Read Isle of Hope Online

Authors: Julie Lessman

Isle of Hope (7 page)

BOOK: Isle of Hope
3.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

 

Chapter Seven

 

“See? This is exactly why I didn’t tell you in the first place—you get all moody on me, Jack, and start drinking more than you should.”

Jack peered up at Matt with a half-lidded glare, the near-empty Blue Moon in his hand suddenly as acidic as his mood despite the usual revelry going on at Clancy’s Pub. Their mainstay watering hole following Sunday-night baseball games, Clancy’s was particularly wild tonight, strains of Coldplay filtering through raucous laughter punctuated by the crack of ivory from the pool table at the back of the bar. For once, the noise got on Jack’s nerves, darkening his disposition even more. His favorite hangout was just too freakin’ joyous tonight to suit, especially with his teammates celebrating another victory that secured their first-place lead in the Savannah’s Men’s League. A lead that called for beers all around, giving Jack the perfect excuse to drown his troubles despite his cousin’s disapproval, who now studied him from the next barstool with concern in his eyes.

Returning his gaze straight ahead to the hodge-podge of framed jerseys over the bar, Jack gulped another drink to douse the burn of Matt’s silent rebuke, a best friend who’d found faith about the same time Jack had lost his. Matt’s barstool finally squealed when he angled Jack’s way, indicating he had come to the end of his silence. “Come on, Jack—snap out of it. Lacey’s back, so get over it. She’s Nicki’s maid of honor and you’re my best man, so you may as well make the best of it.”

“The ‘best of it,’” Jack said in a tone as lifeless as his body, fingers limp on the bar while they circled his glass. “And what would that be, Matt? The fact I won’t ever have to talk to her again after you and Nicki are married?”

Matt upended his Red Bull and banged it down on the bar with a hard crack that told Jack he was ruining Matt’s evening as well as his own. His cousin whirled to confront him with a tight press of lips, his usual happy-go-lucky manner dwindling as fast as Jack’s sobriety. “Come on, Jack, you’re my best friend and this is supposed to be the happiest time of my life, so get a grip and lighten up. Do it for me if not for yourself, will ya?”

Jack blasted out a noisy sigh and gouged his temple with the pads of his fingers, not anxious to pile guilt on top of an already black mood. “Okay, Matt. I’m sorry. I’m not trying to ruin your wedding, man, really. It’s just that—”

“You’re still carrying a torch for her,” Matt said, his voice cautious as if trying to wheedle the truth out of him.

The very thought shot fury through Jack’s veins like adrenalin, and he slammed the rest of his beer to the back of his throat. “No way, man—the chick leaves me cold, trust me.”

One hand flat on the bar, Matt studied him through pensive eyes that reflected more doubt than trust. “I’d like to, Jack, but something tells me you don’t even trust yourself when it comes to Lacey.”

His grunt was harsh. “You got that right. It’s going to take everything in me not to chew her up and spit her out, which doesn’t bode well for a happy and cozy bridal party.” Holding his empty glass up with one hand and Matt’s Red Bull with the other, he signaled the bartender for refills, his bitterness towards Lacey and her family rekindling his ire.

“Which is all the more reason you need to get past it,” Matt said, expelling a heavy blast of air. “You’ve been carrying a grudge against Lacey and her family forever now, and it’s time to bury the hatchet.”

Jack glanced up through wary eyes. “Don’t tempt me, Matt. I’m willing to hold my tongue and be civil for your sake during the wedding, but don’t ask me to cozy up to her before that because it ain’t gonna happen.”

“Yeah … well about that …” Matt scratched the back of his head, avoiding Jack’s gaze.

Jack homed in, all but cauterizing Matt with a look. “A-bout
what
?” he ground out, each syllable a near hiss.

The bartender returned with their drinks, and Matt jumped up, wasting no time digging in his wallet to pay for the tab. “Thanks, Pete,” he said, quickly pushing Jack’s beer closer before he squinted at the menu on the wall. “Hey, Jack, you want nachos with that beer?”

A tic throbbed in Jack’s cheek over Matt picking up the bill since it was Jack’s turn to pay, sending prickles of alarm through his body.
Guilt money
, he thought, biting back a curse. He spun to face his cousin dead-on, clamping his arm like a vise when Matt refused to look his way. “A-bout what, Matt?”

