A Passion Denied
by Julie Lessman
A PASSION DENIED
By Julie Lessman
"O Lord my God, how great you are!
You are robed with honor and with majesty ...
You make the clouds your chariots; you ride upon the wings of the wind.
The winds are your messengers; flames of fire are your servants."
- Psalm 104:1-4
Boston, Massachusetts, Spring 1922
Oh, to be a calculating woman! Elizabeth O'Connor sighed. She dodged her way down the bustling sidewalk of Boston's thriving business district, wishing she were more like her sister, Charity. She chewed on her lip. Regrettably, she wasn't, a definite character flaw at the moment. And one that would have to change.
She sidestepped a rickety wood wagon heaped high with the Boston Herald, hot off the presses. The freckle-faced boy hauling it muttered an apology before disappearing into a sea of pin-striped suits, short skirts and bobbed hair. On his heels, a young mother ambled along, cooing to a wide-eyed baby in a stroller. The baby's soft chuckle floated by, and the sound buoyed Elizabeth's spirits. Spring in the city! Despite the whiff of gasoline and tobacco drifting in the unseasonably warm breeze, she was ready for the promise of love in the air. Her heart fluttered. And maybe, just maybe, a little spring fever would do the trick!
She pressed her nose to the window of McGuire & Brady Printing Company and peered inside. John Morrison Brady was bent over a press, his lean, muscled body poised for battle with a screwdriver in his hand. Her chin hardened, and her smiled faded. That man suffered from a terminal illness that would be the death of their relationship: friendship. Elizabeth straightened her shoulders. And the worst kind of friendship at that--the big-brother kind.
She touched a hand to the wavy shingle haircut her friend Millie had talked her into. "It's all the rage, Lizzzzzie Lou," Millie had insisted, the sound of Lizzie's name buzzing on her tongue like the hum of a busy beehive. A self-proclaimed modern woman, Millie had convinced Elizabeth "Beth" O'Connor to change her name to Lizzie over a year ago--to add excitement to her life, she'd said. And now, in the throes of radical 1920s fashion, Lizzie's best friend had also convinced her that the chestnut tresses trailing her back simply had to go. The result was a short, fashionable bob, newly shorn just yesterday. Softly waved, it fell to just below her ear, showing off her heart-shaped face and slender neck to good advantage. Or so Millie had said. She squinted at her reflection in the window. She did look older, more sophisticated, she supposed. A smile twitched at the corners of her mouth. And it certainly seemed as if she had turned a few more heads at the bookstore where she worked. She opened the door, spurred on by the tinkling bell overhead, and took a deep breath. Now to turn the right one ...
Her brother-in-law, Collin, looked up from his desk where he tallied invoices for printing jobs just completed. A slow grin spread across his handsome face before he let out a low whistle, causing a pleasant wash of heat to seep into her cheeks. "Sweet saints above, Lizzie, is that really you? What are you trying to do? Break a few hearts?"
Her gaze flicked to the back room where Brady lay on a flat wooden dolly beneath their Bullock web-fed press. She studied his long legs sprawled and splattered with ink, then looked back at Collin with a shaky smile. "Nope, only one. But I suspect it's forged in steel."
Collin chuckled and glanced over his shoulder, stretching his arms overhead. "Yep, I'd say so, but I admire your tenacity. You might say you're the little sister he never had. But I suspect that pretty new hairdo and stylish outfit could go a long way in changing his mind."
She grinned and planted a kiss on his cheek. "Thanks, Collin. One can only hope." She tugged on her lavender, low-waisted dress, then smoothed out its scalloped layers with sweaty palms. "And pray, I suppose, since it is Brady we're dealing with here."
Collin stood and draped an arm around her shoulders. He lowered his voice and gave her a squeeze. "He'll wake up one of these days, Lizzie. I just hope it's not too late. You're too pretty to be waiting around. And he's a slow one, you know."
She sighed and leaned against him, staring at Brady with longing in her eyes. "Now there's a news flash for you."
Collin laughed and gave her a gentle prod toward the back room. "Show him no mercy, Lizzie."
She nodded and made her way to the rear of the shop, her pulse tripping faster than the tap-tap-tapping of Brady's trusty screwdriver. She stopped at the foot of the press and sucked in a deep swallow of air. "I have a notion, John Brady, that whenever you want to get away from the world, you disappear under that silly machine."
A deep-throated chuckle floated up between the rotors of the press. He rolled out, flat on his back. The smile froze on his face. "Beth? What'd ya do to your hair?"
