What a Difference Two Words Make

by Jan Milnes


(Double booking at the Egan's. The polar bear scene. This is the first time they have been alone together since his retreat. He tries to talk to her by relating the polar bear joke. He starts kissing her, but she is still angry with him for not being decisive. Finally, her anger gets the better of her and she leaves him there. He doesn't know how to react.)

Peter stood there in the kitchen hearing the front door slam shut. I just blew it again. Why can't I just talk to her? The first time we've ever hugged each other and I lose control and scare her away. God, what a mess I'm making of all this! He wanted to go after her to explain, apologize, whatever, but there was Kieran. Instead, he sat down at the table with a glass of the wine she had brought. He knew the `moment of truth' was fast approaching. Was he up to it? Or would he just mess up everything because of his own incompetence?

Assumpta shut the door behind her. She let the tears fall. Angry tears, not sad. Brendan came in to check on her but she didn't want to talk. Not to him, at any rate. She was becoming more and more furious at Peter for starting to play this game of baiting her. Again. And it did shock her that he would come on so strongly to her. She was frustrated that he still seemed to want both worlds and she was determined that, even though she did have to admit to herself that she loved Peter, there was no way she was going to be the mistress of a priest. No matter who that priest was! The more she thought about it, the angrier she became. The infamous Fitzgerald temper was on the rise. Beware he who feels its wrath! After closing hours, she went to speak her mind.

She knocked. She could hear him in there. Was he deliberately ignoring her? Well, if the door were unlocked, she would go in. It was. She did, ready to read Peter the riot act. She saw him barefoot in the bathroom wearing his night clothes staring at himself, obviously getting ready for bed. He splashed more water on his face and then stood there hands on the sink staring in the mirror mentally berating himself for his stupidity and ineptitude. She regained her resolved and blurted out, "What are you playing at? What are you trying to do to me?"

Peter about leaped out of his skin upon hearing her. "Why didn't you knock?" He grabbed a towel off the rack to dry his face.

"I did. You didn't answer. Well?"

Although clearly embarrassed with himself and her presence he was able to ask, "Well, what?" He went to shut the door.

Her voice was firm and precise. "What do you want?"

Peter, of course, knew exactly what she was talking about and, for once, began to try to explain as they came into his tiny living room. "It's not that simple."

"It is that simple."

"Not from where I'm standing."

"For God's sake, Peter, we have moved on."

"Assumpta…"

"What."

Words again failed him. He was so good with words to help other people, just not himself. He tried to say something but the best he could do was shrug his shoulders.

Assumpta looked at him with a look of disappointment and disgust. "You know what you're going to do now? You'regoing to discuss this in a wooden box with a man wearing a frock and youwon't talk to me."

"I will. I just need to think."

"It's not what's in your head I need to hear." And she started for the door but he blocked her way standing there silently.

This got her anger back up and, after waiting for him to say something, she issued her ultimatum. "Peter, I have had it with this gamesmanship. I can't take it anymore. You don't need to think; you need to talk to me. You need to make up your mind. You want it both ways and are determined to keep it that way as long as you can. But Peter, you chose celibacy. I didn't. And I am tired of waiting. So you have a choice. Either take me upstairs or let me walk out that door and I'll be out of your life forever. Your choice." She stood there watching his reaction.

In truth, she probably didn't realize what she was asking of him. He watched her in return. Then, as she was about to head past him to the door, he motioned to her to stop and he went to the door himself and put his hand on the lock. It was obvious his discomfort at the situation. But he then locked the door and slowly turned back to her looking anything but happy. "Assumpta, don't force this, please."

She stood her ground defiantly. "I have to. You won't make up your mind otherwise. You have to get off the fence."

He leaned back against the door for a time. "I have no fence to sit on anymore." Then, seeming to come to a decision, he walked over to his desk and picked up an envelope. Sitting across from her, letter in hand, he began gently, "Look, I am not playing a game here. I do love you, but there are other considerations." She stiffened. He continued, "I was trying to tell you that earlier tonight but I lost control. I am sorry for my inappropriate behavior." He paused to let that sink in. "First, I am leaving the priesthood. That much is definite. I spoke with Father Mac when I was in England and told him to find another curate."

She interrupted, "But, where…?"

He put up his hand. "Let me finish. Here are the official papers in case you don't believe me." He gave the envelope to her and, in an attempt at making the atmosphere between them a bit more hospitable, he offered, "Why don't you read it while I fix some tea, yeah?"

The papers were as he said. After reading them, she walked into the kitchen in amazement. "So it's definite then. Have you lost your faith?"

"No, my faith is as real to me as you are. It is just the expression of that faith that is in conflict. And it is more than celibacy and sweating statues. Look, I don't want to get into a theological discussion with you about this. I've already done that battle with Father Mac and that part is over."

They sat down at the kitchen table and drank some tea. She mulled over what he had just said. "So now what?"

The teacup held his attention. "Assumpta, all I know for sure is that I'm leaving the priesthood. Sunday will be my last day. Father Mac wanted me to stay `til then in order to say goodbye or otherwise I would already have left. In any event, I'll be moving out from here in the early part of next week because the new curate is due in by Thursday." He let that sink in.

"Where will you go?"

"For now, I will move to Wicklow and do social work there."

"You're leaving Ballyk?"

"Yes." He was keeping his voice carefully neutral.

"Why?"

"You are married to another. Until that has ended, I can and will do nothing physical. So I guess I will have to open the door and let you go because I will not make love to you now. I can't. It is wrong. I know you don't care, but I do." He shook his head. "Damn it all, I do. Even before I became a priest, I accepted that that act is reserved only for a husband and wife. And I've lived by that. And I am sorry, but I still believe that way, priest or not." Once again, she started to protest. He was trying to control his temper but an edge of frustration crept into his voice. "If you can't accept that, then perhaps that is a sign that, in spite of how we feel about one another, we're fundamentally incompatible." He softened and reached out for her hands. "But I don't think so. You want my confession? That is the only reason why we are not upstairs right now. Believe me, I do love you. I want you in my life. I want you always with me. I desperately want to make love to you and it's very difficult not to do just that. I want to know what your lips taste like, what your arms feel like around me, what your body feels like underneath mine. My body is screaming for you, just… Not yet. Not this way." He closed his eyes before continuing slowly, "But, if it is so important to you that, in spite of what I've just said, you still want me to take you upstairs, then, fine. I will." He looked deep into her eyes. "I just wanted our first time…my first time to be…different." He waited for her reply praying fervently that she didn't call his bluff.

It was truly up to her. The tables had been turned nicely. "Peter, I love you more than anything and I want you now. It's been three years and I can't stand it any longer. But I won't make you. Just how long will it be until we can lay together?"

"We keep talking like this, it'll be minutes instead of days," he joked and let go of her hands. Welcome and not, he had to take a deep breath to try to control the passions rising in him. "But, at the very least, I need to remain a celibate priest until Sunday. Surely you can understand the reason for that."

Indeed she could. "And afterwards? Why move out of town?"

He smiled at her and held her face in his hands. "Because, in spite of all that exalted theology, I don't trust myself." They both laughed at that and both were glad the mood was lightened. "But I will be around on the weekends, that is if you want me to be."

"Will you stay at my place?"

He shook his finger at her. "Assumpta, you're pushing it."

"Wishful thinking then, is it?"

"Something like that."

They drank the tea and munched on some biscuits. Peter excused himself and went to get something. He called her into the living room and offered her a chair. He was nervous again. "I told you there were two things I needed to say. The first was that I'm no longer going to be a priest regardless of how everything else works out. It's not clear to me what exactly the future holds, but I do know that I want to share it with you at my side. Will you marry me?"

