Authors: Irene Hannon
Home, family, community and love. These are the values we cherish most in our livesâthe ideals that ground us, comfort us, move us. They certainly provide the perfect inspiration around which to build a romance collection that will touch the heart.
And so we are thrilled to have the opportunity to introduce you to the Harlequin Heartwarming collection. Each of these special stories is a wholesome, heartfelt romance imbued with the traditional values so important to you. They are books you can share proudly with friends and family. And the authors featured in this collection are some of the most talented storytellers writing today, including favorites such as Laura Abbot, Roz Denny Fox, Jillian Hart and Irene Hannon. We've selected these stories especially for you based on their overriding qualities of emotion and tenderness, and they center around your favorite themesâchildren, weddings, second chances, the reunion of families, the quest to find a true home and, of course, sweet romance.
So curl up in your favorite chair, relax and prepare for a heartwarming reading experience!
Award winner (and four-time finalist) Irene Hannon is the author of more than thirty-five novels, including the bestselling
Heroes of Quantico
series. She is delighted to participate in the Harlequin Heartwarming program, which is giving new life (and new titles!) to older books. Her website is www.irenehannon.com.
Because it had to be you!
'm sorry, Maggie, butâ¦I just can't go through with it.”
Maggie Fitzgerald stared in shock at the man standing across from her, his words echoing hollowly in her ears. He looked like Jake West, the man she'd loved since she was sixteen years old. But he didn't sound like that Jake. Not even close.
Maggie felt a cold chill crawl up her spine despite the Midwest heat and humidity, and she wrapped her arms around her body for warmth. He was only an arm's length away, close enough to touch, and yet she suddenly felt more alone than ever before in her life. Because always, through all the losses in her lifeâher mother, her father, and just three weeks ago, the tragic deaths of her sister and brother-in-law in a small-plane crashâshe'd
still had Jake. He'd been her friend for as long as she could remember, and though their relationship had transitionedâquite unexpectedlyâto romance, their friendship remained strong and sure.
But now he was leavingâless than five weeks before she was scheduled to walk down the aisle as his bride. It was inconceivable. Incomprehensible. But true. There was no misreading his stoic expression.
The knot in Maggie's stomach tightened as she sank down onto the couch, her legs suddenly too shaky to support her five-foot-six, hundred-and-ten-pound frame. Nothing in her twenty-four years had prepared her for thisâ¦betrayal. Maybe that was a harsh term. But what else could you call it when the man you loved bailed out just because things got a little rough?
Even in her dazed state, however, Maggie had to admit that “a little rough” wasn't exactly an accurate description of the situation. The sudden responsibility of raising six-year-old twinsâone of whom needed ongoing medical careâwasn't a minor complication. Not when they'd planned to spend the first ten years of their marriage child-free, exploring some exotic new corner of the world each year on vacation, living the adventures they'd always dreamed of. It was a situation that
demanded huge compromises, and Maggie knew it marked the death of a dream for both of them. But she had wanted to believe that Jake would realize there was no other option. As their only living relative, Maggie
to take her sister's girls. But Jake hadn't been able to accept it. And where did that leave her?
As Jake sat beside her and reached for her hand, she tried to focus on him, but the strong planes of his dear, familiar face were a misty blur. When he spoke, the appealing, husky cadence of his voiceâedged with that smoky quality that was distinctly hisâsounded foreign to her ears, and his words seemed to come from a great distance.
“Maggie, I'm sorry.” His apology came out whispered. Broken.
So was she. Ever since her sixteenth birthday, when their relationship changed foreverâfrom childhood friends to sweetheartsâshe'd never looked at another man. She'd built her whole future around Jake.
A future that was now crumbling around her.
“Thisâ¦situationâ¦doesn't change how I feel about you,” he continued when she didn't respond. “Butâ¦well, I guess I never expected a ready-made family. It would be badâ” He cut himself off and changed the term. “Hardâ¦enough if they were
normal kids. But they've just lost both parents, and Abby has years of medical treatment ahead of her. And what about our plans for seeing the world? For not being tied down by responsibilities, at least in the beginning? And I'm not ready to be a parent. I just feel soâ¦trapped.” With a sigh, he reached for her cold hands, his gaze locked on hers. “Do you understand at all?”
