Sample first three chapters
“In Irish-Celtic mythology, the Tuatha Dé Danann (People of the goddess Danu) are the Irish race of gods, founded by the goddess Danu. These gods, who originally lived on ‘the islands in the west’, had perfected the use of magic. They traveled on a big cloud to the land that later would be called Ireland and settled there.” – Micha F. Lindemans, “Tuatha Dé Danann,” Encyclopedia Mythica Online.
A loud bang and the smashing of glass made Lara jump. Dear Lord! Had the Hellhounds found her? Were they breaking in? Heart hammering violently, she stared at the locked door of her study, all that stood between her and capture. It wouldn’t keep out the demons.
Clutching the small metal tube she’d just retrieved from its hiding place, she pressed it to her breast. She must protect it! Frantic, she spun her wheelchair around and started back into her adjoining bedroom. She stopped when she heard footsteps rushing from the back of the house.
“Och! Look what ye’ve done, ye wee hooligan!” cried a familiar Irish voice.
Lara sagged in relief. The voice belonged to Una, her cook and housekeeper. The ‘wee hooligan’ had to be Penguin, the black and white cat she’d found huddled on her back stoop in the middle of a rainstorm. Touched by his pitiful meowing, she’d let him in, against Una’s stern advice.
Dreading to learn what the little dickens had done, Lara tucked the bluish metal tube under the folds of her long skirt and wheeled over to the study door. She unlocked and opened it and maneuvered partway into the hall. Seeing Una shoo Penguin out the front door with angry swipes of her matronly bib apron, she grimaced at the jumble of red fuchsia, broken green vase and spilled water littering the oak floor near the entrance. Amid the destruction lay a small overturned table upon which the vase of flowers had rested.
“Oh dear!” she said in chagrin.
Una glanced at her, frizzy gray hair framing a scowl. “Your cat made a foin mess.”
“I see that.”
“I warned ye he’d be nothin’ but trouble, but ye’d no listen.”
“I’m sorry he’s caused you more work.” Lara bit back a sharper reply, reminding herself she didn’t want the woman to get really angry and quit. She’d interviewed at least half a dozen candidates for the job right after arriving in County Kerry from the States and renting this cottage. Sent by an employment agency in Killarney, Una was the only one willing to take on the responsibility of working for a cripple, with all the extra, sometimes very personal, work that entailed. Besides, the Irishwoman might be cranky but she was also goodhearted.
Una sighed. “Aye, well, I’ll fetch a broom and mop.” Stepping around the mess, she added, “There’s a lot o’ glass. Ye’d best stay away from here until I clear it up.”
“I will. Thank you.” Receiving a grumbled response from the older woman as she hurried after cleaning supplies, Lara backed into the study, closed and locked the door again, as she always did when working. She’d told Una she was a writer and didn’t want anyone to see what she was working on, the only excuse she could think of for her secretive behavior.
Crossing to the scarred table she used as a desk, she uncapped the metal tube and removed its contents. She gently unfurled the ancient scroll, spread it across the tabletop and set crystal weights on the corners to hold it flat. Thanks to the protective container, whose magical properties remained strong even after thousands of years, the parchment document was as fresh as the day it had first been placed in the tube.
Despite many hours of memorizing the Old Ones’ pictographic alphabet under her uncle’s tutelage, Lara had found deciphering the ancient text a slow process. Making it more difficult, she didn’t dare write down the words as she translated them for fear they might fall into the wrong hands. If only Uncle Malcolm had told her what the scroll said before he died, but that was not the way of things, he’d insisted. Each new High Guardian must receive the Word of Danu direct from the scroll.
She might have finished this task months ago, but the car accident that killed her beloved uncle had also left her badly injured and sick with grief. Then, even more devastating, her twin sister Sara had been abducted by the Hellhounds. They’d threatened to kill her if Lara didn’t give them the scroll, but how could she? She’d sworn a sacred oath to protect the precious artifact. Although desperate to free her twin from the Hounds’ clutches, she’d made the most painful decision of her life and fled their Louisiana home, abandoning Sara to her fate.
Burdened by grief and guilt, she hadn’t been able to even think about translating the scroll until finding a small measure of peace in this out-of-the-way Irish cottage. During the past few weeks she’d finally felt secure enough to begin the translation, but now she sensed the Hellhounds closing in. She feared she would not be safe here much longer.
Bent over the document, she reviewed the portion she’d already translated, reading the same fear expressed by the long dead oracle whose message had been handed from one High Guardian to the next through the long centuries.
The Milesians draw near. They have destroyed my people, the Tuatha Dé Danann. Only I, Aodhfin, bearer of the white fire, and my council of mages remain above ground with a small force of protectors. Soon, we will join our brethren in the netherworld. Before I go, I must record one final prophesy.
