"Does it ever stop raining around here?" Vincent stood in the garda station's waiting room, looking like a ruddy-faced St. Bernard. He pushed his wet hair back with both hands and flicked the drips off onto the floor. Actually, it had only been raining since just before dawn, but it had started off pouring buckets and hadn't let up for a second. It was hard to believe the sky could hold that much water.
Frankie didn't even look up from the form she was filling out. "Only when it snows," she said with the glimmer of a smile.
"Snow?" Vincent hadn't seen snow since he was a teenager in Australia.
Frankie put down her pen and leaned forward against the desk. "You might have heard of it? Cold? White? Penguins and polar bears tend to gravitate toward it?"
"I may be a lot of things, but a polar bear isn't one of them!"
Frankie smirked. Winter with this one was going to be fun. "We'll see, we may be able to turn you into one yet!"
Vincent began fumbling around under his rain poncho. "Hey, didn't see you at Avril's last night."
Frankie sat up a little straighter. "What, you mean the salsa party?"
"Yeah, I bet you cut a mean figure on the dance floor!" Vincent lifted up his poncho to look in his coat pocket.
Frankie frowned in amusement at Vincent. "Yeah well someone had to make sure the town wasn't plundered while everyone was out there making merry!"
Vincent chuckled. "Right, well, maybe another time." He turned his attention to his pants pockets.
"Heard Avril's ex showed up with his new girlfriend," Frankie said, just to make conversation.
"Um, yeah," Vincent answered distractedly.
"Can't have been too pleasant for her," she said sympathetically.
"I think she handled it well," he said, his voice muffled by the poncho which he had now resorted to holding up between his teeth, while he patted himself down with both hands.
Frankie looked at him curiously. What in the world was he doing there? "What can I do for you anyway, Father?"
Vincent finally came up with a bedraggled envelope and pushed it across the counter. "Could you tell me just what exactly this means?"
Frankie gingerly extracted a damp document from the envelope and scanned it. "Looks like you're in arrears on your vehicle tax," she said peremptorily, pushing it back toward Vincent.
Vincent shook his head. "Can't be, I know I paid it for the whole year. I'm sure because there was so much paperwork involved I swore I didn't want to have to go through with that every quarter, so I just paid the entire annual fee up front."
Frankie frowned and pulled the paper closer again, this time reading it through more carefully. She looked into the envelope again and found another, smaller piece of paper inside as well. Then her face lit up with understanding. "Ah, see, here's the problem. You didn't include Form RF.100 along with the payment. They weren't able to process your cheque." She held up the smaller piece of paper and waved it under Vincent's nose.
Vincent grunted. Typical. If the government really wanted his money, why did they make it so difficult for him to give it to them? He tried to mask his annoyance with a studied politeness. "I don't suppose you have any of those 'arf' forms lying around, do you?" He had already forgotten the name.
Frankie placed the cheque and the letter back into the envelope and sighed, shaking her head. Why did people have such problems with the formalities? If they would just follow the rules, everyone's life would be that much easier. "You should have gotten it from the dealer where you purchased your vehicle." She held the envelope out to Vincent.
Great. He had bought the car through the classifieds, not a dealer. He gave Frankie a you're-my-buddy smile. "How about you just put some sort of official stamp on this," he nodded at the envelope, "and take the money. The cheque's good," he added, in case there was any doubt. Actually, he wasn't all that sure whether it would still clear; he had made the arrangements for the party on the assumption that this payment had already gone through.
"Sorry, Father, I'm not authorized to do that," Frankie answered in a clipped tone. She would have liked to do Vincent the favor, but this matter was really beyond her jurisdiction. She raised her eyebrows toward the envelope and held it out closer to Vincent.
Vincent was disappointed. One more piddling detail that needed his attention, as if he didn't have enough to do running St. Joseph's single-handedly. He plucked the envelope from between Frankie's fingers. "Yeah, yeah, proper channels," he complained resignedly.
"I'll bet you could sing a song about those," Frankie said sympathetically.
"You don't know the half of it," he said ruefully. He pulled the dripping hood of his poncho back up over his head. "Well, it's back into the drink for me."
"Speaking of drink, sure you won't stay for a cup?" Frankie indicated the interior of her office, where she had a coffee pot permanently on.
Vincent had to consider for only the fraction of a second. Cold rain...hot coffee. Inventory at the church...friendly chat with Frankie. Hmmm. "You know what? Don't mind if I do."
The yard at Avril's place had been taken over by a lake of opaque, yellow water. If this rain continued much longer, Avril considered, she'd have to ask Brendan if she could borrow his hip waders. Her breeches were already soaked, and it was just the middle of the morning. The practice track was too soggy to run the horses, but they still had to be exercised. She could tell that they were none too happy about the rain, but it was better than being cooped up in their stalls all day. The Cat splashed gamely through the water, which was by now up to her ankles, and out toward the gate. Too risky walking such a heavy animal on the sodden field, better to stick to the gravel-covered road, at least until it turned into a river, which it appeared might well happen sometime that day.
Avril let The Cat follow her nose down the road. The gentle rhythm of the horse's gait and the numbing monotony of the drumming rain let her mind drift back to the events of the previous night. She had enjoyed the relaxed camaraderie of the party with all of her friends; Avril considered that a social activity now and then wasn't such a big waste of time after all. It really cut down on her stress level and distracted her from her problems, and it was neither addictive nor dangerous to her health.
Of course Garrett and Rosie showing up had put a bit of a dent in the whole festivities. She knew that Rosie wanted badly to make up with her, but it still rubbed her the wrong way. What did she expect, that they'd all be one big happy family, get together for drinks around the hearth at Christmas, and then maybe she and Rosie could commiserate over how Garrett hogged the bed, or share a few giggles over that trick he did with his pinky? Hardly. And it wasn't like Rosie and Avril had been especially close before. Once Avril had left home, the sisters had barely seen each other, no more than familiar decency had demanded, anyway. More likely Rosie felt guilty over her relationship with Garrett, and she was trying to calm her own conscience by seeking out Avril's blessing. Well she'd have to wait a damn sight longer, that's for sure, Avril vowed. She should just get on with her own life and leave Avril out of it.
Avril seethed quietly and nudged The Cat into a trot. She was getting cold. The rain washed over her face and ran down into the neck of her slicker. As the chilly rivulet crawled over her skin, she remembered the heat that she had felt there just a few hours earlier. Vincent's breath on her neck, against her cheek, in her hair. She was pretty sure that what he had done, what they had done, was officially forbidden. A line had been crossed. But whether a new line had been drawn, or whether it had been done away with completely, Avril wasn't sure. Vincent had left so abruptly after the kiss that there had been no time for explanations.
