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Authors: Alexis Harrington

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The Irish Bride

BOOK: The Irish Bride
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1
THE IRISH BRIDE

by

Alexis Harrington

Copyright © 2003 by Alexis
Harrington

www.alexisharrington.com

Smashwords Edition

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CHAPTER ONE

February 1855

County Cork,
Ireland

Fear made Farrell Kirwan want to run
the all the way home, but the road was slick with mud and she’d
already fallen once. She hurried along as quickly as she could, her
side aching with the effort, her throat burning from her dry, raspy
breathing.

Now and then she glanced
over her shoulder to see if
he
was following her, but in the pale winter
twilight, she saw no one. She pulled her shawl closer against the
chill, but it wasn’t long enough to cover both her head and the
ragged tear in the front of her uniform that reached from neck to
waist.

The housemaid’s job at Greensward
Manor paid nine pounds per year, money the family was desperate
for. But nothing was worth this humiliation. No amount could force
her to endure Noel Cardwell’s rough, proprietary groping, and at
last she’d slapped him. It had been a spontaneous, foolish act on
her part, she knew, but she had only to glance at her worn chemise
gaping from between the raw edges of her bodice to know that given
the chance, she would have done the same again.

It was bad enough that her brother
Michael worked for the Lord Arthur Cardwell and his son Noel,
collecting rents from his own friends and family, and evicting them
when the couldn’t pay. Then Michael had talked her into accepting
the servant’s position. If she went to work at Greensward Manor,
he’d told her, she could escape their cousin’s overcrowded cottage.
With time, hard work, and a pleasant smile for Noel, she might
climb the domestic hierarchy to special assignments and privilege.
Farrell was innocent but she was no fool. A smile alone wouldn’t
gain privileges from a man like Noel Cardwell. At least not the
kind she wanted. As it had turned out, she’d been right. He’d begun
baiting her with his lewd innuendos her first week there. These
he’d followed with the occasional brush of a hand against her leg
or her posterior, always with no witnesses. Despite her attempts to
discourage him, the situation had worsened. This afternoon, he’d
trapped her in the library and assaulted her. It had been more than
she would stand. She realized now that she never should have
accepted the position at all.

But in a tiny house overflowing with
children and three adults, her cousin Clare had grown increasingly
short-tempered. Her husband Tommy had muttered about all the mouths
he had to feed, never failing to glance at Farrell when he said it.
Until she and Liam O’Rourke could marry, Farrell had felt the
servant’s job was her only option, even though the family had
raised a great fuss when she’d announced her intentions.

She turned again to look behind her.
Was that a figure on the road behind her in the gathering
nightfall? Maybe not. The purpling dusk played tricks on her eyes,
making her heart thump even harder in her chest. Certainly,
Cardwell would not let this offense go unpunished. She’d seen the
cold look of implicit retaliation in his eyes as clearly as she’d
seen the red imprint of her hand on his cheek.

Finally reaching the little valley
that was home to what remained of a dozen families, she staggered
to a stop when she came upon the pile of rocks and thatch that only
yesterday had been the cottage her betrothed Liam and his brother
Aidan shared with their father, Sean. It had been standing when
she’d come home to visit on her half day off.

Farrell swallowed and swallowed, but
her throat was so dry it felt as if the sides were stuck together.
She stared at the ruins, stunned, disbelieving. A jumble of broken
furniture lay amid the rubble. Scores of footsteps had churned the
mud in the yard into a sucking morass. She’d seen this kind of
destruction before, just last week in fact, when the McCreadys had
been evicted—

When Michael had evicted
them.

Michael’s horse was tied to the
bare-limbed tree in front of the debris. Please no, don’t let this
be Michael’s doing, God, please— She turned to run along the road
toward home, her zigzagging lope like that of a panicked man drunk
on poteen.

A gray, eerie stillness hung over the
cottages she passed. Usually dogs and barefoot children all
scampered back and forth over the green, rocky turf. Here and there
she saw a mouse or a bird, but except for the smoking chimneys, she
would have thought the valley was deserted.

She ran to Clare’s tiny house with
footsteps that skidded on the mud. Gripping the torn edges of
bodice with a shaking hand, she pushed open the door. There she
found the family standing in a tight circle with their heads bowed,
as if in prayer. The bleakness outside turned to vaguely palpable
tension in here.

She recognized the three O’Rourke
brothers, Liam, Aidan, and Tommy. The last stood with his arm
looped over Clare’s narrow shoulders. Even their children were
crowded into the circle in the corner. Sean O’Rourke lay on a
pallet by the fire. As a group, they jumped at her
entrance.


Auntie Farrell,”
five-year-old Sheelagh wailed. Her thin cheeks wet with tears, the
little girl ran across the room and hid her face in Farrell’s
skirts. The other children began sobbing with her.


Christ
, Farrell, ye gave us a turn!” Tommy exhaled, turning to look
at her. His own face was the shade of new plaster, making his
rust-colored hair all the more striking. “What are ye doing here?”
he demanded sharply. “I thought you’d cast your lot with Lord
Cardwell, just like your turncoat brother.”


Tommy!” Clare snapped at
her husband. Holding baby Timothy on her arm, she broke from her
husband’s grip and left the circle. She eyed Farrell’s torn dress.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph—what’s happened to ye, then?”

Farrell felt her face flood with heat.
“Um, Noel Cardwell, he, well . . . ”

Aidan turned and gave her a sharp,
curious look. He would, she thought, the lady’s man of the family.
The one who got into fights and drank and gambled.

Liam stepped closer. “Farrell, are ye
all right? Did he hurt you?”


