Vincent and Avril
Chapter One
"It Was Born in the Stable"
by Margaret Pattison


Father Vincent Sheahan had settled in nicely in Avril's spare room. Her offer of a roof over his head had suited him; he liked her, he liked the atmosphere at the yard (both the industrious yet easygoing manner of the workers and the natural setting), and he liked the feeling of not having someone monitoring his comings and goings.

Certainly none of those criteria had been fulfilled at Kathleen Hendley's place, where he had had the dubious distinction of being a houseguest for a couple of days after receiving the eviction notice from the Credit Bank of Ireland. Not even a houseguest, really, as he had been obliged to pay for room and board, although he had to admit that the room had been immaculate if fussy, and the board more than adequate. But he had felt something like a pampered housepet, with Kathleen always simpering over him and wanting to know where he was going and when he would be back ("Just so that I know whether to keep a plate warm for you, Father Sheahan.") She was a religiously faithful woman, no doubt, trying to do the right thing according to her own rigid interpretation of moral code, but she was just too narrow-minded, provincial, and unyielding for his taste.

He on the other hand was willing to bend the rules, as evidenced by his often casual mode of dress, or at the other extreme apply the narrowest letter of the law in order to achieve his own ends, as he had in the matter of his divorced Australian friend. And now, he knew that Father Mac was none too pleased with his most recent change of address. An attractive, virile Australian man sharing accommodations with a beautiful young divorcee was sure to raise some eyebrows, and Vincent knew that Father Mac wished him to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Well, to hell with his outdated ideas of decency and morals. Decency to Vincent meant respect for others, and morals meant acting with charity in your heart. Vincent respected Avril, and she was being charitable toward him. She wasn't asking for any recompense, but Vincent was scrupulous about paying for his own food and drink (limited to tea, coffee, and mineral water, of course!) and he figured that when the utility bills came in he'd pay half of them. In the meantime, he did his best to keep things tidy and stay out of Avril's way.

He felt that the arrangement was to Avril's benefit, too. She seemed lonesome, in the brittle way that one is who builds walls around her heart in order to protect it from being broken again. Of course, she would never admit to feeling lonely--she was too busy for that--but she didn't have anyone else who she could really talk to. Ever since the calamitous reunion with her ex-husband and her sister, Rosie, it was clear to Vincent that Avril needed someone to listen to her. Without a sympathetic ear, he was certain Avril ran the risk of returning to her old, self-destructive ways. He understood better than anyone what could drive her back to the bottle, as he fought daily with the same demons.

One of the thoroughbred mares in Avril's care was due to foal any day. Siobhan came by daily to check on the mare's progress, and Avril had instructed the stable hands to keep a particular eye on the horse, and inform her of any changes in the mare's behavior. Everything was normal that Thursday evening when the last of the hands checked in with Avril on his way home.

"Good night, Ms. Burke, everything's buttoned up for the night."

"Thanks, Corry, nothing doing with Pilgrim's Progress?"

"Ah no, she's as still as the night."

"Right, well, see you tomorrow then."

Corry turned and trudged across the gravel-strewn yard to his car. Avril looked around in the purple twilight and breathed in deeply the smells of damp earth, fresh hay, warm manure, and horse musk. It was comforting to her. She also found it comforting to know that Father Sheahan would be returning soon. Or later. It didn't matter, she never wondered what he was up to (but after all, what can a teetotalling Catholic priest find to do in a village the size of Ballykissangel after 6 pm?), but in the course of the week that he had been staying with her, he had never spent an entire night away. She turned to go back inside and start plowing through the pile of invoices and bills that had gathered on her desk in the past week. "Eenie, meenie, mynie, moe," she muttered to herself.

About a half-hour later, Avril heard the familiar grumble of the Granada's engine as it approached on the access road. She stood up, glad for a brief stretch and a respite for her eyes, and flipped the switch on the coffee pot. Looking out the window as she leaned back against the sink, she saw Father Sheahan's red car drive into the yard even as she heard the gravel crunching under its tires.

