Logan hugged the football clenched to his gut as he sailed through the air. He hit the ground with a heavy thud, made heavier by the three full-grown men who immediately landed on his back with grunts and snorts of male satisfaction.
Man, it felt good to be back home, playing ball with the guys again. Just like old times.
And, just like old times, he was once again at the bottom of the dog pile. But hey, it was definitely worth it since he’d just scored the winning touchdown. He spit the grass out of his mouth and smiled. “You guys still can’t catch worth a damn.”
That, apparently, had been the wrong thing to say because someone jabbed an elbow into his ribs and someone else popped him on the back of the head. He laughed and tried getting up, but his arms were pinned beneath him and he couldn’t move. The fact that his cell phone was digging into his hip made his position even more uncomfortable. “Okay, you sissies, get...off...me.”
Logan uttered an oath as he tried twisting his body so that he could somehow escape, and eventually breathe again, but the football was lodged securely against his solar plexus and the three oafs still on top of him weren’t moving. “Oxygen...oxygen would be good here, ladies.”
Kyle Cutler, the only doctor in the small town of Live Oak, and all around wise guy, tightened his grip. “No way, moneybags, we’re holding you for ransom.”
Jeff Mathews, the attorney in the group, laughed. “Yeah, how much you guys figure we can get for the poor SOB?”
“Probably not more than a few cents,” Kyle shot back, sounding disgusted.
“I don’t know,” Jeff said, “he did make Time’s Man of the Year. That should count for something.”
“Hmm, maybe. But making Society’s Most Eligible Bachelor...woohoo, we’ve got a pretty boy here.” This playful taunt came from Greg O’Donlan, a laid-back cop and Logan’s oldest friend. “I’ll give you a whole nickel if ya let me tackle him again.”
Kyle snorted. “Make it a dime and you’re on.”
Logan didn’t mind making the cover of Time, but that stupid article about him in Society was wearing on his nerves. Ever since it hit the newsstands, he’d been getting letters. And not just your typical fan mail kinds of letters, either. He was getting marriage proposals by the truckload, and strange women were asking him to father their children. He got pictures of women in all manner of dress and some not dressed at all. Thank goodness none of the guys took it seriously.
“A whole dime, huh? Kiss my...ass.” Logan laughed again and managed to free himself just enough to clobber someone.
That did it. The first punch was thrown, and the dog pile turned into a free-for-all. Chaos reigned. Garbled curses came from inside the pile.
“Hey! Where the hell are my handcuffs?”
“A cop, a lawyer, and a doctor all limp into a bar—”
“Forget the handcuffs, where’s your gun?”
“They’re bruised, bloody and will never get it up again, when all of a sudden—“
“Hey, speak for yourself!”
“Kick his butt back to the Big Apple!”
“Shoot him, dammit!”
With one last jab for posterity, Logan finally broke free and stood. Breathing hard, he bent over and rested his hands on his knees. A slight breeze teased the air, just enough to cool, and surrounded him with the stirred up scent of grass and dirt. Days like this were surely invented for the sole purpose of a good old-fashioned, rowdy game of football.
Live Oak didn’t see a lot of warm days this close to Christmas, and it felt good just to be outside in the sun. Still panting, Logan flashed a wicked grin. “Curtsy to the king, you pansies.”
Three sets of eyebrows lifted, just daring him to say one more word, but the muted ringing of his cell phone sounded from his pocket and cut off anything he might have been tempted to say.
The three other men rose to their feet as he checked his caller ID. His secretary. Hopefully with the latest figures on the mall project. And about time too, he’d expected this call hours ago.
“Hey, Dixie, what’ve you got for me?”
Good thing he’d gotten used to Dixie’s rapid-fire delivery, as he automatically processed the stream of numbers pouring from the phone, all the while doing his best to tune out the good-natured mumbling of his friends.
“Woohoo! Society’s playboy strikes again.”
“Bet I can guess exactly what she’s got for him.”
“Yeah, me too. Hey, Logan, why don’t you tell her to come here and give it to you in person?”
