The irony of a woman who dealt with bridal dramas every week but would rather stab herself in the eye with dressmaking shears than say “I do,” didn’t escape MacKenna Jones. Instead, the thought settled as a low, icky feeling in her gut as she stood in Oban’s community hall surrounded by meters of crepe-paper streamers and balloons. Oh, and let’s not forget the centerpiece cake, which was meant to be wrench-shaped—since her cousin Holly was marrying a mechanic—but instead, disturbingly, looked like a giant, gray-frosted penis. Only on Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third biggest island and unregistered insane asylum, would a penis-shaped cake be considered par for the course at a bridal shower.
Mac rolled her eyes so hard they almost stuck in her upswept bundle of dirty-blond hair, piled high on the top of her head to give the illusion of another two inches of height. And if the hair didn’t make her look taller than her God-given five-foot-three-and-a-sneeze, the spiked heels would level the playing field since Holly and her friends all towered over her like a tribe of Amazonian warriors.
“Having a good time, dear?”
Mac’s eyeballs returned to a horizontal position to find Mrs. Taylor peering at her, her powdery-purple eyelids narrowing in concern.
“I’m having a great time,” Mac said. “I’m so happy for Holly and Ford.”
And she was. Truly, honestly, absolutely happy that her younger cousin was marrying her man in two months’ time.
“Hope you’ve left some room for Denise’s delicious cake.” Mrs. Taylor lowered her voice and leaned into Mac, cupping a wrinkled hand to her mouth. “I expect Denise’ll be a better mother-in-law than she is a baker. That cake looks like a fella’s twig and berries.”
Mac swallowed an unladylike snort and shot a glance across the room at Holly, who was surrounded by her friends. “It’s the thought that counts.”
Mrs. Taylor followed Mac’s gaze and chuckled, a low and smutty snicker that sounded beyond weird coming from the octogenarian’s wattled throat. “Bet I can guess what your cousin’s thinking about when she’s cutting the cake, poor girl.”
Mac nodded as if agreeing with the remark and took a sip of her champagne. “You know”—she gave Mrs. Taylor’s shoulder a companionable rub—“it must’ve been a while since you last saw a man’s twig and berries. Maybe you should look at Denise’s cake one last time?”
Mrs. Taylor’s eyelids flew open, and she barked out a laugh that caused the women around Holly to jump.
“You’re a wee sassy britches, aren’t you? You remind me of myself when I was younger—oh!” The sharklike smile on her face slipped, and she pressed a gnarled hand to her chest. “Oh—my chest feels all queer.”
Mac clasped Mrs. Taylor’s elbow. “Come and sit down.”
Mrs. Taylor tapped with her walking stick to a cluster of chairs and sank onto one with a wheeze and a groan.
“I’ll go get Maggie,” Mac said. “She was in the kitchen last time I saw her.”
“No, no. I don’t want a nurse.” Mrs. Taylor shook her head so hard her lavender-tinted curls quivered, even though the woman smelled as if she’d bathed in hairspray. “I need Doctor Joe.”
The sausage roll she’d eaten ten minutes ago did a slow somersault in Mac’s stomach at the sound of his name. Joe Whelan, the island’s only practitioner, and the one person she always sent a little prayer to the Goddess of Good Juju to avoid when she visited Oban. Normally, her prayers worked, maybe because Joe also seemed to take the same measures to avoid her.
Hey, finally something they had in common.
“I’ll find someone to take you to the medical center, then,” she said.
Mrs. Taylor frowned. “I can’t leave the party, dear, and besides, he won’t be at the center.” She sounded as if she were speaking to someone who always got a joke thirty seconds after everyone else. “He’ll be at the pub with his mates. You’ll go fetch him for me.”
She would? Mac jerked upright. Like hell she would. “Look, I’ll just ask—”
Mrs. Taylor clutched at the folds of her purple dress and uttered a groan. “I feel awful. Please, MacKenna, don’t ruin Holly’s party by letting an old lady have a heart attack on the floor.” She batted her eyelashes at Mac again. “It won’t take you a minute to whip down to Due South and ask him to come.”