She smiled to herself. It was crazy, the way this rapport had developed between the two of them. She had made it clear from the start that she was not a religious person, but that didn't seem to bother him in the least; he didn't even seem to think of her as a "challenge" to be converted to his way of thinking, but rather accepted her at face value and tried nothing more than to be a true friend. And while she had to admit that he was a handsome man, she never found herself thinking of him in any way other than as a friend. It was nice, not to have those awkward scenes where the sexual potential was everpresent, as she had with Edso. Aargh, poor Edso. Avril felt uncomfortable just thinking about it. He was a nice guy and all, but she just wanted to sink into the ground whenever he, or she, made one of those fumbling comments. She couldn't even bring herself to look him in the eye anymore. No, a purely platonic relationship was just what she needed just now, and she was glad that Father Sheahan was the one who had happened along.

Avril heard three firm knocks on the door, and then it opened. Vincent entered the dim living room and immediately turned his head expectantly toward the kitchen.

His face lit up when he saw Avril standing there. "Avril, hi," he greeted her as he closed and locked the door behind himself. He came into the kitchen and glanced at the disorderly scatter of papers around the computer on the desk. "Working late?" he grinned.

"Hi yourself," she responded lightly, arms folded across her chest. "It's not late yet. I've barely opened the office. Two am, now that would be considered working late," she quipped. She looked down at the coffee pot, the red light indicating that the proper temperature had not been reached yet. "Just waiting for this thing to deliver my dose of caffeine. Care to join me?"

"Ah, nah." He inclined his head toward the living room, on the other side of which the spare bedroom was situated. "I'll just be turning in. Big day tomorrow. We've got a bus heading up to Knock."

"Knock? Wouldn't have thought you'd go in for that kind of thing."

"What kind of thing?"

Avril waved her fingers in a razzle-dazzle display. "You know, big brouhaha, vendors, carny atmosphere."

"I think you have to look beyond that to what's at the heart of the matter. And anyway, it wasn't my choice. It's what the seniors group voted for."

"Well bring me back a souvenir. Maybe I'll get religion after all."

Vincent smiled warmly at her. "I'll pick something out special. Don't knock yourself out with that now." He indicated the paperwork on the desk.

Avril promised, "I'll be sure to knock off when my eyes start to cross."

"Good night." Vincent walked back down the hall.

"Night."

The red light on the coffee machine finally blinked off. Avril picked up the pitcher and poured the steaming brew into the mug she had set at the ready on the counter top. It was good to have friends.

It was shortly after midnight and Avril was just finishing restacking her papers when she heard a disturbing sound from outside. She pricked her ears, frowned and hurried out the door to listen more closely. It sounded like a moaning whimper, low and hollow. Avril rushed to the pregnant mare's stall, running over the sharp stones in her stocking feet, fearing the worst. The other horses were looking out into the yard. They were clearly nervous, shaking their heads and snorting. "Damn," she muttered under her breath as she reached the stall. The mare was clearly having difficulties, from the sound of it. Avril reached around inside the door and switched on the electric light. The mare was lying on her side on the floor, the straw and sawdust stained dark around her. She was breathing shallowly and her eyes were wide with pain, fear and shock.

"Damn damn damn damn," Avril exclaimed in escalating tones as she ran back to the apartment. She stumbled over a chair as she rushed blindly through the darkened living room, stubbing her toe. "Damn!" she shouted, hopping toward the kitchen. Once there, she went directly to the desk and rummaged wildly around, incidentally pushing her neatly stacked piles of paper to the floor.

"Where's the damn phone!" she exploded in anxiety and frustration. She whirled around, scanning the room. Her eye fell on the kitchen table, where her cell phone was lying. She grabbed the phone and punched the buttons furiously, then held the phone to her ear. "Come on, come on," she muttered impatiently, waiting for what seemed an interminably long time while the phone on the other end beeped in measured beats.

Finally the call was answered. Avril paced around the kitchen, shouting into the phone. "Siobhan! I need you out here quick, Pilgrim's Progress is in trouble." She stopped pacing, froze in her tracks. "What do you mean she isn't there? Who is this?" As she listened to the answer, she rolled her eyes. "Great. Well do you know where to reach her?" She listened again, nodded impatiently and finally interrupted, "OK, OK, you do that, whatever, just get me a vet out here asap. Avril Burke." She held the phone away from her ear, jabbed the off button, and stuffed the phone into the back pocket of her jeans. She was about to head back out toward the door when she was startled to see Vincent standing there in a dark blue T-shirt, gray sweatpants, and bare feet.

He had obviously been awakened from a deep sleep. His hair was tousled and he blinked against the light in the kitchen. "What's going on?" he inquired thickly, pressing the heel of his hand to his eye.

