“Seamus, don’t jump!” Clara Donovan heard her own cries, the shouts resounding through the misty night air. She raced across the sidewalk toward Farthing Bridge, her gaze riveted on a horror she didn’t want to believe. Her older brother Seamus sat on the edge of a tall bridge with his head slumped in his hands, a bottle of whiskey beside him. The arched stone bridge spanned the River Farthing, connecting the town to a once-popular marketplace.
No. It couldn’t be. Her breath burned in her chest as she took in gulps of dampness and drizzle. Don’t stop. Run faster.
When she reached the bridge, she elbowed through a group of late-night revelers. Several pointed up at Seamus. “He’s off the rails!” someone shouted.
Her brother seemed unaware of the gathering crowd. He swung his legs back and forth like an underwound metronome and stared into the ice-cold river below.
She shook off the image of him on her living room floor several days earlier. He’d been passed out drunk. Should she have phoned a treatment center? No. She could fix her brother’s problems. He simply needed encouragement, surrounded by his loving, supportive family.
Seamus. Gentle Seamus. Kind and fiery-haired, quick to temper, quicker to make amends. Her heart squeezed at the scruffy, dejected man he’d become since his wife had died.
Clara put her hands on her knees and took in calm, even breaths. Quickly, she assessed the corroded pedestrian catwalk leading to the top of the bridge, the skull and crossbones sign that warned Danger.
She stared upward at her sweet brother. “Dear saints in heaven, Seamus,” she whispered. “You promised me that you’d never drink again.”
She stuffed her wool gloves into her jacket pockets and bent to lace her weatherproof boots tighter. There was no time to dash around the river to the street that crossed the bridge, and she certainly wouldn’t ask anyone in the crowd to lend a hand.
She yanked off the “Danger” sign and threw it to the ground. That pressing feeling in her chest, like she was running out of air, slowed her movements. Dragging in another breath, she grasped the slippery wet handrails and stepped onto the bottom rung of the catwalk.
“Missus, are you trained for this?” a man from the crowd inquired.
She glanced around. The man stood a hairsbreadth away. He was tall with piercing blue eyes and carried a guitar case. His dark brown hair had a reddish tinge and his navy wool jacket strained against his athletic form.
“Thanks. I can manage on my own.”
Despite her refusal, she hesitated. Was she trained to climb to the top of a rusted bridge when she was crippled with fear and could hardly breathe? Umm, no. But she was desperate, and desperation made people do things they thought they could never do.
“I insist.” The man set his guitar case on the grass and stepped forward. “Who’s sitting on the top of the bridge?”
“I’ll follow behind you. No worries.”
No worries. Dear saints in heaven, her brother was about to jump off a bridge.
She gripped the slick railings with both hands and began climbing, acutely aware of the guitar player’s encouraging whispers behind her. She counted each step until she reached the top, scrambled to her feet, and raced to her brother. Seamus’s chin was hunkered in his hands, the empty whiskey bottle beside him.
She stopped a foot away from him. “Seamus, come with me.”
His legs stopped swinging. He turned to her, his metallic-grey eyes glazed with drink. “What’re you doing here?”
“I’m looking out for you, same as always.” She attempted to keep her tone light. “The weather’s a wee bit fierce up here. The wind and rain are driving my hair sideways.”
Inwardly, she shuddered. He was a sight wearing tattered clothes, his flaming red hair caught in a ponytail.
“And who’s that dodgy bloke behind you?”
“Someone who’s offered to help.” She struggled to control her trembling. Her brother’s big-boned body was precariously close to the edge.
Seamus’s mouth twisted. “It’s better if I end my life. I’m on me tod, I’m all alone.”
She extended a hand. “You’re not alone. I’m here for you.”
Despite the chilly night air, Seamus was sweating. “I long for my wife. My beautiful woman …”
“We all miss Fiona very much.”
Seamus’s fingers found the empty whiskey bottle and flung it into the river. “I’m warning you. Leave me alone or I’ll jump.” Slowly, he stretched out his hands.
“Seamus!” Clara hunched over, sick to her stomach, listening to the hoots and jeers of the spectators.
“Shut your gob!” Seamus hollered to the crowd. “Are ya’ thick?”
