You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
Today's Wild Card author is:
and her book:
Revell (September 1, 2008)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Julie Lessman is a debut author who has already garnered writing acclaim, including ten Romance Writers of America awards. She resides in Missouri with her husband and their golden retriever, and has two grown children and a daughter-in-law. Her first book in the Daughters of Boston series, A Passion Most Pure was released January 2008, followed by the second in September 2008, A Passion Redeemed, and the third in May 2009, A Passion Denied (working title).
You can visit Julie at her Web site.
List Price: $13.99
Paperback: 480 pages
Publisher: Revell (September 1, 2008)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
“Make them like tumbleweed, O my God,
like chaff before the wind. As fire consumes the forest or a flame
sets the mountains ablaze, so pursue them with your tempest
and terrify them with your storm. Cover their faces with shame
so they will seek your name …”
– Psalm 83:13-16
A passion redeemed
Boston, Massachusetts, The Day After Thanksgiving 1918
Patrick O’Connor stirred from a deep sleep at the feather touch of his wife’s breath, warm against his neck. “Patrick, I need you …”
Her words tingled through him and he slowly turned, gathering her into his arms with a sleepy smile. He ran his hand up the side of her body, all senses effectively roused.
“No, Patrick,” she whispered, shooing his hand from her waist, “I need you to go downstairs—now! There’s someone in the kitchen.”
Patrick groaned and plopped back on his pillow. “Marcy, there’s no one in the kitchen. Go back to bed, darlin’.”
She sat up and shook his shoulder. “Yes, there is—I heard it. The back door opened and closed.”
“It’s probably Sean after a late night with his friends. He hasn’t seen them since before the war, remember?”
“No, he came home hours ago. It’s three-forty-five in the morning. I’m telling you, someone’s in the kitchen.”
Marcy jerked the cover from his body. Icy air prickled his skin. Both of her size-six feet butted hard against his side and began to push.
He groaned and fisted her ankle, his stubborn streak surfacing along with goose bumps. “So help me, woman, I’ll not be shoved out of my own bed …”
She leaned across his chest with pleading eyes. “Patrick, I’m afraid. Can’t you at least go downstairs and check?”
Her tone disarmed him. “It’s probably just Faith, digging into Thanksgiving leftovers. She didn’t eat much at dinner, you know.”
“I know, and that’s what I thought, too, but I just peeked in her room, and I’m sure she was under the covers.
“One of the others, then—”
“No, they’re all sleeping. I checked. Please, Patrick? For my peace of mind? Won’t you go down and see?”
He sighed and swung his legs over the side of the bed. “Yes, Marcy, I will go down and see. For your peace of mind.” He swiped his slippers off the floor and yanked them on his feet. “And for mine.” He started for the door.
“Wait! Take something with you. A shoe, a belt—something for protection.”
He turned and propped his hands low on the sides of his tie-string pajamas. “Shoes. Yes, that should do the trick. Newspaper editor bludgeons intruder with wing-tips.”
Marcy tossed the covers aside and hopped out of bed. “Wait! My iron. You can take my iron. It weighs a ton.” She padded to the wardrobe in bare feet and hefted a cast-iron appliance off the shelf. She lugged it to where he stood watching her, a half-smile twitching on his lips. “Here, take it. And hurry, will you? He could be gone by now.”
He snatched the iron from her hands. “And that would be a good thing, right?” He turned on his heel and lumbered down the hall, stifling a yawn as he descended the steps.
“Be careful,” Marcy whispered at the top of the stairs, looking more like a little girl than a mother of six. She stood biting her lip, barefoot and shivering while golden hair spilled down the front of her flannel nightgown. He waved her back and moved into the parlor, noting that Blarney wasn’t curled up on his usual spot in the foyer.
Patrick stopped. Was that a noise? A chair scraping? He tightened his hold on the iron while the hairs bristled on the back of his neck. He spied the shaft of light seeping through the bottom of the kitchen door and sucked in a deep breath. Heart pounding in his chest, he tiptoed to the swinging door and pushed just enough to peek inside.
A husky laugh bubbled in his throat. He heaved the door wide, pinning it open with the iron. “I trust this means you’ve made up your mind?”
“Father!” Faith jerked out of Collin’s embrace while Blarney darted to the door and speared a wet nose into Patrick’s free hand. His daughter faltered back several steps and pressed a hand to her cheek. Her face was as crimson as the bowl of cranberries on the table. “I … I was just giving Collin Thanksgiving leftovers.”
Patrick smiled. “Yes, I can see … starting with dessert, were you?”
“Patrick, who is it?” Marcy’s frantic whisper carried from the top of the stairs and he grinned, turning to call over his shoulder. “It’s Faith, Marcy, getting a bite to eat. Go back to bed. I’ll be right up.”
Collin took a step forward. His face was ruddy with embarrassment despite the grin on his lips. “Mr. O’Connor, I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you again. When I’d heard you were killed in the war …” His voice broke and he quickly cleared it, his eyes moist. He straightened his shoulders. “Well, when my mother told me you were alive, I hitched a ride anyway I could just to get here from New York.” He took another step and held out his hand. “Sir, despite the fact that you could take me to task for kissing your daughter, I thank God you’re alive.”
Patrick grinned and pulled him into a tight hug. He closed his eyes to ward off tears of his own at holding this man who was more like a son. He cleared his throat and pulled away, waving the iron at Collin’s chest. “So, the chest wound all healed up? Good as new, despite the war?”
Collin smiled and tucked an arm around Faith. “Better than new, Mr. O’Connor. You might say I’m a new man.”
“So I’ve heard,” Patrick said, scratching his forehead with Marcy’s iron.
Collin stifled a grin. “Uh, sir, did we wake you up … or were you catching up on your ironing?”
Patrick chuckled and set the iron on the table. “Marcy’s idea, I’m afraid. She’s a light sleeper.” He reached over and popped a piece of turkey in his mouth. “So, Collin, you haven’t answered my question. Have you made up your mind?”
Collin glanced down at Faith and swallowed hard. “Yes, sir, I have. I’m in love with Faith. I want to marry her.”
