Find out more here: http://www.angelfire.com/stars4/kswiesner/fiction2a.html (Angelfire II Quartet)
http://www.angelfire.com/stars4/kswiesner/fiction2.html (Angelfire Trilogy, original series)
Heaven’s promise, desire’s flame…
Return to Karen Wiesner’s award-winning Angelfire Trilogy, where you first met and fell in love with these colorful, lovable friends. Now you can read the stories of those secondary characters—and some new faces—in an all-new spin-off quartet.
There are no scars like those inflicted in childhood, and no love like your first. Timeless couples Diane Hoffmann and Mikey Lund, Roxanne Hart and Jamie Dubois, Cherish Stephenson and Ty Foxx, and Sapphire Stephenson and William Decker seek out the unconditional love and healing of an angel and the scorching heat of unending passion.
I always planned to write additional stories connected with the Angelfire Trilogy (friends of Darlene and Brett), and I had readers asking for more stories, specifically for the secondary characters I’d introduced in the trilogy. The original series had been out for so long, it felt awkward to just jump back into it without somehow delineating the break somehow. My solution was to make the next four stories a spin-off series.
Below you’ll find an excerpt from the third book in this spin-off series with excerpts from the rest to follow, all available now, including the brand new final book that concludes the Angelfire saga:
SHADOWS OF THE NIGHT, Book 3, Angelfire II Quartet
Ty Foxx left home when he was a teenager, taking his brother Jeff with him. The horror they’d suffered as children, along with their other three siblings, at their father’s hands has scarred them both. Ty had tried to take care of and shelter his younger brother, eventually becoming a successful photographer, but in the end he couldn’t save him. He hasn’t looked back for so long, he’s stunned when he learns that his father succumbed to an illness that plagued him for years. The threat and terror he posed is over, dead and gone. Even though Ty is filled with self-loathing and fury at the past with the loss of his brother, he knows the time has come for him to go home and face the rest of his family and all he’s been running from in life.
Cherish Stephenson owns a flourishing flower shop and mail-order business. The brutal rape that drove her fiancé away when she was in college and left her terrified of getting close to anyone is the only sign that her life isn’t everything and all she intends it to be. When she meets Ty, her employee Darlene’s brother, and the attraction is instantaneous and mutual, Cherish realizes how much she’s missed in her life by being afraid of the shadows of the night. But Ty may be even more broken than she is by the past. Can they heal each other with the light of love, or is the only thing left for both of them to accept living out the rest of their lives alone, wounded, and scared of the dark?
Shadows of the Night Excerpt
© Karen Wiesner
Tyler Foxx let himself into his extended-stay hotel room, too tired to consider cooking tonight. For the first time since he’d arrived in the city to complete a photography assignment that, while intense and time-consuming, was one of the shortest he’d ever undertaken, he picked up the room service menu. The selections were barely passable for someone who enjoyed cooking so much he carried his own pots and pans and spices around with him from hotel to hotel, assignment to assignment.
After calling in his order, he sank down on the bed and unfolded his electronic tablet. Almost without thinking, he performed his usual after-work ritual of clicking on the button in the browser’s favorites bar that took him directly to Syracuse, New York obituaries. His mind was tired following little if no sleep the night before and more than thirteen hours of working. Yet the slap in the face he’d been waiting for every single day of the last twenty-five years still stunned him and made him feel winded. Sitting up, he read: “After battling cancer for five years, Ebenezer “Eb” Foxx, age 68, of Syracuse died on Sunday, March 6th, surrounded by loved ones…”
Each word written resounded bitterly inside Ty’s brain. The person who’d written it couldn’t have known the old man, had no idea the bastard didn’t deserve to die in peace, surrounded with family, allowed a loving send-off before being ushered into the scorching halls of hell where he belonged. The worthless SOB deserved to die like the son he destroyed did—alone, a dirty needle in his arm, in a place of filth, sin, certain death. Not surrounded with a “loving” wife, his youngest son, Shane, and grandchildren.
Ty had spent the past two and a half decades watching over his siblings from afar so the “survived-by” listing in the obit was familiar to him. His oldest and youngest brothers were both married with kids, as was their sister.
Would they attend the funeral of a father none of them could claim to love, let alone feel anything less intense than pure, unadulterated hatred? Even that was too good for the demon.
