Read A Glimmer of Hope: A Novella Prequel to Isle of Hope Online
Authors: Julie Lessman
For I know the plans I have for you,
declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil,
to give you a future and a hope.
Isle of Hope, Georgia, Spring 2007
“Come on, Lace, I dare you.”
Eighteen-year-old Lacey Carmichael glanced up in the bathroom mirror through red-rimmed eyes, her cousin Nicki propped against the door behind her with a threatening fold of arms. The challenge in Nicki’s hazel eyes was as potent as the bottle of Jack Daniels peeking out of her purse. With a ghost of a sigh, Lacey’s swollen lids flickered closed, her gut instinct to tell Nicki no. The last thing she wanted was to go to a party, especially one given by heartthrob bad boy, Royce Barrister, who didn’t take “no” for an answer. At least, when it came to Lacey.
Not unlike Nicki.
“Just look at yourself—blotchy face, red eyes, and a face so pitiful, you look like you just lost your best friend.”
A heave caught in Lacey’s throat.
That’s because I did …
Nicki stamped her foot. “For crying out loud, Carmichael, get a grip! Jack O’Bryen is
worth it. I could
see you blubbering over somebody like his cousin because let’s face it, Matt Ball is flat-out hot, but his preacher-boy cousin? No way! So I think this could be the best thing that’s ever happened to you.”
The best thing that’s ever happened to me?
The heave in Lacey’s throat bullied its way into a choked sob, slumping her shoulders as she put a quivering hand to her eyes.
That would be Jack.
But it sure isn’t me for him.
At least, according to Daddy.
“Aw, Lace …” Nicki hugged her from behind, sweeping Lacey’s long blonde hair aside to rest her chin on her shoulder. “I know you’ve been over the moon for Jack forever, but you can’t let him run your life, sweetie, which is what he’s trying to do. You need a boyfriend, not a minister, always badgering you to do what
wants you to do.”
What’s going on, Lace?”
Jack’s voice came back to haunt, their argument a painful reminder that she’d just broken up with the guy she’d been crazy about since the age of twelve. “
Matt said Barrister was all over you at that party last week, and it’s gotta stop or else ...”
A single tear slid down her face to well in the corner of her lips, the taste salty like all the tears she’d wept in Jack’s arms the last two years whenever she and Daddy had fought. Only
tears belonged to sweet, level-headed Jack O’Bryen, who had given her an ultimatum that all but guaranteed “or else.” She blinked in the mirror, barely seeing her tear-stained face for the resistance roiling in her mind. He, better than anyone, should have known ultimatums always triggered her temper, detonating that streak of rebellion she usually reserved for her father.
” she had bit out in a tone as threatening as Jack’s, “or else
, Brye? I already have one father trying to control my life—you trying to make it two?”
girlfriend,” Jack shot back, the hint of temper in his voice matching her own, “
should be the only guy hanging all over you and nobody else.”
“Yeah, but that’s just it, Jack, you
do. You’re too busy protecting your own precious
to worry about mine.” Her jibe had been almost a hiss, and even now she was still angry over the way he’d put her off his last time home, when all she wanted was to give him her love. Well, Royce Barrister sure wouldn’t turn her down, and Jack needed to know that. Needed to know she was desperate for love from a man who actually thought she was worth it.
Because Daddy sure didn’t.
“Come on, Lace,” Nicki whispered, jolting Lacey back to the present when she squeezed her in a side hug. Her hazel eyes pleaded in the mirror. “Royce Barrister is crazy about you, and most girls would kill to go out with him, so this is your chance.” Nicki’s lower lip protruded in that pouty look she always used to get Lacey to see things her way. “And I promise, if you’re still hung up on Jack after that, then I will personally call him to plead your case, telling him I was to blame for leading you astray.”
A shadow of a smile hovered over Lacey’s lips. “He already knows that. I sure never went to any parties before you moved to Isle of Hope.”
Nicki’s chin nudged up. “And never had any fun either. Not with some stuffy preacher’s kid, who only gives you a peck on the cheek and calls it a kiss.”
