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Chapter 1
Loneliness isn’t about being alone. It’s being in a room full of people where every one of them stare. Where they judge. Where they whisper to each other behind raised hands that don’t block the hateful words they sneer. And Dónal Sheehan takes every opportunity he can to be the center of attention in a crowd. All while making sure I’m right by his side. Not because he actually wants me there, but because then he can put on a front of doting Da to his fat, ugly, and motherless daughter. So all those people can applaud his efforts at raising her after his first wife—my mother—and second wife both died. Except it’s nothing but a show. A façade. If they only knew what went on behind closed doors. Even then, I’m not sure they’d care.
“Would you like another cup of tea, Miss Sheehan?” The housekeeper asks from the doorway of the library where I’ve been for the last few hours.  
“Yes, please.” 
Deirdre dips her head and leaves me to the book I’ve been trying to read for the same number of hours that Dónal has been gone. He stopped being “Da” a long time ago. If I do address him, it’s always with “sir”. Even that is more than he deserves. I push my glasses farther up my nose and finger the end of my braid draped over my shoulder, both nervous gestures I can’t help. Not when I don’t have a clue when he’ll be back. 
It’s just one more thing I hate him for.
Books let me escape. It doesn’t matter that it’s only for a few short hours. Not long enough to forget, but long enough that I can blissfully ignore reality. My reality. At least for a little while. Except, I can’t even do that. Not tonight. Because I have to be ready for his return. I have to prepare myself for the ever-present anger. 
A low fire burns providing an extra bit of light in the dim room. An ember pops causing a small spark to fly and me to jump. I sit back in my reading chair and stare into the flames. If I were anyone else, maybe I’d lose myself in a daydream. But I stopped daydreaming years ago. It’s pointless. 
The rattle of metal startles me and I whip my head in the direction of the door. The heart that dropped into my stomach returns to its place, beating a bit faster than it had a moment before. Deirdre steps into the room carrying a serving tray with a teakettle perched in the center. She sets it on the side table next to me, picks up the kettle, and fills my nearly empty cup. 
“Thank you, Deirdre.” 
“Yes, miss.” She places it back on the tray and exits the library. No doubt to also prepare for the return of her employer. 
From the hallway, my mother’s favorite grandfather clock bongs, calling out the late hour. 
It’s the middle of the night and I should be sleeping. Only sleep won’t come. It never does when Dónal goes out. Because going out means drinking. Gambling. Losing more money. Worse than that, it means bruises. One would think I’d be used to it after all these years. I take a sip of my hot tea, blowing on it to cool it down enough not to burn my mouth, and stare into the fire again. My eyes burn with fatigue, but my mind races and my palms sweat. 
Another hour passing is marked by the sound of the clock. Five a.m. And still I wait. Maybe he finally cheated the wrong person. Maybe I’m free. In the distance, there’s a crash. My eyes slowly close and I curse the stupid part of me that dared to hope. 
“Where’s that ungrateful daughter of mine?” Dónal bellows, his words slurred from drink. “Nessa. I know you’re still awake. Get your fat arse out here and help me.”
Setting down the book, I stand and head out of the library to where the bastard waits. I learned the first time he hit me not to stall or ignore him. It’s only worse when I do. I step into the entryway where he struggles taking off his jacket. His porcine face with its flappy jowls is red. A mix of alcohol, rage, and exertion, I’m sure. His shirt is missing a couple buttons and the pasty white flesh of his round belly peeks through the gap. 
“Don’t just stand there,” Dónal snaps. 
I take a few quick steps forward and grab the neck of the jacket and tug it down his flailing arms, which is only making it more difficult. 
“If you’d stand still, I could get it.” As soon as the words are out I regret them, because I just manage to get both of his arms out of the sleeves so I’m left with the coat dangling from my hands. Which means I can’t block the blow that comes. Not that I could anyway. 
The back of his hand collides with the side of my face. Stinging pain follows as my head snaps to the right and my glasses fly off my face. There’s ringing in my ear which muffles whatever Dónal is saying. I cover my hot cheek with my palm and turn toward him. He glares at me with hatred burning in his eyes. 
“Hang that up and come to my office.” He curls his lip and walks down the hallway. 
Deirdre comes rushing around the corner and scoops my glasses up off the floor. “Let me help you, dear.” 
I shake my head and take them from her, putting them back on. “No, I’ll do it.” If for nothing else than because it gives me an extra minute to compose myself. 
Once the jacket is put away in the closet, I head toward where more punishment for imaginary infractions awaits me. The minute I step through the door, a painful and vicious grip wraps around my upper arm. Nails dig into the underside of it, and I can’t bite back that whimper of pain. The fingers only clamp down harder as Dónal drags me across the room. 
“Make me a drink.” 
He nearly pushes me toward the bar, his steps unsteady despite the fierce hold he maintains. At last, he releases me. My entire arm flares with pain and already I can feel the fingerprint-shaped bruises forming on my skin. I pour the exact amount of whiskey he prefers into the glass and with shaky hands, pass it to him. He tosses it back in a single swallow. Then he paces. I remain standing there, doing my best to disappear. He mumbles to himself and runs his hands through his hair leaving it to stick up all over. 
