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Born in Fire, Page 3

Nora Roberts

  Chapter Three

  SHE was alone—as she liked best. From the doorway of her cottage she watched the rain lashing Murphy Muldoon's fields, slashing wildly over the grass and stone while the sun beamed hopefully, stubbornly, behind her. There was the possibility of a dozen different weathers in the layered sky, all brief and fickle.

  That was Ireland.

  But for Margaret Mary Concannon, the rain was a fine thing. She often preferred it to the warm slant of sun and the clear brilliance of cloudless blue skies. The rain was a soft gray curtain, tucking her away from the world. Or more important, cutting out the world, beyond her view of hill and field and sleek spotted cows.

  For while the farm, the stone fences and green grasses beyond the tangle of fuchsia no longer belonged to Maggie or her family, this spot with its small wild garden and damp spring air was her own.

  She was a farmer's daughter, true enough. But no fanner was she. In die five years since her lather's death, she'd set about making her own place—and the mark he'd asked her to make. Perhaps it wasn't so deep as yet, but she continued to sell what she made, in Galway now and Cork, as well as Ennis.

  She needed nothing more than what she had. Wanted more, perhaps, but she knew that desires, no matter how deep and dragging, didn't pay the bills. She also knew that some ambitions, when realized, carried a heavy price. If from time to time she grew frustrated or restless, she had only to remind herself that she was where she needed to be, and doing what she chose to do.

  But on mornings like this, with the rain and the sun at war, she thought of her father, and of the dreams he'd never seen come true. He'd died without wealth, without success and without the farm that had been plowed and harvested by Concannon hands for generations.

  She didn't resent the fact that so much of her birthright had been sold off for taxes and debts and the high-blown fantasies of her father. Perhaps there was a tug of sentiment and regret for the hillocks and fields she had once raced over with all the arrogance and innocence of youth. But that was past. Indeed, she wanted no part of the working of it, the worrying over it She had little of the love of growing things that stirred her sister, Brianna. True, she enjoyed her garden, the big defiant blooms and the scents that wafted from them. But the flowers grew despite her periods of neglect.

  She had her place, and anything beyond it was out of her realm, and therefore, most usually, out of her mind. Maggie preferred needing no one, and certainly needing nothing she could not provide herself. Dependence, she knew, and the longing for more than what you had, led to unhappiness and discontent She had her parents' example before her.

  Pausing there, just past the open door into the chilling rain, she breathed in the air, the damp sweetness of it tinged with spring from the blackthorn blossoms that formed a hedgerow to the east and the early roses struggling into bloom to the west She was a small woman, shapely beneath the baggy jeans and flannel shirt Over her shoulder-length, fiery hair she wore a slouch hat, as gray as the rain. Beneath its bill her eyes were the moody, mystical green of the sea. The rain dampened her face, the soft curve of cheek and chin, the wide, melancholy mouth. It dewed the creamy redhead's complexion and joined the gold freckles scattered over the bridge of her nose.

  She drank the strong sweet breakfast tea from a glass mug of her own design and ignored the phone that had begun to shrill from the kitchen. Ignoring the summons was as much policy as habit, particularly when her mind was drifting toward her work. There was a sculpture forming in her head, as clear as a raindrop, she thought. Pure and smooth, with glass flowing into glass in the heart of it. The pull of the vision beckoned. Dismissing the ringing phone, she walked through the rain toward her workshop and the soothing roar of the glass furnace.

  From his offices in Dublin, Rogan Sweeney listened to the ring of the phone through the receiver and swore. He was a busy man, too busy to waste his time on a rude and temperamental artist who refused to answer the sharp knock of opportunity. He had businesses to see to, calls to answer, files to read, figures to tally. He should, while the day was young, go down to the gallery and oversee the latest shipment The Native American pottery was, after all, his baby, and he'd spent months selecting the best of the best

  But that, of course, was a challenge already met. That particular show would once again ensure that Worldwide was a top international gallery. Meanwhile the woman, the damn, stubborn Clarewoman, was crowding his mind. Though he'd yet to meet her face-to-face, she and her genius occupied too much of his mind. The new shipment would, of course, receive as much of his skill, energy and time as it required. But a new artist, particularly one whose work had so completely captured his imagination, excited on a different level. The thrill of discovery was as vital to Rogan as the careful development marketing and sale of an artist's works.

