On stage at the Cheyenne community theater, Larissa held a little ballerina’s hand as the girl twirled in her tutu. The baby ballet class had rehearsals tonight after the older girls’ improvisational group that Larissa had started teaching earlier in the month. Technically free to leave anytime now that her teaching was done for evening, Larissa couldn’t seem to make herself leave. There was something so precious about seeing the preschool girls attempt to pirouette, their focus easily distracted and their every movement effusive with a child’s passion.
“How was that, Miss ‘Rissa?” the child whose hand she had been holding peered up at her with wide blue eyes, her chin tilted adoringly against Larissa’s thigh. “Did I do it?”
All around them, tiny dancers flitted and skipped, finding places on the tumbling mats before class officially began. Mothers chatted around the perimeter of the room, visiting with each other and taking pictures of their ballerinas.
“That was very well done, Viola.” Larissa read the big name tag on the girl’s leotard, all the children clearly labeled. “Keep practicing and listen to Miss Kayla, okay?”
The child nodded solemnly before bouncing over to another member of the class.
She was still watching them when a masculine voice sounded beside her.
“Do they remind you of yourself at that age, Miss Rissa?” Her fiancé, local rancher Matt Briggs, was dressed in dark jeans, a button down showing under his open jacket.
Her pulse jumped, the way it still did when he looked at her a certain way. Like she was the only woman in the world. Inside her palm, she stroked her thumb over the band of the engagement ring he’d given her last month. His promise of forever. Her assurance this happiness was going to last.
They had a dinner date after this, an agreement they’d struck when Larissa accepted the bi-weekly teaching gig. They were using her night in Cheyenne as time to get away from the ranch. Time to spend strictly with each other.
“Matt.” She leaned in to kiss him, her body drawn to his like they belonged side by side. “I don’t think I was ever that adorable. Will you look at them?” She tipped her head onto his shoulder as the instructor put on the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies,” the music the kids were using for the Christmas recital.
“They are pretty cute,” he agreed, kissing the top of her head. “But in my eyes, you’re still the cutest.” He edged back to look her in the eye. “Are you ready for your special surprise?”
“What special surprise?” she asked as they turned away from the dance class and headed toward the exit of the building. The theater building walls were covered in posters for future and past performances. “You’ve already spoiled me too much between the birthday present and the engagement ring.” She glanced down at her finger, admiring it.
Her twenty-ninth birthday had been unforgettable since Matt had delivered the Corriedale lambs she was using to start her flock on Split Fork Ranch. Then, he stunned her by presenting her with a wall hanging her mother had woven before her death, a surprise piece of family history that now hung on Larissa’s office wall. To top it all off, he’d proposed.
“We have eight years of being apart to make up for,” he reminded her as he pushed open the doors leading to the parking lot, the ballet music fading as cold Wyoming wind whipped past her ears. “I feel like I’m entitled to surprise you a few more times.”
In the parking lot, he hit the remote on his truck and the parking lights flashed as it unlocked, the grill decorated with an evergreen bough and red ribbon that Larissa had tied there herself in a holiday decorating frenzy.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to surprise you?” she asked, stopping outside the truck while a light snow began to fall. She leaned closer, taking a sliver of shelter under the brim of his black Stetson. “We could go back home and work on our popcorn garland.”
She said it with a straight face. Teasing. She loved Christmas and decorating. And Matt had been a trooper for the tree-trimming party, the holiday open house, and the outdoor decorating of multiple pine trees and fences. He didn’t seem to mind the lights strung on every corner and gable of his house, or the evergreens she’d laid on every table, mantle and stand. He’d hardly flinched when she proposed a Christmas hoedown for next year in one of his barns.
Even now, he hid his wince really well. “I thought we’d take a night off from Christmas,” he suggested.
She couldn’t quite pretend shock. A smile curved her lips. “You mean you don’t want to go home and decorate the lambs?”
“Honey, if you really wanted to, I probably would.” His blue eyes were serious and the reminder of his love took her breath away. He traced her jaw with the back of his knuckle, content to stand in the snow under the light of the moon and a few parking lot lamps. “But I was thinking tonight I’d take you to the Thirsty Cow. For a dance.”
They’d reunited at that same bar last summer when she’d been on the road from New York to Vegas, on to her next dancing gig, convinced she was only stopping by Cheyenne long enough to make peace with this man. It turned out her future was right here with him.
“You want to take me out dancing?” she asked, melting inside at how much she loved him.
Eight years ago, she’d taught him a country waltz and he’d remembered every step. They’d danced it over and over, like they were the only partners for one another in the world.
And they were.
“I do.” He brushed his lips over hers. “I love seeing you dance.”
Her heart squeezed tight around those words. She might have given up her career on Broadway because of injuries, but she’d found a deep passion for the life she was living now, in the place where she’d grown up. Still, it touched her that Matt hadn’t forgotten that piece of her—the bright-eyed dancer inside the woman she was now.
“And you’re the partner I love best.” She kissed him back. Slowly. With all the love she felt in her heart. When she stepped away, she took his hand and squeezed it. “Let’s go show them how it’s done.”