Clara caught her breath. Stay calm. Level-headed and composed.
She straightened. “Those people won’t help you, but I will.”
What was she supposed to do now? Move slower, speak gentler? On watery knees, she started forward.
“You’re managing perfectly,” came the whisper behind her.
The guitarist. She’d almost forgotten. His breath was warm and reassuring against her hair.
She extended her hand again. “Please, Seamus, please. Come with me.”
Seamus openly sobbed. “I’m no use to anyone.”
“Think of Anna and me. We’re your sisters and we love you.” Clara tried to smile. “What would I do with myself if you weren’t sleeping on my couch every night? You know I don’t like to be alone.”
Seamus squinted at her. Using his worn shirtsleeve, he wiped at the tear-stained bags under his eyes. “I lost all my money on the horse races. Five hundred euros that I’d borrowed from a friend, and one hundred euros of Anna’s money, too. The bookies were certain Green Dragon would win the second race, but the ponies double-crossed me.”
Clara dug her nails into her palms. “We’ll pay the bookies all the money you lost.” How, she had no idea. Her income as a factory worker and part-time dance teacher was scarcely enough to pay their current living expenses.
In the distance, insistent sirens blared, angry red lights flashed.
“Keep talking,” the guitar player told her.
What to say? The wrong words might send her impulsive brother over the edge. She chanced a peek at the guitarist and lost her footing. Gasping, she held in a scream.
His arms went around her. “I’ve got you,” he said softly.
She steadied herself and shook off his hold. Without making a sound, she ventured another two steps until she stood behind her brother. “We’ll return to my flat and I’ll light a fire in the hearth. Won’t that be grand?” She heard her voice shake, the rale insistent.
“And make me a cuppa tea?” Seamus’s copper-red beard showed days of neglect and grew in dirty spikes below his chin.
She placed her hands firmly on his shoulders and gave a reassuring squeeze. “I’ll brew the entire pot and fry a proper Irish breakfast in the morning.”
Several beats passed. Seamus seemed to be trying desperately to concentrate. He looked up at her. “You don’t cook.”
“I can manage fried eggs and bacon rashers.”
He relaxed beneath her hands.
She licked her lips, her mouth so dry. “Please come home. Please. We’re a family. We’ll work this out together like we always do.”
Seamus rubbed at his eyes, sniffled, and started to stand.
The guitarist stepped around Clara. Carefully, he assisted the wobbling Seamus to his feet.
The crowd applauded. They’d observed every detail of her family’s private business. Clara pressed her lips tightly together, willing herself to think of her brother and nothing else.
Her sobbing brother slumped into her arms. She hugged him for a long time, then roughly shook his shoulders and stared into his bleary eyes. “I understand you’re in a lot of pain. You’ll be independent again, you’ll see. It took me a long time, remember? And now I’m fine.”
“Yeh.” Seamus’s lopsided grin showed missing teeth. He nodded so quickly that he stumbled, so unexpected they both cried out. She clung to his beefy hand, his body still so close to the edge of the bridge, as she stared into the frigid waters of the River Farthing far below.
“You’ll both be safer away from the bridge.” The guitarist’s voice came loud and urgent. He guided Clara and Seamus to the side of the road, removed his jacket and placed it on the damp grass.
“Who are you, bloke?” Seamus asked.
“Danny Brady.” He wheeled, clear in his intent to walk away.
“What about your jacket?” Clara called out.
Danny half turned and looked upward. The clouds had parted, the sky bathed in moonlight and stars. “No rain and no worries. Keep the jacket.”
An emergency vehicle swerved onto the bridge, and Clara squinted into the blinding headlights. Several paramedics sprinted toward her and Seamus. A Channel Four television news van streaked past, reversed, and screeched to a stop. A woman reporter and cameraman leapt from the van and scurried to the guitarist.
Clara recognized the reporter, Maeve Flanagan, an anchorwoman for the local television station. Maeve clutched the microphone, speaking urgently, then held the microphone out for Danny. He spoke lengthily, the bright camera light illuminating his china-blue eyes.
“Where are you from, Brady?” her brother shouted from across the road.
Danny’s handsome face showed signs of fatigue. “Dublin.” He focused on Clara. “Do you have a name, missus?”