Avril pushed past him. "Pilgrim's Progress has gone into labor and it isn't going well," she answered grimly. She stopped just outside the door to pull on a pair of tall black boots.

Vincent quickly became alert and followed her outside. "Is Siobhan on her way?"

"I hope so. That was the babysitter on the phone. Apparently she and Brendan went into Cilldargan for the evening. She said she expected them back soon and she'd send her out as soon as she got in. But that might be too late." She headed toward the stables again.

Vincent hurried along next to her, hobbling across the gravel, offering, "Do you want me to go out and look for her?"

Avril brushed off the suggestion. "Needle in a haystack. I'm going to see if I can figure out exactly what the problem is. Maybe I can do something."

"What about Doc Ryan? Have you tried him?"

"He knows about as much about delivering a foal as I do about saying Mass," Avril said derogatorily. "And anyway, he doesn't have the necessary equipment or medicines,"she ended lamely.

They reached the stall where the mare was laboring. Avril gently unhooked the latch and slowly opened the gate. The horse whinnied nervously from its position on the ground. "There, Pilgrim's Progress," Avril crooned soothingly. "Good girl. I'm going to try to help you." She stealthily entered the stall, keeping to the wall. She knelt down next to the horse's rear and tried as best she could to gauge the situation.

Vincent hovered in the doorway, averting his gaze to the ground. "How does it look?" he asked with concern.

Avril sighed and looked over her shoulder at him. "I can't see any obvious cause for her distress here. The best I can figure is, the foal's in a bad position. It might need to be turned."

"Is that something you can do?"

"It's pretty risky. I might strangle the foal or cause internal damage to the mare. But the alternative is to sit here and watch her expire, taking the foal with her." She pressed her lips together, weighing the options.

Vincent watched her intently, realizing how much more rode on this decision than just the lives of the two animals, precious as they were. If she did nothing, and either of the two horses took harm or even died, she would be blamed for her inaction. If she attempted a cure, and it backfired, she would be blamed for that as well. Either scenario would lead to an investigation by the animal protection authorities with possible legal repercussions. And either way, she would lose the business of at least this owner, and most probably of others as well. It could mean the end of the stables.

Finally, Avril exhaled sharply through her nose. "Well come on. Let's get this foal out."

Vincent's eyes widened. "Who me?"

"Just get in here. I can't do it alone."

Vincent stood up and gingerly picked his way through the straw in his bare feet. "I don't know nothing 'bout birthing no babies, Miss Burke," he attempted to joke with a strained smile on his face.

Avril jerked her head toward the back of the stall, where the horse's head was, and ordered, "Hold her head. I'm going to see what I can do from this end."

Vincent stepped delicately past Avril to the back of the stall and hunkered down next to the poor creature's head. "All right. What should I do?"

"Just hold on to her head so she can't get up. Try to keep her calm."

"Right," Vincent answered with an air of authority. Clearly having no idea what he was doing, he tried to find a place to grip the horse's head without alarming her further. He settled on one hand spanning her nose and the other buried in her mane behind her ears. He tried to keep his attention on the horse's face, so that he wouldn't have to watch what Avril was doing at the other end. He was pretty sure he knew what was entailed in turning an unborn foal inside the mother animal, but he didn't necessarily want to have those suspicions confirmed.

"I think I know what's wrong," Avril puffed after a couple of minutes. "If I'm right, it's not as bad as I thought. The little fella just needs a little guidance." She grunted and grimaced as she tried to correct the situation. Suddenly, a thin, beeping, electronic version of the William Tell Overture began playing. "Damn," muttered Avril.

"What?"

"My cell phone."

Vincent attempted a joke. "Thought it was the heavenly host announcing the birth."

Avril ignored that. "Can you get it?"

"Where is it?"

"Back pocket."

"Your back pocket?"

Avril dropped all semblance of civility. "No, Pilgrim's Progress's! Of course my back pocket. My hands are a little preoccupied at the moment, do you mind?" The tune stopped, then began over from the beginning.

Vincent grunted and tenderly removed his hands from Pilgrim's Progress's head, then quickly stepped over to where Avril was positioned at the horse's back end. He crouched down behind her, trying to avoid looking at what she was doing, but couldn't help noticing the blood and gore.

"Kind of messy, eh?" he noted nervously.

"The phone, Vincent!" she hissed. "It's probably about Siobhan."

