Tate Jennings wasn’t looking for love.
For romance? Sure.
For a weekend fling? Yes, please.
But love? Blech. No. No, thank you.
Which sort of sucked because love had a goddamned hard-on for Tate.
For as long as she could remember, men had declared their undying devotion for her in that very specific, very dreaded three-word combination. And for as long as Tate could remember, it had made her blood run cold to hear it.
Take for instance, Donald “Duck” Taylor, who in the fifth grade had surprised her at recess with a bouquet of dandelions and his promise to love her “until dead.” Tate took that as her cue to play possum. She collapsed to the ground and pretended she was dead so Duck’s love would find a quick end.
In ninth grade, she recalled a sad episode starring Theodore “Tugboat” Musser, who’d asked her to the homecoming dance by decorating a heart-shaped poster board with the words “I love you, Tate! Will you be mine?” He’d stood on the cafeteria table beside hers, staring down at her, his eyes wide and eager, his smile uncomfortably hopeful.
Just as she was about to mutter, “No, I won’t,” she inhaled a bite of chicken nugget and started choking on it. Her friend, Dixie Larue, who was studying to be an EMT, had performed the Heimlich maneuver on Tate with a bit too much enthusiasm, breaking one of her ribs in the process. The half-eaten chicken nugget sailed across the table, landing in a wad on Tugboat’s sneaker, and Tate spent the night in the hospital, where the doctor gave her a long list of things she was forbidden to do with a broken rib, including, thank goodness, dancing.
After screwing around with Landon “Bam Bam” Fletcher off and on for most of her junior and senior years at Marathon High School, he’d turned to her one hot, soupy night in the back of his pickup and whispered, “Tate, darlin’, I know you don’t want to hear it, but I can’t hold it inside anymore…I love you.”
She’d blinked at him in anger, sat up on the scratchy woolen blanket where they’d just had sex, and reached for her dress. After she pulled it over her head, she looked into the startled eyes of her now ex-boyfriend.
“Bam Bam, darlin’,” she’d answered, “I know you don’t want to hear it, but…we’re through.” Then she’d slipped on her flip-flops, jumped out of the truck bed, and walked home.
Over the course of the past decade—since Duck, Tugboat, and Bam Bam had rolled the dice and lost—there were countless others who had taken it upon themselves to vomit their affections all over Tate’s unwilling heart: one-night stands who wanted more and seemingly solid friendships that crumbled when the guy fell for her. She didn’t understand why these men couldn’t be content with what she could offer—the “Three Bs”: banging, banter, and bye. But something about her—something that she desperately wished she could identify—made them pursue “more” with her, and it had made her cagey over the years. It had made her angry. It had made her wary. It had made her so damn tired.
But dang it, it hadn’t diminished her need for male attention. Her appetite for physical intimacy was as sharp as ever and woefully unmet.
As a charter boat captain in the Florida Keys, Tate had ample opportunity to meet men because she essentially lived in a man’s world. In addition to the boatswain, deck hands, mechanics, and steward on her own boat, the other charters in the area were mostly skippered and manned by, well, men. And by and large, her clientele was male—mostly rich men, looking for a little bit of adventure surrounded by luxury. Tate was well-known for sniffing out the best spots for big-game fishing, and a charter with her wasn’t complete until her guests had hauled a kingfish, swordfish, or sailfish onto the marlin deck of her 140-foot QRN yacht and yelled, “Wahoo!”
But crapping where she ate wasn’t really Tate’s style, which meant that her guests and coworkers were off-limits. Not to mention, Uncle Pete, her guardian and de facto parent since the death of her mom and dad when she was eight, would skin her alive if she played the whore in their own backyard.
So when she was invited to attend the wedding of her old camp friend, Brittany Manion, in New Hampshire, Tate greeted the invitation with anticipation. Not only would she get to revisit the summer camp of her youth where Britt was getting married, but it was the perfect setting for a much-needed fling…if only Tate could find a willing partner.
“Y’all be good up there, now,” said Uncle Pete, giving her a hug good-bye after parking curbside at the Marathon airport.
Tate squeezed her uncle tight, closing her eyes and inhaling the comforting mix of eau de Pete: bait, fish, and saltwater, rounded out with a hint of mint-flavored chew.
“And you take your meds.”
“Humph,” he muttered close to her ear.
