Excerpt for Love in Dublin by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Love in Dublin

A McKinnon Brothers Romance

Jennifer Gracen

 

 

Love in Dublin

Copyright © 2017 Jennifer Gracen

Smashwords Edition

The Tule Publishing Group, LLC

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This 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, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

ISBN: 978-1-947636-46-0

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Dedication

For anyone who’s ever longed for a second chance—

whether for love, or for a new shot at life.

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Prologue

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

Chapter Seventeen

Epilogue

The McKinnon Brothers series

Excerpt from The Paramedic’s Rescue

About the Author

Acknowledgments

Thank you to the whole team at Tule Publishing for wanting the last McKinnon brother’s story! It took me a while to come up with one, but I’m so grateful you wanted it. This series has been so much fun for me to write, a true gift.

Specific thanks to Jane Porter, and to the wonderful Meghan Farrell—for your support, patience, kindness, and being on top of things. You’re always a pleasure to work with.

To my editor Sinclair Sawhney… the fact that you obviously really loved this story and got so excited about it made me even more excited about it. Your enthusiasm, feedback, and insight were much appreciated. Thank you.

To Nika Rhone, my beta reader extraordinaire, thank you as always. You’re the goods.

To my family and friends who have supported me enthusiastically and without fail, thank you so very much. Couldn’t do it without you all.

And last but not least, to the readers who have enjoyed this series, thank you very much for taking this ride with me. Without you, it wouldn’t go very far, and I’m so grateful.

Prologue

You sure you wanna sell it?”

Colin McKinnon didn’t even hesitate. Didn’t even glance down at the piece of gold. He only looked into the pawn shop owner’s watery eyes and said coolly, “Aye. It’s either sell it, or throw it in the river. Figured I might as well get a few euros for it.”

“Okay then.” The older man picked up an eyepiece and studied the ring closely.

Colin waited, patient as he leaned a hip against the counter. Strange how he felt nothing, watching this man gage the value of the yellow-gold band he’d worn for nineteen years. Then again, he’d felt numb inside for so long, it didn’t surprise him, really. He just figured he should feel something as he was about to sell his wedding ring, and he truly didn’t.

Last night, as the moon rose, he’d been walking along the banks of the Liffey when he looked down at his hand, glanced at the ring, and had an overwhelming urge to toss it into the river with all his might. Then he thought, why not get some money for it, take the kids out to dinner at least. Buy them something. So here he was.

“I’ll give ya a hundred euros for it,” the man finally said.

“That’s all?”

“‘Fraid so. If ya shop it round, you’ll get similar offers. Maybe even less.”

Colin shrugged. “Fine. Deal.”

Fifteen minutes later, he walked out of the pawn shop with one hundred euros in his pocket and emptiness in his heart. He squinted up at the sun, took a deep breath, and got in his car. His lunch hour was almost over and he had to get back to work.

He wondered what Trish would do with her wedding ring. Would she keep it or sell it? Then he wondered why he’d thought of that. He didn’t care. After a long, loveless marriage, then the five-year waiting period for the divorce, they felt nothing for each other now. Yes, a kinship over parenting their three kids, but beyond that? It’d been over for a long time.

Even though the divorce was final at last and he’d moved out a week before, it was still seeping into his brain that he was a free man. Free to do whatever he wanted for the first time in almost twenty years. Or ever, really.

A horn honked loudly beside him, jolting him from his reverie. With an irritated huff, he drove into midday traffic. Free. Freedom. He still had no idea what to do with that freedom. He had no idea what to do with his new, reshaped life.

He figured he would in time. He was used to being lonely; he’d been lonely in his own marriage for so long, so tired of going through the motions, that he’d finally asked for a divorce. And Trish hadn’t really fought him on it, so at least he didn’t have to feel guilty. She wanted out too. Which spoke volumes.

At a stop light, he wiggled his fingers. His left hand felt so strange without the ring on it. But good strange. The same kind of good strange that had permeated him when he’d moved into his own tiny flat. He hadn’t ever lived alone before. He’d gone from his crowded childhood home to university, where he’d had roommates in the dormitory, to marrying Trish weeks after graduation.

Lots of new things lately. Lots of adjustments. His head was still spinning.

But it had occurred to him on his walk along the river last night that he was also free to chase down a long-dead dream or two. Maybe he’d finally have some true adventures, like the ones he’d planned on before forced to give up out of duty when he was twenty-one.

Last night, something deep inside had whispered, “Better late than never. There’s a whole world out there. Go get it.”

Now if he could just feel something, anything, that’d be a good start. Numb seemed to be his new default setting. Numb, tired, adrift… he’d never thought he’d feel so lost at forty years old.

Chapter One

Eight months later

The man in the corner had her intrigued. Maggie couldn’t deny it.

Not just because he was good-looking, and he certainly was. It was because of what he was doing. This was the third night in a row she’d come to this pub, and the third night in a row she’d seen him at a booth in the back corner, head down as he scribbled away in a notebook. Intensely focused on whatever he was writing, he rarely lifted his head to glance around the crowded pub, occasionally taking a sip from his pint glass. And that intense focus had Maggie riveted.

Who wrote things out by hand anymore? What was he writing? Why bother coming to a pub if you clearly didn’t want to interact with anyone?

Who was he?

Three nights of these burning questions got the best of her. She had to know. She wasn’t shy, she talked to people all over the world. Time to get some answers.

She crossed the room, weaving her way through the patrons of the pub. Flat-screens high on the wall played rugby and football, and people yelled at the games or talked or laughed. Maggie loved the lively atmosphere and charm of a true local pub, be it in Ireland or the UK. Finally, she got to the corner booth. The man didn’t look up, so she quickly studied his thick, dark caramel hair, his broad shoulders, the way his large hand moved as he wrote along the lines of the page in heavy black ink. “Hi.”

