Excerpt: A Love So Strong
3 Prequel Novellas
** These novellas were previously published by Harlequin Enterprises from 2002-2005 on their website as prequels to The Serenity House Series. Be sure to get a copy of the boxed set or individually, PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT, A PLACE TO BELONG, AGAINST THE ODDS.
Caught off Guard
Jillian Kimball exited her rented car amidst the eerie glow of the streetlamps. She stood before her home on North Boulevard in the sleepy town of Hyde Point, New York, and willed her hands not to shake. The house looked the same as it had 10 months ago when she walked out of the place. But she wasn’t the same. She was so different, sometimes she didn’t recognize the old Jillian: Yale graduate, hotshot lawyer, unfaithful wife.
Shaken by being here, and by what she was about to do, she summoned the words of wisdom that had brought her back to town, words given to her by her husband’s grandfather, whom she loved dearly.
When you grow old, you’ll regret the things you didn’t do, not what you did do.
Drawing the key from her purse, she hefted up the travel bag she carried and began the precarious trek back to salvage some of her old life—the old life she’d so cavalierly given up. And only had a few days to recover.
She made her way down the sidewalk and onto the porch. Big pillars flanked the entryway. She remembered designing them with her husband, Riley.
I want the pillars tall and massive, she’d told him.
It’s overstated, he’d retorted.
Although building their first house together had been fun, there, too, was the struggle for control. The feelings had been painful, the need to dominate that both she and her almost-ex shared. Even though the tiffs had usually ended in bed, where everything had been glorious.
Keeping that image in her brain, she faced the front door of the two-story contemporary. No lights shone downstairs, but peeking in the foyer window, she noted a faint yellow glow from their bedroom. Was Riley home? Was he alone?
She angled her chin. It didn’t matter. She couldn’t have called. If she’d warned him she was coming, he wouldn’t see her. And she believed her success in this mission depended on catching him off guard and keeping him there for the next three days.
Coincidentally, the finalizing of their divorce came at the same time of their law firm’s annual outreach work. Every year, businesses in Hyde Point sent their employees for a stint of do-gooding. This spring’s project was giving the city’s home for girls a face-lift. Serenity House was a facility that had taken in troubled teenage girls for the past 15 years. Hyde Associates represented them, and when Nathan Hyde had taken a leave from his firm to run for Congress, Jill had asked to fill in as Serenity House’s attorney. She loved working with the proprietor, Nora Nolan. Consequently, Jill had seen this opportunity as the perfect time to come home. Of course, she also hoped to convince Riley not to divorce her.
Going through the three upcoming days, and facing the person she’d been, as well as what she’d done to the only man she ever loved, scared the hell out of Jill. But there was only one way to find out if he’d take her back. And that was to ask him.
That and be around so he’d remember the good things.
Quietly, she let herself into the house. The air smelled like spaghetti sauce—his favorite.
If you cook for me tonight, I’ll make extra-special love to you.
It’s your turn to cook for me.
She shook her head. She’d give her eyeteeth to be able to make meals for Riley again.
Setting her bag down on the tile floor, she stiffened her spine and climbed the winding oak staircase. At the top, she drew in a breath and headed to the master suite. The door was ajar and she could hear the TV on low. Even that had come between them.
I hate when you watch television in our bedroom, she’d told him.
I like it. Use your earplugs.
Jill stepped inside. The brass bed was messy, the covers askew. She heard water running in the bathroom. She was standing just inside the doorway when Riley came out.
He froze when he saw her, his arms arrested in the act of drying his wheat-colored hair with a towel.
His chiseled features went from startled to puzzled, to completely and utterly contemptuous. He drew in a deep breath, straightened his shoulders, and lowered the towel, knotting it around his waist. His blue eyes burned cold fire. “Huh! If it isn’t my long lost wife.” He glanced at the Rolex he always wore. “For a few more days, that is.”
His voice like death, he asked, “What do you want, Jillian?” Not Jill, what he usually called her. And certainly not Jilly, which he whispered in bed.
Her heart raced in her chest and her palms got clammy. But she threw back her hair and faced him squarely. “I want another chance, Riley. I want to give our marriage another try.”
Jase McKay hadn’t made many mistakes in his life. His strict minister father had seen to that. But as he looked across the small chapel in Hyde Point, New York, where his friends Riley and Jillian Sullivan were renewing their vows, he was confronted with a reminder of the biggest blunder he’d ever committed.
Molly Kimball, Jill’s sister. Letting her go six weeks, three days and some odd hours ago had truly been the most foolish, destructive, hurtful thing he’d ever done.
You didn’t let her go, asshole. You booted her out of your life carelessly and callously. Because he’d been afraid of what she was doing to his orderly existence. Because the importance of control, of appearances, had been irrevocably drilled into him as a youth.