Our laws forbid the Word of Danu to be written down. Yet, I was appointed to commit this sacrilege in order to preserve the Truth. She who taught me the Word entrusted me with this duty upon her deathbed, for she knew our race would not long endure above ground. At her direction, I have recorded our six greatest prophesies.
That was all Lara had so far deciphered. Anxious to know the final, ruling prophesy, she called upon Malcolm’s spirit to guide her as she focused on the next group of symbols. Their meaning slowly revealed itself. By early afternoon, following a short lunch break, she was able to read an additional sentence plus part of another.
This, my own vision of the distant future, brings that number to seven. Each scroll shall be carried into hiding by one of . . . .
A knock on the study door broke her concentration. Frowning, she glanced over her shoulder. “What is it, Una?”
“Mum, the man who telephoned yesterday has arrived.”
“Oh! Um, one moment please.” Engrossed in the task at hand, Lara had forgotten her appointment with the man who’d answered her ad in the The Kerryman, the local newspaper. Scolding herself for letting such a crucial matter slip her mind, she quickly rolled up the scroll, slipped it back into its tube and dropped the container in her knitting basket under the table. She nudged it beneath skeins of yarn with her good foot, making sure it was well hidden, then wheeled to the door and unlocked it.
“Come in,” she called, opening the door and backing away.
Una stepped into the room with a rolling pin gripped in one hand and flour dusting her apron. She partially closed the door behind her.
“Mum, he looks a bad un,” she whispered, worry lines creasing her brow. “Ye oughtn’t to be alone with him.”
Lara hesitated briefly then put the warning down to melodramatics. “I’m sure I’ll be fine. Please show him in, Una.”
“But mum, he’s –”
“Show him in,” Lara gently insisted, raising her hand to stave off further argument.
The Irishwoman issued a mournful sigh and nodded. “Aye, mum, as ye wish.”
While she went to fetch the man, Lara smoothed her long skirt and fingered the jagged scar running from her right cheekbone down almost to her jaw. She considered standing to create a stronger first impression but dismissed the idea. Her injured leg wasn’t strong enough to bear weight yet, if it ever would, and standing on one foot she’d risk losing her balance.
A man’s heavy tread accompanied Una’s footsteps up the hall. The door opened again and the plump Irishwoman warily ushered in a tall stranger. He halted just over the threshold to stare at Lara, obviously unprepared for her appearance. She stiffened self-consciously and gulped at the sight of him. Six-foot-two or three, he had shaggy coffee-brown hair, and several days’ growth of beard shaded his square jaw. A slight bump marred the bridge of his Roman nose, revealing it had once been broken. Clothed in faded jeans, a dark blue shirt, black leather jacket and boots, with studded leather gloves protruding from the jacket pockets, he looked like he belonged in a motorcycle gang.
“Mum, this is Mr. O’Shea,” Una said tightly, eyeing the man with a disapproving scowl.
Lara forced a smile. “Thank you for coming, Mr. O’Shea. I’m Lara Spenser.” Receiving a silent nod from him, she glanced at her housekeeper. “That’s all for now, Una. I’ll ring if I need you.”
Sticking out her chin, the woman appeared ready to argue but evidently thought better of it. “Aye, mum. Excuse me,” she snapped at O’Shea, who finally stepped farther into the room.
As the door closed behind him, he cleared his throat. “Sorry for staring. I wasn’t expecting . . . .” He pointed at her wheelchair.
“You needn’t apologize. Perhaps I should have mentioned this when we spoke.” She tapped her fingers on an arm of the chair, thinking he was probably more shocked by her scarred face. She’d deliberately not told him about her infirmities when he phoned yesterday. He was a complete stranger and in her situation it didn’t pay to give out too much information. Besides, his southern drawl had rattled her, causing her to stammer like a tongue-tied adolescent.
“Maybe so, ma’am, but my mama would have my hide for my bad manners,” he said in those deep, familiar tones – Texan, she thought. He added a genial smile that softened his rugged features. However, the smile didn’t reach his steel-gray eyes, eyes that watched her intently, causing her skin to prickle and her hands to sweat. Maybe she should have listened to Una.
Don’t be a goose, she scolded herself. You need a tough, strong man like him.
“Yes, well, please sit down,” she invited, indicating the chintz covered lounge chair where she often rested in the afternoon. Primly folding her hands in her lap, she watched him amble over to the chair, push the matching ottoman out of the way, and gingerly lower his large frame onto the seat, which creaked under his weight. Lara coughed to smother her amusement at the sight of his masculine figure against the dainty flowered fabric.
“Now then, as I stated in my ad, I’m in need of a driver who’s also physically strong.” She couldn’t say more than that in the ad, fearing it might draw her enemies to her.
“Yes, ma’am, and when I called, you promised to explain that last part once we met, but I can see the reason for myself. You’ll need the man you hire to lift you in and out of the car and push your chair when you go into Killarney, right?”
She shifted uncomfortably. “Right, but there’s more to it than that.”
He arched his brows and waited for her to explain.
