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Irish Thoroughbred

Nora Roberts

  Nora Roberts - Irish Hearts Irish Hearts - book 1

  Irish Thoroughbread


  Adelia Cunnane stared out the window without seeing the magic layer of clouds. Some formed into mountains, others glaciers, flattening and thinning into an ice-encrusted lake; but, for one experiencing her first air journey, she found the view uninspiring. Her mind was crowded with doubts and uncertainties that merged with a strong pang of homesickness for a small farm in Ireland. But both farm and Ireland were now very far away, and every minute that crawled by brought her closer to America and strangers. She knew, with a sigh of frustration, that nothing in her life had ever prepared her properly to cope with either.

  Her parents had been killed in a lorry accident, leaving her an orphan at the tender age of ten. In the weeks that followed her parents' death, Adelia had drifted though a fog of shock, turning inward to ward off the agony of separation, the strange and terrifying feeling of desertion. Slowly, a wall had been constructed around the pain, and she had thrown herself into the work of the farm with an adult's dedication.

  Her father's sister, Lettie Cunnane, had taken over both child and farm, running both with a firm hand. Although never unkind, neither had she been affectionate: she had possessed little patience or understanding for the unpredictable, often tempestuous child.

  The farm had been the only common ground between them, and woman and child had built their relationship with the dark, fertile soil and the hours of labor it required. They had lived and worked together for nearly thirteen years; then Lettie had suffered a paralyzing stroke, and Adelia had been forced to divide her time between the duties of the farm and caring for an invalid's needs. Days and nights had merged together as she waged the determined battle to shoulder the increasing responsibility.

  Her enemies had been the lack of time and the lack of money. When, after six long months, she was again left alone, Adelia was near the point of exhausted desperation. Her aunt was gone, and though she had worked unceasingly, the farm had had to be sold for taxes.

  She had written to her only remaining relative, her father's elder brother, Padrick, who had emigrated to America twenty years previously, informing him of his sister's death. His answer had been immediate, the letter warm and loving, asking her to join him. The last sentence of the missive was a simple, gentle command: "Come to America; your home is with me now."

  So she had packed her few belongings; sold or given away what could not be taken with her, and said goodbye to Skibbereen and the only home she had ever known-

  A sudden movement of the plane jolted Adelia back from memory. She sat back against the cushions of her seat, fingering the small gold cross she always wore around her neck. There was nothing left for her in Ireland, she told herself, fighting against the flutters of her stomach. Everything she had loved there was dead, and Padrick Cunnane was the only family she had left, the only link with what she had once had. She pushed back a surge of sudden, unaccustomed fear. America, Ireland-what difference did it make? Her shoulders moved restlessly. She would manage. Hadn't she always managed? She was determined not to be a burden to her uncle, the vague, shadowy man she knew only from letters, whom she had last seen when barely three. There would be work for her, she reasoned, perhaps on the horse farm her uncle had written of so often over the years. Her ability to work with animals was innate, and she had absorbed a varied knowledge of medicine through her experiences, her skill being such that she had often been called on to aid in a difficult calving or stitch up a rent hide. She was strong, despite her diminutive stature-and, she reminded herself with an unconscious squaring of shoulders, she was a Cunnane.

  Surely, she told herself with more confidence, there would be a place for her at Royal Meadows where her uncle worked as trainer for the Thoroughbred racing stock. There'd be no fields needing plowing, no cows needing milking, but she'd earn her bread and butter if she had to work as a scullery maid. She wondered suddenly, with a small frown, if they had scullery maids in America.

  The plane touched down, and Adelia disembarked and entered the Dulles terminal in Virginia, where she found herself gaping in confusion, fascinated by the scene, confused by the babble of foreign tongues, the odd mixture of people. Her eyes lingered over an East Indian family in full native dress. She turned to observe two teenagers in faded denims strolling by hand in hand, followed by a scurrying middle-aged businessman clutching a leather briefcase.

