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If a wicked witch ever wanted to ditch her castle to buy real estate in Illinois, any kid in Whitewater would tell you the deserted house on Jubilee Point would be the place she'd choose.
The widow's walk peering out over the Mississippi made a perfect launching pad for flying monkeys. The horse chestnut tree might not throw apples at trespassers, but half of it fell and nearly smashed Billy Callahan's big brother the night a bunch of teenagers tried to break into the house, drunk on cheap beer and halloween dares.
Grown-ups tried to brush the whole thing off, claiming it was just a freak accident, a zap of lightning hitting the highest point near the water. kids knew better. After all, there hadn't been a cloud in the sky the first time someone saw The Light.
Even kindergarteners knew about the creepy glow that floated past the house's tower windows on "Creature Feature" kinds of nights. Someone even painted the rusted For Sale sign with red letters: "I'd turn back if I were you." Good advice if older kids double dared you to camp out under the tree at midnight.
But the warning had no effect on the woman trying to pry the sign off the blackened chestnut tree.
In a dozen shabby rented rooms, her Irish father had filled her with tales of wicked fairies and delicious ghosts and banshees wailing in the night. Until he'd left her behind in a world of strangers who saw fairies as sweet creatures with butterfly wings who'd never steal babies from cradles.
Until he walked away making promises he never meant to keep.
No, the scariest ghost story in the world couldn't have driven the woman away from the house with its gingerbread trim and wide sweep of veranda.
When she looked at the house beyond the gap-toothed picket fence she didn't see witch-hat turrets or cat's-eye windows or trees clawing at the sky. She saw something far different.
Finnoula O'Grady saw home.
No one in their right mind would have bothered removing the For Sale sign before they'd even unlocked the front doornot with movers coming to drop off a load of stuff in two hours. But Finn couldn't wait to tear the sign down, as if at any moment someone might pop out from behind the ancient wisteria vines to snatch the house away.
Absurd, to feel so uneasy, she told herself, and yet, that emotion seemed far more real than the joy that had rushed through her when the town lawyer dropped the quaint brass house key into her hand. Finn had learned a long time ago that her father's gifts could bite back, just when she least expected it.
Yet this time was different. Patrick O'Grady was dead. Finn's eyes stungfrom what, she wasn't suregrief or resentment? Her world would never be the same again. He'd made certain of that. But what did that matter? she reminded herself fiercely. The house is mine.
March Winds. The place where fairy tales lived. At least her father's brand. She'd dreamed of this place foreveron cramped twin beds in other people's houses. during visits from her father when she'd still believed everything he told her, through dark nights after she'd begun to suspect the truth: that in spite of all his promises the only home Patrick O'Grady would ever give her would be the one in his imagination.
Finn closed her eyes, her dainty sandals transforming to worn pink keds braced on the front seat of the broken-down convertible that had been her father's pride and joy. Auburn curls whipped by the wind stung her freckled cheeks as she tried to keep her bottom on the suitcase her father had perched her atop so she could see the world whiz by.
No one had bothered much about seat belts back then. Even if they had, it would never have occurred to her father to use them. After all, he'd reassured Finn, they had the luck of the Irish.
They'd had the luck of the Irish all right. Finn grimaced. But, unlike her da, she understood sarcasm when she heard it. Any time during the past five hundred years the Irish had started rejoicing at their "luck," it was a sure bet the sky was about to fall.
But luck had been with them that long ago summer afternoon when her father glimpsed the old-fashioned town square draped in red, white and blue bunting and turned into the sleepy town of whitewater on a whim.
Or had Finn's mother steered the car from heaven, guiding her little girl to the kind of town Mariel O'Grady had once dreamed of living in herself? No matter how far Finn had wandered in the twenty years since that magical Fourth of July, she could still hear the raucous cries of vendors, smell the rich scent of corn dogs and the crispy, not-quite-burned funnel cakes sprinkled with powdered sugar. She could see the bright carnival colors. Just eight years old, she'd been fiercely certain she had the most wonderful father in the world. And that he loved her. Until something about that town, those families clustered on the town green, made her doubt.
We 're never going to live in a place like this, are we, Da?
She had wished the words back the minute she saw Da's face pale. This is as fine a town as I've ever seen, he'd said. Why shouldn't we live right here? He'd gathered her into his arms and she'd breathed him in, the faint bite of tobacco, the tang of mustard she'd accidentally squirted on his shirt instead of her corn dog. That's what we 'll do today! Pick the perfect house. That way I'll be able to surprise you
He had perched her back up on the suitcase, then wheeled the convertible out of the parking lot, leaving the carnival behind. She could still remember speeding past the cozy houses lining the street. She'd known they weren't big enough to hold Da's dreams. He headed to the edge of town.
All the finest houses are by the river, treasure, he'd insisted. And we'll be having a fine house. Not some shack hardly big enough to make a doll's house.
Even though twenty years had passed, Finn's heart squeezed. She would have been happy in a shoebox as long as he was with her. But he'd swept her along on the crest of his dream that day, the way he always could. Her lonely child's heart had nearly leaped out of her chest when March Winds burst out of the trees. Towers soared skyward, windows glowing with color as if some fairy had spilled her jewel box across the glass. A white picket fence surrounded the huge gardens, roses draped over it in soft pink rainbows.
