Legend has it that any couple who spends the night in the Christmas Cottage shall have love everlasting...
Ava Callahan wants desperately to believe in love everlasting. But when Brian McCabe walks back into her life and upsets her carefully organized world, her commitment to perfection makes it hard to accept the love that's right in front of her. Will it take a night in the Christmas Cottage for Ava and Brian to find their happy ending?
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By Samantha Chase
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2015 Samantha Chase
All rights reserved.
"You're doing it again."
"Looking at what?"
Ava rolled her eyes. "You are almost eight months pregnant, Lacey! Stop calling it the bump!"
Smiling, Lacey ran a hand over her rounded belly. "Doesn't change the fact that you were staring at it. What's up with that?"
"Why can't you just call it a baby?"
Now it was Lacey's chance to roll her eyes. "Because your brother is making me crazy! When I refer to it as a she, he reminds me that we could very well be having a boy. Then he gets suspicious that I've had some secret ultrasound he wasn't invited to and that I actually know the sex of the baby! I don't know who's going to be more of a handful when I give birth, the baby or your brother!"
"So because you can't say anything gender specific, you've decided it's better to call it 'the bump'?" Ava asked. "That's just weird."
"No, what's weird is watching an intelligent, grown man trying to wrap me and everything around me in bubble wrap so I don't get hurt."
Ava had to agree on that score. "He loves you and he wants to make sure you're okay. I think it's sweet."
"Oh, it is, and believe me, I love him more every day because of it. I just wish he'd relax a little bit."
"Ean doesn't know how to relax. You've known him your whole life and you married him. Clearly this can't be news to you?"
"It's not," Lacey sighed, "but it's exhausting, too."
Ava would have been worried, but Lacey's tone held nothing but affection. As much as she might be griping, there were no two people more in love than the expectant parents. It was enough to make a person sick.
"So, you invite a pregnant woman who cannot have caffeine to a coffee shop," Lacey began as she inhaled deeply. "This must be important."
"He's getting married."
Lacey was glad she wasn't drinking anything because she surely would have spit it out. "How did you find out?"
"I ran into him."
Knowing Mason wasn't here at the moment, Lacey still couldn't stifle the urge to look around. "Is this the first time you've seen him?"
"Since the wedding?"
"Yes, it is," Ava replied, finally taking a sip from her own now-cool latte. "It's weird because we used to come here all the time, and to not run into Mason once in eight months seemed unusual."
"Was he alone or was he with her?" Lacey asked cautiously.
"Geez, you don't have to be so dramatic, Lace. I was in line and Mason walked in, alone, and it was a little bit awkward but we got our drinks and sat down and that's when he told me."
Lacey waited to see if there was going to be more to the story, and then got tired of waiting. "And?"
"Talking to you is painful sometimes, Ava, you know that?"
"Her name is Melissa. She's a paralegal at his firm. They met three months ago." Funny, but it didn't even bother her to say those words out loud.
"Wow, how very When Harry Met Sally of him."
Ava's brows furrowed. "What?"
"Oh, come on! Remember the movie? When her ex announced he was getting married to the paralegal?"
"Seriously? You think now is the time to go quoting romantic comedies to me?"
Immediately Lacey felt remorseful. "Sorry, I was just trying to lighten the mood. Are you okay?"
"The thing is, I'm fine. I really am. I thought I would be more upset. It's just that —"
"Are you still upset that you didn't marry Mason?"
"Oh, gosh no! No, I realize that would have been a huge mistake. It's just that —"
"Are you upset he found someone so quick?"
Ava almost growled in frustration. "No, I'm not upset that Mason found someone else. I want him to be happy. It's just that —"
"Was he unkind? Did he gloat?"
"For the love of it, Lacey, if you would just shut it for one minute I could tell you exactly what it is!" Ava's tone was a bit loud and several heads turned to stare at them.
"Sorry," Lacey mumbled and sat back in her seat.
"It's just that I thought I'd be married by now. What's wrong with me that I'm not on my way to being married? Am I that horrible?"
Lacey reached across the table and grabbed her friend's hand. "Oh, sweetie, that's not it at all! You aren't a horrible person. You've taken the time to pursue your education and you're getting your degree in less than a week! Don't focus on what you don't have, Ava, think about all that you do!"
"Well, a library sciences degree is not helping me get down the aisle or start a family."
"Dramatic much?" Lacey asked, her light sarcasm bringing a smile to Ava's face.
"I'm twenty-seven. I'm just beginning to doubt that it will ever happen for me, Lace. I was so wrapped up in reaching the goal of getting married that I almost married the wrong man!"
"But you didn't! You came to your senses, and although your timing was a bit off, you knew Mason wasn't the one for you."
"Look, falling in love is not something you can arrange or mark on your calendar. It just happens. It's going to happen for you," she said and then paused. "You do realize that would mean you'd have to actually start dating again."
