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“Sophie Love's ability to impart magic to her readers is exquisitely wrought in powerfully evocative phrases and descriptions….This is the perfect romance or beach read, with a difference: its enthusiasm and beautiful descriptions offer an unexpected attention to the complexity of not just evolving love, but evolving psyches. It's a delightful recommendation for romance readers looking for a touch more complexity from their romance reads.”--Midwest Book Review (Diane Donovan re For Now and Forever) IF ONLY FOREVER is book #4 in the bestselling romance series The Inn at Sunset Harbor, which begins with book #1, For Now and Forever—a free download!35 year old Emily Mitchell has fled her job, apartment and ex-boyfriend in New York City for her father's historic, abandoned home on the coast of Maine, needing a change in her life and determined to make it a B&B. She had never expected, though, that her relationship with its caretaker, Daniel, would turn her life on its head.Emily is still reeling from Daniel’s proposal. As all seems to finally fall into place in her life, she looks forward to an exciting engagement year ahead, from shopping for a venue and a wedding dress, to creating her invite list, to setting a date.But all does not goes as planned. The endless events of the engagement year add more stress than joy, putting pressure on their relationship as they are forced to make hard choices. Adjusting to life as parents doesn’t make it any easier, as Chantelle runs into problems at school and as a custody battle looms over them. As Christmas and New Years approach, the stress is only compounded.Meanwhile, as the B&B adds new guests and staff and as they find more priceless antiques, Emily discovers a shocking secret that just may bring her one step closer to finding her father.Will she and Daniel get married? Or will the stress of the engagement break them apart forever?IF ONLY FOREVER is book #4 in a dazzling new romance series that will make you laugh, cry, keep you turning pages late into the night—and make you fall in love with romance all over again.Book #5 will be available soon.“A very well written novel, describing the struggle of a woman (Emily) to find her true identity. The author did an amazing job with the creation of the characters and her description of the environment. The romance is there, but not overdosed. Kudos to the author for this amazing start of a series that promises to be very entertaining.”--Books and Movies Reviews, Roberto Mattos (re For Now and Forever)
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I F O N L Y F O R E V E R
(THE INN AT SUNSET HARBOR—BOOK 4)
S O P H I E L O V E
A lifelong fan of the romance genre, Sophie Love is thrilled to release her debut romance series, which begins with FOR NOW AND FOREVER (THE INN AT SUNSET HARBOR—BOOK 1)
Sophie would love to hear from you, so please visit www.sophieloveauthor.com to email her, to join the mailing list, to receive free ebooks, to hear the latest news, and to stay in touch!
Copyright © 2017 by Sophie Love. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Jacket image Copyright Ioana Catalina E, used under license from Shutterstock.com.
BOOKS BY SOPHIE LOVE
THE INN AT SUNSET HARBOR
FOR NOW AND FOREVER (Book #1)
FOREVER AND FOR ALWAYS (Book #2)
FOREVER, WITH YOU (Book #3)
IF ONLY FOREVER (Book #4)
FOREVER AND A DAY (Book #5)
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
The ring was more beautiful than Emily remembered. A twisting band of silver was interwoven with blue that reminded her of the ocean. A family of pearls nestled together. It was gorgeous, unique, and so utterly perfect.
A snowflake landed on Emily’s hand, bringing her back to the moment. She glanced at Daniel, still down on one knee on the beach, black waves crashing behind him, stars twinkling above him, sand clinging to his pant legs. Tears glittered in his eyes and Emily felt her own eyes well up in response. She couldn’t move, couldn’t stand. The only thing she wanted to do was hold Daniel and never let go.
She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled his body close to hers, kissing the exposed flesh on his neck over and over again and then winding her fingers into his hair.
“I’m so in love with you,” she whispered.
“I love you more than words can say,” Daniel replied, breathlessly. Then, with a small laugh, he added, “You’re shivering.”
Emily giggled too, feeling girlish, carefree. “That would be the snow,” she said.
They finally pulled apart. Daniel grasped Emily’s hand and pulled her to standing.
“Should we head back?” he asked.
Emily thought of the Thanksgiving party taking place in her B&B at this very moment. Practically the whole town was congregated there; surely her and Daniel’s absence would have been noted by now. But she didn’t want to go back. Not yet. She wanted to stay here with Daniel in this perfect moment for as long as possible.
