“I can almost read her mind now,” Tanner whispered. “She’s thinking if you intend on being with me, you need to be able to cook so her precious baby boy doesn’t starve!”
I giggled and hit him on the chest. I’d never in my life felt so happy. Coming to Montana was the best decision I’d ever made, and one I knew I wouldn’t regret.
Now the only hurdle was figuring out how to buy a piece of property without my father attempting to block it.
New Year’s Eve
The last week had been pure bliss. Even if I had to sneak around my folks’ house like a high school boy attempting to get laid for the first time. Each night I found myself in Timberlynn’s bed. We woke up each morning, kissed and fooled around like kids, then I’d leave to head back to my room before things got too hot and heavy. We had even snuck away to the barn a few times with some blankets, a lantern we used for camping, and some wine. Somehow sex in my folks’ barn loft had become my new favorite thing. At least when I could push away the memory of Ty telling me he’d lost his virginity in the same spot.
“Thank goodness the snow has let up enough for folks to make it to the party tonight!” my mother said as she looked up from the little smokie sausage rolls she was wrapping up in crescent rolls. Kaylee and Timberlynn were working alongside my mother, each super focused on the task of rolling them up. My mother had taught Timberlynn how to make an apple pie from scratch, right down to the crust, as well as at least ten different types of casseroles and the homemade ragu her Italian best friend had taught her how to make after my mother married my father. They also made countless amounts of cookies, brownies, fudge, and three cakes. With homemade buttercream frosting and all. I was positive I’d gained at least ten pounds since Christmas.
“How many people are coming?” Kaylee asked.
My mother handed me a bowl, marshmallow fluff, and cream cheese. “You know what to do with this. And do not eat it, Tanner!” my mother demanded.
I gave her a salute and winked at Timberlynn, who blushed. I was quickly falling madly, head over heels in love with Timberlynn, and a part of me wanted to shout it from the rooftops.
“Timberlynn, Kaylee can finish up the wraps. Can you start on cutting up the fruit for the tray?”
“Certainly.” Like a dutiful young apprentice, Timberlynn took the containers of fruit and started to cut and arrange them onto a tray.
“Let’s see, pretty much everyone we invited will be here. This year we kept the list on the smaller side.”
Dirk walked into the kitchen and everyone looked over at him.
“Hey, Dirk. We haven’t seen you in a few days,” Kaylee said as she tilted her head for him to kiss her on the cheek. Timberlynn turned and smiled.
He winked at Timberlynn, and I sent him a dirty look, which he pretended not to notice.
“Good afternoon, Timberlynn. Kaylee, Stella.” He finally looked my way and nodded. “Tanner.”
“Dirk. Where have you been?” Kaylee asked.
He grinned as he reached for a grape and popped it into his mouth. “Been stuck at home and just enjoying the silence. I forgot how nice it was to just be alone for a few days.” He looked around. “Where is everyone?”
Mom answered. “Brock, Ty, and their daddy are out driving the fence. With all the high winds, they wanted to make sure no trees fell down.”
Dirk caught my eye again. “Why didn’t you go?”
“I met up with Chance earlier to go over the press release announcing that we’re both stepping down from roping.”
His brow raised. “No shit?”
I smiled. “No shit.”
The feel of Timberlynn’s gaze made me look over to her. She looked unsure, so I smiled and gave her my own wink. Her cheeks flushed slightly, and something deep in my chest grew warm.
“I bet you’re happy as a clam, Stella,” Dirk stated.
“To have all my boys home? You better believe it. Now we just need you to come on back home, and everything will be perfect.”
Dirk nearly choked on the piece of kiwi he had tossed into his mouth. “You’re going to be waiting a long time on me, Stella.”
She grinned, but I knew what that grin meant. It was the one that said she knew something no one else did. Dirk’s brows pulled in slightly. He had seen it as well. “What’s on the smaller side?” Dirk asked as he focused on my mother.
“What?” she asked, confused.
“When I walked in, you said something was on the smaller side.”
She shook her head and laughed slightly. “Oh, the guest list for the New Year’s Eve party tonight. Now, I want to make sure you’ve made plans to stay here this evening, Dirk. No drinking and then heading back home.”
