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Book 2 in the Gansett Island Series
Joe Cantrell, owner of the Gansett Island Ferry Company, has been in love with Janey McCarthy for as long as he can remember. At the same time, Janey has been dating or engaged to doctor-in-training David Lawrence. When things go horribly wrong between David and Janey, she calls her “fifth brother” Joe, one of the few people in her close circle who lives on the mainland. Janey decides a few days with Joe is just what she needs before she goes home to the island to face her parents and family with the news of her broken engagement. It was bad enough for Joe loving Janey from afar, but having her in his house is pure torture. Will he take advantage of this opportunity to show her what they could have together? And what will Joe’s best friend and Janey’s protective older brother Mac have to say about it?
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The phone call Joe Cantrell had waited half his life to receive came in around nine on an otherwise average Tuesday evening. He’d put in a twelve-hour day on the ferries, done four round-trips to the island, and had just sat down to eat when his cell phone rang. Since he’d been in a foul mood all day, tortured by images of Janey in Boston with her fiancé, he’d almost ignored the call. Thank God he grabbed it on the last ring before voicemail picked up.
One word set his heart to racing. He’d know that voice anywhere. “Janey? Why are you calling me when you’re visiting David?” He kept his tone light, but just saying the guy’s name made Joe sick. He couldn’t stand the way David went weeks, sometimes months, without so much as a visit to his fiancée. Sometimes Joe wished he didn’t have front-row access to who came and went from the island. Some things he was better off not knowing.
He’d seen her earlier in the day, skipping onto the ferry on her way to surprise her doctor-in-training for their anniversary. Thirteen years together. Lucky thirteen, she’d joked. Joe had found nothing funny about it.
“I need. . .”
Was she crying? “Janey, honey. What do you need?”
Joe almost swallowed his tongue. How long had he fantasized about hearing those very words from her? Forever, or so it seemed. “What’s wrong?”
“My car broke down on 95, just south of Foxboro.”
Why was she south of Boston when she’d gone to visit David for a few days? “Where’s David?”
“I’m calling you, Joe. Can you come?” More sniffling. “What was I thinking? It’s too far—”
He was already leaving a cloud of dust behind his red pickup as he peeled out of the driveway. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’ll be there in less than an hour.” Under normal circumstances, it would take much longer to reach her, but these were anything but normal circumstances. Something had happened. Something bad. If the bad thing was between her and David, then all of Joe’s dreams had finally come true. But hers had been crushed. He had to remember that. No matter what this night might bring, he couldn’t forget that she’d been with David for almost as long as Joe had harbored a secret, burning love for his best friend’s little sister.
On the way, he tried to keep her talking and his heart from leaping out of his chest. “You want to tell me about it?”
“You aren’t hurt or anything, are you?”
Oh, man. What the hell happened? Joe was dying to know, but he didn’t ask again. He drove as fast as he dared and was stymied half an hour later by traffic in Providence.
“Are you still there?” she asked in a small voice. Janey McCarthy, his Janey, didn’t have a small voice.
“I’m here, honey. I’m coming. Hang in there.”
Jesus H. Christ. Why the hell wasn’t anything moving? Even knowing it wouldn’t do an ounce of good, Joe laid on the horn. That earned him a raised middle finger from the guy in front of him. As his desperation to get to her inched into the red zone, he wished he could call Mac and get his take on things, but until he knew more about what had happened, he didn’t think Janey would appreciate him cueing in her older brother that something was wrong.
As if she had read his mind, Janey said, “Don’t tell Mac.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Traffic inched along, and Joe was certain his blood pressure had to be approaching stroke level.
Twenty minutes later, he flew across the border into Massachusetts. “Here I come.”
When he finally reached her location, Joe wanted to die when he saw her sitting in the front seat of her old blue Honda Civic, hunched over the wheel. Janey didn’t hunch. She barreled through life with exuberance and optimism that brightened every room she entered.
He had to drive past her to the next exit, where he endured two of the longest red lights of his life before he was able to merge onto the southbound ramp. By the time he came to a stop behind Janey’s car, his hands were sweaty, his heart was racing and he realized he had absolutely no idea what to say to her. Women in crisis were hardly his forte. He took a deep breath and got out of the truck.
