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Brady Finn liked his life just as it was.
So there was a part of him that was less than enthusiastic about the latest venture his company, Celtic Knot Games, was investing in. But he'd been overruled. Which was what happened when your partners were brothers who sided with each other on the big decisions even as they argued over minutiae.
Still, Brady wouldn't change a thing because the life he loved had only happened because he and the Ryan brothers had formed their company while still in college. They'd strung together their first video game with little more than dreams and the arrogance of youth.
That game, "Fate Castle," based on an ancient Irish legend, had sold well enough to finance the next game, and now Celtic Knot was at the top of the video game mountain. The three of them had already expanded their business into graphic novels and role-playing board games. Now they were moving into seriously uncharted waters.
What the hell the three of them knew about hotels could be written on the head of a pin with enough room left over for War and Peace. They'd drawn straws to see who would be the first of them to take over an old hotel and turn it into a fantasy. Brady had lost. He still thought the Ryans had rigged that draw to make sure he was up to bat first, but since there was nothing he could do to change the outcome he was determined to take this challenge and turn it into a win. Brady wouldn't settle for less.
The three of them had built this company from nothing. He looked around, silently approving of the workplace. Housed in a Victorian mansion on Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach, California, Celtic Knot's offices were relaxed, fun and efficient. They could have taken over a few floors of some steel-and-glass building, but none of them had liked the idea of that. Instead, they'd purchased the old house and had it rehabbed into what they needed. There was plenty of room, with none of the cold stuffiness associated with many successful companies.
There was a view of the beach from the front, and the backyard was a favorite spot for taking breaks. It was more than a place to work. It was home. The first real home he'd ever had. A home Brady shared with the only family he'd ever known.
"The designs for the new game are brilliant," Mike Ryan insisted, his voice rising as he tried to get through to his younger brother.
"Yeah, for a fifth-grade art fair," Sean countered and reached for one of the drawings scattered across the conference table to emphasize his point. "Peter's had three months to do the new storyboards. He emailed these to me yesterday as an example of what he's got for us." Clearly disgusted, he stabbed the picture with his index finger. "Take a look at that banshee," he said. "Does that look scary to you? Looks more like an underfed surfer than a servant of death."
"You're nit-picking," Mike said, shuffling through the drawings himself until he found the one he wanted. Sliding the artwork depicting a medieval hunter across the table, he said, "This is great. So he's having trouble with the banshee. He'll get it right eventually."
"That's the problem with Peter," Brady spoke up quietly, and both of the brothers turned to look at him. "It's always eventually. He hasn't made one deadline since he started with us."
Shaking his head, Brady reached for his coffee, which was already going cold in the heavy ceramic mug. Taking a sip, he listened as Sean said, "Agreed. We've given Peter plenty of chances to prove he's worth the money we're paying him and he hasn't done it yet. I want to give Jenny Marshall a shot at the storyboards."
"Marshall?" Mike frowned as he tried to put a face to the name.
"You know her work," Brady said. "Graphic artist. Been here about six months. Did the background art on 'Forest Run.' She's talented. Deserves the shot."
Frowning, Mike mumbled, "Okay, yeah. I remember her work on that game. But she was backup. You really think she's ready to be the lead artist?"
Sean started to speak, but Brady held up a hand. If the brothers went at it again, this argument could go on forever. "Yeah, I do. But before we do anything permanent, I'll talk to Peter. His latest deadline is tomorrow. If he fails again, that's it. Agreed?"
"Absolutely," Sean said and shot a look at his brother.
"Agreed." Mike nodded, then leaned back in his chair, propping his feet up on the corner of the table. "Now, on another topic, when's our Irish visitor arriving?"
Brady frowned. Both brothers were watching him. The Ryans had black hair and blue eyes and both of them stood well over six feet, just like Brady. They were as close as family, he reminded himself, and he was grateful for both of themeven when they irritated the hell out of him.
He stared at the older of the two brothers from across the gleaming oak conference table. "Her flight lands in an hour."
"It might've been easier for you to go to Irelandtake a look at the castle yourself."
Brady shook his head. "There's too much going on here for me to go to Europe. Besides, we've all seen the castle in the 360-degree videos."
"True," Mike said, a half smile on his face. "And it'll be perfect for our first hotel. Fate Castle."
