He stole her peace.
Can hope steal their pain?
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Chapter Excerpt from
Isle Of Hope
but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in Him.
Isle of Hope, Georgia, Early Summer
Puffing out a wispy sigh, Lacey Carmichael squinted into the rearview mirror to make sure the coast was clear, then dragged her bulging purse onto the seat with an unladylike grunt. The action caused her dusty blue Honda to swerve on Skidaway Road—along with her stomach.
Oh, crud! She straightened the wheel with a jerk, body rattling more than her 2008 Honda after a cross-country trip. Her gaze flicked to the mirror, and relief coursed like high tide. The road behind revealed nothing but palms and Georgia pines, silent sentinels ushering her home.
Home. Where full moons rose over the marsh and the scent of wisteria embraced summer nights. Where the lazy lull of river grasses swayed in the breeze, soothing a sleepy coastal community that burrowed into one’s memory like a long-lost friend. A haven where tidy cottages nestled next to lush antebellum homes, evoking a postcard setting that harkened back to a simpler time.
A simpler time?
Lacey sucked in a deep draw of the rich and humid low-country air that was pungent with the salty smell of the marsh, and instantly zipped back eight years to a time that had been anything but simple. Memories of an eighteen-year-old wild child constricted her throat. A rebel daughter who’d bolted from the hometown that had been anything but a home. Her shoulders slumped as she passed the Piggly Wiggly.
What am I doing here?
She cut loose another gust of ragged air while her eyes focused straight ahead. Returning to the scene of the crime. The charred debris of all the mistakes that I’ve made. One hand welded to the steering wheel, she rifled through her studded leather purse with the other, fingers fumbling on a tube of lip-gloss. With amazing dexterity, she untwirled the screw-on cap and applied “Ooh La La,” then puckered her lips. Now if she could only gloss over her past as easily ...
The BP loomed ahead and she slapped on her blinker, veering in to park at the closest empty pump. Her car squealed to a stop at the exact moment the contents of her purse careened to the floor. Lacey, you lead foot—when are you going to learn? Mumbling under her breath, she turned the car off and leaned to pick up the spilled items. A woman’s high-pitched laughter suddenly riddled the air, desecrating the sacred strains of Justin Timberlake from a radio nearby.
“Jack, you bad boy,” a woman’s sultry voice said, drifting from the other side of the pump, “what am I going to do with you?”
“Well, I know a few things that come to mind.”
Lacey shot up. Her head slammed against the glove compartment. She blinked through a haze of stars at the car on the other side of the pump, too dazed to feel the pain.
That voice. The same voice that had once uttered a proposal of marriage and swore to love her forever. Goose bumps popped as her breathing shallowed. A second onslaught of female laughter grated in her ears, and when she inched up to peer out the window of her Honda, her stomach immediately took a dive.
Whenever she allowed herself to think of Jack O’Bryen—which wasn’t often—she convinced herself that memories made people and things far better than they’d actually been.
Yeah, right. Hands propped to the driver’s door of a brand-new cherry-red BMW Z4, Jack O’Bryen appeared every bit the hottie he’d been when they’d first started dating over ten years ago. Only now he was taller, his previously lanky frame more filled out, and his physique tighter. Once shaggy chestnut hair, a byproduct of college days, was now trimmed neat and clean at the nape of his neck. He casually scratched the back of his head with a bulge of a bicep that made her mouth go dry, then slacked a narrow hip to the door. “The nozzle leaked, so I’m going in to wash my hands—need anything?” he asked the blonde.
Lacey moaned inwardly. Yeah. Distance—lots and lots of distance. She’d expected to run into Jack eventually, but now? Her first two minutes in town? She fought the urge to roll her eyes. Really? Heaven knows she wasn’t ready. Not even after eight years. She caught a glimpse of his tight, faded jeans and swallowed hard.
God help me, will I ever be?
The blonde shook her head, letting fly with another nauseating giggle that was sheer blasphemy against the strains of Never Again, a song that fit perfectly with the theme of Lacey’s homecoming.
