Ross De Courtney strode into the ancient chapel, having landed his helicopter five minutes ago on a clifftop on the west coast of Ireland.
The chapel was nestled in the grounds of his soon-to-be new brother-in-law’s imposing estate—and currently decorated in glowing lights and scented winter blooms, and packed with a crowd full of people he did not know.
Soon-to-be, my arse.
A few of the assembled guests glanced his way as he headed down the aisle towards the happy couple who were in the midst of saying their vows—the groom dressed in a slate-grey designer suit and the bride, Ross’s foolishly sweet and trusting sister, Katie, in a flowing white concoction of silk and lace.
His footsteps echoed on the old stone but were silenced by the thuds of his own heartbeat and the fury squeezing his chest.
Katie had asked him—very politely—in a message yesterday not to attend the ceremony. It was the first time she’d deigned to return any of his calls or messages for months. She had ‘things to tell him’ apparently—important things that needed tact and delicacy to convey—about her newly acquired fiancé, the Irish billionaire Conall O’Riordan who Ross had met exactly once, five months ago now, at the opera in London.
Tact and delicacy, my arse.
The man was a thug, a ruthless, controlling thug who, just like the first man Katie had married—when she was just nineteen and the boy had only a few weeks to live—was not nearly good enough for her.
He’d done the wrong thing, then. Objecting to Katie’s foolish decision to marry Tom and then standing back and waiting for her to see reason. And of course she hadn’t, because Katie was a romantic. So she’d gone ahead and married Tom. Tom had died, and Ross and Katie hadn’t spoken for five years, until that fortuitous night at the opera in December. When her Irish fiancé—who Ross did not know from Adam—had all but attacked him.
Well, he wasn’t making the same mistake twice. This time he refused to see his sister hitch herself to another man who might hurt her.
Maybe he had no right to intervene in her life. She was twenty-four now, not nineteen. And the truth was, he’d never been much of a brother to her… Mostly because he’d never even known of his half-sister’s existence until she was fourteen and her mother—one of his father’s many discarded mistresses—had died. He’d tried to do the right thing then, paying for expensive schools and then college and publicly acknowledging her connection to the De Courtney family. Something his father in his usual cruel and selfish way had resolutely refused to do while he was still alive.
Even though they’d never been close, he couldn’t let her marry O’Riordan, without at least making his feelings known.
More heads turned towards him as he approached the altar, the words of the ceremony barely audible above the thunder in his ears.
Personally, he would not have chosen to do this on the day, at the ceremony, like some scene straight out of a gothic novel or a Hollywood movie. But Katie had left him with no choice. She hadn’t replied in any detail to the texts and emails he’d sent her trying to re-establish contact after their disastrous reunion at the opera in the previous five months. Her insistence she was going ahead with this wedding because she was madly in love with O’Riordan hadn’t reassured him in the least.
Had the man cast some kind of a spell over his sister, with his money and his looks—or worse, was he a man like their father, who exerted a ruthless control over the women in his life?
The ceremony was reaching its peak when a young woman caught his eye, standing to the right of the groom holding the hand of a little boy dressed in a miniature suit.
Her wild red hair was piled on top of her head and threaded through with wild flowers.
The shot of heat and adrenaline and recognition that blasted into him was so fierce his steps faltered—and for one hideous moment he was back at the Westmoreland Summer Ball four years ago, dancing with the beautiful woman who had enchanted and mesmerised him that night.
Is it her?
He couldn’t see her face, just her back, her bare shoulders, the graceful line of her neck, the seductive curve of one breast, the slender waist and long legs. He dragged his gaze back up, and it snagged on her nape again, the pale skin accentuated by the tendrils curling down from her hairdo.
He shook his head, tried to focus, the heat so real and all-consuming it momentarily obliterated his common sense.
Don’t be ridiculous. It can’t be her. This is your memory playing nasty tricks on you at a time of heightened emotion, which is precisely why you avoid this kind of drama, wherever possible.
The girl, whose name he’d never even known, had captivated him that night. Her quick, caustic wit delivered in a musical Irish accent and her bright, ethereal beauty—all flowing russet hair, translucent skin and piercing blue eyes—had momentarily turned him into an intoxicated and rapacious fool.
The heat kicked him squarely in the crotch as he recalled what had happened later that night, in the estate’s garden. The fairy lights had cast a twinkle of magic over her soft skin as he’d devoured her. The subtle scent of night jasmine and ripe apples had been overwhelmed by the potent scent of her arousal as he’d stroked the slick heart of her desire. Her shattered sobs of pleasure had driven him wild as he’d eventually plunged into her and ridden them both towards oblivion…
They’d ended up making love—or rather having raw, sweaty, no-holds-barred sex—against an apple tree, not thirty yards from the rest of the party.
But what had seemed hopelessly hot and even weirdly romantic—given that he was not a romantic man—had turned first into an embarrassing obsession… After she’d run off—deliberately creating some kind of hokey Cinderella fantasy, he’d realised later—and he’d searched for her like a madman… And had then hit the cold, hard wall of reality three weeks later, when she’d contacted him on a withheld number, believing she could extort money out of him with the calculated lie he had got her pregnant.
And thus had ended his hot Cinderella fantasy.
Except it hadn’t quite, because he still thought about her far too much. And, damn it, still had this visceral reaction when he spotted random women in crowds who had similar colouring or tilted their heads in a similar way. It was mortifying and infuriating, and seriously inconvenient. How typical he should be struck down by that deranged response now, when it could cause him maximum damage.
