Wydawca: Kate Canterbary Kategoria: Obyczajowe i romanse Język: angielski Rok wydania: 2015

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Opis ebooka The Cornerstone - Kate Canterbary

A tough-as-nails businesswoman. An arrogant Navy SEAL. A power struggle with no end in sight.Some people hook-up at weddings. Others break a hotel room bed (and a table, and a desk, and some complimentary bathrobe belts) and discover they've been surviving on bargain basement orgasms their entire lives.The last one? Yeah. That's all me.She's driven and demanding…I wasn't always a bitch. There's a dirty little trick to succeeding in business: the sweet and innocent rarely survive. I fought my way up from nothing, and I don't bend for anyone.Until Will Halsted ties me to a headboard and makes me his…for now.One wild, filthy night turns into another, and then...we can't stop. Each time we're together is more addictive than the last, but it's nothing more than a sexy escape from reality.Or is it?He's never walked away from a challenge…I wasn't always a warrior but now it's in my bones and blood. That's what years spent in the special operations does to a man. My entire life is classified: where I've been, what I've seen, what I've done, and there's no mission too dangerous.Until I realize that falling for Shannon Walsh is like trying to swim against a riptide. She's going to tear me up and toss me to the shore, and I'll love every minute of it.Every time I'm down range, I want her counting the hours until I'm back. Waiting for me. She's done it before; she'll do it again.Or will she?They're wrong for each other in every possible way…Or are they?

Opinie o ebooku The Cornerstone - Kate Canterbary

Fragment ebooka The Cornerstone - Kate Canterbary

The Cornerstone

The Walsh Series, Book Four

Kate Canterbary

Vesper Press

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 by Kate Canterbary

Second edition, 2017

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any forms, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior written permission of the author.

Trademarked names appear throughout this book. Rather than use a trademark symbol with every occurrence of a trademarked name, names are used in an editorial fashion, with no intention of infringement of the respective owner's trademark(s).

Editing provided by Julia Ganis of JuliaEdits. www.juliaedits.com

Cover design by Sarah Hansen of Okay Creations. www.okaycreations.com

Proofreading provided by Nicole Bailey of Proof Before You Publish. www.proofbeforeyoupublish.com

Created with Vellum

To the bitches —

Miranda Priestly, Olivia Pope, M, Blair Waldorf, and Hermione Granger—may you always rule the world.

Contents

Prologue

I. Then

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

II. Now

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Epilogue

Also By Kate Canterbary

New from Kate Canterbary

About Kate

Prologue

Shannon

Now

I was the fucking boss.

I negotiated multi-million dollar real estate deals, juggled at least six major crises before lunch every day, and tamed lions for fun.

Not actual lions, but my brothers came damn near close enough.

I ran marathons, wore heels no shorter than four inches, and could file injunctions faster than most people responded to text messages.

But I was a whore for superstitions.

Horoscopes, full moons, palm readings, Friday the Thirteenths, even freaking black cats. All of it.

It defied logic but I had to believe there was an order to the universe and everything—everything, everything, everything—happened for a reason. I needed to believe it all meant something, and that maybe if I paid careful attention, I could protect myself and my family from whatever the universe was throwing at me next.

So waking up an hour late, snagging three separate pairs of tights before they made it over my knees, and drowning my new iPhone in coffee not more than sixty seconds after the barista handed it to me were giant neon signs warning that my Monday was a special kind of cursed.

I needed a shaman and some burning sage, and I needed it now.

Sprinting up the Walsh Associates office stairs with my dead phone in one hand and a fresh coffee in the other, I tried to remember what was on the agenda for this morning's status meeting. Me and my five business partners—the ones who did double duty as my brothers plus Andy Asani, our newest architect and the object of my brother Patrick's affection—we held these meetings sacred. Lateness wasn't tolerated.

I didn't stop when I reached the landing for my office, instead yelling to my assistant while I started up the next flight, "Tom! Get me something to eat and I need a new iPhone before this meeting is over."

"On it," he called.

I cleared the last landing before the steep stone staircase to the attic conference room, slowing my steps to avoid wiping out. I could handle my heels in most situations, but these medieval stairs were thirteen feet of uneven, winding granite torture.

Especially in a pencil skirt.

I was out of breath and fully disheveled by the time I reached the conference room, but I cast a warning glare around the table and dropped into my seat without comment. I wasn't regaling Sam, Andy, Riley, Matt, and Patrick with tales of my crazy morning.

Andy sent me a questioning frown and pointed to her hair, an indication that my still-damp ponytail was more than likely a wreck and my bangs were undoubtedly askew. Shaking my head, I rolled my eyes and mouthed "Not now."

"I tried calling you," Patrick muttered. He was almost a full year older than me, and together we managed our family's third-generation sustainable preservation architecture firm. He handled the architecture, I handled everything else that went into running a business, and it had been this way since forever.

"Phone disaster," I said.

He groaned. "I believe that's your third phone disaster this year, Shannon."

"Thank you for that reminder, Patrick," I said with a saccharine smile. I'd been bossing his ass around for thirty-three years, and that wasn't about to stop. "Suck my dick."

Matt did nothing to conceal his laughter, and he ignored my raised eyebrow. He was a year younger than me, and too much of a big, happy puppy dog to let some brusque frowning kill his vibe.

"If we could focus on the agenda—" Patrick paused when Tom bustled in, a plate in one hand and his tablet tucked under his arm.

"Which size iPhone do you want?" He angled the tablet toward me, pointing at the device options. "You have small hands, so—"

"You have a directive. Solve problems without my involvement," I said.

Tom nodded, chastened. "On it."

He set a plate with two cartons of yogurt, two mixed berry muffins, and a large latte beside my other cup of coffee. Patrick watched, tapping his fingers on the table, and it was clear his patience was depleted for the day.

When Tom hurried down the stairs, Patrick said, "If you don't mind, I'd like to—"

"There is no vagina food allowed at this table," Riley interrupted. He was my youngest brother by five years, and it didn't matter that he was a full foot taller than me now, or that he could pick me up and lift me over his head. He'd always be a little kid to me.

