Authors: Kennedy Ryan
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #African American, #Romance, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Contemporary, #Multicultural, #Contemporary Fiction
I could probably fill every page of this book with thanks for so many people. That is impractical, so I’ll narrow it down to just a few, and hope that I’ve told everyone else at some point how very grateful I am. I have to thank my parents. My father for planting a love for words and excellence in my heart, and even when he was busy, finding ways to water them. My mother, who passed along a voracious appetite for reading, always reminded me I was a writer and always whispered destiny to me. To my first beta readers, my family Shelly and Rukel, who read this piece by piece, chapter by chapter, and encouraged me to continue when I assumed it was crap. To my agent, Nikki Terpilowski, for taking a chance on me. To so many awesome writers I’ve met so far, but especially to Kimberly Belle, Sofia Tate, and Katie Oliver, all strong, emerging voices in this industry I’m pleased as punch to call friends.
To my son, Myles, who, though he speaks very little, has taught me more than I could have imagined about perseverance and unconditional love living with autism every day. Your life speaks to me and to so many others.
And finally, to my best friend, champion, and the absolute love of my life, my husband, Sam. It has always been you. It will always be you.
ll eyes were on him, except the bride’s. Walsh hadn’t looked at Kerris Moreton, his best friend’s wife-to-be, for weeks. As two hundred wedding guests waited, Walsh contemplated his glass of champagne and the toast they expected from the best man.
“I met this scrawny, mean punk of a kid at camp thirteen years ago.” Walsh pieced together his most charming smile around the words. “We pretty much hated each other on sight.”
He paused for a ripple of polite laughter before focusing his attention on his best friend, Cam.
“But by the end of the summer, I had a best friend. I had a brother, and that’s never changed. We’ve been through a lot together, and you deserve every happiness. I love you, man.”
With a look, Walsh and Cam exchanged years of memories and emotions in a silent moment between them.
And then Walsh did what he had deliberately denied himself all day. He looked at the bride. Really looked at her, full on, and every word he had scripted fled his mind. His breath caught up in his throat at her beauty, illuminated by the kindness and compassion he knew lay beneath that gorgeous face. His tongue clung to the roof of his mouth for an extra second before he wrenched himself from drowning in her amber eyes.
Kerris met his stare, her expression not guarded enough to disguise the fear, the near-panic. He read the question in her eyes as if she had spoken aloud.
What are you about to say?
“And what a girl you’ve found,” he said, unable to look away from her solemn gaze.
“I saw her before I knew she was the girl you’d been telling me all about. She was going out of her way to help someone. I knew then that she was different, and that she deserved a special man.”
He raised his glass to toast the bride, swishing champagne and disappointment in his mouth.
He’d wanted to be that man.
* * *
Eighteen Months Earlier
Walsh couldn’t stop watching her. She stood too far away for him to see her face clearly in the dim light, but he suspected it would take his breath away. She peered up at the bus schedule, speaking with an elderly woman. Her bright red dress in the almost empty parking lot drew his eye like a silver lining in a dark cloud.
“Does it say when the B is coming?” The older woman’s question carried across the space separating them, her white hair gleaming in the light from the street lamp.
“Oh, no. You just missed the last bus.” The girl’s voice was husky-hot and sweet. Honey burned to a crisp.
“Well, I only live a few blocks away. I’ll walk.”
“My car’s over here. I’ll take you.”
“No, I couldn’t put you out like that.” It sounded like only half the lady’s heart was in the protest, and the other half didn’t want to walk in the dark. “You don’t even know me.”
“I know it’s too dark for you to walk the streets alone. I won’t sleep tonight wondering if you made it home. Come on.”
Walsh wished she would turn around so he could see this Good Samaritan’s face, but he only glimpsed a delicate profile and a flower behind her ear before she marched toward a battered Toyota Camry.
Walsh pushed the incident from his mind, crossing the parking lot and entering the hotel across the street. He was late, but his mother wouldn’t care. She’d just be glad to have him home.
