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Born in Ice

Nora Roberts

  The wild wind raced cursing across the Atlantic and pounded its fists over the fields of the west counties. Hard, needlepoint bullets of rain beat on the ground and sliced through a man's flesh to batter his bones. Flowers that had bloomed brilliantly from spring through autumn blackened under the killing frost.

  In cottages and pubs, people gathered around fires and talked of their farms and their roofs, the loved ones who had emigrated to Germany or the States. It hardly mattered whether they had left the day before, or a generation. Ireland was losing its people, as it had all but lost its language.

  There was occasional talk about The Troubles, that endless war in the north. But Belfast was far from the village of Kilmilhil, in miles, and in emotion. People worried more about their crops, their animals, and the weddings and wakes that would come with winter.

  A few miles out of the village, in a kitchen warmed with the heat and scents of baking, Brianna Concannon looked out of the window as the ice-edged rain attacked her garden.

  "I'll lose the columbine, I'm thinking. And the foxglove." It broke her heart to think of it, but she'd dug up what she could and stored the plants in the crowded little cabin out back. The gale had come so quickly.

  "You'll plant more in spring." Maggie studied her sister's profile. Brie worried about her flowers like a mother over her babes. With a sigh, Maggie rubbed her own bulging belly. It still astonished her that it was she who was married and carrying a child, and not her home-loving sister. "You'll love every minute of it."

  "I suppose. What I need is a greenhouse. I've been looking at pictures. I think it could be done." And she could probably afford it by spring, if she was careful. Daydreaming a little about the plants that would flourish in their new glass enclosure, she slipped a fresh batch of cranberry muffins from the oven. Maggie had brought her the berries all the way from a Dublin market. "You'll take this home with you."

  "I will, yes." Maggie grinned and snatched one from the basket, tossing it from hand to hand to cool it enough before she bit in. "After I've eaten my fill. I swear to you, Rogan all but weighs every morsel I put in my mouth."

  "He wants you and the baby healthy."

  "Oh, he does. And I think he's worrying about how much of me is baby and how much is fat."

  Brianna eyed her sister. Maggie had grown round and soft, and there was a rosy contentment about her as she approached the last trimester of her pregnancy that was a sharp contrast to the bundle of energy and nerve Brianna was accustomed to.

  She's happy, Brianna thought, in love. And knows her love is well returned. "You have put on more than a few, Margaret Mary," Brianna said and watched wicked humor rather than temper light Maggie's eyes.

  "I'm having a contest with one of Murphy's cows, and I'm winning." She finished off the muffin, reached shamelessly for another. "In a few weeks I'll not be able to see past my belly to the end of my pipe to blow glass. I'll have to switch to lamp work."

  "You could take a vacation from your glass," Brianna pointed out. "I know Rogan's told you you've enough done already for all of his galleries."

  "And what would I do, besides die of boredom? I've got an idea for a special piece for the new gallery here in Clare."

  "Which won't open until spring."

  "By then Rogan will have made good on his threat to tie me to the bed if I make a move toward my shop." She sighed, but Brie suspected Maggie didn't mind the threat so much. Didn't mind Rogan's subtle domineering ways. She was afraid she was mellowing. "I want to work while I can," Maggie added. "And it's good to be home, even in such weather. I suppose you've got no guests coming."

  "As it happens, I do. A Yank, next week." Brianna freshened Maggie's cup of tea, then her own, before sitting down. The dog, who had been waiting patiently beside her chair, laid his big head in her lap.

  "A Yank? Just one? A man?"

  "Mmmm." Brianna stroked Concobar's head. "It's a writer. He's booked a room, wants board as well, for an indefinite period. He's paid a month in advance."

  "A month! At this time of year?" Amused, Maggie looked out as the wind shook the kitchen windows. Welcoming weather it wasn't. "And they say artists are eccentric. What sort of writer is he, then?"

  "A mystery type. I've read a few, and he's good. He's won awards and had films made from them."

  "A successful writer, a Yank, spending the dead of winter at a B and B in Clare County. Well, they'll have plenty to say about that at the pub."

  Maggie licked crumbs from her fingers and studied her sister with an artist's eye. Brianna was a lovely woman, all rose and gold with creamy skin and a fine, trim figure. A classic oval face, a mouth that was soft, unpainted, and often too serious. Pale green eyes that tended to dream, long, fluid limbs, hair that held quiet fire-thick, slippery hair that often escaped its pins.