Dónal’s bleary gaze lands on me and he sneers. “You might finally be good for something.” 
I stand rigidly. Uncertainty fills me. What does he mean? He glances at his watch and then out the window. Faint light shines in as dawn approaches. His eyes return to me and scan me from head to toe. There’s no disguising the disgust in them. I’m wearing a shapeless flannel nightgown that hits mid-shin and pulls around the waist and hips. On someone much taller it would be above knee-length. My feet are covered by tall wool socks that disappear beneath the hem of my sleepwear. I’m dressed for comfort not fashion. It’s not as though anyone is going to see me anyway. 
“Any minute Cian Donnelly will be here.” 
I startle at the name. Dónal hates the Donnellys and vice versa. Why is one of them coming here? Especially at this hour? Neither question gets asked though. A slap or punch is always the answer I’m given when they do. 
“You’re going to go upstairs and change into something less…pathetic before he arrives. Something that doesn’t make you look like a cow, if such a thing exists.” 
After twenty-six years I should be immune to his insults, yet they still have the power to dig in where it hurts the most. 
“Why?” It slips out before I can stop it. 
An open-handed slap is his response. Even drunk, Dónal has enough strength to make me bleed. Thankfully my glasses stay put, but they’re knocked slightly askew. I straighten them and swipe at the small cut in the corner of my mouth. 
“Stupid. How many times are you going to make me do this? If you would just listen the first time I tell you something.”
Yes, because him hitting me is always my fault. If only I were smarter. Thinner. Prettier. Less of a burden. I quickly bypass him and rush out of the hated office. I make it to the entryway just as Deirdre opens the front door. In steps the man I first dreamed about when I was twelve years old. Back when I still believed in dreams. 
Cian Donnelly.
I come to an abrupt halt and swallow. On his heels is one of his brothers, although I’m not familiar enough with either of them to be sure which. Cian’s sapphire blue eyes travel down the length of me, stopping at my feet. I curl my toes inside my socks. He raises his gaze back up to meet mine, pausing at my mouth for a fraction of a second. So fast, I’m sure I imagined it. His expression is like a blank mask. Then his eyes shifts over my shoulder, past me, and that changes in an instant. 
His lips curl in disdain and hatred pours out of him. “I’m surprised you didn’t find some hole to crawl in and hide like the rodent you are, Sheehan.”
I pivot a half turn and take a step back. My gaze bounces between the two men. The air is thick with hate and tension that makes me nervous. What’s going on?
“You’re not welcome here. Take her and go,” Dónal bites out. “Consider my debt paid.” 
Take her? Take who? What debt? 
Cian’s gaze leaves his enemy’s and collides with mine again. I blink and my mind races. Is he here for me? But why? I glance at his brother behind him, but he’s focused on Dónal. 
“Let’s go,” Donnelly says, breaking eye contact with me as he turns toward the door. 
“Go? Go where?” It comes out on a whisper. 
For a third time, those bright blue eyes turn my way. “You belong to me, now.”

Chapter 2

Nessa Sheehan is almost exactly as I remember her. All the way from her plain brown hair to the glasses to the plump figure. One that the hideous nightgown she’s wearing does nothing for. Is this how she really dresses? Christ. 
From her expression, it’s obvious Sheehan is too much of a coward to tell his daughter what he’s done. 
“Will someone please explain what’s going on?” she rasps out as she plays with the tail end of the braid that grazes the crest of her lush breast that is definitely more than a handful. 
“Did your dear old Da not tell you?” 
Nessa shakes her head, her gaze still bouncing between him and me. 
“Apparently your virginity is worth about twenty-five-thousand euros.” No sense in keeping it a secret. This way she can see what type of father she has. Although her reddened cheek and the small cut on her mouth say she already knows. 
“M—my what?” Her face loses all its color.
Shit, she’s not going to faint, is she?  
“Your Da lost a game of cards to me. He couldn’t cover the bet, so he added you—and your virginity—to the pot to make up the difference.” I stare at Sheehan who doesn’t demonstrate any type of remorse for essentially selling his daughter to his enemy. I could do anything I want to her. Isn’t that your plan anyway?
Nessa takes in a deep shuddering breath, her chest rising with the effort. I can’t help but be drawn to her breasts again. The lush mounds that hang just slightly with their weight. It takes more willpower than I expect to drag my gaze away from them. The color has returned to her face. In fact, it’s turned pink and getting darker with each passing second. Behind her glasses, those deep blue eyes shimmer as she stares at her father. 
“Do you really hate me that much?” she whispers. 
To his credit, Sheehan actually flushes, but he won’t meet her gaze and doesn’t answer her. Fucking coward. 
“If we’re done here?” I’m impatient to get back to the manor. Being in this house is only pissing me off. 
Nessa sputters out a laugh tinged in bitterness. “Yeah, we’re done.” 
Thank fuck. “Let’s go then.” 
Finn clears his throat. I turn toward him with a raised brow. His gaze travels quickly up and down Nessa and he tips his head sideways just slightly. I sigh and glance at her. “Go change your clothes and grab some of your things.” 
