“Good evening, sir. Welcome back.”
A tall brunette with a sheet of glossy black hair and legs like a gazelle greeted Brady O’Neill at the front door of The Stylish Irish. He’d hand-picked Claire himself following her interview for the tavern and pub’s hostess, not because she’d worn a fantastically tight mini-dress showing off amazing breasts, but because she was pleasant and professional, and came with a long list of glowing recommendations. That said, if he was being honest, the mini-dress hadn’t hurt, yet despite her obvious flirtations, he’d never get involved with an employee. He was too sensible for that.
Or, as his brothers liked to tease, he was too much of a bore.
A successful businessman running his own restaurant, just like he’d always wanted, but a bore nonetheless. And they were pretty much right. Perhaps that would change soon. Perhaps he’d get to a place where he could make time for fun and frolic, but he wasn’t there yet.
Mainly because, in his experience, fun and frolic always came with a price.
“Call me Brady, please.” Though he was glad for Claire’s respect, he was still only twenty-seven years old, not much older than she.
“Brady.” She bit her lip and smiled. “How are you?”
“Doing well, thanks. Anything need my attention or does Quinn have a handle on things?” Quinn was Brady’s older brother and co-owner of The Stylish Irish; all four of Brady’s brothers had a stake in the place, although Brady and Quinn held majority interests. Brady couldn’t have asked for a better business partner than Quinn, but Quinn had a lot on his plate, including managing a long distance relationship with his girlfriend, Lilly, who was finishing an internship in Florida. She didn’t often call during business hours, but when she did…
“There’s a group of ladies here looking for you. One, in particular, keeps asking when you’ll be in.” Claire said it with a teasing smile, though Brady saw a hint of jealousy in her eyes.
He suppressed a wince, hoping that wouldn’t be trouble.
Being an Irish twenty-something in America, he’d gotten quite a bit of attention since he’d moved here in October of last year. The last thing he needed was an employee getting proprietary with him. “Probably wants to take up issue with me about something. Did she have the lobster bisque?” He’d been telling the cook he needed to cut back on the cream all week. “Let me hang up my coat, and I’ll meet with her.”
“Sure thing. I’ll let her know.” Claire turned to greet some new guests coming through the door, as Brady headed for his office. Before entering, he took a moment to glance around the restaurant.
He’d suffered enough loss during the past few years to literally bring him to his knees, but this…this restaurant in the heart of Green Valley was his new beginning. Everything from the polished bar tops, to the guests enjoying Happy Hour, to the packed house, new kitchen equipment, updated interior design, and trendy new menu. A magnet for tourists, wine aficionados, and residents alike.
“Brady,” Quinn said from inside the office, turning Brady’s attention from the noisy fabric of chiming glasses and clinking silverware. His brother rose from his desk chair. “It’s been busy tonight. You have no idea. The craic is fantastic!”
“Well, you know what they say…” Brady took off his coat and hung it on the hook behind his door. “God invented whiskey to keep the Irish from ruling the world. Present company—”
“—excluded.” Quinn finished the phrase for him and they both laughed. “Though I’ll be much happier when I have my queen here to rule by my side.”
“You talk to Lilly tonight?”
“A few hours ago.”
Quinn grinned. “She’s killing her internship. Mastering the French macaron, and creating all sorts of new combinations–coconut with dulce de leche filling, key lime with passion fruit filling, guava with cream cheese…”
“Jesus,” Brady said. “Sounds like foreplay.”
“Anything out of Lilly’s mouth is foreplay to me. And I’m happy for her. Happy for us both since there’s only a few more weeks before she’s back in Green Valley to stay.”
“No shit. You have the whole week after she returns blocked off for vacation. Be sure to pace yourself.”
“Don’t you worry about me. You, on the other hand…”
Brady groaned, knowing immediately where his brother was headed. “Not again, Quinn. Please.”
“You haven’t taken time off since we opened the restaurant.”
“And I don’t want time off, big brother. I’m happy working. Happy building up this beautiful business that we’ve started. I’ve told you before, lay off.”
“But since Elizabeth. Since—”
Brady scowled and interrupted before Quinn could say Rhian’s name. “I said lay off, Quinn. And I mean it.” He knew his brother meant well, but his baby girl would have been five years old last month, and it still filled him with guilt that he hadn’t returned to Ireland for her birthday. Hadn’t been there to lay flowers at her graveside. He’d been planning on it, but the restaurant had just opened and…
Brady hadn’t spoken Rhian’s name in months and neither had his brothers. He knew that was wrong, but he couldn’t deal with it. Not right now, and he silently pleaded with his brother to understand that.
