She hurried to the sink to snatch a dishtowel from a hook, then slung it over her shoulder. “Here … half in the wash pot, half in the rinse.” She stepped back, allowing him just enough room to pour. Vapor rose like a cloud of mist, delivering the faint scent of Bay Rum to her nostrils. His powerful back strained as he poured, his jacket pulling tightly across broad shoulders. He turned, pot in hand, dwarfing her with his height. “More?”
She swallowed hard. Her chin tilted up to meet his eyes. “More?”
A faint smile flickered at the edge of his lips. “Water. You said you like it hot.”
Blood surged to her cheeks. “I … no, that’s fine. Just fine.” She staggered back, lightheaded. Settle down, Charity. He’s just a man.
She took a deep breath and turned, patting the back of the nearest chair. “Why don’t you just sit and keep me company while I do the dishes?”
He leaned against the counter and crossed his arms, assessing her with hooded eyes. “Why? Too close for comfort?”
She blinked, and her lips parted in surprise. Ignoring the heat in her cheeks, she jutted her chin. “No. Is it for you?”
He grinned. A reckless gleam shone in his eyes. “You wash, I’ll dry.”
Charity took a deep breath and moved toward the sink, confusion and euphoria battling in her brain. She tried to focus on the task at hand, but her thoughts were tripping faster than the beat of her heart. What was he doing? It was as if the birthday toast with wine had unleashed the rogue in him. He was baiting her, teasing her … disarming her. This was his idea of friends?
She drew in a deep breath and sliced her hands into the warm water, scouring plates like a madwoman before plunging them into the rinse. Fishing them out once again, she didn’t bother shaking them off, just slapped one on top of another in a sloppy clatter, water sluicing onto the counter. After several silent moments, she tilted her head to chance a peek out of the corner of her eye. “You’re not drying.”
He gauged her through half-lidded eyes. “And you’re not washing; you’re drowning.”
Her chuckle cleaved to her throat when he lowered his gaze to her mouth. The breath in her lungs shallowed, drifting out in short, raspy breaths. “You’re still not drying,” she whispered.
He moistened his lips, then slowly lifted his eyes to hers. “I need this.” His fingers skimmed across the towel on her shoulder, causing the air to still in her throat.
Dear God, what was happening? It was as if he had no control over his hand as it strayed from the towel to the soft curve of her neck. A tilt of her head, the blush of her cheeks, and suddenly he was two different men. One whose every muscle, thought and desire strained toward wanting her. The other, a distant voice of conscience and memory, quickly fading with every throb of his renegade pulse. Curse the effect of the wine! What else could explain this driving insanity pulsing through him right now? His fingers burned as they lingered, slowly tracing to the hollow of her throat. Against his will, Mitch fixated on her lips, lush and full, staggered at the heat they generated. What was he doing? He didn’t want this.
Yes … he did.
All night he’d felt it mounting, a desire in his belly that grew tight at the sound of her laughter, the lift of her chin, the light in her eyes. A woman with cool confidence around everyone but him. Call it the wine. Or the fact he hadn’t been this close to a woman for well over a year. Or the intoxicating awareness that his very presence seemed to unnerve her. Whatever name it bore, it had him by the throat, taking him places he’d vowed he’d never be.
She blinked up at him, eyes wide and wondering. He was taking her by surprise and knew it. But no more so than him. He stared at her lips, feeling the draw and unwilling to fight it. His fingers moved up her throat to gently cup her chin, his eyes burning with intent. Slowly, carefully, he leaned forward, his mouth finally reaching hers, his breathing ragged as he tasted her lips.
A soft mew left her throat, and the sound ignited him. He pulled her close, his mouth demanding hers. She moaned while he pressed her to the counter, holding her there as he deepened the kiss. With a deep groan, his arms swallowed her up, drawing her small frame tightly against his. He pressed his lips to her hair, allowing her scent to flood his senses … to consume him.
Just like before.
His heart seized. What was he doing? The more he touched, the more he wanted. But she had ruined his life. Dashed his hopes. Destroyed his dreams. Dear God in Heaven, he wanted her … but he didn’t want her.
“No? What do you mean ‘no’?” Charity sat up straight in the chair, then leaned over the table to give Brady the benefit of her incriminating gaze.
He glanced up from the Bible. The warmth of his brown eyes seeped through a half-lidded stare. “You know what ‘no’ means.” His lips quirked. “Or maybe you don’t.”
She crossed her arms. “You’re refusing to pray?”
He exhaled and closed the Bible, unwinding his long legs from around the chair. He stood and stretched. “About that, yes.”
“But why? For a solid month now, you’ve been railing at me to get closer to God, badgering me with scripture, and now you tell me you won’t even pray?”
He extended his arms high overhead, his tight muscles straining with the effort. One of his thick, dark brows jagged up. “Railing? Badgering?”
She huffed and crossed her arms. “Oh, all right, I came here willingly, but only because I needed your help.”
He strolled over to a pot-bellied stove and poured thick coffee into an ink-stained cup. He lifted the pot in the air. “Want some?”
She shivered, making a face. “That swill? No, thank you. Last time, it felt like I had tar in my throat for days.”
