KISS SHOT (TRISKELION TEAM, #2)
An explosive new romantic suspense series set in the Dublin criminal underworld.
MMA fighter. Pool Hustler. Spy. And that’s just the heroine.
When Ruthie Reynolds is offered the chance to repay her brother’s debt to a notorious Dublin crime lord, she doesn’t envisage spying on her ex-boyfriend’s family being part of the deal.
Hard man Shane Delaney never balks from getting the job done, no matter how unpleasant. But when his latest assignment involves the only woman he’s ever loved, he finds his resolve and loyalties tested, as well as his heart.
Shane regarded Olga’s bare arse with an indifference borne of many years hanging around his father’s strip club.
“So what do you think?” she asked, staring at him upside down through her opened legs. “Should I bleach it?”
What she should do, in Shane’s opinion, was get the fuck away from his brother, Greg, her alleged boyfriend. “I dunno,” he said in a bored tone. “Does anal bleaching hurt?”
After whipping her long ponytail back over her shoulder, Olga straightened her back and yanked up her crystal thong. “My friend Petra burned the arse off herself doing it, but she said she had an allergic reaction to the cream.”
Shane shuddered. “Jaysus. If her experience was bad, why are you thinking of bleaching yours?”
“Greg likes the idea.” Olga wound a strand of dark hair around her index finger and batted her fake eyelashes. “He thinks it looks sexy.”
And what Greg liked, Greg got. His older brother was a mean son of a bitch to everyone, but utterly vile to his girlfriends. “If you want to do it, go for it, but make sure you’re doing it for you and not for my brother.”
“You’re sweet.” Olga placed a hand on his arm and brushed her impressive cleavage against him. “Are you seeing anyone at the moment?” she asked in a sultry whisper. “If you’re ever lonely, you know where to find me.”
Yeah, he knew where to find her—stripping at his father’s lap dancing club and fucking punters on the side. Hell no. Shane was no saint, but the appeal of screwing around with the girls at Valentine’s had worn off by the time he was out of his teens. His father and older brothers considered the female employees of Valentine’s to be their never-ending supply of blow jobs. Shane preferred women to sleep with him of their own free will, and not because he controlled their livelihood.
In Olga’s case, she was more out of bounds than the other girls. Every once in a while, Greg played the girls off one another, eventually picking one to be his official live-in girlfriend and temporarily removing her from circulation at the club. Olga was his most recent acquisition, although Greg had yet to seal the deal by inviting her to quit her job and share his apartment.
It would never last. Fickle was Greg’s middle name. Soon, Olga would find herself out on her bleached arse, probably with a broken jaw or swollen lip as a souvenir of the relationship.
Shane removed Olga’s hand from his arm. “I don’t think meeting up would be wise.”
She pouted, making her look like a sulky teenager wearing a bucket of makeup. Which she probably was. Shane’s father didn’t look too closely at the paperwork of the girls who applied to work at his club, and the probability that Olga’s papers were fake was high.
“Okay,” she demurred, turning the pout into a come-hither smile. “But if you’re ever at a loose end…”
He liked to live dangerously at times—his rival Adam Kowalski’s on-off girlfriend was one of his regular hook-ups—but a smart man didn’t crap in his backyard. And Shane was smart, apart from a weak spot for damsels in distress. “Listen, Olga, remember what I told you last week?”
“Yeah. So Greg gets a bit rough at times.” The girl shrugged. “Some of the punters do as well. I’m used to it.”
“His parting gift to his last girlfriend was a broken jaw and a dislocated shoulder,” Shane said gently. “That’s a lot more serious than ‘a bit rough.’”
Olga stared at him through her heavily made-up eyes. “Greg has never hurt me.”
Not yet, but he would. Shane sighed. There was no getting through to the girl. She’d been a lost cause the moment she’d set eyes on Greg’s Porsche and flash-with-the-cash swagger. “If you’re ever in trouble, give me a call. Not to hook up,” he added hastily, noting how her face had lit up, “but if you’re ever in need of a friend, you know where to find me.”
In other words, he’d be willing to help when, not if, Greg beat the crap out of her.
Olga’s pout returned, and she tossed her hair over her shoulder in a dismissive gesture. “You don’t know what you’re missing.”
He had a fair idea—practiced sex moves designed to appeal to the average paying client. He’d bet Olga was good at them, too.
