Touch of Love (Trials of Fear Book 3)
My jaw came unhinged as the arrangement of flowers Ireland had carried out the door went sailing through the air. The vase shattered, and its contents covered the concrete driveway in an arc of debris. There were shards of glass, destroyed pedals, and dirt everywhere.
But what froze me in place and rose the hairs on my arms was the sheer anger and venom that burst from my boyfriend’s lips once it landed. Every muscle in his body was taut and shaking as he kicked at the remains of the flowers. His voice cracked, and his pain was so raw it brought tears to my eyes. Over and over, he kicked at the scattered remains of a once beautiful arrangement, his pain and hurt transferring directly to me, stabbing mercilessly into my heart.
Finnley stood beside me, equally stunned and speechless. All we could do was watch as Ireland’s fury unraveled.
Once his fit of rage slowed, he collapsed to his knees among the debris and wept, face in his hands, shoulders shuddering with each strangled breath. He was the portrait of a man consumed by grief. A hand on my arm brought me back to reality.
“Go help him out. I’ll take care of the mess. Don’t worry about it.”
“I’m so sorry. I have no idea what happened.”
Thankfully, the man was understanding. While he went to collect a broom, I cautiously approached my boyfriend. What I wanted to do was tug him into my arms and never let him go. I wanted to take away all his raw pain and show him he could lean on me for support. But Ireland’s troubles ran far deeper than losing a parent, and his limitations had never felt more stark and real than they did right then.
The haunted look he’d returned to me all morning spoke of how battered and exhausted his mind had become over the past few days. He was tormented. I was watching him drown without knowing how to save him. What was worse; he was pushing me away.
Kneeling in front of him, I called his name. He didn’t respond. I leaned closer, brought my mouth near his ear, despite knowing how sensitive he was and how big his personal space bubble had grown.
“Ireland, I’m here. Talk to me.”
Sobs wracked his body, ones that emanated right from his tender heart.
“There is a bench by the front doors. Let’s get up and go take a seat. Please.”
He sniffled and shrunk back. It was not the response I wanted, but it was at least confirmation he acknowledged my presence. It took more persuasion before he lifted his head and got to his feet. At the bench, he sat hard, burying his face once again, trying hard to scrub away his pain. He was a man who battled expressing intense emotions. He hated looking weak, and I’d learned how embarrassed and vulnerable he felt when he cried in front of me.
“What was wrong with those flowers?” I asked, trying to encourage him to talk.
“They were from my father.” Ireland’s jaw ticked, and he sniffled before turning his head and looking at me. His eyes were dark with his anger but rimmed red with his anguish. “He has no fucking right after what he did. None at all.”
I scanned the streets, not expecting the man to be there but concerned nonetheless. Ireland had shared enough about his father for his response to surface my own rage. What right did that man have? “Is he… Do you have a restraining order? Is he allowed to be here?”
“My mother had a restraining order. Probably no longer valid. I didn’t bother getting one. Figured if that fuck ever wanted to go face to face with me, I’d let him. I dare him to show up.”
I didn’t know if that reassured me or worried me.
“He ruined both our lives. Ten years wasn’t near enough justice.”
“Have you seen him since he got out of prison?”
“Once. He looked me up and wanted to make amends. I was twenty. I told him if I ever saw him again, I’d kill him.” Ireland squeezed his fists on his knees until his knuckles turned white. “He won’t show his face today. He knows better.”
I hoped so. Ireland wasn’t in a good place, and I feared a visit from his father would easily end with bloodshed and calls to the police.
Finnley returned outside with a shop broom, dustpan, and a small garbage can.
“Fuck,” Ireland mumbled when he noticed. “I should help him.”
“I think you should take five minutes and go splash some cold water on your face because people will be here soon. I’ll offer to help. You take care of you.”
Relenting, Ireland disappeared inside.
A half an hour later, the parlor room was filled with about a dozen people. Ireland kept his hands lodged in his pockets, refusing handshakes and hugs but thanked people respectfully for their condolences. More than once, I caught him stepping back when people got too close, or an unknowing well-wisher tried to hook onto his arm.
As much as he’d kept me at a distance as well over the past few days, he continually searched me out in the crowd. When our eyes met, his body visibly relaxed. If my presence offered him even an ounce of solace, I was glad. I didn’t know how else to support him.
