Town Square is bustling with the people of Sunset Bay. Everyone is all bundled up with pink noses and rosy cheeks, their excitement palpable as we celebrate Christmasville on this cold winter’s evening.
White twinkling lights are strung about the buildings and treetops, brightening up the night while “Winter Wonderland” drifts from the speakers. Horse drawn carriages walk the streets with couples cozied up in blankets, as children stand in line for Santa, holding cups of hot cocoa.
Stations of cookie decorating and Christmas crafts are also filled with crowds while others skate on the specially made ice rink that’s brought in every year for the month of December.
It’s absolutely magical and has become my favorite tradition, one my mother had a hand in starting. She took the idea to the town council years ago. At first they were uncertain, worried it would be too expensive and too much work. Of course she offered to plan most of it and even said the church would help raise funds. Eventually, they agreed.
Though, I’m still unsure if that is because of my mother’s determination or the fact that most people in this town are afraid of my father. Everyone knows you don’t piss off Cade Walker and saying no to my mother would have done exactly that.
Regardless of the reason, it’s a big hit every year and the one night where the town comes together in celebration. Since my mother has a big hand in planning it, a lot of friends and family take part in helping out. My father and uncles wake up early to help setup and do all the heavy lifting while the rest of us string lights and decorations.
I also have one job above all else and it’s the same every year. I will open up with the first Christmas song during the lighting of the tree. Which is why I am standing behind the stage at the moment, getting the schedule from the director, Mr. Barton while everyone else is off enjoying the festivities.
After being told to promptly return in thirty minutes, I round the music equipment and go in search of my friends. On the way, I spot my sister Ruthie and her friends, Jodi and Jasper working the hot cocoa booth. All of them wearing sparkly elf hats as they wave at me.
I flash them a smile and wave in return only for Ruthie to call out my name, bringing me to a stop.
She runs over with a steaming cup of hot chocolate and a candy cane. “Here, it will keep you warm.”
“Thanks.” I accept the cup graciously.
“Anything for my little sister.” She drops her usual kiss on my cheek, warming my heart. “So how’s it going? Ready for the big performance?”
“You bet. Just got the run down from Mr. Barton. I have thirty minutes before show time.” Taking a leisurely sip of my hot cocoa, I eye her sparkly head piece over the rim of my cup and notice it even lights up. “Nice hat.”
She beams at the compliment. “Isn’t it great? Faith got them for us. Check this out.” She hits a button on the hat, the top of it dancing around on her head and breaking out into a Christmas melody that has her dancing right along with it. “Awesome, right?”
“Very,” I laugh, loving her quirky nature. It’s something I’ve missed the last few months. She started college this past fall and chose to live in a campus apartment with Jodi and Jasper.
I miss her terribly.
She might only be an hour away, but her class schedule is crazy so we don’t get to spend as much time together as we used to. She’s happy though and that’s all that matters.
“Where’s Mom and Dad?” I ask.
“I saw them with Alissa earlier. They were helping her with the kids since Christopher is getting his class ready for their performance.”
My sister-in-law definitely needs the help. Chasing around three little ones on your own in this crowd would not be easy, especially when those three children are my two nephews and niece. They have more energy than any other kids I know. Despite how crazy life is for her and my brother, they love it and I wouldn’t be surprised if they have more.
“Well, I better get back to the booth,” she says regretfully. “But I’ll be front and center when you go on stage.”
She hugs me long and tight. “I love you, Mia.”
“Love you, too,” I whisper, hugging her back.
As she returns to her station I head toward the rink, figuring my friends will most likely be there. I have no doubt Parker is ruling the ice.
Just the thought has my foolish heart prancing in my chest. It’s pathetic and completely uncontrollable. The story of my life when it comes to him. It’s something I’ve never been able to help, no matter how many times I’ve tried.
It’s not easy growing up with someone you have to love from afar, hiding your feelings every time you’re near them, which is almost daily in my case considering I live next door to him.
