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"WELCOME home, Eamonn."
Colleen McKenna pinned a smile on her face and tilted her head back to look up at him where he stood, leaning against the doorway of the yard office. She had managed to keep her voice calmeven thought she'd come across as welcoming. Which was the least he deserved, on his first visit home after so long.
He hadn't changed a bit, had he? Still disgustingly good-looking, still able to dominate by sheer presence as much as size. And still, after fifteen years, capable of making her mouth go dry and butterflies flutter their wings erratically in her stomach. it really wasn't fair.
Surely a thirty-year-old woman should have long since been over the unrequited love she'd felt as a fifteen-year-old? Shouldn't she?
She felt a sudden ridiculous urge to raise her hand to her hair, to straighten it, tuck a loose strand behind one ear. As if those simple actions would somehow make her look less dishevelled than she felt. But it wasn't as if Eamonn Murphy had ever cared how she looked before, was it?
And it wasn't as if she could hope to measure up to the breathtaking sight of him. Not while he was dressed in spotless walking boots, dark, low-slung jeans, and a thick chocolate-coloured sweater that hinted at the breadth of him as much as it hid.
He was glorious.
While Colleen knew she probably resembled a used teabag as much as she felt like one.
Hazel eyes, framed with thick dark lashes, pinned hers across the room, taking a brief moment to make an inventory of her face before a flicker of recognition arrived,
"Colleen McKenna." A small smile lifted the edges of his sensually curved mouth. "Well, you grew up, didn't you?"
"That happens,y'know. I could say the same thing about you." She leaned back a little in the ancient office chair, the bulk of her body still obscured by the ridiculously large desk, and allowed her eyes to stray over his face. She swallowed to dampen her mouth. Oh-boy-oh-boy.
Had he got better-looking as he'd got older? She searched her memory to see if his hair had curled that way before, in an uncontrolled mass of dark curls that framed his face and touched his collar. Curls that invited fingers to thread through them, that looked as if that was exactly how they'd got that way in the first place. Yes. She remembered that. it had been a little of that irresistibly sensual edge which had been such a big part of him, and of his attraction.
She continued her mental checklist of his attributes, comparing old memories to the reality. Had he been as tall? Oh, yes, that she remembered. he'd always stood head and shoulders above every other boy she'd known, before and after he'd left. But the lean edge to him was gone, replaced by wide shoulders and a broad chest that made him seem even larger than she remembered.
It wasn't fair that he'd aged so well. But some people really did get better with age. Like good wine was supposed to. Not that there was enough in Colleen's weekly budget to cover the screw-top variety, never mind the kind that deserved being swirled around in a glass and savoured before drinking. Not that she was allowed alcohol presently. Not that she couldn't have used large quantities of it for self-medication these last few months.
Maybe just as well. If she'd started drinking to cover her problems she might not have stopped.
Eamonn dragged his eyes from her face and looked around the office, his eyes taking in the usual disorganised chaos. And inwardly Colleen squirmed.
It was stupid of her. it wasn't as if she hadn't known he would appear some time soon. But she maybe could have cleared up, filed things away, thrown a cloth over a surface or two. But all it really would have been was window dressing.
It wouldn't have helped to hide the awful truths she would have to tell him now that he was here.
But the least she could do was let him settle in first. there wasn't much point panicking about what had to come after that.
To hell with it.
When it came to the office he had to remember that paperwork was usually bottom of the chain around the place. He couldn't have forgotten everything?
It was plainly obvious she hadn't.
She cleared her throat and focused on less mundane matters. "I'm sorry we couldn't hold off the funeral for you coming home. I really am, Eamonn. I know you'd have wanted to be here!"
Her voice died off into the silence and was eventually answered with a shrug of broad shoulders and in a husky deep voice. "it's no one's fault, Colleen. You couldn't have got word to me where I was even if you'd known where to look. they didn't have phones there."
