I hope you enjoy this sneak peek of Because You Loved Me!
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There was no other way to describe the steady stream of people coming in and out of the lodge. Some guests were checking in, while others were already headed out to the ski hill for a day on the slopes. The bellboys in their red and black flannels were shuttling carts full of bags to rooms, while in the lounge the servers were loaded down with trays of drinks. Children hopped up on the complimentary s’more station in the courtyard darted around, only narrowly avoiding crashing into the giant Christmas trees that were set up throughout the lobby.
Forget controlled. It was straight-up chaos.
But Asher Carlson loved every minute of it. As the CEO of the Carlson Corporation, there were many aspects of the business he had to oversee, but the main lodge at the base of the ski hill was always his home base. Especially during the busy winter ski season.
His siblings would all tell him he worked too much, but they didn’t understand that he thrived on the busyness of it all. Just the way his father and founder of the business, Michael, had, Asher preferred a hands-on approach, and he was tired of trying to explain it to them.
“Penny.” Asher pulled out the barstool next to him as his general manager, Penny Daniels, walked into the Black Diamond Lounge, where he’d been working from the far end of the bar. “Sit.”
She glanced up from her ever-present clipboard and met his gaze with glazed-over eyes. The worry lines on her forehead were deeper than normal, and Asher knew, without looking, that her fingernails would be broken and bitten way too short. She thought she was so sneaky, hiding her nervous tic from him, but Asher didn’t miss a thing.
“You look far too stressed out,” he said as soon as she sat and Brian, the bartender on duty, slid her a cup of black coffee.
Penny glanced at the coffee. “Is it too early for tequila?” She shook her head and sipped at the hot liquid. “Did you know we’re completely booked?” It was a rhetorical question. Of course Asher knew. “The restaurant is already taking two sittings for dinner every night, and don’t even mention the room service orders.” She shook her head and took another gulp of coffee. “And now, the banquet staff…” She stared into space for a moment before turning to face him. “Whose idea was it to host a wedding over Christmas?”
Asher lifted his eyebrows and tilted his head. It took a gargantuan effort on his part to keep his mouth closed, because pointing out the obvious to his number-one employee wouldn’t help the situation.
A moment later, Penny groaned and dropped her head onto her clipboard. “I know, I know. I thought it was a good idea at the time, and really, it’s going to be fine. I’m just—”
“You just need to breathe.” Asher reached over and rubbed Penny’s shoulder. “You are ridiculously tense. You should see if Claude has any openings for a massage.” Judging by the look she shot him, there were no bookings in the spa either. “You know I’d volunteer for the job,” he added with a chuckle. “But we probably shouldn’t go there.” Again.
Penny laughed and slapped his hand away. “Don’t tempt me, Asher. I just might take you up on that offer one day.”
They both knew she wouldn’t. A few years earlier, before Asher had taken over as CEO and she’d been promoted to the general manager position, they’d hooked up a few times. It hadn’t been serious. None of Asher’s relationships ever were.
That hadn’t changed, only now he kept his hookups far away from anything to do with Carlson Corp, which was not always easy in a small town like Trickle Creek. Still, complicated was the last thing he needed.
Fortunately, there had never been any weirdness between him and Penny. They worked well together, which definitely wouldn’t have been the case with all the women he’d dated over the years. He’d always been upfront with what he wanted, and more specifically, what he did not want. Still, it never failed that, every once in a while, a woman would be convinced that she could change him and make him fall in love with her.
She couldn’t. He wouldn’t. End of story.
“What can I do to help, Penny?” He refocused on the problem at hand. “Where are you at with the wedding? I couldn’t help but notice the sign.” He used his head to gesture toward the lobby where a massive red and gold sign announcing “Alessandra & Ryan Forever” had been positioned next to the huge river rock fireplace.
“They really have taken over,” Penny said with a laugh. “But I kind of love it. It’s cute to see how excited the mother of the bride and the mother of the groom are.”
Asher didn’t bother mentioning that it should be the bride and groom who were excited because truthfully, he had no idea. He’d never paid much attention to weddings beyond the ones that were hosted at either the Trickle Creek Lodge in the winter, or the club house in the summer, and even then, he had Penny to handle the details.
“As long as everyone’s happy, that’s all that matters.” Asher gestured to Brian for a refill on Penny’s coffee, but she shook her head.
