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Authors: Alexis Harrington

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BOOK: The Irish Bride
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It was true, all
true
, her heart wept.
Aidan’s every word lanced her like knife thrusts but there was no
questioning them, because she knew they were true. Michael had
evicted a lot of families, some of whom had paid their rent
faithfully, all at the behest of the Cardwells. She’d even heard
rumors, ugly and vicious, that Michael was not only cheating the
tenants, but his employers as well. Money was missing, it had been
whispered, and Michael spent freely, as if he were a lord himself.
How could she blame Aidan for defending his home and family? What
real man could have done less?

She stole a glance at frail,
dear Sean, whose breathing was labored with the sickness plaguing
his lungs. No remedy she’d tried for his illness had helped much.
Pressing her hand to her skirt pocket, she felt the little figure
of Brigit, her favorite saint, hard against her hip. It was Sean
who had carved it for her. She remembered that he used to whittle
small toys for all the children in the
clachan
, including Michael. Yet he
had evicted Sean anyway.

With a shaking hand, she drew the
sacking over his face, knowing as she did the grief welling within
her was not for the man who lay there, but for the child he had
once been. There was nothing left of the baby brother she
remembered. Over the years, he’d grown into a selfish, cruel man
who possessed not a shred of decency.

Farrell felt eyes on her, Tommy’s,
Clare’s, and even the children’s. Shame. It devastated her, making
her dread having to meet their gazes. “I’m sorry,” she said, her
voice shaking, “so sorry. I would have stopped him if I
could.”


Come on, lass.” Aidan put a
hand under her elbow and helped her to her feet. “No one could have
stopped Michael.”


What will become of us?”
Clare asked, drawing her other children to her. “We’ve got him here
on our floor—” she nodded at the prostrate form, “—Farrell under
our roof again, and Noel Cardwell angry with her. The Cardwells
will send the authorities, and they’ll arrest us all for sure now!
What are we going to do?”

Everyone spoke at once in hushed,
emphatic murmurs, laying blame, lamenting the turn of events,
cursing the English government—all of which accomplished
nothing.

Only Aidan remained quiet, staring at
the low blue flames of the peat fire.


There’s only one thing we
can do. We must leave,” he said, keeping his back to the group. “If
we’re gone, the rest of you might be safe when the authorities come
nosing around, asking questions and looking for us. As long as ye
can keep payin’ your rent, Cardwell might let ye stay. Liam,
Da—ye’ll have to move in here with Tommy and Clare. But if they
can’t find us, eventually they’ll give up and leave ye
alone.”

“‘
We?’ Who is ‘we?’ ” Liam
asked.

Aidan turned then and locked his dark
blue gaze with Farrell’s, where she still stood next to Michael’s
body. “Farrell and I.”


Farrell! Where can a woman
go by herself?” Liam demanded, his expression alive with rare
animation.

Aidan lifted a brow at his brother’s
question. Then he drew a deep breath and faced the family. “She
won’t be alone. I mean to take her with me.” He glanced at her torn
dress again. “Noel Cardwell isn’t going to let this insult to his
manhood and status go unanswered.”

Everyone spoke at once, again in an
uproar.


She’s your
brother’s
intended,
Aidan!”

Farrell glowered at Aidan and his bad
joke, hoping to freeze him with coldness. “You’re not funny a-tall,
I hope ye know.”

Aidan stepped toward them, his
expression grim. “And neither is the idea of hanging or rotting in
prison. But that’s what will happen if we stay, and we’ll doom the
whole family.” He gestured at the tiny one-room cottage around
them, dark now but for the firelight. “They’ll tear this place
down, too, if they find us here, and then none of us will have
shelter.” He fixed Farrell with a hard look. “D’ye want to be
responsible for that?”


No,
but . . . saints preserve us, you’re serious!
I’m not going anywhere with you. I am to marry Liam.”

Aidan’s exasperation was vivid on his
face, and made even more so by the cuts and bruises it bore,
obvious souvenirs from the afternoon’s events. “Aye, in prison with
rats for witnesses?”