Emily shook her head and rubbed the goose pimples on her arms. “Can’t we stay here a bit longer?”
Daniel smiled tenderly. “Of course.” He wrapped her in his arms. Together they rocked back and forth, as though dancing to music only they could hear.
“I can’t wait to tell Chantelle,” Daniel murmured after a while.
At the mention of Daniel’s daughter, Emily felt a sudden surge of excitement. The little girl would be so happy for them. Suddenly, the idea of getting back to the B&B seemed much more appealing. Emily desperately wanted to see Chantelle’s face when they broke the news. It would be like a fairytale ending for the child who’d had such a terrible start in life.
“Come on, let’s head back,” Emily said, moving out of the embrace and taking both of Daniel’s hands in hers.
“You sure?” he asked.
She nodded. Breaking the news of their engagement to Chantelle was now Emily’s greatest desire. She was feeling suddenly confident and proud, and she wanted the whole world to know it. She wanted to stand on the widow’s walk of her inn and shout the news across town so everybody could hear for miles around.
But as they strolled along the beach in the direction of the B&B, Emily felt her nerves begin to creep up on her. Making announcements wasn’t exactly her favorite thing to do, and there would surely be no way to sneak in without people questioning their absence. That’s not even to mention the ring. It was hardly inconspicuous. Anyone with eyes could see it sparkle from a mile away.
Emily couldn’t help but imagine all of those faces gazing at her, some with supportive expressions but others with judgmental ones. Right now, their engagement belonged to her and Daniel and no one else. It was a private thing, a shared state of bliss. But as soon as they broke the news to others they would be inviting opinions into that sacred space.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be like that at all, Emily thought as she strolled. Maybe the townsfolk would have been liberal with the mimosas in their absence and would all be so engrossed with their drinking, dancing, and merriment that they wouldn’t even notice them return.
They reached the small path that led from the beach up to the street where they lived. Emily climbed up the steep bank first, Daniel following. As she emerged through the trees onto the sidewalk, she could see the lights of the inn glowing and hear the sounds of music and laughter floating through the air. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach.
“Ready?” Daniel asked as he drew up beside her.
Emily took a deep breath. She was nervous but also felt more confident than ever, like she could take on the world.
Hand in hand, they slowly walked along the drive, past the carriage house that was once Daniel’s home, then up the porch steps and in through the front door of the Inn at Sunset Harbor. Immediately, warmth and brightness enveloped them. The comforting smells of Thanksgiving foods—turkey, cranberries, corn, pumpkin pie—permeated the air. Emily instantly felt the love ebbing through the inn.
Just then, a laughing Serena burst out of the dining room and into the hallway. When she saw Daniel and Emily standing there, she smiled at them through her ruby red–painted lips. She was blushing a little, and Emily wondered if it had something to do with an evening of reciprocated flirting with Owen the piano player.
“Oh hey,” Serena said, catching Emily’s eye. “I was wondering where you guys had gone off to.”
Emily and Daniel looked at each other coyly. Caught red-handed.
Emily found that she was suddenly tongue-tied, like a naughty child who must own up to stealing cookies from the jar. She looked at Daniel for help, but he looked worse than her, with a deer-in-the-headlights expression on his face.
Serena frowned. Then she narrowed her eyes suspiciously and a small smirk appeared on her lips. Clearly she could tell they’d been up to something.
“Hmm,” she said, pacing up to them like a detective. “Snow in your hair. Sand on your jeans. My guess is you’ve been to the beach.” She tapped her chin. “But why?” She paused for a moment, and then a look of realization flickered into her eyes. Gasping, she grabbed Emily’s left hand, searching for confirmation for the thought that had hit her. At the sight of the ring, her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open.
“Oh. My. God! You’re engaged!”
Emily felt the heat rising into her cheeks. It was the first time she’d heard someone say the word “engaged” in relation to her and it felt so bizarre. All those years of wishing for it and dreaming about it, and she was finally here, in that abstract state of “engagement.”
She nodded quickly. Serena squealed and pulled them both into a clumsy embrace, elbows and arms flailing.
“Am I the first to know?” Serena asked when she let them go, the excitement in her tone growing.
