The Last Bride in Ballymuir
Ballymuir Series, Book One
by Dorien Kelly
Author’s Preferred E-book Edition Published August 2012
(originally published by Pocket Star in March 2003)
"Your feet will take you to where your heart is." Irish Proverb
As he looked about his sister's house, it occurred to Michael Kilbride that he had traded up one prison for another. With its painted silks, shiny trinkets and mysterious mixed fragrance of incense and spice, this place was intensely female. No point of reference for a man who'd just spent fourteen years in the enforced company of other men.
"You'll be having the upstairs room," his sister Vi said as she flung off a bright blue woolen cloak she'd worn to protect herself from the nip of an Irish winter. "There's a full bath, too. You should be comfortable enough, but I'd have an eye to the ceiling height. This house wasn't built for a man of your size."
"It wasn't built for a man at all," he muttered and shifted uneasily from foot to foot. He knew he sounded ungrateful, and half felt that way, too.
"True enough," she answered with a shrug. "This is mine, and mine alone. But you're welcome here till you can get back on your feet." She paused and frowned, a crease showing between green eyes that were mirrors of his own. "And I'm sorry for the way Mam and Da are acting."
He reached down and fingered a jewel-bright throw that curled along the back of a couch. "Don't apologize for them. It doesn't matter."
She gave him an impatient look, his Vi who'd never been a Violet, even when a child. "It does, and I will make apologies for them. But no excuses. They're too wrapped up in their comforts to think what you might be feeling."
Truth be told, he wasn't feeling anything much but hungover. He longed for a bed with sheets any color but grayish-white. He longed for the ability to sleep past five-thirty in the morning. And he found the intimacy of this talk more than he could stomach.
Michael snatched up the duffel bag that contained his belongings. "Upstairs, you say." As he made his way up the narrow wooden steps, he heard Vi call from below.
"I'm only having mercy because of your miserable head. And mine, too. But you won't be getting out of other conversations this easily!"
Michael allowed himself a victorious smirk as he rounded the sharp bend in the stairs to his hideaway. Then he smacked his head straight into the low-hung plaster ceiling. At his snarled obscenity, Vi's laughter drifted up.
"It's no less than you deserve," she admonished.
To Michael's way of thinking, it was just another inexact measure of blind justice.
Having negotiated the last treacherous curve of stair, Michael ducked till he reached the center of the room with its sloped ceiling, then surveyed his surroundings. He didn't need much, and virtually anything would have seemed luxurious to him. But as always, Vi had seen to his comfort. The bedroom was bold and cheerful, and a bathroom little bigger than a closet took up the far end of the space.
A bed large enough for two, he noted, though that would never be an issue--even if he weren't in his sister's home. In his scant four days of freedom, he'd already discovered that he attracted exactly the hard and bitter type of woman he didn't want. No great surprise there.
Michael dropped his nylon duffel in the center of the bed. The quilt, a noisy affair with concentric spirals of bronze and gold, hardly moved under the bag's negligible weight. All his worldly goods. . . One change of clothes, ten punts fifty, plus the U2 tee shirt he'd won in a dice game last night. If he'd drunk less and played more, today's state of affairs might seem less bleak. Then again, perhaps not.
He sat on the edge of the bed--so soft that he wagered he'd end up sleeping on the floor--and slipped off his shoes and socks. Standing again, he tugged off his gray sweatshirt and unzipped jeans so starchy and new that it pained him to look at them. Underwear followed. He padded to the shower, turned it on and stood under its needle sharp spray until hot had run to cold. A small luxury, but an appreciated one, to be sure.
When Michael returned downstairs, showered and clean-shaven but not precisely repentant for the prior evening's excesses, his sister gave him an appraising look then shoved a mug into his hands. "I've made a tea of anise and caraway, one of Nan's old recipes. What the shower and time haven't purged from last night's binge, this should."
Purged. Michael eyed the mug suspiciously. "Think not."
"You've drunk worse," Vi pointed out. "Last night, for instance."
That comment was enough to eke out his first smile of the day. "You're hardly free of sin yourself, little sister."
Scowling, Vi busied herself wrapping her wild red hair into a loose knot atop her head. "Just trying to keep you company, that was all. Now drink. I need your head clear. We've serious matters to discuss."
Michael set the mug on the low table in front of the fireplace. "Then you'll be wanting me alive, too."
It wasn't so much that he didn't believe in his grandmother's skills, or Vi's for that matter. His pretended disbelief was as much a part of the ritual as drinking the tea itself. He sprawled onto the couch and awaited his sister's countermove. When none came he knew that it was serious business indeed.
Vi settled into an overstuffed chair at an angle from him. "Dublin was a needed thing. I knew I couldn't bring you back here without a chance to get some of the anger out of your system. We played and drank hard. But now we're home. My home. And while we're two hundred miles south and west of Temple Bar, it isn't only the distance separating us. People in Ballymuir are more conservative than Dubliners. More than those in Vatican City, too," she added with a flash of a smile. "You'll be noticed here, Michael. Even if I say nothing at all about your past--and I plan to say nothing--rumors will fly. I'm asking you to have care, not to do anything to make it worse on yourself."
So now we come to the truth of it, he thought. "Or on you?"
Vi sat taller. "I can hold my own."
A warrior, his sister. "As can I," he replied. "And the people in town, I want nothing from them. I'll give them no trouble, either."