Looking away, she toyed with the silver pendant dangling on a fine chain at her throat, tracing the Celtic knot pattern engraved upon it with her fingertip. “You see, I believe I’m being pursued by someone with a grudge against my family. We . . . we have something he wants. I came to Ireland to escape him and his . . . friends, but I’m afraid they will find me.”
She met O’Shea’s steely gaze. “I’m terrified of them. They’ve killed one person I loved, possibly two. If they capture me, I fear I’m as good as dead.” She paused, allowing him to absorb what she’d said before adding, “Confined to this chair, with no way to protect myself, I need someone to keep an eye out for suspicious strangers and to be here in the house at night. In short, I need a bodyguard.”
Frowning, he studied her for a moment then leaned forward, hands loosely clasped and elbows resting on his knees. “Ma’am, I agree you need protection, but I’m not the man for you.”
“What! W-why not?” She couldn’t believe he was refusing the job before she’d actually offered it to him.
He bent his head and raked a hand through his wavy dark hair. “It’s like this. I’m foreman for a crew of oil and gas well firefighters. We just finished capping a blowout in the North Sea. I’m here on a sort of extended vacation for a couple months. Then I’m due back home in Texas, where the company I work for is based.”
Lara stared at him, dumfounded. “But if you knew you weren’t going to be staying here long, why did you answer my ad?”
“I got curious, a bad habit. I figured I’d just call and find out why an Irish lady needed a strong chauffeur. Never planned on interviewing for the job. Then I phoned and realized you’re an American, but you wouldn’t explain things over the phone. That made me even more curious, so I decided to come see what the big mystery was.” He gave a lopsided grin, revealing one dimple. “And the truth is I wanted to meet the woman with that sexy voice.”
Lara’s jaw dropped. Was he serious? “Sir, I am in fear for my life, and you came here to, to flirt with me?” She narrowed her eyes. “Or are you joking at my expense?”
Grin fading, he sat up straight “No, ma’am, I’m not. I really wanted to meet you, and I agree you need a bodyguard, but it wouldn’t be fair of me to take the job for such a short time. You need someone who’ll stick around. You must have had plenty of replies to that ad of yours. I’m sure the right man will turn up soon if he hasn’t already.”
“You’re wrong! I’ve only had two other calls. One man offered to demonstrate his strength ‘up close and personal’. The other one slurred his words so badly, I knew he was drunk. I wouldn’t trust either of them to protect me. Now, since you refuse the job, I don’t know what I’ll do.” She stared at her hands, clenched together in her lap.
“I live in constant fear and I . . . I’ve been having terrible nightmares,” she admitted, hoarse with emotion. Her eyes burned and her lips trembled, but she refused to cry in front of the infernal man.
“Ah, hell!” O’Shea muttered. Unfolding himself from the too small chair, he strode over to her, crouched and patted her shoulder. “Easy now, there’s no need to get upset.”
“No need? Don’t you tell me there’s no need!” she glared at him, blood suddenly boiling. “You have no idea what it’s like to be terrified day and night.”
“Calm down and stop yelling.”
“I’m not yelling!” she protested, unwillingly aware of his masculine scent and the heat of his body.
“Yeah, you are. And if you don’t quit it, that old woman who showed me in here will storm back in with her rolling pin raised.”
Lara pictured Una beating him over the head with her trusty rolling pin, and a bubble of laughter burst from her throat. It was so ridiculous, she couldn’t stop laughing, and O’Shea joined in, his craggy features taking on a youthful, almost boyish appearance. She hadn’t laughed in such a long time. It felt wonderful, bringing tears of mirth to her eyes.
O’Shea controlled himself first. Digging in his back pocket, he brought out a man’s handkerchief and thrust it into her hand. “Here, you need this.”
Accepting the rag, which appeared clean if wrinkled, she swallowed another laugh, hiccupped and mopped her eyes. “Pl-please, Mr. O’Shea, help me, even if it’s only for a few weeks.” She gave him a pleading smile.
Frowning, he pushed to his feet. “You haven’t even asked for references. How do you know you can trust me?”
She held his probing gaze and shook her head. “I’m a good judge of people. You won’t do anything to hurt me.” She didn’t mention her special ability to sense approaching danger or the fact that he hadn’t set off her built-in warning signal. “What do you say? Will you be my bodyguard and rescue me from my fears?”
He sighed and raked a hand through his hair again. “Okay, I’ll take the job temporarily. I’m not due back home for another seven weeks. That oughta give you time enough to find somebody else.”
Clutching his wadded up handkerchief to her breast, she drew a shaky breath. “Thank you, Mr. O’Shea. I’ll be forever grateful to you.”
He waved aside her gratitude. “One thing. Drop the Mr. O’Shea. Call me Connor, or just plain Conn.”
* * *
“Glad I am that man is gone,” Una declared a short while later as she helped Lara shift from her wheelchair onto the lounge chair where Connor O’Shea had so recently sat.
