Keeping promises is important to Ryan, but keeping his promise to his younger brother David will be hard. David’s final wish is for Ryan to watch over his wife and daughter, but Ryan’s been in love with Shannon for years. This holiday season, Ryan will learn he can keep his promise and still have his heart’s desire.
Shannon felt bone tired and grubby by the time she flew into the Mount Snow Airport, two days before Thanksgiving. The small airport was busy, probably more so than usual, and the plane was jam packed without a spare seat anywhere. It seemed everyone on the face of the earth had the same brainy idea she had…trying to reach their holiday destinations in time. Shannon should have remembered the years before when she and David had left earlier to avoid the hassle.
Traveling with a toddler, one who’d clearly reached the terrible two stage was no picnic either. By the time Shannon stepped off the plane, she had a huge grape stain on her white blouse, which she knew wouldn’t come out in a hundred years. She couldn’t blame the stewardess, who had only been trying to help when Alivia had turned her nose up to everything Shannon had brought on board. Clearly, the stewardess didn’t have children if she thought handing a two year old an open cup of juice was the smartest thing to do. Alivia’s little chubby hands had reached for it before Shannon had a chance to blink, much less speak.
On top of the juice stain, Shannon had dried drool on her left shoulder where Alivia had fallen asleep, and now smelled sour from the milk and oatmeal she’d consumed for breakfast. Her red hair, which she’d pulled up in a haphazard bun, was hanging about her face and neck like she’d just finished ten hours of strenuous housework. Every time Alivia got anywhere near it she'd bury her little fingers into the bun, pulling more and more hair loose. Shannon sighed, smiling in spite of everything.
It’s not like she was trying to win a beauty pageant.
She thanked God Sheila had arrived on time to pick them up. The long drive to the farmhouse had been done with them catching up on what they’d been doing most of the year, while Sheila’s kids, Dawn and Kelly, had kept Alivia amused in the back seat. Every once in a while Shannon glanced back to make sure her daughter hadn’t worked her way out of the car seat. She hated being confined. Apparently, the attention of her cousins had kept her from getting bored.
Now, some four hours later, Shannon glanced down at Alivia, and released a deep sigh of tiredness after the long day. Her daughter had eaten, been bathed, powdered down, read a story and was fast asleep in the playpen next to her bed. Hopefully until the next morning. Shannon glanced at the clock, almost nine. Her time now, to eat, bathe, powder down and replace the story for a glass of wine and a little peace and quiet. Marsha left a dinner plate in the oven for her when she was ready for it.
On her way to the door, she caught a glance of herself in the huge mirror over the antique mahogany dresser. Lord, she looked a wreck! Her green eyes looked dull with exhaustion, her mascara smeared beneath them. Her full lips were void of lipstick, and she knew the blush in her cheeks was natural because Alivia’s hands had smoothed away her makeup long ago when they’d been playing. She was still wearing her stained and wrinkled traveling clothes, only now her white blouse was missing two buttons where Alivia had tugged on it.
She glanced at her daughter once more before opening the bedroom door to head for the kitchen downstairs, thankful Marsha had installed a baby monitor in the room. If Alivia woke, they’d be able to hear her. Of course, she’d probably let out a loud squeal when she realized she wasn’t sleeping in her own bed. Leaving the door open, Shannon tiptoed out until she was a safe distance away.
The first thing Shannon noticed as she descended the stairs was how quiet the house seemed, before she remembered Marsha had one of her wicked migraines and had turned in early hoping to fight it off. Sheila would be tied up with her little ones in their rooms, which Shannon knew were at the far back of the house. After the grandchildren started coming along Marsha had sectioned off parts of the huge house into suites so everyone would have the privacy they needed. Adding bathrooms where needed. Shannon was the only one who had a bedroom that shared a connecting bath in the main part of the house, down the hall from Marsha.
Just as she stepped off the bottom step, she heard a noise at the front door. She hesitated, unsure what to do. Who could be visiting at this hour? Just when she expected to hear a knock, she heard something else instead. A key was being inserted into the lock, and right before her startled eyes, she watched the knob turn and the door open. Her gaze landed on a pair of army boots and slowly traveled upward, taking in the muscular body in military fatigues. Her mouth dropped open in shock. Ohmygod!
Ryan had come home!
He appeared just as startled as she was. Halting in the threshold as their eyes meet, his rugged expression carved in granite. Only his eyes, those piercing blue orbs, showed any sign of life, if you could call it that. Shannon had a feeling that Ryan Hayes didn’t reveal any emotions that weren’t hardened by years of combat. For a moment, she thought he wasn’t going to speak and half expected him to back out and leave.
“Do you mind if I come in?” His deep voice was just as Shannon remembered. “It’s damn cold out here.”
For the first time she realized she was blocking his way. Swallowing, she stepped back enough for him to enter and close the door behind him. He dropped a large army bag on the floor by his feet, and shook off the snow onto the floor mat. All the while keeping his eyes trained on Shannon, as though she were the enemy. She took a nervous step further into the foyer, directly into the soft glow of the lamp that had been left on in the living room.
Ryan looked just like he did the last time she saw him. Big and tall, cloaked in that attitude of quiet strength he seemed to possess. His black hair cut in military fashion and suited his strong, square boned face. Though sporting a tiny scar over his left eyebrow and another, bigger one halfway down his left cheek he was still a handsome man. He eluded danger in practically every move he made, every glance.