She hesitates, but finally stiffens her shoulders and stands tall. “I won’t be long.” 
Then she strides out of the entryway like a proud queen with her head held high. I follow her with my eyes until she disappears around a corner. Laughter sounds behind me. I turn to find an amused Sheehan. My jaw clenches. I want to punch the smarmy grin off his face. 
“She’s not much to look at, is she? What with that face and fat arse. Not really worth the twenty-five-thousand so you got the short end of the deal.” 
I bite back any words I might say, refusing to take the bait. Instead, I move to stand next to Finn. I’m not good at waiting unless it involves a game of chance. Especially when it means I have to remain in the presence of a man I want to kill, but can’t. Not yet, anyway. 
“Deirdre,” Sheehan calls out. 
The housekeeper who’d let us in and then quickly disappeared steps into the entryway. “Yes, Mr. Sheehan.” 
“I’m going to bed. Wake me at lunch.” He waves a hand in our general direction. “Make sure they’re gone the second Nessa gets back.” 
Without another word, he turns his back on us and heads in the opposite direction his daughter had gone. The man is either confident or stupid. The housekeeper sends a wary glance our way and then conspicuously makes herself absent again, although I’m sure she hasn’t gone far.  
“Jaysus, he’s a right bastard.” Finn’s tone is dry. “She’s better off without him.” 
I face my brother. He’s always had a soft spot for people in trouble. For some reason he has this need to rescue them. “Sheehan has gotten just a bit too cocky and full of himself with this cease-fire Da declared between our families. He seems to think he can do whatever he wants without consequence. I think it’s time we had a family meeting to re-evaluate this little truce that makes him think he’s untouchable.” 
“While I don’t disagree, I think there might be other things you should be worrying about.” 
I regard my brother closely. “Like what?” 
Finn’s eyes widen slightly. “Oh, I don’t know. Like maybe that woman that recently left here.”
“I’m not worried about Nessa Sheehan. Nothing in my plans have changed.” 
He crosses his arms and stares. I glare right back. Footsteps grow louder until the subject of our brief discussion appears with a large suitcase. Thank god she’s not wearing that ugly flannel gown still. Instead she has on a pair of dark-colored jeans that accentuate her thick thighs and wide hips, but nips in slightly at the waist. 
The green shirt that’s tucked in gapes between several buttons providing, to my surprise, a small glimpse of a red bra beneath. I’m suddenly reminded of Christmas and unwrapping presents beneath the tree. Soon enough, I’ll get to unwrap Nessa. My cock hardens at the thought of discovering what’s hidden underneath those clothes. 
Finn steps forward to take the suitcase from her, but she clutches the handle tightly and moves a fraction to the side to partially block it from him. 
“I’ll get it,” she says with a bite.
He holds up his hands and retreats a couple paces. I’m not sure what Nessa’s trying to prove, so I close the distance between us until there’s barely an inch between our bodies. A soft fruit fragrance surrounds her. She inhales a sharp breath and stares somewhere in the middle of my chest. I don’t move or speak. Just continue looking down at her until finally, she tips her head back to meet my eyes. Behind the glasses, hers appear big and round.
Her tongue darts out to wet her lips. Fuck. I grow even harder. Without a word, I reach out and gently pry her clenched fingers off the handle. She trembles beneath my touch. Once she’s let loose of it, her arm drops to her side and I pull the piece of luggage around the both of us. Finn takes it from me and then the door opens. Light spills in bringing the cold air with it. 
“Get a coat. You’re going to need it.” I follow my brother, leaving Nessa standing there alone. 
I take a deep breath once I’m outside, dragging in the scent of the city. Anything to get rid of the smell of her. On my way to the vehicle, I meet Finn who’s heading back toward the house. He stops me with a palm across my chest. I glance down at it and then at him. He opens his mouth as though to say something, but merely closes it with a short shake of his head and drops his arm and continues walking away. 
His voice reaches me as I stop at his SUV and glance back. Nessa glides past him, staring straight ahead as she makes her way toward me. She’d be terrible at cards. Every emotion is on display. They’re on her face, in her eyes, and in her posture. I suppose that can be a good thing. At least a person will always know where they stand with her, because she can’t hide it. And at this moment, she vibrates with everything she’s feeling. Hatred. Fear. There’s even a hint of relief under the surface. There isn’t anyone better at reading people than me. 
Nessa stumbles slightly and my brother reaches out to steady her, but she jerks her arm away from him with a hiss and rights herself, pushing her glasses higher up her nose. I can’t help the half-smile that curls my lips. It would seem there’s a bit of spirit lurking under that mousy appearance. In a mocking gesture of a gentleman, I open the back door and bow, sweeping my hand for her to enter.
Her eyes narrow and her lips thin. At her side, tiny fists clench tightly. I imagine she’d give anything to punch me. With a small huff she climbs in and then stares straight ahead, with her fingers laced together on her lap and her entire body rigid. 
“I have no intention of crawling over you, so I recommend moving to the other side.” 
Nessa snaps her head in my direction. “Why do you need to sit back here when there’s a perfectly good seat right up in front?”
“Because you’re not up there. And if I have to choose between sitting next to my brother or beside a beautiful woman, I’ll choose the woman over him, every single time.”