Shitshitshit. Mac was fifty-fifty on whether the woman actually was having chest pains, but damn it, Mac wasn’t performing mouth-to-mouth on the wrinkled old grape if she did stop breathing. And since Holly had banned cell phones from her shower—primarily due to the risk of Mrs. Taylor live-tweeting the event—Mac couldn’t take the easy way out and call down to the pub.
“Fine.” She narrowed her eyes. “But he won’t be happy being dragged away from his beer if you’re up to something.”
The shark’s smile returned. “One glimpse of the sexy Irishman’s blue eyes and I’m sure I’ll be right as rain.”
Make that sixty-forty percent sure she was being duped. But Mac toed off her skyscraper heels and kicked them under the seat. “You’d better be. Don’t you dare die before I get back.”
She cast a quick glance toward Holly, who was deep in conversation with her best friend and soon-to-be matron of honor, Shaye Westlake—another satisfied bride of Mac’s wedding boutique, Next Stop, Vegas. Maybe she could…no. Mac straightened her spine and edged along the hall to the back door that led out into a fenced yard. Not even Holly, who was more like her little sister than her cousin, would understand why Mac had spent so much energy flying under Joe’s radar in the four years since he moved to Stewart Island.
Mac skirted along the outside of the hall, the concrete path leading to the street icy cold beneath her bare feet. She wrinkled her nose and grabbed at the skirt of her flimsy dress before it flew up. She hurried along the road with her arms pinned down to her side, the cold southerly gusting over the rolling hills of native bush, direct from Antarctica.
Winter in the deep south…always such a pleasure.
She shivered, cursing herself for forgetting to grab her duck-down coat before leaving the hall. With her luck, she thought as the double-storied hotel, which contained a restaurant and bar, loomed closer, she’d have red Hobbit toes and be hypothermic by the time she arrived. She wouldn’t count on the good doctor’s sworn Hippocratic oath to save her.
Keeping her gaze from meeting anyone sitting inside Due South’s cozy warmth, Mac hurried past the picture windows that overlooked Halfmoon Bay Harbor and climbed the veranda stairs. The pub door opened, and she made the polite but fatal error of holding it while one of the locals, an elderly man she knew only as Wally, walked slowly out. He smiled at her, pinning the door open above her head so she could let go and slip inside. Curse of the short person it was, ducking under armpits.
The half-assed plan she’d concocted on the way down—to ask whoever filled in for Denise the receptionist to pass on a message—bombed when her gaze flicked through the open doorway.
Joe sat at a nearby table, one tanned and ropy forearm stretched out across a chessboard to hover over a black piece. Muscles played along the length of his arm, his biceps flexing under the cotton of his steel-gray Henley. He opened and closed his fingers a few times over a pawn while the man opposite him, Old Smitty, who was another local character, slurped at his beer.
“By the time you make a move, Doc, I’ll be due for my next prostate exam,” Smitty grumbled.
“Thanks for putting that bleedin’ image in my head, old man,” Joe said.
The deep, soft lilt of his voice melted the ice from Mac’s frozen toes as she hovered in the doorway.
“Aren’t you going in?” Wally said.
It could’ve been Wally’s voice or the blast of cold air that hammered the final nail in her too-lame-to-work plan. Or it could’ve been Joe had an incoming bitch I loathe radar that went off inside his head. His hand stilled above the chess board, and his head whipped toward the door, where she stood miserably holding down her skirt, her red toes and probably a cherry-red nose no doubt completing the pathetic picture. His gaze—so blue, so intense that it was like holding a palm over the blue flames of a kitchen burner—skimmed down her body, from her wind-blown haystack hair to her bare feet.
Too late—way too late—to retreat now.
“In or out, miss?”
