Cheyenne Collins’s past has just come back to haunt her. Again. She runs to the sanctuary of her grandmother’s home in Willow Valley in the hopes of spending the Christmas holiday in a quiet, safe place. What she doesn’t expect is for her ex, Booker Banks, to also be in town. Right next door, in fact, visiting his grandfather.

Instead of the quiet, peaceful holiday Cheyenne envisioned, she must deal with cranky, bickering
neighbors, an instigating niece, the emotions she feels for Booker and her past. As her and Booker began
to repair their relationship, she fears he will run again, too.

Will she be able to make him stay this time
despite the secrets she is hiding in her past? And when her abusive mother shows up on the scene, will
Cheyenne finally take a stand or will she be the one to run?

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Chapter One

“SIR, LET ME help you!” Cheyenne Collins picked up her pace to a jog. Slinging her one bag over her shoulder alongside her purse, she dashed across the thick snow to assist the elderly man balancing on an angled, old rickety ladder. It looked ready to fall over, or send the man crashing down the aged wood steps.

Cheyenne’s thin leather boots, made for the city, didn’t keep out the snow as she hurried across the sidewalk. Her feet, legs, and toes were instantly cold, this being the second time today she’d been almost knee-deep in the miserable white fluff.

She should have checked the weather conditions before spontaneously packing her bag and driving out of the sheltered city into whiteout road conditions. The boulevard in front of her condo didn’t even have six inches of snow but the snow hills along the streets of Willow Valley were almost six-feet high.

Good old country life.

A lifestyle Cheyenne’s driving skills were not accustomed to. Just outside of town, her vehicle tires had slipped and pulled on the icy roads until the rubber track skated across the slick surface, causing a terrifying spin and landing her car’s front end into what had first looked like a massive ski mountain.

She’d forgotten how much the snow accumulated further up north. And how Willow Valley sat in the snow-belt, collecting tons of snow during the long winter months. And worst of all, she’d forgotten—no she’d left—her cell phone at home…in the city. Willow Valley was a three-hour drive on a clear, summer day, but today, with the icy roads and whipping snow, she’d traveled for six long, excruciating hours, battling the ice to remain on her side of the road.

Unfortunately, she’d landed in a ditch. Luckily for Cheyenne, she’d crashed her car on the outskirts of town and a local tow truck had stopped to assist her. She’d been extremely grateful for the ride into town after failing to flag down the only other vehicle that had passed her, an old, baby blue colored truck with a rude driver who had completely ignored her and her obvious car collecting snowflakes on the crunched hood and broken headlight.

The driver was a jerk, but she was foolish too for leaving her cell phone at home. But then again, her head hadn’t been regulating accurate thoughts the last couple of days.

Cheyenne reached the gentleman now, gripping the ladder with her gloved hand, and sighing with relief when it remained upright. Picking up the strands of lights from the ground, she forced a smile at the older man, precisely as the ladder wobbled beneath her grip.

“Sir, I think you should climb down and realign your ladder.” She left how she thought he should simply cut the ladder into pieces and use it as kindling in her grandmother’s fireplace. A nice, warm fire while sipping cocoa and reading a good book sounded better than witnessing him teeterer to his death on this piece of firewood.

The old man huffed at her. “Why?” he retorted, giving the lights a yank and almost tugging them right out of her hands. She managed to give him the lead he needed while gathering more in preparation for his next heave.

The edge of his fur-lined, plaid hat was pulled so far down his forehead the material crinkled his eyes into small annoyed slits.

“What’s wrong with where it is?” he demanded.

The ladder shook again, as if aiding her argument, but the man didn’t seem to notice, moving with the sway to toss the lights over a branch above his head.

Cheyenne held her breath, her chest constricting while feeding him lights with one hand and steadying the ladder with the other. This old man wasn’t dying on her watch.

She didn’t release her breath until he hobbled down the ladder and jumped into the snow.

Jumped!

He had to be seventy years old, minimum, and he leapt like a thirty-something. He was going to give her a heart attack…if the stress of her crashing career didn’t do so first.

Cheyenne gave him credit for being the first person to distract her relentless worries about what was happening back home.

Well done, old man. Well done. 

But the distraction didn’t last long. The moment he stood safely on solid ground a slew of uncertainty flooded her brain: Were the girls okay? Had they settled into their temporary living arrangements? Would Mary take care of them until Cheyenne returned…and after Cheyenne gave her notice?

The negative impact of Cheyenne’s scandal—she’d never thought her name would be associated with such a dishonored term—at the Lilith House, a temporary home for unwed mothers and their babies, left her with no alternative then to quit. Now that her past had caught up to her and been revealed, it was only a matter of time before the investors began pulling out their hefty cheques. If that happened there would be no Lilith House, forcing Cheyenne to walk away.