“Funeral services will be held Saturday, March 12th…”
Realizing his breathing was ragged, as if he’d been running for an hour instead of sitting comfortably on the hotel bed, he swallowed and tried to consider what the old man’s death meant. It’s time…and I don’t know if I’m ready, any more than I was twenty-two years ago, after I found Jeff dead.
Ty had promised himself he’d reconcile with his family once their devil of a father perished, preferably in as much pain as physically possible. As soon as the devil was dead and buried in the cold, unforgiving ground, Ty had vowed he’d go home. Considering that his mother never been especially healthy, he’d worried she would go first. For all her faults, a part of me hoped I’d see her again, even if it was just one last time. With the old man alive, there was no way I’d ever return to the place I despised above any other. Nothing could’ve convinced me to do that.
But it was his sister that Ty most wanted to see again—and not from afar, as he had all this time away. He’d worried about Darlene and Shane almost constantly ever since he’d done the only thing he could do by taking Jeff out of the situation that had eventually destroyed him anyway.
Jeff died twenty-two years ago. I told myself I stayed away from the rest of my family all this time because I couldn’t take the reminders…of the past, my own abysmal failures. I convinced myself somehow that I’d heal, deal with all the crap, the horror that drove me to do what I did, setting myself up as a hero I once-upon-a-time believed Brett—I don’t even like admitting to myself I idolized him—to be. Ultimately, all I ever did with my actions was stall the inevitable. I’m no hero, no more than Brett proved himself to be.
Ty had learned in bitter lessons that he couldn’t save Jeff, sure as hell couldn’t save himself. He blamed the old man most of all for that, for causing irrevocable damage in the first place, but a part of him also blamed his oldest brother Brett—for not being the one to execute the hard choice that Ty ended up making for Jeff. He also blamed himself because he’d never realized the truth about what was going on until it was too late for his younger brother, until all Ty could do was try to temporarily block the shadows of the night from his brother’s sight.
Better to be done with all this. I can’t go back. I’ve been dead to Darlene, Brett, Shane, our mother all these years anyway—as dead as Jeff has been in my reality. None of them tried to find us, and, even if they did, I made it impossible for them to. So maybe it’s better to let the past and any family ties go, let the hell I endured die with the devil that’s tormented me all my life.
Even as Ty sat in the growing darkness of his hotel room, he accepted uneasily that he couldn’t hide anymore. He couldn’t control the bleeding wound inside him that ensured that, by not going back, he’d be holding onto the past as if it was his only anchor for the rest of his worthless life. One way or another, he was at the end of the road. Forty-three years was enough. Whether or not he was ready, whether or not this nightmare would get better or worse, it was time to go home.
Cherish Stephenson conceded with a groan that changing her hairstyle a few months ago from the bun that required almost no work had led to her downfall. Now that she left her long, ash-blond hair down and spent at least twenty minutes every morning getting the wavy style to look just right, she was invariably late for work nearly every day. Even getting up twenty minutes early hadn’t helped.
I suppose someday I’ll figure this out and it won’t take as long, she thought, stabbing at, smoothing, attempting to shape the varied, soft layers framing her face. Ultimately, she grimaced in helplessness at her untutored attempts. In the meantime, the change was necessary. I needed this—needed the kick in the pants to get me out of the rut where I wouldn’t and could never heal and be capable of being in a romantic relationship. At this stage in my life, I’m embarrassed to admit that that’s what I want more than anything else in the world. A love that will heal.
She sighed, dropping her brush on her dresser. If only I hadn’t had such a knee-jerk reaction when Rox tried to fix me up with William Decker. None of my friends dared played matchmaker before that. And, in retrospect, I can see that William would be perfect for me. Despite the fact that he’s tall, muscular, breathtakingly masculine—definitely intimidating!—I know as Rox’s long-time friend and bodyguard, he wouldn’t hurt me for anything in the world. Deep down, I could trust him. No denying he’s gorgeous, too…but I’m not attracted to him despite all the reasons why I should be. That he’s in love with Roxanne herself could certainly have been a large part of my reluctance. Still…maybe I’ll never feel attracted to a man again. And, with forty-two looming on my horizon in just a few days, I’m getting too old to entice any man, let alone a good looking one.
