Read an Excerpt
All of my life I’ve wanted to visit Ireland. My ancestors came from Ireland and Scotland, and the pull has always been there to see for myself the green hills and to sit in a smoky pub while listening to traditional music being played. When I was able to make the trip with my family, I knew I was home the moment I landed at Shannon Airport.
Setting a story in Ireland was a natural decision. Both the land and its people inspire, as well as thrive on, stories. The idea, for me, was to write of Ireland, and of family, as they intertwined in my heart. In each book in this new trilogy I chose to feature one of three sisters, different in type but bound by blood. Their lives have each taken a different course, yet it is Ireland that inspires them, as it inspires me.
Born in Fire highlights Margaret Mary Concannon, the eldest sister, a glass artist with an independent streak as fierce as her volatile temper. She is a woman who is both comforted and torn apart by family, and whose ambitions will lead her to discover herself and her talents. Hand blowing glass is a difficult and exacting art, and while she may produce the delicate and the fragile, Maggie is a strong and opinionated woman, a Clare woman, with all the turbulence of that fascinating west county. Her relationship with the sophisticated Dublin gallery owner, Rogan Sweeney, won’t be peaceful, but I hope you’ll find it entertaining.
And I hope you’ll enjoy, in this first book of my BORN IN trilogy, the trip to County Clare, a land of green hills, wild cliffs, and enduring beauty.
Turn to the back of this book for a special SNEAK PREVIEW of the next book in Nora Roberts’ Irish trilogy…Born in Ice
Coming from Jove Books in August 1995, and followed by Born in Shame
Also by Nora Roberts
BORN IN ICE (coming in August 1995)
I never will marry, I’ll be no man’s wife.
I intend to stay single for the rest of my life.
—nineteenth-century Irish ballad
HE would be in the pub, of course. Where else would a smart man warm himself on a frigid, wind-blown afternoon? Certainly not at home, by his own fire.
No, Tom Concannon was a smart man, Maggie thought, and wouldn’t be at home.
Her father would be at the pub, among friends and laughter. He was a man who loved to laugh, and to cry and to spin improbable dreams. A foolish man some might call him. But not Maggie, never Maggie.
As she steered her racketing lorry around the last curve that led into the village of Kilmihil, she saw not a soul on the street. No wonder, as it was well past time for lunch and not a day for strolling with winter racing in from the Atlantic like a hound from icy Hades. The west coast of Ireland shivered under it and dreamed of spring.
She saw her father’s battered Fiat, among other vehicles she recognized. Tim O’Malley’s had a good crowd this day. She parked as close as she could to the front entrance of the pub, which was nestled in a line of several shops.
As she walked down the street the wind knocked her back, made her huddle inside the fleece-lined jacket and pull the black wool cap down lower on her head. Color whipped into her cheeks like a blush. There was a smell of damp under the cold, like a nasty threat. There would be ice, thought the farmer’s daughter, before nightfall.
She couldn’t remember a more bitter January, or one that seemed so hell-bent on blowing its frosty breath over County Clare. The little garden in front of the shop she hurried by had paid dearly. What was left of it was blackened by the wind and frost and lay pitifully on the soggy ground.
She was sorry for it, but the news she held inside her was so fearfully bright, she wondered the flowers didn’t rise up and bloom away into spring.
There was plenty of warmth in O’Malley’s. She felt it nuzzle her the moment she opened the door. She could smell the peat burning in the fire, its red-hot heart smoldering cheerfully, and the stew O’Malley’s wife, Deirdre, had served at lunch. And tobacco, beer, the filmy layer that frying chips left in the air.
She spotted Murphy first, sitting at one of the tiny tables, his boots stretched out as he eased a tune out of an Irish accordion that matched the sweetness of his voice. The other patrons of the pub were listening, dreaming a bit over their beer and porter. The tune was sad, as the best of Ireland was, melancholy and lovely as a lover’s tears. It was a song that bore her name, and spoke of growing old.
Murphy saw her, smiled a little. His black hair fell untidily over his brow, so that he tossed his head to clear it away. Tim O’Malley stood behind the bar, a barrel of a man whose apron barely stretched across the girth of him. He had a wide, creased face and eyes that disappeared into folds of flesh when he laughed.
He was polishing glasses. When he saw Maggie, he continued his task, knowing she would do what was polite and wait to order until the song was finished.
She saw David Ryan, puffing on one of the American cigarettes his brother sent him every month from Boston, and tidy Mrs. Logan, knitting with pink wool while her foot tapped to the tune. There was old Johnny Conroy, grinning toothlessly, his gnarled hand holding the equally twisted one of his wife of fifty years. They sat together like newlyweds, lost in Murphy’s song.