Patrick assessed the soft blush on his daughter’s cheeks as she gazed up at the man who had once been engaged to her sister. Her eyes shimmered with joy, and he had never seen her so happy. He snatched another piece of turkey. “And Charity? You’ve discussed all of this with her, I suppose? As your former fiancée, she has a right to know of your intentions with her sister.”
“Yes, sir, I agree and wrote her immediately before I came home from the war.”
“And she’s fine with it? No heartbreak?” Patrick chewed slowly, studying the pair through cautious eyes.
“No, sir, no heartbreak, I can assure you. Actually, she was more than fine with it. As I told Faith, it seems she has a new love interest.”
Patrick stopped chewing. “A new love interest? Who in blazes could that be?”
Collin and Faith exchanged looks before Faith took a deep breath. “Father, we think she’s after Mitch.”
Patrick blinked. “Your Mitch?”
Collin’s lips pulled into a scowl, and Faith squeezed his hand. “Father, please, we’re not engaged anymore, so he’s no longer ‘my’ Mitch. And yes, we think he’s the one Charity’s after.”
“Saints alive, the man is practically old enough to be her father! And after the stunt she pulled in Dublin, trying to break you and Mitch up, does he even like her?”
Faith bit her lip and glanced up at Collin. “I don’t think so. But you know Charity. Once she gets an idea in her head, it’s there to stay.”
“Yes, yes, I know Charity.” Patrick exhaled a weary breath. “Faith, put some coffee on, will you? Then you let that man sit down and eat. I suspect your mother won’t be able to sleep anymore than I will, so we may as well talk. We’ve got a lot of praying to do—about your plans for the future, your wedding, and your wayward sister in Dublin.”
Faith grinned and scooted to the stove to make coffee. “Yes, sir. Want a sandwich too?”
“May as well. Looks to be a long day, and I’m going to need all the energy I can get.” Patrick started to leave, then turned with his hand braced on the door. He squinted at Collin. “You’re home to stay, I hope? No more New York?”
Collin shot him a grin and reached for a hefty drumstick. “Yes, sir, home to stay. I hope that’s good news. Except for your grocery bill.”
Patrick chuckled and pushed through the kitchen door. Thank you, Lord, for bringing that boy home safe and sound. With a bounce in his step, he mounted the stairs, anxious to share the good news with Marcy. His thoughts suddenly returned to Charity, and his pace slowed considerably. She was the daughter who puzzled him the most. Beautiful, stubborn, wild—and so hard to reach. He fought a smile and made his way down the dark hall, shaking his head as he entered his room. God help Mitch Dennehy!
Dublin, Ireland, October 1919
Poor, unsuspecting Mitch. The dear boy—well, hardly a boy—doesn’t stand a chance.
The thought coaxed a smile to Charity O’Connor’s lips as she entered the smoky confines of Duffy’s Bar & Grille. The aroma of boxty cakes and sausage bangers sizzling on the griddle reminded her she’d been too nervous to eat. Her escort held the heavy wooden door while she stepped in. The brisk night air collided with the warmth of the cozy pub. Her eyes scanned the room, past the long serpentine bar crowded with patrons, to the glazed mahogany booths lining the mirror-laden walls. Disappointment squeezed in her stomach like hunger pangs.
He isn’t here!
With a lift of her chin, her gaze shifted to the sea of tables occupied by lovely lasses and well-to-do gentlemen fawning over their food and each other. In a cozy corner, a flute and concertina harmonized, the sound of their lively reel laced with laughter, off-key singing and the hush of intimate conversations.
“Charity, if this is too crowded, I know a quiet place we can go—”
She whirled around. “No, please. I see a table in the back.”
Her breathy tone and eager smile produced the desired effect on Rigan Gallagher. His hazel eyes softened. Slacking a hip, he notched his straw boater up with one thumb to reveal an errant strand of dark hair, giving him a boyish look despite his thirty years. His lips pulled into a wicked grin. “Aye, Duffy’s it is. But it’s fair to warn you, Miss O’Connor, you can’t avoid being alone with me forever.” He pressed his hand firmly against the small of her back and guided her to the one unoccupied table at the rear of the room.
Every nerve in her body tingled with electricity, but not from Rigan’s touch. Charity took the seat he offered and draped her shawl over the back. Her eyes flitted to the booth she had shared with Mitch Dennehy over a year ago. The memory washed over her like the candlelight flickering across the crisp, white tablecloth before her, its flame dancing high and hot.
A tall, gangly waiter approached and Charity looked up, fixing him with a radiant smile. He must be new, she thought; she hadn’t seen him before. A lump the size of a persimmon bobbed in his throat while two pink splotches stained his cheeks. He handed them each a menu, his bony fingers fumbling the parchment sheets. “G’day, miss … sir. What can I get for your pleasure?”
Rigan opened the menu. “I daresay the most important thing would be a liter of your best wine, my good man.”
“Yes, sir, very good, sir.” The waiter wagged his head and darted away.
Rigan perused his menu, absently reaching across the table to twine Charity’s hand in his. “Suddenly I find myself quite ravenous.” He looked up, a twinkle lighting his eyes. “But then you always whet my appetite, Miss O’Connor.”
Charity bit back a smile and slipped her hand from his. “Rigan, you are incorrigible. Behave … or I shall never accompany you again.”
He leaned back in the chair with a low, throaty laugh. His gaze assessed her from head to waist, finally lingering on her mouth. “Oh, I think you will. I’ve been told I’m irresistible.”
“Mmmm … to the right woman, I suppose.” She studied her menu and decided on the shepherd’s pie. She looked up, eyes blinking wide in innocence. “Tell me, Rigan, did they happen to mention anything about being a rogue?”
He clutched at his chest with a pained expression. “Charity, you wound me. The moment I stepped into Shaw’s Emporium, I’ve only had eyes for you.” He leaned forward, his manner suddenly serious. “Charity O’Connor—you, only you—take my breath away.”
She fidgeted with the filmy sleeve of her lavender blouse to deflect the intensity of his gaze. For the hundredth time, she thought what a pity it was she was in love with Mitch Dennehy. With money, looks and reckless notoriety, Rigan was a catch for any girl. But alas, for her, that’s all he was. A catch—the perfect man to “catch” the eye of a certain editor from the Times.