The service was short and sweet. Once a few readings were completed, and a few people shared words—Ireland declined—then I was called upon to close out the funeral with a song. When I’d thought of the idea spontaneously in Mr. Hollins’ office the other day, I knew exactly the song I wanted to play. Ireland’s initial response had me worried I’d overstepped boundaries, but then he’d changed his mind and allowed for it. It was a difficult day, but when I couldn’t physically embrace him, the only support I could offer were words of love.
I stood and straightened my suit jacket as I made my way up front to where I’d set up my keyboard. Ireland had stood for the entire service, holding up a wall at the side of the room, keeping a distance from everyone.
As I sat, I eyed him, sharing a weak smile he returned. Before clicking on the mic, I mouthed the words, I love you. They were met with a downward turn of his head as Ireland studied the floor. More rejection.
Performing was second nature, so I wasn’t nervous to sing in front of a small crowd. All eyes were on me, and I sat forward on the chair and spoke into the mic.
“I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting Martine while she was alive. Unfortunately, her time came too soon. However, I believe people imprint themselves into this world in many ways, so when their time comes, they are never truly gone. Martine raised a most amazing man who I have had the pleasure of getting to know very well over the past few months. Her love and guidance shines through his crystal blue eyes every day and radiates from his heart. Martine will live on through this tender-hearted man. I’d like to play a little song called ‘Now Comes the Night’ by Rob Thomas.”
That got his attention, and Ireland’s head rose again as he met my eyes.
My fingers found their positions, and as I stared into Ireland’s beautiful blue spheres, music blanketed the room. A gentle cadence of chords, soft and melancholy. Recognition bloomed across his face, and his lips parted before I even came to the opening lyrics. When I sang, our gazes never parted—except when I became so lost in the emotions I closed my eyes. Music transported me to a place of peace. It didn’t matter if I played hard rock or a classical ballad, music was the voice of my soul.
I knew the song would be familiar to him, and as I worked through each verse and chorus, his lips moved along, mouthing each word. By the end, fat tears trickled down his cheeks, and he broke eye contact as he batted them away and ducked around the corner out of sight.
I sat, clicked off my microphone, and watched as the few people in the room rose from their folding chairs and mingled as they parted. I’d been introduced to a handful of the nurses who worked with Ireland, so I recognized the woman who approached me with a gentle smile on her face. I stood, and Sarah came around the keyboard and hugged me unexpectedly.
“Don’t give up on him,” she said by my ear. “He’s a good man. He just needs a more delicate touch than most.”
I held her tight, fighting back my own tears as I glanced over her shoulder in search of Ireland. He was nowhere to be seen.
“I’m more worried he’s giving up on me.”
Sarah pulled back and scanned the room—probably for the same reason. “He’s been dealt a lot of blows by some pretty awful people in his life. I know him. He loves you.”
“Well, I don’t plan on giving up on him. I wish he’d believe me. If we need to take a step back and rebuild, so be it. I’m okay with that.”
At that moment, Ireland stepped back into the room, eyes red but face dry. He shared parting words with a few people as they departed. A woman I knew as Erin, his therapist, approached him. I was about to turn back to Sarah when his actions caught me off guard. Erin held out her hands, palms up, and Ireland stared at them a long moment before resting his hands over hers. They clung to one another. Then he stepped forward and dropped his head onto her shoulder, fresh tears flowing in rivers down his cheeks, his shoulders convulsing.
“Does that upset you?” Sarah asked, shaking me out of my stunned state.
“But I thought…”
“Ireland has known Erin for five years. She’s a solid figure in his life. They dance a delicate line between therapist and friends. He’s always been able to break down walls with her first and foremost. It used to drive his exes nuts. Julia particularly. What took him and Julia months to build, took him a few visits with Erin to achieve.”
Because I needed more things to dislike about that woman. But I certainly didn’t want to be like that.
Was I upset? Ireland and I had known each other just shy of five months, not five years. It made sense that our foundation was still rocky and fragile. Especially when I considered how many people had given up on him.
“I’m not upset. I just didn’t realize, I guess. That’s a good sign though, isn’t it? Contact with someone is better than no one.”
“Yes, it is. Be supportive, Raven. Don’t give up. But also, keep pushing him because he’s stubborn and needs a good smack in the ass sometimes.”
I chuckled, and Sarah and I shared another hug.
“It was good to meet you, Sarah. I’m glad he has people on his side.”
“You as well. Ireland talks a lot about you. He’s quite smitten, believe me. His stories are enough to make all us girls jealous.”
