The Irish Castle
The Glenncailty Ghosts, Book 3
Ten Years Earlier
He was milking with his father when the call came. His mother rushed out to the milking parlor, phone in hand. Séan didn’t see her, but felt his father stiffen beside him. He looked up and knew by his mother’s expression that something was wrong.
He joined the search party, leaving his father to finish the dawn milking. A girl from the village had gone missing at Glenncailty Castle. She and some friends had decided to spend the night in Finn’s stable, one of the few relatively intact buildings on the deserted castle grounds, as a daring celebration of the end of their exams. When her friends woke the next morning, the girl was gone.
Twenty men made up the search party. At any other time they would have been a boisterous bunch, talking and telling tales, since everyone knew each other. Cailtytown village was small and close-knit. It was that closeness that kept faces somber and voices hushed as small groups were assigned search quadrants. The girl wasn’t from Cailtytown, but a larger town ten kilometers away, and yet everyone there feared for her as if she was their own. They scoured the grounds all day.
Séan tramped through waist-high weeds as they checked the outbuildings. The main building—the castle—was really three buildings, connected by covered hallways, and had seen many masters, and many uses. The grounds showed that with outbuildings, barns, mews and even a church in architectural styles spanning hundreds of years. By dusk there was nowhere else to look but the castle itself. The search party had dwindled to a few as men headed home to tend to their livelihoods, shaking their heads as they climbed into cars.
There was little hope of finding her alive.
Glenncailty Castle was in the process of falling to disrepair, with stones tumbled from their moorings at the corners of the buildings and upper windows broken or missing. All the past misfortunes associated with it seemed to hover around the massive gray structure like a dreary fog. Séan and a handful of others entered through a broken window on the first floor—the same broken window they assumed the girl had used. The foyer had a black and white stone floor set in a check pattern, though the colors were muted by dirt and dust. In front of him, a grand staircase led up to the second floor. The stairs weren’t original—they were wood with beautifully carved rails and intricate details on the posts. They must have been from one of the castle’s many renovations.
They found her on the first floor of the west wing, which was in the worst shape of the three. A hole in the floor above and the tumble of rotted wood that blanketed her broken body told the story of her death. They’d pulled the boards off her, hoping by some miracle she’d survived.
There was no miracle. The bright young woman was gone, now nothing more than a twisted mess of bone and skin, her eyes open, forever staring at the stone walls.
When the others had taken her body away, Séan stayed, using hammer and nails and scraps of wood to board up any entrance, hoping to stop anyone else from paying a dear price for their curiosity. When the first floor was secure, Séan tapped the hammer against his other hand and looked up at the stairs to the second floor. Though he doubted that anyone would climb the outside of the building to enter through one of the broken windows there, he mounted the steps, planning to close up what he could.
The air grew colder as he mounted the steps, and he could almost see his breath. The stairs under his feet were silent, without a squeak to betray their age.
He circled the second floor of the main building first, boarding up three of the windows. Most of the second floor was taken up with what he assumed was once a ballroom. There was a third floor, but the steps up to it were rotted away. He went back to the ground floor and the covered hall to the two-story east wing. The second floor there was in good shape, with all the windows already boarded up from the inside. Finally he crossed over into the west wing. They’d already done what they could with the first floor, though Séan had left one window uncovered to give himself a way out, since all the doors were chained closed or too old to open. He tried and failed not to look at the spot where the girl’s body had been.
That left only the second floor of this wing, which was a risk since he weighed more than the girl who had clearly fallen through. He climbed the circular stone stairs, feeling the worn places in the center of each tread. It was chillingly cold here, colder even than the second floor of the main wing. At the top of the staircase he found a hallway, the end of which was obscured by ivy, which had grown in through cracks and created a thick green curtain. Séan wondered if that was what the girl had gone to investigate—it was pretty, in a strange, sad way.
For a moment he thought he saw the curtain of ivy move and heard something almost like… He shook his head. There were probably rats in here.
The floor was wood, and he could see the gaping hole where the girl had fallen through. There was no way he could walk in the center, where the wood looked weakest, but he could see that at the edges wood floor was supported by stone. Careful to stay against the wall, where he was walking on wood-atop stone, he inched down the hall to the first door.
The room seemed frozen in in time—silk papered the walls, a small chandelier caught the last rays of sunlight and oilcloth-draped furniture seemed ready to have the covers drawn off. It was a room from a later period in the castle’s history, and one that had survived the neglect and failed renovations that left much of the rest of the castle a stony shell. The windows were intact and closed.
He’d started to pull the door closed when he saw her.
The shimmery gray figure stepped away from the wall. Her hair was long and as white as that of an old woman, though her face was young. She raised her hands toward him, eyes pleading. Séan froze, shocked and disbelieving.
Then the ghost’s face turned hard, her eyes disappearing until there were two gaping dark sockets in her face. Then she raised her hands and raked her nails down her cheeks, seeming to scrape strips of flesh from the bone. Her mouth opened, and kept opening, the gaping maw too large, the jaw dropped down like a snake’s.
He ran. He ran down the stairs and out of the castle, so desperate to escape that he broke a rib as he threw himself out of the one window he’d yet to board up. The sight of that woman in such pain haunted him. He’d run to the area where they’d parked the cars, only to find that everyone but him was gone, off to wake and bury the dead girl. Shaking from what he’d seen, he jumped into his father’s battered farm Jeep and raced home.
His mother was waiting for him with tea and freshly baked bread. She’d already heard they’d found the girl’s body. He’d opened his mouth to tell her what else had happened but stopped, not wanting to alarm her. Instead he’d gone out to the barn, silently rejoining his father as they went about the evening farming chores.
That night, sitting on the old stone fence outside the barn, he told his father what he’d seen. His father, a quiet, strong man, nodded as Séan spoke. He then helped him wrap up his ribs, as neither of them was a stranger to broken bones.
“Tomorrow, we will get help for her,” Séan’s father said.
“The girl who died?”
* * * *
The next day Séan and his father went to the parochial house. With his father sitting at his side, a mug of tea in hand, Séan explained what he’d seen. Their parish priest knew better than to tell anyone from around Glenncailty that ghosts weren’t real. When his tale was done, Séan, his father and the priest went out to the castle, taking care that no one else saw them. It was mid-day, and pale white sunlight made Glenncailty valley glow a lush green. The silvery stones of the castle and the abandoned outbuildings seemed out of place, as if the glen were meant to be nothing but trees and grass, the human presence foreign and wrong.
Séan hesitated as they approached, but a quick look at his father and the priest helped him find his courage. His father climbed in the window that Séan had thrown himself out of the day before. With his help, and that of the priest, Séan was able to climb in without hurting his ribs too much. The priest passed the small case he carried when making house calls to Séan and then scrambled through the window after them.
They went to the top of the main stairs, where the priest’s words would echo through the first and second floors. Séan folded his hands and prayed as the priest blessed the property, casting all lingering souls into the arms of the Father. They then walked the other wings, the priest using burning incense and holy water to cleanse. When they reached the second floor of the west wing, Séan tensed. But there was nothing there except rotting wood and creeping ivy.
When it was done, Séan felt better. As they made their way down the stairs, he looked over his shoulder. For a moment he thought he could see pools of darkness, shadows with nothing there to cast them.
He didn’t know if the ghost he’d seen was one who’d haunted the place for centuries or that of the girl whose body he’d just found, but he hoped that she was gone and at peace. And that the shadows he’d seen were nothing more than his imagination.
* * * *
Eight years ago himself, his father and the parish priest had blessed the place, casting out the ghost he’d seen there, but for Séan it would always be haunted. Though the priest’s words had sent the ghost on from this life into the Heavenly Father’s arms, the sadness of the living lingered here. His own memories were dark enough that in those eight years he’d never come back to Glenncailty Castle.