Vincent had said, 'I do...but I can't.' Avril had taken it to mean that he wanted to stay, that he wanted to make love to her, but couldn't due to his priestly vows. Simply the thought of it gave Avril a prickly feeling all the way up to the tops of her ears. She had strictly forbidden herself to fantasize over what might have been, had Vincent stayed last night. She agreed with a point that Vincent had made in an earlier conversation, that she had to remain in control of her feelings. If she let her body get the upper hand, it might run away with her, dragging her emotions behind.
She considered that he might also have meant that he loved her. That possibility was even more delicious to her than the first, since a physical desire might remain forever unrequited, but a true and honest love was something that even the Roman Catholic church couldn't legislate or regulate. Avril had owned up to the fact that she loved him, too, at least to herself, if not in so many words to Vincent, but she recognized that it would do no good to moon over him. Of course, she had heard of priests leaving the church over a woman, but she didn't flatter herself to think that this would be such a case, and in any event, she wasn't sure that she would want Vincent to do that. Imagine what a terrible burden that would be, for both of them, simply so that they could have sex according to the guidelines that the church had set up. What if they got tired of each other after a couple of years? Or even months? What if one or the other of them returned to drinking? Avril determined that was better leaving things as they were. However that was.
"Well, Father Sheahan," Father Mac began smoothly, standing in the doorway to the sacristy, "I hear that was quite a show you put on last night."
Vincent looked around the door of the cabinet where he was taking an inventory of supplies. "What was that?"
"You know," Father Mac said with a cool little smile, "that little birthday party at Ms Burke's place."
Vincent smiled stiffly. "It wasn't a birthday party, it was just a barb--"
Father Mac dropped all pretense and spat out, "Oh spare me, it's obvious, isn't it? You might be able to get away with hiding behind split hairs with some of the dimmer bulbs in your congregation, but you and I know what's really going on. You said yourself to me that you had feelings for that woman."
"--which I also said I was in control of." Vincent closed the cabinet and walked over to the desk, turning his back to Father Mac.
Father Mac took a couple of steps into the interior of the sacristy. "No," he said, shaking his jowls, "I believe you said that your vocation came first, but you said nothing about what came after that. And Avril Burke cannot come in second, third, or in any other position," he insisted.
Vincent turned toward Father Mac and answered him calmly, "Father, you weren't even there, but you can ask anyone who was. Nothing inappropriate happened between Avril and myself at that party. I hardly even spoke to her all evening." Vincent conveniently left out the part about the kiss afterwards. He wasn't sure yet how to deal with that, or what it meant.
"I can see, Father, that you are quite adept at living the letter of the law...when you want to," he added, hinting at Vincent's subordination at Baleach na gCapaill. "But do not forget the spirit in which that law was given. I have my eye on you."
Vincent kept his face blank. "I'll keep that in mind."
Father Mac narrowed his eyes. "Do," he said darkly. He couldn't shake the feeling that Vincent was up to something.
When Vincent emerged from St. Joseph's that afternoon, it still hadn't stopped raining, or even slacked off. The water ran in tiny arc-shaped waves down the street toward the pub. He held the poncho over his head and ran in great strides down the hill, leaping over the overflowing gutters and across the puddles which were quickly turning into ponds. By the time he reached Fitzgerald's, he was soaked to the skin.
"Jayz, wouldja look what the cat dragged in," snickered Liam from his perch.
Vincent looked around at the other patrons, all relatively dry from the mid-calf up, as he held his dripping poncho at arms' length. Óonagh suppressed a smile. "'Tis not fit for man nor beast, eh Father?"
Vincent ran his hand over his face to catch the drops coming off his eyebrows and nose and shook his hair back. "Does it only rain when I step out the door?" he asked incredulously. "How did you all manage to stay so dry?"
Edso swiveled around to face Vincent and suggested, "Yeah, erm, there's this new invention, see, it's all the rage. They call it the 'umbrella'." He turned back around toward Liam and spluttered in amusement. Liam guffawed into his beer.
"Now, Father, don't you mind them," Siobhan comforted him from the far end of the bar. "They've only been sitting here all afternoon is all."
"I'll get you some tea, shall I, Father?" Óonagh said sympathetically.
"Thanks, Óonagh," he said gratefully. "Back in a flash." Vincent swooped up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
Once upstairs, he went straight into the bathroom, peeled off his wet things and slapped them down into the sink. He turned on the shower full blast, as hot as it would go. The water felt like needles on his skin. He bent over to let the spray hit him on the crown of the head, then raised his face toward the stream. It beat down on his eyelids like tiny heated arrows. He remained so until his skin was numb from the insult. The words of St. Paul came to his mind: 'But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection.' The problem didn't seem to be keeping his body in check: he had stopped at a simple kiss last night, even though his body had been reacting to Avril's presence in a rather unchaste manner. Nor were his thoughts beyond his ability to manage: although he had been tempted to dwell on the feelings that were stirred in him, he had purposely turned his attention to other matters whenever his train of thought drifted in that direction. No, it was rather his emotions that he found uncontrollable. Distance wouldn't change that. Time, maybe.
When Avril awoke the next morning, the first thing she took note of was that it was still raining. The second was that it was damn cold. The third was that her clock had stopped...it couldn't possibly be this light at 3:16 in the morning, which is what the clock said. She reached one bare arm out from under the down comforter and picked up her watch from the bedside table. 7:12. She propped herself up a bit and tried switching on the bedside lamp. Nothing. Damn electrics must be out. She flopped back down under the blanket and considered. She had been having such a lovely dream, it would be so easy to just close her eyes and... No. She flung the cover back, gritting her teeth against the sudden blast of cold air against her skin. As the goosebumps formed, she hopped over to the rocking chair and grabbed the jumper and jeans which she had dropped over the back of it the night before. She quickly pulled them on over her scanty sleeping attire, then rummaged in the dresser for a pair of woolen socks while her teeth began to chatter.
Avril quickly ascertained that her fuses were all intact. She tried the phone and was relieved to hear a dial tone. Thank God for small miracles. She dialed Fitzgerald's first and got Óonagh, who told her that there was nothing wrong with their electricity, so it must be more of a local problem. Next she rang Siobhan, who also lived this side of town. Siobhan's power was out, too, and Avril could hear Aisling complaining in the background about having to settle for cold milk for breakfast. Siobhan and Avril agreed that the power company must already know about the problem and be working on it, so there was nothing for them to do but wait it out. At least it was cold weather, so they didn't have to worry about foods spoiling. Just to be on the safe side, though, Siobhan was going to transfer the contents of her veterinary refrigerator to Michael Ryan's for the duration.
