Donnelly’s Promise – An e-novella story for Love Inspired Historical

/MyKmart and Harlequin books brings to all our members a special e-novella story for our Love Inspired Historical line, which will inspire you and lift the spirits as characters tackle the challenges of life in another era with hope, faith & focus on family. This free novella is specifically written to lead all our readers into The Wedding Journey by Cheryl St. John, which will be on sale in Kmart stores starting 4/10-5/8!

Story Title: Donnelly’s Promise

Byline: Cheryl St.John

Main Page Blurb:

Copyright © 2012 by Harlequin Books S.A.

Vaughn Donnelly’s work as a builder has taken him to many different villages over the years, and he’s never regretted having to say goodbye to anyone in them. Until he promises to help Darcy Keegan rescue an orphaned boy from prison and he realizes that with her, he’s found the one person he never wants to leave.

But Darcy is not planning on staying in Castleville, either. She wants to start a new life far away from the small town—and far away from her father, who makes her feel more like a servant than a person. Only, the more time she spends with Vaughn, the more she dreams of something else entirely…a family, a home, a husband—Vaughn.

But Vaughn’s nomadic lifestyle isn’t going to change. How can he stop Darcy from leaving when he’s got nothing to offer her?

Chapter One

Castleville, Ireland, 1850

Atop his scaffolding, Vaughn Donnelly set a brick in place and stood to arch his sore back. He removed his cap and swiped a hand across his perspiring forehead. This spring day he was thankful for the generous warmth of the sun and the scent of heather from the nearby hillside—and even more thankful for the trade his father had taught him. While he had work, most of the prisoners in the yard below were serving time for stealing food.

From his vantage point, he observed the prisoners below, the men and women divided by a rock wall. The numbers were fairly equal, and all were dressed in coarse blue-and-white-striped prison uniforms. Adults weren’t the only residents. Children had been sentenced to hard labor for their supposed crimes, as well. His work provided too many sickening glimpses into their senseless punishment and abuse. He’d once seen a child die at the hands of a heartless guard, and the sad regret that he’d been unable to prevent it remained with him to this day.

Conditions were marginally better in Castleville, and he suspected he knew the person responsible for giving Castle Carraig a heart. Vaughn knelt and buttered a brick with mortar, keeping a watchful eye on the door that led from the kitchens. A young woman appeared, as he’d known she would, not dressed in prison garb, but in a pale blue dress and a white apron. Under her white cap, a long, strawberry-blond braid hung down her back. He smiled to himself. Darcy Keegan. She’d been two years behind him in school, and they’d attended the same church. Her father was the chief warden of Castle Carraig Penitentiary.

Just as she carried a lunch basket toward the tables set end-to-end near the building, he spotted a young boy leading a donkey from the far end of the yard toward the female weavers. Heavily burdened with bundles of brown coir used to make rope and mats, the obstinate animal balked and sat on its hind legs.

Obviously frustrated, the lad grabbed the donkey’s lead and tugged for all he was worth. The donkey shook its head and sent the boy tumbling sideways. He landed in a heap right where Darcy had been about to step. She fell over him, her petticoats flashing white eyelet in the noonday sun. Sandwiches spilled from the basket onto the dirt.

Vaughn stifled a chuckle at the sight of Darcy hurriedly adjusting her skirts and picking herself up. Obviously, the only injury was to her dignity. At that point one of the guards insinuated himself into the situation, and Vaughn went on alert.

“Ye’re a clumsy eejit!” the tall man shouted at the lad, then grabbed him by the collar and hauled him up. “Made a right hames of it, ye ‘ave. Thick as a ditch, ye are. Just look how much food ye’ve wasted with yer shenanigans.” He cuffed the lad, and instinctively the boy covered his head, his elbows pointing at the sky.

Vaughn dropped his tools and shot toward the ladder side of the scaffold. Experience had taught him just how harsh the boy’s treatment could get, and he would not stand by if he could spare the lad a beating—or worse.

Darcy reached for the guard’s arm just as the man drew back for another swing. The forward momentum threw her off balance and she stumbled. Vaughn was only halfway down the scaffold, but he jumped the rest of the way and hit the ground running.

***

Darcy Keegan wasn’t keen on landing in the dirt for the second time this day. She caught her balance and turned back to have a go at the guard who’d lit into the small laddie. Mack Boyle was half again her size, but the boy was pathetically skinny and obviously terrified, and she wasn’t going to stand by and see him abused.

Before she could say anything, footsteps pounded behind her. “Seems there’s a bit of a misunderstandin’,” came a familiar voice.

Vaughn Donnelly cast a foreboding shadow over the red-faced guard. A warm sense of relief flooded Darcy. Vaughn and his father were building yet another wing onto the prison, and his broad-shouldered frame and natural smile had been a regular sight at Castle Carraig for the past several weeks.

Boyle swiveled his attention. “Ain’t none of your doin’, Donnelly.The lad deserves a lesson, ‘e does.”