"Me? Marry you?" she asked coyly.

"And why not?" He feigned insult.

"Well, I'd need to audition you for the job…"

"In your dreams."

"I'd at least need to inspect the merchandise."

"Sorry. That's not an option."

"Hmmm. You mean I have to make a decision sight unseen?"

"I can assure you that I'm fully functional, if that's what you're wondering."

"How do you know?"

He actually blushed. "Trust me."

"Hmmm. You want me to make a leap of faith."

"Of course. That's my job."

"Me marry a priest? It'd be novel."

"It would be wonderful and you know it."

"Can't I get a little peek first before I make up my mind?"

"As if I have anything little…"

"You sure it's all there in working order?"

"Do you want Doc Ryan to verify it?"

"All right. All right. I'll marry you. But if you don't deliver as advertised, I'm sending you back."

"I'll deliver." He hugged her closely and then broke away to say, "Then perhaps I could interest you in this?"

A beautiful diamond solitaire lay in his hand. She picked it up and watched it sparkle in the light. "Where did you get this? You shouldn't have spent this kind of money, Peter."

"Consider it part of my inheritance. While I was with mum, I did tell her about you. She helped me think things through and finally reach a decision. She had given me this ring long ago for me to give to my fiancé. But I became a priest instead. She wouldn't let me give it back even then. She told me, `I'm sure you'll find some use for it if only for the money you may one day need.' I had even forgotten about it until she mentioned it again. Anyway, I can think of no better use for it than to give to you, my fiancé." He took her right hand and slid the ring onto the proper finger. It fit almost perfectly.

She hugged him again and started to kiss him, but he pulled away. "Look, we're on very shaky ground, Assumpta. Please, I need to draw the line somewhere for now."

Laughing, she asked, "Is that your definition of celibacy, Father?"

He returned the laugh. "Let's just call it a convenient stopping point and leave it at that, my daughter."

Neither one of them wanted to release the embrace. He caressed her hair and kissed the top of her head enjoying the closeness. She nestled her head into his chest hearing the strong rhythm of his heart. Who knows how long they stayed like that?

Finally, it was time to go. They said their goodbyes and then, just before opening the door for her, he did kiss her gently on the lips and watched her leave. As he went upstairs, he could not believe that anyone could ever feel as happy as he was at that moment. For the first time in a long while, sleep came quickly and lasted well into morning.

He was riding in a car, a convertible, Assumpta at his side. The day was gorgeous and they were laughing and kissing. But the engine started acting up making knocking sounds. The car screeched to a halt but the knocking continued. Finally, Peter woke up and realized the knocking was on his front door. Grabbing his bathrobe, he went downstairs to answer it.

Father Mac was there, not in the best of moods. As he entered, he asked Peter why the Church wasn't opened yet since it was close to 10 o'clock. Peter apologized for oversleeping. They had gone into the kitchen where two teacups were still on the table, one with lipstick on it. Father Mac saw that and angrily turned on Peter, "So there lies the explanation. Just because you're leaving the priesthood doesn't mean you can turn this place into a love nest."

Peter knew he had to control his temper. "Father, I needed to talk to her last night, to tell her what my plans were."

"So this was an innocent meeting?" he asked in disbelief.

He threw his hands up in the air and replied, "Not totally, given what we were discussing…"

"And what was that?"

"Father, it's really none…" He began but decided just to tell the truth. "OK, if you must know, I told her how I felt about her, that I love her. She wanted me to take her upstairs but I refused. And she was ready to walk out of that door for good until I told her I was leaving the priesthood. I also asked her to marry me."

Father Mac was indignant. "She is already married!"

"They have filed for an annulment."

That news did nothing to dampen his temper. "What will you do until that is granted?"

"Well, I won't be shacking up with her, if that's what you mean. Father, I may be uncomfortable with some aspects of Church doctrine but adultery and the sanctity of marriage are not part of that."

Father Mac sat down at the table thinking things through. "But she would be a divorced woman and therefore…"

Peter sat across from him. "Please. Her marriage to Leo was not valid because she never loved him. She married him to put me out of her head and it didn't work. Surely, there is reason enough for an annulment. It was a civil wedding as well. Also, we intend to remain here in Ballyk and it would be easier for the village to accept us if you would marry us at St. Joseph's."

He did agree with Peter's reasoning. It would quench harmful rumors thus making it easier for him and the new curate. Still, "She would agree to a Church wedding?" He was quite doubtful that his curate could work that kind of miracle.

Peter nodded.

"With all that it entails?"

Again, he nodded.

"She would do that to marry you?"

"Yes."

Father Mac cracked a rare smile, well, rare where Peter was concerned. "Well, I would need to see both of you in my office to discuss this. Perhaps it would be possible…"

"Father, if it can't happen, we will wed outside the Church. But it is not the way I would want it. Also, it might create the impression that I never did believe in what I preached which isn't true. I think it is in everybody's best interest for religious as well as earthly considerations that we be allowed to marry in St. Joseph's with you officiating."

Practical considerations were always important to Father Mac, oftentimes of primary importance. "You will bring Assumpta Fitzgerald back to the Church?"

"Father, she never will be a devout Catholic but she won't keep me from practicing my faith and she has agreed to join me at least occasionally in Church."

The elder priest shook his head in disbelief. "Father, you truly are a miracle worker then." They shared a rare laugh together. "How long will the annulment take?"

"About three weeks."

Another thought occurred to him. "You do realize that this turn of events will not sit well with some members of thiscommunity."

Peter agreed. "This is why a Church wedding is vital, Father, for the sake of the community. Also, I do not intend to flaunt any of this. We intend to keep it quiet until the wedding day. I will be working and living in Wicklow. I will visit on the weekend, but I will not stay at her place. My intentions may become known, but my behavior will be impeccable. You have my word on that, Father."

"No more night time meetings?"

"Not alone, at any rate." He knew he needed to reassure Father Mac. "Father, I cannot condone premarital sex for myself when I do not condone it for others. It is not easy for either one of us to wait, but we will wait until she is my wife." A shy smile played across his face. "In fact, the main reason I am moving out of town until then is to ensure that nothing happens. Theology aside, distance may be the only thing that allows us to wait."

"You will continue to act as a priest?"

"No. The collar comes off for good on Sunday."

Father Mac finally came around to why he came to see him. "Father, the reason I came here is to suggest a possible part time position with the Church." Peter motioned for him to continue. "You are a valuable asset to us that we do not want to lose. I would suggest you consider remaining a deacon, at least. You could operate on a rotational basis throughout the diocese as needed. The payment would not be much, of course. Not enough to live on at any rate. But it would blend well with your position in Wicklow."

"I had considered it but I don't think so. Assumpta isn't the only reason I'm leaving the Church, Father."

"I know."

"And I do want to thank you for recommending me for the job in Wicklow."

"It was nothing."

They discussed the details of Peter's departure and coverage of his duties until the new curate arrived.
 

Peter went down to the pub for a sandwich and to talk with her about his news. They were alone in the bar so he told her that Father Mac had consented to marry them in St. Joseph's when her annulment was final. She didn't believe him at first. The bad news followed as Peter told her what she needed to do for that to happen. Amazingly, she was resigned to the inevitability of it.

After about ten minutes, Niamh came in with Kieran. "All set for Saturday, Father?"

"Of course."

Niamh took this opportunity to ask her friend if she would be godmother.

She replied with feigned surprise, "You mean I'd have to go to Church?"

Peter was smiling knowingly at her. She returned it. Niamh did not catch it and exasperatedly asked him, "Could you try and talk her into it, please, Father?"

"Work a miracle, is that what you're asking? Ah, well, here goes." Peter put on a serious face. "Now, Assumpta, you can do this for her, can't you? After all, you were there for their wedding."

