When she fled Baltimore after a near-fatal accident that left her dependent on painkillers, Lillie Rourke lost everything. Now, physically and emotionally healed, sheís ready to make amends and start over. But Jase Yeager has moved on, and who can blame him? Yet Lillie isnít giving upóon her–or them. Earning back Jaseís trust wonít be easy, but Lillieís no stranger to challengesÖ
The kid whoíd offered to help him earlier now pecked keys on the register. ìThis sheet music is on sale,î he said, running the book across the scanner screen. ìAre you a kindergarten teacher or something?î
Lillie grinned. ìNo, nothing like that. I volunteer at Hopkins Childrenís Oncology every couple of weeks, and my material is getting stale. Those kids are going through enough without me, adding boredom to their list of complaints. Not that they complain. Theyíre the bravest little souls Iíve ever met.î
Lillie tended to ramble when nervous, and he felt bad that his nearness made her feel that way.
ìMy cousin was in there a few years ago,î the kid said, sliding another songbook over the screen. ìLeukemia won.î
Jase watched as Lillie, ever the caring comforter, lay a hand atop his.
ìIím so sorry,î she said. ìHow old was he?î
Her shoulders rose, then fell with a sympathetic sigh. How many times had he told her that her heart was bigger than her head? Too many times to count.
The cashier bagged her music, hit the register button to ring up her total. ìItís really nice, what youíre doing,î he said, handing her the receipt. ìThe thing Lance hated most about that place was how long the days were with nothing to do but watch TV and listen to his monitor beep.î
Jase had to agreeÖit was a nice thing sheíd been doing.
She thanked the kid and turned to face Jase. ìWell, it was a nice surprise, seeing you again.î
ìCan you hang around a minute, just until I pay for this stuff?î
She looked surprised by his invitation. In truth, heíd surprised himself, extending it. But he couldnít just let her leave.
ìOkay,î she said. ìIíll wait for you over by the door.î
There was a time when, as she looked up at him that way, his heart had beat doubletime. But who was he kidding? It was happening, right now.
The kid made smalltalk with him, too, but Jase barely heard a word as he watched her from the corner of his eye. Silhouetted against the bright sunshine on the other side of the window, he couldnít help but notice the way her chin-length hair curved and curled above her shoulders. She used to dress like a tomboy. Sneakers and jeans with comfy t-shirts, like sheíd worn to plant flowers that day in her parentsí yard. But that little dressó
ìAll set,î the kid said, holding up Jaseís bag.
He thanked the boy and wasted no time, joining Lillie.
ìYou want to grab a cup of coffee?î He held open the door, hoping that slight frown didnít mean sheíd say no. ìItís only a short walk to CafÈ LatteídaÖî
ìOn Aliceanna Street. I remember.î
Of course she did, because before her addiction destroyed them they used to go there at least once a week to decide the order of the songs theyíd sing at Three-Eyed Joeís.
ìSo what do you say? Iíll treat you to a sandwich. Or pie. Or both.î Recalling her penchant for eating small portions, he added, ìWe could shareÖî
Her sweet, sad smile told him she, too, remembered all the meals theyíd shared. And again, it made his heart beat a bit harder.
ìI donít have to be at work until six, so okay, pie and coffee it is.î
They were waiting for the light to change at Fleet and Aliceanna when she said, ìThis wonít upset Whitney, will it?î
ìWhy would it upset her?î
ìI, well, that day at The Flower Basket, I got the impression she knows that we were a couple.î
ìI havenít been seeing her long, so I doubt she cares enough to be jealous.î
The image of that candlelit table flashed in his mind, proof that she cared. Clamping his jaw against a twinge of guilt, Jase said, ìSo how long have you had this Hopkins gig?î
ìCouple months now.î
The light changed, and he pressed a hand to her back to guide her across the street. Not that she needed his assistance. Lillie had been walking to and from her folksí inn to the restaurant and hotel for months. Still, it felt good, felt right, being this close to her again.
Inside CafÈ Latte Da, Jase admitted that heíd skipped breakfast.
ìThe guy whoís forever reminding people itís the most important meal of the day?î Lillie laughed. ìWhy!î
ìJust got back from Florida, and didnít have time to make a grocery run. My cupboards are as bare as Mother Hubbardís.î
ìI caught the last few minutes of the casserole demonstration. You were born to be a TV host.î
ìYeah, wellÖ So I think Iíll get the chicken wrap. What about you? In the mood for something more substantial than pie?î
ìThought I heard your belly growl earlierÖî
Instinct made her press a palm to her stomach. ìAn espresso is plenty for now. Iíll whip up a sandwich or something before I clock in at the hotel.î
When sheíd paid for the sheet music, Jase saw a lone ten dollar bill in her wallet. He knew her well enough to explain why sheíd said no: Lillie had decided that until he could deposit every dime sheíd borrowed, she wouldnít take anything more from him. Unnecessary as that was, Jase respected her decision.
The sat at an empty table near the dooróa rare occurrence on a Saturday afternoonóand settled in.
ìTell me about this volunteer work. When did you sign on for that?î
ìA week or so after I got home, I gave in to a moment of self-pity.î She stared out the window. ìIt was time to stop focusing on me, and start focusing on others.î Eyes locked to his, she added, ìBestóand worstóthing I have ever done.î
He didnít get it, and said so.
ìLife has put those kids through the wringer. Some of them are barely hanging on, but theyíre hanging on. A person canít help but admire the fight in them.î She sipped her espresso. ìHard to feel sorry for yourself after spending time with them.î
It made sense, considering how sheíd always said that self-pity was the most dangerous of all human emotions.
