“So I heard you had a date last night,” Gwyn said bright and early the morning after Max and Brenda’s first date. She hovered in the doorway of Brenda’s office with an eager look in her eyes.
Brenda started guiltily. She glanced away from her phone’s screen, where Max’s latest text, I want to play more games with you. How about Simon Says?
was still glaringly visible. “You heard about that already?”
“Oh please,” Gwyn said as she crossed the room. “You know what this place is like. Of course I heard.”
“You’re right,” Brenda said, hurriedly putting her phone away as Gwyn sank gracefully into the comfy armchair across from Brenda’s desk. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“With that question? Or the date itself?”
“Both, I think.” The question was
dumb. But dating Max was quantitatively more so. And as for imagining it could ever be a viable method for deflecting her cousins’ curiosity? That was obviously a complete nonstarter.
“Aw,” Gwyn murmured sympathetically. “Not good? Really?”
“No, it was.” Brenda shook her head. “It was very good. But…well, you know, it was just a fling.”
“But you think it could turn into something more,” Gwyn suggested. “Right?”
Brenda shook her head again. “How could it? He’s only here for a short time. And I have no interest in any kind of long-distance relationship. Those things never work out.”
Gwyn was looking puzzled. “But you kissed him, Bren. On the Lia Fiál
The Lia Fiál. The stone of destiny. Brenda shook her head. “We’ve been over this. We agreed that whole business about the stone was nonsense. I’m sure you remember the conversation. It was only a few months ago, and you were the one who said it didn’t make any sense.”
Gwyn grimaced. “Yeah, well, that was then. I may have changed my mind about it.”
“You what?” Brenda studied her cousin’s expression. Was Gwyn blushing? “Why? Since when?”
The only people Gwyn had spent much time with lately were Berke and Cam. Did Gwyn’s change of heart have something to do with them? Brenda was almost certain there was something going on between Gwyn and the two men, even though Gwyn insisted they were all just friends. Although, come to think of it, it had been Cam who’d claimed they were friends. Gwyn had tried to pretend the three of them were barely acquainted.
“And I was wondering whether something similar had happened to you?”
Brenda frowned. “What do you mean?”
“The stone,” Gwyn replied. “I was wondering if something happened to change your mind about it too? Because according to everyone who saw you last night, Max looked absolutely besotted. And I know
you. You can say whatever you like about it, but you’ve made it a point not to even hover too long in the stone’s vicinity.”
Not since Noah.
“That’s part of growing up, isn’t it? Overcoming stupid superstitions?”
“We used to tell each other everything,” Gwyn blurted, sounding hurt.
Brenda’s eyes widened. That goes both ways.
But saying that was as good as admitting there were things they both weren’t saying. Instead she nodded and said, “Yeah, we did.” Growing up, Gwyn had been her best friend. She’d been close to both her cousins, of course, but she and Gwyn, being girls, had always seemed to have more in common with each other than with Luke. She missed that closeness. Not that she had any right to complain, given that she was the one lying to both of them.
Gwyn was looking at her strangely. “So tell me about this guy. He looks familiar. Has he been here before?”
“I don’t think so.” Brenda shrugged. “I mean, it’s funny you should say that, because I thought he looked familiar too, but surely he’d have mentioned it if he’d stayed here before. Right?”
“I don’t know,” Gwyn said. “Are you sure there’s nothing else you want to tell me?”
Like what Max is really doing here? Not a chance.
Brenda shook her head, trying hard to ignore the guilt pricking of her conscience. She was doing Gwyn a favor by not telling her.
After Gwyn left, Brenda picked up her phone. Where’d you go?
Max had texted in her absence, along with, So Simon Says—yes or no?
Simon says put your mouth there. Simon says suck…suck harder.
Simon says suck harder. Just like that. Simon says make me come.
Oh, hell, yeah.
Smiling, Brenda pressed Reply. That depends. Which of us is Simon?
Her phone chimed within seconds. How about we take turns?
Excitement coiled within her as she typed back, You’re on.
