“Hard to believe we’re at the end of another year.”
I glanced at my wife Rilla, who was perched on a stool, her elbows resting on the edge of the oak bar. Idly, she stirred her drink with a red straw as she smiled up at me.
Sometimes when I looked at her, I still couldn’t believe she belonged to me. There were still days when I woke up and for a moment, I panicked that the past ten years had been. dream, and I was still alone, struggling to raise my daughter and take care of my seriously ill mother.
But it was all incredibly real. Rilla was my wife, and although our marriage might have had an unconventional start, we’d continued to move from strength to strength. Every single day, I fell more deeply in love with her. My mother was alive and well, still in remission, living with us in the big house we’d built on a quiet street in Burton.
Piper, the daughter from my first marriage, was a brand-new teenager, and although she was a good girl, smart and bright and gorgeous, she kept both Rilla and me hopping. And when I took into account the rest of our brood–Noah was nine, Miriam six, and Benjamin three–I often wondered how my wife still looked like a kid herself–and how she stayed so calm and serene.
“It was a good year,” I answered her, grinning. “Business is better than ever. All the kids are healthy and thriving. I’ve got the hottest, sexiest wife in the entire state of Georgia . . .” I lifted one shoulder. “Can’t imagine how life could get any better.”
“Oh, I think it’s going to get just a little sweeter around May.” Her smile grew more luminous and one hand slid down to smooth over her barely there bump.
“Five kids,” I moaned, even as I felt a deep sense of self-satisfaction and anticipation. “Babe, what were we thinking? They already outnumber us. Now even our zone defense won’t be enough.”
Rilla raised one eyebrow. “I believe we weren’t thinking at all. I believe we were enjoying a rare and much-needed long weekend away down in Crystal Cove, and as normally happens with us, we got carried away.” Her cheeks went pink, and God, I loved that my wife still blushed when she thought about our sex life.
“I have zero regrets,” I informed her. “I’d do it all again.”
“I know you would,” she laughed. “So would I. Oh, you know what I was thinking? If this baby is a girl, we should name her Crystal since that was where she was received.”
I cocked my head. “Not a bad idea, except it doesn’t quite fit in with the other names. Oh, and of course, this is a girl. That’s how we do things. Girl, boy, girl, boy, girl.”
“We’ll see,” Rilla laughed. “Maybe . . . Christina.”
The door behind my wife opened, and two couples walked in. I waved at them, calling out, “Jackson and Regan! What the hell are you two doing here? I thought you were in England!”
Regan laughed as they all wandered over to the bar. “We flew home to surprise our families, and you know we couldn’t pass up a chance to come to the party tonight!”
Jackson tightened his hold on his wife. “Back to the scene of the crime.”
“Hey.” Regan elbowed him. “It wasn’t a crime. It was the scene of us falling in love.”
“Of course it was.” He hugged her close.
Rilla had swiveled around to face the newcomers, and her blue eyes were wide. “Hey, Zander. Um, what’s new?”
Jackson’s brother looked happier than I’d ever seen him, and I had a strong hunch that his bliss had to do with the dark-haired guy holding his hand. Diego Ramos had gone to high school here in Burton, but he hadn’t been back in a decade–until last month when he’d returned to film a movie that happened to take place on Zander’s farm. That had allowed him to reconnect with both his hometown and the man who’d gotten away. He and Zander made a great couple, I thought, even though my wife was currently ogling the rising movie star.
“Hey, Rilla. Not much.” Zander tilted his head toward his boyfriend. “Have you met Diego?”
My wife tried to play it cool and failed miserably, God bless her. “Oh, um, no, but I’m a totally huge fan, and I’d love to, um, ah, meet him. You.”
I took pity on the woman I loved. “Darlin’, why don’t you show the McCord/Ramos party to their table? Number eighteen.”
“Sure!” She slid to her feet and gestured to the group. “Right this way.”
