The first time Shea Nolan broke her heart, Isobel Morales was fourteen years old.
At sixteen, he stood out among his peers at Sacred Heart High School. With black hair and smooth, taut skin, he was beautiful, almost pretty. Except for the hard scowl permanently etched into his features and the lean hunger that clung to his tall frame and burned like hellfire in his brilliant blue eyes.
While she’d known of him for years, ever since he and his brothers had arrived on the small island in northern Michigan to live with their uncle, she’d never actually met him or seen him up close until her first day of high school when she crashed into him in the crowded cafeteria.
The collision of their bodies jolted her, but his shocking beauty snatched all cogent thought from her brain. While she gaped stupidly at him, their classmates forged awkward paths around them.
His mean scowl evaporated when his soft lips moved. “Isobel Morales.” He murmured her name with a gravity that disrupted the steady rhythm of her pulse.
Or maybe it was the lilting Irish accent that triggered the rapid fluttering beneath her breastbone, or the gravelly roughness of his voice, like crushed velvet smoothed over solid stone. More likely, it was the fact that he even knew her name at all.
He. Knew. Her. Name.
“Shea Nolan.” His name tumbled from her lips as a reckless whisper.
One corner of his mouth tipped up in a lazy half smile, and a brazenly flirtatious gleam came into his bright eyes.
Furious heat rushed into her cheeks and a ridiculous noise erupted from her, like a giggle except shaky and breathless. She scurried away, already halfway in love with him.
After that, she stumbled into him as often as she could orchestrate their chance encounters. In between classes, she searched the hallways for him, hoping to catch glimpses of his dark, wavy hair, his wide shoulders, or the way his butt looked in the faded blue school-sanctioned chinos he wore.
It became an obsession, seeking him out and observing him. He made all the other girls blush and giggle, too. Most especially, she noted with a sharp pang of envy, Amber Jessop. His male classmates treated him with a measure of deference they didn’t afford each other, and more often than not, she spotted Shea with his younger brother Noah, a freshman like Isobel.
One rainy fall day, as the cafeteria emptied out, she caught Shea alone. Mustering her courage, she approached him where he stood at the waste bins, his back to her as he sorted the trash from the recyclables on his lunch tray.
But when she reached his side, she pulled up abruptly. A gasp must’ve slipped between her lips because he froze with one hand suspended over the waste bin. In his other hand, he held half of a bagel. She blinked, hesitant to believe the information her eyes sent to her brain. He wasn’t tossing refuse into their appropriate receptacles, he was picking them out.
He was picking food out of the trash?
The wrench in her stomach pulled a shocked gasp from her then. His head snapped around and his vivid blue gaze slammed into her with the force of a sea squall.
Her breath snagged in her throat. She wanted to flee or pretend she hadn’t seen what he was doing, but it was too late. His fierce regard held her captive.
Her mouth went dry and she swallowed with difficulty. “You didn’t get enough to eat?”
Someone else’s discarded bagel disappeared into his coat pocket. “It’s not for me.”
“Who is it for?”
He remained silent. Defiant. The self-conscious humiliation she expected to see on his beautiful face never materialized. Rather, he stared her down, challenge stamped into every molecule and cell making up his striking features.
Reaching behind her, she retrieved a banana from her backpack and held it out to him. “I hate bananas. I don’t know why my mom keeps putting them in my lunch.”
He made no move to accept her offer. “If your mom wants you to eat it, you should eat it.”
Then he left her standing in the lunch room holding that stupid banana as she stared after him.
That night, she lay awake in bed, her mind chewing over their exchange. If he wasn’t taking the food for himself, who was he taking it for?
Before the first light of dawn tinted the night sky, she crawled from the warm cocoon of her quilts and padded barefoot downstairs. In the kitchen, she pulled a cookbook off the pantry shelf and, after a brief search, selected a recipe. When she’d laid out the ingredients and stood pondering her next steps, her mother, still dressed in her nightgown, appeared in the doorway.
Isobel gave a short, somewhat anguished explanation and then together, she and her mom set to work. By the time Isobel left for school, she carried with her a clear plastic storage bag crammed with oatmeal cookies stuffed full with nuts and raisins.
In first period homeroom, Isobel slid into her assigned seat beside Noah.
“Hi.” She set the bag of cookies on the edge of her desk.
His dark eyes latched on to it. With an audible gulp, he swallowed. “Hi.”
She peeled open the bag’s zippered fastener. “Want one?”
Naked longing swept across his face. “You don’t mind?”
She barely had time to shake her head before half of one cookie disappeared between his lips.
