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Irish Rose

Nora Roberts

  Chapter 1

  Her name was Erin, like her country. And like her country, she was a maze of contradictions—rebellion and poetry, passion and moodiness. She was strong enough to fight for her beliefs, stubborn enough to fight on after a cause was lost, and generous enough to give whatever she had. She was a woman with soft skin and a tough mind. She had sweet dreams and towering ambitions.

  Her name was Erin, Erin McKinnon, and she was nervous as a cat.

  It was true that this was only the third time in her life she'd been in the airport at Cork. Or any airport, for that matter. Still, it wasn't the crowds or the noise that made her jumpy. The fact was, she liked hearing the announcements of planes coming and going. She liked thinking about all the people going places.

  London, New York, Paris. Through the thick glass she could watch the big sleek planes rise up, nose first, and imagine their destinations. Perhaps one day she'd board one herself and experience that stomach-fluttering anticipation as the plane climbed up and up.

  She shook her head. It wasn't a plane going up that had her nervous now, but one coming in. And it was due any minute. Erin caught herself before she dragged a hand through her hair. It wouldn't do a bit of good to be poking and pulling at herself. After thirty seconds more, she shifted her bag from hand to hand, then tugged at her jacket. She didn't want to look disheveled or tense… or poor, she added as she ran a hand down her skirt to smooth it.

  Thank God her mother was so clever with a needle. The deep blue of the skirt and matching jacket was flattering to her pale complexion. The cut and style were perhaps a bit conservative for Erin's taste, but the color did match her eyes. She wanted to look competent, capable, and had even managed to tame her unruly hair into a tidy coil of dark red. The style made her look older, she thought. She hoped it made her look sophisticated, too.

  She'd toned down the dusting of freckles and had deepened the color of her lips. Eye makeup had been applied with a careful hand, and she wore Nanny's old and lovely gold crescents at her ears.

  The last thing she wanted was to look plain and dowdy. The poor relation. Even the echo of the phrase in her head caused her teeth to clench. Pity, even sympathy, were emotions she wanted none of. She was a McKinnon, and perhaps fortune hadn't smiled on her as it had her cousin, but she was determined to make her own way.

  Here they were, she thought, and had to swallow a ball of nerves in her throat. Erin watched the plane that had brought them from Curragh taxi toward the gate—the small, sleek plane people of wealth and power could afford to charter. She could imagine what it would be like to sit inside, to drink champagne or nibble on something exotic. Imagination had always been hers in quantity. All she'd lacked was the means to make what she could imagine come true.

  An elderly woman stepped off the plane first, leading a small girl by the hand. The woman had cloud-white hair and a solid, sturdy build. Beside her, the little girl looked like a pixie, carrot-topped and compact. The moment they'd stepped to the ground, a boy of five or six leaped off after them.

  Even through the thick glass, Erin could all but hear the woman's scolding. She snatched his hand with her free one, and he flashed her a wicked grin. Erin felt immediate kinship. If she'd gauged the age right, that would be Brendon, Adelia's oldest. The girl who held the woman's hand and clutched a battered doll in the other would be Keeley, younger by a year or so.

  The man came next, the man Erin recognized as Travis Grant. Her cousin's husband of seven years, owner of Thoroughbreds and master of Royal Meadows. He was tall and broad-shouldered and was laughing down at his son, who waited impatiently on the tarmac. The smile was nice, she thought, the kind that made a woman look twice without being sure whether to relax or brace herself. Erin had met him once, briefly, when he'd brought his wife back to Ireland four years before. Quietly domineering, she'd thought then. The kind of man a woman could depend on, as long as she could stand toe-to-toe with him.

  On his hip he carried another child, a boy with hair as dark and thick as his father's. He was grinning, too, but not down at his brother and sister. His face was tilted up toward the sky from which he'd just come. Travis handed him down, then turned and held out a hand.

