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Jewels of the Sun goa-1, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  There was no porch, only a stoop, but the second story of the cottage pitched over it and provided much welcome cover. She lifted a brass knocker in the shape of a Celtic knot and rapped it against a rough wooden door that looked thick as a brick and was charmingly arched.

  While she shivered and tried not to think of her bladder, she scanned what she could from under her shelter. It was like a doll's house, she thought. All soft white with forest-green trim, the many-paned windows flanked by shutters that looked functional as well as decorative. The roof was thatched, a charming wonder to her. A wind chime made up of three columns of bells sang musically.

  She knocked again, more sharply now. Damn it, I know you're in there, and tossing manners aside, she stepped out in the rain and tried to peer through the front window.

  Then she leaped back guiltily when she heard the friendly beep-beep of a horn.

  A rusty red pickup with an engine that purred like a contented cat pulled in behind her car. Jude dragged dripping hair out of her face and prepared to explain herself when the driver popped out.

  At first she took it to be a trim and tiny man with scarred, muddy boots, a filthy jacket, and worn work pants. But the face that beamed at her from under a dung-brown cap was definitely female.

  And very nearly gorgeous.

  Her eyes were as green as the wet hills surrounding them, her skin luminous. Jude saw tendrils of rich red hair tumbling out of the cap as the woman hurried forward, managing to be graceful despite the boots.

  "You'd be Miss Murray, then. That's fine timing, isn't it?"

  "It is?"

  "Well, I'm running a bit behind today, as Mrs. Duffy's grandson Tommy stuffed half his building blocks down the loo again, then flushed away. It was a hell of a mess altogether."

  "Hmmm," was all Jude could think to say as she wondered why she was standing in the rain talking to a stranger about blocked toilets.

  "Can't you find your key?"

  "My key?"

  "To the front door. Well, I've mine, so we'll get you in and out of the wet."

  That sounded like a wonderful idea. "Thank you," Jude began as she followed the woman back to the door. "But who are you?"

  "Oh, I beg your pardon, I'm Brenna O'Toole." Brenna shot out a hand, gripped Jude's and shook briskly. "Your granny told you, didn't she, that I'd have the cottage ready for you?"

  "My gran-the cottage?" Jude huddled under the overhang. "My cottage? This is my cottage?"

  "It is, yes, if you're Jude Murray from Chicago." Brenna smiled kindly, though her left brow had arched. "You'll be more than a bit tired by now, I'll wager, after your trip."

  "Yes." Jude rubbed her hands over her face as Brenna unlocked the door. "And I thought I was lost."

  "Appears you're found. Ceade mile failte," she said and stepped back so Jude could enter first.

  A thousand welcomes, Jude thought. She knew that much Gaelic. And it felt like a thousand when she stepped into the warmth.

  The foyer, hardly wider than the outside stoop, was flanked on one side by stairs polished by time and traffic. An arched doorway to the right led to the little living area, pretty as a picture with its walls the color of fresh biscuits, honey-toned trim, and lace curtains warmly yellowed with age so that everything in the room looked washed by the sun.

  The furniture was worn and faded, but cheerful with its blue and white stripes and deep cushions. The gleaning tables were crowded with treasures-bits of crystal, carved figures, miniature bottles. Rugs were scattered colorfully over the wide-planked floor, and the stone fireplace was already laid with what Jude thought must be hunks of peat.

  It smelled earthy, and of something else faint and floral.

  "It's charming, isn't it?" Jude pushed at her hair again as she turned a circle. "Like a playhouse."

  "Old Maude, she liked pretty things."

  Something in the tone had Jude stopping her circle, to look back at Brenna's face. "I'm sorry, I didn't know her. You were fond of her."

  "Sure, everyone loved Old Maude. She was a grand lady. She'll be pleased you're here, looking after the place. She wouldn't want it standing alone and empty. Should I show you about, then? So you have your bearings."

  "I'd appreciate it, but first I'm desperate for the bathroom."

