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The weather was unusually warm for late November. Kellan Quinn stared out at the sea from his spot above Smuggler's Cove. He walked over to the rocky edge of the cliff to look down at the narrow strip of beach where he and his brothers used to play. He hadn't been down the path in years, not since before he left for university.
But the little beach, sheltered from the wind, would be a perfect place to think, to find some solitude and clear his head. Life in Ballykirk had turned into a whirl of activity since his younger brothers had both found mates, and though he was happy for them, lately he'd felt like the odd man out.
Riley would be getting married in just over a month and though he and Nan had planned a simple New Year's Eve ceremony at the village church and a reception at the pub, it promised to be the biggest social event Ballykirk had seen in quite some time. Both Danny and Kellan would be standing up with Riley, which didn't sound like much. However, Kellan had learned that serving as a groomsman meant that you were at the beck and call of the groom until he left for his honeymoon.
Kellan still couldn't get over how quickly things had changed for the Quinn brothers. Riley and Danny had both fallen for american girls in the space of a few months. Of course, everyone assumed Kellan would be next and to that end, they'd started to put interested single girls in his path. But he knew better.
When it came to romance, Kellan Quinn was a realist. The chances of finding lasting love were slim at best. Though he'd turned thirty last year, he really hadn't ever come close to marriage, or enjoyed a long-term relationship. Perhaps it was because he'd never found a woman who could hold his attention. A woman who was more interesting than his career.
His reputation as an architect was growing with every project he completed and he was usually at the top of the list for any major historical renovation in Ireland. Though it wasn't really cutting-edge architecture, Kellan enjoyed doing his part to preserve pieces of Ireland's past.
Sixteen-hour days didn't leave much time for a social life, but he did manage to date occasionally when he stayed at his flat in Dublin. There were women who were happy to have him warm their bed, no strings, no expectations. But the relationships lacked an emotional component, existing purely for physical release.
Kellan drew a deep breath of the damp air. Riley and Danny had found their perfect matches. It was as if both women had just dropped out of the sky and into their beds. Had they been searching, waiting, wondering?
The wind buffeted his body and Kellan pulled his canvas jacket closed. In the past few days, a strange restlessness had come over him. Something was about to change. He could feel it inside, like the sky darkening before a storm.
He'd had an offer to do a project in France and he'd been considering the opportunity. It would mean moving to Brittany for a year to supervise the renovation of an old armory into a world war II museum. Maybe it was time for a change. Maybe he needed something new in his life.. just like his brothers.
Raking his hands through his windblown hair, Kellan walked to the rocks and searched for the way down. The descent was easy once he found the right path. As he clambered over the jagged traverse, he noticed something odd lying on the beach.
At first, it looked like a pile of debris and seaweed. But as he got closer, his heart started to pound. It was a body! He made out a long, slender arm and the unmistakable curve of a woman's hip. Kellan jumped down the last five feet and ran over to her, almost dreading what he was about to discover.
But the moment he touched her, she jerked, then sat up, brushing the damp strands of hair from her eyes. She looked at him through eyes so pale they were almost colorless.
"Are you all right?"
A tiny frown worried her brow, but she made no attempt to speak.
"What are you doing down here? How did you get here? Were you in the water?"
She reached out and smoothed her sand-covered palm over his cheek, her gaze studying the details of his face. And then, without warning, she leaned forward and touched her lips to his. She tasted of salt water and smelled of the ocean breeze.
The kiss was so surprising, he jerked back. But she was determined and slipped her hand around his nape, pulling him closer, drawing him down into the sand with her. Kellan normally exercised a great deal of self-restraint around women. But the moment her lips touched his, his control dissolved into an overwhelming need.
Her lips parted on a sigh and he took the chance to taste, his tongue delving into the sweet warmth of her mouth. She responded immediately, writhing beneath him as if trying to get closer. Her body trembled and when he finally drew back he realized it wasn't from the impact of their kiss but from the cold.
"Are you all right?" he asked again. "What's your name?"
Her eyes fluttered and then closed as she went limp in his arms. Kellan grabbed her chin and turned her head. She was still breathing, but just barely. Cursing, he scrambled to his feet and picked her up, hoping that she'd regain consciousness. She was dead weight in his arms, like a rag doll.
Kellan looked up to the top of the cliff. The only way to get her up was tossed over his shoulder. It wouldn't be comfortable, but there was no other option.
The dress she wore was barely enough to keep her warm in midsummer much less late autumn. Just a thin layer of green silk. He shrugged out of his canvas jacket and struggled to get her into it, buttoning it up once he had. "I don't know who the hell you are, but you should count yourself bloody lucky I came along."
He bent down and grabbed her thighs, her body folding over his shoulder. The path was narrow but navigable, even with a passenger. He had to be cautious of her head, careful not to bump her against the rocks. When he finally reached the top, Kellan set her down in the grass and took a deep breath.
Her eyes fluttered again and for a moment she opened them. "Can you stand up?" he asked.
Her lips curled into a sleepy smile and she shook her head and closed her eyes again.
"What the hell am I supposed to do with you?" he muttered. "If the hike home doesn't kill you, it will probably kill me."
He couldn't leave her here alone. But he could probably run home and fetch his car in less time than it would take to carry her. The hike to the road was only about half a kilometer. Home was nearly five.
He had his mobile. He'd ring the pub and see if one of his brothers could drive out. Meanwhile, he'd try to get her warm and awake. He flipped open his phone and to his relief, Danny answered almost immediately.