Rigan removed his hat and placed it on the table. He returned to his menu, his manner confident as he relaxed in the chair. That maverick strand of ebony hair fell across his forehead in an unruly fashion—like the man himself—providing a mesmerizing contrast to the umber hue of his eyes. His nose, no doubt once straight and strong, now sported the slightest of bumps, as if broken in a brawl. Probably over a woman, Charity mused, given what her friend, Emma, had told her about Rigan Gallagher III.
“Too handsome for his own good, that one,” Emma had whispered on the fateful day he entered the shop where Charity worked. “And too handsome for the good of any lass, if you ask me.” Dear Emma had rolled her eyes in such a comical way, Charity had to stifle a giggle. “Aye, and too rich as well. But that won’t be stopping Mr. High-and-Mighty once he sets his eyes on the likes of you, I’ll bet me firstborn.”
The waiter returned with a bottle and two glasses. His hands were quivering as he poured the wine. Suddenly a stream of port splashed over the edge into Rigan’s hat. Rigan jumped up with a shout. He snatched his hat from the table and shook it out. “You clumsy oaf! It would take two months of your wages to replace this hat!”
Charity shot to her feet. “Rigan, please,” she soothed, “it was just an accident, and it’s only a dribble of wine.” She blotted the table with her napkin, chancing a peek at the waiter. The poor man appeared to be having trouble breathing as he gasped for air. Charity chewed on her lip. Oh, my—she had never seen a redder face! She laid a gentle hand on his arm. “Don’t mind him,” she whispered, “It could happen to anyone. Why, my first week on the job, I broke an expensive bottle of perfume and the shop reeked for days.” She patted his hand and smiled. “But after that, the place smelled rather nice.”
The fear faded from his eyes and he nodded. “Thank ye, miss, you’re a kind lady, ye are.” He turned to Rigan and clicked his heels. “Forgive me, sir, for my clumsiness. Please allow me to tidy your hat …”
Rigan waved him away. “No, the lady’s right. It’s only a dribble of wine.” He glanced at Charity with a sheepish grin. “Although I’d prefer it dribbled down my throat rather than my hat.”
“Yes, sir,” the waiter said with another blush. “I can bring a fresh bottle if you wish …”
“No, no, just see to our food, my good man, and we’ll call it even.”
“Yes, sir, thank you, sir.”
Rigan ordered their food and dismissed the waiter. Charity watched as he poured their wine and put the bottle down. He propped both arms on the table and leaned forward, slowly twiddling his glass. He fixed her with a probing stare. “So, Charity, tell me. Why are we slumming in Duffy’s again when there are nicer places I could take you?”
Her cheeks grew warm. “No reason. I came here once and liked it, that’s all.”
Rigan eyed her with frank curiosity. “With Dennehy?”
Charity drew a quick breath. It lodged in her lungs, refusing to budge.
Rigan’s laugh was harsh. He grabbed his wine and downed it. “Really, Charity, how big of a fool do you think I am? The moment you discovered my father owned the Irish Times, you were more than willing to go out with me. Of course, that was fine with me—you certainly wouldn’t be the first woman after my money.”
“Rigan, you’re being ridiculous. I couldn’t care less about your money …”
“Well, no, not when you behave like a fool.”
He poured himself more wine and lifted his glass in a toast. “To the ‘fool’—a part I suspect I will play more than once when it comes to you.” He took a drink and settled back in his chair. “So … what is Mitch Dennehy to you?”
She fingered the silk ruffle of her V-necked blouse, careful to avoid his eyes. “I already told you. He was my sister’s fiancé. He’s like a member of the family.”
Rigan snorted, idly tracing the rim of his glass with his finger. “How is it that I don’t get a ‘brotherly’ feeling?”
Another rush of warmth invaded her cheeks, stiffening her jaw. “What you ‘get’ or don’t get is of no concern of mine. Nor are my relationships any concern of yours.”
He slanted forward with a low growl. “They are if I intend to go on seeing you.”
Charity pushed her wine glass away and reached for her shawl. “Very well, perhaps you’d better take me home.” She stood in a rush and swiped a strand of hair from her eyes. Take that, Mr. Gallagher!
He rose and blocked her exit, straw boater in hand and a smile on his lips. His thumbs stroked the nubby rim of his hat. “I can do that, but I don’t think that’s what you want. I think you would much rather stay and enjoy a plate of Dublin coddle with a charming—albeit notorious—scoundrel.” He bowed slightly, his boater clutched to his chest. “Especially a scoundrel with a knack for boiling the blood of Mr. Mitch Dennehy.”
Charity drew in a quick breath. “What do you mean?”
Rigan pressed close, his low laugh warming her ear. “I mean, who better to enlist in turning the head of the man you love than the one he can’t abide?”
“Oh, Rigan, you’re utterly impossible. I’m not in love with anyone.”
He cocked a brow. “Maybe not, but for some reason I have yet to ascertain, you desperately want to catch his eye. Of course, I hoped you were interested in me. But regrettably, I do believe I detected an increase in your ardor once you learned of my connection with the Times. Tell me, Charity, did you think I wouldn’t notice your subtle queries about him? And now this—” He waved his hat toward the pub, “your curious obstinance to continually have dinner in a middle-class bar frequented by Times employees?”
Charity thrust her chin out. “Are you suggesting I’m using you?”
Rigan lifted a curl fallen loose from her topknot. He fondled it with his fingers as he studied her. A hint of a smile played on his lips. “I am … and most happily so. I must admit I was disappointed it wasn’t my charm that wooed you. But alas, I will take you, Charity O’Connor, anyway I can. If I am to be the bait to entice some hapless suitor, so be it.”
Charity sank to her chair. “You would do that? Whatever for?”
Rigan returned to his seat. “Call me a hopeless romantic. Or maybe I’m counting on you falling in love with me in the process. Either way, I’m willing to play the fool—for a price.”
Her gaze narrowed. “What price?”
The waiter interrupted with steaming plates of shepherd’s pie and roast mutton before dashing off again. Charity felt her stomach rumble. She picked up her fork. “What price?” she repeated, stabbing into her food.
