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THE BOAT SKIMMED over the choppy gray water, sending a gentle spray into the air to land on Claire O'Connor's face. She brushed a damp strand of hair from her eyes, then fixed her gaze on the small island in the distance, a hazy bump on the horizon.
The Isle of Trall. She'd left Chicago twenty-four hours earlier and now that she was nearing her destination, Claire realized she'd come on a fool's errand. "I must be crazy," she murmured.
"What's that, lass?"
Claire glanced over at Billy Boyle, the captain of the mail boat, and forced a smile. "Nothing," she murmured.
"If ye step inside, you won't be gettin' so damp."
"That's all right," Claire said. Perhaps the cold and damp were exactly what she needed to shake a little sense into herself. So much had happened in the past two days she'd hardly had a chance to think clearly. She'd lost her boyfriend, her job and her apartment all in one six-hour period. As a result, she'd begun a quest to get them all back in one crazy act of desperation, an act that brought her to a tiny island off the western coast of Ireland. "We don't see too many single passengers makin'the trip to Trall," Captain Billy said. "Mostly couples. It's a romantic destination, ye know. Not really a place for people to visit on their own."
Her grandmother, Orla O'Connor, had told her of the island, and of the legend, but Claire wanted to hear it again, from someone who had more than just fifty-yearold evidence of its existence. "Why is that?" she asked.
"They come hoping to find the Druid spring. It's in all the tour books. It's said that if a couple drinks the water, they will be bound together for life. Eternal love and all that. You ask me, Ithink it's bollocks."
"Do you know where this spring is?" she asked. Captain Billy shook his head. "I'm the one who should have been lookin'. I've had meself three wives and not one of them is still warmin' me bed."
Claire turned her attention back to the island. She'd been under the assumption that the location of the spring would be posted on every roadside in Trall, with huge signs and arrows pointing the way, and maybe even a modern visitors center. Her grandmother had said nothing about having to search for it! "Is there anyone who knows where it is?"
Captain Billy considered her question for a long moment, then shrugged. "I'd suppose Sorcha Mulroony would know. She's a Druid princess or priestess, I think she calls herself. Me, I think she's a bit barmy. But she fancies herself the keeper of all the island's magic. You could ask her, but she charges a steep price for her services."
"Her services?" "Soothsaying, curses, spells, she does it all. I bought a curse from her last year. Cost me fifty euros, it did. There was a tosser from Dingle who was tryin' to get the contract for the mail boat by cuttin' my price. Sorcha cursed his boat and it sank in the harbor the very next day."
"Did you ever think maybe she just poked a hole in the side of his boat and that's why it sank?"
Billy thought about the possibility as if it had never occurred to him before. Then he shrugged. "I don't care what she did. That bloke isn't haulin' mail to Trall, is he now?"
"I suppose he isn't," she said with a smile. Claire wrapped her corduroy jacket more tightly around her, watching as the island grew larger and larger on the horizon. "Can you recommend a place to stay on Trall?"
"There's a lovely inn to the north of town. The Ivybrook out on Cove Road. This time of year, there should be rooms available. Will Donovan runs it. His family has been on the island for generations. He's a celebrity of sorts, he is."
"Famous? For what?"
"Oh, we don't gossip about our neighbors on Trall." Billy frowned. "But maybe this isn't gossip, more in the line of news. A few years back, he was named one of Ireland's most eligible bachelors. Got his picture in a fancy magazine for it."
"Interesting," Claire said.
"His great-grandfather was the first to run the inn. T'was an old manor house at one time. A summer home for some posh Brit. Will left the island for university and we thought we'd seen the last of 'im. Then three years ago, he comes back to Trall to run the inn. His folks, Mick and Maeve Donovan, wanted to be closer to their daughter and their grandkids, so they were off to Dublin. Island life seems to suit Will. That's not gossip, it's fact."
"I probably should have called ahead for a reservation."
"I haven't brought any tourists out to the island in the past three days," the captain said. "So I don't think ye'll have a problem. There'll be more folks coming in for the Samhain celebration later this week."
"Oh, I'll be gone by then," Claire said. "I'm just staying a night, maybe two."
"If ye don't find Will at the inn, there's a key under the flowerpot next to the door. Just let yourself in."
"Why would he lock the door if everyone knows where the key is?"