She didn’t seem to know he was there until he opened the door and squatted down.
Turning to him, her ravaged face was like a knife to his heart.
Tears pooled in her pale blue eyes. “Joe.”
“What happened, honey?”
“He was. . . He. . .”
Joe reached up to caress her soft blonde hair. “Take a deep breath.”
She gulped in air as a sob hiccupped through her. “He was with someone else. In our bed. In the bed I helped him buy. The bed he was going to bring with him when he moved home to the island to marry me.”
“Okay, honey,” Joe said through gritted teeth, not wanting to hear another word. If she kept talking, he wouldn’t be able to contain the white-hot rage that possessed him, and he’d become an expert at hiding his every emotion from her. “You don’t have to talk about it now.”
“It’s all I can see. She was on top of him, and he had his eyes closed. He didn’t see me. I couldn’t move. I just stood there watching—”
“Stop.” Joe simply couldn’t bear the raw pain he heard in her voice. He wanted her for himself. He wanted her more than he wanted his next breath. But not like this. Never like this. “Let’s get you out of here.” Joe slid his arms under her and scooped her out of the seat.
She clung to his neck, and in that one instant with her soft and pliant in his arms, everything was right in his world.
“I can’t leave my car here.”
“I’ll deal with it. Don’t worry.”
“I’m sorry. You probably had better things to do tonight.”
“No, I didn’t.” Surrounded by the scent of jasmine, the scent of Janey, Joe wished he could hold her and never let her go. But he deposited her into the front seat of his truck and went back for the bag she’d packed to spend a few days with David. Joe wanted to hunt down that son of a bitch and teach him a lesson he’d never forget. But he figured Mac would take care of that when he heard about what David had done to his sister. Right now, Joe’s top priority was Janey.
Before he joined her in his truck, Joe called for a tow truck. The operator asked for a contact number, and Joe rattled off his. He ended the call and rested his hand on the door handle, taking a moment to summon the courage he needed to get her through this—to get them both through it.
“I didn’t even ask if you were busy,” Janey said, swiping at the dampness on her cheeks.
“I wasn’t. I’m glad you called me.”
“I didn’t know who else to call.”
He reached over and rested his hand on top of hers. Even though it was summer and damn near eighty degrees, her hand was cold and trembling. “You can always call me. Anytime you need me. That’s what friends are for.” Her normally robust complexion was pale and wan, her eyes and nose red from crying, and looking at her in that condition, Joe discovered it was possible to feel someone else’s pain almost as acutely as they were feeling it themselves.
She ran her free hand over her face. “I must look horrible. I didn’t know it was possible to cry so much.”
Tucking a strand of her thick ash-blonde hair behind her ear, he resisted the urge to draw her into his arms. “You’re as beautiful as always. He’s a fool, Janey. Anyone who would disrespect you that way doesn’t deserve you.”
“Thirteen years,” she said, shaking her head. “I’ve spent thirteen years of my life waiting for something that’s never going to happen now.” She gasped. “Oh, God, the wedding. I have to cancel everything.” A shudder rippled through her petite frame, and he wondered for a second if she was going to be sick.
“You don’t have to think about any of that today. Right now, let’s just focus on getting you home.”
A panicked look crossed her expressive face. “I can’t go back to the island. Everyone will know. I can’t—”
Joe couldn’t resist any longer. He brought her into his arms and ran a hand over her silky hair. “You don’t have to do anything until you’re ready.” Swallowing hard, he pushed the doubts and worries and despair from his mind. “You can stay with me for as long as you need to.” The words were out before he could stop them. His mouth, it seemed, was operating on autopilot.
“I can’t do that. It’s too much of an imposition.”
God, if only she knew. . . “Would you do it for me? If I needed a place to hide out for a while, would you let me stay with you?”
“Of course I would. You know that.”
“Then why can’t I do the same for you?” Even as he said the words, Joe questioned the wisdom of opening his home to her. She’d stay a few days and recover enough to go on with her life, but her essence would linger in his home and heart forever. Well, he could always move, if it came to that.
A deep rattling sigh, the kind that followed a serious cry, echoed through her. “You really don’t mind?”
“No, Janey,” he said. “I really don’t mind.”
