Read Down the Hidden Path Online

Authors: Heather Burch

Down the Hidden Path

PRAISE FOR HEATHER BURCH

“Heather Burch has proven herself to have such an exceptional storytelling range that one might be tempted to call her ‘the Mariah Carey of romance fiction.’
One Lavender Ribbon
blew my expectations out of the water and then swept me away on a wave of sweet romance. Don’t miss this one.”

—Serena Chase, contributor to
USA Today’s
Happy Ever After blog and author of
The Seahorse Legacy

“Burch’s latest combines a sweet, nostalgic, poignant tale of a true love of the past with the discovery of true love in the present . . . Burch’s lyrical, contemporary storytelling, down-to-earth characters, and intricate plot make this one story that will delight the heart.”


RT Book Reviews
on
One Lavender Ribbon
, 4.5 Stars

“Heather Burch draws you into the story from page one and captures your attention, your emotions, and your heart strings until the very end. She reaches into your very soul with a story that is so real that it stays with you for weeks after the last page is turned, the last sigh has floated away, the last giggle has played out, and the last tear is shed.”

—Carolyn Brown,
New York Times
and
USA Today
bestselling author of
The Wedding Pearls

 

ALSO BY HEATHER BURCH

One Lavender Ribbon

The Roads to River Rock

Along the Broken Road

Young Adult Novels

Summer by Summer

Halflings

Halflings

Guardian

Avenger

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Text copyright © 2015 Heather Burch

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle

www.apub.com

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake Romance are trademarks of
Amazon.com
, Inc., or its affiliates.

ISBN-13: 9781503949843 (hardcover)
ISBN-10: 1503949842 (hardcover)

ISBN-13: 9781503948099 (paperback)
ISBN-10: 1503948099 (paperback)

Cover design by Laura Klynstra

For Jake. My firstborn. I’ve watched you grow into a man and I’ve never been more proud of you than I am right now. Love you big.
 

CHAPTER 1

Dear Dad,
It’s fall here and the leaves are changing. The colors are unusually vivid this season, the deepest red, the brightest yellow, and the richest orange I’ve seen. Or maybe it’s that I’ve been gone so long, staring at endless shades of olive drab, I’d forgotten the beauty of autumn.
I drove out to the cemetery yesterday to visit the Havinger family plot where Mom’s buried. I wondered if we should contact Grandfather Havinger and see about having your urn placed there by Mom’s grave; it just seems wrong that the two of you aren’t together.
But I know that’s not what you asked for. Your words echo back to me: “We had your mother in life. We can let them have her in death.” You were always so strong, so fair—even with those who didn’t deserve it. Of everything you taught me about life, three things stand out. How to be a good man, how to be a good soldier, and how to be a good father.
The first, I daily strive for. The second, well, I suppose I’ve done. The third . . . the third I hope to one day do. And I guess that’s what this letter is about.
I’ve put in my time for Uncle Sam, and though the journey was both long and radically difficult, I find myself missing it and wondering what life would be today had I never signed up. I don’t know how to be a civilian, Dad. I’m a little bit scared I’ll fail at it. What advice would you give me if you were standing here at the water’s edge, enjoying the grand display of colors and life? I imagine you placing your hand on my shoulder and saying, “It’ll be fine, son. Truly, it will all be fine.” I wish you were here. I wish I could hear your voice one more time.
Though worlds separate us, you’re one of the biggest pieces of my heart.
Your son,
Jeremiah

Jeremiah McKinley wadded the letter and dropped it on the last embers of the early morning campfire. Fog rolled off the lake, great billowing clouds that rose and disappeared as the sun trekked over the mountaintop. It had been the pre-dawn hour when he left his house and walked down to the rock-strewn water’s edge where he’d started a fire with wood and kindling he’d gathered earlier in the week. There was still a chill in the air and it went straight to his bones as he wondered, for the thousandth time, what he was doing back in River Rock, Missouri.

Jeremiah turned to walk back up the winding path to his house, the place he’d throw his time and attention into until he figured out how to be normal again. When he thought of the road ahead, though he was apprehensive, seedlings of excitement had taken root in his heart. He planned to open a hunting and fishing lodge right here on Table Rock Lake. And instead of carrying a gun to kill insurgents, he’d carry one for hunting deer or turkey, maybe even the occasional bear.

