Authors: Isabella Connor
Tags: #romance, #fiction, #Irish traveller, #contemporary
Copyright © 2013 Isabella Connor
Published 2013 by Choc Lit Limited
Penrose House, Crawley Drive, Camberley, Surrey GU15 2AB, UK
The right of Isabella Connor to be identified as the Author of this Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher or a licence permitting restricted copying. In the UK such licences are issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency, 90 Tottenham Court Road, London, W1P 9HE
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
To Joe McFadden,
who started it all …
We jointly thank …
for her never-ending bubbly enthusiasm, and for introducing us to Katie Fforde;
for introducing us to the RNA;
– Pavee Point Information Service;
– for her patient and efficient beta-reading and valued advice since Day One;
– for pointing us in the right direction;
for sharing her Cheshire knowledge;
for sharing her Irish knowledge; the
RNA New Writers’ Scheme f
or the advice given in their constructive critiques; the
Choc Lit Tasting panel
who made it all possible; our fellow Choc Lit authors and everyone at
for their support and encouragement, and last, but by no means least, the wonderful, amazingly brave,
Valerie Olteanu thanks …
– for their support and friendship; all at the
in Burnaby for providing me with a home from home in which to write;
, for taking a leap of faith and choosing me as her writing partner; my mother, for teaching me the meaning of unconditional love and always believing in me; and my co-conspirators
– for being the greatest support network a writer could have.
Liv Thomas thanks …
, for always believing in me;
for putting up with me (most of the time), especially my mum,
from whom I inherited my passion for reading. And thanks
for having exactly the same feelings as myself about this novel and the characters – that one shared brain. And last, but not least, the girls at
, without whom, I wouldn’t venture outside the house!
‘I’m here to identify the body of Annie Kiernan.’ It was so long since Jack had spoken her name, the words almost stuck in his throat.
‘And you are?’
The Guard was chewing a mouthful of sandwich. Jack caught the faint stink of onion through the gap in the security glass and his stomach turned. He shoved his passport into the tray and watched the police officer leaf through it.
‘Are you next of kin?’
‘Husband,’ Jack replied, for want of a better word.
‘Oh – sorry for your loss. Fill out this form, please.’
A paper and pen were pushed into the tray. The pen didn’t work, so Jack took the Montblanc from his inside pocket. He pressed the words deep into the paper, a habit from years of signing contracts in triplicate, and passed back the completed paperwork. ‘Where do I find the morgue?’
The man shook his head. ‘It’s in another building – only next door, but there needs to be a Guard with you to record the ID.’
Bloody bureaucracy. Jack would prefer to be alone when he saw Annie. He might do anything. Cry. Even slap her face. Better to have no witnesses to such loss of control.
‘You came over from England?’ the Guard asked.
‘Your wife lived in Ireland, though?’
‘We were separated.’
Was that a flicker of interest? Or pity? That was worse. No one pitied Jack Stewart, least of all some desk sergeant in a crummy Dublin police station. He glanced at his Rolex. ‘I’m booked on a return flight at two.’
‘Right. Take a seat. Someone will be with you shortly.’
Jack wandered over to the decrepit waiting area with its rows of green plastic seats, where he joined the slouched bodies of the weary and the troubled.
‘Shortly’ was nearly thirty minutes.
‘Jack Stewart?’ A policeman scanned the waiting area.
‘I’m Sergeant Flynn.’
A handshake, as if Jack mattered. Christ, when did he become so cynical? But he knew the answer to that one. It was when she left him.
‘Sorry for your loss.’
That platitude again. As if these people had any idea what he and Annie had shared, had lost. Of what he’d suffered because of her.
‘If you’ll come with me. We’ll try to make it as quick as possible.’
Quick. Like her death. Alive one minute, driving her car, thinking of work or shopping or whatever she did these days, and then … gone. Wiped from the roll of the living. It was as much as he knew. As much as the police in Manchester knew. When they’d shown up in his office yesterday, telling him of an accident, he’d panicked and thought of his son, Matt, in Amsterdam on a stag night. That policewoman, oozing compassion, didn’t know Jack had dropped down in his chair with relief, not grief. He’d refused to go to Dublin at first – Annie was firmly in the past – but then the police had pointed out he was still officially her next of kin. It wasn’t until later the shock of having her reintroduced into his life hit him.
Flynn led Jack out of the police station and into the morgue next door. They were directed to a viewing room at the end of a corridor, but before they entered, Flynn said, ‘The desk sergeant told me you and Mrs Stewart were separated. When did you last see her?’
Sod this. Weren’t things bad enough without Jack having to announce his failure as a husband to everyone he met? ‘I last saw her over twenty years ago,’ he said, quietly enough, yet the words seemed to echo down the long empty corridor.
Flynn raised an eyebrow. ‘So there’s a chance you might not recognise her?’