ìMust be tough, though, working that closely with them.î
ìOnly during the drive home.î
Her eyes shimmered with unshed tears. ìBecause I never know which of them wonít be there when I go back.î
And not because theyíd gone home, healthy, he surmised.
She started talking about individual kids, the conditions that put them into Hopkins, the parents and siblings that supported them, and the staff that cared for and comforted them. Hands folded on the table, Lillie said, ìAnd then thereís Jason, the sweetest, cutest ten year old boy youíll ever meet. He told me the other day that he wants to marry one of the girlsóSallyóbecause his momís biggest regret is that sheíll never see him walk down the aisle with the girl of his dreams.î
Wiping away a wayward tear, she added, ìThen he asked me if Iíd sing at their wedding, and help him make arrangements. Flowers. Streamers. Punch and a cake.î
And he knew that sheíd agreed to everything. Jase wanted nothing more at that moment than to take her in his arms, tell her what a terrific person she was. But he sat back, instead, and said, ìHow can I help?î
ìHey. Quit looking so shocked. I do nice stuff once in a while, you know.î
ìI know that better than almost anyone,î was her quiet reply.
ìMaybe we can work up a couple of tunes, two or three of the things weíd sing at Three-Eyed Joeís when people were celebrating anniversariesÖî
It meant spending time with her, alone, and Jase hoped the offer hadnít been a big mistake.
ìI think the kids might like that.î
She thought the kids might like it? Why the hesitation? And then it hit him: She was as afraid of being so close, of reliving warm and wonderful moments as he was.
ìThen letís put our heads together, figure outÖ When is this ceremony, anyway?î
ìIn two weeks.î There wasnít a trace of a smile on her face when she added, ìIf he makes it that long.î
ìKeep a good thought, Lill. If the kid is half as determined to do this for his mom, heíll make it. And who knows? Maybe itís just what he needs to push him closer to a cure.î
She brought the espresso cup to her lips and, nodding, met his eyes.
His high school Lit teacher had made the class memorize what sheíd termed ìlove poems.î It surprised him that, after all this time, he was able to zero in on a line from Sir Walter Scottís ìLochinvarî: Sheíd lookíd down to blush, and sheíd lookíd up to sigh, with a smile on her lips and a tear in her eyeÖî
Yet again, Jase had to fight the urge to draw her into a comforting hug.
He cleared his throat. Sat up straighter. Downed a gulp of his iced tea. ìSo where do you think we should get together? My place? Weíd have plenty of quiet and privacy there.î
Too much, too soon, he realized when her eyes grew big and round.
ìThe acoustics are great in the innís turret. Iím sure Mom and Dad wonít mind. In fact, they were just asking about you the other day. Iím sure theyíd love seeing you.î
ìSounds good. Iíll be home for a month, so my schedule is pretty flexible. Youíre the one whoís clocking a hundred hours a week, soÖî
ìIím happy to see you havenít changed much,î she said, laughing. ìStill exaggerating like crazyÖone of the things that made me crazy about you.î
She gasped a little when that last line came out and, hands over her mouth, Lillie said, ìGood grief. Iím sorry, Jase. That was really inappropriate. And bad timing.î
ìItís neither, and itís okay. Nothing wrong with concentrating on the good times. We had plenty of those beforeÖî
If heíd been standing, Jase might have kicked himself, because things had been going really well until he put his big foot in his mouth. Lillie shoved the espresso cup into the center of the table, her way of saying their meeting was over. Sheíd gathered her things and stood, and he did, too.
ìSo should I call you? Or would you rather call me? About a time when we can get together. To rehearse, I mean.î
Rambling again. And again, he felt bad for raising her stress level. ìDo you have a pen?î
Like magic, she produced one from her purse.
Leaning over the table, he scribbled three phone numbers on a napkin. ìHome, cell, and office,î he said, ìin that order. You can always get me on my cell. Call any time.î Call soon, he thought. As he pressed the napkin into her hand, their fingers touched. Not for longóa blink in time, if thatóbut long enough to send a current of longing straight to his heart.
Heíd been behaving like some guilt-ridden goofball whoíd dumped his best girl, when in reality, Lillie had ended them by choosing booze and pills over their relationship.
It hit him like a punch to the gut: Suggesting that they get together, for any reason, had been a bad idea. But maybe luck was on his side, and sheíd hesitated earlier because she felt the same way. Jase hoped she wouldnít call. And he hoped she would. Why had she come back, just when heíd gotten himself back on track, and turn order into chaos again?
Feeling miserable and confused, Jase held open the cafÈ door.
A tiny frown furrowed her brow. ìAre you okay?î
ìYeah. Just remembered something I forgot to do.î LikeÖstaying the heck away from her.
ìOh. Because you lookÖdifferent.î
ìDonít mind me,î he said, leading the way across the street. ìIím a little annoyed with myself, is all, for forgettingÖî He let his sentence trail off.
ìI remember what a perfectionist you are, and how frustrated you get with yourself when you let something, no matter how trivial, slip through the cracks.î
Yeah, she knew him, all right. Their closeness is what allowed her to use him, time and again, to suit her I love drugs more than you needs.
Bestselling author LOREE LOUGH once sang for her supper, performing across the U.S. and Canada. Now and then, she blows the dust from her 6-string to croon a tune or two, but mostly, she writes novels that have earned hundreds of industry and “Readers’ Choice” awards, 4- and 5-star reviews, and 7 book-to-movie options. Her 115th book, 50 Hours, is her most personal to date, and released in June. More recently, The Man She Knew, book #1 in her ìBy Way of the Lighthouseî series (Harlequin Heartwarming) and Bringing Rosie Home. Next, #3 in the series, The Redemption of Lillie RourkeÖand additional surprises for 2018, 2019, and beyondÖ.
Contest runs from March 29 – April 4, 2018.