Authors: Veronica Sattler
Tags: #Regency, #Man-Woman Relationships, #Fiction, #Romance, #Devil, #Historical, #General, #Good and Evil
|Zebra Books (2002)|
|Tags:||Regency, Man-Woman Relationships, Fiction, Romance, Devil, Historical, General, Good and Evil|
When the Devil calls the tune..
Love is hardly the problem when Adam Lightfoot, Marquis of Ravenskeep, summons forth the Devil. To save his young son's life, Adam is willing to do anything, and striking a reckless deal with Lucifer—otherwise known as rakish Lord Appleby—takes only a moment of consideration. What Adam doesn't bargain on is a young Irish healer named Caitlin O'Brian, her gift of sight, or her powerful determination to untangle him from the whole horrific mess. Come one dark midnight, they will discover that miracles are possible—if they're willing to sacrifice everything for love.
In the mid-eighties, having two published romances under my belt, I first tried my hand at writing a romance set in Regency England. I called the book The Bargain, and the rest, as they say, is "history." Not only did The Bargain become my first national best-seller; it won me critical acclaim that included a Gold Certificate from Affaire de Coeur magazine, and a place among the "100 All-time Favorite Books" chosen by the reviewers of Romantic Times magazine to celebrate its 200th issue. Moreover, it seemed readers weren't content with a single helping of Ashleigh and Brett's love story; when The Bargain was reissued in the nineties, it became a national best-seller all over again!
But its "history'' didn't end there. For years, I thought of writing a sequel. Indeed, the mail I received from readers asked and pleaded for one. But to be a sequel worthy of what has arguably become a classic of the genre, the story had to be special. A germ of an idea arose, spent several years perking and brewing in my imagination, and finally emerged as the novel you have here. I feel Come Midnight is, in every way, a worthy sequel to The Bargain. I hope you agree.
Romance has a long history. Long before the term applied to the genre comprising the lion's share of today's popular fiction, romance occupied a place in the consciousness of Western man. From the chansons de geste of the troubadours in the Middle Ages, to the art of the Romantic Movement in early nineteenth century Europe, to the stuff of countless stories, films and songs of the past century, romance has snagged our collective imagination and stubbornly refused to let go.
It is an idealized form, to be sure, its trappings belonging more often to the world of the imagination than that reflected by the six-o'-clock news. Romance embodies lofty themes and distant or exotic settings, larger-than-life heroes and darker-than-dark foes. Yet for all its departure from reality, the best romance speaks to us of universal truths in the human condition: of quintessential conflicts, like the struggle between good and evil; of themes like sacrifice for honor's sake and the quest for undying love. The tale you are about to read here is no exception.
Some say it is an English tale, born in Kent, among the gently rolling hills south of London, country the English call the downs. Some insist it is Irish, or at least that it began in Ireland, moving on to London before it ended in Kent, but Irish all the same. Most agree it has elements of both, and there are Americans who swear they've heard it told for generations on their side of the Atlantic. It is a tale told in great houses and small, often before a cozy fire in the dead of winter, though a campfire on a soft summer night will do.
Whatever its origins, this is a cautionary tale, and not for the faint of heart. It is a story of an unforgettable woman and the extraordinary man who became her destiny. It is a romance in every sense of the word: the story of a great love, certainly, of high ideals and noble acts, but of darker things as well. Did it really happen? Who can say? I am but the storyteller, the vehicle by which the events, as I first heard them, are recorded in written form. Nearly two centuries have passed since those events unfolded. Who can say how many more years will pass before they are lost in the mists of time? Read on, then, before they are lost forever.
County Cork, Ireland, 1815
Crionna was dying. Caitlin had known, of course. Long before she'd planted herself at the old woman's bedside and begun her vigil. She'd had the dream more than a fortnight ago, and the dreams never lied. Caitlin wished to God they did. And not just because of Crionna.