Today, all that paled in light of the ramifications of leaving her—sleepless nights, an inability to enjoy the things in life he’d worked so hard to get, and utter misery every time he saw her, like now.
He couldn’t even think about what their abrupt split had done to her. He knew unquestionably that she’d loved him.
Telling himself to stop with the pity party, he focused on the Sullivans. He was happy for them. God knew, they’d suffered over their own split a year ago. As Riley’s divorce lawyer and best friend—they’d been college and law school roommates, too—Jase was privy to all of it. Amidst the flickering bayberry scented candles, he listened to their pledges to each other, on the sixth anniversary of their wedding.
“Having lost you once,” Riley said in a deep voice, husky with emotion, “I promise never to do anything again to make you leave me.”
Blond and pretty, Jill wiped uncharacteristic tears from her eyes. Of course, she’d come back from their second honeymoon—two months in Paris—pregnant, so that was part of the reason for her sentimentality. “And I promise,” she said softly, “to share myself with you. To let you in, no matter how hard it is.”
Jase remembered his own vows, his own wedding seven years ago. Mary Stevens had been his savior, helping him to build the life he’d wanted for himself, on board with his need to be straight arrow and conservative. He’d loved her deeply. When she’d died in a car crash, he’d wanted his own life to end with her. But he had a son, so he kept going for Tommy. And her parents, Thomas and Thea Stevens, had been a godsend. In time, the wounds of the loss of his wife had healed.
As if drawn by a magnet, his gaze settled back on Molly. Just the sight of her made him feel as raw as knuckles scraped on sandpaper. Her waist-length, curly hair the color of caramels shone in the candlelight; her deep chestnut eyes were misty with joy. And he could swear the scent of wildflowers that always surrounded her wafted over to him. Tonight, her voluptuous body was covered with a coppery brown dress, long and flowing like most of the clothes she chose.
Hippie clothes, he’d teased once as he unbuttoned a fringed top with beads on it.
She grinned. I know. I belong in the sixties.
You got that right, lady.
He winced at the memory. He’d teased her a lot, but there was always an edge to the words. He didn’t like her clothes. Her whole lifestyle was foreign to him, and those petty grievances had driven them apart. That and her absolute refusal to compromise. In truth, Molly couldn’t accept him any more than he could accept her. Still, he’d been the one to end it. She’d wanted to work on their relationship.
Watch this movie with me. She held up Barefoot in the Park, an old film with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. We’re like them. Different as snow and sun. But we can make it, Jay, like they did.
He’d watched the film and been hurt by the comparison of himself to the Redford character. I am not that inflexible…that stuffy…Hell, they’re so unmatched, why are they even together?
Molly had just laughed and tumbled him into bed. Well, they have this in common. Like us.
Her words moved him. He’d brushed the hair off her flawless face. There’s more to us than this, Mol.
What is there, Jay?
I love being with you. You make me feel things, see things so intensely.
I love being with you, too. You center me.
In the end, it hadn’t been enough, and after two months on a roller coaster of emotion, he’d broken it off, just before Jill and Riley came home. He’d been distraught in those dark days after he’d left Molly sobbing in her apartment. Abject misery had forced him to wonder if they could try harder to mesh their disparate lives. It took courage and resolve, but he finally decided living without her was untenable.
So he’d gone back to her place, two weeks after their split, to tell her he was sorry for what he’d done, he wanted to talk more, that he’d made a mistake. Logan Kane, her friend and goddamned protector, had answered the door in her apartment over the store she operated.
The guy had growled when he saw Jase.
Get the hell out of here before I beat the shit out of you.
I need to see Molly.
Look, I know you care about her. So do I.
Kane had let loose with inventive expletives, then grabbed Jase by the shirt and thrust him against a wall outside the apartment. She’s sick, McKay. She’s been vomiting and shaking and sobbing since you dropped your little bomb a few weeks ago. I’m considering a hospital, she’s so overwrought. I swear to God, if you go near her now, I’ll take you apart.
And because Jase loved her and still knew he might not be able to give Molly what she needed, he’d left. In the weeks since, he’d missed her so much he ached with the loss. But when she’d recovered and seemed her old self again the few times they’d bumped into each other around town, he did stay away from her. It was the only decent thing he’d ever done for her.
Now, though his life was pretty colorless in Molly’s absence, he’d gotten back on an even keel. Thomas Stevens had even introduced him to a new attorney in town, Sarina Matthews, whom he was dating, who was here with him tonight.
Molly looked up and caught Jase staring at her. She gave him a half smile that cut him off at the knees. There was no bitterness on her face. No indictment. Only forgiveness. And the wariness residing in a doe’s eyes when faced with a hunter’s gun. Of course there was. Molly Kimball was well aware of the fact he could—almost had—destroyed her.