“Yes,” Daniel confirmed. “But can you get Chantelle? I want her to know before the rest of them.”
“Of course!” Serena exclaimed.
With misted-over eyes, she took one last adoring look at Emily’s ring before bounding away, a giddy spring in her step. Emily let out a noise that was somewhere between a nervous giggle and an embarrassed groan.
Daniel squeezed her hand reassuringly. It felt as though he was simultaneously congratulating her for having survived one person’s reaction while boosting her in anticipation of the next reveal, the one that was far more important.
Emily took a deep breath. Her heart was racing a mile a minute. This was it. The big moment.
The volume of the party grew louder as the dining room door opened a crack. Then Chantelle’s face appeared, peeping timidly around it. Emily heard Serena’s voice from the other side, encouraging Chantelle into the hallway.
“Go on, it’s nothing to worry about!”
Chantelle stepped fully out of the room and Serena closed the door after her, muffling the sound of the party-goers’ merriment once more. Emily found the quietness suddenly stifling.
At one end of the corridor stood Chantelle, looking terrified. At the other end stood Emily and Daniel, their nerves just as palpable. Emily beckoned to the child and Chantelle scurried toward them.
“Am I in trouble?” she said, her little voice quivering. “Serena said you needed to speak to me.”
“Goodness, no!” Emily cried. She reached for Chantelle and pulled her into a bear hug. “You’re not in trouble at all!” She stroked Chantelle’s soft, blond hair. “It was just that Daddy and I want to tell you something. Nothing bad.”
Chantelle pulled out of the embrace and frowned up at Emily, her blue eyes betraying her skepticism. She was only seven years old but had already learned to be suspicious and distrustful of adults.
“Are you sending me back to Tennessee?” Chantelle said boldly, tipping her chin up with fake nonchalance.
“No!” Daniel exclaimed, shaking his head. If it hadn’t been such a sad statement to make, it would have been comical. Seeking to end Chantelle’s sense of doom as immediately as possible, Daniel crouched down so he was eye level with his daughter, took both her hands in his, and then, with a large breath, exclaimed, “Emily and I are getting married.”
There was a moment of hesitation as Chantelle took in the news. Then the fear melted from her expression and her eyes widened with astonishment. A huge grin spread across her face.
“Really?” she squealed, gazing at them in wonder.
“Yes, really,” Emily said.
She held out her hand so Chantelle could see the ring. Chantelle’s eyes grew even wider as she stared as though in disbelief at the beautiful ring sparkling on Emily’s finger. Chantelle held Emily’s hand tightly.
“I thought…” she stammered. “I thought you were getting rid of me. But actually, it came true.”
“What came true?” Emily asked curiously.
“My Thanksgiving wish,” Chantelle said. She was still clutching Emily’s hand, and her grip tightened. “I wished that you would get married so that we could be a family forever.”
At the sound of Chantelle’s earnest revelation, a lump formed in Emily’s throat. She caught Daniel’s eye. By the expression on his face she could tell that his heart was melting just as much as hers was.
In that moment, Emily felt more blessed than ever before in her life. Somehow the stars had aligned and sent her Daniel to be loved by and Chantelle to be humbled by. Everything felt right.
“Can I be the one to tell everyone?” Chantelle asked suddenly.
“You mean everyone in there?” Emily asked, pointing toward the dining room door from where the sounds of laughter and chatter emanated.
“Uh-huh. Is that okay, or did you want to make the announcement yourself?”
“Please go ahead!” Emily exclaimed, relieved that she wouldn’t have to be the one to do it.
“Can I do it right now this second?” Chantelle asked, jumping up and down.
Emily grinned. Chantelle’s reaction had made her more than ready for this moment. Seeing her excitement and joy had nullified Emily’s nerves. As long as Chantelle was happy, then other people’s reactions didn’t matter as much!
“Right now this second,” Emily repeated.
On hearing Emily’s affirmation, Chantelle squealed and rushed off down the corridor. She was so quick, Daniel and Emily had to hop-skip to keep up with her. Then she burst into the dining room so abruptly that everyone turned around in surprise at the sudden intrusion. At the top of her lungs, Chantelle shouted:
“They’re getting married! They’re getting married!”
Standing at the threshold of the door, Emily and Daniel waited through the seconds of shock as people acknowledged Chantelle’s shouting.
