Authors: Cara Nelson
“You sound like my dad. Only—nicer,” Bronny admitted with a short laugh. “My dad had a few words about what Saunders’ daughter could go do to herself for trying to shut down the fight club.”
“I bet he did. Your old dad isn’t a bad sort, but no one with sense’d get between a Dolan and a fight, even if he’s only watching,” Rabbie observed. Bronny nodded to the truth of it.
Camila delivered more food, then stopped by the bar. She leaned on her elbows across the bar from him, the first time he’d seen her stand still all night. She wasn’t grinning or laughing like she had been. That dark-eyed gaze was fixed on him with an intensity he could feel like nails on his bare back.
“Thanks, Bronny. It worked.”
Then Camila leaned forward and kissed his cheek, slid back from the bar, and was on her way into the kitchen before he could get his breath or his bearings. The last thing he remembered was the way the unbuttoned collar of her flannel shirt gapped and gave him a glimpse of full, round breasts when she leaned across the bar. Then it was like he’d blacked out from all that tantalizing flesh, and the desire to touch and stroke and lick.
“You okay, Dolan?” Dillon elbowed him playfully.
“Yeah, I just got a bit on my mind what with the tourney next week. I’m off. Have a workout to fit in.”
Bronny meant to go train in his dad’s basement on the equipment, but he didn’t have headspace for a workout. Every centimeter of his vision, of his mind was consumed by Camila Saunders and a shamrock tattoo. If she had that tattoo, he reasoned, maybe she didn’t hate everything he stood for—Ireland and boxing and family loyalty. Maybe it was a sign. God, his granddad would box his ears for even thinking it.
The next morning, he made his appearance in church, in the pew beside his dad and granddad and cousins and uncles. They took up three rows in church, always in the back, on the right side. Then they filed to his granddad’s house for dinner, where his grandma and the aunts had stayed behind to cook a feast. The house was hot, and smelled of meat and potatoes and vegetables, every wholesome smell from his childhood put together. He used to run around the garden with his cousins, chasing each other with sticks and practicing fistfights, bloodying noses. Now everything seemed smaller, tighter, less like it fit him.
The first thing his uncle had said to him that morning was a question about how hard he was training for the fight and what Eyetie Guido the bookie called his odds. He had winced when he realized the bookmaker they’d always used was Italian like Camila, and that he carried that—nickname to set him apart. He had been in Murrawallen thirty years and was still the Italian bookie. Rabbie was right. Pasta at the pub was fine for a change, but acceptance wasn’t on the menu with it.
His granddad and his grandmom were arguing about something, and his uncles got in on the discussion. His grandmother whacked his granddad on the arm with a wooden spoon, heaved a great sigh of defeat, and retreated to the kitchen. When the food was on the table, his granddad said grace, and they all tore in to the food like it was their last meal.
“Now, Bronny lad, we’ve something to discuss with you. Your grandma objects to my saying this, but we’ve overruled her. I’m the head of this family, and it’s time you knew that we don’t like you passing your time with this Saunders girl.”
“Excuse me? I’ve been hanging out at the Cheek since I was sixteen.”
“That dirty Italian hasn’t been running it since you were sixteen. Saunders was a local boy, but not that particular about his associates…” his granddad said.
“What we’re saying, son,” his dad put in, “is that never in all my years in Murrawallen did I look at that rat bastard Sammy Saunders and think, ‘Lord, but I wish that man had a daughter for my son.” He slammed his hand on the table so that the cutlery jangled.
“I’ve no clue what you’re on about.”
“You think no one sees you creeping about the place even before they open the doors? And it ain’t their fine brew you’re eager to see. It’s that slut of a half-breed Italian,” his granddad went on, warming to the topic.
“Will! Language, and on the Lord’s Day!” his grandmother exclaimed, rapping his granddad’s knuckles with her spoon.
“Her mother was a strip dancer. Besides, slut is not profanity. Whore is not even profanity. It’s in the Bible,” he argued.
“Stop saying those words at the table!” she returned.
“You’ve a tournament to be thinking of, not what’s in your pants. You’re wasting valuable training time with that piece that no one wanted here to start with. Why she couldn’t have let Rabbie have the place is beyond me. It’s not as though she knows anything about a proper Irish pub or a fight ring. She has no business here,” his granddad said.
