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Authors: Alexis Harrington

Tags: #historical romance irish

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BOOK: The Irish Bride
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She’d glanced around for Liam, hoping
that he would step in at the last moment and stop this ceremony.
But he’d merely looked on and nodded at her.

Returning her gaze to Father Joseph,
she’d opened her mouth but no sound came. Finally, she’d whispered,
“Yes, I promise,” her voice muffled by bewilderment.

There had been no point in
refusing.

But Aidan couldn’t force her to love
him. The human heart did not yield to such pressure.


Then, Aidan, give your wife
the kiss of peace.”

Turning to her, his dark blue eyes had
gleamed in the firelight, reminding Farrell of a cat’s. His lips
had barely brushed hers, but their heat startled her. The same
feeling she’d had earlier, that Aidan saw her as his own, now and
always, rushed over her again.

He was accustomed to having his way
when he could get it, she knew. And he wasn’t likely to take “no”
for an answer from anyone without a fight, especially from his
wife.

Farrell did not think of herself as a
cowardly woman. With hunger and oppression constant threats in good
times and bad, a coward could not survive in Ireland.

She took another glance at the lean,
powerful man slogging along beside her. When she had run home to
escape Noel Cardwell, she’d believed herself to be more afraid than
she’d ever been in her life or ever would be again. She knew she
might face arrest or some other punishment that he might care to
visit upon her. Now she realized there were far worse prisons than
the kind with iron bars and that she’d just been condemned to one.
Not for just a few months, or even for a few years.

But for life.

* * *

Noel Cardwell sat in the dark-paneled
study at Greensward Manor, rolling a drained brandy glass between
his hands. Behind the huge mahogany desk, Lord Arthur Cardwell
studied his account book, a thick, leather-bound ledger where he
kept track of his tenants’ rent payments.

Regardless of the duels he had fought,
the women he’d bedded, the horse races he had won, and all the
other manly pursuits in which he excelled, in this room, Noel
always felt as if he were twelve years old again. Twelve years old
and brought here because of some prank or misdeed that his
humorless father would not abide. Nothing Noel had ever done had
pleased the dictatorial old man; they seemed to be on opposite
sides of all issues. Now he did his best to keep from fidgeting in
his chair and believed he was making a proper job of it. Not an
easy task considering the subject of this meeting, although nearly
all conversations with his lordship were enough to drive a man to
the brandy decanter.

The endless tick of the mantle clock
was the only sound in the room, save the dry, papery drag of the
old man’s finger down the column of figures before him. God, to
actually keep one’s own accounts like—like a penny-hoarding
merchant or a factor, toiling over long columns and worrying about
every single shilling. He suppressed a shudder. A true gentleman
hired people to see to such mundane tasks rather than stain his own
fingers with ink, scratching away with his pen. That was why Noel
had hired Michael Kirwan to do his bidding. It had not been the
most sagacious decision, he realized now.

When his father had burdened him with
the tedious responsibility of collecting the rents, Noel forced
himself to stifle a loud, disgusted sigh. As far as he was
concerned, the Irish were nothing but a pack of lazy, drunken,
story-telling bog-trotters. Their circumstances troubled his
conscience not one whit, nor did he mind the feudalistic system
that put money in his pockets for the gaming tables and other
pleasant pastimes. Yes, he enjoyed the income, but Christ, he
didn’t want to be bothered with the grubby collection of
it.

Hiring Michael Kirwan as the estate’s
rent agent had seemed like a brilliant solution. Though younger
than their previous rent agent, he was ambitious and surprisingly
unencumbered with such impediments as sympathy or loyalty to the
rabble that resided on Cardwell land. He knew how the crofters
lived and how their minds worked. And he was anxious to acquire the
same comforts he’d seen at Greensward Manor. One could almost
forget that Kirwan himself came from those same people. Or at least
forgive him for it.

