By Jen Gilroy
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Charlotte Gibbs wants nothing more than to put the past behind her, once and for all. But now that she’s back at Firefly Lake to sell her mother’s cottage, the overwhelming flood of memories reminds her of what she’s been missing. Sun-drenched days. Late-night kisses that still shake her to the core. The gentle breeze off the lake, the scent of pine in the air, and the promise of Sean’s touch on her skin . . . True, she got her dream job traveling the world. But at what cost?
Sean Carmichael still doesn’t know why Charlie disappeared that summer, but after eighteen years, a divorce, and a teenage son he loves more than anything in the world, he’s still not over her. All this time and her body still fits against his like a glove. She walked away once when he needed her the most. How can he convince her to stay now?
Although my name is on the cover, many people contributed to making the dream of my first published book a reality.
I’m indebted to my literary agent, Dawn Dowdle, for her support and wise counsel. She took a chance on me and was tireless in her efforts to find this manuscript a home.
My editor, Michele Bidelspach, has helped me grow exponentially as a writer, and thanks to her insightful comments, my characters and the world of Firefly Lake took on new depth, emotion, and life. I’m blessed with the care and attention Michele gives to me and my writing.
Elizabeth Turner, art director at Forever, designed the cover, which captures the feel of my book so beautifully. Thanks to her, as well as Jessie Pierce, editorial assistant, Laura Jorstad, copy editor, and the entire Grand Central, Forever team for supporting my debut release with enthusiasm and professionalism.
I’m also grateful to the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) and the anonymous reviewers who critiqued this manuscript and others through the RNA New Writers’ Scheme. Their supportive critiques not only shaped this story, but also helped me see myself as a “real writer.” Among many RNA friends, special thanks are due to Julie Cohen. Her faith in this story, guidance, and cheerleading have been invaluable.
Thank you as well to the Romance Writers of America (RWA) contest judges who saw early parts of this manuscript via chapter contests and gave helpful and encouraging feedback.
To my 2015 RWA class of Golden Heart finalists, the Dragonflies: I’m happy to be on this journey with you. Thanks for the friendship, laughter, and support. The dragonfly reference is for you.
Writing friends to whom I owe special gratitude for being there for me are Susanna Bavin, Jennifer Brodie, Tracy Brody, and Arlene McFarlane. You ladies are fab!
My husband, Tech Guy, our daughter, English Rose, and Heidi, the sister of my heart, have been a constant source of love and support. Thank you for always believing in me.
I’ve dedicated The Cottage at Firefly Lake to my mother. Mom was a small-town girl whose dad had her in a boat before she could walk. She shared her love of reading with me and, no matter what life brought, always encouraged me never to give up. Mom was killed in a road accident when I’d just started this book. In the months that followed, writing gave me brief respite from all-consuming grief.
This one’s for you, Mom. Love you lots. Bye for now.
Sean Carmichael balanced the canoe paddle on his knees, scanned the lake and sandy shoreline, and lingered on the cottage hugged by tall pine trees.
“Dad?” Ty brought the rental canoe alongside his. The white Carmichael’s logo gleamed with fresh paint. “You want to deliver this canoe to the Gibbs place or sit in the middle of the lake all afternoon?” His fifteen-year-old son flashed a teasing grin.
“Just waiting for you to catch up,” Sean teased back.
“Race you?” Ty’s blue eyes twinkled.
Shadow, their black Lab wedged into the hull, thumped her tail as Sean dipped the paddle and the canoe shot forward through the pristine water of the Vermont lake. Twenty feet from shore, Sean slowed to let Ty cruise past him.
Ty scrambled out of the canoe and waited for him in knee-deep water. He pinned Sean with an accusing look. “You gotta stop doing that.”
“What?” Sean jumped out of his canoe and dragged it to the sandy beach. Shadow loped by and splashed Sean’s board shorts and T-shirt.
“Letting me win.” Ty pulled the other canoe onto the beach, then fisted his hands in his T-shirt. Big broad hands like Sean’s that could already do a man’s work. “I’m almost sixteen. I’m not a kid anymore.”
“I know.” Sean swallowed a sigh.
“Some car.” Ty pointed to a black BMW parked by the cottage under the pines. “New people renting the Gibbs place this summer?”
“Not that I heard.” Sean tugged on his baseball cap to shield his face from the July sun. Not much ever changed in this little corner of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.
Ty tossed a stick for Shadow to chase. “Why’s it called the Gibbs place anyway? There’ve never been any Gibbses around Firefly Lake.”