Just what had my boyfriend been sharing? Off to the side, Ireland lifted his head from Erin’s shoulder. She never embraced him or touched him as he sought comfort, she simply allowed him the connection as he saw fit. They shared a smile, and she disappeared out the door. With no one around, he searched for me, and our eyes locked. There was no smile, only pain and uncertainty behind his gaze.
“Take care of him,” Sarah said, giving my arm one last squeeze. Then, she slipped out, saying goodbye to Ireland on her way.
There was no graveside service planned and no gathering for a wake. Ireland didn’t want any of it. He was taking his mother’s urn home while he considered where she might have liked her final resting place to be. Examining him from across the room, he looked weary. Dark circles surrounded his eyes like bruises, and if I had to guess, he hadn’t been sleeping well.
I crossed the room toward him, drawing his attention. “Finnley said you could come by Monday and pick up the flowers and such and settle up. He doesn’t have to clear out this room until Monday evening. How about I take you home?”
He nodded and let out a long sigh. “Yeah. I’m really done.”
I didn’t take him home.
Instead, I drove us to my place. Sarah called him stubborn and insisted I didn’t give up. Well, I never planned to give up, but I sure as hell was done being pushed away. I knew if I took him home, it would be days or weeks before he’d allow me in again.
The minute I turned onto the dirt road leading out of town, Ireland sat up and frowned out the window.
“Where are we going?”
“I am taking you home to pamper you and put you to bed.”
He slumped back in the seat with a scowl and loosened his tie. “You don’t want me to spend the night, believe me.”
“How about I decide what I want.”
“I can’t share a bed with you.”
“Then I’ll sleep on the couch.”
“Don’t you get it?” He spun in his seat and pinned me with a hard look, his tone clipped with an edge I was starting to be familiar with. “We can’t just slip back into the same place we were. Touching you is going to be very difficult. You touching me? Impossible.”
“You said impossible before, and you were wrong.”
I pulled off to the side of the road and slammed on the breaks, gritting my teeth and squeezing the steering wheel so tight my fingers hurt. Once the van was stopped, I shifted around, giving him the same hard look in return.
“No, you listen to me. You told me we couldn’t be together. You said being with a guy was ten times harder than being with a woman. You said impossible way back when this began. But it wasn’t impossible. It was just a little more challenging and took a little more patience. But we got there, didn’t we?”
“But nothing. We’ve shared more than I ever imagined was possible. We’ve kissed, we’ve made love, we’ve—”
“We haven’t made love.”
“Yes, Ireland, we have! Sticking my dick in your ass does not constitute making love. Making love is a sharing of feelings in an intimate way. It’s a bonding of souls. So guess what, we have so! If all we share are hand jobs or oral pleasure, it’s still the two of us expressing our love for one another. The. Fucking. End. So get that fucking word impossible out of your goddamn vocabulary. And while you’re at it, toss your fucking word normal out the window too, because I’m sick of hearing them both.”
I took a shuddering breath and reined back my anger. Ireland was officially stunned silent, but his face was red, and his lips curled, telling me he was feeling every bit as upset as I was.
“I love you,” I continued with a softer tone. “I know full well that losing your mother has caused a major setback in your life. I’m not blind, and I also didn’t go into this relationship ignorant. Give me some credit. Setbacks will happen, and we will fight through them together and come out the other side.”
“Doubtful,” he mumbled. “Everybody eventually gives up. Everybody walks away.”
“Yeah, well the only person giving up and walking away right now is you.”
He dropped his gaze to his lap and toyed with the cuff of his suit jacket. Pinching fingers into his eyes, he nodded. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I just… of all people, I’m terrified you’ll walk away. So my instinct was to protect my heart before you could break it.” He lowered his hand and peered across the middle console, his lashes damp, and his eyes red. “I love you, Raven, and the idea of not having you in my life is fucking me up even more.”
I resisted the urge to reach out and take his hand. The impulse was strong and not doing so was going against my natural instinct to comfort. “I’m not going anywhere. Not now, not ever. I don’t care if you have a million setbacks, I will stand beside you and fight.”
He groaned. “Please don’t say that. I don’t want a million setbacks.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I’m sorry. We’ve just never encountered a setback together, and I unfairly assumed you’d be no different than everyone else.”
For a long minute, we stared into each other’s eyes. “Are we okay?” I asked.
