The Irish Castle
The Glenncailty Ghosts, Book 1
Glenncailty Castle appeared between the trees, the road to its front door following the curve of the land, sweeping visitors down into the embrace of the three-hundred-year-old estate. Stone and glass were silver and diamond against the woodland green of the glen. The three-story castle rose strong and square from the shadows of the valley, flanked by shorter east and west wings. The structure was sturdy but elegant as anything that could be found in this wild part of County Meath, the ancient seat of the Kings of Ireland. The wood tumbled down the sides of the valley and pressed in on Glenncailty, casting long shadows and reminding those who came to the front doors that this valley was still more wild than tame.
Glenncailty’s history was lost, the name of the English lord who’d built it to oppress the people of the glen erased. Stories of families who’d owned, held and eventually squandered the power of the castle were gone too, but whether forgotten or erased, no one knew. Now the castle had a master as shadowed as its walls, but he hoped for its future, even as he’d given up on his own. The time had come for Glenncailty Castle to throw open its doors, invite the world in, and let life and laughter drown out the shadows.
What the master did not expect was that the castle would draw those who bore shadows of their own—that in the end, perhaps Glenncailty would save those who entered, rather than them saving Glenncailty. There is a place for everyone in this world, and for some who search, who wander, who carry heavy sorrows, there is Glenncailty—Valley of the Lost.
Welcome to Glenncailty Castle. Céad míle fáilte.
The Fiddle Meets The Harp
At the edge of the castle grounds, where the gardens gave way to mowed grass, but before the wild tangles of bramble that skirted the tree line, a large stone barn with a pitched roof and dovecote stood tall and proud in the afternoon sun. It was called Finn’s Stable, though no one knew or remembered why. It simply was. It had been half fallen down when Caera took on the job of special events manager at Glenncailty Castle. Two years ago, the castle had been a crumbling and dilapidated private residence. Now the castle was renovated and the outbuildings of the estate were coming to life, starting with her love, Finn’s Stable.
Today the gravel and stone path than led to the concert and event venue was clogged with trucks from RTE, Ireland’s national broadcaster, as film and sound crews hauled equipment in through the heavy wood doors. RTE was going to film a special event in Finn’s Stable tomorrow night. Free Birds Fly was a concert with some of the best young Irish musicians in the country. They’d be performing traditional songs as well as their own original music. There were even guest musicians coming from America and Australia, both countries that owed much of their musical inheritance to their Irish immigrants.
Between now and the doors opening tomorrow night there were plenty of details for Caera and her team to oversee, not the least of which was the layout.
“I could change it to a smaller stage in the middle and have the audience seated all around. They’d be the background.” Caera eyed the space as she mentally set up the theater in the round.
“I don’t want to be forever editing the tape looking for someone with fingers in their nose.” The producer from RTE looked both bored and irritated. He’d made it clear that he thought it was a waste to bring the event out to Glenncailty, rather than hosting it in Dublin.
“What if you took down the drapes and filmed during the day? The glen is beautiful.”
When they repaired the crumbling walls and added a new wood roof, she’d opted to replace one of the short walls with glass, offering an unrestricted view of the woods behind the stable. She wanted a way to let in the late summer sun and allow people to see the wild beauty of the unmanicured wood. Normally the windows were a prized backdrop, providing either a view of the green glen or the black of night. Finn’s Stable had become the choice for ceilidhs and parties for those not only in the local village, but in the surrounding parishes. Currently, the stage was placed in front of the windows, opposite the stable doors. It had never been a problem, and Caera had been applauded for her choice, but according to the producer, windows were a difficult backdrop. The RTE team had put hideous matte black curtains over the windows on a frame of PVC pipe. Caera had to bite her tongue as they dulled her sparkling gem of a venue.
“Neither of us wants the headache of changing the time of the concert.” The producer for RTE, the national broadcaster, crossed his arms. Caera pressed her lips together and took a few steps to the side, resting her hand against the stone wall of the stable-turned-event space. She was working very hard to be polite to the man who hadn’t had a good word to say since he got here.
“Maybe we can use the windows.” The producer considered the pipe and drape. “We could light the trees outside and angle the interior lights to minimize the reflection.” The producer wandered away to talk to the lighting director he’d brought.
Caera hesitated, wanting to go with him and give her input, but knowing that to the Dubliners—Dubs—she was just a country girl and what she said wouldn’t matter. It was hard to step back and let them decide what to do. Tomorrow would be Finn’s Stable’s first time on TV. She didn’t want them painting her baby in a bad light.
“How’s it?” Rory Mac Gabhann, Caera’s assistant director, asked. He was carrying two chairs, and behind him his younger brother, Gerard, carried a few more.
“They’re going to take down the pipe and drape over the window, I hope.” Caera pointed to where she wanted the chairs. It seemed they’d be using the regular stage, so it was time to get the chairs in place.
“Just as well, those black curtains look hideous.” Rory smiled, his brown eyes sparkling.
“You’ll be quiet,” Caera said, giving him a push towards the storage area, a strange cone-shaped addition off one side of the stable that had once been a dovecote.
“It does look stupid, Miss Cassidy.” Gerard tossed his head, the floppy waves of hair that covered his face flipping back for a second, revealing eyes as melting as his older brother’s. At fifteen, he was gangly and awkward, with none of his brother’s finesse and smooth talking. Something for which all the teenage girls in Cailtytown should be grateful.
“Well, don’t be saying that so loud,” she admonished, tapping Gerard on the shoulder with the back of her hand. “We wouldn’t want to offend them.”
“Offend the Dubs? Impossible. They’re so thick nothing gets through to them.” Rory carried two more chairs in.
“Rory Mac Gabhann.” Caera looked at the television crew, who were a safe twenty feet away. “What would your mammy think to hear you talk like that?”
“Want me to tell on him, Miss Cassidy?” Gerard said, helpfully.
“Watch yourself, boy-o.” Little brother darted out of the way of Rory’s swat, grinning.
“You watch, or I’ll tell Ma.”
“Both of you, stop.” Caera crossed her arms, wishing once again that she were taller and more commanding. At five-foot-four, she was shorter than everyone, even teenage Gerard, and Rory towered over her. “Can we pretend we’re running a real event venue, and not some country tra-la-la?”
Gerard had the grace to look sheepish, while Rory just grinned. His gaze lingered on her a second too long, his smile a fraction too intense. Caera turned away from it, as she always had.
The wide double doors opened and Elizabeth Jefferies, manager of Glenncailty and Caera’s boss, slipped in. Cold winter wind whirled in the door along with Elizabeth, catching a few pieces of her blonde hair and making them dance.
Caera checked the TV crew, then made her way to Elizabeth. As always, her boss carried what looked like an old, hard-backed book but was really a case hiding her tablet computer.
“Is everything in order?” Elizabeth’s words were clipped, her English accent pronounced.
“We’re getting on well enough.” Caera checked her watch. “We have twenty-four hours before the doors open.”
“And ticket sales?”
“Sold out this morning.” With ten brilliant musicians participating, selling the three hundred tickets Finn’s Stable could seat shouldn’t have been a problem—if Glenncailty was in a major city. They were in the countryside, two hours from Dublin despite the new motorway, with only small villages nearby. Cailtytown was the local village, and had a population of only five hundred. Finding three hundred people out of those five hundred who would pay the nearly €100 ticket price would be impossible. Caera had thrown a lot into local advertising and marketing, and it had paid off, with not a moment to spare.