Lara relaxed against the cushioned back as the older woman adjusted the ottoman under her legs. “He’ll be back in the morning,” she replied.
Una straightened abruptly. “Sure now, ye don’t mean to say ye hired the man, do ye?”
Lara smiled. “Sure now, I mean exactly that.”
“Are ye daft? He’s a bad un, I tell ye. Could ye not see that?”
“I saw a tall, strong man who can easily manage both me and the chair when I wish to go into town, a man who can protect me from . . . any unpleasantness that might arise.”
“Unpleasantness, is it? I’m thinkin’ ye’ll know nothin’ but trouble with him around.”
Tired of the woman’s dire warnings, Lara leaned her head back and closed her eyes. “I’d like to nap for a while before supper.”
“Humph!” With that, Una marched out, closing the door none too gently.
Left alone with her thoughts, Lara realized she hadn’t asked O’Shea – Connor – why he’d chosen County Kerry for his vacation. With his Irish name, perhaps he had family hereabout. Was she taking him away from loved ones by begging him to be her protector? Uncomfortable with the possibility, she told herself he was probably just another American tourist wanting to visit the old country and see the sights.
He’d called Texas home, as she’d already guessed, but he must have seen a lot of the world with his job. What was it like, working in an inhospitable place like the North Sea, fighting a ferocious oil or gas fire? It was obviously a dangerous occupation, requiring tough, courageous men, and Connor was a foreman, a leader of such men. That said a lot about him. He ought to be capable of standing up to her enemies, she assured herself.
It dawned on her that she hadn’t warned him he could be putting his life on the line by accepting the job, but surely he must have gathered that from what she’d told him about the devils who were after her. Hadn’t he?
* * *
Connor lay awake in his rented room, hands crossed under his head, staring into the darkness above and thinking of Lara Spenser. Her shimmering, golden-brown eyes and delicate features kept appearing in his mind’s eye. What had happened to put her in a wheelchair and leave that scar on her cheek, he wondered.
Her voice also haunted him. He hadn’t lied about wanting to meet her because of that voice. Soft and sweet, except when she got mad, it was like a siren’s song calling to him. He’d found it impossible to refuse her plea for help, even though it meant abandoning the plans he’d made for his stay in Ireland.
Damn, he hated to break his promise to his mother. What was he to tell her? That he hadn’t had time to hunt for their distant relatives here in County Kerry because he let a woman distract him? He sighed. To be fair, the lady’s fear was very real. His mother would understand when he explained Miss Spenser’s situation – he assumed she was a Miss – with no one to guard her from danger except a cranky old lady with a rolling pin.
He grinned at the memory of the Irishwoman scowling at him, letting him know she’d like to kick him out the front door. Nope, she sure didn’t cotton to him. Maybe if he packed away his leathers tomorrow, she wouldn’t act so bitchy. But he didn’t like riding his bike without his jacket, gloves and boots. If it were colder he’d add his leather pants. Boy, what’s her name would really take after him with her rolling pin then.
Chuckling, he flipped onto his belly, punched his pillow a couple times and settled down. Lara Spenser’s laughing image beckoned him toward sleep.
* * *
Lara rubbed her tired eyes. She ought to quit for the night, but she was so close to finishing the most important part of the translation, the Oracle’s final prophesy. She couldn’t stop now. Shifting in her chair to ease her aching back, she focused on the scroll once more and re-read the last few sentences she’d deciphered.
Each scroll shall be carried into hiding by one of my faithful Drui to be passed on to their children and their children’s children through ages to come. For this I have foreseen – Beyond a long darkness, from the west shall arise a mighty chieftain . . . .
Studying the next few symbols, Lara painstakingly put together their meaning, continually double-checking to make sure she got it right. The wall clock chimed midnight before she completed the task. Satisfied at last, she read the conclusion of the prophesy.
Beyond a long darkness, from the west shall arise a mighty chieftain who will bring forth the Great Joining and open a path unto the future.
Lara whispered the baffling words to herself once, twice, three times. Was the mighty chieftain from the west a political figure, an American president perhaps, or a religious leader, a teacher? And what had the Oracle meant by “the Great Joining?” Did it refer to a merging of nations, a meeting of world leaders or brilliant scholars? Would she live long enough to learn the answers? Not likely. None of the other Guardians had.
Disappointment swept over her. She’d expected the ancient prophesy to be a great revelation, not a vague vision of some far off future event. Selfishly, she’d also hoped it might somehow give her the power to locate her sister. Now that hope faded, leaving her desolate.
Fighting off tears, she returned the scroll to its container, laid it in her lap and turned the desk lamp down, leaving just enough light to wheel herself into the bedroom. She rolled to the room’s only window, eased aside a loose framing board, and placed the metal tube in a niche behind the board. She’d found the opening shortly after moving into the cottage, while gazing out the window one misty morning. Spying the loose board, she’d nudged it aside to reveal an empty pocket for an old-fashioned window weight, like the ones in her uncle’s house. This weight had no doubt been removed when the modern double-hung window was installed. Recognizing the space as a perfect hiding place, she’d stored the scroll there ever since.
