Excerpt from Christmas in Miracle Falls

Book #1 of the Miracle Falls Series

     Rylee Wilson glanced around the studio—the one she’d moved back to Miracle Falls a year ago to take over—with pride. The polished wood floor, the spotless mirrors along the walls, and the barres—all were ready for this afternoon’s rehearsals. Who knew whether her students would be. After all, they were kids, and they’d had five days to forget.
     She’d performed in her share of ballets, but she’d never choreographed or produced a holiday dance program on her own until now. Coming home and running her own dance school for children ages six through thirteen had always been on the agenda, something to do in the distant future when she retired from dancing.
     Due to an injury that ruined her career and a bad breakup to boot, the distant future had become the present.
     Two six-year-old girls ran through the door in a burst of energy. “Hi, Miss Wilson!” they chirped in unison as they stopped at the boot scraper inside the entryway to wipe the snow from their boots.
     “Hi, Olivia and Sophie,” Rylee greeted, waving at Olivia’s mom as she exited the studio. Adults rarely stayed to observe the class, most rushing out to take advantage of the child-free hour. “Did you have a nice Thanksgiving?”
     Chattering away, they headed into the girls’ dressing rooms to change into their dance clothes.
     Last year Rylee had been too new at the job to even think about a recital. This was the school’s first ever holiday performance, and the first to double as a fundraiser. Which meant it had to be as good as or better than the programs produced by Judith Kane, the school’s founder and a legend in the community. Raising money for repairs and supplies was paramount, as the roof of the old building housing the studio was in bad shape. If that wasn’t enough, the furnace was on its last legs.
     If either one failed this winter… Perish the thought. Rylee wasn’t going to worry about that today. Too many other things on her mind.
     With mere weeks until the performance and none of her students close to ready, what had been once-a-week after-school classes had become a mandatory, daily event Monday through Friday. Three separate, hour-long rehearsals each day during which Rylee steered the dancers toward success.
     Between the Thanksgiving holiday and the festivities of the season now in high gear, all three groups were bound to be rusty. Not a problem, as she was armed and ready to refresh their memories with music and the choreography she’d fine-tuned over the long weekend. Because, face it, she was still learning the ropes herself.
     First up, Rubies, ages six to eight. More dancers trickled in, like Sophie and Olivia, accompanied by their parents or whoever had driven the carpool that day. Rylee greeted each arrival with a welcoming smile.
     Talking and laughing, one and all headed into the boys’ and girls’ dressing rooms. Before long, eleven of the twelve dancers had arrived. Everyone but Ivy James. No doubt, she’d be here soon. She’d better be—it was nearly time to start.
     Standing in the center of the studio, Rylee clapped her hands. “Attention, Rubies. Class begins in ten minutes. If you haven’t put your ballet slippers on, please do so now. Then take your places at the barres for warmup.”
     As the eight girls and three boys scrambled toward the barres, the front door opened. A slice of weak afternoon sunlight preceded Ivy and—was that Brock Mitchell? Rylee had heard that he was coming to town to take care of his niece while the little girl’s parents were away.
     Who hadn’t? In Miracle Falls, news always traveled fast, especially when the former high school football star, now a successful commercial property manager in San Francisco, decided to visit his hometown after eight years away. She hadn’t expected him to come into the studio, yet there he was, in the flesh.
     “Hi, Miss Wilson,” Ivy called out in her excited voice. Her exuberance for dance reminded Rylee of herself at that age. The big man held Ivy’s small hand as she tugged him forward. So cute. “This is my Uncle Brock.”
     “We’ve met,” he said, his gaze on Rylee.
     For some reason, her cheeks warmed. “A long time ago, in high school,” she explained. “Your uncle gave me a ride home from school once.”
     He nodded. “I was leaving football practice, and Rylee, er, Miss Wilson was waiting for—was it your mom?—to pick her up.”
     He remembered that? Rylee certainly did, every single detail. “That’s right. She got into a fender bender, nothing serious, and couldn’t make it. Neither could my father—he was showing houses to a client. My friends had all left, and I had no idea how I was going to get home. We didn’t have smart phones like now, and there I was, stuck in the parking lot. Your uncle gave me a ride.”
     It was the first time Brock, a senior and the varsity high school quarterback, had ever spoken to her, a lowly ninth grader. Her friends had been so envious. Like every other girl in the school, they’d had crushes on him. One look at him now and they still would.
     Not Rylee. She was twenty-five and too jaded to waste her time.
     “We’re about to warm up, Ivy,” she said. “Go get ready.”
     “See you after class.” Brock handed the girl a kid-size gym bag and she dashed into the other room to change and put on her ballet slippers. As soon as she disappeared he swiped his brow. “Phew.”
     “Having a rough day?”
     “Taking care of her isn’t what I expected. She’s a lot more complicated than I guessed.”
     Rylee laughed. “Eight going on sixteen? Don’t I know it. You haven’t changed at all.” Correction: he was better looking than he’d been in high school, if that was even possible. Six feet tall, mesmerizing blue-green eyes, and those charming dimples when he smiled… He still had a quarterback’s physique, with a leaner, more chiseled face.
     Chiseled? She’d been reading too many romance novels.
     “You have.” His gaze darted over her. “You’re all grown up.”
     Why did she want to swoon? She managed an indifferent smile, at odds with her galloping heart. “It happens.”
     “We should catch up later, when I pick Ivy up.”
     “I can’t.” Even if she wanted to, what was the point? He was in town only a few weeks before he returned to San Francisco. She lived here in Miracle Falls, Washington, and wasn’t at all interested in socializing with a man who ran through women the way she went through peppermint breath mints. “There are two more classes when this one ends, with only thirty minutes between each.”
     “That’s a lot for one afternoon. Especially if the kids are as high energy as Ivy.”
     “You’re telling me. We usually meet once a week but with the recital coming up we need all the practice we can get.”
     “Another time, then. See you later—either here or somewhere else in town.”
     Of that, Rylee was certain.


