Chapter 2

 

The crowd parted around MacKenna as if Betsy were Moses wielding his staff, and the women, the Red Sea. For a woman her age, Betsy could move when necessary. She’d shot out of her seat and all but hooked MacKenna with her walking stick to prevent her from bolting.

Joe skimmed the length of MacKenna—frozen near the hall’s kitchen—and spotted a blood-speckled paper napkin wrapped awkwardly over the toes of her right foot.

“I’m fine.”

Joe heard her speak from halfway across the room.

“Just point me in the direction of the first aid kit,” MacKenna went on.

“First aid kit? Pfft.” Betsy blew a raspberry and locked her arm through MacKenna’s. “We’ve a doctor right here.”

MacKenna’s gaze shot arrow-straight to Joe. “I don’t need a doctor.”

Every line of her stick-up-the-arse posture conveyed resistance to engaging with him a second time. And if the pint-sized attitude wasn’t clear enough, the “fuck off” look in her pretty green eyes was.

Betsy glanced over her shoulder with a raised, what do I do? eyebrow. Shite. And he’d just left MacKenna outside without doing the gentlemanly thing and checking she was okay. He crooked his finger at Betsy, and she gave another wolflike grin.

Betsy tightened her grip and dragged her unwilling captive along by the elbow toward him. MacKenna limped across the floor, leaving a speckled trail of blood behind her. Betsy muscled the younger woman more with pure will than upper body strength into the chair she’d just vacated.

“Now, stop your arguing, and let Joe have a look,” Betsy said. “I’ll go remind those twittering fools in the kitchen where the first aid box is kept.”

“I really don’t need a doctor,” MacKenna said again. “It’s just a stubbed toe.”

“A stubbed toe can bring a grown man to his knees.” Joe crouched in front of her. He cupped her heel with one hand and peeled the blood-soaked paper napkin off her toes with the other.

MacKenna hissed, and her foot jerked against his palm—whether solely from pain or a reaction to his touch, he didn’t know.

The bleeding had slowed, pooling around the nail bed of her big toe. He reached for his backpack and dragged out the plastic container containing a basic first aid kit. Nothing in there that could treat an amputated limb in an emergency—but MacKenna wasn’t in imminent danger of losing a digit. She’d just have a toe that’d hurt like a bastard for a few days. 

“Mac? Are you okay?”

Holly’s voice came from behind him. Joe glanced over his shoulder at Holly’s worried frown.

“It’s just a stubbed toe,” MacKenna said. “I need a Band-Aid, then I’ll be fine. Go on back to your party.”

“If you’re sure—?”

“High pain threshold here, remember? This is nothing compared to a sewing machine needle through your finger. Go—” MacKenna smiled and shooed her cousin away.

Holly blew MacKenna a kiss and was swallowed back into the circle of women.

“I don’t need your help putting a bandage on,” MacKenna said.

Her heel gave an experimental tug against his fingers, but he didn’t release it. Instead, he peeled open a sterile swab and gently cleaned the wound. There was a little grazing around the toe itself, but MacKenna was right. She didn’t require his assistance. 

His gaze flicked up to her. She’d looked away from her cousin and now stared at him with a mixture of confusion and challenge.

Oh. Right. He was still cupping the smooth, warm skin of her foot, like Prince feckin’ Charming about to slide on a glass slipper.

Joe’s fingers sprang open, and he cleared his throat.

“One Band-Aid, coming up.” He rummaged in the plastic container, grabbing the first plastic strip he found. Which, with the luck of the Irish, happened to be a princess-branded one. Irony layered upon irony. At least the featured princess was the mermaid one and not Cinderella.

MacKenna took the Band-Aid and glanced at the printed covering, her mouth curling at one corner. One could almost mistake it for a smile.

“Ariel?” She tore off the wrapping. “Cute.”

“Girls seem to like them well enough.”

“Little girls, maybe.” She crossed one slender calf over the other, her nose crinkling as she peeled the protective covering back. “I always thought the mermaid was a chump, giving up her voice for some guy she’d only just met.” 

“Not a big believer in love at first sight, then?”