Avril's last call before breakfast was to the track manager at Wexford, to see what conditions there were like. There was a race scheduled for the afternoon that King Ransom was supposed to run in, but Avril suspected that if the rainfall there were anything like in Ballykissangel, and there was no reason to suppose that it wouldn't have been, then the race would have to be cancelled. On her first try, the line was occupied, but a couple of minutes later she was able to speak to Mr. Doyle, who said that he had been just about to ring her. The track was indeed under several inches of water, with no hope of drying out by 2:00pm. Tant pis, Avril sighed as she rang off. King Ransom had had a good chance of placing, at the very least.
Avril took a quick glance out the window and saw John Joe splashing by in a black rubber coat, carrying a bag of feed over his shoulder. She tapped on the windowpane to get his attention, then stepped around to the door.
"Morning, I'll be out in a minute," Avril greeted him quickly, jerking her head toward the interior of the house, "power's out."
"I noticed," the ex-jockey's weather-beaten face grinned out from under his hood. "Road's almost out, too." He turned and nodded toward town, hefting the sack on his shoulder. "Bout a mile and a half back, mudslide took a utility pole down with it. Blocking half the road."
Avril rolled her eyes. "Wonderful. Well good thing you made it anyway."
"Yeah, no way you're getting that truck past though."
"No kidding. Race's off anyway."
"Figured." He started wading toward the stables again. "Better get them horses fed. Running low, by the way," he added over his shoulder.
"Yeah, I'm expecting a delivery today or tomorrow at the latest."
"Hope they get the road cleared by then," John Joe called back skeptically.
Me, too, thought Avril, as she scanned the solid near-blackness of the sky.
Vincent had heard from Óonagh at breakfast about Avril's electrical problems, but he decided to put off ringing her until after the morning Mass. He figured that if there were a real emergency, Avril would have called on him or someone else by now, and he wanted to drive out to the yard directly and see what he could do for her on site. Also, to tell the truth, he felt a little awkward about speaking to Avril on the phone, after what had transpired between them. He thought that it would be easier to find the right words if he could see her, if they could both gauge the other one's reaction face to face.
As it was, he could have spared himself the trouble of even making the detour to the church, for not a single soul turned out. Although the mid-week morning Mass was always the one with the lowest attendance, still he usually had several elderly parishioners looking for company, a couple of middle-aged housewives with nothing better to do, and even the odd down-on-his-luck busker hoping for some comfort. Must be the weather, Vincent thought, as he stood before the altar and checked his watch again. And who could blame them. If he had a nice, cozy fire to put his feet up in front of and a good book to engross himself in, he'd opt for that over kneeling on a wooden bench in a chilly, drafty, stone church, too. After a quarter of an hour, Vincent gave it up and headed for the sacristy to change into the work clothes he had brought along.
Outside, Vincent made a dash for his car, which he had actually driven the short distance up the hill from Fitzgerald's that morning, in order to arrive at the church relatively dry for once. The rain seemed to have let up a bit, at least it was more of a steady shower than a torrential downpour. As he drove over the bridge out of town, Vincent noticed that the Angel had overflowed onto the lower walkway, and was rushing under the arches with alarmingly little room to spare. He said a silent yet fervent prayer that there wouldn't be an actual flood.
About a mile out of town, the road became covered with a couple of centimeters' worth of standing water. Within a hundred meters, the water had deepened to about ten centimeters and was obviously flowing down from further up the road. Vincent slowed the car to avoid splashing too much water up and drowning the engine. He soon saw flashing emergency lights, and around the next curve he came upon the blockage that John Joe had told Avril about earlier. The utility pole had come down with its top jutting out over the right side of the road. That would have been difficult enough to move aside, but it was the mass of mud that had come down with it that was causing the real problem. A partial dam had been formed, and the water running down from higher up the mountain was now being channeled through the narrow gap on the left side of the road, causing a small cascade of brown, debris-laden runoff. It would have been dicey getting through there with his car, if he had even been able to get to that point. As it was, Frankie was there, in a fluorescent yellow raincoat with safety reflectors, turning everyone back, and behind her were several utility workers in orange hard hats with a heavy crane.
Vincent pulled his car over to the side of the road, reached into the back seat for his rain poncho, and pulled it over his head. He then got out and approached Frankie, avoiding the middle of the road, where the water would have been deep enough to run over the tops of his galoshes.
"Father Sheahan!" Frankie greeted him jovially. "Wet enough for you yet?"
Vincent grinned. "You weren't kidding about it never stopping, were you?"
"Hey, it's what keeps our Emerald Isle green."
Vincent looked around at the sky and said, just as something sounding like a chainsaw started up in the vicinity of the workmen, "More like eternally gray."
Frankie leaned toward Vincent and shouted, "What's that?"
Vincent turned back to Frankie with a big smile and shouted, "I said it's a beautiful day!"
Frankie nodded, unconvinced. That certainly hadn't been what he had said. "Sure." She jerked her thumb over her shoulder and spoke over the machine noise, "If you're thinking of going up to Avril's--"
Vincent looked at the mess before him. "Ah, I can see that might be difficult."
The motor stopped and the men started arguing amongst themselves about what to try next. Vincent and Frankie watched them for a moment, then Frankie shook her head in disgust. "Doesn't look like they'll have it cleared any time soon."
"Do me a favor? Would you let me know when they do get it cleared?"
"You'll be the second to know," she promised him.
"Thanks Frankie, you're a gem."
"Yeah, yeah, I know," she said, pleased. Vincent was already on his way back to his car when Frankie called after him, "Hey, Father, did you get that mess with your vehicle registration straightened out?"
Vincent waved at Frankie cheerily. "No worries, Guard!"
"Right," she muttered and rolled her eyes. If the man would just apply as much gung-ho to his paperwork as he did to looking after a certain horsewoman... Frankie knew that Avril had been having a tough time of it, what with the defections from among the ranks of the local horse owners, her ex-husband showing up, The Cat going lame, and who knows what else; if anyone needed moral support, Avril did, and Frankie certainly didn't begrudge her that...but still and all, Vincent did spend an inordinate amount of time at the stables.
Back in his car, Vincent got out his cell phone and punched in Avril's number. When she answered, she sounded harried, and the connection was full of static.
"Avril, is that you?"
"Vincent!" Although his voice was distorted, she couldn't misplace that accent. "Sorry, I think it's a bad connection!"
Vincent spoke louder to make himself heard over the static, the rain, and the sounds of machinery outside, which had started up again. "Avril, how are things?"
Where to begin? she thought, and answered, "We're swamped, literally!"
"I was on my way out, but it looks like the road is closed!"
"I know, John Joe's the only one who made it through!"
"Well is there anything I can do?"
