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Authors: Jeanette Baker

Nell

BOOK: Nell
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Copyright

Copyright © 1999, 2012 by Jeanette Baker

Cover and internal design © 2012 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover design © Vivian Ducas

Cover image © Bridgeman Art Library

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410

(630) 961-3900

Fax: (630) 961-2168

www.sourcebooks.com

Originally published in 1999 by Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data is on file with the publisher.

One

County Down, Northern Ireland, 1972

In Jillian's mind, Francis Maguire would forever be associated with the pungent, woolly smell of wet dog. It never occurred to her that it was the slightest bit unusual for the closed-in world of the Kildare kennel to evoke images of a boy's callused palms and defined calf muscles, of his thin, sun-browned hands and rich, healing voice, of black hair and winter-gray eyes, of warmth and giving and all that she'd ever known of acceptance and compassion and sharing. Considering the privileged circumstance of Jilly's birth and the underprivileged one of Frankie's, the way she felt was beyond unusual. It was extraordinary.

Jilly's mother, Lady Margaret Fitzgerald, had expressed on more than one occasion, to anyone who would listen, that the seed of her daughter's fascination with the son of a Catholic working-class kennel keeper was rooted in nothing more than the unorthodox manner of their introduction. After all, everyone knew that the Fitzgerald children were crazy for animals, especially sleek gold collie dogs with white bibs and soulful brown eyes, the same dogs that rested in the sweet, prickly hay of the Kildare kennels, raced through the long grass of the Kildare boglands, and slept at the feet of generations of Kildare masters.

Others took one look at the archangel beauty of Frankie's features, and another at the bunched muscles of his lean, spare body with its promise of height and breadth of shoulder, and stroked their chins. They watched the way his hands caressed the flanks of a trembling collie, imagined what those hands would be like several years later on another, quite different kind of body, and drew their own conclusions.

The truth behind the children's symbiotic attraction to each other lay somewhere within the core of them, a remote gene that had transferred itself from generation to generation, occasionally hidden but always there, through thousands of years of Maguire and Fitzgerald ancestors, to germinate in the minds and hearts of two children who were the best of those who had gone before.

Jilly, the long-awaited daughter of Pyers and Margaret Fitzgerald, was born with a penchant for fairness and a keen sensitivity entirely missing from most of her class and certainly from her generation of Fitzgeralds. It was only natural that a child like Jilly, craving acceptance and answers and finding none, should be drawn to a boy who had both. That she was rich and he poor meant nothing. The Catholic/Protestant thing meant even less. While Jilly was impetuous, needle-sharp, and completely without prejudice, Frankie was deliberate, compassionate, and tirelessly patient with the small girl whose indefatigable questions nearly pushed him over the edge of tolerance.

Their unusual relationship began in the middle of a rainstorm. It was an unusual wetting for the farm country of middle Ireland, more typical of the drenching sheets that battered the cliffs of Galway, pounded the minerals from the soil, and left the exposed western coast nearly uninhabitable by all but stone-faced fishermen, descendants of Viking raiders who had pillaged and raped and left their height, their love for the sea, and their distinctive ice-flecked blue eyes in every family who hailed from the western isles.

Jilly had wandered down to the creek, nearly a mile from the house, when she felt the first of the raindrops. A mewling sound from the woods stopped her from turning back toward the house. After pushing her way through thick undergrowth, she climbed the bank and found fourteen-year-old Guinevere, her father's favorite collie, caught in a poacher's trap. Jilly could see that the dog was close to death. There was no time to find help.

Using a tree branch as leverage, she worked at the trap, wedging the wood under the metal jaws, pushing and straining and grunting, tears of frustration rolling down her cheeks. Again and again she plied the trap until blood seeped from the torn blisters forming on her palms. “Nell!” she cried, sobbing in earnest now. “Nell, where are you? I need help. Please, find me!”

I'm here
, a voice called out,
behind
you.

Jilly turned toward the sound. Walking toward her through the slanting rain was a girl, about fifteen or so, dressed in leather trews and a full-sleeved white blouse. She did not appear at all affected by the weather.

She knelt beside the dog.
What
happened?

Jilly struggled to control her tears. “It's Guinevere. She's caught, and I can't free her.”

