From the USA Today bestselling author of Reel comes a powerful, "achingly beautiful" (A.L. Jackson) novel of one woman on the brink of making a decision that will change her life forever.
Kerris Moreton knows how to make things work. Bounced from foster home to foster home as a kid, she adapted; when opportunity arose, she thrived. Now, about to open her own business and accept a marriage proposal, Kerris is ready to build the life she's always wanted. The only thing missing? A passionate connection with her would-be fiance, Cam. Kerris wants to believe that sparks are overrated-until Walsh Bennett lights her up like the Fourth of July.
As one of the East Coast's most eligible bachelors, Walsh enjoys financial independence, fulfilling work with his family's nonprofit, and plenty of female attention. But lately he's been distracted by the one woman he can't have. Lovely to look at and even sweeter to know, Kerris is the soul mate Walsh never thought he would find. The problem is, his best friend found her first.
Release date: June 17, 2014
Publisher: Forever Yours
Print pages: 322
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When You Are Mine
All eyes were on him, except the bride’s. Walsh hadn’t looked at Kerris Moreton, his best friend’s wife-to-be, for weeks. As two hundred wedding guests waited, Walsh contemplated his glass of champagne and the toast they expected from the best man.
“I met this scrawny, mean punk of a kid at camp thirteen years ago.” Walsh pieced together his most charming smile around the words. “We pretty much hated each other on sight.”
He paused for a ripple of polite laughter before focusing his attention on his best friend, Cam.
“But by the end of the summer, I had a best friend. I had a brother, and that’s never changed. We’ve been through a lot together, and you deserve every happiness. I love you, man.”
With a look, Walsh and Cam exchanged years of memories and emotions in a silent moment between them.
And then Walsh did what he had deliberately denied himself all day. He looked at the bride. Really looked at her, full on, and every word he had scripted fled his mind. His breath caught up in his throat at her beauty, illuminated by the kindness and compassion he knew lay beneath that gorgeous face. His tongue clung to the roof of his mouth for an extra second before he wrenched himself from drowning in her amber eyes.
Kerris met his stare, her expression not guarded enough to disguise the fear, the near-panic. He read the question in her eyes as if she had spoken aloud.
What are you about to say?
“And what a girl you’ve found,” he said, unable to look away from her solemn gaze.
“I saw her before I knew she was the girl you’d been telling me all about. She was going out of her way to help someone. I knew then that she was different, and that she deserved a special man.”
He raised his glass to toast the bride, swishing champagne and disappointment in his mouth.
He’d wanted to be that man.
* * *
Eighteen Months Earlier
Walsh couldn’t stop watching her. She stood too far away for him to see her face clearly in the dim light, but he suspected it would take his breath away. She peered up at the bus schedule, speaking with an elderly woman. Her bright red dress in the almost empty parking lot drew his eye like a silver lining in a dark cloud.
“Does it say when the B is coming?” The older woman’s question carried across the space separating them, her white hair gleaming in the light from the street lamp.
“Oh, no. You just missed the last bus.” The girl’s voice was husky-hot and sweet. Honey burned to a crisp.
“Well, I only live a few blocks away. I’ll walk.”
“My car’s over here. I’ll take you.”
“No, I couldn’t put you out like that.” It sounded like only half the lady’s heart was in the protest, and the other half didn’t want to walk in the dark. “You don’t even know me.”
“I know it’s too dark for you to walk the streets alone. I won’t sleep tonight wondering if you made it home. Come on.”
Walsh wished she would turn around so he could see this Good Samaritan’s face, but he only glimpsed a delicate profile and a flower behind her ear before she marched toward a battered Toyota Camry.
Walsh pushed the incident from his mind, crossing the parking lot and entering the hotel across the street. He was late, but his mother wouldn’t care. She’d just be glad to have him home.
“Bennett!” a voice boomed as soon as he entered the beautifully decorated ballroom. “What the hell. I didn’t know you were coming tonight.”
“It’s called a surprise.”
Walsh warded off Cameron Mitchell’s playful jabs before hooking an elbow around his neck.
Walsh watched his cousin Joanne approach, walking as fast as she could in her prized Manolos, weaving through the food-laden tables and well-dressed people. Her smooth skin glowed with health. The sleek, chestnut-streaked bob fell around her ears, a glossy frame for her oval face. Her full lips tilted up at the edges, hinting at the laughter she usually reserved for her tight circle of friends and family. Jo wedged herself between Cam and Walsh, throwing an arm over each man’s shoulder. She had been fitting nicely between the two of them since they’d met Cam at camp thirteen years ago. Walsh had been fourteen and they had been thirteen. That slim age difference had been about the only thing separating them ever since.
