Mary and Joseph, the hair on the woman! Though it burst from beneath her hat and covered her shoulders in coppery waves, it was hardly an enemy ambush. As Ronan’s heartbeat returned to normal, he prayed that no one had noticed his meteoric alarm. A picture from one of his childhood storybooks came to mind: a mermaid swimming beneath the sea, her red hair floating about her ethereal face.
He fancied the image, yet he’d learned long ago to distrust the tints and tones of a woman’s hair. And what did it matter if Gabbi’s hair color was real? After tonight, he doubted he’d ever see her again.
Somehow, the idea disturbed him. Her camera jargon had aroused more than his curiosity. So did a fleeting image of that wild, red hair spread across his naked chest.
No! Groundhog, Groundhog!
The code word that had sent him and other peacekeeping soldiers bolting for the bunkers to dodge the crossfire of warring factions seemed useless when women attacked. Women were trouble, no doubt about it. He knew firsthand of the perils of romance, and he’d seen what love had done to his father.
Yet others seemed to have done all right. Nora and John were still good friends after years of marriage, and Joan and Brendan were behaving like teenagers on their first date. Perhaps that was the puzzling difference Ronan had noticed in Joan when he’d met her outside. In any case, he could never make such a lifetime commitment. One night in a pub, however, was a different keg of beer.
As the set of tunes ended, he subtly assessed Gabbi’s complexion and decided it was the right shade of pale for a redhead. Her eyebrows matched the gingery hues of her hair. The russet eyes beneath them fit the package well enough, and the lack of the war paint many women wore suggested a casual, carefree lady. So did her loose-fitting, dark green sweater, which failed to conceal her alluring contours.
There’ll be none of that here.
Still and all, what would it hurt to spend a few hours as table mates?
She tossed her head. A lock of whipping hair hit his cheek. He flinched and jerked back.
Panic widened those russet eyes. “I’m so sorry! I’m trying to tie it up.” She’d drawn some sort of clip from her purse. Leaning back, she twisted her hair and fastened it behind her head.
Again, he bent his head to her ear. “No worries, Gabbi. Your hair is lovely. The same fine hue as the fur on an Irish fox.”
Why on earth had he said such a thing?
She froze, and then she leaned toward him. “That’s blarney, right? Suzanne warned me about blarney.”
Safe. For the moment, anyway. “And rightfully so. You’ll hear it all over County Mayo.”
“Mayo. Maigh Eo. Irish for ‘The Plain of the Yew Trees’.”
“I like to learn about the places I’m planning to photograph. I even found a poem by someone named Lady Gregory that mentions the plains of Mayo.”
The poems again. Beneath the table, Ronan dug his fingernails into the palms of his hands until the lilting notes of an old jig called “The Plains of Mayo” danced from his memory and eased the tension.
Hopefully, Gabbi was unaware of his brief distress. Neither she nor Lady Gregory bore any blame in it. He attempted to change the subject. “You’ve done your homework, Gabbi. How do you like the music?”
“It’s wonderful. Do you think they’ll play any Christmas music?”
“I’d bet on it. They’re only after warming up.”
Several older players had drifted to the musicians’ area. They doffed their hats and coats, freed their instruments from their cases, and joined the young performers. So far, Nora played the only banjo. Its mellow twang played steadily through one of Ronan’s favorite hornpipes, “The Boys of Blue Hill.” He’d surely bring his banjo back for Christmas.
A flourish of chords signaled the end of the set.
When the applause died down,
Maura beckoned someone over. “Here comes Gemma. Andy too, and Nora’s coming back to the table. I hope we have enough chairs.”
Gemma. The American woman who’d married Ben. Ronan watched as she approached. A pretty, slender thing with silver in her light brown hair and eyes as sharp as nettles. If he’d met her at his father's wake, he had no recollection of it. She carried her coat on her arm. No doubt she’d been waiting at the bar until the singing ended.
He rose and stretched his arm. “Hello, Gemma. I’m Ronan Swanton, a Connigan cousin.”
She took his hand in both of hers. “Yes, we’ve met. I’m so happy to see you again. Hi, everyone.” Amidst a flurry of greetings, she sat.
Andy filled the spot where she’d stood. He and Ronan leaned over the table and gripped each other’s arms. “Hey, Ronan. Howya keepin’, cuz?”
“Things could be worse, Andrew. It’s grand to see you and the family.”
“You’ve met everyone?” Andy glanced cow-eyed at Suzanne. “My lovely wife and her good friend Gabbi?”
“I have, and yer man Brendan as well. We’ll have to catch up when it’s quieter, yeah?”
“Yeah.” Still gazing at Suzanne, Andy pulled out an empty chair and sat. “Quiet in the Connigan clan. Now wouldn’t that be something?”
Ronan sat too. Nora had said that Gemma loved the music. That alone would make her a good match for Ben. “Gemma, will Ben be along?”
“He’s here. He brought his gig bag straight to the players’ table to set up his flutes and whistles. John is here with his fiddle too. Maura, is Gary coming? His pipes would be a wonderful addition tonight.”
