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Authors: Alexis Harrington

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BOOK: The Irish Bride
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Liam pushed his hands into his
pockets. “Aidan is the dreamer,” he said, as if he’d read her
thoughts. “He’ll make a success of America, or break his own heart
in the tryin’.”

* * *

Exile.

The reality of it struck Aidan again
as he watched his boots send up splashes of mud and water with each
step he took. He carried their skimpy belongings—a change of
clothes, a razor, a comb, and a few other personal oddments, tied
up in a square of old sacking. At least the bundle wasn’t heavy, he
reflected sourly.

The sky had cleared and a full winter
moon, low-slung and pale, shone brilliantly on the landscape.
Fatigue and the night played tricks on his eyes. Sometimes he
believed he saw riders approaching, only to realize the figures
were bare limbed trees looming in the distance, dark and
forbidding, casting long shadows. The wind moaned over hedgerows
and ancient rock walls, sounding like the wail of the banshee, and
making the hair on his arms stand on end.

Beside him, Farrell trudged along
silently, almost brittle in her resentment of him, her face stony,
her tension underscored with a nearly palpable wariness.

Those who’d left for America already
had probably felt the same as Aidan did now—that they had been
exiled from Ireland. Unlike him, though, most had been forced to
leave simply to escape death by hunger. Nor was it likely that they
had tramped through ankle-deep mud toward the distant harbor of
Queenstown near Cork with an angry, unwilling, and resentful bride.
A good distance it was too—Queenstown was about thirty miles
ahead.

Michael’s death did not weigh lightly
on Aidan. Accident or no, enemy or no, the man would still be alive
if Aidan hadn’t head-butted him like a ram. Lord Cardwell would
have dealt with Michael no more kindly, once he discovered his
perfidy, Aidan was thinking. And neither might he have spared
Farrell.

He supposed he should say something to
comfort her, but he could think of nothing. That he would be
provide for her, maybe? Or that he’d never be heavy-handed? He had
just killed her brother. Somehow he doubted that she would believe
his promises, no matter how sincerely he made them. Besides, their
circumstances were so dire, he had enough to worry about just
keeping his gaze focused on the countryside around them.

Through a rapid, tragic chain of
events, Farrell Kirwan had become his wife. Aidan could scarcely
believe it. He’d known her since they were children, had watched
her grow from a pretty young girl into a beautiful young woman. And
he’d looked on with helpless, guilty envy as she’d hung on Liam’s
few words as though they’d been gold coins.

Aidan’s scorched pride and his loyalty
to his brother had kept him from trying to win Farrell for himself.
But jealousy had gnawed at his insides whenever he’d seen her gaze
upon Liam with almost childlike adoration. What she’d seen in Liam,
though, he couldn’t guess—his brother had a good heart but he was a
creature of habit and as sober-minded as a priest. At age eighteen
he’d seemed like an old man.

If Aidan couldn’t have Farrell, he’d
thought, there were plenty of other girls in the district who found
him favorable. Maybe then she would notice him.

But she hadn’t.

Perhaps he’d forget his desire for
her.

But he didn’t.

Despite a lifetime of hardship in poor
Skibbereen, Farrell bloomed like a rose in winter, fragile yet
unbowed in the snow, with rich cinnamon hair and eyes that were as
clear and green as the breakers that flung themselves against
County Cork’s rock-faced shoreline. Only in his most fevered
midsummer dreams had he entertained the hope that she might someday
be his. Now, through an unbelievable twist of fate, they were
married.

And he knew that she’d rather be any
other man’s wife but his.

The events of the last fourteen hours
were a jumble in Aidan’s memory, but he had a lifetime to sort them
out and relive them. Michael Kirwan’s death, the urgent family
counsel whispering plans in the dark, Father Joseph summoned in the
deepest hour of the night for the dual purpose of performing a
hasty marriage ceremony and giving last rites to
Michael.

