Read A Glimmer of Hope: A Novella Prequel to Isle of Hope Online
Authors: Julie Lessman
Jack peered up at his cousin, his somber mood suddenly evaporating in the face of Matt’s worried look. “You can breathe easy, Ball. The only person I want to lay hands on tonight is Lacey Carmichael, and I guarantee that when I do, she won’t even know Barrister exists.”
Matt let loose with a wicked chuckle. “Well, well, so seminary boy is going to break a few cardinal rules tonight, is he? It’s about time, O’Bryen, because you’ve been a real wimp up to now when it comes to showing Lacey how you really feel, so go for it, bro.”
“Get your mind out of the gutter, Ball, will you? This is my future wife you’re talking about, not her free-for-all cousin. I can handle Lacey just fine without breaking any rules.”
“Yeah, but are you gonna enjoy it?” Matt said with an evil grin, shaking his head as he moved toward the door.
“Trust me, Lacey’s worth it.” Jack’s voice had an edge as he trailed behind.
“So’s her hot cousin, bro …” Matt waggled his brows with a cheesy grin. “But then I guess it depends on your point of view.”
Jack strolled over and finger-flicked Matt’s head before opening the door. “Yeah, but mine is forever, Ball, while yours is just for right now.”
“True,” Matt said as he followed Jack down the hall, giving him a wink while he slung an arm over his shoulder. “But only one of us will be having a
“So … you seeing Lacey tonight?”
Jack glanced up from his second piece of apple crumb pie to blink at his mom, who eyed him at the counter while she poured more coffee for his dad.
Hunkering down, he dove into his pie to avoid her curious stare. “Uh… I think so.”
so?” His Dad offered a smile of thanks when his mom delivered his coffee, then turned his attention to his son, brows digging low. “You don’t know?”
Jack upended his second Red Bull of the night, silently cursing the heat that crawled into his face. “Well, she’s supposed to be at this party tonight, so I’m hoping to see her there.”
His mom slowly sank into her chair. The pinch of her features indicated a shift into mother-instinct mode as she clutched the handle of her cup. “Oh, no, Jack, you two didn’t have a fight, did you?”
Blood gorged his cheeks while he pushed away from the table, taking his empty plate to the sink to escape her probing gaze. “It was just a little misunderstanding, Mom, nothing more. We’ll make up tonight.”
He heard the shaky clatter of her cup into her saucer and knew he was in trouble. “Good heavens, you two didn’t break up, did you?”
A low groan wedged in his throat. Shoulders in a slump, he carefully rinsed his fork and plate before putting them in the dishwasher, pretty sure his preoccupation with washing dishes was not fooling anyone.
of all his mom, who possessed an uncanny radar when it came to Lacey and him. “It was just a tiff, Mom, I promise,” he said quietly, his weary expulsion of air more telling than his words.
“Care to talk about it, Son?”
Jack turned, his gaze connecting with his father’s, whose depth of compassion was as keen as his mother’s intuition. Unleashing a noisy sigh, Jack plodded back and slumped into his chair, elbows propped on the table with head in his hands. Thank God Matt was taking a shower and the twins were upstairs, because this was as good a time as any to let his parents know what he intended to do. “I love her, Dad,” he said quietly, “and I don’t want to lose her.” His voice was barely audible, but his words seemed to reverberate in the room.
“What makes you think you’re going to lose her, Jack?” his mother whispered, her touch on his arm as gentle as her tone while she took the seat beside him. “Lacey’s crazy about you.”
He grunted. “Yeah, she was, Mom, until Nicki came, but now it’s a tug-of-war between Nicki and me with Lace in the middle.” He sagged back in his chair. “Matt says he’s seen her at parties a lot lately, with Nicki of course, and the news isn’t good.”
“Oh, no—she hasn’t been drinking, has she?” His mother’s blue eyes flared wide, a clear indication of just how sheltered she was as a pastor’s wife, and how very little she knew of the real world. “Because if Karen and Ben knew, I’m sure they’d rein her in.”
