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KEELIN O'DONNELL had always been a morning person. But today was testing her love of the a.m. to its limits…
She paused, looked back down the road, and sighed. The house had to be somewhere near by now, surely? Did people still die on the moors?
There was the sound of barking nearby. "Great."She scowled as she looked towards the source of the sound. "Now I'm going to be eaten by wild dogs. The Hound of the Baskervilles lives."
The barking sounded closer again. Not so much of a rabiddog sound as an excited yapping, which made her feel vaguely better, so her blue eyes searched what she could see of the surrounding countryside. With the last of the early morning mist clearing she could finally see more than the outline of the old stone walls on either side of her. Now there were fields, swirling with a hint of mist in pockets where the ground was still wet with morning dew.
She could hear the sea in the background, could smell it in the air. But even with the reassuring, steady rhythm of waves hitting rocks, she still felt like the last person left on earth. Until her peripheral vision caught sight of a shadow looming through a pocket of mist.
The dogs sounded closer, too, one of them appearing at the shadow's feet. And then a voice called one of them, followed by a whistle. So Keelin knew the figure was male. A man walking straight towards her—practically dreamlike—like some kind of early morning ghost.
The mist swirled again in pockets at his feet, the sun came out and caught in a glint off his dark hair. And Keelin stood transfixed as he got closer and looked straight at her.
He was sensational.
Straight out of the pages of some big-city magazine trying to sell country-wear to women who dearly hoped those clothes would make their citified men turn into this Adonis.
But as his tall, lean frame made its way over the uneven ground, two bouncing Springer Spaniels at his heel, Keelin almost felt transported back in time.
It was the clothes. It had to be. Long, waxed coat, open necked loose shirt; he even had a walking stick, for crying out loud! If Heathcliff had looked half as good in the early morning light on the moors then it was a wonder Cathy ever let him go…
As he got closer, his gaze still fixed on her, Keelin felt her mouth go dry. Where had this kind of man been hiding away from the world? Here, on some tiny island off the coast of Co. Kerry? What a waste.
Lord, he even sounded good; the most gorgeously deep, multifaceted, rumbling masculine tone. A symphony of a voice. Was he real?
Keelin stared up at him as he got closer, blinking her eyes slowly in stark appreciation. After all, she'd always been a bit of a sucker for tall, dark and handsome. What woman wasn't?
Say something, Keelin!
She silently cleared her throat and managed a husky. "Hello."
Oh, great start.
The man continued staring at her. "Are you lost?"
If his eyes were as great close up as the rest of him looked from a few feet away, then there was a very good chance she would be, but. "Not according to the man in the hotel who gave me directions, no."
"Patrick?" He smiled briefly, white teeth flashing and a momentary hint of deep dimples appearing on his cheeks as he continued closing the distance between them. "Told you it was only a stretch of the legs, did he?"
With legs the length of this man's it probably was. But Keelin was only five feet five on a heels day. And Valentia Island was hardly the place for heels.
She nodded resignedly. "A regular running joke for him, is it?" "Afraid so." His gaze still fixed on her, he reached one large hand down to a bouncing dog, which wagged its tail manically in appreciation. "Where were you looking to get to?"
"Inishmore House." Keelin tried her best not to feel jealous of a wet dog. After all, no one had patted her head since she was nine and she'd hated it then. "It's s'posed to be out here somewhere. And I read in a brochure that this island was only seven miles across so I can't have too much further to go before I fall off the other side."
"Oh, you've a mile or two to go before that happens." "That's reassuring."
He made the final few steps to the opposite side of the stone wall, which created a barrier between them. Keelin was momentarily distracted as one set of paws appeared on top of it, rocking a loose stone. The dog looked up at her with a tilted head, pondering her with soulful brown eyes before its long tongue appeared and it appeared to grin at her.
Smiling softly in response, Keelin let her eyes stray upwards to meet his. Rich, toffee colored eyes, framed with thick dark lashes. And she had to make herself pat the smiling dog's damp head to keep herself from sighing loudly in contentment. She'd always been easily swayed by great eyes. And this man had sensational eyes. But being a connoisseur had always led her into heartache before.
And a man like this one didn't live in a tiny place like this alone, did he?
"What brings someone like you to Inishmore House?" That was probably as close to 'What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" that Keelin had heard in a while.
Drop-dead gorgeous men who seemed to tug at every sense she possessed were a rare occurrence, so she didn't really know how she was supposed to deal with that. But corny one-liner chat-up lines she could deal with.
After all, she hadn't come all this way to look for a new love interest, had she? No matter how sensational he was to look at. It would be the kind of complication she really didn't need at this point in her life.
