Jewels of the Sun
Jude stepped in. No, it was more a stalking. She was wet down to the skin, her hair wild and dripping around her shoulders. Her eyes were dark, and though he told himself it was a trick of the light, they looked dangerous. He would have sworn they sent off sparks as she strode up to the bar.
“I’d like a drink.”
“You’re soaking wet.”
“It’s raining, and I’ve been walking in it.” Her voice was clipped with an undertone of heat. She shoved at her wet, heavy hair. She’d lost her band somewhere along the run. “That’s the usual result. Can I have a drink or not?”
“Sure, I’ve the wine you like. Why don’t you take it over by the fire there, and warm yourself a bit. And I’ll get you a towel for your hair.”
“I don’t want the fire. I don’t want a towel. I want whiskey.” She issued it like a challenge and dropped a fisted hand on the bar. “Here.”
Her eyes still made his think of a sea goddess, but it was a vengeful one now. He nodded slowly. “As you like.”
He got out a short glass and poured two fingers of Jameson’s into it. Jude snatched it up, tossed it back like water. Her breath exploded out of the sudden fire dead center of her chest. Her eyes watered but stayed hot.
A wise man, Aidan kept his face carefully blank. “You’re welcome to go upstairs to my rooms if you’d like to borrow a dry shirt.”
“I’m fine.” Her throat felt as if someone had raked hot needles down it, but there was a rather pleasant little fire simmering in her gut now. She set the glass back down on the bar, nodded to it. “Another.”
Experience had him leaning casually on the bar. With some you could empty the bottle and no one was the worse for it. With others you nudged them out the door before they bent their elbow once too often. And there were some who needed to pour out their troubles more than they needed the publican to pour the whiskey.
He recognized which he was dealing with here. Added to that, if a glass and a half of wine gave her a buzz, two shots of whiskey would put her under. “Why don’t you tell me what the trouble is, darling?”
“I didn’t say there was any trouble. I said I wanted another glass of whiskey.”
“Well, you won’t get one here. But I’ll make you some tea and a seat by the fire.”
She drew in a breath, then let it out with a shrug. “Fine, forget the whiskey.”
“There’s a lass.” He patted the fist still bunched on his bar. “Now you go and sit, and I’ll bring you tea. Then you can tell me what’s the matter.”
“I don’t need to sit.” She tossed her wet hair out of her face, then leaned forward as he was. “Come closer,” she ordered. When he obliged and their faces were only inches apart, she took a handful of his shirt. She spoke clearly, concisely, but still had the wit to keep her voice low. “Do you still want to have sex with me?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me.” But it gave her a dark thrill to repeat herself. “Do you want to have sex or not?”
Even as his nerves jangled, he went hard. It was beyond his power to control either reaction. “Right this minute?”
“What’s wrong with now?” she demanded. “Does everything have to be planned and patterned and tied up in a damn bow?”
She forgot to keep her voice down this time, and several heads turned and eyebrows wiggled. Aidan laid a hand over the one still clutching his shirt and patted gently.
“Come on back in the snug, why don’t you, Jude?”
“In the what?”
“Come on, back here.” He patted her hand again, then pried her fingers off. With a gesture he pointed out a door at the end of the bar. “Shawn, come out here and man the bar for a moment, would you?”
He lifted the flap at the end of the bar so Jude could pass through, then nudged her through the door.
The snug was a small, windowless room furnished with two sugan chairs that had been his grandmother’s and a table his father had made that wobbled just enough to be endearing. There was an old globe lamp that Aidan switched on, and a decanter of whiskey that he ignored.
The snug was a place designed for private conversations and private business. He couldn’t think of anything more private than dealing with the woman he’d been fantasizing about asking him if he wanted to have sex.
“Why don’t we—” “Sit down” was what he’d intended to say, but his mouth was too busy being devoured by hers. She had his back up against the door, her hands fisted in his hair, and her lips hotly, hungrily fastened on his.
He managed one strangled groan, then lost himself in the pleasure of being attacked by a wet and willful woman. She was pressed against him. Jesus, plastered against him, and her body was like a furnace. He wondered that her clothes didn’t simply steam away.
Her heart was racing, or maybe it was his. He felt the frantic, nervous beat pound and pitch between them. She smelled of the rain and tasted of his whiskey, and he wanted her with a fervor that was like a sickness. It crawled through him, clawed at him, reeled in his head, burned in his throat.
