“We only got engaged over Christmas,” Val speaks up, trying to change the subject. “So we haven’t really planned anything yet. It’s all so new,” she adds brightly.

“Where is your ring?” Gail asks, staring at Val’s hands but glancing expectantly at me. “You’ve all the money in the world, I would have thought should ye ever get married, your miss would be rolling in diamonds.”

“It’s not the time to be cheap, Padraig,” my dad adds.

I exchange a glance with Val and my nan and then clear my throat. “Well, Dad, I meant to ask ye this earlier. But the reason she doesn’t have a ring was I was hoping I could use Mam’s engagement ring.”

The room goes silent.

Everyone stops eating and looks at my father.

Except for Major, who goes, “What’s that you say?”

My father frowns and then takes his glasses off and puts them back on, as if that will reset the question. “You want to use the ring I gave yer mother?”

“It would mean a lot to us. I would like that ring to live on,” I say.

From one glance at her I know that Val is dying a little inside, but I push through. “I understand if ye don’t and there’s no hard feelings there. I just thought it would be special.”

My father grumbles something but I think it’s just nonsense. He’s staring down at his uneaten salad, frowning, lips moving. Then he looks up at me. “I think yer mother would like that very much.” He swallows thickly, and I’m realizing that for the first time in a long time, my father is actually showing some emotion.

Shite. I think this actually means something to him.

Relief and guilt tumble inside me and I’m not sure which feeling will win out, but all I know is this is what I wanted.

Isn’t it?

He looks at Val. “I loved Padraig’s mother very much, and she was … she was taken too soon,” he says, an undercurrent of grief in his voice. “They both were.”

“Both?” Val asks, and I realize I should have explained to her just how my mother died.

“He didn’t tell ye?” he asks, surprised. I guess this would be the kind of thing she should know if we’ve been together for a year.

“I didn’t have the heart,” I say feebly, as if that explains it.

“The heart to honor your sister?” he says.

“Sister?” Val asks. She looks at me. “I thought you were an only child.”

“No,” my father says gruffly. “No. He had a sister. For five days. For five days in the hospital room, in that wee incubator, there was Clara. My wife died giving birth to her. Clara died five days later.”

This time the silence is oppressive, pressing down on us in all directions. Even the Major seems to have heard what was said.

I would have told Valerie everything about my mother and Clara, in time. But we’ve only known each other a few days and it slipped my mind. There’s so bloody much going on right now.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Valerie says to him emphatically, her hand at her heart, and I know she’s probably mortified for asking. “Padraig had told me how she died, but he was so emotional every time he brought it up that I didn’t press for details.”

God, she’s a good liar.

“That’s completely understandable,” my nan says. “Now, Colin, tell Padraig he can have the ring so everyone can eat their stew before it gets colder than a nun’s teat.”

My father clears his throat, used to my nan’s language. “Of course you can have the ring, Padraig.” He looks to Val. “Valerie,” he says to her, “you seem like a lovely young lady. I’m happy I get to know ye better over the next few weeks or months or however long you’re staying here.”

Ah, fuck.

In the car we’d come up with the plan that Valerie was flying back home next week to see her family and then we’d play it by ear after that. Come up with some believable reason why she couldn’t come back.

“I’m staying as long as you’ll have me,” Valerie says.

My brows shoot to the ceiling.

Does she actually mean that?

And when she meets my eyes, she gives me an impish smile, and I know she does.

She’s staying.

I’m not sure how but I know that suddenly, this whole charade is about to get even more complicated.

12

Valerie

For the third time in a row, I’m waking up with a bit of a hangover.

Last night after dinner, we all retired to the sitting area by the fire, and the Major brought out the whisky. There were cookies that Padraig’s grandmother—who keeps insisting I call her Agnes—whipped up on a whim. Padraig was forced to talk about rugby and all the different teams with the Major, and occasionally his father would throw in his two cents about what team was “faffin about” and so on.

Me, I stayed snuggled under Padraig’s arm, smiling at the warm and cozy scene while simultaneously being terrified.

I may have just agreed to stay longer in Shambles without consulting Padraig first.