“I’m pleased to hear it.” Elizabeth zipped open her book-like case and started tapping on the flat screen of her tablet. “Are there any other details I can assist you with?” With her head bent over the tablet, Elizabeth seemed older than the thirty-five she was rumored to be. Caera didn’t know much about the Englishwoman, who never shared anything about herself or her life. Whatever her personal story, she was a brilliant hotel manager and had, in two short years, overseen the renovation and grand opening of Glenncailty. She was also, as far as Caera knew, the only person to ever have an actual conversation with Mr. O’Muircheartaigh, the owner.
“Everything’s ready. Parking, signage, photography for our website and promotional materials, and accommodations for the musicians. The TV crew is handling the tech work.”
“I spoke with Sorcha—it seems most of the musicians have arrived and are checked in.”
Caera nodded. “Paddy Fish and the American, who Paddy is picking up, are the last two. They should be here—” Caera looked at her watch, running through the mental timetable she’d been working out for months, “—in the next hour.”
“Brilliant job. I’m going to check with the kitchens. I want everyone to have a choice of eating in the dining room or the pub. If you see any of the performers, please apprise them of our amenities. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”
“Thank you, Elizabeth.”
Caera watched her boss heave the one-hundred-year-old wood door open, letting in another swirl of February wind. It would rain tonight. She could smell it. She turned back, tipping her head to the exposed rafters two stories above. A combination of nerves and sadness filled her—nerves that the event would go smoothly, that Finn’s Stable would show well on television. Sadness because she could almost hear the music that would fill it—the rill of fiddle, strum of guitar and the passion of voices singing of times both good and bad, lost and hoped for. Singing of the free birds that fly beyond prison walls.
* * * *
“I want to do a pre-sound check test, to make sure everything’s working. Go get one of the artists from the hotel.” The producer, who was clearly talking to his sound tech, was speaking just loud enough for Caera to hear. She was in her office, a large square room off the dovecote-turned-storage, which she shared with Rory and an odd assortment of supplies.
Jumping from her desk, she hurried into the main building. “I have a few instruments here. I can test the sound for you.”
Please, just for one moment, let me pretend.
The producer and technician both looked over. “Good enough, then we don’t need to bother anyone until sound check tomorrow morning.”
Caera hustled back into her office, grabbing an acoustic guitar. The wood was smooth and cool in her hands, the tiny ribbing of the strings familiar but almost unfelt under her heavily calloused fingertips. Pushing back the sleeves of her sweater, she followed the technician’s instructions, moving between the seats they’d set up on the stage, angling her body towards the guitar-height mics so they picked up the simple tunes she strummed out.
The mics were barely necessary. For a rectangular building, Finn’s Stable had excellent acoustics—she’d even had acoustic tiles strategically placed on the backsides of the rafters to stop the sound from echoing. Since they were recording the event for a TV special, they had to have the mics, but Caera always liked it best when the music was natural, filling the old stone walls with pure sound, unfiltered by electronics.
“Everything’s working. Thanks, Caera.”
“Happy to help.”
“You play well. Going to audition to play backup for some of our stars?” The producer grinned at her. Caera tried to return the smile, but it felt more like she was gritting her teeth.
“No, I play for myself.”
The TV crew headed towards the door and Caera took her guitar back to her office. When she heard the door close, she carefully lifted her harp from the space of honor and carried it into the stable.
* * * *
Tim looked up from where he knelt behind the last row of chairs, his fiddle case open on the floor in front of him. A dark-haired woman emerged from a side entrance, carrying a harp. He rose, prepared to offer his help, but she carried it easily, curled arms cupping the sides as she walked sideways. She set it on the stage and took a seat. Now it was slightly taller than her, but not nearly as tall as the massive orchestral harps. Interested, he moved up the aisle that bisected the audience chairs, focused on the shape of the harp and the intricate roses carved into the base.
The first note hummed, vibrating with a purity of sound only the harp could produce. Then she sighed, a soft thing of pleasure.
For the first time, Tim focused on the woman who played.
She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
Waves of dark hair framed her face and fell over her shoulders, mingling with the black wool sweater she wore. Her skin was pale, her lips full. And her eyes, focused on the middle-space beyond the stage, were a clear, pale blue. Late afternoon sun beamed in the windows, highlighting the curve of her cheek as she sat with one shoulder towards the floor to ceiling windows behind the stage.
She ran through scales, her fingers plucking the strings with ease. Scales turned into a melody, a song he knew. “Lament on Con O’Leary’s Wife’s Death” was an old song and a sad one for all its beauty. Sad and beautiful, just the way he liked it.
The harp’s pure notes filled the air, but he found himself watching her, almost forgetting the music. Her face creased with grief, expressing the sadness of the song. Her body rocked in time to the dirge-like pace, every fiber of her being melded with the notes her fingers drew forth.
Retreating silently, Tim picked up his fiddle. She was improvising some, adding notes and refrains to the simple song. Tucking the fiddle under his chin, he forced himself to stop ogling her and hear the music. Some part of his brain was translating what he heard into letter-notes, the tempo into musical beats, but when he lay his bow to the strings, it was instinct and skill that let him join her. First matching her note for note, then taking off on his own path, turning her solitary song into a fiddle-harp duet as he walked the long aisle from the back of the venue to the stage.
She looked up, blue eyes bright and sharp. Their gazes met, held, and discordant notes sounded from both their instruments as something passed between them. With the next breath, she found the notes, brought them both back into the song. Shaking himself free of the spell of her sapphire eyes, he joined her on the stage, bending his body to her as they continued to play.
Her eyes, which had been assessing him, slowly closed, a faint smile curling her perfect lips as she rocked in time with the music they made.
They reached a natural crescendo, Tim closing his own eyes to focus. He didn’t need to see her, she was there in her notes, the melody. The musical fever rose, then broke, slowly fading to a smooth, sad finish.
Tim opened his eyes.
She had one cheek against her harp, her gaze clear and steady on him.
“You must be the American,” she said, in a sweet Irish lilt.
“Guilty.” Tim flashed her a smile, wondering who she was. He knew, or knew of, all the other musicians participating in Free Birds Fly, and she wasn’t one of them. At the same time, she was too good a musician to be a tech or a roadie—not that anyone playing this event had that kind of entourage anyway. Maybe she was one of the TV crew who’d let him into the building. That still didn’t explain why she was on stage playing a harp. “What gave me away?”
“You fiddle like an American.”
“I don’t know if I should thank you or be insulted.”
She rose, stroking her harp in a way that brought his attention to her hands. “No insult.”
“Well, then thank you. I’m Tim.”
She didn’t respond right away, instead her fingers crawled the strings, another scale. “I know.”
One of the main doors opened with a groan and Paddy, his best and only Irish musician friend, strode in.
“Yank, come on. We’re to check in, and I’m famished.” Paddy’s entrance shattered the moment—his shoes were clacking on the stone floor, his voice loud and boisterous after the music.
“Just checking to make sure she survived the trip.” Tim raised his precious fiddle, saluting his friend with it.
“I told you it would be fine. Let’s shove off, then.”
“Okay, let me…” But the girl was gone. Tim stared at the empty stage. Her harp was there, which was a good thing since if it hadn’t been, Tim might have wondered he’d just experienced some jet lag-induced hallucination.
“You play the harp now, Yank?” Paddy ambled up the center aisle to stand beside him.
“There was a girl.” Tim pointed at the harp with his bow. In the few moments he’d been talking to Paddy, back to the stage, she’d disappeared.
Paddy rolled his eyes. He had an unremarkable round face, curly brown hair and a voice that could make angels weep. “Ah, sure there was.”
Holding the neck of his fiddle and bow in one hand, Tim rubbed the back of his head.