Totally unladylike, Cherish snorted in despairing disgust and pulled herself away from the mirror. She had to go or she’d be seriously late. Luckily, her most valuable employee, Darlene, was returning to work today, after attending her father’s funeral in Syracuse. She’d left last Tuesday. Darlene worked harder than any other employee and she rarely took time off, not even after she gave birth—something she was getting closer to doing for the third time. Because of that, Cherish couldn’t have forbidden her from going, but mostly because Darlene was her best friend. Though her issues with her father had led to as many neuroses as Cherish herself had, she’d needed to attend that funeral—if not for love and loss, then for closure—for the kind of elusive healing that came so rarely after life-shattering trauma.
Cherish rushed to the kitchen and took a bag of chicken breasts out of the freezer and set it on a plate in the fridge. Tonight, she’d make a week’s worth of meals from it.
With that part of her morning ritual checked off her mental list, she rushed to the front door of her apartment to slip into her coat. Then she retrieved her purse and keys from their designated places. If she arrived at the shop later than the 6:30 a.m. morning flower deliveries, Darlene would be there. And somehow, in the holiday traffic that’ll come through the shop today, I have to find time to call a photographer…but first I have to finalize my bouquet designs for the New York International Bridal Week trade show next month. There’s no time, but my business tripled after the show last year. This year, I have to go bigger and better because I won’t be the only florist attending.
She’d almost reached the elevator when her cell phone played a snippet of her favorite Classical piece by Ravel, alerting her to an incoming call. Without thinking or looking at the screen—assuming Darlene was calling, possibly to ask for another day off to recover after the stressful past few days she’d had—she brought the device to her ear. “Darlene?”
The single word, spoken plaintively in the voice she’d come to dread more than any other since the new year rolled around two months ago, made her stop walking…stop breathing. “Why are you doing this?” she demanded, feeling winded.
She’d blocked Liam’s calls from her phone each time he’d contacted her but kept the record of them because her cousin Sapphire had warned her that if either of the men who raped her ever contacted her, she should preserve all the proof she could for the police.
Liam had worked for her father’s political campaign when she was only sixteen. He’d been one of three, male college students there who’d had political aspirations of their own. She’d flirted with them shamelessly, recklessly, not heeding her long-term boyfriend’s jealous warnings against the practice she’d considered pure, superficial, even harmless fun. She’d started modeling locally that year, reveling in the fact that others found her attractive. She’d enjoyed the attention she got, mostly from men, regardless of their ages.
In retrospect, she’d been as stupid as Samuel had told her she was being. How often had he called the aggressive, shocking flirting and seduction “baiting the bear”? He’d said something about how, at heart, all men were animals. If a female appealed to a male’s base instincts, she’d bring out the worst in him. And she’d done that to the extreme, making ridiculous promises she’d never intended to keep. She’d assumed Liam and his friends were taking her attempts at being contradictorily naughty and coquettish as the boss’s daughter amusing herself. At some point, she’d crossed a line—and, though one of the men chickened out, Liam and the other man had decided to force her to live up to her scandalous flirtations.
That one night had ruined her life and changed everything for her. Never once had she considered that either man would regret what they’d done to her. But Liam had called her this past January and claimed he couldn’t go on if she didn’t forgive him for his crimes. In all the years since that one of horror, he said he’d never forgotten her, what he and his friend did to her. Cherish had hung up on him as soon as he’d said those words the first time. The second, she’d told him to never call her again or she would go to the police. Now, as soon as her question was out, she realized she was giving him ground, allowing him to insinuate himself into her life, by not hanging up instantly.
“I can’t go on living without your forgiveness, Cherish. I told you that. Please—”
“How dare you! After what you did to me, you think I should care if you’re tormented? Even if you commit suicide you’re so grieved? Care about whether or not you can be forgiven by me, by God? I’m not your priest. If you want forgiveness, you go to the police and tell them what you did to me. Turn yourself in the way you should have when you and…whatever his name is…convinced my father that I was lying about the whole thing. I won’t save you. I shouldn’t have let it go the way I did then. You have no right to ask anything of me. For the last time, leave me alone or I will contact the police myself.”