“If I have any more, I’m afraid I’ll start to vibrate. It’s not a good look.”
“You always look good, Penny.” He winked and turned in his stool to see his big sister Charli walk into the lounge, his brand-new niece in her arms.
He swallowed down a lump in his throat. Poppy was only a few weeks old. There was only one reason his sister would make the effort to visit him at work.
“You know how to find me if you need anything,” he said to Penny as he excused himself and made his way through the busy lounge to Charli, who had already been surrounded by staff and visitors, all clamoring to get a peek at the newborn.
“Hey, sis.” He squeezed through the small crowd and led her gently to a quiet corner of the busy lobby and a free seat. “It’s always good to see you.” He looked down at the sleeping bundle. “Both of you. She’s sweet.”
“Do you want to hold her?”
Instinctively, Asher took a step back. “Hold her?” He looked in horror from his big sister to his baby niece. “Char, she’s brand new.”
She laughed. “I’m well aware of how old she is. I was there for it, remember?”
He remembered. He’d been on a date and had just gotten back to his suite in the lodge when their little sister Kat called him to let him know that Charli and Symon were rushing to the hospital. Poppy Angela Scott was born only three hours later.
“She won’t break, Asher.”
He wasn’t convinced. “Next time.” He jammed his hands into his pockets. “I haven’t washed my hands.”
Charli shook her head but thankfully didn’t push. “It looks amazing in here, Asher. You’ve done a great job.”
“I have a great staff.” He brushed off the compliment, but it always meant a lot more than he let on when one of his siblings praised his work for the family company. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit? Not that it’s not great to see you both, but…”
He already knew what Charli was going to say. He’d been expecting it ever since Poppy was born. William Evans, the family’s lawyer, had given them all a reprieve while they were waiting for the baby to be born, but he wasn’t surprised that their little break was now over.
“It’s time, Asher,” Charli confirmed. “The family meeting was called for tonight.”
“That’s kind of fast.”
It wasn’t. It had already been almost two years since their father had passed away and left them all with their very own tasks to carry out as stipulations to his last will and testament. His older stepbrother and sister had taken their turns first, and in a twist, Craig, his younger brother, had recently had his turn. It was only himself and his baby sister Kat left.
“I suppose I’ll finally find out my fate.” To his surprise, Asher didn’t feel any particular way about it. Not that it would matter if he did, because there was nothing to be done about it except doing whatever his father had dreamed up for him. It was either that or his family lost everything. And that would never be an option.
“You don’t know it’s your turn.”
He raised his eyebrow, and Charli shrugged. They both knew that Michael Carlson would keep his baby girl for last. Kat was the youngest and although they’d all had their own special relationships with their father, the connection between their father and his youngest child had been extra special.
Charli nodded. “At the big house. We’ll have dinner first if you can make it.”
“I’ll do my best.” He kissed his sister on the cheek and gazed down at the still-sleeping bundle in her arms. “She really is beautiful, sis.”
* * *
Torture. That’s what it was. Torture.
There was no other word to describe being twisted and turned around and around while cousins and family members you didn’t even know existed wrapped you up in toilet paper, of all things.
As far as traditions went, Noa Briggs was pretty sure this was the stupidest one there was.
“Not that way.” Her cousin Sarah’s hand reached out and spun her around. “This way. Hurry,” she hollered. “They’re beating us.”
Noa forced herself to feign interest in the activity. “I didn’t realize it was a race.”
Sarah froze, a roll in her hands, and stared at her. “Noa. Everything is a race.”
She laughed, but quickly swallowed it when she realized Sarah was completely serious. Her elder cousin had always been hyper-competitive when it came to games growing up. Still. It was a ridiculous bridal shower game.
She tipped her head back and gazed up at the ceiling of the meeting room that all the female wedding guests had been stuffed into for the last few hours for the traditionally themed bridal shower. Noa was very quickly hitting her limit with the festivities.
“Five more minutes!” Jeannie, the mother of the groom, yelled out from somewhere across the room. “Make your brides beautiful.”
With the time ticking down, Sarah kicked things into overdrive and soon, Noa was not only wrapped in something that was supposed to resemble a gown made of toilet paper, but also had an elaborate headpiece attached to her head and woven through her blonde strands.