Crap. Everything around her, including Wally patiently holding open the door, had flown out of her brain the moment she’d seen him.
So much for flying under Joe’s radar. She was now very much on it, and it was unnerving to be the object of his undivided attention. Like a giant, tawny feline who’d spotted a mouse poking its nose into forbidden territory, Joe kept his gaze locked on hers as she crossed on stiff legs to stand by his table.
“Too cold to be running around in your skivvies, love,” Smitty said. “You’ve got goose bumps all over your arms.”
Her skin wasn’t the only thing pebbling. Mac crossed her arms high on her chest to hide the obvious windchill effects. That, and to prevent doing a full-body shimmy from the shivers rattling her tightly clenched teeth. Not that Joe was looking at her anymore.
“You young fellas, no manners,” Smitty muttered under his breath, and then louder, “The girl’s freezing, Doc. Give her your jacket before she catches her death.”
“I’m fine,” Mac said quickly. “Mrs. Taylor insisted I come get you. She’s complaining of chest pains.”
“And where is Betsy having these chest pains? Holly’s shower, still?” Joe kept his gaze locked on the board as he slid his queen onto another square. “Checkmate,” he said without waiting for her answer.
His mouth pulled into a grin solely aimed at Smitty, but it still gave MacKenna a little quiver in her good parts. Or maybe that was just from the icy breeze slicing into her again as someone exited the pub.
Smitty swiped a disgusted hand at Joe before lumbering to his feet. “Next time, you cocky Irish mongrel.”
Smitty yanked on the collar of the black wool jacket draped over Joe’s chair back. He skirted the table and draped it around her shoulders. “These barbaric Celts, no idea how to treat a lady. You keep it on ’til you get back to the party.” He patted her shoulder and headed for the bar.
The heavy folds of Joe’s jacket settled around her, and other than letting it drop to the floor—which would risk giving the cocky mongrel the impression she was affected by the masculine scent left on it—she was forced clutch the lapels together.
“Yes. She’s still at the shower, but she didn’t want me to call Maggie. She insisted I find you.” Now Mac had heard Mrs. Taylor’s request out loud, the plan sounded highly suspicious to Mac’s ears, and from the upward twitch of Joe’s eyebrows, she wasn’t the only one who thought the old woman was up to no good.
He blew out a sigh loaded with resignation but surprisingly no irritation and stood.
A good seven inches shorter than Joe, she was at the perfect height to note the dark growth of stubble on his throat as his Adam’s apple worked up and down. His fingers tapped an impatient rhythm on the table at his side.
“D’you mind backing up a step, so I can reach my backpack,” he said, “or are you waiting for Smitty to offer my boots for your pleasure, as well?”
Heat sandblasted her face, and she took a giant step backward, peeling off Joe’s jacket at the same time like a matador challenging a bull. “Here. Take it back.”
Light sparked in his eyes. Challenge accepted, his gaze seemed to say.
“No need to cut off that little red nose, MacKenna.”
His tone was light and teasing, as if this wasn’t the first time he’d addressed her by name in years. And the cold must’ve partly iced up her eardrums as she could’ve sworn his lilting voice had even grown a little husky.
“I wouldn’t want to be held accountable for you catchin’ your death,” he added.
He hooked his backpack over his finger and slung it onto one broad shoulder, ducking around her, not waiting to see whether she’d childishly throw his jacket at his retreating back.
Mac studied his loose and easy gait, his free hand relaxed at his side as he strode to the pub’s outer door. Gazing at that level meant an unavoidable view of his men’s-catalog-perfect jeans-covered butt, which made her wistful for the university students back home in Invercargill, a one-hour ferry ride away on the mainland. If only Joe followed the student trend of baggy pants belted below butt cheeks, she wouldn’t be thawing at an alarming rate.
Joseph Michael Whelan, Joe’s father’s voice boomed in his mind. Don’t just stand there like a bleedin’ lump. Move your arse.
