“How’s things, Miss Sullivan?” Mr. Monahan’s russet head popped into the doorway of the schoolhouse, startling Iris from the papers she was grading. He was early. She hadn’t expected to see him for another hour. And she knew that despite everything, she was happy to see him.
He ambled over to her, folding himself into a nearby chair, his troubled expression filling her with sudden foreboding. “I’m well, Mr Monahan,” she said, watching his face. “Is something wrong?”
He sighed heavily, unhappily, regret in his blue eyes. “Miss Sullivan...” he rubbed the back of his neck. “We have to talk, so we do.”
A sick, empty feeling opened up in her belly, and she suddenly felt embarrassed and unbearably self-conscious. “Oh?” Her attempt to sound light utterly failed, and the intensity of his eyes forced her gaze back down to the surface of the desk. “I imagine this is about...well...” She swallowed, her voice cracking. “You know.” Well, this is lovely. I’m finally less nervous around him, and now I’m all in knots for an entirely different reason...
He drew in a deep breath, and held it. “Lass, I’m going to have to stop coming here for lessons,” he blurted, cringing as he said it, as though the words burned his throat on the way out. “I’m sorry. I’m going to have to continue me studies on me own.”
It was as surprising and painful as a punch in the ribcage. She froze, and it took every bit of her control to remain impassive. “Oh,” she managed. Betrayed hurt flared inside her as the sweet flush of color that had started to bloom in her life faded back into gray. It’s because of what I told him...because of what I’ve done. I’ve lied and stolen and he’s come halfway across the continent to avoid that. Of course he doesn’t want to involve himself with... “I understand,” she heard herself say, more ashamed of herself now than she’d ever been.
He shook his head, a faint, sad smile playing about his lips. “No, lass, I don’t think you do...”
“I had hoped...” What, Iris? That he’s a criminal, so he wouldn’t mind that your face is on a poster? That he’d understand? Her eyes had started to burn. That maybe he’s kind enough, and sweet enough that... “Nothing.” She sighed, her breath trembling in her tightening throat. “I’m sorry. “Of course you don’t want anything to do with me after...”
“Jaysus, that’s what you think?”
She stared at him in confusion, the knot in her throat tightening, aching.
He shook his head. “Miss Sullivan, me days of lying to you are over, so they are. I’m enjoying our lessons, lass. I’m enjoying them too much, and me thoughts have gone past what’s proper.”
Her heart had started to pound in her ears as she watched the cinnamon sprinkling on his cheeks fade as his face reddened beneath them. Here he was, Lynch’s hired gunman, the Roach Guard thug from New York...sitting in a too-small chair and blushing like an adolescent boy caught staring too long.
He went on, his accent sweetening his words, making her breath catch. “None of what you told me changes anything, he said. “You’re a proper lady. Too fine for the likes of me to be having thoughts about, so you are. And lass...I just don’t think I’ll have it in me to walk away with me dignity, if I don’t walk away now.”
She stared at him, the furious red blush deepening on his cheeks and turning his eyes into the bluest thing she had ever seen. “Oh,” she managed to stammer as heat radiated from the back of her neck. She could feel her own face heating up. “Oh,” she said again. “Uh...well...” Can he hear my heart pounding? How can he not hear my heart pounding? “Mr. Monahan, I don’t...know what to say, I...”
“You don’t have to say anything, Miss Sullivan, and I shouldn’t have said that to you, sure. But I swore to meself I was done with the lying. I’ll leave you be now, so...” He unfolded his long legs and got up.
“You don’t have to,” she blurted, almost knocking over her chair and standing up. “I don’t...I mean, I wish you...”
She looked up at him, his height making her feel tiny. She couldn’t believe that such a short time ago, she’d been afraid of him. “You don’t have to go, Mr. Monahan,” she said softly. There was a startled widening of his eyes, and he gave a questioning turn of his head. Leaning upwards, she stood on tiptoe and pulled his arm, making him bend. She brushed the faint, soft stubble on his jaw with her lips, then came down hard on her heels. Her face was on fire, her lips burning as if she’d been scorched. “I...really don’t mind if you...have thoughts about...” Her voice trailed off as she stared at his stunned face. I’ve crossed the line. First the embezzlement and now this. What must he think of...
He leaned down, his big hands setting lightly on her shoulders, as he paused there, waiting for her to pull away. And then he kissed her, his lips soft and pliant against hers. She leaned into him, against the broad plane of his chest, thrilling as his hands cradled her, gentle and powerful. There was a roaring in her ears, and the steady gallop of his heart against her breast made her lightheaded.
He broke the kiss with a hitching gasp, a dimple forming in his freckled cheek and a messy copper lock falling into his eyes. “Aye,” he said, his voice breathless. “I’ve been wanting to do that for a while now, so I have.”