Twin flames of red rise in her cheeks. “Fine.” 
She practically flings herself to the passenger side. Behind the movement is rage. I study her another minute. No, not rage. I’m mistaken about the reason behind the change of color in her face. She’s embarrassed, but why? I’ll have to puzzle out her reaction another time. I’m fucking exhausted. Finn’s already behind the wheel, so I settle in behind him and close the door. 
I glance at Nessa out of the corner of my eye. She’s twisted partially away from me and faces the window. We haven’t even made it out of the drive and she reaches up and swipes beneath her glasses. I turn away to offer her a small bit of privacy. I’m not sure what she’s mourning, though. She should be happy to be away from that bastard Da of hers.

Chapter 3

We pull up to a massive wrought iron gate. Cian’s brother pauses only briefly at the entrance before it jerks slightly and then opens. He carefully drives through the opening and down a narrow lane lined with massive trees that tower over the lawn. The sun peeks through the naked branches giving the ground a dappled appearance. Like a strobe light, it flashes over my face as we continue forward until the sprawling manor comes into view. 
Large windows cover the entire front of the home, bookending double doors right in the center. The trees surround the manor on either side, no doubt providing it with shade during the warm months when the leaves are in full bloom. It’s probably a stunning view. I’m almost anxious to experience it.
Cian’s brother comes to a stop behind two other vehicles and gets out. He doesn’t wait for us. Instead, he heads straight inside, closing the door behind him. I’d gotten brief glimpses of sympathy from him through the rear view mirror on the drive here. I quickly glanced away each time, not wanting his pity. 
“Home sweet home. At least for a little while.” 
My gaze flicks to Cian. The sun shines in through the back window bathing him in its bright light. His auburn hair burns like the hottest flame. Small freckles that weren’t nearly as visible before dot his forehead, cheeks, and the bridge of his nose. His eyes drill in to me with a nearly hypnotizing affect until his words finally penetrate. 
“What do you mean for a little while?” This isn’t a permanent arrangement? He said I belong to him, even if I hate the fact. 
His expression quickly matches the one his brother kept showing me. Pity. I swallow. Have I gotten it wrong? 
“It means that once I’ve finished with you, you’ll be returning to your beloved Da. Whenever that might be,” Cian says it so casually, as though it is—as though I am—of no consequence.
Nausea churns in my belly. Oh god, please don’t throw up. My fingers clench so tightly my nails dig painfully into the backs of each hand. “I see.”
His eyes drop to my lap and I quickly loosen the grip I have and reach for the door handle. Anything to get away from the thick tension inside the vehicle that is suffocating me. I struggle to draw in a breath as I jump out and the cold hits me. That’s what you get for refusing to wear a coat just because Cian suggested it. I sharply inhale and my lungs burn from the freezing air. I welcome the pain of it. 
A door closes behind me and footsteps crunch, drawing closer. I close my eyes for a second, take another deep breath, ignoring the sting of cold, and pivot toward the approaching man. 
“Well, grab my bag, then,” I instruct Cian before he can say anything. 
I stride past him, keeping my gaze averted, and around the back of the SUV before proceeding toward the front door of the manor. I’ve hidden my fear and insecurities with fake confidence for long enough that any more it comes easily. Still doesn’t mean it’s real, but at least I can maintain the front for a little while. I make it to the long porch and up the few steps to wait. I’m not bold enough to just walk in alone. 
“We’re not going inside.” He approaches with my suitcase. 
I fold my arms and try to control my shiver. Not from his baritone voice, either. It’s only because I’m cold. Yeah, right. “Where are we going then?” 
“Follow me.” This time, it’s Cian leaving me standing there as he heads along a narrow path lined with large, octagonal shaped stones that lead toward the side of the house. 
Having no other choice, I trail behind him as he walks around to the back side of the manor, where the sprawling landscape travels farther out until it blends into the rolling fields. A well-kept guest house sits about halfway down a shallow slope where it levels out. Cian is almost at its front door. Treading carefully down the grass, I reach him. 
He turns the handle and pushes it open then takes a small step back and similar to when I got in the vehicle, he gestures for me to enter. With only a quick glance in his direction, I move inside. A pleasant floral fragrance as well as warmth greet me. I glance around the living area with its single sofa, coffee table, and large screen TV. A small kitchen lines the back of the open concept space and there’s a doorway on the right wall, just past the sofa. It’s not fancy, but I suppose there are worse places I could have been sent to lose my virginity. 
“I’ll put this in the bedroom.” 
I move out of Cian’s way as he strides past with my suitcase and disappears through the doorway. He comes out and I nervously shift and takes a few steps back. As though my reality is hitting me, I struggle to meet his gaze. I have no idea what happens next. Is he going to just fuck me now? There’s nothing I hate more than uncertainty. I’ve had far too much of it in my life. 
A warm hand palms my cheek and I jump, my eyes instinctively moving to meet his. Those freckles are noticeable again this close. As is the long length of his eyelashes. And god, the way he smells. I’m used to the scent of whiskey and stale sweat from Dónal. Cian Donnelly smells like rain on a Spring day with an undercurrent of ginger that reminds me of Deirdre’s gingersnap biscuits. I’ve been trying to ignore it since before we got in the vehicle, but with him standing so close—touching me—it’s almost impossible. 
