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North Carolina, 1823
Caitlin bent to pluck a small purple blossom from the grass, her dark hair falling around her fair face like a curtain before she rose again to hold her find against the sky, examining it. It was small-no bigger than one of her fingernails-but the petals were a creamy shade of amethyst that seemed to glow when the sunlight shone through them from behind, rimming the flower with a halo of violet light. She tossed it into her basket. Looking down at the rest of its contents, she frowned. She'd only managed to gather a sparse handful of wildflowers, and most of them were just as diminutive as the little lilac beauty she'd just picked. This was not owing to some unfortunate circumstance of weather-it had rained often that summer--or some natural lack of colourful foliage in the North Carolina countryside. It was because of the the fact that, for the past two months, she'd been roaming this particular area on the outskirts of the O'Brien property like a madwoman, gathering wildflowers as an excuse for her trespassing.
She stooped down again, this time to pick a dainty buttercup from beside the hoof-worn dirt trail she was so careful not to let out of her sight. She added the flower to her collection, laying it to rest among its equally petite companions, hoping that today would be the day she'd finally need to display them-a colourful if rather pathetic excuse. She would pretend to have been so caught up in flower-gathering that she'd scarcely noticed straying off her own family's property and onto O'Brien land, of course. She'd smile, laugh and pretend to be surprised to have wandered so far and to have run into-of all people-Aaron O'Brien, Squire O'Brien's oldest son. And then, if she was lucky, maybe he'd kiss her again.
She blushed furiously at the thought, adding another buttercup to her collection. The first of May was two months past, but she could still feel the warm weight of Aaron's lips against hers when she thought about it. The O'Brien estate was an empire built on iron, but all of their dozen furnaces and even the forge had been abandoned for that wonderful summer holiday, Beltane. Each and every person had forgotten about work for one glorious day, from Squire O'Brien himself to the forgemen. The O'Briens had hosted a wonderful Beltane celebration on the grounds of their manse, and their Irish neighbours had gathered from miles around to throw a rather raucous harbinger of summer. Caitlin's family had crossed the Atlantic from the Emerald Isle seven years ago to farm some North Carolina land acquired by an uncle who had come before them and had attended. Their presence at the celebration had not been in vain.
Caitlin sweated slightly in the humid southern July heat, but she wouldn't have forgotten it even if it had snowed every day since. How could she possibly forget the way Aaron had seized her around her waist as she circled the maypole and stolen an airborne kiss?
Not in a thousand years.
The real question, she had long since decided, was whether the kiss had been a spontaneous outburst of giddy celebration-perhaps aided by a pint too many of ale-or a manifestation of genuine attraction. She hoped, quite badly, that it had been the latter, but there was only way to find out...and that was to meet Aaron face to face again.
She'd hardly seen him at all since Beltane, except for a couple of times in brief passing that had offered little more than a chance for a greeting shouted from the seat of a wagon. She was determined to encounter him again-preferably alone-and so had begun to resolutely strip the edge of the O'Brien property of its wildflowers, hoping to meet him riding on the nearby path she knew he favoured. So far she'd been unsuccessful, but she refused to give up hope--her father was fond of telling her that 'you make your own luck', and she'd taken the saying to heart.
She glanced up at the path as she continued to scour the wild summer grasses, her heart sinking for what seemed the thousandth time when the horizon proved to be devoid of human or animal presence. The sky had grown dark.
Sighing, she straightened, shifted her basket into the crook of her elbow, and prepared to begin the journey home.
Maybe I can beat the rain this time.
With that incentive, she gathered up her skirts and stepped quickly through the grass, casting one last wistful look at the path that wound across acres of empty fields and, eventually, into a narrow strip of forest. She nearly dropped her basket when a horse and rider appeared on the road, coming towards her at a brisk pace, perhaps trying to race the storm home.
Frozen in expectation, her heart beating wildly, she stood several paces from the road, watching the figure on horseback transition from a discernibly masculine figure blurred by distance to a distinctly tall, well-muscled young man with a full head of red-gold waves that fell almost to his shoulders, shining even beneath the grey sky.