“Clara Donovan.” She nodded at her brother. “And this very foolish man is my brother Seamus.”
From across the road, the reporter shouted, “May I quote you, Ms. Donovan?”
Clara stretched out a tired arm. “Absolutely not! And please take your slanderous reporting elsewhere!”
Maeve muffled the mouthpiece with her palm. In a loud voice, she asked, “Do I have permission to make a plea to the community on your behalf, Ms. Donovan? There are resources available for poor—”
Clara cut Maeve off with a wave. Heat flushed through her body. “My family fends for themselves, Miss Flanagan! If you want to do something for us, then stay away!”
Danny watched as Clara Donovan poured boiling water into a bone-white teapot with shamrocks painted on the sides, moving easily in her tiny kitchen.
He’d rung the garda, the police, as soon as he’d spotted the desperate, drunken man on the bridge. They’d arrived, along with the paramedics, a few minutes afterward, though fortunately they hadn’t been needed.
Danny had gone for a short walk along the river’s edge to clear his mind from the numerous business decisions plaguing him. His coffee shop’s grand opening had brought him to the town of Farthing for a fortnight. He hadn’t known the town existed until his planning board had scouted the area and discovered a fresh, natural spring located nearby, ideal because the water was clear and pure for brewing coffee.
When he’d volunteered to help her, Clara Donovan’s dark, shining eyes had reflected panic and fear, despite her protests. So, he’d climbed the catwalk behind her, intending to leave as soon as he was certain that she and her brother were safe. Then he’d reversed, reconsidering, rationalizing that he shouldn’t leave a helpless woman with a drunken brother at the top of a bridge until help had arrived. He’d pushed off the insistent reminder that he’d vowed never to get involved in other people’s problems. He’d only been mindful of the desperate scene playing out before him.
After the garda had filed a report and the paramedics had left, Danny offered to drive Clara and Seamus home. At first she refused, telling him she lived only a few blocks away.
He offered a second time. Surely, Clara and her brother were in no condition to walk any distance, he said. In a gesture of friendliness, or perhaps to thank him, she agreed by inviting him to her flat for tea and scones.
Despite the late hour and tomorrow’s long work day, he accepted. After he’d assisted her brother into the backseat of his Mercedes, Clara slid onto the front passenger seat.
She raised a brow. “Quite a posh car. You fancy the metallic silver?”
He wrapped a hand around the steering wheel and started the engine. “I’ve worked hard for this car,” was all he said.
When they arrived at her flat, he supported a tottering Seamus through the downstairs foyer and up the stairs, then persuaded Seamus to drink a glass of water and down some Ibuprofen. After that, he assisted Seamus to the bathroom and then helped Clara guide her brother to the living room couch, where Seamus immediately fell into a deep yet fitful sleep. Apparently, that cuppa tea for Seamus would have to wait until morning, Danny thought with a grin.
Danny had set his guitar in her foyer and removed his damp, grass-stained jacket, insisting he build a fire in the hearth while Clara changed out of her wet clothes.
“Would you put the kettle on when you’re done lighting the fire?” she called from the bedroom. “We can keep an eye on my brother from the kitchen.”
“Aye.” Danny shoveled coal into the fireplace, added a fire lighter and kindling in the middle of the grate, then turf. He waited for the smoky fire to clear, then strode to the bathroom and worked the soap in his hands up to his wrists, rinsing until the black sooty dust was gone.
As he made his way into Clara’s kitchen, a lemony scent wafted through the air, a mixture of sweet and tart, and he sniffed appreciatively. Her faux marble countertops and stainless-steel sink and appliances sparkled, the forest-green vinyl swept clean as the finest hotel. The kitchen walls had been painted a luminous green hue, her cabinets a cozy charcoal. Several lush potted ferns added freshness and lightness, giving the intimate space a snug, appealing appearance.
He filled the kettle with water, placed it on the stove to boil, and strode to the window. Why, he wondered, was the window dead bolted shut? The neighborhood seemed a bit run-down, although safe enough, illuminated by a lamppost on the street corner and with a stone wall beyond.
Clara padded into the kitchen wearing thick socks, black leggings, and a clingy long-sleeved T-shirt that accentuated her slender, graceful figure. Danny shifted from the window to watch her. She was a fetching contrast between vulnerability and self-determination.