“She was playing the harp, so I joined in. There was a girl, I swear.”
“Was she pretty?”
“Yea, how’d you know?” Maybe she was a musician who’d just been added to the program. That would make sense.
Paddy laughed. “Welcome to Ireland. We specialize in beautiful, mysterious women.”
The Cold Within
The first drops of rain and accompanying wind followed Tim and Paddy through the front doors of Glenncailty Castle. Outside it was raining and sunny at the same time. Tim was beginning to understand why Ireland was famous for its rainbows.
“Is this the pretty girl you met?” Paddy’s whisper was loud enough to carry, but the thunk of the doors closing behind them drowned out the words.
Tim blinked at the gorgeous redhead waiting in the massive foyer beyond the castle’s double doors. There was no doubt she was beautiful, but she wasn’t the harp player.
“No, that’s not her.”
“Well then, I think she’s mine.”
Tim snorted. “You couldn’t get her.”
“Put a guitar in my hands and I could have anyone. When I’m playing, I’m quite the catch.”
“What happens when you put the guitar down?” They were almost to the redhead, so Tim kept his voice low.
“These fingers are still magic.”
“Gentlemen, you’re very welcome to Glenncailty Castle. We’re looking forward to hearing you perform tomorrow night.” The look on her face said she’d heard some of their conversation, and her small smile twitched with amusement. “I’m Sorcha, guest relations manager here, and I’ll be helping you check in.”
She gestured to the left side of the foyer, where a long reception desk waited. The foyer was almost square, with a massive wood staircase opposite the double entrance doors. The floor was black and white stone—not tile, Tim noticed, but honest black and white stone—set in a check pattern, dull from three hundred years of feet. The walls were mint green above the waist-high paneling and the furniture heavy, dark wood. Wheeling his bag behind him, fiddle case under his arm, Tim followed Paddy and Sorcha to the registration desk, where an ethereally pretty blonde with an accent he couldn’t place helped him. There was no massive counter or huge computer terminal, just a laptop and a printer somewhere under the desk. When he’d answered her questions and signed the needed forms, she opened a drawer to hand him a gold key. An actual metal key.
“Never seen a key before?” Paddy elbowed him in the ribs.
Tim tossed it in his hand. “Never gotten one from a hotel.”
Sorcha came around from behind the desk. “I’ll show you to your rooms and then we can go on a tour if you feel up to it. Otherwise you can rest before having dinner. Mr. Wilcox, I know you’ve come a long way.”
“We already saw some of your beautiful castle.” Paddy was laying it on thick. “Tim was worried for his fiddle, so we went first to the barn.”
“So you’ve seen Finn’s Stable? It’s a beautiful venue, and its reputation for live music and performances has grown over the past year. That’s one of the reasons we’re excited to have Free Birds Fly come to our glen.”
“It’s the nicest castle I’ve ever been in,” Tim said, taking another look around the foyer.
The redhead laughed. “Thank you. As you may have guessed, it’s not a true castle in the medieval sense—for that you’d need Trim or Bunratty. Glenncailty was originally a large, fortified manor. The people in Cailtytown and the other villages in the glen have always called this Glenncailty Castle, and there are many stories as to how it came to be known that way. It was a private residence until a few years ago. It’s currently owned by the O’Muircheartaigh family.”
Tim looked at the simple brochure he’d been given along with his key. The name of the family that owned it had caught his eye because it seemed unpronounceable.
“Wait, this name, spelled like this, is pronounced O-were-hurtie?” Tim frowned at the brochure, sure that wasn’t right.
“Yes.” Sorcha took them through a doorway opposite the registration desk. A wood-paneled hall stretched from the foyer to the far wall of the main building.
“How…?” Tim was staring at the name in bewilderment.
“That’s Irish for you.” Paddy laughed. The sound of their luggage wheels quieted as they went from stone to carpet.
“So this is a traditional Gaelic name?”
“You Americans.” Paddy shook his head.
“What did I say?”
“Gaelic isn’t a language.” Sorcha looked over her should and smiled softly. They passed a recess with a door that said simply The Restaurant at Glenncailty. “Gaelic is a group of languages, same as the Germanic or Romance languages. It includes Irish, Welsh, Scotts-Gaelic, Manx and a few others.”
“Oh.” Tim blinked. “I had no idea. I thought it was Gaelic, sorry.”
“Everyone seems to, but the language is Irish. It’s the official language of the Republic, and everyone takes Irish in school.”
“Is that why all the street signs are in English and, uh, Irish?”
“Yes.” Sorcha cleared her throat slightly, then went into tour-guide mode. “If you consult your map, you’ll see that we’re passing through a hall that runs from the foyer to the east wall. This half of the main floor contains our restaurant, which is fine dining at its best, and also the breakfast room, which you access from the foyer.”
At the end of the hall was another large wood door, though this one didn’t look like it was one hundred years old, as all the other doors he’d seen so far had.
“This door leads to the east wing.” Sorcha opened it and motioned them through. “Architectural historians have dated the detached east and west wings to within fifty years of construction of the main building. The covered halls, one of which you’ve just entered, were added later, and as part of the remodel they were repaired and updated.”
On the other side of the door was a short stone hall. Large windows provided a view of the grounds in the front of the castle, which were a tumble of wild roses and thick underbrush with heavy, evenly spaced trees lining the curved drive that touched the entrance doors. On the other side of the hall, matching windows offered a view of more wild plants, which partially obscured an annex that jutted off the side of the main castle. Straight in front of them was a second massive stone building. Rain dripped down the windows, and the sunlight that had been present when they first entered the building was gone, abandoning the sky to the fat, dark rainclouds.
“What’s that?” Paddy asked, pointing out the windows towards the rear of the castle at the annex.
Sorcha winced. “It’s the kitchens. As you can see, the kitchens were built new for the hotel and attached to the restaurant via one of the exterior walls. No part of the main building could be reworked into a restaurant grade kitchen, so we had to add that space.”
“It’s a pity.” Paddy shook his head.
“It is.” Sorcha paused and frowned. “And it blocked the view of the rear of the castle from these windows. The gardens are beautiful—walled and laid out in a formal way.”
Tim had no idea what Paddy thought was a pity. His confusion must have shown on his face, because Paddy said, “It’s a shame when they add things like this. Modern things to old buildings.”
“But a hotel needs a kitchen.” Tim was most definitely a lover of all vintage items, especially old music, but he didn’t understand their distress.
“In Ireland we’re very protective of our old homes, actually any architecture at all.” Sorcha started walking again.
“That’s fair. I mean, just this building is older than the U.S. as a nation.”
Paddy and Sorcha stopped, turned and looked at him. Paddy shook his head and Sorcha’s smile was full of pity.
“That’s a sad thing. I’d never thought of it that way before.” Paddy patted his shoulder.
“It’s not sad,” Tim said with a flash of star-spangled pride.
“Ah, sure it is.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Gentlemen, if I may direct your attention.” With Sorcha’s herding, they passed out of the hall into the east wing, which they’d seen looming over them through the rain-sheeted windows. The foyer for this wing was tiny compared to what they’d come through, with an elevator and several doors taking up most of the wall space. It might have been any modern hotel, except for the exposed stone exterior wall they’d just passed through, which seeped cold. “The elevator or stairs just here will take you to your rooms, on the second floor. There are nine rooms in this wing. All the performers save one who has family in Trim are staying there. The production crew is in the west wing.
“Through the door here—” Sorcha gestured to a wood door with a textured glass window, “—is the Pub. It’s always good crack, and you won’t be the only musicians, I’d say.”
