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It wasn't unusual for Brianna to have a guest or two at Blackthorn Cottage during the worst of winter's storms. But January was slow, and more often than not her home was empty. She didn't mind the solitude, or the hell-hound howl of the wind, or even the leaden sky that spewed rain and ice day after bitter day. It gave her time to plan.
She enjoyed travelers, expected or not. From a business standpoint the pounds and pence counted. But beyond that, Brianna liked company, and the opportunity to serve and make a temporary home for those who passed her way.
She had, in the years since her father died and her mother moved out, turned the house into the home she had longed for as a child, with turf fires and lace curtains and the scents of baking coming from the kitchen. Still, it had been Maggie, and Maggie's art,that had made it possible for Brianna to expand, bit by bit. It wasn't something Brianna forgot.
But the house was hers. Their father had understood her love and her need for it. She tended her legacy as she would a child.
Perhaps it was the weather that made her think of her father. He had died on a day very much like this. Now and again, at odd moments when she found herself alone, she discovered she still carried little pockets of grief, with memories, good and bad, tucked into them.
Work was what she needed, she told herself, turning away from the window before she could brood for long.
With the rain pelting down, she decided to postpone a trip into the village and instead tackle a task she had put off for too long. No one was expected that day, and her single reservation wasn't due until the end of the week. With her dog trooping behind her, Brianna carted broom, bucket, rags, and an empty carton up to the attic.
She cleaned up here with regularity. No dust was allowed in Brianna's house for long. But there were boxes and trunks she had ignored in her day-to-day routine. No more, she told herself and propped open the attic door. This time she would make a clean sweep. And she would not allow sentiment to prevent her from dealing with leftover memories.
If the room was cleaned out properly once and for all, she thought, she might be able to afford the materials and labor necessary to remodel it. A cozy loft room it could be,she mused, leaning on her broom. With one of those ceiling windows, and perhaps a dormer. Soft yellow paint to bring the sun inside. Polish and one of her hooked rugs on the floor.
She could already see it, the pretty bed covered by a colorful quilt, a sugan chair, a little writing table. And if she had . . .
Brianna shook her head and laughed at herself. She was getting ahead of herself.
"Always dreaming, Con,'' she murmured, rubbing the dog's head. "And what's needed here is elbow grease and ruthlessness.''
Boxes first, she decided. It was time to clean out old papers, old clothes.
Thirty minutes later she had neat piles. One she would take to the church for the poor; another would be rags. The last she would keep.
"Ah, look at this, Con.'' Reverently she took out a small white christening gown, gently shaking out the folds. Faint wisps of lavender haunted the air. Tiny buttons and narrow edges of lace decorated the linen. Her grandmother's handiwork, Brianna knew, and smiled. "He saved it,'' she murmured. Her mother would never had given such sentimental thought to future generations. "Maggie and I would have worn this, you see. And Da packed it away for our children.''
There was a pang, so familiar she barely felt it. There was no babe sleeping in a cradle for her, no soft bundle waiting to be held and nursed and loved. But Maggie, shethought, would want this. Taking care, she folded the gown again.
The next box was filled with papers that made her sigh. She would have to read them, scan them at least. Her father had saved every scrap of correspondence. There would be newspaper clippings as well. His ideas, he would have said, for new ventures.
Always a new venture. She set aside various articles he'd clipped out, on inventions, foresting, carpentry, shopkeeping. None on farming, she noticed with a smile. A farmer he'd never been. She found letters from relatives, from companies he'd written to in America, in Australia, in Canada. And here the proof of purchase for the old truck they'd had when she'd been a child. One document stopped her, made her frown in puzzlement. It looked like some sort of stock certificate. Triquarter Mining, in Wales. From the date it seemed he'd purchased it only a few weeks before he died.
Triquarter Mining? Another venture, Da, she mused, spending money we barely had. Well, she would have to write to this Triquarter company and see what was to be done. It was unlikely the stock was worth more than the paper it was printed on. Such had always been Tom Concannon's luck with business deals.
That bright brass ring he'd forever reached for had never fit the palm of his hand.
She dug further into the box, amused herself with letters from cousins and uncles and aunts. They had loved him. Everyone had loved him. Almost, she corrected, thinking of hermother.
Pushing that thought aside, she took out a trio of letters tied with a faded red ribbon. The return address was New York, but that was no surprise.