  Later, standing in the lobby, she looked around hoping to see a familiar face. Everyone rushing and hurrying, she thought. A body could be trampled and never seen again-

  "Dee, little Dee!" A man hurried toward her, a stockily built, compact man with a full thatch of curling gray hair, and she caught a glimpse of eyes as bright and blue as her father's before she was enveloped in a warm, crushing hug. The thought occurred to her that it had been a lifetime since anyone had held her so close.

  "Little Dee, I would have known you anywhere." He pulled back and studied her face, eyes misty, smile tender. "It's like looking into Kate's face again-it's the image of your mother you are."

  He continued to stare at her while she searched for her voice, his gaze taking in the deep, rich auburn hair falling in gleaming waves to her shoulders, the large, deep green of thickly lashed eyes, the tip-tilted nose and full mouth which Aunt Lettie had described as impudent, the face now of a startled pixie.

  "What a beautiful sight you are," he said at last on a sigh of pure pleasure.

  "Uncle Padrick?" she asked, finding a multitude of questions and emotions racing through her.

  "And who else would you be thinking I might be?" He looked down at her with those well-remembered eyes, filled with love and laughter, and doubts, fears, and questions vanished in a wave of joy.

  "Uncle Paddy," she whispered as she flung her arms around his neck.

  As they drove along the highway from the airport, Adelia stared about her in fresh amazement. Never had she seen so many cars, and all flying by at an outrageous speed. Everything moved so fast, and the noise, she marveled silently, the noise was enough to wake the dead. Shaking her head, she began to bombard her uncle with questions.

  How far was it they were going? Did everyone drive so fast in America? How many horses were at Royal Meadows? When could she see them? Questions buzzed in her mind and through her lips, and Paddy answered them tolerantly, finding the soft lilt of her voice as sweet as a summer breeze.

  "Where is it I'll be working?"

  He removed his eyes from the road a moment and glanced at her. "There's no need for you to be working, Dee."

  "Oh, but Uncle Paddy, I must," she disagreed, turning to face him. "I could work with the horses; I've a way with animals."

  Thick gray brows drew together in a doubtful frown. "I didn't bring you all this way to be putting you to work." Before she could protest, he went on. "And I don't know what Travis would be thinking about me hiring my own niece."

  "Oh, but I'd do anything." She brushed back masses of chestnut hair. "Groom the horses, muck out the stalls, cart hay-it doesn't matter." Unknowingly, she used her eyes in an outrageous manner. "Please, Uncle Paddy, it's crazy I'd be in a week, not having some sort of work to do."

  Her eyes won the small battle, and Paddy squeezed her hand. "We'll see."

  So engrossed had she been in their conversation and the fascinating stream of traffic that she had lost all track of time. When Paddy pulled into a drive and halted the car, Adelia gazed about her with new wonder.

  "Royal Meadows, Dee," he announced with a sweeping gesture of his hand. "Your new home."

  The entrance to the long, winding drive was flanked by two tall stone pillars, and bushes studded with the promi
se of flowering buds continued along its path as far as she could see. The grass was brilliantly green over softly rolling hills, and horses grazed lazily in the distance.

  "The finest horse farm in all of Maryland, sure as faith," Paddy added with possessive pride as he proceeded along the curving drive. "And-in Padrick Cunnane's opinion-the finest in the whole of America."

  The car rounded a bend in the drive, and Adelia caught her breath as the main house came into view. An immense structure, or so it seemed to her, with three magnificent stories of old and muted stone. Dozens of windows winked in the gleaming sun like large, clear eyes. Wide and boldly glistening, they were a sharp contrast to the stone's mellowness. Skirting the top two stories were balconies, the design of wrought iron as intricate and delicate as the finest lace. The house stood on a gently sloping lawn of close-cropped green, graced with bushes and stately trees just awakening from their winter sleep.

  "Beautiful, isn't it, Dee?"

  "Aye," she agreed, awed by its size and elegance. "The grandest house I've ever seen."

  "Well, our house isn't so grand as this." He turned the car left as the drive forked past the stone building.

