Addy opened the door to let Nina into the room. Her daughter bounced in and clapped her hands. “You’re gorgeous. The dress is perfect. Have you seen yourself?”
Addy laughed. “I haven’t got up the courage to look yet. But it’s just me in a dress instead of polar bear slippers and sweats.”
Nina laughed and rolled her eyes. “Mom. It’s you in your wedding dress. It had better be different than your writing clothes.”
True. But she didn’t think Heath really cared. He loved her, not her clothing. Which still made her giddy. The boy she’d loved at seventeen had become an amazing man. One she would love for the rest of their lives.
“Can I help you do your hair?”
“I was just going to leave it down instead of putting it in a ponytail.”
“You have to do something fancier than that. It’s New Year’s Eve and you’re getting married.”
Why had she thought this was a good idea? The marriage part was what she wanted but the whole wedding ceremony had her stressed out.
When someone else knocked on the door of the room they’d borrowed above the Saloon, Nina answered it then let Nimii and Ginny inside. Addy sighed in relief.
Nimii grinned at Nina and stage whispered. “Do you think she was getting ready to run?”
Nina laughed. “She’s really nervous, but she wants to marry my Dad, so she’ll be good.”
So simple and so true. All Addy had to do was get through the next hour or so and she would have what she’d always wanted. Heath as her partner in their family. The three of them would officially be a family.
Nimii pulled Addy into a hug. “You don’t have to do the ceremony with an audience you know. Heath would do anything for you and if you want to do it in private, go for it.”
That made her smile. Her friend was absolutely correct. Heath would do anything for her. She wanted to be able to say the same about herself. Walking through fire would be easier than being the center of attention at their wedding.
Like his daughter, Heath was comfortable with people and could handle a group watching him. She knew he wanted a wedding with his friends surrounding him and she wanted that for him.
For Nina too. Their daughter had been robbed of twelve years of special moments with her dad. Addy wasn’t about to rob her of this one as well.
“I’m good. I just get twitchy when people are looking at me.” Which was directly connected to trying to hide in the shadows at shelters and foster homes growing up. She’d never been in a terrible place, but many of her fellow foster kids had been angry and looking for places to spew their anger. She’d always tried to avoid being that target. Hiding in the shadows had become a habit.
This was a safe place with her favourite people in the world. It didn’t get much better than that. With a real smile, she dropped her shoulders and shook out her hands. Then she repeated her words and actually believed them. “I’m good.”
Heath knew Addy was more stressed than she’d let on. She’d never been an extrovert or one to crave attention. She preferred the background.
But when he’d suggested it, Nina had been excited about a New Year’s Eve wedding and Addy would do anything for their daughter. And for him.
She knew he wanted his friends with him when they got married, so she would deal with the event. He wanted more than that for her. This was their wedding day and he didn’t want her resigned to deal with it. He wanted her to feel joy and laughter.
The wedding was happening in the Saloon right before the town’s New Year’s Eve celebration. They’d only invited their closest friends to the ceremony, but in Phail that meant half the town. The other half would probably show up anyway, not realizing they weren’t supposed to be there.
Along with Nimii and Ginny, his girls were in one of the rooms above the Saloon’s main room getting ready. He and the guys had used a different room and now they were downstairs, making sure everything was set.
Both his buddies Troy and Marcus had become officiants to help their other friends celebrate their weddings. The two men were going to share the duties today.
Heath moved into the snug Sean had built behind the bar for Branna. She’d grown up in her family’s Irish-style pub and his friend had added this tiny room behind the bar to make it truly Branna’s.
Heath texted his daughter and in less than a minute, Nina bounced into the snug and closed the door. “Hey Spitfire. You look gorgeous. You’re going to destroy the hearts of men wherever you go.”
Nina had picked out her own dress. Like Addy, she wasn’t normally one for dressing up, but she’d found a navy dress that suited her and didn’t make her look like an adult. She spun in her full skirt and dropped a curtsy. “Thanks. I love the way it twirls and it’s got pockets.”
That made him laugh, he’d never thought much about pockets before.
