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"For the love of all that's holy, don't push!" Sean Connolly kept one wary eye on the rearview mirror and the other on the curving road stretching out in front of him. Why the hell was he the designated driver to the hospital?
"Just mind the road and drive, Sean," his cousin Ronan complained from the backseat. He had one arm around his hugely pregnant wife, drawing her toward him despite the seat belts.
"He's right," Georgia Page said from the passenger seat. "Just drive, Sean." She half turned to look into the back. "Hang on, Laura," she told her sister. "We'll be there soon."
"You can all relax, you know," Laura countered. "I'm not giving birth in the car."
"Please, God," Sean muttered and gave the car more gas.
Never before in his life had he had reason to curse the narrow, winding roads of his native Ireland. But tonight, all he wanted was about thirty kilometers of smooth highway to get them all to the hospital in Westport.
"You're not helping," Georgia muttered with a quick look at him.
"I'm driving," he told her and chanced another look into the rearview mirror just in time to see Laura's features twist in pain.
She moaned, and Sean gritted his teeth. The normal sense of panic a man felt around a woman in labor was heightened by the fact that his cousin was half excited and half mad with worry for the wife he doted on. A part of Sean envied Ronan even while the larger part of him was standing back and muttering, Aye, Ronan, better you than me.
Funny how complicated a man's life could get when he wasn't even paying attention to it. A year or so ago, he and his cousin Ronan were happily single, each of them with an eye toward remaining that way. Now, Ronan was married, about to be a father, and Sean was as involved in the coming birth of the next generation of Connollys as he could be. He and Ronan lived only minutes apart, and the two of them had grown up more brothers than cousins.
"Can't you go any faster?" Georgia whispered, leaning in toward him.
Then there was Laura's sister. Georgia was a smart, slightly cynical, beautiful woman who engaged Sean's brain even while she attracted him on a much more basic level. So far, he'd kept his distance, though. Getting involved with Georgia Page would only complicate things. What with her sister married to his cousin, and Ronan suddenly becoming insanely protective about the women he claimed were in "his charge."
Damned old-fashioned for a man who had spent most of his adult years mowing through legions of adoring females.
Still, Sean was glad to have Georgia along. For the sanity she provided, if nothing else. Georgia and Sean would at least have each other to turn to during all of this, and he was grateful for it.
Sean gave her a quick glance and kept his voice low. "I go much faster on these roads at night, we'll all need a room in hospital."
"Right." Georgia's gaze fixed on the road ahead, and she leaned forward as if trying to make the car speed up through sheer force of will.
Well, Sean told himself, if anyone could pull that off, it would be Georgia Page. In the light from the dashboard, her dark blue eyes looked fathomless and her honey-colored hair looked more red than blond.
He'd first met her at Ronan and Laura's wedding a year or so ago, but with her many trips to Ireland to visit her sister, he'd come to know Georgia and he liked her. He liked her quick wit, her sarcasm and her sense of family loyaltywhich he shared.
All around them, the darkness was complete, the headlights of his car illuminating the narrow track winding out in front of them. This far from the city, it was mainly farmland stretching out behind the high, thick hedges that lined the road. The occasional lighted window in a farmhouse stood out like beacons, urging them on.
At last, a distant glow appeared and Sean knew it was the lights of Westport, staining the night sky. They were close, and he took his first easy breath in what felt like hours.
"Nearly there," he announced, and glanced at Georgia. She gave him a quick grin, and he felt the solid punch of it.
From the backseat, Laura cried out and just like that, Sean's relief was cut short. They weren't safe yet. Focusing on the task at hand, he pushed his car as fast as he dared.
What felt like daysand was in reality only hours and hours laterSean and Georgia walked out of the hospital like survivors of a grueling battle.
"God," Sean said, as they stepped into the soft rain of an Irish afternoon in winter. The wind blew like ice, and the rain fell from clouds that looked close enough to touch. He tipped his face back and stared up into the gray. It was good to be outside, away from the sounds and smells of the hospital. Even better to know that the latest Connolly had arrived safely.
"That was the longest night and day of my life, I think," he said with feeling.
