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Authors: Julie Lessman

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BOOK: Isle of Hope
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Silence reigned except for a soft gasp from Shannon and the rolling boil of carrots. His mother blinked and then laid the spoon aside in slow motion, gaze lost in a pan of gravy that bubbled before her. Head bowed, her back seemed to sag as her question drifted up with the steam that misted her face, as heavy as the humidity in the marsh-scented air. “How do you know?”

“Yeah, did you see her fly in on her broom or something?” Cat’s tone had a bite to it, but then it would. Lacey had been the person she’d idolized, the best friend who’d turned her back on them all. And the sister-in-law that was never to be.

His gaze veered her way. “I ran into her at the BP.”

His sisters exchanged glances, their faces as pale as their mother’s as she slowly moved toward the table. Easing into her chair, she wore the same look of shock Jack had felt when he’d first seen Lacey’s face. A girl full of life and love so like one of their own.

A sister. A daughter.

And almost a wife.

“She’s back for good. Took a teaching job in Savannah.”

“But why?” Cat’s eyes darkened to slits of midnight blue. “I knew she’d be back for the wedding, but for the love of all that’s decent, why move back where she’s not wanted?”

“Catherine …” His mother’s soft warning was as gentle as the hand she laid on her daughter’s arm.

His sister jerked away. “No, Mom, it’s true, and we all know it. For years she belonged more to our family than hers and then all hell breaks loose, and what does she do? She bolts at the first sign of trouble, turning her back on the people who really cared to take the side of a home wrecker—”

“Enough!” His mother’s voice rose with a deadly calm that never failed to silence her children. Steam continued to boil into the air along with the bitterness that hovered whenever the Carmichael family was mentioned. Squaring her shoulders, his mother lifted her chin in a show of authority no one dared to defy. “Karen was Lacey’s mother and my friend,” she said quietly, the steel in her tone belying the tender touch of her hand over Cat’s. “And I would hope you would have done the same for me.”

“You wouldn’t do what she did,” Cat bit out, the blue eyes bristling with anger.

His mother scooted close to wrap Cat in a hug. “One never knows what one will do given the weight of circumstances beyond our control, darling, which is why the grace of God—and His forgiveness—is as vital as air.”

“Where is she staying?” Shannon asked, her eyes too warm with empathy for Jack’s taste, especially for the likes of Lacey Carmichael.

Cat grunted, sliding her nail back and forth in a groove gouged by a quartz rock Jack and she played catch with when he was ten. “Not with her old man, that’s for sure.”

Jack exhaled and gouged a thumb at the sinus pain above his eye, hoping to ease the ache. “With Nicki for the summer, then an apartment in Savannah or maybe Wilmington Island.”

“Oh, Wilmington Island, please—the farther, the better.” Sarcasm coated Cat’s words, almost tugging a smile to Jack’s lips. No question Mom and Shan were the softhearted ones in the family while Cat and he were the keepers of the grudge.

A tiny frown popped at the bridge of his mother’s nose. “Matt never mentioned Lacey was coming home early for the wedding, much less moving back, did he?”

“Nope, which is why he’s dead meat when I get my hands on him,” Jack said in a near growl. “He could have at least cushioned the blow.”

“Humph, nothing would cushion that blow,” Cat groused, “but a double dose of anesthesia—”

“Did she happen to say why she’s moving back?” his mother interrupted, proceeding to massage Cat’s shoulders. His sister emitted a soft moan as she closed her eyes, some of the tension fading from her face.

His mouth took a slant. “To make amends, she says.”

Cat grunted. “Thus the move because it will take the rest of her frickin’ life.”

A heavy sigh parted from his mother’s lips. “It’s about time. Heaven knows we all need closure, and none more than Lacey’s father.” She gave Cat’s shoulders two brief taps with her palms and stood, hurrying to stir the gravy. “We’ve forgiven your father and moved on, and now it’s time to do the same with the Carmichaels.”

