Ballybeg, County Cork, Ireland
OLIVIA WAS A DEVOUT CATHOLIC in two circumstances: on planes and at the dentist. Right now, she was praying for deliverance from the dentist’s drill.
Hail Mary, full of… “Ouch.” Vicious pain jolted through her jaw.
The dentist stood back and flexed his aged shoulders. “You need a filling on the lower right.”
A trickle of sweat slithered down her spine. Feck. Not today of all days. She had to get to the meeting with her bank manager on time. She needed to convince him to loan her the money to start her café. Without the café, she couldn’t move out of her estranged husband’s guest room. And until she lived on her own, she couldn’t rescue her brothers from the lunatics they called parents.
The irony of it all was that their parents’ debt to Aidan was what tied Olivia to her farce of a marriage. Being this close to getting the bank loan, she could practically taste freedom. She couldn’t let anything derail her plans.
“Can’t you do the filling another time?” Her clammy hands gripped the arms of the leather reclining chair. “I’m in a rush this morning, and—”
Dr. O’Shea chuckled with good-natured chastisement. “Now, now, Olivia. That’s what you get for leaving it two years between checkups. Didn’t I teach you better?”
This sort of condescension was part and parcel of going to the same dentist since childhood. Knowing from experience that arguing with him was futile, she swallowed her frustration, slumped back in the chair, and shut her eyes.
If only the bank hadn’t changed her appointment. She’d been scheduled to go by next week, but they’d called while she was in the waiting room to change the day. Inconsiderate sods. It was too late to cancel the dentist and too early to have her papers organized for the loan application. At this rate, she’d have to use whatever material she could find in her briefcase and hope for the best. She took a shuddery breath and visualized rosary beads.
“It shouldn’t be too deep.” The dentist was oblivious to her rising panic. “Shall we try the filling without an anesthetic?”
Olivia’s eyes flew open. “Absolutely not. If you intend to come near me with a drill, I want drugs. Lots of them.”
The old man’s mustache bobbed in amusement. “I’ll get the syringe.”
The whirring of the drill soon catapulted her piousness from visualizing rosary beads to contemplating life in a cloister. There were certain drawbacks to the plan—neither fasting nor celibacy had ever been her forte. Although becoming a nun would solve the Aidan problem, wouldn’t it? Not to mention the bank. The bank… Oh, blast. The thumping in her chest increased in tempo. At this rate, she’d never make it on time.
“All done.” The dentist beamed. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
That, Olivia surmised, was a matter of opinion. She poked her new filling dubiously, noting her numb jaw and the lower lip that felt like it had been stuffed with foam.
“The numbness will wear off within an hour.” He removed his rubber surgical gloves and discarded them in the rubbish bin.
She swung her legs over the side of the chair and stood with caution, wobbly as day-old jelly.
The dentist held the door. “I’ll see you in six months—and no later. Julie will give you an appointment. In the meantime, take good care of your teeth.”
Olivia emerged from the dentist’s torture chamber to the melodic chime of the grandfather clock in the reception area. Ten o’clock. She had a decent chance of getting to the bank on time. Major whew. Whether or not she’d be coherent for the meeting was another matter.
“How did it go?” Julie Jobson sat behind the reception desk, sporting a smug smirk. Her blouse was at least two sizes too small, making her ample bosom more prominent.
Olivia scowled at her erstwhile classmate and childhood tormentor. She’d like to add an expression of haughty superiority, but that was rather difficult to achieve when one half of her face was immobile. Instead she settled for an arched eyebrow. “I need another appointment in thix months.”
Fabulous. She was woozy, numb, and drooling. Now she had a lisp to complete her humiliation.
“Oh, dear,” Julie said in mock concern. “Had a filling? I suppose you’d better make sure you brush and floss regularly from now on, hadn’t you?”
Olivia gave her the evil eye.
The other woman took no notice. “Still ginger-haired, I see.” Her scarlet-lacquered talons clicked over the keyboard.
At least I don’t look like I stuck my head in a bucket of toilet cleaner. As for ginger-haired… certainly not. She used the best dye on the market. When one’s natural hair color was carrot, one did what one must.