  And she was soft-hearted, Maggie thought. Entirely too naive, despite her contact with strangers as the owner of a B and B, about what went on out in the world beyond her own garden gate.

  "I don't know as I like it, Brie, you alone in the house with a man for weeks at a time."

  "I'm often alone with guests, Maggie. That's how I make my living."

  "You rarely have only one, and in the middle of winter. I don't know when we might have to go back to Dublin, and-"

  "Not be here to look after me?" Brianna smiled, more amused than offended. "Maggie, I'm a grown woman. A grown businesswoman who can look after herself." "You're always too busy looking after everyone else." "Don't start on about Mother." Brianna's lips tightened. "I do very little now that she's settled with Lottie in the cottage."

  "I know exactly what you do," Maggie tossed back. "Running every time she wags her finger, listening to her complaints, dragging her off to the doctor's every time she imagines herself with a new fatal disease." Maggie held up a hand, furious at herself for being sucked, yet again, into the anger and the guilt. "That's not my concern just now. This man-"

  "Grayson Thane," Brianna supplied, more than grateful the topic had turned away from their mother. "A respected American author who has designs on a quiet room in a well-run establishment in the west of Ireland. He doesn't have designs on his landlady." She picked up her tea, sipped. "And he's going to pay for my greenhouse."

  Chapter One

  It wasn't unusual for Brianna to have a guest or two at Blackthorn Cottage during the worst of winter's storms. But January was slow, and more often than not her home was empty. She didn't mind the solitude, or the hellhound howl of the wind, or even the leaden sky that spewed rain and ice day after bitter day. It gave her time to plan.

  She enjoyed travelers, expected or not. From a business standpoint the pounds and pence counted. But beyond that, Brianna liked company, and the opportunity to serve and make a temporary home for those who passed her way.

  She had, in the years since her father died and her mother moved out, turned the house into the home she had longed for as a child, with turf fires and lace curtains and the scents of baking coming from the kitchen. Still, it had been Maggie, and Maggie's art, that had made it possible for Brianna to expand, bit by bit. It wasn't something Brianna forgot.

  But the house was hers. Their father had understood her love and her need for it. She tended her legacy as she would a child.

  Perhaps it was the weather that made her think of her father. He had died on a day very much like this. Now and again, at odd moments when she found herself alone, she discovered she still carried little pockets of grief, with memories, good and bad, tucked into them.

  Work was what she needed, she told herself, turning away from the window before she could brood for long.

  With the rain pelting down, she decided to postpone a trip into the village and instead tackle a task she had put off for too long. No one was expect
ed that day, and her single reservation wasn't due until the end of the week. With her dog trooping behind her, Brianna carted broom, bucket, rags, and an empty carton up to the attic.

  She cleaned up here with regularity. No dust was allowed in Brianna's house for long. But there were boxes and trunks she had ignored in her day-to-day routine. No more, she told herself and propped open the attic door. This time she would make a clean sweep. And she would not allow sentiment to prevent her from dealing with leftover memories.

  If the room was cleaned out properly once and for all, she thought, she might be able to afford the materials and labor necessary to remodel it. A cozy loft room it could be, she mused, leaning on her broom. With one of those ceiling windows, and perhaps a dormer. Soft yellow paint to bring the sun inside. Polish and one of her hooked rugs on the floor.

  She could already see it, the pretty bed covered by a colorful quilt, a sugan chair, a little writing table. And if she had...

  Brianna shook her head and laughed at herself. She was getting ahead of herself.

  "Always dreaming, Con," she murmured, rubbing the dog's head. "And what's needed here is elbow grease and ruthlessness."

  Boxes first, she decided. It was time to clean out old papers, old clothes.

  Thirty minutes later she had neat piles. One she would take to the church for the poor; another would be rags. The last she would keep.

  "Ah, look at this, Con." Reverently she took out a small white christening gown, gently shaking out the folds. Faint wisps of lavender haunted the air. Tiny buttons and narrow edges of lace decorated the linen. Her grandmother's handiwork, Brianna knew, and smiled. "He saved it," she murmured. Her mother would never had given such sentimental thought to future generations. "Maggie and I would have worn this, you see. And Da packed it away for our children."

  There was a pang, so familiar she barely felt it. There was no babe sleeping in a cradle for her, no soft bundle waiting to be held and nursed and loved. But Maggie, she thought, would want this. Taking care, she folded the gown again.

