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Aidan Kavanagh stared at the cream vellum card edged with tiny holly leaves and berries and shook his head in reluctant admiration.
Game. Set. Match.
His mother had won the war without firing a single shot. The last thing Aidan wanted to do was visit Silver Glen, North Carolina, during the holidays, but Maeve knew he wouldn't miss his own brother's wedding.
The first of his siblings, Liam, had tied the knot recently as well. That event had been a huge, splashy society affair at Zoe's home in Connecticuta hop, skip and a jump from New York City. This time Aidan wouldn't be so lucky.
It wasn't that he didn't love Silver Glen. He did. But going home for Christmas brought back too many ugly memories. So, he chose to visit his large, close-knit family at other times of the year: Easter, Mother's Day, the Fourth of July
and October, when the fall foliage in the mountains was at its peak.
But December? No. In the last decade, he had managed it only once and only then because one of his brothers had been in the hospital. Aidan would have felt like a total jerk if he had let his family down.
That visit had been both uncomfortable and unpleasant. His mother and brothers had walked on eggshells around him, everyone far too aware that Aidan carried the weight of past tragedy. He'd done his damnedest to prove to them he was fine
that he had moved on.
Unfortunately, no one had been convinced by his deliberate facade of Christmas cheer. Least of all Aidan himself. Because the truth was, December sucked. He was fine. His life was good. He was content. But not even his family knew the worst of what had happened so long ago.
He stood and stretched, tossing the offending invitation on his desk. The view from his office window stretched from the Statue of Liberty all the way to the George Washington Bridge. Aidan loved New York City. The constant pulse of life. The fact that he could stop for lox and bagels at three in the morning and no one batted an eye.
Most of all, he loved the anonymity. No one here cared about his past or even his future. The emotional breathing room had become as essential to him as food or water.
Growing up in Silver Glen provided an idyllic childhoodat least until his father's death when Aidan was a young teen. The little alpine-like town would always be home. But living in a fishbowl where everyone knew his business became unbearable when he was twenty-one and his entire world crumbled around him.
Moving to New York had been his salvation. With a hefty nest egg of Kavanagh moneylong since repaidhe'd started a highend real estate company. The lessons he'd learned as a youth working in his family's swank hotel stood him in good stead. Although the Kava-naghs were very wealthy, the crème de la crème here in the city took that definition to a far greater level. Aidan enjoyed the challenge of matching socialites and business magnates with their perfect homes on the rooftops of Manhattan.
His phone pinged, reminding him of an upcoming appointment. Once more he sat down, then picked up his favorite pen and rolled the heavy gold cylinder between his fingers. He had inked his first real estate deal with this pen. Beyond the leather blotter, the wedding invitation lay innocently. He read it a second time, finding its elegant cursive font no less stomach tightening than he had before.
December 20th. That meant Aidan would need to be in Silver Glen no later than the weekend before. Knowing his mother, she would undoubtedly have planned a series of social events to fill the days leading up to the wedding. And then he would be expected to hang around until the family celebrated Christmas together on the 25th. Almost two weeks. Might as well be a lifetime.
He glanced at the paper calendar his assistant kept updated on the corner of his desk. She was as tech savvy as the next person, but she had discovered that Aidan liked to keep tabs on his schedule in more than one medium. The month of December was notably blank.
No one, with very few exceptions, shopped for highdollar real estate during December. His clients were too busy hosting parties, overspending on their spoiled children and taking trips to exotic locations. Which meant, unfortunately, that Aidan was free to do as he pleased.
Or in this instance as he did not please.
For a moment, he flashed back, his vision blinded to the present but very aware of the past. Two young women. Both beautiful. Both charming. Both full of life and fun. And he had lost each of them.
The familiar burning sensation in his gut was more than a mix of guilt and regret. It was a longing for what he would never have. Absolution. A woman and a family to call his own.
Spending Christmas at Silver Glen would undoubtedly resurrect a host of old memories that he'd rather not face. But if he were honest, the memories lived with him everywhere. The painful part of going home was having other people share the memories. The empathy and concern on the faces of his siblings and his mother would be his downfall.
He didn't want their love to heal him. He didn't deserve that. And he didn't want to feel anything. Family knew his weak spots. Family refused to let him cling to the cloak of indifference that made it possible to live from day to day.
