A Glimmer of Hope: A Novella Prequel to Isle of Hope (8 page)

BOOK: A Glimmer of Hope: A Novella Prequel to Isle of Hope
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Jack grunted. “Easier said than done. Away from Lacey, I’m a rock, determined to do this relationship God’s way or else, but when she’s around …” He shook his head, a sigh of defeat threading his lips. “Don’t get me wrong—she’s been great all summer, seriously. But lately—the last few weeks, actually—she’s had this knack for slowly chipping away at my resolve when we’ve been alone, which is why I’ve avoided that as much as possible.”

“Ah … I wondered why you two have been hanging around so much your last two weeks home, watching movies with the family, board games, fishing tournaments down on the dock with your sisters.”

Jack’s mouth took a slant. “It sure wasn’t Lacey’s idea, I can tell you that. I’m just lucky she loves Mom, Shan, and Cat, or she would have never agreed.” He buffed the back of his head with the heel of his palm. “Which brings me to my most immediate problem.”

His father glanced up. “Your last night home?”

“Yeah.” Jack scoured his face with his hands before dropping them, limp at his sides. “I promised her a final evening to top all evenings tomorrow night, commencing with a sunset sail in your dory followed by a moonlight picnic on the dock.”

“I can always send your sisters down,” his dad said with a wry smile.

Jack issued another grunt. “Oh, that’d go over real big. She’s already frustrated we haven’t had much time alone this week as it is.” He shook his head. “No, I owe her a special night alone, Dad, but there is something I’d like you to do.”

His father assessed him out of the corner of his eyes. “Pray?”

“Yeah, especially that I can handle the temptation.”

Cheek pulsing, his father looked away, gaze wandering into a blank stare. “You know, Jesus instructed the apostles to pray the very same thing in the Garden of Gethsemane,” he said quietly, as if his mind were suddenly somewhere faraway. “‘Watch and pray,’ He said, ‘because the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’” His eyelids shuttered closed, voice so low, Jack had to lean close to hear. “And they proved Him right.”

He lowered his head to massage his temples with the span of his hand. “Yes, I will pray, Son,” he whispered, “but you need to pray too.” Meeting Jack’s gaze, he gripped his shoulder, the silver in his hair suddenly more pronounced while a rare fatigue weighted his features. “And never forget that Jesus also said to ‘watch,’ eyes wide open to even the slightest hint of temptation. Not so you can fight it, mind you …” His father’s trademark passion—so prevalent in the pulpit—was suddenly tempered considerably. “But so you can flee before it’s too late.”

Jack silently nodded.

His father slowly rose, somehow far older than before despite the trace of a smile. “And speaking of fleeing, we best head inside before your mother is tempted to serve dinner without us.” He started for the door.

“Dad?” Jack stood to follow, halting when his father turned. He plunged his hands in his pockets, feeling a lot like that ten-year-old kid who nearly burst with pride because his dad was the coach that everyone wanted.

“Yes, Son?”

Jack steeled his jaw in an effort to divert the moisture that pricked in his eyes. “I love you, and I thank God everyday He gave me a father with so much wisdom and strength.”

His father stared, and for the briefest moment, Jack thought he saw a glaze of tears. “I love you, too, Jack, but trust me—I’m not so wise. And as far as any strength?” His smile was melancholy as he nodded at the sky. “It all belongs to Him.”


Chapter Nine


“Come on, Jack, I dare you.”

Jack stared at the black, undulating Skidaway River where Lacey had just cannonballed in the dark and discharged a heavy sigh. Shaking his head, he watched the ripples of her wake, shimmering in the moonlight like tease always did in her deep hazel eyes.

She shot up out of the water like a tow-headed sea nymph, water sluicing down gentle curves of her T-shirt that tempted way more than he would have liked. Her chuckle was husky and low as she paddled in place, the sultry sound floating toward him like the mist on the water—hazing his mind, clouding his will. “This is our last night before you leave for that stuffy seminary,” she said with a mischievous smile, “come on, Jack—let’s make a memory to keep us warm while you’re gone.” With a scrunch of her nose, she wiggled in the water and shot him a pixie grin that came off devil-may-care.

Jack grunted. That certainly nailed it to the wall. The edge of his mouth jagged up.
With a freakin’ nail gun.
He cocked a hip and sighed, gouging fingers through his shaggy wind-blown hair, wondering for the umpteenth time how Lacey could have gone from honor-roll choirgirl to temptress in the blink of a semester. But he already knew the answer.

The California she-devil.

He watched the little brat float on her back while she splashed and sang off-key, and exhaled a weary sigh, shaking his head. Because after he left for school tomorrow, there wouldn’t be a single thing he could do about Nicki’s influence.

Except pray.

And, oh, how he prayed it would be more than enough.

“Uh-oh, you’re doing that grinding thing with your mouth again—which means you’re
too tense.” She tipped her head, batting water-spiked lashes in that playful way that always breached his defenses. “Why not cut loose with a warm moonlight swim?”

Yeah, that’s exactly what he was afraid of—warm moonlight, warm water.

Warm bodies.