"How about a miracle?"
Vincent laughed. It was good to hear that she hadn't lost her sense of humour. "I'll see what I can do!" The connection was breaking up, and Vincent recognized that it wasn't really an appropriate time for a more personal conversation anyway, so he wound up. "Listen, I'll try to call you later, OK?"
"What?" Avril could hardly hear him at all.
"Later!" he shouted. The connection was going to break down any moment, and Vincent felt impressed to leave Avril with some reassurance, so without thinking, he shouted in a rush, "And Avril, I--" Whoa, what was that? He stopped himself just as he was about to say something he hadn't planned on saying at all. But it wouldn't have mattered anyway, as the line dissolved in a fizzle of static and then went dead.
Vincent drove slowly back toward town with a funny feeling. He had actually been about to tell Avril-- But he had stopped himself. He'd better watch out. He knew how women tended to react to those particular words. He had said them to Elena. And had meant them, at the time, in a lonely and self-indulgent way. But he had soon rued it, realizing that he couldn't live up to them.
Well that was nice of him to check on us, thought Avril happily as she tossed the now-useless phone onto the stack of papers on her desk. She had been wondering, when he hadn't called or come by the day after the party, whether he was going to pull back again, as he had when he had moved out the day after the foaling. Maybe he was embarrassed by what had happened, although he hadn't seemed so that night. It was clearly turning into a struggle for him, each time they were together they seemed to get closer, but that was always followed by a hasty retreat on his part. And who could blame him, Avril thought. It was a nasty burden for a man, to have to live celibate. It had truly pained her to see the agony of conscience that he had expressed when he told her about the alcoholic priest who had gone astray; she could only assume that it had been an autobiographical story. She didn't want to be the cause of such pain in him again. Yet she had taken no such vow, and she had no wish to deprive herself of the emotions and sensations that she experienced in Vincent's presence.
She had built up the fire in the kitchen and boiled some water the old-fashioned way, so she and John Joe were at least able to enjoy their elevenses together, warm and dry. Between the two of them, they had gotten all of their charges fed and watered, and cleaned out the stalls. They had moved Pilgrim's Progress and her filly, Fire At Will, to the stall at the far end of the yard, where the flooding wasn't as bad, since the water had begun creeping over the concrete threshhold into their stall this morning. They were going to take turns leading the horses out for a stretch in the afternoon while the other one stayed behind to man the fort in case of emergency. Although how the situation could get much worse than it was, neither of them cared to speculate.
Vincent had lunch at the pub, where the TV was tuned to the noontime news report from Dublin. The weather was the top headline of the day, with local mudslides and minor flooding all over the Southeast. Counties Wicklow, Wexford, and Carlow had been the hardest hit so far, but no major damage had been reported. Officials were calling for volunteers to fill sandbags and the civil defense corps had been put on alert in case of emergency.
"If that's not an emergency out there, I don't know what is!" Paul gestured frantically toward the river just across the street. "If this keeps up another day, we'll have the Angel running under our door. I've got a good mind to raid the school playlot for my own sandbags!" He put his fists on his hips determinedly.
"Hands off the playlot!" Brendan admonished him. "Anyway, this wouldn't be the first building to go in a flood," he pointed out. "It's already touch and go for those properties down on the walk."
"Pah," Paul waved at Brendan dismissively and walked down to the other end of the bar.
"And I don't even know about the state of my house," Siobhan added. "Can't get up there to check on things since the road's gone out." She turned to Vincent, who was eating at one of the tables by the windows. "Have you heard anything from Avril, Father?"
"She's still up there as far as I know," Vincent shrugged between bites of fried potato, silently noting the assumption that if anyone knew what Avril was up to, it would be him. "John Joe made it through earlier."
"Well at least she's not alone then," Siobhan said, relieved. "I'd hate to think of her by herself out there with no power and all those horses to look after in this weather."
The same thought had occurred to Vincent, of course, and he was also glad for John Joe's presence. Still, he wished that he could be there to help her.
The door opened, momentarily filling the pub with the sound of rushing water. A grizzled, heavy-set man in a black rubber rain coat and hat entered and approached the bar. "Give us a pint, Paul, me whistle's dry as a bone!" He took his rain hat off and shook it out behind him.
"That'd be about the only thing around here that is!" Paul grinned, reaching across the bar to shake hands enthusiastically with the man. "What've you got for us today, Colin? It's usually Friday, isn't it?" He busied himself preparing a drink for the man.
"Half a ton of oats," Colin answered, sliding onto a bar stool.
"What?" Paul was confused.
"That's a hell of a lot of porridge," Siobhan commented.
"It's for Miss Burke, you know--" Colin gestured with his thumb over his shoulder.
"Yeah yeah, I know who you mean," Paul shook his head and placed Colin's glass on the bar.
"You'll never make it up there, the road's blocked," Brendan informed him.
"I know, I just tried," Colin grinned over at Brendan and raised his glass. "Sláinte!"
Brendan raised his half-empty glass and winked in return.
"So you're trying to unload it here? Sorry, my friend, that's more that even Dermot could eat," Paul said.
Colin leaned one elbow on the bar and confided to Paul, "Well I was hoping you might be able to take delivery on it, save me the trouble of hauling it all back and making an extra trip down again once they get things sorted out here. I'm sure you can work something out with Miss Burke about getting the load up to her place in a couple of days."
"I don't know..." Paul was obviously uncomfortable with the idea, until he came up with a brilliant one of his own. "Unless...how does it come, in sacks, is it?"
"Now Paul," Brendan warned him. He could see where Paul's thoughts were headed. "You can't get those wet, the feed'll be ruined."
"Yeah yeah yeah," Paul brushed him off. "First things first." He turned back to Colin with a shrewd look in his eye. "It's not C.O.D., is it?"
"Nah," Colin laughed. He was used to doing business with Paul. "I'm not the collection agent, just the delivery boy."
"Done!" Paul held out his hand again to shake on it.
After the deal was done and the oats had transferred ownership, Vincent went up to his room to try ringing Avril again. He didn't completely trust that Paul would inform her in a timely manner of the arrangement. It was no use, though, as his cell phone wasn't getting a signal. He could have gone down to try the Dooley's house phone, but he was itching to do something. He rapidly changed into his sturdiest clothes.
"Paul!" Óonagh yelled from the kitchen.
"Yes, dear?" Paul sang out sweetly from behind the bar, where he was wiping out shot glasses. As if he didn't know what she was about to say.
Óonagh stuck her head around the corner and asked with exaggerated patience, "Paul, love, why is there a ton of oats in here? I can't even get into the larder."
"Only half a ton, love," Paul smiled lovingly at his wife. "Just doing a favour for a friend."