“Okay, time!” Jeannie called.
“No!” Sarah immediately began to protest, but Noa saw her chance to escape.
She shimmied away from her cousin with the roll of toilet paper trailing after her.
“Noa!” Sarah called after her. “Where are you going?”
“I have to pee.” She clenched her teeth together and shrugged apologetically.
“Now? We still have the judging and I know—”
“When you have to go, you have to go.” She twirled dramatically. “But great job, cuz! Best dress here.” She blew Sarah a kiss and slipped out the door into the hallway.
Noa leaned against the door and huffed out a breath.
“Don’t tell me you’re a runaway bride?”
Jolted, her eyes flew open to stare directly at her grandma. “What? I…”
“It’s a very pretty dress.” Her grandma winked, and Noa shook her head.
“Say no more.” Her grandma squeezed her arm. “Your cousin always did love everything to do with weddings. She used to beg me to wear my veil around the house when she came to visit.”
“I remember.” Noa laughed, but it was followed quickly by a groan. “If she likes all of this so much,” she waved her arm around, “maybe she should be the one getting married.”
Noa regretted the words the moment they were out of her mouth. Her cousin might drive her crazy but she loved her. And even though she was pushy and competitive to the point of totally overbearing, she was still a good person. And it wasn’t a secret that Sarah was dying to be the one who was the center of attention this week.
She’d been dating her boyfriend Brent for over two years and he’d yet to pop the question. It couldn’t be easy for her to bear witness to a huge family wedding that she herself wanted so badly.
“I didn’t mean that.” Noa shook her head and bit her lip.
Grandma Rose patted her cheek and smiled. “I know you didn’t, dear. Not everyone loves this kind of thing.”
That was an understatement.
“Your mother, on the other hand…she’s in her element.”
Noa groaned. “Is it awful of me that I don’t want anything to do with all of this silliness?”
Grandma Rose shook her head. “Not at all.” At barely five feet, she was a bundle of sweetness. She always smelled of baby powder and had a kind smile and even kinder word for everyone, especially her favorite grandchild. It was a private joke between the two of them that Noa would tease that she was the favorite, but secretly Noa knew it to be true.
Through the door, Noa heard Sarah calling her name. “I promise I’ll be back,” she told Grandma Rose. “But I just really need a few minutes. Don’t tell Sarah.”
Grandma Rose giggled. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
From inside the room, Noa heard her cousin getting closer.
“Go.” Her grandma urged. “I’ll hold her off.”
Noa kissed her soft cheek. “You’re the best.”
Without a moment to spare, she took off down the hallway, no doubt leaving a trail of tissue in her wake. She heard the door to the meeting room open behind her, followed by her cousin’s high-pitched voice, as she only barely managed to slip around the corner before getting spotted.
Safe from view, at least for the minute, she took a moment to catch her breath, squeezed her eyes shut, leaned up against the wall and listened as her grandma steered Sarah back to the party.
Grandma had bought her a few minutes, but Sarah was nothing if not committed and she hated to lose. Even if it was a ridiculous bridal shower game. Noa didn’t have much time before her cousin would be looking for her.
She took a breath, turned, and ran—straight into a hard chest.
Two big hands clamped onto her arms, steadying Noa before she tripped over the long toilet paper dangling all around her feet.
“Sorry,” she muttered as she looked up into the eyes so blue, they reminded her of a clear glacier lake. “I was…just…”
“Let me guess.” The man’s eyes sparkled with mischief, but he didn’t move his hands. “You’re either on your way to a very formal event, or…” He pretended to think. “The bathroom.”
An unexpected laugh burst out of her and echoed through the empty hallway. She slapped a hand over her mouth, her eyes wide as she glanced behind her.
“Wait,” the man said. “You’ve been attacked by a rogue toilet paper assailant and they’re after you.”
Again, she laughed. “Yes,” she said as seriously as she could. “You’re actually pretty spot-on with that one.” Behind her, she was sure she heard the door to the meeting room open. “I need to hide.”
Blue eyes winked. “Come with me.”
Without waiting for a response, he released her, grabbing her right hand as he spun around and pulled her down the hall to a steel door with a No Entry sticker on it. “In here.”