“Your flat is charming,” he said. “Did you decorate it yourself?”
“Yeh, and thanks. I enjoy decorating and painting on a budget. One of my favorite colors is green.”
“Duly noted.” He grinned. “The color of our emerald isle.”
“Green is relaxing and reminds me of nature.” She went to her cupboard and brought out cups and saucers. “Thank you. You’ve done so much for me and my brother tonight.”
“No bother.” He basked in the respect lighting her chocolate-brown eyes. She’d banded her thick hair back, emphasizing her high cheekbones. Despite her olive complexion, she was still pale, still looked shaken.
“Can I assist?” he asked.
“With setting the table? No bother. I’m extremely self-sufficient.” She gestured to a pair of stools. “Brewing tea is my specialty, as it is for most anyone who’s lived in Ireland long enough.”
“Aye.” He perched on one of the stools. “However, coffee is my specialty.”
She pulled some napkins from a cupboard drawer. “So you’re from Dublin?”
“A Dubliner who drives a fancy car. You’re posher by the minute.”
He didn’t reply.
Now she carried the white teapot to the kitchen table, setting it among gleaming porcelain cups, a sugar and creamer, and the napkins. She set the scones near the butter and raspberry jam, the teapot on a trivet.
“Coffee’s too bitter for my taste,” she continued.
Not my coffee. My coffee is the best in all Ireland, soon to be the most successful coffee chain in the world.
He answered her smile with one of his own and zeroed in on the scones. “I thought you didn’t cook?”
“I bake.” She pointed to a garden stool in the corner, piled neatly with bakery cookbooks. She plated a scone and handed it to him. “They’re better with butter and jam.”
“Plain is best. Then I can taste all the ingredients.” He sampled a bite, the biscuit soft and chewy. He detected a citrus zest, which explained the lemon scent wafting from her kitchen, the same subtle fragrance he’d sniffed on her hair when he climbed behind her on the catwalk.
“Your scone is delicious. Do you use a special recipe from one of your recipe books?” he asked between bites.
He could sell lemon scones in his coffee shop for £3 and make a small profit on each. A quality product sold at a fair price was one of the reasons his coffee shops were so successful.
“No special ingredients—only what’s on hand in the kitchen.” Her dark-lashed gaze was clear and warm, her cheeks slowly regaining a flush of color.
He set the scone on his plate, his gaze staying on hers. “You’re a very brave woman, Clara Donovan.”
“For baking scones?”
He smiled. “For climbing to the top of a precariously high bridge to rescue your brother.”
She was silent for a moment. “I’ve become an expert at dealing with disastrous situations.”
“You were rushing up the most dangerous flight of stairs I’ve ever seen.”
“Seamus rambled on and on about jumping off that same bridge several weeks ago, and I’d calmed him down. He’d seemed to listen to reason and promised me he’d never think those scary thoughts again. I was frantic when I saw him tonight.” She gave a regretful shake of her head. “I should’ve arrived home earlier. I work at a factory on the edge of town, and one of the trains broke down.”
“Don’t blame yourself for what happened tonight.”
“My brother is my responsibility.” Her composure seemed to slip a notch. “When I didn’t see him in my flat when I got home, I phoned all our friends. Then I prayed that my worst fears … He’d promised to stay away from those awful gambling places.” She wiped quickly at her eyes and focused on a snoring and twitching Seamus. “My dear brother has always loved his whiskey.”
“You can’t keep a grown man under surveillance twenty-four hours a day,” Danny countered. “Though his promises will sound sincere, don’t believe him. Assume every word coming out of his mouth is a lie.”
Danny had garnered that wisdom from hard-earned experience. No one this side of Scotland had made more excuses and promises to quit the drink than his parents had before they’d committed suicide.
“Harsh advice, Mr. Brady.” She added quickly, “My brother is a good man.”
“Danny,” he corrected. “And don’t offer excuses because you’ll hurt his chances to get better. A suicide attempt is a serious cry for help, and he should be admitted to a licensed rehab center.”
“I’ll not commit him to an institution where he’ll be alone, doctors evaluating him and filling his veins with drugs so his brain’s in a fog. You don’t know what Seamus has done for me.”
