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Aaron's Heart gave me all the feels. I am so in love with this book, especially Aaron. He is such a sweetheart and oh so romantic! I can't wait to see what's in store for the Lake Hope series.Amazon Reviewer
Hungering for a life of adventure, when Aaron Parker fled his sleepy hometown of Destiny Falls, he vowed to never look back. In his decade spent on the road, he hasn't regretted that decision once. He has found joy in every aspect of his life... except love.
If her past has taught Mia Marshall anything, it's that long-distance relationships never work. After having her heartbroken time and again, she made one simple rule to prevent herself from falling in that same trap again. No long-distance relationships. If she's meant to find love, it will be in her hometown of Destiny Falls... or not at all.
When Aaron makes a trip home for his Dad's retirement party, he finds himself drawn to Mia at first glance. But what chance does a man devoted to the road have with a headstrong woman whose been burned by her past? Which will break first, her rule or his heart?
Release date: January 9, 2020
Print pages: 220
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“Candice, please, I just don’t see why?”
“Mia, will you please just call the man,” Candice whines in my direction as she steers the car onto the circular drive in front of the massive property.
This debate has been going on for the last ten minutes, and at least once a day for the last week.
I dare not mention Aaron’s name as I ignore her plea, grab my portfolio, and step out of the car.
Candice may be my best friend, and one of the few people I share all my secrets with, but she is low on my list of people who I will take love advice from. At least that had always been the case until she finally landed her “one true love” last month.
Hence her tone and my attitude. She should know better—she knows me, my history, and one of the only rules when it comes to relationships: I don’t do long distance. Why doesn’t she see the issue? Aaron doesn’t just live in another state, but his job keeps him on the road traveling the globe. You can’t get any more long-distance than that.
I set my portfolio on the hood of the car and straighten my three-button plum pencil skirt. The skirt sits just below my knee, so I’ve opened the bottom button to give myself some freedom of movement.
My gaze floats out to a sight I’ve fallen in love with over the last few years—Lake Hope. This early morning a misty fog is sitting on the lake like a warm blanket. Birds serenade us as I once again am envious of Candice, who has a cabin on the other side of the lake. She gets to experience this view almost every weekend.
“Come on, Mia, you guys are perfect for each other, trust me.” Candice refuses to let this one go.
I twist my neck and roll my eyes. “You’re just saying that because he’s your boyfriend’s brother and your eyes are filled with love,” I counter with a smile. I’m happy my best friend, after what seems like forever, has finally snagged the man of her dreams, Ryan Parker. It took them nearly five years to find each other; I don’t have that time or that patience. “Can we drop it? We’re here on business, remember?”
Candice pushes back a wisp of hair that has fallen in front of her face. Her mane is otherwise flawless as I recall the time before she discovered hair salons, scalp treatments, and eyeliner. We’ve come far together.
She squints, and I can practically see the wheels turning in her head. She’s reading me, but I know her better than she knows herself. The word business is a trigger to her. My friend owns one of the most successful women-owned companies in Destiny Falls, Indiana—a finance company that continues to grow by leaps and bounds. She squares her shoulders and turns toward the immense property that stands in front of us.
“Knew it,” I whisper to myself as I take a step next to her. In front of us sits the twenty-five-room, nearly seventy-five-thousand-square-foot, beautiful property which goes by the modest name of The Lodge at Lake Hope.
The Lodge is anything but modest. The sprawling facility is the premiere property on beautiful Lake Hope. Sitting right at the Lake’s edge, the family friendly property offers easy lake access, stunning views, and comforts not normally associated with a Bed and Breakfast. The property is colored with muted shades of brown and gray, however, sprinkled around the doors and windows are splashes of orange, gray, and yellow, which provide a homely feel to the buildings.
The main house sits right at the edge of the magnificent lake, offering picture-perfect views. A wide wraparound porch protects the full property like a moat around a castle. Another equally impressive deck resides on the second floor, it peppered with reclining loungers, a star-gazer’s dream location.
Adirondack and rocking chairs sprinkle the lower porch, reminding guests to slow down, relax, and take it all in.
I’ve already picked out a chair I’d like to snuggle in, wrapping my legs under me with a warm blanket, a paperback, and the sunset in front of me. Just one glance at this setting decreases the tension in my body; I can only imagine what a full weekend here would accomplish.
I pick up my portfolio as I lead Candice up the steps. The main house is quiet, consistent with the background Candice has provided. Almost as if reading my mind, she chimes in, “Remember this is the only commercial property that sits directly on the lake. The rest are all privately owned like my dad’s cabin on the other side of the lake.”