* * * *
“Do you come here often?”
Startled, Brenda turned her head to observe the man who’d just slipped onto the bar stool next to her. Max. Her heart gave an odd little leap. What’s he doing here?
It was only five days since his last visit, and she hadn’t expected to see him again for another week. Her heart insisted he’d come back early because of her. But she tried never to assign too much weight to that organ of faulty logic. Her heart had steered her wrong before.
She scanned his face, drinking in the sight of him, cataloging everything she saw—from his copper-colored hair and neatly trimmed beard, to his eyes like faded denim, and that odd smile she’d grown used to seeing—the one that made him look like he was hiding a secret sorrow—and made a snap decision.
“No,” she answered. “This is my first time.”
Max frowned in confusion. “What did you say?”
“I said, I’ve never been here before in my life. You?”
His blue eyes widened a bit in surprise. “Oh, uh…yeah, I’ve been here a few times, I guess.”
“Really? That’s wonderful. I love a man with experience. Maybe you can give me a tour sometime?”
Interest flared in his eyes as he smiled. “It would be my pleasure.”
Oh yes, it would.
Brenda held out her hand. “I’m Donna, by the way. Donna Van.”
“Donna? Oh. Very cute.”
“Thank you. And you are?”
“I’m Ma—Mike. Pleased to meet you, Donna. May I buy you a drink?”
“Yes, thanks.” Brenda pushed her barely tasted chardonnay aside as “Mike” signaled to the bartender. “So, Mike, what brings you to Atlas Beach—business or pleasure?”
“Well, Donna, if you must know…I’m here for a conference.”
“Oh, me too!” Brenda feigned surprise as she laid a hand on Max’s arm and inquired, “The Pipefitters Union? I think it’s going to be very stimulating experience—all those pipes and fittings. I understand there’s a demonstration on coupling coming up as well. I’m really excited.”
Max choked back a laugh. Before he had a chance to answer, Kristy had come over in answer to his wave. “Can I get you something?”
“Yes, I’ll have a Guinness, please,” he told her. “And the lady…” He glanced at Brenda inquiringly, but she was already shaking her head. “No?”
“No. Kristy, can you bring us a couple of Car Bombs?”
Kristy’s eyebrows shot up. “You want what now?”
“Irish Car Bombs.”
“You’re kidding. Do you even know what you’re doing?”
“Stop it. You know what I’m talking about. That damn boggart’s gonna be—”
“Kristy,” Brenda snapped, cutting her friend off before she said something they’d both regret. “Let’s not go there now. Okay? And, yes, by the way, I know exactly what I’m doing.”
“Well, I don’t,” Max protested. “What’s going on? What the hell is a car bomb?”
“They’re disgusting,” Kristy assured him. “Trust me, you’re not missing anything.”
Brenda waved dismissively. “Oh, stop it. They’re not that bad. Besides they’re an Irish tradition.”
Kristy snorted in derision. “They fucking are not.”
Brenda sighed. Of course they weren’t. But Donna, who was a bit of an airhead, would probably think they were. She waggled two fingers at Kristy. “Two, please.”
“It’s your funeral,” Kristy muttered as she moved away. “I just hope your cousin never finds out.”
“What did she mean by that?” Max asked after Kristy left. “What doesn’t she want your cousin to know?”
Brenda pursed her lips. She hadn’t planned for Donna to have a cousin. And they were breaking character by talking about Luke. “I suppose she doesn’t want Luke to know what we’re drinking. Some people find the name offensive.”
“Can I assume Luke is among them?”
“Well, yes, that was her point. I’ve heard rumors that he’s thrown people out when they’ve tried to order them.”
Laughter glinting in his eyes, Max asked, “And are you by any chance trying to get me thrown out? I suppose that’s one way to ensure that your cousin doesn’t speak to me again.”
“Don’t be silly, Mike
; why would I do something like that? We’ve only just met. Besides, I don’t even have a cousin.”
