Author:Bailey essa

Chapter Twenty-Four

Holy shit. Faith wasn’t kidding. I get off the packed flight in Milan, and I can barely move through the airport. Racing fans are traveling in droves, some talking excitedly about the upcoming race in accented English. Others speaking in languages I don’t understand. Jogging through the terminal, I do a double take when I see Shane’s face on a television screen in the waiting area, above Italian words I can’t read. It gives me serious pause. This event is much larger, more important than I imagined. It makes me twice as determined to reach him before the race starts. It’s imperative that he goes into it with his head in the right place.
I pace impatiently as I wait in line for a taxi, bombarded by memories of the last three weeks, of me and Shane. Our first meeting at the airport, the rainy night in the alleyway, the morning in my bed. The way he’d gone still as death last night when I lied to him, about my feelings. I’m drowning in these memories, in the need to reach him. He can’t race without hearing me say the words that threaten to topple me. For the first time in my life, I’m not running away. I’m running toward. Am I scared? Hell yeah. But I’m twice as scared of never again feeling the way Shane makes me feel. Knowing I make him feel the same way only increases the feeling of desperation to find him. I won’t screw this up because he won’t let me. I’ve never been more confident of anything in my life.
The ride to the track takes a millennium, mostly because the town is overflowing with people, cars, vendors, and television news crews. People carrying flags from their native countries. Groups of people chanting and cheering. For a girl who spends most of her life hiding in a dark room or avoiding crowds, frankly it’s a little overwhelming. I’m in a strange country, I don’t speak the language, and I’m running after someone who has the ability to smash my irreparable heart to pieces if he so chooses. I’m running on faith, here, that he won’t. That I didn’t ruin my chance with him last night. That he still wants me. Please, please, let him still want me. I can’t go my whole life knowing I screwed this up. I need a chance to make this right.
With that thought ringing in my head, I toss a handful of Euro at the driver, throw open the door of the taxi, and start running. I can see the grandstands, hear the roar of the crowd, but when I reach the entrance, I realize I’ve come all this way without a ticket. Surely with this amount of people attending, this much fanfare, the race has been sold out for months. I stumble back from the crowded entrance, seriously contemplating taking a page from Patrick’s book by sneakily divesting some unsuspecting race fan of their ticket, but I can’t do it.
Frustrated, on the verge of screaming until my lungs give out, I search around wildly for another option. Can I sneak in? Probably not. Definitely not, I remedy, when I see the security guards holding assault rifles, blocking the gates. Then I remember the afternoon Derek took me and Ginger to a Cubs game. As we walked inside to get our seats, there had been men whispering to passersby. Need a ticket? Tickets? Scalpers. Do they have those in Italy?
I scan the teeming mass of people, looking for someone willing to sell me a ticket. When I see a man standing at the edge of the crowd in a ball cap pulled low over his eyes, I start walking toward him. He’s not moving with the excited race fans. He’s alone, but his mouth is moving as people pass. If he’s a scalper, he’s my only shot to get inside.
Closing my eyes and saying a quick prayer, I walk past him slowly.
“Il biglietto?”
I stop. “What?”
He sighs. “Ticket?”
I’m so overcome with relief that all I can do is nod. Then he tells me the price. “Are you a fucking crazy person?”
“People pay twice that. You don’t want it, someone else will.”
“Jesus.” I run a hand through my hair, looking around to make sure no one is paying attention to us. I’m painfully aware that if I use Derek’s emergency debit card to purchase an illegal ticket, he will never let me hear the end of it. Screw it. Desperate times. “Can you wait while I run to an ATM?”
He shrugs. “Go.”
“I’ll be five minutes. Please, please, don’t sell it to anyone else.”
“Why so desperate, bambolina?”
“My boyfriend is racing.” I’m already backing away, searching for the closest ATM. “I have to get inside before it starts.”
“Oh, your boyfriend. Sure.”
