A Time to Forgive and Promise Forever (10 page)

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A shaft of sunlight pierced the window, touching the wide plank floor, the hooked rug, the massive fireplace. Chintz-covered couches sat in front of crowded bookcases. The warm, welcoming room seemed to say that people had been happy here, despite the disturbing events of one particular night.

“Adam—” What could she say? That she had to see for herself? He must already know that.

The swinging door probably led to the kitchen. She pushed through it and found herself in a square, open room. The counters were topped with linoleum, faded from years of scrubbing. White wooden cupboards, glass-fronted, showed off a mismatched assortment of enough dishes to feed an army. Probably every time someone in the family bought something new, the old set went to the cottage.

“I'm afraid there's no place here where something could be hidden.” Adam leaned against the door frame, his easy smile saying he'd gotten his momentary irritation under control.

She flipped open a bottom cupboard door at random to display neatly arranged pots and pans. The Caldwells kept a clean cottage, regardless of how much or how little time they spent here.

“I guess you're right. If it had been here, someone would have found it by now.” She glanced at him, raising an eyebrow. “You're sure there are no secret passages or hidden cupboards?”

His face relaxed. “We spent some time looking for one on rainy days when we were kids, believe me. We were inspired by all those Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries on the shelves. Never found a thing.”

“What's back here?” She pushed open the door on the other side of the kitchen to reveal a long room whose walls of windows seemed to invite the outdoors in.

“Game room, I guess you'd call it.” Adam came to stand behind her, nodding to the table-tennis outfit and card tables. “I don't think this addition had been finished that summer, though. Maybe that's what Clayton meant when he talked about the lumber pile.” Pain flickered in his eyes, and he seemed to force it away. “The kids are in and out of the closets all the time for games and toys, anyway.”

“What was here before?”

“Nothing, as far as I know.” He frowned. “I'm sorry, Tory. Judging from what Clayton said, most of the party must have centered outside. I'm afraid there's nothing to find here. Except—”

“Except what?”

He shrugged, still frowning. “I guess I just look
at the place with different eyes after hearing about that night.”

“I can see how that would be.” She hesitated, wondering if she could say anything that would make him feel better about what they'd learned. “I'm sorry. About what your uncle said last night, I mean. I know it wasn't an easy thing to take.”

“Easy? No.” His lips tightened. “I've always known what my father's like, though. I love him, but I know he doesn't have the…” He shook his head as if he had to struggle to go on. “He doesn't have the same standards as the rest of the Caldwell clan.”

“As you do,” she said softly, knowing that was true. Adam was an honorable man all the way through.

He shrugged. “Funny, isn't it? My brother dealt with his feelings by rebelling. Before he left for college, our family life seemed to be one long shouting match for a while.”

“You don't handle things that way.”

“Nothing so dramatic for me. I was the buffer between Matt and our father. Between Dad and the rest of the family, for that matter.”

She was almost afraid to breathe, afraid to disrupt the flow of his words.

“You still are, aren't you?” she said softly.

The lines around his eyes deepened. “Someone has to be.”

“I guess so.” Pain laced her words. “Or else the family just blows apart.”

Adam put his hand lightly on her shoulder, his
intent gaze focusing on her as if he looked into her heart and saw the hurt there. “That sounds like personal experience speaking.”

She wanted to back away, make some excuse, change the subject. But he'd opened up to her, and that couldn't have been easy for him. She knew more about the skeletons in Adam's family closet than anyone else did. It wasn't fair to shut him out of hers.

“My father's family never approved of my mother. After his death, they wanted her to let them raise me.” She tried to swallow the lump in her throat. “When she wouldn't, they washed their hands of us.”

He blinked. “They must have kept in touch with you even if they didn't like Emily.”

“Not a word. Not even a card on my birthday.” She shrugged, trying to pass it off casually, as if it didn't still hurt. “I guess they figured losing me was a small price to pay for getting rid of her.”

His grip on her shoulder tightened. “There may have been things at work you didn't understand as a child.”

“You think I haven't thought of that?” The anger flared suddenly, startling her. “I wasn't a child when I graduated from high school. My grandmother came to see me. She made me an offer. They'd pay my university expenses and bring me into Savannah society. All I had to do was promise to stay away from my mother.”

