My tagline is "Passion With a Purpose," and that passion can be found in abundance in all of my novels, both spiritually and romantically. Following you will find spiritual and romantic excerpts for ALL of my books to give you an idea of my writing style and content. Simply scroll down to each book, then happy reading!
MY IRISH LOVE STORY, A LIGHT IN THE WINDOW: (And, yes, that really is my daughter on the cover that my talented hubby designed!):
“Shall we toss to see who mops the floor?” she asked, forcing a levity to her tone she didn’t quite feel.
He slipped the now damp dishtowel over a brass hook bolted to the side of the cabinet and turned, a glimmer of tease invading his serious gaze. “Odd, I wouldn’t have pegged you for a gambling woman, Miss Murphy.” He slanted against the counter, arms folded.
She flipped a stray curl over her shoulders and sashayed into the kitchen, dishrag in hand and a smirk on her face. “Of course I am, Mr. O’Connor—I gambled on friendship with you, didn’t I?”
Fishing a coin from his pocket, he shot her a grin. “That was a matter of intelligence, not risk.” He lobbed a nickel at her and she caught it one-handed, coaxing a throaty chuckle from his lips. “Why do I get the feeling you’ve done this before, Marceline?”
“Because I have,” she said with a cocky smile, feeling a bit reckless. She strutted over and fisted her hand, thumb tucked and dishrag dangling while she positioned the coin on top. “Julie and I used to toss to see who got to read a book first, you know.”
His teeth gleamed white. “How decadent.”
Her smile was smug. “No, Mr. Wiseacre, ‘decadent’ will be me enjoying an oatmeal cookie at the table with feet propped while you mop the floor.” She arched a brow. “Ready?” With practiced dexterity, she popped her thumb beneath the nickel, and it launched in the air, her breathing suspended while the coin toppled over and over.
Plunk. With a devious smile, Patrick snatched it just inches from her hand and slapped it on top of his. “Call it.”
She pursed her lips, eyes squinted as she tried to visualize which side of the coin it might be. “Heads,” she said with a confident hike of her chin, praying her intuition was correct.
His groan rose in the air when he lifted his palm. “I hate mopping the floor,” he muttered, slipping the nickel back in his pocket.
Giddy over her win, she giggled. “Don’t be a baby, Patrick, a little soapy water won’t hurt you.” Mischief bubbled up along with her laughter as she sloshed the rag in the sudsy dishwater and flicked it at him, intending only to splatter a few drops his way. She gasped when the rag accidentally flew from her hand. Eyes wide, her jaw dropped as it pelted him in the face and fell to the floor, leaving soapy water sluicing down his dark-bristled cheek. “Oh, P-patrick, I am so s-sorry …” Her voice trailed off into a fit of giggles she could no more stop than the water stains that dribbled down his trousers into a puddle at his feet.
“Oh, you shouldn’t have done that, darlin’ …” he said with a glint of retaliation. Whisking the sopping rag up off of the floor, he squeezed it with a lightning thrust of his arm, showering Marcy’s torso—and Miss Clara’s apron front—with soapy water.
Marcy shrieked and giggled, but not before dousing Patrick’s chest with a slash of her hand in the sink, slamming him with a wave of dirty dishwater before she darted away. Flushed with excitement, she felt like a little girl again, having a pillow fight with Julie. Adrenaline coursed while she scrambled to the other side of the table, her breathing hard and hands braced to a chair. “Come on, Patrick—truce,” she begged, tone breathless.
Dipping the dishrag into the dirty water once again, he casually tossed the sodden rag back and forth while he ambled toward the table with a wicked grin. “Sure, Marceline—right after I even the score.”
Her stomach skittered as she pleaded, eyes darting to the door and back with a nervous laugh. “Miss Clara will be back any minute, and she said not to start any trouble.”
Step by step, his grin never wavered as he rounded the table. “I didn’t.”
“Patrick, please—I’ll be good, I promise.” Her body pulsed with adrenaline as she skirted the table in the opposite direction, praying Miss Clara would return before she got soaked.
His husky chuckle sent goose bumps up her arms. “I know, Marcy—good and wet.”
With a wild shriek she made a break for the door, laughing so hard, she didn’t hear him coming until he whirled her around. Her laughter turned to squeals when she tried to get away, but he clamped a steel arm to her waist while he held the rag dangerously close to her neck. “Repeat after me, Marceline,” he whispered, eyes issuing a challenge. “Patrick, I’m a brat, I’m sorry, and I will never do this again.”
Pulse sprinting, she giggled, eyes flicking from him to the rag in his hand, weighing her options. “And if I don’t?”
One dark brow jutted high as his smile eased into a grin. “You won’t have to bathe tonight, darlin’.”
His words warmed both her cheeks and her temper. “You wouldn’t,” she dared.
“Only one way to find out.” There was a bit of the devil in his eye, the rag dangling precariously close to her neck
Marcy sucked in a deep breath. “All right, Patrick,” she said, skin tingling with mischief and eye on the rag, “I’m a brat, I’m sorry, and I … won’t promise—” Lunging, she whipped the rag from his hands so fast, he never saw it coming, christening him with dirty dishwater like Father Fitz christened babies in the back of the church.
He hooked her waist before she could escape, and her high-pitch giggles merged with his husky laughter as she flailed in his arms, a death grip on the soppy rag thrashing over their heads. Dishwater flew every which way while he tried to reclaim it, but Marcy hid it behind her back with squeals of laughter. Locking her to his chest with one arm, he circled her waist with his other, his breath warm on her cheek as he grappled to claim the win.
“Give … it … up … Patrick,” she breathed, her words punctuated by shrieks and shallow rasps as she tried to wrestle free, “you will … never win …”
Her words seemed to paralyze him, and in a single heave of her breath, his body stilled against hers. She could feel the ragged rise and fall of his chest, the hot press of his arm at the small of her back, the wild hammering of her pulse in her ears. All at once, she was painfully aware of his nearness, bare inches away from the dark stubble that peppered his jaw. His hard-muscled chest was so close she could almost feel the dampness of his shirt while the familiar scent of spices and pine whirled her senses. His breathing was ragged like hers, warm and sweet with the faint scent of chocolate from his chocolate cream pie, and when his gaze lowered to her lips, heat coiled through her so strong, it sapped all moisture from her throat.
The silence was deafening as he stared, a battle waging in eyes that eclipsed to a dark fervor, shocking her when they quivered her belly. “I will never give up, Marceline,” he whispered, his words a tender caress. His lips parted to emit shallow breaths, and fire singed when his glance flickered to her mouth once again.
“T-take it …” she whispered, alarm curling in her stomach. Dear Lord, had he meant to kiss me? Prodding the rag to his chest, she pushed him away while heat throbbed in her cheeks. She took an awkward step back, gaze on the floor as she buffed at her arms with brisk motion. “Goodness, Miss Clara will have our hides,” she said with nervous chuckle, unable to look at him even yet. “You win, Patrick—I surrender.” She forced a casual tone and attempted to side-step him on her way to the broom closet.
Her heart seized when he halted her with a gentle hand. “Marcy …” His voice was somber and steeped with regret. “Please forgive me …”
“For what?” A deep voice sounded from the door, shattering what was left of Marcy’s calm.
SPIRITUAL SCENE SETUP:
In 1895 Boston, 18-year-old Marceline Murphy is overseeing a fundraiser for her parish's soup kitchen, a Christmas play entitled A Light in the Window. In the following scene when she and Sister Francine are holding auditions, they witness a performance by a little girl that simply wrenches their hearts … and, I hope, yours too.
Two hours later, Marcy had a headache from off-key singing, slaughtered diction, and Sister’s Francine’s whistle, giving her pause as to her sanity in agreeing to the job as fundraiser chair. Kneading her temple, she glanced up to see a young boy who had auditioned for the cast pushing a small girl in a wheelchair to the front of the stage.
With a scrub of shaggy brown hair, he approached with a solemn smile and a nod of respect. “Sister, Miss Murphy, my name is Nate Phillips, and this here is my sister Holly.” He took another step forward, cap in hand and voice fading to a whisper. “She’s only seven, but Ma asked me to bring her ‘cause, well you see, Holly doesn’t get to do too much on account of she’s crippled, you know, so Ma thought …” His Adam’s apple wobbled several times. “Well, she hoped you’d consider letting Holly audition because of her name and all, seeing it has to do with Christmas and that’s her birthday too.” He leaned in, a glimmer of moisture in his eyes as he twisted his hat with his fingers, voice lowering all the more. “You don’t have to pick her, understand, just let her read and sing ‘cause she’s real good at both, you know, and Ma just thought that alone would be enough to make her happy.”
Marcy blinked, the boy’s face watering into a blur. She swallowed hard to fight a heave, but it was no use, it broke from her lips in a shuddering rasp.
Sister Francine patted her arm and spoke to the boy with a firm lift of her chin. “If your sister took the time to come and audition tonight, young man, then audition she will.” She glanced up at Julie. “Miss O’Rourke, will you please hand this young man both a script and music for his sister, please.”
The young boy, all of twelve, looked as if he might break down and cry himself, jaw aquiver while tears welled in his eyes. “Thank you, Sister,” he whispered, then grabbed Marcy’s hand, shaking it as if he were pumping water for a man dying of thirst. Or maybe a sister … “Bless you, Miss Murphy, and you too, Sister Francine—Holly ain’t never had nothing like this happen to her before, so bless you!” He whirled around and rushed to give Holly a hug, then took the papers that Julie gave him and handed them to her as well. With a squeeze of her shoulders, he stepped aside.
Marcy took a quick swipe at her eyes and leaned forward, awarding Holly the brightest smile she could muster. She noted the faded calico dress the little girl wore that seemed three sizes too big and a pale face that made her appear like a china doll with liquid-brown eyes. “Holly, are you ready to read from the script?”
The little girl nodded, chestnut hair trailing fragile shoulders as she gave Marcy a sweet smile. “Yes, ma’am,” she whispered, her voice so soft and wispy, Marcy worried that no one would be able to hear.
“Start at the beginning, then, sweetheart, reading the script just like you’re that little girl in the play who’s excited about Christmas, all right?”
Holly nodded again and paused … right before she belted out the lines as if they were coming from an entirely different little girl.
“Excellent!” Marcy said with a grin when Holly had finished. “Are you ready to sing, and do you know the Christmas carol, Oh, Holy Night?”
“Perfect!” Marcy glanced up at the piano. “Julie, let’s try C major, all right?”
Whether it was the fact that it was late and everyone was tired or whether it was the sight of a frail little girl in a wheelchair who longed to be a part of the play, the room stilled to a hush. Marcy’s breath suspended as she waited, the pounding of her own pulse in her ears drowning out Julie’s musical intro. And then, in the sweet and soulful song of a little girl, a steamy and noisy auditorium became the gate of heaven itself as a sound so poignant rose in the room, Marcy had no power over the tears that slipped from her eyes.
For several thudding heartbeats after the last note was sung, the silence was almost painful, an ache in Marcy’s chest over the loss of a voice that had ushered them into the very presence of God. And then, in a blast of applause that swelled to the ceiling, the audience shot to their feet along with Marcy and Sister Francine, dewy-eyed over a delicate little girl who may not be able to walk, but whose voice could soar to the sky.
After a whisper in Sister Francine’s ear and Sister’s subsequent nod, Marcy hurried to give Holly a hug, kneeling to clasp the little girl’s hands in her own. “Holly, that was simply the most beautiful thing we have ever heard,” she said with a sheen in her eyes, “and we want you to know right now, young lady, that not only are we giving you a part in this play, but we want you to sing that very song as well. Would you like that?”
Brown eyes as glossy as Marcy’s blinked back when Holly nodded, her rosebud mouth quivering along with her jaw. “Oh, yes, ma’am,” she whispered, flinging herself into Marcy’s arms with a chuckle that broke into a sob.
Marcy squeezed the little sprite of a thing, eyes closed and heart rejoicing that even now, before this play came to pass, it was changing lives as Marcy had hoped and prayed. That it wouldn’t just be a mere fundraiser, but a spirit raiser as well, touching people with the grace of God. Jumping to her feet, she hurried to pull two rehearsal packets from Papa’s portfolio and handed them to Holly’s brother, who now stood by her side. “Nate, please give these to your mother so she knows the exact dates Holly and you will need to be here. There’s a full script inside each packet, so you need to practice both of your parts together. You will play the part of Daniel, and Holly will play the part of Sara—” She paused, her eyes softening as they lighted on his sister once again. “No, wait—Holly will play herself.” She glanced up and gave Nate a wink. “Since it is a Christmas play and all.”
He stared, mouth agape before it curved into a silly grin. “Yes, ma’am, and thank you, ma’am!” he gushed, cranking her hand so hard once again, she was sure she’d be sore come morning.
“Why don’t you take Holly home now so you can tell your mother the good news, and no need to come back until the first rehearsal date, all right?”
“Yes, ma’am!” he shouted, and took Marcy by surprise when he bowled her over with a hug that had her grinning ear to ear. She watched Nate wheel his sister away and sighed, returning to her seat next to Sister Francine.
