Hearts Under Siege ONLY
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Brady Fitzpatrick has spent a decade burying the pain of a broken heart while working for SIEGE, an information-gathering spy agency. That it kept him away from his family as well as his best friend Molly has been an unfortunate side effect. But when his brother, also an agent, is killed during a foreign op, Brady is drawn into a web of intrigue that threatens the lives of everyone he loves…

Molly Byrnes has loved Brady forever. As his best friend and a de facto member of the Fitzpatrick family, she holds them together in their crushing grief. But as a member SIEGE’s ground team, she doesn’t buy the official line about Brady’s brother’s “accidental” death and launches her own investigation—only to uncover a shocking secret that she and Brady must get to the bottom of before their target finds them.

Tangled emotions land them in bed together, opening Brady’s eyes to the incredible, fearless woman who’s been there for him all his life. But after a lifetime of disappointment, how can Molly trust the possibility of a future with him…or if they can count on any future at all?

 

Information:

Title: Hearts Under Siege
Author: Natalie J. Damschroder
Genre: Suspense
Length: 295 pages
Release Date: February 2014
ISBN: 978-1-62266-494-8
Imprint: Ignite
 

 
 
Pricing is not guaranteed 
 
 
 

Praise for Natalie J. Damschroder:

Damschroder heroines are always so cool and capable but still all-woman.” – Delynn Royer, author of A Touch of Camelot

 
 
Excerpt from
Hearts Under Siege
by Natalie J. Damschroder

Copyright © 2013 by Natalie J. Damschroder. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.

Chapter One

Southern Connecticut

Thanksgiving

 

“You missed the turn.”

“Dammit.” Dragging himself out of his own head, Brady Fitzpatrick scowled at his best friend. Molly Byrnes smirked back at him and shoved her feet up onto the dashboard, her fingers dancing across her knees like they were a keyboard. He checked behind him and did a U-ie in the middle of the empty street. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Because when I said something two turns ago, you growled at me.” She pointed to the left. “There.”

Brady made the turn and tried to remember what they’d been talking about, before he’d gotten lost in his thoughts. Right. True love. She’d razzed him for believing in it and said it wouldn’t make a good pickup line. For who-knew-how-many miles, he’d brooded about the job offer from SIEGE, and how true love fit into it.

He cast another glance at Molly, who was now humming something unfamiliar. Probably an assignment for the composition class she hated, judging by the dark look on her face. That explained why she’d let him brood for so long.

“Check that, would you?” He motioned at the crumpled directions stuffed into the cup holder between them. “I thought we’d be at the station by now.”

Molly heaved a sigh, dropped her feet, and pulled out the paper, comparing it to their location. “Couple more miles on the right, looks like.” She went back to playing her knees. “So anyway, women aren’t going to fall all over a guy just because he walks up and tells her he believes in true love.”

“I’m not talking about picking up chicks,” he protested. “I’m talking about relationships like my parents’.” He squinted against the glare of the sun off a sign, trying to see if it was for the train station. His parents had moved from Massachusetts to Connecticut a few months ago, while he was at school, and he didn’t know the area yet.

“Your parents are, like, the exception that proves the rule.”

“Well, yeah, my parents are awesome.” Molly’s parents couldn’t go five minutes without sniping, a whole day without a knockdown, drag-out fight. That was why she’d come down here with him for Thanksgiving instead of going home. “And they’re not the only ones.”

Molly snorted. “Name another couple you know who’s been together longer than three years.”

“There’s—” He stopped. No, Sheri and Dave had been married less than two years. His aunt and uncle had just separated. Who else did he know? He couldn’t believe he was going to lose this debate when it had barely started. Though it kind of answered his question about love versus work. “Anyway—” His phone rang, and he snatched it off his belt, ignoring Molly’s derisive laugh. “Hello?”

“Did you get her yet? Where are you? Why didn’t you call me?”

