This book was given to JOANNA RĄCZKOWSKA on Instafreebie. www.instafreebie.com Table of Contents To Live Again Book Description Chapter One Chapter Tw...7 downloads 371 Views 577KB Size
This book was given to JOANNA RĄCZKOWSKA on Instafreebie. www.instafreebie.com
Table of Contents To Live Again Book Description Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen To Love Again (Learning to Live Again 2) Other books by Dori Lavelle Connect with Dori Lavelle
To Live Again Learning To Live Again 1
By Dori Lavelle
To Live Again (Learning to Live Again 1) Copyright © 2014 by Dori Lavelle All Rights Reserved. Cover Art: Clarise Tan Editor: Leah Wohl-Pollack This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the internet or any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
Book Description After losing the future that was promised to her, Kelsey O’Neil says goodbye to her old life and sets out on a journey to capture her own independence, find happiness, and maybe even true love. A cozy cottage in a quaint Irish town seems the perfect place to start again. And Shaun Brannon, the sexy but mysterious author next door, could be her second chance at love. But Shaun is incapable of opening his heart to any woman. Can Kelsey find out why before she falls too hard? Eight years ago, Shaun Brannon stopped believing in love, or marriage. His only belief now is in lust. The demons he wrestles with daily are too dark to let him get close to a woman without breaking her heart. Then along comes Kelsey, who makes him wonder how it might feel to give love another chance. Is he brave enough to show her his deepest scars? This is a new edition of a book originally published under the title Chocolate Aftertaste.
Chapter One The feeling Kelsey O’Neil got upon arriving in Dreara took her by surprise. It was like coming home. After everything that had happened in the last year, she’d toyed with the idea of moving out of Ireland entirely, but Dreara was perfect. It was only a two-hour drive from Saulery, but felt miles away from her old life. She turned the radio on full blast and bobbed her head to the music, eyes fixed on the road ahead. The numerous photos she’d seen of the cozy little town with a sprinkling of thatched-roof cottages did not do the real thing justice. She rolled down the window and let the refreshing smells of newly cut grass and sea salt envelop her. Following Caroline’s directions, she drove along Dale Street and turned left onto Edgeway Street, where number twenty-eight was situated. She parked in front and stepped out of the car. The afternoon breeze caressed her skin and blew a wisp of hair across her face. Tucking it back behind her ear, she gazed at the small, traditional thatched cottage. A cobblestone path cut through the flower-dotted garden to the front door. As Kelsey stood admiring her new home, a golden retriever bounded from the rear of the cottage to greet her. Kelsey pushed the gate open before he got the chance to demolish it. Tail wagging, he sniffed her heels and tried to lick her legs. She bent down to stroke the dog’s smooth fur. A man’s footsteps followed the dog’s. “I give up,” he said when he reached her. “I’ve been trying for years to teach him to be a gentleman.”
Kelsey stood up and stretched out her hand. “You must be Brian.” “That’s me.” He was in his sixties and had the same laughing green eyes as Caroline. But unlike her, he had dimples on both cheeks instead of just one. A few months after the life Kelsey knew was turned on its head, she had stopped by a small café in the center of Saulery. There, she met Jim and his wife Caroline, the owners. They had been so warm and welcoming and had served her the best mint hot chocolate she’d ever tasted. She found herself returning there time and again. In her conversations with Caroline, she learned that Caroline’s brother, Brian, owned a cottage on the beach he wanted to rent out. It just so happened Kelsey needed a change. She quit her job at Glocal COM, her father’s beloved PR company, and offered to rent the cottage. And now, here she was. “It’s lovely to meet you, Brian.” “Bailey, enough.” Brian stroked the dog’s ears. “Give the lady a chance to settle in.” Bailey barked, but obeyed, walking back through the gate with his tail between his legs. “He’s so adorable,” Kelsey said. “Don’t say that too loudly, unless you want him scratching on your door at all hours of the day.” Brian had a deep, smooth voice that made Kelsey instantly comfortable. “Kelsey, shall we take this conversation inside? I think it’s going to rain any minute now.” “Sure. I’ll just get my things.” She opened her trunk and removed her suitcase, her carryall bag, and a bag of groceries. Brian took the suitcase, and they strolled up the
cobblestone path side by side. He pushed the door open and stepped into the house, Bailey at his heels. “Coziest little place, isn’t it?” Brian lowered the suitcase onto the floor. The living room had a cast-iron fireplace, mahogany flooring, a large bay window, and a sea view. “It’s really lovely.” Kelsey placed her carryall at the foot of a chair and walked over to the open dining area to the right. Brian sat down on one of the moss-green sofas as she ran the tips of her fingers along the cracks and scratches on the dining table. “I’m afraid things around here are a bit worn out. I’ve been meaning to renovate for a while,” he said. “No, it’s perfect.” She had grown up in a mansion, but she’d never felt as at home there as she already did in the little cottage. “I like it just the way it is. Is this where you grew up?” “No, I grew up on the outskirts of Dreara. We inherited this place from our grandmother.” “She must have loved it.” “She did. I left everything the way it was when she passed on.” Brian patted the mahogany coffee table and pushed himself up to his feet. “I know you’d be happy enough to live in the sitting room, but that would mean I’d have to charge you less rent. Let me show you the rest.” Bailey, who had been lying at Brian’s feet with his eyes closed, opened one eye. Unimpressed, he closed it again. They made their way upstairs, the steps creaking as if awakening from a deep slumber. The first room Brian showed her was big and airy, and had its own bathroom and a balcony. Kelsey stepped out onto it. A soft drizzle fell now, and she wiped a raindrop from the leaf of one of the potted plants.
Brian joined her. “I tried my best to keep the plants alive. But I have a feeling plants don’t like me much.” “They look happy enough.” “Not my work, I’m afraid. Noel comes twice a week to tend to them.” “A gardener?” “The best. Everyone’s plants recommend him.” Kelsey smiled. She and Brian were going to get along fine. “Let me give you time to settle in. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to call.” He handed her a card with his phone number and left. Once she was alone, Kelsey threw open the living room window that overlooked the sea, and breathed in the salty air. She closed her eyes as it diluted her worries. Her father had warned her that she had made a huge mistake by dropping everything, including a great career, and fleeing to an unknown town. Deep down she knew it had been the right decision for her to walk away, to give herself time to think about what she really wanted from life, but a tiny piece of her also wondered if he was right. A sudden deafening roar startled her, and she rushed to the window facing the street. She pulled back the curtain in time to see a rundown pickup truck halt in front of the cottage next door. A man who had to be in his early thirties, wearing jeans and a battered-looking brown leather jacket, climbed out of the truck, and for a moment he just stood there, gazing into the distance. Then he pushed the gate open and strode to the door. The cottages were close enough for Kelsey to see that he was tall, with dark chestnut hair that brushed the collar of his jacket, broad shoulders, and a handsome face. In a word, gorgeous.
Kelsey swallowed hard. He looked like a star just stepping off a movie set, and she couldn’t pull her gaze away until he disappeared into the house. She smiled to herself and went back to gaze at the sea, making a mental note to take a swim sometime before the temperatures dropped. She’d read online that it was unusual for September to be so mild in Dreara. Right now she had too much to do before she could relax. She was about to turn away from the window when she glimpsed the man exiting the house from the kitchen door and step into the garden. He had changed into shorts and a white t-shirt, which he suddenly pulled over his head as he marched to the gate that opened onto a path leading to the beach. Wasn’t he cold? She was pretty sure the drizzle had cooled the air. Kelsey blinked twice when she caught a glimpse of a large tattoo running down one side of his back. He was too far away for her to make out what it was. But his muscles stood out clearly, glistening from the mist that still hung in the air. He walked like a man on a mission. Twice, he glanced back in the direction of her cottage, and she dropped the curtain. He couldn’t have seen her, and yet her cheeks burned and her heart thumped. It had been a while since she had seen a man that hot, and her body reacted in spite of her good sense. She took another peek, biting the corner of her lip. Kelsey had come to Dreara with finding herself as her utmost priority. But she had a feeling it might be hard to ignore the very sexy stranger living next door. *** As he strolled down the narrow sandy path to the beach, Shaun Brannon glanced behind him at the
cottage next door. She was still watching him. His lips curled into a smile. She couldn’t possibly think the sheer curtain hid her. Even from a distance he could see her long, strawberry-blond curls swept to one side of her neck. He’d always had a weakness for women with curls. Gritting his teeth, he picked up his pace. Just what he needed—a beautiful woman next door to mess with his head. One glance at her and he knew she was a “good girl”. The kind of woman he did everything to stay away from. From experience, those kinds of girls always wanted more than he was willing to offer—love, marriage, kids. The man he used to be had wanted those things. Not anymore. Through a cruel twist of fate, he was robbed of that hope. Robbed of everything he had believed in. When he’d stumbled upon an online advert for the cottage on the beach six months ago, in a small town hardly anyone knew about, he didn’t think twice. He needed to get as far away from his old life as possible, and he’d always had a thing for Ireland. Here he could regroup, focus on writing his next novel, and accept whatever came next. He was a different man now, and no woman could change him. When he needed a warm body next to him at night, he went for the bad girls. They were easy to kick out in the morning. How was he going to handle a gorgeous girl next door without wanting to get into her pants? After another discreet glimpse behind him, he broke into a sprint and didn’t stop until he dove like a fish into an oncoming wave. He sliced through the refreshing water, and tried to let it clear his head. The ocean always did. He swam until he gasped for air and his arms and
back burned. Fantastic. He never stopped before that happened—physical pain was the perfect distraction from the anguish that roiled inside him. Working his body silenced his inner demons. At least for a while.
Chapter Two Kelsey managed not to think about her neighbor again as she unpacked her carryall and placed a few of her possessions around the cottage to make it her own. She would stay for a while. Three hours later, Brian showed up again, this time with his wife, a sunny woman called Sarah. They each carried bowls of food, and Sarah had a basket hanging from her right arm. “We came to welcome you properly, love.” Sarah grinned. “We also brought you your first meal in Dreara.” “That’s very kind of you. Please come in.” They did, and then they took over. Before Kelsey knew what was happening, Brian and Sarah had laid the dining table with serving bowls of potatoes, stew, rice, and green salad. “Let’s eat.” Brian pulled a chair out for his wife and waited for her to sit before he did. Kelsey was at a loss for words. They were completely at home in her cottage. But she had to admit she liked the company. She had been wondering how she would occupy herself for the rest of the day. Brian picked up a serving spoon and handed it to her. “Why don’t you start.” “Okay.” Kelsey reached for the bowl of potatoes. “Bread, love?” Sarah pushed the basket in Kelsey’s direction. “Thank you.” The bread was warm and spongy between Kelsey’s fingers, and it smelled wonderful. “Our daughter, Maeve, is desperate to meet you. She will be arriving any moment. She just started working at the new hair salon on Darcy Street and puts in a lot of
over hours,” Sarah said, and just at that moment, the doorbell rang. “That must be her. I’ll go and let her in.” Sarah returned a few moments later, followed by a beautiful, fresh-faced woman in her late twenties with auburn hair in a loose ponytail on top of her head. She wore a tight tank top under a black cardigan, skinny jeans, and high-heeled boots. And she was chewing gum as if it had just come into fashion. Her green eyes twinkled when she saw Kelsey. “It’s so lovely to meet you.” She kissed Kelsey on both cheeks like an old friend. “You and I are going to have so much fun.” She snapped her gum and moved on to her father and hugged his shoulders. “Hi, Daddy.” “Hi, angel.” Brian patted her hand. Taking a seat, Maeve eyed Kelsey. “You have such pretty hair. It’s so healthy, but it doesn’t do much for you. A nice cut would make your beautiful blue eyes come alive. The long hair hides too many of your great features.” Brian glared at his daughter. “Angel, you haven’t met Kelsey for more than a minute and you’re already trying to get your hands on her hair?” “A drastic hair makeover is like magic, Daddy. She’d look even prettier with a nice layered bob.” She picked up a spoon and put a potato on her plate. “Whenever you need a makeover, Kelsey, come to the salon.” “I’ll do that,” Kelsey said, just to be polite. She doubted she would. She had never seen anything wrong with her hair before. But she did appreciate Maeve’s offer. “So.” Maeve leaned forward. “Have you met your sexy neighbor yet? He’s an author. Shaun’s his name. He’s in town to write a novel.” Kelsey swallowed her food. “Kind of. I saw him come home a while ago.”
“By the way.” Brian refilled Kelsey’s glass with apple cider. “We also own the cottage next door. He’s a good tenant.” “Oh? Okay.” Kelsey picked up her glass and sipped. “Is he from around here?” “No,” Maeve said between bites. “He’s from the United States. Some town called… Serendipity, or something like that. Weird name for a town. But he’s been here for six months now and the ladies around here are going crazy about him. No surprise there. I’m sure you’ve noticed how hot he is.” Kelsey blushed. “I… well. I guess he looks… nice.” Liar, scoffed a voice inside her head. “And he’s quite mysterious,” Brian said, refilling his plate with rice and stew. Apparently girls nowadays like that sort of thing.” “Why mysterious?” Kelsey’s curiosity was peaked. “He doesn’t say much about himself. I think he’s hiding something. I’m a pretty good judge of character.” Sarah nodded, as if she agreed with her own statement. “Maybe he’s just not a big talker,” Brian said. “I don’t see anything wrong with that.” “Well, he does communicate… with the women who come and go out of that cottage.” Sarah’s lip curled in disgust. “I saw two this week. A nurse and a policewoman. What kind of man sleeps with more than one woman a week?” Maeve shrugged. “So he likes variety. To each his own.” “I don’t care much about what he does in his free time.” Sarah’s voice was soaked in disapproval. “But those poor women. Being used like that. It’s not right. Is it, Brian?” “What he does behind closed doors is his business.
At least he pays his rent on time. And he’s done a lot of repairs at his own cost. And he’s always polite.” “I guess you’re right,” Sarah relented. “More potatoes, Kelsey?” Kelsey nodded, and Sarah served her, leaning close to whisper into her ear. “If you do get talking, do let us know what he’s hiding. Due diligence, you know.” Maeve laughed. “Weren’t you supposed to do that before renting out the place?” “We were desperate,” Sarah admitted. “The place had been empty for months. He had the money and offered to fix the leaking roof. We had to take the offer before he took his money someplace else.” “You just want Kelsey to go sniffing around on your behalf so you can pass on the gossip to Mary Sue.” Maeve reached for her father’s glass of water and took a swig. Sarah shook her head and laughed. “Fine, let’s talk about something else.” Conversations expanded and plates emptied. Most of the questions were directed at Kelsey, and she answered them all, but didn’t go into too much detail. At last, Maeve stood. “I need to leave. I’m meeting someone in fifteen minutes.” Sarah looked up, excitement written all over her face. “Will you introduce me to this someone?” “No, Mom, I won’t. When I meet the right guy, you’ll be the first to know.” Maeve kissed both her parents and waved at Kelsey. “Kelsey, we should go out sometime.” “Sure,” Kelsey said to her retreating back. Twenty minutes later, dinner was over, and Kelsey discussed the rent with Brian and Sarah. With a small smile, she pulled out her purse and paid them for three months.
Chapter Three An unfamiliar cream ceiling with a border of blue forget-me-nots was the first thing Kelsey saw when she opened her eyes. She sat up quickly, heart beating fast. Then she remembered where she was. Taking a deep breath, she swung her legs out of the squeaking bed and went into the bathroom. An old footed tub leaned against one wall, facing a basin with a heartshaped mirror above it. There was nothing fancy about the bathroom. The basin was stained in some places, and the mirror was cracked on one side of the heart. The cottage, like her, had gone through a lot, and it had the scars to prove it— scratched floors, cracked walls, stains, and creaky stairs. But it still stood. So would she. Craig’s actions had hurt her and made her feel foolish, but she was ready to turn over a new leaf and take control of her life. After washing her face and brushing her teeth, she went back into the bedroom to call her best friend. “Have you met any gorgeous guys yet?” “That’s not what I came here to do, Delia.” “Fine, then tell me about your cottage.” “It’s perfect. It’s small, with a worn-out dining table and a windowless bathroom.” Delia laughed, and the ringing of her laughter mingled with the background noise of a blaring TV. When Delia laughed, she held nothing back. Her laughter was as pure and unpolluted as a baby’s breath. Almost as if the problems of adulthood hadn’t caught up with her. It gave Kelsey hope. She used to laugh like that, a very long time ago. She could learn to again. “What’s so
funny?” she asked. “I find it amusing that instead of a nice hotel, you prefer to stay in a cottage with a worn-out dining table.” “I knew you wouldn’t like it.” This time Kelsey laughed, but hers was short and controlled. “Is it a money problem? I could send you some. You could be staying in a nice hotel by tomorrow evening.” “I have enough money saved up to keep me for a while, but this place is worth more than a hundred luxurious hotels.” Over the years, Kelsey had invested her money well, and her savings would carry her along until she figured out what she wanted to do. “I guess God made a mistake then, darling. You were meant to be born into a poor family.” “You should be ashamed of yourself, Delia Nolan. Not all people who live in cottages are poor.” “If you say so. Sweetie, let’s talk later. I have to leave for work.” “Okay. I’ll call you in the evening.” Kelsey often envied Delia, who had followed her dream of becoming an interior decorator, a job she was fantastic at. Kelsey had initially considered studying something other than accounting and her father had almost had a fit. After a bitter argument, which went on for months, Kelsey gave in and followed her father’s orders. She studied accounting and worked in the family business. She did everything he wanted. Until now. The next place Kelsey called was home. Maria, the housekeeper—who also used to be Kelsey’s nanny—answered. “Your father is in his office. He’s… busy.” Kelsey winced, feeling like a small stone had been thrown at her heart. “It’s okay, Maria. You don’t have to hide anything from me. I know he doesn’t want to speak
to me.” “Don’t worry, love. He’ll come around. It might take some time, but he will.” “Maybe,” Kelsey said, unconvinced. But she couldn’t care less. This was her life and he had to learn to accept her decisions. She’d bent to his will for way too long. She would start her new life with or without his blessing. After a few minutes of small talk with Maria, she hung up the phone and unzipped her suitcase. She spent the rest of the day unpacking and getting acquainted with her new home. At eight p.m. her stomach grumbled, and she pushed a frozen pizza into the oven. Just as she turned it on, the doorbell rang. Maeve stood on the stoop, dressed to kill in a tight red miniskirt and black spike heels. “I was hoping you’d be home.” She stepped inside without waiting for an invitation. The cottage did belong to her family, Kelsey supposed. “Hi.” Kelsey closed the door and followed Maeve into the kitchen. “You’re dressed up. You going out?” Maeve didn’t answer. She stood at the kitchen window, holding the curtain aside with one hand. “Lucky thing.” “Who?” Kelsey asked warily. She was drained, and had been looking forward to eating her pizza and going to bed early. Maeve snapped her gum. “You, woman. I can’t believe you live next door to Mr. Sex on Legs and you’re not at his cottage licking his door right now. You said you saw him. Didn’t he set your panties on fire?” “Licking his door, really?” Kelsey laughed out loud. She liked Maeve already. Maeve threw her hands in the air in resignation.
