I write contemporary romance with a Celtic twist, and darkly sensual urban fantasy. My first book will be released in 2014.
Today is Mother's Day in Switzerland. Mine was lovely. I got to sleep in, roll out of bed to eat brunch, then go back to bed to laze with a book. Trust me, in my day-to-day life, such sloth never happens. So yeah, it was great.
My older kids made a cute present in Kindergarten, my husband bought me chocolates, and The Toddler handed me a gift set of Body Shop Chocomania products. All in all, a lovely day. The crowning glory was a blissful shower. I'd just spread Chocomania exfoliator all over my skin. Suddenly, the shower curtain was yanked open to reveal me in all my naked glory. My scream was worthy of Janet Leigh in Psycho. The Toddler stood there, staring at me. "Mommy!" she said in a disapproving tone. "Why are your boobs covered in poop?"
Mother's Day, chez Zara Keane. :D
On that merry note, I'll leave you with a second excerpt from Love and Shenanigans. Enjoy! (Click here if you missed the first excerpt.)
OHMYGAWD! HER ARSE WAS ON DISPLAY.
Her fat, white arse.
Why did these things happen to her? One weekend without incident. That was all she’d asked for. Yet within an hour of arriving in Ballybeg, she was lying prostrate on top of a dog basket with the man she’d hoped to avoid staring at her cellulite.
“Mon dieu!” Claudette clutched her necklace. “What have you done to my dress?”
“Fiona!” Muireann shrieked. “How could you?”
“Never mind the dress. She’s squashing Mitzi and Bitzi.” Deirdre darted forward and yanked the dog basket to safety. Fiona’s face landed on the Persian carpet with a thud.
“What’s wrong with you people?” a male voice demanded. His voice. “Help her up, for heaven’s sake.”
Muscular arms reached around her ribcage and hauled her to her feet.
“Here.” Olivia retrieved the shawl from the floor. “Get this around her.”
Gavin wrapped the shawl around Fiona’s waist, careful not to touch her bare flesh. When his fingers skimmed her satin-encased hips, she felt a jolt of something she didn’t care to define. Their eyes clashed for a millisecond. Too short to mean anything to him, too long not to mean something to her.
She exhaled sharply, her cheeks aflame. Why hadn’t he had the decency to develop a beer gut over the past decade? Or a receding hairline? Life was so unfair.
“Grr!” Wiggly Poo was growling at the Chihuahuas, now held aloft in Deirdre’s scrawny arms.
“My poor babies.” Deirdre fussed over the tiny dogs and fixed Gavin with a quelling gaze. “I blame you for this debacle. If you hadn’t let that mongrel loose, none of this would have happened.”
“Me?” Gavin’s tone exuded outraged incredulity. “I didn’t ask to be saddled with a dog.”
“Mitzi and Bitzi are sensitive around strange dogs, and that one is positively rabid.”
Gavin’s sky-blue eyes darkened. “Wiggly Poo probably mistook them for vermin. An easy mistake to make.”
“Well,” Deirdre said, aghast. “I never.”
Laughter bubbled up Fiona’s throat. “Wiggly Poo?” She gasped, struggling to keep her composure. “What sort of name is that?”
Deirdre glowered at her. “This is no laughing matter, Fiona. My pets were brutally attacked by that savage beast.”
“Bollocks.” Gavin scooped up the puppy. “He didn’t touch them.”
“He didn’t, Deirdre,” Fiona said. “I got to him before he had a chance to do anything more than bark.”
Deirdre’s thin lips parted, baring teeth whitened to a radioactive glow.
“Mummy.” Muireann laid a hand on Deirdre’s arm. “Wiggly Poo’s young. He needs time to adjust.”
“Until he’s tamed, that creature is not welcome in this house.”
Fiona convulsed, losing the battle against laughter.
Deirdre rounded on her. “You’re in no position to laugh, young lady. You’ve destroyed a very expensive dress.”
“Yes.” Muireann smirked. “I invited you to be my maid of honor in good faith, and now… this.” She gestured in the direction of Fiona’s arse.
Fiona’s cheeks grew even hotter, anger mingling with embarrassment. “The dress is too small. I’m sorry it tore, but I wasn’t going to get down the aisle in this frock. Nor in these shoes.” She kicked off the offending footwear and sighed with relief as her stockinged feet sank into the plush carpet.
Deirdre pursed her mouth. “Did you lie about your measurements?”
Fiona gave her aunt the stink eye. “Of course not. Do you think I wanted to humiliate myself by busting out of the dress?”
“In that case, you must have put on weight.”
Muireann tittered. “With the amount you eat, it’s hardly surprising.”
“Steady on,” Gavin said. “Fiona’s not fat.”
Muireann and Deirdre cast him withering looks.
“Get out, Gavin,” Deirdre said. “And take that dog with you. You’ve caused enough trouble for one day.”
Gavin met her glare for glare. “If you want to cast blame, Deirdre, look no further than your husband. He bought the dog.”
Deirdre opened her mouth as if to protest. Gavin cut her off. “What am I supposed to do with Wiggly Poo while we have dinner? I can hardly lock him in the car.”