"Riley," Patrick growled. "Sit down and shut up."

"I will puke if there's open yogurt in this room," Riley said. "I'm not exaggerating. It smells like old barf, and can someone actually explain what yogurt is?"

He snatched up the cartons and, in the process, knocked over his stainless steel water bottle and both of my coffees. Liquid and ice cubes splashed across the round table, and hell promptly broke loose.

Everyone shot out of their chairs, yelling and swearing, and collecting laptops and phones before much damage could be done. Andy found a roll of paper towels, and she and Sam mopped up the spill while Matt produced a set of tiny tools from his messenger bag and took apart his soaked computer.

"What the fuck is wrong with you?" Patrick shouted at Riley.

"I do not like being in the presence of yogurt," Riley responded.

"Would it not be possible to handle that in a slightly less catastrophic way?" One leg of Patrick's trousers was drenched with coffee, and he pointed to Andy's waterlogged notebook, the disemboweled computer, and the stained rug. "How is it?" he asked Matt.

"Fried," he answered. "And it smells like pumpkin spice."

"Oh my fucking God," Patrick seethed.

"It's not that bad," Andy said as she wiped laptops and phones dry. "Only a few casualties."

"I'm going to have to sand and stain the whole surface again," Sam murmured, his hand coasting over the tabletop.

Riley gestured toward Patrick. "If we could just agree that there's no yogurt at meetings—"

"Get over the goddamn yogurt," Matt said.

"If we're banning yogurt, we're sure as shit banning coffee and water, too," Patrick said.

"Shut up," I bellowed. "Everyone. Shut up. We have things to accomplish and we're not spending the next hour bitching at each other about yogurt. Sit down, get your status reports ready, and don't speak unless I specifically invite you to do so. Understood?"

There were more muttered comments as we dealt with soggy chairs and stained clothes. We returned to our seats and started working through property updates. Patrick tracked the fine project management details while I monitored the Boston real estate market, but I quickly zoned out while staring at the Multiple Listing Service website.

I was tired, hungry, and caffeine-deprived, and generally irritable. There was no one reason for my irritability, but a mountain of little reasons that had been building for months.

"All right, well, I think we're good," Patrick said, glancing at me. "Did you get everything you needed?"

"Um…" I skimmed the list of priorities and issues on my side of the master status table Patrick and I shared. "I think so."

I retreated to my office and spun my chair to face the gothic arched windows. I didn't have much of a view—just the alley below and the adjacent Beacon Hill red brick row houses—but I needed a place for my thoughts beyond the four walls of Walsh Associates.

I was fierce to the bone, and it served me well. That fierceness taught me to keep it together at all costs because if I fell apart, everything and everyone was falling with me.

It gave me the strength to raise my siblings when my mother died and my father lost his mind. It kept me going when I was single-handedly covering college tuition for Sam, Riley, and my sister, Erin, funding the takeover of Walsh Associates from my father, and putting myself through law school, all while selling houses on the side. It gave me the energy to learn the law, money, architecture, and Boston, and the expertise to manage all of that with more competence than most people ever expected out of a five-foot tall redhead. It gave me the will to, at once, be everything everyone ever needed.

But somewhere along the way, I stopped being everything to my siblings.

A brisk knock sounded at my door but I didn't answer. Tom and my brothers were going to barrel right on in regardless of whether I responded. The rest of my support staff knew not to bother me unless the building was burning down, and I didn't smell smoke.

"Okay, boss. I think you're going to like this." Tom chattered on about the newest iPhone for several minutes while I stared out the window. "Boss?"

I glanced over my shoulder. "Can it wait?"

Tom pointed to my desk, ignoring my question. "Phone is charging but otherwise fully operational. I picked up your prescription and another pumpkin spice latte, and Rory ran the payables this morning."

New phone, birth control pills, coffee, and a heap of checks to sign. "Thank you," I said. "What else is on my calendar for today?"

He swiped his tablet to life and pushed his angular glasses up his nose. "Ten o'clock with the bank to close on your Louisburg Square investment. One o'clock lunch at Townsman with that development firm. They're the ones who want to buy out the Medios Building, and if their assistant can be trusted, the offer they'll make is a good one. Please be nice to them. Three thirty with Patrick to review the upcoming projects. Eight o'clock dinner with Mr. Pemberton."

Ugh.

I was more or less dating Mr. Pemberton.

I knew Gerard Pemberton through some lawyer friends, and we'd bumped into each other at several Massachusetts Bar Association networking events. He was an attorney at a firm where my law school buddy Simone worked, a firm that liked to paint itself as boutique but actually churned a massive volume of high-profile and high-priced divorces.

Gerard was good at that: portraying himself as something pleasant despite being a complete tool.

As fate would have it, Gerard was going through his own divorce now. He and his wife, Meredith, called it quits about six months ago and he was busy proving a point to her. He wanted Meredith to know that he'd moved on and he was better off without her, and he was going hard at sending those messages.

Apparently, I was good 'get back at your ex-wife' material, and he wanted to be seen all over town with me. I attributed one hundred percent of my appeal to the fact that the work of Walsh Associates was featured in seven different design and architecture publications in the past four months, and we were currently restoring a home for Eddie Turlan from the eighties punk band The Vials.

Gerard also wanted to fuck his anger away. Quite unfortunately for me, he had some trouble maintaining erections, and routinely blamed Meredith for that while we were in bed. It was charming to watch him berating his cock and cursing his ex.

That was one of the many reasons we didn't get between the sheets too often.

I didn't love Gerard, and I didn't especially like him either. He talked constantly and with no regard for whether anyone was listening. He was rude in subtle, elegant ways that most people interpreted as highbrow snark.

There was always a segment on NPR or a golf tournament worth recounting, but at the very minimum, he kept me occupied. Despite his soliloquies, I always had a dinner date at the ready. He was pleasantly reliable…and barely tolerable, but the only objective for me was moving the fuck on.