“Saw the whole thing happen, I did,” Vaughn told him.”‘Twas an accident, pure and simple. The lad meant Miss Keegan no harm. If anyone deserves a tongue lashin’, it’s this cantankerous beast here.”

“An irritable brute, ‘at one is,” Boyle agreed, backing down now that he’d been confronted.

Darcy picked up her lunch basket. “I can feed the dirty sandwiches to the pigs, and the rest are still fine.”

“I be real sorry ’bout those sandwiches,” the lad spoke up.”‘Tis a shame to waste, that’s what me mother always said, God rest her. I don’t mind eatin’ a couple with a little dust on ‘em.”

“You’ll not be eatin’ dirty food,” she told him. “I’ll make more. What’s your name, laddie?”

“Rory Gilchrist, miss.”

Boyle cut in. “That be enough lollygaggin’, Gilchrist.” Boyle gestured to the coir the donkey had dumped on the ground. “Get to pickin’ this up if you hope t’ eat dinner.”

“Yessir.”

Darcy studied the child. Bits of fiber stuck to the lad’s striped clothing, and he looked scrawny enough to blow over in a hearty gale, but he bent to his task. Darcy glanced at Vaughn, gauging his reaction.

Vaughn set to work, too, scooping an armful of the fibrous material that had burst from the bale. “A cart might serve ye better than the beast, lad. Show me where to stack this.”

Assured that Vaughn would take care of the boy, Darcy returned to her job. She carried the basket inside and made more sandwiches. After placing the food on the long tables, she carried out a bushel basket of apples and fresh water.

She rang the bell outside the kitchen door, and women stopped their tasks to gather for the meal.

These were not dangerous criminals. Most of them had been imprisoned for stealing or sent here from the workhouses for the mere crime of being poor. Or many were like Rory, in prison because he was unfortunate enough to have no one who cared about him…except a kind-hearted mason.

As the women sat to eat, Darcy picked up two wrapped sandwiches and glanced toward the scaffolding, to which Vaughn had returned. Her stomach quivered with nervousness, but she headed toward him.

Chapter Two

“I’ve brought a sandwich for you, Mr. Donnelly.”

With surprising agility, Vaughn climbed down and jumped the last several feet to stand before her. He removed his slouch cap and stuffed it into his back pocket. “‘Tis a generous kindness you’ve provided. Thank you.”

She handed him his lunch. On the other side of the wall, the bell rang for the men’s dinner.

He unwrapped the bread and paused. His dark hair had a decidedly reddish cast in the sunlight. “Thank You, Lord, for providing nourishment. Bless the hands that prepared this food. I am Your grateful servant.” He glanced at her. “I’m happy to share.”

“Thank you, but I have a meal waiting for me. I just wanted to thank you for intervening on Rory’s behalf.”

“The real crime is holdin’ children in these places. What could the boy ‘ave done to deserve such a harsh punishment?”

“I heard he ran from the Bristol workhouse.” She glanced at the rock walls. “I can understand why he ran. Who wouldn’t want to leave this depressing place and not look back?”

“Many of our countrymen go to the workhouse simply for meals and a bed,” he said. “For them this prison is far better than starvin’ to death.”

“Aye,” she replied. “I am thankful for a home and food.” She studied him a moment. “This is the first you’ve been back to Castleville in several years.”

“I was thankful for the opportunity. This job lets Da enjoy the comfort of our own cottage. The travel and harsh conditions are gettin’ more difficult for him. We go where there’s work, and sadly the only work is adding wings to overcrowded prisons.”

“‘Tis not the country of our youth.” She hadn’t meant to sound wistful.

Vaughn’s expression remained stoic, but he swallowed hard and looked at the sandwich he held. “Seems there’s somethin’ we should do.”

“About the plight of our country?”

He fixed his blue gaze on her. “Not the entire country, lass. Not much we can do about that. But we may’t make a difference for one person at a time.”

He meant a small defenseless person like Rory Gilchrist. She gave Vaughn a somber nod. The scrawny lad had touched her heart, too. It was frightening to feel all alone in this world. She had to do something for him.

“I can’t say what good it will do, but I’ll speak with my father.”

***

“You needn’t concern yourself with prisoners, Darcy. Your attentions should be focused on your job.”

“I never shirk my tasks, Father. Please, I simply want to know more about the Gilchrist lad.”

Ambros Keegan searched a drawer in his tall wooden file cabinet and pulled out a few papers. “Ran the whole way from the Bristol workhouse naked, he did. He was arrested stealing trousers and a shirt from a wash house in the village.”

Darcy tilted her head in thought. “Seems he’s a clever lad. Prisoners are charged with stealing the clothes they’re wearing if they leave.”

Her father ignored her remark.

She pushed on. “He left the clothing behind so as not to break the law. That’s commendable.”

“Leave it to you to reach that conclusion.”

“But why was he at the workhouse in the first place?”

“That’s not our concern.”

“You treat them all as though they’re hardened criminals. He only needed clothing. There must be something we can do about this one boy.”