She hung up, unable to move forward she was shaking so badly. After that rape, she’d been shell-shocked, unable to function, desperate for no one to find out what’d happened. I felt guilty—just like Samuel was always trying to make me feel. He believed my flirtations led to the rape, that I’d done plenty to warrant what came to me. Maybe nothing can justify Liam’s actions, that of his friend’s, but I was wrong to have my fun that way at their expense. Their sins didn’t wipe out mine. Ultimately, maybe I was no more than a stupid teenage girl with no clue of what would happen to me if I “baited the bear”.
Although she’d wanted to keep the rape silent, she hadn’t been able to completely. She’d been too traumatized, both physically and mentally. She’d told her parents, but they’d refused to believe her…more like, refused to believe that some of the best, most loyal and hardworking volunteers on her father’s political campaign would do such a thing. Cherish hadn’t wanted to accept the truth at the time, but she’d realized afterward that her father’s political career was too important to him and her mother for them to believe her. They’d put everything they had into her father’s dreams and hadn’t wanted a single hint of scandal to tear down all he’d been building.
When she’d gone to Samuel, begging him to believe her, he had—and unfortunately couldn’t tolerate that his predictions had come to pass. His jealousy had always been over the top. After finding out about her brutal rape, he’d seen her as something dark, evil, unclean. He’d broken up with her.
Demoralized by her fiancé’s rejection, Cherish caved under her parents’ pressure to hush up something they insisted couldn’t have happened. Despite that, her father hadn’t been elected then or in all the years he’d run afterward. Eventually her parents had made overtures to reconcile with her, and she’d accepted their belated efforts to support her. And she’d forgiven them for reasons of her own.
But not Liam. Never him or his friend.
Hearing a sound at the end of the hall broke her out of her paralysis. She quickly looked at her phone and blocked Liam’s phone number so he couldn’t call her again. Somehow she knew he’d find a way around that. How could he possibly have her phone number? No one she knew would give him or any other stranger her number. How could Liam have even found out where she lived? She’d moved out of Albany as soon as she graduated high school, legally taking her mother’s maiden name. It’d been twenty-five years. True, she hadn’t exactly hidden here in New York City. Her business was high-profile, especially since she’d expanded (exploded successfully, more like) into mail order bouquets, but she’d made a point of insinuating herself into trade magazines—bridal, flower, women’s—and media coverage in the area of her expertise. But what would possess Liam to read any of them? Back when he’d known her, he’d had no idea she was interested in flowers. Politics had been her passion, as it’d been his. He certainly couldn’t have known her mother’s maiden name without going to trouble to find out, and then on the assumption that she’d changed her name to it. Unlikely.
Cherish stepped into the elevator, knowing she needed to take her cousin’s aggressive advice. She had to make changes. She couldn’t do what she always had anymore—ignore things she didn’t want to face and hope they would go away on their own. She needed to change her phone number, needed to get past this one thing that’d done so much to screw up her life. Since Samuel dumped her with his cruel “I told you so”, she’d avoided romantic relationships, too terrified where they might lead. She’d fled dates before, even during…and no amount of counseling, group sessions, treatments however radical, had gotten her past the block.
In the past, she’d found New Year’s resolutions ridiculous, but she’d made one this year. She would start dating again—even if it meant throwing herself at the next man she found mildly attractive. In the months since, she’d done nothing in that regard, heeding her fears each and every time opportunity presented itself.
As she hurried to her car, she rebelled against the memory of Sapphire’s insistence that she needed to move to another apartment. But Liam couldn’t know where she lived. If he did, he would have shown up on her doorstep—only to be turned away by the rotating-duty concierges.
Dear God, what would I do if Liam did try to get in?
Abruptly, she felt as exposed as she had all those years ago. She unlocked her car and jumped in, shoved the key in the ignition, which engaged all the door locks in the process. Only then did she feel slightly safer. To keep her nervous dislike of changes and curve balls, like Liam’s phone call, at bay she forced herself to consider her list of chores for the day. At least Darlene would be there. If she wanted more time off, she would have called much earlier.
The warmth of the friendship melted the chill inside her. She’d met Darlene while she’d been in college, getting her degree. Though Darlene herself had no formal training or schooling, she had an instinct and knack for floral design. Cherish had started a flower arrangement delivery service from her dorm—in anticipation of opening her own flower shop when she graduated with her degree, and Darlene had done most of the work then, since Cherish’s education had all but consumed most of her time. She’d hired Darlene wisely. I couldn’t have done any of it without her. Although I’d never had a true friend other than my grandmother growing up—the rest of my school and recreation friends had proved to be superficial—I trusted Darlene when I trusted no one else. And our relationship developed into the kind of friendship I didn’t expect to count on the way I do. It means everything to me now.