Danny held up a hand. “You’re doing him no favors. You only enable when you coddle him.”
“Once he’s sober, I’ll have a serious chat with him again.” She sighed, and a slight wheeze sounded. She clasped her hands around the teapot. Danny studied her lovely, expressive face, her valiant attempt to keep her features composed.
“Are you all right?”
Her chin lifted. “Yeh, of course.” She tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear, the blonde ends falling to her shoulders. She poured the tea through a strainer into his teacup. “How do you take your tea?”
“With cream.” He poured cream into his cup and stirred. “I’ll be in town for a fortnight. I’ll give you my business card before I leave. If you need anything—”
“I won’t. Thanks.”
He sat back, admiring her heart-shaped face. “I’ve always had a thing for beautiful Irish damsels in distress.”
Her grin was dubious. “I’m not Irish. And if I’m ever in distress, I can fend for myself.”
She’d needed help tonight, although he didn’t think it wise to remind her.
“With a name like Clara Donovan and your Irish brogue, I assumed—”
“I was adopted by my Irish parents. I was born in Italy and lived there with my birth parents, then in an orphanage after they died.” She chewed her bottom lip, suddenly quiet, and flicked imaginary crumbs from the table onto her empty plate. She seemed to be silently chastising herself for telling him too much.
He stared into his cup. He wouldn’t pry. He’d built a home in Howth, far enough removed from Dublin’s city centre to get away from family addictions and heartbreaking memories. He didn’t want any additional secrets to carry around, not regarding adoptions, nor alcoholics, nor compulsive gamblers.
Suicide pacts and a dead sister were enough burdens for one lifetime.
He just paid the bills for the evergreen, shrubs, and red and white begonias placed at their graves every morning.
He sipped his tea, grimaced because it was still too hot. He emptied a good deal more cream into his cup and gazed out the kitchen window. A cloudburst had forced the moon and starlight aside, covering the sidewalks in murky, sodden sheets of rain.
Clara’s Irish lace window curtains were pristine clean. His filthy, chaotic childhood home had been fraught with ongoing hardships and poverty.
Not anymore, he amended, because wealth kept filth and chaos at arms-length. And coffee had become his pot of gold.
He caught her staring at him and pushed his reflections aside. Grinning, he gestured to the window. “Isn’t it lovely weather we’re having?”
She poured herself tea, the steam wafting from the pot, casting her face in a rosy veil of heat. “You’re not afraid of a few spots of rain, are ya?”
He stretched out his long legs and crossed his arms, enjoying her infectious smile. “At least the rain gets warmer in the summer.”
“Yeh.” Her smile was stunning, her teeth gleaming white. She tipped her chin toward his guitar case in the hallway. “You play guitar?”
“Aye. Music is my first love.”
“Are you an expert musician?”
“I’ve played guitar for most of my adult life. I was returning from a gig tonight when I spotted your brother.”
“Whereabouts do you play?”
His restive fingers strummed a beat on the table. “A new coffee shop on the other side of Farthing Bridge. Perhaps you’ve heard about The Ground Café?”
She nodded over the rim of her teacup. “That coffee shop is a very successful chain. I read in the papers that the company’s headquarters are in Dublin and the owner is only thirty-five years old. He’s opened a shop in Farthing then. My little town must be coming up in the world. That’s good, because so many families have moved out, looking for work elsewhere.”
“The grand opening is this weekend. The company remodeled the marketplace off Farthing Bridge and added a bookstore and children’s playground.”
Seamus gave a loud snuffle from the living room. Clara opened her mouth as if she were about to say something, then coughed several times. Her rasp bumped into the tidiness of the kitchen.
Danny reached across the table and took her hand. He studied her face, reddened from coughing. “There’s a bad dose of flu going around. Are you sure you’re all right?”
She shook off his hand. “I’m grand, thanks.”
“Have you been coughing a while?”
She nodded, caught her breath, and took a long sip of tea.
“Do you suffer from asthma?”
She set her cup down and busied her hands with rearranging the sugar and creamer, dabbing a spill of cream off the table with a napkin. “No, and don’t be troubling yourself with my ailments. It’s late and I’ll feel better in the morning.”