“Don’t look so terrified, sweet mouse. I promise you’ll enjoy everything I do to you.” 
The arrogance of his statement—along with that stupid pet name—raises my hackles. I bat his hand away and separate the distance between us, giving him my back. “I’m not scared.” 
“No? Then why do you tremble beneath my touch.” 
I whirl on him. “Maybe because I’m furious and tired of men who think they can control my life.” 
Cian folds his arms and an amused gleam brightens his eyes. “Are you going to be this feisty in bed? I’ll have to say it’s a bit unexpected, but something I’m looking forward to.”
Seriously? Some mad compulsion propels me toward the door. I open it and glare back at the man who doesn’t appear to have any regard for common decency. “I’d like to be alone, now, so I can get some sleep. You can leave.” 
I’m not sure what’s come over me. I would never treat Dónal this way, because I’m well aware of the consequences. I suppose I’ve been hit enough times that once more won’t make a difference. Plus, it will give me a better understanding of the kind of man Cian is. Will he leave or will I regret my outburst? I prepare for the worst and hold myself rigidly while I wait for the reckoning.
With long, powerful strides he moves toward me. I can’t help but take in his broad shoulders or how defined his upper arms muscles are beneath the taut fabric of his tight-fighting long-sleeve shirt. Or how well his jeans fit and the noticeable bulge there’s no hiding. I avert my gaze and hate how hot my neck and cheeks get. I’m sure they’re bright red to match. There’s no keeping secret when I’m embarrassed or self-conscious. 
Cian stops beside me and I brace myself. 
“I’m not your Da, mouse. I don’t need to hit a woman to show her how strong I am.” He runs a finger along my jaw from the bottom of my ear to the point of my chin and then traces a line down my throat. 
I swallow beneath the tip of it before it continues moving. There’s a slight tug, then another. My heart pounds and my pulse races. Another one of those mad compulsions hits and I swivel my head to face him. There’s an intense heat in his gaze, but it’s not focused where I expect it to be. Instead, his attention is on where that finger drags along the skin that is exposed by the buttons he had undone. 
A line of fire burns down my sternum and between my breasts. I draw in a shaky breath which causes them to rise. 
“Such a pretty color.” 
“Wh—what?” The question is a whispered rasp. 
Finally, Cian lifts his gaze to mine. “Your bra. I hope you’ll wear it for me again soon. If for no other reason than because I know I’ll enjoy taking it off you.” 
A soft breeze wafts over me and I blink away the dizzy haze I’m in. He’s no longer standing in front of me. I turn to find him walking up the slight incline toward the manor house. There’s so much confidence in his stride. I keep standing there with my hand on my chest, the heart beneath it pounding out a quick beat. Not once does he glance back. He merely disappears inside. 
I sag, nearly stumbling back a step. Rousing myself, I manage to close the door and then sink down on the couch. My heart beat slows and whatever energy I’d been running on wanes. I’m suddenly exhausted again. There’s an ache deep inside me that Dónal could be so callous. I shouldn’t be surprised, and yet, I am. How could I not be? Not once would I have ever expected him to be so cruel. Then you’re stupidly naïve. I must be. He hits me. Why should selling me to his enemy come as any big shock?
My eyes close as I lean back into the soft cushions. I’ll just sit here for a few minutes to rest. Try to regain some focus. Some clarity. And prepare myself for whatever else might lie in store for me.

Chapter 4

Nora is making breakfast when I step into the kitchen. She glances up in surprise at my arrival. 
“Good morning, Cian. I didn’t expect to see you up and about so early.” 
I snag a warm croissant from the plate on the counter and break a piece off. “Just getting a guest settled in the cottage.” 
Her gaze darts out the window and back to me with a wrinkle between her brows. “I didn’t realize anyone was visiting. Will I need to prepare meals for them?”
“It was only decided last minute she’d be visiting. And yes to meals, please, although I’ll deliver them to her.” I take another bite of my favorite flaky pastry. Nora is a master at baking. 
Her eyes widen. “She?” 
Considering her relationship with my da, I assume she’ll discover my guest’s identity soon enough. “Nessa Sheehan.” 
There are questions brewing in her eyes, but she also knows when—and when not—to ask them. She’s well aware that Sheehan is our family’s enemy. Has been for decades. And while Nora is more than just our housekeeper, she’s not involved in the more unsavory—and criminal—aspects of our family business. 
“I see.” There’s definitely a hint of disapproval in her tone. “I’ll make sure Miss Sheehan will have plenty of things to choose from. Please let me know of any allergies or dislikes she might have.” 
I can’t help the slight grin from forming. Nora mother hens everyone. Even my brothers and me despite the fact we’re all adults who have been taking care of ourselves for well over a decade. “Of course. I assume Nessa will be resting for a few hours, but I’m sure she’ll be hungry by the time lunch rolls around.” 
She dips her head. “I’ll have something prepared.” 
“Thank you, Nora.” I finish my croissant as I leave and head toward the wing of the house where my brothers and I reside. Except I don’t make it past the entryway. 