The Cold Stones
Glenncailty Castle Grand Opening, Two Years Earlier
Séan Donnovan knew Glenncailty was haunted, knew it was not a fit place for any person. He wanted nothing to do with the darkness that draped it, and yet he found himself taking the road down to the castle on that Saturday night, parking in the freshly laid gravel lot and joining the press of people headed for the castle’s newly opened pub.
Séan wedged his Jeep into a space and got out. Standing in the dusk light, he examined the scene before him. Light and music spilled from the doors of the east wing, pushing away the quiet night and seeming to fill Glenncailty with life. There were lights on in the first floor of the main wing, but the west wing was dark.
“Surprised to see you here.”
Séan nodded to one of his mother’s friends, who had parked beside him. He held out his arm. “And a good evening to you, Mrs. Hennesy.”
Eve Hennesy patted his arm. “Your mother will be sad she missed this. Is she having a good time in the west?”
“She is.” Seam measured his stride to match hers.
“Just like your father, so quiet.” Mrs. Hennesy crossed herself. “God rest his soul.”
Séan looked up at the looming castle, touched by her words but not wanting to talk about his father’s death.
If not for Mrs. Hennesy on his arm, he would have gone back. His fear and distrust of the place was hard learned. Eight years ago a girl had died wandering the then-ruined castle. He’d been one of the people to find her body, and afterwards…
Before he could suppress it the memory of a shimmery gray figure with hair long and as white as that of an old woman but the smooth, lovely face of a girl. She’d raised her hands toward him, eyes pleading. The ghost’s face had turned hard, her eyes disappearing until there were two gaping dark sockets in her face. She’d raised her hands and raked her nails down her cheeks, seeming to scrape strips of flesh from the bone. Her mouth opened, and kept opening, the gaping maw too large, the jaw dropped down like a snake’s.
Séan stilled as cold swept through him. Luckily Mrs. Hennesy was waving at someone she knew and she didn’t notice that he was frozen. She patted his arm and took off, leaving him behind looking up at the forbidding stone walls.
He wanted to believe it was safe. All those years ago, after what he’d seen and been through, himself, his father and the parish priest had blessed the place, casting out the evil and darkness, but for Séan it would always be haunted. His memories were dark enough that in the eight years since he’d see the ghost he’d never come back to the castle.
Tonight was the grand opening of Glenncailty Castle, which was now not just their local ruin but a fancy hotel, restaurant and pub. In the past months, this end of the valley had been alive with people as the buildings were gutted and repaired. There’d even been some new additions to their little village as the owner of the castle, Seamus O’Muircheartaigh, brought in experienced people to staff and run the hotel.
It took Séan twenty minutes to make it from the door to the bar. The pub was full of people from Cailtytown, and he was greeted by friends and acquaintances with each step. The pub had only been open a few nights and the novelty—not only of having a pub of this size in their glen, but of being at Glenncailty Castle—had brought out most of the village.
It was strange to see everyone here, a place that for most of Séan’s life had been a dark blight in their little valley and the source of much of the suffering in their history. There was no one in this room who could claim ignorance of the castle’s past—what little was known of it. Built centuries ago as a fortified manor home for the Englishman who’d been “given” their land to rule, the castle was a part of their past and, until now, had no place in their future.
Séan’s father—dead a year now, may he rest in peace—had occasionally told stories about previous attempts to renovate and open the castle. None had ever succeeded. Both limbs and lives had been lost to the renovation attempts, and the overgrown grounds were treacherous to any who ventured onto them. Children had been maimed or died falling into overgrown wells, others crushed by stones as they tried to climb the crumbling walls of outbuildings.
As he looked around the pub, breathed in the smell of malt, chips and fresh wood, Séan wondered if this time it would be different. Previous attempts to bring the castle to life had been at the hands of Dubs, down from the city trying to impose themselves on a place and a people they saw as culchies.
Now it was the owner himself who’d undertaken the revitalization. The O’Muircheartaighs were nearly as old as the glen, and Séan had once heard that it was they who’d named it Glenncailty—valley of the lost.
He scanned the room again, idly curious if Seamus was here. The O’Muircheartaighs were a solitary group, and Séan wasn’t sure how many of them were still around. He knew Seamus, who’d been five years ahead of him in school, had gone off to Galway to university, then traveled and worked for nearly ten years before returning home. Now he was back and apparently planned to change their little corner of Ireland.
He scanned the room for Seamus, but instead he caught sight of her—the redhead.
He’d seen beautiful women before. Even been with one or two. Sorcha was more than beautiful. There was something about her that called to him. The way she tilted her head, put her hands on her hips and laughed with her whole body made him want things he’d long ago stopped dreaming about.
He’d first met her two weeks ago, in the market. Turning away from the display of vegetables, he’d seen her—a vision in a simple dress with her hair hanging over her shoulders and framing a face so lovely his breath caught. She’d looked at him, and for a brief moment their gaze held, before Séan hurried away, bag of tomatoes in hand. Luckily he had to go no further than the checkout to find out who she was.
A friend of his mother rang him up and told him what she knew about the redheaded newcomer, as Séan did his best not to look as if he’d just been knocked on his ass. His mother’s friend told him that Sorcha had moved to Glenncailty only a few months ago and was part of the staff that would turn the main body of the castle into a hotel. Séan hadn’t asked exactly what she did, how old she was or if she was married. His mum had yet to give up on marrying him off despite the fact that he was thirty, and if he showed interest in any woman his mother would move heaven and earth to try and make the relationship happen. He’d settled for what information he had, happy he knew her name.
A cluster of older men Séan recognized had taken over a table near an open space on the floor. A few of them nodded solemnly to Séan as they unpacked their instruments, the nods a recognition of him and of his father, whose loss was still heavy in the hearts of Cailtytown. After the first awkward notes of fiddle and guitar being tuned, they started thumping out traditional songs. He watched as Sorcha accepted the hand of old Mr. Ruin, the butcher. Mr. Ruin was in his seventies and still as spry and charming as his son, James, who was the actual butcher, but no one would grant him that title as long as his father lived. Mr. Ruin led Sorcha to the center of the open space—an impromptu dance floor.
Together they kicked up their heels in a formal set dance. Soon others joined in. Laughter and shouts of encouragement spurred the dancers on. The barman set a pint of Smithwicks at his elbow and Séan nodded his appreciation. Holding his drink in one hand, his elbow on the bar, he settled in to watch Sorcha. She tossed her head as she danced, red hair catching the low lights of the pub, her tresses as luscious as old rubies. The skin of her cheek was creamy smooth, her blue eyes bright.
The song ended, and while the musicians gathered themselves for the next, the dancers dispersed.
Sorcha turned and their gazes met.
Séan tensed, and the noise and movement of the pub seemed to freeze. Even from across the pub he could see her eyes widen, her lips open.
He wondered if that meant she felt what he did—a stirring deep within the soul. He’d felt it the first time he saw her but tried to tell himself it was a fluke.
The musicians started another song and Sorcha turned away.
Séan dropped his gaze to his beer, jaw clenched.
He watched her dance whenever he wasn’t busy having a chat with friends and acquaintances who hailed him with smiles and nods. When the pint was done, he set the empty glass on the bar and stood from his stool. His threshold for people and noise had been reached.
Séan pushed through the crowd, eyes on the door. He was vaguely aware that a merry jig had stopped, and the tin whistle was now playing a slow song.
He cut across the corner of the dance area as many of the dancers returned to their seats to listen to the high, sweet notes of “Will Ye Go Lassie, Go?”