Never again would she turn her back on the people she loved.
Never again would she seek her will over God’s.
Never again would she give her all to Jack O’Bryen.
The man in question disappeared into the station, and Lacey dove for her keys. She cranked the ignition and groaned. The gas needle lay prostrate; so far beyond “E” it was on “F” for fumes. She shot a glance at the Barbie Doll applying hot-pink shimmer to Angelina Jolie lips and then at the station where Jack was nowhere to be seen, and decided to chance it. If memory served, the ladies’ room was on the opposite side of the building from the men’s—the perfect place to hide.
She could do this.
Jerking the handle, she flung the door wide and slammed it too hard, obviously distracting the blonde from her makeover as she looked up. Lacey offered a nervous smile and made a beeline for the station door, purse clutched to her chest while her gaze darted across the store. Ignoring the curious looks of bystanders, she sprinted to the ladies’ room, rib cage heaving as she gripped the knob and turned. Thank you, Lord, home free!
“Lacey? Lacey Carmichael?”
Her eyelids sank closed as her stomach contracted, hand now grafted to the door. Warding off a wave of dizziness, she willed herself to turn around, but her smile felt as cardboard as the Timberwolf Chewing Tobacco display over Jack’s shoulder.
“Hello, Jack.” Her voice was little more than a squeak as she peered up at “Bridge #1,” the man whose heart she’d stomped on eight years prior without ever looking back.
He stared in apparent shock, mouth gaping and blue eyes just as wide, a perfect match for a well-muscled pale-blue polo. For a brief moment, his jaw seemed unhinged before he snapped it closed with a nervous bob of his throat. His mouth tamped into a tight smile. “What are you doing here? I mean, I knew you were coming back for the wedding, but that’s over two months away.”
Ah, yes, her cousin’s wedding. Her excuse, God’s mandate.
She cleared her throat so she could breathe and attempted a casual stance, cautiously butting against the restroom door. Her purse remained affixed to her bright pink halter top she was pretty sure matched her cheeks. “Well, you know my cousin, Nicki—a little scattered when it comes to details, and with Uncle Cam on naval commission in the Mediterranean, she asked me to come early to help out. And I’m off for the summer, so …” She gulped and forced a megawatt smile. “Here I am!”
He blinked. “Sorry about your mom,” he said stiffly, “I heard she passed away a few years back.”
Her gaze dropped to the grimy linoleum while she fought the sharp sting of tears that always threatened when she thought of her mother. It had been over six years since depression had stolen her life, but even now, mere mention of her still slashed anew. “Thanks, Jack,” she whispered, praying he didn’t know her mother committed suicide. They’d kept it quiet, and heaven knows her father would have never let the awful secret out, but small towns had big ears. “It was a difficult time for all of us.”
He gave a sympathetic nod before his smile seemed to set like concrete along with his hard-angled jaw, which sported a shadow of dark bristle. “I hear you’re a teacher.” His words were clipped, matter-of-fact … cool. “In San Diego.”
Her cheeks warmed, no doubt bypassing “pretty pink” altogether to go straight to “mortified magenta.” “Yes, I was … I m-mean I am a t-teacher,” she stuttered, “but not in San Diego anymore.” She fortified for her next statement with a deep draw of air, gripping her purse so tightly she was certain she’d have studs embedded in her chest. “I … took a job in Savannah … for the fall.”
Silence. A nerve quivered in his cheek as his gaze skimmed from the top of her disheveled blonde ponytail to her lacy pink halter and jean short-shorts that suddenly felt way too tight. Without missing a beat, he raked down tan legs to her baby-pink polished toenails, looping her stomach when he scanned back up to settle on her face, the blue eyes thinning considerably. His smile was as flat as his tone. “Really. Alone? Or with your significant other?”
