Once upon a Summer Night
Mists of Fate #3
Colin O'Rourke is expanding Celtic Connections, his matchmaking business, to the UK and Ireland. However, its success is threatened before it opens its doors when a prominent UK gossip columnist publishes a slanderous article column about his company. The columnist agrees to retract her article...if he can successfully match her stubbornly-single niece.
Eleanor Carberry is content with her life as a London bookshop owner. She has everything she needs―books, tea, and an aunt who is more like a mother. When her aunt asks Ellie to be the company's first client, to determine if the company can match everyday people and not just London's wealthiest, Ellie reluctantly agrees.
When Colin and Ellie meet, their connection is undefinable. And though he's drawn to her, Colin knows there's more at stake than his own happiness - as an O'Rourke Protector, he has duties that call him to the past. He knows Ellie could be his future, but her aunt has made it clear that if he doesn't match Ellie with a specific type of man, she'll ensure Celtic Connections's failure. Despite the distance Colin tries to keep, Fate has other plans when Ellie takes an unexpected trip back in time...once upon a summer night.
Compressing his lips into a thin line, Colin O’Rourke just barely resisted the urge to put his fist through his wall. The only things holding him back were that he rather liked his walls, being as he had put them up himself, and that he’d probably knock something of importance off his desk.
A glance around his messy office confirmed that, should something fall, it was unlikely to ever be seen again.
“Col, I know you’re upset. But we can control this.” Emmaline MacWilliam, his publicist and relatively new cousin-in-law, kept her voice even and her countenance placid. She sat directly opposite him, holding the offending newspaper out to him. “I’ve spoken with Miss Emsworth—”
“What a stodgy name,” he muttered, taking it from her. He flipped it open to the marked page, his movements tightly controlled.
Emma snorted and rolled her eyes. “I’ve spoken with her directly, and she’s agreed to retract her words…if we can prove we do what we say we do.”
In Colin’s opinion, Miss Winifred Emsworth could take her “article” and shove it into the darkest, deepest recesses of herself. His company, Celtic Connections, was the most successful matchmaking company of its kind in the United States, and it catered to elite clientele. Clients were usually wealthy people who needed some help in finding a forever partner, and Celtic Connections had a highly respected pool of potential matches. With the company’s recent expansion into the UK and Ireland, some of the stringent requirements for potential matches, such as required income and education levels, were lessened. But easing the restrictions, it seemed, only incited the wrath of a woman who wrote for one of the trashiest magazines in Britain. Unfortunately, she was insanely popular, and new member sign-ups weren’t where Colin needed them to be to stay afloat overseas.
He gritted his teeth. A single article from one out-of-touch, uninformed, pseudo-journalist had the power to crush his business before he signed its first client. He would never understand the Brits’ love of their paparazzi.
“That seems like blackmail,” Colin finally replied. He rested his elbows on his desk, carelessly knocking over a stack of papers. He watched them flutter to the floor and added, “Is there really anything we can do to change the old bat’s mind? What did she propose we do to ‘prove’ ourselves? Which, I might add, we shouldn’t need to do. Our reputation speaks for itself.”
Emma absently twirled a lock of her blonde hair and cleared her throat. “Well…she claims that it’s a class thing. Celtic Connections caters to the upper classes, and therefore is something to be suspicious about.”
“Oh, for crying out loud, we’re not going after nobility!” Colin exploded.
“No,” Emma agreed, rescuing another stack of papers in danger of toppling over, “but we did keep the income levels higher than the average salary in the area. And I think that’s her sticking point.”
He clasped his hands tightly in an effort to regain control of his emotions. “Spit it all out, Emmaline. What, exactly, does she want from us in order to retract her words?”
Emma neatened the small stack of stuff in front of her. “You really need a file cabinet, Colin.”
“Emma…” he warned.
“Don’t blame my wife for your lack of organization.” Aidan MacWilliam entered the room, a steaming cup of coffee in each hand. “Else you’ll wear this instead of drink it.” He handed one to Colin.
Emma gratefully accepted the other one. “Thanks, love. I’ve needed something to hide my smile behind for the last half hour.”
