SEX, STRAIGHT UP
Those SEXY O'Sullivans Mini-Series
Harlequin Blaze
April 2008
ISBN 0373793928

available at

Amazon or Barnes & Noble

Meeting a handsome loner on a deserted beach in the Hamptons was like being hit by lightning. One steamy weekend in bed with Daniel O'Sullivan and Catherine Montefiore was marvelously woozy from a delicious cocktail of sun, sand and superhot sex.

Abruptly, though, Catherine's forty-eight hours of fun are at an end when her family's exclusive auction house is hit by a very public scandal. She's ready to step in and save the day, but she's hoping Daniel, her hot Irish hunk, will lend a hand. After all, he's got the necessary skills and, straight up or not, Catherine wants another long drink of Daniel before another forty-eight hours are up and her legacy is lost forever!

“Kathleen O'Reilly has a fan for life just because Sex, Straight Up was brilliant. I am hooked on these totally sexy O'Sullivan men and can't wait for the next installment. Consider Sex, Straight Up Joyfully Recommended because I adored it!” ---Joyfully Reviewed.

“In "Sex Straight Up", Daniel comes out of his shell and with many touching scenes, excellently written characters and pure romance, Kathleen O'Reilly delivers one of her best stories yet.”
---Tracey West from The Road To Romance

“Kathleen O’Reilly is an author name that will immediately pop out at me from the Harlequin rack, as her men are simply wonderful. This book supports my suspicion that O’Reilly writes men of Nora Roberts quality, which is high praise from me, as I love just about all of Nora’s heroes.” ---Sarah from SmartBitchestrashyBooks.com (A-)

I’ve had this story in my head for a long time, but was worried about writing it. 9/11 shouldn’t be on a back-cover blurb, or used as a marketing hook, and I think the hardest part about the whole tragedy is that the physical pain of the families of the victims gets lost in the everythingness of that day. The camera, the newspapers, the politicians, the television anchors, they want to make 9/11 big, but sadness and loss aren’t big, they’re very small, very personal, and very real. It’s about one person’s pain, not a whole nation’s tragedy.

I cried a lot when writing this. Cried at stupid spots, when I realized those little things about Daniel. And people have asked me about songs that I use when writing. There’s one song that I kept listening to over and over when writing this: 9 Crimes by Damien Rice. It captured Daniel perfectly for me.


 
   

Since the summer he turned eleven, Daniel O’Sullivan woke up every morning the same way. With an aching hard-on. After he was married, the first light of dawn became his favorite time. He’d roll over, impatient hands searching for his wife. After making love to her, he’d shower, shave, and together they’d take the subway to work. What more could any guy want?

But then one September morning seven years ago, bright sunlight mocking in the sky, that all exploded, along with two airliners, two buildings, and two-thousand, seven-hundred and forty people -- one of whom was his wife.

Gone.

For the next five years he rolled over to look for her, impatient hands searching blindly, and she wasn’t there. And so the hard-on stayed.

The morning wake-up call evolved, the change coming so gradually that initially he didn’t notice it. In those beginning moments of wakefulness, when his brain was more than half unconscious, he stopped looking for his wife, impatient hands no longer reaching for someone who wasn’t there.

Gone.

Daniel was starting to forget.

Now, if this were any of a thousand other people in the world, maybe that’d be okay. But Daniel wasn’t wired that way. Love was forever. A promise was forever, and so two years ago he shifted the wedding picture to his nightstand as a reminder of exactly how much his wife meant to him.

It didn’t help.

No matter what he did, no matter what he told himself, in those first seconds of the day his hands stayed stubbornly buried under his pillow. That betrayal to her memory burned him as badly as her death.

And so for the past seven years, the hard-on stayed.

Daniel didn’t look at other women, he didn’t flirt with other women, and he sure as hell didn’t sleep with other women. Maybe his sleep-bagged mind would betray her, but his body wouldn’t.

His wifeless life settled into a dull pattern that he didn’t dare disrupt. And it was for that reason that when summer rolled into Manhattan, Daniel didn’t leave like so many other New Yorkers.

July in Manhattan was hell. Hot, humid, and the dense air hung low on the rivers, casting the entire island in a muggy shade of yellow. The hell-like conditions were the number one reason that most sane people left the city for the veritable paradise of the outlying beaches. The hell-like conditions were the number one reason that Daniel O’Sullivan was determined to stay, no matter what his two brothers wanted.

“I’m not going,” he told Sean and Gabe in his most serious, ‘don’t hand me that crap’ voice. And in case they didn’t pick up on that completely unsubtle hint, Daniel turned back to the ghostly glow of the computer screen, ignoring them. They didn’t usually gang up on him, actually up until this point, it’d never happened before.

