Authors: Sandra Owens
“So you think what he did was okay? Shannon hung herself because of him.”
“No, she killed herself because of you and your big mouth. I wish my dad had never met your mother, then none of this would be happening. You ruined our lives. I’ll always hate you for that.”
Those were the last words her stepsister had spoken to her until a few minutes ago. At the parole board hearing, all her stepsister had graced her with were looks that said Charlie was no better than dirt. Charlie opened a drawer and put the photo in it, wanting it out of sight. If she hadn’t said anything to her guidance counselor, would she still have her family and would her mother still be alive? One question had plagued her in the years since then. Had she really been the reason Shannon decided to put a rope around her neck?
Charlie hadn’t meant to tell the guidance counselor. Troubled by what she had seen her stepfather doing to Shannon, she’d felt mad at everyone, and mouthed off to a teacher. Sent to the office, then to the guidance counselor, Mrs. Bronson had somehow gotten the story out of Charlie. From there, her world had crumbled around her when the police got involved.
Guilt over destroying her family, and even worse guilt over Shannon’s suicide, had ruined her appetite. To avoid the accusing eyes of her mother and stepsister, she’d stayed in her room when not at school. Even her friends avoided her, as if she had some kind of contagious disease.
Hurt and lonely, self-hatred drove her to consider taking her own life. Her father had been a commercial airline pilot, but he’d been killed in a car accident when she was nine. The lure of being with her dad had been strong, but in the end, she hadn’t been able to take that final step. Her greatest worry had been that she would go to hell if she really were the reason Shannon had hung herself, and then she would never get to see her daddy again.
Then one day her jeans were so loose that they barely stayed on. She had stood in front of a mirror for a long time and stared at the girl reflected back at her. Her hair was dirty and stringy, there were shadows under her eyes, and she was at least ten pounds lighter than she had been before life as she had known it changed.
Charlene hadn’t recognized herself, and something inside her said she could transform herself into a different person, one who hadn’t caused so much carnage. She began to run every morning before school, she studied hard, and she decided to be a pilot like her father, except the new her wanted something more exciting than flying commercial airliners around the country.
Her phone buzzed, bringing her back to the present. When she saw Ryan’s name on the screen, she smiled.
“No, I’m still not going to have phone sex with you,” she said as a greeting.
“You’re breaking my heart, cherub.”
She doubted that, but she heard the smile in his voice. “What can I do for you, Mr. O’Connor?”
“Well, if you’re not going to have phone sex with me, I guess nothing.”
Her heart skipped a beat. Was he going to cancel their date? “Okay, so you’re calling because?”
“Maybe I just wanted to tell my new girlfriend to have a nice day. We still on for tonight?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said as her heart seemed to sigh in relief and return to its normal pace. “Can I bring anything?”
“Just your lovely self. I’ve got the rest covered. See you tonight, girlfriend.”
“No ring, no girlfriend,” she said. She had never been able to flirt so easily with other men, and wasn’t sure what was different about Ryan that she didn’t have to take ten minutes to think of a response. Weird, but nice. Definitely nice.
“Got that covered, too,” he said before hanging up.
“Bye,” she said to dead air, smiling.
Derrick popped his head up from the other side of the cubicle and waggled his brows. “I’ll have phone sex with you.”
“In your dreams. No, ewww, not even there. And stop listening to my conversations.”
“Hard not to when I’m sitting right here, and, anyway, don’t wanna stop when you get dirty phone calls. You expecting any more?”
Charlie shot him a bird on her way out to do an extracareful preflight of the Cessna before her student arrived. On second thought, she went to the schedule and signed out a different plane than the one in the book next to her name.
he aroma of an authentic shepherd’s pie filled Ryan’s apartment. It was the one Irish dish he knew how to make. He’d only had to call his mother twice regarding the meal he had planned for Charlie. Although his mother was happy he had a date, the first time he had called was tough as they both skirted any mention of Kathleen. She and his mother had been thick as thieves, and he couldn’t help wondering what his mom would think if she knew the truth about his wife.
It had been one reason he’d fled to San Diego, to keep from seeing his family every day and at some point blurting out the truth. Although Kathleen had betrayed him in the worst possible way, he couldn’t bring himself to tarnish her image in their eyes.
At the end of his second call, he had promised to come home as soon as he could manage a few days off, something he already intended to do for an entirely different reason than she could ever guess.
His plan for the evening was to give Charlie a taste of Ireland, as much as he could in a one-bedroom apartment in Pensacola, Florida. Irish music played on the stereo, and the pie was baking in the oven. For dessert, he would make her a coffee with Baileys and whipped cream.
He’d had a moment of indecision when deciding what to wear, then realized he was getting a little too crazy about his date night. “I have a date,” he bragged to Mr. Bunny. The rabbit twitched his nose, and Ryan figured if the fuzzball could talk, he’d say, “About time.” Couldn’t argue with that, Ryan thought, as he eyed the contents of his closet.
Finally, he settled on a pair of comfortable jeans and a white button-down shirt that he left untucked. He rolled up the sleeves, then picked up his class ring—now on a silver chain he’d bought on his lunch hour—and tucked it in his pocket.