  "But it's a fine place, and I hope you'll be happy there."

  Adelia turned her attention to her uncle with a smile that transformed her face into a work of art. "I'll be happy, Uncle Paddy, as long as you're with me." Letting impulse guide her movements, she leaned over and kissed his cheek.

  "Ah, Dee, I'm glad you're here." He took her hand in a firm grip. "You've brought the spring with you."

  The car came to a halt, and Adelia turned to look out the front window, her mouth falling open at what greeted her eyes. An oval track commanded her view, and across from it stood a large white building, which Paddy identified as the stables. Fences and paddocks checkerboarded the area and the scent of hay and horses drifted through the air.

  In solemn amazement she gazed about, and the thought sped through her brain that she had not moved from one farm to another but from one world to another. At home, the farm had meant the earth, with its blessings and curses, a small barn in constant need of repair, a strip of pasture. Here, the space alone made her eyes widen, so much space to belong to one man. But as well as space, she recognized the efficiency and the order in fresh white buildings and split-rail fences. In the distance, where the hills began their soft roll, she saw mares grazing while their foals frolicked with the joy of spring and youth.

  Travis, Grant, she mused, recalling the name of the owner from Paddy's letters. Travis Grant knows how to care for what he owns-

  "There's my house." Now Paddy pointed out the opposite window. "Our house now."

  Following his direction, she let out a cry of pleasure. The first story of the building was a large white garage, which she learned later serviced the trailers and trucks used for transporting the Thoroughbreds. Atop this was a stone structure, nearly twice as large as the farmhouse in which she had spent her life. It was a miniature replica of the main house, with the same native stonework and glistening windows graced with balconies.

  "Come inside, Dee. Get a look at your new home."

  He led her down a narrow, crushed stone path and up the stairs to the front door, opening it wide and nudging her ahead of him.

  A bright, cozy room welcomed her, with pale green walls and a shining oak floor. A brightly checked sofa and matching chair invited her to sit in front of the raised hearth when the weather was cool, or contemplate rambling hills through wide, sheer-draped windows.

  "Oh, Uncle Paddy!" She sighed, making an inadequate but expressive movement of her hands.

  "Come, Dee, I'll show you the rest."

  He led her through the house, her wide eyes growing larger with each new discovery, from the kitchen, with its sunny yellow fixtures and spotless counters, to the bath, where creamy ivory tiles made her dream of languishing for hours in hot, soapy water.

  "This is your room, darlin'."

  He opened the door across from the bath, and Adelia stepped inside. It was not an overly large room, but to her inexperienced eyes it was huge indeed. The walls were painted a robin's-egg blue, and sheer white curtains billowed and swayed at two opened windows. The soft blue and white was repeated in the flower print of the bedspread, and a fluffy white rug lay on the wooden floor. The mirror over the maple dresser reflected the expression of stunned pleasure on her face. The knowledge that the room was to be hers brought unaccustomed tears to her eyes. Blinking them away, she turned and threw her arms around her uncle's neck.

  Later, they strolled across the lawn toward the stables. Adelia had changed from the dress she had worn for the trip and was now clad in her more customary attire of jeans and cotton shut, with her auburn curls pulled up and covered by a faded blue hat. She had convinced her uncle that rest was not what she needed, and that seeing the horses was what she wanted above all else. With her face glowing and eyes pleading, Paddy would have found it impossible to deny her anything.

  Approaching the stables, they spotted a small group gathered around a chestnut Thoroughbred. The raised voices reached uncle and niece before their presence was noted.

  "And what might be the problem here?" Paddy demanded.

  "Paddy, glad you're back," a tall, husky man greeted him with obvious relief. "Majesty just had one of his spells. Gave Tom a bad kick."

  Paddy transferred his attention to a small, spare young man seated on the ground, nursing his thigh and muttering.

  "How bad is it, lad? Did you break anything?"

