Ever after (the christmas cottage - book 2)

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It was hard to stand there feeling sorry for yourself when everyone else around you was so damn happy.  It didn’t seem to matter how much Ava Callahan nudged her inner green-eyed monster to rear its ugly little head, a smile still managed to make its way to her lips.

A sincere smile.

Dang it.

On what was supposed to beherwedding day, Ava willingly relegated herself to the role of maid of honor; a last minute substitution of the bride and groom in the form of Ava’s brother and her best friend Lacey.  While she could admit that there was some lingering sadness at the break up of her engagement to Mason Brooks, her primary emotion was relief.  She hadn’t really loved Mason; she’d loved the idea of getting married and having her fairytale wedding.

A fairytale wedding that was nowbeing celebrated by another bride and groom.  Looking across the room at the happy couple, Ava couldn’t help but smile.  Dang it!  She’d always known that Lacey had been in love with Ean and seeing them dancing together now, Ava couldn’t help but envy them just a little.  Not in a green-eyed monster kind of way, but in a wistful, can’t-help-but-sigh kind of way.

They hadn’t seen each other in a dozen years and yet in less than two months Lacey and Ean were so in love that it was obvious to anyone who was in the room with them.  How did one find that kind of love?  How do you find your soul mate and was there really even such a thing? 

Ava took a long sip of her champagne and looked at the room around her.  Everyone was happy, everyone was smiling.  Occasionally she’d catch someone looking at her with a little sadness, a little pity; she could understand why and didn’t hold it against them.  After all, this was supposed to be her wedding day. 

Earlier in the day when she and Mason had decided not to go through with the wedding, it had all been very civil, very dignified.  She guessed that’s how it usually went when neither party felt overly emotional about one another. 

How had she missed all of the signs?  When had she and Mason gone from being in love to just being two people planning a wedding?  When had they fallen out of love?  Ava wracked her brain, trying valiantly to remember when the last time was that she had actuallyfeltanything resembling love for the man she almost married and was shocked to realize that she couldn’t.

That wasn’t a good sign.

In the last couple of months, she’d immersed herself in wedding planning and ignored the now obvious signs that something was wrong with their relationship.  The chance at having her fairytale wedding, including her night in the famous Callahan Christmas Cottage, was too strong of a draw to slow her down enough to see reality. 

She didn’t love Mason and he didn’t love her.  End of story.

They both had an agenda; Ava’s was to get married, Mason’s was to have a wife to help cement his image in his law firm.  In the end, Ava realized that the wife that Mason wanted was never going to be something that she was capable of.

Thank goodness they had come to their senses before walking down the aisle!

As the wedding had drawn closer, people tried to warn her; namely the now happily married Lacey and Ean.  They had seen Ava’s wedding for what it was – a colossal mistake.  Unfortunately, Ava’s stubborn streak refused to let them be right.  When she and Mason had finally come to an agreement earlier in the day, it turned out he had people warning him as well.

Particularly vocal on that end was Mason’s friend and former best man Brian McCabe.

A shiver ran down Ava’s spine at the thought of Brian and she could feel a blush creep up her cheeks and turned to look out the window just in case anyone had noticed.  Looking out at the wintery landscape she vowed that no one, not Mason or Lacey or anyone, would ever know that Brian had come to see her last night or his reasons for why he was so opposed to her marrying his best friend.

“I’d like to make a toast,” someone yelled from across the room and Ava turned, a genuine smile on her face, her glass raised.  “To Lacey and Ean! May you have a lifetime of love and happiness and may your fairytale never end!”

Everyone raised their glasses and cheered as the happy couple sipped their drinks and then kissed.  Ava sipped her own champagne before turning to look out the window again all the while wondering, “When will my fairytale ever begin?”

Chapter One


“You’re doing it again.”

“Doing what?”

“You’re looking.”

“Looking at what?”

“The bump.”

Ava rolled her eyes.  “Oh for crying out loud, you are almost eight months pregnant, Lacey!  Stop calling that 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 that he wasn’t invited to and 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 incredulously.  “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 that 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 know 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 and as much as she may be griping, there were no two peoplemore 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 that she wasn’t drinking anything because she surely would have spit that out.  “How did you find out?”

“I ran into him.”



Knowing that 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?”

Lacey nodded.

“Yes,” 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?”

“And what?”

“Talking to you is really 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 really even bother her to say those words out loud. 

“Wow, how very“Harry Met Sally”of him.”

Ava’s brows furrowed.  “What?”

“Oh, come on!  Remember the movie?  When her ex announced that he was getting married to the paralegal?”

“Really?  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 that he found someone so quick?”

Ava almost growled in frustration.  “No, I’m not upset that Mason found someone.  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 whatITis!” 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 that 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 graduating from college in less than a week!  Don’t focus on what you don’t have, Ava; think about all that you do!”

“Well a college 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 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 that Mason wasn’t the one for you.”

“I guess.”

“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 that 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 college students, in the bookstore.  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?  Try online dating?  Place an ad in the personals?  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 that 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 and talk to me either.”  She sat back smugly 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 games on her.  There was no way that 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.  How are you?”  She took in the site 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.

Not waiting for an invitation, Brian reached over and grabbed a vacant chair and pulled it up to the table.  “I’m doing well; how about you?”

God how she hated small talk.  It was tedious and annoying and what was worse was having an audience to her misery.  “Brian, you remember my friend Lacey, don’t you?”

Lacey leaned forward to shake Brian’s hand.  “Good to see you again,” 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 place back at Christmas.”

Ava was outraged that Brian would make such a crass remark 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 then quickly silenced herself. 

Brian continued to smile as he turned his attention to Ava.  “So, Ava, how’ve you been?”  He took a slow sip of his coffee as he took in the sight of her 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 that the time was perfect to seek her out.