However, Shane preferred to be the seducer, not the seduced. Only once in his life had he dropped his guard and allowed a woman to call the shots.
It hadn’t ended well.
He winced at the memory, as corrosive today as it had been the morning after. Even after all these years, he tasted the bitter dregs of regret whenever he thought of her.
Or maybe that was just the gap in his mouth where the tooth she’d knocked out used to be.
Ruthie Reynolds, the girl with the iron fists. The only person who’d ever succeeded in beating Shane to a pulp in the boxing ring. Happy days.
Shane left Olga sulking in the corridor and ambled toward his father’s office. One of Frank’s eejit security guards loitered outside the door, looking tough in an ill-fitting suit. “Hey, Mark,” Shane said in a breezy tone. “Is my dad in?”
Mark gave a slight inclination of his neckless head and jerked a thumb at the closed door. “He’s in a foul mood today. Just as a warning.”
Shane suppressed a laugh. When was Frank not in a bad mood these days? A visit from his least favorite son was unlikely to improve his temper, especially when Shane came bearing bad news. He rapped on the door and opened it without waiting for permission to enter.
His father sat behind his desk, glowering at the computer screen. Funny to think he’d once been considered handsome. Years of cigarettes, alcohol, and hard living had taken their toll on Frank “Mad Dog” Delaney, and left him puffy-featured and acid-tongued. He glanced up when his son came in and drew his bushy eyebrows closer together. “What the fuck do you want?”
Frank never bothered to feign affection for his youngest child. When Shane was a kid, his father’s dislike of him had nagged at him, prompting him to try to please Frank. At nearly thirty, Shane was all out of fucks to give.
“Hello to you, too, Dad. You asked me to stop by, remember? You got Greg to call me.” His father’s avoidance of modern technology never failed to amuse him. Judging by the expression on Frank’s face, he was no more comfortable with his new computer than he was with mobile phones. Shane flopped into a chair across from his reluctant parent and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. “Holy crap, it’s hot in here. I don’t know why you won’t install air conditioning. The place is a furnace.”
“It’s not worth the investment. We’re in the middle of a heat wave, but it won’t last.” Frank pressed a key on his laptop and swore.
Shane settled back in his chair and grinned. “Problem?”
“Damn thing keeps crashing.” A beat passed. “Would you have a look at it for me?”
Shane smiled sweetly across the desk. “Don’t tell me you’re asking for my help? I thought I was wasting my time screwing around on computers.”
Frank’s nostrils flared, but he kept his annoyance in check. “Please.”
His father being polite? That was a first. Shane’s smile widened. “No problem.”
The last time Frank had experienced a computer crisis, he’d forgotten to plug it in. Shane had taken great pleasure in his father’s humiliation.
He got up and scooted behind the desk to take a look at the laptop. “What buttons are you pressing?”
Frank blinked. “Dunno. I hit a few keys, the way Greg showed me.”
What Greg knew about computers didn’t extend beyond looking up porn on the internet. Shane’s fingers flew over the keyboard. “You keep hitting restart. It should work now.”
His father grunted something that might have been akin to “thank you” had Shane not known better. “Want a drink?” Frank muttered.
It wasn’t a serious question. Shane was getting a drink whether he wanted one or not. Frank extracted a half-empty whiskey bottle from his desk drawer and sloshed two generous servings into chipped mugs. He shoved one across the desk to Shane. Given his father’s slurred speech, this wasn’t Frank’s first drink of the day.
Shane reclaimed his seat and picked up his mug, eyeing his father warily. Any moment now, he’d ask him for an update on The Lar Situation—capitals intended. Shane hadn’t a clue what to tell him. Whatever his father had been hoping to uncover on his wayward nephew, Shane was pretty sure it wasn’t Lar selling out Frank and their family. If Shane revealed that his cousin was—or had been—an informer, Lar would go for a swim in the River Liffey, wearing a pair of cement shoes. That was how Frank rolled. “Why did you want to talk to me, Dad? I’m assuming my summons to your office wasn’t for the love of my company.”
Frank glared at his youngest son. “You know why you’re here. What’s Lar up to? You installed bugs in his house weeks ago. Are you telling me you have nothing interesting to report?”
“So far, the recordings have given me a few leads to follow, but nothing concrete.” Total bollocks, but Frank didn’t have the brains or the technological know-how to check up on him.