She leaned back, fixing him with a no-nonsense glare. “Uncle Pete, I swear by all that’s holy, you’re gonna put me in an early grave. You gotta take your meds.”
His weathered face, complete with a white, salty-dog beard, crinkled into a smile. “Why you so mean to me, Tate Maureen?”
Maureen had been her mother’s first name, and Tate was pretty sure her uncle used it just to remind himself of the little sister he’d lost almost twenty years ago.
“I ain’t mean to you, y’old coot. I care ’bout you.”
“Aw, you love every hair on my head. Admit it.”
Tate chuckled because this man—this grizzly, unlikely character who’d never wanted kids—had taken her in as a broken eight-year-old and done his best to be her father, her mother, her uncle, and her friend. And he’d mostly succeeded, as much as a forty-year-old bachelor could’ve been expected to. In fact, Pete’s voice was the only one on earth that could utter the word love without sending an unpleasant shiver down Tate’s spine…
“Lord knows I do,” she whispered.
…even though she’d never actually responded in kind.
Four-letter curse words? The kind that offended the ladies who sang in the church choir? Tate had no trouble hearing or saying those. But the other one? The L word? No. It simply wasn’t in her vocabulary, and something instinctual—something innate and involuntary and deeply rooted in her soul—knew that life was much safer if it stayed that way. It was a simple equation: if you didn’t offer or accept love, then it couldn’t be taken away.
“Promise you’ll take the meds, Uncle Pete?” she asked, yanking up the pull handle on her rolling suitcase.
“You bein’ sassy with me, sir?”
“Alright, then,” she said with a curt nod. “And don’t forget to pick me up on Sunday at eight fifteen. I’ll be waitin’ right here.”
“Sunday evenin’, Tate Maureen,” he said with a smile that crinkled his blue eyes. “I’ll see you here.”
He trudged around the truck to the driver’s side, and she watched him drive away until the taillights on his aqua-blue Ford pickup faded from sight.
Finian Kelley was missing home.
When he’d left Dublin six weeks ago to work the off-season at the Summerhaven Event and Conference Center in the States, he’d thought it would be good experience that he could parlay into hospitality work when he got home. And it probably would be, but being away from Ireland for so long was definitely making him homesick.
Unlike his American-born cousins, Rory, Ian and Tierney, who’d grown up visiting Ireland every other summer, Fin had never traveled beyond the borders of his small emerald island before now. And while he appreciated the easy camaraderie he found with his cousins, he missed his mam, dad, two sisters, and brother. He missed pints pulled from a century-old Guinness tap and the hundred different kinds of rain. He missed a Sunday dinner at mam’s and laughing at the muckshites on You’re a Star. He missed the sad, lovely music coming from the door of every pub on a weekend afternoon and even the sharp-tongued mollies who wouldn’t give a proper Guillermo the time of day.
Speaking of women, his last girlfriend, Cynthia, had turned out to be a bleeding weapon with her high ideas about love and forever. Fin had liked her well enough to start—she was small boned with big tits, which was his personal preference—but after a month or two together, she wanted to know where he was all the time: Who’re ya seein’ tonight, now? Ya knock the hole off some loosebit later, and I’ll hear about it, Fin. And since one of the lads he went ’round with was her cousin, she’d had his balls in a fucking vise. And what man in his midtwenties wanted that?
Coming to America to work with his cousins on a six-month visa seemed a godsend. He had a good reason to dump clingy Cynthia, and from everything he’d ever heard, American girls were spare arse everywhere. And maybe they were…but not in small New Hampshire towns in November. He’d barely seen a single girl his age since arriving, let alone touched one.
Add to this, he’d recently checked out Cynthia’s Facebook page and learned that she was already seeing someone new: Jamie fecking Gallagher, who had a face like a painter’s radio and worked at his mam’s grocer in a pressed white shirt like every day was Sunday.
Jaysus, he’d thought, staring at the screen in disbelief, I’ve been replaced by a bloody knobjockey-looking neddy.
Seeing Cynthia and Jamie’s faces side by side, mugging for the camera, had only made Finian, who hadn’t gotten off in weeks, that much more homesick. Which was crazy, because he didn’t love her. He’d dumped her. He didn’t want to be tied down, right?