Afterward Aidan and Tommy had carried
Michael back down to the cottage—no easy task since he’d grown as
stiff as old oak shillelagh—and left him lying where he had died.
They left five pounds in his pocket so it wouldn’t appear that he’d
been robbed. It would be Aidan who would be blamed for the death,
Aidan who would be hunted down. By God’s mercy, perhaps the rest of
the O’Rourkes would be left to live in peace.

Sean O’Rourke had produced an ancient
pair of boots for his youngest son. Sean had worn them to his own
wedding and he’d planned to be buried in them, but thought that
Aidan would get better use of them. They were too small for Aidan
but at least he wasn’t barefoot. Then with hasty farewells and no
time to look back, Aidan and his new wife had set out. The only
other belongings they had with them were the clothes on their
backs, and the kit that Aidan carried.


Are ye warm enough?” Aidan
asked, mainly to break the silence they’d held for hours. He wasn’t
certain Farrell would answer.


I’ll do.”

He tried again. “When we get to Cork,
I’ll get us some decent clothes and shoes for the trip. At least
we’ve extra money to do that.”

She kept her eyes on the road in front
of her. “We should have left a bit with Tommy and Clare to help
them along. Now they have Liam and your da to look after as well as
their own.”


And how would they be
spending it? Everyone knows we’re poor as dirt. If Clare bought
something from the butcher in Skibbereen, or even a dram of tea at
the pub, it would lead the authorities right back to the family and
Michael’s death. They’re no worse off than before, and Liam will
get the crop planted.”

Farrell trudged along in silence for a
moment. Then she said, “I wish I could have done something for
them. God knows if they’ll be all right.”


Aye, well, getting out of
Ireland is the biggest favor we can do them. He kicked at a rock in
his path, silently adding,
and taking you
with me is the biggest favor I can do for you
.

Convincing Farrell of that was going
to be the trick.

CHAPTER TWO

By mid-afternoon Farrell was starving
and exhausted. Her feet were stiff with cold, her stockings wet.
Aidan had not said a word for hours, and she wasn’t sure if that
was good or not, but she couldn’t think about it. She was capable
of only a single task right now—putting one foot in front of the
other.

An hour before dawn, they’d stopped to
rest in the shelter of the ruins of a roofless abandoned cottage.
Two of its walls, at right angles to each other, provided a corner
that was out of the wind, but not the cold. Farrell had slipped
into a restless doze but it seemed that only a minute had passed
before she felt Aidan’s hand on her shoulder to wake her. She
didn’t think either of them had slept more than a few hours in the
last twenty-four.

Despite that, Aidan seemed tireless,
like a machine. His rhythmic stride was longer than hers and
sometimes she fell behind. Wordlessly, he’d slow to let her catch
up. Otherwise he remained a dark, intimidating presence beside
her.

The miles stretched out behind them
and ahead of them. Above, the clear sky was giving way to clouds
again, obscuring the watery winter sun. They’d encountered no rider
or foot traveler since they set out, but she noticed Aidan
constantly scanning the road and the far hills, like a wolf
sniffing the wind.

Farrell herself looked over her
shoulder from time to time, half expecting to see one of the
Cardwells or a British soldier gallop up behind them at any moment,
lashing his mount and tearing up the soggy turf like one of the
Four Horsemen. If trouble came, it wouldn’t sneak up on them, that
was certain.

She had only a vague idea of how far
away Queenstown was. It was somewhere near the city of Cork, she
knew, but the distance didn’t matter. They had to get
there.

Walking away from Skibbereen was the
hardest thing she’d ever done. The family—even old Sean and the
children—had stood outside Tommy’s tiny cottage to bid them
farewell.

She tried to take comfort from Father
Joseph’s parting words, that should the family never see each other
again here on earth, they would meet in heaven. Perhaps it was
true, but that time was far away and right now she had banishment
and this husband to deal with.

Husband . . . husband . . . husband . . . 

Every step seemed to echo the word in
her mind to remind her that he was more than Aidan O’Rourke,
someone she’d known all her years. More than the boy who’d given
and gotten his share of black eyes. Someone else besides the man
who could hold the attention of a group with his
story-telling.