Quinn hesitated, sighed, then smacked Brady’s shoulder. “Fine. See you out there, maggot.” He walked out of the office while Brady sat at his desk and began sorting through some paperwork.
After several minutes, he stood and stretched, then turned when he heard Quinn say, “Excuse me, miss.” Out in the hall, Quinn had just bumped into a beautiful woman on her way out of the restrooms, and squeezed past her. The young woman stood flustered for a minute, as though gathering the nerve to say something. She glanced at the wall full of framed photos of Ireland, then at Brady.
She was beautiful.
Her eyes were fantastically green, her looks natural, her body tight and rocking, with amazing thin and toned arms, like she put in time at the gym. Her silky green halter top scooped layers all the way down the front, giving the slightest view of her amazing breasts. The girl didn’t need any makeup, though she wore a small amount of lip gloss.
“So it’s true what they say.” She flashed him a flirty smile, her heart-shaped face framed by chestnut brown hair that fell in soft waves over bare, tanned shoulders.
“What do they say?” He raised an eyebrow.
“You are better looking than Quinn.”
His eyes widened at her boldness. Not that he believed her, but he was pleased in spite of himself. All their lives, women had loved flirting with Quinn, before and after he was a former professional rugby player. Granted, Brady, with his 1.98 meters of hulking height and blue eyes, hadn’t exactly suffered when it came to female attention, but this woman was gorgeous. And bold enough to go after what she wanted.
The idea that what she wanted might be him sent a shiver down his spine and had his dick twitching. Was she the woman Claire had spoken of, waiting to talk to him?
“May I help you?” he asked. And just like that, images of how he could help her—most preferably, with his face between her legs—popped into his head, and he was almost staggered by the intense desire that swept through him. By the wicked urge to pull her into his office, pin her down with his big body, and go to town. He was overtaken by wild impulses he hadn’t felt in years and the suddenness of it all made him dizzy.
“Actually, yes.” Her voice was husky and tinged with nerves.
Taking slow steps toward him, she slinked in a miniskirt, her legs fan-freaking-tastic in black, strappy heels.
Frozen, heart tripping over itself, Brady swallowed hard. The scent of lemon body lotion preceded her, then she lifted herself onto tiptoes, reached up for him, and coiled her small hands behind his neck. She leaned toward him, jerking to a stop when Brady put his hands on her waist and held her back.
Her eyes widened and flashed with uncertainty, then embarrassment. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry—” she said, trying to pull away.
“No,” Brady said. The instant he’d touched her, confirmed how soft she was despite being so firm and fit, any resistance he’d felt at this stranger kissing him had melted away. He tugged her forward another fraction of an inch. “Don’t be sorry. Go ahead,” he said, his voice soft.
She studied him for a second, her expression still uncertain, but when he whispered, “Do it,” she closed the small distance between them.
Their lips locked in a shocking, warm embrace. She pressed her soft mouth into his, kissing and tasting his bottom lip. Her breath smelled faintly of strawberry lip gloss, with a hint of beer, but it wasn’t unpleasant.
On the contrary, his body lit up. This girl, whoever she was, maybe drunk, maybe not, appealed to a part of Brady’s mind that had lain dormant for so many months now. He inhaled her unique scent, and returned her kiss like she might disappear in a plume of smoke, never to be seen again.
His mouth slanted across hers. When his tongue pierced her lips to taste her honeyed sweetness, she stroked her tongue against his. He groaned, the hungry sound vibrating from the depths of his chest, and he relished her answering whimper. Lifting one hand, he cupped the back of her head and massaged her scalp as he pressed his body more tightly against hers. He imagined stripping her of her clothes all save one item, rubbing his cock against the soaked panel of her panties.
The tension built inside him as she rolled her hips.
But then her hands lost contact with his shoulders as she pulled away. His breaths were ragged against hers as she dotted his lips one last time with a soft kiss, a period at the end of a sultry sentence. “Wow,” she said.
“You can say that again,” he said, voice hoarse.
“Wow, wow,” she said with a smile, though her flushed skin and the desire gleaming in her eyes told Brady she’d been far more affected by their kiss than she was letting on. “Anyway, thanks.” After turning and heading back out to the main house, she left Brady feeling like his whole world had imploded. His fists clenched at his sides in an effort to keep himself in check because all he wanted was to rush after her, pull her into his arms, and finish what she’d started. He closed his eyes and took a deep, calming breath.
A minute later, Quinn’s face peered at him in complete disbelief, jaw hung open. “What the feck? I take it that was not another complaint about the lobster bisque.”