Séan absentmindedly hummed along, distracted enough that when Sorcha stepped out in front of him, he bumped into her. They each fell back a step, and Séan was painfully aware that this was the closest he’d ever been to her.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, heart thumping. “I…You…”
“I’m sorry.” She smiled. “I don’t think we’ve met, but I know I’ve seen you in town. I’m Sorcha.” She held out a hand.
“Séan.” He took her fingers in his for a brief moment, letting go as quickly as he could and pressing his fingers against his thigh to stop the tingling.
They fell into silence as the music flowed around him.
“It’s good craic, isn’t it?” she said, motioning around them.
He nodded—like the damned fool he was.
Her smile grew, kicking up one corner of her mouth. Her gaze skimmed him from chin to waist. “Did you want to dance?”
He stared at her, stunned by the question. Unable to muster the words to answer, he held out his hand.
When she slipped her slim, pretty fingers into his, Séan had to lower his eyes so she wouldn’t see his pleasure. He led her onto the floor. Most people had taken their seats, but a few couples remained—all of them over fifty.
Sorcha put her hand on his shoulder, and he put his on her waist, their other hands clasped together.
Séan couldn’t stop himself from drawing her closer as they began to sway side to side. She looked up at him from beneath her red-brown lashes. This close, her eyes were bluer than he could have imagined.
A guitar joined the flute, and after a moment one of the old men started to sing. His voice was deep, rough with age and life.
Séan bent his head to Sorcha’s, inhaling her scent, savoring the contact. She shivered a little, her fingers trembling in his. He pulled her closer to warm her, and her breasts brushed his chest. Her lips parted, and her pink tongue darted out to moisten her lips.
They danced gently, barely moving, as the music flowed around them like water. When the song ended, they stood, unmoving, in the middle of the pub. Neither was aware that another song had started until the returning dancers jostled them. Sorcha bumped into him, and Séan wrapped his arms around her. He could feel her breath on his neck, and her body was a soft weight against his side.
Sorcha lifted onto tiptoe, her lips brushing his cheek as she whispered in his ear. “Follow me.”
Her hand slid from his shoulder, down his arm. Séan laced his calloused fingers with hers. Sorcha turned, headed not for the door, but toward the back of the pub. Not sure where they were going, Séan nonetheless followed her willingly.
As they skirted one of the snugs, he saw that there was a back door. He slipped ahead to hold it open for her. Together they stepped out into the cold, quiet night. Séan tensed as he looked left to the looming main wing of the castle. He jerked his gaze away, not wanting to think about old sadness when there was the possibility of something wonderful in front of him.
There was a concrete slab outside the back door, and Séan could imagine it full of people in the summer as those who needed it stepped out to have a smoke. He could make out the inky shapes of trees and bushes beyond that.
“Where are we?” he asked. The cold air had cooled the desire in him. If it hadn’t, he might have pushed her back against the wall and kissed her.
She considered him for a moment, as if debating answering. Séan swallowed, realizing that being pushed against the wall and kissed is probably why she’d brought him out here—not to have a chat.
But Séan barely knew her. Even the fact that they’d held hands seemed as if he’d been too forward. She wasn’t some Dub down for a day in the country, looking to have her moment with a farmer—she lived here, she was new, but she was a part of his village, his community. He would treat her with the respect she deserved. As far as Séan was concerned that was a proper conversation before kissing her senseless.
“The newly poured smoking area.” She pointed into the darkness. “Those are the gardens. The back of each wing opens onto them, though they’re not finished yet. Over there—” She pointed to a place against the wall of the main wing where the ground had been dug up and construction equipment waited in neat rows, “We’re building a new kitchen. The restaurant will open once it’s done.”
Her voice was bright with enthusiasm for the project. There was no reservation or fear in her. “Do you know the history of this place?”
She tipped her face up to his. “Some.”
“It’s not a good—”
The sounds of the pub spilled out of the back door before a woman said, “Sorcha.”
They both turned. A slender woman with blonde hair pulled up in a neat twist was holding open the back door. Sorcha jerked her hand from his.
“Elizabeth. Is there a problem?”
“I need your help for a moment. The kitchen is backed up.”
“Of course.” Sorcha turned to Séan. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
Sorcha smiled and disappeared into the pub.
Séan stuffed his fists into his pockets. His hands were tingling with anticipation for her return. They hadn’t exactly had a proper conversation, but he didn’t think he’d be able to keep his hands off her much longer.
He took the few steps down from the smoking patio into the gardens, hoping to distract himself and cool the fire of need in his belly. Gardeners’ twine on stakes marked out a path, while the hulking shapes of rosebushes and shrubs still in their tubs squatted between the old trees. He followed the path idly, calming his raging desire for Sorcha and trying to think about anything other than the fact that he was walking Glenncailty’s grounds.
The path curved west, paralleling the back of the main wing. A low bench was already in place beside the path, and Séan stepped up on it to get a better view of the in-progress gardens. The gardens were as wide as the castle itself, stretching from the edge of the west wing to the edge of the east, where the pub was. They extended back at least fifty meters in his estimation, and from what he could see now that his eyes had adjusted, there was a wall at the back of the gardens, separating them from what lay beyond. He could make out the roofs of at least two structures on the other side.
He stepped off the bench, impressed despite himself. It seemed that Seamus was planning to do the place up properly. Séan still didn’t like the idea of anyone anywhere near this cursed castle, and he was resigned to the idea that Seamus would fail as all those before him had, but it would be an almighty spectacular failure.
He looked up at the back of the main castle. Like every lad, he’d come here when he was in primary school, sneaking onto the grounds with his mates so they could tell each other the ghost stories, laughing even though they were afraid. He’d always assumed it was the power of suggestion that had him walking away from this place with the feeling that he’d only barely escaped something evil.
He should have headed back the pub—the last thing he wanted was for Sorcha to think he’d left.
As he turned away, something caught his eye. Séan’s gaze jerked back to the castle. There was a light in a window on the third floor of the main wing. The light moved, disappearing behind the frame. Séan took a step forward, ready to warn whatever fool was up there. From what he’d heard, they hadn’t started work up there, meaning it wasn’t safe.
A figure appeared in the window. He couldn’t see it clearly, but the head and shoulders were a pale gray silhouette against the darkness behind it. The light reappeared, passing though the silhouetted figure.
Séan’s heart leapt into his throat and his muscles tensed as adrenaline spiked in his bloodstream. He started toward the castle, twine snapping as he caught his foot on the string outlining the path. He moved fast, narrowly avoiding gaping holes and the potted plants that waited beside them. Circling a tree, he saw the rear terrace. What had once been overgrown with ivy and vines was now clear and clean, though drenched in shadow. As his foot hit the lowest step, the rear double doors creaked open.
He had a moment to make a decision. Last time he’d run from the ghost, and he’d learned nothing. He was older now, wiser, and he would not run.
“Wait,” he yelled, mounting the steps two at a time.
The doors slammed shut. He stopped, standing uncertainly on the terrace as the breeze rustled around him. Ten seconds passed, then twenty. After a minute, Séan rubbed his stubbled jaw, not sure if he’d imagined the ghost in the window and the doors opening. He took a few steps, wanting to at least check the doors to see if they were unlocked.
One door opened, slamming back to hit the stone wall with a reverberating thud. A gray figure stood in the opening. Séan had a moment to absorb what he saw—a female figure with white hair, wearing some sort of long dress, a translucent candle hovering in the air above her left shoulder. She took two steps out onto the terrace. Now he could see her face, which was lovely and calm. For a moment she appeared almost peaceful—like a gray toned portrait or painting.