She played along. "That was different."

"And you'll be there again." Niamh was confused by that statement but was still concentrating on getting her friend to consent to being Godmother.

"Me? Go to Church?"

"Assumpta, sometimes you do have to make sacrifices for your friends."

An attempt was made to glare at him. "You are asking a lot of me, Father Clifford," Assumpta teased.

"Am I?" They laughed.

Niamh didn't understand the undercurrent. "So, you'll do it, Assumpta?"

"Yes, for Kieran's sake, I will." She was talking to Niamh but looking at Peter. "Would you like a pint, Father?"

"No, best be getting off for my interview then." He said his goodbyes and left.

"What interview is he talking about?"

"How should I know? Maybe the position for Pope is open." Assumpta reached across to gather up Peter's dishes.

Niamh spotted something. Pointing to it, she asked, "Where did you get that?"

She didn't follow. "What?"

"That diamond ring? Is that from Leo?"

"No."

"Who?"

"It was an inheritance."

Niamh was not to be put off so easily. "Whose?"

"Mine. Can't I wear it if I feel like it?"

"Seems an odd finger to wear it on."

"Niamh, don't you think if there were any news, you'd be the first to know?" She did make a mental note not to wear the ring on her finger tonight. Maybe on a chain.
 

Preparations for the food fair that evening were keeping everyone busy. At one point, the fuse blew again and Assumpta went down to take care of it. Padraig told her she needed to get that fixed. Her response was with what money? He left it at that. So did she.

The rainy evening did nothing to hamper the turnout for the food fair. The fundraiser was well attended even drawing Father Mac out all the way from Cilldargen. He thought it was best to keep an eye on things, especially on his curate. Both Peter and Assumpta were in fine spirits. They did manage to sneak in an occasional word but were kept busy on separate things and their behavior was unimpeachable. And, as it turned out, the judging of the dishes was quite simple. Apparently Shamie had made the dishes for everyone present except Father Clifford. Shamie was a professional chef which meant that everyone's entry was disqualified leaving only Father Clifford's dish standing on its own. The only honest man in town. He had to laugh along with everyone else.

Still laughing at it, he walked up to the bar and asked her, "Assumpta, got a minute?"

Looking around, she said, "Sure."

They moved to one end of the bar. Peter leaned over on the counter and said, "I love you."

She smiled but retorted, "Would you take that thing off before you say things like that?" He was wearing his collar.

There was that boyish shrug and loving smile. "I can't help it!"

"I know." The lights went out again.

"I'll go," offered Padraig.

"No, stay," she said as she started for the cellar with a sigh. Duty calls. There will be enough time for fun later.

"Need help?" asked Peter.

"OK."

Together they went down into the cellar. Before she could get to the fuse box though, Peter gently grabbed her from behind, kissed her lightly on her neck and said, "I love you."

"I love you, too, but we'd best fix this before Father Mac checks up on you." She opened the box and started to pry the bad fuse out with pliers when Peter stopped her.

"Do you know what you're doing?"

"I've managed `til now." She was a little put off by what he was insinuating.

"You've been extremely lucky if that's what you've been using," he said motioning towards the pliers.

"Well, it works," she said as she turned back to the box and raised the tool. The fact that he would question her actions stuck in her craw.

Peter grabbed her arm and took the tool from her. "Planning to commit suicide just because you've lured a priest away from his calling?"

She was confused and becoming angry. "What are you doing?"

The voice of reason spoke. "Assumpta, there are open wires in here. If you touched one by mistake, it could kill you."

"Peter, you're wrong. Just let me fix this."

"No. I will." He was not going to argue the point.

"It's my pub…" she began before she realized what she was saying. Peter's expression silenced her. "Sorry…"

"Look, I'll do this. I'm taller and can reach it easier." He took the fuse out and held out his hand for the replacement. Reluctantly, she put it in his hand. He installed it and the lights came back on to the sound of applause from upstairs.

Before Peter shut the box, he told her, "You see inside here?" She was on the second rung of the ladder and had a better view than she had ever had. There were, just as he said, bare wires prominently displayed right near where that fuse had been, right at the point where she would have put the pliers. "If you touched there, you would have…" The tool accidentally hit the bare wire sending a surge of current through Peter who was spun around by the force of the current that sent the pliers flying into a remote corner of the cellar. Screaming in obvious pain, he fell to the floor clutching his left forearm. The current had burned the palm of his hand and the inside of his forearm where the pliers had made contact. Hearing Assumpta's summons for help, Padraig and Doc Ryan quickly came down and were greeted with the smell of burned flesh and wool.

Assumpta had grabbed a bucket and was filling it with water. She brought it over and Doc Ryan plunged Peter's hand in it. What little ice she had was quickly added to the bucket. The ruined part of Peter's sleeve was cut off so that Michael could see the extent of the damage. After taking off his dog collar and unbuttoning the collar, she knelt down beside him and held him. He had his right arm around her shoulders and was struggling to control his moans as best he could. Several people had joined them in the cellar.

The cold liquid helped to dull some of the pain. The result of that was that he finally was able to focus on her and give her a smile. He said with a weak voice, "Told you it was dangerous."

"You didn't have to personally demonstrate it. I believed you."

"Well, I thought I'd make a point."

"Yeah, you're not allowed around the fuse box ever again."

"Don't worry, I'm not going to do anything drastic. After all, I do want to get to heaven in the end." She understood the reference to her favorite line, "You'll never get to heaven if you break my heart."

In a gentle voice, she said, "You fool. You almost did yourself in playing in the fuse box. What were you thinking?" She held his good hand.

"I suppose I was too distracted by your presence to be careful. You do bring out the reckless side of my nature." The voice was playful but weak.

"Well, I tried to have your reckless side expressed in other ways. But no. Instead, you play with electricity. Coward."

He laughed briefly. He took her hand and kissed it. She caressed his face. "Promise me you'll never do anything stupid like that again."

"Promise me you'll get Padraig to fix the fuse box."

"Peter, I don't have the money."

He was adamant, well as adamant as he could be given his present condition. "Then borrow it. That box will be the death of someone. It almost got me. What if it was you who got shocked? If anything had happened to you, I don't know what I would have done."

"Peter, how do you think I felt seeing you writhing in pain on the floor?"

"All the more reason for getting the blasted thing fixed. Now. Please. Do it for me."

"I don't have the money."

"I'll give you the money."

"Been putting your hand in the till, Father?"

"Well, believe it or not, they actually do pay me for God bothering."

She finally conceded defeat. "I hope you don't expect to win all our battles."

"We won't be having battles."

"Where's the fun in that?"

He reached up for her to bring her face to his so he could kiss it. Their first kiss was long and very enjoyable. "I thought that was your definition of celibacy, Father," she teased.

"Well, it's safe here. My hand hurts terrible. I'm hardly likely to get carried away. Besides it takes my mind away from the pain." Another kiss. He was totally oblivious to the fact that they were not alone.

And she also was too happy that he was still alive to notice. At least until she stood up, that is. Niamh was looking at her with dawning understanding and went up to her to ask quietly, "It was Peter's inheritance, wasn't it?" referring to the ring. Assumpta reluctantly nodded.

Niamh whispered to her, "You never take the easy road, do you?"

"What fun is there in that?" she shot back.

Michael was done treating him soon after that. He left to get some painkillers for Peter who otherwise would be quite uncomfortable with his throbbing arm.

Liam and Ambrose helped Peter out of the cellar using the back door entryway. He walked out and up the stairs slowly but steadily. When he came through the pub, everyone wished him well but he didn't even notice it through the pain. Those two walked Peter to her car since he seemed far too unsteady to walk the three blocks to his house. After grabbing her keys and coat, Assumpta followed behind, ashen and uncharacteristically quiet. Michael left with them.
 