Just barely returning to his senses, Brady shook off the attack of the strawberry lips and shrugged. His mind and body were a Porsche 911 that’d been turned on, fired through gears from 1 to 60 in three seconds flat, then abandoned by the driver to soar off a cliff. What a fiery one. Clearly, he’d been the “victim” of a kiss-and-run, and the only thing he could think was he’d been the subject of a girly bet of some kind.
Quinn chuckled. “Well, looks like I might not have to bug you about your non-existent social life, after all.”
Because he was still reeling from the close encounter, and because all he wanted to do at the moment was push Quinn aside and go after the woman who’d just rocked his world, Brady forced out a chuckle. “What good is being a pub owner if I can’t be tipped for my hard work every now and then?”
“Right.” Still grinning, Quinn leaned against the doorway and cocked a brow.
Brady lasted another thirty seconds before he couldn’t stand it anymore. Pushing past Quinn, he strode out of the office and scanned the restaurant for two seconds before Quinn bumped his shoulder.
“Go talk to them.”
“Them?” Brady followed Quinn’s gaze to a group of women in the corner of the room being heavily surveyed by most of the men in the tavern. One was Dara, the girl his brother Conor had dated last year right after they’d arrived in America. Two lasses he didn’t recognize, and the fourth…
Kissing Girl beamed at him, as her friends all giggled at their staring contest. Clearly, they’d been told what had transpired. Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, that smile of hers.
She’d kissed him.
And all he wanted in the world in that moment was to sweep her away and kiss her again. “Go talk to her,” Quinn nudged him back to the present.
His reply was automatic. “I can’t.”
“And why not? You’re not dead, brother.”
No, dead was definitely not the word to describe Brady. He was all too aware that unlike his sweet Rhian, and his Mam and Dad, he was very much alive, though not truly living either. Not the way he’d once lived. But that was fine. Brady had explored his wild side before Elizabeth. Before Rhian. Before he’d become the family man he needed to be. Wanted to be. So what, if at times, he’d had doubts about whether he and Elizabeth were right for each other? He’d loved Elizabeth and he’d been faithful to her. He’d tried to give her what she needed after Rhian had died. He’d failed, but he wouldn’t fail again. That meant he’d do right by his brothers, by the memory of his mam and dad, by himself. He’d make a huge success of the restaurant.
And even when he started having fun again—meaning dating and, to put it bluntly, fucking—he’d make damn sure he never let down another woman again.
The easiest way to do that was by not getting seriously involved with one.
Even a stranger with a propensity to kiss and run.
But damn, Quinn wouldn’t let it go.
“You need to go out and play more, maggot.”
“I have a lot to figure out and a lot to do before I play again,” Brady said. But Lord, the idea of playing with Kissing Girl…
“Jesus, no one’s asking you to go get married again, Brady, least of all her. Just start with ‘hullo,’ or some such nonsense. She obviously wants to have fun with you. Plus, you never know, she may be in a darker place than even you. You might be just what she needs.”
“Looks like she’s doing just fine without me,” he said and forced his gaze away from her. He walked behind the bar, where Pedro, the bartender, and Sean, Brady’s younger brother, had obviously been eavesdropping.
“Looks can be deceiving, you know,” Pedro said as he reached past Brady for one of the still-warm dishwasher glasses. “Excuse me.”
“That’s right,” Sean piped up. “What’s wrong, Brady? Lost your nerve?” he taunted.
Ah, even the baby of the family was taking shots at him, and it poked at Brady’s ego. What’s the big deal? Since when did talking to a pretty girl scare him so much? Take charge, just like she took charge of you. Scoped you out in the hallway and waited for you. Then when the time was right, she snogged you. This chickie of a woman, probably no older than twenty-three or four, had more balls than he did.
Unable to help himself, his gaze found her again but this time her focus was on her friend.
His heart thumped wildly and his fingers itched to bury themselves into her hair. To pull her into his body so he could feel all of her pressed against all of him. The urge was so overwhelming that he deliberately turned away again, but that only made him want her all the more.
“A girl like that?” Sean said. “You don’t want to keep her waiting, or she’ll think you have no drive. You have to—”
“I know how to pick up a woman, you ball bag!” Brady said with a scoff. “I’m just not interested.” God, what a bloody liar he was. But the girl had thrown him into a tailspin. He relished the sensation even as he worried that giving in would simply make him crave more and more of it.
“Don’t bite my head off, eh? I’m just tryin’ to get you laid, ol’ man. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…” he boomed before turning to the sea of patrons cluttering the bar.
