“Shh … shh … it’s okay, Emma …” He fanned his fingers through her hair, cupping her face in his palms, his gaze a tender caress. “I’m here now,” he whispered, kissing her forehead, her temple, her cheek … Her pulse quickened while her weeping stilled to soft, little heaves, and when her eyelids drifted closed, her heart stuttered when he brushed them with his lips. “I’ll keep you safe, I promise,” he whispered, and a silent moan faded in her throat as his mouth trailed to her temple. “I swear no one will ever hurt you again …”
Heat throbbed within as she lost herself in the caress of his hand, her mind dazed while his mouth explored. The soft flesh of her ear, the curve of her throat, her body humming with need as never before. She felt his shallow breaths, warm against her skin and with a low groan, he cupped her neck to capture her mouth with his own. “Oh, Emma,” he whispered, his voice hoarse against her lips, “I want to be there always, to protect you, cherish you …” He deepened his kiss, and she tasted the salt of her tears.
All reason fled and she was lost, the air hitching in her throat a mere heartbeat before she returned his passion, her mouth warm beneath his. She knew it had never been like this with anyone—not with Rory or others or even in her wildest dreams. A merging of souls as well as bodies, where hope soared and love swelled in her chest unitl she thought she would burst.
Sean—her Sean! Tasting her like this, loving her like this, felt so right, so natural, the missing piece of her soul. Kisses both tender and hungry, uniting them, changing them, molding friends into lovers for the rest of their lives …
“God, forgive me,” she whispered, her body shivering from the caress of his mouth to her throat. Her words vibrated beneath his lips, fragile and tinged with awe. “I never knew … never dreamed … it could be like this …”
He clutched her close, his uneven breathing in rhythm with hers. “Emma, I’m so stupid—I never saw this coming, but God help me … I’m in love with you.”
No! She jolted away, his words searing her conscience with a pain more awful than any Johnny had inflicted. Fear clawed in her throat, forcing her back against the wood arms of the couch. “No, Sean, please—you can’t!”
He stared, his face filled with grief. “It’s too late,” he whispered. “I can’t not love you—not now, not after this.”
“But it’s wrong!” She put a hand to her neck, her chest heaving and her mind convulsing with guilt. God, how could I have done this? Tears stung her eyes as self-loathing rose in her throat like bile. She was everything Rory had branded her—a liar and a whore, scarred and hideous, not fit for any man’s bed. She looked away, nauseous at the thought that Sean might see her for the vile woman she was. Her voice shuddered with shame. “We can’t do this, Sean, ever—do you hear? I gave my vow to Rory, and you need to marry Rose. You belong with her.”
Tragedy welled in his eyes as he shook his head. “No, Emma, I belong with you …”
Her head jerked up, eyes crazed and fear burning inside as if a scarlet letter singed her very soul. She stared, voice bordering on hysteria and hands clenched. “No, don’t say that—”
He reached to feather her knuckles with his thumb. “It’s the truth, Emma, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel. I suspect I’ve been in a love with you for a long time; I just didn’t know how much.” His voice held the barest trace of a tease, obviously intended to lighten the moment. “A late bloomer, remember?”
She found no humor in his jest. “Sean, no. You can’t love me that way—it’s wrong.”
“No, Emma,” he whispered, “the only thing wrong is that I can’t show you how much.” He quietly folded her into his arms and eased her head to his chest. The warmth from his body seeped into hers as his hand slowly fondled the back of her neck. “Heaven knows I’ve tried to fall in love with Rose, for you more than for me, but it was never really there, and now I know why. Charity was right—I am dense. I can see now I’ve been in love with you for a long time.”
She squeezed her eyes shut, fists clenched on his chest. “Stop saying that, it’s not right.”
“That may be true, Emma, but nothing has ever felt more right in my life.”
She wrenched away, shame suffocating until she thought she couldn’t breathe. “No—I’m …” She paused, the very words on her tongue proof that Sean deserved better. “another man’s wife.”
His eyes were gentle as he twined his fingers with hers. “That may be, Emma … but you belong to me, not him.”
She yanked her hand from his and shot to her feet. Out of desperation, she forced a hard tone. “To me, it’s adultery, Sean, and I won’t do that—not to someone I love and not to God.”
His eyes never strayed from hers as he rose. “I know that,” he said quietly, feathering her arms with his palms, “but it doesn’t change the fact that I love you … and you love me.”
“No, I don’t love you! Not like that.” A sob broke from her throat.
Against her resistance, he slowly gathered her into his arms to rest his head against hers. His voice was soft and low and so full of love that it made her tremble. “Yes, you do,” he whispered, “but I love you too much to ever hurt you with that love.” He lifted her chin, his gaze tender. “You are the best thing that has ever happened to me, Emma Malloy, and I want you in every way a man could ever want a woman.” He stroked her jaw with the pad of his thumbs. “But if you don’t want me to act on it, then I give you my word that I won’t.”