Then the woman’s dress faded away, leaving her in a ragged undergarment ripped at one shoulder, revealing her left breast. As Séan watched, long black scratches appeared on her exposed flesh. It was both familiar and freshly horrible. Her shoulders hunched and she curled her arms around her belly. Thick chains crawled out of the darkness behind her. The chain moved as if it were a living thing—a snake of linked iron that climbed her body, wrapping around her ankles, wrists and neck.
“Holy Mary Mother of God,” Séan whispered. The longer he looked, the more solid the woman became. He could no longer see through her, and the wounds that covered her were now more burgundy than black.
She was coming alive before him, and it was a terrible thing to see.
“Missus,” Séan said voice gruff with fear and alarm, “who are you?”
Her head jerked up, and just like the ghost he’d seen all those years ago, there were no eyes, only empty sockets. She raised her chain-draped hands to her face.
He couldn’t watch this again. “Don’t, please. I’ll help you.”
Her eyeless face turned toward him. “Imigh anseo, mo chol ceathair.” Her voice echoed as if she were speaking at one end of a long pipe, as unholy a sound as he’d ever heard.
Séan hesitated, struggling to translate the strong country Irish. Her raised hands reached out to him, the fingers curled into claws. “Imigh anseo, mo chol cathair!” Her scream sent spikes of pain through his skull.
Séan slapped his hands over his ears. Every instinct told him to run, but he wouldn’t turn away from someone in need. He wouldn’t fail her again.
The ghost turned her head, as if she looked over her shoulder with those sightless eyes. Séan took a step to the side, stomach heavy with dread at what he might see behind the apparition.
The woman whipped back around, and Séan heard the chains clank. “Rith!” Her scream was an assault on his senses, freezing him in his tracks, but it wasn’t until she came at him, fingers clawed, mouth open wide, that he ran.
Séan stumbled down the steps, racing through the garden along the back wall of the main wing. He skirted the construction zone for the new kitchen, headed toward the lights and noise of the pub. As he skidded to a stop on the smoking patio, the door opened.
Sorcha was silhouetted by the light, her hair glowing like fire. A smile lit her face as she closed the door, muting the sounds of revelry.
“Ah, there you are. I’m very sorry to make you wait, but now the night—”
“You cannot stay here.” Séan grabbed her hand, dragging her off the concrete slab into the garden, where he ignored the path and headed away from the castle.
“Séan, where are we going?” Her voice lilted with a laugh.
The fact that she was so terribly unaware of the danger around her made him all the more determined to get her, and then the rest of them—every person in that pub—away from this place.
“As far away from this place as we can get.”
“Are you well?” The laughter was gone from her voice, replaced by uncertainty.
“I will be when you’re safe.”
They’d rounded the corner of the east wing. He could see the front drive, and the parking lot beyond that. The need to leave this place was a raging in him.
“Séan, wait, I don’t understand.” Gravel crunched under their feet as they crossed the drive.
“You’re not safe here.”
“What are you talking about?” Sorcha’s hand wiggled out of his hold.
Séan turned to her. There wasn’t enough light to see her face, but her silhouette was visible. She stood with her hands on her hips, head high.
“That’s hardly news.” She tossed her head, strands of hair catching the starlight. “I know it’s haunted.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Because it’s my job. Actually, this is my dream job. And ghosts aren’t real. The stories about it being haunted are priceless as far as giving the hotel character.”
“No job is worth this.”
“Worth what?” Sorcha shifted. “It wouldn’t be a proper old building if there weren’t a few ghost stories.”
“They aren’t stories. The ghosts are real, the danger is real.”
“You’re afraid of the ghosts.”
There was a note of pity in her voice, and Séan gritted his teeth. He wanted to tell her that he wasn’t scared of the ghosts, but this was too important to lie. “Yes, I’m terrified of them. Whatever’s in there is so tortured that even a priest’s blessing didn’t help. The souls left here have suffered. They’re suffering still and anyone who stays here might end up like them.”
She fell back a step, and Séan realized he’d raised his voice, something he almost never did.
“You seriously believe the ghosts are dangerous.”
“I’ve seen the bodies of people who didn’t believe this place was dangerous.”
“You mean the people who died in construction accidents? We’ve had more engineers than I can count out here, and we know where there are structural issues and what’s dangerous. Everything’s being repaired.”
“That may fix the building, but it won’t touch the ghosts.”
“The ghosts didn’t kill anyone, and the building is something—”
“I’ve seen the ghosts.” His word cut through the night. He heard Sorcha take a breath, waiting for more. “I saw one just now, while I waited for you. It’s a woman, tortured and wearing chains. And I’ve seen another one, a woman in gray, eight years ago. It may even be the same being. That woman—ghost—is in the castle right now and I know there’s worse things than her in there.”
Sorcha’s arms dropped to her sides, her fingers tugging the fabric of her pants. “You saw a ghost, just now?”
She turned her head away, hair hiding her face. “There are a lot of scientific explanations for people seeing ghosts—”
Séan grabbed her by her arms, jerked her against him. He wanted to shake her, make her understand, but as her quick breathing made her breasts brush against his chest, his need to shake her changed into something else. His blood was up, as his mother would say.
Séan wrapped one arm around her back, the other hand cupped the back of her head. He kissed her.
For a moment she was stiff with surprise, their lips pressed hard together, but then she melted against him, her body soft in his arms. She tasted like apples, and her lips were willing. The kiss lasted a minute, an hour. Séan lost himself in her, until all he could feel was the heat of desire, no more cold dread and fear.
He shifted the arm at her back and her hands wrapped around his waist. Soon the kiss wasn’t enough and he slid his hand down, finding the hem of her sweater. She gasped when his fingers touched the warm skin of her back.
Her gasp was like a splash of cold water, reminding him of where they were and what they were doing. Séan released her.
Sorcha raised a trembling hand to her mouth, touching her lips.
Séan wondered if he’d hurt her, grabbing her like that, wondered if he should apologize for kissing her without her permission.
But he said nothing. He felt empty now, as if the encounter with the ghost and now the kiss had drained him of energy and feeling.
Of the two, it was the kiss that had him more rattled.
Kissing her had been more than he’d imagined—more powerful, more enticing. What might have been only an infatuation, a moment of silliness in his otherwise staid and boring life was now a real, burning desire. He wanted her.
Sorcha fell back one step, then two. With a jolt, Séan realized she was leaving.
“Sorcha.” He raised his hand.
“No.” She held up both of her hands, palms out. “No,” she said again.
Séan watched as she turned away from him and ran back to the castle.
Present Day—Two Years after the Grand Opening
Séan lifted the packed cooler out of the back of his truck. James had been too busy to make the delivery today, so Séan was delivering today’s meat to The Restaurant at Glenncailty Castle.
As he did each time he came here, he took a moment to examine the windows, the shadows at the base of the buildings. There were no ghosts on this bright and cold Tuesday afternoon. Spring had come to Ireland, though it was chilly enough at dawn, when Séan got up.
Hefting the cooler, Séan started for the castle.
There were people coming and going—guests exiting the front door, maps in hand, locals headed into the pub for a bit of lunch. In the years since Seamus had returned to the glen with his grand plans to turn his ancestral home into a luxury hotel, many things had changed. Séan’s dislike and suspicion of the place wasn’t one of them. After the grand opening, he’d gone to Seamus and demanded that he close the hotel, that he protect all the people who he’d brought here by sending them away. Seamus had called a halt to renovations. He’d asked everyone in Cailtytown who’d had an encounter with a ghost to walk through and see if they felt or saw anything. Everyone, including Séan.
Séan spent hours in the castle, even sleeping in one of the newly constructed rooms in the east wing. And yet he’d felt and seen nothing. Once, in the west wing—which was still under construction at the time, with stacks of wood and other materials blocking off most of the second floor—he thought he’d heard something, but the harder he tried to hear it, the fainter it got.