Exhaling a reedy thread of air, he latched his thumbs in the pockets of his paint-stained cut-offs and slacked a hip, his tone that of a responsible and well-grounded pastor’s kid hoping to heed the call on his life. The one from God and
the girl in the water. “Come on, Lace, you know that’s not smart.”

“I don’t know anything of the sort, Jack O’Bryen,” she said, the hint of hurt in her tone only one of the many indications she’d butted heads with her father again. “Nicki says you’re still living in the Dark Ages, Brye, and I agree. An intimate moonlight swim is no big deal.”

No big deal?
A would-be pastor diving into danger? Jack blasted out a noisy sigh, venting his frustration in one long, ragged breath that shuddered his body.

Talk about temptation in the flesh.

A malaise seemed to settle over her like a morning fog on the river, dousing the sparkle in her eyes. “Besides, I love you, Jack,” she whispered, “and I need to feel close to you tonight.”

“Aw, Lace …” He shifted on the dock, his defenses slipping as always when Lacey was in one of her hurt and needy moods. A neediness triggered by another fight with her father, and then exacerbated by Jack going back to school. He squatted to extend a hand, understanding her moods better than she understood them herself. “Come on, babe,” he said quietly, “let me cuddle you in the chair.”

Like a chameleon, her mood changed in the space of a splash. Dipping her head in the water, she flung her hair back with a daredevil look in her eye. “I’d
cuddle in the water, Pastor O’Bryen. You know, two bodies afloat in a sea of love?”

He rose and stood in a casual stance, hands perched low on his hips with a crack of a smile. “Sorry, kiddo,” he said, hoping to tease her out of it, “but I’d sink like a 500-lb. anchor in your so-called sea of love.”

She resorted to a jut of her lower lip, employing that sad-eyed pout that always took him down. “Come on, Jack, you’re leaving me for a long, long time. The least you can do is give me a memory to seal our love.”

He couldn’t help it—he shook his head and grinned. No question, Lacey Anne Carmichael had to be the biggest little brat on the Isle of Hope. But she was also everything Jack had ever wanted. Intelligent, warm, and brimming with life and fun and adventure, the perfect complement to his serious and sensible self. Half tomboy, half vamp, she was an adorable little girl in a woman’s body whose heart had always beat in time with his own. A best friend as deep as the Skidaway River who sparkled and shined on the surface with a sense of humor that made him laugh.

Until now.
He folded his arms, his smile suddenly flat. “I thought that’s what the promise ring was for—to ‘seal our love.’”

She splashed away to float on her back again, gaze pinched as she extended her hand to stare at the pledge of his love, a speck of diamond barely bigger than a grain of sand on the shore. “It is, Brye,” she said softly, her playful mood dimmed by the melancholy in her tone. She lowered her hand as her gaze connected with his, a sheen of moisture glistening in her eyes like the moon on the water. “But you’ll be gone tomorrow, Jack,” she whispered, “and I really want—” A lump bobbed in her throat, making her look so very young and vulnerable. “
” she rasped, the sound almost a hiss of desperation, “I really
to feel close to you tonight.”

All at once in the slosh of a kick, she disappeared for several seconds, almost as if embarrassed by her emotional state before breaking the surface again in a spray of seawater. With the glimmer of a smile, the minx was suddenly back, waving her sopping T-shirt in the air. “Come on, Brye—just one final moonlight swim before you go—please?” Face glowing with newfound tease, she pelted the T-shirt on the dock, landing it with a splat at his feet.

He lowered his voice several octaves, his tone considerably cooler than the blood pumping through his veins. “Come on, Lace—you know how I feel about that.” Bending over to pick it up, his fingers tingled at the touch of her well-worn T-shirt, so gossamer thin, it barely obscured the swimsuit she wore. The one that had driven him crazy all evening. With a hard swallow, he tossed it back, ignoring the throb of heat that shot straight to his gut. “Put it back on, and I’ll take you to Cold Stone for an Oreo Overload before they close.”

She cocked her head, tying the stretchy T-shirt on top of her matted blonde hair like a bonnet. “Mmm … no go on an intimate moonlight swim, but bribery’s an option?” Eyes twinkling, she hiked her chin to address him in a stern manner that reminded him of an old-fashioned schoolmarm. “Don’t look now, Pastor O’Bryen, but I believe your moral tenets are at odds.”

Jack exhaled.
Yeah? You should see my head and my heart.
“Look, Lace, I want to do …” He stalled with an impatient flick of his fingers, determined to come up with a harmless word that wouldn’t trigger her hormones. “
… as much as you do—”

“No you don’t,” she said with a purse of her lips that came off more as a pout. “Your idea of ‘whatever,’ Jack O’Bryen, is a couple of heated kisses in the chair and ‘see you later.’” She slid the T-shirt off her head, all humor fading from her eyes. “It doesn’t seem natural, Jack.”

He chafed, biting back a rare curse that just itched to fly free. Did she not realize how hard it was to keep his hands off her? The restraint it took to say no when everybody else was hooking up with whomever, whenever? That he cared about her too much to take it for free? He sucked in a sharp breath, the smell of fish and loam filling his lungs while he stared at the girl he loved despite himself—
her. “I want more, too, Lace,” he said quietly, “which is why I want to wait. I want to give you everything I’ve got, including God’s blessings because we did it the right way.”