“Fine, his rented truck then. Or his shoes. That’s of course only if you can’t lick the man himself.” Maeve paused and glanced at the oven. “What’s for dinner?” “Pizza?” Kelsey was a terrible cook—despite wishing otherwise—so she usually had to rely on frozen foods. Maeve switched off the stove. “It will still taste good in the morning. Tonight, you’re coming out with me to a pub.” “I really don’t feel like—” “You don’t need to feel like it now. Wait until you step into Conaire’s Corner. They have good music and alcohol. Get dressed. I’ll do your hair.” Kelsey didn’t resist when Maeve gently shoved her toward the stairs. She had the feeling Maeve would drag her to Conaire’s Corner if she had to. Upstairs, Maeve sat down on Kelsey’s bed. “Have you brought any party clothes?” Opening the wardrobe, Kelsey peered inside. “I hope so.” She pulled out a pair of jeans and a sleeveless ivory silk top. “That will do. Now, where are your hair accessories?” “In the bathroom.” “Perfect. Let’s make you even prettier than you already are.” *** The moment she stepped inside Conaire’s Corner, her sleepiness was instantly banished. It was the kind of pub people went to when they wanted to leave their dreary lives behind. The warm wooden interior, low lighting, and old-fashioned furniture made it a good place to meet friends for a drink and a laugh after a long day at work. Music piped through hidden speakers, and laughter filled every corner. Kelsey blinked from the sting of cigarette smoke as
she followed Maeve toward one of the tree stump tables in the back. “What do you want to drink?” Maeve asked. “Just some green tea, thanks.” Maeve weaved her way around the tables to the front of the pub. When she came back, she placed a cup of tea and a chocolate brownie in front of Kelsey. “The brownie’s on me.” “Thanks.” Maeve drank some of her beer. Then she folded her arms on the table in front of her. “So, what’s your story? I read in the paper a while back that your father’s loaded. But that’s all I know and it’s not important to me. I want the juicy stuff. Do you have a boyfriend waiting for you back in Saulery?” Kelsey shook her head. She would be honest with Maeve. She made her feel comfortable, and Kelsey could use a friend in town. “I was engaged, but the wedding didn’t happen. He was not the man I thought he was.”
Chapter Four Right before everything came crashing down around her, Kelsey had been picking out flowers to decorate the honeymoon suite at the Muriel Hotel. She and Craig would spend their first night as a married couple there before leaving Ireland for their honeymoon in Venice. Her favorite flowers were white hydrangeas, but she mixed them up with pink peonies for variety. Humming a tune under her breath, she stepped out of the flower shop and walked the short distance to the hotel. After dropping off the bouquets, she’d pass by the office to sign some important documents. Just like her to go to the office the day before her wedding. But as chief operating officer for Glocal COM Europe, a lot of responsibilities rested on her shoulders. That was the main reason they were only going on honeymoon for a week. Delia kept insisting that Kelsey’s workaholic tendencies were born of the deep-rooted need to please her father. She was probably right. It certainly didn’t come from her liking her job. She could never shake the feeling that something was missing in her life. Just as she suspected something was missing from her relationship with Craig. The spark had never been that bright, but she did her best to stifle the thought whenever it popped into her head. Despite the emptiness in her heart, she was dedicated to her job, and she was dedicated to Craig. Kelsey’s mother died when Kelsey was thirteen, and after that, Kelsey had done everything to please her father, to make him see her and be proud of her. Deep down she had hoped that if she was good, her father
wouldn’t hurt so much. It became her way of life, and he came to expect it from her. She studied what he wanted, went into a profession he had envisioned for her, and was about to marry his right-hand man. Craig was handsome, well educated, and brilliant as chief financial officer of the company. Kelsey felt enough for him to marry him. The glow that had attracted them to each other two years earlier had never become a fire, but she didn’t need earthshattering passion to make a marriage work. The love she felt for him was enough. And she had big plans for their wedding night. She stepped into the cool hotel lobby and waved at the receptionist. The elevator transported her to the top floor and she smiled as she exited and pulled her keycard from her purse. Inside the luxurious suite, she placed the flowers on the glass table by the door and started arranging them. Then a sound startled her—something like a whimper. She straightened up and headed in the direction of the bedroom. A loud scream stopped her in her tracks. She almost turned to run out, but stopped herself. Who could be in the suite? A cleaner? Her heart beating fast, she tiptoed on, and when she came to the closed door she pressed her ear against it. Then it hit her. Someone was making love. Eyebrows scrunched together, she twisted the golden door handle, which didn’t make a sound. She pushed the door open an inch, her heart hammering the breath right out of her body. Then she saw him—well, she saw his butt, clenching and relaxing as he pounded into a woman who was leaning forward with her arms resting on their unmade honeymoon bed. As the woman begged for more, he groaned like an animal in a cage.
He raised his face to the ceiling and his dark, damp hair clung to the back of his neck as he gave her what she wanted. Kelsey’s hand flew to her mouth to stop herself from crying out. With the other, she closed the door, careful not to be heard. Then she stumbled out of the suite, tears streaming down her cheeks, and her heart cracking from the inside out. *** Inside her office, Kelsey sat staring at the wall, feeling as if her lungs had shrunk in size and couldn’t accommodate any more air. With a trembling hand, she picked up the phone and dialed Delia’s number. “Hey, what’s up? Guess what I’m doing? It has to do with your wedding. No, don’t bother. You’re crappy at—” “Delia,” Kelsey cut her off. Even hearing the word “wedding” made her want to throw up. “Can you do something for me?” “I’m your maid of honor, do you need to ask?” Delia was in high spirits. She was a true friend. Kelsey remembered all too well that during the first year she and Craig dated, Delia hadn’t liked him, and she had made that fact clear to Kelsey. Delia had said there was something about Craig that made her distrust him. But when Kelsey seemed happy enough with him, she’d put down her weapons. Then the claws came out again when Craig proposed six months ago. Delia tried to convince Kelsey she was making a mistake, but Kelsey had refused to listen. So, Delia had had no choice but to close her mouth and respect her friend’s decision. Craig didn’t give Kelsey butterflies in her stomach, but she did love him, and most importantly, he was the first man her father had approved of her dating. Who needed butterflies? As far as Kelsey was concerned, that
ship had sailed when she’d broken up with Shane, the first and only man she’d fallen hard for. Her college sweetheart. He’d walked out of her life because her father had refused to stop interfering in their relationship. He’d made it abundantly clear that his daughter wouldn’t end up with a penniless artist. Kelsey’s eyes burned and she bit her lip in an attempt to hold back the tears that were forming. She wouldn’t cry in the office. She was a professional. “Remember when you wanted me to do a background check on Craig before… marrying him?” “Yeeees?” Suspicion dripped from Delia’s voice. “Is everything all right? You sound weird.” Kelsey shook her head. A tear slipped out of her eye and slid down her cheek. “Are you still in touch with your private detective friend?” “Yes, Kelsey, what’s going on?” Delia’s voice was hushed. “I’ll tell you later.” Kelsey paused. “Can you ask your friend to do a background check on Craig?” The phone went silent as if Delia had hung up. “Delia? Are you there?” “Kelsey, you’re getting married tomorrow. Why are you suddenly suspicious of Craig? Tell me, what did he do?” “I’ll tell you tonight at dinner.” Kelsey’s father had organized a rehearsal dinner for her and Craig and although she didn’t feel like showing up, she would. She had a plan. “I want to know everything about him, Delia.” “You do know there’s no way Cynthia can do a complete background check in only a few hours, right?” “Please ask her anyway, I need anything on him, his past… whatever I can get.” Delia sighed. “I have a confession to make.”
Kelsey frowned. “What confession? What is it?” “I already asked her to look into his past. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have gone ahead without your permission.” “Why did you?” “I was worried about you. He gave me a bad feeling.” Delia paused. “In my defense, I didn’t look inside the folder. It’s inside my drawer, sealed. I was going to burn it.” “Don’t… don’t burn it,” Kelsey said quickly. “I need to see what’s inside. I’m coming over.” Kelsey was out of her chair before they had even hung up. Fifteen minutes later, she was at Delia’s apartment, and Delia was handing her a white envelope. When Kelsey left an hour later, she was shaken, confused, and furious. Back at her apartment, racking sobs overwhelmed her and she slid to the floor, her legs splayed awkwardly, as she emptied her heart of the pain that filled it. *** On her wedding day, dressed in snow-white tulle and lace, Kelsey watched the minister’s lips moving, but when his words hit her ears, they dissipated into nothing. This was the last place she wanted to be. Standing at the altar opposite the man who had betrayed her in the most unforgivable way. She wrinkled her nose. The smell of flowers, perfume, hairspray, and burning candles made her dizzy. Craig smiled as his lips moved and he held on tight to her hands. He was vowing to be her husband, to love and to hold, to forsake all others. Jerk, she thought. He was making a promise to be with her forever while he still smelled of another woman’s perfume—something fruity. When the minister turned to Kelsey, she perked up and glowered at Craig. Her heart was thumping fast and
beads of sweat formed on her upper lip. This was it—the moment she was waiting for. “Kelsey O’Neil,” the minister said, and rambled on about whether she, too, would take him to be her partner for life. As much as her heart was breaking, her lips twitched in the suggestion of a smile. She inhaled deeply and glanced at Delia; her friend nodded, urging her to do what had to be done. “Kelsey?” Craig leaned forward. “Are you okay?” “Never been better.” Sweat oiled her palms, but her voice was hard. She would do this. Craig would not make a fool of her. “So,” the minister arched a bushy eyebrow, “will you take Craig Carnahan to be your lawfully wedded husband?” The pews of the church were filled with guests, but the room was silent, punctuated only by the occasional cough. She let the moment drag on for a few seconds longer, and then she parted her lips. “No.” The word rang loud and clear. “I will not marry you, Craig.” Craig dropped her hands and his eyes widened. For a few seconds, he just stared at her, the muscles in his face tense, his mouth twitching in an odd way. “What… Why? What’s going on?” Kelsey kept her gaze locked on his. “Because you’re not the man I thought you were. Are you, Craig?” A gasp came from one of the guests, and from the corner of her eye Kelsey saw her father rise and approach them. “What are you doing?” he whispered, his voice loaded. Kelsey faced her dad. He was handsome in a handtailored, classic black suit. The sprinkling of gray at his
temples was the only clue he was approaching sixty. “You want me to marry Craig Carnahan, Dad? Are you sure about that?” “That’s why we’re here,” he whispered between clenched teeth. “What kind of nonsense is this?” “You want your daughter to marry a criminal?” Kelsey quivered as she glared at Craig. “Kelsey, don’t do this.” Craig’s face hardened, but only for a fraction of a second. As if a button had been pressed, his expression softened. “Let’s go… let’s go and talk somewhere more… private.” He touched her arm, but she yanked it away. “Don’t you dare touch me.” His touch, his smell, even his face disgusted her. And all the more so when she pictured the scene in the hotel room—him panting, grunting, and dripping with sweat as he pounded into another woman, the day before he was going to marry her. The mental image made her stomach lurch. Another gasp from the crowd was followed by whispers. She didn’t give a damn what they thought. She wanted to hurt Craig the way he had hurt her. Avoiding eye contact, the minister leafed through his Bible as if searching for instructions on how to handle the situation. “What the hell are you talking about?” Craig asked, but his voice cracked. “Well, Craig—or should I say Tom Malone? It doesn’t matter. Whoever you are, I will not marry you.” “No problem.” He leaned forward to whisper in her ear. “We can postpone the wedding.” “You don’t get it, do you? I will not marry you today, tomorrow, or ever.” Tears were streaming down her cheeks. She hadn’t even realized she was crying. “I will not marry a man who’s already married under a different
name. I will not marry a stranger.” Kelsey felt, rather than saw, her father turn to the guests. In a firm, controlled voice he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m afraid we have to end the day here. I apologize for the inconvenience caused, but we have some personal matters to discuss.” He had hardly finished speaking when the guests stood and started walking out of the church. The minister disappeared through a small door. Kelsey’s eyes were still locked on Craig, but she heard the hurried movements, the whispers. She felt the wave of shock and disbelief, smelled the thick scent of scandal. They all couldn’t wait to leave, to gossip about what had just happened. When silence descended, a hand wrapped around her arm and her father whispered in her ear, “Kelsey, these accusations are ridiculous. What’s gotten into you?” Why was he whispering? Kelsey laughed and cried at the same time. “Not only did he sleep with another woman yesterday, in our suite at the Muriel, he’s a conman. And I have proof.” Her father and Craig watched as she stepped to one of the chairs decorated with ribbons—the one reserved for Delia, who had left with the other guests—and removed a bag hanging from it. She pulled from it a thick white envelope and handed it to her father, who looked like a volcano about to erupt. “Everything you need to know about him is in there.” Craig’s expression changed from confident to horrified. His face turned puce. “How dare you,” he said between clenched teeth as he pointed a shaking finger at Kelsey. “How dare you—” “Shut up. Just shut up.” Kelsey’s father leafed
quickly through the pages and photos. A vein began throbbing in his neck, and the blood drained from his face. “Identity theft, money laundering, embezzlement…” He tossed the papers and photos on a nearby chair, and before Kelsey could register what was happening, he charged toward Craig and planted a fist in the center of his face, knocking Craig to the floor. Kelsey’s hands flew to her mouth. Her father massaged his hand. “Call the police.” It was an order. Kelsey reached for her purse as Craig scrambled to his feet and stumbled down the aisle, a hand clamped over his bloody nose. “Run,” her father said, his voice like thunder. “You’ll not get far. You’ll pay for this. I’ll personally make bloody sure of that.” Craig burst through the double doors and disappeared. *** “What a total jerk.” Maeve was scowling. “I hope you made him pay for what he did.” “We did. He tried to leave the country, but the cops picked him up at the airport and arrested him for a string of crimes. His sentence was extended when we found out during an audit that he’d embezzled over a million euros from my father’s company.” “Wow, that’s some heavy stuff. That’s why I don’t trust men. They’re all liars. I never date a man for longer than one month.” “A month? That’s it?” Maeve dipped a finger into her beer and sucked off the foam. “I don’t trust any of them.” “They’re not all the same, you know. There are some good men out there.”
“Believe me. They’re all alike. Look at that one.” Maeve pointed to a middle-aged man sitting at one of the high tables beside the bar. He had one hand wrapped around a glass of whiskey and was stroking a plump woman’s cheek with the other. “That’s his wife over there.” She moved her gaze to a woman sitting at a table not far from them. The woman’s eyes were fixed on her husband, and she looked close to tears. “I don’t know how long she’s going to keep up with his bed-hopping. He doesn’t even make it a secret that he’s seeing other women. They’ve only been married a year.” “Poor woman.” “Yes. See why I’ll never get married or have children?” “You never want to? Ever?” Despite what had happened with Craig, Kelsey still wanted to get married one day, and have kids—with the right man this time. “What’s the point? Most marriages I know end bitterly.” Kelsey bit into her brownie. “Have you ever been in love?” “A long time ago. It didn’t end well.” Maeve feigned a shiver. “What happened?” “He was an ass. Take it from me: Men can’t be trusted. One month is the limit for me.” “How’s the guy you went to meet this afternoon?” “Actually, it was a breakup date. We’ve been seeing each other for three weeks, and he was getting to the stage where he wanted to hold my hand in public. Can’t have that.” Kelsey laughed and finished her tea. Maeve waved a petite blond waitress over to their table. “I’ll have another pint, Clara, and one for my
friend.” “No, no.” Kelsey shook her head. “I don’t drink beer.” “There’s a first time for everything. Tonight’s the night to let your hair down.” It wasn’t considered classy to drink beer where Kelsey came from—but she was in Dreara to get away from that lifestyle. She had come here to do what she wanted, without anyone peering over her shoulder. Maybe she should drink a beer and decide for herself whether she liked it. Looking up at Clara, she shrugged. “What the hell. Yes, there is a first time for everything.” One beer was followed by another, and another, and then by something stronger Kelsey didn’t remember ordering. Before she knew it, she was nodding and tapping her foot to the music, and Maeve was out on the dance floor on shaky legs, swaying with a man she called her “catch of the night”. Kelsey remained in her seat, wondering how it must feel not to give a damn what anybody thought of her. Suddenly, the hairs on the back of her neck stood up and she turned around. Two tables away, there he was, watching her through a haze of smoke. Her stomach flipped. The mysterious neighbor’s eyes didn’t leave hers as he raised what looked like a glass of water to his lips and drained it. Kelsey licked her lips. His eyes took in every inch of her, as if he were drinking her as well. Should she smile, wave? Or just stare back at him? Hell, she would stare. Maybe he’d feel embarrassed and break eye contact. But the longer she watched him, the clearer the image of him without his shirt on became
inside her mind. Her heart started thumping. Those muscles. But the feeling she’d felt then couldn’t be compared to this. She was suddenly dizzy, and the beer wasn’t entirely to blame. She wet her lips again. The way he was staring at her now would drive any woman crazy. He watched her like a lion watching its prey. She felt naked, exposed, vulnerable… and hot between the legs. He made her feel sexy and desirable—something she hadn’t felt in a long time. The longer they gazed at each other, the hotter the room became. She couldn’t bear it any longer. She had to look away. How could a man she didn’t even know have such a strong effect on her? She inhaled deeply, turned away, and picked up her beer. Her hands were shaking, but she didn’t let it deter her. She took a huge gulp. She needed it. There was no way she would get any sleep with him living next door.