Ambros returned the folder and closed the drawer with a loud click before going back to his desk. “It’s not your place to question the laws, Darcy. Rulings are in place for a purpose. We have decent jobs here. We have a home. If you must look the other way, then do so. This is our livelihood.”

His expression told her there would be no further discussion on the subject. Stiffly, she turned and marched from the room, wishing it was this village she was fleeing and not merely her father’s office.

The only difference between herself and the prisoners was that she went somewhere else to sleep at night. But even at home she cooked and cleaned and did her father’s bidding.

But not for much longer. She’d been saving for two years. She almost had enough funds stashed away to leave Castleville and start a new life in a place where hard work earned appreciation—if there was such a place.

She lived for that day.

Thinking of Vaughn’s compassion for Rory in contrast to her father’s, she pulled the office door closed and went in search of the boy. She found him pouring water into a trough. “Hello, Rory.”

He pulled off his blue-and-white cap and straightened.

“Do you think we could speak for a moment?”

“Long as I keep workin’. Mr. Boyle don’t take kindly to jabberin’ on the job.” He jammed his hat on and untethered the donkey.

Darcy followed him as he tied the animal in another spot. “Do you mind telling me how you came to be at the workhouse?”

He shrugged a bony shoulder. “Me da died and the landlord put us out from our cottage. Mother couldn’t find work, so we went to the workhouse for food and beds.” He watched the donkey drink. “Then Mother took sick…and she died, she did. They buried her in a grave with no stone a’tall. I marked it meself when no one was lookin’. A neat piece of cunning, it was.”

Her heart went out to him. “I’m sorry about your mother, Rory. I…I lost my mother, too.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “I heard landlords was hirin’ footmen, so I stole clothes. I got caught, though, so here I be.”

Darcy glanced up and found Vaughn atop the scaffolding in the sun. Their brief encounter had prompted her to act on Rory’s situation, but to no avail. Oddly, she felt as though her failure so far was letting down both the boy and the kind-hearted man.

She wouldn’t rest until she’d done all she could.

Chapter Three

Darcy waited until her father fell soundly asleep, then set down her mending and crept from the cottage, pulling a shawl around her shoulders. She prayed as she made her way along the dark path beside low stone walls and across a moss-covered footbridge. She hadn’t been able to rest easy since she’d met the Gilchrist boy at Castle Carraig. “You’ve placed this lad on my heart, Lord, so show me what I must do.”

An inviting light shone from the cottage where the Donnellys had lived for many years, and smoke curled from the chimney. Her heart beat rapidly, but she approached the door and knocked. It opened almost immediately.

“Miss Keegan?” Wearing a deep blue sweater, Vaughn collected his manners and took a step back. “Welcome.”

“I don’t wish to disturb your father.”

“He’s sleepin’. I’ll join you outside.” He stepped out. “The bonny Darcy Keegan arriving on my doorstep…’tis a thought that never entered my head.”

Heat rose in her cheeks. They stood near a low fence bordering a pasture. The sound of a lamb bleating reached her. “I spoke to my father about Rory. He won’t hear of leniency.” She added what she’d learned from Rory about his circumstances. “I plan to seek out the Lord Lieutenant and ask what more can be done. I have little opportunity to leave my work during the day, but my father will be traveling to County Galway on Monday. He’ll stay two days.”

“So you’ll go then?”

“Aye.”

He reached for her hand, surprising her. “You’re a kind lass, Darcy Keegan. I’ve always known it. How has it happened no man has asked you to marry him?”

Darcy’s cheeks warmed again. “My father has discouraged offers.” She wanted to tell Vaughn she believed Ambros sent away all suitors because he didn’t want to lose his cook and housekeeper, but she held her tongue. She didn’t want pity.

“Perhaps…you’ll join us for supper while he’s gone.”

Surprised and gladdened by his offer, she nodded. “Aye. I’ll come.”

He released her hand and she missed its warmth. “How long has it been since you stood on the cliffs at night?”

“Not since I was a girl.”

“Well, then, we should change that.” He led her through tall grass and fragrant heather up the steep hillside to a spot where the sound of the ocean crashed below. “Careful now. Watch your step.”

She tasted salt air and lifted her face to the breeze. “I had big dreams when I stood here as a lass.”

“What did you dream of, Darcy?”

“Not the life I have, to be sure.” Embarrassed now at her admission, she turned aside. “I have to go before my father misses me.”

He extended a palm. “Take my hand, lass. Tell me.”

The invitation was one she couldn’t resist. Being with Vaughn was like finding a place to belong. He spoke to her and listened to her replies as though she was someone special—someone important. His attention gave her a heady new feeling. Even if their friendship caused trouble, time with him was worth it.

Chapter Four

Friendly neighbors greeted one another in the tiny stone church, but Darcy’s father ignored them and doggedly led her forward. Darcy nodded to Mrs. Mulcreath, who lived nearby and sold her cream and butter, then followed Ambros to a bench.

Finding a spot behind them, two of the three Murphy sisters greeted her. “Pleased to see you this mornin’,” Maeve, the youngest, said.