Ava frowned. "I was afraid you'd mention that."
"It's been eight months. Enough time has gone, by and it's time for you to go out and meet some people."
"I meet people all the time, Lacey."
"Right. Other students, in the bookstore where you work. All very safe. How's that working for you?"
"Gosh, you're annoying when you're right," Ava mumbled. "I hate the dating scene! That's what was great about Mason, he struck up a conversation with me in a coffee shop."
"I think you need therapy. You spend way too much time in coffee shops ..."
"So what am I supposed to do, huh? Online dating? Place an ad in the personals? You're right, there's no one at work I'm remotely interested in. I'm telling you, Lacey, dating is hard work. The hair, the makeup, the fake giggle ... It's not me!"
"Who says it has to be? Why can't you just strike up a conversation with a man you find attractive — even if it is here in a coffee shop?"
Ava looked around and frowned. "There's no one here, Lace. And in case you haven't noticed, no one is tripping over themselves to come talk to me, either." She sat back in her chair and her look dared Lacey to argue with her. "You see? It's just ..."
"Hello, Ava," a masculine voice said from directly behind her.
Oh gosh! Oh no! Ava squeezed her eyes shut and prayed that her subconscious was playing tricks on her. There was no way this was happening right here, right now. Slowly opening her eyes, she looked at Lacey, who was staring back at her, her eyebrows raised expectantly.
Swallowing the lump that had lodged itself in her throat, Ava slowly turned around. "Oh, hi, Brian." She took in the sight of him: all six-foot-plus of solid muscle that shouldn't look as good as it did in a pair of faded jeans and plain T-shirt.
"May I join you?"
"Of course!" Lacey said before Ava could stop her.
Brian grabbed a vacant chair and pulled it up to the table. "So, Ava, how've you been?"
"Fine, thank you," Ava replied nervously. God, how she hated small talk. It was tedious and annoying, and what was worse was having an audience to her misery. "Brian, this is my friend Lacey."
Lacey leaned forward to shake Brian's hand. "Nice to meet you," she said, smiling.
"You too," he responded and then nodded toward her belly. "Congratulations. When are you due?"
"Another five weeks and believe me, I cannot wait!"
"Honeymoon baby?" he asked and both Lacey and Ava's eyebrows shot up. Brian cleared his throat before speaking. "Oh, um, Mason mentioned that you and Ava's brother took their places back at Christmas."
Ava was shocked but before she could say anything, Lacey was speaking. "As a matter of fact, it was! Ean and I couldn't be happier. After waiting so long to be together, it didn't seem necessary to wait to have a baby."
"Well, pregnancy certainly agrees with you," he said with a wide grin. "You are positively glowing."
Lacey blushed. "Thank you, Brian." She was about to say more but noticed the scowl on Ava's face and quickly silenced herself.
Brian continued to smile as he turned his attention to Ava. He took a slow sip of his coffee and had to stifle a sigh. He'd waited; he'd kept his distance. Now that Mason was engaged again and Ava was ready to graduate, Brian felt the time was perfect to seek her out.
A million questions were racing through Lacey's head as she watched what could only be described as the most awkward encounter between two people ever. With a quick glance at her watch, Lacey got to her feet.
"Listen, Ava, I'll call you later. I'm supposed to meet Ean in a little while to do some final touches on the office remodel." She pushed her chair in and noticed the slight look of despair on her friend's face. She threw out the lifeline. "You're more than welcome to come with me. We'll be grabbing dinner afterward and you could join us."
Ava considered Lacey's words. "No, um, thank you. You go on, and tell Ean I said hello. I'll see you this weekend."
A smile beamed across Lacey's face. "You'll be the one in the cap and gown, right?"
Ava smiled in return. "And you'll be the one with the bump." They both laughed and said their good-byes.
Brian looked at them both curiously. He waited until Lacey was out the door before returning his attention solely to Ava. "The bump?"
"Sorry, private joke." The silence stretched on between them and Ava nearly jumped when Brian spoke again.
"So, did you hear about Mason?"
She nodded. "I'm happy for him. I want him to be happy, and if this Melissa girl can do that, then I'm happy for them both."
"That's a lot of happy," he said.
"Well, what would you have me say, Brian? That I'm angry, sad, hurt?"
"Am I what?"
"C'mon, Ava. Are you angry, sad, or hurt?"
She smiled weakly. "No, I'm really not, and that in itself makes me a little sad."
"Mason wasn't the right man for you, Ava. You and I both know that." His voice was fiercer than he intended, and when her gaze snapped up to meet his, he realized it. "Sorry, that was "
"Completely arrogant of you? That seems to be your MO, Brian."
Unable to disagree, Brian had no choice but to let that particular subject drop. "So you're graduating this weekend. That was fast."
A halfhearted laugh escaped her lips before she could stop it. "Fast? If anything, I'm about five years behind."