Nell ran practiced hands over the dog's gaunt rib cage. Then she examined the trap.
This
is
dreadful. How does it work?

Jilly looked startled. “Haven't you seen a trap before?”

Not
like
this.

“There's no way to release it unless you pry the mouth apart. I'm not strong enough by myself. Both of us could manage it, I think.”

Let's give it a try, shall we?

Jilly nodded and held out the branch. “If you wedge it open, I can pull Gwenny's paw out.”

Choosing a spot near the dog's injured paw, Nell worked the branch between the metal jaws and bore down. The mouth widened enough for Jilly to lift the paw free.

Nell released her hold on the wood, and the trap snapped together again.
There
now. We should get the two of you home.

Rain, cold and sharp as ice-tipped needles, sliced through Jilly's Aran sweater and the dog's matted fur. Miraculously, Nell was not the slightest bit wet. She smiled encouragingly, slid her arms under the injured animal, and effortlessly lifted her from the ground.

Even under the best of conditions, a girl Nell's size would have struggled under the weight of a full-grown collie. Laboring uphill through what was now a barrage of falling water should have rendered it nearly impossible.

Jilly, arms aching and throat burning, led the way, stumbling through the trees and across the meadow, wondering how it was that Nell always appeared at just the right time, somehow managing the impossible. “Please, God, don't let Gwenny die,” she whispered. “Please don't let her die.”

The words became her refrain, forcing her numbed legs forward against a wind that ripped through fields, flinging boulders, felling trees, and sweeping her back half as many steps as she moved forward. Jilly could never say how long she walked under that icy rain. It could have been minutes or hours. She only knew that somewhere, before she reached Kildare House, Nell had given her Guinevere and that she had stumbled into the kennel, a sodden, wild-eyed girl clutching a half-dead collie against her chest as if it were a child.

Frankie was alone, filling in for his father who had taken the train to Newry. He took one horrified look at the little girl and another at the dog in her arms and decided against voicing the questions forming on his lips. Instantly, he crossed the floor, extricated the animal from Jilly's arms, and carried her to an empty stall. “Call your father,” he said tersely, laying the dog on a blanket.

“He's not home.”

Frankie swore under his breath, remembered the child, and controlled himself. “Find some milk, eggs, and brandy,” he said, automatically moving toward the medicine cabinet, “and tell your mother to get the vet right away.”

Jilly gulped and rubbed her cheek with a filthy hand, leaving a peat-colored smear. “She's not home, either. Nell says no one can get across the bridge in this rain, but I'll call anyway.”

He barely heard her. After setting the kettle to boil, he pulled out several clean cloths, a roll of gauze, and a tube of ointment. Overhead, the lights flickered twice and went out. This time Frankie made no effort to curb his language. Cursing fluently, he pulled two oil lamps from the cupboard over the stove and lit the wicks from the gas flame. The refrigerator ran on a generator. He opened the door, found a bottle of antibiotic, added it to his supplies, and poured boiling water into a bowl. The dog was still unconscious. Frankie knelt by her side and began cleaning the gnawed and wounded paw. He sensed rather than heard Jilly slip back through the door.

“Did you bring everything?” he asked, his eyes intent on his task.

“Yes.”

“Is the vet coming?”

“He said he would try. No one knows if the bridge is out.”

Frankie nodded and tied up the bandage. The dog didn't move.

“Will she live?” Jilly whispered.

“I don't know. She's lost a lot of blood.” He nodded at the bag in her hand. “I'll take that. You stay here. Touch her if you want. Dogs are like people. They need to be touched. I'll mix up some medicine.”

Too miserable to speak, Jilly nodded and reached out hesitantly to stroke the beautiful narrow head of her father's champion breeder.

Frankie moved about the kennel, cracking eggs, pouring milk, mixing in brandy, sugar, and medicine. After dipping his finger into the mixture, he tasted it, poured in more brandy, and carried it to the stall where Jilly waited.

She watched as the boy lifted the collie's head and spooned the liquid into her mouth. The dog's long jaw remained slack, and the medicine drooled out. Again, Frankie tried, and still again.

Tears pooled in Jilly's eyes. “Please,” she begged. “Please drink, Gwenny.”