This was his not-so-subtle cue to leave. “Aye. I’ll head on then.” He pushed back his stool.
She walked in front of him to the door, both of them silent as they passed her snoring brother.
Danny reached into his pocket and handed her a business card. “I’m at the coffee shop all weekend. I promise good craic, fun, and coffee if you visit.”
She arched a slender eyebrow. “Musicians sing in a coffee shop twenty-four hours a day?”
“Usually my gig starts later in the evenings.”
“Will you sing to me if I try the coffee?”
“Absolutely. Do you have a song request so I can practice in advance?” he asked. “How about an Italian song from your heritage?”
“I’ve lived in Ireland all my life, so any Irish song is dead-on.”
“Do you know ‘Oh Danny Boy’?”
“Of course.” She rubbed at her eyes, smudged with dark circles.
Aye, he was being unfair because she was clearly worn out. Nonetheless, he enjoyed her company. She was unassuming and fearless and down-to-earth.
She began singing softly in a perfectly in-tune soprano voice.
He added his baritone voice. A bit off-key, he acknowledged, blaming it on the late hour.
She regarded the crackling fire burning in the hearth, then gazed at her brother. Tears glittered in her eyes, and she stopped singing.
“There’re more verses,” Danny prompted.
Her sigh sounded so sad, so poignant. “I don’t know what the lyrics mean. However, I’m always moved to tears when I hear ‘Oh Danny Boy.’”
“No one knows the true meaning of the words. They seem to signify a loss.”
“The loss of a loved one,” she finished.
“Aye.” And he’d endured enough losses for one lifetime.
He shrugged on his wet jacket, the expensive wool scratching against his neck. With a final “Cheers,” he strode out Clara’s flat door.
The following morning dawned with a powder-blue sky, scarcely interrupted by low-hanging clouds. Clara quietly closed her flat door behind her so as not to awaken Seamus. She breathed in, filling her lungs with hope and optimism she couldn’t explain. A sunlit breeze carried the promise of spring, and the eighteen-hour winter nights were finally lessening.
Anna, Clara’s older sister, pulled up her battered car to Clara’s flat.
An hour later, the women deposited their groceries in the boot of Anna’s car. They’d both dressed for a shopping day in town. For Clara, that meant dressing in comfortable clothing—a ruffled turquoise blouse with a matching belt, slim ankle jeans, and saddle-brown loafers. Anna preferred to shop in black platform booties, a faded denim blouse, and ripped salmon-colored skinny pants.
Anna zippered her black faux-leather biker jacket and ducked into the driver’s seat while Clara slipped into the passenger side. Both women fastened their seat belts.
“Thanks for driving your car today,” Clara said. “It’s odd that the brakes went on my car with no warning.”
“At least you discovered the problem while you were in your driveway and not on the highway.” Anna screeched out of the parking lot and made a sharp left, nearly clipping a parked taxi. Clara gripped her seat while the taxi driver sat long and loud on his horn.
“Bunk off!” Anna shouted, then looked at Clara. “I didn’t hit him, did I?” Her coal-black penciled eyebrows always seemed lifted in a question, as if she didn’t quite believe that a woman as dark-skinned and gorgeous as herself could’ve landed in Ireland’s rainy climate. She was an exotic beauty with flashing amber eyes who had been born in sunny and hot Portugal.
“The taxi driver was waving his hands and swearing, so I’d venture you came close,” Clara said. “Since you were forced to enroll in driver education classes after your last accident, you should know there’s blind spots you can only see when you turn around.”
Anna ran her fingers through her straight black hair, frosted with royal-purple highlights. “I can’t because my hair would get mussed.”
Clara grinned. “You could’ve bought an extra can of hair spray if you hadn’t spent all your money on Irish cheddar cheese and cream crackers.”
“That’s all the groceries I can afford. I’d made arrangements to enroll in university this semester before Seamus mooched the little money I’d saved and gambled it away. Another hundred euros that he’ll never repay.”
“You’ve been putting off university for years.”
Anna pulled into traffic and shrugged. “I’m not smart enough.”
“You earned the highest grades in secondary school.” When she was done fixing Seamus, Clara decided, she’d work on Anna’s low self-esteem.
