Excerpt: Beyond the Sea

Book 9 : Shelter Bay Series

Beyond the Sea (Shelter Bay Series) by JoAnn Ross

Castlelough, Ireland

Although the microbrewery might be a new addition, Brennan’s Microbrewery and Pub had been serving rebels and raiders, smugglers and sailors, poets and patriots since 1650.

And, Sedona Sullivan considered as she watched a young couple share a kiss inside one of the two snugs by the front door, lovers. The leaded glass window kept people’s behavior reasonably sedate while the stained glass door allowed conversations to remain private.

Whiskey bottles gleamed like pirates’ booty in the glow of brass-hooded lamps, a turf fire burned in a large open hearth at one end of the pub, warming against the chill of rain pelting on the slate roof, and heavy wooden tables were crowded onto the stone floor. Booths lined walls covered in football flags, vintage signs, old photographs, and, in the library extension, books and magazines filled shelves and wall racks.

The man murmured something in the woman’s ear, causing her to laugh and toss hair as bright as the peat fire. As the woman lifted her smiling lips to his for a longer, more drawn-out kiss, Sedona felt a stir of envy.

How long had it been since a man had made her laugh with sexy abandon? How long since anyone had kissed her like that man was kissing the pretty Irish redhead?

Sedona did some quick mental math. Finding the sum impossible to believe, she recalculated. Twenty-two months, three weeks, and eight days?

Seriously?

Unfortunately, given that she was, after all, a former CPA with excellent math skills and a near-photographic memory, Sedona knew her figures were right on the money. As where those additional sixteen hours she reluctantly tacked on to the initial subtotal.

How could that be possible?

Granted, she’d been busy. After leaving behind a high-powered accounting career in Portland, she’d opened a successful bakery in Shelter Bay, Castlelough’s sister city on the Oregon coast.

But still . . . nearly two years?

That was just too depressing.

Unlike last evening, when Brennan’s had been crowded to the ancient wooden rafters with family members and close friends enjoying Mary Joyce and J.T. Douchett’s rehearsal dinner, tonight the pub was nearly deserted, save for the two lovers, three men watching a replay of a rugby match on the TV bolted to the stone wall, and an ancient man somewhere between eighty and a hundred years old who was nursing a foam-topped dark ale and singing sad Irish songs to himself.

And there was Patrick Brennan, owner, bartender and cook, whose smiling Irish eyes were as darkly brown as the fudge frosting she’d made for the chocolate groom’s cake.

Which was what had brought Sedona to her ancestral homeland.

She’d met international movie star and award-winning screenwriter Mary Joyce when the Castlelough-born actress had visited Shelter Bay for a film festival featuring her movies. After Mary had gotten engaged to J.T., a former Marine who’d been pressed into service as the actress’ bodyguard, Mary had asked Sedona to make both the groom’s cake and the all-important wedding cake.

Happy to play a part in her friend’s wedding, Sedona had jumped at the chance to revisit the land of her ancestors.

A cheer went up as a player dressed in a green jersey from the Ireland Wolfhounds scored against the England Saxons. After delivering her wine and taking her order, Patrick paused on his way back to the bar long enough to glance up at the screen and even the old man stopped singing long enough to raise his mug before switching to a ballad celebrating a victory in some ancient, but never to be forgotten war.

Sedona was thinking that watching a game when you already knew the final score must be a male thing, when the heavy oak door opened, bringing with it a wet, brisk wind that sent her paper napkin sailing onto the floor.

Before she could reach down and pick it up, her attention was captured by the arrival of a man she had already determined to be trouble on a hot, sexy stick.

His wind-mussed hair, which gave him the look of having just gotten out of bed, fell to a few inches above his broad shoulders and was as black as the sea on a moonless night. As he took off his leather jacket, revealing a lean hard, well-muscled body, testosterone radiated off him in bone-weakening waves that had her glad she was sitting down.

“Well, would you look at what the night gale blew in,” Patrick greeted him from behind the bar. “I thought you were leaving town.”

“I was. Am,” Conn Brennan clarified in the roughened, gravely rocker’s voice recognizable the world over. “I’m flying out of Shannon to catch up with the lads in Frankfurt. But I had a sudden craving for fish and chips and sure, everyone knows there’s no finer food than the pub grub served up by my big brother at Brennan’s.”

Patrick laughed at that. “Sure, with talk like that, some would think you’d be from Blarney,” he shot back on an exaggerated brogue. “So how did the party go? I assume the bride and groom enjoyed themselves?”

