Eleven Years Earlier
No matter what the bride called it (coral, for the record), Gwendolyn Allen’s bridesmaid dress was the color of cooked shrimp. With her mass of flaming red hair, Gwen thought she rather looked like a crustacean on fire.
Looking at the nine (nine!) other bridesmaids, Gwen felt a flash of camaraderie. Shrimp wasn’t anyone’s color.
The wedding reception was one of the biggest parties to hit Boston in years. People magazine won exclusive photography rights for the event, but the entertainment shows had reporters there, too.
Gwen’s cousin, Kristen Bouchemont, was kind of a big deal. The most famous socialite on the East Coast was finally getting married, and Gwen herself was still surprised. Looking at the bride and groom, there wasn’t any doubt in her mind that the union was a true one; for the first time in her life, Kristen looked really happy.
“Gwendolyn, stand up a bit taller. Look at all the potential husbands here!” her mother whispered urgently.
“Mom—” Gwen warned. She always wondered how her mother managed to sneak up on her like a matchmaking ninja. Was it something that happened when one became a mother? Or was it a special talent possessed only by Bev Allen?
“Oh, stop,” Bev whispered. She gave a blinding smile to a passing guest wearing a Rolex on each wrist.
Only through years of training did Gwen manage not to roll her eyes.
“Look at Kristen’s glow!” Bev continued. She smiled fondly at her only child. “I want that for you. Just pinch some color into those cheeks”—she helpfully did it for Gwen, despite Gwen’s attempt to wave her off—“and smile a little. You have the prettiest smile, sweetheart. Your father and I want to introduce you to some of the politicians in attendance.”
“I’m twenty-one, Mom. I have zero interest in marriage.” Or in any senator at all, thanks, she added silently.
“Don’t count these men out just yet, dear. There are some future presidential prospects here tonight.”
“Seriously, Mom, please don’t. I have so much on my plate at college right now…” Gwen looked around in a panic. Her mom was desperate to see her married to the “most promising” candidate she could find, and in a room full of almost five hundred guests, most with major political ties, Gwen was beginning to feel faint. And not in the romantic, heart-fluttering, swept-off-her-feet way.
Her mother was a matchmaking force of the worst kind, and Gwen’s usual defense was to escape her presence. But for the moment, she was stuck. Good manners rooted her to the spot; so many people were always watching them. Everyone expected Gwen, as the heiress to the Allen fortune, to marry well, and soon. And her parents expected to decide her future for her.
As her best friend Eleanor always said, it was like a living nightmare from those Regency romance books they both loved.
Bev gave a derisive snort. “I am thrilled you’re taking your education seriously, Gwendolyn, I am. That is important. But marriage is more so. Making the right connections is a good place to start, and this event is the perfect opportunity for you to—oh, hello, Edward!”
With her mother’s attention now locked on one of the congressmen in attendance, Gwen slipped out of the ballroom. She glanced down a long hallway and saw an exit sign; she hurried toward it and pulled the door open.
Perfect. A cool, empty, hotel staircase. She let the heavy door close behind her, and with it came a welcome silence.
She sighed, but nearly jumped out of her skin when a man peered up the stairs at her from the landing below. “You followed me. I knew you would.”
She tried to remember the man, but she couldn’t. He was in his mid-twenties, and typical of the wedding crowd. More money than sense, if the expensive suit and strong smell of alcohol indicated anything.
“I don’t think we’ve met,” she hedged, inching backward toward the door.
“Not yet. You’re Gwendolyn Allen, and I’m Max Drysdale.” He tripped up the steps and gave her a lopsided smile. “Our parents have been trying to get us together for weeks, but you’ve been holding out.”
She wracked her brain, but the name wasn’t familiar. Of course, she wouldn’t put it past her parents to try to set her up with this guy. For all she knew, his was one of the dozen or so names flashed at her weekly.
“Well, school and all that. Come on, let’s get back to the party.” Damn it, the door was locked behind her. She rattled the safety bar, the sound echoing against the cold concrete walls around her.
He was almost beside her, and she felt a frisson of alarm. His eyes were unfocused, and he swayed a little. She caught him by the lapels before he fell back down the stairs, and he grinned at her. “I knew you wanted me.”
“Uh, sorry, pal. I’m not interested. What I am interested in is getting back to the party, though.” She turned her back to him and tested the door one more time.
He reached around her waist and jerked her against him. The tulle overlay of her horrid dress crinkled and swished and he crushed her against him and reached for her breasts.
She slapped his hands away and twisted, coming face-to-face with his lips, which he pushed on her in a sloppy mess of a kiss. She shoved him back, hard, and he stumbled against the small railing. He smiled slowly.
“So you like it rough?”