  The next box was filled with papers that made her sigh. She would have to read them, scan them at least. Her father had saved every scrap of correspondence. There would be newspaper clippings as well. His ideas, he would have said, for new ventures.

  Always a new venture. She set aside various articles he'd clipped out, on inventions, foresting, carpentry, shopkeeping. None on farming, she noticed with a smile. A farmer he'd never been. She found letters from relatives, from companies he'd written to in America, in Australia, in Canada. And here the proof of purchase for the old truck they'd had when she'd been a child. One document stopped her, made her frown in puzzlement. It looked like some sort of stock certificate. Triquarter Mining, in Wales. From the date it seemed he'd purchased it only a few weeks before he died.

  Triquarter Mining? Another venture, Da, she mused, spending money we barely had. Well, she would have to write to this Triquarter company and see what was to be done. It was unlikely the stock was worth more than the paper it was printed on. Such had always been Tom Concannon's luck with business deals.

  That bright brass ring he'd forever reached for had never fit the palm of his hand.

  She dug further into the box, amused herself with letters from cousins and uncles and aunts. They had loved him. Everyone had loved him. Almost, she corrected, thinking of her mother.

  Pushing that thought aside, she took out a trio of letters tied with a faded red ribbon. The return address was New York, but that was no surprise. The Concannons had a number of friends and relations in the States. The name, however, was a mystery to her. Amanda Dougherty.

  Brianna unfolded the letter, scanned the neat, convent-school writing. As her breath caught in her throat, she read again, carefully, word for word.

  My darling Tommy,

  I told you I wouldn't write. Perhaps I won't send this letter, but I need to pretend, at least, that I can talk to you. I've been back in New York for only a day. Already you seem so far away, and the time we had together all the more precious. I have been to confession and received my penance. Yet in my heart, nothing that passed between us is a sin. Love cannot be a sin. And I will always love you. One day, if God is kind, we will find a way to be together. But if that never happens, I want you to know that I'll treasure every moment we were given. I know it's my duty to tell you to honor the sacrament of your marriage, to devote yourself to the two babies you love so much. And I do. But, however selfish it is, I also ask that sometime, when spring comes to Clare, and the Shannon is bright with sunlight, you think of me. And how for those few short weeks, you loved me. And I love you...

  Always, Amanda

  Love letters, she thought dully. To her father. Written, she saw, staring at the date, when she was an infant.

  Her hands chilled. How was a woman, a grown woman of twenty-eight years, supposed to react when she learned her father had loved a woman other than his wife? Her father, with his quick laugh, his useless schemes. These were words written for no one's eyes but his. And yet, how could she not read them?

  With her heart pounding thickly in her chest, Brianna unfolded the next.

  My darling Tommy,

  I have read and read your letter until I can see every word in my head. My heart breaks to think of you so unhappy. I, too, often look out to sea and picture you gazing across the water toward me. There is so much I wish to tell you, but I'm afraid it will only add to your heartache. If there is no love with your wife, there must be duty. There is no need for me to tell you that your children are your first concern. I know, have known all along, that they are first in your heart, and in your thoughts. God bless you, Tommy, for thinking also of me. And for the gift you gave me. I thought my life would be empty, now it will never be anything but full and rich. I love you now even more than I did when we parted. Don't grieve when you think of me. But think of me.

  Always, Amanda

  Love, Brianna thought as her eyes welled with tears. There was such love here, though so little had been said. Who had she been, this Amanda? How had they met? And how often had her father thought of this woman? How often had he wished for her?

  Dashing a tear away, Brianna opened the last letter.

  My darling,

  I have prayed and prayed before writing this. I've asked the Holy Mother to help me know what is right.

  What is fair to you, I can't be sure. I can only hope that what I tell you will give you joy, not grief.

  I remember the hours we spent together in my little room at the inn overlooking the Shannon. How sweet and gentle you were, how blinded we both were by the love that swept through us. I have never known, nor will I know again, that deep, abiding love. So am I grateful that though we can never be together, I will have something precious to remind me that I was loved. I'm carrying your child, Tommy. Please be happy for me. I'm not alone, and I'm not afraid. Perhaps I should be ashamed. Unmarried, pregnant by another woman's husband. Perhaps the shame will come, but for now, I am only full of joy.