Then Nina stopped her twirl and looked over Heath’s suit. They hadn’t wanted to be too dressy because it was Phail and not their style anyway. So he’d chosen a dark grey suit with a tie and pocket square he’d picked out with Nina. In Ojibwe culture blue meant wisdom and confidence. Green represented harmony, healing and endurance. He wanted Addy to know he respected her culture and wanted to celebrate it with her.
Nina grinned at him. “You look great too. Mom’s going to love it.”
“How’s your mom doing?”
Nina grinned. “She’s nervous, but happy.”
“Is it the walking down those stairs that’s stressing her out the most? I know that’s what everyone wants her to do, but if that’s a problem, I have an idea how to change it.”
Nina’s eyes danced. “I think that’s it too. She’s worried about tripping down the stairs in front of the crowd.”
Heath nodded and handed Nina two boxes tied with ribbons that matched his tie. “When you go back up, give her this. And this one’s for you. Here’s the plan.”
Addy knew as soon as Nina opened the door that her daughter was hatching a plan. The wide grin on her face as she closed the door behind her confirmed it.
“I just talked to Dad and he wanted me to give you this. I don’t know what’s inside, but I’ve got one too. He also has a plan.”
Addy laughed. “You’re so much like your Dad. What have you two cooked up?”
Nina grinned and handed her a box. Addy undid the ribbon and worked open the paper.
Nimii laughed. “You still don’t rip open wrapping paper?”
Her friends knew her so well. They also knew that she’d had so few gifts growing up that she couldn’t bear to rush through the opening of ones she did receive. Every single time, it made her feel special. She suspected Heath understood without her every saying it aloud.
Inside the box, she lifted the lid to find a gorgeous pair of white moccasins. They were beaded with tiny white, navy and dark green beads representing confidence, harmony, happiness and more. Traditional Ojibwa wedding shoes made just for her.
Her eyes filled with tears of joy. She looked up at Nimii. “He had you make these?” Because the beautiful craftsmanship and delicate details could only have been made with love.
Nimii smiled. “It was a rush order.”
Addy rose and hugged her friend. “Thank you. They’re perfect.” She slipped out of the shoes she’d bought and put on the moccasins with relief and joy.
“Do they fit okay?”
“They’re perfect. Absolutely perfect.”
Nimii grinned. “Thank Heath. They were his idea and he paid extra for a rush job.”
Of course he did, even though Nimii would have done them for nothing. Heath didn’t flash his money around but he was more than willing to pay top dollar for what he considered important things. Like these moccasins that would make Addy feel like home.
She couldn’t possibly love this man any more.
Nina lifted the second box. “Let’s see what’s in mine.” Unlike Addy, she ripped open the paper making them all laugh.
Inside was another pair of moccasins. These ones in a soft dove grey with beading like Addy’s. Nina bounced in delight and hugged Nimii. “You made these too? Did you even sleep this week?”
Nimii laughed and hugged Nina back while Ginny answered. “She keeps telling me sleep is for the weak.”
Nimii grinned. “If Ginny hadn’t helped, we wouldn’t have been able to finish them, but we did and I’m so happy you love them.”
Emotion swelled in Addy’s throat. “I don’t know if I can ever thank you two enough. You’ve been everything to me and Nina. Without you, I don’t know what our lives would have been like, but they wouldn’t have been as rich or full of love. Thank you both so much.”
The group hug was everything she needed to calm the last of her nerves.
Then Nina smiled. “Do you want to hear Dad’s plan?”
Heath hoped either his surprise or his revised plan would ease Addy’s nerves. He had no doubt she wanted to marry him, it was the all eyes on her thing that was stressing her out.
Someone started some music and the crowd shifted. All eyes turned to the balcony above the main room.
As expected, Nina popped out of the room and grinned at the crowd. She waved and twirled in her dress, then scattered some flower petals over the balcony. His daughter was growing to be an amazing young lady and he had to swallow hard against the emotion.
When she reached the stairs, he could see she wore the moccasins he’d commissioned from Nimii. The woman was an incredible artisan and an even better human being.
When Nina reached the bottom of the stairs, she skipped her way over to him and wrapped her arms around him in the best hug.
He squeezed her tightly and they stood together as the Nimii and Ginny walked out of the room above. That made him grin. No one else would know, but that wasn’t the original plan.