I took us to the farmhouse, and once we were up in the loft, I found us both something comfortable to change into. Ireland perched tentatively on the edge of the bed while I shuffled through CDs, looking for some music to listen to.
“I can’t believe you played Rob Thomas at my mother’s funeral.”
“I thought the song was fitting.”
“It was beautiful. Thank you.”
“It would probably have been more beautiful if it was your hunky crush singing it, but I did my best.”
He chuckled which was a beautiful sound I wished to hear more often. “You’re way hotter than Rob.”
“No need to fluff my feathers. I’m okay being second best.”
Another soft laugh and my heart soared. I popped in some Jethro Tull and turned the volume low before sitting beside him.
He stiffened but noticeably fought the urge to shift over. I leaned across the bed to my nightstand and pulled out the long loop of string Lou and I had used when she’d taught me to play Cat’s Cradle months ago. It’d been a while, but I quickly remembered how to make the starting form and held it out for Ireland.
For a minute, I thought he wasn’t going to indulge me, but then, he shifted to face me, crossing his legs on the bed.
“So here we are at stage one all over again.” His tone reeked of sarcasm and self-deprecation. Still, he didn’t move to grab the string. “I’m such a winner.”
“Stop it. I don’t care how many times we have to start again, so long as we fight this upward battle together. Don’t give up on me, and I won’t give up on you.”
His forehead pinched as he brought his hands up. Biting his hoop, he lowered them again to his lap and huffed. “I don’t know if I can yet. I’m really anxious today, and this is ramping it up a little too high.”
“Try for me. I won’t move a muscle. I promise. You can’t go forward if you don’t take the first step.”
Nodding, he clenched and unclenched his fists before reaching out and pinching the yarn. With a noticeable tremble, he hooked his fingers under the bottom strings and pulled up the next form on his hands.
Maybe it was a child’s game, and Ireland’s defeat at having a setback made it harder to play, but by the time we’d exchanged the yarn between us for twenty minutes, he’d noticeably calmed. His hands no longer shook, and conversation began to flow.
It was small progress, but it was still progress. And if it took another four months to build him back up, so be it, I’d wait. One step at a time. Rome wasn’t built in a day either.
Later, we drove into town for an early dinner. Ireland had been without his glucometer for too long and was feeling the effects of a sugar imbalance. We stopped by his apartment, and he packed an overnight bag—despite his earlier protestations—before we set off for the same restaurant we’d first visited way back in early May. The patio was open, so we sat outdoors in the same secluded corner as before, watching the harbor and enjoying the cool breeze off the water. It was a beautiful night. Ireland reminisced about some positive childhood memories, we talked about the directions of the band and future gigs we had lined up locally, and we watched the passing boats chugging along out on the water in the distance.
There was no handholding, no brief touches or shared kisses. Ireland’s boundaries were rigid. But where we lacked in physical contact, we made up for in lingering looks and loving words. Relationships were more than physical, and I hoped to show Ireland all the other ways we could be a couple when life knocked him down and drove a wedge between us.
Back at the loft, Ireland stubbornly insisted on taking the couch when we were ready for bed.
“I won’t touch you in your sleep. The bed is big.”
“It’s not that. My mind won’t settle with you so close. It will remain on high alert all night until I make myself sick.”
It hurt, but I hid my broken heart behind a smile. “Okay. You’re always welcome in my bed if you change your mind.”
Once I’d found him bedding, shared one of my pillows, and we’d changed into sleep clothes, I plunked on the end of the bed with a sigh. Ireland approached, stopping in front of me and peering down with a wrinkle in his brow. Lost in his crystal blue eyes, I wished for many things. Mostly, I wished Ireland didn’t feel such a burden and could live his life free. I knew he fought a daily battle with his mind, but I also knew how desperately he wished to break free and live without restrictions.
“Kiss your fingers,” he said, his voice quiet but bringing me out of my thoughts.
My gaze never left his as I kissed the tips of my fingers and held them out. He stared and stared at them, worrying his bottom lip. Tentatively, he lifted his hand, and it hovered in space a few inches away, gradually closing the distance. They never touched, but they came really close before he dropped his hand to his side in defeat and frowned.
Before he could apologize, I turned my fingers palm up and caught his eye. “Catch,” I said, then I blew the kiss instead.
With an embarrassed chuckle, he clasped the air and placed his hand over his heart. “Thank you.”
“One step at a time. I love you, Ireland. When you’re ready, I’ll have you back in my arms.”