“Uh, you, Shan, and Davey have forgiven Dad, Mom,” Cat said with a pointed look, rising to help her sister set the table. She grabbed a fistful of knives from the utensil drawer and wagged them in the air as if she had a target in mind. “Not Jack or me.”

Her mother arched a brow, spoon in hand like a threat. “You will if my prayers and Shan’s have anything to say about it.”

“Ha! It’ll be a cold day in—”

“Jack, you’re home!” A blur of blue and yellow streaked into the kitchen to scramble onto Jack’s back as he straddled his chair, bringing a grin to his face as only a little kid could.

“Hey, squirt,” Jack said with a chuckle, tousling his little brother Davey’s hair. His gaze hardened on his cousin Matt Ball who followed behind, the best friend who’d failed to warn him about the bomb that had just shattered his good mood. He locked on his little brother’s wrists as he stood up, searing Matt with a glare while Davey dangled off his back. “Thanks for the heads-up, Ball,” he said in a cool tone.

Matt halted mid-step, a football tucked under one arm and blue eyes in a blink, his muscled Duck Dynasty T-shirt spotted with sweat. “What?”

“Don’t play dumb, Matt—Lacey moves back for good two freakin’ months before the wedding, and you fail to mention it?”

The dark tan on Matt’s face suddenly paled while he threaded fingers through spiky blonde hair, his look sheepish at best. Best friends since they were babies, his cousin Matt had moved in with them when his dad was transferred during Matt and Jack’s senior year. Not wanting to disrupt her son’s schooling, Aunt Olivia had reluctantly allowed Matt to stay with her sister Tess through college and then after when he landed a coaching job at the high school. Together through every trial and trauma of their lives, Jack and Matt had forged a close bond that went deeper than blood. Even so, Jack’s jaw began to grind. Blood that was about to be spilled if his cousin didn’t have a good reason for keeping Lacey’s homecoming to himself.

With quick recovery, Matt plopped the football on the table and strolled toward the sink, shooting Jack a flash of white teeth in a face burnished by the sun from coaching sports year-round. “Sorry, bro—planned to tell you after our game tomorrow night.” He looped an arm around Jack’s mother at the stove. “So, how’d you find out?”

“Oh, no you don’t—you two can hash it out later,” Jack’s mother said in a tone sharp with authority, obviously hoping to derail any further unpleasantness in her kitchen. Her nose wrinkled when she caught a whiff of her nephew. “Good heavens, Matt—you reek. I suggest you and Davey take a quick shower before dinner if you plan to eat.”

“What’s ‘reek’ mean?” Davey pretended to fall off of Jack’s shoulder with a flail of arms.

“He stinks,” Cat and Shan said in stereo.

Matt sauntered over to the icebox, probably intending to poach another Red Bull. “Because that’s how a man who excels in sports is supposed to smell, ladies, which of course you wouldn’t know since your brother always smells like a girl.” He ducked to peer in the fridge. “Hey—who took the last Red Bull?”

“You did,” the girls said.

A lazy smile tilted on Matt’s face as he flipped the door shut, delivering a smirk in Jack’s direction. “Oh, yeah, that’s right.”

“Do I stink like a man?” Davey offered Jack a whiff of his scrawny underarm, and Jack sniffed with great drama, scrunching his nose. “P-U, I’ll say—almost as bad as your cousin.”


Yessssss!
” Matt said with a fist bump to Davey.

“Hey, Jack, wanna play a quick game of hoops with Matt and me?”

“Sure, squirt.” Jack latched on to the little guy’s dirty T-shirt with a chuckle, twirling him around to the front before tossing him over his shoulder. Slight for eight, Davey was born after their father left, leaving Jack to step into the role of man of the house, which suited him just fine. As crazy as he was about kids, he was hoping for a passel himself some day. Davey’s laughter and squeals bounced off the kitchen walls as Jack tickled his waist. “As long as Matt doesn’t cry when I beat him.”

“Oh, dream on,” Matt said with a smirk. “When it comes to athletic prowess, I’m light years older than you.”

Jack slid his cousin a paper-thin stare. “Older? You’re six months younger than me.”