Named after their initial success, the Irish castle would be revamped into a luxurious modern fantasy resort where guests could imagine being a part of the world that Celtic Knot had invented. Though Brady could see the potential in their expansion, he still wondered if hotels were the way to go. Then he remembered the last Comic-Con and the reaction of the fans when they'd been told about the latest idea rolling out of Celtic Knot. The place had gone nuts with cheers as their fans realized that soon they'd be able to not only visit the darkly dangerous worlds they loved but actually live in them, as well.
Brady didn't have to love the idea to see the merit in it.
"What's the woman's name again?" Sean took a seat and sprawled comfortably.
"Her last name's Donovan," Brady said. "First name, who knows? It's spelled A-I-N-E. Don't have a clue how to pronounce it. My best guess is ain't without the 7"
"Guess it's Gaelic," Sean said, gathering up the sheaf of sketches he'd brought with him into the meeting.
"Whatever it is," Brady said, glancing down at the file they had on the castle hotel and employees, "she's been the manager for three years and by all accounts is good at her job. In spite of the fact the hotel's been losing money over the past couple of years. She's twenty-eight, degree in hotel management and lives on the property in a guest cottage with her mother and younger brother."
"She's almost thirty and still living with her mother?" Sean whistled low and long, then gave a little shudder. "Is there a picture of her in the file?"
"Yeah." He pulled it free and slid it across the table to Sean. The photo was a standard employee shot and if it was true to life, Aine Donovan wasn't going to be much of a distraction for Brady.
Which was just as well. He loved women. All women. But even if he hadn't been too busy for an affair at the moment, he had no interest in starting something up with an employee. When he wanted a woman, he had no problem finding one. But the truth was, he was happier burying himself in his work anyway. Far less aggravating to deal with the intricacies of running their company than to deal with a woman who would eventually expect more from him than he was willing to give.
Sean glanced at her photo. "She looks nice!"
Brady snorted at Sean's pitiful attempt to be kind.
Even he had to admit that the Irishwoman wasn't much to look at. In that photo, her hair was scraped back from her face, probably into a tidy bun. She wore glasses that made her green eyes look huge, and her pale skin looked white against the black blouse she wore buttoned primly up to the base of her throat.
"She's a hotel manager, not a model," Brady pointed out, for some reason feeling the need to defend the woman.
"Let me see that," Mike said.
Sean passed the slightly out-of-focus photo across the table. Mike studied it for a minute. Lifting his gaze to Brady's, Mike shrugged. "She looks efficient."
Shaking his head at the two of them, Brady took the picture back, slid it into the file and closed the folder. "Doesn't matter what she looks like as long as she can do the job. And according to the reports we got on the hotel and its employees, she's good at what she does."
"Have you talked to her about the changes we've got planned?"
"Not really," he told Mike. "It was pointless to try to explain everything long distance. Besides, we only just got the finalized plan for the remodel."
Since the construction crews would begin work in a month, it was time to bring Aine Donovan up to date.
"Well, if we're finished with the Irish news," Sean said, "I had a call from a toy company interested in marketing some of our characters."
"Toys? " Mike sneered. "Not really who we are, Sean."
"Gotta agree." Brady shook his head. "Our games are more for the teenagers-and-up crowd."
"True, but if they were collectibles " Sean's voice trailed off even as he gave them both a small smile.
Brady and Mike looked at each other and nodded.
"Collectibles is a different story," Brady said. "We get people excited about owning our charactersthat will only push the games themselves higher up the food chain."
"Yeah, that could work," Mike finally said. "Get some numbers. Once we have a better idea of the licensing agreement we can talk it over again."
"Right." Sean stood up and looked at Brady. "You picking up Irish from the airport?"
"No." Brady stood, too, and gathered up the file folder. "I've got a car meeting her and taking her directly to the hotel."
"That's the personal touch," Sean muttered.
Brady snapped, "It's not a date, Sean. She's coming here to work."
"You setting her up at the Seaview?" Mike asked, interrupting Sean.
"Yeah." The company kept a suite at the nearby hotel for visiting clients. It was within walking distance to their business, which made meetings easier to arrange. It was also where Brady lived, in a penthouse suite. "I'll go over there this afternoon to meet with her. Tomorrow's soon enough for us to show her what we've got in mind for the remodel."
Once the three of them explained the situation to Aine Donovan, she could get back to Ireland and, more important, Brady could get back to his life.
"I'm here, Mum, and it's just lovely."
She winced at the sleepy tone of her mother's voice. Standing on the balcony off the living room of her hotel suite, Aine stared out at the blue Pacific and finally remembered the time difference between California and home. Here in Long Beach, it was four in the afternoon and a warm sun was shining out of a clear sky. Back in County Mayo, it was after midnight.