Frankie looked at the small girl. The glow from the lanterns rested on her hair. She was dirty and wet and most likely colder than a banshee's curse. But she cared nothing for herself, only for the dog. Frankie's eyes narrowed. It wasn't the expensive prize-winning collie that the child mourned. Guinevere was her pet, an old and beloved family friend.

Setting his jaw, Frankie redoubled his efforts. He wrapped the blanket around the weakened body, handed the bowl to Jilly, and lifted the dog into his lap. Cradling the delicate head in his hands, he rubbed her jowls. “Spoon it into her,” he ordered, caressing her throat over and over.

Jilly lifted the bowl and tilted it into the dog's mouth. Frankie stroked and stroked, coaxed and whispered, until at last the tight muscles relaxed and the dog gulped. A low moan came from Jilly's throat. She burst into tears and threw herself at Frankie, wrapping her arms around his chest and shoulders, burying her face in his neck, careful not to disturb the dog in his arms.

Rigid with shock and embarrassment, Frankie forced himself to remain completely still. He was fourteen years old and couldn't remember the last time anyone had hugged him. His mother was dead, and the relationship he had with his father and sister, although loving, did not include displays of physical affection. The boneless feel of the small girl's body, the way she melted against him, warmly damp, needy, and terrifyingly intimate, disturbed him. He had never before set eyes on Jillian Fitzgerald, but he knew that tomorrow, when her flood of emotion had run its course, she would regret that the son of her father's kennel keeper had seen her cry. He responded in the only way he knew how, by pretending that it wasn't happening.

Moments passed, and Jilly's tears continued to flow. Frankie's self-control was near its breaking point. Something had to be done. Awkwardly, he lifted his hand and rested it against her head. “Easy, lass,” he said softly, stroking the silky hair. “Don't take on so. She'll be all right now.”

Finally, under the magic of his slow-moving hand, her sobs turned to sniffles and then to hiccups. “You saved her,” she said at last. “All by yourself, you saved her.”

“I don't know about that. Who was it that brought the eggs and spirits? And who poured it down her throat? Who carried her back here to Kildare House?”

“I brought the eggs and spirits, but Nell carried her all the way to the gate.”

Frankie smiled into her hair. “You and Nell saved her. She wouldn't be here without the two of you.”

Jilly lifted her head to look at him. If it made him happy to think she'd helped, she wouldn't contradict him. “What's your name?”

“Francis Maguire. Frankie, if you like.”

“How do you know so much about sick dogs?”

Frankie shrugged. “My father taught me. Some things I taught myself by treatin' animals that no one thought would survive.”

“Will you become a kennel keeper like your father?”

It was an innocent question. Jilly had no idea what she'd done wrong, but she knew instantly that her new friend was offended.

“I'm going to become a veterinarian.”

Jilly pressed her hands together reverently. “That's wonderful. Perhaps I'll become one as well, and we can work together.”

He stiffened, wondering if she was mocking his aspirations. Staring into the guileless eyes, he decided that she was sincere. “I've never heard of a woman veterinarian,” he began cautiously. “You're no bigger than a minute. How could you possibly move large animals around?”

“I'm only ten. I'll grow.”

For the first time that day, Frankie grinned. “I expect you will.” He held out his hand to clasp hers. “We'll set up practice together.”

Jilly beamed. He was really very nice. She admired the lovely lilting way he spoke. “I like you very much, Frankie Maguire. Will you come to the house for tea?”

His face flamed, and suddenly the words that flowed from him so comfortably refused to form. “Nnnuh-nnnuh-nuh tha-tha-thank you,” he stammered desperately.

Jilly's forehead wrinkled. Why did he look like that? Everything had been going so well. “I'll go inside, then, and come back later with your tea,” she said at last. “You can't go home until the rain stops.”

Frankie relaxed. She didn't expect him to go up to the manor house and sit down to tea after all. “Thank you, miss, for thinkin' of me,” he said formally.

She stood in the doorway, framed by sheets of slanting rain. “Call me Jilly, and it is we who are in your debt, Francis Maguire.”

Frankie stared at the door for a long time. The small girl with the fawn-colored hair had unsettled him. He had never spoken with a woman outside his own class, and he wondered if she was typical of hers. He shivered and pulled the dog closer to his chest. It was cold, and with the bridge out, the night was sure to be a long one.

BOOK: Nell
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