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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. It held 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, he 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 their 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 so 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. For an hour and more, 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 fawn-colored 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."
Looking at a field made of roughly equal amounts of rock and sheep droppings, he asked, "What are you doing?"
"Getting ready for spring, of course."
The absolute, irrational optimism of that statement set him back on his heels. "It's February," he said, and immediately felt like an idiot for pointing out the obvious.
"It is, and I've not many free days left between now and planting time."
Michael was the product of cities, buses, and sprawl. Still, even he could see that there was no sense in putting anything other than more sheep manure in this plot of earth.
"Planting?" he echoed skeptically.
"Planting," she affirmed. "Now either help or be on your way. It slows me down, knowing you're watching like that."
Because he had no way to take, and because he didn't want to leave the company of Kylie O'Shea, he bent over, picked up the smallest rock he could, and carried it to the growing wall.
He glanced back at her. Her brows arched in amused challenge. "Surely a man of your size can do better than that."
He surprised himself by laughing. He could do better, and did. The sight of her was worth the price of admission. After a while, Michael fell into the rhythm of the task. Time slipped by, measured by the sight of the low clouds drifting across the sky and by the solid sound of rock hitting rock. A sense of contentment came over him. They worked in near silence, something he found far more comfortable than trying to scrape together words. Watching her was enough.
He was truly surprised that he hadn't ground his knuckles raw and flattened a few toes the way he followed her every move instead of his work. Her gaze touched him more than once, too. He sensed it with a primal awareness that made him feel almost like a barbarian. He found himself wanting her. In the ancient days -- those before any law other than that of strength taking weakness -- he'd have had her.
But he was a modern man, Michael thought, while lifting and heaving yet another rock to the wall. She didn't know him. He didn't know her. And the ritual of meeting and dating was as foreign to him as the wanting. Even before the years away, chatting up the girls hadn't come naturally. And this one, with her smile and confidence, she'd have heard it all before, anyway.
Though the field still held far more rock than the low line of fence they'd created, after an hour or so, Kylie O'Shea stood, hands propped on narrow hips, and looked around, appearing satisfied.
"Enough," she said.
Feeling a mix of regret and relief, Michael glanced toward the road. "I'll be on my way."
The set of her mouth grew stubborn. "Not without a meal, you won't. I'm not much in the kitchen, but it's a hard thing to foul up vegetable soup. It's been simmering since morning." She gestured toward a small, whitewashed cottage further up the hillside. "Join me, won't you?"
At his nodded assent, she led the way up the path. He followed without thinking, a trait that had bought him trouble time and again, Michael knew. But Kylie O'Shea was no temptress. And he was no longer a callow eighteen. Looking at the slender, capable woman in front of him, he was glad for both facts.
It was the boldest thing she'd ever done, asking a stranger into her house. And boldness, she remembered, had a way of crossing over into stupidity.
"Make yourself at home," Kylie said, scrubbing her hands at the kitchen sink. She glanced over her shoulder at him. "The facilities are behind the door on your left, if you'd like to wash up."
"Thank you," he said in a deep voice that had her ducking her head closer to the sink to hide the blush she felt sliding across her features. In the minutes that he was in the other room, Kylie hurriedly dug in her purse for a brush and ran it through her hair, wondering how she looked, wondering why after all these years vanity chose now to show itself.
Her appearance had never bothered her before. In fact, she was thankful she wasn't the sort to draw attention. Brown wren Kylie, safe from the predators of the world. She scrubbed her face, washed her hands again, then told herself to calm down. By the time he returned, she stood placidly at the stove.
He nodded a greeting, then turned his back to her and gazed out the window. Even now he seemed wary and uncomfortable in her presence. Still, she felt a startling sort of instinctual trust. For her to have these feelings about any man was a battle of will against brutal experience.
To trust a stranger? This was a miracle, no less. In return, she wanted to put him at ease, but had no idea how to go about it.
Kylie gave the pot of soup one last stir. It seemed a bit stubborn at the bottom. She leaned closer to the soup and sniffed suspiciously. She prayed she hadn't scorched it, though scorched soup seemed a proper mate to the rather too crusty bread she'd baked that morning.
He still stood at the window.
"Are you wondering what it is I do up here?" she asked, putting a smile in her voice.
He turned, and her pulse danced and skittered. Beautiful he was, in an entirely male way. His black hair was shorter than many men wore it these days, but did nothing to detract from his appearance. Little could. All dark and big with green eyes that seemed to see into the corners of her mind, the man was a medieval maiden's fantasy landed in the wrong world. If he hadn't seemed even more uncomfortable than she, Kylie would have found him intimidating.
"You're no farmer," he said.
Kylie gave an apologetic sigh as she ladled out the soup. "Nor a chef, either." Putting a bowl at the place she'd set for him, she said, "I'm a primary teacher at Gaelscoil Pearse -- one of the local All-Irish schools. An bhfuil Gaeilge agat?"
