It was strange, but after living all but one of his twenty-three years in Ireland, returning to California felt like coming home. Riley’s visit to the old stomping grounds had been a good one overall, not to mention enlightening, but he’d felt an unmistakable sense of peace when he’d arrived back in Forestville. Even more so when he walked into The Stylish Irish, the restaurant and pub he and his brothers had opened last fall. Every table and chair, every sign and photo on the wall, was a symbol of the work he and his brothers had put into making a new home in the States. As stressful as it was sometimes, as much of a downright pain in the ass it could be, he loved every minute of it.
“There he is. The wandering prodigal has returned at last.”
Riley grinned at his brother Brady who was standing behind the bar while he wiped glasses. Brady was as big as a house and twice as hard to knock down, but he had a heart of gold. Two months ago, he’d fallen in love with a local woman, Anna Kincaid, and since then Brady seemed more content than he ever had. He’d been helping her do some renovations with her business, AdvenTours, which was set to reopen in just a few weeks on Memorial Day weekend. Anna was still hoping to get Brady to go zip-lining with her and Riley knew Brady would eventually cave. Brady was no coward (he was actually smart for resisting; Riley couldn’t imagine hurtling himself off a cliff with only some wires to keep him from falling), and there was nothing he loved to do more than please Anna, especially after the health scare she’d had. They were good for each other, and Riley was thrilled Anna had managed to bring out Brady’s fun side again—tragedy had weighed on him heavily over the past few years, but lately the old Brady had been back full-force.
“Pour us an ale, then,” Riley called out, taking a seat.
“You know where the taps are. Or have you been gone so long you’ve forgotten?” Brady grumbled good-naturedly, then poured Riley a pint of the black stuff anyway.
“It hasn’t been that long,” Riley reminded him. “Only a month.”
“When will the rest of us get the chance to take a holiday, then?”
“When you have business to take care of back home, that’s when.”
“Oh, Lucy’s business now?” Sean, Riley’s twin, carried a rack of glasses into the bar from the kitchen. They weren’t identical, but sometimes it still surprised Riley how similar Sean’s features were to his own, down to their brown eyes and the auburn streaks in their dark hair. They’d kept in touch while he’d been gone, and Riley knew his twin was pining away for a woman—an older woman at that, one of Sean’s professors at school—but he didn’t look any the worse for wear because of it. “Don’t let her hear you call her that,” Sean said, “or she’ll be on the next plane over.”
Riley shook his head. “Unlikely, seeing as I made it clear we’re over for good.”
“Sure you did,” Brady smirked. “You and Lucy have been breaking up and making up since you were fifteen. It’s only a matter of time before you move back to Ireland or she moves here and you two settle down.”
“That’s all in the past. And we hadn’t been exclusive for a long time,” Riley reminded him.
“Yes, but as soon as she started making noises about wanting to get back together, maybe even coming for an extended stay in the States so you could give it a go again, you headed to Ireland. To see if that’s what you wanted.”
“Given our history, I wanted to be certain it wasn’t what I wanted,” Riley replied. “There’s a huge difference. And seeing her only confirmed we were never right for each other.”
“Yeah? Did you have sex with her?”
Riley gritted his teeth.
“I’ll take that as yes.”
“It was one time, when I first arrived. Followed by twenty-nine days that we didn’t have sex. Because we’re over.” He hadn’t slept with Lucy as a test of his feelings for her, not intentionally. They’d been seeing other people, but seeing her had brought back good memories. Plus, he’d been celibate for about two months, the longest he’d ever gone without sex, so when she’d started kissing and rubbing against him…
Hell, he’d never claimed to be a choir boy or saint.
But afterward—no, during—he’d known for certain that the only part of him that responded to Lucy was his body, and that he had no interest in starting things up with her again.
“You’ve said that before.”
“Yeah, well. This time’s different.”
It was different because the entire time he’d been in Ireland, he couldn’t stop thinking about a woman who was here in America; one who worked in this very restaurant and behind the bar with him. Prior to his trip to Ireland, he’d admitted to himself he was attracted to her, but he’d also accepted he couldn’t act on that attraction because she worked for him and his brothers. As such, he’d kept her in the friend-zone.
After his trip to Ireland?
He no longer gave a fuck who she worked for. He just knew he’d missed her like crazy. He’d fantasized about her for months, but in Ireland those fantasies had been both sexual and non-sexual. As much as he’d dreamed of fucking her, he’d also dreamed of simple interactions: talking with her, walking with her through the vineyards or on the beach, making her laugh.
It was when he woke up after those dreams that he felt the worst. Empty. Dissatisfied.
