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Begin Again (MF)

The Blake Boys

Etopia Press

Heat Rating: STEAMY
Word Count: 42,268
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Finding true love is the ultimate gift.

Christmas is coming, and Anna Beth is looking forward to a tropical vacation with her friends—anything to help her forget about Corbett. Their relationship had been racing in the right direction...until it went completely off the tracks. All evidence points to the fact that the hunky Corbett is still hung up on his ex. But when she accidently shreds her passport the night before her trip, it suddenly looks as though she'll be staying put. Now it would take a holiday miracle get her in a good mood again. Too bad she misses Corbett something terrible...

For Corbett, the holidays this year are anything but happy. His family will all be away, forgoing family tradition. Even worse, the beautiful, vivacious Anna Beth tells him she doesn't want to see him anymore. All thanks to an unfortunate mix-up with his ex-fiancée. Corbett is all out of holiday spirit. But he's hopeful that if he can just get Anna Beth to talk to him, he might just change his mind about the holiday tidings.

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Corbett Connelly reluctantly passed the blue dress shirt to his brother Wyatt. The last thing he felt like doing was helping his little brother pack for his trip to Philadelphia. The holidays were getting off to a rough start with the news that everyone in the family had plans to go away except him.
He was normally upbeat this time of the season, but this year was different. Everywhere he turned there was festive music, eye-popping decorations, and happy couples holding hands. That was the worst part. It was a sore reminder that he’d broken up with his girlfriend Anna Beth a few weeks ago. After licking his wounds from a broken engagement, he’d taken a chance and asked out Anna Beth, the beautiful, smart, and funny executive assistant who worked at Blake Enterprises with his big brother Bo. They’d been seeing each other for a while but had been keeping it under wraps from family and friends. He’d been a little gun-shy after almost getting married and wanted to take things slow. But lately he’d been rethinking that strategy.
Anna Beth was everything he’d ever wanted in a woman. She was warm, kind, considerate, and valued his opinions. They had tons of things in common and made each other laugh. And their chemistry was undeniable. He’d made frequent trips from New Mexico to Texas to see her. Living in two different states could be daunting at times, but they made it work. Still, they’d agreed to take things slow so his family was none the wiser that they’d been dating. He loved them dearly but needed some space to explore their connection without getting unwanted advice about their budding relationship. But he also knew was that was bull. He wanted to be with her all the time without interruption from anyone else.
And now he didn’t have her at all.
It had been a few weeks since the fight over their botched Thanksgiving plans that led to the breakup. She’d invited him to dinner with her family. He’d planned on heading to her family’s place after he’d finished volunteering at the soup kitchen where he lived in Albuquerque. But his ex-fiancée, who was volunteering there too, had become ill while helping out and he’d taken Courtney to the emergency room.
Afterward, he high-tailed it to Texas to talk to Anna Beth. He tried to assure her that there was nothing going on between him and Courtney. He’d long gotten over her, but Anna Beth hadn’t wanted to listen. She’d railed at him for not seeing the truth about Courtney. She’d said his ex was manipulating him and demanded he cut off all ties to her. The old feelings of being controlled by a woman came flooding back. He couldn’t go through that again.
When she’d told him it was over and slammed the door in his face, he’d reconciled that maybe it was for the best. He should have taken some time to be single before delving into a new relationship so soon after he’d called off his wedding. At least that’s what he’d told his brothers. Inside, he was devastated by her refusal to believe he wasn’t putting his ex before her.
His brother was grumbling about needing a new suit while rifling through his closet, pulling his thoughts back to the present.
“You might want to take a few extra ties.” Corbett went over to the closet and threw a few more in the suitcase. “Always carry a spare in your pocket when you’re going to a dinner party. Just in case you get something on the one you’re wearing.”
“Thanks.” Wyatt beamed. “I haven’t had to wear a suit in awhile.”
“It isn’t exactly part of the Bright Star’s dress code,” he mused and flipped through the hanging dress shirts. Little brother Wyatt was still trying to find himself after college graduation and had been working at the bar owned by a family friend. “What’s on the agenda with the Reeds?”
“We’ll be attending church service with Great-Grandma Reed on Christmas Eve. Avery’s dad said he wanted to have a nice long talk. Derek and Charisma are hosting the family Christmas dinner at Derek’s house. And Avery wants to introduce me to a few of her old high school friends.”
“Sounds nice. Did you get her parents good gifts?” He knew it was important for Wyatt to put in face time with his girlfriend Avery’s parents and make a good impression.
“I got her mom a watch that tracks her vitals during her workouts and a gift certificate for a spa day. And I got her dad a personalized bowling ball with an inscription that says My baby’s a doctor. I wanted to have King of the Turkeys engraved on it, but Bo Sr. said it could be construed as a double entendre.”
“Wow.” He whistled. “You’re pulling out all the stops for your future in-laws.”
