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Nicole Russell walked her class out to the pickup line at Honeysuckle Elementary, her fourteen kindergarten students eager to greet their mom or dad. It was an especially cold December afternoon, even for Last Stand, Texas. Late last night, they’d had an unexpected snowstorm, enough white powder to blanket the streets and make for a frosty landscape. This morning, her students had been thrilled to slosh through the snow. It was an unusual sight and one worthy of all the hoopla. Nicole was careful to make sure the little ones put on their jackets before going outside for pickup.
The cars drove up and one by one, Nicole escorted the child to their parent. She knew many of the adults from childhood, so as she handed them off, she smiled and waved. Too often she’d receive a sympathetic look in return. Still. It had been three solid months since she’d been left at the altar in the church just a few blocks away. Three months since her beautiful one-of-a-kind wedding gown had been tossed aside. Three months since the food had spoiled at the reception that didn’t happen.
How could she have been so wrong about Johnny Dupree? How could she have not seen it coming?
Don’t dwell. Don’t dwell, Nic.
She handed Donald Collins off to his mom. “He had a great day, today,” she said.
“Thank you, Miss Russell. It’s good to hear. How are you doing?” Mrs. Collins gave her a head tilt, the one she dreaded.
“Just fine,” she replied. “Have a great rest of your day.”
She loved the town, but she didn’t want to be everyone’s pity case. Small towns were like that, and Mrs. Collins along with the rest of them was being kind and caring. But why couldn’t they move on, like she was trying to do?
She couldn’t dwell, Christmas was coming and it was her favorite time of year. She needed the diversion, looked forward to it. All she had to do now was finish planning the Honeysuckle Holiday Fundraiser.
When Paulette Sanchez pulled up to the curb, she guided her newest student, Cody Brown to the car. “Look, Cody. Here’s your ride.”
She ducked her head down as she helped Cody into the car seat. “Hi, Paulette.”
Paulette was a high school senior, and the daughter of Honeysuckle’s school principal, helping out by driving Cody back and forth to school, while his uncle Garrett worked at Cottonwood Ranch. There was sometimes babysitting involved, from what Nicole gathered.
“Hi, Miss Russell. How did Cody do in school today?”
“He’s been fascinated with the snow. All the kids are. It’s quite a treat, right, Cody?”
The dark-haired boy nodded.
“I agree. I don’t remember it ever snowing in Last Stand. It’s pretty awesome,” Paulette said. “So I can tell Mr. Brown that Cody is doing well and doesn’t need any extra help with anything? He asks me at drop-off every day.”
“Right now, Cody is keeping pace with the class, but I’d be happy to speak with him if he needs reassurance.” She glanced at the boy and he gave her a shy smile. “I did send a couple of notes to Mr. Brown this week about the fundraiser. Did he mention it to you?”
Paulette shook her head. “No, he never mentioned a note.”
“I gave them to him, Miss Russell,” Cody answered from the back seat.
“I’m sure you did, Cody,” she said softly.
“He’s really busy and all, fixing up the ranch.”
“I know he is. Maybe I’ll send him another note. Well, good-bye now. See you on Monday, Cody.”
“Bye, Miss Russell.”
Once all the kids were picked up, her friend Julie, who taught second grade, slipped her arm through Nicole’s. “All done for the day?”
“Yes, how about you?”
“I’m all done too. We should head on over to the meeting. It’s about to start. We’ll grab some coffee to warm us up.”
“I know, right. I’ve been cold all day.” A shiver ran through her as she headed to the teacher’s lounge with Julie. “It’s amazing that we got snow last night.”
“Right, snow in Last Stand. It’s sort of a miracle. It’s too bad it happened in the wee hours of the morning. None of us got to see the snow fall.”
“It came as quite a surprise when I woke up. It’s really beautiful seeing everything coated in white.”
After grabbing coffee in the teacher’s lounge, they sat down at a table and greeted two other teachers and several PTA members, the Honeysuckle Elementary School’s fundraising committee. This was Nicole’s third year on the committee, and somehow, she’d been wrangled to head it up this time. She wanted to do it justice. They had thirteen families in need and it was important to give them a good start into the new year.
Nicole led the discussion, the PTA president taking notes as they touched base about how the progress was going.
“Do we have permission to use the Cottonwood property?” one member asked.
Nicole nibbled on her lips. “Not yet. I haven’t heard back from the new owner. But being Randolph Brown’s nephew, I figured it wouldn’t be a problem. Rand had donated his property for the past five years, ever since we’ve started doing this. Hopefully, Garrett Brown, who inherited the ranch from his uncle, will follow suit.”