"I need your help," Kellan said. "I need you to drive up the coast road and park your car just around the bend by the dry stone fence, before you get to Castle Cnoc. Right where we used to leave our bikes when we'd come down to the cove."
"Why?" Danny asked.
"Just do it. I'll explain when you get here."
"Riley and Nan have me stuffing invitations for their engagement party. This is important stuff I'm workin' on, Kell. I can't just be hopping off for no good reason."
"It's an emergency. Maybe even life or death. Leave now. I'll meet you there in a few minutes."
"I'm on my way."
This time, when Kellan hefted her over his shoulder, she groaned and fought against him. "That's right," he said. "It's not so comfortable, is it? Maybe if you could summon the energy to walk, we might both be spared the trouble of me lugging you through this meadow like a lumpy sack of potatoes."
"Ow," she said.
"What were you doing on that beach, anyway? If I hadn't come along, you'd be on your way to dead right now. Dead and washed away by the tide. That's no way to leave this world. What about your family? They might never have known what happened to you."
"IOh, sick," she muttered. A few seconds later, she retched and he felt the back of his leg go damp. After that, she seemed to settle down.
"Lovely. Brilliant." Kellan tried to calm his own stomach. If there was one thing he couldn't handle it wasHe felt a wave of nausea overtake him and he stopped and drew a deep breath through his mouth. "I don't know if you're drunk or just crazy, but you'll be thanking me for this later."
By the time he reached the road, Danny was waiting in his battered old Land Rover. His brother jumped out of the driver's side and ran up to him. "What the devil! Where did you find her?"
"On the beach at the cove. She's cold and I think she might be drunk. Or sick. I don't know."
"What are you going to do with her?"
"Take her back to the cottage. I'll get her warm and call Doc Finnerty."
"Maybe we should drive her directly to the hospital?"
"All the way to Cork? Let's get her out of these wet clothes first and warm her up. If she doesn't come round, I'll take her."
When they got her settled in the backseat, Kellan slid in beside her, resting her head on his lap. Danny turned the car around and raced back toward town. At the fork in the road, he turned up toward the cottage.
Kellan had been living in Ballykirk for the past couple weeks, taking a break from life in Dublin while his family planned for the upcoming wedding. The small, whitewashed cottage had been his childhood home, set on a high rise above the seaside village. On occasion, it was let out to tourists, but when it wasn't, Kellan often stayed there.
When Danny pulled the car to a stop, Kellan got out and carefully scooped the woman up into his arms. "Do me a favor. Give Doc Finnerty a call and if he doesn't answer, see if you can find him."
"I know where he is," Danny said. "He's having a pint at the pub. He was there when I left." He ran up the garden path and opened the door for Kellan. "I'll go get him, then."
Kellan turned toward the bedroom, then realized that the sofa was a better choice. He could light a fire and it would provide the warmth she needed. He set her down, then hurriedly laid peat and kindling in the hearth. A few minutes later, a flicker of flame licked at the sod, smoke curling up into the chimney.
"There," he said. He leaned back on his heels, then realized the fire would do only half the job. He had to get her out of her wet clothes and into something warm. Though he didn't relish undressing a woman without her permission, Kellan figured if he didn't look at her in a sexual way, it would remain a purely practical matter.
He strode into the bedroom and grabbed the quilt and a wool blanket off the bed, then returned to the sofa. She was so still, curled up in front of him. Kellan gently sat her up, then slipped his jacket off her shoulders.
If she were conscious, he could put her in a warm shower. But there was no way she could stand unless he joined her.
Her hair was tangled with sand and bits of debris from the beach. He managed to skim her damp dress up along her legs, but was forced to pull her to her feet to get it over her head. To his relief, she seemed able to stand on her own for a few seconds.
He tossed the dress aside, then grabbed the quilt, wrapping her up in it and trying not to dwell on the fact that she wasn't wearing any underwear. "Why should that surprise me?" he murmured.
She had a beautiful body, slender and long-limbed. Her skin was pale and soft as silk, but so cold to his touch. His gaze slipped lower, to her lovely breasts, the curve of her hips and the junction of her legs.
He drew a ragged breath and pulled her against him, rubbing her back with his palms until the friction created warmth. What she really needed was a long, hot bath. But the cottage had only a shower. A bath would require hauling in the old tub that they'd used as kids.
A sharp knock sounded on the door and a few seconds later, Danny stepped inside followed by Jimmy Finnerty. Dr. Finnerty was the closest thing the town had to a local doctor. He had retired from his practice in Cork three years ago and now lived a quiet life with his wife in his vacation home on the bay, spending his days fishing and only coming out of retirement for the occasional emergency.
"What have we here?" he asked, setting his bag on the end of the sofa.
"I found her on the beach," Kellan said.
"The beach? What beach?"
"A little spot I know just up the coast. She was lying in the sand."
"No, she was dressed. I took her dress off to try to get her warm. I think she's a bit better. I had her standing. But she hasn't really opened her eyes."
The doctor reached into his bag and pulled out a small vial, then cracked it and held the smelling salts under her nose. She jerked back, then waved her hand in front of her face, moaning softly. "Well, she's not unconscious. She seems to be under the influence."
"Of what?" Danny asked.
"Pills. Liquor. Can't say for certain. Why don't we start with some nice hot coffee and see if that helps." He glanced over at Kellan. "You say you found her on the beach?"
Kellan nodded. "She threw up while I was carrying her out to the road."
"That's a positive sign."
"Not for me," he muttered. "You don't suppose she's a"
"No, a mermaid," Finnerty said with a chuckle. "She could be a mermaid washed up onshore."
"Look at her," Danny said. "She has that look about her."