Dublin suburbs, Sunday, August 6, 2017
Mark would never forgive her.
Alex dove onto the duvet, violently shaking her purse upside down, scattering its contents across the pristine single bed. Wide-eyed and manic, her jittery hands scrambled across the soft material, tossing her American passport, a vial of prescription pills, and a football magazine onto a pile of serene white pillows, wrinkle-free and welcoming. Her heart lurched. Come on, come on, Sinclair! It had to be there somewhere…
Hiding in her makeup bag? Nope. Her wallet? The twenty-four-year-old wheezed and sputtered, her fingers flicking through shop loyalty cards and stabbing into the bill compartment. She flung British pounds on the bed, revealing…nothing. Wait—underneath her cracked, old-school iPod? An earbud cord ensnared her fingers, halting her feverish hunt. “Shit!” With a frustrated flick, she escaped the tangled web. Damn. Where the hell is it?
“Lex! Come see this.” Mark’s voice, buoyed with excitement, echoed downstairs.
Nooo. Mark couldn’t see this. A sour taste rose in her mouth. With open arms, she scooped up the mess from the bed, dumping it all into the purse with one exception—a small silver rectangular box, its lid slightly askew. Just two minutes earlier, Alex had whipped it open to find only the whiteness of its cardboard walls staring back at her. She peeked inside again, half hoping for a magically different result. Nope. Empty, empty, empty!
Mark’s all-important gift used to call the pretty presentation box home. On her trip from London, the box had been stowed safely at the bottom of her purse. Mark needed it to be easily accessible, and Alex—being Alex—had refused to allow history to repeat. Nope. This little box had been kept close, spared a trip in her checked luggage so if her case went missing, Mark’s amazing birthday surprise would still go ahead as planned.
And boy, had he planned. Alex had never seen him so driven or committed, not even with acting roles. It was like the twenty-five-year-old’s life depended on the timely completion of this task. For eight months, he was like a man possessed: complicated phone calls during breaks on set, entire paycheques eaten up getting everything just so. He had even flown into Dublin five times on the sly from Aberdeen, San Francisco, and Bangkok to oversee the final details in person. Mark had joked that this present for his mother was the gift that kept on giving—it had given him his first grey hair, thousands of frequent flyer points, and plenty of sleepless nights.
By contrast, Alex’s role in the whole production couldn’t have been simpler: carry the gift through security at Gatwick and keep it safe during the hour-long flight to Dublin. Easy peasy, as British school kids say—and yet, sure enough, she had screwed everything up.
Alex fell to her knees, her flouncy sundress pooling around her hips as she peeked under the bed, searching for a hint of curly red ribbon or a sliver of nickel brass. Dammit. Only a few dust bunnies cowered in the darkness. How could she explain that the computerized key Mark had coddled for weeks had vanished? The key was the only one in their possession, the only one that would open the front door to the newly renovated dream home Mark had purchased for his mother. Without it, Mark’s big reveal was ruined, and he would be crushed. Great! Nausea rolled in her stomach. Unlike previous goofy mistakes, Mark wouldn’t find this cute. He would never forgive her.
The dulcet tones of the von Trapp children blared downstairs from the living room. What was Mark doing, blasting The Sound of Music on his mother’s old television? Whatever. As long as it kept him down there…
Her blue eyes darted once more around Mark’s boxy childhood bedroom, her glance ignoring sun-faded football ribbons, a long-abandoned PlayStation, their luggage piled in the corner…wait a minute. Mark’s backpack…was missing. He’d had it earlier, hadn’t he? The morning’s packing had been a cartoonish blur. Mark’s train down from Aberdeen had arrived late, leaving him with just minutes to grab some clothes and necessities. She had pitched in, hurriedly making space in their carry-on bags, swapping belongings in the process. Maybe… Could the key have ended up in Mark’s backpack?
The TV’s volume downstairs crept up slightly with an added vocalist. “…So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen…Lex, where are you?”
Her guy—who would only release his inner songbird after a few pints—was giving Julie Andrews a run for her money stone-cold sober. Someone was definitely in high spirits—for now.
The backpack. It has to be in Mark’s backpack!
“Yeah, coming!” Alex sprung to her feet, a flood of pins and needles attacking her calves.
She hobbled out of the bedroom and paused atop the staircase, its drop rivaling the steepest of London Underground’s escalators. Be careful. A neck-breaking tumble down this threadbare death trap was one misstep away. She clutched the handrail, but it wobbled, about to give way. There wasn’t any need to fix it; Mark’s mother no longer ventured upstairs. Alex’s hand flew to the wall for safety as her bare feet met the first step, then the next. Her fingers skirted a collection of family memories, lovingly embraced by dusty mismatched frames hanging from the faded wallpaper.