Sure enough, while everyone was watching the two women descend, a small hand slipped into his and both his girls giggled.
He squeezed Addy into their group hug and then Nina stepped away and he had his fiancée in his arms for the last time. Because soon she would be his bride. His wife. His.
Unable to do anything else, he found her lips with his. They were still kissing when laughter started in the crowd as they realized Addy had snuck into the room while they’d been distracted.
He slowed the kiss and rested his forehead on hers. “Hi gorgeous.”
She whispered. “Hi handsome. Thanks for the moccasins and the plan. They’re both perfect.”
“I’m glad. You doing okay? I can kick them all out if you need me to.”
Muffled chuckles from nearby proved he hadn’t been as quiet as he’d planned.
Addy smiled. “I love that you’d do that, but I’m okay. I’ll just hang onto you.”
He kissed her again and they turned to Troy and Marcus who were both grinning at them.
Marcus handed them both the eagle feathers they’d left with him. Over the years, Addy and Nina had collected any they found. Eagle feathers were an important part of Ojibwe culture and it was traditional for the bride and groom to hold them while saying their vows.
Troy spoke first. “Marcus and I thrilled to officiate at this wedding. We’ve known Slick since our Army days and we know he’s a really great guy. We wouldn’t want anything less for Addison and Nina.”
Marcus nodded. “We know life kept you apart for too long, but we’re all so happy to see you together now. You fit as a pair and you fit as a family.”
Heath watched Addy’s smile grow at the words as her eyes misted with unshed tears. They kept their gazes locked on each other as their friends went through the ceremony. When they got to their part, Marcus smiled at Addy. “Would you like to go first, Addison?”
Her face flushed and she worried her bottom lip, but she nodded. With a deep breath, she locked her gaze with Heath again. “I first fell in love with you when I was a kid not much older than Nina. I loved your compassion and kindness, your determination to make the world a better place. Your desire to use your education and your background to help others find their way in the world. Even as a teenager, you had your priorities straight and knew right from wrong.”
His chest puffed from her words. Then her fingers tightened on his and she spoke again. Emotion shook her voice, making it whispery and soft.
“This time around was no different. You’re an amazing man, Heath. You love so fiercely and with your whole being. Nina and I love you completely and we’re both so happy to have you in our lives. I promise to cherish you and appreciate you and love you forever.”
She swallowed hard and then took a ring from Nina and slipped it onto his finger.
He took a deep breath. “Addy, you make the world better just by being a part of it. With your talent, your heart and your determination, you created an amazing life for yourself and our daughter. You found an incredible support system and a home in this quirky little town with the weird name.”
Troy protested while everyone else laughed.
He lifted Addy’s hands to kiss them. “You make me a better man. I will do everything in my power to keep you and Nina safe, to support you both in every way I can. I can’t wait to spend my life with you, rocking on that front porch, watching every sunset with you for the next dozen decades or so.”
“Dozen?” Nina’s soft whisper made him grin at her.
Then he turned his gaze back to Addy. “I love you. Forever. With everything I am. This ring belonged to my grandmother and I know she would have loved you and she’d be thrilled that you’re wearing it.”
Unable to hold back anymore, he leaned down and captured the love practically glowing from Addy in a kiss.
He heard Marcus and Troy pronounce them husband and wife. He managed to slow the kiss with Addy and then turn to pull Nina into a hug with them both.
Then Marcus and Troy finished the ceremony with. “And now, we pronounce you a family.”
Addy couldn’t stop smiling. The spotlight moment was over and it had been far easier and more fun than she’d expected. All because of Heath.
He’d figured out a way for her to have fun and be comfortable within the ceremony. And now they were married. Her fondest dream come true.
When the cheers from the crowd died down, there was a general shuffle as people stood from their chairs and started chatting with each other.
Ginny and Nimii were the first to hug them, but were quickly followed by so many more. The group was larger than she’d expected and she was very glad she hadn’t looked at the crowd before she’d snuck out of kitchen. Her eyes had only been for Heath.
A shuffle of movement had Addy looking up and to her right. On the edge of the crowd stood Heath’s parents. They’d come. She hadn’t been sure they would accept her invitation.