"Nonsense, you just took your time in choosing what you wanted. I meant, compared to where you were this time last year, I thought you had at least another semester left."
"I doubled up after Christmas so I could graduate sooner."
"That had to be rough."
She shrugged. "I needed to keep busy." The admission was brutally honest and for the first time, Ava wasn't so proud of the accomplishment. "What I mean is ..."
"It doesn't matter, Ava. You worked hard and you're graduating. Good for you. So what comes next for Ava Callahan? Your own business? World domination?"
This time the laugh was genuine. "World domination? I don't think I'm ready for that. I thought I'd want to open my own little bookstore, but I don't think there's a market for that sort of thing anymore. With all of the big online retailers and the few mega bookstores, the days of the mom-and-pop shop are long gone."
"So what will you do? Your degree is in library sciences, right?"
She nodded. "It is, and while I thought my choice limited me, it turns out it's opened a lot of doors."
Brian leaned forward, sincerely interested in what she was saying, and was rewarded with a smile. "I can keep working for the university, and not just in the bookstore; I can put in to work in the library there, which is the traditional route. But if I wanted to challenge myself a little bit, think out of the box if you will, I can use my degree to become an archivist, or find a corporation that needs someone to establish or maintain a library for their organization."
"I don't follow," he said. It wasn't a field he knew much about.
"Well, places like hospitals, med schools, law schools, museums lots of places you wouldn't think of right away have a library."
"That sounds like a very challenging job," he said, taking another sip of his coffee.
"It could be, but I enjoy a good challenge, and I love all kinds of books, so researching and getting the opportunity to stock a library would be amazing!"
Her enthusiasm was contagious and Brian knew that Ava certainly could handle any task — even world domination. "Have you started submitting rsums to any place in particular?"
Ava took a sip of her long-cold latte and made a face. Pushing the cup aside, she looked back at Brian. "I've sent out a few to some local companies and I've talked to human resources at the university, but I'm not sure I want to stay in Raleigh."
That bit of information stopped him cold. "What? Why? Where would you go?"
"I don't know," she admitted. "I just think I'm ready for a change. I've lived here my whole life and nothing's happening for me."
"What do you want to happen?"
"I want to travel a little. I want to meet new people!" she said heatedly. "I'm tired of living in everyone else's shadow and having people look at me with pity because —" She caught herself, unable to believe she had just said that out loud, and especially to Brian.
"Because you and Mason called off your wedding?" he asked cautiously.
"Exactly. It's been eight months and people still look at me with that 'oh, poor Ava' look. I'm tired of it. I need to get away and prove I'm more than someone who got left at the altar."
"Well, you didn't really get left at the altar, did you?" he began. "It was a mutual decision not to go through with the wedding. Big difference."
"Yes! But it didn't seem like that to the people who were there," she grumbled. "It took months before people let me be around sharp objects, they were so afraid I was going to hurt myself in my despair."
"Were you? In despair?"
"No," she said sadly. "I wasn't. But everyone just thought I was putting on a brave face. It wasn't brave, it was just my face," she said, trying to lighten the mood.
Brian looked at the face that had haunted his dreams for more than a year. Her blond hair was a little shorter than it'd been the last time he'd seen her, but her sea-blue eyes still twinkled and captivated him. In that moment, he wanted nothing more than to reach out and touch the smooth skin of her cheeks, to kiss those glossy pink lips and know that he had the right to do so. But he didn't.
Silence returned. Ava glanced at her watch and realized it was getting late and she had the evening shift at the college bookstore. "I've got to go," she said and almost cringed at the regret she heard in her voice.
"Already?" he asked, not ready to let her go.
"I've got work in a little while and I have some things I have to do before I go in." She stood and grabbed her cup. "It was good to see you, Brian. Take care of yourself."
Brian stood and reached for Ava's arm before she turned away. "I know you've got graduation this weekend, but I'd like to see you again, Ava. Can I take you to dinner next week?"
She hesitated for a few seconds before responding. "I don't think that would be a good idea, Brian. It would be awkward."
"Because of Mason?" he asked, angry that Mason would still be part of the equation.
Ava nodded. "I just don't think it would be appropriate. Please understand."
He didn't want to understand. He'd played by everyone else's rules and he'd be damned if he didn't at least try to get Ava to give him a chance. "Mason's getting married, Ava. He's moved on. Isn't it time for you to do the same?"
Regret immediately came when he saw the hurt on her face. Brian had to give her credit, she quickly recovered before turning to him and saying, "Thanks. You have no idea what I've been doing or what I've moved on to, Brian. All things considered, I just don't think we should see each other again." She pulled free of his grasp and took a step back, scanning his face before finally saying, "Have a good life, Brian."
Excerpted from Ever After by Samantha Chase. Copyright © 2015 Samantha Chase. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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