One photo, a professionally snapped black and white shot from a wedding, slowed her pace. You didn’t have to be Sherlock to deduce from the picture that Mark and his older sister Grace were related. The Keegan siblings shared fair complexions, jet-black hair, perfectly arched black eyebrows, and most notably, doe eyes the colour of dark chocolate. With one glance, they could melt your heart, persuade you to rob a bank—probably both at the same time. Grace and her husband, Rhys, the tall curly-haired fellow embracing her in the photograph, had recently moved back from Wales and were in on Mark’s carefully choreographed surprise, too. Like Alex, they had a simple task: bring their mother home from their family holiday in Cornwall and arrive at her semi-detached house at three o’clock.
Alex always felt awkward and self-conscious when meeting new people, but these three driving from the Dublin airport weren’t just any people, they were Mark’s nearest and dearest. During the twenty months she had been dating Mark, Alex had never met his mother, his sister, or his brother-in-law, but she had heard plenty of heartwarming stories, and here was the photographic proof. Picture after picture showcased idyllic moments: seaside picnics, Christmases complete with the obligatory paper crowns, and baby photos—so many baby photos.
Her eyes landed on a giggly infant, toothless with chipmunk cheeks and Michelin Man arms. Is that Mark? Once when he was drunk, Mark let it slip that his sister called him ‘Fappy’—a combo of fat and happy—and this photo proved why. Alex’s sexy beau, a favourite of fangirls everywhere, had been a chubby cherub of a baby.
Several other photos shared pride of place along the stairway wall, but Alex hadn’t been in Mark’s orbit long enough to know whom all the cheeky children and dashing adults were—and if she didn’t find that key, she might never find out. Botching Mark’s surprise would destroy that desperately desired good first impression with his mother, and maybe even shatter Alex’s relationship with her son. More than anything, Alex wanted to be on this wall, one day, to have a future with Mark, a proper commitment, but those hopes were fading with each passing minute. Two weeks had passed since her last panic attack, but she was currently swimming dangerously close to the rocks.
“Wish me luck,” she whispered to the photos and raced off the bottom step, leaving the Keegans’ picture-perfect life behind.
Entering the living room, she inhaled slowly, deeply. Don’t show panic. Be breezy. Mark didn’t need to know about the butterfly battle raging within her stomach. A wide smile crept across her face, just missing her eyes as they skimmed the floor for his backpack. “Hey babe.” She fussed with her blonde hair tied in a high ponytail.
“Hello stranger.” Mark’s thumb was getting a workout, flipping through TV channel after TV channel. “Were you in my old bedroom, discovering my teenage secrets?” He dropped the remote on the sofa and stood up, his hands claiming her waist. Leaning in, his mouth didn’t hesitate, meeting hers with gentle but needy kisses as he pressed against her.
Alex parted her lips and slid her hands up Mark’s arms and into his thick hair, worry and loneliness letting go as their kisses grew deeper and more urgent. Finally. For four weeks, she had craved his touch, this private moment. Thank God, he tastes the same. A dizzying surge of warmth and happiness flooded her body, all the way down to her toes, curling into the carpet.
Mark’s hands skimmed upwards from her waist, prompting every nerve ending in their path to scream, Don’t stop! It was amazing how kissing him could still make her forget the simplest things: her name, where she was…how to stand. She grabbed his denim-covered ass, steadying herself as breaths grew fast and shallow and his hands cupped her breasts.
His lips pulled away. “Lex?”
Her eyes fluttered open, catching a streak of light by the front door…a sunbeam, stretching across a backpack—THE backpack. Her stare bounced back to Mark.
He pressed his lips against hers again, a soft, lingering peck promising so much more. Alex’s heart raced, as much for her boyfriend as what she hoped to find loose in that bag.
He pulled away with a smile. “This weekend’s going to be awesome.”
“One to remember.” Alex ducked under his chin, hiding her face.
Mark wrapped his arms around her. “I can’t wait to show Mum the kitchen—it’s completely wheelchair accessible, and the walk-in tub…it’s amazing.” His eyes swept the cosy room where he spent many an evening as a child. “I made a promise to Dad that I’d look after Mum. I just want to feel like I’ve done him proud, you know? Not be a disappointment…”
“Mark, you are not a disappointment…believe me.”
“I’ve always wanted to buy Mum a new house. Lex, I can’t believe I’ve actually gone and done it.”
She lifted her head. “When are they arriving?”
“Soon. Gracie just texted her ten-minute warning from the car.”
Alex’s stomach fell. Great. And the award for ‘Worst Girlfriend Ever’ goes to…
The TV bellowed with a familiar voice tinged with a bang-on Scottish accent.
“Oh, God…” Mark let go of Alex and lunged for the remote, turning the TV off. “Nothing worse than seeing this ugly mug on screen.”
Alex edged towards the backpack, her tight lips dissolving into a proud smile; it was Mark’s breakthrough BBC role in Lairds and Liars. “Freddie said they’re running the first two seasons back to back for the long weekend. You should be flattered.”
“With all my new projects, people will be sick of me.”