Logan rolled his eyes as he turned his back on his three friends, hoping his cell wasn’t picking up too much of the ambient noise. “Okay, Dix, tell Richmond he’s more than ten million too high. See if he’ll come down eight, then write it up. If not, go to Blankenship. Take Holcomb’s bid, but cut it down half a million. If he doesn’t like my figures, he can go elsewhere. The architectural team gets a ten percent bonus for coming in early. Same goes with the subcontractors, if they can match my timing. Anything else?” More numbers, along with names and dollar amounts, bounced off cell towers from New York to Georgia. “Okay, got it. I’ll talk to you Monday morning.” Logan ended the call and returned the phone to his jeans pocket.
He glanced at his friends. “I take it this means the game is over and it’s time for a beer?”
“Beer definitely works.” Kyle answered, then looked at Logan as the foursome headed off the field toward their cars. “You up for O’Malley’s?”
O’Malley’s pub. Now there was a place that brought a pang to his chest. Well, not really the place itself, which held more than a few mixed memories, but the thought of seeing Bailey O’Donlan again sure as hell stung.
She used to practically live at O’Malley’s—not surprising since her family owned the place. Back in the day, when he’d worked at the pub as a busboy, cook, or server, Bailey been a persistent thorn in his side—taunting him, playing pranks, dogging his every step—and impossible to ignore.
Even though she now lived in the apartment above the one in which he was currently staying, she’d managed to stay out of sight in the week since he’d been back. He knew she couldn’t avoid him forever, but so far she was doing a darn good job of it.
It might have been eight years since he’d last seen her, but hardly a day had gone by that he hadn’t thought about her. He’d picked up the phone to call her so many times he’d lost count, but each time anger and remorse had him hanging up before the call ever connected.
Logan mentally shook his head, bringing his focus back to the guys, and answered Kyle with his tongue in cheek, “You ladies got your kitchen passes?” All three of Logan’s pals were married, leaving him the lone bachelor in the bunch.
Jeff muttered, “Logan, you need a good woman.”
“If we don’t get him married off pretty soon, we may have to get Greg to actually shoot him just on general principle,” Kyle threatened.
Greg threw a left jab at Logan’s midsection. “Kitchen pass my ass, I don’t need permission to make a stop on the way home.”
Logan blocked the jab and smacked Greg upside the head. “That’s because you call Lana the minute you get there and start sucking up. Then you call two or three more times, not counting the call you make right before you leave.” Logan mimicked Greg’s Irish brogue and said with disgusting sweetness, “Aye, honey, I love you too, baby, nay sugar, I’m not drinking too much, uh huh, uh huh, sure, sweetums, love you, smooch, gag, kissy, kissy noise.” Logan mimed a noose around his neck. “If that’s not a kitchen pass, I don’t know what is.”
Greg smiled. “Jeez, Logan, you’re looking a little green. Is that envy I’m seeing?”
Logan looked up, ready with a smart-assed comeback, but noticed Greg watching him with an odd, thoughtful gleam in his eye. Then Greg made a face at something Kyle mumbled and the look was gone before Logan had a chance to decipher it.
Logan snorted. “Not likely. You guys keep your wedded bliss all to yourselves. No siree, I’m doing just fine the way I am.”
That was a boldfaced lie but no way was he telling this motley crew he was ready to settle down, oh hell no, they’d try to hook him up with every sister, sister-in-law, cousin, friend, co-worker and barmaid in this sleepy little town. And if that didn’t work, they’d no doubt bring reinforcements up from Atlanta.
Nope. He didn’t need his friends, or some frivolous magazine article, to play matchmaker for him. No how, no way. Finding a woman he could fall in love with, and who would love him back, wasn’t the problem. That part was easy—he could mess that up all on his own.
The problem was, he was afraid he already had.
Celebrity status or not, Logan Douglas Mitchell, founder and CEO of Logan Enterprises, lived alone in a world full of people and was, he was beginning to suspect, in love with a woman who apparently hated him.
For all his wealth, it seemed he was still missing out on a lot of the things his friends took for granted. Things like a real home and a family, and a woman who’d fill the empty space inside him. Lord knew, work wasn’t doing it for him anymore. Maybe it never really had, but he’d made a vow to himself years ago that he wouldn’t make the same mistakes his father had. He wouldn’t even consider settling down or getting married or starting a family until he was financially secure enough to care for them—no matter what.