I nod as I inspect the windows, double-hung with spotless shutters on the side; it appears practically new even though The Lodge has been open since 1973. “And you said she’s not looking to sell, right?”
“Yeah, my dad has known Mrs. Shaw for nearly thirty years. The lake community is pretty tight,” Candice says as I continue to inspect the deck. “She lost her husband two years ago. Nice man. Since then her heart hasn’t been in running it. She tried to get her children involved, but neither one of them is interested in the actual day-to-day.”
“I appreciate this opportunity. This property is amazing, even more spectacular than you described. Internet research never does a property like this justice. Shall we?” I knock lightly on the door and take a step back to take yet another gaze at Lake Hope.
The creak of the door opening breaks my concentration as I turn to yet another surprise. Standing in the doorway is Mrs. Bridgette Shaw. She is leaning on a cane and has a thick, ruby-red robe wrapped around her. Her hair, more salt than pepper, is pulled back in a tight bun. Deep wrinkles dominate her pale skin as her dark eyes lock in on me.
“Good morning, Mrs. Shaw. My name is Mia Marshall. We spoke on the phone. I hope we aren’t too early.” Mrs. Shaw had insisted on a 7:00 a.m. meeting. I had found it odd, but Candice assured me that after running The Lodge for decades, Mrs. Shaw’s morning usually began around five in the morning.
Her face remains blank as her gaze floats toward Candice. A flicker of recognition races across her face, and her lips pull up into a smile. “Ah, yes, Candice’s friend. Of course, come in. Come in.”
I step through the doorway as Candice pulls Mrs. Shaw into an embrace. “You are looking great, Mrs. Shaw. Thank you for having us.”
They share pleasantries as I step into the huge foyer. At the rear is a large staircase. To the left sits a row of rocking chairs facing the floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the lake. On the right are three couches set in a U with a large oak coffee table in front of it. The table is filled with a surprising number of celebrity and gossip magazines.
“We’re going to go this way if you don’t mind,” Mrs. Shaw says, her voice filled with joy and excitement all of a sudden. The rest of the house remains silent.
“Are you here by yourself?” I ask as I follow her through the beautiful space. The house has warmth, the hallway lined with bookcases, novels, and nonfiction books covering just about every genre.
Her cane grinds into the floorboard, causing a creak as she turns toward me. “I have Netflix, the Food Network, and a million books—I’m never alone.” Her eyes smile at me as she turns and continues forward.
Candice rubs my shoulder as she joins me in lockstep. She whispers, “My dad checks in on her, has even come over with dinner. After decades of having a house full of guests she has embraced privacy. He swears she is fine.”
We enter the kitchen, and once again, I’m blown away. The vast open design kitchen is populated with the latest industrial appliances that you would typically find in a commercial restaurant. I recognize the brand names, all top-of-the-line.
“I have coffee and hot water waiting. I was up early, so I baked some scones and muffins for you,” she says as she places her cane on the back of a chair at the table and works her way around the kitchen. Her steps are now effortless; she practically floats around the kitchen, obviously one of her favorite places. “Please, take a seat.”
“I can get that,” I start as her eyes lock with mine. She points to the table yet again.
“You are a guest—sit,” she says sternly.
Candice must be familiar with the rebuke as she is already seated, pouring a cup of coffee at the place setting set up on the table.
“She makes the best orange cranberry scones in the world,” Candice says loud enough for Mrs. Shaw to hear.
“With lemon icing.” Mrs. Shaw beams as she approaches, carrying a tray of baked goods. “Your dad always tells me they are your favorites. So, of course, I made them.”
The scent of freshly baked goods hit me, and I immediately know I may never touch a prepackaged cake ever again.
Mrs. Shaw places a tray of muffins in front of me as she slips into the seat next to me.
“These smell amazing. Which do you recommend?” I state as my eyes lock in on the cinnamon swirl. Who bakes four different types of muffins for two guests?
Mrs. Shaw steals a glance toward Candice before speaking. “Normally I would recommend you start with the cranberry apple, but that cinnamon one is calling you. Go right ahead.”
Her eyes sparkle as I swoop up the muffin in a blink of an eye. Her look reminds me of my grandma, who seems happiest when she can put the entire family into a food coma.
Candice lowers her coffee. “So, Mrs. Shaw, I’ve shared the information you sent to me with Mia, and she is intrigued by the opportunity.”
“I imagined she would be.” Her lips flatten as she shifts gears. “Do you understand what I’m looking to do? And are you okay with the timelines?”