“That place is perfect,” another committee member said. “Cottonwood Ranch isn’t too far from town, and being a nonworking ranch means we have full use of all the facilities.”
“I hope it won’t be a problem,” Cathy Jacoby said. “Mr. Brown has been coming into our store a lot, picking up supplies, and my Wes says he’s quiet, businesslike and never cracks a smile. Not even a polite one and we all know Wes’s corny sense of humor.”
Nicole smiled. Wes Jacoby ran the local hardware store and she’d never walked out of that store without a chuckle.
Julie twisted her mouth. “Maybe we should nail that down before we get ahead of ourselves. We’re on a tight schedule and if he’s not agreeable, we’ll have to come up with another place really fast. Everyone knows, our tiny auditorium isn’t big enough, and the parking lot is hardly conducive to what we have planned. The families love the sleigh rides in Rand’s old wagon, as well as the ornament making and tumbleweed snowman contest.”
“I’ll get right on it,” Nicole said.
She figured her polite little notes weren’t doing the trick. She needed a better plan of action. She’d taken what would’ve been her honeymoon off to recover from the shock and humiliation of being left at the altar and she’d never gotten the chance to meet Cody’s uncle after school started.
“Maybe more than a note this time,” Julie suggested. “Why not go over there and ask him in person?”
Nicole didn’t think it was a bad idea. The kids had no school tomorrow, a student-free day and she had no big plans, no hot dates. She scoffed at the notion. She couldn’t even wrap her head around dating anyone ever again. Both Julie and her dear friend, Taylor, said she was being dramatic; she shouldn’t give up on her future. Maybe they had a point. But she had every right to be dramatic. It wasn’t every day a woman got stood up by her groom because he wasn’t sure he loved her enough to marry her. And he wanted to get his head on straight.
Geesh. How had she been so blind?
“I think I will,” she said, getting back to the important matter at hand. The event was to take place in three weeks and she had been negligent in nailing this down. “I’ll pay Cody and his uncle a friendly little visit tomorrow.”
After all, what was the worst that could happen? He couldn’t very well run her off his property, could he?
Garrett stood at the gates of Cottonwood, waiting for little Cody to come home from school. Usually, Paulette would drive him right up to the front door, but today, he wanted to surprise Cody with a greeting. The boy had been through too much lately, and Garrett couldn’t love him any more than he already did. He only hoped he was enough for the boy. He didn’t have any experience in raising a child and when his twin sister Carrie died so unexpectedly, he was the only one close enough to Cody to raise him. He couldn’t imagine any distant relative taking him in. Cody deserved to be loved. It was just that Garrett wasn’t sure he could be both father and mother to the boy. Did he have the financial means to raise little Cody right?
It weighed heavily on him. He’d been working hard to flip the ranch house he’d inherited from Uncle Randolph. His plan was to put the entire property on the market, so he and Cody could finally settle down in Northern California. He’d bought a house there. It was a fixer-upper in a great neighborhood that was ready for a remodel. The sale of Cottonwood Ranch would give him peace of mind that Cody’s financial future would be secure.
Paulette’s white Honda came into view and Garrett lifted his hand to her. She waved back as she slowed the car to a stop and rolled down the window. “Hi Paulette. How’d it go today?”
“Really well. Miss Russell said Cody is keeping up with the class. She did ask me about a note she sent you.”
Garrett rubbed the back of his neck. “Oh yeah. Haven’t gotten around to answering her yet. I’ll try to remember on Monday.” Or not. He didn’t want to get involved with the community any more than he had to. He didn’t want Cody to get attached to being here. He’d had enough transition in his life already, with his mother dying and having to start kindergarten in a new place.
He walked to the back of the car and opened the door. Cody, being an independent kid, had already unbuckled himself out of the car seat and put on his jacket and his backpack. Every new thing that Cody learned swelled Garrett’s heart with pride.
“Hey, Code. Good to see you, buddy.”
“How was school today?”
“Good.” He bounced out of the SUV and high-fived him.
Garrett ruffled his shaggy dark hair.
“How come you’re out here?” the boy asked.
“Well, I’m all through for the day and I couldn’t wait to see you.”
“For one, pal, I miss you when you’re at school, and for two, I thought we’d do something fun this afternoon. How does that sound?”
Cody grinned. “Really?”
“Really. Let’s say good-bye to Paulette first and thank her, okay?”
The boy nodded and walked over to her. “Thanks, Paulette.”
“You’re welcome, Cody. Have a great weekend you two.”
“Same to you, Paulette. Thanks again,” Garrett said. “Drive safely now. The roads are a little slick.”
Garrett took hold of Cody’s hand and began walking toward the house. The connection filled him up and made him think of his sister and all she was missing out on. She’d adored her son and had worked hard being a single mom after her husband passed.