The man in front of her slapped his snow-covered gloves against his work pants before looking up at her with eyes as black as coal and mean as a black bear. Familiar eyes. She’d only once ever seen eyes this color—the man at the source of her scandal. Fury ignited inside her.

“Aren’t you a cute little thing?” the old man said now, slightly changing his tune. “I would thank you for your assistance, but I could’ve managed hanging the lights quite fine on my own.”

She couldn’t hold back her smile.

“I don’t doubt it,” she said. “But, bearing the time of year, I couldn’t very well not offer my help and be accountable for you falling over and breaking your arm.” She paused at the malevolence he didn’t hide. Cheyenne could relate on his level after dealing with plenty of cranky men at the soup kitchens back in Willow Valley. “Although, I’m sure you landing on your ass would knock more precaution into you…maybe.” She grinned at his unyielding stare.

Finally, his wrinkled face pulled right into what she assumed was as much of a smile as he allowed. “I like you.”

“Charmed,” Cheyenne replied, not exactly sure he’d offered a compliment. He didn’t clarify either, his mischievous glance moving beyond her.

Against her better judgement, Cheyenne followed his stare to her trail across the snow. Only, instead of footprints, two red and green lines travelled along the front yard, the evidence disappearing at her feet. She checked her boots for remnants of color, grateful to find none.

With time to glance around, Cheyenne’s eyes slowly traveled across the remaining property, and to the Victorian house towering before them. If the taxi dropped her off at the correct address, this house had long been converted into a duplex and her grandmother resided on one side.

This couldn’t be accurate. She prayed she’d mixed up the addresses. Maybe the number she was looking for was supposed to be fifty-eight, or eight-hundred and five, instead of eighty-five.

Good Lord, she hoped so.

Besides being impossible to find the house number and verify the address accuracy, due to the mass amount of Christmas decoration hung on the red brick walls, the shocking “hot mess” in front of Cheyenne was cause enough to drop her mouth open and gasp in complete and utter disbelief. She’d never seen anything like this before and she lived across the hall from a fifty-year-old lady who managed to wear green every single day and had even gone as far as to dye her hair to match last month. Cheyenne had seen some crazy things, but the Christmas disaster in front of her topped the charts.

This display was a prime example of decorating gone dreadfully wrong. Two distinctive themes separated straight down the center of the house. One side of the house carried out a religious theme, while the other side was decked out with Santa Claus and all his friends. The opposite of Christmas choices established what appeared to be a battle between the two owners.

An animated Santa and his reindeer lined one side the roof, while a plastic pre-lit nativity scene assembled on the other side.

The decorating didn’t end with those immensely large pieces, although in Cheyenne’s opinion they should have. Cheyenne’s eyes were drawn to lights on every edge of the house, spilling from the roof, around the windows, and hanging from the balconies…anywhere and everywhere a decoration could fit, Cheyenne saw another. She cringed to think what it must look like at night.

The front yard displayed plastic shaped blow molds, wooden trees tied with ribbons, pinecone wreaths, sparkly signs with Christmas sayings dug into the snow, grapevine lit balls, and bright red bows…bows everywhere.

Just when Cheyenne thought no more room remained, they’d managed to prove her wrong with yet another decoration. The display put National Lampoons Christmas to shame.

Please don’t be Grandma’s house.

Cheyenne was desperate to learn which resident belonged to each side, but she couldn’t drag her overwhelmed eyes away from the scene. It felt like a war raged inside her. Half of her wanting to take in every last shocking decoration and the other half wanting to rip her eyes out at the intensity of it all.

Who was cleaning up this clutter come December twenty-sixth?

Please Lord, do not let one of these sides belong to Millie Collins. Tearing down this catastrophe almost ranked as high as resolving Cheyenne’s next career move. With the media desperate for an exclusive, she’d come to Willow Valley to escape the highlight of attention—attention also brought to the Lilith House. She didn’t want to draw more attention to herself, like the front yard display did, screaming “look at me.”

“I like the muddled mess you made through Hagwarts’ snow village,” the old man said with a snort, dragging Cheyenne reluctantly to the present. “She thinks spraying bright colors into the snow is decorating…” He shook his head. “…batty ol’ Hagwart of a woman she is.” 

Hagwart? Was her grandmother’s nickname Hagwart? Was this catastrophe to blame for the vicious name? Was this miserable old man her neighbour?

This day could not get any worse. But it could get better if she had the wrong address. Life would be simpler, easier, and less stressful if her grandmother wasn’t this man’s arched-enemy.

His sneering chuckle brought her eyes back to him. “A thanks are certainly in order now, for destroying whatever the ol’ Hagwart thought she was creating. Now, let me help you,” the old man said to her. “You look lost. I can’t see how in a town this size.” Kindness laced with insult. Charming. “However, where are you headed, my dear?”

