And so it begins…or not.
The excitement bubbling up inside me quickly morphs into panic as I watch the cabbie peel away, dust kicking up behind his wheels like a farewell wave—a goddamn middle-finger salute.
“Come back,” I yell the second I realize I’m not where I’m supposed to be.
I’m at the wrong freaking castle!
Despite the cool mountain air, I break into an anxious sweat. Jesus Christ—its nearing dusk and I’m lost in the middle of Northern England, my phone battery about to die. Not that I could call anyone for help. I’m on the other side of the Atlantic—stranded and abandoned—a million miles away from anyone who could possibly come to my rescue. Good Lord, this is so not one of my better moments.
I take in the landscape again and try to formulate my next course of action.
I tap my chin. I’m a smart girl, a problem-solving junior partner at Pratt and Winfrey Law Firm back in New York. It’s possible I’m lost, yes, but a logical woman such as myself would analyze the situation and figure out her next course of action. So why the hell am I freaking out?
Because a trip across the pond for epic sex is so out of my element.
Pull it together, Harper. Get on with this vacation.
The truth is, this whole adventure was my idea. Two years ago, during a New Year’s Eve party, I was the one who suggested we all put our names in a hat and draw one, each girl sponsoring an epic, twenty-fifth birthday vacation for whichever friend they’d picked. I’ve been waiting thirty-three long months—yes, I’ve been counting—for a dossier to arrive on my doorsteps, and I am more than ready to get on with it—and the hot sex. If only I hadn’t screwed up the addresses.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
As I berate myself, a dog barks in the distance. I go still, my eyes darting over the countryside as the autumn sun dips below the mountains, the last fingers of bruised light clawing at the road before me. My breath comes a little quicker, the pulse at the base of my throat tapping double time as the full moon rides the dark sky, providing sufficient light to see down the curvy stretch of road in front of me. Except I’m too afraid to look. Who knows what lurks in the darkness beyond the moonlight. I gulp air and try to pull myself together. While I’m not normally afraid to be alone in the dark, I am very familiar with the movie American Werewolf in London. That scared the living hell out of me. Another dog howls, and I pull my suitcase to my chest.
Alrighty, then. I suck in the crisp evening air as I take one step forward but stop when an elderly man emerges from a long, winding driveway, his scenic castle rising up like a phoenix behind him. I smile at the man as he pulls a stack of envelopes from a mailbox, a cute, miniature version of his home in the distance.
“Good evening,” he says, and eyes me like I could very well shift into one of those wolves I hear howling in the distance. Silver brows knit together as he gives me a once-over, like I fit here in England’s countryside about as much as that chocolate factory belongs next door to my health club—the real reason I’ve gained a few pounds. I mean come on, who puts a chocolate warehouse next to a gym?
Smart people, that’s who.
“Good evening,” I respond. I turn the embossed invitation over in my hand, and I’m about to ask him how far it is to the address written in gold letters when his eyes go wide and his cane hits the ground with a thump—in much the same way my heart just hit the pit of my stomach.
“What?” I ask and glance over my shoulder, my nerves jumping like a billy goat amped up on Red Bull. With fear firing through my veins, I take a hurried step toward the man, expecting a wolf to emerge from the gloom behind me.
“You…you’re a woman.”
His strange observation takes me by surprise. It’s not like I’ve ever been mistaken for a man before. “That’s right,” I say, trying not to sound as breathless as I feel as my heart gallops in my chest.
“An American woman,” he adds with a grin, like that pleases him greatly.
I give him a sheepish look. “A lost American woman, I’m afraid.”
A smile reaches slate-gray eyes that match his hair, and there is a warmth about him that instantly puts me at ease. “Not lost at all, my child,” he says as he reaches for me with a gnarled, arthritic hand. It closes over my elbow, and he gives me a grandfatherly squeeze. My heart matches that squeeze, never having known my grandfather, or even my father. It was Mom and me growing up—aside from the “uncles” that came and went—and I can’t say that I was A-Okay with that.
As a child, I always wanted a big family, but now I’m a jaded attorney who’s learned the hard way that letting people in only leads to heartache. Eventually, every man leaves, right? But those thoughts are for when hungry, howling wolves aren’t nipping at my heels.
“You must be the surprise we’ve all been waiting for,” the elderly gentleman says, pulling my thoughts back as he taps his cane again.
