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By Brenda Joyce
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJuly 5, 1798 The south of Ireland near Askeaton Castle
Gerald O'Neill rushed into the manor house, his once-white shirt crimson, his tan britches and navy coat equally stained. Blood marred his cheek, matted his whiskers. An open gash on his head was bleeding and so were the cuts on his knuckles. His heart beat with alarming force and even now the sounds of battle, the cries of imminent death, rang in his eardrums. "Mary! Mary! Get into the cellar now!" he roared.
Devlin O'Neill could not move, stunned. His father had been gone for more than a month - since the middle of May. He had sent word, though, every few weeks, and while Devlin was only ten years old, he was acutely aware of the war at hand. Farmer and priest, shepherd and squire, peasant and gentry alike had risen up to fight the English devils once and for all, to take back all that was truly theirs - the rich Irish land that had been stolen from them a century ago. There was so much hope - and there was so much fear.
Now his heart seemed to simply stop and he stared at his father, relieved to finally see him again and terribly afraid. He was afraid that Gerald was hurt - and he was afraid of far worse. He started forward with a small cry, but Gerald did not stop moving, going to the bottom of the stairs and bellowing for his wife again. His hand never left the scabbard that sheathed his cutlass, and he carried a musket as well.
Devlin had never seen his eyes so wild. Dear God.
"Is Father hurt?" a tiny voice whispered beside him, a small hand plucking at his torn linen sleeve.
Devlin didn't even look at his dark-haired younger brother. He could not take his eyes from his father, his mind spinning, racing. The rebels had taken Wexford town early in the rebellion and the entire county had rejoiced. Well, the papist part of it, at least. Other victories had followed - but so had other defeats. Now redcoats were everywhere; Devlin had spied thousands from a ridge just that morning, the most ominous sight he'd ever seen. He'd heard that Wexford had fallen, and a maid had said thousands had died at New Ross. He'd refused to believe it - until now. Now he thought that maybe the whispers of defeat and death were true. Because he saw fear in his father's eyes for the first time in his young life.
"Is Father hurt?" Sean asked again, a tremor in his tone.
Instantly Devlin turned to him. "I don't think so," he said, knowing he had to be brave, at least for Sean. But fear gripped him in a clawlike vise. And then his mother came rushing down the stairs, her infant daughter in her arms.
"Gerald! Thank God, I've been so worried about you," she cried, as pale as any ghost.
He seized her arm, releasing the scabbard of his sword to do so. "Take the boys and go down to the cellar," Gerald said harshly. "Now, Mary."
She cried out, her blue eyes filled with fear, riveted on his face. "Are you hurt?"
"Just do as I say," he cried, pulling her across the hall.
The baby, Meg, began to wail.
"And keep her quiet, for God's sake," he said as harshly. But now he was looking over his shoulder at the open doorway, as if expecting to see the British soldiers in pursuit.
Devlin followed his gaze. Smoke could be seen in the clear blue sky and suddenly the sounds of muskets firing could be heard.
Mary pushed the babe against her breast as she opened her blouse, never breaking stride. "What will happen to us, Gerald?" And then, lower, "What will happen to you?"
He opened the door to the cellar, the opening hidden by a centuries-old tapestry. "Everything will be fine," he said harshly. "You and the boys, the babe, all will be fine."
She stared up at him, her eyes filling with tears.
"I'm not hurt," he added thickly, and he kissed her briefly on the lips. "Now go downstairs and do not come out until I say so."
Mary nodded and went down. Devlin rushed forward as a cannon boomed, terribly close to the manor. "Father! Let me come with you - I can help. I can shoot -"
Gerald whirled, striking Devlin across the head, and he flew across the stone floor, landing on his rump. "Do as I say," he roared, and as he ran back through the hall, he added, "And take care of your mother, Devlin."
The front door slammed.
Devlin blinked back tears of despair and humiliation and found himself looking at Sean. There was a question in his younger brother's pale gray eyes, which remained wide with fear. Devlin got to his feet, shaking like a puny child. There was no question of what he had to do. He had never disobeyed his father before but he wasn't going to let his father face the redcoats he'd seen earlier alone.
If Father was going to die, then he'd die with him.
Fear made him feel faint. He faced his little brother, breathing hard, willing himself to be a man. "Go down with Mother and Meg. Go now," he ordered quietly. Without waiting to see if he was being obeyed, Devlin rushed through the hall and into his father's library.
"You're going to fight, aren't you?" Sean cried, following him.
Devlin didn't answer. A purpose filled him now. He ran to the gun rack behind his father's massive desk and froze in dismay. It was empty. He stared in disbelief.
And then he heard the soldiers.
He heard men shouting and horses whinnying. He heard swords ringing. The cannon boomed again, somewhere close by. Shots from pistols punctuated the musket fire. He slowly turned to Sean and their gazes locked. Sean's face was pinched with fear - the same fear that was making Devlin's heart race so quickly that he could barely breathe.
Sean wet his lips. "They're close, Dev."
He could barely make his mouth form the words, "Go to the cellar." He had to help his father. He couldn't let Father die alone.
"I'm not leaving you alone."
"You need to take care of Mother and Meg," Devlin said, racing to the bench beneath the gun rack. He tore the pillows from the seat and hefted the lid open. He was disbelieving - Father always kept a spare pistol there, but there was nothing but a dagger. A single, stupid, useless prick of a dagger.
"I'm coming with you," Sean said, his voice broken with tears.
Devlin took the dagger, then reached into the drawer of his father's desk and took a sharp letter opener as well. He handed it to Sean. His brother smiled grimly at him - Devlin couldn't smile back.
And then he saw the rusty antique display of a knight in his armor in the corner of the room. It was said that an infamous ancestor, once favored by an English queen, had worn it. Devlin ran to the statue, Sean on his heels as if attached by a short string. There, he shimmied the sword free from the knight's gauntlet, knocking over the tarnished armor.
Devlin's spirits lifted. The sword was old and rusted, but it was a weapon, by God. He withdrew it from the hilt, touched the blade and gasped as blood spurted from his fingertip. Then he looked at Sean.
The brothers shared a grin.
The cannon boomed and this time the house shook, glass shattering in the hall outside. The boys blinked at each other, wide-eyed, their fear renewed.
Devlin wet his lips. "Sean. You have to stay with Mother and Meg."
He felt like whacking his brother on the head the way Gerald had struck him. But he was also secretly relieved not to have to face the red hordes alone. "Then let's go," Devlin said.
Excerpted from The Prize by Brenda Joyce Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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