"Would you like me to reschedule anything?" Tom asked.

I drummed my fingers on my armrests and shook my head, but I didn't turn away from the windows. "No. Thank you, though."

My eyes landed on the emerald agate geode on the corner of my bookshelf. It was just a rock with something remarkable hiding inside, and it appeared in my office six years ago without a card or return address. The only identifying information was a Brazilian postmark.

There were other mysterious geodes, too. Some were no bigger than a strawberry and others were the size of a softball, and they came with postmarks from all over the world. Russia. Austria. South Korea. Canada. Zambia.

Only one person who would drop rocks in the mail and send them my way without explanation. Someone who liked to remind me that I was a self-centered bitch who needed to take myself a hell of a lot less seriously.

Well, now there were two people who knew those things.

Yeah, today was going to be special.

Before sunset, I'd bought one property, sold another, and found two more to lust over. I wanted to snap them up before anyone else noticed the gorgeous—yet completely trashed—Public Garden-side brownstones, but this day wasn't going well enough to make quick decisions.

A dish of gnocchi sat untouched in front of me, my glass of pinot grigio was growing warm, and I was drowning out Gerard's commentary about wind farms. It could have just as easily been his position on the area's best driving ranges or how he was diversifying his portfolio, but I wasn't even close to listening.

Instead, I was debating whether we'd get a bigger payoff from merging the twin brownstones on Mount Vernon Street into a super-mansion or restoring them as they stood. This was the kind of project Matt lived for, and if I could get him on board, it would be huge for him. A twelve-thousand-square-foot structural remodel and preservation job meant an eight-figure price tag, and a sale like that translated to major publicity. It was exactly what Matt needed to finally grab some awards of his own and garner the media attention that Sam and Patrick picked up without effort.

"Dessert?" Gerard asked, gesturing to the menu the waitress was offering.

It took me a moment to realize he expected a response. Most of the time, he required no more than the occasional nod.

"No," I said. I wanted my bed, pajamas, and Game of Thrones. Some Jon Snow would help my mood. "I have an early meeting."

It wasn't exactly false; all of my meetings were early relative to Gerard's firm, where the partners strolled in around nine thirty. I texted Tom to get me on Matt's calendar for a Mount Vernon Street visit tomorrow, and engrossed myself in looking busy with emails.

Gerard talked the entire walk back to my apartment—something about paleontologists discovering an ancient species of birds. Whipping the babble out of him wouldn't have required much work on my part, but I didn't have the desire to fix him. Everything about this was temporary, and when the emotionless boredom of my time with Gerard left my wounds scabbed over and my heart numb, this would end.

It was misery, but it was the best I could do right now.

The prehistoric bird story continued until I pointed to a chair in my living room and said, "Make yourself at home. I'm getting some wine."

I grabbed a bottle from my pantry without concern for variety or origin and stood at the sink, gazing at the night sky. A nearly full harvest moon was shining bright over the Charles River, and it seemed too close, too heavy to be real.

Gerard called to me from the hall but I ignored him. There was probably a tennis match he thought I needed to see.

Sometimes I studied the sky and wondered about the order of it all. Who would I be if I hadn't lost my mother and been forced to grow up at nine years old? What if I hadn't been forced to grow all the way up at seventeen when my father kicked me out of the house? Would I be standing by while my brothers filled their lives with love and happiness and meaning? Would I still be negotiating the lesser evils of loneliness and limp dicks?

"Shannon," he repeated, his tone more abrupt than I'd ever heard before. "Could you join me out here?"

Abandoning the wine in the kitchen, I rounded the corner and found Gerard in the front hallway with the door open. From my vantage point, I couldn't see past the door.

"There's someone here to see you, Shannon," Gerard said, and my stomach dropped into my shoes.

Nothing good ever came from an unexpected visitor at ten thirty on a Monday night, and I realized this was what the universe had been warning me about all day. Not a dead phone, not a showdown over yogurt. This.

I closed my fingers around the edge of the door and pulled it open, and then air was gone.

Even in a dark hoodie and jeans, even with a ball cap pulled low over his eyes, even with a clean-shaven jaw, even after all these months. I knew him. I'd always know him.

"Shannon," he said, his voice deep and commanding and filled with too many memories to manage in this moment.

Before I could stop myself, a broken, breathy sob escaped my lips. It was equal doses of hell-sent anger and the kind of affection that drained oceans, moved mountains, and slowed time.

I wanted to hold him close, so close that he melted into me and we couldn't tell one from another, and then I wanted to slap the shit out of him.

"Will," I said.

I

Then

Chapter One

Will

Eighteen months ago

I missed the ocean so much it hurt.

When the plane descended below the clouds and I caught my first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean in almost three years, I damn near cried. The only body of water I'd seen in months was the Kabul River, and that wasn't intended for surfing.

I took my time wandering through the Boston airport. I still didn't understand how my little sister Lauren—she'd always be Lolo to us—was getting married.

This weekend.

To a man.

We last spoke in August, around her birthday, and she wasn't seeing anyone then. Fast forward a few months and some highly covert ops, and I'm being shoved on a transport plane to appear at my sister's wedding.

How the fuck did all that happen?

Unsurprisingly, my mother was stationed on the other side of the security checkpoint. Her fingers were flying over her smartphone, and I realized I hadn't read her blog in months. Shit. As far as my mother's affection for her children ranked, it was Lo, the blog, me, then Wes.

Allegedly, my younger brother Wes was a real asshole while he was a toddler. Thirty years since the terrible twos ended, and my mother was still reminding him about that.

Mom startled when I dropped my backpack beside her, but that shock transformed into a wry frown. "Oh for the love of Pete, William, would it kill you to groom yourself once and a while?"

Apparently thirty-four wasn't too old for my mother to scold me for messy hair and an overgrown beard.

My mother's fingers fluffed my hair before they fisted, and she yanked me down for a hug. "I've been a little busy with the global war on terror and all," I said. That, and a certain amount of shaggy scruff was essential in my line of work. "And one of these days, you're going to have to tell us who this Pete guy is, Judy."