With the relic safely concealed, she prepared for bed, but once snug under a warm comforter, she found sleep slow to come despite her exhaustion. She couldn’t stop rehashing the nebulous prophesy and wondering why the Hellhounds were so determined to get their hands on the scroll. Did they expect it to bring them wealth and power? If so, they were wasting their time.
Another worry plagued her. Did the Hounds know about the other six scrolls? Had they already captured her fellow Guardians? She would never know unless she learned how to contact the others, information her uncle hadn’t shared before his life was cut short.
By the Goddess, she would locate the six. If she lived long enough.
Connor O’Shea came to mind. He would keep her safe, she felt certain. In his profession, he had to be tough and incredibly brave. And those steely eyes of his . . . they could bore holes in a person if he grew angry. Lara shivered, never wanting to see them aimed at her in anger.
Then she pictured him sitting in her flowery lounger and giggled. A man like him needed a big, sturdy leather chair. There was such a chair in the parlor, she recalled, making a face. The room was stuffed with furniture and bric-a-brac, so much that she didn’t dare go in there with her wheelchair for fear of breaking something. But perhaps Connor could move that leather chair into the study and keep her company now and then.
The second that foolish thought entered her head, she dashed it to bits. Why would he or any man want to keep company with her? She was ugly!
Turning her ruined cheek to the pillow, Lara reached out with her mind, seeking solace from her sister, but like so many times before, she felt nothing. The bond they’d shared since birth was broken. Giving in to heartbreak, she wept until sleep finally claimed her.
Around nine the next morning, Conn pulled off the narrow dirt lane leading to Lara Spenser’s place and parked his rented Harley Electra beside a low stone wall bordering her small patch of land. Glancing at her house as he swung off the bike, he wished his mother could see it. She’d love the thatched roof, white stucco, red shutters and flower boxes.
He removed his helmet and gloves, shrugged out of his jacket and slung it over one shoulder. For now, he left the rest of his few belongings stowed in the Harley’s saddlebags and trunk behind the seat. Pushing open the creaky wooden gate in the wall, he sauntered to Ms. Spenser’s front door, knocked and waited. When the cook/housekeeper finally opened up, she screwed up her mouth and gave him a condemning glare.
“Morning,” he said, receiving a stiff nod in reply.
“Herself’s just now risen. Ye’ll wait out here until she’s ready to receive ye.” With that, the woman shut the door in his face.
Irritated, he raised his hand to push his way in but thought better of it. Getting into a fracas with her was no way to start his temporary job. Rather than cool his heels while he waited, he deposited his gear on a bench next to the doorway and set out to familiarize himself with the property, aiming to spot any places where intruders might conceal themselves. He’d never worked as a bodyguard but his days in the Army had taught him to recognize a security risk when he saw one.
Conn completed his tour fifteen minutes later. He’d noted a thick row of gorse bushes along the back lot line but doubted anyone would be fool enough to hide among those prickly plants. However, a weather-beaten garage behind the cottage, housing Ms. Spenser’s small hatchback and an assortment of gardening tools, was worrisome. So were the low stone walls dividing her land from neighboring plots. The enemies she feared could easily crouch behind those walls or hide in the garage. He’d have to check them often, chiefly after dark to make sure no one lay in wait, ready to invade the house.
It was a warm morning and he’d worked up a thirst. He downed a healthy swallow of water from the canteen he’d filled back at the hotel and was clipping it in place between the Harley’s handlebars when he heard the cottage door creak open. Prepared to face his surly nemesis again, he was pleasantly surprised when the lady of the house rolled her chair to the threshold. Dressed in another long skirt, a green and yellow flowered one this time, and a pale yellow top, she looked as bright as the Irish morning. A black and white cat squeezed between the chair and the door jam, halting to stare at Conn warily.
“Good morning, Mr. O’ . . . I mean Connor,” Miss Spenser called out.
“Morning, ma’am.” Hurrying toward her so she wouldn’t need to shout, he admired her welcoming smile and the silky black braid draped over one shoulder. As he drew near, the cat shot outside and ran lickety-split around a corner of the cottage.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare off your friend,” Conn said with a wry crook of his lips.
His golden-eyed employer gave a little laugh. “Don’t worry, he’ll be back in time for supper. He loves to eat. His name is Penguin, by the way.”
“Good name for him.” From what he’d seen as the animal streaked past, his black and white coat did kind of resemble a penguin’s markings.
“I apologize for keeping you waiting.”
“No problem. I used the time to look over your property.”
Fine dark brows dipped over a small, straight nose. “Did you find anything suspicious?”
“Not a thing, but there are some areas I’ll want to keep an eye on. You might also want to have some motion detectors installed.”
