Read A Glimmer of Hope: A Novella Prequel to Isle of Hope Online
Authors: Julie Lessman
Casting a grateful look in Tess’s direction, Jack squared his shoulders, chest expanding and contracting with a deep breath while he scanned the table. “Mom, Dad, Dr. Carmichael, Mrs. Carmichael—I want you to be the first to know I gave Lacey a promise ring last night because I love her and want to marry her someday.”
Tess launched up again, desperate to spin the announcement in a positive direction. “Oh, Lacey,” she squealed, darting around the table to dispense a giddy hug, “I’ve always hoped and prayed you and Jack would end up together. You’re perfect for each other, don’t you think, Karen?”
Lacey’s mother rose with a sheen of tears, her smile wobbly as she embraced her daughter. “Absolutely,” she said with a shaky caress of Lacey’s hair before lifting her hand to admire the ring. “Oh, honey, it’s beautiful, and what a lovely way to promise someone your heart, Jack.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Carmichael.” Jack drew Lacey close, the pride in his eyes glowing brighter than the pillar candles in the center of the table. “Lacey’s the one for me, and I don’t want to take any chances.”
“Smart move, Son.” Adam gave Lacey a hug and then shook Jack’s hand. “This girl’s too special not to stake your claim. Right, Ben?”
All eyes converged on Lacey’s father whose silence was deafening as he appeared welded to the chair. Arms barricaded across his chest, he simply stared at Jack, gaze as hard and steely as the wrought-iron table. His smile could have cracked when he drilled Jack with a chilly look. “Eighteen’s a little young to be engaged, don’t you think?”
“I was eighteen when we got engaged, Ben,” Karen said with a tremulous smile, “and married not long after.”
Ben frosted her with an icy stare. “My point exactly. It wasn’t easy for either of us and you know it, with both of us still in school like we were.”
“It’s not an engagement ring, Dr. Carmichael,” Jack was quick to point out, “it’s a promise ring that simply states our intentions while we’re both in school.”
“A promise ring,” Ben said carefully, his formidable chin appearing to rise for battle. “And what exactly
your ‘intentions’ with my daughter, Jack?”
A rare blush crawled up Jack’s neck. “Purely honorable, sir, I assure you. We both have a lot of schooling ahead, so I just want Lacey to know that I love her and I’m committed to her until we’re both in a position to get married.”
“Really.” Ben’s tone was as flat as his smile. He leaned forearms on the table, the planes of his chiseled face appearing to be carved in rock. “And when might that be, Jack?”
Jack stood his ground, gaze never wavering. “At least four years, sir, for me to graduate from seminary and Lacey from college, with our official engagement somewhere in between.”
Adam gripped Jack’s shoulder in a show of support. “Ben …” he said, returning to his seat, “Jack discussed his intentions with Tess and me prior to asking Lacey, and although we weren’t in love with the idea at first given Lacey’s age, we felt Jack’s reasons were sound.”
Tess’s ribcage contracted with a slow exhale of relief at Adam’s words, hoping his calm and confident demeanor would help diffuse any volatility.
Her husband continued, his steady gaze locked on Ben’s. “We trust our son, Ben, and he convinced us that all he wants right now is some way to officially commit to Lacey, hoping to provide a comfort level for her, if you will, while he’s away at school.”
The pinch of Ben’s mouth was not a good sign. “Yes, well, it’s the ‘comfort level’ that has me worried, Adam, where a so-called ‘promise ring’ could make it all too ‘comfortable’ for behavior that will only get them in trouble.”
“Daddy!” Lacey’s face leached as pale as the vanilla ice cream melted into puddles on everyone’s plate.
A tic flickered in Jack’s cheek as he clutched Lacey all the closer. “Then let’s not call it a promise ring, sir. Let’s call it a purity ring instead, because I assure you as a man committed to the ministry, those are my intentions—to remain faithful and pure with Lacey until the day we become man and wife.”
Ben’s eyes shifted to his daughter, his angular features as stony as Jack’s. “And what about you, Lacey?” His linear smile curled almost imperceptibly, shrinking Tess’s ribcage till she thought she couldn’t breathe. “Are you as committed to purity as Jack appears to be?”
“Ben, please!” Karen rose to slip a protective arm around Lacey. “Have a little faith in your daughter as well as in the son of our dearest friends.”
“I don’t think ‘faith’ is exactly Ben’s strong suit, Karen,” Tess said with a sweet smile as cool as her ice cream, Ben’s surly attitude prickling the mama bear within. “At least not according to Adam, who I assure you, has been around the mountain with him on that issue alone more times than we can count.”