She pulled my hair a little harder; she hated it when I called her Judy. If she had her way, we'd still be calling her mama and asking her to rock us to sleep.

"He's my man candy on the side," my mother replied with a shrug. I bet my father loved hearing that one. "Keeps me young."

She shifted her hands to my shoulders, squeezing down to my biceps, elbows, forearms, and then gripped my hands. She always did this when I returned home from deployment. It was her way of checking that I was still in one piece. After years as a Navy medic, my mother knew exactly what the battlefield could take.

"I really wish you didn't tell me that shit, Mom."

She ran her hands up and down my chest, and repeated the motion on my back. "Too long, Will. Too long," she whispered. A smile pulled at her lips, but the tears shining in her eyes gave it all away. "I don't want them keeping you for another twenty-seven months straight. I'll tell that to the Joint Special Operations Commander himself if I have to."

"You do that, Mom," I laughed, pulling her toward the baggage claim. But she was right; it had been deployments, extended deployments, special deployments, all one after another. Pepper that with training ops and a couple of months with an advanced demolitions crew, and I could only count a few weeks of leave in the past three years. "I bet the Lieutenant General loves hearing from SEAL moms."

She rolled her eyes before wrapping her arm around my waist. "How were your flights?" she asked.

"Strange," I said when reaching for my bag. She pointed to the sliding doors and I followed her to the curb. "It's been a while since I stayed in an aircraft through take off andlanding."

"You and your HALO humor," she murmured. "Wesley's parked over there. He's telling stories."

My mother gestured to the far end of the loading zone where Wes had two members of the State Police hanging on his every word. He mimed an explosion, and despite the fact we were at an airport and bombs were the last thing anyone should ever discuss, his new Statey pals were captivated. The story was effective in distracting them from his illegal curbside parking, too.

"And that's how you get out of Moscow before the Spetsnaz notices you were there in the first place," he said. With a lopsided smile, he beckoned me closer and draped his arm around my shoulder. "Boys, it's my pleasure to introduce my brother, Commander Halsted."

"It's one promotion after another with you, isn't it?" Mom asked. "Maybe now you'll get off the front lines."

Unlikely.

Once the pleasantries were handled, my mother grabbed us by the collars and towed us toward the rental car. "You two need haircuts, and anything would be better than cargo pants and old t-shirts."

I sucked in the fresh, salty air as we approached Cape Cod, and I wanted to spend every minute of the next four days in the ocean. I was raised on the beaches of San Diego, a water dog to the soul, and I believed an afternoon spent surfing was the cure for anything that ailed me.

Wes leaned on the center console and glanced to me in the backseat. "Where have you been hiding out these days?"

"J-bad." I shrugged; all told, I didn't spend much time on base in Jalalabad. "Or thereabouts. And what the hell were you doing in Moscow?"

"Started as a sneak and peek with a recon squad," he said. "Ended with a surprise extraction. Good times."

Wes was a master of tradecraft. Despite his thoroughly California looks, he could blend in anywhere and spoke enough languages to make it believable. He'd been loaned out—along with a few other SEALs and Delta Force guys—to man a covert unit responsible for preventing another Cold War. It was a classic counterintelligence program potluck, and it was a mystery who'd be cleaning it all up.

"Get it all out now," Mom said, "because you won't be talking about reconnaissance and assault teams at your sister's wedding."

"Yeah, can we talk about that? What does the Commodore say about this?" I asked. There was no doubt that my father was not excited about seeing Lo married. "When did Lo get engaged? And who the hell is she marrying?"

Wes passed a phone over his shoulder, and I knew without looking it contained a rundown on our sister's fiancé. Thank God for Wes's fuck buddy at the CIA.

There wasn't much beyond the basics: name (Matthew Antrim Walsh), date of birth (nearly three years older than my sister), federal tax filings (architect-engineer, and his bottom line was annoyingly healthy), known associates (too many siblings to comprehend; dead parents). He was Ivy League all the way—Cornell, MIT—and he didn't even have a speeding ticket to his name.

I hated everything about him.

"I'd like to meet this asshole," I said.

My mother let out a long-suffering groan. "For your information, Matthew is a wonderful young man and you will not do anything to interfere with your sister's happiness. Is that understood?"

"What qualifies him as a 'wonderful young man'?" I asked.

"To start, he reads my blog every week and shares my posts on social media." My mother glared at me in the rear view mirror. "That's more than I can say for either of you."

Chapter Two

Shannon

Eighteen months ago

I was a mess. A wreck of epic proportions. The crown princess of Barely Keeping It Together.

I wanted to shatter everything I could get my hands on and scream until the rage I felt was purged from my blood.

I wanted to get weepy, messy drunk and clutch my mother's handkerchiefs—the ones my father ripped out of my hands not six months after her death, right along with everything else she'd ever touched—to my chest until the pieces of her that I'd lost started coming back to me.

I wanted to fall apart—crawl into bed, hide under the covers, and sob until my body ran out of tears—but falling apart wasn't in the cards this weekend. I'd enjoy that luxury, along with plenty of crying, drinking, and screaming, when the happy couple was well on their way to Switzerland next week.

"Hey." Lauren curled up next to me on the patio loveseat and dropped her head to my shoulder. "Let's walk and talk. Okay?"

She steered me toward the string of gray-shingled cottages at the north side of the inn while I rattled off the schedule of events for her big day. It was more for my benefit than hers: she was going to do whatever she wanted tomorrow—Lauren only pretended she liked order and structure—and I needed to stay busy to prevent myself from drowning in a bottle of whiskey.

"You are in beast mode, my friend. Don't worry about anything. Tomorrow is going to be perfect," she said as she flopped onto my bed. "And you know what will make it perfect? Me marrying Matthew. I don't need anything else."

"I still think the catering manager is underestimating the amount of appetizers necessary for cocktail hour," I said, dropping beside Lauren. "And I know he's not going to have enough of your signature drinks ready."

She rolled to her side and squinted at me. "I have a signature drink?"

