I take a shower, standing under the hot water until the painkiller starts to kick in, then get ready for breakfast.

Valerie is already there, along with my nan and the Major, and the moment she meets my eyes, she smiles shyly and looks away.

I stand there for a moment, trying to imprint this scene in my memory. Valerie looks so fresh faced and devious all at once, and I love how she can be so dirty in the bedroom and yet still blushes like there’s no tomorrow. Meanwhile the Major is talking about the weather to Nan, who is spearing her eggs like they’ve done something personal to her.

The scene is so happy and wholesome.

And fake.

This is all for show, the voice in my head says. She’s not really yours, not in this sense. She’s a bird on your arm for now, but sooner or later, she’s going to fly away.

She’s going to go home.

I swallow hard and then quickly shake the feeling out of me.

“Yer going to have to help yourself, boy,” my nan says to me.

I pick up my plate and kiss Valerie on the cheek.

“Where’s Dad?” I ask my nan.

“Gail drove him to the doctor this morning,” Nan says.

“Gail? Why, what happened?”

“Nothing happened,” she says with a shrug. “He has to go once a week and she takes him. When he eventually can’t make the journey then the doctor will come here. At some point we’re going to need a nurse too but…” She pauses, seeming choked up. “I don’t want to think about that yet.” She sighs. “I would have to move out of the cottage and in here, and she’d have to move in there and then how am I going to rent out any rooms when they’re all taken by you buggers?”

Turns out sadness and annoyance are interchangeable with my nan.

“But I’m here now,” I tell her. “That should be my job to take him to the doctor.”

She gives me a steady look and then says, “If ye like. It’s just nice enough having ye around.”

“But I don’t want to just hang around. I want to help him. You should be using me.”

“Yea, well, that’s something to discuss with yer father.”

“But he’s sick,” I say, because I can’t bring myself to say the word dying. “At this point we should be making decisions for him. Where is his doctor anyway? Surely no one in Shambles can help him.”

“He goes to one in Cork. It’s only an hour away. I’d have taken him if I could but people get so worked up when I drive. I mean, I been doing it for seventy years, for feck’s sake,” she grumbles into her food.

All I know is that Gail isn’t driving him anymore. I don’t trust her for beans and I don’t have much time with my father left. I need to make amends. I need to reach him before it’s too late.

“I can drive him,” the Major speaks up. “I was a brilliant driver until they took my license away.”

“It’s quite all right, Major,” I tell him. Rumor has it they took his license away when he drove right through a barn and into a pile of manure. He used to have a convertible, too.

About two hours later, my dad and Gail come back. I’d been sitting on the couch with Valerie while she goes over her falconry books and looks up videos on YouTube, when I spot them walking through the backyard to the cottage.

I quickly throw on my boots and run outside into the frosty air.

My dad looks totally knackered and leans on Gail as they walk down the gravel path.

I immediately go to his other side to help, putting his arm around me. Christ. This is the first time I’ve been this close to him since I got here, and it’s like holding on to a skeleton, even when he’s bundled up in a coat. I’m afraid if he collapses he might crumble into dust.

“I don’t need yer help,” he says, and tries to push me away but he can’t even move his arm. “I’m not a cripple.”

I know Valerie would cringe at that word but I don’t bother saying anything to my dad about it now. He’s about the most un-PC guy I know.

Still, I help him and tell Gail I’ll take it from here.

“I don’t think you know what you’re doing,” Gail says.

“Walking my dad to his bed?” I say to her over my dad’s head. “I think I can manage.”

“Padraig, just leave me be,” my dad says, wincing in pain. “Knowing yer track record, you’ll probably drop me.”

That was a low blow, even for a guy in a lot of pain.

I somehow manage to swallow my anger, but I don’t step away either. I keep him supported as Gail opens the door, and together we lead him inside and over to his bed.

“Ach, can I get some privacy now?” he says, head lolling against the pillow. “Away with ye.”

“Can we get you anything?” Gail asks.

“Am I allowed more pills?”

“No.”

“Then away with ye. Leave me in peace.”

He closes his eyes and promptly begins to snore, either really asleep or badly faking it.