The giant red “B” on Matt’s Savannah Bombers baseball jersey rose and fell as Matt took a deep draw of humid air, thick with the smell of grilled burgers and brats, before he slumped back on the stool. Venting with an exaggerated sigh, he finally faced his cousin, sympathy dark in his eyes. “Sorry, Jack, but there’s a lot to do for the wedding, so I can’t leave it all to Nicki, you know? And you said you’d help me with anything I need, right?” He paused, the weight of his words steeling his facial muscles despite the regret in his tone. “Which means sooner or later, you’re going to have to work with Lacey because that’s why she’s here too.”

Jack’s jaw began to ache. “
How
much ‘sooner’?” he bit out, every nerve on alert even though the haze of two beers.

Face in a scrunch, Matt yanked on his left ear, an absent-minded habit that only occurred when he was on the hot seat with teachers, parents, or the best friend he was about to burn.

“Hey, babe.” Both of them whirled around to see Nicki plant a kiss on the back of Matt’s neck before she slid onto the barstool on his other side, leaning forward with a forced smile. “Hey, Jack, haven’t seen you in a blue moon.”

Blue Moon. Good idea.
“Hey,” he said in a clipped tone, draining half of his Blue Moon in three hard gulps. He swiped the side of his mouth with his hand when he came up for air, jaw tight because they weren’t exactly the best of friends. Not since she’d merked him by ruining the girl he’d hoped to marry. “I’ve been busy with the new job,” he said with a stiff smile, well aware he avoided her as much as she did him despite their mutual love for Matt.

“Yeah, Matt told me. Congrats on scoring a spot on Augustine’s team, by the way. That pedes experience should come in handy with this one here.” She bumped her fiancé’s shoulder with an impish grin, earning a sweep of Matt’s arm to tickle her into a kiss.

“So, where is everybody?” Matt glanced over his shoulder while he held her close, scanning the bar with a crimp in his brow.

Everybody?
The beer pooled in Jack’s mouth right before it went down the wrong pipe.

Following Matt’s gaze, Nicki grinned and waved her arm like a wild woman. “The girls headed over to the pool table first to round up the other groomsmen.”

The girls?
Jack began to hack.

“Hey, buddy, pace yourself, will ya?” Matt pounded on Jack’s back, ducking his head to peer up with a hint of humor in blue eyes crinkled with apology. He leaned in to whisper in Jack’s ear. “Uh, I guess I forgot to tell you, man—this is sort of a bridal-party planning meeting.”

Jack snatched the napkin coaster beneath his glass and wiped his mouth, his eyes hot enough to laser his cousin to the wall. “Planning meeting?” he croaked, throat hoarse from hacking and spewing beer all over the counter. “The only ‘planning’ I’ve got in mind right now, Goof Ball, is tearing you limb to limb.”

A grin slid across his cousin’s face as he gripped an arm over Jack’s shoulder. “Ah-ah-ah … you took the Hippocratic Oath, remember? You have to put people back together, not tear ’em apart.”

Teeth grinding to near nubs, Jack shoved Matt’s arm off his shoulder with no little force. “Sorry, pal, but the
Hypocritical
Oath cancels it out,” he hissed, suddenly bone-dry for about six more beers—three to pour over Matt and three to numb his brain. “Which means I can make hamburger out of any hypocrite who says he’s a friend, then pulls a stunt like this.”

“Oooo … a hamburger sounds good.” Nicki squirmed onto her own barstool, eyeing the overhead menu like a Survivor contestant at a Vegas buffet.

“Well, if it isn’t the long-lost doctor!” Kelly Goshorn sidled up to slip a bare arm around Jack’s waist, the scent of Juicy Couture reminding him what a flirt Nicki’s best friend was. “I thought I heard something about you rejoining the human race.”

Broiling Matt with a final tight-lipped glare, Jack swiveled to face the girl who’d tried to pick up where Lacey left off so many years ago, offering Jack a sympathetic ear, a shoulder to cry on, and anything else he wanted. “Hey, Kelly, you’re looking good.” He forced a nonchalant tone, his smile as flat as his interest in the long-legged lawyer who looked like a Gen Y version of
The Good Wife
. “How’ve you been?”

“Better than ever,” she said with a sultry sweep of chestnut shoulder-length hair, a gleam in sable eyes that implied she was talking about far more than her state of mind. “And you’re looking good, too, Dr. O’Bryen.” Arms crossed over a well-fitting tank top, she angled her head to study him, the almond shape of her eyes thinning in apparent assessment. “Although I’m not sure just
which
is more attractive—those brawny arms or the brawny title.”