  He wanted Concannon, exclusively, for Worldwide Galleries. As with most of his desires, all of which Rogan deemed quite reasonable, he wouldn't rest until it was accomplished.

  He'd been raised to succeed—the third generation of prosperous merchants who found clever ways to turn pence into pounds. The business his grandfather had founded sixty years before flourished under his leadership—because Rogan Sweeney refused to take no for an answer. He would achieve his goals by sweat by charm, by tenacity or any other means he deemed suitable.

  Margaret Mary Concannon and her unbridled talent was his newest and most frustrating goal.

  He wasn't an unreasonable man in his own mind, and would have been shocked and insulted to discover that he was described as just that by many of his acquaintances. If he expected long hours and hard work from his employees, he expected no less of himself. Drive and dedication weren't merely virtues to Rogan, they were necessities that had been bred in his bones.

  He could have handed the reins of Worldwide over to a manager and lived quite comfortably on the proceeds. Then he could travel, not for business but for pleasure, enjoying the fruits of his inheritance without sweating over the harvesting.

  He could have, but his responsibility and thirsty ambition were his birthrights.

  And M. M. Concannon, glass artist, hermit and eccentric was his obsession.

  He was going to make changes in Worldwide Galleries, changes that would reflect his own vision, that would celebrate his own country. M. M. Con-cannon was his first step, and he'd be damned if her stubbornness would make him stumble.

  She was unaware—because she refused to listen, Rogan thought grimly—that he intended to make her Worldwide's first native Irish star. In the past, with his father and grandfather at the helm, the galleries had specialized in international art. Rogan didn't intend to narrow the scope, but he did intend to shift the focus and give the world the best of the land of his birth.

  He would risk both his money and his reputation to do it.

  If his first artist was a success, as he fully intended her to be, his investment would have paid off, his instincts would have been justified and his dream, a new gallery that showcased works exclusively by Irish artists, would become reality.

  To begin, he wanted Margaret Mary Concannon.

  Annoyed with himself, he rose from his antique oak desk to stand by the window. The city stretched out before him, its broad streets and green squares, the silver glint that was the river and the bridges that spanned it.

  Below, traffic moved in a steady stream, laborers and tourists merging on the street in a colorful stream in the sunlight. They seemed very distant to him now as they strolled in packs or twosomes. He watched a young couple embrace, a casual linking of arms, meeting of lips. Both wore backpacks and expressions of giddy delight

  He turned away, stung by an odd little arrow of envy.

  He was unused to feeling restless, as he was now. There was work on his desk, appointments in his book, yet he turned to neither. Since childhood he'd moved with purpose from education to profession, from success to success. As had been expected of him. As he had expected of himself.

  He'd lost both of
his parents seven years before when his father had suffered a heart attack behind the wheel of his car and had smashed into a utility pole. He could still remember the grim panic, and the almost dreamy disbelief, that had cloaked him during the flight from Dublin to London, where his mother and father had traveled for business and the horrible, sterile scent of hospital.

  His father had died on impact His mother had lived barely an hour longer. So they had both been gone before he'd arrived, long before he'd been able to accept it But they'd taught him a great deal before he'd lost them—about family and pride of heritage, the love of art, the love of business and how to combine them.

  At twenty-six he'd found himself the head of Worldwide and its subsidiaries, responsible for staff, for decisions, for the art placed in his hands. For seven years he'd worked not only to make the business grow, but to make it shine. It had been more than enough for him. This unsettled sensation, the dilemma of it, he knew had its roots in the breezy winter afternoon when he had first seen Maggie Concannon's work.