“Not since you’d remember.” No Gibbs had been back here in years. Eighteen years, if anybody was counting. Which Sean wasn’t. “We better get a move on. After we deliver this rental, we have to paddle back and do some more work on the racing canoe before your mom picks you up.”
“I’ve got other stuff I want to do. Can’t the work wait till tomorrow? Or I could call Mom and ask her to pick me up later.” Ty’s voice was hopeful.
“Sorry, but no. Your mom likes to keep to a schedule.” And his ex-wife’s schedule was the kind Sean had never managed to live up to. “Besides, the work can’t wait until tomorrow. We made a commitment to the customer.”
Ty’s mouth flattened into a stubborn line. “You made a commitment to the customer, not me.”
Sean grabbed one end of the rental canoe and Ty the other, lifting it above their heads. “You’re as much a part of this business as me.”
“What if I want something else?” Ty’s voice was sharp.
Sean’s chest got heavy as worry for his son sparked memories of what—and who—he’d once wanted. “I have a good life here. All I want is for you to have a good life too. This business is part of our family. I wanted to take on Carmichael’s when I was your age.”
“I’m not you.”
“I know you’re not, but unless you talk to me, how will I know who you are or what you want?” Sean stopped by the patch of grass in front of the cottage, and he and Ty eased the canoe to the ground.
“Whatever.” Ty clumped up the steps to the wide porch. White clapboard walls rose behind to a second story.
Sean bit back the frustrated words he might have said before he pushed his son away. He couldn’t lose Ty. His father and grandfather were the past, but his son was the future. The future of the business they’d built together. A legacy.
Following Ty, he rapped on the screen door. A radio inside was tuned to a news station, and light footsteps tapped down the hall. “Son, I want the best for you—”
“Uh, Dad.” Ty’s voice cracked.
Sean’s head jerked up and the world fell away.
A girl in her early teens stood on the other side of the half-open door. She wore an aqua bikini top with a white sarong tied around her hips. And she had long brown hair and big brown eyes like melted chocolate drops.
Sean took a step back and bumped into Ty. No, it couldn’t be Charlie Gibbs because Charlie was seven months younger than Sean. But she had Charlie’s face and hair and those eyes that had always seen straight through him.
Forgetting the past was up there with all the other things Sean was good at. Except, sometimes, that past caught him when he least expected.
“Can I help you?” The girl had a slow drawl, Southern definitely, Texas maybe.
Ty edged forward, and there was a smile of pure masculine appreciation on his son’s face. “I’m Ty Carmichael, and this is my dad. Somebody here rented a canoe from us.” He pulled off his fishing hat and stuck it into the back pocket of his shorts. “We own Carmichael’s, the marina and boatyard next door.”
“I’m Naomi Connell.” The girl smiled back and showed a mouthful of braces. “I don’t know anything about a canoe rental.”
“Maybe your dad booked it?” Sean’s voice was higher, like it belonged to some other guy.
Naomi studied him. “My dad’s not here, but I can ask my—”
“No!” Sean broke in. “If there’s been a mistake, my brother will pick the canoe up later.” Sweat trickled down his back, beneath his shirt.
Naomi quirked an eyebrow, and what was left of Sean’s heart, the heart Charlie had ripped out of his chest and shredded, thudded against his ribs.
Inside the cottage the radio stopped. “Who’s at the door?” It was a woman’s voice, and her words were clipped. An accent Sean couldn’t place. His stomach churned.
Naomi, the girl who was and wasn’t Charlie, spoke back into the shadowy hall where beach bags and summer shoes were piled in an untidy heap. “Some guys are here about a canoe rental.”
She turned again to Sean and Ty and opened the door wider. “You want to come inside? We made iced tea.” A smile flowered across Naomi’s face. A smile that was sweet, innocent, and so much like Charlie’s it made Sean’s heart ache.
“Sure.” Ty’s smile broadened. “Iced tea sounds great.” He shook sand off his feet and moved toward Naomi as if pulled by a magnetic force.
“We have to get going.” Sean grabbed Shadow’s collar as the dog nosed her way into the cottage.
He froze, and the past he’d spent eighteen years forgetting slammed into him.
Charlie’s brown eyes met his, surrounded by the thick, dark lashes that had always reminded him of two little fans spread across her face when her eyes were closed. Instead of being laughter-filled like he remembered, though, her eyes were wary, framed by brown hair cut into an angular bob, which sharpened her heart-shaped face.
“Charlie.” He forced her name out through numb lips. Above loose white pants, her lemon tank top molded to her lush curves like a second skin. His body stirred, and awareness of her, and everything they’d once meant to each other, crashed through him.