Chin quivering, she flung herself in his arms, clutching him so tightly that the buttons of his cotton shirt ached against the bruise in her cheek. She could hear the pounding of his heart and she closed her eyes, her heart spilling over with gratitude for this man whose love made her feel almost whole. Almost worthy.
Pain shifted in her throat. “Oh, Sean, what are we going to do?” she whispered. His scent enveloped her, soothing her senses with the clean smell of soap and Barbasol and a hint of Cherry Mash.
“Well, for starters,” he said with a stroke of her hair, we’re going to eat soup.”
She glanced up, acutely aware of tiny blond bristles that shadowed his chiseled jaw and lips that had kissed hers, now curved in a smile. “You know what I mean. What are we going to do about us … at the store?” Her voice faltered. “I … don’t think we can do this … day in and day out. One of us will have to leave …”
“No.” His voice was firm, leaving no room for debate. He palmed the side of her face, his touch gentle, but his mouth as rigid as the set of his jaw. “Nothing has changed. We loved each other as friends … and now we’re simply friends who love each other. And we’ll go on as before.” His fingers grazed her chin, lifting to emphasize his intent. “Because if I am to be denied loving you as my wife, Emma, then by God, I will love you as a friend. I promise you, we can do this.” A nerve pulsed in his cheek. “We will do this.”
With a stiff smile, he gently buffed her arms and then strode toward the kitchen, his tone taut with authority. “You go change while I warm up the soup, and then pack a bag with whatever you’ll need for a week. We’ll come back for the rest.”
“What?” She wrung the top of her robe together, fingers cinched at her throat. “What do you mean?” she whispered.
He turned, hands loose on his hips and gaze slatted enough to know she had a fight on her hands. “I mean I’m not leaving you here so that lowlife can hurt you again. You’ll stay with us for the foreseeable future, until I feel it’s safe to come back.”
“With you? At your house?” Her voice edged toward shrill.
His lips cemented into a hard line. “There or at Charity’s, take your pick. But either way, Emma, you’re not staying here, and that’s final.”
“But I can’t! Mrs. Peep needs me … and my cats.”
“Mrs. Peep loves you and wants you to be safe. She’ll watch your cats, she already told me so.” The blue of his eyes steeled to gray as he peered at her, the flicker of a dormant temper glinting in his eyes. “I won’t stand here and argue with you, Emma. I’m not usually a volatile man, and you know that, but this is too important. Trust me on this—I will take you by force if I have to. So I suggest you pack your bags while I warm up the soup.” He turned away, disappearing down the hall where sunlight streamed into her kitchen.
A heave shuddered from her throat and she put a hand to her eyes, numb over how her life had changed in just a few short hours. Yesterday she had been content to be alone, fear as foreign to her now as Rory’s violent scorn. And yet, with one vile slap, her yesterday had shifted into a present steeped in fear, shame and guilt, all neatly laced with denial and despair.
“We will do this.” Sean had said.
The memory of his mouth caressing hers burned in her thoughts, unleashing a flood of shame and guilt that caused her to quiver. Her hand trembled to her lips as tears slipped from her eyes.
No, God, we won’t …
The young girl paused, her smile pensive as she dried her hands. “So, why do you do it?”
“Do what?” Emma gathered the soiled tablecloth and placed it on the counter before retrieving the domino set from the bottom drawer of her cupboard.
Casey studied her, gaze narrowed in thought. “Give extra money to Mrs. Peek.”
Emma rose and turned, the wooden box clutched to her chest. “What do you mean?”
Tossing the towel over a rack, Casey ambled to her seat to and settled in, arms folded on the table and lips twisted in a wry smile. “Come on, Emma, I know you give money to Mrs. Peek, just like you give money to me and heaven knows how many others. And as if that isn’t enough, you insist on fixing us dinners and lending me clothes. You keep Mama posted on my progress and you watch me like a hawk—” One side of mouth hooked up. “A ‘mother’ hawk, to be exact, hovering over me, taking care of me. I’ve seen you bake brownies for people at work, kids in the neighborhood and just yesterday, Margaret Latham told me you’ve been tutoring her in math.” She cocked her head. “So, tell me because I really want to know—why do you do it?”
Emma blinked, Casey’s question catching her off-guard. She laid the box on the table and thought about all the dinners they’d shared, all the conversations about movies or fashion or love. Sure, Emma had given advice here and there, even referring to prayer or her deep faith occasionally on their strolls to church. Her pulse quickened. But for Casey to ask such a question outright meant the door was open for more. More of Emma’s heart.
And more of God’s?
She swallowed her hesitation and sat down, scooting close to the table to upend the box. Dominoes spilled across the lemon-polished wood with a clatter while Emma peered up, her heart spilling with love. “Because I have to, Casey, I can’t help it.” She cocked her head and gave her a mischievous smile. “You know how you feel when you’re with Johnny, as if you’re going to bubble over for the love he brings into your life?”
