“Katie, are you okay?” Luke loosened his tie and stared, concern creasing his brow as he watched her, her body slumped at the window with a hand to her eyes. She didn’t move, and the tightness in his gut increased. He approached quietly, afraid he would startle her. “Katie?”
“Oh!” She whirled around, staggering against the sill with a hand to her chest.
He clutched her arm to steady her, and the color drained from her cheeks. Softening his hold, he absently grazed her skin with his thumb, then ducked his head and smiled, eyes tender as he studied her. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you. Are you all right?”
She nodded stiffly, her gaze glued to the massive hand on her arm.
Worry wrinkled the bridge of his nose and he braced both palms on her shoulders, convinced something was wrong. Her face was white and her breathing labored, and he could swear he felt a hint of a tremble. “No, I can feel it. Something’s bothering you.” He pressed his hand to her forehead. “Are you sick?”
She jerked back from his hold and butted up against the window, arms crossed and hugging her waist. “No!” she said too quickly to suit him, clearly avoiding his eyes. “I mean maybe a little dizzy, but nothing serious. I just need to go home …”
He shifted, suddenly concerned it had to do with him. He plunged his hands in his pockets and softened his tone. “Katie … is it me? Did I say or do something to upset you?”
She shook her head, gaze bonded to the floor. “No, Luke, really, please, I just need to—”
He nudged her chin up with his thumb, and her lips parted with a sharp intake of breath. And then he saw it. The gentle rise and fall of her chest, the soft rose in her cheeks, the skittish look in her eyes, flitting to his lips and then quickly away. Comprehension suddenly oozed through him like heated honey purling through his veins. Could it be? Was it possible that cold, callous Katie O’Connor was beginning to warm up? To him, of all people—Cluny McGee, the leper from her past? The thought sent warm ripples of shock through his body, thinning the air in his lungs. His gaze gentled, taking in the vulnerability in her eyes, the fear in her face, and all he wanted to do was hold her, reassure her.
As if under a spell, his gaze was drawn to her lips, parted and full, and the sound of her shallow breathing filled him with a fierce longing. “Oh, Katie,” he whispered, no power over the pull he was suddenly feeling. In slow motion, he bent toward her, closing his eyes to caress her mouth with his own. A weak gasp escaped her as she stiffened, but he couldn’t relent. The taste of her lips was far more than he bargained for, and he drew her close with a raspy groan. With a fierce hold, he cupped the back of her neck and kissed her deeply, gently, possessive in his touch. His fingers twined in her hair, desperate to explore.
And then all at once, beyond his comprehension, her body melded to his with an answering groan, and he was shocked when her mouth rivaled his with equal demand. Desire licked through him, searing his body and then his conscience. With a heated shudder, he gripped her arms and pushed her back, his breathing ragged as he held her at bay. “We can’t do this,” he whispered. He dropped his hold and exhaled, gouging shaky fingers through disheveled hair. His gaze returned, capturing hers and riddled with regret. “Believe me, Katie, as much as I want to, I’ve learned the hard way to take things slow. I should have never started this, and I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”
Forgive him? She stared at him through glazed eyes, her pulse still pumping in her veins at a ridiculous rate. She never wanted this, couldn’t stand the sight of him, and now here she was, tingling from his touch and desperate for more. Addicted to the “King of Misery.” The very thought inflamed both fury and desire at the same time, muddling her mind. Dear Lord, she was torn between welding her lips to his or slapping him silly. With a tight press of her mouth, she opted for the second and smacked him clean across the face.
His jaw dropped a full inch, complemented nicely by a slash of red across his cheek.
Her chest was heaving, but at least it wasn’t from his touch. She narrowed her eyes and clutched her fists at her side, not all that sure she wouldn’t slap him again. “So help me, if you ever touch me again, you will be the sorriest person alive.”
He slowly rubbed his cheek with the side of his hand, exercising his jaw as if to make sure it still worked. His eyes glinted like blue glass, sharp and deadly. Even so, the swaggering smile of old eased across his face. He bent forward, his tall frame looming over her like a bad omen, and his voice held that cocky drawl so reminiscent of his past. “What’s the matter, Katie Rose,” he whispered, “does my touch make you nervous?”
The heat in her cheeks went straight to her temper. She iced him with a cool gaze. “Nervous? Around you? Hardly. You can dress up in a suit all you like, Luke McGee, but to me you’ll always be the same cocky street brat with a twang in your voice and grime on your face.”
