I did not post another chapter of Rescuing Lara yesterday for two reasons. First, I’m busy editing several chapters of my new book, which I hope to publish in October. Second, I have been struggling to master the new (to me) Block style of creating posts on WordPress. Last evening, when I wanted to set up another post, it had me fuming and gnashing my teeth so much that I gave up. After more fighting with it this morning, I learned how to revert to the classic style of post creation. So, here is chapter three.
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Conn’s stubborn insistence that she was beautiful despite her disfigured cheek stuck with Lara through the night. Early the next morning, as she brushed her hair and braided it into a thick single braid, she studied her reflection in the old-fashioned oval mirror above her dressing table. Tying off the braid, she covered the scar with her hand and critically assessed the rest of her face.
She supposed her brownish gold, wide-set eyes, surrounded by thick dark lashes, were rather pretty. Her nose wasn’t bad, although she’d always wished it tilted upward at the end in a more dainty fashion. Her mouth was an average width, but her lips were rather thin compared to the full, sexy look some women resorted to surgery and injections to attain. Still, her lips seemed to fit well with her square, not over-wide jaw and rounded chin.
All in all, she wasn’t bad looking, but she would not call herself beautiful. Then she removed her hand. The effect was immediate and painful. All she saw was the crooked red scar, and she knew very well that’s all everyone who looked at her saw. Except Conn?
No! She refused to believe he truly meant what he’d said. He’d simply tried to make her feel better about herself. Kind of him though it was, she mustn’t take his flattery seriously. She’d fallen for false kindness and flattery once before and had paid for it with a broken heart. She wouldn’t fall into the same trap again.
Besides, he didn’t know that every time she saw the scar or was reminded of it by pitying strangers, she remembered the day she’d lost Uncle Malcolm. The tragic memory was burned into her brain. That was the true scar, she realized.
Shoving it to the back of her mind for now, she left her private quarters and wheeled toward the kitchen, slowing at the sound of Conn’s voice. She halted short of the doorway and listened, stunned to hear Una’s girlish laughter. Pushing on into the room, she found her big, tough bodyguard sitting next to the trestle table, coffee mug in hand and chuckling, while Una bustled about, gathering breakfast ingredients from the pantry and refrigerator, the whole time chattering like a magpie to the man she could hardly stand to look at the previous day. Catching sight of her, the older woman beamed a greeting.
“There ye are, Miss Lara. I was just about to come and wake ye, but ye saved me the trouble. Come and see what dear Mr. Conn brought me from town,” she said excitedly.
Lara glanced at ‘dear Mr. Conn’ and met a wicked grin. Rolling past him, she gaped at the metallic red portable CD player and fistful of CDs Una picked up from the table to show her.
“Isn’t it the prettiest little thing?” the usually dour woman gushed. “And the music! Such lovely Irish tunes, and Mr. Conn bought me these, too, so I can listen the whole day while I work.” Dangling from her fingers were matching red earbuds. “Isn’t he the dearest man?”
“The dearest,” Lara muttered, turning her gaze to Conn. She realized the CDs and player were his purchase at Roxy Records yesterday, and she guessed their purpose.
“Like I told Ms. Una, it’s just my way of saying thanks for putting up with me around here,” he said. Shifting in his chair, he crossed one booted foot over his opposite knee and winked at her.
The devious devil! The gift wasn’t a simple thank you; it was intended to soften up Una so she’d guide them in their search for his relations. Narrowing her eyes, she let him know she saw through his scheme. He merely smiled.
“My goodness, I’d best be gettin’ breakfast on the table before himself there faints from hunger,” Una declared, laying aside her new treasures. Scurrying to the stove, she set a heavy iron skillet to heat and began cutting thick slices of Irish bacon, similar to Canadian bacon. Clearly, ‘himself’ had bribed his way into the woman’s good graces.
“Una, did Mr. Conn tell you he’s here in County Kerry to find his relatives?” Lara asked, watching him waggle his eyebrows.
