Irish rebel, p.7
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       Irish Rebel, p.7

         Part #3 of Irish Hearts series by Nora Roberts
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  A scan of the walls had the grin turning to a wince. Blue ribbons, medals, awards were all neatly framed and displayed. There were photographs of her in formal riding gear flying over jumps, smiling from the back of a horse or standing with her cheek pressed to her mount's neck.

  And in a thick frame was an Olympic medal. A silver.

  "Well hell. We'll make that two portions of crow," he murmured.

  Chapter Four

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  It was his fault. She could put the blame for this entirely on Brian Donnelly's shoulders. If he hadn't been so insufferable, if he hadn't been therebeing insufferable when Chad had called, she wouldn't have agreed to go out to dinner. And she wouldn't have spent nearly four hours being bored brainless when she could've been doing something more useful.

  Like watching paint dry.

  There was nothing wrong with Chad, really. If you only had, say, half a brain, no real interest outside of the cut of this year's designer jacket and were thrilled by a rip-roaring debate over the proper way to serve a triple latte, he was the perfect companion.

  Unfortunately, she didn't qualify on any of those levels.

  Right now he was droning on about the painting he'd bought at a recent art show. No, not the painting, Keeley thought wearily. A discussion of the painting, of art, might have been the medical miracle that prevented her from slipping into a coma. But Chad was discoursing—no other word for it—on The Investment.

  He had the windows up and the air conditioning blasting as they drove. It was a perfectly beautiful night, she mused, but putting the windows down meant Chad's hair would be mussed. Couldn't have that.

  At least she didn't have to attempt conversation. Chad preferred monologues.

  What he wanted was an attractive companion of the right family and tax bracket who dressed well and would sit quietly while he pontificated on the narrow areas of his interest.

  Keeley was fully aware he'd decided she fit the bill, and now she'd only encouraged him by agreeing to this endlessly tedious date.

  "The broker assured me that within three years the piece will be worth five times what I paid for it. Normally I would have hesitated as the artist is young and relatively unknown, but the show was quite successful. I noticed T.D. Giles considering two of the pieces personally. And you know how astute T.D. is about such things. Did I tell you I ran into his wife, Sissy, the other day? She looks absolutely marvelous. The eye tuck did wonders for her, and she tells me she's found the most amazing new stylist."

  Oh God, was all Keeley could think. Oh God, get me out of here.

  When they swung through the stone pillars at Royal Meadows, she had to fight the urge to cheer.

  "I'm so glad our schedules finally clicked. Life gets much too demanding and complicated, doesn't it? There's nothing more relaxing than a quiet dinner for two."

  Any more relaxed, Keeley thought, and unconsciousness would claim her. "It was nice of you to ask me, Chad." She wondered how rude it would be to spring out of the car before it stopped, race to the house and do a little dance of relief on the front porch.

  Pretty rude, she decided. Okay, she'd skip the dance.

  "Drake and Pamela—you know the Larkens of course—are having a little soiree next Saturday evening. Why don't I pick you up at eightish?"

  It took her a minute to get over the fact he'd actually used the word soiree in a sentence. "I really can't, Chad. I have a full day of lessons on Saturday. By the time it's done I'm not fit for socializing. But thanks." She slid her hand to the door handle, anticipating escape.

  "Keeley, you can't let your little school eclipse so much of your life."

  Her hand stiffened, and though she could see the lights of home, she turned her head and studied his perfect profile. One day, someone was going to refer to the academy asher little school , and she was going to be very rude. And rip their throat out. "Can't I?"

  "I'm sure it amuses you. Hobbies are very satisfying."

  "Hobbies." She bared her teeth.

  "Everyone needs an outlet, I suppose." He lifted a hand from the wheel and gracefully waved away over two years of hard work. "But you must take time for yourself. Just the other day Renny mentioned she hadn't seen you in ages. After all, when the novelty wears off, you'll wonder where all this time has gone."

  "My school is not a hobby, an amusement, or a novelty. And it is completely my business."

  "Naturally. Of course." He gave her a patronizing little pat on the knee as he stopped the car, shifted toward her. "But you must admit, it's taking up an inordinate amount of your time. Why it's taken us six months to have dinner together."

  "Is that all?"

  He misinterpreted the quiet response, and the gleam in her eyes. And leaned toward her.

  She slapped a hand on his chest. "Don't even think about it. Let me tell you something, pal. I do more in one day with my school than you do in a week of pushing papers in that office your grandfather gave you between your manicures and amaretto lattes and soirees. Men like you hold no interest for me whatsoever, which is why it's taken six months for this tedious little date. And the next time I have dinner with you, we'll be slurping Popsicles in hell.

  So take your French tie and your Italian shoes and stuff them."

  Utter shock had him speechless as she shoved open her door. As insult trickled in, his lips thinned. "Obviously spending so much time in the stables has eroded your manners, and your outlook."

  "That's right, Chad." She leaned back in the door. "You're too good for me. I'm about to go up and weep into my pillow over it.''

  "Rumor is you're cold," he said in a quiet, stabbing voice. "But I had to find out for myself."

  It stung, but she wasn't about to let it show. "Rumor is you're a moron. Now we've both confirmed the local gossip."

