shiver of fear
“Did I hear you say you were looking for a Dr. Greenberg, miss?”
For the first time since she’d started her search, Devyn felt a surge of hope. She blinked at the smooth-faced concierge and hesitated a second, making sure she understood the thick Belfast accent. “Yes.”
He notched his head to the side and sent his thumb in the same direction, silently telling her to separate from the other guests lined up for help in the lobby of the Europa Hotel.
“She’s here, but she’s not here,” he said, youthful eyes wide, a sweet flush of color on his pale cheeks, as though getting that close to a woman didn’t happen every day. “What I mean is she’s checked out, but left bags.”
Hope soared for a moment. After all the B&Bs, hotels and hostels she’d tried throughout Belfast and the surrounding area, this was the first time someone had given her any concrete information. She resisted the urge to grab his arm and demand more, asking calmly, “Are you certain it’s Dr. Sharon Greenberg, an American?”
He flickered his fingers around his cheeks. “Lots of silver hair, kinda curly?”
She’d seen the pictures on the University web site, and the description of Sharon’s distinctive white waves fit enough that optimism took a stronghold in Devyn’s chest. “So she’s coming back here, to this hotel?”
“Thursday,” he said. “She told me herself.”
Two days. She almost kissed him. “Did she say where she was going?”
He shrugged, but something about the gesture indicated he knew more than he was telling. “A side sightseeing trip, I assume. That’s why most guests leave their luggage here. Are you a guest at the Europa, as well, miss?”
She should be. “Yes, I’m checking in today,” she announced without giving it a moment’s thought. She’d chosen a much smaller inn, rather than one of the few glitzier hotels in Belfast. But, with the possibility that she’d found Sharon after less than a week of hunting the city, she would definitely move into the Europa to wait for her. “Can you call me when she shows up for her bags?”
“Of course. I’m Patrick.” He smiled self-consciously. “Like every other man in this country.”
“Thank you, Patrick.” She automatically reached for her bag to tip him, but he waved her off.
“No, not necessary, miss. I’m happy to help you find your friend, as she was a lovely lady, right down to the bone.”
That was reassuring. “And you’re sure she’s coming back Thursday? Could it be sooner?”
“She was quite specific, but you know, there’s plenty to do in Belfast while you wait.”
“I’ll just wait here,” she said.
“You can, of course, but most people who are sightseeing in this part of Northern Ireland go up the coast for the day. Maybe your doctor’s up there. I can arrange a car for you, if you like, and you can see our sights. The Giant’s Causeway is quite famous, and the Rope Bridge at Carrick-a-rede. It’s a lovely day for a ride and I can have you taken care of by the best driver we have.”
It was so tempting. She’d love to get out of Belfast and see the coast, but since she’d arrived in Northern Ireland, her entire focus had been on finding Sharon, not the scenery.
“I may do that, but I’ll get my own car, thank you.”
“Be careful if you get a private driver, ma’am. They’ll rip your pocket book ‘round here. Are you sure you won’t let me arrange one?”
“I’ll rent a car,” she said. The freedom of driving up the coast, holding onto that hope that she’d found Dr. Greenberg suddenly appealed to her immensely. “I’ll be back this afternoon. Will you be here?”
“Until six tonight,” he said. “After that I’m on the graveyard, so you’ll only see me if you’re an insomniac.”
“Patrick!” Another concierge called from the desk with a dark look and a gesture to the line. “We need you, man.”
“Go.” Devyn gave him a friendly nudge. “And thank you.”
Feeling lighter than she had for days, Devyn turned to survey the hotel she’d just decided to check into, heading to the front desk to hold a reservation for a few days. There, a sweet faced young girl helped her, and then iced the cake by nodding and clicking a keyboard when Devyn asked if she could check on the status of another reservation.
“Yes,” she said, eyeing her screen. “Dr. Greenberg is due back on September fourteenth, holding a reservation until the sixteenth.”
Life was suddenly all sunshine and roses after days of doubt and dead-ends. “Thank you so much,” Devyn said, hoisting her handbag over her shoulder.