I run my tongue across my lips, clearing away any remnants of the muffin before speaking. “Yes.” I nod as I gather my thoughts. “You are no longer interested in running The Lodge. You’ve been approached by numerous companies looking to purchase. Not your preferred option. You are seeking ways in which you can keep the spirit of The Lodge going without having the burden of operating it. Have I got it correct?”
She chews on her lower lip as her stare intensifies. A chill races through my veins as I fear I misstated something.
“This lodge has been in my family since it opened in 1973. It is my home,” she begins quietly. “I’ve raised my kids on this property. I’ve seen this community grow from a few bungalows to beautiful cabins like Candice’s family to now these corporate monstrosities that sit nearby.”
Her eyes glance out the kitchen window for a split second. “I’ve provided so much joy to so many individuals looking to escape, couples, and families. I would like it to continue somehow.”
Her eyes mist over as I imagine a highlight reel of memories playing in her head. “Neither of my kids is interested in running this property. They both have their own dreams, both having moved out some time ago. It’s a lot of work if you don’t have a passion for it. If you do, well, then it’s like preparing Thanksgiving dinner—you are too filled with joy to even notice the work.”
I can tell by the smile on her face that she is thinking about her husband and the years spent together running The Lodge.
“Up to a week ago, I figured I’d just give in and sell to one of these companies. They are offering a ridiculous amount of money. However, I know what they will do. They will scrub this property of all its character and bring in a generic corporate feel that will stack people on top of each other in the spirit of squeezing dollars. I create memories and dreams. They will only be interested in growing their bottom line.”
Her voice fills with passion as she reaches across the table and takes my hand. “I’m not interested in the money. I’m good; all I need is for The Lodge to somehow operate at breakeven until my grandkids are old enough to take it back over. I’d like to give them that option.”
Water gathers in the corner of her eyes as she brushes it away. She wants to leave a legacy and keep The Lodge in the family, if possible. “I have all the respect in the world for Candice for what she has been able to do in such a short time—the fastest-growing female-owned business in the district. She mentioned you. She told me that you are an independent agent and have been doing innovative things down in Destiny Falls. I’m tired of these men coming in here and talking down to me. You should have seen their faces when I told them I was giving you an exclusive shot. Let’s see what you got.”
I take a deep breath. “Well, thank you for trusting me.” I think back to some of the financials Candice shared with me about the property. “I propose to maintain the vision of the property by offering up a series of profitable standalone events on the property throughout the year. Corporate retreats, holiday parties…”
“No.” Her rebuff is quick as she raises a hand in my direction.
“Excuse me?” I squeak out as my eyes bounce from her to Candice, looking for a clue as to where I misstepped.
“Candice said you were different—that’s why I agreed to this meeting,” she continues as she leans back and crosses her arms against her chest. “Everyone who comes here offers up corporate clients. Don’t you realize that has never been my clientele? Everyone caters to those pompous bastards. Not me, and not on my property.”
My hand fingers the thick portfolio I’ve spent the last week compiling. It’s full of charts, projections, and spreadsheets, all detailing how The Lodge would cater to an upscale executive clientele. The numbers are mind-bogglingly profitable—all of it now useless.
“Well, of course, those were only some of the options available.” I fumble as my eyes search for help. Candice picks up the ball immediately.
“Mrs. Shaw?” She draws her attention away from me. “How are Violet, Allison, and Roan?”
“Well, Violet’s husband, Leonard, works too much. I don’t understand what he does, but he’s always traveling. The boy hasn’t been home to see me in almost a year.” A misty look returns to Mrs. Shaw’s face as I connect the dots. Violet is her oldest, Allison and Roan her grandchildren, Candice’s prep work coming in handing. “Violet has her hands full with my grands. They are adorable and were just up last month. She looks so exhausted just from those two. There is no way she wanted any part running The Lodge.”
“You must show me some pictures before we leave,” Candice continues as she gazes in my direction. Family—I get it. I nod toward her.
“Mrs. Shaw.” I tap the table in front of me, and she shifts back in my direction. “What do you think of beautiful family weddings?”
Her eyes squint as she mulls over the suggestion.
“A handsome groom, a beautiful bride, and all their closest friends and family.” I paint the picture for her. “Beautiful Lake Hope as the backdrop. Family memories being created every week.”
Her tight lips crack for a bit. “That was something I’ve always wanted to do more of. Back in the day, we had a handful of weddings. They are an enormous amount of work—so many moving parts.” She blinks as if recalling. “So much stress, wanting to get everything perfect, but at the end of the day, some of the best memories.”
I exhale a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. “I have a contact at the Crystal Palace Hall back in Destiny Falls who is a wiz at these things.” My mind flashes an image of Catherine, who organized Aaron’s father’s retirement party.