“Nothing concrete?” His father’s voice was pure ice. “Are you sure about that? You wouldn’t be lying to me to protect your cousin, now would you?”
Maybe, whispered a voice in Shane’s head. “No,” he said out loud, meeting his father’s piercing gaze head on. “If I knew what to look for, it would help. Do you have any particular reason to suspect Lar’s up to something that could harm the family? From what I can see, he’s genuinely working hard to set up his new business in such a way as to honor the terms you and he negotiated. We talked about it at length during the Triskelion Team’s launch party last week.”
This much was true. What Shane failed to add was the info he’d uncovered regarding the deal Lar had brokered with Irish intelligence in return for an early release from prison. A searing heat burned his chest. Lar had lied to him—repeatedly. He was going to make damn sure his cousin paid for his disloyalty, but he’d do it his way, not Frank’s.
His father’s piercing gaze didn’t falter. “I want you to keep looking. Dig deeper, dammit. And while you’re at it, check out a rumor I heard about Lar clipping Jimmy Connolly.”
“What the fuck?” Shane jerked to attention. Jimmy Connolly, one of Frank’s rivals in the tits and arse trade, had been gunned down a couple of weeks ago in what the police presumed was part of a series of Dublin gangland killings. “Why would Lar kill Connolly? He never had much to do with the man.”
Frank’s smirk grated on Shane’s nerves. “Let’s just say he had a motive.”
“Are you sure? I didn’t hear anything about a dispute between him and Connolly.” And Shane “heard” things. Keeping tabs on all the wheelings and dealings that occurred in and around Kilpatrick was one of his talents. “Besides, Lar’s been busy with his new girlfriend and getting the Triskelion Team off the ground.”
His father’s lip curled. “The Triskelion Team. What sort of name is that? Lar always had notions.”
In Ireland, having “notions,” or aspiring to better oneself, was subject to derision.
“I think it works for a private security firm.” Shane didn’t add that the name referred to his and his cousins’ matching triskelion tattoos. No point in giving Frank more ammunition to sneer at them.
His father took a generous gulp of whiskey and slammed the mug down on his desk, causing papers to go flying. “I want you to look into Connolly’s killing,” he growled. “Find out who knows what. And I want a full report on Lar’s comings and goings on my desk in one week. Is that clear?”
“Crystal.” Why was his father convinced Lar was behind Connolly’s murder? As far as Shane knew, any hits Lar carried out were well paid and occurred abroad. If he’d taken out a man who lived nearby, his motive had to be personal. Shane opened his mouth to voice this observation, but his words were cut short by a loud knock on the office door.
His favorite uncle, Malachy, peered his gray head around the door and winked at Shane. “Greg said you were in, Francis. I need a word.”
Malachy was the only member of the Delaney clan who referred to Frank by his full name. He was the only person who dared. The media referred to Frank as “Mad Dog Delaney”, a moniker his father accepted with pride.
“What do you want?” Frank demanded. “Now’s not a good time.”
Unperturbed by his brother’s unenthusiastic greeting, Malachy cleared papers from the seat beside Shane’s and sat down with an air of a man under no pressing time constraints and a quiet but steely determination to stay. As the priest scanned the office, his lips twitched with amusement. “I see you haven’t found a replacement for Susie.”
Susie, Frank’s former secretary, had quit a few weeks ago following a presumed-but-never-confirmed run-in with Greg. Since the efficient Susie’s exit from his life, Frank’s office had devolved into a perpetual state of chaos. Papers were piled everywhere, willy-nilly. Folders that belonged in filing cabinets were stacked all around the room. Even Frank himself looked more disheveled than usual, as if taking his cue from his surroundings.
Frank narrowed his eyes at the priest. “You don’t usually come to see me at the club, Malachy. What’s up?”
His uncle adjusted his dog collar and smiled at Shane. “Do you mind giving us some privacy?”
Shane glanced at his father, but Frank was staring at Malachy, a guarded expression on his face.
“Sure thing.” Shane met Malachy’s eyes but could read little from their pale blue depths. “Let me know if there’s anything else you need me to do, Dad.”
Frank’s only response was a grunt.
“Come by the house one of these days, Shane,” Malachy said, his expression softening. “I miss our games of chess. I’ll have Mrs. Cryan make us her cottage pie.”
“Yeah, okay. I’ll send you a text after Max goes back to Berlin.”
“Siobhan mentioned he was staying with you for a few days.”