Wait, if he’s been expecting me, maybe I am at the right castle.
“Everyone will be so pleased.” His smile is wide, his voice full of joy as I stand there, dumbfounded because I still have no idea who he is or what’s going on.
He gives me a slow nod, like he understands completely. “You must be tired after a long transatlantic flight.” He takes my suitcase from me and says, “This way. Come along. Don’t keep us all waiting. You can say hello, grab a bite, and settle in for the night. Tomorrow we’ll have a sit down and all get to know you better.”
Get to know me better. What the hell is going on?
I must look skeptical because he laughs and says, “My apologies. I’m Charles Winston, George’s grandfather. You can call me Gramps.”
He pauses for a moment, like he’s waiting for a lightbulb to go off. Since I have no idea who he is, I say, “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Winston.”
He scoffs, and the hairs on his chin bristle as he scrubs it. “It appears you know as little about me as I do about you.” A lock of gray hair catches in the breeze as he gives a slow shake of his head. “Nevertheless, come along, child. Come meet everyone. There are a dozen people inside just waiting to see what surprise George had in store for us today.”
I don’t make a move to follow. My mind is racing in a million directions. Had my sponsors set me up with a man named George? Am I really where I’m supposed to be?
Charles turns back to me. “Come along now…ah…”
“Harper,” I say quickly. “It’s Harper.”
He gives me a reassuring smile and adds, “Come on, no need to be nervous. George said he was coming home today with a surprise, and you must be nervous that you’re here on your own, him getting tied up and all, but everyone will be pleasantly shocked at this turn of events.” He chuckles under his breath. “We never thought that boy would ever settle down.”
Settle down? What the ever-loving fuck is going on? Did one of the girls set me up to get married? Cripes, I know they all found love during their adventures, but that’s not what I’m looking for. I’m here for epic sex and nothing more.
My pulse thumps a bit faster as I take a tentative step and then stop to examine the embossed invitation I’m holding. Emblazed across the front is 52 Yorkshire Lane, and the number on the mailbox in front of me is 25. If Piper had set this up, the mix-up in numbers could very well have happened. Even though she’s overcome dyslexia, sometimes she still tends to reverse her numbers. But really, would she mix up something this important? I’m thinking no. Then again, anything is possible, save for me falling in love and finding a big happy family of my own—something I wanted as a child.
I’m so over that.
Deciding to see where this all leads, I let Charles usher me through the gate and down the long driveway. That little bubble of excitement is back as I glance at the majestic castle. My God, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. My entire condo would fit on the porch steps. I have no idea who lives here or what my adventure entails, but I must say I’m super anxious to find out.
We reach the front steps, and he waves at me to climb the three stairs to the wide expanse of landing. As I do, he says, “It’s too bad that George won’t be back for another week.”
“Yes, of course,” I fib. Once again, I can’t help but think George and my sponsor have been in contact—that he is aware of the pact. If he warned his family a surprise was coming today, he must be involved somehow, right? I just hope he’s not the one I’m supposed to have epic sex with. I’m only here for one week, and if the man I’m supposed to meet isn’t even here… Talk about an epic failure. The needy spot between my legs practically cries, a reminder that it’s been neglected too long.
Charles exhales an exaggerated breath. “That’s the way it is with the British Armed Forces. If you two end up married, it’s a life you’ll get used to.”
If one of the girls sent me here in the hope of me marrying, they’re going to hear it from me. I’m definitely not cut out to be a military wife, or any kind of wife at all. I would never set myself up for that kind of failure—not in a million years. I’ve seen enough uncles come and go over the years to realize that eventually all men leave.
“Oh, we’re not planning to get—” I begin, needing to set the record straight. Even if I’m here for George, Gramps needs to know marriage isn’t on the table.
Charles laughs and waves a hand. “Look at me jumping the gun. I guess a grandfather just want his great-grandchildren sooner rather than later.”
“I don’t plan on having children anytime—”
“Later it is, then.”
Or never. But I don’t say that when I see the wistfulness on his face. Dammit, maybe I should get out of here right now. I open my mouth, but the second I do, the front door opens, and I’m swamped by a mob who can only be George’s large—and when I say large, I mean enormous—family.
Do they all live under one roof?
“Looks like this young lady is George’s surprise,” Gramps says.