But even more importantly, his sister
was Farrell Kirwan. Perhaps she, more than any other consideration,
had influenced Noel’s decision. He rarely paid any attention to the
peasants living on the Cardwell acreage. The men were shiftless and
brawling, and their women were threadbare old hags by the time they
reached their twenties, due to constant childbearing and carping at
their shiftless, brawling men. Farrell was different, though. He’d
heard that she was betrothed to one of the O’Rourke brothers, but
that posed no obstacle as far as Noel was concerned. He simply
wanted her and he was accustomed to getting his way. But the
flame-haired beauty was as proud and haughty as a queen despite her
poverty, and she would not speak two words to him. Even when he’d
offered her a kitchen maid’s position here in the manor house—a
significant step up from the rabbit warren she lived in—she had
looked as if she would spit on him, right then and there. She had
brushed past him with her chin up and head held high. Her
disdainful rejection had only made him more determined to have
her.

Noel had hoped that her brother
Michael would be able to change her mind. Indeed, Michael had
finally convinced Farrell to work at the manor house, and Noel had
envisioned that she was at last under his thumb. Still she had
resisted his attentions, and yesterday had committed the
unforgivable offense of actually striking him when he’d tried to
kiss her in the library, the ungrateful wench. Oh, yes, bringing
the Kirwans on board had seemed like a sterling idea.

Until now.

Now, Farrell Kirwan had insulted him
and rent money had gone missing. Noel found himself in a highly
disagreeable position. Damn that Michael Kirwan for what he was, a
thief and a liar, and ultimately no better than the peasants he’d
come from. Damn his sister for being an irresistible jade who’d
gotten into his head and his blood. He wished he were in London,
far from this place of rock wall mazes and perpetual green gloom,
where his breeding, and skills with gaming and horses would be put
to much better use.

Despite the clock that marked its
passing, time seemed to have stopped. God’s eyes, would his father
speak or was Noel to be kept here, waiting and wondering how much
his lordship knew? He rose to help himself to another
brandy.


Sit
down.”

Noel almost obeyed the command but
decided that to do so would be a small battle lost. Instead, he
continued casually to the liquor cabinet and refilled his glass
from the crystal decanter. He felt his father’s stone-gray eyes
boring into his back at this defiance but did not hurry his
actions. At last he took his seat again.

At some length, Lord Cardwell slammed
shut his ledger with enough force to make Noel jump. A splash of
brandy sloshed over the rim of his glass and landed on his
well-tailored trousers.


Do you know why I gave you
the task of collecting the tenants’ rents?” his father asked,
glaring at the drink in Noel’s hand.

Noel shrugged and glanced at Lord
Cardwell’s ink-stained fingers. “I assumed you were tired of seeing
to it yourself.”

The older man pressed his lips into a
tight, white line that looked more like a scar than a mouth, and a
faint blue vein throbbed in his temple. “I did it so you would have
a sense of what it means to oversee an estate, because someday all
of this” —he gestured at the room and the grounds beyond the
windows— “will be your responsibility. I wanted you to realize that
the money you spend so freely doesn’t fall from the sky like rain.”
He gestured at the ledger. “Your records are not only
incomprehensible, I would say they suggest fraud. You have cheated
your own family.”

Noel jumped to his feet, quivering
with indignation and insult. “I have done no such thing,
sir!”

Unruffled, Lord Cardwell continued.
“No? Then where is the rent money that should have been noted here?
More than one hundred pounds seem to have vanished. What has become
of it?”

Gathering his injured dignity, Noel
began, “The rent agent must have—”


Ah, yes, the rent agent.
One Michael Kirwan, I believe. Just yesterday I had a warrant
issued for his arrest. What a pity I could not have issued a
warrant for you as well.”

Stung and bearing haughty offense like
a shield, Noel said, “I supervised his every move, Father! He
reported to me on a regular basis.”