Refusing to meet his gaze, she softly responded, “Fine, thank you.”

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.  A quick glance at her watch found her getting 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.  “You’re more than welcome to come with me.  We’ll be grabbing dinner afterwards and you could join us.”  She threw out the lifeline but there was no guarantee it would be taken.

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 couldn’t help but smile in return.  “And you’ll be the one with the bump.”  They both laughed and said their goodbyes.

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 really am.  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?”

“Are you?”

“Am I what?”

“C’mon, Ava.  Are you angry, sad or hurt?”

She smiled sadly.  “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 wasfiercer than he intended and when her gaze snapped up to his he realized it. “Sorry, that was…”

“Completely arrogant of you?  That seems to be your M.O., 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 half-hearted 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 this time last year, I thought you had at least another semester left.”

“I doubled up after Christmas so that I could graduate sooner.”

“That had to be rough.”

She shrugged.  “I had a lot of free time on my hands and 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 that it’s opened a lot of other doors.”

Brian leaned forward, fully interested in what she was saying and was rewarded when she smiled at him as if realizing that he was sincerely listening.  “I can continue to work for the university; not just in the bookstore.  I can put in to work in the library there which is a very traditional route to take.  However, 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 seek out corporations that have a need for someone to organize or maintain a library for their organization.”

“I don’t follow,” he said, anxious to hear more about her field.

“Well, places like hospitals, med schools, law schools, publishing houses…any place that would require the need of building a library to assist in the growth of their company and it’s employees.”

“That sounds like a very challenging task,” he said, taking another sip of his coffee.

“I suppose 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 in that instant Brian knew that Ava certainly could handle any task – even world domination!  “Have you started submitting resumes to anyplace in particular?”

Ava took a sip of her now 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 that 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 that I’m ready for a change; I’ve lived here my whole life and nothing’s really happening for me.”

“What do you want to happen?”

“I want to travel a little; I want to meet new people!” she said a little too 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 that I’m more than someone who got left at the altar.”

“Well to be honest, Ava, you didn’t really get left at the altar,” he began.  “It was a mutual decision to not go through with the wedding.  Big difference.”

“Not to the people who were there,” she grumbled.  “It took months before people let me be around sharp objects; they were so afraid that I was going to hurt myself in my despair.”

“Were you?  In despair?”

“No,” she said sadly.  “I wasn’t.  But everyone just thought that I was putting on a brave face.  But 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 ayear.  Her blonde hair was a little shorter than it was 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.

Not yet.

Silence returned and Ava glanced at her own watch and realized that 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 that you’ve got graduation this weekend but I’d really 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, “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 that 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.”

And then she was gone.


It took most of the ten minute drive from the Starbucks to the campus for Ava’s heart to stop thundering in her chest.  As she shut off the car, she banged her head on the steering wheel.  “Seriously?” she grumbled to herself.  “I have run into Brian the day after hearing about Mason getting married?  What are the odds?”

Leaning back in the driver’s seat, Ava realized that she was twenty minutes early for work and had nothing to do.  She’d merely told Brian that she did because she needed to get away from him.  He evoked too many emotions in her; too many memories.  She’d relived that night in her mind countless times and yet seeing him today made it seem like it was only yesterday…

Closing the door to her hotel room, Ava sighed.  She’d had a wonderful day of pampering and shopping with Lacey and tomorrow was her wedding day.  She and Mason had overcome many obstacles but she felt certain that they were doing the right thing in getting married.  Any other issues they could work on after their honeymoon.  Neither of them was over-romanticizing their relationship but Ava had finally reached a point where she was okay with her future.

A knock on the door took her momentarily by surprise but she assumed it was Lacey wanting to hang out a little bit more; she had joked earlier about them having one last sleep over like they used to when they were kids.  While Ava really just wanted to be alone right now, if Lacey were waiting with her pillow and some chocolate chip ice cream, she’d be more than happy to have the company.

When she opened the door it wasn’t Lacey staring back at her, but Brian McCabe.  To say she was shocked was an understatement.  He and Mason hadn’t spoken in months and it was because of their disagreement that Ava’s brother was now standing in as best man at their wedding.  Her curiosity had gotten the better of her and she’d tried calling Brian when Mason wouldn’t share what their fight had been about but he’d never returned her calls.  Now here he was, standing larger than life in her doorway and looking at her like she was the enemy.

“Brian!  What are you doing here?” she’d asked.

“May I come in?”

Ava thought on that one for a second; she didn’t know Brian that well but he was a long-time friend of Mason’s and she really did want to know what had happened between them.  She stepped aside and motioned for him to come in.  “So, how are you?” she asked shyly.

Brian turned and looked at her as if she was speaking Greek.  “How am I?  My best friend won’t talk to me and it’s your fault.  How do you think I am?”

No words could have shocked her more.  “My fault?  How is this my fault?  What did I do?”

Taking a minute to collect his thought, Brian glanced around the room and went to sit in the lone chair in the corner.  Taking a deep breath, he stared at her.  “You’re making a mistake, Ava.”

She stood rooted to the spot some ten feet away from him.  “I don’t understand, Brian.  What is this all about?”

“Marrying Mason is a mistake.  You’re not right for him.”

Ava saw red.  How dare this man come here on the eve of her wedding and tell her such things and that’s exactly what she told him!  “What gives you the right to say that?” she demanded.

“I’ve known Mason for a long time; he’s like a brother to me and I’m telling you that this marriage is a mistake.  You won’t make him happy.”

She wanted to cry.  They had been under attack about their relationship for months but Brian’s words hurt the most.  “You don’t even know me!  That’s an unfair assumption to make!”

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