“And I agree, I really do,” she said in a dull tone. A tone that told him—for the umpteenth time—her agreement was far more lukewarm than he liked, overpowered by a need for love far stronger than her need for faith. His stomach buckled when her lower lip began to quiver, the sobriety in her face chilling his skin. “But I’m not sure it’s smart for me to marry someone without knowing we’re compatible that way.”

His groan carried over the water. “For crying out loud, Lace, we’re so ‘compatible,’ I spend half my life in the shower, freezing my butt off.”

“Prove it,” she whispered, and the dare was back—defying him to say no. She hurled the T-shirt back and started to swim away from the shallow shore, out into the deep where river currents could too easily steal her away.

“This isn’t funny, Lace!” His temper quivered along with his body, a razor’s edge away from chucking his scruples and diving in. With his Topsiders all but fused to the weathered dock, he forced his will to comply with a step back and then another. “Okay, that’s it,” he called, “I’m outta here. When you’re ready to stop all this seduction garbage, you let me know.” Stalking up the ramp, he shot a final glance over his shoulder and stopped, squinting hard to spot her in the moonlit water. His gut clenched when he didn’t see her, and sprinting back, he stood at the edge of the dock and waited, scanning the languid roll of the river, inky waters dappled by a pale crescent of moon. “Lace, this isn’t funny!” he finally shouted, his breathing harsh through the clench of his teeth. He paused, straining to listen, but all he could hear was the rush of blood in his ears. “Lacey!” It came out hoarse and cracked, barely able to scrape past the lump of fear in his throat. “Where

The river rippled quietly on, nothing but the squeak of the dock, the lap of the water, and the taunt of tree frogs and crickets.

Tearing his T-shirt over his head, he kicked his deck shoes off and dove in, eyes wide to peer beneath the murky depths before he shot up from the water, panic pounding in his chest. “Lacey!” Fear slithered in his mind like algae in the river as he pummeled the waves. A madman with arms pumping as fast as his heart while he shouted her name.
God, please …


He jerked in the water, the feel of hands circling from behind unleashing a spasm of both rage and relief. His curse hissed in the air as he spun around. “So help me, Mi—”

She cut him off with a kiss. “Come on, Jack,” she said with a husky giggle, “if a future minister can swear, surely he can go for a moonlight swim with the woman he loves, can’t he?” She lunged to kiss him again.

He groaned and held her at bay, his breathing shallow and fast. “Lacey, I
love you,” he rasped, “but
—I can’t handle this, so if you love
, stop torturing me this way.”

All tease withered away as she stared at him with hurt in her eyes, and he wondered why
was the one who had to feel guilty. “All right, Jack,” she whispered with a frail release of air, allowing him to tow her back toward the dock. When they reached the ladder, she looped her arms around his neck, face forlorn as she blinked up. “I’m sorry for being such a brat, it’s just that …” A mist of tears sprang to her eyes. “The fight I mentioned I had with Daddy tonight?”

Jack nodded, holding her close, and despite the warm water, he felt her shiver in his arms.

Her throat convulsed several times, as if she were in pain. “What I didn’t tell you was it was worse than ever before. He even threatened to kick me out, and it really scared me, Jack, because he’s never done that before. And then he said the most vile things …”

“Aw, Lace, why didn’t you tell me this sooner?” He brushed wet strands of hair away from her face, his touch tender as he grazed her jaw with his thumb.

She peered up with soulful eyes. “Because you’re leaving tomorrow, Jack, and I didn’t want to ruin our evening …” She laid her head on his chest, her body quivering against his. “I want to do the right thing, I really do, and I want to stay true to our agreement, Jack, because I love you that much. But when Daddy said those awful things tonight …” A violent shudder rattled her body, and he gripped her all the tighter, wishing he could lay Ben Carmichael out right now. She heaved against his chest. “All I wanted to do was run away because I feel like I’m such a failure and not good enough for anybody, especially you …” 

She started to cry, and Jack smoothed her hair back to tenderly kiss her head, his jaw about ready to snap. Temple throbbing, he silently steered her up the ladder and then picked her up in his arms, tucking her towel around her before sitting in an Adirondack chair with her in his lap. “Shhh, it’s okay, babe, he’s the failure, not you.” He stroked her hair while she whimpered against his chest, cradling her like the precious treasure she was. “And as far as you not being good enough for me, Lacey Carmichael, that’s a lie from the pit of hell, because no one—” He pulled back to lift her chin with tender fingers, heart twisting at the damage her father had done. “
No one
has given my life more meaning, more joy, more laughter and more hope than you, babe, so please—don’t let him destroy you or the love that we have. Because it’s once in a lifetime, Lace, and so are you.” He leaned in to nuzzle her mouth with his own, praying the tenderness of his kiss would convey just
special she was. To him. To her mom. To his family.

And to God.

BOOK: A Glimmer of Hope: A Novella Prequel to Isle of Hope
6.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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