Yes, at the pub in town, as
I understand it, where you both drank and gambled and bedded the
serving wenches.” Lord Cardwell sat back and folded his hands. “I
can imagine what kind of report that generated.” He went on to
recite the extent of Kirwan’s activities with regard to keeping the
rents and evicting tenants. “I also understand that you hired
Kirwan’s sister, and that she was seen running from here yesterday
with her dress half-torn off after escaping your attentions.
Really, Noel, what a clumsy lack of finesse you exhibited. And for
all I know, the sister might have been complicit with your rent
agent. Have you checked to see if anything is missing? The silver?
Valuable artifacts?”

Noel felt his father’s withering
disapproval now more than ever before. Worse, he realized that his
father knew even more than he’d suspected.


And now Kirwan is dead,
killed in a fight by that firebrand, Aidan O’Rourke—”


What? Kirwan is dead?”
Noel’s dignity slipped again and he felt his jaw drop.

His father looked pleased
with the effect of this news. “Well, perhaps that’s one report you
didn’t receive. He went to the O’Rourkes’ yesterday to evict them
and knock down their cottage. He scuffled with Aidan and
they
say
he hit
his head on a rock. He died instantly. One of Kirwan’s henchmen
blabbered the story around town. The authorities are searching
O’Rourke as we speak.”

Noel jumped on this news, hoping to
use it to reflect the glare of the problem away from himself. “But
that’s good! The worthless, murdering guttersnipe.”


Except that I don’t believe
they’ll find him. One of my men says he’s been spotted on the road
heading to Queenstown.”


Then surely the authorities
will track him down as well. We’ve only to wait for them to bring
him back.”

Lord Cardwell leaned forward over his
desk blotter. “You began this task, Noel. I expect you to finish
it.”


Me! And just how am I to
‘finish it?’ ”


You will bring back
O’Rourke yourself.”

God, but this was too much. “Surely
you can’t expect me to ride about the countryside like a constable,
searching through shrubbery and under rocks! If you don’t believe
the authorities will find him, why do you think I will?”


Because until you return
with the man who cheated me out of the satisfaction of seeing
Michael Kirwan clapped in irons, your debts will go unpaid. And
quite a stack you have, too.” He reached into a side drawer of his
desk and produced a sheaf of bills. Leafing through them, he
recited, “Tailor, haberdasher, bootmaker, wine merchant—I will tell
all of them to find
you
for payment. It should be interesting, don’t you
think? The hounds chasing the hunter?”

Noel felt the blood drain from his
face. “You wouldn’t do that.”

His father’s shoulders drooped
slightly. “I’ve been waiting for you to grow up for years, Noel. I
was twenty-three, two years younger than you, when I took over this
estate. Your grandfather was deranged and nearly bankrupt when he
died and had let this place go to ruin while he followed the same
useless pursuits that you do—gaming, women, drinking, and
indolence. I’ve worked hard to bring it back to its present state.”
His cold, glittering eyes fixed on Noel’s. “But I swear to you,
before I die I’ll burn the manor house to the ground and evict
every tenant on the land if I think you’ll wreck it again. If you
mean to inherit anything from me in the future, you’ll do as I say
now.”

Noel drained his brandy glass, barely
restraining the urge to take a bite from the crystal. What a
galling situation he found himself in.

His lordship nodded, obviously
accepting Noel’s silence for acquiescence. “They say O’Rourke is
traveling with a red-haired woman. That might slow him down.” Noel
started. It could be any woman, he told himself. Certainly Ireland
had no shortage of redheaded people and O’Rourke’s reputation with
women was no secret in any quarter. But his father’s next words
removed all doubt. “The same man who saw O’Rourke believed the
woman is Kirwan’s sister. So you can bring her back as
well.”

Kirwan’s sister. Why on earth would
she be traveling with Aidan when she was supposed to marry his
brother? Under any other circumstances, Noel would have refused to
do this incredibly menial job, his father’s disapproval be damned.
But this might be a good way to accomplish two deeds: to win his
father’s favor, although why that desire continued to plague Noel
after all these years remained a mystery even to him, and to
finally have Farrell Kirwan exactly where he wanted her—in his
bed.

BOOK: The Irish Bride
10.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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