As she passed the rack of brochures, she snagged one with the words “Antrim Coast” in large yellow letters, flipped it open, and walked smack right into a six-foot man.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” She backed away, feeling a heated flush rise along with a bump where her ankle had slammed the corner of his luggage.
“Excuse me,” he apologized, hurriedly rolling the bag away.
“Not at all,” she assured him, holding the brochure as evidence of her clumsiness. “I wasn’t…looking.” And, she should have been. Because he made the Irish coastline pale in comparison.
“Not very smart of me.” His voice was melodic, warm. And American.
“Nor me,” she replied.
He melted her with a smile that lit eyes the color of ripe black olives, revealing straight white teeth that stood out from a sexy shadow of whiskers. “You’re from the States. Where?”
“Boston.” The truth was out before she could think, but then her brain had flatlined the minute he’d turned around. “You?”
“New York.” He winked at her. “We’re practically neighbors. Are you staying here?” He asked with just enough hope to give her an unexpected tingle of pleasure.
“I just checked in.” She wanted to step away, but something magnetic kept her there for a beat too long.
“You’re off to the Antrim Coast?” he asked.
She drew back. “How do you know that?”
“Don’t worry. Just a lucky guess.” He tapped the brochure. “Heard it’s pretty up there.”
“Looks like it’s…” She fingered the brochure. “Pretty.”
He smiled again, a tease in his eyes that made her stomach flutter. Then he reached out his hand. “I’m Marc Rossi.”
His palm was warm and dry, his grip strong, his fingers long. “Devyn…Smith.” A New Yorker could easily have heard of Joshua Sterling’s murder last summer, and she just wasn’t prepared to deal with that. This stranger in the lobby didn’t need to know her real name. “It’s nice to meet you, Marc.”
In return, she got one more flash of a smile, a hint of not-quite-dimples embedded in a hollow cheeks, and warmth in his remarkable eyes. “You’re not going to invite me along on your daytrip, are you?”
She withdrew her hand slowly. “No. But I’ll take a picture for you.”
“I’ll look for you this evening, then. In the bar, right over there?”
“I have no idea what time I’ll be back. Maybe. We’ll see.” She gave him a wistful smile, stole a glance at his expensive cotton shirt, but really only noticed how nicely his shoulders filled it out.
“Sorry for walking right into you like that.”
She laughed softly. “You’re good at that,” she volleyed back, still not moving from the magic of his eyes. “But you’re not getting the invitation.”
“Then I’ll work harder next time.”
Like he was so sure there’d be a next time. “Bye.” She turned away and headed to the door, the reason she’d come to the hotel and the successful outcome of her discussion with the concierge momentarily washed from her mind.
It had been a long, long time since a man made her feel…alive.
Outside, the sun met her mood, threatening to break through a gray sky, underscoring a sense of that she’d just breathed clean, sweet air and wanted more. More warmth. More flirting.
More…of a man like that.
After the last few years of ice and misery and daily disappointments from the man she’d married, that little shot of flirting with a stranger was like downing a tumbler of Irish whiskey.
And it left her just as…warm.
She hesitated at the curb, looking for one of the London-type cabs she’d been using to get around Belfast, already used to the hum of the city, and the open air feel of the low-rise buildings, although the Europa and the few modern buildings in the little square were taller than most. In the past few days, she’d become familiar enough with the main streets and some of the neighborhoods that renting a car and taking a trip seemed like a brilliant and beautiful plan.
Speaking of brilliant and beautiful…she glanced behind her through the glass doors to the lobby, somehow not surprised to see the man she’d just met doing the same thing from the front desk. Their gazes met and he zapped her with a smile again.
She was about to say yes, but then shook her head. The B&B wasn’t that far, and for the first time in a while, she didn’t feel like hiding in the back of a cab, cornered and considering her options. She’d found Sharon, sort of, she had time and a place to go…and maybe had a semi-sort-of rendezvous that night.
Was it too soon to talk to a man, too close to Josh’s death to think about being with someone else? No. After four years of marriage to one of the coldest cheaters in the world, it wasn’t too soon to at least think about having a drink with…Marc Rossi. Great name, too.