  That first piece, spied during an obligatory tea with his grandmother, had started him on this odyssey to possess—no, he thought, uncomfortable with the word. To control, he corrected, he wanted to control the fate of the artistry, and the career of the artist Since that afternoon, he'd been able to buy only two pieces of her work. One was as delicate as a daydream, a slim almost weightless column riddled with shimmering rainbows and hardly larger than the span of his hand from wrist to fingertip.

  The second, and the one he could admit privately haunted and enticed him, was a violent nightmare, fired from a passionate mind into a turbulent tangle of glass. It should have been unbalanced, he thought now as he studied the piece on his desk. It should have been ugly with its wild war of colors and shapes, the grasping tendrils curling and clawing out of the squat base. Instead, it was fascinating and uncomfortably sexual. And it made him wonder what kind of woman could create both pieces with equal skill and power. Since he had purchased it a little more than two months before, he had tried with no success to contact the artist and interest her in patronage.

  He had twice reached her by phone, but the conversation on her part had been brief to the point of rudeness. She didn't require a patron, particularly a Dublin businessman with too much education and too little taste. Oh, that had stung.

  She was, she had told him in her musical west county brogue, content to create at her own pace and sell her work when and where it suited her. She had no need for his contracts, or for someone to tell her what must be sold. It was her work, was it not, so why didn't he go back to his ledgers, of which she was certain he had plenty, and leave her to it?

  Insolent little twit, he thought, firing up again. Here he was offering a helping hand, a hand that countless other artists would have begged for, and she snarled at it

  He should leave her to it, Rogan mused. Leave her to create in obscurity. It was certain that neither he nor Worldwide needed her.

  But, damn it all, he wanted her.

  On impulse, he picked up his phone and buzzed his secretary. "Eileen, cancel my appointments for die next couple of days. I'm going on a trip."

  It was a rare thing for Rogan to have business in the west counties. He remembered a family holiday from childhood. Most usually his parents had preferred trips to Paris or Milan, or an occasional break in the villa they kept on the French Mediterranean. There had been trips that had combined business and pleasure. New York, London, Bonn, Venice, Boston. But once, when he had been nine or ten, they had driven to the Shannon area to take in the wild, glorious scenery of the west He remembered it in patches, the dizzying views from the Cliffs of Mohr, the dazzling panoramas and gem-bright waters of the Lake District, the quiet villages and the endless green of farmlands.

  Beautiful it was. But it was also inconvenient. He was already regretting his impulsive decision to make the drive, particularly since the directions he'd been given in the nearby village had taken him onto a pitted excuse for a road. His Aston Martin handled it well, even as the dirt turned to mud under the ceaseless driving rain. His mood didn't negotiate the potholes as smoothly as did his car.

  Only stubbornness kept him from turning back. The woman would listen to reason, by God. He would see to it. If she wanted to bury herself behind hedges of furze and hawthorn, it was her business. But her art was his. Or would be.

  Following the directions he'd been given at the local post office, he passed the bed-and-breakfast called Blackthorn Cottage with its glorious gardens and trim blue shutters. Farther on there were stone cabins, sheds for animals, a hay barn, a slate-roofed shed where a man worked on a tractor. The man lifted a hand in salute, then went back to work as Rogan maneuvered the car around the narrow curve. The farmer was the first sign of life, other than livestock, he had seen since leaving the village. How anyone survived in this godforsaken place was beyond him. He'd take Dublin's crowded streets and conveniences over the incessant rain and endless fields every day of the week. Scenery be damned.

  She'd hidden herself well, he thought He'd barely caught sight of the garden gate and the whitewashed cottage beyond it through the tumbling bushes of privet and fuchsia. Rogan slowed, though he'd nearly been at a crawl in any case. There was a short drive, occupied by a faded blue lorry going to rust. He pulled his dashing white Aston behind it and got out. He circled around to the gate, moved down die short walk that cut between heavy-headed, brilliant flowers that bobbed in the rain. He gave the door, which was painted a bold magenta, three sharp raps, then three again before impatience had him stalking to a window to peer inside.

