The grand thing about the wide Pacific wasn’t how majestic it looked on a cloudy November morning. It wasn’t the roiling waves churning out froth when it was moody, nor the way it slowly engulfed the sun at the end of a long day. It was the attitude the ocean had when doing these things. At twenty-five years old, Conor O’Neill fancied that if he ever fell in love—ever told a woman who wasn’t his mam those three magic words—it would be with a woman who had the same boss swagger as the Pacific.
The ocean didn’t timidly ask, it didn’t wonder where to go, how to live. It didn’t waver aimlessly from country to country. It just knew what to do, how to be, and it did it unapologetically, whether it was peaceful or angry or somewhere in between.
As Con watched the waves from his beach chair on the veranda of his new surf shop in Timber Cove, California, he idly wondered: would there ever be a woman who could ground him and fill him with this same sense of wonder every time he saw her? A feeling of being home and recklessly free, all in the same breath? He tossed a pebble and watched it skip across the sand.
Unlikely. Con had dated plenty of wonderful women, but he hadn’t met one yet who’d tempted him to curb his wandering ways. Maybe it was because his mam, who’d died just over two months ago, had been hard to live up to. The Queen of his heart had left grand shoes to fill. Or maybe it was because he’d seen for himself the heartache that came from being too attached to any one person, especially a spouse or wee one.
He’d seen how devastated his brother Brady had been when he’d lost baby Rhian, and then his wife Elizabeth when unimaginable grief had torn their marriage apart. He’d seen how his mam had mourned the loss of Dad. And of course, Con was still struggling with the death of his mam from a brain aneurysm at age fifty. Taken too soon. What more if he ever lost his own wife or child?
Too much heartbreak, he thought. Imagine putting all your eggs in one basket that way, so to speak. Though he’d loved his mam and dad, and he adored all four of his maggot brothers, maybe it was best not to contribute to the heartache that families often produced without intending to. Unlike his eldest brother, Quinn, who’d recently started the long-distance dance while his girl was in Miami, Conor figured he’d stick to doing his own thing, unencumbered and free, not causing any waves.
Unlike the Pacific.
One day at a time was his motto, and today he was waiting for the kids to arrive for Surfing 101. He’d only taken over the surf shop from his landlord three weeks ago and already he loved the crazy chiselers; the best part was that at the end of class, after he was through having fun with them, teaching them the difference between thruster and Malibu boards, they went home with their parents.
No bedtime dramas, no homework to deal with, just him and his music and his bottle of Parker House Shiraz straight out of the fertile hills of Green Valley.
And the ocean, of course.
The ocean he could always count on.
Noah was first to arrive. He was a smart dude, eleven years old, misunderstood by his mam and siblings. The middle child, he was largely ignored but always blamed whenever something went wrong. Conor could identify with that. Noah’s mam began bringing him to surf lessons when it was suggested by his therapist that he could use an activity all his own, something to make him feel proud of himself.
His mam, a hot one always in ponytail and yoga pants, waved from her luxury sedan, as Noah trudged up the sand toting his surfboard. Like Con, he was already wearing his wetsuit. “Hey,” he said.
“Ready for the waves, maggot?” Con bounded down the steps of the shop, plunging his feet into the cold, wet sand. He tousled Noah’s shaggy brown hair covering his eyes.
“Why do you call us maggots? Don’t you like us?”
“Maggot is a completely healthy term, Noah. It means brother, buddy, guy I love.”
“I’m pretty sure it means fly larvae, Mr. O’Neill.”
Conor gave a small laugh. “Con.” He watched two more cars pull up, delivering two more students—one boy, one girl. “I told you, call me Con.”
“Mr. O’Neill, did you see my scratch? Check this out.” Noah pulled back his wetsuit sleeve to show off a nice long red line. “My cat gave it to me when I was wrestling with her on Veterinarian’s Day. Mom says she’s still a teenager, so she acts moody.”
“So don’t wrestle with her,” Con said, even as he thought, Veterinarian’s Day? Ah, the chiseler meant Veteran’s Day, or Remembrance Day as it was called in Ireland, though it wasn’t a bank holiday there. Conor smiled at Miquelle and Wenzel who came running up the sand toward them. “Alright, lads and lass, you’re all here. Shall we get started?” He clapped once, to motivate them or himself, though, he wasn’t sure.
Miquelle gave Con’s leg a hug then spun her pink and yellow surfboard vertically, over and over like a revolving door. “My mom says you have a sexy accent, but my dad said you’re an aimless loafer. What does that mean?”
“Sexy means I look smashing in a wetsuit. Let’s go.” Con looked out to the ocean and led the kids down to the beach. Another set of cars was arriving down the road near the giant rocks, but all his students had already arrived.