Tim rocked back on his heels as he ran his tongue over his teeth. “I, uh, don’t usually partake in crack—alcohol is my vice.” He smiled to cover his discomfort at hearing that the class-A felony drugs to be found at the pub were nice. Damned musician stereotypes. He hoped the hotel hadn’t stocked his room with hypodermic needles or anything strange. And he’d always considered Ireland a rather conservative country. Today was just full of surprises.
Paddy and Sorcha were looking at him again.
Paddy patted him on the back. “Tell me now, Yank, did I seem as great a fool when I came to America?”
Tim just sighed. They were all three speaking English, weren’t they?
“That’s no way to treat a guest,” Sorcha scolded her countryman. “Tim, crack is spelled C-R-A-I-C. It’s the Irish word for a good time, for fun.”
“Is there a dictionary or something I can get?” Tim felt a little desperate.
“No need—by the time you leave next week, we’ll have you speaking like a proper Irishman.” Sorcha hit the button for the elevator and turned to leave.
“Sure, you’re going to walk us up,” Paddy said, smiling at the redhead.
She leveled a look at him but returned the smile. “Of course.”
They piled into the elevator. When they got off on the second floor bits of music filled the hall. He heard the first strains of what he thought might be “Curragh of Kildare” on guitar, the rhythmic thump of a traditional Irish drum, the tinny sound of an Irish tin whistle and discordant layers of string instruments, including guitar, tenor banjo and something he thought might be a bouzouki.
“I get why we’re above the pub,” Tim said as Sorcha led them to their rooms.
“Yes, well, if you have any problems with your room or the noise level, please let us know. You dial zero on the—”
“No, I’m glad. I need to tune too. I didn’t think you’d let me do it in the hotel, that’s why I asked Paddy to take me to the barn.”
“We will ask everyone to quiet down if there are any complaints.”
“And will you be coming personally?” Paddy asked with a grin.
Tim shook his head, leaning back against the wall in the hall to watch his friend make an ass of himself. Jet lag was rearing its ugly head, and his door was temptingly close, but he didn’t want to miss this.
“No, sad to say. It would be my night manager.”
“Pity. Will you be at the concert tomorrow?”
“I will be.”
“Then I’ll see you after, my lovely Rose of Tralee,” Paddy swept a dramatic bow and disappeared into his room.
Tim turned his snort-laugh into a cough. Sorcha turned her look of resignation on him.
“Ahem, sorry, dust or something in my throat.” Tim pushed away from the wall, the muscles in his face protesting from exhaustion when he smiled.
“We didn’t complete our tour of the castle, but I suspect you’ll want your bed or some food.” She crossed her arms. “And while you’re here I hope you meet some proper Irish gentlemen.”
“I’ll make a point of it,” Tim said with all the mock seriousness he could muster.
Sorcha lapsed back into her professional customer-service face. “Please let the front desk know if there’s anything you need. In the hotel, your options for dinner are the pub, which I pointed out to you, or the main restaurant, which is quieter.”
“Thank you.” Tim opened the door with the brass-colored key. “Actually, I have a question.”
“There was a woman playing a harp. In Finn’s Stable.”
“Of course.” Sorcha nodded, smiled and turned away.
“Wait.” Damn, Paddy had not been kidding about Irish women. “Who is she? What’s her name?”
Sorcha looked him up and down. Her body language changed as she did it, her straight posture softening, her hands not folded in front of her but tapping restlessly on her thigh. She was no longer a hotel professional, but a beautiful, touchable woman. Any other time Tim would have felt something for her, but either jet lag or the dark-haired women had stolen his desire. And if he really thought that one song and a few words between him and the beautiful woman had robbed him of his ability to be attracted to anyone else, he needed to stop playing and listening to melancholy, romantic folk songs, because he was losing touch with reality.
“Caera Cassidy. She’s our special events coordinator. She arranged all of this.”
“That’s Caera?” Tim had seen her name on all the emails about the event. He’d never imagined she was so beautiful, or young.
“She’s younger than I thought.” That was an understatement. Usually booking managers were a bit younger, but venue managers were older, with years of experience.
“She’s very special, is Caera. Careful there.”
As Sorcha walked away, Tim wondered if she was warning him to be careful because Caera could hurt him, or he could hurt her.
* * * *
After half an hour lying on the bed, bone-weary but not tired—despite the fact that he’d spent the past ten hours traveling to Dublin from New York via London, plus two hours in the car with Paddy—Tim gave up the hope of a nap and sat up.
Digging into his bag, he took a few aspirin and gulped down water. The clashing sounds of tuning instruments and discordant bits of song were making his lingering headache worse, so he grabbed his jacket and headed out the door, stuffing the key and castle map in his pocket.
It was barely five o’clock, but when he reached the window-filled hall connecting the east wing to the main castle it felt like 3 A.M. as rain sheeted down the glass from a black sky. There was no way he was going outside, as nice as a walk sounded, so he’d settle for touring the castle. He really liked castles. He’d even booked himself a room in a castle-looking B&B later in the week. As Tim emerged into the foyer, he wondered if there was any hope of finding Caera and begging her for a tour.
The foyer was empty except for the blonde who’d checked him in.
“Good evening, Mr. Wilcox, is there anything I can help you with?”
“Is Caera, uh…” Tim’s brain took a moment to come up with her last name, which he’d seen on her emails, “…Cassidy around?”
The blonde frowned. “I’m sorry, she’s busy preparing for the concert. Is there something you need for your performance?”
Tim considered making up something so he could talk to her, but that was a shit thing to do. He shook his head. “No, I just wanted to say hi. I think I’m going to go for a tour. Maybe just find someplace to sit.”
“I’d take you on a tour myself, but I’m afraid I’m the only one here. If you’re looking for quiet, I’d recommend the Rose Room or the formal front room. You can access them through that door.”
She directed him to another old, expensive-looking door, almost directly opposite the one he’d just come through.
With a nod of thanks, he opened the door. Rather than more wood, he found himself in a carpeted hall with fancy wallpaper and several white doors. The first one had a small plaque, labeling it the formal front room. The need to explore the castle—Tim didn’t care that it wasn’t technically a castle, it was called castle and that was enough for him—was on him, so he bypassed that room and examined each of the other doors. He found one marked Staff, a billiards room, the Rose Room and the door that led to the other covered hallway and the west wing.
He stepped out of the main castle building, into the covered hallway. The rain on the windows made it hard to see anything, but the air that seeped through the stones was vibrant with cold and atmosphere. Feeling like a great explorer, which he knew was stupid since Sorcha had said the TV crew was in the west wing, Tim entered the third building of the castle.
Disappointingly, the first floor of the west wing was a generic hotel hallway. Nondescript patterned carpet traversed the length of the hall, all the way to a window in the far wall, which was stone. The interior walls were beige, the doors white. A few of the doors had Do Not Disturb signs up, so he guessed those were the TV crew. Feeling more than a little stupid, Tim walked the hall, counting nine rooms and an elevator and stairs in the space by the door where a tenth room wasn’t. The only interesting things about it were the large gold keyholes and real handles on the doors, rather than the key-card mechanisms Tim was used to.
“Worst explorer ever,” Tim muttered to himself.
Either the aspirin or the fake exploring had lifted some of his jet lag exhaustion. Deciding to go back to the main building and check out the billiards room, he put his hand on the door handle.
He looked at the stairs.
He needed to check the second floor.
Heart beating fast, for no reason he could name, Tim took the stairs two at a time. At first glance, the second floor was just another level of hotel rooms—the same paint on the walls, same carpet on the floor. But it wasn’t the same. There was something wrong. Tim knew it the way he knew when a song was right.