“Fat chance of that. Those fans from the airport tailed us most of the way here. Didn’t you notice?”
“Seriously? Were you ever that devoted to Ben Whishaw?”
“You mean stalky? God, no.”
A shrill car horn trumpeted from the driveway and Mark jumped. “Christ, that was ten minutes?”
Alex twitched, pointing at the backpack. “I’ll toss that in your room, so your mum won’t have to steer her wheelchair around it.”
“Good idea.” He peeked through the front window’s net curtains. “Rhys might need a hand.” With bare feet and a cheek-busting grin, he rushed out the front door.
Alex grabbed his backpack and scurried up the stairs. Just steps into his bedroom, she dumped the bag’s contents onto the bed. She separated each item on the duvet: Mark’s iPad, his headphones, a dog-eared script, her Glamour magazine, a yellow Matchbox car, some new fan letters, his Vespa key…but no house key tied with a red ribbon. A burst of summer warmth sailed up the stairs, carrying laughter and happy voices into the bedroom. The front door banged shut, sending Alex’s heart crashing into her stomach.
“Fuuuck,” she mumbled under her breath. Reality couldn’t be avoided now—she must have dropped the key in the rush at their London flat. It was official: she had ruined Niamh’s birthday, and that desperately desired good first impression? So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, good-night…
She punched the backpack. Mark was usually pretty easygoing, but this…this might crack him in half.
She jumped, her heart nearly bursting from her chest. “You scared the crap out of me.” She shoved the backpack on top of the mess.
Mark snickered naughtily around the doorjamb. “What are you like? Come, meet my family.”
Alex’s eyes welled up. “Mark, I’m so sorry…”
“About what?” He glanced over his shoulder, down the stairs where excited Irish accents stepped all over one another.
“I’ve lost your mum’s present.” Chasing breaths, she blurted out the words. “I’ve lost the key—”
“No, you haven’t.” A grin lit up his face as he walked into the room.
“I took it from your purse.” His hand disappeared into his back pocket, pulling out a key dangling from a small pewter disk. “I grabbed it after we came in, when you dashed to the loo.”
Her jaw dropped.
“Sorry babe, forgot to tell you. I put it on a special keychain.”
Alex breathed a huge sigh of relief. “I was turning myself inside out with worry!” She pouted, playfully slapping him on the chest.
Mouse—small in stature and addicted to cheese sandwiches; Mark’s nickname for her was a perfect fit. Just hearing it in his adorable Irish brogue was enough to release the vice gripping her chest.
“Dad loved this old keychain, ya know…” He laid the jumble of nickel and pewter, engraved with a treble clef, face up in the palm of her hand and cleared his throat. “Sure, it’s old and banged up, but Mum will love it. It…” His voice trembled. “It tells our story.”
“Aw, babe. It’s lovely.” A smile tugged the corners of her mouth. She flipped the keychain over, her fingers tracing over a faint engraving: Niamh Grace Mark Kieran inside the outline of a Celtic heart. “Who’s Kieran?”
“Oh, one of my middle names. Keegan boys get them; the girls don’t. It’s a sore point with Gracie.” He clutched Alex’s hand and slowly scooped up the birthday surprise from her palm. “Is the box around?”
Alex grabbed the silver gift box from the bed and lunged at Mark, desperate for a hug.
He squeezed her butt, his eyebrows furrowing. “You okay?”
“Marmalade…” Alex whispered.
Mark kissed her forehead. Marmalade was their private SOS, a code word signaling that one of them needed a reassuring I’m here, babe, you’ll be all right during a difficult or anxious moment.
“You’ve got this, Mouse.”
She pressed her lips to his neck. “I want today to be perfect for you, and I really want your family to like me…”
He pulled back, nudging her bangs from her eyes. “Mum will love you.”
“God, I hope so.” She handed over the box.
“She will. She can’t wait to meet you—and call me crazy, but I can’t wait to meet your mum. It’s about time.”
Alex winced. “Ooh, too much excitement. I need another pee. Give me three minutes?”
“I’ll give you two, tops.” Mark kissed her on the nose and glanced at the gift in his grip. “I can’t wait to see Mum’s face! We’ll give it to her at dinner.” He tossed the box up in the air and snatched it, his grin growing as he bounded out of the room.
Alex quickly scooped up Mark’s scattered belongings, dropping them in his backpack. One item was stuck in the crevice between the bed and the wall: a small square black box with Brown Thomas barely visible on its lid. Its bashed-in corners and scuffed silver lettering drew her curiosity. She shook it and something rolled around inside. Cufflinks? Mark was like a magpie—always carting around various family heirlooms.
A sharp tug removed the stubborn lid. Another box lay nestled inside, this one gunmetal grey with rounded corners and a hinged lid. Her thumb pulled upwards, the box’s tight hinge whining, hesitant to budge. Finally, the lid popped open, revealing its secret.
Lost for breath…lost for words…Alex snapped the box closed.