“The party was grand, in large part due to the music,” Conn Brennan said. The infamous bad boy rocker known by the single name Conn to his legion of fans around the world had been dubbed “Conn of the Hundred Battles” by tabloids for his habit for getting into fights with the paparazzi.

“As for the bride and groom, I image they’re shagging their brains out about now. The way they couldn’t keep their hands off each other had the local band lads making bets on whether they’d make it to bed before consummating the nuptials.”

The heels of his metal-buckled black boots rang out on the stone floor as he headed toward the bar, pausing when he almost stepped on Sedona’s dropped napkin. He bent to pick it up, then when he straightened, his startlingly neon blue eyes clashed with hers.

And held for a long, humming moment.

“Well, fancy seeing you here. I would have guessed, after the busy day you’ve had, that you’d be all tucked away in your comfy bed at the inn, dreaming of wedding cakes, sugar plums, and all things sweet.”

He placed the napkin on the table with a dangerously sexy smile he’d directed her way more than once as he’d rocked the reception from the bandstand. When an image of a bare-chested Conn sprawled on her four-poster bed at the inn flashed wickedly through Sedona’s mind, something quivered deep in her stomach.

It was only hunger, she assured herself. Between putting the last touches on the towering wedding cake and working with the serving staff during the reception, she hadn’t taken the time for a proper meal all day.

“I was in the mood for a glass of wine and a late bite.” Her tone, cool as wintry mist over the Burren was in direct contrast to the heat flooding her body.

He lifted an ebony brow. “Why would you be wanting to go out in this rain? The Copper Beech Inn has excellent room service, and surely your suite came with a mini-bar well stocked with adult beverages.”

“You’re correct on both counts,” she acknowledged as the old man segued into “The Rare Auld Mountain Dew.”

She took a sip of wine, hoping it would cool the heat rising inside her.

It didn’t.

“But I chose to spend my last night in Ireland here at Brennan’s instead of an impersonal hotel room. Besides, you’re right about your brother’s food. It’s excellent.” While the pub grub menu might be casual dining, Patrick Brennan had proven to be as skilled in the kitchen as he was at pulling pints. “There’s also the fact that the mini bar is ridiculously expensive.”

“Ah.” He nodded his satisfaction. “Your parents didn’t merely pass down an Irish surname, Sedona Sullivan. It appears you’ve inherited our Irish frugality.”

“And here I thought that was the Scots.”

“It’s true that they’ve been more than happy to advertise that reputation, despite having stolen the concept from us. Same as they did the pipes, which were if truth be told, were originally intended as an Irish joke on the Scots, who, being dour people without any sense of humor, failed to get it.”

“And didn’t I recognize your famed Irish frugality the moment you roared into town in that fire-engine red Ferrari?”

He threw back his head and laughed, a rich, deep, sound that flowed over her and reminded her yet again exactly how much time had passed since she’d been with a man.

Your choice.

“And wouldn’t you be a prime example of appearances being deceiving?” he countered.

“Don’t be disturbing my guests, Conn,” Patrick called out

“We’re just having a friendly conversation.” Conn’s eyes hadn’t left Sedona’s since he’d stopped at the table. “Am I disturbing you, a stór?

Yes.

“Not at all,” she lied.

The truth was that she’d been feeling wired and edgy from the moment he strode into the hall for a sound check before the reception.

“Though you do force me to point out that I’m no one’s darling,” she tacked on. He’d undoubtedly used the generic Irish endearment the way American men used “babe” or “sweetheart.”

Even without having read about all the rich and famous women the rocker was reported to have been involved with, any sensible woman would keep her distance from Conn Brennan. Despite having grown up on a commune of former hippies and flower children, Sedona had always considered herself unwaveringly sensible.

Her knowledge of the endearment failed to put a dent in his oversized male ego. Instead, amusement danced in his electric blue eyes.

“Would you have learned that bit of Irish from some local lad attracted by your charms?” he asked as he rubbed a jaw darkened with a day-old stubble that added machismo to his beautiful face. “Which, may I say, despite your short time in our fair village, would not surprise me in the least.”

“My parents believe everyone should speak at least two languages,” she responded mildly. “I’m fluent in Spanish, know enough French to order a baguette and wine in Paris, and thanks to a year studying abroad at Trinity College Dublin, along with the past few days having an opportunity to practice, I can carry on a bit of a conversation in Irish.”

Raindrops glistened in his black hair as he tilted his head. “Mary wasn’t exaggerating when she was going on about your charms,” he said finally. “And aren’t brains and beauty an enticing combination? As for you not being my darling, Sedona Sullivan, the night’s still young.”