Since the fiasco of me sneaking that kiss in on Halloween last year and the whole plan blowing up in my face, things have been awkward between us. At least for me. He acts like nothing even happened, but it’s all I can think about. The lingering memory taunts me daily, reminding me of everything I want but can never have.
Despite his parting words to me that evening he has gone back to treating me like a child, nothing more than a kid sister. It stings but I completely blame myself. I knew better, knew it would alter our friendship if he ever found out it was me.
I guess part of me had hoped that once I got that kiss out of my system, my feelings for him would change and I could move on. That didn’t happen. If anything they only grew stronger, showing me exactly what I was missing out on.
What we could have. What so many other girls in this town have had.
The morbid thought is like a dagger straight to the heart.
“Pssst, hey, Kid,” the low masculine voice pulls me from my self-pity.
My steps falter, eyes scanning as I try to figure out the direction it came from.
“Over here, by the shitter.”
Turning toward the community bathrooms, I find Santa Claus standing behind the brick building, waving me over.
Or rather, Sarge.
I make my way over to him, wondering what he’s doing behind the bathrooms instead of sitting in his big red chair where several young children stand in line for him.
“What are you doing over here?” I finally ask.
“I had to take a piss and I need your help with something.”
I stop short, throwing my hands up in front of me. “No way!”
He waves away my panic. “Not with that. Come here.”
Letting out a breath of relief, I join him behind the building and find him fixing his beard. “Help me with this thing, will ya, some little shit stuck his candy cane in it.”
Giggling, I toss my now empty cocoa cup in the trash can then reach up and help pull the fake white hair from the sticky candy.
“Where’s, Miranda?” I ask, talking about his wife.
“She’s over there doing her duty as Mrs. Claus and entertaining the little brats.”
His surly attitude brings a smile to my face. He might like to play the Grinch but deep down this man has a huge heart. Part of the reason he is dressed up like Santa in the first place.
“I don’t know why I let your mother talk me into this every year,” he grumbles.
“Come on, it’s not that bad. Besides, you’re always so good at it and it’s fun.”
“Fun?” he mocks, affronted. “I’ve been pissed on, sneezed on and snotted on. I’d say there is nothing gratifying by dressing up as this jolly bastard.”
Laughter explodes past my lips, his colorful language not fazing me in the least. It’s why the former Marine fits right in with my father and uncles.
“Well, look at it this way,” I say, combing out his beard with my fingers as I finish getting the last of the candy out. “I’ll bet Mrs. Claus thinks it’s really sweet and sexy.”
His mustache lifts with a sly grin. “You know it, Kid. Hey, thanks for your help.”
“Yo, Santa!” A deep voice bellows behind us.
Spinning around, I find Kolan standing in line with Sophie and their two daughters. Katelyn and Nick are behind them with their son and daughter along with Ryder and Emily and their two little ones.
“Hurry it up, will ya.” Kolan’s arms are crossed over his chest, a smug smirk resting on his face as he ribs Sarge. “You have a bunch of pumped up children waiting to see you.”
“Yeah, yeah. Pump it out your ass,” Sarge mumbles under his breath before making his way back to the chair. Despite his grumpiness, he gives the jolliest ho ho ho as the next kid takes his spot on his lap.
Smiling, I wave to Kolan and the gang then continue on to the rink. Just then, a slight breeze sweeps over me, sending a chill beneath my jacket. I button my red pea coat up further then wrap my cream scarf closer around my neck before pulling down my matching beanie to cover my ears, my long brunette hair doing little to keep my neck warm.
I think it’s the coldest evening we’ve had yet this winter but it only adds to the spirit of the holiday. I just wish if it was going to be this cold we would at least get snow. It’s few and far between here in the South and if it does happen it’s usually after Christmas. By then we are all ready for Spring.
As I come upon the rink, I find all my friends. Annabelle and Ella hold hands, laughing as they skate side by side. Hope passes by them in a blur of movement, clinging to her father’s back while her mom is curled around the front of him, both of them bursting with laughter as Uncle Sawyer skates as fast as he can.