Muireann regarded the wriggling puppy doubtfully. “Can’t you ask Jonas to look after him? Just for this evening? We can sort out what to do with him later.”
“I can ask. If he has any sense, he’ll say no.” Gavin sighed. “Right. I’ll leave you ladies to change.”
Fiona caught his eye, and her heart skipped a beat. She mouthed thanks, and he gave a curt nod. He hoisted the puppy onto his shoulder and left the room.
All eyes focused on Fiona.
“I knew you were too fat for that dress.” Muireann’s spray-tanned face creased into a smirk.
The suspicion that had been forming in Fiona’s mind crystallized. “You did this deliberately. You gave Claudette the wrong measurements, and you made damn sure to schedule the fittings for when you knew I wouldn’t be able to attend.”
“I most certainly did not.” Muireann’s smirk faded, but there was a wicked gleam in her eyes. “I’d hardly want to wreck my own wedding.”
“Don’t be absurd, Fiona.” Deirdre waved a hand in impatience. “Muireann would never play such a nasty trick.”
“No?” She placed her hands on her hips. “I sent her my exact measurements, and I haven’t put on weight in the meantime. The moment I saw the dress, I doubted it would fit. If Muireann received my e-mail, I assume she passed on the information to Claudette.”
“Naturellement,” Claudette said in her musical Parisian accent. “And I followed them exactly. If you are the size you say, the dress will fit.”
“If the dress reflected the measurements I sent Muireann, it should fit, yes.”
“Are you calling me a liar?” Muireann’s blue eyes widened in faux horror.
Fiona tilted her chin. “Yes, I am.”
“Girls,” Deirdre snapped. “Enough. Whatever happened cannot be undone. I don’t suppose there’s time to make a replacement dress?”
“Not in the chartreuse.” Claudette gave a Gallic shrug “The material was a special order for Madame.”
Quelle surprise. Most people had better taste.
“Mummy, we can’t let Fiona wear one of her Goth getups to the wedding. She’s supposed to be my maid of honor.”
“Here’s an idea.” Fiona’s voice rose a notch. “Why don’t I resign as maid of honor? I’ll spare you the indignity of having me and my unsuitable wardrobe following you down the aisle.”
“You can’t quit,” Deirdre said. “There’ll be an uneven number of bridesmaids.”
“Far be it from us to screw with symmetry.” Olivia stepped forward to stand beside Fiona. “If Fee’s no longer in the wedding party, then neither am I.”
“Are you quitting on me?” Muireann’s nose quivered. “Your husband won’t like that.”
“Feck Aidan.” Olivia’s jaw jutted belligerently. “And feck you. You set Fiona up.”
“Girls, please,” Deirdre said weakly. “I can feel a migraine coming on.” She pronounced it mee-graine.
Fiona caught Olivia’s eye and smiled. She’d rather be just about anyplace on earth than here, but having a friend by her side made everything better. Well, that and having a getaway car at the ready. “If we’re done here, I’m going to change back into my highly unsuitable clothes.” She fingered the torn garment. “I don’t suppose you want the remnants of my dress?”
The twins tittered. Claudette stood mute. Muireann smirked. Aunt Deirdre quivered with outraged disapproval.
“Excellent. In that case, I’ll keep it as a memento.” Fiona removed the shawl from around her waist and tossed it at Muireann. “You can have this back, cuz. After all, you wanted to see me humiliated. I’d hate to deprive you of the pleasure.”
Feeling cheerful for the first time since she’d arrived in Ballybeg, Fiona turned on her heel and marched across the room, swinging her naked arse for all to see.
The sick sensation that had been building in the pit of Gavin’s stomach rose up his throat. He swallowed hard, tried to stem the surge of panic.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Everything was going to be fine, he thought, flexing his fingers over the steering wheel. He was experiencing a bout of the pre-wedding jitters. Everyone got them, and everyone got past them.
He’d been on edge for the past few days, anxious to get the wedding over and done with.
Not that he didn’t want to marry Muireann. Of course he did. Marrying her made perfect sense. They both wanted kids, eventually, and they’d been a couple since university. They were good together. Content. Not the most passionate of relationships, but he’d gladly sacrifice wild passion for stability and security. In short, he and Muireann were the polar opposite of his mother and the numerous men who’d paraded through his train wreck of a childhood.
With a grim sense of déjà vu, Gavin pulled his car to a stop beside Muireann’s Mini. He’d left Wiggly Poo with Jonas’s parents for the night. At least that was one problem sorted.
The other problem was a little trickier.
His stomach lurched. If only she hadn’t blasted back into his life. Fiona was the last person he needed right now. He’d been stunned to see her standing in Deirdre’s parlor wearing that awful dress. No one had mentioned she was invited to the wedding, let alone the maid of honor.
What the hell had Muireann been thinking? She loathed Fiona. Always had.
And the feeling was mutual.
A vision of Fiona’s exposed backside danced before his eyes, and he quashed the memory with a mental sledgehammer.
Fiona was in his past. His distant past. A short interlude that had ended badly. In all likelihood, she barely remembered their drunken night together in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, he remembered it only too well… in all its pixilated glory.
