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Lea Coll

The Calloways Ebook Bundle

The Calloways Ebook Bundle

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These brothers unite in the face of their mother's passing, developing a strong protective instinct towards their loved ones.  Each serves in law enforcement, toughened from seeing the worst the world has to offer, yet beneath their rough exteriors lie hearts of gold.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ "Hallmark movie type of love stories I lost my romance loving heart in!” - Judy Ann Loves Books

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ "“Enchanting, sweet, romantic, impossible to put down, and addictive!” - Kelchickbooklover

Chapter 1 - Look Inside

When I’d agreed to come home for the holidays, I hadn’t wanted to stay on my family’s farm, so I’d booked a room at a nearby inn. The same one where my high school sweetheart and ex, Aiden, used to live with his parents in a trailer on the property. The trailer had since been removed, and his sister, Marley, ran the inn. I didn’t expect to run into Aiden because he was usually deployed somewhere else.

By the time I drove down tree-lined driveway with white lights wrapped around the trunks, my eyes burned from exhaustion. My back and neck were stiff from the long day of travel between the flight and the drive.

The historic inn’s columns were wrapped in more white lights. Each window held a wreath with a red bow. I grabbed my suitcases and carried them up the stairs, admiring the tree on the porch that was decorated with red velvet ribbon and gold ornaments. I opened the heavy wooden door to the sound of holiday music drifting down the grand staircase.

A man in a suit rushed forward to take the suitcases from my hands and set them next to the counter.

“Fiona? What are you doing here?” my sister, Daphne, asked, and my attention was diverted to her.

“I came for a visit.” That much was the truth.

Daphne’s forehead wrinkled. “You didn’t say anything to anyone.”

My gaze darted away from her. “It was a last-minute kind of thing.

The man behind the counter cleared his throat. “I don’t have reservations for you.”

When his gaze met mine, it was like all the air had been sucked out of me. Aiden Matthews was standing in front of me. Instead of asking why he was here working at the inn, I said, “I called earlier, and a woman said she had a room for me.”

She might have said something about a holiday party in the ballroom, but I didn’t think that would affect me. I was here to visit with my family and figure out my life. I wasn’t here to take part in the inn’s holiday festivities.

Aiden turned his attention to his computer screen at the same time Daphne stepped forward. “Fiona, this is Cole Monroe, my boyfriend.”

The name Monroe caught my attention. The family owned a competing Christmas tree farm. Recently, I’d heard my brothers complain that they were eating into our farm’s profits.

Cole held his hand out to me. “It’s nice to meet you.”

I smiled at Cole and said to Fiona, “I didn’t realize you were dating anyone.”

Daphne smiled up at Cole. “You’ve missed a lot.” Then she shifted her attention to me. “We were just stepping out. Cole has something he wanted to show me. Can we catch up later?”

Even though I hadn’t announced my visit to anyone other than my dad, I was a little surprised that Daphne had dismissed me so easily. But then again, I hadn’t been a part of my family’s life for a long time. I couldn’t expect them to drop everything just because I’d come for a visit. The familiar guilt wrapped around my heart and squeezed. “I’m in town for a few weeks, so we’ll have plenty of time.”

Daphne wrapped a hand around Cole’s arm, then frowned. “Are you sure you’re okay? Do you want me to stay?”

I tried to smile even though it felt forced. “I’m here for a holiday visit. Dad insisted I come.”

Daphne’s shoulders lowered. “I’m happy you’re here. It would be perfect if Axel and Ryder could visit too.”

“That would be lovely. You two enjoy your evening, and we’ll catch up later.” My smile fell when Fiona and Cole stepped outside, leaving me alone with Aiden.

There was a buzzing in my ears. The last time I saw Aiden, he told me he’d enlisted, and when I reminded him of his promises to wait for me to graduate from college, he’d apologized but remained steadfast. I couldn’t think of everything that followed. It hurt too much. He’d ripped my heart out of my chest that day, and I’d never recovered. I’d been young and stupid. Now I knew better than to get close to anyone.