MacKenna snorted, bending over to secure the bandage across her toe. Joe got an eye-watering, up-close view of her breasts pressing against the low-cut front of her dress. He flinched away, disguising the movement by snapping shut the plastic lid of the first aid kit and shoving it into his backpack.

“Aren’t you in the happily-ever-after, saying-I-do business?” He zipped the bag closed and rocked back on his heels to see that MacKenna had straightened up and was now watching him through slitted eyes.

“I’m in the business of making sure the bride looks beautiful on her wedding day, and her day goes as perfectly as I can make it. The happily-ever-after part is all on her and her groom. Nothing to do with me.”

Nothing to do with her. And yet, nothing-to-do-with-her hadn’t stopped MacKenna from blowing up his happily ever after. Joe stood and swung his backpack onto his shoulder before he opened his big, fat gob and said something he couldn’t take back.

“I’d best be off before Betsy invents another ailment.”

Furrows deepened on MacKenna’s brow. “Are you sure she’s okay? It’s not a heart thing, then?”

Oh, it was a heart thing—Betsy’s sentimental and interfering heart was definitely involved. But Mrs. T. was lining up her Cupid’s bow at the wrong man.

“No, not a heart thing. Indigestion is more like it,” he said. “But I’ll make her come in for a full checkup next week.”

“Good.”

The next four beats of silence stretched between them, looping around his gut and cutting tight. Being at a lack for words was unfamiliar territory—and an insult to both his parental and cultural heritage. The Whelans were never silent unless afflicted with laryngitis, and even then Joe’s mam could communicate a homicidal intention to him and his siblings with just one glance. Yet, for some reason, Joe’s tongue remained glued to the roof of his mouth while empty, ridiculous phrases scurried through his brain.

Nice to see you again.

I’ll see you ’round.

See ya later.

Well, it’s been fun, but…

Or even the Irish, slán.

But he’d no intention of seeing her later or around, and it was plain disturbing to be this close to her for the first time in ever and discover he wasn’t as much in control as he’d thought and—

His hip pocket vibrated with an incoming call.

Joe hauled out his phone and glanced at his mam’s phone number flashing on the screen. Brilliant bloody timing; he could kiss the woman.

With an apologetic grimace, he said, “Sorry, got to take this,” and jogged to the hall’s rear doors.

Joe slipped outside, the wind driving through his shirt a reminder that MacKenna still had his coat. He’d rather donate it to the lost-and-found box than return for it, so he shut the door behind him.

“Howya, Mam?” he said. “What’s up?”

His mam’s voice rattled machine-gun fast as he wandered down the side of the community hall. He mmhmm-ed in the right places but let her running commentary of her and Da’s week and the various updates about family back in Ballymun wash over him in a soothing tide. Footsteps slowing outside Due South, he decided against another chess game with Smitty and turned, instead, toward Oban’s little medical center and the two-bedroom cottage at the rear of it that Joe called home.

Rough, white-capped waves surged through the wharf’s pylons and smashed into the sand as he strode past. Out in Halfmoon Bay Harbor, the moored fishing boats jostled and shook, tugged first one way and then the other as the current tried to drag them out into the notoriously dangerous Foveaux Strait. Joe cast an eye to where the afternoon ferry’s broad blue and white stern chugged toward the horizon and the little town of Bluff on the mainland. Poor bastards were in for a hellish hour-long trip.

Mam had covered most of the topics in her reservoir by the time he’d headed away from the beach.

“Da wants to know if you’ve tried the new ale he sent down,” she said. “He’s like a schoolboy waiting on exam results.”

The bright-red roof of Joe’s cottage came into sight, and his stride grew longer. It wasn’t much, his little, white clapboard house with the green windowsills that’d soon need repainting due to the past two wilder-than-usual winters. It wasn’t flashy, with its cramped bedrooms and décor dating back to the island’s previous physicians’ tastes. It wasn’t what some would think a thirty-four-year-old man’s bachelor pad should look like, since it was meant for a doctor and his family, but it was Joe’s space. No nosy siblings, no noisy student accommodation, no roommates. Just his private space. And he didn’t give a shite about the color of the drapes or if the living room had good feng shui.