Maybe stopping here would come in handy to avoid her banging on a stranger’s door. Find a positive where you can.

“I’m looking for Millie Collins,” she said.

The man’s helpful face dropped. 

“I’m her granddaughter.” Cheyenne wasn’t sure why she rushed to tell him, as if that might bring back his smile. She offered a hand saying, “My name is Cheyenne—”

“I don’t need any introductions from a Collins,” he interrupted. “Maybe you stumbled over here on purpose. To ruin my yard?” His accusation deepened his already black eyes, clouding them with anger. “Get out of here!” he yelled so loudly Cheyenne jumped and her bags fell off her shoulder, hanging heavily on her elbow. “This is the line.” He walked to the obvious central point of the property, took a glove off and pointed at the invisible line. “You Collins stay on your side and I will stay on mine. That’s the arrangement and you’re breaking the arrangement.” His voice dropped to a low growl and his eyes thinned to a nasty glare that would send children running in the opposite direction.

Cheyenne stood still, shocked at the man’s seriousness over the division of properties.

Did he honestly expect her to jump back onto the other property? Like a criminal? After she’d practically saved his life.

“Are deaf and stupid as well as a Collins?” he barked. 

Cheyenne gasped in horror.

His mouth was as ill-mannered as his spirit and all of it wrapped up in a seventy something year-old miserable body.

She considered retaliating, but the possibility of being slammed with a trespassing charge would only add to her shame. She didn’t doubt this man had the local police on speed dial.

Cheyenne wrangled her bags back up on her shoulder and started toward the line, giving the man an evil eye the entire walk. He stared back, unfazed.

Before she stepped back onto what she now knew was her grandmother’s property, she stopped directly in front of him and said, “I assure you I’m neither deaf nor stupid, but you, sir, behave the age of a bratty little adolescent who needs a good ass kicking.”

The grunt he gave wrinkled his cherry-colored nose and he sniffled. “Step on my property again and I will show you a good ass kicking. Trespassers will be prosecuted by forceful removal.” He leaned towards her, but still stood shorter than her. “Try me, girl. I might look old but you’d be surprised.” He turned and trudged back through the snow to his lights. 

Merry freaking Christmas.

Climbing her grandmother’s porch steps, Cheyenne stomped the snow from her boots, promising her damp toes a toasty fireplace in which to warm. She pressed the doorbell, cringing at the Christmas tune that played inside and touched the burlap twisted wreath, only imagining what decorations would welcome her inside.

When the door opened, Cheyenne looked into her twenty-one-year-old niece’s big round saucer-shaped eyes, confirmation she had the right address.

“You’re here. You actually came!” Lily’s lips slowly curved into a smile.

Cheyenne instantly saw so much of her sister in her. From her thick blond hair to her hazel eyes, she was the spitting image of Lilith. Even Lily’s growing smile had the defined peaks on her upper lip, and pouty lower. Cheyenne had always longed for her sister’s lips, but nothing compared to the years of her aching heart desperate to spend another moment with Lilith, as impossible as her wish was.

“I won the bet.” Lily’s deep voice, mysterious eyes, and ever changing facial expressions gave her an edge that made Cheyenne smile against the ache for her sister.

Lily threw her fists in the air, pounding a set of invisible drums. “Grandma bet against you coming for the holidays…again. She’s won like ten years in a row, but I disagreed after the leak…” Lily snapped her mouth shut. “I’m sorry.”

Cheyenne’s insides were breaking, but she managed a steady smile. She’d been preparing the whole ride here. It helped that her face was still frozen from standing in the whipping snow outside of town for so long.

“It’s okay,” Cheyenne said.

“Grandma said not to talk about it and then it’s the first thing I bring up…”

“How about a hug,” Cheyenne suggested.

A smile spread across Lily’s lips wider than her outspread arms and Cheyenne moved in for the hug.

“I will hide you from the cameras and the vicious jaw gripping of social media. They can’t take our Cheyenne to the ground and—” Lily gasped mid-sentence, her grip around Cheyenne tightening. “As if King Cranky passed the line.”

Uh oh.

Lily released Cheyenne and moved past her onto the porch in only her stocking feet. Grey, wool socks reached halfway up her calves, with red stripes across the top edge matching her reindeer tights.

“Hey!” she yelled, wildly waving her hands in the air. When the surly neighbor didn’t look, Lily yanked her over-sized red-knit sweater down and shouted, “Old man!” The insult formed a devious smile on his face, as he turned to face them, enjoying the rise out of Lily.

“Lily,” Cheyenne hissed, even though she honestly wouldn’t mind witnessing her niece tear a strip out of King Cranky. The nickname suited him. However, she didn’t want either of them to be responsible for giving the old man a heart attack. Lord knew, he was wound as sound. 