The food fair remains were dealt with. Niamh, Ambrose, Siobhan, Padraig and Brendan stayed behind to tidy the place up for Assumpta. Of course, their behavior was discussed.

Siobhan started it. "Do you think it takes a near death experience for those two to finally admit their feelings towards each other?"

Niamh started to say something but thought the better of it.

Brendan offered, "They can't do anything about their feelings as long as she's married and he's a priest."

"Do you suppose she married Leo to forget about Peter?"

"He had been her boyfriend before."

Padraig wasn't really buying into this. "Come on, you don't think she'd be in love with a priest? She wouldn't have the clergy under her roof, much less in her bed. Remember he didn't stay here when he had no where else to go and that was only a few weeks ago."

"That's because Leo was here," Siobhan reminded him.

Padraig wasn't convinced. "Still. Father Clifford is a priest. They may care for each other, but that is all."

Niamh held her silence but Ambrose noticed her uneasiness. "What do you know about this, Niamh?"

"Nothing." She said far too quickly.

Ambrose gave her that look.

"It's not my place…" she started.

Siobhan interrupted, "If you've got good gossip, then out with it."

She took a deep breath. "Did you see the jewelry Assumpta had on tonight?"

"A necklace. So what?"

"What was hanging on that necklace?"

"It looked like a diamond ring, an old one."

"Exactly."

"Surely that was her mother's…" Siobhan began.

"Well, it was somebody's mother's, that much is certain."

Brendan asked, "Peter's?"

Niamh nodded.

"What's she doing wearing Peter's mother's diamond ring?" Brendan mused but he well knew the answer.

Niamh went on the offensive. "Well, there is no use speculating. If there is a story behind it, then we must wait for them to tell it and keep our musing to ourselves." Everyone agreed with that.
 

At the Garda house, Ambrose asked his wife, "Is she in love with Father Clifford?"

"I think so."

Ambrose considered that. It did explain some of Peter's behavior since coming back from his retreat. Still, he was a priest and an honest one. "But Father Clifford's not the type to have an affair." Statement. Uncontested by either of them.

"True enough. But he does care about her. He once told me he loved her as a brother loves a sister. I know her marrying Leo hurt him terribly. He was having a hard time hiding his feelings after I had told him about their marriage. He could hardly talk."

"I didn't notice."

"No, of course not. You're a man. Why do you think he hardly came to the bar when Leo was around? And did you notice that when he did, he avoided contact with her as best he could without being rude?"

"Father Mac was keeping him busy."

She went on. "And have you noticed how all that has changed since he got back from England and found Leo out of the picture?"

He had noticed them frequently talking together as if making up for lost time. There had always been small jokes made about the priest and the publican, but no one took them seriously. "Maybe you're right. She did kiss him."

"You see?"

There was something wrong about this scenario though. "But she kissed him right in front of Father Mac."

"And Father Mac did nothing. I think he knows something."

"You are imagining things."

"I'm not. You just observe criminals, not your friends. I'm you, something is going on."

It was Ambrose's turn for the voice of reason. "There is no way Father Mac would tolerate any misbehavior on any of his curates and especially Father Peter even after this accident."

"That's why I think there are changes coming, Ambrose. I think there will be some interesting news in the next few days."

"She's married."

"They have filed for an annulment which she thinks will take 2-3 weeks."

"And you think Father Peter will leave the priesthood for her?"

"Perhaps. He did give her that ring."

Ambrose shook his head. "Niamh, you're too much of a romantic."

"Is that a problem?"

"Not at the moment, love."
 

Michael and Assumpta helped Peter upstairs and put him to bed. Although she had never been upstairs (nor had she ever seen him undressed), she managed to keep her eyes from wandering to places they very much wanted to visit and instead focused on his burned arm while Michael provided the physical assistance. Michael sent her downstairs at the appropriate time to fetch a glass of water. When she came back, Peter was in his nightclothes and getting into bed. She offered him the water and Michael offered him the painkiller. Both were graciously accepted.

The combination of lack of sleep, the injury and the medicine all combined to put him out like a light within a few short minutes.

Michael was ready to leave, but paused and watched her watching her sleeping friend. Noticing her concern, he offered, "If you want to stay with him…"

"Should someone?"

"It's not necessary." At least, not medically.

"Well, I'll just stay a little bit longer."

Doc Ryan went home. She watched Peter's sleeping form for a while and was very glad that he was only sleeping. But she about jumped out of her skin when Father Mac suddenly appeared at the bedroom door. She quickly rose off the bed where she had been gently stroking Peter's face and stood to face the intruder. He calmly asked her how Peter was. Her posture was stiff and her reply stilted as she relayed what she had been told. Father Mac surprised her by asking how she was holding up. Fine, she replied curtly expecting the Inquisition.

Although he had known of Peter's feelings towards her for some months, he was uncertain of her feelings in spite of what he had witnessed earlier in the cellar. He did have something he wished to discuss with her and decided that now was as good a time as any. Accurately reading her body language, he tried as best he could to make his question and comment non-confrontational. In a soft voice, he said, "You care for him."

Not really wanting to talk about this now with Father Mac of all people, she decided that there was no choice. She would come clean. "Yes."

"Why?"

Taken aback by that, it took a little while for her to respond. "Because he is a very good friend."

"Just a friend?" There was no judgment in that question.

"No, but that's how everything started. Our friendship slowly turned into love and I realized that, no matter who I compared him to, there was no one I enjoyed, no one I cared for, no one I loved more than Peter. But, understand, Father, he has done nothing to break his vows."

He nodded. "Why did you marry Leo?"

She debated about what to tell this priest finally deciding on the truth. "Because I thought in time he would drive Father Clifford out of my head."

Father Mac raised an eyebrow. "Were you in love with Leo?"

Meeting him eye to eye, she replied, "No. But the man I was in love with was already spoken for, Father."

Hesitation. "Father Clifford has told me of his feelings towards you as well as his dissatisfaction with the Church in other matters. In spite of all that, he still has as strong a faith as I have ever seen in anyone, priest or not. Do you really understand the impact that faith will have on your day to day lives?"

She wasn't expecting this train of thought. "I'm not following you."

"He will always be a devout Catholic. You have turned away from that faith for reasons that are quite valid to you. My concern is that when people do not share the same religion, the marriage can suffer."

"Father, I do not understand why he believes as he does but I will in no way keep him from the practice of those beliefs."

"What of children?"

She relaxed a bit. "That's an easy one. They will be raised in the Church and I will fully support it even if that means going to Church every Sunday. If that's what it takes to have Peter in my life, then that is what I will do. It is a very small price to pay for a very great reward."

Another moment of hesitation. "You rushed into marriage with Leo. Are you rushing into this as well?"

"You call three years rushing into something? No, Father, we are not. When he told me he was moving to Wicklow, I was upset at first. But I now understand his reasoning and I agree with it. He will be free of commitments for the first time in his life and he needs some space to experience that freedom. By putting distance between us, it will help us make absolutely sure that this is the right thing. I know he takes marriage seriously and does not believe in divorce. Father, I married Leo without thinking it through and look what happened. I do not intend to make the same mistake."

"I hope not. Assumpta, Father Clifford was a good priest. He is a very fine, compassionate, intelligent man and deserves the very best you can give him."

"Why, Father Mac, you see Peter's influence on me already? We have something we agree on." They laughed and Father Mac took his leave.
 

The next morning, Peter was feeling better. Although his arm still hurt, he felt that he was able to do the duties of a Friday without using painkillers. She prepared him a late breakfast which he devoured. He had not eaten anything for almost 24 hours and was ravenous.

