Read an Excerpt
The phone rang again, the fourth time. I skidded on the slippery tile as I rounded the corner, then nearly tripped over my mastiff, Barkly, who was cooling his two-hundred-pound carcass on the kitchen floor. Reaching over Barkly for the phone, I accidentally tipped over the chipped mug that held a collection of kitchen implements. Amid a clattering of spatulas and wooden spoons, I jerked up the receiver. “Hello?”
Grimacing, I lunged over Barkly and bent to pick up a wooden spoon before he decided to chew it. Only telephone solicitors call me “Miss O’Connor.” I’d just destroyed my kitchen and nearly broken my neck for the chance to subscribe to Southern Fly-Fishing or prepay my funeral at cut-rate prices.
“Yes?” I frowned into the phone. “Listen, I’m really very busy—”
“I won’t take much of your time, Miss O’Connor.” The man sounded slightly apologetic. “But I’ve just finished reading your work, and I must say it surpasses anything I ever expected.”
My breath caught in my throat as I finally identified the voice. “Professor Howard? You read The Silver Sword?”
“But of course, my dear.” I could hear a smile in his voice. “And I was most impressed by your scholarship and attention to detail. Your work seemed very precise, quite well documented.”
I clutched the telephone cord and leaned back against the counter, momentarily forgetting about Barkly, about the book I’d been reading, about everything. Professor Henry Howard liked my work! What had begun last semester as a silly little research paper on piebaldism—the condition that had produced a distinctive streak of white hair above my left ear—had grown into a major undertaking.
“Thank you, sir,” I stammered.
“I had no idea other such women had descended from Cahira O’Connor,” he went on. “How on earth did you find them?”
“I just typed the words ‘O’Connor’ and ‘piebaldism’ into an Internet search engine,” I muttered, stating the obvious. “And there they were, all four—Cahira, Anika, Aidan, and Flanna. Suddenly Cahira’s deathbed prayer made sense. She had begged heaven that her descendants might break out of their courses and restore right in a murderous world of men.”
“Incredible,” he murmured. “I was very impressed. If you had been my student, I would have given you the highest possible mark. The manuscript read more like a novel than a research project.”
“Well.” Completely at a loss for words, I shifted my weight and leaned against the counter. “Thanks very much, Professor. Praise from you is high praise. I appreciate it.”
Silence rolled over the phone line, and I could almost see the professor lifting his brow, tapping his pen on the desk, carefully choosing his words. “You mentioned in your cover letter that you plan to continue your research,” he finally continued. “Might we meet for lunch one day this month to discuss what else you’ve discovered? I’m curious to understand how the past might affect your future.”
“I don’t know that it will,” I countered. Ever since we met, I had been bothered by the professor’s vision of me as some sort of twenty-first century Joan of Arc. “I know you think I’m one of Cahira’s descendants, but I have nothing in common with either Anika of Prague or Aidan O’Connor.”
The professor politely ignored my protests. “You also mentioned my assistant, Taylor Morgan.” A teasing note had entered his voice. “He has read your work as well and would be happy to join us for lunch.”
A blush burned my cheeks at the mention of Taylor Morgan, and I was glad the professor couldn’t see me at that moment. Flush with the joy of completing a gigantic task, I’d been feeling a little bold when I wrote the cover letter and sent it with the manuscript of The
Silver Sword. I had hinted—rather strongly—that Mr. Taylor Morgan was exactly my type. My type of research assistant, that is.
“Um, sure,” I answered, wrapping the phone cord around my wrist. “I’m working part-time at the Tattered Leaves bookstore down on Sixth Street this summer. There’s a little coffee shop next door.”
“I know the place. Shall we say Friday, at one? I’d like to avoid the crowds if at all possible. And Mr. Morgan teaches until twelve thirty.”
“Friday.” I felt a foolish grin spread over my face. “Fine. And in case you’ve forgotten what I look like, I’ll be the redhead—”
“Miss O’Connor,” he said, his voice crisp, “I could never forget what you look like. Your red hair led me to you in the first place.”
They were waiting for me when I raced through the coffee shop doorway at five minutes after one. The professor rose and pulled out a chair for me, and Taylor Morgan stood, too, his blue eyes smiling at me from behind a pair of chic wire-rimmed glasses. He was wearing a cotton shirt and khakis, looking completely cool and elegant even in the city heat, and as I slid into my chair my mind stuttered and went blank. The sight of Taylor Morgan at close range could do that to any woman, I suspected, but he wasn’t about to be impressed by my scholarship if I sat there and stammered like a star-struck schoolgirl.
So I looked at the professor instead. He was middle-aged, soft, and infinitely respectable, and nothing about him gave me the tingles—except the fact that he liked my work.
We exchanged polite hellos; then the professor asked again how I’d found the other descendants of Cahira O’Connor. “The Internet search engine I used picked up four references to ‘O’Connor’ and ‘piebaldism.’” I scanned the menu, decided on my usual tuna sandwich, and dropped the menu back on the table. “Each woman followed her predecessor by two hundred years, give or take a few. Cahira lived in the thirteenth century, Anika in the fifteenth, Aidan in the seventeenth, and Flanna in the nineteenth. All of them bore the O’Connor name, and all had red hair with a white streak above the left temple.”