“The snow’s still on the ground, Uncle Garrett.” Jubilant, Cody kicked a patch of snow with his boot and the ice went flying.
“I see that. It was a freak storm. They don’t usually get snow in this part of Texas, Code.”
“But it’s here now.”
“Yeah, for a little bit.”
“Maybe it will come again. For Christmas.”
Garrett winced. “I wouldn’t count on it. This is not Denver, where it snows a lot, bud. Even the weatherman was surprised at the storm that moved in and out quickly last night. So let’s not get our hopes up.”
Cody eyed the snowy surroundings for a moment, his eyes filled with wonder as if he hadn’t just heard what Garrett said. Then his nephew dropped his backpack and bent down, picking up a clump of pure white snow and drew back his arm. Thenwham! Garrett saw a flash of white before the snowball hit him right smack on the shoulder. Cody burst out laughing.
“Oh yeah? You want a fight?” Garrett bent, gathered up his own snowball and lobbed it at Cody, hitting him on the arm. “Bang.”
The snowball fight lasted all the way to the house, with the two of them running and jumping out of the way of the next cold toss, Cody’s joyous shouts piercing Garrett’s ears. Both were freezing cold when they walked up the steps to take off their coats and shake them out.
“That was fun,” Cody said.
“It was. I think you got me good.”
He ushered them into the house, a work in progress. Garrett had torn down a bedroom wall, to make the living area into a great room, turning the place into a four-bedroom house instead of five. But the great room was where people lived, and more space was needed. The kitchen was partly done with new flooring and cabinetry ready for installation, but still needed new appliances. It was home, for now and Garrett tried to make it as comfortable during the process as possible.
Once they got dry, they opted to pop some popcorn in the microwave that was their only source of cooking at the moment, and watch a movie together. Luckily, Garrett had replaced the old fireplace last week and the wall-to-ceiling stacked stones really had eye appeal. He set wood logs to burn, and soon the room got warm and cozy. For a change, Garrett let his work go to spend some quality time with Cody. He had to do that more often. The boy needed it. And, maybe, so did he.
Cody took out the Battleship game and they sat across from each other and played for a good hour. Cody “beat” him twice, and Garrett won three games. Cody pouted a bit, moping around. Garrett knew enough to let him be, he didn’t like to lose. The boy got that trait from him so he’d have to work out the loss on his own.
When it was time for dinner, Garrett microwaved a frozen casserole he’d picked up at the market. He lacked skills in the kitchen, and that would have to change once they settled in California. The boy deserved more than frozen meals, but at the moment, it couldn’t be helped. The only appliance they had, besides a refrigerator, was the microwave. Thank goodness, Cody ate everything Garrett put before him.
“Code, how about some ice cream for dessert?”
The boy’s face lit up; his brown eyes sparkled. “Yes!”
“I thought you’d like some. But you have to—”
“I know, I know. I have to brush my teeth for an extra minute.”
“At least. You don’t want to—”
“Lose all my teeth before I’m thirty.”
Garrett grinned and ruffled the boy’s hair. Cody was sharp and bright, which was great, but it also posed problems because the boy knew he’d been orphaned, and he’d never see his father or mother again. He was different than most children, being raised by his bachelor uncle who moved around a lot and showed up when he was in between jobs. Garrett had a restless nature and went where the job took him, but had kept a small studio apartment a few miles from his sister’s place in Denver, to be close to them.
After eating a big bowl of his favorite ice cream, chocolate cherry chip, which Cody devoured, he wandered over to the window in the great room and peered out at the snow.
“Think it’ll be there tomorrow?” he asked.
“Probably. At least for some time. But once it warms up, the snow’s likely to melt.”
“But it could be here tomorrow, right? If it was cold enough?”
“That’s right. It could, but Code, don’t…”
Cody closed his eyes, a solemn look gracing his face as if he were wishing to the darkened skies for more snow.
Garrett only shook his head. He didn’t want to burst the boy’s bubble.
“C’mon Cody. Let’s get your teeth brushed and get you into bed.”
He lifted the boy and Cody curved his arms around his neck. It was the best feeling in the world, and the scariest, having Cody’s love and trust. Garrett was all the boy had now. It’d been just less than a year since he’d taken him in and the responsibility weighed on him still. He wanted so much to do right by the boy. To provide a safe home for him and Garrett would do that as soon as he sold Uncle Rand’s place and moved on to their forever home.
After Cody brushed his teeth and got into bed, Garrett kissed the boy’s forehead and then covered him up to his chin with a thick plaid quilt. “Night, Code. I love you.”
“I love you too, Uncle Garrett.”
End of Excerpt