"Closer to You"

by Glenys Packer and Jen W.

Assumpta boarded the plane with her stomach in knots. An hour from now Leo would meet her at the other end. She knew in her head this was the right decision. If she could only get her heart to agree then maybe her stomach would calm. After she found her seat, her mind drifted back through the years to the first time she met Leo.

"There sits the prettiest lass in all the land."

When Assumpta raised her head, ready to glare at the guy with the horrible line, she saw he was pointing off in the distance at a blond on the other side of the library. Assumpta looked Leo over, dark hair, humor in his dark eyes and her tone was dry, "Well she's clearly too good for you."

He finally looked down at Assumpta then, smiling wide, "You're not jealous are ya?"

"Not in the least."

"Leo," he introduced, still smiling at her.

Assumpta remembered that by the end of the conversation they had been hushed by the library staff three times, she'd laughed at least six times, and she had a date for Friday night. Leo left after telling her, "Ah, don't worry lass, you're a close second."

The engines of the plane started and Assumpta buckled her belt. The bumpy turbulence shook the plane as it reached altitude and leveled off. Attendants began coming around with drinks.

Being with Leo was never dull. They had common interests and they would talk for hours and never be bored with each other's company. She remembered how it didn't take long for casual dates to become a close and committed relationship. It seemed so natural and easy between them in those days.

Leo had never spiked her heart rate, but Assumpta always told her college friends she just wasn't the type. Keeping her wits about her and being logical was something Assumpta prided herself on, she refused to be one of those foolish giggly girls falling all over a man. Being with Leo was smart. He was kind and patient and treated her wonderfully. Leo loved her, accepted her unconditionally. And he was safe and comfortable in a way no other had been.

For two and a half years they were inseparable. All their friends expected them to marry after graduation. Assumpta remembered panicking the first time one of them mentioned it to her. The thought of being 20 years of age and having her entire future decided for her was frightening. It wasn't that she didn't care for Leo but Assumpta wasn't sure what she would feel in another 10 or 20 years.

She stared out the window of the plane and watched the puffs of clouds pass the wing. It all seemed so long ago but so many of her feelings were still the same.

Assumpta thought about the days after graduation, all the confusion and pain and decisions that had to be made. She was an adult overnight and being with Leo was the last thing she could rationally think about at the time. Then Leo was offered the job on Fleet Street and she used it. Assumpta felt they needed the space and he would regret not taking the chance. It was a difficult time, some nights she'd wake crying missing her family and feeling lonely. She missed Leo's arms as well and knew if he were there he'd be a great comfort. But part of her still wasn't ready to be near him again. Years passed, she got over the loss and built a life for herself. She and Leo kept in touch but they were both busy with
their separate lives.

Then Father Clifford came to Ballykay and for the first time in Assumpta's life she felt her heart rate race, spike, skip and do all manner of things. It happened in her van after picking him up in the rain and she told herself it was ridiculous and impossible. He was a priest and she wasn't like that. Then it began happening all the time, he'd smile at her, put a hand on her arm, and her heart was gone. It was his and his alone. She hated it for a while and she spent plenty of time fighting it. Finally one day Assumpta just surrendered. She was in love with Peter Clifford.

Seeing Leo again during the election had only solidified what she knew. She loved Peter and though she cared deeply for Leo, he was a distant second in her heart. She realized what she felt for Leo was that sort of melancholy fondness one has for their first love. He was the first man to commit to her in a real adult relationship, the first man she made love with and the first man Assumpta considered marrying. But as years passed he became a sweet old friend and a wonderful reminder of their time together. It was still the past she thought of when she looked at Leo. When she looked at Peter, she dreamed of the future.

As Assumpta became closer to Peter she increasingly couldn't bear the little distance that remained between them. His friendship was imperative but it wasn't enough. Assumpta swore, even now, that there was a charge in the air between them he must have felt also. There were moments he'd look at her and Assumpta was sure she was more than a friend to him. But Peter chose the church instead of her. "It would do me no harm to be as good of a priest as Father Mac." He stood across from her in the kitchen being logical and reasonable. Those were the last things she was feeling in that moment.

"Still sittin' on the fence." She couldn't believe it.

"No. I've got off the fence. Father Mac shoved me onto a ladder."

"Oh, yeah? What sort of ladder?"

"He's ordered me to go on retreat."

She remembered thinking that Father Mac was once again the bane of her existence. She didn't want Peter to listen to advice from an old man who long hated her because it couldn't possibly be impartial advice.

Assumpta wanted to plead with Peter not to go, to beg him not to break her heart. She needed Peter to think for himself and not blindly do what they demanded of him. But he let her down. He chose to do what the church asked of him and she was left with nothing but tears.

It was embarrassing falling for a priest. And even more embarrassing that he didn't feel the same, at least not enough to want to be with her. Her heart was broken. The pain of it haunted her even now miles in the air, far from Ballykay. And almost worse in Assumpta's opinion, her pride was shattered. She felt like running and hiding and being comforted and rocked like a child. And that's why she was on this plane because Leo was still there for her just the same as always.

Leo rang every other week the last two years to check in with her. Check up on her, more like. And usually somewhere in the conversation he'd repeat the same mantra he had for years, "Come over here and be with me, Assumpta. We could give it another try. I'm still in love with you. Surely there's no reason to stay there?" Over and over, and in the end Leo was right, there really was no reason to stay in Ballykissangel because Peter didn't love her.

Assumpta felt Leo was like her favorite old pair of jeans. There was nothing special about them but they had been around for so long that they fit her perfectly. She'd been stupid to toss that aside once and she wasn't going to make that mistake again. Peter Clifford didn't love her and Assumpta was determined to learn to get over him. She was lucky to have Leo who loved her deeply still and was waiting with open arms. Maybe her heart would never skip a beat with Leo, but he wouldn't hurt her like she was hurting now.

The plane landed and the passengers began departing the plane. Assumpta walked off the departure ramp and saw Leo waiting for her, sitting in one of the plastic chairs and reading the newspaper. He looked up when she approached and quickly got to his feet.

"Assumpta! I thought you'd never get here!" He pulled her into a tight embrace, and Assumpta was momentarily comforted by the familiar feeling of his arms around her.

"Ah well, I think it's a rule that planes are supposed to be late." Assumpta said, stepping back. Leo nodded, smiling happily.

"Well, let's go pick up your luggage. We can drop it off at my apartment, and then what do ya say we go get some lunch?"

"That sounds wonderful," Assumpta replied. They turned and began walking over to the stairs that would take them down to the baggage claim. Leo gently slipped an arm around Assumpta's waist as they walked, and Assumpta leaned against him, contented that at least some things never change.


Peter was taking a hike in the hills that surrounded the area where the retreat was held. He stopped at the top of one rise that let him look out over the whole area. Spread out below him were rolling hills splashed with more shades of green then one could imagine possible.

"This is where the forty shades of green came from..."

Hadn't that been one of the first things Assumpta had ever said to him? Peter pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes, as if trying to press the images of Assumpta out of his mind. Ever since that night in Killnashee he hadn't been able to get her out of his mind. Something had happened that night, something that two months on retreat certainly wasn't going to fix, no matter what Fr. Mac said.

"Peter?" Peter turned around to see his friend from seminary school, Fr. Collins, walking up behind him.

"Oh, hi Greg." Peter said, turning back to look out at the view again. Fr. Collins took a seat on the rock next to Peter.

"Do you want to talk about it?" he asked quietly.

"What?" Peter said, turning back to look at Fr. Collins.

"It's obvious that something's bothering you," Fr. Collins continued. "And isn't the whole point of coming on retreat to work out your problems? I just thought talking might help."

"Do you ever think that may be you made the wrong choice?" Peter asked.

Fr. Collins frowned "About what?"

"About being a priest."

"I can't say that I have. Why? Is that what you're feeling?"

"That's the thing..." Peter said despairingly. "I don't know. I want to serve God, but sometimes I just find myself wondering if there isn't another way. Another way without so many..."

"Restrictions?" Fr. Collins offered. Peter nodded.


Later that night Assumpta and Leo were sitting on the couch in Leo's apartment watching a movie. As the film ended, Leo turned and smiled at Assumpta.

"I'm so glad you're here, Assumpta," he said, pulling Assumpta into a tight embrace. Assumpta smiled and looked at him.

"Yeah, me too," she murmured. Leo gently brushed a stray strand of hair out of Assumpta's face. Slowly he leaned closer to her. At the last second, however, Assumpta pulled away.

"Assumpta?" Leo said questioningly.

"No, Leo, I'm sorry, I'm just not ready for that yet."

"Ah well…" Leo looked disappointed, but shrugged, "When you're ready." He yawned and stretched, then stood up. "I'm gettin tired, how about you?"

"Yeah." Assumpta stood up and for a moment nerves fluttered in her stomach. Leo seemed to notice her hesitation.

"Don't worry, I assumed you'd want the guest room, at least for now." He said. Assumpta smiled and nodded sleepily.


That night Peter fell into a fretful sleep. He'd only been asleep for a little while when he began to dream.

He was back in the car in Killnashee. Assumpta had just told him about the priest when she was sixteen who'd shine a torch through the window. Assumpta was staring at Peter intensely, so Peter asked her what she was thinking about.

"I was just…" Assumpta went slightly pink, "wondering."

"Wondering what?" Peter was aware that he was leaning closer to Assumpta.

"I think you know what," Assumpta murmured, her voice deep and almost seductive. She leaned in and kissed Peter's lips lightly, teasingly, before pulling away. Peter reached out, drawing her face back towards his, kissing her again and again… Suddenly someone was knocking on the door, shouting, "Fr. Clifford! Fr. Clifford!"

Peter sat up in bed. It was morning, and sunlight was streaming into his little room. Someone was knocking on the door. Shaking his head, Peter stood up and went to answer it.

"Yeah?" he mumbled. It was one of the other priests.

"Breakfast started about ten minutes ago, Father," the other priest said.

"Oh, right." Peter groaned inwardly. "I'll be right there."

"You all right?" The other priest tilted his head in a concerned manner. He was younger than Peter, perhaps just out of seminary school. Peter smiled reassuringly.

"Yeah, I'll be along in a minute." He closed the door and went to get changed.

These dreams he'd been having annoyed him. Not that they weren't enjoyable (Peter mentally slapped himself for this thought), but he knew he shouldn't be having them. Assumpta was his friend, nothing more. Every night before he went to bed he tried to think of anything but Assumpta, for some reason, though, he was never successful.


That morning Leo brought Assumpta breakfast in bed.

"I feel positively spoiled," Assumpta said, grinning as Leo set the tray on her lap then sat next to her on the bed.

"Good," he said, leaning over and kissing her cheek. "I'm just trying to show how special you are."

"Oh I feel special all right," Assumpta muttered, picking up a piece of toast.

"So, what do you feel like doing today?" Leo asked, leaning against the headboard. "We could go to the theater, or a museum, or fly to Australia, whatever you want."

"I don't feel up to much today…" Assumpta said, taking a sip of coffee. "Is there just a park we could go to?"

"Yeah." Leo nodded. "Get dressed, and we can walk to one."

Later that afternoon they lay, lounging beside a placid river in the middle of one of London's parks. A brightly colored blanket was spread below them. They both lay on their stomachs, watching a family playing by the water's edge.

Leo seemed to notice Assumpta watching the family longingly, and asked, "Is that what you're looking for?"

"I guess," Assumpta said. She rolled onto her back, staring up at the sky. "I don't know. Sometimes I don't want the restrictions that having a family would put on my life, but other times….there's nothing more I would want."

"We could have that," Leo said, looking down at her. "If you would marry me, we could have that. A family that doesn't have those restrictions." Assumpta seemed to contemplate him. Hadn't this been why she'd come back to him?

"I don't know Leo…" she said.

"I still love you, Assumpta," Leo murmured. Assumpta sat up and looked Leo deeply in the eyes. She thought of many things in the next two seconds; the first time she met Leo, the first time she met Peter, Leo telling her he loved her, Peter saying that it was over.

There were only a handful of times in Assumpta's life when she'd felt this lost and hurt and confused. At age 10 her best friend in primary school moved away just as the fighting between her parents started, Assumpta had ran away from home, though she only got as far as Brendan's. She dyed her hair purple and began smoking cigarettes after her father was killed. Assumpta broke it off with Leo among other things when her mother died. Each of those times her automatic response was to do something reckless and stupid. She hadn't yet learned the lesson that her response was never smart, she always regretted it later, and though it did distract her it was only temporarily better before it got worse.

And so once again, Assumpta pushed aside her pain and did something reckless in response to it. She took a deep breath and said, "Leo, I think we should marry."

Leo believed he was on some roller coaster-induced daze. "You sure, Assumpta?" After all this time he couldn't believe this was real.

"We should file the papers today." Assumpta forced enthusiasm into her voice, "We've waited long enough."

They visited the registry office that afternoon and filled out the required paperwork to state their intention to marry. Leo's hand shook with excitement as he signed it, now only a month to wait for his dreams to finally come true. After, they walked and saw the sights, even did a little shopping among the tourists. As the afternoon and evening went on, Assumpta seemed increasingly distant to Leo. It was as if her mind were somewhere else. Whereas his mind and heart, everything were focused solely on her. The contrast troubled Leo.


Brendan called the number Michael Ryan had given him. It took some time on the other end as the person who answered said everyone was in prayer. Brendan told him, "And here I was expecting water skiing today."

The young man didn't see the humor. But eventually Peter Clifford's voice came on the line. "Hello?"

"Peter, Brendan here."

"Is everything alright?"

"Here in Ballykay. But I'm worried about Assumpta, Niamh says she hasn't heard from her. Assumpta's in London and I know you're flying through there on your way home today, could you stop in and see her?"

"Ah." Peter felt very uncomfortable with the idea. But Brendan had him worried and it was worth being uncomfortable to make certain Assumpta was okay. "Sure Brendan, I'll drop in."

"Niamh gave me the information Assumpta left. She's convinced Assumpta's not ever coming back to Ballykay and I just... We would all miss Assumpta, you would too."

"Yes." Peter tried to sound neutral and not let his battling emotions seep into his tone.

He landed in London with his rucksack in one hand and the other clutching a slip of paper with an address on it. That slip of paper was the only connection he'd had with Assumpta in over two months and it surprised Peter how much that thought pained him. He missed her.

When he knocked, the last person Peter expected to answer was Leo. And Leo looked confused as well. "Father Clifford?"

Peter could hear Assumpta speaking in the background but couldn't see her. He said, "I, ah, was passing though on my way home and thought I'd stop in and say hello."

"Come on in then, you can celebrate with us."

Peter asked distractedly, "Celebrate?" as the situation was now dawning on him. Assumpta had come to London to be with Leo.

Leo's smile grew. "We're getting married, Father. Not that the moment happened the way I planned, I always meant to ask her. But like everything with Assumpta, she's got to do it her own way or not at all." Leo winked and stepped aside for Peter, while adding, "Looks like your advice paid off after all."

Assumpta came from another room. "Leo, your mother." She was holding up a phone in her hand. "She wants to congratulate you now-" She cut off when she saw Peter standing next to Leo.

"Thanks." Leo took the phone from her and left the room saying, "Yes, Mom, we will…"

"Hiya." Peter forced a smile onto his face for Assumpta's sake. "I hear congratulations are in order." He felt like he was drowning and gasping for breath. He was losing her forever.

Assumpta took three deep breaths and ordered her heartbeat to quit reacting to this man, the wrong man. "Leo and I, we're- we've always talked about getting married… I didn't want to put it off any longer."