He checked with her once more. "Er...in your pocket, you say?"

Avril's patience had long since worn thin. "Yes, sometime today please!"

Vincent looked at Avril's backside in order to ascertain which pocket the phone was in; he didn't want to thrust his hand in randomly, only to discover that it was the wrong pocket. Luckily, he thought with a certain degree of appreciation, Avril's jeans were quite tight, so it was easy to discover the outline of the cell phone, small as it was. He shrugged to himself, "What the hell..." and slipped one hand in. There was already very little space between the layers of fabric, and the size of his hand made maneuvering tricky, but he finally managed to get two fingers around the cell phone and ease it out. It started its tune anew. He held the phone out to Avril.

"Well answer it you omadhaun!" she exploded.

"Oh. Right." He smiled at her to cover his embarrassment. He peered at the rows of buttons and finally found one with a symbol of a telephone receiver next to it. He gamely pushed the button and held it to his ear. "Hello?" He listened for a moment, pointing to the phone and mouthing to Avril, "It's Siobhan." Then he spoke, "No, that's right Siobhan, she's right here. Hold on." He was about to hold the phone out for Avril to take, but remembered her last response and decided against it. He spoke into the phone again, "Ah, sorry Siobhan, she can't come to the phone right now. We're in with Pilgrim's Progress. And Avril's, well...IN Pilgrim's Progress, if you catch my meaning." He listened, then held the phone away from his mouth and said to Avril, "She's on her way. Wants to know what the situation looks like."

"Well you can see what it looks like!"

"Right." He spoke into the phone again, "Well Siobhan, I'd say it isn't a pretty picture. I think the sooner you can get here, the better for all of us." He listened again, then responded, "OK, I'll let her know. Hold on a sec." He held the phone away from his mouth again and asked Avril, "Is there anything else you want to ask? Or can I hang up."

Avril was about to give another tense answer when her face suddenly lit up. "I think I've got it." She strained her arm, pulling with all her strength, then relaxed. "Put that thing down and put your arms around me," she ordered Vincent.

"Wha--?" Vincent didn't understand what she had in mind.

Avril quickly explained, "I don't have the strength in my one arm, but I've got a good grip. Put your arms around me and pull me back. Maybe we can pull the foal out that way."

Vincent looked around desperately for a place to put the phone, checked his sweats but didn't find any pockets, and finally dropped the phone in the corner of the stall. Too late, he realized that Siobhan was still on the line. Not thinking straight, he was about to reach over and pick up the phone again to say good-bye when Avril urged him, "Quick, before it slips away again!"

Vincent called weakly, "Bye Siobhan," and sat down behind Avril, putting his arms around her. Despite the fact that it was a cool night and Avril was wearing no more than a T-shirt, the physical effort of her endeavours and her nervous anxiety had dampened her skin. Vincent caught the slightly astringent scent of her perspiration, mixed with something sweet which he couldn't quite place, but found rather pleasant. He wasn't sure where to put his arms, so he clasped them around her waist.

"Around my chest, you're not doing the Heimlich!" She raised her elbows to allow him access.

He released his grip around her waist and carefully positioned his arms around her upper chest, nearly at her collarbones, grasping his own forearms tightly to create a strong bond. Her hair, bound together at the nape of her neck in a pony tail, brushed against his face, and he recognized that that was the source of the sweetness. "Ready?" he asked.

"Just pull for God's sake!"

Vincent took a deep breath and pulled Avril's body hard toward his own. But of course the combined weight of Avril and the foal, plus whatever was blocking the foal's progress inside its mother, added up to more than his own weight, and he was only able to pull Avril back a few centimeters before he slid forward against her. "No traction," he apologized. He thought quickly, backed up again, and stretched one leg out alongside Avril, in order to brace it against the horse's rear. "Again," he warned. He took another deep breath and pulled Avril as hard as he could toward himself, while pushing against the horse's back with his bare foot. This time at least he was able to hold his ground.

"Keep going, don't stop now!" Avril ordered excitedly. "I think it's working!"

Vincent adjusted his grip and pulled mightily. Avril's arm slowly reappeared, and alongside it a pair of hooves.

"Whoo-hoo! Look at that!" Vincent exclaimed with joy and relief.

"Maybe she can do it herself now," Avril suggested hopefully. "I think she needs to stand up, so that gravity can help her. I'll stay here and hold on to the foal so that it doesn't slip back inside. You go make her stand up."