His brother. The reason he and Molly had ended up on this topic in the first place. “Geez, Chris. Chill. Her train’s not due for another half hour.”

“Dad said the trains are early sometimes.” There was a tiny snap, and Brady knew his brother was biting his nails. He was really gone over this girl. “Make sure she knows I would have gotten her if Mom hadn’t—”

“Don’t worry, I know the story.” Brady rolled his eyes. “I’ll make her feel so welcome she won’t even miss you.”

“Okay, good. Hey, wait!”

Laughing, Brady shut the phone and dropped it into the console. “Chris is freaking out that we’re going to miss the train.”

Molly shook her head. “He really wanted to be the one to pick her up. What’s her name again?”

Spotting the station parking lot up ahead, Brady flipped his turn signal and slowed the car. “Jessica. Sounds like a princess. Just his type.”

“Yeah.” She snorted again. “True love.”

“Maybe.” He parked and they stepped out into the sharp November air. Brady threw an arm around Molly when she shivered and hunched into her denim jacket. The sun was warm, but the wind, light as it was, still bit. They bickered as usual, crossing the lot and climbing the steps to the train platform. Brady glanced at his watch. Still a good twenty minutes until the train was supposed to arrive. He scanned the nearly empty platform almost automatically.

And then he saw her.

His gaze touched the woman, and an invisible fist slammed into his solar plexus, knocking every atom of oxygen out of his lungs. His vision narrowed, the edges fluttery and thin, and all he could see was…

Her.

She sat on the bench against the wall of the ticket office, bent over what looked like a hardbound journal. Sleek blond hair hid her face, but as he watched she swept it back behind a perfectly shaped ear with a long-fingered, graceful hand. Her cheek curved sweetly, a lush pink mouth pursed in a bow, and when she blinked, her eyelashes glided through the air in slow motion.

True love whispered through his mind, and he knew, without a flicker of doubt, that she belonged to him.

Molly elbowed him, and the world came rushing back. The roar and clang of a train entering the station, the cold breeze in his face, the buzz of his phone at his waist. But still, he couldn’t take his eyes off her.

She looked up. Bluish-hazel eyes, full of sparkling humor, met his. It filled him with euphoria and a sense of rightness. He had to meet her. Now.

“Fitzpatrick!” Molly yanked at his arm. “What’s wrong with you?”

He ignored her and stepped forward, trying on a smile. The cold made it stiff. God, he probably looked like a dork. “Um, hi.”

She beamed, her perfect lips seemingly unaffected by the temperature. “Hi. Brady?”

He blinked. She knew his name?

“Uh…yeah. I’m—”

“Chris’s brother, I know. He texted me that you were coming.” She marked her page with the ribbon attached to the book, twisted her pen closed, and slid both into her bag before standing. She was the perfect height, a couple of inches below his.

Brady didn’t know what to say. His brain wasn’t processing this. She knew him? She couldn’t. He’d remember if he’d met her before. Unless she’d been, like, fat or something. He squinted at her, and she laughed. No, he’d definitely remember that dancing trill. He’d remember thinking ridiculous words like “dancing trill.”

Molly shoved him aside and took over.

“I’m Molly Byrnes. Sorry we made you wait. Brady didn’t believe the train would be early.” She held out her hand, and Brady’s destiny shook it. The two women turned to walk toward the steps, Molly taking the handle of a small rolling suitcase he hadn’t noticed. They were talking animatedly, as if they—

Crap.

The second punch in the gut didn’t have the same sense of wonder and joy. This one brought depressed understanding. This was Jessica. Chris’s girlfriend. His brother’s girlfriend. Fuck!

Molly glared at him over her shoulder, motioned toward the parking lot with her head. But Brady’s feet felt cemented to the platform. How could this be happening? Everything lined up. They’d been talking about true love, and there she was. And he’d been struck, just as his father had always described feeling when he saw Brady’s mother for the first time.