She squeezed Heath’s hand and tugged him to turn around so his back was to the room. He frowned down at her. “You’re upset. Or stressed. What’s wrong? What’s happened?”
She smiled at him and reached up to kiss him lightly. “Sorry. Nothing’s wrong. I did an impulsive thing yesterday and now I’m not sure I did the right thing. Please don’t be mad.”
His eyes widened as he laughed. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been and it’s because of you. I love you, Addy. Whatever it is, we’ll be fine.”
She blinked away the emotion and ripped off the bandage. “I invited your parents. They’re here.”
His eyes widened and he opened his mouth. Nothing came out.
She squeezed his hand. “I know I overstepped. I just didn’t want you to have regrets. They’re your parents and despite everything they’ve done, I thought you might be happy to have them here. Are you okay? I’m sorry. Should I tell them to go?”
He stopped her rambling by hauling her into his arms and up off her feet. His breath was harsh as he held her tightly and simply breathed. Finally, he set her down gently and kissed her until a tornado could have blown apart the town and she wouldn’t have noticed.
When they pulled apart, he ran his hands up and down her arms until he took her hands and lifted them to his lips. “You’re the most incredible woman I know. Your capacity for love and forgiveness is limitless. I’m going to hold onto you while we talk with them. Don’t let me do anything I’ll regret. Did you warn Nina?”
She nodded and studied him closely. “You’re not mad?”
He shook his head and his eyes were full of tenderness. “No. You’re trying to heal our family. Trying to give Nina grandparents. Trying to show my parents what real love looks like. I love you. Let’s do this.”
He squared his shoulders, much like she had before walking out of the kitchen and turned. His parents had moved closer, but hadn’t approached. Now they did.
They looked older than when Addy had last seen them, but the biggest difference was the sheen of emotion in their eyes and on their faces. The arrogance and disdain she’d seen before had fled.
Addy could feel Nina’s eyes on them, but she didn’t turn to her yet. Nina had wanted to wait until after their meeting with Heath. She’d said it would depend on how they treated her dad if she wanted to meet them or not.
Addy agreed completely. If they were jerks, they wouldn’t get the chance to hurt Nina further. But their faces told her they weren’t going to be jerks.
Both of their gazes were locked on Heath and both looked wary. His father extended his hand. “Congratulations, son.”
Heath shook the offered hand and nodded his head. His mother grabbed his hand and squeezed it. “Congratulations, Heath.”
The woman’s gaze turned to Addy and the wariness grew. “Congratulations to you as well, Addison. You are a beautiful bride and we can’t thank you enough for inviting us to attend. It was a lovely ceremony and we’re pleased to be here. Pleased to see you.”
“It’s nice to see you as well, Mrs. Wilcox.”
Heath’s father turned to her. “Thank you. We owe you an apology.”
Addy smiled. “Thank you.”
His mother spoke again. “We’re sorry. So sorry. We were—” She started to add something else, but cut herself off. After a deep breath, she spoke again. “We were wrong. Thank you for allowing us to be here today.”
Addy nodded. “You’re welcome.”
Nina interrupted the most awkward conversation in the world, by sliding between Addy and Heath. They both put their arms around her. Unless the Wilcoxes were incredibly dense, they would see the protection for exactly what it was.
She squeezed Nina’s waist. “Nina. These are your grandparents, Clarence and Georgiana Wilcox. Mr. and Mrs. Wilcox, this is your granddaughter Nina.”
Heath’s mom pressed her lips together and tears filled her eyes and one rolled down her cheek. “We’re so pleased to meet you, Nina. You’re a beautiful young lady.”
Nina nodded, but didn’t smile.
Heath’s dad nodded. “Your grandmother is right. You’re beautiful. We owe you an apology as well. More than that.”
Nina nodded again. Pride in her daughter filled Addy. She wasn’t a pushover and she would make these two earn her respect and trust. Showing up today was a good start.
An awkward silence descended and was broken by Troy appearing in their little circle. “Mr. and Mrs. Wilcox. I’m Troy Phail, a friend of our newlyweds. Can I offer you some refreshment?”
They nodded and followed Troy, but their eyes kept returning to Nina again and again.
