Southern Born
Heart of Colton, Book 3
Release Date:

Sep 13, 2021

ISBN:

978-1-954894-53-2

More From Eliana →

The Way Beyond

by

Eliana West

When she finds out his secret, will he lose her for good?

Jacob Winters has a secret: he’s come to Colton undercover as an FBI handler. He didn’t plan to stay, but the small town has charmed him with a sense of community he hasn’t felt in a long time. And his attraction to the beautiful Mae Colton complicates things even more. Jacob doesn’t do relationships—he won’t risk making memories he might regret.

Mae Colton loves her little town of Colton, Mississippi, and doesn’t want to leave. In fact, instead of moving on to bigger things—namely a political career in D.C.—like she’d planned, she wants to run for a second term as mayor of Colton. But not everyone in town supports this choice, including the commitment-phobic Jacob Winters.

Mae is ready to make their secret relationship official and go public, but that would break Jacob’s one rule. When a threat against Mae’s life forces him to admit the truth of his feelings, he has to race to save the woman he loves before it’s too late.

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The late spring air was filled with the scent of honeysuckle, jasmine, and lavender. Mae Colton stood under the gazebo in Colton Park, watching her friends exchange their vows. There were so many flowers under the canopy there was barely any room for the bride and groom. The rest of the wedding guests sat in white folding chairs that ringed the gazebo. Almost all of the small town of Colton had turned out to wish the bride and groom well.

Mae glanced over at the groom’s side, where Jacob Winters stood in his gray suit with a sage-green gingham tie that matched the sash on the strapless bridesmaid’s dress she wore. Her breath caught when their eyes locked for just a fraction of a second, and the heat that flared in his let her know that she’d be gazing into them longer at the end of the night.

She turned her attention back to the bride and groom who were following local tradition and getting married under the gazebo in the town square surrounded by their friends and family. Mae was happy to see the bride wanted to follow local custom. Mae never thought much of the legend that Colton brides who married under the gazebo would have a long and happy marriage. But standing in this special place watching another friend say her vows she wondered if maybe there wasn’t just a little bit of magic at work. She eyed her best friend and cousin, who became a Colton bride just a year before. She was looking at her husband standing across the aisle, her face practically glowing with love, and he was looking at her with the same intensity.

Country star Lucas Monroe, a friend of the groom, walked down the aisle strumming the first chords of Stevie Wonder’s “As” on his guitar. Tillie, the owner of the Catfish Cafe, came next, with her head held high, wearing a sage-green silk suit that had a matching gingham camisole under the jacket. Her freshly dyed bright red hair was styled into an elegant updo, and she was beaming from ear to ear. She’d been crowing about being the maid of honor for weeks now. Jo came up the stairs, and Mae swallowed the lump in her throat, seeing her on her father’s arm. She wore an ivory lace fitted blouse with a high-necked lace collar. The blouse was tucked into a full silk skirt with a train. Her hair had been swept up with yellow roses and white camellias clustered on one side. The dress and hairstyle matched the picture of her ancestor that was found during the restoration of the plantation house Halcyon.

Mae observed the groom wiping his eyes as his bride approached. As Jo walked up to him, the scent of eucalyptus overpowered all the other flowers that surrounded them. Watching them, Mae felt a slight twinge of jealousy at how open and honest they were with their love.

Judge Beaumont cleared his throat and began the ceremony. There was a lovely reading of the Paul Lawrence Dunbar poem “Invitation to Love” before the judge asked them to repeat the traditional vows. Mae had been busy sneaking glances at Jacob and almost missed the moment when the groom’s brother handed him a simple platinum band that he slid on the bride’s finger next to her beautiful diamond engagement ring. Mae blinked back her tears as they were pronounced man and wife.

The broom was placed in front of them decorated with flowers and gingham ribbon. Taylor Colton took his bride’s hand, and they both jumped to cheers and applause, and the DJ started playing PJ Morton’s “Only One.” Each groomsman escorted a bridesmaid, dancing down the aisle. When it was her turn, Jacob held out his hand for hers with a smile. For a large man, he could move surprisingly well. He swiveled his hips and spun her around, making her breathless before they descended the gazebo steps.

Tilly insisted on hosting the reception, so the street in front of the park was closed off, lights had been strung in a zigzag down one half of the block in front of the café, and a large tent was set up at the other end. Mae watched with amusement while the café owner conducted the students from the culinary program at the trade school in Greenwood as if she were the conductor of an orchestra. She waved her arms around while the students scurried around, bringing our platters of food. The culinary students presented the three-tiered cake covered in confectionary flowers in yellow and white as their wedding present to the newly married couple.