In the end Seamus had the castle blessed, the new parish priest having no idea that the church had already done its best to help the souls here. Séan had attended the blessing, hanging back and scanning the shadows, tense as a cat in a boot factory as he waited for the horrifying ghost to reappear. But nothing happened, and when he caught sight of Sorcha, she was looking at him with a mix of anger and pity.
Years had passed, and yet he was still wary of Glenncailty—and still longed for Sorcha every time he saw her. Séan carried his cooler around the outside of the pub to the kitchen.
The pub took up the whole first floor of the east wing, which was connected to the central wing by a short stone and glass hallway. Guests who went between the buildings got a look at the weather and the gardens behind the castle. The view of the gardens was somewhat obstructed by the kitchen, which had been built off the back corner of the main castle. The one-story structure was out of place, though they’d tried to make it fit in by adding stone facing. No matter what they did, it would always be a glaring modern addition to a centuries-old structure.
It was the one place Séan felt truly comfortable.
He nodded to a couple he knew who were smoking on the back patio of the pub. He tried not to think about what could have happened there, if only he hadn’t gotten it into his head to go wandering.
When he reached the kitchen door, hidden by a prickly shrub, he balanced the cooler on his knee and knocked.
“Hello there,” he greeted Jim, who held the door open for him. As always, Jim smelled like chips and other delicious fried things.
“And hello to you. James busy?” Jim held the door open with one hand while Séan entered.
“Spring’s always busy for him. Plenty of people looking to butcher now that calves are weaned.”
Séan headed for one of the prep tables. The kitchen was immaculate, from the gleaming silver counters to the white walls. The only spots of darkness were the heavy rubber mats on the floors that cushioned the chefs as they stood for hours, preparing food for both the pub and restaurant.
“Tristan here?” Séan asked.
“He is. He’s in the dining room, let me find him for you.”
Séan looked around, hoping for someplace to sit, but there was nothing. With a sigh, he leaned back against a counter and scratched his jaw. His beard needed a trim and had for a week now, but there’d been too much to do—he’d fallen into bed each night too tired to move, and last night he hadn’t even made it to the bed, falling asleep in a chair with paperwork on his lap.
“Séan, such a pleasure,” a man said in an elegant French accent. He looked up to see the head chef, Tristan, walking toward him.
Séan straightened and held out a hand, pretending not to notice when Tristan quickly examined his hand before shaking. It seemed Tristan still hadn’t forgiven him for the time he’d come in covered in slurry.
“What do you have for me today?” Tristan’s French accent deepened as he turned to the cooler. He stroked the top with all the care a child gave a pretty box on Christmas morning.
“Good beef, plenty of fat in the meat.”
“The ewes and lambs are happily eating and getting fat.” Séan grimaced.
Tristan must have heard it in his voice. “You still don’t like the lambs?”
“Sheep are a waste of grass for my cows.”
“Aw, but they are so cute, and so tasty.”
Personally, Séan liked beef better and thought sheep were stupid. When Tristan arrived from Paris with expectations that he’d turn the restaurant into a major culinary destination, the chef had approached Séan about supplying meat.
Séan was a dairy farmer. His creamery had been in his family for over one hundred years, and he had seventy-five pedigree dairy cows. He’d always done a bit of beef, since there wasn’t use for bulls in the milking parlor, and he had the land. He also kept non-pedigree suckler cows, and all their offspring were reared for beef. He, like his father before him, sold the animals to Ruins’ butcher shop, where James butchered them and sold them to local markets. He’d never planned to raise animals for meat in a more serious way, but Tristan had changed that with his request. He and Tristan had struck a bargain and he now had more beef than dairy cows. He was raising and feeding the beef cattle organically and providing the meat—butchered by James—to the castle.
“You’ll have the first lamb in a few weeks. The ones born in January will be ready soon.”
“And the mutton?” Tristan asked. “It will make stew.”
At Tristan’s request, Séan now also had a small flock of sheep and two rams. He hadn’t sponged them—artificially inseminating them—so rather than having all the sheep pregnant and lambing at the same time, he’d had lambs born New Year’s Day and some born only a few weeks ago in the traditional spring lambing.
“I won’t butcher them until the summer. There’s only a few that are too old to get pregnant again.”
“Good, good.” Tristan wasn’t really listening. He’d taken the top off the cooler and pulled out the first of the vacuum-packed bags. There were the best cuts off two sides of beef in the cooler. The lesser cuts were back at James’s waiting to be sold if Tristan didn’t want them, though they’d dry-aged long enough that they’d be more tender than most.
“Beautiful, beautiful.” Tristan crooned at each piece as he pulled it out. When all the packs were laid out, Tristan shook his head. “How can an animal so big make so little meat?”
Séan raised his eyebrows. “There’d be more meat if you’d take it all.”
“I need more steaks, not flank meat. I want to have steak on the menu, not only as a special.” Tristan sighed, picking up the porterhouse and examining it. Tristan had demanded that James hang his meat for at least two weeks, and the dry-aging time showed in the color.
“You’ve said that before. Several times. You could get meat from one of the big—”
“No. No.” Tristan motioned to the meat and a flurry of chefs descended and began hauling the packs away. “I’m fine with my eight steaks per cow. Steak will be a special only for now. I have roast on the menu, and that’s all you Irish people seem to want. We are not open enough to need more. Plus, what is most important is that I know where my food comes from, that I can touch the cow that I will cook if I wish.”
Séan had no idea what was wrong with a nice roast and still didn’t understand the “local sourcing” Tristan was always going on about, but so far he’d made good money selling his beef to Glenncailty, so he hadn’t argued.
“I have something I want you to taste,” Tristan said, herding Séan out of the way of his chefs.
“I don’t go in for fancy—”
“It’s not fancy, I promise you. It’s an Irish curry. You are the simplest man I know, and I want your opinion.”
Séan looked at Tristan. The chef was a few years younger than him, and his glossy dark hair, perpetual tan and dark eyes made him seem as foreign and European as he sounded. Séan wasn’t sure if Tristan had meant to insult him or if it had been a translation issue, so he let it slide.
“Come into the dining room and try it. If you like it, I will use the lesser beef and make it a special tomorrow.”
Séan hadn’t eaten anything since he’d gone home for tea after the morning milking, and his stomach was letting him know that bread, butter and an extra strong two-teabag cup of Barry’s Irish Breakfast were not enough to hold him until dinner. A nice, hot curry did sound good.
He followed Séan through the maze of the kitchen to the swinging doors that led onto the dining room.
The Restaurant—Séan thought it was stupid that it didn’t have a proper name, but no one asked him—took up almost a third of the main floor of the castle. The large space was divided up by little half walls, and there was a bar toward the front, though he’d never heard of anyone popping in here for a pint, when the pub, with its relaxed atmosphere, was only a few steps away.
The muted colors and sparkle of glass and silver made Séan nervous. He rarely went someplace as nice as this. The last time he’d put on a tie had been for a wedding, and the time before that to take his mother to dinner for her birthday because his sister, a successful therapist in Dublin, had been out of the country, leaving it to Séan to make their mother feel special. He could have brought her here, but he’d gone to Navan instead.
As they entered the dining room, the muscles in Séan’s back and shoulders went tense. He could feel the darkness that clung to the walls, despite the impressive chandeliers overhead. It happened every time he entered the castle proper and was a constant reminder that under the polish and success of the hotel lay something unholy that no one would acknowledge.
