Sunshine on Silver Lake

Includes a bonus novella


By Annie Rains

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Welcome back to Sweetwater Springs, North Carolina for a heartwarming second-chance romance between a quirky café owner and a handsome park ranger.

With summer just around the corner, Emma St. James is eagerly planning a 5K run at Sweetwater Springs National Park. But first she needs the help of one charming, rugged, and handsome park ranger. Her brief high school romance with Jack Hershey may have ended in heartbreak, but Emma can’t deny that he still gives her butterflies. So when Jack responds to her request with an all-too-tempting plea to pretend to be his girlfriend for the summer, how can she say no?

Jack would do anything for his sister — even pretend to give up his bachelor life to care for his nephew. Passing his days with his high school sweetheart guarantees one long, hot summer — but only because every moment together leaves him wanting a real relationship. He can’t imagine spending another season without Emma by his side. Can he convince her to give their love a second chance before the summer draws to a close?

Includes the bonus novella A Fairytale Bride!


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This book would never have happened without the help and support of so many people. Thank you to my family for so often being my sounding board when I'm writing stories, especially my husband, Sonny.

Thank you to my amazing literary agent, Sarah Younger, for wearing the hats of a cheerleader, therapist, confidante, and friend. I am truly blessed to have you on my side.

I would like to thank my editor, Alex Logan. You make my stories shine so much brighter than I ever could on my own. I would also like to thank the entire Forever team. It's a dream come true working with such a group of smart, savvy, and creative people.

Thank you to the women in my life who I count as writing partners and friends: Rachel Lacey, Tif Marcelo, April Hunt, and Sidney Halston. You inspire me in every way, and I'm so lucky to be on this publishing journey with you.

Since this book is about mom love in addition to romantic love, I want to thank my own mother for all her influence in my life. Being a mom is the toughest job in the world, and it's often thankless. So thank you, Mom—for everything.

Lastly, but in no way least, thanks a million to my readers. It's said that the average American reads two books a year. I know that most of you read so much more than that (which makes you extraordinary by those statistics), and I am so honored and humbled that you make the time to read the books that I pour so much of my heart into.

Chapter One

Emma slid a cup of coffee across the counter as she tried, and failed, not to think about today's date. Doomsday.

"You okay?" her customer asked.

Emma blinked out of her zombie state and realized that it was Sophie Daniels, one of the regulars who stopped in the Sweetwater Café almost daily. "Yes, why?"

"Well, the first tip-off that you aren't okay was that you asked me what I wanted. You never ask. You always know." Sophie lifted a pale brow and then looked down at her drink. "And this isn't what I asked for."

Emma's gaze dropped to the caramel-colored cappuccino with a frothy top. "It isn't?"

Sophie gave her a worried look. "But maybe it's time for me to try something new." She started to pull out her debit card.

"I'm so sorry, Sophie." Emma held up a hand. "Your drink is on the house. And if you want something else, I'll make that too."

Sophie shook her head and took a sip as if to prove that she was completely satisfied. "Mmm."

"I'm just not fully awake," Emma explained. "I haven't had my own coffee yet this morning."

"Well, if that's the problem," Sophie said, "you deserve a break and a coffee of your own. Maybe one of those delicious pastries in that glass case too."

A break when she'd only just opened? Emma guessed that was her prerogative as the café's owner, but being the boss also meant she was responsible for every little thing that went on here, right and wrong.

Emma forced a smile as Sophie took another sip, obviously for show. "It really is good to switch things up every now and then. Maybe this will be my new drink of choice. See you tomorrow, Em," she said with a wave.

"Have a great day." Emma's smile fell flat as soon as Sophie's back was turned.

I should've stayed in bed.

She turned to call out to Nina as she put her belongings away in the back room. Nina was the only full-time employee here. The café also had two evening and weekend employees, one of whom called in sick as often as she came in. "Hey, Nina, do you mind covering the counter for me?"

"Not at all." Nina grabbed an apron and pulled it over her head of thick, black hair. At the café, she always wore it neatly pulled back. It was long and silky, and on their far-too-infrequent girls' nights out when Nina wore it down, she looked like she belonged on a Pantene commercial. All the guys wanted to buy her drinks, and all the women wanted to know her beauty secrets.

No beauty secret could save Emma this morning. She probably looked as bad as she felt. Emma was committed to always greeting her customers at the Sweetwater Café with a smile as potent as her coffee but today her smile felt like a weak decaf.

"You're a lifesaver," Emma said as Nina stepped behind the front counter.

