When Corporal Sean MacBranian awakens after being injured in battle, he is sure the luck o’ the Irish has run out on him. Or that he’s died and gone to Heaven. There can be no other explanation for the blond-haired, blue-eyed angel standing before him. But his “angel” is a truehearted lass named Ashlinn, and she wears a nurse’s uniform. Her tender ministrations have brought him back from the brink of death—and have given him a new reason for living.
Ashlinn knows their parting is inevitable; her handsome hero must return to the 69th infantry of the Union army, and there are no guarantees of his safe return. With most of her family already destroyed by the war ravaging America, she is sure she cannot survive another loss. Yet she feels powerless against the draw of Sean’s strong and steady heart. Neither time nor distance nor the danger of battle seems to lessen their bond. But when their secret letters are intercepted, the devoted nurse’s love will face the ultimate test . . .
“McCorkle knows how to tug at a reader’s heartstrings . . . readers fascinated by the Civil War and Irish-American history will be satisfied with this refreshing historical romance.” —RT Book Reviews, 4 stars
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Honor Before Heart
Widows of the 60th
By Heather McCorkle
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Heather McCorkle
All rights reserved.
Not even the threat of rain heavy upon the Virginia air could banish the sickly sweet stench of death. The boom of cannons and rifle fire slowly trickled to a stop. That, or Sean's hearing was going. A quick glance around revealed bodies of the dead and dying strewn across Malvern Hill, turning its green grass a brilliant red. Relief churned with the ever-present guilt of all he had done in the name of country and freedom this day. Turning his head up to the cloud-choked evening sky, he said a silent prayer for the fallen on both sides of the conflict.
Only soldiers in blue coats were left standing and not many of them down near the river where Sean was. It made him wonder how many of the 69th regiment had perished this day. So many Irish brothers lost ... no, American brothers, he had to remind himself. They were more than just Irish now. They were Americans, and had died as such.
The muzzle of his rifle drooped until the bayonet fixed upon the end of it touched the muddy bank of the James River. With General Lee's soldiers on the retreat, it seemed they had won the day. But at such a horrible cost.
A rustling in the brush along the river pulled Sean from his dark musings. In the fading light, he couldn't quite make out what moved within the tall brush. Whatever it was, it was close, no more than ten feet away. Though his heart hammered like a galloping horse, his hands were steady as he tossed his empty rifle aside and drew his saber.
"Damn beast!" a man cursed with a thick Southern drawl.
The voice came from much farther down the bank than the rustling brush. Sliding into a fighting stance, Sean split his attention between the direction of the voice and that of the rustling. From the brush emerged a furry shape that at first glance seemed the size of a bear. Wouldn't that just be his luck? To survive such a battle only to be mauled by a bear. Huge brown eyes gazed out of a gray face that was decidedly canine. While the creature was over three feet at the shoulder, it was most certainly a dog. And it was a breed Sean knew well: an Irish wolfhound. He began to wonder if perhaps he had been struck on the head. Such a dog didn't exist in America. He hadn't seen one since he'd left Ireland over three years ago. Mesmerized by the creature's curious eyes, he took a step toward it. Pink tongue lolling from the side of its grinning mouth, it moved toward him as well.
The click of a rifle hammer locking back froze Sean in mid-stride. From out of the brush, not five feet away stepped a soldier in a filthy gray uniform. Blood stained his left arm. His gap-toothed sneer inspired more contempt in Sean than it did fear. The end of the rifle barrel pointed at him was another matter altogether.
"Two fer one, must be my lucky day," the man said.
A low rumble like a distant train, only far more menacing, sounded from the dog beside Sean. Canine eyes filled with deadly intent fixed upon the Confederate soldier as her lips curled back from long, pointed teeth. The barrel of the gun swung from Sean to the dog. Overwhelmed by a powerful need to protect not only a creature his people treasured, but an innocent, he lunged for the gun with his saber. The explosion of the bullet exiting the barrel of his enemy's rifle reverberated through his saber and up into his arm. Followed by a trail of smoke, the Minie ball tore off through the brush, thankfully far wide of both Sean and the hound.
"Damn Yank!" the soldier cursed as he swung his rifle back toward Sean.