Darlene’s friends had become Cherish’s friends in the last few years…Roxanne Hart, Diane Hoffman, Savvy O’Brien, and their significant others. But those friendships were still developing. Until recently, Darlene remained the only one of the group who knew about her rape. Shocking herself, Cherish had confided the undetailed truth to Rox a few months ago. That’d been a major step—almost as major as confiding in Darlene all those years ago. Cherish had known Darlene had her own scars, which she’d also confided, mostly with her father who’d been so abusive and ugly to his wife and children, damaging and shattering them. His death was nothing to grieve. The opposite, in fact, but Cherish realized there were other issues involved than his demise. She wanted to be sensitive to whatever Darlene might be going through today. After all Darlene had done for her, she considered this consideration the least she could offer.
Ty had hid in the shadows, close enough to view his family (and take countless rolls of photographs) all through the sparsely-attended funeral proceedings, the burial, the wake held at the house he and his siblings had grown up in. He saw for himself the realities of his research over the years into the lives of these family members who’d once been a daily part of his life.
His mother’s stroke years ago had left her all but incapacitated, yet she was constantly up, trying to do for everyone. Ty didn’t feel the hatred for her that he had for the old man, not even close, but his affection and respect for her were minimal. She’d never hurt them, but she hadn’t protected them either. She’d chosen to cast a blind eye to her husband’s harm, whether in the way he’d hoarded his money, all but starving them, forcing them to dress in rags, but also with the physical and verbal violence. When the cops got involved, she’d fed them cock-and-bull stories about “boys being boys” and getting in fights. Bottom line was, she’d enabled the old man, aided and abetted his abuse. He no longer cared if he saw her face-to-face again. Whether he wanted that truth to influence him or not, that decision bothered him.
Ty had conceded that her disabilities wouldn’t allow her to live alone now, though the old demon couldn’t have been much help to her all these years anyway. No, he suspected his youngest brother Shane had been taking care of their parents for years. He lived closest, and their mother obviously relied on him and his wife. Shane and Laura had two sons, ages three and five. Ty’s youngest brother worked at a local fishing lure factory—not exactly a lucrative career, especially if he was trying to support his own family along with their parents. But the part that troubled Ty most was that Shane had clearly never wanted to leave ‘home’. He stayed close by, made himself available. He wouldn’t flee with me and Jeff because he was still too attached—to Mom, if not to our father.
Did Eb leave him alone? After I ran with Jeff, did the old man end his tyranny, his sodomy? Lose interest in that transgression? The evidence pointed to exactly that, and, relieved as Ty was about the probability, he couldn’t help wondering what pacified the old bastard, if he’d left Shane alone. His failing health, the leg injury that’d prevented him from working and forced the family to move out of Indiana to accept a pitiful inheritance from a long-lost family member that included a home for them?
There was no way of knowing—no more than Ty could discover from afar why his oldest brother had attended the bastard’s funeral. Brett had hated their father more than all of them put together, if that was possible. So why would he trouble himself to attend the devil’s funeral? Most of all, Ty couldn’t understand that. In every photograph Ty snapped in secret, his brother’s face was in a state of constant unrest. He obviously didn’t want to be there…but he was. He’d come willingly. The only explanation Ty could come up with offered no illumination at all.
But he saw a difference in his brother, almost a softening, and that had everything to do with his wife and their seventeen-month-old daughter. Whenever he looked at them, he changed. Somehow that made Ty even more unforgiving toward him.
He abandoned us, almost never looked back, sent blood money, guilt money like it was any consolation…and I didn’t wanna accept that I knew the reason he left was ‘cause, if he didn’t, he would’ve murdered the old man—justifiably. But he would’ve gone to jail, f@#d up his whole life…for a piece of s@#t who wasn’t worth anything. Anger aside, Ty realized no one deserved that. Maybe not even Brett.
Ty had never seen Darlene happier, married to Jason Radcliffe, the guy she’d been in love with all those years ago growing up together on the same street. She was plainly close to giving birth—her third. Her oldest was Stevie-Jade, who was the same age as Shane’s youngest, and a year-old son she’d named Tyler. For the life of him, Ty couldn’t get over that. True, he and Darlene had been close all the years before he’d had no choice but to leave home…leave her because she flat-out refused to go with him. He’d never questioned her refusal. Her feelings for Jace prevented her from escaping the place she most hated.