"Says the woman who gave me a job and my first paycheck up front to keep a roof over my head."

Emma smiled. "Everyone needs a little help now and then." And right now, Emma was the one in need. She yawned as she prepared a cup of fresh coffee for herself and then retreated to a table in the back.

As she took a sip of the French specialty brew, she closed her eyes momentarily. It seemed like she'd had them closed for just a second before Nina tapped her shoulder.

"Are you asleep?"

Emma snapped awake. "No…Yes. Maybe." She looked at the clock and realized that the morning "rush hour" had passed. "Sorry, I didn't sleep well last night."

Nina frowned. "That bad review on the A-List site still bothering you?" she asked with a nod as if Emma had already confirmed her suspicion.

The A-List was a popular Sweetwater Springs website, intended to guide and direct tourists to the local hot spots. Emma had discovered a one-star review for the Sweetwater Café yesterday, but that wasn't what had kept her up half the night. Since she wasn't telling people today was her birthday though, it was as good an excuse as any. "I guess that's why."

Nina's lips contorted into a perfect pout. "Everyone gets bad reviews, Em."

This wasn't the first bad review the café had gotten, but Emma took every criticism seriously. Yesterday's review had complained of a lack of seating in the café. Well, that was only because the SC was a popular place to get a cup of coffee. It was a good thing, not a reason to avoid coming.

Just thinking about it made Emma feel worse. Happy birthday to me.

The bell at the counter rang.

"Want me to get it?" Nina asked.

"No, I need to earn my keep around here." Emma pushed back from the table and headed toward her customer. She stopped short when she saw Jack Hershey standing there in his park ranger attire. When women said they loved a man in uniform, Emma was pretty sure they weren't talking about the tan button-down shirt with olive-green cargo shorts that Jack wore. But that's the uniform that sent her blood rushing.

"Jack." In her exhausted state, she hadn't considered that he would come by today. But she should have. Jack hadn't missed one of her birthdays since they were kids. She held up a hand. "Don't."

The corner of his mouth quirked. "But it's tradition, Em."

"Maybe it's time we get a new tradition," she practically pleaded.

Thankfully, there was no one else at the counter. She stepped closer, glad that there was a counter between them because Jack had always stirred things inside her. They'd known each other since they were kids. Their moms, who were best friends, had joked about them getting married when they grew up.

Emma's throat grew tight as memories of her mom crashed over her, along with panic and dread. Her mom had died a long time ago, but Emma had been feeling her absence more lately as her thirtieth birthday drew near. And now the day had come. She was the same age her mom had been when she'd died. D-day.

"Okay. Here's an idea for a new tradition." Jack leaned against the counter. "Instead of me serenading you in front of all your customers, how about you agree to have a birthday dinner with me tonight? I'll take you out, and we'll catch up. It's been a while since we've done that."

Emma felt her face flush. Her mind raced along with her heart, searching for an excuse to politely turn him down. "Well, I'm afraid that I've already made plans with Halona and Brenna tonight." Halona owned the flower shop next door, and Brenna had worked down the street until recently when she'd sold her catering business. Now she was studying for her teaching degree, which was a lifelong dream of hers.

He looked down at his feet momentarily. "Right. Of course you have plans. There's no way you'd be sitting at home alone on your birthday, huh?" He reached into his front pocket, and she knew what he was grabbing. Her heart flopped hopelessly inside her chest as he laid three Hershey's Kisses on the counter. "I couldn't fit thirty in my pocket."

She rolled her eyes. "You are so predictable, Jack Hershey."

A smile curled his lips, reaching up to touch his blue eyes as he winked at her. His dark hair was a little tousled today as if he'd run his hand through it a dozen times already—he probably had. "Maybe you just know me really well."

She nodded and looked away for a moment to catch her breath. "Thank you."

"You're welcome. I'll serenade you another time. When it's just us." He turned to head out.

"Wait. Don't you want a coffee? Or something else?" She shrugged. "What would you like?"

He turned back to look at her, his eyes narrowing. "You mean you don't know what I want? That would be a first for you."

Emma's face grew warm. She really was out of sorts today. "Right. Yes, of course I know. Just asked out of habit."

He shook his head. "It's okay. I don't need a drink. I just wanted to wish you a happy—"

She held up a hand. "Nuh-uh." She didn't want Nina or anyone else in the café to overhear. She didn't want any fuss made over her today. She just wanted to get through it.

"I just wanted to wish you a good day," Jack finished. "Have the very best one, Em."