The television over the bar was silent, but its picture was bright and glossy with a British soap opera. People in gorgeous clothes and shining hair argued around a massive table lit with silver-based candles and elegant crystal.
Its glittery story was more, much more than a country away from the little pub with its scarred bar and smoke-dark walls.
Maggie’s scorn for the shining characters squabbling in their wealthy room was quick and automatic as a knee jerk. So was the swift tug of envy.
If she ever had such wealth, she thought—though, of course, she didn’t care one way or the other—she would certainly know what to do with it.
Then she saw him, sitting in the corner by himself. Not separate, not at all. He was as much a part of the room as the chair he sat on. He had an arm slung over the back of that chair, while the other hand held a cup she knew would hold strong tea laced with Irish.
An unpredictable man he might be, full of starts and stops and quick turns, but she knew him. Of all the men she had known, she had loved no one with the full thrust of her heart as she loved Tom Concannon.
She said nothing, crossed to him, sat and rested her head on his shoulder.
Love for him rose up in her, a fire that warmed down to the bone but never burned. His arm came from around the chair and wrapped her closer. His lips brushed across her temple.
When the song was done, she took his hand in hers and kissed it. “I knew you’d be here.”
“How did you know I was thinking of you, Maggie, my love?”
“Must be I was thinking of you.” She sat back to smile at him. He was a small man, but toughly built. Like a runt bull, he often said of himself with one of his rolling laughs. There were lines around his eyes that deepened and fanned out when he grinned. They made him, in Maggie’s eyes, all the more handsome. His hair had once been gloriously red and full. It had thinned a bit with time, and the gray streaked through the fire like smoke. He was, to Maggie, the most dashing man in the world.
He was her father.
“Da,” she said. “I have news.”
“Sure, I can see it all over your face.”
Winking, he pulled off her cap so that her hair fell wildly red to her shoulders. He’d always liked to look at it, to watch it flash and sizzle. He could still remember when he’d held her the first time, her face screwed up with the rage of life, her tiny fists bunched and flailing. And her hair shining like a new coin.
He hadn’t been disappointed not to have a son, had been humbled to have been given the gift of a daughter.
“Bring me girl a drink, Tim.”
“I’ll have tea,” she called out. “It’s wicked cold.” Now that she was here, she wanted the pleasure of drawing the news out, savoring it. “Is that why you’re in here singing tunes and drinking, Murphy? Who’s keeping your cows warm?”
“Each other,” he shot back. “And if this weather keeps up, I’ll have more calves come spring than I can handle, as cattle do what the rest of the world does on a long winter night.”
“Oh, sit by the fire with a good book, do they?” Maggie said, and had the room echoing with laughter. It was no secret, and only a slight embarrassment to Murphy, that his love of reading was well-known.
“Now, I’ve tried to interest them in the joys of literature, but those cows, they’d rather watch the television.” He tapped his empty glass. “And I’m here for the quiet, what with your furnace roaring like thunder day and night. Why aren’t you home, playing with your glass?”
“Da.” When Murphy walked to the bar, Maggie took her father’s hand again. “I needed to tell you first. You know I took some pieces to McGuinness’s shop in Ennis this morning?”
“Did you now?” He took out his pipe, tapped it. “You should have told me you were going. I’d have kept you company on the way.”
“I wanted to do it alone.”
“My little hermit,” he said, and flicked a finger down her nose.
“Da, he bought them.” Her eyes, as green as her father’s, sparkled. “He bought four of them, and that’s all I took in. Paid me for them then and there.”
“You don’t say, Maggie, you don’t say!” He leaped up, dragging her with him, and spun her around the room. “Listen to this, ladies and gentlemen. My daughter, my own Margaret Mary, has sold her glass in Ennis.”
There was quick, spontaneous applause and a barrage of questions.
“At McGuinness’s,” she said, firing answers back. “Four pieces, and he’ll look at more. Two vases, a bowl, and a…I supposed you could call the last a paperweight.” She laughed when Tim set whiskeys on the counter for her and her father.
“All right then.” She lifted her glass and toasted. “To Tom Concannon, who believed in me.”
“Oh, no, Maggie.” Her father shook his head and there were tears in his eyes. “To you. All to you.” He clicked glasses and sent the whiskey streaming down his throat. “Fire up that squeeze box, Murphy. I want to dance with my daughter.”