Miquelle laughed. She’d already caught on to his brand of humor in the short time since lessons had begun.
“She means, what’s an aimless loafer,” ten-year-old Wenzel said, dragging his surfboard through the sand, leaving a long trail in his wake.
“I know what she means, derpy head. I was just coddin’. It means…” He turned to Miquelle flanking him on his left, “that your dad doesn’t know me very well. I’m actually quite the astute businessman in the form of an aimless loafer. It’s part of my charm.” He gave her a roguish smile.
At least that was what Con hoped he was becoming—an astute businessman. He’d always loved the ocean, but after leaving Dublin for Green Valley, he’d paired his overwhelming connection to the Pacific with his mam’s childhood dream to open a surf shop one day. It made him feel closer to Mam, sure, numbing his grief a bit, but it also made him feel centered in a strange new land, something his brothers had found preparing to open a new restaurant, The Stylish Irish, less than an hour away in Forestville. The official opening would be on Thursday, and Con had no doubt it would be a grand affair, despite the fact that the O’Neill brothers hadn’t exactly been welcomed by some folks in Green Valley, their maternal grandfather in particular.
Con and his brothers were solid; no matter what stupid pranks and petty arguments they got into (and there were a lot), they were inseparable. Even with Con living an hour away, the five of them got together at least once a week to drink the black stuff, and Con had volunteered his share of hours to help with the restaurant this past month. He was proud of all his brothers, even if they, like their dad, didn’t quite understand him.
To them, he would always be the flighty dreamer who was into strange stuff like yoga and meditation. Brady had all but rolled his eyes out of his head when he’d heard Con was going to open a surf shop, and the twins had joked that Con would be the next family member to go due to shark attack. But there wasn’t a moment when Con didn’t know he had his brothers’ support.
His dad, on the other hand…
When you gonna finish one bloody thing? his dad had yelled at him two years ago in the back office of the family restaurant, The Crazy Yankee. See just one bloody thing through, Con? It hadn’t ended well. They hadn’t spoken for days after that, and then weeks later, the Yankee had been damaged in a fire, and Dad had died of a heart attack.
Hopefully, his dad could see him now. Mam had always been proud of him, defending him to the ends of the Earth. But Dad? More likely, his staunch Catholic father would berate him for giving surf lessons on a Sunday, it being the Lord’s Day and all.
Con sighed and closed his eyes.
When he reopened them, renewed gusto took hold of him. “Okay, line up, feet apart, let me see those big stretches. Reach up, high to the sky, let’s go…” He faced his class of three and stretched his arms out wide, then he reached up to grab the clouds in mountain pose, then touched the sand with his fingertips. The kids copied him, went through downward dog, warrior pose, triangle pose, and child pose, and all the while he breathed and listened to the waves crash in. Con was proud of his kidoodles.
Down the beach about twenty meters, a small party began gathering on the large rocks. A bride and groom, from the looks of it, their backs turned to Con’s surfing class, the bride in the most elaborate scheme of a wedding dress he’d ever seen. Surrounding her, bridesmaids in light green dresses fluttered in the salty breeze, poised on smaller rocks, holding pink bouquets, as groomsmen all stood fecking around in tuxedos like a bunch of dressed-up goofballs.
Arm slung across his knee, awaiting all to get their shit together, was a photographer in his 50’s with a tangle of thick gray hair and a pot belly divided diagonally by his camera bag strap.
The bride kept casting disparaging glances back at Con, her groom checking his fingernails often while everyone else worked to get organized. However, the most interesting of the motley crew was a fine specimen of a woman facing them down on the sand, orchestrating the whole lot with her hand flicks and commands. “There, right there…no…the other way.” She looked over at Con and sighed in exasperation. “To your left. No. Hold on a second. I’ll take care of this.”
Con closed his eyes, pretending she wasn’t on her way over, though what little he’d seen was hard to ignore. Curves, bam! Sexy chestnut hair pinned back in a chignon, bam! Flawless makeup, though a bit more than he was used to seeing on a woman, bam! But most amazing of all—her tall heels under the circumstances. How she was walking on the sand in those, Con had no idea.
“Let go of your stress,” he instructed the boys and girl. “Forget that homework, forget that bully at school, forget your maggot siblings who don’t get you. I get you. The ocean gets you…” Con breathed in… “Close your eyes and listen to the waves. Listen to the sounds of—”
Con breathed out.
And cracked open an eye.
The classy pinup woman stood there, fist pushed into her hip. A quick sweeping gaze confirmed she wore no ring. She donned a fine black skirt with a frilly lacy blouse, one that plunged a bit at the top, revealing perfect, full breasts pushed into a tight, deep cleavage. The kids all ogled her then looked to Con expectantly.
