Whiffs of roasting meat and frying fish drifted through the pub. Conversation surged and ebbed like waves at the edge of the bay. From speakers on the mustard-colored walls, piped-in music polluted the chatter. Watching for Tom from his seat at the bar, Ben eyed the fiddler who’d just arrived. A harmonica player came in behind him. Ben knew both men, had joined them in countless seisiúns over the years, adding his whistles and flutes to the mix. Once this pair had a bite to eat and a pint on the table, they’d put the tin hat on that desperate canned music.
The pressurized whoosh of flowing beer reminded him of the garden hose. He’d soaked that poor woman from A to Z, and the in-between letters bedeviled him. Who was she? He’d never seen her before, but he’d like to see her again. What were the odds she’d come in here tonight? The Black Oak Tavern wasn’t the only pub in town.
He turned his glass in his hands and watched the door. For Tom.
The front room had filled up fast, a typical Friday evening in June. A boisterous mix of tourists and locals occupied all but one of the low-back bar stools. Ben and Scully were saving it for Tom.
Rocking his stool on its hind legs, Scully squinted through the black-rimmed glasses hooked over his hairy ears. “The place is so packed, you’d think no one ever died. Jimmy’s taps will be spitting gold tonight. Where the feck is Tommy? I thought the golf lessons ended at three.”
“With the weather so fair, they have him teaching an extra round.”
“Ah, more tourists for him to hand your card to, Benny. Anyway, he’s just come in.”
A familiar head of wavy red hair bobbed through the crowd. Calling out greetings, Tom maneuvered to the bar, limber as ever for such a big man, though he had more jowl to him now. The stretch of good weather and extra golf had left his nose as red as a stop light. His tanned face made the hair at his temples look more white than gray.
When did we grow so old? Done watching for Tom, Ben lodged his feet on the bar’s brass foot rail. “Ready for another, Scull?”
Scully glugged the last of his ale and smacked his lips. A big-toothed smile rounded his cheeks like a pair of cue balls. “I am now.”
Ben nodded to catch Jimmy’s eye. Nodding back, the pub owner wiped his hands on a small white towel. He reached the end of the bar just as Tom did and set a bowl of mixed nuts on the polished wooden counter. “Same again lads? Hey, Tommy. How ye keepin’?”
Tom’s perpetually droopy eyes made him looked bored, a misleading illusion. As he snatched a handful of nuts from the bowl, a gray patch of steel wool peeked from the neck of his yellow golf shirt. “No complaints, Jim. A pint of the usual, and hit the lads again. My round.”
Jimmy went off to build the beers. Tom settled onto his barstool with the satisfied sigh of a hardworking man at rest. Framed by dark wood columns, the stained-glass mirror behind the bar, and the glassware hanging above his head, he twisted in his chair and scanned the crowd. “How’s the talent tonight? Lots of out-of-towners, I see. Looks like the summer people came for their alcoholidays all at once. Might prove lucky for you, Ben. Pretty fine things lookin’ for a studly guide to show them Ireland’s treasures.”
Ben suppressed a groan. He was almost sorry he’d taken early retirement from Connaught MedTech. His flirtations while traveling had been discreet. At home here in Westport, his well-meaning friends not only knew his every move, they also seemed to believe it their life’s mission to find him dates, usually with women even the tide wouldn’t take out.
“Stop playing matchmaker. I’m not looking to be as miserable as you two bowsers, always dodging your wives.”
Furrows of mock indignation wrinkled Scully’s freckled forehead. “Empty and cold is the house without a woman, Ben.” The cue balls returned to his cheeks. “And misery loves company.”
Shouts of welcome near the door cut short Scully’s matchmaking blarney. All smiles beneath her cropped black hair, Nora Moran came in, her banjo case swinging by her side.
“Here’s your cousin Nora,” said Tom. “We’ll have a grand seisiún tonight, and no game on the telly to muck it up.”
Ben waved. Nora waved back and zigzagged through the crowd to the corner table reserved for musicians. Her husband John, who’d brought the fiddle, rose from his chair and pecked her cheek. Could they still be in love after twenty years?
Were Tina and I ever really in love? Ben shook his head. He’d thought so at first, but Tina had turned into one of those wives a man dodged.
Jimmy brought the beers and eased them onto the bar. He glanced at the musicians. “You ought to break out the old whistles, Ben. They could use you.”
The suggestion, repeated often over the years, sprang from more than Jimmy’s wish to present the best live music in town. Ben couldn’t complain. His friends had a heart and a half apiece, looking after him so.
“A good thought, Jimmy, but after fifteen years, my whistles and I are rusty as nails in a lighthouse door.” Ben raised his glass and tipped it toward Jimmy, who shrugged and returned to his taps.
Tom gazed at the glass in his hand like a lovesick man. He sipped, held the beer in his mouth for a moment, and swallowed. “Them German golf nuts wore me out today. I could eat a nun’s arse through a convent gate.”
“So could I.” Beer in hand, Scully stood. “We’d best grab a table fast.”
