“Sharp left, wide right,” I mutter, knuckles white as they grip the steering wheel, repeating the only driving instructions the lady at the rental counter gave me when I arrived in Dublin.
Muscles tense, fingers tingling with nerves, I swallow past the enormous lump in my throat and try to remember to stay to the left without hitting the stone wall and bushes that were built perilously close to the side of the road.
I’ve been driving for two hours on what my phone’s GPS claims to be a highway. Highway, my ass. There’s barely enough room to fit two cars going each way.
I cringe when my phone tells me to take another roundabout in two point two kilometers.
As if driving on the wrong side of the road isn’t difficult enough, they had to make up their own measurement system, and have you drive in death-trap circles every hundred feet.
I shouldn’t be here. Not alone. This was supposed to be Maeve’s trip. Not mine.
She’d been planning every detail since she was sixteen. She’d just never been healthy enough to ever take it.
Now, she never will.
A wave of grief washes over me, and I have to blink back the tears before they threaten to blur my vision.
It’s one thing to lose your best friend, it’s a whole other level of grief when she’s also your sister.
I turn the radio on, needing the distraction, but it seems like every damn channel is playing the same song.
“I see her face. Blurred by time. Arms outstretched, but never mine.” The voice is pure Irish brogue, deep and sexy, but the words are gut-wrenching, playing with my already fragile emotions. “Let the Irish rains wash away yer tears. Let me kiss away yer pain…”
A small, almost hysterical laugh rumbles in my throat. If only it were that easy.
“Come to me, my love. I’m waiting on the shore. It’s safe in yer harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”
What a joke.
There’s nothing safe, nothing absolute in this world. Not the job I worked my ass off to get, or the sweet, well-spoken guy I allowed into my heart, and especially not the doctor’s prognosis that my sister would get better.
I lost them all.
One heartbreak after another.
So, I packed my bags, bought the first ticket out of O’Hare International, gave my cheating fiancé his ring back, and decided to finally do the one thing my sister made me promise – cross off every adventure on her bucket list.
I pull out the folded note from my pocket, and clutch it to my chest.
“If something happens…” She’d placed it in my hand before her surgery. That list had gone everywhere with her. All of her dreams scribbled down on a damn piece of lined paper. “If I can’t…”
“You’re going to be fine.”
I’d made the promise. Not because I’d thought she wouldn’t make it, but because I believed with all my heart she would.
Live your life for both of us, Delaney.
I can’t hold back the tears that spill over my cheeks. Anger mixing with anguish.
“Damn you, Maeve. And damn your list. And damn you for leaving me alone.”
The tenor continues to belt out his depressing words. “Whiskey is the cure for a broken heart.”
There’s no cure for a broken heart. Only ways of numbing the sorrow.
I can still see her face, hear her words like they were spoken yesterday, “Sometimes I think you feel guilty that it’s me who’s sick and not you.”
Of course I did. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease, one that at the moment of my conception I had a twenty-five percent chance of getting. It wasn’t fair that it skipped me, while slowly killing her.
“Don’t let my illness stop you from living, Delaney. Find your happiness.” She’d given me the look, the one that always made me feel like she felt sorry for me. Like I was the one who had to go through daily treatments and weekly hospital visits.
Those were her last words to me.
And so, I’m here.
Or at least trying to.
One month – no rules, no regrets. Just the damn list to guide me. That was the promise I made to her. It’s just taken me six months to get the nerve to do it.
Well, six months and a kick in the ass from life. Four years of university hadn’t prepared me for how difficult the job market would be. But I’d managed to work my way up from office coffee girl to senior assistant in two years. Until last week, when I was let go due to budget cuts.
The icing on the cake was finding my fiancé Matt in my apartment with another woman. He’d acted like it was somehow my fault for coming home early.
I rub the back of my neck, the lack of sleep catching up on me. I figure out the time change in my head. It’s almost six here, which means it’s close to noon at home. I’ve been awake for over thirty hours, and I’m exhausted.
I couldn’t sleep on the plane.
If my nerves weren’t enough, I ended up sandwiched between a fussy toddler, and a man who smelled like feta cheese and body odor. The combination was enough to have my stomach rolling the entire trip.
I should have gotten a hotel in Dublin and slept off my jet lag before attempting to drive across the country, but I’m on a limited budget, and Maeve’s list is long.
Thirty things in thirty days. It seems impossible.