Dimly, he heard his brother’s voice, an answering laugh, the faint tune played by a young boy. And he remembered, barely, where they were. Who they were.
“Jude. Wait.” The blood was roaring in his head as he tried to ease her back. “This isn’t the place.”
“Why?” She was desperate. She needed something. Him. Anything. “You want me. I want you.”
Enough that he would easily imagine reversing their positions and mounting her where they stood like a stallion covering a ready mare. With fire in the blood, and no heart at all.
“Stop now. Let’s catch our breath here.” He stroked a hand over her hair, a hand that was far from steady. “Tell me what’s the matter.”
“Nothing’s the matter.” Her voice cracked and proved her a liar. “Why does something have to be the matter? Just make love with me.” Her hands shook as she fought with the buttons of his shirt. “Just touch me.”
Now he did reverse positions, pressed her against the door and firmly took her face in his hands to lift it. Whatever his body was telling him, his heart and mind gave different orders. He was a man who preferred following the heart.
“I might touch, but I’ll never reach you if you don’t tell me what’s troubling you.”
“There’s nothing troubling me,” she hissed at him. Then burst into tears.
“Oh, there now, darling.” It was less worrisome to comfort a woman than to resist one. Gently, he gathered her in, cradled her against his chest. “Who hurt you, a ghra?”
“It’s nothing. It’s stupid. I’m sorry.”
“Of course it’s something, and not stupid at all. Tell me what’s made you sad, mavourneen.”
Her breath hitched, and desolate, she pressed her face into his shoulder. It was solid as a rock, comforting as a pillow. “My husband and his wife are going to the West Indies and having a baby.”
“What?” The word came out like a bullet as he jerked her back. “You’ve a husband?”
“Had.” She sniffled, and wished her head could be on his shoulder again. “He didn’t want to keep me.”
Aidan took two long breaths, but his head still reeled as though he’d swallowed a bottle of Jameson’s. Or been clobbered by one. “You were married?”
“Technically.” She fluttered a hand. “Do you have a handkerchief?”
Staggered, Aidan dug in his pocket, handed it to her. “I think we’ll start back at some beginning, but we’ll get you some dry clothes and some hot tea before you catch a chill.”
“No, I’m all right. I should—”
“Just be quiet. We’ll go upstairs.”
“I’m a mess.” She blew her nose savagely. “I don’t want people to see me.”
“There’s no one out there who hasn’t shed a few tears of their own, and some right here in this pub. We’ll go out and through the kitchen and up.”
Before she could argue, he took her arm and pulled her to the door.
Then even as the first wave of embarrassment hit, he continued to pull her, into the kitchen, where Darcy looked over in surprise.
“Why, Jude, whatever’s the matter?” she began, then closed her mouth as Aidan gave a quick shake of his head and nudged Jude up a narrow staircase.
He opened a door at the head of it and stepped into his small, cluttered living room. “The bedroom’s through there. Take whatever works best for you, and I’ll put on the tea.”
She started to thank him, apologize, something, but he was already moving through a low doorway. There was enough tension in his wake to bow her spirits even lower.
She stepped into the bedroom. Unlike the living room, it was neat as a pin and sparsely furnished. She wished she had the time, and the right, to poke about a bit. But she moved quickly to the little closet, giving herself time only to scan the single bed with its navy cover, the tall chest of drawers that looked old and comfortably worn at the hinges, the faded rug over an age-darkened wood floor.
She found a shirt, as gray as her mood. While she changed she studied the walls. There he had indulged in his romantic side, she thought. Posters and prints of faraway places.
Street scenes of Paris and London and New York and Florence, stormy seascapes and lush islands. Towering mountains, quiet valleys, mysterious deserts. And of course, the fierce cliffs and gentle hills of his own country. They were tacked up edge to edge, like a fabulous, eccentric wallpaper.
How many of those places had he been? she wondered. Had he been to them all, or had he places still to go?
She let out a huge sigh, not caring that the sound was ripe with self-pity, and carrying her wet sweater, went back into the living room.
He was pacing, and stopped when she came in. She was dwarfed by his shirt and looked small and miserable and not nearly up to dealing with the emotions swinging around inside him. So he said nothing, not yet, merely took her sweater and carried it into the bath to hang over the shower rod and drip.
“Sit down, Jude.”