"For whom? Secretariat?" Óonagh asked disbelievingly.
Paul carefully replaced the shot glasses on the shelf behind the bar. "Oh, no, love, he's long dead, no, but close. Avril."
"Avril?" Óonagh wrinkled her nose. She supposed it was possible. "Avril Burke left this stuff here?"
Paul chuckled indulgently at Óonagh and her quaint ideas. "No, no, not exactly, Colin the delivery man did." He walked over to Óonagh, patted her on the hip, and winked. "But Avril will thank me, let me tell you."
Óonagh narrowed her eyes at Paul. The man was up to something again.
Vincent trudged up the road with his head down to keep the rain out of his eyes. He had driven as far as the road block, at which Frankie had been replaced by two orange sawhorses, then left his car behind and continued on foot. The men from the electric company had managed to get the pole moved back away from the road, but they had apparently decided that the huge pile-up of mud was not their responsibility. At any rate, there were no more workers or equipment to be seen.
Once past the blockage, the water was draining well due to the slight incline of the road, so it was fairly easy going. After a half mile, he turned in at Siobhan's property. Everything seemed normal, aside from the deep puddles in the garden. He walked once around the house and the outbuildings, and, finding nothing amiss, went back out to the road and continued up toward Avril's place. As he walked, his eyes fixed on the ground, he uncomfortably confronted himself about that kiss the other night.
He honestly hadn't intended to kiss her like that, at least not consciously. He had only wanted to wish her well, just as many others had done that night with a quick embrace. But many others hadn't finished their congratulations with a kiss on the lips that could easily have led to much more. He had gone too far, that much was clear to him. What must Avril think?
And what must He think? God. Have I committed a sin this time? Have I even broken a vow? In Brazil, it had been clear-cut. One kiss had led immediately to another, and within minutes all sorts of commandments had been broken: adultery, lust, lying, broken vows.
...Thou shalt not commit adultery (for whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart); Vincent didn't lust after Avril, not usually anyway, although he had to admit there had been a few moments there when he had felt Avril responding to his kiss that he had also wanted desperately to give in. Rather, he felt comfort and took pleasure in her presence; if he had to describe it in relation to any other period in his life, he would say that he felt at home when he was with her. It was a good, wholesome feeling. Most of the time.
...Ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh; Vincent was sure he was on solid ground with this one. Despite having felt that momentary surge of desire, he had maintained control and broken off the embrace before anything even remotely resembling fulfillment could occur.
...Ye shall not deal falsely, neither lie; here again, Vincent was taking great care to be completely honest with Avril. In fact, he was probably being more honest with her than he was with himself. With Father Mac, on the other hand...Vincent was really pushing it there, and he knew it. He was honest to the word with his superior, but what Father Mac had said about the spirit of the law had caught at Vincent's conscience. Maybe he would have to discuss this whole situation more openly with him. After all, if he really had nothing to hide...
...If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word. His word. He had given his word that he would serve only the Lord, that he would be beholden to none but the Church. He had put his life, literally, in God's hands. He had sworn a sacred and holy oath to continue in the service of God, and with His assistance to observe chastity and to be bound for ever in the ministrations of the Altar, to serve who is to reign. It wasn't even a question of whether it was God who demanded celibacy of a priest, or whether it was a human innovation; whether at its root was the best interest of the congregation, or merely a ploy by the medieval Church to gain control of lands. The point in Vincent's case was that he, personally, had made a promise. He could have vowed, like Samson, never to cut his hair, and it would have come down to the same thing. He couldn't, whether or not he personally believed that celibacy was a good thing, see his way clear to break a promise that he had made, without having a damn good reason for doing so. And his personal pleasure or convenience was simply not a good enough reason. Perhaps nothing was.
Upon such reflection, and realizing that he was capable of such introspection, Vincent saw that this time really was different than it had been in Brazil, and that gave him hope. He wasn't wracked with guilt, as he had been back then whenever he had sobered up enough to realize what he had done, or was doing. And to escape that guilt, he had reached for another drink. Absolution through alcohol was quicker and less painful to the ego than the more orthodox method. The only problem was, it didn't last. No, this time, he was more worried and surprised than anything else. Worried about his precarious detente with the Bishop, worried about Avril's feelings, and surprised at the extent, depth, and tenderness of his own feelings for her. Not for the first time in the past few days, he wanted a drink.
He heard the unmistakable sound of horseshoes against stone and looked up. It was Avril, walking with Pilgrim's Progress and Fire At Will on long lines. The little filly was toffee-colored with a creamy blond mane, like her mother, but her pasterns were white, making it look like she was wearing bobby socks. Although Vincent was pleased to see that the horses were doing fine, he was even more pleased to see Avril. He hadn't wanted to admit that he was worried about her, but he had been, and the relief was evident on his face.
"Vincent!" Avril was obviously pleased to see him, too. "I thought that might be you." She had recognized his gait and his poncho from a distance. The fact that he hadn't seen her first would have given her time to avoid meeting up with him, had she wished to. In fact, she had momentarily considered turning abruptly around, mounting the mare and riding back past the yard in the other direction, then waiting half an hour before returning home. She was also a little nervous about seeing him again. It was true, it hadn't technically been their first kiss; that had been several weeks ago, the night that Fire At Will had been born, but this time had been different. Much different. They had both wanted it this time. Avril knew that they would have to talk about it. But the longer she put it off, the longer her hopes--dreams--illusions? would remain intact.
Vincent walked up to where Avril had stopped with her two charges and went directly to the baby horse. "How are you?" he asked, patting the foal's neck.
"Do you mean me or her?" Avril asked pertly.
Vincent grinned. "Both. You." He finally raised his eyes to look directly at Avril.
She had the hood of her rain slicker pulled up over her riding helmet, but it hadn't done much to keep her dry. She wiped her face with one bare hand and smiled at the futility of the gesture. "Wet," she replied. "Did you walk all the way from town?" she asked, impressed by his tenacity.
Vincent directed his attention to the little horse again, inspecting its ear. In those few seconds when he had met Avril's gaze, he had felt a pang of regret that they couldn't explore their relationship more deeply. "Nah, just from the road block."
Avril looked curiously at the large hump on Vincent's back under the rain poncho. "And are you hiding something under there, or are you just glad to see me?" She grinned at her own impudence.
"Ah, ha ha," Vincent laughed and wagged his finger at her. The little minx. "You'll just have to wait and see!"
"Well come on," she said, handing him Pilgrim's Progress's line. "John Joe's tending the hearth."
As they walked, Vincent filled Avril in on the delivery to Fitzgerald's, the tense mood among the townspeople, the water-level, the motor tax, anything really, other than the topic that they most needed to discuss. Avril recognized that he was beating about the bush, but she didn't push the issue.