He didn't respond for a long moment. Was he embarrassed? She never should have said anything.

“She was stupid,” he said finally.

Surprise brought her gaze up to meet his. “Why do you say that?”

He touched her cheek, the sensation featherlight but filled with a power that stole her breath away. “If she'd known anything about you, she'd have known what your response would be. She'd have known that someone who'd agree to her bargain wasn't worth anything.”

“She didn't see it that way.” Tory could still see her formidable grandmother, eyes cold as a glacier when she'd announced her terms. “Funny. I guess I knew even then that I wasn't going to be able to save my mother from herself. But I sure wasn't going to abandon her for the sake of that woman's money and position.”

Love with strings attached, that was what her grandmother offered. There were always strings attached. She might not have known a lot about people then, but she'd known she wouldn't settle for that.

“I'm sorry.” His palm flattened against her cheek, cradling it. “I shouldn't have brought it up. I didn't mean to bring back hurtful memories.”

She tried to smile, but the pressure of his skin against hers seemed to have paralyzed the muscles. “We seem destined to do that to each other.”

He shook his head. “We shouldn't.” He barely breathed the words as he leaned closer.

He was going to kiss her. She should move, back away, say something. This wasn't a good idea. But
she couldn't move. No matter how foolish it was, she wanted to be in his arms.

 

He was going to kiss her. Adam had a brief, rational instant when he knew this was a mistake. Then common sense was swamped by the need to hold her in his arms. He tilted her face up. Her eyes were dark with conflict, but she didn't pull away.

He drew her closer and covered her lips with his. Her mouth was warm and sweet and willing, and the sensation filled him with longing and need. He felt her hands slip up his back to his shoulders, holding him more fully. He was dizzy with wanting her, but he knew, bone deep, that it was more than that. He'd never felt such a need to protect, to comfort, to love.

The thought set alarm bells clanging in whatever was left of his mind. This was a mistake, a big one. He couldn't let himself think about loving any woman. He'd been there, he'd done that and he'd paid the price. And even if he could love again, it wouldn't be Tory. Too much complicated history stood between them.

He drew back slowly, reluctantly. Tory's eyes were dazed, and she braced her hands against his forearms as if he were her anchor.

He should say he was sorry, but he wasn't. Even if there could never be anything between them, he wasn't sorry he'd kissed her once.

Twice, a little voice in his brain reminded him. Three times, if you count the night you kissed Cinderella at the yacht club dance.

All right, she had an effect on him. He'd recognized that from the start, hadn't he?

Still the emotion had blindsided him as much as it had her. He brushed a strand of dark hair from her cheek. “I didn't see that coming.”

She blinked, and her eyes no longer seemed dazzled. “No, I… It's all right.” She tried to smile, seemed to gather her armor against rejection.

He couldn't let her think— “Tory, it's not you. I just can't get involved.” He couldn't explain to her what he didn't understand himself.

“I know.” Her voice was soft. “You're not ready for anyone else. You're still in love with Lila.”

Her innocent words struck him like a blow. The truth beat at his brain as if demanding to be let out.

It had been one thing to let Tory believe a lie when she'd walked into his life. He'd been acting purely out of self-preservation. But now—now that he knew her, now that she'd opened up her own painful secrets to him—now it wasn't right.

“I have to tell you something,” he said abruptly before he could talk himself out of it. “About my wife.”

She blinked again. Whatever she'd been expecting to hear, it wasn't that. “What about her?” She took a step back and bumped into the door frame.

“You think I oppose this memorial window because of grief.” He forced the words out.
You think that's why I can't let myself care for you.

“I know.” Pain darkened her eyes. “I'm sorry.”

His jaw clenched. “It's not grief. I don't want a window to memorialize a lie.” The words he'd held
back demanded to be said. “Lila was leaving us when she died. She was leaving Jenny and me to go with another man.”

Tory stared at him, eyes wide with shock. “But everyone I've spoken with thinks—”

“Everyone thinks what I've let them think. Everyone thinks Lila and I were madly in love. Just like I did.”

The harsh words tasted of bitterness. He walked away from her because he couldn't be still, ending up with his hands braced against the worn kitchen counter.

It was silent in the old house, so silent he could hear the trill of a mockingbird in the distance. Then Tory's footsteps crossed the floor behind him. Stopped.