He unlocked the cottage’s front door and bumped it open with his hip. “They arrived yesterday. I haven’t had time to sample one yet. Though if the lads catch wind of a new Doyle’s on the premises, they’ll be kickin’ down my door.”

He dumped his backpack on the hall floor and made a beeline for the kitchen, mouth watering at the mention of one of his da’s craft beers.

“All going to plan, it’ll be in production soon enough and on the shelves of your pub by the New Year.”

The pride in his mam’s voice was unmistakable. Brewing had been one of the only hobbies his da had brought with him when they’d emigrated from Ireland, and through sweat and hard work over the past eighteen years, he’d expanded a hobby into a mid-sized empire that now shipped his beer—named after his wife’s maiden name—worldwide.

“But that’s not why I’m ringing you. It’s your sister. Kerry.”

As if he’d more than one seven-years-younger sister to worry about. Fortunately not. One Kerry was enough for any brother to deal with. Joe removed one of his da’s new beers from the fridge and used the bottle opener tacked to the wall to open it.

“What’s she gone and done now?”

His mother heaved out a sigh. Hairs prickled at the back of Joe’s neck. It was the same sigh he’d heard every time one of the twins got into one form of trouble or another.

“Oh shite, Mam—she’s not knocked up, is she?”

“Joseph! No, she’s not knocked up.” Another sigh. “But she does have a new man.”

The whip of tension that had gathered around his rib cage eased. “Kerry’s always got a new man.”

“This one’s different. He’s…”

The rib-cracking tightness returned. Kerry had hooked up with some unsavory characters before. While Joe might be a doctor, his younger brother Luke a computer guru, and Kerry’s twin, Kyle, an architect, none of the men who hadn’t treated their sister well had hung about long once the three Whelan brothers paid them a late-night visit.

“He’s what?” Joe asked into the void. “And different how?”

“He looks a bit rough, but he’s a nice lad—Aaron Parata’s his name. Works for one of the tourist companies driving a tour bus.”

A bus driver? A rough-looking bus driver? That gave Joe a moment’s pause. “He’s not an ex-con or a gang member, is he?”

Tutting sounds came from the other end of the line. “No, you great git, he’s not. And he treats our Kerry like a queen.”

“So he should.”

“Well, he does and all.” His mam cleared her throat. “And two nights ago, he asked our girl to marry him, and she said yes.”

Joe’s fingertips loosened, and the bottle plummeted to the floor in an explosion of glass and beer.

“What was that?”

“The cat knocked a mug off the counter,” he said, moving away from the shards of jagged glass and the spreading puddle of his untasted beer. He leaned a hip against his ancient stainless steel kitchen counter, his distorted reflection in the now-dull steel staring back at him.

“Son, you don’t have a—”

“How long have they been together?” asked his mirror image with narrowed eyes, the deep lines etched into a brow partially hidden by the flop of his mud-brown hair.

“Five months.” Her words were clipped, and worry infused them. “Living in sin for three.” A half-arsed chuckle followed that statement. “Granny Whelan’s words, not mine,” she added. “She’s a bit gobsmacked about it all, but she’ll come round.”

Awkward silence followed. Awkward, because if Granny Whelan knew Kerry was living in sin for the past three months, then everyone in the Whelan clan knew. Except him. And the reason made the fries he’d eaten earlier at Due South sit like a paperweight in his gut.

Sofia.

Or, as per the Whelan family’s whispered legend, that redheaded tart who’d left Joe high and dry at the altar.

“Kerry wasn’t going to tell me about getting hitched,” he said.

“Yes, she was—she was. Just not for a while. She wanted to wait to find the right time to bring it up, you know?”

When would the right time be? Probably after two years of dating, at least another two of living together, then he might be ready to hear his baby sister was ready for such a commitment. Not because he’d prejudged Aaron; he could be a feckin’ stand-up, solid guy. But Kerry, out of all his siblings, was in some ways the most like him. Like what he used to be.

“Sees only the good in people,” his mam would say. “Gullible eejit,” his da would mumble. Joe had been blinded and emotionally burned beyond recognition once; he couldn’t let his sister go through the same with this Aaron character.

“When’s the big day?” he asked, his steady voice a testament to his self-control since his tone reflected nothing of his white-knuckled grip on the phone.

