It Only Takes Once--an excerpt

Chapter One

The Sign

The urge to contact an old boyfriend should be approached with extreme caution, I always say. Even if you’ve excellent reasons, any impulse with such potential for disaster on a grand scale should be either squashed immediately, or given due consideration: i.e., discussed exhaustively with your friends, whom you have bribed with cheap wine and equally cheap Cadbury’s to listen to you, and for your trouble, will give you their expert counsel.

In case the confab with friends regarding the ex sets off an uncharacteristic impulse to take action—Saturday night’s strategy session with Deirdre and Maggie ended with a rash, midnight phone call to America—you’ll want to be on the lookout for signs and portents that you’re on the right track.

I was saying exactly that to Deirdre six days later, in the back room of her mam’s shop, O’Donnell’s Books & Collectibles. “Though I was sure I’d get a sign before now. Especially here.”

After all, you’d think a shop stuffed with fairy-themed merchandise—that’s Irish fairies, mind—in tourist-jammed Temple Bar, smack in the middle of Dublin, Ireland, which is home to spiritual icons galore, would be a magnet for messages from the Other Side, the far corners of the world, or the Infinite.

“Signs,” scoffed Deirdre. As my fellow shop assistant, she could’ve been helping me sort through the tatty leftovers from her mam’s parish jumble sale, but she was busy Web surfing. “Maybe you’re meant to watch for the one saying the call was a waste of time.”

“No way,” I said, though I was starting to wonder. While I hardly expected a metaphysical memo to waft in, such as, Attn.: Aislin Moore, Congrats on the genius phone call, surely a teensy insight into my next move wasn’t too much to ask? I gazed balefully at yet another overflowing box, perched on a high shelf. “One more box to go. And the dustiest of the lot.”

“Sling it ’til Monday,” Deirdre said, clicking madly. “Mammy’ll never know.”

I sneezed. “I’m for that.” I swiped my hands on my jumper, then made the mistake of glancing at the box again. It seemed to droop toward me reproachfully. “Shag it all,” I muttered. On tiptoe, I grabbed one corner of the box and jerked it forward. “As if this crusty junk is worth anyth—” I yelped as something thunked me on the head and fell to the floor.

“What?” said Deirdre, eyes glued to the screen.

Rubbing the sore spot, I knelt to pick up the offending item, and almost fell over. “Oh, my God, this is it! The sign I’ve been waiting for.”

Deirdre swiveled round. “A book.” She wrinkled her pretty nose. “You can’t wear it or eat it—what’s the use?”

“Don’t you see?” Trembling, I ran my fingers over the title, and lurched to my feet. “My fate is shagging sealed.” Deirdre still looked blank. “It’s a sign! Telling me to ring his mam again.”

“An old book told you that?” Deirdre said, incredulous. “The dust in here has addled your brains.”

“Little Women is not just an ‘old book,’” and I hugged it to my chest, “it’s my favorite book of all time.” I’d read my dog-eared paperback a gazillion times, and watched all the film versions over and over. “So, I’ve got to keep trying to contact…you know. Him.” Spurred into action, I set the book down and pulled my rucksack from under the desk. “It’s the least I can do for—”

“Aislin, like I said Saturday, you are so going to regret this,” Deirdre said darkly.

“Bollocks.” Enjoying the novelty of being decisive, I dug out my mobile. “What’s the harm, to make sure she got my message? Maybe my phone numbers got a bit garbled.”

Deirdre shook her head, her dark, glossy hair swinging round her shoulders. “So what if you meet up with him again, and he turns out to be a loser…or even a gobshite?”

“He’s not the sort,” I said without thinking.

“Well, people change. But have you considered your worst case scenario?”

“Like what?” Staring at my phone, I could feel my grand resolve weaken. I’d tons of reasons for contacting him—I’d even made a list. What was I waiting for?

“Like…our man could still be carrying the torch,” Deirdre said with a melodramatic air. “And in his undying passion for you, he jumps on the next flight to Dublin.”

“As if.” My stomach tightened at the very thought. “I can guarantee that the last time I saw him, he’d dumped whatever torch he ever had for me.” If he’d had one at all.

“Or what if he’s married, and his wife got all prickly about him hearing from an old girlfriend who looks like Nicole Kidman—”

“I so do not look like Nicole Kidman,” I interrupted, secretly pleased.

“Do too—well, okay, a younger Nicole, if she was a foot shorter, and had some body fat. And if she never used some decent product on her hair. Anyway, what if his wife cut him off in the bedroom! He’d be all cross, and there you’d be, starting off on the totally wrong foot.”

“Even if he’s married, it’s not like I’m trying to mess him about or anything. I’ll get his e-mail from his mam like I planned, chat him up online a bit, then throw out a few feelers.” I stared at the phone in my hand. “Easy-peasy,” I added bravely.

For all my show of confidence, dread pooled in my middle. I was ready to postpone the call when Little Women caught my eye. Despite her rocky start, Meg March, my favorite character, had turned out to be the perfect mother. What would she do? I flipped up the lid of my mobile.

“You’re mad,” said Deirdre. “But if you’re so dead keen on doing this, you might as well ring the woman at breakfast, before she goes anywhere.” Deirdre had an amazing facility for time zone calculation. But no head for accounts. Go figure. “But you know, Ash, I don’t think I can watch this.” She gathered up her handbag and coat. “I’ve an errand to do.”

Which likely involved a visit to Brown Thomas. Phone in hand, I waved Deirdre off from the backroom doorway, amused despite myself at her circuitous route to the front door. Once outside, and safe from her mam’s detection, she dimpled at a man in a posh coat standing by the shop window. That’s Deirdre for you—she’d flirt with the corpse at a wake. Of course the man smiled back. Wishing that sometimes, my life could be as simple as Deirdre’s, I keyed in the number, glad she wasn’t here to see I knew it by heart. When I glanced back up, my thumb hovering over the keypad, she and the man were gone.

Well, for all I knew, he was the errand. But this was no time to dwell on Deirdre’s romantic adventures. I’d a job to do, though I lacked the Chardonnay-primed courage I’d had last weekend. And any minute now, Polly—indulgent boss and mother she might be—would notice both her shop assistants were AWOL. So, ignoring that sinking feeling, rather like a large stone sitting right behind your navel, I pressed the “on” key…