Jewels of the Sun

  Jude sat back and closed her eyes. She struck out there, didn’t she? Since she wasn’t beautiful or innocent, had no particular power or skill, it didn’t look like she was going to be whisked away into a fairy tale with a happy ending.

  Not that she wanted to be. The mere idea of coming face-to-face with the inhabitants of a faerie hill or a sky castle, or a witch, wicked or otherwise, made her shaky.

  Shaky enough, she admitted, to imagine jewels turning into flowers. Warily, she slipped her hand into her pocket and pulled the bright stone out to examine it yet again.

  Just glass, she assured herself, beautifully faceted certainly, sparkling like sunlight. But glass.

  It was one thing to accept that she was sharing the cottage with a three-hundred-year-old ghost. That had been leap enough. But she could reason that out as there had been studies on that particular phenomenon, documentation. Parapsychology wasn’t universally accepted, but some very reputable scientists and respected minds believed in the energy forms that laymen called ghosts.

  So she could deal with that. She could rationalize what she had seen with her own eyes.

  But elves and faeries and . . . whatever. No. Saying you wanted to believe and stating you did believe were two different matters. That was when the indulgence of it all stopped being harmless and became a psychosis.

  There were no handsome faeries wandering the hills, visiting graveyards to hold philosophical discussions, then becoming annoyed with people who happened by.

  And those nonexistent faeries didn’t go around tossing priceless jewels at strange American women.

  Since logic didn’t seem to apply to the situation, she had to assume that her imagination, always a bit of a problem, had tipped out of control.

  All she had to do was yank it back on track, do her work. It was very possible she’d had some sort of episode. A fugue state during which she’d incorporated various elements from her research. The fact that she felt almost ridiculously healthy didn’t enter into it. The stress of the past few years could have caught up with her, and while her body was fine, her mind could be suffering.

  She should go to a good neurologist and have a full workup to rule out a physical problem.

  And visit a reputable jeweler to have the diamond—the glass, she corrected herself—examined.

  The first idea frightened her and the second depressed her, so she defied logic and put both notions on hold.

  Just for a few days, she promised herself. She would do the responsible thing, but not quite yet.

  All she wanted to do was work, to pour herself into the stories. And she would resist the urge to wander down to the pub, to spend the evening pretending not to watch Aidan Gallagher. She’d stay at home with her papers and notes, then drive into Dublin in a few days and find both jeweler and doctor.

  She’d shop, buy books, do a bit of sight-seeing.

  One solid evening of work, she told herself. After that, she would take a few days to explore the countryside and the cities, the villages and the hills. She’d take a logical step back from the stories she was gathering and studying, and that would help her with her own perspective before she went to Dublin.

  At the knock on the front door her fingers fumbled on the keys of the computer. And her heart jumped. Aidan, was her first thought, and that alone irritated her. Of course it wasn’t Aidan, she told herself, even as she dashed to the mirror to check her hair. It was well after eight, and he’d be busy at the pub.

  Still, when she hurried downstairs to answer, her heart was beating just a little fast. She opened the door and barely had time to blink.

  “We brought food.” Brenna strolled in, a brown grocery sack propped on her hip. “Biscuits and crisps and chocolate.”

  “And best of all, wine.” Darcy clinked the three bottles she carried as she casually booted the door closed behind her.

  “Oh. Well. . .” Jude hadn’t taken Darcy seriously, hadn’t been able to think of a reason either she or Brenna would want to come over. But they were already heading toward the kitchen in a flurry of movement and chatter.

  “Aidan tried to have me work another shift tonight to make up for walking out today. I told him to bugger it,” Darcy said cheerfully as she set the wine on the counter. “The man’d have me chained to the taps if I wasn’t fast on my feet. We’ll need a corkscrew.”

  “There’s one in the—”

  “Got it,” Brenna interrupted and simply shot a quick grin at Jude as she plucked it out of the drawer. “You should’ve seen the black looks Aidan sent us when we left the pub. ‘Why can’t you fetch her down and drink here,’ he wants to know, grumbling and muttering all the while.”

  “Then he sees I’m taking three bottles,” Darcy continued, rooting out glasses while Brenna opened the wine. “And he’s blathering on about how Jude Frances doesn’t have much of a head for spirits and we’re not to get you sick. Like you were some puppy we were going to give too many table scraps to on the sly. Men are such pea-brains.”

  “Now that’s a fine thing to drink to first off.” With a flourish, Brenna poured three glasses. “To the tiny brains of the male of the species,” she stated, thrusting a glass at Jude and lifting her own.

  “Bless them every one,” Darcy added and drank. Then her eyes sparkled brilliantly at Jude, who’d done little more than stare. “Drink up, darling, then we’ll sit around and discuss the highs and lows of our sex lives just to get better acquainted.”