"You have two signature drinks. Watermelon bellinis," I said, "and blueberry martinis. Actually, I've been calling them blue ball martinis and pussy pink bellinis in my head."

"We must call them that tomorrow." Lauren shook her head and laughed. "When did you pick those?"

Lauren and Matt selected the date (late May), the location (the far end of Cape Cod), and the vows (still under wraps). I took care of most everything else, and I treasured every minute of it. This was my family's first wedding, and I wanted to guarantee they had the celebration they deserved.

"Last month when I came down here to meet with the flower people," I said, yawning.

Exhausting didn't even begin to describe this week, and it was only Friday night. We were doing construction on the office, Patrick was being a moody bitch, I had to let a bookkeeping assistant go, and I was up all last night threading ribbons through wedding programs. That one was a bad idea; I was talented in neither arts nor crafts.

"Well I hope those balls and pussies taste good," she said. We looked at each other and immediately burst out laughing.

"Lauren, you should know by now…balls never taste good," I said with tears sliding down my cheeks while I hugged my sides.

"Apparently you would know," she gasped between giggles. "But I guess my bigger concern is someone choking on the balls. No one ever chokes on pussy."

"And why would they?" I asked, shifting to lean against the headboard. "Pussy is pretty. Pussy is manageable. Balls are just awkward. They're hairy and wrinkly, and frankly, I do not know what to do with them. I'm sorry, but when it comes to cock and balls, they are separate and unequal. I feel as though balls hang there, judging me for not even attempting to meet their needs."

"Well…" Lauren's brows furrowed and she gestured toward me. "You could try—"

"Nope. Nope, not even a little bit. We are not talking about how you handle Matt's balls."

She laughed and ran her hands through her shoulder-length honey blonde hair. I'd always wanted hair like that. Yeah, every stylist who ever touched my hair told me how much people paid to get my precise shade of roasted carrot but that never stopped me from occasionally craving something new. I also coveted Lauren's skin. The girl could blink at the sun and have a deep, golden tan.

I, on the other hand, blinked at the sun and turned into a crispy, blistered beet.

Even though I lusted after Lauren's beachy blondeness, my fair skin and red hair were the only tangible pieces of my mother that I carried with me, even after all this time. We shared everything, right down to the way our hair got lighter as it lengthened, as if the fire started at the roots and cooled as it moved down our shoulders.

I wished I could say I recalled that about her, that I had a store of beautifully articulate memories and moments with my mother, but I didn't. I had the misshapen, inconsistent recollection from my nine-year-old self and one photograph.

But now I knew that my father—we didn't bother calling him Dad; it was either Angus or Miserable Bastard—went to his grave without revealing he'd never actually destroyed any of my mother's things, and if it was possible, I hated him more than I had when he took it all away. He'd rounded up her possessions while we cried and screamed and begged him to stop, but it wasn't enough to rid the house of her clothes, perfume, and journals. It wasn't enough to make us watch while he threw an armload of her summer dresses in the fireplace and let them burn until nothing remained. And it wasn't enough to scrub her spirit from the house, right down to the sad little rock collection she brought with her when emigrating from Ireland.

If we hadn't found the secret passage he built at our childhood home where it was all hidden…No. I couldn't let myself think about that.

There were times when I knew he wanted to destroy me too.

He started coming into my bedroom a few months after she died. I was shattered then, still a sharp, uneven fragment of something that was once whole. It was always after a long night of drinking—then again, every night was a drinking night for Angus—and he'd sit at the foot of my bed. Sometimes it started with him crying quietly while I pretended to be asleep or his hand wrapped around my leg over the blankets. Other times he tore the blankets up over my face and stole every innocent piece of me.

For years—decades—I believed that I deserved it. I was the one who decided we were spending the whole day down the street at the McLaughlin's pool, and I was the one who didn't think it was necessary to check on our pregnant mother when she was obviously unwell that morning, and I was the one who was too terrified to do anything but fucking watch when Patrick and Matt found her drowning in her own blood.

So I deserved the worst punishment imaginable. I deserved it all.

It took a lot of time and a lot of counseling to recognize that none of it was my fault, but it was moments like these when I recognized exactly how evil he was that I felt the weight of it all over again.

"If you ever find yourself wanting ball-handling advice, you know where to find me," Lauren said. I stared at her, too lost in my thoughts to understand her comment, and forced a smile before shaking myself out of it.

Fall apart when the wedding's over.

"I should really check on the gift baskets," I said, shuffling off the bed. "And the tent timeline. I don't want them setting up the reception tent during the ceremony."

My priorities didn't stop there. Matt was convinced Lauren's Navy SEAL brothers were going to waterboard him, Patrick was moping like a premenstrual teenager, Sam was drunk, Riley was scamming on Lauren's friends, Andy was very, very late in getting her ass here, and Erin…all things Erin.

"You want to talk about it?" Lauren asked.

I realized I'd been staring at a sweater for no fewer than ten years and sighed. "No. Not tonight. Not this weekend."

She stood and inspected her hair in the mirror. Matt wasn't the only one who fell in love the minute he met her. She was the best friend I'd always wanted, the bad bitch who liked to drink and swear and spend obscene amounts of money on shoes, the sweetheart who always knew when I needed to cry on her shoulder.

And she was one of the few who knew all my secrets.

"Would a special project help?" she asked. "A strategic initiative to keep your mind off everything else?"

"Depends on the project," I said, pulling the baggy sweater over my head. It was a size too big, but it was the last one at the Tory Burch sample sale and I could not help myself.

Lauren rolled her eyes at my sweater—she tried to talk me out of this purchase but I wouldn't hear of it—and adjusted the sleeves. "I'll handle Patrick and Andy if you deal with Will. Chat him up, debate foreign policy, insult him, send him into town for a jar of peanut butter, whatever you want. Just don't let him out of your sight."

I gave the bed petulant a glare and nodded. "I might need to borrow your black Mary Jane Manolos," I said while slipping my credit card, room key, and phone into my pocket. "You know, forever."