When they arrived back at the yard, they brought the two horses to their stall, rubbed them down with big towels, and draped stable blankets over them. There was something about being together in such an enclosed space, with the two steaming animals, that encouraged a certain intimacy. Vincent was hesitant; should he say something now about the other night? He realized that it would be up to him to broach the subject. Avril was clearly content to let things ride as they were...or was she being a merciless tease by remaining silent on the subject, just letting him twist in the wind? Did she know his mind better than he did himself? Luckily, he didn't have much time to agonize over whether to speak on the topic or not, since Avril, businesslike as ever, briskly opened the stall door and shooed Vincent out.
As they waded back across the yard, Avril noted that the little flood there seemed to have peaked; at any rate it wasn't any deeper than it had been that morning, despite the continued rainfall. Although Avril was fairly cut off out here in the country, the situation actually appeared to be much less threatening than it was down near the river.
Inside, it was like dusk. The flat cloud-filtered light from outside didn't penetrate much further than the little rectangular windows in the upper part of the wall. The only other source of light was the crackling fire in the hearth, where John Joe was dozing with his feet propped up. When the door opened, he cracked one eye open and glanced sideways at Avril. "Back so soon?" he drawled. Then when he saw who was accompanying her, he opened both eyes, grinned and stood up. "Father," he said slyly, shaking Vincent's outstretched hand.
"Hey, John Joe," Vincent said, pumping his arm enthusiastically. "How're Bridie and the kids?"
"Keeping their heads above water," John Joe replied with a wink.
Vincent and Avril both laughed indulgently as they removed their dripping outerwear.
"Will I take the polo ponies out for a stretch now?" John Joe asked.
Avril was about to say yes but Vincent suggested, "Why don't you stick around for a few minutes? I've brought some supplies." He shrugged off the backpack that he had been carrying under his poncho.
Avril excused herself to change her clothes while Vincent transferred the contents of the backpack to the table: a torch, several batteries, two flasks (one with freshly brewed coffee, the other with hot water), a Tetra-pak of milk, some packaged sandwiches, some candles, a lighter, and two bottles of Guiness, which Óonagh had assured him would be appreciated by John Joe. There had been enough food left in the house for lunch, so he and Avril had already eaten, but John Joe promised he would certainly take advantage of the provisions when he returned in an hour or so. Vincent offered to wait, then walk out with John Joe and drive him home, and John Joe said he might just take him up on that.
When Avril returned, she tossed Vincent a towel and inspected the goodies. Of course, she already had a torch on the premises, but a second one never hurt, and the batteries might definitely come in handy. She had also already figured out how to boil water over the fire for tea, but in the absence of instant coffee, she hadn't had any of the black stuff yet that day, so Vincent's offering wasn't completely redundant.
Meanwhile, John Joe had readied himself for the onslaught and bid the two of them good afternoon as he slipped out into the steady rain.
Vincent sat down heavily on the settee before the fire and removed his galoshes, then laid the towel in a roll around his neck and sat back, wiggling his toes in the radiant heat.
"Ham or chicken?" Avril asked.
"Hm?" Vincent looked over the back of the settee to where Avril was standing at the table with a selection of sandwiches in her hands. "Oh, anything," he said absentmindedly. An hour. They'd have an hour before the other man returned.
"No, thanks, I'm fine."
Avril walked around to a nearby armchair, the flask of coffee under one arm and two sandwiches wrapped in plastic in her hand. She dropped one sandwich on Vincent as she passed by, then sat down and balanced hers on her knee while she poured herself a cup of coffee from the flask.
"Well, looks like you two've got everything under control," Vincent smiled at Avril as he unwrapped the food.
"Of course," she replied self-assuredly. "What did you expect?" She put the flask down on the floor and sat back in her chair. The ball was in his court now. He knew how she felt and she knew how he felt, the only question was...what was he going to make of it?
What had he expected? That Avril would be some damsel in distress, waiting for him to come charging in? He was, as ever, impressed with her resourcefulness. She clearly didn't need him, and in the back of his mind he had known that all along, but he had just wanted to do something for her, something to show her-- "I don't know, I'm just glad that everything's OK. It's just that I couldn't reach you--"
"So you decided to come up and see for yourself," she finished his thought.
"Well, I also checked on Siobhan's house on the way," he said in self-defense; she made it sound like he had just wanted to see her, and maybe that was true, but still, he couldn't just come right out and say it like that, could he? Or could he? "...and I wanted to tell you about the oats, and I thought maybe you could use a few things, and, yeah," he grinned a little self-consciously, "I wanted to see for myself."
Avril was pleased. It was nice to hear it. "So now you've seen it. No problem. Thanks for the stuff, though."
"If you write out a shopping list, I'll get what you need and bring it back out."
"You know what? I was thinking I could just saddle up The Cat and ride into town myself, get a few things. And talk to Paul." It was true, she had realized when she saw what Vincent had done, that she could do much the same thing herself.
"Sure, of course you could," he said, a little disappointed.
"Not that I don't appreciate it," Avril hastened to add. She hadn't meant to belittle his Good Samaritan side. "I mean, I wouldn't have even thought of it if you hadn't come out this afternoon."
"Good, good," Vincent said lightly, munching on his sandwich. "Glad I could help."
"No. Really. Vincent. I really appreciate it. The food, the supplies, everything." Especially the visit. Could she say that? "Especially the visit." There, she had said it.
Vincent swallowed and looked down at his hands holding the half-eaten sandwich in his lap. He wasn't sure what to say. His first impulse was to bluster past the moment with a laugh and a joke. That would have been all right for Frankie, but not for Avril. He owed her more than that. He cleared his throat. "I know."
Avril noted his discomfort and tried to help him out. "You don't have to say any more," she said gently. "It's OK. I understand."
Vincent was silent for a moment more before saying, "Avril, you deserve a real relationship with a real man."
Avril didn't like the sound of that. "I told you before," she insisted, "I'm not looking for anyone to give me a life."
"I know, you don't need anyone, you've done an admirable job on your own." He hesitated again before continuing, "But wouldn't you like someone to share your life?"
Avril was taken aback. She had never thought of it like that before. Obvious, really. She did have someone whom she shared nearly everything with...her victories, her hurdles, her false starts, her crashes...just not her body. And just not as often as she would have liked. But she couldn't say that to Vincent, not like that.
"Vincent, you're my best friend," she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, in addition to being the answer to his question.
Vincent didn't want to say it, because he knew it was a platitude, but at the same time it was the absolute truth, at least for the moment: "I can't be what you want me to be."