The Concannons had a number of friends and relations in the States. The name, however, was a mystery to her. Amanda Dougherty.
Brianna unfolded the letter, scanned the neat, convent-school writing. As her breath caught in her throat, she read again, carefully, word for word.
My darling Tommy, I told you I wouldn't write. Perhaps I won't send this letter, but I need to pretend, at least, that I can talk to you. I've been back in New York for only a day. Already you seem so far away, and the time we had together all the more precious. I have been to confession and received my penance. Yet in my heart, nothing that passed between us is a sin. Love cannot be a sin. And I will always love you. One day, if God is kind, we will find a way to be together. But if that never happens, I want you to know that I'll treasure every moment we were given. I know it's my duty to tell you to honor the sacrament of your marriage, to devote yourself to the two babies you love so much. And I do. But, however selfish it is, I also ask that sometime, when spring comes to Clare, and the Shannon is bright with sunlight, you think of me. And how for those few short weeks, you loved me. And I love you . . .
Always, Amanda Love letters, she thought dully. To her father. Written, she saw, staring at the date, when she was an infant.
Her hands chilled. How was a woman, a grown woman of twenty-eight years, supposed to react when she learned her father had loved a woman other than his wife? Her father, with his quick laugh, his useless schemes. These were words written for no one's eyes but his. And yet, how could she not read them?
With her heart pounding thickly in her chest, Brianna unfolded the next.
My darling Tommy, I have read and read your letter until I can see every word in my head. My heart breaks to think of you so unhappy. I, too, often look out to sea and picture you gazing across the water toward me. There is so much I wish to tell you, but I'm afraid it will only add to your heartache. If there is no love with your wife, there must be duty. There is no need for me to tell you that your children are your first concern. I know, have known all along, that they are first in your heart, and in your thoughts. God bless you, Tommy, for thinking also of me. And for the gift you gave me. I thought my life would be empty, now it will never be anything but full and rich. I love you now even more than I did when we parted. Don't grieve when you think of me. But think of me.
Always, Amanda Love, Brianna thought as her eyes welled with tears. There was such love here, though so little had been said. Whohad she been, this Amanda? How had they met? And how often had her father thought of this woman? How often had he wished for her?
Dashing a tear away, Brianna opened the last letter.
My darling, I have prayed and prayed before writing this. I've asked the Holy Mother to help me know what is right. What is fair to you, I can't be sure. I can only hope that what I tell you will give you joy, not grief.
I remember the hours we spent together in my little room at the inn overlooking the Shannon. How sweet and gentle you were, how blinded we both were by the love that swept through us. I have never known, nor will I know again, that deep, abiding love. So am I grateful that though we can never be together, I will have something precious to remind me that I was loved. I'm carrying your child, Tommy. Please be happy for me. I'm not alone, and I'm not afraid. Perhaps I should be ashamed. Unmarried, pregnant by another woman's husband. Perhaps the shame will come, but for now, I am only full of joy.
I have known for weeks, but could not find the courage to tell you. I find it now, feeling the first quickening of the life we made inside me. Do I have to tell you how much this child will be loved? I have already imagined holding our baby in my arms. Please, my darling, for the sake of our child, let there be no grief or guilt in your heart. And, for the sake of our child, I am going away. Though I will think of you every day, every night, I will not write again. I will love you allof my life, and whenever I look at the life we created in those magic hours near the Shannon, I will love you more.
Give whatever you feel for me to your children. And be happy.
Always, Amanda A child. As her eyes swam with tears, Brianna covered her mouth with her hand. A sister. A brother. Dear God. Somewhere, there was a man or woman bound to her by blood. They would be close in age. Perhaps share the same coloring, the same features.
What could she do? What could her father have done, all those years ago?
Had he searched for the woman and his baby? Had he tried to forget?
No. Gently Brianna smoothed the letters. He hadn't tried to forget. He'd kept her letters always. She closed her eyes, sitting in the dimly lit attic.
And, she thought, he had loved his Amanda. Always.
She needed to think before she told Maggie what she'd found. Brianna thought best when she was busy. She could no longer face the attic, but there were other things that could be done. She scrubbed and polished and baked. The simple hominess of chores, the pleasure of the scents they created, lightened her spirits. She added turf to the fires, brewed tea, and settled down to sketch out ideas for her greenhouse.