But she didn’t forget us after Jeff and I ran. I suspect if she gives birth to another boy, she’ll name him Jeffrey. Ty knew from his research that Darlene worked at one of the most successful flower shops in New York City, Cherished Flowers. Jace was president of a baby-care product company.
Almost without consciously realizing what he was doing, Ty had followed Darlene and Brett back to New York City. He’d gotten a hotel room, spent a sleepless night, unable to come to grips with the fact that his siblings seemed… Okay. They seem okay. And how in hell is that possible? Isn’t being okay after all we went through a betrayal? Of the reasons I took Jeff out of that house of horror? Of Jeff’s life, his death? After all we went through, how can our other siblings be anything but messed up, scarred beyond recognition, lost and still in the nightmare that never seems to go away or lessen? Have they actually forgiven the devil? Did the bastard repent? Even if he did, he couldn’t have made amends, not enough to get Brett to forgive him. Nothing can make up for what he did. To us. To Jeff most of all. Jeff is dead because of what he did to him. There is no forgiveness for that SOB, no way to ever make up for his sins.
But I don’t know if Darlene, Shane or Brett ever knew the truth about what Dad did to Jeff. Jeff didn’t want to tell ‘em…and then I ran with him. I begged Darlene and Shane to come along for their own protection. They assumed I meant from the old man’s physical and verbal abuse. I hinted at more, but I never told them. There’s no way they could know unless the bastard ‘fessed up or tried the same with one of them. It’s doubtful he admitted his secret sin. He would’ve been dead long ago if he had. Brett wouldn’t’ve spared him—
Ty suddenly acknowledged he was ascribing hero-like qualities to his oldest brother again, and Brett had long since proved he didn’t have any. But Ty knew himself that the biggest part of his anger toward his oldest brother had to do with his own guilt. He’d abandoned Darlene and Shane to a monster just as surely as Brett had abandoned all of them to escape the torment life had handed him, all of them. If anything had happened to his younger siblings in the years Ty left them, the blood would be on his hands. He’d had no choice about going, but he’d never stopped feeling the shame he didn’t let himself admit Brett must have wrestled with all those years, doing the same.
Brett’s been close to Darlene for many years. Ever since his rock band broke up, he stayed close to our sister. Ty could see how protective he was of her when the two couples separated upon arriving in the city last night. Does his belated care make up for anything? Does mine?
Why am I here?
The next morning, Ty asked himself the same thing. He’d vowed he’d reconcile with Darlene, if none of the rest of them, but even that wasn’t as easy as he’d imagined. He spent hours trying to talk himself into entering Cherished Flowers in the morning, and he’d left after awhile, unable to get himself to approach his long-lost sister, whom he’d discovered supervised the work area’s crew while her boss handled the front of the store. Somehow he found himself back in the shop that afternoon, and he knew he was making his sister’s boss suspicious with his presence.
Whether he wanted to or not, he couldn’t help noticing Cherish Stephenson, if for no other reason other than her breathtaking lovely. He was helpless to make himself immune to the fact. She had classic beauty with her long, sexy hair, her heavily-lashed, blue velvet eyes and full mouth—so acclimated to sweet, friendly smiles—and her willowy figure with curves in all the right places. He would have been attracted to her if he was on his death bed.
The awkward situation was a bit of a given. He’d been alone a long time, and he knew his own weaknesses and patterns. He wasn’t the kind of man who could do without feminine attention for long. At her insistence, he’d left Stacy more than six months ago, left behind a relationship he’d never intended to be anything except short-term, even aware he’d inevitably fall in love with her—and she’d said she’d done the same with him, though he’d verified that couldn’t be the case in the months since. They’d shared so much in such a short time. The love and sex had been hauntingly tender and intensely emotion. He’d told her it couldn’t last. Right from the start, he’d tried to let her down easy. She wouldn’t listen. He couldn’t convince her either that whatever it was that a person needed to stick around, commit to love, was missing in him. He’d tried to impress upon her the ugly truth that he couldn’t give her what she needed. Couldn’t. Wouldn’t.
