CHRISTMAS INTERFERENCE: A Baltimore Banners Novella

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CHAPTER ONE

Shane Masters stared at the house, dread filling him as the festive lights twinkled in the cold darkness. White. Red. Green. Alternating flashes of holiday cheer, beckoning visitors in from the cold.

It was enough to give him a fucking headache.

He didn't want to be here. Didn't know exactly why he was here. Misplaced loyalty? A twisted sense of obligation? Both. Neither. Maybe for some other reason, one he didn't want to acknowledge, one he couldn't face.

Guilt slammed into him, forcing him to acknowledge it no matter how hard he tried to bury it. How long had it been since he'd last been home? Two years?

He frowned, thinking back. No, three years. Christ, had it really been that long? Yeah, it had. Three fucking years—even longer since he'd been to this particular house. And he wouldn't be here now if not for his uncle quietly insisting he show up; if not for his aunt slyly throwing that guilt trip on him the minute he walked through the door this afternoon.

It's time, Shane. You've been gone too long. Don't let your inaction turn into regret.

Regret.

Yeah, that pretty much summed everything up. Regret and guilt, his adopted life mantras. The emotions that had been tearing him apart for the last five years. The emotions that wouldn't quite stay buried, no matter how hard he tried, no matter how deep he shoved them into the black corners of his worthless soul.

And still the question came back to haunt him, the single question that had been eating at him all this time: why? Why had it happened? Why Wyatt and not him?

It would be easier to find an answer to the mysteries of life than answering that one single fucking question. He'd know, since he'd been trying to do just that for the last five fucking years.

Yet none of that was helping him move, encouraging him to leave the comforting warmth of the rental SUV. Big. Shiny. Black. With all the luxuries he was used to now. Yeah, because somehow choosing the most expensive, most luxurious, most over-sized and pretentious vehicle the rental place had to offer somehow made him more of a man. Somehow proved he'd made it. Somehow proved that he was a somebody. He glanced around the interior, at the expensive black leather and state-of-the-art digital instrumentation. Ran his hand over the buttery-soft leather cradling his worthless ass, the seat's heater keeping him warm in spite of the night's plummeting temperature.

He should have never come here. Should have never come home. He should have stayed in Baltimore for the Christmas break. Four fucking days. Being by himself for four days wouldn't have killed him. He could have spent it just hanging around his monstrosity of an empty four-bedroom home. Maybe had a few of the single guys from the Banners stop by for a night of partying that had nothing to do with the fucking holidays.

There were a hundred different things he could have done—until his aunt had called and asked him to come home. The aunt who had raised him since he was twelve years old. The aunt who had opened her house and her heart to him after his parents had passed away.

The aunt who had never asked him for anything before in his life.

He couldn't say no.

Now here he was, sitting outside the comfortable rancher that had been like a second home to him while he'd been growing up. Not his aunt's house, but his best friend's.

His former best friend.

"Fuck."

Shane killed the ignition, grabbed the wrapped present from the passenger seat, then shoved open the door. He misjudged and shoved too hard. The door swung back on its hinges, nearly smashing his fucking knee as he climbed out.

Yeah, wouldn't that be poetic justice?

He shoved the thought away and trudged up the sidewalk, doing his best to ignore the tacky inflated Santa and the hideous plastic reindeer surrounding him. The decorations brought back memories from all those years ago—some funny, some bitter, some nostalgic. How many times had he helped lug boxes of decorations up from the basement, laughing and groaning? They'd joke, him and Wyatt, about the sheer tackiness of every single item being placed on the lawn. Their good-natured complaints always went ignored by Mr. Hunter. Tacky decorations were his main goal, after all.

It looked like that hadn't changed, even after all this time. But who helped drag everything up from the basement now? Not him. Not Wyatt, not since—

Shane shoved the thought away and opened the storm door, raised his hand to knock. The door opened before he got that far and he stepped back in surprise, nearly stumbled off the edge of the small porch when his addled brain finally recognized the girl standing in front of him.

No, not a girl. A woman.

Tall, her slender form covered in a bright holiday sweater that hit her mid-thigh. Black leather boots encased her legs just below her knee, blending in with the black knit leggings covering her long, lean legs.

Shane swallowed past the anxious lump in his throat, let his gaze travel up to her face. Instead of seeing anger or hurt in her eyes, hatred or animosity on her face, he saw...a smile. A glimmer of delight. Of hope.