Murphy obliged with a jig. With the sounds of shouts and clapping hands, Tom led his daughter around the floor. Deirdre came out from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. Her face was flushed from cooking as she pulled her husband into the dance. From jig to reel and reel to hornpipe, Maggie whirled from partner to partner until her legs ached.
As others came into the pub, drawn either by the music or the prospect of company, the news was spread. By nightfall, she knew, everyone within twenty kilometers would have heard of it.
It was the kind of fame she had hoped for. It was her secret that she wished for more.
“Oh, enough.” She sank into her chair and drained her cold tea. “My heart’s about to burst.”
“So is mine. With pride for you.” Tom’s smile remained bright, but his eyes dimmed a little. “We should go tell your mother, Maggie. And your sister, too.”
“I’ll tell Brianna this evening.” Her own mood shifted at the mention of her mother.
“All right, then.” He reached down, brushed his hand over her cheek. “It’s your day, Maggie Mae, nothing will spoil it for you.”
“No, ’tis our day. For I never would have blown the first bubble of glass without you.”
“Then we’ll share it, just us two for a little while.” He felt smothered for a minute, dizzy and hot. He thought he felt a little click behind his eyes before it cleared. Air, he thought. He needed a bit of air. “I’m in the mood for a drive. I want to smell the sea, Maggie. Will you come with me?”
“Of course I will.” She rose immediately. “But it’s freezing out, and the wind’s the devil. Are you sure you want to go to the cliffs today?”
“I’ve a need to.” He reached for his coat, then tossing a muffler around his throat, turned to the pub. All the dark, smoky colors seemed to whirl in his eyes. He thought, ruefully, that he was a little drunk. Then again, it was the day for it. “We’re having us a party. Tomorrow night it’ll be. With fine food, fine drink and fine music, to celebrate my daughter’s success. I’ll expect every one of me friends there.”
Maggie waited until they were out in the cold. “A party? Da, you know she’ll not have it.”
“I’m still the master of my own house.” His chin, very like his daughter’s, jutted out. “A party there will be, Maggie. I’ll deal with your mother. Would you drive now?”
“All right.” There was no arguing, she knew, once Tom Concannon had made up his mind. She was grateful for that, or she would never have been able to travel to Venice and apprentice herself in a glass house. Never have been able to take what she’d learned, and what she’d dreamed, and build her own studio. She knew her mother had made Tom pay miserably for the money it had cost. But he had stood firm.
“Tell me what you’re working on now.”
“Well, it’s a kind of a bottle. And I want it to be very tall, very slim. Tapered you see, from bottom to top, then it should flare out. A bit like a lily. And the color should be very delicate, like the inside of a peach.”
She could see it, clear as the hand she used to describe it.
“It’s lovely things you see in your head.”
“It’s easy to see them there.” She shot him a smile. “The hard work is making them real.”
“You’ll make them real.” He patted her hand and fell into silence.
Maggie took the twisting, narrow road toward the sea. Away toward the west, the clouds were flying in, their sails whipped by the wind and darkened with storm. Clearer patches were swallowed up, then fought their way free to glow gem bright amid the pewter.
She saw a bowl, wide and deep, swirled with those warring colors, and began to fashion it in her head.
The road twisted, then straightened, as she threaded the rattling lorry through hedgerows yellowed with winter and taller than a man. A roadside shrine to Mary stood at the outskirts of a village. The Virgin’s face was serene in the cold, her arms spread in generous welcome, foolishly bright plastic flowers at her feet.
A sigh from her father had Maggie glancing over. He seemed a bit pale to her, a little drawn around the eyes. “You look tired, Da. Are you sure you don’t want me to take you back home?”
“No, no.” He took out his pipe, tapped it absently against his palm. “I want to watch the sea. There’s a storm brewing, Maggie Mae. We’ll have a show from the cliffs at Loop Head.”
“We will at that.”
Past the village the road narrowed alarmingly again until she was threading the lorry along like cotton through the eye of a needle. A man, bundled tight against the cold, trudged toward them, his faithful dog following stoically at his heels. Both man and dog stepped off the road into the hedges as the lorry eased by, inches from the toe of the man’s boots. He nodded to Maggie and Tom in greeting.
“You know what I’ve been thinking, Da?”
“If I could sell a few more pieces—just a few more mind—I could have another furnace. I want to work with more color, you see. If I could build another furnace, I could have more melts going. The firebrick’s not so costly, really. But I’ll need more than two hundred.”
“I’ve a bit put by.”
“No, not again.” On this she was firm. “I love you for it, but this I’ll do on my own.”