"You put it off before?" Their eyes locked. All the unsaid passed between them. It was a loaded 20 seconds before Peter spoke again. "Do you love him?"

She couldn't answer that. And because she couldn't, she was angry. "You've no right to ask me that."

"Don't I?" There was a hint of frustration in his tone. "It's a simple question, Assumpta."

"It's not that simple. You tell me you care about me and that night at the wood… and yet you just walk away, go off on retreat." Tears rimmed her eyes but her temper was growing to full-hurricane strength with each word. "You've no right, Peter, not anymore. You made your choice. You wanted us to move on, that's what I'm doing."


"It's not fair to play me now. This is what you wanted."

Peter saw Leo enter behind Assumpta and freeze in place. Leo heard at least part of what was being said. Peter knew in that moment he shouldn't have come. She was right, she should move on and he had no right interfering. Peter spoke softly. "Niamh and Brendan were worried about you, please call them. That's all I came here to say." Peter turned and had a hand on the knob.

"Wait." Assumpta did the last thing she should have ever done. He was walking away from her again but she could not stand for it this time, she kissed him.

Leo stood in the back of the room and watched. It was obvious, the charge in the air, the spark between Assumpta and Peter, the kiss was on fire…this was what kept Assumpta from him. She was in love with another man.

As they kissed, Peter's head was reeling, his heart was flying, and he couldn't think or speak or breath but he didn't care. This was it, this feeling of belonging, of being home, of being a part of something greater. This was what he had searched for all these months. He'd found the answer in her. Peter pulled back. "Assumpta-"

"Bravo!" Leo clapped his hands and his voice was acid. "And a priest of all things, Assumpta. Forgive me if the humor of irony is lost on me."

"Leo." Assumpta spun around not knowing until now he was in the room. "Leo, I-"

"You chose me, Assumpta. You wanted to marry me, not be the mistress of a local priest."

"She's not." Peter was fuming. But he turned calmly to Assumpta. "Perhaps I should go."

"Peter, please."

"I think you should talk with him." Peter met her eyes and tried to convey that his words went beyond just the obvious situation here. "I am sorry, Assumpta."

Peter left Leo's apartment but missed his plane due to the traffic. The gate attendant booked him on a flight in the morning and he checked into a hotel near the airport for the night. From his room he called the pub to let Niamh, Brendan and the others know there was no reason to be concerned for Assumpta's safety.

"In fact," Peter tried to sound as happy as he could muster while telling Niamh the news, "she and Leo are getting married."

"Married?" Niamh was shocked.

Then Peter turned out the light and lay on the bed in the sterile hotel room. He was all alone in the world and only a small man still unsure of his place in it. And Peter knew he wouldn't sleep that night because of thoughts of her and what he almost had but was now lost forever.


"Leo." Assumpta looked up as he knocked and entered the small guest room. "I told you I need some time to think."

"But I don't need to think about it." Leo knew it was over and she would never be his, not completely, and the hurting consumed him but this had to finish. "Remember that first day we met in the library?"


"It wasn't the first day I saw you. I spotted you weeks before at a party but I couldn't work up the courage to talk to you. Finally I did that day."

"I will always remember the day we met and how charming and funny you were."

His tone was dry, "I was well-rehearsed." He continued the reminiscing. "There was a girl across the room that I pointed to and said was prettier." Assumpta nodded. "It was a lie. You were the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. You were second to no one else."

A long pause stretched out between them. Finally Leo spoke again. "You still are second to no one. I love you, I always have and maybe I always will. But if being with me means you are settling for second…" He shrugged. "It won't work. It can't, as much as I wish differently."

"I am sorry, Leo." Assumpta sighed wishing she could right the wrongs. She knew all too well how it felt to be in his shoes, to love and not have it returned the way you wish. "I do care for you. I wouldn't be here if I didn't."

"I know."

She looked down and agreed with him. "But it isn't right to marry you."

"I swear if he hurts you…" Leo's anger was coming out again and Assumpta stopped him by warning him, "Leo." Then she added in a softer tone, "Maybe I should go."

"It's late, stay until morning at least."

"I'll book a flight first thing." Assumpta tried again, "Leo, I-"

"You're sorry. Yeah I know, Assumpta. But saying it 10 times won't change anything." He seemed sad but at least his anger was gone now.

Assumpta lay awake all night thinking. She berated herself, how could she kiss Peter? She was supposed to be angry with Peter and hurt. He'd broken her heart and made her feel foolish. And then suddenly it all melted away just by looking at him.

Assumpta didn't have the answer other than it always seemed to happen that way with him. No one else could say one little thing and make everything else go away. Or sometimes just look at her with those pleading eyes and all her anger would vanish and she'd give in on anything. That power Peter had over her frightened Assumpta. She knew it was tied into her feelings for him because when he looked at her like that, Assumpta also felt the strong tug on her heart.

And it did help that he was sorry. She knew those words were for more than causing a problem between her and Leo, they were for the night in the woods, and sitting on the fence, and leaving on retreat and for hurting her. There wasn't a cruel bone in Peter Clifford's body and he'd never wish pain on anyone but especially not on his friends. And she was his friend, at least that. But the way he'd kissed her back restored her faith again in something more. The belief crept back into her heart that maybe more between them was possible one day? Maybe he wouldn't always choose the church?

She remembered once being afraid to commit to someone for 10 years let alone a lifetime. But one kiss was all the convincing she needed now, Assumpta knew somehow without logic or reason that Peter would be in her heart forever whether she wanted it, fought against it, or not. And a lifetime with him wasn't nearly long enough.


The next morning, Assumpta rushed to catch the plane as final boarding was
called. At the gate Peter was turning in his ticket to board.

"Peter?" He turned at the sound of Assumpta's voice.

The attendant insisted, "Sir, it is final boarding."

"Just a minute." Peter's nerves made him rush his words. "Assumpta, I made mistakes but I do love you. I'm in love with you and it confuses me and scares me and in the beginning I didn't know- I know I hurt you and I'm sorry."

"Sir, we're going to close the door," the attendant insisted.

Peter told the attendant, "I'm not going. This is more important." With that they shut the door and the plane backed away. Peter continued to plead with her. "If there's a chance, if you could forgive me and you have even some feelings, please don't marry him. Please-"

"Peter," Assumpta fought back the smile but she lost the battle, "I was on that flight."

"Oh." He was stunned for a moment but then Assumpta started laughing and the tension broke.

Peter asked confused, "You're going back to Ballykay? You're not staying here with Leo? What happened?"

"I'll explain later." Assumpta wasn't ready to talk about it all with Peter yet. She needed some time to decide how exactly to explain. And there were more pressing matters, like getting a new flight home. "Come on, we might be able to get on a later flight."

But upon checking at the desk, they found that all the rest of the flights for that day were booked. It seemed that there was a convention of some sort going on in Dublin, so a lot of foreigners were flying in.

Finally Peter and Assumpta checked into the nearest hotel.

"You're lucky." the desk clerk told them. "Got our last room, we're right booked up."

They were walking up to their room when Peter suddenly realized something. "Ahh..." he said nervously. "We should have probably checked to make sure it was a double..."

"Don't worry." Assumpta said. "If there's only one bed, you can sleep on the floor." She turned and smiled at Peter sweetly.

"Here we are," Peter said, shifting his suitcase so he could open the door. Much to his relief, he found two double beds waiting. "Ahh, finally, I might be able to get a good night's sleep." he said, flopping down on one.

Assumpta went and sat a bit more gracefully on the other bed. "You been having trouble sleeping?"

"It's all your fault," Peter said, propping himself up on his elbows and narrowing his eyes at Assumpta, who was busy removing pajamas from her suitcase.

"Oh yeah, how do you figure that?" she said, turning around. Peter smirked.

"Well, if I wasn't up thinking about you, I was dreaming about you," he said, not realizing how this sounded.

"You horrible priest." Assumpta muttered, rolling her eyes. Peter turned pink.

"I didn't mean - "

"Forget it," Assumpta said, smiling. "I'm just going to change and take a quick shower."

"All right," Peter said, leaning back and picking up the television remote.


Peter awoke the next morning, and lay there, listening to the silence around him. He rolled over. A stream of sunlight fell in through the crack in the curtains, spilling across Assumpta's sleeping form. She looked like an angel lying there, illuminated in golden light.

Assumpta's eyes fluttered open, and she smiled when she saw Peter looking at her. She sat up slowly and stretched before getting to her feet. Peter did the same.

"How'd you sleep?" Peter asked.

"Like a baby," Assumpta replied. "I always sleep well in hotels."

"Must help that you live in one," Peter added, grinning.

"That doesn't count," Assumpta said, rolling her eyes. Peter slid his arms around her and leaned his forehead against hers.

"You're amazing, you know that?" Peter whispered.

Assumpta's heart was pounding. She wanted desperately to kiss Peter, to loose herself in loving him, but it was all moving too fast. Her head seemed to be whirling out of control. So at the last minute she stepped back.

"Ahh, we should probably get down to the airport and try and get on one of the flights back to Dublin," she said, not looking at Peter.

Peter nodded wordlessly and went to get some clean clothes from his suitcase.

All the flight back Assumpta was quiet. She sat and stared wordlessly out the window, lost in thought. Peter tried to read the book he'd brought, but his mind kept returning to one thing; what was going to happen? He loved Assumpta, and was ready to admit that he would do anything for her. Give up the priesthood at the very least.

The flight was a fairly short one, and before they knew it, Peter and Assumpta were on the bus that would take them back to Ballykay. It was getting late in the evening, and Assumpta was tired, so on the ride home she gently rested her head against Peter's shoulder and dozed off.

"Assumpta," Peter said, gently shaking her. "Assumpta, we're home."

"Wha-?" Assumpta said, sitting up drowsily.

"We're home," Peter repeated, getting their suitcases off the overhead rack. He and Assumpta disembarked and the bus pulled away.

Kathleen looked up just as the bus was pulling away. She saw two people had gotten off, and on closer inspection recognized them as Fr. Clifford and Assumpta Fitzgerald. As Kathleen watched, Fr. Clifford gently put a hand on Assumpta's shoulder, said something to her, and then the two headed in the direction of the pub.

Assumpta pulled the keys to the pub out of her pocket, and opened the door. It was silent and dark inside, and Assumpta immediately moved to turn on the desk lamp.

"Well, here we are," Assumpta said with a yawn.

"You look tired," Peter commented, setting the suitcases down.

"More emotionally than physically," Assumpta said, "I do feel bad about letting Leo down. He is a good man."

"Well..." Peter was at a loss for words.

Assumpta shook her head. "Forget it. I guess I am just tired." She smiled blearily at Peter.

"Well, it is getting pretty late," Peter said. He looked up and caught Assumpta peering at him intently. Peter frowned, "What?"

"Peter," she sighed. Assumpta was too tired to do this now, "What do you want me to say?" The sweetness and joy that had come off him in waves when they'd missed the flight yesterday morning was now gone. It could be he was just as tired as she was, but Assumpta sensed that it was something more significant. Something had changed. And it was probably due to her pushing him away and refusing to talk about what happened with Leo. "It's over between Leo and I, but that doesn't mean I can't feel awful. I never wanted to hurt him."

"If you feel bad about- why were you going to marry him in the first place?"

"He's always been there for me and though I don't love him the way he loves me, I was… I don't know. I was trying to moving on with my life."

Peter almost choked it out like it had been stuck in his throat for some time. "What changed your mind?"

Assumpta looked down at her feet. She knew if she looked in his eyes she'd give in and tell Peter what he needed to hear. But she couldn't. Not yet, it was too soon. There was still some lingering hurt in her heart alongside the love and Assumpta knew if she said the words everything would change. She wasn't sure if she was ready to face all that change. It was all happening so fast. And she was tired. "I'm knackered."

Peter started to say, "We can talk tomorrow."

But something in his tone, disappointment maybe, made her cut him off. "I'm unsure… not about us, but how they all will respond for one." Assumpta waved her hand toward the door of the pub to indicate all of Ballykay that came through daily. "I need a little time to adjust to being back here. I need to figure out for myself what happened before I can explain it to you." She looked up then, finally. "I'm not unsure about you," she emphasized. "I'm a little unsure of my own strength… if I can handle whatever it is that is about to happen."

He moved to her then and put his arms around her. "You're not alone in handling it. Just remember that." Peter held her not as tightly as he wanted to, but in a way that gave her room. He didn't want her to feel closed in. They were walking a tightrope here, he had questions and wanted to talk it all out and leave the priesthood for her. But for her sake, he needed to be patient. Assumpta was a private person with the depth of the ocean held inside. She needed time and space and if he pushed now Peter sensed he could lose her before they even got started. "Sleep well." And with that he kissed her cheek and was out the door
before Assumpta could say anything in response.

Kathleen watched the entire scene from her crouched position while peering through the front window. Upon seeing the kiss, Kathleen straightened herself. Tugged her jacket into place and marched across the street and into her shop, she had several vitally important phone calls to make.


The next day, Father Clifford was receiving quite an array of unusual responses from nearly all members of the community. Liam and Donal couldn't hold back their laughs as they said, "Good Morning, Father," early in his day. Siobhan pulled her van over to the side of the road where Peter was walking and winked at him as she asked about how his time away was. And with another wink, "How are you feeling? Relaxed?"

Kathleen acted extremely cool, even more so than usual, when Peter stopped in the shop. When he dropped in on Brian to complain about letting his house while Peter had been away, Brain seemed unconcerned and waved him off. In fact, Brian said Peter wouldn't need the house any longer. "So what harm was done?" Peter was perplexed, why wouldn't he need the house any longer? What was wrong with everyone?

Finally Peter went into Fitzgerald's late in the afternoon to have something to eat and to see Assumpta. As he took a step inside, a hush fell over all the customers. Peter looked around confused and feeling like he'd unknowingly walked into some alternative universe and suddenly the crowd would all shout "Norm!" at him next.

Peter spotted Brendan reading the paper and sat down next to him, Niamh was behind the bar and Assumpta was no where to be seen.

"Your usual, Father?" Niamh asked, but stumbled over the last word.

"Yeah thanks, Niamh." He turned to Brendan then, who lowered his paper. "Brendan, you ever have one of those days?"

"Can't say I have, sort of impossible for me to have exactly the same kind you're having today." Brendan's eyes twinkled. It's what gave away that Brendan knew precisely what was going on. And also why Peter counted Brendan among his closest friends, because not only did he always know, he was the only one ever willing to tell Peter what was happening. Most in Ballykay only saw Peter as a priest but Brendan always saw him first as a friend. "Been having a difficult time?"

The phone in reception rang and Niamh went to answer it.

Peter asked with a whisper, "What is going on round here?"

"Well, I for one am not speaking to Siobhan but I don't imagine that's what you're asking about." Brendan almost felt sorry for his friend, almost, but there was so much humor in it, that overshadowed all the rest for Brendan. After all this time living in Ballykay he couldn't believe that Peter still didn't understand the lack of privacy and the swiftness of gossip in this place. "How long did you honestly believe you and Assumpta were going to hide it? This is Ballykay."

This made Peter's face go from confusion to panic. And in that moment Niamh told Peter as she hung up, "That was Father Mac, he said you should go and see him immediately."

"Good luck," Brendan wished his friend, who left looking like he was marching off to the electric chair.


"All of Ballykay, everyone, has the idea that you were not away on retreat but on a secret romantic holiday with Assumpta Fitzgerald. I've been putting out fires left and right, Father Clifford, and if it weren't for the fact that I know for sure you were at the retreat center I'd have my doubts in you as well. You haven't exactly put on the display of a pious country priest."