“I’ll tell you what, young lady,” Sister Francine said with a smile that displayed a rare show of tenderness, “it’s moments like this that weaken my resolve to be an old crab.”
BOOK 1, THE DAUGHTERS OF BOSTON, A PASSION MOST PURE:
Collin slumped at the table, staring at the palm of his hand as he absently rubbed it with his thumb. His stomach was in knots. A hundred thoughts circled in his brain of things he wanted to tell her, but as he sat there, heart racing and hands sweating, he had absolutely no idea what he would say.
She dried the last dish, put it away and neatly folded the dishtowel before turning around, her small frame propped against the counter, as if for support. For the moment, those green eyes were calm, resigned and almost cold. But not quite, he noticed, as she quickly averted her gaze to the floor.
“You can’t hate me, you know––it’s against your religion.”
He was teasing, but she didn’t seem to care. Her head snapped up and her eyes singed him. His heart started pounding, and his slow smile reengaged. She was like a chameleon––calm and placid one minute, all fire and flash in the next, and it never failed to rouse him.
“Get it over with, Collin. Father said you wanted to speak with me, so do it.”
She was clearly not happy with him, and somehow it turned his smile into a grin, which only managed to aggravate her further. He tried to temper it a bit, but it was so blasted hard with her looking like that. A little girl with pouting, green eyes and wild, auburn hair tumbling her shoulders. Holy saints above, she was beautiful! Why hadn’t he realized before just how much? Before he had courted Charity and set things in motion that were now too difficult to change? Things could have been so different, he thought, then frowned. No, they would have never been different, he realized. Something much bigger than an engagement to Charity still stood in the way. His smile relaxed into a sober line.
“Will you sit down, please? It’s difficult to have a conversation with someone who looks like they’re ready to bolt from the room.”
Her gaze focused past him as she slipped into the seat farthest away, hands folded on the table before her.
Collin cleared his throat and shifted in his chair. “I owe you an apology, Faith, and more than one, I suppose. I should have never taken advantage of you like I did. I regret it, I really do. Not just because of what it’s done to you, but what it’s done to Charity …” He looked away. “And to me.”
He closed his eyes, leaned back and massaged his forehead with his fingers. “I saw myself with Charity, Faith, I really did. I thought we’d marry, have lots of kids and grow old together. But that day in the park, something happened. I don’t know, I felt something––something strong—and it scared me. I hated it because it made me feel vulnerable. I didn’t like that. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, either—about you—and believe me, I tried. I was certain if I could see more of Charity, if I could fill my mind with her love, I’d be fine. Only it didn’t work that way. Then I thought, well, once Charity and I are married, I’ll get over it …”
She watched him now with eyes rimmed raw, hands shaking as she picked at her nails.
“I was pretty slow on the uptake, I guess. It wasn’t until the night on the swing that I realized I was falling in love with you.”
He heard her sharp intake of breath as her eyes began to well and reached across the table to take her hand in his. “I love you, Faith. Marry me.”
She jerked her hand from his and stood, quivering as she caved against the chair. “I can’t marry you, Collin.”
He leaned forward. “I know you love me. Can you deny it?”
She didn’t speak, and he jumped up and rounded the table, gripping her arms to lift her to her feet. When she wouldn’t look at him, he grabbed her chin and forced her. “Look at me! Can you deny you love me?”
She stared at him through a mist of tears. “Let me go, you’re hurting my arm.”
“Tell me you don’t love me.”
“I don’t love you.”
“You’re lying, Faith. I would have thought better of you than that.”
“Well don’t!” she screamed, “I’m not better than that. You’ve said your apologies, Collin, now let me go.”
She tried to turn away. He jerked her back. “I know you love me. Don’t you think I can feel it every time I touch you?” He pulled her to him, and she cried out before his lips silenced her with a savage kiss. She struggled to pull free, but he only held her tighter, the blood pounding in his brain. His mouth was everywhere—her throat, her earlobes, her lips—and he could feel the heat coming in waves as she melted against him. She was quivering when he finally let her go.
“You love me, Faith,” he said quietly. “You know that, and I know that. Your heart belongs to me, and nothing can ever change that fact––not Charity, not you and not your god.”
A sob escaped her lips, and she collapsed into the chair, all fight gone. “I know,” she whispered, “I know. Oh, Collin, if only you could tell me what I need to hear.”
He was tempted to lie, to tell her anything to keep her. He had done it once––managed to convince her family he was something he wasn’t; he could do it again. The back of his neck swarmed with frustration and somehow he knew, no matter how convincing the lie, she would know. Somehow that god of hers would trip him up, and then he would lose her forever. It was only seconds before he answered, but it seemed a lifetime. “I can’t now,” he said, his mouth dry, “but I don’t know it couldn’t happen. Maybe you’ll save my soul, who knows?” His attempt to be light fell flat, and inwardly he cursed at how hollow it must have sounded.
“What does it matter anyway? I won’t stand in your way if you want to believe in your god. Please, Faith, just say yes!”
He was speaking too fast, as if he were desperate. He was. The only woman he ever really wanted would not have him, and it was about to crush him. Never in his life had he ever begged a woman for anything. A sick feeling suddenly cleaved to his throat.
She started to cry, and he knew before she spoke what her answer would be. His hands dropped to his sides. Slowly, he walked to the sink to pour himself a glass of water. He emptied it and set the glass on the counter before turning to face her. When he did, he felt a spasm quiver in his jaw. His eyes itched hot as they pierced through her. “That’s it, then? God wins and I lose? Well, I’m glad we settled that. It’s been eating at me for a long time.”
“Collin, please …”
“Please what? Go away so you don’t have to face the fact you’re in love with me?” He moved to his chair, slamming it against the table.
“It wouldn’t work. It has to be right—”
“No! I don’t want to hear it! I’m sick to death of hearing it, and I don’t have to listen. We’re oil and water, Faith. I’m in the real world, and you’re out there somewhere in a world I don’t understand.” For a split second he stared past her before his eyes shifted back, finally resigned. “It’s good for me to go away. You don’t have to worry anymore, Faith. I don’t need a ton of bricks to fall on me to know it’s time to move on.”
He squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the back of his neck. “I suppose marriage needs a bit more than passion anyway, doesn’t it? It helps if you’re on the same wavelength, at least, like Charity and me. We seem to understand each other, and then there’s passion too.” His voice sounded so strange to his own ears, a low monotone, emotionless, almost stream of consciousness.
He heard her move toward him. “You know, Collin, someday we’ll be friends––good friends.”
His eyes flew open, and he didn’t blink once. “I don’t want to be your friend, Faith. I want to be your husband and your lover.”
A dark blush invaded her cheeks. She lifted her chin. “Me, too, Collin, more than anything in the world.”
He heaved the chair against the table again, the sound as explosive as the fire in his gut. “That’s a lie! But, it doesn’t matter now, because I finally get it. I don’t understand it, mind you, but it’s finally sinking into this thick head of mine that we don’t belong together. Not that what we have between us isn’t strong and real. No, this thing is so real it makes us crazy every time we’re even near each other. It’s what most people dream about, and we have it! But you––you’d rather turn your back on something so real for something that’s only real in your own mind.”
“It’s not just real in my mind. God is real, whether you believe it or not.”
“Yeah? Well you can’t prove it by me.”
“Collin, please … don’t do this! You can’t possibly know how sorry I am.”
“Yes I can, Faith.” He started to leave.
He stopped, hand splayed against the door.
“I am sorry, so sorry. And for what it’s worth, I’ll never stop praying for you.”
He turned, all anger siphoning out. “Yeah, you do that.” He took a deep breath and forced a faint smile. “Well then, I guess that’s that. Chapter closed. Man goes to war, ex-fiancée waits for him, and sister moves on with her life. Here’s to a happy ending.”
Tears streaked her cheeks. “I hope so, Collin, she whispered. “I’m staking everything on it. Somewhere in Mrs. Gerson’s Bible it says, ‘All things work together for good to those who love God.’ I’d like to think that’s assurance of a happy ending.”
As he stared at her now, he almost envied what she had. Almost. He hung his head, then glanced up, his lips curved in a tired smile. “Well, one thing’s for sure––I’m glad I’m leaving on good terms. If I’m going to be target practice for some Germans, I’d much rather have you praying for me than against me.”
“Count on it,” she said, wiping the wetness from her face. “And, Collin, I wish the best for you. I really do.”
He studied her, completely certain she meant it. “Thanks, Little Bit.” Without another word, he turned and left, causing the door to creak to an eerie stillness.
Over the last month, Faith had gotten to know Briana better, only to discover her involvement with Collin was the very least of her problems. Her alcoholic father had often come to her room at night since she was a young girl, almost up until the day he died. Briana’s mother had simply turned a blind eye to it all and to Briana as well. Briana compensated with a hard veneer, which Faith managed to penetrate, through prayer and persistence. It was slow, but they were becoming good friends.
The dinner Mrs. Gerson prepared was magnificent, and Faith couldn’t remember when she’d eaten so much. Apparently Briana and Maisie were feeling the same way. All three moaned, pushing their chairs back from the table, stuffed, but content.
Mrs. Gerson poured tea, obviously enjoying the role of hostess once again. Spooning a bit of sugar into her cup, she turned her full attention to Briana. “So, Briana, Faith tells me you are no longer seeing this Collin McGuire. That must be very difficult for you. I understand you care for him very much.”
The relaxed smile on Briana’s face faded as she shifted in the chair. “It is. But Faith has been praying for me, and I guess you have, too, because somehow I've been able to do it. I haven’t seen Collin since the last time I was at Brannigan’s when I told him I couldn’t …” Briana blushed slightly. “Well, you know … I told him no.”
“And he hasn’t bothered you since?”
Briana shook her head, a real sadness in her eyes. “No, he hasn’t. Oh, he was angry with me at the time, almost like he actually cared, but he doesn’t really. I think he was angry at Faith.”
Faith stopped chewing, her jaw suddenly stiff and cheeks lumpy with one of Mrs. Gerson’s sugar cookies.
“Angry with Faith?” Mrs. Gerson seemed confused.
“Yes, at least I think so. When he asked me why, I told him I had been talking to this girl at work and mentioned it was someone he knew. The minute I told him Faith’s name, he went quite pale, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so angry before. He slammed his beer on the bar, spilling it everywhere, all over me, all over him. I smelled like a brewery. He muttered something about …” Briana blushed, glancing at Faith. “Well, I can’t exactly repeat the word he used, but something about ‘that “blank” woman interfering in his life.’ And then he left, just like that. That was a number of months ago, of course. I haven’t been to Brannigan’s since.”
Maisie and Faith exchanged looks.
“That’s good, Briana,” Mrs. Gerson said, pausing to reach for a cookie off the plate in the center of the table. “Briana, do you enjoy games?”
Briana blinked. “I suppose so, at least I did when I was young. Why, Mrs. Gerson?”
“Games are great fun, especially when you win. But, to win it takes great skill, and of course, you have to follow the rules.” Mrs. Gerson munched thoughtfully, her tongue swiping a crumb from the corner of her mouth.
“Yes, of course …”
“You know, Briana, I think of life as very much like a game. The one who created it gave us the rules by which it is to be played, rules designed to help us win, rules to help us be happy. The problem is many times we choose to play by our own rules, and then we’re at a loss to understand why we never win.”
Mrs. Gerson leaned forward to stare straight at Briana as if her vacant eyes could see her clearly. “God has a great deal of love for you, Briana. He made you, and He’s given you His Word as the rulebook for your life. He wants you to win, but to do so, you must follow His rules. Up to now, you haven’t experienced a lot of genuine love in your life, but that’s going to change. You’ve been looking for love in ways contrary to God’s law. You thought you could find that love in an intimate relationship with Collin, but you found only heartache.”
Mrs. Gerson paused to take a sip of her tea, then patted her mouth with a napkin. “The love you’re seeking is available, Briana. In fact, it’s exactly what God has in mind. It’s right there in the rulebook––the Bible. It says in Ephesians 5:22, ‘Husbands, cherish your wives.’ Tell me, Briana, do you know what ‘cherish’ means?”
“To love and care for, I suppose.” Briana’s eyes were fixed on the old woman’s face.
“Yes, my dear, and much more. It means to hold dear, to protect, to view as the most precious thing in your life. If it’s in God’s plan for you to marry, He wants it to be a man who will cherish you––love you to the depth of his soul, just like God does. But for that to happen, my dear, you must commit yourself to this God who loves you far more than any man ever could. And when you do and then follow His Word, it will lead you to the kind of love your heart longs for, not lustful love like you experienced with Collin. The Bible says the wages of sin is death. God’s Word admonishes us to flee sexual sin. Why? Because He knows it’s not only death to your soul, but death to the kind of love you’re seeking. Death to the only kind of love that will ever make you happy. The choice is yours, Briana, but trust me, the strength to do it is all His.”
Briana’s eyes glistened with wetness as she stared at Mrs. Gerson. Her gaze flitted to Faith, then back to the old woman’s face. Wiping her eyes with her hand, she sat up straight, pushing her chin out. “I want it, Mrs. Gerson. I want what you and Faith have. How do I get it?”
The old woman beamed and nodded her head. Faith stole a glimpse at Maisie who was watching the entire scene with rapt curiosity.