He took immediate umbrage and scowled at his pipe. “What’s a father for, I’d like to know, if not to give to his children? You’ll not have fancy clothes or pretty baubles, so if it’s firebrick you want, then that’s what you’ll have.”
“So I will,” she shot back. “But I’ll buy it myself. I’ve a need to do this myself. It’s not the money I want. It’s the faith.”
“You’ve paid me back tenfold already.” He sat back, drawing the window down a crack so that the wind whistled through as he lit his pipe. “I’m a rich man, Maggie. I have two lovely daughters, each of them a jewel. And though a man could ask for no more than that, I’ve a good solid house and friends to count on.”
Maggie noticed he didn’t include her mother in his treasures. “And always the pot at the end of the rainbow.”
“Always that.” He fell silent again, brooding. They passed old stone cabins, roofless and deserted on the verge of gray-green fields that stretched on, endless and impossibly beautiful in the gloomy light. And here a church, standing against the wind that was unbroken now, was blocked only by a few twisted and leafless trees.
It should have been a sad and lonely sight, but Tom found it beautiful. He didn’t share Maggie’s love of solitude, but when he looked out on a sight like this, with lowered sky and empty land meeting with barely a sight of man between, he understood it.
Through the whistling crack of the window, he could smell the sea. Once he’d dreamed of crossing it.
Once he’d dreamed of many things.
He had always searched for that pot of gold, and knew the failure to find it was his. He’d been a farmer by birth, but never by inclination. Now he’d lost all but a few acres of land, enough only for the flowers and vegetables his daughter Brianna grew so skillfully. Enough only to remind him that he had failed.
Too many schemes, he thought now as another sigh fetched up in his chest. His wife, Maeve, was right about that. He’d always been full of schemes, but never had the sense or the luck to make them work.
They chugged past another huddle of houses and a building whose owner boasted it was the last pub until New York. Tom’s spirits lifted at the sight, as they always did.
“Shall we sail over to New York, Maggie, and have a pint?” he said, as he always did.
“I’ll buy the first round.”
He chuckled. A feeling of urgency came over him as she pulled the lorry to the end of the road, where it gave way to grass and rock, and at last to the windswept sea that spanned to America.
They stepped into a roar of sound that was wind and water lashing furiously against the teeth and fists of black rock. With their arms linked, they staggered like drunks, then laughing, began to walk.
“It’s madness to come here on such a day.”
“Aye, a fine madness. Feel the air, Maggie! Feel it. It wants to blow us from here to Dublin Town. Do you remember when we went to Dublin?”
“We saw a juggler tossing colored balls. I loved it so much you learned how yourself.”
His laugh boomed out like the sea itself. “Oh, the apples I bruised.”
“We had pies and cobblers for weeks.”
“And I thought I could make a pound or two with my new skill and took me up to Galway to the fair.”
“And spent every penny you made on presents for me and Brianna.”
His color was back, she noted, and his eyes were shining. She went willingly with him across the uneven grass into the gnashing teeth of the wind. There they stood on the edge of the powerful Atlantic with its warrior waves striking at the merciless rock. Water crashed, then whipped away again, leaving dozens of waterfalls tumbling through crevices. Overhead, gulls cried and wheeled, cried and wheeled, the sound echoing on and on against the thunder of the waves.
The spray plumed high, white as snow at the base, clear as crystal in the beads that scattered in the icy air. No boat bobbed on the rugged surface of the sea today. The fierce whitecaps rode the sea alone.
She wondered if her father came here so often because the merging of sea and stone symbolized marriage as much as war to his eyes. And his marriage had been forever a battle, the constant bitterness and anger of his wife’s lashing forever at his heart, and gradually, oh so gradually, wearing it away.
“Why do you stay with her, Da?”
“What?” He pulled his attention back from the sea and the sky.
“Why do you stay with her?” Maggie repeated. “Brie and I are grown now. Why do you stay where you’re not happy?”
“She’s my wife,” he said simply.
“Why should that be an answer?” she demanded. “Why should it be an end? There’s no love between you, no liking, if it comes to that. She’s made your life hell as long as I can remember.”
“You’re too hard on her.” This, too, was on his head, he thought. For loving the child so much that he’d been helpless not to accept her unconditional love for him. A love, he knew, that had left no room for understanding the disappointments of the woman who had borne her. “What’s between your mother and me is as much my doing as hers. A marriage is a delicate thing, Maggie, a balance of two hearts and two hopes. Sometimes the weight’s just too heavy on the one side, and the other can’t lift to it. You’ll understand when you’ve a marriage of your own.”