A smile, almost too brief to be seen, passed across his face. "I speak a word or two, but none that I'll be trotting out for an expert like you. And now you're teaching it to the young? It's a grand thing you're doing."
She felt her face color at the compliment; she received them so painfully seldom. Kylie smiled her thanks. "Milk? It's fresh this morning." At his "please," she busied herself pulling two clean glasses from the shelf and the milk from her small refrigerator.
The milk, at least, would be right. The bread was another issue. On her pay, store bought was an impossibility; home-baked, on the other hand, was a punishment. She sawed frantically at the loaf, wishing not for the first time that she'd had a mother long enough to teach her these basic things. With luck, Michael Kilbride would have a forgiving nature because he'd have much to forgive after this meal.
They sat together at her plain wooden table -- scarcely big enough for one. Between swallows of overcooked soup and nibbles of bread drier than the Sahara, Kylie struggled to maintain her end of a weak conversation.
"So are you visiting the O'Hallorans or Mrs. Flaherty?" she asked, referring to the only neighbors within walking distance.
After washing down bread with a healthy swallow of milk, he said, "No, I'm staying with my sister, Vi."
Kylie immediately made the connection, and was relieved to have at least found a topic to settle on. "Vi Kilbride, the artist? She's fabulous!"
He looked amused at her enthusiasm. "Lately I've been thinking of her more as Vi Kilbride the harpy. And even when she's not set on making my life miserable, I see her as a little sister, not an artist. But you know her work, then?"
"I do, though I can't afford it. I didn't know she lived close by."
"Down the road in Ballymuir."
She set down her spoon and gave up any pretense of eating. "That's easily six miles off!"
"Is it?" He took another spoonful of the soup. Kylie thought he did a creditable job of hiding a wince. It didn't seem right to be torturing her guest like this.
"Yes, and don't be eating that on my account. It seems to have burnt while we were out working."
He was polite enough to look surprised. "So the smoked flavor wasn't intended?"
She laughed. "Not exactly."
"It was the best meal I've had in some time, Kylie O'Shea."
She liked the way her name slipped from his lips, and liked his kindness, too. "If this is the best, where have you been dining -- on a desert island?"
He gave a slight shrug. "Something like that." Glancing out the window he said, "It's time for me to be home."
"You're walking." She pushed back from the table and stood. "Let me run you back to town. It's the least I can do after making you haul rocks, then trying to poison you for your effort."
He stood. "I like the walking."
She wasn't ready to let go, to slip back into the careful, colorless discipline of her life. It wasn't every day -- or any other day at all -- that brought a man like Michael Kilbride to her door. She'd take these moments and keep them to brighten the lonely times. "I'll drive...I insist."
He gazed down at her, his raised brows seeming to point out the absurdity of her words. She'd sooner be able to stop the rain from falling than this man from doing what he wished.
"Then I accept," he said.
Time passed all too quickly as she tidied the kitchen, then led Michael out to her relic of a car. Evening had begun to approach. Kylie smiled as she noted the sky's whisper of indigo meeting the orange of the setting sun.
As she drove the miles toward town, she wondered about a man who would walk this far on a day chilly enough to be best spent by a fire. She glanced over at him and felt the heat of his green gaze -- hungry, yet hesitant. She knew those feelings well. Especially the hesitancy.
Hoping to defuse the strange sort of tension that seemed to be filling the car, Kylie resorted to chat about sports -- the sort of things she thought a man might take to. Not Michael Kilbride. Though his answers were polite enough, he paid little attention. In fact, the unspoken conversation rang louder than the spoken. He watched her as he had earlier, and though Kylie was scared witless, she welcomed his gaze.
When he pointed out his sister's house, urgency joined the tension. Kylie struggled for a half-veiled hint that she'd like to see him again. Unable to come up with one, she pulled to the side of the road. She reached out her hand to shake his. "It's been a pleasure, Michael Kilbride."
He grasped her hand, but instead of shaking it, pulled her forward. Kylie could feel her eyes widen as he neared. Before she could even form the thought to object, his mouth settled hot and hungry over hers. She was a woman who'd been kissed neither well nor often, yet she could recognize passion beginning to dance beneath her skin. Kylie shivered. Wanting to know more, but half-fearing the power of what she might learn, she settled her hand on his shoulder, her fingers gripping the coarse fabric of his jacket.
He drew her closer, and she felt her mouth open to him. The sweep of his tongue was an intimacy so different from those long-ago clumsy, teenage kisses that were all she had to compare to this moment. As she learned the taste of him, the beat of his heart, she began to lose her sense of self, something she generally clung to as tightly as her dignity. The realization shocked her.
At her indrawn breath, Michael let her go. Kylie fell back against her seat. When she looked at him, she would have been hard-pressed to say who was more startled by the kiss -- Michael or herself.
Kylie scrambled for words, but Michael Kilbride left the car without saying anything at all. After he was gone, a breathy "wow" was all she could manage.
She was in well over her head. What better time to learn to swim?
Copyright © 2003 by Dorien Kelly