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The doorbell rang, and Caitlyn jolted in her cribbage chair, pulse racing as her gaze darted to the brass clock on the mantle. Six-thirty. She gulped. Merciful Providence, Logan is early! Her hands started to sweat as Hadley crossed the foyer to the door, the sharp staccato clip of his heels on the marble matching the painful thud of her heart. “Lord, help me please,” she whispered, eyelids fluttering closed when she heard the deep timbre of Logan’s voice, his husky laughter signaling a merry mood. A reedy breath quivered from her lips.
But not for long . . .
“This house is far too quiet, Mrs. McClare.” He strode into the parlour for the Monday family dinner—his first since the altercation at Meg’s welcome home party—striking as always in a stylish charcoal suit with striped crimson tie. His handsome face and commanding presence seemed all the more powerful given what she needed to do. A chill slid down her spine. And given that after tonight, his presence might be as scarce as the air in her lungs.
He bent to kiss her cheek, and her stomach did a little flip as always when he was near, her heart acquiescing to his charms like she so wished her mind could. If only her trust in him hadn’t been damaged over and over, Logan McClare would be kissing his wife right now instead of a sister-in-law who longed to be more. Melancholy struck hard. And yet, the very reason that had kept her from accepting his proposal in the first place—lack of trust—was now compounded by a barrier even more daunting.
Her body warmed when he kneaded her shoulders, fingers lingering before he claimed his seat across the table with a smile that fluttered her pulse. “What, did you kick everyone out of the house except Hadley, including Rosie, I hope?”
The jest eased the tension in her neck as she returned his smile with a precarious one of her own. “I’m afraid your luck isn’t holding tonight, Mr. McClare,” she said in a tone that clearly conveyed her deep affection. “Although the children have been whisked away to dinner and game night at Cassie and Jamie’s, Rosie is still among us. And none too pleased, I might add, that I requested a special dinner and dessert only for you.”
His teeth gleamed white in the glow of the milk-glass tulip lamp that arched over the table. “Thank you for the kind hospitality, Mrs. McClare, but I’m sure you’ll understand if I wait to taste it after you.”
Her soft chuckle chased her melancholy away, at least for the moment as she watched him shuffle the cards. “It’s your favorite, you know—lobster linguini and Boston cream pie. And to enhance your enjoyment, I even asked Hadley to serve rather than Rosie.”
He dealt the cards with a deft hand, one dark brow jagging high. “Mmm . . . all alone, my favorite meal and dessert, and your pit bull on a leash?” The smile eased into a grin as he gave her a wink. “Anyone would think you have ulterior motives, Mrs. McClare.”
Her face flashed hot, clear up to the roots of her hair.
He laughed out loud and slid his hand over hers, thumb grazing the side of her fingers. “I don’t mind, Cait,” he said softly, voice husky with tease. His smile gentled along with his eyes. “In fact, it would be an answer to just about every prayer I’ve ever said.”
She shot to her feet. “I’ll just check on dinner . . .” Limbs as limp as the linguini Rosie was preparing, she bolted into the foyer and down the hall, pausing with a palm flat to the kitchen door. “Oh, Lord, I can’t do this,” she whispered, kneading her temple to massage the dull throb in her head.
“Oh!” She jolted when the swinging door smacked her hard in the face, causing her to jerk back with a hand to her nose.
Poor Hadley stood on the other side, a tray with iced beverages in hand and surprise in his eyes. “Mrs. McClare, my deepest apologies, miss—are you all right?”
“Yes, Hadley, I’m fine,” she said, forcing a smile as she rubbed the tip of her nose, but it was perhaps the greatest untruth she’d ever told. All semblance of “fine” had fled the moment she’d seen Jean MacKenna on the dance floor in Logan’s arms at the Barrister Ball. Her pulse had paused for several painful beats at the picture they presented—he with his teasing eyes and heart-melting grin, and her with a shy smile that told Caitlyn all she needed to know. She knew then that Jean MacKenna was still smitten with Jamie’s father. But even that wouldn’t have changed the course of Cait’s heart had it not been for the look she’d seen in their son’s eyes. A look of regret and longing that spoke to Caitlyn loud and clear. They were a family in the most spiritual sense of the word—Logan, Jean, and Jamie—and the conviction that had settled upon her soul that night and each day thereafter could not be ignored.