Jack grimaced, quite sure Old Man Carmichael would do a whole lot more than just “rein” her in. “Yeah, somewhat, I guess, but drinking is more Nicki’s thing than Lacey’s, so I doubt it’s all that much.” He sucked in a deep draw of air for what he was about to share with his parents. “Even so, Lacey’s still a great person, Mom, with a really good heart. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m worried about the influence Nicki has on her when I’m away at school.” He paused to fish the ring box from his pocket. “So I’m afraid that if I don’t do something soon, I’m gonna lose her, you know? Which is why I bought this.” He placed it on the table and slowly opened the lid.
His mom gasped. “Oh, Jack—a promise ring?”
“You’re that serious, Son?” His father assessed him with the same piercing look he employed in the pulpit whenever he was getting ready to drive a point home.
“Yeah, Dad, I am.” Jack closed the box and returned it to his pocket, suddenly desperate to obtain his parents’ approval. Outside of Lacey and God, they were the world to him and the two people he respected most. Especially his dad, who was a model for the man Jack always hoped to be. “I want to marry her, Dad, raise a family with her, just like you and Mom.”
His mother’s grip tightened. “I love Lacey, Jack, you know that, and there’s nothing I’d rather see than you two married someday. But she’s so young … and you both have so much schooling ahead.”
He squeezed his mom’s hand. “I know, and that’s how I felt too, but…” He thought of Lacey with Barrister, and his throat went dry, the fear in his mouth as bitter as bile.
“But what?” His father watched him intently, absently toying with his fork on the table as he sat back in his chair.
Jack swallowed hard, his tongue suddenly thick. “Matt says he’s seen her at parties with Nicki, where this guy named Barrister is always making a play for her.”
“Senator Barrister’s son?” his father said, eyes narrowing enough for Jack to notice.
“Yeah, and he’s a real jerk, so I don’t think he’d stand a chance if I were around. But lately …” Jack pinched the bridge of his nose, hating to even put voice to his fears. “Well, I worry this creep might make headway with her, you know? Especially since I’m always gone, and Nicki keeps dragging her to these parties, filling her head with crazy ideas.”
“What kind of ideas?” His dad’s question homed in, neatly hovering over the pulse of the problem.
Jack battled a gulp as he shot a glance at the doorway to make sure no one was coming, then lowered his voice. “Nicki’s convinced Lacey that if I really loved her, I’d show her …” Purposely avoiding his mother’s eyes, he peered up at his father beneath weighted lids, the awkwardness of the situation heating the back of his neck. “In ways that go against my convictions.”
“Oh, Jack, no …” His mother’s voice was a worried rasp.
He cuffed the back of his neck, still unable to meet her gaze. “Look, Mom, that’s pretty much the way it is with almost everyone today—intimacy is a given.” He laughed, the sound harsh. “Even my buddies at school think I’m crazy.”
“What?” His mother sat straight up in the chair, disbelief coating her tone. “But they’re good Christian boys—how can they feel that way?”
He finally faced her, mouth in a swerve. “Yeah, that was pretty much my reaction too. But it seems both of them are sleeping with their girlfriends, also Christians, mind you, claiming if you really love someone, it’s natural to want to express it.” Jack grunted. “Which seems to be the mantra of the day.”
“Oh goodness, Jack, what did you tell them?” His mom leaned in, the pressure of her hand on his arm coaxing his eyes to hers.
Exhaling loudly, Jack sloped back in his chair with a loose fold of arms, his smile off-center and edging toward hard. “I told ’em flat-out that uh …
… if you really loved someone, why would you cut them off from God’s blessings just to satisfy your own lust?”
“Couldn’t have said it better myself.” The pride in his dad’s voice swelled Jack’s chest with the strength he needed. “I’m proud of you, Son.”
“So …” Jack continued, “you both need to know I’m committed to serving God in every way I know, including my relationship with Lacey. But I’ll be honest. Between Nicki’s bad influence, Lacey’s insecurity, and my attraction to her, well … I just thought the ring might help. Buy me some time with a few years of seminary under my belt till we get engaged.”
“Unfortunately, a ring is no guarantee of fidelity, Son,” his father said quietly, especially for someone as young and confused as Lacey appears to be.”
“I know, but I have to do something, Dad, just to show her I love her and I’m committed to her, because I sure don’t want to lose her.”
His mom sounded tentative. “Jack, this ring, this decision … have you… prayed about it?”
He laughed again. “What do you think, Mom? You and Dad raised me on prayer, so for me, it’s as natural as breathing.”
