Bronte eyed the design that topped her latte with what she knew was an irrational amount of animosity. It was artistic and harmless and it might as well have been a bug. A white, frothy, clover-shaped bug.
Maybe she was overtired. After driving eight hours with barely four hours of sleep, she was running on fumes, sugar and raw nerves. Her body needed protein and a power nap more than caffeine, but the idea of eating made her queasy and sleep was not in her immediate future.
She’d walked over to the coffee shop as soon as she’d tossed her suitcase in her room, desperate to stretch her legs and grab another jolt of java. The quirky waterfront café would be the perfect place to drink a hazelnut latte and get her bearings.
That had been the plan, anyway.
Shivering, she was seconds away from giving in and reaching for the steaming cup perched precariously on the outdoor patio table when her phone began blasting out Rihanna’s S&M.
Bronte tried to answer before the singer got to chains and whips, but in her haste she nearly dropped the phone and almost knocked over her latte instead.
Na na na come on.
“There’s a foam shamrock in my coffee.” As a greeting, it left something to be desired, but she knew her caller would understand.
“Those bastards.” The uninhibited laughter of Tasha Finn rang in her ear. “Wait, let me try that again, I wasn’t feeling it. Who exactly are we mad at for that?”
“The Daily Grind. And we weren’t really upset until they kindly suggested I drink my latte outside like a leper after accidentally making the little redhead serving me cry.”
“You got kicked out? Oh that’s awful.”
Bronte scowled grumpily. “Stop laughing. I’m now exiled from what—based on the crowd size—is the Mecca of specialty coffee drinkers in this town because of a stupid shamrock. I haven’t even been here an hour.”
She hadn’t lost her temper. Not really. Apparently the grim look on her face when she’d politely asked why Pumpkin Spice had felt the need to get artistic with her order had been enough to have her banished to the patio section.
Maybe you shouldn’t have called her Pumpkin Spice?
Okay, she might deserve the exile.
A light gust of wind made her shiver again, and she wrapped her fingers around the hot cup and took a defiant sip.
It was delicious.
She should have left a bigger tip but…
“Shamrocks,” she muttered, knowing she sounded insane.
This was all his fault.
William Pain-In-Her-Ass Finn.
“It’s March, Bronte,” Tasha said unsympathetically. “Even down there in Baltimore, so I’m sure she didn’t do it to piss you off. Neither did I, but at this moment The Twisted Tart is being decorated like your worst St. Patrick’s Day nightmare. Though I did make sure our sugar cookies were shaped like braided snakes instead of shamrocks this year. Very phallic, a little obscure for the masses, and—now don’t die of shock or anything—it’s already causing quite a scandal.”
Bronte wasn’t shocked. The bakery owner would set tongues wagging even if she weren’t married to state senator and all around golden boy, Stephen Finn. But since she was, everything she did seemed up for debate.
The Finns were well known for being big, sexy pillars of the community—first responders, cops, senators, and of course, owners of Finn’s Pub, an institution in their mini-metropolis.
With Tasha’s kinky, colorful past and equally colorful ancestry—half Puerto Rican, half Irish, all beautiful—it was no surprise she’d been the hot topic once she’d joined the family. She and Stephen were a beautiful couple, but they’d been well on their way to becoming old news until their adorable twin toddlers, Huck and Ned, were spotted around town. Much to their father’s chagrin, those two were precocious and photogenic enough to have their own amateur paparazzi.
“Phallic cookies? For shame,” Bronte chided, taking another sip of the scalding, sweet elixir she should feel too guilty to drink. “What kind of example are you setting for our very own George and Charlotte?”
“You read that article? You should have seen Stephen’s face when he saw the comparison,” Tasha said with a groan. “Did they call my son Charlotte? I was upset for an entirely different reason, of course. First of all, I had no idea Stephen had been approached to run for Governor, so he’s in the doghouse. But more importantly, if we’re being compared to the British monarchy, I’m not Kate Middleton. I know my mother-in-law loves her, but she’s too perfect. She has that Mary Poppins level of perfection that no one could ever live up to. We all know I’m much more Meghan.”
