“Sometimes,” I admitted. “We never had a chance to be a family without her.” I remembered how lost and out of step we became when she died. Now we were bound to each other only through the memory of her love, a memory that faded a little more with each passing year.

“He meant well, Erica.”

“I know he did. I don’t blame him. We’re both happy, so that’s all that matters now.” With a degree and a new business under my belt, I had no regrets about Elliot’s choice. Ultimately it placed me on the path that had led me to where I was today, but nothing could change the fact that we’d grown further apart over the years.

“Enough about that, then. Let’s talk about your love life.” Marie shot me a warm smile, her beautiful almond eyes glittering in the dim light of the restaurant.

I laughed, knowing she would want every detail if I had anything at all to indulge. “Nothing new to report, sadly. How about we talk about yours instead?” I knew she would take the bait.

Her eyes lit up and she gushed about her newest love interest. Richard was a jet-setting journalist nearly a decade her junior, which was no surprise to me. Not only was she in great shape for her age, Marie was incredibly young at heart. I often had to remind myself that she was my mother’s age.

While she reminisced, I enjoyed a short love affair with my food. Perfectly prepared and dripping with a red wine reduction, the bone-in filet nearly melted in my mouth. Deeply satisfying, the meal almost made up for the past several months of sexual deprivation. If it didn’t, the plate of chocolate covered strawberries we finished our dinner with definitely did.

College had provided me with regular opportunities for short-term flings, but unlike Marie, I was never really looking for love. And now that I had a business to keep up with, I barely had time for a social life, let alone a sex life. Instead I lived vicariously through Marie, genuinely happy she had a new man who kept a little pep in her step.

We finished and Marie agreed to meet me outside after she freshened up. I made my way toward the door, feeling happy and a little buzzed. I passed the host and turned back when he thanked me for coming. The next minute I ran smack into the man coming through the front door.

He caught me by the waist, pulling me up as I steadied myself again. I looked up to apologize when my gaze locked with his. A mesmerizing tornado of hazel and green poured into me, obliterating my ability to speak. My heartbeat quickened, and I struggled to keep my breathing steady.

“Are you all right?”

His voice vibrated through me. My knees weakened a little at the sensation. His arm tightened around my waist in response, bringing our bodies infinitely closer. The shift did little to help me regain my composure. My body heated at the way he held me, possessive and confident, as if he had every right to keep me there as long as he liked.

A small part of me, the part that wasn’t humming with desire for this strange man, wanted to protest his boldness, but all rational thought was clouded as I drank in his features. He couldn’t have been much older than I. With the exception of his wayward dark brown hair, he appeared to be all business in a charcoal blazer over a white collared shirt with a couple buttons loose. He looked expensive. He even smelled expensive.

Out of your league, Erica, a little voice sang, reminding me it was my turn to speak.

“Yes, I’m fine. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” he murmured seductively, with a hint of a smile. His lips were etched and full of promise, impossible to ignore with my face just inches from his. God, the sexual energy rolled off the man like tidal waves.

“Mr. Landon, your party is here.”

While the host waited for him to respond, I sobered enough to straighten, confident I could stand independently again. I leveraged the effort with my hands on his chest, hard and unforgiving even through his suit. He released his hold on me, his hands blazing a trail of fire as they left my body slowly. Sweet Jesus. Dessert had nothing on this man.

He nodded to the host but barely took his eyes from me, paralyzing me with that single thread connecting us. Irrationally, I wanted nothing more than his hands on me again, possessing me like they had so easily before. If he had my head swimming with a mere touch, there was no telling what he could do in the bedroom. I wondered if there might be a coat closet nearby. We could get to the bottom of this right now.

“Right this way, sir,” the host said, waving my rescuer toward him.

He walked away with casual grace, leaving me tingling from head to toe in his absence. Marie joined me as I watched his retreat, a sight to behold.

I meant to be embarrassed, but in truth I was shamelessly satisfied with my inability to balance on four-inch heels. Mystery man would become fodder for many fantasies to come.

* * *

I ascended the broad granite steps of the library building and traveled through the halls to Professor Quinlan’s office. He was staring intently at his computer screen when I knocked at the door.

He swiveled in his chair. “Erica! My favorite internet startup genius girl.”

His telltale Irish lilt had become less pronounced after living in America for so long. I still found it adorable and clung to every word.

“Tell me, how does freedom feel?”

I giggled a bit, warmed at his genuine enthusiasm to see me. Quinlan was an attractive man in his early fifties, with salt and pepper gray hair and kind pale blue eyes.

“Still getting used to it, to be honest. How about you? When does your sabbatical start?”

“I fly into Dublin in a few weeks. You must visit me if you find time this year.”

“I would love to, of course,” I said. What would this year look like for me? Hopefully I’d be nursing my business through early growing pains, but in truth, I had no idea what to expect. “For some reason I feel like it would be strange seeing you outside of campus, Professor.”

“I’m not your professor anymore, Erica. Call me Brendan, please. I’m now your friend and your mentor, and I certainly hope we’ll see plenty more of each other beyond these walls.”

The professor’s words hit me hard, and my throat tingled a bit. Sentimental moments were plaguing me this week, damn it all. Quinlan had been incredibly supportive these past few years, guiding me through my major and making connections for me to push the business forward. The tireless cheerleader every time I needed a boost.

“I can’t thank you enough. I want you to know that.”

“Helping people like you, Erica, is what gets me up in the morning. And it keeps me out of the pub.” He gave me a crooked smile, revealing a lone dimple.

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