“Marley reserved a room for you.” Aiden’s voice was carefully controlled.

He grabbed a room key, not the plastic cards used at most hotels. I could appreciate the charm even though I worked for a large hotel chain that specialized in modern decor.

Aiden moved toward me, making my heart rate kick into gear before he grabbed my luggage. “I’ll show you up.”

Panic clawed my throat. The last thing I wanted to do was be alone with Aiden. “Oh, that’s not necessary.”

Without responding, he strode toward the stairs. I rushed to keep up with him. “You don’t have to do this.”

He kept his gaze forward, his shoulders stiff. “I’m carrying your luggage to your room.”

My heart felt heavy. He was saying and doing all the right things, but I didn’t want to be alone with him. I didn’t trust myself not to revert to that nineteen-year-old Fiona who loved him with all her heart. I would have gone anywhere for him, done anything. But he’d turned me down. He hadn’t wanted me then, and it hurt to be around him now.

I followed him to the landing on the second floor. “There’s a party in the ballroom tonight, but it’s on the third floor. You might hear some music, but we make sure it’s quiet by eleven.”

“That won’t be a problem.” Ever since I was passed over for a promotion, I’d had trouble sleeping.

Aiden paused in front of a door at the end of the hall where another tree, decorated in green velvet ribbon and gold ornaments, stood in front of a large window. “The inn is beautiful.”

“When Gram died, Marley inherited the inn. Instead of selling, she renovated it and opened it for business.”

“I thought Marley moved to California to start her own business.” I’d looked her up from time to time, wondering if she mentioned where Aiden was stationed because he didn’t have a social media presence.

Aiden unlocked the door, then pushed it open. “She still owns a home there but spends most of her time here. She’s engaged to Heath Monroe.”

He motioned for me to precede him into the room.

I stepped inside, surprised to see a queen bed with a quilt, garland and a candle on the window ledge, beautiful wood furniture, and an adjoining bathroom.

“When Marley renovated, Heath added closets in all the rooms and ensured that most rooms have an adjoining bathroom. 

I wandered around the room. “She did an amazing job with the renovations. You can feel the history with the furniture and wood details, yet it feels new.” 

“She wanted to preserve the history of the inn. She loved the ballroom and refused to convert it into more guest rooms when her Realtor suggested it.” Aiden pulled a rack out of the closet and set one suitcase on top and one on the floor. “Will you need anything else?”

My heart jumped into my throat. Was this it? After all these years, we could act like we barely knew each other. I couldn’t resist stepping closer to him. “You look good.”

He sported a closely shaved beard, and his body had filled out since we’d dated.

He swallowed hard. “You do too.”

Is that what we’d become? We’d exchange awkward greetings when we ran into each other? I licked my lips and then forced myself to ask, “Are you on leave?”

Aiden shook his head. “I retired from the military.”

“Oh? I kind of thought you’d be a lifer.” He’d talked about duty and responsibility when he’d told me he’d enlisted. That it was something he had to do, and I got the impression it was a permanent kind of thing.

“I thought so too.”

I wondered if there was a story there, but I shouldn’t have. Aiden wasn’t mine anymore. He’d made that abundantly clear when he’d broken things off. I’d offered to go with him, to marry him, but he wasn’t interested.

Pain shot through my chest, but it wasn’t as acute as when I was nineteen. I’d get through this just like I had my mother’s death. There was nothing I couldn’t handle. I just needed to be strong.

I shrugged off my jacket and let it fall to the bed.

Aiden perused me from head to toe. “You should come to the dance. You’re already dressed for it.”

The promotion was announced at my company’s holiday party. I’d gone outside and called my dad. When he suggested I come home, I booked the first flight I could find and told my boss I was taking the vacation time I’d accrued over the years. He’d been surprised but hadn’t tried to talk me out of it.

“Are you sure I’m invited?” I asked, wondering if I was bold enough to accept his invitation.