"Mine, too," Georgia agreed, shrugging deeper into the navy blue coat she wore. "But it was worth it."
He looked over at her. "Oh, aye, it was indeed. She's a beauty."
"She is, isn't she?" Georgia grinned. "Fiona Connolly. It's a good name. Beautiful, but strong, too."
"It is, and by the look of her, she's already got her da wrapped around her tiny fingers." He shook his head as he remembered the expression on his cousin's face as Ronan held his new daughter for the first time. Almost enough to make a jaded man believe innever mind.
"I'm exhausted and energized all at the same time."
"Me, as well," Sean agreed, happy to steer his mind away from dangerous territory. "Feel as though I've been running a marathon."
"And all we did was wait."
"I think the waiting is the hardest thing of all."
Georgia laughed. "And I think Laura would disagree."
Ruefully, he nodded. "You've a point there."
Georgia sighed, stepped up to Sean and threaded her arm through his. "Ronan will be a great father. And Laura she wanted this so much." She sniffed and swiped her fingers under her eyes.
"No more crying," Sean said, giving her arm a squeeze. "Already I feel as though I've been riding a tide of tears all day. Between the new mother and father and you, it's been weepy eyes and sniffles for hours."
"I saw your eyes get a little misty, too, tough guy."
"Aye, well, we Irish are a sentimental lot," he admitted, then started for the car park, Georgia's arm still tucked through his.
"It's one of the things I like best about you"
He gave her a look.
"the Irish in general, I mean," she qualified.
"Ah, well then." He smiled to himself at her backtracking. It was a lovely afternoon. Soft rain, cold wind and new life wailing in the hospital behind them. "You've been to Ireland so often in the last year, you're very nearly an honorary Irishman yourself, aren't you?"
"I've been thinking about that," she admitted. They walked up to his car, and Sean hit the unlock button on his keypad.
"What's that then?" he asked, as he opened the passenger door for her and held it, waiting. Fatigue clawed at him, but just beneath that was a buoyant feeling that had him smile at the woman looking up at him.
"About being an honorary Irishman. Or at least," she said, looking around her at the car park, the hospital and the city beyond, "moving here. Permanently."
"Really?" Intrigued, he leaned his forearms on the top of the door. "And what's brought this on then? Is it your brand-new niece?"
She shrugged. "Partly, sure. But mostly, it's this country. It's gorgeous and friendly, and I've really come to love being here."
"Does Laura know about this?"
"Not yet," she admitted, and shifted her gaze back to him. "So don't say anything. She's got enough on her mind at the moment."
"True enough," he said. "But I'm thinking she'd be pleased to have her sister so close."
She flashed him a brilliant smile then slid into her seat. As Sean closed the door after her and walked around the car, he was forced to admit that he wouldn't mind having Georgia close, either.
A half hour later, Georgia opened the door to Laura and Ronan's expansive stone manor house and looked back over her shoulder at Sean. "Want to come in for a drink?"
"I think we've earned one," he said, stepping inside and closing the door behind him. "Or even a dozen."
She laughed and it felt good. Heck, she felt good. Her sister was a mother, and Georgia was so glad she had made the decision to come to Ireland to be present for the baby's birth. She hated to think about what it would have been like, being a half a world away right now.
"Ronan's housekeeper, Patsy, is off in Dublin visiting her daughter Sinead," Georgia reminded him. "So we're on our own for food."
"It's not food I want at the moment anyway," Sean told her.
Was he flirting with her? Georgia wondered, then dismissed the notion. She shook her head and reminded herself that they were here for a drink. Or several.
As he spoke, a long, ululating howl erupted from deep within the house. Georgia actually jumped at the sound and then laughed. "With the rain, the dogs have probably let themselves into the kitchen."
"Probably hungry now, too," Sean said, and walked beside her toward the back of the house.
Georgia knew her sister's house as if it were her own. Whenever she was in Ireland, she stayed here at the manor, since it was so huge they could comfortably hold a family reunion for a hundred. She opened the door into a sprawling kitchen with top-of-the-line appliances and what looked like miles of granite countertops. Everything was tidybut for the two dogs scrambling toward her for some attention.