He sighed and pushed open his door. He’d barely had time to lock his car before Muireann appeared in the doorframe. She looked radiant. And happy. And if her happiness were accompanied by a hint of smugness… well, she’d make a beautiful bride.
“You look lovely.” He kissed her on the cheek, careful not to ruin her makeup.
She put a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry about Mummy earlier. You know what she’s like about her Chihuahuas.”
“Don’t worry about it. We’re all on edge at the moment.”
She nodded and looked past him at the car. “What did you do with Wiggly Poo?”
“He’s with Jonas’s parents, wreaking havoc.”
She slipped her hand into his. “Come through to the living room. We’re having a drink before dinner.”
In the Byrne’s antique-ridden living room, Bernard stood before the fireplace. One bulky arm rested on the mantelpiece, while the other hand clutched a tumbler of whiskey. His florid cheeks were redder than usual. This was not his first drink of the day.
Gavin swallowed a sigh. Bernard was hard to deal with sober. Drunk, he was a nightmare.
“The man of the moment.” Bernard’s smile was a rictus of protruding teeth. “How are you enjoying your last hours of freedom?”
The acid in his stomach gnawed his insides. “Apart from dealing with an untrained puppy, I’m grand.”
“What are you drinking, Gavin?” Deirdre sniffed, not looking in his direction. Mitzi and Bitzi were by her side, ears cocked. They glowered at him with their rat-like eyes.
“Fizzy water’s fine. I’m driving.”
“Nonsense. The boy will have a whiskey. The MacAllan nineteen seventy-four.” Bernard leaned closer. His breath alone was fit to put a man over the limit. “I’m cheating by going for Scotch over Irish, but this is worth it. Retails for over eight thousand euros a bottle.”
“That’s success, my boy.” Bernard’s mustache bobbed. “Success in a glass. Go on. Taste it.”
Gavin took a dubious sip.
Bernard’s self-satisfied smirk widened.
“Isn’t it perfect?”
“Hmm… not bad.” To Gavin’s undiscerning palate, it tasted like any other whiskey. He put the glass on the mantelpiece and turned to his fiancée. “All set for tomorrow?”
She beamed. “I can’t wait. It’s going to be the best day of our lives.”
“You’ll make a beautiful bride.” Deirdre patted her daughter on the arm in a rare display of physical affection. “The neighbors will be pea green with envy.”
“Screw the neighbors,” Gavin said. “Once Muireann’s happy and having a good time, that’s all that counts.”
Bernard snorted. “Impressions matter, especially in business. You’ll learn, lad.”
Gavin refrained from comment. The Byrnes never missed an opportunity to network. He shouldn’t be surprised that Muireann’s parents saw her wedding as yet another opportunity to grandstand and lick the right arses.
“Take this house, for instance.” Bernard was warming to his theme, his voice increasing in volume with every sentence. “Do you think it’s an accident that I bought it? No. Generations of my family worked the land on the Clonmore estate. They were treated little better than slaves and left to starve during the Great Famine. Now here I am, master of the house, while the present Earl of Clonmore lives in a shack on the other side of Ballybeg. That’s success in modern Ireland.”
Gavin had heard the tale a thousand times. “The Major’s not exactly living in poverty. His house is a nice bungalow. Hardly what I’d call a shack. And if I recall correctly, this was the dower house, not the Earl’s residence.”
Bernard shrugged. He wasn’t a man to let a few inaccuracies interfere with a good story. “But now that the old house has been converted into a hotel, Clonmore House is the largest private residence on the old estate.”
The gong sounded, producing a melodious echo. The gong was a relatively new affectation in the Byrne household, and Gavin cringed every time he heard it.
“Time for dinner.” Deirdre led the way into the ornate dining room, complete with an ugly table centerpiece Deirdre called an epergne.
Gavin sat across from Muireann. Judging by the place settings, it was going to be a five-course meal. The acid burned deeper into his stomach lining. He took a deep gulp from his water glass.
The food was perfectly prepared, but it tasted like sandpaper. He had to get a grip. Being nervous about tomorrow was one thing. Being a nervous wreck was quite another.
He stared across the table at his bride-to-be. Muireann was fine-boned and classically beautiful with straight blond hair and large blue eyes. She was tiny next to his six-two frame, even in heels. Her soft-spoken manner charmed most men, but she didn’t find it easy to make female friends.
Although Fiona and Muireann were first cousins, their surname was the only thing they had in common. Where Muireann was petite, Fiona was tall and curvaceous. Where Muireann was fair-haired, Fiona had a tumble of dark curls. And where Muireann was cool and collected, Fiona was fiery and chaotic.
Unless, of course, she’d changed over the years. Remembering the spark of rage in Fiona’s eyes when Muireann and Deirdre called her fat, he doubted the past eight years had tamed her temper.
He continued to pick at his food. Bernard had seconds at every course, wolfing his food and washing it down with several glasses of red wine.
Deirdre and Muireann maintained a seemingly endless prattle about the wedding and who was planning to wear what and who had gained or lost weight or had “a little work” done on various parts of their anatomy.