There were the traditional toasts and speeches, and then it was Mae’s turn to come to the microphone. She’d been working with the governor’s office for months to arrange this moment, and she’d managed to keep it a secret, wanting to surprise her friends.

She stepped up to the microphone and cleared her throat. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m happy to be here with you all tonight. Although my role on this occasion is a bridesmaid, I hope y’all will indulge me for just a minute while I put my mayor hat on.”

She reached down and pulled out the plaque she had hidden earlier by the podium. “Will the new Mr. and Mrs. Colton please come up here with me?” They came forward, looking at her with curiosity. “Taylor and Jo, it is my great honor as the interim mayor of Colton to announce that the governor of Mississippi has signed an executive order renaming Colonel Absolem Madden Colton Park, the Ada Mae Riley Park.” There were gasps and murmurs of approval as she held up the plaque so everyone could see.

Jo pulled her into a hug. “I don’t know what to say. Thank you. This is an incredible gift.”

Taylor was next to wrap her in his arms. “Thank you, Mae, just when I thought this day couldn’t get any better.”

The three of them stood with their arms wrapped around each other, posing with the plaque for the photographer. The bride and groom took the plaque over to show their parents while Mae made her way back to her table.

Her mom and dad come over when she was finished. “Oh honey, I’m so proud.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“That’s a pretty big secret,” her dad said. “How in the world did you pull it off?”

Mae gave her dad a wry smile. “I didn’t let any email or phone calls go through the office, so my office manager didn’t know.”

Joseph let out a hearty laugh. The same woman had been running the office at town hall since the days when they were called secretaries. The woman was a notorious gossip, and in a small town where secrets didn’t stay secrets for long, she transmitted information faster than the new high-speed internet they’d just brought to town.

“Well, good job, baby girl.”

“Excuse me.” Jacob came over. “I thought the mayor might like a glass of champagne to celebrate both the wedding and her hard work.”

His hand briefly touched hers as he handed her a glass, sending a shiver of desire through her. As much fun as the evening was, she couldn’t wait for it to be just the two of them.

Her parents drifted away to visit with Jo’s parents. Jacob drained the rest of his glass and set it down on the table. “May I have this dance?”

Mae set her glass down and slipped her hand into his. He pulled her onto the dance floor just as the tempo changed. He drew her closer and clasped her hand to his chest while her other hand rested on his shoulder.

“You smell like summer,” he whispered in her ear.

“People are staring.”

“No, they aren’t, they’re watching the bride and groom.”

“Behave yourself, Mr. Winters. It was your idea to keep our relationship on the down low.”

“It was both our idea.”

Mae pulled back and scowled. He was right, but he didn’t have to remind her about a decision she was beginning to wonder if she regretted. Looking around at the other couples dancing and occasionally kissing, she wondered why she thought she couldn’t have what they had.

“Is there a problem, Pixie?”

“Children, don’t fight,” Dax admonished as he danced past them with Callie.

Jacob looked down at her, his lips curling into that smile that always made her stomach dip. He leaned forward and whispered one word in her ear that set her entire body on fire.

“Foreplay.”

“We can’t leave yet. It would be too obvious.”

Jacob nodded, the song ended, and the tempo changed, Mae watched Jacob break out some serious dance moves that she honestly didn’t think a White man could be capable of before she met him. She already knew the man had mastered the electric slide from his performance at Callie and Dax’s wedding. Jacob was full of surprises. Mae cherished the brief glimpses of carefree moments when he let his guard down.

Her dad came over when the next slow song started. “Do you mind if I have a dance with my little girl?”

Jacob nodded. “Of course.”

Joseph Colton clapped his hand on Jacob’s shoulder. “You’ll understand one day when you have a little girl of your own.”

Mae looked down just in case there was a hole nearby she could jump into. She watched helplessly as Jacob walked away while her dad twirled her around the dance floor.

“You shouldn’t have said that, Dad. What if Jacob doesn’t want to have children?”

“He’ll settle down one day, just like you will once you’ve established yourself in DC.”

“Can we take a break from talking about my future and just enjoy the party?”

“All right, all right, I’ll stop.” He chuckled. A minute later, he looked toward the gazebo. “Just promise me when it’s your turn, you’ll come home from Washington and get married under the gazebo.”

“Of course, Dad.”

Mae added her dad’s request to the impossibly long list of her sister’s failings she’d have to make up for.

The song ended and he let her go. She stood on tiptoe and gave him a kiss on the cheek. He could be annoying sometimes, but he was her dad, her hero. He was the first man she’d ever danced with, standing on his shoes in the living room giggling while he waltzed her around. No matter how hard it was to carry the weight of her parents’ expectations sometimes, she loved them.