Stubbornly, Daniel scanned the bar’s monthly spreadsheet, his eyes moving back and forth over the numbers with appreciation for such simplicity. Invoices and deposits showed a nice, tidy bottom line in the black. All in all, excellent news.

The bar currently known as Prime had sat on the far west side of 47 th street for almost eighty years, and had been run by an O’Sullivan equally as long. Gabe ran the place now, with Sean and Daniel as near silent partners, except on Saturdays when the three O’Sullivans worked there – Gabe and Sean to bartend, and Daniel to do the books.

After their uncle, the previous owner, died, Gabe had paid up the back taxes on the place, against Daniel’s advice. A bar in Manhattan was a shaky financial investment, but Gabe wasn’t guided by business-sense, but more by the desire to see the family legacy restored to its old grandeur. Against his own better judgment, Daniel had set up a desk and computer in the storeroom downstairs, so he could help with the accounting. The tiny storeroom was barely designed to accommodate one person. When you put three full-grown men in there -- like now -- the tiny quarters were stifling.

“It’d be good for you to get out of the city, meet some people,” said Gabe, leaning back against a tall stack of cases of rum. Gabe, the youngest of the three, was a great bartender, ergo, a people-person who never quite got the concept of being alone.

“And you could get laid,” contributed Sean, in his own special way. Every man had one gear – sex – but wise men learned at an early age that you had to keep that fact hidden if you wanted to avoid complications in life and love.

Sean had the exact opposite approach. With women, he was honest and upfront about his sexual needs, and didn’t try to apologize for it. Illogically, women never seemed to mind, which Daniel had never understood. Maybe it was Sean’s law school diploma, maybe the planets had been aligned at his brother’s birth. Daniel didn’t know, didn’t lose sleep over it, but there were times, like now – when Sean’s “I know everything” attitude could be a complete pain in the ass.

“You haven’t had sex since Michelle died, have you?” asked Sean, highlighting the mix of his lawyer-like interrogation skills combined with his general knack for the truth, tact be damned.

Gabe glared at him, so Daniel didn’t have to. “You said you’d handle this with sensitivity.”

“That was sensitivity,” defended Sean. “I could have gotten a lot more graphic and reminded him about what he’s been missing out on, but I took pity.”

“Get the hell out of here,” ordered Daniel, but neither of his younger brothers moved. At one time, they’d listened to him, obeyed him, and respected him. One more thing that changed after 9/11.

How soon they all forgot. When Gabe hit the minors in Little League, it was Daniel who taught him how to pitch a fast-ball. And when Sean went off to college, it was Daniel who had explained all the knobs and buttons on the stove and dishwasher, respectively, without once making fun. And this was the thanks he got for keeping a straight face the whole time?

Daniel turned back to the computer. At least it didn’t nag him.

Sean reached around his brother and turned off the monitor. “I think you need to rethink this monk strategy, Daniel. It’s not working. You’re tense. You’re somber. Think back to the old days when you were--”

“Tense and somber,” filled in Gabe.

“It’s none of your business,” snapped Daniel, not looking up from the blackened screen. Usually teasing didn’t bother him, but whenever the calendar moved closer to September, something hot, humid, and hell-like rose up inside Daniel.

“You can’t spend your whole life locked away,” said Gabe quietly. “Besides, it’s only one weekend.”

The “weekend”, as Gabe so politely phrased it, was a summer-share in the Hampton’s that Sean had rented, along with ten other lawyer types with too much cash and too much time for more respectable activities. There were would be tanned, curvy women spilling out of bikinis, and eye-crossing amounts of alcohol. It was a more adult, socially acceptable version of Spring Break.

Only in New York.

Daniel shook his head, powered back on the monitor, and then went back to work. Freezing them out usually worked, and he assumed that was the end of it, until Daniel heard light footsteps on the stairs.

Then, Gabe’s girlfriend, Tessa, appeared.

His brothers had brought out the big guns.

Daniel silently swore, as Tessa squeezed in next to Gabe, blocking his last escape route.

“You have to go, Daniel. I need you to check out a place about a mile down the beach.”

Tessa talked with a soothing voice, her eyes so innocent and guileless, compared to his two more Machiavellian, brothers. “I think it’d be perfect for one of my client’s, but to get a feel for the place, you really need to be there and see it during the day and night. It’d be a great favor if you could do this for me, Daniel. Please.”

Tessa was a real estate agent, and she lived and breathed it like other people inhaled oxygen.

Ah, jeez. The walls were closing in, and Daniel rubbed a hand at the back of his neck, trying to act as if there weren’t ten thousand needles sticking under his skin. It was one thing to turn down his brothers, it was another matter entirely to disappoint a woman. Out of the three O’Sullivans, Daniel was the polite one, the courteous one, the chivalrous one. Right now, he was the frustrated one.

“Getting your woman to fight your battles now, Gabe?”