Chapter Five Shaun shivered as he rose to the surface of the water. With October approaching, the temperatures had dropped, but for him it was just right. Perfect punishment. In smooth strokes, he swam back to shore. Swimming always reminded him of college, when he’d worked part time as a lifeguard at a local swimming pool. He’d loved that job. Just as he’d loved being a firefighter. Saving people had been his life’s purpose, Until his life came crashing down. No use dwelling on the past. The reason for his midnight swim was to help him forget. He crossed the beach and headed for his cottage, still dripping wet. The cool wind would dry him as he jogged home. A few minutes later, he burst into the cottage, then changed into some warm clothes, made himself a coffee, and wrote until the sun shone through the curtains. Yawning, he got up and had breakfast, a shower, and then sat back down to continue writing. He didn’t stop again until it was almost noon. After a sandwich, he was too exhausted to keep working, so he tossed himself onto the couch with the phone. There was someone he needed to talk to. Since he’d arrived in Dreara, Shaun had avoided calling home. His mother was always emotional and begging him to move back, and three of his brothers always told him to stop being an ass and get over himself because what had happened, happened and couldn’t be undone. The only one of his brothers he talked to at least once a week was Garrett, and that was because he was
Shaun’s shrink. If it weren’t for Garrett visiting him in prison and talking sense into him, Shaun would have committed suicide during his first year behind bars. Shaun stretched out on the couch as the phone rang and rang. Finally, Garrett picked up. “I called you several times last week, why the hell didn’t you call back? I was just about to get on a plane to come and find you.” “I was busy. I’m here working, you know.” “We had a deal. You said you would call me at least once a week. I need to know you’re okay. I need to know what to tell Mom, who you should call soon, by the way. She’s still hoping you’ll come home for Christmas. Do you have any idea what kind of position you’re putting me in?” Heat rose up Shaun’s neck as he tried to control his anger. “You don’t have to do this. I wanted to do this alone. This is where I have to be right now. You promised to have my back.” “I know that. But I think it’s about time you came back home. You can’t run forever.” Garrett sighed. “Are you okay?” “I’m fine. Never been better.” “Still being good? Staying away from too many women and alcohol?” “You wouldn’t believe me if I said I was.” Garrett laughed. “I still want to hear you say it.” “Would you believe me if I told you I didn’t sleep with one single woman this month?” “No, but I can hope. Remember not to get back to that place you were in before you left the States. Alcohol and casual sex are not a long-term solution. The pain only returns to hit you harder.” Shaun slammed a fist into the table. “You say it like
it’s easy. You have no fuckin’ idea what it’s like not to have a crutch to lean on, how much I miss waking up in the morning with no guilt, or going to bed at night without dreading the next day.” “Shaun,” Garrett said in a controlled voice. “I know how hard all this is for you. I was there, remember? I saw your pain firsthand. So, yeah, I have a pretty damn good idea. But you can’t turn back the clock. You have to move forward. You have to learn to live again.” “I’m trying. Tell Mom I will come back home. But I won’t be there for Christmas.” “Home to Serendipity or home to the U.S.?” “To the U.S. I’ve made up my mind. I can’t move back to Serendipity. I can never live a normal life there knowing —” “I understand. By the way, guess where I am.” “How the hell should I know?” “I’m at Mel’s Delights. I haven’t been here in ages. A new client of mine is addicted to Mel’s chocolate donuts. She brought me here so I could see her in action.” “Must be tough to be a shrink.” Shaun chuckled. “The clients you work with sometimes.” “Hey, business is slow. As long as they can pay, my door is always open.” There was a shuffle and a few whispers at Garrett’s end. “Someone wants to talk to you.” “When are you getting your ass back home, Brannon?” Shaun broke into a smile. For a moment there, he thought it would be his mother or one of his other brothers. “Heat, what’s up, man? Long time. You addicted to Mel’s donuts too?” “Do I have a choice? I’m married to their maker.”
Married. Hearing that word still made it hard for Shaun to breathe. He squeezed his eyes shut, telling himself to focus. “Yeah, I guess not,” Shaun said. While Shaun’s life had been on hold, his friends had fallen in love, gotten married, and started their families. Garrett had shown Shaun photos of Heat’s wife, a stunning redhead who was also a successful businesswoman. Everyone else had moved on, which made it even harder for Shaun to stay in Serendipity. It reminded him of what he couldn’t have. “Such a shame you missed our wedding last year. But we have a big anniversary party planned for next year. We’d love it if you could make it. I’ll let you know the details later.” “Sure,” Shaun lied. “Great. Brannon, it’s so great talking to you. I was just telling Garrett the other day that I read your book. Best thriller I ever laid my hands on. I told the boys at the station and they all think you’re a hero. And you are. You’ve been through a lot of shit, and look at you— you’re still standing.” Heat paused. “How are you… really?” Shaun didn’t respond for a while as he asked himself the same question. “You know, Dane, some days are better than others.” “You’ll be fine. And when you return home, Darius says you’re welcome to rejoin the team. He still talks about the fire you put out your first week on the job. It would be great to have you back. Unless, of course, you’d rather keep writing.” Shaun couldn’t see himself doing the things he used to do back then, back when his life was normal. “Writing is my life now, Dane. I love the freedom it gives me.” And
the money he made wasn’t bad, either. “I can understand that. Well, maybe you’ll volunteer now and then for old time’s sake. Brannon, I have to run. I just got paged. Great talking to you. I’ll ask Garrett for your number.” When Garrett got back on the phone, it was only to say goodbye. He, too, had to go. They all had their own lives to lead, while Shaun stood frozen in the past.
Chapter Six In a desperate attempt to clutch on to the last threads of sleep, Kelsey turned her head away from the morning rays streaming through the window. Something was wrong. The bedsprings didn’t squeak. She opened her eyes a fraction at a time. There was no dresser, no wardrobe, no trace of the permanent scent of fabric softener. It took a bleary moment for her to realize it wasn’t her bed she was on, but the sofa. As she sat up, pins and needles shot through her right arm to her fingertips. The rest of her body didn’t feel much better—as if she’d spent the night on a bench at a railway station. Her head felt as if it were stuffed with wads of cotton wool, and a headache was creeping up on her. To make matters worse, her hair and clothes—she was still wearing last night’s clothes—reeked of alcohol and stale cigarette smoke. Kelsey massaged her sensitive arm and inspected her surroundings. Half her handbag had crawled under the sofa and one of her black leather pumps was on the coffee table next to the house keys; the other rested on its side at the door. She began to laugh. It started with a snicker and bubbled into a great big belly laugh, like a river flowing into the sea. Last night was proof that she was ready to change, to live, to move on. Drinking beer—even if she hadn’t enjoyed the taste—and getting drunk on it were not things the old Kelsey would have done. But she was stepping out of her comfort zone, flying free despite her inhibitions—and that was precisely what she wanted to
do. Maeve had been the right person to push Kelsey into the deep end. But she was also by far the craziest woman Kelsey had ever met. A likable kind of crazy. Maeve did what made her happy and didn’t care what anybody thought. She didn’t care that her skirt ended where her thighs began, or that men talked to her chest instead of her face. She was everything Kelsey wasn’t. Last night, Maeve had rubbed some of her freedom off on Kelsey, and it tasted so much better than Kelsey had expected. Now that she’d had a sample, Kelsey definitely had to have more. After the laughter dissipated, Kelsey enjoyed a long, warm bath. Three rounds of strawberry-scented shampoo made sure the stench of beer and cigarette smoke melted from her wet curls. With fresh hair and clothes— and no makeup—she went back downstairs to the kitchen. Though the throbbing in her temples had matured into a full-blown headache, she didn’t want to take a painkiller. Tea and a slice of peace and quiet might be enough to shake it off. A few minutes later, she sat at the kitchen table with the heat from the ceramic mug seeping into the palms of her hand. Just as she soaked herself into the quiet, the rusty rattle of a lawnmower burst through the walls and turned the pain in her head up a notch. Teeth clenched, she dragged herself to the window and shoved it open. The mysterious neighbor was mowing his lawn. At eight in the morning. What was he thinking? Had he no respect for his neighbors? There was no point shouting for him to stop. Her voice could never compete with the machine. She shut the window again and left the kitchen.
A painkiller started to seem like a good idea after all, as did leaving the house earlier than planned. *** The public library was at the corner of Smithson Road and Dale Street, a fifteen-minute walk from Kelsey’s cottage. Kelsey ascended the steps two at a time. At the counter under the information sign sat a woman with pigtails and a neon green suit jacket so bright it hurt Kelsey’s eyes. The smell of cigarettes wafted from the librarian, bringing back memories of the pub from last night and reminding Kelsey of the ache still lingering in her head. “Good morning. I’m looking for books on the history of Dreara, please.” “Please follow me.” The librarian spoke as if her mouth was filled with marbles and Kelsey had to strain her ears to make out what she was saying. “Follow” sounded like “hollow.” They came to a section stocked with books, newspapers, pamphlets, handouts, and DVDs all about Dreara. “Here you are,” the librarian mumbled, and promptly walked back to the front desk. There were three other people in this section, and from the curious and concentrated expressions on their faces, Kelsey guessed they were tourists like she was. She meandered between the cabinets, stroking the spines of books and pulling out ones she was interested in. When her arms ached from the weight of the books she’d collected, she slipped into a seat at an unoccupied table and flipped open a hardcover: A Guide to Dreara and Her People. She skimmed through the first chapter then went back to read it in more detail.
Dreara is a small, self-sufficient seaside town with just enough amenities to meet the needs of its residents, who are no more than one thousand in number. Around town, one will find three supermarkets, two bakeries, a school, a hospital, a police station, a library, clothing stores, a small cinema, a few pubs, restaurants, and a three-star hotel. For further shopping needs, Limmery, a larger town, is a thirty-minute drive to the north. Kelsey also read about the chocolate factory, the central attraction of Dreara, which had served as the largest employer in town since its opening. She had just turned the page to Drearan cuisine when someone approached her table. She gazed up to meet the mysterious neighbor’s eyes. How did he get to the library so fast? A flutter ruffled her stomach and for a moment she just stared at him, unable to say a word. He was even more handsome up close. She instantly forgot that she had been annoyed with him just thirty minutes earlier. “We haven’t been introduced,” he whispered. “I’m Shaun, your neighbor.” Kelsey stretched out her hand and shook his. “Nice to meet you, Shaun. I’m Kelsey. I heard you’re an author.” “Word really spreads fast in this town.” Kelsey laughed, regretting having said anything. Now he’d think she asked about him. “Well, people talk.” “They sure do. Yes, I’m an author. I spend a lot of time in here doing research.” Kelsey folded her arms on the table and tried not to think about how gorgeous he was. “What types of books do you write?” “Thrillers. At the moment I’m working on a novel set in Dreara.” “Sounds interesting.”
“Sometimes. Well, I should get going and leave you to your reading. It was nice to meet you, Kelsey. Enjoy Dreara.” He paused. “I’ve been here for a while, so if you need someone to show you around, let me know. You know where to find me.” “Thank you. I might take you up on your offer.” He nodded. “See you around.” He turned to leave, but she spoke again before he was out of earshot. “Why were you watching me like that… the other night?” She hadn’t meant to say the words out loud, but her mouth was doing its own thing. Too late now; he was turning around to face her. She bit her lip. “I mean… never mind.” His lips tipped into a smile and his gray eyes bore into hers again, making her cheeks flush. “If my memory serves me well, you were watching me too.” “Only because I felt you watching me.” “You felt me?” His voice was deep and slightly husky. Kelsey’s cheeks burned. “I …” “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. You are a beautiful woman. I was admiring you. Something wrong with that?” A tingle raced down Kelsey’s spine and she lowered her gaze. The intensity of his eyes made it seem as if he was seeing into her deepest thoughts. “No,” she said clearly. She braced herself and raised her eyes again. “I didn’t think so.” He winked and strode away. Kelsey shut her eyes and took slow breaths, fanning her face with her hand. *** Kelsey next bumped into Shaun two days later as she was about to get into her car. Not wanting to make a fool of herself again in his presence, she thought of pretending she hadn’t seen him, but she was pretty sure
he saw her. “Kelsey, hi,” he said, walking out of his gate and halting in front of his truck. His hair was a sexy mess, and he wore a beige pullover that couldn’t completely hide his sculpted chest. “Still enjoying Dreara?” He leaned against the truck and folded his arms. “Yes, I am. It’s lovely here.” “Have you had a chance to take a tour yet?” “I’m having one today, actually. On my way to the library right now. A sightseeing tour bus is scheduled to do a pickup in thirty minutes.” Shaun pulled his door open. “Don’t bother. I went on one of those. Not worth it. I didn’t see as much as I wanted to. And I think the guide was on something.” “Something?” Kelsey opened her own car door. “Alcohol, drugs, something.” “That must have been quite an entertaining tour.” Kelsey laughed. “Worst one of my life.” He hopped into his truck and stuck his head out the window. “Want a real tour, join me. I know all the great sites. I was planning to take another look around anyway.” “Are you sure? I wouldn’t want to rob you of your time.” A few hours spent with Shaun was both tempting and scary. What if she ended up acting like a lovesick teenager and he was turned off? There was already a tingle in the pit of her stomach. “It’s no bother at all. Come on.” He waved her over. Kelsey hesitated for a moment, then shut her car door and walked in timid steps toward his truck. Inside, she grabbed the sides of her seat and pressed her knees together. Shaun seemed like he’d be a fast driver. Wrong—he was an even slower and more overly cautious driver than she was. It seemed strange
that a man like him didn’t feel the need for speed. She supposed it was a lesson not to judge a book by its cover. *** Their first stop was the century-old chocolate factory. Luckily for Shaun and Kelsey, only a few tourists meandered around the museum displays and gift shop, so Shaun and Kelsey strolled unencumbered. They made small talk, mostly about Dreara. No one brought up any personal topics. Even though Kelsey was curious to know more about him, she was relieved not to be venturing into personal territory just yet. It was easier to relax and enjoy getting to know the town. They started with an audio tour of the chocolate production line. With headsets on, they stopped in front of each station, where a voice in their ears explained the different stages. They followed the chocolate’s journey from bean to bar. Kelsey hadn’t known the melting point of cocoa butter was just below human body temperature, which was what caused it to melt in the mouth. “Do you know chocolate was originally served as a drink and only given to men?” Shaun said as they returned to the entrance. “It was believed to be an aphrodisiac.” “No, I had no idea. That’s fascinating.” She paused. “I enjoyed the tour a lot. And right now I’m really craving chocolate.” Shaun pointed to a spot near the entrance where a woman was handing out small chocolate bars to visitors. Once Kelsey had received a bar and started eating it with relish, Shaun asked, “What piece of Dreara do you want to fall in love with next?” “Let’s be spontaneous.”
Popping another square of chocolate into her mouth, Kelsey spotted a sign next to the information point. She approached it, followed closely by Shaun. “Look.” She turned to him, grinning. “This could be interesting. Should we go on one?” “What?” Shaun squinted to read the sign. “Oh, a tour of Reamon Castle. It’s not far from here. We don’t need to sign up for a guided tour. We can give ourselves one.” “You know what I’d really enjoy? I’d love to go on a real guided tour so I can feel like a tourist. It’s more fun that way. Don’t you think?” “You are a tourist.” “That is true.” Kelsey nibbled on another cube of chocolate. “What do you say?” Shaun shrugged. “If the lady wants a tour, the lady gets a tour.” Despite the cold and damp weather, Kelsey thoroughly enjoyed the tour of the castle. With multiple moats, tiny windows, and thick walls, the place was truly a fortress. Their footsteps echoed off the stone walls as they passed wooden benches and large tables. Colorful tapestries brightened up the halls, and rusted chandeliers glowed dimly. Kelsey was so engrossed in the tour, she almost thought she could hear thundering horse hooves and smell burning torches. After the tour, they were allowed to explore the grounds on their own, but it was pouring outside. “I guess that’s it for our excursion,” Shaun said. Kelsey squinted into the rain. “That’s a shame.” The castle had whetted her appetite, and she wanted to see more of Dreara. “We can continue another day. Ready?” he asked, turning to walk back to the truck. She nodded, feeling a pang in her chest. She was a
little disappointed that their time together was coming to an end so soon. Shaun may have been mysterious, but he had a great sense of humor and was easy to talk to. She ran after him. He opened the passenger door and waited for her to get in, then ran to the other side to climb in beside her. “Hang on.” He pulled a faded blue towel from the backseat and handed it to her. “You’d better dry your hair or you’ll catch a cold.” “Thanks.” Kelsey shivered as water dripped from her hair and face onto the battered seats of his truck, the moisture turning the leather from cappuccino brown to espresso. Shaun watched her with a half smile on his lips. After she was finished, Kelsey handed the towel over to Shaun. He fluffed his hair with it, and then started the engine. When they arrived at Edgeway Street, Shaun got out and opened Kelsey’s door. She took his arm and climbed out, her feet landing into a small puddle of muddy water. She pushed the gate open, and he escorted her down the path that led to her front door. A brief shiver rippled through her as he moved closer, but it had nothing to do with the temperature.