“Knock it off, Nick,” Lacey countered, wondering why in the world she was defending a boyfriend whose prudish notions were holding their relationship back. “Jack kisses way more than my cheeks, and you know it.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s right.” Nicki’s short punky curls wagged back and forth as she bobbed in time. “On your forehead … on your nose … on your hair …”
Lacey finally chuckled, shaking her head. “I’ll have you know, Nicolette Phillips, that Jack O’Bryen’s kisses are deadly, melting me into a puddle every time he lets himself go.”
The smile on Nicki’s face faded. “But that’s just it, Lace, he never does, does he?” Sympathy softened her tone. “He’s too busy saving himself for God while his girlfriend is starving for love.”
starving for love—”
Nicki arched a brow, and Lacey puffed out a sigh, slumping in the mirror. The truth was Nicki was right—she
starving for love. Yes, she and her mother were close when bouts of depression didn’t drag Mom down. But as far as having the love of a father that every little girl craved? Lacey was an emotional anorexic, starving for the love of a male figure that cherished her, thought she was pretty, wanted to love her, protect her. A glaze of saltwater welled in her eyes, and she quickly blinked it away. All Daddy ever wanted to do was berate and belittle her, making her feel like she was worth nothing at all.
Don’t think you’re anything special. Any street walker can get ’em excited.”
Her jaw automatically hardened at Daddy’s favorite phrase, and bitterness coursed through her bloodstream like adrenalin because it wasn’t true—she
special. At least to Jack. She closed her eyes to ward off another sheen of moisture. Jack was the only one who made her feel that way, like she was worth loving at all. But even he couldn’t fully understand why she needed so much of his love. His was a close family, where laughter and encouragement were as common as air. He didn’t know the type of emptiness she felt in her soul. The hurt. The rejection.
As a daughter.
As a woman.
“Wipe that black stuff off your eyes—you look like a prostitute.”
She squeezed her lids tight, unwilling to let any tears fall over a father who had already bled her heart dry. No, as kind and sweet as Jack was, he couldn’t possibly comprehend why she craved his affection to the extent that she did. Which hurt all the more when the boyfriend who claimed to love her refused the closeness she needed to
Nicki gently turned Lacey around, compassion etched into every pore of her cousin’s face. “Look, Lace, Jack loves you, we all know that. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s on his way home right now after your fight, despite the fact he has finals next week. But the truth is he needs a wake-up call, and going with me to Royce’s party tonight could do the trick.” She ducked her head, peering up with soulful eyes. “He’s already jealous of Royce, so why not use it to your advantage? You do want Jack to commit to you, don’t you?”
Lacey nodded, chewing on the edge of her lip. Of course she wanted Jack to commit—body as well as soul—because that would bond them together, proving he loved her, wanted her.
“Well …” Nicki moved around to plop her purse on the bathroom counter, yanking out the bottle of Jack Daniels to retrieve her makeup bag. She shoved the bag at Lacey with a slant of a smile. “Then I suggest we try a new tactic, kiddo, because you’ve been trying to light a fire under Jack O’Bryen since I came home, which means whatever you’re doing isn’t working, agreed?”
Sucking in a shaky breath, Lacey released it again in a show of consent, well aware she needed a little more than pouts and peach bath oil—Jack’s favorite—to make her his girl all the way. “Agreed.”
“Well then, I say we take advantage of this breakup, which we both know won’t last, right?”
A tiny grin tickled the edge of Lacey’s lips, confirming Nicki was right. Because heaven knows if two people were ever crazy about each other, it was Jack and her, and although Lacey’s temper always prodded their breakups, they both knew it wouldn’t last. From his very first kiss on her sixteenth birthday, they’d both known they were soul mates forever.
Nicki stashed the Jack Daniels deep in her sack purse and headed for the door. “So get dolled up and let Royce Barrister fawn all over you tonight, because when Jack’s cousin runs back to tell him he could really lose you this time, I think jealousy is gonna build a bonfire under our boy like you have never seen.”
“You think?” Lacey nibbled a piece of dead skin at the edge of her smile, biting it clean through.