“It’s simply a heart thing, Briana. All you have to do is acknowledge you’re a sinner and that Jesus is your Savior. Then simply ask Him to come into your heart and be Lord of your life. You’ll never be alone again. I’ll be delighted to lead you in prayer and then, if you like, you may keep one of my Bibles to see all He has in store for you. I can assure you, my dear, your life will never be the same.” Mrs. Gerson took Briana’s hands in hers. “Shall we?”
Briana nodded, her hands trembling. “Yes, please,” she whispered.
With the softest of smiles gentling her lips, Mrs. Gerson nodded and led them in prayer, her voice strong and sure as they all bowed their heads.
BOOK 2, THE DAUGHTERS OF BOSTON, A PASSION REDEEMED:
She hurried to the sink to snatch a dishtowel from a hook, then slung it over her shoulder. “Here … half in the wash pot, half in the rinse.” She stepped back, allowing him just enough room to pour. Vapor rose like a cloud of mist, delivering the faint scent of Bay Rum to her nostrils. His powerful back strained as he poured, his jacket pulling tightly across broad shoulders. He turned, pot in hand, dwarfing her with his height. “More?”
She swallowed hard. Her chin tilted up to meet his eyes. “More?”
A faint smile flickered at the edge of his lips. “Water. You said you like it hot.”
Blood surged to her cheeks. “I … no, that’s fine. Just fine.” She staggered back, lightheaded. Settle down, Charity. He’s just a man.
She took a deep breath and turned, patting the back of the nearest chair. “Why don’t you just sit and keep me company while I do the dishes?”
He leaned against the counter and crossed his arms, assessing her with hooded eyes. “Why? Too close for comfort?”
She blinked, and her lips parted in surprise. Ignoring the heat in her cheeks, she jutted her chin. “No. Is it for you?”
He grinned. A reckless gleam shone in his eyes. “You wash, I’ll dry.”
Charity took a deep breath and moved toward the sink, confusion and euphoria battling in her brain. She tried to focus on the task at hand, but her thoughts were tripping faster than the beat of her heart. What was he doing? It was as if the birthday toast with wine had unleashed the rogue in him. He was baiting her, teasing her … disarming her. This was his idea of friends?
She drew in a deep breath and sliced her hands into the warm water, scouring plates like a madwoman before plunging them into the rinse. Fishing them out once again, she didn’t bother shaking them off, just slapped one on top of another in a sloppy clatter, water sluicing onto the counter. After several silent moments, she tilted her head to chance a peek out of the corner of her eye. “You’re not drying.”
He gauged her through half-lidded eyes. “And you’re not washing; you’re drowning.”
Her chuckle cleaved to her throat when he lowered his gaze to her mouth. The breath in her lungs shallowed, drifting out in short, raspy breaths. “You’re still not drying,” she whispered.
He moistened his lips, then slowly lifted his eyes to hers. “I need this.” His fingers skimmed across the towel on her shoulder, causing the air to still in her throat.
Dear God, what was happening? It was as if he had no control over his hand as it strayed from the towel to the soft curve of her neck. A tilt of her head, the blush of her cheeks, and suddenly he was two different men. One whose every muscle, thought and desire strained toward wanting her. The other, a distant voice of conscience and memory, quickly fading with every throb of his renegade pulse. Curse the effect of the wine! What else could explain this driving insanity pulsing through him right now? His fingers burned as they lingered, slowly tracing to the hollow of her throat. Against his will, Mitch fixated on her lips, lush and full, staggered at the heat they generated. What was he doing? He didn’t want this.
Yes … he did.
All night he’d felt it mounting, a desire in his belly that grew tight at the sound of her laughter, the lift of her chin, the light in her eyes. A woman with cool confidence around everyone but him. Call it the wine. Or the fact he hadn’t been this close to a woman for well over a year. Or the intoxicating awareness that his very presence seemed to unnerve her. Whatever name it bore, it had him by the throat, taking him places he’d vowed he’d never be.
She blinked up at him, eyes wide and wondering. He was taking her by surprise and knew it. But no more so than him. He stared at her lips, feeling the draw and unwilling to fight it. His fingers moved up her throat to gently cup her chin, his eyes burning with intent. Slowly, carefully, he leaned forward, his mouth finally reaching hers, his breathing ragged as he tasted her lips.
A soft mew left her throat, and the sound ignited him. He pulled her close, his mouth demanding hers. She moaned while he pressed her to the counter, holding her there as he deepened the kiss. With a deep groan, his arms swallowed her up, drawing her small frame tightly against his. He pressed his lips to her hair, allowing her scent to flood his senses … to consume him.
Just like before.
His heart seized. What was he doing? The more he touched, the more he wanted. But she had ruined his life. Dashed his hopes. Destroyed his dreams. Dear God in Heaven, he wanted her … but he didn’t want her.
“No? What do you mean ‘no’?” Charity sat up straight in the chair, then leaned over the table to give Brady the benefit of her incriminating gaze.
He glanced up from the Bible. The warmth of his brown eyes seeped through a half-lidded stare. “You know what ‘no’ means.” His lips quirked. “Or maybe you don’t.”
She crossed her arms. “You’re refusing to pray?”
He exhaled and closed the Bible, unwinding his long legs from around the chair. He stood and stretched. “About that, yes.”
“But why? For a solid month now, you’ve been railing at me to get closer to God, badgering me with scripture, and now you tell me you won’t even pray?”
He extended his arms high overhead, his tight muscles straining with the effort. One of his thick, dark brows jagged up. “Railing? Badgering?”
She huffed and crossed her arms. “Oh, all right, I came here willingly, but only because I needed your help.”
He strolled over to a pot-bellied stove and poured thick coffee into an ink-stained cup. He lifted the pot in the air. “Want some?”
She shivered, making a face. “That swill? No, thank you. Last time, it felt like I had tar in my throat for days.”
He chuckled and sat back down, eyeing her over the rim. “God’s help, not mine.”
She stared. “What?”
He put the cup down and sat, sloping back in the chair. “You came because you needed God’s help. To win Mitch back, remember?”
She sank back in the chair with a sigh. “And now you won’t even help me pray about it.”
He took another swallow of sludge, then leaned his elbows on the table. The twinkle in his eye faded to serious. “I will help you pray about it, Charity. But God’s way, not yours.”
She worked at her lip as she studied him. John Brady was a true enigma. A quiet man with a strength of heart she had seldom encountered. A towering mystery, more enamored with the spirit than the flesh and totally indifferent to his own attraction. And certainly hers. His indifference had stung at first, provoking a challenge to turn his head. But instead he had turned hers … to the God she long denied.
She released her frustration in one telling breath. “Okay, you win. I’ll do it God’s way, not mine. Satisfied?”
“Nope. You can’t. You’re not capable.”
“What do you mean I can’t?” She rose up in her chair, ready to take him on.
He grinned. “I mean you haven’t made Him Lord of your life. Oh, you’ve danced around it plenty this last month, digging into the Bible, praying more and talking about doing things His way, but the truth of the matter is, you’ve never invited Him in.”
“What are you talking about, ‘invited Him in’?”
He leaned back and studied her for a moment, then took a deep breath and planted his arms on the table. “I mean you’ve never given your life to Him, Charity. Not completely. Never made the decision to live for Him instead of yourself. You know, no more doing things your way, out of selfish motivation?” He hiked a brow while a smile fidgeted on his lips. “You want God’s blessings in your life? You have to obey Him. Deuteronomy 30 in the flesh, my good friend, as Mitch once pointed out to you. And there’s only one way any human being can even hope to make an attempt at obeying Him. And that’s to make Him Lord of their life.”
“Invite Him in, Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, to live in your heart and be the Savior of your soul. But there’s a catch.”
The breath stilled in her lungs. “What?” she whispered.
“You do things His way, not yours. You pray, you listen, and then you pray some more. You take one step at a time, with His Word as a lamp unto your feet. In everything you say, think or do, you look to honor Him, not yourself. You become a new creature in Christ Jesus, one who can finally say no to sin and yes to God.” He leaned back and folded his arms, a grin surfacing on his lips. “And then, if I were you, I’d duck my head and look out.”
She blinked. “Why?”
“Because the blessings of God are going to overtake you, Charity O’Connor, and you’re going to find yourself overloaded with the desires of your heart.”
She released a long, quivering breath, unaware she’d even been holding it. She leaned in and extended her hands. “I want it, Brady. I want everything you just said. Pray with me?”
A sheen of wetness glimmered in his eyes as he took her hands. “My pleasure.” He bowed his head. “Lord, Charity has something to ask You. The gospel of John says that a godly Pharisee named Nicodemus once came to You in secret during the night. He wanted more, Lord, more of You. You told him that no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. Lord, Charity wants to see Your kingdom in her life. She wants You to change her, mold her, make her the woman You want her to be. Help her in her journey and please open her heart to You.” He looked up and nodded.
Charity sucked in a deep breath and closed her eyes. “Okay, Lord. This is it, I guess, the official beginning of my walk with You. Come into my heart, Jesus, and be Lord of my life. Forgive me for my sins and help me to follow Your precepts all the days of my life. Amen.”
She opened her eyes and grinned. “Satisfied now?”
He squeezed her hand. “Almost, but not completely.”
She dropped his hand on the table with a thud. “Why not?”
He grinned. “Your plan to win Mitch back. I want details. A plan of action.”
She folded her hands on the table and looked up at the ceiling, plotting her strategy. “Well, once I manage to convince Father to let me go back,” Her eyes flicked to Brady’s face to emphasize her point. “Which will require heavy prayer since he’s already said no, then I will simply go see Mitch and explain that I’ve turned over a new leaf. That I’m doing things God’s way now and that he can trust me enough to marry me.”
“What if he’s already married?”
She swallowed hard, “He’s not. Grandmother’s letter contains the most recent information from Mrs. Lynch.”
“What if he’s engaged?”
She bit her lip. “Then, with the help of God, I’ll try to convince him that he’s marrying the wrong woman.”
Brady assessed her through narrowed eyes. “What if he says no?”
She drew in a thick breath and lifted her chin. “Well, then I’ll just continue with my plan to purchase a shop and pour myself into a career.”
He guzzled more coffee, eyes fixed on hers. “No plan B? No attempt to seduce him?”
She looked away, avoiding his gaze. “No.”
She bit her lip and looked up.
She could feel her pulse pounding in her throat. “Don’t make me do that, Brady.”
He reached to take her hand, smothering it in his rough, calloused palm. “Charity, if you’ve learned anything this last month, I hope you’ve learned that the kind of love you crave comes from God. Sensual love entices—the taste of honey for the moment. But sin will turn it to ashes in your mouth. It will never make you happy, never sustain you.”
“I know.” Her voice was a whisper.
He squeezed her hand. “Promise.”
She hesitated, then lifted her chin with determination. “I promise I’ll try.”
BOOK 3, THE DAUGHTERS OF BOSTON, A PASSION DENIED:
“Brady, can we talk?”
He glanced up, and the taste of his words soured in his mouth. His hands began to sweat, adhering to the newspaper. Beth stared down at him with violet-hued eyes fringed with sooty lashes that seemed longer from this angle. He glanced at Collin out of the corner of his eye, then shoved the paper aside. He rose to his feet and swallowed the dread that cleaved to his throat. “Sure, Beth, where?”
She nodded toward the porch, then clutched her arms around her waist in that little-girl way she had when she was nervous. Only this time, the motion produced a slight swell of her breasts, revealing a hint of a cleft at the low-scooped dress. “It’s pretty out. Can we sit on the swing?”
“Sure, but you’ll need something warm, little buddy. It’s chilly.” He averted his gaze, determined to ignore both the heat crawling up his neck and Collin’s annoying grin. He licked his dry lips and strode straight for the coat rack, plucking his jacket off with way too much force. He searched for Beth’s warm coat, but found only her thin wrap.
He held it while she slipped it on. She smiled over her shoulder. “Thanks, Brady.”
He opened the front door and waited patiently, pretending his heart wasn’t hammering triple time in his chest. Fine. They needed to talk anyway. The sooner, the better.
The porch was dark except for a soft wash of moonlight that cast distorted shadows as he leaned against the railing. He crossed his arms and waited while she settled on the swing with a soft swish of her skirt. She patted the seat beside her. “Why don’t you sit here? This could take a while, and I want you to be comfortable.”
Comfortable? With her scent as clean as lilacs in rain and her burgeoning body obscuring the little girl he once knew? He sucked in a full breath and stood up straight, shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his trousers. Exhaling, he positioned himself on the far right of the swing, determined to ignore the wood of the beveled handle as it sliced into his waist. He shifted to face her and draped an arm along the back of the swing. “So, what’s on your mind, little buddy?”
She bit her lip and scooted close enough that he could feel her body shivering. “Do you mind if we snuggle? It’s colder than I thought.”
He stared straight ahead, lips clamped tight as the heat of her body singed his. It set his nerves on edge, but she seemed nervous too—from the tug of her teeth against her lower lip to the clutch of her hands as they fidgeted in her lap. His arm—which had been resting comfortably on the back of the swing—suddenly felt like hardwood lumber. With almost painful motion, it hovered over her shoulder for eternal seconds before finally drawing her close. For pity’s sake, this is Beth and she’s cold. Settle down, Brady, and just get through this.