“I can’t believe Fiona split her dress.” Muireann tittered with ill-disguised glee. “What a fright she looked!”
“She has no manners and no breeding.” Deirdre sniffed. “Hardly surprising, given her upbringing. I’d hoped a few years in Dublin would improve her sense of fashion.”
“She’d need to be a lot skinnier to fit into fashionable clothes, Mummy.”
“Fiona’s not fat,” Gavin said firmly. “She split the dress because it was the wrong size.”
“Nonsense,” Deirdre said. “Claudette is a professional. She followed the measurements exactly. Fiona either lied about her size or ate too much in the meantime.”
“The sight of her pasty bottom!” Muireann laughed. “I haven’t seen anything so funny in all my life.”
“If that’s true, you need to get out more,” he said tersely. “Fiona’s not skinny, but neither is she fat. And the more you go on about her weight, the more I suspect you deliberately sabotaged the dress fitting.”
“What?” Muireann’s face turned chalky white, and her bottom lip began to quiver. “You’re blaming me for that fat cow destroying her dress?”
“Gavin!” Deirdre radiated disapproval. “What a dreadful thing to say.”
“Well, Muireann? Did you give Claudette the wrong measurements?”
Her eyes darted to the side, then refocused. “Of course not. Why would I want to waste Daddy’s money like that?”
“For a good laugh at Fiona’s expense? It wouldn’t be the first time.” He tossed his fork on the table and leaned forward in his seat. “For whatever reason, Fiona brings your inner bitch out to play. Always has, probably always will.”
“Don’t be silly. I played a few pranks on her when we were younger. Isn’t that what schoolgirls do? It doesn’t mean I’d do anything so childish now.”
“So you’re saying Claudette screwed up?”
“She must have.” Muireann fiddled with her napkin, her engagement ring glinting in the light. “Either that or Fiona sent the wrong measurements.” Her blue eyes grew large, and she leaned across the table to take his hand in hers. “We never argue, yet today we’ve had two disagreements. First about the dog, and now over Fiona.”
He focused on Deirdre’s silver epergne. The center bowl overflowed with exotic fruit. Each of the small dishes extending in branches from the centerpiece contained different-colored flowers. His nose itched from all the pollen.
Raising his eyes, he looked at his fiancée. “All right.” He reached for his water glass. “We’ll leave it for now. I don’t want to fight with you, Muireann.”
Especially not the night before their wedding.
THE CHURCH BELLS CHIMED the hour. Eleven o’clock. Fiona increased her pace, dodged a bike, and crossed the square over to Patrick Street. Despite the late hour, Ballybeg town center was busy. People spilled out of pubs onto the pavement, their laughter floating on the light autumn breeze.
So much had changed since she’d lived in Ballybeg, yet so much remained the same. The terraced houses along Patrick Street retained their brightly colored facades, but several of the businesses on the ground floors had changed. The fish-and-chipper was gone, replaced by a Chinese take-away. The old pound shop was now the tourist information office. The butcher’s had been converted into a private residence.
She was a stranger in her hometown, every difference a sharp shock of reality. Time passed, people evolved, places altered. Memories froze a place in time, and change seemed a violation.
Not everything in Ballybeg was different, though, nor everyone. Her aunt’s bookshop was still on Patrick Street, the familiar turquoise paint a welcome sight. Olivia was as warm and welcoming as the first day they’d met in primary school. And Muireann was still a first-class cow.
After the arse-baring disaster, she and Olivia had gone out for a drink. Now it was time to return to Bridie’s house and face the music.
She hated disappointing her aunt. Requesting she consider being Muireann’s maid of honor was the first time Bridie had asked her to do anything family-related for years. She went through phases of promoting family togetherness before giving it up as a lost cause.
Fiona turned into Beach Road, each step slower than its predecessor. The tide was out, and the smell of damp seaweed was overpowering.
Most of the homes along Beach Road were old cottages that had endured the strong Atlantic wind for over a century. Each cottage was painted a different shade, but none was as remarkable as Bridie’s. Under the faint light of the street lamps, it was a lurid pink—an eyesore, even in the context of colorful Ballybeg. It suited its owner perfectly.
Said owner was standing on her doorstep, plump hands on broad hips. Her peach-rinsed hair was in tight curlers, and she wore a voluminous fluffy bathrobe the same shade as her hair.
Next door, the lights were out in Gavin’s cottage. Did he still own it now that he’d moved in with Muireann? Fiona’s cheeks burned at the memory of him rescuing her this evening. Trust her to get into such an embarrassing situation, and trust Muireann to orchestrate it.
“What’s all this about you being fired from the wedding?”
“It’s past eleven.” Fiona shut the gate behind her. “Shouldn’t a person of your advanced years be asleep?”
“Cheeky minx. I’m sixty-four, not dead. Now get inside and tell me what happened.”
Bridie stood to the side, and Fiona squeezed past into the small cottage. She shrugged off her coat and walked by the multitude of knickknacks and ornaments that adorned every nook and cranny of Bridie’s home.