Sunlight shone in a bright line upon the bayonet fixed to the end of the rifle that thrust at him. Sean blocked the strike with his saber. Arms shaking from exhaustion, he shoved the bayonet away and stepped back.
"Your regiment is defeated this day. Retreat and be done with it. There's no need for more bloodshed," he said.
Snorting laughter erupted from the soldier. "Not a chance, Yank. I'll kill that hellhound if it's the last thing I do."
Brows pulling together, Sean shook his head. How anyone could stand amid so much death and wish for more, especially when it involved an innocent creature, he simply could not understand. But then, he expected no better from a man who fought to keep others as slaves. Men such as him were what kept Sean fighting when all seemed hopeless. Freedom was worth the cost, even if it wasn't his own and even if it cost his own life.
The Rebel soldier's eyes flicked to the dog and back again. His lip curled up from yellowed teeth, muscles tensing. Keeping his attention locked on the man's eyes, Sean noticed his gaze skitter to his midsection. Sean blocked the strike to his abdomen but he didn't see the Bowie knife coming at him until it was almost too late. Bringing his left arm forward, he tried to block the second strike. Breath stolen away by the pain that seared through his left bicep, he staggered back. Dark eyes filled with a terrible satisfaction, the soldier pulled his blade free of Sean's skin and came at him again. Sean blocked the thrusting bayonet and sidestepped the Bowie knife. The man growled in frustration.
Canine teeth snapped and snarling issued forth from the hound that moved up to Sean's side. Eyes dancing between the dog and him, the man raised both weapons and lunged. Diving in the way, Sean blocked the bayonet from the dog and brought his arm up to block the knife strike aimed at him. Instead of going for his chest like it appeared he would, the soldier stabbed the Bowie knife at his midsection. At the last moment, Sean was able to twist away enough that the blade pierced his side instead of his abdomen, but it still burned like the fires of hell. He shoved the man back with a strength born of fury.
Before the Rebel could recover, Sean swung for the arm that held the rifle, cleaving the limb off just below the elbow. Spurting blood and obscenities, the man stumbled backward, nearly tripping over his own feet in his haste to get away. The massive hound at Sean's side gave chase, barking with a ferocity that made him glad it wasn't directed at him. Screaming all the louder, the man turned tail and ran. The saber in Sean's hand slowly sagged toward the ground. That small movement made pain erupt through his wounded side. The sight of the battlefield before him swayed and suddenly he was on his knees in the mud and blood.
"Dog!" he called out as loud as he dared.
The idea of saving the poor creature only to have it meet its death from seeking revenge for his wounds sat wrong with him in so many ways. The two fleeing figures bounded out of sight over a hill. Again, Sean called out to the canine. An eerie quiet settled once the Rebel soldier's screams faded into the distance. With great reluctance, Sean looked down at the wound in his side. A crimson stain spread steadily across his blue uniform. The color wasn't dark enough to indicate arterial blood, but enough of it flowed from him as to be alarming.
Even though he was on his knees, the world still swayed. He toppled onto his side, the pain shooting through his wounded left arm snapping his eyes back open. For a fleeting moment, he worried about how he was going to hold a fiddle again if a doctor amputated that arm. But with the wound in his side, he realized it wasn't likely that he'd make it off this battlefield without help. At least he had saved the life of one innocent today, and while he had done terrible things in the course of this war, it had been in the name of freedom. Hopefully whatever lay in wait to judge him took that into account.
Big, fat drops of rain started to fall from the gray sky that loomed overhead. He turned his face up to it, trying to breathe in the clean scent of rain as opposed to the stench of the carnage around him. Were it not so warm, he could almost convince himself that it was the land of his birth he lay bleeding out upon instead of foreign soil thousands of miles away. If there were any mercy in the afterlife, he'd be allowed to return to Ireland, or better yet New York, and haunt its shores instead of this forsaken place.
A ridiculously big tongue slobbered across half his face, drawing him from his woeful musings. Soft whining sounded near his right ear. Warm fur brushed his right side, pressing against the entire length of his body. He had a moment to send up a prayer to whoever would listen that the hound at least waited for him to die before it tried to eat him. Then darkness swept him away.CHAPTER 2
At the count of thirty, Ashlinn finally gave up on finding a pulse and removed her fingers from the doctor's neck. She pried the blood-splattered leather bag from his stiff fingers and marched on through the sea of corpses. Time was of the essence and sparing any for a prayer or kind word toward a man who had shown her nothing but contempt could cost another man his life. Steeling her heart against the carnage before her, she marched on, searching the field of corpses for anyone still breathing.