He was probably in town on business, she decided as she headed around the building toward Great Victoria Street. Lonely, looking for company…married? Undoubtedly a charmer like that had a wife and three kids back in New York. He didn’t look young, mid-to-late thirties, with a sexy kind of fierceness under that charm, like he could slam you up against a wall and pin you there…right before he kissed the living hell out of you.
She almost stumbled on the uneven sidewalk. Was that why she’d turned him down so quickly? Because what was wrong with a little distraction -- assuming he wasn’t married and really was just a friendly guy from New York looking for company?
Maybe she’d have that drink with him. It couldn’t hurt, and it might feel…really good.
She paused at an intersection, orienting herself to the left side drivers, when a dark sedan slowed down, inching over to where she stood. She stepped back, until the window rolled down and the driver smiled at her. Delivering the same little bolt of lightning through her blood.
“It’s a long walk up the coast, Ms. Smith.”
A cool breeze lifted her hair but did nothing to reduce the heat level of his gaze. “I’m on my way to rent a car.”
“Now that’s just a waste of time, money, and gas. I’ve already got one, and I can’t check in until later this afternoon, so I’m going sightseeing. My offer still stands.”
She hesitated, but not long. Why shouldn’t she have just one afternoon of enjoyment on this mission?
Still…she wasn’t sure. She took a step closer. His right hand rested on the window, but that wasn’t the one that mattered. The left was on the wheel, and she took a surreptitious dip to see it.
“Looking for a ring?”
So much for surreptitious. “Actually, yes, I am. I’m suspicious that way.”
He held up an empty hand. “Truth in advertising. Divorced and traveling alone, wildly attracted to honey hair and blue eyes, and on my way to spend the day sightseeing and have no desire to do that alone. Would you care to come along?”
This wasn’t the reason she’d traveled across the ocean and traipsed all over Northern Ireland. This wasn’t in keeping with her plan to find Sharon, have that personal meeting with her, and warn her about the man watching her house. This wasn’t…
“If it’s that tough a decision for you, Ms. Smith, I’ll back off.” There was nothing but sincerity in his tone, no more flirting, no more seduction. Just consideration and kindness.
And, God knows, she could use some of that, too.
“That’s not necessary,” she said, tucking hair behind her ear and making yet another spontaneous decision. “I’d love to go sightseeing with you. And, please, call me Devyn.”
He grinned like she’d given him a gift, hopping out to walk her around to the opposite side of the car, moving with grace despite an easy six foot one or so, and nicely built muscles. As he stepped in front of her to open the door, she stole a look at his back, lingering on the jeans that hugged his backside and narrow waist.
She was going sightseeing, all right. And the view was spectacular.
“So what brings you to Belfast?” he asked as when he climbed in to the driver’s seat on her right and tugged on his seat belt. “Business or pleasure?”
“Both,” she said. “You?”
“Same, but mostly pleasure.” He threw her another toe-curling look. “Pleasure today, definitely.”
“What do you do?”
“Invest,” he said. “How about you?”
Of course there’d be questions. Many personal questions. She should have thought of that before she hopped in the car with a sexy stranger. “What do you invest in?” she asked easily.
He maneuvered through a roundabout, surprisingly at ease with the left side driving. A competent man, confident and easy-going. Joshua had been that way…an easy-going liar.
“I invest in companies.”
“Like a venture capitalist?”
“Something like that, but a little more in the background. Angel investments. You didn’t answer my question,” he reminded her. “What’s your business here in Belfast?”
“It’s personal,” she said, hoping her tone would not invite another question, but his look was expectant. So she added, “I’m waiting for a friend from the states who gets back in a few days.”
“Back from where?”
Instead of answering, she made a show of opening the brochure she’d been holding in the hotel. “There’s a map on the back of this. We’ve got quite a scenic route up the coast.”
He kept his gaze on her instead of the road for a few seconds. “So you’re secretive as well as beautiful.”
Looking down at the brochure, she let a lock of hair fall and cover her expression. Would she just have to ask him outright not to probe with personal questions?
Stopping at a light, he reached over and lifted it, brushing her cheek with his knuckles, the contact surprisingly warm. Damn near electric.
“Am I right?” he asked. “You’re secretive?”
“I’m private,” she replied, turning her head just enough to escape the heat. “There’s a difference.”