I didn’t know what to do. One moment there was a giant bombshell exploding in my lap at the fact that his mother not only died during childbirth but that he had an infant sister that died five days later. The next moment his father was looking at me with the kind of softness that I’d taken must be rare for him, telling me I could have her ring, and so when they asked how long I planned to stay, I couldn’t tell him I had a flight back home next week. It didn’t seem believable and it didn’t seem right.

Like, thanks for the ring and the Irish stew, see ya!

So I told them I was basically staying for as long as Padraig was and, well, I think that may have created some problems.

Problems I then decided to handle by drinking copious amounts of whisky and passing out on the couch. Thankfully that happened after everyone had retired to their rooms. I remember Padraig carrying me upstairs and putting me on my bed, and the last thing he said was, “We’ll talk about it in the morning.”

Well, now it’s the morning. It’s sunny out, not a cloud in the blinding blue sky, but the tip of my nose is cold and the window is frosted. I reach over and grab my phone, seeing a joint text from Sandra and Angie, plus one from my friend Brielle, all asking me how I am.

I think I’m staying longer, I text my sisters.

Good! Such a cool country! Might extend my vacation haha lol, I text Brielle.

I get out from under the covers and quickly get dressed, shivering as I go, putting on fleece-lined leggings and a big sweater.

After I’ve washed up, I check my phone to see the reply from my sisters:

I knew it (Sandra).

Are you sure you know what you’re doing?

She’s a big girl and she can do what she wants and u know she needs the D…(this is Sandra).

She knows it’s you! You don’t have to keep saying Sandra!

Ur right, she knows ur the dream crusher.

I don’t bother texting Sandra and the dream crusher back. Not right now. I have to sort it all out with Padraig first.

I head down the creaky narrow staircase to the dining room, surprised to see it empty, even though there are table settings out.

I poke my head in the kitchen to see Gail by the stove, putting on a kettle.

“Am I late for breakfast? Sorry, I forgot to set an alarm.”

She looks at me calmly. “You’re not late.”

“Where is everyone?”

She raises a brow, as if amused that I don’t know where my fiancé is, and says patiently, “Padraig is at the mews. Colin is watching TV at the cottage. Agnes is doing the washing and who knows where the Major is.”

“Oh, thank you,” I say, starting to leave.

“Aren’t ye hungry? You’ve not had breakfast.”

“That’s okay.”

“Sit down. I’ll bring ye food.”

“Oh, that’s no problem. I can do it myself.”

She keeps that level stare. “It’s my job. Please, tell me what you want and I’ll bring it to ye.”

I’m about to tell her anything is fine but I think I need to be more direct with her, and probably everyone in general. “Eggs, bacon, beans,” I tell her, since that’s the breakfast I’ve been having since I got to Ireland. “Thank you.”

She shrugs and gets to work, so I go back to my seat and sit down. I’d only just met Gail last night but I have a feeling she doesn’t like me. Or maybe I’m just being paranoid, because she wasn’t overtly friendly to anyone. Still, she stared at me a lot, and judging by her expression, I don’t think she had kind thoughts.

She comes out with a plate of fried eggs doused in pepper, streaky thick bacon, beans, and grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, plus big slices of toast.

My stomach growls loudly at the sight.

Yum.

“See, I knew you’d be hungry,” she says, sitting down across from me and nursing a cup of tea in her hands. “You were really getting into the whisky last night.”

I think this is her attempt to belittle me but I just shrug. “Hard to say no when you’re in such good company.”

Then I shovel the eggs into my mouth. She eyes me with a slight level of disgust, and judging by how thin she is, she’s probably putting the way I eat and the size of my body together.

I’m used to that with my mother. I’m not going to let it bother me on the other side of the Atlantic.

“So, you’re getting married to Padraig,” Gail says, her voice tight and chipper. “You’re a lucky lady. You do know that, don’t ye?”

“Of course,” I say, trying to swallow. “He’s the best.”

“But you’ve only known him for a year. It’s a bit soon to get married, don’t ye think?”

Oh god, I heard this crap when I was engaged to Cole.

Although in hindsight, they had been right.

But it won’t happen this time, I think.

And so now of course I’m actually crazy because I’m fretting about our completely fake relationship.

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