At least, that's what she told herself she searched for. The other medical personnel had long since pulled back with the union troops, returning to Harrison's Landing to regroup. But she refused to leave while daylight still set the cloudy sky aglow. Little danger remained since the Confederate soldiers had retreated hours ago. So she told herself.
Rain began to drip down the back of her exposed neck and run beneath the collar of her shirt. She longed to let her long hair free from her woolen forage cap to protect her neck, but she didn't dare. The long blond tresses would be a blazing fire that branded her a woman to any who may look across the field. It was one thing for her gender to be known at the ambulance wagons or field hospital, another entirely to be discovered out here amidst the carnage where civility had been abandoned completely.
Carefully inspecting the face of each corpse, she searched to find the one so familiar to her — and prayed not to at the same time. More than once she had to roll bodies over, wipe coagulating blood away, and even discern identity from only part of a face that was left. Each one made her heart ache for a family that would never again see their son, father, or brother. But it was a distant, dull ache from a heart that had hardened over the two years she had spent as a nurse in this war. Such curing was the only way for one's heart to survive the atrocities surrounding her.
On and on her search went and not a single survivor stirred amidst the carnage. Most had been picked up and hauled off, but she had already checked those. In the fading light it soon became difficult to make out the faces of the dead. Casting her gaze out across the blood-soaked field, she took in the dozens upon dozens of bodies strewn about that she still had to check. Today's casualties easily numbered in the hundreds on both sides. The cloud-choked sky deceptively hid the sun's march toward the horizon. It was nearly impossible to tell how late it was. She was too close to finishing to stop now, though. At least she had reached an area where the ground had leveled out now and would be easier going. The hillside didn't look like much, but it had been hell maneuvering through the bodies coming down it.
Roused from her searching by a soft woof, she instinctively clutched the doctor's medical bag to her and looked up. A long-legged gray dog that looked more like a monster out of an old myth than a canine came loping across the field toward her. At the size of a small pony, it leapt over the bodies it couldn't go around, clearing them with ease. Letting out a breath, Ashlinn relaxed.
"Cliste, what are you doin' out here, girl?" she whispered.
Again came the soft woof as Cliste bounded to her, licked her face, and turned to start back the other way. Knowing the dog's signs all too well, Ashlinn rose and followed like an obedient owner. Once upon a time Cliste's discoveries sent a thrill through her, a hope that the one her hound had found just might be the one she searched for. But that hope had died a long time ago. Still, a survivor was a good thing, regardless of whether or not it was the one she longed to find.
At the muddy bank of the James, Cliste darted into the brush.
Ashlinn shook her head. "Bloody hound, if you just have a rabbit in there ..." she whispered as she followed slowly behind.
One hand strayed toward the knife belted at her waist. At least a rabbit would mean fresh meat for dinner. As much as she detested harming any living thing, she had learned to do what she had to so that she survived this damnable war. Careful of her footing on the slippery slope, she followed Cliste's wagging gray tail down the riverbank. The big hound began backing out of the bushes, the muscles along her neck and back flexing as she dragged a burden along with her. The sight of the collar of the blue uniform clenched between Cliste's teeth made Ashlinn's heart thump so hard in her chest that it hurt.
Or perhaps it was the thrill of hope that caused the pain. The loyal hound never touched the survivors she found, only stood over them. The soldier attached to the collar didn't so much as stir as Cliste dragged him through the mud. Blood stained the abdomen and left arm of his uniform a dark crimson. It was always hard to tell if the blood on a man was his own or another's, but this one's lack of movement did not bode well. One look at his face and the hope that had blossomed in her heart withered and died as if poisoned.