“What’s on your mind, Beth?”
She sighed and burrowed into his arms, causing the scent of her hair to invade his senses. It triggered an unwelcome warmth, despite the coolness of the night. But at least she was warm, he reasoned, noting her shivers had stopped. He closed his eyes and ground his jaw. While his were just beginning.
Her voice was soft and low. “I’m sorry for losing my temper the other day, but I … well I guess I’ve been struggling with my feelings for you …”
Tension stiffened his hold. “Beth, these feelings you’re having, they’ve got to stop.”
“I know, Brady, she whispered. “I finally understand.”
He drew in a breath and leaned forward. “You do?”
She looked up with a soulful expression. “Yes, I do. It doesn’t change the attraction I have for you or the love I feel inside …” She blinked several times, as if to clear the gloss of wetness from her eyes. His gut twisted. “But I finally realize I need to move on … I don’t want to lose your friendship.”
The tightness in his chest suddenly released like an audible sigh. Thank you, God, they could still be friends! He exhaled the weight of the world from his shoulders and scooped her into an overwhelming hug of relief. “Oh, Beth, I’m so grateful you understand. I love you too, and I’ll always be there for you, the best friend you’ve ever had.”
She returned a tremulous hug. The sound of her words rumbled against his chest. “That’s good, Brady, because I could use the advice of a friend.”
“Anything, little buddy!” He leaned back against the swing and tucked her safely under his arm. She was his sweet, little Beth once again, flooding his soul with joy. “What kind of advice do you need?”
“About men. Actually, one in particular.”
His joy fizzled faster than warm foam on week-old root beer.
She glanced up with wide, innocent eyes, a stark contrast to the jealous surprise churning in his gut. “There’s this boy—his name is Tom Weston—and he’s asked me out, on and off, for over two years now. And lately, well … it seems he won’t take no for an answer.”
He blinked. Men have been asking her out? For two years? His Beth?
He sat up, desperate to convey a composure he didn’t feel. “Well, Elizabeth, you’re almost eighteen, I suppose it’s time … time to find the man that God has for you. Do you … like him?”
She sighed. “Well, he’s certainly attractive and hard-working. He’s worked two jobs as long as I’ve known him and plans to go to law school after he graduates college next spring.”
The jealousy rose in his throat like bile. “So, you’re … attracted to him, then?”
“Well, I wasn’t initially because I had hoped you and I …” Her voice faded. She took a deep breath. “But I think now … now that I know you and I can only be friends, well, I think maybe I could be attracted to him …”
“Does he go to church?”
Her soft chuckle floated in the air. “Well, if you mean is he as spiritual as you, no, he’s not. But he’s from a good family who go to church regularly, and I think in time—”
“Is he a gentleman?”
Lizzie felt herself blush to the tips of her shingled hair. She bit her lip and turned away, slipping her hand into the pocket of her jacket. With trembling fingers, she pinched the cracker she’d hidden there and swiped crumbs into both of her eyes.
She didn’t answer. She was too busy blinking.
He reached for her chin and gently tugged her gaze to his. He was suddenly the consummate big brother, concern etched in his handsome face. “Answer me. Is he a gentleman?”
The crumbs were masterful as they welled in her eyes. “I’m …n-not sure.”
“What do you mean you’re not sure? Has he given you cause to think otherwise?”
“Well, he … he kissed me once.”
Disapproval darkened Brady’s features. “Did you encourage him?”
Her lips parted in shock. “No! I promise you I didn’t. He c-cornered me …”
“So, he’s not a gentleman?”
Her eyes went wide. “I don’t know … maybe … but probably not.”
She began to shake, not sure if it was her nerves or the drumming of Brady’s fingers hard on the wood. He eyed her through narrowed lids. “Well, he doesn’t sound like the type of young man you need. I suggest you forget about him and look elsewhere.”
She blinked. “What?”
“You wanted my advice as a friend, and I’m giving it. Forget him.”
A rare rush of indignation flared in her cheeks. “I wanted your advice on how to ward off his advances, Brady, not if I should date him. I’ve already decided on that.”
“You can’t date some clown with one thing on his mind.”
Crackers and fury forced hot tears from her eyes. He didn’t want her, but no one else could either? She rose to her feet. “How dare you, John Brady? I have no choice! My heart is breaking because of you, and if it takes Tom Weston to get over you, then so be it.”
He jumped up. “Beth, forgive me, please, and don’t cry. We can pray about this—”
Disbelief paralyzed her for a painful second. “No! You leave me be. I don’t want anymore of your prayers—”
His hand gripped her. “Beth, please, sit with me? Can’t we just talk and work this out?”
She relented, allowing him to tug her back to the swing, where the feel of his powerful arms only enflamed the longing in her soul. He bundled her against his shoulder, and the clean, pure scent of musk soap taunted her senses.
“Beth, you’re so special to me,” he whispered, “I never want to hurt you.” He kissed the top of her head, and she could smell a trace of the peppermint he kept for children at the shop. A sharp ache pierced her heart. He was her Brady … good and strong and kind … but he would never really belong to her. Not the way she yearned in her heart—as a husband, a man, a lover. The thought all but crushed her, and she collapsed against his chest in painful weeping.
“Beth, don’t cry, please. I love you …”
She felt his lips in her hair, and her anguish surged. She jerked away. “No, don’t lie to me, Brady! You don’t love me—”
He groaned and embraced her. “I do love you, little buddy, more than anyone in this world.” With grief in his eyes, he searched her swollen face. He caressed her wet cheeks with gentle hands. “You mean everything to me,” he whispered. He bent to press a light kiss to her forehead.
Shallow breaths rose from her throat at the warmth of his lips against her skin. Her body stilled. “A kiss is the only thing that will haunt him until he admits he’s in love.”
She lifted her gaze, taking great care to impart a slow sweep of lashes.
“Beth, are we okay?” He ducked his head to search her eyes, then brushed her hair back from her face. A smile shadowed his lips. “Still friends?”
Friends. A deadly plague only a kiss could cure. Resolve stiffened her spine. “Sure, Brady … friends.”
He smiled and tucked a finger under her chin. “That’s my girl. Now what do you say we pray about some of these things?” He leaned close with another quick kiss to her brow, and in a desperate beat of her heart, she lunged, uniting her mouth with his. She felt the shock of her action in the jolt of his body, and she gripped him close to deepen the kiss. Waves of warmth shuddered through her at the taste of him, and the essence of peppermint was sweet in her mouth.
“No!” He wrenched back from her hold with disbelief in his eyes.
Too late. She had never felt like this before. Years of seeking romance from flat parchment pages had not prepared her for this. This rush, this desire … her body suddenly alive, and every nerve pulsing with need. All shyness melted away in the heat of her longing, and she pounced again, merging her mouth with his. John Brady, I love you!
A fraction of a second became eons as she awaited his rejection. His body was stiff with shock, but no resistance came. And in a sharp catch of her breath, he drew her to him with such force, she gasped, the sound silenced by the weight of his mouth against hers. He groaned and cupped the back of her head as if to delve in her soul, a man possessed. His lips broke free to wander her throat, and shivers of heat coursed through her veins. In ragged harmony, their shallow breathing billowed into the night while his arms possessed her, molding her body to his.
“Oh, Brady, I’m so in love with you,” she whispered.
Her words severed his hold as neatly as the blade of a guillotine. He staggered to his feet, and icy cold replaced the warmth of his arms. She opened her eyes and saw pain in his. She grabbed his arm. “Brady, can’t you see? You love me too … not as a friend or a sister, but as a woman.”
“God help me, Beth, I can’t love you that way.” He stared like a zombie, chest heaving with jagged breaths that swirled into the cool night air, drifting away.
Just like her dreams.
She reached for his hand, but he pulled it away. She blinked. “You just did, John. Nothing can convince me otherwise. You love me … and you want me … just like I want you. Why can’t you admit it?”
His tone was rough with emotion. “Because it’s wrong, Elizabeth. You’re a little sister to me, nothing more.”
She rose, along with her ire. “I see. And that’s how you kiss a sister?”
Blood gorged his cheeks. His shoulders straightened as he stood stiff and tall. An uncommon show of anger glinted in his dark eyes. “I regret what happened tonight, and I apologize. Please give my thanks to your mother and my good-byes to your family.” He moved toward the stairs.
“Brady, wait!” She latched onto his arm while tears pooled in her eyes. “You can’t leave like this. Not now. I opened my heart to you … and you took it when you gave me that kiss.”
The anger in his eyes faded to pain. “I know, Beth. Forgive me. It won’t happen again.” His back was rigid as he strode down the steps.
She ran after him. “No! Don’t leave—please! Friends don’t leave when you need them the most.”
He stopped, hand poised on the gate, and the coolness of his manner was totally foreign. He turned with a look of agony she had never seen.
“No, Beth, they don’t.”
And without another word, he unlocked the gate and hurried away. Fading quickly—just like her hope—into the darkest of nights.
The bathroom door creaked open, and their heads jerked up. They stared, still as stone as Brady walked into the kitchen, coffee cup limp in his hand. His hygiene was considerably improved, clean-shaven and hair slicked back, but his eyes were still red and glassy. Dead and lifeless, Collin thought, and his stomach twisted. He jumped to his feet. “I have eggs and toast in the oven. More coffee?”
“No,” Brady muttered and dropped into a chair. His eyes trained on the empty cup in his hand.
Collin ignored him and filled his cup before topping both his and Father Mac’s. He plunked a plate of eggs and toast onto the table, along with plates and utensils. “Eat,” he said.
Brady continued to stare, his bleary gaze lost in a sea of bitter coffee. “I’m not hungry.”
“Yeah, well you need a little something other than vodka to sustain that thick head of yours.”
That woke him up. His head shot up, and the red in his eyes singed like fire. “Go to the devil, Collin. As if I didn’t pull your head out of the latrine more times than I can count.”
Collin eased back into his chair, all humor depleted. “That’s right, John, you did. Which makes this all the more upsetting. What’s going on?”
Brady closed his eyes and ran a shaky hand over his face. “I can’t tell you.”
“Why? From the very beginning, you’ve known everything about me—my past, my present, what I think, what I feel. The best of friends, closer than brothers. Don’t you think I deserve the same?”
Brady lowered his head. “You do, but I can’t tell you.”
Collin’s jaw tightened. “Why?”
“Because I’m not ready.”
Collin slammed his fist on the table. “Not ready for what? To be a friend?”
Brady’s head lunged up, his eyes swimming with pain. “No, Collin, not ready to lose one.”
Collin blinked. He swallowed the emotion lumped in his throat and nodded. “If I leave, will you promise to talk to Father Mac?”
Brady nodded slowly, his eyes dull.
Collin stood. He glanced at Father Mac. “Can you try to get him to eat? I want him healthy at work tomorrow.” Collin gave Brady’s shoulder a quick squeeze. “I’m tired of carrying him.” He started for the door.
“I’ll have half of day’s work done before you even shadow the door.”
Collin turned, hand poised on the knob. His throat tightened. “I want you to know, John, whatever you did, no matter how bad you think it may be, I will stand by you. I’m proud to call you my friend, because I know who you are—a man of integrity, honor and passion for God. And nothing—nothing—you can say will ever change that for me. I love you like a brother, John, and always will. See you tomorrow.” The door clicked softly behind him.
Brady drew in a deep breath and avoided Matt’s gaze. Tears filled his eyes. “Like a brother,” he whispered. “That doesn’t sound so good right about now.”
Father Mac leveled beefy arms on the table and leaned in. His tone was quiet. “Worse than you thought?”
Brady’s laughter held no mirth. “Yeah. Not only was I a child drunk and a thief, but apparently I was depraved as well—too depraved to even say the sins aloud.”
He heard Father Mac flinch, the faint intake of breath piercing Brady’s consciousness anew. God, help me—I’m an infidel. A lost soul.
He staggered to his feet, suddenly craving the numbing effect of the bottles he’d stolen from Michael’s stash. “I’d rather you leave, Matt. I feel sick and need to lie down.”
A firm grip fisted his arm. “No, John, we need to deal with this now. Once and for all.”
Brady jerked away, his eyes itching with tension. “And how do you propose to do that, Matt? What exactly do you have? A potion or magic formula that will make it all go away?”
Father Mac stared. The brown of his eyes deepened with intensity in a face that radiated pure peace and calm. “No potion, John, and no formula. Just the saving blood of Jesus Christ.”
The impact of Matt’s words pierced his heart. He looked away. “Maybe that’s not enough this time.”
“It’s always enough, John.” Father Mac pulled out a chair. “Sit. Please?”
Brady hesitated, then did as he asked, slowly sinking into the chair. He leaned his elbows on the table and put his face in his hands. “How can God forgive something like this?”
Father Mac exhaled and sat down beside him. He placed a hand on his shoulder. “He does it all the time. I know a man who committed adultery and then murdered his lover’s husband, but God forgave him.”
Brady looked up with shock in his eyes.