*  *  *

Jack got into his Toyota Tundra and headed back toward his neck of the woods. He'd only come to Main Street to see Emma. She always smiled when she saw him, but he could feel the guard she put up whenever he was near. He'd always thought she'd warm back up to him—forgive and forget—but she hadn't yet. Not completely.

He turned at the stop sign and drove with the window down, taking in the summer's breeze as it hit his face. It was the end of June—the height of the season. Later this week, there'd be Fourth of July celebrations. Once upon a time, he and Emma had pretended those celebrations were for her. Now she didn't want to celebrate at all.

Emma had turned thirty today, but he'd already surpassed that milestone. He'd like to say it was just a number, but he wasn't the same guy he'd been in his twenties. He stuck to non-alcoholic beverages when he went out these days, and he dozed off a good hour earlier at night, waking with the birds, not the ladies.

Lately, he'd also found himself longing for things he never wanted before. A few of his friends were settling down, and a couple had kids on the way. Part of him envied those friends. The other part enjoyed being a bachelor when those very friends listed all the cons to being in a relationship.

He pulled into the lot of Evergreen State Park and cut the engine, looking out over the long pines with the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains in the far distance. After stepping out of his truck, he stretched for a moment before grabbing his radio to communicate with other rangers and authorities in the area. Sometimes he came across an injured hiker or ran into a situation with wildlife. Most recently, there was evidence of a squatter deep in the park. It was against the law to camp overnight at Evergreen State Park. He hadn't seen the person yet, but when he did, he aimed to have a talk with them. One warning, and after that, he'd issue a citation.

Jack walked to the side of the ranger station, where he kept his "toys." Half the lure of being a park ranger was in this outbuilding. He had a skiff boat, two four-wheelers, two utility vehicles, and a kayak. However, the ATV was his vehicle of choice on the narrow paths in the park. He climbed onto one and pointed it up Gray Wolf Trail, pressing the gas pedal and loving his job.

For the next hour and a half, he paroled the area, his mind bumping from nature back to Emma as the tires traversed the uneven terrain. He'd wondered if today would be hard for her. Judging by how frazzled she'd seemed, it was. He was glad she was going out with friends tonight. Hopefully they'd take her mind off things.

He slowed to a stop when he saw evidence of the squatter. He hopped off his ATV and walked over to a pile of charred sticks where someone had made a fire. Jack turned to scan the surrounding area. Just like every other time, whoever had been here was long gone. He was finding evidence about once a week.

Jack could understand the desire to stay overnight. Blue Sky Point was the highest overlook in the park, and it was breathtaking up here. From this location, you could see Silver Lake nestled in the Star Valley River. Silver Lake spanned beyond Evergreen's limits and stretched toward the downtown shopping area as well. If someone looked hard enough, from this point, you could see an eagle's nest built high up in a tree, an egret stretching its wings as it soared, and a deer running just as fast. The wildlife was the other lure to Jack's job.

As he breathed in the fresh air, his mind returned to Emma.

He fished his cell phone out of his pocket, relieved to see that he had a signal, and searched for Halona Locklear's contact. Maybe if he knew where Halona and Brenna were taking Emma for her birthday, he could stop in and buy Em a drink or a slice of cake.

He tapped Halona's contact and held the phone to his ear.

"Little Shop of Flowers," she answered after a couple rings.

"Hey, Hal," Jack said, leaning against a tall pine. "This is Jack."

"Hi, Jack. You need flowers?"

He chuckled. Sending flowers to Em might be overkill, and it would definitely cross that line that Emma's father had drawn in the sand between them over a decade ago. "Actually, Emma told me that you and Brenna are taking her out tonight for her birthday. I thought I'd find out where you're headed and try to stop in."

Halona was silent on the other end of the line.


"Well, Brenna and I offered to take Emma out, but she refused. She said she had plans with you."

Jack straightened. "Oh. Yeah, that's right," he said. "I guess I forgot about that."

"You forgot?" Halona said, her tone sharpening. "Jack, it's a big birthday. Emma deserves something special."

Halona was exactly right.

"Good thing you reminded me, then," he said.

"Yes, it is. We don't need a repeat of the whole prom night fiasco," Halona pointed out. "I never thought she'd forgive you for standing her up the way you did."

Luckily, Emma was as forgiving as she was beautiful.

"So you're still taking Emma out tonight for her birthday, right?" Halona clarified on the phone now.

"Yeah. Well, we're staying in and celebrating at her house," he said.

There was another silence from Halona.

"It's not like that. I'm bringing over popcorn and a movie. Emma wants a quiet birthday this year." And apparently, she wanted to be alone.

