“Brady, can we talk?”
He glanced up, and the taste of his words soured in his mouth. His hands began to sweat, adhering to the newspaper. Beth stared down at him with violet-hued eyes fringed with sooty lashes that seemed longer from this angle. He glanced at Collin out of the corner of his eye, then shoved the paper aside. He rose to his feet and swallowed the dread that cleaved to his throat. “Sure, Beth, where?”
She nodded toward the porch, then clutched her arms around her waist in that little-girl way she had when she was nervous. Only this time, the motion produced a slight swell of her breasts, revealing a hint of a cleft at the low-scooped dress. “It’s pretty out. Can we sit on the swing?”
“Sure, but you’ll need something warm, little buddy. It’s chilly.” He averted his gaze, determined to ignore both the heat crawling up his neck and Collin’s annoying grin. He licked his dry lips and strode straight for the coat rack, plucking his jacket off with way too much force. He searched for Beth’s warm coat, but found only her thin wrap.
He held it while she slipped it on. She smiled over her shoulder. “Thanks, Brady.”
He opened the front door and waited patiently, pretending his heart wasn’t hammering triple time in his chest. Fine. They needed to talk anyway. The sooner, the better.
The porch was dark except for a soft wash of moonlight that cast distorted shadows as he leaned against the railing. He crossed his arms and waited while she settled on the swing with a soft swish of her skirt. She patted the seat beside her. “Why don’t you sit here? This could take a while, and I want you to be comfortable.”
Comfortable? With her scent as clean as lilacs in rain and her burgeoning body obscuring the little girl he once knew? He sucked in a full breath and stood up straight, shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his trousers. Exhaling, he positioned himself on the far right of the swing, determined to ignore the wood of the beveled handle as it sliced into his waist. He shifted to face her and draped an arm along the back of the swing. “So, what’s on your mind, little buddy?”
She bit her lip and scooted close enough that he could feel her body shivering. “Do you mind if we snuggle? It’s colder than I thought.”
He stared straight ahead, lips clamped tight as the heat of her body singed his. It set his nerves on edge, but she seemed nervous too—from the tug of her teeth against her lower lip to the clutch of her hands as they fidgeted in her lap. His arm—which had been resting comfortably on the back of the swing—suddenly felt like hardwood lumber. With almost painful motion, it hovered over her shoulder for eternal seconds before finally drawing her close. For pity’s sake, this is Beth and she’s cold. Settle down, Brady, and just get through this.
“What’s on your mind, Beth?”
She sighed and burrowed into his arms, causing the scent of her hair to invade his senses. It triggered an unwelcome warmth, despite the coolness of the night. But at least she was warm, he reasoned, noting her shivers had stopped. He closed his eyes and ground his jaw. While his were just beginning.
Her voice was soft and low. “I’m sorry for losing my temper the other day, but I … well I guess I’ve been struggling with my feelings for you …”
Tension stiffened his hold. “Beth, these feelings you’re having, they’ve got to stop.”
“I know, Brady, she whispered. “I finally understand.”
He drew in a breath and leaned forward. “You do?”
She looked up with a soulful expression. “Yes, I do. It doesn’t change the attraction I have for you or the love I feel inside …” She blinked several times, as if to clear the gloss of wetness from her eyes. His gut twisted. “But I finally realize I need to move on … I don’t want to lose your friendship.”
The tightness in his chest suddenly released like an audible sigh. Thank you, God, they could still be friends! He exhaled the weight of the world from his shoulders and scooped her into an overwhelming hug of relief. “Oh, Beth, I’m so grateful you understand. I love you too, and I’ll always be there for you, the best friend you’ve ever had.”
She returned a tremulous hug. The sound of her words rumbled against his chest. “That’s good, Brady, because I could use the advice of a friend.”
“Anything, little buddy!” He leaned back against the swing and tucked her safely under his arm. She was his sweet, little Beth once again, flooding his soul with joy. “What kind of advice do you need?”
“About men. Actually, one in particular.”
His joy fizzled faster than warm foam on week-old root beer.
She glanced up with wide, innocent eyes, a stark contrast to the jealous surprise churning in his gut. “There’s this boy—his name is Tom Weston—and he’s asked me out, on and off, for over two years now. And lately, well … it seems he won’t take no for an answer.”