Bronte smirked. “You wish. Along with every female member of my nursing staff under fifty. The royal wedding is all they’ve been able to talk about for months.”
“Well who wouldn’t want that fairytale? A handsome, reformed bad boy from the British Isles and his American black beauty? Wait, why does that sound familiar? I wonder who they could possibly remind me of...” Tasha let her voice trail off teasingly.
“Don’t start. My situation is entirely different and you know it.”
“Whatever you say, princess.”
Out of all the new characters to come into her life with her brother Hugo’s marriage, Bronte liked Tasha the best. And not only because she’d helped her accomplish her last minute, top secret excursion without a moment’s hesitation.
Natasha Finn was bold and confident, fearless and unapologetically sexual. As far as Bronte could tell, she hadn’t changed or folded under the scrutiny that came from being a politician’s wife. She’d thrived. She was the sort of woman who could be equally as comfortable in a group of men or women, at a charity function or a kinky nightclub, if the stories were true. There was nothing remotely average about her. Nothing boring.
She was everything Bronte had never dared to be.
Tasha would be the kind of woman to drive off to parts unknown to deliver a second-hand warning to her accidental husband. The one she’d married so he could stay in the country, flying to Niagara Falls on a drunken whim to say I do. The one who was seventeen years her junior.
Tasha didn’t do that. You did.
“Why am I here again?”
“Well you’re definitely not escaping the Irish, if that was your plan. Not if you’re going to meet William at his job. Pat’s Pub is like Finn’s on steroids, according to this Instagram account I’m looking at. And their restaurant, Sunday’s Side? It has a menu that’s making my mouth water. Mark my words; in a few years my brother-in-law is going to regret starting a microbrewery instead of expanding the kitchens at the pub. Food is always trendy.”
“So sayeth the baker,” Bronte quipped. “But he won’t regret a thing as long as he keeps my brother on as his partner. You know Thoreau is a mad genius with big plans for that label. By the time he’s my age, he’ll own the neighborhood and at least one restaurant. Mark my words.”
She wasn’t exaggerating. Just like her sisters, Thoreau had enough creativity and ambition to leave the older Wayne siblings in the dust. Austen had created her own skincare line, Shelley developed apps, and Thoreau was a brewer on his way to a business degree and certain success.
Bronte had always admired their drive but she didn’t envy it. She may look the most like their mother, but her personality was all Foster Wayne. Her father had become a professor simply because he loved to read. Loved it so much he’d named all seven of his children after famous authors. She had a feeling his enthusiasm for the written word was the reason his classes were always packed. But as much as he enjoyed reading about other people’s adventures, he was perfectly content to avoid having any of his own.
“This family is all the excitement I need.”
Bronte, too, would rather observe her siblings from the sidelines, advising and cheering them on as needed. She wasn’t big on taking risks.
If that were true, you’d still be home right now.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to tell Tanaka why you’re visiting William?” Tasha asked hesitantly into the silence. “Ken’s a genius hacker with some serious skills and even better connections, Bronte. I can’t count the number of times he’s saved our asses from unsavory situations. You can trust him.”
Bronte chewed on the lip of her cup, considering. The beefy, tatted thug who’d been waiting for her in the parking lot after work last night had been pretty specific about what she needed to do. For such a big guy, he’d seemed more anxious than threatening, but his appearance made her nervous enough that she’d taken an extra hour to get home, nearly getting lost in an effort to ensure she wasn’t followed.
“The guy said no Finns. I decided to consider you a loophole, since you married in and I needed your help, but I think that’s all I can get away with. If I can’t tell my police chief brother-in-law, I’m not going to tell Mr. Tanaka.”
“He’s more of a loophole than I am, since for some reason that still eludes everyone, he and Brady haven’t set a wedding date yet.”
“Even so, I don’t need a hacker or a bodyguard to talk to William.” Not that seeing him again didn’t have its own element of danger. “With me passing on the message and Younger sending a parade of patrol cars by my parents’ house while I’m away—because you know how he is—I think we’ve got all our bases covered for the moment.”