Matt moseyed on over to ruffle Davey’s hair, delivering a wink in Cat and Shan’s direction. “True, but
I’ve
been living and working in the
real
world making men out of boys on field and court while
you’ve
had your nose in a book.” He snatched a grape tomato from the salad Cat was making, then quickly dodged the warning wave of her knife. Shooting a grin Jack’s way, he popped the tomato in his mouth. “Which means maturity and expertise are on my side, bro. So you may be older chronologically, but when it comes to sports, you’re barely out of the womb.”

“What’s a womb?” Davey asked, squirming on Jack’s shoulder like a night crawler.

“A mama’s tummy,” his mother said in a rush, neatly side-stepping the issue as she pressed a kiss to Davey’s cheek. “And no hoops, young man—we’re eating early tonight, so showers only.” She swooped Davey off Jack’s shoulder with another kiss before aiming him for the door with a pop on his butt, then turned to Matt with lift of her chin. “And that means the both of you—
now,
please.”

“I’m going, I’m going,” Matt said with the same disgruntled look as Davey while the two of them plodded from the room. He turned midway to peer at Jack, eyes in a squint. “Hey, wait a minute, I thought you had a date tonight. And I know Jasmine couldn’t have dumped you for somebody better looking ’cause I’m still here.” He draped an arm over Davey’s shoulder. “So what’s the story?”

“A horror story,” Cat muttered, and Jack’s mom sent her a warning look.

Matt’s white-blonde brows shot high as his gaze darted to his cousins and back. “Uh-oh, something stinks, and it sure ain’t me or Davey. What gives?”

“A cold shoulder, if I have anything to say about it,” Cat mumbled while she pulled a loaf of their mother’s butter-twist bread hot from the oven. “Talk about something that stinks worse than you.”

“Catherine Marie—one more negative word, and the dishes will be yours for the rest of the week.” Tess shot a mock scowl in Matt and Davey’s direction. “Off with you to the showers, boys, or you’ll be eating outside with Blue by the fishpond. You have exactly fifteen minutes before dinner’s on the table, so scoot.”

“Ohhhhh, no—not before I get the scoop.” Matt snatched the football from the table and bobbled it hand to hand as he stared at Jack with a stubborn gleam in his eyes.

Despite the mouthwatering smell of homemade bread, Jack’s stomach soured. “I’ll fill you in at dinner, so hurry up—I’m starved.”

“Okay, okay.” Matt ruffled Davey’s dark hair with a smile, but the curious look he gave Jack was considerably more sober. Some of the sparkle dimmed in his eyes as he steered his cousin toward the hall with a hand to the back of his neck. “Come on, sport, let’s unload this grime, and I’ll even let you use some of my great-smelling stuff that drives the girls wild.”

“Ewww … I don’t wanna drive girls wild,” Davey said.

“Good, then we’ll let you borrow your brother’s instead—the
real
expensive stuff.” A smile inched across Matt’s face as he tossed Jack a grin over his shoulder. “Because we’ll need to smell real good since your brother’s got news that apparently stinks to high heaven.”

Jack grunted. His gaze locked with Cat’s, lips pinched as tight as his.

Yeah. Right guess, wrong direction.

 

Chapter Three

 

Edging the Honda to the curb in front of her grandmother’s house, Lacey parked and switched off the ignition, hand limp on her keys while her eyes glazed into a zombie stare over the dash. Sucking in a shaky breath, she could still see Jack’s bitterness in her mind—the rock jaw, the stony lips, the pale blue eyes as cold and hard as blue quartz. A reedy breath withered on her lips.
This is gonna be harder than I thought ...

“Mamaw, she’s here!”

Lacey glanced over the picket white fence of her grandmother’s front yard to where her cousin Nicki did a little jig at the screen door of the wraparound porch. Darting out of the house in pink and red Flintstone scrubs she wore as a pediatric oncology nurse, she let the screen slam hard, the resounding crack making Lacey both smile and wince. Mamaw would have her head for sure with a mantra that Southern ladies do not charge in or out of a house like hooligans. Her cousin’s loud squeal brought a grin to Lacey’s face as Nicki Phillips—the only girl cousin on her mother’s side—barreled down the red-brick steps and sidewalk at warp speed.


