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Born in Fire, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  Something in his tone made her look up again, study his face. There was someone else."

  Like a honeyed blade, the memory was painful and sweet. Tom looked to sea again, as if he could gaze across it and find the woman he'd let go. "Aye, there was once. But it wasn't to be. Had no right to be. I'll tell you this, when love comes, when the arrow strikes the heart, there's no stopping it. And even bleeding is a pleasure. So don't say never to me, Maggie. I want for you what I couldn't have."

  She didn't say it to him, but she thought it. "I'm twenty-three, Da, and Erie's but a year behind me. I know what the church says, but I'm damned if I believe there's a God in heaven who finds joy in punishing a man for the whole of his life for a mistake."

  "Mistake." His brows lowered, Tom stuck his pipe in his teeth. "My marriage has not been a mistake, Margaret Mary, and you'll not say so now, nor ever again. You and Brie came from it A mistake—no, a miracle. I was past forty when you were born, without a thought in my head to starting a family. I think of what my life would have been like without the two of you. Where would I be now? A man near seventy, alone. Alone." He cupped her face in his hands and his eyes were fierce on hers. "I thank God every day I found your mother, and that between us we made something I can leave behind. Of all the things I've done, and not done, you and Brianna are my first and truest joys. Now there'll be no more talk of mistakes or unhappiness, do you hear?"

  "I love you, Da."

  His face softened. "I know it Too much, I think, but I can't regret it." The sense of urgency came on him again, like a wind whispering to hurry. "There's something I'd ask of you, Maggie."

  "What is it?"

  He studied her face, his fingers molding it as if he suddenly had a need to memorize every feature— the sharp stubborn chin, the soft curve of cheek, the eyes as green and restless as the sea that clashed beneath them.

  "You're a strong one, Maggie. Tough and strong, with a true heart beneath the steel. God knows you're smart I can't begin to understand the things you know, or how you know them. You're my bright star, Maggie, the way Erie's my cool rose. I want you, the both of you, to follow where your dreams lead you. I want that more than I can say. And when you chase them down, you'll chase them as much for me as for yourself."

  The roar of the sea dimmed in his ears, as did the light in his eyes. For a moment Maggie's face blurred and faded.

  "What is it?" Alarmed, she clutched at him. He'd gone gray as the sky, and suddenly looked horribly old. "Are you ill, Da? Let me get you back into the lorry."

  "No." It was vital, for reasons he didn't know, that he stand here, just here at the farthest tip of his country, and finish what he'd begun. "I'm fine. Just a twinge is all."

  "You're freezing." Indeed, his wiry body felt like little more than a bag of icy bones in her hands.

  "Listen to me." His voice was sharp. "Don't let anything stop you from going where you need to go, from doing what you need to do. Make your mark on the world, and make it deep so it lasts. But don't—"

  "Da!" Panic bubbled inside her as he staggered, fell to his knees. "Oh God, Da, what is it? Your heart?"

  No, not his heart, he thought through a haze of bleary pain. For he could hear that beating hard and fast in his own ears. But he felt something inside him breaking, bursting and slipping away. "Don't harden yourself, Maggie. Promise me. You'll never lose what's inside you. You'll take care of your sister. And your mother. You'll promise me that."

  "You've got to get up." She dragged at him, fighting off fear. The thrash of the sea sounded now like a storm breaking, a nightmare storm that would sweep them both off the cliff and onto the spearing rocks. "Do you hear me, Da? You've got to get up now."

  "Promise me."

  "Aye, I promise. I swear it before God, I'll see to both of them, always." Her teeth were chattering; stinging tears already ran down her cheeks.

  "I need a priest," he gasped out

  "No, no, you need only to get out of this cold." But she knew it was a lie as she said it. He was slipping away from her; no more how tightly she held his body, what was inside him was slipping away. "Don't

  leave me like this. Not like this." Desperate, she scanned the fields, the beaten paths where people walked year after year to stand as they had stood. But there was nothing, no one, so she bit back a scream for help. "Try, Da, come and try now to get up. We'll get you to a doctor."

  He rested his head on her shoulder and sighed. There was no pain now, only numbness. "Maggie," he said. Then he whispered another name, a stranger's name, and that was all.

  "No." As if to protect him from the wind he no longer felt, she wrapped her arms tight around him, rocking, rocking, rocking as she sobbed.

  And the wind trumpeted down to the sea and brought with it the first needles of icy rain.

  Chapter Two

  THOMAS Concannon's wake would be talked about for years. There was fine food and fine music, as he'd planned for his daughter's celebration party. The house where he'd lived out his last years was crowded with people.