It brings a smile to my face, reminding me of the few times he did that with me when I was a child. All of us would always line up for a turn since Uncle Jax and my dad don’t skate.
At the other end, a hockey game is in full swing and sure enough, Parker is front and center, just as I knew he would be. He skates circles around people then passes the puck to Beck, the two of them teaming up for a goal.
Their fists pump in the air before knocking against the other’s. A group of girls stand on the sidelines, cheering like the puck bunnies they are. No doubt it’s Parker’s usual fan club. I’m proven right when I spot Missy Robins in the crowd, Parker’s Ex-girlfriend.
Sometimes, I wonder just how “over” they really are. Every time I turn around she’s there, rubbing herself all over him. I also heard they showed up at a party together last weekend. The information cut me deep, shredding my young heart, despite me knowing better.
“Mia, you’re finally here,” Annabelle shouts from across the rink.
Parker’s head snaps up, our gazes locking. His dark green eyes hold me spellbound, exposing all the dreams I’ve had since I was a little girl. Like always, that monumental shift happens, the ground tilting beneath my feet as that familiar electric charge passes between us.
Even if that charge is one sided.
The reminder is like a bucket of ice water. Breaking the connection, I look away and bring my attention to Annabelle and Ella as they skate toward me.
“Hey, guys,” I greet them, perfecting my smile. “Where’s Braedyn?”
Annabelle shrugs easily but her expression says something else entirely. “Don’t know, don’t care.”
Must be trouble in paradise again. It’s not uncommon. Half the time I never know what they are and to be honest I am not sure they do either. All I know is when Uncle Jax finds out what has gone on behind closed doors with them, he will bring the whole world down in his wrath.
“Come out here and skate with us,” she says.
“Yeah, we can make a line and take out my dad.” Ella points at Uncle Cooper where he stands talking to another deputy, a mischievous smile lighting up her whole face.
“As fun as that sounds, I can’t.” Regret crashes down on me. “I forgot my skates and I have to go on stage soon.”
“You don’t need skates. You’ve got me,” the familiar deep voice punches me right in the heart, dancing its way to the tips of my fingers and toes.
My attention swings left where I find Parker standing only a few feet away. He offers me his hand, flashing me that signature sexy smirk of his. “What do you say, Country. Wanna go for a ride?”
I know exactly what kind of ride he’s talking about. It terrifies me as much as it excites me. No way could I handle being that close to him and still be able to keep my feelings locked up tight.
“Aren’t you in the middle of a game?” I ask, deflecting from the question.
Silence consumes the moment, our gazes never wavering from the other’s. Until Annabelle clears her throat and breaks the connection.
“Um, Ella. I think your dad’s calling.”
Ella’s eyes narrow in confusion. “No he’s not.”
“Yes, he is.” Annabelle says harder this time, flashing her a look.
As much as I appreciate what my friend is trying to do it’s completely and embarrassingly obvious.
“Oh uh, yeah. You’re right. Let’s go.”
They turn their backs on us and skate away, leaving me to fend for myself.
“Alone at last.” Parker skates closer, bringing all that temptation my way. “Come skate with me, Mia.”
I shake my head and take a step back despite my heart wanting to push me closer. “No, but thank you. I’ll just sit and watch for a few minutes.”
“Don’t be stubborn, half pint. I know you want to.”
His Half pint strikes a nerve. A big one. It makes me feel like nothing more than the child he treats me as.
“I have a better idea,” I mock, sarcasm filling my voice. “Why don’t I go join your cheerleaders. I can bat my lashes every time the sexy and magnificent Parker Evans scores a goal.” Folding my gloved hands beneath my chin, I dramatically bat those said lashes at him.
It only seems to amuse him, that crooked grin of his stealing the air straight from my lungs. “You think I’m magnificent and sexy? Mia Walker, I had no idea.”
“Cocky is more like it,” I mumble.
He sees right through my façade, a little gleam in his eyes as he closes the distance between us.
“I mean it, Parker. Stay back.”