Gabe pulled Tessa into the crook of his arm. “I’m not proud. It’s one weekend, Daniel, not a life-style change.”

“Why aren’t you going, Sean?” asked Daniel suspiciously.

Sean still stuck by his story. “I decided it would be better if we shoved you out of the airplane, so to speak. A free-range opportunity to cut loose for a few days. You could use it, dude.”

Daniel eyeballed his brother. If it’d been Gabe talking, he would have bought it, hook, line, and sinker. But this was Sean. “What’s the real reason?”

Sean slugged easily, knowing he was busted. “Ashley invited me to go to Miami and meanwhile, the time-share group needs a last guy to even things out. If not, I’ll get blacklisted for skipping. There’re statutes in place for summer-shares and anyone who violates them gets kicked off the island. Since Gabe’s off the market you’re the only brother left.”

Now that sounded like Sean. “I don’t want to bail you out.”

“I’m only thinking of you,” his brother said, wide-eyed with innocence. A man who was exposed to perjury on a daily basis could end up with his moral compass slightly tweaked.

Gabe coughed. “Don’t lay it on too thick, Sean.”

Sean’s eyes narrowed. “You’re going to sit back and let him rot down here? I don’t know about you, but I want my brother back. Three years passed, and I kept my mouth shut. Five years passed, I kept my mouth shut. Now we’re at seven years. I’m done keeping my mouth shut.”

“And aren’t we all grateful for that?” drawled Daniel, surprised that Sean was getting this worked up.

Sean pointed a finger at him. “Shut up.”

Even more surprised, Daniel did just that. He stared at his two squabbling brothers and rubbed his eyes, and discovered a new and improved guilt – with extra ulcer-inducing power. He’d done this to his family. Three brothers. As such, they’d always stood together, supported each other, and yes, they fought, because they were normal, but not like this, and not because of him. Daniel was the role model, the responsible one. Or he used to be. Like all the other changes in his life lately, that didn’t sit well. He didn’t want much. Mainly to be left alone, but he wasn’t going to have his brothers fighting because of him, either.

“I’d be crap company,” he said half-heartedly. Guilt did that to him. Made him weak.

Sean spread his hands wide, accidentally socking Gabe in the gut. “Nobody will notice. All of the guys are from the office. They don’t know you. Frank is bringing in four babes from a publicity firm in Chelsea that he says are infinitely doable. They’ll think you’re all dark and brooding. It’ll be great. One woman’s crap is another woman’s soulmate, who am I to judge?”

A soulmate? Man, Sean must have been nipping at the bottle instead of pouring it lately. A man didn’t meet soulmates twice in his lifetime. Some men weren’t even lucky enough to have it happen once.

“I don’t know,” muttered Daniel, but damnit all, Gabe was looking all happy and pleased, and even Sean was starting to smile. Daniel realized how long it’d been since he’d made his brothers happy. It seemed like forever. Mostly, all he’d been doing was making trouble and sending them on late-night binge-busts to rescue him from anonymous bars around the city and beyond.

Gabe put up a warning finger. “There is one rule. You can’t wear your ring, Daniel. Women who go after the rings… well, you’re not going there.”

“I’m not taking off my ring,” protested Daniel, rubbing the heavy gold band like a talisman. It wasn’t even old, or worn, the metal still brilliant and polished. Almost brand new.

Tessa nodded. “Sean’s right. You can’t wear the ring. The women will think you’re some sleazeball. It’s three days, Daniel. What harm can three days be?”

Sean and Gabe, he could handle, but he’d never liked saying no to a woman. It didn’t feel right. They were forcing him to say no to a woman. It was his Achilles’ heel, his fatal flaw, and they knew it and were exploiting him mercilessly. It was there in Sean’s smug, merciless smile, and Gabe’s way too innocent puppy dog look.

Three days. It was only three days at the beach.

Daniel stared at them -- all that was left of his family -- all banded together to put him through their own version of Hell in the Hamptons. And they thought they were doing him a favor?

Fine.

He’d go -- with his ring well-buried in his duffel. If he went, it’d make Tessa happy, make Sean and Gabe happy, and then he could return to his well-ordered life, and they would all think things were getting better.

Not a problem.

*******

There was a Greek god sitting on her beach. He’d been there for hours, nearly motionless in stark contrast to the MTV-worthy volleyball game being played out on the sand next door. In Catherine Montefiore’s current dreary mood, maybe she was more open to twenty-first century classical eye-candy, she couldn’t be sure. But, as she sat there, glued to the window of her grandfather’s beach house in the Hamptons, the visual was as arresting as anything ever painted by Hopper, Dali, or Picasso.

