “Maybe they’re older than that. I can’t remember.”
I sighed. “Okay. Go on.”
“The next sister in line is April. She works part-time as an event planner at Cloverleigh and they live on Old Mission Peninsula. I’ve got two little siblings—my sister Frankie is fourteen, and my brother Jonah is eleven.”
“Is he a ball player too?”
Chip laughed. “Actually, no, he likes soccer better, but she is. Frankie played varsity softball as a freshman,” he said proudly. “She’s a pitcher. She’s badass.”
“Of course she is.”
“Tyler still coaches a little at the high school but he also owns a microbrewery, and he just opened up a sports complex with a baseball training facility.”
“Yeah, he’s a busy guy. But his family is the most important thing to him,” Chip said seriously. “I admire that.”
“Does he ever miss playing?”
Chip exhaled and rubbed his jaw. “I don’t know for sure. He says he doesn’t, and I always thought he was lying—not necessarily to me, but maybe to himself, you know? But lately I’ve been thinking he’s telling the truth. When you’re young, baseball is everything. But as you get older, you figure out there’s more to life than the game.”
I smiled. “You do? Someone should tell my dad that. He’s still obsessed.”
Chip laughed. “Nah, your dad gets it. His family is the most important thing in the world to him too.”
“I guess you’re right. Okay, so where are we with your family? Last sister you mentioned was April.”
“The next sister is Meg. She’s a lawyer, and she’s married to Noah McCormick, who’s the county sheriff. They have three kids—hold on, I have to think.” He appeared to concentrate hard. “First they had a boy—Fletcher. Then they adopted a boy—Evan. And their youngest is Daphne. But don’t ask me how old anyone is.” He laughed. “Somewhere between five and fifteen would be my guess.”
“I’m starting to panic,” I said, typing frantically. “Are there more?”
“Yes. Chloe, the next sister, married a guy named Oliver Pemberton, whose family fortune was from dish soap or laundry detergent something. She took over from their dad and is actually the CEO of Cloverleigh Farms now, and Oliver runs the distillery there and another one in Detroit.”
He thought for a second and nodded. “Two. Sawyer and Elsa.”
I entered the names of the Pemberton children. “Dare I ask how old?”
“I’m going to guess they’re in high school, because I know my sister Frankie hangs around with Elsa. They live at Cloverleigh Farms now. The parents, John and Daphne Sawyer, moved down to Florida a few years ago for health reasons. John has a heart condition and couldn’t take the cold winters anymore. But they come back a lot in the summer.”
“Are they coming tonight?”
“As far as I know.” He smiled. “You’ll love them. They’re the nicest people.”
“I’m almost afraid to ask, but are we to the last sister yet?”
“Yes. Frannie is the youngest Sawyer sister, and she married a guy everybody calls Mack. He’s the CFO at Cloverleigh Farms, and he had three daughters from his first marriage, then he and Frannie had twin girls.”
“Sheesh,” I said. “That’s a lot of girls in his house.”
“It is,” Chip agreed with a shrug. “But he seems happy.”
“What’s their last name?”
“Uh . . . Mac-something. MacAllister!” He snapped his fingers, proud of his recall.
“One of them is Millie, right? She’s the wedding planner now?”
“Yes. She’s the oldest. I think she might be about thirty, or close to it.”
“What are the other girls’ names?”
“There’s Felicity—she went to culinary school, but now she’s some kind of food chemist or scientist—and then Winnie. They’re somewhere in their twenties. I believe Winnie works at Cloverleigh Farms in some capacity, but don’t be mad if I’m wrong. Then the twins . . . um, Audrey and Emerson. No, Emmeline! They’re a little older than Frankie.”
Sighing, I wrote it all down. “Why does everyone have so many kids?”
He laughed. “They just love family. It’s actually really great. I came late into the fold, but the whole gang of them adopted me and my sister like we belonged. We call the Sawyers Grandma and Grandpa. We call all the kids our cousins.”
“I love that,” I said. “My parents have a huge group of friends that’s like a family. The ones you met last month in Bellamy Creek.”
He glanced at me. “You’re not going to ask me their names, are you? I’ll just tell you right now, I forgot them all. Except your immediate family.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, giggling. “As long as you memorize them by the wedding, I’ll still marry you.”
He gave me his best menacing stare. “You better.”