“Oh my God,” she muttered, annoyed. “No, I don’t ‘like it rough.’ Back off, Drysdale.”
The dimwit decided instead to lunge at her. She stepped to the side, but he was either not as drunk as she thought, or it was dumb luck that he shifted with her and pinned her against the wall. In one move, he had her wrists above her head and his body flush against her, grinding his hips into hers.
“Get off!” she shouted, turning her head away from his foul breath. “Stop it!”
He merely nuzzled into her neck, making odd slurping sounds that made her stomach sour.
“I will hurt you,” she grunted, struggling against his unfortunately strong grip.
“I look forward to it,” he murmured, dragging his tongue up her neck.
She clenched her jaw, then brought her knee up as swiftly as she could, jamming it between his legs, hitting exactly the spot she wanted to. She watched his eyes cross, heard the shriek of pain, then watched, satisfied, as he crumpled to the floor in a moaning heap.
The door swung open.
“Don’t let it close,” she said quickly, her adrenaline still in overdrive as she slipped under someone’s arm, back into the hallway. “It locks behind you.”
“Aye,” a man replied in a thick, melodic accent, “then perhaps we ought to leave it a bit propped for your friend here?”
Gwen looked in the oversized mirror on the wall and attempted to fix her hair. Not too much damage. It had taken the hairstylist almost an hour to wrangle it into the complicated half-up, half-down do. “Ugh. He’s no friend of mine. Thanks for opening that.” She turned back to the man and froze.
Her first thought was: enormous. His shoulders were so broad, she couldn’t see the entire (still slightly ajar) door behind him. He wore a black leather jacket, opened to reveal a dark, button-down shirt. Perfectly-formed jeans encased his strong, powerful legs, and he wore scuffed black work boots, one of which still propped open the stairway door.
Then she registered his face, and her entire world shifted. It was perfectly sculpted, all hard planes and smooth skin. Lips made for kissing. Intense hazel eyes, with striking rays of gold and blue, focused on her own muted, soft green ones, and the look he was giving her stole her breath. His face held just the right amount of five o’clock shadow to separate the men from the boys.
His eyes on the heap of moaning man on the ground, the man let out a low whistle. “Well done, lass.” Slowly, deliberately, he pulled his foot from the bottom of the door. It closed with a resounding thud. A muffled call of “Hey!” from the other side rang out, but they both ignored it.
“I heard what sounded like a lady in distress.” The timbre of his voice resonated in her chest, the words cascading together in a fascinating lilt. Her ears strained for more, the sounds of the letters at once familiar yet unlike anything she’d known.
She grasped for something clever to say, but then the actual words he spoke registered, and she blinked. “Well, it wasn’t me. I don’t need to be saved.”
“Clearly,” he replied, a small smile playing at his lips as he glanced at the closed door. They both listened to the continued, pathetic cries of pain for a moment more before he added, “Quite the well-placed kick, I daresay.”
“I’m…I’m Gwendolyn. Gwen. Thanks for the almost-rescue.”
“Reilly. And ’twas almost my pleasure.”
She blushed, feeling exposed by his intense gaze. “When I went in there, I didn’t know he was there. I just wanted to get away from the noise for a while.”
The mysterious Reilly grimaced with a glance down the long hallway to the open doorway of the ballroom that showed people milling about. “I believe you.”
His accent was unfamiliar to her, and his voice was so deep, she felt the reverberations in her chest. He was all virile male, and never before had she met anyone like him.
Gwen’s normal confidence slipped a notch. She was way out of her comfort zone.
“Friend of the bride or groom?” she asked, unsure how to keep their conversation going. Dumb. He wasn’t dressed for the wedding, not in those jeans.
Her eyes, of their own accord, strayed back to his legs. Each thigh was thicker than both her legs together.
He chuckled. “Neither. I’m simply here for the entertainment.”
She tilted her head, enchanted by the sound of his laugh. “Ah. A knight and a wedding crasher.”
“A man of many trades, for certain. Can I offer you a ride somewhere?”
Gwen wondered if he was hitting on her. Her heart beat triple time with the thought, but Reilly remained expressionless yet friendly. No overtures of anything, really.
Disappointment flooded her.
She managed to smile at him. “Thanks, but I have to stay until at least the cake cutting. Bridal party,” she muttered.
“That explains the horrid dress.”
Her mouth dropped open. “Excuse me?”
Reilly reached over and lifted the tulle overlay, and the scent of him filled her senses. Fresh, outdoorsy, clean. No cologne.
Gwen would never forget that smell.
They both watched the scratchy material float back down to its chiffon counterpart.
Reilly spoke again. “Can you honestly tell me that is a dress you’d choose for yourself?”
“Kristen had a designer make these especially for today.”
“No insult meant,” he returned smoothly. “And that wasn’t an answer to my question.”