“I’ll never marry.” She said in fiercely, like a vow before God. “I’ll never give anyone the right to make me so unhappy.”
“Don’t say that. Don’t.” He squeezed her hard, worried. “There’s nothing more precious than marriage and family. Nothing in the world.”
“If that’s so, how can it be such a prison?”
“It isn’t meant to be.” The weakness came over him again, and all at once he felt the cold deep in his bones. “We haven’t given you a good example, your mother and I, and I’m sorry for it. More than I can tell you. But I know this, Maggie, my girl. When you love with all you are, it isn’t unhappiness alone you risk. It’s heaven, too.”
She pressed her face into his coat, drew comfort from the scent of him. She couldn’t tell him that she knew, had known for years, that it hadn’t been heaven for him. And that he would never have bolted the door to that marital prison behind him if it hadn’t been for her.
“Did you love her, ever?”
“I did. And it was as hot as one of your furnaces. You came from that, Maggie Mae. Born in fire you were, like one of your finest and boldest statues. However much that fire cooled, it burned once. Maybe if it hadn’t flared so bright, so hard, we could have made it last.”
Something in his tone made her look up again, study his face. “There was someone else.”
Like a honeyed blade, the memory was painful and sweet. Tom looked to sea again, as if he could gaze across it and find the woman he’d let go. “Aye, there was once. But it wasn’t to be. Had no right to be. I’ll tell you this, when love comes, when the arrow strikes the heart, there’s no stopping it. And even bleeding is a pleasure. So don’t say never to me, Maggie. I want for you what I couldn’t have.”
She didn’t say it to him, but she thought it. “I’m twenty-three, Da, and Brie’s but a year behind me. I know what the church says, but I’m damned if I believe there’s a God in heaven who finds joy in punishing a man for the whole of his life for a mistake.”
“Mistake.” His brows lowered, Tom stuck his pipe in his teeth. “My marriage has not been a mistake, Margaret Mary, and you’ll not say so now, nor ever again. You and Brie came from it. A mistake—no, a miracle. I was past forty when you were born, without a thought in my head to starting a family. I think of what my life would have been like without the two of you. Where would I be now? A man near seventy, alone. Alone.” He cupped her face in his hands and his eyes were fierce on hers. “I thank God every day I found your mother, and that between us we made something I can leave behind. Of all the things I’ve done, and not done, you and Brianna are my first and truest joys. Now there’ll be no more talk of mistakes or unhappiness, do you hear?”
“I love you, Da.”
His face softened. “I know it. Too much, I think, but I can’t regret it.” The sense of urgency came on him again, like a wind whispering to hurry. “There’s something I’d ask of you, Maggie.”
“What is it?”
He studied her face, his fingers molding it as if he suddenly had a need to memorize every feature—the sharp stubborn chin, the soft curve of cheek, the eyes as green and restless as the sea that clashed beneath them.
“You’re a strong one, Maggie. Tough and strong, with a true heart beneath the steel. God knows you’re smart. I can’t begin to understand the things you know, or how you know them. You’re my bright star, Maggie, the way Brie’s my cool rose. I want you, the both of you, to follow where your dreams lead you. I want that more than I can say. And when you chase them down, you’ll chase them as much for me as for yourself.”
The roar of the sea dimmed in his ears, as did the light in his eyes. For a moment Maggie’s face blurred and faded.
“What is it?” Alarmed, she clutched at him. He’d gone gray as the sky, and suddenly looked horribly old. “Are you ill, Da? Let me get you back into the lorry.”
“No.” It was vital, for reasons he didn’t know, that he stand here, just here at the farthest tip of his country, and finish what he’d begun. “I’m fine. Just a twinge is all.”
“You’re freezing.” Indeed, his wiry body felt like little more than a bag of icy bones in her hands.
“Listen to me.” His voice was sharp. “Don’t let anything stop you from going where you need to go, from doing what you need to do. Make your mark on the world, and make it deep so it lasts. But don’t—”
“Da!” Panic bubbled inside her as he staggered, fell to his knees. “Oh God, Da, what is it? Your heart?”
No, not his heart, he thought through a haze of bleary pain. For he could hear that beating hard and fast in his own ears. But he felt something inside him breaking, bursting and slipping away. “Don’t harden yourself, Maggie. Promise me. You’ll never lose what’s inside you. You’ll take care of your sister. And your mother. You’ll promise me that.”
“You’ve got to get up.” She dragged at him, fighting off fear. The thrash of the sea sounded now like a storm breaking, a nightmare storm that would sweep them both off the cliff and onto the spearing rocks. “Do you hear me, Da? You’ve got to get up now.”