“Oh. I hadn’t thought of that. I’ll look into it.” Her worried frown lifted. “Will you come inside? There’s coffee if you want a cup, or tea if you prefer.”
“Ma’am, I’m a Texas boy.” He bent to retrieve his jacket and helmet. “The only tea I drink comes in a tall glass with lots of ice.”
She laughed and swung her chair around, letting him follow her into the house. “I used to feel the same way, but Una has converted me, except for first thing in the morning. I have to have a cuppa joe to wake up.”
He grinned. “Do I hear a hint of the south in your voice, Ms. Spenser?”
Stopping abruptly, she almost caused him to bump into the back of her chair. She pivoted a quarter turn and peered up at him, her expression guarded. “You must have heard wrong. I’ve never lived south of New York City.”
That was a lie if he’d ever heard one. He wondered why she didn’t want him to know she hailed from below the Mason-Dixon Line, but he let it pass. “My mistake, Ms. . . . Lara.” He gave her his most disarming smile. “Do you mind if I call you Lara?”
“No, that’s fine,” she said after a brief hesitation. “Now, I’m sure you’d like to see the room you’ll be using.” Turning away, she pointed to a flight of narrow stairs dividing the hallway from a parlor crammed with furniture and whatnots. “There’s a bedroom in the loft. I had Una clean it and make up the bed for you.”
“Thanks.” I just bet the old bat loved doing that, Conn thought, laying his gear on a low step. “I’ll bring in my stuff later. First, I’d like to know your plans for the next few days and what you’ll need me to do.”
She shrugged. “I’d like to go into town one day and do some shopping. You’ll need to drive me there. Outside of that, I mainly want you to keep watch around here.” Bending her head, she twisted her hands together. They appeared white against the folds of her bright colored skirt. “I . . . I have a feeling trouble is coming.”
Conn narrowed his eyes, studying her for a moment. “I could use that coffee you mentioned. How ’bout you join me and tell me more about this feeling of yours?”
Raising her head, she nodded and led the way to the kitchen, where Una poured two coffees for them, lips pursed like she was sucking a lemon the whole time.
“Why, thank yuh, Ms. Una. That’s right kind of yuh,” he said in his best southern boy drawl, relieving her of the steaming mugs. He winked and had the satisfaction of hearing her gasp. Her jaw dropped and her eyes nearly popped out of her head.
A strangled sound came from Lara, drawing his gaze. She hastily spun her chair and disappeared into the hall. Deciding he’d better get out of range from Una’s rolling pin, Conn strode after the boss lady. He followed her into her office, shutting the door just as a clatter of pots and pans broke out in the kitchen.
“You mustn’t tease Una like that. She doesn’t have a sense of humor,” Lara said, facing him. She met his grin and couldn’t quite hide her amusement.
“Has she been with you long?” He handed her a hot mug, handle first, then eased into the flowery chair he’d occupied the day before, hoping it wouldn’t collapse under his weight.
“No, only a few weeks. I hired her shortly after moving in here. She’s a widow with one son. He runs the family farm not too far from here, and she augments their income by hiring out.” Sending him a pointed look, Lara added, “She was between jobs when I arrived here, much to my good fortune.”
“I’ll try not to antagonize her,” he said, getting the message. He stretched out his legs and crossed his ankles. “Now, tell me what you meant about feeling trouble coming.”
“It’s hard to explain,” she said, studying the contents of her mug. “I don’t know if you believe in ESP, extrasensory perception that is.” Glancing up, she waited for an answer.
“I’ve never given it much thought.” Frowning, he added, “Although, I do have a friend who has an uncanny knack for . . . unraveling mysteries, let’s say.”
“That’s interesting. He very likely has a form of ESP.” A smile flitted across her lips. “Many people consider special powers of the mind to be hogwash, but I assure you it’s not. I and several members of my family are psychic in one way or another. My mother saw glimpses of future events. My sister can . . . .” She paused, eyes downcast. “Sh-she moves objects with h-her mind.”
Conn wondered what had caused her to hesitate and stammer, but he didn’t ask since she quickly recovered from whatever it was.
“As for me, I have an unpleasant ability to sense when I and those close to me are in danger.” She watched him as if expecting him to scoff at her statement.
“And you’ve been sensing you’re in danger lately,” he said, willing to believe her, at least for now. He was rewarded with her sigh of relief.
“Yes, and the feeling is growing stronger. I thought I’d escaped the Hellhounds, those who drove me from my home, but I fear they’ll soon discover where I am. If they do –”
“If they do, they’ll have to go through me to get to you, and they won’t find that easy.”
She set her mug on the table beside her chair, which she evidently used as a desk, judging by the pen, paper and small laptop computer sitting there. “I believe you’ll do your best to protect me, Connor. Otherwise I wouldn’t have begged you to take the job, even if it is only for a short time.” Dropping her gaze again, she picked at the folds of her skirt. “But I must be honest. You could be putting your life in danger by agreeing to help me. The Hellhounds are ruthless. As I said yesterday, they’ve already caused the death of someone I loved.”
