Home > My Life in Shambles(26)

My Life in Shambles(26)
Author: Karina Halle

“It’s more complicated than that.”

“Oh, I know it is. Hello, I’m your fake fiancé.”

A hint of a smile ghosts on his lips. “You really have been amazing, you know that?”

I shrug. “I’m glad you think that because I feel like I’ve been doing nothing but fucking up.”

“No,” he says, shifting to face me dead on. He cups my face in his hands and searches my eyes feverishly. “No, you are amazing. You are wonderful. You went and you got that bird back. I can’t believe you did that. But you didn’t hesitate. You just put on the gauntlet and did it. Do you know how incredible that is? How incredible you are?”

My cheeks go warm, but maybe it’s his strong palms pressed against my face. “I did what I had to do. I couldn’t stand to see you like that.”

“And that was the last thing I wanted you to see.”

“But I’m still here. If you recall from last night, I’m not going anywhere for a long time.”

He leans in and kisses me on the mouth, then the corner of my lips, then my nose, then my forehead. “You are fierce, Valerie Stephens. A wild bird that could fly away but chooses to stay with me, and I am forever grateful for that. Believe me, I am.”

Okay. I might be melting just a little inside.

Or maybe a lot.

No one has ever said anything like that to me before.

No one has ever looked at me that way before.

I might just turn into a puddle right here, one that won’t freeze over.

He brings my hand to his mouth and kisses my knuckles, and I melt some more.

“Come on,” he says. “Let’s go back inside and get warm.”

13

Valerie

After the incident at the mews, the rest of the day goes by at a calm, slow, and steady pace. Padraig managed to get a bunch of books on falconry for me, since it appears I have a natural talent, the owl whisperer, if you will, and I spent a good chunk of the day reading by the fire.

Padraig, meanwhile, spent most of his day sleeping, kind of the reverse of yesterday. I didn’t question it after this morning. After all, it was fairly traumatic, and he is under a lot of stress. I also think it could be related to his concussion. Or maybe he just wants some damn time alone.

Either way, it didn’t bother me, and when he came out for dinner, things went a lot smoother than they did the night before. His father was still grumpy but quiet, though he ate more than he did the night before. Nan talked about the weather and Major talked about some woman he was dating, which was beyond cute. I sat beside Padraig and he kept his hand on my leg the whole time. It felt good to have his comfort, even if it wasn’t quite real.

But what is real?

The words that he told me this morning had to be real. They were only for me, and not for show. But when he kisses me in front of everyone, is that real? Or is that for show? And if it’s not for show, how come that doesn’t happen enough in private?

This is getting very confusing, and I keep playing along because it’s what I agreed to and I want to be with him. Even if it’s just fake, I want to be around him and I want to pretend.

The problem is, over time, it won’t be pretending anymore.

When I look at him, he makes me feel all my emotions physically.

My chest burns with frustration.

My stomach skips with yearning.

My skin alights with desire.

My bones feel as light and hollow as a bird’s, that feeling you get when you look at someone and you might just float away from the pure fizzy joy that’s filling you like air. I’m barely tethered to anything.

I need to be tethered.

I need to keep my heart intact.

We’re barely into this façade and if I’m feeling this way already, what’s going to happen in a week and after that?

Deep down, I know I’m heading for a heartache so severe it might just destroy me once and for all.

And yet, despite the fear, I’m not going to push it away.

Because how lucky would I be to fall in love with this man?

I don’t think many people truly get to do that, even if it’s all a lie in the end.

“What are ye doing tonight?” Padraig asks me after we carry our dishes to the kitchen. Gail told us to leave them but I think we’re doing this to bug her.

“Tonight?” I ask. “Oh, you know. Sleeping.”

“How about we head down to my mate Alistair’s pub? The Velvet Bone.”

“I need to start jotting down all these wicked Irish pub names.”

“So is that a yes?”

I laugh and punch him on the arm. “Of course that’s a yes.”

And that’s when I notice Gail staring at us, so I quickly kiss him on the cheek, grab his hand, and lead him out of the kitchen.

“I don’t want to drive if I’m drinking,” he says to me once we’re out of earshot. “But it’s just down the road. Do ye think you can handle the walk?”