Few tables big enough for three remained. Ben wanted the one closest to the musicians. Shielding his beer, he ploughed toward the table. Scully and Tom followed close behind. They called hello to Molly, Jimmy’s wife, cheerfully waiting on customers. She said she’d bring menus right over.
Ben parked himself and his beer at the table and eyed the steadily growing crowd. “If this keeps up, they’ll have to open the back room.”
A slender woman had claimed the last open table, a small round thing near the end of the bar, by setting her jacket over a chair. When she pulled at the second chair, he felt rather than heard its legs scrape the floor. She drew a book from her purse and sat facing him.
His hand tightened around his glass. A shiver rushed up his back and down his arms to his fingertips.
“Nice looking,” Tom said.
“Import,” Scully said in his sure accountant’s tone. “Probably waiting for someone.”
Pretending he didn’t care, Ben shifted to get a better look at her. Unless his eyesight had gone for its tea, this was the woman he’d drenched today. Her face had the same high cheekbones, the same dainty nose and chin. He’d learned long ago to ignore women’s hair. It changed too fast. Yet as he pictured this woman’s chin-length tresses sopping wet, he thought she might be his mystery lady.
The pub racket was mighty now. Molly stopped at the woman’s table, her back to Ben, but he imagined her asking the woman if she’d like something to drink.
“A glass of white wine, please,” she said just as the pub din briefly ebbed.
American, Ben thought, watching Molly bustle away.
“A Yank,” Tom said dismissively. “No spring chicken, but she has more than gristle left on her.” He bounced his cupped hands before his chest.
The noise reached another crescendo. “Can’t see a wedding ring,” Scully said, raising his voice. “Probably one of them lezzers.”
Tom smirked. “Shows you came up on the last load of hay. If she was, she’d be meeting one of her own kind, not sitting by herself. Maybe she’s one of them restaurant critics.”
And on they went, enjoying their guessing game. Ben didn’t play, so engrossed was he recalling the look of the woman he’d drenched. Was this the same woman? She wore different clothes, not the sodden green blouse that had plastered her well-shaped chest, nor the dripping black pants that had clung to her damn fine legs and arse. He loved a good arse. Should he ask? Apologize? He drummed his fingers beside his beer.
Scully tapped his arm. “Go buy her a drink, Ben.”
“You’re staring at her like she’s one of them feckin’ U F of Os.”
Tom leaned forward as if he were about to reveal a state secret. “She’s windin’ your clock, Big Ben. Be said and led by me: paddle the wave when it comes along. Buy the woman a bloody drink.”
A vigorous nod bespoke Scully’s agreement. “At least give her your business card. She’s a Yank. Probably wants to see the sights. Trace her roots and all that shite.”
Ben raised a hand. “Back off. I need no advice from a pair of henpecked husbands wearing their wedding rings through their noses.”
Undaunted, Scully and Tom tilted their drinks to their smirking mouths. The gleam in their eyes dared Ben to act. Despite their jowls and glasses, they might have been fifteen again.
He wasn’t about to divulge the incident with the hose to these two. They didn’t have to know he only meant to apologize, not initiate farcical courtship rituals.
So why did a pendulum swing in his chest, its speed increasing with every stroke?
Something to do with her drenched blouse and pants. Would she remember him? Accuse him and his hose of lewd behavior? He swallowed a mouthful of beer and wiped his hand across his lips. The pendulum slowed. Aware of the eyes digging into his back, he kicked himself out of his chair and strolled to her table.
She read her menu through little gold glasses. Tiny laugh lines enhanced her eyes and her curving lips. No lipstick. Ben liked that. She held the one-page card in her long slender fingers. No nail polish.
No paint nor powder, no none at all…
And no wedding ring. Scully was right about that at least.
She frowned at the menu as if she couldn’t decide what to order. He thought he might suggest the soup, or perhaps the fish and chips, or maybe…
He stopped at the chair where she’d laid her coat. She sensed him there, for she looked up. Eyes as brown as Belgian chocolate widened in surprise. Her mouth fell open; her cheeks turned crimson. No doubt about it, she knew him. Now what?
Fortune favors the bold, and all. Exploiting her befuddlement, he pounced. “We haven’t been properly introduced. I’m Ben Connigan. Might I sit?”
Her eyes returned to their normal size; the red in her cheeks softened to a tea rose hue. She slipped off her glasses and smiled at him, and his heart flopped like a fresh-caught trout.
“Of course, Mr. Connigan.” She set the menu beside her book. “Let me move my jacket.”
“Allow me.” His fingers tingled, touching the silky brown coat. He handed it over the table.
She tucked it behind her, clearly glad to have something to do to help her regain her composure. As she shuffled about, he sat and glanced at her book. Folklore of Western Ireland. Ammunition for future conversation: he had read that collection of folk tales and superstitions to help him add interest to his tours.
“It’s Ben, by the way. Not Mr. Connigan. Unless you want me to call you Mrs.—?”