The doorbell rang and he walked barefoot to the door. Mr. Bunny sat in front of it as if waiting to see who was on the other side. Ryan picked up the rabbit and opened the door. “Look, Mr. Bunny, it’s my girlfriend.” And she looked entirely edible wearing white jeans shorts and a teal T-shirt that said,
Save a horse, ride a pilot.
Worked for him.
“Oh my God, you really do have a rabbit,” she said, holding out her arms.
“That I do.” Ryan handed over his pet, then brushed his lips across hers. “Follow me.” He led her into the kitchen and waved a hand at his small table. In the center was a plate with some fancy cheeses and crackers he’d added to the grocery cart at the last minute.
“He’s such a cutie,” she said, rubbing noses with the rabbit. “What’s his name?”
She gave him a disbelieving look, then burst into laughter. “I heard you say that on the phone, but I just thought you were calling him that, you know, generically. Like, because he’s a rabbit. He is a he, right?”
“Hell if I know.”
“No kidding? You haven’t looked?”
It hadn’t occurred to him to wonder what sex the rabbit was, but if it was a female, it had better not be pregnant. He watched as she flipped Mr. Bunny over in her arms and separated the fur with her fingers. “I dunno. Kind of hard to tell, but I think these are little balls.”
Ryan bent over the rabbit that had better be a boy and eyed the suspect balls. “Beats me,” he said. “I guess I should take it to the vet, find out. Can you neuter a rabbit?”
“No, I can’t,” she said and chuckled. “Whether a vet can, I don’t know.”
She lifted her face, and their mouths were inches apart. Suddenly, he didn’t care about rabbits and balls. All he cared about was kissing Charlie. He put his hands on the back of the chair, caging her, and lowered his mouth to hers. Her lips were soft and warm, and he just kissed her, no tongue, no touching anywhere but their mouths. It was sexy as hell.
Keeping one hand on the rabbit in her lap, she lifted her other one and flattened her palm against his cheek. It was something Kathleen used to do, and he almost jerked away. “Charlene,” he murmured to ground himself.
His cell phone buzzed, and he lifted his head. “I’m sorry, I have to answer that. Might be a work call.” Kincaid had never called him at home, but with the way the planned operation was suddenly popping, it was a possibility.
He stepped back to the counter and picked up the cell. “O’Connor.” As he listened, he glanced at the rabbit nestled in Charlie’s lap and frowned. “What color was it?” He’d forgotten about the posters he had put up around the neighborhood. The relief at the man’s answer surprised him. “No, it’s not him.” After hanging up, he made a mental note to go out and take all the posters down after Charlie left.
“Someone trying to claim Mr. Bunny?” she asked.
“Yeah, but he said his was white. I don’t think he ever owned a rabbit because he hesitated when I asked him what color. The posters I printed were in black and white, so I guess Mr. Bunny could’ve looked white in them. Weird. Why would he want a rabbit?”
“The hell you say.” No one was making a stew out of his rabbit. “Listen, dinner will be ready in about a half hour. I’d planned for us to have a glass of wine,” he waved a hand at the cheese and crackers, “while we snacked a little on those and talked. But I need to take the lost-and-found posters down.” The thought of Mr. Bunny going into a pot was intolerable. He grabbed the wine bottle he had opened earlier and set it on the table. “Have some wine and play with him. It won’t take me long.”
“I’ll come with you.”
He walked over and gave her a quick kiss. “No, I’m going to run, and your beautiful legs won’t be able to keep up. I’ll be back in fifteen.” After a detour to his bedroom to put on a pair of sneakers, he went back to the kitchen, and kissed Charlie again. “Be here when I get back, cherub.”
“I’m not going anywhere until I get my ring,” she said, smiling.
“Then we can have phone sex?”
“Sheesh, you have a one-track mind, Hot Guy.”
“What can I say? I’m a man.”
She gave him a push. “Go. I’m just going to sit here and get drunk with Mr. Bunny.”
“Don’t you dare get my rabbit drunk. Back soon.”
Charlie watched him jog toward the door, admiring his very fine butt until it disappeared from sight. She picked up the rabbit and held him in front of her face. “I don’t blame you for refusing to leave. He’s definitely a keeper.”
Mr. Bunny twitched his adorable nose, and she laughed. Setting him back in her lap, she poured a glass of wine. It had been an interesting evening so far. No man she knew would adopt a stray rabbit and then worry that someone might eat it. There had to be something wrong with him, some flaw she hadn’t seen yet. In her experience, men just weren’t that perfect.
Curious about him, she picked up her wine and, with Mr. Bunny nestled in one arm, went into the living room. The furniture was minimal, and there were only a few personal items. Some books stacked on a side table caught her attention, and she walked over and scanned the spines. Tom Clancy, Daniel Silva, and Lee Child. “So you like spies and adventure, Hot Guy.” She liked Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, so that would give them something to talk about.