Heat flooded her cheeks. "I had it bobbed. Do you like it?"
He sat up and rubbed his jaw with the side of his hand, screwdriver angled as if he were playing a violin. "Yeah ... it's pretty, I guess. In a newfangled sort of way."
She twirled around to give him the full effect, her smile brimming with hope. "Well, I am a modern woman, in case you haven't noticed."
He lumbered to his feet. His tall frame unfolded to eliminate everything else in her view. He squinted and scrunched his nose, causing smudges of ink to wrinkle across his tanned cheek. "Mmmm ... makes you look old."
"I am old, Brady, a fact you refuse to acknowledge. Almost eighteen, remember?"
He chuckled. "Seventeen, Beth, and I'll give you the half." He turned and ambled to the sink to wash his hands. His husky laugh lingered in the air. She stared at the work shirt spanning his back and barely noticed the ink stains for the broad shoulders and hard muscles cording his arms. He dried his hands on a towel and turned to lean against the counter. The corners of his mouth flickered as if a grin wanted to break free. "You'll always be a little girl to me, little buddy, especially with those roses in your cheeks and wide eyes. I suspect I'll feel that way when you're long gone and married, Beth, with a houseful of little girls all your own. That's just the way it is with big brothers."
She notched her powdered chin in the air. "You're not my brother, John Brady, and no amount of touting will make it so." She propped hands to her waist and gave him a ruby red pout. "And I'm not a little girl. I'm a woman ... with feelings--"
"Beth, we've been over this before." He slacked a hip and ran a calloused hand over his face. His brown eyes softened with compassion. "I see you as my little sister, nothing more. These 'feelings' you think you have for me--"
"Know I have for you, Brady! I know it, even if you don't." Her chest rose and fell with indignation.
He groaned. "All right, these feelings you know you have for me ... I've known you since you were thirteen, Elizabeth, and I've been a mentor in your faith since fourteen. It's natural for you to think you have feelings--"
She stomped her foot. "Know, Brady, I know! And if you weren't so socially inept and totally blind--"
He rose to his full six-foot-three height, making her five-foot-seven seem almost petite. The chiseled line of his jaw hardened with the motion. "Come on, Beth, totally blind?" His gaze flicked into the next room as if he were worried Collin was listening.
Tears threatened and she wanted to bolt, but she fought it off. This was too important. Fueled by frustration long dormant, she slapped her leather clutch onto the table and strode forward. She jabbed a finger into his hard-muscled chest. "Yes, blind, you baboon! And don't be looking to see what Collin thinks, because he knows it too. Honestly, Brady, as far as the Bible, you're head and shoulders above anyone I know. But when it comes to seeing what God may have for you right in front of your ink-stained nose, you don't have a clue." She dropped a trembling hand to her quivering stomach. Oh, my, where had that come from?
He stood, mouth gaping. A spray of red mottled his neck. "Beth, what's gotten into you?"
She faltered back, shocked at the thoughts and feelings whirling in her brain. With a rush of adrenalin, she crossed her arms and stared him down, energized by her newfound anger. "You've gotten into me, John Brady, and I want to know straight out why you refuse to acknowledge me as a woman? Am I not pretty enough? Smart enough? Mature enough?"
The ruddiness in his neck traveled to his ears. He took a commanding stride toward her and latched a hand on her arm. With a firm grip, he pushed her into a chair at the table and squatted beside her. "Beth, stop this! I'm close to thirty, which is way too old for you. You're young and beautiful and smart, and more mature than most girls ... women ... I've met. You're going to make some lucky man a wonderful wife."
She stared at his handsome face, the contrast of gentle eyes and hard-sculpted features making her heart bleed. Wisps of cinnamon-colored hair curled up at the back of his neck, softening the hard line of his jaw, which was already shadowed by afternoon growth. She swallowed hard, the taste of dread pasty in her throat. "Just not you," she whispered.
A muscle flinched in his cheek. He smothered her hands between his large, calloused ones. "Beth, I love you, you know that--"
She looked away, unable to bear the empathy in his eyes. "But you're not attracted to me--"
As soft as a child's kiss, he lifted her chin with his finger, urging her eyes to his. "Of course I'm attracted to you--your gentle spirit, your thirst for God, your innocence--it draws me to want to protect you and care for you--as a friend and a brother."
Brother. The sound of that hateful word stiffened her spine. She jerked her hand free and angled her chin. "But not as a woman, is that it, Brady? Someone you can take in your arms and kiss and make love to?"