“Quit quoting Shakespeare to me, you goon. Or any of your other poets,” Brady groused. Secretly, he was proud of Sean’s interest in books and studies and poetry—he’d just started classes at a local college and the guy was by far the smartest of them all—but the last thing he needed was his little brother worrying about his love life.
“I will when you embrace your romantic side again, Brady.” When Brady pretended to lunge for him, Sean danced away then leaned his palms on the bar. “What’ll it be, ladies?” he said, smiling at a pair of beauties.
But the women Sean talked to had nothing on Kissing Girl.
Brady swept a hand through his hair. Recalled the feeling of her lips on his…
“Ah, fuck it.” He had to know her name, at the very least. He put down his clipboard and launched around the bar, but before he could make his move, she was there, blocking his way. Boom.
“Hi.” Her smile was the setting sun on the last summer day.
“Hello.” He cleared his throat, then gave her his most gallant smile. “Did you win your bet?”
She bit her lip and glanced down. Caught red-handed. “Yes, I did actually. I’m sorry I used you.”
She didn’t look a bit sorry, but the last thing Brady wanted was an apology for the way she’d lit him up. “Use away…customer satisfaction here at The Stylish Irish is our first priority.”
She laughed and Brady caught Sean’s eye. See. I don’t need lessons in how to flirt from you, maggot. Sean grinned and rolled his eyes.
“I won twenty bucks,” Kissing Girl continued, “so I figured the least I could do was come introduce myself. Name’s Anna Kincaid.”
Anna Kincaid—what a great name.
For a flash of a second, he stared at her delicate, small hand extended towards him and was barraged by a strange set of mental questions. Where had it been before? Whose cock had it stroked? Just how hard had she made some other guy come? He just knew those hands could do magical things. Brady shook off his polluted thoughts as well as the edge of jealousy that swarmed him. He’d just learned the woman’s name, for feck’s sake, and he was jealous that she’d had lovers? He’d never felt this instant connection with a woman, not even Elizabeth.
His hand melted into her touch. “Anna,” he said, testing out her name on his tongue. He liked it. “Brady O’Neill, co-owner of this fine establishment.”
She cocked her head. “I knew that. We all know that. Kind of hard to ignore the new Irish boys in town. And even if I hadn’t known who you were, you gave off that air of authority the moment you walked in.”
Brady laughed. “Is that so?”
“Oh, yeah. You strolled in, half the room stared at you, and it was like you were thinking, ‘That’s right, bitches, I own this motherfucking joint.” She giggled.
Brady’s mind flew into a tizzy. What other filthy things could she say with that mouth? Anna was only a tiny bit ossified, not quite yet drunk, so something told him this was her usual self.
“Sorry, I have a tendency to curse when I’m drinking. Not very ladylike, I know.” Her voice was scratchy and fun.
“Doll, I’m Irish. We invented curse words. What I’m wondering is what dirtier things you might say if given the chance.” There he was. Just a bit of the old Brady peeking through, egging women on, challenging them to see how far they’d go. If this woman could make him feel himself again after only a minute, what could she do to him after one whole night?
She clucked her tongue, smiling. “In that case,” she said, arching an eyebrow.
Whatever she was going to say, Brady loved that she didn’t shy away at first flirt. That had always been the first sign that a woman wasn’t for him, if they couldn’t take his heat. He’d made an exception with Elizabeth, because he’d admired her sense of virtue and purity, and look where that had gotten him.
“Care to join me and my friends tonight?”
In an instant, a familiar excitement stirred in his pants.
Brady was amused. Was her bravado a side effect of being so tiny around big men? The need to compensate? Or had she always been this forward all her life? Whatever it was, it wasn’t very common, and every nerve ending in his brain tingled at the possibilities.
When he didn’t respond right away, she shook her head. “Ugh. It’s the beer talking.” She shied back sheepishly, crossing her tanned legs in the most appealing way. “Forget I said anything.”
“No.” He reached out and took hold of her fingertips, then quickly let go. “I liked it. Just like I liked your kiss.”
“Yet you hesitated when I first tried to kiss you…”
“I was just taken off guard.”
“And you like to look before you leap?”
“It’s the smart thing to do. So…What were you thinking? Where might we and your girlfriends go, even if I could leave early on such a crowded night?”
“The spring…for some skinny dipping.” Her bright green eyes twinkled. “If you’re up for taking on four women at once, that is.” Her giggly confidence was back, and she aimed her beer toward the girlfriends in the back. They raised their glasses at Brady.
Skinny dipping. In late February. When it was colder outside than a witch’s titty. Brady’s bachelor days had boasted some amazing moments, even sharing two girls at once, but skinny dipping he hadn’t conquered yet. “How do I know this isn’t just a ploy to take off with my wallet?”