Chapter Seven The crumpled sheets sighed as Kelsey swept them to one side and got out of bed, wincing when her feet touched the cold wooden floor. She curled a blanket over her satin nightdress and pushed open the window. The rain-washed air was crisp, cool, and exhilarating. It smelled of Irish wildflowers and the faint aroma of freshly baked bread. It felt good to be here, to be alive. Kelsey exhaled softly as she looked out at the ocean. She still wasn’t sure what happiness meant, exactly. Maybe it was waking in the morning to birds chirping, knowing in her heart that she had made the right choices. Maybe it was standing barefoot in her bedroom, watching weak light streaming through the soft curtains and listening to the fridge humming downstairs. If that was the definition of happiness, then right now, at this moment, she was happy. She strode out of the room, her stomach rumbling. When she reached the third step, the doorbell rang and made her jump. She descended the rest of the stairs and opened the door. Her heart fluttered when she saw the man standing on her doorstep. Shaun wore a black turtleneck and carried a foilcovered ceramic bowl in the crook of his arm. “Did I wake you?” Pulling the blanket tighter around herself, she moved aside. “No. Come on in.” “Sorry to disturb. I won’t be staying long. I just came to drop this off.” He indicated the bowl. “What’s that?” “Potato soup.”
Kelsey tilted her head to one side. “You made it yourself?” “No, Sarah did. I went to see her and Brian this morning, and she insisted I take it since it’s cold today.” “So, why are you giving it to me? It was meant for you.” “You were pretty soaked yesterday. This would rule out any chance of you catching a cold. I’ll put it in the kitchen.” Kelsey let him, afraid if she moved too much the blanket might shift or fall. “Thanks.” She was about to sneak back upstairs to change when he called her name. She reached the kitchen doorway and gasped. The whole kitchen floor, as well as the cupboards and kitchen table, were covered in water. She had left the windows open. Shaun placed the soup on the dining table. “Do you have a mop?” “In the bathroom. I’ll get it.” Kelsey returned a few minutes later dressed in a tracksuit with the pants rolled up and her hair pulled back in a ponytail. She carried a mop, a bucket, and several towels. Before she stepped into the kitchen, Shaun stopped her. “May I?” He removed his shoes and reached for the mop. She extended it to him. “Thanks. I’ll wipe the cupboards and table.” “What are you doing today?” He soaked the mop on the floor and wrung it out over the bucket. “I’m meeting Maeve. I’m going to see her at the salon for a haircut.” “That’s a shame.” He studied her. “You have
beautiful hair.” Heat spread across Kelsey’s cheeks and she touched a lock of hair that had come free from the ponytail. “Thanks.” “It wasn’t meant to be a compliment. I’m only telling the truth.” He winked at her then continued with his job. Kelsey didn’t reply. She didn’t know what to say, and her mouth had suddenly gone dry. When the water was finally sopped up, Shaun leaned the mop against the wall. “I think we’re done here.” “Thanks for your help, Shaun. I appreciate it.” “What kind of neighbor would I be if I didn’t help?” Kelsey found herself wishing he’d done it not to be neighborly, but because he liked her. She already liked him without even wanting to. *** “He sounds like a catch. What are you waiting for?” Delia said when Kelsey called later that morning. Typical Delia. When she liked someone, she didn’t waste time, and often got her fingers burned. At twentyseven, she had already been divorced once, after marrying a man she had only dated for a month. Now she was in love with her boss at the interior design firm where she worked, and was waiting for him to catch her eye. “He’s just being a good neighbor, that’s all.” “A neighbor can always change into something else.” “Maybe, but I’m not ready for that something else. I thought I was ready to move on in that department as well, but… I don’t know.” She still had a bitter taste in her mouth after Craig. “Then have one hot night with the man and walk away. You don’t have to enter into a relationship.”
“You’re crazy. You know I’m not like that.” “Kelsey, for once in your life, let down your hair and do something crazy. For years you’ve worked yourself to the bone. You’re only twenty-nine. Why not have fun while you’re there?” “Hey, I did do something crazy. I got drunk on my second night here, remember?” The splitting headache that had followed that little adventure was unforgettable. “That’s nothing. People get drunk all the time. You need to do something bigger and more rewarding. Have a one-night stand or two.” Kelsey shook her head, laughing. She couldn’t imagine sleeping with a man and not getting attached. “No way.” “Come on, Kelsey, you’ve been a good girl long enough to last you a lifetime. Haven’t you ever wondered how it must feel to have one wild night with a hot guy, without all the complications that come with being in a relationship? You’ve been single for a year. Time for you to get back in the game.” Kelsey digested her friend’s words in silence. Delia was right. She had been a good girl for too long. And where had it gotten her? Nowhere. “That neighbor of yours could be the one to convert you.” Delia laughed. Kelsey bit her lip, thinking of the first time she saw Shaun. How would it feel to be in his arms? To have him do things to her she blushed just thinking about? “So, will you do it?” “I’ll think about it.” She moved the phone to her other ear. “Now drop it. I called to tell you I’m getting a haircut today.” “Since when do you cut your hair?” Apart from an occasional trim, Kelsey had never had
her hair cut before. “It’s time for something new.” “Good for you. Email me a photo.” *** “Take a seat, Kelsey.” Maeve pointed to an empty padded chair. “I’ll be with you in a second.” Kelsey sat and crossed her legs. She pretended to leaf through a magazine she’d brought with her as she eavesdropped on the conversations going on in between shampoos and hairsprays. When the conversation steered to Shaun, her ears pricked up. “I heard something tragic chased him from the United States. He’s definitely running from something,” said a woman sitting under a hooded dryer as she inspected her nails. She had a button nose and a missing tooth. “Who cares? A town can never have enough goodlooking men,” added another hairdresser who was sweeping the floor. Kelsey lifted her feet so the woman could sweep away someone’s hair with a broom that was missing half its bristles. “You’re married, Emma,” Maeve scolded. “I’m talking on behalf of the single women of Dreara.” “Still, it would be interesting to know what he’s hiding,” Maeve continued. The toothless woman leaned forward. “I’m pretty sure it has to do with a woman whose heart he broke. He seems to be quite the ladies’ man.” Maeve nodded. “I don’t blame the women chasing after him. He looks like a Greek god.” They all laughed. A well-preserved sixty-something woman under another hooded dryer glanced at Maeve. “He’s much too mysterious for my liking. Hardly talks to anyone.”
A glow flooded Kelsey’s veins; she was one of the few people Shaun talked to. Not that she would say that to any of them. They’d attack her for information she didn’t have. “But at least he’s friendly,” Maeve defended him. “Except when he’s wandering around along the beach. I see him almost every evening when I take Fluffy for a walk. Not one word of greeting,” Emma added. “And that haunted look in his eyes makes me shiver.” She paused. “Anyway, I don’t have to look at other men. I’m happy with my Ciaran.” Maeve gazed at Emma from the corner of her eye. “I bet you are, Emma. Your husband irons your underwear. Who wouldn’t be happy in your shoes?” Kelsey stifled a giggle. Emma resisted defeat. “Is that jealousy I hear?” Maeve raised an eyebrow. “Why would I be jealous? Unlike married women, I’m not tied to one man. When I see a sexy guy, I’m not only allowed to look, I’m allowed to touch.” A ripple of laughter filled the room, and Kelsey joined in without meaning to. Suddenly, the hairdresser with the broom stopped sweeping and scanned Kelsey’s face, her beady eyes squinting, and then her mouth dropped open. “Aren’t you the O’Neil girl?” Kelsey blushed and bit her lip. She had hoped not many people would recognize her here in Dreara. But all the women—except Maeve—nearly snapped their necks turning to stare. The woman with the missing tooth gawked. “Yes, of course it’s her. I saw her in the paper a while back. Something about—” “Done.” Maeve removed her client’s styling cape and
swiveled the salon chair around to face the large mirror, then she turned to the rest of them. “Yes, this is Kelsey O’Neil. Now stop staring at her as if she’s some zoo animal. Kelsey, come on. I’m ready for you.” Relieved, Kelsey slid the magazine into her handbag and stood up. The small hairs on the back of her neck stirred as the women’s gazes followed her. “Thanks,” she whispered to Maeve as she sat down. “Don’t worry about it.” Maeve released Kelsey’s hair from its ponytail, allowing the bouncing curls to cascade past her shoulders and down her back. “Now, do you want a subtle change or a drastic one?” Soft curls encircled Kelsey’s fingers as she ran her hands through her hair. She had often been tempted to have it cut, wondering how she would look in one of those cute bobs, but she was never brave enough. Dropping her hand to her lap, she mentally crossed her fingers and said, “Drastic.” Maeve reached for a brush and ran it through Kelsey’s hair section by section. “Good decision. I know the perfect style for you.” “I hope so.” Kelsey bit her bottom lip. “Don’t worry. Getting a haircut is like having an emotional makeover. This is your last chance to say no.” “Just promise to make me beautiful.” Maeve patted Kelsey’s shoulder. “I’ll do better than that.” Maeve brought her to a chair in front of a sink and told her to lean back. A jet of warm water flooded Kelsey’s hair and scalp, and she closed her eyes. To keep herself from questioning the decision she’d just made, she followed the foamy traces Maeve’s hands made along her scalp and fell into a half sleep. From a distance, she heard the muffled sounds of
gossip and breathed in the scent of the refreshing shampoo. After a few minutes, Maeve moved her to the styling station and reached for the scissors. The snip of the scissors made Kelsey cringe. She imagined locks of her hair falling like parachutes to the floor. In the end, she closed her eyes again and placed her trust completely in Maeve’s hands. Soon the cut was done, and the warm blast of air from the hairdryer woke up every cell of her body that was still half asleep. But she kept her eyes closed, in case what she saw made her panic. “Feels good, doesn’t it?” Maeve asked. “Like therapy.” “That’s the second role of a hairdresser. We’re also therapists,” Maeve whispered into Kelsey’s ear. “So, have you made any moves on him yet?” Kelsey laughed. “I never planned to,” she whispered back, but she couldn’t deny the little flame inside her. “Wait till he sees you. He’ll be the one making the first move.” Maeve whirled her around. “Old Kelsey, meet new Kelsey.” Kelsey opened her eyes and did an inward doubletake. “What do you think?” “I… I—wow…” Kelsey stared into the mirror, too stunned to say more. Her hair fell forward and stroked her cheeks. She had never seen it so straight or silky before. “Woman, speak. I know you love it.” “I do. It’s fun and fresh and feminine—just what I wanted. I love it.” Kelsey moved her head from side to side and her locks swished wonderfully. “I feel like a new person already. Maeve, thank you.”
*** In the spirit of trying out new things, Kelsey decided she would cook her first meal from scratch. Since childhood, she had been fascinated by cooking. It all started when her father used to send her to the kitchen as punishment when she misbehaved. After a few months, she looked forward to those punishments. For a while she helped Maria out with the little things— cutting onions or peeling potatoes. Then her father found out and banned her from the kitchen. Aidan O’Neil had been disappointed when it dawned on him that his daughter would rather stand behind a stove than focus on her schoolwork. He didn’t want her to be a cook, and didn’t understand why she would want to be one if she could pay someone to do it for her. But the more he denied her the pleasure of being in the kitchen, the more her dream flourished. When he wasn’t around, she sneaked right back in to watch Maria. The grocery store, with its thatched roof, big glass windows, and fluorescent lighting, was a great combination of old and new. As she walked in, she withdrew the magazine from her bag; there was a particularly delicious-sounding lasagna recipe inside. It took ten minutes to find all the things she needed. At home, she laid out the ingredients on the kitchen table and read through the recipe. “This can’t be too hard,” she said out loud, tracing her index finger down the page. It wasn’t. Not really. She cut her finger a little when she sliced the onions, but she didn’t give up. She followed the instructions to the last pinch of salt and placed the lid on the pot of sauce. The hardest part was over. The only thing left to be done was remove the sauce from the hot plate and layer the dish for the oven.
Her phone rang. It was Delia, wanting to find out how the makeover went. Kelsey checked on the sauce, then went upstairs with the phone glued to her ear.
Chapter Eight Shaun had just completed a chapter and looked up, stretching his arms. Thick smoke was curling out of Kelsey’s kitchen window. “What the hell?” Without a second thought, he shot out of his chair and darted out of the house into the drizzle, a rush of adrenaline pumping through his veins as it used to a long time ago at any sign of a fire. By the time he reached her door, fear had twisted itself around his heart. He rang the bell once. When there was no answer, he tried the door handle. It was unlocked. He raced straight to the kitchen. Fortunately, there was no sign of fire apart from the pot on the stove. Coughing, he turned off the stove and threw the charred pot into the sink. Then he went to search for Kelsey. He found her in the bedroom, fast asleep. A cooking magazine lay open on the bed next to her. She must have sensed someone was in the room, because just as he was about to wake her, her eyes flew open and she jumped up. “Shaun, what… why are you here?” Shaun threw the windows open. “You left the stove on.” Eyes widening, Kelsey dashed out of the room and down the stairs, Shaun at her heels. “What in the world were you cooking?” He wrinkled his brow. Kelsey grimaced at the ruined pot and its contents. “Sauce for lasagna. I totally forgot about it. Oh my God, I could have burned down Brian’s cottage.” “Are you sure you didn’t do it on purpose?” Shaun
teased her in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere. “What?” He tried again. “Could it be that you wanted to get me over here so I could see your new hairstyle?” Kelsey’s touched her hair. She blushed and the beginning of a smile tipped the corners of her mouth. “Very funny.” He studied her for a moment, then removed the pot from the sink. “I’ll throw this away for you. Looks as if you were cooking the pot instead of the lasagna sauce.” That made her laugh. Amidst the smoke, her laughter was like a fresh helping of oxygen. As they walked toward the front door, Shaun breathed in deeply and toyed with a thought that could end up getting him in trouble. But before he could make up his mind, his mouth spoke for him. “I’m having dinner at The Hot Pot tonight. Since you’ve burned your food, maybe you should join me.” Kelsey’s lips twitched. “I… Yes, I think that’s a good idea.” “Shit,” Shaun muttered as he opened the door and stepped outside. Why did he have to do that? Spending time with her during the tour of Dreara had already messed him up. The last thing he wanted was for her to think he’d asked her out on a date. But he just couldn’t convince himself to call it off. *** The restaurant was furnished with mahogany tables and chairs, and cream lace curtains. Vases filled with violets lit up the dining area. The whole place smelled of wine and cooking food, and cello music played in the background. A gray-haired older woman wearing a white blouse and a black pleated skirt sped toward them, beaming.
She stretched her hand out to Kelsey. “Welcome to the Hot Pot.” The warmth of her smile was reflected in her voice. Then she turned to Shaun. “It’s lovely to see you again, Shaun. I hope you’re still enjoying Dreara. I hope you plan to stay for a while longer, now that you have a new friend.” Shaun and Kelsey exchanged glances and smiled. She liked his smile. His teeth were so straight and white. “I definitely intend to.” Shaun’s eyes didn’t leave Kelsey’s. “I’m glad to hear that. Let me show you to your table.” She gestured for them to follow her. “What’s your name, dear?” “Kelsey.” “Kelsey,” she repeated, the letters rolling across her tongue as if she were tasting them. “What a lovely name. I’m Lucy.” She halted in front of a table next to a large potted plant, and while they sat down, she went to hang up their coats. She returned with a menu card, which she handed to Kelsey before disappearing again. “The usual for me, Lucy,” Shaun said. He must be a regular, Kelsey thought. “Can’t get enough, love?” Lucy let out a silvery laugh and without waiting for an answer, she moved her attention to Kelsey. “Have you decided what you’re having, dear?” Kelsey gazed up from her menu. “I’ll have the pasta with bacon and broccoli, and a glass of fizzy mineral water.” “Good choice.” Lucy nodded and went to the kitchen to get their orders filled. “She seems nice.” Kelsey spread her napkin out on her lap. “Yes, she is. I like eating here because she’s one of
the few people who don’t try to extract information out of me and distribute it to the rest of Dreara.” Kelsey was tempted to ask if the information he was hiding was worth distributing, but she bit her tongue. The worst thing would be for him to think she had the same intention of getting him to reveal his secrets. But she had to admit she was curious. After Maeve mentioned in passing that he wrote under the name Justin Wood, Kelsey had bought his book in Limmery and read it. It had been a really enjoyable read, but it seemed to be all fiction. Even a search about him online yielded no results apart from the fact that he was an international bestselling author. Shaun was served a shoulder of lamb in a pastry dish. For a while Kelsey envied the rich smell and wished she’d ordered the same. But when her food was placed in front of her, she changed her mind. Her own meal looked just as delicious. At first they ate in silence. Then Shaun put down his fork and knife and eyed her for a long time. “What?” Kelsey asked, taking a sip of her mineral water. “Nothing,” he said. “I was just trying to guess who you really are, but I’m stumped. So tell me, what do you do for a living?” he asked with genuine interest on his face. Before answering, Kelsey swallowed the food in her mouth and drank more water. “Before coming here, I was employed as chief financial officer at Glocal COM.” Shaun straightened up. “Fascinating. So, you studied… something to do with numbers?” He cocked an eyebrow. “Accounting.” “Sexy and smart.” He murmured under his breath,
but Kelsey heard him and blushed. “You must be brilliant at number-crunching to land such a high position at Glocal. That company is a pretty big deal, even in the U.S. I think it’s among the top PR firms in the world. How did you get in?” Kelsey swallowed and decided to tell him the truth. “My father owns it. But, yes, I am pretty good with numbers. I did work my way to the top on my own.” She didn’t want him thinking she’d had everything handed to her. “Wow! You’re the founder’s daughter.” Shaun was silent for a while, as if thinking about something. “What’s his name… Aidan O’Neil. You’re Kelsey O’Neil?” “I am.” “What made you walk away from such a great career?” Kelsey shrugged. “I did fantastic work for the company for years… for my father. But crunching numbers was never my passion. So I quit and decided to figure out what I love for a change. I came here to take a break and start a new chapter in my life.” She refrained from telling him about the trigger of her life-changing decision. Craig was in the past, and she wouldn’t pay him any more attention than he deserved. “Was it your old man who convinced you to work in the family business, then?” Forced was more like it. Aidan O’Neil always had the last word. “He wouldn’t have it any other way. I studied accounting because of him. He’s very controlling. It was always his way or the highway.” “It couldn’t have been easy to walk away, then.” Kelsey inhaled. “No, it wasn’t. We haven’t spoken since I quit.” “What would you have studied instead? If your father
didn’t interfere?” “I wanted to become a chef, to open up my own restaurant one day. My father forbade it.” “A chef?” Shaun arched an eyebrow. “Something wrong with that?” “No, no. I’m not trying to tease you. I’m impressed, that’s all. Why a chef?” “The population is growing. There are more mouths to feed.” Kelsey shrugged. “I don’t know. I love food. I love the smells, the textures, the colors… everything.” “We need more chefs who think the way you do. When am I invited to dinner?” His lips twitched. “The only problem is I can’t cook.” “Oh, yes.” He threw back his head and laughed. “How could I forget? You almost burned the cottage down earlier today.” “Don’t be mean.” Kelsey laughed. “What are you going to do about it?” “About?” “Your lack of cooking skills? Now that your father can’t stop you, are you going to go for it? I think you should.” “You don’t think it’s too late?” “It’s never too late unless you decide it is. You could start by learning to cook more basic meals and then take it from there.” Kelsey’s heart hammered against her chest. “You have a point.” Her voice was husky. “There’s nothing and no one stopping me.” Shaun leaned forward. “I can help you search for culinary classes in Limmery. Who knows, there might even be one or two schools right here in Dreara.” “I’d appreciate that.” Kelsey really did like the idea. This was the push she needed.