“You look lovely in your green brat,” Jack Murphy’s middle daughter told her, referring to her shawl. Bridget herself wore a woolen brat that had been mended many times over.

“How is your da?” Darcy inquired.

“Not well at all,” Maeve replied. “Nora is with him this morning.” So many of their neighbors had already died of influenza and cholera, just hearing of the sicknesses was frightening.

“I’ll be praying for him, I will,” Darcy assured them.

The sisters held hands and gave her tearful thanks.

Darcy turned forward as Reverend Larkin opened his hymn book and led the first verse of a familiar song. She sang along, but her attention veered to the source of an unfamiliar baritone on the other side of the room.

Vaughn wore a gray sweater, and his dark hair had a reddish cast in the morning light. He stood a head above his father and the other nearby men. The welcome sight arrested her thoughts. Memories of the two of them standing at the cliff the other night, looking out across the dark ocean, consumed her thoughts. She couldn’t have told anyone what they’d actually talked about, but she vividly remembered the way he made her feel. Important. Interesting.

Hopeful. In a way she never had before.

The song ended and she took her seat with the rest of the congregation. Vaughn turned and met her gaze. He gave a barely perceptible nod, and the corner of his mouth inched up.

Her father cleared his throat. Startled, she found him glancing between her and Vaughn. He cast her a disapproving frown and indicated with his eyes that she should look forward.

Darcy burned to get up and leave. The brief church service was the only time she had away from her work, and even here she was under her father’s disapproving gaze. She’d lain awake nights, summoning the courage to pack her belongings and hire a ride away from Castleville, far from the prison and her father. But so far she hadn’t been able to do it.

Lord, if this is Your will for my life, please help me to be submissive and not want more. But if it’s not—if there’s more for me—show me how and when to make a change. You know the desires of my heart, Lord. I want to be Your faithful servant, not that of any man.

Reverend Larkin ended the service with a prayer, and she realized guiltily she hadn’t listened to a word of his sermon. Around them people stood and filed into the aisle.

“Good mornin’, Mr. Keegan, Miss Keegan.” Vaughn waited, his hand extended.

Concern for her father’s reaction increased Darcy’s pulse. He’d reproached her for just looking at Vaughn. What would he do if Vaughn mentioned their intimate nighttime conversation on the cliffs?

Chapter Five

Darcy’s father stiffened, but he shook Vaughn’s hand and that of Shad Donnelly, Vaughn’s father, when he came to stand behind his son.

“‘Tis a magnificent mornin’, is it not?” Vaughn asked. “We left a fine lamb stew a’bubblin’ on our hearth. Would you and your bonny lass care t’ join us now?”

Surprised by the invitation, Darcy imagined one of them would notice her heart pounding beneath her dress or hear the blood pumping in her ears.

Ambros appeared confused. Her father’s gruff demeanor and position at the prison didn’t garner many invitations. He avoided looking at her when he said, “We have plans.”

She wanted to shout that nothing sounded better than an afternoon away from the drudgery and boredom. “That old hen can wait another day,” she said instead, knowing she would later pay for her boldness with her father’s disapproval. “Lamb stew sounds delicious. If you have a supply of flour, I can make biscuits.”

Her father’s brows lowered. He speared her with a glare of displeasure, but he could hardly refuse now. She wanted to laugh.

Ambros turned back to Vaughn. “Thank you, Mr. Donnelly. We’d be pleased to share your stew.”

The walk to the Donnelly cottage was a short one. Darcy felt so light she almost skipped. Vaughn ushered them into his comfortable home. The fire in the stone fireplace had cooled, but Vaughn added fuel. He showed Darcy the ingredients, and she made a batch of biscuits and hung the heavy skillet over the heat.

For two bachelors who had been away from the village for quite some time, their small home was surprisingly inviting. Darcy listened as Vaughn’s father spoke of his relief at being back in Castleville. “I’m pleased to sit in front of me own fire,” he said. “And happy to stay home all day if me bones are achin’.”

“Ye ‘aven’t missed a day’s work yet.” Vaughn’s brogue thickened whenever he spoke to Shad.

“But I can if I ‘ave a mind to.” The white-haired man glanced at their guests. “Vaughn is set on takin’ over for me, so I can rest on me laurels. He thinks I’m getting feeble in me old age.”

“You’re puttin’ words in my mouth and I have plenty of my own,” Vaughn told him. “What I said was ye’d be more comfortable in your own bed at night, and would surely enjoy takin’ care of a garden.”

Shad snorted. “Meanin’ I’m gettin’ feeble.”

Her father remained silent through the exchange, and she sensed he was uncomfortable with the other men’s discussion. She and Ambros never had visitors and were rarely invited out. They never shared friendly conversations like this one.

“How long ‘ave you been a widower now, Mr. Keegan?” Shad asked.

Darcy tensed, waiting for his reply. They never spoke of her mother.

“Almost ten years,” Ambros replied.

Shad nodded. He took a pipe from a wooden case and poked tobacco into the bowl. “My Catherine’s been gone nearly as long. ‘Tis a difficult life for a woman.”