“No! Well, isn’t that a grand thing. There bein’ so many O’Sheas in these parts, I’ve no doubt ye’ll find your people, sir,” the cook said as she set the bacon to fry.
“I’ve decided to help him, but I have no clue where to start.”
Una sent her a casual glance and began to crack eggs into a cream colored ceramic bowl with blue stripes painted around the middle. “Och, that’s easy. Start with the churches. They’ve records of all the births, deaths and marriages for centuries back.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Lara said, exchanging a surprised look with Conn.
“’Tis as well ye have me to advise ye then.”
“Yes, it is. Thank you, Una. Can you suggest which church or churches to begin with?”
“Mmm, I should think St. Mary’s would be the best place to start. That’s the grand cathedral in Killarney.” Whipping the eggs vigorously, she added, “’Tis on New Street as I recall, but if ye have trouble findin’ it, just ask anyone ye meet. They’ll know where i’tis.”
* * *
Conn pulled up in a gravel drive near the two-story farmhouse, turned off the car and stared at the house. Built of gray stones, with white trim, a darker gray roof and a emerald-green door, with neatly trimmed bushes along the front, it looked well-kept and inviting. Would the people within be as welcoming?
It had taken Lara and him a solid week of digging to arrive at the home of his nearest known Irish relations. Following Una’s advice, they’d visited St. Mary’s Cathedral and had been directed to the Irish Genealogy website, where Kerry Diocese records were now available for anyone to view for free. At Lara’s suggestion, he’d dragged a comfortable leather chair from the parlor into her study, and they’d spent long hours seated together at her desk, scrolling through O’Shea births, baptisms, marriages and deaths on her laptop, and making phone calls to possible relations.
He’d found it harder and harder to be near her, inhaling the delicate honeysuckle perfume she wore, mingled with her own sweet woman scent, and listening to her soft voice. Resisting his desire to kiss her had become torture, but he hadn’t wanted to frighten her. He didn’t want her to think him like the guy who answered her ad and offer to demonstrate his strength “up close.”
Their search had struck pay dirt the day before yesterday. They’d come across a marriage record of one Daniel William O’Shea and Mary Kathleen McCarthy, the names Conn’s mother had pointed out in their worn family Bible a few months ago. The two could be his three times great-grandparents, if they proved to be the right people. Through further investigation, he and his intrepid research partner had concluded the couple were indeed his ancestors and had tracked down local descendants of Daniel and Mary Kathleen still living in County Kerry. Now here they were about to meet Donal and Jocelyn O’Shea, his distant cousins.
“What am I supposed to say to them?” he muttered. “We’re perfect strangers, for God’s sake.” He wished he hadn’t made that promise to his mother.
“You told me Jocelyn sounded excited to meet you when you called yesterday. I’m sure Donal will be too,” Lara said with a nervous glance at the house. “But I still think I should have stayed home.”
“Un-uh. We’re in this together.” He blew out a heavy breath. “If I can handle meeting these people, so can you.”
The words were barely out of his mouth when the door to the house opened and a man stepped out onto the stoop. Conn judged him to be a few years older than himself and several inches shorter. His hair was curly and reddish orange, unlike Conn’s but identical to his sister Tamara’s burnished locks. Smiling, the man waved at them. Conn returned the gesture and unfolded his long frame from the cramped auto.
“Come in, come in,” the other man called. “No need to be shy.”
“Be with you in a minute.” Retrieving Lara’s wheelchair from the hatchback, Conn pushed it around to her side of the car and set the brakes. She’d already opened her door and unbuckled her seatbelt. He bent and lifted her into his arms, enjoying the feel of her soft curves against him for a brief moment. Once she was seated in the chair, he wheeled her toward the house, discovering they now had an audience of two. A woman with strawberry blonde hair had joined the man to greet them.
“Helloo,” the woman said with a wide smile. “Ye must be Connor. We spoke yesterday. I’m Jocelyn and this is me husband Donal, yer cousin.”
“Pleased to meet you, Jocelyn, Donal.” Conn nodded to each of them. “I’d like you to meet my friend, Lara Spenser.”