After they moved a few feet away, Addy let out a breath. “Awkward. I’m sorry, I’m not sure I should have done that to either of you.”
Heath wrapped his arms around them both. “I’m glad you did. They’ve got a lot to prove if they want to be in our lives, but you gave them a chance to show they want that to happen. And they did. Thank you for being brave and selfless. How are you feeling, Nina?”
Nina blew out a breath. “It was weird. They’re strangers but they’re also my grandparents. I think Mom’s right. We have to give them a chance to make up for their mistakes. And now the first awkward meeting is over. It’ll get easier from now on, right?”
Heath laughed. “I hope you’re right. Okay, I think it’s time to make this wedding fun. Who wants to dance?”
Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
Happy New Year!
The crowd cheered, but Heath didn’t waste breath on a shout. Instead he framed Addy’s face in his hands and kissed her.
He wanted to finish the old year and start the new one with her in his arms. The same way he planned to celebrate every new year from now on.
When he managed to unlock his lips from hers, he realized he was done with the party. Time for him to be alone with his wife. Time to start the new year in the very best of ways.
Addy gazed up at him. “Would it be rude to leave our party early?”
He grinned. “Don’t care. It’s time to go.”
Nina bounced up to them. “Happy New Year!”
They hugged her and wished her a happy new year. Nina laughed. “I’m going to be a teenager soon. It’s going to be a great year.”
“Have fun with Nimii and Ginny. Don’t drive them batty.”
Nina laughed. “But that’s my superpower. You guys are leaving?”
They nodded and she grinned. “See you tomorrow.” Then she hugged them again and bounced away.
Heath took Addy’s hand. “That girl has had way too much sugar.”
Addy laughed. “Not our problem until tomorrow.”
Heath laughed and stooped to swoop her up into his arms. He’d left his car right at the back door, but he still wanted to get Addy bundled up against the chilly air.
Of course, leaving wasn’t that easy. Probably alerted by their daughter, Troy spoke through the speakers. “Looks like our newlyweds are trying to sneak out without saying goodbye.”
Shaking his head, Heath groaned and turned around with Addy still cradled in his arms. She thumped her head into his chest but she was laughing as she waved at their friends. His parents and some others had left earlier in the evening, but most people had stayed to cheer in the new year.
Heath called out. “Thanks for everything everyone. Take care of our girl and we’ll see you tomorrow. Or the next day.”
That caused Addy’s flush to deepen as everyone laughed with them.
Once he was through the doors to the kitchen, he set Addy on one of the kitchen stools and grabbed their winter gear. Marcus followed them in.
His buddy handed Heath a set of keys. “Slight change of plans. Your new destination is your farmhouse. A few of us got some things set up for you. Congratulations again.”
And he was gone. Heath shared a look with Addy but she held out her hands. “This surprise wasn’t my doing.”
“Me neither. But let’s go find out what they’ve done.”
A few minutes later, he pulled in front of their porch. They’d only owned the property for a week so they hadn’t done much other than plan and dream about what they’d like to do with the place.
Heath leaned over the console to kiss Addy. His wife. “Hang tight and I’ll open up.”
He tapped her nose and jumped out of the car before she could finish that sentence. Solar lights lit up the porch and he unlocked the door.
Addy had stayed in the car and he smiled as he lifted her up in his arms again. She laughed. “I’m quite capable of walking.”
He grinned as he climbed the porch steps then paused outside the door. “We’re crossing the threshold for the first time as a married couple. What kind of husband would I be if I let you walk across it?”
She laughed. “I don’t know, but I do know you’re an amazing husband. We’re married.”
He laughed. “I know. Mind-boggling. Next thing you know, we’ll be adults and everything.”
She grinned. “I have some very adult ideas about what happens next.”
His body tightened further. “Me too.”
A quick glance around the main floor showed that a soft light glowed in the kitchen and several solar lamps lit the way up the stairs.
Keeping Addy in his arms he walked up the stairs and down the hallway to the master bedroom at the back of the house. More soft solar lamps lit the room and the bathroom beyond.
White curtains had been hung across the windows and a large king-sized bed and mattress had been added to the room. Bedding in shades of navy and grey covered the bed and pillows.
