May 1, 2005, Washington, D.C.
In my excitement, I arrived at the airport an hour early. But what was one hour compared to twenty-four years—my entire life—of waiting for this day? Heart fluttering, I looked around: bored couples thumbing through magazines, sulky teenagers glued to their phones, screaming babies in need of love or a fresh diaper. I took a deep breath, grasped my carry-on handle, and headed to the only empty row. It was the farthest from my gate, bordering the one to Rome, but I could read there in peace.
I was engrossed in the upheaval of Sorcha and Red’s first meeting in Daughter of the Forest when someone sat beside me. A man—piercing eyes, tousled hair, crooked smile.
“Mind if I sit here?” His baritone floated around me, rich and velvety like a chocolate truffle.
“Oh…” My throat had gone dry. “Uh…” My heart made a thump so loud, it reverberated in my throat.
“Sure…” My breath hitched as I inhaled his scent—a mixture of laundry detergent, light deodorant, and something that made my head spin.
I ordered myself to calm the hell down. It wasn’t like I lived under a rock. I’d had three steady boyfriends throughout college, and each one was objectively attractive. Handsome even.
“Good book?” The man pointed at my large tome with his chin.
Frozen in place, I stared into eyes that were at once gentle and firm, light and dark. His intensifying gaze was like an electric shock. It jolted through me, making me dizzy, forcing me to gasp for what little air was left.
“Magical,” I managed, flooding with a distinct sense of being in just the right place, at just the right time. The feeling shimmered and flared, warming and spreading into my every corner. How odd that I’d half-expected to feel this in Ireland, yet here I was, still in the US, covered with goosebumps while staring into the eyes of a perfect stranger.
The man ran a hand through his hair, the color of ripe wheat. “What’s in Italy?”
“Italy…?” I shook my head. “I’m flying to Ireland… a little far from my gate.”
The man’s phone chimed, and he frowned at the screen.
“Sorry…” He pressed the phone to his ear, then ended the call, and dropped it into his lap. “Ireland, huh? Visiting family?”
“I wish…” I giggled like an idiot. “I’m going on a hiking tour all around the coast.”
“You’re not going alone?”
I raised my eyebrows. Was he worried for me? Should I be worried, too?
“With a friend. She’s already there, been there a little while actually—with her boyfriend, who’s from Galway…”
Shut up, Siena.
“I see.” The man nodded. “If you’re in Kenmare, in county Kerry, check out The Blue Aigéan. Great food and run by good people.”
“I will.” I threw a glance at my book. The words that seemed so absorbing only moments ago had turned into a meaningless blur. Was he from Ireland? He looked it—a rugby player’s build mixed with brooding Celtic poise. But he didn’t sound it at all.
I closed the book. “You live here in D.C.?”
“Since February. I’m from Montana, by way of New York.”
The gate announced boarding for the Rome flight, and the man checked his phone again. This time, his frown was accompanied by a censorious shake of a head.
“Are you in politics?” I dropped the book into my carry-on and zipped it up.
“Law enforcement.” He compressed his lips. “FBI, to be exact.”
“Really?” I couldn’t stop my eyes from widening. “So, what, you carry handcuffs on you and all that—”
My hand shot up to my mouth, and I forced it down too late. “I mean, I was just…” I bit the inside of my lip, wishing for the floor to swallow me whole.
“Excuse me.” The man stood, even taller and broader at full height.
I froze, back pressed into the soft leather cushion. He must have decided I was insane, blurting something like that to a total stranger at the airport. Then, I followed his gaze, and my heart dropped to the ground below. This whole thing—whatever that was—had been dead on arrival. The woman who flew into his open arms looked like a movie star—tall, gorgeous, elegant. A perfect fit for him.
I dug my fingernails into my palms. How did this day that was supposed to be the happiest of my life just turn to shit?
“Gosh, I’m so sorry, RyRy, have you been waiting long?” The woman reached to smooth his hair. “What a crazy day, and my phone died on top of it! Honestly, I didn’t think I’d make it—”
“It’s okay, Ash, don’t worry, they’re still boarding.” The man took the woman’s large carry-on bag.
“See you later.” He gave me a curt nod and headed toward the Rome gate, the woman chattering at his side.
I watched him walk away—numb, empty, bereft. What sort of a thing was that to say? No, I wouldn’t see him later, or ever again. He was flying to Rome with his girlfriend, or maybe even wife—did he have a ring on?—and I was flying to Dublin. Suddenly, Ireland lost all its luster.
Handcuffs and all that… wow. I held my breath, pretending I didn’t say that, then exhaled and walked over to the giant floor-to-ceiling window. My plane had arrived and was being prepared for boarding, and his was ready for takeoff, awaiting the beautiful, happy couple.
I looked up at the indifferent sky. The callous sun beat down on the world below. How thrilled I’d been to fly to Ireland on Beltane, an ancient Celtic celebration of sun, summer, and love.
A wayward sunbeam grazed my cheek, and I jerked away and returned to my empty row. I didn’t bother taking out my book. How stupid all of it, how juvenile. What did it matter what I said to him—a stranger in a serious relationship, flying to Italy with his wife, probably on their honeymoon?
It didn’t, not the tiniest bit. Then why couldn’t I shake the sense of having brushed with something I’d waited for my entire life?
I stared in front of me, stunned—it wasn’t Ireland. A lump rose in my throat, but I pushed it down and closed my eyes. How perfectly ridiculous.
Someone sat beside me, and a tidal wave of disappointment coursed through me, thick and heavy. Why couldn’t people leave me alone today? Maybe they would if I kept my eyes shut until the boarding announcement. So I did, struggling to forget the gaze that made the world shine and sparkle like never before.
I listened: lilting Irish brogue, a child’s laughter, suitcase wheels rolling on the floor. Soon, I’d be hiking throughout the Emerald Isle, and his breathtaking smile would disappear into the mist. I could even meet someone—a handsome tour guide, an attentive horse breeder, a charismatic pub keeper.
The person next to me shifted: laundry detergent, a trace of deodorant, and something that made me breathe deeper. But that was exactly as improbable as it seemed. I kept my eyes closed. What was the matter with people today? There were plenty of empty seats. Why invade the space of someone so obviously wishing to shut out the world?
“Got time for a drink?” a rich, velvety voice said in my ear.
Great—a daydream in the middle of the airport. Cautiously, I opened my eyes. How luminous it was here, how dazzlingly sunny and warm.
“Ryan Casey.” The man extended his hand, and a shock of electricity lit the world on fire.
“Siena Forte.” I kept my hand in his—thrilled, sated, famished. “Weren’t you… going to Italy?”
His gaze locked on mine—a mixture of tenderness, resolve, and promise that made me dizzy.
“I wasn’t going to Italy,” he said as the playful sunbeams filtered through the window and lifted me up to the brilliant Beltane sky.
“I was just seeing my little sister off to her first international business trip—“at the gate”—per mom’s instructions.” He lifted an eyebrow.” This thing comes handy from time to time—”
He reached into his jacket pocket and took out an FBI badge.
“Oh…” I suppressed a gasp.
A slow grin built in his eyes as he moved an errant lock from my face, his fingers sure and warm against my skin. “And no, I don’t typically carry handcuffs on me, but I do have a pair at my disposal.”