Jack thought about that. Annie would have changed. No longer the young girl he’d married. Forty now. Maybe a few wrinkles, some grey hair. That could be a blessing. Like looking at a stranger. ‘I’ll know her,’ he said, with more certainty than he felt. ‘Let’s get it over with.’
The fluorescent strip lighting in the viewing room was harsh, its relentless blue-white glare attacking every corner. A clock registered almost midday. The body lay in the centre of the room, covered with a sheet. The hairs on the back of Jack’s neck prickled, although he’d seen a dead body before. Just once. An asthma attack had taken his first wife when she was only twenty-four. Jack had cradled Caroline in his arms as if he could will some of his own warmth back into her. His tears had soaked her face and hair, the grief like a knife in his gut. And now his second wife had left him behind, although she’d actually discarded him years before.
‘Ready?’ asked Flynn.
Jack nodded. He was as ready as he’d ever be. The sheet was folded back, and he was looking at a heart-shaped face, wounds prominent on skin the colour of chalk. Dark silky hair, maybe the only part of her alive now. He’d read once about people opening a coffin and finding the corpse’s hair still growing. Annie would be in a coffin soon. In the dark earth. God, he wanted to throw up.
Flynn was at his elbow. ‘Is it …?’
Jack swallowed hard, attempting to make his voice normal. ‘It’s her.’
‘I’ll give you a moment.’
The door closed and Jack was alone with Annie. At least, Annie’s shell. He didn’t touch her. She’d feel like ice, not warm the way he remembered her. Was she watching him? Her spirit floating around, looking down, wondering why he was there? No chance now to find out why she’d left him. The dead don’t talk.
‘Why?’ His voice surprised him. Thinking out loud. ‘Why, Annie?’
The lights hummed, the second hand on the clock moved. Nothing else. No miraculous revelation, no gift of closure. Nothing for him here. Jack pulled the sheet back over the face still as familiar to him as his own, and walked away.
In the next room, Flynn had organised tea. Jack gulped it down, feeling the hot, sweet liquid revive him a bit. Almost done now, then back to Baronsmere and normality.
‘Just sign here. It says you’ve formally identified the body.’
Jack scribbled his name, not even bothering to read the form.
‘Do you need the name of an undertaker?’ Flynn asked.
‘I have a list of local undertakers.’
‘Why would I need that?’
‘Well … for the funeral. We’re releasing the body to you.’
‘I can’t take care of that! I only came here to identify her. I’ve got to get back to Manchester.’
‘The body can’t stay here, Mr Stewart.’ Flynn spoke slowly, as if explaining something to a child.
‘But what am I supposed to do with her?’
‘The undertakers can move her to a funeral home. There’s one – McBride’s – near the hospital, which would be practical. They’ll help you arrange the burial.’
Arrangements. Paperwork. Phone calls. Red tape. This was ridiculous. And why was a location near the hospital ‘practical’?
‘She has other family,’ Jack protested. ‘What about them?’ Was he the only relative here? That seemed more than a bit strange given Travellers’ strong family connections.
Flynn consulted his paperwork but shook his head. ‘The car was registered to Joseph Kiernan, but no one seems to know where he is. He and his brother work away a lot, apparently.’
Useless bastards her brothers were, anyway. No-hopers, who never forgave Annie for marrying an outsider. ‘And there’s no one else?’ Jack asked, not really wanting the answer. Even now, he preferred not to think about Annie in another relationship.
‘Her father’s dead, according to neighbours. Your son might be able to tell you where other relatives are.’
How the hell would Matt know that? Just how incompetent were these people? ‘What are you talking about? My son hasn’t seen Annie since he was four.’
Flynn flicked back through his paperwork. ‘Your son, Luke, was in the car with your wife when the accident happened. He’s in St Aidan’s Hospital.’
Jack shouldn’t have been surprised, but it still rankled that Annie had found happiness with someone else – started a family, even used the name they’d planned for their own son. His hand curled into a fist in his lap. ‘No one told me she had a son,’ he said, his voice hard. ‘So why haven’t you contacted the father, her … partner?’ The Traveller. The one she’d shacked up with after leaving him and returning to her own people. ‘He should be taking care of all this.’
‘There is no partner, as far as we’re aware,’ Flynn told him. ‘The birth certificate identifies her son as Luke Stewart, although he appears to be using the name Kiernan now, and you’re named as his father. I’m sorry, I thought the Manchester police explained this to you.’
‘How old is he?’ Jack asked.
The walls of the room seemed to close in. Not enough air. Jack closed his eyes. A son he never knew about! Not possible. Why would Annie do that? It was monstrous. Cruel. If she weren’t already dead, he’d probably have killed her.
‘You okay?’ Flynn poured more tea, but Jack couldn’t drink it.
‘He’s not my son.’
‘But the birth certificate …’
‘It’s not true.’