“Can’t do that, Country.”
Before I even have a chance to make an escape he bends down and lifts me off my feet, leaving me no choice but to wrap my legs around his waist. My knee high boots lock behind his back and arms around his neck as I hold on for dear life.
“You are so annoying.” Despite my best effort, there’s no heat behind my words. If anything I sound ridiculously winded, the feel of my body wrapped around his severing the wire to my brain.
“That’s what all the girls say who love me.”
I scoff at his ego, hating how close he is to truth with that statement.
“It’s true. Just ask my mom and sister. No one loves me more than them… except maybe you.” He flashes me a charming grin, exposing that single dimple that girls swoon over, me included.
“I know what you’re trying to do, Parker, and it’s not going to work.”
“No? Are you sure?” He pushes off the ice with one skate, starting a fast pace.
A smile tries to fight its way to the surface but I hold back, refusing to give him what he wants.
“It’s almost there, Country. I can see it. Let it out.” He makes a quick turn, flipping us around but I still hold my ground.
When he pretends to let go and drop me, I can no longer keep up the farce. Squealing, a laugh explodes past my lips as I cling even tighter to his neck.
“There it is.” Triumph smothers his handsome face, causing that tumble in my chest.
“You’re relentless, Parker Evans.”
“I always get what I want. You should know this by now.”
He’s right, he does. Because he’s spoiled, arrogant and worshipped by every girl on this planet. He’s also kind, considerate and honorable. It’s the latter as to why he holds my heart.
“Mia!” Hope calls out my name as Uncle Sawyer skates up next to us, Aunt Grace no longer with them.
Smiling, I take her outstretched hand, our gloved fingers linking.
Parker sends a challenging look to his father. “What do you say, old man? Wanna race?”
Uncle Sawyer grunts. “Please. I taught you everything you know. Don’t make me embarrass you in front of your friends.”
Hope rolls her eyes the same time a giggle slips out.
“I have age on my side,” Parker reminds him.
“Age means shit.”
He cocks a brow the same time a smirk transforms his face. “Just remember, you asked for it, kid.”
Without further challenge, the two take off. Hope and I both scream with laughter, our clasped hands never severing, pulling the other as each man fights for the finish line.
People dodge out of the way all the while cheering for who they think will win. Uncle Sawyer ends up taking the lead at the very end, finishing one second quicker.
“Yay, Dad!” Hope cheers, kissing his cheek.
Uncle Sawyer shoots a cocky look at his son. “Always the legend, boy. Remember that for next time.” After a clap to his back, he skates to the benches, looking like he might need a minute.
My gaze meets Parker’s to see him not looking at all upset. “You let him win, didn’t you?”
He shrugs but that crooked smile I love so much reveals what I already guessed. “He does pay my bills.”
He can use that excuse all he wants but the truth is he would never hurt his father’s pride.
“Sometimes you’re a good human, Parker Evans.”
“I’m the best, Country. Never forget it.”
I shake my head but can’t deny he speaks the truth. Next to my father and brother he is the best I’ve ever known.
“Come on, lets skate.” Just as he pushes off the ice, starting a nice pace “Feliz Navidad” filters through the air with its upbeat melody.
Instead of fighting the moment, I decide to let go and enjoy this time with him because it’s few and far between for us. I take in the breeze on my face, the way it feels to be in his arms—safe and warm. But more than anything, I absorb these few precious moments of what it would feel like to be his.
It’s magical. Perfect actually and everything I’ve ever wanted. Unfortunately, the beautiful moment comes to an end when I spot Missy watching us from the sidelines, her snide glare directed right at me. It’s a cold reminder that no matter how much I want to pretend my relationship with Parker is different, it’s not and I fear it never will be.
“Your girlfriend doesn’t seem all that happy you’re with me right now.” There’s no keeping the heat out of my tone this time.
Parker’s gaze never strays from mine. He doesn’t need to look in her direction to know whom I’m talking about. “I haven’t dated anyone in over a year, Mia. You know that.”