Suddenly, it felt like there were too many people around her, and the air was too hot, too sweet from all the flowers and the spring air. She backed away from the dance floor and headed back into the park and the gazebo.

She stepped under the canopy adorned with flowers, reaching up to caress one of the cherry blossom branches that had been artfully arranged to become part of the ceiling. When it was her turn, she didn’t want so many flowers or people; just her with the man she wanted to wake up to every morning and create a lifetime of memories with. The truth was Mae never thought she’d be a Colton bride; she’d always pictured herself single living in the big city. But just over a year ago, a giant of a man who reminded her of an angry lumberjack the first time she saw him walked into her life. Now, she had a job she loved and a relationship that held promise. Her life had changed, and now, she wondered if her hopes and dreams were really hers or what other people expected her to do.

“Hey, Pixie, what are you doing out here?”

The nickname Jacob gave her on the first day they met wasn’t as annoying as it used to be. She’d grown to like it as much as she liked the man who made it sound so sexy when it came from his lips.

She turned around, and Jacob was leaning against one pillar of the gazebo with his arms folded in front of him. How long had he been there watching her?

“I just needed a break from all the people.”

He poked his thumb in his chest. “I’m the one who’s antisocial. You love this stuff.”

“You’re not antisocial, you’re just… grumpy.”

“You didn’t think I was grumpy the other night,” he said with a cocky grin.

Mae glanced around to make sure they were alone before she stepped toward him and kissed him, nipping at his bottom lip before she moved away.

“I happen to like grumpy.”

He reached out, linking her pinkie with his. “I don’t understand why.”

His gaze was filled with sadness and something that she could only think of as longing.

“Because you may have fooled some folks around here, but I know your secret.” Jacob’s eyes widened just a fraction. “Grumpy is just an act. The real Jacob Winters is a thoughtful man, who can be a romantic when he wants to be.”

“Mae I—”

Whatever he was about to say was interrupted by a pop and then a burst of color overhead.

“Come on, let’s go watch the show,” Jacob said, letting go of her hand, shoving his into his pockets.

Mae walked alongside him, wondering how they had made their relationship so complicated when it was supposed to be so simple. A summer fling, that’s what she told herself when Jacob roared into town on his motorcycle. From the very beginning, he’d told her he didn’t know if he’d be staying, and he wasn’t a commitment kind of guy. That was fine with her; she wasn’t looking for two point five kids and a white picket fence. But now, here they were a year later, and Jacob had bought the hardware store and put down roots.

She glanced at his profile, lit up with a rainbow of light from the glittering light in the sky. His jaw was set, and his eyes were locked straight ahead. Jacob always had a way of moving, like he was headed toward a target. Most of that came from his years in the military, but some of it was just a part of who he was. Just one more part she’d given her heart to.

Thoughtful and romantic weren’t the words she’d wanted to use to describe him; she wanted to say loving, but she couldn’t bring herself to. That was a bridge they’d agreed not to cross. Summer flings didn’t end with her under the gazebo in a white dress, but summer flings weren’t supposed to last once the leaves turned from green to gold and back to bright again, either.

Jacob burrowed deeper under the covers, wrapping his arms around the warm body pressed against him. She turned with a soft sigh, reaching up to cup his cheek.

“I’m sorry,” she said, brushing her thumb over his lips.

No other woman could bring him to his knees with a simple touch the way she could. He grasped her hand and pressed a kiss to her fingertips.

“I’m sorry, too.”

It was a silly argument over if they had left the wedding party too early or not. They both liked to push each other’s buttons. He did it just because he liked to see the fire in her eyes. Deep-brown eyes that were filled with so much life. Humor, passion, pain, everything Mae experienced was reflected in her eyes. He’d become addicted to looking into them as he had everything else about her.

“We have to stop,” she said, pulling her hand out of his. She sat up and started looking around the room for her clothes.

Jacob ran his hand through his hair and sat up, leaning against the headboard. “I’m not being rude. I’m being honest.”

Mae scooted back until she mirrored his position. “We can’t keep sleeping together when we both know nothing is going to come out of it.”

He hated the way she spoke with a tinge of sadness. He didn’t want to hurt her, but he’d made it clear from the first night their fighting escalated into something more that he wasn’t interested in a relationship. He didn’t want to make memories he’d never be able to forget.

Mae jumped out of bed and began gathering her clothes that were strewn around the room. She glowed in the morning light. Shorter than average when he first met her, he thought she was all sharp angles. Over time, that opinion had changed. He relished how soft and warm she felt in his arms every time they were together. His fingers itched to reach out for her and pull her back into his bed so he could run his hands over every inch of her dark-brown skin. He couldn’t keep her, but he didn’t want to let her go. These were the only moments he regretted taking the assignment that brought him to Colton.

End of Excerpt