“Shut up.” Wyatt threw a pair of jogging pants at him. “My goal is to get Avery’s dad to smile at least once and not ask if I’ve decided on my future yet.”
He laughed. “The personal touch with the gifts will get you a twenty-four hour reprieve.”
Wyatt laughed too. “I was hoping it would buy me three days’ peace, at least. I talked to Dad this morning. He’s excited about his spiritual retreat in Arizona. Can you imagine him jumping on his hog with Glynis, headed to some hot springs to get in touch with his inner child?”
“No.” Corbett shook his head. “But it’s nice to see him trying new things. I have to admit Glynis makes him happy. She’s got him drinking herbal tea and working on clearing his chakras.”
“I was shocked when Glynis and Mom had lunch last week.”
“Face it, we have a strange family dynamic. Don’t forget your shaving kit.” He went into the bathroom to retrieve the shaving kit for Wyatt.
“What are your plans for the holidays?” Wyatt yelled from the bedroom.
Corbett leaned against the door frame. “Since my whole family is abandoning me? Who knows?”
“Hey.” Wyatt opened his sock drawer and began shooting them into the suitcase like a basketball. “When I made these plans I was pretty sure you’d be spending this time with Anna Beth.”
Corbett held up a hand. “Sorry. I’ve been in a Scrooge-like mood for the past two weeks. You’re a grown man and can make any plans you want.”
“You two still haven’t patched things up?”
“There’s nothing to patch up. I didn’t do anything wrong, but that didn’t stop her from reading me the riot act. I promised myself after Courtney that I wouldn’t get involved with any more irrational, bossy women.”
“Anna Beth, bossy and irrational?” Wyatt raised an eyebrow. “She’s sweeter than cotton candy.”
“I apologized for Thanksgiving, but she didn’t want to listen.”
“Well you did bail on meeting her parents to take Courtney to the emergency room for what turned out to be a wicked case of gas.”
“What was I supposed to do? A friend wasn’t feeling well. I did what I’d do for any friend. Courtney and I said we’d try to be friends after the breakup. We still see each other around town and at community functions.”
“Yeah, that’s called stalking. She magically appears everywhere you are at any given moment. You didn’t see her that much when you were engaged to her. I also find it weird she’s called you a few times since her trip to the emergency room, like she knows you’ve broken up with Anna Beth. Doesn’t that ring any alarm bells to you?”
He shook his head. “She’s way too self-centered to be a stalker. Besides, why would she fake sick? That’s just an unnecessary doctor’s bill, and you know how much she loves money.”
“You know she never liked Anna Beth. It must be a kick in those pearly white teeth of hers that you were dating the one woman she liked to torment at family gatherings. You did yourself and the world a favor when you broke up with her and started seeing Anna Beth. She was the anti-Courtney. Shame you two are on the outs.”
“I helped a friend in need. End of story. Anna Beth’s being unreasonable if she can’t see that it was the right thing to do. I’m not going to beg her to see my point of view.” Corbett picked up a crumpled sweater Wyatt had thrown in the suitcase and began refolding it. “Have you seen her lately?”
“I saw her the other day when I stopped by the office to have lunch with Bo. She told me she had a present for me and would catch up with me after the New Year.”
After the New Year? “Is she going somewhere?”
“I don’t know. But she could if she wanted. The Blake Enterprises offices are going to be closed until the second.”
“Did she look miserable?” It might not have been mature, but it would be nice if she was feeling just as crappy about their split as he did.
“You know she’s too much a consummate professional to show she was hurting. Besides, she was too busy zipping around putting the finishing touches on tomorrow’s office party.”
“What is that? Office party number four?”
“This is a smaller one for the pampered executives who want exclusive face time with J.J. and Bo.”
“Ah. Bo’s going to love that.” He laughed. Big brother Bo detested schmoozing at those big events. He happily hid behind his desk, while J.J. was the face of the company.
“So really,” Wyatt said. “What are your plans for this week?”
He ran his hand through his hair. “I think I’m going to head back to New Mexico.”
“Don’t do that.”
“I told Dad I would audit his books in January. Maybe I can get a jump on that.”
“Are you serious? You’re going to get your mind off your woman troubles by delving into work?”
“It’s a constructive way to spend my time.”
“Stay here,” Wyatt urged. “The Blakes are having their annual holiday-palooza. There’ll be plenty of people around who care about you, and it’s always tons of fun.”
“I don’t think so. I feel like being alone.”
“Aren’t you going to at least drop off Anna Beth’s present to her?”
“What makes you think I bought her a present?”
Wyatt shot him a dirty look. “You can’t fool me. You’ve been surfing the Internet since the Fourth of July, looking for the perfect gift for the woman you haven’t been seeing for months. Wait until the family finds out. The ladies are going to skin you alive.”
He was right. He had been searching for something special for her for months. He wanted to give her something…that would make her smile. He’d gotten her a few things, but he seriously doubted she would accept them. Especially the bigger gift that would require the two of them to spend more time together.
“I have a great idea.” Wyatt snapped his fingers. “Why don’t you drop by Blake Enterprises tomorrow? You could give her the gift and see for yourself if she’s pining away for you.”
“That wouldn’t be a good idea.”