Okay, not everything lined up. There was that decision he had to make by the end of the year, the one that would dictate the direction of his entire life. The job offer from SIEGE—Strategic Infiltration of Enemy Group Enterprise—was one any guy would frickin’ die for. The chance to do real good in the world. To fight terrorism in the information age. Protect his family. Be a hero. But he wouldn’t be able to tell anyone about it. That was the part holding him back. He’d have to lie to his family, to Molly, for the rest of his life. He wasn’t sure he was capable of that. But his original plans looked stable, responsible, and positively coma-inducing in comparison. He’d been weighing the options for weeks.

But shit, now instead of two paths in front of him, he had, like, ten. Okay, half of them were blocked, but there were always ways around obstacles, if you looked hard enough. He just had to look. Hard.

“Fitz?”

He blinked again. Molly stood at the top of the steps, this time frowning in concern. “You okay?”

“Yeah. Fine.” He shook off his inertia. Maybe it’s not serious, her and Chris. The thought galvanized him enough to follow the women to the car, but he still reeled internally, from the dual shock of finding his soul mate, and literally five seconds later losing her to his brother. But those two hadn’t known each other that long. Chris had never had a long-term girlfriend. Three months was his record, as far as Brady could remember. Maybe he still had a chance.

“Is it a long drive to the house?” Jessica asked as they reached the car, and a buzz went down Brady’s spine. He closed his eyes for a second, but of course she didn’t keep talking. She’d asked a question. He realized Molly was staring at him from the back end of the car, Jessica standing next to her, waiting for him to answer. Also, probably, to open the trunk. Sheepish, he hit the button on the remote key and hurried to lift the suitcase into the empty space. Jessica thanked him, and this time the sensation down his spine was more like warm honey. He suppressed a shudder and slammed the trunk, testing to be sure it was latched, and hoped Jessica hadn’t noticed his reactions. He peeked and found both women looking at him from the side of the car now. Crap. He still hadn’t answered her question.

“About half an hour,” he managed as he moved to the driver’s door, and cursed when the key missed the lock and nicked the paint. Dad would notice that. He managed on his second try, and then, as he opened his door and reached for the unlock button, realized he should have opened the other side first, held the door for Jessica. Too late now. She’d already climbed into the back seat.

Pull it together, man. He leaned his forearms on the car roof for a moment. He sucked in a deep breath, letting the cold air clear his mind. He was acting like a doofus. Even if Chris wasn’t serious about Jessica, even if they broke up soon and Brady had a clear field…well, she wasn’t going to want to have anything to do with her ex’s dweeb little brother.

The phone buzzed again and Brady snatched it up. “What?”

“Did you get her?”

He blew out a breath. “Yes. We got her. We’re on our way.”

“Let me talk to her.”

Brady hesitated. “Doesn’t she have her own phone?”

“Don’t be an ass, Brady, just give her the phone.”

Brady lowered his arm but didn’t open his car door. Handing over the phone was like handing over her. But that was stupid, she wasn’t his to hand over. God, his stomach hurt.

The window slid down, and Molly, leaning across the seats, scowled up at him. “What’s the deal?”

Brady handed her the phone. “It’s Chris. For…Jessica.” His voice practically cracked on her name, and he stayed where he was until Molly handed the phone back a few moments later. He swallowed hard a few times and sucked in lots of air, trying to clear his head enough to drive. Nice start to a relationship, killing the woman he loved. Not.

Finally, he was in control—mostly—and they were on the road. Molly kept a constant stream of conversation going, twisted to face Jessica in the back seat and digging her bony knees into Brady’s side. He thought she was doing it on purpose, but any time he looked at her, she seemed oblivious, totally focused on Jessica.

Luckily, the back roads of Connecticut weren’t as busy as the highway. Otherwise, he’d have crashed them for sure during one of his peeks into the rearview mirror. The watery sunlight cast Jessica in a kind of glow that made his chest hurt. When she laughed at something Molly said, her teeth flashed, straight and perfect, no overbite or crooked canines. He had no idea what they were discussing. All he could think about was the sweet perfume filling the car, how soft her skin had to be, what she’d taste like when they kissed.

