Colters Gift eBook: Page1
Maya Banks (2013)
LAUREN Wilder descended the steps from her second-story apartment above the Main Street Medical Clinic and breathed in the crisp spring mountain air.
The wind kicked up and a few tendrils of hair escaped the hastily done ponytail. She pulled her light sweater tighter around her and looked for traffic before crossing the street to the diner where she worked.
Not that there was ever much traffic in Clyde, and certainly not this early in the morning, but later, the sleepy town would come alive and a host of regulars would filter into the diner for their morning coffee, breakfast and, more importantly, the day’s gossip.
The bell jangled when she entered the front door. It was a sound she never heard when the small diner was filled with customers, but in the morning, it seemed jarringly loud and it always startled the quiet peace that blanketed the tiny mountain town.
It had taken her months to settle in and truly feel as though she belonged here. It was a far cry from the hustle and bustle of New York City, and a year ago, if someone had told her that she’d end up taking refuge here, in a place that still hadn’t caught up to the rest of the world, she would have laughed and said never.
She was, or at least she had been, a total city girl. She loved the conveniences of living in one of the world’s largest cities. Everything was at her fingertips. A walk, or a subway ride away. Sometimes a cab ride if she was in a hurry.
Max, her older brother, had found his way to Clyde when he’d fallen in love with Callie. Her family had lived here for decades. They were as much a part of this small town as the fixtures and buildings themselves.
Lauren had always assumed she’d stay in the city. Settle down with a businessman who shared the same interests as she. Have two children, a boy and a girl, and complete the American dream.
The problem with that fantasy was that she’d chosen the wrong man, and now she could never return to her old life. She didn’t want to return to her old life.
She’d found more than just sanctuary in Clyde. She’d found the family she’d always longed for in the Colters. She understood well why Max had been willing to give up his wanderlust and settle in these mountains, surrounded by the family who’d pulled him—and Lauren—into their arms.
For the first time in months, she was starting to regain some of her old confidence. More importantly, she was learning to forgive herself for the choices she’d made. She could now go to sleep at night without cringing over her naïveté. Or at least most nights.
The first step for her had been moving out of Max and Callie’s home and into her own apartment in town. It hadn’t been easy to convince her protective older brother—or the Colters for that matter—that she was ready to be out on her own. They’d grown used to having her close and watching over her, and while she adored them for their unconditional love and protection, she’d been thrilled to take that step.
She had a place of her own, and she had a job. So it wasn’t the career she’d planned, nor was it a job worthy of her college degree, but it was a job that paid well. She made enough to get by on, and she wasn’t depending on her brother’s fortune to support her.
She went into the kitchen, where she found Clark warming up the fryers and the grill and Evie brewing the coffee. She reached for one of the aprons and quickly tied it around her waist.
After smiling and offering her good morning to Clark and Evie, she headed out front to make sure the tables were in order and that the sugar and spice containers were filled.
It was a routine she followed daily. Same schedule. Same time. In her previous life, she would have been bored and ready to go stir-crazy. Now she found the routine predictable and soothing.
It was safe.
There was no constant fear that she’d do or say the wrong thing. No worrying endlessly over what kind of mood Joel was in. No blaming herself when he took his temper out on her.
She hadn’t realized just how far she’d been beaten down by the man she was involved with, until she’d been away for months and was able to objectively look back at just how stupid she’d been.
She sucked in a deep breath and chastised herself for going back. She couldn’t undo the past, but she could sure as hell make certain she didn’t make the same mistakes again.
New life. New chance. New opportunity to be a different person. Or at least to find the person she’d been before she’d allowed Joel to change her.
At six A. M. sharp, she flipped the switch to the neon Open sign and made sure she had an order pad and a pen in her apron pocket.
She and Evie worked the morning shift with Clark manning the grill. The diner closed at two because Dillon Colter’s pub opened at lunch and the pub usually attracted the evening crowd.
Lauren liked the hours because it left her with the entire afternoon off, and her workday was behind her. She often spent the afternoons with Callie and Max or when they were gone, she’d visit with Holly and Lily Colter.
They tended to stop in to visit Lauren more often now that she’d moved into town. Lauren knew they still worried about her and that none of them had been thrilled with the idea of her moving out on her own so soon.
Of all of them, Holly understood Lauren the best, and Lauren loved the older woman for her willingness to give Lauren room to breathe.
She needed to regain her confidence and reassert herself. Make her own decisions and live her own life. She may not be ready to take on the entire world yet, but she could safely say she was ready to take on the town of Clyde.
She smiled when the bell jangled, signaling the first customer of the day. She turned, already having a good idea of who it would be, and she was right.
Seth Colter, the sheriff, strode into the diner and took his usual seat by the window.
“Morning, Seth,” she said as she approached his table.
Seth looked up, giving her a warm smile that made her insides squeeze. All of the Colters had been so good to her.
“Morning, Lauren. Everything okay today?”
It was the same question he asked her everyday.
“Yep. How is Lily doing? You want your usual?”
Seth’s entire face softened at the mention of his wife.
“She’s doing great. More tired than usual, but we’re taking good care of her. And yeah, my usual will be great. Keep the coffee coming if you don’t mind. Had a late call last night and I’m operating on three hours’ sleep. ”
Lauren winced. “Ouch. Anything major?”