The party at which I met Aaron Parker for the first time.
I lose my train of thought as my head fills with that sexy smirk of Aaron’s.
Aaron’s warm hand finds mine and…
Ryan had started a song-and-dance performance at the retirement party. Aaron searched the crowd looking for volunteers to join them in the dance routine. His eyes floated from person to person until he spotted me. I’ll never forget the look on his face for the rest of my days. A beautiful mix of curiousity, intrigue, and heat. Without speaking we both knew his search had ended as he extended his hand and pulled me onto the dance floor. We moved together as one, almost as if we’d known each other for years.
He looked so damn delicious in his tuxedo, his hip-swaying moves causing all kinds of reactions in me. After the dance, he pulled up a chair next to me at my table, and we chatted. That sexy smile, his flirtatious laugh, the easy way about him, an instant connection. It was only an hour, but I definitely felt something shift in me.
We exchanged numbers, and he called me that same night. We talked through the night, and then he told me he was leaving the next day, that he lived in Colorado.
I felt myself shutting down.
He lived in another state. He called nearly every night that first week. Our conversations quickly evolved, our connection growing. I felt the pull and knew I had to do something about it. Not only did he live in another state, but he practically lived on the road for his job.
I let his calls go to voicemail the second week. I kept my returned calls late in the evening short, hoping he’d lose interest. He didn’t.
So last week I went full-on Casper. I ghosted him, ignoring his calls and texts. Not the most mature thing to do, especially to someone who is the brother of a good friend, but I don’t do long-distance relationships.
A squeeze of my hand and Candice’s voice pull me out of my own head “…Catherine has done a hundred weddings, all of them run like clockwork.”
I feel the heat of embarrassment on my cheeks at zoning out at the worst possible time. I spent all of an hour with Aaron three weeks ago, yet he still affects me. And now Candice is doing my job.
“I’ve been to the Crystal Palace Hall, and I would agree they do a great job. But how would you make it work? They would want a cut, or better yet, they could just come straight to me and cut out the middle-woman.”
I bite my lip. She is right. Mrs. Shaw is a sharp businesswoman. Of course she is—you don’t accidentally run a successful lodge for nearly fifty years.
“Well, I…” I stumble yet again.
Mrs. Shaw pushes back from the table. “Candice, let me go get those pictures of my grands for you.” She stands and looks in my direction. “Mia, I like you, but I expected better. I leave for a monthlong cruise in four weeks. I need to have all of this settled before I get on that boat. I’ll give you one more shot at my business. Next time do your homework.”
Mrs. Shaw is barely out of the kitchen before Candice reacts. “You okay?” Her voice is filled with compassion, and I love her for it.
“What happened? You zoned out in the middle of a sentence.”
The word Aaron nearly escapes my lips, but I bite it back. I stare out the window, hoping the vision of Lake Hope will replace the image of this man whom I barely know yet can’t stop thinking about. “I have a lot of work ahead and not a lot of time.”
“You got this,” Candice whispers as she squeezes my hand once again.
“Found them.” Mrs. Shaw’s voice floats in from the hallway. “Candice, come. You have to see these.”
“I’ll be right back,” Candice says as I watch her bounce down the hall with the lightness of a woman in love.
I try to think of the last time I felt that lightness and am shocked when it stopped only three weeks ago.
I shake away the thought and remind myself rules exist for a reason.
I twist the telephoto lens of my Canon camera and focus on a salamander sitting on a boulder over a hundred yards away. It’s as clear as if he is two feet in front of me. I hold my breath as I click. I zoom out and provide the perspective view of the canyon.
The breathtaking sight is nearly perfect for what I’ve been searching for. I scoot back from the ledge, almost a hundred feet up from the bottom of the canyon. The sun beats down from the high sky as I take the kerchief from around my neck and wipe the sweat off my forehead.
I reach for my shoulder bag on the ground and flip it over, pulling out the folder marked Universal Studios. I’ve memorized the contents but look anyway. I flip pass my three hand-drawings and take in the nearly dozen artist’s renditions of a canyon. The top of each studio drawing says the same thing: Property of Universal Studios - Project XCA-2341. The studio’s code names always bring a smile to my face. Three letters followed by four numbers, their way of hiding the name of a movie being made. Outside of the blockbuster sequels, most people wouldn’t have a clue of a movie title.
My keen eye focuses on the drawings once again. XCA-2341 is a space fantasy movie. One of the key set pieces takes place on a rocky planet, hence the canyon. I cross my legs as I pull up my photos on the viewfinder screen and compare them to the drawings. They are a near match, almost as if the artist had visited this canyon themselves. Even the rock formations and height match.
