Title: Claiming Annie’s Heart
Author: Judythe Morgan
Genre: Romance with a hint of romantic suspense
Annie Foster stays in Ireland after boarding school to nanny a widower’s infant daughter. Five years later, the widower proposes. Weeks before the wedding, Chad Jones, her first love, arrives in Belfast on an undercover assignment probing her fiancé’s connection with IRA terrorists. Chad’s determined to change Annie’s mind because he’s never stopped loving her.
Which man will claim Annie’s heart?
Annie Foster glanced toward the flash of light when the door into Murphy’s Pub in Belfast, Northern Ireland, opened and the dark shadow of a man moved to a stool at the bar. She shivered at the rush of cold air from the unusually chilly July night, but her attention remained focused between the dark oak bar and the seisiún table. Seated with the musicians, four-year-old Emma lip-synced along with her. Behind the bar, her fiancé Pearce Murphy pulled the Guinness tap to build a pint.
Her fingers glided over the upright piano keys. Her voice echoed through the still, quiet pub with the final chorus of the ancient ballad, “For she lived to hope and pray, For her love in Botany Bay, It's so lonely round the fields of Athenry.”
Annie rose slowly. Her body weighted by emotions stirred from the words she sang. She’d been lonely once - waiting, hoping, praying. Not anymore. With a smile at Pearce, she headed to Emma.
She’d only taken two steps when the man who had entered swept her off her feet. She struggled against his arms, pinning her loosely but firmly to a body hard as a slab at Stonehenge. His lips sealed over her startled scream. As the kiss softened, a mist of familiarity fogged her brain.
Before she could sort through the haziness, a familiar Irish brogue called out, “Get your hands off me lass.”
Pearce yanked her from the man’s arms. The unmistakable crack of fist meeting flesh shot through the air, and the stranger tumbled backward, knocking over a chair as he fell. Blood spurted down his chin and splattered onto his shirt.
Pearce reached down to haul the man to his feet for another go. Annie clutched at his forearm. “Pearce, stop it! I’m fine.”
Emma appeared beside her father. Her hazel eyes saucer-like on her pudgy face. She tugged on his other arm. “Da, you broke his nose.”
Pearce twisted from their joint restraint, showing no remorse. “He’s touching you again, I’ll kill him.”
The stranger pulled himself up and swiped at the blood running down his chin. “She’s my fiancée. Annie, it’s me. Tell him.”
The deep baritone voice saying her name carried a familiar cadence. Its resonance danced a jig in her ear, and her heart skipped a beat. Annie swayed. “Chad?”
Pearce reached to steady her, but she braced herself against Chad’s chest.
Chad lifted her hand to his lips, kissing her fingers. “I’d given up on finding you, my Annie.”
“Too late, you are,” Pearce said.
Annie shot her friend Molly a frantic help me glance.
Nodding, Molly linked her arm through Pearce’s. “We’ll be needing you. Liam wants another of your special Murphy’s.”
Pearce jerked from Molly’s grip and motioned the crowd away. “Enough already. Everyone back to your places,” he said and stomped to the bar.
Emma scooted closer, hugging Annie’s waist. Her eyes glistened with tears. Her lips puckered in a pout. “She’s not yours. She’s mine and Da’s.”
Annie slipped her hand from Chad’s, gave Molly a grateful nod and crouched to hug Emma. “That’s right, sweetie. I’ll always be yours.”
Chad’s gaze flickered from Annie to Emma. “She yours?”
Aware of every eye in the pub watching them, she tipped Emma’s chin upward. “Sweetie, you go help Molly and your Da.”
Emma’s shoulders straightened as though she might protest, then dropped with a weighty sigh. Her posture and stride mimicked her father’s as she walked away.
Annie motioned to Chad. “Come with me. Let’s put some ice on your nose.” Pearce’s hazel eyes, shadowed by angry disbelief, tracked them as Annie led the way behind the floor-to-ceiling, age-darkened, oak bar. She kept her back stiff, her pace steady down the narrow hallway to an iron spiral staircase and up the steps to her apartment above the bar.
Inside, her body shivered, trembled, quaked with questions. How had Chad found her and where had he been?
She took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, opened the door, and pointed to her kitchen table. “Sit down. I’ll get some ice.”
He flinched when she placed an ice-filled washcloth against his nose a few moments later. “Hold it there.”
She sat across from him, analyzing the man, looking for the college student she’d known and loved. The years had left their mark on him. Gone was the sun-lightened, blond hair she had run her fingers through, replaced by a dark, burnished-gold color. A few lines etched across his forehead and around his eyes. A shadow of sadness darkened those clear, sparkling blues that so often plagued her dreams. A faint, narrow, pink scar line extended up his whisker-stubbled cheek. From what, she wondered.
“Chad.” They spoke at once.
“You first,” he said.
Mountains of memories rose in her head. Times spent sharing their deepest wants and desires. Times he’d been her comfort and hope. How she had missed him and longed for him to return for her.
Finally, she’d accepted he was gone. She’d never expected to see him again.
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