Emily Nicole Ammerman took her first sip of celebratory champagne in honor of tonight's big announcement. Standing at the top of the staircase, looking down at the main lodge, she observed the crowd below. People she'd known her entire life and those who were guests who'd spent many winters at her family's ski lodge, so much so they were now considered close friends of the family, were all gathered for the evening's festivities.
Though the Christmas holidays were just a few weeks away, Emily spied little touches throughout the lodge that would soon become a full-fledged, bona fide Christmas extravaganza. Candlelight glistened off the golden log walls her family had kept in top-notch condition for more than fifty years. During the holidays her mother always hired a team of local decorators to help her adorn the lodge as it took a couple of months to "do it up in style," in her mother's words. In all of Emily's twenty-nine years, at least those she remembered, her mother never repeated the decor, minus the few exceptions of sentimental bits and bobs Emily had made as a child.
November was the true start of the ski season in Snow- drift Summit, though Mother Nature sometimes surprised them with an early snowfall, forcing them to speed up preparations for those who lived for the first blast of white powder. Being one of those herself, when Emily wasn't giving ski lessons, her days on the mountain were heaven. It didn't matter that she'd skied these slopes hundreds—no, thousands—of times. Each time she took the lift to the top of the mountain, a trickle of excitement shivered down her spine.
"Nick." Her father's deep voice jolted her back to the present. He used his version of her middle name, something he only did when he truly wanted her attention.
"Hi, Dad. You're looking pretty handsome tonight," Emily said as she leaned in to give him a hug. "Looks like you and Mom invited the entire town." She nodded at the growing crowd.
"Thanks. You're as beautiful as ever, kid." He gestured at the folks below. "You know your mother. Any reason to celebrate, she's happy as a lark."
Emily raised her brow. "Yeah, I guess tonight is just like all the other parties she's thrown." She couldn't help the bit of sarcasm in her voice. Tonight only happened once in a lifetime. She downed the last bit of champagne, placing her flute on a side table. "I need to mingle," she said, repeating her mother's earlier words.
"Nick, I need to speak to you before all the hoopla gets underway," her dad said in a tone he reserved for only the utmost important conversations.
Her heart rate sped up, a knot forming in her stomach. She focused her attention on him. Was he ill? Her mother? Mimi and Papaw?
"Dad, you're scaring me. Who's sick?" she blurted out, skipping any preamble.
"There you are!" Emily's mother gushed as she reached the top of the grand staircase. "You two should be downstairs with our guests. Mason, you promised me you would pretend to like parties, just for tonight," her mother sing-songed in her sweet Southern accent.
"Julia, you know I adore your parties—it's just the people who drive me bonkers," he said to her, placing an arm across her shoulder. He winked at Emily.
Emily observed her parents. Both were still young; in their late fifties, they could pass for a much younger couple. Her mother was as tiny as the day she'd met her dad, her blond hair coiled into a sleek chignon, not a gray hair in sight. Her bright blue eyes sparkled when she smiled at Dad. He towered over her at six three, a head of thick black hair, graying at the sides, his hazel eyes glistening when he looked at her mom. She adored them.
"You are such a party pooper, but I love you anyway.
Now, let's see to our guests."
As her mother led Emily's father downstairs, he looked over his shoulder and mouthed the word, Later.
She nodded, unsure she wanted to know what was so important he'd sought her out to tell her privately. Tonight of all nights, couldn't it wait? Her parents' retirement party wasn't the ideal time to drop a bad-news bomb.
Taking her empty champagne flute, she whirled downstairs, pasting a smile on her face. Planning to corner her dad at the first opportunity, she spied Mimi and Papaw across the room talking with Bob and Carol Clark, their best friends. Both of her grandparents appeared to be healthy. Mimi's head was thrown back in laugher, as was her norm, her white hair recently cut into the cutest pixie style. Emily thought it suited her quite well. As small as Mom, Mimi had always reminded her of a little sprite. Papaw was tall, though not as tall as her father; his years of skiing had kept him in tiptop shape. She adored her grandparents, too. They'd bought the resort right after they married, working around the clock to make it the success it was today.