Peter rolled his eyes as he held back the defense of Assumpta that he wanted to shout. Father Mac continued his rant. "What have you done to give the impression that something has been happening between you and that woman?"

That woman. The same phrase, Peter recalled, an American President had used when he was caught in an affair with a young woman. The phrase was carefully crafted by his staff to make it seem to the public that the woman was nothing more than a nuisance, forgettable to the point of not even having a name, she was unimportant. But Assumpta was none of those things. And Father Mac had no right speak of her in such a way.

"What have I done to give the impression that something has happened?" Peter was wound tight and ready to snap. "Something did happen- has been happening all along."

Father Mac looked ready to rant and rave more. "You listen to me-"

Peter's anger was rare but when it came out, it was loud and intimidating, "No, you listen to me now," he shouted. "I can't help what I feel. I can't change it and I can't help that she feels the same."

Father Mac once told Peter that Assumpta was the problem, now Peter realized how wrong that was too. He was calmer now but anger still shook Peter's tone as he explained, "The problem is not Assumpta Fitzgerald and the problem isn't even me. It is the restrictions of the church that keep me from being in love and also being a priest. And because of that until the church changes, the problem only has one solution. I believe there are papers I have to sign to start this process?"


Niamh restrained herself all afternoon as she worked beside Assumpta. But she did give her friend plenty of chances to open up with comments like, "How was your time away?" "You decided you missed us finally? I thought you were never coming back." And even the obvious, "Did you hear Father Clifford is back as well?"

Nothing got much of a response out of Assumpta. She was always so closed and it was frustrating to Niamh. She was supposed to be Assumpta's best friend but all these rumors were flying and Niamh had no idea if any could be true or not. She should know before anyone else did. That's what best friends did.

Assumpta asked absently, "So, did I miss any news?" as she restocked shelves under the bar.

"Did you miss-?" That was it for Niamh, she couldn't be subtle or patient any longer. "Assumpta," Niamh hissed and pulled her into the kitchen, "news? How about me getting a call that you're going to marry Leo and then you're suddenly back here with no explanation why Leo isn't with you. And rumors are wild that you and Father Clifford were suspiciously gone at the same time and returned together last night. Someone saw you two kiss." Niamh crossed her arms in front of her chest and gave Assumpta a stubborn, furious look.

"Niamh." Assumpta gave a near laugh, an uncomfortable one, then looked away unsure how to address the charges. She certainly didn't expect the gossips to get a hold of things so quickly. "I went to see Leo, yes. We talked and we considered getting together but it wasn't right. Then Father Clifford and I ended up on the same flight home." It was the truth, not the whole of it, but it wasn't an outright lie.

"That's what happened?" Niamh raised and eyebrow judging if she was being lied to. "Was there a kiss?"

"Niamh!" Assumpta sputtered then reminded her, "He's a priest."

With a dry tone and a little under her breath, Niamh taunted, "I wouldn't imagine that would stop you."

With a warning look and, "There are customers waiting," Assumpta ended the conversation.


Peter waited until after closing to go to Assumpta. That way, hopefully, no one would see them together and have more stories to pass around. It was awkward living this way, like life in a fishbowl, an impossibly small one closing in on him more each hour.

The moment he came into the pub Assumpta could tell Peter had a lot on his mind. He wasn't acting himself, he was distracted and pacing and uncomfortable. "Stories are going round about us, Assumpta. People are saying all sorts of terrible things about you and you don't deserve to be treated this way. You've done nothing wrong."

Assumpta knew people were talking but she didn't care. What worried her more was Peter. He was talking as if he was having second thoughts. She was desperate to keep him from walking away from her again. "Peter, I- I care for you."

"I know," he insisted angrily. Then he stopped pacing and looked at her, regretting upsetting her with his mood, "Assumpta, I care for you too. And we'll find a way to work this out between us. I just- I didn't expect all this, everyone else having their say in our business."

Her sarcasm was biting. "What did you expect? Peter, you're a priest."

"Not for much longer. My days are numbered now."

There was a long silence. As much as those words should have been joyous for Assumpta, she also knew how difficult this was for him. She knew without needing his explanations that he must have gone to see Father Mac. She knew he had given up the vocation that he loved so much. She knew Peter was torn between happiness for his chance now to be with her and loss over something that was almost important enough to choose over her. "I'm…" No, she wasn't sorry. Assumpta was suffering for him. "Are you all right?"

He nodded but didn't look at her. Tears were filling his eyes. She couldn't stand to see it. "Peter, come here."

For a while he cried into her shoulder and Assumpta held tight, wishing she could ease his pain and make everything blocking their path just disappear. Her love for him was that simple but life was never that simple. At that thought, she realized he was no longer crying but kissing her. Very softly along her neck and Assumpta closed her eyes and gave into the feeling. Floating in sensation, warmth of his lips, moisture of his breath on her skin, beating of his heart against hers, heat began building inside her. His lips traveled up her neck until they met hers. He was demanding now, not gentle. And Assumpta panicked. "No, wait," she pulled back, "are you sure you want to do this? Now?"

Peter was aching for more of her. He was ready to say yes and take whatever she would give him. Assumpta didn't move, just looked at him with wide dark eyes full of desire waiting for his decision. Reality began to set in, his mind that was clouded with passion and thoughts of nothing but the taste of her skin, suddenly cleared. He was still a priest, he was wearing a clerical collar now. Guilt and disgust slid into his stomach. This was the very thing the gossipmongers were living off of. Assumpta was better than this, she deserved more.


A week passed. Assumpta understood his distance and gave him time. They were caught in a limbo of sorts, between freedom and restriction, between wanting, but not yet. He stopped into the pub only once that week early in the morning when no one was around. He told her it would be three months before the bureaucracy of the church finished processing his paperwork. He kept some distance from her as he spoke. In fact, for Assumpta the moment mirrored the one in her kitchen just three months ago that sent her to London. But Peter wasn't confused about his feelings for her this time. She knew he was confused about how to respond to his feelings. She was too, it was hard for her to see him as a priest but as long as he thought of himself as one, Assumpta wasn't sure what their future together held.

Peter was required to fulfill his duties for a short time more but he wasn't required to do so in Ballykissangel. He had decided to leave Ballykay almost immediately after that kiss. But he'd spent the week trying to decide how to tell her.

He knew they both needed some space, for their own reasons. If he left it would keep the gossips from hurting her. And a little worry in his heart had been growing since they'd returned from London. Assumpta still hadn't told him what her feelings where. She had pushed him away when they kissed, though she didn't look like she wanted to and seemed to be enjoying the moment. Peter was having doubts. He was worried that she still harbored some feelings for Leo.

He asked her to meet him for a walk along the river. For a long while they walked in silence, Finn ahead of them pulling on his leash to go faster.

Finally Peter stopped and looked out over the water bubbling and bumping over rocks as it passed. "My mother's been sick for a long time now and my older brother and his wife are caring for her but I should go see her. I was thinking that maybe I should stay in Manchester a while, transfer there for my remaining months." Peter's heart was breaking, as much as this was right, it still felt so wrong to leave the one person who meant everything to him. "I don't want to go, but it might do us some good. Keep the gossips quiet for a bit."

Assumpta was near a whisper because her voice was so full of emotions. "You asked why I nearly married Leo and what it was that changed my mind?" Peter nodded and turned to her.

Assumpta took a deep breath, paused, then said, "I loved you, Peter, and you broke my heart when you left. All through history women have done stupid, reckless, vengeful things when the man they loved broke their heart." She smirked. "You should be glad I didn't send you off to the guillotine last time."

Peter knew she was playing it light to hide how much it still hurt even now to talk about it. To admit it was difficult for her, he knew. But one little detail still troubled him. "Loved? Past tense?"

She met his eyes. Assumpta knew the time was long past that she should have said it. Maybe if she had already Peter wouldn't be leaving now. Maybe he'd have more faith in her. She knew he needed to hear it, she could see the pleading, hurting, sorry in his eyes. Those eyes were forever going to be her undoing. "I love you, then, now, always."

"Assumpta." His voice was rich and tender. Peter took put his hands on either side of her face, cradling it gently, "This isn't like last time. I'm not leaving because I'm unsure of my feelings for you and what I should do. I love you and I know what I want. We have three months until I'm free but until then… I'm not sure I can act in a very priest-like manner around you. It might help if I'm not here for a while."

"I'm Eve and here's the apple?" she asked wryly.

He smiled. "Something like that."

"You'll come back?"

"I promise. And I'll call every day until I come back to you." He leaned in and kissed her lips briefly then pulled back immediately. "Apples always have been my favorite."

"Go on." Assumpta put a hand on his chest and pushed gently. If he wanted to be a good priest for the next three months she'd let him. But after that all bets were off.

"And you won't do any reckless, vengeful thing while I'm gone, right? No running off and marrying someone else?" Peter's voice was serious. "You'll wait for me?"

Assumpta smiled, a little wickedly. "I'll wait and take my revenge out on you when you get back, once you're no longer a priest." Her voice promised dangerous things and Peter felt all the blood in his body rush south. It was time to get out of Ballykay, and fast.


"Assumpta? Assumpta!" Brendan said, waving his hand in front of Assumpta's face. Assumpta jumped.

"What!?" she exclaimed. "Oh sorry, Brendan, your usual, I take it?"

"Yeah." Brendan frowned at her slightly. Assumpta had been acting different lately, quieter, sadder. He credited that to Peter's sudden departure a week ago.

"Here ya go..." Assumpta said, handing Brendan his pint. Suddenly the lights flickered and went out. Assumpta swore loudly before opening the trapdoor and descending into the basement. While she was downstairs, the door opened and Niamh entered, walking over to the bar.

"Where's Assumpta?" Niamh asked Brendan.

"Putsing with that ancient fuse box." Brendan replied. Then a bit quieter, he asked. "Niamh, have you noticed Assumpta's been acting strange lately?" The lights came back on.

"Yeah," Niamh said. "That's what I was going to - Oh, hiya Assumpta." She smiled at Assumpta who raised an eyebrow.


"Nothing," Niamh said. "I just uh... wanted to know if you wanted to come over to my place for dinner tonight."


Peter stretched out on the bed in his old room. It was strange being home, everyone had been glad to see him, his youngest sister Claire especially, but he still felt off. But then again, he realized, Ballykay was now more his home then his mother's large house overlooking the river.

There was a knock at the door. Peter sat up.

"Come in."

"Hey, Peter," his older brother Mark said, entering with a stack of towels. "Susan remembered she forgot to put towels out for you." He set them on the dresser then sat next to Peter on the bed. "It's good to have you back."

"Yeah," Peter said. "I missed this place. And I thought I should come home, what with Mum being sick and all."

"It means a lot to her," Mark said, nodding. "You know, I think you always were her favorite," he grinned playfully at Peter.

"Ah, that's not true." Peter rolled his eyes.

"Sure it is," Mark insisted. "It's because you were the only one who became a priest. And you know how religious Mum can be."

Peter's heart sank. "Yeah, well... perhaps I shouldn't tell her then..."

"Tell her what?" Mark asked, frowning.

"Mark," Peter said slowly. "I applied to be released from my vows. I'm not going to be a priest anymore."

"Why? What happened?" Mark asked. "No, lemme guess, you fell for some fiery Irish lass and can't stand to remain celibate, right?" His tone was joking, which only made Peter's stomach churn.

Peter felt himself go red. "Well.... That just about sums it up."

"Damn it," Mark said.


"Now I owe David 5 quid..."


"Assumpta, you've hardly touched your food!" Niamh said, peering across the table at her friend.

"What are you, my mother now?" Assumpta asked, looking up.

"No, but I worry about you." Niamh carried her own empty plate over to the sink. "You need to eat something."

"I'm not hungry," Assumpta said stubbornly, sitting back in her chair and folding her arms over her chest. Niamh sighed.

"God, first Ambrose is too busy with work to eat, now you're refusing to... what am I going to do with you?"

"Yeah, where is Ambrose anyway?" Assumpta asked.

"I don't know," Niamh replied with a sigh. "He's doing some job in Cilldargan, but won't tell me what. Are you finished, then?"

"Yeah." Assumpta nodded and watched as Niamh cleared away the rest of the dinner dishes, then put the kettle on.

"Now," Niamh said, sitting back down. "Are you going to tell me what's wrong, or do I have to guess?"


The next day Peter took a walk along the Irwell river. He sat on a bench and watched little children feeding the ducks that floated on the water.

Peter sighed. He imagined Assumpta standing there, helping a little girl with curly red hair and green eyes throw bread crumbs to the ducks. He could just see the way Assumpta would straighten up and smile up at him, the sun reflecting off her dark red hair.

Shaking his head, Peter stood up and continued walking. He'd been in Manchester for a little more then two weeks, and all ready his heart was aching with desire to be with Assumpta again. But he was afraid of his own weakness. Peter knew if he heard her voice it wouldn't be enough, he'd break down and beg her to come. So he resolved to keep his distance from her to do right by her.


Assumpta sighed, curling under the covers. A month, it had been a month since Peter had left, and not a single phone call, no letter, not even a post card. Her immediate fear was that once Peter was away from her, he'd realized that he didn't really want to leave the priesthood after all. Or may be he'd met another woman. Assumpta remembered the young girl that had come looking for Peter a couple years ago, and Assumpta felt her heart sting with jealousy. Why else would Peter not make any attempt to contact her?

Assumpta rolled over and looked blearily out the window. Outside it was gray and cold, and a steady drizzle of rain was falling. In the distance, thunder boomed. Assumpta sighed, feeling as though she had no reason to leave the warm comfort of her bed.


Niamh immediately knew something was wrong when she saw it was half past
eleven, and Assumpta still hadn't opened yet. Assumpta was usually very punctual, opening as soon as the church bell tolled eleven. But the pub was dark and still, rain running like tears down its opaque windows.

Heart pounding slightly, Niamh pulled out her spare set of keys, and let herself into the pub. She closed the door behind her and called out softly, "Assumpta?" No response. Niamh made her way up the stairs and knocked on Assumpta's bedroom door.

"Go away!" came the sleepy reply.

"Assumpta, it's Niamh." Niamh called. "Are you all right? Are you sick?"

"I'm fine, GO AWAY!" Assumpta shouted.

"I will not," Niamh replied stubbornly. She put her hand on the doorknob and found it unlocked. "Not until I find out what's wrong." She went over to the bed. Assumpta had pulled the covers up over her head.

"I don't want to talk to anyone," Assumpta snapped.

Niamh clicked her tongue and pulled on the covers. Assumpta sat up and glared at her. She had dark circles under her eyes, and was looking like she hadn't eaten anything for the last couple days.

"God, you look awful," Niamh said. Assumpta sighed, drawing her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around her legs.

"Well at least I look the way I feel," Assumpta mumbled.

"What's wrong, girl?" Niamh asked quietly. "Why won't you tell me?"

"It's complicated," was all Assumpta said.

Niamh sighed. "All right, don't talk." She stood up. "I'm going to open the bar, if I don't the punters will break down the door. You don't have to work today if you don't feel like it."

"I think I'll take a walk..." Assumpta said listlessly.

A short while later Assumpta strode down the road, drawing her coat tightly about her. She didn't think about where she was going, but her feet seemed to know. Soon she found herself standing outside Brendan's front gate. Looking up at the little white house, Assumpta remembered the night a long time ago when she'd come here, a frightened little ten year old trying to escape her parents constant fighting....

"Oh, why don't you ever grow up!" her mother shouted, putting her hands on her hips. "Don't you ever consider that the church might be wrong for once?!"