Rigan sipped his wine. He took his time while he watched her over the rim of his glass. He finally set it down and relaxed back in the chair, assessing her through hooded eyes. “The taste of your lips—anytime, anywhere.”
Charity’s fork clattered to her plate. Her hand flew to her mouth to stop the nervous laughter from bubbling up. Impossible! It rolled from her lips in unrestrained hilarity, bringing tears to her eyes and discomfort to her cheeks. The rogue! He couldn’t be serious! She dabbed at the wetness with her napkin and took a deep breath, a shaky hand pressed to her chest. “Really, Rigan, I have a mind to leave right now and never see you again. You can’t be serious.”
He never blinked. “Quite.”
Charity quickly reached for her wine, desperate to diffuse her shock. Her lips rested on the edge before sipping it while thoughts of Mitch Dennehy clouded her mind. She stared at the scarlet liquid glazing the glass and fought back the hint of impropriety that nettled her nerves. No! She couldn’t do this … could she? She swallowed hard and slowly looked up, careful to place the glass back on the table with steady fingers. Her chin lifted with resolve. “My lips? And nothing more?”
She could feel the heat of his gaze from across the table.
“Nothing … until you beg.”
Heat flooded her cheeks. Dear Lord, what was she doing? She picked up her fork and forced a smile she didn’t feel. At least the tantalizing smell of the food, if not Rigan, had her salivating. She took a deep breath to dispel her discomfort and strove for a show of confidence. “Not a likely scenario, but I won’t ruin your fun.” She closed her eyes for her first taste of the pie, fighting the urge to emit a soft moan as she rolled it across her tongue. Opening her eyes once again, she hoisted her glass with a nervous grin. “Absolutely delicious … and far, far better than the taste of my lips, I assure you. Nonetheless, feed me, kiss me and turn a head in the process, and we, my good man, shall have a deal. After all, I’m a woman who usually gets what she wants—a trait I also admire in others.”
Rigan tipped his glass in a toast. “Well then, my dear Charity, I daresay, if admiration were love, we’d be well on our way.”
Mitch Dennehy glanced at the clock and groaned. He plowed his fingers through his short, cropped hair, then stood from his desk to stretch. “Come on, Bridie, I’ll buy you supper. It’s the least I can do after keeping you so late.”
Bridie O’Halloran looked up, and her gold-brown eyes reflected the fatigue of a long day. She slumped back in the chair and blew a wisp of silver hair out of her face. “Sweet angels in Heaven, I thought you’d never ask! I’m no good dead from starvation, you know.” She held up the latest edition of the Times and wagged it in the air. “Read all about it. Fifty-year-old Dunkirk woman perishes at the Irish Times.”
Mitch laughed and reached for his coat. “And I’ll do better than Brody’s. How does Guinness Stew and fresh-baked soda bread sound, hot out of the oven?”
Bridie rolled her eyes in obvious ecstasy. “Like the gates of Heaven itself … or otherwise if you’ll throw in a pint of ale.”
Mitch retrieved her coat and held it while she slipped it on. “Well then, Duffy’s it is. Nothing but the best for my slave labor.”
Bridie grunted. “Keep that up and I’ll be ordering scones and lemon curd as well.”
Mitch laughed and ushered her through the newsroom and into the lobby, nodding at those who worked the second shift. He opened the door, and a rush of cold air assaulted their faces. With it came the fumes of the city, from its gas lamps and motor lorries and faint whiff of manure. Bridie shivered as he led her around the corner to Duffy’s, a favorite haunt he’d once frequented. Shouldering the heavy, oak-carved door, Mitch pushed it open and allowed Bridie to enter before him. One foot on the threshold, and the onslaught of boisterous laughter and tempting aromas assailed his senses. The reaction in his gut was immediate. Everything—from the pungent smell of spiced beef and crubeens simmering on the stove, to the scent of lemon oil gleaming the bar and booths to a high sheen—all of it, dredged up memories he’d rather forget.
Mitch slammed the door behind him. His lips stiffened in a frown as he surveyed the room, hunting for an empty booth or table, to no avail. What? They giving food away now?
“Saints above, has it always been this busy?” Bridie asked, searching the room for some sign of an empty chair.
“Didn’t used to be. But I haven’t been here in a while.”
Bridie wheeled to face him. “Aw, Mitch, I’m so sorry. I completely forgot—this is the place you and Faith—”
Mitch pushed past her, hooking her elbow on his way to the bar. “Yes, it is, but it doesn’t matter. It’s been over a year and by thunder, if I want to eat in Duffy’s again, I will.” He glanced behind the bar, catching the eye of a portly, red-haired waitress toting a tray of foaming ales. At sight of him, her mouth tilted into a toothy grin. She passed the tray off to another waitress and hurried over, her blue eyes sparkling.
“Well as I live and breathe, if it isn’t the man of me dreams.” Clutching fleshy arms around Mitch’s waist, she squeezed with a teasing groan. “Where on this fair isle of ours have you been keeping yourself, Mitch Dennehy? We’ve missed you! The rest of us thought maybe Duffy poisoned you.” She grinned at Bridie. “Nice to see you too, Bridie.”
Mitch laughed and returned the woman’s hug with one of his own. He chucked her double chin with his thumb and grinned. “Truth be told, Duffy told me ol’ Harry finally proposed. Near broke my heart, it did. Enough to stay away and nurse my wounds.”
Sally blushed. The folds of her full cheeks dimpled in delight. “Aw, go on with you now, you silver-tongued rake.” Her smile faded. “We heard about Faith, Mitch. No tight lips in a place like this, you know. I kinda wondered if maybe that was why we hadn’t seen ya. You okay?”
Mitch sighed and shoved his hands into his pockets. “Yeah, Sal, I’m okay.” He leaned forward, ducking his head. “But I’d be a sight better if we had a booth.”
Sally tossed her head back in a giggle, causing her short, puffy curls to bob. “Well now, I can’t toss customers out, even for a heartbreaker like you.” She inclined her head with a saucy sway. “But I’m not without my influence. Why don’t you and Bridie sit at the bar and get yourselves a pint. I’ll see you get the very next one.”
