Authors: Maggie McGinnis
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“My happily-ever-after is
going to start at some cheesy dance in a town where the cows still outnumber the people.” Piper stretched from the top step of the ladder, tying yet another giant snowflake ornament to the function hall ceiling. “I don't care if forty-nine happy marriages
started right here at the Snowflake Ball. Mine is not destined to be number fifty. Pretty sure yours isn't, either.”
Her cousin Molly laughed as she handed up another snowflake. “Oh, come on. It's tradition. What
are you going to do on a Friday night in December?”
“Gosh, I don't know. Shop? Go caroling? Rip out my fingernails?”
“You hate shopping, you can't sing, and you have an exceptionally low pain tolerance.”
“Ooh, that's right! Pain!” Piper worked up her best grimace. “My pinkie toe's still broken. I could risk permanent injury. Amputation, even. No dancing for me. So sorry.”
“And yet you seem to be managing this ladder just fine. And yoga last night. And your five-mile run this morning?”
“Put your eyebrows back down, detective. Dancing is completely different. Face it. I'm practically incapacitated.”
“Piper Maria Bellini, you broke that damn toe a year ago.” Molly narrowed her eyes. “You know, you could actually, possibly have a good time tonight. Has that thought crossed your mind?”
“Nope.” Piper pushed the ladder five feet toward the window, taking another pile of glittery paper snowflakes up to hang. “Mols, between the two of us, we have either dated, dumped, or dodged every eligible bachelor within a ten-mile radius. Unless some rogue visitor comes riding in on his white steed before seven o'clock tonight, we'll both spend the night dancing with the same guys we've been avoiding for years.”
“But it's for a good cause. It's the biggest fundraiser Ethan does for Avery's House. You're one of his best friends. It would be totally rude to bow out.”
“Ah.” Piper reached up to tie a snowflake. “Playing the guilt card so early? That's kind of beneath you, Mols.”
Molly shrugged. “I'm desperate. If you don't come with me tonight, I'll be the only woman over twenty-five on that damn singles tree. Even the deejay won't be able to contain his pity.”
Piper looked toward the stage, where the town elders were setting up two Christmas trees. The Scotch pines looked innocent right now, all freshly cut and green. But by six o'clock tonight, they'd both be festooned with sparkling snowflake ornaments. And at seven o'clock, the deejay would cue up his music and start plucking those ornaments off the trees, pairing up Echo Lake's singles, one dance at a time.
It was a complete, utter nightmare.
“Sorry, Mols. I've already booked Ben & Jerry tonight.”
“Piper, Ben & Jerry will be comforting thousands of single women across America, one spoonful at a time. I'm pretty sure you can leave your Chunky Monkey in the freezer. They won't be offended.”
Piper rolled the ladder to the next rafter. “Listenâmy eggs are withering at a rapid rate here. They're sobbing as their sister eggs take their last breaths. I don't have time to waste on town dances filled with men I'll never fall in love with. I'm sticking with my ice cream date.”
Molly raised her eyebrows as she handed another snowflake to Piper. “There's still a chance that the whole rogue-visitor thing could work out.”
Piper felt a sudden golf ball in her throat. “Not a big fan of the type, Mols. They don't tend to stay.”
An understatement if she'd ever heard one. The last rogue visitor had headed straight to AfricaÂ â¦ with her heart still firmly in his stupid Patagucci jacket.
“Is this where a good cousin says
they're not all like Noah?
“Not at first, they're not.” Piper nodded, her eyebrows high. “But eventually they all leave. You know it just as well as I do. Echo Lake might be the spot you and I think is heaven on earth, but it's not exactly bachelor paradise.”
Molly sighed. “Then it's you, Ben, and Jerry for the evening? How do your eggs feel about
“They don't know yet.” She tied the snowflake, then shook the blood back into her arms. They'd already hung fifty of the things, and from the looks of the pile in Molly's hand, they had at least that many to go. “By the way, when did you stop
hating the Snowflake Ball?”
Molly sighed. “I don't know. I'm trying to come to terms with the fact that my name will still be on the desperate-women tree, too. Either I fake my enthusiasm, or I start drinking now in preparation for the hellish yearly spectacle.”
“I vote for B.” Piper reached down for another snowflake. “What are we drinking?”
“You're drinking nothing!” Mama Bellini bustled by, carrying a huge box of sparkly ornaments. She was a carbon copy of Molly, except with twenty-five years' worth of laugh lines added on top. She was an Italian mama bearâall bark, no bite, and Piper loved her aunt like she was her own mother.