Vincent carefully disentangled himself from Avril and stepped around the horse's body. He leaned over and tried to lift the mare by the shoulders, which was necessarily a futile undertaking.

Avril saw what he was doing and suggested, more kindly this time, "Try it at her head. You're going to guide her more than lift her. She'll get the idea."

Vincent grinned sheepishly, but the glow of their partial success didn't allow his enthusiasm to be dampened by his ignorance. He stepped over to Pilgrim's Progress's head and crouched down next to her. "Come on, girl, time to get up," he gently coaxed. He raised the horse's head off the ground and pushed her chin up firmly. "Up girl, up," he ordered, pushing on her neck.

The horse seemed to get the message and moved her forelegs underneath her in preparation for raising the front part of her body off the ground.

"That's it, horse, good horse," Vincent encouraged her. He stood up beside her and tugged at her mane.

The horse groaned, snorted, and shook her head. Vincent took his hands off her and stepped back into the corner. All at once, she stood in one great flowing motion, whinnying and bobbing her head up and down. She stood there, shaky and heaving, as Vincent slowly got out of her way.

Avril, at the other end of the stall, shouted, "It's coming! Here it comes!" She stepped back from the mare also and watched as the foal's head followed its forelegs. "She's doing it, she's got it! Come and see!"

Vincent smiled nervously, shook his head and demurred, "No, that's all right. I'll just stay where I am."

"Vincent, come here! It's not every day a foal is born." Avril stomped firmly across the stall to where Vincent was plastered against the wall, grabbed his hand with her one semi-clean hand, and led him back to the gate. "Now just stand here and watch," she ordered him, not letting go of him.

Vincent tried to look everywhere but THERE, but of course that was impossible, as there was nothing else to see but THAT, so he ended up looking and was enthralled and amazed by the birth. Although he knew that horses were soulless creatures, he was still struck by the miracle of their life and creation. To witness a birth was to witness the hand of God. How could Avril work so intimately with these animals day in and day out and not believe in God? Vincent quickly corrected himself; he didn't know that she didn't believe in God. She had made it clear enough that she didn't believe in organized religion, but they had never gotten as far as the question of God. He made a mental note to bring it up sometime. Vincent was aware of Avril's warm, moist hand holding his and felt a special connection to her, one which went beyond the excitement of the night's events. He squeezed her hand and looked down at her, smiling benevolently. Like my little sister, he thought affectionately.

Avril glanced up at Vincent and returned his smile, but quickly returned her attention to the horses. Finally, suddenly, in a slither of legs and water, the foal was born. It landed soundlessly on the straw and sawdust and lay there in a steaming heap. It was breathing. From outside, they could hear the sound of an approaching car.

Avril dropped Vincent's hand and clasped her hands to her chest, in awe. She had tears in her eyes. "Would you look at that," she whispered.

Vincent put his arm around her shoulder. "Congratulations," he croaked through the tightness in his throat. He squeezed her shoulder and kissed her on the temple, as it seemed to him an appropriate thing to do.

Avril started slightly away at that, but didn't have a chance to say anything as Siobhan appeared in the doorway. She was still dressed for a night out, so clearly she hadn't wasted any time in getting to the stables. She hurried in and went directly over to the foal, whose mother was already nuzzling it.

"Looks like I got here just in time," she said, ruining her pants as she knelt down to get a better look at the little horse.

"Well we could have used you about half an hour ago," began Avril accusatorily, but then softened. "But me and Father Sheahan stood in as best we could."

"Father Sheahan?" Siobhan glanced back at Vincent, surprised. "I didn't know you knew anything about animal husbandry."

"Just followed orders," he protested. He smiled at Avril to acknowledge her wisdom, but she was directing her attention to Pilgrim's Progress and her baby.

"I was wondering what was going on over here. You left me dangling, you know," Siobhan said, also turning back to the horses.

Siobhan began asking Avril about the progress of the labor and what she had done, all the while ministering to the foal. Vincent felt that his presence was no longer needed, so he backed stealthily out of the stall and headed back to the apartment.

Once inside, he went straight to the shower for a quick rinse and changed his clothes. Then, aware that he would need to be getting up again in about three and a half hours, he went to the kitchen to make himself a cup of warm milk.