Blood gorged his cheeks as he stood up. A rare hint of anger sparked in his eyes, and satisfaction flooded her soul. So he wasn't pure stone. Good! At least she could arouse his temper, if nothing else.
"So help me, Beth, if you spent a fraction of the time reading the Bible as you do those silly romance novels, we wouldn't be having this problem."
She jumped up with tears stinging her eyes. "And if you took your nose out of your Bible long enough to see that God has a plan for your life other than smearing yourself with ink, you might see that you are the problem." With a gasping sob, she snatched her purse from the table and rammed it hard against his chest, pushing him out of the way. She turned toward the door.
He stumbled back, then grabbed her arm. "Beth, wait! We need to pray about this ..."
She flung his hand away. Humiliation and anger broiled her cheeks. "No, you pray about it. It seems to be the only thing you know how to do. And while you're at it, pray that he heals that stupid streak inside of you ... and in me, too, for loving you like I do." She bolted for the door, ignoring Collin's gaping stare.
"Beth--" Pain echoed in Brady's voice.
She whirled around, hand fisted on the knob. "And one more prayer, Brady, if you don't mind. Pray that I hate you, will you? Shouldn't be too hard, I don't think. You make it so easy."
The door slammed closed, rattling the glass.
Brady blinked at Collin. "What just happened?"
Collin let out a low whistle and arched a brow. "Don't look now, ol'buddy, but I think you're back in the Great War. What'd ya say to set her off like that? I've never seen Lizzie lose her temper before."
Brady exhaled and dropped into his desk chair. He mauled his face with his hand. "Beth. Her name is Beth, Collin, and I didn't say anything I haven't said before."
"She's been Lizzie for over a year, Brady. It's what her friends call her and her family most of the time. You're the only holdout--in more ways than one."
Brady glanced up, his eyes burning with fatigue. "And what's that supposed to mean?"
"It means she's not thirteen anymore; she's a grown woman. You're the only one who still treats her like a kid."
"Don't start with this, please," Brady groaned, "I'm way too tired."
Collin sighed and shuffled to the rack over the door to snatch his keys. "So is Lizzie. Tired of being in love with someone who treats her like a little sister. She wants more. How long are you going to ignore it?"
Brady dropped his head in his hand to shield his eyes. "I haven't ignored it. I've been praying it would go away."
"Burying your head in the sand--or in your prayers--won't work, ol' buddy. You taught me that."
The truth congealed in Brady's stomach along with the cold oatmeal he'd eaten for lunch. "I know," he whispered.
Collin stared for a moment, then wandered over to Brady's desk. He sat down on an old proof sheet and crossed his arms. "Look, I've tried not to butt in where Lizzie is concerned, but it's kind of hard right now. And to be honest with you, I'm worried."
"You don't need to worry about Beth."
Collin sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. "It's not Beth I'm talking about."
"Well, don't worry about me, either, because first thing Monday, I'm going to sit her down and explain once and for all why we can't be more than friends."
Collin's gaze narrowed. "And why is that, exactly? Because you're not attracted to her?"
Heat blistered Brady's cheeks.
Collin stared, then broke into a grin. "You are, aren't you?"
"Knock it off, Collin."
Collin chuckled. "No, Brady, I won't 'knock it off.' Everybody in this family knows how Lizzie feels about you, but nobody really knows how you feel about her. Until now."
Brady jumped up and headed to the back room, heat stinging his neck. "I'm going home."
"You're in love with my sister-in-law, aren't you?" Collin hopped up and followed. "Why don't you just admit it?"
Brady spun around. "I love Beth, but not in that way."
Collin hesitated and his smile faded. He cocked his head. "I know you won't lie, Brady, so I'm asking you one more time. Are you attracted to Lizzie?"
"I don't have to answer that."
"No, but I'm asking as a friend--to both you and Lizzie. Are you?"
Brady stared, his heart pounding in his chest like the rotors of the Bullock pounding against paper. His voice was barely a whisper. "Yes."
"I knew it! That's great news. So, what's the problem?"
"Because I can't love her that way."
Collin frowned. "Why not? I don't understand. You're a man and she's a woman--"
"No!" Brady shocked himself with the vehemence in his tone. "She's like a sister to me. I could never ... would never ... think of Beth that way."
Collin blinked. "Calm down, ol' buddy. Lizzie is not your sister no matter how much you see it that way. I can't help but think there's more to this, John, something you're not telling me. What is it? Why are you holding back?"
Nausea curdled in Brady's stomach. He fought back a shudder. "Nothing, Collin. Nothing I care to go into."