While he devoured the remaining half, she settled back in her seat. “With five boys in the house, I imagine it’s hard for you all to get enough to eat, huh?”
He stopped chewing, and his throat worked with his heavy swallow.
Angling the bag closer to him, she kept her tone light when she said, “You’re probably hungry all the time.”
His mild expression suffered a small crack, which quickly filled with a defiance that reminded her of Shea. “We’re all hungry. All the time.”
They were all hungry. All of the time.
She had a strong heart, for it didn’t break into a million pieces at that.
Her smile stiff, she scooped up the bag and plopped it onto his desk. “Why don’t you share these with your brothers?”
When he opened his mouth, she knew he was going to refuse her offer.
“Please, I’m begging you,” she rushed ahead of him. “Get these cookies away from me before I eat the whole bag and get fat.”
With a chuckle, he slid the bag into his backpack.
The next day, she plunked a box of protein-packed chocolate bars onto his desk.
Noah lifted his head bent over his notebook, and one of his dark eyebrows inched upward.
“Do yourself a favor and do not read how many calories are in these things.” She shuddered. “It’s horrifying.”
“Look, you don’t have to—”
“I thought your little brothers might like them.” She dropped into her seat. “How old are they now?”
That distracted him until Ms. Larkin started class a few moments later.
From then on, she brought food as often as she could manage to without being too obvious. One day she brought a loaf of fresh baked bread and a few days later, some vegetables from her mom’s garden. Once, she sent him home with a Tupperware container full of tamales that her mom made from scratch before she realized the authentic Mexican dish might tip Shea off to the source of all the food Noah returned home with every other day.
She hadn’t set out to deceive Shea, but neither did she wish for him to know what she was up to. Never did she dare offer him a morsel directly, and while she couldn’t confirm whether any of the food she gave Noah ever made it back to him, she suspected it did, for as she got to know the brothers during that first semester, she quickly learned they shared everything with each other. They rarely fought, which seemed odd to her when she considered how often she argued with her little sister, and they never spoke badly about one another, not even behind each other’s backs. They were a unit. A fortress against the world.
By Christmas, she and Shea had fallen into an easy friendship. He said hi to her in the hallways and even sat with her at lunch a couple of times. With every encounter, the butterflies in her stomach multiplied. His smiles whipped color into her cheeks and unleashed a steady stream of increasingly ardent schoolgirl fantasies.
Over winter break, Isobel longed for the day when classes would resume because it meant she’d get to see him again. The hours apart dragged on, every one more painful and tedious than the last.
On Christmas Eve, her mom appeared at Isobel’s bedroom door dressed in the modest, vintage-style black dress she’d made to wear to that year’s Midnight Mass.
Isobel pushed upright on her bed. “We’re leaving already?”
“We’re joining Mrs. Collins again this year.”
Last year, when Mrs. Collins learned of a family on the island struggling to make ends meet after the dad had fallen ill and lost his job, she’d organized a small group to deliver a traditional holiday dinner and a bag full of presents to the family’s doorstep on Christmas Eve.
Her mom slipped an arm into the bulky winter coat Isobel’s dad held out for her. “I thought you’d like to come with us.”
Uneasiness snaked up Isobel’s spine. “Uh… I think I’m going to stay home this time.”
Her dad misunderstood her reluctance. “Get dressed, Isobel. It’ll be good for you to do something nice for someone other than yourself.”
Inside her family’s car, the smell of roasted turkey hung thick in the air as her dad turned onto Bridge Street. When he pulled the car to a stop in front of a tired two-story home, Isobel’s stomach twisted with knots.
Moments later, with her arms loaded down with a pile of festively wrapped gifts, she shuffled up the home’s front walkway behind the others while the cold December wind nipped at the ends of her hair and coat. On the porch, Mrs. Collins pressed the doorbell, and the muffled chime set off an explosion of movement inside the home.
The door swung open and Shea loomed beneath the archway.
Isobel’s heart cracked in two. Mrs. Collins launched into a wordy introduction, her shrill voice carrying on the brutal wind, but Shea ignored her. The menacing scowl tainted his handsome features as he inspected the small crowd gathered on his front stoop.
Then his gaze clamped on her, and for one fleeting moment, the hardened resentment left his expression, only to be replaced by something far worse—pure, palpable agony. A devastating mix of hurt and vulnerability, the look shattered her heart and then pulverized the tiny, irrelevant bits to dust inside her chest cavity. Her mouth opened, but no words came out, and he turned his back to her.