And the two shall become one flesh: so that they are no more two, but one . . .
One fiat from God.
Except for the one thing that stood in the way. Her eyelids fluttered closed for the briefest of moments as reality struck a painful blow.
The realization had shattered her. Not only had she led Logan on with a friendship that might never be anything more, but she denied him the very chance to be happy with anyone else. Heart wrenching, she silenced the demons of guilt with a calm façade and a tremulous lift of her chin. “I wanted to save you a trip with the drinks.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said in his perennially poised manner, and promptly handed over the tray. But not before she’d noted the hint of concern in his eyes, clearly indicating her odd behavior had not gone unnoticed.
Pasting a bright smile on her face, she reentered the parlour, eyes on her task as she placed Logan’s iced tea before him. “Here we are,” she said in a cheery tone.
Logan’s hand stilled hers. “And where’s that, Cait?” he whispered. She stiffened, gaze fused to the glass in her hand. Breathing shallow, she compelled her eyes to meet his, and immediately her stomach plunged to her toes.
“Something’s desperately wrong,” he said quietly, the sobriety in his tone matching that in his eyes. His lips compressed as he tightened his grip. “And I want to know what it is—now.”
Involuntarily, her eyes flickered as she battled the urge to lie, to let this evening pass without telling him so she could revel in his company one last time like the coward she was. Her voice shook as she attempted a smile, opting to put off breaking his heart until another day. And mine. “Honestly, Logan, there’s no need for melodrama—”
“Let me be the judge of that.” His tone was sharp as he rose from his seat to circle the table. Without warning, he hauled her to her feet, hands locked to her arms as he held her at bay. “You’ve got bad news for me, Cait, and I want it now. There’s tragedy in your eyes, and apparently it’s bad enough to send the children away, so give it to me straight.”
She stared up at him while tears welled, unable to speak for the quiver of her lip.
“Tell me now!” he repeated, jarring her with an urgent shake. “Or so help me—”
“I’ve agreed to see Andrew,” she blurted, no control over tears that slipped from her eyes.
The blood instantly leached from his face while his hands fell to his sides. “I see. So it’s to be a contest then, is it?” His jaw hardened to granite while a tic flickered in his cheek. “You’ll forgive me, Mrs. McClare, if I assumed this was a contest already won.”
“It’s not a contest,” she whispered, her voice raspy with regret. She laid a hand to his arm, but he only shook it off.
“Then what the devil is it?” His gaze bore into hers, sparks of fury all but singeing her raw. “You claim to love me—”
“I do love you,” she cried.
He rattled her with another harsh shake of her arms. “Then prove it! Stop all this infernal nonsense and marry me.”
Agony slashed as she shook her head, his face little more than a blur through her tears. “I can’t . . . ,” she whispered.
He released her and stepped back, adjusting the sleeves of his coat as his eyes pinned her in place. “All right, Cait, we’ll do this your way, then. I suppose I should thank Turner because somehow he managed to do what I couldn’t—open your eyes to the prospect of courtship again.” He extended his hand toward the cribbage table. “Shall we sit and decide when our first outing will be because I assure you, Mrs. McClare, I intend to give him a run for his money.”
She didn’t move, feet rooted to the blue-and-gold Persian rug along with her gaze. When she spoke, her tone was laden with grief. “I . . . love you, Logan, I do—more than you will ever know.” Her gaze rose to meet his, heart twisting at the raw love she saw in his eyes. “But it’s because of that very love that I must do what I’m about to do.” She sucked in a deep breath and leveled her chin. “I’ve given this a great deal of thought, and I feel strongly that God has a wonderful plan for us both.” She paused to swallow the lump in her throat, voice fading to a whisper. “J-just not together.”
His color drained once again. “What are you saying, Cait?” he whispered, the hoarse sound as ragged as the beat of her heart.
“I’m saying . . .” Words trembled on her tongue, and she was certain the agony in his face mirrored that in her own. “The two shall be one flesh: so that they are no longer two but one . . .”