  Jude took one long gulp, blew out a breath. “I won’t have a great deal to contribute to that area of discussion.”

  Darcy laughed, a throaty sound of amusement. “Aidan’s after changing all that, now, isn’t he?”

  Jude opened her mouth, shut it again, then decided the best thing to do with it was drink after all.

  “Don’t tease her so, Darcy.” Brenna ripped open the bag of potato chips and dug in. Then winked. “We’ll get her drunk first, then pry it all out of her.”

  “When she’s drunk I’m going to talk her into letting me try on all her clothes.”

  They were talking so fast, Jude couldn’t keep up. “My clothes?”

  “You’ve wonderful clothes.” Darcy dropped into a chair. “We’re not that far from coloring and size, so I’m thinking some may fit me well enough. What size shoe do you wear?”

  “Shoe?” Jude looked down blankly at the half boots she wore. “Um, seven and a half, medium.”

  “That’s American sizing, let me think. . .” Darcy shrugged, sipped. “Well, close enough, take those off and let me see how they work on me.”

  “Take my shoes off?”

  “Your shoes, Jude.” Darcy’s eyes twinkled as she slipped off her own. “A couple more drinks and we’ll try on the trousers.”

  “You may as well,” Brenna advised around another mouthful of potato chips. “She’s a demon about clothes, our Darcy, and she’ll hound you to death about it.”

  Feeling as mystified as she had by Maude’s graveside that afternoon, Jude sat and took off her shoes.

  “Oh!” Darcy stroked the boot like an indulgent mother her child’s cheek. “They’re like butter, aren’t they?” She looked up, her face stunning and filled with sheer female delight. “This is going to be fun.”

  “So he has it in his head that because I let him take me to dinner a time or two, and let him stick his tongue in my mouth, which was not nearly as exciting as he thought it was, that I’d be pleased and proud to strip naked and let him bounce on me. Sex is a fine pastime,” Darcy continued as she licked chocolate from her fingers. “But half the time or more, you’re better off just painting your nails and watching the telly.”

  “Maybe it’s the men you let lap at you.” Brenna gestured with her wineglass. “They’re all so dazzled they end up fumbling. What you need, Darcy my girl, is a man who’s as bone-deep cynical and self-absorbed and vain as you are yourself.”

  Jude choked on her wine, certain the insult would cause an argument, but Darcy merely smiled cra
ftily. “And when I find him, and providing he’s rich as Midas, I’ll wrap him tidily around this finger here.” She held up her right index finger. “And allow him to treat me like a queen.”

  Brenna snorted, reached for more chips. “And the moment he does, he’ll bore you to tears. Darcy’s a perverse creature,” she told Jude. “That’s what we love about her. Now me, I’m a simple, straightforward sort. I’m after a man who’ll look me straight in the eye, see what and who I am . . .” She drank, snickered. “Then fall to his knees and promise me everything.”

  “They never see what you are.” Shocked, Jude glanced around to see who’d spoken, then realized she had.

  “Don’t they?” Brenna wanted to know, lifting her brow as she topped off Jude’s glass yet again.

  “They see a reflection of their own perception. Whore or angel, mother or child. Depending on their view, they’re compelled to protect or conquer or exploit. Or you’re a convenience,” she murmured. “Easily discarded.”

  “And you say I’m cynical,” Darcy said with a smirk for Brenna. “Have you been discarded then, Jude?”

  There was a pleasant buzz in her blood, a lovely spin in her head. The logical part of her said it was the wine. But the heart of her, the needy heart, said it was the company. Girls. She’d never had a foolish girl night in her life.

  She picked up a chip, examined it, nibbled, sighed. “Three years ago next June I was married.”

  “Married?” Both Brenna and Darcy leaned closer.

  “Seven months later, he came home and calmly told me he was very sorry, but he was in love with someone else. He thought it best for all parties involved if he moved out that night, and we filed for divorce immediately.”

  “Why, the cad!” In sympathy, Brenna poured wine all around. “The bastard!”

  “Not really. He was honest about it.”

  “Fuck honesty. I hope you skinned him.” Darcy’s eyes sparkled with malice. “Hardly more than six months into marriage and he’s in love with someone else? The snake barely waited long enough to change the sheets on the marriage bed. What did you do about it?”

  “Do?” Jude’s brows drew together. “I filed for divorce the next day.”

  “And took him for everything he had.”

  “No, of course not.” Sincerely shocked at the notion, she gaped at Darcy. “We just each took what was ours. It was very civilized.”

  Because Darcy appeared to have been struck speechless, Brenna took up the torch. “If you’re asking me, civilized divorces are why there are so many bloody marriages that end in it. Me, I’d rather a good fight, screaming and broken crockery, fists flying. If I loved a man enough to vow to be part of him for life, I’d damn well make him pay in blood and flesh if he threw me over.”