Now Avril heard this as flat-out rejection, not of the stock 'I'm a priest' sort, but of the all-encompassing 'I can't even be your friend anymore' sort. This was just the bad turn that she had feared this conversation would take. She started to get angry and her voice got tight. "You don't know what I want you to be."
Vincent corrected her quietly. "I know." Even before that kiss, he had known.
Avril put down her coffee and sandwich and stood up, spreading her arms in entreaty. "Look, why are you doing this? Why can't we just leave things as they are?"
Vincent looked up at her and explained earnestly, "Because as they are is not a stable state. As they are is going somewhere we can't go."
"I'm not going anywhere, it's you who threw that party and did--" Avril waved her hand accusingly in Vincent's direction, remembered just exactly what Vincent had done, got all flustered, and stuttered, "--what-what-what you did!"
"I know, and I'm--" he was going to say he was sorry, but at that moment he realized he wasn't at all sorry for it, so he quickly cast about for a way to finish the utterance, and came up with, "--I'm not going to do it again." Although he wasn't entirely sure that he meant that either, but it was good for his resolve to have it said aloud.
"Well good!" Avril exclaimed, meaning just the opposite.
"Avril, hey," Vincent began reasonably. He saw that he was upsetting her, and that was definitely not his intention. "Avril, come on. You're my best friend, too. Let's not let this get in the way."
"What?" Avril was nearly floored. "You're the one who started with this 'I can't be who you want' nonsense," she screeched, then moderated her tone somewhat to say, "I want you to be my friend." Lover. "I like you." Love. "I want to be able to talk to you when I've had a lousy day." Wake up next to you. "Is that really too much to ask?"
Vincent might not have been able to read between the lines, but he certainly recognized that Avril was fooling herself if she insisted on hiding behind what she was saying. On the other hand, she was right. She had never done anything inappropriate, anything to tempt him, other than just being herself. It all went onto his account. He also didn't like the unequal footing they were on, quite literally, with him lounging on the settee, both legs stretched out before him, and her standing between him and the fire. He sat up a bit, set the rest of the sandwich down next to him, and reached out a hand toward her. "Come here. Sit down."
Avril looked at him skeptically. All that talk of how he couldn't go there, and now he was encouraging her to 'come here'.
Vincent understood her hesitation. He held up three fingers. "I won't try anything. Scout's honor."
Avril took a step closer, then tentatively sat down on the edge of the settee. Vincent positioned himself so that he could look at Avril properly. Sometimes the little lines in her face showed up, especially when she got angry. Then she always looked so strict, so tight and hard, older than her thirty years. But now, with only the soft orange light from the fire illuminating her features, her anger ebbing, she looked soft, youthful, beautiful. Vincent wanted to reach up and touch her face, but he settled for her hand.
He had learned early on in his career the value of the human touch. Laying his hand over that of his conversation partner was something he did regularly with all classes of people when they needed comfort: the aged, children, men less often because they usually weren't used to it, but there had still been occasions when he had found it appropriate. Now, too, he had meant it as a gesture of comfort and friendship, but as soon as he made contact, he realized that his feelings would never stop there, even if his touch did. He couldn't very well take his hand away, though, so he concentrated on keeping it from running up her arm and continued with what he wanted to say. "Now. You're right. You have never asked anything of me that I couldn't give. I reckon the difficulty is more within myself, and that's something that I'll have to work out myself."
Avril just about gasped when he took her hand. Her nerves had been primed by her short outburst, and by the memory of the kiss. She gently returned his grasp and wished, actively, for the first time, that he weren't a priest. Not just for herself, but because she could see the struggle he was having. "Vincent, I don't want our friendship to be a burden for you." It was difficult for her to say that, but she could see now that it would be selfish of her to force him into a situation that he was uncomfortable with. "Remember when I was teaching you the commands for riding, how to make the horse stop and turn? Well now I'm willing to play by your rules, you just have to let me know what they are."
"The rules are, you be Avril Burke and I'll be more circumspect."
John Joe had decided to stay on at the stables to keep an eye on things while Avril rode King Ransom into town to talk with Paul. She and Vincent had set out from the yard at the same time, and she was well ahead of him by now. He felt relieved after their talk. He considered that it probably had helped him more than her, though. She really didn't need anyone, and he kept assuming that she did and that she would be hurt when he had to turn her down. After Vincent had clarified his position yet once more, they had sat comfortably in front of the fire until John Joe had returned. Vincent had very much enjoyed the cozy atmosphere, just the two of them lazing around with nothing urgent to take care of. Avril was right. He should just leave well enough alone.
As Vincent approached his car, he could already see at a distance something yellow on his windscreen. A large leaf? But it soon resolved into a regular rectangle, and Vincent cursed Guard Sullivan under his breath. The nerve! He had promised to get the registration taken care of! He climbed up the grassy embankment opposite the mudslide in order to avoid the water-logged roadway, then fairly slid down, catching himself with one hand behind him so as not to land on the seat of his pants. He ripped the plastic envelope holding the ticket from under the wiper blade and glanced at the signature in the bottom right-hand corner. It really had been Frankie! Why that weaselly little--
Vincent was about to park his car right behind where Avril had tethered King Ransom to the light pole in front of Fitzgerald's, but he quickly thought better of it and pulled well forward of the horse. He dashed across the street to the garda station in order to catch Frankie while she was still in the office. He had a little bone to pick with her.
"I ought to have you brought up on charges of insider dealing," Vincent said huffily as he peered through the little window at the counter.
Frankie looked up from her desk and paused her pen in mid-air, her mouth hanging half way open. "What?"
Vincent tossed the ticket contemptuously down on the counter. "I came to you for help, with every intention of paying the registration fee, and you take the first opportunity when my back is turned to slap me with a fine. Some friend you are!"
At the sight of the ticket, Frankie realized what Vincent was on about. She got up on her high horse. "First of all, Father, friendship doesn't come into it. I can't ignore the law just because I happen to be on good terms with the offender. And secondly, that fine," she pointed her pen at the offending slip of paper, "has nothing whatsoever to do with your vehicle registration." Frankie returned her attention to her paperwork. "If you want to contest it, you'll find instructions on the back."
Vincent was bewildered. He picked up the ticket and looked at it more carefully. So much information, so many little boxes. Date...Time...Vehicle Number...Ah, there it was: Infraction. Vincent squinted in consternation. "Blocking a public thoroughfare?" He bent over to look at Frankie through the window again. "I wasn't blocking any public thoroughfare! That road was already blocked!"
Frankie sighed and put down her pen. "And it will be blocked for at least another 24 hours, thanks to you."
"What do you mean?"