     If Brock had had the time and it hadn’t been winter, he would’ve driven the nine hundred-plus miles from San Francisco to Miracle Falls. Instead, he’d flown to Seattle, rented a Porsche similar to his car at home, and driven from Seattle to Miracle Falls. He hadn’t thought about the car seat, which Ivy was required to use for at least another year.
     How was he supposed to know about that? The subject had never come up when he and his sister Cara chatted. The Porsche didn’t have room in the back even for a booster seat, which was why he was shuttling his niece around in Cara’s four-door sedan. “How was class?” he asked, glancing at her in the rearview mirror as she buckled up.
     She gave him a scolding frown. “You didn’t come in and get me.”
     “I told you I’d be waiting outside.” He’d sat in the parking lot and worked on the report that would determine the location of Tilton Commercial Property Management’s first satellite office. Joe Tilton wanted to open the office somewhere in the West early next year. For most of November, Brock had been immersed in gathering information on a whole host of major cities—numbers, demographics, and what Joe called “vibe,” which meant visits to each.
     Brock was tasked with compiling and analyzing the dazzling array of data, then ranking the locations and selecting the best possible office sites in each city. He was tired and not in the mood to work on the report during his vacation, but Joe had dangled a carrot he couldn’t refuse—a vice presidency and control of the new office. A huge promotion that included Brock’s move to the selected city.
     The report was due by year end, but he intended to finish it early. That way both he and his boss could enjoy the holidays.
     The furrow between Ivy’s brows deepened. He gave her a puzzled look. “You do remember our conversation?”
     “You said you had work to do, but I thought… Mama always comes inside.” She opened her window and waved at a couple of friends. “I wanted you to do that too.”
     “And I was supposed to know this by reading your mind?”
     “You walked me in.”
     Some rationale. “You asked me to.”
     Even buckled into her booster seat, she managed to settle her hands on her hips. “You were supposed to come inside again and walk me out.”
     Brother. He found her female sense of logic baffling but not surprising. Were girls born that way? “You’re lucky I was able to take time off while your mom and dad are in Hawaii. What happens on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when you carpool? Don’t you and your friends walk in by yourselves?”
     “Not until we’re Emeralds. Next time, you should come in.”
     “I should, huh?”
     “Yes.” Her lips compressed, reminding him of her mother, signaling that the subject was closed.
     One day his cute little freckle-nosed niece was going to make some poor guy miserable. Brock stifled a grin. As he’d told Rylee, he’d thought taking care of her would be a piece of cake. Man, was he mistaken. She was stubborn and opinionated, a scheming female in the making, and he was beginning to realize how hard Cara and Gil had it.
     And to think, while they were vacationing for the next two weeks, they planned to work on getting pregnant again.
     He felt like an amateur walking a tightrope, unsure how to handle his niece. He figured he’d appeal to her ego. “I thought, hey, you’re a mature, eight-year-old girl, which makes you competent and able to walk out the door and find me in the same slot where I parked when I walked you in.”
     Refusing to be mollified by flattery, she sniffed. “You’ll come in next time, right?”
     “If that’s what you want.” He wouldn’t mind. It’d give him a chance to see Rylee again. Even if he hadn’t known she’d become a professional dancer—and who didn’t?—her appearance gave her away. Dressed in a leotard, tights, and one of those little ballet skirts, her dark brown hair pulled into a fancy knot at the back of her head and her back nice and straight. Pretty too, with a wide mouth and big, brown eyes.
     She’d lost the waiflike body he remembered from high school. She wasn’t skinny anymore, although she wasn’t what he’d call curvy either. Was she dating anyone? While he was stuck here in town, maybe they’d go out.
     In the time it took him to ease out of his parking space, half a dozen vehicles had come and gone from the lot. “It’s busy around here.”
     “No one wants to miss a single rehearsal. We have to be perfect for our recital. We have to fill every seat.”
     A lot of pressure for kids. “I didn’t see any seats in the studio.”
     She released a “you are so clueless” sigh. “Didn’t Mama tell you? The recital is going to be downtown, in the auditorium at town hall. Miss Wilson says the holiday theme will bring in lots of people. We can’t rehearse there right now, but we’ll get the chance later.”
     “Who says you have to sell every seat?”
     “I heard Miss Wilson tell Emily’s mom. The school needs the money.”
     So the business was struggling. That had to be rough for everyone, especially Rylee. “That’s too bad.”
     “Not if we sell all the tickets.”
     “I’ll still be here then, and I’d like to see you dance. I’ll buy a ticket.”
     “Mama already bought four—two for her and Daddy, one for you, and one for Grandpa Dan. Tell your friends, okay?”
     “Will do.” Brock hadn’t seen any of the old gang since he’d last visited eight years ago for his mother’s funeral and to meet Ivy, who at the time had been all of three weeks old. Life had gotten in the way, and he’d spent the next few years working and spending the holidays with his then-wife’s family.
     After the divorce, he’d put in even more hours at work, both to get ahead and to keep his mind off how lonely he was. Along the way, he’d taken a few breaks when Cara, Gil, and Ivy had visited him. Once, his dad had come with them. “I’ll bet you’re starving. How about a milkshake on the way home?”
     Her eyes lit up. “But I’ll spoil my dinner.”
     “I won’t tell if you don’t. Deal?”
     She giggled. “Deal.”

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