The professor’s gaze darted toward the streak of white that marked my own hair. I sipped from my water glass, waiting for some kind of response.
“Do you plan to investigate these other women?” Taylor asked, his voice golden and as warm as the sun outside. “Will that work fit into your current studies?”
“I’ve already finished most of my research on Aidan O’Connor,” I answered with a shrug. “I’m an English major, so I’ll find a way to use everything I’ve learned. Or maybe I can talk to my adviser about setting up some sort of independent study.”
“It would be a shame to let such scholarship and hard work go unrewarded.” Taylor captured my gaze with his. “And I am eager to hear about the other women.”
“What I want to know, Miss O’Connor—” The professor lowered his menu, then folded his arms on the table. “—is what you intend to do about your own involvement in the lineage. You are an O’Connor, and you have the same physical characteristic that marked the others.”
“I have to admit that I’ve wondered about that.” Uneasiness crept into my mood like a wisp of smoke. “I think I am supposed to be the chronicler, nothing more. If God did answer Cahira’s prayer and her descendants are linked to me, then I am the only one with the resources to tell their stories. I have access to the Internet, I have a computer—such technology was completely unimaginable until this century. So I’m the one entrusted with telling the stories, with weaving the threads of history together.”
“For your sake, I hope you’re right.” Professor Howard’s hazel eyes clouded in an expression of concern. “Because if you’re not—well, I’d hate to think that armed conflict lies around the corner of the millennium. Didn’t all of Cahira’s descendants fight in a war or—”
I held up my hand, cutting him off. “That’s not quite right, Professor. Cahira didn’t say that her descendants would fight in wars, only that they would fight for right. Aidan O’Connor, for instance, didn’t go to war. In 1642 she was living in Batavia, a Dutch colony on the island of Java in Indonesia, and the islands were at peace.”
“How in the world did the descendant of an Irish princess end up in Indonesia?” Taylor’s blue eyes flashed with curiosity.
I took a deep breath as my gaze moved into his. At that moment Mel Gibson could have walked into the coffee shop and I wouldn’t have even glanced his way. “It’s a long story. If you have to rush off to another appointment, I probably shouldn’t even begin it.”
Taylor leaned forward on the table and clasped his hands. “I cleared my calendar for you,” he said, his voice low and smooth.
I vaguely heard Professor Howard say something about having a three o’clock dentist appointment, but his words barely registered. If Taylor Morgan was willing to sit and listen, I’d talk all day and into the night if he wanted me to. Such a sacrifice. Still, the man wanted to know…
“Okay.” I smiled at him. “But first I’d like a Coke and a tuna sandwich. Let’s order.”
Taylor lifted his hand to signal the waitress, and I pulled my notebook from my purse. While he and the professor ordered sandwiches and soft drinks, I studied my outline.
“Okay, Miss O’Connor,” Taylor said as the waitress moved away. “We’re ready. Tell us how an O’Connor descendant ended up in the middle of the Pacific.”
“Aidan O’Connor wasn’t born in Indonesia,” I answered, setting my notebook on the table. “Her parents, Cory and Lili O’Connor, were as Irish as shamrocks, but they were living in England when Aidan was born. In 1632, when Aidan turned fourteen, her parents risked everything to escape the plague that killed over twelve thousand Londoners that summer.”
“The O’Connors emigrated?” Professor Howard asked.
I nodded. “Yes, to Batavia, capital of the Dutch colony in the Spice Islands. Many Englishmen fled London for the Caribbean, New England, and Virginia, but Aidan’s father longed for something different.”
“Wise move on his part.” Taylor shifted in his chair.
“Not really,” I answered, lifting my brow. “He died on the voyage. Upon their arrival in Batavia, Aidan and Lili found themselves with no patron, no resources, and no social welfare system in a colony that prided itself on industry and social order. Lili had to turn to the world’s oldest profession just to survive.”
“Prostitution?” The professor’s face twisted in dismay.
“She guarded her daughter,” I said. “But Lili became what the Dutch called a procuress—she procured whatever, ah, entertainment a visiting sailor might need in the port city.”
“Wait a minute.” Taylor held up his hand as the waitress placed a sweating soft drink in front of him. “You just said the Dutch were known for industry and social order. I can’t imagine their tolerating such a practice.”
“Batavia was like most other large cities: two very different worlds existed within it.” I took my drink and nodded to the waitress. “There was the civilized world where respectable folk lived and worked, and a darker world they largely ignored. Oh, every once in a while they’d send the sheriff ’s constabulary to round up the beggars, cutpurses, and drunks, but for the most part they enjoyed pretending that the notorious flophouses, musicos, and taverns did not exist.”
“So our Aidan lived in the underworld?” Professor Howard frowned in concern.
“Yes, and she might have remained there unnoticed,” I answered, “but everything changed one afternoon when Schuyler Van Dyck and his family went for a carriage ride along the waterfront.”