  As Adelia stepped through the opening, the sun struck her hair with arrows of light. The rich chestnut shone around her face and shoulders. She, too, was laughing. Even with the distance, Erin could see the glow. She was a small woman. When Travis caught her by the waist and lifted her to the ground, she didn't reach his shoulder. He kept his arm around her, Erin noticed, not so much possessive as protective of her and perhaps of the child that was growing inside her.

  While Erin watched, Adelia tilted her face, touched a hand to her husband's cheek and kissed him. Not like a long-time wife, Erin thought, but like a lover.

  A little ripple of envy moved through her. Erin didn't try to avoid it. She never attempted to avoid any of her feelings, but let them come, let them race to the limit, whatever the consequences.

  And why shouldn't she envy Dee? Erin asked herself. Adelia Cunnane, the little orphan from Skibbereen, had not only pulled herself up by the bootstraps but had tugged hard enough to land on top of the pile. More power to her, Erin thought. She intended to do the same herself.

  Erin squared her shoulders and started to step forward as another figure emerged from the plane. Another servant, she thought, then took a long, thorough look. No, this man would serve no one.

  He leaped lightly to the ground with a slim, unlit cigar clamped between his teeth. Slowly, even warily, he looked around. As a cat might, she thought, a cat that had just leaped from cliff to cliff. She couldn't see his eyes, for he wore tinted glasses, but she had the quick impression that they would be sharp, intense and not entirely comfortable to look into.

  He was as tall as Travis but leaner, sparer. Tough. The adjective came to her as she pursed her lips and continued to stare. He bent down to speak to one of the children, and the move was lazy but not careless. His dark hair was straight and long enough to hang over the collar of his denim shirt. He wore boots and faded jeans, but she rejected the idea that he was a farmer. He didn't look like a man who tilled the soil but like one who owned it.

  What was a man like this doing traveling with her cousin's family? Another relative? she wondered, and shifted uncomfortably. It didn't matter who he was. Erin checked the pins in her hair, found two loose, and shoved them into place. If he was some relation of Travis Grant's, then that was fine.

  But he didn't look like kin of her cousin's husband. The coloring might be similar, but any resemblance ended there. The stranger had a raw-boned, sharp-edged look to him. She remembered the picture books in catechism class, and the drawings of Satan.

  "Better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven."

  Yes… For the first time, a smile moved on her lips. He looked like a man who'd have similar sentiments. Taking a deep breath, Erin moved forward to greet her family.

  The boy Brendon came first, barreling through the doorway with one shoe untied and eyes alight with curiosity. The white-haired women came in behind him, moving with surprising speed.

  "Stand still, you scamp. I'm not going to lose track of you again."

  "I just want to see, Hannah." There was a laugh in his voice and no contrition at all when she caught his hand in hers.

  "You'll see soon enough. No need to worry your mother to death. Keeley, you stay close now."

  "I will." The little girl looked around as avidly as her brother, but seemed more content to stay in the same place. Then she spotted Erin. "There she is. That's our cousin Erin. Just like the picture." Without a hint of reserve, the girl crossed over and smiled.

  "You're our cousin Erin, aren't you? I'm Keeley. Momma said you'd be wa
iling for us."

  "Aye, I'm Erin." Charmed, Erin bent down to catch the little girl's chin in her hand. Nerves vanished into genuine pleasure. "And the last time I saw you, you were just a wee thing, all bundled in a blanket against the rain and bawling fit to wake the dead."

  Keeley's eyes widened. "She talks just like Momma," she announced. "Hannah, come see. She talks just like Momma."

  "Miss McKinnon." Hannah kept one hand firmly on Brendon's shoulder and offered the other. "It's nice to meet you. I'm Hannah Blakely, your cousin's housekeeper."

  Housekeeper, Erin thought as she put her hand in Hannah's weathered one. The Cunnanes she'd known might have been housekeepers, but they'd never had one. "Welcome to Ireland. And you'd be Brendon."

  "I've been to Ireland before," he said importantly. "But this time I flew the plane."