He’d tried to protect everyone by shutting the place down. He’d failed, and looked like a fool doing it. He’d even convinced himself that he hadn’t seen the ghost, but the impression of darkness lingered. The tragedy he’d been prepared for—sure that something bad would happen—still hadn’t come. In his optimistic moments, Séan imagined that meant that the castle wasn’t haunted, but then he’d step inside. As soon as he did, the feelings of dread crept over him, and he knew that someday this house of cards would fall.
“Sit there,” Tristan ordered. “Give me only a moment and we will be ready.”
Séan dropped into a seat, fidgeting a little as he looked at the elaborate spread of silverware in front of him. He went to rest his arms on the table, but then thought better of it. He’d gone right from the barn to James’s butcher shop in town and then out here. He’d washed his hands somewhere along the way, but that didn’t mean the rest of him was clean. He could only imagine what Tristan would say if he got blood or manure on the starched white tablecloth.
Sorcha approached, stopping on the other side of the table, hands resting on the back of the chair. She wore a black blazer with a small gold nametag on one lapel. Under that she wore a trim dress of spring green with a black belt. The dress made her hair seem redder, her eyes bluer. Séan rose, nodding slightly, but didn’t offer his hand.
His heart leapt at the sight of her. It always did, and he suspected always would.
Sorcha smiled her greet-the-guests smile. It was easy to hide behind.
Séan was standing awkwardly by the chair he’d risen from. He was rumpled, his shirt, pants and jumper showing signs of wear and even some old washed-in stains. There was a piece of grass stuck to the wool on his shoulder, his hair was a mess and his beard needed to be trimmed. He was out of place in the elegant and polished dining room, like he should be out in a field, green at his feet and blue sky above.
He looked good enough to eat.
Sorcha’s smile wavered, but she held it in place. She wanted those rough, work-worn hands on her skin. Wanted to rip the clothes from his body and feel the muscles beneath. With any other man, she’d take him home, get what she wanted and then walk away. But with Séan, she wouldn’t, couldn’t do that.
Her gaze traveled up to his face. His hazel eyes were flecked with green and when his gaze met hers, Sorcha felt it all through her body, as if he’d touched her.
“Good, good.” Tristan bustled back to the table, the maître d’ and a gaggle of servers following him. “We have new servers. Since you are here, they can train on you.”
Sorcha turned to Tristan, paying more attention to what he was saying than was needed, using it as an excuse to stop staring at Séan as if she were going to take a bite out of him.
“Sit, sit.” Tristan waved his hands, then barked something at the maître d’ in French.
The maître d’ and Séan both moved to pull back her chair. The maître d’ made it there first, and Sorcha thought she saw Séan’s hand clench in a fist. At Tristan’s shooing, Séan sat too, looking more uncomfortable by the moment.
Tristan disappeared, and they were introduced to each of the new servers. Sorcha took careful note of their names. As guest services manager, she steered guests to the pub and restaurant when they checked in and more than once had escorted VIP guests to the restaurant, passing them over to the staff there with the care that was the mark of a true hotelier.
As they were introduced to Séan, he shook each person’s hand, giving them a hearty slap on the arm, which made most of them jump. Sorcha chewed the inside of her lip to keep from laughing.
One of the current servers was brought in and the three new staff huddled behind him as he started his introduction. Séan and Sorcha were handed menus and a wine list, though they wouldn’t be using either. Their server recited the special, which they both ordered. When he offered them wine to go with the meal, Sorcha accepted. She’d started work at six that morning and her shift was done. She was never really off the clock, especially since she lived on the Glenncailty grounds, but after this she planned to go back to her little cottage, make a nice cup of tea and put her feet up.
Nothing said she couldn’t have a glass of wine first, though it was only half-four.
“None for me, thank you,” Séan said. “But if you’ve a cup of tea, I’d have that.”
The server’s eyes widened in what Sorcha recognized as horror.
“He’ll have a bottle of water, sparkling,” Sorcha interjected.
Séan sighed. “No, I’ll have wine, then.”
The server nodded and shooed the trainees away, talking under his breath about what they were going to do next.
“Made a hash of that, did I?” Séan sighed, rubbing his whiskered chin. His eyebrows were drawn together, his mouth turned down.
Sorcha realized that she’d made him feel bad by correcting his order. “No, not at all,” she half-lied. “But normally people have tea or coffee at the end of a meal, not with.”
“People.” Séan crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. He was looking everywhere but at her.
She could have smacked herself. She was saying everything wrong—she, who normally never said anything wrong. “I mean, the people who normally come to The Restaurant.”
“So, not people like me.”
“Séan, I’m sorry, clearly I’m making you uncomfortable. Perhaps it would be best if I wasn’t here.” She set her napkin on the table, ready to leave.
Séan reached across the table. His palm hovered over her hand, and for a moment she held her breath, wondering if he’d touch her, but he didn’t.
“I’m being rude. I’m sorry.”
“You’re not, truly.”
“I am.” He sighed. “I hadn’t planned on this today, and I was thinking about the work I’ve yet to do.” He sat back, and for the first time seemed to really relax. “James will be sad he missed a fancy dinner with a beautiful woman.”
A little thrill went through her that he’d called her beautiful. “You mean James, the butcher’s son?”
Séan smiled and Sorcha almost fell out of her chair. He was a good-looking man when his face was set in its normal stony expression. When he smiled, he was magnificent—his eyes sparkled, his whole face coming to life.
“James is the butcher and has been for years, and he’s plenty angry that no one calls him that.”
“Ah, I didn’t realize, I’ll change—”
“No, don’t. It’s good craic to watch him grumble.”
“You must be friends, or enemies.”
“Friends it is. With this,” he motioned around the restaurant, “I see him near to every day.”
Sorcha looked around, not sure what he was talking about.
“The meat,” Séan clarified. “I supply beef to Tristan. James’s butchering a cow or two of mine almost every other day.”
“Of course, I’d forgotten.” She’d noticed that she’d started seeing Séan around the castle more but had refused to let herself think too long about why. When she did think about it, all the reasons were elaborate fantasies about him wanting to see her.
Just another reason to keep her distance from this man who enticed her so—she was dreaming about some great love story based on one encounter and one kiss.
A kiss she’d never forgotten.
Sorcha realized they’d fallen into silence while she brooded, so she gave herself a little shake and plastered a smile back on her face.
“And how is your farm?”
“Well enough. I’m raising more beef now, and I’ve brought in some lamb too.”
“Normally you have dairy cows, correct?”
The maître d’ and their server returned, along with their entourage. “My apologies for the delay,” the server said. “Our sommelier did not have time to identify the perfect wine pairing for this dish. We hope you’d be able to help us with that.”
“Of course,” Sorcha answered.
“We have two selections, and we’d like you to identify which you think is the better pairing.”
Sorcha and Séan watched as the server went through the elaborate procedure of opening the bottles. Before Sorcha could stop him, he poured the tasting sip into Séan’s wineglass. She bit her lip, not wanting him to feel out of place again, when he’d only just relaxed, but not sure how to get the wine from him without being rude.
Séan took the glass, swirled the wine, examined the color, smelled and sipped. After a moment, he nodded to the server.
Sorcha blinked. It seemed he didn’t need her help at all.
When they’d each been given two different glasses of wine, the staff melted away.
“You’re just full or surprises, aren’t you?” She motioned to the wineglass.
“Ah, not really. The first time I brought meat out, Tristan cooked up two of the steaks to test the quality. He brought out wine and taught me to taste it while the steaks cooked and then we ate steak and drank French red sitting in the kitchen.”
“That sounds delicious.”
“It was. And damned the man if he wasn’t right about all those flavors he said would be in the wine.” Séan shook his head, making Sorcha smile.
Taking his glass, Séan raised it over the center of the table. “A toast?”
Sorcha raised her own glass. “What are we toasting to?”
“Well, then how about to Glenncailty Castle?”