“Tease me all you want, but this isn’t a joking matter.” Colin looked for a place to put his own cup, but there wasn’t any surface available. “You know, I do have a housekeeper. Why won’t she touch this room?”
“You couldn’t pay her enough,” Aidan snorted. Papers of various sizes and colors littered the desk and surrounding floor. A large, outdated monitor sat in the middle of the desk, sticky notes covering the edges, and the keyboard was partially covered with envelopes and notecards from various clients. “You need to go digital, my friend.”
Colin raised a brow. “Considering your upbringing, I would think you’d appreciate the tradition of paper.”
“Okay, boys, enough,” Emma cut in. She created a space amongst the papers and put her cup down, then pulled her tablet out of her purse. “Back to Miss Emsworth.”
Colin rolled his eyes and took a surly sip of his coffee.
She sighed. “Miss Emsworth wants us to find a match for her niece. A match that ends with a marriage.”
Colin barked out a laugh. “Oh, right. Because that doesn’t have setup written all over it.”
“You’re not supposed to be interrupting,” Aidan chided.
Emma swiped something on her tablet. “There’s a bit more to this, Col. Her niece isn’t exactly a willing participant yet.”
Setup. Colin physically bit his lip to stop himself from speaking. Or roaring.
He wasn’t sure which, yet.
Emma continued, “Eleanor Carberry is twenty-eight years old, and she currently lives in England. She’s a bookseller in London.”
Colin groaned. “She sounds boring.”
Emma laughed. “She may be, but boring isn’t a challenge we haven’t overcome before. We really don’t have a choice here. If we don’t do this, Emsworth will write another article, claiming that she offered us this option but we declined. Then we’ll be seen as unfriendly Americans looking to cash in on the motherland. If we take her up on this, then at least we gave it a shot. The truth is that her publication —”
“I think calling The Daily Sleaze a publication is insulting to real journalistic endeavors,” Colin cut in sourly.
“Her publication, despite what we think of it, sways a lot of readers. A lot, Colin. Enough that when people search for us online, this article is one of the top results. Also, the paper is called The British Tea Times, not The Daily Sleaze. We can’t just ignore her and hope she goes away.”
“But if we give in to her, who’s to say other people won’t line up behind her and demand the same thing? When would it stop?”
“We could point those folks back to the success of this match. It will be publicized enough that the weight should carry.”
Aidan grinned. “So failure is not an option.”
“It never is,” Emma agreed. She looked expectantly at Colin, her heather eyes sparkling. “Aidan and I are going home to Ireland in a few days. And we have recruiting engagements set up in both Dublin and London. If I don’t have an official answer to Emsworth’s allegations, we’re sunk.” She pursed her lips. “You hired me as a publicist, Colin. Let me do my job. Give me the go-ahead that we’ll match the niece, and I’ll spin it in all sorts of good ways once we get her agreement. But we all have to be on the same page to present a unified front as a company.”
“I love when she gets serious,” Aidan murmured.
“Can we please focus on Celtic Connections for a moment?” Colin asked, feigning disgust. In truth, he couldn’t be happier for his cousin, now that Aidan found love. And with everything they had gone through to be together…Colin couldn’t really begrudge him and Emma their smiles. But he could redirect their attention. “All right. We’ll do it. But I want the niece—Elena?”
“Whatever she’s called, she has to agree to this. We do not force anyone to participate. Make that crystal clear.”
Emma nodded, jotting down the note.
“Absolutely. Who do you want to put on this match?”
“What about Candice or Mike?” Aidan asked. “They’ve each made a strong and difficult match in the last year, and either of them could successfully match Miss Carberry.”
Colin shook his head, determined. “Not this time. If we’re going to sink over there, it’s on my shoulders. I’ll take Miss Blueberry on myself.”
“Carberry,” Emma replied absently. Then, surprise flitted across her face as his words registered. “I thought you didn’t match clients anymore?”
Before he could answer, her phone rang, and she gave him an apologetic look as she held up the phone. “The press again. Excuse me.” She quickly left the office and shut the door behind her.