‘If any man or woman knows of any lawful impediment why these two should not be joined in holy matrimony, speak now or for ever hold your peace.’
The priest’s voice rang out, jolting Ross out of the memories and slamming him back into reality.
He dragged his gaze away from the offending bridesmaid’s neck and forced the heat in his groin into a box marked ‘get over yourself’.
He stood for a second, suspended in time, furious at being forced into such a public display, but at the same time knowing he could not let this moment—however clichéd—pass. Katie had left him with no choice.
‘I object,’ he said. And watched Katie and the mad Irishman swing round.
Gasps echoed throughout the crowd. And Katie’s eyes widened. ‘Ross? What are you doing here?’
Her groom’s brows drew down in a furious frown. One Ross recognised from five long months ago at the opera the first time the man had laid eyes on him. The concern for his sister’s welfare, which had been twisting his gut in knots for seven hours during the flight across the Atlantic, turned to stone.
You think I give a damn about your temper, buddy? No way am I letting you marry her until I know for sure you’re not going to hurt her.
‘What am I doing here?’ he said, as conversationally as he could while the concern and the fury began to strangle him. ‘I’m stopping this wedding until I can be sure this is what you really want, Katie,’ he said, glad clarity had returned to his thoughts after the nasty little trick his memory had played on him.
But then the strangest thing happened: instead of saying anything, both Katie and her Irish groom turned to their left—ignoring him.
‘Carmel, I’m so sorry,’ his sister whispered.
‘Mel, take Mac out of here,’ the madman said in a voice that brooked no argument.
But then Ross turned too, realising the comments were directed at the young woman he had spotted a few moments before.
Recognition slammed into him like a freight train.
Her fierce blue eyes sparkled like sapphires—sheened with astonishment. The vibrant red hair only accentuated the flush racing over her pale features… And stabbed him hard in the chest.
The heat raced back, swiftly followed by a wave of shock. The concern that had been building inside him for hours now, ever since he’d made the decision to fly across the Atlantic, then pilot a helicopter to this godforsaken estate in the middle of nowhere to protect his sister, turned to something raw and painful.
It is her.
‘Mammy, who’s yer man?’
Ross’s gaze dipped to the little boy standing beside her. The childish voice, tinged with the soft lilt of the boy’s homeland, cut through the adult storm gathering around them.
The shock twisted in his stomach and his heartbeat slowed, the emotions rising in his chest becoming strangely opaque—almost as if he had walked into a fog and couldn’t find his way out again. He took in the child’s striking blue-green eyes, round with curiosity, his perfect little features, and the short blond curls rioting around his head, but all he could see was himself, aged about four, in the only picture he’d ever seen of himself as a child with his mother. Before his hair had darkened. And she had died. A photo his father had taken great pleasure in burning in front of him, when he was being sent off to boarding school.
‘Stop snivelling, boy. Your mother was weak. You don’t want to be weak too, do you?’
‘What…?’ The word choked out, barely audible as his gaze rose back to the woman’s face, the horror engulfing him. ‘How…?’
No. No. No.
This could not be true. This could not be happening. This was a dream. Not a dream. A waking nightmare.
He pressed his fingers to his temples, his gaze jerking between her and the child.
This toddler could not be his… His mind screamed in denial. He had taken the ultimate precaution to prevent this eventuality. He would not believe it.
She wrapped her arm around the boy’s shoulders, to edge the child behind her and shield him from Ross’s view.
‘It’s okay, Mac,’ she said, the smoky voice he recognised edged now with anger but no less seductive—her stance defiant and brave as she straightened to her full height, like a young Valkyrie protecting her offspring. ‘This man is nobody.’
He stepped towards her, determined to do… Something!
Who the hell are you kidding?
He had no clue what to do! The shock was still reverberating through him with such force, his sense of time and place and his usual cast-iron control had completely deserted him.
A strong hand on his shoulder dragged him back a step. ‘Get away from my sister, you bastard.’
He recognised the madman’s voice, could hear Katie’s straight afterwards, begging them both to calm down, but all he could do was stand and stare as his hot Cinderella lifted the child into her arms and headed towards the vestry.
She’s running away from me again.
For a moment he was back in the orchard, still struggling to deal with the shattering orgasm as he watched her panicked figure disappear into the moonlight.
But instead of scrambling to throw off the drugging afterglow while zipping up his trousers so he could charge after her, this time, he stood frozen to the spot. The boy’s gaze met his as the child clung to his mother’s neck. The neck that had driven him wild all those years ago… And again just moments before.
‘You need to leave.’ The groom tugged him round. ‘You weren’t invited and no one wants you here.’
‘Take your hands off me,’ he managed as he broke the man’s hold.
He swung back. He had to follow her, and the boy, but his movements were stiff and mechanical. His racing heart punched his chest wall, the residual surge of heat—always there when he thought of her—only disturbing him more.
O’Riordan grabbed his arm this time. ‘Come back here, you gobshite…’
Ross turned, his fist clenched, ready to swat the bastard like a fly, but he couldn’t seem to think coherently, or coordinate his body, so when he aimed at the man’s head, he missed.
The answering blow shot towards him so fast he had no chance to evade it. Pain exploded in his jaw, his head snapping back.
The fog darkened.
‘That’s an impressive right hook,’ he murmured, holding his burning face, a metallic taste filling his mouth as he staggered backwards.
The cries of assorted guests and Katie’s tear-streaked face were the last things he was aware of as he collapsed into an oddly welcome oblivion.
But as he dropped into the abyss, one last coherent thought tortured him.
How can she have given me a child…when I can never be anyone’s father?