“We’ll have cocoa,” her aunt announced when they reached the cluttered but cozy kitchen. “And you’re making it. After listening to Deirdre screech down the phone at me for an hour, you owe me one.”
Fiona laughed and rummaged in the cupboard where the tea and other hot beverages were stored. “Any chance I’m disinvited from the wedding in addition to being fired from my post as maid of honor?”
“Not a hope. Deirdre particularly said she’d like you to attend.”
“Bollocks. She doesn’t want the neighbors gossiping about a family feud.”
Her aunt’s bushy eyebrows formed a unibrow of disapproval. “How did you manage to have a major falling out with Muireann within an hour of arriving in Ballybeg?”
“It’s a talent.” She poured milk into a small saucepan and added cocoa powder. “I’m aware you were angling for a reconciliation between us. I told you it wouldn’t happen.”
“I know you did, missy.” Bridie lowered herself into a kitchen chair, wincing from the effort. “I should have listened. But your dad would have wanted you to go to Muireann’s wedding, and I sometimes get to wondering if the rift between you two isn’t partly my fault.”
“What makes you say that?” She turned mid-stir and regarded her aunt. “Muireann and I have been sparking off one another since preschool.”
“Yes, but I’ve made no secret of my feelings toward Bernard. Maybe that wasn’t fair.”
“Under the circumstances, you’re entitled to feel bitter.”
“Perhaps, but Mammy’s will shouldn’t affect your relationship with your cousin. It’s not her fault Bernard inherited so much and the rest of us so little.”
“Nana’s will has nothing to do with my issues with Muireann. She managed to piss me off all on her own.”
Fiona stirred the cocoa a final time and divided the frothy liquid between two mugs. She placed one in front of her aunt and took the seat across the table.
Lines of pain etched Bridie’s forehead, the grooves deeper than Fiona remembered.
“Are you okay? You look like you’re in discomfort.”
“Ah, I’m grand,” Bridie said. “My hip’s paining me this evening.”
“So Dr. Mulligan says. It’s worse in the winter. Now stop stalling and tell me what led to you being fired as maid of honor. I only have Deirdre’s rant to go by, and I don’t place much store by her account.”
“Long story short, my maid of honor dress was too small. It ripped.” Fiona’s cheeks grew warm at the memory of Gavin’s big hands on her waist.
“Didn’t you send your measurements to Muireann?”
“Yeah, I did.” She took a sip of cocoa. “She swears she passed on the correct measurements to the dressmaker. I don’t believe her.”
“Hmm. And you had a fight?”
“Yeah. It ended with Olivia and me no longer welcome in the wedding party. Whether we quit or were fired is open to debate. At any rate, we won’t be trailing down the aisle after Muireann.”
“Olivia too?” Bridie licked cocoa off her upper lip. “Aidan won’t be pleased.”
“Not much pleases Aidan Gant.” Fiona scrunched up her nose. “I don’t get what she sees in him.”
“Financial security is not to be scoffed at. Take it from one who knows. Gant stands to make a lot of money from Bernard’s new shopping center.”
“Olivia mentioned that. Where are they building it?”
“Out by Fir Road.”
Fiona frowned. “Isn’t that part of the land Bernard inherited from Nana?”
“Yes. He’s been angling to build on it for years, but the old guard on the town council wouldn’t approve the plans. Now that his cronies Aidan Gant and George Jobson are on the council, the plans got pushed through.”
“Nice for Bernard.”
A bitter half smile twisted Bridie’s lips. “Nice for Bernard’s bank account.”
“Speaking of money… there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.”
“I can’t help noticing the house is looking a bit—”
“Shabby?” Bridie looked her straight in the eye.
“Well, yeah,” she said awkwardly. “But it’s more than that. It’s fairly obvious you need to get a new washing machine, and the sink in the bathroom leaks. Are you doing all right? Moneywise, I mean.”
“I get by.” A muscle in her aunt’s cheek twitched. “I can afford to put food on the table and pay my bills. That’s more than most can say in this economy.”
“Right. And the Book Mark?”
“It’s a bookshop.” Her aunt’s eyes dropped to the worn kitchen linoleum. “People don’t have money to spare for new books, and the used book exchange is more a service to my customers than a big earner. Those who can afford to buy books are going the digital route with the capsule thingies.”
Fiona suppressed a smile. “Tablets?”
“Yeah. That’s what they’re called.” Bridie drained the last dregs of cocoa from her mug and stood. Her stance was awkward, and she was favoring one side. “I’d better get to sleep. Listen, if you decide you’re not going to the wedding tomorrow, would you sort your old stuff? There are at least three boxes of junk in your old room. If you haven’t touched them in eight years, I doubt they contain anything important.”
“Yes, boss.” She gave a mock salute. “What time’s the ceremony?”
“Eleven.” Bridie put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry you came down to Ballybeg for nothing, love.”
A pang of guilt nagged Fiona’s conscience. She should visit more often. Or at least call more than once every few months. She squeezed her aunt’s hand. “Not for nothing. I’m glad to see you.”
“It’s great to catch up with you before you head off to the other side of the world.”
She beamed. “I can’t believe it’s actually happening. I’ve been planning this trip for so long it seems surreal.”