Janey focused on getting through each minute. Breathe in. Breathe out. Don’t think. Don’t remember. Don’t go there. But despite her best efforts, the sight of her fiancé writhing in ecstasy beneath the enthusiastic hips of another woman was burned indelibly into her memory. He’d had his hands full of breasts that were much larger than hers. Had they been the draw? Or was it simple availability? Was it the first and only time? Or had there been others? Oh, God, she’d been such a fool!
She’d never suspected for one second that he’d cheat on her. He was always so busy with his internship and his life as a doctor. And she’d just accepted his many excuses because she wanted to be supportive and not add to his stress by nagging him for more of his time and attention.
All the lingering doubts from the last thirteen years came roaring back to remind her that there had been plenty of warning signs, and she’d ignored every one of them.
Like when he’d discouraged her from going to vet school. The loans will kill us, he’d said. Only one of them should go to medical school, he’d argued, because island practices won’t generate enough income to pay off all those loans with enough left over to support them and the four kids they’d planned to have.
Like the fool she was, she’d gone along with him, settling for a job as a technician at the island vet’s office when she’d had the undergraduate grades to get into a top veterinary school. Six years of cleaning up dog poop and grooming poodles, killing time until the day she’d be the wife of the island’s only doctor and could stay home to raise their children: David Jr., Anna, Henry and Ella. They’d named them when they were just seventeen.
A sob erupted from her throat. All her dreams crushed to dust in one unbelievable moment.
Tuning into her misery, Joe unbuckled her seat belt and drew her over to rest her head on his shoulder.
For reasons they’d never discussed or acknowledged, he was probably the very last person she should’ve called. However, with her brother, parents and closest friends all on the island and her other three brothers out of state, there hadn’t been much choice. Resting her head on his strong, dependable shoulder, Janey knew she could count on his discretion, even if she was putting him in the difficult position of serving as her knight in shining armor.
“I’m sure it doesn’t seem possible right now, but you’ll get through this, Janey. I know you will.”
“I wish I was so sure.”
“You deserve so much better than someone who leaves you alone for years and then cheats on you.”
His gently spoken words reduced her once again to tears. Just when she thought there couldn’t possibly be more, there were.
“I’m sorry,” he said, sounding mad with himself. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“S’okay,” she said between sobs. “It’s nothing I haven’t already told myself.”
He ran a comforting hand up and down her arm, and Janey sank into the warmth of his embrace.
“Hang in there. We’re almost home.”
Where was home now that David was no longer a part of her life? What would she do? Where would she live? Who would she lean on and make love with and laugh with? They’d had so many plans. . . Her head ached and her eyes burned, but still the tears continued to cascade down her cheeks.
The best part was that he didn’t even know she’d seen him. He had no idea their life together was over. Would he even care when he found out? Did he still love her? If so, how could he sleep with someone else? How could he do that to her? To them?
Janey had never before wished so strongly for a switch she could flip to shut off her tired brain. Her eyes burned closed, and she didn’t try to fight the darkness. In fact, she welcomed it.
Joe gnawed on his bottom lip until the taste of blood caught his attention. Tension coiled in his neck and back as he held her close to him. He suspected Janey had fallen asleep, which was just as well. She needed a respite from the pain, and he hoped she’d find it in dreamless sleep.
Twenty minutes later, he pulled into his driveway just as the moon was rising over Shelter Harbor. He sat there for a long time pondering the implications. Bringing her here was a huge mistake. A mistake, in fact, of epic proportions. Just being around her was sheer torture, and now she’d be under his roof for who knew how long. Heartbroken and shattered and unaware of all he felt for her.
He gritted his teeth and accepted the inevitable. He’d offered her a place to stay, and he couldn’t undo the invitation. Besides, even if he could, he wouldn’t. Perhaps he was some sort of masochist after all. Having Janey, even in her current condition, was better than not having Janey. A tiny spark of hope glimmered just beneath the surface of his current quandary, reminding him that he was the worst kind of fool—a man who’d spent a large chunk of his life in love with a woman he couldn’t have.
But she was here now—in his truck, in his arms and in his house. Maybe this was all he’d ever have of her. As he lifted her gingerly from the truck and carried her inside, he told himself it was enough.
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