Numbly, she followed the others inside. The frigid outdoor air pushed in through the home’s drafty walls as the loathsome stench of cooked turkey saturated the cramped room. Shea stood motionless, like a cold marble statue, while Mrs. Collins pontificated on the Lord’s generosity and plucked presents from the stack in Isobel’s arms to bestow upon the other boys.
In a tattered brown recliner in one corner of the room, a man wearing only a thin pair of boxers snored while he slept. Though she’d never met him, Isobel knew immediately who the man was. He was Shea’s father. Like his sons, Daniel Nolan had dark, almost black hair, and if the rumors swirling around the island since his arrival the previous year were true, he had a black heart as well.
Isobel stared into the small faces of the three youngest brothers, all dark with serious, somber eyes and the same lean ranginess that Shea and Noah possessed. Their mumbled thank-yous were impossible to hear with their heads hanging so low. Only Noah lifted his gaze when he thanked Mrs. Collins, though resentment poured off him in unrelenting waves.
Instinctively, Isobel drew back and bumped into something hard.
Twisting around, she stared up into Shea’s face. His eyes fixated on some point above her head when he reached for the doorknob and gave it a harsh wrench, inviting them to all leave with a bearing as pleasant as the forbidding cold that swept into the house through the open door.
As the others filed out of the house, Isobel remained rooted to the spot in his entryway. Bodies pushed past her and still, she couldn’t force her feet to move. He refused to look at her, and grief compressed around her heart, choking off any words she might’ve uttered to make the moment end. Not that it mattered, since no words existed that could return everything to the way it was before she’d arrived at his home.
Dejected, she stepped over the threshold, but at the last second, she jerked back around. His eyes met hers when he gripped the edge of the door and, with a callous flick of his wrist, shoved it closed.
Winter break ended, and Isobel returned to school with none of the eagerness she’d felt only days before. Her reluctance was well-founded.
The first week back, Shea avoided her so completely that she never caught sight of him. Not a peek at his retreating back or even a glimpse of his dismissive profile.
The next week, when she planted herself in front of him, he pretended not to notice her and stepped deftly by, as though she were little more than a minor nuisance set in his path.
By the end of the third week, she’d had her fill of being ignored and ambushed him as he left basketball practice. When he spotted her in front of the school, he pulled up, but then continued on his path with a determined stride.
She turned with him when he brushed by her. “Shea, wait. Please.”
The soles of his gym shoes scuffed against the sidewalk when he stopped. His head jerked to one side, and he waited.
Her heart wedged in her throat. “I’m sorry.”
With painful slowness, he faced her.
“I-I-I didn’t know.” Words poured out of her. Stupid, useless words that didn’t do a single thing to erase the devastation in his eyes. “If I’d known, I wouldn’t have—I didn’t mean to embar—”
In an instant, his nose was inches from hers, his blue eyes burning bright as hellfire. “Damn you, Isobel Morales.” His fingers bit into her arms when he grasped her and yanked her against him. “Why did you come?”
Amidst the storm of his emotion, she sought a stable point and anchored her gaze to his mouth. She touched his cheek.
His grip on her arms tightened, but she didn’t flinch. She explored his face with the tips of her fingers, fascinated by the contradictions of hard and soft, power and vulnerability. When she traced the curve of his puffy bottom lip, a low growl vibrated in his throat a moment before his mouth crashed down on hers.
The kiss was bruising and demanding, and a dizzying thrill swept through her. She parted her lips, letting him inside, and he took a greedy nibble of her mouth. She tasted him, too, savoring the flavor of Shea Nolan. Of strength and light, heat and hunger. Her heart hurt but she craved more. The knot that’d twisted and coiled inside her since Christmas Eve wound ever tighter, until it finally collapsed in on itself.
He shoved her away from him, his chest heaving. “Don’t you dare pity me. I’ll show you, Isobel Morales. I am not just some poor, worthless kid. You’ll see.”
Then he left her.
The air rattled through her lungs with violent spasms, and she sagged against the school’s rough brick exterior as she watched him stalk across the school grounds.
He didn’t speak to her again in any meaningful way for weeks. Weeks turned into months and spring visited the island. The moment school let out for the summer break, he left her for real.
Okay, maybe not her personally, but that was what it felt like to her anguished heart. He’d kissed her, spurned her, and then deserted her, leaving her in order to work on one of the massive freighters hauling cargos full of goods to port cities around the Great Lakes.
She wouldn’t see him again for three months.
When he left, he broke her heart, but even as she reeled with the terrible pain of losing him, she understood that, somehow, she’d broken his heart as well.
The next two summers, he returned to work on the freighter, and so he wasn’t there when she needed him most.