His head snapped up. She didn’t know what surprised her more: that he was even more handsome than she’d realized, or how unbelievably blue his eyes were behind the silver-rimmed glasses. His ocean-blue gaze focused on her, intense, scrutinizing. “Can I help you?” he asked, a bit leery.

“You can.” She threw him a bright smile. “You can tell me what you’re writing there, night after night. I’m dying to know.”

He blinked, then removed the glasses and set them on the polished wood table. “You’ve been watching me write?” His deep voice was guarded, but ohhh, also sexy. His Irish accent gave his words a musical lilt. “Night after night? For how long?”

“For three nights now,” she said. “And I’m intrigued.”

His eyes narrowed as he assessed her. It gave her a few more moments to stare at his face. Strong, masculine features. Deep creases by his eyes, filled with distrust; hard angles and a square jaw; a hint of dark gold stubble around full lips made for sin. He was a few years older than her, to be sure. But damn, was he handsome. And… clearly wary, with a hint of outright grouchy. There was a furrow between his heavy brows and the hint of a scowl around that generous mouth. She got the feeling they were permanent, not just on display because she’d interrupted and annoyed him.

Something about that perma-frown made her want to turn it upside down.

She extended a hand. “I’m Maggie Spencer.”

He glanced at it, then lifted his hand to shake hers. His large hand was warm, and the contact sent a shiver up her arm. “Colin McKinnon.”

“Nice to meet you.” She gestured at the empty side of the booth. “May I?”

His lips pursed for a second before he said gruffly, “Sure.”

“Thanks.” She sat across from him and tried to charm him with another smile. “So. Do I get an answer? What’s so compelling that you’re in your own world here, writing like mad in the middle of a crowded pub?”

His features stayed motionless, not giving anything away. This was a tough nut to crack. Finally he said, “American girl, eh?”

“Yes. Does that bother you?”

“Nah.” His broad shoulders lifted in a half-shrug. “Two of my brothers married American girls. Seem to do well in my family.”

She laughed. “Two of them, huh? How many brothers do you have?”

“Three.”

“And the third?”

“Married his best friend. Local girl.”

“Ah. So at least you got one good Irish girl in the mix.”

Colin only nodded.

“I’m here for two months,” Maggie said. “Three at the most. On a job. Not that you asked, but that’s why there’s an American girl hanging out at your local pub.”

“On a job, eh? What kind of work?”

“I’m a travel writer.”

At that, his eyes lit up. It was amazing, seeing how his face transformed with the slightest hint of light. The gruffness evaporated some, and he was even more handsome. His head cocked a bit to the side as he continued to study her. “Really.”

“Yup. That interests you, I take it?”

He kept gazing at her, letting a long beat pass before he admitted, “Very much, actually. I’d like to hear more about that.”

“I’ll gladly tell you,” she said, feeling like she’d won a small victory. “If you’ll tell me what you’re writing in there.” She gestured to his notebook with a flick of her chin.

His eyes narrowed again, the distrust back. But he said, “Stories.”

Her heart gave a little leap at his hard-won admission. “What kind of stories?”

“Short stories. Mostly fiction.”

“Wow! That’s cool. You’re a writer too, then.”

He huffed out a dark laugh at that. “No. I work in the Finance Office at UCD. This writing… it’s… just for me.”

She took that in. Finance guy in a likely dull office at University College Dublin by day, secret writer by night. Again, she was intrigued. “You know,” she said, folding her hands on the tabletop, “even if it’s just for you, if you’re writing, you’re a writer.”

He shook his head and snorted out a disdainful chuckle. “Ehmmm, no.”

“Ehmmm, yes. Hate to tell you, but that’s actually the definition of a writer.” She quirked a teasing grin at him. “One who writes.”

He just stared at her, then asked, “What’s your job here for two or three months?”

“Hired by a tourism company that wants to up their visibility. So I’m doing this thing, ‘Fifty Fun Ways to Spend a Day In and Around Dublin.’”

“That’s been done a million times,” he groused.

“I know. But it hasn’t been done by me, or this company.” She sat back and held his disdainful gaze. “Hey, if nothing else, it’ll be fun.”

“Good for you, then. I wish you luck.” He fidgeted with the pen he still held.

“Thank you. I just got here three days ago. I’m staying in a flat around the corner from here,” she went on. “Central neighborhood, it’s perfect. I’m settling in. Is this your local too?”

“Aye, it is now. I moved here a few months ago.”

“Nearby?”

“A few blocks away.” He didn’t offer any more than that.

“Ah. Well… maybe I’ll see you around the neighborhood, then. Or here.”

“Perhaps.” He flicked the pen restlessly between his fingers. Damn, he was good-looking. And so intense. Maggie sensed a story there… but she also sensed he just wanted to get back to his writing and didn’t know how to dismiss her without seeming rude. Never overstay your welcome, and always leave them wanting.

With a little grin, she slid out of the booth and got to her feet. “I’ll let you get back to your writing. We can talk about mine another time. It was nice to meet you, Colin.”

“Likewise.” He opened his mouth as if to say something, then clamped his lips shut. With a short nod, he picked up his glasses—reading glasses, she gathered—put them back on, and dipped his head, back to writing.

Maggie walked away, back to the bar area, and sat on the only empty stool. One more pint, then she’d go home for the night. Colin McKinnon was a tense ball of livewire. She could feel it in his coiled posture, see so much in his eyes. He obviously wanted space; the invisible wall around him all but glowed. But at the same time, she felt like maybe he’d like to talk…

She’d seek him out again. He intrigued her too much not to.

Colin watched the American walk away. The young woman was gorgeous. Her long, straight blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail, which only served to better display her heart-shaped face. Flawless skin, high cheekbones, and beautiful eyes—a warm dark brown that shone with confidence and intelligence. Skinny jeans and a red T-shirt showed off her trim figure, which called to him.