From her angle, she could only see him in profile. A hard jaw that looked chiseled instead of real. He had foregone sunglasses, staring sightlessly into the churning gray waters of the Atlantic, with the sun burnishing him in gold highlights. His hair was short and dark, with a few pieces curling waywardly at the neck, daring any stylist to mar with perfection. Thick, black lashes were clearly visible, even from the distance. Lean, angular cheekbones cast shadows on the hard lines below.

And that was only above the shoulders -- and what shoulders they were. In Catherine’s profession she saw nude men by the crateload, and she knew sculpted shoulders when she saw them. The hard plane of the trapezium sloped down to a marvelously projected deltoid. His forearms were balanced on his knees showing off rounded biceps and triceps, not in the wimpy expressionistic manner, but crafted in the more vivid Hellenistical style. Stalwart, capable, and brutally real.

With busy eyes, she studied him, tracing over the sinews and the tendons that visibly flared when he moved.

Her hands flexed, itching to study, and even more daring, to touch. Eventually, she was unable to resist any longer, and she pulled out her sketchpad and pencil, and her fingers flew, guided by equal parts artistic endeavor and lust.

As his shape began to reveal itself on the paper, she knew she was wrong. Gods were unmarred perfection. No flaws, no scars, all powerful, all seeing. This man wasn’t a god, but a mortal, complete with the scars that sprang from humanity.

This man was Odysseus, searching for home so far across the sea. Feverishly she sketched in the face, drawing from perfect memory now. The forehead cast a shadow over the rest of his features, sadness inherent in his brow. She left the eyes for last because she couldn’t imagine the loneliness that echoed there, aching to see his family, the broad, capable arms so uselessly empty.

Her quick fingers sketched out his body, a warrior’s body, but with him sitting in the deck-chair, the anterior view of his chest, along with the complete view of his lower torso, was obstructed. Conventional wisdom said that she needed two yards between her and the subject. In this situation – solitary woman ogling strange man -- two yards was too close, but she could do better than her current spot behind the windows. Quietly she opened the French doors that led out to the wooden deck, careful so that he wouldn’t hear and be disturbed.

The deck was small by Southampton standards. Four wooden Adirondack chairs, a green and white striped umbrella that shaded most of the area, and a few plants scattered here and there. The plants had to be replaced on a regular basis because although there were many talents in the Montefiore family -- a green-thumb was not among them.

After settling herself under the umbrella, and adjusting the chair to the locked and upright position, Catherine picked up her pad and pencil and stared out toward the western horizon. It was the innocent picture of a woman sketching the sun over the ocean -- not a woman fantasizing about the man that was parked on her beach. Catherine tilted her head a mere twenty degrees westward, achieving the perfect view.

Her sigh was louder than she intended, but really, it couldn’t be helped. His chest was powerful and broad, a sheltering bulkhead in any storm, delineated down the long axis by rippling abdominal muscles. His skin nearly bronze in the sun. Dark chest hair formed a narrow line down the sternum, leading to…. Catherine smiled to herself. There was art, and then there was manart.

Guiltily Catherine wiped away the drop of damning saliva that had dripped onto the sketch.

Catherine was nothing if not a product of her environment – her work environment, actually. Her grandfather was Charles Montefiore, owner of Montefiore Auction House, one of the nation’s premiere art and antiquities auction houses, thank you very much, and Catherine had worked her way up through the trenches. Starting as an assistant appraiser, then appraiser, and now she was an assistant to her grandfather on special projects, mainly high-profile auctions.

Not that she coasted on the family name, no way. Catherine had graduated with honors from Columbia with an undergrad and masters in art, yet in many ways she knew she was the disappointment in the family. She didn’t have her mother’s style, or her grandfather’s showmanship. Catherine had attended Manhattan’s most elite private school, summered in Europe , but a classical education didn’t solve personality defects. Her mother called her an introvert, Catherine preferred the more elegant, “reclusive artist,” but technically both of them were right.

She studied the sketch in her head with a critical eye. As an artist, it was the male form that captured her imagination. The power behind it, the strength of it, but unfortunately, most of the men she worked with were either gay or nearing retirement. Her exposure to rages of testosterone was limited to two-dimensional figures, flat and lifeless, and she liked the safety of the one-way relationship where she was in complete control. In the past eight years, she’d had two relationships in the accepted sense of the word. The one with Leon, which had sadly fizzled into abject nothingness because he was well… blah, and the relationship with Antonio, which ended when he realized he was a woman trapped in a man’s body.

After the Antonio fiasco, Catherine was faced with choice. To be aggressive and search out single men in their natural habitat – bars, or resign herself to days spent appraising the male torso and nights spent dreaming about it. Catherine had wisely stuck with two-dimensional men on a sketchpad or canvas, it was easier on her ego.

While she was busy on her sketch, a bikinied blonde approached him. Catherine frowned because Odysseus should not be bothered by the obviously fake melons that were bobbing in front of his face. Thankfully, his expression didn’t change when tempted by this modern-day Nausicaa, and the loneliness in his eyes stayed constant.