  "Did you now?" She saw her cousin in him, the pixielike features and deep green eyes. He'd be a handful, she thought, as her mother claimed Adelia had always been. "Well, you're all grown up since I saw you last."

  "I'm the oldest. Brady's the baby now."

  "Erin?" She glanced over in time to see Adelia rush forward. Even heavy with child she moved lightly. And when she wound her arms around Erin, there was strength in them. The recognition came strongly—family to family, roots to roots. "Oh, Erin, it's so good to be back, so good to see you. Let me look at you."

  She hadn't changed a bit, Erin thought. Adelia would be nearly thirty now, but she looked years younger. Her complexion was smooth and flawless, glowing against the glossy mane of hair she still wore long and loose. The pleasure in her face was so real, so vital, that Erin felt it seeping through her own reserve.

  "You look wonderful, Dee. America's been good for you."

  "And the prettiest girl in Skibbereen's become a beautiful woman. Oh, Erin." She kissed both her cousin's cheeks, laughed and kissed them again. "You look like home." With Erin's hand still held tightly in hers, she turned. "You remember Travis."

  "Of course. It's good to see you again."

  "You've grown up in four years." He kissed her cheek in turn. "You didn't meet Brady the last time."

  "No, I didn't." The child kept an arm around his father's neck and eyed Erin owlishly. "Faith, he's the image of you. It's a handsome boy you are, Cousin Brady."

  Brady smiled, then turned to bury his face in his father's neck.

  "And shy," Adelia commented, stroking a hand down his hair. "Unlike his da. Erin, it's so kind of you to offer to meet us and take us to the inn."

  "We don't often get visitors. I've got the minibus.

  You know from the last time you came that renting a car is tricky, so I'll be leaving it with you while you're here." While she spoke, Erin felt an itch at the base of her neck, a tingle, or a warning. Deliberately she turned and stared back at the lean-faced man she'd seen step off the plane.

  "Erin, this is Burke." Adelia placed a hand on her skirt at the stirrings within her womb. "Burke Logan, my cousin, Erin McKinnon."

  "Mr. Logan," Erin said with a slight nod, determined not to flinch at her own reflection in his mirrored glasses.

  "Miss McKinnon." He smiled slowly, then clamped his cigar between his teeth again.

  She still couldn't see his eyes but had the uneasy feeling that the glasses were no barrier to what he saw. "I'm sure you're tired," she said to Adelia, but kept her gaze stubbornly on Burke's. "The bus is right out front. I'll take you out, then we'll deal with the luggage."

  Burke kept himself just a little apart as they walked through the small terminal. He preferred it that way, the better to observe and figure angles. Just now, he was figuring Erin McKinnon.

  A tidy little package, he mused, watching the way her long, athletic legs moved beneath her conservative skirt. Neat as a pin and nervous as a filly at the starting gate. Just what kind of race did she intend to run? he wondered.

  He knew snatches of the background from conversations on the trip from the States and from Curragh to this little spot on the map. The McKinnons and Cunnanes weren't first cousins. As near as could be figured, Adelia's mother and the mother of the very interesting Erin McKinnon had been third cousins who had grown up on neighboring farms.

  Burke smiled as Erin looked uneasily over her shoulder in his direction. If Adelia Cunnane Grant figured that made her and the McKinnons family, he wouldn't argue. For himself, he spent more time avoiding family connections than searching them out.

  If he didn't stop staring at her like that, he was going to get a piece of her mind, Erin told herself as she slid the van into gear. The luggage was loaded, the children chattering, and she had to keep her wits about her to navigate out of the airport.

  She could see him in the rearview mirror, legs spread out in the narrow aisle, one arm tossed over the worn seat—and his eyes on her. Try as she might, she couldn't concentrate on Adelia's questions about her family.

  As she wound the van onto the road, she listened with half an ear and gave her cousin the best answers she could. Everyone was fine. The farm was doing well enough. As she began to relax behind the wheel, she dug deep for bits and pieces of gossip. Still, he kept staring at her.