"Public works sent out a crew with a bulldozer to clear the mud away, but they couldn't get past your car. Just be glad I was there, or they would have had your car towed all the way to Cilldargan. Then you would have been out not just the fine, but the towing and storage fees as well."
"Oh. Well." Vincent felt a little contrite, but not much. It wasn't his fault the roads around here were so narrow!
"No need to thank me, Father, the gratitude is written all over your face," Frankie said dryly.
"Sorry, Frankie. I'll just, er, get this taken care of then."
Vincent departed rather sheepishly. Frankie stuck her tongue out at his back. Serves him right for spending all his time with Avril!
"I don't believe this!" Avril threw up her arms in disgust. "You know there's no way I can move this all today!"
Paul shrugged disinterestedly. "Those are the terms."
"Paul, you're really not being fair," Óonagh interjected.
Paul wheeled on Óonagh in agitation. "What is this, taking sides against your own husband?"
"I'm not taking sides," Óonagh said defensively, then continued in a persuasive tone, "I'm just saying, I'd like to get these oats out of here. Today!"
Paul tried to appear extremely reasonable. "Well so would I love, so would I. But as it appears that Ms. Burke has no means of transporting them--"
"Means I have, just not all by myself, not in this weather, and not with the road in the condition it is!" Avril interrupted.
"Well, you can hardly expect me to be accountable for the weather. Ask him," Paul pointed at Vincent, who had just entered from outside. "If anyone has the faith to move mountains of mud, he'd be our man."
Vincent smiled genially as he gingerly removed his poncho, trying to achieve a minimum of puddling. "What's that?"
"Father, maybe you can talk some sense into Paul here," said Óonagh briskly. "He's turning what started out as a fine Christian gesture into a money-making opportunity."
"Oh, Óonagh," Vincent demurred, "I'm sure Paul will do the right thing, won't you Paul?" Vincent patted Paul on the shoulder on his way to the stairs. "Hi," he said as he passed by Avril.
"Hi," she smiled at him.
"I'll just...be upstairs," Vincent announced, to no one in particular.
"All right, Father," Óonagh said, keeping her narrowed eyes on Paul.
"Yeah, great, Father, see ya," Paul said with utter lack of enthusiasm, keeping his eyes fixed on Avril like an owl on a mouse.
Ten minutes later, Vincent had dried off and changed into his black suit. A knock sounded at the door.
"I think I've found a solution," Avril said excitedly when Vincent opened up. "Oh," she stopped short when she saw how he was dressed. She tried to take a peek around Vincent's shoulder into the room. "So this is where you live?" She squeezed past him. "I've never been in a priest's private quarters before." She looked around curiously at the somewhat frilly decor. "Shouldn't there be more crucifixes and icons?" She seemed a little disappointed. "And less...lace?"
Vincent stood by the open door and watched Avril, amused. "Please, come in," he said. "Don't be shy."
Avril turned around suddenly and looked at Vincent. Maybe she had overstepped a boundary. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean--"
"It's all right," Vincent reassured her. "I've got no skeletons in my wardrobe. Go on."
"Your solution?" he prompted her.
Avril turned all businesslike. "So. Here's the deal. Dear old Paul downstairs is going to charge me for storage if the oats stay here overnight. Liam and Dónal are getting their truck. We're going to load it up with the oats, they'll drive as far as where the road is blocked while I dash ahead on the King. I'll bring my big horse box down, we'll transfer the oats from their truck to mine, and Paul will be outfoxed at his own game. What do you think?"
"Wha--..." Vincent said, slightly dazed. That had gone by too fast. But he had got the gist. "I think that's great," he said, once he had recovered, with great appreciation for Avril's ingenuity.
"There's just one thing," Avril began tentatively. "I was going to ask if you'd help, but it looks like you've got something else going on." She eyed Vincent's suit.
"What?" Vincent looked down at where Avril's gaze was directed. "Oh...this?" He pulled at his sleeve and felt his collar to make sure it was sitting right. "Yeah, I was going to head up to the church," he admitted. For confessions. Although he knew that if he went, he'd end up talking to himself for an hour. Not necessarily a bad thing, especially after what had gone on today. Of course, if he didn't go, this would be the day that Kathleen showed up and he'd never hear the end of it. To hell with it. "But since you asked so nicely..." Vincent stepped over to his dresser and pulled a dry pair of jeans out of the drawer. "Give me two minutes," he said.
"Thanks, Vincent," Avril said with real gratitude.
Vincent started unbuttoning his shirt, then stopped when he saw that Avril hadn't moved. "Ahm, I'll meet you downstairs, I'm Mr. Circumspect now, remember?"
Avril started in realization, "Oh, right, sorry, what am I thinking, I'm not thinking, I'm off!" she babbled on her way out. "We'll start loading," she called over her shoulder and shut the door behind her.
An hour later, six figures were visible in the beams of the halogen headlights, forming a human chain across the gap between the two passable stretches of road. In addition to Liam and Dónal, Edso, who had happened to be in the bar, had volunteered his services as well. They were passing the last couple of sacks down from the tarpaulin-covered flat-bed and across the water to the back of the open horse box: Liam to Dónal to Edso to Vincent to John Joe to Avril. The rain had dwindled to a sad drizzle, but it was cold and everyone's hands were stiff and numb.
When the last sack had been safely ferried across, Liam, Dónal and Edso scurried into the cab of the blue truck, started up the engine, and turned on the heaters full blast. John Joe climbed up into Avril's truck and did the same.
"Hey, thanks, fellas!" Avril shouted toward the three men shivering in Liam and Dónal's truck. They might have heard her, but they were too occupied with arguing over whose hands got to be in front of the heater vents to acknowledge it.
"Buy them a couple of rounds on me when you get back," Avril said to Vincent.
"You all right?" Vincent asked, nodding toward the sacks piled up in the horse trailer.
"Oh yeah," she assured him, "we'll just leave them in there for now. Probably drier than in the storage shed anyhow."
They both stood in the rain for a few moments, knowing that the time had come to say good-bye. Dónal flashed the lights at them and slowly reversed away, leaving them not only wet and cold, but momentarily blinded.
"Well, I'd better get back," Avril finally said.
"You going to be all right tonight?" Vincent knew the question was superfluous; Avril really had everything under control. But it was just his way of expressing that he cared about her.
"Sure, John Joe's staying over. He reached his wife this afternoon."
"Thanks for everything, Vincent." Avril reached out and squeezed Vincent's hand.
"My pleasure," Vincent said, covering her hand with his other one. She shivered. Once again he had that urge to reassure her, although maybe it was really he who needed reassurance. "And Avril..."
She watched him through the dark, misty air, blinking rain out of her eyes.
"...You know," he said, pressing her hand between his.
Avril smiled. "I know."