Unlike downstairs, the hall didn’t end in a stone wall, but rather in more of the same beige paint. The light from the sconces between each door seemed dimmer, making the paint a sickly yellow at the windowless end of the hall.
Tim took a step, then another, wondering what the hell he was doing. The hair on his arms was standing on end, he was breathing fast and his hands were fisted and ready—for what, he didn’t know.
Either his system had gone completely haywire or there was a something up here that he could feel but not name.
Tim had grown up on a steady diet of folk music, the kind of songs that made a boy believe in love that transcended death. He’d grown into a man who sang about the cynic-less longings and hopes that people like to pretend they didn’t feel or believe.
He would never deny a feeling, even if he couldn’t name it. Even if it frightened him.
Tim crept forward, pausing between each step to take a breath.
This level had only five rooms, the hall about half the length of the one on the lower floor. The hall ended in a smooth wall, with no apparent access to what Tim guessed was about fifty percent of the second floor. He checked the castle map. There was nothing on this section—half the second floor of the west wing was simply blank. There was no room name or numbers, no explanation.
Tim stopped in front of the wall, staring at the expanse of beige paint. The closer he looked, the more certain he became that there was a darker patch visible in the paint—a large rectangular patch. A door.
It was cold, so cold that for a moment Tim was sure he could see his breath.
He raised his hand, fingers reaching for the darker patch on the wall.
“Tim? Mr. Wilcox?” A lilting voice called his name, the voice seeming to echo, as if the speaker had shouted through a pipe.
Tim pulled his hand back, curling it into a fist. His heart was beating so hard he could taste his heartbeat. The cold was seeping up the legs of his pants and down his collar.
This was bad. He needed to leave.
No longer feeling like the open-minded explorer, Tim turned and ran. He braced his hands on the banisters and took the first set of stairs in one leap. He nearly crashed into Sorcha, who stood on the landing.
“Mr. Wilcox.” Sorcha’s eyes widened. She touched the back of one finger to his cheek, quickly pulling her hand away. “You’re freezing.”
“There’s something going on up there, you need to go up there and—” Tim’s words tumbled out.
“Mr. Wilcox, we don’t use the second floor of the west wing.”
Tim blinked. Was she not hearing him? “There’s something up there, it’s cold, really cold at the end of the hall, and I think maybe you walled over the door. I could see, like, an outline in the paint.”
“You could see it?”
“You know about it?”
“I should have warned you. No one goes up there.”
“You know what it is? Is it haunted? Was that a ghost?” Tim was secretly thrilled with the idea of a ghost encounter, but that had felt almost…dangerous.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts. That’s a terrible thing to think, souls wandering lost.” Sorcha took his arm, drawing him down the second set of steps.
“Fine, it’s not a ghost. It’s something. Do you know what it is?”
“It’s an old building, there are places you’ll find that are—”
“No, there’s a door behind that wall. I think you accidentally walled it up when you remodeled or something. There’s something back there.”
They were standing at the head of the hallway on the lower floor. Tim glanced down it, expecting a twinge, but there was nothing. It was only the second floor. Sorcha too looked over her shoulder, then drew him out into the covered hallway.
“Mr. Wilcox, I’ll ask you not to alarm the other guests.”
“Then tell me what it was I just had a run in with.”
Sorcha shook her head. With a backdrop of sheeting rain through the windows, her red hair catching the hall lights, she looked like a sorceress, a keeper of secrets.
“I don’t know what, and if you want answers so specific, you’ll be disappointed. As for the door…” She turned to look out, into the rain. “When you cannot open a door for fear of what’s on the other side, you wall it up.”
Tim whistled between his teeth. It was nice to know he wasn’t losing his mind—there was a door outline in the paint. Being told that there was something so crazy up there that they’d walled in the door rather than deal with it blew his mind.
“You just…walled it up?” Tim rubbed his hand on the back of his head. His mind was going a million miles a minute. She must have been lying when she said she didn’t know what it was. People didn’t wall up access to half a floor of a castle because they suspected there might be something bad. They must know it was bad, therefore they had to know what it was.
“I did nothing.”
“What’s back there? You must know, otherwise you wouldn’t have walled it up.”
“You act like I did this, but I did not. Nor did anyone here, or even the O’Muircheartaigh family. That door was sealed shut with brick and mortar over one hundred years ago.”
Tim rocked back on his heels, eyes widening.
“So what you felt,” Sorcha continued, “must have been a draft, coming through a crack. That room, that whole part of the building, is not in the best shape. Your friend Paddy is looking for you, hoping you’ll join him in the pub for dinner.”
Tim looked over his shoulder, through the windows at the massive west wing, then let Sorcha lead him away.
In the Rain
Caera dropped into a chair at a table in the middle of the pub. As much as she’d like to take one of the two snugs or a table by the window, the policy was to leave the best seats for customers, so the staff who sought their dinner in the wood-paneled pub took the center tables. She waved to some of the regulars, including a group of old men from Cailtytown who’d taken up residence at the table closest to the little stage, which was stacked with wood barrels since there were no acts billed for tonight. But it looked like there’d be music anyway. The “boys”, as they called themselves, though none was a day under sixty, all had their instruments and were always happy for a music session.
The pub was larger than a normal country pub, taking up almost the entire ground floor of the east wing, with two bars to keep the drinks flowing when it was full. But the seating arrangements and high walls of the snugs, which she sometimes heard Americans call “secret rooms”, broke up the space and kept the atmosphere intimate. A few die-hard smokers were on the patio out the back doors, puffing away in the rain. It smelled like cooked spuds, good beer and earth, the last scent having been trailed in by a few bachelor farmers who even in their clean clothes smelled of the land. The butcher’s son John was at the bar with Séan Donnovan, who never looked entirely comfortable in the pub.
Rory dropped down in a chair next to her. “I’m starving-like.”
“You worked hard, and I thank you,” Caera said. Finn’s Stable was set up, with each chair perfectly positioned and the stage ready and waiting for the musicians. “Let me buy you dinner.”
“Ah Caera, my darling love, I thought you’d never ask.” Rory pressed his hands to his heart and fluttered his lashes at her.
“Jaysus.” Caera pushed up. Weaving between the tables, she made her way to the bar—the crowd was large but not fast-drinking, so only one bar was manned—and flipped up the pass through. She waved at the bartender as she walked into the stock room. Locked cages protected bottles of alcohol, while the kegs were lined in neat rows, hoses disappearing into the wall.
Against the back wall, a spiral staircase led down to an underground hallway that connected the kitchen and the pub. Building it had come at huge expense, but Mr. O’Muircheartaigh wouldn’t allow any other external buildings or halls besides the kitchen itself. The hall was hard on the servers, as were the stairs, but hauling food through the rain or the long way through the restaurant and covered hall would have been worse. The rumor among the staff was that Mr. O’Muircheartaigh and Elizabeth had fought bitterly over the building of the kitchen.
Caera, for one, was glad. With no proper kitchen of her own, she ate from the castle’s kitchen most nights, and its modern set-up had lured a wonderful French chef to Glenncailty. She said hello to one of the servers in the hall, turning sideways to make room for the tray of fish and chips, stew, burgers and brown bread he carried.
Climbing the stairs into the kitchen, she used the terminal there to key in her usual order of soup and bread and Rory’s of steak and chips, then wandered over to wait for it. She leaned on the end of one of the counters, doing her best to stay out of the way as Jim, one of the chefs, worked.