Colin threw a pencil at Aidan, whose lips remained in a half smile as he eyed the door Emma had just exited through. “Good God, MacWilliam. Pull yourself together!”
Aidan chuckled. “When you find yours, cousin, you’ll be the same way. Mark my words.”
Colin scratched the back of his neck. “That sounds ominous. I’m quite content without any attachments, thanks.”
“You can be a Protector and a good mate,” Aidan offered. “I’m sure there are cases of it.”
“In our well-documented family history, you mean?” Colin remarked blandly. “Hmm. I’ve never met a Protector who’s successfully claimed his soul mate.”
Emma reentered the room, a confused look on her face. “Is that what you call it? A Protector?”
Aidan draped his arm around her waist and drew her close to him. “Aye. In our unwieldy family tree, one person from each generation is given the ability to travel through time.”
“Right. To protect to the line,” Emma said. “It’s why you and I had to go back to the Middle Ages.” She shuddered. “Let’s not do that again. No disrespect meant, of course,” she added hastily.
Aidan, being of medieval birth himself, merely smiled. “Legend has it that every hundred years or so, a Protector is born. He can move through time at will, whether the line is in danger or not. He can travel without restrictions.”
Colin snorted. “Oh, trust me. There are restrictions. Lots of them.”
On his fifteenth birthday, Colin’s mother, Evelyn, and his cousin, Reilly O’Malley, had given him a birthday gift together—a silver pocket watch. The face of the watch was amber, engraved with a red lion that proudly reared up on its hind legs, and the numbers were more like symbols. When Colin questioned it, Reilly told him a tale of a family who had a secret to protect; only one person from only each generation was entrusted with the task of keeping that secret—and that family—safe.
Reilly explained that he, Colin O’Rourke, was that person, and his secret was that of time travel. He could bend time at will, and he could move others through time as well. The true purpose of the power was to protect his family line when it was in danger of being exposed or threatened with annihilation. After Reilly brought him to Ireland and showed him exactly what his power could do, Colin eagerly accepted the gift.
With the knowledge of that power came immediate instruction: swords, knives, street fighting. Tactics that would keep him alive in times not his own—martial arts, strength exercises, and even dance lessons to increase his flexibility and agility. Years of training with Reilly chiseled his body and sharpened his mind, and Colin had reveled in it.
If he had only known then what he knew now.
He learned in his early twenties that there was always a “but.” The Fates were a mystic force, which Reilly spoke of in respectful, if sometimes derisive, tones. Part of Colin’s training was understanding the Fates and the powers they wielded. Reilly explained they were the ones who gave everyone life, death, and time…and they controlled the Protectors. Reilly never discussed where or when he himself came from, but he spoke of the Fates as if he’d known them for hundreds of years. As Reilly’s time-bending power was much stronger than his own, Colin often wondered what, exactly, Reilly’s role really was to the Fates. Colin still wasn’t sure how old Reilly truly was, and Reilly deftly danced around or outright ignored the question any time it was asked.
When Colin was twenty-two, after a particularly bloody battle in which he had watched dozens of his sixteenth-century clan members die, he decided he didn’t want to be a Protector anymore. He’d seen enough adventure to last him a lifetime…but unfortunately, that wasn’t the way it worked. And despite Reilly explaining it to him countless times, Colin didn’t care. He renounced his Protector oath, and was subsequently brought before the Fates.
Though Reilly stood stoically by his side, Colin was not -so-secretly terrified of the three Fates in front of him. He knew from all Reilly’s teachings that they could choose to end his life on the spot, or painfully draw it out. They could be merciful or merciless, and rarely were second chances given.
Perhaps it was Reilly’s silent support. Perhaps they thought Colin young and foolish…but whatever it was, that day, they let Colin live. They denied his renouncement, and, at Reilly’s suggestion, agreed Colin needed to learn a different kind of lesson. For three years, one for each Fate, Colin would be tasked to save one of his direct descendants. If he failed, his very existence would be erased. It was, as they told him, the only chance he’d have to determine his own fate.