Adam’s chuckle helped break the tension as he raised his coffee cup in a toast. “I’m afraid she’s nailed you there, Doc, but unlike you, my friend, I have enough faith for both of us that someday that, too, will change.”
Ben grunted. “It’ll change all right—when you finally realize faith is highly overrated.”
“Ah, yes, but so is stubbornness,” Tess said with a crisp arch of brows, her potent smile daring Ben to say another word, “and yet you cling to it with great tenacity, do you not?” Denying him a reply, she whirled to give Jack a pointed look, offering Lacey and him a sympathetic smile. “Jack, why don’t you and Lacey enjoy your pie inside with a movie while we parents indulge in a little Scrabble therapy after dessert?”
“Thanks, Mom,” Jack said quietly, offering a smile to Karen and a stiff nod to Ben before ushering Lacey inside.
At the click of the screen door, Tess felt the knot in her chest slowly unravel, praying Ben’s sullen response wouldn’t ruin her son’s spring break. Squaring her shoulders, she managed a smile near as blinding as Ben’s glare while she glanced around the table with a lift of her brows, the twinkle back when her gaze collided with Ben’s. “Peach soup, anyone?”
I hate him.
Lacey slammed the front door as hard as she could, the sound defiling the beauty of a balmy June night where the sunset rippled over the river in ribbons of scarlet and gold. Oh, how she wished she could stay at Nicki’s forever, and if it wasn’t for her mom, she would, the sound of Daddy’s favorite rate of late still ringing in her ears.
“That’s a promise ring all right—a promise he’ll get exactly what he wants without paying the price.”
Lacey fled across her front yard and didn’t stop till she collapsed over the railing of the ramp to Jack’s dock, barely able to hear Jack’s and his sisters’ laughter for the pounding of her own heart. Her ribcage ached from exertion as nausea rolled in her gut, threatening to rise in her throat. Fear and insecurity clawed in her chest while waves of worthlessness slammed against her brain, deadly whitecaps in a storm against her soul. Daddy had been in a particularly foul mood tonight, triggering another fight with Mom before turning his wrath on her.
“That piece of tin is nothing but a license to use you, and when he’s done, he’ll just throw you away.”
Chest heaving, Lacey swiped at the tears on her face, wondering why her mother had ever married him. He was nothing but a liar. A monster. A sorry excuse for a father. And as soon as she could, she’d leave, whether it was to Nicki’s or to college—it didn’t matter. And that’s where she’d stay until Jack could take her away.
His teases suddenly echoed over the water as he and his sisters fished on the dock, and instantly a familiar peace flooded her soul, slowing the frantic beat of her pulse.
! Everything would be all right because Jack was home for the summer
The one man who could redeem her from the wrath of Daddy, convincing her she was worth loving no matter what her father said before she’d stormed out of the house.
“He’ll never marry you, because you’re not worth the trouble.”
“You’re wrong, Daddy,” she hissed under her breath, bolting down the O’Bryen’s ramp. “Jack loves me no matter what.”
The weathered wood clattered beneath her feet, making so much racket that Jack turned around in his Adirondack chair to see who it was. His face lit up with a smile the moment he saw her, then instantly faded the closer she got, compelling him to rush to meet her at the edge of the dock. “What’s wrong?” he said, surveying her head to toe while he held her at arm’s length. “Are you okay?”
She shook her head and flew into his arms, unable to restrain the tears that leaked from her eyes. “I hate him!”
He bundled her close, tucking his head against hers. “Your dad again?” he whispered, stroking her head with a tenderness she’d never once received from her father.
A heave broke from her lips as she nodded, clutching Jack with all of her might. “I wish he were dead.”
“No you don’t,” he said quietly, the barest trace of humor threading his tone, “anymore than he wishes you were. You two just have the same wicked temper, that’s all.”
the spawn of Satan,” she hissed.
His low chuckle blew in her ear, slowly untangling the knots in her stomach. “Come on, Mike, that would make you the spawn of the spawn of Satan, and we both know that’s not true.” He pulled away to cup her face in his hands, the love in his eyes a balm to her soul. “You’re a gift straight from heaven, Lace, and I thank God every day for you in my life.”
She shot into his arms so hard, he stumbled back a few steps, chuckling again when she wouldn’t let go. “I’d give anything to marry you right now,” she whispered, voice hoarse as she rested her head against his chest.
“Me, too, Lace,” he said quietly, pressing a tender kiss to her hair. “Me too.”