"I guess that's the price I'll pay to keep my husband's balls unharmed."

"Make it stop," I groaned. I stomped toward the door, shaking my head and covering my ears. "We're not talking about Matt's balls anymore."

Chapter Three

Will

Eighteen months ago

Surveillance wasn't my thing.

I hated all the waiting and watching. Don't get me wrong—keeping track of a bossy redhead who didn't know how to mind her own business was one of the easiest gigs to ever fall into my lap, but it was tedious as fuck. This was why I couldn't do protection ops. I was a scalpel: perfect for quick, quiet attacks, the kinds that were measured and rehearsed for the greatest impact.

I was about ready to bind and gag Shannon Walsh, and then lock her in a closet until the wedding was over. Listening in from the far end of the bar while she quizzed the bartender on his stock of craft beers only reaffirmed it.

She couldn't go five minutes without flitting between the Walsh encampments, and that was on top of her routine cross-examination of the inn staff. She wanted to know when they were pitching the reception tent, where the blue hydrangea centerpieces were being housed for the night, whether they'd prepared extra scallops wrapped in bacon for the cocktail hour.

Apparently those were the groom's favorite, and if her tone was any indication, the catering manager could expect Shannon's fancy high heel to find a home in his small intestine if he underdelivered.

I had to hand it to her—the bitch had balls.

And maybe I was a little punchy. I'd been traveling for the past seventy hours and my body and brain were still in mission mode. There was a gravity associated with coming off deployment. All sailors experienced it, but everyone experienced it differently. For me—after nearly three years hunting terrorists—it was the sudden, shocking loss of purpose. Without the constant chatter of comms in my ear, the familiar weight of body armor and weapons, the adrenaline of running exceedingly dangerous ops, the dual responsibilities of guarding my country and getting my men home safely…without all that, I didn't know what to do with myself.

Instead of figuring out how to shake off the culture shock, I fixated on Shannon. She was the expensive, refined kind of beautiful. High maintenance. Diamond earrings bigger than most mortar shells. She couldn't go thirty seconds without checking her phone.

Amazingly enough, that wasn't the most annoying part.

No, it was that this woman didn't even like beer. I refused to believe she could. This chick was too high society for beer, even weird hipster beer.

"What about Upper Case?" she asked. There was no hint of impatience or condescension in her voice, and that was the secret weapon. She was calm and relatively pleasant, but it was obvious in the sharp angle of her eyebrow that she was ready to climb over the bar, show this guy how to do his job, and shrivel his dick off with little more than a tight grimace. "Or Congress Street? Triple Sunshine?"

The bartender studied the taps in front of him and then crouched low to inspect the bottles lined up in the refrigerator. He stood, shaking his head. "I've got Smuttynose, and…and Slumbrew."

She drummed her fingers against the bar while she contemplated those options. I was actually concerned the bartender was wilting under her glare. She was a dictator dressed as a socialite, and I doubted she wilted under anything. "What about Sea Hag?"

He snapped his fingers and pointed at the fridge, smiling with relief. Hell, I was relieved on his behalf. "That I can do for you."

"I knew you'd come through for me, Barry." She sent him a wink as he slid the uncapped bottle toward her. He high tailed it to the other end of the bar, presumably to dislodge his nuts from wherever Shannon shoved them.

I was expecting her to dart back to Lo's side or hunt down other staff members to harass or just go the fuck to bed because it was past midnight and even the wicked required rest, but that all changed when she turned her gaze on me. She collected her bottle and marched my way, offering a bright, plastic smile as she approached.

"I have a thing for IPAs," she said, her voice a conspiratorial whisper. Skinny silver bracelets encased her wrist, and they clanged against each other whenever she moved. From where I was sitting, it looked and sounded like she was accessorizing with a Slinky. "A list of the best local breweries was published last month, and my goal for the summer is to try each one." Unbidden, she tucked herself into the seat beside me. "We met earlier, but I know there are a lot of us and things have been so hectic. I'm Shannon, Matt's sister."

I accepted her outstretched hand, and as our palms met, I realized she was a tiny little thing. She was just a peanut. At first glance, she didn't seem small, not with that feisty attitude and fiery hair, but she was the definition of petite. Slim fingers, smooth skin, trim, compact body, and…freckles. So many freckles.

It was as if Strawberry Shortcake fucked Winston Churchill, and nine months later, Shannon Walsh was born.

"Right," I said. "Will."

"Are you an India Pale Ale fan, Will?" Her eyes dropped to the Corona bottle beside me and she forced that fake smile again. It was obvious she did this with frequency—handling people, subtly manipulating them, getting her way while letting everyone think it was their idea—and it annoyed the fuck out of me. "Oh, that's just silly."

"Is it?"

"Yes," she said, then called down the bar, "Barry! Get my friend a Summer Ale."

Barry didn't react quickly enough for Shannon, and his shift was probably long since over but he didn't know how to break that news to her. With a sigh about wanting things done right meant doing them herself, she stepped behind the bar, grabbed the bottle, popped the top, and placed it in front of me.

"Put it on my tab," she yelled as she settled back into her seat. Barry gave us his best deer-in-the-headlights look and went back to restocking. It was late, and he was the only one manning the patio bar. My money was on him counting the seconds until this rowdy crew cleared out. "So I started my IPA adventure with an Olivette from Paisley Pines and then I discovered Lost Highway Breweries, and now I'm dying to try the Veridien from Banded Horn Brewery."

Bound. Gagged. Closet.

"So tell me, Will," she said, inclining her head toward me. "What's your poison?"

An image of Shannon bent over my knee flashed into my mind, and fuuuuuck that had to stop right now. I swallowed it down, drowning that thought in cold beer. "Whatever's on tap," I growled.

In all fairness to my dick, this was nothing more than a natural reaction to being off-base and in the presence of gorgeous women who were free to dress however they pleased. Hell, I hadn't seen a lady in heels like Shannon's, with ribbons lacing all the way up her leg, since…ever.

I sent a silent prayer to my cock, begging it to calm the fuck down.