Solomon “Younger” Finn was a good man. Protective and kind, and worthy of her best friend and favorite brother. It was one of the reasons he’d been the first person she’d gone to after waking up with a hangover and a surprise husband.
And now you’re keeping secrets from him too.
“I’m already here. We can let William decide what happens next.”
“I’ll agree for now,” Tasha responded carefully. “But you’ll need to keep me on speed dial and check in or I’ll worry. And I worry out loud, usually in front of witnesses. You and William are family and I take this family’s safety seriously.”
“William and I aren’t… I’m not. Not really.”
She was laughing again. “Oh princess, there’s no escaping it. Even if you weren’t secretly hitched to our latest bad boy, Thoreau and Hugo have been honorary members for a while now. In fact, the Wayne-Finn merger is working out so well, I’m tempted to do a little matchmaking with Shelley and Matthew while you’re gone.”
Her youngest sister and William’s brother? “Natasha Rivera Finn, get that thought right out of your head. Use bleach if necessary.”
“See? I knew we’d be a perfect team. We’re already arguing like sisters.”
“I have sisters.” Bronte fought a smile, knowing Tasha would hear it in her voice. “And that’s not necessarily a good thing. Besides, we’re distant cousins-in-law, if anything.”
“Sister-cousins. I can work with that.”
“Of course you can.” Bronte tossed her cup in the trash and started walking. She should go back to the inn to shower and change, but her sleep-deprived steps were guiding her toward the big building that held her sort-of spouse instead.
Pat’s Irish Pub. Seamus Finn could fit two of his bars in that place. “Thanks for giving me the address, Tasha. I know keeping this between us wasn’t your first choice.”
“I never agreed with the idea the guys cooked up at the station. Tempers were too high and I know for a fact that Younger regrets sending William away, even temporarily. That’s not how we deal with problems in this family.”
“No, I heard the Finns are more about group meetings and interventions. Kumbaya, and all that jazz,” Bronte teased.
“Funny. True, but funny. Knowing your brothers, I don’t imagine the Waynes are all that different.”
She could have shut that argument down forever by telling her about the Wayne Way. That in her family they were more likely to vote on punishments than hug things out, like any other democracy or cutthroat reality show. But she held her tongue instead, wrapping things up with a quick goodbye and a promise to check in. The last thing she wanted to do was remind Tasha that William’s absence, the one that seemed to upset her so much, had more to do with Bronte than anything else.
The decision had come about fast enough to give her whiplash, but she’d been more than willing to have her drunken episode magically swept under the rug by the family Finn. It galled her to her feminist bones to admit how willing.
Agreeing not to pursue an annulment right away had also been selfish, allowing her to hide the truth from her parents and coworkers for a while longer. To pretend that she hadn’t had a mid-life, celibacy-induced meltdown spurred on by William’s arrival into her safe, routine-oriented bubble.
From the moment she’d caught him flirting with one of the ER nurses, he’d gotten under her skin. She’d never seen eyes that light blue. That hungry.
The instincts she’d always relied on had been screaming out a warning, but for the first time in her adult life she wanted to ignore them, push young Monica out of the way and claim the beautiful bad boy herself.
Then, of course, he’d proceeded to “borrow” his cousin’s car, leaving the injured man stranded and confirming that he was, in fact, an ass.
Every time she’d seen him after that, whether he was covered in bruises or propositioning her without his pants, he’d proven those initial instincts right. And every time he left she couldn’t get him out of her head.
It had to be his accent, his pheromones, or maybe those hypnotic eyes of his that always caused her to act so out of character. She was reaching, but other than that, Bronte couldn’t explain her reaction. She could deny it to the moon and back, but she couldn’t forget what she’d gotten herself into that night. Or that, margarita madness or not, she’d done it willingly.
William wouldn’t let her.
He’d been harassing her for months, which could explain her unusually hostile reaction to shamrocks—the punk ass leprechaun. Was it any wonder she was cracking under the strain?
Eight hours away and he’d still managed to give her daily reminders of his existence. Fresh-out-of-the-shower selfies. Nightly texts of the suggestive or philosophical variety, depending on his mood. All laced with entreaties for her to respond in kind.