The left side of the sofa was more indented, and she decided that was where he sat to watch TV. The next time he called her from home, she would be able to imagine him sitting there, and she liked that. There wasn’t much else in the living room that would give her a clue about him, and she eyed the hallway. She wouldn’t snoop, but she was curious about his bedroom and would just take a quick peek from the doorway.
The bed was made up, and a cozy-looking deep-blue comforter covered it. Would she end up in that bed later? Still believing that he was too much man for her to handle, she wasn’t sure that would be a good idea. Yet, the thought of never seeing him again didn’t sit well either. Just as she turned to head back to the kitchen, a photo on his dresser caught her attention.
He said he would be back in fifteen minutes, and he’d been gone about five. Unable to resist, she walked to the dresser and stared at Ryan and the beautiful woman in a silver frame. She wore a gorgeous wedding gown, and her smile was one of pure happiness. Her green eyes, so much like his, sparkled with life. In the photo, Ryan was looking not at the camera but at his wife, and there was so much love in his eyes that Charlie felt as if she had been punched in the stomach.
What was she doing in an apartment with the hottest guy she’d ever known, one who would never look at her with stars in his eyes? Backing away, she spun and carried the rabbit to the kitchen and set him down. Where had she dropped her purse? The front door opened at the same moment she located her purse on the floor in the living room.
“Got them all,” Ryan said, walking past her with a handful of posters.
Charlie swiveled and watched him dump the pages into a garbage pail. She didn’t know what to do. What reason could she give him for leaving?
Hey, I snooped around while you were gone, and I’ve decided I don’t belong here.
I think I’ll just go now and try to forget I ever met you?
After he had disposed of the offending posters, he glanced at her, then stilled. “Charlie?”
His eyes narrowed, and he stalked toward her, stopping so close that she could feel his warm breath on her cheeks. “Were you leaving?”
Yes, that had been her intention, but she couldn’t bring herself to turn away from him and do just that. She also couldn’t bring herself to lie to him. “I think it would be best.”
“Because you loved her, and I think you still do,” she blurted, and as the words fell like an unmovable boulder between them, she would have given anything if she could take them back. His eyes glittered, and all she could think was that she had poked a dangerous lion.
“I told you I was married, so of course I loved my wife. What brought this on, Charlene?”
The way he said her name told her she had ventured into forbidden territory. “I think I should just go,” she said as she backed up.
He put an arm over her shoulder and flattened his left hand against the door. “No.”
Hadn’t she already decided he was a man she couldn’t possibly handle? So why did the totally alpha male breathing fire at her excite her? Well, she had always loved the thrill of living on the edge in her plane, so maybe he gave her the same kind of buzz. “No? You don’t get to say no to me, Ryan.” She was taunting him, and she knew it.
“Then I’ll just have to change your mind, cherub,” he said right before his mouth covered hers.
Oh yes, playing with fire was about as good as performing one of her death-defying tricks. His right arm flashed in her eyesight as he put that hand against the door on the other side of her face. She was blocked in, and she loved that he seemed to want her to stay.
Then he backed away. “That was wrong of me. If you want to leave, I won’t stop you. Just know that . . .” His eyes focused on a spot somewhere over her shoulder. “Know that I want you to stay.”
“Okay,” she said, apparently willing to jump into the fire feetfirst, or was it headfirst? There had been something in his expression that had tugged at her, like maybe he didn’t just want her to stay, but needed her to. At her agreement, a beautiful smile bloomed on his face, one that took her breath away.
He grabbed her hand. “Come with me. I’m taking you to Ireland tonight. It’s a land of magic, and who knows, you might even see an enchanted bunny.” At the entrance to the kitchen, he stopped and focused his unique green eyes on her. “But you have to let your imagination soar, Charlene. Can you do that?”
Charlie was a person who saw things in black and white. Not only that, but they had to be there in the first place for her to see. A part of her nature came from her training as a pilot where facts were crucial to one’s survival. It had begun, though, on the day her beloved father was killed. That was about as black and white as one could get, and his death had stolen any imagination she might have had.
Yet, the man waiting for an answer made her want that lost imagination back. Not sure how to handle the depth of emotions swirling around inside her, she laughed. “I’ve always heard the Irish were whimsical. Guess it’s true.” She stepped up to him and pressed against his chest, laying her cheek over his heart. “No one has ever invited me to a magical land before.”
He wrapped his arms around her and nuzzled her neck. “Then I’m your man.”
If only, but she couldn’t get the picture of Ryan and his wife out of her head. It just wasn’t possible for a man to love like that twice in his lifetime. What didn’t make any sense was his claim that she was pregnant and the baby wasn’t his. If he really were her man, Charlie would never look at anyone else.
Trained to make quick decisions, she made one. It didn’t matter that he would never love her the way he had his wife because love wasn’t up for discussion for either of them. She would view him as a time in her life when she had caught the interest of an honest-to-God hot guy. She would just go with it and have fun. Then in a few days, or maybe a month, he would move on, and she would return to her comfortable existence.
So close to him, she could smell the spice of his aftershave, she took a deep breath, memorizing his scent. “Take me to Ireland, Ryan.”