“You’re back.” Da stands at the entrance of the hallway that leads to his office. “We have a few things to discuss.” 
He turns and walks away. Sleep is going to have to wait, it would seem. With a sigh, I follow. As soon as I step through the door, he closes it behind me and moves to his desk. “Have a seat.” 
I drop into the leather chair and lean back to get comfortable. 
“Finn tells me you had an interesting night and morning.” Leave it to Da to get right to the point and leave it to my brother to be the one who let him in on things. 
“As I’m sure you’re already well aware, Dónal Sheehan showed up at Anamacha Caillte last night. Which should not have happened in the first place. A fact I will remind my little brother of as soon as I see him again.” 
Da reclines in his chair and places his forearms on the armrests. “I think the more pressing matter is what happened later.” 
Is that a hint of disapproval from him as well? I expect it from Nora, but not Da.
“I assume you’re referring to his daughter.” Carrick Donnelly can drag something out forever until a person finally tells him everything he already knows, but wants to hear them say it. “As I already told Finn, don’t worry about her.”
He sits up and rests his steepled hands on the surface of his desk. “You know there’s a war brewing. It’s only a matter of time before it strikes.”
“I’m well aware.” 
“And yet you’re bringing her right into the middle of it.” 
This has me leaning forward as well with my elbows on my thighs as I stare at the man I admire most in this world. “Nessa Sheehan has nothing to do with her Da, Liam Campbell, and whatever is about to go down.” 
“You know she’s a pawn,” Da says softly.
“Is she, though?” I cock my head. “There didn’t appear to be any love lost between her and Dónal. And Campbell hates Sheehan even more than we do. He’s also never shown any interest in Nessa.” 
“That doesn’t mean he won’t. Especially if Campbell accomplishes what he’s been setting out to do.” 
As the head of our family—and the man who controls all of Dublin—I understand Da’s concerns, but it also annoys the fuck out of me that he still questions me at times. I’m the oldest. The one who will be in charge of our organization one day. Far into the future, I hope. I stand and stare down at him. “You worry about Campbell and Sheehan. I’ll worry about his daughter.” 
With that, I walk out of his office and head straight for the wing where my brothers and I live. Finn is nowhere in sight. Which is probably a good thing, because otherwise he and I would be having a chat. One that may or may not have involved fists. Aidan, however, is reclined in his favorite chair with a plate overflowing with a giant omelet and potatoes. He glances up at me. 
“Why aren’t you out back seducing your new little pet?” 
Fucking Finn. I throw up my middle finger and keep walking through the common room we all share and down the hallway toward my room. My brother’s laughter follows me the entire way until I close my door, cutting it off. Exhaustion hits me. I take a quick shower and then crawl naked into bed to stare up at the ceiling. A vision of Nessa comes to mind. 
I want to take her hair out of that braid and run my fingers through it so it spreads out over the pillow she’s lying on. I can picture the flush she’d exhibited earlier spreading down her chest. She’d surprised me with that bright red bra she wore. What other surprises are there in store for me? I’m looking forward to finding out. 
Virgins have never interested me. Yet, there is something about Nessa Sheehan that intrigues me. Even beyond the fact of who her da is. It will make our time together tolerable at least, because no matter how intriguing she might be, nothing in my plan has changed since Sheehan offered her to me. 
Fuck her. 
Make her fall in love with me. 
Then send her back to that bastard she calls Da. Remind him who holds the power in this city.
A loud buzzing penetrates my awareness and I reach out for my phone. I shut off the alarm and roll onto my back, lying there for a minute before crawling out of bed. Memories of the past twelve hours greet me. Today begins the seduction of the sweet mouse out in the cottage. This is also the last morning I plan on waking up alone. At least until I’m done with Nessa. I dress and make my way to the kitchen to get food to take to her. I’m sure she’s awake and no doubt hungry.
The common room is empty as I pass through as is the kitchen, but there’s a covered platter on a tray with a note. I grab the juice from the fridge and head out the door and down to the cottage. Not bothering to knock, I let myself in. The shutters have been closed and only a single stream of light shines through the narrow crack between them. I cross the living area and glance into the bedroom. Nessa is asleep in bed, lying on her side, facing toward me with the duvet pulled all the way up to her neck and her hands tucked under her cheek. Her braid drapes forward over her shoulder, caught in the bend of her elbow, and her face is bare of the glasses she wears. 
I continue on and set the tray on the counter then walk back to the bedroom. Soft, quiet snores reach me the closer I get to the bed. To her. I stand there studying her. She appears younger than the twenty-six I understand her to be. Her cheeks are sweetly rounded as is the hip the duvet curves nicely over. I squat down, balancing on the balls of my feet, so I’m eye level with her. 
A few strands of hair have escaped their confines and fall across Nessa’s jaw to tickle the corner of her mouth. Gently, my fingers brush them back, grazing her temple and the top of her ear. Her eyelids flutter and open. They widen and she lurches backward with a scream that cuts off abruptly. Her hand covers her chest.
“You scared the shit out of me.” 
I ignore her words as I take in the fact she has on that hideous nightgown from earlier. “You’re not wearing that when I’m in bed with you.” 
