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Authors: Terri-Lynne Defino

Seeking Carolina

BOOK: Seeking Carolina
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Johanna Coco is finally home in Bitterly, Connecticut, to attend her beloved grandmother's funeral—only to be confronted by the very reason she's stayed away to begin with-—Charlie McCallan. Her high school sweetheart is now divorced, and no longer the skinny boy Johanna once loved. Hometown handsome and dependable as always, Charlie is the kind of man she needs to lean on as she and her sisters grapple with their grief—as well as the mystery of their long-missing mother, Carolina. But Johanna’s heart isn't only haunted by her ghosts; it’s haunted by what happened between her and Charlie…


Charlie is determined to do things right this time, and he has to do it before Johanna vanishes from his life again. First he needs to prove to her that the past is past, and they can overcome it—no easy task when he’s up against the ghosts lingering in her life, trying to convince her that happily-ever-after is not in the cards for any of the catastrophe-prone Coco sisters, least of all Johanna.  But her fearless first love is ready to do whatever it takes to win her back—ghosts be damned.



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Books by Terri-Lynne DeFino


Seeking Carolina

Dreaming August


Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation




Seeking Carolina



Terri-Lynne DeFino



Kensington Publishing Corp.






Lyrical Press books are published by

Kensington Publishing Corp. 119 West 40th Street New York, NY 10018


Copyright © 2015 by Terri-Lynne DeFino


All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the Publisher, excepting brief quotes used in reviews.


All Kensington titles, imprints, and distributed lines are available at special quantity discounts for bulk purchases for sales promotion, premiums, fund- raising, and educational or institutional use.


To the extent that the image or images on the cover of this book depict a person or persons, such person or persons are merely models, and are not intended to portray any character or characters featured in the book.


Special book excerpts or customized printings can also be created to fit specific needs. For details, write or phone the office of the Kensington Special Sales Manager:

Kensington Publishing Corp.

119 West 40th Street

New York, NY 10018

Attn. Special Sales Department. Phone: 1-800-221-2647.


Kensington and the K logo Reg. U.S. Pat. & TM Off.

Lyrical Press and the L logo are trademarks of Kensington Publishing Corp.


First Electronic Edition: October 2015

eISBN-13: 978-1-61650-768-8

eISBN-10: 1-61650-768-3


First Print Edition: October 2015

ISBN-13: 978-1-61650-769-5

ISBN-10: 1-61650-769-1


Printed in the United States of America




For my dollbabies~women of words, sea breezes, and chocolate cake.





I have heard it said writing is a solitary effort. We sit at our computers for hours at a time, oblivious to the world going on around us in favor of the one in our heads, one peopled by men and women of our own creation. Solitary? As a famous wizard once said, just because it’s happening in your head, doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Our worlds, our characters, the events we write are very real. We make them real, we hope, for our readers. Solitary? Hardly.


We also have editors and copy editors and cover artists. Whole teams work on bringing our novels from files in our computers to books winging their way out into the world. Without my editor, Penny Barber-Schwartz, Bitterly, Connecticut and all its inhabitants would not be in this book, at this time. For that, darling Penny, not only I, but my characters thank you.


Thanks to my sisters in romance, the members of CoLoNY. Not only did you help birth The Bitterly Suite, but you have encouraged, supported, and celebrated with me every step of the way.


As always, thanks to my brilliant dollbabies, women who are not just a week on the beach, writing, eating cake, and laughing. They are the core of my writing life. We don’t see one another but a week every year, but they are with me every day. Hands on my shoulder. Whispered words of encouragement. Messages on Facebook.


And though it’s going to make her blush, I want to especially thank Sharon Struth. She is kindred of a kind one doesn’t find every day. Thanks, Shar—without you, I wouldn’t be writing this acknowledgement in the first place.

Last, as always, thanks to my Frankie D. He knows why.



Chapter 1


Twelve Drummers Drumming


Snowflakes do not fall; they dance. Will-o’-the-wisps in Les Sylphides. White on black. The poet wind scatters them and they twirl amid the tombstones—stately guardians dressed in gray—and fall, at last, to sleep.

Disturbing that slumber is a sacrilege, I know, she cannot not bring herself to commit.

No matter the cold.

No matter the dark.

No matter she is trespassing after cemetery hours. She will stand perfectly still until she is another guardian among the stones.

* * * *

Rough hands chafed warmth back into Johanna’s hands, her arms.

“Are you crazy?”

The masculine voice mumbled words she did not care to decipher. He was right. She was crazy. Crazy as a loon. Mad as a hatter, as a Cheshire Cat. Crazy as…

She closed her eyes, unwilling to finish the unkind, if accurate, thought. Trembling, drifting, all she wanted was to sleep.

“Oh, no you don’t. Get up. Walk.” He jammed a shoulder under her armpit and hefted her upright.

Johanna’s feet moved of their own accord, half-dragged, but they moved. “Where am I?”

“Bitterly Cemetery,” the man answered, “doing your best impression of a snowman…woman.”

Oh. Right. Farts. She pushed feebly out of his arms. Her knees buckled, and she was grateful he hadn’t let go. “I can walk on my own.”