“You’ve every right to be angry with me, coming in this way, behaving as I did. I don’t know how to begin to—”
“I wish you’d be quiet for a minute.” He snapped it at her, telling himself when she winced that he wasn’t made of stone. Then he stalked into the kitchen to deal with the tea.
She’d been married, was all he could think. That was quite a detail she’d neglected to mention.
He’d thought her to have had little experience with men, and here she’d been married and divorced and was obviously still pining for the bastard.
Pining for some fancy man in Chicago who wasn’t true enough to keep his vows, and all the while Aidan Gallagher had been pining for her.
If that wasn’t enough to burn your ass, what was?
He poured the tea strong and black and added a healthy drop of whiskey to his own.
She was standing when he came back, the fingers of her hands twisted together. Her damp hair curled madly, and her eyes were drenched. “I’ll go downstairs and apologize to your customers.”
“For making a scene.”
He set the cups down and drew his brows together to study her with as much bafflement as irritation. “What do I care about that? If we don’t have a scene in Gallagher’s once a week we wonder why. Will you sit down, damn it, and stop looking at me as if I was about to take a strap to you?”
He sat after she did, then picked up his own tea. Jude sipped, burned her tongue, then hastily set her cup down again.
“Why didn’t you tell me you’d been married?”
“I didn’t think of it.”
“Didn’t think of it?” His cup clattered as he snapped it down on the table. “Did it mean so little to you?”
“It meant a great deal to me,” she returned with a quiet dignity that had him narrowing his eyes. “It meant considerably less to the man I married. I’ve been trying to learn to live with that.”
When Aidan said nothing, she picked up her tea again to give herself something to do with her hands. “We’d known each other several years. He’s a professor at the university where I taught. On the surface, we had a great deal in common. My parents liked him very much. He asked me to marry him. I said yes.”
“Were you in love with him?”
“I thought I was, yes, so that amounts to the same thing.”
No, Aidan thought, it didn’t amount to the same thing at all. But he let it pass. “And what happened?”
“We—he, I should say, planned it all out. William likes to plan carefully, considering details and possible pitfalls and their solutions. We bought a house, as it’s more conducive to entertaining and he had ambitions to rise in his department. We had a very small, exclusive, and dignified wedding with all the right people involved. Meaning caterers, florists, photographers, guests.”
She breathed deep and, since her tongue was already scalded, sipped the tea again. “Seven months later, he came to me and told me he was dissatisfied. That’s the word he used. ‘Jude, I’m dissatisfied with our marriage.’ I think I said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’”
She closed her eyes, let the humiliation settle along with the whiskey in her stomach. “That grates, knowing my first instinct was to apologize. He accepted it graciously, as if he’d been expecting it. No,” she corrected, looking at Aidan again. “Because he’d been expecting it.”
It was hurt he felt from her now, quivering waves of it. “That should tell you that you apologize too much.”
“Maybe. In any case, he explained that as he respected me and wanted to be perfectly honest, he felt he should tell me that he’d fallen in love with someone else.”
Someone younger, Jude thought now. And prettier, brighter.
“He didn’t want to involve her in a sordid and adulterous affair, so he requested that I file for divorce immediately. We would sell the house, split everything fifty-fifty. As he was the instigator, he would be willing to give me first choice in any particular material possessions I might want.”
Aidan kept his eyes on her face. She was composed again, eyes quiet, hands still. Too composed, to his thinking. He decided he preferred it when she was passionate and real. “And what did you do about it?”
“Nothing. I did nothing. He got his divorce, he remarried, and we all got on with our lives.”
“He hurt you.”
“That’s what William would call an unfortunate but necessary by-product of the situation.”
“Then William is a donkey’s ass.”
She smiled a little. “Maybe. But what he did makes more sense than struggling through a marriage that makes you unhappy.”
“Were you unhappy in it?”
“No, but I don’t suppose I was really happy either.” Her head ached now, and she was tired. She wished she could just curl into a ball and sleep. “I don’t think I’m given to great highs of emotions.”
He too was drained. This was the same woman who’d thrown herself lustfully into his arms, then wept bitterly in them only moments before. “No, you’re a right calm one, aren’t you, Jude Frances?”
“Yes.” She whispered. “Sensible Jude.”
“So, being such, what set you off today?”
“Why should it be stupid if it meant something to you?”