Asher wasn’t in the habit of rescuing women dressed in toilet paper gowns, but there was something about the way she looked at him with those big brown eyes, and when she laughed, he knew instantly that he’d do whatever it took to hear that sound again.
He turned quickly and moved for the first door he saw. “In here.” He quickly punched his master code into the keypad and pushed through the door into the banquet prep area of the main lodge kitchen.
Once the door clicked shut behind them, Asher released the woman’s hand, although somewhat reluctantly. “Whoever the lunatic toilet paper bandit chasing you is, he won’t find you in here.”
“She,” the woman corrected him. “My cousin. She takes her bridal shower games very seriously.”
The cute blonde held out her arms and spun in a slow circle, causing the layers of toilet paper to billow up around her legs.
Asher let out a low whistle. “I can see that.” He shook his head. “It’s very impressive.”
She raised an eyebrow. “I guess impressive is one word for it.”
“I take it you’re not a big fan of these games?”
She laughed again. He really was starting to love that sound. There was something completely unguarded about the way she laughed. Deep, throaty, and real. It was refreshing.
“I’m not a fan of weddings at all.”
Interesting. In Asher’s—truthfully—limited experience, most women loved weddings. “What’s wrong with weddings? They’re a celebration of love and happiness. Family and friends gather together and have a good time. Great food, lots of drinks. Dancing.” He shrugged. “How could you possibly object to a big party?”
“It’s not the party I object to.” She plucked at a rogue piece of tissue. “I like a good time as much as the next girl. It’s everything else.”
“The marriage part?”
“All of it.” She shrugged. “I guess I never saw the need to prance around in a white fluffy gown in front of a bunch of people and promise myself, heart, mind, and body to a man.” She rolled her eyes. “There’s so much ridiculous tradition involved that doesn’t make sense at all,” she continued. “I mean, what exactly is the point of making all your female relatives and friends dress each other in toilet paper, of all things?” She gestured to her ludicrous outfit, and he chuckled. “I look stupid, don’t I?”
Asher shook his head seriously. “I think you look cute.”
Her eyes widened but he stood by his answer.
“So besides the promises to another person and the silly toilet paper traditions, do you object to anything else when it comes to weddings?”
He had a feeling he was lifting the lid on a whole host of other objections, but despite himself, he was enjoying this unexpected interaction and her sassy opinions.
“Don’t get me started on how much weddings cost.”
Asher knew all about the costs, and as the owner of the hottest wedding venue in town, he was perfectly fine with it. Not that he was about to mention that particular detail to her.
He leaned back against a prep counter and crossed his arms. “I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you’re here for the big wedding this week.” She shot him a look, and he chuckled. “But you’d rather not be?”
“No. Well…it’s complicated.”
“Family always is.” He groaned as he let his thoughts flash forward to the family dinner and subsequent meeting that awaited him later that night.
But the last thing he wanted to do was taint what was turning out to be a very fun and unexpected meeting with a very beautiful woman, crazy outfit aside. So, he pushed the thought of what was to come out of his mind. “I’m Asher, by the way.”
A slow smile moved across her lips. “Nice to meet you, Asher.” She held out her hand. “I’m Noa.”
He wrapped his much larger fingers around her small hand and shook, but instead of releasing her, he turned it over and covered it with his other hand. “It’s been my absolute pleasure to meet you, Noa. And since you’re obviously not in a hurry to get back to the bridal shower, can I show you something that might change your mind about the wedding?”
She bit her bottom lip and sucked it between her teeth.
Asher swallowed hard and exhaled a low groan. “Well?”
“I have to be honest, Asher.” She inhaled and once more worried her lip between her teeth. For a moment, he was afraid she was going to confess some deep, dark secret, but then she laughed and shook her head. “I doubt you’ll be able to change my mind.”
With her hand still in his, Asher turned and led her away from the quiet corner of the busy kitchen and into the heart of the bustle.
All around them, preparations were underway for the wedding celebration that would take place the next day. The lodge was fully staffed, and as always, the kitchen was in complete chaos. Albeit very organized chaos. Unlike the lobby.