Except being “tied down,” in every possible sense of the expression, suddenly sounded fecking cla. Because that’s what sexual frustration will do, Finian was learning: make a man consider every possible option…just for the chance to throw it in.
And so there was Fin, considering every fecking option and damned grateful that his cousin Rory getting married meant that wedding guests would be coming to stay at Summerhaven for a few days. And maybe—please, God, maybe—among those guests there’d be a free and single lass who was horned up by the romance of the weekend…and would let him scratch her itch while she scratched his.
“Fin,” said Rory, leaning over his beautiful bride-to-be, Brittany. “Think you could play something?”
So far, the rehearsal dinner had been a snooze.
Fin was flanked by his cousin’s hot, but very taken, fiancée on one side and his stern Aunt Colleen on the other. His eyes had scanned the room for a girl who’d be game for a fling, but so far, he’d come up empty, more’s the pity.
At least playing a song or two would liven the place up a bit.
“Ah, sure,” said Fin, gesturing to the barn entrance with a flick of his chin. “M’guitar’s over there.”
“Get it,” said Rory. “I’ll make an announcement.”
Standing up from his seat, Fin cringed, then froze, as his empty chair crashed to the floor. Beside him, his aunt gasped, her flinty green eyes darting up to capture his.
“Bad luck,” she whispered, making the sign of the cross over her chest.
“Ah, come on,” he said, ignoring the shiver down his spine as he leaned over to right the chair. “That’s just superstition, Aunt Colleen.”
“Mí áde,” she repeated, this time in Irish.
“Éirigh as.” Stop it.
He gave his aunt an annoyed look as he pushed in the chair, but in his heart, Fin knew the truth. Bad luck was coming, whether he liked it or not.
He crossed the room—a barn decorated with white flowers and twinkle lights—to where he’d left his guitar case at the entrance.
“Friends,” said Rory, after clanking on his wineglass with a spoon, “you all know that we Havens take our Irish ancestry pretty seriously. As luck would have it, my cousin Finian, who’s visiting from Ireland, is staying with us, and he’s brought his guitar…”
As Rory droned on about Ireland and Irish music, Fin unbuckled his guitar case and took out his Irish bouzouki.
Imported to Ireland in the 1950s from Greece, the bouzouki had become a staple of Irish pub music over the past sixty-something years. Fin was more than proficient at it, able to play almost any traditional Irish song on his own or pick up a new song after listening for a few minutes.
And as good luck would have it, his guitar bore a shamrock on the back, engraved and stained into the wood. He flipped the instrument over, rubbing the green clover with his fingers. Not quite as good as a rabbit’s foot or saint’s medal, but the shamrock should still do the trick.
There, he thought. Bad luck reversed.
He stood up, looking out over the candlelit room, holding the neck of the guitar, and easing the strap over his head…
And that’s when he saw her.
Her platinum-blonde head gleamed in the soft, warm light, catching his eyes and holding them as he tightened his grip on the guitar, physically unable to look away. With his feet planted firmly on the ground, he slid his gaze—slowly, so slowly—from the crown of her head to her eyes.
His knees buckled, but he somehow straightened them just before he fell. He felt the jolt in the base of his spine, in the hinge of his jaw, in the tips of his toes. He’d never seen her before, and yet, it was like he knew her. Cobalt like the August sky, her eyes sparkled as she stared back him, so brilliant blue in the candlelight, he was hypnotized.
Time stopped, and sound boiled down to a low buzzing in his ears as he stared at her.
Her face was mostly expressionless, her wide blue eyes unblinking as she held his, her shoulders frozen rigid. He knew that Rory was still speaking. He could feel the strings of the bouzouki digging into the pads of his fingertips. But he couldn’t move. He didn’t know if he’d ever be able to move again.
And then she smiled.
And suddenly his ears tuned into real life again, and his fingers eased off the neck of his guitar. He blinked, taking a deep breath to fill his empty lungs and wondering what had just happened. It was almost as though a spell had been cast, and her smile had released him from—or into—the enchantment.
She’s a witch. A sorceress.
“Fin? Finian?” He blinked again, looking right, then left, and then focusing on Rory, who was staring back at him expectantly. “Cuz? You, uh, you ready to play?”
“Yeah! Yeah, of course. Comin’,” he said, weaving his way through tables, careful not to look back over at the cailleach, lest she steal his breath—and his senses—again.