Yes, Aidan was all of those men. But
above all else he was now Farrell’s husband, and she could scarcely
credit how quickly it had happened.

As she dragged one leaden foot after
another, her thoughts were detached and her heart heavy. Her memory
of the night’s hasty doings—plans whispered in near darkness and
executed in secrecy—were like still life drawings, blurred by her
heartache and disillusionment. She remembered the priest arriving
at the cottage, bringing in the cold night on his cloak. He’d knelt
beside Michael in the flickering firelight to anoint him, touching
oil to his closed eyes and lips, to his feet and stiffening hands
while he murmured prayers in Latin. It had all seemed unreal, as
though she were watching through a window and wasn’t a part of the
scene.

But stark reality jolted her when she
had been called to stand next to Aidan to face Father Joseph. This
hurried, secret ceremony was not the wedding she’d hoped for in her
feminine heart. She had always envisioned a bright, clean spring
day with a gathering of neighbors and family to wish her well. She
had even imagined the impossible—a gleaming white wedding gown. No
Irish Catholic girl in Skibbereen had ever worn such a gown for her
wedding. They were far too poor for such luxury. But she’d once
caught a glimpse of a wealthy landowner’s daughter riding by in a
coach dressed in a white silk dress, festooned with flounces of
tulle. On her head, she’d worn a veil as fine as a spider web, and
altogether, looked like a fairy princess. Next to her had sat her
new husband, and Farrell had stood beside the road, staring in awe
at the fabulous spectacle.

Of course, there had been no wedding
gown for Farrell. She had changed from the torn uniform into her
own dress, the only one she owned. Aidan wasn’t even the man she’d
expected to marry. Liam should have been beside her. Over the
miles, she had come to realize that his talk of fair-weather love
had been only a ruse to make her leave so that she’d be safe. He’d
sacrificed his own happiness to protect her.

Fate had given her no choice though,
if she would protect those same neighbors and family. And she must
because they were just as innocent as she. To shield them, she’d
had to take Aidan for her bridegroom, not the sturdily built,
sparely worded Liam with his gentle voice, kind smile, and soothing
ways.

Liam . . . she
loved him. Not with the silly, giddy passion other girls talked of.
Her love for Liam O’Rourke was like the man himself—quiet, steady,
and as dependable as the morning. Her childhood spent with a lazy
drunkard of a father had made her seek a man with Liam’s qualities.
He was everything that Gael Kirwan had not been, and she’d been
drawn to him because of that and his noble spirit.

Farrell had been betrothed to him when
she turned twenty and in the past two years he’d exhibited no
behavior that made her feel silly or giddy. She didn’t even know
for sure what other girls meant when they giggled about hot-blooded
men with even hotter hands, but it concerned her that they’d often
been speaking of Aidan.

She swallowed hard and clenched her
hands in her damp skirt, wondering dizzily how she’d landed in this
awful fix.

Oh, Aidan knew all about women, of
that she was certain. It had been whispered over the years that
Father Joseph talked to him more than once about his fast ways with
the lasses. Farrell couldn’t deny that he was handsome—he turned
women’s heads wherever he went, even in church.

She cast a sidelong glance at him. He
towered over her. Long-legged and broad across the shoulders, he
was much more intense than his brother. He had a fine, straight
nose and a firm chin, and large eyes that seemed to cut right
through a person to look into their heart and soul. Despite the
circumstances and the solemnity of the night, a combination of
maleness, passion, and vital spirit had pulsed from him in waves
that vibrated through her on a primitive level she did not
recognize.

But what she remembered most was one
question Father Joseph had asked her.


Farrell Kirwan, do ye
promise to love, honor, and obey Aidan O’Rourke as your
husband?”

Honor

Obey

A husband could force a woman to do
these things. He could demand that his meals be served at a certain
time, that she defer to him in all matters, even that she submit to
him in his bed. And Aidan, iron-willed and fervent, very well might
expect all of these and more.

BOOK: The Irish Bride
4.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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