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Authors: Julie Lessman

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BOOK: Isle of Hope
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“True,” Mamaw said, “but we’re hoping that will turn around, especially since this is not the parish league with all of his classmates.” A sigh feathered her lips. “I’m praying he can get a fresh start, maybe build some self-confidence before the next school year.” She took a sip of her coffee then set it aside, hands folded in her lap as she homed in on Lacey with laser precision. The sharp blue eyes that had missed nothing when Lacey was growing up now narrowed into serious grandma mode. “Spencer will be fine, I think, but what I want to know now, darling girl—will you?”

“Sure she will,” Nicki said with a defiant thrust of her chin, eyes stormy. “She doesn’t need that loser to be happy—it’s his loss, not hers.”

Lacey couldn’t stop the grin that tickled her lips. “I’d hardly call the valedictorian of UC Berkeley School of Law a loser, Nick, but thanks for the support.”

“So what happened, sweetheart?” Her grandmother laid a frail hand on Lacey’s arm, the concern in her eyes bringing moisture to Lacey’s own.

“We just grew apart,” Lacey whispered, well aware that the fissure between her and Tim had probably begun long before she’d started attending Joy’s church. Although she’d known Joy for almost eight years now, it hadn’t been until Lacey’s engagement to Tim, when she needed a church for the wedding, that Lacey found her curiosity about Joy’s faith growing. Her friend had always persisted in talking to her about God, sure, but Lacey had never really seen the point. God had let her down years ago. Besides, she’d achieved everything she’d ever wanted on her own—a job she loved, a hunky fiancé, a gorgeous townhouse in the best part of town, and a cozy six-figure income between the two. But somehow six months out from the wedding of her dreams, she sensed deep down that something was missing. And it hadn’t been until she started attending church with Joy—to Tim’s utter dismay—that she finally understood what it was.

Peace.

She looked up at Mamaw now and realized it had been her grandmother’s unflappable faith that had gotten Lacey through every heartbreak of her life. From years of loneliness as an only child, to years of teenage rebellion that set her at odds with her father, Mamaw had been relentless in prayer, becoming Lacey’s anchor. Through a volatile divorce between her parents, a bitter estrangement from her father, and finally the heart-wrenching pain of losing her mother—it had been Mamaw she’d turned to, not God. Tears sprang to Lacey’s eyes as she placed her palm over her grandmother’s, suddenly aware that God had never left her as she supposed, but His love had been alive and well through the powerful faith of both her grandmother and her friend Joy.

“What do you mean, you grew apart?” Nicki wanted to know. She glanced at her watch with a frown. “He wasn’t cheating on you, was he?”

Lacey laughed, not sure when Tim would have had time to “cheat” with his grueling, make-partner-or-die hours at San Diego’s top law firm. “No, nothing like that, I promise. I guess you might say it was more like me cheating on him.” Her teeth tugged at the edge of her lip. “With God.”

“Come again?” Her cousin’s brows shot straight up.

The shock on her face was so comical that Lacey battled a grin with a gruff clear of her throat. “Uh, I turned over a new leaf and became a good girl, Nick, just like you did when you met Matt. You know—going back to church?” She gave a little shrug, a sad smile lining her lips. “And I guess Tim couldn’t see himself married to a—and I quote—‘professional prude.’”

Her cousin blinked, eyes as round as the snickerdoodles on her plate. “You mean you two stopped having—”

“The same viewpoint on life,
yes
,” Lacey said quickly, heat warming her cheeks as she shot Nicki a pointed look, mere mention of her former lifestyle embarrassing her in front of her grandmother. She released a tentative sigh, laden with both relief and regret, wishing she had come to her senses long before she’d depleted a good chunk of her savings on wedding deposits. “So we parted ways, and that was that.”

“Wow.” Nicki slumped back in her chair. “When you do something, Lace, you go for broke, kiddo.”