“Spring sometime. They haven’t set an official date yet.”

The relief in his mam’s voice was palpable but spring? That was only months away!

“I’m sure they’re not rushing into anything like—” She snipped off the last of her sentence as neatly as an infected toenail…and just as ugly.

Like you did with Sofia.

His mam and da never warmed to Sofia, though neither had admitted it aloud until later. Luke and Kyle had been working in the US while Joe had been entrenched in his whirlwind romance. By the time his brothers arrived back in the country a week before his wedding, Sofia had packed up her five suitcases and a dozen boxes from his Invercargill apartment and had disappeared from his life.

Tiny shards of glass crunched under his boots as he skirted the mess on the floor and retrieved the dustpan and brush from the sink cabinet. Sofia was ancient history, dragged into the present by bumping into MacKenna and then by his mam’s revelation. Ancient history that was best read in a textbook with a cool, detached eye. Read and learned from.

“Da and I just felt you should know,” his mam said. “So you’ll be prepared to at least act like you’re happy for our Kerry when she tells you.”

“I’ll act like I don’t intend to lance her new fiancé like a pus-filled boil.” Joe tucked the phone between ear and shoulder and crouched beside the broken beer bottle. “Best I can do.”

His ma chuckled and after a few more minutes of nattering, disconnected. Joe finished cleaning the last of the broken beer bottle and grabbed a fresh one, carrying it into the cottage’s cozy living room. He closed the drapes against the darkening skies above Oban, spits of rain pinging against the windowpanes. Then he lit the fire and stretched out on his sofa.

Without permission, his mind drifted back to Due South and his first glimpse of the rumpled, red-faced blonde frozen in the doorway. He took his first sip from the bottle, savoring the taste.

Sharp. Smoky. Full-bodied.

His lips curved as he muffled a laugh with another sip and finally relaxed. They were three words he could also use to describe MacKenna Jones.

***

The next afternoon, Mac slipped another pin from between her lips and jabbed it through two layers of plain white cotton, forming another waist dart. Fortunately, after years of practice, her aim was true, and she didn’t stab Holly’s bare back beneath the fabric.

“Perfect,” Mac said. “This’ll be my best one ever.”

“I should hope so.” Holly cocked her head at the full-length mirror in the room she and Ford shared. “Since this is the first and last time you’ll ever make a wedding dress for your favorite cousin.”

“As I said, perfect.” Mac wasn’t touching the “first and last time” statement with a ten-foot pole.

In her life experience, both as owner of her bridal boutique, Next Stop, Vegas, and from her mother, Cheryl, who’d waltzed down the aisle three times so far, the big “M” often didn’t outlast the piece of wedding cake the bride put aside for her baby’s christening.

But in Holly and Ford’s case, Mac really hoped they were the exception.

Cue subject change. “Are you sure it’s okay for me to stay an extra night?” she asked, tapping Holly’s right hip so her cousin turned away from the mirror. Mac slid another pin into the slightly too loose side seam. “There’s no one booked?”

Holly acted as landlord for the two small apartments that used to be Mrs. Dixon’s before the elderly lady was forced to move into a nursing home in Invercargill. Tourists rented the downstairs apartment during Oban’s spring and summer, and Holly’s employee, Rutna, rented Holly’s old apartment on the second floor.

“Not for a couple of weeks. What tourist in their right mind wants to freeze their nuts off here in winter? And it’s fine; stay another night. The ferry will be running again tomorrow.”

Thanks to the wildness of the weather, Mac had gotten little sleep the night before. Between the wind howling and Rutna’s baby upstairs crying, Mac was operating at only half capacity. Didn’t help that her brain kept reliving the humiliating encounter with Joe. Mac grimaced and stood up, her big toe aching beneath her sheepskin-lined Ugg boots. She’d packed the comfortable but battered boots to wear during her planned two-night stay—because as Holly pointed out, Oban in winter? Bloody freezing. Didn’t matter that spring was just around the corner; Stewart Island apparently didn’t adhere to such notions, and the sheer force of the wind and waves had cancelled all of Sunday’s ferry crossings.

She could cope with one more night.