  Tom hadn't been a rich man, some would say, but he was a man who'd been wealthy in friends.

  They came from the village, and the village beyond that. From the farms and shops and cottages. They brought food, as neighbors do for such occasions, and the kitchen was quickly stocked with breads and meats and cakes. They drank to his life and serenaded his passing.

  The fires burned warm to stave off the gale that rattled the windows and the chill of mourning.

  But Maggie was sure she'd never be warm again. She sat near the fire in the tidy parlor while the company filled the house around her. In the flames she saw the cliffs, the boiling sea—and herself, alone, holding her dying father.


  Startled, she turned and saw Murphy crouched in front of her. He pressed a steaming mug into her hands.

  "What is it?"

  "Mostly whiskey, with a bit of tea to warm it up." His eyes were kind and grieving. "Drink it down now. There's a girl. Won't you eat a little? It would do you good."

  "I can't," she said, but did as he asked and drank. She'd have sworn she felt each fiery drop slide down her throat "I shouldn't have taken him out there, Murphy. I should have seen he was sick."

  "That's nonsense, and you know it. He looked fine and fit when he left the pub. Why, he'd been dancing, hadn't he?"

  Dancing, she thought. She'd danced with her father on die day he died. Would she, someday, find comfort in that? "But if we hadn't been so far away. So alone . . ."

  The doctor told you plain, Maggie. It would have made no difference. The aneurysm killed him, and it was mercifully quick."

  "Aye, it was quick." Her hand trembled, so she drank again. It was the time afterward that had been slow. The dreadful time when she had driven his body away from the sea, with her breath wheezing in her throat and her hands frozen on the wheel.

  "I've never seen a man so proud as he was of you." Murphy hesitated, looked down at his hands. "He was like a second father to me, Maggie."

  "I know that" She reached out, brushed Murphy's hair off his brow. "So did he."

  So now he'd lost a father twice, Murphy thought And for the second time felt the weight of grief and responsibility.

  "I want to tell you, to make sure you know, that if there's anything, anything a'tall you're needing, or your family needs, you've only to tell me."

  "It's good of you to say so, and to mean it."

  He looked up again; his eyes, that wild Celtic blue, met hers. "I know it was hard when he had to sell the land. And hard that I was the one to buy it"

  "No." Maggie set the mug aside and laid her hands over his. The land wasn't important to him."

  "Your mother . . ."

  "She would have blamed a saint for buying it," Maggie said briskly. "Even though the money it brought put food in her mouth. I tell you it was easier that it was you. Brie and I don't begrudge you a blade of grass, that's the truth, Murphy." She made herself smile at him, because the
y both needed it "You've done what he couldn't, and what he simply didn't want to do. You've made the land grow. Let's not hear any more talk like that"

  She looked around then, as if she'd just walked out of an empty room into a full one. Someone was playing the flute, and O'Malley's daughter, heavy with her first child, was singing a light, dreamy air. There was a trill of laughter from across the room, lively and free. A baby was crying. Men were huddled here and there, talking of Tom, and of the weather, of Jack Marley's sick roan mare and the Donovans* leaking cottage roof.

  The women talked of Tom as well, and of the weather, of children and of weddings and wakes.

  She saw an old woman, an elderly and distant cousin, in worn shoes and mended stockings, spinning a story for a group of wide-eyed youngsters while she knitted a sweater.

  "He loved having people around, you know." The pain was there, throbbing like a wound in her voice. "He would have filled the house with them daily if he could. It was always a wonder to him that I preferred to be on my own." She drew in a breath and hoped her voice was casual. "Did you ever hear him speak of someone named Amanda?"

  "Amanda?" Murphy frowned and considered. "No. Why do you ask?"

  "It's nothing. I probably mistook it." She shrugged it away. Surely her father's dying words hadn't been a strange woman's name. 1 should go help Brie in the kitchen. Thanks for the drink, Murphy. And for the rest." She kissed him and rose.

  There was no easy way to get through the room, of course. She had to stop again and again, to hear words of comfort, or a quick story about her father, or in die case of Tim O'Malley, to offer comfort herself.

  "Jesus, I'll miss him," Tim said, unabashedly wiping his eyes. "Never had a friend as dear to me, and never will again. He joked about opening a pub of his own, you know. Giving me a bit of competition." "I know." She also knew it hadn't been a joke, but another dream.

  "He wanted to be a poet," someone else put in while Maggie hugged Tim and patted his back. "Said he'd only lacked the words to be one."

  "He had the heart of a poet," Tim said brokenly. The heart and soul of one, to be sure. A finer man never walked this earth than Tom Concannon."