Confusion clouded his gaze. “I don’t understand, Cait—speak clearly.”
A wavering breath expired on her lips . . . like her hope. “I’m saying . . . I feel strongly that . . .” Her throat contracted. “You and Jean were meant to be together.”
“What?” His tone lashed out like a whip, stripping the flesh from her heart.
“I saw it at the Barrister Ball,” she said in a rush, desperate to convey the truth revealed to her that night. “The joy and hope in Jamie’s eyes when he saw you and his mother together, as it should be.”
“No!” Shaking his head, he moved close, his breathing harsh. “Blast it, Cait, I am not in love with Jean MacKenna, I’m in love with you! For all that is holy, I barely know the woman!”
She faltered back before he could touch her again. “It doesn’t matter—I believe in God’s eyes, you are one, and I will not be a hindrance to His will for your life.”
His jaw dropped a full inch while he stared, those gray eyes almost black as they flared in shock. “This is crazy! You and I were meant to be together.” He slashed his arm toward the foyer. “This house, this family—is our house, our family! You and I have everything in common, and Jean and I are nothing but strangers.”
She shook her head, the motion spilling moisture onto her cheeks. “Strangers who share a bond far stronger than ours, Logan, no matter how deep our love. A bond born in flesh through your son and more importantly, a bond mandated by God Himself when you and Jean became one.”
A low aching groan parted from his lips as he turned away, fingers quivering while they gashed through his hair.
“You and J-jean have so much in c-common,” she stuttered, the fractured words souring her tongue. “Jamie, the boardinghouse, the foundation—this makes sense, this is right.”
“No,” he shouted, “this is wrong!” He rammed her chair into the table, then spun around, the fire in his eyes glittering like molten steel. “For the love of decency, Cait, I made one lousy mistake when I was no more than a boy—doesn’t God mandate forgiveness as well?”
“Yes, and I have forgiven you,” she cried, clutching her arms to her waist as a barrier against his wrath. “Truly I have.”
His chest expanded with a heavy intake of air before it seeped out again, lips pinched white. “I see. It’s just that your forgiveness comes with a tally, is that it? Forgiven, but never forgotten?”
She rubbed her arms against the cold chill of his words. “Maybe it wasn’t supposed to be forgotten, Logan,” she said quietly, “to ensure God’s will.”
“No!” Fingers taut on the back of her chair, he rammed it again. “You and I were always meant to be together, and nothing you can say will convince me otherwise. He jabbed a fist to his chest, eyes burning with fury. “Blast it, Cait, you’re in love with me, not Turner, and you’re attracted to me, not him.”
She squared her shoulders, more to shore up her strength than to defy. “Attraction is the very last thing I’m concerned about, if you must know. Andrew and I have a solid basis for a deeper relationship, both in our faith and in our common goal to clean up the Coast, and to me, that’s more important than the race of my pulse.”
“Really, Cait?” Mouth slack, he slung hands low on his hips, disbelief gouging deep into his expression. The bite in his tone fairly vibrated with sarcasm. “You’re going to stand there and talk to me about God’s will while you lie through your teeth?”
Her indignation rose along with her chin. “I am not lying, Logan McClare—I don’t give a whit about physical attraction at this point in my life, so it’s a moot point.”
He gripped her so fast, she stumbled against the coffee table in an effort to back away, the granite set of his jaw trapping all the air in her throat. Her eyes circled wide when she read the intent in a steely gaze that quivered her belly. “Logan, no, ple—”
But her words only faded into his mouth when his lips took hers, conquering her with a passion that eclipsed her will with his own. She made a feeble attempt to lash away, but his arms were a powerful vise, swallowing her whole. Heat pulsed when he devoured her with a kiss so deep, it weakened her limbs. He pulled back, voice hoarse with desire as his palm locked at the base of her neck with a possession that was firm and sure. “Face it, Cait,” he said, eyes burning hot, “the attraction between us never has nor ever will be—a moot point.”
A moan faded on her lips when his mouth traveled her jaw to suckle her ear, confirming to her heart—if not her mind—that she was his body and soul. “Logan, no . . .” But her will to fight spiraled away into a whirlpool of desire when his mouth consumed hers with a low groan, their ragged breathing merging into one.