“Bennett!” a voice boomed as soon as he entered the beautifully decorated ballroom. “What the hell. I didn’t know you were coming tonight.”
“It’s called a surprise.”
Walsh warded off Cameron Mitchell’s playful jabs before hooking an elbow around his neck.
Walsh watched his cousin Joanne approach, walking as fast as she could in her prized Manolos, weaving through the food-laden tables and well-dressed people. Her smooth skin glowed with health. The sleek, chestnut-streaked bob fell around her ears, a glossy frame for her oval face. Her full lips tilted up at the edges, hinting at the laughter she usually reserved for her tight circle of friends and family. Jo wedged herself between Cam and Walsh, throwing an arm over each man’s shoulder. She had been fitting nicely between the two of them since they’d met Cam at camp thirteen years ago. Walsh had been fourteen and they had been thirteen. That slim age difference had been about the only thing separating them ever since.
“You didn’t tell us you were coming.” Jo nodded at Walsh’s jeans and polo shirt, her gray eyes sparkling, a cheeky grin lighting her face. “Your mom will be so glad to see you. Even dressed like that.”
Walsh gave Jo an affectionate squeeze and kiss, eyeing her brightly patterned halter dress and Cam’s sports jacket and slacks. He
“She won’t mind.” Walsh cast a cursory glance around the ballroom. “Is Uncle James here?”
“Daddy?” Jo rolled her eyes, hand on the curve of her slim hip. “He was still at the office when I left, but he’ll be here.”
“Or Mom will have his head.” Walsh shared a knowing look with his cousin.
Uncle James and Walsh’s mother were not only siblings, but best friends. They had always been partners in crime in everything, including running the family foundation and raising their children.
Walsh spotted his mother working the room, trolling for donors.
“I’ll see Unc when he gets here,” Walsh said. “Going to go grab Mom now.”
Cam laid a hand on Walsh’s shoulder, his smile as broad as the Eno River, which snaked through the small town of Rivermont, North Carolina.
“Okay, but don’t forget I want to introduce you to my new girl. She’s amazing.”
“Can you believe this?” Walsh nodded his head toward Cam, but looked at Jo. “The certified player, wanting one girl?”
“She is pretty amazing.” Jo offered a wry smile, bumping Cam’s shoulder with hers. “What’s most amazing is that she wasn’t running after him like the swarm of girls he’s used to.”
“It took me
to even get a date with this girl.” Cam waved his hand to indicate his olive skin, blue-gray eyes, and dark, wavy hair. “Me!”
Jo rolled her eyes, shaking her head and setting her gold hoop earrings in motion. “She
“I’ll meet her later.” Walsh turned in his mother’s direction. “Right now, I gotta go kiss the most beautiful woman in the room.”
He snuck up behind his mother and covered her eyes.
“Who is this?” She starched and pressed the words.
“How many people did you give birth to?”
“Walsh!” She whooped and turned around to hug him as tightly as he had known she would. Her dark hair was pulled back in an elegant knot, showing off her smooth, still-unlined skin. “I didn’t know you were coming tonight. Your room isn’t even ready.”
The ever-practical Southern hospitality. Kristeene Walsh Bennett had never lost it, even when she’d been married to his father, living among New York’s most elite.
“I’ll be fine.” Walsh gave her an extra squeeze before pulling away. “Just as long as there’s a bed. Feels like parts of me are scattered across three time zones. I just want to crash after this.”
“But you will stay, right?” She rolled a threat and a plea into one tiny frown. “You have to meet our Scholar of the Year. She’s overcome so much.”
“Haven’t they all?” Walsh thought of Cam and several of the other foster kids who’d come through the foundation over the years.
“Well, yes, but she’s special,” Kristeene said, something approaching pride in her voice. “She’s driven and determined. Just a good girl.”
“Let me guess. She has a great personality?”
“Well, yes, she does.” His mother pressed her lips together, but Walsh knew laughter could spill from the sides at any minute. “Come on. Time to announce the awards.”
Walsh took a seat across from Cam and Jo.