  There was a fire burning low in the grate, and a sugan chair pulled up close. A sagging sofa covered in some wild floral print that mated reds and blues and purples teetered in a corner. He would have thought he'd mistaken the house but for the pieces of her work set throughout the small room. Statues and bottles, vases and bowls stood, sat or reclined on every available surface.

  Rogan wiped the wet from the window and spied the many-branch candelabra positioned dead center of the mantel. It was fashioned of glass so clear, so pure, it might have been water frozen in place. The arms curved fluidly up, the base a waterfall. He felt the quick surge, the inner click that presaged acquisition.

  Oh yes, he'd found her.

  Now if she'd just answer the damn door.

  He gave up on the front and walked through the wet grass around to the back of the cabin. More flowers, growing wild as weeds. Or, he corrected, growing wild with weeds. Miss Concannon obviously didn't spend much time tidying her beds.

  There was a lean-to beside the door under which bricks of turf were piled. An ancient bike with one flat tire was propped beside them along with a pair of "Wellingtons that were muddy to the ankles.

  He started to knock again when the sound coming from behind him had him turning toward the sheds. The roar, constant and low, was almost like the sea. He could see the smoke pluming out of the chimney into the leaden sky. The building had several windows, and despite the chilly damp of the day, some were propped open. Her workshop, no doubt, Rogan thought, and crossed to it, pleased that he had tracked her down and confident of the outcome of their meeting.

  He knocked and, though he received no answer, shoved the door open. He had a moment to register the blast of heat, the sharp smells and the small woman seated in a big wooden chair, a long pipe in her hands. He thought of fairies and magic spells.

  "Close the door, damn you, there's a draft."

  He obeyed automatically, bristling under the sharp fury of the order. "Your windows are open."

  "Ventilation. Draft. Idiot." She said nothing more, nor did she spare him so much as a glance. She set her mouth to the pipe and blew.

  He watched the bubble form, fascinated despite himself. Such a simple procedure, he thought, only breath and molten glass. Her fingers worked on the pipe, turning it and turning it, fighting gravity, using it, until she was satisfied with the shape.

  She thought nothing of
him at all as she went about her work. She necked the bubble, using jacks to indent a shallow grove just beyond the head of the pipe. There were steps, dozens of them yet to take, but she could already see the finished work as clearly as if she held it cool and solid in her hand.

  At the furnace, she pushed the bubble under the surface of the molten glass heated there to make the second gather. Back at the bench she rolled the gather in a wooden block to chill the glass and form the "skin." All the while the pipe was moving, moving, steady and controlled by her hands, just as the initial stages of the work had been controlled by her breath.

  She repeated the same procedure over and over again, endlessly patient, completely focused while Rogan stood by the door and watched. She used larger blocks for forming as the shape grew. And as time passed and she spoke not a word, he took off his wet coat and waited.

  The room was filled with heat from the furnace. It felt as though his clothes were steaming on his body. She seemed sublimely unaffected, centered on her work, reaching for a new tool now and then while one hand constantly revolved the pipe.

  The chair on which she sat was obviously homemade, with a deep seat and long arms, hooks set here and there where tools hung. There were buckets nearby filled with water or sand or hot wax.

  She took a tool, one that looked to Rogan to be a pair of sharp-pointed tongs, and placed diem at the edge of the vessel she was creating. It seemed they would flow straight through, the glass so resembled water, but she drew the shape of it out, lengthening it, slimming it

  When she rose again, he started to speak, but a sound from her, something like a snarl, had him lifting a brow and keeping his silence.

  Fine then, he thought. He could be patient. An hour, two hours, as long as it took. If she could stand this vicious heat, so, by Christ, could he.

  She didn't even feel it, so intent was she. She dipped a punt, another gather of molten glass, onto the side of the vessel she was creating. When the hot glass had softened the wall, she pushed a pointed file, coated with wax, into the glass.

  Gently, gently.