Then they watched the surprised expressions appear on the faces of their friends and neighbors: from Cynthia’s exaggerated gasp, to the flutter of Vanessa’s hand to her mouth.
People started to burst into huge grins. Yvonne and Kieran, Suzanna and Wesley, all the people they had grown to love and call friends began to clap.
“Congratulations!” Yvonne cried, the first to run up to Emily and embrace her.
Kieran was just behind. He shook Daniel’s hand, then hugged Emily once Yvonne had let her go. Everyone took it in turns, coming up to Daniel and Emily with hugs and kisses, well wishes and exclamations of joy. Emily felt the love of her community surround her. She’d never felt so supported. What on earth had she been worrying about?
“We need to toast the happy couple,” Derek Hansen announced in his strong, mayoral voice.
People began filling their glasses with champagne. A glass was thrust into Emily’s hand. Beside her, Serena filled a champagne flute with cola so Chantelle could join in. Emily found her mind flitting all over the place, she was so overwhelmed with a sense of euphoria. It felt like she was in a dream.
Then everyone’s glasses were high in the air, the light from the chandelier making a thousand spots of light dance across the walls, floor, and ceiling.
“To Emily and Daniel,” Mayor Hansen called out. Then to Daniel, he added, “To finding one’s soul mate,” and to Emily, “And to following one’s dream.”
Everyone cheered and clinked glasses as Emily wiped the tears of joy from her eyes.
It was the best Thanksgiving she had ever had.
The party stretched on well into the night. It was filled with friendship and joy, and Emily was happier than she’d ever thought possible, not to mention thankful. But finally the party wound down, the guests trickled out into the crisp night, and a hush fell over the inn.
Even when she and Daniel had turned in for bed, Emily felt herself still buzzing with energy. Her head was swimming, and she tossed and turned, unable to shut it down.
“Can’t sleep?” Daniel said, half his face concealed by the fluffy pillow it rested upon. Then he grinned. “Me neither.”
Emily turned to face him. She ran her fingers across his bare, muscular chest. “I can’t stop thinking about the future,” she said. “I’m so excited.”
Daniel reached out and stroked Emily’s cheek. “I know something that might take your mind off things,” he said. Then he pressed his lips to hers.
Emily sunk into the kiss, feeling all her thoughts melt away as her body was completely taken over with sensation. She pulled Daniel close to her, feeling his heart beating against her own. Daniel always ignited a fiery passion within her but what she felt now was beyond anything she’d ever felt before.
Just then, their bedroom door flew open. A shard of light from the corridor outside burst into the room like a spotlight. Emily and Daniel sprang apart.
Standing in the doorway was Chantelle.
“I can’t sleep!” she declared, running in.
Emily laughed. “Well, that makes all of us, then,” she said.
Chantelle leapt into the bed with Emily and Daniel, snuggling right in between them. Emily couldn’t help but laugh. Chantelle was the only thing that could interrupt her and Daniel’s lovemaking without frustrating her.
“When you and Daddy are married, will that mean you’re my mommy forever?” Chantelle asked.
Emily nodded. But then she wondered. She and Daniel had been speaking to their friend Richard, who was a family attorney, about whether they could officially adopt Chantelle. Would being married strengthen their case against Chantelle’s birth mother? Sheila was a drug user with no fixed abode, two things that already worked in their favor. Would their marriage help her adopt Chantelle?
She looked at Daniel and Chantelle, both now slipping into slumber. The sight overjoyed Emily. In that moment, she doubled her resolve to look into legal proceedings. The sooner the better. She wanted them to be a proper family more than anything she’d ever wanted in the world. With the ring sparkling on her finger, she felt closer than ever to making that dream a reality.
Emily woke the morning after Thanksgiving to a feeling of elation. She had never felt so happy. The beautiful winter sunshine was streaming in through the lace curtains, adding to her already amazed, excited state. After a brief second of doubt, Emily concluded that she wasn’t dreaming; Daniel had indeed proposed, and they were really getting married.
Suddenly aware of all the things she had to do, she leapt out of bed. She had people to call! How had she forgotten to call Jayne and Amy to break the news? And what about her mom? She’d been so wrapped up in the moment, in her own joy and the celebration of her friends, it hadn’t even crossed her mind.