.” Nicki opened the door and gave her cousin a sly wink. “And I can smell the lighter fluid right now …”
Car radio blaring, Jack shot down Skidaway Road to Isle of Hope, the lyrics to his and Lacey’s song—
Forever and Ever, Amen
—affirming what he’d known from the first moment he’d kissed the tomboy next door. The same thing he’d known when Matt told him she was getting chummy with Barrister, and the same thing he knew right after their fight last week when she’d broken it off.
He would love Lacey Carmichael to the day that he died.
The sounds of the Randy Travis song only underscored what Jack knew he needed to do. It didn’t matter he was a 21-year-old honor student who wanted to graduate seminary before proposing to Lacey, which meant another three to four years after graduating college this June. And it didn’t matter he’d hoped to heed St. Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7:35 to focus primarily on God during that time.
I want you to do whatever will help you serve the Lord best, with as few distractions as possible.
His lips quirked as he shifted into high gear, palm trees and pines whooshing by in his rush to get home. Because if ever there was a distraction in his life, it was Lacey Carmichael with her amber eyes that sparkled with fun and tease and so much temptation, he was a cold-shower freak. For him, she was the total package, from that silky blonde hair the color of wildflowers on savanna pines, to that adorable pixie smile that taught a serious and sensible honor student how to really laugh and love. A best friend whose faith had once been as deep as his own, and a straight-A student who thrived on debate, playing devil’s advocate just to kindle some sparks in his eyes. He felt his knuckles suddenly strain on the wheel. Until the real devil’s advocate arrived from California, teaching her how to kindle sparks of another kind. Which is exactly why Jack had opted to go to college four hours away, providing the restraint he needed to study and keep his mind on the books instead of the girl who owned him heart and soul.
He fished a couple of Tootsie Rolls—his favorite obsession other than Lacey—from his cup holder and unwrapped them, popping one into his mouth as he mulled over the decision he’d made.
It wasn’t even important anymore to wait until Lacey graduated college herself, something he had wanted her to do, unencumbered by the responsibilities of marriage. Nope, from the moment she had slammed down that phone, his mind was made up. A resolve only cemented in stone when Matt told him of Barrister’s brag to make it with Lacey, the woman Jack intended to marry. His teeth ground slowly while his foot crushed the accelerator.
Over my dead body.
And he had the ring in his pocket to prove it.
It hadn’t been an idle decision because heaven knows Jack never rushed into anything without rational thinking and a mountain of prayer. No, he’d let it simmer and stew on the back burner while he’d focused on finals, determined to let Lacey do a little stewing of her own before he came home for spring break. But Barrister’s boast to hook up with Lacey sealed the deal. After a confirmation in his spirit that went bone deep, Jack had spent most of his week’s tutoring salary on a promise ring, convinced Lacey’s parents and his would pitch a fit over anything more serious. But it was more than enough, he hoped, to show Lacey his commitment was real without committing anything more. Jack swallowed hard as he veered his 1995 Civic onto Bluff Drive, Adam’s apple jogging in his throat. Because “anything more” was out of the question for a pastor’s kid who hoped to devote his career to God, despite the bad influence of Lacey’s wild cousin from L.A.
Jack’s jaw tightened along with his grip on the wheel as he slapped the blinker on to turn into his driveway. Nicki was bad news, and everybody seemed to know it but Lacey. A California brat with a sick mom and a naval-career dad who was gone more than he was home, Nicki was pretty much free to run wild. Unfortunately with Jack away at college, she had ample opportunity to drag Lacey along with her, not only ticking off Jack, but his sister Cat as well—Lacey’s best friend since they were small.
“Why does she have to hang out with that skank?” Cat would grouse over the dinner table whenever Jack came home, as fiery and assertive as her twin sister Shannon was sweet and shy. “She’s nothing but trouble, and now she’s taking Lacey with her.”
“Catherine Marie O’Bryen, that’s quite enough!” Their mother’s blue eyes always held a warning whenever Cat even mentioned Lacey in a negative light. A pastor’s wife whose calling in life seemed to be keeping the peace among those she loved, Tess O’Bryen regarded Lacey as one of her own, refusing to see the impact her cousin was having on the girl that they loved.
