Since the summer he turned eleven, Daniel O'Sullivan woke up every morning the same way. With an aching hard-on. After he was married, the first light of dawn became his favorite time. He'd roll over, impatient hands searching for his wife. After making love to her, he'd shower, shave, and together they'd take the subway to work. What more could any guy want?
But then one September morning seven years ago, bright sunlight mocking in the sky, that all exploded, along with two airliners, two buildings and two thousand, seven hundred and forty people—one of whom was his wife.
For the next five years he rolled over to look for her, impatient hands searching blindly, and she wasn't there. And so the hard-on stayed.
The morning wake-up call evolved, the change coming so gradually that initially he didn't notice it. In those beginning moments of wakefulness, when his brain was more than half-unconscious, he stopped looking for his wife, impatient hands no longer reaching for someone who wasn't there.
Daniel was starting to forget.
Now, if this was any of a thousand other people in the world, maybe that'd be okay. But Daniel wasn't wired that way. Love was forever. A promise was forever, and so two years ago he shifted the wedding picture to his nightstand as a reminder of exactly how much his wife meant to him.
It didn't help.
No matter what he did, no matter what he told himself, in those first seconds of the day his hands stayed stubbornly buried under his pillow. That betrayal to her memory shocked him as badly as her death.
And so the hard-on stayed.
Daniel didn't look at other women, he didn't flirt with other women and he sure as hell didn't sleep with other women. Maybe his sleep-bagged mind would betray her, but his body wouldn't.
His wifeless life settled into a dull pattern that he didn't dare disrupt. And it was for that reason that when summer rolled in to Manhattan, Daniel didn't leave like so many other New Yorkers.
July in Manhattan was hell. Hot, humid, and the dense air hung low on the rivers, casting the entire island in a muggy shade of yellow. The hell-like conditions were the number-one reason that most sane people left the city for the veritable paradise of the outlying beaches. The hell-like conditions were the number-one reason that Daniel O'Sullivan was determined to stay, no matter what his two brothers wanted.
"I'm not going," he told Sean and Gabe in his most serious, "don't hand me that crap" voice. And in case they didn't pick up on that completely unsubtle hint, Daniel turned back to the ghostly glow of the computer screen, ignoring them. They didn't usually gang up on him—actually, up until this point, it'd never happened before.
Stubbornly, Daniel scanned the bar's monthly spreadsheet, his eyes moving back and forth over the numbers with appreciation for such simplicity. Invoices and deposits showed a nice, tidy bottom line in the black. All in all, excellent news.
The bar currently known as Prime had sat on the corner of 47th and 10th for almost eighty years, and had been run by an O'Sullivan equally as long. Gabe ran the place now, with Sean and Daniel as near-silent partners, except on Saturdays when the three O'Sullivans all worked there—Gabe and Sean to bartend, and Daniel to do the books.
After their uncle, the previous owner died, Gabe had paid up the back taxes on the place, against Daniel's advice. A bar in Manhattan was a shaky financial investment, but Gabe wasn't guided by business sense, but more by the desire to see the family legacy restored to its old grandeur. Against his own better judgment, Daniel had set up a desk and computer in the storeroom downstairs, so he could help with the accounting. The tiny storeroom was barely designed to accommodate one person. When you put three full-grown men in there—like now—the tiny quarters were stifling.
"It'd be good for you to get out of the city, meet some people," said Gabe, leaning back against a tall stack of cases of rum. Gabe, the youngest of the three, was a great bartender—a people person who never quite got the concept of being alone.
"And you could get laid," contributed Sean, in his own special way. Every man had one gear—sex—but wise men learned at an early age that you had to keep that fact hidden if you wanted to avoid complications in life and love.
Sean had the exact opposite approach to Daniel. With women, he was honest and up front about his sexual needs, and didn't try to apologize for it. Illogically, women never seemed to mind, which Daniel had never understood. Maybe it was Sean's law school diploma, maybe the planets had been aligned at his brother's birth. Daniel didn't know, didn't lose sleep over it, but there were times—like now—when Sean's "I know everything" attitude could be a complete pain in the ass.
"You haven't had sex since Michelle died, have you?" asked Sean, highlighting the mix of his lawyerlike interrogation skills and his general knack for the truth, tact be damned.
Gabe glared at him, so Daniel didn't have to. "You said you'd handle this with sensitivity."
"That was sensitivity," defended Sean. "I could have gotten a lot more graphic and reminded him about what he's been missing out on, but I took pity."
"Get the hell out of here," ordered Daniel, but neither of his younger brothers moved. At one time, they'd listened to him, obeyed him and respected him. One more thing that changed after 9/11.
How soon they all forgot. When Gabe joined Little League, it was Daniel who taught him how to pitch a fastball. And when Sean went off to college, it was Daniel who had explained all the knobs and buttons on the stove and dishwasher, respectively, without once making fun. And this was the thanks he got for keeping a straight face the whole time?
Daniel turned back to the computer.At least it didn't nag him. Sean reached around his brother and turned off the monitor. "I think you need to rethink this monk strategy, Daniel. It's not working. You're tense. You're somber. Think back to the old days when you were—"
"Tense and somber," Gabe pointed out.
"It's none of your business," snapped Daniel, not looking up from the blackened screen. Usually teasing didn't bother him, but whenever the calendar moved closer to September, something hot, humid and hell-like rose up inside Daniel.
"You can't spend your whole life locked away," said Gabe quietly. "Besides, it's only one weekend."