Shane exchanged an amused glance with Malachy. Max’s mother was less than thrilled that her younger son had chosen to spend his days in Dublin crashing on Shane’s sofa rather than staying with her. Mother and son had had a falling out on Max’s last visit home—something to do with Max’s father and Siobhan’s ex-husband. Shane didn’t know the details, and Max had been disinclined to share.
Happy fucking families, eh?
“Bye now, lads. Don’t go too wild with the ladies, Malachy.” Shane’s smile of farewell for his uncle was heartfelt, and a world away from the curt nod he gave his father. Not for the first time, he wished the men could trade personalities, but this was as unlikely as Malachy suddenly deciding to swap the church for a lap dancing club.
Outside the club, the sun beat down on Kilpatrick, one of Dublin’s less salubrious suburbs. Men perspired through their T-shirts, and some had opted for the bare-chested look. Women wore summer dresses and had traded their fake tans for the real deal. Shane laughed to himself. What the Irish considered a heat wave was nothing in comparison to the hot summers he’d experienced in Australia.
He hopped on his bike and revved the engine, his mind drifting back to the strange atmosphere in his father’s office. What was so urgent that Malachy would visit Frank at Valentine’s? The priest never came near the club. Whatever the reason, at least his uncle’s interruption meant he didn’t have to come up with more lies and excuses regarding his traitor of a cousin.
The now-familiar burning rage he experienced every time he thought of Lar swelled in his chest. His hands tightened around the handlebars of his bike, turning his knuckles white. Showing up to work at the Triskelion Team’s new offices was hell, but every day he forced himself to act as normally as his poor acting skills allowed.
Tonight, he didn’t have to worry about running into Lar and losing his cool, thank fuck. Shane was meeting an old pal for a drink and had deliberately chosen a pub that wasn’t among his cousin’s usual watering holes. Man, he needed something to take the edge off his week and get his thoughts far away from everything related to the Delaney family.
But first, he had to do more internet digging. Lar wanted him to search for info for a Triskelion Team assignment, and Frank wanted him to dig for dirt on Lar. How fucking ironic.
Shane’s jaw hardened. Then he flexed his shoulders, revved the engine, and pointed the bike in the direction of home.
Copyright Zara Keane 2016
After four vodka shots, selling one’s soul to the devil felt pretty damn good. It was a temporary high in an otherwise shitty situation, but Ruthie Reynolds would take any rays of sunshine audacious enough to penetrate the storm clouds looming over her life. With a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, Ruthie examined the balls on the pool table and lined up her next shot.
She’d persuaded two brawny eejits to teach her to play pool. After showing her the basics, they’d agreed to an extortionate cash prize for the winner of this game, assuming the girl with the diamond stud earrings was good for it and confident she’d lose. Fucking clowns. She’d show them not to make assumptions.
Carefully angling her cue stick, Ruthie nudged the white ball into motion. In a perfect kiss shot, it hit off a ball, changed direction, and rolled toward her real target: the striped ball located just outside a pocket. The barest contact sent the striped ball into the basket. “Yes!” Ruthie cried, beaming at her companions.
Eejit One stared at her with open-mouthed amazement and exchanged a significant glance with Eejit Two.
“I’m a quick learner,” she said in what she hoped was a husky tone. “And you’re great teachers.”
She needed to allay their misgivings fast, or the fight she planned to incite would break out sooner than she wanted. Ruthie smiled at the men, leaned over the pool table to draw their attention to her tight jeans—also purchased especially for this occasion—and deliberately screwed up her next shot. She straightened and made a moue of disappointment. “What did I do wrong?”
“You hit my ball instead of yours.” Eejit One examined her carefully, his suspicions aroused. A big, bald man with a broken nose and scarred knuckles, he was what passed for the brains of the duo. Not that this was saying much.
Eejit Two was his pal’s polar opposite in appearance: small, lanky, and greasy-haired. He had the twitchy movements of the habitual user, and the unnatural pallor of his skin enhanced this impression. The man’s gaze was fixed on Ruthie’s breasts, which were more prominent than usual in her figure-hugging tank top. His leer did nothing to improve his looks. “You’ll get better with practice,” he said with a smirk. “We could give you some private lessons if you like. Teach you how to handle balls.”
The only thing I’d like to do to your balls is kick them. Ruthie’s fake smile didn’t falter. “I’m sure you know all about balls,” she purred. Seeing as wanking is probably the only action you get.