She tossed her long “Titian Tresses” over her shoulder and wrapped a peacock-blue scarf around her neck. It was one of her own creations, and she wore the scarf with panache. She took every opportunity to look her best. Aidan had always insisted upon it, and old habits were hard to break. With this morning’s imminent appointment at the bank, she needed the veneer of confidence lent to her by a coordinated outfit and perfect makeup.
Julie slid an appointment card across the counter. When Olivia reached for the card, her phone began to vibrate to the tinny opening chords of “It’s Raining Men”. Her fingers, tingly and uncooperative after her almost panic attack in the dental chair, refused to cooperate. She fumbled in her handbag, making futile attempts to grasp the phone. Blast. At last her fingers maintained their grip on the phone, but by the time she got it out of the bag, the caller had hung up. The display glowed with the uninformative message that the call was from “Unknown” and that the person hadn’t bothered to leave a message.
She shoved the phone into her bag along with the appointment card. She had zero time to waste wondering who’d been trying to contact her. If the matter were that urgent, the person would call again. She gave Julie a curt nod and went to the coat stand to grab her coat. Bracing herself for the bitter chill outside, she gripped the door handle.
Before she could push it, the door swung open, bringing in a gust of wind and Jonas O’Mahony. Olivia staggered back. A strong arm grabbed her wrist, breaking her fall. His fingers sent heat searing through the layers of clothing. Blood hummed in her veins. She blamed the Novocain. Breathing hard, she yanked her arm free.
For years, she’d managed to avoid him. Easy enough to do—he didn’t exactly run in the same circles as Aidan. Since his best friend had hooked up with hers, they’d crossed paths more frequently than she liked.
“Olivia.” His gravelly voice broke the silence, as deep and rough as single-cask whiskey.
“Jonath,” she lisped. Silly anesthetic.
He gave her a cool once-over, his indifferent expression indicating he wasn’t impressed with what he saw.
She returned the favor. Jonas’s broad frame was encased in leather and biker boots. His overly long black hair had a wild look that she suspected was caused by the recent removal of a motorcycle helmet. His dark eyes riveted her in place. She sensed the leprechaun on her behind burning a hole through her skirt. What had possessed her to commemorate her eighteenth birthday by getting a leprechaun tattooed on her arse? Her erratic heart thumped an extra beat. She knew the answer to that question. It wasn’t what but who, and she was looking right at him.
“Jonas,” Julie cooed from the reception desk. “How are you? How’s your adorable little boy? Luca, isn’t it?”
Blech. Clearly, Julie laid on more than makeup with a trowel.
“Hey, Julie.” He treated the receptionist to a warm smile—treacle hot and sickly sweet. “Luca’s grand. Adjusting to his new environment, but he’ll get there. Should I take a seat in the waiting room?”
The receptionist’s face registered disappointment that her flirting had failed to have the desired effect. “There are a few people ahead of you. You might have to wait for a bit.”
“No problem.” Jonas strode past Olivia without sparing her another glance. She caught a whiff of his aftershave—spicy and exotic. It sent her whirling back in time to the heady days of their love affair—intense, passionate, cut short by tragedy.
The vibration of her phone jolted her back to the present. Shite. Why was she still at the dentist? She needed to get moving. Holding the phone to her ear, she pushed open the door and stepped out into the blustery gale. She’d have to talk while she walked, and she’d better do both fast.
“This is Mary McDermott…” The woman’s voice trailed off in an ominous ellipsis.
Not a positive sign. Please let this not be bad news about her bid for the cottage. “Yeah?”
“I’m afraid circumstances have changed. The cottages on Curzon Street are no longer available to rent. I’m sorry.”
Sorry? The hell she is. Olivia was temporarily bereft of speech. “We had an agreement,” she said finally, forcing herself to remain calm. Now was not the time to lose her cool. “You said I could have one of the vacant cottages if I paid the deposit by the end of the month. It’s only the sixteenth.” Courtesy of the anesthetic-induced lisp, each “s” came out as “th”.
“We discussed you renting one of my properties, but we never got around to signing a contract.” Mary’s tone was defensive, bordering on peevish.
“I emailed you a reminder about the contract last week. You never replied.”
