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By´╝ÜJackie Steele

“Full of mistakes and failures? Where’s the beauty in that?” I joked, smirking.

“You know there’s beauty in everything. You’re just not looking hard enough. So…what do you really want?” Jude asked.

I regarded her, surprised by the sudden determined edge in her voice. “You know what I want.”

She shook her head. “No, I don’t know. At some point I thought it was obvious, but not anymore. You’ve been talking about those letters for years. Now here’s your chance to go after them, to uncover the truth and find peace once and for all. It’s most certainly your last chance, Laurie. You said so yourself. And yet here you are, hesitating, suddenly afraid. All my effort to help you has been in vain.”

“Nothing’s been in vain. By me getting engaged, Clint got the point that I’m not after his money. I’m no threat, but I’m also not afraid,” I whispered.

Or was I?

She leaned over the table and squeezed my hand, her warmth seeping into my skin. “Then just do it, get what you want, and then move on with your life. It’s not like you’re pressuring him. He wants to do it. He’s made his choice. Now you need to make yours. It’s about time you leave the past behind.”

That was easier said than done when it kept staring in your face day in, day out. Jude didn’t understand what I had risked to break free and get away. Getting married to receive my mother’s letters would mean that I might end up diving back into the past, where danger lurked. Clint was a powerful man with many connections and dangerous friends. The letters might provide all the answers I’d sought for years, but they could be answers I might not like. The truth was I wasn’t sure if I was really ready to know all the secrets that had plagued my mother. The last months with her—her vacant expression, the angry outbursts followed by fits of crying—still haunted my dreams. I dreaded the letters would not help me eradicate the past, but rather strengthen my fears and suspicions.

“Laurie,” Jude whispered. “Remember you’re not alone. I’ll always be here to help you, and I’m sure Chase won’t let you down. Sometimes the hardest lesson to learn is not to fight whatever’s coming your way. Get the letters and see what happens. For all you know, maybe your mom just wanted to tell you how much she loved you and she could only do so on paper. You need them for yourself to find out what she wanted you to know.”

Nodding slowly, I buried my gaze in my cocktail glass, watching the bubbles slowly dissolving.

Refusing to marry Chase would be stupid. All my hopes, my dreams, my wish to be free of guilt, would dissolve into thin air, just like the bubbles in my glass.

She was right, as usual. Chase had offered his help, and he was making it so easy for me. I had already told Clint about our engagement. The first few steps were done, and Clint was now spying on us to find out if we were determined to carry out the wedding part. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. If we didn’t consummate the marriage, it could be annulled in less than twenty-four hours after I got my hands on the letters. Chase would be free and so would I—the only reminder of our time together a piece of paper that stated our marriage was void.

Why was I still hesitating, then?

Because you don’t want to take advantage.

I sucked in my breath and held it for a moment. Sure, I didn’t want to use him for my benefit, but there was something else. The realization hit me so hard, I forgot to breathe.

Ever since the day we spent at the cottage, I could feel something fluttering inside me. It wasn’t love. It was something else—something I couldn’t explain.

It was deep and dark, like a current.

I wanted him.

To be mine.

I wanted him to like me the way I liked him.

Not just sexually, but on a personal level.

I swallowed the lump down my throat as I realized that the more I resisted Chase, the more I ended up liking him. And not in a way I could easily deal with.

My heart lurched in my chest at the thought of him.

I liked him too much—so much that I was way past friendship territory. The idea of him becoming my husband was a dangerous path to my heart, particularly because he could never be.

Already I was having trouble keeping my emotions in check around him, and we had barely met. What would it be like being near him all the time while having to deal with my naughty thoughts on a daily basis? To resist his flirtations, his random touches, which didn’t seem to be so random after all.

“I’ll be right back,” I said, and grabbed my handbag, heading for the restroom—away from Jude’s probing glances, relentless questions, and anything else that might just send my thoughts circling back to him.