Mitch planted a kiss on Sally’s glowing cheek. “You’re the best, Sal. Tell ol’ Harry to treat you right or I’ll hunt him down.”
Mitch steered Bridie to the nearest empty stool where she sank against the bar with a low groan. “Never again will you talk me into working this late. I’m starving. Hope you brought lots of cash.”
He gave her a wry grin. “I always bring lots of cash when I feed you. What’s your pleasure?”
She perked up and squinted her eyes at the rows of bottles behind the bar. “I believe I’ll have an extra stout porter.”
Mitch signaled the bartender and ordered a Guinness for Bridie and a ginger ale for himself. He turned and leaned back to survey the action.
She swiveled on the stool and puckered her brow. “Ginger ale? You’re reduced to ginger ale?”
He frowned. “Lay off, Bridie.”
The bartender delivered their drinks. He gulped his like it was pure corn liquor, then wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
Bridie shook her head. “I’ll lay off when you get back to normal.” She took a swig of her beer, eyeing him over her mug. “When you gonna get on with your life?”
“Leave it be, I said.” His lips cemented into a hard line as a clear warning.
“No, I won’t leave it be. You’re miserable. When are you going to move on?”
He shot up from his stool and loomed over her like a tree about to timber. A muscle twitched in his jaw. “I said, lay off! As your manager, my personal life is none of your business.”
She bristled. Her chin slanted up. “Yeah, but as your ‘friend,’ it’s getting on my bloomin’ nerves. It’s been a year. Have you seen anyone else? Even taken another woman out to dinner?”
Mitch grabbed his ginger ale and guzzled. He turned away, a sour feeling in his stomach. “Not interested.”
She lifted her porter in a mock salute. “Mmmm … not interested in drinking, not interested in women. Sounds like the old Mitch left when Faith did.” She whirled to face the bar, two-fisting her beer like it was her long-lost mother.
Mitch cuffed the back of his neck. He released a noisy sigh, fraught with frustration. “So help me, Bridie, I knew you’d give me trouble tonight. You have no talent whatsoever for minding your own business.” He exhaled again, then turned to face her, his muscles fatigued from trying to fake it. “I’ve given up drinking because …” He closed his eyes and massaged the bridge of his nose with his fingers, “once she left, it got harder to stop.” He leaned heavily against the bar and stared straight ahead. “And I gave up women because … not one could even come close.”
Bridie rested her hand on his arm. “Let her go, Mitch. Faith wasn’t for you. But someone is. Find her. Get out there and do what you do best—break a few hearts. Trust me, it will all make sense when you find the right one.” She tilted her head and grinned. “Where’s that annoying confidence of yours when you need it? Your faith in God?”
A smile tugged at his lips. “Yeah, it did get me through the last year without losing my mind.” He downed the ginger ale. “But I suppose you’re right. Maybe it’s time.”
“Kathleen might be a good place to start, you know. You two used to have a lot of fun before Faith. And you know she still cares for you, Mitch.”
He nodded, his gaze fixed on the empty glass in his hand. “I know.”
“Ready for a booth?” Sally flitted by, gesturing for them to follow.
Bridie slipped off her stool. “The saints be praised! Another minute and I’d be but a faint heap on the floor. Get your wallet out, Mr. Dennehy. This is going to cost ya dearly.”
“It already cost me dearly,” he mumbled. He followed the bounce of Sally’s head as she led them across the room, menus in hand. He breathed a sigh of relief when she passed the front-corner booth where he and Faith had often sat.
She slapped the menus down on a booth at the back of the smoky pub. “How’s this?” she asked with a perky smile. “And Duffy told me to go ahead and wait on you myself, even though I’m working the bar tonight.”
Bridie grinned. “Oh, that’s a great big tip for sure, Sally girl.” She winked at Mitch. “Very dearly, my friend.”
“Thanks, Sally,” Mitch said, cutting Bridie a searing look. “I’ll take another ginger ale, then we should be ready to order.” Sally toddled away and he leaned back, stretching his legs. He picked up the menu, hoping he could assess it without drooling. “I swear, Bridie, I’m so blasted hungry, I could order one of everything.”
“The shepherd’s pie is quite good and, I might add, quite filling.”
The sound of a familiar voice froze his fingers to the paper. Looking up, shock nipped at the heels of his hunger.
“Charity …” Her name solidified on his tongue, refusing to let another word pass. It was seconds before he realized his mouth hung open, allowing painful silence to fill the air. He cleared his throat and stood to his feet, angered at the heat she generated. “Charity …”
“You said that,” she whispered, her smile almost shy.
His jaw hardened in self-defense. “You’re looking well.” Well? She was heart-stoppingly beautiful and nothing less. “How’s your grandmother doing?” he asked. He could feel his hands sweat.
The smile faded from her full lips. “She’s doing all right, I suppose, despite the fact that my great-grandmother is not.” Her clear, blue eyes darkened with worry. She pushed a strand of honey-blond hair away from her face. “Mima seems to get weaker every day. Grandmother and I are both concerned.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Is there anything I can do?”
Charity blinked, the depths of her eyes drawing him in. “Mima would love to see you, Mitch. We all would.”
Something cramped in his gut, and he suspected it wasn’t hunger.
Bridie cleared her throat and held out her hand. “Hello, I’m Bridie O’Halloran. I work with Mitch at the Times.”
Charity smiled and extended her hand. “I’m Charity O’Connor. Nice to meet you.”
A blush crept into Charity’s cheeks. Her gaze fluttered to Mitch and back. “Yes.”
“It’s good to meet some of Faith’s family. We loved her at the Times, you know.”
The color in Charity’s cheeks deepened. “Thank you,” she whispered. Her smile faltered as she withdrew her hand and turned to Mitch. “It’s wonderful seeing you again, but we have to be going …”
“My gentleman friend and I. We have tickets to the theater.” She glanced over her shoulder, then returned her gaze to his. “Do come by, Mitch. We would love to catch up.”
“Ready, darling?” Rigan appeared behind her. He rested his hands on her shoulders and gave Mitch a cool smile. “Hello, Mitch.”
The blood drained from Mitch’s face as his jaw calcified to stone. “Hello, Rigan. It’s been a long time.”