Farrell’s chest tightened and she
pressed her clenched fist to her mouth. “No—”

Tommy put a hand up. “Hold a minute
now, Farrell. Maybe Aidan has the right idea.”


He might at that,” old Sean
put in from his pallet, rubbing his bristled chin thoughtfully.
“Ye’ll have to take Michael away from here, Tommy. Down the road a
far distance. Make it look as if he took a spill from his horse so
no one suspects foul doings. Praise God we’re well thought of in
the
clachan
. The
neighbors won’t breathe a word of what happened.”


No,” Aidan interjected. He
met Tommy’s gaze. “Ye’ll take him back to our cottage. Lay him
where he fell, with his head against the rocks. And ask the
neighbors to tell the authorities exactly what happened.” He
glanced apologetically at Sean. “I know ye mean well, Da, that ye
wish only to spare me the blame. But it’s too risky by half. The
constabulary might hear of the fight from Michael’s thugs. They’ll
know I had a hand in his death. If you try to protect me, they’ll
only suspect you of wrongdoing, too.”


But, Aidan,” Tommy said.
“We’re talkin’ of a murder charge. Think, man! ‘Tis no matter that
he pushed ye beyond limits or that any man would’ve done the same.
Let us do as Da says and take Michael down the road. Otherwise,
they’ll charge you with murder and you’ll dance at the end of a
rope of they when catch you.”


That’s why they can’t catch
me,” Aidan replied, his eyes narrowed with purpose. “I’ll be long
gone. Far away from here, and easy in my heart, knowing my family
won’t suffer for the accidental wrong I’ve done. It’s better this
way, Tommy, much as I appreciate your loyalty to me. Better for all
of you, and since you’re the ones who’ll be left behind, that’s the
way it must be.”


Where will ye go, do ye
think?” Clare asked, absently smoothing the baby’s silky head. “You
can’t stay in Cork, but maybe in Dublin or another city, you might
have some luck findin’ work and be able to dodge the
authorities.”

Aidan’s expression grew bleak. “No. We
have to leave Ireland. I’m thinking America is the only
place—that’s where we have to go.”

America! Farrell couldn’t believe her
ears. “And how will ye pay for the passage? I’ve heard talk that it
costs three or four pounds each for fare to New York.”

Aidan glanced away, and then returned
his gaze to her. “Michael had money in his pockets. A lot of
money.”


You
stole
Michael’s money?” she gasped,
her hand cold at her throat.


And who should we be givin’
it to? Cardwell?” Tommy asked with a lash of sarcasm. “Or maybe we
should let him be buried with it? Aidan’s right. It will serve us
all best if the two of you use the money to leave here and draw the
trouble away from us.”


But—” Desperate for a
champion, Farrell turned to her cousin. “Clare, do you actually
mean to go along with this crack-brained idea?”

Clare’s voice was as strained as her
own. “I’m sorry, Farrell. Ye know I am. But we’ve the children to
think of. We’ll have trouble enough with the police sniffing around
our feet about Michael’s death, and who will see after the little
ones if we’re taken? Aidan is right. At least if you go, the blame
and guilt by association won’t be so likely to rain on us. The
Cardwells will get tired of searching for ye eventually and leave
us in peace. And our own people won’t cut us dead every time they
see us.”

Sean shifted his bony behind on his
pallet. “We can’t very well send them off without Father Joseph’s
blessing, can we?”

They’d all lost their minds, Farrell
thought, staring at them. Every single one of them. They needed
Father Joseph to bless their leave-taking?

Sean sent his youngest son a sharp
look. “Ye’ll have to marry her, you know, Aidan—it wouldn’t be
right elsewise.” Everyone nodded and murmured in
agreement.

Aidan’s answer was a short
nod.


Marry!” The word sprang
from Farrell’s mouth with the force of a curse. To be wed to Aidan,
bound to him in every sense, and powerless against his wild ways
and hot temper? And in a strange, faraway land without family to
support or defend her? She stole another glance at him—he was a
tall man, strong and with well-muscled shoulders and a broad chest.
He’d managed to overcome four men who tried to hold him back from
Michael. America was said to be the land of plenty—what would he
grow into with good food and a better life? She would be
defenseless against any demand he made of her.