  Let him, then, she decided. The man obviously had the manners of a plow mule and was no concern of hers. Stubbornly avoiding another glance in the rearview mirror, she jabbed another loose pin back in her hair.

  She had questions of her own. Erin expertly avoided the worst of the bumps on the road and trained her eyes straight ahead. The first of them would be who the hell was this Burke Logan. Still, she smiled on cue and assured her cousin again that her family was fit and fine.

  "So Cullen's not married yet."

  "Cullen?" Despite her determination, Erin's gaze had drifted back to the mirror and Burke. She cursed herself. "No. Much to my mother's regret, he's still single. He goes into Dublin now and again to sing his songs and play." She hit a rough patch that sent the van vibrating. "I'm sorry."

  "It's all right."

  Turning her head, she studied Adelia with genuine concern. "Are you sure? I'm wondering if you should be traveling at all."

  "I'm healthy as one of Travis's horses." In a habitual gesture, Adelia put a hand on her rounded belly. "And I've months to go before they're born."


  "Twins this time." The smile lit up her face. "I've been hoping."

  "Twins," Erin repeated under her breath, not sure whether she should be amazed or amused.

  Adelia shifted into a more comfortable position. Glancing back, she saw that her two youngest were dozing and that Brendon was putting up a courageous, if failing, battle to keep his eyes open. "I've always wanted a big family like yours."

  Erin grinned at her as the van putted into the village. "It looks like you're going to match it. And may the sweet Lord have mercy on you."

  With a chuckle, Adelia shifted again to absorb the sights and sounds of the village she remembered from childhood.

  The small buildings were still neat, if a bit rough around the edges. Patches of grass were deep and green, shimmering against dark brown dirt. The sign on the village pub, the Shamrock, creaked and groaned in a breeze that tasted of rain from the sea.

  She could almost smell it, and remembered it easily. Here the cliffs were sheer and towering, slicing down to a wild sea. She could remember the times she'd stood on the rock watching the fishing boats, seeing them come in with their day's catch to dry their nets and cool dry throats at the pub.

  The talk here was of fishing and farming, of babies and sweethearts.

  It was home. Adelia rested a hand against the open window and looked out. It was home—a way of life, a place she'd never been able to close out of her heart. There was a wagon filled with hay, its color no brighter, its scent no sweeter than that of the hay in her own stables in America. But this was Ireland, and her heart had never stopped looking back here.

  "It hasn't changed."

  Erin eased the vehicle to a stop and glanced around.

knew every square inch of the village, and every farm for a hundred miles around. In truth, she'd never known anything else. "Did you expect it would? Nothing ever changes here."

  "There's O'Donnelly's, the dry goods." Dee stepped out of the van. Foolishly she wanted to have her feet on the ground of her youth. She wanted to fill her lungs with the air of Skibbereen. "Is he still there?"

  "The old goat will die behind the counter, still counting his last pence."

  With a laugh, Dee took Brady from Travis and cuddled him as he yawned and settled against her shoulder. "Aye, then he hasn't changed, either. Travis, you see the church there. We'd come in every Sunday for mass. Old Father Finnegan would drone on and on. Does he still, Erin?"

  Erin slipped the keys of the van in the pocket of her purse. "He died, Dee, better than a year ago." Because the light went out of her cousin's eyes, Erin lifted a hand to her cheek. "He was more than eighty, if you remember, and died quietly in his sleep."

  Life went on, she knew, and people passed out of it whether you wanted them to or not. Dee glanced back at the church. It would never seem exactly the same again. "He buried Mother and Da. I can't forget how kind he was to me."

  "We've a young priest now," Erin began briskly. "Sent from Cork. A hell-raiser he is, and not a soul sleeps through one of his sermons. Put the fear of God into Michael Ryan, so the man comes sober to mass every Sunday morning." She turned to help with the luggage and slammed solidly into Burke. He put a hand on her shoulder as if to steady her, but it lingered too long.