She glanced back at his face, unnerved to see he was still watching her, his eyes still concentrated on hers. She shook her head, unable to form any coherent words.
“I thought not. That dress does nothing for your beauty, yet there you stand, somehow still resplendent.”
Gwen blinked. “Th-thank you.”
As though he hadn’t just dropped the most wonderful compliment Gwen had ever heard, he continued, “That color should be outlawed.”
“I was thinking the same thing earlier,” she admitted sheepishly. She glanced down and wrinkled her nose. “Ugh. You’re right, it really is horrid. And with the amount of money I had to drop on this thing…I just think of all the good it could’ve done going somewhere else.”
“Like where?” Reilly asked.
Gwen blushed again, cursing her pale skin, which no doubt now matched her hair. “Oh, you know…families who don’t have anything. It could be a mortgage payment.” At his surprised look, she shrugged and fluffed the skirt self-consciously. “Designer isn’t cheap. And neither is anything about this wedding.”
“That seems like a lot of pressure.”
“It is. Kristen—the bride—thrives on it. I’d rather be…well, anywhere else.”
“If you could be anywhere right this moment, where would that be?” He seemed genuinely curious as to her answer.
Right here with you, came the immediate thought. Gwen swallowed hard. Her reaction was visceral and overwhelming; she had to get control of herself before she did something embarrassing, such as throw herself against him and beg him to take her with him.
Wherever he went.
He smiled, a mysterious half-lifting of his lips that made her worry that he’d read her thoughts.
He tried another question, as she seemed unable to answer the first. “What do you want to do with yourself, if not be like those people in there?”
“I want to work with people,” she replied without hesitation. “Really work with them, create homes and communities.”
His eyes crinkled at the sides, the only outward sign she could see of his surprise. She wondered how old he was; he seemed older than the twenty-somethings she hung around.
“Fascinating.” It was said honestly, without any derision or mockery. “Though those people in there do good, aye?”
“I guess,” she replied, not quite convinced.
“I’ve learned not to judge until I’ve gathered all the facts. Though they may not be out on the front lines, so to speak, perhaps their money funds those who are.”
Gwen furrowed her brow. “I never thought of that.”
“You would have eventually. Perspective comes with time.”
A heartbeat passed before she blurted out, “Where are you from?”
If Reilly was surprised by her sudden change of subject, he didn’t show it. “Most recently, right outside Dublin.”
Max banged his fist on the other side of the door, apparently recovered enough to get to it. “Anyone out there?”
“Nay,” Reilly growled, turning his head toward the closed door. His expression went cold, making Gwen’s eyes widen. She took a quick step back. He glanced at her and softened his gaze. “Never a need to fear me, lass.”
“You’re one of the good guys?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
He smirked, and her insides tightened. “Depends on whose side you’re on.”
She swallowed hard. “I think I’d want to be on your side.”
His smile grew. “Then aye. I’m one of the good guys.”
Gwen recognized the matchmaker who had orchestrated the meeting between the bride and groom. The matchmaker—Gwen couldn’t remember her name—waved to him from the other end of the hallway. He waved back and held up a finger.
“I’m her ride home,” he explained to Gwen.
“Oh, your girlfriend?” Gwen asked, disappointment clouding her tone. Ridiculous. He’s way too old for me, she tried to reason with herself.
Reilly fished a folded bar napkin from his pocket. “Nay. Cousin.” He produced a pen, too, and scribbled something on it. “I’m in town for a few days. Feel free to call me if you want to have a drink or two. Of course, if you’re ever in Ireland, you can look me up there, too, Gwendolyn.” He glowered at the door, where Max was making pathetic pleading noises. “I’m a good friend to have around, even if you can take care of yourself well enough.”
“Are there bad guys in Ireland?” she asked, unwilling for him to leave.
“If there are, be reassured that my armor, though dusty, is always ready when needed.”
“What exactly is it that you do, Reilly?”
He flashed her a grin. “I’m just a simple furniture maker. Nothing more, nothing less.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “I don’t believe that for a moment.”
He gave her a wink, then gently grasped her wrist and opened her hand. Numb with shock from the sensations skittering across her skin, Gwen watched, breathless, as he slid the napkin into her palm.
“What’s this?” she whispered.
He lifted an eyebrow. “My number. It comes with the offer of friendship, mayhap a chair or table, and a rescue.”
“How many rescues do I get?”
“As many as you need.”
She gave him a cheeky grin. “I might need a chair. But I don’t think I’ll ever need a rescue.”
“Perhaps not. Call me.”
He headed down the hallway, and Gwen stared after him, a different person than she had been just ten minutes earlier. Something in her had changed in those moments, though she couldn’t pinpoint exactly what.
