“You’re taking this so well,” Angie says, sounding impressed.
I shrug and finish the rest of my drink in a few big gulps. When I’m done, I wipe my hand across my mouth. “Honestly these days, what choice do I have?”
At first I thought the redhead was just like the rest of them. Either a fan of the game or a girl looking to score with someone a part of the game. Most of the time it didn’t matter who to them, it was just a matter of bragging rights.
She was gorgeous too, but most of them were. Oftentimes they were the ones who thought in terms of leagues and figured they were in my league and visa versa. I only thought of leagues in terms of rugby, the rest didn’t matter.
With her dark red hair, the color of leaves in autumn sunshine, and her pale, lightly freckled skin, I figured she was Irish. But the moment she opened her mouth, I knew she wasn’t like the rest of them. Her accent gave her away. American or Canadian, though I’m thinking more the States. It was rare that someone from there gave a shit about rugby, especially Irish rugby, especially me.
I still couldn’t figure her out and the alcohol coursing through me had slowed down my thought process. She had an angle that I just didn’t know of and didn’t trust.
So when she asked to buy me a drink, I said no, just as I’d been saying all night long.
No to free drinks, I can buy my own.
No to company, I’d rather be alone.
Yes, I’d come to this bar tonight, one of my local haunts, knowing that it was New Year’s Eve and it would be crowded, and that people would harass me. I knew that I wouldn’t have peace, yet after the phone call today and after the neurologists, there was no way I wanted to be at home alone. I had to be out where there were noise and people, even if I wanted nothing to do with it, even if I wanted to keep to myself.
But when I’d said no to everyone else, they’d just brushed it off. It was no dent to their egos. They had a funny story to tell, or they assumed I was gay, or they’d say I was an arse and forget about it.
With this girl, when I turned her down, it was like the light went out of her eyes. Her cheeks flushed with humiliation. My rejection embarrassed her someplace deep. I could almost feel the emotion rolling off her like fog off the Atlantic. It made me regret being so quickly dismissive.
Then, as she walked away, I noticed her gait was unsteady. Not from alcohol, but from favoring one leg over the other. It made her look even more vulnerable, like she’d been injured badly at one point, like she was a girl with stories to tell.
It made her look real.
Not the usual woman I came across these days, not the ones that knew me as fly-half for Leinster Rugby, Padraig McCarthy. A woman who maybe didn’t know who I was at all.
A woman who seemed to gather up courage to come talk to me, as if her courage was in short supply.
Now I’m sitting here, beer in hand, the music thumping in my ears, and I can’t stop watching her as she sits down with two other girls, both giving me dirty looks as the girl explains something to them, shoulders slumped. No doubt giving them the play-by-play of how I turned her down.
It feels wrong. I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have been so dismissive of her, should have pulled my head out of my arse and read the situation a little better.
I tip back the rest of my beer and gesture to the bartender for another, shaking the moment off. It doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Not sure what really matters anymore.
But after I’m done with the next beer, after a drunk guy asks me for an autograph which I scribble hastily on a napkin with his girlfriend’s eyeliner, after the bar seems at capacity, I find my eyes drawn to the redhead again.
This time she’s alone. Neither of the girls who were with her are there and she’s sitting there, back to me now, looking small and swallowed up by the crowd where people are desperately fighting against their loneliness for the night. It looks like she’s embracing hers.
I know I’m making assumptions about someone I don’t know and I know I’m getting fairly drunk, which might make for a dangerous combination. But before I can stop myself, I’m getting up out of my seat and making my way through the crowd toward her.
I stop beside her small table in the corner, and before she even raises her head, I see her shoulders tense, as if she knows it’s me.
“I thought I should apologize,” I say to her, slowing down my words so that they don’t slur together. I have a habit of talking fast when I’m drunk and I know that my accent can be pretty difficult to untrained ears.
She glances up at me with crystal clear blue eyes filled with emotions I can’t really read. Maybe fear, maybe relief. They seem to compete with each other.
“For what?” she asks. Hearing her voice again makes me tune into how she really sounds. Soft and breathy. Completely sexy. The way her lips move as she speaks has a tonic effect on my dick.
“For turning down your offer. The truth is, I should be the one buying you a drink.”