She clutches the fabric and glances down at herself and back up at me. “Excuse me?” 
I push off my thighs and stand. “Lunch is in the kitchen. Bring that ugly thing you’re wearing out with you so I can take it and burn it.” 
Leaving her sputtering, I walk out of the bedroom. Mumbled curses follow and the door slams shut behind me. I chuckle at the display of temper. At least her Da didn’t beat it out of her. While I wait for Nessa to do my bidding, I grab a couple plates and glasses from the cabinet as well as silverware from the drawer and set everything, including the platter, on the small dinette table that divides the kitchen from the living area. 
Da had a few upgrades added to the cottage after our main enforcer, Roarke, had stayed here for a while while he was assigned to be the bodyguard for my cousin Caitlín. Almost no one was surprised when the two of them fell for each other and recently became engaged, much to the annoyance of Uncle Cormac. Only because his youngest daughter will perpetually be twelve in his eyes. It probably doesn’t help that Roarke is nearly sixteen years older than her and in his early forties.
Behind me, Nessa comes out of her room. I glance over my shoulder. She changed her clothes, but her hands are empty. This little rebellion of hers is amusing. I turn around and lean against the counter with my arms folded over my chest.
“I think you forgot something.”
She comes to an abrupt halt and glares at me. “No, I didn’t.” 
I straighten and close the distance until only inches separate us. She tips her head back and though her expression grows more mulish, there’s a tremble she can’t hide. 
“Is this really something you want to fight me on, Nessa?” 
Her eyes flare with awareness. It’s the first time I’ve said her name. Her jaw clenches and her nostrils flare as she inhales deeply. With a small huff, she pivots and disappears into the bedroom, only to come back out holding a wad of flannel. She steps up to me and slams it against my chest. “Are you happy, now?” 
I reach up before she can release it and wrap my hand around her wrist then slowly drag my fingers up and over the ridge of her knuckles until I fist the fabric trapping her hand under mine. Nessa jerks out from beneath my hold. One side of my mouth lifts in a smirk. “Immensely. Now, I’m sure you’re as hungry as I am, so why don’t we sit and have a pleasant lunch that Nora provided.”

Chapter 5

I’m seething. What an insufferable ass. First Cian almost makes me have a heart attack and then his imperious command that I give him my perfectly good nightgown so he can burn it makes me rage. How dare he mock me with his taunting question asking if I really wanted to fight him on it. Yes. Yes, I did. I hate that I backed down, because it only made him even more smug. The bastard. 
I’ve lived in fear since I was five-years old and my much older step-brother finally had enough of the abuse and ran away. There was no one left for Dónal to take his anger out on but me. He’s punished me for far less than any infraction I’ve committed since I left the house with Cian. As the initial shock of being sold wears off, I’m coming to suspect I don’t have to fear the man who bought me. Or at least that he’ll use violence against me. What about any other plans he has for you? My stomach chooses then to growl, reminding me that I haven’t eaten since early yesterday evening. 
“Stop being stubborn and come eat. Nora will be disappointed if I go back into the house with food left.” 
A swirling sensation rattles in my chest at another mention of this Nora person. Who is she? A wife? It’s not unusual for married men to have a mistress. Surely Cian wouldn’t have brought me here right under a wife’s nose, let alone have her cooking for me. Would he? 
“What’s going on in that head of yours, mouse?” 
My head snaps up and I narrow my eyes. “My name is Nessa, kindly use it.” 
That infuriating grin of his returns. Great. Why did I let him get to me and then have to open my stupid mouth? Annoyed, I shoulder past him and plop down in one of the chairs at the table. Seconds later, Cian joins me, sitting to my right, which is far too close. 
“I didn’t check to see what Nora made, but I’m sure it will be satisfying.” He lifts the lid off the large, round platter and sets it to the side. 
My mouth waters at the simple, but delicious-looking fare. On small plates there are two ham sandwiches with brown sauce spilling out from beneath the top slice of bread and the corner of a piece of cheese peeking out. There’s also a single large serving bowl that—after the lid is removed—is full of some kind of soup. It smells delicious. 
“I doubt she left it out on the counter for too long before I got into the kitchen, but we might have to warm it up a bit.” Cian picks up the soup bowl. “Start eating while I reheat this.” 
If not for the fact that I’m starving, I would do it myself. I don’t want anything from him, but my stomach tells me to argue another day, so I pick up my fork and knife and cut off a piece of the sandwich. Flavors burst across my tongue and I moan at how good it is. I open my eyes and unexpectedly meet Cian’s. There’s an intensity in the way he stares at me. Slowly, I swallow and lick away the bit of gravy at the corner of my mouth. His gaze drops to it and his nostrils flare. A new-found awareness ripples through me. No man has ever looked at me the way he is. Flustered, and a bit self-conscious, I quickly focus back on my plate. 
At one of the many parties Dónal liked to throw, I managed to escape from his side and head for the ladies room for a brief respite. On my way there, I passed the cracked open door of the den and someone inside said my name. Curious, I paused outside the room—making sure to stay out of sight—to eavesdrop. I learned my lesson about listening in on conversations I wasn’t a part of after that. 