Nope, she had bigger things to deal with. She really couldn't allow herself to get so easily distracted.
So she drew on her wealth of social experience and changed her tone, became a little less warm, more businesslike. Making it clear she had somewhere to be, something important to do. "I'm looking for someone, is it nearby?"
"A short stretch of the legs from here."
Keelin stared up at him, unamused. "That's very funny." There was a sudden deep chuckle of laughter. And the deep, resonating rumble touched her somewhere deep inside. Briefly. As lasting as a single heartbeat, but she felt it echo through her like the ripple in a pool. And for a following brief moment, it frightened the life out of her.
It was obviously something in the atmosphere. It had to be. The setting, the mist, the lengthy dramatic entrance he'd made across the field looking the way he did. She was being seduced by the moment. That was all.
A form of escapism from her fear of the thing she was here to discover, possibly?
She squared her shoulders. There wasn't any time for fantasy here. She hadn't travelled halfway across the country to fawn over the first good-looking man she met.
"If you could just point me in the right direction? That would be very helpful, thank you."
"I can do better than that." He set his walking stick on the wall and, leaning on one hand, vaulted over it, landing neatly on his feet in front of her as she stepped back to make room for him. He then studied her up close and personal, his toffee eyes meltingly warm.
"I'll take you there."
Oh, no, Keelin didn't think so. She read a lot of murder mysteries, thank you. And this man was dangerous enough as it was, looking and sounding the way he did…
"No, it's fine, thanks. I can find it if you point me the right way." "I'm going that way."
Not with her, he wasn't. "Really, I'm sure I can—" "Aren't there any gentlemen left in the big cities these days?" Not so much. But that wasn't the point. "You're a complete stranger, I don't know you."
"Well, that's easily remedied." He reached out a large hand. "I'm Garrett—"
"I don't actually need to know who you are, either. I'm sorry. I just need to get where I'm going. I'm not here to get picked up by strangers in the middle of nowhere."
The hand dropped back to his side. "Bit full of yourself, aren't you?"
Keelin noted how his face remained impassive, but a twinkle of light stayed in his eyes, hinting at his amusement. Lord, but he was tempting. A nine point nine on the Romance Richter scale. But she refused point-blank to allow herself to be swayed by him. Her mother had come to this place once and been "swayed" and look where that had got her!
The thought refocused her, so, instead of allowing herself to be tempted by his obvious charms, she frowned, crossing her arms across her chest and tilting her chin as she answered. "Look, Mr—"
Her frown upgraded to a scowl at the sound of his steady deep tone and her own visceral response to it. Well, her attempt at a cool brush-off hadn't worked, so she'd have to be direct.
"Garrett. I'm sure there's more than enough female fodder amongst the usual tourists here to keep you amused for a few months a year. But I'm not a tourist. Neither am I on the market as fodder. And I won't be here long enough to be swayed by you turning on the rustic charm. So why don't you just point a finger in the general vicinity of where I need to go and I'll spread the word to the tourist board about how friendly the locals are." She added a sugary-sweet smile for good measure.
"I thought you said you weren't a tourist?" The calm tone to his voice made her falter briefly. "I'm not." "Well, then, how are you going to tell the tourist board that you noticed I had rustic charm?"
What was she now, a magnet for wise guys? Perfect. She sighed. "Forget it. I'll find it myself."
Even that jolly local prankster Patrick wouldn't have sent her in the wrong direction.
Garrett fell into step beside her and when she glared sideways at him she almost tripped over one of the Springers.
One large hand shot out and caught her elbow, steadying her, long fingers curling in and around as she leaned briefly into his strength.
But she recovered quickly, snatching her elbow away, up at him while still glaring. "Would you just go away?"
"I already told you I was going this way." "Well, then, I'll just wait right here "til you're gone before I start walking again."
His mouth quirked, teasing at his dimples as he silently watched her folding her arms again. Then he mirrored the movement, blinking down at her with an intense gaze. "Are you always this rude to someone who's trying to be a gentleman?"
"Only when I'm stranded in the middle of what could be, as far as I know, the killing fields of Co. Kerry. Bodies might never be found way out here."
"Do I look like a mass murderer to you?" "You wouldn't have to be a mass murderer—there's only one of me."
His eyes glowed. "Well, I'm one of the good guys, honest. And I know where I'm going. You could dander on up this road and walk off the cliffs if I let you. And that would definitely ruin my reputation as a good guy."