He took a long swallow of beer. Just looking at her sparked something low in his belly that hadn’t sparked in a long time. But it wasn’t only her looks that interested him. It was her. She’d sashayed right over to him and struck up a conversation. Bold, open, but friendly, not obnoxious. At ease with herself and her surroundings. She didn’t seem like a shy tourist; she carried herself with the self-assurance of someone worldly. Someone who’d traveled, met people, seen things and had experience. He admired that.

But more than anything, what struck him most was her smile. That radiant smile was like the sun coming out, clearing clouds without effort. Her inner light seemed genuine as it’d showered over him, making him instinctively want to turn toward that warm light. He wanted to bathe in it.

What the hell did she want with him?

He grunted and took another sip before staring down at the page in front of him. She’d distracted him, broken his train of thought. He couldn’t think of the sentence he’d been poised to write when she’d appeared. Unable to stop himself, he shifted his head to glance at her over the rims of his reading glasses. She sat on the other side of the pub now, up at the bar. Her pale blonde ponytail hung more than halfway down the back of her red T-shirt, ending just above the sinuous curve of her waist. No heels on her feet, but silver and turquoise runners—which showed she was practical, not as concerned about looks. He liked that too.

Wasn’t really safe for a young, attractive woman to be out alone like this, was it? But she seemed either unaware of that or unafraid. His bet was the latter. Maggie was a force of nature, bright light and energy and a hint of flame. He stared at her for another minute, then turned his eyes back to his notebook.

The black words on the page seemed to blur and make no sense.

Why in bloody hell had he told her he wrote short stories? He hadn’t told anyone that. Ever. And yet when she asked, he just blurted it out straight away. Christ, she’d turned that smile on him and he’d plain gone mental.

But he had to admit, he wanted to talk to her again. He’d love to hear about where she’d traveled to, what she’d seen and experienced. That had been his ultimate dream when he was younger: to travel the world.

All through his teen years, he’d daydreamed about the places he’d go. His huge family had very little money, what with eight kids to feed. Even though he was the third child, as the oldest son, he’d always felt duty-bound to do everything right—part of that meant going to university before taking off for parts unknown, so he did. On scholarship, because his grades were so good. He excelled in every course at Trinity, made his parents proud, enjoyed partying with his friends. And then, over his last year, enjoyed first love and long nights in bed with Trish.

But all the while, he planned.

He told his parents he’d be off to see the world for a while before settling into a career, and had their blessing. He carefully planned an extensive travel itinerary, saved his money, and knew that after graduation, he’d take off. Explore for six months before deciding which country to settle in and where to start the rest of his life. Finally, he’d get to live out some lifelong dreams of adventure, see the places he’d only read about, and live for himself instead of his sense of duty to his family.

But a month before graduation Trish got pregnant, and that was that.

The travel plans would have to wait. A hasty wedding happened. The money he’d saved went to their new flat and to savings for when the baby came. The new life somewhere else… that dream evaporated like mist. All of his dreams did. His innate sense of duty and honor were transferred from his family to his new wife. His new reality was securing a job quickly and becoming a father, when he was barely a grown man himself. Years went by…

Colin drained the rest of his pint glass. He’d made choices. He’d done what he had to. No use in looking back anymore. Things happened. He’d done the right thing, and in the end, that was what mattered most. No one could ever accuse him of anything less, and he could look himself in the mirror each day and know that.

His cell phone vibrated in his back pocket and he pulled it out to glance at the screen. A text from his daughter: Hi Da, are we still on for dinner tomorrow night?

He grinned to himself. Sure. Aren’t we?

Just checking, Roisin wrote back.

You have a better offer? Colin texted.

No! LOL U’ll pick me up at 6, then?

Yes. Love you.

Love u 2

Colin smiled as he shoved his phone back into his jeans. His kids were the best things in his life. The one reward for his integrity. He didn’t regret them for a second. Patrick, Stephen, and Roisin meant more to him than anything. He missed seeing them every day, but they were doing fine living with their mum. Patrick was at university now anyway, Stephen would start next year, and his baby girl wasn’t a baby anymore, but a feisty teen who wore too much makeup and clothes that were too tight.

And if he’d done right by them, and they were lucky, they’d get to have their own exciting lives and live out their dreams in ways their father hadn’t.

Colin glanced over toward the bar area again. He watched as Maggie Spencer slid off her barstool, her long, denim-clad legs and silver runners carrying her toward the door and out into the night.

A bloody travel writer… she was the embodiment of what he could have been, wasn’t she. He wondered what dreams of his she’d been able to live out. One night, if he ran into her again, maybe he’d have the presence of mind to actually ask her, instead of wasting his energy sizing her up and getting flustered.

Chapter Two

Colin wasn’t at the pub the next evening. Maggie noticed his corner booth housed a young couple instead. Which was fine, since it gave her the opportunity to focus on her friend instead of him.

“So, ya settlin’ in fine?” Ciara asked as they dug into a basket of chips.

“Absolutely.” Maggie smiled as she dipped her chip into a cup of brown sauce. The subtle spices in it bloomed on her tongue. “I love it here. You knew Ireland is one of my favorite places.”

“Aye, that’s why I thought of you when the job came up.”

Maggie had met Ciara on her first trip to Dublin, over eight years ago. They’d clicked so completely that they’d never lost touch, the friendship deepening over time. Now, Ciara worked for one of the bigger advertising firms in Dublin. When her team got the City’s Tourism Department as a client and came up with this idea, Ciara told them she had the perfect person for the job.

Luckily, she’d caught Maggie at something of a turning point. The offer was made a few days after her thirtieth birthday, which Maggie had spent alone in a hotel room in Paris, crying. Feeling like she needed to do something different, yet afraid to mess with the plan that’d sustained her for the past five years, Ciara’s call had seemed like a sign. Maggie hadn’t stayed in any one place for more than a month since she’d been twenty-five. The job paid well enough and was an easy, fun one, in one of her favorite cities in the whole world. She had a friend there, some sort of touchstone. Accepting the job had been a no-brainer. Now, four months later, she was here.