“Aye, I promise. I swear it before God, I’ll see to both of them, always.” Her teeth were chattering; stinging tears already ran down her cheeks.
“I need a priest,” he gasped out.
“No, no, you need only to get out of this cold.” But she knew it was a lie as she said it. He was slipping away from her; no more how tightly she held his body, what was inside him was slipping away. “Don’t leave me like this. Not like this.” Desperate, she scanned the fields, the beaten paths where people walked year after year to stand as they had stood. But there was nothing, no one, so she bit back a scream for help. “Try, Da, come and try now to get up. We’ll get you to a doctor.”
He rested his head on her shoulder and sighed. There was no pain now, only numbness. “Maggie,” he said. Then he whispered another name, a stranger’s name, and that was all.
“No.” As if to protect him from the wind he no longer felt, she wrapped her arms tight around him, rocking, rocking, rocking as she sobbed.
And the wind trumpeted down to the sea and brought with it the first needles of icy rain.
THOMAS Concannon’s wake would be talked about for years. There was fine food and fine music, as he’d planned for his daughter’s celebration party. The house where he’d lived out his last years was crowded with people.
Tom hadn’t been a rich man, some would say, but he was a man who’d been wealthy in friends.
They came from the village, and the village beyond that. From the farms and shops and cottages. They brought food, as neighbors do for such occasions, and the kitchen was quickly stocked with breads and meats and cakes. They drank to his life and serenaded his passing.
The fires burned warm to stave off the gale that rattled the windows and the chill of mourning.
But Maggie was sure she’d never be warm again. She sat near the fire in the tidy parlor while the company filled the house around her. In the flames she saw the cliffs, the boiling sea—and herself, alone, holding her dying father.
Startled, she turned and saw Murphy crouched in front of her. He pressed a steaming mug into her hands.
“What is it?”
“Mostly whiskey, with a bit of tea to warm it up.” His eyes were kind and grieving. “Drink it down now. There’s a girl. Won’t you eat a little? It would do you good.”
“I can’t,” she said, but did as he asked and drank. She’d have sworn she felt each fiery drop slide down her throat. “I shouldn’t have taken him out there, Murphy. I should have seen he was sick.”
“That’s nonsense, and you know it. He looked fine and fit when he left the pub. Why, he’d been dancing, hadn’t he?”
Dancing, she thought. She’d danced with her father on the day he died. Would she, someday, find comfort in that? “But if we hadn’t been so far away. So alone…”
“The doctor told you plain, Maggie. It would have made no difference. The aneurysm killed him, and it was mercifully quick.”
“Aye, it was quick.” Her hand trembled, so she drank again. It was the time afterward that had been slow. The dreadful time when she had driven his body away from the sea, with her breath wheezing in her throat and her hands frozen on the wheel.
“I’ve never seen a man so proud as he was of you.” Murphy hesitated, looked down at his hands. “He was like a second father to me, Maggie.”
“I know that.” She reached out, brushed Murphy’s hair off his brow. “So did he.”
So now he’d lost a father twice, Murphy thought. And for the second time felt the weight of grief and responsibility.
“I want to tell you, to make sure you know, that if there’s anything, anything a’tall you’re needing, or your family needs, you’ve only to tell me.”
“It’s good of you to say so, and to mean it.”
He looked up again; his eyes, that wild Celtic blue, met hers. “I know it was hard when he had to sell the land. And hard that I was the one to buy it.”
“No.” Maggie set the mug aside and laid her hands over his. “The land wasn’t important to him.”
“She would have blamed a saint for buying it,” Maggie said briskly. “Even though the money it brought put food in her mouth. I tell you it was easier that it was you. Brie and I don’t begrudge you a blade of grass, that’s the truth, Murphy.” She made herself smile at him, because they both needed it. “You’ve done what he couldn’t, and what he simply didn’t want to do. You’ve made the land grow. Let’s not hear any more talk like that.”
She looked around then, as if she’d just walked out of an empty room into a full one. Someone was playing the flute, and O’Malley’s daughter, heavy with her first child, was singing a light, dreamy air. There was a trill of laughter from across the room, lively and free. A baby was crying. Men were huddled here and there, talking of Tom, and of the weather, of Jack Marley’s sick roan mare and the Donovans’ leaking cottage roof.
The women talked of Tom as well, and of the weather, of children and of weddings and wakes.
She saw an old woman, an elderly and distant cousin, in worn shoes and mended stockings, spinning a story for a group of wide-eyed youngsters while she knitted a sweater.
