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DONOVAN O'SHEA STRODE ACROSS THE DRIED GRASS behind the ramshackle cottage that had been in his family for at least five generations. The odor of freshly dug earth and the unique miasma arising from the nearby fens filled his nostrils. Nothing in America smelled remotely the same. And breathing it in evoked memories, none too pleasant.
The leaden October sky promised rain before the day was done, and Donovan picked up his pace, anxious to get this visit behind him. His light American running shoes made no noise, but he could hear the faint scraping sounds of a shovel in the otherwise still air. Up ahead of him heavy twine stretched between small wooden stakes, and two neat mounds of earth marked the area of activity.
"Hello? Professor McRory?" he called out to herald his own arrival. Nobody else would be out here. Heaven knew, he didn't want to be.
Aongus McRory's head and shoulders appeared above the lip of the trench he'd been digging. A half-second later, the head of his assistant, Sybil Gallagher, popped up beside him. The two reminded Donovan of a pair of prairie dogs he'd once seen on a holiday to Yellowstone Park.
"O'Shea!" McRory's deep baritone quavered with the same eagerness as it had on the phone twenty minutes ago. "Thank you for coming out here straight away." He pitched his small spade next to the mound of dirt and clambered out of the hole.
Reluctance took a firm grip of Donovan's subconscious, and he slowed his approach. "So you've found another pit?"
The professor wiped his hand on the leg of his canvas trousers then extended it to help his assistant. "Indeed we have! And this one, ah, this one is a beauty!"
"No more dog bones?"
The hair on the back of Donovan's neck prickled, as he remembered how he'd stumbled on the first storage pit a fortnight ago. The air going into his lungs felt inexplicably heavy, and he stopped walking.
The other man rushed on, "Much more exciting! Wait 'til you see."
Shoving his fair hair from his eyes with the back of his hand, McRory rummaged in a box on the ground with the other.
"Have a look." He thrust a dark, metal object in Donovan's direction. "'Tis a torc, late Bronze Age, I'm almost certain."
Donovan stared at the circular neck ornament in the professor's hand and the breath caught in his throat. A loud noise buzzed inside his head, a sound he recognized though he'd not experienced it for many years. He knew what was about to happen, but was helpless to stop it.
A moment later, his vision blurred into a spiraling mass of green, brown, and gray. The buzz faded, and in its place arose a harsh cacophony, the guttural blast of a war trumpet, the pounding of sword hilts against shields, and the strident shouts of men. Then the stench of the battlefield enveloped him.
Sweat, blood, and trampled earth.
The whirling shapes coalesced into men, bearded warriors with long, flowing hair. They brandished broadswords and carried oblong shields, but wore nothing except close-fitting helmets on their heads, torcs around their necks, and leather sword belts encircling their hips.
Donovan stared at the heavy sword clenched in his right hand and the shield in his left and realized he was part of this battle too. Splotches of red and ochre paint swirled down his arms and across his bare chest.
The blaring of more war trumpets set his teeth on edge, while the men around him surged forward. He jostled the man next to him, a hulking giant, even taller than Donovan and half again as broad, though not an ounce was fat. Dark, tangled hair streamed from beneath the warrior's helmet past his heavily muscled shoulders, and a bristly black beard obscured the lower half of his face. Still, something in the depths of his bright blue eyes and in the tilt of his head sparked a long-ago memory in the back of Donovan's disoriented mind.
"Ro?" His own voice sounded strange inside his head. Somehow, through the din, the warrior heard him. His eyes skimmed Donovan's features. Then his black eyebrows lifted in surprise. "Dony?"
The pet name his mother, Moira, had given him. In her soft countrified accent, it rhymed with Tony. No one had called Donovan that since he was seven years old.
"Dony," the enormous man repeated in the same accent. "So you're all grown-up as well."
Donovan had no time to answer or voice the thousand questions that leapt into his mind, for the enemy was upon them. A half-dozen similarly armed men charged at him. Ro and the other warrior beside him lunged forward and Donovan felt his own sword rise as he blocked first one blow then another. The shock of metal crashing against metal coursed down his arm, while more warriors from both factions joined in the fray. Screams of pain and rage rang in his ears.