  Brenna let out a quick laugh. "A long ride from Dublin. There's a little powder room right off the kitchen. My dad and I put it in for her out of a closet only three years back. Straight that way it is."

  Jude didn't waste any time exploring. "Little" was exactly the word for the half bath. She could have rapped her elbows on the side walls by crooking her arms and lifting them. But the walls were done in a pale, pretty rose, the white porcelain gleamed from fresh scrubbing, and there were sweetly embroidered fingertip towels hung neatly on the rack.

  One glance in the oval mirror over the sink told Jude that yes, she looked every bit as bad as she'd feared. And though she was of average height and build, beside the fairylike Brenna she felt like a galumphing Amazon.

  Annoyed with herself for the comparison, she blew her frizzed bangs off her brow and went back out.

  "Oh, I would have gotten those."

  Already the efficient Brenna had unloaded her luggage and hauled it into the foyer. "You've got to be ready to drop after your travels. I'll get your things upstairs. I imagine you'll want Old Maude's room, it's pleasant, then we'll put the kettle on so you can have some tea and I'll start your fire. It's a damp day."

  As she spoke she carried Jude's two enormous suitcases up the stairs as if they were empty. Wishing she'd spent more time in the gym, Jude followed with her tote, her laptop, and her portable printer.

  Brenna showed her two bedrooms, and she was right-Old Maude's, with its view of the front gardens, was the more pleasant. But Jude got only a hazy impression, for one look at the bed and she succumbed to the jet lag that dropped into her body like a lead weight.

  She only half listened to the cheerful, lilting voice explain about linens, heat, the vagaries of the tiny fireplace in the bedroom as Brenna set the peat to light. Then she followed as if walking through water as Brenna clattered downstairs to put on tea and show her how the kitchen operated.

  She heard something about the pantry being freshly stocked and how she should do her marketing at Duffy's in the village when she needed supplies. There was more-stacks of peat outside the back door, as Old Maude had preferred it, but wood as well in case she herself preferred that, and how the telephone had been hooked back up again and how to light the fire in the kitchen stove.

  "Ah, there, now, you're asleep on your feet." Sympathetic, Brenna pressed a thick blue mug into Jude's hands. "Take that on up with you and have a lie-down. I'll start the fire down here for you."

  "I'm sorry. I can't seem to focus."

  "You'll do better after some sleep. My number's here by the phone if you're needing anything. My family's barely a kilometer from here, my mother and dad and four sisters, so if there's anything you need, you've only to call or come by the O'Tooles'."

  "Yes, I-four sisters!"

  Brenna laughed again as she led Jude back down the hall. "Well, my dad kept hoping for a boy, but that's the way of it. Surrounded by females, he is, even the dog. Up you go, now."

  "Thank you so much. Really, I'm not usually so- vague."

  "Well, it's not every day you fly over the ocean now, is it? Do you want anything before I go?"

  "No, I-" She leaned on the banister, blinked. "Oh, I forgot. There was a woman in the house. Where did she go?"

  "A woman, you say? Where?"

  "In the window." She swayed, nearly spilled the tea, then shook her head clear. "There was a woman in the window upstairs, looking out when I got here."

  "Was there now?"

  "Yes. A blond woman, young, very lovely."

  "Ah, that would be Lady Gwen." Brenna turned, slipped into the living room, and lit the stack of peat. "She doesn't show herself to just everyone."

  "Where did she go?"r />
  "Oh, she's still here, I imagine." Satisfied that the peat had caught, Brenna rose, brushed off the knees of her trousers. "She's been here three hundred years, give or take. She's your ghost, Miss Murray."

  "My what?"

  "Your ghost. But don't trouble yourself about her. She won't be after harming you any. Hers is a sad tale, and a story for another time, when you're not so tired."

  It was hard to concentrate. Jude's mind wanted to shut down, her body to shut off, but it seemed important to clear up this one point. "You're trying to say the house is haunted?"

  "Sure and it's haunted. Didn't your granny tell you?"

  "I don't believe she mentioned it. You're telling me you believe in ghosts."