She’s your brother’s girlfriend, he told himself sternly when his fantasies dug beneath her off-white wool coat and cashmere scarf, wondering what kind of body they hid. Even if she and his brother weren’t a serious couple, he couldn’t make a move on Chris’s girl!

Not until they broke up.

That would be too late, though. She’d be back at grad school in New York, and Brady would be up at UMass again, with almost an entire year of college left. He could transfer. He’d do it in an instant. He loved New York. But it was his senior year, and what if all his credits didn’t transfer? That would be stupid. He couldn’t damage his future over her. Then what would he have to offer? Plus, she and Chris might not break up before the end of the year. How would he tell SIEGE his decision with that still up in the air? If he said yes to their job offer, he’d have a hard time combining that kind of work and a new relationship. He didn’t even know what their rules were about that kind of thing. He wasn’t sure he could handle it. Too many secrets to keep track of. Too easy to make mistakes when you were new at both.

But so what? It would be worth it. He could always quit the stupid job, five-year minimum commitment be damned.

His thoughts spun on and on, counterpart to Molly and Jessica’s barely heard conversation, until he suddenly realized they were on his parents’ street. He’d retraced his route without even realizing it. He pulled in behind Chris’s old Nissan and shut off the car.

“I’ll let them know we’re here.” Molly leapt out and dashed up the walkway.

Brady’s heart pounded as he met Jessica at the trunk. “I’ve, uh, got it.” He raised the lid and reached for her bag.

“Thanks.” She brushed a few strands of hair off her face. “You’ve been awfully quiet. I’m sorry if we—”

“It’s Molly,” he interrupted, then felt himself blush at his rudeness. Blush, for cripes sake! “She never shuts up. It was nice to be able to tune her out for a few minutes, let someone else pick up the slack.” When she laughed, his shoulders dropped a fraction and he felt looser, less tense. “Seriously, she’s my best friend, but she knows how to keep a conversation going. I didn’t have anything to add.” Since I wasn’t paying attention.

“Thanks for picking me up and everything.” She looked toward the house, then back at him, her smile blinding him to anything else again. “I’m a little nervous about meeting your folks.”

“Don’t be, they’re cool.” He lifted his eyes to meet hers as she brushed at her hair again, blown back into her face by the breeze. Her light fragrance wafted toward him. It was something Brady couldn’t identify, but it made him think of hunger. Heat swelled in his chest, reminding him of fifteen years ago, when he’d been five and begging his parents for one of the puppies their neighbor was selling. Longing. That’s what it was.

Jessica didn’t look away immediately, but paused, and her eyes seemed to refocus, really seeing him.

Sizzlesnap.

She looked startled, then scared, then nothing, her expression a pleasant mask. But a thrill of excitement went through Brady. She’d felt it, too.

“Jess!”

She spun, and the connection disappeared. Disappointment replaced thrill. Brady shut the trunk and picked up the suitcase, stopping to watch Chris engulf Jessica in a hug, then kiss her as if they hadn’t seen each other in a month instead of three days. Jessica accepted the kiss, no hesitation, and Brady wondered if he’d imagined the moment of connection. If he’d just wanted it so badly he’d projected it onto her.

But no, as he followed them across the yard and up the steps of the old colonial that was Rick and Donna Fitzpatrick’s new home, Jessica glanced over her shoulder, then quickly back to where his mother stood in the doorway, beaming at them all. He wasn’t imagining the wariness that was now in Jessica’s expression.

Hope took root, a tiny glimmer deep in his heart. He couldn’t betray his brother, for God’s sake. He could not go after Jessica. But if she wanted him…well, nothing he could do about that, right?