"There you are," Shannon said as Lo draped her arm over my shoulder.

"Hey, Will, this is my friend Andy. She works with Matt," she said, gesturing to the brunette beside her.

"Will Halsted," I said. She shook my hand without saying a word. "You're not related to this crew?"

"No," Andy said, and her gaze traveled over the patio area to settle on Patrick, the oldest Walsh. He was one stoic motherfucker. I'd only picked up general details about the family Lo was marrying into, and I knew Riley was the fool, Sam was the playboy, Patrick was the hard-ass, Nick wasn't related but came with the package, and Matt was the golden retriever: obedient, loyal, and couldn't keep his tongue in his mouth.

Andy ordered a glass of wine, and thank God Barry was able to meet her request without much discussion. I doubted Shannon cared whether she was empowered to fire him or not; she'd make it happen.

"Finally, an impartial witness. Sit down," I said, pulling up a chair.

If I could get Andy talking, I knew Shannon would go looking for attention elsewhere. That meant I could get some history on these people and distance from Shortcake. Seemed like a win.

But Andy turned away from Patrick a second before he pivoted. A quick inspection of the patio told me that everyone else saw it too. I couldn't understand how she missed his hot stare.

So that's how it is with them.

"Are we not having a conversation?" Shannon asked, and fuck. Just…fuck. If I had the time or interest, her mouth would be too busy with my cock to make those comments. And no, I did not want to be interested but post-deployment horny didn't discriminate against viper-women who inspired fear in wolves and inadequate men.

"Apparently she didn't take the hint," I muttered but Andy ignored me. Incidentally, my dick was ignoring me too.

Lo shot me a venomous glare, mouthed "Be nice," and linked her elbow with Andy's. She flipped me off as they walked across the patio to where Wes was seated with Erin, or—as I preferred to call her—the quiet one.

I definitely drew the short straw in this activity.

"I don't spend nearly enough time listening to harpies." I gestured for Shannon to finish her story, and hoped my remarks were enough to send her back to her room for the night. That was my exit strategy, and she was providing more than enough material to work with. "By all means, continue. I'm certain there are some frat boys brewing their own basement lager that you haven't mentioned yet, and I won't be able to sleep tonight without your assessment of their operation."

"The things I do for my brothers," Shannon said under her breath.

I expected another book report on the history of brewing but she stayed silent. She watched as Lo and Andy returned to the inn, and then her attention shifted to Erin. Shannon was putting a lot of effort into making her glances seem casual, and failing miserably.

Her thumb swept back and forth over the bottle's neck, and for a moment, I was transfixed by an image of those fingers on my cock. They were so small and slim, I bet they wouldn't fit all the way around my shaft.

And fuck me, I couldn't stop watching her stroke that bottle. I closed my eyes, and I could feel it, I could feel her skin against mine, and fucking hell, it had been too long.

"Give me that," I said, grabbing the beer away. It was barely cold and I couldn't say I enjoyed beer this hoppy but I drank it anyway.

"We could have ordered you one, dearie," she said.

"Unlikely," I said. "You scared the piss out of Barry, and probably everyone else at this place."

Her laugh was a soft, breathy sound, and it was the most honest thing I'd heard from her all night. "You can't say I don't get shit done."

I couldn't stay seated any longer. I needed something to do, a way to expel the misplaced desire hammering in my veins, and I was half ready to dive into the ocean and swim until I washed up on the shore. At least then I'd be too exhausted to think about wrapping all that red hair around my fist and forcing her to her knees.

Stepping behind the bar, I grabbed our empty bottles and tossed them in the bin. Sam was drunkenly corralling his brothers—plus Wes, Erin, and Nick, the doctor who'd asked me an unending series of questions about tribal healthcare conditions in Pakistan and Afghanistan earlier in the evening—and leading them down the beach toward his cottage.

That was the bullet I was taking for this team tonight: Wes was gathering intel on Lo's in-laws while eyeing Erin, and I was left keeping a leash on Shortcake.

But then I noticed her tracking me, and I realized this little girl and I were playing the same fucking game. How could I have missed such overt scrutiny? And no, of course she didn't have a thing for IPAs.

Yeah, the bitch had balls.

"So you're the tail."

"I'm what?" she snapped, and it seemed plausible that she'd have a trophy case packed with all the assholes she'd torn up.

"The tail," I repeated. "I know my objective here…but what's yours?"

She crossed her arms over her chest, jangling those stupid Slinky bracelets in the process. "Your sister seems to believe you're going to kidnap and torture my brother. She wanted to prevent that."

"It's called enhanced interrogation," I said. "And that's not my wheelhouse."

"That's right," she murmured. "I'm told you're quite the commando."

I bristled. There was a lot of mythology surrounding special operations teams, and most of it was inaccurate or exaggerated. "We aren't fond of that term, ma'am."

"In that case, I'm quite fond of it." She eyed me up and down, visibly taking stock of my dive watch, the Gatorz sunglasses hanging from the neck of my t-shirt, and the frog skeleton tattoo peeking out from my sleeve. "What kind of commando activities have you been up to recently?"

You wouldn't be able to sleep at night if I told you. "Afraid that's classified, ma'am."

She stared at me as if she wasn't accustomed to being refused anything, ever. And look at her. Those pouty lips, the ones that ordered everyone around as if they were on her payroll and they should be fucking thrilled to have that honor. That stubborn chin, angled just enough to communicate her superiority. And those eyes, big and dark, dark mossy green, twinkling as if she was amused by my insubordination.

This woman was lethal.

Tearing my gaze away from Shannon, I surveyed the beer selection and opted for another Summer Ale. "Why is Matt in such a hurry to marry my sister?"

Before seeing Lo or meeting her fiancé, Wes and I endured one of the most stern lectures my father had delivered in years. It seemed the Commodore was drunk on the Matthew Walsh Koolaid. At the very minimum, my mother was force-feeding it to him. He officially warned us off any initiatives aimed at interrogating or otherwise scaring the shit out of our future brother-in-law. That didn't mean I wasn't free to collect intel.