  Maggie had words with the priest about funeral services set for the next morning, and finally slipped into the kitchen.

  It was as crowded as the rest of the house, with women busily serving food or making it. The sounds and smells were of life here—kettles singing, soups simmering, a ham baking. Children wandered underfoot, so that women—with that uncanny maternal grace they seemed to be born with—dodged around them or scooped them up as needs demanded.

  The wolfhound puppy that Tom had given Brianna on her last birthday snored contentedly under the kitchen table. Brianna herself was at the stove, her face composed, her hands competent Maggie could see the subtle signs of grief in the quiet eyes and the soft, unsmiling mouth.

  "You'll have a plate." One of the neighbor women spotted Maggie and began to heap food together. "And you'll eat or answer to me."

  "I only came in to help."

  "You'll help by eating some of this food. Enough for an army it is. You know your father once sold me a rooster. Claimed it was the finest cock in the county and would keep me hens happy for years to come. He had a way with him, Tom did, that made you believe what he was saying even though you knew it for nonsense." She piled great portions of food on the plate as she spoke, taking time out to pat a child out of the way without breaking rhythm. "Well, a terrible, mean bird he turned out to be, and never crew once in his miserable life."

  Maggie smiled a bit and said what was expected of her, though she knew the tale well. "And what did you do with the rooster Da sold you, Mrs. Mayo?"

  "I wrung the cursed cock's neck and boiled him into stew. Gave your rather a bowl of it, too, I did. Said he'd never tasted better in his whole life." She laughed heartily and pressed the plate on Maggie.

  "And was it?"

  The meat was stringy and tough as old leather. But Tom ate every drop. Bless him."

  So Maggie ate, because there was nothing she could do but live and go on. She listened to the stories and told some of her own. When the sun went down and the kitchen slowly emptied, she sat down and held the puppy in her lap. "He was loved," Maggie said. "He was." Brianna stood beside the stove, a cloth in her hand and a dazed look in her eyes. There was no one left to feed or tend to, nothing to keep her mind and her hands busy.

  Grief swarmed into her heart like angry bees. To hold it off awhile longer, she began to put away the dishes.

  She was slim, almost willowy, with a cool, controlled way of moving. If there had been money and means, she might have been a dancer. Her hair, rosy gold and thick, was neatly coiled at the nape of her neck. A white apron covered her plain black dress. In contrast, Maggie's hair was a fiery tangle around her face. She wore a skirt she'd forgotten to press and a sweater that needed mending.

  "It won't clear for tomorrow." Brianna had forgotten the dishes in her hands and stared out the window at the blustery night.

  "No, it won't But people will come, just the same, as they did today."

  "We'll have them back here after. There's so much food. I don't know what we'll do with all of it . . ." Brianna's voice trailed off. "Did she ever come out of her room?" Brianna stood still for a moment, then began slowly to stack plates. "She's not well." "Oh God, don't. Her husband's dead and everyone who knew him came here today. She can't even stir herself to pretend it matters."

  "Of course it matters to her." Brianna's voice tightened. She didn't think she could bear an argument now, not when her heart was swelling up like a tumor in her chest "She lived with him more than twenty years."

  "And little else she did with him. Why do you defend her? Even now."

  Brianna's hand pressed a plate so hard she wondered it didn't snap in two. Her voice remained perfectly calm, perfectly reasonable. "I'm defending no one, only saying what's true. Can't we keep peace? At least until we've buried him, can't we keep peace in this house?"

  "There's never been peace in this house." Maeve spoke from the doorway. Her face wasn't ravaged by tears, but it was cold and hard and unforgiving. "He saw to that. He saw to it just as he's seeing to it now. Even dead, he's making my life a hardship."

  "Don't speak of him." The fury Maggie had held back all day broke through, a jagged rock through fragile glass. She shoved away from the table, sending the dog racing for cover. "Don't you dare to speak ill of him."

  "I'll speak how I choose." Maeve's hand clutched at the shawl she wore, drew it tight to her throat. It was wool, and she'd always wanted silk. "He gave me nothing but grief while he lived. Now he's dead and has given me more."

  "I see no tears in your eyes, Mother."

  "And you won't I'll neither live nor die a hypocrite, but speak God's own truth. He'll go to the devil for what's he's done to me this day." Her eyes, bitter and blue, shifted from Maggie to Brianna. "And as God won't forgive him, neither will I."

  "Do you know God's mind now?" Maggie demanded. "Has all your prayerbook reading and rosary clacking given you a line straight to the Lord?"