“I’m training well and fine enough,” Bronny protested.
“And where were you last night when your cousins were working out in the basement, then?” his father put in.
“He was at the Cheeky Bowman when I was there after my workout,” his cousin Hamish put in.
“You’re fighting next Saturday still, are you not?”
“Yes, sir,” Bronny said uncomfortably.
“Then get your head out of your arse and train like you mean to win it. You’ve the Dolan name to uphold, boy, not just your own.”
“D’you remember your cousin Argy?”
“Let me enlighten you, boy,” his granddad said. “Your uncle Albert and his wife Helen had four boys originally, but Argy, the eldest, was never one of us. Sure, he trained with the other boys, but his heart was never in it. Albert and your own dad and I myself worked with that boy, and he even had a sweet left cross at one time. He won his first few minor bouts and got a spot fighting in the tournament at the fair. Went down with one punch. Knocked out. It was the saddest day of our lives. Your grandma has never got over it, and truly no more have his mother and father. It would have been better for his family if he had died instead of slinking off a weakling and a loser.”
“Did he just run away?”
“Run away, no. The boy plagued us another week with his pleadings for forgiveness and his promises to take his training seriously the next time. It didn’t matter. He was no Dolan, that’s for certain. We had to tell him to clear out, that we were done with his like. He moved off someplace. Never knew nor cared where.” His granddad snorted.
Bronny noticed that his aunt Helen had left the table when the story started.
“I’ve got to catch up on my training. Enjoy the afters for me,” he said with a nod. No one protested his early departure.
The Cheeky Bowman was closed Sundays, which was apparently an even older tradition than the fights. When she’d suggested staying open, because she was not particularly religious herself, Rabbie had responded with a horror that made it seem as if she’d suggested burning Jesus in effigy on the Cheek’s doorstep.
She’d quickly surrendered the point and spent the day doing some deep cleaning, possibly the first that the place had seen in decades. Then she baked two double batches of lasagna for Monday night’s special and an extra batch of her Bolognese sauce to have on hand for the week ahead.
She liked cooking alone, the heat from the oven warming the chilly old place, humming the tunes Mattie had always sung to her. When she looked up and saw Bronny Dolan standing in the doorway, she jumped, splattering the sauce from her spoon across the kitchen. It splashed up the whitewashed wall like a bloodstain, and she laughed.
“Did I give you a fright?”
“Nah, you more scared the crap out of me, Bronny. We’re closed Sundays.”
“Have been since time immemorial. I’m not here for a pint. I had hoped you’d join me for supper.”
“I—” She looked down at her sauce-spattered t-shirt and thought of her messy ponytail miserably.
“I’ll give you time to finish up or change or whatever you like.”
“I thought you had a big family around here. I figured you’d be with them.”
“I was. But I lost my appetite for home cooking.”
“Really? I always thought having a big family would be nice. It was only me and my aunt till I was sixteen.”
“Then who was it?”
“Just me alone. She died.”
Camila had wiped the sauce off the wall and floor and turned the burner off. She washed her hands at the sink with a shiver.
“Fucking cold water,” she mumbled.
“Is your pilot out?”
“Get a torch,” he instructed.
When she’d handed him a flashlight, he opened a tiny closet in the corner where the ancient hot water heater was located. Bronny bent down and checked the pilot light. He fiddled with some knobs.
“I need a wand lighter.”
“I don’t know if we have one.”
“Check behind the bar,” he said, not looking up.
Camila held the flashlight while Bronny relit the pilot light and held the valve to heat the thermocouple. She had cringed when the flame flared to life, but when he let go of the valve and it stayed lit, she was transfixed. She held the light as he replaced the access panel, but never said a word.
“That ought to do it,” he said, dusting off his hands.
“You mean that’s it? You’ve fixed it?”
“Should do, yeah.”
“That. Is. Amazing!” She threw her arms around him.
Camila held on to him a shade too long for a spontaneous thank-you hug. She was blushing when she pulled away. She cleaned up the kitchen while he put the sauce in a container and set it in the ancient refrigerator, thinking privately that this pit would never pass inspection. It was probably forty years behind building code.
“I’m going to take a shower. A HOT shower,” she said happily.
“I’m not sure you’ll have hot water yet.”