A few minutes later, he’d escaped the annoying greetings in the foyer to bring Jessica’s suitcase upstairs. He was standing next to the guest room bed, telling himself he had no right to even think about opening the case, when Molly appeared in the doorway.

“What the hell are you doing?” she hissed in a loud whisper, glancing down the hallway before coming in and grabbing his arm. “Get out of here.”

“What?” But Brady let her pull him down the hall into the bedroom they were sharing, the one with his and Chris’s old twin beds. His parents were letting Chris and Jessica use the double bed in the guest room, and Brady fought a surge of jealousy, thinking about it.

“Will you get a grip?” Molly let go of him and shut the door. “I can’t believe you.”

“What?” he said again, but he knew she wouldn’t let him get away with it. She’d known him since kindergarten, grew up in his back yard, almost literally, as their houses had backed up on each other. She’d known when he spiked the punch at Chris’s high school graduation party, and when he’d lied to the head cheerleader, telling her he was the starting running back for the homecoming game so she’d go to the dance with him. Hell, she’d known all the way back in third grade that he hadn’t done his homework because he’d been catching frogs in the creek down the street. And she hadn’t needed evidence or first-hand knowledge to catch him in his lies. She just knew him that well.

Still. He wasn’t going to come out and tell her what was going on with him. Someday she’d be wrong. Why not today?

“She’s Christopher’s,” she accused.

Okay, not today. He flopped onto his bed, arms out-flung, and wondered when the throb in his chest would go away. “I know she is.”

“Then why did I find you about to dive into her unmentionables?” She stepped up onto her own bed and sank down, cross-legged, clutching a pillow on her lap. It was a familiar pose, and it eased something in him. He didn’t know why.

“I wasn’t,” he protested half-heartedly.

“You were thinking about it.”

He said nothing. The ceiling had no cracks. Not like their old house. But there were brush strokes in the paint. He concentrated on finding patterns.

Molly sighed. “She’s way out of your league, dude. Even if she weren’t taken. By your brother. Whom you worship.”

“I don’t worship him.” That was true, at least. He had, of course, when they were little. Okay, not so little. But once Chris had gone off to college, Brady got a taste of being out of his shadow, and finally realized he wasn’t less than his brother. He had talent on the football field—maybe not enough to start, like Chris had since freshman year, but enough. He got good grades and was his class salutatorian, something Chris had missed out on. His mother had said he’d found himself, and in doing so, he’d been able to see his brother as just a guy. They’d had a much better relationship in the last few years because of it.

But this…

“If Chris finds you ogling his girlfriend,” Molly started, and Brady cut her off with a slice of his hand.

“I’m not going to ogle her.” He felt her tension subside and should have left it at that, but his mouth kept going. “She deserves more respect than that.”

“Brady!” Molly slammed the pillow beside her and scrambled off the bed to loom over him, hands on hips. “She’s not available! Do you seriously want to screw up your entire life over someone you met an hour ago?”

“No.” But maybe he didn’t have to screw everything up. Maybe he could—

“Stop it!” She slapped his forehead.

“Ow!” He glowered at her, rubbing the sting away.

“Seriously, Brady, get her out of your head. What the hell are you thinking?”

He sighed and rolled his head so he was staring at the ceiling again, not her accusing, piercing blue eyes. “I can’t help it,” he admitted. “She hit me. Right here.” He pressed the heel of his right hand against his breastbone. “The instant I saw her. Just like Dad when he saw Mom. It was—”

“Don’t say it.” But her tone was softer, more understanding. She sat on the bed next to his hip and took his hand onto her lap. “Oh, Brady. You know this will end badly, right?”

“No, it won’t. She felt something, too,” he told Molly. “I saw it. Maybe they aren’t serious. Maybe she’s ready to break up with him already. You know girls do that—hang on even when they know it’s over.”

Molly didn’t argue, which surprised him. She hated generalities, especially about her gender.

“Okay, maybe they’ll break up. And then what? You go to school in different states.”