“He loved having people around, you know.” The pain was there, throbbing like a wound in her voice. “He would have filled the house with them daily if he could. It was always a wonder to him that I preferred to be on my own.” She drew in a breath and hoped her voice was casual. “Did you ever hear him speak of someone named Amanda?”
“Amanda?” Murphy frowned and considered. “No. Why do you ask?”
“It’s nothing. I probably mistook it.” She shrugged it away. Surely her father’s dying words hadn’t been a strange woman’s name. “I should go help Brie in the kitchen. Thanks for the drink, Murphy. And for the rest.” She kissed him and rose.
There was no easy way to get through the room, of course. She had to stop again and again, to hear words of comfort, or a quick story about her father, or in the case of Tim O’Malley, to offer comfort herself.
“Jesus, I’ll miss him,” Tim said, unabashedly wiping his eyes. “Never had a friend as dear to me, and never will again. He joked about opening a pub of his own, you know. Giving me a bit of competition.”
“I know.” She also knew it hadn’t been a joke, but another dream.
“He wanted to be a poet,” someone else put in while Maggie hugged Tim and patted his back. “Said he’d only lacked the words to be one.”
“He had the heart of a poet,” Tim said brokenly. “The heart and soul of one, to be sure. A finer man never walked this earth than Tom Concannon.”
Maggie had words with the priest about funeral services set for the next morning, and finally slipped into the kitchen.
It was as crowded as the rest of the house, with women busily serving food or making it. The sounds and smells were of life here—kettles singing, soups simmering, a ham baking. Children wandered underfoot, so that women—with that uncanny maternal grace they seemed to be born with—dodged around them or scooped them up as needs demanded.
The wolfhound puppy that Tom had given Brianna on her last birthday snored contentedly under the kitchen table. Brianna herself was at the stove, her face composed, her hands competent. Maggie could see the subtle signs of grief in the quiet eyes and the soft, unsmiling mouth.
“You’ll have a plate.” One of the neighbor women spotted Maggie and began to heap food together. “And you’ll eat or answer to me.”
“I only came in to help.”
“You’ll help by eating some of this food. Enough for an army it is. You know your father once sold me a rooster. Claimed it was the finest cock in the county and would keep me hens happy for years to come. He had a way with him, Tom did, that made you believe what he was saying even though you knew it for nonsense.” She piled great portions of food on the plate as she spoke, taking time out to pat a child out of the way without breaking rhythm. “Well, a terrible, mean bird he turned out to be, and never crew once in his miserable life.”
Maggie smiled a bit and said what was expected of her, though she knew the tale well. “And what did you do with the rooster Da sold you, Mrs. Mayo?”
“I wrung the cursed cock’s neck and boiled him into stew. Gave your father a bowl of it, too, I did. Said he’d never tasted better in his whole life.” She laughed heartily and pressed the plate on Maggie.
“And was it?”
“The meat was stringy and tough as old leather. But Tom ate every drop. Bless him.”
So Maggie ate, because there was nothing she could do but live and go on. She listened to the stories and told some of her own. When the sun went down and the kitchen slowly emptied, she sat down and held the puppy in her lap.
“He was loved,” Maggie said.
“He was.” Brianna stood beside the stove, a cloth in her hand and a dazed look in her eyes. There was no one left to feed or tend to, nothing to keep her mind and her hands busy. Grief swarmed into her heart like angry bees. To hold it off awhile longer, she began to put away the dishes.
She was slim, almost willowy, with a cool, controlled way of moving. If there had been money and means, she might have been a dancer. Her hair, rosy gold and thick, was neatly coiled at the nape of her neck. A white apron covered her plain black dress.
In contrast, Maggie’s hair was a fiery tangle around her face. She wore a skirt she’d forgotten to press and a sweater that needed mending.
“It won’t clear for tomorrow.” Brianna had forgotten the dishes in her hands and stared out the window at the blustery night.
“No, it won’t. But people will come, just the same, as they did today.”
“We’ll have them back here after. There’s so much food. I don’t know what we’ll do with all of it….” Brianna’s voice trailed off.
“Did she ever come out of her room?”
Brianna stood still for a moment, then began slowly to stack plates. “She’s not well.”
“Oh God, don’t. Her husband’s dead and everyone who knew him came here today. She can’t even stir herself to pretend it matters.”
“Of course it matters to her.” Brianna’s voice tightened. She didn’t think she could bear an argument now, not when her heart was swelling up like a tumor in her chest. “She lived with him more than twenty years.”
“And little else she did with him. Why do you defend her? Even now.”