“Doesn’t matter. I have the promise of hot water later on, thanks to you. I mean, I know that thing is Old Testament and still has to be replaced, but at least I don’t have to suffer.”
Brony wandered off, and she headed up to tidy things. Once the kitchen was in decent order, she returned. He was shadow-boxing, throwing jabs with his left. He paced as though dissatisfied, and she bit her lip. He was fine, and watching him work out was something she could have done all night.
When he got down on the mat to do pushups, she felt a twinge in her belly, a hint of primal hunger that surged. His muscles pumped and flexed smoothly, and she couldn’t help imagining him on top of her. He was at a hundred and thirty when she started clapping.
“Didn’t hear you come down,” he said, getting to his feet.
“Impressive. I used to practically die doing the presidential fitness test…I could do like six push-ups.”
“You’re a girl.”
“You noticed? Must be the lipstick.”
She fiddled with her sweater hem and straightened the gold and blue scarf looped around her neck. Her skirt swished as she leaned against the doorway.
She could feel his eyes. They pierced her, evaluating her. There was a sense of distance between them, for a moment, and she felt strangely lost. She was a stranger in a strange land. He—he was an Irish bruiser like her father, a lug meant to win fights, settle down with a nice local girl from church and start having big healthy sons, who would, in turn, win fights and settle down. What would his parents think if he dragged home some Italian-American...slut? The word was unwelcome, but there it was. And his indecision was plain on his face.
Then, all at once, Bronny climbed from between the ropes and took her hand. He did it as casually as he could, as if out of habit, and led her up the stairs. They were at the door when she stopped.
“You can’t count on family, Bronny. They won’t always be around. You’re old enough to know that. You can count on yourself, and that’s all you have.”
“That’s pretty bleak for a Sunday night, Camila.”
“Well, life’s pretty fucking bleak most of the time. I deleted the goddamned out of that sentence because it’s Sunday. Does that help?”
“Not really. Let’s go.” He ushered her into his tiny car and drove to Kilmuck, where the nearest Italian restaurant was located.
Tony’s Cucina wasn’t very crowded, because the county didn’t have liquor sales on the Sabbath, but they had their pick of tables. No one wanted their noodles without wine. It was easier to imagine you were in the Mediterranean during a chilly Irish autumn if there was a bottle of Chianti to go with supper. The red-checkered tablecloths and Dean Martin music made for a quaint atmosphere, but still faintly foreign—this was still Ireland. She mentally tallied the days until she could get home again. She smoothed her skirt beneath her legs and sat, looking back over her shoulder at Bronny with a small smile.
She ordered pasta
and he got the spaghetti and meatballs. Camila, a bit nervous, felt sudden awareness drop on her. They were on a
“Mattie used to take me to a place like this for a special treat,” she said suddenly. “Little place like this, with bright tablecloths and loud music and a plastic coated menu. God, I miss her. She was so funny. And the most
cook. She could have opened a restaurant. And she was big, like, larger than life. And big hair. You know? She was warm.” God that sounded stupid. And yet, the look on his face said he understood.
She kept talking, draining her water glass over and over. Her eyes prickled with tears, and she surreptitiously wiped her eyes on the napkin.
“Nothing,” She coughed, “Their chef has an unusual idea of how to
make Fra diavolo
“That sounds suspiciously diplomatic for you. I don’t pretend to know you that well but you strike me more as a ‘the cook is a goatfucking illiterate moron’ than ‘the chef has an unusual idea’.” He grinned.
“That was a pretty good choice of words, Bronny. Whoever made this dumped in about half a can of crushed red pepper in, to make up for the floury, mushy noodles I guess. It’s kind of horrible.”
“Kind of? Are you taking the piss?”
“I was being nice.”
“It’s frightening when you’re nice. Don’t do that.”
“All right. I was trying to act like I had manners. I thought it might impress you. So tell me, besides wool sweaters and lots of sheep and potatoes, what’s there to Ireland I need to know?”
“Sport: rugby and boxing and football.”
“God and family, just like everywhere else.”
“Not like everyplace else, trust me.”
“I’m really close with my family. I go to church with them every week, and then we all have dinner together,” he said again, his voice oddly hollow.
“That’s great. I mean, I don’t think it’s very common.” Camila said.