No, I got away before he
could more than rip my dress.”

Clare nodded, tight-lipped. “So ye
came to see that the blackguard is as rotten as a barrel of old
apples, did you? Didn’t I tell you not to have anything to do with
him? Didn’t I beg ye to stay here instead of going off to be a
servant to the Cardwells?”

Farrell refrained from mentioning that
Clare and Tommy had also carped about the extra mouth they had to
feed with her living there. “I thought the money would
help.”


Aye, well, it took
Cardwell, what, just two months to reveal his true intentions? And
what did you do?”


I slapped him and ran
home.”

Clare and Tommy both groaned. “Oh,
God—haven’t we enough trouble on our hands?” Tommy asked. “That
should turn over the final spade of earth for our
graves.”


What? Why?” Farrell’s heart
began thudding heavily in her chest again. Something was wrong. In
her own panic, she hadn’t paid much attention to the charged
atmosphere in the room, believing she’d brought it with her when
she ran in. Now, she nudged Sheelagh out of her way and stepped
closer, trying to see past the men’s shoulders. “What’s happened?”
The group parted long enough for Farrell to glimpse something—or
someone—on the floor at their feet before they closed
ranks.

Clare shut the door. She’d been pretty
in her youth but now she looked careworn and older than her years,
as though she rarely slept. “There’s been an accident.”


Accident?” Someone was
dead, someone must be dead.
Dear God, I’m
begging you, don’t let it be Michael’s doing, please—

Liam took her elbow. “Aye, lass,
there’s nothing else to call it, and nothing to be done. When
Michael hit his head—hush, weans, so I can be hearing myself—” he
said to the crying youngsters. Their tears slowed to sniffles and
whimpers.

Farrell pulled free of Liam’s grip and
pushed her way between Aidan and Tommy. A familiar, well-dressed
form lay on the floor, the head covered with a piece of old
sacking. She jerked the cloth away to find Michael’s lifeless,
blue-gray face.

At the sight the children began
howling again.


Michael!” Farrell dropped
to her knees beside her brother and touched his chin with a shaking
hand. Beneath his head, a small pool of blood spread over the floor
like a crimson halo. Anguish stole most of her voice. “H-how did it
happen?”

There was a shuffling of
feet and clearing of throats, but no answer to her question.
Annoyed by their dithering, she looked up at the men.

How?
Don’t any of
ye know?”


Aye, Farrell. I know. And I
think you do, too.” Aidan O’Rourke, dark-haired and wide-shouldered
in a family of reedy redheads, was the only one who would meet her
gaze. He hunkered beside her. His upper lip and left brow bore
nasty cuts, and a purple bruise swelled his jaw.

Even before he spoke again, Farrell
guessed what he was about to say. Images flashed through her mind
like the rapidly turning pages of a picture book—of Aidan and
Michael, always arguing, circling each other like two he-goats,
even as children. How they had hated each other. Senselessly,
ceaselessly. She had never understood why. More than once she’d
heard Aidan wish her brother dead, and Michael cast the same curse
upon Aidan. And now it had come to pass—one of them was dead.
Michael, her brother, all that had been left of her immediate
family.


Don’t say it!” she said.
“Please, Aidan, don’t!”


But it’s the truth,
Farrell! He came to
evict
us, and we’ve paid our rent all along! He tore it
down, with the help of his four hired thugs,” he replied, as if
that justified the taking of Michael’s life. “Ye must try to
understand.”


Understand? I know that
Michael earned your hatred, Aidan. But to pay with his life? Did
his death restore your cottage?”


He ordered our da thrown
out into the road—for God’s sake, he put his foot on Da’s back and
wouldn’t let him get up! And he said things I wouldn’t take from
any man. I just—”

Farrell couldn’t look at old Sean
lying on the pallet, and she didn’t want to hear what Michael had
done. It hurt even more. “So you killed him?”

Aidan fell silent suddenly, as if even
he agreed that nothing her brother had done could justify his
actions. He gazed down at Michael’s unnaturally still face, and the
next words were little more than a whisper. “I didn’t kill him. His
bootlicks tried to hold me back—I got these for my trouble.” He
gestured at his injured face. But I lost my senses, and got away
from them. I butted him in the belly, and he fell backward and
cracked his head on a cairn. It was an accident, Farrell, I swear
before God. I never—”

Pain burst inside her, driving out all
caution. Consumed with grief, she drew back and punched Aidan’s
shoulder with all the strength she could put behind her arm. The
sound of it thumped like a rock falling on hard earth, and could be
heard over the sobbing of Clare’s children and their grandfather’s
hacking cough. Then silence blanketed the room.


I don’t want your
explanations! Is fighting all ye know, Aidan O’Rourke?” she
demanded, glaring at him. Her voice broke with anger, and tears
made her throat ache. “I would have talked him out of evicting you,
had you only come for me.”


You think so?” he asked,
his tone sharp and bitter. He stood up and flexed his shoulder, and
she quailed a bit, wondering if he would strike her back. “Then
it’s little ye know about people, lass, if you believe that. I
swear on my mother’s grave, I didn’t mean to hurt your brother. But
I wouldn’t stand by and do nothing while he threw Da into the road
to die, and then put the battering ram to our house because
Cardwell ordered it. Michael
enjoyed
what he did to us, Farrell,
leaving us with no place to live in the dead of winter. He enjoyed
every minute of it. I saw it in his eyes. Him with fancy clothes on
his back and good food in his belly.” Even now, anger overshadowed
the remorse in his eyes. “I couldn’t abide it.”

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