He blinked. Men have been asking her out? For two years? His Beth?
He sat up, desperate to convey a composure he didn’t feel. “Well, Elizabeth, you’re almost eighteen, I suppose it’s time … time to find the man that God has for you. Do you … like him?”
She sighed. “Well, he’s certainly attractive and hard-working. He’s worked two jobs as long as I’ve known him and plans to go to law school after he graduates college next spring.”
The jealousy rose in his throat like bile. “So, you’re … attracted to him, then?”
“Well, I wasn’t initially because I had hoped you and I …” Her voice faded. She took a deep breath. “But I think now … now that I know you and I can only be friends, well, I think maybe I could be attracted to him …”
“Does he go to church?”
Her soft chuckle floated in the air. “Well, if you mean is he as spiritual as you, no, he’s not. But he’s from a good family who go to church regularly, and I think in time—”
“Is he a gentleman?”
Lizzie felt herself blush to the tips of her shingled hair. She bit her lip and turned away, slipping her hand into the pocket of her jacket. With trembling fingers, she pinched the cracker she’d hidden there and swiped crumbs into both of her eyes.
She didn’t answer. She was too busy blinking.
He reached for her chin and gently tugged her gaze to his. He was suddenly the consummate big brother, concern etched in his handsome face. “Answer me. Is he a gentleman?”
The crumbs were masterful as they welled in her eyes. “I’m …n-not sure.”
“What do you mean you’re not sure? Has he given you cause to think otherwise?”
“Well, he … he kissed me once.”
Disapproval darkened Brady’s features. “Did you encourage him?”
Her lips parted in shock. “No! I promise you I didn’t. He c-cornered me …”
“So, he’s not a gentleman?”
Her eyes went wide. “I don’t know … maybe … but probably not.”
She began to shake, not sure if it was her nerves or the drumming of Brady’s fingers hard on the wood. He eyed her through narrowed lids. “Well, he doesn’t sound like the type of young man you need. I suggest you forget about him and look elsewhere.”
She blinked. “What?”
“You wanted my advice as a friend, and I’m giving it. Forget him.”
A rare rush of indignation flared in her cheeks. “I wanted your advice on how to ward off his advances, Brady, not if I should date him. I’ve already decided on that.”
“You can’t date some clown with one thing on his mind.”
Crackers and fury forced hot tears from her eyes. He didn’t want her, but no one else could either? She rose to her feet. “How dare you, John Brady? I have no choice! My heart is breaking because of you, and if it takes Tom Weston to get over you, then so be it.”
He jumped up. “Beth, forgive me, please, and don’t cry. We can pray about this—”
Disbelief paralyzed her for a painful second. “No! You leave me be. I don’t want anymore of your prayers—”
His hand gripped her. “Beth, please, sit with me? Can’t we just talk and work this out?”
She relented, allowing him to tug her back to the swing, where the feel of his powerful arms only enflamed the longing in her soul. He bundled her against his shoulder, and the clean, pure scent of musk soap taunted her senses.
“Beth, you’re so special to me,” he whispered, “I never want to hurt you.” He kissed the top of her head, and she could smell a trace of the peppermint he kept for children at the shop. A sharp ache pierced her heart. He was her Brady … good and strong and kind … but he would never really belong to her. Not the way she yearned in her heart—as a husband, a man, a lover. The thought all but crushed her, and she collapsed against his chest in painful weeping.
“Beth, don’t cry, please. I love you …”
She felt his lips in her hair, and her anguish surged. She jerked away. “No, don’t lie to me, Brady! You don’t love me—”
He groaned and embraced her. “I do love you, little buddy, more than anyone in this world.” With grief in his eyes, he searched her swollen face. He caressed her wet cheeks with gentle hands. “You mean everything to me,” he whispered. He bent to press a light kiss to her forehead.
Shallow breaths rose from her throat at the warmth of his lips against her skin. Her body stilled. “A kiss is the only thing that will haunt him until he admits he’s in love.”
She lifted her gaze, taking great care to impart a slow sweep of lashes.
“Beth, are we okay?” He ducked his head to search her eyes, then brushed her hair back from her face. A smile shadowed his lips. “Still friends?”
Friends. A deadly plague only a kiss could cure. Resolve stiffened her spine. “Sure, Brady … friends.”