Collin stared long and hard. He finally sighed and jingled the keys in his pocket. "Okay, I'll leave it be. For now. But I can't leave Lizzie be. She's in love with you, my friend, and if you don't intend to return that love, then you better do something about it. Now."
Brady braced a hand against the door frame while fear added to the mix in his gut. "I know."
"That means cutting her loose, Brady. No more Bible study or private prayer time or lunchtime chats. Every minute you spend with that girl is only leading her on."
Brady closed his eyes. "Yeah."
Collin gripped an arm around Brady's shoulder. "I love you, John. You're the brother I never had and the best friend I've ever known. It tears me up when I think you're not happy. I know how much Lizzie means to you. And I'm here, if you need me."
"I know. I appreciate that."
Collin cuffed him on the shoulder and headed for the door. "See you tomorrow."
Brady looked up. "Collin?"
"Don't tell Faith ... or anyone ... how I feel about Beth, okay?"
Collin stared, his lips poised as if to argue. He released a weighty sigh. "Okay, old buddy, not a word. Have a good night."
Brady nodded, then swallowed hard. Yeah, as if that were possible.
Strangers were gawking, but she didn't care. She bolted down the crowded sidewalk like a madwoman, tears streaming her cheeks and her chest heaving with hurt. Curious gazes followed as she tore down Henry Street where the farmer's market was in full sway. She barely noticed the milling patrons who swarmed wooden stands heaped high with oranges and lemons freshly plucked and shipped from Florida groves. Stern-eyed ladies rifled through leaf lettuce while apron-clad vendors hovered and hawked their wares. Lizzie ignored them all, racing past and almost tumbling as she hurdled a crate of potatoes in her path.
"Miss, are you okay ..."
Lizzie heard the concern in the shopkeeper's voice, but she dare not acknowledge his kindness. It would surely unleash the broken sob that lodged in her throat. Right now all she wanted to do was to crawl into a dark corner of St. Stephen's Church and cry. She sniffed. That and spit into John Brady's eye. She flew up the church's marble steps and tugged at the heavy oak doors.
The hallowed darkness inside strained her eyes as she adjusted to its dim light. She scanned the pews to make sure she was alone. With a shuddering heave, she made her way to the right alcove at the front and sank into her favorite row in the back corner. She set her clutch purse aside and lay down on her back, stretched out like she used to when she was a child, in search of her own little world where she could read and dream and pray. Recess in grade school had always been filled with giggles and games of red rover and girls flirting with boys who didn't know they existed. But at times, when the pull of a favorite book or a longing for romance would strike, she would steal away, unbeknownst to the nuns. It was here, in this shadowed church, lit only by the soft glow of flickering candles and sunlight shafting through stained-glass windows, that she would finally connect with God.
She'd lie on the polished wood bench and look up, squinting to imagine that Jesus was lying down too, on a bench in the balcony across the way, ready to chat. At times, she could almost see his white gown through the marble balustrade as he listened to her. She always felt close to him there, amidst the lingering scent of incense and lemon oil. As if they were best friends. And they were. Their brief encounters always filled her with peace, often providing a much-needed balm to her young soul.
With a weary sigh, she lay down in the darkened pew and closed her eyes, allowing her thoughts to stray to Brady as they so often did. In her daydreams, she found herself comparing him to heroes she idolized in her favorite books. Her lips curved into a sad smile. Without question, John Brady was her Mr. Darcy, possessing all the exasperating prejudice of Jane Austin's hero in Pride & Prejudice. At least when it came to her, she thought with a twist of her lips--too blinded by his own stubborn perceptions to see what everyone else so clearly saw--that his "little buddy" was destined to be his very own "Lizzy."
She stared now, lost in a faraway look that blurred the flame of the sanctuary light as it glittered in its scarlet holder. "Why, God? Why can't he love me? I know he cares--I can see it in his eyes and feel it in his touch. And I love him too--you know I do. But he gives me nothing."
She peeked up at the balcony. "He's a man after your own heart, God, which has me wondering if you're as stubborn as he. I surely hope so, because I'm going to need help in matching wits with him. And if you don't mind my saying so, when it comes to stubborn, this man is one of your finest creations. But if we belong together--loving each other while loving you--then you've got to open his eyes to the truth. And if I've missed it all these years and not heard your still, quiet voice, then please ... please ... set me free from his hold."
She closed her eyes and settled in once again, her focus intent on the prayer at hand. All at once the heavy oak door squealed open, emitting a shaft of light that filtered in from the vestibule. The sound of hurried footsteps echoed through the cavernous building and then stopped. A broken sob pierced the darkness. Lizzie's eyes popped open. She stiffened in the pew. What in the world?