“I could transfer.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, you’re not going to transfer.” She tossed his hand away and stood. “Let her go. You know you have to.”

But he didn’t know that. This kind of thing happened all the time. And, all right, most of the examples he thought of were from TV shows. But they had to be based on real life sometimes.

An hour ago, he’d been facing the hugest decision of his life. Jessica’s effect on him made it seem as easy as ordering a sandwich.

“Dinner!” his mother called from downstairs, her tone muffled by the closed door, her annoyance at their disappearance nevertheless clear.

“Coming!” Molly called back. She grabbed his hand and hauled him off the bed. “Stop thinking about it, at least. You know Chris will notice.”

“Yeah, I know.” That was the first thing she’d said that he couldn’t find a way to dispute. Chris was keenly observant, a talent that had snagged him a lucrative job with a business consulting firm, one of those companies who sent in a team to a company that wasn’t doing well, identified their problems, and advised how to fix things. He would definitely notice if Brady acted weird.

So over dinner, Brady forced himself to make jokes, tease his mother about her cooking, needle Molly about anything and everything, and insult his brother to Jessica, acting as though he was making a play for her. It was exactly what he would have done if he hadn’t been into her, so everyone responded normally.

“So, Jessica,” his father said halfway through the main course, and Chris groaned.

“Come on, Dad, can’t you skip the interrogation?”

Rick Fitzpatrick grinned at his son. “Certainly not. This is the first girl you’ve dated longer than three months. It’s even more important now!”

Brady stared at his father, then at Chris and Jessica. It had already been longer than three months? No. They were holding hands. While they ate. Jessica was left-handed, or good enough not to make a mess, anyway, and their fingers kept toying with each other’s, and…no, that wasn’t good.

“What are your plans after graduation?” his father asked, taking a bite of mashed potatoes.

“I’m getting my degree in interior design, so it’s whatever I can get in the field.”

Brady shoved his fork into a piece of meat, not really aware what kind it was. Her voice was killing him. Soft and sweet, but not girly or weak, it sent a constant stream of shivers down his spine. He was getting back cramps, trying to hide those shivers.

“My goal,” Jessica continued, “is functional design, like in classrooms and training centers. Day cares and special-needs schools, places like that.”

“So not just decorating?” his mother asked, clearly interested. And why not? Jessica was altruistic, like his parents were. Most of their family vacations had been spent doing Habitat for Humanity, Help for Haiti, going wherever the most recent disaster had occurred and hauling debris, distributing water, whatever was needed. His parents’ jobs had made that stuff possible, and here Jessica was, planning a combination of marketability and benefit to others.

She was perfect.

“What are your grades like?” his father asked.

“Pretty good,” she responded, but Chris shook his head.

“She graduated summa cum laude from college and has a three-point-eight right now.”

“Impressive.”

That came from Molly, and Brady kicked her. She only smiled, not looking at him.

“Where do you want to go after you get your degree?” she asked Jessica, who turned toward their end of the table to answer. Brady lost her words in the impact of her beauty, and didn’t pay any attention to the rest of the conversation. His parents were a lock. It wasn’t going to matter if Chris and Jessica broke up, and if Brady moved in. They wouldn’t consider him betraying his brother, they’d be glad he kept her in the family. Brought her into the family.

The fantasy was playing out in his head when he realized his father was giving a stamp of approval, tongue in cheek.

“Glad you feel that way, Dad.” Chris cleared his throat significantly.

Alarmed, Brady jerked his head around, wanting to stop him. To change the conversation, throw out a joke that would make everyone laugh and forget what Chris was about to say.

But of course that wouldn’t work. Because what Chris was about to say was more important than anything Brady could do. He could see that in the way Chris’s hand closed around Jessica’s, in the soft smile she gave him, in the sudden anticipation in the air. Molly leaned toward Brady and put a hand on his arm, a clear attempt at comfort. But there was nothing to comfort him over. Not yet.