His glass dipped and his face hardened. “I won’t toast to that.”
Sorcha remembered the wild-eyed man he’d been that night as he dragged her away, demanding that she leave because it wasn’t safe.
“To the people who work here,” he said, face still grim. “May God watch over you.”
Sorcha tapped her glass to his, then raised it to her lips and took a long drink, with less appreciation than the fine wine deserved.
The servers appeared with appetizers, though they hadn’t ordered any. Sorcha mulled over Séan’s words as the server taught the new hires how to introduce the dish, serve it and then follow up.
She had a citrus salad with roasted parsnip and Séan had salmon brûlée. He inspected the dish from several angles before shrugging and picking up his dinner fork. After a second, he sighed, put it down and picked up the salad fork.
They ate in silence for a moment before Sorcha cleared her throat.
“There’s something I want to ask you.”
He looked up, gaze a little wary. “Yes?”
“Maybe it’s not a question, but I want to understand something.” She took a moment to gather her thoughts and roll them into a sentence, not sure how to say what she wanted. “You don’t like this place—the castle, I mean—because you’ve had encounters with the ghosts.”
There was a long silence before he said, “Yes.”
Sorcha waited, but it was clear he wasn’t going to say anything else. She needed to know more—needed to know what he knew.
“I don’t know if you remember, but not long after I moved here, you warned me about being here.” She spoke hesitantly, not sure how to describe their mad flight through the garden or the punishing kiss on the front drive.
“I remember that night.”
The way he looked at her made it clear that he wasn’t talking about his warning, but about the kiss that followed.
She dipped her chin, looked at him through her lashes. “So do I.”
He examined her, his gaze intense and heat-filled. A thrill went through Sorcha.
After she’d run from him, she’d been angry with him—for months, even going so far as to avoid him in town. She’d been angry because he’d swooped in and tried to take her away from something she loved, dared to tell her what to do, then he’d kissed her. She barely knew him, and the idea that he thought he had the right to tell her what to do and then use their attraction to manipulate her pissed her off.
Her feelings about the kiss were mixed. It had been the most intense kiss of her life, coming at a time when she was sure that there was nothing she didn’t know about kisses. She both craved and feared the feelings he’d raised.
But that anger had changed to something else after she met one of Glenncailty’s ghosts.
“I’ve owed you an apology,” he said.
“For that night.”
Sorcha looked away. Was he was apologizing for the kiss? The next thing out of his mouth would probably be an explanation that he’d been drunk or hadn’t been himself.
“It’s grand,” she said, not wanting to hear any more. “I was the one who insisted we dance.”
“Eh?” Now Séan looked confused. “I was apologizing for the way I acted, hauling you along like that.”
“Oh.” Sorcha forked up the last bite of her appetizer, pausing to chew and swallow before saying. “I thought maybe you were apologizing for kissing me.”
Séan’s eyebrows went up and he sat back. He seemed surprised that she’d mentioned the kiss and Sorcha wondered if she’d read this entire conversation wrong. Normally she was so good at reading men, and with Séan all her charm and skill seemed to go out the window.
Séan smiled. It was a slow smile, one that took its time to work across his face. “That I’d never apologize for. Were you wanting one?”
“No, not at all.”
“I’m glad for that. I want—” he paused, took a sip of wine, “—wanted to kiss you, and I did. Maybe the doing of it wasn’t exactly what I would have planned, but the kiss was no mistake.”
Sorcha felt herself blush as she smiled. She’d caught his slip up—he’d said want before correcting himself to wanted.
“I wanted to kiss you too.”
“It’s a pity, then.”
“That the night ended the way it did?”
Their dinner arrived. Tristan accompanied the food and described the dish before demanding their harshest criticism. They were left with plates of lemongrass rice and Tristan’s Irish curry—made with local, organic vegetables and thin strips of highly seasoned beef.
After she’d taken a few bites, Sorcha returned to the conversation. As interesting as she found their discussion of the kiss—as well as the fact that Séan clearly still wanted her—that wasn’t what she needed to talk to him about.
“I want to ask you something about that night, and not about the kiss.”
He nodded around a mouthful of curry.
“You saw a ghost that night, didn’t you?”
Séan swallowed and took a sip of wine, taking his time. He set his fork down and leaned back in his chair, meeting her gaze.
“I saw a ghost, the second time I’d seen her.”
“Her.” Sorcha sighed. “One of the maids, then. Wearing chains?”
Séan’s eyes fixed on her. “You’ve seen her.”
Sorcha looked away. The food was sitting heavy in her belly and the wine was making her lightheaded. “I’ve seen them all.”
“Mary Mother of God. Sorcha, you should—”
“Leave Glenncailty?” Sorcha took a breath. “I’ve thought about it, but I love this place and this job.”
“You said ‘all.’” Séan reached across the table and this time he touched her, just two fingers on the back of her hand. “How many ghosts are there?”
“There’s the gray maid in chains, the wolfhounds, the man and woman in the garden and the lights. Actually, that’s not all the ghosts—Caera saw one near the chapel I’ve never seen, and I think Seamus has seen some things, but he won’t tell me about them. But I’ve seen the ones that haunt the castle and the gardens closest to the building. I’ve seen the ones the guests talk about.”
Séan cupped her hand in his. She hadn’t realized her fingers had curled into a fist. “They’re appearing to the guests?”
“Not all the time, but I’d say once a month someone will report seeing something.”
“You shouldn’t be here. No one should. Seamus is a fool and a bastard for bringing anyone to this cursed place when he knew it was dangerous.”
“That’s what I need to know—you keep saying it’s dangerous. Why?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s frightening, but I wouldn’t say they’re dangerous.” She pulled her hand from his to press both against her belly. “At least I wouldn’t have until Caera was attacked by one.”
“She was attacked?”
“By the ghost she saw near the chapel. Seamus found her.”
“And that’s why she left?”
“She didn’t leave—she’s just on leave, while she and her boyfriend, Tim, tour in America.”
Séan made a noise of disbelief in his throat.
“I need to know why you say it’s dangerous. I talked to Seamus, and he says that he’d never heard of anyone but Caera being attacked by a ghost. I want to know if he’s wrong, if you were attacked too, if that’s why you say it’s dangerous.”
Séan nodded and sat back, clearly considering what she’d said. Instead of answering right away, he took another few bites. Sorcha felt better now that she’d asked, now that she’d voice her fear. She too dug into the curry, with more enthusiasm than she’d had five minutes ago.
When Séan wiped his mouth, she set her fork down.
“I first saw a ghost ten years ago.” He told her about being part of a team searching for a teenage girl who’d gone missing, about finding her body.
“That must have been hard. I’m so sorry.”
“It was. I knew, everyone knew, that there was little hope of finding her alive. And it was the fall that killed her, there’s no doubt of that. But I had to ask why she was in the building—she would have known it was dangerous, known she shouldn’t be on that floor.
“I went through the whole castle, taking bits of wood to board up the windows and doors. I went to the west wing second floor, hugging the wall and praying for safety. I saw the ghost then—a young woman with white hair. She didn’t have eyes, just great empty holes in her face.”
Séan shook his head. “You asked me that night if I was afraid of the ghosts, and I was, I am. I ran from the ghost, ended up breaking a rib getting away. Later I wondered if the ghost was actually the girl whose body we’d found. My father, the priest and I came back here and blessed the place. Then I went to confession, begged God’s forgiveness for abandoning her soul when I ran.”
Sorcha was startled to hear that the castle had been blessed so long ago. No wonder Séan had acted oddly at the large public blessing Seamus had organized just after the grand opening.