Even with his easy dismissal she felt guilty. But what else could she say? She remembered only too well how people had struggled to say the right thing to her when her parents had died. it had been almost as awkward waiting for them to find what they considered to be the "right words" as it had been for them to find them. And so many times she had wished they would just drop it, say what they had to in a card, or with a squeeze of her arm or even a hug.
But somehow she definitely didn't see herself offering a hug. An arm-squeeze was a possibility, maybe.
In the meantime, she picked up the conversation from what he'd said last. "Another great adventure?"
"Something like that."
She nodded. He was still a great talker, then. it was like getting blood from the proverbialalways had been. Just another thing that hadn't changed that much.
As a teenager he'd been dark and brooding ninety per cent of the time, and that had fulfilled all of Colleen's romantic notions. In her adolescent mind she had been going to be the one to tame him, to tease out his smile and put a spark in his eyes. She had even been encouraged by how he'd been in her companyhow he had laughed, teased her, ruffled her hair. If he'd just once opened his eyes and noticed her the way she'd dreamed he would."
But she'd been a child and he'd been a mature eighteen-year-old, ready to leave the small hamlet they lived in to take on the world. And he'd left her behind.
Now, as he walked around the office, lifting breeding books and feed invoices and flicking them over, she knew she'd lived several lifetimes since then. She wasn't some doe-eyed teenager any morewasn't a romantic dreamer. A kick or two in the teeth had that effect on a person over time.
He stopped and turned around, leaning back on one of the counters that were attached to three of the four walls and crossing his feet at the ankles before he folded his arms across his broad chest. "I have to say I'm a bit surprised. the old place looks like hell. I take it Dad wasn't up to much the last few years?"
The American twang to his accent distracted her momentarily from his actual words. But when she caught them she automatically straightened her spine in her chair, words in defence of his father immediately jumping out of her mouth. "Blaming it on Declan is hardly fair. He wasn't exactly fit for a lot of the heavy stuff after the second heart attack. You wouldn't even wonder about that if you'd seen him the way he was."
Eamonn stared at her for a long moment, his gaze steady and impassive. "This place was his pride and joy. it would have had to be something major to keep him from tending to it."
"I'd say a couple of heart attacks was major, wouldn't you?"
there was a minute narrowing of his eyes. then he blinked thick dark lashes at her. And said nothing.
Colleen suddenly felt like a bug under a microscope. it wasn't as if she had any right to criticise. All he had done was make an observation. But then, she knew inside that her defensiveness was less to do with Declan and more to do with her own part in the property's run-down appearance.
She pressed her lips together and released them with a small popping noise before taking a breath. "Are you planning on staying long?"
"Depends." "Well, you'll be staying the night at least?" "At least."
Her blue eyes studied his impassive face for a few long seconds, and then she leaned forward again and smiled more genuinely. "You were always hard work conversation-wise. I should have remembered that."
One dark brow quirked at her candid statement, the corners of his sensual mouth twitching momentarily to hint at a single dimple on one cheek. "Cut to the chase, don't you?"
"Well, I could play some kind of verbal game of chess with you, but I doubt I'd win. Life's too short for that sort of hard work, and I'm not really that smart. I like to try and believe people still mean what they say when they say it. Even when I still get reminded that's not always true.A girl can live in hope."
She had to be. If she wasn't optimistic then there wouldn't be too much in her life to celebrate. "I try to be. You only live the oncebit bloody pointless being depressed every day."
His mouth quirked again.
Folding her slender arms across the top of the desk, she tilted forwards and bent her head to one side, her arched brows lifting in silent challenge.
Eamonn rewarded her with a burst of masculine laughter, the sound seeming to echo around the room. "And to think you used to be shy."
"I outgrew it." "Obviously. You outgrew a lot of things, from what I can see. And not too badly either."
His eyes sparkled across at her, and for a moment her heart caught. Ah, no. He couldn't just waltz in looking all gorgeous and flirt with her. He was a decade and a half too late for that. And he had as much reliability as an ice cube on a summer's day.
