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Authors: Alexis Harrington

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BOOK: The Irish Bride
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Very well, then, sir. I
shall do as you ask. I’ll find Aidan O’Rourke and Farrell Kirwan,
and bring them back to Skibbereen.”

CHAPTER THREE

Farrell had asked for no special
treatment. But the day was just an hour from dusk, and except for
an hour or two, they’d been walking since eventide the night
before. She was so footsore and weary, she was about to suggest
that they rest for awhile when Aidan stopped, his gaze fixed on
something up ahead.


Wait,” he said, holding out
his arm to stop her. He drew himself up, alert and wary, and his
caution telegraphed to Farrell. The subject of his scrutiny was a
wagon stopped in the road, pulled by a team of two deep-chested
draft horses. The driver stood bent over the huge hoof of one of
the beasts.

While she hung back, Aidan approached
the man and after a brief conversation, he motioned her
forward.


Farrell, this is Mr.
Stephen Riley. He’s kindly agreed to give us a ride.”

This was welcome news to Farrell.
“Thank you, Mr. Riley. We’ve been walking a long time.”


Pleased to help, missus.
Cork’s miles ahead yet, and this isn’t fit weather for walkin’,”
Riley observed, gesturing at threatening clouds in the western sky.
He was a thin young man, more by natural constitution, it appeared,
than from hunger. He patted the big horses’ necks and climbed up to
the wagon seat. “I think we’ll get into town early tonight. I’ve
room in the back of the cart if ye don’t mind riding with the
butter.”

Both Aidan and Farrell
stared at the cargo as if it were diamonds; butter had been as rare
as gemstones in their lives. The tiny bit that was churned in
the
clachan
was
sold to help pay rents.

Riley explained that he was taking it
to the city to sell for Indian corn for his master’s blooded
horses. How typical of the English, that their horses were more
important than people. She saw Aidan’s face color and his dark
brows lower, and knew his thoughts were running along the same
line. She held her breath, hoping he wouldn’t make a sharp comment
that would change Riley’s mind about giving them a ride.

To her relief, Aidan only thanked the
bailiff and assisted her into the wagon. She felt his warm, strong
hand through her thin shawl as he took her elbow.

Farrell was glad for the chance to
ride, even wedged as she was between the burlap-covered butter
crocks. Her thin shoes protected her feet from the bare ground, but
they were little help in keeping them warm.

As the wagon rolled forward and the
horses found a steady, comfortable gait, the countryside passed at
a somewhat faster pace. Farrell leaned back against a crock, lulled
by the rocking motion, and closed her eyes. She tried not to think
about fresh, hot bread dripping golden butter and smeared with jam,
but it wasn’t easy. Only the knowledge that they’d finally eat in
Cork kept her from prying open one of the crocks and scooping out
handfuls of the churned cream to lick from her fingers.

Despite the turmoil of her thoughts,
she felt Aidan watching her. They sat so close in the little farm
cart, she didn’t dare glance up into his eyes. What would she see
there if she did? Perhaps the same indefinable expression she’d
seen after their wedding. A look that was assessing, possessing,
fathomless. She let her lids close, hoping for rest, and seeking
escape from his dark blue gaze.

Aidan reached behind him to move a
crock that was jabbing his spine, watching Farrell all the while.
He couldn’t help himself—he’d rarely had this perfect opportunity
to study her, and yet he’d wanted to so often. Fatigue and sorrow
were plain in the droop of her narrow shoulders, and in the pale
lavender smudges that sat beneath her lower lashes like the gauzy
light of a winter sunset. Of course she was too thin; he’d be
surprised if she weighed more than seven-and-a-half or eight stone.
As she sat huddled in her rough, threadbare shawl, she was the very
picture of a refugee.

She was the very picture of
Ireland—wounded and grieving and beautiful.

Farrell was the loveliest
woman he’d ever laid eyes on, and now she was his
wife
, a fact which he
kept repeating in his mind because he could scarcely believe it. A
couple of loose russet curls that had escaped their pins fluttered
around her face in the winter wind. Her hands looked rough and
chapped, and he wished he could fix that. He knew that she’d never
lived an easy life. None of them had.