“I’m supposed to ask you if your itinerary is all set,” Ciara said. She swept her shoulder-length brown hair back from her shoulder, then reached for her pint glass. “Do you have one?”

“I have a broad outline,” Maggie hedged. “I mean… I’ve got a list of about twenty things I definitely want to see and do. The rest, I’m going to figure out as I go. As I meet people and hear of things I wouldn’t have otherwise.” She leaned in on her elbows. “Anyone can Google ‘things to do in Dublin.’ But for this to be different, more authentic? I need to meet the people here. Talk to them, ask them what they like to do, where they’ve gone, and then follow up on that.”

“I like it.” Ciara clinked her glass to Maggie’s and they both sipped. “I’ll tell them just that. But if they ask for something in writing…?”

“I’ll give you something. No problem.” Maggie looked around. “I’ve already talked up people in this pub over the past few days. Got like ten new ideas. Tell the team not to worry. I’m going to make this fabulous.”

“Not a doubt in my mind.” Ciara eyed a group of guys laughing by the bar. “That tall, dark-haired one is adorable, eh?”

Maggie stole a discreet glance, then turned back to her friend with a grin. “Indeed. Your husband might mind, though.”

“Aye, there is that.” Ciara sighed. “He’s really cute. You should go over.”

“Nah. Not my style. I do like to look, though.”

“Me too. I can look! I’m married, not dead.”

Maggie nodded, but Ciara froze.

“I—Christ, Maggie, I’m sorry,” she sputtered. Her pale cheeks flushed with color.

“Why?” Maggie frowned at her, confused. “For what?”

“What I said… I didn’t mean that to sound insensitive.” Ciara’s eyes were wide.

“What? Oh.” Understanding dawned, and Maggie shook her head hard. “You didn’t, you weren’t! I didn’t take it how you’re obviously thinking I did.”

Ciara sighed and dropped her head. “Christ, I’m such an ass.”

“Hey. No.” Maggie reached for her hand across the table and gave it a squeeze. “You’re very sweet to even think of it. I didn’t think it, though. Honestly, you thought of it, not me. So stop it, I’m fine. Okay?”

“Okay.” Ciara squeezed her hand back even tighter, then took a big gulp of her beer. “So… where have you gone so far? On your excursions?”

“This week, I kept it to Dublin city limits.” Maggie reached into the bucket and took another chip. “Hit some of the expected places. Figure I’ve got to have some basics on the list.”

Maggie and Ciara talked and laughed for another two hours before Ciara left to get home to her husband. Maggie lingered in the pub for another half hour, taking in the sights and sounds around her, before leaving Reardon’s Pub herself. The few pints she’d enjoyed over the evening had her comfortably buzzed as she walked through the cool August night. She only pulled her sweater tighter around her, too lazy to bother zippering it up since her rented flat was just around the corner.

She walked up to the second floor, down the hall to the end. Her flat was small but cozy; considering she’d never stayed in one place for so long in years, at least it was a pleasant place to land each night. Just a small front room, tiny kitchenette, tiny bathroom, and small bedroom, but the rooms were painted in warm earth tones and the furniture was new. Most importantly, it had a comfortable bed. The full-size mattress was fine for just her, she didn’t need a queen- or king-size, and the wide window let in lots of light and a great view of the city. She’d been there almost a week now and truly had enjoyed some great sleep. This was her fourth trip to Dublin; she always felt at ease here. In fact, if she ever was to settle down and stay somewhere, this city would be in her top five picks without a doubt.

Maggie was a nomad; she didn’t need much space or anything fancy to be comfortable. She’d stayed in five-star hotels and dingy little huts. As a woman traveling alone, all she needed was a firm lock on the door to feel safe and she was fine.

But as she slipped in between the sheets in the dark, the familiar melancholy thoughts crept into her head. Whispers of the past, what she’d lost… Poor Ciara, thinking she’d inadvertently brought up memories and hurt Maggie’s feelings. I’m married, not dead. Maggie sighed and rolled over, punching her pillow to shift the shape of it. Ciara couldn’t know the memories lived in her head continually; Maggie just made a daily conscious effort not to let them strangle her.

In May, she’d gotten through the dreaded anniversary. Five years. Zack had been gone for five years. The number, especially just a few weeks after her milestone birthday in late April, had been a soul-deep heartache that made her want to howl with fresh grief. But strangely, it had also served as a nudge to… to maybe do something different with her life.

It was the damnedest thing; it had come to her like a whisper on the air, almost as if Zack himself had whispered it to her somehow. It had lingered in her mind ever since. A seed had been planted and was slowly blooming. But she had no idea what that ‘something different’ was. So until she figured it out, she had to keep moving, because that’s what she knew.

I’m married, not dead.

Maggie had been both. Life went on anyway. She was still here, and making the most of life in the ways she knew how.

She closed her eyes and gratefully let sleep overtake her.

Colin noticed when Maggie Spencer walked into the pub. Then he snorted at himself. Noticed. That word implied a casual, “oh look, there she is,” as opposed to the right phrasing: he’d been watching the door for the past two hours. Waiting, hoping, to see her again. Not that he knew what to say to her, or if he’d even speak to her.

She was damned pretty. Her pale-gold hair was pulled back in a long ponytail again. She wore dark skinny jeans and her runners, a blue T-shirt under a blue and purple jumper—nothing striking, but she stood out. At least, she did to him. He felt a buzz just looking at her. Something about her just…

He scrubbed a hand over his face in disgruntlement, then gulped down some ale.

The night before, he hadn’t been at the pub, but at dinner with two of his three children. Patrick was away, having just started his second year at university. The plans had been with Roisin, but Stephen had been home for a change, so much to Colin’s delight, he went along too.