Once Holly’s dress fitting was done, Mac was a free agent. If by free she meant returning to the apartment to curl up with her laptop and snail-slow Wi-Fi to continue last-minute details for a wedding she’d planned the next weekend. Curled up with her laptop and leftover penis cake, there was little risk of running into Joe again.

The front door of Holly and Ford’s house crashed open, followed by multiple barks of male laughter and the thud-thud-thud of boots being kicked off in the hallway.

“Crap!” Holly squeaked. “Ford and the guys are back.” She made shooing motions with her hands. “Go stop him from coming in here—it’s bad luck.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Mac muttered around a mouthful of pins. She spat them out and poked them back into her wrist caddy. “What are they doing here anyway? Aren’t they watching the game at Harley’s?”

On Ford’s twin brother’s enormous TV. The only way to watch the All Blacks kick the Wallabies asses, according to Ford, who’d greeted her at the door an hour ago.

“Just go, Mac.”

Mac strode over to the bedroom door and yanked it open. “I’m going, I’m go—”

Joe stood on the other side, a fist still raised to knock. His presence, only an unexpected foot away, was like a one-two sucker punch to her diaphragm. His scent hit her first. An earthy combination of salt and woodsmoke rose from his woolen coat—the same one she’d worn yesterday, so he must’ve sneaked back to the hall—with an undertone of his cologne that she remembered too well. The spicy-warm smell floated down her windpipe and made the next inhale nearly impossible.

His sleepy-blue gaze skimmed over her face. Her I’m just hanging with my girl no need for make up face she’d thrown on before she’d arrived at Holly’s. Mac’s scalp itched under his examination of her cable-knit sweater and thick leggings, the tingles spreading down to her Ugg boots.

Gaining control of her body parts, MacKenna snapped shut her still parted mouth and folded her arms, trying—unsuccessfully—to block Joe’s view into the room behind her. “You can’t come in here.”

“I think you mean the future groom can’t come in.” Joe’s chin rose and the indifferent mask vanished from his face, the corner of his eyes crinkling as he looked over the top of Mac’s head. “Howya, Holly?”

“Mac’s using me as a pin cushion,” Holly said. “But she’s nearly done.”

“Yeah?” Joe leaned a shoulder against the doorframe, the plaid shirt under his unbuttoned coat pulling taut across his broad chest. “Ford nominated me to tell you we’ll be taking over your telly for a bit. Bree booted us out at half time after we woke little Tāne from his nap.”

He directed his comments behind Mac. As if she wasn’t glaring up at him from her height disadvantage. Her gaze scanned down his beige-colored jeans—which she had to admit he filled out in all the right places—to the dark-blue, obviously hand-knitted socks on his feet.

Joe’s toes wiggled. “Like what you see?”

Mac jerked her gaze upward—to the smirk curving Joe’s mouth. So the smug doctor thought she was checking him out? She formed her lips into a smile.

“Possum-merino yarn?” she asked. “Did you knit them yourself?”

“Not this particular pair.” Blue eyes clashed with hers. “But I’m handy with a needle…or a pair of them.”

“It usually takes four to knit socks.”

The bite of tart slipping off her tongue startled her back a step, her fingers dropping away from the door handle, which she hadn’t realized she’d been clenching. You’re going to stand here and argue with him over knitting techniques? Heat climbed past the cowl neckline of her sweater and prickled over her cheeks. Bane of being a blonde with fair skin, cherry-red embarrassment was dead obvious.

Down the hallway from the direction of Holly and Ford’s living room, came the roar of a crowd over Ford’s surround-sound speakers.

“The second half of the game is starting,” she said.

“Who’s winning?” Holly leaned an arm on Mac’s shoulder. “No—don’t tell me,” she added before Joe could speak. “We’ll be out soon, so save us a seat?”

“Sure.” Joe met Mac’s gaze once more and then turned away.

Heat still scalding her cheekbones, she kept her chin tucked down as she unhooked the tape measure from around her neck and slid the pin caddy off her wrist. “You can get changed. I think we’re done here.”

“Good.” Holly turned her back to MacKenna. “Unpin me, and let’s watch the mighty Blacks beat the Wallabies.”