He thought of Noel Cardwell, that
filthy-minded bastard, pawing Farrell, his behavior so crude and
barbaric that he’d torn her dress, and the hot blood of anger
flooded his veins. Thank God she’d gotten away before Cardwell
could do more. Now Aidan would be able to protect her and keep her
safe from men like that strutting peacock who lived at Greensward
Manor.

The wagon hit a rut, jolting the
vehicle’s contents and passengers. Farrell stirred and her
unguarded gaze connected with his for just an instant. In it he saw
a heart closed as tight as a fist.

Ah, but God was laughing at him again,
he understood bitterly. Aidan had yearned for beautiful Farrell
Kirwan longer than he could remember. And now God had bound her to
Aidan, but it was no marriage made in heaven. With such distrust
and rejection in her eyes, he knew he might never win her
regard.

Marriages had been arranged under less
favorable circumstances, but right now he couldn’t think of one
worse. Aidan had killed her brother, taken her from Liam, and was
about to carry her off to a strange land and an uncertain life on
the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. He shrugged off the thoughts;
Aidan had had no problem winning other women’s hearts—he’d done so
several times. Determination, what his mother had called
pigheadedness, Aidan had in abundance. He and Farrell weren’t off
to the best start, but at least he might be able to make their
destination sound more promising.


When we get to the city
I’ll see after getting us a room. I’ll tell the innkeeper that
we’re newly wed. That way we might get a bed to ourselves instead
of having to share one with a half-dozen other people.”


No!” she blurted, eyes
wide, and then amended, “I mean, should we spend money on a luxury
like that? We might need it for food or
passage . . . ye know.”

Yes, he knew. She didn’t want to be
alone with him. “I think we can spare it, Farrell. Besides, I want
to be able to leave you at the inn while I see about what ships are
bound for America. If we have a room of our own ye’ll be safer
while I’m gone.”

She toyed with the tail of her shawl.
“I suppose.”

Aidan wasn’t prone to useless chatter,
but he was more social than Liam, and the silence between him and
Farrell begged to be filled. To his way of thinking, a woman who
spoke too little was as bad as one who talked too much. He glanced
at Stephen Riley’s back; given the man’s close proximity, he chose
his words carefully.


Last week I heard the
Learys have had a letter from their son, Danny. He’s in Boston, ye
know. He said they have more food than we can imagine—meat,
potatoes, bread, milk, whiskey, and more.” The faint, sweet scent
of the butter around them drifted to his nose, and he gestured at
the cargo. “We’ve never seen so much to eat back here, he said. And
his wife, Bridie, she’s got three dresses and
two
pairs of shoes. There’s good work
in America, and wages to be earned. I’m thinking we’ll try for
Boston or New York.”

Farrell’s face registered a glimmer of
hope. “D’ye think it’s true, or is it more of Danny’s blarney?”
Danny Leary was known to exaggerate from time to time, all in the
interest of making a story “a wee more entertaining.”


Aye, I believe it. He’s not
the only one who’s written back telling of food and work. Some have
even sent a little money for their families.” He fingered the
frayed edge of his coat sleeve. “I don’t think the streets are
paved with gold, as some have said. But it’s a land of plenty over
there.”

And Aidan O’Rourke was determined to
get a share.

* * *

Full night had fallen by the time
Stephen Riley dropped Aidan and Farrell at The Rose and Anchor, a
dockside pub on the River Lee in Cork City. With a nervous flutter
in her chest, Farrell watched the wagon recede into the night. The
warm, yeasty smell of ale wafted from the brightly lit pub. Behind
them the river gave off a sharp tang, of smells she preferred not
to identify, yet curiously, of fresh, water-borne breezes
too.

She glanced back at the water. As it
lapped against the quays, the coy moon, half hidden by silver-edged
clouds, reflected on its rippling surface like a wavering light on
spilled ink.

Aidan’s eyes were dark with shadow and
caution as he glanced at their surroundings. Although he was a
farmer unaccustomed to the perils of a port city, he plainly
recognized that they were in a rough section of town.