I take a swig from my water bottle and close my eyes to appreciate the moment. Two weeks of searching behind me. For some, it’s hitting that home run, it’s closing that deal, it’s solving that riddle, but not for me. As a location scout it’s always been about finding something everyone has told me doesn’t exist. Nothing compares to the research, the quest, the near misses, and finally having my eyes come across what I call the perfection—that unique combination that doesn’t exist anywhere else on the planet.
I pick up my satellite phone and press the preprogrammed number.
“Tell me you’ve found it?” The voice is breezy and filled with urgency, a unique combination that can only be delivered by Amy.
“Did you ever have a doubt?” I return. Amy and I have been working together for the last three years. When we met, she also was a location scout but has since worked her way up the chain. The studio has tagged her to be the assistant director for their next movie, a promotion long overdue. However, she doesn’t get to move on until this current project reaches preproduction.
I tether my camera to the Wi-Fi from the phone and tap away. “The preliminary pics are on their way to you. You can thank me now.”
“I’m bowing in your presence, almighty exalted…” She pauses.
“You still there?”
“Holy shit, Aaron, these are freaking amazing. The studio is going to lose their mind.”
The words warm me as Amy truly understands how much goes into finding the right location.
“Thank you,” she gushes.
“Why are you thanking me? You don’t sign my checks, do you?” I joke as I know Amy won’t stop until she’s running the studio.
I hear the clicking, and I picture her squinting at the screen as she scrolls through the photos. “Silly, I’m thanking you because this was the last piece on the preproduction checklist for AstroGenius.”
“I thought it was called Galaxy Warrior?”
“That didn’t test well with the female demographic, so they changed it. That’s why they use code names. You really need to read the daily emails.” She joked at how, when I start a location search, I nearly drop off the face of the planet for days at a time. I’ve gotten better and am actually pretty active on Instagram, somehow garnering over one hundred thousand followers. Who knew there were so many photography fans? “I’m sending you the next assignment, and this one is super important, Aaron. I really need you to do your magic.”
“It goes without saying. What makes it so special?” I’m intrigued as I pull out my cell phone and am pleasantly surprised that I have reception.
“It’s going to be my big break. I’ll be the assistant director, and I need everything perfect. I’ve already annoyed the director to the point that he’s agreed to let me direct the exteriors and a couple of scenes.”
“Wow, that is huge, Amy. Congrats. You know I’ll deliver. We’ll have to celebrate.” My phone vibrates as my gaze lowers. I click the attachment. “You sent me an e-book?”
“Yeah, it started as a small production, but something has changed. The studio is being very secretive. They are working feverishly on renditions; rumor is it may be fast-tracked. I want you to get a jump on it as you know scripts suck when it comes to descriptions. The novel, however, is so beautifully written it will practically draw the scenes for you.”
I nod even though she can’t see me. “Well, I look forward to reading it. I’m going to head to Destiny Falls and drop in on the family. I’ll send you the final proofs in the next day or so.”
“Safe travels. I owe you a dance lesson next time we get together.”
I chuckle as I think back to when I last visited the studio in LA. Amy had snuck on the set of a hip-hop dance movie, taking classes with the rest of the cast. I laughed at her uncoordinated routines, initially thinking she was mocking the dancers. No such luck—she is truly that uncoordinated. Apparently, my spit laughing at her has motivated her to take real dance classes. She claims she’s improved. She gave me a sneak peek on a FaceTime update a few weeks ago, and, well, she still needs a little bit of work. “I can’t wait to see. I’ll make sure not to be drinking anything this time.”
Her laughter warms me. “I really don’t like you. Safe travels.”
“Talk soon,” I return.
I disconnect and immediately open up my messenger. My eyes confirm what I already know to be the case—no messages from Mia. It has been over a week since her last message. I scroll through the thread, our early banter bringing back all sorts of joy. Then suddenly, the tone shifts, her messages getting short, the time between responses longer until they stopped. Not being the brightest crayon in the box, it took me nearly a half dozen messages and three phone calls before I realized she had taken the ghost route on me.
I tap a few keys:
Aaron: Hey, I’m finished my current assignment. I will be coming to Destiny Falls tomorrow for a few.
Looking forward to hanging out if you have time.
The message is directed to my younger brother, Ryan, but a devious snicker escapes my mouth as I purposely add Dad and Mia to the now group text. Mia respects them too much to ignore the thread, the way she has with me.
It may be a little high schoolish, but Mia has me feeling like a teenager all over again. My chest warms with thoughts of seeing her again. She can’t escape me—doesn’t she know I find things for a living?
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