They continued eating again in silence, while the other diners talked in hushed voices. Finally, Kelsey decided to ask Shaun about himself. She didn’t want to pry, and she had to tread carefully. But he’d asked her a few personal questions, so why couldn’t she do the same? “How about you? What did you do before you became an author? Or have you always been an author?” Shaun looked away and his jaw tightened. “I was a firefighter.” “Really? That’s exciting. I was rescued by a man who actually knows his way around fire. Were you at least lucky enough to love your job?” His eyes darkened as if a velvet curtain had fallen behind them. “Yes.” His voice was clipped. “So, why did you stop? I’m sure it’s possible to both write and put out fires.” “Life got in the way.” He wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Are you done? Can we leave?” Kelsey read between the lines. He wanted to remain a closed book. But that only made her want to dig deeper, to find out what he was hiding. “Yes, of course. Let’s go.” She pushed back her chair and stood. They paid the check on their way out, then drove home. *** Shaun burst into his cottage and headed straight for the bathroom. He ran the faucet and dunked his head under the water, wishing it could clear his head of Kelsey O’Neil. The girl was getting under his skin, especially tonight. He’d been unable to keep his eyes off those luscious lips, the curves of her breasts, the way her ass moved when she walked. It had taken every ounce of strength not to pull her close and kiss her. He wanted her
at a distance now just as much as he wanted her close by. The more time he spent with her, the more he wanted her. Finding out she was smart in addition to hot only moved her up on his scale of dateable women, and he didn’t date anyone. When he’d asked her to dinner, he hoped they could just be friends. But who was he fooling? He loved the way she bent her head to one side when she smiled, the way her eyelashes stroked her cheeks when she lowered her eyes. The way she hung on his every word, as if there was nothing else she’d rather do. It turned him on. He splashed tepid water onto his face and squeezed his eyes shut. Then he opened them again, reached for a towel, and patted his face and hair dry. When he left the bathroom and went down to the kitchen, Kelsey was still on his mind. He’d been just fine, fucking the occasional girl every couple of weeks, and writing his book. The cottage Kelsey was renting had been empty for months, and he’d thought it would stay unoccupied for a while longer. He certainly hadn’t been interested in entertaining any neighbors. Now the new girl in town had come to mess with his plans. He didn’t plan for this shit. He’d been down that road before and it had ended badly. Now fate seemed to be pushing him back in the direction he was trying to avoid, and he didn’t have the power to stop it. One thing was for certain: He couldn’t stay away from Kelsey if he tried. She was like some kind of drug. And ever since the day he met her, he found himself smiling and laughing more than he had done in years. It had been way more fun experiencing Dreara with her than alone. The excited look in her eyes when she learned something new was priceless. And there was one more place he couldn’t wait to show her. He had to see
the sparkle in her eye one more time. “Damn you, Kelsey O’Neil,” he said as he opened a cupboard and pulled out a mug. He’d fill himself up with coffee and write all night if he had to. Sleeping was out of the question.
Chapter Nine The harsh ringing of the house phone ripped Kelsey out of her sleep. She had been up half the night wondering what Shaun was running from. When she’d finally fallen asleep at dawn, she dreamed of him. “Hello?” Kelsey was too sleepy to raise her voice above a thick whisper. “Hi, Kelsey. It’s Shaun. I got your phone number from Brian.” His voice was strong and clear—no trace of sleep. He sounded like he’d been awake for hours. “Did I wake you? I can call back later.” “No, it’s fine. I’m awake.” She ran a hand through her hair. “There’s a place each cook, or wannabe cook, must see. The farmer’s market. I discovered it a few weeks ago. It’s open only on Saturdays. I’ll be going there in two hours. Do you want to come along?” Kelsey blinked the sleep from her eyes and moved the phone to her other ear. A smile spread across her face. She couldn’t resist another chance to be with him. “I’m not a cook yet, but okay.” When Kelsey left the cottage at noon, Shaun met her outside the gate. He was wearing a black leather jacket and his hair lay flat on his head, damp from the soft drizzle. During the twenty minutes it took them to drive to the market, Kelsey was thankful for the music playing on the radio; there was no uneasy silence to fill. Shaun kept his hands firmly on the wheel and his eyes focused on the road. He was an incredibly careful driver, and she still found it odd. Apart from a word here and there, he hardly even spoke. It seemed as though he
didn’t want to be distracted. She couldn’t help shooting him occasional sidelong glances. She studied his strong jaw, chiseled face, and five-o’clock shadow, then moved to his manly hands. She had to clasp her own hands in her lap to prevent herself from resting her hand on his thigh. “Like what you see?” he asked and she peered out the window so he wouldn’t see her blush. “I don’t know what you mean.” “I could feel you watching me.” Kelsey swallowed hard and clasped her sweaty hands tighter. Had she been so obvious? “Sorry.” What else could she say? He chuckled from deep within his throat and didn’t say anything more. She relaxed when they finally pulled into a parking lot. “It’s only a five-minute walk from here.” Kelsey smiled and unhooked her seatbelt. She climbed out of the car and quietly walked beside him. The rain had stopped now and the sun gleamed down from the spaces between the clouds. “So, what’s special about this farmer’s market?” Kelsey asked. “It’s a culinary delights heaven. If you loved food before, you’ll fall in love with it all over again.” He was right. As they approached a sea of stalls overflowing with fresh jams, chocolate, pastries, fruits, and vegetables, a thrill coursed through Kelsey and the awkward moment in the car was forgotten. Social banter and bargaining filled the air, and traditional music and cheerful laughter welcomed them. Shaun placed the palm of his hand on the small of her back and guided her through the river of people.
Even through her jacket, heat flooded the place where his palm rested so casually. “This is amazing,” she said as they passed a stall with a pig on a spit. “I agree. I come here almost every Saturday.” “I can see why.” “Shall we get something to eat?” he asked. “How can I refuse?” They found a free bench under a blue tent and feasted upon warm, freshly baked bread smothered with herbs and seeds. Small cubes of homemade butter melted from the loaf’s heat. “Thanks for inviting me here.” Kelsey sank her teeth into her bread and watched Shaun watching her. She didn’t look away. The man she saw in him seemed so different from the one everybody gossiped about. They called him a womanizer, but she hadn’t seen a single woman enter or leave his cottage. The bread was the most delicious brunch Kelsey had ever eaten. But it wasn’t just the food that she enjoyed. It was the cool air on her cheeks, the sound of children laughing in the distance, the genuine smiles of the people all around them… and Shaun… “Hang on.” Shaun slid closer on the bench. He reached out and brushed a crumb from the corner of her mouth, leaving it tingling. Then he offered her a hand and they rose to explore more stalls. They walked until Shaun suddenly halted and looked at her with a wicked grin. “Let’s give them something to talk about.” Kelsey frowned. “What do you mean?” “Don’t you see everyone staring at us? I guess they’re wondering what a girl like you is doing with a man like me.”
Kelsey looked around, and sure enough, people were staring. “Wow, they’re not even making an effort to hide it. Are we that interesting?” “I’m sure they think you’re my latest conquest.” Kelsey lowered her gaze. “They’ll soon find out that’s not true… We’re only friends.” She tried not to sound disappointed. “Or we can give them something to talk about. Then we can go back to being friends.” Kelsey met his gaze again, which was dark with mischief. “What do you mean?” Instead of answering her question, Shaun pulled her against him and kissed her hard on the lips. At first, she froze in his arms, too shocked to think about what to do next. But his kiss had an effect on her… She melted under his touch. Against her will, she found herself parting her lips and allowing her tongue to tangle with his. As his tongue teased hers and explored her mouth, her legs lost all strength, but he held her firmly. She wound her fingers into his hair to deepen the kiss, but he stopped and moved his lips away, leaving her weak and dizzy, and aching for more. Touching her pulsating lips with the tips of her fingers, she looked around. Some people gawked, while others turned away in apparent disgust. Humiliation washed over her. The new girl had become entangled with the mysterious womanizer. Publicly. “Now, let’s pretend nothing happened.” Shaun slipped his hand through her arm and nodded at two giggling teenagers. On trembling legs, Kelsey followed. She was completely under his spell. They both did some shopping at various stalls, and
then started walking back to the truck. During their walk, Kelsey wanted to talk about what had happened, but she couldn’t form the words. She was scared to even think about what was happening. The sexual tension between them was so strong, it terrified her. She couldn’t have a one-night stand with this man. She didn’t think she could stop at one night. “You know,” Shaun finally said. “I’m not one for PDAs, but what happened back there was damn satisfying.” “I… I enjoyed it too.” She could still feel the memory of his lips on hers. “You should have seen the looks on their faces,” Shaun continued. Kelsey’s heart sank. “That’s what you enjoyed most?” “That and your kissable lips, of course. Who wouldn’t want to kiss you?” She was dumbfounded. Should she thank him? On one hand she was flattered, but on the other she felt used. Mostly, she was angry with herself for running straight into a train wreck. She decided not to say anything, not even during the drive home. “I hate eating alone,” Shaun said as they stood in front of Kelsey’s gate. He lifted the two white bags filled with his shopping from the market. “Do you want to join me for dinner?” “Who’s cooking?” Kelsey smiled. He wanted to spend time with her twice in the same day. Even though he’d said their kiss meant nothing, there was something between them—some delicate thread she wanted to explore further. But for now, as he’d proposed, she’d act as if the kiss hadn’t happened. She was an adult and she could handle it. All in all, he had been kind to her. The
least she could do was join him for dinner.. “I’ll do the cooking. I know a thing or two, you know.” Kelsey cocked an eyebrow. “What? You never said.” “You never asked.” He chuckled. “So, dinner at eight?” Why not? “Sure. See you at eight.” *** Shaun laid a hand on Kelsey’s back—a little too close to her butt—and ushered her through his sitting room toward the kitchen. She discreetly surveyed the room. A teak table in front of a window was overflowing with notebooks, sport and writing magazines, a navy blue shirt, and what seemed to be a voice recorder. A half-full glass of orange juice stood on top of a magazine on the windowsill. As they stepped through the door, she felt his silky breath on her neck. This was not good; it was not part of the plan. “I look forward to cooking for you.” “Hmmm… thanks.” Since accepting his dinner invitation, she had almost cancelled twice. She had feelings for him, and she was kidding herself in thinking they could be ordinary neighbors enjoying a casual dinner together. No man had ever cooked a meal for her. And the man she didn’t want to get attached to was doing all the right things. He pulled out a chair at the kitchen table and waved a hand. “Why don’t you take a seat? Food will be ready in a bit.” Kelsey’s stomach growled on cue, and on instinct, she tightened her stomach muscles as if that would shut it up. Wrong. It rumbled again twice. Loudly. She swallowed hard. Talk about embarrassing. “Looks like your stomach is ready to be fed.” Shaun
gave her a mischievous smile as he rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. Kelsey bit her lip. “Sorry.” “Nothing to be sorry for. Now, I have work to do. I shall not make the lady wait any longer.” Without wasting time, Shaun sprang straight into action. His comfort in the kitchen was sexy. She wondered whether he often cooked his own meals. “It’s such a luxury to prepare my own food,” Shaun said, as if he’d read her mind. “And cooking is so relaxing. I can understand why you’d want to be a chef.” Kelsey shook her head and laughed. “I can’t believe you didn’t say anything about your cooking skills before.” Shaun laughed, the sound coming from deep within his throat and echoing off the walls. “I didn’t want to outshine you.” He placed a small glass bowl of olives, and a platter of perfectly julienned vegetables and dip in front of her. “I made this. Tell me if you like it.” He pulled a plain white folded apron from a drawer and tied it around his waist. “Let’s see.” Kelsey picked up a long, thin piece of carrot and dipped it into the green dip. She took a bite and almost swooned. She had never tasted a more delicious avocado dip in her life. “This is delicious. You really made this?” “Yes, baby. That’s all me.” Shaun confused her. He talked as if he cared about her, as if he was flirting. And yet there was this other side to him everyone said he had. She couldn’t see the heartbreaker. Apart from the stunt he pulled at the market, he seemed like a gentle, caring man. She couldn’t imagine him trampling on anyone’s feelings. She tried hard not to stare, but her gaze kept flickering over his well-built body, and then at his masculine hands as
he deftly chopped an onion. “Well, it’s the best thing I’ve ever had,” she said. Shaun peered over his shoulder with a mischievous smile that made the corners of his eyes crinkle. “You sure about that?” His tone said he was no longer talking about food. Kelsey’s cheeks burned bright red. “You’re bad.” He turned away again. “No, I’m not bad, Kelsey. I’m worse.” He paused. “I’m a jerk.” Kelsey coughed up the carrot she was about to swallow. “You’re what?” She burst out laughing. “A jerk, an ass, or whatever you want to call it.” “How can you say something like that about yourself?” “I don’t. Others do.” He turned to face her again, arms crossed. “Or they think it at least. Word around town is I’m a heartless womanizer.” “And you don’t have a problem with what people say about you?” A slow smile formed on his lips. “Why should I? I think it’s a compliment.” “So it’s true.” Kelsey felt a twinge deep inside. “You’re everything they say you are… a womanizer? Did you really sleep with almost every woman in this town?” She was getting personal, but he’d brought up the topic. Shaun approached the table. He sat down beside her and leaned in so close that Kelsey worried he could hear her heart thumping. “What do you think? Do you think that’s true?” Kelsey swallowed her carrot. “I don’t know you… not really. You don’t say much about yourself.” She held her breath. Having him so close was making her dizzy. Shaun dipped a finger into the dip and moved it to her lips. She hesitated for a moment, but then parted her
lips and allowed his finger to slip in. She sucked the dip off quickly and turned her head. Why in the world did she do that? Now there was a tingling between her legs she was finding hard to ignore. “Looks like you’re enjoying the dip,” Shaun whispered, a note of humor in his voice. Kelsey blushed. “I… yes. It’s great.” Oh God, what was he doing to her? Shaun moved closer until his lips were only a whisper from hers. “Kelsey, I haven’t slept with every woman in this town… yet. And I don’t break women’s hearts. They do it to themselves.” His voice was raw now. “I’m always honest about what I want and don’t want. Many choose to ignore that.” He stood and returned to the stove, putting his focus back on the meal he was preparing. Kelsey didn’t know what to say to that. “Ready to eat?” he asked a few minutes later. The man she’d had a sneak peek of a few minutes ago was gone, and the friendly neighbor was back. They ate mostly in silence. Though the fish and vegetable stir fry was delicious, Kelsey was unable to concentrate on her food. Her emotions were all over the place; she thought of his finger inside her mouth, the passionate look in his eyes when he’d made his confession about loving women. He was bad news, even if he was magnetic. If she got entangled with him, she’d get hurt. He’d pretty much made it clear he wasn’t interested in more than sex. There was only one thing for her to do: She had to take a step back. She couldn’t risk her heart for a onenight stand. ***
After Kelsey left, Shaun opened the dishwasher. He had just started to rinse the plates when his cell phone rang. He wiped his hands with a dishcloth and picked up, frowning. “Shaun, Branna here. Where are you? I thought you were coming over tonight. I can also come to your place, if you like.” Shaun massaged his left temple. He had completely forgotten about her. “Actually,” he said, “Tonight won’t be possible. Something came up. I was just about to call you.” It was a lie. There was a pause on the other end, but when Branna spoke, her voice was hopeful. “Okay, that’s fine. How about tomorrow? I have the day off. I could cook you dinner.” “No.” Shaun leaned against the table. “I’m afraid this whole week will be crazy for me. I have a lot of writing to do.” This was exactly why he made it a point to never sleep with the same woman more than once. Branna was a waitress at Conaire’s Corner, with red hair and a great body. He’d broken his own rule and slept with her twice. Now she was going on as if they were a couple. He had to put an end to it now before it became too complicated. He inhaled sharply. “Look, Branna, you’re great. And it was fun, but—” “Are you dumping me?” Her voice was a faint squeak. “I thought…” Shaun gritted his teeth. “I’m sorry, I don’t do this. I don’t date. I did tell you, remember? I was up-front with you.” “I thought you were joking.” “I don’t joke about things like that.” Well,” Branna’s voice had transformed into a thin razorblade, “fuck you.” The phone went dead.