"The church is important to me!" Assumpta's father retorted, slamming his glass down on the coffee table.

"Maybe you should have been a priest then!"

Assumpta, watching the fight from the landing on the stairs, stood and walked back up to her room, clasping her hands over her ears in an attempt to block out the shouts. The sound of a glass shattering made her jump, and she heard her mother shouting louder. Assumpta slammed her door behind her, and got down on her knees, pulling her battered suitcase out from under the bed.

As quickly as she could, she threw clothes, her diary, a few stuffed animals, and some other treasured possessions into the suitcase. She then put on her jacket, and crept into the hall.

She paused, listening at the top of the stairs for a moment, before tip toeing down the hall and down the back stairs. She opened the back door and went out into the night.

At first, she had no idea where she'd go. Any where other than here. Dragging her suitcase, she trudged down the road that lead up and out of the village. Finally she felt too tired to go on, and sat down on her suitcase by the side of the road, feeling utterly lost and forgotten.

Brendan was just sitting down to read and have a cup of tea, when he happened to glance out the front window. He saw a little figure sitting at the side of the road, frowning he went outside. As the light from the open front door lit up the back of the figure, Brendan sighed. He'd recognize that dark red hair anywhere.

"Assumpta, what are you doing out here?" he asked, walking over.

Assumpta turned around, tears dripping down her cheeks. "Mr. Kearny!" she cried, running over and putting her arms around him.

Brendan picked her up, then grabbed her suitcase with his free hand. "Let's go inside and you can tell me what's wrong."

After listening to Assumpta tell about how sad she was that her friend Samantha had just moved, and how her parents never stopped fighting nowadays, Brendan agreed to let her stay the night. He had a guest room, and knew that the fighting back at the pub would do no good for Assumpta.

"I'm just going to call them and tell them you're all right, ok?" Brendan said, getting up. Assumpta nodded sleepily from the couch, happy that at least someone cared about her.

Now, Assumpta stood in the road out in front of Brendan's and as the past faded away she sighed, growing up didn't change her all that much.


Mrs. Clifford had little strength left these days as the cancer spread to every bone and organ in her body. She knew her time left was very short because the others told Peter to come.

Peter missed the long talks he used to have with his mother. Especially now that he had so much to tell her, time was slipping away too quickly. "Mum," he whispered, thinking she was sleeping, "I'm leaving the church, I can't go on. I love someone and she loves me. I can't pretend anymore that I don't have feelings for her but I don't want you to think I'm making a mistake by leaving. I left her behind because I was afraid of making mistakes. And now everything feels wrong." He lowered his head into his hands wishing, for the hundredth time in the last six weeks, that Assumpta were here now.

Mrs. Clifford opened her eyes, this was too important and therefore required what little strength she had remaining. "Peter," she took several breaths and watched him look up at her, "love is never a mistake."


Assumpta walked up the front walk and knocked on the door. A moment later Brendan answered. "Assumpta?" She looked terrible and it was killing him to see her this way. It had been many years since the little girl turned up here alone, frightened and desperate to be loved. Some things never change. "Come in," he invited and fixed tea.

Even though Peter told everyone he was leaving to be at his ailing Mum's side, Brendan worried that the real reason was Peter and Assumpta had a fight. Not much of a leap since the two always seemed to be at odds. Ever since Peter left, Assumpta had been drifting like a ship with no lighthouse.

They sat at his table, Assumpta warming her hands on the teacup but not drinking it. Finally Brendan broke the quiet. "Do I have to feed you ice cream?" Reminding her of the trick he used when she was a child, it always lifted her spirits and got Assumpta to open up to him.

"Do you know I usually went home with a stomach ache because of you." She smiled only slightly at the corners of her mouth. "Why didn't you stop me from eating too much?"

Brendan tilted his head, after all this time how could Assumpta still not understand? "I could never withhold anything that makes you happy." After a pause he asked, "Will ice cream or Peter Clifford work better this time?"

Assumpta looked up then, her face no longer hiding the sadness. It was silly dancing around an issue when Brendan knew, he always knew. She sighed. "He wanted to leave and I didn't stop him. I keep replaying it all in mind wondering what I did wrong."

Brendan made a mental note of talking to Peter one day soon about Assumpta's abandonment issues. "Did you tell him how you felt about him? Perhaps he needed to hear that."

"I did, it wasn't that-" The conversation was suddenly making Assumpta uncomfortable. She was willing to talk about this, to a point. She knew it needed sorting out and Brendan was always the one that helped her in these moments of crisis. This man was more a father to her than the biological one ever was. So how was Assumpta to explain to her father that she and the priest couldn't keep their hands off each other? That Peter felt he had to put the sea between them?

"Assumpta, I'm not going to judge you. You can't help who you fall in love with and you two should stop berating yourselves because something natural happened. I know he's a priest but I believe in time he'll choose to leave the church, he-"

"He has," Assumpta interrupted him, "Peter already signed the papers before he left. Brendan, what if he's changed his mind now? He hasn't called or written and that's not like him."

"You're right, it's not." And within twenty minutes time Brendan talked her into going to Manchester. Assumpta came up with all sorts of reasons why she shouldn't but Brendan successfully countered them all and said, "You're having doubts and that's normal but when you see him all the doubts will disappear." Assumpta hoped he was right.


At half past two the next afternoon, Assumpta's taxi stopped in front of a grand old home with a throng of cars parked in front as if a party were going on.

At that moment, Peter was inside placing a call to Michael Ryan, telling his friend terrible news and asking him to have Assumpta call as soon as possible. Peter needed to hear her voice and could no longer fight it. He knew the connection with Assumpta was the only thing that could displace some of the sadness. All these weeks he'd denied himself, knowing his need for her was wrong until he was free from the church. But now, in the face of death and loss, right and wrong didn't seem to matter as much. To feel close to her again was the only thing that mattered.

Assumpta paid the fare and stopped in the front walk. She took several deep breaths. She hoped that this wouldn't make Peter angry and be a huge mistake. As she stood gathering her strength a family left the house and walked to their car. They passed Assumpta and she overheard the young man say to his wife, "a terrible shame, so sad." This made Assumpta's heart pound hard with panic. What had happened? Was Peter all right? She dashed to the door and rang the bell.

David Clifford opened the door expecting another round of condolences from another neighbor or some family friends or relations. Instead a beautiful young woman that he'd never seen before stood on the front step.

"Please be one of my distant cousins," he said hopefully, "that's come to console me in my time of grief."

Assumpta's eyes narrowed, he looked a little like Peter but was shorter and the voice was only a shade deeper. The humor, however, was dead-on. "One of Peter's brothers I'm guessing."

"You know Peter?" And then her accent registered with David. He would certainly have left the priesthood for this woman also. "So you're the Irish fairy that steals a man's heart away." And he winked at her before guiding her inside, past the front room full of people to the back of the house and into an empty kitchen. "Wait here," David told her.

A minute later Peter pushed open the kitchen door, stopped and stared at Assumpta. He said disbelieving, "I thought David was joking," before rushing to her and embracing her so tight Assumpta felt smothered. "I was calling you- how did you know I needed you?"

"I didn't. Brendan convinced me to come."

"Thank God for Brendan," Peter whispered as his hands glided over her back and arms reassuring himself she was real. Assumpta thought of how right Brendan was on many levels as her doubts began fading now that she was here with Peter. It felt like years since she'd seen him but then again, like nothing had changed in the least. Assumpta closed her eyes and relaxed in his arms.

Peter still didn't let go of her and spoke into her ear making Assumpta shiver slightly, "Will you stay? Please, Mum- she-" The emotions were welling up in him so she saved him from having to say the words.

"I know." Assumpta already put together in her head what was happening. Family and friends were paying their respects.

"There's a house full of people and I know I can get through this only if you're at my side."

"I'm here. Whatever you need, Peter, you only have to ask."

Once inside the front room Peter pointed out each of his siblings to her. "You've met David, he's a year behind me. And Matthew, a year behind him. Matt works with the European Union, so no one knows how long he'll be able to stay...That's my older brother Mark and his wife Susan, and Claire my little sister, well not so little anymore since she's just started at university."

Assumpta watched Peter's younger sister across the room, full of life and giggly she was exactly the kind of girl Assumpta vowed never to be when she was in school. And yet she felt drawn to Claire's energy. Maybe it was the fact that the room was mourning that made Claire stand out as the shinning example of life, like the sun illuminating dark shadows.

"She's my Mum," Peter said, catching Assumpta watching his sister. "Claire is a carbon copy. She has Mum's love of music, dance, cooking, she's fearless in everything she does and puts everyone she meets instantly at ease. Exactly like Mum was."

Assumpta turned and met his eyes. "Than your Mum isn't really gone is she?"

And that was why he needed her, Peter thought, because Assumpta understood him like no other had. She knew what to say to support, to make him smile in spite of his grief and she was just… Assumpta. His perfect guardian angel.

As an elderly man walked toward them, Peter explained to Assumpta he was a family friend. In fact, Sir Michael Randall had dated his Mum before she met his father. "I've heard the story a thousand times. Trust me, it's exaggerated greatly. He and my Dad used to pretend to go at it for laughs."

And as Peter predicted, it didn't take long for Sir Randall to start the story for Assumpta's sake. "One never gets over a true love lost forever." Sir Randall spoke with flair and drama like he was performing Shakespeare, badly. "My heart was broken, my constitution failed, and my future… destroyed!"

"Careful, Mrs. Randall is only over there." Peter pointed toward his wife talking with Mark in the corner of the room. "She might hear you." Assumpta held back a laugh.

Sir Randall explained to Assumpta, "I went off to school and when I came back Peter's future father and mother were engaged. She never said a word to me about it, not even one letter to warn me she was choosing another over me."

Peter said dryly, "I hate it when that happens."

"She gave me no chance to win back her heart. No chance to enumerate my qualities, which were far far superior to Paul Clifford's I assure, I have charm, intelligence, vigor, honor…"

Peter whispered into Assumpta's ear, "It was my vigor, wasn't it?" And then Peter tried to change the subject by saying louder, "Sir Randall's brother is Father Randall. He was my mentor through my seminary days and after."

Sir Randall said, "You should drop in on him, Peter, while you're home. He'd love to see you."

Assumpta froze up as the conversation took this turn. This was the sort of thing she was afraid of all these weeks apart, Peter reconnecting with reasons he joined the church to begin with.

He was so involved in the discussion that Peter didn't consciously notice the difference in Assumpta. But somewhere in his subconscious he recognized her pulling away from him, the fears radiating off her, and the need to feel reassured. Without thought Peter took Assumpta's hand while saying, "I would love to see him as well."

"Aha, I remember those days of your youth." Sir Randall stared off for a moment before turning to Assumpta, "Before he was a priest, Peter was quite a ladies' man. Yes, yes, always chasing after girls and stealing kisses."

"Really?" she asked while giving Peter a sideways glance and with a hint of sarcasm said, "I can't imagine that at all."

"We should really circulate and thank everyone for coming." Peter cut the conversation off.

As they moved on Assumpta noted, "And here I thought it was just getting good."

It was a long evening of talking endlessly. All while fighting to keep his stronger emotions at bay. He held Assumpta's hand and kept her at his side the entire time. The moments when he felt overwhelmed, she squeezed his hand and reminded Peter she was there. It was all he needed to keep going.

At the end of the evening, Sir Randall was among the last to leave. He watched all five of the Clifford children carefully all evening to judge for himself if they were handling the loss. Now that both parents were gone he felt it was partly his responsibility to look after them, even though they were adults they still needed family. He noticed the way Peter seemed to cling to the young Irish woman at his side. They made a striking couple and it was obvious that she was his source of strength through this.

At the door, he took Peter aside and reminded him to see his brother. Sir Randall planned to place a call to his brother ahead of time. His parting words to Peter were, "Remember, I was a victim of circumstance. But I also allowed her to get away. Don't make the same mistakes I did."

The house was quiet as Assumpta followed Peter upstairs in the dark. He explained she was staying in his sister's double bedroom. "Claire already put your things in there earlier." Peter stopped in the middle of the shadowy hallway. Moonlight from the window was the only way he could see Assumpta, it spilled over her and seemed to make her skin glow.

The way he was looking at her made Assumpta remember reading once about a universal phenomena. Following natural disasters, military attacks, any sort of tragedy, that region or nation always had a record breaking number of births exactly nine months after the tragedy. It was human nature to seek comfort. And here this man was fighting human nature even before his tragedy occurred. Assumpta put a hand to his cheek and asked, "My staying in Claire's room isn't to ensure you behave yourself… is it?"

She knew him too well, Peter thought. He wanted to hold her though the night, not sleep in an empty bed in a cold room all alone. In fact, when she turned up on his doorstep, Peter was ready to give into all his weaknesses. But something about the conversations tonight reminded him of one aspect he'd yet to think of. "One day I want you and me to be one of those old married couples that were here tonight, reminiscing with others about our past when we were young and falling in love. Assumpta, I don't want you to look back and remember it all started off wrong, while I was still a priest and grieving for my Mum and..." He shrugged, as if to make light but she could feel the emotions swirling around him and knew better.

Her hand that was on his cheek skimmed around to the back of his neck, and with both arms she pulled him into an embrace. "You're a good man, strong and thoughtful, among the many reasons I love you."

"And vigor, don't forget about my vigor."

"Yes, that too."

"Go on." He leaned back and kissed the tip of his own finger then pressed it gently to Assumpta's lips. He locked eyes with her and whispered, "And I'm strong only to a point… so lock the door behind you." Assumpta's response was to give him her characteristic Mona Lisa smile.

Once inside the room, Assumpta found Claire awake and reading in bed. While Assumpta changed into pajamas Claire put the book aside and chattered on about a whole variety of subjects before finally coming round to the subject of Peter. "And I can't believe he's making you stay in here. I'll probably get some lecture from him tomorrow about it." Claire attempted to drop her voice deeper to imitate Peter. "This is an important lesson on being responsible and following through on the promises you make and blah blah blah." Claire grinned at her. "He's so good all the time. Don't you find that boring?"

"Claire, he's your brother. It's hard for you to see him any other way." Assumpta got into bed and looked across the night table between them.

"Yeah, I suppose. But he's even responsible in this situation with you. Any normal priest would be having a scintillating scandalous affair, but not my brother. It would really help me if you could tell me something he's done wrong. Please," Claire begged, "any little thing that I could hold over him, even just bending a rule a little?"

Assumpta's mind raced through gambling at the dog track, gluing pint glasses to a tray, telling Ambrose it was the other St. John, kissing her until he could not remember who or what he was… "Nope, not a thing," Assumpta said shaking her head.

"I'm doomed," Claire groaned as she pulled the blankets up and turned out the light. "Only good part is it proves once he's no longer a Father, he'll make a wonderful Dad with all those lectures and values and morals…" Claire groaned again and flopped over onto her back.

In the dark Assumpta's heart swelled, yes he would make a wonderful Dad.


Peter insisted on Assumpta sitting in the front pew with him during the funeral mass the next morning. She hissed under her breath at him outside the church beforehand that he wasn't thinking about how it would look. He had family and friends inside that all knew Peter was still a priest. She was adamant, "I thought this was the sort of thing you were worried about and why we've been keeping our distance from one another."

His only response was a desperate, "But I need you," and with that Assumpta gave in.