“Right. Sorry, I wasn’t thinking. So the Car Bombs. ‘Not that bad’ is hardly a raging endorsement. Why are we doing this? Is there an upside to them that I’m missing?”
“Well, they’re very strong, for one thing. They’re made with beer, whiskey, and Irish cream liqueur.”
“Mixed together? Jesus, I’m starting to see Kristy’s point. Are you sure it’s just the name your cousin objects to?”
“I told you. I
don’t have a cousin. And, anyway, taste isn’t as much of a factor as you might think. You have to drink them fast—before they curdle. They’re not meant to be savored.”
“Mmm. Appetizing. Sounds like a good way to get drunk.”
“Why, yes, Mike. Yes, it does.”
A slow smile curved Max’s lips as understanding gradually dawned on him. “Ohhh, I get it. Why, Ms. Donovan, are you trying to get me drunk?”
“So I can take you back to my room and have my wicked way with you? It’s a distinct possibility.”
A crash, some distance away, followed by an outcry of alarm caught their attention. Brenda glanced in the direction of the commotion. A flustered-looking Kristy was mopping the bar where it appeared a couple of drinks had gotten knocked over. Looking farther, she saw Gwyn and Luke, apparently in the midst of a heated conversation, at the far end of the bar. Perfect. Just what she didn’t need right now.
“Does that happen often?” Max asked, indicating the new drinks Kristy had poured to replace the spilled ones. “Granted, I didn’t see what happened there, but aren’t you losing money if you replace everyone’s spilled drinks free of charge?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Brenda answered as repressively as possible. This was not a subject she wanted to get into with Max. Luke would claim they had a responsibility to replace drinks that had been spilled by the resident boggart—the mischievous spirit that supposedly inhabited the bar—and Gwyn would back him up. It was a losing battle. Hopefully, in a few months’ time, the boggart would be Fairfax’s problem. “I don’t see how it’s any of our business,” she said in challenge. “Don’t you agree, Mike?”
Max sighed. “You make this hard sometimes; you know that?”
Brenda glanced at his lap. “Do I? Only sometimes? I guess I’ve got some work to do.”
Max groaned in surrender. “I give up. You win. We’ll leave the business talk for another time.” He propped his chin in his hand and leaned in toward her. “So where were we anyway?”
Brenda leaned in as well. “I don’t know where you were, but I was plotting my way into your pants.”
“Okay, well, maybe this will help. You know that lecture you mentioned earlier?”
“Lecture?” Brenda gazed blankly at him.
“Yes, Donna. The one you said you were looking forward to? At the convention?”
“Oh, right. You mean the coupling demo? What about it?”
“As it happens, that’s my event. I’m presenting it.”
“Really? You’re an expert in coupling?”
“I am. And I have all my notes in my room. I’d love to give you a private demonstration, if you have some free time later today.”
“Hands on, I hope?”
“Very much so. So why don’t we skip the drinks?”
“Are you sure? You don’t think we could use the drinks to…lubricate things?”
“No, I think we can sufficiently lubricate each other.”
“Ooh. I do like the way you think. Hey, Kristy,” Brenda called to the bartender. “You can cancel our order. We’ve changed our minds.”
“Good. Glad to hear it.” Kristy stared at the shot she’d just finished pouring. She shrugged, picked up glass, and tossed back the drink.
“Don’t look now,” Max said as they made their way toward the door. “But your cousins are both here.”
“I know,” Brenda said, carefully keeping her gaze averted from her relatives. “Just act natural.”
“Won’t they think it’s strange if we leave without at least saying something?”
Brenda shook her head. “Nope. We’re doing an Irish good-bye.”
“Haven’t you heard of it? That’s where you leave someplace—a party, or a bar, or a gathering of some sort—without a word to anyone. You don’t tell anyone that you’re going or where you’re going…” Her voice trailed away as she thought about it. Thought about waking to the sound of her cousin pounding frantically on the door to a room that was theoretically unoccupied. Of wrapping a hotel robe around herself and then stumbling to the door with rose petals sticking to her skin.