She quickly showered and dressed, then ran down to the porch with her cell phone. Water from her still-wet hair dripped onto her shirt as she scrolled through her contacts. Her thumb hovered over her mom’s number and began to tremble. She just couldn’t find the courage to dial it. She knew her mom wouldn’t give her the sort of response she wanted; she’d been suspicious about Chantelle and would assume that Daniel was only marrying Emily to turn her into a mother to his kid. So she decided to test the water with Jayne. Her best friend always told it to her straight, but it never came with the same air of disappointment her mom exuded.
She dialed Jayne’s cell and listened to the ring tone. Then the call connected.
“Em!” Jayne cried. “You’re on speaker.”
Emily paused. “Why am I on speaker?”
“We’re in the conference room. Me and Ames.”
“Hi, Emily!” Amy called brightly. “Is this about the job offer?”
It took Emily a moment to work out what they were talking about. The candle business that Amy had started from her bedroom at college was, over a decade later, suddenly flourishing. She’d employed Jayne and had been trying so hard to get Emily into the fold. Neither could really understand why Emily would want to live in a small town rather than New York, why she’d want to run an inn instead of work in a swanky office with her two best friends, and they certainly couldn’t work out why she’d want to take on another man’s child (a man with a beard no less!) without any reassurance that he’d give her her own children one day.
“Actually no,” Emily said. “It’s about…” She faltered, suddenly losing her resolve. Then she checked herself. She had nothing to be ashamed of. Even if her life was going in a different trajectory to her best friends’, it was still valid; her choices were still her own and they should be respected. “Daniel and I are getting married.”
There was a moment of silence, followed by shrill screaming. Emily winced. She could imagine her friends with their perfectly manicured nails, their moisturized skin that smelled of rose and camellia, their shiny hair flailing as they jumped up and down in their seats.
Through the noise, Emily made out Jayne shouting, “Oh my god!” and Amy shouting, “Congratulations!”
She let out a sigh of relief. Her friends were on board. Another hurdle had been overcome.
The incomprehensible screeching finally died down.
“He hasn’t knocked you up, has he?” Jayne asked, as inappropriate as ever.
“No!” Emily cried, laughing.
“Jayne, shut up,” Amy scolded. “Tell us everything. How did he do it? What’s the ring like?”
Emily recounted the story of the beach, of the declarations of love in the snow, of the gorgeous pearl ring. Her friends cooed at all the right moments. Emily could tell they were ecstatic for her.
“Are you taking his name?” Jayne probed further. “Or double barreling? Mitchell Morey is a bit of a mouthful. Or would it be Morey Mitchell? Emily Jane Morey Mitchell. Hmm. I don’t know if I like it. Maybe you should stick with your own name, you know? It’s the strong, empowered, feminist thing to do, after all.”
Emily’s mind whirled as Jayne spoke in her characteristically fast over-caffeinated way, barely pausing to give her time to answer any of the questions.
“We’re going to be your bridesmaids, right?” Jayne finished, in her typically blunt, straight-talking way.
“I haven’t thought about it yet,” Emily admitted. Jayne and Amy may indeed be her oldest friends, but she had made so many more since moving to Sunset Harbor; Serena, Yvonne, Suzanna, Karen, Cynthia. And what about Chantelle? It was important to Emily that she played a pivotal role in the whole thing.
“Well, where’s the venue, then?” Jayne asked, sounding a little grumpy that Emily was even considering other people as her bridesmaids.
“I don’t know that yet either,” Emily said.
It suddenly hit her how enormous the task ahead of her was. There was so much to organize. So much to pay for. She suddenly felt very overwhelmed by the whole thing.
“Do you think you’ll have a big wedding or small one?” Amy asked. Her questions were less loaded than Jayne’s but she still had an air of judgment about her. Emily wondered whether Amy was still upset about her own failed engagement to Fraser. Maybe she resented Emily for having a ring and fiancé when she herself had lost both.
“We haven’t worked out any of the details yet,” Emily said. “It’s brand new.”
“But you’ve been dreaming about this for years,” Amy added.