“I remember you talking about going to Australia when you were barely old enough to find it on a globe.”
“Bridie,” Fiona asked tentatively, “how important is it to you that I go to the wedding?”
“For better or worse, I’d like to put the past behind us and behave like a proper family for one day. Your dad was always the peacemaker. Now that he’s gone…”
“In that case, I’ll go to the ceremony, at the very least.” She planted a kiss on her aunt’s plump cheek. “And when I get back from Oz, I’ll come down to Ballybeg more often. I promise. You’ll be sick of the sight of me.”
The rest of Gavin’s pre-wedding meal with the Byrnes passed without incident.
After dessert, Muireann and Deirdre returned to the living room to discuss the last wedding details. Although what there was to be decided, he had no idea. How much more micromanaging could they achieve between now and tomorrow morning?
“Let’s go into the library.” Bernard rose unsteadily to his feet. “We’ll have another glass of the MacAllan.”
Bernard’s library was yet another affectation in a house full of affectations. The oak bookshelves were stuffed with valuable first editions of the classics, yet no one in the Byrne household would ever consider reading one.
Gavin sat in a stiff leather armchair and gazed at the spine of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. How much had it set Bernard back? A few hundred? A few thousand? All for a book the man would never read.
A cigar clenched between his front teeth, Bernard sloshed whiskey into a tumbler and shoved it toward Gavin. He poured himself an even larger glass. “Pre-wedding nerves, lad?” He took a gulp of whiskey, then a puff of his cigar. “We’ve all been there.”
Gavin coughed discreetly through the plumes of pungent smoke. “I’m grand. The joking about Fiona went too far for my taste.”
“Fond of Fiona, are you?” Bernard’s shrewd gaze speared him to the spot.
“Before today, I hadn’t seen her for years.” And had tried not to think of her. “But yeah, we always got on well.” Better than you’ll ever know.
Memories of that crazy night in Vegas surfaced again. Hazy, colorful, loud. And the look of hurt and betrayal on Fiona’s face the next morning when he announced he was leaving.
“Fiona has an inferiority complex. And no sense of style. My sister is hardly a good influence on her. She’d have been better off coming to live with us after her parents died.”
“From my understanding, no such offer was extended.”
Bernard’s mustache bristled. “Nonsense. We’d have been happy to have her. But enough about my niece. Let’s talk business.”
Gavin’s ears pricked up. The contract. It had to be about the contract.
“Aidan Gant’s drawn up the papers to make you our new design director. They’ll be ready to sign when you get back from your honeymoon.”
And not a moment before… Bernard was loving having him on a chain.
He swallowed a mouthful of MacAllan. “I’d hoped to get it all sorted out before we left. That was the original plan.”
Bernard swirled his glass. “Yes. I’ve been distracted by the wedding prep.” He regarded him with a steely expression. “I’m confident you’ll make my daughter very happy.”
He stared at the paisley-patterned carpet. “I’ll certainly do my best.”
“Excellent.” The older man stood and flashed him a snake-like smile. “I’ll have the contract ready for you to sign as soon as you’re back from Mauritius.”
He was tempted to tell Bernard where to stick his contract, but common sense prevailed. Too much was at stake here, not least Muireann’s feelings. If working for her father for a couple more years was the price he had to pay for financial stability, well, we all made sacrifices.
He got to his feet. “Right. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Deirdre was rearranging flowers in the hallway when he emerged from Bernard’s lair. “Muireann’s already gone to bed,” she said, poking and prodding at a yellow floral arrangement that was making his nose itch. “A bride needs her beauty sleep.”
“I’ll nip up and say good-bye.”
Upstairs, he knocked on Muireann’s bedroom door and went in. She was already in her nightie, brushing her long blond hair. She paused midstroke when she saw his reflection in her dressing table mirror.
“I’m sorry about earlier. Let’s assume Claudette messed up.” He put his hands on her bare shoulders and kissed her neck.
She pulled away and resumed her hair brushing. “Forget it. You’re probably just nervous about the wedding.”
He let his arms drop to his side. “I’m not fond of public speaking, but it’s more than that. These past few months haven’t been easy—for either of us.”
She tugged at a tangle. “Planning a wedding is stressful. As is moving house. We’ve done both this year.”
“At least it’ll be all over by tomorrow night.”
She turned to look at him, an odd expression on her face. “That’s a funny thing to say about your wedding day.”
“Big events with tons of guests aren’t my thing.”
“Why did you agree to it?”
He shrugged. “I know how much a traditional wedding means to you.”
She bit her lip. “You’re looking forward to the honeymoon at least?”
“Yes. Yeah. Of course I am. A holiday is exactly what we need.” He bent down and pecked her on the cheek. “I’d better let you get some sleep. Besides, Jonas will be waiting for me at the cottage.”
Her baby blue eyes met his. “I love you, Gavin. I’ll be a good wife to you.”
“I know you will. I love you, too.”
And he did. Of course he did. So why did the words weigh down his tongue like lead?