The solution would come, in time, she told herself.After more than twenty-five years, a few days of thought would hurt no one. If a part of the delay was cowardice, a weak need to avoid the whip of her sister's emotions, she recognized it.
Brianna never claimed to be a brave woman.
In her practical way, she composed a polite, businesslike letter to Triquarter Mining in Wales and set it aside to be posted the next day.
She had a list of chores for the morning, rain or shine. By the time she'd banked the fires for the night, she was grateful Maggie had been too busy to drop by. Another day, perhaps two, Brianna told herself, and she would show her sister the letters.
But tonight she would relax, let her mind empty. An indulgence was what she needed, Brianna decided. In truth her back was aching just a bit from overdoing her scrubbing. A long bath with some of the bubbles Maggie had brought her from Paris, a cup of tea, a book. She would use the big tub upstairs and treat herself like a guest. Rather than her narrow bed in the room off the kitchen, she would sleep in splendor in what she thought of as the bridal suite.
"We're kings tonight, Con,'' she told the dog as she poured bubbles lavishly under the stream of water. "A supper tray in bed, a book written by our soon-to-be guest. A very important Yank, remember,'' she added as Con thumped his tail on the floor.
She slipped out of her clothes and into the hot, fragrant water. The sigh rose up from her toes. A love story might be more appropriate to the moment, she thought, than a thriller with the title of The Bloodstone Legacy. But Brianna settled back in the tub and eased into the story of a woman haunted by her past and threatened by her present.
It caught her. So much so that when her water had chilled, she held the book in one hand, reading, as she dried off with the other. Shivering, she tugged on a long flannel nightgown, unpinned her hair. Only ingrained habit had her setting the book aside long enough to tidy the bath. But she didn't bother with the supper tray. Instead, she snuggled into bed, pulling the quilt up close.
She barely heard the wind kick at the windows, the rain slash at them.
Courtesy of Grayson Thane's book, Brianna was in the sultry summer of the southern United States, hunted by a murderer.
It was past midnight when fatigue defeated her. She fell asleep with the book still in her hands, the dog snoring at the foot of the bed and the wind howling like a frightened woman.
She dreamed, of course, of terror.
Grayson Thane was a man of impulses. Because he recognized it, he generally took the disasters that grew from them as philosophically as the triumphs. At the moment he was forced to admit that the impulse to drive from Dublin to Clare, in the dead of winter, in the face of one of the most bad-tempered storms he'd ever experienced, had probably been a mistake.
But it was still an adventure. And he lived his life by them.
He'd had a flat outside of Limerick. A puncture, Gray corrected. When in Rome, speak the lingo. By the time he'd changed the tire, he'd looked and felt like a drowned rat, despite the macintosh he'd picked up in London the week before.
He'd gotten lost twice, finding himself creeping down narrow, winding roads that were hardly more than ditches. His research had told him that getting lost in Ireland was part of its charm.
He was trying hard to remember that.
He was hungry, soaked to the skin, and afraid he would run out of gaspetrolbefore he found anything remotely like an inn or village.
In his mind he went over the map. Visualizing was a talent he'd been born with, and he could, with little effort, reproduce every line of the careful map his hostess had sent him.
The trouble was, it was pitch dark, the rain washed over his windshield like a roaring river, and the wind was buffeting his car on this godforsaken excuse for a road as if the Mercedes was a Tinkertoy.
He wished violently for coffee.
When the road forked, Gray took his chances and guided the car to the left. If he didn't find the inn or something like in it another ten miles, he'd sleep in the damn car and try again in the morning.
It was a pity he couldn't see any of the countryside. He had a feeling in the dark desolation of the storm it would be exactly what he was looking for.
He wanted his book here, among the cliffs and fields of western Ireland, with the fierce Atlantic threatening, and the quiet villages huddled against it. And he might just have his tired, world-weary hero arriving in the teeth of a gale.
He squinted into the gloom. A light? He hoped to Christ it was. He caught a glimpse of a sign, swinging hard in the wind. Gray reversed, aimed the headlights, and grinned.
The sign read Blackthorn Cottage. His sense of direction hadn't failed him after all. He hoped his hostess proved out the legend of Irish hospitalityhe was two days early after all. And it was two in the morning.