I’m actually touched that he’s that thoughtful. “How long of a walk?” The truth is, I can’t be on my feet for more than a few hours at a time. For some reason, when I was younger, I could do Disney World no problem but now I can’t do more than half a day. My back pain gets unreal.

“About twenty minutes.”

“Oh, that’s no problem at all. But we’re going to have to bundle up because I bet it’s freezing out there.”

I’m right, too, though it could just be cold compared to the contrast of the warm fire.

It’s a beautiful night though, the crisp sky so clear that I can see every single star.

“Look at that,” I say as we walk down the driveway, heads craned back to stare at the dark night sky. “Doesn’t that make you feel so small?”

He muses over that for a moment and then says, “Nah.”

“Nah?”

He looks amused to disagree with me. “It makes me feel like … with all that space and all those infinite universes … this is the only one that counts. People say that it puts all your problems into perspective, but it just makes my own problems seem bigger, since I’m the only me in this whole universe. And there’s only one me to handle these problems. You know what I mean like?”

“I guess,” I say. “But it still makes me feel small. Like look at this.” We’ve reached the main road and I gesture out across the landscape. At night, the rolling green hills become as black and fathomless as the skies above, and the occasional light from a house could be another star. “It all bleeds together, all becomes one. Doesn’t it make you think we’re sitting on the edge of the universe? Doesn’t that make you seem insignificant?”

“Look, if ye want me to wax poetic about how you’re more significant than every star in the sky, I can do that. Believe me, my mother was quite the poet, but I can always try and see what I come up with. Roses are red, violets are blue, now let’s get to the pub before it closes on us,” he says with a smile and gives me a wink.

The Velvet Bone is located along a country lane with a small smattering of houses about. Upstairs there’s a few hotel rooms, but downstairs is where the party is.

Or, in this case, it happens to be about six locals, sitting around and drinking beer and watching darts on the television.

When we walk in, we get the royal entrance.

“For feck’s sake!” the bartender yells at us once we step inside, clapping his hands. “Look what the bloody cat dragged in. Padraig McCarthy. And this must be yer mot.”

His mot?

“It means girlfriend,” Padraig explains. “And actually, she’s my fiancé.”

And as has happened every time Padraig says that word, the room goes quiet.

I’m starting to think that people must have placed bets on whether he would ever settle down with someone or not.

I’m lucky, I think.

No, you’re just acting, I quickly remind myself.

“Yer kidding?” the bartender says, then glares at him suspiciously. “Don’t tell me this is yer ploy to get a round bought for ye, because we all know how much money yer arse makes, it’s printed in the bloody papers.”

“Not kidding. Alistair, this is Valerie. Valerie, this is Alistair. He’s okay most of the time. The rest of the time he’s a real tosser.”

“Ay!” he yells at him.

I laugh. “Nice to meet you.”

“Oh my god. And she’s an American,” Alistair says, looking at everyone else in the bar. “He’s really branching out. Well, fuck.” He leaps over the bar, surprisingly spry. “Come give me a bloody hug, you eeijit.” Alistair pulls Padraig into a hug.

“You too,” he says to me, scooping me up.

I laugh. He’s on the short side and built like a gymnast, but even so he has no trouble getting me off the ground.

He slaps me on the back. He’s a cute guy, pale, with brown hair and light eyes. Very mischievous looking. I can tell he’s going to be trouble. “So, when the fuck did all this nonsense happen, huh? Sit down and tell us the story.”

We take our seats at the bar, and before we can order anything, Alistair has poured us each a pint of Guinness. He raises the one he was already drinking and says, “Cheers.” We all raise our glasses. The whole pub does. “Cheers to the happy couple and for Padraig ending his chronic bachelorism.”

“Cheers!” everyone says.

I take a sip of my beer and watch as everyone else sucks half of it down in one go. The taste of Guinness hasn’t grown on me yet.

“So, first of all mate,” Alistair says to Padraig, leaning against the bar on his elbows. “Where on earth did you find her? She’s far too good for the likes of ye.”

“At a pub, of course,” Padraig says, palming his beer. God, he has such good hands. Just staring at them now, away from the eyes of his family, surrounded by dim lights and dark wood and the smell of beer, it feels like my hormones are being ramped up with each passing second.

   
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