“Parties put people in a good mood. Maybe you two can talk things out. And it beats moping around this apartment. You look like you want to burn down the Christmas tree every time you walk past it. What good was it to take this vacation if you’re going to be miserable the entire time?”
He’d scheduled the time off when he’d thought he’d have plans with her.
“I’m not moping. I’m just actively not participating in this egregious holiday.”
“You’ve been pretty tight-lipped about your relationship with Anna Beth since the beginning. Hell, I had to badger you to admit you two were seeing each other. You took great care to protect the relationship, so I don’t believe it’s just that easy for you to walk away. Don’t be an idiot and let go of something special without a fight.”
“Oh yeah?” Corbett folded his arms across his chest.
“Yeah,” Wyatt replied.
Corbett gave a long look at Wyatt. He’d grown up so much. Sure, he was still looking for the right career, but being with Avery had matured him. “Hey, I’m the older brother. I dole out the sage advice.”
“Yeah, but I’m the smart one.” Wyatt flashed a cheesy grin.
The sound of the front door opening meant Avery had arrived. He and Wyatt headed into the living room to find her putting presents under the tree. She was wearing a reindeer headband and a sweater with a candy cane on it.
“Hi, Corbett.” She gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Happy holidays.”
“Same to you.” He smiled. He had to admit it was hard to keep his staunch façade up when Avery glowed with holiday spirit.
“I put two more gifts under the tree for you. Are you going to stay here for Christmas?”
“I don’t know. I may head back to Albuquerque.”
“You should go to the ranch. They’ll be plenty of things going on there.”
“I appreciate the suggestion, but I’m liable to bring everyone down.”
“Nonsense. Teri-Lyn wouldn’t let you sit around with a sourpuss. She’d fill you with good cheer even if she had to cram it down your throat with a funnel.” She laughed. “But seriously, I don’t want you to be alone. Want to come to Philly with us?”
“Thanks, love, but I’ll be fine.” He put his arm around her and kissed her on the forehead. Avery had a heart of gold.
She gave him a knowing smile. “Or maybe you could see your way to Anna Beth?”
He laughed. “You two are something else.”
“We just want you to be happy.”
“I know. Like I said, I’ll be fine. Go have fun with your family and don’t let him eat everything in sight.”
She laughed. “Too late. He’s already polished off a tin of gingerbread cookies that Parker’s mom sent us.”
Corbett went into the kitchen to get himself something to eat. He searched his brother’s near-empty fridge and thought he probably should have looked in Avery’s fridge across the hall. The sound of the two them laughing echoed into the room. It was nice to see his little brother’s life on track. He might not have settled on a profession yet, but he’d clearly met the love of his life.
Corbett had wanted that same happiness too, and he thought he’d found a soul mate in Anna Beth. The day he’d met her, he’d felt like he’d known her forever. There wasn’t the same frictional push and pull with her like there had been with Courtney. The connection with Anna Beth was kinetic and positive. He’d been resisting it at first, but she was opening him up to so many things. He’d started to believe commitment could be a good thing if both people were honest and willing to compromise a little. There had been no compromise with Courtney. It was her way or the highway. He’d given her control long ago in the relationship to please her. Little did he know, he was signing his death warrant on his own happiness.
Anna Beth wasn’t like that at all. They had made an effort to be mindful of each other’s feelings. He loved that she valued his opinions, and he made sure he didn’t take her for granted. He’d surmised that she’d been involved with self-absorbed egomaniacs in the past. The kind of men who were handsome, charming, and successful but left a lot to be desired in the sensitivity department. He’d vowed he wouldn’t be another random jerk in her life. He’d wanted to be the one to make her forget the parade of losers who’d broken her heart. He wanted to be the man who’d restore her faith in love. But in the heat of their first big disagreement, that pivotal moment all couples face, she’d opted to give up, and he’d been too full of pride to ask for another chance. When she slammed the door in his face that fateful day, he felt his heart had closed again too.
Corbett opened the kitchen drawer and retrieved the local restaurant menus. He needed sustenance if he were going to keep up the pity party. And he wanted to have a meal with Avery and Wyatt. They wouldn’t be back until the New Year. Hopefully Parker was home and she’d get to join them. She too was finding her way in the form of a new career. The family wasn’t happy about her private investigating, but they agreed she needed some space to figure things out.
“I’m ordering takeout!” he yelled into the other room. From the sounds of cheering, he’d take that as a sign they were OK with it.
He scanned the menu, but his mind was stuck replaying Wyatt’s suggestion that he go to Blake Enterprises tomorrow. Corbett wanted to see Anna Beth, but he was afraid of what he’d find. What if she’d moved on? Or saw some guy flirting with her? She didn’t notice it, but there were plenty of men at the company he’d caught staring at her on more than one occasion. Especially that jerk Steve from acquisitions. No, it was better to stay away before he did something foolish like confess that he missed her. She was wrong about him having any lingering feelings for Courtney, and she should have trusted him. Still, longing for her was winning out over the pretense that he was fine with the fact that he’d lost her.
One thing was for sure. There was no joy for him this holiday season.

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