Shaun raked a hand through his hair and swore under his breath. Kelsey was to blame for this mess. Since the day he met her, he’d found it hard to focus on other women. The second time he had sex with Branna, a few days ago, it had been Kelsey he’d made love to. But Kelsey was the one woman he didn’t want to get involved with. If he touched her, he’d end up breaking all his rules.
Chapter Ten “Door’s open,” Sarah called from inside their cottage. Kelsey moved the basket to her left hand and pushed the door open. It still amazed her how people in Dreara didn’t think twice about leaving their doors unlocked. That would never happen in Saulery. But then again, if she’d remembered to lock her door the other day, Shaun wouldn’t have been able to alert her about the burning pot. Brian was reading a dog-eared book and Sarah was knitting. They both looked up in surprise when she entered. “Wow, Kelsey, your hair is lovely,” Sarah said. “Maeve was right; your eyes do stand out more. They’re such a lovely blue.” Kelsey ran a hand through her hair. She was still getting used to having it short, but she loved her new hairstyle more each day. “Thank you. Maeve did a fantastic job.” Brian stood up to greet Kelsey. “We were starting to wonder what had happened to you.” “I’ve been busy settling in. This is for you both— something I picked up at the farmer’s market.” Sarah put down her knitting and reached for the basket. “That’s so kind of you.” “It’s a major tourist attraction,” Brian said. “Did you go alone?” “No, I went with… hmmm… Shaun.” Brian and Sarah exchanged a quick glance and then Sarah cleared her throat and smiled. “That’s… that’s nice, but you really didn’t have to get us something, love.” She placed the basket on her lap.
“It’s just something small. A thank you for your kindness.” “Take a seat.” Sarah stood. “Can I get you something to drink?” “Don’t worry, I’m not staying long. I just came to ask you for some information.” Sarah and Brian both perked up, as if all along they’d just been waiting to be useful. “What would you like to know?” Sarah sat down again. “Do you know of any culinary schools in Dreara?” “You want to be a chef?” Sarah leaned forward, her softly lined face lighting up. “Since I was a little girl. I’m interested in taking some lessons. But I don’t know where to start searching for a school. I thought you might be able to help me out.” Kelsey felt a guilty pang at having asked them instead of Shaun, who had spurred her on in the first place and offered to help find a school. But for the past week, she’d tried to distance herself from him. She couldn’t spend time with him without wanting to climb into his bed. And she couldn’t sleep with him without getting hurt. The best thing to do was to stay away for a while and concentrate on herself. A cooking lesson would keep her busy enough. “I know just the place.” Brian stood and reached for his coat. “I can take you there right now if you’re ready to go.” “More than ready.” *** The Cooking Academy was attached to the Dreara Junior Secondary School. Brian waited in the car while Kelsey went inside to enquire. He had offered to go in with her, but Kelsey wanted to do it alone. Twenty minutes later, she exited the building with a
folder and a large grin. “I’m starting next week,” she told Brian as she fastened her seatbelt. Brian squeezed her hand. “Already? That’s grand.” If only Brian knew how incredibly fantastic it was. For Kelsey, it was more than she could ever have wished for. She was lucky; the class starting next week had been full, but they had managed to fit her in. The course would not turn her into a world-renowned chef, but she’d at least learn the basics. It was one step down the road from dream to reality. *** Five days after Brian drove Kelsey to The Cooking Academy, her kitchen faucet had started dripping. Brian had fixed it immediately, but two days ago, it started again. Not wanting to disturb him again, she’d placed a bowl under it and did her best to ignore the annoying sound. She tried fixing it herself, stuffing a ball of cotton in the nozzle, and turning up the volume of the TV, but nothing worked. Today she gave in and called Brian again. He promised to send someone over before the end of the day. Around eight o’clock in the evening, Kelsey gave up the wait and lounged on the sofa watching TV—at a highenough volume to muffle the dripping sound from the kitchen. Maybe Brian couldn’t find someone at such late notice. It didn’t matter. She could deal with a dripping faucet for one more night, no matter how much the sound was grating on her nerves. The doorbell rang ten minutes later and Kelsey was surprised to find Shaun, wearing scuffed jeans and a white T-shirt and carrying a toolbox. Her heart turned over. “Shaun, what are you doing here?”
“I’m the handyman. Brian told me you have a dripping faucet on your hands?” There was a tingling in Kelsey’s stomach as she tried to resist returning his captivating smile. For the past two weeks, they’d managed to just be neighbors. When they bumped into each other, they said hello and went their separate ways. No one had invited the other for a drink or dinner or anything else. She’d filled her days with walks on the beach, long naps, dinners at the Soup and More restaurant across the street or at Brian and Sarah’s, and watching cooking shows on TV. But she did need help with the faucet. If Shaun was the man to fix it, so be it. She’d let him., and then they’d go back to being neighbors. “Thanks. Please come in.” Shaun nodded and walked past her into the sitting room, leaving behind a trail of intoxicating cologne. “How have you been? It’s been a while.” “I’ve been great.” Kelsey led the way to the kitchen. “Nothing to complain about. Except the faucet, of course.” Standing in the kitchen with him, Kelsey felt suddenly awkward. The room was too small and she didn’t know what to do with her hands. Offering him something to drink would be good—but she found she couldn’t move, and so she just stood there staring at him. Under the sink, Shaun turned off the water supply. When he loosened the plastic cover on the top of the faucet with a flathead screwdriver, his biceps contracted and relaxed, and Kelsey couldn’t stop staring. She felt an urge to run the palm of her hand along his stubble. Then suddenly the memory of him kissing her at the market flooded her mind. Goose bumps popped up on her skin.
Great. Now she would be fantasizing about him again for the next few days. She had to get out of the kitchen before he turned around to find her gawking. “If… if you need me, I’ll be in… I’ll be in—” “Thanks. I’m almost done.” His voice held no emotion whatsoever. Finding refuge in the dining room, Kelsey pulled out a chair and dropped her head into her hands. She didn’t want it to be true, but she had missed Shaun. Even more frightening, her foolish heart was falling for him. When Shaun was done, Kelsey finally managed to offer him coffee as a way to thank him and also poured a cup for herself. She wasn’t normally a coffee drinker, but felt she needed some. As she sipped, she hoped Shaun would drink up and leave. The longer he stayed, the more uncomfortable she became. She could no longer relax in his presence, as though they had crossed some invisible line and there was no going back to being simply friends. Shaun didn’t look like he was in a hurry to leave. Instead, he followed her into the sitting room and sat down next to her on the sofa. Kelsey kept her eyes glued to the blank TV screen. Shaun put his cup down. “Kelsey, is something wrong?” She turned to him, fingers wrapped too tightly around the cup handle. “No. Why do you say that?” “In the last couple of days you’ve been avoiding me. Did I provoke you in any way? The other night… If I overstepped some boundaries, I apologize.” Kelsey shook her head, but her eyes locked with his for a long time. And then, like two poles of a magnet, their heads moved closer. So close she could feel his
warm breath on her face and then the touch of his lips on hers. The blood rushed to her head and her temperature rose. As quickly as they had met, their lips parted; Kelsey came to her senses and pulled away. “You should leave.” If he stayed she was certain she wouldn’t be able to control herself. Shaun got to his feet. “Okay.” There was no expression on his face. Then he gave her a half smile. “By the way, I heard you found a cooking school. Good for you.” Then he walked out the door. Kelsey closed the door behind him and sat back on the sofa, her heart racing. Shaun Brannon made her heart swell. She wanted him, she wanted him so bad, but there were too many issues. The issue of her getting attached, for one. And what about all of his secrets? She hardly knew anything about him, and she just couldn’t risk him turning into another Craig.
Chapter Eleven The branches outside Kelsey’s kitchen trembled in the wind and gentle raindrops tap-danced on the windowpane. As if on cue, Shaun approached his own kitchen window, a mug in his hand, staring straight in her direction as she sat at the table. To lighten the awkward moment, Kelsey forced a smile and waved before turning away as casually as she could manage. She didn’t wait long enough to see if he waved back. Then she grabbed her house keys, a light coat, and one of the large umbrellas hanging by the door. The ten-minute walk in the rain refreshed her. It didn’t help clear her mind, exactly, but it did keep her from sitting nervously at home and thinking about Shaun. As she approached her street again, she decided she wasn’t ready to return home just yet, and walked to Maeve’s place instead. Kelsey liked Maeve a lot and they’d spent a good deal of time together. Maeve reminded her not to take life too seriously and enjoy each day as it came. But even though she had Maeve’s address, she had never visited her at home before. They always met at Brian and Sarah’s, at Kelsey’s, or in town. When Kelsey arrived at Maeve’s cottage, she knocked on the door, but there was no answer. She tried again. Still nothing. She turned to leave, but at that moment the door swung open. “Look who’s here,” Maeve said, her scarlet lips breaking into a smile. She wore a dressing gown and looked like she had been in the process of doing her
makeup. The only thing she’d managed to finish entirely was her lips. Half of her hair was straightened and silky, and the other looked like a perm gone wrong. One of her eyelids was swathed in a smoky gray and the other was as creamy as her cheek. She opened the door wide for Kelsey to enter. The heavy scent of flowery perfume and hairspray almost knocked Kelsey out. She cleared her throat. “I’m sorry to disturb you. Are you getting ready to go out?” Maeve skidded through the living room to what Kelsey assumed to be the bathroom. “I’m going out on a date, but I’m here long enough for a chat. I always have time for that.” Kelsey wasn’t sure whether she should join Maeve in the bathroom or stay where she was. After a moment of standing awkwardly, she lowered herself onto a pale pink leather sofa. She’d never seen a place more suited to its owner. The sofa perfectly matched the walls, and framed photos of Maeve flaunting different hairstyles adorned them. There were a number of brightly colored pieces of clothing hanging on chairs and the TV, and issues of Lady Style magazines were spread out on the glass coffee table as well as on the carpeted floor. Kelsey bent down and picked one up. She skimmed the glossy cover and raised an eyebrow at the date. The magazine was two years old. “Are you coming?” Maeve chirped from the bathroom. Kelsey placed the magazine back where she’d found it and stood up. “Okay.” In the bathroom, she perched on the lip of the bathtub and watched Maeve apply her makeup. Maeve swept the mascara wand along her
eyelashes, her mouth slightly open. “So, what’s on your mind?” “I’ve nothing on my mind.” Kelsey shifted. “What makes you think that?” Maeve screwed the cap back onto the mascara tube and picked up the eyeshadow brush to get to work on the other eyelid. “It’s written all over your face. Spit it out.” Kelsey stood up and turned to sniff the potpourri bowl on the windowsill, debating whether to tell Maeve about Shaun. Dreara was a small town; if Maeve ended up telling just one person, the whole town would know by nightfall. “How’s the sexy neighbor? I know there’s something going on between you two.” Kelsey whipped around too fast and an unwelcome blush crept into her cheeks. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” “Well, I tried not to bring this up and hoped you’d tell me yourself, but everyone is talking. Apparently you were seen at the farmer’s market a while back, exploring each other’s mouths. You go girl.” Maeve winked at her in the mirror. The tips of Kelsey’s ears prickled with heat and she avoided Maeve’s eyes. “Well, I… we did kiss, but nothing more happened after that.” “I don’t understand what you’re waiting for. If I were you and my lips locked with his, I’d have humped him right there on a sack of potatoes.” Maeve placed a tissue between her lips and pressed her lips onto it. Then she squinted as if she’d just realized something. “Kelsey O’Neil, you like him, don’t you? You want all of him… and not just his dick!” “Wow, the words that come out of your mouth are shocking sometimes.” Kelsey laughed and sat back down
on the tub. “So, is it true?” “I do like him.” “Bullshit. You’re completely in love with this guy. Your eyes say it all. What’s stopping you from giving it a try with him?” Maeve raised an eyebrow. “He’s so secretive about his life and I can’t go through that with another man. I don’t want any surprises down the road.” “If you show him you have the hots for him, he might open up to you. He seems to like you enough, or he wouldn’t have kissed you in front of the whole of Dreara.” “Maybe.” Kelsey twirled a lock of her hair around her finger. “But there’s also the problem of him not being a one-woman man. I’m not into sharing.” “Sorry, girl,” Maeve said. “I can’t help you with that one. All I can say is, you’ll continue to ask these questions as long as you don’t give it a shot. I say take what you can get. You never know.” Kelsey pursed her lips and sighed. “Maybe you’re right.”
Chapter Twelve A mixture of fear and excitement had kept Kelsey up all night. Today was the first day of her cooking course. The class wasn’t starting until eight in the morning, but Kelsey pulled up in front of the red brick building at seven. She tried to pull herself together in the car. The beginning of anything was always nerve-racking, but once she started, she usually discovered the other side wasn’t so scary after all. Fifteen minutes before eight, Kelsey told herself there was nothing to be afraid of. She was about to do something she should have done a long time ago. She reached for her backpack, which held her chef’s knife, oven gloves, and the two cookbooks she had been required to bring along. Just as she was about to step out of the car, she spotted Clara, the waitress who had served her and Maeve at Conaire’s Corner. Kelsey’s confidence dwindled. Bumping into someone who had seen her at her worst didn’t do much to build her up. Clara was getting closer now, so Kelsey ducked back into the car and closed the door. She dug into her handbag, pretending to be searching for something. Hopefully Clara would walk by without noticing her. Maybe she wouldn’t even remember her. When she was sure enough time had passed, she got out of the car—then froze. Clara was standing in front of the building Kelsey was about to enter, gazing in her direction. And she definitely recognized her, because she waved. Kelsey had no choice but to wave back and walk toward her, feeling like a child found with her hand in the
cookie jar. “I remember you,” Clara said. “I saw you at Conaire’s.” Kelsey smiled and nodded. “I’m sure you do. I think I got a bit drunk.” Clara laughed and nodded her head. “Yes, you did. You did a little dancing too.” “I did?” Kelsey’s eyes widened. “I don’t remember.” Maybe that was a good thing. She was a horrible dancer. “Don’t worry. Already forgotten. If it makes you feel better, I’ve seen so much worse.” It turned out Clara was taking the same cooking course. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to attend the course with someone who’d already seen her make a fool of herself, Kelsey thought. Just in case she didn’t get it right her first time in the kitchen. Apart from a long table topped with two large boxes, a couple of chairs, a blackboard, and pictures of various dishes hanging from the walls, there wasn’t much else in the classroom. Kelsey and Clara were first to take their seats, and the others joined them in spurts. A man with thin hair and a thick beard walked up to the front of the class. “Welcome, everyone. I’m Frank. It’s great to see you all here today.” He stroked his beard. “Let’s start with introductions, for the faces I don’t recognize.” After the short round of introductions, Frank pointed to the boxes on the table. “In there you’ll find your chef’s jacket, pants, and shoes, in the sizes you specified on the signup form. Please take what belongs to you and let’s get started.” When everyone had found their clothes, Frank, who had been standing by the door as everyone rummaged
through the boxes, sat down at the head of the table, facing them. “All right, everyone, let’s begin. During this course, I’m going to pass on to you some of the most important things I learned while training to be a chef years ago. At some point during the course, some of you may find this is not for you, and decide to leave. That’s fine. Those of you who are in this for the long haul, be prepared for an intensive six months.” After talking through the necessary utensils—chef’s knife, bread knife, paring knife, pots, pans, hand mixer, peeler, measuring utensils, can opener, cutting board— Frank moved on. “As with any profession, being a chef requires a number of imperative skills—timing, multitasking, taste, speed, and the will to learn. In the first few weeks we’ll study these individually. I’ll also teach you some cooking techniques—sautéing, stewing, and braising.” Frank’s animated eyes took in each student seated in front of him. “Once you learn these techniques, you will be able to handle most recipes. I know you’d prefer to go straight into the kitchen right now, but theory is just as important as practice. For that reason, today, you will not be doing any cooking.” *** When Kelsey arrived at her cottage, she found Shaun sitting on her doorstep. He stood up when she approached. “We need to talk,” he said, pushing his hands into his pockets. He shook his head. “No, for some reason I don’t think you want to talk to me, so I’ll just say what I came to say and leave.” A knot formed inside Kelsey’s stomach. “Okay. Do you want to come in?” “No, I’m fine.” Shaun leaned against the wall. “I guess my actions and our conversations have somehow
rubbed you the wrong way. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful to you or to other women. I’m an honest person by nature.” He sucked in a breath. “So, I’m going to be honest. I like you. And I’ve wanted to make love to you from the first day I saw you.” Kelsey’s eyes flew to his. “You—” “Wanted to make love to you. I got the vibe you wanted it too, but you’re all hot and cold. I can’t quite read you. One thing I know for sure is that there’s something here.” He pulled a hand out of his pocket and waved it in the space between them. “I know it, and you know it.” Kelsey licked her lips and tried to say something, but the words stuck inside her throat. She leaned against the wall as well, so her knees wouldn’t give way. She breathed in and out and then opened her mouth. “What do you want me to do about that, Shaun? I don’t understand.” “Nothing you don’t want.” Shaun pushed away from the wall and came to stand over her, hands on both sides of her body. He moved his mouth close to her ear. “I’m going away for a while. I have research to do in some other cities in Ireland. I’ll be back by Christmas. Make your mind up by then. Decide whether you want me to be your Christmas present.” He moved his lips from her ear to her lips and gave her a swift kiss that was just powerful enough to knock the strength from her knees. Then he moved away and walked out of the gate, whistling a tune. Fifteen minutes later, Kelsey saw him load his truck with some bags, and then he drove off, leaving her with a big decision to make. *** Natural light flooded The Academy kitchen, making
the workstations glint. There were large sinks on either side of the room, one for fruits and vegetables and the other for meat products. Racks held rows and rows of gleaming pots and pans that stood at the ready like soldiers awaiting battle. Kelsey smiled and breathed in the air of the kitchen— clean, fresh, and expectant, with a hint of lemon detergent. Frank never stopped telling them how important a clean kitchen was to a chef, and they were to clean as they worked. He stood at the front and chopped, stirred, seasoned, and deglazed; in twenty minutes he had prepared sautéed chicken breasts with summer vegetables. He made it look so easy. After the demonstration there was a short break, and then it was time for the practical class. Kelsey returned to the kitchen wrapped in a silken cloak of euphoria. “It’s time to set up!” Frank called out. “The ingredients are just enough for the dishes you’re preparing today, so try not to waste anything. You may start.” The next two and a half hours were a flurry of activity. Frank roamed around the kitchen presiding over his pupils. Kelsey felt like a surfer riding the waves, and nothing could slow down the adrenaline coursing through her as she chopped, sliced, strained, whisked, and deglazed, all at a furious pace. When she drove home at the end of the day, every cell in her body screamed with exhaustion. But that was a good thing. For the one month Shaun was away, Kelsey kept herself busy with her classes, but when she had nothing to do, she found herself sitting by the phone, willing it to
ring. But it refused. Sometimes she went to bed panicking that he wouldn’t return to Dreara. She surprised herself with how much she missed talking to him and having him next door. If she hadn’t been sure before, she was certain now that she wanted him, and she didn’t care if she got hurt in the end. One night with him would be worth it. She promised herself that when he returned, she would give him a chance, and deal with the consequences later. Naturally, Delia was thrilled for her, as was Maeve. Hopefully Shaun wouldn’t change his mind during his time away.