She gave him a bland, untouchable smile. The kind her mom and sister had perfected. Not a smile he’d ever expected to see on Charlie’s face. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Really?” Sean drew in a breath.
Charlie’s smile slipped. “We were friends.”
“Friends?” Sean caught her dark gaze and held it. Her jaw was tight, but her skin was burnished like a ripe peach.
Shadow strained forward, tail wagging a greeting.
“It’s been a long time.” Her voice was cool, but when she bent to pat the dog her hand shook.
Sean opened his dry-as-tinder mouth and closed it again before he said something stupid. Something he’d regret. In that time, he’d built a life. And the girl who’d been his best friend, his first love, and his whole world wasn’t part of it.
He glanced at his son and Naomi where he and Charlie had once stood, Charlie tilting her face up to his for a good-night kiss. His stomach knotted at the look on Ty’s face. Long ago, he’d looked at Charlie that way. Like she was the prettiest girl in the world. The only girl in the world for him.
“Let us know what you want to do about the canoe.” Even though his pulse sped up, his voice was as cool as Charlie’s as he pulled the rental agreement from the pocket of his shorts and held it out. He was thirty-six, not eighteen, and he’d made sure he never thought about those good-night kisses or any other memories he’d buried deep.
Charlie took the paper at arm’s length. “I’m sure there’s an explanation for the order.”
“Ty?” He inclined his head toward his son.
With a last look at Naomi, Ty vaulted over the porch railing and landed on the ground below.
Sean turned, his steps deliberate. This time he planned on being the one who walked away.
Sean Carmichael looked good, too good, and he was as self-contained as always. Unlike her. Charlie sucked in a deep breath against the volcano of emotion that threatened to erupt from her chest.
“Auntie Charlotte?” Naomi whispered. “Are you okay?”
“Fine, honey.” The comforting lie she’d make herself believe. She forced her feet to walk across the porch and stop by the railing. “Sean?” Firefly Lake was a small town. She’d have to face him sooner or later and tell him a truth she’d rather avoid. At least one of them.
He paused at the bottom of the steps, and his big body stiffened. “What?” Voice tight, he half turned, his dark-blue eyes fixed on her in the way that had always unnerved her because she was sure he could tell what she was thinking.
“Wait.” She scanned the piece of paper he’d given her.
“Why?” The black dog by his side looked at her and then back at Sean, eyes wise.
“The rental’s fine.” She wouldn’t fall apart. Even though the sight of him almost brought her to her knees. “Can your son leave the canoe in the boathouse? Naomi will get the key and help him.”
He glanced at Ty. The boy had Sean’s sandy-blond hair, thick, rumpled like he’d just rolled out of bed. He had Sean’s height, but his eyes were a lighter blue, his face thinner. The memory of what might have been squeezed her heart.
In profile, Sean’s nose still had the bump from where he’d broken it playing hockey the winter he’d turned sixteen, but his sensuous mouth was bracketed by fine lines, no longer the face of the boy she’d known.
“Of course.” Sean’s eyes were shuttered. Like Charlie was any other customer.
Naomi darted into the cottage and reappeared seconds later holding the boathouse key by its red cord. “Auntie Charlotte?” She looked at Ty and tossed her hair over her shoulders.
“Please unlock the boathouse and then wait on the beach.” The past reared up and choked Charlie and made it hard to breathe. It reminded her of when she’d been a girl like Naomi and head over heels in love with Sean. Her whole life ahead of her, no mistakes yet. No regrets either.
“Sure.” Naomi skipped down the steps.
“Auntie Charlotte?” Sean rested one bare foot against the bottom step, his legs muscular and dusted with dark-blond hair. At eighteen, he’d still been lanky, but now he was a man, all lean, long-limbed magnetic strength.
“Naomi is Mia’s daughter. You remember my sister?” Charlie’s legs trembled, and she wrapped a hand around the porch railing to steady herself.
“Yes.” Sean’s voice was deeper than she remembered, rougher, with an edge to it that set her nerve ends tingling. “But Charlotte? You hated that name.”
“People change.” When she’d left Firefly Lake, she’d left Charlie behind and turned herself into Charlotte. A person who wasn’t the scared girl she’d been, who’d convinced herself she’d made the only choice she could.
Sean tapped one foot on the step. “If you say so.”
“Ty, your son?” Her tongue tripped over the words. “You and your wife must be proud of him.” She pushed away the stab of pain sparked by the thought of Sean’s wife. Pain as sharp as it was unexpected.