ON HIS WEDDING DAY, Gavin rose early for his morning run. Dawn was breaking when he closed the door of his cottage. His hand stilled on the door handle, and his eyes strayed to the nameplate on the wall.
Abhaile, the Irish word for home.
He’d loved this house the moment he’d seen it, ramshackle though it was. Where his mother saw a dump, he saw potential. Where she saw a financial drain, he saw an opportunity. And where she saw an unwanted abode, he saw a home.
Now it was no longer his home.
If his mother had despaired of the cottage, Muireann despised it. She’d set her heart on a big house, and her parents were willing to sell them Clonmore Lodge. Gavin had caved, acknowledging the cottage was too small to raise a family. The cottage was up for sale, but no interesting offers had come through yet. He was relieved, even though they needed the money. If a buyer didn’t materialize soon, he’d have to find a tenant. But that was a concern for another day.
He headed down the short path and out the gate. He crossed the road and stood at the railings overlooking the beach.
What a view. The tide was out, exposing a vast expanse of wet sand. It was rocky in places, sandy in others.
He took the steps down to the beach two at a time. At the bottom, his trainers sank into damp sand. After a few preliminary stretches, he began to run.
He pounded down the strand, his lungs burning, his mind free. The only activity more calming than this was swimming, but even he wasn’t crazy enough to wade in today.
After a couple of kilometers, he stopped to catch his breath. He wiped sweat from his brow and took a swig from his water bottle. The sea was wild and the tide had turned. The waves crashed and foamed, and the blue-green water crept up the sand.
He should get back to the cottage. There was a lot to do before he left for the church. Plus he had a guest. Yeah, breakfast with Jonas was something to look forward to. He hooked his water bottle.
He whipped round.
Jonas was pounding down the sand toward him, clad in an old T-shirt and what appeared to be swimming trunks. A lit cigarette dangled from one hand. His dark hair stood on end, and thick stubble shadowed his jawline. Despite his disheveled appearance, he looked better than Gavin felt.
“Morning.” He grinned at his friend. “Didn’t expect to see you up this early, never mind jogging.”
“Trying to get fit. The sedentary lifestyle and all that.”
“Bollocks,” Gavin said with a laugh. “You’re sickeningly fit for a man who sits on his arse all day and writes.”
“Mental exertion, mate. Crafting stories uses a lot of energy.”
“Yeah, right. More like a high metabolism and good genes. Enjoy it while it lasts.”
“I’m jogging, aren’t I?” Jonas took a drag from his cigarette. “I’m trying to set an example for Luca.”
“With fags and beer?”
“Shut up.” Jonas grinned. “At least I’m not about to get hitched.”
“You could give it consideration. Luca’s nearly five.”
A shadow flitted across Jonas’s tanned face. “You’re distracted, mate. I told you Susanne and I are on a break.”
“Another one?” How many times had they broken up since Luca’s birth? Four? Five?
Jonas shrugged. “Nah. Same break as last time we spoke of it. This one’s just lasting a while. Luca’s diagnosis hit Susanne hard.”
“For feck’s sake. He’s on the autism spectrum, not terminally ill.”
His friend gave him a sharp look. “It’ll be fine, okay? I don’t need relationship advice from a reluctant groom.”
If Jonas had punched him in the gut, Gavin couldn’t have felt more stunned. “Reluctant? Where did you get that impression?”
“Come on, Gav. We’ve been friends since secondary school. You’re not exactly what I’d term a blushing groom.”
“A bout of pre-wedding jitters. It’ll pass.”
“Make sure it passes before eleven this morning.”
Gavin stared out to sea. “Why don’t you worry about your own relationship and let me worry about mine?”
“Sorry, mate. I’ll back off.”
“Forget about it. How about a full Irish breakfast back at the cottage?”
Jonas grinned. “Last one there cooks?”
They raced down the beach, neck and neck for the first while until Gavin gained the advantage. He bounded up the slippery stone steps, across Beach Road, and waited for Jonas at the door of the cottage.
“Ha,” he said when Jonas hauled himself up the garden path, gasping for breath. “You’d make the perfect ad for an anti-smoking campaign.”
“Feck off,” said Jonas, panting. “I lost on purpose.”
“Sure you did.” Gavin inserted his key into the lock.
“Self-preservation, mate. You can’t cook for shite.”
Gavin opened the door of the cottage. They were greeted by the sound of retching.
Gavin froze, then legged it into his bedroom, Jonas close behind. “Aw, no.”
“Jaysus,” Jonas said. “Is it my imagination, or is Wiggly Poo regurgitating your wedding suit?”
“Morning, Sleeping Beauty. Time to play happy families.”
Bridie wrenched open the curtains. Sunlight flooded Fiona’s old bedroom, revealing faded posters of rock bands she’d loved as a teenager and Bridie’s bright orange dress.
“Ugh.” Blinking, she buried her head beneath her pillow. “Not time yet.”
“Olivia’s drinking tea in the kitchen. Says she’s here to lend you a hand getting ready for the wedding.”
Fiona emerged from underneath the pillow. “Does no one trust me to wear appropriate footwear to the church?”