The man battling Ro crumpled in wordless agony, bright red blood gushing onto the ground under him, even as another sprang to take his place. The enormous warrior dispatched his second opponent with even greater speed, blood spattering his shield and helmet. Donovan was not so skilled. Sweat stung his eyes as he struggled to block and parry the blows his adversary rained down upon him, and he was forced to give ground. But when the man advanced to renew his attack, his foot slipped on the blood-soaked grass, and he staggered. Donovan lunged,
and pulled his sword back. Gore dripped from the blade. As the man fell to his knees with a shuddering groan, Donovan realized that Ro and his companions had turned the attack into a rout. Their enemy fled toward the fens, defenders roaring in victory on their heels. Then the man in front of Donovan fell over, writhing in agony.
"Take his head!" Ro shouted.
Donovan jerked his gaze up and saw two severed heads tied by their hair at his friend's sword belt. Bile rushed from Donovan's stomach to his throat.
"'Tis your war prize, man!" Ro shouted again. Blood glistened on his forearms and thighs. He reached down and grabbed the man's hair, pulling his exposed throat toward Donovan. "Take it!"
The stench of death and the overwhelming urge to vomit swamped Donovan. Swaying, he squeezed his eyes shut, and drew in a deep breath of fetid air. A flash of white light exploded behind his eyelids and his pulse pounded loud in his ears. The smell receded.
From a great distance, he could just make out a woman's voice calling, "Mr. O'Shea? Mr. O'Shea!"
Then a man's voice, more distinctive, cried, "Donovan!" Fingers gripped his arm and shook. "Jaysus, man! Are you all right?"
Donovan opened his eyes into the worried gaze of Professor McRory. The noise, the stench, the battlefield had disappeared. But not his urge to vomit. He flung off McRory's hand, stumbled a few steps away,
then doubled over and retched into a clump of weeds. Coughing, he gripped his jean-clad thighs to steady himself.
"Sybil, get that stool!" McRory barked out the command, and rested his hand on Donovan's shoulder. "All right, then?"
Awash in humiliation, he straightened and wiped his mouth across his sleeve. The professor guided him backward to a three-legged canvas stool and Donovan sunk down onto it, consciously steadying his breathing.
"Here's water, Mr. O'Shea." Pale blue eyes completely round with alarm, McRory's assistant handed Donovan a clear plastic bottle.
"Thanks." He swirled the first gulp around inside his mouth and spat it out. The second swallow felt cool and fortifying as it slid down his throat. The third was almost as good.
Taking a deep breath, he stood, his mother's long ago admonition ringing inside his head, "Never talk about your gift, Dony. People don't understand."
Some gift. Curse, more like.
He gave McRory and Sybil a wan smile. "So sorry. Must have been bad pub grub. But I'm all right now."
Though Sybil's expression remained uneasy, McRory clapped him on the shoulder. "Ah, right nasty stuff it must have been. I thought you were falling over there for a moment."
Still feeling self-conscious, Donovan switched subjects. "About the new pit . . . "
A spark of excitement ignited in the professor's eyes.
"I've already contacted my department chair at Queen's. If this Bronze Age site follows true to form, there are more storage pits. The Celts laid them out in semi-circles."
"This could be the find of a career!" Sybil broke in, enthusiasm turning her mousy features almost attractive.
"Certainly significant enough to send a proper team out here to the site, not just Syb and me." McRory clapped Donovan on the shoulder like his new comrade-in-arms. "And maybe enough to convince the government to buy your family's property. Exactly how far into the fens does it go?"
"I don't know," Donovan admitted. "The fens have shifted even since I lived here as a child. And my mother's family has been here at least since the Hunger."
The professor warmed to his subject, all but rubbing his hands together in anticipatory glee. "You'll need to search the property records then." Sybil nodded in eager agreement, while McRory continued, "And with your consent, I'll contact a journalist friend of mine in Belfast. A blurb on one of the wire services might give just the extra nudge some official needs to expedite purchase."
An expedited purchase was exactly what Donovan wanted, and he didn't particularly care by whom. The sooner he left County Armagh and all of Ireland, the better. "All right, if you think that's the best course. You're far more familiar with this sort of thing than I'll ever be."
The pair seemed to have forgotten his momentary
"illness," but for how long?
Donovan intended to avoid the dig site as much as possible, avoid contact with anything that might trigger his "gift" again. Just get himself back to America, where he never experienced anything remotely like visions. Until his father's stroke four months ago, he'd come home exactly once since he emigrated at age seventeen. That had been nine years ago for his sister's wedding, and he stayed far away from the deserted homestead. Too bad he couldn't do the same this time. The physicians seemed pleased with his father's progress, and with the proceeds from the sale of the pub and the property, Donovan and his sister could get the old man into the best private rehab program in Northern Ireland.
He drained the remaining water in one long guzzle, and handed the empty bottle to Sybil Gallagher.