He stood next to the stove, watching the milk heat up in the pan, and relived the night's events in his mind. He admired Avril's quick thinking and authoritative attitude. She recognized when something needed to be done, and so she charged in and did something, anything, and due to her common sense it usually turned out to be the right thing. She had shown the same qualities in her decision to buy the yard, and in running The Cat at Wexmore. Tonight had been another case in point.

Relationships with people, though, were clearly a weak point for her. It was a shame that her drinking had broken up her marriage. At least that was her story. Vincent wasn't sure if there wasn't something more to it than that. She swore herself that she had been dry for three years, but she still was quick to lash out at people in anger. Vincent wondered if that had always been part of her personality, or if it had only developed in response to her experiences with alcoholism and divorce. He thought of the incidents he knew of. She had verbally attacked him once, out of the blue, venomously calling him "transparent, or just plain shallow." During his brief visit to Ballykissangel, her ex-husband Garrett had attempted to reconcile with her, at least to the point of friendship, and she had rebuffed him harshly. And that was before she had known about Rosie. Rosie. The hatred and bile that welled up in Avril whenever that topic was brought up made Vincent wince inwardly. It hurt him to think of those terrible feelings twisting Avril's heart. She clearly was not ready for forgiveness. Maybe she would need to forgive herself first.

Outside, Avril leaned back against the cool plaster of the stall wall. She was about to rub her eyes when she realized how very dirty her hands were. She settled for wiping her face on her shoulder. She had brought a big bucket of fresh water for the mare, who had greedily slurped up most of it. Siobhan was giving the mare a vitamin shot, but it looked like both animals were no worse for their ordeal.

She closed her eyes and went over what had gone on that evening. She couldn't blame Corry for not having noticed that Pilgrim's Progress had gone into labor. The mare might well have been standing very still if she was resting between contractions when he had last checked on her. She only blamed herself for not personally checking earlier. Then maybe she could have reached Siobhan before she went out. She realized she might have acted rashly by attempting to aid the delivery herself, but she had seen such a maneuver done before (albeit with the aid of a rope and a curious metal contraption for traction), and she had simply been unable to sit idly by. As it turned out, Siobhan thought that it probably could have waited until she arrived, as the mare didn't seem to have lost too much blood, and the foal didn't seem to be in any more distress than an uneventful birth would have caused. But then hindsight has 20/20 vision.

She was glad that Father Sheahan had been there, both for his company and moral support, and for his physical presence and strength. She certainly wouldn't have been able to do what she had done without him. She opened her eyes and looked up at the ceiling. God, everything would have been fine if only he hadn't pulled that move at the end. She realized now how often they had been in close physical proximity, even contact, for the past couple of hours, but at the time she had thought nothing of it, engrossed as she had been in her work. It had been nothing more than an incidental side effect of what needed to be done. But she reviled at the memory of his lips brushing her skin. That had certainly not been incidental. How dare he take advantage of the situation like that! On the other hand, she understood how someone could see it as a fatherly gesture. Is that how he had meant it? Avril frowned and squeezed her eyes shut.

Vincent yawned and jiggled the pan. He was getting tired and his thoughts were no longer clear. He allowed his mind to wander to the moments of physical contact that had occurred between the two of them in the stall. He remembered the warmth and smoothness of Avril's pocket, the curve of her flesh on the other side of the denim. He remembered the sensation of her cotton T-shirt on his inner arms where they had touched her waist, the heat emanating from her body. He remembered the dampness on his elbows when he had placed them under her arms to encircle her chest, and he especially remembered the scent which hid in her hair. He knew he probably shouldn't, but he allowed himself one more memory, that of the full-length contact of his front with her back when he had slid forward against her on the floor of the stall. It had been accidental, and he had not dwelled on it at the time, but now as he looked back on it it seemed the most intimate moment of the entire night, even more so than the--to his mind--brotherly kiss he had given her, one which had seemed appropriate given the emotions and experiences they had shared.

Avril accompanied Siobhan to the pump in the middle of the yard, where they both rinsed the worst of the mess from their hands and arms. They had strewn a few armloads of fresh straw on the floor of the stall, leaving the brunt of the cleanup until morning, when the workers would arrive. The foal was already making its first attempts at using its legs. And although it was her first offspring, Pilgrim's Progress did not seem spooked by the adventure, and was calmly regaining her strength. As they neared Avril's apartment, through the lighted windows they could see Father Sheahan enter the kitchen.