“I’ve never cut so many chips,” Jim said. He was the chef de partie of the fry baskets, or friturier, as the French chef de cuisine, Tristan, insisted Jim be called. It seemed like a fancy name for a man frying chips, but Caera had to admit these chips were better than most, so maybe the French titles helped. The whole kitchen glistened, not only with clean steel, but with the expectations and rigidity of Tristan. Caera usually hid if she saw him.
“You’ve peeled more spuds than this,” Caera said, looking in the garbage pail at the mountain of potato peels.
Jim slammed a potato through a dicer, tossed the pieces with some floury substance, then added them to a bowl of raw chips, ready to be made into fried bits of heaven.
“It’s been a fair while. I hear you’re to blame for this.”
Caera shrugged and smiled. Free Birds Fly was her baby, the biggest thing she’d done thus far at Glenncailty.
“Well, good luck to you. And tell Rory I’m going to Navan to watch the Meath-Galway game if he wants to come.”
“I’m sure he will.”
She saw another chef ladle up her soup, then fetch Rory’s steak from the restaurant side and slide it onto a plate. Jim added chips, Caera grabbed her own bread and, after stealing a tray to put them on, she carefully carried them back into the bar.
“You’re a lovely serving girl,” Rory told her.
“You’d do well to show some respect. I am your boss.”
“You’d look fetching in an apron.”
“Nothing but an apron.” Rory’s brown eyes danced.
“Now I’m telling your mammy.”
“Ah Caera, why won’t you—”
She didn’t hear the rest of what Rory said. The hair on her arms stood up, as if someone had let in the cold, but the doors were closed. She looked over to see the American sitting at the bar.
He was looking at her.
Their gazes met. Held.
“Yea?” Caera ripped her attention from Tim and turned back to Rory, who was looking at her oddly.
He followed her gaze to the bar.
She wanted to say “no one” and tell Rory to mind his own business, but that made no sense. She had nothing to hide. “He’s Tim Wilcox.”
“The American?” Rory turned to look again. Out of the corner of her eye Caera saw Tim studying Rory in return. “He dresses like an American.”
Tim wore jeans, a T-shirt with a picture of what looked like Johnny Cash, a gray scarf wound around his neck and a black jacket. Among the trousers and jumper-clad Irish, he did stand out.
Caera thought he looked a bit like a model, with his hair parted at the side, the forelock curling on his brow, his jaw square, lips finely cut.
“He’s looking at you,” Rory said, voice deepening.
Rory, I’m not yours to protect, Caera thought.
“We met earlier. He came in to Finn’s to test his fiddle.”
Rory turned back to her, the fight draining out of him at her words. He munched down a few fries, before adding, “That’s what she said.”
“You said he came to ‘test his fiddle.’ That’s what she said.” Rory grinned at his own wit.
Caera threw a hunk of brown bread at him. Lifting her bowl, she drained the last drops of soup. She was just in time. The shift must have been changing in the hotel, because a reception clerk and two parlor attendants were hovering, waiting to join their table.
She stood, giving up her seat and bussing her plate to the far end of the bar, away from Tim. Quick as she could, she pulled up the ticket for their dinner and paid, prepared to sneak out and away to home.
She didn’t make it.
The first notes of a strummed guitar quieted and then raised a cheer from the patrons in the bar. The pack of wily old gentlemen from Cailtytown had their instrument cases up on their table, pint glasses carefully pushed aside. Next came a fiddle and another guitar. A triangle and tin whistle hit the tabletop.
One of them, an old farmer who could talk for Ireland, as the saying went, and God help the soul who he trapped in a conversation, stood while his friends drank and tuned their instruments.
His clear baritone, seasoned by years, filled the silenced room as he sang the first lines of “The Auld Triangle”, a song that was both sad and funny, about an execution day at Mountjoy Prison.
The others joined in, a multi-part harmony, all a cappella, each taking a verse, some with a quiet seriousness that reminded listeners the song was about men imprisoned, others with a devilish twinkle in their eye as they sang about the women in the female prison. When the song came to an end, the pub erupted in applause and good-natured heckling by those who knew the singers.
Caera jolted, remembering that there were professional musicians in the audience. This pub was part of the hotel, but in off times it was kept alive by locals and not-so-locals who came for the good craic. She didn’t want the musicians she’d brought here looking down their noses at locals who took up an instrument to play a session.
Stepping away from the terminal, she looked down the bar at Tim, who was lounging next to Paddy Fish. Paddy grinned and leaned over to say something in Tim’s ear, but Tim didn’t react, his attention riveted on the musicians.
The fiddler stood, took a mouthful of his pint, and tucked his battered fiddle under his chin.
“How about ‘Mairi’s Wedding’, my lads?” one man called out.
“We’ll be needing a lassie to dance for us, and I’m seeing the one I want. Sorcha, come up here.” Caera hadn’t seen her friend and housemate enter the pub for dinner, but at their request, Sorcha stood, pulling off her jacket and taking down her hair. Red waves fell down her back. There was a clatter and Caera looked over to see Séan Donnovan mopping up the spill from the pint he’d just knocked over.
When the chorus came, half the pub was singing as Sorcha held her arms at her sides and danced, her cheeks flushing with laugher.
Caera looked back to Tim, who was gazing around the pub with an expression on his face that was almost…wonder. Curious, she dodged between the swaying diners, the clapping hands and perched beside him.
His attention turned to her. “This is beautiful.”
Caera looked around. Only half the pub was singing, the music echoed oddly in a space that wasn’t designed for it and enthusiastic tabletop drumbeats only barely drowned out the clink of silverware. It was far from beautiful. It was good fun, nothing more.
“Why do you say so?” she asked.
“It’s…real. Paddy said those men aren’t professional musicians, they just play when they feel like it, and if someone else had an instrument, they would go up and play.”
“That’s the way of it.”
“That’s…that’s how music should be.” There was an aching sadness in his voice.
“I like it all right when it’s nicely planned in a place with proper acoustics.” Caera raised a brow, reminding him that he was a musician.
He grinned ruefully, seeming to take her meaning. “When I’m on the stage, the music is one-sided, and that’s nice when I have something new to say about the song or when I want to own the feelings, but sometimes it’s too much pressure to be alone in the music.”
Caera sucked in a breath. She knew that feeling, that aching fear.
Tim’s eyes were green as the fields in sunlight. His gaze held hers, and she felt that he could see inside her, know her, but that was impossible, she hadn’t even told him her name.
The ruckus calmed, the song changing. The guitars started a simple progression of notes, a slower, sad tune. “We’ll have ‘The Four Green Fields’ to honor those who lost land to road works.” There was a round of head-shaking. “I can’t do it justice. Caera, do us the honor.”
At the sound of her name, the spell broke and she took a breath, still gazing into his eyes.
“I think they’re asking for you, Caera.” Tim’s smile crinkled the corners of his eyes.
Her name on his lips was a surprise. It must have shown on her face, because he held out his hand. “We haven’t formally met.”
“Caera Cassidy.” She slid her hand into his, touching him for the first time. Her palm tingled from contact with his fingers.
Caera turned away.
She made her way to the front, where the music was already underway, just waiting for the vocals to cue the next measure. One of the boys patted her on the shoulder as she turned to face the pub. She took a breath, closed her eyes and let the notes fill her. Hands pressed to her belly, she started singing. “Four Green Fields” was a story of a woman who had four green fields, but lost her sons protecting that land, and before the song was done it was clear that the fine old woman of the song was Ireland herself, her fields the four provinces of the island.