A house so perfect she had expected it to vanish like a bubble if she touched it. Do real people live in houses like that? Truly, Da. Not just pretend? she'd asked, wanting to believe him.
We'll live in that house. You and me. The instant I can afford it, Da had promised, so solemnly she had to believe him. You'll see, Finnoula.
Pain knifed into Finn's hand, yanking her back to the present. The house spun into sight again, not the showplace of her childhood, but rather, a shabby maiden aunt where an exquisite belle had once stood.
She glanced down at her palm. A cut just deep enough to sting oozed blood from where she'd unknowingly gripped the ragged metal edge of the sign.
You'll see, Finnoula, her father's voice echoed in her head.
Finn grimaced, sucking on the little wound. She had seen, all right. Every step he'd made along that trail of broken promises before he'd died.
She blinked back tears for the little girl who'd believed in her father so fiercely that day. For the child who slowly came to realize his promises would never come true. For the young woman who let her father catch glimpses of her contempt until his calls tapered off to silence, and she'd let that silence stand.
He hadn't even called her those last precious days before he'd died. Maybe he'd figured words were meaningless between them anymore. She'd stopped believing him years ago.
He'd asked some stranger to mail her the cardboard box he'd brought from the rooming house where he'd stayed. Such a pitiful container to hold a man's whole life, everything he owned in the world.
At least she'd thought so until she'd opened the box to see what lay inside, buried among his battered possessionsa pristine envelope containing a cashier's check, her name on the top line. Her heart had thundered so hard she was afraid she'd shake all those zeros right off the check.
Shock. Disbelief. Gratitude and grief flooded through her. Until reality hit hard.
We could've had more than monthly visits and candy bars for breakfast and that sinking feeling I'd get watching him drive away. He could have come to get me whenever he wanted to.
But he hadn't loved her enough to give up his wandering, his freedom. Those were the treasures Patrick O'Grady cared most about.
Bitterness welled up inside Finn. She fought to quell it. Don't let him spoil this day with bad memories, she told herself.
"Giving up, huh?"
Finn swung around, the hammer flying from her fingers, the wicked steel claw thudding to the ground inches from a child's bare foot. The child didn't even flinch.
Solemn brown eyes and black corkscrew curls sucked all the color from the small, heart-shaped face. An old-fashioned sundress drooped like yellow butterfly wings from the girl's narrow shoulders, the skirt's hem exposing her spindly bare legs.
"I could've broken every bone in your foot!" Finn exclaimed, pressing her hand to her heart. "Didn't your mother ever teach you not to sneak up on people like that?"
Pain flared in the child's eyes, then her chin bumped up a notch. "I wasn't sneaking. You weren't paying attention."
Finn's cheeks burned. "You're right. I wasn't paying attention. I always have gotten myself in trouble daydreaming."
"Me, too." The child's lips curled in the most winsome smile Finn had ever seen.
Finn's heart warmed in spite of a twinge of nervousness. Six years of bouncing from university to university had given her lots of experience with moving vans, computers and doctoral candidates. Children were a different matter. She had wanted children in her lifelemonade stands and neighborhood picnics and Prince Charming riding in on his white horseor tractor, as the case might be, considering all the cornfields she'd driven through to reach the town. But the Saturday morning cartoon crowd didn't exactly frequent the research libraries she'd worked in.
She summoned up a smile. "I'm Ms. O'Grady."
The formality sounded strange, but when Verna Sopher, soon-to-retire bastion of the Whitewater Public Library's children's room, had hired Finn, she had been adamant Finn use a professional-sounding name with the children.
"What's your name?" Finn asked the girl.
It suited her perfectlymore a character in some dreamy children's book than a modern kid jazzed up on the Internet and poisoned by too much TV.
"It's a beautiful name," Finn said.
"Yeah, well, I didn't pick it," the child said. "Bet you were feeling bad."
She felt a tug of familiarity at Emma's penetrating, dark gaze, as if they'd met somewhere before. But no. She'd only imagined eyes just like that when her father had recited a poem to herwhat was it?"The Stolen Child" by Yeats. An Irishman's tale of a child coaxed to run away with "a fairy hand in hand." The refrain echoed softly in Finn's memory: "For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand ."
Finn doubted that. The child looked torn on life's hard edges, except for the fierce dreaminess that clung to her mouth like cream.
The girl pointed to Finn's hand. "Did you hurt yourself bad?"
"Nothing a little Neosporin and a Band-Aid won't cure."
"I can get the Captain to take the sign down for you," the girl offered.
"The captain?" Something about the child made Finn's imagination fill with pirates in dashing red coats and hooks where their hands were supposed to be.
"He's my grandpa."
The image she'd conjured shifted to a buzz-cut military man in modern army green. Finn grimaced. The girl's dreaminess seemed to be catching.
"The Captain likes fighting stuff, even if it's only trees and signs," Emma said. A troubled line creased her brow. "Of course, he says only fluffies give up."
Emma shrugged. "Babies. Scaredy cats. You know. Cowards."