And now, after working his rear off in more countries than he could name, accompanied by some sheer dumb luck, he’d made his money. But success had its price. On his last birthday, when he’d hit the big three-oh, his doctor had warned him to slow down. Logan had an ulcer and his blood pressure was on the rise.
But without nonstop work filling his life, it hadn’t taken long for his feelings for Bailey to resurface. Not that he’d ever managed to get rid of them in the first place, he now grudgingly admitted, but work had helped keep them on the back burner, held at a low flame.
Well, those feelings were on the front burner now. Blazing right alongside another yearning, equally strong, and even older. The yearning for a family and a home, a real home—not just a house—of his own.
That’s mostly why he’d come back, although he didn’t dare admit it to his friends. And especially not to Greg. Logan needed to see if the words his heart had been whispering to him could possibly be true. That the two yearnings were connected. He needed to know if his feelings for Bailey were really as deep, and as lasting, as memory made them seem.
“So, who’s Dixie, anyone special?” Greg asked, falling into step beside him.
Logan glanced at him in surprise. The question was casual enough, but there was something puzzling about his friend’s tone—something a little off. “She’s one of my assistants from the New York office,” he said after a moment. “She was just giving me the latest updates on the mall project.”
Greg nodded. “That mall must be a pretty big deal to command your personal attention.”
Logan frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, you’re a busy man these days, aren’t you, Logan?” Greg shrugged. “You’ve had projects in the county before, but none that have brought you home. Until now. I guess I’m wondering why that is?”
Logan sighed. Greg’s laid back attitude and typically guileless expression made it easy to underestimate his intelligence at times. He was right, of course. Logan had used the opening of a new mall his construction company was building to explain his presence here because he wasn’t ready to talk about the real reason. Or about the house he was in the process of buying.
“The mall’s not that big a deal,” Logan answered. “But the client is. Howard Grove gave me my first big break when I was just starting out, and he’s been a loyal customer ever since. His projects rate my personal attention, when I can spare it.”
Greg nodded thoughtfully. “Loyalty is a good thing, no question. And not only in business either.”
Logan sighed. Personal loyalty was not a subject he wanted to get into with Bailey’s older brother.
He took a deep breath and pushed his own private demons back into their closet, unwilling to give in to the regret and anger that had already eaten up too much of his past.
He could be a big man about this. He could forgive Bailey for what she’d done. And maybe, if he got lucky, she could forgive him, too. Maybe she’d even accompany him on the cruise he was taking next month. And maybe, if he were really lucky, he’d find out that his heart hadn’t just been playing tricks on him that one night so long ago. Maybe Bailey the Aggravator and Bailey the Enchantress were one and the same, and that together they comprised the woman of his dreams.
And what if it doesn’t work out? What are you going to do then—with your house, and your dreams and all your big plans?
Not wanting to dwell on what a long-shot his hopes were, he listened to his buddies’ good-natured grumbling as they all split up and headed for their cars to change into clean shirts. He didn’t know if he could afford to take this gamble on feelings he’d tried to suppress for eight years, but he knew he couldn’t afford not to.
To Bailey O’Donlan, O’Malley’s—the rowdy, noisy, neighborhood pub known for pouring a perfect pint of Guinness—was more like a second home than a bar.
Her great-grandfather had built this pub a hundred years ago. He’d had each and every stone brought over from Ireland, his ancestral home, so it could bring the charm and luck of the Irish to the New World. Even the timber was hand-hewn and said to be imported from an enchanted forest.
Bailey’s Uncle Sean on her mother’s side owned O’Malley’s now, kept it merry, and Bailey loved the place. She loved the pungent, yeasty smell of lager and ale, the shamrocks on the coasters, the yards of polished wood, and the warmth of gleaming brass.
A long mirrored wall behind the bar reflected row after row of bottles—including Ireland’s finest whiskeys—a drink for every man’s taste and budget. Off to the back were the dartboards—a serious business in an Irish pub—and several pool tables for the non-traditionalists. And on the opposite side, facing the bar, was the stage.