Later, as the crowd left the burial plot and Claire put flowers on her mother's and father's headstones, Peter leaned into Assumpta. "Thanks. For being here, for being you," he put an arm around her. "Besides, how would anyone believe that you not only went inside a church today but actually sat through mass unless they have my eyewitness account sitting next to you to prove it." She gave him a

The funeral had been exhausting and painful and the days following were busy, filled with more calls of condolences, paperwork for insurance and the will, and sorting out details of the house officially being in Mark and Susan's names. Matt had to rush off to respond to some business at work shortly after the wake, leaving them one family member short. Assumpta helped when she could. There were still moments of tears or sorrow but as the days passed Assumpta could see signs that each were beginning to accept the loss and move on. Peter in particular seemed less clingy and overwhelmed and instead more teasing, light and happy.

Assumpta came down one morning to find everyone in the kitchen. Claire making pancakes tossing berries into the batter while singing, Peter on the phone, Mark and David reading the paper at the table and Susan looking through the cupboards for something and saying to Claire, "I know we have one, it's a matter of where it was put away. Mark puts things in a different place every time he unloads the dishwasher just to make me crazy."

David said over his paper, "Or to get out of ever being told to unload the dishwasher." Mark kicked David under the table.

Assumpta poured herself coffee while observing it all, it was the kind of family she always dreamed of when she was young. There was a time she prayed to God to have Brendan Kearney adopt her then get married so she could have lots of little brothers and sisters in time for Christmas. The silly irrational dreams of an 11 year old child, Assumpta sighed and sipped her coffee. She realized next to her Claire was humming `Like a Virgin.' Assumpta turned and raised an eyebrow at her. "Madonna?"

"Oh she's very in," Claire flashed Assumpta a big smile, "she's one of us now, haven't you heard?"

"Right," Assumpta smiled back. She leaned against the countertop and watched Peter talking on the kitchen extension. It had been a long conversation and he seemed agitated. Her eyes traveled over him, bare feet, plaid flannel pajama bottoms, old faded t-shirt, hair mussed up from sleep. Adorably sexy, Assumpta thought and imagined pushing him back upstairs so she could see what was under those plaid flannel...

"There's news from home," Peter said as he hung up the phone. But his voice faded as he saw the look on Assumpta's face, like she was devouring a meal too fast and it was keeping her from breathing properly, "Assumpta, you all right?"

"Yeah," Assumpta put her fingers to her temples rubbing them to clear out the images inside, "what's the news?"

"There was some trouble with your fuse box. Padraig went down to get the lights back on and a spark shocked him, he was thrown onto his back." At her look of worry and fear, Peter jumped to reassure her, "He's fine, just a broken tailbone and a lot of pain. But Niamh wanted to let you know she's getting the electrical completely replaced before anyone else gets hurt."

Assumpta groaned. "And what's that going to cost me?"

"Niamh also wanted to know how you were. She asked if you were eating again." Peter caught her eyes and the questions were unsaid, but understood, "Assumpta?"

She looked away from him. "I was worried about you- I never heard from you for weeks."

He took her hand and pulled her toward the other side of the room. The others in the kitchen were busy talking and the sounds of cooking filled the room but he spoke low just in case, so only Assumpta could hear. "I missed you so. I wanted to beg you to come and I knew if I talked to you I couldn't hold back the things I really wanted to say. And that only talking to you wouldn't have been enough." The internal struggle was once again written on Peter's face. "I've been trying very hard to do what's right here, Assumpta. To protect you and do right by you."

"I thought you were having second thoughts, maybe thinking of going back to the church. Or…" It felt silly even to her own ears to hear it said aloud. "Or that there was another." It was nothing more than normal, foolish doubts just like Brendan said.

"How could you think…?" Peter was stunned, "Assumpta, there's no one but you."

"You are a ladies' man," she teased him, showing the situation had now passed and she was reassured. But he was looking at her suddenly differently so she asked, "What?"

His voice broke. "It could have been you in that cellar. You might have been killed."

"It wasn't, and I'm fine." But Peter didn't look convinced, like a man seeing a mirage in the desert and not trusting his own eyes. Assumpta leaned in and kissed him deeply, giving him every reason to feel how alive she was.

"Eeeuww! If I see tongue," Claire's voice interrupted them, "I swear I'm telling Mark on you." The threat dated back to her childhood and Mark, who was of course in the room and could see for himself, shot Claire a look. He was sort of enjoying seeing his younger brother happier than he'd been in years.

Assumpta's lips curled into a smile against Peter's. It was in part out of amusement and a little out of relief that his family were so supportive and accepting to a point of teasing about it. Now if only she could introduce Claire to a certain shop owner back home perhaps everything would work out in the end.

"That's it," Peter drew back from Assumpta and announced to his sister, "you're going into the river." He chased after Claire, who ran from the kitchen.


Peter returned to the house from seeing Father Randall. Assumpta was the only one home, back from shopping with Claire who was now off with her friends. Susan and his brothers were working. When Peter stood in the front hall just looking at her, Assumpta asked, "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," he said with wide eyes, "I think I'm in shock... I'm free." It was like metal to a magnet, Peter was instantly there kissing her face and between kisses saying, "Father Randall pushed through the paperwork," his hands were traveling up under her jumper now, "because the last signature was someone," Assumpta's fingers where in his hair, her breaths short and she moaned when his hands found her naked skin, "he played golf with and he said he would even," Peter was backing her up as he kissed her mouth and when they got to the stairs they stumbled and tumbled back against them, "marry us and-"

A short time later Peter collapsed above her and Assumpta lay thinking, well, it wasn't exactly the most romantic moment of her life. But they'd waited so long and they both were so frantic it was understandably over almost as soon as it had begun. Now that all that built up tension was finally gone he was dead weight on top of her and the sharp edge of one stair was digging into the middle of her back. They were even still mostly dressed. Assumpta began laughing.

This made Peter's head snap up. "Are you laughing at me?" His bruised ego evident in his tone, "It was that bad?"

"No, it was wonderful, that's not-" With a new round of laughing, "It's just... you finally feel better now?"

"You are laughing at me," he realized. "Right," now mocking her, "I'll give you a reason to laugh." And he started to tickle her. Somewhere between the shrieks and tickles and kisses and giggles Peter scooped her up and carried her up the stairs to his room. He gently set her in the middle of the bed as if she were priceless breakable porcelain. And slowly undressed her like unwrapping a precious gift.

They spent the afternoon there, taking their time. Peter drifted off to sleep later with Assumpta cuddled at his side. She rested her head on his chest listening to his heartbeat. Every muscle in her body felt like a wet noodle, warm and slack.

She thought about how Peter talked with a priest today about her. Without telling her beforehand where he was going. It was the sort of thing Assumpta would once have been furious about. And probably most of that anger really was about covering up her own fears. The old Assumpta would've been afraid that Peter's mentor could talk him out of leaving the church and would demonize her. But she wasn't the old Assumpta anymore, something had changed.

This is where she wanted to be, Assumpta knew, at his side every night. And wake up every morning to his mussed hair and sleepy eyes. And be at his side when times were difficult, to support him and love him and share the burden together. She wanted to have children with him and grow old with him knowing he would always make her happy. And she trusted him and knew Peter wanted those same things.


About a week later the Cliffords received an invitation from Sir Randall to attend one of his semiannual parties.

"I'll understand completely, of course, if you don't wish to come due to the recent loss of your mother," he'd scrawled at the bottom of the invitation.

Peter looked up from reading it. "I'd like to go. Might be fun, take our minds off things for a bit." He looked up at Mark. "What do you think?"

"Yeah," Mark nodded. "You could introduce Assumpta to everyone."

"Now wait just one minute," Assumpta said, coming up behind Peter's chair. "What's going on?"

"You remember Sir Randall, from the wake?" Peter asked.


"Well, he has the occasional party at his mansion, and we usually go. It's one of those formal, black-tie things where everyone stands around sipping wine and pretending to be sophisticated," Peter explained, smirking.

"Sounds like fun." Assumpta frowned slightly. "But wait, I don't exactly have any party going outfits with me."

"Don't worry," Claire said, linking her arm through Assumpta's. "I'll take you shopping today. I could so see you in a strapless black dress."

Peter's eyes went wide and he grinned hopefully. "So could I."

"Don't you ever bog off?!" Assumpta cried, playfully punching Peter's shoulder. Claire let out a hoot of laughter.


"Is it like a set fact that women have to take two hours to get ready for a party?!" Mark demanded of Susan. He, Peter, Susan, and David were waiting by the front door for Claire and Assumpta to finish preparing to leave. In response to Mark, Susan just rolled her eyes and shook her head.

"Here we are," Claire said, coming down the stairs. She stepped aside as Assumpta descended.

Peter felt his breath catch in his throat. Claire had talked Assumpta into wearing a long shoulder-less black dress. Her hair was pulled up and back, with a few strands hanging down. She wore no jewelry, and only a slight bit of makeup. As she walked over to Peter, David let out a low whistle, but silenced when Peter shot him an icy glare.

"Ready to go?" Peter asked quietly, offering his arm to Assumpta.

"Lead on."

They arrived at Sir Randall's estate about half an hour later. They were led in and immediately offered glasses of wine and hors d'oeuvres by waiters in black suits. In one corner of the long main hall a chamber orchestra was playing Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

"It all feels so sophisticated," Assumpta whispered as she and Peter strolled around the crowded hall. Peter laughed.

"I say, Peter old chap, is that you?" Peter turned to see a tall man with short brown hair and a pair of silver rimmed glasses balanced on his nose making his way over.

"That's John Corvere," Peter explained to Assumpta in a whisper. "His dad was a good friend of my dad's. The Corveres run a shipping company and are quite well off." Assumpta nodded and watched as the two men greeted each other. She observed Corvere coolly, but he seemed to take less notice of her than Peter's shoes.

"I heard about your mother, God rest her soul," Corvere said. "I'm terribly sorry, it must be dreadful for you all."

"We're coping, and she'd been sick for a while, so it wasn't completely unexpected," Peter said.

"Mhmm." Corvere bobbed his head slightly. "And how's Claire dealing with it? Though I suppose she's grown quite a bit since I last saw her..."

As they talked on, Assumpta's mind began to wander. She looked around the room at all the elegantly dressed people. She spotted Claire and Susan standing off in one corner talking to some older ladies. Sir Randall was serving up cups of punch at the buffet. Suddenly a young lady sitting in front of the large fireplace caught Assumpta's attention.

But before Assumpta could remember where she'd seen the woman, however, Corvere said, "And who's this pretty little thing?"

Assumpta flushed with annoyance and just barely bit back a scathing reply.

"This is my, ahm, girlfriend, Assumpta Fitzgerald," Peter said, slipping an arm around Assumpta's waist. "I met her when I was working over in Ireland."

"Charmed I'm sure," Corvere said, shaking Assumpta's hand.

Assumpta noticed with great annoyance that Corvere seemed far more interested in the low-cut neckline of her dress than her face, and had it not been for Peter, she probably would have said something about it. So she was relieved when Corvere turned back to Peter, saying, "So I take it you've given up god-bothering?"

"Uh, yeah, circumstances changed," Peter said uncomfortably.

"I can understand that," Corvere said, taking a sip of champagne and casting a glance in Assumpta's direction. "Anyhow, it was lovely chatting with you, Peter. But I must be off, I have to complement Mrs. Randall on the excellent food before I head out, Good day." He made his way off towards the other end of the room.

"Real charmer, that one," Assumpta muttered.

"Yeah sorry about him," Peter said. "Claire can't stand him either."

"I wonder why." Assumpta craned her neck and saw that Claire and David were now occupying a couple of chairs off to one side of the room. "I'm going to go sit down for a bit, ok?"

"Yeah." Peter nodded. "I'll just get a couple glasses of punch and be right over."

Assumpta made her way over to Claire and David.

"Peter done showing you off for now?" David asked with a grin.

Assumpta glared at him. "He's not showing me off. He's introducing me to people."

"Uh huh," David said disbelievingly. Assumpta rolled her eyes and took a seat next to Claire. A minute later she happened to glance across the room and saw Peter talking to the young woman she'd seen earlier. Suddenly she remembered where she'd seen the woman before.

"I'll be right back." Assumpta said, leaping to her feet and heading off towards Peter. David and Claire exchanged amused looks.

"That's Jenny Clark, isn't it?" David whispered. "Isn't she the one Peter transferred because of?"

"Mhm," Claire replied.

"How much you wanna bet Assumpta knocks her out cold?"

Peter had been talking to Jenny for only a minute or two when Assumpta suddenly appeared at his side, slipping her arm around his waist.

"Hey, `Sumpta," Peter said, putting his arm around Assumpta's bare shoulders. "Jenny, you remember Assumpta, from Ballykay?"

"Yeah." Jenny eyed Assumpta sourly.

"So what have you been up to recently?" Peter asked, trying hard to ignore the hostile vibes passing between the two women.

"Well, I just got my own flat, and I'm working part time at the City Hall now," Jenny said, her eyes not leaving Assumpta for a minute.

"Oh yeah, what do you do there?"

"Uh, Peter..." Assumpta said.

"What?" Peter frowned. Assumpta jerked her head towards the side, indicating she wanted to talk to Peter alone. Peter sighed and turned to Jenny.

"Just a minute, I'll be right back."

Peter followed Assumpta over to the side.

"What's your problem?" Peter hissed. "Do you think I'd do that if we ran into Leo?"

Assumpta raised an eyebrow. "Yes. Actually."'

"Jealousy doesn't suit you," Peter replied. "Don't worry, she's just an old friend." He hugged Assumpta tightly. "No one will ever take your place in my heart."

Assumpta sighed, but shook her head and walked back to Claire and David. Peter returned to Jenny.

"Problem?" Jenny asked, raising an eyebrow.

"No, she just wanted a word," Peter said, shrugging it off as nothing important.

"I was right, wasn't I?" Jenny said, picking up a glass of bright red punch.

"Sorry?" Peter frowned slightly.

"Looks to me like there was a next time." Jenny looked sourly across the room to where Assumpta was sitting. "Only looks like she at least managed to hang on to you."

"Look, Jenny –"

"No, it's all right. You don't need to explain." Jenny sighed. "It was nice talking to you, Peter. I'll see you around." She turned and walked off.

Peter stared after her for a moment. "Yeah you too."

When he got back to Claire and David he found them talking to two older women.

"Ah, here's your brother now," one of the woman said, smiling as Peter approached.

"Hello, Mrs. Maloney," Peter said, nodding. "And Ms. Best. How are you both doing?"

"Ah, as well as can be expected," Ms. Best said in an upper class English accent.

"Claire was just telling us about how you've left the priesthood," Mrs. Maloney said.

Peter pulled up a chair for himself next to Assumpta. "Oh yeah?"

"Was it not working out?" Mrs. Maloney asked.

"No," Peter said as he sat down. "I wanted to pursue....other paths." He reached over and took Assumpta's hand in his.

"Hmm... wonder what your dear mother would have had to say about that," Ms. Best muttered, casting a disapproving look at Assumpta.

"Are you going to introduce us to this lovely young lady?" Mrs. Maloney asked, smiling kindly at Assumpta.

"Ah, yeah," Peter grinned proudly. "This is Assumpta Fitzgerald, I met her while I was over in Ireland. Assumpta, this is Mrs. Maloney, a close friend of my mother's - "

"Pleased to meet you," Assumpta said, shaking Mrs. Maloney's hand.

"The feeling's mutual," Mrs. Maloney replied, beaming.

"-and Ms. Best, another friend," Peter said. Ms. Best eyed Assumpta disapprovingly and merely nodded in greeting.

"So what is it you do, dear?" Mrs. Maloney asked.

"I'm a publican," Assumpta explained. "I've got a little pub and inn that I inherited from my mother."