Brianna’s hand pressed a plate so hard she wondered it didn’t snap in two. Her voice remained perfectly calm, perfectly reasonable. “I’m defending no one, only saying what’s true. Can’t we keep peace? At least until we’ve buried him, can’t we keep peace in this house?”
“There’s never been peace in this house.” Maeve spoke from the doorway. Her face wasn’t ravaged by tears, but it was cold and hard and unforgiving. “He saw to that. He saw to it just as he’s seeing to it now. Even dead, he’s making my life a hardship.”
“Don’t speak of him.” The fury Maggie had held back all day broke through, a jagged rock through fragile glass. She shoved away from the table, sending the dog racing for cover. “Don’t you dare to speak ill of him.”
“I’ll speak how I choose.” Maeve’s hand clutched at the shawl she wore, drew it tight to her throat. It was wool, and she’d always wanted silk. “He gave me nothing but grief while he lived. Now he’s dead and has given me more.”
“I see no tears in your eyes, Mother.”
“And you won’t. I’ll neither live nor die a hypocrite, but speak God’s own truth. He’ll go to the devil for what’s he’s done to me this day.” Her eyes, bitter and blue, shifted from Maggie to Brianna. “And as God won’t forgive him, neither will I.”
“Do you know God’s mind now?” Maggie demanded. “Has all your prayerbook reading and rosary clacking given you a line straight to the Lord?”
“You’ll not blaspheme.” Maeve’s cheeks reddened with temper. “You’ll not blaspheme in this house.”
“I’ll speak how I choose.” Maggie echoed her mother’s words with a tight smile. “I’ll tell you Tom Concannon needed none of your stingy forgiveness.”
“Enough.” Though her insides were trembling, Brianna laid a steadying hand on Maggie’s shoulder. She took a long, careful breath to be certain her voice was calm. “I’ve told you, Mother, I’ll give the house to you. You’ve nothing to worry about.”
“What’s this?” Maggie turned to her sister. “What about the house?”
“You heard what it said at the will reading,” Brianna began, but Maggie shook her head.
“I didn’t take any of it in. Lawyer’s talk. I wasn’t paying attention.”
“He left it to her.” Still trembling, Maeve lifted a finger and jabbed it out as an accusation. “He left the house to her. All the years I suffered and sacrificed, and he takes even that from me.”
“She’ll settle down right enough when she knows she has a sturdy roof over her head and no need to do anything to keep it,” Maggie said once her mother left the room.
It was true enough. And Brianna thought she could maintain the peace. She’d had a lifetime of practice. “I’ll keep the house, and she’ll stay here. I can tend them both.”
“Saint Brianna,” Maggie murmured, but there was no malice in it. “We’ll manage it between us.” The new furnace would have to wait, she decided. But as long as McGuinness kept buying, there would be enough to hold the two houses together.
“I’ve thought about…Da and I talked about it a little while ago, and I’ve been thinking….” Brianna hesitated.
Maggie pushed aside her own thoughts. “Just say it.”
“It needs some fixing up, I know, and I’ve only a bit left of what Gran left me—and there’s the lien.”
“I’ll be paying off the lien.”
“No, that’s not right.”
“It’s perfectly right.” Maggie got up to fetch the teapot. “He took it to send me to Venice, didn’t he? Mortgaged the house and weathered the gale Mother brought down on his head for doing it. I had three years of training thanks to him. And I’ll pay it back.”
“The house is mine.” Brianna’s voice firmed. “And so’s the lien.”
Her sister had a soft look about her, but Maggie knew Brianna could be mule stubborn when it suited her. “Well, we can argue that to death. We’ll both pay it off. If you won’t let me do it for you, Brie, let me do it for him. I’ve a need to.”
“We’ll work it out.” Brianna took the cup of tea Maggie poured her.
“Tell me what you’ve been thinking.”
“All right.” It felt foolish. She could only hope it didn’t sound so. “I want to turn the house into a B-and-B.”
“A hotel!” Stunned, Maggie could only stare. “You want to have paying guests nosing about the place? You’ll have no privacy at all, Brianna, and you’ll be working from morning till night.”
“I like having people around,” Brianna said coolly. “Not everyone wants to be a hermit like you. And I’ve a knack for it, I think, for making people comfortable. It’s in the blood.” She stuck out her chin. “Granda ran a hotel, didn’t he, and Gran ran it after he died. I could do it.”
“I never said you couldn’t, I just for the life of me can’t see why you’d want to. Strangers in and out every day.” Why, it gave her the shudders just to imagine it.