I race around the corner, relived to find an ATM near the bathrooms. Two people are in line in front of me and my head starts to pound waiting for them. The cheers on the other side of the grandstands are getting louder and it’s all I can do not to scream at them to go faster. When I reach the front, I actually wince over the amount of money it dispenses at my request, but I resolve to deal with it later. I sprint back to the scalper, who is still asking people if they want the ticket. His eyebrows shoot up when I appear in front of him.
“Let’s see the ticket.”
He slides it out of his pocket, and I quickly scan it for the date, time, and location. It’s in Italian, so I’m relying mostly on assumptions. God, please don’t let it be fake. A loud roar kicks up behind me, forcing me to shove the wad of bills into his hand. “If I don’t get it in, I will hunt you down like a dog. Do you understand me?”
“You remind me much of my ex-wife.”
Finally, he hands me the ticket, and I’m off running again. The line at the entrance has died down, I’m assuming because the race is getting ready to start. An usher looks at my ticket and directs me to an area far from the starting line, so I ignore him and push through the packed bodies toward the front. I’ve come this far, and Shane is going to know I’m here, dammit. I don’t care if every person I’m elbowing past is cursing at me, they’ll get over it.
Against all odds, it seems, I make it to the front barrier. Men twice my size are pressed against it, though, and I can’t see over them. Peering between their bodies, I see I’m still a short distance away from the starting line where several helmeted drivers are getting ready to climb into their cars. I don’t see Shane. I would know him from the way he moved.
Someone lays a hand on my shoulder, making me jump. I glance over, and up, to find a giant of a man staring down at me. His smile is friendly and sympathetic, so much so that I’m suddenly battling tears. Failure is looming in front of me. After the effort I’d made, it doesn’t seem possible. This stranger appears to read it on my face. I’m not surprised, since I don’t have the strength to hold anything back at the moment.
“Would you like to watch the start of the race on my shoulders?” he asks me in thickly accented English. Okay, seriously. Am I wearing a sign that says I’m American?
Normally, that kind of forwardness from anyone would freak me out, but I’m plum out of options. I find myself nodding slowly and before I know it, this gigantic stranger in a racing jacket is picking me up and tossing me on his back like a rag doll. It’s the second time that it has happened in less than twenty-four hours, so it stings just a little. But I don’t care, because I can see the track. I can see the group of drivers adjusting their gloves and helmets, some of them waving at the roaring crowd. An announcer’s voice is barely audible among the whistling and shouting. Where is he? Where is—
I see him. He’s standing beside a yellow car, nodding as someone in a white jumpsuit speaks to him. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a woman walk onto the track holding a black-and-white checkered flag. This is it. I’m out of time.
I close my eyes and yell, at the top of my lungs. Louder than I’ve ever yelled in my life. It actually makes my own ears ring. “Shane!”
Nothing. He doesn’t even flinch. I don’t stop, though. I try again and again, until my voice starts to go hoarse. Everyone around me is turning to stare curiously at the crazy girl screaming her head off, and I don’t care. I keep going. Just when I’m beginning to admit it’s hopeless, the giant below me starts to shout. Shane. His voice, added to mine, is twice as loud. To my utter shock, men and women in my immediate vicinity start shouting with us. Shane. Shane. Shane. Maybe they sense my desperation, maybe they’re mocking me, but whatever it is has a better chance of working than my single voice.
Finally, finally, I see the voices reach him and he looks up. It’s such an enormous relief that a huge sob breaks from my chest. I feel like I might melt off the giant’s shoulders, but I force myself to start waving my arms frantically, begging him to look over and see me.
He does.
His body goes very still, except for the gloved hand reaching up to remove his helmet. He pulls it off and his arm falls at his side, helmet hitting the ground. Face a mask of disbelief, his mouth moves in a way that tells me he’s saying my name. Then he’s jogging toward me. The man in the white jumpsuit tries to grab his arm, but Shane shrugs him off. His expression is making it hard for me to breathe and it’s worth everything I’d gone through to get here. Fuck that, it’s worth every hardship I’ll ever face in my life again. It’s love. It’s beautiful.