Huffing out a noisy breath, Jack carefully edged his battered Civic alongside his dad’s SUV at the back of the driveway. He turned the engine off and gouged the socket of his eye with the heel of his hand. Man, how he wished Nicki had never moved to Isle of Hope. Cat was right—Nicki was nothing but trouble, and now Lacey seemed to be headed that way too.
Lacey. The girl with the heart of gold—who gave of herself and her summers to mission trips to Haiti, the Special Olympics, or as camp counselor to sick and handicapped kids. His chest cramped, remembering how she’d come on to him the last time he’d been home.
she wanted to give herself to
He flung the car door open and got out, slamming it hard to vent some of his frustration. The sound immediately unleashed a loud squawk from a blue heron that had settled in his mother’s tallest oak the summer before. Home more than Jack these days, the heron had earned the status of “pet” from Jack’s mother, who fondly referred to him as “Blue.” The egret screeched again, snapping into alert posture with a raise of his head, wing span flaring wide.
“Don’t mess with me, duckbill,” Jack mumbled, searing the creature with a look of warning. “I’m in no mood for it.” His gaze flitted to the house next door where Lacey lived with her parents—best friends with his own mom and dad for as long as Jack could remember. But he knew she was probably hiding out at Nicki’s on a Friday night, escaping the wrath of a father she couldn’t please. Lacey and her dad had never appeared even remotely close, but from the moment she’d started attracting boys, her old man seemed to completely turn on her, suddenly cutting her zero slack. Almost as if becoming a woman were a slap in his face, unleashing a deep-seated anger at both his daughter and any boy who even glanced her way. Jack’s mouth went flat.
Well, that was too bad because after this weekend, Lacey would be Jack’s once and for all. Opening the back door of his Civic, he slung his duffle filled with Bibles, dirty clothes, and textbooks over his shoulder and hurled it closed again, determined that Ben Carmichael’s disapproval would not get in his way.
Wonderful smells of his mother’s 4-alarm chili wafted from the kitchen, rumbling Jack’s stomach as he slogged to the house and opened the screen door.
“Well, well, look who’s home—the prodigal has returned!” His cousin Matt Ball looked up from the kitchen table with a wiseacre grin, feet propped on the rungs of a nearby chair while he played cards with Jack’s dad and twin sisters.
Noisy greetings echoed throughout the cozy kitchen while Jack delivered a wry grin to his cousin on his way to hug his mom at the stove. Gratitude surged for both his family and for Matt, with whom he was as tight as a twin even though they were polar opposites these days. Jack had opted for college away before seminary, and Matt chose college close by so he could party and play with his friends. Born six months apart, the two were more like brothers than cousins, sharing an unbreakable bond despite Matt hanging with a less savory crowd senior year while Jack spent his time studying.
Giving his mom a peck on the cheek, Jack took an appreciative sniff of the steaming pot she was stirring before ambling over to the table to squeeze his dad’s shoulder and tweak the twins’ necks. He pulled the chair out next to Matt and plopped down, rudely dislodging his cousin’s feet in the process. “Yeah, but I’m not the one spending my inheritance on wine, women, and song, Ball,” he quipped, smile veering off-center at the irony that the real prodigal of the two had never left home.
“Yes, but unfortunately, Matt’s the one who never leaves,” his sister Cat teased, wrinkling her nose at her cousin. She wasted no time tossing a card facedown on the discard pile with a satisfied grin. “And heaven knows we’ve tried, short of changing the locks. Gin!”
Matt’s jaw dropped, his look downright pathetic as he registered the fact that the girls’ team obviously won, given the gloat on Cat’s face. He glanced at Jack’s dad, who was apparently his partner. “Hey, what happened to our lead?”
“Looks like they skunked us again, Matt,” Jack’s dad said with a wink. He rose to push in his chair, his charismatic smile and easy manner one of the reasons he was a top pastor in the region and a coveted speaker. He circled the table to massage his son’s shoulders, the solid feel of his hands warming Jack with the strength and love of a father he idolized. “I think I’ll turn you over to my boy here to see if he can save you, although I have my doubts.”