Shannon smiled, and for the first time, it was authentic. "Because they have crazy, filthy love for each other." She wandered behind the bar and inspected every bottle in stock before selecting a Sam Adams. She leaned against the counter, staring at me while she sipped.

Okay, so maybe she wasn't too much of a socialite for beer.

"Really? Do you even like beer?" I shook my head as she drained the bottle and reached for another. "And whatever happened to your blessed IPAs? You should know Barry's off crying in a corner somewhere."

She held the bottle in front of her face and studied the label. "I'll leave him a generous tip. Nothing a few months of psychotherapy won't solve." I couldn't repress the surprised laughter that bubbled up from my chest. "Now explain to me why you have a problem with Matt."

"I don't trust him," I said. "It's really fucking simple."

"Do you trust Lauren?"

"Of course," I said, reaching for my beard and once again finding it missing. "Without a doubt."

"Obviously not," Shannon laughed. She tugged her sweater's sleeves down from where they'd been bunched at her elbows, and now they hung over her fingers. There was absolutely no reason why I'd find that sexy, but…post-deployment horny. That's all it was. "If you trusted her judgment, you'd also trust her choice of husband."

I leaned back against the counter, mirroring her stance. My goal was keeping my eyes on her face and away from her legs and fingers, but then I noticed the way her sweater was always sliding off one shoulder. That shoulder…I couldn't stop staring at it. "I don't trust any guy with my sister."

She tossed the empty bottle into the trash and went for another. "You're a misogynistic meathead," she said.

"If you want to hit me with meathead, I'll own that, but I'm not taking misogynistic. I can respect, admire, and champion the fuck out of women, but that doesn't mean I can't also protect my sister. That doesn't mean I can't make it clear he'll have to deal with me if she's ever harmed in any way."

"That was a lot of words for you all at once. I'm kind of impressed." Shannon ran a hand through her hair, and I noticed we were completely alone. "Let me tell you something about Lauren: she is a badass chick. You want to talk about torture? She put Matt through all kinds of hell."

"Good," I said. "It builds character. And he probably deserved it."

"While your last point is most likely accurate," Shannon said, "you need to lighten up, commando. Not all womenfolk need looking after."

"Someone should be looking after you," I murmured before draining my beer. Too often, the world wasn't very nice to females, and yeah, we needed to deal with that shit straightaway. But no one was going to tell me to stop standing up for the women in my life.

"Erroneous." Her lips curled into a smile that walked the line between playful and demonic, and she shook her head. "If anything, I'm the one who does the looking-after around here."

"In other words, your brothers are lazy sacks of shit," I said, and I knew there was a reason I didn't like those guys.

Her pale brows drew together in a vicious scowl, and I recognized I was wrong about Shannon. She wasn't a socialite, not at all. She was a fighter, and a scrappy one at that.

"In other words," she said, "I run this town and I don't need any help doing it."

She shrugged and now that shoulder was all the way exposed. A wild splash of freckles ran across her skin, and I was too tired, too fed up with this conversation, too tightly wound to do anything but imagine tasting her right there. I pushed off from the counter and stared out at the sea, all while searching for enough discipline to make it back to my room without doing something unbelievably stupid.

But instead of leaving the bar right then, I stopped beside Shannon and studied those freckles. "Like the tail of a comet," I murmured.

I reached out and traced a line from the ball of her shoulder across her collarbone. Then my gaze shifted to her mouth and those defiant, sinful lips, and my other hand was sliding up her neck and into her hair.

I didn't know why I did it. Maybe it had been too long since I touched a woman. Maybe I couldn't handle the post-deployment horny as well as I used to. Or maybe…maybe I wanted to get into a power struggle.

My forehead rested against Shannon's as I moved into her space, crowding her and feeling all five-foot-nothing of her pressed against me.

"What are you doing?" she whispered.

"Waiting for you to stop me," I said against her lips.

She sighed, and I couldn't tell if the sound originated from pleasure or pain. Then she shook her head and it was highly probable her knee would be connecting with my groin any minute. I felt every single second tick by, each one heavier than the one before.

"Will," she finally said, my name no more than a gasp.

I stole those last syllables from Shannon when my mouth met hers. She tasted like beer and sweetness, and just that quickly, my entire world condensed down to her skin, her hair, her scent. We dropped into an easy rhythm of kisses; sweet and simple, and perfectly right for the dark of night at the beach.

But then she bit my tongue and the gauntlet was thrown. Lips and tongues and teeth all fought for control, and oh holy fuck, I was bringing this girl to her knees tonight. I didn't care what it took, she was going to surrender to me. I pulled that plump bottom lip of hers between my teeth, nipping and scraping as my hands moved down her body. Her ass fit right in my palms and I jerked her against me, my fingers squeezing that taut skin until she yelped.

"Not nice," she murmured against my lips. Her hands traveled up my chest and over my shoulders, and the fire in her eyes was enough to get me as hard as a goddamn lamppost.

"The last thing I'm going to be to you is nice," I said.

I lifted Shannon to the countertop, knocking over glasses, bottles, and utensils in the process. With her hair wrapped around my fist, I pulled her head back and my mouth latched onto the graceful slope of her neck. Her pulse was hammering and she offered tiny hums each time my tongue skated over her skin, but it wasn't enough to kiss her. I needed to lick, suck, bite. Her fingernails scored my neck and shoulders as I ground my erection between her legs, and what I really needed was to fuck her.

My arm swept out, clearing the remaining barware from the surface. I rocked into her again and her warmth drew a choked, ragged moan from deep inside me. I buried my head in Shannon's chest, kissing and nipping every freckle I could find while my hand slipped up her shorts. I was inches away from her panties when her fingers closed around my wrist, a warning look in her eyes.

"I am not fucking you on a bar," she said.

Oh, there was the spitfire.

"Let's get one thing straight right now," I said. My fingers were drawing slow circles on her inner thigh and nothing compared to watching her arousal extinguish her anger by small degrees. "I do the fucking here."