“Should be?” she says with a raise of her brow. “Or will be?”
Even though her posture is still guarded, there’s a lightness to her eyes now that wasn’t there before, making them sparkle and shine, hinting at how beautiful her smile might be.
“I guess it depends on you. Can I buy you a drink?”
And there it is. I brought out the smile, not the nervous one, but the real one, from the heart of her.
I don’t know this girl at all and yet suddenly all I want is to keep making her smile. I suppose it’s a worthwhile distraction.
“Yes,” she says softly. “I would like that.”
“Cider?” I ask, gesturing to her near empty bottle.
She bites her full and red-painted bottom lip, and I can tell she’s wondering if she should have something more, that she’s wrestling with it.
“Can I surprise you?” I ask.
She nods. “Yes.”
Something about the emphatic way she says this brings me back to what she said when she first approached me. “You’d said that you made a resolution to say yes to new adventures. Is this part of that?”
She nods again, her eyes darting across the room before coming back to meet mine. “I think it is.”
“Are you afraid your friends are going to come back?”
She laughs. “No, but maybe you should be.” She says that with amusement, teasingly. “And they’re my sisters. One just stepped out to call her daughter and wish her a happy new year. The other…” She looks around. “I have no idea where she went.”
But when I get to the bar to place my order, I see the other sister. She looks vaguely familiar, though now up close it’s easy to see that they’re related. Her hair is icy blonde, not red, and her body is on the skinny side while her sister’s is excessively voluptuous in the best way possible. But they have the same wide lips, the same bright eyes with an almost ethereal, fantasy-like quality to them, faces that belong in a fairy tale.
She doesn’t see me though—she’s too busy hanging off two guys who can’t seem to believe their luck. She doesn’t seem like she’s wasted or out of control, so I get the drinks and leave her alone.
Back at the table, I plunk down a glass of Irish whisky with an ice cube in front of her. I have the same, no ice, and hold it out toward her.
“Sláinte,” I tell her. “That means cheers in Gaelic.”
“Sláinte,” she says, tepidly tapping her glass against mine. With her accent, she’s saying “Slawn-cha,” which is close enough. “Happy New Year.”
“Happy New Year,” I say, having a sip of my drink, my eyes never leaving hers. She takes a bigger gulp than I expected, but instead of coughing she just smiles. “I needed this.”
“Me too,” I tell her. “I’m sorry I was rude to you earlier.”
She shakes her head, her dangling earrings shaking. Her earlobes are red, as if she’s not used to wearing them. “You weren’t rude. No need to apologize.”
“I’ve been bombarded all night,” I admit. “I know that makes me seem like a bit of dick to say that, but it’s true.”
“I know. I’ve been watching you.” Then her cheeks flush a dark rose color at that admission.
It makes me smile. I can’t remember the last time I really smiled. I pull one of the stools closer to me and perch on the end, my big frame overwhelming it. “You have?” I say, taking another burning sip. “I’m flattered.”
“You’re very popular,” she says softly. “Everyone in here seems to know who you are.” She looks around and I follow her gaze. It’s true that a lot of patrons in here are staring at us, staring at me.
“I take it you don’t follow rugby.”
She laughs again, so light and airy that I’m amazed I can hear her in the loud chaos of the room. Then again, every cell in my body seems to be honed in on her, as if she’s the only thing I really recognize. Fuck, I must be more drunk than I thought.
“No, I don’t follow rugby. Or any sport, really. Much to the disappointment of my father. So you’re a rugby player.”
“I am,” I tell her. “Padraig McCarthy. I’m the half-fly for the local team here, Leinster, and for Ireland when we play the world cup.”
She looks impressed, nodding slowly. “Wow. That’s something.”
“And what’s your name? What do ye do? Where are ye from?”
What light there was in her eyes dims slightly and I immediately regret asking so many questions. That’s not like me either. “My name is Valerie. Valerie Stephens. I live in New York but I’m from Philadelphia. And currently, well, I’m here. That’s all I know.”
Curious answer. I study her for a moment, taking in the cut of her jaw, the smooth, porcelain quality of her skin. I want to know more and yet I can tell she doesn’t know what to give me.
“Other than being here though, ye obviously did something before. In New York. What was that? Or am I prying too much?”