Shane blinked, waiting for the door to slam shut in his face. He must be seeing things. There was no way she could be happy to see him. No way she could be standing there, smiling at him. Maybe she didn't recognize him. Maybe she was simply too stunned to see him on the doorstep, his mouth gaping in surprise.

But the door didn't slam closed, and her smile stayed in place. And yes, she did recognize him, he saw it in the depths of those piercing green eyes. Dark green, fringed in lush lashes. Witch's eyes that haunted his dreams at night, even now. Even after all this time.

"Chloe." Her name tumbled from his lips, his voice strangled and a little choked. Her smile grew a little wider, the small dimple in her left cheek making a brief appearance.

"Shane." There was no surprise in her voice, no hint of the anger or betrayal she must certainly be feeling. There was only warmth, welcoming and comforting.

She ran a hand through her dark hair, giving him a glimpse of the green highlights scattered throughout the long strands, then stepped back and held the door wider. "Are you going to stand out there all night until you turn into a popsicle, or are you going to come inside?"

He stepped inside, felt the years melt away as he scanned the familiar entranceway. The hand-hewn bench shoved against the wall, coats and scarves hanging from wooden pegs just above it. The small table placed just to the right of the door and the blue marble bowl filled with change, a smaller bowl in front of it holding carelessly tossed keys.

And the pictures. So many pictures. Candid shots and formal portraits, all framed in varying shades and styles of wood, taking up nearly every inch of available wall space to his left.

Shane pulled his gaze from the pictures, afraid to look at them too closely. Afraid he'd see the one with Wyatt and Chloe and him, back when they were teenagers. They'd been having a monster snowball battle and had called a truce long enough to come inside for hot chocolate at Mrs. Hunter's insistence—but not before she snapped the picture. The three of them had their arms draped over each other's shoulders, their faces red from the cold, their smiles as bright as the winter sun reflecting off the snow as they faced the camera.

No, he wasn't afraid he'd see the picture—he was afraid he wouldn't see it. That it had been removed, tossed out like the garbage he'd become.

The door closed behind him and he turned, jumping with guilt. Could Chloe tell? Maybe, maybe not. She'd always been able to see past his cocky attitude, had always been able to push past his external barriers. But that was years ago, before life had sent all three of them into a tailspin.

"I didn't think you were going to show up."

Her words made him pause. He frowned at her, confusion keeping him off-balance. "How did you know I was even coming?"

"Because I called Aunt Liz to invite you. How else?"

"Oh. I, uh..." His voice trailed off as he struggled to find the right words—any words. Chloe had called to invite him? Aunt Liz hadn't told him that. She hadn't told him much of anything, except to insist he come here tonight.

To insist it was time for him to put the past behind him.

Shane looked away from those piercing green eyes and finally shrugged out of the heavy coat, juggling the wrapped gift from one hand to the other as he did so. Chloe just stood there, not offering to help, watching him with a frown as he hung his coat over another one above the bench.

She stared at him long enough that he started to squirm, long enough that he finally turned and frowned right back at her. "What?"

"Where's your sweater?"

Shane looked down at his outfit. Faded jeans. Expensive exotic skin boots. A dark green button-down flannel shirt. "What sweater?"

"It's an Ugly Christmas Sweater party. You're supposed to be wearing an ugly sweater." She waved a hand in front of her, motioning to her own sweater.

"I didn't know. Aunt Liz didn't explain that." Or had she? Shane had done his best to ignore everything she'd told him about the party tonight, positive he wasn't going to be attending. He'd forgotten how insistent Aunt Liz could be, how easily she could bend people to her will once she made up her mind.

"Well, at least you brought a present for the white elephant gift exchange." Chloe finally took the wrapped gift from his hand, playfully shaking it like she was trying to figure out what was inside. "Besides, Mom has extra sweaters for everyone. Don't say I didn't warn you."

A jolt of surprise—of heat and of wanting—shot through Shane when she reached down and took his hand, her slender fingers threading with his. Just like old times. Just like before, when they had been together. A couple. Inseparable.

When he'd been certain they would always be together.

But that had been before. Before life had changed in the blink of an eye. Before dreams had been shattered and lives irrevocably changed.

Before he'd fucked up everything.

Did Chloe feel the way he stiffened under her touch? Could she sense his hesitation? His confusion? If she did, she ignored it. She simply offered him another wide smile, the dimple playing hide-and-seek in her cheek as she tugged him forward.

Leading him from the entranceway and into the large family room filled with people.

Bringing him face-to-face with the mistakes of his past.

*****

 
 

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