Jack wasn't going to grant that birthday wish though. Today of all days, Emma needed to have someone by her side, and he wanted to be that person.

*  *  *

After a long day at the café, Emma dragged herself up her porch steps, unlocked the door, and shut herself inside. This was what she'd been waiting for all day. She just wanted to be alone.

Her dog, a West Highland Terrier named Barnaby, barked to remind her that she wasn't exactly by herself. She dipped and ran a hand through his silky white locks, whispering hellos to him. Then she headed into the kitchen and put her purse on the counter before taking a seat on one of the stools and digging three Hershey's Kisses out of her pocket. She'd been saving them since this morning. This would replace the birthday cake she didn't have. She pinched their little paper flags between her fingers, making them stand upright and envisioning that they were candles. She supposed that would do.

Now all she needed to do was decide on a wish. Several came to mind. She wished that the one-star review hadn't happened and that she didn't care so much. She wished she felt up to going out with Halona and Brenna tonight. Or Jack.

Her cell phone rang inside her purse, making Barnaby stand at attention and bark ferociously. Emma grinned at her little guard dog, who was more likely to lick someone to death than bite them. "Thank you for alerting me," she said as she reached for her phone and checked the caller ID. "Hi, Dad."

"Happy birthday, sweetheart," he said. "How are you?"

"Great." It was just a little white lie.

"I decided to call you early before you went out for any celebrations."

"Good idea," Emma said. Her dad still lived in her childhood home and had remarried two years after Emma's mother had passed. He'd carried on with life as best he could, and Emma had done the same.

Emma chatted with her dad for a few more minutes, talking about his job and Emma's stepmother's newest cycling hobby.

"You should join us," he suggested.

"Do I have to wear those tight spandex bike shorts?" Emma teased.

"They're actually kind of cool."

Emma laughed. "If you say so."

"Well, I just wanted to call and wish you a happy birthday, Emma Grace."

"Thanks, Dad."

"Come over for Sunday lunch?" he asked. "Angel will cook your favorite for the occasion."

Emma hesitated before answering. Angel was a nice woman. She was kind, thoughtful, and beautiful. And Emma's dad deserved a second chance at love. Emma just didn't like the fact that his second chance came by way of her mom's hospice nurse. She didn't think anything had happened between Angel and her dad while her mom was still alive, but it still felt wrong somehow. "It's a holiday weekend, which means it'll be extra busy at the café. I might have to work. I'll let you know."

"Always working so hard. I'm proud of you," he said. "Talk to you soon, sweetheart."

"Okay. Bye, Dad." Emma disconnected the call. Then she sat on her barstool and stared at her Hershey's Kisses, knowing exactly what she wanted. "I wish today would just be over."

Leaning forward, she prepared to blow her pretend candles out and then stopped short when her doorbell rang. Barnaby charged in that direction, making a lot of ruckus for such a little guy. She considered not answering the door, but her car was in the driveway so whoever was at the door would know she was home. A garage would be nice as well.

With an exaggerated sigh, she followed Barnaby and lifted on her toes to look out the peephole. Her heart did a somersault. While she was listing her desires to her imaginary birthday genie, she really wished Jack Hershey wasn't standing on her porch right now.

Chapter Two

Jack offered a small wave as he stood on Emma's porch. "Hi, Em."

Her little dog came rushing toward him, barking wildly with his tail wagging. Jack moved a hand to pet Barnaby's head but kept his eyes on Emma.

"What are you doing here, Jack?" she asked.

"Well"—he pulled his hand from Barnaby and shrugged—"it's your birthday and someone should be here with you." He glanced down at the dog. "No offense, Barn."

Her eyes narrowed as he met her gaze again. "You spoke to Brenna?"

"Halona actually," he confessed.

She sighed and opened the door wider, gesturing for him to come inside.

Jack stepped over the threshold, Barnaby at his heels, and shut the front door behind him. He followed Emma into the kitchen, where he noticed she had the Hershey's Kisses he'd given her earlier on the counter. "You were supposed to eat those," he said, taking a stool while she headed to the refrigerator. Barnaby huffed at the lack of attention and curled on the floor at his feet.

Emma glanced over her shoulder. "I was just about to. It's my birthday cake." She opened the fridge and grabbed some juice from the side door. "Apple juice? It's from the orchards at Merry Mountain Farms."

Jack's jaw dropped. "Hey, how'd you get some of that? I'm friends with the owner, and I don't have any in my fridge." Granger sold a variety of apples and berries in addition to the Christmas trees on his farm. But the apple cider his mother made was in limited supply, and they only gave it out to family.