“Really? So you didn’t show up to Jason Wilks party with her last weekend?”
Ugh, shut up, Mia.
His eyes narrow, searching my face. “I gave her a ride, along with two other people. Is that a crime?”
I shake my head, feeling ridiculous for my jealousy, something I have no right to feel. “No. It’s not. I’m sorry,” I whisper, trying to recover the moment. “Look, lets just drop it. I don’t want to talk about her.”
“Good. I don’t either. Let’s talk about something else…”
The drop to his tone tells me I might not like this topic either. “Like what?” I ask nervously.
“Like that kiss…”
Heat climbs my neck and into my cheeks before my eyes skirt away from his. “How about we don’t.”
“We have to talk about it sometime, Country. Can’t avoid it forever.”
“Yes, we can. We just keep doing what we have been.”
“And what’s that?”
“Pretending like it never happened. You’ve been really good at forgetting all about it.”
His gaze burns into the side of my face as I avoid eye contact. “Is that what you think? That I’ve just forgotten about it?”
“I don’t think. I know,” my voice is no more than a whisper, hurt lacing every word that falls past my lips.
“Oh but, Mia,” my name expels past his lips on a soft whisper, “You don’t. You really don’t have a fucking clue what I think or feel.”
My eyes swing back to his, our gazes locking with every unspoken word. It makes me believe in everything I’ve ever wanted, sending hope to my terrified heart.
He slows his strides, bringing us to a secluded corner. His hands slip lower, cupping my bottom and bringing me against the erection he has.
My sharp intake of breath penetrates the small space between us, my throat growing impossibly dry.
“Do you really think I could just forget about that night?” He leans in close, skimming his nose across my cold cheek until his lips reach my ear. “It’s all I’ve thought about. Your watermelon lip gloss still lingers on my tongue, wreaking havoc on my cock every minute of every fucking day.”
Heat explodes through my body, incinerating what’s left of my heart.
“You’re wearing it right now, aren’t you? I can smell it, the fruity scent mixed with the girl. The two things I’ve been dying to taste again.”
“Don’t do this,” I whisper on a shaky plea, my racing heart physically squeezing in my chest. “Don’t say things you don’t mean.”
“You should know by now, Mia. I never say things I don’t mean.”
My fingers grip his broad shoulders, my heart clinging to hope I never thought I’d be given.
“Tell me,” he murmurs, his lips brushing my ear in a sensual caress. “Tell me you think about us, too. That you want it as bad as I do.”
It’s on the tip of my tongue to do just that. To completely pour my heart out to him and finally tell him all I’ve thought about since I was a little girl. Since the days he would chase me around with the water hose only to help me up when I fell…
The call penetrates the moment, reminding me we aren’t alone.
My mother stands off to the side, questions filling her eyes as she watches Parker and me in this intimate moment.
“It’s time, sweetheart.”
“I’ll be right there.” I bring my attention back to Parker and find his gaze still steady on my face. I so desperately want to finish what he started, to answer the question he awaits to hear.
Instead, I take the cowards way out.
“I have to go.” Regret coats each words as I push away from his shoulders when all I really want to do is hold on forever.
He gives me the out I look for, slowly releasing me. It leaves me feeling cold and lonely.
I hug myself to keep warm and pay close attention to my boots, unable to look him in the eye. “Are you going to come watch the lighting?”
We both know I’m really asking if he’s going to come watch me sing.
“I wouldn’t miss it.”
I nod. “Good. I’ll see you later then.” Just as I turn to leave, he grabs my arm, pulling me back.
“Wait. I have something for you.” Reaching in his pocket, he pulls out a wrapped present. “I know it’s early but I want you to have it tonight.”
I take the unexpected gift and peel back the wrapping paper, revealing a long white box. Opening it, I find a silver necklace with a rhinestone horseshoe, it’s sparkling beauty taking my breath away.
My stinging eyes lift to his, finding myself speechless.
“It’s for luck. Not that you need it.” The smile he gives me isn’t his usual cocky one, if anything it’s a little sad. A little… uncertain.