She detected the barest grinding of his teeth, a habit that swooped her back years to countless arguments in his car when she’d tease and tempt, the school flirt dating the pastor’s son. His piercing stare unnerved her, unleashing a barrage of babble that always bubbled from her lips whenever she was nervous. “No, alone.” She sucked in a deep breath and forged on, anxious to slip past the subject of her wedding debacle. “So I decided to come back here to live … well, not here here … on Isle of Hope, that is … uh … I mean I will this summer, of course, because I’ll be staying with Nicki.” She swept her bangs out of her eyes with a shaky hand before her fingers slid down to fiddle with renegade strands of hair trailing her bare shoulders. “But come fall, I hope to have an apartment in Savannah or maybe even Wilmington Island because I have a friend who moved there from San Diego, family you know, and she lov—”
“Does your dad know you’re home?”
She froze mid-sentence, mouth open and body stiff like when she used to play swinging statues with Jack’s sisters on their front lawn, rigid and scared to make a move.
Like now, at mere mention of “Bridge #2.”
He shifted, cocking a hip. “He doesn’t, does he?”
Lacey felt another blush rise and tossed her ponytail in the air. “Not yet, but to be honest, Daddy’s one of the reasons I’m here.” She continued coiling the loose strands of hair around her finger, her tone softening as her eyes begged forgiveness. “I hope to make amends,” she said quietly, the barest hint of a plea in her words, “to those I hurt in the past.”
His lip curled. “Well that should keep you busy.” He folded his arms, the motion straining thick muscles against the knit cotton of his sleeves. “Just with my family alone.”
“Jack, please …” Her whisper was almost an ache, the memory of Jack’s twin sisters—Bridges #3 and 4—twisting her gut. Best friends who’d once been like blood. A quiver of air seeped through her lips, depleting her to the point of exhaustion.
His gaze flicked to her left hand and back. “Not married yet? Or is San Diego littered with broken hearts too?”
Heat blasted her cheeks, and she knew full well she owed him any scorn he chose to lob her way. “Actually, only one—mine.” She hiked her chin, ready to take any punishment he sought to mete out. “You’ll be happy to know I was soundly dumped by my fiancé, two months prior to the wedding, and good news! It was a double whammy—broken heart, broken bank account.”
For the briefest moment, sympathy flickered in those blue eyes as the tight lines eased around his mouth, but Lacey wasn’t here for sympathy—she was here to heal and be healed. “So,” she said in a rush, anxious to move past the awkwardness of this first encounter. “Nicki tells me you’re a big-shot doctor now, working with kids at Memorial.” The tension in her face softened along with her eyes. “A pediatrician—very impressive. You always were a sucker for kids.”
She spied the barest relaxation of his facial muscles, hinting at a possible smile he probably wouldn’t let through. “Yeah, I started in a peds practice at Memorial last week.” He threaded a hand through short dark hair streaked with summer sun. “After thirteen years devoted to higher education, it feels good to finally devote myself to kids.” One of his dimples winked as he slipped his hands into the back pockets of his jeans, nodding toward the cherry-red Z out the window. “Along with having a little fun for a change, like indulging in a new toy.”
Lacey managed a grin. “Very nice, Dr. O’Bryen—fulfillment of a long-held dream, I believe, given all the times you lusted after Todd Raber’s cherry Z. Residency must pay well.”
He cuffed the back of his neck, a tinge of pink creeping into his summer tan. “Not really. But Mom insisted I live at home till I started in a practice, so other than the token rent I forced her to take and school loans, my residency paychecks mostly went into savings.” He gave a small shrug. “So I decided to spend some.”
“Well, it’s about time, Jack O’Bryen—you’ve always been way too serious and focused.” She glanced out the window where the blonde was buffing her nails while shooting laser looks their way. “And speaking of ‘serious,’ I think your significant other may be getting tired of waiting.”
He glanced over his shoulder and grinned, the sound of his husky chuckle bringing back a rush of memories. “Yeah, Jasmine’s not the patient type, that’s for sure.” He turned back, a gleam of trouble in his eyes so foreign to the studious boy she used to know. “Everybody keeps telling me I’m the perfect age and place to settle down, but I’m not buying it.” He flashed perfectly white teeth, his manner suddenly bold and edged with a wild streak that hadn’t been there before. “Having way too much fun.”