The cruel and hateful things they said about me still make acid churn in my stomach. There are times when I’m lying in bed at night that I can hear their awful laughter inside my head. I shudder. The microwave pings and I shake off the ugly thoughts. Cian wraps a towel around the hot soup and sets it back on the table. He goes over to the cabinet, grabs a couple of bowls, and places one down in front of me before taking his seat again. 
I reach for the ladle that had accompanied the food to dip myself a serving, but he beats me to it. His fingers brush over mine and I jerk my arm back as though I’ve been burned. I drop my hand into my lap and rub my thumb over the spot where we touched. His lips curl as though he knows just how unsettled I am and he dishes out first mine and then his. The entire time we’re eating, my skin tingles with the sensation of being watched. I set my spoon down, stopping long before I’m actually satisfied, because my nerves can’t take the scrutiny any longer.   
“You haven’t finished your meal.” Cian’s voice sends a shiver down my spine. 
“I’m not hungry.” 
“Eat, mouse.” 
My head snaps up at the demand. “I said I’m not hungry.” 
“And I say you’re lying. Besides, you’re going to need all the energy you can get. So, I suggest you eat your fill.” 
I scrunch my eyebrows together. “Energy? For what?” 
That smirk settles across his lips again and he stares at me with a knowing look. It takes several seconds before my brain processes. My eyes widen and my whole body is on the verge of bursting into flames as understanding hits. 
“Ahh, now she gets it.” 
“Why are you doing this?” The question slips out unintentionally. Not that I’ve kept up with Cian’s personal life, but I’m pretty sure I’m not his type. He doesn’t strike me as a man who likes a quiet woman who’s more comfortable with books than she is with people. One who doesn’t have any fashion sense—probably because I don’t care about it. And most definitely one who doesn’t fit the mold of society’s shitty view on beauty. Which means, he’s trying to punish Dónal. I hold back the bitter laughter. The man who fathered me could care less what is done to me. As evidenced by the fact he bid me away in a card game. 
Cian lays his spoon down as well and leans back in his chair with his fingers threaded over his waist. His steely stare unnerves me, but I make myself hold it. Something I never would have done with Dónal. The silence lengthens. I’m barely able to keep myself from squirming. 
“You should finish eating.” He picks up his spoon again and does the same. 
I blink. That’s it? He’s just going to ignore me? The nonchalance in which he goes back to his meal makes my blood pressure skyrocket. Snatching up my half-full bowl with enough force that some of it sloshes over the side, getting all over my hand and spilling on the floor, I stomp over to the trash and dump it in. I smack the glass down hard enough in the sink I’m surprised it doesn’t shatter. Then I head back to the bedroom. Or at least try to. Instead, as soon as I pivot, I collide with a solid chest. One that smells divine. 
“Excuse me, please.” It’s a tightly controlled command through my clenched teeth. Tears of anger and frustration threaten to fall and I refuse to meet Cian’s eyes.
“You want to know why I’m doing this?” 
My head jerks up. His pupils are dilated almost blurring out the blue around them. Words clog my throat. 
“I’m doing this because I can. Because it galls your Da to know that he lost. To me. Anyway, you should be thanking me for bringing you here.” 
I gape at him. At the smug audacity he has. “Thanking you? I should be thanking you for ruining my life with this little power struggle you have going on with Dónal?” 
“Yes,” Cian bites out. “At least I won’t hit you.” 
Something inside me snaps. I slam my hands against his chest and push as hard as I can. He stumbles back in surprise, but I keep shoving him again and again, my rage spilling out, until we’re in the middle of the living area. 
“I am not”—shove—“some pawn.”—shove—“I’m a human being”—shove—“with feelings.”
I push again, but this time Cian braces and holds his ground. He’s like an immovable wall that my puny strength can’t budge. He captures my face between his palms—knocking my glasses askew—and his lips crash against mine, moving over them roughly. My mouth opens in shock, and he takes advantage of the opportunity. His tongue sweeps in almost as though he’s claiming his territory. 
I’ve been kissed before—once—but not like this. This isn’t a kiss. It’s a ravaging storm. Battering waves of pleasure crash into me. Through me. It’s fire and ice burning me with both heat and cold that coalesce and settle straight in my core. I’m bombarded with sensations. My brain keeps trying to send me a message that my body is ignoring. It only wants Cian to keep kissing me like he’ll die if he stops. 
But stop he does—just as quickly as he started—leaving me breathless. My chest heaves with the need to bring in the air he took from me. A tiny flicker of pride swells. He’s breathing just as hard. There are two small areas of bunched fabric over his chest. My fingers tingle with the memory of fisting it between them, holding tightly onto him. With trembling hands, I reach up and straighten my glasses. 
As though breaking some spell cast on him, Cian blinks and shakes his head just slightly. His gaze focuses and I swallow at the intensity that sears into me from his stare. It happens slowly, but a change comes over him. Whereas seconds ago there was an almost stunned glaze in his eyes, a calculating gleam enters them. Something I’m not sure I like. 
“Well, well, that was unexpected.” 
“Maybe the mouse isn’t such a mouse after all.”
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