“No.” Maura blew a pouting breath that puffed the blue-black hair on her forehead. “I’ve been texting with him. He can’t come till next week. His father needs him to mind the store.”
“Pipes?” Delicious goosebumps shot up Ronan’s arms. “You’ve a piper for a boyfriend?”
Ah, the smile on the girl.
“I do. Gary O’Brien. Studied music education at Trinity. Plays several instruments and gives lessons at his family’s music store in Dublin. He likes the pipes best. I hope you’ll be around when he gets here, Ronie. We’ll have a fine family seisiún.”
“I wouldn’t miss it. I’m thinking I should head back to Dublin soon for my banjo.”
Nora claimed the last empty chair. “You know you’re welcome to play one of mine if you don’t want to drive all that way. In fact, you can play the next set, if you like. I wouldn’t mind a break. Those kids have too much energy for me.”
He knew better. She was trying to get him to play. “Thanks. Maybe later.”
Gemma asked for everyone’s attention. “Before the music starts, Ben and I are inviting you all for dinner tomorrow night. I hope you’ll come, Ronan.”
“I don’t know.”
“Ronan Matthew Swanton!” Joan pointed a wagging finger at him. “No one turns down one of Gemma’s dinners. There’s no finer cook in Mayo. You’ll never have to wonder if it’s lamb or leather you’re eating. Have a think on it, won’t you?”
“I will, Auntie Joan.” He wondered again at the difference in Joan. It might or might not be due to her happy second marriage. He’d figure it out eventually.
Gemma added gentler persuasion. “Do come, Ronan. Catch up with your cousins and let the rest of us get to know you better. You know there’ll be music and singing.”
And maybe I’ll get to see Gabbi again. “Thank you, Gemma. I’ll look forward to it.”
The players were tuning up. A man bellowed merrily over the din: “Andrew Connigan! Out with your voice! Fill those lungs and join us!”
Ronan pretended to cringe. “Your father commands your presence, Andrew.” He nodded toward Gabbi, who was chatting with Suzanne and Maura. “Maybe you’d sing a Christmas song for our American friend.”
“I think we can manage that.” Andy took a swallow of water and kicked his chair back.
He joined the players and sat on a stool near Ben. After they conferred for a moment, Andy addressed the crowd. “We’ll start with an Irish Christmas song called ‘The Wexford Carol.’ We’ll dedicate it to Gabbi Roy, a good friend visiting us from America.”
She touched Ronan’s wrist. “Oh, thank you!”
This time the goosebumps shot from his arms all the way to his ears and toes. “My pleasure.”
Ben raised a wooden flute to his lips and played the first slow notes. Andy closed his eyes, found his note, and sang.
Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind…
Years had passed since Ronan had heard his cousin sing. Andy’s rich baritone voice had improved with age. He lilted and trilled as well as any singer Ronan knew, deftly conveying the clip-clopping donkey that Mary rode, the angel’s command to the shepherds, and the low of the ox near the manger.
Other instruments joined in, offering soft accompaniments until the song ended. Applause erupted through the pub. Joan stuck her fingers in her mouth and produced a shrill whistle that left everyone laughing.
Brendan seemed as proud as if Andy were his own flesh and blood. “That boy knows how a note is sung. No one can put the silk on a song like Andy.”
Joan nodded in agreement. “’Tis the gospel truth. It’s in the blood, and he had a fine master singer to teach him.”
She was referring, of course, to Ted Connigan, her late husband. Uncle Ted had been an astounding singer, full to the fingertips of the old songs, and he’d often included Ronan in his impromptu musical gatherings.
The waitress served drinks. Thanking her, Joan reached for her beer. “We’re in the best pub in town. The other pubs will have no music tonight but the hum of the flies.”
Maura rolled her eyes. “It’s winter, Gran. There’s no flies now.”
“I know that, Maura. I’m making a recimitation, one your grandfather Ted used to say, may his lodging be snug in the halls of heaven.”
Brendan patted her hand. “May God be good to him. I’ve often quoted that ‘hum of the flies’ gem myself. It’s from an old satire by the Red Bard, Aengus O’Daly, a poet who roamed around Ireland ages ago. He wrote it to ridicule one of his patrons. ’Tis a notable line: ‘They have no other music but the hum of the flies.’”
The pub disintegrated. The reek of rotting flesh invaded the air. Ronan held his breath. It did no good, nor did squeezing his eyes shut. He still saw swarms of enormous black flies crawling over the corpse of the woman his convoy had found in a roadside ditch. The buzzing black monsters bombarded the living too, landing on bare skin and biting hard. He brushed at his sleeves to shoo them off, and the hawk flew over them all.
Joan’s concerned voice broke into the nightmare. “What’s putting the bother on you, lad?”
He snapped back to the pub, confused and embarrassed. “It’s nothing, Auntie Joan. I’m grand. Nora, if you don’t mind, I’ll play after all.”
He burst from his seat, shoved his way to the musicians’ table, and sought the refuge of Nora’s banjo.