That’s what made him realize he’d truly fallen for her.
Now he was resolved that despite their employer/employee relationship, he was going to make her his.
Of course, he wasn’t telling his brothers that.
“It just is,” he answered lamely.
But as Sean gazed at him, he seemed to sense how much Riley meant it because he said, “Poor Lucy.”
Riley rolled his eyes. “If you think I buy for a minute that she wasn’t getting her fair share of action while I’ve been here, you’ve got the wrong man. I’m crazy, but I’m not daft. She hardly had the look of a poor, neglected woman. In fact, her phone buzzed more times than I could count, and she never let me see who sent the messages or what they said.” He took another swig of the black stuff, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “She’s doing just fine without me and will continue to do so.”
Quinn, Riley’s eldest brother, walked into the restaurant from the back office, reading glasses perched on top of his head. They meant he’d been going over the books. The smile on his face told Riley they’d had another good quarter, though it wasn’t a surprise. Since the day the doors opened, the tavern had been bringing customers in hand over fist. Some said it was the feel the brothers had for choosing the right ales and wines, all of them locally brewed. Others said it was the refreshing, authentically Irish spin they put on the traditional American pub fare. The rest cited the five Irish owners, pointing to the fact that most of the pub’s clientele was of the female persuasion.
The reasons didn’t matter to Riley, as long as they made money, had fun, and his lips never stayed cold for long. Yet they had stayed cold. For almost a month now. He hadn’t just stopped sleeping with Lucy after that one time; he hadn’t even kissed her again. He hadn’t kissed any woman in almost four weeks, and that needed to change. Starting with kissing the one woman he really wanted to—Erica Underwood, fellow bartender at The Stylish Irish.
Quinn gave a start when he saw Riley sitting on a stool, pint glass in hand. “Oh, you’re back.”
“Master of the obvious, as always. Not much has changed.” Riley raised his glass in mock salute. The four of them—Quinn, Brady, Sean, and Riley—screamed Irish. If one were to add in their brother Conor, who’d moved to San Francisco at the beginning of the year, together they’d look like an ad for Irish whiskey.
“How was it?” Quinn asked, leaning against one of the coolers with a bottle of water.
“He broke it off with Lucy. For good this time,” Sean reported.
“Just as well. It was obvious she wasn’t the one.”
Riley shrugged, unable to dispute Quinn’s words. “I visited Mam and Dad. Brought them flowers several times.” They all went quiet and without being asked Brady poured four shots of whiskey. They raised their glasses and drank.
“How’s the old street?” Sean asked, his glass hitting the bar.
“The same. Everything’s the same. Nothing ever changes there.” That was one of the comforting things about going back to Dublin—the way it all looked the same, felt the same, even smelled the same. The scent of fresh bread coming from the bakery three doors down from their house had filled Riley with nostalgia.
Good thing Quinn’s girlfriend Lilly, who was finishing up an internship in Florida that she’d won from the FoodNetwork, would soon be opening her bakery. Right now they had to live without the smell of her cakes and pastries (she often sent them care packages so thank God they didn’t have to live without the taste), but the bakery was done and waiting for her. When they’d renovated the building to open The Stylish Irish, Quinn had knocked out a wall and reserved a third of the space for Lilly. Just past some columns that separated the bakery from the restaurant there was a counter, some display cases, and white iron bistro tables and chairs. Whenever she came for a visit, which was often, Lilly would sit in one of those chairs and drink a cup of coffee. She hadn’t yet told them what she planned to name her bakery, but since she’d helped come up with the name The Stylish Irish, Riley suspected she’d name her bakery something equally cool.
His brother had really won himself a keeper right there, he had. Like a golden statuette, full of kindness and grace Lilly was, too. Once she was settled in and the aroma of her delicacies penetrated the air, Riley knew it would only add to the feeling that here, in this state and in this small town, was exactly where he belonged.
“Going well,” Brady said.
“The girls missed you around here,” Sean joked.
“Yeah?” he said, wanting to ask if one girl in particular had missed him. But of course he didn’t, since he hadn’t told anyone about his growing feelings for Erica. He was about to stand, planning to head into the back office to check the schedule and see when Erica would be in, but before he could, the kitchen doors swung open, and out came a honey-blonde girl, head down, with a million excuses pouring from her mouth. “I’m sorry I’m late, stupid car broke down again, I need us to have a few really good nights so I can afford a down payment on a new car, unless any of you feel like giving me a raise or something, which I wouldn’t mind at all…”
He stared at her. Who was this? Was she a new hire?
Then she looked at him.