She caught his gaze and in his eyes
she saw a raw, burning possessiveness, as though she were his
already—and, stranger yet, always had been. She looked away
swiftly.

With her heart beating like a bird’s,
she turned to Liam. Her betrothed was strong of spirit, he was
immutable, like a rock—qualities she so admired and counted upon.
She trusted him to do the right thing; he couldn’t let this happen.
“Liam, in the name of heaven, ye must stop this.”

But Liam offered no further
protest.


Will you say
nothing
against this?”
she implored, a panicky tenseness tightening her throat.


Come along, Farrell,” he
replied, taking her arm and opening the door. He directed her away
from the doorway to give them a little privacy. The feeble winter
sunlight was about gone, but she could make out his face. Regret
etched lines in his gaunt features, making him look years older
than his age. His hands closed over her upper arms, the grip of his
fingers cold even through her shawl.


Nothing has turned out the
way we’d hoped. You’ve no future here—not a one of us does.” He
paused for a long moment, as if searching for words, then continued
with a sigh. “Go with Aidan, lass. For all his wild ways, he’s a
good man—he didn’t mean to kill your Michael. Ye’ll be safer with
him than you would be here. I’m putting you in God’s keeping and my
brother’s. They’ll both treat ye well.”

Tears burned Farrell’s eyes
again, and a clattering tremor shimmied through her that had little
to do with the cold. She pulled her shawl closer. “But—but Aidan
doesn’t love me,” she murmured, heartbreak making her throat ache
again. She pressed her hand to his thin chest. “You must come with
us.
You
can marry
me, just like we planned. Maybe we can find land in America and
work it together, just like we planned.
Liam . . . if you love me, please!”

He shook his head, a faint smile
barely visible in the low light. “You trust me, don’t
you?”

She sniffled and nodded.
“Aye.”


Then don’t you see it’s for
the best? Ah, Farrell . . . I can’t leave
Skibbereen. This is where I belong. I’d be no good to ye anywhere
else. I don’t do well with change—I can’t bend to it. Besides,
someone has to see to our da. We can’t be leaving him to fend for
himself.”


Clare and Tommy
can—”


No. Tommy has more than
enough to tend to with his own family. It falls to me to take care
of our father, especially now that we have no home of our
own.”


But, Liam, I might never
see you again. Would you send me away like this?” She searched his
face, looking for some sign that he would save her from the fate
that awaited her, or that he would come with her. She didn’t find
it.

In his eyes she saw that he cared for
her, obviously enough to sacrifice her to his brother.

In fact, no—it had to be a
trick of the twilight. She knew that wasn’t relief she saw in his
face. It couldn’t be. He
loved
 her. “Liam,
please—”

He shook his head again and released
his hold on her arms. “I want only the best for ye, Farrell, and
that’s what I’m giving you.” Gazing out over the landscape, his
eyes reflecting unrealized dreams. He dragged in a shaky breath and
sighed.

Farrell clutched his sleeve, willing
him to meet her gaze. But he kept staring across the fields as if
he might find answers there.


I’m not like Aidan,” he
whispered hoarsely. “He’ll fight for you with his last breath. But
me? I haven’t got it in me, Farrell.” He broke off and finally
looked at her. “I love ye, lass, but in God’s truth, I don’t love
you well enough. You understand that, aye?”

Farrell stared at him. She did indeed
understand, and therein lay the greatest heartbreak. Her Liam was a
gentle, peaceful soul, not given to raising voice or fist. That
gentleness had always been what she cherished most about him, what
had drawn her to him with all the hope and love she held in her
heart. Now it was to be the chasm that forced them
apart.

She let her hand drop, feeling as
though she’d been given a beautifully wrapped package that turned
out to be empty. She knew Liam would never want anything but good
for her—that was why she cared for him so. And even now he was
protecting her. But disappointment added its weight to the grief
and fear already pressing in on her.

BOOK: The Irish Bride
7.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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