I’d just served beer to a few customers at the bar when I heard a familiar voice at the other end. “What does a guy have to do to get served in this joint?”
“Matty!” I came out from behind the bar and wrapped the kid in a bear hug. “I heard you were around for Christmas, but I wasn’t sure you’d make it tonight. Good to see you, boy.”
“I insisted. I wasn’t going to miss a Burton tradition.” Alexandria Rosara, Matt Westin’s fianceé, looped her arm through his and then reached up to kiss my cheek. “Hey, Mason. Did you miss us?”
“I did,” I chuckled. “Hey, Matty, any chance I can rope you and your lady into playing at least one song for us tonight?”
Matt pretended to be aggravated. “Dude, I’m here on my holiday, and you’re gonna make me work?”
“Damn straight I am. Watch it, or I’ll give you an apron and some tables to bus.”
“We’ll do it,” Alex said, resting her head on Matt’s shoulder. “It’s the least we can do, considering we fell in love here on Valentine’s Day.”
“You heard her!” I crowed, clapping Matt on the back. “I’ll give you the nod when we’re ready for you.”
“Got it.” Matt nodded. “Do you have a table for us, or are you booked up solid?”
“I always hold onto a couple of spots for last-minute attendees. Like you.” I winked at the boy. Matty Westin would always be a boy for me, no matter how big a star he became. Since our hostess was already busy with another group, I motioned to a passing server. “Arya, can you please show this couple to table number five?”
“Happy to. Just let me drop off these empties.” Arya scooted around me to the back of the bar to get rid of the beer bottles, and I didn’t miss the heated glance she exchanged with Griffin, our security guard, who was also her fiancé as of about a month ago. That had been a total surprise to me; both of them had worked here for years, and I’d never picked up on any vibes between the two–until Halloween. After that night, it had seemed they couldn’t keep their hands or their eyes off each other. Probably a good thing they were planning for a wedding on January. They’d chosen an odd day to get hitched–a Thursday in the middle of the month–and when I’d asked about it, Arya had said something about a full moon. Whatever! Must be some weird new-age thing.
The party was in full swing. I stood back, my arms crossed over my chest as I let my gaze wander over the crowd. I’d offered to host the annual New Year’s Eve shindig years ago, right after I’d moved back to town and opened the bar. It had been a wonderful decision, even better as the years went on and I’d wanted to include my own family in the celebration. Rilla and the kids always came for an early dinner, and then usually, she drove them home as the party got louder and busier. Tonight, though, Bridget Evans, Ali and Flynn’s teenage daughter, had volunteered to babysit so that Rilla could stay to ring in the new year with me.
Speaking of the Evans . . . over in the corner, Ali and Flynn Evans sat with Meghan and Sam Reynolds, Maureen and Smith Harrison, and Maureen and Flynn’s cousin Faith with her boyfriend Isaac. They were all laughing and having a grand time, I noted with satisfaction.
Across the room at a table for two, Grace and Spencer Dawkins had their heads together. When they’d come in earlier, Grace had confided that this was their first night out alone since their honeymoon in June. But neither of them were complaining as their baby boy was clearly the light of their lives.
Ashley and Zane Fletcher had joined Ethan Corning and Tessa Robbins. Will and Sydney Garth sat with them, too. Sydney’s aunt Kiki had been here earlier with her one and only, the famous country star Troy Beck, but they’d snuck out before too many people arrived. We tried to respect the privacy of our resident celebrity here in Burton, but there were always going to be gawking fans. I didn’t blame them for wanting to enjoy the new year more privately.
Bianca Dellacourt and Dylan Wesley, owners of the new microbrewery in Burton, were on the dance floor. I was so damned happy for Dylan, who’d had a rough time of it before he’d met Bianca and started his business. Looked like wedding bells might be ringing for those two sometime soon, too.
“Hello, Mason. What a great party!” Inge Martin greeted me with a kiss on the cheek. “Nick’s never been to one of your New Year’s Eve blowouts. Can you believe it?”