“We all have our doubts, Dad,” Jack quipped, reaching for the cards to shuffle the deck.
“But you’re in the business of saving people, Uncle Adam,” Matt groused good-naturedly, hiking his shoe up on Jack’s chair once again. “And you’re supposed to have pull with the Big Guy upstairs, you know?”
“Come on, Ball, nobody has that much pull,” Jack said with a smirk, dealing the cards.
“Oh, no you don’t!” Jack’s mom hurried over to confiscate the cards, pausing to give Matt a hug on the way. “Soup’s on, so the card game’s kaput till after dinner.”
Jack stiffened in alarm. “Soup? But you said you were making chili—”
“Calm down, Jack, it’s just an expression,” Tess O’Bryen said with a chuckle, giving his shoulder a playful squeeze. “It’s your first night home in three weeks, sweetheart—do you really think I wouldn’t make your favorite?” She parked hands on her slim hips, blonde hair caught up in a messy ponytail that made her look more like his older sister than his mom. “Corn muffins will be out of the oven in ten minutes, so I need somebody to whip up honey butter and toss the salad, please.” Jack’s sister Shannon automatically rose to do her mother’s bidding while their mom eyed her twin sister. “And, Cat, can you set the table and take drink orders while Jack unloads his laundry and takes his duffle upstairs?”
Cat groaned while she lumbered up from the table. “Why can’t Matt take drink orders?”
“Because I don’t live here.” Matt shot Cat a crooked grin over his shoulder while he followed Jack and his duffle out of the kitchen.
“Could’ve fooled me,” Cat muttered, loud enough for Matt to hear while she swept her pile of pistachio shells from the table into her hand.
“Oh, and two cans of Red Bull for me and my bro, Catfish,” Matt called down the hall, “but chill them in the freezer first, will ya?”
“I’ll ‘chill them in the freezer’ all right,” she shouted, her tease tinged with threat, “after I run ’em under the faucet so they stick to your lips like your tongue to an ice flagpole.”
“Ouch!” Jack grinned at his cousin, the two clattering up the wooden stairs to Jack’s room. “That could hurt,” he said with a chuckle.
Matt laughed as he dropped onto Jack’s bed, long legs crossed and hands braced behind his neck. “Yeah, especially if you plan to do a little groveling with your lips tonight, dude.”
Taking great pains to close the door quietly, Jack spun to hurl his textbook-heavy duffle at Matt, annoyance prickling. “For crying out loud, Goof Ball, you want the whole house to hear?” He hunched on the edge of the bed, but not before searing Matt with a look of warning that when it came to Lacey, he was in no mood for wisecracks. He massaged his face with his palms. “So, you’re sure she’ll be at the bonfire tonight at Barrister’s house?”
“Are you kidding?” Matt stretched out, making himself at home on Jack’s bed, shoes and all. “Nicki Phillips
misses a party with free booze, and neither do I, and we all know where Nicki goes, Lacey follows…”
“Good.” Jack pulled the ring box out of his pocket, expelling a long, arduous breath he hoped didn’t reveal how nervous he was. He opened it to show Matt. “Because after tonight, she’ll be off-limits to jerks like Barrister and any other joker who thinks they can steal her away.”
The grin on Matt’s face slowly dissolved, revealing a hint of compassion Jack knew his cousin felt to the core. “You really got it bad, dude, don’t you?”
Jack snapped the box closed and pocketed it again, head bowed as he wandered into a ten-mile stare, 100% positive his cousin was right. He had it bad.
. Because the truth was no matter how much Nicki tried to change her, Lacey would always be the girl who stuttered his pulse with the flash of a smile. The best friend to whom he could expose his deepest longings, and the woman he wanted to make love to for the rest of his life. “Yeah,” he whispered, gaze glued to the worn paisley area rug that covered his floor. “I do.”
“All right, then, I say we get this show on the road.” Matt jumped up. “We need to eat and shower in record time so we can get to that bonfire and make some heat of our own.” He paused, wrinkles ridging his brow while he rolled his shoulders to work out the kinks. “Hey, you’re not going to bust Barrister, are you? ’Cause I’d sure hate to be cut from his party list, man.”