Classical baroque art would have been altered forever if some Hamptons Hussy had turned Odyssues into Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky Melon-Grabber.

No, Odysseus was worthy of so much more.

The blonde, not appreciating the rare masterpiece on the sand, waved blithely and then flitted away. Eagerly, Catherine went back to her work, shading, erasing, sketching, correcting, until, at last, the piece was finished.

For a moment she was caught breathless by the image on the paper. It was good. Really good. A smiled curved her lips because it wasn’t something that she thought often. Even Grandpa would be proud of her for this one.

Her sketches were a sideline brought on by too much exposure to great art, and too little talent to do anything serious with it. When you dealt with Van Gough on a daily basis, Catherine’s pictures of the male form resembled a kindergartener’s. A talented kindergartener, but still – a kindergartner.

But not this sketch. This sketch was special. She had captured the solitariness of him, the weariness juxtaposed against the noble bearing. The more she looked at the man -- the live man, not the two-dimensional likeness -- the more she wondered about him. She’d never seen one human being stay so still for so long, a master of self-control. People in New York never looked lonely. It was like a cardinal rule of the city. How could you be alone with eight million other people? Yet Catherine knew it was possible. Maybe that was why the man intrigued her so. Maybe…

Unfortunately, if she kept this up, she was going to get caught, so she stashed her sketchbook away, pushed on her sunglasses, and stretched her legs out in front of her. Finally, he moved, rising to his feet and she drew in her breath. She was still smiling to herself when he turned around, and quickly her smile disappeared in case he mistook it for an invitation. Catherine wasn’t built like the bikinied, sun-streaked blonde. She was a tall dishwater blond, fifteen pounds overweight on a good day, and she didn’t even want to talk about the bad days. She only bought one piece bathing suits that minimized her butt, which was where most of her weight settled when she overindulged in cupcakes -- which she often did on her bad days.

He looked at her, his eyes skimming over her, not sexually, but automatically, taking in the details of his surroundings of which she was a part. She fought the urge to cover herself. Better to ignore him, as if he were a painting on the wall and nothing more. He paused, and she could sense the indecision, but then he walked forward – toward her.

As he moved closer, Catherine glanced down, making sure her sketchbook was lying innocently closed on the ground. Check. No reason to be nervous at all.

He approached her, bare feet sinking in the sand, and sadly she realized that even his feet were glorious. She’d never sketched a foot in detail before, but now she thought she might.

“I hope I’m not intruding,” he said, and she shook her head as if he had hadn’t intruded on her brain since she’d first caught sight of him.

“You’re welcome to sit as long as you want.”

When he was this close, she could see his eyes. A dark rain-fogged gray. His gaze was detached, not in a cold way, but like the people captured in the paintings by Piero, empty and lifeless.

“I thought this place was empty, and next door’s been a nuthouse,” he told her, automatically endearing him to her because in her mind she knew next door was a nuthouse. Loud, laughing, filled with happy, beautiful people who splashed away in the pool. Yeah, right. When you worked in art, you learned that anything could be forged.

“Please, don’t apologize.” She spoke graciously, adapting the lady of the manor poise of her mother. “It’s not necessary. Stay.”

Restlessly he shifted on his feet, so staying didn’t seem to be in the cards. She knew the stance. She’d done it often enough. The man was itching to leave her company, but he waited, as if he knew he was only three words shy of being polite. Again, all familiar territory for Catherine. “I’m Daniel,” he said finally.

“Catherine.” She lifted her hand to shade her eyes from the sun, which was totally a great idea because when she blocked out the glare, and the shadows fell across his face, he seemed more alive. She could see the neat symmetry in his facial structure.

Oh, yeah, she was going to draw him. Capture the tiny dip in his chin, capture the stubble that dotted his jaw. Oh, yeah.

“Thank you, Catherine.”

“My pleasure,” she answered, because it was.

All polite obligations now out of the way, Daniel went back to his chair, and there he sat for several more hours until the sun set for the day.

Catherine stayed in the lounge, sipping on tea, and pretending to doze, and not once did he go into the water.

top.

That next morning, after a mere three hours sleep, Daniel rose, rubbing tired eyes. He’d forgotten the infinite joys of a summer share. The long hours of drinking, the bed-hopping, the endless unfunny jokes. In search of peace and quiet, he’d first tried sleeping on the outside, but when Chelsea and Bill went skinny-dipping in the wee hours of the night, Daniel gave up, creeping over to Catherine’s deck before finally settling into a deep sleep in one of the chairs.

Sean was going to owe him for this, and Daniel occupied those first waking thoughts creating endless painful punishments for his brother, almost all involving testicles being squeezed into a vise. Only two more days, he reminded himself, rubbing at the empty spot on his ring finger. Still, that didn’t stop the nightmares about losing it. With an empty ring finger, the hole inside him seemed impossibly bigger. Some things just weren’t meant to be left behind.