The side streets were coal-black and
sinister, and Farrell felt as if unseen eyes watched them from the
alleys. Apparently Aidan sensed it too. He gripped her elbow in his
strong hand and nudged her toward the pub door. “Come on. Let’s get
something to eat and find lodgings for the night.”

Inside, the smoky room was
surprisingly lively, filled with fierce-looking seamen from London
and Liverpool and Hamburg. In the corner, a hungry-looking man
played a feeble jig on a tin whistle, accompanied by another
scarecrow who beat a bodhrán. The skin of its drumhead was old and
worn to translucency. A few coins lay in a cap at their feet,
apparently tossed there by their mostly inattentive
audience.

Aidan stood in the doorway surveying
the place while the pub’s tough patrons eyed them.


If ye’re lookin’ for a
handout, ye’ve opened the wrong door!” a short, gray-headed hag
barked at them from behind the counter. “This inn serves only
payin’ customers, ’less ye can earn your supper” —she jerked her
chin at the musicians— “which I doubt. And I don’t have any kitchen
scraps for the likes of
you
.” The
bannalanna
was as round as she was
high, with tiny, wide-set porcine eyes, and massive, flabby arms
that were work-reddened from fingertips to elbows. Her nose was
just as red.

The men standing nearby laughed, and
Farrell felt Aidan stiffen.


That’s tellin’m, Katie, old
lass,” one the sailors said, looking up from his ale pot with a dry
expression. He had a long, oiled braid that hung between his
shoulder blades. “Never let it be said ye gave a crust of bread to
charity.”

Indignant, Kate put her red
fists on the rolls of flesh that spilled over her hips. “And where
would I be if I started givin’ out free meals? Out of business,
that’s where. The beggars would be all over this place like flies
on a dead dog.
Phaw!

More laughter ensued, and then the
onlookers trailed off to silence, eager to see what would happen
next.

Farrell hadn’t stopped to think how
she and Aidan looked. Certainly they’d never been well off, but
she’d grown accustomed to their appearance—everyone in Skibbereen
looked the same or worse. Her skirt was carefully mended, but its
hem was as tattered as a rag left to blow in the wind. Aidan had a
dark stubble of beard on his cut, bruised face, and he looked as
worn as his clothes. In all, she supposed they appeared thoroughly
disreputable. At least they weren’t barefoot, as many were in
Ireland.

Aidan took Farrell’s hand and pulled
her with him to the bar. The insults hummed through him like an
electric current which she felt vibrating in his touch. Dear God,
he wouldn’t start trouble in here—he couldn’t. Not with all these
vicious sailors—

The harridan, who stank of garlic and
stale wine at this close range, raked Farrell with her wee piggy
eyes. The undisguised slight brought a hot flush to Farrell’s
cheeks and made her worn skirt and her rough shawl all the more
conspicuous. Suddenly she shared Aidan’s anger and she exchanged a
look with him. Tired as she was, she straightened her spine,
drawing herself to her full height to stare back at the coarse
woman, unflinching.

Aidan leaned across the
counter and in a low, even voice said, “Judging by the looks of
your other customers, I’d say ye can’t always tell whether a man is
a beggar just by his face or dress.” He pulled a coin from his
pocket and put it on the bar between them. “Now I want hot meals
for my wife and me, and then we’ll be wanting a room. A
private
room, not one
that sleeps six to a bed.” The quiet, commanding words left no
doubt of who would have the last say.


Hmph
,” Kate grunted, then plucked up the coin. She clamped it
between what remained of her big yellow-brown molars, presumably to
see if it was genuine, then nodded at the taproom behind them.
“Well, get on with ye to a table, then.” She bellowed into the
kitchen, calling someone named Ann. “I’ll have the girl bring yer
food. You can take room number three upstairs after ye sup.” She
tossed a large iron key across the bar.

With the matter apparently resolved,
conversation around them resumed, and Aidan led Farrell to a corner
table. She sank onto a chair, grateful to be sitting on a
stationary object that didn’t rock, pitch, and rattle her teeth. He
dropped into the seat opposite her, his gaze still surveying the
people around them.

BOOK: The Irish Bride
7.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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