That afternoon, he went up to the Church to pray and offer thanks for his close call. And to offer thanks that it was not Assumpta who had been shocked. He didn't think she would have lived. He busied himself with cleaning up paperwork in anticipation of the new man. It didn't quite sink in that soon this place would no longer behis.

There were more people than usual at the six o'clock mass. All were concerned about him and told him he was in their prayers. Such unexpected kindness touched his heart.

After spending the entire afternoon and early evening at the Church, he returned home to find flowers sent by many people wishing him well. The flock can take care of the shepherd, too. A brief moment of uncertainty washed through him. Part of the reason he was leaving was because he was feeling unwanted, unneeded. Surely this display proved he was wrong about that. But he also knew where his future lay.

Peter had gone down to the pub for some dinner and was joined by the locals. Although he enjoyed their company (as well as seeing Assumpta), his stamina was nonexistent and he began to feel increasingly tired. His arm was beginning to get quite painful so he said his goodbyes. Michael walked him home and examined him. No problems were to be found, so Peter was left alone and shortly thereafter was in bed sound asleep.

Assumpta had hoped to visit with Peter but was much too busy tending bar. Niamh noticed her mood and suggested quietly, "Why don't I mind the pub for a bit? You can give Father Clifford a visit."

Assumpta gave feeble resistance, but took her up on the offer.
 

Doc Ryan walked part way down the stairs when he heard the door open. "Ah, Assumpta, if you're here to see Peter, he's asleep."

"But it's hardly eight o'clock." She followed the voice upstairs and entered Peter's bedroom. He was, as advertised, fast asleep. His complexion was a bit pale.

"True, last night took its toll and it will take a little while to build his stamina up again. His arm was hurting him so he took some painkillers which knocked him out like last night."
 

Saturday found Peter in much better shape, physically and emotionally. When he awoke, he called Assumpta and they talked for over an hour. He offered his help again for the pub but, instead, she was proposing selling it and going somewhere else. He reminded her that it still needing doing, selling or staying notwithstanding.
 

Although Peter needed help with a few things, the Christening went smoothly. Assumpta was the Godmother and played the part well. Almost everyone went off to a party afterwards. Peter couldn't follow because he had a wedding and then confession and then preparations for Sunday, his farewell. He had asked Father Mac to take the evening Mass since he was rapidly tiring and spent the rest of the evening at home. Assumpta came by briefly to bring him dinner.
 

The day finally arrived. This was the last day Father Clifford would ever celebrate Mass as priest here in St. Joseph's or anywhere else. He had given a lot of thought to this day and wanted everything to go perfectly. Father Mac had not given any indication that there was a new curate coming. (Of course, he didn't do this as a favor to Peter. It will just make things smoother for the new curate to begin from a clean break.)

He had spent more time than usual preparing his final sermon. He had no doubts as to what he wanted to address. Indeed, it was the same issue that had caused him to begin to doubt his vocation --- idolatry and the quest for miracles. Simple vs. stupid. Since this was the end of his life as a priest, he would be uncensored and just speak his mind as plainly as he wanted to.

He went early to the Church. He wanted some time to himself before everything started. The sun was barely rising when he got there…two hours before the first mass at 8 AM. He was, of course, dressed in his suit and felt fully recovered from his recent ordeal, except for the hand. He went into the sacristy and put on the robes of office. He stood for a long time looking at himself in the mirror. It wasn't that he had doubts about the new path he had chosen, but he deeply regretted that the choice even had to be made. He still wanted it both ways, but was resigned to the impossibility of it.

Before he knew it, it was time for the 8 AM.

Before he knew it, it was over. He did announce at the end that he was leaving St. Joseph's and that a new curate would be here by midweek. The people were startled and asked where he would be going. He was as deliberately vague as he had been when he said his farewell in Manchester.

Before he knew it, it was time for the 10 AM folk mass. He had been busy with the usual preparations and hadn't taken the time to notice the congregation. Word of his pending departure had spread like wildfire, unbeknownst to him. When it was time for the processional, the place was packed…unusual for a regular Sunday in the summer. He was amazed and deeply touched. Word travels fast in a small town, he mused. Should have been used to that by now.

For the first time in months, he really felt the words of the Mass. They were no longer empty. He was no longer on autopilot. He felt the bliss that had been absent for so long. Time for his final sermon…

"My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, one of the constants in this life is that is it ever changing. To everything there is a season even here in Ballykissangel, in St. Joseph's. I have been here for three and a half years and have really grown to love this place and its people.

"When I first arrived, I was deeply touched by the beauty of this place and by the warmth you showed me, an outsider from England. I have enjoyed my stay here and would have been content to stay here forever as your curate. However, things change. People change. I've changed. This is the last Mass I will celebrate with you.

"I have given much thought as to what I should talk about in my farewell sermon, my parting shot, as it were. Many things came to mind but the one I chose is the one that affected me very deeply, causing me to speak my mind against the Church a few months ago." He went on to talk about the sweating statue and simple vs. stupid. He warned them of the dangers of idolatry. He ended by talking about his personal faith and what keeps him going

"On another note, I want to thank all of you for the love and kindness you have given me. It makes this departure quite difficult for me, but I will treasure all of you in my heart forever.

"In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

He went to continue the Mass. Then, it was time for the recessional. He held up his hand after giving the final salutation.

"My friends, I know that many of you are surprised that I am leaving. This was not an easy decision by any means. But, after spending months in reflection and prayer, I have come to the conclusion that God now is pointing me down a different road. I intend to continue to serve God, but in a role other than that of priest.

"Leaving the priesthood is extremely difficult for me. Many of the reasons I had for entering God's ministry are still valid. My faith in Catholicism remains quite strong but that is not at issue. Why am I doing this? A priest, although surrounded by people everyday, leads a solitary life. This is necessary in order to allow time for prayer and reflection so that he may be fully receptive to God's wishes. It also allows us to fully serve the needs of our congregation and the Church. But the events of this past year have turned this solitary life into a lonely life…too lonely for me to endure anymore. I do not believe that I have failed God and I pray that you do not think that I have failed you.

"I know that some of you may feel that I have betrayed you and the trust you gave me. I know some of you may feel angry towards me. I ask your forgiveness and understanding. I hope I may have your blessing. Thank you."

He recessed down the aisle and took his customary position at the front door of the church to greet his parishioners. Almost everyone was at least somewhat supportive. Many were sad that he was going to leave Ballyk. He smiled sadly.

As he walked slowly back towards the altar in a now empty church, he was asked, "A sad goodbye, eh, Peter? Any regrets?"

He turned and was astonished to see Assumpta there, calmly sitting in a pew in the far corner.

"You mean I finally got you to come to church?"

"For the final performance, sure." She walked over to him but maintained a respectful distance. "Besides, I wanted to see you in a frock for the last time."

There was another sad smile.

"How was it for you?" she asked, catching his mood.

He leaned against a pew gingerly holding his left hand. "Harder than I thought. I wish things could have been different. Well, anyway, it's done now. I am glad of that."

"Me, too. Need help?" She noticed him cradling the hand.

"No. If you don't mind, I need to do this alone. No offense?"

"None taken. I'll see you later."

"Right." He watched her leave and then turned back to the altar walking slowly up the aisle. He paused, lost in thought, and then genuflected and made the sign of the cross. She paused at the back of the Church and watched him at the altar. She felt his sadness and began to understand a little of the strength of his faith. She did not feel guilty about turning him away from the priesthood, but she did understand the anguish he went through in making his decision.