A faint smile shadowed Matt’s lips. “In fact, he called him a man after his own heart.”
Father Mac nodded. He removed his hand from Brady’s shoulder and took a drink of his coffee. He wrinkled his nose. “Cold. Want me to warm it up?”
Father Mac didn’t wait for his answer, but dumped both cups and replaced them with hot. He set them on the table and sat back down. “King David was an unusual character. Loved God with all of his heart, but had this unfortunate flaw.” Father Mac paused to taste his coffee, then quirked his lips. “He was human. For instance, one day he’s dancing before the Lord in a linen ephod, not giving a whit that his wife thinks he’s making a fool of himself. Then down the road a bit, he’s lusting after a married woman he sees taking a bath on the roof of her house. And what does he do, this man who loves God with all of his heart? He takes her to his bed, then has her husband sent to the battlefront to be killed.”
Father Mac leaned in, his gaze intent. “He committed adultery and murder, yet he’s still the only man in the Bible God refers to as ‘a man after His own heart.’ Now why is that, I wonder? I’ll tell you why. Because David was a man who had a love affair with God. Imagine that—emotionally involved with the God of the Universe. Trusted Him, worshiped him, sought after him—and all without restraint. Did he mess up? You bet. Did he repent? With all of his heart, aching inside whenever he offended his God. Why? Because he had a Father-son relationship with him, loved him and wanted to please him.” Father Mac hesitated, slowly tracing his finger along the rim of his cup. He finally raised his eyes to capture Brady with a fixed stare. “Just like you, John.”
BOOK 1, THE WINDS OF CHANGE, A HOPE UNDAUNTED:
“Katie, are you okay?” Luke loosened his tie and stared, concern creasing his brow as he watched her, her body slumped at the window with a hand to her eyes. She didn’t move, and the tightness in his gut increased. He approached quietly, afraid he would startle her. “Katie?”
“Oh!” She whirled around, staggering against the sill with a hand to her chest.
He clutched her arm to steady her, and the color drained from her cheeks. Softening his hold, he absently grazed her skin with his thumb, then ducked his head and smiled, eyes tender as he studied her. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you. Are you all right?”
She nodded stiffly, her gaze glued to the massive hand on her arm.
Worry wrinkled the bridge of his nose and he braced both palms on her shoulders, convinced something was wrong. Her face was white and her breathing labored, and he could swear he felt a hint of a tremble. “No, I can feel it. Something’s bothering you.” He pressed his hand to her forehead. “Are you sick?”
She jerked back from his hold and butted up against the window, arms crossed and hugging her waist. “No!” she said too quickly to suit him, clearly avoiding his eyes. “I mean maybe a little dizzy, but nothing serious. I just need to go home …”
He shifted, suddenly concerned it had to do with him. He plunged his hands in his pockets and softened his tone. “Katie … is it me? Did I say or do something to upset you?”
She shook her head, gaze bonded to the floor. “No, Luke, really, please, I just need to—”
He nudged her chin up with his thumb, and her lips parted with a sharp intake of breath. And then he saw it. The gentle rise and fall of her chest, the soft rose in her cheeks, the skittish look in her eyes, flitting to his lips and then quickly away. Comprehension suddenly oozed through him like heated honey purling through his veins. Could it be? Was it possible that cold, callous Katie O’Connor was beginning to warm up? To him, of all people—Cluny McGee, the leper from her past? The thought sent warm ripples of shock through his body, thinning the air in his lungs. His gaze gentled, taking in the vulnerability in her eyes, the fear in her face, and all he wanted to do was hold her, reassure her.
As if under a spell, his gaze was drawn to her lips, parted and full, and the sound of her shallow breathing filled him with a fierce longing. “Oh, Katie,” he whispered, no power over the pull he was suddenly feeling. In slow motion, he bent toward her, closing his eyes to caress her mouth with his own. A weak gasp escaped her as she stiffened, but he couldn’t relent. The taste of her lips was far more than he bargained for, and he drew her close with a raspy groan. With a fierce hold, he cupped the back of her neck and kissed her deeply, gently, possessive in his touch. His fingers twined in her hair, desperate to explore.
And then all at once, beyond his comprehension, her body melded to his with an answering groan, and he was shocked when her mouth rivaled his with equal demand. Desire licked through him, searing his body and then his conscience. With a heated shudder, he gripped her arms and pushed her back, his breathing ragged as he held her at bay. “We can’t do this,” he whispered. He dropped his hold and exhaled, gouging shaky fingers through disheveled hair. His gaze returned, capturing hers and riddled with regret. “Believe me, Katie, as much as I want to, I’ve learned the hard way to take things slow. I should have never started this, and I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”
Forgive him? She stared at him through glazed eyes, her pulse still pumping in her veins at a ridiculous rate. She never wanted this, couldn’t stand the sight of him, and now here she was, tingling from his touch and desperate for more. Addicted to the “King of Misery.” The very thought inflamed both fury and desire at the same time, muddling her mind. Dear Lord, she was torn between welding her lips to his or slapping him silly. With a tight press of her mouth, she opted for the second and smacked him clean across the face.
His jaw dropped a full inch, complemented nicely by a slash of red across his cheek.
Her chest was heaving, but at least it wasn’t from his touch. She narrowed her eyes and clutched her fists at her side, not all that sure she wouldn’t slap him again. “So help me, if you ever touch me again, you will be the sorriest person alive.”
He slowly rubbed his cheek with the side of his hand, exercising his jaw as if to make sure it still worked. His eyes glinted like blue glass, sharp and deadly. Even so, the swaggering smile of old eased across his face. He bent forward, his tall frame looming over her like a bad omen, and his voice held that cocky drawl so reminiscent of his past. “What’s the matter, Katie Rose,” he whispered, “does my touch make you nervous?”
The heat in her cheeks went straight to her temper. She iced him with a cool gaze. “Nervous? Around you? Hardly. You can dress up in a suit all you like, Luke McGee, but to me you’ll always be the same cocky street brat with a twang in your voice and grime on your face.”
She knew her words hit their mark when a red blotch crawled up the back of his neck like a rash gone awry. A nerve pulsed in his temple, but his smile never wavered despite the steel edge of his jaw. One blond brow jagged high in challenge. “Is that a fact? Well then, how about a little experiment? Kind of like when you were eleven and I bet you couldn’t be nice?” He leaned close, his voice as hard as his eyes. “What d’ya bet I can make you nervous now?”
She tried to shove him out of the way. “I’m going home.”
“Not yet,” he whispered, blocking her in with a push to the wall. His voice, like the dominance of his hold, was a force to be reckoned with. “You always packed a wallop for a little girl, Katydid, but this time you picked the wrong street brat. You can turn your nose up at me all you want, but we both know that slap wasn’t so much about an innocent kiss …” He bent close, his eyes on fire and his breath hot against her face. “As how it made you feel.”
His words seemed to vibrate through her, low and thick in the air. She shuddered, and the force of his savage look trapped all protest in her throat.
“To you I’ll always be riff-raff, something vulgar and crude. Well, welcome to my world, Miss O’Connor. And, please, let me show you how we do it on the ‘streets.’ Because if I’m going to take a beating, you can bet your bottom dollar on two things for sure. One—I’m going to get my money’s worth.” A dangerous smile surfaced as his gaze focused on her lips. “And two …” His mouth hovered just above hers while his voice trailed to a whisper. “I’m gonna make you real nervous in the process.”
In a catch of her breath, he took her mouth by force, his late-day beard rough against her skin. A faint moan escaped her lips and all resistance fled, burned away by the heat of his touch, leaving her weak and wanting. His mouth roamed at will, no longer gentle as he devoured her, ravenous against the smooth curve of her throat, the soft flesh of her ear. With a guttural groan, he jerked her close with powerful arms, consuming her mouth with a kiss surely driven by the sheer will to ravage.
And then in a frantic beat of her heart, he shoved her away. She gasped, numb as she thudded against the wall. His chest was heaving and his eyes were hard, focused on her with cool disregard. “There. Now that makes two of the sorriest people alive.” He grabbed her purse from the floor and threw it on her desk, then rubbed his mouth with the side of his hand. “Better run home, Katydid. God knows the riff-raff that roam the street this time of night.”
He turned and walked into his office, slamming the door hard.
She stared, her body still quivering from his rage. Closing her eyes, she sagged against the wall, too stunned to move and too shaken to care. She pressed a trembling hand to her mouth, her lips swollen from the taste of him. She was doomed, she realized, and the thought shivered through her like a cold chill. She wanted a man she didn’t really want, and the very notion weakened her at the knees. He had called her one of the sorriest people alive. She grappled for her purse and put a hand to her eyes.
And God help her, she was.
Faith grabbed her hand and held on tight. “Katie, I’m so sorry. But all the more reason to cling to God, because you have nothing to lose right now and everything to gain.”
Katie pulled her hand away and closed her eyes, her voice dead. “I don’t know, Faith. I know God is real to you, but to me, it’s always been more of a fairy-tale. You have faith in him, but I don’t. Sometimes I even wonder if I believe in him at all. I pray, but I feel like he doesn’t hear my prayers, like they’re long-distance and lost in the shuffle. I don’t feel any closeness with him, any desire to pursue him.” Her shoulders slumped forward, weighted with despair. “I guess the bottom line is …” A knot shifted in her throat, “I’m not sure he even exists.”
Her sister’s tone was gentle. “It doesn’t matter, Katie, not one little bit. All you have to do is ask him to reveal himself to you, to prove that he’s real and that he loves you and has a plan for your life. Just the frail consent of your will to invite him into your heart is all it takes. And you can have a living, breathing relationship with the God of the Universe, overflowing with a love and passion as real as anything you ever felt for Luke. Go ahead, Katie, do it! And if you do, you have my word—your life will never be the same.”
Katie’s eyes widened as she stared, her sister’s gaze aglow like a beacon of hope. She swallowed hard, knowing full well that no matter any storms in her life, this was the sister who carried a reservoir of peace wherever she went. The sister who had scaled every mountain, weathered every storm with her resilient faith in God. Katie blinked. Could it actually be real?
As if she sensed the shift in Katie’s thinking, Faith placed a palm on top of Katie’s hand, warm and stable, cupping it, shielding it, like an anchor of hope in this storm of her soul. “Katie,” she whispered, “you say he’s not real to you, that you’re not sure he even exists. But right this minute, one of us is right and one of us is wrong ...”
Katie looked into her sister’s face, as if compelled to listen by some strange force that pulled at her with a tentative thread of hope.
Wetness shimmered in Faith’s eyes. “If it’s me who is wrong, then I have lost nothing. Because even if I have believed in a lie or a fairy-tale, then that lie or fairy-tale has given me more joy, more hope and more strength than anything I have ever encountered. But if it is you who is wrong, Katie, I tremble to think that you will have lost everything—his joy, his peace, his hope …” Her voice softened to a bare whisper. “His salvation.” She straightened then, her manner as sure as the conviction in her tone. “I repeat, Katie, one of us is right and one of us is wrong. Do it now, I beg of you—invite him into your heart. Because truly, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
Katie stared while seconds ticked by like heartbeats, thundering increments of time in a reality she could feel, see, touch. She was a realist, a woman bent on the law, with a penchant for facts, statistics and tangible proof. How could she lay all of that down to embrace an intangible God? A God her family had embraced all of their lives, depended on, lived for … while she herself had stood in the wings, master of her own future. She closed her eyes, grief piercing anew. A future that now lay in shambles at her feet. She swallowed the pride in her throat. Nothing to lose …
And then out of nowhere, Emma’s words that day in the store haunted her thoughts, and in a catch of her breath, Katie’s heart began to race.
“Whatever your hurts or fears or scars, Katie—call on him. He’s waiting to love you like you’ve never been loved before.”
“I don’t know, Emma, it all sounds wonderful, but God … prayer, well, I’m just not sure that it’s real.”
“I understand, but hear me, please … you won’t know till you try …”
Till I try … Katie’s breathing accelerated, and all at once, in the thud of her pulse or the trail of a tear, her decision was made. Gripping her sister’s hand like a lifeline in a stormy sea, Katie lifted her face to the ceiling while water seeped from her lidded eyes. Her voice quivered, but her resolve was sure. “God, Faith says you’re up there, that you care for me and have a plan for my life. If you are … and I’m not just talking to a ceiling … will you show me? Reveal yourself to me, your love, your purpose for my life. Please, God, come into my heart and make me the woman you want me to be.”
She opened her eyes then, and somehow the room seemed different. The same ivy wallpaper covered the walls, and the lace-curtained windows still wore pretty green ribbons tied back in a swag. The scent of rosewater hovered in the air, and Miss Buford—the porcelain doll from her youth—still perched on her vanity like some regal judge presiding over her bench. And yet, in the beat of Katie’s heart, everything had changed. She closed her eyes and breathed in the scent of her freedom, tears escaping as surely as her heart had escaped its gloom.
Dear God, can it really be this easy?
Her eyelids fluttered open and she looked at her sister, her words soft with wonder. “I never knew … never knew that it could be so easy … so real.”