Clean-shaven as he was, she knew instantly that he wasn't the man she searched for. Swallowing back the tears that tried to choke her, she put her mind to the task at hand. At least she could save someone's brother, husband, or father this day. Slightly prominent cheekbones and a strong jawline framed a handsome face that tugged at something deep inside her. She found herself wishing his eyes were open so she could see what color they were. His forage cap had gotten lost sometime during either the battle or Cliste's handling of him, leaving his dark brown hair to tumble loose and drag in the mud. His chest rose and fell rhythmically, a good sign despite the blood covering him.
After a quick glance around the still battlefield, Ashlinn knelt beside the man. She undid the rain-slick buttons of his uniform, exposing his undershirt. Grabbing the collar of the threadbare beige garment, she tore it open easily.
"Sorry, soldier. I know you probably brought that from home," she murmured as she pushed it open wider.
Blood still oozed from a horrible gash in the man's left side about four inches wide and deep enough that Ashlinn could see muscle. A bayonet wound, which likely meant it was even deeper than it appeared. From the placement, the chances that the weapon had missed anything vital were good. Another glance at the lengthening shadows of twilight stealing over the land and she knew she wouldn't be moving him far. Her gaze methodically checked the landscape, looking for anywhere she could hide him away from prying eyes and the weather.
Most of the trees had been chopped down for one army or another's use, leaving nothing but open fields and brush along the river. A few abandoned cannons and broken-down wagons lay a good distance away back up on the hillside, but they weren't exactly a good option. Too obvious. A soft woof drew her attention back to Cliste, who stood wagging her tail so hard her entire rear end swayed. The moment Ashlinn looked at her the hound dashed off into the underbrush and disappeared. Another woof sounded, this one echoing.
Trusting her furred companion, Ashlinn grabbed hold of the soldier's collar with both hands and slowly began to drag him back the way Cliste had brought him. The tall bushes allowed her to duck beneath them, and the mud helped her pull the man along despite the fact that he probably weighed almost double what she did. Once she had him beneath the cover of the bushes, Ashlinn turned around to see where Cliste had disappeared to.
Between the leaves and the shadows of the rapidly approaching night, it took a moment for her eyes to adjust and realize what they beheld. Around the edge of this bush and down along the river a little was a dark spot on the bank that resembled a cave mouth. Like a gray ghost, Cliste bounded from the yawning darkness and reached Ashlinn's side in less than four steps. While Ashlinn stood catching her breath with her hands on her hips, Cliste took the soldier's collar in her teeth again and began to drag him toward the cave mouth. Shaking her head, Ashlinn crouched low to avoid the snarling branches and lifted the soldier's wounded arm out of the mud.
Excerpted from Honor Before Heart by Heather McCorkle. Copyright © 2016 Heather McCorkle. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Oh my gosh, I LOVED this book! I started it friday night and then ignored my family and friends in order to finish it in less than twenty-four hours! It was truly un-put-downable! I absolutely fell in love with the heroine, she is strong and admirable while still having real vulnerabilities - in other words, everything I want a heroine to be! And I thought the love story was incredibly nuanced, and the love that blossoms between the two main characters is one that is really believable and based on so much more than just lust or a physical attraction. And the writing was really beautiful, with amazing descriptions of the setting and a huge amount of real, historical detail woven throughout. I seriously was blown away by this book - I had been looking forward to it but it was even better than I had been expecting. I cannot wait to read more from this fabulous author!!
Overall, I thought Honor Before Heart was a quick and easy read for me. I will admit that it did take me a little bit to get into the story and that is mostly because I am still new to this genre. However, once I got a few chapters in, I found myself sucked into the story. I thought it was written well and I enjoyed the writing style. I felt that it stayed true to the time period. I thought that the characters were interesting and I liked the chemistry between Sean and Ashlinn. The two of them shared an undeniable connection and would be tested in ways neither one of them would be prepared for. While this isn’t the usual genre that I read, I’m glad that I went out of my comfort zone and checked this book out!
Corporal Sean MacBranian is injured in battle and wakes up to the sight of an Irish Angel. His blond-haired, blue-eyed nurse has now given him a reason to live. Ashlinn knows it’s a big risk, but she can’t help but give Sean her heart. Will their love survive the ultimate test? I don’t get many that are set in the Civil War so this was a nice change for me. This was a sweet book with good, strong characters. It took a little bit, but I was really drawn into the story and the characters’ journeys. I recommend. This was a sweet book with good, strong characters.