The pub was a warm and welcoming place where people socialized, relaxed, told lies, and exchanged gossip and rumors as the pints and shorts slid across the bar. It had a large fireplace, cobblestone floors, and a wall left of the stage covered in flutes, fiddles, bodhráns, and concertinas.
The stage was Bailey’s primary love. More often than not, she and her Uncle Sean wound up being the main attraction. Their repertoire of songs was large and they always played to the audience. Sean could sing a soulful ballad so moving it hushed the room, and then launch into a rollicking sea shanty or wild Irish reel that got everyone singing along and tapping their toes.
On Saturday nights, when she did her interactive segments on male-female relationships, fondly referred to as Foreplay, the place was always packed to capacity. Husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, all crammed together around tables drinking lager and ale, and with her help they tried to figure out who was on Mars, why they weren’t on Venus, and when were their feelings love, lust, or infatuation, who should say I love you first, and whose cave was it anyway?
Shifting on her barstool, Bailey sighed.
“The sparkle’s gone from your eyes, half-pint. Have you a mind to tell your old Uncle Sean what’s troubling that pretty little head of yours this fine afternoon?”
She glanced up from her beer to see her uncle wiping the bar in front of her. Bailey gave him a smile, then remembered why she was sitting at the bar nursing a beer in the middle of the day. Her Irish temper sparked. Struggling to hold back a curse, she answered, “Logan Mitchell is back.”
Grumpy and distressed, she fished in the pocket of her skirt for a Tootsie Roll.
With no advance warning, not so much as a single phone call, Logan Mitchell, the blight, had come back. Just like that. It was the same way he’d left. No word, no farewell, just poof, gone.
In all fairness, she knew he’d had to leave to go back to college to finish his master’s degree, but darn it, he could have at least said good-bye. Could have even said, “Hey Bailey, thanks for the roll.” Or, “It’s been fun.” The long shot would have been, “Bailey, I love you and I’ll be back to marry you.”
Apparently none of those had worked for him, she hadn’t worked for him, because he’d never said a single word, not then, and not since.
For eight long years she hadn’t had to worry. But now, with Logan’s return, her worst nightmare was coming true.
She simply couldn’t afford for him to slide back into her life again. She didn’t want or need him in her life, or Kelsie’s. Bailey knew the cost now and wasn’t willing to pay the price with her heart a second time.
She just hoped that wherever it was Logan was off to next, he would leave soon. Preferably before Kelsie returned from her vacation with Jack.
Sean stopped his wiping to lean both elbows on the bar. “Aye, I knew Logan was back, but I’ve not seen him yet since he rented the apartment through Greg. After those magazine spreads, I figure he’s probably hiding out. Every single woman in town is going to be dogging him.”
“Hmmph,” Bailey muttered and took a long swallow of beer. Logan had made it more than clear the last time he’d seen her that he wanted no entanglements, no relationship of any sort.
“Aye,” Sean agreed, and started tidying the bar again.
She snorted. Logan, the sorry excuse for a man, was a nonstop workaholic who wouldn’t know love if it bit him on the bum.
I wonder if you’ve achieved your dreams now, Logan. Are you finally rich enough, powerful enough, to be happy?
Tension gripped her stomach. And if you find out the truth about Kelsie, what then?
Panicking at the thought, even as she assured herself she wouldn’t let it happen, she put her worries behind her. For now, Kelsie was safe, and Bailey had customers to tend to.
Hopping off her stool, she headed for the business side of the bar. Copping a thick Irish brogue, she winked at her uncle. “Sean, me dear, it’s gettin’ a wee bit busy, so how ‘bout if I come ‘round there and start helpin’ ya with the buildin’ o’ the Guinness?”
“Don’tcha be makin’ fun o’ me Irish now, lass, or I’ll be storin’ ya under the stairs.”
“Aye, I’ll bet you say that to all the girls.” She gave him a wide, happy smile that she didn’t quite feel, then strode off to take an order from Lonnie and Clem, two retired regulars sitting at the end of the bar playing chess.