“Thank you.” She felt a flush rise to her face, as the voice of the woman who’d raised her echoed in her head.
Beauty is skin deep.
It wasn’t until Devyn used her considerable resources to find out her real bloodline did she learn exactly why her adopted mother loved that phrase. Because under the skin is the blood…and the blood in her veins was not Hewitt. It was MacCauley, and there was nothing beautiful about it.
The thought reminded her of why she was here, not to sightsee with charming strangers. Still, she’d made the rash decision – that bloodline acting again – and now she had to live with the consequences.
She pointed to a main highway. “That’s the M2, I believe, that circles Belfast. Take it a little west, then go east up to Ballyclare.” She gave him a forced smile. “Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Have you been to Ireland before?”
“I have, but spend most of my time in Dublin. Never been up this far.”
His smile wasn’t forced or unnatural. It was just…inviting. “I know you don’t want a barrage of personal questions, but I have to ask one, since I don’t see a ring. Single, as well?”
“I am, now,” she said, looking away, out the window.
“Ah, divorced, too, then?”
She waited a beat. “No, actually, I’m a widow.”
“I’m sorry. How long has it been?”
“About two…” Months. “Years.”
“No,” she said quickly. “What about you?”
Maneuvering onto the highway stole his attention momentarily. “Not yet,” he replied, a hint of something like wistfulness in his voice.
“But you want them?”
He glanced at her. “What was the clue?”
“The word ‘yet’ and the sound of longing in your tone.”
“Wow.” He laughed, shooting her an admiring look. “Private, beautiful, intuitive. Look how much I learned about you in just this little bit of time.”
Reminding her that she’d better keep the conversation about him or she’d be telling him far too much. “We’re even, then. I’ve learned your open, charming, and, oh let me guess, the oldest in your family.”
“You got all that out of ‘not yet’? Amazing. But I hate to ruin your perfect record. I’m the second out of seven, not quite the oldest.”
“Seven? That’s a huge family.”
“Now we’re even,” he said.
“I hear longing in your voice.”
Was it that obvious? “I was a lonely only,” she admitted. “Seven kids sounds like pure heaven.”
“With moments of hell. To be fair there were only five kids and two cousins raised with us. Plus a grandfather, Uncle Nino.”
“You call your grandfather Uncle Nino?”
“Mostly we just called him Nino, which is his name but sort of became his de facto grandfather title, like, you know Boompa or Gramps. Then my cousins came to live with us and he’s their great uncle, so they call him Uncle Nino.”
“Sounds like a great way to grow up. Rossi, right? So this must be an Italian family. Where in New York?”
But he just shook his head. “You know, Devyn, I only have a day with you, and an overview of my huge family, and yes we are Italian, could take up most of our time. Unless, of course, you promise me I can have more time until your friend gets here. What day does he arrive?”
“Thursday and…it’s a she.”
He lifted a brow, his dark eyes glittering with a tease. “Well, that’s encouraging. Not a romantic rendezvous, then.”
Damn, he was good at the conversation volley. She purposely shifted in her seat and avoided eye contact. “It’s two more miles to the turn to Ballyclare. You know, I just like saying that, such an Irish word. Have you noticed how different the accent is up here? More British than brogue, don’t you think?”
“You know, Devyn,” he said, gently placing his hand over hers on the console. “This will be a very long, very frustrating, and very uncomfortable day if you refuse to tell me anything about yourself. Unless, of course, you’re on the run from the law, in hiding from an ex-lover, or on a secret mission for the government and can’t tell me anything. In that case, I’ll let you get away with being chatty and vague.”
She slid her hand out from under his, taking the brief moment to try and swallow. “What if I were guilty of all of the above? Would you still want to go sightseeing with me?”
His expression shifted and softened. “More than ever.”
The last time a man believed her, he took her story and tried to sell it to the highest bidder…and it cost him his life.
“Then you better be careful, Marc Rossi,” she said quietly. “Because nothing about me is as it seems.”
He smiled, an expression so sexy and endearing it made her stomach plummet to her toes. “There’s nothing I like more in a woman than mystery. I take solving it as a personal challenge.”
A challenge, she swore to herself, he would fail.