“’Tis a pleasure, Lara,” Jocelyn said, prodding her husband with her elbow.
Donal had been eying Lara curiously, Conn realized. Knowing how she hated that, he opened his mouth to say something, but the Irishman took his wife’s hint.
“Aye, a great pleasure, mum.”
“I’m happy to meet you both,” Lara murmured in a strained tone.
“D’ye need a hand up the steps?”
“No, I’ve got it,” Conn said. Turning the chair, he backed it and Lara up the three steps and into the house with Donal holding the door open and Jocelyn leading the way.
“Welcome to our home, Cousin Connor,” their hostess said.
“Glad to be here. I’m grateful to you both for agreeing to meet Lara and me.”
“Oh no, ’tis we who must be thankin’ yerself. We’re thrilled to get to know ye and hear of yer dear mother. And to meet Miss Lara, aren’t we, Donal!”
“Aye, o’ course we are.” Offering his hand to Conn, the ruddy-faced Irishman cleared his throat as they shook. “Now, ye must meet the rest o’ the family.” He stepped to an archway that opened off the hall to the right.
Pushing Lara after him, Conn was astonished to see a parlor crowded with a dozen or more people, some seated, some standing, all waiting to meet him, it seemed. They ranged in age from a toddler perched on a young woman’s lap, to a white-haired, bent old lady ensconced in a padded rocker across the room, directly facing Lara and him.
“Everyone, ’tis my great pleasure to introduce Mr. Connor O’Shea, our cousin from America, and his friend, Miss Lara Spenser,” Donal announced.
“Shame on ye, Donal!” the old woman in the rocker scolded in a high-pitched, raspy voice. “Ye didna say his young lady was a capper.”
“Granny Kate!” Jocelyn cried. “Don’t be sayin’ such things.” Her outburst was accompanied by several gasps and embarrassed looks from other family members.
Lara made a choked sound and Conn stiffened. He didn’t know what the word capper meant but it clearly wasn’t a compliment. To her credit, Lara recovered enough to say, “It’s all right. I’ve been called worse.”
“Pshaw! ’Tisn’t a dirty word,” Granny Kate muttered.
“No, it isn’t,” Lara replied more strongly. “It means a handicapped person and that is what I am.” She lifted her chin and looked around the room, as if daring any of them to say something more about her condition, making Conn intensely proud of her.
“Ye see, she’s no offended, are ye, dearie?” Granny Kate said. Not giving Lara a chance to confirm or deny her statement, she crooked an imperious, arthritic finger at Conn. “Bring her over here so I can see her clearly.”
Conn glanced questioningly at Donal, getting only a shamefaced shrug in reply. He bent and whispered in Lara’s ear, “We don’t have to stay if you want to leave.”
She drew a deep breath and shook her head. “No. Push me over to her.”
Reluctantly, Conn wheeled her across the room, halting when no more than a few inches separated her from the crotchety old woman, who bent forward to study her.
“Och, colleen, look at yer poor face. What happened to put that scar on yer cheek?”
“I-I was in a car accident several months ago.”
Granny Kate tsked and shook her head. “’Tis a dreadful shame, but no matter. Ye’re still a fair one wid yer lovely white skin and black Irish hair. Did yer people come from Eire?”
Lara nodded. Standing beside her, Conn strained to hear her murmur, “Yes, several generations back, my father’s ancestors came over from Ireland.”
“I thought as much.” Tilting her head, Granny Kate narrowed her eyes, studying Lara. “Ye’ve a look o’ the gentry about ye, kind o’ highbrowed like. Did those old ones o’ yers come from o’er east, around Dublin perhaps?”
“I . . . I don’t know.”
Wishing he hadn’t insisted on Lara coming with him, Conn was about ready to get her out of there, away from the nosy old crone, whether she wanted to go or not. But he was prevented from doing so as the rest of his Irish kin swarmed about him, asking question after question. Where in America did he live? Did his mother live there too, and why hadn’t she also come to visit? Did he have brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins in the States? What kind of work did he do? Was he married, had he ever been married, was he planning to wed Miss Lara?