The first year, his assignment was a fifteenth-century maiden named Claire, who’d been kidnapped by a vengeful laird. She was the spitting image of his cousin Brianagh…and he later learned that she was, by twists of fate he dared not question, Bri’s daughter. The second year, he saved a mother—Brianagh herself—from certain death at her father-in-law’s hands. And the third and final year, he rescued his own great-grandmother from the Black Death by helping her and her family flee Ireland and come to America.
Maiden, mother, crone. He didn’t miss the significance.
Throughout each of his lessons, he learned many things…but one of the more resounding ones was his lesson in love. He saw it in each time period: the men in his family tree had a single soul mate. The woman would be one they’d be willing to die for; it was an everlasting kind of love, and if not claimed, legend had it that the lovers’ souls would not rest in peace until they were united.
Colin had seen the shells of the O’Rourke men who hadn’t claimed their loves when given the chance, and he saw the richness of those who had. It left an impression, to say the least. But he had met only one other Protector, other than himself and Reilly, who hadn’t claimed his own mate. That man, though…
Colin shuddered when he thought of him. Shea O’Rourke, born in the seventeen hundreds, had worked with him on an assignment years ago, and the man was a shattered soul. He’d claimed his own mate when he had the chance, but she didn’t love him in return. He had no chance at finding love again, and the result was enough for Colin to swear off serious relationships forever. He kept only to shallow women. Ones only looking for a good time, or one night; nothing permanent, nothing real.
When Brianagh decided to start a matchmaking company, she convinced Colin to join her. Despite his dating record, he was sharply intuitive about people, and she recognized it. When Brianagh found her own true love, she left the company to Colin, and he took it to new heights, firmly believing that helping people find love was worth every ounce of his energy. It became his calling, and as the years passed without him ever feeling the spark of recognizing his true love, he began to think that perhaps the Fates wouldn’t be so cruel as to introduce him to his mate.
Aidan snapped his fingers, drawing Colin’s attention. “Glad to see you’re still alive, Col. I’ve called your name three times!”
“Sorry. Woolgathering,” Colin murmured.
Aidan merely raised a brow. “Well, I was saying that you’re still young by modern standards, so you may have plenty of time to find your woman.”
Colin stood stiffly. “You know as well as I do that means nothing. I appreciate you trying to make me feel better, but don’t bring it up again.” He pushed down the hollow feeling in his chest as he spoke the words aloud. “I’ve chosen my destiny, and it doesn’t involve anyone but me.”
Aidan let out a low whistle. “Now you’ve done it.”
“Done what?” Emma questioned.
He shook his head slowly. “He just challenged the Fates again. Didn’t he learn his lesson the first time?”
Colin rolled his eyes. “Leave off, Aidan. I speak the truth, and they know it.”
“Yoohoo! Eleanor dear!” The proper—if shrill—voice of Winifred Emsworth rang through Ellie Carberry’s small bookshop, which lay nearly hidden down a side street in the Knightsbridge area of London. “Eleanor! You know it’s unbecoming of you to force me to shout, dearest. Where are you hiding yourself?”
Ellie stepped out from behind a tall stack of used books, duster in hand. She quickly untied the small apron from her waist and headed toward the front of the shop, patting her light brown hair back into its proper bun. She pinched her cheeks quickly and rounded the corner, pasting a large smile on her face.
“Winnie! What a surprise!” she exclaimed, kissing the elderly woman on the cheek. “What brings you to Knightsbridge?”
Winnie peered at Ellie through her spectacles, assessing. “You look pale, my darling. You’re cooped up in this tiny store for hours each day. It’s depressing. Let’s go shopping.”
Ellie inwardly grimaced. She loved her aunt—she was all the family Ellie had—but they were completely different people. Aside from their shared love of reading, they had little in common. Ellie preferred to stay indoors with a good book while Winnie would rather be shopping for one.
And while Winnie had time and money to spare, Ellie did not. She wasn’t a pauper by any stretch of her imagination (and it stretched far and wide, as her mind tended to delve into the absurd sometimes), but London was expensive, and every penny counted.