  “I didn’t love him.” The minute the words were out, Jude’s mouth dropped open. “I mean—I don’t know if I loved him. My God, that’s just awful, that’s horrible! I just realized it. I have no idea if I loved William at all.”

  “Well, I say he was a bastard and you should have kicked his ass, then set it out for the dogs, love or not.” Darcy selected one of Mollie O’Toole’s homemade brownies and bit into it with gusto. “I promise you this—in fact, I take an oath on it here and now—whatever man I’m with, whenever I’m with him, it’ll be me who ends it. And if he should try to close it off before I’m ready, he’ll pay for it the rest of his days.”

  “Men don’t leave women like you,” Jude put in. “You’re the kind of woman they leave me for.” She caught her breath. “I didn’t mean—I only meant—”

  “Don’t worry yourself. I think there was a compliment in there.” And being more pleased than offended, Darcy patted Jude’s arm. “And I’m also thinking if your tongue’s that loose, you’ve had enough wine that you’ll let me play with your clothes. Let’s take all this upstairs.”

  Jude didn’t know what to make of it. Perhaps it was because she’d never had any sisters to casually raid her closet. None of her friends had shown particular interest in her wardrobe, other than the usual comments on a new jacket or suit.

  She’d never considered herself especially fashion-wise and tended to lean toward classic lines and good fabrics.

  But from the muffled sounds coming from where Darcy’s head was buried in the armoire, Jude’s wardrobe had taken on the sheen of Aladdin’s treasure.

  “Oh, just look at this jumper! It’s cashmere.” Darcy yanked out a hunter-green turtleneck and pleasured herself by rubbing it against her cheek.

  “It’s a good layering piece,” Jude began, then watched openmouthed as Darcy stripped off her own sweater.

  “Might as well make yourself comfortable.” Brenna stretched out on the bed, crossed her ankles, and sipped her wine. “She’ll be a while at this.”

  “Soft as a baby’s bum.” Darcy all but cooed as she posed in front of the mirror. “Gorgeous, but the color’s a bit deep for me. More you, I’m thinking, Brenna.” Cheerfully, she stripped it off and tossed it on the bed. “Give it a look.”

  Absently, Brenna fingered the sleeve of the sweater. “Got a nice feel to it.”

  Lowering herself to the bed, Jude watched Darcy try on a cream-colored silk blouse. “Ah, there’s more in the other bedroom.”

  Darcy’s head came up like a wolf scenting sheep. “More?”

  “Yes, um, lighter-weight clothes and a couple of cocktail things I brought along in case—”

  “Be right back.”

  “Now you’ve done it.” Brenna spoke in dire tones as Darcy dashed out of the room. “You’ll never be rid of her now.” Setting her wine aside, she flipped open the buttons of her shirt. As a delighted squeal was emitted from the next room, Brenna rolled her eyes and tugged the sweater over her head.

  “Oh, this is lovely.” Surprised by the pleasure the soft wool brought to her skin, Brenna got up to take a look in the mirror. “The way it fits, it almost looks as if I have tits.”

  “You have a wonderful figure.”

  Though she’d never be accused of vanity, Brenna twisted and turned in the mirror. “Be nice to have breasts, though. My sister Maureen got mine, I think. I should have had the breasts, by right as the oldest.”

  “You need a decent bra,” Darcy claimed as she came back in a black cocktail dress and carrying a heap of clothes. “Make use of what God gave you instead of letting it flop about. Jude, this dress is brilliant, but you really need to whack an inch or two off the hem.”

  “I’m taller than you.”

  “Hardly a bit. Here, put it on and let’s have a look.”

  “Well, I—” But Darcy was already wriggling out of it. Faced with a woman holding out a little black number while dressed in bra and panties, Jude took the dress. She took a deep gulp to swallow her modesty and stripped.

  “I knew you had good legs,” Darcy said with a nod of approval. “Why are you after hiding them in a dress like this? Needs a good inch off, don’t you think, Brenna?” Still half naked, Darcy knelt down and folded up the hem, pursing her lips as she studied the result. “Inch and a half, and you wear it with those spiky black shoes with the open toes. You’ll be a killer.”

  She nodded, then got up to try on a pair of gray pipestem trousers. “Just put the dress over there, and I’ll hem it for you.”

  “Oh, really, you don’t have to—”

  “As payment,” Darcy said with a wicked gleam, “for you letting me borrow your clothes.”

  “Darcy’s a fine hand with a needle,” Brenna assured her. “You don’t have to worry.” Getting into the spirit, she found a charcoal blazer and topped the sweater with it.

  “Try this vest to jazz it up,” Jude suggested and dug out one with tiny checks in green and burgundy.

  “You’ve a good eye.” Darcy beamed approval and added to it by giving Jude a quick one-armed hug. “Now, Brenna, you finish that with a really short excuse for a skirt and men’ll be falling all over you.”