After a long stretch, he walked back to the nuthouse and was safely on one of the summer-share’s loungers when Catherine emerged on her deck. She waved, he waved, and they ignored each other for most of the morning until some dipwad got the bright idea of tapping a keg on the sand, which he couldn’t even do right. Daniel chose not to educate him on the finer talents of keg-tapping. That was long ago and far away. Instead he fled back to Catherine’s beach, praying she wouldn’t mind.

It took her an hour to approach. “You’re having problems next door, aren’t you?” she asked, collapsing down into the sand next to him.

Daniel laughed with little humor. “Yeah. I’d love to go home if I could, but the lawyers would report back to my brothers and I’d just have to do it again another weekend.”

“The lawyers?” she asked, taking off her sunglasses.

“My brother’s firm. Long story. You don’t want to hear it.”

She looked at him, looked out at the water, then looked next door. Eventually, she stared at him again, frowning. “Why are you here?”

“Not by choice.”

“I can see that,” she said, so quietly he almost didn’t hear.

That was what he liked about her. Her quiet. Everything about her was designed to escape notice. Her swimsuit was nearly identical to the sensible, one-piece she wore yesterday. Built for swimming, not for looks. Her blond hair was long and unstyled, falling past her shoulders. He didn’t think she was wearing make-up, but Daniel was no expert.

Although he really liked her eyes. Without her sunglasses he could see that she had nice eyes. Big, brown eyes that watched him steadily --

-- until he met her eyes, and then she blinked, looking away, a pale flush rising up her cheeks. Next door, one of the lawyers (Samuel?) chased a woman down the beach, until she turned and let him catch her.

Why did everyone have to be so damned loud? Daniel shook his head. He noticed Catherine watching the people next door. “You want to go over there?”

Quickly, she shook her head. “Oh, no. I’m comfortable here. What about you?”

“I’m happier from a distance. This way I get to study people.”

“Ah, a zoologist,” she said, her lips curving up for a moment.

“People are fairly easy to peg.”

“Really?” she asked skeptically, pulling her legs up underneath her, and digging her toes into the sand.

“Oh, yeah,” he answered, as if he were the world’s foremost expert at psychology. Gabe would have laughed his ass off, but okay, Gabe wasn’t here.

“So tell me about the man in the blue swim trunks.”

Daniel thought for a second. He didn’t know these people well, but he knew the types by heart. “Anthony. He’s a clown, goof-off, doesn’t take anything seriously.”

“What about the pale guy, the one who’s going to be hurting from the sunburn tomorrow?”

“Bill. I think. William. Bill. Billy. Something. He’s a little weird. Drinks too much. Works too hard.”

“What about the girl with the dark hair under his arm?”

“Her name’s Chelsea, ambitious, but does things with no half-measures.”

“So why is Chelsea, who does things with no half-measures, wasting time with weird Bill, when she really wants Anthony?”

“No way,” he said, but then he glanced over at Chelsea and realized that Catherine was right. Chelsea might be spending her nights skinny-dipping with Bill, but when Bill wasn’t looking, her eyes were glued to Anthony. That didn’t even make sense. “Okay, assuming that you’re right -- possibly. Then why’s she wasting her time with Bill?”

Catherine moved her head, and her hair fell across her shoulder, following the blue fabric of her bathing suit, stroking along the curve of her breast. Immediately Daniel looked back at Chelsea and Bill.

“She doesn’t want to be alone, and she doesn’t think Anthony will like her enough. Most people will latch onto anything rather than learn how to be by themselves.”

“I didn’t think that could be taught.” He’d spent the last seven years alone and didn’t have too many problems with it.

“I think so. It’s a good thing to be comfortable with yourself, knowing what you’re capable of, and what you’re not. You don’t have to waste so much time faking your way through life. Sometimes faking is worth the effort, but most of the time it’s not.”

The quiet voice of reason. Daniel liked her even more. “You do this for a living?”

“No, not even close,” she said, laughing.

“So how come you know so much?” he asked, because she had noticed details he missed. Coming from an accountant, that was just sad.

“Like you said, people are easy to peg.”

He looked at her, again, checking for the details he might have missed. She surprised him, but in a good way. It wasn’t that he was anti-social, it was mostly that everyone he met was chock-full of filler conversations that contributed absolutely nothing to anything – or so he thought. Yet here he was, having a filler conversation that contributed absolutely nothing to anything… or did it?

Catherine’s theory explained a lot. Why Warren in the office took off every Thursday for drinks after work with Thom, when he couldn’t stand the guy. Why Kim went to lunch with Madeline on Fridays, which was about the stupidest thing ever, since Madeline had taken Kim’s job as operations manager. How hard was it to eat alone?