Caitlin O'Brien's dreams weren't like the dreams of ordinary people. When others awoke, they could happily dismiss the things they'd seen in sleep. "Wasn't that a lovely dream?" they could say. Or even, "Oh, what a terrible dream!" And that would be an end to it. It was only a dream, after all. But not with Caitlin. When Caitlin awoke, she was frightened.
And then there were the visions. They were even more frightening. Ordinary people never had visions at all. Portents that suddenly filled the mind, even when wide awake. Aye, frightening.
The Sight, Crionna called it. Caitlin called it a curse. Not that she'd ever done so to Crionna's face. Crionna was a
, after all ... an "honored woman," in the Gaelic still spoken in the village. Once Caitlin had heard one of the Sassenachs who lived on the big estate call her "the wise woman." But no matter what the language, Caitlin had reasons aplenty to honor the old woman. Crionna was the only mother she'd ever known. Crionna loved her.
A soft moan drew Caitlin's attention to the shrunken figure on the bed. "Crionna? Are ye ... Can ye hear me?"
." The old woman's voice was thready, weak. "How... long have I slept?"
Their tiny cottage on the outskirts of the village boasted no clocks, but Caitlin was used to judging time by other means. "A few hours," she replied, noting the length of the shadows outside the open doorway. It was late afternoon, and because the day was unseasonably warm for October, she had left the door ajar ....
Twas not the true reason you left it open, she chided herself. Admit it, colleen. You wanted the comfort of sunlight about you. You're frightened, and the shadows—
"Too long!" Crionna's voice rose, distress in its papery rasp. "Ye ought t' have wakened me, lass. I've . .. things t' tell ye . .. not much time—"
"Crionna, please don't—"
"Hush, lass. 'Tis not long fer this world I am, and we both know it. Pretendin' itherwise is foolish, and I've niver been a fool." The old woman's eyes, still a keen, piercing blue in the wizened face, drilled into Caitlin's. "Nor did I raise one."
No, she'd not been raised a fool. Crionna meant "wise" in the Gaelic, and Caitlin knew her foster mother had lived up to her name. There were those in the village, though, who'd thought Crionna the fool for taking in another woman's child. Especially when times were hard. When everyone, let alone a solitary old woman, had all they could do to feed and clothe themselves.
But it was just that that had led Pegeen O'Brien, newly widowed and left with a brood of hungry children, to give away her newborn. " 'Tis not that yer ma didn't love ye," Crionna had reminded Caitlin over the years. ' 'Tis that she loved ye enough t' give ye up. She'd not see ye starve."
Caitlin had accepted this. Yet she often wondered what it might have been like to know her true mother. To have brothers and sisters she could speak with ... laugh with ... aye, even cry with. But Pegeen had left the village mere days after surrendering her youngest to the
. Caitlin had never known her.
" 'Twas the only way, lass," Crionna had once explained. "Yer ma couldn't live nearby. The poor woman would always be reminded o' the babe she'd given up. 'Twould have made it all the harder." It made sense. Nevertheless, Caitlin couldn't help—
"Yer ma loved ye, lass. Niver doubt it."
Caitlin's wide green eyes flew to the old woman's face. It wasn't the first time Crionna had seemed to read her mind. Yet she couldn't help being startled. Too much of exactly that sort of thing had been happening lately. Her nerves were stretched to the breaking point.
"Don't fash yerself, macushla" Crionna murmured. "We two have iver been close"—she gave a dry rasp that might have been a chuckle—"and yer lovely face niver could hide a thing. 'Tis an open book ye are, Caitlin O'Brien."
Caitlin nodded. Still, she felt there was more to it than Crionna was admitting. The
, while not possessed of the Sight herself, certainly had skills that ordinary folk didn't Father O'Malley, the priest in the village, called Crionna a heathen and a heretic. And while Caitlin thought that was going too far, she knew in her heart that Crionna was only nominally Christian. That the
true faith had its roots in the Old Ways. The beliefs and customs of the ancient Celts. She also suspected mind reading was the least of the skills her foster mother had from the Old Ways.