Endure another forty minutes trapped in close quarters with Joe? Not likely. Not when her language skills hadn’t improved with the man since the awkwardness yesterday. Mac quickly slid out the neat row of pins holding the back of the gown together.

“There you go.” She wanted to yank the cotton shell off Holly, bundle it in the garment bag she’d brought, and make a run for it. But she was a grown-ass woman, so she’d be grown-assed about the situation…and hide in her cousin’s kitchen. “I’ll go and make a snack while you watch the game.”

“Oooh. Make some of your to-die-for scones; the guys’ll love them.” Holly whipped around, and nearly lost her dress. She hugged the bodice close to her chest, her smile dreamy, whether it was from the thought of hot, buttery scones or from thinking about Ford currently cursing up a storm in the living room, Mac didn’t know.

“Actually, better make a double batch because Ford—” Holly’s brow crumpled. “Are you okay? You’re a little flushed. Oh God—are you sick from running out in the cold yesterday?”

That gave Mac a perfect excuse. Who wanted germ-laced scones?

“I might be a little feverish.” She feigned a cough. “I should go home before I infect anyone else.”

“And forgo the scones with butter and strawberry jam I now can’t stop thinking about?” Holly grinned at her. “We’ve all got cast iron stomachs, and I know the real reason you want to disappear.”

The pin Mac held slipped and fell to the floor. “Really?”

God, she sincerely hoped her cousin didn’t know. She bent and snatched up the pin and jammed it back into the caddy, keeping her guilty face averted from Holly.

“You didn’t want to admit it in front of Joe in case it got back to Ford…”

Mac’s heartbeat kick-started with a roar.

“But you’re not a rugby fan,” Holly added with an arched eyebrow. “Unless at some point in the past couple of years, you suddenly came to your senses?”

“Nope.” Huge, silent sigh of relief. “Bunch of hairy men in shorts running around a field after a pigskin—no offense to your hubby-to-be, of course.” And, now Mac was babbling. She backed out of the room and shut the door. “I’ll start on the scones,” she said to the closed door and then fled down the hallway.

Grown-ass woman, she reminded herself as she stepped through the archway into Ford and Holly’s living room. She’d make scones and pretend she cared if the All Blacks won or lost, then she’d sneak out later, while everyone was eating and dissecting the game.

The couch was packed with three big guys, all of them leaning toward the TV screen with rapt attention. Ford sat between his twin brother, Harley, and Ben Harland, another of the guys, married to one of the island’s school teachers. In front of the couch sprawled the two Westlake brothers, Del and Ryan, who only answered to “West,” both of whom kept Due South running like clockwork. In one of the room’s two armchairs, the town’s cop, Noah Daniels, sat sipping a glass of orange juice. In the other armchair, the one closest to the open-plan kitchen, slouched Joe. He also continued to stare at the screen as she slipped past him into the kitchen.

A few minutes after Mac had dragged ingredients out of the pantry, Holly appeared wearing jeans and one of Ford’s hoodies. She draped herself onto her fiancé’s lap, laughing as the guys shifted from side to side trying to see past her.

Ben got up from the couch with a disgruntled sigh and stepped over West’s and Del’s prone bodies to nudge Joe’s ankle. “Mate. Your turn to get the next round of drinks.”

With an amicable shrug, Joe stood, and Ben slid into his vacated armchair.

Joe picked up a few empties and headed toward the kitchen. That was Mac’s cue to tuck her head down and sift flour like a crazy woman, as if she hadn’t been studying him over the breakfast bar for the past five minutes. Only sort of, kinda observing where he was in relation to her, so she could ensure she was somewhere else.

But it was hard to keep up the pretense of being somewhere else when Ford and Holly’s kitchen didn’t have a lot of wiggle room. Then Joe walked behind her to the recycling bin, his presence buffering her as if he wore one of those inflatable sumo wrestler suits. Mac focused on the mixing bowl and the chunks of yellow butter dusted by the sifting flour. Keep the ingredients forefront in her mind and the comical image of Joe the sumo wrestler out of her brain, and she’d get through the next two minutes.

The fridge door hissed opened, glass rattled, then the door hissed closed again.

