“I can just stand up and shout that dessert’s a go,” Ian offered, but she shook her head.
“No, no. I want to greet everyone and let them know that I’m grateful for them being here.” She looked over to me and reached her hand out toward me. I took it in mine, and she gave me that smile that warmed me. “I’m so grateful for you being here, Hazel.”
My eyes must’ve watered, because she ordered me to not cry before she headed off to the other tables.
“Gosh, she’s a gem.” I sniffled, wiping at the few tears falling from my eyes.
“Come on, Haze,” Ian said, nudging me. “She said don’t cry.”
“I know, I know. I’m just so happy. This whole get-together is beyond amazing. I hadn’t celebrated Thanksgiving over the past few years. Even when I did celebrate, it was mainly just my mom and me eating a store-bought chicken.”
He raised an eyebrow. “My grandparents have been hosting this event since before I was born, and it’s been free to all in town. Why didn’t you come here?”
“Charlie didn’t want us getting mixed into town events. He said it would bring up too many opportunities for nosy people to get in his way.” He frowned, and I hated that. I hated when Ian looked sad for my past. I patted his knee. “But I’m here now, and that’s all that matters.”
“If I could go back in time, I would’ve never treated you the way that I did, Haze. I know time has passed since our first meeting, but damn. I still hate myself a little for being such an ass to you.”
I chuckled a little. “Well, you’ve more than made up for that fact, that’s for sure. Plus, the ten thousand dollars covers all rude comments of the past,” I joked.
He stayed somber, and I missed the happiness that lay on his lips.
“What is it, Ian?”
“I just miss you. I miss this,” he said, gesturing toward the crowd. “I never thought I’d miss home so much until I left it.”
“What do you miss the most?” I asked.
He breathed out a cloud of hot air. “Hell, everything. The stupid bumpy dirt roads. The bonfires. The animals on the farm. Dottie kicking me with her hooves. You. I miss you.”
I leaned in and kissed his lips. “Well, I’m here right now.”
“I’m thankful for that.”
“I’m thankful for you.”
His smile crept back to his lips, and he kissed me once more. As his lips lay against mine, he whispered to me, “Can I make love to you until the morning?”
“Yes,” I replied, biting his bottom lip. “Or at least until Rosie needs a diaper change.”
The short trip home came and went faster than I would’ve liked, but I was thankful for every second I’d been able to spend with my family and loved ones. When it came time to pack up my bags, Big Paw, Grams, and Hazel were waiting outside the house again like the first time I’d left. The only difference this time around was Rosie lying in Big Paw’s arms.
“We really need to stop parting this way,” Grams joked, kissing my cheek.
“I’ll hopefully be back sooner than later.”
“For Christmas?” she said, hopefully.
I frowned, knowing that we’d be gone doing Christmas shows. Never in my life had I missed Christmas with my grandparents. Perhaps Max would give us some kind of Christmas miracle. “I hope so, Grams.” I kissed her cheek.
Big Paw waved me off and told me not to do the sad send-off again. I kissed Rosie’s forehead and shook my grandfather’s hand. “Do good out there, Ian. Then come home.”
Then I moved over to Hazel, who was holding a box in her hands. I dreaded saying goodbye to her. A part of me wanted to beg her to join me on tour, but I knew that was selfish. She was making a life for herself on the ranch, and I couldn’t expect her to give up something she loved so much just so I could wake up with her every single day.
But dammit if I didn’t want to wake up with her every single day.
“This is for you,” she said, holding the box out toward me.
I raised an eyebrow and opened the box. As I studied the pieces inside, I felt as if my chest were going to explode with happiness. Funny how I’d left home to find happiness, but it had been sitting right there beside me all this time.
“It’s a piece of home,” she explained, digging through the box for me. “This is a jar filled with the old dirt road. There’s a bonfire-scented candle and a few photographs of all of us. I even took pictures of the animals around the ranch. Also, Holly made a dozen of her kitchen-sink cookies for you, and I made a few loaves of banana bread. Just something to remind you of us whenever you need it.”
I loved her so damn much, more and more each day. I hadn’t known love could keep growing, but every time I was around Hazel, my grinch heart grew three sizes.
“You’re perfect,” I told her, putting the box down and pulling her into an embrace. “I’ll see you soon, all right?”
“But not too soon,” she ordered. “First your dreams need to come true.”
“Trust me.” I kissed her forehead. “They already did.”
“You’re my best friend, Ian Parker.”