“I crossed the line,” Cheyenne said, only loud enough for Lily to hear. 

Lily turned enough to wink at her. “I got this.” She skipped down the stairs, still wearing only socks.

Cheyenne opened her mouth to object then decided to leave the two to banter. Whatever strange neighbourly war they were having, she wanted nothing to do with it.

Inside the house, she found the warmth her chilled body craved, and the warm-hearted welcoming of the down-to-earth country furnishings.

The honey-colored half paneled wall suited the atmosphere, with rust red and burnt orange accent colors pulled from the rooster picture suspended above the wooden bench where Cheyenne dropped her purse and bag on top of plaid cushions. The minty scent of eucalyptus smelled like home and was woven into grapevine everywhere, from the wreath hung on the back of the door, to the swag draped above the entrance to the living room, even woven up the staircase banister in front of her.

Cheyenne chucked her boots on the heart designed shoe mat, wiggling her toes. “Grandma!” she called, peeking into the living room and glancing through the archway into the dining room, finding it empty.

Christmas overtook the inside of the house too. Swag branches hung over the fireplace wrapped in ribbon and lights, with three stockings hung, a collage of cross-stitched Santa cushions lined the sofa, and Christmas-printed doilies covered every surface. Surprisingly, she didn’t see a Christmas tree.

“Cheyenne.” The soft sound of her grandmother’s sweet voice soothed ease and reassurance into Cheyenne. Almost taking away the throbbing dismay of the last few days.

She wished her angst solely revolved around the scandalous story itself and not the man who leaked it. She’d trusted him, opened up to him, and given him more details about herself than any other person on this earth and still, in the end, months after he’d left without a word, he’d exposed her worst fear to the world. And his poor conduct might result in the demise of the Lilith House, leaving twenty-two rooms vacant and homeless mothers on the street.

Cheyenne felt the world closing in on her again, her chest weighing heavy, her throat shutting down. It was only when her grandmother, Millie, a tall and slim lady with gorgeous silver curls, appeared in the doorway at the end of the hall that she breathed again.

Millie smacked her hands against her gingerbread apron leaving white flour handprints across the front. The swinging door gave Cheyenne a quick peek into the kitchen beyond where she knew Grandma was baking up a storm, but she couldn’t pull her eyes away from the purple color streaking through Millie’s bangs. A bold and outgoing statement. Cheyenne liked it.

The old woman crossed the floor and pulled Cheyenne into a long embrace. When she pulled away, she thoroughly looked her granddaughter over.

“You look as beautiful as ever.” She gripped her cheeks, turning her head from side to side, studying her.

“Thank you.”

Millie moved her warm hands down Cheyenne’s arms to grip her hands. “Lily has been keeping me up-to-date, all day, every day.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”

“Hush now. You don’t ever have to apologize to me.” Her face grew serious. “And you didn’t have to go through making those decisions alone. I would have driven to Oakston and taken you to the clinic or we could have…”

Cheyenne vigorously shook her head. “Grandma, it’s done. A long time ago.”

“You were only fifteen.”

“One year younger than Lilith.”

“Cheyenne—”

“I can’t” She could barely get the words out. “It’s been a long drive, a long few days and I can’t talk about it right now.”

Her grandmother nodded. “Of course.” She hugged her again.

“Lily is out on the front lawn fighting with your neighbour,” Cheyenne said, changing the topic. 

Millie waved her hands in the air. “Oh, she’ll be fine.”

“She’s in her socks.”

Millie looped her arm around Cheyenne’s. “It wouldn’t be the first time and I doubt it will be the last. But, don’t you worry yourself, I knitted those warm socks myself and they’re thick to last.” 

“In the snow?” 

She led them through the swinging door at the far end of the hallway and into a small kitchen. The smell of delicious fresh baked cookies made Cheyenne’s stomach growl.

“Lily’s a big girl,” Millie said. “Sit down and let me whip you up a snack before dinner.”

Her grandmother moved around the cozy kitchen nook, pulling a plate out of the oak cupboard and bread from a wooden bread box.

Cheyenne sat at the two-person table pressed against the wall and stared past the sheer floral curtains hung over the large window. Snowflakes whirled about outside. She could see a fence dividing the backyard likely a good decision after meeting King Cranky.

She found herself smiling at her interaction with the bizarre old man. Cranky on Christmas didn’t suit, contrary to his festive yard.

She envisioned Lily and her quirky ways having something to do with King Cranky’s attitude and his distinctive line crossing rule. No doubt Lily pestered him to no end, leaving her almost feeling sorry for the guy…almost.

Millie set a sandwich and glass of tea in front of Cheyenne. “So tell me,” she said sitting down across from her. “What did you think of King Cranky?”

Cheyenne smiled.

What better way to forget her problems than to discuss the ups and downs of the crazy neighbour?