“I’m sure you can. Normally. Come on. I’ve got the heat blasting in the truck. Get warm, and I’ll take you home.”

Johanna let him help her. Bitterly, Connecticut was way too nice a town to allow miscreants. Everyone knew everyone and had most of their lives. This was no one to fear, even if he did frequent cemeteries after hours rescuing would-be popsicles from certain frostbite.

Her head began to clear. Memory edged around her trembling, the cold, her grief. The man scooted her into the truck, closed the door and came around the driver’s side. “There’s coffee in the thermos next to you.”

“No, thanks.”

His cell blipped and he turned a shoulder to answer it. Charlotte someone. She apparently wanted pizza.

Johanna tuned out, instead warming her hands in the hot air blasting from the heating vent. She thawed. Her trembling eased. Two days trying to get there in time, and she’d failed. Again. Was there no end to the ways she would fail her grandmother? Her sisters? She fought the tears rising up like rebels and failed at that too.

He handed her a crumpled tissue.

She snatched it from his hand, relieved it was only crumpled. “Thanks.”

“No problem.”

“I wasn’t trying to freeze to death or anything. I was just paying my respects. I missed the funeral.”

“I know.”

“I’m sure the whole town knows.” Johanna yanked off her hat, tried to smooth down static curls. “Well, the snow isn’t my fault. The whole Northeast is covered. My car wouldn’t make it and I couldn’t rent an SUV and I’m damn sure not going to attempt these roads in anything else, so I had to take a train and then no one answered their cell phones. I had to walk from—”


She startled silent. Squinted. He pulled off his snowcap and a flop of auburn hair tumbled out. His beard lit a brighter copper than his hair. Eyelashes and brows arched over hazel eyes. A face she knew, despite the years. Johanna’s heart stuttered. “Charlie McCallan? For real?”

“Took you long enough.”

“You…you don’t look…” She pulled at his beard. “You’ve grown up.”

“It happens to boys when they turn into men.” He laughed. “They get hairy.”

He wore thick workman’s overalls and a down jacket, but he was obviously and most certainly no longer the bony kid she’d once shoved into the lake.

She flexed thawing fingers. “It has been way too long, Charlie.”

“I thought maybe you’d show up for the twentieth reunion.”

“Twentieth?” Johanna slumped. “Really?”

“Last Thanksgiving. You should have come. Fifty-eight of the…what was our class? Ninety-something?” He shrugged. “Whatever it was, we had a good turn out.”

“I don’t remember getting the invite.”

An eyebrow lifted, but Charlie only shifted into gear.

Tires crunched in the snow. The packing sound reminded Johanna of riding with Poppy in his ancient plow, making safe the streets of Bitterly through the long, snowy winters. Outside the warm cab, in this new winter, flurries drifted.

Charlie-freaking-McCallan. Of all people.

She had known him as unavoidably as she did everyone else in Bitterly—the ghost-white kid whose parents were caretakers of the town cemetery. They’d grown up together, largely circled in and out of friendship, until the summer they were seventeen.

The heat in the truck was becoming oppressive. Johanna unzipped her coat. “Working the graveyard shift? Pun very much intended.”

“I don’t really work the cemetery anymore. Mom and Dad retired, turned it over to the town. I fill in once in a while, doing maintenance.”

“No one knows this place better than you.” Johanna blew her nose. “And Gina? How’s she?”

“In Florida with the yoga instructor she left me for.”

Again her heart stuttered. Johanna loosened her scarf. Gina had been nice enough, pretty enough, and got pregnant senior year and ruined everything.

“And your…daughter, wasn’t it? You had a few more, too.”

“Charlotte,” he answered. “She’s good. I’ve got five kids. Two daughters and three sons.”

“That’s a lot of kids.”

He chuckled, his eyes straying from the road to look her way. “It is. They also require a lot of pizza. Mind if I stop on our way past?”

“Oh, sure. No problem. Thanks, by the way, for…”

“No worries.”

They drove in silence, the ineffectual wipers slapping a rhythm to go with the crunching tires. He pulled into town following the same trek Johanna had made from the train station. She hadn’t earlier noticed the faux-gaslights wrapped in pine and holly, the trees lining the Green, the candles in every window. Neither had she absorbed the olive oil boutique or the wine bar on either side of the pizza place that had once been the only restaurant in town. She’d been too furious that none of her sisters picked up her call. Her numerous calls.

Johanna sighed. The window fogged. Charlie was nice enough not to ask what was wrong. He could guess, and he’d probably be right. He pulled up in front of D’Angelo’s Pizzeria, and left the truck running.

“I’ll be right back.”

She waved him away. The waft of cold air he let in made her shiver, but it felt good. Bracing. Clarifying. She opened the window and let the falling snow hit her face. Remembering. Johanna hated to remember. It was her number one reason for staying far away from Bitterly. The door opened and reason number two slipped into the truck, stretching nearly across her to set the pizzas down on the back seat. His jacket fell open. He was definitely not the skinny kid she’d pushed into the lake. He smelled good. Pizza and something musky.

“Sorry. They’re hot.”

She closed the window. “Does your father-in-law still make the pizza?”

BOOK: Seeking Carolina
10.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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