Read time approx. 20 mins – a longer quickie 😉
“A whisky sour and two rum and cokes,” Ciara Duffy called to Angus, the bartender at Finnegan’s Rainbow. He didn’t acknowledge her, but she knew he’d heard. He was no more than four feet away, and while the pub was busy, the music loud, he was attuned to listening for the servers to call out orders.
“Angus? Did you hear me? A whisky sour and two rum and cokes.” She spoke louder this time, but he didn’t so much as flinch. He was staring intently at something, his eyes slitted, chest rising and falling with rapid breaths. What the hell?
She followed his gaze but couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. What could she say? The guy was strange. “Angus!”
His head whipped toward her. “What is it?” he snapped.
“My order. I need—”
“Yeah, yeah. I heard ye.” With jerky movements, he slapped glasses down on the bar and sloshed rum into two of them, using the soda gun to add coke. He made the whisky sour and placed the three cocktails on her tray.
She slid the tray off the bar, then hurried toward her table. A man stumbled out of the bathroom, almost running into her. She yelped and jumped back, sending the drinks crashing to the floor. Glass shattered, liquid splashing onto her feet. Her heart thudded, and her knees turned to rubber.
Angus growled from behind the bar. “Hey, lassie. Watch yerself, would ye? Now I’ll have ta be makin’ the drinks over again, and the cost for those glasses is comin’ out o’ yer pay.”
Irritation momentarily overrode her fear. “As little as I make, it’ll take the pub months to recover their loss.”
An uncharacteristic grin lit Angus’s face. “Just be more careful, mind ye.”
She took a deep breath, steadying her nerves. Get yourself together. Dave won’t find you. You’re free of him.
She’d been hiding from her ex fiancé for five weeks. Successfully, thus far. Sedona was nearly three-thousand miles from Boston. She’d changed her name to Kate Caplan. Cut her hair, dyed it from dark blonde to a godawful red. Contacts changed her gray eyes to brown. She was safe. Of course, if Dave found her, he’d recognize her. No doubt about it. But anyone searching for Ciara Duffy by description wouldn’t take a second look.
“Glenlivet, neat,” a man at the bar ordered.
Tingles of fear raced over her skin. That voice. Dear God. Panic skittering in her chest, she kept her head down and cut her eyes to the direction the voice had come from. Her heart dropped to her stomach. This time, the fear was justified. Other than Dave, the man leaning against the bar was the last person in the world she ever wanted to see.
Eric Roth sipped his scotch and glanced around the pub. Not a sign of Ciara. But had he really expected there would be? A crazy hunch had brought him here. It was more than crazy, it was bizarre…insane. He touched the gold earring in his left ear. He’d found it at an estate sale and was intrigued when he’d learned it was reputed to be melded from a leprechaun’s missing gold. The story made him think of Ciara and her Irish heritage, so he’d paid a ridiculous sum for it. And now…crazy as it was, it seemed the earring had led him here.
He was heading into Sedona, working a lead based on something Ciara had said a few months ago, when the earring suddenly felt…warm, almost alive. A vision had slammed into his mind. Finnegan’s Rainbow, and Ciara. Here. Only the girl in his vision didn’t really look like Ciara. This woman’s hair was short and a reddish color. But his gut told him it was her. He shook his head. Ridiculous. He’d allowed some kind of mystical hocus pocus and an offhand comment to steer him thousands of miles from home.
He was brought out of his musings when a tingle raced across the back of his neck. A feeling of being watched. He looked over his shoulder and found the odd bartender’s gaze fixed on him. More precisely, on his ear.
“You got a problem, bud?” Eric drew his shoulders back. He was tired, wound up, frustrated he’d wasted two days on a fool’s errand. It wouldn’t take much to push him over the edge. A good fight was just what he needed to relieve tension.
A strange expression came over the guy’s narrow face. A look that was calculating, greedy…evil. Maybe the jerk was spoiling for a fight too. Eric clenched a fist. He would be happy to give it to him.
A few moments of tense silence passed before the bartender shook his head. “Nothing, Yank. Not a thing. How’s yer drink?”
“Fine.” The tension eased from Eric’s shoulders, and he turned away from the bartender. No sense in starting a brawl over nothing. There were other, more important matters to focus on. Like the fact that he’d failed. Dave Loftus was his best friend. A lifelong friend closer than any brother could be. The guy had saved his life in the Gulf. Literally taken a bullet for him. Eric owed him. So when Dave’s fiancée—former fiancée—had fled Boston, Eric agreed to find her. He wasn’t sure why Dave was so determined to chase after someone who obviously wanted nothing to do with him. Or maybe he did understand. Ciara wasn’t just any woman. She was special. Beautiful, intelligent, warm, funny. What man wouldn’t go to the ends of the Earth for a woman like her?