“Hello?” the woman called with more than a tad of annoyance in her voice.
“Breathe, boys and girls,” Con repeated, closing his eyes again. “Push out all distractions…”
“Can you hear me, or are you just ignoring me?”
Con peered through his slit eyelids at the irked woman. “Of course we can hear you. It’s not like you’re easy to ignore.” He gave her a mischievous smile. “I was just waiting for you to be polite. May I help you?”
She huffed, pursing her lips. “Yes, actually. My clients over there are trying to take advantage of the dying light for their wedding photos. Would you mind moving out of the way for a bit while we get this done? It shouldn’t take more than thirty or so minutes. Thanks.” And just like that, she began walking off.
“Thirty minutes is all I have for my class!”
The woman stopped and turned around. “And I do apologize about that. However, the last thing my clients need are a bunch of surfers in the background of their commemorative photos, so could you please move a little further down the beach or maybe that way toward that shack?” She pointed to his little shop and cottage combo, The Big CeltHuna, thirty feet back on the sand.
“So…what you’re saying is, you want me to teach my surfing class where there’s no actual water.” Con raised his eyebrows for full communication.
The woman, finer than all the ripe grapes in Green Valley, finer than all the paintings in Paris, crossed her arms over her ample bosom and raised one perfectly sculpted eyebrow. “What I want,” she said, taking calculated steps toward him, “is for you to please move before you ruin my bride’s photos. Understood?”
“Hellcat…” Con broke his stretch pose and stepped slowly up to Miss Fancy Pants until he was inches away. God, she was insanely beautiful—a porcelain doll with dark hair, dark eyes, and those lips… “Your bride ruined them all on her own by wearing that dress, I assure you.” Con chuckled to himself, then the children joined in the laughter, tucking their faces into their shoulders and giggling along.
“Did you…” The woman cocked her head and narrowed her lovely, lovely eyes. “Did you just call me ‘hellcat?’”
“Sweet thing? Pussycat? Hell on heels?” He focused on the ruby fullness of her lips, the way she bit the inner lining of them softly, the way her breath hitched just right. He loved the effect he had on even the cockiest of women.
“I don’t have time for games,” she hissed. “Just move from the beach.”
If all he’d seen in her eyes was disdain and demand just then, he would have found a polite way to tell her to go to hell, but as he studied her, Con saw the trembling of her lower lip and the shine of panic in her eyes. He also noticed the way her gaze kept fighting the temptation to rove over his body and the pretty blush that had suffused her face, which he was choosing to believe was from physical attraction, rather than annoyance. Poor lass was obviously just trying to do right by her client, although she really did need to learn to chill out a bit. Nothing life or death was happening, for feck’s sake.
Still, before he gave her what she wanted, Con couldn’t resist teasing her a bit more. “What’s the magic word?” he asked like a primary school teacher. Behind him, Miquelle giggled in delight.
The fiery woman stared at him for a heartbeat or two, and he almost grinned at her stubbornness, wondering if she’d manage to choke the word out. “Please,” she finally muttered through clenched teeth.
He smiled at her in victory. “Your wish is my command, wedding lady,” he said with a gallant bow, then picked up his surfboard from the sand and hoisted it over his head. “Come on, maggots, let’s move down the beach. I heard nicer people live down that-a-way.” He glanced back at the wedding planner, who’d somehow managed to walk all the way back ten meters of sand toward the giant rocks in eight-centimeter heels without wavering or falling once.
Now that takes total class, Con thought.
And some serious boss swag.
The new spot on a curved stretch shielded them from view of the wedding party and turned out to be better for learning, as there were less rocks, and the sand was smoother. The kids paddled out wonderfully, popped up on their boards with ease, and caught at least one wave each. Only Noah was slow to catch on, but with a little practice, he balanced well and eventually got the hang of it.
Once the kids were thoroughly frozen from the frigid water, had hugged him and promised to watch professional surfing videos on YouTube for homework, and gone home, the sun began its descent, and the wedding party down on the rocks took their final snaps. Conor stripped off his wetsuit, changed into board shorts and a sweatshirt, cracked open a Guinness, and sat on his wooden railing to watch them pack it up.
Miss Sassy Pants was definitely worth a lingering look. Too bad her attitude was utter bollocks. Still, he’d spend a night with her if she were up for it. There was no way a woman with that much fire and passion for her job would be boring in bed. Though that’ll never happen, he thought, getting ready to head inside and start dinner.
To his surprise, the woman in the distance headed back his way, walking that pro catwalk in the sand again. She drew closer, watching him carefully, and he noted calmer lines in her face. Conor took another swig of the black stuff, hopped off the veranda to go meet her, and put on a curious face. “Fancy seeing you back.”