No one knew how old Crionna was. Or where she'd come from, who'd raised her. She'd seemed old even when Caitlin was a child. People in the village said the
had always been here. Her wee cottage hidden in the wood, with its racks of dried herbs and—
"As I was sayin', lass," Crionna went on, "yer ma loved ye. But 'tis time ye knew what else drove her t' part with ye."
"What... else?" This was the first Caitlin had heard of anything new in the matter. That Crionna had waited nineteen years to mention it, whatever it was, had her eyeing the old woman warily.
Crionna ran her tongue over lips that were dry and cracked. Caitlin quickly poured her a cup of the herbal tea she'd brewed while the old woman slept. Slipping her hand behind the
head, she carefully propped her up and held the cup to her lips while she took a few swallows.
Crionna nodded and motioned the cup away. She met Caitlin's eyes. "Yer ma was frightened, colleen, just as ye're frightened now."
The green eyes widened. "Frightened? What are ye-"
"I'll not lie t' ye, lass. 'Twasn't in me head t' take ye home with me at first. I was the village midwife in those days. I was there ... merely t' see t' yer birthin'. And as I sometimes did when a new life came into the world, I told the mother what I saw."
"What ye saw?" What was Crionna saying? That she had the Sight, after all? "But ye've always told me ye don't—"
"I don't. Not in the way o' yer own gift, lass. I've niver bad visions... or the dreams. But sometimes—not very often, mind ye, but occasionally, when helpin' t' birth a child I ... sensed things. And niver more strongly than that night."
Caitlin felt oddly apprehensive ... uneasy. Why was Crionna telling her these things only now? "Ye sensed it about me ... from the very start? That I'd have—"
"The Sight, aye. As strong as I've iver felt it"
Caitlin heaved a weary sigh. "And when ye told me ma ... Ach, Crionna! Small wonder she was—"
"I had t' tell her, lass. Ye see, Pegeen sensed somethin' herself. 'What peculiar eyes she has!' she said t' me. 'Green as moss. Not the deep blue of a newborn's, and I've seen enough t' know. They frighten me, Crionna. They look like divil's eyes!' "
Caitlin gasped and couldn't quell a shudder. Devil's eyes! Holy Mother—
"Stop it, lass!" Crionna's gnarled, age-spotted hand reached out from the bedclothes. Her grip on Caitlin's arm was surprisingly strong. "There's not a grain o' truth in what Pegeen said. And I told her so ... just as I'm tellin' ye now. As I've told ye countless times before. Yer gift, like yer lovely eyes, has nothin' evil about it!"
"But if me own ma—"
"People fear what they don't understand,
." Crionna's voice was growing weaker, and she motioned the girl close. There was so little time. It was important she not miss anything.
"Ignorance ..." The old woman spoke slowly, as if measuring out words against the strength she had left. "Tis at the root of all ... superstition. When I explained, I ... think Pegeen finally accepted ... believed yer gift wasn't evil. Yet she was still frightened. And who could blame her? 'Tis a grave responsibility ... rearin' a babe has the Sight. The gift holds no evil, just as I said. Yet one who has it must be taught... if 'tis t' be used fer good. Impossible t' do it... if the one who raises the child ... doesn't understand."
Caitlin nodded pensively. Father O'Malley thought the thing was evil. Was he ignorant? But a priest was a learned man. Father O'Malley educated the parish children, and Caitlin herself had been one of his stellar pupils. How could an educated man of God be accounted superstitious?
Again, it was as if Crionna had read her thoughts. "Father O'Malley understood the least!" she spat. "I niver regretted takin' ye and rearin' ye as me own, lass. But sendin' ye t' the priest fer schoolin' was a mistake! I wish—"
A fit of coughing seized her. Caitlin bit her lip as spasms wracked the old woman. She hurriedly raised the pillow beneath the narrow shoulders—when had Crionna grown so spare?—so she could breathe better. It seemed to help. The
closed her eyes and sank back against the mattress, finally quiet Too quiet.