Joe slid a sideways glance at MacKenna, who wriggled back into his coat in record time. Her party dress could stop traffic—if Oban ever had enough four-wheel-drive vehicles out on the road at one time to constitute traffic—so he was able to breathe again when she covered up her lethal curves.
And why was he still hovering by the pub door instead of doing a bunk to the community hall? Not as if the woman didn’t know her way around the town.
Because she’s wearing my coat.
If that was the least pathetic excuse his mind could come up with on such short notice, then he needed his head examined.
“You go ahead,” she said. “I’ll catch up.”
Her gaze danced over him then zipped to the bar, where Smitty gossiped with Kip Sullivan, one of Due South’s bartenders. MacKenna’s normal, sleek fall of honey-colored hair was wind tousled and jammed half in, half out of his jacket collar. Mascara or liner or whatever the hell women painted around their eyes had smudged the pale skin beneath. Likely because of the bitter wind whipping like a frenzied devil through the harbor—that sea spray stung.
“I’ll walk with you.” Because for the first time since he’d met the beautiful but carnivorous MacKenna Jones, she looked vulnerable.
For an approximate count of three.
Then her lush mouth—just a little too wide for her face—thinned. She held her ground, little red toes curling on the pub’s floor, his face the target of her slit-eyed glare. Guess the idea of a few minutes more in his company didn’t hold much charm for her either.
“Unless you’re planning to have a whiskey first to bolster your nerves?” The words slipped from his mouth before he’d time to rethink the wisdom of engaging wits with her.
Gobshite—what the hell was wrong with him today? For the past four years since he’d accepted the position of general practitioner on Stewart Island, he’d never had a run-in with MacKenna when she’d arrived to spend time with her cousin. Now, suddenly, he was baiting her?
She stalked across the pub floor, looking like a hissing, spitting kitten trying to fluff itself up in size to appear threatening, and jerked open the door. Without waiting for him, she sailed through to the deck outside and continued toward the stairs. Joe stopped the pub door from slamming and caught up with her by the foot of the stairs, hearing a soft yelp as her bare feet touched the icy sidewalk.
Chilblains, his mother used to yell. You’ll get chilblains playing outside without your shoes on. And so she’d order him, his younger brother Luke, and the eighteen-month-old twins, Kerry and Kyle, inside their cramped Ballymun council flat. She’d chafe her warm, rough hands over their feet until they were all toasty and giggly and ready for some fruity brack, hot from the oven.
What would it feel like to rub MacKenna’s feet between his hands? He couldn’t hold back a low chuckle. Thank God his thoughts didn’t flash across his forehead like a neon sign, or she’d likely direct him to the nearest foot-fetish website. Only once his mind conjured up the image of rubbing MacKenna’s feet, it fast-forwarded to him running his hands over the silky-looking skin covering the rest of her body.
“Something funny you’d like to share with the class?” MacKenna faced him, fists on hips, the sea breeze whipping a lock of hair across her face.
“Private joke,” he said.
The pinched look returned to her face, and her gaze surreptitiously slid down the front of his coat to her feet, the attitude-drenched stance melting as she wrapped her arms around herself.
Joe’s ribs gave a little squeeze around his heart. While she was as aware as he of the unpleasant and awkward undercurrents that flowed between them, he wasn’t one for letting his arsehole flag fly unprovoked. And MacKenna’s alerting him to one of his patients’ discomfort wasn’t provocation. Didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure she’d rather be anywhere but standing two feet away from him.
“I was thinking of my mam and her obsession with chilblains,” he said. “If she were here, she’d be fussing like a hen and have you hauled back inside, where she’d have you drinking tea and smothered in wool blankets.”
“Oh.” MacKenna shot him a wary glance, as if she still didn’t quite believe he hadn’t been laughing at her. “That sounds surprisingly lovely.”
“Yeah?” Joe lifted a shall we walk? hand in the direction of the community hall. “Not so much so when you’re eight and trying to prove to your mates how tough you are by running barefoot through the streets of Ballymun.”
