‘Are you warm enough?’ Jack swivelled the portable heater and the warm air embraced Emer’s feet. She snuggled deeper into the coat Jack had loaned her, smelling faint traces of cologne. They were alone together on the patio sharing a nightcap. It had been a nice evening – considering the circumstances – but she was feeling confused about Sarah Walker. Emer had stayed in the kitchen with Maggie for the rest of the afternoon, wary of another run-in with Jack’s ‘partner’.
‘Penny for them?’ asked Jack.
He’d just cut a cigar, and the rich, sweet smoke reminded her of her grandfather’s favourite indulgence. Jack had had a rough day. Perhaps she should go easy on him. But that elephant on the patio table between them was annoying. Emer took a quick gulp of brandy. ‘I remember what you said in Dublin – about Sarah …’
‘I met her earlier in the dining room. She introduced herself as your partner.’
‘What!’ Jack sounded angry. ‘I don’t know what she’s playing at. We split up over two months ago. We did, Emer, I swear.’
There was no guile about him, she could see that. He was being truthful. ‘I’m guessing she’s changed her mind,’ Emer told him. ‘She definitely warned me off.’
‘Then she’s too late. I’m not going to lose you.’
He looked directly into her eyes and she felt a jolt of strong connection. Desire, curiosity, excitement, hope – all those emotions a potential new relationship brings. ‘You don’t exactly have me, Jack,’ she whispered.
‘I can wait,’ he told her. ‘I know we’ve only just met but I really want to get to know you better. And for you to get to know me. You’ve seen me at my worst – I’d like you to have a chance to see me at my best.’ He paused. ‘You’re beautiful, Emer, but it’s not only about that. Being with you feels right. The way you see things, what you talk about – it’s new for me. Makes me realise what I’ve been missing.’
This was a man declaring feelings on the day of his wife’s funeral. A desire to reaffirm life in the face of death. She had to be careful. No emotion could be trusted here.
‘What about your parents?’
He frowned. ‘What about them?’
‘They didn’t exactly welcome Annie, you said. Didn’t come to the wedding, didn’t even come to the funeral today. They might think your getting involved with another Irish woman is a mistake.’
‘I don’t think Annie being Irish was the problem. It was because she was a Traveller. You’d be far more respectable in their eyes.’ Jack made a dismissive gesture. ‘Anyway, I don’t care what they think. I’m a grown man. I can do what I like.’
He sounded more like a defiant teenager than an adult, but he’d likely blow up if she said that. ‘I don’t want to come between you and your family, Jack. I know my family’s very important to me. I couldn’t be without them.’
Jack shifted in his chair, rubbed his hand along the back of his neck. Emer waited, hoping he’d give what she said careful consideration.
‘When I was young, Emer,’ he said, ‘my parents were always telling me to behave appropriately. To do the things they considered best. They had my whole future mapped out for me while I was still at school.’
He drew on his cigar and watched the smoke rising into the night air. ‘At university, I rebelled. Lived away from home. Shared a cramped flat in Manchester with friends I chose on my own. Raised hell at weekends on my motorbike. Got involved in all kinds of student protests and was even arrested on one. That was reported in Baronsmere’s local paper. My mother turned up at the flat to chew me out. I shut the door in her face and we didn’t speak for nearly a year.’
It was hard to reconcile the conventional Jack she knew with the young rebel he was describing. ‘What changed all that?’ she asked.
Jack looked out toward the lake as if he could see the past there. ‘The summer before I graduated, I got a really bad dose of glandular fever. I came home to Edenbridge, the family estate, to get better. I met Caroline again, a girl I’d known since childhood but suddenly all grown up. And so beautiful. I fell in love – hard and fast. The first time for me. I proposed out there by the lake at summer’s end. Before I knew it, we were married, and had a baby on the way. Once I graduated, I started working in the family firm. One summer – and my whole life changed.’
‘Do you regret it?’
Jack switched his focus back to her. ‘God, no! I loved Caro and I wanted to make her happy. But Baronsmere was stifling me then. The gossip, the snobbery, the closed minds. I thought about moving us all to London but Caro begged me not to. And then … she died of an asthma attack.’
‘That must have been terrible for you.’ Jack had suffered two big losses in his life – Caroline and Annie. It was a wonder the man had the courage left to love again at all. He was silent for a while and she could see in his eyes the pain the memories brought. ‘Jack, you don’t have to tell me about Annie, you know. Not today.’
‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘I’ve been thinking about her all day anyway.’ He gulped down some brandy. ‘Being with Annie reminded me of the freedom I’d had in those university days. She was open and honest and didn’t care about doing the conventional things. She brought me back to life. You know, when we were together, I was thinking again about leaving Baronsmere. Going down south, setting up in business for myself. I’d talked to Annie about it – she was supportive. My father was opposed … of course …’
‘And then Annie left.’
‘And then Annie left.’ He repeated her words and she heard the disbelief in them. ‘All the fight went out of me. I stayed here, raised Matt, and never rocked the boat again.’
Emer sat there, absorbing everything she’d told him, trying to see it through a counsellor’s eyes. There was one nagging doubt. ‘Jack – I’m Irish and I’m not from your social class. Do you see me as your last chance to break free? As a way to rock the boat again?’