Charity’s hand floated to the flounce of silk on her chest. A pretty blush stained her cheeks. “Goodness, you two know each other?”
“Yes, Mitch works for me.” Rigan’s hands slid to Charity’s waist, resting comfortably. “Or should I say, my father?”
Mitch ground his teeth behind a tight-lipped expression, biting back insults that lingered on the tip of his tongue. He forced a smile. “Definitely not you.”
Rigan laughed and swung his arm around Charity’s shoulders, pulling her close. “No, not at the present, certainly. But perhaps the future?” With maddening ease, his fingers casually traced at the base of Charity’s throat, sending another wash of color into her face. “Shall we be on our way, Charity? It wouldn’t do to miss the first act. Good night, Mitch.” He nodded his head at Bridie. “Ma’am.”
“Good night, Mitch,” Charity whispered. “Stop by anytime, please.” She extended her arm to shake Bridie’s hand. “Bridie, it was a pleasure. I hope we meet again.”
Mitch watched while Rigan whisked her away. Heads turned as they made their way to the door. Mitch scowled. Nothing but trouble for any woman. Humph—a perfect match.
Bridie’s voice jarred him back. “My, oh my. So that’s the infamous Charity O’Connor? Goodness, Boss, rumors don’t do her justice. That one could turn the head of the Pope.”
Mitch frowned. “Where the blazes is Sally?” he bellowed, ignoring Bridie’s remark.
Her eyes narrowed. “And dangerous, too, from the look of that vein twitching in your head. Who’s the guy? He looks familiar.”
“Rigan Gallagher III.” Mitch all but bit the words out.
Bridie’s eyes popped. “No joke? So that’s Old Man Gallagher’s black-sheep son? Sweet saints above—handsome as the devil and all that money too.”
“He’s no good.”
“For you? Or for Charity?”
Mitch sneered. “He’s nothing but heartbreak for any woman.”
Bridie paused, then took a deep breath. “But she’s not just any woman, is she, Mitch?”
Sally descended upon the table, her cheeks puffing with heat. “Sorry about the wait. There’s some sort of company meeting in the back slamming away kegs of ale like it was sarsaparilla. Ready to order?”
“Just bring me another ginger ale, Sally. I’m not hungry.”
Bridie looked up. “Sally, bring us two plates of crubeens, a side of champ and some of your best brown soda bread. And I’ll have another Guinness.”
“Sit tight; I’ll dish it right up for ye.” She scooted away, disappearing through the maze of tables into the kitchen.
Bridie crossed her arms and rested them on the table. “She’s not, is she?”
He looked up, the whites of his eyes burning. “Not what?”
“Just any woman?”
He leaned in. “She’s a spoiled brat who uses her beauty to get what she wants. She ruined my life once. It won’t happen again.” He fairly spit the words in Bridie’s face.
“And you had nothing to do with it, I suppose …”
He slammed his fist on the table, causing her to jump. “So help me, Bridie, I’d fire you right now if I didn’t think Michael would cinch me up.”
The fire in her eyes matched what he felt in his gut. “All I’m saying is don’t be laying all the blame on her for hanging you up. You’re the fool who gave her the rope.”
“Stay out of it, Bridie; I’m warning you.”
“I will not. At least not until you admit she’s under your skin.”
“You’re out of your mind. No one’s under my skin.”
“She was once. Enough to change the course of your life.”
“She’s a kid.”
Bridie cocked a brow. “Not from where I was sitting. How old?”
He glared. “Almost twenty … going on sixteen.”
Her forehead puckered. “Oooh … that is rather young. What are you again? Thirty-four?”
Mitch looked up with a glare meant to singe.
Bridie ignored it. “Faith was twenty when you fell in love with her.”
“She’s nothing like Faith.”
Bridie reached across the table to take his hand in hers, her voice a near-whisper. “Nobody is. But there’s a reason it didn’t work out.”
He grunted. “Yeah, there’s a reason all right. A golden-haired vixen, five-foot-four.”
“No, I mean ‘a reason,’ like maybe Faith wasn’t the one.”
Mitch rubbed his jaw with the side of his hand. “Yeah, well, apparently not.” He looked up, his eyes shooting her a warning. “Don’t get any ideas. That woman gives me cold chills.”
Bridie pulled her hand away and leaned back against the booth, a smile hovering on her lips. “So I noticed.” She grinned. “I haven’t seen you that off-guard since Faith took a potshot at you on her first day of work.”
The memory brought a faint smile to Mitch’s lips. “Yeah, she was something.” He saw Sally heading their way with a tray piled high with food and drinks.
Bridie shook out her napkin. “Yes, she was. And so is her sister, evidently.”
Sally plopped two steaming plates of crubeens on the table with a thud. The smell of spicy pork caused his juices to flow. When Sally finished unloading plate after plate, she stood back and grinned, hands propped on her ample hips. “Hope you’re hungry. Ready to dive in?”
Bridie smiled at Sally and picked up her fork. She winked at Mitch. “You know, Sally, I think he just might be.”
“You’ve been awfully quiet all night, at least since we left Duffy’s. Honestly, Charity, I’m a bit dismayed. I thought you would be feeling quite victorious. You had him eating out of your hand, you know.”
Charity continued to stare out the window of Rigan’s Rolls Royce as they pulled up in front of her grandmother’s house. Moonlight flooded the garden, casting distorted shadows of fuchsia and larkspur across the cobblestone walk.
He turned the ignition off and shifted to face her. “Charity, look at me.”
She glanced over, one hand hovering on the door handle. “What is it, Rigan?”
He scrutinized her, head cocked as if trying to decipher the mystery of her mood. “What’s wrong?”
She expelled a weighty sigh and leaned back, eyes fixed straight ahead. “I don’t know.”
“You got your wish. You turned his head. You should be happy.”
“I know,” she muttered, her tone quiet. I should be. But what if he still blames me …
“Charity, you effectively reduced the man to moronic monosyllables and clenched teeth.”
Mischief twitched on her lips. She had caught Mitch by surprise. His clear, blue eyes had stared in bold appraisal, taking her in from head to foot without even being aware. At six-foot-four, he towered over her, a mountain of a man with unruly blond hair and a petulant gaze, adept at turning heads as well as she. She grinned, peering at Rigan out of the corner of her eye. “I did, didn’t I?”
