Surprisingly, he doesn’t shrink into himself at the mention of the Scourge of Womankind. He crosses his arms and starts to protest, but his phone rings again in his pocket. With a muffled curse, he answers. “What is it, Orla? Have you set the place on fire now?”
I raise an eyebrow at him, and he waves me off with a flick of his hand, already beginning to pace. I’d been planning on sneaking out a different entrance, but he’s just made it even easier. I owe you one, Orla. As soon as his back is turned, I wheel my suitcase out the front entrance and slip effortlessly into a cab.
While I’m in the cab it begins to pour rain, then stops…and begins again in a matter of thirty minutes. I thought the weather in Chicago was volatile, but volatile doesn’t begin to describe the Irish weather. One minute I’m squinting through the sunshine, the next clouds are darkening the sky, turning it to nighttime in the middle of the day.
We wind down narrow cobblestone streets, slick from the intermittent downpours and pull to a stop outside the Claymore Inn, located on Baggot Street. Slightly off the beaten path, away from the touristy end of town. The inn is a gray, stone building, four stories high. Windows are painted a crisp white, flower boxes containing cheerful pink flowers attached at their base. A trio of Irish flags, white, orange, and green wave from the roof. The bottom floor has a dark wooden facade, a dramatic break from the floors above. A green awning with gold lettering extends from the entrance to the curb where my cab sits idling, the driver waiting for me to pay.
But the wallet is frozen in my hand.
Underneath the awning, leaning against the outside of the pub, is Shane. Somehow he’s beat the cab, and I have no idea how. We managed to avoid all traffic on the way. He’s watching me with an expression I can’t decipher. It’s a mixture of relief and pure, undiluted pissed-off-ness. I want to study that expression later. So I do what comes naturally. I yank my camera out of my messenger bag and snap a quick picture. And I was wrong. He hadn’t been pissed off before.
Now? Now, he’s good and pissed.
I step out of the cab and thank the driver, who has lifted my suitcase from the trunk for me. Making sure to school my features carefully, I swagger toward Shane. A truly dope swagger is a little trick I picked up from Ginger over the years, although she probably wasn’t even aware she’d passed it on. Your walk can mean everything. It lets whoever you’re walking toward know just what the hell they’re in for. Although my little vamoose at the airport has probably already tipped him off.
I suspect he’s waiting for me to ask how he made it back so quickly. So I don’t. “The weather in this country sucks ass,” I remark instead on my way into the pub.
He catches the door and follows me inside. “That stubborn pride is going to get you into trouble, tough girl,” he whispers gruffly in my ear.
Ignoring the shiver his voice sends down my spine, I wink at him. “Bring it on.”
With a snort, he leaves me standing in the entrance and ducks beneath a hatch leading behind the bar, joining a redheaded girl who looks flat-out panicked at the amount of customers staring at her expectantly from the other side the bar. I can’t hear her over the music and conversations crowding the room, but she appears to be rambling some sort of explanation to Shane. Clearly ignoring her, he takes a drink order and begins to pull pints of beer from a white handle.
Determinedly, I push Shane Claymore and his Hulk-sized attitude to the back of my mind and take in my surroundings. Claymore’s is small, clearly ancient, but immaculate. And popular. Every polished, wooden table is full with customers digging into their food between sips from pint glasses.
I know what a tourist looks like. In Chicago, they’re everywhere, slowing you down by crowding the sidewalks as they try to decipher oversize maps. I’m trying my best not to look like a tourist even though my suitcase might as well be a flashing neon sign that says outsider. Unlike the Temple Bar section of Dublin I read about on the flight, this is definitely where the locals come to eat lunch. Men dressed smartly in suits, female coworkers gossiping over their salads. At the bar, older gentlemen keep themselves company, watching horse races on overhead televisions. Regulars, Ginger would call them. A few of them send me curious glances that I return steadily.
Laughter, clinking silverware, chairs scraping, the bell dinging in the kitchen…all are unfamiliar sounds to me, but when combined, they are immediately welcoming. Instinctively, I know this isn’t the type of establishment my sister worked in to support us from age sixteen. The ones that sent her home to our crumbing two-bedroom house on the wrong side of Nashville smelling like cigarette smoke and despair. There is an air of acceptance here, as if anyone walking through the door could seamlessly mesh right into the tapestry of color and sound.
My thoughts surprise me. My modus operandi is usually to find the negative aspect of something first and ask questions…never. But I don’t have time to think on it for long, because a blinding, hundred-watt smile on female legs is jogging toward me. Jogging. My first instinct is to hold up a cross to ward her off, but I’m suddenly being hugged. When I say hugged, what I really mean is suffocated within an inch of my life. And if the hug-o-death doesn’t manage to knock me on my ass, the abundance of Tommy Girl perfume assaulting my senses will finish the job. Just when I’ve finally recovered from shock enough to attempt self-extrication, the unknown hugger beats me to it.
“It’s the photographer herself, then. I’m Faith Claymore. I bet you’re starving after pissing off my brother. It tends to work up an appetite.” Her musical brogue leaves the words hanging in their air as she pulls me toward a booth. I just manage to grab hold of my suitcase before I’m dragged forward. “What do you fancy? There’s cod and chips on the specials menu. I’d go with that since it’s the freshest.”
“I’m not hungry.” Which isn’t entirely true. I could probably choke down a Clydesdale right now if pressed, but I need to get my bearings. I can’t do that with this girl chirping questions at me and Shane staring twin blue daggers at me from behind the bar. For someone who obviously doesn’t want me around, he’s damn sure keeping tabs. “Maybe later.”
“Am I scaring you?” She laughs and even I have to admit, the sound is sweet and clean. Nothing behind it but genuine amusement. “I just wasn’t expecting the contest winner to be a girl so close to my age. From Chicago, are you? Are you fascinating, Willa? I’ll just bet you’re fascinating.”
“Nope. Duller than dirt.”
“Ah, go on.” She laughs again, eyes sparkling. They’re a touch lighter than Shane’s, yet infinitely different because of the innocence behind them. There is nothing innocent about Shane. Faith is pretty in a way that hasn’t fully matured yet. Although, with her fair skin and dimples, she’ll likely be blessed with youthful looks forever. Or cursed, depending on who you’re talking to. “Will you at least have tea?”
“Not unless by tea, you mean coffee.”
“Coffee.” She sighs. “That’s so American. Do you walk around your town with a huge cup full of the stuff? I bet you look like a movie star.”
“Only if the movie is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”