MacKenna padded along beside him, taking two steps to each of his in order to keep up. Her perfume curled around him, his nose suddenly able to differentiate between her and the tang of brine and chimney smoke wafting on the breeze. She smelled of something earthy but sweet, taking him back to a fifteen-year-old Joe and a stolen kiss in Poppintree Park. The first and last time he’d kissed a girl in the Green Isles, barely a week before his family immigrated to New Zealand.
“Do you miss it?” she asked. “Ireland, I mean.”
Hairs rose and rippled down his nape. He rubbed his neck with an impatient hand as they started up the slight slope of the road leading to the hall. “Sometimes. I grew up in a pretty rough part of north Dublin. We didn’t have two pennies to rub together when I was growing up. As a kid, I didn’t notice it so much; it was just home to me.”
“How old were you when you left?”
“Fifteen. And my brother Luke was eleven; the twins, Kerry and Kyle, were eight.”
And look at them, having an actual civil conversation.
“A big move,” she said. “Uprooting and moving your family to the other side of the world. But at least you had each other.”
Maybe he imagined it, but her words held an almost wistful tone.
MacKenna Jones was an only child. He’d gleaned as much over the years from snippets of conversation he’d had with Holly. Ah, well. As doolally as his younger brothers and sister drove him at times, he couldn’t imagine not having them do so.
His stride quickened, footsteps echoing along the deserted street. The skin across his shoulders had gone numb with the chill wind, and his ears ached. Anyone in his or her right mind would be tucked up warm inside this afternoon. Oban winters weren’t for the faint of heart.
He glanced down at MacKenna. Her shoulders hunched, she had her head tucked tortoise-like into his jacket, quick-stepping to remain at his side.
“Betsy clearly must’ve put a rocket under your arse to send you running from the hall in just that slip of a dress,” he said.
“I was worried, so I didn’t think. I just did what needed to be done.”
Invisible icicles bristled down his spinal cord. Almost the exact excuse she’d used with him in her bridal boutique so many years ago.
MacKenna stumbled, and he shot out a hand to grip her elbow, preventing her from face-planting into the sidewalk. She swore fit to rival Piper Harland—a former police officer now married to Due South’s manager, so that was saying something—and shook off his hand.
“I’m fine, thanks.”
She spoke through gritted teeth, as if losing the front ones would’ve been preferable to his touch.
Being the bigger person, Joe resisted serving up a generous portion of sarcasm and took the steps up to the community hall entrance two at a time. Though his mam would’ve boxed his ears, he shot through the doorway without pinning the heavy door open for MacKenna.
The rumble of conversation rolled out from the hall, louder and higher in pitch than the same sized crowd gathered in Due South earlier. Ah, to be back at the pub with the lads and a few scoops, whiling away a winter’s afternoon instead of walking into—
Joe shoved open the hall’s inner door, and seconds later, squeals of his name erupted at a level only the local dogs could hear. He raised a hand in a brief wave, dodging at least two outstretched plates of an odd-looking, gray-frosted cake. He spotted Betsy keeping court by the laden snack table and made a beeline for her—and stopped short. He squinted at the remaining portion of uncut cake on the table. Was that a gray…zombie penis?
“Yoo-hoo! Doctor Joe.”
Joe jerked his gaze away from the disturbing cake and back to Betsy Taylor who was planted on her plastic chair like a queen about to receive a commoner subject. She wasn’t clutching her chest—or showing signs of discomfort in her neck, arms, back, or stomach, where pain could show in a female heart attack victim. Her face was its usual too-much-foundation tone of pale orange with blotches of lighter color. No sign of excess sweating or a sickly gray hue, just the healthy though wattled skin of an eighty-something-year-old. Mrs. T. had threatened to sign him up for an online dating site as she’d done to his mate Ford if he ever revealed her true age.
