It’s funny how, even though I can get away with lusting after him when we’re at the B&B, I prefer to do it in private. Because in private, it’s real. Otherwise it feels like it’s just for show, even if it isn’t.

Either way, I don’t feel anyone in this dark pub needs a show, so I ogle him as he tells his friend about how we met, combining both the real and the fake.

He looks even sexier and somehow more enigmatic now than he did when I first laid eyes on him. His black hair is a bit spiky at the top, and I think he must have run some styling paste through it before we left. His beard is very neatly trimmed, and he’s wearing one of his many Henleys, this one a moss green that seems to bring out lighter dimensions in his dark brown eyes and fits him like an absolute glove, showing off his boulders for shoulders and his thick, commanding forearms.

I admire those forearms the way I admired his hands, knowing the skill they have and what they can do. Not just to my body, but out there on the rugby pitch. Fuck, I would love nothing more than to see him in action.

Then he’s got charcoal jeans that make his round, muscular ass look amazing, his boots, his black wool peacoat crammed under the stool in a pile. I have no doubt that the coat is some kind of designer and it boggles my mind to have that much money to do that with your clothes and not care.

Or maybe it’s just that he’s a guy. Aside from his place, which, though small, must have cost a ton, his car, and his clothes, Padraig doesn’t at all give off any sense that he’s aware of his money. He’s not showy with it, though I’m sure he could have a lavish lifestyle if he wanted to. I have a feeling that might be an Irish thing, to stay humble and keep your wealth hidden. Or perhaps it’s his upbringing.

I think back to what we talked about earlier at the mews. How hard it must have been for him. His mother gone. A baby sister who only got to see the world for five days. So much loss, and so fast and so soon. I was lucky that my accident happened when I was so young, since I was able to adapt and live the rest of my life with this new reality.

But to lose so much at sixteen, I don’t know how he’s done it. Then to lose the relationship with his father … I can see why all of this matters so much to Padraig, even if he’s shouldering so much of it deep inside.

I want to help him carry that load. Maybe that’s inappropriate of me, but it’s the truth. I want his trust and I want in, into all his darkness that he hides from the world.

“And so what do you do, Valerie?”

I blink and look up from my beer to see Alistair staring at me expectantly.

“What do I do?”

“For work and such. Though perhaps you’re a kept woman. I wouldn’t be surprised. I’d do the same if I had the luck to be with Padraig. He’s so dreamy, ain’t he?” He reaches across and pinches Padraig’s cheek.

“Oh, sod off,” Padraig says grumpily, batting his hand away.

“Ah, well, I’m a writer,” I tell him.

“Oy, a writer? My god, no wonder you found Padraig. There isn’t any money in writing,” he says.

I hate to well actually him but… “Well, actually, until recently I was a full-time writer for an online newspaper.”

“Online? And they paid ye?”

“Very well,” I lie. So it wasn’t great pay but there were benefits, and that was good enough.

“And then what happened?”

I was hoping he wouldn’t ask. “Uh, I’m just writing freelance now.”

He winces. “Oof, that’s got to be hard.”

“Well, actually,” Padraig says, and I can’t help but smile at that. “Valerie is extremely talented, so it comes easy to her. Right now, she’s writing an article about falconry.”

“You McCarthys and yer crazy birds,” Alistair says with a shake of his head as he pours himself and Padraig another pint. “You should write about rugby. You’ll get way more hits. Hey, or ye can make a sex tape. Those always go over well when there’s a rugby player involved. Sell that and bingo.”

“Speaking of money,” Padraig says, changing the subject since I’m already blushing at the mention of a sex tape. “How’s the business going here?”

“Oh, just brilliant.”

Padraig looks at me. “We’ve always been rivals, ye see. Up this way outta town, there’s just his hotel and our B&B.”

“He may have the birds, but I have the booze.” He takes a sip of his beer and grins. “That said, it is January and if we don’t get any guests soon I’ll be pulling a tenner out of a leper’s arse with me teeth.”

I burst out laughing. “That’s one way of putting it.”

“We have many ways of putting things, sweetheart,” Alistair says with a shrug. He raises what’s left of his beer. “Here’s to a better tomorrow, then.”

We raise our glasses, clinking them against each other.

And we drink.

And we drink.

And we drink.