His eyes dropped, running over Shannon rapidly, making her painfully aware of her disheveled state. She refused to reach up and smooth her hair back, knowing that it would do no good. The tiniest quirk on his full, sensuous mouth revealed he found her condition amusing. Quickly, his lips thinned almost menacingly when his gaze narrowed on her breasts. It was then that Shannon reached up and pulled her ruined blouse together where the buttons had come off.
She finally found her voice. “Welcome home, Ryan.”
“Where is everyone?” His tone seemed hard, gruff, more commanding than inquiring. He slipped off his jacket and hung it on a peg on the back of the door, and then bent to slip off his boots.
“Mom went to bed with a headache. Sheila must be putting the kids to bed. The rest won’t get here until tomorrow night.” Shannon couldn’t help but notice the quick glance he shot her way when she called his mother mom. She watched quietly as he set his boots against the wall and stood, towering over her again.
“It’s just as well. I’m tired as hell and want to turn in early myself. But first, I want to find something to eat. I’m starved.” Closing the distance between them, Ryan halted when he reached Shannon. “Is that okay?”
Shannon felt a telltale heat rush up to her cheeks when she realized she was watching Ryan’s mouth form the words. What the heck was wrong with her? Jet lag, that’s what. She gave her head a little shake. She must be more tired than she thought. As his words became clear, it dawned on her that she was once again blocking his way. “Oh! I’m, ah sorry.” Instead of moving to let him pass, she turned and began to walk in the direction of the kitchen. “I’ll be glad to fix you something to eat.”
“Thanks, but that won’t be necessary.” He was right on her heels.
“That’s okay.” Shannon pushed the kitchen door open and flipped on the light switch on the wall next to it. “Sheila put a plate for me in the oven and if I know her, she left enough for two. I don’t mind sharing.” Not waiting for Ryan to acknowledge her, Shannon took the potholders from the counter by the stove, opened the oven door and retrieved the plate. “Just as I thought.” She turned and showed him the full plate of corn beef hash. But the expression on Ryan’s face almost made her drop it.
Sweat had broken out on his forehead and he’d turned pale, his lips were thin as a muscle twitched in his jaw that had hardened in an effort to hold back that he was in obvious pain.Intense pain. He was clutching the island counter in the middle of the kitchen as if it alone was holding him upright. “Ryan!” Shannon set the plate down and rushed to his side. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
He held a hand up in a silent warning for her to back off. She stopped immediately and waited for another sign from him, afraid he was having some kind of attack. After a few more seconds, he sucked in several deep breaths and released them slowly. It was clear by his expression that he hated showing her even that one small weakness. It was very clear that he didn’t intend talking about it. Shannon knew the moment the pain left his body when his expression relaxed.
“You said something about sharing your dinner?” He pulled out one of the barstools from around the island and sank down onto it.
Shannon hesitated for a moment, fighting the urge to question him. Something was terribly wrong, she just knew it, but she didn’t know Ryan well enough to feel she had the right to ask him anything personal. The look in his cold eyes warned her she’d be shot down before she managed to speak the first word. Forcing a smile she was far from feeling, she turned to get a second plate.
“I’ll thank you not to mention what just occurred to my family,” Ryan surprised her by saying while her back was turned to him.
“If that’s what you want,” Shannon responded, opening a cupboard door.
She glanced with surprise at where the plates were usually stacked. Glasses had replaced them. Marsha had obviously done some rearranging since the last time Shannon had been there. She opened up several other doors before finding the plates, stacked on the second shelf. Standing on tip toe she strained to reach them.
“Here, let me help you.”
“Oh!” Feeling Ryan brush up against her, Shannon spun around before she could think. Suddenly, it wasn’t her backside feeling his hardened muscles. Since he was in the process of reaching over her head for a plate, they were now flush against each other. Her breasts flattened against his hard chest, the lower halves of their bodies were shockingly aligned, and their thighs were touching. Mouths within inches of each other, their breath mingled. It was crazy but Shannon was sure she felt their hearts beating in rhythm. She began to tingleeverywhere and held her breath.
Their gazes met and held and Ryan became motionless, his arm still above her head reaching for the plate. It struck Shannon that she was seeing the dangerous side of him, the soldier sizing up the situation and preparing for action. Only in this case, what would that be? She refused to let her mind go there.
When his gaze fell to her mouth she began to tremble, but not from fear. A sliver of excitement shot through her. Then as quick as it happened it was over and he was pulling a plate out and stepping away.
“Thank you,” she whispered, not sure what just happened or what she was feeling. It was insane, finding herself momentarily attracted to Ryan. He was her husband’s brother for crying out loud! A feeling of overwhelming guilt engulfed Shannon and she wondered that it might be best if she skipped dinner and went straight to bed.
“You have nothing to fear from me, Shannon.” Ryan said out of the blue, breaking into her thoughts. She unwillingly met his eyes again, wondering what prompted him to say such a thing. Had he felt something too?
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not afraid of you. Why would I be?” Finally able to move, she went to the island and picked up the plate with the corn beef hash on it. Without looking at Ryan, she scooped more than half onto the extra plate before setting it down before him. He surprised her by reaching out and grabbing her wrist before she could move away. Shannon reluctantly raised her gaze to his and that’s when she knew she had to get out of there. She wasn’t afraid of him, she was afraid of herself! “If you’ll excuse me, I better go check on Alivia.”
So many emotions were running through Shannon at that moment. Feelings she hadn’t felt in a while, and didn’t know how to handle. She was confused and frightened. Where had they come from?
Without waiting for his acknowledgement, she turned and fled the kitchen.