He chuckled and sat back down, eyeing her over the rim. “God’s help, not mine.”
She stared. “What?”
He put the cup down and sat, sloping back in the chair. “You came because you needed God’s help. To win Mitch back, remember?”
She sank back in the chair with a sigh. “And now you won’t even help me pray about it.”
He took another swallow of sludge, then leaned his elbows on the table. The twinkle in his eye faded to serious. “I will help you pray about it, Charity. But God’s way, not yours.”
She worked at her lip as she studied him. John Brady was a true enigma. A quiet man with a strength of heart she had seldom encountered. A towering mystery, more enamored with the spirit than the flesh and totally indifferent to his own attraction. And certainly hers. His indifference had stung at first, provoking a challenge to turn his head. But instead he had turned hers … to the God she long denied.
She released her frustration in one telling breath. “Okay, you win. I’ll do it God’s way, not mine. Satisfied?”
“Nope. You can’t. You’re not capable.”
“What do you mean I can’t?” She rose up in her chair, ready to take him on.
He grinned. “I mean you haven’t made Him Lord of your life. Oh, you’ve danced around it plenty this last month, digging into the Bible, praying more and talking about doing things His way, but the truth of the matter is, you’ve never invited Him in.”
“What are you talking about, ‘invited Him in’?”
He leaned back and studied her for a moment, then took a deep breath and planted his arms on the table. “I mean you’ve never given your life to Him, Charity. Not completely. Never made the decision to live for Him instead of yourself. You know, no more doing things your way, out of selfish motivation?” He hiked a brow while a smile fidgeted on his lips. “You want God’s blessings in your life? You have to obey Him. Deuteronomy 30 in the flesh, my good friend, as Mitch once pointed out to you. And there’s only one way any human being can even hope to make an attempt at obeying Him. And that’s to make Him Lord of their life.”
“Invite Him in, Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, to live in your heart and be the Savior of your soul. But there’s a catch.”
The breath stilled in her lungs. “What?” she whispered.
“You do things His way, not yours. You pray, you listen, and then you pray some more. You take one step at a time, with His Word as a lamp unto your feet. In everything you say, think or do, you look to honor Him, not yourself. You become a new creature in Christ Jesus, one who can finally say no to sin and yes to God.” He leaned back and folded his arms, a grin surfacing on his lips. “And then, if I were you, I’d duck my head and look out.”
She blinked. “Why?”
“Because the blessings of God are going to overtake you, Charity O’Connor, and you’re going to find yourself overloaded with the desires of your heart.”
She released a long, quivering breath, unaware she’d even been holding it. She leaned in and extended her hands. “I want it, Brady. I want everything you just said. Pray with me?”
A sheen of wetness glimmered in his eyes as he took her hands. “My pleasure.” He bowed his head. “Lord, Charity has something to ask You. The gospel of John says that a godly Pharisee named Nicodemus once came to You in secret during the night. He wanted more, Lord, more of You. You told him that no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. Lord, Charity wants to see Your kingdom in her life. She wants You to change her, mold her, make her the woman You want her to be. Help her in her journey and please open her heart to You.” He looked up and nodded.
Charity sucked in a deep breath and closed her eyes. “Okay, Lord. This is it, I guess, the official beginning of my walk with You. Come into my heart, Jesus, and be Lord of my life. Forgive me for my sins and help me to follow Your precepts all the days of my life. Amen.”
She opened her eyes and grinned. “Satisfied now?”
He squeezed her hand. “Almost, but not completely.”
She dropped his hand on the table with a thud. “Why not?”
He grinned. “Your plan to win Mitch back. I want details. A plan of action.”
She folded her hands on the table and looked up at the ceiling, plotting her strategy. “Well, once I manage to convince Father to let me go back,” Her eyes flicked to Brady’s face to emphasize her point. “Which will require heavy prayer since he’s already said no, then I will simply go see Mitch and explain that I’ve turned over a new leaf. That I’m doing things God’s way now and that he can trust me enough to marry me.”
“What if he’s already married?”
She swallowed hard, “He’s not. Grandmother’s letter contains the most recent information from Mrs. Lynch.”
“What if he’s engaged?”
She bit her lip. “Then, with the help of God, I’ll try to convince him that he’s marrying the wrong woman.”
Brady assessed her through narrowed eyes. “What if he says no?”
She drew in a thick breath and lifted her chin. “Well, then I’ll just continue with my plan to purchase a shop and pour myself into a career.”
He guzzled more coffee, eyes fixed on hers. “No plan B? No attempt to seduce him?”
She looked away, avoiding his gaze. “No.”
She bit her lip and looked up.
She could feel her pulse pounding in her throat. “Don’t make me do that, Brady.”
He reached to take her hand, smothering it in his rough, calloused palm. “Charity, if you’ve learned anything this last month, I hope you’ve learned that the kind of love you crave comes from God. Sensual love entices—the taste of honey for the moment. But sin will turn it to ashes in your mouth. It will never make you happy, never sustain you.”
“I know.” Her voice was a whisper.
He squeezed her hand. “Promise.”
She hesitated, then lifted her chin with determination. “I promise I’ll try.”