Before I know it, I’ve actually finished three pints and I’m about to explode. I head over to the ladies’ room, which they call “the jacks,” and when I come back, Alistair is going around the room, dimming the lights and pulling all the curtains shut and locking the door.

“What’s happening?” I ask, sounding slightly panicked, my mind immediately thinking we’re back in the States and in some kind of lockdown situation.

“It’s called a lock-in,” Padraig explains. “The pubs here have to close by eleven-thirty so this is one way of getting around that.”

“We make it look like no one is home and the party continues. Ain’t that right, boys?” he asks the other three men who have remained.

They do a drunken cheer in response. “Yaaaaay.”

“Shhhh!”

“In other words,” Padraig says as I take my seat beside him. “You’re one of us now.”

“One of us, one of us,” the men start chanting, slamming their fists on the table.

“Shhhh!’ Alistair hushes them again.

“One of us, one of us,” they say more quietly.

I beam at them, not so secretly thrilled. Even though it’s silly to think you belong because you’re locked in an Irish pub, it hits right through to the heart of me. I’ve never belonged to anything before. My whole life, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was bullied and ridiculed for just being a little bit different. I was too eager and afraid for friends. My family never made me feel like I belonged with them either. Angie was the smart one, and Sandra was the pretty and outgoing one, and I just … I was the one who was crippled and flawed and weird and withdrawn, and so many things, things that I know my mother never hoped for when I was born.

And later in life, I did what I could to make friendships, but I wanted, I needed, them to be something more than shallow, and yet I had such a hard time converting that. I had a hard time opening up. I just wanted to look as perfect as I could on the outside to hide how imperfect I was on the inside.

But here … here in this pub, here with Padraig, I don’t feel I have to hide. Which is ironic, considering I’m supposed to be living out a lie and half the things coming out of my mouth aren’t true.

They said I was one of them.

For now, I’m just going to believe it.

I put my hand on Padraig’s knee and give it a light squeeze as I lean in, breathing in his woodsy scent, feeling the heat of his neck. I whisper in his ear, “Thank you for making me feel like I belong. Here, with your family, with everything.”

He turns his face to mine, eyes brimming with intensity as he looks deeply at me, and captures my mouth in a soft, warm kiss, as sweet and tender as anything.

“Oy, get a room,” Alistair says, coming around the bar. “And start by renting one upstairs.” He wags his brows.

I giggle, feeling the alcohol swarm through my veins, and I bury my face in Padraig’s neck, wanting more than anything for us to be alone. That one-night stand wasn’t enough, and even though sober me has been glad for the separate bedrooms, drunk me just wants to get laid like the horndog I am around this man.

Soon, I’m woozy and horny and it’s time to go. I keep pawing away at Padraig like a dog in heat. We say our goodbyes and go out the back door so the rest of the pub can stay locked in, and the moment we’re outside into the sharp air and around the dark corner, Padraig is pushing me back against the stone wall of the pub and devouring me.

His hands go under my coat, my hands go into his hair, and our kisses are messy and wild, like we might just eat each other alive. I’m moaning his name and he’s grunting in response, these hoarse sounds that make me so wet I know my underwear is soaked through.

But as much as I am deliriously hungry for him, as much as I’ve tried to ignore how riled up I’ve been ever since yesterday, when he lay on top of me on the bed and I felt how damn hard he was, I want to get him off. I want his gorgeous eyes to roll back in his head, and I want his hands in my hair and I want him grunting out my name as he comes.

I reach down for his fly and quickly unzip it, bringing his cock out.

“Valerie,” he murmurs against my lips, and I smile in response before dropping down to my knees.

I know it’s cold out, though you would never know it with his dick, and I quickly draw him into my mouth where he immediately moans.

“God, yes. Fucking suck me off,” he bites through a groan and puts his hands into my hair, making fists and guiding his cock into my mouth.

I take him eagerly, my tongue licking down his hard ridge, swirling around the thickness of his head, tasting the salt of him. He tastes good, fresh and sharp, like a man, and I go at him harder, deeper, until he’s nearly thrusting into the back of my throat.

“Oh, I don’t have long, darlin’,” he says hoarsely, tugging on my hair harder now, almost to the point of pain.

I pull back just enough to run the tip of him over my lips as if I’m applying lipstick. “I want you to come. I want to swallow you.”

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