“Because it shouldn’t have. It shouldn’t have meant anything.” Her head snapped up again, and the glitter that came into her eyes didn’t displease him in the least. “We’re divorced, aren’t we? We’ve been divorced for two years. Why should I care that he’s going to the West Indies?”
“Well, why do you?”
“Because I wanted to go there!” she exploded. “I wanted to go somewhere exotic and wonderful and foreign on our honeymoon. I got brochures. Paris, Florence, Bim-ini. All sorts of places. We could have gone to any of them, and I would have been thrilled. But all he could talk about was—was—”
She circled her hand, as words momentarily
failed her. “The language difficulties, the cultural shocks, the different germs, for God’s sake.”
Furious all over again, she leaped out of the chair. “So we went to Washington and spent hours—days—centuries—touring the Smithsonian and going to lectures.”
He’d been fairly shocked before, but this one did it. “You went to lectures on your honeymoon?”
“Cultural bonding,” she spat out. “That’s what he called it.” She threw up her hands and began to stalk around the room. “Most couples have impossibly high expectations for their honeymoon, according to William.”
“And why shouldn’t they?” Aidan murmured.
“Exactly!” She whirled back, her face flushed with righteous fury. “Better to meet the minds on common ground? Better to go to an environment that is recognizable? The hell with that. We should’ve been having crazy sex on some hot beach.”
A part of Aidan was simply delighted that that hadn’t occurred. “Sounds to me like you’re well rid of him, darling.”
“That’s not the point.” She wanted to tear her hair out, nearly did. Jude’s Irish was up now, bubbling, boiling in a way that would have made her grandmother proud. “The point is, he left me, and his leaving crushed me. Maybe not my heart, but my pride and my ego, and what difference does it make? They’re all part of me.”
“It makes no difference at all,” Aidan said quietly. “You’re right. No difference.”
The fact that he agreed, without a second’s hesitation, only added fuel to her temper. “And now, the bastard, he’s going where I wanted to go. And they’re having a baby, and he’s thrilled. When I talked about having children, he brought up our careers and lifestyles, the population, college costs, for Christ’s sake. And he made a chart.”
“A chart. A goddamn computer-generated chart, projecting our finances and health, our career status and time management over the next five to seven years. After that, he told me, if we met our goals, we could consider—just consider—conceiving a single child. But for the next several years, he had to concentrate on his career, his planned advancements, and his stupid portfolio.”
Fury was a living thing now, clawing viciously at her chest. “He decided when and if we would have a child. He decided should that eventuality take place there would be only one. If he could have managed it, he’d have decided on the sex of the projected baby.
“I wanted a family, and he gave me pie charts.”
Her breath hitched, and her eyes filled again. But when Aidan rose to go to her, Jude shook her head frantically. “I thought he didn’t want foreign travel and babies. I thought, well, he’s just set in his ways, and he’s so practical and frugal and ambitious. But that wasn’t it. It wasn’t it at all. He didn’t want to go to the West Indies with me. He didn’t want to make a family with me. What’s wrong with me?”
“There’s nothing wrong with you. Nothing at all.”
“Of course there is.” She dug out his handkerchief as her voice rose and fell and broke. “If there wasn’t, I’d never have let him get away with it. I’m dull. He was bored with me almost as soon as we were married. People get bored with me. My students, my associates. My own parents are bored with me.”
“That’s a foolish thing to say.” He went to her now, taking her arms to give her a little shake. “There’s nothing dull about you.”
“You just don’t know me well enough yet. I’m dull, all right.” She sniffled, then nodded for emphasis. “I never do anything exciting, never say anything brilliant. Everything about me is average. I even bore myself.”
“Who put these ideas in your head?” He would have shaken her again, but she looked so pitiful. “Did it ever occur to you that this William with his bloody pie charts and cultural whatever it was is the boring one? That if your students weren’t enthusiastic it was because teaching wasn’t what you were meant to do?”
She shrugged. “I’m the common factor.”
“Jude Frances, who’s come to Ireland on her own, to live in a place she’s never been, with people she’s never met and to do work she’s never done?”
“Because I’m just running away.”
He felt both impatience and sympathy for her. “Boring you’re not, but hardheaded you are. You could give a mule lessons. What’s wrong with running away if where you were didn’t suit you? Doesn’t it follow you’re running to something else? Something that does suit you?”
“I don’t know.” And she was too tired and achy to think it through.