"Oh that sounds lovely!" Mrs. Maloney said. "When I was younger I always thought it would be terribly romantic to be a publican in a small rural town. Though I suppose it must be a great deal of work."

"Yeah, but I do enjoy it," Assumpta replied.

Peter gently touched her arm and whispered, "I forgot to get our punch, do you still want some?"

"Yeah, I can go get it though." Assumpta stood up. "Excuse me, I'll be right back."

She made her way off across the room towards the buffet. As she was pouring glasses of punch for herself and Peter, Assumpta heard two men behind her talking.

"The Cliffords are here, have to spoken to them yet?"

"No, but did you notice that woman Peter's got with him? Have they started letting RC priests marry or something?"

"No," the first man said. "Well, what I heard was that Peter left the priesthood to be with that woman."

"I'd certainly leave the priesthood for her!" the second man said with a chuckle. "She's certainly better looking than any women here..."

Deciding she didn't need to hear any more, Assumpta straightened up, and turned around, holding the punch glasses.

She noticed the two men were standing directly behind her, so she summoned up as much dignity and grace as possible before saying, "Excuse me, gentlemen," and slipping past them. A quick backward glance revealed both the men to be staring at her open-mouthed. Assumpta continued walking, with a slight smirk playing on her lips.

Assumpta returned to find that Peter and David had gone off. Assumpta scowled and handed Claire Peter's punch glass.

"Here," Assumpta said. "Serves him right if he doesn't get any."

Claire laughed and held up the cup. "Cheers."


Peter returned a short while later to find Assumpta curled up in one of the chairs fast asleep. Claire sat in another chair, looking like she might doze off as well.

Peter gently shook Assumpta's shoulder. "Ready to go home?"

"Wha-?" Assumpta rubbed her eyes and sat up. "Oh, are we going?"

"We might." Peter glanced at his watch. "It's half past eleven. I think everyone's getting a little tired out."

They managed to collect the other members of their group, then headed back to the Clifford house. When they got back Mark and Susan both immediately headed off for bed. Claire, Assumpta and Peter had one last cup of tea before they too headed upstairs.

" `Sumpta," Claire asked sleepily as they reached the second floor landing "D'you need help getting out of that dress? I know you can't undo the clasp on your own."

"I can help her, you get to bed," Peter said, putting an arm around Assumpta's shoulder.

"Oh, I'm sure you'd love that, wouldn't you?" Claire said, grinning mischievously.

Peter gave her a stern look as he opened the door to his bedroom. The fact that Assumpta was now sharing it with him proved to be the topic of most teasing sent his way.

"Oh grow up you two!" Assumpta said, laughing quietly. She kissed Claire on the cheek. " `Night Claire."

"Good Night, Assumpta," Claire said, still grinning at her brother. Peter waited until Assumpta had gone into the bedroom before sticking his tongue out at Claire.


The next afternoon the phone was being passed around Fitzgerald's so all in Ballykay could have their chance to talk to Peter and Assumpta. Niamh asked about the dresses and people at the fancy party the night before. Brendan told Peter about the new restaurant opening and other recent news. Then Siobhan took the phone because Assumpta wanted to hear about her latest ultrasound photos. Finally Padraig got hold of the receiver and told Assumpta, "I don't care what anyone else says, Assumpta, I miss ya."

"Thanks, Padraig."

"When're the two of you comin' back?" As Padraig asked, Brendan and the others all hushed Padraig.

"What?" Padraig asked innocently as he hung up the phone a moment later. "It's just a question. We were all wondering it."

Niamh scolded in her best Mom voice, "And we all agreed not to ask directly. We don't want to push them into making a decision and if they decide to stay there," Niamh's face fell, making it clear to the others how much it pained her to say it, "we want to be supportive of that."

Padraig shrugged. "But we're not supportive of that. We're supportive of them comin' home."

Niamh seemed to give. "Oh, I don't know, maybe Padraig has the right idea." She turned to Brendan waiting for his opinion.

Brendan asked Niamh for another pint first before explaining, "I think Ballykay's award winning gossip system is at fault."

"What do you mean?" Siobhan wanted to know.

"Well," Brendan continued, "think about it, they know the nosey have and continue to be in full force over their new relationship. But maybe in Manchester they are left alone, no ridicule, no questions, no disapproving looks from shop owners. Thank you, Niamh." Brendan took a large sip of his just delivered pint.

Michael had been quiet up till now but was thinking through Brendan's logic. "You know, Brendan's right. Perhaps if we could find a way to curb some of that gossip then Peter and Assumpta would feel better about coming home."

Niamh snapped her fingers. "Doc, you're brilliant."

"What about me?" Brendan asked with a little of the whine he'd learned from the kids he spent all day with, "I helped too."

Siobhan gave him a look. "Would you like a biscuit, so?"


Peter took Assumpta on a walk to see all the places that had a part in his growing up, the primary school he attended, the pitch were he played football, the ice cream shop where he had his first kiss. Assumpta gave him a look of amusement at that one. He chuckled at her. "You do know that I wasn't always a priest."

"Of course." Assumpta took his hand as they walked on. It was a bright, sunny day with only a slight chill to the air. And it was perfect to walk along together doing nothing special but just be in each other's company.

They came to the church were Peter was assigned before coming to Ballykissangel and stood out front as he told her about Father Randall's guidance, kindness and friendship.

"Do you miss it?" Assumpta asked.

"Living here?"

"No, I mean…" She gestured toward the church. "...being a priest."

He tilted his head, considering. "Not enough to regret leaving." As Peter studied the spires and buttresses of the beautiful old church memories of the time he'd spent here flooded him. One stood out prominently, the decision to leave. "I transferred from here because being a priest was the most important thing in my life. Nothing, no one." Peter looked knowingly at her and repeated, "No one was more important to me at that time. I knew it would take something miraculous coming along to change my course in life. Jenny wasn't it and in fact I never thought it possible anyone could change my priorities." Peter put and arm around her and pulled Assumpta close to his side. "But here you are, the miraculous thing that came along and matter more than anything else."

He was reassuring her again just as he had last night in the dark telling her she was being silly for feeling jealous and had no reason to worry. And Assumpta was finally getting the message. She was being that foolish girl falling all over her man that she never wanted to become. Her confidence was shaky at times when it came to her and Peter, and Jenny was only bringing that out. And again Peter said to her, "You have to trust me."

"I do trust you. It's me. I never thought I would be like this." She looked up at Peter. "I never thought it could be like this."

"No, I don't imagine you ever thought you'd fall for a priest."

Assumpta smiled. "That's true, but not what I was thinking about actually. I was always afraid I'd end up like my parents, fighting all the time. I decided I would make intelligent, logical choices that had nothing to do with excessive emotions."


"Yeah," she took a deep breath, "and you are anything but logical and we'll probably row all the time-"

"But then there's the making up part," he winked. Then on a serious note, "Assumpta, it may not logical and it is certainly emotional and passionate, it's surprising and complicated but it's still right."

"Yes, it is." And she added lightly, "God help us both."

"I thought you didn't believe in all that rigmarole?"

Her sarcasm teased, "We need all the help we can get, let's not get picky."


They were all drunk, thought Siobhan for the 10th time that night. And only two parts really bothered her about it, one, she was stone sober and two, she didn't have a video camera to record the circus around her. She should save this and be able to show her future child how much of a fool its father is. And all of his friends too.

"The sheep have been implanted with devices by aliens that-" Brendan was announcing, until Padraig interrupted him.

"Wait," Padraig looked confused, "how's a rumor about sheep going to help Father Clifford?"

"FORMER Father Clifford," Niamh corrected a little too loudly. Then poured herself another whiskey.

Siobhan shook her head, the idea of passing rumor after rumor about all manner of preposterous stories around about Peter and Assumpta was what they were working on now. Brendan's logic- which got hazy after the 8th or maybe the 11th pint- was that the more incredible the stories, in the face of them Peter and Assumpta being a couple would seem quite boring in comparison and therefore no one would be talking about it anymore.

Siobhan tried to point out once again, "But you'll be adding to the problem of gossip about them. You're spreading all different rumors around but it's still gossip."

"No, Siobhan." Brendan shook his head at her. Which made the whole pub spin a bit and he had to put his hands on either side of his head and blink a few times until it stopped. "You're misunderstanding the genius of this plan."

"Genius spelled with a J," she said under her breath

Brendan's eyebrow's knitted together. "What was that? Never mind. Niamh, you agree with me."

"I do, of course." She gulped a whiskey and slammed it onto the bar. "Donal," Niamh called out and waved him over, then whispered, "have I got something to tell you that'll shock you..."


Peter was alone in the kitchen putting clean dishes away. Susan and Assumpta were off buying groceries and doing other errands. He could hear his sister and Mark arguing in the front room even if he couldn't hear exactly what was being said, the tone of voice said enough. Peter considered going in to referee but then heard Claire's laugh, boisterous and happy. It was a silly argument whatever it was and it passed quickly.

Peter smiled and stacked the plates in the cupboard. That's how it was with him and Assumpta, they have always and would always fight. And though Assumpta was a little worried about that, Peter wasn't because he knew that's just part of it. The difference between her parents and his family was that her parents never stopped fighting. His family certainly had their share of blow-ups but it never lasted long and they always managed to laugh by the end of it. Peter knew being with Assumpta would be just like his parents were, they disagreed at times but through it all still loved each other, could make the other smile no matter what, and they never went to bed angry.

His father once told Peter that the key to living with a woman successfully for decades was learning to say, "Yes, Love," early and often and no matter what you're thinking on the inside. He could handle that, Peter thought with a snicker. In fact, handling Assumpta wasn't as hard as some people thought it was. And at times… his mind drifted to memories of last night in bed… handling her was outright enjoyable.

He and Assumpta really hadn't talked much about the future and it was understandable given the funeral and all he'd been going through. But there was plenty they needed to talk about Peter knew, and soon. He had no job for one and no idea what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. They hadn't even talked about simple things yet like when or if they should go back to Ballykay. He'd lost his mother in the midst of everything else, something that still stung his heart but Peter was learning to accept it. And leaving the thing he'd committed years of his life to and believed in with all his soul was not the easiest thing he'd ever done, even if it was the right thing. It would be a journey for him now to settle his conflicted feelings about the church and his new role in it as an everyday parishioner.

Peter knew in this moment of his life he should be feeling overwhelmed, confused, even frightened given all the changes that happened so fast and decisions still to be made. It would be natural and almost expected to feel all sorts of terrible emotions and yet despite his best efforts to try to feel a little bad, he just couldn't help being completely happy. More than happy, he was
exhilarated like reaching the top of a tall peak he had struggled to climb and was standing at the top now filling his lungs with fresh clean air. And he looked around at the vast wonder of the world in a new way, from a new perspective he'd never had before in life, knowing that the beauty of that view could never be fully appreciated at the bottom of the mountain.

And Peter felt at peace. It was the kind of feeling prayer once gave him, but not recently. He remembered the time his mother taught him how to pray one night in the dark of his room when she found Peter awake and worried about something. Peter couldn't remember how old he was, maybe 5 or 6, or what he had been worried about at the time. But he clearly remembered his mother telling him, "Wrap up all your troubles in a big box and put a bow on the top of it and send it to God. He likes to receive those kinds of gifts from us and he opens them and makes them all better. Once you send the gift to him you don't have to worry anymore."

Peter's eyes held only a few tears as he scrubbed the pots and pans in the sink before loading the now empty dishwasher with the dirty dishes. In the last year time spent in prayer was helpful but hadn't been enough, not like it once was. That feeling of complete peace had come when Assumpta held his hand at his mother's wake. He had two places to send his worries and troubles to now, God and Assumpta. Peter grinned wide, she'd kill him if she knew he thought that way. Prayer still helped certainly, he had faith in God still. But having Assumpta as well to talk to, to share his burdens, to comfort each other, to give advice even if he didn't agree with it... it was a miracle.

And somehow despite not knowing what career he wanted, Peter felt like he could conquer anything. And that was Assumpta's doing as well. He had strength because of her. Because taking risks wasn't frightening knowing she'd support him if he succeeded or if he failed. At the end of the day, no matter what it brought, he would still hold her each night and she'd still love him. There was security in that. He was unafraid of what the future might bring because they could get through anything together. He only had to look at the last several weeks for evidence of that. In fact, it held so many possibilities of good things and no fear of the bad Peter could hardly stand to wait any longer to start his future.

Peter didn't quite know how he managed to come to the decision to do this right now, not some day off in the future as he was imagining before. But he walked into the front room with 16 different emotions wrestling inside and not one of them was confidence, even though Peter knew the decision was the right one. Suddenly he felt dizzy and weak. His voice also sounded off as he said, "I could use some help."

Claire didn't look up from her book as she answered, "Yeah, we've been telling you that for years."

Peter said, "No, I mean… I need to pick out- I mean I want to shop for…" He couldn't manage to say the words for some reason.

Mark took one look at Peter's face and knew. He knew what the look meant since he'd worn it himself after dating Susan for only a year. It comes on suddenly one day and you've no idea where it came from but a man gets a look like that once in his life and for only one reason. That man was about to drain half his savings on something that was the size of a pea and was completely useless in the man's opinion, but it would make her cry. Not the sad kind, the good kind of tears and that's what made it worth it.

Mark cleared his throat and stood up. "Claire, go get some shoes on."

"Where are we going?"

Peter was still standing there mute and stunned so Mark answered for him, "First, we're off to the pub to put a few shots of strong liquor into our brother to give him strength. And then we're going down the road to do some shopping."

"But there's only one shop down the road from the pub and it's that posh jewelry-" Claire froze mid-step as she climbed the stairs, she turned around and looked at them both. "Oh."

After she finished going up Peter said to Mark, "I'm feeling a bit nauseous."

Mark smiled knowingly and patted his brother's shoulder. "Yeah that happens up until you hear `yes' and then it gets better. You'll be fine."

Panic flashed across Peter's face, "You don't think she'll say `no' do you?"

Mark almost laughed. "The doubts are also normal." Then he called up the stairs, "Come on, Claire, hurry. You don't have to be fashionable you just have to have shoes on. We don't have much time before Assumpta and Susan get back."


Fifteen minutes later they sat in at a table in O'Reily's bar and grill. Peter had an empty glass in hand and was listening to Claire voice her opinion on what type of ring Assumpta would like.

"Now," Claire said. "She strikes me as the type that wouldn't go for the big huge diamond thing. Plain, but pretty."

"Right," Peter said, still trying to overcome the emotions and thoughts that seemed to be running through his brain, and he didn't really think the shot of whiskey was helping.

Mark slapped him on the back. "You ready?"

"Umm…" Peter stared despairingly at his empty glass.

"No more for you," Claire admonished. "I personally don't want to put Assumpta through the awful experience of dealing with you hung-over."

"Right," Peter said, standing up. "Let's get this over with, then."

Mark and Claire grinned, and they escorted their slightly shocked brother out of the pub.

The attendant at the jewelry store was a balding man in a dark business suit. He looked up from the gem he was examining and greeted the customers. He smiled as he saw the slightly disconcerted look on the younger man's face; he'd seen it plenty of times before.

"Let me guess," he said to Peter. "Shopping for an engagement ring, right?"

"Is it that obvious?" Peter asked, looking alarmed. The man chuckled.

"Let's just say I've been in this business for a long time," he said. "Do you have anything in mind?"

"Not really," Peter said, staring around at the cases of glittering jewelry and crystal. "I think I just need to look around a bit."

"All right, don't hesitate to ask if you need anything," the attendant said, sitting back down.