Squeeeeeee!
” Nicki waved her arms in the air as if poor Fred and Barney were on fire, flung the pretty white gate aside, and darted around to Lacey’s side of the car. “Oh. My. Gosh! I cannot believe you’re finally
here

and
moving back for good!” She let fly with another giggly squeal that made Lacey laugh out loud.

“Moving back to
Georgia
,” Lacey emphasized with a chuckle, hopping out to crush her favorite relative in her arms. “Not Isle of Hope. I doubt many here would welcome me back with open arms other than you, Mamaw, Spencer, and Uncle Cam.”

“Oh, poo! There are lots of people who can’t wait to see you, silly.” She retrieved two suitcases from the backseat and handed one off to Lacey before hooking her free arm through her cousin’s. “
Including
the new associate pastor at Hope Church who’s marrying Matt and me.” She wiggled her brows. “Who just happens to be both single
and
a hunk.”

“Ohhhhhh no you don’t ...” Lacey skidded to a stop at the gate, a clear warning in her tone. “I just got dumped, remember? And
you
promised you’d let me grieve in peace, without sinking to Mamaw’s level of matchmaking.”

Nicki arched a russet brow, her short, spiky red hair and blast of freckles making her look more like an imp than a twenty-six-year old pediatric nurse about to get married. “I beg your pardon—I do not ‘sink.’” She bumped tan shoulders with Lacey, all but dragging her to the front door while her pert speckled nose jutted high in the air. “I stoop gracefully, I’ll have you know, a talent proudly acquired from our very own Southern belle grandmother.”

“Sweet tea in Georgia, as I live and breathe—Lacey Anne Carmichael is alive and well.” Her grandmother Mildred “Mamaw” Phillips stood holding the door, the twinkle in her rheumy blue eyes betraying rose-colored lips pursed in a mock scowl.

Lacey laughed. “Well, ‘alive’ anyway, although just barely.” She dropped her suitcase with a thump on the oval Persian rug of Mamaw’s high-ceiling foyer to swallow her tiny grandmother in a ferocious hug. Eyes drifting closed, Lacey immediately felt the sting of tears at the familiar scent of oranges and herbs from Mamaw’s Breck shampoo combined with the heavenly aroma of pot roast from the kitchen, a Sunday staple in Mamaw’s house. Although she towered over her grandmother’s petite five-foot frame by four inches or more, Lacey felt all of six years old in her silky embrace. Tucking her head into Mamaw’s neck, she breathed in her childhood with hints of White Shoulders perfume and the clean scent of starch, the comfort of “home” surrounding her like Mamaw’s loving arms.

Eyelids lifting, she scanned the curved maple staircase lined with oil paintings and family pictures, and memories flooded of PJ parties with popcorn and old movies. Games of “spades” and “pass the trash.” Melancholy struck hard over all the times she and Nicki had snuggled with Mamaw in her double bed when Gramps was out of town, giggling the night away with secrets and spook stories and little-girl laughter. Emotion clogged in her throat, and with a powerful squeeze, she clung with all of her might, gratitude spilling from both her heart and her eyes over the blessing of this precious woman in her life. A woman whose very prayers, she had no doubt whatsoever, had set her upon the path to faith, no matter how long the journey. With an awkward swipe of her eyes, she pulled away to press a tender kiss to her grandmother’s soft cheek. “Oh, Mamaw, I’ve missed you so much.”

A soft and throaty chuckle rose like a caress as her grandmother hooked arms with Lacey to usher her down a wide amber hallway embellished by white molding and warm maple floors. Her standard white Keds were replaced by the leopard house slippers Nicki had given her for Christmas last year, and Lacey couldn’t help but grin when Mamaw teased with an affectionate smirk. “Well, now, if that were true, young lady,” she said with a toss of silver curls set and dried every Friday at the kitchen table with an old-fashioned bonnet hair dryer, “we would have seen you on Isle of Hope more than once or twice a year, sneaking in and out so fast, no one even knew you were here.”