“You have needy friends like that, too?” he asked curiously.

“One friend who keeps seeing her ex, who makes her miserable.” She leaned forward, her hair brushing over her shoulder again, down her breast. This time Daniel looked for a long minute before glancing away.

“Maybe she loves him,” he said, his voice rough. The heat was getting to him, making him lightheaded, his skin hot.

She slipped up on her sunglasses, her feet digging under the sand until they were completely covered. “She doesn’t love him. She doesn’t even like him.”

“People are strange,” he said, looking away from her, focusing on the waves until his brain righted itself.

“Got that right,” she agreed.

Their conversation drifted on from there, moving from one nothing topic to another, but he, he definitely liked this. As they talked, the sun shifted in the sky. Daniel leaned back in the chair, relishing the warmth of the rays that reflected off the water. All in all, it was definitely good. Definitely.

Eventually the conversation dwindled, and the silence fell, perfectly balanced to the soothing ebb and flow of the white-capped sea.

Catherine watched the waves lap up onto the beach, and then cleared her throat. “You’re welcome to sleep here if you’d like.”

It took a moment for the words to sink in and Daniel’s brows shot up at the invitation, in shock, and more than a little fear. She couldn’t have noticed. When it came to hiding things, Daniel was an expert.

Then Catherine glanced in his direction, caught his deer in the headlights look and laughed, a gurgling hiccup of noise.

“Not that way,” she told him. “We have a bunch of rooms, and I don’t play volleyball, or much else. Your brothers would never have to know.”

He sighed, a great explosion of breath. One bullet dodged.

“Nothing to be afraid. I promise,” she said, and he believed her. The offer was beyond tempting. Her beach house was a shining beacon of serenity compared to the reality show next door. As if God knew and was laughing, one of the lawyers pulled out a karaoke machine, and cranked up the volume, singing bad Bob Dylan at the top of his lungs.

“I don’t know. That’d be a big imposition on a stranger,” he said, but he heard the longing in his own voice.

Pleeb.

“I’m actually not that strange,” she answered seriously, which cemented his decision. Anything was better than ten thousand drunken choruses of Just Like A Woman.

“You sure you don’t mind?” he asked, not that he was going to let her back out now. She was promising him an escape from more late-night skinny dipping and the now-permanent ridge in his back where the deck chair slats had eaten into it.

She shook her head, her hair falling again, and this time he didn’t look at all. “I’m sure. I draw a lot out here, so if all you want to do is sit by the beach and stare into the sun, it’s not going to bother me at all.”

“You draw?” he asked curiously.

“Not well,” she answered, pulling her sunglasses back over her eyes, but not before he saw the uncertainty flicker in them.

“Still, it’s something,” he said, trying to reassure her. She looked as if she needed reassurance.

“What do you do?”

“I’m an accountant.”

“Exciting,” she murmured.

Daniel managed a half smile. “Don’t lie.”

She looked at him, black lenses hiding her eyes. “Actually, it suits you.”

“Most people say that as an insult.”

“No, you’re very quiet and thorough and intense. I think that would be good qualities for an accountant to have.”

She sounded completely serious. “Still, boring is boring.”

“Ha. Not likely,” she said so skeptically that he had to look at her twice.

“What do you do?” he asked, thinking that if she thought accounting was exciting, her job must be a complete snoozer.

“Art appraisal.”

Not a snoozer, not even close. “Now see, that’s exciting.”

“Yeah,” she agreed happily. “It usually is. We discovered a lost Picasso last year.”

“Now that’s much better than accounting.”

“But you love it, don’t you?”

Daniel didn’t try to lie. Truthfully he did love his job. The world needed accountants, like they needed scientists and garbage collectors. “I’m not designed to do anything else. There’s a balance to accounting. Very exacting, very precise. No room for error. At the end of the day, you know exactly where you stand.”

She smiled then, and he noticed that she had a nice smile. A full lower lip, and even white teeth that hinted at years in braces.

“Why do your brothers want you at the Hamptons?” she asked.

“To have fun.”

Catherine laughed. She had a nice laugh, too. Almost hesitant until she got into it and then the sound made him smile and want to laugh along with her, but he didn’t. “I shouldn’t laugh,” she said, putting a hand over her mouth.

“No, really, I think you should.”

“So you’re going to have a miserable time and prove them wrong, aren’t you?”

“It hasn’t been bad,” he answered honestly. Since he’d met her, he had liked sitting with her, talking, under no obligations to be funny, or witty, or charming, or any of those other sterling character traits that Daniel had long forgotten.

“I won’t say anything to your brothers,” she whispered.

“Thank you.”

“So, do you do anything besides accounting?”