Emily frowned. Marriage, yes. That had been something she’d wanted for a long time. But she’d never pictured the way her life would go. The love she had with Daniel was unique and unexpected. Their wedding ought to be the same. She needed to rethink everything to make it perfect for them, for this specific relationship, this life.
“Can you at least tell us the date?” Jayne asked. “Our calendar is packed.”
Emily stammered. “I don’t know.”
“Just the month will do for now,” Jayne pressed.
“I don’t know that either.”
Jayne sighed with exasperation. “What about the year?”
Emily grew frustrated. “I don’t know!” she cried. “I haven’t worked any of this out yet!”
Silence fell. Emily could just imagine the scene: her friends exchanging a glance, sitting in leather office chairs at a huge glass table, the sound of her outburst emanating from the phone in between them and echoing around the vast conference room. She cringed with embarrassment.
Jayne broke the silence. “Well, just make sure it doesn’t turn into one of those engagements that goes on forever,” she said in a matter-of-fact way. “You know what some men are like; it’s like they didn’t realize that once they proposed you’d be expecting an actual wedding. They do the whole overblown engagement thing and then once they’ve lured you in with a fancy ring they think they can rest on their laurels and never actually sign on the dotted line.”
“It’s not like that,” Emily said tersely.
“Sure,” Jayne said flippantly. “But to be certain, you should tie him down to an actual date. If it looks like he’s going to drag the engagement out, run.”
Emily squeezed her hand into a fist. She knew she shouldn’t let Jayne—a commitment-phobe who’d never even had a proper long-term relationship—dictate the way she ought to feel about the situation, but her friend had a talent for putting doubt into her mind. As ridiculous as they were, Emily could already tell she was going to ruminate on Jayne’s words for days to come.
“I have an idea,” Amy broke in, playing the diplomat. “Why don’t we come up to toast you? Have a visit? Help you plan a few things?”
Despite her irritation with Jayne, Emily liked the idea of her friends coming to stay and getting involved with the wedding preparations. Once they were here, on her turf and in her domain, they’d be able to see the love she and Daniel shared with their own eyes. They’d see how happy she was and start being a little bit more supportive.
“That would be really great actually,” Emily said.
They found a date that worked for everyone and Emily ended the call. But thanks to Jayne, her head was swimming and the flame of excitement inside of her dulled just a little. Her feelings were compounded by the fact she still needed to make the dreaded call to her mom, which would certainly go less well. She’d tried to invite her mom to Thanksgiving but the woman had acted like it was an insult. Nothing Emily did was ever good enough for Patricia Mitchell. If she’d felt grilled by Amy and Jayne, she would feel downright set upon by her mom.
And that was just her family! When she added Daniel’s into the mix, her niggling fears intensified. Why did the rest of the world have to exist? Everything in Sunset Harbor felt perfect for Emily. But outside there were disapproving friends and problematic moms. There were absent fathers.
For the first time since the proposal, Emily thought of her dad, who’d been missing for twenty years. She’d recently discovered a stash of letters in the home that proved he was still alive. Then Trevor Mann, her next door neighbor, had confirmed seeing Roy at the house just a few years earlier. Her dad was alive, yet even with that knowledge nothing had changed. Emily still had no way of contacting him. The chances of him being there to walk her down the aisle were practically nonexistent.
Emily felt her emotions crowding in on her, threatening to extinguish the joy she’d been feeling. She looked down at the screen of her cell phone, where she’d selected her mom’s number but hadn’t yet plucked up the courage to dial it.
Before Emily had the chance to take the plunge and call her mom, she heard the sound of footsteps coming from the stairs behind her. She spun around and saw Daniel and Chantelle trotting down toward her. Daniel had dressed the little girl in one of her gorgeous vintage outfits—a rust-colored corduroy pinafore dress with a black-and-white floral print cardigan and matching tights. She looked adorable. He himself was in his usual scruffy jeans and shirt, his dark hair shaggy, his stubble framing his strong jawline.
“We wanted to go out for breakfast,” Daniel said. “Do something special. A celebration breakfast.”
Emily stashed her cell phone back in her pocket. “Great idea.”
Saved by the bell. The call to her mom would have to wait. But Emily knew she wouldn’t be able to put it off forever. Sooner or later she would be on the receiving end of the sharp tongue of Patricia Mitchell.
