Winter's Path: (A Seasmoke Friends Novel)

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.

 

© COPYRIGHT 2016 by Kelly Moran

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

 

Cover Art by: Kelly Moran

Photo Credit: Dollar Photo Club

KDP eBook Edition

Published in the United States of America

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Check out these other great romances by Kelly Moran!

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Series

Return to Me

All of Me

Phantoms
Trilogy

Ghost of a Promise

Give Up the Ghost

Ghost of You

Single Titles

Exposure

The Dysfunctional Test

Summer’s Road

Sheer Luck

 

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“A sexy, emotional romance.”

Kim Karr

 

PROLOGUE

 

Matt Holcomb

Late July

I
knew before I even started my car this morning and made the two-hour trek to her house that today was not going to end how I’d hoped. Summer Quinn was supposed to be my salvation, and though she wouldn’t be my ruin, the loss was going to thrust my life right back to what started my downward spiral in the first place.

From Greensboro to Charlotte, I passed the rolling Carolina countryside with my head in a fog, my heart clutching hope. Pine trees grounded in thick red clay passed by in a blur. Scatterings of wildflowers flashed color under the heavy, hot sun. I drove my reliable sedan that I’d purchased for my reliable life to go in the garage attached to my reliable house.

That was me. Reliable. The good southern guy. Boy next door.

Except I wasn’t. Not really. Hadn’t been in two years. Two years to this very day, to be exact. When my flirtation with skating the edge inadvertently put a girl six feet under. Up to that point, I’d been precisely how everyone viewed me. Since then, I’d turned into a hell of an actor. Sometimes I even fooled myself.

I made the exit off 85 to Lake Wylie and gripped the wheel. A sickening dread filled my gut.

My history with Summer was as complicated as it was simple. We’d met as infants at Seasmoke—a clandestine area of Myrtle Beach—when my folks bought their seasonal home. Ian Memmer’s family, the boy who’d grown up next door to her and her father, had just purchased the house beside ours. Rick O’Callahaun was another good friend of hers she’d grown up with, and his folks vacationed with the Memmers and Quinns.

Needless to say, we’d been a happy bunch. The best of summertime friends. Jenny Winter—a Myrtle local—and Dee—Rick’s wife—had come into our lives as teens. Unlike Summer, Ian, Dee, and Rick, who lived in Lake Wylie together, Jenny and I were transient, the oddballs. The group of us got together every year at Seasmoke on Fourth of July week. Tradition.

Last year, when I’d been shrouded in guilt over my actions the previous year and could take no more, I’d asked Summer to go out with me. For the past twelve months, we’d been doing the long distance thing.

And two weeks ago, I’d asked her to marry me.

We hadn’t made love in the time we’d been together. I had her believe this was due to my decision to become a born-again Christian. And though that choice had little to do with my faith, it did have everything to do with atoning for my sins. After what had happened two years before, I swore I’d not have sex again unless the relationship was headed for marriage. And the hypothetical woman would have to be perfect.

Enter Summer. Sweet, classically beautiful, and far from promiscuous, she was everything I’d been needing. We wanted the same things—kids, family, house, cozy retirement fund. She didn’t test my limits, my sanity, or my patience. The thing about Summer was, she panicked when cornered. Metaphorically speaking. Throughout our year together, I gave her space, calling once a week and visiting Charlotte every three. I did not push, and that worked for us.

Sounds simple enough. Except it’s not. Ian Memmer, her best friend, had been in love with her since the dawn of time. Everyone knew but her. And two weeks ago, while we were all on our annual Seasmoke trip, she realized that fact.

Thus, my proposal. Today was the day I found out her answer.

I pulled into her long gravel driveway, lined with a variety of coneflowers and black-eyed Susans, and parked just shy of her carport. Her home was a two-story old farmhouse, which she’d inherited from her father, and sported yellow siding and a huge white wrap-around porch. He’d lost a painful battle with cancer four years ago, her dad. Shame, because he was a hell of a great man. She had wind chimes hanging everywhere and rarely cut her grass in order to save her precious dandelions. Summer was a wisher—stars, wells, dandelion fluff—she wished on them all. Endearing, really.

She sat on her porch steps waiting for me, and rose to her feet when I cut the engine. She wore cut-off jeans and a white tee. Her lengthy blonde hair was up in a high ponytail and caught the slight breeze. The color always reminded me of salted caramel and was soft as satin to the touch. Her body was long, lithe, and just this side of willowy. Her eyes were something amazing, though. A cross between midnight and navy, except in the sunlight, when they lightened to cornflower.

To my left and across several acres was Ian Memmer’s house. I sighed. If not for him, I’d be getting the girl.

Making my way out of the car, I walked to meet her at the bottom step as sticky humidity clung to my skin. I skimmed my gaze down the length of her and waited for the punch of lust. Which didn’t come. She was beautiful and I was attracted to her, but that attraction wouldn’t drive me into the ground. Again, exactly what I’d been seeking.

And I did love her. Had for many, many years, in fact. She was a hard person not to love, to be honest. But I wasn’t in love with her, nor did I think I’d ever be. Another reason she was perfect.

She bit her lower lip, her apologetic eyes saying what I’d been dreading. I kissed her cheek instead of her mouth because there was no sense in making her uncomfortable with her answer. After all, I knew it was coming. She had nothing to feel guilty about.