Eejit One shot her a wary glance but didn’t say anything further.
Ruthie smiled to herself and stepped back to let him line up his shot. “Good luck.”
The man sneered. “No luck needed. I play to win.”
Oh, she was sure he played to win. The idea of winning five hundred euros from her was a major enticement. Ruthie had barely fifty euros to her name at the moment, but he didn’t know that. If she’d had money, she wouldn’t be in her present predicament. Paying off the first chunk of her brother’s debts had wiped out her savings account. The second chunk wouldn’t be paid until Ruthie completed her stealth assignment for the Jarvis Agency.
She’d been wary of them the moment they’d approached her several months ago. It had been in her changing room in Geneva, right after she’d lost a fight. Staring at her swollen knee, Ruthie had finally allowed her doctor’s words to penetrate: her problem knee was as good as it was going to get. She’d never fight at her peak again, never become the next Ronda Rousey.
The disappointment crushed her. Which was why she’d pushed past her doubts and embraced the idea of receiving training in surveillance and intelligence from the Jarvis Agency. They needed someone with her combat skills, and her knee was good enough for their purposes. Ruthie had envisioned glamor and excitement, more in the style of James Bond than Jason Bourne. The reality of sleazy undercover assignments, spying on drug smugglers and black market diamond dealers, was a rude awakening. When Travers, her handler, had informed her she’d have her first solo assignment, Ruthie had experienced a surge of excitement, a sliver of hope that she’d finally get a case where she could make a difference. And then they’d told her what she was expected to do.
Ruthie flexed her jaw. Kevin ought to appreciate her efforts on his behalf, but she didn’t expect any thanks from her brother.
She focused on the pool table. Eejit One lined up another shot. He wasn’t a bad player, but his ability paled in comparison to Ruthie’s. Her opponent coaxed three balls in succession into the baskets. He was catching up fast. She had to hope that his next shot went awry.
The man swore when his ball ricocheted off the edge of the pool table and sent other balls flying, but none in the direction he wanted. Ruthie flexed her shoulders, limbering up for her next shot. She cast a quick glance around the bar. Shane Delaney had better show his face fast, or the game would be over before he arrived. The lads were getting antsy, Eejit One in particular. And rightly so. She was playing them for fools.
She successfully sank her first shot and deliberately fucked up her second. Sticking her cleavage out to the max, she stood back to let Eejit One do his stuff on the pool table. She glanced at her watch. Nine fifteen. Where the fuck was Shane Delaney? Her brother had said Shane was due to meet a mutual friend for a drink at nine o’clock. Unless he’d had a personality transplant over the last few years, Shane was always punctual. Ruthie scanned the crowd and her breath caught.
Shane Delaney weaved his way through the throng, cutting a meandering path toward the bar. He was taller than she remembered, but he still had the same high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes that she saw in her dreams.
Her treacherous heart skipped a beat. Why did Shane have to look so damn good? Why couldn’t he have developed a beer belly or acquired a man bun in the five years since she’d last seen him? Anything to lessen his sex appeal. Instead, Shane had added muscle and a sinfully sexy beard. Ruthie didn’t need to see underneath his T-shirt to know he had rock-hard abs. The memory of their one and only make-out session clouded her vision. She took a deep breath and forced herself to concentrate. She’d spent too much time planning this encounter to screw it up at the last second.
Eejit One took his next shot, sent the ball wide, and swore at his ineptitude.
“Your turn, little lady.” His words were laden with more than a hint of a threat.
Eejit Two blinked in confusion, his friend’s menacing tone alerting him to the fact that something was off about this game. The men looked at one another, and then turned their bloodshot eyes toward her. A fight was brewing, and Ruthie intended to make sure it broke out soon. Brandishing her cue stick with a flourish, she treated Eejit One to a cheeky grin and shot the eight ball into her chosen pocket. “Well, what do you know? You owe me five hundred euros.”
“You said you couldn’t play,” Eejit Two growled, outrage written all over his gaunt face.
“She’s a fucking hustler, Dec,” said his slightly smarter friend. “She played us for fools.”
Ruthie erupted with laughter. “You are fools. The easiest pair I’ve ever hustled, but a deal is a deal. Now pay up.”
“No fucking way.” Eejit Two got up in her face, the smell of alcohol on his breath a pungent reminder of the danger she was in. “You’re not seeing a red cent of my money.”