My first stop is Knocknarea. I have no idea where it is, other than the west coast, but I plugged the directions into my phone, and I’m praying I get there soon, because I still haven’t figured out where I’m going to stay. I’ll have to sleep in my car most nights, but tonight I’d really like a hotel.
I yawn and rub my eyes, wondering if I should just pull over and sleep for a couple of hours. I don’t have the chance to decide, because a red blur comes barreling around the corner straight towards me.
The driver doesn’t slow down, just keeps coming at me, taking up more than half the road.
I panic and crank the steering wheel to the left. But I misjudge how much room I have, and the car skids with a sickening scraping sound across the old stone fence.
Oh. My. God.
I want to squeeze my eyes shut and wait for the impact of the car.
Every muscle in my body tenses.
Instead of crashing into me, the convertible lets out a blaring honk as it passes with more room between us than I’d originally judged.
That’s when I hear it – bang. Like a gun going off around me. I feel it in the center of my chest, an explosion at the front of the car. Then the wheel is ripped from my hands as it takes on a life of its own.
I slam on the brakes, but in my hysteria, I hit the accelerator.
The car skips across the right lane, crashing through stone and brush, rattling every bone in my body as it bounces down the side of a hill through a field of sheep. I pump the break and pray that they get out of the way in time.
The car finally comes to a stop with one last jarring lurch.
This. Is. Not. Happening.
I bang my forehead on the steering wheel and scream at the top of my lungs until my throat is raw from the force of it. All the pent-up emotions I’ve been suppressing for the past six months rip through me in a tidal wave of grief.
To make matters worse, what was a blue sky only moments before has turned a threatening shade of gray. One fat raindrop hits the windshield, followed by another, until the clouds open up and the rain is so heavy I can’t see two feet in front of me.
I scream again. Louder this time. Shouting every swear word in my vocabulary, including a few that I’m pretty sure I just made up.
“Ye all right in there?”
My stomach lurches to my throat at the deep voice outside, and the rapping of knuckles against the passenger side window.
I let out a small squeal when the door opens, and the large, very wet form practically dives into the car, slamming the door behind him.
He’s dripping wet, his white V-neck t-shirt plastered across his chest and abs. Large fingers drag through dark hair that’s long at the top and shaved shorter at the sides. One glance and I know the guy is trouble. Sexy, tempting, Irish trouble. The kind of guy Maeve would have fallen for.
Wild and rough.
My breath catches when his gaze lands on me. Blue eyes hold mine, and a small frown plays at the corner of his full lips.
I try to pull in even breaths, but my pulse speeds up, and heat races across every inch of my skin.
“Are ye hurt? I heard ye screaming.” He reaches out and brushes his fingers across my forehead, causing a warm buzz to travel across my skin, straight to my core. “Did ye hit yer head?”
I must have, because that’s the only reason I can think of for the reaction I’m having to him.
He drops his hand, the muscles of his jaw clenching as he studies me.
“Yer lucky ye didn’t hit any of Davie’s sheep. The wall he might forgive ye for, but his sheep are another matter.” The musical lilt of the man’s Irish brogue makes something in my stomach flutter.
Focus, Delaney. I’m starting to think I may have a concussion or brain damage, because I can’t string a coherent thought together. Not with the way his gaze roams down my body then back to my face, eyes hungry, like I’m about to be his next meal.
Yeah, the guy is trouble all right.
“Did ye lose yer tongue?”
“So ye can speak.” He lifts a dark eyebrow, and the corner of his mouth twitches up.
Arrogance radiates off him. He knows he’s hot, and I’m pretty sure he knows the effect he’s having on me.
I clear my throat and pull my gaze away from his face, but not before I notice the hint of a dimple in his left cheek. It’s almost hidden by his scruff, but it’s there.
“Ye all right?” he asks again. His voice is dark, deep, and it vibrates in the pit of my stomach. God, that accent should be illegal.
“Yes.” I shake my head, looking around desperately for my phone. “I just need to call a tow truck…and the rental center before it closes…or the insurance company.”
I don’t even know who I’m supposed to call. I’ve never been in a car accident before, let alone while in a foreign country. I unclip my seatbelt and turn to search under the backseat, but the minute my foot leaves the brake, the car starts to roll.
The car jerks to a stop when he pulls the emergency break up. And the way I’m positioned, the movement causes me to fall backwards, landing straight in his lap.
