Get the eBook

Read it in Print

CAN'T LET GO | Excerpt

Chapter One

“I can do this,” Annie Callaway told herself as she ventured into the surf, the setting sun dancing off the dark sea in front of her. With each passing minute, the royal-blue sky was changing into a glorious spectrum of oranges, pinks, and purples.

Dusk was beginning to fall on Southern California, but while it was past four in the afternoon, the temperature was still in the high seventies and unusually warm for early December. She wouldn't know Christmas was a few weeks away if it weren't for the holiday decorations on the pier.

As she moved deeper into the water and let it swirl around her knees, she could feel the current, and it gave her pause. She told herself she could handle it. The waves weren't particularly large right now. In fact, only one surfer lingered out beyond the break; most of the other surfers had given up on the day.

She'd seen that lone surfer before, usually from the deck of her apartment on the bluff behind her. He often came out in the late afternoons, and he was never part of the pack, always separate, always alone. He seemed to have an infinite amount of patience, waiting for just the right wave, and she had yet to see him get tossed off his board. He always won his battle against nature, and she found that inspiring.

She wanted to win…at something.

After the last two months of being pummeled professionally and personally, she needed a victory—a triumph of some sort. She couldn't be the only Callaway loser.

It was bad enough she'd chosen to be an artist, instead of following in the family tradition to serve and protect the community or the world. She really couldn't afford to fail at something most of her siblings and cousins probably found trivial. She needed a test, something she could pass, something she could do…which brought her back to her latest—probably bad— idea to get over her fear of swimming in the ocean.

If young children could do it—why couldn't she?

She'd grown up across the street from Ocean Beach in San Francisco, and she'd been in and out of the water without a second thought until she was about ten. Then everything had changed. She and her neighborhood friend Kim Watson had been playing on the beach when a rogue wave had come in and swept Kim off her feet and out to sea.

She could still remember standing on the shore, terrified that Kim would not come back. She should have jumped in after her, but she'd been paralyzed by fear. Luckily, her older brothers, Dylan and Hunter, had jumped into the water and pulled Kim to safety, but she'd never forgotten the terror she'd felt that day. Since then, she'd stayed far away from the ocean.

Until now…

She took another step forward, her feet sinking into the wet sand, goose bumps running up and down her body. Two more steps had her in water up to her thighs. She drew on every fiber of Callaway courage and finally dunked herself in the water up to her chin. Her heart skipped a beat, not just from the fear but from the cold. There was only one thing to do—start swimming.

She kicked her feet and pulled her arms through the water, feeling somewhat amazed that she was actually doing it. She was swimming in the ocean! Her hair was wet. There was salt on her lips. She was doing it!

The realization sent a rush of joy through her body. It was going to be all right. This was the first step—one of many she would take to get herself back on track, to prove she could still fight, be tough, and resilient. Callaways might go down, but they always got back up. She could hear her Uncle Jack's favorite mantra in her head as she paddled in and out of the waves, ducking under a larger wave to avoid it breaking on top of her head.

Memories of being happy in the ocean were coming back to her. In her head, she saw her brothers on their surfboards, her sisters playing in the water, her parents and extended family picnicking on the beach. She'd missed those days. She'd let fear take away what had once been pure pleasure.

No more being afraid! She was done with that.

A shout made her turn her head. The surfer was paddling toward her, yelling something, but the wind took away his words. He put up a hand and waved it around in the air.

 She didn't know what he wanted. Was there a big wave coming? Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. She pushed her hair off her face, wondering what she was missing.

“Get out,” he yelled, drawing closer to her. “Shark!”

Shark?

Had he just said shark?

She swiveled around in the water, suddenly seeing dark shapes everywhere, some between her and the beach. Were they shadows or were they sharks?

Her heart began to pound and her fear returned in huge, paralyzing waves. She couldn't move. She wanted to scream, but her breath was stuck in her chest.

Finally, she started to kick her feet, but was that making things worse?

The churning water, the terror, almost made her pass out.

Something bumped into her leg.

Oh, God!

And then he was there, grabbing her arm, hauling her onto his board with an ease that seemed unimaginable in the moment.

His body covered hers as he paddled toward shore, and she more than appreciated his hulking, powerful male figure. It seemed to be the only thing between her and a pack of sharks.

When they hit shallow waters, he vaulted off the board, took her hand and pulled her onto the sand.

She sank down in a boneless mess of terror, looking at him through wet strands of tangled hair, her heart beating way too fast, her breath coming in short, ragged gasps.

He squatted down in front of her, and for the first time she saw his face—his ruggedly handsome, masculine face that was square, with angled planes and a strong jaw. He had blue eyes that were bright against his tan skin, and his gaze as it raked her body made her shiver for another reason.

She thought he'd pulled her out of danger… Now, she wasn't so sure.

“Are you all right?” he asked in a gruff voice.

“I—I think so.”

“Didn't you hear me yelling at you to get out of the water?”