We exit the cottage and Gail tries to hurry back to the house, but I pull her aside. “How was it? The doctor. What happened?”

“Oh, ye want to know? Do ye know I’ve been helping your dad for months now and I never even heard a peep outta ye.”

Hmmm. It’s possible that Gail isn’t mad at me because I was an arse when we were together, just that I’ve been neglecting my dad.

“I know. I’ve had a rough go,” I explain, though it sounds weak to my ears, even if it’s the truth.

“This whole time? You could have checked in.”

“I did. Many times. Nan said everything was fine.”

“Because she didn’t want to worry ye.”

“So, fine. That’s what I thought. That everything was fine.”

“You never asked how I was doing.”

I frown. “I’m sorry?”

She rolls her eyes and now I have no idea what her deal is. “Anyway, the doctor, he’s good enough.”

“But he’s a country doctor. My doctor in Dublin, he knows a specialist, there are ways they can help.”

She shrugs. “That’s up to you and your father. Do you really want to take him up to Dublin? There’s nothing they can do. You know that by now, don’t ye?”

I swallow, refusing to accept it even though I’ve known the reality. “He could pull through.”

She presses her lips together and shakes her head. “No. He’s not going to. He only has a month left, six weeks at most.”

“A month,” I repeat dumbly, feeling like I’ve received a blow. “They … Nan said he had months. At least six months. Maybe a year.”

“I’m sorry, Padraig,” she says. “Those were always hopeful estimates. But your dad is … he’s in a lot of pain.”

“I know.”

“No. Not just physically. Emotionally. Losing his family.”

I look at her sharply. “He hasn’t lost everything. I’m here now.”

“But you’re not really, are ye? You’re here because you feel guilt and you want to patch things up until he goes. You want to absolve yourself. You want to prove something to him, but he knows you wouldn’t be here otherwise.”

“You know nothing about me.”

She folds her arms. “You’re right. I don’t. And I don’t think your fiancé knows ye either.”

My jaw tightens. “This has nothing to do with her. This is about my father. And I don’t care what you and your Holy Joe attitude have to say about it. I’m here and I’m staying here because I’m his son.”

“If you’re his son, maybe you should show him that.”

“I’m trying.”

“You’re trying the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. Look, ye know he’s a deeply unhappy man and always has been, ever since your mam and sister died. He’s a broken shell of a person. Sometimes I think you might be the same. And, it’s truly sad, but it might be too late for the both of ye.”

And at that she leaves, hurrying off to the house and disappearing inside.

Leaving me outside.

Just a shell of a man.

Maybe she’s right.

I’ve spent my whole life going through the motions. Before my mother and sister died, I’d spent all my time pleasing my dad. After they died, I did everything I could to anger him. The moment I was old enough to leave the house and play rugby professionally, I did. I dedicated every waking second to the game because there was nothing else to dedicate my time and my life to. My beloved mother was gone and my father hated me. There was nothing else but my career.

And now what.

Now I don’t have the game.

And without the game, who am I?

A broken shell of a man.

“Padraig?”

Valerie’s soft voice breaks through the darkness that swirls around me, reminding me that I’m standing in the sunshine, not swept into that internal black hole, the one I might never come out of.

I look over and see her running across the lawn to me, my peacoat gathered in her hands.

“What are you doing out here without a coat on, it’s freezing,” she says, handing me my coat.

“Thanks,” I say absently, trying to snap back into the moment, to appreciate this angel in front of me. But there’s something tense on her face, the way she’s worrying her lip between her teeth. I’m guessing she just saw Gail and I talking and wonders what happened.

“Do ye want to go for a drive?” I ask her, slipping the coat over my shoulders. I have the sudden need to get the fuck out of here.

I think she can tell that too because she nods warily. “Oh, okay. Sure. Do I need to grab my purse?”

“No. Let’s just go,” I say. I grab her hand and pull her along the side of the property to where the Cayenne is parked out front.

“Where are we going?” she asks as I burn it down the driveway and onto the main road. The SUV hits a patch of black ice for a moment but I quickly correct it. Judging from the white-knuckle grip Valerie has on her seatbelt, I better slow down some.

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