Colleen had enough problems, thank you. there was the sound of approaching hooves on the cobbled yard outside, and Eamonn's head turned towards the sound. He pushed off the counter and walked to the windows in a couple of long strides, looking out at each horse as it went by.
Tempting as it was to just sit and study his profile, all lit up from the window as it was, Colleen knew better than to let herself. So, her eyes on his curls, turning a dark chocolate in the sunlight, she pushed back from the desk and wandered across to stand a little behind him.
Her expert eyes glanced over each of the large animals as they walked by outside the window, taking in their conformation, their condition, the evenness of stride, assessing each one with an all-encompassing glance that took a matter of seconds. the rest of Inisfree Stud might look tatty round the edges, but the horses were still top class. it was the only point of pride she had left.
She glanced up at the side of his head. "So, can you still not stand the sight of them?"
Eamonn turned his face towards hers and locked eyes once again, this time up close and personal. there wasn't the tiniest flicker in the hazel depths, or on his face. Not a hint of humour or regret. Just a simple blinking of his dark lashes as he took a moment or two longer than necessary to answer. "Can't say I want to run out there and feed them carrots."
So close to him for the first time in years, Colleen was suddenly overwhelmed by his masculine scent. In the company of horses most of the time, as she was, she wasn't used to such sensual tones. it was musky, spice with an underlying hint of sweetness, and it clung to her nose and pervaded her throat, almost as if she could taste him. And while she still had her head tilted up to look into his eyes the combination of awareness and proximity did things to her nerve-endings that hadn't been done for a long, long time. If ever.
It just wasn't fair. Someone somewhere really hated her, didn't they? Bringing him back now.
"My dad's biggest disappointment."
The words caught her unawares, and for a split second she gaped up at him in open surprise. "Eamonn, that wasn't your dad's biggest disappointment. Don't be daft. You couldn't force yourself to like them when you didn't."
"I should have, though. it was in my genetic make-up." "Not everyone loves horses like"
"Like you do?"
Colleen smiled then. "I was going to say like your dad did. But I guess it's true of me too. it's just something that's in me."
"then you'll not understand how I feel any better than my dad did."
Now, where had that come from? Why would he care what she thought? She was about to open her mouth and quiz him when he turned and, underestimating the space he needed to give her, brushed his arm against her stomach. Frowning, he dropped his gaze in surprise. then his head shot back up, his eyes wide.
Colleen smiled ruefully. "Don't worryI bump things all the time now. it's not your fault. Just comes with the territory."
"I didn't know." "No, well, it's not like I took an ad out in the paper in Outer Mongolia, or wherever it was you were." She felt her cheeks warming, suddenly embarrassed by her condition. Well, at least under the scrutiny of someone she had once dreamed would have helped get her into that condition.
"Peru." "Peru, then.'she stepped back, her hand going to the small of her back as she made her way back to the desk.
"I didn't know you were married." "You don't have to actually be married to get one of these. I'm sure I have a book on high school biology somewhere you could read."
Ignoring her sarcasm, he asked the obvious. "So you're not married?"
"Nope.'she sat back down on the old chair, which creaked a little under her weight. "Not married."
She waved her hands in front of her face. "Nope, no rings on these fingers."
Not any more.
Eamonn looked surprised. "you'll be getting engaged soon, though?"
Momentarily amused by his assumption, she shuffled the paperwork on her desk into a neater pile, and put it all back inside its manila folder. "No. I tried that, and it didn't turn out so good. He walked. So there's just me and the fifteen-stone baby now." She glanced up at him. "I had no idea you were so old-fashioned."
"Some things I'm old-fashioned about. Like a kid having two parents."
"Well, this one will just have to make do with me." Eamonn stared at her in silence for a long, long time. then, as if he couldn't help himself, he lowered his voice and asked, "What happened?"
The question was an innocent one, she knew, and he meant well. Under normal circumstances she'd have been touched that he wanted to know. But he had no way of knowing how loaded a question it wasof the repercussions the answer would have on his own life. Or what those repercussions had meant for his father.