Casey nodded, a blush blooming on her face as she released a lovesick sigh.
“Well, it’s the same with me,” Emma said in a matter-of-fact tone, fingers flitting across the sea of tiles to turn each of them face down.
Ridges formed in Casey’s brow. “I don’t understand. Rory hurt you and now you’re alone.” She squinted, as if trying to comprehend. “Do you mean love for friends?”
“Yes, affection for you, Mrs. Peep and others, certainly, but that’s not the love I mean.”
“What, then?” Casey asked, the innocence in her face plucking at Emma’s heart.
Emma paused, fingers lingering on a tile. She glanced up with a tentative smile. “The kind of love that has the passion of a lover and the faithfulness of a friend, Casey—God’s love.”
Casey’s eyelids lowered as she shifted in her seat. “But we can’t see or feel God, Emma, so how can you feel his love? I need more than prayers to a God I can’t touch, see or hear—I want to hear words of love, see kind actions, feel hugs and kisses …”
“We all do, because yes, we’re human beings. But we were made in God’s image.” Drawing in a deep breath, Emma leaned back in her chair, her eyes tender. “Which means, Casey, like Father, like daughter. You want to be loved? So does he. You want to be touched? So does he. You want to feel the rush of a kiss or the warmth of a hug?” Tears pricked Emma’s eyes. “So does he, Casey. Which is why I rushed to him when Rory hurt me and my family betrayed me. And you know what? I found a God whose arms were open wide and whose heart leapt with joy when I called his name. As protective as a mother and as jealous as a lover, this was a God who wanted me for his very own. Me—Emma Malloy! To touch, to bless, to fill with his pleasure.” She swallowed hard, her gaze locked on Casey’s. “Until I overflow, spilling his love on all those around me—treasured possessions of a passionate God.”
Casey stared, wide-eyed. “But I don’t feel that way about God, Emma, and I don’t know how to change that.”
“No, but he does.” Emma squeezed her hand. “Pray, Casey, for him to be the center and source of your life, for a passion for him that’s so strong, you feel him, touch him, hear him, just like he wants you to. And when you do, the love he pours in your heart will wash over everything in your life, making it the very best it can be.” Emma smiled. “Especially romantic love with someone who weakens your knees.”
The glow returned to Casey’s eyes. “Oh, Emma, I hope so, because I really do think Johnny may be the one.” She hugged her arms to her waist with a whimsical smile as if she were hugging Johnny himself, and then in a soft huff of another sigh, a bit of trepidation clouded the stars in her eyes. She chewed on her lip. “I just wish there was a way I could know for sure.”
With a sweep of her palm, Emma shuffled the dominoes and peered up. “There is.”
“How?” Casey asked with a kink of her brows.
Emma commenced selecting her dominoes, the smile on her lips at odds with the concern in her heart. She leaned forward, her voice tender and low. “Emotions are a powerful force, Casey. They can cloud our judgment and lead us into things that can hurt us, especially when we think we’re in love. But … not if you do it God’s way. It’s the only way to remain unscathed in a relationship.” Emma straightened and drew in a deep breath, determined to protect Casey like she wished someone had protected her. Absently brushing the scars on her face, she released a weary sigh. “Trust me, Casey—my life would be very different if I’d heeded what I’m telling you.” Emma reached to graze Casey’s hand. “Which means a good-night kiss at the door is fine, but anything more will only muddy the waters.” She drew in a deep breath and withdrew her hand, her gaze fused to Casey’s. “And never, and I repeat—never—allow Johnny into your apartment alone. It’s too dangerous.”
A hint of rose crept into the girl’s cheeks as she quickly selected her tiles. “But I don’t understand, Emma—how will that help to make sure that he’s the man for me?”
Emma picked her own tiles slowly, carefully, as if their import were as critical as what she was about to say. “Because the right man will love and respect you more for your strength of commitment, while the wrong man will only push to have his own way, all the while professing a love to sweep you away.”
Her thoughts trailed back to Rory as her voice faded to a whisper. She stared blankly at her tiles, sick with regret that it had been Rory’s “love” that had shaped her future rather than God’s. She shivered, suddenly aware of Casey’s probing stare. Drawing in a cleansing breath, she lifted her chin, never surer of the truth of her words. “Trust me, Casey, if I had followed God’s will and remained pure, I wouldn’t be bound to Rory today. Because when it comes to true love, there’s no better safety net than God’s precepts to protect you from hurt and heartbreak. When the wrong men come face-to-face with a woman who follows God laws, they will leave. But the right one?” She smiled, her words infused with the same sense of peace and certainty she felt in God’s presence every day of her life. “Now he, my friend, will stay.”