"'Cause of Dickie O'Malley. He's got a farm south of town and he's got no hot runnin' water. So he wanders into town looking for a place to take a bath. Dickie is a dirty bugger and he always leaves a mess. Uses every clean towel in the place. He also drinks every last drop of whiskey before he leaves. I guess you could say it's his callin'card. That's not gossip, lass, it's just fact."
They passed the rest of the trip in silence, Claire sitting at the stern of the boat, trying to make out details of the island as they approached. Suddenly, her reasons for coming to Trall seemed so silly. She'd come to find a magic spring that would make her boyfriend love her again.
The sequence of events leading to this moment had been burned indelibly into her brain. She'd risen just yesterday morning, thinking it was a day like any other. Eric had left for the office early and rather than ride in with him, Claire had decided to sleep a little longer and take the train. It was only moments after she got up that she found the note, a fluorescent green sticky stuck to the bathroom mirror. It's over. I'm sorry. Goodbye.
Eric had been pensive and moody for the past month, but Claire had assumed he was leading up to a proposal of marriage, not a breakup, especially after she'd found the credit card receipt for a $9,000 purchase at one of Chicago's finest jewelers.
She'd dressed for work, determined to speak to him the moment she arrived at the office. They'd worked at the same advertising agency for four years and had been together for two and a half. He couldn't be serious about breaking up, she'd told herself.
But when she'd arrived at work, she'd found the agency in complete chaos. A company meeting had been called early that morning to inform the staff that the agency had just been bought out by a larger firm. Half the employees would be without jobs. She was promptly called into the creative director's office and told she was officially unemployed. It was only then she'd learned Eric had tendered his resignation the day before and was already gone, his office empty of his personal effects, his whereabouts unknown.
As if things couldn't get worse, when she returned home a few hours later, she found an overnight envelope propped up against her apartment door. Inside was a notice that her building was being converted to condos and she was welcome to buy at a price an unemployed advertising art director could never afford.
Claire had always been so careful in planning her life, from finding the right man to getting a job at the best agency in town to living in a beautiful apartment in a trendy Chicago neighborhood. She watched her diet, choosing organic foods from the grocery store, and she worked out religiously, four times a week at her health club. She even did volunteer work once a week with an after-school program. How could her life possibly have gone so bad in such a short time?
"When it rains, it pours," her grandmother had told her as Claire had sat numbly on her sofa. And then, Orla O'Connor had given her granddaughter a simple solution. Win back the man in your life first. The rest will fall into place. When Claire had asked how, Orla had a ready answer. A trip to Ireland, to the Isle of Trall, would solve all her problems.
"And here I am," she murmured. On a boat to Trall. Captain Billy steered into a calm harbor and deftly maneuvered the boat up to an empty dock. When it bumped against the wood pilings, he jumped off and secured the lines, then helped Claire onto the dock. A moment later, her luggage was sitting at her feet.
"The mail boat leaves at noon, Monday to Friday. You can catch a ride back with me or take the car ferry. That makes three trips a day, every day."
"Which way is the inn?" Claire asked.
"'Bout a mile down the road," Billy said, pointing off to the north. He glanced up at the sky. "You'd better hurry along. It looks like we're due for a spot of rain."
"Isn't there a taxi?"
This time he glanced at his watch. "Well, there usually is, if guests are expected, but you weren't expected, now, were you? Dougal Fraser runs the island's taxi service, but it's nearly 4:00 p.m. I suspect he's already well into his second pint at the pub. That's it just over there. The Jolly Farmer, it's called."
"Could you give me a ride to the inn?"
The captain shook his head. "Oh, no. That would be puttin' a toe onto Dougal's turf and he wouldn't take kindly to me doin'that. We have our own little rules here on the island and stealin' a man's livin' is one that we never break. Besides, I keep my car on the mainland. No need for it here. There's nowhere to go on this island."
"And if he's not there? Am I expected to walk a mile with my suitcases?"
"Oh, I'm sure someone will come along and offer you a ride, then. Just wave them down and tell them where you're going."
Claire watched as Billy grabbed a sack from the boat and hefted it over his shoulder. "Come along, I'll show you the way." They walked to the end of the dock and Billy pointed to a small white-washed building on the corner of the cobblestone street. "Walk right in there and ask for Dougal. Hurry along now, before ye get wet."
The light rain had turned to a steady downpour as Claire reached the door of the pub. She wiped the water from her eyes and walked inside. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dimly lit interior, but when they did, she saw the bartender and two patrons staring at her with curious gazes.
"I'm looking for Dougal Fraser?" Claire said.