“Okay—what’s it gonna be?” Cat stood behind Jack, hip cocked and a fishing rod in her hand. “Fishing or kissy-face, because if it doesn’t involve bait, Shan and I are outta here.”
Lacey slipped around Jack to face Cat head-on, hands on her hips and a dare in her tone. “First fish caught, O’Bryen, because suddenly I feel like whipping your skinny butt. And loser walks the rope.”
“Oh dream on, Carbuncle,” Cat said with a gleam in her eyes, Lacey’s challenge obviously stirring a little competition. “I got a stringer over there too heavy to lift, so you’re on.”
Strolling over to the tackle chest to find her favorite rod, Lacey tossed Cat’s twin a sassy smile. “You in, Shan?”
With a chew of her lip, Shannon hugged her arms tight to her waist. “And risk landing in the drink?” She pretended to shiver. “I think I’ll pass.”
“Me too.” Jack strolled over to take the chair next to Shannon, offering Lacey a lazy smile. “But Shan and I’ll be happy to cheer you both on—
you bait your own hooks.”
Lacey froze, the rod limp in her hands. “But you always bait my hook,” she said with a waver in her voice, the thought of touching anything slimy making her shudder.
“What a baby,” Cat muttered, reaching into the bucket for a shrimp.
Jack tilted back and grinned, arms braced behind his neck. “Sorry, babe, but Cat’s right—it wouldn’t be fair for me to bait your hook. You know, showing partiality and all that.”
“I’ll show you partiality,” Lacey mumbled, shooting Jack a gaze thinner than the 20-lb. test on her rod. With a scrunch of her nose, she held her breath while she grabbed a live shrimp, throat going dry when the smelly thing squirmed in her hand. Lips clamped to thwart a heave, she hooked the bait with shaky fingers, then dashed to the edge of the dock and dropped her rod with a clatter. Fending off another heave, she quickly bent to rinse in the river, thinking Cat was probably right—she was a baby.
But … she was also a winner …
“Uh … you finally ready, Carmichael? Or do you need baby wipes too?” Cat stood there with a smirk, rod propped straight up while her line dangled with a shrimp bigger than her fist.
Lacey hiked her chin. “Since they’re ‘
wipes, Catfish, maybe
better keep ’em.”
“Okay, ladies, play nice, and save the barbs for the fish.” Jack ambled to the edge of the dock, dead center while he motioned both girls forward, one on either side. “And may the best woman win,” he said with a wink at Lacey, arms straight up in the air. “On your mark …”
Lacey poised on the edge, thumb knuckle-white on the button of her bait-casting reel and eyes fixed on the water.
“Get set …”
She and Cat swung their rods back, the tension in their bodies strung as tightly as the line in their reels.
“Go!” Jack’s arms slammed down, and with expert snaps of their wrists, both girls cast their lines into the swirling river.
Lacey yanked hard to make her cork pop on the surface, silently praying that slimy shrimp dangling below would hook the prize. Cat popped her rig again and Lacey followed suit, popping hers several more times in her drive to win despite the advice Jack always gave.
“Remember, Lace, slow is key, nice and easy and lots of patience.”
“Not when you’re trying to win,” she muttered under her breath, determined that the only “nice and easy” she wanted to see was Cat swinging on that rope into the Skidaway River. Just like always whenever she and Cat competed over the years in challenges that Lacey usually won. But back then there had always been plenty of tease and laughter, unlike lately when Cat seemed to give Lacey the cold shoulder more and more. Shaking off a stab of regret, Lacey focused hard on her line, working it without mercy.
Deck shoes braced to the dock, Cat whooped as she struggled to haul in a monster that sank Lacey’s hopes deeper than the stupid shrimp on her own hook.
“Wow, Cat—that’s a real whopper!” Shannon hurried over, gaping at the fish in awe.
“Yeah, Catfish, talk about a pretty sight,” Jack said, voice tinged with a little too much approval to suit Lacey as he examined the biggest sea trout Lacey had ever seen.
“Thanks, Jack.” Cat shot Lacey a smug smile. “
a sight prettier than your girlfriend will be after she swings on that rope, I can tell you that.” She fluttered her lashes at Lacey. “Then you can really wash that stink off your hands, Lace.” Her sweet smile went awry. “And anywhere else.”
She hitched her catch on an already loaded stringer and dropped it back in the water before sauntering over to sit like a queen presiding over her court. Palms flat on the wide arms of her Adirondack chair, she wiggled her brows. “Time for a bath, Lace, and make it snappy, will ya? I’m ready to celebrate with ice cream.”