Gray looked for a driveway, saw nothing but soaked hedges. With a shrug, he stopped the car in the road, pocketed the keys. He had all he'd need for the night in a knapsack on the seat beside him. Swinging it with him, he left the car where it was and stepped into the storm.
It slapped him like an angry woman, all teeth and nails. He staggered, almost plowed through the drenched hedges of fuchsia, and through more luck than design all but ran into the garden gate. Gray opened it, then fought it closed again. He wished he could see the house more clearly. There was only an impression of shape and size through the dark, with that single light shining in the window upstairs.
He used it like a beacon and began to dream of coffee.
No one answered his knock. With the wind screaming, he doubted anyone would hear a battering ram. It took him less than ten seconds to decide to open the door himself.
Again, there were only impressions. The storm at his back, the warmth within. There were scentslemon, polish, lavender, and rosemary. He wondered if the old Irishwoman who ran the inn made her own potpourri. He wondered if she'd wake up and fix him a hot meal.
Then he heard the growldeep, feraland tensed. His head whipped up, his eyes narrowed. Then his mind, for one stunning moment, blanked.
Later, he would think it was a scene from a book. One of his own perhaps.
The beautiful woman, the long white gown billowing, her hair spilling like fired gold down her shoulders. Her face was pale in the swaying light of the candle she held in one hand. Her other hand was clutched at the collar of a dog that looked and snarled like a wolf. A dog whose shoulders reached her waist.
She stared down at him from the top of the steps, like a vision he had conjured. She might have been carved from marble, or ice. She was so still, so utterly perfect.
Then the dog strained forward. With a movement that rippled her gown, she checked him.
"You're letting the rain in,'' she said in a voice that only added to the fantasy. Soft, musical, lilting of the Ireland he'd come to discover.
"Sorry.'' He fumbled behind him for the door, shuttingit so that the storm became only a backdrop.
Her heart was still thudding. The noise and Con's response had wakened her from a dream of pursuit and terror. Now, Brianna stared down at a man in black, shapeless but for his face, which was shadowed. When he stepped closer, she kept her trembling hand tight on Con's collar.
A long, narrow face, she saw now. A poet's face with its dark, curious eyes and solemn mouth. A pirate's face, hardened by those prominent bones and the long sun-streaked hair that curled damp around it.
Silly to be afraid, she scolded herself. He was just a man, after all.
"Are you lost, then?'' she asked him.
"No.'' He smiled, slow, easy. "I'm found. This is Blackthorn Cottage?''
"It is, yes.''
"I'm Grayson Thane. I'm a couple days early, but Miss Concannon's expecting me.''
"Oh.'' Brianna murmured something to the dog Gray didn't catch, but it had the effect of relaxing those bunched canine muscles. "I was looking for you on Friday, Mr. Thane. But you're welcome.'' She started down the steps, the dog at her side, the candlelight wavering. "I'm Brianna Concannon.'' She offered a hand.
He stared at it a moment. He'd been expecting a nice, homey woman with graying hair tucked back in a bun. "I woke you,'' he said foolishly.
"We usually sleep here in the middle of the night. Come in by the fire.''
She walked to the parlor, switching on the lights. After setting the candle aside, blowing it out, she turned to take his wet coat. "It's a terrible night for traveling.''
"So I discovered.''
He wasn't shapeless under the mac. Though he wasn't as tall as Brianna's uneasy imagination had made him, he was lean and wiry. Like a boxer, she thought, then smiled at herself. Poet, pirate, boxer. The man was a writer, and a guest. "Warm yourself, Mr. Thane. I'll make you some tea, shall I? Or would you rather I . . .'' She'd started to offer to show him to his room, and remembered that she was sleeping in it.
"I've been dreaming of coffee for the last hour. If it isn't too much trouble.''
"It's not a problem. No problem at all. Make yourself comfortable.''
It was too pretty a scene to spend alone, he decided. "I'll just come in the kitchen with you. I feel bad enough about dragging you out of bed at this hour.'' He held out a hand for Con to sniff. "This is some dog. For a minute I took him for a wolf.''
"A wolfhound, he is.'' Her mind was busy figuring details. "You're welcome to sit in the kitchen. Are you hungry, then?''
He rubbed Con's head and grinned down at her. "Miss Concannon, I think I love you.''