And then the world fell apart.

“Mom. Dad. Brady. Jessica and I are getting married.”

***

“No, idiot, pi doesn’t have anything to do with it! Where’s your head?” Molly stared across the dorm room at Brady, knowing full well where his head was. Inside whatever Jessica fantasy he was spinning today.

He lay in his standard sprawl across Molly’s bed while she curled in the chair at the desk and quizzed him for his differential equations course. Finals were this week, and in three days they headed back to Connecticut for Christmas. For the first time ever, she wasn’t looking forward to the holidays. And that damned woman was the reason why.

She sighed. She’d already been worried about Brady for a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. He’d gone all broody and quiet, like he was considering something major. But he’d still been Brady, even stuck on Serious. Then he walked up on that train platform, and boom. Good-bye Broody Brady, hello Lovesick Nutcase.

She let him wallow for a minute, mesmerized by the baseball he was tossing up and catching, over and over. He probably had no idea the ball was the one signed by Nomar Garciaparra after she’d caught his home run. If she yelled at Brady, he’d assume it was because of the signature, not because it was one of her few sentimental prizes. She and Brady had gone to that game together, just the two of them, and while they were often just the two of them—like now—it wasn’t often that she could pretend their relationship was more than it was.

Amusing, how she was constantly telling him to get over Jessica, when anyone else would tell Molly to get over him. But a decade of habit was hard to overcome. He’d only met Jessica once, a month ago.

She couldn’t stand it. Pushing out of the chair, Molly leaned and caught the ball as it dropped. “Get over it,” she told Brady for the umpteenth time, and he didn’t ask over what, so she knew she’d been right. He was moping over Jessica again. “They have a February wedding,” she reminded him.

He sighed and rolled upright. “I know. And he’s totally gaga over her. I can hear it in his voice when he calls. Which he does, twice a week.” He ran a hand down his face. “We used to talk once a month, if that. Now he just wants to go on and on about her.”

“That’s natural.” She watched Brady carefully, trying to gauge how he really felt about his brother’s fiancée. She wanted to dismiss it as a crush, but couldn’t. He’d kept it up over three weeks without exposure, without seeing Jessica again. That was something different. Something more.

Dammit.

“I don’t think I can do this.” He looked up imploringly. “What am I going to do? I can’t stand the thought of watching her marry him. Of seeing them together at every holiday. Of…” He trailed off, staring into the distance.

“Oh, honey.” She stepped forward and cradled his head to her stomach. He wrapped his arms around her hips and buried his face against her. The familiar surge of love and need followed, but she stroked her hand soothingly through his shaggy, dark-brown hair and gave him what he always needed from her—comfort and friendship.

“It’ll be okay,” she told him, and hoped she was right.

But back in Connecticut three days later, tension skyrocketed.

Molly thought she was the only one to feel it. At least the Fitzpatrick parents were oblivious, babbling about traditions they could pass on to Christopher and Jessica and their eventual kids, about wedding preparations and when they’d get to meet Jessica’s mother—her only close living relative. Chris acted natural—affectionate with Jessica, indulgent with his parents, and good-natured with Brady.

At first no one, including Jessica, seemed to notice Brady’s increasing withdrawal. Molly covered for him pretty well, and without much hardship. After all, she’d preferred the Fitzpatricks to her own family for her entire life. If she participated boisterously in the family cookie baking, sang vivaciously while they decorated the tree, it all fit with past behavior.

And then Molly overheard Jessica and Brady having a private conversation in the back hall. Chris and his father had run to the store for more wrapping paper, and Donna was down in the basement doing laundry. Molly carried empty popcorn bowls into the kitchen and heard Brady and Jessica murmuring at the base of the back stairs, right outside the room. She didn’t think anything of it at first, but as she was about to pass the doorway, the murmuring turned into sighs and the unmistakable sound of a kiss.