“I—I didn't,” she said, her teeth chattering from cold and fear. She'd been so caught up in her happy little victory moment, she'd lost track of everything around her, but she wasn't going to tell him that.

Looking past him, she saw other people gathering around in a half circle. A Jeep pulled up, and two lifeguards jogged across the sand. The taller one squatted down next to her rescuer, asking them if they were okay while the other moved the gawking crowd back a few steps.

Her rescuer stood up and moved away as the lifeguard peppered her with questions.

She wanted to tell the surfer to wait. She wanted to say thanks, because it occurred to her that she had not expressed even one word of gratitude. But when the lifeguard finally finished questioning her, and she found the energy to get to her feet, the man who had rescued her was gone.

Her gaze swept the beach and then moved to the water where the beachgoers had turned their focus from her to the half-dozen sleek shapes that seemed to be swimming very close to shore.

For a second, she had thought maybe the sharks had been in the surfer's imagination or hers…but they were very, very real.

She felt sick to her stomach at the memory of something smooth and heavy hitting her leg. Had it been a shark?

If the surfer hadn't pulled her out of the water and onto his board, she could have been attacked. She could have lost a limb or her life.

She bit down on her lip as waves of nausea ran through her.

She'd thought she'd given herself an easy test, a way to win, to feel good about achieving something, but she'd almost gotten herself maimed or killed.

Turning away from the sea and the sharks, she walked over to the towel she'd left on the sand. She pulled on denim shorts and a tank top, grabbed her sandals and then headed across the beach to the eight flights of stairs that led up to the bluff, to her apartment, to safety.

When she got to the top of the cliff, she took one last look at the beach. The crowd had dispersed, and she could no longer see any dark shapes in the water. It was over. She should feel relieved, but she was too stressed to breathe freely, the adrenaline surge still working its way through her body.

She walked down the street to the four-unit apartment building she'd moved into six weeks earlier, lucky to have been offered the beachfront sublet by an actor friend of hers, who would be shooting a television series in Boston for the next six months. He'd offered it to her for a steal, asking only that she keep his plants alive.

Climbing the stairs to her second-story apartment, she unlocked the door, and tossed her towel and keys on the coffee table in the living room. The apartment had an open floor plan with a sofa and loveseat facing a big screen television in the living area closest to the front door. A dining area with a long, rectangular table sat adjacent to the kitchen, both rooms facing a wall of windows and a stunning ocean view.

As she moved over to the windows, she thought how beautiful and calm the sea looked now, but clearly there was danger lurking just beneath the surface.

She jumped as her phone buzzed in her pocket, her nerves still on edge. Relief and happiness ran through her as her younger sister Kate's name flashed on the screen.

“You have perfect timing,” she said, as she sat down at the table.

“Well, I don't hear that very often,” Kate replied. “What's going on, Annie?”

“Not much, unless you count the fact that I almost got attacked by a shark a few minutes ago.”

“No! What? Where?” Kate demanded, her voice raising in intensity with each word.

“The ocean.”

“Well, I would assume the shark would be in the ocean, but you don't go into the sea, remember?”

“I didn't go into the ocean…until today. I thought it was time to get over my fear.”

“What happened?”

“I don't really know. I was enjoying the water, feeling ridiculously proud of myself for actually swimming around in the current when I heard a man yelling at me. It was a surfer. I'd seen him beyond the break a few minutes earlier. He was shouting at me, but I didn't realize what was going on until he got closer to me, and he yelled ‘shark.' Then I felt something bump into my leg. I cannot tell you how terrified I was.”

“No,” Kate breathed.

“Yes.” She felt better now that she was talking it out. “I was frozen, but the surfer grabbed me, and pulled me onto his board and got me to shore before the shark attacked. When I looked back in the water, it actually seemed like there were at least three or four sharks out there.”

“I can't believe it.”

“It's true.”

“Oh, Annie, you have the worst luck sometimes.”

“Don't I?”

“At least you're not hurt, right?”

“I'm fine. But I don't think I'll be going back in the water for another few decades. I have never been that scared or come so close to dying…I know I wasn't attacked, but when I think about what could have happened when I froze—”

“Don't think about it. And don't beat yourself up for not acting the way you think you should have acted. Maybe not moving was the best decision in that situation.”

She suspected her FBI agent sister had had far more dangerous moments than the one she'd just lived through. “Thanks for understanding.”

“I wish you weren't so far away. I want to give you a hug, Annie.”

“I wouldn't mind a hug,” she said, feeling a little lonely. Her family, her friends, seemed very far away at the moment. “But enough about me. How are you? Where are you?” While Kate was based in DC, her job took her all over the world.

“I'm at Dulles Airport. I'm on my way to London. I wanted to call and wish you a happy birthday. I know I'm a week early, but I'm not sure what my schedule will be next week.”

“It's sweet of you to remember.”

“Like I could forget my big sister's birthday. Are you having a party?”

“No. Since I moved to the beach, I'm not really close to my friends.” She didn't mention that she'd recently realized how superficial many of her Hollywood friendships had been.