A rebel song at its core, the song elicited both shouts of protest and sad nods, reminding them of what their fathers and forefathers had suffered and lost. Caera opened her eyes, watching the crowd as she finished the song. Almost everyone in the pub had stopped to listen. No silverware clinked when she sang. If glasses were raised, they were in toast to something in the song. In that moment she had power, the music made her whole.
The last note hung in the air. Caera wondered what Tim, who may not have even understood the song, thought. She didn’t want to look at him, afraid to find him apathetic, but she couldn’t seem to help herself.
Tim was up off his stool, looking at her with an intensity that was almost frightening. He started forward, bumping shoulders and elbows in his single-minded determination to reach her.
Caera slipped away, out the rear doors and into the rainy night.
Tim followed her out. As he stood in the soaking rain, he decided his day officially couldn’t get any weirder. It had started yesterday in JFK airport. Since then he’d traveled, he’d talked, he’d played beautiful music with a beautiful woman who disappeared the moment his back was turned. He’d followed an unknown feeling into an unused part of a castle, only to find a foreboding bricked over doorway that seeped cold air and activated his fight-or-flight response.
And now he was chasing a dark-haired angel into the rain.
Yep, it couldn’t get any weirder.
The exterior lights of the castle didn’t illuminate more than a few feet of the wet ground. In her dark sweater she was nearly invisible, but Tim heard the crunch of her feet on stone. He had no idea where he was. She’d gone out the rear door of the pub, exiting into what he assumed were the gardens at the back of the castle.
Squinting at the ground, he could make out the texture of the crushed stone path and carefully followed it as it curved.
“It’s raining, you should go inside.”
Tim jumped. “Holy fuck! You surprised me.”
Her voice had come from his right, off the path. He took a tentative step that direction. The rain pounding down on his shoulders and skull was gone, replaced by the occasional fat drop. He stretched a hand up, touched a leaf of the tree they stood under.
“‘Holy fuck’? That’s quite a thing to say.” Her soft lilt seemed right for the dark, rainy night.
“I’ve had quite the day.”
“I think I encountered a ghost in your castle.”
“You went to the west wing?”
“So it is a ghost. I thought maybe Sorcha was playing for atmosphere or something. Do you all know about the cold, the ghost?”
“You don’t live for years at Glenncailty without an encounter at the walled room.”
“Is Ireland really like this, all mysterious women and old haunted castles?”
As they spoke, Tim had been inching his way towards her, using her voice to guide him. Her breathy question came from directly in front of him, so close he thought he could feel the words, cold on the wet skin of his neck.
“Yes, I met a beautiful woman playing a harp, but when I turned around she was gone.”
“I had work to do.”
“You didn’t introduce yourself.”
The swish of wind and rain cocooned them, filling the space between his comment and her eventual reply.
“There was no reason for me to be playing. I didn’t know how to introduce myself after you’d caught me where I shouldn’t be.” Her sigh was loud enough to be heard over the rain. “With a hotel full of fine musicians, I had no place on that stage.”
Tim laughed. He couldn’t help it. He threw back his head as the mirth rumbled out of him. “You’re kidding, right? You’re genius on the harp. I’ve never heard anyone jam on a harp before today, and you’re saying you don’t think you’re good enough? That’s just nuts. Plus, you sing like an angel. You had the whole bar eating out of your hand. It was magical.”
“You shouldn’t say things like that.” Caera’s words cracked like a whip, catching Tim by surprise.
“What? Why?” Had no one ever told her how musically gifted she was? It seemed impossible that she wouldn’t know how special she was. A person could have all the technical musical skill in the world, but if they didn’t have that certain presence, that real understanding of what music was, the technical skill kept them stuck in a studio. Caera belonged in front of an audience.
“Don’t say things like that,” she demanded, her tone both angry and almost…afraid.
Her anger sparked his. “Why wouldn’t I? It’s the truth.”
“I don’t play for anyone but myself; it doesn’t matter if I’m good.”
“Of course it does. You should be playing and singing with us tomorrow night, not selling the tickets.”
Her hand pressed against his chest, as if to push him away. Tim caught her wrist, holding her palm flat against him. When his fingers touched her bare skin, awareness sparked to life between them.
He searched for and found her waist with his free hand and drew her forward. Now he could see her, just the outline of her body—dark against the gray shadows. Her sweater was damp and heavy under his hand, making him aware of how wet and cold he was.
She drew in a breath, one of those soft girl sounds. Tim tightened his hand on her hip. Her frustrating denial of her music was forgotten under the pressing need to kiss her.
“Was that your boyfriend you ate dinner with?” Tim’s voice was husky. The rain felt like shield, protecting them from the night, from other people, from reality.
“Rory? No, he works with me.”
“Good.” Tim drew her captured hand up to his face. Her fingers brushed his cheek as they curled into her palm, her hand fisting to avoid contact.
In reply, Tim kissed her closed fingers. They were cold, wet against his lips. Under the warmth of his kiss, they opened, her hand cupping his cheek.
“May I kiss you, Caera Cassidy?”
Tim had never asked a woman if he could kiss her. He’d always just gone in for the kiss or been the kissee, but in the dark, rain-filled Irish night, it felt right to ask this woman who seemed as wild and untamed as the rain itself.
“If I say no?” Her fingertips pressed into his cheek, her body swayed forward into his, their hips pressed together.
Tim cupped the back of her head with both hands and kissed her.
The pressure of his lips on hers was firm and cool. The air around her smelled of earth and rain, and though she was wet and cold, the kiss heated her in ways she both longed for and feared. He tilted his head to the side, his tongue touching the seam of her lips. She opened her mouth, letting him in as she brought her free arm around his waist. Caera tasted Guinness, steak and something uniquely him in the kiss.
His hands stroked her neck, roamed down her back, pressing wet clothing into her skin. She shivered.
“You’re cold,” he said, breaking the kiss. “You need to get inside and warm.”
The concern in his voice touched her, though there was no reason his being protective should seem sweet when Rory’s irked her. “It’s just a bit of water, never hurt anyone. You’re the one who’ll need a hot shower.”
Caera reached up and touched his damp hair. He turned his head and kissed the inside of her wrist. Caera felt the touch of his lips all through her body. He was dangerous.
“May I kiss you again, Caera?” The words were puffs of warm air against her exposed wrist. She drew her hand away. This was crazy, unprofessional and dangerous. This man—Tim Wilcox—had stirred up too many feelings and dreams best left in the past.
“Then I’ll ask you again tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow we both have to work.”
“Then I’ll ask you when we’re done working.”
“And if I say no?”
Caera ducked around the far side of the tree before she could say or do something—like kiss him again—she’d regret. He was right. If he asked her again, she didn’t think she’d have the strength to say no.
* * * *
“That’s a fine way to wash the floor.”
Caera jerked, looking up.
Sorcha pulled off her jacket, adding it to the mound of coats on the hook by the door of their little cottage. Caera was standing in front of the sink, her wet jumper held loosely in her hands as it dripped on the floor.
Dipping her head, Caera lifted her sweater over the small kitchen sink, wringing the excess water out, then draping it over the radiator to dry. With that done, she grabbed a towel and mopped up the tile floor. Sorcha stepped over her and filled the kettle.
“How’re the guests?” Caera asked her friend and housemate. They shared a small cottage on Glenncailty’s grounds. The cottages had at one time belonged to the staff and workers who cared for the manor house. They’d fallen into disrepair, and all needed to be updated, but a few were habitable and Sorcha and Caera lived in one of the nicest. As Glenncailty turned a profit, Elizabeth was repairing and remodeling the cottages one by one into private guest accommodations. Until then, the staff lived in them for low rent, though the cottages lacked proper kitchens and the old stone walls let in the cold.