“Oooo, I’ll take the arms,” Sarah Baker said with a wink, nudging Kelly out of the way to give Jack a warm hug he had no trouble returning. Sarah had always been his favorite of Nicki’s friends at the get-togethers Matt had managed to drag him to. She pulled back with an easy smile and a tip of her head, the auburn streaks in her shaggy blonde bob a testament to her successful beauty-salon business. “Congratulations on your hard-earned degree, Doc—maybe
now
you can hang out with us a little more and have some fun?”

“Maybe.” A half smile played on his lips as he tugged on a loose auburn strand of her hair, the generous spray of freckles across an upturned nose suddenly reminding him of his sisters.

“Hey, we
are
going to move this party to the big booth in the back, right? Where we can finally eat?” Matt’s friend Nate slid his empty mug onto the bar and rubbed his hands together, gaze darting from face to face. “Matt says he’s picking up the tab, so I’m hungrier than usual.”

Matt groaned. “Which means I probably have to duck out and hit the ATM before the night is over.” He gave both Nate and his other friend Justin a friendly shove toward the back of the bar where a reserved sign sat on the table of their favorite booth. “Come on, you jokers, we’ve got some planning to do before I feed you.”

“Mmm … well, I call dibs on the doctor,” Kelly said with a slip of her arm through Jack’s. “Nate and Justin are all yours, Sarah and Lacey.”

Lacey.

In the space of one ragged heartbeat, the crowd thinned like clouds drifting apart to allow a single ray of sunshine through as Lacey came into view. The sight of her in a short melon-colored sundress with spaghetti straps and that adorably messy ponytail all but sucked the air from his lungs. Their gazes locked, and his heart seized still for a full three seconds while she offered a shy smile that made his mouth go dry. “Hey, Jack,” she said softly, her voice almost breathless while she chewed on the edge of those luscious pink lips that had once been his for the taking. “Good to see you again.”

Good?
His skin flashed hot and then cold, like a brain freeze that traveled to every nerve in his body, ticking him off something fierce. She had no right to make him feel this way, to mess with his mind, to screw with his pulse. As far as he was concerned, she was sheer poison—then and now—and there was only one antidote for that kind of poison.

Anger.

Offering a tight smile that was barely civil, he slipped a hand around Kelly’s waist and whispered in her ear, making her laugh as he led her to their table at the back. He allowed Kelly to ease into the booth next to Matt and Nicki while Nate, Sarah, and Justin made room for Lacey on the other side. His smile evaporated. Directly across from him, of course, looking every bit as uncomfortable as he.

Their favorite waitress appeared to hand out menus, and Jack was grateful for the interruption, shooting Wanda an easy smile that earned him a sassy wink. “Well, well, I see the gang’s all here,” she said with a butt of her hip against his arm, “including Isle of Hope’s most eligible bachelor.” She teased him with a sexy look while she played with the hair at the back of his head. “So, what’s your poison tonight, doc?”

Without meaning to, Jack’s eyes flicked to Lacey’s and held, giving him a modicum of satisfaction when a blush stole into her cheeks before she looked away.

“Bring him a Red Bull, Wanda,” Matt said from the other end of the booth, “I need him sober since this is a working meeting, and he’s already had two.”

Sarah angled a brow. “Whoa, since when do you tip more than one, Dr. Jack? Don’t tell me med school drove you to drink?”

He shot a tight smile in Matt’s direction. “No, that honor belongs to Ball tonight, I’m afraid.” Draining the last of his glass, he pushed it away. “
Blue Moon
, Wanda,” he emphasized with a narrow look in Matt’s direction, figuring Matt deserved it for not warning him about tonight. Ignoring the scowl on his cousin’s face, he draped an arm over Kelly’s shoulder. “Who else? My treat.”

“Sounds good to me.” Kelly inched closer while everyone else opted for D.P. and Coke.

When Wanda finished taking all the orders, Matt got down to business. “Nicki and I have been talking, and we’ve both decided to have the wedding and reception in Nicki’s backyard.”

BOOK: Isle of Hope
3.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Theory of Games by Ezra Sidran
Four Friends by Robyn Carr
Tinseltown by Taylor, Stephanie
Cold Redemption by Nathan Hawke