She set aside the sifter and dug her fingers into the flour, squishing the softened chunks of butter into it and watching from the corner of her eye as Joe left the kitchen with a six-pack. See? She could totally do this. She rubbed her fingers more, and some of the tension spanning her shoulder blades melted.

Until Joe stepped back into the kitchen with an empty glass and pulled the jug of orange juice from the fridge. He found a clear spot a little along the counter from where she stood and set down the jug. Mac worked the butter through the flour like a time-stressed contestant on MasterChef. These scones would be awesome—“b-awesome” as her cousin’s bestie, Shaye, often said. Either that or they’d be overmixed and solid as little pet rocks if Joe continued to stare at her. How did she know he was staring at her when her gaze was glued to her flour-dusted hands? The same way she’d once sensed the nun creeping around the classroom behind her and giving Mac the stinkeye for not taking notes fast enough.

Joe moved closer, bringing with him the heady wash of his cologne. Well, that was something he didn’t have in common with a nun—a smell of sex and spice and all things nice. Plus, you know, he was minus the penguin suit that would’ve disguised some of the chest muscles his long-sleeved shirt exposed now he’d removed his coat.

Nuns and sumo suits and sexy pecs? Good God, she was going insane.

He stopped beside her, leaning a hip against the counter. “This evening’s ferry crossing has been cancelled due to the shite weather.”

“I heard.” And thanks for the reminder that I’m stuck here another night.

Not that she didn’t enjoy visiting Stewart Island. After all, she’d spent loads of time here when she was younger, hanging out with Holly and her friends during the summer holidays, and then in later years coming to partake in girls-only weekends. But the pleasure of the tiny town surrounded by acres upon acres of unspoiled native bush and beautiful but isolated beaches had vanished like magician’s smoke when Holly had casually mentioned a new GP had taken over for Doctor Dwight. Shite had been exactly what Mac had thought when she’d heard the new physician’s name was Joe Whelan.

“Likely it’ll be running again in the morning,” he said.

To keep up the appearance of politeness, she gave a quiet hum of agreement. The butter was well and truly cut into the flour now, the mixture fine and crumbly. Mac added the required milk and mixed briskly.

Joe watched every movement as if he’d never seen a woman make a batch of scones before. Or perhaps he waited for confirmation that she really was leaving tomorrow and didn’t intend to bug him one moment longer than necessary.

“And you’ll be able to get back to your satins and lace and bridezillas,” he added.

“Bridezillas don’t faze me. I know how to handle them.”

No, anxious brides didn’t disturb her equilibrium, not the way the man beside her did. She dug her fingers into the dough, squeezing the mixture as if she were squeezing Joe’s annoyingly talkative lips together.

“I’m sure you know how to put a bitchy bride in her place if she pisses you off.”

The edge in Joe’s voice grated down her backbone. They both knew which bitchy bride he referred to, and even though the sick feeling in her stomach made her want to retreat, Mac angled her chin, meeting his cool gaze.

“If you have something to say about—” The name “Sofia” was on the tip of Mac’s tongue, but at the contraction of tiny muscles around Joe’s eyes and mouth, she swallowed it and lowered her voice. “About something, then spit it out.”

Joe rocked back on his heels, staring down his straight nose at her, a small, bitter smile carved across his mouth. “Think I’d better keep my big gob shut before I say something I regret.”

In a swift move, he poured orange juice into the glass.

Mac dropped the lump of soft dough onto the flour-sprinkled countertop she’d prepared earlier. She thumped her fist down on it, shooting a sideways glance at Joe as he replaced the jug into the fridge.

“You should try it sometime,” he added.

He walked out of the kitchen and passed Noah the glass, then took the spot on the floor since Del had stolen Ben’s previous spot on the couch.

Mac picked up the rolling pin and set to work on the scone dough. The wood, smooth under her fingertips, did little to ease the urge to pick the thing up and beat a confrontation out of him. That confrontation was a long time coming, and obviously she was a just a splinter under his fingernail, reminding him he’d lost the love of his life. So, four and a half years ago, maybe she should’ve kept her big gob shut.

And maybe, if she hadn’t cared that Sofia would break Joe’s heart, she would’ve.