“I’m sorry, Winnie. I’m not off until six.” Ellie glanced at the clock and blinked. It was seven. Which was strange, as the last time she’d checked, it had only been three.
“You’ve got to get that pretty head of yours out of the clouds, Eleanor,” Winnie chided. “I’m assuming you received a new shipment of books? Of course you did. And you became involved in cataloging them, didn’t you? Come now. Close up shop.” Her voice brooked no argument, and Ellie sighed. Arguing with London’s most celebrated columnist took a lot of energy and verbal skill, so Ellie chose her battles with her aunt carefully. She didn’t often go head-to-head with Winifred Emsworth, but when she did, it had to be worth the fight.
“Okay. It’ll take an extra few minutes, as I’m closing the shop for the weekend. Remember that I’m going to the shore for a few days?”
Winnie owned a small house on the Irish coast, just south of Dublin. Ellie could relax there, and after the hectic spring she’d had, she needed a recharge before the summer hit. Tourists loved her shop, and she was normally busy from morning through night during the high season.
As Ellie closed out the till, she glanced at her aunt, who was browsing the day’s collection of papers. When she first arrived in England, Ellie was a shy, bright, and completely confused child—and was horribly intimidated by Winnie. As the years passed, though, Ellie realized that Winnie only appeared demanding and condescending due to cultural differences. Winnie opened her home, and her heart, and Ellie was forever grateful. She couldn’t imagine life without her spitfire of an aunt.
Closing up shop was not worth a fight with the woman who had saved her, loved her, and guided her into becoming her own person.
“I’m ready if you are.” Ellie joined her aunt and took out her keys. “I’m starving. Care for dinner? My treat.”
Winnie peered over her spectacles and looked her up and down with a frown. “Eleanor…”
Ellie rolled her eyes. “I’ve told you before, I quite like my wardrobe.”
“You’re a beautiful young woman,” Winnie began.
“‘And there’s no need to dress like an aged spinster.’” Ellie finished the statement for her, ending with a long-suffering sigh. “I’m just conservative.”
“You wear that like it’s body armor.”
She glanced down at her long-sleeved brown shirt and tweed, knee-length skirt. “It’s hardly chain mail, Winnie. I look like I own a bookshop.”
“All you’re missing are those hideous glasses.”
Ellie reached behind the counter and jammed the thick-framed tortoiseshell glasses onto her face. “You’re right. Now I’m ready.”
“Cheeky chit,” Winnie muttered, but with a smile. “Those are back in fashion, you know. All right. Let’s head to Spitalfields and try to get into that new restaurant, the one on television.”
“If you want to get into a famous restaurant, you should just tell them who you are,” Ellie pointed out, locking the door behind them. She took her aunt’s arm and they strolled up the street.
Winnie’s eyebrow went up. “I would love a quiet night, Eleanor. Shall we take a taxi?”
Ellie grinned. Her aunt loved the attention she received from her articles in The British Tea Times, but she refused to admit to it. Irish by birth and English by circumstance, Winnie loved her place in British society. She was universally adored and loathed by celebrities, socialites, and peers. She told it like it was; “a nod,” she claimed, “to my Irish heritage.” And though she pronounced her consonants as crisply as the next Londoner, Winnie was proud that her father was an Irishman.
“I have other news,” Winnie announced. “I need a favor, dear.”
“Of course,” Ellie said automatically. She’d do anything for her aunt.
“Excellent. I’m not sure if you caught that article I wrote last week about the American matchmaker?”
“Oh, yes. Celtic Connections.” Ellie nodded. “I agree with you on all your points. They sound horribly snobby.”
“You’re so sweet. Their publicist contacted the paper a couple of days ago, and they seem anxious to prove themselves over here. They think the English need their services. The Irish, too, but that just shows their ignorance.” Winnie rolled her eyes. “The Irish, needing help to find love. Honestly. However, it seems that the Brits, at least, agree with my thoughts, and the company isn’t gaining any new members. So they’ve asked me to retract my statements.”