Keelin stared at him for a long, long moment. Well, just because…
Then she finally shook her head, recognizing that the spark in his eyes was teasing, not the least little bit threatening. Though how she could possibly have known that so surely after ten minutes stunned her. It was too surreal. She just really needed coffee—a nice mocha cappuccino maybe. And the gentle hum of traffic in the background that would fill the "if you scream noone will hear you" void. And not to have walked so far already in one morning would be good, too.
Mind you, so would sleeping a single wink the night before she'd come out on this quest of hers in the first place…
When she said nothing, merely unfolding her arms and staring up at him, Garrett's mouth twitched again. He was obviously easily amused.
One of the bouncing Springers seemed to notice there was tension in the air and decided to help dissipate it by jumping up to say hello, leaving a matching set of paw-prints on her pale beige trousers.
Keelin flinched, as much out of surprise as anything else. She liked dogs, normally.
"Down, Ben!" Garrett's voice sounded firmly and the dog obeyed immediately, moving around his master's legs to sit at his side before looking upwards with an expression of apologetic adoration.
Keelin glanced down at her trousers. "Oh, terrific."She raised both arms from her sides and let them drop. "That's just great."
"They're a little over-friendly at times."
Ignoring the rueful tone to his voice she smiled sarcastically. "Seems to be a glut of that here, doesn't there?"
His eyes studied the paw-prints, then dropped lower. "Are those supposed to be wellingtons?"
Keelin looked down too. "They are wellingtons." She should know; she'd bought them especially for her trip, after all. Not much call for wellingtons in the middle of Dublin.
When he continued to study them she raised her eyes and studied the top of his head. Lord, he even had gorgeous hair: thick, sleek, deep chocolate brown, the kind of hair that begged to have fingers thread through it.
What were they talking about again? Oh, yes. "What's wrong with them?"
"They have flowers on them."
Keelin nodded and spoke slowly. "Y-e-s, I'm a girl."
His head rose, toffee eyes sparkling again as his voice dropped to a more intimate tone. "Yeah, I got that."
Her cheeks warmed. "It's just that wellingtons normally come in green or black." "Or navy?" She batted her eyelashes.
Garrett nodded slowly. "Sometimes in navy." There was a brief silence. While Keelin stared into his eyes and momentarily forgot how to think. She could feel her pulse beating erratically, could hear her heart thudding against the wall of her chest. Aw, c'mon! She was getting turned on by a conversation about wellington boots now? How sad did that make her?
"You really need to get off this island more, you know that, right?"
"Explore the world of possibilities available to wellington wearers worldwide?"
"Exactly. Broaden your horizons some."
He stepped a little closer, lowering his head to grumble. "You see, I would, but I'm a boy. We happen to like green, black or navy. It's much more practical."
Keelin swallowed convulsively. "So—'he smiled a slow, sensual smile "—you ready to walk a little more? Now that we know where we stand on the wellingtons issue?"
"You're not going to let me walk on my own, are you?" She somehow knew that instinctively.
Garrett shook his head. "Nope."
Damnable chivalry! Whose idea was that in the modern era? Women like Keelin really weren't used to being treated this way!
Allowing herself just a second more of up-close study, she then forced herself to look away, sighing dramatically. "Well, lead on, then, if you must. But if we get near anything that remotely resembles a shallow grave, I warn you—I've taken classes in self-defence."
There was another low, rumbled chuckle of laughter beside her as they fell into step along the narrow laneway. "You've been in the city too long." "What makes you so sure I'm from the city?" "It's written all over you. You look—" his face turned to study her profile "—expensive."
Keelin tilted her head his way as she walked. "Now, Garrett, did you just go calling me high maintenance?"
His mouth quirked yet again. "Are you telling me you're not?" If only he knew. "If you knew me better you'd know I'm one of the least high-maintenance women on the planet. But, please, feel free to jump to conclusions."
"That's why you're enjoying being on the island so much already, I take it?"
No, that wasn't why she wasn't enjoying the island.
She focused her gaze forwards, following the gentle sweep of the narrow stone-wall-lined laneway she was walking along, to where it had branched out in two different directions. It could almost have been metaphor, but then every path taken had a set of choices, right? She sighed, and a confession rolled off her reluctant tongue.
"It's not the island's fault. I just get a little tense when I'm nervous."
"And I'm making you nervous, am I?"
She glanced his way again with a small, mischievous smile. "Now who's full of themself?"
He smiled a glorious, full, dimpled smile in return and Keelin found herself laughing.
Garrett leaned his head a little closer. "That's better. See, now you look less high maintenance."
She was still smiling in amusement as his focus went back to his dogs, his upper lip flattening briefly against straight white teeth as he whistled them back into closer proximity.
"Do you flirt with every woman who gets lost on this island, then?"