A wooden tray sat on the bed holding a bucket of ice and a bottle of champagne. Two glasses and a plate of chocolates and strawberries filled the tray and a card sat on the bed beside it. Flowers sat in vases around the room.
“I can’t believe they did this for us.” Addy’s voice was soft.
“I can’t either.” He set Addy down on the bed and sat beside her. She reached for the car and opened it.
It was a hand-drawn cartoon of him and Addy crossing the threshold like they had a few minutes before. Addy grinned. “This has to be Josie’s work.”
Inside, the card read. Congratulations and welcome home. We thought we’d get you started on furnishing the place. Refreshments are in the fridge downstairs for when you need sustenance.
The card was signed by Nimii, Ginny, his Army buddies and their wives, and their friends from Midnight Lake.
He had to swallow against the emotion. “This is a pretty amazing gift.” He lifted the bottle and popped the champagne then poured them each a glass. He handed her one and then clinked his glass with hers. “To the most precious woman in the world. I love you, Addy.”
She stood and clinked their glasses again. “I love you too, Heath. So much. I never dreamed my life would be this wonderful.”
They sipped the champagne and he turned them into a dance. It didn’t take long for the desire to build back up and to consume them. They touched and kissed and tasted and teased as they moved around the room.
She loosened his tie.
He unzipped her dress.
She slipped his buttons free.
He slid the dress down and helped her step out of it. Then nearly lost his mind at the lace she worn beneath it.
She pushed his shirt off and undid his pants.
His lifted the tray off the bed and set it on the floor and then lifted Addy again. “You’re everything, Addy. You’re my everything.”
And then he set about proving it.
8 weeks later
Nina followed the well-traveled path between her new home and Kimi’s place that was both her house and her veterinarian business.
She twirled as she crossed the empty farmland between them. When she’d been a baby, she and her mom had lived with Nimii and Ginny. But her mom had eventually been able to afford the home they’d lived in for the last six years.
She’d loved that house until creepy Mr. Adamson had started doing stuff to get her mom’s attention. Sometimes adults were dumb. Turning off the heater and sabotaging her mom’s car weren’t ways to get someone to like you. He was also way older.
Nina’s Dad knew how to be an adult and how to treat a woman he liked. Nina still grinned every time she thought about the few weeks before Christmas. She’d never expected to meet her dad and she’d sure never expected to like him.
But she did. She loved him just like she loved her mom. And now the two of them were married and they were all living in a new house with tons of space. Her mom even had an office for writing her books.
With the short walk to Kimi’s, her mom and dad didn’t mind her walking on her own. And when summer came, she’d be able to ride her bike.
She knew they watched her from the windows, but that didn’t bother her. After Mr. Adamson had kidnapped her mom, Nina didn’t mind have them watching out for her.
She climbed the fence onto Kimi’s property and turned to wave at her house and whichever one was watching.
Then she walked along the path past Kimi’s cottage and to the paddocks and barns out in the back. She loved working with the animals and Kimi was awesome. She knew how to fix any injuries and she also made sure the animals were happy.
Well, except Snoops. That donkey was never happy. Kimi just laughed and said that he deserved love and safety, even if he was ornery. Which was a very cool word.
Maybe the donkey was lonely. He might not find the other animals good friends. Kimi had tried goats, sheep, horses, cats, dogs, chickens, and even a cow. Snoops turned up his nose at all of them, and he even tried to take a bite out of a few.
Nina wondered if maybe Kimi was lonely too. With all of the animals around her, Kimi didn’t spend too much time with other humans other than Nina. People came in with their animals and everyone liked Kimi. She was really good at figuring out which animals would be best for other people.
Like Nina’s Animosh, who was snuggled up in her dog bed beside her mom’s writing desk. The German Shepherd was the best Christmas present ever. Other than getting a house and a family.
Nina’s steps slowed as she talked to the animals in the paddocks, the ones who liked being outside on a nice winter day. Her mom and dad had become even happier once they got together. Maybe Kimi needed someone to be her boyfriend or girlfriend. Nina didn’t think she’d ever heard about Kimi going out on a date.
She’d helped bring her mom and dad together. Maybe she could do the same for Kimi. All she needed was to find the right person.