“He’s a good kid.” Sean’s expression softened to give her a glimpse of the boy he’d been. “He’s working with me for the summer.”
“You’ve done some building.” Charlie gestured toward the beach that narrowed at the point, still framed by the trees and rolling hills she remembered from childhood summers. Carmichael’s was on the other side, and an unfamiliar tin roof glinted in the sun.
“We put in a new workshop last year. I built a house there a while ago too. Moved out from town.” Sean smoothed the bill of his ball cap, and Charlie couldn’t help but notice there wasn’t a wedding ring on his fourth finger.
Sean must be married. He had a son and he’d always been a conventional guy. Loyal and true. Her heart twisted tighter and there was a sour taste in her mouth. “So you stayed here.”
“I always wanted to take on Carmichael’s.” Sean paused. “But since we’re taking this trip down memory lane, what about you? Did you get what you wanted?”
When you ran out on me and on us. The words he didn’t say hung heavy between them.
“I’m a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, based in London, but I travel all over. Wherever the next story is, I go.” It was the life she wanted and had worked hard to get. And she loved it. At least until four months ago.
“You always wanted to see the world.” Sean’s voice was flat.
“Yeah, I did.” She looked at the beach where Ty and Naomi tossed a Frisbee. The dog darted between them. Naomi laughed at something Ty said and he laughed too, Sean’s laugh.
Charlie’s stomach rolled. She had to get a grip. Focus on who she was now, not who she’d been. She wasn’t looking at herself and Sean on that beach.
“Must be an exciting life.” Sean’s voice had an edge of steel.
Excitement wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Charlie’s hands were clammy. She sat on one of the Adirondack chairs Mia had found in the shed and crossed her right leg over her left. Her pants covered the scar tissue that stretched from her left knee to her ankle. “It pays the bills.” But there wasn’t much left over to save for the future and she wasn’t getting any younger.
“Charlotte…” He hesitated, and the name he’d never called her rang in her ears. “Why are you here?” His eyes narrowed into blue slits, framed by spiky lashes several shades darker than his hair. “You could have put that canoe in the boathouse as easy as Ty.”
Her heart thudded, a dull throb that hurt more than the ache in her leg. “I didn’t expect you to turn up on the doorstep, but since you did, I don’t want you to hear this in town.”
“Hear what?” He tugged on his T-shirt and smoothed it over a still-taut stomach, although his shoulders were bigger, the muscles more defined.
“Mia and I and her two girls, we’re here for a month to sell the cottage.” She swallowed the lump in her throat. Selling was the right choice, the only choice.
“Your folks, they…” Sean yanked off his hat and sat sideways to face her on the middle step, the weathered boards creaking under his weight.
She nodded. The only sounds were the buzz of the cicadas and the whisper of the wind in the pines.
“I’m sorry.” His voice was gruff.
“We lost Mom last Christmas. Cancer.” Charlie blinked as tears pricked the backs of her eyes.
“That’s rough.” He paused for a heartbeat. “My condolences. My mom will be sad to hear about your mother.”
And the cottage was her last tangible link with her mom, and the place Charlie had always thought of as home. It was the only constant in her life after the summer she’d turned ten and they’d left Montreal for her dad’s new job in Boston. But she had to be practical. The money from the cottage sale would secure that future she worried about.
Sean put his hat back on and looked out at the lake. “What about your dad?”
“He died five years ago.” Charlie shivered. “He had a heart attack on the golf course.”
“My dad went like that a little over a year ago. Over in the marina.” Sean’s voice caught and he tented his hands on his knees, the strong, capable hands that had taught her how to paddle a canoe and build a campfire. Hands that had comforted her when she’d been scared of the bear with the sharp yellow teeth Mia told her lived in the boathouse. And hands that had loved her and taught her how to love back.
“He was a good man, your dad.” Honest, upright, and devoted to his family. Everything Charlie’s dad wasn’t.
“He had a good life.” Sean gave her a brief smile. “Even though he went too soon, he went doing what he loved, with the family he loved around him. A man couldn’t ask for more.” His face changed, tenderness wiped away, and a muscle worked in his jaw. “You’re here to sell the cottage.”
“Yes.” She’d made her decision and wouldn’t go back on it now that she was here. “It’s the last piece of Mom’s estate.” All the beauty, vibrancy, and love that had been her mom reduced to a dry sheaf of papers.
“You could have sold the cottage from anywhere.” Sean’s voice rasped.
Charlie hugged herself. “This place was special to Mom. I owe it to her to come back one last time.” Maybe she owed it to herself too.