“Darcy’s mother never had a strong constitution,” Ambros declared. “Not like Darcy here.”

Strong constitution? She might as well be a mule.

“‘Whoso findeth a good wife findeth a good thing,’” the old man quoted from the book of Proverbs.

Darcy excused herself from the conversation and went to set the table. Vaughn got up, as well, and used the long iron hook to remove the pan of golden biscuits from the fire.

“Appears your lass is a fine cook,” Shad said. “She will make a good wife for the lucky man who marries her.”

Darcy tucked away Shad’s small gift of appreciation. Her father never acknowledged her cooking unless his meal was a few minutes late. What would it be like to have someone praise her efforts—or at the very least thank her for them? It must have been the same for her mother.

At the mention of Darcy as a wife, Ambros’s gaze traveled from Vaughn to his father and back, as if doubting their intentions. “If it’s ready, let’s eat. Darcy must serve the prisoners their noon meal.”

The ocean would dry up before her father gave any man his blessing to marry her.

Chapter Six

By the time the noon bell rang on Monday, Vaughn hadn’t yet seen Darcy. He observed the women and children weaving rugs, spotted one who was heavy with child and wondered what crime held her there.

It wasn’t until much later that Darcy walked toward the new construction, carrying a pail and ladle. Vaughn admired the curve of her cheek and the golden highlights glinting from her hair. Sometimes just the sight of her took his breath away. He waved a greeting and climbed down to meet her.

“I waited two hours to speak with the Lord Lieutenant,” she said. “The law is final. Only a parent may pay a fine and take Rory from Castle Carraig.”

“And he has no parent alive.” For the lad’s sake, as well as Darcy’s, he’d hoped for a better outcome.

She studied the nearly erected wall behind him for several minutes. “You were gone from Castleville a long time.”

The change of subject puzzled him. “Aye. My trade is in demand.”

“Perhaps ten years, would you say?”

“About that.”

“You may’t have married and had a child in that time.”

He gave her a quizzical look.

“Say, a boy about the age of nine or ten.”

“But I didn’t.”

“The Lord Lieutenant doesn’t know that.”

Her meaning registered with a start of confusion. She was proposing he say the Gilchrist boy was his own sire. He considered her proposition for a full minute. “Are you suggestin’, Miss Keegan, that I lie to the Lord Lieutenant?”

She sighed. “That would be wrong, wouldn’t it? I mean, even to save the boy from a life of misery, you couldn’t do such a thing.”

“We have different names, Rory and I. The lad looks nothin’ like me.”

She studied her hands, red and chapped. “Shame, it is.”

“Darcy, the village would know better.”

“Of course you’re right. One lie only leads to another. I guess I was feelin’ desperate.” She took a deep breath and said almost as though to herself, “Seems we’ll both be stayin’ at Castle Carraig. I can’t go until I’m sure he’ll be all right.”

“Are you planning to leave Castleville?”

“Wha— No.” She gathered her skirts. “I have work to do.” She turned and walked back toward the kitchens with a decided lack of enthusiasm in her step. A short time later he spotted her talking to the Gilchrist lad in the yard. It seemed Darcy understood the boy’s hopelessness.

Her desperation made him feel helpless, and he didn’t like the feeling.

Vaughn understood her desire to help Rory. He remembered the child he’d seen beaten to death at another prison. He’d been unable to help then, but if he could make a difference for just this one person, he’d feel he’d accomplished something good. He could rest assured he’d made things right.

Everything inside him burned to come up with a solution. Vaughn was going to help Rory if he had to move heaven and earth to do it.

Chapter Seven

Vaughn approached the kitchen and rapped on the wood. The door opened. “I’m here to fix the oven,” he said to the portly woman guarding the entry.

“What’s wrong with the oven?”

“I got a report about loose bricks,” he replied.

He peered beyond the woman’s shoulder to where Darcy stood at a long wooden table peeling potatoes. She glanced up.

The cook frowned. “I didn’t report a problem.”

“This the oven?” he asked, stepping around her.

“‘Twas me, Mrs. Cullugh. I sent for the mason.” Correctly interpreting his ruse to get into the kitchen, Darcy wiped her hands and ushered Vaughn toward the enormous brick wall. “Right here, it is.”

“‘Tis plain enough where the oven is,” the other woman muttered, and lumbered to another table where mounds of dough waited. She pounded one energetically.

Steam from whatever boiled in a huge pot over the fire made the kitchen uncomfortably warm. Darcy’s cheeks were bright pink and tendrils of escaped hair stuck to her neck.

Vaughn made a pretense of checking the bricks and mortar. “I made my own visit to the Lord Lieutenant this morning. I thought of a solution you didn’t.”

Her eyes widened. “What’s that?”

“I’ve nearly taken over the business from my father, but as of yet I have no sons.”

Darcy wrinkled her brow in interest and confusion. Two lasses entered the kitchen and gave him curious looks. The older cook instructed them to mind their chores.

Vaughn kept his voice low. “A boy may be removed from a workhouse if he is apprenticed to a tradesman.”