He grunts with the impact.
My breath catches in my throat as his palm runs up my back, steadying me. His other hand rests on my leg, and his mouth is inches from mine, the warmth of his breath tickling my cheek.
The coolness of his wet t-shirt is the only relief from the heat that scorches my skin at the contact.
“Sorry.” I squirm, trying to move away, but I’m in an impossible position.
My palms rest on his chest, and I swear I can feel his heart hammering with the same wild tempo as my own. I glance up, meeting the cool blue of his eyes.
A shock and pleasure races through my system as I fight to make sense of the impulses that battle against common sense.
For a moment, I swear the world stops moving. I’ve never been one to believe in instant connections, but something sparks between us. Then it’s gone so quickly, his eyes clouding over with apathy, that I’m left thinking I must’ve imagined it.
He releases me, and I scoot back to the driver’s seat.
Awkward silence stretches between us.
“I can’t find my phone,” I mutter, chewing on my bottom lip.
“Yer American?” He reaches between his legs and picks up the phone, handing it to me. His tone is harder now.
He grunts. “No wonder ye were driving in the middle of the road.”
“I wasn’t driving in the–” Shit. I realize who he must be. “Wait, you’re the jerk that ran me off the road.”
“I didn’t run ye off the road, sweetheart.” His eyes narrow. “Ye had plenty of room.”
“You were driving like a maniac. I don’t know what the speed limit is here, but I’m pretty sure you were well over it.”
He opens his mouth to respond, then shuts it. His fingers rake through his hair, and he glances out the window. Cold and aloof.
I shake my head, ignoring his sudden sullenness, and try to turn my phone on, but the screen stays black.
“Damn it.” Tilting my head against the seat, I close my eyes and scream through gritted teeth, “Can this day get any worse?”
There’s a deep huff beside me. “Come on. The rain is stopping. I’ll give ye a lift to wherever yer staying. Do ye have family here?”
A small pathetic laugh bubbles in my throat. “No.”
“No? Then what are ye doing here?” The way he says it sounds like an accusation. Like an American in Ireland is some rare occurrence.
“I…” Shaking my head, I decide not to give him any more information than necessary. Because in all honesty, right now, I’m starting to wonder why the hell I came here in the first place. “I’m just…visiting.”
“Where are ye staying?”
The words come out in a rush of frustration. “I don’t know.”
“Then where’d ye plan on sleeping tonight?”
“Here.” I throw up my hands.
“In yer car?” I can hear the judgment in his tone.
Emotions tighten my throat, and I meet his hard gaze with my own, all of my frustration directed at him. “If you hadn’t come flying around the corner at me, I wouldn’t be in this mess.”
He ignores my accusation. “Let me get this straight. Ye came to Ireland, alone, and yer planning on living in yer car?”
“Yes.” I cross my arms over my chest and tilt my chin up.
His eyes widen just slightly, and I can’t tell if he’s impressed or horrified.
“Ye running from someone?” Another accusation. I see his right eye twitch.
“No.” Am I? In a way, I guess I am. Running from myself. From my parents. From my ex. Even from the memory of Maeve. I shake my head. “It’s complicated.”
He mumbles something incoherent under his breath, but I make out enough of it to know he thinks I’ve got a few screws loose in my head. And right now, I’m wondering if he isn’t right. Because instead of sitting here arguing with him, I should be figuring out a way to get out of this mess.
“If I can borrow your phone, I’ll call a tow truck. I’ll have the driver take me to the nearest car rental center.”
“Ye won’t be finding a rental place round here. Even if there were, it’d be closing by now.”
A small noise that sounds like a mix between a laugh and a sob escapes my lips.
What am I going to do?
Tears blur my vision, but I blink them away. Losing my cool isn’t going to help. And I’m not going to let this guy see me cry, no matter how easy it would be right now.
The man lets out an irritated breath, and roughs his palms over his face and scruff.
“Come on.” He opens his door.
He grunts. “Ye can come back to my place.”
My mouth drops open.
Alone with him?
Not a good idea, my brain warns.
But what are my other options?
This trip is about trying new things. The old Delaney would never get in a car with a stranger, let alone go home with one. But desperate times call for desperate measures.
When I don’t move, he adds, “Unless ye’d like to sleep here with the sheep.”
Something tells me that would be a lot less dangerous.
But not half as exciting.