“I know,” Lacey said with quiet quiver of air, “literally.” She took a bite of her cookie, her spirits rebounding. “But the truth is, I may be lonelier and broker than before, but in a strange way, I’m also happier.” She popped the rest of the snickerdoodle in her mouth and chewed while she slipped Mamaw a sheepish smile. “I’m just kicking myself I didn’t listen all those years you tried so hard to drum faith into my head.”

“You listened more than you know, sweetheart.” She squeezed Lacey’s hand.

“I’m ready.” Glove in hand, Spencer clomped into the kitchen wearing a short-sleeved blue “Hurricane” jersey so big it came to his elbows.

“Wow, cleats and everything,” Lacey said with a low whistle. “Looking pretty sharp, Spence.”

“Yeah.” Spencer grinned, pushing his glasses back up his nose. He adjusted the rim of his blue baseball cap, then pounded a tiny fist into a brand-new baseball glove that was almost bigger than him.

Nicki hopped up and carried her cup and saucer to the sink. “Okay, sport, we’re outta here in two shakes and a shimmy.” She tucked both dishes into the dishwasher.

“Don’t forget his water bottle in the fridge,” Mamaw reminded.

“What’s a shimmy?” Spencer asked with an adorable owl blink of eyes.

“It means we need to hustle if I’m going to get you to practice and then me to work on time, capiche?” Nicki grabbed a water bottle and ambled over to kiss Mamaw’s head and squash Lacey in a bear hug. “Soooo glad you’re home, Lace, and can’t wait to catch up tomorrow.” Her brows danced with mischief. “It’s my day off, you know, and I have a surprise planned.”

“Uh-oh.” Lacey eyed her with suspicion. “If it includes any male other than Matt or Spence, your name is mud, Phillips, you got that?”

“Mmm … Mrs. Nicki Mud Ball.” She flashed a grin. “I like it, although Matt’s mom, Mrs. Ball of the Hamptons, may not.”

Mamaw chuckled while Spencer scrunched his nose. “What’s ‘capiche’ mean?”

Lacey pinched Nicki’s waist before jumping up to give Spencer a quick squeeze. “It means give your cousin a hug before you leave,” she said, tugging on his baseball cap. “You may not know this, kiddo, but I was top pitcher on my softball team, so you and I are gonna have to play catch, and I’ll even hit you some grounders.”

“Gosh, you mean it?”

“You bet, slugger. How ’bout tonight after you get home?”

“Cool!” He flashed her a smile that melted her heart and spun on his heels to follow his sister to the door.

“Oh, and Lace?” Nicki paused to hook her purse over her shoulder. “I was supposed to be off tonight so I was going to pick Spence up from his practice at six, but I’m filling in for a friend at work.” She fluttered her eyelashes in a pitiful plea. “So would you mind saving Mamaw the trip? It’s at the Paulson Complex.”

“No problem.” Lacey gave Spencer a wink. “Of course we may have to detour for some Oreo ice cream at Coldstone on the way home.”

“Yes!” Spencer fist-punched his glove, luring huge grins to all of their faces.

“It’s good to have you home, sweetheart—for
all
of us.” Mamaw’s soft words punctuated the slam of the front door.

Expelling a loud sigh, Lacey slumped back in her chair. “Thanks, Mamaw, I wish everybody felt the way you do.”

Her grandmother leaned in to fold her arms on the table, her pensive gaze assuring Lacey that she understood all too well. “You haven’t talked to him yet?”

“Yet?” Lacey grunted. “More like ‘since.’” She rubbed her arms and expelled a shuddering breath heavily tainted with guilt and remorse. “I was so angry when Mom died that I barely spoke to him at the funeral, remember? It was so convenient to just blame him for the way it all turned out, for the total destruction of our family. I mean he was the one who turned his back on me long before Mom ever left him.”

Her gaze lagged into a cold stare while a shiver skated her spine. “It’s only been the last few months that I finally realized how wrong I was to do the same. To turn my back on him after Mom died—not returning his calls, his letters, his emails.” Regret constricted the muscles in her throat as her voice trailed into a whisper. “Until they stopped coming altogether ...” Her eyelids fluttered closed briefly as feelings of grief and hurt tiptoed in at the corners of her mind, reminding her just how much she had wished him dead back then instead of her mother.