“Asher.” Gwen, the pastry chef, greeted him by waving a piping bag in the air. “Please don’t tell me there have been any more changes. I can’t handle it, Asher. I won’t do it. I don’t care if they want roses instead of—”
“No more changes.” He put a hand on the icing bag and lowered it slowly to the stainless-steel counter. Gwen was a fabulous pastry chef. The best, really. But like a lot of very creative people, she could be highly emotional and somewhat volatile when it came to last-minute changes, and the last thing he needed the night before the wedding, and only days from Christmas, was his pastry chef to get upset. “They’re going to love what you’ve created, Gwen. I promise you.”
She didn’t look convinced, but instead turned to the woman standing next to him. “What do you think?”
“The cake.” Gwen waved the icing bag again. “The wedding cake.”
“The wedding cake?”
Noa looked to Asher for help.
“Here.” He released her hand long enough to reach across the large worktable and slide a white two-layer cake decorated in clusters of red poinsettias that Gwen told him were fully edible. Each petal had been dusted with gold powder to match the wedding colors the mother of the bride had insisted on.
“It’s gorgeous,” she said without hesitation. “Wow. You made this?”
It was the right thing to say. Gwen nodded snuggly, pride radiating from her.
“It’s amazing,” Noa continued. “The mother of the bride is going to go ape shit for this.”
“The mother of the bride?” Asher gave her a sideways glance, but she only shrugged.
“Like I said, weddings are all for the families, right?”
It wasn’t an argument he wanted to get involved in. He reached past Gwen for a large knife. “You haven’t even seen the best part yet.”
Without waiting, he slid the knife through the top layer of the cake, all the way down into the bigger bottom layer, slicing through an edible poinsettia as he did so.
“Asher!” Noa grabbed his arm. “What are you doing? You can’t cut the wedding cake!”
* * *
Horrified, Noa looked at the ruined cake, to the baker who did not look nearly as panicked as she should be considering she was going to have to make a brand-new cake overnight or risk the wrath of her mother—which was something that Noa could tell her from experience she wasn’t going to want to do—and then finally she moved her gaze back to Asher, who was grinning.
“What on earth are you doing?”
“This is the best part.” He once more slid the knife through the cake to cut a generous piece.
Gwen handed him a plate, and he easily lifted the cake and placed it on the plate before handing it to her.
She shook her head and crossed her arms, unwilling to be part of the situation. “You just ruined the wedding cake.”
As if he’d only just realized what he’d done, Asher started to laugh. “No.” He shook his head. “I didn’t.”
She wasn’t convinced.
“This is the practice cake.” He set the cake plate down on the countertop and spun her around gently. “This is the actual cake.”
Noa blinked and just like that, she was staring at another, much larger, wedding cake on the prep table behind them. She spun and looked back at the smaller, ruined cake.
“You mean…” The dots in her brain connected. She smacked Asher playfully. “You made me think that you—”
“I’m sorry.” He didn’t look apologetic in the slightest way. His lips quirked up through his scruff of a beard and his blue eyes glittered with disarming mischief.
“I can’t believe you got me like that.”
“Honestly, I didn’t mean to.” He picked up the plate again, and with his free hand grabbed a fork from a nearby jar of cutlery. “I just really wanted you to taste this.” She watched his fork slide through the moist cake, and he lifted it in the air. “It will change your life.”
She raised an eyebrow in doubt. “My life?”
Asher nodded with complete seriousness. “I can’t explain it, but it’s a fact. Gwen’s cake will change your life. And your opinion on weddings.”
“I doubt it very—”
Her protests were lost as Asher slipped the fork full of the most delicious cake she’d ever tasted between her lips.
The rich, velvety chocolate exploded on her tongue in a symphony of heavenly flavors. Noa had never considered herself a chocolate lover, but with one taste of this cake, she was fully converted.
Her eyes closed and the slightest moan slipped from her lips.
Her eyes snapped open a second later to see Asher watching her intently, a grin on his handsome face.
“I told you it would change your life.”
She took another moment to finish her mouthful of cake and began to nod slowly. “That is the best piece of cake I have ever had,” she told the baker honestly. “Truly. That’s like magic.”
The woman beamed with pride. “I just hope the bride likes it.”
“How could she not?” Asher answered before Noa could respond. He turned back to her. “So?”
“Did it change my life?” She nodded. “It definitely changed my opinion on chocolate cake.”
“I guess if they serve cake like this, they can’t be so bad. But I still think it will take more than even the most delicious cake I’ve ever tasted to convince me that weddings are more for the family than the couple.”