She fidgeted with the studs on the front of her purse, uneasy with this new Jack, a man-about-town who seemed light years away from the sweet, intense seminary student with whom she’d fallen in love. Brushing the hair from her eyes, her hand was as shaky as her smile. “Well, it’s been great seeing you, Jack. I’m sure our paths’ll cross again since we’re both in the wedding.” With an awkward wave, she turned to manhandle the knob, struggling to open a door that refused to budge.
He reached around and turned it for her, giving it a light shove. It wheeled open as slick as the oil in the pumps. “I’m sure you will,” he said quietly, the warmth of his breath against her neck causing her skin to tingle. “If you’re home to build bridges, I assume that includes Mom and the twins?”
She peeked over her shoulder. “It does,” she whispered, feeling as awkward as if this were the end of a first date. She paused. “How is your mom, by the way—and your sisters?” She rested her hand on the knob to keep her fingers from trembling. “I keep tabs on them through Nick, of course, but I know she hasn’t been in touch with your sisters since …” Her words trailed off, not wanting to put voice to the awful tragedy that had befallen them all.
He cleared his throat, hands back in his pockets. “She’s good. Praying up a storm, as always. Still hounding me to go to church, which I do for her, but I’m not into that stuff anymore.”
Lacey blinked. Oh, Jack, no … “B-but that used to be your thing,” she whispered.
He studied her through a shuttered gaze. “It used to be my dad’s thing, too, remember?”
“Excuse me, please.” They both jolted at the presence of an elderly woman who took them by surprise.
“Oh, pardon me,” Lacey said as she held the door open for the lady to enter.
“Thank you, young lady.” The woman toddled past, and Lacey exhaled slowly when the door closed behind her, her gaze flitting back to Jack. “Well, unless I plan on taking a summer job as BP doorman, I think I better scoot. Take care, Jack, and please tell your mom and sisters I’ll be in touch.”
The blue eyes all but burned into hers as he nodded, a shadow of a smile grazing his lips. “Will do.” Turning, he made his way to the door where the blonde with the perfect nails waited with a pout.
Lacey entered the restroom, numb while the door thudded hard behind her. Eyelids sinking closed, she sagged against the worn and peeling wood while she sucked in a sharp breath, fingers kneading the seeds of a headache in her temple.
“Dearie, are you all right? You look as if you’re about to be sick.”
Lacey’s eyes popped open. She managed a smile at the sweet, gray-haired lady who was blow-drying her hands. “I’m fine, thank you,” she said, ducking into the nearest stall. She slid the bolt closed and collapsed against the door, palms flat to the dirty beige steel while her eyes stared straight ahead. She swallowed hard.
Or will be in about two months.
Julie Lessman’s tagline is “Passion With a Purpose,” which underscores her intense passion for both God and romance. A lover of all things Irish, she enjoys writing close-knit Irish family sagas that evolve into 3-D love stories: the hero, the heroine, and the God that brings them together.
Award-winning author of The Daughters of Boston, Winds of Change, and Heart of San Francisco series, Julie was named American Christian Fiction Writers 2009 Debut Author of the Year and voted #1 Romance Author of the year in Family Fiction magazine’s 2012 and 2011 Readers Choice Awards. She has garnered 17 RWA and other awards and made Booklist’s 2010 Top 10 Inspirational Fiction. One of her latest novels, Surprised by Love, appeared on Family Fiction magazine’s list of Top Ten Novels of 2014. Her indie book A Light in the Window is an International Digital Awards winner, a 2013 Readers' Crown Award winner, and a 2013 Book Buyers Best Award winner. You can contact Julie on Facebook, Twitter, or www.julielessman.com, where you can read excerpts of her favorite romantic and spiritual scenes from each of her books.
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Isle Of Hope
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