Those were dangerous thoughts. He shook them away. Shook away the unreasonable attraction he felt for his best friend’s girl. Even though she was Dave’s ex-girl, Eric could never act on his feelings. There were unwritten rules when it came to things like that. He could never do that to Dave.
He downed the rest of his drink and set the empty glass on the bar. Might as well head back to Boston. He had a long drive ahead of him. A long drive during which he could curse himself for giving in to whatever mystifying spell had led him on this empty mission.
He was almost to the door when the red-haired waitress passed in his peripheral vision. Something about her drew his attention. Her back was to him, but there was a familiarity about her, about the way she moved, an aura that reminded him of…
Ciara? Was it possible?
Ciara held her breath, waiting for Eric to leave. He was no more than two feet from the door. She was almost home free. But he paused. Go, please, just go.
Maybe the elusive luck of her Irish heritage would finally kick in, and he would go back to Boston and never return.
Keeping her face averted, she set a burger basket in front of a blonde, tight-sweatered woman at the bar.
Ciara was circling back around to her station when a hand landed on her arm. She jumped, twisted around, and looked into the cobalt eyes of Eric Roth.
“Ciara?” His gaze roamed her face, her body, then back up to her eyes. “It is you. What the hell? You changed your hair. Your eyes are—”
“That’s right. I changed my appearance.” She jerked from his grasp. “That’s what you do when you’re running for your life.” She grunted a bitter laugh. “But I guess I can’t run far enough, or hide well enough.”
She cut her gaze around the pub, looking for an escape route. As badly as she needed the job, if she could get away from Eric, she would give it up, run…again. She swallowed back a knot of tears. Was this to be her life? Would Dave never let her go?
“Can we go somewhere private?” Eric’s low voice carried to her in spite of the music and laughter swelling around them. The bar patrons carried on, unaware of the panic threatening to cut off her air, of the tension coiling in her stomach.
“Not on your life,” she hissed. She turned and continued toward the bar, her heart seeming to pause in its beating as she waited on Eric’s next move. How could she shake him? No way would he take his eyes off her now that he’d found her. Unless…
Instead of stopping at the bar, she pushed through the swinging doors beneath the Employees Only sign. Eric, not one to let anything silly like rules stop him, followed her into the kitchen.
The cooks, Joe and Patrice, looked up, brows raised, then went back to their tasks.
“Hold up, Ciara.” Eric cornered her. “You don’t have to run from me. I won’t hurt you.”
She whirled on him. “You’re here to take me back, right? That’s hurting me. So don’t pretend you give a damn.” She crossed her arms tightly over her middle, fighting back tears. “How did you find me?”
“The question is, why did you run? Dave loves you.”
She snorted a laugh. “Right.” She shoved her sleeve up, revealing a faded ring of bruises. “That’s your idea of love?”
His face blanched, but he quickly schooled his expression. “He must not have known how hard he was grabbing you. I’m sure he didn’t mean to hurt you.”
She tugged her sleeve back down, her shoulders slumping in weary resignation. Eric would always believe the best of Dave. She let out a sigh and lifted her gaze to his. “You didn’t answer my question. How did you find me?”
He let out a sigh. “You remember that road trip we took from Denver?”
She rolled her eyes. “Road trip? You mean when he sent you to drag me back the last time?”
He ignored her question. “After you got over being pissed, we talked the entire trip. About everything…nothing. Remember? You told me about how you and your family used to travel. You said the most beautiful sight you’d ever seen was a rainbow in Sedona. And here you are.”
Her anger eased ever so slightly. He’d remembered something that insignificant? In spite of her fear, she couldn’t help but be touched. Foolishly, she’d started to care for Eric. The only hard thing about leaving Dave was knowing she’d never see him again. On the trip from Denver, she’d gotten to know him. He was more than just the tall, dark-haired sexy friend of her fiancé. She’d sensed a connection between them, although neither of them spoke of it. But she’d been unable to get him out of her mind. Out of her heart. And now she had to harden her heart against him. She had to remember he was nothing more than Dave’s lapdog henchman. She clenched her jaw and glared at him. “Well, wasn’t that convenient? You filed that little tidbit away for later use, I see. I’m not surprised you and Dave are so tight. Assholes gravitate to other assholes.”
His lips compressed, and his eyes turned the color of a midnight storm. He shrugged. “Yeah, that’s what I was doing. Gathering Intel. And it came in handy, didn’t it?”
She bit back a growl. “I need to get back to work. And you need to leave.”
“Ciara, I’m here to take you back.”
“You can’t make me go. I won’t go. Dave is…unstable, cruel. I’m done with him. Forever.”