Rigan’s smile matched her own. “We did, my dear. You and yours truly—your partner in crime.”
She giggled and twirled a lock of hair around her finger. “It was glorious, wasn’t it? And yes, Rigan, I couldn’t have done it without you.” Her finger suddenly stilled, causing the curl to spring free and spiral to her shoulder. She tilted her head to study him through narrowed eyes. “Why does he dislike you?”
Rigan laughed and reached for her hand, warming it between his fingers. “I could ask you the same thing.”
Her rib cage suddenly felt too tight. A sick feeling settled in her stomach. She tugged her hand free and hefted her chin a notch. “He doesn’t dislike me.”
“Oh, he dislikes you, all right. It was as clear as his stony stare and the humorous tic in his jaw. A thin, cold thread of disgust tightly twined with a scarlet strand of lust. What did you do, Charity? Why does he hate you?”
Fear constricted her throat. He doesn’t hate me—he wanted me! She sat up, her eyes burning with heat. “I think this conversation has come to an end. Thank you for a wonderful evening. Now, if you’ll walk me to the door …”
She fumbled with the door latch, finally swinging it open. He reached across and slammed it closed. The heat of his breath was hot on her face. “No, this conversation is not over. Tell me, Charity. Why does a beautiful woman like you need the assistance of a rogue like me to snare another man’s heart?”
Her pulse pounded in her throat. She didn’t answer.
He jerked her close. “All right. I’ll tell you. I think somehow, someway, you’re the reason he’s no longer engaged to your sister. Lies, perchance. Or perhaps you exposed him, something dark and sinister from his past. Or maybe, just maybe, seduction …” He traced his finger along the curve of her jaw, pausing beneath her lips. “That would be my personal favorite, of course. A temptress.” He lifted her chin with his finger, his gaze upon her mouth. “I’m quite partial to temptresses, you know.” He leaned to kiss her.
Charity pushed him away. “Rigan, stop! What are you doing?”
“Extracting payment,” he whispered. The warmth of his words feathered her cheek.
“Oh,” she breathed, swallowing hard. He leaned in to nuzzle her neck, and the heat of his lips burned like fire. She twisted away. “Lips, Rigan, only lips. Our bargain, remember?” She stared, wide-eyed, her chest rising and falling with ragged breaths.
He grinned. “So it was, Charity, so it was.” He stroked her cheek with his fingers. “I see our ‘temptress’ is nowhere in sight. Pity.” He sighed and took her hand in his. “But temptress or innocent makes little difference to me. Either way, payment is long overdue.”
Cupping her chin in his hand, Rigan brushed her lips with his own, a gentle sway of his mouth against hers before pressing in. A shiver of heat traveled her spine, and her eyes blinked wide as he pulled away. Her hand fluttered to her chest, surprised he’d left her breathless.
“I’ll walk you in.” He opened his door and swung out, circling the car to open hers on the other side. He extended his arm. “I do believe, Miss O’Connor, we’ve struck a bargain that will serve us well.”
Charity blinked and took his hand. “I do believe …” she whispered. She clung to his arm for the trembling of her legs on the final few steps to the porch.
“How’s it going, Jimmy?” Mitch scrounged in the pocket of his woolen suit coat. He tossed a punt into a battered can next to a tall pile of newspapers on the street in front of the Irish Times. He took a paper off the top, the stack taller than the toothless man hawking them.
“Oh, not too bad, I suppose.” Jimmy squatted, warming stubby fingers over a pitiful firepot at his feet. He cocked his head and looked up with a grin. “Let’s just say me and the missus won’t be going on a seaside holiday anytime soon.”
Mitch dug back in the coat. He tossed another punt in the can. “Give Mary my love.”
“I will at that, but I’ll wager she’d rather have it from you.”
Mitch attempted a smile and shoved the newspaper under his arm, yawning as he headed to his Model T. He should kick himself for coming back to work after taking Bridie home. What had possessed him? The work could wait. He reached down to rotate the crank. After several tries, the engine sputtered to life. He clenched his jacket closer and got in the car, slowly weaving into the flow of traffic. A weighty bloke on a bike darted in front of him, forcing him to skid to a stop. Mitch blew through his teeth. You’re testing my limits, mister. I’m in the perfect mood to run somebody down.
His foul disposition stayed with him all the way home. He parked the car and got out, flinging the door shut before shuffling up the steps to his grey-stone flat on Cork Street. The window flowerboxes spilled over with leggy impatiens and trailing ivy, stubborn survivors of Dublin’s temperate October nights. Mitch yanked on the curve-handled knob and opened the heavy Georgian door with its arched window and sunny yellow paint. It slammed behind him with a noisy thud. He mounted the gleaming wood staircase, noting that Mrs. Lynch had been busy—the warm maple flooring was buffed to a sheen. Where in the world did the woman get her energy? She was almost eighty, but her vitality left him in the dust.
Mitch jammed the key in his door and jimmied the lock with too much agitation. It might as well have been a fortress. He rammed the door with his knee. “Open up, you blasted thing.” He jangled the knob until the wall vibrated.
“Easy does it, Mitch.” Mrs. Lynch peeped around the corner of her door across the hall, silver tresses trailing beneath a lavender sleep kerchief. Her cornflower-blue eyes sparkled. “It’s just like a woman—the gentler, the better.”
Mitch hung his head in exhaustion. “Sorry, Mrs. Lynch. I didn’t mean to waken you.”
“Bad day at the paper?”
He breathed in some air, then blew it out with the last of his energy. His frustration drifted out along with it. “No, not really. I’m just tired.”
“Well, I already took Runt for his constitutional, so no need to worry about that. Looks like you should go straight to bed.” She squinted, her blue eyes obscured by paper-thin crinkles of skin. “You’re home late. Out with a lady?”