“There should be a lot of interest.” Sean got up from the step. “It’s the biggest cottage on Firefly Lake. Since it’s only a few hours from Burlington and Montreal, it’s easy to get here on weekends. Even from Boston like you did. It’ll be sold before you know it, and you’ll be back on a plane.”
Charlie pushed herself out of the chair and stood. “We might not sell it in the way you think. You see, there’s a developer interested.”
“A developer?” Sean moved toward her so fast Charlie rocked against the porch railing. Pain radiated up her leg.
“They haven’t made us an offer yet, but they’re talking about a tasteful little resort.” Pinned between Sean and the railing, the top of her head level with his broad chest, Charlie reminded herself to breathe. She’d forgotten how big Sean was, how male. “They’d give us a good price.”
“What do you mean a good price?” Sean’s expression hardened. “Firefly Lake hasn’t changed in generations. People come here because it hasn’t changed.”
“A resort development won’t change things much.” Charlie avoided his gaze.
Sean’s laugh was harsh. “You really believe that? Everywhere else, life has sped up, everybody rushing without knowing what they’re rushing to or why. Here things stay pretty much the same. At least the same in the ways that matter. Don’t you care about keeping it that way?”
“Yes, but in this economy not as many people are buying summer cottages.” Her heart raced, and she pressed a hand to her chest. “Besides, Vermont has legislation to protect the landscape, and developers have to meet certain criteria before they can get a building permit.”
“Keep renting the cottage out until the economy gets better.” His blue eyes blazed with the anger she’d only seen once before. “That seemed to work fine for the last eighteen years. Don’t talk to me about some law. You can’t sell all this to a developer.” He raised an arm to take in the cottage, the forest behind it, the beach and the lake, hazy blue in the afternoon sun.
“That’s not your decision to make. I need to let the cottage go.” And she needed to forget about sentiment and think with her head, not her heart. Let the past go and use the money she’d get for the cottage to live the rest of her life, a life she’d almost lost.
“You were good at that weren’t you?” His face reddened. “Letting go of things you no longer wanted.”
“That’s not how I remember it.” She forced a calmness she didn’t feel. “But if you mean what was between us, that was a lifetime ago, like the cottage is a lifetime ago.”
“You really think so, Sunshine?”
Charlie flinched as Sean’s old nickname for her drove a spike through her battered heart.
“In all your talk about this place being special to your mom, it sounds like you’ve forgotten how special it was to you too.”
He whistled for his dog, the shrill sound slicing through the air. And when he walked away, this time Charlie didn’t try to stop him.
Sean pushed open the workshop door and sent it crashing back on its hinges. “Trevor?” The familiar smells of wood, canvas, paint, and varnish enveloped him. Three half-built canoes rested on struts, and a row of handcrafted paddles lined one wall, supported by rough pine pegs.
- "4 stars! Memories, regrets and second chances are front and center in Gilroy's fantastic debut. The first book in the Firefly Lake series is complex and mired in secrets. The Vermont setting adds a genuine feel to the story, and the co-stars are highly entertaining. The homebody hero and world-traveling heroine must travel a long and bumpy road to happiness."—RT Book Reviews
- "The story has all the elements in place to create an emotional and touching atmosphere. The pacing is steady and the writing is fluid, creating just the right amount of tension and emotion."—-Night Owl Reviews
- "Packed with potent emotions...[Her] protagonists tug at the heartstrings from the beginning of the story and don't let go. The strong group of supporting characters includes Charlie's sister, Mia, and her daughter, Naomi, whose stories are to be later told. Long on charm, this story invites readers to come in and stay a while."—Publishers Weekly on The Cottage at Firefly Lake
- "Jen Gilroys' The Cottage At Firefly Lane is a heart-stirring debut centering around forgiveness and second chances. Gilroy weaves a delightful story and I'm happy to recommend this book!"—-Once Upon A Page
- "This book is a lot of fun and is definitely for fans of Susan Mallery or Marina Adair."—-Katy Budget Books
- "The Cottage at Firefly Lake is Jen Gilroy's debut romance book, but you honestly can't tell. She effortlessly brings this wonderful tale of second chances to us in such a sweet and romantic way that you won't want to put this book down."—-Escaping Into Books
"This is a sweet and heartwarming second chance love story that is sure to make you both smile and cry! I felt many different types of emotions while reading it, and the fact that the author can evoke such emotions in her readers is tremendous! Readers who enjoy classy and sweet romances that are filled with heart will definitely pair well with this novel."
—-Pretty Little Book Reviews
- On Sale
- Jan 31, 2017
- Page Count
- 368 pages