I stand as still as a stealth soldier while a dozen people fuss about, looking me over and chatting endlessly in British accents that I have a hard time deciphering since they all speak at once. Any second now, one of them will realize I’m not the surprise George was talking about and call me out. Then again, maybe I am.
God, I am so confused.
I’m passed from one person to the other, air evacuating my lungs as each gives me a huge bear hug and a kiss on each cheek. It’s kind of sweet, really.
I mean nauseating.
Charles introduces me and explains he found me at the end of the long driveway.
“Harper, we had no idea George had such a lovely surprise for us today, or that you would still come along even after his delay,” a middle-aged woman with big blue eyes and blond hair says excitedly. She touches my hair and pushes it from my shoulder like she’s trying to get a better look at my features. “So pretty.”
A girl around my age presses her hands to her heart and spins around. “Will you and George be getting married?”
“Bronwyn,” the middle-aged woman exclaims. “Harper just got here. Let her breathe for a moment.”
Bronwyn clasps her hands together. “Well, I think secretly surprising us with his girlfriend is all rather romantic.”
“I’m not his girlfriend,” I say quickly.
The girl takes my hand in hers. “Oh, whatever it is you call it in America, then. I’m Bronwyn, George’s youngest sister, by the way.”
Okay, this is just getting weirder and weirder. George said he had a surprise for them all today. I show up, and there is talk of girlfriends and marriage. I glance around the vast countryside. Am I being punked? I’m not sure, but I need to talk to my friends. As I take in the rolling hills, I pray the mountainous terrain doesn’t interfere with cell phone reception, because I need to find out what’s going on.
“Come in, come in,” the middle-aged woman with the kind eyes and warm smile says.
I stand still and sort through my option. I can either tell them I don’t think I’m George’s surprise—although I’m beginning to believe I am—or go along with it for a little bit and enjoy this welcoming family and countryside and wait for George to return. Only problem is I’m not seeing epic sex in this scenario. As I mull that over, a car door slams. We all turn, and my breath stalls when a tall, drop-dead gorgeous man climbs from a BMW. Could this be George, returning early after all? I hope it is—because, holy hell, he is super hot.
My heart misses a beat as I take in the man smoothing a hand through thick, dark hair. Cripes, how come there are no hot guys like him back home? He lengthens his stride as he makes his way toward us. His gaze locks with mine then slides lower. Goose bumps break out on my body from his visual caress, and in turn I look him over.
Hello, Mr. Gorgeous.
An expensive suit jacket—one that must have been tailor-made to fit his hard body—showcases broad shoulders then narrows to a trim waist. His dress pants accentuate long legs and muscular thighs I can’t help but envision holding me down. Good God! While the others are all dressed in casual clothes, this guy looks like he just came from a business meeting or stepped straight off the pages of GQ. After a leisurely inspection, my eyes travel back to his handsome face. As I take in his clean-shaven jaw, the corners of his mouth twitch, like he knows what’s going through my dirty mind.
The woman I assume is George’s mother takes my hand in hers and squeezes to collect my attention. I turn back to her, and a bubble of warmth cocoons me as she offers me a warm smile and says, “I’m Claire, George’s mom. I can’t believe in all the commotion I forgot to tell you that.” She does a round of introductions, giving me the names of her husband, George’s brothers, sisters, cousins, and grandparents.
She points to the man coming our way. “And that’s Will, another of George’s cousins. His mom, June, is my sister. She married an American and moved to the U.S. ages ago.”
I’m trying to take it all in, but my head is spinning so fast, no way will I be able to remember anyone, except, perhaps, for the hot cousin who has my thighs quivering like a leaf in a windstorm. I once read that description in a book and thought it sounded stupid. I mean come on, do thighs really quiver? Up until this moment, I would have said no.
As everyone gives me another warm welcome, it touches me in places I’ve long ago closed off. With or without George here, I can’t let myself get close to this loving family. My chest tightens, and I take a step back, about to tell them that since George hasn’t made it back, I should probably go, but my words turn into a yelp when my stupid high heel slips off the top step. Luckily for me, Mr. Gorgeous, aka Will, is there to catch me before I tumble to the ground with an undignified thud and follow it up with a round of curses that would put any drunken sailor to shame—because that’s how I roll. I’m pretty sure any man who came from a sweet family like this wouldn’t choose a pessimistic, passive-aggressive, emotionally detached lawyer whose motto is: if it can go wrong, it will.