Roisin, at fifteen, was mature beyond her years and looking more like a grown woman every time Colin saw her. The heavy black eyeliner and clothes reminded him of the Goth girls he’d known growing up, but none of them had dyed their hair wacky colors. Jet black, maybe. But Trish had let Roisin put bright blue and magenta streaks in her fine brown hair.

Colin had just smiled and said, “Cool.” He’d be damned if he’d be negative to his little girl, especially about her appearance. Girls were so sensitive about that stuff. He didn’t always like what she wore or what she did to her hair, but he tried not to judge. She had to be her, and he supported that. She was beautiful inside and out no matter what, that’s what mattered.

Stephen, now seventeen, was the quietest of his kids. Where Patrick was boisterous and outgoing, Stephen kept his cards close to the vest, a bit taciturn, introverted. As a teen and younger man, Colin had been more like Patrick; Stephen reminded him more of himself nowadays. They never needed to talk much; presence was what mattered.

And Colin had always, always made sure he was a strong and steady presence in his kids’ lives, even now after the divorce. Hell, especially since he’d moved out when the divorce was finalized. He needed them to know they were the most important part of his life, that he wasn’t and would never abandon them. He’d moved to Dublin to be closer to his job, but the kids and their mum were only a fifteen-minute drive out of the city. Colin had dinner with Roisin every Wednesday night without fail, and if Stephen was around, he joined them. Colin had enjoyed their time together the night before.

Tonight, he was alone again. He watched as Maggie made her way to the bar. He’d hoped he’d see her here, and made a point to go there straight from work to grab his preferred corner booth. The pub had been half empty when he’d arrived, and he’d had dinner alone in relative quiet, half-watching football on the flat-screen. Now it was past eight, and the pub had filled and gotten noisy. He didn’t mind the noise; he welcomed it. For someone who’d ached for freedom for years, now that he had it, most nights Colin found the silence in his flat a bit overwhelming.

There weren’t any empty stools at the bar; Colin saw a lad slide off his stool and offer it to her. She smiled—God, her smile—and spoke to him before accepting it. Something in Colin’s chest tightened as he watched the guy plant himself there, standing over Maggie as they talked.

It wasn’t his business what Maggie Spencer did or who she talked to. This was madness. He had to stop watching her like some bloody stalker. He took another sip of his beer and went back to writing. This story was giving him fits.

Maggie groaned inside. At first, the guy who’d offered her his stool had been friendly, but now it’d been half an hour and he was still hovering. His name was Clark, he was twenty-six and worked in a retail clothing store. She didn’t recognize the name and he’d seemed offended, but kept talking at her anyway. His clothes, scraggly beard, black-rimmed glasses, tattooed forearms, and overall vibe screamed hipster. He was in love with himself. She wasn’t remotely interested.

But he hadn’t gotten the hint. Even though she’d made a point of waving around her silent weapon, which worked most of the time, it didn’t work all of the time. Most men saw the gold wedding band on her finger and it stopped any flirty stuff before it started. Some men simply didn’t care at all and went for it anyway. Apparently Clark didn’t believe in the sanctity of marriage.

She sighed. She’d have to find a way to get away from him or she’d be trapped with him all night. And if this was his local, as it was now her temporarily adopted one, it meant she’d have to do it carefully since she’d likely see him here again.

“Excuse me,” she said as she slipped off the barstool, “but I need to use the restroom.”

“Oh, sure.” Clark moved for her to get by, but not enough, ensuring he got the quick feel of her breasts brushing across his chest. His dark eyes sparked as he looked down at her. “Close quarters, eh?”

Irritation flared in her. She gave him a bit of a shove as she edged away.

“I’ll wait for ya here,” he said. “Another pint for ya?”

“No thanks,” she said. She never took an open drink from anyone. One time being roofied had been more than enough for her. She’d been lucky to be with friends when it happened, but she’d learned a valuable lesson. As she threaded her way through the crowd to get to the restroom, she wondered how to shake this guy. She didn’t want to go home and have him possibly follow her, know where she was staying. She also didn’t want to leave the pub yet. She shouldn’t have to alter her night because of a man who was giving her weird vibes. Maybe she’d whisper to Johnny, the bartender she’d made a point of befriending her first night there…

Then her eyes landed on Colin McKinnon, sitting in his usual booth. He was back. His head was down, he was scribbling away… ahh, there it was. A lifeline.

But when she came out of the restroom, Clark was right there waiting for her. “Hiya, doll.” He grinned, but something in his eyes made her intuition buzz. “I was thinking we could get outta here and go somewhere else. You game?”

“No, I’m not,” she said. She’d been in this situation many times before. She’d been in worse places, more remote and legitimately scary, and gotten away unscathed. Her gut told her that Clark wasn’t a major threat, and that in this pub, she’d be okay. So her voice was strong as she met his gaze and said kindly but firmly, “I’m fine here, thanks. But you go ahead if you want to leave. It was nice meeting you.”

His dark eyes flashed, the faux-friendly expression sliding off his face. He leaned in, edging her back until he had her against the wall. “Are you dismissing me?”

“No.” Her heart pounded harder, but she met his gaze directly to show he couldn’t intimidate her. “I just don’t want to go anywhere. I’m staying here.”

“Then I’ll stay too, doll.”

“I’m not a doll, and actually, I’d rather you didn’t. I think we’re done now.”

“Aw now, that’s not very friendly.” His hands came up, one on either side of her head, and his hands flattened against the wall as he tilted in. “Let’s kiss and make up.”

“I don’t think so.” Her hands fisted at her sides, preparing to strike if necessary. The way he’d blocked her in had her nerves jangling. She’d learned enough self-defense to easily fend him off if she had to. “And I don’t like how you’re in my space right now. Back up, please.”

His jaw tightened as he stared down at her.

“I said,” she repeated, “back up off me. Now.”

Clark’s right hand stroked her cheek, then dropped to her shoulder. Maggie shifted slightly, about to lift her knee and slam it straight into his balls.