“It’s Marley’s annual holiday party. She invited all her friends. I think you’re a part of that.”

I laughed without any humor as I sank to the edge of the bed. I couldn’t wait until Aiden left and I could kick off the heels and sleep forever. “I was never a part of your circle.”

When we dated, we’d kept our relationship a secret. Aiden was friends with the Monroes, helping at the farm from time to time, and he didn’t come from a good family. I didn’t want anyone to tell me I couldn’t see him. At first, there was a thrill from dating the bad boy, but I quickly realized there was a lot more to Aiden. He was sweet and thoughtful and felt so many things. His mother’s toxic barbs ate away at him.

I’d wanted to take him away from his family, and he’d promised to wait until I graduated college. He didn’t want to interfere with my education. Then we’d get married and start our lives together.

I’d made him promise me that he’d wait. I’d made him hook his pinky finger through mine and recite the childish rhyme. Unfortunately, he hadn’t kept his promise.

“Then I’m inviting you.”

Would I survive attending a dance where Aiden was present? Would it bring back the memory of him sneaking into my prom and dancing with me all night? When nothing mattered but him and me?

He moved toward the door, then said over his shoulder, “I’ll save you a dance.”

I couldn’t seem to find my voice as he opened the door and slipped out. His invitation sent tingles down my spine.

I checked my appearance in the full-length mirror. I could easily go to the party and see how it was. Or I could remove my clothes, take a shower, and go to bed where I most certainly wouldn’t sleep.

It wasn’t a good idea to be anywhere near Aiden. There were all these feelings swirling in my chest. Our relationship felt unresolved, even though Aiden had ended it with no hope for reconciliation.

He told me not to contact him. That he was focused on doing a good job in the military and becoming a better man. Apparently, he didn’t see me by his side in that process.

I knew he felt unworthy because of his upbringing, but I never thought he needed something as extreme as a complete break from me. Maybe I was naive back then, but I thought our love was enough.

There was a part of me that wanted to prove to Aiden and myself that I could see him and walk away. That he didn’t affect me anymore. I was a confident woman who didn’t let any man get to her, especially not Aiden Matthews. He was part of my past, and I wouldn’t let him get close enough to hurt me again.

Determined to prove that I wasn’t affected by him, I retouched my makeup, and ran a brush through my hair before placing my room key in my clutch. I followed the music upstairs where the party was still in full swing.

There was a band playing, couples on the dance floor, and several bars placed around the room where others congregated. There were a few tables with chairs.

Before I could figure out who I knew in the room, Aiden appeared in front of me. “You came.”

“You promised me a dance,” I said, sounding breathless when I’d meant to sound strong and unaffected.

Aiden grinned and held out his hand. “I’m glad you came.”

I shook my head. “I don’t know why I did. I’m exhausted.”

He led me onto the dance floor and into his arms. “You had a long day?”

“You could say that.” But I didn’t want to talk about that now. He smelled like cedar, and his hand on my back felt good.

Aiden dipped his head slightly. “You didn’t tell your sister you were coming home?”

There was no censure in his voice. He knew how difficult things were for me after my mother died. “It was a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. I hadn’t had a chance to talk to my siblings.

“Daphne made it sound like you don’t normally come home for the holidays,” Aiden guided us away from another couple.

“I’m usually working.” My gaze traveled around the room so I wouldn’t have to look at him.

“I’ve never seen you when I come home.”

I was surprised he’d even thought of me. The way he’d so easily broken things off made me think I’d liked him far more than he had me. “I didn’t know you were looking.”

Aiden huffed out a breath. “I have a few regrets about how I handled things back then.”

My brow raised. “You do?”

He pulled me closer to him so that my body was touching his. The heat of his body enveloped me like a cozy blanket. “I was so eager to get out of town and away from my parents, I didn’t see any other way out.”

“You could have moved in with me. We could have gotten an apartment—” I didn’t want to rehash the past. “It doesn’t matter anymore. What’s done is done. We’ve both moved on with our lives.”