“Sorry about that, Lara.” He swallowed a long pull of coffee. “Reckon I oughta be honest with you, too.” Catching her sudden wary expression, he hurried to explain. “I wasn’t always in the firefighting business. I spent eight years in the Army Special Forces.”
“Oh!” Her golden eyes grew huge and her lips worked, but no other words came out.
“Don’t mean to brag, but I can handle most anything that’s thrown at me. So you don’t need to worry.”
She gave a jerky nod. “Th-that’s good to know, Connor.”
“My friends call me Conn. Why don’t you try it.”
“As you wish . . . Conn.”
He toyed with his empty mug and eyed her curiously. “Now, I’ve got to ask, why do you call the bad guys hellhounds? Is that what they call themselves?”
She laughed bitterly. “I doubt it. My Uncle Malcolm called them that. In folklore, Hellhounds often guard the land of the dead. The most famous one is Cerberus, a three-headed dog with razor-sharp teeth and enormous strength. In Greek myth, it guarded the gates of hell.”
“Huh. Not a bad name for a pack of killers, and that’s what they are, right?”
“Yes, they’re vicious killers,” Lara said in a tone dripping with acid. She stared at him but was obviously seeing someone, or something, else. Her gold eyes glittered with hatred, bringing to mind a black panther Conn had once encountered while carrying out a rescue mission in a Central American country. The animal hadn’t made a sound and, after their silent standoff, it had melted back into the jungle, leaving him shaken.
Feeling much the same now, Conn cleared his throat. “You said you’d like to go into Killarney. How about today?”
She blinked and returned from wherever she’d gone in her head. Fingering the small silver pendant she wore, a gesture he recalled from yesterday, she nodded. “Today will be fine, I guess.”
“Good. I’ll bring the car around and wait out front while you get ready to go.” Rising, he grimaced. “After I drop my mug off with the she-wolf in the kitchen.”
Lara’s lips twitched. “Come now, surely a Special Forces veteran isn’t afraid of a middle-aged Irishwoman.”
Glad to see her good humor restored, Conn cocked an eyebrow. “I dunno, she looks like she could take a man’s head off with that rolling pin of hers if she had a mind to.”
His pretty boss burst out laughing as he walked out.
* * *
Lara gripped the arms of her chair while Conn wheeled her backward down the steps of the dress shop. Packed in a storage pouch at the back of her chair were a lovely skirt and top to augment the meager wardrobe she’d brought with her when she fled her Louisiana home. She was happy with the garments but glad to escape the curious customers and store employees, whose furtive glances at her scarred face she hadn’t failed to notice. She sighed in relief as her tall, dark and silent escort pushed her along Killarney’s High Street.
“You’re very good at this,” she said, doing her best to ignore the curious, pitying looks she received from passersby.
“I’ve had some practice. My mother is disabled. She’s been confined to a wheelchair or electric scooter for years.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Conn. May I ask how she became disabled?”
“She has a hereditary disease, nothing you’ve ever heard of.”
“Hereditary? D-does that mean you may have it too?”
“No, I’m lucky. I didn’t get it.” He went quiet for a moment then added in a flat tone, “But my sister did.”
“Oh.” Thinking of her own missing sister, Lara needed no psychic ability to sense how hard it was for him to be the lucky one. “Is . . . is she also stuck in one of these?” She tapped her chair’s plastic armrests.
“Not yet. She wears AFOs – like the one you have on and gets around pretty well with a cane, but sooner or later . . . .”
“I see.” So he knew about the rigid plastic ankle-foot orthosis, commonly called an AFO, she wore on her injured right leg, did he? She was always careful to keep it covered under her long skirts, but she supposed he’d noticed it when he lifted her in and out of the car.
“Um, do you see them, your family, very often?”
“Tamara, my sister, lives on the West Coast, so we don’t get together often, but Mom still lives in Fort Worth, where I grew up. I make it back there every few months.” Slowing, he asked, “Do you want to go in here?”
Glancing at the drugist’s shop, she shook her head. “No, I’m not in need of any medications or toiletries just now. Oh, but I would like to stop in the record shop. It’s just around the corner and down a short way on New Street.”
Hoping to lighten their conversation, she said, “You mentioned you’re here on vacation, but what made you choose Ireland and County Kerry in particular?”
“Like I told you, my crew just finished a job in the North Sea. It was a rough one and I . . . I needed a break. Ireland wasn’t far away, and my mother’s been after me for a while to come over here and dig up our family roots. I promised her I’d give it a try.”
Lara gasped in dismay and twisted to look up at him. “I’m making you break your promise to her, Conn.”
He shrugged. “It’s okay. She’ll understand.”
“No, it’s not okay. I won’t be able to live with myself if I cause you to let her down.”