Peter began walking around, looking through the large assortment of rings and occasionally brining himself to glance at the price tags, though this usually just increased the amount his head seemed to be spinning. Mark followed him around, though Claire had sidled off to look at necklaces.

"See anything yet?" Mark asked, peering over Peter's shoulder.

"No," Peter said gloomily. "Most of this stuff is too flashy. Claire was right, Assumpta wouldn't go for anything with huge diamonds or anything."

"Small and beautiful, but with fire lurking just below the surface," Mark murmured. Peter wondered if he was describing a ring, or Assumpta.

After about ten minutes of strolling around, something caught Peter's eye; it was a simple one, a circular cut diamond in a white gold setting. There was a slight decoration on the band next to the stone, but other than that it was smooth.

Peter peered through the top of the glass counter to see the price tag and felt his stomach give an unpleasant jolt; the ring was marked down, and still about £500.

"See something?" Mark asked again. Peter nodded.

"Yeah, but…"

Mark noticed the price then also and nudged his brother. "Go on, you only meet a woman like Assumpta once."

Peter smiled, Mark was completely right about that. "Do you think Mum would be happy that my part of the inheritance is going toward a ring and a wedding?"

"You know she would've loved it." Mark nudged again. "And you're stalling."


When they got back, they found Susan sitting in the living room with David, Susan reading the newspaper and David watching a football game on TV.

"Where'd you three disappear off to?" Susan asked, looking up as they entered.

Peter sheepishly shoved the bag from the jeweler's in his pocket. David was too quick however, and leapt up and snatched it away, peering inside.

"Seeing as it isn't anyone's birthday…" he said, reaching into the bag. "I'd say Peter's getting ready to do something." He pulled out the small blue velvet ring box, then he and Susan peered expectantly at Peter.

"What?!" Peter said innocently.

"Ahh come on!" David said coaxingly.

"Is everyone going to know before Assumpta?" Peter cried.

Suddenly Claire hissed, "Peter, shut up, she's coming downstairs!"

Peter frantically snatched the box and bag back, just as Assumpta entered the room.

"What?" she asked, seeing everyone staring at her.

"Umm…Nothing…" Peter said quickly. All eyes turned to Peter, who felt himself turn red. "Nothing," he said again, quieter.

Mark decided to take initiative. "Peter, why don't you take Assumpta out for dinner tonight? You two have been so helpful with the post- funeral work you deserve a night off."

"Yes," Susan said, smiling and standing up. "There's a lovely little restaurant not too far from here. And Assumpta, you just got that gorgeous new outfit…"

"I don't know how I let you talk me into this," Assumpta said half an hour later. She sat at the vanity in Claire's room, while Claire brushed out her hair and tried to convince her to put on some make up.

"Because," Claire said simply.

Assumpta arched an eyebrow. "Claire?"


"Is there something going on that no one's telling me?" She grinned wickedly.

"No," Claire said. "Honestly."

"I don't believe you," Assumpta said, slowly standing up. She advanced slowly on Claire, who let out a shriek and ran out of the room. Assumpta charged after her, nearly catching up with her on the stairs, but Claire managed to run into the living room and duck behind Peter.

"What is going on?" Peter cried, looking flustered. He was nervous enough about tonight, terrified that something would go wrong, and that made him slightly snappy. "Assumpta, are you ready to go yet?"

"Ahm," Assumpta looked down at herself. She was wearing a dark colored
dress jacket over a white shirt, and matching dark pants. "Yeah, I guess I am."

"All right then," Peter gestured towards the door, his heart pounding.


"Well, that was fun," Assumpta said, after the dessert plates had been cleared away. She took a sip of wine and looked around. The restaurant was very suave, dim lighting, light music, and an intimate atmosphere. Assumpta and Peter sat at a little round table with a dark blue cloth, a single candle sending a flickering light over their faces. Assumpta rested her arms on the table and leaned closer to Peter murmuring, "And very romantic."

Peter smiled edgily, and took a sip of water. "I suppose I should do this properly," he said, standing. Assumpta watched with a raised eyebrow as Peter knelt before her.

I should have seen this coming, Assumpta thought to herself. Nevertheless, she felt her heart begin to flutter pleasantly.

"I really should have something splendidly romantic to say right now," Peter said, laughing slightly. "But I really can't think of anything. Let me just say, you're the most amazing, beautiful woman I've ever met. And… I love you, more than life itself." He took a deep breath. "Will you marry me?"

Assumpta let out the breath that she hadn't even realized she'd been holding. "Hold on a sec while I regain my composure," she said, taking a couple deep breaths before looking Peter straight in the eyes. "Yes, yes of course I will!"

"That's, that's wonderful." Peter said, grinning broadly. He stood, then bent over and kissed Assumpta. As he pulled away his eyes lit up. "Oh wait, I almost forgot…" he pulled out the ring box and opened it for Assumpta to see. "I hope you like it."

"Peter, it's-it's... gorgeous," Assumpta breathed, staring as Peter slipped it on her finger then leaned over to kiss her again.

"So are you."


When they returned to the house Peter's siblings had set up an impromptu celebration. Peter teased, how did they know Assumpta would say yes? They toasted with champagne. David and Susan who'd yet to see the ring oh and ah'd over it. Claire announced she was glad to have a new sister and that the Clifford family was finally beginning to even out after years of her being cursed with only

Assumpta couldn't stop looking at her ring. It kept catching the corner of her eye as she talked and sipped her champagne and she couldn't help it. It seemed strange to her to see a ring on her hand, on that particular finger. But also amazing to see it there representing what it did. Assumpta knew they were headed this direction but it was now astonishingly real to her. Her lack of confidence, jealousy and uncertainty slipped away. She leaned against his tall frame feeling comforted in the knowledge he would always be there at her side. And her heart soared with happiness and love.

Peter's family had been wonderful to her from the beginning and tonight certainly was another example of why Assumpta was growing to love them as well. But now that she was engaged to the most incredible man long denied to her, she wanted to be alone with him. Now.

Assumpta's voice tickled Peter's ear. "I don't want to seem ungrateful but how long do we need to stay in the kitchen with them?"

He wrinkled his brow, concerned that maybe she'd changed her mind. "Problem?"

"Ah, no," Assumpta sighed, she was really going to have to work on him picking up hints. Once a priest… Assumpta guessed. Then wondered how obvious she needed to be here. She whispered in a suggestive voice, "It's just that I'm feeling terribly romantic…" She heard Peter catch his breath and thought, yeah that did it.

Peter let out a loud, exaggerated yawn and announced to all, "It's been a long day." Assumpta rolled her eyes at the king of subtlety.

Later in their room, Assumpta kept twisting the ring around on her finger. Peter noticed and commented, "I like you best like this, wearing nothing but the ring."

She chuckled. "It just feels... odd having something on that finger."

"But good, yeah?"

"Yes," she agreed.

"I want to put the next ring on your finger right away. That's the one that really counts but if you want to wait and take some time to plan a big-"

Assumpta interrupted him, "I don't want anything in particular. I just want you."

They talked late into the night laying there in the dark. Whispering back and forth and settling on their plans for a small, simple ceremony. Father Randall would say it but Peter insisted that it wouldn't be more than a blessing and vows, nothing steeped in religion. Assumpta was surprised but relieved. Peter even
brought up a few of the decisions that had to be made about their life together. He was still hurt and worried about the gossip in Ballykay and felt they would be happier living here.

"Oh, so people don't talk in a big town?" As Assumpta said it, Peter got a strange look on his face. She asked, "What?"

"Deja vu." Peter sighed. "Ballykay is different, `Ssumpta, you know that. A priest- current or former- isn't quite viewed the same here as it is in Ireland. And if in Ballykay they look down at us, are hurt by us, I don't think I could handle that." He held her tight as he spoke. "Everything feels so right that I don't want others making you or I feel like we're doing something wrong. I just want us to be happy."

"We are," she whispered and kissed him. So even though it wasn't her first choice, Assumpta agreed to living in Manchester and making a life here. She promised to talk with Niamh and Brian soon about them running the pub from now on.


Three days later, Assumpta stood looking at her reflection on a bright, sunny Tuesday morning. She was wearing a long white lace dress and Susan was fooling with the buttons on the back.

Claire said happily, "I can't believe Mum's dress fits you so perfectly. It's a sign." She tossed back what remained of the champagne in her glass. "And I do love all the excuses to be drinking loads of this these days." She refilled her glass and topped off Assumpta's as well.

"You're sure it's okay, Claire?" Assumpta smoothed her hands down her sides, asking again that her wearing the dress was causing no problem or grief.

"Are you kidding? It's fantastic. Mum would've wanted it. I only wish she were here."

Assumpta asked, "Would she have been happy about this?"

Susan nodded. "She was wonderful to me when Mark and I got married."

"No," Assumpta took a breath, "I mean Peter..."

Claire laughed, "Yeah, she'd be happy. She would be laughing at Peter, but yeah, happy. Now Dad would've been the interesting one." Claire took another sip. "Wonder if he would have said, `I told you so.' Dad never thought he should've become a priest in the first place knowing Peter was the sort to want a family of his own one day."

In a rare moment of quiet seriousness from Claire, she met Assumpta's eyes. "We lose one family member and just as fast we gain a new one. The way life goes on." Claire took a deep breath. Then she smiled and the brightness was suddenly back, "We're honored to have you as part of our family."

Susan raised her glass in a toast. "To new sisters."

After Assumpta was dressed and ready, Brendan and Niamh were waiting as a surprise for her. Though Peter and Assumpta had phoned and explained it was going to be very small with only a handful of family attending, their friends from Ballykay couldn't stay away.

Niamh grinned the moment she caught sight of Assumpta. "Just fantastic, look at you. You're going to make Peter faint dead away when he sees how gorgeous you are." And she hugged her friend.

"God, I hope not." Assumpta exhaled a laugh.

Brendan hugged Assumpta as well and explained how they all wanted to be here but couldn't make it on short notice. Siobhan in particular was disappointed but Michael insisted it was too close to her due date to travel.

"But you're both here and you didn't have to," Assumpta smiled, "thank you."

Niamh added, "And we'll just have a big party with everyone else when you're back in Ballykay."

"Yeah," Assumpta agreed. She knew now was not the time to break the news to Niamh. It was complicated and would probably hurt her friend and Assumpta didn't want to spoil the fun of the day. But Brendan caught the look on Assumpta's face and knew something was off.

Claire bounced out of the room, caught sight of Niamh and rushed to her saying, "It's so nice to finally meet you after hearing all about you and talking to you on the phone when you've called for Assumpta." She hugged Niamh so hard that it nearly knocked her flat.

Over Claire's shoulder Niamh met Assumpta's eyes. The look said it all, who in the world was this enthusiastically mad person?

Assumpta smiled. "And meet the one and only, Claire."


The wedding ceremony was being held in a small glade near the Cliffords' house.

We couldn't have picked a better day, Assumpta thought as she stood in the back with Brendan, Niamh, Claire and Susan. The sun was shining, the sky filled with puffy white clouds. Everything around them seemed to be glowing.

Some more of the Cliffords, who Assumpta had only met briefly, were taking seats in the folding chairs. A white arbor, decorated with flowers and ribbons was set up in front of the chairs, under it stood Fr. Randall, his vestments fluttering slightly in the warm breeze.

Peter stood at the front, Mark next to him.

"Nervous?" Mark asked, grinning.

"I don't know if nervous is the right word," Peter replied, his eyes scanning his family members. "Anxious maybe, eager, definitely."

"You'll be fine," Mark said, putting a hand on Peter's shoulder. "Just don't get drunk at the reception. Remember how I did that? Susan was furious with me."

Peter chuckled. Just then Fr. Randall caught his eye, giving him a look that clearly asked, "Are you ready?" Peter nodded, shifted nervously, then looked towards the back, where he could see Assumpta standing, nervously clutching Brendan's arm. Claire had woven some little white flower decorations into Assumpta's hair, each one had a tiny gem in the middle so when Assumpta turned they sent sparkling rays of light in all directions.

The minute the music started, and she started walking, Assumpta suddenly felt calm. Her eyes locked with Peter's, and the intensity of the love she saw in his gaze was enough to fill her heart.

"You all right?" Brendan whispered out of the corner of his mouth.

"Perfect," Assumpta replied, smiling.

Before handing her off to Peter, Brendan gave Assumpta a tight hug. "I'm so happy for you," he said, and Assumpta was sure she saw a tear in his eye. She looked over at Niamh, Claire, and Susan, and the three beamed back. Finally she turned to Peter, who was grinning like an idiot.

"I love you," Assumpta mouthed to him and then turned to face Fr. Randall.


After the ceremony everyone went back to the house for the reception. Mark had gotten a DJ, so there was music as well as plenty of food and drink.

The first song was a slow, sweet one. Assumpta made her way over to Brendan and gently touched him on the arm.

"Father of the bride gets the first dance," she said. Brendan nodded, and looked like he was about to cry as he led Assumpta out onto the area set aside for dancing.

"I'm so proud of you, Assumpta," Brendan said, smiling down at her. "You know, I still remember the first time I met you."

"Really?" Assumpta raised an eyebrow. "I don't."

"You were about two days old. Already looking around with those hazel eyes of yours. And the strongest pair of lungs in all of Ireland." Brendan was grinning, but slowly the expression faded. "I've known you practically all your life, Assumpta. I've watched you grow up, change from a carefree little girl to a rebellious teenager, then to a responsible woman. I can't believe…" His voice trailed off and he didn't seem to realize that they'd stopped dancing.

Assumpta smiled at him. "Yeah."

"Anyway." Brendan looked around as the music stopped. "You'd better be getting back to Peter, he's probably missing you all ready."

"Ah..." Assumpta waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. "He's got nothing to complain about. He'll get me for the rest of my life."

"Or the rest of the night, at least," Brendan said with a wink. They made their way over to where Peter stood with his brothers, all of them talking happily. Assumpta went and stood next to Peter, slipping an arm around him.

"Heya," Peter said, smiling. "You want anything to drink?"

"I'd better not," Assumpta replied. "One of us has got to be sober enough to drive to the hotel."

"Hotel?" Peter asked, looking curiously at Assumpta.

"Ah, yeah," Brendan said. "Everyone pitched in and took the liberty of booking a room for you two at the Lowry hotel. It's the best in the city."

"Oh," Peter said, looking pleasantly surprised.

"Yeah," Mark added. "You can't have expected to stay here tonight! It's your wedding night, man." He nudged Peter and whispered in his ear, "Make it a night to remember."

Peter was about to reply, but Assumpta chose that moment to grab him by the arm and drag him out onto the dance floor, saying something about this being one of her favorite songs.

A few dances later, however, Peter had to collapse into a chair, panting to catch his breath. Luckily it was time for dinner to be served, so they all made their way into the dinning room.

"It's a pity more people from home couldn't come." Niamh said as the main course was served.

"Ah well, you'll just have to have another party when you get back, right?" Brendan said. Assumpta and Peter exchanged nervous glances.

"Yeah," Assumpta replied, biting her lip.

"Everyone said to wish you two the best. Ambrose, Siobhan, Padraig," Niamh ticked them off on her fingers, "Dad, Liam and Donal, Dr. Ryan. Who am I forgetting?"

"I think that's everyone," Brendan said. "They really are very pleased."

"Yeah, well," Assumpta shifted her food around with her fork, "that's only a very small part of the population of Ballykay. What does everyone else think? The priest running off to marry the publican..."

"Well," Brendan shrugged, "there's always a few gossips. Kathleen Hendly… but I already told her to keep her mouth shut."