“Your faith in me is touching.” She threw off her duvet and found her feet. In the wardrobe’s full-length mirror, her reflection stared back. A wild bush of dark curls on her head, bags under her eyes, and five kilos above her ideal weight.
“Now that you’re no longer maid of honor, do you have an outfit to wear to the wedding?”
“Nothing fancy,” replied Fiona. “I have a black dress I can jazz up with jewelry.”
“Sounds grand. Don’t forget to remove your lip ring. Deirdre made particular mention of it.”
Fiona stuck her tongue out. “Oh, all right.”
“In that case, I’ll leave you girls to get ready.” She fastened a matching orange hat to her head. “I’m due to give The Major a lift to the church. And check his attire. That man cannot be trusted to wear a matching tie.”
Fiona bit back a laugh. The Earl of Clonmore—more commonly known as The Major—was Olivia’s grandfather and Bridie’s favorite frenemy. They argued about life, the universe, and everything during bridge, bingo, and flower shows.
Fiona threw on her dressing gown and went out into the kitchen.
Olivia was seated at the kitchen table, drinking tea and perusing the morning paper. She wore a beautiful emerald dress, and her auburn hair was pulled into a chic chignon. She looked up when Fiona came in. “Wow, Fee. Conditioner is your friend.”
“Morning to you, too, Liv.”
“Right, girls. I’m off.” Bridie grabbed her handbag off the kitchen counter. “Be at the church before eleven.”
“Yes, Bridie,” they chorused.
When she left, Fiona turned to Olivia. “I love her to bits, but she’s driving me mad. As far as she’s concerned, I’m still a kid. And when I’m around her, I revert.”
“Tea?” Olivia indicated the half-full pot on the table.
“No, thanks. I’ll hit the shower and get dressed; then we can spend a productive hour cyberstalking people we used to know way back when.”
Olivia laughed. “Sounds like a plan.”
Fiona showered, dressed, and applied more makeup than she usually wore. She was fiddling with her hair when Olivia knocked on her bedroom door.
“Shall I?” She pointed to Fiona’s hair straighteners.
“It’s hopeless. I can’t seem to tame it.”
“Never fear. Olivia is here.”
Within fifteen minutes, Olivia had Fiona’s hair straightened and tamed.
A glamorous stranger stared back at her from the vanity mirror, straight-haired and red-lipped. “You’re a genius. Thank you.”
“No problem.” Olivia glanced at her phone. “We have over an hour before we’re due at the church.”
“My aunt asked me to clear out my storage boxes. Want to laugh at our school yearbook photos?”
“Sounds like the sort of thing mature adults would do,” Olivia said. “Go get them.”
“Bridie’s got my old photo albums and mementos stored under the bed.” Fiona bent down and pulled out a couple of boxes. “I keep meaning to sort through them and take the ones I want to save home to my apartment in Dublin. I guess this weekend is as good a time as any.”
Olivia lifted the lid off the first box and leafed through a small photo album. “These are from our school trip to Berlin in third year. Oh, my God. That was the time I shaved my head, and the nuns had a conniption.”
“There are even worse ones of you in here,” Fiona said. “Irish college the summer before the Leaving Cert. You dyed your hair pink, and I dyed mine blue.”
“Gosh, we look a state.”
Olivia lifted the lid off the second container and rifled through its contents. “Looks like this one is from your year in the States. I have fond memories of the time we met up in San Francisco. Hey, here’s a picture of you with your host family. Do you keep in touch?”
“Oh, wow!” Olivia held up an elegant wooden box emblazoned with Chinese characters. “You still have your little memory box.”
“What?” Fiona dropped the envelope she was holding. A prickle of foreboding snaked down her spine. What had she kept in that box?
“I have no idea what happened to mine,” Olivia said. “Do you remember the day we bought them in that little shop in Chinatown?”
Gavin… Las Vegas… oh, feck! She tried to yank it out of Olivia’s grasp.
“No way.” Olivia was grinning. “I want to know what you hid in the false bottom.”
“Give it here.”
Olivia had already opened the box and located its false bottom.
Fiona’s heart rate accelerated into the fast lane. Feck, feck, feck!
Olivia was holding papers in her hand. “Ah, you’re a sly one. Photos, eh?”
“I’m serious. Give me the box.”
“Hold on a sec… here’s one of you and Gavin. Huh?” Olivia raised an eyebrow questioningly. “You look pretty cozy. Where was this taken?”
Fiona’s stomach performed a stunt worthy of an acrobat. “Las Vegas.”
“Vegas, eh? Where’s Muireann in these pictures?” Olivia put her hand back into the box and extracted more photos and papers. She flipped through them and then paused. “What the hell?”
Shite! Olivia must have found the photo of her and Gavin kissing. Why hadn’t she destroyed it years ago? Why had she been soppy and sentimental and kept it?
“Fiona.” Olivia’s rosy cheeks were pale, her voice uncharacteristically tremulous. “Is this a marriage certificate?”
The sound of ripping fabric tore a horrified gasp from the crowd. The material at the back of the dress split open, revealing two luscious, creamy buttocks.
LOVE AND SHENANIGANS will be on sale by 1 June 2014.