  He gunned the engine once, and she would have sworn she saw him vibrate. "And it's a British tie."

  She slammed the car door, then watched narrow-eyed as he drove away. "A British tie." A laugh gurgled up, deep from the belly and up into the throat so she had to stand, hugging herself, all but howling at the moon. "That sure told me."

  Indulging herself in a long sigh, she tipped her head back, looked up at the sweep of stars. "Moron," she murmured. "And that goes for both of us."

  She heard a faintclick , spun around and saw Brian lighting a slim cigar. "Lover's spat?"

  "Why yes." The temper Chad had roused stirred again. "He wants to take me to Antigua and I simply have my heart set on Mozambique. Antigua's been done to death."

  Brian took a contemplative puff of his cigar. She looked so damn beautiful standing there in the moonlight in that little excuse of a black dress, her hair spilling down her back like fire on silk. Hearing her long, gorgeous roll of laughter had been like discovering a treasure. Now the temper was back in her eyes, and spitting at him.

  It was almost as good.

  He took another lazy puff, blew out a cloud of smoke. "You're winding me up, Keeley."

  "I'd like to wind you up, then twist you into small pieces and ship them all back to Ireland."

  "I figured as much." He disposed of the cigar and walked to her. Unlike Chad, he didn't misinterpret the glint in her eye. "You want to have a pop at someone." He closed his hand over the one she'd balled into a fist, lifted it to tap on his own chin. "Go ahead."

  "As delightful as I find that invitation, I don't solve my disputes that way." When she started to walk away, he tightened his grip. "But," she said slowly, "I could make an exception."

  "I don't like apologizing, and I wouldn't have to—again—if you'd set me straight right off."

  She lifted an eyebrow. Trying to free herself from that big, hard hand would only be undignified. "And are you referring to my little school?"

  "It's a fine thing you're doing. An admirable thing, and not a little one at all. I'd like to help you."

  "Excuse me?"

  "I'd like to give you a hand with it when I
can. Give you some of my time."

  Off balance, she shook her head. "I don't need any help."

  "I don't imagine you do. But it couldn't hurt, could it?"

  She studied him with equal parts suspicion and interest. "Why?"

  "Why not. You'll admit I know horses. I have a strong back. And I believe in what you're doing."

  It was the last that cut through her defenses. No one outside of family had understood what she wanted to do as easily. She flexed her hand in his, and when he released her, stepped back. "Are you offering because you feel guilty?"

  "I'm offering because I'm interested. Feeling guilty made me apologize."

  "You haven't apologized yet." But she smiled a little as she began to walk. "Never mind. I might be able to use a strong back from time to time." She glanced over as he fell into step beside her. It looked like he had one, she mused, skimming her gaze over the rough jeans and plain white T-shirt he wore.

  A strong, healthy body, good hands and an innate understanding of horses. She could do a great deal worse, she supposed. "Do you ride?"

  "Well, of course I ride," he began, then caught her smirky little smile. "Having me on again, are you?"

  "That one was easy." She turned to wander along a path that meandered through late-blooming shrubs and an arbor of gleaming moonflowers. "I won't pay you."

  "I've a job, thanks."

  "The kids handle a lot of the chores," she told him. "It's part of the package. This isn't just about teaching them to post and change leads at a canter. It's about trust—in themselves, in their horse, in me. Making a connection with their horse. Shoveling manure makes quite a connection."

  He grinned. "I can't argue with that."

  "Still they're kids, so fun is a big part of the program. And they're learning so they don't always do the best job mucking out or grooming. And there isn't always enough time to have them deal properly with the tack."

  "I started my illustrious career with a pitchfork in my hand and saddle soap in my pocket."

  Idly he tugged a white blossom from the vine, tucked it into her hair. The gesture flustered her—the easy charm of it—and made her remember they were walking in the moonlight, among the flowers.

  Not, she reminded herself, a good idea.

  "All right then. If and when you've time to spare, I've got an extra pitchfork."

  When she veered toward the house he took her hand again. "Don't go in yet. It's a pretty night and a shame to waste it with sleeping."

  His voice was lovely, with a soothing lilt. There was no reason she could think of why it made her want to shiver. "We both have to be up early."

  "True enough, but we're young, aren't we? I saw your medal."

  Distracted, she forgot to pull her hand away. "My medal?"

  "Your Olympic medal. I went looking for you in your office."

  "The medal lures parents who can afford the tuition."

  "It's something to be proud of."

  "I am proud of it." With her free hand she brushed her hair as the breeze teased it. Her fingertips skimmed over the soft petals of the flower. "But it doesn't define me."

  "Not like, what was it? A British tie?"

  The laugh got away from her, and eased the odd tension that had been building inside her. "Here's a surprise. With a great deal of time and some effort, I might begin to like you."

  "I've plenty of time." He released her hand to toy with the ends of her hair. She jerked back. "You're a skittish one," he murmured.

  "No, not particularly." Usually, she thought. With most people.

  "The thing is, I like to touch," he told her and deliberately skimmed his fingers over her hair again. "It's that… connection. You learn by touching."

  "I don't…" She trailed off when those fingers ran firmly down the back of her neck.

  "I've learned you carry your worries right there, right at the base there. More worries than show on your face. It's a staggering face you have, Keeley. Throws a man off."

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