Pitiful heaves rose to the rafters as Lizzie sat and scanned the dark church. Nothing ... except the painful sound of someone's grief. With a tightening in her chest, Lizzie rose and followed the sound of the weeping. Her eyes widened as she discovered its source in the very last pew. "Ellie? Is that you? Oh, honey, what's wrong?"
A sprite of a girl lay collapsed in the pew, her ragged overalls torn and tattered. Wisps of carrot-red hair escaped from stubby braids, lending a halo effect that reminded Lizzie of a fuzzy spider monkey. Her slight shoulders shuddered with every heartbreaking heave, but at the sound of Lizzie's voice, she jolted upright. She blinked in shock, enormous hazel eyes glossy with tears.
"Lizzie! I-I thought I was a-alone." She sniffed and swiped at her nose with the sleeve of her blouse. With a lift of her chin, she squinted up, forcing a million tiny freckles to scrunch in a frown. "And nothing's wrong."
Lizzie folded her arms and arched a brow. "It's a sin to lie, Eleanor Walsh, and well you know it. And in a church, no less."
The faintest hint of a smile flickered at the edges of the girl's mouth. "So I'll duck in the confessional on the way out. Betcha God will barely notice."
"He notices everything, Ellie, especially when one of his favorite little girls is making such a ruckus in his house." Lizzie nudged her over and sat down. "What's wrong?"
"Aw, Lizzie, you wouldn't understand."
"Mmm ... maybe. Maybe not. But you won't know till you tell me, now will you?"
Ellie glanced up, her face skewed in thought. She took a deep breath and settled back against the pew, expelling a long, heavy sigh. "I beat up Brian Kincaid."
Lizzie leaned forward in shock. "What? That big, hulking boy from the 7th grade? Sweet Mother of Job, how? Why?"
"Because he's a snot-nosed bully, that's why. So I walloped him."
"Good heavens, Ellie, he's a foot taller than you!"
A grin parted the nine-year-old's lips, revealing a flash of teeth. "Not anymore. I thrashed him down to size just like I do my brothers when they fire me up. That'll teach him to call me names."
"Lizzie bit back a smile. "What kind of names?"
She jutted her lip and folded her arms, squinting hard at the pew in front of her. "Calls me an 'it.' Says I'm not a girl." She looked away, but not before Lizzie caught the quiver of her chin. "A freak of nature." Her voice wavered the slightest bit before it hardened. "Ellie Smellie, the circus sideshow."
Hot wetness sprang to Lizzie's eyes and fury burned in her throat. She grabbed Ellie in a ferocious hug. "Bald-faced lies, all of it! You're a beautiful girl, Eleanor Walsh. And Brian Kincaid is nothing but a bully who is appropriately named--lyin' Brian."
Ellie pulled away, clearly avoiding Lizzie's eyes for the tears in her own. She sniffed several times. "No, Lizzie, he's right. I'll never be a girl--at least not a pretty one like you." Her small frame shivered as she looked away. "Ain't nobody to teach me since ma up and died--" Her voice cracked before she continued. "And even if there was, Pop barely makes enough to feed me and the boys. He sure can't buy me no fancy dresses."
Lizzie's heart squeezed in her chest as she studied the frail little girl whose mother died three years prior, giving birth to her fifth son. Since then, Ellie had become one of the Southie neighborhoods scrappiest tomboys, weathering her fair share of cruel teasing and fights. Lizzie chewed on her lip in deep thought. "Ellie, my sister Katie is a few years older than you, and I'll just bet we can come up with some clothes that don't fit her anymore if you don't mind hand-me-downs."
Ellie flicked the strap of her threadbare overalls. "Mind hand-me-downs? Gosh, Lizzie, I'd be naked as a jaybird if it wasn't for my older brothers." Her jaw leveled up a full inch. "But I don't aim to take no charity."
"No, not charity. I was thinking more along the lines of earning it. Do you like to read?"
"Nope. Got no money for books either."
Lizzie smiled. "You don't need money for these books. I'm talking about helping me--at Bookends, the bookstore where I work. You know, story time on Saturdays?"
One pale strawberry brow angled high. "Ain't that for kids?"
"Yes, but I could use your help with setting up and cleaning up." Lizzie's eyes narrowed as she gave Ellie a tight-lipped smile. "And there are one or two little troublemakers who I bet you could keep in line with a withering glance."
A grin sprouted on Ellie's face. "Boys, I hope--they're my specialty. With a houseful of brothers, I'm real good with boy troublemakers."