The outcome was always the same. At no point did he ever open up, give himself fully, show the woman he loved who he was, what he’d been through, the damage that’d been done to him. In the end, none of the women he’d been with knew the first thing about him, despite the feelings for him they’d claimed would last forever. In every single case, they got over it…sooner rather than later.
He wasn’t certain why he needed proof that none of them had become permanently damaged by what he shared with them. After all, he told himself what he wanted more than anything was to believe the time spent with him had been good for them. That he’d loved them better, more thoroughly than anyone else ever would in their short time together. In the end, the truth was that he’d been nothing beyond a wayside in the life of the women he’d loved–the wayside that eventually led them to the true love of their lives. Not me. Never me.
Unavoidably, the ache inside him always reached the breaking point and he started his search anew for another damaged—never beyond repair—soul to heal, however temporarily.
I’m not here to notice Cherish Stephenson, regardless of the lure of her irresistible beauty and sweetness. If possible, I’m more screwed up than I’ve ever been since the old man’s funeral, seeing in full-color photographs my whole family so uninjured, intact, whole. I’m lost, floundering for any light in the darkness, any hand to hold. But I don’t know how to reach for that, not even with Darlene.
I’m broken, shattered. I don’t have a single clue what the hell I’m doing here anymore…here, in this place, so close to the one person on this earth who means anything to me; here, alive when I don’t know what I’m living for beyond running, blind to everything except what’s behind, hiding from the revolting truth: That I’ll never heal. I’ll never recover. I’ll always be a part of the nightmare, unable to escape it. That it’s all my fault—that I couldn’t save Jeff, couldn’t save myself or anyone else no matter how hard I try. I have no reason to be alive anymore, haven’t since Jeff killed himself. I don’t know why I came here. My presence will only bring pain, renewed hell, to my siblings, to myself. But if I don’t do what I came to do, there’s no point. No point to anything anymore…
Cherish had a hard time taking her eyes off the man who’d been in the shop most of the day. By rights, she should have been afraid of him because he seemed to be stalking. Combined with how large and intimidating he was, she couldn’t explain her reaction to him, but she’d realized when he’d come back after a few hours away that there was something familiar about him. Maybe “familiar’ was the wrong word for it because she was absolutely sure she’d never met him before. She would have remembered him for the simple reason that she couldn’t remember ever being so captivated by a guy before.
On looks alone, he was beyond compare. She was tall for a woman at 5’10 and she knew he would tower over her. His body was long and lean and incredibly muscular. He exuded masculinity in a way that should have frightened her, yet did the opposite. Her response to him astonished her. She easily remembered something she’d tried so hard to bury inside her. Before her rape, when she knew she had a man wrapped around her little finger, the rush she’d gotten at the awareness of her power had filled her with extreme confidence and pleasure. The resurrection of that rush kept her off-balance most of a day that should have been nothing more than exhausting with the St. Patrick’s Day traffic which ensured there were twenty-five to fifty customers in the shop all day, at any given time. By all rights, she shouldn’t have noticed this man at all.
I can’t explain this, but something about his dark, thick hair, those mysterious, haunted eyes…
Even as she pondered this throughout the day, intending to approach him and inquire about whether he needed help but never getting a chance, she wondered why he was there. Just couldn’t decide on the right purchase? But she knew that couldn’t be the case. Several times, she’d gotten the impression he was looking for something…or someone—a person or thing that wasn’t in the sales and display areas of the shop. What could keep him lingering all these hours?
She’d also considered that maybe this was Liam and she just didn’t recognize him after so many years, but, even after extended glances, she knew he couldn’t be. Besides that Liam had been shorter than her by several inches and he’d had significantly lighter coloring of hair and skin, Liam’s nose had been extremely large, he’d had a mole on his chin, and he’d had a thick scar that’d slashed through his left eyebrow from a skiing accident as a child. The scar made him look like he had two small eyebrows on that side since hair no longer grew there.