Vi scrutinized him for a moment, then nodded her head in a business-like fashion. "Well then, we won't be needing to have this discussion again." She stood and walked to a desk. Drawing open a drawer, she said, "I've been keeping something for you since Nan died."
Michael smiled. "Then it can't be another one of her ‘recipes' or it would have gone bad long ago."
Vi handed him a slender envelope. "I suppose it is a recipe of sorts." He opened it to find a bank statement in his sister's name. "The money was left to me, but I've just been holding it for you. Nan didn't want to upset Mam and Da by leaving it to you directly."
Vi gave a nod toward the paper clenched in Michael's hand. "She wanted this to go where it was needed. It's not a fortune, but it should give you a start."
Michael focused on the statement's bottom line and swallowed hard at the zeros lined up soldier straight; it beat the shit out of ten punts fifty. "I can't be taking this."
"You can't argue with a dead woman, either."
He stood far too fast for his aching head, closed in on Vi, and shoved the statement back at her.
"Then I'm left with her living emissary." Vi and Nan were almost one and the same in his mind--different faces of the same woman. What was Nan's was meant to be Vi's. "Take it."
She balled the paper in one fist and grabbed his shirt with the other. "You're stubborn enough, but I've never thought you a stupid man. Now, I'm not a believer in violence of any kind, but I'm thinking of making an exception here. The money is yours, as it was meant to be. If Nan hadn't seen to you, I'd be doing it myself. You'll take what she left you and be thankful for it."
Michael plucked the paper from her fist and ripped it into pieces. With each tug of the paper, Vi's eyes grew narrower and more dangerous. As the shreds fluttered to the floor, she pushed away from him with a sound of disgust. "Fine show, but pointless. The money is yours."
He needed out. Michael grabbed his jacket from a peg near the door. Turning his back on his sister, he shoved his arms through the jacket sleeves, then wrenched open the door.
"Take a walk, then," Vi said. "I'll be here waiting when you get back. And so will the money."
Michael slammed the door. He walked away from Vi's house, perched on that gray line between country and town, then down an arrow of a road leading to the rolling green fields beyond. One foot followed the other, nothing but time and endless sky in front of him. Past a roadside shrine to the Virgin--a tick of a smile at that sign of home--then around a bend till the road narrowed from the respectable track it had been to what his nan would have called a bothareen. And still he walked. Because he could.
It was wrong to take Vi's money; it pained him enough to be staying in her house and eating her food. Still, Michael didn't delude himself about the possibility of finding work. True, things were far better than they'd been fourteen years ago. But he was thirty-two, never been to university and--though with no accuracy--had been branded a terrorist by most. They'd not be calling at his door. If he had one.
A light mist began to drift from the sky: too gentle for rain, a true soft day. And still Michael walked. The path became steeper as it led into the foothills. His shoes, a half-size too large and stiff with newness, rubbed at his heels. The sting kept him conscious of the progress he made, the freedom he owned.
But what was freedom without goals and plans? He paused, feeling an ugly sort of amusement at his own thoughts. Freedom was more than he'd had in a bloody lifetime. And as for goals, he'd become rather good at doing nothing at all.
As he readied to walk and leave his empty dreams behind, a motion caught his eye. In a far field, a girl lifted a rock and carried it to a low, meandering fence made of the rock's kin. Instead of walking, Michael found himself watching. Then, drawn to her, he traveled up a muddy track and perched himself on yet another stone fence--easy to come by in County Kerry.
She was still a distance off, and Michael found it hard to judge her age. That she wore a sweater with sleeves too long and a hem that dipped and sagged to her knees didn't help in the guessing. She was slender, though, and tall for her youth. But it was the grace of her movement in such a dull task that riveted him. Measured grace, something he'd never considered. Now he did.
Michael stepped even closer and sat again. The girl had to see him, but gave no sign of it. A sweep of brown hair, long and straight as a silk banner, shielded her face from him. One rock to the next she cleared the field with no tools but her hands. And he sensed that she enjoyed herself, too.
Michael went to a break in the fence. She stilled, then with one long-fingered hand pushed back her hair. The movement of her arm drew the oversized sweater tighter to her, silhouetting breasts that were no child's.
She turned to face him. Innocence: wide-set eyes of the palest blue he'd ever seen, a broad mouth that somehow appeared vulnerable in her oval of a face. His heart staggered at the sight of that purity--plain to the point of beauty.
Wariness shadowed her features. He held himself unmoving, unthreatening, under her gaze. In the time it took him to realize that he was also holding his breath, her caution faded, and that innocent mouth curved into one devil of a smile.
"You might as well come help," she said.
"Standing there gaping like that, you make me wonder who's the bigger fool, me for taking on this job, or you for watching as though there's something to see."
Without thought, without intent, he walked to her. Thank God she was no child. No child at all. Reaching out her right hand, she said, "My name's Kylie--Kylie O'Shea."
He took her hand in his, and though she was tall enough and clearly strong for her size, never had Michael felt so hulking and clumsy. "Kilbride, Michael Kilbride." Out of practice for even the most rudimentary of social exchanges, his words sounded rusty.
He found himself staring down at their joined hands. Not knowing how long he'd stood there grabbing on like he had no intention of letting go, Michael dropped her hand and backed up a step.
She gave him a curious glance. "So you're staying down the road and came out for a walk? Well, your help's welcome, Michael Kilbride."
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