God, forgive me, please …

She opened her eyes to her grandmother’s tender gaze, which reflected the same grief Lacey still bore in her soul. Laying a veined hand over Lacey’s, she gave her a gentle squeeze. “I know you came back to help Nicki with the wedding, darling, but we both know the real reason you’re here.”

A knot of fear convulsed in Lacey’s throat. “I know,” she whispered, “but there’s been so much time and bitterness between us, Mamaw, that I worry it’s too late.”

Mamaw’s chuckle was soft. “It’s never too late to love, darling.”

Lacey expelled a wavering breath. “I know that, too,” she said with a skittery smile. “I just don’t know how …” —she chewed at a piece of skin on her lip— “to do it, you know?”

Mamaw smiled and patted her hand. “It’s not difficult, darling—you show up on his doorstop one evening with one of my peach pies he so adores and say, ‘Dad, we need to talk.’”

Lacey unloaded another grunt. “Yeah, right, and I have peach on my face after he slams the door.” She peered up at Mamaw, eyes in a squint. “Do you ever talk to him anymore?”

“Oh, heavens no—he’s far too bitter for that. You’re not the only one he cut out of his life when your mother betrayed him, you know.” She rose from the table, cup in hand. “Not that I didn’t try, mind you. I called and wrote letters till I thought he’d get a restraining order, even after he asked me to leave him alone. I finally let it go a few years back except for the standard cards—you know, Christmas, birthday …” She paused, a definite twinkle in her eye. “Father’s Day.”

“No ...” A slow grin traveled Lacey’s lips. “You don’t.” She chuckled. “Ouch. I’ll bet that burns.”

Mamaw jutted her chin, lips pursed in a stubborn smile. “I certainly hope so. Somebody needs to light a fire under that bull-headed pup.” She rose to fetch more coffee, glancing over her shoulder with an imp of a grin. “And it’s better than a propane torch.” She nodded toward Lacey’s half-empty cup. “Need a refill or warm-up before I serve up our dinner? Pot roast and vegetables, just as you like it, and it’s all ours since Nicki and Spence already ate.”

Lacey’s mouth watered at the mere mention of Mamaw’s signature Sunday dish. “No on the coffee, but the pot roast sounds heavenly,” she said, a giggle slipping from her lips. “And as far as Daddy’s concerned, Mamaw, I’d hardly call forty-six a ‘pup.’”

“It is when you act like a child. Humph—and him one of the top cardiac surgeons in the country—
ha!

Lacey’s smile faded as she wandered into a faraway stare. “I feel sorry for him,” she whispered. And for herself too—a virtual orphan at twenty-six. She snapped out of it with a loud huff, mouth canting into a dry smile. “Which just goes to show how much I’ve changed. Up until six months ago, I wanted to see the man take a long walk off a short pier.
After
I filed a suit for emotional malpractice.”

Mamaw chuckled. “Well, it’s a suit you would win, that’s for sure.” Placing her cup on the table, she settled back in her chair, the smell of hazelnut wafting through the air. She took a sip while giving Lacey a wink over the rim. “And trust me, darlin’—all lawyer fees would be on me.”

 

Chapter Four

 

Lacey nosed her Honda into the last spot in the parking lot of the Paulson Complex, eyes scanning the various fields for any sign of Spence. Slinging her purse over her shoulder, she got out and shielded her eyes, a smile skimming her lips when she spotted him playing in the dirt with some other kid. With a quick glance at her watch, she made her way to his field where it looked like practice had just ended, kids and parents milling about.

“Lacey!” Spencer hopped up and bolted towards her, grabbing her hand to tug her over to his friend who was still playing on the dusty field. Although his smile remained shy, Spence’s hazel eyes sparkled like topaz. “Meet my new friend, Mack Hartford,” he said, voice breathless.