Conn’s head spun, trying to keep up with it all, remember who was who, and get in a few questions of his own. He glanced frequently at Lara, finding her engaged in conversation, first with Granny Kate, then with various others. He felt profound relief, seeing her relax and even hearing her laugh on occasion. It looked as if he’d been right to bring her here, after all.
“Would it be all right if I take some pictures for my mother to see?” he managed to ask at one point. Receiving enthusiastic permission, he pulled out his smartphone and clicked off a number of shots. Everyone wanted to be included, smiling, putting on a show and waving for his mom’s benefit. Then it was back to being good-naturedly interrogated and learning about the history of the O’Shea clan.
Breaking into the chattering crowd of O’Sheas, Jocelyn announced that supper would soon be ready. Seated on the sofa between two of his cousins, with little Brian, the toddler he’d noticed earlier, bouncing on his knee, Conn looked at his wristwatch and was shocked to find it past five o’clock. He and Lara had been here all afternoon.
Granny Kate, who it turned out was his aunt several times removed, insisted on sitting between him and Lara at the long, food laden table in Jocelyn and Donal’s big, family style kitchen. Conn began to feel genuine fondness for the old lady who had apparently taken Lara under her wing, making sure everyone knew the young woman was to be treated kindly.
“How old are you, Granny Kate?” he dared to ask as bowls and platters of steaming meats, vegetables, breads and assorted condiments were passed around.
She cocked a snow-white eyebrow at him and, blue eyes twinkling, turned his brazen question back on him. “How old d’ye think I am, nephew?”
Refusing to be embarrassed, he looked her over in a way that might have made her blush, were she a few decades younger. “I’d guess you’re in your mid eighties.”
She cackled with glee. “Yer guess is off by a good bit, young man. I shall be ninety-five come November.”
“Well, you don’t look a day over eighty-five.”
“Ooh, ye’re full o’ the blarney, ye devil!” She poked him in the ribs with her bony elbow. “But I’m no complainin’, mind ye.”
Conn grinned at her. “You’re a charmer, Katie O’Shea.”
“Me name’s not O’Shea. ’Tis Mrs. Katherine Lenahan, if ye please. Me dear Michael saw to that when I was the tender age o’ seventeen.” The old lady’s voice softened and her eyes grew watery. “He’s been gone nigh on thirty years now, God rest his soul. But soon I’ll be wid him again.”
Conn slipped his arm around her frail shoulders. “He’ll be happy to have you with him, but not too soon, darlin’,” he murmured, smiling down at her.
“Och, ye’ve got me leakin’ like a waterin’ pot.” She sniffed and dabbed at her eyes with an old fashioned embroidered handkerchief. “Now eat yer supper before it gets cold.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, exchanging a glance with Lara over Granny Kate’s head. She smiled sweetly at him, letting him know she’d heard and approved of his words to his ancient relative.
The meal passed with a discussion about the differences between life in rural Ireland and America, Fort Worth, Texas, in particular. Conn drew laughter when he gave them a taste of his down home drawl, along with good-natured raillery over his mode of dress and shaggy hair. When he admitted to owning a Harley, the joking turned to excitement from two teenaged cousins, both boys, one of whom was Jocelyn and Donal’s son Charlie.
“That’s fierce, man!” he exclaimed. “I’d love to drive a hog, but Da would never let me because Mam’s afraid her baby boy might get banjaxed.” He aimed a sneer at his father and mother in turn.
“That’ll be enough o’ that kind o’ talk, young man,” Donal barked.
“Sorry,” Charlie said insincerely. “So, d’ye belong to a club, Cuz? A bikers club, I mean.”
Conn knew what he meant. By club he meant a gang. “No, I ride for my own enjoyment,” he said with an edge to his tone. “I don’t need to prove how tough I am by throwing my weight around.”
“Good on you,” Donal said, giving his son a stern look that shut down any more mouthy remarks from the boy. In fact, the whole room went silent for an uncomfortable moment, until Jocelyn spoke up.