Mother of God, is she. . . ? Caitlin placed a hand atop the faded quilt covering the old woman's chest. She let out a breath she hadn't known she'd been holding. A barely detectable rise and fall, but it was there. Just asleep, then.
She began to settle back to resume her vigil. Then a glance at the lengthening shadows in the room had her rising quickly. She checked the level of water in the kettle hanging from a crane at the hearth. Swinging it back over the fire, she measured out some herbs for more tea. Grabbing a spill from the mantel, she lit it from the fire. Only when she'd lit every lamp and candlestick in the room did she return to watch at the bed.
Crionna hadn't moved at all. Caitlin found herself checking her breathing again. Shallow ... the same as before. She ran troubled eyes over the
, noting the myriad wrinkles in the beloved face, the sparse white hair lying lank on the pillow. With a sigh, she sat back in her chair, letting her mind drift.
Crionna had been after her all her life to accept the Sight ... her gift, as she called it. To see the good it could do, and not deny it. But it had been hard. Father O'Malley had been present at one of her earliest visions ....
They'd been at lessons. Caitlin had seen a hazy light around little Kevin McCarthy. Suddenly a great white bandage had appeared on his head. It had completely covered his hair, which was even redder than Caitlin's. She'd cried out, stammering to the whole class what she saw.
Father O'Malley had been extremely overset... and angry, she thought. And a week later, hadn't young Kevin gone and fallen from that tree where he'd been pilfering apples? Hadn't he cracked his foolish skull open, requiring the very sort of bandage she'd seen?
Father O'Malley had gone straightaway to Crionna when he heard. They'd had angry words over it Caitlin had been sent outside and couldn't hear what they said exactly; but the anger in their raised voices had been plain enough.
There'd been other visions over the years ... and dreams. None in front of the priest thank the Blessed Virgin, but Father O'Malley still knew. Ballacairag was a small village, and people talked. After a time, the priest began to pray for Caitlin's soul. Not to mention those long "talks" he had with her after mass on Sundays. Telling her she must pray to be forgiven the sins that had brought this evil upon her.
When she grew older, she read about the saints who had experienced miraculous visions in their time. She had dared to question the priest about them. About the possibility hers might be akin to those. And hadn't that brought the good father's wrath!
"Tis wicked ye be, Caitlin O'Brien, t' be placin' yerself with the blessed saints!" he'd cried. "Can ye tell me one holy thing that's come of all yer black dreams and such—can ye?" And of course she couldn't. There'd never been anything discernibly religious in what she saw.
Far from it
, she told herself with a shiver.
And certainly not in this latest
Without wanting to, she found herself remembering the reason she was especially afraid lately. The dream. The first that had ever repeated itself. Three times, she'd had it now. It terrified her. For one thing, 'twas the only dream she'd ever had with herself in it. And what was in the dream ....
She was seated at a table in an unfamiliar room. A grand chamber, with velvet draped at the windows and candles burning in heavy silver holders on a huge mantelpiece. There was a game on a board before her. She'd seen pictures of chess pieces in a book, so she knew what it was. She also knew she'd never learned this game. Yet she played.
Off to the side stood a man. A tall, starkly masculine figure. He was standing in shadow, but she could still make out his features. He was dark haired and . . . beautiful. Beautiful, but for one thing: an angry scar slashed across one of his high, perfectly molded cheekbones.
Across the table from her sat a figure from a nightmare. An enormous winged creature with demonic features she avoided looking upon. Indeed, she'd glanced at it but once, then had to look away. It had been enough. She'd seen the clawed hands . . . the horned protrusions set forward in the skull . . . the soulless eyes that froze her blood: Satan. She was playing chess with the Lord of Hell himself.