"I babysat Abby and Willow last week," Emma said, referring to Granger's young daughters. "Granger paid me in juice."

Jack folded his arms over his chest. "If I'd have known it was that easy, I'd have offered to babysit a long time ago. Those girls love me. They call me Uncle Jack."

Emma grinned. "So your answer is yes to a glass of juice?"

"Yes, I'd love some. Juice and a chocolate Kiss sound perfect."

Emma carried two glasses over to the counter beside him and poured a healthy serving. "I never said I was sharing my chocolate Kisses with you."

"Fair enough." He gave her a long look, which was dangerous in his book because Emma had always stirred all kinds of desire inside him. It had nothing to do with her long blond hair and hazel eyes. It was something about the way she looked at him. The way her body responded to him being close. The way his body responded right back.

Emma slid into the seat beside him and took a sip from her own glass of juice.

"Wanna tell me why you lied to everyone?" he asked.

Her eyes widened. "I didn't lie."

He tilted his head and gave her a steady look. "You said you were going out with Brenna and Halona tonight for your birthday when I asked you to dinner. And Halona said you told her you had plans with me."

Emma's shoulders rounded. "Okay, I lied. Is it such a crime to want to spend your birthday alone?"

"No, but you don't usually spend it alone. The Emma I know loves a good party."

She met his gaze, sitting close enough to touch. There was something sad in her eyes tonight. He'd seen it this morning too. That's why he'd called Halona. He knew Emma so well. Well enough to know that something was weighing on her mind.

"Maybe I don't want to celebrate this time," she said softly.

"Because you're thirty?" he asked. The Emma he knew wouldn't care about leaving her twenties behind. Emma had never cared about spending the day at the salon or wearing designer clothes. She wasn't one of those women who didn't leave the house without makeup. He highly doubted she was troubled by getting a little older.

She reached for one of the Kisses on the counter and started peeling off the wrapper. "My mom was only thirty when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It feels…" Emma shrugged as she stared at the mound of chocolate in her palm. "I don't know. Sad. I'm probably just being silly."

Without thinking, Jack reached over and placed his hand on her forearm. "You're allowed to feel whatever you want. It's your birthday."

"And I'll cry if I want to?" There was a hint of a smile as she looked up at him. "Some part of me has been holding my breath. My grandmother died of breast cancer before she was thirty, and my mom died at thirty from the same thing. Now I'm here, relieved to have made it this far but also scared to death that I'm approaching a cliff and about to fall off." She groaned in frustration. "I'm being really morbid on my birthday, aren't I? It's just, I'm not finished yet. There are still things I want to do."

Jack felt an ache in his chest as she spoke. "What things?"

She shrugged, swiping a lock of hair behind her ear. "I don't know. I haven't traveled the world or climbed to the top of a mountain. I haven't gone skinny-dipping in Silver Lake." Her cheeks blushed lightly. "I don't want to, that's illegal. But my friends went in high school on a dare, and I was too chicken."

"I remember hearing about that," he said with a grin.

Something shifted in her gaze. "I also never went to prom."

Those words shot little barbs into his heart. He guessed that's what she'd intended.


  • "Readers will have no trouble falling in love with Rains's realistically flawed hero and heroine as they do their best to overcome their pasts and embrace their futures. A strong cast of supporting characters - especially Emma's stepmother, Angel, and the many returning faces from earlier books - underpin Rains's engaging prose and perfectly paced plot. Lovers of small-town tales won't be able to resist."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Sunshine on Silver Lake was an endearing second chance romance that pulled at the heartstrings as often as it tickled my funny bone!"—
  • "Annie Rains delivers hope."—
  • "Annie Rains is a gifted storyteller, and I can't wait for my next visit to Sweetwater Springs!"—Raeanne Thayne, New York Times bestselling author
  • "When I pick up a Sweetwater Springs book written by Annie Rains, I know I'm about to be immersed in a well-written story, with likable characters, set within a vibrant and supportive community, and laced with both humor and heart."—
  • "I do love Annie Rains. Each time I get one of her books in my hand, I just want to sit down and do nothing until it's finished. "—
  • "Annie Rains puts her heart in every word!"—Brenda Novak, New York Times bestselling author

On Sale
Jul 21, 2020
Page Count
432 pages

Annie Rains

About the Author

Annie Rains is a USA Today bestselling contemporary romance author who writes small town love stories set in fictional places in her home state of North Carolina. When Annie isn't writing, she's living out her own happily ever after with her husband and three children.

Learn more about this author