Lizzie stood to her feet with a chuckle. "Are there any other kind?"
"Nope. Least not for me." She squinted up. "I'll bet you never have trouble with boys, do ya, Lizzie, pretty as you are?"
Brady's handsome face invaded her thoughts. Her jaw stiffened. "Don't be too sure, Ellie. Boys can be troublemakers at any age, trust me."
Ellie rose to her feet and shoved her hands deep in her pockets. "Yeah, especially brothers." She cocked her head and gave Lizzie a curious look. "You got a brother that gives you trouble, Lizzie?"
Brother. The very word grated on Lizzie's nerves. She wrapped an arm around Ellie's shoulder. "Yeah, I do, Ellie, but I have every intention of taking care of it. Just like I'm going to teach you to take care of bullies like Brian Kincaid."
Ellie looked up. "How?"
"Well, for starters, if you'll work story time with me for the next four Saturdays, I will pay you back by taking you home to try on all of Katie's hand-me-downs. And then, if you want, I can cut your hair and show you how to fix it. What do you say?"
"Gosh, Lizzie, that would be swell!" She paused, her smile suddenly fading.
Lizzie's brows dipped. "What?"
"Well, what if it doesn't work? I mean, what if everybody still thinks I'm an 'it'?"
"They won't, trust me."
A glimmer of wetness shone in Ellie's eyes. "But what if I'm too much like a boy to ever learn to be a girl?"
Lizzie bent and gently cupped Ellie's face in her hands. "You'll learn, Ellie, because this is too important. And when something is that important, you do whatever it takes."
A smile trembled on Ellie's lips as she threw her arms around Lizzie's waist. "Gosh, Lizzie, you sound just like my momma before she ..." She pulled away and straightened her shoulders, then swiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "I gotta go, but I'll see you on Saturday, okay?"
Lizzie blinked to clear the moisture from her own eyes. "Saturday, ten o'clock. Don't be late or I'll send Lyin' Brian to hunt you down."
Ellie nodded and grinned before bolting out the door, once again leaving the sanctuary in a state of peaceful calm. With a heavy sigh, Lizzie made her way back to her pew and lay down. With no effort at all, her thoughts returned to Brady.
Whatever it takes.
At the thought of her advice to Ellie, a smiled flitted on her lips. She lay there a while longer to drink in his peace and his strength, and then sat up and squared her shoulders, finally rising to her feet. She smoothed out her skirt and lifted her chin. Resolve kindled in her bones. An air of stubbornness settled in, shivering her spine like the cool air currents that whistled through the domed ceiling of the drafty church. "Okay, God, I plan to take my own advice and do whatever it takes. Mr. John Brady is no longer dealing with 'his little sister.' He's dealing with a woman in love." Lizzie plucked her clutch purse from the pew and marched to the door with renewed purpose. "It's said that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,'" she mused. "Ha!" Her lips clamped into a tight line. "Just wait till he sees a woman ignored."
Brady buried his fists in his pockets and hung his head, barreling toward his apartment on Rumpole Street with one driving purpose: to be alone. His thoughts couldn't be farther away from the pretty spring evening in his bustling Southie neighborhood than if he were safely locked behind his apartment door. Any other night, he would have enjoyed taking his time, stopping to chat with a neighbor or easily coerced into a game of stickball with a rowdy group of kids. He would have enjoyed the faint haze of green in the trees as new buds burgeoned forth, washing the landscape with a soft watercolor effect. But for once, the rich scent of freshly hewn mulch as neighbors readied their gardens, and the shrieks of children at play and birds in song, failed to coax a smile to his lips.
No, not tonight. Tonight his thoughts were elsewhere. Mired in a place where the innocent laughter of children and the peace of a wholesome neighborhood were as foreign as an ice storm on a balmy spring day. Brady shivered inside in spite of the 60-degree temperatures. He quickened his pace when he neared his three-story brick brownstone. Flanked by graceful federal pillars and forsythia heavy with yellow blooms, it welcomed him home, tonight more than usual. He hurried up steps lined with crocus and littered with the occasional pressed-steel toy truck and cap-gun cannon. He sucked in a deep breath and grasped the steel knob of the glass-paned door with rigid purpose, seeking nothing but solitude.
"Hi ya, Brady, what's your hurry?"
Brady hunched his shoulders and moaned inwardly. He turned slowly, a poor attempt at a smile on his lips. "Hi ya, Cluny. Enjoying the weather?"