A chuckle rolled from Nicki’s lips as she set the second suitcase on the foyer floor and hurried to catch up. “Uh, I think that was the plan, Mamaw.”

Lacey cringed.
Ah, yes, the plan.
In and out. Down and dirty. Like a Band-Aid on a festering sore—yank the sucker off so fast you never feel the pain.

“A plan that slurps marsh water if you ask me,” Mamaw said with a wry twist of lips, modifying one of Nicki’s favorite expressions to make it more palpable. She and Nicki bantered back and forth while Lacey soaked it all in like a woman coming out of a coma after too many years asleep, reveling in her family as if seeing them for the very first time.

With her stylish silver white coiffure, Mamaw looked more like sixty than almost seventy-five. Sleek and slim in white linen slacks, she wore a cotton top splashed with a hodge-podge of ladybugs that clashed with her leopard slippers. Uncle Cam always said she was as cute a bug’s ear, and the memory tilted Lacey’s lips into a smile because it was so very true. Mamaw was one of those cute, little old ladies that dogs liked to sniff and lick, and everybody else wanted to hug. A bunko-playing dynamo, who could be as sweet and deadly as her famous peach crumble pie.

“Spencer, look who’s here,” Mamaw said. She led them into her sunny kitchen overlooking a lavish serpentine brick patio flanked by mulched gardens of roses and boxwoods. Spacious yet cozy, the state-of-the-art country French kitchen and garden were a gift from Uncle Cam, who insisted on “nothing but the best” for the woman who cooked and cleaned and cared for his children. Here amid the wonderful smells of pot roasts and peach pies, Mamaw reigned supreme, providing a haven of hope and home for family and friends. Sunlight was at home here as well, glinting off a golden oak floor and cottage glass cabinets, each complemented by pristine white granite counters that sported every kitchen convenience known to man.

Lacey’s eight-year-old cousin Spencer sat at an antique provincial kitchen table in a nook area backdropped by a lush yard of towering oaks dressed in Spanish moss. Shafts of sunlight spilled through the oversized bay window, illuminating the intricacies of his Snap Circuits, Jr. building project, which sat in a shallow wooden box his dad had probably built for ease of transport. On the edge of the box perched two of Spencer’s favorite action figures that pretty much went everywhere he did, according to Nicki. At the base of his chair lay a snoring Sherlock Holmes—Spencer’s beloved sheep dog—who hadn’t a “clue” anyone else had even entered the room. Spread-eagle on his back, Sherlock looked more like a mop than a watchdog, gray wisps of hair fluttering with every growl of a snore.

“Hey, Lace,” Spencer said in a shy voice that held no hint of the stutter that appeared when he was nervous or excited. Tiny for his age, Spencer possessed an innate gentleness in hazel eyes the exact color of his sister’s, black-rimmed glasses magnifying them all the more. When he blinked, the thick lenses imparted the effect of a baby owl, giving credence to his studious nature and keen intellect. A thatch of brown hair as unruly as his rumpled dinosaur T-shirt barely covered protruding ears while a timid but sweet smile inched across his freckled face.

“Hi, buddy—how’s my favorite cousin?” she asked with a tight squeeze, noting his impressive electrical display.

“Hey—I thought I was your favorite cousin?” Nicki shot a playful scowl over her shoulder, giving Spencer a wink in the process. She pulled a tray of cookies from the oven, and the sweet smell of cinnamon instantly trumped the pot roast, watering Lacey’s mouth. Snickerdoodles … her favorite!

Lacey ruffled Spence’s hair even more than it was. “Nope, you’re too much of a girly-girl who can be a pain at times while this sweet boy here is no trouble at all. Plus
he
watches sports with me.” She pressed a kiss to Spencer’s head, skimming a finger across his intricate circuit board. “So what’s this, Einstein—circuitry to zap your sister when she gets out of line?”

“Naw.” He gave a bashful duck of his head, offering Nicki and Mamaw a sheepish grin. “This is a burglar alarm.”