Her sigh of relief feathered his cheek as she gave him a hug. “Good. Then you can count on our prayers, too, for both you and Lacey and the course God has for your life.”
Jack’s smile banked to the right. “And for strength?”
She scrunched her nose. “To paraphrase, I’m a mother, Jack, so what do you think?”
A herd of elephants thundered down the steps, producing a fresh-scrubbed, fresh-shaven Matt in Jack’s brand-new Fila Sport pullover and best pair of jeans. “The shower’s all yours, bro, but make it snappy, will you? My public awaits.”
“Seriously, Ball? I haven’t even worn that shirt yet.”
Matt adjusted the sleeves. “No joke—nearly broke my teeth getting the tags off. Oh, and that cologne you got for Christmas? The real expensive stuff?” He flashed some teeth. “You’re running low, man.”
Jack stood and pushed in his chair. “That’s not the only thing I’m running low on, Goof Ball,” he muttered, shooting his cousin a laser glare tempered by a smile.
“Yeah, I know.” Matt strolled to the fridge with a crooked grin, popping one of the last of Jack’s Red Bulls before he settled in, feet propped on the rungs of a chair. “But don’t worry, O’Bryen.” He upended the Red Bull while he gave him a wink. “I have enough charm for us both.”
“I’ll tell you what, Cuz, if Senator Barrister’s son was looking at me like he’s been looking at you all night, I sure wouldn’t be moping in my beer.” Nicki plopped down next to Lacey on one of many blankets around the bonfire at Royce Barrister’s Tybee Island beach house, upending the first of two drinks in her hands. With the Senator and his wife in Jamaica, the Barristers’ backyard was crawling with kids. Most congregated on the terraced patio overlooking the water, where the liquor supply was bottomless and the music loud. Others milled on the manicured lawn with drinks in hand while a bonfire crackled and spit in a huge fire pit a legal distance from the beach.
“It’s not beer,” Lacey said dully, “it’s misery.” She trained her eyes on the fire like a zombie, which wasn’t too far from the truth since she’d broken up with Jack over a week ago. Tugging her hoodie down on her head, she prayed nobody else would find her huddled up on the far side of the fire.
“Oh, come on, Lace—Jack’s probably miserable too, crying in his beer. Whoops … I mean his spilled milk.” She giggled at her own lame joke, obviously well into a bottle of Jack Daniels.
“Besides, I’m cold,” Lacey said. She wrapped her jacket tighter while she butt-scooted closer to the fire, finally resting her head on top of tented knees.
A low chuckle drifted over Nicki’s glass as she guzzled more booze. “I’m telling you, Lace, if you’d just give Royce a little attention, it would light Jack up faster than fireworks in a bonfire. Then, trust me—you’d have more heat than you can handle.” She took another drink and nodded toward the flames. “And I ain’t talkin’ this kind.”
“I wish,” Lacey mumbled, completely bummed that Jack never even bothered to call after their fight. As the steady and sensible one in their relationship, he always waited a day or two for Lacey to calm down before he called to “make up.” But, not this time. No, this time it was apparently over for good because it had been seven days since she’d talked to him and almost three weeks since she’d seen him.
Felt the comfort of his arms that soothed like no others.
“Okay, that’s it—you obviously need more juice. What are you drinking?” Nicki snatched Lacey’s cup from the lawn and sniffed. Forehead rumpling, she took a quick swig and gagged, spraying the offensive liquid all over Lacey and her blanket. “Oh my gosh, it’s nothing but sweet tea—are you
” Tossing the remaining tea onto the lawn, Nicki poured half of her full drink into Lacey’s cup and shoved it at her cousin. “Looks like the only way I’m gonna loosen you up enough to come to your senses is force you to indulge in a little Jack Daniels, so here—
—and that’s an order, Carmichael.”
“I’d rather indulge in a little ‘Jack’ of my own,” Lacey muttered, moping as she took the cup from Nicki.
“Yeah? Well, the only way you’re gonna do that, Alycia Anne, is to make your Boy Scout jealous when his cousin tells him you and Royce were an item at the party of the year.” She prodded Lacey along with an impatient flick of fingers. “So bottoms up, girlfriend.”