An announcement comes over the loudspeakers, then. First, in Italian, then in English. He stops, halfway between me and the starting line. Looking back over his shoulder, looking at me. The man in the white jumpsuit is shouting at him to get into the car. The people in my little cheering section are staring at me in a whole new light, whispering to one another.
“Who are you?” the giant asks me.
“I’m…he’s mine. We’re ours. I…we haven’t talked about it yet.”
“Now might be a bad time for a discussion. He’s about to get disqualified.”
I don’t have time to answer because Shane is closing the distance between us again. He’s picked me. Over the race. Over this entire city of fans who have come out to watch it happen. I want to sink down into that knowledge and live inside it forever, but I can’t yet. He has to fulfill his dream, and I’ll be damned if he’s going to give it up. If it’s his dream, it’s my dream, too.
Balancing precariously on the giant’s shoulders, I draw myself up resolutely, ignoring the grunt from below.
“Shane.” I point at the starting line. He’s close enough now that he can hear me, so he stops and nods. “Get in that car. And smoke their asses.”

He actually wins the race. It’s like something out of a movie. When he crosses the finish line, only a few seconds ahead of the next driver, I can’t quite believe it. I’d seen his trophies so I knew he was capable of winning, but to see it happen live, feels like a far-off dream. Yesterday, he’d been pouring beer behind the bar, and today he’s winning this massive sporting event. It’s incredible. I’m so filled to bursting with pride and happiness, I have to cling to the fence to stay upright. Immediately, people stream onto the track, circling Shane and trying to hoist him onto their shoulders. Champagne bottles are being popped, spraying over the hood over the car. News cameras push through the celebration, trying to reach Shane. All I can do is stand on the sidelines smiling, watching it all play out. Celebrating for him on the inside.
I start to back away from the fence, knowing he’ll call me as soon as the world stops wanting a piece of him. And I’ll be waiting. I’m not going anywhere.
I hear his voice and jerk around, catching sight of him as he pushes through the adoring crowd around him. He’s scanning the track, the grandstands, frantic gaze finally meeting mine. He starts running, dodging cameras and people asking for autographs. I press up against the fence and wait for him to reach me. Laughing and crying at the same time. I take in every detail of him. His sweaty hair, dark and twisted on his head from being kept inside his helmet. The way he looks in his racing suit, the way he’s looking at me. As if I’m the only thing he can see even though an entire city now knows his name, or is currently throwing a party in his honor.
“Willa.” He muscles past a few more cameras and reaches over the barrier to slide his hands under my arms, before dragging me over it and into his waiting arms. That quickly, being held against his chest, I can breathe again. He’s strong and familiar and we fit together in a way that makes me wonder how I even envisioned us parting ways. It would have been like trying to separate a heart from a body, expecting that body to go on living. Impossible.
I want to hold on forever, but he’s pulling away to shake me. His blue eyes are full of intensity and hope. I’m so thankful I didn’t crush that part of him, my knees want to give out. “Tell me why you came. Tell me you’re here because you love me as much as I love you.”
“I love you. I love you.”
His eyes squeeze shut and he crushes me back against his chest. “Thank God.”
“You did it,” I whisper in his ear. “You won.”
“Dammit, I just wanted to finish the race so I could make sure I didn’t imagine you standing there,” he rasps at my temple.
“I’m so sorry.” Tears are coursing down my cheeks, soaking into his racing suit. “I didn’t mean those horrible things I said. It all happened so fast. Took me a while to catch up.”
“It’s okay, love. Everything is going to be fine now.” He pushes my hair away from my face, eagerness transforming his expression. “We’ll figure this out together. If it means splitting time between Dublin and Chicago—”
“What about racing?”
Slowly, he shakes his head. “It’s not worth it, Willa. Not without you standing there when I win.”