“That night—the night I kissed you—I saw the ghost again, but this time it was much worse. The first time I didn’t see the chains or the full extent of the—” Séan paused to take a sip of wine. “—injuries. Until then I half-believed that what I’d seen was the ghost of the girl who died, and that with the blessing we’d brought her peace. But when I saw it again I knew that the place was still haunted, and I wondered if the girl who died hadn’t been lured to the second floor by that very ghost.”
“You think the ghost lured that girl to her death?” The idea was horrifying.
“I only wonder.”
“This female ghost is who—what—you saw the night we kissed?” Sorcha remembered him—more animated than she’d ever seen him—telling her that he’d seen a ghost while he waited for her.
“Will you describe what you saw?” Sorcha wanted to know if they’d seen the same thing. If what Séan described was the same as what she’d seen it meant the ghost was real—something she’d long ago accepted.
Séan’s tale was terrifying. His description of the chain-bound woman matched what Sorcha herself had seen, but when he described the ghost’s eyes vanishing, hands turned to claws as she came at him, she had to swallow hard against her horror, which bubbled up in her throat.
“I’ve seen her,” Sorcha said, voice shaky. “That’s the ghost I call the maid in chains. But when I’ve seen her she’s been standing still, holding a broom, in one of the upper halls. I’ve never seen her move, or bleed or—” Sorcha swallowed again, “—without eyes.”
Séan frowned. “And the hotel people? What do they see?”
“The same thing I do. They think she’s sad, and many were scared, but no one has ever described what you just did.”
“She spoke to me.” Séan’s gaze seemed focused on something in the middle distance, something Sorcha couldn’t see.
“What did she say?”
“I’m not sure. My Irish isn’t good, and her accent was thick—real country.”
Despite the solemn nature of their conversation, Sorcha’s lips twitched. Séan himself had a thick country accent, so for him to say that meant it must have been very thick indeed.
“I think she said ‘leave this place.’” Séan rubbed his beard, and his gaze snapped from middle-distance to her, focusing. “And then she called me cousin.”
“Yes. I didn’t leave, not when she said to. I thought I could help her.” Séan looked around the room, at the lovely, understated decor with suspicion. Suspicion that made no sense unless you knew what he’d seen in these walls. “Then she looked over her shoulder, at least I think she did. I moved so I could see what she looked at. That’s when she came for me, screaming, ‘Run.’”
They were silent. Sorcha looked at the last few bites on her plate, but couldn’t bring herself to eat. Instead she took the last sip from her first glass of wine, then drained the second. Their server appeared, refilling her glasses. Séan shook his head when the man tried to refill his.
When they were once more alone, Sorcha said the thing she’d dreaded saying. “You were right, the ghosts are dangerous. Too dangerous for anyone to be here.”
Séan said nothing, only watched her with his steady, solemn gaze.
“The hotel will close,” Sorcha said, thinking it through. She’d been here since the beginning and was certain Elizabeth wouldn’t be willing to risk guests. “Maybe Finn’s stable can stay open, as I’ve never heard of any ghosts on that part of the grounds, but everything here—including The Restaurant and the pub, will be gone.”
Sorcha closed her eyes. She hadn’t listened to Séan and might never have believed him if it wasn’t for Caera’s encounter.
“I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you that night.” If she had, she could have stopped everyone from getting so invested in this place.
“And I’m sorry. I’m sure I seemed like a madman.”
“You did, but I didn’t want to hear anything bad about the Glenncailty. I was so happy to be here, to have this job.”
Sorcha stared at her wineglass, not really seeing it. Tomorrow she’d go to Seamus and tell him that the ghosts weren’t harmless, that it was dangerous for the guests to be here. For too long she’d been ignoring her own uneasy feelings—she could no longer be so willingly blind.
“What did you think?”
Sorcha’s head jerked up. Tristan was at the table, hands on his hips. He wore a rolled bandana around his forehead, with one dark lock flopping forward. She plastered a smile on her face. “Wonderful, as always.”
“Which wine did you like it with?”
He must be busy prepping for tomorrow’s service, because his accent was more pronounced, turning “with” into “wizth,” something that happened when he was working.
“The heavier red,” Sorcha said, though she hadn’t given it the thought it deserved.
“And what of you, my friend?” Tristan asked Séan.
“It would have been better with some mash.”
“Irish people and their potatoes.” Tristan threw his hands in the air. “What of the curry?”
“It’s good. Not as heavy as the curry you get with chips at the chipper in Cailtytown.”
“Thank you,” Tristan said dryly. “I’m happy to know that my food is as good as that of the greasy fish and chip shop.”
Séan didn’t seem fazed by Tristan’s tone. He nodded solemnly and said, “You’re welcome.”
“Tristan, it’s wonderful and simple and homey enough to resonate with the local clientele.” Sorcha felt vaguely sick as she spoke, smile stuck on her face. Tristan was putting in all this work in for a restaurant that wouldn’t be around much longer.
They talked for a few more minutes, then the trainee servers were brought in to clear the table. Sorcha rose and Séan did the same.
“Are you going back to work?” he asked.
“I’m done for the day.” Together they made their way towards the kitchen, Sorcha thanking the servers as they passed the prep station.
Sorcha peeked in the kitchen door. The kitchen was bustling. Sorcha and Séan darted through, using it as a shortcut to the grounds. Once outside, they followed the path along the back of the east wing, passing the pub’s smoking patio, which was full of people smoking and chatting.
Sorcha moved quickly, not wanting to stop and talk. She could hear the crunch of Séan’s footsteps behind her. When they’d rounded the building and could see the parking lot, Sorcha turned to Séan.
“It was nice to see you, and thank you for telling me about, well, everything.”
“That Glenncailty will close.”
“It will be hard. So many people have put their hearts into it.” Sorcha had to look away as she said it, her throat tight.
Séan touched her arm and Sorcha looked up. “And I’m sorry you’ll leave.”
The late afternoon sun brought out red and gold highlights in Séan’s hair and beard. It was then Sorcha realized that with Glenncailty closing there was nothing to keep her from being with Séan. Their history, brief though it was, and the policy she’d developed about not getting involved with locals had meant he was off limits, but it seemed she would not be living in Glenncailty much longer, meaning he would not be local to her any more.
“I’m sorry I’m leaving too.”
The mood between them shifted, rolling from heavy resignation to warm anticipation.
“Sorcha, I’d like to kiss you.”
“And this time you’re going to ask?”
“Yes.” He smiled quickly, before saying, “May I kiss you?”
Sorcha took a step, wrapping her arms around Séan’s shoulders. “I’d like that, very much.”
His hands were warm at her back as he drew their bodies together. His lips were a moment from hers and she could smell the wine and spice that lingered on his breath. Anticipation bubbled within her, sweet and light as champagne.
Their lips touched. The kiss was sweet and pure, but soon deepened to something richer and more vital, like going from the pale green of spring to the vibrant Kelly of summer.
Anticipation and delight danced down Sorcha’s spine. She was tingling with the desire to touch and be touched. His hand seemed very large on her back, and when his arms came fully around her waist she could feel their heavy weight, the muscles hidden under his nondescript clothes. He felt strong and steady as he held her, kissed her, in the dying light of the day.
The crunch of footsteps on gravel interrupted them. Sorcha dropped onto her heels and leaned away. Séan’s arms tightened around her and Sorcha looked at him beneath her lashes. His gaze was intense, hot—as if he would never let her go.
The footsteps were getting closer. Sorcha reached back for his hand and tangled her fingers with his, then slipped from his hold.
“Sorcha.” He said her name, nothing more, but the longing and desire in his voice captivated her. He squeezed her fingers.
“Come with me.” She lifted his hand, pressing it between her breasts. “Come with me.”
Together they slipped from the parking lot into the trees.
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