A smile lighted upon her sister’s lips as Faith placed a gentle hand to Katie’s face. “Believing in him is easy, Katie, because he gives us that tiny seed of faith. And loving him is even more so because when you see how he moves on your behalf, your heart will spill over with joy. But unfortunately, living for him is not so easy. Feelings and doubts will come and go, but his Word stands forever. Study it, commit it to memory, learn through his Bible what he wants you to do. Because everything in this world will come and go—people we love, financial security, jobs—but God is a constant, and his promises endure forever.”
Katie nodded, the memory of her father’s hand on the Bible bringing a soft smile to her lips. All at once, she thought of law school, and the smile slowly dissolved. She drew in a deep breath. “I need to quit law school, don’t I, Faith?”
Her sister studied her, a look of regret in the depth of those gentle green eyes. “Maybe not quit, Katie, let’s just say postpone. Just until Father can get on his feet again.”
A heavy sigh departed from Katie’s lips, along with any sense of disappointment. She blinked, stunned that she actually felt relieved. “I … I don’t understand,” she muttered in confusion, “law school was everything to me.” She looked up, her eyes circled in shock. “Why do I suddenly feel like I don’t care?”
Faith smiled. “Because your life is in God’s hands now, Katie, not yours. And when we cling to him and follow his precepts, his path is paved with peace.”
Katie nodded, her amazement blooming into a grin. “Peace …” she said, reveling in the feel and wonder of the word. “Dear Lord, he should market it!”
A grin spread on her sister’s face. “He does, Katie Rose, every day. Through grateful pieces of the puzzle like you and me.”
BOOK 2, THE WINDS OF CHANGE, A HEART REVEALED:
“Shh … shh … it’s okay, Emma …” He fanned his fingers through her hair, cupping her face in his palms, his gaze a tender caress. “I’m here now,” he whispered, kissing her forehead, her temple, her cheek … Her pulse quickened while her weeping stilled to soft, little heaves, and when her eyelids drifted closed, her heart stuttered when he brushed them with his lips. “I’ll keep you safe, I promise,” he whispered, and a silent moan faded in her throat as his mouth trailed to her temple. “I swear no one will ever hurt you again …”
Heat throbbed within as she lost herself in the caress of his hand, her mind dazed while his mouth explored. The soft flesh of her ear, the curve of her throat, her body humming with need as never before. She felt his shallow breaths, warm against her skin and with a low groan, he cupped her neck to capture her mouth with his own. “Oh, Emma,” he whispered, his voice hoarse against her lips, “I want to be there always, to protect you, cherish you …” He deepened his kiss, and she tasted the salt of her tears.
All reason fled and she was lost, the air hitching in her throat a mere heartbeat before she returned his passion, her mouth warm beneath his. She knew it had never been like this with anyone—not with Rory or others or even in her wildest dreams. A merging of souls as well as bodies, where hope soared and love swelled in her chest unitl she thought she would burst.
Sean—her Sean! Tasting her like this, loving her like this, felt so right, so natural, the missing piece of her soul. Kisses both tender and hungry, uniting them, changing them, molding friends into lovers for the rest of their lives …
“God, forgive me,” she whispered, her body shivering from the caress of his mouth to her throat. Her words vibrated beneath his lips, fragile and tinged with awe. “I never knew … never dreamed … it could be like this …”
He clutched her close, his uneven breathing in rhythm with hers. “Emma, I’m so stupid—I never saw this coming, but God help me … I’m in love with you.”
No! She jolted away, his words searing her conscience with a pain more awful than any Johnny had inflicted. Fear clawed in her throat, forcing her back against the wood arms of the couch. “No, Sean, please—you can’t!”
He stared, his face filled with grief. “It’s too late,” he whispered. “I can’t not love you—not now, not after this.”
“But it’s wrong!” She put a hand to her neck, her chest heaving and her mind convulsing with guilt. God, how could I have done this? Tears stung her eyes as self-loathing rose in her throat like bile. She was everything Rory had branded her—a liar and a whore, scarred and hideous, not fit for any man’s bed. She looked away, nauseous at the thought that Sean might see her for the vile woman she was. Her voice shuddered with shame. “We can’t do this, Sean, ever—do you hear? I gave my vow to Rory, and you need to marry Rose. You belong with her.”
Tragedy welled in his eyes as he shook his head. “No, Emma, I belong with you …”
Her head jerked up, eyes crazed and fear burning inside as if a scarlet letter singed her very soul. She stared, voice bordering on hysteria and hands clenched. “No, don’t say that—”
He reached to feather her knuckles with his thumb. “It’s the truth, Emma, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel. I suspect I’ve been in a love with you for a long time; I just didn’t know how much.” His voice held the barest trace of a tease, obviously intended to lighten the moment. “A late bloomer, remember?”
She found no humor in his jest. “Sean, no. You can’t love me that way—it’s wrong.”
“No, Emma,” he whispered, “the only thing wrong is that I can’t show you how much.” He quietly folded her into his arms and eased her head to his chest. The warmth from his body seeped into hers as his hand slowly fondled the back of her neck. “Heaven knows I’ve tried to fall in love with Rose, for you more than for me, but it was never really there, and now I know why. Charity was right—I am dense. I can see now I’ve been in love with you for a long time.”
She squeezed her eyes shut, fists clenched on his chest. “Stop saying that, it’s not right.”
“That may be true, Emma, but nothing has ever felt more right in my life.”
She wrenched away, shame suffocating until she thought she couldn’t breathe. “No—I’m …” She paused, the very words on her tongue proof that Sean deserved better. “another man’s wife.”
His eyes were gentle as he twined his fingers with hers. “That may be, Emma … but you belong to me, not him.”
She yanked her hand from his and shot to her feet. Out of desperation, she forced a hard tone. “To me, it’s adultery, Sean, and I won’t do that—not to someone I love and not to God.”
His eyes never strayed from hers as he rose. “I know that,” he said quietly, feathering her arms with his palms, “but it doesn’t change the fact that I love you … and you love me.”
“No, I don’t love you! Not like that.” A sob broke from her throat.
Against her resistance, he slowly gathered her into his arms to rest his head against hers. His voice was soft and low and so full of love that it made her tremble. “Yes, you do,” he whispered, “but I love you too much to ever hurt you with that love.” He lifted her chin, his gaze tender. “You are the best thing that has ever happened to me, Emma Malloy, and I want you in every way a man could ever want a woman.” He stroked her jaw with the pad of his thumbs. “But if you don’t want me to act on it, then I give you my word that I won’t.”
Chin quivering, she flung herself in his arms, clutching him so tightly that the buttons of his cotton shirt ached against the bruise in her cheek. She could hear the pounding of his heart and she closed her eyes, her heart spilling over with gratitude for this man whose love made her feel almost whole. Almost worthy.
Pain shifted in her throat. “Oh, Sean, what are we going to do?” she whispered. His scent enveloped her, soothing her senses with the clean smell of soap and Barbasol and a hint of Cherry Mash.
“Well, for starters,” he said with a stroke of her hair, we’re going to eat soup.”
She glanced up, acutely aware of tiny blond bristles that shadowed his chiseled jaw and lips that had kissed hers, now curved in a smile. “You know what I mean. What are we going to do about us … at the store?” Her voice faltered. “I … don’t think we can do this … day in and day out. One of us will have to leave …”
“No.” His voice was firm, leaving no room for debate. He palmed the side of her face, his touch gentle, but his mouth as rigid as the set of his jaw. “Nothing has changed. We loved each other as friends … and now we’re simply friends who love each other. And we’ll go on as before.” His fingers grazed her chin, lifting to emphasize his intent. “Because if I am to be denied loving you as my wife, Emma, then by God, I will love you as a friend. I promise you, we can do this.” A nerve pulsed in his cheek. “We will do this.”
With a stiff smile, he gently buffed her arms and then strode toward the kitchen, his tone taut with authority. “You go change while I warm up the soup, and then pack a bag with whatever you’ll need for a week. We’ll come back for the rest.”
“What?” She wrung the top of her robe together, fingers cinched at her throat. “What do you mean?” she whispered.
He turned, hands loose on his hips and gaze slatted enough to know she had a fight on her hands. “I mean I’m not leaving you here so that lowlife can hurt you again. You’ll stay with us for the foreseeable future, until I feel it’s safe to come back.”
“With you? At your house?” Her voice edged toward shrill.
His lips cemented into a hard line. “There or at Charity’s, take your pick. But either way, Emma, you’re not staying here, and that’s final.”
“But I can’t! Mrs. Peep needs me … and my cats.”
“Mrs. Peep loves you and wants you to be safe. She’ll watch your cats, she already told me so.” The blue of his eyes steeled to gray as he peered at her, the flicker of a dormant temper glinting in his eyes. “I won’t stand here and argue with you, Emma. I’m not usually a volatile man, and you know that, but this is too important. Trust me on this—I will take you by force if I have to. So I suggest you pack your bags while I warm up the soup.” He turned away, disappearing down the hall where sunlight streamed into her kitchen.
A heave shuddered from her throat and she put a hand to her eyes, numb over how her life had changed in just a few short hours. Yesterday she had been content to be alone, fear as foreign to her now as Rory’s violent scorn. And yet, with one vile slap, her yesterday had shifted into a present steeped in fear, shame and guilt, all neatly laced with denial and despair.
“We will do this.” Sean had said.
The memory of his mouth caressing hers burned in her thoughts, unleashing a flood of shame and guilt that caused her to quiver. Her hand trembled to her lips as tears slipped from her eyes.
No, God, we won’t …
The young girl paused, her smile pensive as she dried her hands. “So, why do you do it?”
“Do what?” Emma gathered the soiled tablecloth and placed it on the counter before retrieving the domino set from the bottom drawer of her cupboard.
Casey studied her, gaze narrowed in thought. “Give extra money to Mrs. Peek.”
Emma rose and turned, the wooden box clutched to her chest. “What do you mean?”
Tossing the towel over a rack, Casey ambled to her seat to and settled in, arms folded on the table and lips twisted in a wry smile. “Come on, Emma, I know you give money to Mrs. Peek, just like you give money to me and heaven knows how many others. And as if that isn’t enough, you insist on fixing us dinners and lending me clothes. You keep Mama posted on my progress and you watch me like a hawk—” One side of mouth hooked up. “A ‘mother’ hawk, to be exact, hovering over me, taking care of me. I’ve seen you bake brownies for people at work, kids in the neighborhood and just yesterday, Margaret Latham told me you’ve been tutoring her in math.” She cocked her head. “So, tell me because I really want to know—why do you do it?”
Emma blinked, Casey’s question catching her off-guard. She laid the box on the table and thought about all the dinners they’d shared, all the conversations about movies or fashion or love. Sure, Emma had given advice here and there, even referring to prayer or her deep faith occasionally on their strolls to church. Her pulse quickened. But for Casey to ask such a question outright meant the door was open for more. More of Emma’s heart.
And more of God's?
She swallowed her hesitation and sat down, scooting close to the table to upend the box. Dominoes spilled across the lemon-polished wood with a clatter while Emma peered up, her heart spilling with love. “Because I have to, Casey, I can’t help it.” She cocked her head and gave her a mischievous smile. “You know how you feel when you’re with Johnny, as if you’re going to bubble over for the love he brings into your life?”
Casey nodded, a blush blooming on her face as she released a lovesick sigh.
“Well, it’s the same with me,” Emma said in a matter-of-fact tone, fingers flitting across the sea of tiles to turn each of them face down.
Ridges formed in Casey’s brow. “I don’t understand. Rory hurt you and now you’re alone.” She squinted, as if trying to comprehend. “Do you mean love for friends?”
“Yes, affection for you, Mrs. Peep and others, certainly, but that’s not the love I mean.”
“What, then?” Casey asked, the innocence in her face plucking at Emma’s heart.
Emma paused, fingers lingering on a tile. She glanced up with a tentative smile. “The kind of love that has the passion of a lover and the faithfulness of a friend, Casey—God’s love.”
Casey’s eyelids lowered as she shifted in her seat. “But we can’t see or feel God, Emma, so how can you feel his love? I need more than prayers to a God I can’t touch, see or hear—I want to hear words of love, see kind actions, feel hugs and kisses …”
“We all do, because yes, we’re human beings. But we were made in God’s image.” Drawing in a deep breath, Emma leaned back in her chair, her eyes tender. “Which means, Casey, like Father, like daughter. You want to be loved? So does he. You want to be touched? So does he. You want to feel the rush of a kiss or the warmth of a hug?” Tears pricked Emma’s eyes. “So does he, Casey. Which is why I rushed to him when Rory hurt me and my family betrayed me. And you know what? I found a God whose arms were open wide and whose heart leapt with joy when I called his name. As protective as a mother and as jealous as a lover, this was a God who wanted me for his very own. Me—Emma Malloy! To touch, to bless, to fill with his pleasure.” She swallowed hard, her gaze locked on Casey’s. “Until I overflow, spilling his love on all those around me—treasured possessions of a passionate God.”
Casey stared, wide-eyed. “But I don’t feel that way about God, Emma, and I don’t know how to change that.”
“No, but he does.” Emma squeezed her hand. “Pray, Casey, for him to be the center and source of your life, for a passion for him that’s so strong, you feel him, touch him, hear him, just like he wants you to. And when you do, the love he pours in your heart will wash over everything in your life, making it the very best it can be.” Emma smiled. “Especially romantic love with someone who weakens your knees.”