Flynn nodded. ‘Well, perhaps you should still go and see him. He might be able to tell you who to contact to take charge of the funeral. We’ll have to interview him about the accident at some point, but he’s been in Intensive Care.’ He handed Jack a sheet of paper. ‘Here’s the list of undertakers. They’ll know what to do.’
That was good, because Jack didn’t. All he could think about was what he’d just been told. A twenty-year-old son he’d known nothing about …
‘Will you be okay? Do you want me to drive you anywhere?’
That look of pity again. Jack felt a flash of anger. He was no helpless victim. He was New Business Director at Stewart Enterprises. A successful man, renowned for coping with anything. He’d get through this. Somehow. ‘I’ll find my own way – thanks.’
The taxi dropped Jack at the entrance to St Aidan’s Hospital. He stood next to a few furtive smokers. Should he go inside or just walk away? He could pay some local undertaker a hefty sum to take care of everything. What else was money for if not to ease the rough patches in your life?
Someone thrust an open pack of cigarettes in front of him. He looked down at an elderly woman, bent under the weight of her widow’s hump. ‘No … thanks.’
‘Might take the edge off, son.’
So he looked like he felt. Gutted.
The old lady patted his arm. ‘God’ll take care of everything, y’know.’
‘You don’t happen to have his number, do you?’
The woman tutted and moved away. He was in one of the most Catholic countries in Europe. Insult God and it could be taken personally. Jack didn’t believe in heavenly help or miracles, though. He was on his own. So he might as well talk to this young man who was supposed to be his son. Perhaps at last he was going to get answers.
‘Good afternoon, Mr Kiernan.’
‘My surname is Stewart. My wife and I were separated.’ How many times would Jack have to repeat this?
The consultant, O’Meara, looked uncomfortable and glanced down at his notes. Probably preferred broken bodies to broken families. ‘I’m sorry – my mistake. Luke’s driving licence says Kiernan.’
‘And his birth certificate says Stewart. Please just tell me about – my son.’ This wasn’t the place to voice doubts about Luke being his. The staff might get iffy if he wasn’t a relative, and then he wouldn’t be able to ask the kid any questions.
‘Luke suffered concussion, bruised ribs and some torn knee ligaments.’
‘But he’s okay, yes?’ That was all he needed to know. Why couldn’t doctors just cut to the chase?
‘Mr Stewart, Luke arrested at the scene. Luckily, a driver who came to help was familiar with CPR – resuscitation. Luke still needs to be monitored in case of complications, but he’s stable. We moved him from Intensive Care this morning.’
‘Does he know? About his mother?’
To Jack’s dismay, the doctor shook his head. ‘He’s been on morphine so in and out of awareness. Not a good time to talk to him.’
Great. Jack would have to book into a hotel. This thing could take days.
‘His leg will take a few weeks to heal, same with his ribs. He’ll need crutches for a while.’
Jack wasn’t going to be hanging around for a few weeks. Hopefully the Kiernans would show up soon and take over. ‘When can I see him?’
‘A nurse can take you now.’
Jack stood up.
‘One more thing, Mr Stewart … Luke has bruises on his face and body that weren’t caused by the crash. The colouring suggests he got them some days earlier.’
Why was Jack being told this? Were they afraid he’d sue them for malpractice?
‘Do you know anything about those bruises?’
God, O’Meara thought he’d done it. Beaten the kid up. Obviously had him pegged as a bad father. ‘I haven’t been near Luke in years,’ he said. The truth, although twisted.
‘Well, I’d guess some time recently he’s been badly beaten. He’ll need peace and quiet – and support – to heal. The past couple of weeks have obviously been very traumatic for him.’
So Luke was the kind of person who got into fights. Not surprising, really, with uncles like Joe and Liam Kiernan. Some start in life. Things would have been very different if Luke had grown up in Baronsmere.
But he’s not my son.
It disturbed Jack that he’d forgotten this. He didn’t want to get emotionally involved.
Thankfully, Luke was in a single room. No nosy fellow patients or visitors to worry about. Jack watched from the doorway as the nurse checked the IV.
‘Why don’t you sit with him for a while?’ she suggested. ‘I’ll fix you a cup of tea.’
Jack slumped down into a chair, hoping the boy wasn’t going to wake up just yet because he didn’t have a clue what to say. The hospital bed made him look small and young, about seventeen, maybe eighteen. Unfortunately, the birth certificate said otherwise. He focused on Luke’s face with its cuts and bruises, and tried but failed to find any resemblance to the Stewarts. Luke was his mother’s son. With his long dark eyelashes and black hair, the kid was so like Annie that it actually hurt. Jack had thought he was over the pain, but all this was bringing it back.
What exactly had Annie told her son? Luke had probably seen his birth certificate yet he’d never tried to make contact, which seemed strange, especially given the Stewart’s wealth. And if Annie wanted nothing more to do with him, not even financial help, why did she put Jack on the birth certificate at all? It didn’t make sense.