“Why didn't you tell anyone the truth?” She sounded as if she struggled to understand. “Isn't it hard to pretend?”

“Hard? I'll tell you what would be hard.” He swung to face her. “Hard would be letting my daughter know her mother was willing to give her up so she could run off with another man.”

“Jenny.” He heard her breath catch on the name.

“Jenny,” he repeated. “She can't know that, ever. If that means I have to let all of Caldwell Cove grieve with the heartbroken widower, that's what I'll do.”

Tory lifted one hand as if she wanted to touch him, comfort him. Then she let it drop. Maybe she realized how futile that effort would be. Nothing could comfort this. “Lila's mother doesn't know, does she?”

“I don't think so. If she did, I don't think she'd want to have the memorial here in Caldwell Cove.”

“I'm sorry.” She sounded helpless. “I understand. But what can we do about it?”

“I don't know.” For the last four years he'd known what he had to do and he'd gone on putting one foot in front of the other. Now, suddenly, because of Tory, he didn't know.

“I don't know,” he said again. “I just know I can't walk into church every Sunday and look at a window memorializing a lie. I can't do it, Tory.”

Chapter Ten

“T
his hurts too much.” Tory said the words aloud in the empty sanctuary. They seemed to linger under the arched wooden ceiling, almost as visible as the dust motes in a shaft of jewel-toned sunlight through the stained glass. “It's not fair.”

When had love ever been fair? As soon as she thought the word, she wanted to cancel it. She didn't love Adam. And he certainly didn't have those feelings for her. He'd proved that when he'd backed away from her after those moments at the cottage on Saturday. He'd been distant ever since, even yesterday when he sat next to her for the Sunday service.

She leaned against the scaffolding, trying to get a handle on the hurt that felt as if a whale lay on her chest. She put her hand on the spot, willing it to go away. That didn't work.

On the window above her, Jesus walked across the
waves of a storm-tossed sea. From the water, Peter reached out to him in an agony of fear.

That was how she felt. Lost and afraid.

“This isn't going to work, don't You see that?” She said the words, then realized that for once in her life, her prayer wasn't filled with antagonism. “It just isn't going to work. I can't help him.”

She shut her eyes. The light from the window dazzled on the blackness of her closed eyelids. If she gave up the window project—

That was what Adam wanted her to do. He hadn't asked it directly even when he'd told her the truth about Lila. But she'd known.

She opened her eyes to look at the pictured face again. The image projected calm and peace even in the midst of the storm.

“Should I give it up?” She asked the question simply, without bargaining. “Should I?”

If she did, would that help Adam? She tried to look at it without letting thoughts of her business, her success or failure, intervene. Would giving up the project help Adam?

One thing had become crystal clear that day at the cottage. Adam carried a heavy load of bitterness against his late wife. He didn't want to be reminded of those feelings every time he walked into the sanctuary that had been his place of worship all his life.

Understandable. But how could either of them get out of fulfilling this commitment?

“I just don't know what to do.” That was honest, at least.

“About the new window? Or about that grandson of mine?”

The question startled Tory away from the scaffolding. She spun to face the woman who stood inside the door to the Sunday school rooms.

“Mrs. Caldwell.” She had to catch her breath. “I didn't realize anyone was here.”

The elderly woman came closer. “Thought you were going to call me Gran. And there's always Someone here, child. You know that.”

Tory felt the wave of warmth in her cheeks. “I was talking to myself.”

“You were talking to the Lord,” Adam's grandmother corrected. “Nothing wrong with that. I do it myself, all the time.”

It was impossible to go on feeling embarrassed when the woman looked at her with such understanding. “I'm afraid mostly I argue with Him.”

“Nothing wrong with that, either. I've done my share of arguing over the years, especially over the dolphin. Is that what's troubling you?”

Tory rubbed her forehead, trying to ignore the stinging in her eyes. “I wanted to find it for my mother's sake. I thought if I could do that one last thing for her…” She trailed off. She couldn't talk about the weight she felt for Adam, for her mother's memory.

“I know.” The elderly woman patted her hand. “We all have regrets, child. Things we wish we'd done differently, things we want to make up. But maybe, however much we want it, we're not meant to find the dolphin now.”

“Then what good has all this been?” The question burst out. “Why did I come here?”