Slowly Maggie shook her head, trying to restrain her tears. “No. I don't. I thoughtâ¦well, I know we haven't actually said the vows yet, but I thought, in our hearts, we'd already made a commitment. For life. For better or for worse. What if this had happened six weeks
the wedding instead of six weeks before? Would you have walked out then, too?”
Jake cringed, and he felt his neck grow hot. He deserved that. It was more or less the same question his father had asked. Though his mother had been less vocal in her disapproval, he had seen the look of disappointment in her eyes, as well. But if the vows had actually been spoken, he would have stuck it out.
“You know better, Maggie.”
She looked at him, skepticism narrowing her eyes. “Do I? I'm not so sure anymore, Jake.” She gave a short, mirthless laugh. “But I guess it was
a lucky thing for you it happened now. You won't be put to that test. You're free to walk away.”
He'd thought that very thing. That he
lucky this had happened before the wedding. He felt like a heel for even thinking it, but he couldn't deny that he'd been relieved.
Maggie watched his face, realized that though her words had been spoken harshly, they did, in fact, mirror his thoughts. Her stomach clenched even tighter. Until this very minute she'd half expected him to rethink his decision and do what she considered the honorable thing. But he wasn't going to bend.
A powerful wave of fear suddenly crashed over her.
When she spoke again, her voice was tinged with desperation. “Jake, IâI don't want to lose you. I don't know why this happened. I wish I did. I wish there was an easy answer to this problem. But I can't see any other option. Can you?”
There was only one other option as far as he could see: put the two bereft six-year-olds into the hands of a foster family. But leaving them in the care of strangers would be wrong, and he knew it. That was why he hadn't asked her to choose between that or him. After much soul-searching he had decided that the best solution was for him to break the engagement. He didn't feel all that noble
about it, and his father's few choice words about duty and honor were still ringing in his ears, but in the end he had to make his own decision. And as much as he loved Maggie, he feared that if he went into this marriage feeling trapped, it would lead to resentment and, ultimately, heartbreak.
But now, sitting here with her ice-cold hands in his, her vulnerable eyes pleading with him to reconsider, he wondered if this was any better.
“Maggie, are you sure Charles didn't have any relatives who might take the girls?” He asked the question already knowing the answer. They'd been over this before.
âNo. He was an only child, born late in life. His parents died years ago. There isn't anyone else.”
With a sigh of frustration, Jake rose and strode across the room, stopping at the window to stare into the night.
Maggie watched him, frantically searching for words that might change his mind. She couldn't lose Jake! Since her sixteenth birthday, all she'd wanted out of life was to be Mrs. Jake West. Maybe modern women were supposed to want it allâhusband, family, career. But what better “career” could she find than spending her life loving Jake, first traveling with him all over the world and then creating a home for him and their children?
Her throat tightened, and she choked back a sob.
“Maybe we should just postpone things. Maybe if we give it a little timeâ¦”
Her voice trailed off as he turned to face her. There was a tightness to his jaw, a sudden resolve in his face, that made her realize there was something he hadn't told her yet, something she knew was going to seal their fates.
“That's not really an option, Maggie. Iâ¦” He paused, and she could see the struggle on his face as he searched for the words to tell her the thing that was going to make her world fall completely apart.
“Jake.” The panic in her voice was obvious, even to her own ears. She didn't want to hear what he was going to say. “Please, can't we think about this a little more?”
She heard him sigh, saw the sudden sag in his shoulders, and watched with trepidation as he walked slowly back to the couch and sat beside her again. More than anything in the world she wanted him to pull her into his arms and tell her that everything was going to be all right, as he had on so many other occasions through the years. But she could see that wasn't his intent. He kept himself at a distance and made no attempt to touch her.
Jake lifted a hand and rubbed his forehead, then drew in a deep, unsteady breath. When he spoke,
his voice was gentle but firm. “Maggie, I joined the navy. I leave in five days.”
Maggie stared at him, confused. “Leave?” She struggled to process his words. “You're leaving? You joined the navy?”
“Yes. I signed all the papers this morning. I've known for a week I was going to do it, but I just couldn't seem to find the words to tell you.”
“It's my chance to see the world, Maggie. It won't be the same as if we were going together, I know, but with my advanced degree I should get plum assignments. That's what they told me at the recruiting office, anyway. I go directly to officer training school. It's a great opportunity.”
“Butâ¦but you have a job already.”