"Good thing he happened to be here," Siobhan said, trying to hide her curiosity.

"Who, Father Sheahan?" Avril scrubbed at her arm, shivering at the cold water she was splashing on. "Yes, it was," she answered noncommittally.

"He's been making the rounds of the parish, so I hear," Siobhan said conversationally.

"Well the bank threw him out on his ear with no notice, he has to sleep somewhere," she said self-evidently.

"Well when you get tired of him, tell him he can come over to my place. I could use the babysitter. Or do you always come as a team?" Siobhan slyly referred to the evening at Brendan's house when Aisling had been left in Vincent's care. When Siobhan and Brendan had returned, they had come upon Vincent and Avril in a cozy position on the sofa. She still had received no explanation for that, either from Avril or from Vincent, and was still hoping for one, all the while giving them the benefit of the doubt. She remembered the case of Father Peter Clifford and the late Assumpta Fitzgerald, and wondered whether similar situations had occurred between them as well. It certainly hadn't all been innocent, judging from Father Clifford's reaction on Assumpta's death and his abrupt departure immediately afterward.

Avril didn't really want to respond to Siobhan, since she knew what she was getting at and didn't appreciate the innuendo. After all, really nothing at all had happened that evening. They hadn't even so much as shaken hands. She didn't understand herself why Father Sheahan had let her fall asleep next to him in front of the fire. But now another idea dawned on her, in light of what had happened tonight. Maybe he had feelings for her and was trying to find ways to be close to her while staying strictly within the limits of his vow of chastity. Maybe that was why he had stayed on so long at her place after only spending a night or two each at Kathleen's, Brendan's, and Frankie's. Well, less than a night at Frankie's. She had kicked him out to make room for Dr. Ryan in the jail cell, and he had had to spend the rest of the night in an open field. Not that he had made any inappropriate moves or comments since he had been staying with her, as she fairly admitted.

"I'll let him know, Siobhan," Avril finally responded, flatly.

They finished their crude washing up, and Avril accompanied Siobhan to her car. "I'll be back first thing in the morning to see how they're getting on," Siobhan promised as she put her vet's bag into the back of the car.

"Thanks, Siobhan. I really appreciate it," Avril said sincerely. She stood in the middle of the yard and watched the lights of Siobhan's car disappear around the curve. Then she headed grimly toward her apartment. She had decided that something needed to be done; she couldn't just let the situation continue as it was. She felt as if he were taking something from her that she hadn't offered.

Vincent shook his head and removed the pan from the heat. The milk was already steaming. Now he'd have to let it cool off a little. He poured it into a mug and sat down at the table. He was already feeling sleepy and wondered if it wouldn't be better to go straight back to bed now, rather than wait to drink the milk.

Just then, Avril returned. She had removed her boots outside the door and stalked down the hall into the kitchen in her stocking feet.

Vincent looked up at her and asked with genuine interest, "How's the foal?"

Avril brushed off the question with a cursory answer, "Fine, they're both fine." She stood on the other side of the table with her hands on her hips and stared at Vincent as if he were a two-headed pygmy.

It finally dawned on him that Avril might have a bone to pick with him, although he couldn't for the life of him think of what that bone might be. "What?" he finally demanded innocently.

"What was that back there?"

Vincent shook his head and smiled politely, "Scuse me?" He tried to think, but his mind was just too fuzzy. Had he not responded quickly enough to her commands back there? Was she referring to his fumbling attempt to get the mare to stand?

"You know what I mean," she insisted. It really fueled her anger that he was playing it this way.

Vincent felt his sleepiness receding and being replaced by mild annoyance. "I'm sorry, I really don't."

"In the stall, just after the foal was born, you kissed me," she accused him.

Vincent scoffed, "Oh come on Avril, that was no kiss."

"Lips, contact, kiss," she declared, jabbing at the air with one finger to emphasize her words.

He tried to be reasonable. "You know me, I'm a priest, you've got to know that's not what was meant." He didn't really want to get pulled into a discussion right now, and hoped desperately that she would see reason and drop it.

"If I was a Catholic priest, I wouldn't go around kissing women like that," Avril said haughtily.

Now he was insulted, and answered her with sarcasm, "Oh no? Well tell me, how would you go around kissing women then?"

Avril saw the opening and let her emotions blindly answer, "Like this," placed both hands flat on the table, leaned across it, and kissed Vincent on the mouth.