“You didn’t tell us you were coming.” Jo nodded at Walsh’s jeans and polo shirt, her gray eyes sparkling, a cheeky grin lighting her face. “Your mom will be so glad to see you. Even dressed like that.”
Walsh gave Jo an affectionate squeeze and kiss, eyeing her brightly patterned halter dress and Cam’s sports jacket and slacks. He was underdressed.
“She won’t mind.” Walsh cast a cursory glance around the ballroom. “Is Uncle James here?”
“Daddy?” Jo rolled her eyes, hand on the curve of her slim hip. “He was still at the office when I left, but he’ll be here.”
“Or Mom will have his head.” Walsh shared a knowing look with his cousin.
Uncle James and Walsh’s mother were not only siblings, but best friends. They had always been partners in crime in everything, including running the family foundation and raising their children.
Walsh spotted his mother working the room, trolling for donors.
“I’ll see Unc when he gets here,” Walsh said. “Going to go grab Mom now.”
Cam laid a hand on Walsh’s shoulder, his smile as broad as the Eno River, which snaked through the small town of Rivermont, North Carolina.
“Okay, but don’t forget I want to introduce you to my new girl. She’s amazing.”
“Can you believe this?” Walsh nodded his head toward Cam, but looked at Jo. “The certified player, wanting one girl?”
“She is pretty amazing.” Jo offered a wry smile, bumping Cam’s shoulder with hers. “What’s most amazing is that she wasn’t running after him like the swarm of girls he’s used to.”
“It took me six months to even get a date with this girl.” Cam waved his hand to indicate his olive skin, blue-gray eyes, and dark, wavy hair. “Me!”
Jo rolled her eyes, shaking her head and setting her gold hoop earrings in motion. “She is something else.”
“I’ll meet her later.” Walsh turned in his mother’s direction. “Right now, I gotta go kiss the most beautiful woman in the room.”
He snuck up behind his mother and covered her eyes.
“Who is this?” She starched and pressed the words.
“How many people did you give birth to?”
“Walsh!” She whooped and turned around to hug him as tightly as he had known she would. Her dark hair was pulled back in an elegant knot, showing off her smooth, still-unlined skin. “I didn’t know you were coming tonight. Your room isn’t even ready.”
The ever-practical Southern hospitality. Kristeene Walsh Bennett had never lost it, even when she’d been married to his father, living among New York’s most elite.
“I’ll be fine.” Walsh gave her an extra squeeze before pulling away. “Just as long as there’s a bed. Feels like parts of me are scattered across three time zones. I just want to crash after this.”
“But you will stay, right?” She rolled a threat and a plea into one tiny frown. “You have to meet our Scholar of the Year. She’s overcome so much.”
“Haven’t they all?” Walsh thought of Cam and several of the other foster kids who’d come through the foundation over the years.
“Well, yes, but she’s special,” Kristeene said, something approaching pride in her voice. “She’s driven and determined. Just a good girl.”
“Let me guess. She has a great personality?”
“Well, yes, she does.” His mother pressed her lips together, but Walsh knew laughter could spill from the sides at any minute. “Come on. Time to announce the awards.”
Walsh took a seat across from Cam and Jo.
“Where is she?” Cam twisted around, scanning the crowded room. “She should’ve been here by now.”
“She’ll be here.” Jo took a quick sip of her white wine and toyed with the studded bangle wrapped around her wrist. “She’s probably just running late, and I’m sure there’s an excellent reason for it. God forbid she’d do anything wrong.”
“She did mention she was taking her mentee home after school.” Worry pulled Cam’s dark brows together. “But that would’ve been hours ago.”
Was this really Cam? Walsh couldn’t believe all this concern. For a girl? Cam barely remembered the names of the girls he’d slept with over the years, usually referring to them by distinguishing characteristics.
The girl with the belly-button ring.
That chick with the tramp stamp.
The one who did that trick with her tongue.
Now Cam was worried because this girl was late?
“Thank you all for being here tonight,” Walsh’s mother said from the platform, her warm gaze skimming each table. “My great-grandfather married a girl who never knew her mother or father. A girl who lived in an orphanage throughout her childhood. Her story compelled my family to start the Walsh Foundation, and we’ve been helping kids without parents or homes all over the world ever since.”
Polite applause from the donors. The college students who had grown up in foster homes and been able to attend college because of the foundation offered a less reserved response, cheering and whistling until Kristeene held up a staying hand.