“Ohhhhh, I see,” Lacey said, jutting a brow as she watched Nicki sample a cookie before transferring them from the sheet to a plate. “To keep your sister out of the cookie stash so she won’t pork up before the wedding?”

He giggled, a soft and gentle sound that made her wanna hug him all over again. Painfully shy with strangers, Spencer was diagnosed as borderline Asperger’s Syndrome, resulting in behaviors other children considered odd such as finger twisting or the slight fluttering of his fingers when he turned a page in a book. According to Mamaw’s letters, kids called him “oddball” or “Dense Spence” at school, making it difficult for him to make friends, an ongoing worry for both Mamaw and Nicki.
Especially
with his father on naval commission halfway across the world, an officer on the
USS George H. W. Bush.
The poor little guy never really knew his mother since Aunt Susan passed away from cancer when he was barely two, which was when Mamaw stepped in to help Uncle Cam.

“Hey, I’ll have you know I baked these especially for you, you little brat.” Nicki sauntered over with the plate of cookies and a pursed smile. She plopped them on the clear end of the table with a thud and patted a chair, chin pointed at Lacey. “Sit. I have exactly fifteen minutes till I have to drive Spencer to his first baseball practice before clocking in for my shift, so I want the
Reader’s Digest
version of a Cliff Note update, please.”

Lacey’s smile took a slant.
Easy.

Saved by faith.

Dumped by fiancé.

Strong-armed by God.

She inhaled deeply, the sweet smell of cinnamon and sugar filling her senses like God’s love had filled her heart. Where to begin? How to tell them that she hadn’t lost a fiancé, but gained a life? That the old Lacey with the salty tongue and sexy ways had traded in profanity for purity, and sex for sanctity? She stalled by rifling through the cookies, nudging past the darker ones burned to a crisp like Nicki preferred to inspect the lighter ones she favored. Extra cinnamon crackles on pale-yellow dough, slightly underdone. Night and day. Her smile went wry. Just like her life now that God had intervened. She scrunched her nose as she flicked a particularly dark cookie aside. “Uh, not exactly sure where to begin …”

“Excuse me, young lady, are you going to finger every cookie on that plate?” Mamaw clunked three blue ceramic saucers on the table with a familiar scold that sparkled with tease. “Are your hands clean, I hope, or will I have to make you eat each cookie you mauled?”

Lacey laughed, jumping up to wash her hands at the sink. “Nope, sorry. The pump at the BP leaked, so they’re pretty grimy, I’m afraid.”
As my life used to be.
The thought poured peace through her body like the tap water into the sink.

Nicki leaned a hip to the counter and gave the Keurig caddy a spin. “So what’s your pleasure? We have cinnamon roll, macadamia nut cookie, hazelnut, and crème brulee.”

“Oooo—macadamia nut cookie, please,” Lacey said. She retrieved Half & Half from the fridge and hurried back to the table where Mamaw was admiring Spencer’s burglar alarm.

Circling Spencer from behind in a tight hug, Mamaw kissed his head. “Okay, mister—you need to head up and put your uniform on, all right?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Spencer said, shooting Lacey a shy smile before removing his circuit box from the table, carefully placing the action figures safely inside. He roused Sherlock from the dead in the process, who shook a windstorm of floating hair before he followed him upstairs with a yawn.

Lacey waited till she heard the squeak of the steps before turning to Mamaw. “How’s he doing?” she said quietly, her grandmother’s last letter about Spencer’s bout of depression still weighing on her mind.

Mamaw sighed, the sound too heavy for such a tiny woman. “Better, I think, especially now that we signed him up for Little League.” She offered Nicki a smile as her granddaughter plunked two steaming cups of coffee on the table for her and Lacey. “I think he’s excited about the prospect of making new friends.”

Nicki cut loose with a grunt as she settled into her chair with a cup of her own. “Or any friends at all,” she said with a sad crook of her mouth. “The poor little guy has had a pretty rough year.”

BOOK: Isle of Hope
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