“Well enough. The musicians are loud, and drinking.” Sorcha looked at Caera as she poured water out of the boiled kettle into two mugs. “I thought you’d be there looking after them.”
Caera’s shoulder twitched with the need to go back and shepherd all the musicians to bed so they’d be well rested for the event. “They’re capable of taking care of themselves. And I’m sure it’s not the first time many of them have had a few too many before playing.”
Caera winced as she remembered a hotel floor littered with cans and bottles, the crushed and broken pieces a minefield between the door and where she huddled, half-naked in the corner.
“And your leaving early has nothing to do with singing or the American who followed you out?”
Caera sighed and grabbed the jug of milk, pouring a healthy drought into each of the cups Sorcha held out. Putting away the milk, she took one mug from her friend, sipping the piping hot, creamy tea before answering.
“Did anyone else notice him come after me?” Caera didn’t want to answer Sorcha’s question, so she asked one of her own.
“No.” Sorcha sat at the small table they’d placed in the kitchen. She scooted her chair closer to the radiator, her nose wrinkling as the smell of Caera’s wet wool sweater competed with the homey scent of milky tea. “I was watching him watch you.”
“He asked me about you. Said he’d seen a woman playing the harp in Finn’s.”
“That’s how he knew my name.”
“Were you worried that if he knew your name he’d steal you away, as if you were some Fae princess?” Sorcha’s eyes sparkled.
Caera smiled, but it was brief. “He heard me play. I’d taken my harp on the stage. I wanted to pretend, if only for a moment.”
Sorcha’s face creased in concern. She patted the table and Caera sat, elbows braced as she stared into her teacup.
“You shouldn’t hide from the gift you have.”
Sorcha’s words were a softer version of Tim’s, but unlike him, she knew why Caera both loved and hated her music.
“I’m a coward,” Caera said.
“No, you were hurt and needed time to heal.”
Caera shook herself. The patter of rain and the dense, warm air of the kitchen were bringing on melancholy.
“It doesn’t matter anyway. The people playing tomorrow are all professionals, with recording contracts and years of experience. I’m not in their league.”
Sorcha looked like she wanted to say something, but she held her tongue, sipping her tea.
Caera struggled not to think about the past, about all the things she’d lost due to her own foolishness.
“So, is he a good kisser?”
“He is,” Caera said before she realized what she’d just admitted to.
Sorcha whooped in joy, and like that, the melancholy lifted from the kitchen. The room morphed into a cozy warm den of secrets and laughter, a place where women could talk about men’s kisses.
“Well, that’s nice, taking advantage of a distracted woman,” Caera griped.
“You were staring at the wall grinning when I came in. It wasn’t hard to figure out why.”
“I was?” Caera shook her head, a small smile curving her lips. “I was thinking about it.”
“He followed me out in the rain. Asked me if he could kiss me.”
“And you said yes.”
“Before I could, he kissed me. It was wonderful.”
“He’s handsome, charming in that silly American way.”
“And he has a cute accent.” Caera remembered the way he’d said her name, stumbling slightly over the Irish.
“He does.” Sorcha looked over her shoulder at the wall, but Caera knew it wasn’t the wall that interested her friend. It was Glenncailty. Even from a distance the building had a presence that could be felt, as if it were drawing you in.
Sorcha turned back. “He went to the west wing.”
“He told me.”
“I’ve told Elizabeth we shouldn’t use it. Should close up the whole floor, but she won’t hear it.”
“It’s because she’s never felt the cold. Never heard the voices.”
“Your Tim said he could see the outline of the door. Through the paint.”
Caera shook her head, glad the troubles of the bricked room were not hers to deal with. “He’s not my Tim.”
“I’ve barely spoken to him.”
“But you’ve kissed him.”
“A kiss can mean nothing.” Caera spoke with authority.
“Or it can mean something. Why don’t you enjoy him, while he’s here.”
“He’s not a bag of crisps to be enjoyed.”
“Sure he is.” Sorcha tossed her hair. “I plan to enjoy Paddy Fish.”
“Ah, Sorcha,” Caera sighed. “Will you wait until after the concert to break his heart? I can’t have him backing out because you’ve done him in.”
Sorcha nodded. “If you want.”
“If you give the American a chance.”
Caera looked at her friend in exasperation. Where Sorcha used sex as both weapon and shield, Caera’s past had made her wary.
“Another kiss. See where it goes.”
Caera was quiet for a moment, then whispered, “He’s a musician.”
Sorcha stood and came around Caera’s side, hugging her. “That doesn’t mean he’s terrible.”
“I know that,” Caera said, voice small, “but I couldn’t trust him. I just…can’t.”
Sorcha said something more, but Caera was lost in her past, remembering the foolish girl she’d been. At seventeen, she’d been full of confidence and life. She’d aced her exams and would be attending Trinity College in the autumn. She landed a job serving chips and gravy to people she’d known all her life in the local pub. When she wasn’t serving, she was singing or playing. She’d been hired as much for that as for her serving.
She planned to study classical music and make her name as a traditional musician busking on Grafton Street between classes.
And then he’d walked into the pub.
Older, beautiful, with a lush Spanish accent and long hair that made the old men sitting at the bar frown, he was exotic as parrot in her little town in the west. He heard her play and sing, told her she was beautiful and talented. They were things she’d always heard from family and friends, but now a stranger was saying it. A beautiful stranger. A musician.
She’d run away with him, expecting to play beautiful traditional music from their homelands in smoky bars and jewel-small theaters. When they landed in Central Europe, she’d met his band, a rock group that cared nothing for traditional music. She’d confronted the man she thought she loved, bewildered, and he’d laughed and kissed her so hard her lips bruised against her teeth.
It had taken weeks for her to figure out that everything had been a lie and six months to spiral into the darkness of life as a groupie, until she found herself standing on the balcony of hotel, prepared to jump. Only her fear of the mortal sin had brought her down. She’d left, walked away with nothing. It had taken her another six months to work her way back across Europe, tending bar and serving to make money. When she reached England, she stopped, too ashamed the cross the Irish Sea. There she found a job at a hotel and quickly worked her way out of the bar into the catering and events office. When she finally returned to Ireland, she held her head high to hide her shame and declared that she now had a career in hospitality. She’d returned home only once, leaving when she saw the sadness and disappointment on her parents’ faces. Saw how her disappearance had aged her mother.
“Hey there, miss. There’s nothing good in dwelling on the past.”
Caera shook herself. Sorcha was rubbing her back.
“There’s plenty of good. I won’t make the same mistake again.”
“You know that not every man would treat you that way. Not every man is so cruel.”
Caera nodded, wondering if Sorcha would be so anxious to set her up if she knew all the details. Caera had told Sorcha much of her past as they lived and worked together to open Glenncailty, but there were things she was too ashamed to admit, even to her closest friend.
“I just want you to be happy.”
“I know.” Caera squeezed Sorcha’s hand, then stood, carrying her teacup to the sink and rinsing it out. “We should get some sleep. Tomorrow’s the big day.”
“What time is the management meeting?”
“I’ll be there for part of it, but I want to keep my eye on breakfast, make sure our important guests get fed.”
“Okay, I’ll wake you up before I go.” Caera opened the kitchen door.
She turned and raised her brows. Sorcha stood in the middle of the kitchen, the small overhead light making her hair glow copper and gold.
“Don’t punish yourself forever. You’ve suffered enough.”
Caera breathed deep, taking in Sorcha’s words. With a nod, she left, waiting until she was in bed to let the sadness out—a single tear that tracked over her temple, disappearing into her hair.
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