Daniel hesitated, because he didn’t tell many people about the bar. There were expectations of a bar owner, more of the fun-loving, pleasure-seeking crap, and Daniel usually kept his mouth shut. But Catherine would understand. He knew it. She was the type of person who invited confidences, the type of person who didn’t demand or judge, and it had been so long since he’d had an ordinary conversation. He was surprised that he remembered how. “I’m part owner in a bar.”

The sunglasses came off again, and he wished she would leave them off, her eyes were strangely compelling. So completely content. “I’ve never met a bar owner before. You don’t seem the type.”

This time Daniel did laugh. “It’s my brother. He’s the type.”

“Ah. Your family must be close.”

“Family distance is highly underrated.”

She smiled at him. “Spoken by someone who is close to his family.”

“When they’re not playing therapist.”

“Do you want lunch?” she asked, and Daniel checked his watch. He’d talked with her for nearly two hours, and never noticed.

“I shouldn’t impose.”

“Puh-lease. You’re my houseguest now. What sort of hostess would I be if I didn’t feed you?”

“You have something beyond Cheetos and beer?”

She raised her brows. “That bad?”

“Not really, but I’m thinking your food is probably better.”

Daniel pulled on his T-shirt and followed her through the French doors to the interior of the house. Once inside, he heaved a blissful sigh. Now this was a beach house. There was no television, no stereo, only a couch overlooking the windows, two dainty sticks of wood, which Daniel termed “female chairs”, a wall of rare books, and what he guessed was really good art on the wall.

“This is a great place.”

“It’s my grandfather’s. I freeload often.”

“I bet he doesn’t mind.”

“Nah.”

She opened the refrigerator and stared inside. “Eggs, salad, tuna, and some berries.”

“Very sensible.”

“I have cupcakes and chips in the pantry.”

“I won’t judge. I swear.”

“Thank you. Actually, I shouldn’t have them,” she said, skimming her hands down over her hips. It wasn’t a seductive move, but a self-conscious one, but Daniel’s gaze automatically slipped lower, following her hands, and he felt something stir inside him.

A momentary flicker of heat.

Daniel looked away, and Catherine never noticed.

After lunch was over, Daniel grabbed a paperback thriller and sat out on the beach while Catherine sketched. He was curious to see her work, but she didn’t invite him to, and so he left it alone. He waited until there was a break in the karaoke next door, the lawyers driving off for dinner, and Daniel took advantage, grabbing his duffel.

No one had even noticed he’d been gone. Excellent.

When he walked through her French doors, bag in hand, she looked up from the book she was reading on the couch, as if he had disturbed her. Daniel didn’t usually second-guess himself, he didn’t have to. But this time, he did. “Are you sure you don’t mind?” he asked.

“Are you kidding? Don’t worry.”

After that, he stopped worrying and simply enjoyed himself. Dinner was great, and afterwards when the shadows of evening had begun to fall, Catherine broke out a bottle of 1982 Rothschild, pouring two glasses. “Grandfather’s got a truly excellent cellar,” she told Daniel, then sat next to him on the couch, curling her legs underneath her.

The wine seemed like the perfect ending to what had been the best day he’d had in some time, seven years in fact. Next door might have been When Good Lawyers Go Bad, but here, with the steady sound of the ocean, the quiet of the house, the easiness of her company, Daniel felt peace.

“This has been nice,” he told her. “I appreciate it.”

“You don’t expect much. I like that,” she said, lifting her eyes to his, and Daniel promptly forgot what he was going to say. It’d been too long since he’d been in such a close setting. He could feel the heat under his collar, the slow pound in his blood, and the push of his cock against what had been a loose pair of shorts until he had found himself fascinated by a set of wistful brown eyes.

Snap out of it, O’Sullivan.

Even before he could look away, Catherine did. Time for bed.

Alone.

He took a deep sip of wine and then placed it on the table, getting to his feet. “I think I’ll go to bed. Sleepy. Tired. Didn’t get much sleep last night.” He was rambling, pathetically rambling, but he needed to run and fast. The poor kid was probably completely unaware of the ideas that were suddenly flooding his brain.

Catherine uncurled herself from the sofa, and he found himself staring down the front of her bathing suit, which, up to this point, had been sensible and concealing. But now it wasn’t, nope, when a man was staring straight down her front, he saw flesh. Soft, pliable flesh. Soft, pliable bare flesh.

She lifted her gaze again, sending a shockwave through him for absolutely no reason because it wasn’t as if she was going triple-X on him. No, this was just her being her, and he was suddenly in danger of busting a seam. For nothing. Just a set of dark eyelashes. And the breasts. The soft, pliable… okay, it was really time to leave. Past time to leave.

Daniel told himself to move, but it was too late. He’d found bottles of whiskey that were easier to escape than one single, soulful pair of shadowy, brown eyes.

She rose from the couch.

His breathing stopped.

And then she kissed him.

» available at Amazon or Barnes & Noble

top