“We can't always know what God has in mind. Don't you lose faith in what He has for you.” She gripped Tory's hand tightly, her own firm and strong. Suddenly, surprisingly, she leaned forward and kissed Tory's cheek. Without saying another word, she turned and went out.

Tory sank down in the nearest pew.
Were You speaking to me through Adam's grandmother, Lord? Were You?

She leaned forward to grasp the pew in front of her and closed her eyes. In the stillness, she listened.

 

Nothing about the situation with Tory had gone as he'd expected. Adam frowned at the invoices scattered over his desk. He should be working, and instead he kept obsessing about Tory.

After baring his soul to her at the cottage on Saturday, all he'd wanted to do was withdraw. He couldn't stand seeing the pity in her eyes. He'd managed to avoid being alone with her. By Monday night, ashamed of his behavior, he'd looked for her, hoping to get things back to normal between them.

But Tory had closeted herself in the workroom immediately after dinner, making it clear she didn't want to be disturbed. Because she had work to do or because she just plain didn't want to see him? He didn't know the answer to that.

He tossed his pen onto the blotter and swiveled his chair, looking out the window at the boatyard,
busy with new orders now that the summer rush of repairs had passed. Beyond the yard, October sunlight sparkled on the water. The sight reminded him that he was lucky to be doing work he loved in the place where he belonged. Today it seemed to have lost its power to soothe him.

What was he going to do about Tory?

One thing he wouldn't do was kiss her again, no matter how much he wanted to see the loneliness disappear from her eyes. No matter how much he wanted the comfort of holding her in his arms.

He wouldn't go down that road again. He'd have to handle doing without a relationship with her.

If Tory pursued the memorial window, he'd have to handle that, too. He rubbed the back of his neck, trying to erase the tension that sat there.

Maybe he'd known all along he didn't stand a chance of stopping this memorial without creating still more questions about Lila. The best he could hope for was that Tory would create some standard biblical portrayal. He could try to look at that on its own merits without thinking of Lila at all.

Yeah, right.

The door opened behind him, and he spoke without turning around. “Tina, whatever it is, can it wait?”

“It's not your secretary.” The door closed. “It's me.”

He spun the chair around, trying to beat down the wave of pleasure he felt every time he looked at Tory.

“Hey. What brings you here?” And how could he gracefully tell her that maybe they shouldn't be alone together?

“I need to talk with you.” She slipped the strap of her leather portfolio from her shoulder. “Do you have a few minutes?”

He made a point of glancing at his watch. “Actually, not many. Jenny's being dropped off here after school. I promised she could go out on the trial run of a new boat.”

“This won't take long.” Tory seemed immune to his hint. She was dressed a little more formally than usual, wearing pressed khakis instead of jeans and a scarlet sweater that made her hair look darker in contrast. He couldn't deny that he liked having her in his office even if it was a bad idea.

She propped the portfolio on the visitor's chair opposite his desk and fumbled with the catch. “I have something to show you.”

Her tension leaped the few feet between them to needle him, and he guessed why she was there before she could speak. The design for the memorial window, it had to be that. His fists clenched in spite of his effort to stay detached.

Tory pulled out a large pad. “I've come up with a design.”

He took a breath. Okay, he had to do this. He held out his hand. “Let me see.”

She gave him the pad, then clasped both hands in front of her like a child waiting for approval. He'd just—

Tory's design swam in front of his eyes. There was the border of beach morning glories, the space at the bottom for the inevitable inscription.

But Tory hadn't put a scriptural scene in the center. Instead, a silver dolphin leaped from a glass sea.

A vise clamped his throat, shutting off speech. The drawing was beautiful—a perfect depiction of the Caldwell dolphin. And Tory proposed putting that in a window dedicated to the woman who'd betrayed him.

He dropped the drawing as if it burned his fingers. “No.” He glared at her. “No.”

Her throat moved as she swallowed, but her gaze didn't falter. “I know what you're thinking. But hear me out first.”

“Tory—” He shot to his feet, unable to sit still any longer. “What are you thinking? After what I told you, you ought to know I can't live with this.”

“It's because of what you told me.” She fired the words at him, leaning forward, her face intent and passionate. “Don't you understand? Any design I came up with would hurt you, I knew that. But if there's going to be a window, isn't it better to make it something that honors your family?”