The "weekend," as Gabe so politely phrased it, was a summer share in the Hamptons that Sean had rented, along with ten other lawyer types with too much cash and too much free time on their hands. There would be tanned, curvy women spilling out of bikinis, and eye-crossing amounts of alcohol. It was a more adult, socially acceptable version of Spring Break.
Only in New York.
Daniel shook his head, powered back on the monitor and then went back to work. Freezing them out usually worked, and he assumed that was the end of it, until Daniel heard light footsteps on the stairs.
Then, Gabe's girlfriend, Tessa, appeared.
His brothers had brought out the big guns.
Daniel silently swore as Tessa squeezed in next to Gabe, blocking his last escape route.
"You have to go, Daniel. I need you to check out a place about a mile down the beach."
Tessa talked with a soothing voice, her eyes so innocent and guileless, compared to his two more Machiavellian brothers. "I think it'd be perfect for one of my clients, but to get a feel for the place, you really need to be there and see it during the day and night. It'd be a great favor if you could do this for me, Daniel. Please."
Tessa's business was real estate and she lived and breathed it like other people inhaled oxygen.
Ah, jeez. The walls were closing in, and Daniel rubbed a hand at the back of his neck, trying to act as if there weren't ten thousand needles sticking under his skin. It was one thing to turn down his brothers; it was another matter entirely to disappoint a woman. Out of the three O'Sullivans, Daniel was the polite one, the courteous one, the chivalrous one. Right now, he was the frustrated one.
"Getting your woman to fight your battles now, Gabe?" Gabe pulled Tessa into the crook of his arm. "I'm not proud. It's one weekend, Daniel, not a lifestyle change."
"Why aren't you going, Sean?" asked Daniel suspiciously. Sean still stuck by his story. "I decided it would be better if we shoved you out of the airplane, so to speak. A free-range opportunity to cut loose for a few days. You could use it, dude."
Daniel eyeballed his brother. If it'd been Gabe talking, he would have bought it, hook, line and sinker. But this was Sean. "What's the real reason?"
Sean slugged easily, knowing he was busted. "Ashley invited me to go to Miami. Meanwhile, the time-share group needs a guy to even things out. If not, I'll get blacklisted for skipping. There're statutes in place for summer shares and anyone who violates them gets kicked off the island. Since Gabe's off the market you're the only brother left."
Now that sounded like Sean. "I don't want to bail you out."
"I'm only thinking of you," his brother said, wide-eyed with innocence. A man who was exposed to perjury on a daily basis could end up with his moral compass adjusted.
Gabe coughed. "Don't lay it on too thick, Sean." Sean's eyes narrowed. "You're going to sit back and let him rot down here? I don't know about you, but I want my brother back. Three years passed, and I kept my mouth shut. Five years passed, I kept my mouth shut. Now, seven years have passed, and I'm done keeping my mouth shut."
"And aren't we all grateful for that?" drawled Daniel, clearly surprised that Sean was getting this worked up.
Sean pointed a finger at him. "Shut up."
Even more surprised, Daniel did just that. He stared at his two squabbling brothers, rubbed his eyes and discovered a new and improved guilt—with extra ulcer-inducing power. He'd done this to his family. Three brothers. As such, they'd always stood together, supported each other, and yes, they fought, because they were normal, but not like this and not because of him. Daniel was the role model, the responsible one. Or he used to be. Like all the other changes in his life lately, that didn't sit well. He didn't want much. Mainly to be left alone, but he wasn't going to have his brothers fighting because of him, either. "I'd be crap company," he said halfheartedly. Guilt did that to him. Made him weak.
Sean spread his hands wide, accidentally socking Gabe in the gut. "Nobody will notice. All of the guys are from the office. They don't know you. Frank is bringing in four babes from a publicity firm in Chelsea that he says are infinitely doable. They'll think you're all dark and brooding. It'll be great. One woman's crap is another woman's soul mate. Who am I to judge?"
A soul mate? Man, Sean must have been drinking instead of serving the alcohol lately. A man didn't meet soul mates twice in his lifetime. Some men weren't even lucky enough to have it happen once.
"I don't know," muttered Daniel, but dammit all, Gabe was looking all happy and pleased, and even Sean was starting to smile. Daniel realized how long it'd been since he'd made his brothers happy. It seemed like forever. Mostly, all he'd been doing was making trouble and sending them on late-night binge-busts to rescue him from anonymous bars around the city and beyond.
Gabe put up a warning finger. "There is one rule. You can't wear your ring, Daniel. Women who go after the rings...well, you're not going there."
"I'm not taking off my ring," protested Daniel, rubbing the heavy gold band like a talisman. It wasn't even old, or worn, the metal still brilliant and polished. Almost brand-new.
Tessa nodded. "Sean's right. You can't wear the ring. The women will think you're some sleazeball. It's three days, Daniel. What harm can three days be?"
Sean and Gabe, he could handle, but he'd never liked saying no to a woman. It didn't feel right. They were forcing him to say no to a woman. It was his Achilles' heel, his fatal flaw, and they knew it and were exploiting him mercilessly. It was there in Sean's smug, merciless smile, and Gabe's way-too-innocent puppy-dog look.
Three days. It was only three days at the beach. Daniel stared at them—all that was left of his family, all banded together to put him through their own version of Hell in the Hamptons. And they thought they were doing him a favor?
He'd go—with his ring well-buried in his duffel. If he went, it'd make Tessa happy, make Sean and Gabe happy, and then he could return to his well-ordered life, and they would all think things were getting better.
Not a problem.