Aiden let out a breath. “I wish I’d handled things better back then. I wish I hadn’t hurt you.”

Tears stung my eyes. It was everything I’d wanted to hear, but it was too late. Too much time had passed. Needing to change the subject, I said, “Is it part of your job as the innkeeper to dance with all the single women at the balls?”

A slow smile spread over Aiden’s face, reminding me of a time when we were happy and in love. “You’re the only woman I’ve danced with tonight.”

I wondered why that was. Did he still feel something for me, or was it merely regret over how he’d ended things? 

My mother died, but I still had a loving father and siblings. I had the means to go to college even if it was on student loans. Aiden didn’t have any of that support. I just wished he’d realized that I was on his side.

“I usually man the front counter.” He looked around the room. “This is more Marley’s kind of thing.”

“Then why are you here tonight?” I couldn’t stop myself from asking.

“I’m friends with the Monroes. I work with Heath in his contracting business, and Marley is close with them. But mainly I wanted to see you.”

“It’s good seeing you after all these years.” I wasn’t sure it was good for my mental health. I felt stronger when I wasn’t around him. Then I could put him and everything that happened out of my mind.

“I never thought we’d be together like this again.”

“Neither did I.” Not coming home often was self-preservation. It felt weird being in the house when my mother wasn’t there anymore. And I didn’t want to run into Aiden.

“Do you know how long you’ll be in town?”

I shrugged. “I have to go back after the New Year.”

When the notes of the song drifted off, Aiden asked, “Would you like a drink?”

I sighed. “I’m not really in the mood for a party or everything that comes with it.”

“Then can I show you the gardens? Marley had Knox add them when she renovated. I think it’s the best thing she did to the property.”

I smiled at his obvious excitement. “Then I’d love to see them.”

Aiden led me around the couples dancing, and into the hallway. “You’ll need a coat.” We stopped at my room to retrieve mine, then his at the front desk.

He opened the door, and I stepped into the crisp air.

“It’s a beautiful night.” When was the last time I’d spent any time admiring the sky or the stars? I usually worked long hours where I came home to eat takeout, then worked longer on my laptop.

Occasionally, I went out for drinks or a meal with friends or coworkers, but I didn’t feel like I had stopped to appreciate anything in a long time. Maybe this would be a good break for me.

He led me to the side of the inn where there was a line of Christmas trees wrapped in white lights.

“This is gorgeous.”

He flashed me a grin before he led me though a gap in the trees. “Just wait until you see the rest.”

When the trees led us through a path, I asked, “Is this a maze?”

Aiden squeezed my hand. “It is.”

A jolt of electricity traveled down my arm. “I wish this were here when we were kids. We would have had the best time running around.”

“You know why that never would have worked,” Aiden said tightly.

I spent time at the inn but managed to avoid his parents. Aiden didn’t want me to meet them. He said they’d just criticize me and him. He was protecting me from their vitriol. “Have you seen your parents since you’ve been back?”

I shook my head. “When Marley graduated, Gram told my parents they were no longer welcome on the property, and had the trailer removed. She tolerated my parents, and when Marley turned eighteen, she didn’t want them here anymore. It was for the best. I didn’t like leaving Marley here to deal with them. I just didn’t see any other way around it.”

Aiden had abandoned everyone he purported to love. But I’d moved on from him and was stronger for it.

I heard the trickle of water before I saw the source. When we reached a clearing, there was a tree in the center of a massive water fountain. At the base there were small spouts that made it look like the tiny cascades were chasing each other around the edge. “This is gorgeous.”

I loved that Marley had renovated the inn, and it was open again. It made me feel like anything could be repaired. It made me hope for something I shouldn’t want.

We stood at the edge of the fountain, him looking at the lights of the tree and me looking at him. He was no longer the boy who’d broken my heart, but a man I no longer knew. He wasn’t mine and never would be.

 

 

 

 

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