“I’m not interested in cents, red or otherwise.” Ruthie twirled her pool stick between her fingers. “I want the five hundred euros you and your pal promised to pay me if I won the game.”
“I’m not paying you anything,” Eejit One said, his nostrils flaring. “Go fuck yourself, cunt.”
“Now that’s no way to speak to a lady.” Ruthie sidled up to him and stuck her hand into his shirt pocket to grab his wallet.
“Hey,” he roared, slapping her hand away. Here was the moment Ruthie had been waiting for. She drew back her right arm and delivered a sharp left jab, right cross that sent Eejit One flying. Eejit Two was on his feet in an instant, teeth bared and fists at the ready. He flew at Ruthie and crashed into a table when she sidestepped him at the last second. Eejit One regained his footing and lumbered toward Ruthie, fists at the ready.
“That’s enough,” said the gravelly voice that still had the power to make Ruthie go weak at the knees.
Copyright Zara Keane 2016
Shane Delaney emerged from the shadows, grabbed Eejit One, and hurled the man onto the sofa beside the pool table.
Eejit Two’s jaw dropped at the sight of Shane and he practically threw himself onto the seat beside his friend. “We didn’t know she was with you, Delaney.”
“She wasn’t, but she is now.” Shane turned his gorgeous blue eyes on Ruthie and riveted her to the spot with the intensity of his gaze. The floor seemed to shift beneath her. Maybe knocking back that fourth vodka shot hadn’t been the smartest move. Here was the moment she’d been waiting for since she’d returned to Dublin, and all she could do was gawk at him.
“I didn’t think you went in for hustling, Delaney,” Eejit One muttered. “Your girl tried to fleece me out of five hundred euros.”
“Let’s call it a practical joke and move on, lads. I’ll stand you a drink, and we’ll forget all about it.” Eejit One opened his mouth as if to protest, but kept silent when Shane held up a palm. “I was telling you how this was going to play out, Murph, not opening the floor for a discussion. I’ll order you both pints of the black stuff with whiskey chasers, and you’ll go back to playing pool with each other.”
Ruthie snorted. “Probably the only ball action they’ll get all night.”
Eejit One leaped out of his seat, growling. Shane shoved him back down. “Stay there, and I’ll get your drinks sent over.”
The man muttered under his breath and shot Ruthie a filthy look. “Got no choice, have I?”
“You don’t.” Shane grabbed Ruthie by the arm and hauled her over to the bar. When they reached two empty barstools, he spun her around to face him. “Ruthie Reynolds. I shoulda fucking known. Only you could turn an otherwise peaceful gathering into a punch-up in under two minutes.”
“More like half an hour.” Ruthie’s heart thumped in her chest, making it hard to think straight. “Long time no see, Shane.”
He pinned her in place with his gaze, his expression inscrutable. “If this is the chaos you bring in your wake, I’d have been happy to extend the ‘no see’ part.”
His dry delivery took the edge off his words, but they stung all the same. Ruthie widened her smile and aimed for nonchalance. “Now, don’t be mean. We’re old friends, after all. Aren’t you glad to see me?”
For a painful moment, she thought he’d reject her, but then his face split into a wide grin. He grabbed her up in a bear hug, crushing her against his muscular chest. He smelled spicy and male and oh so desirable. She longed to lean in and never let go, to allow herself to surrender to this man in every possible way.
The embrace ended as abruptly as it had begun. Shane stood back and gave her an appreciative once-over. “It’s good to see you, Ruthie, especially looking so well.”
Her cheeks grew warm. She was under no illusions about her appearance. Thanks to years of kickboxing and mixed martial arts, she was more ripped than most men and preferred to conceal her bulky arm muscles and strong legs underneath long-sleeved T-shirts and combat pants. Tonight’s formfitting sleeveless top and tight jeans were an anomaly. She’d bought them with hustling in mind. “You’re a shameless flatterer, Shane Delaney,” she said in a breezy tone that didn’t match her churning stomach.
His eyes twinkled with humor. “No flattery required. When did you get back? Last I heard, you were gallivanting around Europe.”
“Hardly gallivanting,” she said dryly. “I did the amateur MMA circuit for a while.” In addition to other less-than-salubrious lines of work…
“You’ve bulked up since I saw you last.” Shane’s smile widened, and he squeezed one of her biceps. “Impressive.”