“Now tell me about your friend who will be there tonight.”
Chip grinned. “Dex. He was my best friend after I moved up here. We were on the baseball team together—he was a catcher. I hope he’ll be there tonight. He’s actually moving today, but he said he’s going to try to make it.”
“He was a Navy Seal, right?”
“Right. He joined the Navy right out of high school, was overseas for most of his career. But he left the Navy after an injury prevented him from being a SEAL anymore.”
“What happened to him?”
“Gunshot wounds to the leg. Bones didn’t heal right or something.”
“Sheesh. And you said he has kids, right?”
“Yes. He has two little girls, Hallie and Luna.”
“So he’s married?”
Chip shook his head. “Divorced.”
“Aha. A single dad. A species I know well,” I said, making Chip laugh. “Was his wife from here too?”
“Yeah. They dated in high school, broke up when we graduated, but got back together at some point.” Chip thought for a minute. “I’m not sure what happened with them. To be honest—and I feel shitty about it now—I wasn’t that great of a friend while all that was going on.”
“Well, you weren’t here,” I said in his defense.
“No, I wasn’t. That’s my point.” He grimaced. “I even missed his wedding—it happened on really short notice, and I was playing for Durham then. Couldn’t get enough time off to make it. And he shipped out again shortly after that.”
I sighed. “That must be hard, to be married to someone who’s gone so much, especially when you have little kids.”
“But it was his job,” Chip pointed out. “It’s not like he had a choice.”
“True. When did he get injured?”
“Maybe three years ago? It was shortly after his second daughter was born, because Naomi, his wife—well, ex-wife now—had already moved back here with the two girls. Most of this I know from April, because Naomi cuts her hair.”
I smiled. “Gotta love small towns.”
“Yeah. Anyway, he left the Navy and moved back too, but . . .” He shrugged. “Things at home fell apart, I guess.”
“How old are his girls?”
Chip winced. “Young. I want to say like four and six? Five and seven? I know they’re about two years apart, and Hallie, the older one, has started school already.”
“What does Dex do now?”
“He’s a firefighter. And he has a crazy schedule, with twenty-four-hour shifts. I don’t know how he does it.” He was silent a moment. “I really need to catch up with him. I wish I had more time up here.”
“We’ll come back soon.” I patted his shoulder. “Promise. Once the season is over, you’ll have a lot more time. And now you’re just in Chicago instead of all the way down in Tampa Bay, so it won’t be such a long trip. We can come up as often as you like.”
“Thanks.” He smiled at me. “So you’ve got everyone straight now?”
Sighing, I tossed my phone back into my bag. “No. But I’ll try my best.”
“Don’t worry, no one will quiz you. But you know what question we are going to a lot tonight, right?”
“When are we getting married?”
“Exactly. What should I say?”
“Can you say we’re still deciding? We’ve barely been engaged a month.”
“I can try,” he said, as if he didn’t have much faith in that solution. “But there are going to be like twenty women at this engagement party whose favorite thing on earth is a wedding. That answer isn’t going to satisfy them.”
Folding one leg beneath me, I turned to face him. “Well? What do you think? Where did we leave it last time we had this discussion?”
He shook his head. “You know I don’t care about the details. I just want to get married. If it were up to me—”
“If it were up to you, we’d have been married already at City Hall. Or in some Las Vegas chapel by a guy in a bad Elvis wig.”
“Hey. I can’t help it if all I want is to call you my wife and I don’t give a damn about flowers, cake, and a fancy suit. I don’t need two hundred people there watching either—I live enough of my life in front of a crowd. As far as I’m concerned, all we need is you, me, a couple of rings, and Elvis.”
Laughing, I reached for his hand and tucked it into my lap. “How about something in between?”
“Like maybe family and a few friends, nothing too fancy. Somewhere in Michigan, so it’s convenient for people we love. And we don’t have to wait forever—I can’t wait to be your wife.” The thought sent a little shiver up my spine.
“Our family and friends could come to Vegas, you know.”
“No Vegas, babe.”
He exhaled. “Fine.”
“How about this winter, after the season is over?”
He glanced at me, his handsome face making my heart quicken. “That sounds perfect. Do I have to wear the fancy suit?”
I squeezed his hand. “We’ll talk.”
Chip and Mariah appear together in IGNITE, the first book in the all-new next generation Cloverleigh Farms Series!