“Perhaps not for those in Dublin or Cork,” she said, struggling against the seductive pull of that smile. The rugby game ended with a score by the redshirted Saxons. The men who’d been watching the TV shuffled out, muttering curses about allegedly blind referees. “But if you don’t leave soon, you won’t be able to drive your fancy ‘frugal’ import to the airport because Castlelough’s cobblestone streets will have been rolled up.”

He gave her a longer, considering look, his intense blue eyes narrowing as he scrutinized her in silence for what seemed like forever, even as some part of her brain still managing to function told her must have only been a few seconds.

“Your order’s up,” he said, without having even glanced toward the bar. “Since Patrick’s occupied with my fish and chips, I’ll bring your late bite back with my ale.”

He smelled so amazing, like night rain darkened with the scent of leather and the tang of sweat from having played as energetically for his home town crowd of a hundred wedding guests as he had to his recent sell-out crowd of ninety thousand in London’s Wembley Stadium.

Tamping down a reckless urge to lick his dark neck, Sedona forced a faint smile.“Thank you. We certainly wouldn’t want your fish to burn while your brother’s distracted delivering my meal.”

Assuring herself that there wasn’t a woman on the planet who’d be capable of not checking out the very fine butt in those dark jeans, she watched his long, lose-hipped outlaw’s stride to the bar.

Not wanting to be caught staring as he returned with his dark ale and her plate, she turned her gaze back to the couple in the snug. The woman was now sitting on the man’s lap as they tangled tonsils.

Why didn’t they just get a damn room?

“Now there’s a pair who know how to make the most of a rainy night,” Conn said as he sat down across from her.

There was no way she was going to respond to that.

Instead, she turned her attention to the small white plate of deep fried cheese served on a bed of salad greens with a side of dark port and berry sauce. The triangular piece of cheese that had been fried in a light-as-a-feather beer batter nearly made her swoon.

As she’d discovered when making her cakes, Irish dairy farmers seemed to possess a magic that churned milk into pure gold. “This is amazingly delicious.”

“The French claim to make the best cream and butter, but I’d put ours against theirs any day. That St. Bridgit’s cheese you’re eating is a local Camembert from Michael Joyce’s farm.”

Michael was Mary Joyce’s older brother. Sedona had met the former war correspondent turned farmer and his American wife at a dinner at the Joyce family home her first night in Castlelough.

“And speaking of delicious,” he said, “I’m remiss in not telling you that your cake had me tempted to lick my plate.”

“Thank you.” When his words brought back her earlier fantasy of licking his neck, she felt color rising in her cheeks.

“Of course, I wouldn’t have,” he continued, thankfully seemingly unaware of her wicked, too tempting thoughts. “Because I promised Mary.”

“You promised Mary you wouldn’t lick your dessert plate?”

“No, despite being an international movie star, Mary can be a bit of a stickler for propriety. So I promised to behave myself.”

He waited a beat, just long enough to let her know something else was coming. “Which was the only reason I didn’t leave a set to the lads and dance with you at the reception.”

“Well, no one can fault you for your confidence.”

“Would you be saying you wouldn’t have given me a dance? If I hadn’t been performing and had asked?”

Dance with this man? From the way he’d watched her from the bandstand, his eyes like blue flames, Sedona had a feeling that dancing wasn’t precisely what he’d had in mind.

“I came here to work,” she said. “Not dance.” Nor hook up with a hot Irish musician.

“It was a grand cake,” he said. “Even better than the one I was served at the White House.” Where he’d received a presidential medal for his social activism, Sedona remembered. “And one of the few that tasted as good as it looked. Most cakes these days seem to have Spackle spread over them.”

She laughed at the too true description. “That’s fondant, which creates a smoother surface to decorate.”

“It’s shite is what it is. When I was growing up, my mam’s carrot cake always won first prize at the county fair. With six children in the family, we’d all have to wait our turn to lick the bowl or she’d never have ended up with enough frosting to cover it, but I always believed that cream cheese frosting was the best part.”

Sedona was relieved when Patrick arrived at the table with his brother’s fish and chips, interrupting a conversation that had returned to licking.

“Something we can agree on,” she said, dipping the cheese into a currant sauce brightened with flavors of ginger, orange, and lemon. “Which is why I used buttercream on the cakes for the wedding.”

He bit into the battered cod. Heaven help her, somehow the man managed to make chewing sexy.

“So,” he said, after taking a drink of the dark Rebel Red microbrew. “Mary tells me you make cupcakes back in America.”

“My bakery, Take the Cake, specializes in cupcakes, but I’ve also added pies.”

“Good business move,” he said with a nod. “Who wouldn’t be liking a nice warm piece of pie? Cakes are well enough, but pies are sexy.”