She flushed at his compliment. "Well, you give your heart easily then, if for no more than a bowl of soup.''
"Not from what I've heard of your cooking.''
"Oh?'' She led the way into the kitchen and hung his dripping coat on a hook by the rear door.
"A friend of a cousin of my editor stayed here a year or so ago. The word was that the hostess of the Blackthorn cooked like an angel.'' He hadn't heard she looked like one as well.
"That's a fine compliment.'' Brianna put on the kettle, then ladeled soup into a pot for heating. "I'm afraid I can only offer you plain fare tonight, Mr. Thane, but you'll not go to your bed hungry.'' She took soda bread from a bin and sliced it generously. "Have you traveled long today?''
"I started out late from Dublin. I'd planned to stay another day, but I had the itch.'' He smiled, taking the bread she set on the table and biting into the first piece before she could offer him butter. "It was time to get on the road. Do you run this place alone?''
"I do. I'm afraid you'll have a lack of company this time of year.''
"I didn't come for company,'' he said, watching as she measured out coffee. The kitchen was beginning to smell like heaven.
"For work, you said. I think it must be wonderful to be able to tell stories.''
"It has its moments.''
"I like yours.'' It was simply said as she reached into a cupboard for a stoneware bowl glazed in deep blue.
He raised a brow. People usually began to ask dozens of questions at this point. How do you write, where do you get your ideasthe most hated of questionshow do you get published? And questions were usually followed up by the deathless information that the inquirer had a story to tell.
But that was all she said. Gray found himself smiling again. "Thanks.
Sometimes I do, too.'' He leaned forward, sniffed deeply when she set the bowl of soup in front of him. "It doesn't smell like plain fare to me.''
"It's vegetable, with a bit of beef. I can make you a sandwich if you like.''
"No, this is great.'' He sampled, sighed. "Really great.'' He studied her again. Did her skin always look so soft and flushed? he wondered. Or was it sleepiness? "I'm trying to be sorry I woke you,'' he said and continued to eat. "This is making it tough.''
"A good inn's always open to a traveler, Mr. Thane.'' She set his coffee beside him, signaled the dog who immediately stood from his perch beside the kitchen table. "Help yourself to another bowl if you like. I'll tend to your room.''
She hurried out, quickening her steps as she came to the stairs. She'd have to change the sheets on the bed, the towels in the bath. It didn't occur to her to offer him one ofthe other rooms. As her only guest, he was entitled to the best she had.
She worked quickly and was just plumping the pillows in their lace-edged cases when she heard the sound at the door.
Her first reaction was distress to see him standing in the doorway. Her next was resignation. It was her home, after all. She had a right to use any part of it.
"I was giving myself a bit of a holiday,'' she began and tugged at the quilt.
Odd, he thought, that a woman performing the simple task of tucking in sheets should look so outrageously sexy. He must be more tired than he'd thought.
"I seemed to have dragged you from your bed in more ways than one. It wasn't necessary for you to move out.''
"This is the room you're paying for. It's warm. I've built the fire up, and you've your own bath. If you''
She broke off because he'd come up behind her. The prickling down her spine had her stiffening, but he only reached for the book on the night table.
Brianna cleared her throat and stepped back. "I fell asleep reading it,'' she began, then went wide-eyed in distress. "I don't mean to say it put me to sleep. I just'' He was smiling, she noted. No, he was grinning at her.
The corners ofher mouth tugged in response. "It gave me nightmares.''
She relaxed again, automatically turning sheets and quilt down in welcome. "And you coming in from the storm had me imagining the worst. I was sure the killer had popped right out of the book, bloody knife in hand.''
"And who is he?''
She cocked a brow. "I can't say, but I've my suspicions. You've a clever way of twisting the emotions, Mr. Thane.''
"Gray,'' he said, handing her the book. "After all, in a convoluted sort of way, we're sharing a bed.'' He took her hand before she could think of how to respond, then left her unsettled by raising it to his lips. "Thanks for the soup.''
"You're welcome. Sleep well.''
He didn't doubt he would. Brianna had hardly gone out and closed his door when he stripped off his clothes and tumbled naked into the bed. There was a faint scent of lilacs in the air, lilacs and some summer meadow scent he recognized as Brianna's hair.
He fell asleep with a smile on his face.
Copyright 1995 Nora Roberts