The smell of syrup permeated the warm air in Joe’s Diner. The family slid into one of the red plastic booths, noticing the glances and whispers as they did so.
“Everyone already knows,” Emily said in a hushed voice to Daniel.
He rolled his eyes. “Of course they do.” He added, sarcastically, “In fact, I’m surprised it took so long. We broke the news a whole half day ago, after all, and I’m sure it only takes Cynthia Jones an hour or two to cycle through town and spread her latest bit of gossip.”
At least the whispers and glances were cheery ones, Emily thought. Everyone seemed pleased for them. But Emily felt a little embarrassed to be the center of attention. It wasn’t every day you walked into a waffle house and made every head turn. Her own mind was still swimming with questions following her call with Amy and Jayne and she wondered if now would be an appropriate time to broach some of them with Daniel.
Gray-haired Joe came over to the table, holding his pad in his wizened hands.
“I hear congratulations are in order,” he said, smiling, clapping Daniel on the back. “When’s the big day?”
Emily watched Daniel falter. He seemed just as bemused as she felt. Everyone wanted answers to questions they hadn’t even asked themselves.
“Not sure yet,” Daniel stammered. “We haven’t ironed out any of the specifics.”
They ordered their waffles and pancakes and once Joe had left in order to prepare their breakfasts for them, Emily got her nerve up to ask Daniel some questions.
“When do you think we should set a date for?” Emily asked.
Daniel looked at her with wide eyes. “Oh. I don’t know. You want to do that already?”
Jayne’s warning echoed in Emily’s mind. “We don’t need to fix the specific date but are we thinking of months or next year? Do you want a summer wedding? Or fall, since we are in Maine?”
She smiled but it felt strained. By the look on Daniel’s face, she could tell he hadn’t even thought that far ahead.
“I need to think about it,” he said noncommittally.
“I want a summer wedding,” Chantelle said. “By the harbor. With Daddy’s boat.”
“Think about what?” Emily said, ignoring Chantelle and focusing on Daniel. “There are only four options. Sunshine, blustery wind, snowfall, or warm breezes. Which one do you prefer?”
Daniel looked a little taken aback by Emily’s somewhat snappy tone. Chantelle, too, seemed confused.
“I don’t know,” Daniel stammered. “There are pros and cons to all of them.”
Emily felt her emotions swirling inside of her. Was Jayne right? Had Daniel proposed without even thinking about the fact that there was supposed to be a wedding at the end of it?
“Have you told anyone?” Emily probed further.
Creases of frustration appeared across Daniel’s forehead. “It’s been less than twenty-four hours,” he stated plainly, hiding the irritation Emily knew she’d stoked in him. Between his teeth he added, “Can’t we just enjoy the moment?”
Chantelle looked from Emily to Daniel with concern in her eyes. It wasn’t often they bickered and the sight clearly alarmed her.
Seeing the little girl looking worried struck a chord inside Emily. Whatever concerns she herself may have, it wasn’t fair to let Chantelle get caught up in them. This matter was for her and Daniel to resolve.
“You’re right,” Emily said, exhaling.
She reached out for Chantelle and took her hand for reassurance. Just then, Joe arrived with stacks of pancakes. Everyone began to eat silently.
Emily felt frustrated with herself for letting Jayne’s and Amy’s words ruin her high. It wasn’t fair. Just yesterday she’d been on cloud nine.
“Will you let Bailey be the flower girl?” Chantelle asked. “And me be a bridesmaid?”
“We don’t know yet,” Emily explained, keeping her emotions in check.
“But I want to walk down the aisle with you,” Chantelle added. “There will be an aisle, won’t there? Are you getting married in a church?” The little girl rummaged in her backpack and pulled out a pink notepad and sparkly pen. “Let’s write a list,” she said.
Despite her underlying anguish, Emily couldn’t help but feel cheered by the sight of Chantelle in organizer mode. She always looked so serious, so grown up and beyond her years.
“The first thing you need to arrange is the venue,” Chantelle said in a very efficient voice that made Emily picture her running the inn one day.
“You’re right,” Emily said, looking at Daniel. “Let’s think about the venue first then work from there.” She felt determined not to let her high be ruined. “Let’s not rush any decisions. “
For the first time since she’d pestered him for answers, Daniel seemed to relax. The frown lines on his forehead disappeared. Emily felt relieved.