“Where is she?” Cam twisted around, scanning the crowded room. “She should’ve been here by now.”
“She’ll be here.” Jo took a quick sip of her white wine and toyed with the studded bangle wrapped around her wrist. “She’s probably just running late, and I’m sure there’s an excellent reason for it. God forbid she’d do anything wrong.”
“She did mention she was taking her mentee home after school.” Worry pulled Cam’s dark brows together. “But that would’ve been hours ago.”
Was this really Cam? Walsh couldn’t believe all this concern. For a girl? Cam barely remembered the names of the girls he’d slept with over the years, usually referring to them by distinguishing characteristics.
The girl with the belly-button ring.
That chick with the tramp stamp.
The one who did that trick with her tongue.
Now Cam was worried because this girl was
“Thank you all for being here tonight,” Walsh’s mother said from the platform, her warm gaze skimming each table. “My great-grandfather married a girl who never knew her mother or father. A girl who lived in an orphanage throughout her childhood. Her story compelled my family to start the Walsh Foundation, and we’ve been helping kids without parents or homes all over the world ever since.”
Polite applause from the donors. The college students who had grown up in foster homes and been able to attend college because of the foundation offered a less reserved response, cheering and whistling until Kristeene held up a staying hand.
“Speaking of all over the world.” Kristeene turned a bright smile in Walsh’s direction. “I’m going to have a proud mother moment and welcome my son, Walsh, home. He’s finally back from visiting our orphanage in Kenya. Help me convince him to stay for the summer. Stand up, baby.”
Walsh stood, offering a brief salute before quickly sitting, feeling as self-conscious as he had at six years old when she’d forced him to play the piano for company.
“We’re so proud of him.” Her eyes lingered on her only child. “He’s been working with the Walsh Foundation ever since he graduated from NYU, and he helps out his father in New York when he can.”
Walsh nearly smirked, thinking of how disgusted Martin Bennett would be to hear about his son “helping out” in New York. Like training to run a multibillion dollar enterprise was his side gig. His father wanted Walsh to work all of what he liked to call this “philanthropy crap” out of his system with his mother’s do-gooder family.
“And that brings us to our final award, the Scholar of the Year,” his mother said, regaining Walsh’s attention. “This young lady has impressed us all. Not only did she graduate last week with a four-point-oh GPA, but she also serves as a mentor at Walsh House in Raleigh, where we serve at-risk teens. I interviewed her myself for the scholarship last year. I was blown away by her strength of will, determination, and compassion. Please welcome Kerris Moreton, our Scholar of the Year.”
Everyone applauded. After that grand introduction, Walsh wondered if this girl would ascend to the stage flanked by cherubim and seraphim and accompanied by harps. Walsh envisioned everyone genuflecting when this paragon finally decided to bless them with her presence. His hands stung from clapping, waiting for her to show up.
Where the hell was she?
His mother scanned the room, obviously looking for the little scholar-cum-saint. She shielded her eyes against the glare of discreetly lit chandeliers.
“I guess promptness isn’t one of her virtues,” Walsh said.
Cam surprised him with an irritated look. What? Did the little saint have him under her spell, too? Wonder what his new girlfriend thought of that. Then Cam’s face lit up.
“Here she comes.”
She rushed through the door and down the aisle toward the stage. Walsh blinked, thinking she would be less lovely at a second glance. She was not less of anything. No less blinding. No less stunning. No less captivating. She rushed past their table, but not before he got a good look at her.
She was tiny. Probably no more than an inch over five feet, but softly curved in the places a woman should be. He would stand more than a foot taller. Her hair waved around her shoulders and streamed down her slim back, dark brown, spiked with lighter red streaks, as if the tresses had trapped rays of sun. Her cheekbones curved high, a perfect setting for eyes that tilted a little, glinting with green, amber, and gold. And that mouth.
Damn, that mouth.
It was full and wide. Lush, like raspberries at peak season.
And damned if she wasn’t wearing a scarlet dress and a flower behind her ear.