“I believe the lady said back up,” came a strong, deep voice. Maggie ripped her gaze from Clark’s to see Colin standing right behind him. She’d been so focused on keeping her wits about her and not blinking at Clark, she hadn’t noticed his arrival.

“Mind your business, mate,” Clark said over his shoulder.

“I’m not yer mate,” Colin growled. “And if you don’t step back from her right now, I’m going to smash your face into the wall.”

Clark blinked, then backed up and moved away from Maggie. He turned to look at Colin, whose strong features were knitted with cool fury. “She’s fine, old man.”

“Aye, she is now,” Colin said. “You don’t come near her again. Ever. Or you’ll answer to me, then the garda.”

“You’re overreacting,” Clark scoffed.

“No he’s not,” Maggie said. “I told you to back off and you didn’t. You touched me instead. That’s harassment, asshole.”

Colin’s eyes narrowed on Clark. “Leave the pub,” he said, his voice a tight, low snarl. “Now. Before I change my mind and smash your face anyway.”

Without a glance back at her, Clark strode off. Colin watched him to ensure he left; when Clark walked out the door, he turned back to Maggie. “You all right?”

“I’m fine,” she said, though her heart was beating wildly. “Thank you. How did you know?”

“I saw you,” he said, his frown and lowered brows set in hard lines. “Your body language screamed something was up. When I saw him edge you back against the wall, your eyes rounded…” A muscle jumped in his set jaw. “I thought you might need help.”

“My hero,” she murmured. “You have good instincts.” She lifted her hands to touch her cheeks, which felt blazing hot. “I need a drink. Can I buy you one too?”

Colin nodded, but his eyes were glued to her hands. Those blues lingered a second before going back to her browns. “I didn’t notice that the other night.”

“Notice what?” she asked, trying to breathe deeply. Her heart was still fluttering.

Colin paused, eyes intense again. “Where’s your husband?” He gestured with his chin toward the wedding ring on her hand. “You’ve been here night after night without him. Maybe you should be with him. Maybe he should’ve been here to save you tonight, not me.”

“For the record, I didn’t need saving, though I really appreciate what you did. I was about to slam my knee into his balls when you spoke up. I do know some self-defense, believe it or not.”

He just stared at her, the crease etched between his furrowed brows, his face like stone.

“I don’t have a husband, Colin,” she said quietly, her hands dropping to her sides. “I’m not married anymore. I’m a widow.”

Chapter Three

Colin’s breath stuck in his throat. A lance of shame pierced him, then regret. “I… I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Maggie said. She shrugged casually, but her face was still flushed. The encounter with that hipster jackass had left her more shaken than she would admit to. “When you’re a woman traveling alone, you need all the ammunition you’ve got. I still wear the ring to try and ward off unwanted advances.”

“I see,” he said. “Does it usually work?”

“Most of the time. Not tonight, though. Some men simply don’t care if I’m married, they hit on me anyway. Some men just don’t like the word ‘no.’” She drew a deep breath and let it out. “Whatever. I’m fine. Thank you for your help. Please can I buy you a drink?”

“Yes,” Colin said simply. He moved aside to give her room and gestured toward the back booth. “I’m at my usual perch in the corner.”

“I noticed. I was going to come say hello at some point.” Maggie flashed a tiny grin, then walked with him.

A widow, Colin thought, still dumbstruck. He believed her. The lightning quick flash of grief in her eyes when she’d said the words was genuine. But at her young age? Christ, she couldn’t be but thirty, maybe that. Curiosity overwhelmed him. He tried not to stare as he sat quietly across from her.

“Want to share a basket of chips with me too?” Maggie asked with a smile.

He blew out a long, slow breath, trying to make his tense muscles ease. He had to relax. His adrenaline had kicked in at the sight of that loser backing her up against the wall and putting his hands on her. But if she was okay now, he had to be too. “Sure, why not?”

Deirdre, their server, appeared as if summoned and they placed their order. As soon as she walked away, Maggie said, “Colin… I swear I’m not married. I’m not out here playing around, looking to cheat on my husband. What I told you is true.”

“I believe you.” Colin studied her. “May I ask a few questions?”

“Sure.”

“How old are you?”

“Thirty.”

He felt a lick of satisfaction to know he’d guessed correctly.

“How old are you?” she asked.

“Forty. Almost forty-one. A wee bit older than you.”

“Only a wee bit,” she teased back lightly, tossing him one of those sunny smiles. “You don’t look it. Good genes in your family. I thought you were maybe thirty-six.”

“I’ll take it.” He grinned back in spite of himself. “Ehm… how long has your husband been gone?”

“Five years now,” she said, and the twinkle left her eyes.

Colin winced. “I’m so sorry. He was young, then.”

“We were twenty-five. Car accident.” Maggie’s voice was flat, as if she’d said the words a million times and it was now rote. “We were both in the car, he was driving. He was killed instantly. I woke up from a coma a week later.”

Colin’s heart plummeted to his stomach as her words sank in. Two young people, their whole lives in front of them… then in a flash, him gone, and her waking up to what must have been utter devastation. A chill rolled over him and he shuddered. “Jesus Christ, I’m so sorry. I…”

“Thank you.” Maggie fidgeted with the round cardboard coaster on the tabletop, spinning it in slow circles. “So, Colin. You ever been married?”

She was forcibly turning the subject away from herself, and he couldn’t blame her. So although he usually hated talking about himself, he acquiesced. “Aye, I was. For nineteen years. Recently divorced. ’Bout nine months now.”

Maggie’s eyes widened. “It’s like, a whole process to get a divorce in Ireland.”

“You’re tellin’ me,” he muttered. “Wasn’t fun, or easy. But here I am. ’Tis done.”

She leaned in, her eyes brighter. “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why did you get divorced after all that time? Especially when this country makes it so hard to do it?” She bit down on her bottom lip. “I’m sorry, I’m just so curious. You can tell me to shut up.”