Jack’s face flushed, his jaw tightened, his eyes narrowed. ‘Is that what you think of me, Emer? That I’m a calculating, fucked-up son-of-a-bitch?’
‘A hopeless case that no self-respecting woman should touch with a barge pole …’
‘Stop right there!’ Emer interrupted, her voice sharp. ‘I never said that! You’re totally overreacting. So – you’ve got issues – who doesn’t? We’re all human.’
Jack said nothing, just stared moodily into his brandy.
‘Okay, let’s analyse me. Let’s take a good hard look at Emer Sullivan and her issues.’
‘No, don’t,’ Jack protested, looking up. ‘I’m just tired and half-cut. That’s when I usually fly off the handle.’
‘I insist.’ Emer leaned forward. ‘You were honest with me, and you deserve the same. So – people assume Emer’s got all her ducks in a row – she must have, she’s a counsellor, isn’t she? And, to an extent, it’s true. She tries not to play games with people, she shoots from the hip when necessary, and she’s a loyal friend.’
‘So far so good,’ commented Jack.
‘But there are times when Emer doesn’t know all the answers. When she fails to help a patient, her professional pride is hurt and she feels bad. Her job, you see, is ninety percent of her life so whenever that doesn’t go well, she’s left with nothing to fall back on. And that’s not healthy.’ She gulped down the last of her brandy. ‘Also, five years in a failed relationship has left her worried she doesn’t have the emotional energy necessary to invest in another. Even though she actually wants love more than anything.’
‘God,’ breathed Jack. ‘It’s like looking in a mirror.’
In many ways it was. Loss, grief, regret, avoidance – they had all those emotions in common. But wasn’t that a reason not to start a relationship? Wasn’t it better when partners had different weaknesses, could compensate for each other, make one whole healthy unit?
‘Is there more?’ asked Jack.
Emer bit her lip. The hard bit was coming up. ‘Emer came to Baronsmere to support Luke, but also because she’s attracted to Jack. And she’s nervous about that because it might turn her safe little world upside down.’ There. It was all out now. The patio table was littered with their emotional baggage. Not exactly romantic, but they’d covered more ground in one evening than some couples did in years. Would Jack feel the mystery had gone out of things, though? She pushed her glass across to Jack. ‘I think I need another brandy.’
‘Me too,’ he said, reaching for the bottle.
When the drinks were ready, they lifted their glasses to each other in a silent toast and drank in tandem. Jack shook his head, and Emer looked at him, quizzically. ‘Sorry,’ he told her. ‘I’m finding it hard to get past the best part of what you said.’
‘There was a best part?’
‘Yes. The part about Emer being attracted to Jack.’
She smiled. ‘I think the odds might be against us but I’d like to give it a try. Give us a try.’ Risky perhaps, but she’d not close the door on this relationship unless she really had to.
‘What about this weekend? Can we meet up?’
Now that was keen. It was hard to disappoint him but she’d have to. ‘I’m afraid I’m fully booked this weekend. And you have a new son to bond with.’
Jack turned his head slightly, but she saw him grimace at the mention of Luke. It seemed like he had no intention of getting closer to his son. Perhaps she could influence him and change that.
‘A fortnight on Saturday then?’ Jack persisted. ‘It’s my birthday. There’s a party for me. You could be my plus one. Wear your hair up again – blow everyone away. And you might get to meet my terrible parents – if they turn up after all that’s happened. Maybe they’ve disowned me by now. But if they come, you could do a quick counselling job on them.’
Emer laughed. ‘What an offer!’
‘What do you think – could you make it? Please say yes. Give me something to look forward to.’
Jack could be very persuasive. ‘I’ll be there.’ And where else did she have to go? A singles bar with some of her lost and lonely friends? This was a much better offer.
‘Great!’ Jack’s excitement made him look ten years younger.
The rain had started up again, and a sudden gust of wind dusted them with fine droplets. ‘Time to go in, I think,’ she said.
They stood up, and as she moved round the table he caught her up into his arms and kissed her before she knew what was happening. It felt like the most natural thing in the world. When they broke apart, Jack still held her close. ‘I don’t suppose you’d consider … a change of bedroom?’ he whispered.
It took all her strength to deny him. ‘It’s not the right time. There’s Luke to consider …’
‘Well, it’s not really his business, is it?’
‘Yes, it is, Jack,’ she insisted. ‘Luke’s my friend. I don’t want him to think I used his mother’s funeral as a way of getting closer to you.’
Jack rolled his eyes. ‘Luke has to learn the world doesn’t revolve round him.’
Emer shook her head. ‘No. He has to learn that sometimes it does. At the moment he has no such confidence in his own importance.’
‘I never have this kind of trouble with Matt.’
‘Matt’s had a security Luke’s never had. Cut him some slack. He buried his mother today.’
‘And I buried a wife.’
‘If this was a competition to see who’s suffering the most grief, Luke would win hands down! He spent nearly every day of his life with his mother. You may have loved her once – maybe you still do – but it’s different for him.’
Anger flashed across his face but it quickly changed into a wry smile. ‘I never get away with anything with you, do I?’
‘But you know it’s good for you.’
‘Hmm.’ He looked down at her like she was a naughty child.
She played along. ‘I’m worth it – honest.’
‘Oh, I know that,’ he said, and kissed her again.
The wind blew and the rain spattered against them, but Emer cared only about the intensity of Jack’s embrace.
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