Jeremiah shot a glance in the direction of his sister’s land and her ever-odd artists’ colony. Charlee’d found happiness, and that was something Miah wanted as well. Happiness. Contentment.

Peace.

An hour later, he headed into town with the weight of all his questions still heavy on his shoulders. When he spotted the breakfast taco truck, he whipped into the Dairy Flip’s parking lot.

He counted four people in line and glanced down at his watch. 7:25. Miah chewed the inside corner of his cheek. Since he’d been in River Rock, he’d come to love the breakfast taco truck that showed up wherever and whenever it chose. He hated the fact that you could stand in line and at any given moment, the man inside would say, “Sorry, we’re out,” and close the little window. Just like that. It had happened to him twice. Miah tapped his foot and waited behind a guy with three kids in tow. Three customers in front of him, a woman with long, ink-black hair stood on the tiptoes of her tennis shoes, arms folded and propped on the counter while she chatted with the guy inside.

Miah had no patience for morning chitchat and was just considering the merits of telling her so when her laugh split the air.

Something shot straight into his gut. The sound from her lips was deep, rumbling, almost smoky, rich as warm butter and sweet as mountain honey. He knew that laugh.

A slender hand reached up and captured some of the silken hair. Jeremiah’s mind rushed to catch up. This couldn’t be her. But that voice. When the guy in front of him moved and blocked Miah’s view, he sidestepped so he could see her fully, if only from behind. He had stepped completely out of the line and a heavyset woman rushed up to take his spot.

Who cared? His eyes trailed over the brunette, assessing the possibility. Right height. But wrong body shape. This woman had long, slender legs, a perfectly shaped rear end, a small waist. No, it wasn’t her. Miah stepped back into line a little surprised at the disappointment rising in his chest.

And that’s when she turned around.

“Gray?”

Mary Grace Smith almost dropped her tacos. She’d spun from the counter to hurry back to her car when a wide chest stepped out from the line and nearly body-slammed her. Her bottle of Coke teetered on the edge of her makeshift food tray. Choice words shot into her mind. What kind of person jumps in the face of someone carrying food? But then something registered as her gaze slid from the tray between them up over his chest, neckline, chin. He’d said her name. Finally, her eyes found his. And her heart stopped.

“Miah?” It was one word. Just his name. But having it on her lips and looking into that golden gaze caused a flurry of unwanted sensations.
Run. Run, run, run, run, run.

This was a bad dream; that was all. A bad dream where she’d awaken drenched in sweat. Of course, she’d known the odds of seeing him. She’d heard he was returning to River Rock. And suddenly, with Jeremiah in front of her, blocking her exit, River Rock seemed smaller. Too small.

He was all wide smile and animated eyes as he said, “Wow, I . . . I didn’t know you were living here. Are you just visiting?”

Those eyes she’d watched for hundreds, if not thousands, of hours. Eyes that had, at one time in her life, entranced her. Eyes she’d drowned in. Of course, everyone who met Jeremiah was hopelessly trapped in his golden gaze. Add to that the ridiculously chiseled features of a Greek god and that magnetic personality. He was the triple threat. Miah made you feel like you were the only woman on the planet. Even if you were the checker at the Piggly Wiggly and all you were doing was scanning his food. She’d actually seen women swoon. And that right there was why Gray took a full step back.

He didn’t seem to notice as he waited—perfect smile in place—for her to answer. Gray mustered her composure. “I just moved back. A few months ago.”

“It’s great to see you.” His brows were riding high, all excitement and anticipation. The sunlight behind him played in the strands of his light brown hair.

Gray steeled herself. “You too.” She nearly choked on the words getting them out, and as quickly as she’d run into him, she could run away. “Well, better get going.”

When she stepped around his wide shoulders, he caught her arm.

Don’t look up. Don’t look up.
But her eyes had a mind of their own and trailed to his. The tiniest of frowns creased his forehead. He stood not more than a few inches from her, her shoulder pointing like an arrow at his heart.

“Gray,” he whispered, and the sound raced down her body and right into her soul. “We need to catch up.”