Jack relieved Lacey of her rod and kissed her nose. “You’ll always be a winner to me, babe.” He winked. “Even if you are all wet.”
Blasting out a loud exhale, Lacey marched over to extend her hand to Cat, figuring if she couldn’t win, she could at least be a good loser. “Nice catch, Catfish. Congratulations.”
“Why thank you, Lace.” She folded her hands on her stomach and waited. They were all waiting, each with a twinkle in their eyes.
Smile flatter than her pride, Lacey pulled her cell phone from her back jean pocket and handed it to Jack before striding over to the infamous rope swing that had settled many a score. She kicked off her shoes and gave Cat a salute, then grabbed the well-worn hemp. With a deep swallow of both pride and air, she backed up as far as she could, then flew across the dock, feet leaving the ground as she sailed over the inky waters. “Catfish is queen!” she bellowed per their ritual, right before she cannonballed into the water in a gush of icy foam.
Her teeth were chattering when she surfaced and swam for the ladder, climbing up to a chorus of catcalls and shouts. Jack immediately hauled her up and wrapped her in a tattered beach towel while she shivered against his chest. “Come on, Mike, you’re freezing—let’s get you home.”
“No!” Lacey jerked from his hold, her heart ramming against her ribs. “I don’t want to go home, Jack.”
He slacked a hip. “You’re soaking wet, Lace, and your teeth are rattling loud enough to scare the fish. I’ll walk you home, you can change, then we’ll come back.”
“No, Jack, please—I had a fight with Daddy, and I don’t want to go back there now.”
“Then I’ll run up to get you some dry clothes.” He started for the ramp, but Lacey gripped his T-shirt. “Can’t you just hold me a while in the chair? Please?”
, that’s our cue.” Cat jumped up from her chair, lips canting as she grabbed her sister’s hand. “There are bowls of ice cream with our names on them, Shan, so let’s leave these lovebirds to shiver on their own.”
“I’ll bring you some dry clothes,” Shannon offered as Cat dragged her toward the ramp. Her sweet smile warmed Lacey as always, making her grateful that at least one of Jack’s sisters still liked her.
“No need, Shan.” Lacey hurried over to the storage shed and yanked an old quilt off the shelf. “I’ll just wrap up in this, and Jack can keep me warm.” She batted her eyes. “Won’t you, Jack?”
His smile sloped sideways. “Do I have a choice?”
“Yeah, well not
warm,” Cat called, tossing a smirk over her shoulder. “Oh and, Jack, will you clean my fish and bring ’em up?”
“Sure,” Jack muttered absently, a frown puckering his brow as he inspected Lacey head to toe, taking in her sopping hair and shivering form. “Come on, Lace, let me get some dry clothes for you.”
She moved in quickly, petrified he would leave. “No, I’m fine, really. Just hold me—please?”
“You’re shaking and your lips are blue.”
“Only because the water was cold,” she reasoned, fisting his T-shirt with an innocent pout that usually swayed him her way. “Come on, Jack,” she whispered, lifting on tiptoe to skim her lips against his, “the air is warm, and so are you, so just give me your T-shirt, and I’ll take off these sopping clothes.”
“Lace, no …” A guarded look entered his eyes, and Lacey’s heart constricted.
“Wait.” She quickly gathered up the ratty quilt, then peered up with a plea, desperate to be close to the one man who actually cared. “Look, you win—I’ll only ditch the wet jeans and tank, then wrap up in this blanket after you give me your T-shirt, okay?”
Hands on his hips, he arched a thick brow, lips banking to the right. “
She tilted her head to give him her most adorable smile. “Absolutely, because it’s no worse than me wearing a swimming suit under your T-shirt, right?”
“Yeah, right.” His lips twitched enough for her to notice, as if a squirm of a smile was making headway despite his gruff stance. Even so, he leveled a stern finger. “If I do give you my T-shirt, Mike, we just sit and talk, got it?”
“Got it!” She gave a salute. “Uh … with maybe just a teeny-weeny bit of steam?” Chewing her lip, she held two fingers in front of her nose, a bare half-inch apart. “Maybe this much?”
little steam,” he emphasized with a twist of his mouth, stripping his shirt off and handing it over.
The shirt was still warm from his body, and between the faint scent of Obsession and the sight of his bare muscled chest, Lacey didn’t need a blanket to keep her warm anymore. Slipping into the shed, she stripped her tank and her jeans off and slipped on Jack’s T-shirt, which practically came down to her knees. Bundling everything into a ball, she carried it out to where he stood with his back to her, staring at the water with his hands on his hips.