  "Naw, nothing broke." Disgust was more evident than pain in both voice and face. "But I don't guess I'll be riding for a couple of days." Looking over at the dark chestnut, he shook his head with a mixture of resentment and reluctant amusement. "That horse may be the fastest thing on four legs, but he's meaner than a stomped-on cat."

  "His eyes aren't mean," Adelia commented, and several pairs of eyes focused on her for the first time.

  "This is Adelia, my niece. Dee, this is Hank Manners, assistant trainer. Tom Buckley, on the ground there, is an exercise boy, and George Johnson and Stan Beall, grooms." After the introductions had been completed, Adelia quickly turned her attention back to the horse.

  "They don't understand you, do they? Ah, but you're a fine fellow."

  "Miss," Hank cautioned as she lifted a hand to stroke his muzzle, "I wouldn't do that. He's not in the best of moods to begin with, and he doesn't take to strangers."

  "Ooch, but it's not strangers we'll be for long." Smiling, she stroked the length of his strong muzzle, and Majesty blew from wide nostrils.

  "Paddy," Hank began in cautious warning, but the other man lifted a hand to silence him.

  "A fine, beautiful horse you are. I've never seen another to compare with you, and that's the truth of it." She continued to speak as she ran her hands over his smooth neck and side. "You're built for running-strong, long legs and a fine, wide chest." Her hands moved over him freely as the horse remained still, ears at attention. She fondled his nose before resting her cheek against his neck. "I bet you're lonely for someone to talk to."

  "I'll be switched." Hank observed Adelia's confident handling of the frisky colt and shook his head. "He's never let anyone do that before, not even you, Paddy."

  "Animals have feelings as well, Mr. Manners." She brought her face from the Thoroughbred's neck and turned around. "He wants some pampering."

  "Well, little lady, you certainly seem to have a way with him." He gave her a grin expressive of both amusement and admiration before turning his attention to Paddy. "He still needs to be exercised. I'll give Steve a call."

  "Uncle Paddy." Adelia grabbed his arm on impulse, eyes shining with excitement. "I can do it. Let me take him out."

  "I don't think a little lady like you could handle a big fire-breather like Majesty," Hank put in before Paddy could speak, and Adelia drew herself up to the full of her five feet two inches and tilted her chin.

  "There's nothing on four legs I can't

  "Is Travis back yet?" Paddy concealed his smile and addressed Hank.

  "No." He eyed Paddy through narrowed lids. "You're not thinking of letting her take him out?"

  "I'd say she's about the right size-couldn't weigh over a hundred pounds." He gave his niece a thorough survey, one hand rubbing his chin.

  "Paddy." Hank's hand descended on his shoulder, only to be ignored.

  "You're a Cunnane, aren't you, lass? If you say you can handle him, then by the saints you can." Adelia beamed at her uncle and told him firmly she was indeed a Cunnane.

  "God knows what the boss is going to say when he finds out," Hank muttered, finding himself against a solid wall of family alliance.

  "Just leave Travis to me," Paddy answered with calm authority.

  With a shrug of his shoulders and another incoherent mutter, Hank resigned himself to Paddy's loss of common sense.

  "Once around the track, Dee," her uncle instructed. "Pace him to what you can handle; I can see from the look of him he wants his head."

  Pulling her cap lower, she nodded, watching the well-trimmed hooves paw the ground in impatience.

  With an easy vault she was in the saddle, and as Hank opened the wide gate she took Majesty onto the dirt track. Leaning forward, she whispered in his ear as he sidestepped and strained to be off.

  "Ready, Dee?" Paddy called. As an afterthought, he pulled out his stopwatch.

  "Aye, we're ready." Straightening, she took a deep breath.

  "Go!" he shouted, and horse and rider lunged down the track.

  Crouching low over the Thoroughbred's neck, she urged him on to the speed for which he thirsted. The wind beat against her face, stinging her eyes, as they tore over the dirt at a pace she had never experienced, never imagined, but somehow had craved. It was a wild, exhilarating adventure; both horse and rider reveled in the unbridled sensation as they sped as one around the oval track, sun, wind, and speed their companions. She laughed and shouted to her partner, a new sense of freedom liberating her from the concerns and worries that had been a part of her life for so long. For a few short moments she was riding the clouds, away from pressure, away from responsibility, in a glorious haven that returned her to carefree childhood. When they came to the end of the run, she slowed the horse gradually to a halt and flung her arms around his gleaming neck.