The glow returned to Casey’s eyes. “Oh, Emma, I hope so, because I really do think Johnny may be the one.” She hugged her arms to her waist with a whimsical smile as if she were hugging Johnny himself, and then in a soft huff of another sigh, a bit of trepidation clouded the stars in her eyes. She chewed on her lip. “I just wish there was a way I could know for sure.”
With a sweep of her palm, Emma shuffled the dominoes and peered up. “There is.”
“How?” Casey asked with a kink of her brows.
Emma commenced selecting her dominoes, the smile on her lips at odds with the concern in her heart. She leaned forward, her voice tender and low. “Emotions are a powerful force, Casey. They can cloud our judgment and lead us into things that can hurt us, especially when we think we’re in love. But … not if you do it God’s way. It’s the only way to remain unscathed in a relationship.” Emma straightened and drew in a deep breath, determined to protect Casey like she wished someone had protected her. Absently brushing the scars on her face, she released a weary sigh. “Trust me, Casey—my life would be very different if I’d heeded what I’m telling you.” Emma reached to graze Casey’s hand. “Which means a good-night kiss at the door is fine, but anything more will only muddy the waters.” She drew in a deep breath and withdrew her hand, her gaze fused to Casey’s. “And never, and I repeat—never—allow Johnny into your apartment alone. It’s too dangerous.”
A hint of rose crept into the girl’s cheeks as she quickly selected her tiles. “But I don’t understand, Emma—how will that help to make sure that he’s the man for me?”
Emma picked her own tiles slowly, carefully, as if their import were as critical as what she was about to say. “Because the right man will love and respect you more for your strength of commitment, while the wrong man will only push to have his own way, all the while professing a love to sweep you away.”
Her thoughts trailed back to Rory as her voice faded to a whisper. She stared blankly at her tiles, sick with regret that it had been Rory’s “love” that had shaped her future rather than God’s. She shivered, suddenly aware of Casey’s probing stare. Drawing in a cleansing breath, she lifted her chin, never surer of the truth of her words. “Trust me, Casey, if I had followed God’s will and remained pure, I wouldn’t be bound to Rory today. Because when it comes to true love, there’s no better safety net than God’s precepts to protect you from hurt and heartbreak. When the wrong men come face-to-face with a woman who follows God laws, they will leave. But the right one?” She smiled, her words infused with the same sense of peace and certainty she felt in God’s presence every day of her life. “Now he, my friend, will stay.”
BOOK 3, THE WINDS OF CHANGE, A LOVE SURRENDERED:
Fisting his door handle, Steven glanced down at the tiny angel drooling on his leg and smiled. “Come on, you little piece of heaven,” he whispered. He slipped his hands beneath Glory’s fragile arms and draped her over his shoulder before easing out of the car. A smile nudged when her arms curled around his neck, and the scent of Ivory soap and bubble gum caused a sudden ache in his heart. He opened Annie’s door and helped her out, and in the flash of a moment, longing invaded his chest. The touch of her hand, the weight of Glory on his shoulder, and he almost felt whole again, as if he deserved the happiness of a good woman, one who would give him children to love …
“Thank you,” Annie whispered, reaching to take her little sister.
“No,” he said, unable to resist burying his head in the little girl’s sweet mass of curls. “I don’t mind.” Lump in his throat, he kissed Glory’s cheek and followed Annie up the steps.
“I can’t thank you enough for bringing us home,” Annie said, slipping her key in the door. She pushed it ajar, then turned and held her arms out for Glory, her smile warm. “You’re a very lucky man, Steven O’Connor, to have the kind of family you do.”
He paused, her statement taking him by surprise, as did the realization she was right, something he’d come to learn the hard way when his father almost died. He’d taken his family for granted before that … but never again.
Her smile tipped into a soft grin. “Or maybe ‘blessed’ would be a better word.”
It was his turn to smile. “That’s certainly what my sisters would say, especially Faith. Come on, munchkin,” he whispered in Glory’s ear, “time for bed." Gently dislodging Glory’s fingers, he leaned forward to pass her to Annie.
“No …” she groaned, her sweet, little voice groggy with sleep as her arms inched back to his neck. “I don’t want you to go …”
He paused, his head tucked against hers as emotion thickened his throat.
Annie tugged at her sister. “Glory, Steven has to go home and we have to go to bed ...”
“B-but will I see you a-again?” she said with a whimper.
He swallowed hard. “Sure, kiddo, anytime you want.” His gaze flicked to Annie and back, and suddenly his hopes for distance seemed to be fading.
“We’ll see,” Annie said, voice and hold adamant as she tried to pull Glory away.
“Okie-dokie.” Glory loosened her grip, then patted a fat, little palm to his cheek. “You’re itchy,” she said with a giggle, then deposited a sweet, tiny kiss on his mouth. “G’night, Steven.”
“G’night, Glory.” He tapped her nose before Annie managed to pry her away.
“Thanks again,” Annie said, inching through the door with Glory in her arms.
“Wait! Aren’t you going to kiss her too?” Glory spun around, eyes wide with the innocence of a little girl who had no earthly idea what she was asking him to do.
He blinked, noting the expanse of Annie’s eyes.
“Glory, no—” she whispered, turning ten kinds of pale.
“Please?” The little troublemaker stared at him with those wide eyes of an angel.
Heart thudding, he did the only thing he knew to do—he kissed Annie right on the tip of her nose. Clearing his throat, he stepped back. “Well, good-night, ladies.”
“No, silly,” Glory said, “like this …” She demonstrated with a sweet little peck on her sister’s lips as if he were too stupid to understand, then tilted her head. “See? It’s easy.”
Too easy, he thought with a trip of his pulse. Way, way too easy …
“Stop it, Glory, Steven doesn’t want to—”
“Sure I do,” he whispered, his words shocking him as much as Annie. Gaze holding hers, he slowly leaned in, close enough to see the long sweep of her lashes, the pale gold in eyes so green, he felt like he was in Oz, about to be granted a wish. He heard the soft hitch of her breath when she stopped breathing because it coincided with the halt of air in his own lungs. Cupping her face in his hand, his eyelids sheathed closed at the touch of her lips—soft, supple and just a hint of peppermint from the candy she’d offered him in the car. It was meant to be no more than a peck like Glory had given him, but somehow his mouth wanted to linger and explore … He stepped in close, body grazing hers and Glory’s till they were one. A little-girl giggle broke the trance, and Annie’s lips curved beneath his.
“His whiskers are itchy, aren’t they, Annie?” Glory asked, patting his face once again. “Kinda makes you wiggly all over, doesn’t it?”
Annie’s eyes glowed as she caressed her own cheek. “Very wiggly,” she whispered.
“Well,” Steven said quickly with a clear of his throat. He chucked Glory beneath her dimpled chin. “I suppose that’s enough kisses for one night, wouldn’t you say, kiddo?”
“No!” Glory giggled with a thrust of her chin.
He hiked a brow. “You know what? You are going to be trouble when you grow up, little girl.” Tapping a finger to her chin, he slid Annie a smile and winked. “Just like your sister.”
“I know.” She looped an arm around Annie with a pixie smile. “G’night, Steven.”
“G’night, Glory.” His eyes trailed to Annie and he nodded. “Annie.” Without another word, he loped to the car, his thoughts as warm as the summer night. He slipped into the front seat with a faint smile and turned the ignition before shifting into gear with a tentative sigh. His gaze lighted on the passenger seat where Annie had been and something warm and deep and full of hope expanded in his chest till he thought he couldn’t breathe.
“You’re a very lucky man, Steven O’Connor,” she had said.
Fingers clenched tight on the stick, he downshifted hard, all warmth dissipating the farther he rumbled away from her street. Exhaling slowly, his lips inched into a sad smile.
Don’t I wish.
“Ouch!” Annie blinked, more tears smarting at the sight of blood pooling where a rose thorn had pricked her finger. She glanced up at the trellis she needed to climb to sneak back in and fought the urge to break down and cry right there on Aunt Eleanor’s lawn in the moonlight. Lip quivering, she promptly sucked on her finger, deciding this was the perfect ending to a horrendous evening spent weeping in the ladies’ room of Ocean Pier.
“I’ve told you before, kid, you’re something special.”
No … she wasn’t, not really.
At least not to Steven O’Connor nor to Aunt Eleanor and certainly not to God. Maybe to Glory and even Maggie in a long-distance sort of way, but the person who’d made her feel more special than anyone alive was no longer around, no longer able to fill that void in her heart.
Oh, Daddy, I miss you so much. Against her will, a heave wracked from her lips and she put her head in her hands, a sharp stab of loneliness gouging deeper than any thorn.
“Did I ever tell you how you got your name, Susannah Grace?” he’d asked one rainy afternoon when she’d snuggled close in his sickbed, water slithering the windowpane while tears slithered her cheeks.
“Yes,” she’d whispered, clutching his hand tightly as if the cancer were about to steal him away. “But I like it when you do.” She heard Glory’s chatter from the kitchen where the smell of Mrs. Baxter’s pot roast drifted into her father’s darkened room, mingling with that of the antiseptic and grape juice their kind neighbor swore would fight her father’s cancer.
A hoarse chuckle scratched through his dry lips and Annie instantly reached for his water, carefully tipping the glass to his lips. After a few sips he smiled and she smiled back, though her heart wrenched at sunken eyes that even yet glowed with love. His fingers shook as he caressed her face. “I can’t believe we almost lost you,” he said softly, parched lips tilted equally in affection and a father’s pride that never failed to warm her soul. Except lately .... Her nose stung with the threat of tears and she quickly lay down, burrowing close while he gently stroked her back. Her eyelids fluttered closed as she clutched his old, striped pajamas, faded blue and white material that stirred thoughts of Christmas morning with cookies and cocoa and cuddling in his lap. Oh, Daddy, please don’t leave …
“Well, I wanted to call you Grace after the aunt who taught me about faith in God,” he continued, the strong medicinal scent of his Lifebouy soap filling her senses with wonderful memories, “but your mama read about this woman named Susannah one day in that Catholic Bible of hers and flat-out insisted that was your name. Claimed Susannah was a beautiful and God-fearing woman with pious parents who raised her up to serve the Lord, just like we planned to do.” He chuckled, the sound raspy and thin. “Fine,” I say, “Susannah it is, but then her middle name will be Grace, by thunder, and that’s the way it’ll be.” His weak laugh vibrated in her ear, and a ghost of a smile edged her lips. Dear, sweet Daddy—stern words forever toppled by a soft heart. “And a mighty good thing, too, ‘cause if ever a child needed the grace of God when she came into this world, Gracie, it was you.”
He shivered, and it traveled her body like an electric current. She felt his hand tighten on her back, his touch protective as always when he told her the story of her birth. “They tell me you stopped breathing, something called Apnea or some such thing, and as God is my witness, Gracie, I knew it. Knew something was wrong out there in that cold, sterile waiting room. Could feel it, sense it, like the very air had left my own lungs.” His fingers shook as they skimmed into her hair, stroking her, loving her—something that came as natural to her father as breathing. A reverence seeped into his voice that thickened his words, causing a sense of awe to settle on the cozy, little room. “Pray …” the directive came,” he said quietly, and the low cadence of his husky tone merged with the rhythm of the rain, creating the same hypnotic pull as when he preached from the pulpit. “And so help me, Gracie, I collapsed to my knees then and there as if the very hand of God had pushed me, tears and prayers streaming, one faster than the other.”
He’d shifted then, fingers cold as they tweaked the back of her neck. She lifted to smile into his eyes with a gaze as watery as his, and her heart cramped at his skeletal frame. “Don’t ever forget, Gracie,” he whispered, eyes burning in a pale face, “more than any young woman I know—you’re God’s girl, make no mistake. He breathed life back in to you that day because he has a job for you to do, hearts to win for him. I know that as surely as I know that I love you.”
He grazed her jaw with quivering fingers, their cool touch a chilling reminder of the sickness that ravaged his body. “I love all my girls, you know that, but it’s no secret Maggie and I butted heads for years before she left, damaging the closeness I’d hoped to have. And Glory is a joy to my soul, make no mistake. But you, daughter, are appropriately named, a true touch of the grace of God in my life—strengthening me, encouraging me, sharing my deep faith in a God we both hold so dear. Never forget, Gracie, that as deep as my love is for you—he loves you far more, with a love everlasting … because you’re the apple of his eye.”
“No, Daddy,” she hissed, her voice rising harsh to escape into the gloom of her aunt’s backyard, “because one protects the apple of his eye.” Lips compressed, she tackled the trellis once again, ignoring the sting of thorns. Slipping over the windowsill, she kicked off her Keds and tossed the heels tucked under her arm onto the floor. She stripped off her clothes and dropped them without regard, a heave shuddering her chest as she collapsed on her bed. With renewed weeping, she wished she could talk to Daddy just one more time. Hear that slow, husky drawl that always carried a smile. To be comforted by his sage advice and feel his love in the sweet crush of his embrace. The raw pain of missing him rose in sobs that echoed off the walls of her room, but she didn’t care. Nothing mattered if she didn’t have Daddy …
Annie jolted up at the sound of her aunt’s knock. “Y-yes?”