“Why, hello, Mack—I’m Lacey, and it’s so very nice to meet you.” Lacey bent to offer her hand to a little boy who sported more freckles than Spencer. Sitting cross-legged in the dirt with an action figure in hand, Mack grinned, his sky-blue eyes a perfect complement to red hair spiky with sweat. “Hi, Lacey.”

“And guess what?” Spence said to Mack, his rush of excitement so rare, emotion thickened in Lacey’s throat. “Lacey was a champion pitcher, and she’s gonna hit me some grounders tonight.” Pride gleamed in his eyes, giving Lacey a warm glow. Plopping down in the dirt next to Mack, he swooped up his own action figure, settling in as if he and Mack intended to camp out.

“You bet, bud, but first things first.” Lacey shot a quick glance at the field to make sure practice was actually over, satisfied when she spotted several men packing bats and other gear in an equipment bag. She squatted down, a smile teasing the edge of her lips. “First we have to buy you an Oreo Overload at Coldstone, right?”

“Yeah!” Spencer shouted, vaulting into the air like a fly ball. “Can Mack come, Lace, please, please?”

“Well, sure,” she said with a scan of several scattered groups on the field. “But we’ll need to check with his mom or dad first, then we can take him home after, okay?” She tousled Mack’s hair. “That all right with you, sport?”

“Yes, ma’am!” Mack said with equal enthusiasm, flashing Spencer a crooked grin.

“Sounds like a plan.” She peered up at the few remaining people standing around. “So, Mack—where are your parents?”

“They’re not here,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone, swooping his action figure through the air as he jumped to his feet. “Coach Mehl always takes me to practice ’cause I’m on his way home, so I’ll just ask him if it’s okay.” He darted toward two men chatting by the bleachers, one of them with the equipment bag strung over his shoulder.

Lacey grinned as she watched Mack hop up and down in apparent excitement, hands folded in a plea while the coach glanced Lacey’s way. She rose and tugged on her short-shorts in an effort to lengthen then, then hurried over just as the other man left.

“Can I, Coach, please, please?” Dancing foot to foot, Mack twitched with anticipation, giving Lacey second thoughts about pumping sugar into his bloodstream.

She extended a hand and a warm smile. “Hi—Coach Mehl, I presume? I’m Spencer’s cousin, Lacey Carmichael.”

Smile lines appeared in the tan face of a stocky man she guessed to be in his forties, his return grip as strong as the muscles cording his arms. “Lee Mehl, Miss Carmichael.” He shifted the bag on his shoulder while his gaze flicked to Spencer and back, his eyes softening enough for her to notice. “We’re glad to have Spence on our team—he’s a great kid.” He tweaked the back of Mack’s neck with a broad grin. “And I’ve never seen any kids hit it off faster than these two Power Ranger pals, that’s for sure, eh Ranger Mack?”

“Yes, sir,” Mack said. “So can I, Mr. Mehl, please?”

“I don’t see why not,” he said with a wink at Mack before the boy dashed off to rejoin Spence.

Lacey exhaled a silent sigh of relief. “Thanks, Mr. Mehl. I can’t tell you how much this means to Spence—
and
to his grandmother, sister, and me.” She shot a glance over her shoulder, battling the sudden prick of tears in her eyes. “He’s had some difficulty making friends.”

“Call me Lee, please, and Spence’s grandmother already filled me in on the problems he’s been having, so I’m thrilled to see the boys get along.” He glanced at his watch. “How ’bout I tell ‘Ranger Mack’s’ mom you’ll bring him home after ice cream, all right? He lives on Bluff Drive.”

Bluff Drive?
Lacey gulped, the mention of her old street shrinking her rib cage. She deflected her sudden unease with a bright smile. “Absolutely, Lee, and please—call me Lacey. We’re just going to Coldstone, so you can tell her forty-five minutes tops, okay?”

“Sounds good, Lacey. Have fun.” Hoisting the bag higher on his shoulder, Lee offered a wave on his way to his car.