“But Rory is no longer at the workhouse.”

“I can pay his fine for the theft and have the debt cancelled. He then becomes my responsibility.”

“So…you’re taking him on as your apprentice?”

He nodded. “I’ve made all the arrangements. The papers will be signed tomorrow, and then I can remove him from Castle Carraig.”

Darcy’s blue eyes filled with tears. Impulsively, she touched the sleeve of his sweater, but immediately drew back her hand and glanced toward the other women. “God answered my prayers,” she whispered. “Bless you, Vaughn. I can’t thank you enough.”

He felt better about delivering this news than he had about anything in a long time. He had helped save a child from a hard and probably short life. Taking Rory as his apprentice was also a step toward completely taking over the business so his father could remain in Castleville where he was more comfortable.

Freeing Rory had meant a lot to Darcy, and he would have done anything to make it happen for her sake. “Your father is still in County Galway, is he not?”

She nodded.

“Then tonight you must come to supper. We’ll celebrate this piece of good news.”

Chapter Eight

Darcy had never been invited to supper without her father. She went through her trunk and bureau twice, searching for an appropriate dress. In the end, she chose one of the only two dresses she owned that didn’t have reinforced cuffs and necklines. She didn’t spend what little she squirreled away on clothing. She saved every shilling for the day when she’d need it to travel.

She thought about leaving Castleville often. Sometimes Darcy wondered if her father would look for her after she’d gone, or if he’d simply occupy himself with work and hire a housekeeper. She wasn’t indispensable. She wouldn’t be surprised if he sought a wife to take over her duties.

An oval-framed daguerreotype stood atop her bureau, and she paused to pick it up and study her mother’s sweet face. Darcy traced her finger over the glass. Poignant memories of her mother’s soft voice and gentle touch comforted her. Life had been different when she’d been alive. Her father had been different back then, too. Or so it seemed now. Perhaps without her he’d be forced to hire a housekeeper—or find a new wife.

She thought of Vaughn then—would he find someone else? Would he take a wife and be happy? Her plans had been settled before Rory and Vaughn had entered her life. But now departing consumed her daily thoughts. Leaving wouldn’t be as simple or as easy as she’d once imagined.

Gathering her brat around her shoulders, she exited the cottage and made her way to Vaughn’s in the growing darkness. Vaughn met her along the path, and her heart warmed at the sight of him, tall and bare-headed, wearing a familiar smile. “Good evenin’ to you, Darcy.”

He walked her along the path to the cottage and ushered her inside. “I went to the wharf for fresh mussels today. I got kale, too, and made a pot of colcannon.”

“I had no idea you were a good cook.”

“I’m not sayin’ I’m good at it, but we make do.”

Shad greeted Darcy and ushered her to a chair.

“I could help,” she offered.

“You’re our guest. And it’s ready.” Vaughn ladled buttery mussels, creamy kale and potatoes into each bowl, then reached for her hand. “Lord, we give Ye thanks for this food. Thank Ye, Lord, we ‘ave strong backs and hands able to work. We pray for our neighbors who aren’t so fortunate and those who are ailin’, especially our friend Jack Murphy, Lord. Give his daughters strength and bless them in Jesus’s name.”

Darcy’s fingers tingled where Vaughn had touched them during the brief prayer.

“Jack’s not been able to work ‘is land,” Shad said as they ate. “We may’t take them fish and milk tomorrow.”

“I’ll go see what needs t’ be done around the place,” Vaughn agreed.

Darcy had never heard her father pray for the welfare of others, and she’d certainly never known him to share anything with the villagers. The Donnellys’ generosity touched her. “I’ll take them bread,” she offered.

There was a knock at the door, and Vaughn got up.

From the other side of the door, a feminine voice called, “I made you a pie.” A pretty dark-haired lass Darcy recognized as a girl from the village offered Vaughn a cloth-covered plate and glanced into the room. Spotting Darcy, her surprise was evident. “Evenin’ to ye, Darcy.”

Chapter Nine

Temorah McGinley was two years younger than Darcy, and the daughter of a tinker. She lived in a house full of boisterous brothers, one who worked in the banker’s stable.

Vaughn took the pie she offered and stepped back in invitation.

“Didn’t know ye had a guest,” Temorah said with an apologetic nod toward the table. “I’ll be on my way and not disturb ye’r meal.”

“May’t as well sit down for tea while you’re here,” Vaughn invited.

She hemmed and hawed, but finally took a seat. Her cheeks were pink when she met Darcy’s eyes. “How be your da?”

“He’s just fine,” Darcy replied. “And your family?”

“Me mother has a bit of a sniffle, she does, but the lot is hale. How are you and yours, Mr. Donnelly?”

“I suppose news will spread soon enough.” Vaughn poured tea and set a cup before the girl. “I’ll be takin’ an apprentice tomorrow, and he’ll be comin’ to live with Da and me.”

“Good for you.” Temorah sweetened her tea and stirred. “Me da has a shop full of apprentices, ‘e does. ‘Tis good for the laddies to learn a trade and stay out of mischief.”