  "I beg your pardon."

  She couldn't stop her chin from tilting forward or her eyes from spitting at him. He only smiled. "My fault." Grabbing two hefty cases, he swung them out of the van. "Why don't you take Dee and the kids in, Travis? I'll deal with this."

  Normally Travis wouldn't have left another with the bulk of the work, but he knew his wife's strength was flagging. He also knew she was stubborn, and the only way to get her into bed for a nap was to put her there himself.

  "Thanks. I'll take care of checking in. Erin, we'll see you and your family tonight?"

  "They'll be here." On impulse, she kissed Dee's cheek. "You'll rest now. Otherwise Mother will fuss and drive you mad. That I can promise."

  "Do you have to go now? Couldn't you come in?"

  "I've some things to see to. Go on now, or your children will be asleep in the street. I'll see you soon."

  Over Brandon's protest, Hannah bundled them inside. Erin turned to grip another pair of cases by the handles and began unloading. It passed through her mind that expensive clothes must weigh more when she found herself facing Burke again.

  "There's just a few more," she muttered, and deliberately breezed by him.

  Inside, the inn was dim but far from quiet. The excitement of having visitors from America had kept the small staff on their toes all week. Wood had been polished, floors had been scrubbed. Even now old Mrs. Malloy was leading Dee up the stairs and keeping up a solid stream of reminiscence. The children were cooed over, and hot tea and soda bread were offered. Deciding she'd left her charges in good hands, Erin walked outside again.

  The day was cool and clear. The early clouds had long since been blown away by the westerly wind so that the light, as it often was in Ireland, was luminescent and pearly. Erin took a moment to study the village that had so fascinated her cousin. It was ordinary, slow, quiet, filled with workingmen and women and often smelling of fish. From almost any point in town you could see the small harbor where the boats came in with their daily catch. The storefronts were kept neat. That was a matter of pride. The doors were left unlocked. That was a matter of custom.

  There was no one there who didn't know her, no one she didn't know. Whatever secrets there were were never secrets for long, but were passed out like small treasures to be savored and sighed over.

  God, she wanted to see something else before her life was done. She wanted to see big cities where life whirled by, fast and hot and anonymous. She wanted to walk down a street where no one knew who she was and no one cared. Just once, just once in her life, she wanted to do something wild and impulsive that wouldn't echo back to her on the tongues of family and neighbors. Just once.

  The van door slammed and jolted her back to reality. Again she found herself looking at Burke Logan. "They're all settled, then?" she asked, struggling to be polite.

  "Looks like." He leaned back against the van. With his ankles crossed, he pulled out a lighter and lit his cigar. He never smoked around Adelia out of respect for her condition. His eyes never left Erin's. "Not much family resemblance between you and Mrs. Grant, is there?"

  It was the first time he'd spoken more than two words at a time. Erin noted that his accent wasn't like Travis's. His words came more slowly, as if he saw no reason to hurry them. "There's the hair," he continued when Erin didn't speak. "But hers is more like Travis's prize chestnut colt, and yours—" he took another puff as he deliberated "—yours is something like the mahogany stand in my bedroom." He grinned, the cigar still clamped between his teeth. "I thought it was mighty pretty when I bought it."

  "That's a lovely thought, Mr. Logan, but I'm not a horse or a table." Reaching into her pocket, she held out the keys. "I'll be leaving these with you, then."

  Instead of taking them, he simply closed his hand over hers, cradling the keys between them. His palm was hard and rough as the rocks in the cliffs that dropped toward the sea. He enjoyed the way she held her ground, the way she lifted her brow, more in disdain than offense.

  "Is there something else you're wanting, Mr. Logan?"

  "I'll give you a lift," he said simply.

  "It's not necessary." She clenched her teeth and nodded as two of the town's busiest gossips passed behind her. The evening news would have Erin McKinnon holding hands with a stranger in the street, sure as faith. "I've only to ask for a ride home to get one."