She’d just built and delivered their two black and tans when she heard a familiar voice.
“Hey, Bailey, how about four pints of the Irish?”
She beamed. Her gang was finally here. Kyle, Jeff and her bothersome brother Greg always came in on Saturdays right after one of their ballgames. Usually Jack did too, but her oldest brother was out of town for the next few days showing Kelsie a good time at Disney World and every other tourist attraction in Orlando.
So then, why four pints? Oh. Oh hell. She’d hoped she might have a little more time, another week, maybe longer before...
Her stomach tightened up and she held onto the counter.
When she spotted the fourth member, the noise in the pub faded away, the walls seemed closer and the air thickened. Holy saints.
Her heart stumbled and time came to a screeching halt as the present melded into the past. Suddenly eight years seemed like no more than eight days.
Dazed, Bailey could only stare. Good lord, the last time she’d seen him he’d been gorgeous, but now, well now he’d turned into a man.
A man she almost didn’t recognize. Gone was the hungry, haunted look that had been in his eyes for as long as she could remember. He no longer looked quite so worried or worn down. No, now he looked like what he’d become—a man of money and means, power and fame.
The room quieted and people stared, then they all seemed to sit straighter in their chairs. Praise Heaven, when the town’s single women found Logan, he was going to get mobbed. And wouldn’t that be fun to see.
She sighed and rubbed the side of her neck. Eight years. And even now Logan Mitchell’s presence still had the power to pierce her heart.
She should’ve been better prepared for this, after all he’d always been part of their gang. But nothing could have prepared her for the knee-weakening heat spreading low in her belly the second she saw him.
Well, she thought with an inward huff, that simply wouldn’t do. Wouldn’t do at all. Going to mush in the knees was bad enough, she wasn’t going to let her head, or her heart, have any say in the matter. No, instead she’d focus on the mad, the hurt, and the nausea-inducing fact that Logan had actually taken time out of his busy workaholic schedule to stop long enough for some down time in this small, nowhere town.
She just prayed he wouldn’t be staying long, that he’d go right back under whatever rock he’d crawled out from. Kelsie would only be safely gone until Tuesday. If Logan was still here when Kelsie returned, life as they knew it could go all shades of bad. If Logan cared. Which, of course, she had no way of knowing.
Regardless, she absolutely could not afford the risk.
Logan had turned to say something to Kyle, but when he saw her, he stopped mid-stride. Their gazes locked, and with her chin in the air, she forced herself to meet his stare head-on.
Then he smiled a slow, lazy grin, winked, and continued toward the back.
He actually had the nerve to wink? At her? Why, the man was a...a bloody slime. A low-bellied snake. A blasted wick.
And still an incredibly gorgeous hunk of male.
It didn’t matter one bit that his T-shirt was stretched to its limit over broad shoulders and the muscled wall of his chest. Or that his jeans hugged his rear end and thighs in all the right places.
Or that he still had the same killer smile. Oh boy. Okay, so she admitted it. There was nothing she admired more in a man’s looks than a beautiful smile. And Logan, drat the man, was the perfect poster boy.
So what? The man was a still a dog.
Yeah, but a dog with some great teeth.
Get over it Bailey, he’s history. Just remember what happened last time. The dog bites.
Oh, she remembered all right. And the fact that she’d been the one who’d made such a fool of herself the last time she’d seen him still grated these eight years later. But not enough to completely keep away the pleasant memory blazing through her, the rekindling of an old yearning in the center of her heart. She could still feel his touch, taste his mouth on hers, see his ice blue eyes hot with desire...
A series of images from that long ago Christmas Eve flashed through her mind—Logan’s gentleness as he touched her, his patience as he brought her to her first climax, his passion, and then his solid chest under her cheek as they slept.
The sharp pinch in her heart slammed her back to reality. She had other, more important, things to worry about—like Kelsie. And her future.
Moving more from habit than conscious thought, she grabbed four glasses, then set about building four pints of Guinness. Fill to seventy percent, let settle. Top off.
She eyed the fourth glass with a smirk. She was sorely tempted to add a hefty dollop of dish soap to Logan’s beer just out of spite.
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