And then there were the gifts. Several times a week another present would arrive at her door, each one so ridiculous she couldn’t decide whether he was having fun at her expense or trying to be romantic.
She would have guessed the former, except they were all so incredibly…thoughtful.
He’d added to her dinosaur collection with a stuffed T-Rex wearing a glittery green top hat. He’d sent her a flowerpot full of gold-wrapped chocolate—her favorite kind—and enough emerald green yarn for her to crochet him a William-sized blanket.
How had he found out enough about her to get her such personalized presents? More importantly, why was he bothering? They both knew the marriage was an in-name-only stopgap measure. No one had addressed the issue recently, but Bronte had to assume it was taking longer for Mr. Tanaka to sort out William’s citizenship issue because of his sketchy background. He hadn’t exactly been a boy scout.
When his cousins met him in Ireland, he’d been participating in and betting on the kind of fights that only happened in smoky bars and abandoned buildings. The kind with bare knuckles and very few rules.
A man like that might not appreciate being told what to do. Was that why he’d been trying to win her over? Was he crossing a line just to prove he could? Because he’d been told by his cousins to leave her alone?
No. That didn’t ring true.
His texts, the gifts, all of his appeals to her were too genuine. If she were only a challenge or a poke in the eye of authority, the gains he’d made wouldn’t have been worth his effort, since ninety percent of the time she’d done her best to ignore him.
But not always. Some nights she’d been weak and he’d sounded so lonely she couldn’t help but relate. Respond.
During those occasional slip-ups they had an unspoken agreement not to talk about the status of their relationship. Instead, they’d talk about nothing for hours at a time. Usually until one or both of them fell asleep still clutching their phones like a lifeline.
In the morning, the cycle would begin anew, with her ignoring and him persisting until he wore her down again.
She’d started looking forward to their silly conversations and his playful pictures. Craving more. But until today, she’d never been the one to initiate any kind of contact. She hadn’t even texted him that she was coming.
If you had, you could have saved Tasha the trouble.
She’d told herself she couldn’t take the chance that he’d get a member of his family or hers to stop her from showing up. He’d never asked her to visit. Not really. But she needed to be face to face for this conversation.
Stop lying and admit it. You want to see him because he’s getting to you. You miss him.
Maybe a little.
Thank God the rest of her family accepted the “spa trip with her friend Erica” excuse without too many questions. She’d made sure Austen knew who she was going with, which guaranteed she wouldn’t try to join her to see if they’d be interested in her skincare line. The pediatric nurse, her dramatic mood swings and her well-documented husband trouble was enough to put anybody off.
Bronte had been counting on that. And the distraction caused by the Irish invasion as the Finn and Wayne families merged.
They were both large and close-knit, so it made sense that they would start to blend after Hugo and Younger got hitched. Even more so once the matriarchs bonded in protest over the small civil ceremony that happened too quickly for them to plan a proper reception.
Ellen Finn and Cassandra Wayne wouldn’t be getting over that anytime soon.
Bronte didn’t blame Hugo. He’d been waiting longer than most of them knew for the man he loved. He wanted to lock that shit down, get married and start their lives together ASAP.
No one knew that Bronte had actually been the first in her family to skip out on invitations and orange blossoms for a Finn. They’d never even met William, and Bronte would never be impulsive enough to elope with a man who was practically a stranger. Her mother, who was famous for having extra sensory snoop-abilities when it came to her children, would have sensed it, right? But she hadn’t, which was both thrilling and a tiny bit depressing.
Of course no one suspected her. Bronte was, hands down, the most dependably average of them all. The registered nurse who, at forty-one, had never done anything unexpected, impulsive or remotely illegal. The good sister who took up the art of crochet instead of skydiving or krav maga, and always lived a raised voice or a stone’s throw away from at least two members of her family. She’d gone from her parent’s house to the Wayneplex with her siblings…then back to her parent’s.
She’d never even moved out of the neighborhood she’d grown up in. There was no reason to believe someone like that would keep something so important or salacious a secret.