“Exactly.” When he only stares, I push up on my toes and kiss his lips softly, pulse racing when he moans in response. “You’re not giving this up. I can take pictures anywhere. I’m coming with you.”
His hands clench in the material at the back of my shirt, but his face gives nothing away. “You would do that? Give it all up for me?”
“You’re not listening. I’d be giving everything up if I walked away from you.”
Shane’s throat works with emotion. He starts to speak and stops, leaning down to mold his mouth to mine instead. We both groan in our throats at the contact, lips pressing and opening. Around us, flashbulbs go off and cameras roll. People shout questions in Italian and English. Ignoring them all, he lifts me off my feet, deepening the kiss for a moment before pulling away.
“You won’t regret it a day in your life. I won’t let you. Do you hear me?”
I press my forehead against his and nod. “Yes. I’m listening now.”
“Good.” He lays one more hard kiss on my lips, then sweeps me up into his arms. “Let’s go home, then.”
“Where’s home?” I ask, laying my head on his shoulder.
“Wherever you are, girl.”



I glance down at Willa as we climb the stairs to Ginger and Derek’s Chicago apartment. It’s Thanksgiving, a holiday I’ve never had cause to celebrate before, and the first time I’ll officially meet her family. And the first time she’ll meet her niece, Dolly. Willa thinks I’m nervous, I can tell by the way she keeps squeezing my hand comfortingly, smiling up at me, teeth showing and everything. If she does it one more time, I swear, I’m going to kiss the bloody breath out of her. She’ll never even see it coming.
In reality, I’m not nervous at all. I’m damned relieved I’ve finally been given the chance to bring her home for a visit. Relieved I’ll finally have the chance to look her sister and brother-in-law in the eye and reassure them I’ve been looking after her properly. If she knew that was my intention, she’d probably swing right for my jaw.
Hell, now I’m smiling, too.
In the last three months since Willa showed up in Italy and turned my world from black and white to color, we’ve been all over the world together. Singapore, New Delhi, S?o Paulo. In between races and training, we’ve been in Dublin, making sure the pub survives in my absence. Our absence, really. It hasn’t been the same since the day she walked in. I didn’t want to see it at first. It was difficult to withstand all of her beauty when I’d never witnessed anything like it before. My first instinct had been to push it away. Pretend I didn’t see.
A surge of panic finds my stomach, the way it always does when I imagine where I’d be if she’d never won that contest, never walked into my inn. Or if I’d managed to push her away before I saw underneath her fear to the courageous girl beneath. A man walking around without a heartbeat. Going through the motions. That’s who I’d be.
Her hands tightens in mine again and she smiles up at me, with teeth and everything.
Right. That does it.
We reach the top of the landing, and I drag her up against me. “Are you trying to drive me mad, girl?”
Her lips part, and I have the urge to nip the bottom one, so I do, loving the way she gasps when I lick the spot to soothe it. “What gave you that idea?”
“You’re smiling up at me like I’m some kind of hero for bringing you home. Dammit, Willa. I should have had you here months ago.”
She slides her fingers into my hair and the world steadies itself again. “We’ve been busy. They understand. And you’re forgetting it’s just as much my decision as yours.”
“It’s my racing that’s kept you away. Racing, the pub—”
“I’ve loved every minute. Being with you, taking pictures. You know I have.” She settles her taut, little body against mine and we both sigh. “Every.” Kiss. “Single.” Jesus, tongue this time. “Minute.” I want her now, here. I always want her. But I know it will have to wait. She’s sacrificed everything for me, and now it’s my turn to step up. Her family is waiting for her. I don’t do well being away from her more than a day. I can only imagine what nearly four months was like for them.
Reluctantly, I set her away from me and take her hand. I can see excitement curling the corners of her mouth as she leads me to the door.