“What?” Ellie turned to her aunt, surprised. “Do they not know who you are? You always ask for proof positive to the other side of your argument. And you argued a very solid case, Winnie. If you have income restrictions on a matchmaking service, it becomes less about love and more about class divisions. Money begets money and all that.”
“Right, right.” Winnie gazed out the window, her eyes drifting over the people hurrying to get to where they were going. The autumn winds were blowing through London, and the temperatures dropped further each day. “Which leads me to the favor.”
Ellie’s stomach twisted. Winnie was usually delicate about her questions, but at least once a week, in addition to offering a shopping spree, she wondered aloud if Ellie planned to remain single for all of her days. And since they had already covered her wardrobe…
“You know how much I loved my Ernie,” Winnie began.
Ellie tensed. Talking about Winnie’s departed husband and a matchmaking business in the same conversation could only lead in one terrifying direction, and her heart leapt into her throat.
“He was the kindest, sweetest man I ever knew. It was a shame you never met him, but there you have it. He gave me everything he could, and gave me room to spread my wings when they needed to be spread. He stood up to me when I needed that, too. We had some passionate rows!” She speared Ellie with a look. “But, to be honest, he was a bit dull in the bedroom. Even when we were making up.”
“Oh come now. We’re both grown women. I’m being honest for your benefit, dearest.” Winnie delicately pulled a handkerchief from her purse and slipped it into Ellie’s palm. “Cover your mouth with this if your sensibilities are shocked again. No one enjoys looking into another’s throat. So, my Ernie, while sweet as sugar, didn’t really ‘get my motor running,’ if you know what I mean. It was a small sacrifice, I agree, but I learned early on that no man is perfect. In my younger days, before my marriage, I had just the opposite kind of man—he fanned my flames to the point that I wanted to combust, but he wasn’t good for me. He knew it and called it off.”
Ellie fanned herself with the handkerchief. She didn’t know how to respond; her aunt had never been so frank with her, and her feeling of doom intensified.
“Now, about this matchmaking service that claims Irish roots. Mrs. MacWilliam—who’s an American who married an Irishman, smart woman—is their publicist, and she claims that the income restrictions are in place to protect those who have money from gold diggers. I’m not sure I agree. But I did ask her to prove that she can match someone without monetary interest or gain.”
Ellie felt sick.
“Eleanor, it’s time to let go of the past. It really is, darling.”
Swallowing the enormous lump of dread in her throat, Ellie shook her head. “Winnie, I told you. I’m perfectly happy being alone.”
Winnie continued as if she didn’t hear Ellie’s words. “While I was speaking with Mrs. MacWilliam, I naturally thought of you. Isn’t it perfect? If they fail to find you a suitable husband, then I’m proven right. If they succeed, then you win. There’s no losing here, darling! Please, give it a try. If for no other reason that my readers are so hoping for a case study. And you would be perfect. Of course, I understand if you don’t wish to help. Well…I wouldn’t understand, per se, but I’d try, dear, and that’s why you love me so, is it not?”
Ellie pursed her lips. “I know what you’re doing.”
Winnie attempted to look affronted.
“I hate dating. You know I do.” Ellie closed her eyes.
“Not all men are like Andrew,” Winnie added softly.
No, Ellie silently agreed with her. But I’m still me. Which was exactly why all of the dates she’d gone on in the last eight years had been unmitigated disasters. Aside from the fact that she hadn’t felt even a spark of chemistry with anyone since Andrew, she had yet to meet a man who was as intelligent as he was good looking. In her experience, you could have one but not the other…and, if she was being honest with herself, dating was a lot of work. Makeup, clothing choices, dinner selections, movie preferences. It was all for naught, too, as when the evening was over, she still went home alone.
“He treated you horribly,” Winnie went on, and Ellie groaned.
“Must we rehash this?” she replied wearily.
“Yes,” Winnie declared, then softened her tone. “Eleanor, we both agree that he should have been there.”
“Instead of at some palace event with a blonde on his arm?” Ellie asked, though the malice she used to feel was long gone. In its place sat a hollowness that she doubted would ever be filled. Not for the man—he wasn’t worth more than a passing thought—but for the girlhood dreams she had built around him. She’d come to terms with it years ago and now her perfectly crafted fairytale world included her, her aunt, a city content to ignore her, and her bookstore.