Always had, even when her mother had still been alive.
Funny how that worked.
Mama B paused and turned back. “You gals almost done with those snowflakes?”
“Almost.” Piper came down the ladder and reached for the box Mama B was carrying. “Here. Let me take those for you.”
Mama Bellini gripped the box tightly, turning her body. “Ha. You think I'm handing you this box? Next thing I know, you and Molly will be pawing through it, taking out all the ornaments with your names on them.”
“I would never.” Piper put an innocent hand to her chest. “I'm appalled.”
“Well, you go ahead and be appalled all you like. You forget I know you, missy. I worked hard to sell these ornaments. I'm not letting them out of my sight.”
For two weeks now, people had been coming into BellinisâMama B's Italian restaurantâbuying the ornaments and using a bold black marker to write a name on each one. If Piper heard Mama B say
Five bucks for a chance to make somebody a lifetime match!
one more time, she was going to scream. The whole thing was like some convoluted outtake of
Fiddler on the Roof,
She knew damn well that at least half of those ornaments had her name or Molly's on them, thanks to Mama B. The woman had probably worn out her pen writing their names on the snowflakes, hoping that maybe this year was the last year she'd have to do it. Maybe by next Christmasâif a mama's dreams could finally come trueâshe wouldn't have to worry about marrying off her girls anymore.
Piper hated to disappoint her once again, but there was sanity to consider here.
Mama B pointed vaguely toward the door with her elbow. “I have a surprise for you at the restaurant. You two come back when you're done decorating here.”
“What is it? Did you get me my own cowboy for Christmas?”
“No.” She shook her head, rolling her eyes. “I got you a new dress. Maybe you can use it to
you a cowboy tonight. Or something else.”
“You bought me a dress?” Piper swallowed, picturing the flowing caftans Mama B tended to favor when she wasn't in the kitchen at Bellinis.
“I did. How else was I going to guilt you into coming tonight? Now you have to, because I spent my hard-earned dollars finding you the perfect dress. And buying all of these ornaments.”
“Mama B, that was really nice of you, butâ”
“No buts. You hang the snowflakes, you come help me serve the lunch special, and then you put on the beautiful dress.” Mama's eyebrows arched upward. “I mentioned the part about my hard-earned dollars?”
Piper sighed as Molly's shoulders shook. “You did.”
“Good.” Mama took one hand off the ornament box and patted Piper's shoulder. “So now you say
I'll be there for the lunch rush
you're the best aunt in the world,
“Yes.” Piper closed her eyes, shaking her head. “All of those things.”
Mama B laughed as she bustled off toward the stage. “Forty-nine happy marriages. All I'm saying!”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Noah stood on the snow-covered beach on the shore of Echo Lake, looking across the frozen lake at where Snowflake Village sat on a hillside. He could see the cars of the Ferris wheel rising slowly above the trees, and through the firs, he caught the sparkle of twinkling lights. The air was so still that if the park wasn't miles away across the water, he'd almost swear he could hear the carols that played nonstop from speakers mounted high in the trees throughout the Christmas theme park.
“Look like you remember?” His old climbing buddy Luke came up beside him, hands buried in his jacket pockets.
Noah nodded. “Hard to forget it.”
“You been back here since you and Piper were a thing?”
“No.” Noah shook his head. “I've barely been back to the States since then, let alone Vermont.”
Luke clapped him on the back. “Living the dream, eh? Woman in every port and all that?”
“Hardly.” Noah rolled his eyes. “Turns out there's a magic age where the whole high-adventure-travel-writer thing loses its charm.”
Luke cringed. “Because then you're the guy who's old enough to settle down, but doesn't want to? Bad bet all around?”
“ExactlyÂ â¦ apparently.” Noah shrugged. Damned if he knew.
“So what's the magic age? Justâyou knowâcurious.”
Noah looked sidelong at him. “I don't know, but somewhere along the line, I passed it.”
“Damn. That means I did, too. Who knew this rolling-stone shtick got old?” He turned to head back up the hill. “Come check out the main lodge. I want to see what you think.”
Noah followed him, silently assessing the property as he did. According to Luke, the land they were walking had been run as a family campground for thirty years before falling into disrepair when the owner had passed away five years ago. His two children had held on to it out of respect for their father, but neither of them had the business acumen or people skills to run it like he had, so they'd made the difficult decision to sell.