"And everybody else is occupied with the amusing rumors about the sheep these days," Niamh added with a look toward Brendan.

Assumpta's brow winkled. "What?"

"Never mind." Brendan put a hand to his head remembering the pain there. "Besides Niamh and I couldn't answer your questions even if we wanted to. Siobhan was the only one sober enough to remember that night."

Niamh smiled encouragingly at Assumpta and Peter. "And, sure, it's your friends that matter. They really do care about you."

"Take that as a warning, Peter," Brendan said. "Be good to our girl, or you'll have the whole gang after you."

"I don't think I could be anything but good to her," Peter said, reaching over and taking Assumpta's hand in his. Assumpta squeezed his fingers and smiled.

"Funny," Niamh said, taking a sip of wine. "I still remember the day you came to Ballykay. Dad had just gotten that ridiculous new confessional in."

"Oh God, I remember that." Peter laughed, rolling his eyes.

"Oh yes," Assumpta said. "That day. I was just driving along, coming back from Cilldargan. It was raining, and walking along the side of the road is this man, looking utterly miserable and hauling a huge knapsack. So I pull up beside him and say `Can I give you a lift? I'm headed to Ballykissangel.'" She sighed, shaking her head. "Little did I know my life would never be the same."

"I could say the same thing," Peter said with a smile.

"Well, I don't think anyone's life could be the same after meeting Assumpta," Mark put in. He was sitting between Niamh and Susan on the opposite side from Peter.

"Definitely not," Niamh agreed, grinning at her friend.

Finally as the party began to simmer down, Assumpta tugged on Peter's sleeve.

"I want to change before we go," she whispered. "I need to get out of this dress."

"Go on, then," Peter said, putting a hand on her back. "Just throw some of my stuff in an overnight bag."

"All ready done," Assumpta said, kissing Peter lightly on the cheek.

Fifteen minutes later, Peter and Assumpta were finally out the door. They loaded their bags into the trunk, and then headed off.

"Tired?" Assumpta asked, taking her eyes off the road for a moment to glance at Peter.

"Not in the least," Peter grinned reassuringly. "I can't believe…" He let the rest of the sentence hang in mid-air then said, "I love you, so much."

"Yeah," Assumpta smiled. "I love you too."


"What did they do, look in the directory and pick the most expensive hotel they could find?!" Peter asked, wide eyed, as they entered the hotel lobby. It was lavishly decorated, all fancy carpeting and crystal chandeliers.

"Well, it is a five star or something like that," Assumpta said, shrugging.

"Just don't expect to come back every year for our anniversary unless Mark's willing to pay," Peter muttered. He hefted the suitcases and followed Assumpta across the lobby.

Assumpta rolled her eyes and stepped up to the registry desk, "Ah, reservation for Clifford."

"One night, right?" the desk clerk said, typing quickly on her computer.


"Here's your keys, it's third floor, room 310." The clerk smiled. "I hope you enjoy your stay."

"Thanks." Assumpta smiled, took the key, then she and Peter headed towards the stairs. After a short trek up the stairs, they found their room. Peter swung open the door, and stepped inside.

The room was very modern, simple, and decorated in muted colors. There was a large glass table in the middle of the room, a black baby grand piano near a grouping of lush cream sofas and chairs, all in front of large panels covering the windows that overlooked the river. Small spiral stairs twisted up and Assumpta went up them to find the bedroom in the loft. A big canopy bed with luxurious fabrics took up the middle of the room. Candles were everywhere, including on the small dressing table along the wall. Next to it was the entrance to the bathroom. That's where Peter found her standing jaw-dropped looking at the jetted tub and fresh flowers on the sink.

Peter loosened his tie and put his hands into his pockets. "If you don't like it I'm sure we could ask for another room."

For a moment Assumpta thought he was serious, and then she could see the glint of humor. "I think it's larger than the pub at home. Peter, it has a chandelier." She giggled, it was a rarity but one he loved to hear. It was like bubbles in a champagne glass rising from the bottom, Assumpta's giggle always seemed to him to come from her toes and burst out.

He grinned at her. "Yeah and I'm supposed to make this night especially memorable. Right," Peter looked up, "but there's a chandelier in here, how am I gonna compete with that?" When she laughed again he added under his breath, "No pressure or anything."

Peter followed her out into the bedroom and watched her light the candles scattered around the room and turn off the overhead light. When she turned to face him and was washed in the soft glow his heart leaped into his throat. The red in her hair seemed to blaze stronger in this light, his fiery angel.

"You take my breath away when you look at me like that." Assumpta's voice was hardly a whisper.

"Come here and dance with me." He stretched out his arm and offered her a hand.

"There's no music." But she moved to him anyway and as Peter's arms circled her he began to sway with her. A bit dryly Assumpta said, "I hope you don't expect me to sing."

Peter mumbled in her ear, "No, but I expect to hear other sounds from you tonight." She shivered, even as everything inside ignited. Peter began below her ear and with his lips surveyed her neck until he found the spot that always- Assumpta gasped. "Just like that," he said against her skin.

She took a step back and met Peter's eyes for a moment. He was drunk with wanting her Assumpta could plainly see. And the beautiful part was she felt exactly the same. How could she have ever considered spending her life denying herself, never knowing this feeling of desire, trust, love, all wrapped into one. It was a gift. She took his hand and led him to the bed. "Love me"


Later, Peter lay next to her watching the candlelight dance across her pale skin. "You're beautiful."

She smiled at him. "I would do it all again just to end up here, with you. It's all worth it for this. I want to spend the rest of my life getting closer and closer to you."

"That sounds like a fantastic plan." And Peter kissed her.


They decided to visit Ballykay for a week. They would pack up some things still there, Assumpta wanted to talk with Brian and Niamh about an arrangement for running the pub, and they wanted to tell their friends in person about their decision to move to Manchester. It seemed harsh to do it by telephone after all Brendan, Niamh and the others had done for them.

Assumpta was secretly filled with joy, she was going home. It was something she was determined to hide from Peter however. As much as she loved his family and was glad they had accepted her from the beginning, it just wasn't the same as home. But Peter was set on living in Manchester and Assumpta would do what she had to in order for them to be together. As much as she loved Ballykay, she loved Peter more and that's what it came down to.

She knew Peter was still very apprehensive about going back even just for the visit. The gossip still hurt him. He hated that Assumpta would be called names she didn't deserve and would probably always be treated as a shameful disgrace by a few. Peter was so protective of her at times that half of her wanted to yell at him, and the other half couldn't help melting. Thinking he had to shelter and protect her might be Neanderthal but it was also sweet. Assumpta smirked as she settled into her seat on the plane.

Peter noticed and asked, "What are you thinkin' of?"

"Oh, just how difficult it is to exert your feminism when you're in love." She leaned over and kissed his cheek.

Everyone was gathered at Fitzgerald's waiting for them and the party was already in full swing when Peter and Assumpta arrived. There where cheers and hugs and pints poured.

Brendan noticed Assumpta was happy to be home but something else was also going on in her mind. He had a moment with her and pushed her on it until Assumpta admitted that tomorrow they were announcing to everyone about the permanent move to Manchester.

"Only you don't want to go," Brendan concluded.

Assumpta sighed. "I will for him. Peter's worried about the gossip here. He's worried about me." Assumpta said the last with a slight roll of the eyes.

Brendan wondered aloud, "Did he forget that you're not some weak woman who'll swoon."

"People don't use the word `swoon' often enough anymore."

"Do you want me to talk to him?" Brendan asked seriously. Assumpta hesitated for an instant then nodded.

Later in the evening Donal was telling Assumpta all about the sheep in Ballykay that were experimental hybrids developed by the EU specifically for spying on suspected Al Qaeda terrorists. They were put here as a test market and if anyone in Ballykay started saying things behind another's back, the EU officials would hear it and could raid your house while you slept. "So watch what ya say." Donal put a finger to his lips and shushed her.

"Sheep in the desert?" Assumpta's weary eyes wandered over to meet Padraig's. "Why does it feel as though your name is written all over this one?"

On the other side of the pub at that moment, Peter was holding a sleeping Aisling and talking with Siobhan near the fireplace. Brendan joined them. "Stealing my daughter's heart already are ya?"

Peter smiled at the teasing. Siobhan added, "I thought Peter should get some practice in," she turned from Brendan to Peter, "sure you're headed down this road soon enough yourself."

He shrugged and gave a non-committal, "In time."

"Good advice." Brendan decided now was as good a time as any. "For just about anything, Peter. Give it some time and it will be alright. As you get older you realize that life should be looked at in a bigger picture, not in the daily worries sort of way. Plus, you get older and things start… you ever heard the Irish Senility Prayer?"

"Of course, Brendan, I was a priest."

"No, not Serenity. Senility." At Peter's look of confusion Brendan began to recite, "God, grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones I do, and the eyesight to know the difference." Peter grinned and Brendan said, "Big picture, your eyesight and your friends are more important then who says what," and he winked.

Peter got the message but wasn't sure how he felt about it. He looked across the room at Assumpta. She was busy talking with Niamh, Donal and Michael Ryan. Peter transferred the baby back to her mother and sidled over and took a seat next to Assumpta.

"Hiya," Assumpta said, smiling and leaning against him. Peter listened to Donal recounting the first time he'd met Assumpta, it was an interesting story involving a sheep and Assumpta's first driving lesson.

"Did you and Assumpta go to school together?" Peter asked Niamh.

Niamh shook her head. "No, I didn't go to the National school like Assumpta and Ambrose did. Dad had me in a private school. I saw her a couple times around the village though. I think I was a bit afraid of her, actually." She grinned playfully at Assumpta, who rolled her eyes.

"Well, I don't think Niamh was the only one Assumpta installed fear in," Dr. Ryan said. He looked pointedly across the room to where Ambrose stood talking to Padraig. Niamh and Assumpta burst into laughter.

"What?" Peter asked, looking at them.

"Nothing, just," Assumpta wiped tears of laughter from her eyes, "Ambrose and I weren't exactly the best of friends in school."

"Not the best of friends?" Brendan said coming up behind them. "Assumpta, you hated Ambrose. How many times did you get sent home for fighting with him?"

"Ah, most of it was his fault!" Assumpta argued. "Little eejit didn't know when to shut up…"


The next day Peter stood with Brendan by the river, Brendan fishing, Peter just watching, enjoying his last few days in Ballykay.

"So is it true you're leaving us, then?" Brendan asked after a while.

"Sorry?" Peter had been snapped out of a daydream.

"You and Assumpta," Brendan said. "I hear you two are planning to move back to Manchester permanently."

"Well, I think it's best."

"Really?" Brendan raised an eyebrow. "You don't sound too sure of it."

"Look, I just don't want Assumpta to get hurt," Peter said, scowling slightly. "You know what people will say about us. A priest and a publican? Assumpta doesn't deserve half the things people will say about her."

"And have you talked with her about this?" He looked Peter straight in the eye.

"Yes," Peter replied. "I did. She said she'd do it for me."

"Peter," Brendan recast his fishing line, "do you realize how much Assumpta's loved and looked after in this community? She grew up here, we watched her grow up and helped her through some of the roughest times in her life."

Peter didn't know whether to feel pleased or annoyed. "And what's that supposed to mean?"

"Just that you're not the only person looking out for her," Brendan said. "You don't think we'd just let Kathleen or any other of the village gossips get away with bad-mouthing our favorite couple now, do you?" He winked at Peter. "Besides, Assumpta's not the only person who'll be missed."

"Oh yeah?" Peter muttered, staring at the river.

"Yeah." Brendan nodded. "You're one of my closest friends Peter, I'd hate to lose you."

Peter was silent. He stared at the river then looked to his left towards the village. The sun was setting, the tops of the buildings shining gold in the evening light. A cool breeze was blowing, ruffling the trees and brushing against Peter's skin. He shivered.

Peter wanted Assumpta to be happy. She did know that was his only reason for this decision, didn't she? But Brendan seemed to be pushing the idea that leaving Ballykay was a mistake and that Assumpta was only giving in, but it wasn't what she really wanted. Assumpta wouldn't hide her true feelings from him, would she? Peter almost laughed aloud and reminded himself it was Assumpta.

Peter watched the river roll past him and in his mind replayed moments from the recent past. Brendan calling him to ask to stop in London and check in on Assumpta, and it turned out to be just in time because somehow Peter's visit prevented her from marrying another. Assumpta telling him that it was Brendan who encouraged her to come to Manchester, right in the moment Peter needed her more than ever in his life. And Brendan coming to their wedding and walking the bride down the aisle with pride. Without Brendan's help would he and Assumpta have ended up here?

This same friend was telling Peter that Assumpta belonged in Ballykay, that they both belonged here so why was he fighting Brendan now? Hadn't Brendan already proven his advice was always miraculously right, like guardian angel of some sort? Peter turned his head slightly toward his friend, "You know it occurs to me that I have a lot to thank you for."

"Do you?" Brendan asked.

"Without you Assumpta and I may not have ended up together. There were so many places along the way we could have strayed off the path and lost each other forever. But you never let that happen." Peter looked up toward the pub, then back to Brendan. "Thank you, Brendan."

Brendan lowered his head and after a beat spoke. "Besides, why on earth would anyone want to leave this place?"


Meanwhile Assumpta was over at the garda house having a cup of tea with Niamh. She'd been filling Niamh in on everything that had happened in Manchester. Finally they got around to the subject Assumpta had been dreading.

"Peter thinks it's best that we go back to Manchester," Assumpta said, tracing one finger around the edge of her teacup.

"Only you don't want to?" Niamh asked, catching the regretful tone in her friend's voice.

"I don't really care either way," Assumpta replied, trying best to hide her true emotions. "Manchester's a good place. Peter's family is there. Besides, it's what Peter wants."

"Assumpta Fitzgerald, what has that man done to you?" Niamh raised an eyebrow. "I remember a day when if you didn't want to do something you'd put your foot down on it. Now look at ya."

"I just want Peter to be happy," Assumpta muttered staring at the table.

"Assumpta, he was happy here for three years," Niamh pointed out. "What makes you think he won't be happy here for years to come?" Assumpta shrugged.


Later that night Assumpta sat up in bed while Peter changed into his pj's.

"Peter?" Assumpta asked after a moment. "Do you really want to leave?"

Peter crawled into bed next to her then gave her a sideways look. "I just want to go somewhere where you can be happy without worrying about what other people think. I just don't want to see you get hurt." Assumpta glared at him. Peter sighed then admitted. "No, I don't really want to go."

"Why don't we stay? I can deal with Kathleen Hendley, anyway, I refuse to let her dictate where I live. A lot of people here do love us, care about us. I think no matter what we say, Ballykay is our home, it's more then that though, it's part of who we are."

Peter smiled and kissed Assumpta's forehead then shut off the light. He snuggled down under the blankets, drawing Assumpta close to him. At that moment, Peter felt warm, comfortable, and completely happy with his life.


"You two have a long heart to heart last night, then?" Brendan asked the next morning. Assumpta and Peter had updated their friends with the news that they weren't leaving after all.

"Why were you so concerned with us leaving, anyway?" Peter asked. "It's not like we'd never see you again. We'd have come and visited you."

"Ah well now, Peter," Brendan said. "We just wanted to be closer to you."

Peter grinned, putting an arm around Assumpta. He looked across the bar at the faces of all their friends gathered. "Here's to lookin' out for one another," Peter said while raising his glass. "Cheers."

And the enthusiastic echoing of "cheers" and "sláinte" from all in the pub left Peter and Assumpta little doubt they were finally right where they belonged, together and home.

*~*~*~*THE END*~*~*~*