The man in question shook my hand. “I’m glad to be here. Especially because I owe you a huge thanks.”
I quirked an eyebrow. “How so?”
Nick grinned broadly. “Back in July, you recommended me for a job. As it turned out, not only did I get the work, I got the woman, too.” He slung an arm around Inge’s neck and hauled her close.
I’d known Inge for a good many years, and I was well aware of the damage her late husband had caused her heart and her pride when he’d died suddenly in another woman’s bed. She’d taken on an air of aloofness, keeping everyone except her kids and closest friends at arm’s length. But Nick had cracked through that tough shell and restored her heart as he’d repaired her deck. I could tell that by the way she gazed up lovingly into his eyes.
“I’m happy for you both,” I told them. “Inge, your kids are sitting just to the left of the stage. They’ve got seats for you. Enjoy yourselves!”
They disappeared into the crowd with a backward wave. I glanced at my watch; it was just about time for me to introduce the first act. I wove through the tables and groups of people until I came to one where three women sat with two men–and one empty chair.
“About time for him to go on?” Celeste called out to me as I approached. Her eyes sparkled. “Our flight to Nashville leaves just after midnight. He has time for a twenty-minute set and no longer!”
“I know, I know,” I assured her. “I’m on it. About to jump on the stage to introduce him.” I looked around the rest of the table. “Sabrina, Wesley . . . Coral–and I don’t think I know your friend.”
“This is Dax.” Coral snuggled closer to the guy who looked at her like she’d hung the moon. “He’s a bartender, too. Also, he’s my boyfriend. I mean, like, we’re together. Officially. We–”
“Mason gets it, sweetie,” Sabrina interrupted, her lips twitching. Coral had quite a reputation for babbling, and it seemed it was well-earned.
“You’re a bartender?” I propped my hands on my hips and studied him. “Are you looking for a job, by any chance?”
He studied me in silence for a moment. “I wasn’t, but I could be. You have an opening?”
“I might.” I nodded. “I’m thinking of stepping back a little next year. I want to spend more time with my wife and my kids.” I shrugged. “Think about it. If you’re interested, come by next week and we’ll talk.”
Then, because I could see Celeste looking meaningfully at the time on her phone, I sketched a salute and jogged up to the stage.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thanks for being here tonight for the annual Burton New Year’s Eve Bash! I’m gonna talk some more later on and thank a ton of people for making this night possible. But right now, because I promised his girl that I’d get him on stage right quick, let’s all give a huge Burton welcome to one of our favorite hometown boys, Ty Hollis!”
Ty leaped up next to me. I gave him a quick bro hug and then climbed down to let him kick off his performance.
Making my way to the back of the room, I stood in the shadows to watch the show. This was my town, my community. I was proud of the way we pulled together in tough times and celebrated in good ones. This bar that I’d created from the ground up was a meeting place, a spot where friends gathered and lovers met. I was proud of that, too.
“Hey, you.” Rilla slipped in next to me and wrapped her arms around my waist. “Look at all this. You made this happen. Again.”
“We made this happen,” I reminded her. “We’re a team. Everything that I do is possible because you’re here to support me, to keep me going . . .” I ran my hand down to cover her belly. “To make us gorgeous babies who will care for us in our old age.”
“I know, and I appreciate that you make me a part of everything. But Mason . . . I was walking around talking to people, and do you know how many couples told me that they wouldn’t be together if it weren’t for you? How many you’ve introduced or offered advice to or a listening ear?” She nuzzled my neck. “You’re the love guru, babe. You help them live their happy endings.”
I chuckled and held my wife closer. Love guru? Huh. That was a title I’d never expected to have. But then again, I’d never planned to be here, never planned to live in my hometown. Never thought I’d own a bar or have–God help us–five kids. But here we were, and I couldn’t imagine a better life.
Life–and love–really was sweeter in a small town.