He smiled and tucked a finger under her chin. “That’s my girl. Now what do you say we pray about some of these things?” He leaned close with another quick kiss to her brow, and in a desperate beat of her heart, she lunged, uniting her mouth with his. She felt the shock of her action in the jolt of his body, and she gripped him close to deepen the kiss. Waves of warmth shuddered through her at the taste of him, and the essence of peppermint was sweet in her mouth.
“No!” He wrenched back from her hold with disbelief in his eyes.
Too late. She had never felt like this before. Years of seeking romance from flat parchment pages had not prepared her for this. This rush, this desire … her body suddenly alive, and every nerve pulsing with need. All shyness melted away in the heat of her longing, and she pounced again, merging her mouth with his. John Brady, I love you!
A fraction of a second became eons as she awaited his rejection. His body was stiff with shock, but no resistance came. And in a sharp catch of her breath, he drew her to him with such force, she gasped, the sound silenced by the weight of his mouth against hers. He groaned and cupped the back of her head as if to delve in her soul, a man possessed. His lips broke free to wander her throat, and shivers of heat coursed through her veins. In ragged harmony, their shallow breathing billowed into the night while his arms possessed her, molding her body to his.
“Oh, Brady, I’m so in love with you,” she whispered.
Her words severed his hold as neatly as the blade of a guillotine. He staggered to his feet, and icy cold replaced the warmth of his arms. She opened her eyes and saw pain in his. She grabbed his arm. “Brady, can’t you see? You love me too … not as a friend or a sister, but as a woman.”
“God help me, Beth, I can’t love you that way.” He stared like a zombie, chest heaving with jagged breaths that swirled into the cool night air, drifting away.
Just like her dreams.
She reached for his hand, but he pulled it away. She blinked. “You just did, John. Nothing can convince me otherwise. You love me … and you want me … just like I want you. Why can’t you admit it?”
His tone was rough with emotion. “Because it’s wrong, Elizabeth. You’re a little sister to me, nothing more.”
She rose, along with her ire. “I see. And that’s how you kiss a sister?”
Blood gorged his cheeks. His shoulders straightened as he stood stiff and tall. An uncommon show of anger glinted in his dark eyes. “I regret what happened tonight, and I apologize. Please give my thanks to your mother and my good-byes to your family.” He moved toward the stairs.
“Brady, wait!” She latched onto his arm while tears pooled in her eyes. “You can’t leave like this. Not now. I opened my heart to you … and you took it when you gave me that kiss.”
The anger in his eyes faded to pain. “I know, Beth. Forgive me. It won’t happen again.” His back was rigid as he strode down the steps.
She ran after him. “No! Don’t leave—please! Friends don’t leave when you need them the most.”
He stopped, hand poised on the gate, and the coolness of his manner was totally foreign. He turned with a look of agony she had never seen.
“No, Beth, they don’t.”
And without another word, he unlocked the gate and hurried away. Fading quickly—just like her hope—into the darkest of nights.
The bathroom door creaked open, and their heads jerked up. They stared, still as stone as Brady walked into the kitchen, coffee cup limp in his hand. His hygiene was considerably improved, clean-shaven and hair slicked back, but his eyes were still red and glassy. Dead and lifeless, Collin thought, and his stomach twisted. He jumped to his feet. “I have eggs and toast in the oven. More coffee?”
“No,” Brady muttered and dropped into a chair. His eyes trained on the empty cup in his hand.
Collin ignored him and filled his cup before topping both his and Father Mac’s. He plunked a plate of eggs and toast onto the table, along with plates and utensils. “Eat,” he said.
Brady continued to stare, his bleary gaze lost in a sea of bitter coffee. “I’m not hungry.”
“Yeah, well you need a little something other than vodka to sustain that thick head of yours.”
That woke him up. His head shot up, and the red in his eyes singed like fire. “Go to the devil, Collin. As if I didn’t pull your head out of the latrine more times than I can count.”
Collin eased back into his chair, all humor depleted. “That’s right, John, you did. Which makes this all the more upsetting. What’s going on?”
Brady closed his eyes and ran a shaky hand over his face. “I can’t tell you.”
“Why? From the very beginning, you’ve known everything about me—my past, my present, what I think, what I feel. The best of friends, closer than brothers. Don’t you think I deserve the same?”
Brady lowered his head. “You do, but I can’t tell you.”