He turned and gave her one last, long look, then disappeared around the corner. She glanced at the napkin in her hand.
Reilly O’Malley, Knight Extraordinaire
A faraway smile graced her lips. Not just something, she mused, tracing his bold script with her finger. Everything.
• • •
Three interminable hours later, Gwen sat alone in the hotel bar. Kristen and Justin were on their way to the airport, and most of the guests had departed. She’d declined the ride home from her parents and she’d turned down the limo service. She got herself a room. With everything her parents had put her through that day (six attempted setups, thirteen introductions to men old enough to be her father, and handing her number out to all of them), she’d gone ahead and used her dad’s credit card to purchase herself some new clothes from some boutique on Newbury Street, which would be delivered by the morning.
There was no way in hell she was leaving the hotel dressed as an aquatic arthropod.
But she also didn’t want to stay at her parents’ home in Connecticut. They were moving to California soon, which was a blessing, for she needed some distance from them. They expected her to follow them to L.A. once she graduated, but she wanted to be done with the lifestyle. The insincerity, the constant round of parties with the same faces, always being known as “the Allen heiress”—it was overwhelming, and she hated it.
She hated it.
She wanted to be someone else, but she wasn’t sure how.
“Is this seat taken?”
Her breath caught in her chest, and she slowly turned. She looked up, high enough that her neck felt funny, and blinked at the man standing next to her.
Mutely, she shook her head and quickly looked forward again. Reilly O’Malley slid into the seat, and the bartender—who had barely glanced at Gwen the entire time she’d been there—hurried over to take his order.
“What are you having?” he asked Reilly.
He glanced in her tumbler, then picked it up and gave it a sniff. His eyebrows nearly disappeared into his hairline, but he was smiling when he said, “I’ll have what the lady’s having. Make it a double.”
Embarrassed, she hesitated. She’d been taught that ladies drink wine, and sometimes trendy spirits. Jameson whiskey on the rocks did not qualify as a ladylike drink. Yet, it was her favorite, and since no one was around…
She fiddled with her napkin. “You like whiskey?”
He chortled. “Lass, I’m Irish. Not liking uisce beatha isn’t an option.” She gave him a questioning look, and he explained, “Uisce beatha. Gaelic for water of life. Or, as you call it, whiskey.”
“I like your accent,” she blurted out.
“I like you,” he returned.
A delicious feeling started to unfurl throughout her skin, and she was pretty sure it wasn’t the whiskey. “Are you picking me up in a bar?” She liked this. She liked him. He was different than the men she’d dated; he was older, of course. But there was something almost uncivilized about him. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but there was an edge to him that thrilled her.
“Do you want me to pick you up in a bar?” he asked, his voice, like the whiskey, was smooth and strong.
She chewed her lip for a moment. “I think I do.”
He leaned in closer, his lips inches from hers. “Full disclosure: I give but one night.”
She sized him up. “So, should I save mine for a special occasion?”
He blinked at her, thrown, and suddenly, he laughed. The rich, warm sound invaded her soul, letting loose a thousand butterflies in her stomach.
He took his double and drained it. “By the saints, I really do like you, Gwendolyn.”
She gave him a small smile, a real one. “I like you too, Reilly.”
He banged his head against the bar. “You know what this means, though, don’t you?”
She hoped it meant he was going to take her upstairs to her room and show her what was inside those soft jeans of his, but she refrained from saying so. She merely remained silent, watching him with what she hoped was a sexy expression on her face.
“It means that I can’t take you to bed.”
Her mouth dropped open. “What?”
He downed his drink, then signaled to the bartender for another. “You’re something special, Gwendolyn Allen.”
“I never told you my last name.”
He truly smiled at her then, and she was left witless from the wattage.
“You’re worth more than a single night, and I’m not capable of giving that. So let’s agree to carry on as friends, aye?”
“You’re a strange man.”
His eyes glinted with humor. “You’ve no idea, lass. But like I said before, I’m one of the good guys.”
“Apparently too good,” she muttered.
He chuckled, then tossed some cash on the bar. When she rifled through her purse for her wallet, he frowned at her. “Nay. This is on me. It’ll always be on me.”
“Always?” she scoffed. The man had just turned down sex, and he was talking as if they were going to be best buds and hang out for all time? He must’ve been drinking prior to joining her.
He nodded, then glanced in her open purse. “Still have my number, or did you chuck it in the nearest rubbish bin?”
She colored. The napkin was clearly visible in the tiny satchel that held her credit card, a small roll of cash, and her lipstick.
He chuckled, then gently drew her hand to his lips. He kissed each knuckle, weakening her knees to the point of jelly. “Aye, always.” His eyes turned serious. “Please call me, Gwendolyn.”
She knew she would. And somehow, she knew he knew she would.