“Now, come on. Dave might not be Mr. Perfect, but he’s hardly—”
She cut him off with a bitter laugh. “Why would I expect you to believe me? Even if you did, you would still take his side, so just forget it. But I can promise you, I’m not going back. You’ll have to kill me first.”
He burst out laughing. “Kill you? Isn’t that a little dramatic?”
Dramatic? Was he kidding? His best friend was a violent, obsessed psycho who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted, and she was dramatic?
“Go to hell.” She brushed past him and pushed through the doors. Eric followed.
Angus looked up when she returned to the bar area. His shrewd gaze narrowed on her, then moved over her shoulder to Eric. “Everythin’ all right, cailín?”
“Fine.” Ignoring Eric, she made her rounds to the customers she’d been neglecting since doom arrived on her doorstep. Surely he wouldn’t snatch her from a pub filled with witnesses. She probably didn’t have anything to worry about until Finnegan’s closed. And by then, she’d have a plan.
Eric settled on a barstool, scowling at the annoying bartender. He didn’t like the way the guy watched him…watched Ciara. What was his deal? Were they involved? The thought made his jaw clench. He forced his muscles to relax. None of his damned business. She was Dave’s problem, not his.
“I’ll have another Glenlivet.” He’d meant to say it like he was simply ordering a drink, but it came out as a threat.
The bartender slid the glass in front of him. “I’ll not have ye harmin’ Katie.”
“Katie?” Ah. That must be the name Ciara was using. “This is between me and her.”
“Maybe I’m makin’ it between me too.”
Eric’s fist clenched around his glass. He leaned across the bar until his nose nearly touched the bartender’s. “Maybe if you know what’s good for you, you won’t.”
“Ye don’ scare me none.”
A feral glint in his green eyes told Eric the man spoke the truth. A shudder raced through him. There was something…off about this guy. His gaze was too intense, homing in on Eric as if he were a criminal when his only crime was ordering another scotch. It wasn’t the expression of a jealous lover, though. Something else was going on with the guy. In spite of the bartender’s height, he reminded Eric of the evil little man in the Leprechaun movies.
Eric took a sip of his scotch. “Maybe Katie should try tellin’ the truth for once. Then she wouldn’t find herself in so many sticky situations.”
“Whate’er she tole’ you, it be the truth.”
Eric chuckled. The woman had changed her look, lied about her identity, and no telling what else, yet this asshole was defending her integrity. “Thanks for the tip, pal, but I’ve got this.”
Enough. He was tired of screwing around. He would insist Ciara go with him. She and Dave could sort out their differences, and he would be done with it. And the next time she took off, Dave could find her himself. Eric wasn’t anyone’s lackey. He had more important things to do than keep patching up Dave’s love spats. And if she wouldn’t come with him, he’d… What? He couldn’t physically force her. She seemed pretty damned determined to hide over something as simple as a broken romance. Why so drastic?
Too many questions and not enough answers. He shook his head and finished off the scotch. Slamming the glass down on the bar, he strode over to where Ciara was delivering food to a table. “Listen, this is ridiculous. You need to—”
Without letting him finish, she stalked away. He grabbed hold of her arm. She jerked against his grip, but instead of loosening his hold, she only managed to dislodge her clothing. The shoulder of her white uniform shirt slipped down, nearly exposing a breast. He sucked in a breath. Unable to resist, he dropped his gaze down to her exposed flesh. A red haze filled his vision. His desire fled, and fury pounded through him. Puckered white scars slashed across her collarbone. He’d been in battles often enough to recognize the source. Knife wounds.
Heat burned Ciara’s cheeks. She’d almost flashed the entire pub. She hastily snatched her blouse up, covering the scars, but not quickly enough. Eric’s eyes blazed down at her, the blue shimmering like a flame. He was angry with her? Figured. Apparently, he was one of those jerks who thought it was the woman’s fault when a guy beat the crap out of her…or sliced her with a knife. She tried to shove away the hurt that she’d pegged him so very, very wrong. She’d actually thought he had a soul.
He released his grip and reached a tentative hand up to glide his fingers over the scars. She sucked in a breath at the unexpected tenderness of his warm touch.
His voice was low, hoarse, but she heard every clipped syllable. “He did this to you?”
A current zipped through the air between them. The people, the noise, all faded away, and there was only her and Eric.
She gave a bitter smile. “Did you think I ran for the hell of it?” She stepped back, and his hand dropped to his side. “I told you, I’m not going back.”
He blinked rapidly. “I’ve known him most of my life. How could I not…” He shook his head. “How could I not know? I can’t believe he hurt you like that.”
Her lips twisted. “That figures. You don’t believe me.”
“I didn’t say I don’t believe you, I just—”
She raised a hand to cut him off. “Save it. I have customers. You’ve wasted enough of my time.”