Anna feigned offense. “Mr. O’Neill, I’m five-foot-two. You really think I would try my criminal hand against a giant such as yourself?”
Brady grinned. But…as much as he wished he could take off and join a bevy of naked girls, he’d only just arrived to work. He had responsibilities and damn it, people who were counting on him. “It would be grand if you would, actually. But I really can’t.” Without thinking, he reached out and fixed a strand of her brown hair that had gone awry. “I’m sorry.”
“I’d love to some other time. There’s just a load of work here, so…” He knew he was being foolish, but he couldn’t force himself out of his rut. Something was stopping him, and he didn’t quite know what it was.
“Wow, so that’s really a no, huh?” She shrugged. “Your loss then.”
“No doubt, love.” Brady dutifully picked up his clipboard. He felt terrible for turning her down and once again thought how foolishly dull he was being. “It was nice meeting you, Anna.”
“What about me? I’ll go then!” Sean sidled up to them both. “If you won’t.”
“Go away, Sean,” Brady muttered. “Besides, I thought you had eyes for your new English teacher. Julianna wasn’t it?”
Sean’s gaze flickered, but he didn’t miss a beat. “Yeah, well, as you’ve taken great pleasure in reminding me, she is my professor. For now. Until she’s not, well…” He flashed Anna a roguish smile. “Miss, you picked the wrong man. Or rather, the wrong boy-child. A real man would never turn down a beautiful woman. I’ll gladly accept on his behalf.”
Anna gave them both an appreciative laugh and said, “I think we’re about the same age, Sean, and I admit… I have a fondness for older men.”
“I have a feeling Professor Julianna will say I’m too young, as well,” he said good-naturedly. “But from her, at least, that won’t be an acceptable answer.”
Anna shook her head and smiled at Brady, but it was clear Brady had disappointed her. Maybe Quinn was right. Maybe Anna was in a dark place too and needed a night to forget her past and enjoy the good things life had to offer. She’d gone and chosen him, of all the men in the tavern, and he’d gone and rejected her. What a fecking dry shite he was.
“Anyway, Brady…” She sank back the rest of her beer and set the empty glass on the counter, offering up one last radiant smile. “We’ll be at Giovanetti Springs, if you change your mind. Thanks for the kiss.” She waltzed off, joining her friends putting on their jackets, and together, they slipped back into the chilly night.
And just like that, Brady felt his balls shrivel like raisins.
“What’s this then?” Quinn appeared by his side, drying a whiskey tumbler.
“Our brother turned down a goddess. Keep calm and carry on.” Sean shook his head begrudgingly and returned to tending bar.
Quinn stared at him with disbelieving eyes. “Go, we’ll cover for ya.”
Brady felt paralyzed.
Recently, life had done a number on his brain. First, about three years ago, his daughter fell victim to complications of a congenital heart defect at just over a year of age. His little girl, his princess, his baby—dead. Grief had taken a toll on his marriage, which had already been shaky, and a year later, Elizabeth, unable—or unwilling—to handle the aftermath, jumped ship, leaving a note on their bed and wire hangers in the closet.
Then came his parents’ restaurant fire, destroying everything. Then, Dad’s deadly heart attack, then last fall, his mam, Maggie Phillips O’Neill. The rock, the glue, the one to keep them all together—gone. How much stress could one person take? What had he had left but his brothers and a new four-bedroom house and no daughter or wife to speak of?
And so Forestville became his new home, the perfect place to forget his troubles, start a new life. The new restaurant represented everything that was going well so far in this new land. Yet, at every turn, Brady held his breath. I’ve suffered enough, Lord. Please, no more tragedy.
Sensing his torment, Quinn laid a hand on his shoulder. “Nobody can tell you when it’s time to move on, brother. Only you can do that. I say go, live a little, have fun. It’s the only way to get rid of your ghosts.”
Brady caught the crook of concern in his brother’s lips and though Quinn had been saying the same thing for months now, it was as if his words finally penetrated.
What was wrong with going out just one time? Forget about life for a while. Romp with naked girls in a warm spring under a glittering, starry night. He wasn’t dead, so why act it?
He may have been a tortured man, but he wasn’t a fool. Anna Kincaid possessed something in her soul the other local women didn’t—adventure, swagger, radiance. Where had she been hiding all this time? Why hadn’t he seen her around Green Valley before? Most importantly, what would she look like naked and wet?
“I’ll open shop tomorrow.” Brady headed to his office, grabbed his coat, and left for Giovanetti Springs, his chest lighter than it had felt in a long time.
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