She knew her words hit their mark when a red blotch crawled up the back of his neck like a rash gone awry. A nerve pulsed in his temple, but his smile never wavered despite the steel edge of his jaw. One blond brow jagged high in challenge. “Is that a fact? Well then, how about a little experiment? Kind of like when you were eleven and I bet you couldn’t be nice?” He leaned close, his voice as hard as his eyes. “What d’ya bet I can make you nervous now?”
She tried to shove him out of the way. “I’m going home.”
“Not yet,” he whispered, blocking her in with a push to the wall. His voice, like the dominance of his hold, was a force to be reckoned with. “You always packed a wallop for a little girl, Katydid, but this time you picked the wrong street brat. You can turn your nose up at me all you want, but we both know that slap wasn’t so much about an innocent kiss …” He bent close, his eyes on fire and his breath hot against her face. “As how it made you feel.”
His words seemed to vibrate through her, low and thick in the air. She shuddered, and the force of his savage look trapped all protest in her throat.
“To you I’ll always be riff-raff, something vulgar and crude. Well, welcome to my world, Miss O’Connor. And, please, let me show you how we do it on the ‘streets.’ Because if I’m going to take a beating, you can bet your bottom dollar on two things for sure. One—I’m going to get my money’s worth.” A dangerous smile surfaced as his gaze focused on her lips. “And two …” His mouth hovered just above hers while his voice trailed to a whisper. “I’m gonna make you real nervous in the process.”
In a catch of her breath, he took her mouth by force, his late-day beard rough against her skin. A faint moan escaped her lips and all resistance fled, burned away by the heat of his touch, leaving her weak and wanting. His mouth roamed at will, no longer gentle as he devoured her, ravenous against the smooth curve of her throat, the soft flesh of her ear. With a guttural groan, he jerked her close with powerful arms, consuming her mouth with a kiss surely driven by the sheer will to ravage.
And then in a frantic beat of her heart, he shoved her away. She gasped, numb as she thudded against the wall. His chest was heaving and his eyes were hard, focused on her with cool disregard. “There. Now that makes two of the sorriest people alive.” He grabbed her purse from the floor and threw it on her desk, then rubbed his mouth with the side of his hand. “Better run home, Katydid. God knows the riff-raff that roam the street this time of night.”
He turned and walked into his office, slamming the door hard.
She stared, her body still quivering from his rage. Closing her eyes, she sagged against the wall, too stunned to move and too shaken to care. She pressed a trembling hand to her mouth, her lips swollen from the taste of him. She was doomed, she realized, and the thought shivered through her like a cold chill. She wanted a man she didn’t really want, and the very notion weakened her at the knees. He had called her one of the sorriest people alive. She grappled for her purse and put a hand to her eyes.
And God help her, she was.
Faith grabbed her hand and held on tight. “Katie, I’m so sorry. But all the more reason to cling to God, because you have nothing to lose right now and everything to gain.”
Katie pulled her hand away and closed her eyes, her voice dead. “I don’t know, Faith. I know God is real to you, but to me, it’s always been more of a fairy-tale. You have faith in him, but I don’t. Sometimes I even wonder if I believe in him at all. I pray, but I feel like he doesn’t hear my prayers, like they’re long-distance and lost in the shuffle. I don’t feel any closeness with him, any desire to pursue him.” Her shoulders slumped forward, weighted with despair. “I guess the bottom line is …” A knot shifted in her throat, “I’m not sure he even exists.”
Her sister’s tone was gentle. “It doesn’t matter, Katie, not one little bit. All you have to do is ask him to reveal himself to you, to prove that he’s real and that he loves you and has a plan for your life. Just the frail consent of your will to invite him into your heart is all it takes. And you can have a living, breathing relationship with the God of the Universe, overflowing with a love and passion as real as anything you ever felt for Luke. Go ahead, Katie, do it! And if you do, you have my word—your life will never be the same.”
Katie’s eyes widened as she stared, her sister’s gaze aglow like a beacon of hope. She swallowed hard, knowing full well that no matter any storms in her life, this was the sister who carried a reservoir of peace wherever she went. The sister who had scaled every mountain, weathered every storm with her resilient faith in God. Katie blinked. Could it actually be real?
As if she sensed the shift in Katie’s thinking, Faith placed a palm on top of Katie’s hand, warm and stable, cupping it, shielding it, like an anchor of hope in this storm of her soul. “Katie,” she whispered, “you say he’s not real to you, that you’re not sure he even exists. But right this minute, one of us is right and one of us is wrong …”
Katie looked into her sister’s face, as if compelled to listen by some strange force that pulled at her with a tentative thread of hope.