He saluted and gave my mother the smile that I was positive had landed him in a woman’s bed a dozen times or more. “I’ve already made arrangements to stay the night at Brock and Lincoln’s place. No need to worry about me, Mama Shaw.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Who all is going to be here tonight?” Kaylee asked.
My mother started naming names, most of them were friends she and my father had known for years. A few relatives and some folks who lived on ranches around us. “The Edens will be here as well.”
Dirk froze as he was reaching across Timberlynn to grab another piece of fruit. He looked stunned. “The Edens?”
I watched with curiosity, and so did Kaylee. The only person who hadn’t caught Dirk’s pause was Timberlynn. She was still cutting up the fruit and arranging them on the platter.
“Yes, their farm is right next to your folks’ ranch, isn’t it?” my mother casually asked. She knew damn well it was.
“What’s the difference between a farm and a ranch?” Kaylee asked, totally not seeing what was going on. “I never really thought about it before when y’all mention a farm versus a ranch.”
My mother shrugged. “Well, on a farm they focus more on the soil for growing crops. A ranch, like ours, is land where livestock is raised. On the Eden’s farm, they grow crops such a strawberries, corn, wheat. They also have dairy cows, but not many. They also grow pumpkins and let folks in town come in and pick their own right from the fields. I get all my eggs from them when I shop at Pete’s Grocery in town.”
“They have blueberries too. Their strawberry and blueberry crops are you-pick-it, and they have folks come to the farm and pick the berries. That allows them to sell other stuff while they’re there. Like tomatoes and other veggies,” I added.
My mother smiled. “Yes, as a matter of fact, those strawberries came from their greenhouse. They grow them all year long.”
“Do they still grow Christmas trees?” I asked.
Dirk leaned against the counter, silently taking in the entire conversation. The look on his face, though, had me curious as hell. Apparently, Kaylee was on the same page as I was. We glanced at each other and the corner of her mouth rose slightly, as did her brows. If my memory served me right, Dirk had a fling with Merit Eden his senior year of high school…but that was a long time ago, so I wasn’t sure what was going on.
“You know, I’m not sure,” my mother stated. “Dirk, do they still grow trees?”
“What?” Dirk asked as he glanced up from the strawberry he had been staring at.
“The Eden family, do they still sell Christmas trees?”
“I’m not sure. Last I heard, their son Michael was running that part of the farm.”
There was a moment of silence in the kitchen and I turned to look at my mother. She wore a smile on her face that said she was about to go in for the kill.
Oh, holy hell.
“I know when I talked to Lori Eden—” She looked at Kaylee and Timberlynn. “She’s the mother.”
They both nodded to show they were keeping up.
“When I talked to Lori, she mentioned that Merit was back in Hamilton for good. She’s working on the farm, but I
totally forgot to ask about Michael.”
I couldn’t hide my smile. My mama was good. Damn good. Dirk stared at her with a befuddled expression. I made a mental note to ask Brock about Dirk and Merit, and then let it slip to Kaylee. She’d bug the hell out of Dirk about it.
“Merit’s back in town? For good?” Dirk finally managed to ask, his voice sounding a little off.
Kaylee turned and looked at him, as did Timberlynn.
“Did y’all date?” Kaylee asked, clearly noticing his reaction.
Dirk dropped his eyes down and laughed. “Why would you ask me that?”
“Your tone changed.”
His brows crinkled. “What do you mean, my tone changed? Nothing changed.”
“It did change, I noticed it too,” Timberlynn said with a grin. I couldn’t hold it in. I laughed out loud, and Dirk shot me a look that said I needed to stop, or he was going to throttle me. I held up my hands in defense and looked at my mother.
She wore a huge smile on her face as she started mixing together some kind of dough.
Clearing his voice, Dirk stated, “Nothing changed, you’re both insane.”
“Normally when you talk about girls you went to school with, your tone is normal. But when you talked about…what was her name again, Stella?” Kaylee asked.
“Merit,” my mother and I said at the same time, neither of us missing a beat. Dirk shot me another dirty look.
“When you talked about Merit, your voice went slightly higher,” Kaylee said.