Gray bit her cheeks hard until she tasted blood on one side. She painted on a wide, cheery smile. “Oh, sure. Yes, you know, I’m so busy these days, Jeremiah. But I’m sure we’ll see each other in town now and then.” And she blinked, once, and then again. The gentlest tug liberated her from his hand. Her feet fell into motion and before she knew it, she was at her car door.

She fumbled with the keys and the tacos and the cold drink until she managed to get in. Gray slammed the car door shut, closing out everything. Closing out Miah McKinley and his smile that melted hearts. When she shifted to put the keys in the ignition, her hands were trembling. Gray squeezed her eyes closed. The fact that one run-in with Miah could thoroughly wreck her, even after all this time, bit into her pride.

She glanced in the rearview mirror to find him standing in the same spot, one hand lifted to his forehead to block the sun. But from the safety of her car, it resembled a salute, and that shot into Gray’s heart and settled there. Miah’d lost his dad not much more than a year ago. And at that time, she hadn’t been able to stop her mind from trailing to him. How he was handling the news. Was he okay?

“It doesn’t matter,” she grumbled to herself as she started the car and backed out of the parking spot. She cast a fleeting glance to him and waved as she drove by. Gray breathed deeply, the scent of tacos a good replacement for the regret she tasted, even now.

She reminded herself that Miah was just a snippet from her past. And as she put her foot on the gas, she let the past go because it was her future she was interested in. Twenty miles down the road, David was waiting for her.

Jeremiah took stock of the work he’d completed and gave himself an imaginary pat on the back. Room number two of, oh, twenty was ready for business.

Sweat had gathered across his brow and he brushed at it now, feeling the sting of sawdust as his forearm made contact with his face. Wood shavings peppered his lashes. He needed a shower. After that, he could search out food.

The remodeled bathroom was only a couple doors away in the upstairs hallway of the sprawling lodge. He’d begun to think of it as a lodge. He needed to. Otherwise frightful words came to mind like rattrap, dungeon, impossible money pit. It had been a lodge for parents back in the day when the land he now called home had been a boys-and-girls camp. Before his mother’s death, she’d bought the two-hundred-acre camp after it went bankrupt. She’d sectioned it off into forty-acre plots for each of her children: Jeremiah, his three brothers, and his sister, Charlee. Jeremiah’s was the best piece of land as far as he was concerned, though Charlee’s had the cool little cabins—most of which had been renovated to some degree, and Caleb’s section of ground held hot springs that gurgled mineral water up from deep in the Missouri earth. The bubbling geysers were cool, no doubt, but Caleb, with his love for water, was the only logical choice for that hunk of land. It was secluded, too, another plus for Caleb; as a child, they’d barely been able to keep clothes on him. If his baby brother still held an affinity for nakedness, the isolation of the mountain cabin and its surrounding springs would be a perfect refuge. Of course—Miah looked around, catching his reflection in the wide window overlooking the wooded world beyond—everything about the two hundred acres was secluded. He showered quickly even though the new, state-of-the-art rain forest showerhead beckoned a longer visit. It had been an impulse buy. A luxury, since he’d spent most of his time in the last few years showering in open-air tents with the sun overhead and the temperature scorching.

Yes, it was good to be back in the States. But could he make this place feel like a home? Sure, he decided and pulled on a fresh pair of jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned with the words
Army Strong
.

Having his sister on the adjacent property helped.
She’d
made a home
there. The Marilee Artists’ Retreat made him smile. Thoughts of King Edward and his forever kilt and knobby knees made him smile. The fact
his sister had found love made him smile. When he’d first met the motley
crew of artists, Miah hadn’t been particularly fond of any of them. But
they’d grown on him. So had Ian, the soldier who’d stolen his sister’s heart.

He paused at the top of the stairs overlooking the vaulted great room below and kitchen doorway beyond. Yeah, he could make this a home. Of course he could. And if Charlee and he had their way, one day their brothers, Isaiah, Gabriel, and Caleb would return from active duty, trade in their fatigues for jeans and work boots, and claim their lands, too. If any wanted to help with the lodge, great. If not, at least they would all be together again. After losing Dad, he’d come to understand just how important that was.

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