She was comfortable with that.
“Society can be harsh,” Winnie agreed. “But truly, my love, not all men treat women like that. Rationally, you know that. And I want to see you happy. You are still young, only twenty-eight. You have so much to offer a man of quality, and we both know you’ll make a spectacular mother.”
Ellie’s gut clenched. Eight years her senior and son of the modern-day Earl of Dorset, Andrew Beaufort, Britain’s most eligible peer, had no reason to look twice at the niece of a gossip columnist. He was introduced to her by way of her aunt at a gala event in London’s West End, and Andrew danced attendance on Ellie for the entire night. The next day, the papers were buzzing with speculation, and despite her aunt’s warnings, Ellie was caught up in the whirlwind. When Andrew called her two days after the event, she floated on a cloud. Their first date included a helicopter ride to Scotland, dinner at Edinburgh Castle, and dancing at Edinburgh’s hottest nightclub. And almost every day for a month, Andrew took her on amazing, wild dates, jetting all over the continent—a bullfight in Spain, beer tasting in Germany, skiing in Switzerland. But suddenly, the dates stopped. He became too busy for her calls; he’d answer, but a quick excuse later and he was off the phone. Until the last phone call, when, before he had time to utter anything, Ellie blurted out her news, then burst into tears.
Andrew reacted to her pregnancy with disbelief, then disgust. He claimed she was trying to trap him into marriage, and, as naïve as she’d been at eighteen, she believed they were headed in that direction. He threatened a paternity test if she carried the baby to term, then informed her flat out that she would never be allowed to raise the baby. She was, after all, a commoner…and a baby of his would not be brought up as such.
Her gut still twisted when she thought about it, and she knew—knew—the stress of his threat was what had led to her miscarriage.
“Whatever your motivation for getting me on another date, you must admit to being a master at twisting words, Winnie. You’re more Irish than you let on.”
“Oh, pfft. I have never denied my Irish side. I embrace it whenever necessary to get what I want.” Winnie leaned close. “So you’ll do it?”
Ellie handed the handkerchief back to Winnie. “What if I say no?”
Winnie waved her hand around. “Would you believe I’d cut you out of my will?”
“You’d be right. You can say no, dearest.” Winnie turned on the taxi seat and clasped Ellie’s hands in her own. “But there is nothing in this world I’d like more than to see you happy. And before you start in on your I-don’t-need-a-man-to-be-happy speech, let me just say that I’ve had both kinds of men. I tried the strong, passionate type who will move mountains to get to you, but not lift a finger to keep you. He was fun for a while, but that flame was doused just as swiftly as it ignited. Then, I had my steady love. There was comfort there. Peace of mind, joy in the little things, and companionship. We were not blessed with children, but it mattered not to me because I eventually was given you.” Her eyes looked suspiciously shiny. “Eleanor, I’m not getting younger. I want to see you with that same happiness I had with Ernie. When I’m gone, you’ll have no one but the customers who enters your shop. I want more for you, love. More than what the dusty pages of a book can offer you.”
Ellie’s mouth hung open. Though her aunt didn’t know it, she had been contemplating a change. Maybe a quiet man, one she could be comfortable with. Not fall in love with—she didn’t want to ever suffer a broken heart again—but one with whom she could pass the time, or read funny stories from the papers to over breakfast. Maybe snuggle on the couch while watching a movie.
She could admit to being a bit lonely in her flat every night.
With effort, she managed a nod.
“You’ll try? For me?”
She huffed out a bewildered, shaky, frightened laugh. “How can I say no now?”
Winnie clapped her hands. “Oh, Eleanor, how exciting. A word of advice, though.” She glanced at the taxi driver, who was absorbed in whatever music played in his earbuds. “Go for the perfect man. In for a penny, in for a pound, yes?”
Ellie let out a surprised chuckle as the taxi slowed to a stop. “Indeed. We’re here, Winnie. I hope you’re hungry enough for the both of us, as I’ve lost my appetite.”