Fun?
Yeah, well maybe at Coldstone, but after? A chill slithered Lacey’s spine, icier than the ice cream in Coldstone’s freezer. She ushered the boys to the car, oblivious to their nonstop chatter as her thoughts returned to the street she’d grown up on. Hands pinched on the steering wheel of her car, she peered up at a pastel sky just edging toward dusk.
Uh, I’ve been in town all of three hours—don’t you think it’s a liiiiittle too soon for a stroll down memory lane?

Apparently not because here she was forty-five minutes later—inching her way down her father’s street, heart racing while her breathing skidded to a stop. Memories rushed in like the tide on the shore, swelling her throat over forgotten games of hopscotch and foursquare and sardine’s ghost after dark. Stately oaks bowed over a meandering drive in a gracious canopy dance, gnarled limbs casting shadows of lace on faded asphalt while Spanish moss swayed in the breeze. Two pig-tailed little girls sped by on pink Barbie bikes. Their giggles merged with the summer sounds of whispering pines and rustling palms, all laced with the squawk of seabirds and the buzz of boat engines from the shore on the other side of the street.

“Which house, Mack?” she said with a frog in her throat, silently praying he lived on the other end of Bluff Drive rather than where her father lived.
And
the best friend and ex-boyfriend she’d dumped without so much as a goodbye …

“Next block,” he said, wrestling in the backseat with Spence like they’d been best friends forever. She swallowed the frog.
Like Cat and I used to be …

“What’s the address?” she asked, voice hoarse.

“Thirty Bluff Drive. It’s the house with pink roses in front of the white fence.”

Of course it is.
Lacey gulped, fighting the rise of Oreo Overload. Apparently the Hartfords bought Jack and Cat’s old house—her home away from home. Her eyelids flickered as a wave of dizziness hit hard. Right next to her father’s. Sucking in a sharp breath, she slowly pulled up to Mack’s curb. Her gaze instantly darted to her father’s house on the other side of an eight-foot Japanese privet hedge that hadn’t been there when she’d left.

“Wait—I want Spence to meet my brother,” Mack said, already out of the car and sprinting down the red paver driveway toward the back of the house where laughter and the clunk of a basketball could be heard.

Lacey slipped Spence a wary smile over her shoulder, dead-set on hiding out in the car. “Hey bud, why don’t you run and meet Mack’s brother real quick, then hurry back so we can get going, okay?”

“Uh … sure,” he said quietly, obviously not anymore eager to meet someone new than Lacey. She heard his heavy exhale before he grappled with the door, taking his sweet time to get out of the car.

Lacey’s knuckles whitened on the steering wheel.
Come on, Spence, move it before somebody—

A low groan scraped past her lips when Mack came barreling around the corner with an entourage in tow.
Whoops … too late.
Straightening her halter top, Lacey eased out of the car, giving the ol’ cutoffs another firm modesty tug as she flashed a smile toward Mack and his family. “Hello, I’m—”

Gonna keel over right here, right now.
Lacey gasped, an interesting mix of shock and nausea snatching all air—and sound—from her throat as she stared at Jack and his family, who apparently were as speechless as she. Warding off the urge to hyperventilate, she pried the words from her tongue, voice cracking in the process. “Uh … uh … I d-don’t understand … M-Mack lives
here
?”

“Mack?” Jack was the first to speak, eyes narrowing considerably.

“Yeah, Mack Hartford,” Spence said with a nod at his new friend, the crunch of his brows indicating this was something everybody should already know. “You know, Davey’s Power Ranger name?”

A sliver of a smile tipped Mrs. O’Bryen’s lips once the daze left her eyes. “Ah … I see, and Spencer here is the butler, I presume?” she said slowly, hooking an arm around Spencer’s shoulder. Her soft gaze met Lacey’s, the sparkle of humor unable to mask the depth of emotion in her eyes. “Operation Overdrive,” she explained with a dip of her head, “Davey’s current obsession with Power Rangers. His favorite happens to be the red Overdrive Power Ranger, you know—otherwise known as ‘Mack Hartford.’”

Of course it is.
Lacey’s smile compressed to restrain the silent groan climbing her throat.

“Yeah, and Spence is my loyal butler Spencer who gives me advice,” Davey said, head in a tilt that said anybody with half a brain should know that.