“Cait, I adore you,” he whispered against her mouth, his kisses gentling with a tender passion that twisted her heart. “Don’t do this to me, please—don’t push me away.”
Her eyes fluttered closed to breathe in his scent, to embed in her mind the memory of his arms one final time. When she spoke, her voice heaved with a grief she hadn’t experienced since Liam. “I’m not pushing you away,” she rasped, “I’m loving you the only way I know how.” Her palms trembled against his chest as she held him at bay, agony bleeding from both her soul and her eyes. “Logan, please—I’m asking you to stay in my life as my friend and an integral part of my family. But I’m begging you—give your heart to the woman who has more claim to it than I.” Her body shuddered when she broke from his hold, words quivering into a fragile whisper. “The mother of your child.”
He took a step forward, eyes crazed. “It’s not meant to be, Cait—we are!”
Blocking his approach with a stiff palm, her insides trembled more than her hand. “I’ve made my decision, and I’m asking you—no, begging you—to respect it and our friendship by letting any romantic notions between us go.”
“Romantic notions?” His words were little more than a hiss as he stared, his fury barely contained by a twitch in his cheek. “You are my lifeblood, Cait, the reason I get up in the morning, the soul mate I have waited a lifetime for. You are the only woman I will ever love, and if you’re demanding I let romantic notions go, then you need to be aware of what you’re asking me to do.” That formidable jaw rose while his shoulders broadened, eyes glittering like jagged quartz. “I will not stand by and watch you give your heart to another, especially the man I despise above all others.”
“No!” It was his turn to halt her with a blunt hand. “I’ve done things your way for the last two years, agreed to friendship despite the fact that I ache inside whenever you’re near. I’ve laid my desires aside in the hope that someday, somehow, you’d come to your fool senses and see what I’ve known all along.” His chest expanded as his eyes pierced hers, an urgent appeal glimmering in their depths. “We’re good together, Cait,” he whispered. “You and I—we’re the restoration of the family you lost when Liam died, a blood connection with your children that binds us all together.” His lips pinched tight, calcifying his jaw. “If you do this, you will not only destroy everything we have, but you will damage our family.”
Her heart thundered to a stop, breathing shallow over his veiled threat. “Logan, please—it doesn’t have to be that way—”
“Yes, Cait, it does,” he emphasized in a clipped tone, “because if you think I’m going to stand by and watch while you give yourself to Turner—”
Blood scalded her cheeks. “For heaven’s sake, I have no intention of ‘giving’ myself to anyone. My relationship with Andrew will be purely social.”
He stared, temple throbbing as his eyes narrowed to black. “Then your relationship with me will be purely over, Mrs. McClare, it’s as simple as that. It’s me or him, Cait.”
“You don’t mean that,” she whispered.
A tic twittered in his jaw. “Try me.”
Panic threatened to sever her air. “You can’t do that to the children, Logan, please . . .”
He jerked hard on the sleeves of his jacket, eyeing her with a coldness that chilled her to the bone. “Rest assured I will see my nieces and nephew on a regular basis, but it won’t be in your home, Mrs. McClare—ever again.”
“N-no . . .” The word escaped her lips in a broken cry.
His face appeared sculpted in rock. “The decision is yours—Turner or me.”
Her eyelids flickered closed, grief welling in her heart as quickly as water welled in her eyes.
Love suffereth long . . . it seeketh not its own . . .
“So, what’s it going to be, Cait?”
Oh, Lord, I can’t bear to live without him . . .
A feeble sob wrenched from her lips as she pleaded with her eyes. “Don’t do this, Logan, please . . .”
His face blanched white as stone. “I’m not, Cait—you are.” And with a violent hitch of her breath, he strode from the room, shattering her heart with a brutal slam of the door. The awful sound echoed in the house like anguish echoed in her brain.
“Oh, no, please . . . ,” she whispered, her body numb as she made her way to the divan.
Love never fails.
A deep ache rose in a guttural groan, consuming her with its awful grief. Because she knew then, more powerfully than ever before—she would give her life for Logan McClare. Her heart fisted as her body crumpled onto the sofa, her weeping raw with the gut-wrenching truth.
And she just did.