  "You'll not blaspheme." Maeve's cheeks reddened with temper. "You'll not blaspheme in this house."

  "I'll speak how I choose." Maggie echoed her mother's words with a tight smile. "I'll tell you Tom Concannon needed none of your stingy forgiveness."

  "Enough." Though her insides were trembling, Brianna laid a steadying hand on Maggie's shoulder. She took a long, careful breath to be certain her voice was calm. "I've told you, Mother, I'll give the house to you. You've nothing to worry about."

  "What's this?" Maggie turned to her sister. "What about the house?"

  "You heard what it said at the will reading," Brianna began, but Maggie shook her head.

  "I didn't take any of it in. Lawyer's talk. I wasn't paying attention."

  "He left it to her." Still trembling, Maeve lifted a finger and jabbed it out as an accusation. "He left the house to her. All the years I s
uffered and sacrificed, and he takes even that from me."

  "She'll settle down right enough when she knows she has a sturdy roof over her head and no need to do anything to keep it," Maggie said once her mother left the room. It was true enough. And Brianna thought she could maintain the peace. She'd had a lifetime of practice. I'll keep the house, and she'll stay here. I can tend them both."

  "Saint Brianna," Maggie murmured, but there was no malice in it "We'll manage it between us." The new furnace would have to wait, she decided. But as long as McGuinness kept buying, there would be enough to hold the two houses together.

  "I've thought about ... Da and I talked about it a little while ago, and I've been thinking. . . ." Brianna hesitated.

  Maggie pushed aside her own thoughts. "Just say it"

  "It needs some fixing up, I know, and I've only a bit left of what Gran left me—and there's the lien."

  "I'll be paying off the lien."

  "No, that's not right"

  "It's perfectly right" Maggie got up to fetch the teapot. "He took it to send me to Venice, didn't he? Mortgaged the house and weathered the gale Mother brought down on his head for doing it I had three years of training thanks to him. And I'll pay it back."

  "The house is mine." Brianna's voice firmed. "And so's the Hen."

  Her sister had a soft look about her, but Maggie knew Brianna could be mule stubborn when it suited her. "Well, we can argue that to death. We'll both pay it off. If you won't let me do it for you, Brie, let me do it for him. I've a need to."

  "We'll work it out" Brianna took the cup of tea Maggie poured her.

  "Tell me what you've been thinking."

  "All right" It felt foolish. She could only hope it didn't sound so. "I want to turn the house into a B-and-B."

  "A hotel!" Stunned, Maggie could only stare. "You want to have paying guests nosing about the place? You'll have no privacy at all, Brianna, and you'll be working from morning till night"

  "I like having people around," Brianna said coolly. "Not everyone wants to be a hermit like you. And I've a knack for it, I think, for making people comfortable. It's in the blood." She stuck out her chin. "Granda ran a hotel, didn't he, and Gran ran it after he died. I could do it."

  "I never said you couldn't, I just for the life of me can't see why you'd want to. Strangers in and out every day." Why, it gave her the shudders just to imagine it.

  "I can only hope they'll come. The bedrooms upstairs will need freshening, of course." Brianna's eyes blurred as she thought through the details. "Some paint, some paper. A new rug or two. And the plumbing needs work, God knows. The fact is, we'd need another bath altogether, but I think the closet down at the end of the hall upstairs would serve. I might have a little apartment added off the kitchen here, for Mother—so she won't be disturbed. And I'd add a bit to the gardens, put up a little sign. Nothing on a grand scale, you see. Just small and tasteful and comfortable."

  "You want this," Maggie murmured, seeing the light in her sister's eyes. "You truly do."

  "I do, yes. I want it."

  Then do it" Maggie grabbed her hands. "Just do it, Brie. Freshen your rooms and fix your plumbing. Put up a fine sign. He wanted it for you."

  "I think he did. He laughed when I talked to him about it, in that big way he had."

  "Aye, he had a grand laugh."

  "And he kissed me and joked about me being an innkeeper's granddaughter, and following tradition. If 1 started small enough, I could open for summer this year. The tourists, they come to the west counties in the summer especially, and they look for a nice, comfortable place to spend the night. I could—" Brianna shut her eyes. "Oh, listen to this talk, and we're burying our father tomorrow."

  "It's just what he'd want to hear." Maggie was able to smile again. "A grand scheme like that, he'd have cheered you on!"

  "We Concannons." Brianna shook her head. "We're great ones for scheming."

  "Brianna, that day on the cliff, he talked of you. He called you his rose. He'd want you to bloom."

  And she'd been his star, Maggie thought She was going to do whatever she could to shine.