  Flames sparked under her hand as the wax burned. She had to work quickly now to keep the tool from sticking to the glass. The pressure had to be exactly right for the effect she wanted. The inner wall made contact with the outer wall, merging, creating the inner form, the angel swing.

  Glass within glass, transparent and fluid.

  She nearly smiled.

  Carefully, she reblew the form before flattening the bottom with a paddle. She attached the vessel to a hot pontil. She plunged a file into a bucket of water, dripping it onto the neck groove of her vessel. Then, with a stroke that made Rogan jolt, she struck the file against the blowpipe. With the vessel now attached to the pontil, she thrust it into the furnace to heat the lip. Taking the vessel to the annealing oven, she rapped the pontil sharply with a file to break the seal.

  She set the time and the temperature, then walked directly to a small refrigerator. It was low to the floor, so she was forced to bend down. Rogan tilted his head at the view. The baggy jeans were beginning to wear quite thin in several interesting places. She straightened, turned and tossed one of the two soft-drink cans she taken out in his direction.

  Rogan caught the missile by blind instinct before it connected with his nose.

  "Still here?" She popped the top on her can and drank deeply. "You must be roasting in that suit." Now that her work was out of her mind and her eyes clear of the visions of it, she studied him.

  Tall, lean, dark. She drank again. Well styled hair as black as a raven's wing and eyes as blue as a Kerry lake. Not hard to look at, she mused, tapping a finger against the can as they stared at each other. He had a good mouth, nicely sculpted and generous. But she didn't think he used it often for smiling. Not with those eyes. As blue as they were, and as appealing, they were cool, calculating and confident

  A sharply featured face with good bones. Good bones, good breeding, her granny used to say. And this one, unless she was very mistaken, had blue blood beneath the bone.

  The suit was tailored, probably English. The tie discreet There was a wink of gold at his cuffs. And he stood like a soldier—the son that had earned plenty of brass and braid.

  She smiled at him, content to be friendly now that her work had gone well. "Are you lost then?"

  "No." The smile made her look like a pixie, one capable of all sorts of magic and mischief. He

  preferred the scowl she'd worn while she'd worked. "I've come a long way to speak with you, Miss Concannon. I'm Rogan Sweeney."

  Her smile tilted a few degrees into something closer to a sneer. Sweeney, she thought The man who wanted to take over her work. "The jackeen." She used the term, not terribly flattering, for a Dubliner. "Well, you're a stubborn one, Mr. Sweeney, that's the truth. I hope you had a pleasant drive so your trip won't be wasted."

  "It was a miserable drive."


  "But I don't consider the trip wasted." Though he would have preferred a strong cup of tea, he opened the soft-drink can. "You have an interesting setup here."

  He scanned the,room with its roaring furnace, its ovens and benches, the jumble of metal and wooden look, the rods, the pipes and the shelves and cupboards he imagined held her chemicals.

  "I do well enough, as I believe I told you over the phone."

  "That piece you were working on when I came in. It was lovely." He stepped over to a table cluttered with sketch pads, pencils, charcoal and chalk. He picked up a sketch of the glass sculpture now annealing. It was delicate, fluid.

  "Do you sell your sketches?"

  "I'm a glass artist, Mr. Sweeney, not a painter."

  He shot her a look, set the sketch down again. "If you were to sign that, I could get a hundred pounds for it"

  She let out a snort of disbelief and tossed her empty can into a waste bin.

  "And the piece you've just finished? How much will you ask for it"

  "And why would that be your business?"

  "Perhaps I'd like to buy it."

  She considered, scooting up on the edge of a bench and swinging her feet. No one could tell her the worth of her work, not even herself. But a price—a price had to be set She knew that well. For, artist or not, she had to eat

  Her formula for figuring price was loose and flexible. Unlike her formulas for making glass and mixing colors it had very little to do with science. She would calculate the time spent on producing the piece, her own feelings toward it, then factor in her opinion of the purchaser.

  Her opinion of Rogan Sweeney was going to cost him dear.