Palm up, she offered the engagement ring inside the box. Summer was an artist and I got caught up for a second in the array of acrylic colors staining her cuticles.

It took me a moment, but I accepted the box and nodded. Flipping open the lid, I fingered the ring, gazing at the symbol of what was supposed to be my deliverance. Funny, I’d forgotten what it looked like.

“I spent two hours in the jewelry store picking this out. I couldn’t decide which one you’d like. Gold, silver, big, small.” I looked up at her with a half-smile, embarrassed to admit that aloud. “I should’ve known then this wouldn’t work. I couldn’t even pick out a ring because I had no idea what you’d like.”

“You made a good choice. It’s beautiful.” Her soft voice hit me in the chest. We could’ve had such a wonderful, safe life together.

I thought of all the summers we’d spent with one another, about the past year. I loved having her in my life. “We’ll always have Seasmoke in July?”

She smiled at my old fashioned revere. She had a thing for classic movies. “Always. And I want approval before you marry someone else. She has to measure up and be good enough.”

I laughed, but it was strained. Didn’t I say she was perfect? I sobered, worrying my brows. Though I’d hoped, of course, for a better outcome, Summer belonged to Ian. Always had. “Ian has my approval for you.”

Her breath hitched. She cupped my cheeks and brought her forehead to mine, her lilac scent swirling around us. “Thank you for being so good to me, so patient.”

Ah, hell. My eyes fell closed in a slow blink. “It was nothing, Summer. Only what you deserved.” The utmost truth, in a nutshell.

The screen door behind her snapped shut, and there stood one-hundred and eighty pounds of pure pissed off Ian Memmer. It did not escape my notice he wore a pair of unbuttoned dress pants and no shirt. Meaning, he’d just climbed out of her bed. And great. Things were about to get interesting. Or bloody.

Before Summer could get a word out, he vaulted down the stairs where I backed away, palms up, trying to relay my concession. Ian stepped between me and her. Christ, the guy always did have a temper, especially where Summer was concerned. I couldn’t blame him.

I sighed. “I was just saying goodbye.”

“Ian...” Summer warned.

He shrugged off Summer’s hand. “Done. Now go.”

My gaze slid to Summer, and years of loving her collided in my mind. Something seemed to connect in the space between us as if she recognized it, too. Damn, but she deserved every bit of happiness this world offered. It had been right in front of her all along, and I wasn’t it. “I approve.” A slow grin spread across my face, letting her know I meant it. I looked at Ian. “She needs a guy who will fight for her.” I never would. I’d lost my fight two years ago.

The color drained from his face. 

I started laughing. Not a nervous I-don’t-get-the-punch-line kind of laugh. No, it was a hysterical, frenzied roar aimed at the sky. It couldn’t be helped, really. “I expect you’ve been wanting to knock my lights out for some time now, Ian.” Couldn’t even blame the guy. My laughter died to just a grin. “I should have known better than to get between you two. Godspeed.”

I headed for my car, rounded the hood, and opened the driver’s door. This strange sense of melancholy filled my chest.

Summer ran over and kissed me on the cheek. “Matt...”

“Don’t be sorry, beautiful. Go chase your happy ending.” One of us should get one, after all. “I’ll see you next July. Same time, same place as always.” Seasmoke, where I’d leave her and the memory of our time together.

She shut the door for me once I was inside and briefly pressed her hand to my window before backing away. Through my mirror, I noted she watched my car leave the circular drive, her lips pressed together and her eyes shimmering.

There went my life right there. A blip in my rearview. My own eyes grew suspiciously wet as I made my way to the interstate.

Resting my elbow on the window well, I rubbed my fingers over my lips, thinking about where to go from here. On a future scale, not immediate.

A month ago, my boss at the firm I work for just outside Greensboro announced they were expanding. I’m an investment banker, and my firm mainly dealt with the tourism areas of the Carolinas...timeshares, hotels, attractions, and the like. The expansion made sense to me, and I was offered my choice of the Charlotte or the Myrtle branch. Because Summer was in Charlotte, I’d been leaning toward that, but she wasn’t an option now. There was nothing else in Charlotte to sway me in that direction. To stay in Greensboro would mean taking a pay cut.

To be honest, I needed the change anyway. Scenery, office, home, distance from family...all of it. My duties wouldn’t be any different, just the location. My job isn’t all that dissimilar than being an agent. I don’t create anything and I don’t buy anything. I simply sell things that aren’t mine to begin with. I’ve always had a knack with numbers and the ability to see potential in ideas, so my career was perfect for me. I made a lot of money doing it, too.

And tomorrow was the deadline to give my boss an answer.

I shook my head, the silence in the car deafening.

To choose Myrtle, where my nightmare two years ago originated, and where my relationship with Summer began, would probably not be the best course. Though I loved Seasmoke and the coast was calming, there was also a lot to screw with my head. Memories, memories, memories. Then again, perhaps it might bring some healing, too. Eradicate some of this guilt I’d been living with. Plus, Jenny Winter lived in Myrtle. I’d have at least one good friend in town. She was my lifeline, and to be close to her on a regular basis was more than enough motive.

The hell with it.

I pulled my cell out of the center console and used voice activation to dial Jack. It was Sunday, but my boss wouldn’t give a rat’s ass. We played golf together twice a month and were on very friendly terms. When the other line connected, I drew a breath.

“I’ll take the position at the Myrtle branch.”

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