“Speaking of all over the world.” Kristeene turned a bright smile in Walsh’s direction. “I’m going to have a proud mother moment and welcome my son, Walsh, home. He’s finally back from visiting our orphanage in Kenya. Help me convince him to stay for the summer. Stand up, baby.”
Walsh stood, offering a brief salute before quickly sitting, feeling as self-conscious as he had at six years old when she’d forced him to play the piano for company.
“We’re so proud of him.” Her eyes lingered on her only child. “He’s been working with the Walsh Foundation ever since he graduated from NYU, and he helps out his father in New York when he can.”
Walsh nearly smirked, thinking of how disgusted Martin Bennett would be to hear about his son “helping out” in New York. Like training to run a multibillion dollar enterprise was his side gig. His father wanted Walsh to work all of what he liked to call this “philanthropy crap” out of his system with his mother’s do-gooder family.
“And that brings us to our final award, the Scholar of the Year,” his mother said, regaining Walsh’s attention. “This young lady has impressed us all. Not only did she graduate last week with a four-point-oh GPA, but she also serves as a mentor at Walsh House in Raleigh, where we serve at-risk teens. I interviewed her myself for the scholarship last year. I was blown away by her strength of will, determination, and compassion. Please welcome Kerris Moreton, our Scholar of the Year.”
Everyone applauded. After that grand introduction, Walsh wondered if this girl would ascend to the stage flanked by cherubim and seraphim and accompanied by harps. Walsh envisioned everyone genuflecting when this paragon finally decided to bless them with her presence. His hands stung from clapping, waiting for her to show up.
Where the hell was she?
His mother scanned the room, obviously looking for the little scholar-cum-saint. She shielded her eyes against the glare of discreetly lit chandeliers.
“I guess promptness isn’t one of her virtues,” Walsh said.
Cam surprised him with an irritated look. What? Did the little saint have him under her spell, too? Wonder what his new girlfriend thought of that. Then Cam’s face lit up.
“Here she comes.”
She rushed through the door and down the aisle toward the stage. Walsh blinked, thinking she would be less lovely at a second glance. She was not less of anything. No less blinding. No less stunning. No less captivating. She rushed past their table, but not before he got a good look at her.
She was tiny. Probably no more than an inch over five feet, but softly curved in the places a woman should be. He would stand more than a foot taller. Her hair waved around her shoulders and streamed down her slim back, dark brown, spiked with lighter red streaks, as if the tresses had trapped rays of sun. Her cheekbones curved high, a perfect setting for eyes that tilted a little, glinting with green, amber, and gold. And that mouth.
Damn, that mouth.
It was full and wide. Lush, like raspberries at peak season.
And damned if she wasn’t wearing a scarlet dress and a flower behind her ear.
He was a mountain. Insurmountable. Stark against the backdrop of the glittering ballroom like peaks against a feather-clouded sky. His unwavering stare scrambled her thoughts.
Kerris knew she should be used to the stares by now. People could never label her ethnicity. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. She’d never know what genetic cocktail had been shaken or stirred to get this face that made people take a second look, trying to place her. She’d always struggled to find her place. Hard to do when you were practically born on a doorstep and passed around like an old library book everyone keeps returning.
She got the impression this man wasn’t used to waiting for people and things, but he didn’t seem impatient. If anything, he was completely still. He seemed to be waiting for her.
After the awards had been given out, Kerris tried to focus on several well-wishers offering congratulations. With her undignified sprint to the stage, she was just glad to have made it. Old ladies and kids. She could never say no.
Kerris managed to nod and smile at Jenni, the Walsh Foundation’s program coordinator, but she really just wanted to drag her weary bones home, wrap up in her thrift store kimono, and sip her Earl Grey.
“Excuse me, Jenni.” His voice was dark and rich and strong like a shot of espresso.
“We didn’t know you were coming tonight.” Jenni’s back straightened and her hand flitted to adjust an already-perfectly-straight collar.
“Surprise.” He smiled, and Jenni couldn’t seem to look away. Neither could Kerris. “I wanted to congratulate Miss Moreton personally. Would you excuse us?”
Jenni scurried off without a word. Had he been rude? Kerris couldn’t tell. She wondered if charm like that wrapped around such a steely will left people feeling they should thank him when he stepped on their feet.
He watched her with the focus of a jaguar considering a particularly scrumptious prey. That look should have frightened her, but it wasn’t fear unfurling inside. She didn’t know this feeling, but she was certain she had never felt it before.