To his own surprise, he shrugged and said, “It’s all right. Ehm… Trish and I never truly loved each other. I…” I watched all my brothers marry girls they were crazy in love with, and it made me realize what I’d never had. It made me angry enough to finally look at my miserable life and want out. “Unfortunately, it was a dead marriage from the start.”

“Then why’d you get married at all?”

“I got her pregnant.”

“Oh. I see.”

Deidre returned just then, placing a glass of pale ale before Maggie and darker stout in front of Colin. “Chips’ll be out in a minute.”

They thanked her, then Maggie lifted her glass in a toast. “To my hero tonight. Thank you for stepping up for me.”

“Bah, I’m no hero,” Colin said, “but you’re welcome.” He gently tapped his glass to hers and they drank. “I have to admit, I might’ve liked to see you slam your knee into his balls, like you said.”

She laughed. “He would’ve deserved it.”

“Damn right.” He felt his body ease some more, took another swallow of stout.

“So you have a kid.” She continued as if they hadn’t been interrupted.

“He’s a grown man now,” Colin said. “Nineteen and at university. My younger son is seventeen, and my daughter’s just turned fifteen.”

Maggie studied him for a long moment, then declared, “You adore your kids.”

“I do.”

“Your whole face softened when you spoke of them.”

“Did it?” He chuckled at that. “Well, they’re the best part of my life.”

“That’s lovely.” Maggie chewed on her bottom lip, her keen eyes still on him. He tried not to stare at her luscious mouth. “So you live here now, in the city. They live with their mother?”

“Aye.”

“Are they in Dublin too?”

“No, about fifteen minutes out. Not too far. She kept the house, of course.” He stole another sip of his drink. “You give everyone the third degree, or just me tonight?”

“Everyone.” She smiled brightly, without apology. “I like meeting people, finding out their stories. It’s the best part of my job, other than the sights I get to see.”

“I’d like to hear more about that,” he admitted.

“What, my job?”

He nodded, suddenly a bit shy. “I always wanted to travel. Planned to see the world. I didn’t get to. What you do sounds interesting.”

She gazed at him for another long beat, and he could feel the wheels turning in her head. “You work at University College Dublin, you said. What do you do there?”

“I’m head administrator of the Finance Department.”

Her brows arched. “Well la-di-da. Go you.”

He snorted and shook his head. “It’s dull as shite.”

She laughed at that. “But still impressive. So you have regular office hours?”

“Aye.”

“Could you ever slip away for a day?”

“Perhaps.” He thought about it, then said wryly, “Truth is, I have vacation time stocked up that I rarely use. I could easily take a day. Why do you ask?”

“Because I have all these fun day trips planned,” Maggie said, “and maybe you’d like to come with me on one. I’d have a local to give me the real flavor, and you could see something that maybe you haven’t. Or at least, get out for a bit. It’s not the world, but it’s a start.” Her warm brown eyes danced as they held his. “Could be fun. And something tells me you could use a little fun.”

“Oh really.”

“Yup.”

He rolled his eyes, but couldn’t ignore the hum in his blood as he looked at her.

“I’m fun to be with,” she declared, and batted her long lashes as she smiled at him. He had to laugh; her exuberance was captivating. “I am! We could see some things. You could keep me company.”

“Something tells me you never lack for company.”

“Actually, I’m a loner, but I make friends easily.” She shot him a pointed look. “Sometimes too easily, if you know what I mean.”

“Well, you’re an attractive young woman,” Colin said. To soften the statement, he exaggerated his Irish brogue as he added, “Of course men are goin’ ta make a beeline fer ya, lass. Ya just gotta make ’em pay for any unwanted attention.”

She giggled, the light sound filling his chest with delight. “Well, I’ve taken lessons in boxing, karate, judo, and jiu-jitsu along the way—”

“Now I’m the one who’s impressed,” he said. “And for better reason.”

She smiled as she went on, “I travel alone. I have to be prepared. But having a big, strong companion on some of the more remote outings is never a bad thing. So join me, Colin. We’ll have some fun, and I could tell you more about my travels, since you seem to actually be interested.”

“I am interested.” The admission made him feel bashful for some reason, but he swallowed it down. “So… these day trips. Where are you going?”

“Well…” She reached into the small cross-body bag strapped over her shoulder and pulled out her cell phone. “Pulling up my itinerary for the weekend and next week, hold on.”

As she scrolled on her phone, he took the opportunity to gaze at her. Maggie Spencer was a stranger. Brazen American. Too young, too pretty, too full of energy. What the hell was he thinking, saying yes to going off on a jaunt with her? He must have lost his mind.

But she just drew him in. Like a man who’d been out in the cold for too long and found a fire burning, he wanted to get close enough to enjoy some of the warmth he’d been lacking… that he craved. He blinked at his thoughts.

You wanted to do new things, he reminded himself. You’ve been free for almost a year, and you haven’t done a bloody thing. Do something, McKinnon.

“Wherever you’re going on Saturday,” he heard himself say, “I’ll go with you.”

She looked up from her phone to smile broadly at him. Pure sunshine. “Great.”

And so it was that Colin found himself being led on a guided tour of The Little Museum of Dublin on Saturday morning. He knew of it but had never been there, having written it off as a commercial tourist trap. He was gratified to find he’d been partially wrong. Yes, some of it played to tourists, but it had its merits—lots of attractions in a small space, and the staff was friendly and knowledgeable. And of course, his companion for the day definitely made his natural glass-half-empty nature feel like it was being filled. Maggie Spencer was delightful. Something about her had snuck through a crack in his frozen core, filling it with a shaft of light.

She’d greeted him with a warm handshake and that dazzling smile. She’d been waiting for him by the front entrance, right on time. He liked that; Trish was always late and it had made him bonkers. Maggie was a ball of energy, ready to go. With her natural charm, she had the young male tour guide eating from the palm of her hand within minutes. She asked many questions, good ones that showed her sharp mind. She took copious notes in a small notebook, explaining to Colin that she’d sort through them and transfer them to her laptop later.