Wetness shimmered in Faith’s eyes. “If it’s me who is wrong, then I have lost nothing. Because even if I have believed in a lie or a fairy-tale, then that lie or fairy-tale has given me more joy, more hope and more strength than anything I have ever encountered. But if it is you who is wrong, Katie, I tremble to think that you will have lost everything—his joy, his peace, his hope …” Her voice softened to a bare whisper. “His salvation.” She straightened then, her manner as sure as the conviction in her tone. “I repeat, Katie, one of us is right and one of us is wrong. Do it now, I beg of you—invite him into your heart. Because truly, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
Katie stared while seconds ticked by like heartbeats, thundering increments of time in a reality she could feel, see, touch. She was a realist, a woman bent on the law, with a penchant for facts, statistics and tangible proof. How could she lay all of that down to embrace an intangible God? A God her family had embraced all of their lives, depended on, lived for … while she herself had stood in the wings, master of her own future. She closed her eyes, grief piercing anew. A future that now lay in shambles at her feet. She swallowed the pride in her throat. Nothing to lose …
And then out of nowhere, Emma’s words that day in the store haunted her thoughts, and in a catch of her breath, Katie’s heart began to race.
“Whatever your hurts or fears or scars, Katie—call on him. He’s waiting to love you like you’ve never been loved before.”
“I don’t know, Emma, it all sounds wonderful, but God … prayer, well, I’m just not sure that it’s real.”
“I understand, but hear me, please … you won’t know till you try …”
Till I try … Katie’s breathing accelerated, and all at once, in the thud of her pulse or the trail of a tear, her decision was made. Gripping her sister’s hand like a lifeline in a stormy sea, Katie lifted her face to the ceiling while water seeped from her lidded eyes. Her voice quivered, but her resolve was sure. “God, Faith says you’re up there, that you care for me and have a plan for my life. If you are … and I’m not just talking to a ceiling … will you show me? Reveal yourself to me, your love, your purpose for my life. Please, God, come into my heart and make me the woman you want me to be.”
She opened her eyes then, and somehow the room seemed different. The same ivy wallpaper covered the walls, and the lace-curtained windows still wore pretty green ribbons tied back in a swag. The scent of rosewater hovered in the air, and Miss Buford—the porcelain doll from her youth—still perched on her vanity like some regal judge presiding over her bench. And yet, in the beat of Katie’s heart, everything had changed. She closed her eyes and breathed in the scent of her freedom, tears escaping as surely as her heart had escaped its gloom.
Dear God, can it really be this easy?
Her eyelids fluttered open and she looked at her sister, her words soft with wonder. “I never knew … never knew that it could be so easy … so real.”
A smile lighted upon her sister’s lips as Faith placed a gentle hand to Katie’s face. “Believing in him is easy, Katie, because he gives us that tiny seed of faith. And loving him is even more so because when you see how he moves on your behalf, your heart will spill over with joy. But unfortunately, living for him is not so easy. Feelings and doubts will come and go, but his Word stands forever. Study it, commit it to memory, learn through his Bible what he wants you to do. Because everything in this world will come and go—people we love, financial security, jobs—but God is a constant, and his promises endure forever.”
Katie nodded, the memory of her father’s hand on the Bible bringing a soft smile to her lips. All at once, she thought of law school, and the smile slowly dissolved. She drew in a deep breath. “I need to quit law school, don’t I, Faith?”
Her sister studied her, a look of regret in the depth of those gentle green eyes. “Maybe not quit, Katie, let’s just say postpone. Just until Father can get on his feet again.”
A heavy sigh departed from Katie’s lips, along with any sense of disappointment. She blinked, stunned that she actually felt relieved. “I … I don’t understand,” she muttered in confusion, “law school was everything to me.” She looked up, her eyes circled in shock. “Why do I suddenly feel like I don’t care?”
Faith smiled. “Because your life is in God’s hands now, Katie, not yours. And when we cling to him and follow his precepts, his path is paved with peace.”
Katie nodded, her amazement blooming into a grin. “Peace …” she said, reveling in the feel and wonder of the word. “Dear Lord, he should market it!”
A grin spread on her sister’s face. “He does, Katie Rose, every day. Through grateful pieces of the puzzle like you and me.”