“May I come in, please?” her aunt asked, voice hesitant and groggy with sleep.
Tears chilled on her cheek as her gaze darted to the discarded clothing and shoes, grateful they were hidden from view. Blankets to her neck, she swallowed hard. “Y-yes.”
The door squeaked opened and Aunt Eleanor stepped in, golden hair streaming a satin robe. “Why are you crying?” she said quietly, a faceless silhouette in the darkest of rooms.
Annie fought the heaves that rose in her throat. “I …. I miss my f-father.” The words unleashed a floodtide of grief so piercing, she crumpled to her pillow in a rending of sobs.
A whimper caught in her throat at her aunt’s awkward pat. “I … don’t know what to say, Suzannah,” she said softly, tone commiserating even if she could not. “But I know what to do.”
She left and Annie sat up, eyes fixed on the door till her aunt returned. Satin robe swaying about her feet, she moved forward and silently placed a letter on Annie’s pillow.
“What’s this?” Annie whispered, eyes straining to read in the dark. Fingers shaking, she angled it to the moonlight, heart leaping at the graceful script she recognized all too well. Gracie.
“He wanted me to give it to you on your birthday,” Aunt Eleanor said, “so you’d feel like he was here, but that’s a month away, Susannah, and I think you may need it more now.”
She blinked, the bold penmanship she’d seen on reams of hand-written sermons dissolving in a fresh wash of tears. Hand trembling, she stroked the letter to her cheek, craving his scent, longing for his touch and suddenly realized her tears might dampen it. A gasp popped from her mouth as she jerked it away, staring at the ink that now swam in a blur. A vise crushed within. No! My name stolen away … just like my daddy.
Aunt Eleanor cleared her throat. “I’ll leave you alone, Susannah,” she said, her whisper hoarse and unsure. And without another word, she turned and left, the door clicking behind her.
Swiping her eyes, Annie lunged for the lamp on the nightstand, and light flooded the room. Her hands shook when she carefully broke the liturgical wax seal, heart thumping at the touch of a single onionskin sheet. Hungry for his scent, she put it to her nose. Oh, Daddy …
My dearest Gracie,
The day of your birth was one of the happiest days of my life, but only a dim foreshadow of the endless joy you would bring me as a daughter. God chose to call me home, yes, but know that your mother and I celebrate this day with you from above, with a Savior as alive and real as our love for each other. He gave his all, daughter, a love surrendered so completely that we are transformed from the dark into his glorious light. The Light of the World, who in our absence, will be a lamp unto your feet and a warmth to your soul, until that glorious day when we can hold you again on streets of gold. And so, as the Father surrendered his Son for us, so I surrender my daughters to Him, knowing full well his hands are far more capable than my own to keep you and guide you and fill you with his joy.
My one request—no matter the trials in your life, Gracie, hold fast to our God and never let go. For always remember—where he is, we are—longing for the day we will see you again. Please love your sisters, your aunt and serve God with all of your heart while we love and celebrate you from afar—one of the greatest gifts ever received from the hand of God.
Your loving father,
Caressing the parchment, Annie closed her eyes, face slick with new tears wrung from a prodigal heart. All at once, something warm flooded within her spirit like a rush of adrenalin and repentance spilled from her lips like tears from her eyes. “Oh, Lord, forgive me, please …”
There is joy … over one sinner that repenteth.
Slipping to her knees, she began to weep for a long, long while, only these were tears of joy over a soul set free. She thought of Mama and Daddy, and for the first time, she sensed her anger was gone, replaced by a grief untainted by sin. “Lord, I’ve lost my parents,” she sobbed.
I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.
In a catch of her breath, a fountain of joy flooded within, flowing faster and harder than any tears from her eyes. “Oh, God I’ve missed you so, and I need you ...” Somewhere far away an owl hooted just as Aunt Eleanor’s clock in the parlor chimed twelve, and Annie silently rose, her heart longing for God like she’d longed for her daddy. The same sense of a caress she’d felt before drifted over her like the gentle breeze that now ruffled the sheers at the window, and padding to the bureau, she unearthed her Bible buried deep in the lowest drawer.
Clasped to her chest, Annie carried the holy book to her bed and placed Daddy’s letter on top. Smoothing the cool parchment over the worn leather cover, she closed her eyes, grazing the onionskin one more time. Fingers burning, she finally opened the Word of God—Daddy’s legacy of love to her and his family.
Hold fast to our God and never let go.
A smile as soft as a kiss from heaven lifted the edge of her lips, and the tears that fell were as warm as the peace in her heart. “Don’t worry, Daddy,” she whispered, “I won’t.”
BOOK 1, THE HEART OF SAN FRANCISCO SERIES, LOVE AT ANY COST:
Lost in her game, she was oblivious when he quietly entered the room and closed the door, watching as she methodically chalked her stick after every shot before circling the table with all the ease of a pool-hall hustler. His jaw dropped when she executed a three-ball shot he’d only seen one other time in a bar down on the wharf. A low whistle escaped before he could stop it. “Holy cow, remind me not to play you for money.”
Whirling around, she almost lost her balance, knuckles white on the cue and face leeched pale. “What is it with you and not knocking?” she rasped, bodice quivering with every breath.
“And interfere with that mesmerizing display of skill and prowess?” He slipped hands in his pockets and strolled in, his gait as casual as his smile. “The likes of which I’ve seldom seen in a man, much less a woman?” He perched on the edge of the table. “Not on your life, Miss McClare. Where’d you learn to play like that, anyway?” he asked, his fascination with this unconventional girl growing by the moment.
“Uncle Logan and my father,” she said with a heft of her chin, his compliment dusting her cheeks with a pretty shade of rose that actually accentuated her freckles.
Jamie shook his head with a fold of arms. “Oh, no you didn’t, at least not Logan. I’ve played many a game with him, and I have never seen a shot like that out of him or Blake.”
The blush deepened. “Uncle Logan says I’m a natural,” she said defensively.
He studied her through a squint, in total agreement that she was, indeed, a natural. Heart-shaped face, luminous green eyes a man could drown in and hair the same soft pale yellow of the angel wing cactus that bloomed in Jess’s window. Her creamy skin glowed with just enough freckles to give her that clean, wholesome air of the outdoors. After dinner, Logan had prompted her to sing while Alli played the piano, and never had Jamie been mesmerized by a voice so clear and true. He was certain the woman couldn’t be from a cattle ranch in Texas, but from heaven instead. She possessed an almost angelic quality, and his eyes drank her in, following a shimmering stray from the pretty upsweep that framed her head like a halo. The silky curl traced the curve of her bodice, and he had a sudden urge to see her hair down, spilling as free as he suspected Cassie McClare liked to be, untethered by convention or fashion.
He rose and sauntered over to retrieve a cue, then casually twirled it in his hands, his eyes connecting with hers. He smiled that little-boy smile that had gotten him farther than any college degree. “He says the same about me, you know—in billiards, boxing and the law.”
She folded her arms, her smile as flat as the effect of his, apparently. “And women?”
He grinned, eyes never straying as he chalked his cue. “Sometimes. Up for a game?”
“With you?” She arched a brow. “No, thank you, I don’t play games with men like you.”
Ouch. She was obviously a woman who was honest and forthright, what you see is what you get, and so help him, what he saw, he definitely wanted. But … she didn’t want him. Yet. He softened his approach. “Come on, Cassie, one game of eight ball isn’t going to kill you, and then you’ll have the chance to give me the thrashing I so richly deserve.”
She hung her head and huffed out a sigh, finally meeting his gaze with a candid one of her own. “Mr. MacKenna—”
“Jamie, then …” she began slowly, as if attempting to ease the blow of what she was about to say. Sympathy radiated from those remarkable green eyes that reminded him so much of a pure mountain stream—unspoiled, refreshing. And icy enough to tingle the skin. Long lashes flickered as if begging him to understand. “Look, no offense, but you just broke my heart.”
He blinked. “Pardon me?”
“Oh, not you exactly,” she said, dismissing him with a wave of her hand, “but a man just like you—you know, handsome, smart, the kind that melts a woman with a smile?”
A ridge popped at the bridge of his nose. “Uh, thank you—I guess?”
She looked up then, head tilted in much the same way a mother might soothe a child, expression kind and tone, parental. “Look, I’m sure you’re a very nice person, Jamie MacKenna, and we may even forge a friendship before summer is through, but you need to understand something right now if that friendship is ever going to see the light of day.” She took his hand in hers, patting it as if he were five years old, and in all of his twenty-five years, never had a woman given him a more patronizing smile. “You have zero chance …” She held up a hand, index finger and thumb circled to create an “O,” then enunciated slowly as if he were one of the livestock back on her ranch. “Zee-ro chance of ever turning my head because I have no interest in you or any man right now, especially a pretty boy.” She gave him a patient smile edged with just enough pity to get on his nerves. “I’m sorry to be so blunt, but I see no point in hemming and hawing around a pesky hornet when I can just stomp on it before it stings.”
His jaw sagged. “Hornet?” He’d been called a lot of things, but somehow, out of the pursed lips of this Texas beauty, this stung his pride more than the blasted hornet. A nerve pulsed in his cheek as he replaced his cue in the rack, his smile cool. “Is that so? And what makes you think I have any interest in turning your head?”
She folded her arms again and hiked one beautiful brow, daring him to deny it.
And, oh, how he wanted to. His jaw began to grind. But he couldn’t because it would be a bald-faced lie, and they both knew it. He exhaled and pinched the bridge of his nose, finally huffing out a sigh. “Okay, you’re right, Miss McClare—I was trying to turn your head. But I’m not stupid—I can see you obviously have no interest in me whatsoever.”
“None,” she confirmed, brows arched high in agreement.
He nodded, head bowed as he kneaded the back of his neck. “Which means, of course, there’s no attraction whatsoever …”
“Oh, heaven forbid.” Her body shivered in revulsion. “Not in a million years …”
He cocked his head, a trace of hurt in his tone. “Nothing—not even a glimmer?”
She shook her head, face scrunched as if she tasted something bad. “Good gracious, no.”
He exhaled loudly. “All righty, then,” he said with a stiff smile, his pride effectively trampled. Rubbing his temple, he supposed there was only one thing left to do. He extended his palm with a conciliatory smile. “Well, I’m glad we got that out of the way. So … friends?”
She stared at his hand as if it were a rattler about to strike, then shifted her gaze to his, lids narrowing the slightest bit. Absently scraping her lip, she tentatively placed her hand in his.
His fingers closed around hers and he smiled. Ah, sweet vindication …
In a sharp catch of her breath, he jerked her to him so hard, the cue in her hand literally spiraled across the plush burgundy carpet. Thudding against his chest, she emitted a soft, little grunt, and her outraged protest was lost in his mouth, the sweet taste of her lips shocking him even more than he had shocked her. She tried to squirm away and he cupped her neck with a firm hold and gentle dominance, deepening the kiss.
A grunt broke from his mouth when her foot near broke his ankle. “I’ll tell you what, Miss McClare,” he said through clenched teeth as pain seared his leg, “I’ll give you feisty …”
“You … haven’t … seen … feisty,” she rasped, flailing in his arms. With another sharp jolt of pain, she cocked a very unladylike knee into his left thigh, stealing his wind while her words hissed in his face. “Oh … why … didn’t … I wear … my boots …”
Because it’s my lucky day? Jamie thought with a grimace, determined to prove the lady a liar, at least on the score of attraction. Body and mind steeled to win, he jerked her flush and kissed her hard while she pummeled his shoulders in a flurry of fists. All at once, her scent disarmed him—a hint of lilacs and soap and the barest trace of peppermint, and he stifled a groan while he explored the shape of her mouth, the silk of her skin, the soft flesh of her ear.
Relief flooded when her thrashing slowed and her body listed against his with a weak moan. He gentled his mouth, softly nuzzling before finally pulling away. Satisfaction inched into a smile when she swayed on her feet, eyes closed and open mouth as limp as her body. “Nope, not in a million years,” he said, his breathing as shallow as hers. He planted a kiss to her nose.
Roused from her stupor, her eyes popped open in shock and she suddenly lunged, fury sputtering as she hauled back a fist, clearly hoping to dislocate his jaw. With all the grace and speed of his Oly Club boxing title, he skillfully ducked, chuckling when her tight-knuckled punch bludgeoned the air. Hands in his pockets, he made his way to the door, delivering a gloat of grin over his shoulder. “Well, I guess you have a deal, then, Cassie McClare—friends it is.”
She spun around, eyes flashing. “You are nothing but a yellow-bellied snake of womanizer, Jamie MacKenna, and if you ever lay a finger on me again, I’ll hogtie you so fast ...”
He laughed, hand on the knob. “Come on, Your Highness, I did us both a favor—now that we know there’s no attraction, we can be friends, right?”
“When polecats fly,” she screamed, and he grinned, shutting the door with a wink. Something hard crashed against the wood and he winced. “Yes, ma’am,” he whispered to himself on his way down the hall. “Definitely the makings of a beautiful friendship.”