I lift to the tips of my toes and wrap my arms around his neck. “Thank you, Parker. I love it.”
I love you.
I keep those words locked in as he pulls me in close and turns his face into mine. “I could never forget a moment with you, Mia. Just… remember that. No matter what.”
My heart stutters at his words, trying to dissect exactly what he’s saying right now. What he’s been saying the past ten minutes.
Is there a chance for us after all?
The thought sends hope and fear colliding with the other. Not wanting anything to ruin this moment, I leave him with a kiss on the cheek, my lips lingering longer than they should before I make my way to my mother.
“Everything okay?” she asks with a smile but I don’t miss the concern in her eyes.
“What did he give you?”
I tip the box toward her and show her the necklace.
“Wow. It’s beautiful, Mia, and very you.”
“Yeah, it is.” Removing it from the box, I clasp it behind my neck then slip it into my jacket, letting it rest over my heart, the exact same place where I’ve kept the boy all these years.
As if sensing my turmoil, my mother reaches for my hand, taking it in hers. She says nothing but offers me the silent strength she always radiates.
It’s exactly what I needed.
Minutes later, I stand to the side of the stage, trying to compose myself while everyone gathers, each of them holding an LED candle as they prepare for the lighting of the tree and the first performance of the night.
It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve done this, those familiar nerves always take root, making my heart beat a little faster.
“Hey, Mia,” my brother Christopher comes running over from behind the stage where he waits with his students. He pulls me into a hug, his strong arms bringing me the familiar comfort they always have. “Knock ‘em dead, kid.”
I hug him back tightly. “Thanks. You, too.”
“Thanks, we’re going to need it.”
I’m sure they won’t. Christopher is an amazing music teacher. Every year he makes regionals with his students. He’s good at everything he does, including being a father, husband and brother.
“Mr. Christopher, Mr. Christopher,” A little girl runs over, tugging on his hand. “I need to pee.”
“Shii…Uh, I mean, okay. No problem. Lets go find your mom.”
He bids me a quick goodbye then picks up the little girl and runs in search of her mother, her laughter trailing in their wake.
“Welcome to the 12th annual Christmasville of Sunset Bay,” Mr. Barton speaks, bringing the crowd to hushed tones. “We are so happy you could join us tonight. Every year the turn out seems to get better and better, and we at the town council couldn’t be happier.”
I refrain from rolling my eyes as he takes all the credit when in reality he should be thanking my mother.
“It is now time for the lighting of the Christmas tree and tradition will remain the same. Mia Walker will lead us with our first performance.”
Everyone erupts into applause as I climb the steps, my friends and family being the loudest of all. It kills some of my nerves and gives me the confidence I need to reach for the mic.
“Good luck, young lady,” he says before walking off the stage.
After a smile and wave to everyone, I send Mrs. Fitzgerald who sits at the piano a nod, signaling that I’m ready.
Seconds later, the harmonic melody to “Holy Night” begins drifting through the air. It’s one of my favorite Christmas songs. There’s just something about it that takes the spirit of Christmas to a whole other level in my heart.
When the waiting note hits, I inhale a deep breath and start the lyrics, letting each word flow from deep within my soul.
My friends and family break out into cheers again, Annabelle, Hope and Ella all screaming out my name. Heat creeps across my cheeks but so does a smile. My friends have always been my biggest cheerleaders. Their presence anchors me as much as it fuels me to perform my best.
It isn’t long into the song when the entire night lights up behind me, sending a collection of gasps among the people. Turning, I join the crowd in their admiration of the 32-foot spruce tree decorated with warm white lights and gold shimmering bows.
It’s absolutely breathtaking and it only gets better when the snow machine is turned on, sending big white flakes to fall from the sky. They coat my hair and lashes, adding to the spirit of the moment. With a smile, I lift my hand, catching the heavy white flakes in my palm, all the while never missing a note or breaking tune.