  “I don’t want them falling all over me.
You just have to boot them out of the way again.”

  “When enough of them fall, you just climb over their prone bodies and go on to the next.” Darcy found a suit in slate blue and wiggled into the skirt. “You are going to give Aidan a tumble, aren’t you, Jude?”

  “A tumble?”

  “Skirt needs to be lifted here, too. A tumble,” she continued. “You haven’t slept with him yet, have you?”

  “I—” She stepped back to pick up her wine again. “No. No, I haven’t.”

  “Didn’t think so.” Darcy swiveled to check the line of the jacket from the back. “Figured you’d have more a gleam in your eye if you’d wrestled with him.” Experimenting, she scooped her hair up, turning this way and that, and imagined borrowing those pretty silver dangles she’d seen Jude wear on her ears. “You’re going to sleep with him, aren’t you?”

  “Darcy, you twit, you’re embarrassing her.”

  “Why?” Darcy let her hair fall so she could choose from two pairs of bone-colored heels. “We’re all of us female and none of us virgins. Nothing wrong with sex, is there, Jude?”

  Don’t blush, Jude ordered herself. You will not blush. “No, of course not.”

  “Aidan’s supposed to be damn good at it, too.” She laughed when Jude gulped down more wine. “So, when you do the deed with him, Brenna and I would appreciate some of the details as, at the moment, neither of us has a particular man we’re after tumbling with ourselves.”

  “Talking about sex is the next best thing to having it.” Brenna spotted a striped shirt in the armoir and pulled it out. “Of the three of us, you look most likely to be having it in the foreseeable future. The closest I’ve come in nearly a year is when I had to punch Jack Brennan for copping a feel last New Year’s Eve—and I’m still not sure he wasn’t just reaching for another pint as he claimed to be.”

  Discarding the shirt, she sat down in her underwear and poured more wine.

  “I, for one, know when a man’s reaching for me or for his beer.” Darcy cocked her head in the mirror. She looked rather elegant, she thought. Like a lady who had lovely places to go and wonderful things to do. “What do you wear a suit like this for, Jude?”

  “Oh, for meetings, lectures, luncheons.”

  “Luncheons.” Darcy sighed and did a slow turn. “In some fancy restaurant or ballroom, with waiters in white jackets.”

  “And this week’s miserable chicken surprise,” Jude answered with a smile. “Along with the most tedious luncheon speaker the committee could dig up.”

  “That’s just because you’re used to them.”

  “So used to them, I’d live happily with the knowledge I never have to attend another. I was a poor academic.”

  “Were you now?” Brenna topped off Jude’s wine before reclaiming her own sweater.

  “Terrible. I hated planning courses, having to know the answers, and judging papers. On top of that, the politics and the protocol.”

  “Then why did you do it?”

  Distracted, Jude glanced back at Darcy. The woman was so confident, Jude thought, so completely comfortable with herself even as she stood there in a cotton bra and another woman’s skirt. How could anyone so sure of who and what she was understand what it was not to know. Just not to know.

  “It was expected,” Jude said at length.

  “And did you always do what was expected?”

  Jude let out a long breath and picked up her wine again. “I’m afraid so.”

  “Well, now.” Swept along by affection, Darcy grabbed Jude’s face in her hand and kissed her. “We’ll fix that.”

  By the time the second bottle of wine was emptied, the bedroom was a disaster. Brenna had the wit to start a fire, then to hunt up cheese and biscuits. She sat on the floor, vaguely disappointed that Jude’s shoes were too big for her. Not that she had any place to wear them, but they were awfully smart.

  Jude lay sprawled on the bed, her head propped on her fists as she watched Darcy try on endless variations of outfits. The goofy expression on her own face made Jude wonder if she were drunk or just soft in the head.

  Every now and then she gave a quiet hiccough.

  “The first time,” Darcy was saying, “was with Declan O’Malley and we swore we would love each other ever and a day. We were sixteen and fumbling at it. We did it on a blanket on the beach one night when we both snuck out of the house. And let me tell you, there’s nothing a bit romantic about rolling around on the sand, even when you are sixteen and stupid as a turnip.”

  “I think it’s sweet,” Jude said dreamily, imagining the moonlight and the crash of waves and two young bodies gleaming with love and discovery. “What happened to Declan O’Malley?”

  “Well, forever and a day lasted about three months for the pair of us, and we went on to other things. Two years back he got Jenny Duffy in trouble, so they married and have a second daughter to go with the first. And seem happy enough.”

  “I’d like to have children.” Jude rolled over to find her wine. It had begun to taste like ambrosia. “When William and I discussed it—”

  “Discussed it, did you?” Brenna put in, and as guardian of the bottle, took Jude’s glass to refill it.

  “Oh, yes, in a very logical, practical, and civilized manner. William was