Vaughn dished out apple-blackberry pie, which Darcy discovered was mouth-wateringly seasoned with cloves and nutmeg. “You have a knack for pastry,” she said to the girl with an odd twinge in her belly.

Did the other young woman drop by often? Did she and Vaughn have some sort of…relationship? Darcy hadn’t read anything into his invitation to eat with them, but now she felt awkward and a little foolish. She listened as the others shared village news.

Temorah finished her tea. “I’ll be on my way. Sorry about the interruption to your evenin’, I am.”

“We’ll walk you home,” Vaughn said immediately. “Darcy and I. Won’t we?”

“Certainly.”

It was a strained walk to the McGinleys’ stone cottage. From within, lights blazed and voices rose and fell. Darcy wondered what it would be like to go home to a house filled with activity and conversation.

“Good evenin’.” With a last lingering look at Vaughn, Temorah dashed inside.

“She makes a delicious pie,” Darcy said as they walked away.

“Aye.”

“She’s a pretty lass.”

“I spoke to her in the village the other day,” he said. “That was the first time I’d seen her in years until tonight.”

“You must have made quite an impression.”

“I didn’t invite her to the cottage, Darcy.”

“It’s of no mind to me who brings pies to your door.”

He laughed, and the full-throated sound surprised her.

“Whatever is so funny, Mr. Donnelly?”

“I think you’re jealous.”

“I’ve no cause to be jealous. And no right to be. I’m going to be leaving Castleville.”

Chapter Ten

Vaughn studied Darcy’s profile in the moonlight. “Leaving? Is your father takin’ a job elsewhere?”

“No…I’ve made plans to travel.”

“Oh. How soon would you be off on your trip? I…I’ll be needing a bit of help with Rory. The boy will be requiring clothes and shoes, though at least I can give him a place to lay his head. He can sleep in Scully’s old bed,” he said, referring to his married brother. “But I know nothing of outfitting children. Won’t you help get him settled?”

She’d like to see him settled and happy. “Aye, I’ll help.”

“And then you’ll take your trip?”

“Then I’ll go.”

The thought of Darcy heading out on her own troubled him, and he wished he had something to offer her. Over the years it had been easy not to form attachments. The demands of his work had prevented him from making a home and keeping a wife, but until now the lack hadn’t bothered him much. Things were different now. His growing feelings for Darcy nudged him to make a promise or a commitment, but all he had to offer was the harsh existence his mother had lived. This news of Darcy’s desire to travel made it all the more clear she wouldn’t want the lonely life he could provide.

***

The next day at the prison, Darcy learned of her father’s return along with the other kitchen help as the information was relayed among the staff. She was more eager for news from Vaughn.

While serving shepherd’s pie to the women at noon, she couldn’t spot anyone working on the new wing, but Rory still sat at the end of a table with another lad. Momentarily, a tall guard approached and ordered the boy to join him.

Rory looked toward Darcy with fear in his eyes. She hurried over. “All will be well, Rory, I promise. Go with the guard, and you’ll see soon enough. Don’t be afraid.”

At her reassurance he set down his spoon. After a backward glance and a nod, he was led away. Elation over Rory’s opportunity for a better life made her heart beat hard and fast.

It was the longest afternoon she’d ever known. Finally, a couple of hours later, she risked removing her apron and making an excuse to Mrs. Cullugh, then dashed out of doors. The wall of the new wing that faced the work yard was completed—a solid brick barricade that prevented knowledge of happenings on the other side.

She left the prison through the servants’ door, where the guard made a notation in his ledger. On the east side of the grounds she found several men working on the addition. “I’m looking for Mr. Donnelly.”

“Which Mr. Donnelly did you be lookin’ for?”

“Vaughn.”

At the man’s direction, she found Vaughn and his brother, Scully, unloading brick from a wagon. Both were red-faced, hair damp from exertion. At her approach, Scully glanced up in surprise. “‘Tis a pleasure t’ see you, Miss Keegan. What may’t we be doin’ for ye?”

“I’ve come to see Vaughn, actually.”

Scully found his hat and knocked it against his leg, then backed away. “I’ll be gettin’ a drink of water.”

“What happened?” she asked Vaughn. “Where is Rory?”

He gave her a broad smile. “In the shade of that tree. I’ll not be workin’ ‘im too hard until he has some meat on ‘is bones.”

Darcy hurried to where Rory sat, still dressed in his blue-and-white uniform, his back against the tree trunk, leisurely petting a panting collie’s fur. “Here you are.”

He jumped up, beaming. “Did you hear, Miss Keegan? I been released!”

Chapter Eleven

“I heard, Rory,” Darcy replied with a smile. “What did you make of the news?”

“Mr. Donnelly says I’ll be working for ‘im now. An’ livin’ at his cottage. This ‘ere’s the other Mr. Donnelly’s dog. Mr. Scully said I can keep an eye on ‘im and bring ‘im water. Ain’t he a fine-looking dog?”

Darcy petted the friendly collie and scratched behind its ear. “Don’t know that I’ve ever seen a finer dog. What’s his name?”