He reverently shed his robes in the sacristy for the last time. He hung them up carefully, as usual. Although he would no longer be entitled to wear them ever again, he really had no regrets. When he finished the bookkeeping and other chores, he went down to his place for lunch and to change into the civvies that would now become his uniform. After doing some packing, he did go back up to the Church to pray for a while. He felt at ease with himself as if all his burdens had been removed. He felt free, somehow, even though he already had a new job to start and was engaged. His prayers were full of thanksgiving.

During the remainder of the day, people kept coming to see him and give him their support. That evening, he went down to the pub for dinner and a pint. The locals were there in full force to give him a warm sendoff. It was quite unexpected but he had the feeling Assumpta was behind it. He had not seen her since the morning although they had talked some on the phone which was becoming more and more of a habit. At least it kept the gossips at bay. Kathleen was already speculating as to the real reason Peter was leaving but even she would have been amazed to know how accurate she was.

After hours in the pub. Peter stayed to help her with the clean up but was distant, lost in thought. At one point she asked him if he had any regrets. When he denied it, she asked why he was so quiet.

He thought about that for a time before answering. "I guess because all this feels so strange. My life has changed so much in the past few months that I feel odd. I damn near killed myself with that fuse box. I thought I had lost my faith and you. I did lose my mother. And my vocation…what I always wanted to do with my life, what I thought was my purpose in life, became unimportant. It's as though I'm adrift, floating, and it is not at all unpleasant. Well, hand notwithstanding."

She went over to him. "You still have me and I think you still have your faith, as well."

He agreed with that. "I suppose I'm feeling very happy but I can't quite believe it."

She reached to hug him. "Believe it. I do."

He returned the embrace but did not let it linger.

She knew why he broke it off but couldn't resist a needle. "You're not a priest anymore."

"You're not my wife, yet." He shot back.

"So?"

"So? This bar is still in need of tidying. Get to work, woman!" He playfully snapped a bar towel in her direction.

She fired right back, "Who's running this place?"

"You are. I'm just the bus boy."

The banter went on until the place was tidied. Peter made ready to go but did give her a long, loving kiss before leaving. She locked the door behind him, a bit disappointed that he wasn't staying with her, but she knew it was only a matter of time. As he had said, they'd waited this long, might as well wait until they are married. He was right about another thing as well. It was important to be seen to be continuing to uphold the standards he both preached and believed in especially since they wanted to remain in this same community after their marriage. She had to reluctantly agree with his logic but she didn't have to like it.
 

On Monday, she helped Peter move his few possessions into his new residence. She ended up driving his car to Wicklow since he couldn't drive one handed. After settling into the room he had rented, which didn't take long, they went to a nearby pub. Peter bought the beer and they sat down in a quiet corner next to each other, enjoying each other's company without having to worry about appearances or protocol or gossips. She had to get back to Ballyk so he walked her to the bus stop. They kissed goodbye and he watched her go.
 

Thursday came. She was missing him terribly, but they had been able to at least keep up their phone conversations. He told her about his new job, the people he worked with and for. Of course, he had already found a suitable pub but assured her he'd stay away from the bar maid as long as she promised to stay away from the new priest.

That afternoon, the new priest was down in the bar with Father Mac making introductions. When Assumpta was introduced, she was like ice. Father Aidan wondered what all that was about but was assured by Father Mac that it was just how she treated the clergy. Don't worry about it.

Brendan had watched her response and knew the reason for it. He smiled to himself pondering whether or not to tease her about it. He discovered he could not resist. "So how long will it take you to drive this priest out of town, Assumpta?"

"Shut up, Brendan," she was not amused.

Father Aidan looked at him questioningly. "Is that what happened to my predecessor?" He addressed Father Mac.

"No." Father Mac did not elaborate.

"Why did he leave?"

"He was a city boy and rural life didn't sit well with him," Father Mac replied with an eye on Assumpta who had to turn away because she started laughing.

Brendan was as well. "You can just have too much peace and quiet." He sunk his face into his stout.

Father Aidan took exception to that and started talking about his impressions of Ballyk, which were almost verbatim what Peter had said in his final sermon.

Padraig came up out of the cellar. "Well, Assumpta, you can rest easier now. The fuse box is taken care of. Peter can rest in peace now."

She gave him a dirty look. Aidan asked, "Peter?"

Both Brendan and Father Mac replied, "A friend of hers." That brought laughter to everyone at the bar except Aidan who realized it must be a private joke.

"Is he dead?" asked Aidan innocently.

"No. He just had a run in with the fuse box a week ago. Burned his hand a bit, but he's OK," she replied.

"Is Peter local?"

"Ah, no, he lives in Wicklow." Brendan said innocently.

Padraig added, "I'm sure you'll meet him though, Father. I think you'll find you two have a lot in common." More laughter with even Father Mac joining in. No more information on this person was forthcoming and Aidan was distracted by other people and information and soon forgot about it. Aidan was kept busy adjusting to the community and the newness of being back in the real world instead of the monastery. And the gossips did not fill him in on his predecessor at all. Since Peter only visited on a Saturday, the two men did not have an opportunity to meet nor did Peter seek him out. Also, Peter had no interest whatsoever in going to St. Joseph's preferring to attend Mass in Wicklow as just a normal parishioner. That made it easier for him to decide where he was going to sleep on Saturday nights.
 

Five weeks later, the rain was unrelenting on this Wednesday morning. Assumpta pulled herself out of bed shaking the cobwebs out of her head. After showering and dressing, she went downstairs to begin the chores of the day. When she opened up the pub, she was surprised to find Leo waiting at the door. Reluctantly, she let him in not at all pleased by his presence.

He told her why he had come. "I received this in the post yesterday." He held out an envelope. "Read it." It was the much anticipated annulment. She couldn't keep the pleasure she felt from Leo. "Well, you're free to marry the priest now. I hope you'll be happy. Can I talk with him?"

"He's not here."

"Come on, where is he?" Leo thought she was lying and started to go upstairs.

"Leo, he isn't living here. He's moved away."

Leo didn't want to think that maybe... "He's gone? Does that mean…?" A flicker of hope arose.

"What?" She wasn't following his line of reasoning.

"He's left you?"

"Yes, he's left me. Until he can marry me, that is." She held out her hand to show him the ring.

Leo saw he had definitely lost her for good. Shaking his head, he said, "What you see in that priest is beyond me."

"I'm sure it is, Leo." But it was said without a trace of sarcasm.

He walked away.

Niamh had noticed Leo's arrival and, as soon as she could, came over to the pub. He was already driving away in his car before she could get there but she went inside anyway. Assumpta was sitting down at the kitchen table, reading a document. She hadn't looked that happy in a long, long time. Noticing her friend's presence, she said, "Leo came by to drop this off."

Niamh read it. She had mixed feelings about the annulment but held her tongue. "So, you're free and clear and single again. For how long?"

Assumpta smiled, "I'm not sure but now we can finally make definite plans. Can you mind the pub for a few hours this afternoon `til Orla gets here? I need to see Father Mac." Niamh agreed. Running the pub had become a lot easier now that Aidan's sister, Orla, was helping out. She was glad of that because it did make it easier to see Peter from time to time up in Wicklow. He had not been around the pub much for several reasons which she fully understood. They had been keeping their distance as the weeks dragged on and on only seeing each other once a week usually in Wicklow. Fortunately, they had the phone and that was their lifeline.

Her meeting with Father Mac was fairly brief. She showed him the divorce papers and he agreed to start the annulment procedure and to expedite it as much as he could. Still, it meant waiting another month.

"Why so long? I thought you said it wouldn't be a problem."

"It still takes some time, Assumpta. You could always do a civil wedding if you can't wait." Father Mac was actually teasing her.

She laughed. "Somehow I don't think Peter would be too keen on that idea, Father."