Molly froze, stunned. And then it was too late. She should have kept walking, making her presence known before they’d done anything. If she did it now, they would know she’d heard.

Cracks crazed the surface of her heart. She’d always known Brady didn’t love her that way—that pain was different, a softer, more constant suffering. But this sharper, more acute pain wasn’t for her. It was for Brady, who was making himself vulnerable to a woman who wasn’t going to decide in his favor. For Chris, who’d be devastated if he found out about this. For Rick and Donna, who just wanted both their sons to be happy.

“I should say I’m sorry, but I’m not,” she heard Brady say.

Molly closed her eyes and leaned against the rough pine paneling of the kitchen wall, resigned to having to listen to this.

“It’s okay.” Jessica’s voice was high and breathless. Molly wanted to stab her through the heart. “I’ve known, well, since the day we met. That you—”

“—have feelings—”

“—for me. Yes. But, Brady…”

“I can’t help myself, Jess. I love you. If there was any chance, any way, you could love me back, I had to do this now.”

Now? Why now? Molly held her breath through Jessica’s hesitation, then as she repeated Molly’s silent question aloud.

“It doesn’t matter.” Brady sounded impatient, almost desperate. “I have to figure some things out before the end of the year. This is one of them. Jess,” he pleaded. “I need to know how you feel.”

“Your brother,” she protested.

“I love him, too. And I never want to hurt him.” Brady’s voice cracked just enough that Molly knew he meant it. “Please, Jessica. Be honest with me.”

For long moments, there was only breathing in the little space of the back hall. Molly’s hands tightened on the bowls she held. If Jessica said yes, if she said she cared about Brady…God, what a mess this would be. And the tiny spark of hope that Molly never fed, never admitted even existed, would be crushed forever.

“I can’t,” Jessica wheezed, and the tightness around Molly’s heart lessened. “I love Christopher. I’d never betray him. And even though there’s…something…between us, it’s not worth throwing away what I have with your brother. We just—”

“I get it.” Sorrow drenched Brady’s words, and Molly ached to go to him, to comfort him, to ease his pain any way she could, regardless of what it would do to her own heart. She pushed away from the wall, but he wasn’t done speaking.

“I can’t do this, then.”

“What?” Jess sounded confused. “Do you mean the kiss? I don’t want—”

“No, not that.” Disgust didn’t quite overcome the sorrow, and Molly was glad to hear it. Glad to know her best friend wouldn’t commit adultery with his brother’s wife, or even allude to the possibility.

“What, then?”

“Anything. I can’t do these family get-togethers. I can’t see you, spend limitless hours watching you with my brother. Not when I think he’s the wrong man.” His voice held conviction that injected fear into Molly’s battered heart. Whatever had been bothering him since fall semester, whatever he had to figure out…Jessica’s answer had resolved it for him.

“He’s not wrong,” Jessica said, her soft tone no less convicted.

Molly imagined Brady nodding.

“Okay. But I still can’t do it.”

“But…the wedding?”

“I’m the best man, of course I’ll be at the wedding. After that, though, forget it.”

An uncertain pause, then, “If you have to.”

“I do.”

“Okay, then.” After a moment, Molly heard light footsteps going upstairs, and Brady entered the kitchen.

He didn’t notice Molly standing there, and she had to hold back a sob. That kind of utter defeat should never be seen on the face of someone so young. He walked across the kitchen to the island, where he braced his hands wide and hung his head. A tear fell to the butcher block, then another, staining the soft wood dark. After a couple of minutes, he raised his head and spotted her in the reflection of a copper pot. He turned, and there was nothing in his eyes. Not pain, or sorrow, or even determination. Not the Brady she knew.

Molly didn’t move, afraid that this might be one of those defining moments, the kind that didn’t occur in every life, when someone could look back and say, “That’s when everything changed.” Then, with perfect clarity, she recognized that it was. That none of them, even her, would ever have the same relationship with Brady again.

And she was right.