He turned back to the door, turning the key with painstaking ease. “No.” The lock clicked and the door swung open. Mitch managed a stiff smile over his shoulder. “Thank you, Mrs. Lynch. Good night.” He closed the door and flipped the bolt, flinging his coat on the wrought-iron rack. Runt greeted him, his tail thudding against the wall while he burrowed his cold nose into Mitch’s hand. His lovesick squeals helped to soften Mitch’s mood. Tapping his chest with his hands, Mitch chuckled when Runt jumped up, forepaws planted firmly against his shirt. “Hello, big guy, how’s my buddy today? Did you have a nice walk with Mrs. Lynch?”
Runt strained and groaned while Mitch rubbed the side of his snout, his tail flapping in ecstasy. Mitch leaned in and nuzzled the golden retriever, scrubbing his neck with a forceful motion. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, big guy. You keep me sane, you know that?”
Runt woofed, jumped down and commenced dancing in circles.
“All right, all right. Dinner’s coming. Give me a minute to get my bearings.” Mitch struck a match and reached up to light the oil wick of a pewter wall sconce. The light flickered, then filtered into his parlor with a soft, steady glow. He stooped to pick up a piece of lavender-scented stationery off a stack of freshly laundered clothes. He held the note to the light, its edge scalloped with a lacey effect.
Mitch—Runt has been fed and walked. I still have a few of your shirts to press. You can pick them up tomorrow. Mrs. Lynch.
He lifted the sheet to his nose, doubting the lavender fragrance would have any effect in calming his nerves. God bless her. More like a mother than a landlady. A niggling guilt settled in. Great. Perfect company for the irritability that throbbed inside like a splinter of glass. He should take her on an outing. Lunch and the art museum, maybe. She would like that.
Runt continued to bounce, his tail reaching new heights of aerial flight. Mitch propped a hand loosely on his hip. “Don’t try to con me with that pitiful ‘I haven’t eaten in twenty-four-hours act.’ I’m wise to you, buddy-boy. I have it on the best authority you’ve already been fed and watered, and quite well, no doubt.” Runt let out a gruff bark and sank to the floor, extending his forepaws in a long stretch.
Mitch loosened his tie and tossed it on the chair. He lit the Tiffany oil lamp beside his cordovan sofa, then bent to rekindle the remains of a fire he’d started that morning. Warmth seeped into the room, along with the pungent smell of burning peat, but it did little for the cold feeling in his chest. He reached for the newspaper and stretched out on the sofa.
What was wrong with him? His muscles twitched like he’d just sprinted a mile. The clock on the mantle chimed and he looked up, fatigue and edginess warring within. Eleven o’clock, but sleep was nowhere in sight. Mitch sighed and pitched the paper to the other side of the couch. He reached down to scratch Runt, who had sprawled along the foot of the sofa. Mitch exhaled a hefty sigh. His thoughts strayed to their favorite topic.
His stomach no longer clutched at the memory of her, but a dull sadness still remained. There had been times when he’d been like this with her, his nerves volatile as if raw and pasted on the outside of his skin. She could always sense it, feel it. And always knew what to do. How to calm him down, soothe him, love him.
Mitch closed his eyes and kneaded his forehead. Usually she’d put her arms around him and hold him, whispering words of love and encouragement and prayer. Always prayer.
Mitch jumped up to dispel the thought and tripped over Runt. A swear word got as far as the edge of his tongue before he bit it back. Runt looked up with liquid-brown eyes. Mitch sighed.
“It’s not your fault, buddy,” he muttered. Runt’s eyes followed him as he paced the room. He stopped and rubbed the back of his neck. He had been doing better lately, hadn’t he? More like himself? Going for days at a time without even thinking of her. Even weeks without missing her. She was across the ocean, for pity’s sake, engaged to someone else. How much farther out of his life could she possibly be?
And then, tonight. Charity. Those hypnotic eyes, staking through his heart with bitter regret and deadly allure.
Just like before.
Mitch slapped the newspaper out of his way and sat back down, hunching on the far edge of the sofa, opposite Runt. He put his head in his hands. She was poison, pure and fatal, even toxic to his mood. Like a spider spinning a light, breezy web, beckoning … “Mima would love to see you, Mitch. We all would.”
He sat up and burrowed his fingers through his hair, cursing the attraction he felt, even now. That had always been the problem. Loving Faith and avoiding Charity. Ignoring the fascination she seemed to have with him.
Until he gave in.
Mitch jumped up, shaking it off. The guilt, the regret, the attraction. He fumbled through his desk drawer for the Bible Faith had given him. He uncovered it beneath a stack of coffee-stained galley sheets. Clutching it to his chest, he sank back on the sofa, calm finally settling in.
He wanted to avoid Charity completely, but something in his gut told him no. He had to see her again, if only to warn her about Rigan. His jaw hardened. She needed to know.
Mitch leaned his head back on the sofa and closed his eyes. It would be good to see her grandmother and great-grandmother again. In the eight months he courted Faith, he’d grown fond of Bridget Murphy and her mother, Mima. They had been like family. Then the war ended, and Faith’s family had returned to Boston, leaving Charity behind. To help take care of Mima, she said. Somehow Mitch suspected she had other motives. She always did.
He sat up and opened his eyes, flipping the pages of the Bible at random. He settled on 2nd Corinthians, and his eyes widened as he scanned the page. Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness?
A ghost of a smile flitted across his lips. So much for Bridie’s implication that he pursue Charity O’Connor. ‘As far as the east is from the west,’ so is Charity from her God. Mitch sighed. It was a real pity. She was an amazingly beautiful woman who drew him like a magnet. Once, he would have gladly explored the bounds of her generosity without compunction. But Faith had changed everything. Attraction, lust and beauty had been enough before. Not anymore. Now he craved the beauty of the Spirit, the touch of God in his soul. His love for Faith had been pure, God-directed, exhilarating. Never again would he settle for less.
Mitch continued to read, the power of the words warming his body like the fire had been unable to do. He yawned, realizing his tension had finally dissipated, slinking away like the dusk at the end of day. He placed the Bible on the table and stood, stretching to release the kinks.
Thoughts of Charity suddenly flashed, and he stiffened his jaw. By the grace of God, he could do this. He would warn her and be done with it. And then he’d get on with his life.
He looked up to the ceiling, brows arched in expectation. “I’m gonna need your grace to do it, you know.” He stifled a yawn and blew out the lamp. “A boatload should do.”