Anna sighed. “Seamus’s mental condition is more serious than my education. He belongs in The Flyaway Treatment Center.”
Sternly, Clara shook her head. “The center relies on donations and we don’t have any money. Besides, I know what’s best for Seamus.”
“Who’s with him today while you’re out?”
Anna pumped the gas pedal and merged into the passing lane. “Liam’s a bloody bad influence. He used to sit around on his computer all day long. Besides, he steals anything that isn’t bolted down.”
“Liam’s changed. He’s working full-time and quit the drink.”
“Sometimes you’re a bit too optimistic, Clara.”
“Life is so full of sadness. I choose to see the good.” Clara ran her fingers along the sleeve of her grey jacquard-weave coat. “Liam’s living in Donegal now, and he told me he only returns to Farthing from time to time.”
“He’s full of …” Anna slapped on the brakes as the traffic light switched to red.
“Didn’t you date him for a while?”
“Yeh. He’s a good-looking chap, though good looks won’t make the kettle boil. Does he still bleach his hair?”
“Bleached and spiked.”
Anna adjusted tortoise-framed sunglasses, showing off her perfectly manicured vivid violet fingernails. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Liam is off the rails again. Seamus’s friends are a bucket of snots who drink and gamble and don’t work.”
“I was skeptical too, until Liam showed me his pay stubs to prove he’s working. Besides, it’s essential to Seamus’s well-being that he spends time with his friends because it occupies his mind.”
“You’re not a social worker.”
“I’m his sister and I love him and that’s enough.” Clara drew in a lungful of air and wheezed, earning her a frown from Anna.
“And then there’s Jack Connor,” Anna said, “the love of your life, for reasons I could never fathom.”
“Jack Connor,” Clara repeated, struck by how the mention of his name sent a tremor to her very bones. She resisted the compulsion to glance behind them, forever believing he followed her. He was far away, locked behind bars, she reminded herself. She tried to keep the memories of him at bay, although oftentimes she’d replay the worst memories.
Within a few months of their dating, he’d moved into her flat. Slowly and systematically, he’d rearranged her life, forbidding her from seeing family and friends. She’d quit her shopkeeper’s job because Jack had been so jealous of her working outside the home. The isolation had left her depressed and anxious.
Silently, she shook her head. She’d never seen it, the lies, the deception, the control. She’d been spineless and gullible and oh-so-trusting. And irresponsibly dependent.
He’d been an expert at fraud, and she’d been ten times a fool for believing him. Even as she’d endured his physical and mental abuse, he’d also been cheating on her with other women.
She pressed a hand to her throat, recalling Jack’s terrible blows. The external bruises had disappeared; the unsettling memories persisted. His final beating had landed her in the hospital and her lungs had never been the same. Fortunately, her condition improved when the weather became warmer.
“Our brother must have professional intervention,” Anna was saying, snapping Clara back to the present.
“I know what’s best for him,” Clara said, and ignored Anna’s blatant scowl.
As they passed the River Farthing, Clara scanned the stairs leading to Farthing Bridge. Her heart raced at the chilling recollection of Seamus, his feverish, over-bright eyes staring down into the unforgiving water. Determinedly, she jerked her gaze to the road. “My ex came out from rehab meaner than when he went in.”
“Seamus and I warned you a thousand times to leave Jack. He was useless, only fit to find mice at a crossroads. What were you thinking?”
“I was a complete fool.” Before she’d finally come to her senses and decided to leave Jack for good, she’d been reduced to going through the motions of life completely numb.
“I hope Jack rots behind those prison bars,” Anna said. “Those pale eyes of his and his hulking body always sent me shivering into a near coma. And that awful spider tattoo covering one side of his neck was enough to freeze me in one spot for days.”
“He won’t be released from prison for several years. And when he is, my restraining order states that he won’t be able to come anywhere near me, so I have nothing to fear.”
Despite her brave declaration, Clara shivered. While the order guaranteed her safety, she couldn’t shake off her uneasy feelings of late, because she swore she’d seen Jack in Farthing only a fortnight ago. She hadn’t told anyone, didn’t want to set her siblings in a panic. Silly imaginings, she’d told herself, merely old fears conjuring Jack’s heavily built image under a flash of moonlight.