“All part of the job.” The feel of his fingers on her skin made her heart beat a little faster, and his words reignited her self-consciousness over her looks. A betraying warmth crept up her cheeks.
If Shane noticed her embarrassment, he pretended not to. “I’ve often wondered how you were,” he said. “You haven’t been back in Dublin for years.”
“If you were interested, you could have gotten in touch.” The words slipped out before she could stop herself. Shit. She hadn’t intended to steer the conversation in this direction.
His smile faded. “I should never have done what I did, Ruthie. I was Kevin’s mate, and you were his little sister.”
Shane’s candid words shredded the last of her fake-it-till-you-make-it self-confidence. “And out of bounds,” she finished for him, struggling to keep her tone light. “Until I wasn’t.”
Their eyes locked. A tense silence stretched the seconds.
“Sorry about your tooth,” she added, shooting Shane a grin.
His gaze softened. “You won the fight fair and square, Miss Ruthie, and losing the tooth was my fault. I’ve never forgotten to wear a mouthguard since.” His posture shifted. “I need to order Murph and Dec their drinks. What are you having?”
“A vodka shot, please.” Inviting her to join him for a drink was a good sign. With alcohol loosening his inhibitions, she’d salvage the situation and inveigle an invitation to a Delaney family event.
Shane nodded to the barman and ordered. While he was busy paying and organizing the delivery of Murph and Dec’s drinks, Ruthie slid her phone out of her pocket. Her hands wouldn’t stop shaking as she typed a text message. She’d played this scenario out in her head many times, but she’d failed to take into account the effect Shane Delaney had on her equilibrium. Finally, she deleted the long, typo-ridden message and sent one that was short and to the point.
He’s here. Proceed as planned.
A moment later, Shane’s phone beeped. He glanced at the display and frowned. “Looks like I’ve been stood up.”
“Hot date canceled?”
He laughed, drawing attention to the smile lines around his eyes. “Hell no. Do you remember Lenny Keogh?”
Sure, Ruthie remembered Lenny; she’d seen him three short hours ago when she’d paid him one hundred euros to arrange to meet Shane for a drink and cancel on him at the last minute.
“He was supposed to meet me here,” Shane continued, “but something’s come up. Typical Lenny. The guy doesn’t contact me for months, and then he bloody well stands me up.”
The barman shoved two drinks across the counter to them: a vodka shot for Ruthie and a whiskey for Shane.
“Lenny was never the most reliable of souls,” Ruthie said, picking up her glass. “Sláinte.”
“Sláinte.” A muscle in Shane’s cheek flexed. “I’m sorry about how we left things, Ruthie.”
“Sorry that you walked out on me in the middle of the night and legged it to Australia? All you had to do was tell me you weren’t interested in sleeping with me. Switching hemispheres was an extreme reaction.” The words tumbled out unfiltered, shattering any illusions she’d had of steering this engineered meeting into one that would provide her with an “in” to spy on the Delaneys. Fuck. What was wrong with her? She’d kept her shit together in other undercover situations. Why was she screwing this one up so spectacularly?
But she knew the answer to her questions, and he was standing right next to her.
Shane’s cheeks darkened underneath his tan. “I’d already planned to go to Australia. I didn’t leave because of you.”
“No?” She arched an eyebrow. “You didn’t say goodbye.”
“I wanted to come over,” he said gruffly, “but I didn’t feel welcome at your house.”
“Your argument with my brother had nothing to do with me. You could have called me before you got on the plane. You could’ve—” Crap, crap, crap. Ruthie took a deep breath. She needed to pull herself together before she screwed up the entire operation. With a single throat-burning swig, she tossed back the vodka and set the glass on the counter. “Thanks for the drink. I’d better make tracks.”
“Ruthie—” he began and reached for her hand.
Despite her best efforts at self-control, she trembled at his touch. “It’s fine, Shane. Let’s forget what happened. It was a long time ago.”
“I shouldn’t have brought it up,” he said. “I wanted to get that part of the conversation out of the way, seeing as we’d have to have it eventually. I see now that it was a mistake.”
He hadn’t let go of her hand. The intimacy of his fingers entwined with hers made her light-headed. Unbeknownst to himself, Shane had thrown her a lifeline to fix this encounter and turn it to her advantage. She’d be a fool not to avail of the opportunity. Ruthie drew in a slow breath. “No, you were right,” she conceded. “It needed to be said. I could have tracked you down before you left instead of waiting for you to come to me.”