Heat crawled up Lacey’s neck.
Well, that pretty much describes me …

Spade in hand, Mrs. O’Bryen wiped her free hand against her gardening jeans before giving Lacey an awkward hug while Spence and Mack swooped action figures over each post of the white picket fence. “How are you, Lacey? It’s been a long time,” she said softly, her warm smile like the sun compared to the scowls on Jack’s and Cat’s faces.

“Yes, ma’am, it has,” she whispered, terrified to take her eyes off of Jack’s mother.

A lump shifted in her throat as Shannon approached, the gentleness in her eyes a balm to Lacey’s soul. “We’ve missed you, Lace,” she said quietly, hesitating for only a moment before offering a hug that immediately produced a sting of tears in Lacey’s eyes.

With halting arms, Lacey returned her embrace, squeezing her lids shut in a sad attempt to ward off the moisture that pooled beneath. “I’ve missed you too,” she whispered, her frail words breaking on a heave.

Lacey jolted when Mrs. O’Bryen’s arm cradled her waist. “Come in for a cup of coffee,” she said, her words as tender as her touch. “As luck would have it, I just happen to have a fresh batch of monster cookies—your favorite, as I recall.”

Shannon’s giggle brushed against Lacey’s hair before the twin pulled from their embrace. “And trust me—‘luck’ doesn’t have it very often in this house, so you best take advantage.”

Take advantage.
Lacey silently cringed as she stole a peek out of the corner of her eye at Jack and Cat, the two people whose friendship she’d certainly taken advantage of … right before she turned her back on them both. But this was what she’d hoped for—prayed for—wasn’t it? Restoration of relationship with the people she loved. Unfortunately the stony looks of two of them shrank her rib cage considerably, depleting her air. “Uh … actually, Mrs. O’Bryen, I just arrived today, so my grandmother is expecting Spence and me home any moment. Maybe another time?”

“Let’s hope not,” Cat mumbled, whirling on her heel to stalk back into the house before her mother could correct her.

Mrs. O’Bryen gently cupped Lacey’s waist. “Don’t let Catherine’s sour attitude put you off, Lacey—she’s just hurt inside, which is all the more reason we need to get together soon, to talk … and to heal.”

“Come on, Davey,” Jack said, “we’re playing horse, and I’ve got HORS.” His gaze shifted to Spence with a crooked smile, ignoring Lacey altogether as he lowered to a squat. “Nice to meet you, Spence. Maybe you can play with us next time, okay?” Jack raised his hand to give him a high-five.

“Cool.” Spence’s wide smile was in total contrast to his usual shy personality, reminding Lacey just how much of a magnet Jack had always been with kids, making them feel special. He slapped Jack’s palm, and then Davey’s too, eyes aglow with the much-needed attention of an older male. “Maybe after next practice,” he volunteered, shooting a hopeful look Lacey’s way.

“Maybe,” Lacey said with a slow nod, following Jack’s lead in avoiding his gaze.

“Sweet.” Jack gave Spence a wink before smiling at Davey. He turned to amble down the driveway, ignoring Lacey without another word.

Her heart cramped as she watched him walk away.

A delicate sigh drifted from Mrs. O’Bryen’s lips before she squeezed Lacey in another hug. “I know it looks scary, Lacey, but promise you’ll come back. We all need to forgive and forget.” She pulled away with a tender gaze, hands still braced to Lacey’s arms. “We need you in our lives again, sweetheart, and I think you need us too.”

Emotion crowded Lacey’s throat, Mrs. O’Bryen’s words echoing deep in her heart.

If you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.

Her eyes flickered closed with the point-blank reminder that
this
was the real reason she was in Isle of Hope.

She needed their forgiveness. And from the knowing look in Mrs. O’Bryen’s gaze, apparently her son and daughter needed it too.

With a shaky nod, she managed a weak smile. “I promise,” she whispered, drawing strength from the compassion that radiated from Jack’s mother and sister. “Soon.”

BOOK: Isle of Hope
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