Deidre was a big, clumsy English sheepdog with so much hair over her eyes, it was a wonder she didn't walk into walls. And Beasthuge, homelythe best that could be said about him was what he lacked in beauty he made up for in heart. Since Beast reached her first, Georgia scratched behind his ears and sent the big dog into quivers of delight. Deidre was right behind him, nudging her mate out of her way.
"Okay then, food for the dogs, then drinks for us," Georgia announced.
"Already on it," Sean assured her, making his way to the wide pantry, stepping over and around Beast as the dog wound his way in and out of Sean's feet.
Within a few minutes, they had the dogs fed and watered and then left them there, sleeping on their beds in front of the now cold kitchen hearth. Cuddled up together, the dogs looked snug and happy.
Then Georgia led the way back down the hall, the short heels of her shoes clicking against the wood floor. At the door to the parlor, Sean asked, "So, Patsy's in Dublin with her daughter. Sinead's doing well then, with her new family?"
"According to Patsy, everything's great," Georgia said.
Laura had told her the whole story of the pregnant Sinead marrying in a hurry. Sinead was now the mother of an infant son and her new husband was, at the moment, making a demo CD. He and his friends played traditional Irish music and, thanks to Ronan's influence with a recording company, had a real chance to do something with it. "She misses Sinead living close by, but once they get the demo done, they'll all be coming back to Dunley."
"Home does draw a body back no matter how far you intend to roam," Sean mused, as he followed her into the front parlor. "And yet, you're thinking of leaving your home to make a new one."
"I guess I am."
Hearing him say it aloud made the whole idea seem more real than it had in the past week or so that it had been floating around in her mind. But it also felt right. Okay, scary, but good. After all, it wasn't as if she was giving up a lot. And the plus side was, she could leave behind all of the tension and bad memories of a marriage that had dissolved so abruptly.
Moving to Ireland was a big change, she knew. But wasn't change a good thing? Shake up your life from time to time just to keep it interesting?
At that thought, she smiled to herself. Interesting. Moving to a different country. Leaving the familiar to go to the okay, also familiar. Since Laura had married Ronan and moved to Ireland, Georgia had made the long trek to visit four times. And each time she came, it was harder to leave. To go back to her empty condo in Huntington Beach, California. To sit at her desk, alone in the real estate office she and Laura had opened together.
Not that she was feeling sorry for herselfshe wasn't. But she had started thinking that maybe there was more to life than sitting behind a desk hoping to sell a house.
In the parlor, Georgia paused, as she always did, just to enjoy the beauty of the room. A white-tiled hearth, cold now, but stacked with kindling that Sean was already working to light against the chill gloom of the day. Pale green walls dotted with seascapes and oversize couches facing each other across a low table that held a Waterford crystal bowl filled with late chrysanthemums in tones of russet and gold. The wide front windows looked out over a sweep of lawn that was drenched with the rain still falling softly against the glass.
When he had the fire going to his satisfaction, Sean stood up and brushed his palms together, then moved to the spindle table in the corner that held a collection of crystal decanters. Ignoring them, he bent to the small refrigerator tucked into the corner behind the table.
"Now, about that celebratory drink," he muttered.
Georgia smiled and joined him at the table, leaning her palms on the glossy top as she watched him open the fridge. "We earned it all right, but I wouldn't have missed it. The worry, the panic" She was still smiling as he glanced up at her. "And I was seriously panicked. It was hard knowing Laura was in pain and not being able to do anything about it."
"Would it make me seem less manly to you if I admitted to sheer terror?" he asked, as he reached into the refrigerator.
"Your manhood is safe," Georgia assured him.
In fact, she had never known a man who needed to worry less about his manhood than Sean Connolly. He was gorgeous, charming and oozed sex appeal. Good thing, she thought, that she was immune. Well, nearly.
Even she, a woman who knew better, had been tempted by Sean's charms. Of course, it would be much bettersaferto keep him in the "friend" zone. Starting up anything with him would not only be dangerous but awkward, as well. Since her sister was married to his cousin, any kind of turmoil between them could start a family war.