“I know. But it's just a job, Maggie. In two years the most exciting thing I've done with my engineering skills is design hydraulic systems for elevators. I don't want to do that for the rest of my life.”
“Butâ¦but why the navy?” This new twist made no sense.
None of this did.
Because I knew if I didn't do something irrevocable like that, I wouldn't be able to go through with the breakup, not when you look at me like this.
The words echoed in his mind as he studied her,
this woman he loved, and debated how to answer. From the first time he'd kissed her, Maggie had been the only woman he ever wanted. They'd played together as toddlers, hung around as teenagers and fallen in love that one magical day on Maggie's sixteenth birthday when he'd suddenly begun to realize she was growing up. For the first time, he had really looked at herâthe way a man looks at a woman who attracts him. Maggie wasn't a great beauty, with her wavy, flyaway red hair and turned up nose. But those attributes were more than offset by her gorgeous, deep green eyes and porcelain complexion. All at once, she hadn't been just a “pal” anymore, but a woman.
And as time went by, he'd begun to notice other things, too. Like how close to the surface her feelings lay, how transparent they were, clearly reflected in her expressive eyes. And he'd noticed something else in her eyes, tooâa maturing passion, flashes of desire, that set his blood racing. But she had a discipline he could only admire. For in an era of questionable morals, she made no apology for her traditional values, believing that the ultimate intimacy should be reserved for marriage, expressed only in the context of a lifetime commitment. He'd always respected her for that.
Yet, despite Maggie's strong faith, she had a certain air of fragility, an aura of helplessness, that
always brought out his protective instinct. And it was this latter quality that he knew would do him in tonight unless he had an airtight out, an ironclad escapeâlike joining the navy.
was an accurate word. He was running away because he was running scared. It was as simple as that. But he couldn't very well tell her all that.
“The navy seemed like a good fit. And it offers some great career and travel opportunities.” The reason sounded lameâand incompleteâeven to his own ears.
Maggie stared at him, wide-eyed and silent. She'd hoped he'd at least help her get settled with the twins. She'd even begun to think that maybe he would change his mind if he saw that caring for them wasn't so bad after all. But he wasn't going to give himself that chance. He was bailing out.
An aching sadness overwhelmed her as she recalled all the tender words they'd said to one another, all the plans they'd made with such eager anticipation. She thought of the hours they'd spent poring over maps, dreaming of places that would take them far from their Midwest roots, planning their future travels around the worldâbeginning with their honeymoon in Paris. A honeymoon now destined never to take place.
Cold fingers clutched at her heart and tightened
mercilessly, squeezing out the last breath of hope. He'd made his decision. It was done. There was nothing more to say.
She gazed at Jake, feeling as if she was looking at a stranger, as if the man she'd fallen in love with had somehow ceased to exist. That man had been caring and kind, someone who could be relied upon to stand beside her, no matter the circumstances. The stranger sitting beside her seemed to possess none of those qualities. He'd said he loved her. And maybe he thought he did. But his actions didn't even come close to fitting her definition of love.
Maggie took a deep breath, struggling to make sense of everything that was happening. Her life had changed so dramatically in the last three weeks that there was an air of unreality about it. She'd lost her only sister. She'd been given responsibility for two young, newly orphaned children, one of whom needed ongoing medical care. And now the final blow. She was losing the man she loved. Only her faith kept total despair at bay. But even
her faith, she was finding it hard not to give in to self-pity. Why was she being tested this way? She just couldn't see any purpose to it.
Unlessâ¦unless it was a blessing in disguise. A way of letting Jake show his true character now, before they formalized their commitment. At least
that explanation made
sense. She supposed it was better to find out now how he reacted in adversity. But frankly, at this moment, it didn't give her much consolation.
Jake's concerned voice drew her back to the present. The familiar warmth and tenderness were back in his eyes, and for just a moment she was tempted to tell him she'd do whatever he wanted, just so long as they could be together.
But with sudden resolve, she straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. She'd already almost begged him to rethink his decision, and he'd rejecte d her plea. Well, she had
pride. If Jake didn't love her enough to stick by her through this, then she didn't want him, either. She could survive on her own. Okay, so maybe she'd relied too much on Jake to take care of things, make all the decisions, up until now. That didn't mean she couldn't learn to do those things herself. Besides, what choice did she have? She needed to take her life in her own hands. Beginning right now.