But she had. For months.
And yes, it wasn’t technically a secret, since most of the Finns, her brother, Hugo, and half the police force knew about it thanks to her initial overreaction. But she’d never kept anything from her sisters before. From her mother. The fact that she had, as far as she was concerned, made her Mata Hari.
Yesterday it stopped feeling like a harmless rebellion. She’d made a late night call to Tasha, used the vacation days she’d been hoarding and rented a car. She’d even called Erica and talked her into backing up her story. That woman owed her.
She felt like she was in high school again, sneaking off to a concert without her parents’ permission. Something she’d only done once and felt so guilty about she’d confessed the next morning, practically grounding herself.
Now she was coming to give her inconvenient secret husband a piece of her mind for getting her caught up in the seedy underbelly of…whatever it was he’d been up to. Warning him that he needed to watch out for his fine ass would be a necessary byproduct of that plan, but needs must.
She couldn’t let their late night conversations or his cute stuffed animal deliveries weaken her resolve or make her forget what was between them was only temporary.
William wasn’t hers, not really. He was trouble.
The exact kind of trouble that was currently standing on the sidewalk in front of her, squaring off with another man while a skinny blonde clung to him like a slutty barnacle.
“Feck off now,” William growled, anger thickening his accent. “Walk away or I’ll give you the fight you’ve been asking for. Same goes if you step foot on this property again.”
“This is Collins’ property, not yours,” The man slurred belligerently, obviously drunk in the middle of the day. “You can’t tell me shit. No ignorant busboy is gonna tell me how to treat what’s mine.”
The older man reached for the blonde but William sent him spinning to face the brick of the nearest wall, his arm twisted behind his back. “The lady asked for help and my boss, who does own this place and everything in it, told me to take out the trash. That gives me all the rights I need.”
“Let me go, damn it. You’re breaking my arm.”
William released him with a grimace of disgust, his temper on a tight leash. “I barely touched you and I don’t like repeating myself. Leave. Don’t come back.”
The drunk noticed his “lady” hanging on to William’s shirt and swore, staggering away without another glance in their direction.
Good lord, she must be having a hot flash, Bronte thought weakly. It had to be why she felt so warm, since she didn’t find that sexy at all. At. All.
“You’re officially my hero,” Skinny Blonde gushed, leaning into him as if she might swoon at any second.
Oh hell no.
Watching William extricate himself from the clinging vine in one smooth, subtle motion was the only thing that held her back from making a scene.
“All part of the service,” he assured her with an easy, absent smile.
“For that kind of service you can call me Jean.” She reached for him again. “I’ve noticed you at the bar but I didn’t know you had that in you.” She smacked her lips, eyeballing his chest as if it were on the menu. “You were so…aggressive. It gave me all sorts of ideas.”
Bronte was getting a few of her own. Of the violent, hair-snatching variety.
“Do you have your phone? Your purse?” William ran his hand through his hair, shifting uncomfortably as he changed the subject. “The cab should be here any time now.”
“Are you free tonight, Willy?” The tramp didn’t know when to give up. “It looks like I’m single for the moment, but even if I wasn’t it wouldn’t matter. My old man can be a bear when he drinks, but he doesn’t mind sharing.”
And she was done.
“Willy isn’t free tonight, Jean. And in case you didn’t notice, he’s not interested in what you’re selling. Why don’t you just say thank you for the rescue, have some self-respect and move on?”
Skinny Blonde spun precariously on her heels and narrowed her eyes on Bronte, reminding her that she’d dressed for comfort on the long drive. Wearing a stretched out college sweatshirt and scrub bottoms that had once been a bright, cheerful shade of blue, she clearly didn’t register on the feminine threat scale for Paris Hilton’s trailer park twin.
“I don’t know who you are, ma’am, but you really need to move along and mind your own business.”
William, who’d started grinning as soon as he heard Bronte’s voice, winced at the woman’s tone.
She did not just ma’am me.
Oh yes she did.
“But this is my business, Jean. I’m his wife. And I’m sorry, but I’m not into sharing.”