Said the man who obviously had sex on the mind. Unfortunately, he wasn’t alone. As she watched him bite into a chip, she found herself wondering how that black face scruff would feel on her breasts. Her stomach. And lower still.

“Well, they’ve proven popular,” she said as her pulse kicked up. “Which was rewarding, given that it proved the validity of months of research.”

He cocked his head. “You researched whether or not people like pie?”

“Well, of course I already knew they like pie. I merely did a survey and analysis to calculate the cost and profit margins.”

“Which told you lots of people like pie.”

He was laughing at her. She could see it in his eyes. “Yes. Do you realize how many businesses fail in any given year? Especially these days?” They were finally in a conversational territory she knew well.

“Probably about as many people who don’t succeed in the music business,” he guessed. “Though I’ve never done a sales analysis before writing a song.”

“That’s different.”

“Is it, now?”

She tried again. “What if you wrote a song that didn’t connect with your fans?”

He shrugged and took another bite of battered cod. “I’d write it off as a mistake and move on. No risk, no reward. I tend to go with my gut, then don’t look back.”

“My father’s the same way,” she murmured, more to herself than to him.

He leaned back in the wooden chair and eyed her over the rim of his glass. “And how has that worked out for him?”

“Very well, actually.”

He lifted the glass. “Point made.”

“Different strokes,” she argued.

“You know what they say about opposites.” His gaze moved slowly over her face, his eyes darkening to a stormy, deep sea blue as they settled on her lips, which had parts of her body tingling that Sedona had forgotten could tingle.

“I have a spreadsheet,” she said.

“I suspect you have quite a few.” When he flashed her a slow, badass grin she suspected had panties dropping across several continent, Sedona sternly reminded herself that she’d never—ever—been attracted to bad boys.

So why had she forgotten how to breathe?

As that fantasy of him sprawled in her bed next door in the Copper Beech Inn came crashing to the forefront of her mind, Sedona reminded herself of those twenty-two months, three weeks, eight days and sixteen, going on seventeen hours.

Even if she hadn’t been coming off a very long dry spell, every instinct Sedona possessed told her that not only was Conn Brennan trouble, he was way out of her league.

“They’re not all business related. I also have one for men.”

Putting his ale down, he leaned across the small round table and tucked a strand of blond hair, which had fallen from the tidy French twist she’d created for the reception, behind her ear. The brush of fingertips roughened from steel guitar strings caused heat to rise beneath his touch.

“You put us men in boxes.” His eyes somehow managed to look both hot and amused at the same time.

It was not a question. But Sedona answered it anyway. “Not men. Attributes,” she corrected. “What I’d require, and expect, in a mate.”

Oh, God. Why did she have to use that word? While technically accurate, it had taken on an entirely different, impossibly sexy meaning. Desperately wanting to bury her flaming face in her palms, she remained frozen in place as his treacherous finger traced a trail of sparks around her lips, which, despite Ireland’s damp weather, had gone desert dry.

“And where do I fit in your tidy little boxes, Sedona Sullivan?”

Although she was vaguely aware of the couple leaving the snug, and the pub, his steady male gaze was holding her hostage. She could not look away.

“You don’t.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” he said in that deep, gravely voice that set off vibrations like a tuning fork inside her.

Conn ran his hand down her throat, his thumb skimming over her pulse, which leaped beneath his touch, before cupping her jaw. “Because I’ve never been comfortable fenced into boundaries.”

And growing up in a world of near-absolute freedom, Sedona had never been comfortable without them. “There’s something you need to know.”

“And that would be?”

“I’m not into casual sex.”

“And isn’t that good to know.” He lowered his mouth to within a whisper of hers. “Since there’d be nothing casual about how you affect me.”

She drew in a sharp breath, feeling as if she were standing on the edge of the towering cliff where J.T. and Mary’s wedding had taken place in a circle of ancient stones.

“I’m taking you back to your room.”

Somehow, her hand had lifted to his face. “Your flight . . .”

He parted her lips with the pad of his thumb. “It’s my plane. It takes off when I’m ready.” His other hand was on her leg, his fingers stroking the inside of her thigh through the denim of the jeans she’d put on after returning to her room after the reception. “I’ll ring up the pilot and tell him I’ll be leaving in the morning.”

Then his mouth came down on hers and Conn was kissing her, hard and deep, setting off a mind-blinding supernova inside Sedona.

They left the pub, running through the soft Irish rain into the inn next door. As the old-fashioned gilt cage elevator cranked its way up to her floor, he continued to kiss her breathless, making Sedona forgot that she’d never, ever, been attracted to bad boys.