"I know. I'll discuss this with the Bishop to see what can be done. Perhaps you need not wait that long." With that, he picked up the phone to inquire. The Bishop knew of the situation, of course. In fact, he had had the opportunity to discuss it with Peter about several weeks ago when Peter was substituting at the Cathedral. The Bishop had talked him into remaining a priest until her divorce papers came through although he no longer had a permanent assignment in the diocese. (Assumpta hadn't been happy to hear that he was still a priest but she well understood the reasoning behind it. He was bound and determined to wait until their wedding day. He stopped coming down to Ballyk for the same reason.) The Bishop told Father Mac that the annulment would be granted within the week.

When Assumpta heard that, she was delighted. "So when could the wedding be?"

Consulting his schedule, he said, "Perhaps a week from this Saturday. I don't think Father Aidan has anything going in the afternoon at, say 2 pm?"

"Great. That should give Peter's family time to get over here. Thank you." She headed for the door.

Father Mac walked her to her car and reminded her of what she had promised. "You will be going to confession beforehand so that you can take communion?"

She had forgotten about that little problem. "Can Peter hear it?"

He smiled, "Do you think that's wise?"

They shared their first laugh together. "I'll take care of it, Father, for Peter's sake."

He shook his head. "That man must be a miracle worker then."
 

The rain had ended making the drive into Wicklow especially lovely. She would be getting there just before six. She went to his room but was told he had gone to a local pub and that is exactly where she found him talking with several people at the bar.

She walked up to him. "Care to buy me a drink?"

He turned around with a wide grin on his face. "What brings you here?"

"Dunno. Seems like a nice day for a ride."

He introduced her to the group and bought her a drink. After a few minutes, he made his excuses to his friends and led her over to a table. "This is a very pleasant surprise." He held her hands.

"Well, I decided that Niamh needed to get out of the house…"

He couldn't keep the smile from his face. "Perhaps she needs to get out more often." He kissed her hand. "It is so good to see you."

"Oh, I thought you might be interested in this." It was the divorce papers.

Predictably, he was elated. "Have you spoken with Father Mac?"

"Yes."

"Good. Well, now it's probably no more than a month away until the annulment is granted." He held her hands again. "I'll have to phone my brothers…"

"Well, actually, Father Mac was able to pull some strings…"

She let it trail off.

"And?"

"And it looks good for a week from Saturday. Will that give you enough time to put the collar to rest?"

"I think it's history now."

"So you won't hear my confession?"

"Hmmh. No, there are probably things I don't need to know. And anyway won't you need a priest full time in order to get it done before the wedding?"

She made a face. "I think so. I should start this tomorrow then."

"I think you've got the easy task. You can confess to a priest who's sworn to secrecy. I have to confess to my brothers who will never, ever let me live this down for as long as I live."

"Well, Peter, you've got to take the good with the bad."
 

They could finally put their plans into place for the wedding. Peter would find out from his brothers who would be able to attend. He would arrange for holiday homes for them. Also, he would be moving back to Ballyk, of course. She would get the catering together and arrange a place for their wedding night. They had already worked out all details except the most important one, the date of the wedding. Now, things could fall into place.

Time went by far too quickly. They had to part. Peter walked her to her car already flying high.

He returned to his room dreading this next task. Peter had not yet told his brothers of his impending marriage. They did know he had changed jobs and was no longer a full-time priest. Now, he told Andrew the full story that evening.

"Well, little brother, are you sitting down?"

"What have you done this time? Finally had enough of the celibate life?" That was Andy's usual opening question.

"Well, funny you should say that…What are you doing a week from Saturday?"

"I don't think there's anything on. Why?"

"How would you like to come to a wedding?"

"Whose?"

Peter laughed. "Guess."

"I don't believe it."

"You better believe it. It is really going to happen. I'm done with God bothering for good. I'm joining your side."

"It's about time."

He filled Andy in on the details and then proceeded to call his three other brothers who, of course, subjected him to even more teasing. They all would be there which would bring the Clifford contingent together in Ireland for the first time. When he had been in England taking care of their mother, he had told them about Assumpta and his feelings for her. They just thought she was just another temptation and he'd get over it. Not this time.
 

As usual, Peter came to Ballyk early Saturday morning. About mid-morning Peter and Assumpta walked up to St. Joseph's to meet with Father Mac about the ceremony. It went as expected. As they were getting ready to leave, Aidan came into the sacristy.

Aidan spoke to Assumpta. "So I finally meet your intended at last." He turned to Peter. "Will you both be living here then?"

"Most definitely."

"Tell me, Peter, if I may, how did you two meet? In England?"

Peter looked quizzically at Father Mac. "Perhaps Father Mac can enlighten you."

But the parish priest was all innocence. "Forgive me, I should have made a formal introduction. Aidan, this is Peter Clifford."

It took a moment for the name to sink in. "Father Clifford?"

"Not any more, obviously."

Aidan was sincere. "I am pleased to meet you. I'm glad you're coming back here, then."

After Peter and Assumpta left, Aidan asked his superior, "Why didn't you tell me that my predecessor left the priesthood?"

"Does it make a difference?"

"No, I suppose not. I just found it hard to believe that anyone would ever want to leave here."

"I think you'd find your predecessor agreeing with you about that," Father Mac commented dryly.
 

Peter moved out of his room in Wicklow Friday afternoon. Aside from now owning a few more clothes, he still easily fit everything in his car. The ride to Ballykissangel and his new life went by rapidly. It still didn't seem real, somehow. So many changes over the past year. There was no way he could have predicted it either. A year ago, he was doing the job he'd always wanted and was enjoying it, for the most part. Now, he was going to be married and the priesthood was no more. And the funny thing was that he had no regrets about it. Well, maybe a small one. He stopped at the shrine of the Madonna just outside of the town to collect his thoughts and to offer a prayer of thanks.

It was November and night had fallen before Peter arrived at his new residence. Getting out of the car, he was glad to see few cars around. He didn't want his arrival to turn into a production number. Save that for tomorrow. He walked into the pub with his backpack in hand. He was surprised to find Padraig playing bartender.

After greeting him, he asked, "Where's Assumpta?"

"Now don't you know it's bad luck to see the bride on the night before the wedding?" a voice told him from behind. There were his brothers and their wives calmly sitting at a table. "You'll have plenty of time for that later, bro." He sat down with them and subjected himself to no end of harassment. At one point, his sisters-in-law left leaving him at the mercy of his brothers. The stag party was at Fitzgerald's, Peter soon discovered. He wasn't too keen on it but had no choice. The locals started coming in to share in the fun and Peter enjoyed himself.

Assumpta had watched Peter's arrival from Niamh's window. Niamh caught her looking and admonished her. "You'll see him tomorrow." She turned her friend away and back to her own party.

Assumpta's excitement towards the party was exactly like Peter's. They would rather be together, but their friends would not let them. In fact, Niamh wasn't even letting her spend the night in her own bed!
 

The day finally dawned. Peter had gone with his brothers to the home they were staying in. He slept fairly well that night, all things considered. Now, though, it seemed the minutes were becoming hours. Finally, it was time to leave for the ceremony.

The Church was crowded with most of the town attending. Peter walked into St. Joseph's for the first time since his last mass. It felt very strange to be waiting in a pew clad in a tux instead of in the sacristy clad in robes but there was no way he would trade places.

All the participants were in place. The music began. Father Mac took his place in front of the altar. Peter turned around to wait for Assumpta. The sight of her took his breath away. The ceremony itself was a blur to him. At times it did feel otherworldly to be hearing the very same words he had said many times at other weddings now addressed to him. Then, it was done. As they recessed, tears of joy were coming down their faces. What they had only dreamed about was now reality.
 