Aidan Kavanagh was a charming shell of a man, interested only in closing a deal or cashing a check. Ask anyone. The persona was one he had crafted carefully to keep people away. After loving and losing three times in his life, he was through with emotion
In Silver Glen, especially at the holidays, he would have to be himselfthe young man who had enjoyed life and reached for happiness with the careless naïveté of the innocent. He would be forced to open himself up to the warmth of family celebrations that would make him terribly vulnerable.
Could he do that and still survive?
Doggedly, he reached for the peace he had created here in the city. Emotional anonymity. A pleasant shield that kept other people from inflicting hurt.
He didn't hurt. He wouldn't hurt. Loving his family was a given. But beyond that, he had nothing to offer. Loving and losing meant vicious, unrelenting pain. Only a fool would walk that path again.
Emma Braithwaite leaned into the bay window, perched precariously on a stepladder that had seen better days. Creating the shop's storefront display was usually the highlight of her workweek. Today's theme, not exactly original, was teapots. Twitching the edge of a lace drape into place, she tried to visualize what her handiwork looked like from the street.
On the other side of the glass, a woman stopped and waved madly. Emma smiled. Even through the reverse gold lettering that spelled out Silver Memories, she recognized her visitor. Maeve Kavanagh, matriarch of the Kavanagh familymother to seven sexy, uber-mascu-line, wildly attractive grown men, and heir to the Kava-nagh fortune.
Maeve's husband's ancestors had literally created the town after discovering a rich vein of silver deep in the mountain. The family story took a tragic turn when Maeve's feckless husband, Reggie, became obsessed with finding the remnants of the mine. One day he climbed into the hills and never returned.
But that bit of local color was from long ago. Maeve was now a vibrant woman in her early sixties who managed to keep tabs on her brood and run a thriving business up at the Silver Beeches Lodge. A little bell tinkled over the door as Maeve entered. Her dark auburn hairwith only slight traces of silverwas done up in a stylish bun.
Emma climbed down from the ladder and straightened her skirt.
Maeve waved an envelope at her. "I know etiquette dictates I mail this to you, but I couldn't wait. Here. Take it."
Emma accepted the cream-colored envelope with a grin. The missive was thick, the paper expensive. When she opened it and examined the contents, she understood the older woman's enthusiasm. "Another wedding?"
Maeve's smug smile said everything. "Indeed. And this time right here in Silver Glen. I know it seems hurried, but Dylan's adoption of Cora will be final on the day after Christmas. He and Mia want to be married and have their family complete."
Emma tucked everything back in the envelope. "I'm honored to be invited."
Emma and Mia had met several months ago at a coffee shop around the corner from Silver Memories. Since then they had become friends. Emma knew Maeve had been extremely kind in including Mia's parents as hosts for the wedding. The Larins had given birth to Mia late in life and now lived in Florida on a fixed income.
Maeve waved a hand. "Don't be silly. You're practically part of my family now. Mia raves about you, and I've enjoyed getting to know you these last few months."
Not long after Emma opened her store, Maeve had dropped by to shop for a set of occasional tables to use in a lounge at the Silver Beeches. It was thanks to Maeve that word had spread and the small shop had become a success so quickly.
"May I ask you something personal, Maeve?"
"Is the baby's father in the picture? Mia never speaks of him, and I didn't want to upset her by asking."
Maeve shook her head. "Dear Mia chose to have a baby via a sperm donor. When she and Dylan got together, he fell in love with little Cora. They make a beautiful family, don't you think?"
Emma smiled wistfully. "They certainly do." She had often seen Dylan and Mia and the baby out walking on afternoons when the weather was still warm.
Silver Glen was a small, cozy town, even though it boasted a strong tourist economy. Movie stars shooting on location often took up residence, as well as wealthy travelers who loved the peace of the mountains. The town's alpine flavor reminded Emma of a Swiss village.
"There's one more thing," Maeve said, her expression cajoling. "Mia told me you're not going home to England for Christmas, is that right?"
"Yes. I spent two weeks in September with my mother for her birthday. She's handling the loss of my father better than I expected. And she has plans to tour the Greek Isles during the latter part of December with a group of her friends."
"Then I want you to spend the holidays with us. Mia's parents are coming only for the wedding itself. So I know Mia would enjoy having you around. We're gathering for several occasions at Dylan and Mia's home. My older son and his wife are still building their new house. And of course, we'll have some special events up at the lodge, too. What do you think?"