“I should have called you. At the time, staying away seemed like the smartest move, but I realize now how badly I fucked up. We were friends before I lost my head and kissed you.”
They’d been more than friends, at least as far as she’d been concerned. Shane’s rejection had shattered her heart, but his disappearance had cut the ground out from under her feet. However, if she wanted to be Shane’s plus-one at the next Delaney family gathering, she needed to play it sweet. Ruthie plastered on a smile. “Apology accepted.”
Shane released her hand and took a sip from his glass. “What are you doing in Dublin? I thought you lived in Germany now.”
“Switzerland. And I’m back to visit my family.”
A frown line appeared on his forehead. “Is something wrong? You haven’t been back to Ireland in years. Why now?”
“Have you been keeping tabs on me?” she teased.
“Not exactly, but Kilpatrick isn’t big. Word gets around.”
“Better late than never. My dad isn’t getting any younger.”
He snorted with laughter. “Your father is fit as a fiddle. Big Mike pounds the bags at Dan’s gym. I’ve seen him in action.”
“Guess I take after him.” Ruthie flexed her arm in a subconscious movement that immediately drew his attention to her muscles, and then to her chest.
Shane’s gaze lingered on her breasts for a second before meeting her eyes. “You look nothing like Big Mike.”
Ruthie’s nipples hardened underneath the thin material of her top. God, how she wanted him. “I haven’t seen much of my father over the last few years,” she said quickly. “It’s good to spend time with him again.”
“How long will you be in Dublin?”
She dropped her voice to the husky tone she’d adopted for the pool players. “That depends. I might not leave.”
“Surely you’re not thinking of staying?” Shane frowned. “There’s nothing for you in Kilpatrick.”
“You know how to make a girl feel welcome,” she drawled.
Shane’s cheeks reddened. “I didn’t mean to be rude. I just think you’re better off out of Kilpatrick and away from Dublin altogether.”
“If it’s so bad here, why did you come back from Australia?”
He shrugged. “I guess I’m a home bird after all. I missed the craic and the Irish sense of humor. It’s hard to be the only foreigner in the bunch, you know?”
“I do know. It’s even more difficult when you move around a lot like I did.”
Shane jerked a thumb in the direction of the pool table, where Eejit One and Two, armed with their whiskey chasers, were engaged in a drunken game of pool. “Why were you fighting with Murph and Dec? Surely you’re not so hard up for money that you need to hustle those fools?”
If only he knew just how hard up I am… “Nah. I thought riling them up might be fun.”
Shane shook his head. “You can take the girl out of Dublin, but you’re still the same old Ruthie.”
Actually, a lot had changed over the years, but she wasn’t in a position to tell him exactly what. Perhaps she should feel more than the small prick of remorse that nagged at her conscience for using Shane in this way, but he’d had no qualms about humiliating her five years ago. Whatever she thought of him, she needed the money. If Kevin didn’t pay his debts, the Kowalski brothers would kill him.
She shifted her weight from one leg to the other. It was time to up the ante in this exchange. Ruthie placed her hand on his arm, a finger touching his wrist. “I’m glad I bumped into you, Shane. I was starting to think I’d be stuck with those eejits all evening.”
“Given that you were in the process of beating them up, I don’t think that would have been an issue.”
Was it her imagination, or had his voice deepened a notch when she’d touched him? His gaze met hers, and her pulse quickened. No way was she imagining the desire in his eyes. Another woman—one skilled in the art of flirtation—would use this to her advantage. What better way to get info out of a man than pillow talk?
Pillow talk… If she slept with Shane, he’d know her secret. She was excellent at faking bravado, but pretending to be sexually experienced? That went far beyond her area of expertise. She swallowed hard as a vision of the enormous debt her brother owed loomed. All she needed to do was dig for info on Shane and his family. Easy, right?
Ruthie skimmed a fingertip over his pulse and heard his sharp intake of breath. “Want to get out of here?” she whispered.
His eyes widened, then darkened with a desire that reflected her own. “Ruthie, you’re killing me.”
“Got someplace else to be?” She trailed a finger down the front of his shirt. “Or someone expecting you?”
“No,” he said hoarsely. “There’s no one expecting me tonight.”
“In that case…” Her finger paused just above his waist. “Your place or mine?”
Copyright Zara Keane 2016