Chapter Thirteen Dreara at Christmas was like a scene from a fairytale. The chimneys smoked, the houses shone with twinkling lights, bright smiles lit up residents’ faces, and the smell of cinnamon and chocolate hung in the air. Brian, wearing a sweater with Rudolph splashed across its front, opened the door for Kelsey and kissed her on the cheek. Kelsey had played with the idea of just showing up at home in Saulery for Christmas, but the pill she was sure to be handed afterward might be too bitter to swallow. She still hadn’t spoken with her father, who continued to refuse to take or return her calls. The cottage brimmed with laughter and Christmas carols. At least twenty people were present at Brian and Sarah’s party, filling every corner of the small abode. As usual, Maeve stood out from the rest of the crowd. She wore a turquoise figure-hugging dress with snow-white fur trimming the collar and hem. Kelsey hugged her, but was quickly whisked away by Sarah. Together they weaved through the guests and followed the delicious aromas of cinnamon, baked bread, and chocolate, to the kitchen, where a glass of punch was pressed into Kelsey’s hand. On her way out, she walked past a long table covered with finger foods. She picked up a cheese canapé and popped it into her mouth. Then she spotted Shaun on the other side of the room, conversing with a gaunt bald man. He wore a longsleeved shirt the same pale gray color as his eyes. She hadn’t even known he was back in town. Kelsey watched him, her heart thumping so hard she
feared she might pass out. Maeve strutted past her and whispered something into her ear. Kelsey failed to hear it but she knew it had something to do with Shaun. Shaun met her eyes and started walking in her direction. “Hi,” he said, his mouth close to her ear, so she could hear him over the sound of the music. His warm voice sent pleasant shivers down her spine. “Hi, you’re back.” Kelsey bit her lower lip. Just then, Brian waved Shaun over for a chat. Shaun touched Kelsey’s arm, scattering goose bumps across her skin. “I’ll be right back, Kelsey. Can we talk later?” Kelsey nodded and exhaled as he walked away. She couldn’t wait to tell him what she had decided. After dinner, when everyone was engrossed in games and conversations, Kelsey slipped away into a room Sarah had decorated in pinks and whites for the children her daughter never wanted to have. She stepped closer to the window and gazed out into the night without switching on the lights. The twinkling bulbs outside lit the garden up just right. Everything around her was so beautiful, and yet she had a painful knot in the pit of her stomach. Since their greeting, Shaun had not made any more moves to talk to her. He chatted with everyone else and threw occasional glances her way, but stayed away. Had he changed his mind after all? As she exhaled a long stream of air, another pair of eyes joined hers in the windowpane. Shaun’s. He closed the distance between them, but she didn’t turn. Heat radiated from his body and spread through hers. He studied her intently and then moved closer until
his breath warmed her neck. Kelsey shivered when his hands slid down her arms until he was holding her hands tightly in his. “I missed you.” His voice was tender, almost a murmur. She turned to face him. When his gaze met hers, she blinked and smiled. Shaun cupped her chin in his warm hand. “Shall we leave this place?” She nodded, and a minute later he’d gotten her out of the house unnoticed. As they strolled toward Edgeway Street, neither of them spoke. There were no words for what was happening between them. “Thanks for walking me home,” Kelsey said once they were in front of her door. She didn’t want to jump to conclusions just yet, but she also didn’t want to let him go. What woman would let a man like Shaun slip through their fingers? Would it hurt to feel good for one night, to feel desired? She was ready to let her hair down for the night. She had been imagining him in her bed for far too long. “I should… I better go.” Shaun pushed his hands into his pockets. “You… you won’t come in?” Her heart deflated. “We can… you know…” He smiled and his teeth gleamed in the moonlight. “For a moment there I thought you wouldn’t ask.” He pulled his hands out of his pockets and placed them on either side of her, gazed into her eyes as if he wanted to dive into them. “Are you sure you want this to happen?” “I think…” Kelsey felt like a teenager about to have her first kiss. Her heart was banging inside of her, her throat was tight, and her mouth dry. “Yes, I’m sure.” Her body was certainly sure; her brain on the other hand, was
still determined on playing hard to get. He bit the bottom of his lip and squinted. He looked so sexy she wanted to throw herself into his arms, to nibble and taste his velvet lips. “You do know what this means, right?” He tipped her chin upward so she was gazing into his face, his hot breath fanning her skin. “You should understand, I don’t do relationships. I don’t do—” “Love?” She finished for him, and that single, beautiful word shattered between them. She wished she could penetrate his heart to change his mind. But he was laying his cards on the table and being honest. She had to appreciate that. Right now she didn’t care. She had swum too deep into him to want to resurface. She would remain under his spell for a while longer, get what she could, and think later. Now that they had gotten so close, spending even a minute without him would be unbearable. If in the morning she realized she had made a mistake, she’d find a way to deal with it. Tonight, she needed to be wanted. She wanted his hands on her body so bad it hurt. And if one tonight was all they had, at least she’d have a memory to keep. “It’s fine, I don’t mind,” she said in a whisper. He placed a hand on her hip and tugged her to him. “No promises? No strings attached, just… sex?” Kelsey swallowed the lump in her throat. “If that’s all you’re offering. I’ll… I’ll take it.” He blinked once and then reached for her hand. She thought he was going to hold it again, but instead he removed the keys from her sweaty grasp. Then he opened the door and stepped aside to allow her to enter her own place like a visitor. Now that they were inside and Kelsey knew what was about to happen, she was suddenly nervous. She
removed her boots and coat and placed them by the door. “Can I offer you tea or coffee? Or something else… juice maybe?” While he closed the door, she entered the kitchen and opened the fridge. “I have orange juice…” The fridge door slammed shut and she was spun around so fast she lost her breath. With her back against the cool door, she parted her lips, but closed them again. “I want something. Juice is not it.” He pressed his rock-hard body against hers so that even through his jeans she felt his erection. He ran his hands to her back and glided them downward until they reached the curve of her butt. He squeezed and pulled her even closer. “I meant it when I said I’ve wanted to make love to you since the first day I saw you. Each time I looked at you, I wanted to have you.” “Why didn’t you?” Kelsey asked breathlessly. He chuckled as he nibbled her ear, his stubble grazing her cheek, sending shivers across her skin. “You seem so perfect.” He nipped at her ear again and his ragged breathing deepened. “I didn’t want to corrupt you.” Kelsey threw back her head and pursed her lips to stifle a moan. She breathed in and whispered into his ear. “What if you’re wrong? What if I’m already corrupted?” Shaun lowered his hands to the hem of her jersey dress and lifted it until his warm masculine hands came into contact with her body, her pantyhose the only thing between them and her skin. His mouth was still pressed to her ear. “How many places outside the bedroom have you had sex, Kelsey?” Heat crept into Kelsey’s cheeks. “Well…” “I thought so.” Shaun spun her around again so her cheek was pressed against the cold surface of the fridge.
He kissed her neck as his fingers drifted to her waist and slipped into the waistband of her pantyhose. Taking his time, he pulled them down, lowering himself as the fragile material glided along her sensitive skin. Once both he and the pantyhose reached her ankles, she lifted one leg and then the other to step out of them. Shaun didn’t straighten up immediately. He kissed the backs of her knees, and ran his palms along her calves, like a sculptor inspecting his handiwork. Kelsey bit her lip as a strong current of desire swept through her body. She wanted to beg him to come up, to kiss her, to take her right now. Her body ached to be made love to, as if she had been waiting months, or even years, for him to pleasure her. He finally straightened up and again dipped his hands under her dress, his hot palms taking their time exploring her waist and hips. Kelsey trembled. Just his touch was enough to drive her crazy. She wanted more, so she joined his hands under her dress, and slipped a finger into the thin elastic of her panties, ready to remove them. Shaun grasped her hand firmly and removed it, then laid her palm back on the fridge. “I’ve got this. And I’ll do it my way,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “Don’t move.” With her hands flat on the cool fridge, Kelsey listened to Shaun rummaging through drawers. Even if she wanted to turn around, her legs were too weak to move. Then he was standing behind her again. He lifted her dress and something cool came into contact with her skin. She flinched as she heard a snip and then another, one on each side of her hips. “What are you doing?” She giggled, getting her answer immediately when he pushed her legs a few
inches apart with his knee. Her panties slid past her thighs and she dropped her gaze in time to see them drop at her feet. The longing between her legs warmed her body. Oh God, this was so hot. He was so hot. “Just getting rid of distractions.” He turned her to face him. “I did promise to corrupt you.” Gazing into her eyes, he lifted her off her feet and pushed her against the fridge; she wrapped her legs around his waist. He held her firmly with one arm and with a finger of the other hand, he dipped a finger into Kelsey and she gasped loudly. “How does that feel?” he whispered against her cheek, thrusting his finger in and out of her slowly and sweetly. Kelsey trembled and gripped his arms, her nails digging deep into his flesh when an electric current zapped through her. “Good, oh, God.” He pushed a second finger into her, so deep it hurt… beautifully. “Can I have you? I want you to be mine.” Shaun kissed her neck and then flicked it with his tongue. “All mine.” Kelsey clawed at his back. He made her feel better than any man ever had. “I thought you said… you said…” She closed her eyes and saw heaven. “What did I say, Kelsey?” He pulled his fingers out of her, leaving emptiness there. Then he lowered her to the ground and unzipped his jeans, his eyes boring into hers. Kelsey leaned against the fridge for support and tried to catch her breath. “You said you don’t want a relationship.” She broke eye contact and her gaze drifted to the bulge breaking free from his pants as he lowered them along with his boxer shorts. “I don’t.” Like a man on a mission, Shaun removed
all his clothes, then reached for her and pulled her dress over her head. “But I want you to be mine for the night.” He unhooked her bra and gathered her into his arms again. Her nipples hardened when they came into contact with the hairs on his chest. She was still throbbing between her legs. “Okay,” Kelsey said, and before any more words could exit her mouth, he kissed her hard, crushing her lips, and exploring her mouth with his tongue—probing, teasing, nibbling. Kelsey allowed him to have her, to taste her, to make her dizzy. Like him, tonight she would pretend he was hers. Still kissing her, Shaun moved her to the kitchen table and lay her down. Then he picked up his jeans and removed a condom. He ripped it open as he returned to the table, and positioned himself between her legs, sliding it on within seconds. “Ready?” he asked, grabbing hold of her legs and sliding her toward him. Kelsey blinked in answer. Stop talking and take me already, she screamed inside her head. But he took his time. He lowered himself on top of her and kissed her again, while his hands explored her naked body. They were so hot against her skin. He moved his mouth from hers to the hollow of her neck, inhaling deeply before moving lower and flicking each of her nipples with his tongue. In response, they became even harder, and more tender. Shaun enveloped one with his mouth, sending endless waves of pleasure through her. He sucked on it, and tugged gently as if it were a cherry ripe for picking. Kelsey arched her back and moaned when a ripple of ecstasy spiraled from her nipple, down her stomach,
and came to rest between her legs. She couldn’t bear it any longer. A few more seconds of him not being inside her and she would burst. She wanted to shout out in frustration. “Fuck me,” she said. “I want you inside me.” That was a lie. She didn’t want him; she needed him. She’d trade her breath to feel him inside her. He lifted his head and grinned. “Don’t worry, Kelsey. I’ll fuck you. But I’ll take my time. I want to taste you first.” He moved on to the other nipple and sucked it so hard she squealed. His tongue moved down her stomach, and he kissed her bellybutton. Kelsey started breathing hard as he moved lower, lower, lower. Then something firm and soft pushed itself into her, and she closed her eyes and arched her back. Shaun pushed and removed his tongue from her in the same rhythmic motion he had used with his fingers. He pushed it in deeper and Kelsey clutched his thick hair between her fists, pushing him even further into her. He stopped and sucked on her clit, then slid all the way back up her body. He moved his face close to her ear. “Open your eyes, Kelsey. I want you to look at me when I fuck you.” Kelsey did as she was told. Shaun’s eyes darkened to the color of the sky before the rain. He slipped one of his hands under the nape of her neck, holding her firmly, and with the other he reached down. Any moment now it would happen. She would have sex with Shaun, and she was ready. Still gazing into her eyes, he took a deep breath and pierced her, tearing her apart, unraveling her, shattering any remnants of the doubts she might still have had. He
plunged in again and pressed himself hard into her, grinding from side to side as though he was trying to make himself fit inside, despite having already filled her completely. With each movement, a million stars burst before Kelsey’s eyes. Grunting, Shaun gripped her shoulder and slammed into her harder, deeper, faster, until she almost forgot how to breathe. When he slowed down, Kelsey found her breath and wrapped her legs tighter around him, pulling him deeper. She wanted to get as much out of the night as she could. She would take as much of him as she had the right to. Shaun buried his face in the side of her neck and whispered between his heavy breathing, “hold on tight.” Kelsey held on to his solid arms and braced herself. Shaun pulled out completely but his tip still touched her. Then he let out a deafening groan and slammed into her again so hard she screeched. He did it again and she screamed even louder, the sound rubbing her throat raw. This time there was no slowing down. Shaun pressed his lips against her mouth, swallowing her screams as he pushed her closer and closer to the edge of desire. With a moan, he jumped over it with her until they were both falling, falling, until they exploded in midair. He pulled his lips from hers and laid his head next to hers, their sweat mingling. As he throbbed inside her, Kelsey knew without a doubt this was the best sex of her life. Now that he had ripped her apart, how would she hold all the pieces together? He wouldn’t be there to fix her. “How’s that for a Christmas present?” Shaun asked, panting.
“The best I’ve ever had,” Kelsey said honestly. They didn’t stop at the kitchen table. Shaun had meant it when he’d said he wanted her to be his for the night. He took her on a journey around the cottage. They made love in the dining room, the living room, on the stairs, in the bathroom, and finally in her bed. “I have something to admit.” Shaun stretched along the length of the bed, after he’d had a chance to recover. “The many women everyone in town thinks I’ve slept with don’t end up in my bed, and I don’t end up in theirs. I’ve been interviewing them for my book.” He paused and turned to look at her. “I used to be that kind of man, the one who slept with a lot of women, but that life is behind me. I still stay away from relationships, but I don’t lust after every woman I see.” Kelsey sighed with silent relief. So he wasn’t a womanizer, after all. Not that it mattered, since their time together was pretty much over already. But still. She pulled herself up on one elbow, the bed sheet falling to reveal her breasts. “Why do you let people think you are a womanizer?” “I’ve learned one thing in life. People choose to hear what they want to hear. And they’ll talk, no matter what you do or don’t do.” He flipped onto his stomach and rested his face on his hands. Kelsey inched closer to him, wanting to savor the last moments they had together, wishing she could make the night a few hours longer. She let her eyes rove over his body. “Wow, that’s one big tattoo,” She said, and kissed the sword that stretched along one side of his back, and then ran the tip of her finger along its blade. She remembered looking at it from a distance, the first day she saw him. Shaun flinched and turned back onto his back.
