James Clifton lingered in Dublin just long enough to compose two notes and have them dispatched: the first, to his eldest brother Samuel, asking him to cover for him with their parents; and the second, providing instructions to his valet to pack his things and return to Corna forthwith.
Hours later James was annoyed when he realized the long ride back to his estate had done nothing for his temper. Once he tended his horse, he went to his room, threw open the window, stripped and let the cold damp air wash over his skin.
He longingly looked over at his bed. He needed sleep, but he knew that instead of resting he would lie awake for hours—as he’d done every night since he’d met her, dreaming of holding Molly’s naked body in his arms.
What a fool! He vowed to drive her from his thoughts with demanding work. Spring planting, the lambing, and Queenie, his prize hunter, would drop her foal soon. There was much to do besides feeling sorry for himself. Self-pity was the province of those who never accomplished anything of value.
Molly gazed over the rim of her cup. “I shan’t go out before its full dark. Do you want to work on your reading?”
“Nay, I’m hopeless,” Maeve said. “I’d radder speak ‘bout what’s troubling ye.”
“You’re not hopeless. One day you’ll teach your children, and read to Jimmy by the fire in the evenings. Think about that instead. Keep your eyes on that dream, instead of your frustration.”
“You’ll not put me off with talkin’ ‘bout me and Jimmy. Ever since that stiff-rumped swell came into the shop this afternoon—”
“Stop!” Molly jumped up.
Maeve's eyes popped wide.
“Sorry,” Molly wrung her hands.
Maeve shrugged. “All right. Ye can beat me over te head with that primer of yers for all the good it’ll do me.”
Molly worked with Maeve for an hour, then retreated to her room and waited for full dark. Tonight, she’d go out her window and shimmy down the porch supports. She’d gotten lazy and predictable in her comings and goings. Master Sakegawa always warned “never fall into predictable patterns.” It made the mind lazy and it gave your enemy an advantage.
Once her feet hit the ground, Molly made her way quickly to the McCarthy’s front door.
“Who is it?” Branna asked.
“‘Tis good Queen Eda,” Molly said.
Branna laughed as she threw open her door. “You certainly have her fair looks and courage. My hope, darlin', is that you don’t share her fate.”
“Mine, too.” Molly bussed Branna’s cheek.
Branna took Molly’s chin and turned her face towards the light. “What’s this? Ye’v not been eatin’. Sit down and I’ll get you something.”
“I’m fine. Save the food for your own.”
“Ye are me own, and yer too thin,” Branna said.
Molly opened her mouth.
“Sit!” Branna commanded.
“Give in now before she wears ye down,” Kieran said as he studied Molly’s face.
Molly sat down on one of the benches at the McCarthy’s family table.
Branna brought Molly a thick slice of bread slathered in honey, and a mug of strong, hot tea.
“Thank you for the food.” Molly handed Branna the coins for the previous week's handwork, then took a small bite of the bread. “Would you sit with us, Kieran? I need to talk to you and your mum.”
“All right.” Kieran sat on the bench opposite Molly. His face full of curiosity.
Branna brought out the new pieces of lace and embroidery and put them in Molly's basket, then sat down beside her son. “What is it, darlin'?”
Molly cleared her throat a couple of times and sipped her tea, trying to ease the lump of sadness making her throat ache. She stared into her mug until she was sure no sign of her pain showed on her face before she continued. She took a deep breath. This was the beginning of the end. “Would you
mind sending Kieran or one of the others by the shop from now on? I mean after work. To bring the new pieces and collect your money?”
“Ye’ve finally come te yer senses,” Branna said. “No more gallivantin' about in boy’s clothes after dark?”
Kieran placed his big hand over his mother's. “Why would we need to do that, Mol?”
The soothing timbre of his voice and the tender understanding in his eyes made Molly hate lying to them even more. She wasn't ready to tell them she needed things to change because she’d be leaving Ireland soon. “Well, I don’t need to be the go-between anymore. Madame only cares that you do lovely work, and that you deliver on time.”
“Ye mean it don’t bother her fine sensibilities too much to be doin' business with a Papist,” Branna said. “Not when our work makes her clothing look so fine. Is that what ye mean? Damn Frenchie. Who’s she to be puttin' on airs?”
“No need to be givin' Mol here a tongue-lashin' when it’s our good fortune she came inta our lives in te first place.” Kieran squeezed his mother's hand and stood up.
The look in Kieran's eyes told Molly he wasn't buying her excuse.
“Yer right, son,” Branna said. “Sorry I am for nippin' at ye.”
“Just keep reminding yourself her coin spends like any other, whether she likes the way you worship or not,” Molly said. “I’ll come again on Friday.” Molly looked up at Kieran. “After that we can set up for one of you to come by the shop.”
Kieran rested his large hand on Molly's shoulder and gave her a gentle squeeze, like her brother Liam used to do. “Take care, mo chara beag.” He walked away.
Branna leaned across the table and cupped Molly's face in one of her hands. “What’s botherin’ ye?”
“Can an ol’ married woman hazard a guess?” Branna said
as she gazed into Molly’s face. “That pretty man. Te one you saved.”
“Mr. Clifton?” Molly leaned back away from Branna’s comforting touch.
Branna folded her hands on the table top. “Aye. Is it he that has ye lookin’ like someting the cat dragged in?”
“Now what would make you say that?”
Branna pointed at Molly’s head. “He asked about a redheaded woman. I was wonderin' if he figured you out, is all.”
Molly finished her bread, took a last swallow of tea, then rose and moved to the door. “No one has figured me out.”
Branna wrapped her hand around the edge of the open door and gave Molly that shrewd look of hers. “If ye say so. Until Friday, then.”
Molly slipped into the night. She stood in the street after Branna closed the door behind her and waited to hear the wooden brace slide into place.
When Molly was almost to the Liffey, she paused in the shadows and leaned back against a wall. I knew it was a mistake to get close to anyone. Now, I’m paying the price. Molly stared into the darkness.
Fed up with wallowing in her sorrowful feelings, she pushed off the wall and headed straight for the bridge. At this late hour, most of Dublin was asleep. It was flood tide, and as she listened to the water lapping the stone wall and jostling
boat hulls against pilings, she mentally inventoried what was done and what was left for her to do: the business between Branna and Madame was well established, and Madame was relying on Maeve at the shop more each day. Soon all her lose ends would be knotted off and trimmed short.
Her next stop …. J. Tolliver Bookseller. Molly crossed the stone bridge and headed north, up Sackville. The river smells gave way to the odors of commerce mixed with dung and cooking food.
Mr. Tolliver opened his back door and ushered her inside. He reached for her basket.
Molly pulled away.
His eyes opened wide. “Have I done something to offend you, Miss Flanagan?”
“Ney.” She reached into her basket and pulled out his repaired garments.
Mr. Tolliver took his clothing. “Will you not join me for a cup of tea?”
“No, thank you,” Molly said. “I’ve reconsidered our arrangement, Mr. Tolliver.”
“You no longer like to read, Miss Flanagan?” His smile was wry.
Molly watched the twinkle leave his eyes as he scanned her face.
“My dear girl, what’s happened?” He towed her closer to the lamp. “Are you ill?”
She pulled her arm out of his grasp. “Goodbye, Mr. Tolliver.” She had to get out of there before she burst into tears.
“Please, at least let me pay you for your work, if you’ll not accept a subscription to my library.”
Molly pulled the bolt, opened the door and fled without uttering another word.