She’d dismissed the idea almost too easily in favor of noting other, more potent differences. This guy had a beautiful mouth, unlike Liam’s thin lips. This man has sexy lips—masculine but full, hard yet soft, infinitely distracting. Also, instead of a mole on his chin, he has a dimple. Not a cleft so like a butt on the face, which I usually find unattractive, but an actual dimple…
That was when Cherish had a revelation. It was nearly closing time and customers were hurrying to get their purchases before closing time. Cherish was ringing up a bouquet Darlene had just completed that afternoon when she realized that this man looked a lot like Darlene’s older brother Brett. Brett had that same cleft in his chin, the piercing, mysterious, velvet brown eyes—eyes very similar to Darlene’s. While Darlene and Brett were distinctively female and male, they had “Foxx family features”, such as their eyes, their thick, blue-black hair, the dimple slightly less pronounced in the sister. Cherish had met the youngest brother Shane when he visited the city with his family, and, though he was shorter and chubbier, he had the identical, distinctive features genetics had given everyone in the Foxx family.
While Cherish worked at one of the two cash registers, trying with another employee to get the long lines of customers thinned out, she was reminded of something Darlene had told her long ago. She’d said she had four brothers. Two of the brothers had “disappeared” when they were younger, running away from their horrible home situation. Neither Darlene nor Brett had seen either of them since. Was it possible that this man was one of the long-lost brothers?
Even as she questioned the kindness of getting Darlene’s hopes up, she knew she had to mention it to her friend. With only a few customers left, Cherish called to another employee to take over her cash register, then walked to the workroom in the back—a space Cherish liked to keep open so customers could watch the process of floral arrangement design. Sitting in her backed stool, Darlene was just finishing up one that would sell, no doubt, the next morning. The other employees were already cleaning up their work stations. She looked exhausted and stretched, trying fruitlessly to work out kinks that came mostly from being in late second trimester of pregnancy.
Cherish hadn’t seen her friend much that day after they both arrived at about the same time to oversee the morning delivery. Darlene said then that Brett had been going crazy, not wanting to stick around Syracuse any longer following the funeral. He had a harder time being home than she did, but not much.
“I have a strange question for you,” Cherish directed, standing in front of the table her friend was working.
“Okay,” Darlene said, laughing.
“You have more than two brothers, don’t you?”
Darlene nodded. “Yes. I have to admit, me and Brett noticed Ty and Jeff’s absences more than ever when we went back home this time. Shouldn’t have been different—no way would they have come to the old man’s funeral, but… Why do you ask?”
“I’m sorry if I’m wrong, but there’s a guy out on the sales floor that looks so much like Brett… I’m sure I’m wrong, but it’s hard to believe he’s not related to you guys. He looks like a Foxx. He’s been here most of the day.”
Darlene was already on her feet and rushing to the open, swinging doors of the workroom. Cherish followed, unobtrusively pointing to the last place she’d seen the man. He was still there, clearly pretending to be interested in something on a display table.
Before Cherish could glance at Darlene to see what she was thinking, her friend gasped loudly. Her face was so filled with emotion, Cherish shouldn’t have been surprised at the tears flooding her eyes when she put her hand over her mouth.
Worry filled Cherish because Darlene’s reaction didn’t seem quite expected. “What is it?”
“Ty…” The name seemed to bleed out of her. “It’s Ty,” Darlene whispered.
“So it is one of your long-lost brothers?”
Darlene nodded, turning to put a hand on her arm. “Cherish…”
“Why don’t you take a minute to compose yourself? I’ll talk to him.”
Nodding again, her gaze grateful, Darlene rushed back into the workroom. Cherish felt skittish about executing her own promise. She wasn’t the type to approach strange men, and she probably would have sent another employee to take care of him if not for the unusual circumstance. The one in which I’m not afraid of this man but attracted to him instead. Him, possibly being Darlene’s brother.
Before she could take a step back out to the sales floor, Darlene whispered fiercely, “Whatever you do, don’t let him leave, Cherish. Promise me you won’t.”
What else could she do? She understood how important this was to her best friend. Cherish promised, took a deep breath, and then forced herself to set a course for this stranger who made her feel what no one else ever had: Dizzy, overly warm and strangely, potently alive. Could this feeling be capable of breaking me free from my past, maybe even healing me…?
Karen Wiesner is an accomplished author with 117 titles published in the past 18 years, which have been nominated/won 134 awards, and has 39 more releases contracted for spanning many genres and formats. Visit her website at http://www.karenwiesner.com and sign up for her free newsletter to qualify for her monthly book giveaways. Check out her author page at Facebook, where you can like, friend and follow her: http://www.facebook.com/KarenWiesnerAuthor.