Impeccably dressed, manicured black nails, some sort of designer business bag slung over her shoulder, she turned up an embarrassed smile. “I’m sorry about before. I realized I must’ve sounded like a total bitch.”
“Noooo…” Con fanned her away. “Of course not. You’re fine.” Wow. A woman apologizing? So it was true. America was full of amazing new things.
She gave him a doubtful look. “It’s just that we’ve had to reschedule this shoot several times now because of the fog, and when we finally got one clear day, I almost couldn’t make it out here—I live almost two hours away—and the bride was having a total conniption.”
She was venting, and Conor felt honored in a way to be the recipient of her trust. If only for a moment. “I understand.”
“So, thank you. You saved my ass.”
Conor’s eyes mentally widened as he thought of other things he’d like to do to her ass. Especially while she was wearing that pencil skirt. But he brushed away the fantasy and focused on her deep brown eyes laced with a hint of green. Her skin was flawless, though she looked a bit older than his twenty-five. Twenty-eight, maybe? “Ah, you’re good for it, Miss, eh…”
“Madlyn,” she said, stretching out her small hand. “Sanchez.”
“Madeleine Sanchez,” Con repeated, taking her delicate hand in his and examining it. Fine skin. No pores. No blemishes. Perfect nails.
“No, Mad-lyn, like two syllables, like you’re mad at Linn. Madlyn.”
“But why would I be mad at Linn? Has she acted the maggot to me? Has she barked orders at me on the beach in front of several small children?” Con smiled and gave her back her hand.
“Ah, yes, again, I’m sorry. When I’m under pressure, I can get a little crazy.” She backed away a few steps.
The classiest, most put-together, go-get-it woman he’d ever seen, one capable of apologizing, was about to walk out of his life, and then he’d never see her again.
“I’ll let you go now.”
“Listen…” Con’s instincts took over. He couldn’t let her go without a shot, though a woman like her seemed too high maintenance for a guy like him, but it was worth a go. “I’m about to make shrimp and rice, you look hungry, there’s wine on the table, and you are the most gorgeous woman I’ve ever laid eyes on, and that is not a pickup line. That is the honest-to-God truth. You stole that poor bride’s show, that’s what you did.”
She blushed and shook her head. “Wow, thank you.”
“So, what you think? Dinner? I’m an excellent cook.”
He knew there must’ve been a smile in that beautiful face somewhere, and finally, it came out to play. Even if she left right now, turned him down, if he never saw her again, at least he’d been rewarded by a stunning bright smile, perfect white teeth, and rosy cheeks.
His heart deflated. “Feck, it was worth a try.”
“I mean, my clients are waiting for me. We took separate cars, but they’ll wonder…”
“Ah, feck ‘em.”
She laughed, shaking her head, as if trying to convince herself more than him. “Plus I have to get back home.”
“San Francisco. I’m staying at my cousin’s so we can attend a Bridal Expo tomorrow. I have to…” Her phone chimed, and she pulled it from the front pocket of her bag to see who was calling. He heard a discernible soft sigh escape her lips.
“You have to what?” he asked. She probably had a boyfriend to get back to. A woman like her most definitely had a man, if not two or three, after her.
“Nothing. It’s late, but thank you. I really appreciate your offer, uh…I didn’t get your name.”
“Conor O’Neill, the heartbroken and downtrodden.” He raised his beer—a toast to a most remarkable woman.
She laughed, a bubbly sound that made him smile. “Pleased to meet you, Conor. I’m Madlyn, the sorry and late for getting home, Sanchez. But thanks again for acquiescing to my request.” Her eyes roved over him quickly when she said it. She couldn’t take it away. She’d checked him out, and he’d noticed. “Take care.”
“You as well, Miss Sanchez.” He’d have to look up what acquiesced meant over dinner.
Conor gave her a small wave and watched her walk off. Not only had she returned to talk to him, but she’d smiled, laughed, given him her name so he could always connect with her online, and now…he was treated to a view of her swaying backside in the black pencil skirt, as she expertly maneuvered her way through the sandy dunes.
A fine specimen.
Just before she reached the rocks, she paused.
“Come on, you can do it…” Con mumbled. He’d observed female behavior many times before with many women in different cities and countries throughout Europe. They were all the same, even the hellcats like Madlyn. They couldn’t help giving in to their natural curiosity. It was a game, a lovely game, and he loved to play.
Then she did—she proved him right. Her head turned, and she took one last glance at him in the waning tangerine light. And just before she disappeared altogether behind the rocks, she gave him a sizzling smile, ending his night so perfectly, not even the shrimp nor Shiraz nor the view of his amazing ocean would be able to top it.