Ciara spent the next hour doing her best to take care of her customers and ignore Eric. All the while, she was planning her escape. She pushed aside the guilt at leaving Angus in the lurch. He’d been good to her. Given her a job when she had nowhere else to go. But this was about survival. Eric might feel bad about what Dave had done to her, but she knew where his loyalties lie. He wouldn’t drag her back kicking and screaming, but he would definitely tell Dave where she was. Her safe haven had been breached.
She chose a moment—and there were few of them—when Eric wasn’t looking in her direction.
Hurrying into the ladies’ room, she rushed over to the window. It was high on the wall, but not quite out of reach. And it was just wide enough that she could fit through. Working quickly, she shoved the window open and wiggled her way up and into the gap. It took forever, and tension knotted her muscles. At any moment, she expected the door to fly open and Eric to charge in and snatch away her brief glimmer of hope.
But in seconds, she was free. She dropped to the ground outside, relief sweeping through her. Freedom.
Where to now? She had no idea, but it would be somewhere far away from here.
She spun at the sound of Eric’s voice. Damn it to hell. So close.
Eric stood in the alley, a dark shadow backlit by the streetlights, looking like the devil himself.
Tears sprang to her eyes. Deflated, she swiped them away and lifted her chin. “Okay, fine. You got me. Let’s go. But it’s a long drive to Boston. Somewhere along the way, I’ll escape. Even if I have to kill you.”
He quirked a grin. “Violent little thing, aren’t you? All this talk about killing.” He moved closer and stared down at her with an unreadable expression. “You’re not going to kill me.”
She took a step back. Her pulse quickened. “I-I might if I get the chance.” The words came out in a breathless rush.
He slowly closed the distance between them. “No, you won’t.” He brushed the hair off her face. “We both know that’s not going to happen.”
She swallowed hard and licked her lips. “We do?”
“Yeah.” He cupped a hand behind her neck and tilted her face up. He bent his head, and his mouth found hers. The kiss was warm, searching. Her eyes drifted shut. Her bones were melting, her head swimming. She gripped his shoulders to steady herself, giving in to the wonderful, magical feel of Eric’s kiss…
Danger signs flashed in her head, penetrating her muddled brain. A trick. He was playing her. It was just a trick. She broke away and ran a trembling hand over her mouth, shaking her head to clear the fog. “Some friend you are.” She gave a shaky laugh. “You tell me he’s like a brother, then you put the moves on me. Is this some ploy to soften me up so I’ll fall in your arms and go back with you willingly?”
He shook his head. “You’re not going back. And neither am I. Unless it’s to beat Dave to a bloody pulp.”
She blinked up at him. “What?”
He pushed the shoulder of her blouse aside and ran his fingers beneath her shirt, gently touching the scars. “After what he did to you, it’s all I can do not to go back and tear him apart with my bare hands.”
A night breeze blew her hair into her face, and she scraped it aside. “You believe me? You’re not…”
He lifted her chin gently with a forefinger. “Here I’ve been feeling guilty about being in love with my best friend’s girl. What a joke. That can’t compare to what Dave did to you.”
Her heart beat so rapidly, she thought it would fly from her chest. “You love me?”
“Always have, but I couldn’t tell you. Not when you belonged to Dave. Not before I knew what kind of an asshole he was. I want to stay here. With you. If you’ll let me, I’ll spend the rest of my life making up for the pain you’ve suffered.”
“Won’t he come looking for us? You?”
“I never told him where I was going.” A dangerous glint sparked in his eyes. “And trust me, he doesn’t want to find me.”
Ciara closed her eyes and took a deep breath. For the first time in months, she was at peace. Safe. She opened her eyes and looked up at Eric. She lifted a hand to his face. her eyes drawn to his left lobe. “What happened to your earring?”
He frowned and touched his ear. “No idea. I guess it fell out.” He shook his head. “Does it matter? I just told you I love you, and you’re worried about an earring?”
She smiled. “What would you say if I told you I love you too?”
He grinned back. “I’d say let’s go somewhere more comfortable and talk about it.”
Years of pain and loneliness and fear lifted from her heart. Maybe her Irish legacy had brought her luck after all. She smiled up at Eric, and a flush warmed her skin. Judging from the look in his eyes, she was about to get very lucky.
Inside the bar, Angus chortled as his fingers tightened around the gold earring. “Finally. Ye’re back where ye belong.” His centuries-long search for his stolen gold had come to an end now that he’d recovered the final piece. And now, he was free to do whatever he liked. Maybe he’d make a jaunt to Boston and pay this Dave lad a visit. He glanced toward the alley. “An’ the luck o’ the Irish to ye both,” he whispered. “And may ye live happily ever after.”