“Well now, ’tis time for dessert, I’m thinkin’,” she said, pushing back her chair and rising.
“Can I help you?” Lara asked.
“Nay, I’ll not hear of it. This young scamp can give me an assist.” The Irishwoman stopped behind her son and plucked at his shirt collar. “Come along, Charles.”
“Ah, Mam, don’t call me that. It makes me sound like an old fella,” Charles complained, but he obediently got up and followed her over to her work area.
After dessert and coffee, Granny Kate patted Conn’s hand. “Ye’re a dear boy, Connor O’Shea, and glad I am ta have met ye. But ’tas been a long day and I’m knackered, as is young Lara here. So we’d best be sayin’ our farewells.”
He covered her thin, age-spotted hand with his much larger one and smiled. “I’m glad we got to meet, too, Aunt Katherine. But you’re right, it’s getting late.” He’d also noticed that Lara looked knackered, and they had a lengthy drive back to her cottage.
“Ye’ll give me regards ta yer mother, aye?”
“I will. She‘ll be happy to hear about you and the whole family.”
Nodding, she turned to Lara, who hugged her gently and murmured her own goodbye. The old woman, who apparently lived with Donal and Jocelyn, was helped upstairs to her room by one of her great nieces, leaving the other O’Sheas to bid Conn and Lara farewell.
“Thank you for having us and for the wonderful meal,” Lara said to Jocelyn.
“Ye’re more than welcome, Lara. I’m so glad Connor brought ye to us.” She bent down and the two women embraced. “And I hope we’ll see ye both again.”
After more hugs, handshakes and a few women’s tears that made Conn uncomfortable, he was anxious to get going. Donal again held the door for him as he negotiated the front steps with Lara in her chair and extracted promises from both of them to keep in touch.
“Thank you for bringing me with you,” Lara said a few moments later, waving to his cousin as they drove off. “I wouldn’t have missed meeting them for all the world.” Then she covered a yawn. “Sorry, I guess I am a bit tired.”
“Go ahead and close your eyes. It’ll be at least an hour before we get home. I mean back to your place.”
She laughed softly. “I knew what you meant. And it’s your home too, for a little while.” Laying her head back, she closed her eyes.
“Right, for a little while.” The thought bothered him. He’d learned a lot today about his Irish ancestors, including the fact that his great, great, great grandparents had emigrated to America in the late 1840s, during the terrible potato famine. His mother would be eager to hear everything when he returned to Fort Worth, but he couldn’t leave Lara until she found someone to replace him as her bodyguard. Moreover, he planned to do a thorough background check on whoever she chose, as she really should have done on him.
Glancing at her in the growing darkness, he saw she was asleep, head lolling against the headrest, hands relaxed in her lap. The rising moon painted her face pale white. She looked as delicate as the porcelain figurines his mother collected.
No, he would not leave her until he knew for certain she’d be protected. Even then, it was going to be damn hard walking away from her.
* * *
Lara woke to the sound of Conn whispering her name. “Wh-what?” she mumbled, still half asleep.
“We’re home, honey,” he said as he slipped his arms under her. Then he was carrying her somewhere, with her head on his shoulder.
Pleasantly aware of his strong, sculpted muscles and masculine scent, she smiled drowsily. The next thing she knew he was laying her on her bed and Una was fussing in the background.
“Ye had me sore worried. What happened? Ye weren’t in a wreck, were ye?”
Lara managed to open her eyes enough to see Conn shake his head.
“No, nothing like that. We stayed longer with my kin than I expected. Sorry for not phoning to tell you we’d be late.”
“Well, so long as ye’re both home safe, ’tis all that matters. I’ll take care of her now. This is no place for you.” Una made a shooing motion.
Conn glanced down at Lara and, catching her watching him, winked. “Night, honey. See you in the mornin’,” he drawled.
“Oh, honey, is it? Get ye gone, ye wicked charmer!” Una scolded.
He strolled out, his laughter drifting from the hallway to Lara’s ears, warming her lonely heart. No one had called her honey since Uncle Malcolm died.