But as Jase watched Molly, her smile turned into a small gasp and her beautiful porcelain skin paled. She closed her eyes. And crumpled to the floor.
An Impossible Mission
Logan Kane stared over the rim of his coffee mug and smiled at Molly Kimball McKay. She often came over to lunch at his restaurant, Kane’s Table, the business next door to her nature shop. He loved keeping her company while she devoured whatever he put in front of her.
She caught him staring and blushed. “I’m really pigging out, aren’t I?”
“Just eating for two.” He nodded to her protruding belly. “How’s the little princess?”
“Kicking up a storm. Having dance parties at two a.m. Her daddy spoils her already.”
“As he should. He’s got a lot to make up for.”
Molly’s chestnut eyes twinkled at him. “You don’t fool me. You were the one who was responsible for getting us together.”
Well, that was true. Molly and her now–husband Jase had been on an emotional merry–go–round and Logan had been the one to force Jase’s hand in claiming her. If the guy hadn’t, Logan would have married Molly himself—not that he loved her that way. He just had a thing about protecting pregnant women and babies.
When Molly finished and stood up, she arched her back and was silhouetted against the April sun coming in from the window behind her. At one time there had been another woman Logan had wished with all his heart to see pregnant and ungainly like Molly. And it would have been his kid she carried. But that woman was nothing like Molly. That woman was a lying, devious bitch who would never, after what she’d done, have his child.
“Logan, are you all right?”
He stood too to get out of the memory. “Sure.”
“You looked sad.”
He ruffled her hair. “You always tell me that.”
“Because you always look sad. But today, just now, there’s a sort of a wistful sadness in those green eyes of yours.”
Thankfully, his cell rang. Molly glanced at her watch. “Go ahead and get that.” Kissing him on the cheek, she headed for the door calling her thanks out to him.
“Logan, it’s Simon.”
Speak of the devil. It was through this man, Simon Kirby, that Logan had met Isabelle Sachetti. He’d never forget it. She’d come on to him right away.
I think we’re going to be really good together, Kane.
Hmm, I like the sound of that, Sachetti.
They had been good together—in bed, where they’d ended up the weekend after they met. And in the field, too, until she’d not only almost gotten Logan killed, but had also broken his heart in a way that he hadn’t ever recovered from in the full two years since leaving her in that hospital room in Barcelona.
“Hey buddy, how you doing?” Simon was also his close friend. Outside of Logan’s half-brothers and Molly, his best friend.
“Don’t ask. Nothing goes right here.” A pause. “I need you, bro.”
Damn it. “I helped out a few months ago. You said it would be a while before I heard from you again.”
“It should have been. Phil Alderman was shot yesterday.”
“What? Is he all right?”
“Yeah. He was in the wrong place, at the wrong time—a drive–by.”
“Give him my best.” Logan waited. “Let me guess. He was scheduled to go out.”
“Yep.” Simon wasn’t a man of many words, much like Logan himself.
“Hell, I can’t learn an operation that quickly.”
“It was one you helped sketch out a while back.”
Mentally Logan flipped through the menu of what he’d worked on in the planning sessions he’d done with Simon after he quit. The immigrant smuggling in Mexico. The jail drug deals in Indonesia. The baby kidnapping ring in Italy. Oh, hell, don’t ask me to do that one, Simon.
“It’s the baby kidnapping ring.”
Logan remained silent.
“I know this conjures demons for you, buddy.”
“Still, you ask me.”
“I’m stuck or I wouldn’t.”
And of course, Logan would never say no to Simon. He owed the guy. Logan had been undercover in a Belfast jail when all hell had broken loose and the prison had been taken over by the inmates. A very violent riot ensued. Posing as a guard, Simon had gotten Logan out—but in the midst of their escape Simon’s leg had been ripped apart by barbed wire. As a result, Simon’s retirement from active duty had come early, and his marriage had ultimately ended. Now he just ran The Organization.
They all got a kick out of the name of their rogue agency. And out of the way they got their orders, real Mission Impossible style. Funded by the U.S. government, the Organization took on foreign assignments that Uncle Sam couldn’t get involved in publicly for various reasons. Washington also vowed to deny its existence should they ever be caught, just like in the movies.
Logan expelled a heavy breath. “When?”
“You leave Monday.”
“What do I do?”
“Come to New York tomorrow. I’ll brief you, then you can get things in order at home.”
“All right.” Logan hung up before asking who would be on the mission with him. Hell, it didn’t matter so long as Isabelle wasn’t involved. But Logan knew he didn’t have to worry about that. No matter how desperate he was, Simon would never pair them up again.
Because not even for Simon Kirby would Logan work with her again.