“Erica?” he asked.
She froze like a deer in headlights, in the middle of tying an apron around her slim waist. “Oh my goodness. Riley! Welcome back.”
He shook himself. “You changed your hair color. Why?” When he’d left, the hair that was now golden had been platinum blonde with a few pink streaks.
She glanced around at his brothers, who suddenly dispersed—Quinn back to the office, Brady to the kitchen, Sean to take the chairs off the tables in preparation for the evening crowd.
“Hmm? Oh. I don’t know. I got tired of the old look. Do you not like it?” She fingered her hair self-consciously.
“On the contrary. I think it suits you better.” He cocked his head to the side. “Is that your natural color?”
She opened her mouth then closed it. She blushed furiously. “I don’t remember.”
Riley couldn’t help but laugh, and she eventually joined him.
“It’s lovely,” he said, quite honestly, but she’d been lovely with her other hair color, too.
“How was Ireland?” she asked as she started counting out the drawer behind the bar. Her back was to him, and he sneaked a look at her ass. That was still the same, at least, looking firm and ripe.
“Huh? Oh, Ireland. Good. Nothing much has changed.”
“Did you settle whatever it was you were settling?”
“Aye. It’s all taken care of.”
“That’s good. I know the guys are glad to have you back.” She smiled at him in the mirror on the wall, behind the register. He smiled in return.
“How’s your life been?” he asked. “How’s school treating you?”
“Great. Really good. Everything’s looking up.” She smiled to herself, her face still reflected. Riley wondered what the smile was all about. She had the look of a girl hiding a secret of some sort.
“Yeah? Good. A pretty girl deserves the good things in life.” He watched as her cheeks turned faintly pink. She bit her lip, then turned in his direction.
“You think so? Maybe you can buy me a new car, then. That junker out back has gotta go.” She stacked glasses behind the bar, getting ready for a crowd.
“I could let you ride me—erm, I mean, ride with me.”
Her hands fumbled a glass, and she caught it just before it hit the floor.
“Good catch,” he noted, biting back a laugh at her confusion.
“Thanks,” she muttered, eyes on the floor.
That wasn’t anything new, the fact that she was avoiding his gaze. It’s how he’d first realized she was as attracted to him as he was to her. She’d get quiet on him at strange times. Sometimes he’d catch her looking at him, but she’d look away as soon as their eyes met. Or she’d get tongue-tied.
“Like I was saying, you should call me next time you have trouble. I’d be happy to drive you up and back.”
“Oh, you would, huh?” She leaned toward him, elbows on the bar. “What gives with you?” she asked.
“Why are you acting like this all of a sudden?”
“Like what? I thought we were friends. Friends offer each other rides.”
“Right.” She narrowed her eyes, challenging him. She was a sharp one, no doubt. He was about to drop the game he was playing and get to the heart of the matter—admitting he fancied her and was hoping they could get together after work some night—when the door opened behind him, and Erica’s eyes lit up.
“Hey, there,” she beamed.
He watched in the mirror as a man roughly his own age walked in. Tall and beefy, he looked like a rugby player or some type of athlete.
Riley could’ve sworn he heard Sean snickering from a corner of the room. He slid from the stool and went to his brother, while Erica chatted with her friend.
“Who’s that?” Riley asked Sean, eyeing up the stranger.
“Oh, Rob?” Sean looked away, but Riley heard the smile in his voice. He walked into the kitchen, so Riley followed.
“Okay, his name is Rob. Who is he?”
Brady looked up from the prep station, where he was helping the cooks cut potatoes for frying. “Oh, you’ve met Rob?” he asked.
“Aye,” Sean jeered. “Right after he made a pass at our Erica out there.”
“You did?” Brady tsked. “I’d give you shit about flirting with an employee, something you know you shouldn’t be doing, but given the circumstances, no harm, no foul.”
“Why? What am I missing?” He hated that they were having fun with him.
“Erica and Rob have been seeing each other since right after you left for Ireland,” Brady said. “He’s in here every night of the week.”
“It’s better for you, buddy boy,” Quinn warned, having suddenly appeared out of nowhere. “You know our agreement. Hands off the staff.”
Riley rolled his eyes and nodded, then turned back toward the door. He peered through the small window at Erica and Rob, brow furrowed in thought.
Hands off the staff?
Fuck. He’d been wanting to get his hands on Erica for what felt like forever. And he’d been spending most of that time with his hand on his own staff as a result.
He couldn’t bear the thought that he’d fucked up.
That by waiting too long to make his move, he might have missed his chance at getting to know Erica better.
In bed and out.