I turn to face Will, and he has a devious grin on his face. I want to thank him, but when he leans into me, instead of speaking, I put my hand on his hard chest and breathe in his scent. A hot jolt runs through my body, hitting every erogenous zone along the way. I’m not sure what brand of cologne he’s wearing. If I had to guess, I’d say it was called Let’s Do Dirty Things Together.
One whiff of him and my mind is off on an erotic journey. Heat zings through my body at lightning speed, awakening the part of me that has been dormant for too long. That’s right, dormant, shut off, closed for business. That’s what happens when you work fifteen hours a day to prove you are senior partner material. I was so counting on breaking my dry spell on this trip. If I wasn’t a grown-up, I’d stomp my heels and throw a fit of disappointment.
“I missed the round of hugs and kisses,” he whispers, his warm breath sliding across the shell of my ear. Oh God, that shouldn’t feel so nice. I cough to hide the moan rising in my throat, and resist the urge to drop to the ground, spread my legs, and ask him to take me already.
Run away, Harper. Get out of here while there’s still time.
I take in his tanned skin, and his eyes stray down my body. I realize he’s looking at me the same way I’m looking at him. I really should get out of here. I have no real idea what’s going on, or if this family—George—is part of my dossier. But instead I find myself saying, “It’s so nice to finally meet you all.”
Damn, girl, what are you doing?
As soon as I speak, Will gives me a curious look. His ocean-blue eyes narrow in on me, and his head angles sideway like he’s trying to piece together a puzzle. I feel a measure of unease. Does he know whether I’m supposed to be here? If I was sent here to meet George?
“Do I know you?” he asks.
“Oh, Will, cut it out,” Claire says, giving him a whack on the arm.
“We only learned that George’s surprise was a woman when Gramps found her at the end of the driveway,” Bronwyn says. She bats her lashes. “So romantic.”
“So, you’re George’s girl?” He looks about as surprised as I feel.
“I…uh…” Shit, what do I say? The pieces were lining up to prove I was. George and my sponsor must have been in on this adventure together.
“Of course she is,” Bronwyn pipes in.
“Well, he did mention to me a while back that he was online dating,” Will said.
Please tell me one of the girls hadn’t connected with George while pretending to be me!
Shit. Shit. Shit. What a freaking mess. I need to get a hold of my friends and find out what they set up. Or better yet, since George isn’t even here, come tomorrow morning, I could hightail it out of here before anyone wakes up.
“You sound like you’re from New York,” Will says.
I clear my throat. “I’m a New Yorker,” I say. “Born and bred.”
He rocks on his heels, and those steely blue eyes move over my face. “Actually, I thought George had given up online dating months ago.”
“That’s because he found someone, silly,” Bronwyn says.
Was that someone supposedly me?
“What exactly is it that you do, Harper?” I don’t miss the deep curiosity in Will’s voice, the interrogation behind that question.
Claire, George’s mother, gives Will a whack. “There will be plenty of times for questions later, Will.” She smiles at me, so warm and motherly my heart wobbles, missing my own mother who died a few years ago. She steps closer. “Will is an American, too,” she says, but I already figured that out from his accent. “Works as a consultant in New York. Perhaps you two do know each other, after all.”
Will’s lips curl into a teasing smile. “Do we know each other, Harper? New York is a big place, but I’m sure we must have crossed paths.” He looks at me, his eyes challenging, a dare of sorts. He knows something. I’m almost positive. Is he aware of the dossier? Has he come to see for himself what kind of desperate girl would set up such a pact?
“I’m sure if we had met, I would have remembered,” I say and look at my shoes. What the hell am I’m doing? I should go. George isn’t even here.
Then leave already.
I want to, I really do, but George has a big wonderful family, full of love and life—everything I’ve ever wanted but know better than to hope for—and I just want to bask in that for a while. Then there’s Will, the American cousin I can’t seem to keep my eyes off of and would like to get to know better. Between the sheets, of course. I mean, I am here to have epic sex, right? Although, how I plan to do that with the cousin when I was supposed to be here for George is beyond me.
I’m a horrible person. I know it. But I can’t say the words out loud.
And it has nothing to do with the fact that the way he smells makes my body… No. No, I really shouldn’t go there.
Yep. I’m awful.
Well done, Harper. Well done.