Fourteen-year-old Cluny McGee grinned, a spray of wild freckles lost in a layer of dirt on his delicate face. The cuffs of his pants were several inches too short, and his ill-fitted shirt strained at the buttons despite a spindly chest. He slapped a strand of white-blond thatch out of his twinkling blue eyes. "Yeah, gives me spring fever for all the pretty girls."
Brady forced a grimace into a smile. "This time of year will do that. Well, enjoy." He yanked the door open, desperate to escape to the haven of his home.
"Wait! You goin' to the gym tonight? I thought maybe we could box a match or two." Cluny flexed his muscles. "Gotta shape up for the ladies, you know."
Brady hesitated. He glanced at Cluny, not missing the hopefulness in his eyes. He managed a smile. "Too tired, Cluny. How 'bout tomorrow?"
The boy grinned, exposing a smile that could melt stone. "Sure thing, Brady. Same time as usual?"
Brady nodded and waved, exhaling as the door closed behind him. He mounted the steps with trepidation, hoping to make it to the next landing as quietly as possible. This was one night he needed to be alone, to fall on his knees before God and seek his peace.
A door squealed open. So much for peace.
"Brady, you're home!"
He stopped on the steps and smiled at his eleven-year-old neighbor. "Esther, why aren't you outside with your friends?"
She giggled and ducked her head, then flipped a long, thick braid the color of molasses over her shoulder. "Because I baked cookies. Your favorite kind--gingerbread. Wait here."
She darted off, leaving the door ajar, then returned with a plate of cookies, still warm. The delicious smell filled the tiny foyer, evoking noises from his stomach. She giggled and held them up. Her proud look warmed his heart. He tweaked her braid and smiled, then hoisted the cookies with one hand. "You're going to spoil me, Esther Mullen. What's the occasion this time?"
"For lending me the books, of course. I'm almost finished with the last one."
He tucked the cookies under one arm and cocked a hip. "Which was your favorite?"
She scrunched her nose in thought. "Jane Eyre, I think, although I love Pride & Prejudice too. I'm almost done. Do you have anymore?"
"Tons. You just knock on my door whenever you need a new batch, okay?"
She smiled shyly. "Thanks, Brady."
He chucked a finger under her chin. "And thanks for the cookies, Ess. You're going to make a wonderful wife the way you bake like you do."
A sweet haze of pink dotted her cheeks, and she nodded. "Good night, Brady."
The door closed and Brady sighed. Forgive me, Lord, for being so grumpy. And thank you for small blessings like Esther and Cluny.
He trudged the last few steps to his door and fished the key from his pocket. He caught a whiff of gingerbread and smiled, unlocking the door and prodding it closed with his shoe. He put the plate of cookies on the table and sampled one as he made his way to the kitchen cupboard. He reached for a glass, then opened the icebox to pull out the milk. He poured it and frowned, suddenly remembering the scene with Beth. His gut curdled like the two-week-old milk in the glass. Brady sighed and leaned against the counter.
Why, Lord? She was the only good and decent thing in his life. His love for her was deep and genuine and, yes--through the grace of God--pure. He wanted to protect her and nurture her and always be there for her. Why did he have to give her up?
Brady poured the sour milk into the sink and rinsed it out. He absently washed the glass as he struggled with his thoughts. He traipsed to the sofa and collapsed, dropping his head back and closing his eyes.
He knew why.
As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.
A bitter smile twisted his lips. If only he could forget as easily as God. Remove his own shame as far as the east is from the west. Instead, it burned inside him like an eternal fire, singeing any hope of beauty and innocence. Any hope of Beth.
Brady hunched on the couch and put his head in his hands. "Help me, Lord. I'm sick with grief over what I have to do. I love Beth more than my own life. Help me to give her up, to let her go. Give me the grace to do it. To see it through. I pray that you will help her understand. And bring a godly man who will love her like she deserves to be loved."
A heaviness settled on him like the cloying heat of his tiny apartment. He rose and crossed to the window to lift the sash and let in what little breeze he could. He inhaled the fresh evening air, heartened by the scented promise of rain. He grasped his leather Bible from the mahogany desk and settled back into the couch. He began to read and felt the gentle wind of God blowing through his mind with every anointed word.