“A landlady needs to know her prospective tenant will pay the rent on time and stay longer than a handful of months.”
Whoa… that was way out of line. “Which prospective tenant proved solvent enough to get more than an oral agreement out of you?”
“You know I can’t reveal that information. It’s confidential.”
“As was my bid for the bigger cottage. That didn’t stop you from telling half the town. I’ll ask you again: who?”
Mary’s hesitation echoed down the phone. “He’s not a tenant, exactly. My nephew—”
“Not Jonath?” Olivia stumbled to a halt, her head whipping round in the direction of the dental practice. But who else could it be? Niall O’Mahony was away at university, and he and Jonas were Mary’s only living nephews.
“Jonas is a good lad. When he moved back to Ballybeg with his son, he had trouble finding a place to live. Curzon Street was the obvious solution.”
“Surely he doesn’t need both cottages. Why can’t I have the other?”
“You know the answer to that question.” Olivia could visualize Mary’s Gallic shrug. “If you want to negotiate a deal with him, go for it. He’s responsible for renting out the second cottage and he’s unlikely to want to live next door to you. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to look for somewhere else to open your café.”
She began to formulate a cutting response, but Mary had already hung up, leaving her staring at the phone clutched in her hand. Unbelievable. Had Jonas engineered this reversal in her fortunes? Did he hate her that much after all these years? She wasn’t having it. Pivoting on her heel, she stalked to the dental practice and barged in the door.
“Something wrong?” Julie batted her false eyelashes.
Olivia ignored her and marched straight through the reception area and into the waiting room. Three heads swiveled, but she was only interested in one. She directed the full force of her glare on Jonas. “You thcheming thcumbag.”
Jonas regarded her coolly. “Had a filling?” His deep voice dripped condescension.
Olivia uttered an oath.
The rat bastard.
“What have I done to warrant being called a ‘thchumbag’?”
His exaggerated air quotes made the other waiting room occupants snigger. Olivia itched to wipe the smug expression off his face.
“You knew I wanted one of the cottages for my café. Mary and I had a deal. You played the family card and poached it from me.”
“Indeed?” His expression was inscrutable. “All’s fair in love, war, and business, right? There’ll be other premises. It simply wasn’t meant to be.”
“Could you be any more patronizing?”
He gave a slow grin. “I’m sure I could if I cared enough to try.”
Olivia bit her lip in frustration, then registered the acrid taste of blood. Fantastic. Now she was going to arrive at the bank sporting a split lip, a lisp, and no prospective business premises. Perhaps it was time to change tack and use her feminine wiles to persuade Jonas to do the right thing. The notion galled her, but that simpering crap worked for other women, didn’t it?
“Jonath,” she began in what she hoped was a husky tone. “I’d planned my grand opening for the beginning of June. I’ll never find alternative premises in time.”
His lips twitched. “Wasn’t planning your ‘grand opening’ before you’d inked the deal premature?”
So much for her feminine wiles. Her fingernails bit into her palms. “You’re despicable. I pity your son being stuck with you as his lone parent.” She regretted the words the moment she uttered them. Drat. She should have left the kid out of this, but it was too late to backtrack now.
Jonas’s eyes narrowed, his expression turning to granite.
She refused to be intimidated. She held his icy stare.
“Suck it up, Olivia,” he said in glacial tones. “The cottages are mine. Find another place to open your café.”
She cast him a look of loathing and stormed out of the waiting room.
“Best of luck with your search,” Jonas called after her retreating form.
Ignoring Julie’s gleeful expression, Olivia shoved open the front door and marched out into the gale force wind.
She was blown down Patrick Street. Ballybeg was famous for its brightly colored buildings, but the cheery facades were an insult to Olivia’s black mood.
Jonas had done this deliberately. She’d known he disliked her, but sabotaging her plans for the café seemed extreme. That cottage was hers. She’d spent months planning the layout, knew exactly what would be positioned where. To come so close and have her dreams implode… Screw Mary McDermott and her shameless display of nepotism. And screw Jonas O’Mahony and his arrogance. May he be struck down with an incurable case of crotch crabs.
From Love and Leprechauns by Zara Keane, Copyright 2014