He planted both fists on the desk. “Is this about my family or yours?”

Tory flushed as if he'd scored against her, but she stood her ground. “It's both. You told me all along we wouldn't find the dolphin. I guess you were right. There's no place left to look.” She spread her hands, palms out, empty. “But this is something I can do to make up for whatever part my mother played in its loss. I thought it might make your family happy. Wouldn't it?”

“Maybe.” Gran would be pleased, certainly. She'd have something to point to as a symbol of the Caldwell heritage. “But I'd still have to look at that inscription.” His jaw was so tight it felt ready to shatter. “I'd still have to think about how Lila betrayed everything that heritage stands for.”

She took a step forward so only the width of the desk separated them. Her hands went out pleadingly. “Adam, think about this instead. Lila gave you Jenny. Whatever wrong she did in the end, she gave you that beautiful, perfect child to carry on your name. Doesn't that make her part of the Caldwell heritage, too?”

He wanted to say no. He wanted to forget this whole thing and return to the days before he met Tory, back to keeping his secret and carrying his burden. It had been painful, but easier.

He turned away from the drawing, rubbing his neck again. The tension had taken up permanent residence.

“I don't know,” he said finally. “I just don't know.” He forced himself to meet her gaze. “Can I think about this?”

“Of course.”

Running feet sounded in the outer office. “That'll be Jenny.” He reached for the drawing, but Tory beat him to it, slipping it into the portfolio.

“It's all right.” She gave him that rare, brilliant smile. “We'll talk about it later.”

“Thank you.” His voice roughened on the words, and he took a deep breath, trying to regain his com
posure. No emotional involvement, remember? Unfortunately strong feelings, whether they were negative or positive, seemed built into every encounter he had with Tory.

 

A wave of relief swept over Tory. Adam hadn't rejected her idea out of hand. He'd listened to her arguments in favor of the memorial.

If only he could accept it. The idea had felt so right when she'd sat in the quiet sanctuary with his grandmother's words ringing in her ears.

Please. That would be a step toward healing for him, wouldn't it? I know creating this window would help to heal me, too.

The door burst open, and Jenny danced through, clearly excited. She saw Tory, and Tory braced herself for a repeat of the scene on the dock.

But the little girl's smile didn't falter. “Hey, Miz Tory. We're going out in the new boat my daddy made. Did you know that?”

“I heard something about it.” Obviously, Adam's talk with his little daughter had borne fruit. She'd better not push her luck, though. She picked up the portfolio. “I should be getting back to work.”

A look flashed between Jenny and Adam, a look of understanding without the need for words between father and daughter.

“You don't have to go yet, do you, Miz Tory? Can't you come out on the boat with us?”

The longing to do just that startled Tory with its strength. Frightened her, too, just a little. She had no
future with these people, and she shouldn't create bonds that were bound to break.

“Please,” Jenny wheedled. “I want you to come, honest.”

“We both do.” Adam's smile dissipated the lines of strain around his eyes. It went right to her heart and lodged there. “Please.”

She shouldn't, should she? But Adam's asking seemed a peace offering. Besides, she wanted to.

“If you're sure I won't be in the way.”

“Not at all.” Adam ruffled his daughter's light brown curls. “Let's go, ladies. The
Terrapin
is ready for her maiden voyage.”

“Yes!” Jenny clapped once, then raced ahead of them. They were going for a boat ride.

Walking beside Adam as they left the office, Tory tried to find some nice, neutral topic of conversation that would steer clear of anything painful.

“Jenny seems to know her way around.”

He pulled the door shut behind them. “She's had the run of the boatyard since she was four. After Lila died, I wanted her with me as much as possible, so I brought her down often.”

She'd managed to stumble into the wrong subject again. Still, Adam had said Lila's name with an ease she hadn't heard from him before. She'd like to interpret that as a good sign.

“So you're training the next generation to take over the family business.” She fell into step with him as they went down the passageway to the docks.

He looked startled at that. “I never thought of it that way. Whatever Jenny wants to do is fine with
me. I don't believe in putting pressure on kids to be what parents want.”

That struck her in the heart. “More parents should feel that way.”

Adam took her arm as they walked through a tangle of tools and cables. “I feel like I'm playing it by ear most of the time.”

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