Lacey stalled with the cup to her lips, the smell of Nicki’s favorite drink reminding her just how much she hated alcohol. She wrinkled her nose. “How do you even know his cousin will be here tonight? For all I know I may be doing this for nothing, getting so blitzed I won’t be able to fight Barrister off this time.”
Nicki’s jaw dropped. “Do you even
yourself? O’Bryen has you so brainwashed, you can’t even see what you’re throwing away!”
“Hey, you two—been looking everywhere for you.”
Royce and friends strolled toward them, not twenty feet away, beers in hand and the rippling heat from the fire distorting their grins. Nicki nudged the cup to Lacey’s mouth. “Chug it!” she ordered under her breath, and before Lacey could even say no, Nicki tipped the glass up to help her along. The smoky taste of molasses burned all the way down, but she could do nothing but comply, unwilling to stomach Barrister any other way.
“Finally found you, and just in time, apparently,” Royce said with a chuckle, offering Lacey a fresh drink as he eased down beside her. “Brought you some iced tea since Nicki said that’s your thing.”
“Thanks.” Lacey took it, pretty sure it wasn’t just tea. She sipped, and her eyes glazed over. “Oh my gosh—w-what is this?” she croaked.
He winked at Nicki. “It’s called Long Island Iced Tea. You like it?”
“I don’t know—what’s in it?” She sniffed, her reluctance to drink as strong as the alcohol in her hand.
Not to mention her aversion to Royce Barrister.
He grinned. “Something that will help cheer you up, I promise.” His grin faded as his fingers feathered her jaw, sympathy radiating from green eyes that had mesmerized every female at Isle of Hope High School, including the teachers.
All but one.
“Nick says you’re pretty broken up over the ex.” Ducking to peer up with a gentle smile, he slowly traced her lip with his thumb. “I’d like to help if I can …”
Tipping the so-called tea straight up, Lacey glugged, not coming up for air till it was almost all gone. Eyelids weighting closed, she instantly regretted the awful taste that tainted her throat.
What am I doing?
I don’t like to drink. I don’t like Barrister, and I don’t like this light-headed feeling in my brain.
She forced her eyes open, alarmed to see that she and Royce were suddenly alone.
“You up for a walk on the beach?” he asked, tone hopeful.
But her tongue was too sluggish to say it out loud.
Before she knew it, Royce pulled her up, bracing her waist when she swayed on her feet. “You okay?” He hesitated, studying her with a concerned look that seemed so foreign to the player he was supposed to be. He gave an awkward laugh. “Uh, that tea is more for sipping than chugging, Lace, so maybe we’ll pass on the walk and just sit on the beach?”
She nodded, her throat as parched as cotton. “Water?” she rasped.
“Sure thing—wait right here.” He made a beeline for the patio, and Lacey’s legs wobbled, her limbs more wilted than the salad she had for supper. He returned with two bottled waters and handed her one, then snatched up the blanket while she sucked half of it down. Hooking an arm to her waist once more, he ushered her to a whitewashed wooden ramp that led to the moonlit shore. A short way down the beach, he snapped the blanket in the air and settled it in front of a bank of scrubby bushes flanked by grasses that swayed in the sea-scented night.
Sinking onto the blanket, she plopped back like a ragdoll, suddenly mesmerized by the glitter of stars that studded the sky. An ocean breeze fluttered hair against her cheek, and all at once, she felt utterly relaxed, almost glad to be here.
If only it was Jack …
The malaise that had haunted all week returned, dampening her mood. And then in one whoosh of foam against the sand and rocks on the shore, Lacey reminded herself why she was here on a blanket in the moonlight with Royce Barrister.
To make Jack jealous.
To win him back.
To convince him once and for all that if he didn’t love her enough, someone else would.
Gaze fixed on the stars, she felt Royce settle beside her and she immediately stilled.
But is that fair to Royce?
Hunched with arms resting over his knees, he popped his water open and took a long draught, recapping it while he glanced at her with a tentative smile. “Sorry you’re hurting over Jack, Lace, but I can’t say I’m sorry you broke it off. It’s no secret I like you—
. So I was hoping … well, that you and I could go out, you know?”
She studied him in the moonlight—this boy that every girl at school longed to date—and knew that part of the reason he wanted her so badly was that she didn’t want him. That and the fact she was the daughter of one of the top heart surgeons in the country, a perfect match for a senator’s son. No question he was one of the hottest guys in her class—a Zac Efron lookalike with bedroom eyes—but he wasn’t Jack. Not even close when it came to a man she could trust and love for the rest of her life.