Eventually, I turn back to find the crowd’s attention just as riveted on the tree and falling snow. All but one. Parker’s eyes are transfixed on my face, his gaze never once leaving mine while everyone else admires what this moment is supposed to be about.
Everything that transpired earlier with us surfaces, sending my young hopeful heart into a tailspin. The way he looks at me banishes all the doubts and insecurities I’ve had since that night last year, making me believe in something I thought would never be possible for us.
He looks at me as if we aren’t surrounded by hundreds of people.
Like… I’m the only person here right now.
Until Missy pushes her way up next to him, ruining the moment within a blink of an eye. I look away, unable to bear the sight, especially after what we just shared.
Instead of finding the solitude I seek, my gaze lands on my father. His arm is slung around my mother’s shoulders as he watches me, that pain he always tries to hide prevalent in his dark eyes, but among that pain also lies pride.
The love I have for this man runs so deep, despite the fact that he’s as overbearing and protective as they come, especially of his youngest child. Though, I know it’s because he loves me. I also know it stems from somewhere else, something I will never be able to escape no matter how hard I try.
Sometimes, I wish more than anything I was born with red hair and green eyes because then it wouldn’t hurt him so much to look at me and I wouldn’t have to live in her shadow. Maybe then he wouldn’t worry so much, thinking that every time I leave the house I’ll end up just like she did.
The painful thought has tears blurring my vision. I blink them back, knowing right now would be the worst time to break into an emotional mess about the one thing that weighs so heavy on my heart.
Once the song finishes and I’m met with another loud applause, I wave a thank you to everyone and descend the steps to join my friends and family, wanting to be front and center for when Christopher performs. Before I have the chance to make it that far I’m stopped by an unfamiliar voice.
“You got talent, kid. Real talent.”
Looking behind me, I come face to face with a man I don’t recognize. He’s dressed in a stiff grey suit that probably costs more than my entire wardrobe and looks completely out of place in my small town.
“Adam Trent with Dreamline Records,” he says, extending his hand. “Pleasure to meet you.”
I accept his gesture nervously. “Mia Walker.”
“I know who you are. I came here specifically tonight to watch you.”
“You did?” I ask, baffled by that admission.
He nods. “Your name has been brought up in my office a few times. One of my people saw you perform at the Opry this past summer. They thought you were terrific and after what I just saw I’d say that’s a major understatement.”
The compliment has a flush invading my frosted cheeks. “Well, thank you very much. Performing at the Opry was a dream come true for me.”
“You’re destined for bigger, kid. Have you ever thought about touring?”
“Touring?” I blink in surprise.
“Yeah, hitting the road, opening up for some bands. That’s of course until we would get you your own stardom and have others opening for you,” he finishes with a confident smile.
“Look, Mr. Trent. I appreciate the offer but I don’t think you realize how old I am, I’m still in high school.”
He shrugs. “Lots of kids get their diploma on the road. You could make a living doing this. Your talent shouldn’t be wasted.”
His praise is kind but I’ve never considered doing this as a career because I know if I did I wouldn’t love it as much. Besides, my heart lies with my horses but the thought of experiencing that life, for even just one year is very appealing…
Mr. Trent opens his mouth to speak again but quickly closes it, a flash of fear simmering over his face as his eyes find something over my head… or rather, someone. I know exactly who it is without even looking.
“Everything okay over here, Mia?” my father’s deep hard voice rumbles behind me.
“Yes,” I quickly assure him, moving next to his side. “Dad this is Mr. Trent, he’s with Dreamline Records. Mr. Trent, this is my father, Cade Walker.”
“So you’re the father.” He turns back on that professional charm and extends his hand, having no idea who he’s dealing with. “Great to meet you. You have a very talented daughter, Mr. Walker.”
My father stares down at his gesture for a long moment before finally accepting it. “I know.”
Mr. Trent loses some of his confidence again, clearing his throat as he pulls his hand away. “Right, well, I was just asking Mia here if she…”
“If I want to open one weekend at the Opry again,” I finish, shooting the man a warning look.