"Thanks, I'll be in touch."
"Likewise," McRory affirmed.
Rylie Powell parked her rented car in front of a store with a chipped sign that proclaimed "Dry Goods and Hardware."
She stared across the street at the window illuminated by two neon signs. The yellow one featured a stylized Irish harp with the word "Harp" written below. The dark blue one simply said "Guinness." No other distinguishing signs hung on the door or window, but none was needed.
The manager of her B&B in Dungannon hadn't been kidding when she said the village of Ballyneagh was small. The long wooden structures on either side of the badly paved road were divided into four businesses.
The pub was one of the center stores across the street, situated between a nameless barbershop and Brigit's Bakery. She had passed a scattering of a dozen stone cottages right before the line of shops, and through the growing twilight, she could see four more houses beyond the bakery.
Snagging her purse off the floor in front of the passenger's seat, Rylie shoved the car key into one purse pocket and pulled her lipstick from another. Three weeks ago, she'd never heard of this place, never guessed that it existed. Two days ago, she'd flown across an entire continent and an ocean to get here. Yesterday, she'd struggled to drive on the wrong side of the roadway over endless wet miles of country lanes in search of this little scrap of a burg and its no-name pub. All this effort so she could confront the man who had walked away from her and her mother almost twenty-five years ago. The owner of the pub, her father, Dermot O'Shea.
She peered into the rearview mirror to apply her lipstick and gave an inward sigh. Why the hell was she worried about how she looked? She wasn't here to seek his approval. More like, to rub his nose in the fact that by shirking his responsibilities as a father, he'd missed out. But that wasn't really the reason either.
For as long as Rylie could remember, there had been a gap in her identity that went far beyond using her stepfather's last name. In the six months since losing her mother to cancer, she had become consumed with unraveling the riddles of who she really was and where her roots lay. Riddles, she grew convinced, only her biological father could answer. Ghosts only he could put to rest.
At least the rain had dissipated to a drizzle. She flipped up the hood of her neon yellow windbreaker, the one she wore when jogging, and got out of the car.
Dashing across the two-lane road, she pulled open the heavy door and stepped inside the pub. She folded back her hood and pulled her long hair free while her eyes adjusted to the dim interior.
Slowly, the large room came into focus. A long, gleaming, wooden bar hugged the wall closest to the front door and a dartboard hung in the far corner. The opposite wall had four high-backed booths built into it, three of them currently occupied. A half-dozen round tables were arranged in the center of the room, all empty. Unlike the bars Rylie had ventured into in California, this place had a surprisingly homey atmosphere in spite of a lingering odor of cigarette smoke.
Eyes now accustomed to the gloom, she consciously straightened into her "walking tall" posture, though at five-foot two-and-a-half inches tall was a relative term. She approached the bar. The two elderly men lounging against the polished wood, glasses of dark brew in hand, gave her openly appreciative looks, which she patently ignored.
The bartender bustled over, a gap-toothed grin on his ruddy face. "What'll it be, darlin'?"
Rylie studied his middle-aged countenance for a moment before she answered, "A Coke." Then, when he picked up a glass she added, "With ice."
"To be sure," the man said in the musical brogue that Rylie's ears were still not quite attuned to. "'Tis how all you Yanks like it. Right enough?" He didn't wait for her reply, but continued with a steady stream of talk that most everyone she had encountered in the past two days seemed adept at doing. "So what part of the States are you from, luv?"
Rylie could feel every eye in the place staring as the bartender plunked the fizzy beverage in front of her.
"And what would bring a pretty wan such as you to the middle of bloody nowhere such as this?"
The bartender chuckled at his own wit while Rylie sipped through the thin red straw and studied him. Short and paunchy, with thinning red hair faded to gray around his temples, he looked nothing like the few aged snapshots she had of her father.
"I'm from California," she said, taking another sip of soda. "And I'm looking for someone."
"I'd have guessed California." The bartender spoke the name in five syllables, his blue eyes sparkling flirtatiously.
"For you look just like a movie star, don't ya know. And as for lookin' for someone, you've come to the right man. I know everybody round these parts."
"I'm not a movie star," Rylie demurred. The skycap at the Belfast airport had said the same thing. She hadn't cut him any slack either, and he was much younger and better looking than the bartender. "And I'm looking for the owner of this place."
"Well, then, 'tis indeed my lucky day!" The chunky man exclaimed. "For I'm the owner of this fine establishment." He made a courtly little bow. "Gerry Partlan at your service."
A panicky spurt of disappointment shot through Rylie's veins. "I thought Dermot O'Shea owned this bar."