After the Little Museum, they enjoyed a long walk through St. Stephen’s Green, which was fully lush, dark green, and perfect on an early August day. As sunlight played through the trees, Maggie told him about other favorite public parks in cities she’d visited: Central Park in New York City; Forest Park in Portland, Oregon; Humboldt Park in Chicago, an old haunt in her college days. Then she added the Villa Borghese in Rome, Vondelpark in Amsterdam, Hyde Park in London, Englischer Garten in Munich, Parque de Retiro in Madrid, Parc des Buttes Chaumont in Paris… her list flummoxed him. It left him astonished and made him ache with wanderlust.

Then they headed over to Grafton Street, always bustling with activity. Colin watched Maggie eye the people, the many storefronts and boutiques, and had to admit he enjoyed it as well; he hadn’t strolled along here in ages. He’d always relished a long walk, just to take in surroundings, but Trish hadn’t. If she wasn’t going out for a specific purpose, she disliked going out for “no reason.” Colin stole more than a few glances at his attractive companion. Maggie understood the appeal of simply wandering; she knew it wasn’t for “no reason,” but for all the best reasons. Something told him that though he’d known Maggie for a few days and Trish for half his life, Maggie might understand him on levels that Trish never had.

“I’m starving,” Maggie declared. “Tell me you’re ready for lunch.”

“I could eat,” he said.

“Well, the Guinness tour starts at three,” she said, “and if I don’t eat, I’ll take two sips and land on my face. Can’t have that. I don’t get drunk in public.”

“Ever?”

“A woman traveling alone? That’s asking for trouble. I’m lucky, I can hold my alcohol pretty well. Two drinks don’t really affect me. But more than that, no. I only tie one on in safe places, with safe people.”

He nodded, considering that. She was smart.

“Lunchtime!” She pulled him into a classic-looking typical pub.

They settled into a high-backed booth in the dark wood-paneled room. Before the server had even brought their drinks, she was asking him questions. About his upbringing, about university, about his kids—she certainly wasn’t shy. He gave her stilted answers, but he did answer. Because she wasn’t asking to just make chatter, she seemed genuinely interested, and he found himself responding to her naturally inquisitive yet friendly nature.

But he noticed that while she loved to ask him about him, she wasn’t as forthcoming about her own life, other than the sights she’d seen. No personal details. Recognizing that, he waited until the server had set their entrees down before subtly turning the tables on her. Fair was fair.

“So where is home for you, Maggie?” Colin reclined a bit, the dark green leather booth cool at his back as he eyed their tremendous burgers.

“Home?” She shrugged as she picked up hers from her plate. “Wherever I go, that’s where I am.”

Her evasive answer confused him. “You don’t have a home base somewhere?”

“I’m a traveler,” she said, then bit into her burger. He took a bite of his, waiting before she continued, “I don’t stay in any one place for too long. A few weeks, a month at the most. Then I’m off again. So to pay rent on an apartment I’ll rarely see seems foolish.”

“Really.”

“Yup. I make my living from writing about traveling; I travel. Gotta go where the jobs are. In fact, truth be told, this job will be the longest I’ve stayed in one place since I was twenty-five. Then, as I said, I’ll be off again. That’s how I roll.”

Colin mulled that over. He was simply flabbergasted at the idea. He was so deeply rooted into his life—first being part of the huge McKinnon clan, then by having his own family, which rooted him in twice as deep—that he couldn’t imagine being so completely untethered. To be free to pick up and go anywhere, anytime, at a moment’s notice… it was an alien concept.

But one that was also exciting and alluring.

“I think I’m a wee bit jealous,” he finally said. “I’m the exact opposite. Rooted into the ground here. Hell, even when I finally got my freedom, I didn’t go far, did I? Couldn’t. Needed to be near my kids. I always will be.”

“Right now, while they’re young, you should be,” Maggie said. “But hey, they’re growing up. One day, much sooner than later, you’ll be free to go somewhere else if you wanted. Have you thought of that?”

His eyes widened and he scrubbed a hand over the back of his neck. Live somewhere else? Do something solely for himself? “Not really.”

“Maybe you should.” Maggie turned her smile up to the server, thanking him when he placed a basket of chips between them. “I’m addicted to these.” She grabbed one and bit in with glee. “I’ll gain a few pounds before I leave Ireland if I don’t stop. But ohmygod I love them. Good thing I walk a lot.”

“Everyone has their vices,” Colin said, and reached for a chip himself.

“True. What are some of yours?” she asked, a playful twinkle in her eyes.

He just arched a brow at her. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” He put another chip in his mouth.

“Ha! I would, actually.” She pointed a chip at him, brandishing it like a weapon. “I’ll find out sooner or later. Mark my words.”

He only grinned. She’d been right the other night, he had to admit it: she was fun to be with. He hadn’t met anyone like Maggie Spencer in a long time… maybe ever.

“So,” he said. “Where’d you grow up? Maybe that’s an easier question.”

“About an hour outside of Columbus, Ohio. Do you know where Ohio is?”

“Midwest, I think. Yes?”

“Pretty much. I hated it there. I grew up in the most boring suburb ever.” Maggie stole a sip of cider before continuing. “Third of four girls—aka, the invisible child.”

“You?” He quirked a small grin. “I can’t imagine you being invisible to anyone. You’re a force of nature.”

He was rewarded with a wide sunshine smile for that. “Am I? Well thank you. But I wasn’t really one there, or then. I was just the one always being either ignored or yelled at.” Maggie reached for the small cup of brown sauce and dipped her chip. “Hailey was the pretty one, Stacey was the smart one. Then me. Then right after me, we’re only a year apart, Brittney was the sweet baby. So naturally… I became the wild one.” The smile became laced with something wicked.


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