“Either I watch out for you or I go hunting for my ancestors and leave you in the lurch. Is that what you want?” He quirked one dark eyebrow.
“N-no.” Frowning, she faced front for a moment. Then an idea dawned and she again turned in the chair, heart suddenly racing. “I’ll help you! That way you can do both, be my bodyguard and fulfill your promise to your mother.”
He blinked and stared at her in surprise; then he frowned. “That’s not a good idea. I might get distracted by, uh, the search. That could be dangerous for you.”
“But I really want to help you trace your ancestry and being away from the cottage might be a good thing, don’t you see? If the Hellhounds track me down, they won’t find me there. Not while I’m off somewhere with you.” She held her breath, watching his frown slowly lift. His mouth – his very nice mouth – crooked up at one corner, a habit she was growing used to.
“You’re mighty convincing when you want to be. Okay, we’ll see what we can do, although, to be honest, I have no idea where to start. The only clues Mom could give me were a couple names and the fact that our people came from County Kerry.”
She returned his grin. “I know exactly who to ask for advice – Una. She’s lived her whole life in this area. We’ll ask her how to go about the search.”
Conn cocked his head to one side and gave her a look that said she’d lost her mind. “That woman can’t stand the sight of me. You really think she’s gonna do anything to help me?”
Lara refused to be deterred. “Let me think about it. I’ll come up with a way to convince her.” With that she faced forward once more. Only then did she realize they’d stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, blocking foot traffic. And people were eyeing them as they sidled past on either side, giving her those pitying looks she hated.
“We’re in the way. Let’s go to the record shop,” she said more sharply than she intended, cupping her scarred right cheek with her hand.
Conn sighed. “Yes, ma’am, whatever you say.”
Within moments they arrived outside Roxy Records, the small shop she’d spied from her car window on a previous trip into Killarney, with Una’s son, Riley, behind the wheel. He’d frightened her half to death with his reckless driving, and she’d vowed never again. Conn’s driving was calm and controlled, hardly what one might expect from a man who rode a motorcycle and dressed like a biker. Even now, wearing jeans and a black T-shirt, which clung to his broad shoulders and impressive abs like a second skin, he still had a bad boy look about him.
He maneuvered her into the record shop and over to the classical music section as she requested. While she searched through CDs for something she might enjoy, he wandered off to look over the place. Twenty minutes later, she found him up front, leaning on the counter, talking with the clerk. He held a bag in one hand. He smiled and straightened when she approached.
“You found some music you like,” he observed.
“Yes, I think so. It looks as if you did too.”
“Oh, just a little something.” He moved out of the way, allowing her to lay her items on the counter.
The clerk, a young man who looked all of sixteen, took her money, gave her change and bagged up her purchases, glancing at her cheek several times, making her feel like something from a carnival sideshow. Anxious to get out of the store, she started to accept the bag from him, but Conn reached over her head and took it from the youth. “I’ll stow this in your tote,” he told Lara.
“Thank you,” she said curtly, annoyed by his action even though he was only trying to help. Once they were outside, she said, “I can do some things for myself, you know.” She tried not to sound cross but evidently failed.
He slowed their pace to a crawl and stopped. Setting the chair’s brakes, he walked around in front of her and squatted. His steel-gray eyes probed hers. “You’re angry. You didn’t like me grabbing the bag from that nosy kid before you could, is that it?”
She glanced from side to side. They were blocking the sidewalk again and people were eyeing her as they edged around her chair. Face growing hot with embarrassment, she hid her scarred cheek behind her hand. “Don’t do this, not here,” she said in a strained whisper. “Take me back to the car. Please.”
He muttered a disgusted curse but rose, released the brakes and pushed her steadily, silently along. Neither said a word until they arrived at the car park where they’d left her rented blue auto. He lifted her into the passenger seat, closed her door and stashed the folded up chair and their packages in the back, all without speaking. However, when he slid in next to her, he unleashed his tongue.
“Look, I didn’t mean to set a burr under your blanket. If you don’t want me to do little things for you, fine, but tell me so now. And for God’s sake, stop covering up your scar every time somebody looks at you. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
His words stung. Turning her head, she stared out the window. “I’m sorry for lashing out at you. It’s just that I don’t like being dependent on anyone.” She touched the scar and her voice grew raspy. “As for this, I feel like hiding away in the dark. It’s so ugly. I’m ugly.”
“Woman, you are not ugly.” He gripped her chin and made her face him. “We all have our scars. Some show on the outside, some don’t, and I’ve seen a hell of a lot worse than yours.” He traced the raised tissue lightly with his thumb. “Even with this, you’re beautiful.”
Lara jerked back, away from his touch. “Save your false flattery! I know what I look like, and I . . .” She gazed out the window again. “. . . I hate the sight of myself in a mirror.”
He sighed. “Then you’re either blind or a fool.”
She didn’t reply as he started the car. Not for a second did she believe he truly thought her beautiful.
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.
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