As always, peace flooded his soul. He exhaled. Thank you, God. His eyes lifted to roam his tiny apartment, grateful for the oasis it offered. Though sparse in décor, it exuded a definite masculine air that made him feel comfortable. Heavy but simple wood pieces were arranged in a practical manner. His antique mahogany desk, a gift from his Aunt Amelia in New York, was laden with books wedged between brass bookends from his father. On its polished surface, there was just enough room for a simple wood and brass lamp in the shape of a sailing vessel. His eyes scanned across the dark burgundy sofa on which he sat, moving on to admire the framed prints of ships hung on the walls throughout the room. Their nautical feel always seemed to soothe him. He closed his eyes and pictured the blue of the ocean as he sailed across it in his mind. Sailing, free and easy as a bird, the wind in his face. Not moored to a past ... nor a future.
Brady expelled a breath and opened his eyes to the imposing chestnut bookcase across the room. He had made it himself. Its shelves were lined with the rich hues of literature that helped to sate the inevitable loneliness that surfaced from time to time.
He suddenly thought of Beth and her love of reading, and his earlier malaise returned with a vengeance. He stared at his collection of leather-bound books. Her hands had touched every volume on his shelves, cradled them in her lap, fingered each page with care. He had bought them all for her, to satisfy her craving for literature.
He laid his hand on the worn pages of his Bible and closed his eyes, remembering his arrival in Boston almost fours years ago. He hadn't known a soul but Collin, but the O'Connors had quickly drawn him into the warmth and security of their family. He had fallen in love with all of them, completely in awe of the closeness they shared, a reaction only heightened by his own bleak childhood. Beth had been thirteen then, almost fourteen, a shy and fragile little girl with soft violet eyes and a gentle nature. She had taken to him at once, enamored with his own love of literature and God. Seeking him out, making him feel special.
Brady dropped his head back against the couch. She was the little sister he'd longed for. The one feminine touch in his life that would never become corrupt. All he had wanted was to protect her, nurture her, love her in the purest sense of the word. It was never meant to be more.
Not for her. And certainly not for him.
With a heavy expulsion of air, he closed his eyes, as if by doing so, he could shut out the feelings that had begun to surface over the last few months. When had the seeds of attraction been sown? At what precise moment had the tilt of her smile begun to trigger his pulse? Fear tightened his stomach. When had she ceased being a little girl? He opened his eyes with new resolve and cemented his lips into a hard line. It didn't matter. He was her friend and mentor, a devoted big brother who wanted nothing but the best for her.
And he was definitely not it.
An urgent knock at the door shook him from his thoughts, and he lunged to his feet. He opened it to the sound of weeping. His neighbor across the hall stood on his threshold, her face streaked with tears. Strands of brown hair fluttered free from a disheveled bun as she stared up at him, her dark eyes pleading. "Oh, Brady, you're home! Can you help me, please?"
Brady's gut tightened. "Pete again?"
She nodded and clutched her arms around her middle, her body shuddering.
"Ei-leen! Where the devil are ya?" Pete's slurred tone rumbled from the bowels of the dark apartment, bringing with it a whiff of stale whiskey.
Brady stared at the bruise on her cheek and rested a hand on her shoulder. "Are you okay? Did he hurt you--"
She shook her head, then wiped her face with her sleeve. "No, I just got home. All he had time for was one quick whack across my face. I thank God you're here to stop him, Brady. You always seem to have a way with Pete when he gets like this."
Brady pulled her into his apartment. "I'll talk to him, Eileen, but I want you to stay here. I thought he'd given up the bottle. What set him off this time?"
"Ei ... leen! So, help me ..."
She shivered. "He was home before me, so I'm guessing he lost his job again. Oh, Brady, I'm so scared! What are we going to do?"
Brady wrapped an arm around her shoulder and led her to his kitchen. He gave her a quick squeeze. "Same thing as always, Eileen, we pray. God always turns it around, doesn't he?"
She shook her head and sniffed.
"There's coffee in my cupboard. Make a pot, will you? Double strength. I'll go in and talk to Pete, and you bring it in when it's ready, okay?"
She nodded and then threw her arms around Brady's middle. Her voice broke. "Oh, Brady, you're a gift from God, ye are! Sometimes I think you're an angel instead of a man."
Heat scalded the back of his neck. He patted her shoulder. "No, Eileen, I'm just a man who's found the grace of God." He steered her toward the cupboard, then headed for the door. He turned and gave her a reassuring smile. "Prayer and coffee, in that order, okay?"
A smile trembled on her lips and she nodded. He closed the door behind him."Ei ... leen! I'm gonna blister you ..."
Brady strode into Eileen and Pete's apartment and drew in a deep breath for the task ahead. An angel instead of a man. His lips quirked into a sour smile. That would certainly be nice. Especially at a moment like this. His jaw tightened. As if he could qualify.
Angels didn't have his past.