  "I'll be a son of a gun!" Hank said in simple astonishment.

  "What were you expecting?" Paddy questioned, feeling as proud as a peacock with two tails. "She's a Cunnane." He held out the stopwatch for Hank to see. "Not a bad time either." With a final smile, he strutted over as Adelia slipped to the ground.

  "Oh, Uncle Paddy!" Her eyes gleamed like emeralds against her flushed face, and she pulled off her cap, flourishing it in excitement. "He's the grandest horse in the world. It was like riding Pegasus himself!"

  "That was nice riding, little lady." Hank extended his hand, shaking his head in admiration both for her ability and for the gleaming hair that now spilled over her shoulders.

  "Thank you, Mr. Manners." She accepted his hand with a smile.


  She grinned. "Hank."

  "Well, Adelia Cunnane." Paddy slipped his arm around her shoulders. "Royal Meadows just hired another exercise boy. You've got yourself a job."

  Lying in her bed that night, Adelia stared wide-eyed at the ceiling. So many things had happened, in so short a time, that her mind refused to relax and allow her body rest.

  After her ride on the Thoroughbred, she had been taken through the stables, introduced to more hands and more horses, shown into a tackroom that contained more leather than she had ever seen in one place at one time, and exposed to more people and more things than she believed she had ever been exposed to in her life. And all in the course of one day.

  Paddy had prepared their dinner, firmly refusing assistance, and she had merely watched as he bustled around the kitchen. The stove, she decided, had more to do with magic than technology. And a machine that washed and dried the dishes at a touch of a button-marvels! Hearing abut such things and reading about them was one matter, but seeing them with your own eyes- it was easier to believe in the Pooka and the little people. When, with a sigh, she said as much to her uncle, he threw back his head and laughed until tears flowed down his cheeks, then enveloped her in a hug as crushing as the one he had greeted her with at the airport.

  They had eaten at the small dinette set by the kitchen window, and she had answered all his questions about Skibbereen. The meal was full of talking and laughing, and Paddy's eyes twinkled continually at her colorful descriptions and outrageous stories. She elaborated here and there, her hands working with her words, brows raising over guileless eyes as she stretched truth into an obvious exaggeration. Her uncle had noticed the faint shadows under them, however, and urged her to retire early, overcoming her protests with the deft suggestion that she had need to be fresh in the morning.

  So Adelia had obeyed, drawing a steaming tub and wallowing in unfamiliar luxury for what she knew Aunt Lettie would have considered a sinful amount of time. When at last she lay between the cool, fresh sheets, she found it impossible to relax. Her mind was full, crowded with new sensations, new images; and her body, so used to complete exhaustion before sleep, was unable to cope with the lack of physical exertion. Easing out of bed, she exchanged her nightdress for jeans and shirt and, piling her hair once more under the absurd cap, slipped noiselessly from the sleeping house.

  The night was clear, cool and quiet, a vague breeze sweetening the air, only the bright, insistent call of a whippoorwill breaking the stillness. The light of the half moon guided her toward the stables as she strolled without thought of destination over the smooth new grass. The stillness, the familiar scent of animals, reminded her of home, and suddenly she felt a contentment and peace she had not even known she had lived without.

  Hesitating outside the door of the large white stables, she debated whether she dare enter and spend the last of her evening with the horses. Having decided there was no harm in it, she was reaching out for the handle when an iron grip closed around her arm and whirled her around, and she was lifted off her feet for a moment like a rag doll.

  "Just what do you think you're doing? And how did you get in here?"

  She stared wordlessly at the owner of the harsh, angry voice, a vague shadow silhouetted in the dim moonlight, looming over her like an avenging giant.