Asher considered that while she watched him take a bite of the cake for himself. “I don’t disagree,” he said after a moment. “But the cake…”
“Are you going to share any more of that?” She reached for the plate, but he deftly moved it out of reach.
“I can’t have you ruining your beautiful gown,” he teased as he offered her another forkful.
“I can feed myself.” She put one hand on her hip and shot him a look, but he only winked in return.
“I have no doubt.”
Noa eyed the forkful of heaven. It was probably ridiculous and completely out of line to let a strange man she’d only just met feed her dessert that made her groan, especially if she couldn’t be sure whether it was the chocolate or the man giving her those feels.
There were a million reasons she shouldn’t accept another bite, but the heavenly aroma won out and she once more closed her eyes and put her lips around the forkful of chocolatey bliss.
“It’s seriously good,” she said once she recovered. “But I should probably—”
“Not yet.” He set the plate down and grabbed her hand. “I haven’t even shown you the best part yet.”
Noa stared at his large hand wrapped around hers and back up to his gorgeous blue eyes. For the first time in years, she forgot about what she should do and let herself do what she wanted to do. “Okay.”
His eyes sparkled when he grinned. She couldn’t look away.
“You two are very cute together.”
Noa looked to Gwen, who was waving her icing bag between them.
“I didn’t know you were dating anyone.”
Instead of protesting, Asher laughed. He didn’t let go of her hand.
“Oh,” Noa said. “We’re not…I’m actually just here for the wedding.” She gestured to the toilet paper gown she was still wearing. A flash of guilt shot through her as she thought of her cousin, who was probably going crazy looking for her.
“Oh.” The baker straightened. “I’m sorry. I didn’t—”
“It’s fine, Gwen.” Asher jumped in. “I rescued Noa here from a crazy bridal party game and it’s been my quest ever since to convince her that despite all the pomp and circumstance, there are some definite highlights when it comes to weddings.”
“The cake is a definite highlight.” Possibly the only one.
“Now for the best part.” Asher winked and reached for an abandoned icing bag on the prep table. “May I?” he asked Gwen, who shrugged and waved him off.
“Just get out of here already, before I end up making another cake after all.”
Asher winked and gently tugged on Noa’s hand to lead her away.
“Thank you, Gwen,” she called out behind her. “The cake is amazing.”
Asher took her once more through the main kitchen until they were again at the back door that they’d escaped into earlier.
“Thank you for rescuing me.” Noa stood in front of him. “Obviously you work here,” she continued. “But how is it that you can convince the pastry chef to give you cake like that?”
“I can be very charming.” He winked and squeezed her hand, that he still hadn’t released.
The distance between them closed.
“You really are quite charming.”
She was so drawn to him. A perfect stranger, yet somehow he felt familiar, too.
“Are you sure you need to go so soon?”
Noa wasn’t sure of anything. She blew out a breath. “I really should be getting back to—”
“Not without trying this.”
The icing bag appeared between them, forcing her to take a step back. After the delicious cake, Noa had no doubt the icing would be equally amazing. She held out her hand.
“Oh no.” Asher shook his head and gestured to her mouth.
He shrugged, as if he had no control over the situation.
He really was charming. And cute. She couldn’t help but smile before she shook her head and stuck out her tongue.
The burst of sugary sweetness hit her tastebuds a second later. She pulled her tongue back into her mouth, but she moved too quickly at the exact moment Asher pulled back, and the icing bag smeared across her cheek.
“Oops.” He released her hand and used his finger to wipe her cheek. “Got it.” His voice was low, his gaze not leaving hers. “Is it amazing?”
She looked at his icing-covered finger and nodded slowly.
Maybe it was the sugar that rushed to her brain, or their proximity, or his friendly smile that had caught her off guard, but for a moment, Noa forgot herself. She reached for his hand and pulled it gently toward her mouth. Her lips wrapped around his finger and she sucked the icing from the tip.
A low groan reached her ears, but she didn’t have a chance to determine its source because a moment later, the door they stood in front of burst open.
Two hotel employees muttered their apologies, as they moved into the kitchen. Asher reached to hold the door open for them, and in doing so, gave Noa a clear view of the hallway outside.
As well as her cousin and Grandma Rose, who were both staring directly at her.
I hope you enjoyed this sneak peek of Because You Loved Me