“It’s not unusual here. Most of us have big families, and we spend time together.”
“That sounds really nice. Lots of talking and eating and just supporting each other.”
“Yeah, it’s not really like that. There’s loads of eating, obviously, but it’s a damn good thing for me that I’m a tremendous fighter. Otherwise, I’d have been thrown out with the bathwater. Dolans are keen for prizefighting, to say the least.” He stretched his arms behind his shoulders, grinning in a strained way.
“Seriously? You’re kidding. I know you’re kidding. That’s not family, that’s—like the ancient Spartans or something.”
“Nah, I got
on Redbox. Besides, I didn’t get a degree. I had some college, one class at a time. I’m trying to get my certification in restaurant management. That’s my thing; I want to have a café, just a place with pasta and really good fresh food, and maybe a live band once a week. Someplace warm, with delicious food that makes people want to keep coming back.”
“That sounds amazing. What’s your plan?”
“My plan is to sell the Cheeky Bowman, hopefully pay off the debts and go home to Jersey, back to waitressing, and take some more classes whenever I can. Maybe in five or ten years, try to get a small business loan. Find a storefront in a neighborhood that’s on the upswing.” She shrugged
“I hope that happens for you.”
“So what’s your plan?” she asked, changing the topic.
“Oh, the usual. Win all my fights, find a girl, settle down and raise sons and teach them to fight, be proper Dolans.”
“Really? I poured my heart out to you, and you give me the cocky joke answer?” She said.
“That’s not a joke answer,” he said, his voice rough with emotion. But something flickered in his eyes, and she longed to know what he really meant.
Camila laid her hand on his, her thumb absently tracing the geography of scratches and scars across his knuckles and the back of his hand. Bronny gripped her hand, turned it slowly with his fingers, until their palms touched. Camila twined her fingers through his and held his hand, right there on the cheap checkered tablecloth for all of Kilmuck to see.
The touch of her soft palm against his roughened one sent a hum of warmth and desire through him. He was startled and almost ashamed when his second reaction was to let go of her hand before someone saw them and reported back to the Dolans that he was carrying on with the Italian slut from the Cheeky Bowman. He dismissed the thought as unworthy, even as unlikely, and held her hand all the tighter.
“It’s tough,” she said. “That your family has that kind of hold over you.”
‘What do you mean?” he asked warily, feeling defensive.
“I’m just gonna say it. Mattie always said I had no social skills, so I’m going to blow right on past the fact we barely know each other and say the thing I think you need to know. Your family’s basing their approval of you on whether you win fights and meet their definition of success? That’s fucked up.”
“No, Camila, that’s family. You love each other and depend on each other, and everyone has to smooth their edges out to fit in better.”
“Look, my dad never even saw me and my mom died, so it’s not like I had some big family. But I had Mattie, my mom’s aunt, and she always, always forgave me no matter how stupid I was. I pierced my own nose when I was thirteen. I stole shit from the convenience store. I shaved off half my hair when I was mad during my freshman year in high school. I was talking on the phone, and I forgot to watch dinner on the stove and burnt up her best stockpot. Never, not once, did she talk about throwing me out or forgetting about me, Bronny.”
“She must’ve been a saint.”
“She was. The only problem I had was that I depended on her too much. But when I had her, when she loved me, nothing would’ve been bad enough for her to disown me. And your parents should be the same way. They should be glad to have you because of who you are. You turn up and carry kegs for total strangers, and you took me to the only Italian place around here, no matter how crap it was, because you wanted me to be comfortable. You’re kind and thoughtful, and if they don’t see that—” She stopped. “You know what, Mattie was right. I need to learn to shut my mouth when it’s not my business.” She pulled her hand back from his and took a sip of her water.
“Different backgrounds,” he said. “Different culture. You have to account for that before you make comparisons. I appreciate that you want to—defend my honor, I guess, but I understand the terms with my family, and I need them too much to buck tradition.”
“Do you even like to fight?”
“Sure. I like to win.”
“No, I mean getting hit and beating people up.”
“I used to really like the thrill of it. Part of it’s growing up, not seeing much point in it. That’s when you’re supposed to have sons to train, I think. By the time you’re getting too old to see the glory of the fight, it’s time for the next generation to start looking towards it.”