Joe sat beside her, eyeing Betsy’s bejeweled hand resting on her knee. As long as it stayed on her knee, they were good. The widow Taylor had a habit of being a bit grabby with men under the age of fifty and especially toward Joe’s mates. Fortunately, Betsy came from the generation where doctors were considered demigods, and she kept her wandering hands to herself. Nevertheless, he took her fingers in his to check her skin wasn’t cold and clammy. Nope. Warm and dry and quite soft, thanks to the lavender moisturizer she constantly applied.
“Feeling a bit poorly, were we?”
Betsy batted her false eyelashes, one of which had started to peel off like an escaping spider. “Oh, dreadful, Dr. Whelan. But you mustn’t worry about me now. What about poor MacKenna?”
“She’s fine.” Joe’s gaze flicked to the hall entrance, but his view was blocked by the collection of women nattering in the middle of the floor.
“Are you sure?” Betsy thumped her cane on the floor for emphasis. “She dashed out of here without her coat, and it’s cold enough to freeze a witch’s tit off outside. You’d best check on her first; she’ll catch her death.”
The general consensus, apparently.
Joe unzipped his backpack—the one his mates teasingly labeled Joe’s handbag—and removed his portable blood pressure monitor.
“I gave her my coat, Betsy. And it’s you I’m concerned about. Chest pains in a woman your age—”
Betsy waved a dismissing hand. “Pishposh. I’m feeling much better.”
“Did you seriously just pishposh me?” Joe unwrapped the Velcro pressure cuff with a long, loud rip. “After I hauled my arse all the way up here. You wouldn’t be crying wolf now, would you?”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, young man,” she said. Then ruined her indignant act by shooting him a most wolfish smile. “Maybe I had a touch of indigestion from Denise’s penis cake.”
“You’ve a touch of something, for sure.” Joe slid the cuff onto Betsy’s upper arm and tightened it. He hooked his stethoscope out of his backpack and draped it around his neck. “I’m still going to check you out.”
He pumped up the cuff and listened to the healthy-as-a-horse thud of Betsy’s pulse.
“You can check me out anytime, dear,” she said as he released the cuff’s pressure. “A handsome Irishman such as yourself. Oh myyyy.”
“Opened myself up for that one, didn’t I?”
He peeled the cuff off her arm and placed it and the monitor back into his bag.
“You don’t open yourself up to anyone, Joe. That’s my worry.”
The sudden quaver in Betsy’s normal foghorn-powerful voice made him freeze, dangling his stethoscope over the backpack’s opening. Uncannily, she was right. But hell if he’d admit it to the interfering Mrs. T. He dropped the stethoscope into the bag then leaned over to wrap an arm around the woman’s bony shoulders. He gave her a gentle one-armed hug.
“Don’t you worry about me, my girl. Worry about the tests I’m going to run on you back at the medical center. Ones involving needles and uncomfortable things stuck to your boobs. Unless you’d like to confess what you’re really up to?”
Did he feel guilty playing the needle card on an elderly woman with an intense dislike of them? Nope. Joe gave her shoulder another squeeze then released her with his best don’t lie to the doctor smackdown stare.
Betsy’s mouth twisted, her gaze darting sideways. “I might’ve exaggerated the chest pains.”
Hah! He knew it. “Exaggerated, meaning there weren’t any?”
“Not a twinge,” she admitted. “I just thought that maybe you and the Jones girl…”
Her voice trailed off, leaving Joe to fill in the rather obvious blanks. The “funny when it was someone else, terrifying when it was him” side of Betsy Taylor was that she was an unrepentant matchmaker. And somehow she’d gotten Joe and MacKenna in her sights. Maybe it was all the wedding fever going around town, with MacKenna, as a bridal shop owner, infecting everyone, including Betsy, with the virus. But aside from being immune to that particular strain, the last person he’d ever end up with was—
“Oh, sweet baby Jesus!” Betsy hollered at his side, making him nearly jump out of his skin. “MacKenna’s bleeding!”