“Congratulations.” He slid his hands into his pockets and cocked his head to one side, his casual stance belying the barely checked energy of a hunter. “I don’t know which was more impressive. The award, or your good deed earlier taking the old lady home.”
Kerris’s jaw nearly gave in to gravity and dropped.
“How did you…when did you…huh?”
Wow. Stellar articulation. She gave her mental processes a second to catch up. Let’s try this again.
“How did you know about the lady?”
“I was in the parking lot across from the hotel, running late for the awards ceremony, and overheard.”
The room narrowed to the width of his smile, and Kerris felt herself leaning toward him, on the verge of toppling.
“Most people wouldn’t have helped her out.”
“She was a sweetheart. It was nothing.”
One hand went to her throat. The other touched the silk orchid nested behind her ear. A succession of twitches she couldn’t control. Butterfly wings brushed the lining of her belly. She willed the triple time tempo of her heart to slow, but he inundated her senses, and they would not be soothed.
Kerris watched him catalog every detail about her, his eyes surveying each limb and curve. Her fingers plucked at her thrift shop dress, a scarlet tunic with gold embroidery edging the sleeves and collar, stopping just above her knees. Under his scrutiny, her toes curled in the scarlet leather mules. She shifted her weight from one tanned leg to the other. And then back again, like an uneven scale, grappling for balance.
She returned his inspection, noting the dark green eyes under thick, well-shaped brows. The sculpted blade of a nose. The high cheekbones jutting to create hollows above his jaw. His tanned skin stretched taut over the regal bones of his face. He wore jeans, a green polo shirt, and leather moccasins, but he carried an air of careless glamour only money could achieve. He was a slumming prince, and the strong male beauty of him snagged the breath in her throat. The rest of the room dissolved into a peripheral blur.
She wasn’t sure if she was supposed to speak, or if it was his turn. She wanted to speak, make small talk, but speech and sense had fled. She was naturally reticent. Slow to share much about herself. Some might even call her shy. But somehow she knew this man could trample her defenses and dismantle her like a ticking bomb.
“So you two finally met.” A familiar male voice a few feet away snapped the invisible thread tugging her closer by the second.
Kerris looked over her shoulder, coming back to herself and finally absorbing something beyond him. Cam walked up, making her smile. He made smiling an involuntary action, like blinking or sneezing. Something you just couldn’t hold back.
Cam slid an arm around her waist, leaning down to kiss her cheek. She forced herself to give him her full attention, willing Mr. Mountain to drift away.
“This is the guy I’ve been trying to get you to meet for the last year, but he’s been all over the globe saving orphans. This is my best friend in the world, Walsh Bennett.”
Oh. Freaking. No.
Kerris’s only consolation was that Walsh looked just as disconcerted before disciplining his features into a polite mask, as if that moment hadn’t happened. Maybe it had been her imagination. Feeling a wordless, mindless connection that strong with your boyfriend’s best friend would border on tragic.
“I was just congratulating Kerris on her award. My mom practically threatened to disown me if I didn’t.” Walsh split his glance between the two of them. “I had no idea Mom’s star scholar was the girl you’ve been raving about.”
Jo sidled up and slipped her arm through the crook of Walsh’s.
“I’m just glad someone made Cam work for it.”
“I finally found a girl worth working for.” Cam’s half-serious look rested on Kerris.
He placed a kiss on her unsuspecting lips, surprising her when his tongue made a quick foray into her mouth. She willed herself not to jerk away. Cam knew how difficult physical affection was for her in private, much less in a room full of people. Her discomfort deepened in front of him.
“I’m glad to finally have you both in the same state,” Cam said. “This summer’s gonna be great. The two people I love most in the world. Sorry, Jo. Make that three.”
“Whatever,” Jo said, her laugh good-natured. “Are we going to celebrate the scholar or what? The food at this reception looks delish.”
“Um, remember I kind of had a private celebration planned for Kerris and me.” Cam offered a sheepish grin, squeezing Kerris’s hand.
“What’d you have in mind?” Kerris found a smile she hoped passed for normal.
“You’ll have to wait and see.” Cam’s look asked Jo and Walsh to understand. “You guys don’t mind if we skip the reception, right? I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Walsh glanced at Kerris before looking back at Cam.
“Just some of us getting together at the river to kick off the summer,” Jo said. “Grill some food. Swim. You in, Walsh?”
“Sounds like fun. If you don’t mind me sleeping half the time. Jet lag’s kicking my ass.” . . .
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