Seth laughed. “As major as it ever gets here. Lost hiker. His girlfriend got worried when he didn’t show up for dinner. Turns out he was over in the next town with another woman. ”
Lauren shook her head and then turned in the direction of the kitchen. “I’ll be right back with your coffee. ”
She grabbed the freshly brewed pot of coffee and poured a cup, adding two sugars and one cream. She quickly scribbled Seth’s order, tore off the paper and then slid it across the divider to Clark.
Then she went back to Seth’s table with his cup of coffee.
“You’re a goddess,” Seth said, grabbing for the cup before it left her hand. “Hey, before I forget, I’m supposed to tell you that Callie is coming over to visit Lily this afternoon and Lily wanted me to tell you that you should stop over after your shift. ”
“Thanks. I just might do that,” Lauren said.
“How are you liking the new place?” Seth asked, peering at her intently over his coffee. “You having any problems?”
She smiled at the concern in his eyes. It was nice to have people who cared about her.
“The place is great. Just perfect for
“We all worry,” Seth corrected gently.
“Yes, I know, but you shouldn’t. I’m fine. The apartment is great. I love the job. It’s nice to be around people again without . . . ”
She trailed off, embarrassed by where she’d nearly gone with the conversation.
“Without?” Seth prompted.
“Worrying that they’ll hurt me,” she said softly.
Seth reached over and squeezed her hand. “Now that you don’t have to worry about here. You have me and Max plus the dads and Dillon and Michael to watch out for you. Not to mention Callie, Lily and my mother, and between you and me, someone would be a damn fool to ever cross my mother. She’s pretty scary when it comes to protecting her babies, even if her babies are grown damn men and women. ”
Lauren chuckled. “She’s the best. ”
Seth nodded. “That she is. She’s currently on a tear about the arrival of her first grandchild. Dillon, Michael and I just try to stay out of her way. ”
“Thank you, Seth,” she said solemnly, when he lifted his hand away. “I appreciate your kindness more than you know. I don’t know what I would have done without all of you and especially your mom. ”
His expression was serious. “You’re family now, Lauren. We take family very serious. You can come to us for anything, anytime. We want you to be happy here. ”
She raised her head when another customer came in. “Let me go get this customer. Your food should be up in just a sec and I’ll get it out to you. ”
Seth smiled and nodded and then called out a greeting to the person who’d walked in. Lauren was still learning the people of the town, but she prided herself on knowing most of their faces, even if she hadn’t put names to everyone yet.
Small-town life wasn’t ever anything that had appealed to her in the past, but she’d grown to love Clyde and all its inhabitants. They’d embraced her. Made her feel welcome. She’d only been here since just before Christmas and already it was like she’d lived here all her life.
She sighed a little as she walked away from Seth and warmly greeted the man at the next table. Seth was a good man. As were both his brothers Dillon and Michael.
The Colters were . . . Well, they were different. There were no two ways about it. Seth’s parents, or “the dads” as he called them, were not that standard set of parental figures. Holly Colter was married to three brothers and in turn their three sons were married to one woman. Lily.
Callie, the baby of the bunch, was the only one who had what could be deemed a traditional relationship. She was married to Lauren’s brother, Max.
The hell of it was that Lauren envied all three women with all her heart. Holly, Lily and Callie. Maybe even especially Holly and Lily.
Each woman had three men completely and utterly devoted to their happiness and well-being. They loved Holly and Lily, and their devotion ran so deep that sometimes it hurt Lauren to look at them.
What would it be like to be cherished and adored by three men? To have that kind of relationship where she would be the heart and foundation, the very core of it all. She couldn’t even fathom being so loved, but she wanted it with all her heart.
Old feelings of insecurity crept to the surface. And with it, accompanying shame and humiliation. She’d been so desperate to find love that she’d found herself in a relationship she never should have been involved in. Worse, she’d remained in it when it had been clear that she didn’t belong.
She had only herself to blame for remaining. She couldn’t be blamed for his actions, but she sure as hell could take responsibility for not standing up for herself sooner.
Shaking off the cloud of sadness that hovered over her, she busied herself with the rapidly filling diner. For the next few hours, she barely had time to breathe, much less dwell on her past mistakes.
Besides, she was beyond that now. The future was what she made it. Here in this tiny Colorado mountain town, she’d found her niche. A new life. A brand new beginning where the mistakes of the past wouldn’t continue to haunt her.
NEW YORK CITY
WE’VE been at this for months and still don’t have a single goddamn lead,” Liam Prescott bit out.
His partner, Noah Sullivan, grimaced. “You aren’t telling me anything I don’t know. But here’s the thing. We didn’t imagine those bruises on Lauren. And we damn sure didn’t imagine how terrified and ashamed she was. Still gets my gut all into a knot every time I think of how she looked the first day we met her. ”
Liam’s lips drew back into a snarl as he pulled the SUV into a tight parking spot outside of a brownstone divided into apartments. He sat for a long moment, his big hands curled around the steering wheel as he stared up at the number above the archway to the front door of the building.
“This better turn up something,” he said. “We’ve exhausted all our options. It’s like this guy doesn’t exist. ”
Noah got out and Liam followed. They walked up the steps and Noah buzzed the apartment. They waited a long moment and Noah buzzed again.
“Doesn’t look like she’s home,” Liam muttered.
Noah blew out his breath. “Okay, let’s go wait in the car. We’ll hang out for a while and see if she shows. ”