Emma didn't know what to say. She wasn't afraid to be alone. In fact, her childhood had been solitary more times than not. She enjoyed the peace and tranquility of her own thoughts. And she was not a Kavanagh. Surely her presence would be awkward.
Maeve spotted a silver rattle and a matching small cup from the 1950s. "I knew I remembered seeing these," she said triumphantly. "One of my college sorority sisters just became a grandma for the first time. This will be the perfect gift."
As Emma rang up the purchase and took Maeve's credit card, she wondered how large a wedding the Ka-vanaghs were planning. And then another thought struck. One that made her heart race.
"Will all of your family be able to attend on such short notice?" Emma had never actually confessed to Maeve that she knew one of her sons very well.
For the first time, Maeve lost a bit of her excitement. "I hope so. My third son, Aidan, lives in New York. We don't see him all that often. And besides
She trailed off, her expression indicating that she had traveled somewhere unpleasant in her mind.
Emma wanted to know badly. "Besides what?"
Maeve's lips twisted, her eyes shadowed. "Aidan had a very bad experience some years ago. It happened at Christmas. He comes home to visit, but not at the holidays."
"And this wedding?"
"We hope he'll make the effort, but who knows
What would Aidan think if he saw Emma ensconced in the bosom of his family? She hadn't set eyes on him in a decade. Her original intent in coming to Silver Glen during the late summer had been to speak with him and bring some closure to what had been a painful time in their lives. She had hurt him badly, and she wanted to explain and make amends. But she discovered he no longer lived in the town of his birth.
Her recent birthday had brought home the fact that life passed quickly. Regret was an emotion fraught with negativity. After healing a decade-long rift with her father back in the spring, she had realized she wanted to move forward and to make better decisions than she had in her early twenties.
It was entirely possible that Aidan had not clung to the memories the way Emma had. She might be nothing more than a footnote in his past life. According to Maeve, he sounded like an entirely different person than the boy Emma had known.
The fact that Emma had chosen to settle in Silver Glen permanently had more to do with the town's charm than it did with Aidan. But her initial motive remained. Even if her apology meant nothing to him, it would clear her own soul of lingering regret.
She couldn't control his response. In fact, he might not even show up. But if he did, she was determined to do the mature, responsible thing and own up to her mistakes.
Emma wanted to grill her visitor, but she had already overstepped the bounds of polite curiosity. "I'm sure he realizes how important it is."
Maeve gathered herself visibly. "You haven't given me an answer. And I warn you in advance that I'll only accept a yes."
"Then I will say yes with pleasure." And a healthy dose of trepidation.
"That's wonderful, Emma dear. My invitation is selfish actually. Everything you say in that delightful British accent makes me want to listen to you for hours, but I have to fly."
"I'd say you're the one who has the accent," Emma teased. "You, and the rest of Silver Glen. I've practiced my drawl, but it never seems to come out right."
Heading out the door, Maeve shook her head, laughing. "Let's face it, Emma. You're the quintessential blue-blooded Englishwoman. Fit to marry a prince if Kate hadn't snatched him up first. If you had a slow-as-molasses speech pattern, no one would ever believe you were an aristocrat."
In the sudden silence created by the departure of her vivacious guest, Emma felt her stomach curl. She had known this day would come eventually. It was a major reason she had chosen to roost in Silver Glen. That, and the fact that the town reminded her of the cheery Cots-wolds village where she had grown up.
Sooner or later, Aidan would appear. If not at Christmas, then in the spring. The thought of seeing him face-to-face both elated and terrified her. She knew they were far beyond second chances. Too much time had passed. His life experiences had no doubt changed him, especially the tragedy to which Maeve alluded. Too many turns in the road. But Emma wanted to speak her piece. And she would make him listen.
He deserved to know that she had loved him beyond reason and sanity. That his leaving had nearly destroyed her.
Perhaps she was kidding herself. Aidan might not even remember her. Maybe she had magnified the importance of their university romance. Aidan had come to Oxford the fall semester of his senior year for a term-abroad experience. He had literally bumped into Emma on the street in front of a pub frequented by students.
They had both laughed and picked up their books and papers. Aidan offered to buy her dinner, and that was that.