Out the window of the diner, Emily could see that a tree was being raised in the center of town. In all the excitement she’d completely forgotten about the town Christmas tree; it was raised the day after Thanksgiving every year. She’d gone to watch it as a child whenever the family had been in Sunset Harbor for a winter vacation. She recalled that there was also an annual tree lighting that took place in the evening.
“We should go and see the tree being lit tonight,” Emily said.
Chantelle looked up from her notepad, which was now filled with a long bullet point list written in her scrawling handwriting. “Can we?” She looked excited.
“Of course,” Emily said. “But first we should get our own tree. If the town has one, the inn ought to have one as well. What do you think about that, Chantelle?”
Emily felt her own excitement grow as she realized that the inn would accommodate an enormous Christmas tree. As a child their father had only ever gotten a small one for the living room, since they were only ever vacationing in the house. But now that it was her home she could put an enormous ten-foot tree in the foyer. Maybe even fifteen-foot! She and Chantelle could decorate it together, using a stepladder to reach the top branches. The thought filled her with childish anticipation.
“Can we, Daddy?” Chantelle asked Daniel, who was sitting rather quietly as he munched on his pancakes. “Can we get a Christmas tree?”
Daniel nodded. “Sure.”
“And then go to the tree lighting in town?”
Emily frowned, wondering what Daniel was thinking, why the thought of such a delightful family outing wasn’t filling him with joy like it did her and Chantelle. Daniel was as much a mystery to her as ever, even though she now had a ring on her finger and was more than ready to commit to him forever. She wondered if she’d ever really know what was going on in his head, or if even, when she became Mrs. Daniel Morey, she’d still be left wondering.
Dory’s Christmas Tree Farm was a short drive away on the outskirts of Sunset Harbor. The family drove together in Daniel’s rusty red pickup truck. There were still patches of Thanksgiving Day’s snow on the banks, and as they drove past Emily touched the ring on her finger, remembering the snow that had fallen around her as Daniel proposed.
They pulled up into the makeshift parking lot and all hopped out of the truck. There were many families here; clearly everyone had the same idea. Parents milled around while their children ran excitedly about the place, threading through the lines of trees.
Instead of Dory, it was a young girl on the cusp of teenagehood who greeted them. She introduced herself as Grace, Dory’s daughter, and she had the same wispy blond hair as Chantelle. She was wearing a fanny pack stuffed with dollar bills and a paper pad to write receipts.
“These are the trees ready for harvest,” she said, smiling confidently, gesturing out to the field of pines. “They’ve all been growing for about seven to nine years.” She grinned down at Chantelle. “So they’re about your age, am I right?”
Chantelle nodded shyly.
“Once you find the tree you like,” Grace continued, “cut it down and take it to the loading area. My dad will ride you and the tree back in the wagon to the baler, wrap it all up, and then you can pay me. We also sell hot chocolate and toasted chestnuts if you want something to keep you warm while you walk.”
Emily bought them each a hot chocolate in a Styrofoam cup and a bag of chestnuts to share, and then they headed for the fields. Chantelle rushed ahead, more excited than Emily had ever seen her.
The smell of pine was powerful, awakening that Christmas feeling inside of Emily. She was excited by the prospect of her first Christmas with Daniel and Chantelle, with her family beside the hearth. It would be the first of many.
She and Daniel walked hand in hand, silently trailing behind Chantelle. Then Emily leaned into Daniel.
“How old do you think Grace is?” she asked.
“Eleven, twelve,” Daniel guessed. “Why?”
“No reason,” Emily replied. “She just reminds me of Chantelle. Made me think about what she’ll be like as she gets older.”
Up ahead, Chantelle ran along the paths between the trees, stopping to assess their height, the density of their branches, and the lushness of their color before moving on to the next one. Emily could easily imagine her as an older child, clipboard in hand, working her first job to earn pocket money.
But as she wondered about the future, Emily felt her mind being pulled back into the past. Chantelle, who reminded her so much of Charlotte, also reminded her of the loss of Charlotte, of the fact that her sister never got to grow up, that she never got to have a job during winter vacation. She had skipped through this very farm all those years ago, full of promise and potential, and then without warning her life had been snuffed out in the blink of an eye.
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