  Brenna lifted her brow again. "Well, did you see her or didn't you? There you are," she said when Jude merely frowned. "Have yourself a nap, and if you're up and about later, come on down to Gallagher's Pub and I'll buy you your first pint."

  Too baffled to concentrate, Jude merely shook her head. "I don't drink beer."

  "Oh, well now, that's a bloody shame," Brenna said, sounding both shocked and sincere. "Well, good day to you, Miss Murray."

  "Jude." She murmured it and could do nothing but stare.

  "Jude, then." Brenna flashed her gorgeous smile and slipped out the door into the rain.

  Haunted, Jude thought, as she started up the stairs with her head circling lazily several inches over her shoulders. Fanciful Irish nonsense. God knew, her grandmother was full of fairy stories, but that's all they were. Stories.

  But she'd seen someone- hadn't she?

  No, the rain, the curtains, the shadows. She set down the tea that she'd yet to taste and managed to pull off her shoes. There weren't any ghosts. There was just a pretty house on a charming little hill. And the rain.

  She fell facedown on the bed, thought about dragging the spread over her, and tumbled into sleep before she could manage it.

  And when she dreamed, she dreamed of a battle fought on a green hill where the sunlight flashed on swords like jewels, of faeries dancing in the forest where the moonlight lay as tears on the leaves, and of a deep blue sea that beat like a heart against the waiting shore.

  And through all the dreams, the one constant thing was the sound of a woman's quiet weeping.


  When Jude woke it was full dark, and the little peat fire had burned down to tiny ruby lights. She stared at them, her eyes bleary with sleep, her heart leaping like a wild stag in her throat as she mistook the embers for watching eyes.

  Then her memory snapped into place, her mind cleared. She was in Ireland, in the cottage where her grandmother had lived as a girl. And she was freezing.

  She sat up, rubbing her chilled arms, then fumbled for the bedside lamp. A glance at her watch made her blink, then wince. It was nearly midnight. Her recovery nap had lasted close to twelve hours.

  And, she discovered, she was not only cold. She was starving as well.

  She puzzled over the fire a moment. Since it seemed basically out and she didn't have a clue how to get it going again, she left it alone and went down to the kitchen to hunt up food.

  The house creaked and groaned around her-a homey sound, she told herself, though it made her want to jump and look over her shoulder. It wasn't that she was thinking about, even considering the ghost Brenna had spoken of. She just wasn't particularly used to homey sounds. The floors of her condo didn't creak, and the only red glow she might come across was the security light on her alarm system.

  But she would get used to her new surroundings.

  Brenna was as good as her word, Jude discovered. The kitchen was well stocked with food in the doll-size fridge, in the narrow little pantry. She might be cold, she mused, but she wouldn't starve.

  Her first thought was to open a can of soup and buzz it up in the microwave. So with can in hand, she turned around the kitchen and made a shocking discovery.

  There was no microwave.

  Well, Jude thought, that's a problem. Nothing to do but rough it with saucepan and stove, she supposed, then hit the next dilemma when she realized there was no automatic can opener.

  Old Maude had lived not only in another country, Jude decided as she pushed through drawers, but another century.

  She managed to use the manual can opener that she found, and put the soup in a pan on the stove. After choosing an apple from the bowl on the kitchen table, she walked to the back door and opened it to a swirling mist, soft as silk and wet as rain.

  She could see nothing but the air itself, the pale gray layers of it shifting over the night. There was no form, no light, only the wisps and shapes the mist chose to make of itself. Shivering, she took one step out and was instantly cloaked in it.

  The sense of solitude was immediate and complete, deeper than any she'd ever known. But it wasn't frightening or sad, she realized as she held an arm out and watched the mist swallow her hand to the wrist. It was oddly liberating.

  She knew no one. No one knew her. Nothing was expected of her, except what she asked of herself. For tonight, one wonderful night, she was absolutely alone.

  She heard a kind of pulse in the night, a low, drumming beat. Was it the sea? she wondered. Or was it just the mist breathing? Even as she started to laugh at herself, she heard another sound, quiet and bright, a tinkling music.