“You're only twenty miles away from your last place,” Kate said dryly.

“In LA traffic, that's like two hours,” she retorted.

“I'm sure your friends will travel. What about that guy you were seeing?”

“Long gone.”

“I'm sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry about, trust me.”

“Well, you shouldn’t be alone on your birthday. Why don't you go home next weekend? Let the folks pamper you for a few days. They're still miffed you skipped Thanksgiving this year. You can catch up with the family, maybe help out with some of the wedding plans, meet the newest Callaway babies…”

It was a tempting thought. She'd skipped Thanksgiving because she hadn't wanted to go home with nothing much to show for her life. Hopefully, that would change by Christmas, but probably not too far before that. “I can't go home this weekend, but you don't need to worry about me.”

“Well, I am worried about you, and so is Mia. You never really told us what happened on your last job or what you're doing now for money.”

“I got laid off. There's no big story to tell. But I have an interview this coming week that looks promising. It's at an animation production company and they're looking for someone who wants to wear a lot of hats, bring an idea from seed to completion. They're looking to produce a superhero movie, so I'm trying to think of something that hasn't already been done.”

“I'm sure you'll come up with something. You're incredibly creative. Do you need a loan to tide you over?”

“No. I have savings, and my sublet is costing me next to nothing. I'm also getting a paycheck from my teaching gig at the community college.”

“I forgot about that. How's it going?”

“Not as bad as I thought.” She'd agreed to substitute teach an introduction to animation class for a friend who had to go on maternity leave three months early. While she'd expected it to be boring and not at all her thing, she'd actually been surprised by how much she enjoyed introducing her world of art and animation to young, eager minds. Even though she was only twenty-eight, about to turn twenty-nine, she'd gotten cynical from her years in Los Angeles, and it felt good to be around optimistic energy and big dreams.

There was good in the world, and as her gaze drifted to the window, she thought about the surfer. He'd rescued her with no thought to his own safety. He could have just paddled to shore, but he hadn't done that. He also hadn't waited around for a thank-you, and she couldn't help wishing she knew more about him, but she didn't even know his name.  

“Annie, are you still there?” Kate asked.

“Sorry, you got me thinking.”

“In a good way?”

“Maybe.”

“Then my work here is done. I should get going.”

“Hold on. How are things going with you and Devin?”

“Will you hate me if I say perfect?”

She smiled at the happy tone in her sister's voice. “I'll be jealous, but I won't hate you. Any wedding plans?”

“Not yet. We've talked about it, but we're not in a rush. We're very happy as we are. Devin loves running his own investigation firm, and I love being an agent. We don't want to jinx it with wedding plans and me turning into a bridezilla.”

“That would never happen. You don't care enough about dresses and flowers to be a bridezilla.”

Kate laughed. “That's true. And Mom is thankfully distracted by Dylan and Ian deciding to have a double wedding in February that she's not bugging me at all.”

“The way things are going, I'll be the last single Callaway standing.”

“With Hunter still single, I don't think that will happen,” Kate said dryly.

“True.”

“I'll call you when I'm back in the States. Stay away from sharks.”

“Don't worry. I am not going anywhere near the water. Talk to you soon.” As her sister hung up, she set her phone on the table and then grabbed the sketch pad that had been sitting empty for the past month.

What she hadn't told Kate was that after her last job fell apart, she'd had a severe case of artist's block and a terrifying fear that all her creativity had somehow vanished.

Now she picked up her pen, the surfer's image dancing through her head. He had had strong features, a full, sexy mouth, and startling blue eyes, that had been both bright and shadowed at the same time. It was as if he'd seen too much of something…sun, life, heartbreak…

Her fingers flew across the page as she brought his features to life. For the first time in a long time, she felt inspired…

END OF EXCERPT

PRAISE FOR THE CALLAWAYS

“I loved Aiden and Sara’s story! Barbara manages to write so effortlessly, blending their stories together, so we learn where they have come from to get where they are now. Barbara manages to give us a good glimpse of the rest of the family too, without taking away from Aiden and Sara’s story, leaving us with a little bit of mystery to be followed up on.” Harlequin Junkie for ON A NIGHT LIKE THIS

“I love the Callaways! Heartwarming romance, intriguing suspense and sexy alpha heroes. What more could you want?” NYT Bestselling Author Bella Andre

“I adore the Callaways, a family we’d all love to have. Each new book is a deft combination of emotion, suspense and family dynamics. A remarkable, compelling series!” Barbara O’Neal, author of How to Bake a Perfect Life.

“Once I start reading a Callaway novel, I can’t put it down. Fast-paced action, a poignant love story and a tantalizing mystery in every book!” USA Today Bestselling Author Christie Ridgway

“I really love the Callaways and am looking forward to reading about the rest of the family and unraveling the grandparents’ secret which we’re learning a little more about in each new book. If you’re looking for a great feel good read with a bit of action and mystery, this book is for you!”
The Book Momster

GET THE BOOK

GET EXCLUSIVE UPDATES FROM BARBARA

x