“Ready?” she asks and I nod, finding it difficult not to smile when she looks so happy. I’m going to bring her home more often. Every month until racing season starts again. If she can fit it into her school schedule, that is, which she’s registered to begin in the spring. In Dublin. To be with me. She’ll tell me I’m being ridiculous, planning the frequent trips, but I’m going to insist. It’s the least I can do since she’s given me a reason to wake up every morning. A reason to rush to bed every night. Good Lord, I really need to stop thinking of taking her to bed, or I’ll never make it through this meeting.
Willa knocks on the door. Almost immediately, a man answers. I know it’s Derek right away because he’s not smiling. At least, he isn’t at first. When his eyes find Willa, he can’t seem to help it. I know the feeling too well. A woman joins him at the door who I assume is Ginger, a chestnut-haired baby propped on her hip. Ginger is gorgeous. Almost as gorgeous as Willa. And that’s saying something.
“You’re late,” Ginger says, with a lift of her chin. “My chicken pot pies are getting cold.”
Willa wrinkles her nose and groans. Dammit, my girl is adorable. “I just landed and you’re already trying to kill me with your cooking?”
Ginger drags her inside. At the last minute, Willa latches onto my hand and pulls me in with her. “Now, that’s just not fair. Look at Derek, he’s healthy as a horse.”
Derek isn’t paying the women any attention, though. He’s too busy trying to size me up. Willa has told me numerous stories about him. His unique personality, his protectiveness when it comes to her and Ginger. Now, I know they’re all true. He’s kind of a bad ass. Well, so am I. And it’s my job to protect Willa now.
“Took you long enough,” he says.
My first instinct is to tell him Willa and I make decisions for ourselves, but like I said, I understand. Being without her…it’s not something I want to think about. “Won’t happen again if I can help it.”
His frown eases just a little. “These girls do things when they’re good and ready, don’t they?”
“Amen to that.” I reach out to shake his hand. He considers me a moment, before taking my offered hand. And gripping it hard enough to snap a weaker man’s bones. “Shane.”
“Derek.” He lets go, crosses his arms, and watches his wife. I get the feeling he watches her most of the time and reckon I do the same with Willa. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no better place to rest my eyes than on her.
We’re distracted when the women fall silent. I glance over to find Willa enfolded in a hug from Ginger, both of their eyes closed as if absorbing strength. Dolly is silent between them, as if she can sense the importance of the moment.
“Bring her home more often,” Derek says in a quiet voice, and I nod once.
After a moment, Ginger backs away with a watery smile and hands the baby to Willa. Immediately, the baby’s hand gets tangled in her gorgeous hair and she laughs, long and hard. It makes everything inside me relax and tighten at the same time. Derek and Ginger exchange a look, then glance over at me.
At least, I think they do.
I’m looking at Willa.
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To my husband Patrick, who brought me to Dublin for the first time to meet his family six years ago, thank you for sharing that part of yourself with me. And to our two-year old daughter Mackenzie, who is currently wreaking havoc on the city as I type these acknowledgments, thank you. I love you both.
To Heather Howland, who gave me the freedom to send Willa somewhere new and outside of her comfort zone to give her a story, thank you so much.
To Ellie Brennan, for working so hard and helping those early chapters take shape, thank you.
To Cari Quinn, whose kindness and honesty kept me motivated throughout this process, thank you.
To Fiona Clarke, real, live Irish girl from Wicklow, who told me when my Irish slang sounded too American, thank you. Your help was invaluable.
To fabulous author Sophie Jordan, who cover quoted this book, I’m so glad to know you. Your support and encouragement has been unexpected and amazing.
To Edie Harris, for giving me some insightful feedback and calling Willa’s story, “grip-me-by-the-throat, steal-my-breath romantic.” That email gave me the positive kick in the ass I needed. Thank you.
To everyone who asked for Willa’s happily ever after.

About the Author

NYT and USA TODAY bestselling author Tessa Bailey lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and young daughter. When she isn’t writing or reading romance, she enjoys a good argument and thirty-minute recipes.
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