Gerry Partlan's smile dimmed just a little. "Yes, Dermot did own the place until a couple of months ago, though he'd taken sick back in June. When it came clear that he couldn't work any more, his son and daughter and I took over as partners. We did a fair amount of sprucin' the place up, and we've only just reopened at the start of this month."
The glut of information made Rylie's head spin, but when the man paused for breath, she jumped in with the first question she could form. "Dermot O'Shea's son and daughter live here?"
Her interruption of his narrative brought a small crease between Gerry Partlan's bushy red eyebrows.
"Not exactly, no. His daughter, Doreen lives over in Armagh City, and Donovan claims to be here only long enough to settle Dermot's affairs, though it's taken him all the summer and now most of the fall. That's himself sittin' over in the corner just there."
Aware that she continued to be the center of attention, Rylie shifted her gaze in the direction the bartender indicated. In the far corner at a table she hadn't noticed before, a figure sat shrouded in shadows.
"Ho, Donovan, ya lucky stiff!" Gerry Partlan called out before Rylie could stop him. "This lovely lady wants a word with you."
Taking his time, the man rose and walked toward them. Rylie's first shock was at his height, probably a foot taller than she was. But the second and far bigger shock was his age. He was no boy, and appeared to be in his early thirties, several years older than her. She had expected to learn that she had more half-siblings, but she assumed they would be younger like her two teenaged half-brothers, Jamie and Justin Powell. That her father might have had children before he met her mother had never entered Rylie's realm of possibilities.
Neither had the prospect that her half-brother would be so good-looking. Her eyes bulged and her mouth went cottony at the tall man's approach. Black jeans and a dark blue sweater emphasized his lean physique. His closely trimmed dark hair and sculpted black brows framed sapphire blue eyes. He had a straight nose and defined cheekbones. A five o'clock shadow darkened his squarish jaw and the lower half of his face. While Rylie gaped, he extended a long-fingered hand with neatly clipped nails.
"I'm Donovan O'Shea." His deep voice contained only the slightest hint of a brogue, the third shock in less than a minute. "Do we know each other?"
"I-You're American?" Rylie gasped.
When Donovan O'Shea smiled down at her, twin lines ran from the middle of his cheeks to each side of his chin and made him look even more appealing.
"Yes, naturalized eight years ago, though I've lived there for fifteen." Smile fading, he dropped his hand back to his side. "I'm sorry, but if we've met before, I'm afraid I don't remember."
"Oh, no!" Rylie felt a blush rising up her neck toward her face. "We haven't met. I'm Rylie Powell." Selfconsciously, she stuck out her own hand.
"Charmed." Donovan O'Shea smiled again, his teeth even and white.
He clasped Rylie's hand in his much larger one and gave a single firm shake. Even that brief contact spiked Rylie's awareness and intensified her blush. Not good. Seriously not good. Such things weren't supposed to happen between siblings, but then brothers weren't supposed to have such killer smiles.
"I-Can we talk, Mr. O'Shea?" Her voice squeaked in spite of her efforts to control it.
"Of course," he motioned toward the back table. "I was just having a bite. Care to join me?"
"Okay, but . . . " Her stomach knotted at the knowledge of the coming conversation. "I don't want anything to eat."
"Suit yourself," he replied and led the way back to the corner.
As Rylie trailed after him, she couldn't help but notice that Donovan O'Shea looked as good from the back as the front. Two middle-aged women seated in the closest booth craned their heads, probably also enjoying the view. Something else brothers were not supposed to have-butts to die for.
Mentally chastising herself for her inappropriate thoughts, Rylie set her glass of soda on the table and plunked down into the chair he held for her. This encounter was turning out to be even more awkward than she'd imagined, though in an entirely different way. Donovan O'Shea sat down across from her and pulled a half-eaten bowl of stew toward himself.
"Sure you don't want anything?"
Though the crusty hunk of bread balanced on the edge of the bowl looked delicious, Rylie shook her head and drew the soda straw into her mouth. Taking his cue, Donovan O'Shea dug in while she studied the wood grain on the table top, then the swirls of texture on the newly painted wall behind him, purposefully avoiding his handsome face.
"So what brings you to Ballyneagh, Ms. Powell?" he asked between bites. "It's not exactly a tourist destination."
From the corner of her eye, Rylie could see the two women in the booth silently leaning in their direction, so she answered in a low tone. "Actually, I came to talk to your father, Dermot O'Shea."
"My father?" Donovan O'Shea looked nonplussed, his spoon poised halfway to his mouth.