  Pipes and bells, flutes and whistles? Enchanted by it, she nearly left the back stoop, nearly followed the magic of the sound into the fog like a dreamer walking in sleep.

  Wind chimes, she realized, with another little laugh, a bit nervous around the edges now. It was only wind chimes, like the pretty bells at the front of the house. And she must still be half asleep if she'd considered dancing out of the house at midnight and wandering through the fog to follow the sound of music.

  She made herself step back inside, firmly shut the door. The next sound she heard was the hiss of the soup boiling over.

  "Damn it!" She rushed to the stove and switched off the burner. "What's wrong with me? A twelve-year-old could heat up a stupid can of soup, for God's sake."

  She mopped up the mess, burned the tips of two fingers, then ate the soup standing up in the kitchen while she lectured herself.

  It was time to stop bumbling around, to yank herself back in line. She was a responsible person, a reliable woman, not one who stood dreaming into the mist at midnight. She spooned up the soup and ate it mechanically, a duty to her body with none of the foolish pleasure a midnight snack allowed.

  It was time to face why she'd come to Ireland in the first place. Time to stop pretending it was an extended holiday during which she would explore her roots and work on papers that would cement the publishing end of her not very stellar university career.

  She'd come because she'd been mortally afraid she was on the verge of some kind of breakdown. Stress had become her constant companion, gleefully inviting her to enjoy a migraine or flirt with an ulcer.

  It had gotten to the point where she wasn't able to face the daily routine of her job, to the point where she neglected her students, her family. Herself.

  More, worse, she admitted, where she was coming to actively dislike her students, her family. Herself.

  Whatever the cause of it-and she wasn't quite ready to explore that area-the only solution had been a radical change. A rest. Falling apart wasn't an option. Falling apart in public was out of the question.

  She wouldn't humiliate herself, or her family, who'd done nothing to deserve it. So she had run-cowardly, perhaps, but in some odd way the only logical step she'd been able to think of.

  When Old Maude had graciously passed on at the ripe old age of a hundred and one, a door had opened.

  It had been smart to walk through that door. It had been responsible to do so. She needed time alone, time to be quiet, time to reevaluate. And that was exactly what she was going to do.

  She did intend to work. She would never have been able to justify the trip and the time if she hadn't had som
e sort of plan. She intended to experiment with a paper that combined her family roots and her profession. If nothing else, documenting local legends and myths and conducting a psychological analysis of their meaning and purpose would keep her mind active and give her less time for brooding.

  She'd been spending entirely too much time brooding. An Irish trait, her mother claimed, and the thought of it made Jude sigh. The Irish were great brooders, so if she felt the need to indulge from time to time, she'd picked the best place in the world for it.

  Feeling better, Jude turned to put her empty bowl in the dishwasher and discovered there wasn't one.

  She chuckled all the way upstairs to the bedroom.

  She unpacked, meticulously putting everything away in the lovely creaky wardrobe, the wonderful old dresser with drawers that stuck. She set out her toiletries, admired the old washbasin, and indulged in a long shower standing in the claw-foot tub with the thin plastic curtain jangling around her on its tarnished brass hooks.

  She dived into flannel pajamas and a robe before her teeth started chattering, then got down to the business of lighting bricks of peat. Surprised at her success, she lost twenty minutes sitting on the floor with her arms wrapped around her knees, smiling into the pretty glow and imagining herself a contented farmer's wife waiting for her man to come in from the fields.

  When she snapped back from her daydream she went off to explore the second bedroom and consider its potential as an office.

  It was a small room, boxlike, with narrow windows facing front and side. After some deliberation, Jude chose to set up facing south so she could see the rooftops and church steeples of the village and the broad beach that led down to the sea.

  At least, she assumed that would be the view once daylight broke and the fog lifted.

  The next problem was what to set up on, as the little room had no desk. She spent the next hour hunting up a suitable table, then hauling that from the living room up the stairs and placing it exactly in the center of the window before she hooked up her equipment.