My father would lose his mind at even the mention of me touring. He’d never go for it. If this is something I want to do I’ll have to come up with a plan first and I will definitely need my mother on board.
Thankfully, Mr. Trent gets the hint. “Right. She has a lot to offer and she should be shared with the world.”
“She does and it’s a lot more than just her voice.” Despite the curt response, my father’s words flood my soul with love.
Mr. Trent’s perfected smile wavers. “I’m sure she does.” He finally realizes it’s time to shut this conversation down. “Well, Mia. If you ever want to discuss that opening, here is my card.”
Before I can reach for it my father does, his large hand seemingly crushing the flimsy piece of paper. “While we appreciate the opportunity, Mr. Trent, I should remind you that my daughter is a minor. Which means any interest in a performance from her is to be booked through me and her mother. Are we clear?”
The other man nods, receiving the warning loud and clear. “Of course. I’ll make sure to do that next time. Take care and have a nice night.”
When he walks off the same way he came, I turn to my dad, eyeing him nervously. “So… pretty cool that one of the biggest record labels came all this way to hear me sing. Don’t you think?”
My enthusiasm doesn’t rub off on him. “What I think is a grown man should know better than to approach a minor. You should have come to get me, Mia.”
“I didn’t even get the chance. He pretty much introduced himself then told me why he was here. That’s when you showed up and almost made him crap his pants. Not great for business, dad.”
“You’re not a business to me. You’re my daughter.” The way he looks down at me right now is completely and devastatingly heartbreaking. The fear that’s always there more prominent than ever.
“You’re right. I’m sorry,” I swallow back the thickness in my throat and decide it’s best to change the subject. “So what did you think of my performance?”
“You were beautiful and perfect. Just like you always are.”
I smile up at him, his thoughtful words meaning more than he can never know. His opinion has always mattered most to me.
He slings an arm around my shoulders and pulls me into his side. “Come on. Let’s go watch your brother’s performance.”
We walk back to our family and friends who all congratulate me with a hug, including Parker, his lasting a little longer than the others. The gentle brush of his lips against my ear as he tells me how beautiful I was sends warmth exploding through my body. My heart latches onto the words he whispers, to the hopes and dreams I pray for every night.
Our embrace comes to an end when my brother walks on stage with his students, another applause breaking across the crowd. All the children’s parents stand front and center with their cameras in hand.
They end up singing, “Santa Claus is coming to Town” but with a hint of rock to it. Leave it to my brother to take a classic and make it his own.
Hope grabs my hand and holds Annabelle’s with her other, all of us girls dancing to the fast tempo of Christopher’s drums. I’m completely caught up in the song until that familiar feeling strikes me from out of nowhere, a warmth exploding through me that I’ve felt time and time again throughout my life.
Releasing Hope’s hand, I step away from my friends and search my surroundings. It doesn’t take long before I spot her. The music fades along with everyone else, becoming nothing more than an afterthought, because there in the dark of night, hidden from view, she stands behind a tree, a beautiful little girl dressed in white. With long dark hair, big brown eyes and a white ribbon tied in her hair, she’s an exact replica of my childhood.
The sight of her is nothing more than a flash. It’s so brief, so quick, it would make one person think they saw something that wasn’t there but I know better. I’ve always known better.
“Mia, you okay?” My father’s hand lands on my shoulder, his concerned eyes searching my face.
I look back at the tree only to find darkness before bringing my attention back to my father. The pain in my heart is as sharp as the one he bears every day. Unable to stop myself, I step into him, wrapping my arms around his waist. “I love you, dad,” I whisper, feeling the need to tell him that right now more than ever.
His arms come around me like a shield, protecting me like an unbreakable band. “I love you more, Mia. Never forget that.”
A single tear slips down my cheek, knowing how hard it is for him to say those words to me.
My whole life I’ve believed in angels because from the time I was a little girl I’ve seen one. Whether it be during one of my riding competitions, standing on stage or staring out my window at night, she’s always there watching. Though, I am still unsure if she is there for me or my father…