Collin’s jaw tightened. “Why?”
“Because I’m not ready.”
Collin slammed his fist on the table. “Not ready for what? To be a friend?”
Brady’s head lunged up, his eyes swimming with pain. “No, Collin, not ready to lose one.”
Collin blinked. He swallowed the emotion lumped in his throat and nodded. “If I leave, will you promise to talk to Father Mac?”
Brady nodded slowly, his eyes dull.
Collin stood. He glanced at Father Mac. “Can you try to get him to eat? I want him healthy at work tomorrow.” Collin gave Brady’s shoulder a quick squeeze. “I’m tired of carrying him.” He started for the door.
“I’ll have half of day’s work done before you even shadow the door.”
Collin turned, hand poised on the knob. His throat tightened. “I want you to know, John, whatever you did, no matter how bad you think it may be, I will stand by you. I’m proud to call you my friend, because I know who you are—a man of integrity, honor and passion for God. And nothing—nothing—you can say will ever change that for me. I love you like a brother, John, and always will. See you tomorrow.” The door clicked softly behind him.
Brady drew in a deep breath and avoided Matt’s gaze. Tears filled his eyes. “Like a brother,” he whispered. “That doesn’t sound so good right about now.”
Father Mac leveled beefy arms on the table and leaned in. His tone was quiet. “Worse than you thought?”
Brady’s laughter held no mirth. “Yeah. Not only was I a child drunk and a thief, but apparently I was depraved as well—too depraved to even say the sins aloud.”
He heard Father Mac flinch, the faint intake of breath piercing Brady’s consciousness anew. God, help me—I’m an infidel. A lost soul.
He staggered to his feet, suddenly craving the numbing effect of the bottles he’d stolen from Michael’s stash. “I’d rather you leave, Matt. I feel sick and need to lie down.”
A firm grip fisted his arm. “No, John, we need to deal with this now. Once and for all.”
Brady jerked away, his eyes itching with tension. “And how do you propose to do that, Matt? What exactly do you have? A potion or magic formula that will make it all go away?”
Father Mac stared. The brown of his eyes deepened with intensity in a face that radiated pure peace and calm. “No potion, John, and no formula. Just the saving blood of Jesus Christ.”
The impact of Matt’s words pierced his heart. He looked away. “Maybe that’s not enough this time.”
“It’s always enough, John.” Father Mac pulled out a chair. “Sit. Please?”
Brady hesitated, then did as he asked, slowly sinking into the chair. He leaned his elbows on the table and put his face in his hands. “How can God forgive something like this?”
Father Mac exhaled and sat down beside him. He placed a hand on his shoulder. “He does it all the time. I know a man who committed adultery and then murdered his lover’s husband, but God forgave him.”
Brady looked up with shock in his eyes.
A faint smile shadowed Matt’s lips. “In fact, he called him a man after his own heart.”
Father Mac nodded. He removed his hand from Brady’s shoulder and took a drink of his coffee. He wrinkled his nose. “Cold. Want me to warm it up?”
Father Mac didn’t wait for his answer, but dumped both cups and replaced them with hot. He set them on the table and sat back down. “King David was an unusual character. Loved God with all of his heart, but had this unfortunate flaw.” Father Mac paused to taste his coffee, then quirked his lips. “He was human. For instance, one day he’s dancing before the Lord in a linen ephod, not giving a whit that his wife thinks he’s making a fool of himself. Then down the road a bit, he’s lusting after a married woman he sees taking a bath on the roof of her house. And what does he do, this man who loves God with all of his heart? He takes her to his bed, then has her husband sent to the battlefront to be killed.”
Father Mac leaned in, his gaze intent. “He committed adultery and murder, yet he’s still the only man in the Bible God refers to as ‘a man after His own heart.’ Now why is that, I wonder? I’ll tell you why. Because David was a man who had a love affair with God. Imagine that—emotionally involved with the God of the Universe. Trusted Him, worshiped him, sought after him—and all without restraint. Did he mess up? You bet. Did he repent? With all of his heart, aching inside whenever he offended his God. Why? Because he had a Father-son relationship with him, loved him and wanted to please him.” Father Mac hesitated, slowly tracing his finger along the rim of his cup. He finally raised his eyes to capture Brady with a fixed stare. “Just like you, John.”