The reception was held at Fitzgerald's, of course, with Niamh, Ambrose and Orla hosting the party. Champagne was flowing and the music was excellent. Everyone was congratulating them and wishing them well.

Peter was, of course, enjoying himself. At one point, Andy started ragging on him about putting aside the celibate lifestyle but stopped when he caught Peter's reluctance to discuss thatsubject. He asked him about it.

"Well…" Peter looked away.

Andy grinned at his brother, enjoying Peter's discomfort and embarrassment. "You mean, big brother, you've never?"

"No."

"With all the girl friends you have, you never once?"

"No."

He put his arm around Peter. Peter's nervousness was increasing so Andy tried to reassure him. "Look, everything will be fine. Don't worry. You'll feel very awkward but no different than every other man has felt his first time. Just relax. She'll take good care of you." He couldn't keep the smirk off his face.

This conversation came to the attention of his other brothers.

Phil asked, "What's the secrecy?"

Andy answered, "Peter just needed some information."

Peter never did blush much. But this time his face was scarlet. "I'm sorry I asked."

"Asked what? Need pointers?"

Peter had to laugh. "You all are enjoying this, aren't you?"

"Of course. Isn't that why you invited us?" said Tim.

The crowd around Peter was getting bigger. Brendan came over bearing a large brandy and gave it to Peter. "I think you need this. You are getting far too nervous. How come?" He, too, was innocence.

"Is there no other subject we can come up with?" But he did take the brandy.

"None nearly so much fun as discussing virgin territory, little brother."

Peter gave up and joined in the laughter. The razzing went on at Peter's expense. The noise was getting louder as more and more people joined in eventually even Assumpta was part of it. She sensed Peter's acute discomfort and rescued him by announcing that it was time for them to get ready to leave. She led him upstairs.

When they got alone, she told him, "Look, don't worry. You look like you could drink a bottle of whiskey without any effect."

"I guess I am a bit nervous about…"

"Well, don't be. You're in good hands."

They changed without further ado and gathered the overnight bag. Before he opened the door, he did kiss her again. She noticed he was still shaking and commented on it. "We better get going before you fall apart!" They walked downstairs hand in hand.

Andy took their bag and Tim put champagne glasses in their hands.

Brian then offered a toast. "To Assumpta and Peter. She wouldn't have the clergy under her roof. Now, she'll have one under her covers. Be gentle. Congratulations!"

"Go easy on Peter."

"Forgive him for he knows not what he's doing."

With that, they left the pub for their car. Of course, it had been nicely decorated. Someone even put a picnic basket in there "in case they got hungry for something else", the note read. It took them about ten minutes to actually get in the car and drive away.

Peter was driving and pulled the car over at one point. Turning to look at his wife, he asked, "Do you really believe this has happened?"

"Most definitely."

He held her hands. "This is the happiest day of my life."

She smiled back at him. "And it's not over yet."

He drove to the house they had rented obeying none of the speed limits.

Of course, he carried her across the threshold. Of course, they did not waste much more time before she led him to the bedroom. He wanted everything to be perfect, but at the same time, he felt so selfconscious. But soon he discovered something else to focus on.

They lay together afterwards enjoying their long awaited intimacy. He felt even deeper in love with her than he thought possible. For her part, she couldn't believe that she was here with him in bed, that he was her husband. She had dreamt about it for so long that it almost seemed like a fantasy.

Gazing around the bedroom, he noticed a large basket on the dresser. Curiosity got the better of him, so he went to bring it back to the bed. As he might have guessed, it was from his brothers and had champagne and candies and a package addressed to them. On opening it, they found a silk teddy bear and silk pjs. Matching in a deep red was a silk bathrobe for each of them.

"Your brothers always look out for you like this?" she teased.

"Usually not this nicely, though. Must have been their wives."

They put the silkies on and admired how their significant other looked. Peter was hungry so he went out into the kitchen to prepare something. There was bread and cheese. Their first meal together.

They managed to do some more exploring that evening before finally falling asleep.

And the next morning, it again took some time getting out of bed even though she wasn't her usual sleepy-eyed self. Although they would stay in the house one more day, they were due at his brothers' to see them off back to England.

Andy greeted them warmly. "Well, I see you're still able to walk upright. My brother wasn't too clumsy, then, was he?"

She laughed. Peter was confused.
 

On Monday, around midmorning, they returned to Fitzgerald's. Peter had moved his things in on Friday but they needed sorting. They spent time doing just that. She had also given him the general tour around the place since he was now joint proprietor. He had to learn the inner workings of the pub, cleaning lines, toilets, etc. That was not part of the bargain he was too keen on, but he kept quiet. For the most part, he'd be there in case of emergencies.
 

Two months had gone by. Business at the pub did not seemed affected by the presence of the former priest. Indeed, if anything, the place seemed a little livelier. Brian's restaurant, thePeking Duck, was doing a decent trade and the two establishments seemed to compliment each other. The Cliffords had settled in to a very comfortable routine. The extra trade allowed Assumpta to take some nights off. Otherwise, with Peter working a day job and her a night job, they would not have much time together.

One morning, Peter had left for Wicklow and Assumpta was bringing in groceries when Niamh came by.

"Well, married life certainly sits well with you."

"Yeah. I rather am enjoying being married to the right man." Assumpta continued putting away the groceries. Niamh helped her by handing the items to her when she saw something that caught her interest.

"And what's this?" she asked holding a box.

"What does it look like?" she replied, snatching the box from her not really wanting her suspicion made public.

Niamh wouldn't give it up. "Are you?"

Assumpta relented. "I think so."

"How far you think?"

"Maybe eight weeks."

"Eight weeks? Are you sure?"

"Well, I'm ten weeks late so do the math."

"Have you told Peter?"

"Not `til I'm sure."

"He hasn't guessed?"

"Why would he?"

"Well, you not having a period might get him suspicious."

Assumpta laughed. "Well, it would if he knew about the inner workings of the female anatomy."

"You mean, he doesn't?"

"As one of five brothers? And any rate it's hardly a subject he would have studied at seminary now, isn't it?"

They both laughed. "Congratulations, then. It didn't take you two long. I wonder why?"

"Go drink your coffee."

"Go take your test."
 

Peter returned home rather later than usual that evening which worked out just well for her plans. Everything was in place by the time Peter walked in the door.

The locals were in full force for Friday night. Even Father Aidan was present which was a bit unusual. Orla was behind the bar pulling pints. Assumpta was seated in front sipping an orange juice. Peter hung his coat on a hook and went over to join her.

"Fancy a pint, Father?" Orla asked him.

"Sure." He turned to Assumpta and was about to say something when he noticed her expression. "What?"

"Old habits die hard, eh, Peter?"

He was totally confused. "What are you getting on about?" He noticed they had the attention of the place. He looked around. "What?" he asked everyone around him.

Orla had finished pulling his pint and set it in front of him.

"Drink up, Father," Assumpta told him.

He gave her a funny look and started to say something but the place burst into laughter before he could. Suddenly, it dawned on him and he turned back to his wife. "Father?"

She nodded.

He was speechless with excitement. It took him a few seconds before he could move. When he could, he went to Assumpta and just lifted her off the stool with a massive hug. He couldn't believe it! Congratulations were given and Assumpta was giving him the details. He was so happy he had tears in his eyes. She had known that he would be overjoyed to hear the news. Although they hadn't discussed children, both wanted them. Now they had one on the way.

Orla reminded Peter of his pint and told him to take it and his wife and get out of the place. Niamh asked a rhetorical question before they left. "So how come it took us seven months and you two didn't need any time at all?"

Assumpta actually blushed and it was Peter with the retort. "Years of celibacy." He escorted his wife upstairs.