Now that she thought about it, Aine realized she should be exhausted. But she wasn't. Excitement about the travel, she guessed, tangled with anxiety over what was going to happen once she met with Brady Finn about her castle. All right, not her castle, but certainly more hers than his, despite his having bought the place a few months ago. What did he know of its traditions, its history and legacy, its importance to the village where her friends lived? Nothing, that's what, she told herself, though she'd make him aware of all of it before he began whatever remodeling he had in mind.
It worried her to be surewhat did a video game maven want with a centuries-old castle in a tiny village in Ireland? It wasn't as though Castle Butler had ever been a tourist draw. There were far finer estates, much easier to get to, dotting the Irish countryside.
Thoughts whirled in her brain, circling each other, making her mind a jumble that only cleared momentarily when her mother spoke again. "Aine. You've arrived, then?"
"I have. I'm so sorry, Mum. I completely forgot"
"No matter." Molly Donovan's voice became clearer and Aine could almost see her mother sitting up in bed, trying to wake herself. "I'm glad you called. Your flight was all right, then?"
"More than all right." She'd never flown in a private jet before, and now that she had, Aine knew she'd never be happy in coach again. "It was like flying while relaxing in a posh living room. There were couches and tables and flowers in the loo. The flight attendant made fresh cookies," she said. "Cooked them up right there on the plane. Or maybe only heated them. But there was a real meal and champagne to go with it and really, I was almost sorry when the flight ended."
A hard truth indeed, because once her travel was over, it meant that she had no choice but to face down the man who owned the company that had the power to ruin her life and the lives of so many others. But, she argued with herself, why would he do that? Surely he wouldn't purchase the castle only to shut down the hotel? True enough that profits hadn't been what they should be in the past couple of years, but she had ideas to change all that, didn't she? The previous owner hadn't wanted to be bothered. She could only hope that this one would.
Although, she had to say, he was setting the scene perfectly to keep her off balance, wasn't he? Sending a private jet for her. Then, rather than meeting her himself, he'd had a driver there holding a sign with her name on it. Arranging for her to stay in a suite that was larger than the entire first floor of the guest cottage where she and her family lived, yet not a whisper of a personal greeting from the man.
He was letting her know, without speaking a word, that he was in charge. Master to servant, she supposed, and wondered if all exceedingly wealthy people were the same.
"It sounds lovely. And now?" her mother asked. "You're tucked into a hotel?"
"I am," Aine said, turning her face into the wind driving in from the sea. "I'm standing on a terrace looking out at the ocean. It's warm and lovely, nothing like spring at home."
"Aye," her mother agreed. "Rained all day and half the night. Now, you'll have your meeting with the new owner of the castle soon, won't you?"
"I will." Aine's stomach fluttered with the wings of what felt like a million butterflies. She laid one hand on her abdomen in a futile attempt to ease that stirring of nerves. "He's left a message for me saying he'll be here at five."
A message, she told herself and shook her head. Again, she recalled the man hadn't bothered to meet her at the airport or give her the courtesy of being here when she arrived. All small ways to impress upon her that she was on his territory now and that he would be the one making the decisions. Well, he might hold the purse strings, but she would at least be heard.
"You'll not be a terrier at the man from the beginning, will you?" her mother asked. "You'll have some patience?"
Patience was a difficult matter for Aine. Her mother had always said that Aine had been born two weeks early and hadn't stopped running since. She didn't like waiting. For anything. The past few months, knowing that the castle had been sold but having no more information beyond that, had nearly driven her around the bend. Now she wanted answers. She needed to know what the new owner of Castle Butler was planningso she could prepare.
"I'll not say a thing until I've heard him out, and that's the best I can promise," she said and hoped she could keep that vow.
It was only that this was so important. To her. To her family. To the village that looked to the castle's guests to shop in their stores, eat in their pubs. Now a trio of American businessmen had purchased the castle and everyone was worried about what might happen.
For the past three years, Aine had managed the castle hotel and though she'd had to fight the owner for every nail and gallon of paint needed for its upkeep, she felt she'd done a good job of it. Now though, things had changed. It wasn't only the hotel she had to see toit was the survival of her village and her family's future she fought for. She hated feeling off balance, as if she was one step behind everyone else in the bloody world. It was being here, in California, that was throwing her. If Brady Finn had come to Ireland, she might have felt more in control of the situation. As it was, she'd have to stay on her toes and impress on the new owner the importance of the responsibility he had just acquired.
"I know you'll do what's best," her mother said.