“Gemma. Oh. Not Mrs. Gemma. It’s Mrs. Pentrandolfo. Or it was. I mean, I’m no longer married.” She lowered her head. “I mean, my husband, he’s gone. Passed away.”
Ben somehow kept his face appropriately grave, though he nearly laughed out loud. A widow and widower meet in the pub… He guessed that her husband was gone a good while. She didn’t seem newly bereaved. More like she’d given his cufflinks away long ago. Should he tell her about Tina? No, not yet.
“I’m sorry for your trouble, Gemma. The last name doesn’t go with your face. If you don’t mind my saying so, you look Irish. Do you have family here? I hope you’re not alone.”
The idea seemed to surprise her. “Thank you. No. I mean, yes. No family I’ve ever met. I only know my grandparents lived somewhere in Sligo. Grandad’s name was Keenan.”
Her laugh lines deepened and danced. Light bathed her head as she babbled. The silver sparks in her hair had him thinking its fawn-brown hue was its natural color. Another point in her favor, and so what if she was no spring chicken? Neither was he. Summer chickens, maybe. Hardly ready for the stew pot.
Whatever her age, she was a handsome woman whose chocolate eyes mesmerized him. He gazed into those eyes. “Gemma is a fine saint’s name. And Keenan’s a good Irish name.”
That got him a smile. “How about you?” she asked. “Benjamin doesn’t sound like an Irish name.”
“It’s Hebrew. Means southerner. I only know because people make the mistake all the time. My name is Benedict, Latin for blessed, and the anglicized version of Maolbheannachta, which also means blessed, in Irish.”
Slowly, she repeated the name. “Mel-vann-ockta. I’m guessing it isn’t spelled the way it sounds.”
A shout from the bar and a roar of laughter surprised him. He’d forgotten he was in the pub. “No,” he said, “and I’m blessed I don’t have to spell it that way.” Insistent, the pendulum swung. He bent his head toward her. “Listen, Gemma. The hose was an accident. I hope you know that. Even so, I’d like to buy you a drink to make up for it.”
The color returned to her cheeks. She glanced down briefly, as if consulting a script in her lap. “That’s not necessary. It was my fault. I got too close to the bees. Not that I’m allergic, or anything. I’m afraid of them. Silly, huh? I go that way sometimes. To get home.”
“Yes. I’m spending the summer in Westport, in a house called Sea Moss Cottage.” She smiled that smile again. “So I guess we’re neighbors.”
If only… “Not quite. I live down by the harbor. I grew up in the house you passed. My mother still lives there. She’s in good health, but she’s getting on in years. My sister comes up from Cork now and then, but my daughter and I stop by almost every day to look in on her.”
Molly set a glass of straw-colored wine on the table. “Hey, Ben. Can I get you something?”
“No thanks, love. I’m going back to my table directly. The wine goes on my tab.”
Gemma started to object, but he waved Molly off, putting paid to the matter. “It’s the least I can do after nearly drowning you. So why are you in Westport? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“I’m writing a book. Or trying to. I haven’t decided what it’s about yet. Maybe Grace O’Malley, or someone from an earlier time. Right now I’m doing research. Getting background. Thought I’d go exploring. See the scenery around Clew Bay.”
Well, that explained why she was alone, and she sounded less featherbrained now. More centered and sensible. “The Pirate Queen, eh? You’ll want to see the Grace O’Malley Museum in Louisburg. And you’ll have to take the ferry to Clare Island to see her castle and the abbey where she’s supposed to be buried.”
“Those are on my list, along with Achill Island. She had a castle there too, I think.”
“She had them all over the place.”
Gemma nodded, as if prompting him to continue. Should he tell her he was a tour guide? He couldn’t think of another excuse to see her again—and he wanted to see her again.
“I could take you on a private tour.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “Oh? I’ll just bet you can.” Her voice dripped with insinuation.
Ah, you’re a smooth one, Connigan! “No, not… I’m a tour guide. I do guided tours to different sites. Group tours or private tours for individuals. That’s what I meant. I can take you wherever you’d like to go.”
Her mouth tightened into a pale pink line. She backed into her chair in a way that made him feel like a bowl of rotting fruit. “Thanks, but I prefer to travel alone. You’ll have to make your sales pitch to someone else.”
Amputated. Just like that. Ah feck, who needs women anyway?
But he couldn’t blame her. She thought he’d been selling his services to a vulnerable widow traveling alone. Or worse, trying to pick her up. Well, he was, but not like a feckin’ plonker.
Maybe it wasn’t too late. Ever so slowly, he shook his head. “The offer was free of charge, Gemma. I make allowances for friends, and I hope we’ll be friends.”
She folded her arms as if she were cold. Or frightened. “Speaking of friends, don’t let me keep you from yours. Thanks for the wine, Ben.”
He sighed and stood. “My pleasure. Really.” One last try. He drew his card from his shirt pocket and placed it atop her book. “If you have any questions about what you see, or if you want to know how to get anywhere, please give me a call. No charge, no strings.” He turned to go. “By the way, I recommend the fish and chips. None better in town. It was fine meeting you, Gemma Keenan.”