And yet, all at once she felt too languid to care. She cocked her arms behind her neck and drank in the beauty of the night like it was that Long Island iced tea she’d just guzzled down, the need to be loved suddenly coursing through her veins like alcohol. Blame it on the booze or the fact it was a perfect night with moon shadows and the kiss of a breeze, but in the blink of an eye, she was floating on air. Adrift on a beautiful cloud where things didn’t matter so much anymore. Suddenly all she cared about was that somebody—
—loved her, wanted her, and if that wasn’t Jack, then the loss was his.
“So what do you say?” Royce whispered, sliding down on his elbow to prop his head on his hand. He slowly skimmed a finger up her arm. “I’m crazy about you, Lace, so will you go out with me, please?”
The scent of Nautica Blue captured her senses, and in one erratic thump of her heart, she wondered what it would be like to kiss another boy besides Jack. She never had, of course, but maybe she’d like it, who knows? And maybe it would help fill the empty place in her soul.
“Why not?” she whispered, reveling in the control she seemed to have. With a luxurious stretch of arms overhead, she tempted him with a smile that drew him in close, hovering over her with heat in his eyes.
The moment his lips took hers, she knew she’d made a mistake. His kiss was hungry and hard and completely void of all caring. And nothing like Jack’s. “Royce, wait …” But he didn’t seem to hear, all objection silenced when he kissed her again. Panic seized in her chest as she tried to push him away, but he only groaned her name, continuing to take what she was no longer willing to give.
“Royce, no!” Fear iced her skin as her body lay trapped beneath his, her cries muffled while tears dampened her face.
God, help me, please …
And then in a whoosh of cool air, the sky opened up as Royce jerked backwards, crashing into the sand with a grunt. A dark shadow picked him up and sent him flying with a fist to his jaw, the crack of knuckles to bone making Lacey sick to her stomach. She could hear the rasp of heavy breathing, backdropped by music and a low moan.
The shadow loomed over Royce’s crumpled body. “So help me, punk, if you ever touch her again, I’ll beat the living crud out of you, you got that?”
Lacey’s body went to stone like the boulders that littered the grassy shore.
In silence, the shadow crouched beside her, surveying her with a gentle caress of her arms while the other shadow slowly slunk away. “Lace? Did he hurt you?”
Water welled in her eyes and she lunged into Jack’s arms, sobbing uncontrollably as he clutched her to his chest. “Oh, Jack, I’m so sorry …”
“Shhh … it’s okay, Mike,” he said against her hair, whispering the affectionate nickname he’d coined when she’d been no more than the scrawny tomboy who climbed trees with his sisters.
She started to cry, sick inside that she had ever allowed another boy to even touch her, kiss her. Why had she let Nicki talk her into hurting Jack that way? He was the only one that really cared, the only one who ever watched out for her, protected her.
A sob broke from her lips, shuddering her body, and she felt his arms tighten, tugging her close. His voice soothed as he gently rocked her in his lap, and she knew deep down he was someone whose love she didn’t really deserve. So kind and gentle and good, he should have a girlfriend who would love and respect him, not tease and tempt to get her own way. Someone healthy and whole like him, not scarred and needy like she was inside. Heaves wracked her body as she clung with all of her might, scared to death she’d lose him someday. “I … I d-don’t d-deserve you,” she rasped, her voice nasal and hoarse, “but, please—can you ever f-forgive me?”
“Always,” he whispered, his breath warm and sweet in her ear, “because you’re my girl, Lace.”
“You p-promise?” She pulled back to search his face with frantic eyes, desperate for affirmation that he would never leave like Daddy always claimed that he would. Her hand quivered as she cupped it against his sandpaper jaw, terrified he’d discover that Daddy was right and she wasn’t worth it at all.
His soft chuckle matched the tender smile on his face. “I promise.” Pressing a kiss to her head, he rose and swooped her up off the blanket like she weighed nothing at all. “And that jerk’ll never bother you again either,” he said, voice suddenly as taut as the hard line of his jaw. “You have my word, Alycia Anne—and that’s a promise I’ll etch in gold.”