“Don’t… don’t touch.” His tone was suddenly steely. Kelsey backed away, but said, “It didn’t feel smooth as if… Did you get it to cover up a scar or something? It felt like one underneath.” Shaun clasped his hands behind his neck and his face turned to stone. “It’s nothing. Just forget about it.” “Did you have an operation, or an accident?” She had no right to ask him these questions, but she couldn’t hold her tongue. “I’d rather not talk about it. Please let it go. Why does it matter to you?” “I don’t know why you’re being like this.” Kelsey bit back tears. “I know this is a one-night thing and there will be nothing more between us, but you’ve been a good friend to me. I care. I think you distance yourself from people to avoid getting hurt. What happened to you, Shaun? I think you’re hiding something. Something happened that scarred you.” Shaun climbed out of bed and picked up one of the towels from the floor. Wrapping it around his waist, he looked her straight in the eyes, silver lightning flashing in his. “Don’t try to analyze me, Kelsey. Don’t try to fix me. Don’t try to make tonight more than what we agreed it would be.” He ran a hand through his damp hair, the hair she’d massaged shampoo into an hour ago in the shower. “I had a great time. It was fuckin’ great, but it can’t be more. We can’t be more.” Kelsey sat up in bed, the crumpled bed sheet falling around her in waves. “Why?” She’d convinced herself she could have no-strings-attached sex with him and move on as if nothing happened. But she had been unprepared for the emotions he’d unleashed from within her, the life he had breathed into her. In one night, he’d made her feel more alive than any man ever had, even
her first love. She needed to understand why they couldn’t be more, so she could move on. Shaun’s gaze didn’t waver. “If you want more than this from me, you’ll get hurt.” He shut his eyes for a long time. When he opened them again, they were like deep, dark, empty holes. “I don’t do more.” He unraveled the towel and tossed it on the bed. Then he pulled on his jeans and shirt. “Fine.” Kelsey swallowed the lump lodged inside her throat. “I have to go.” Shaun strode to the door, but then stopped and turned. “Fine,” he said. “You know what? If you really want to know, I’ll tell you. I killed someone.” His voice was raw and drenched in pain. “That’s why I am the person I am today.” He opened the door and left, leaving Kelsey gaping at the door. She didn’t move until thirty minutes later, when she heard his truck grunt to life outside, moments before it went roaring down the street.
Chapter Fourteen Kelsey was still in a daze when she woke up in the morning, and the aches in her body reminded her of what had happened last night. But she looked past the earthshattering sex and focused instead on what Shaun had told her. Did he just admit to being a killer? No, it couldn’t be true. Maybe he was joking. He had to be. Maybe later in the day he’d knock on her door and tell her it was all a tasteless joke. Until then, she’d clean her cottage and do laundry, to keep her mind off it all. As she shoved clothes into the washing machine, she remembered the look in his eyes when he’d told her. Fear, regret, pain. He had meant every word whether she chose to believe it or not. She had slept with a man who was responsible for someone’s death. She closed the washing machine door and reached for the washing powder, shaking her head. There had to be some kind of explanation, and she wished she could find out what it was. She wanted to understand him. Except he’d made it clear she should mind her own business. She’d try to respect that, but she wasn’t sure how long she could. Kelsey had just turned on the machine and made herself a cup of tea when the phone shrilled. She jumped and almost spilled the hot tea all over herself. Placing the cup on the table, she rushed to the phone, her heart pounding. It could be Shaun, ready to tell her everything. Her heart squeezed when she heard Maeve’s voice on the other end. She demanded Kelsey tell her what happened between her and the mystery man after they left the Christmas party. “We just talked and watched a movie,” Kelsey lied.
She wanted to keep the beautiful moment she’d experienced with Shaun to herself, for now. “That’s great.” Maeve was breathless, as if it was the best news she’d heard in a long time. “Did he tell you what he’s hiding from the rest of us?” Kelsey pursed her lips. She hated lying to Maeve, but what Shaun had told her was too huge to share with the whole of Dreara. And Maeve would find it way too juicy to keep to herself. “We talked about life. Nothing important. Nothing personal.” “Seriously, Kelsey? You get that close to the man, and you don’t get him to open up to you, or at least open his pants? Shame on you.” Kelsey laughed. “You’re bad, Maeve, very bad. Look, I have to go. Let’s go see a movie tomorrow.” “Sure. Take care, love.” Kelsey hung up and sighed deeply. What would she do? She couldn’t talk about Shaun’s secret with anyone. The rest of the day, Kelsey managed to do two loads of laundry, clean the whole cottage, and she even did some ironing. With each passing hour, her hopes that Shaun would show up diminished. His truck was still gone when night fell, so she quit waiting and went to The Hot Pot for dinner. *** Shaun jolted up in bed, heart thumping so hard one would think it was determined to crack its way through his chest. The old reoccurring nightmare had returned after weeks of peace. “Fuck.” He swiped the sweat off his brow, then flicked on the light. As he studied his hands, he swore he could still see the palms stained red, covered with blood from her gushing wound. The metallic smell of fresh blood mixed with her perfume, and the stench hung in
the air, thick and heavy, making him want to gag. Rubbing his thumb and index finger together, he still felt the slippage caused by the red liquid between them. Heart racing, he swung his legs out of bed and flinched at the pain along the side of his back, just as real now as the day the sharp metal had sliced into his flesh. He gritted his teeth and gasped for air as he stumbled into the bathroom and turned on the faucet, keeping his eyes from the mirror, refusing to see the reflection of his bloodstained past. With soap and hot water, he scrubbed his hands until they were raw. But it was futile. No amount of scrubbing could cleanse him of his sin, so he gave up and rested his hands on both sides of the cool basin. Breathe, just breathe, he told himself. Take it one step at a time. Once his heart rate had slowed, he contemplated returning to bed. The clock on the bedside table had blinked 3 a.m., and he needed his sleep. But bed was the last place he wanted to be. The demons would be waiting for him there, hovering over him patiently, waiting to remind him of what he’d done. To hell with it. He’d stay awake. Shame he couldn’t go for a swim. Though he was tempted, he’d be a fool to swim in the ocean in the dead of winter. A walk on the beach would have to do. He pulled on a thick pullover that hung on a chair by the bed and less than a minute later, he slipped out the backdoor and disappeared into the moonlit night. It was all a dream, he repeated to himself as he stumbled along the beach like a drunkard. The blood wasn’t real, and the pain on his back—the part covered by the tattoo—was just his mind playing tricks on him. He’d had the tattoo done a year after it had happened to cover up the angry scar that had been a constant
reminder of the past. Finally, he stopped walking, lowered himself onto the cold sand, and dropped his pounding head into his hands. He stayed that way as he listened to the waves crashing and sweeping the shore while the cold night air ruffled his hair and chilled his scalp. He’d stay for a while. Then he’d return to the cottage to do some more writing. If nothing else worked, that should hopefully calm him down. Writing had kept him going during the tough times. He’d written his first book while in prison, and his brother Dustin had sent it to a literary agent friend. By the time Shaun was released, the book, which he’d written under a pseudonym, was a bestseller, and he used the money he’d earned in royalties to spend his first year as a free man to travel around the world. He made his family believe he was enjoying his freedom, but the truth was, he couldn’t return to Serendipity. There were constant reminders there of what he’d done. Instead he ran away from the past. And when he needed to forget, there had been women and alcohol. And swimming. His head snapped up at the sound of muffled footsteps behind him. He shot to his feet and spun around. “Jesus, Kelsey, are you crazy? What are you doing here at this hour?” His voice was firm and gentle at the same time. “I should ask you the same thing. It’s freezing out here.” Kelsey tightened the blanket draped around her slim shoulders. In the night, her eyes sparkled, and she looked so damn hot with her bed-head hair that his cock hardened instantly, disobeying his brain. But he couldn’t make love to her again. She had crossed a line no woman had ever crossed in eight years. She was the reason the pain had returned and the past had come
back to haunt him. If he had even a grain of sense left in him, he would get as far away from her as possible. But he couldn’t. She was also the first woman in years to remind him of what it felt to be needed on a deeper level. The gentleness in her eyes made him want to hold her and allow himself to be held by her. To be comforted. Sex with her had been far from meaningless. The warmth of her body next to his had melted away the wall of ice he’d erected around his heart. Being inside her had felt like coming home. But it was a big mistake, and one that couldn’t happen again. If his body would just listen to his brain. “Let’s sit.” Kelsey lowered herself onto the sand and Shaun found himself doing the same. In a moment of silence, they gazed at the inky black water, enveloped in the magic of the ocean, something bigger than themselves. Shaun loved the sea, because it made his problems feel so much smaller in comparison. But not tonight. “Why are you here, Kelsey?” Shaun asked. “I went to the kitchen for a glass of water and saw you heading for the beach.” Her velvet voice made him forget about the cold; it covered him like a cloak, soft and velvety. “So you decided to follow.” Shaun’s voice was low and fragile, his body exhausted. “What if some maniac pounced on you? No town is too safe, you know. Not even Dreara.” Kelsey laughed, the sound soothing the aches in Shaun’s body and soul. “I took judo classes in secondary school.” “And that’s enough, is it? Secondary school seems like a long time ago to me.” Shaun found himself smiling. He felt her turn to look at him but he kept his eyes fixed
on the sea. “Are you worried about me?” Her voice was small, expectant. He wanted to say no, but he’d be lying. But he wasn’t ready to admit to her how much he’d come to care for her. Instead, he repeated his earlier question. “Why are you here?” “I’m here to apologize. I shouldn’t have forced you to talk about your past. It’s none of my business.” “You’re right, it is none of your business,” Shaun said simply, but he didn’t feel angry or annoyed. He was just tired. Running from the past had proven to be hard work, especially since the past was pretty damn impossible to outrun, and always showed its face when he least expected it to. Kelsey shifted next to him. “I know you don’t want to talk. But if you change your mind, I’m here. I’m a great listener. And I won’t say a word to anyone.” “You don’t know how to quit, do you?” Shaun wanted to tell her to back off, to stop pushing him back to that painful time, but he nodded instead. His jaw tightened and he swallowed hard through the rawness in his throat. He decided to tell her just enough to satisfy her curiosity. “The person… the woman I killed, she was… my wife, Carmen.” But as he spoke he realized it wasn’t just for Kelsey. He wanted to empty himself of some of the hurt, so he could rest for a while. Shaun tried to blink away the memories of that night as they formed inside his mind, but it was impossible.
Chapter Fifteen The best day of Shaun’s life had also been the worst. It had started with him standing at the altar next to the only woman he’d ever loved, the only woman he could envision a future with, the only woman he wanted to have his babies. That was eight years ago, and he’d been a better man, a believer in love, a one-woman guy. That day, which began with so much hope, had ended with him sitting behind the wheel of his car, driving his new bride to the best hotel in Serendipity—hell, in Wisconsin. Carmen giggled next to him and kissed his cheek. Her wedding dress, which surrounded her like a blanket of clouds, sighed at her movement. “My husband,” she said. “I love the sound of that.” Shaun grinned. He was going to be the best damn husband there ever was. She would never regret marrying him. “My wife.” His voice dripped with pride. He hiked up the speed. He wanted to get there fast. He couldn’t wait to pull the pins from her jet-black hair and watch it fall down her back like smooth silk. He couldn’t wait to pull the lace and satin off her body and meet her skin to skin. Knowing she was his and he was hers forever made him feel high. But the only thing coursing through his veins was love and champagne. He hardly drank, never liked the taste of alcohol much. But on his wedding day, he’d allowed himself a few glasses of bubbly and ended up downing two or three more before twirling his wife on the dance floor under a crystal chandelier. For a person who hardly drank, the alcohol hadn’t
affected him much. So he insisted on driving Carmen to the hotel, ten minutes drive from the reception site. His mother and brothers had tried to talk him out of it, but he hadn’t seen the harm. He felt sober enough. The night was quiet, the streets almost deserted. While he drove, Carmen rolled down the window and poked her head out. “I’m married to Shaun Brannon,” she screamed into the night. When she pulled her head back in, Shaun turned to take a quick glance at her. Her face was bright with joy, her cheeks pink, her green eyes sparkling like polished jade. It was clearly the happiest day of her life, just as it was his. They’d met in college and knew instantly they’d be among the couples who made it to death-do-us-part. She smiled at him and he gave her a quick kiss. When he turned back to the road, his heart jumped to his throat. A truck was heading straight for them. Carmen’s earlier laughter morphed into an endless scream as Shaun swerved into the opposite lane, the wrong lane. The truck missed them just in time for them to be hit by a speeding car. Their car overturned and rolled a few times. Silence descended as the car came to a halt. Silence just as deafening as Carmen’s screams, the crunching of metal, and the screeching of tires had been a moment earlier. Shaun saw his wife’s blood on his hands, and felt a stabbing pain in his back. Then his world went black.
Chapter Sixteen “God.” Kelsey’s voice shook with emotion.” I’m so sorry, Shaun. I can’t imagine… I’m so sorry.” “It happened within a few seconds. Just one look at my wife. I lost control of the car… of everything.” He stopped talking and drew his knees to his body, hugging them. He couldn’t continue his story. “I can’t…” “I understand.” Kelsey’s voice was soaked with the tears he wished he could cry. She moved closer to him and covered his shoulders with one half of the blanket. Since the funeral, he hadn’t shed one tear for his wife, no matter how much he wanted to. He’d broken down the day she died. And then he just couldn’t cry anymore. He finally came to accept it as punishment for what he had done. The pain would forever torment him; there’d be no mercy and no way of releasing it. “Walk away, Kelsey,” he said. “You’re a great woman. But I’m too damaged. You’ll get hurt.” “Say what you want. I’m not going anywhere.” Kelsey leaned her head on his shoulder and he held his breath, as if breathing would dispel the comfort of that one gesture. “You did not kill your wife,” she whispered. “It was an accident.” Shaun flinched. He couldn’t tell her that the accident was not what killed his wife—not on its own, at least. That it had started the journey to her death, but he had ended it. Maybe he’d finish the story one day. Right now he feared if she found out the whole truth, she might end up seeing the monster within him. “Shaun,” she whispered. “I’ll be here if you ever need to talk again. I’ll be your friend, if that’s what you want. I’ll help you through this if you let me.”
Shaun closed his sore eyes and smiled. “Only if your friendship comes with benefits.” He was doing it again, stepping on dangerous ground. But he needed her, dammit. His body needed her. His heart needed her. He needed her. Period. “I don’t do friends with benefits,” Kelsey said. “But for you, I’ll make an exception. Now let’s get out of here before my fingers fall off.” Shaun had been kidding about the benefits thing, but she didn’t seem to have understood. He wasn’t about to reject her offer. *** Cool air slapped Kelsey’s cheeks as the sand whispered beneath her feet. At first they walked side by side in silence. It was so quiet that she could hear her own heartbeat. Shaun’s revelation had shaken her to the core, but she would keep that shock well hidden so he didn’t feel worse than he already did. But was she crazy? Why couldn’t she run from this broken man? Why did she just agree to a friends-with-benefits relationship with him? What kind of woman did that? A desperate one, a small voice in her head told her. But no, she wasn’t desperate. She just felt more for Shaun than she could admit to him, or even to herself. She was falling in love with him and despite the obstacles, it felt like the real thing. Only time would tell. Until then, she’d stick around. She’d be there for him, help him heal, and wait to see if he’d eventually ask to be more than friends. She was touched that he had told her about his past, and understood at last why he was such a careful driver. She would not turn her back on him now. He needed someone to be there for him, to understand, to listen, to like him anyway. She would be that person. The
need to be there for him, to comfort him, maybe heal him, raged so furiously inside her that she couldn’t ignore it. What did it matter if he had baggage? Who didn’t? She’d help him carry his until he was ready to let it go. Even though accidents happened all the time, she wouldn’t be able to convince him not to feel guilty. Eight years was a long time to convince himself he had killed his wife. It would take a lot longer for him to learn to think otherwise. A few minutes later they entered Shaun’s cottage. Kelsey eased herself down onto the sofa and Shaun covered her legs with a blanket, then made them both a cup of chamomile tea. “Warm enough?” he asked, and Kelsey nodded. But not from the tea, nor the blanket. No, she was warm from the growing fire he had stoked inside of her. A fire that seemed to be growing bigger every moment she was with him. “Tell me more about yourself.” He lifted her feet from the couch and placed them onto his lap. “What do you want to know?” Kelsey sipped her tea. “Everything.” She nodded, and as they drank their tea, she told him the rest of her story. He had opened up to her and she’d do the same for him. She told him about her childhood, her mother dying when she turned thirteen, her father forgetting about her and becoming a workaholic. Then she told him about Craig and the wedding that never happened. When she told him what Craig had done to her, Shaun put down his cup, and wrapped his hands around her feet, holding them tight. A gesture that meant more than words. When he looked into her eyes, she saw everything she needed to know. He was not ready for a relationship yet, but he did feel something for her. It was only a matter of time before he
realized he was falling in love too. The road ahead of them was dark, but she silently prayed they would eventually get to the place they were both meant to be. END OF BOOK 1 Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this book please consider writing a review, and recommend it to friends and family. To follow Shaun and Kelsey’s love story, click HERE to pre-order a copy of To Love Again (Learning to Live Again 2). Would you like to be notified of new releases and giveaways? Click HERE to join Dori Lavelle’s mailing list.
To Love Again (Learning to Live Again 2) COMING SOON Shaun Brannon is broken to the core. But even though Kelsey’s heart is cracking as she helps him carry the weight of his past, she can’t walk away from her promise to be there for him, and she can’t ignore her deepening feelings. So she tries to accept the little he’s offering, even though she wants it all. But after months of wrestling with her emotions, she decides she must risk losing him by asking for more than he’s prepared to give her. Shaun won’t admit it, but he aches for more than Kelsey’s warm body in his bed. The problem is, something stands between them. The whole truth about what happened eight years ago. When Kelsey demands to have all of him or she’ll walk away, he knows the time has come to tell her the truth. But the fear of reliving the past is just as paralyzing as the thought of losing her. Click HERE to pre-order a copy of To Love Again (Learning to Live Again 2).
Other books by Dori Lavelle Entangled Moments (Moments in Time #1) Rekindled Moments (Moments in Time #2) Bittersweet Moments (Moments in Time #3) Defining Moments (Moments In Time 4)
Connect with Dori Lavelle: Website Blog Facebook Twitter Email: [email protected]