“Fergus.” Rory studied her. “Mr. Donnelly said you helped get me this job so I don’t hafta stay at the penitentiary no more.”

“I’m afraid all my efforts were for naught until he took you as his apprentice.”

“She did just as much as I, lad,” Vaughn said, coming up behind her. “And she’ll be seein’ that you’re settled, with the clothin’ you need, as well.”

Darcy had been thinking about her promise to help Vaughn and her desire to make sure Rory was happy. How would she find the time to take the child shopping without her father knowing? The idea of doing as she pleased this once had been firmly planted. She would help Rory without her father’s approval. What could he do to her?

“I’ll leave work early today,” she told them both. “We’ll visit the shops and see what we can find to fit ye.”

“Will your father have somethin’ to say about that?” Vaughn asked. He’d grown suspicious of the man’s overbearing nature.

“I’ve no doubt he will. But I’m a grown woman, I am. I’ve not had an afternoon’s leave in years.”

Two hours before her regular quitting time, she hung her apron and left the kitchen. Locating Rory hauling a bucket of water, she instructed him to wash his face and hands.

Vaughn handed her a weighty leather pouch that clinked when she took it. She tested it and looked up at him. “I have coins of my own to spend.”

“Today use mine,” he insisted. She nodded, and she and the lad set off for the village.

Rory drew stares in his prison garb, so she was quick to outfit him. She took him to the barber for a haircut and purchased him an ivory comb. “Me mother had one with shells carved on the ends, she did,” Rory said, fingering the comb. “But someone at the workhouse stole it.”

“What was your mother’s name?”

“Anna. She had hair as black as midnight.”

“She must’ve been beautiful.”

“Aye.” They paused for a lumbering cart pulled by a donkey to pass. “Mr. Donnelly thinks you’re as pretty as a spring mornin’.”

Chapter Twelve

Darcy stopped in her tracks. “Vaughn said that?”

“Aye. He said you looked as delicate as a field pansy, but were hardy as bilberry.”

Darcy’s neck warmed all the way up to her cheeks and she touched her face in discomfiture. Was “hardy” the same as saying she had a “strong constitution,” as her father had described her? “Why ever was Vaughn talking so foolishly?”

“I started it, sayin’ you was kind.”

“Well, enough foolery. Let’s finish our errand, then I’ll take you home with me while I prepare a meal to leave for my father.” After that chore was done, she gathered a blanket, towel and soap, and they headed for the Donnellys’.

She made up the narrow bed before the sound of an approaching team and wagon reached them. Rory ran out to help Vaughn take care of the animals, and she quickly prepared a cottage pie and boiled potatoes.

The whole while Rory’s words wrapped around her heart: Mr. Donnelly thinks you’re as pretty as a spring mornin’.

The door opened and her heart leaped unexpectedly.

“A pleasure, it is, to come home to a fine meal on the table,” Vaughn told her. “Are you stayin’ t’ eat?”

His acknowledgment of her efforts warmed her through and through. She glanced at Shad, who gave her a nod. “I suppose I will.”

“You changed your dress.” Vaughn’s eyes sparkled with approval. “This one matches the color of your eyes.”

Heart fluttering, she glanced down at the matching apron that fit over her dress like a loose vest, with two rows of buttons up the front.

“There are a few aprons similar to yours in the bottom of Da’s trunk. They belonged to my mother. I remember her wearin’ them as she went about her kitchen tasks.”

“I have all of my mother’s handkerchiefs and a box of her hair combs,” she said with an understanding nod. “I haven’t used the handkerchiefs. For a long time they smelled like the sachet in her drawer. I wear the combs occasionally, and it’s comforting to know she used the very same ones in her hair.”

Vaughn’s soft expression told her he cherished similar memories. Their shared sense of loss wove yet another silken bond between them.

“Where’s her restin’ place?” Rory asked.

The question reminded Darcy that Rory’s loss was more recent. Darcy served the cottage pie and answered, “The churchyard cemetery.”

“Your mother, too?” the lad asked Vaughn. At the responding nod, Rory said, “Me mother’s buried out back of the workhouse.”

Darcy and Vaughn exchanged an understanding look of compassion.

“This tastes mighty fine.” Vaughn’s father shifted the subject. “How did we fall into such good fortune?”

“I was already here to get Rory settled,” Darcy replied.

Darcy’s presence was a pleasure anytime, but tonight Vaughn was struck with how a woman changed everything. Was this how it would be to have a wife? To have Darcy as a wife?

His work had taken him to so many places, yet he hadn’t met anyone special. No one had held his interest—until now. Lately he’d been spending a lot of time thinking about Darcy. Da had noticed and done his share of good-natured teasing. Vaughn didn’t mind. What bothered him more was not knowing what he was going to do about his feelings for a woman who was leaving as soon as Rory was settled.

Vaughn gladly shared the dishwashing task with Darcy, then watched her pack her basket. “I’ll walk with ye.”

“I’ll come, too!” Rory called.

“I’m leavin’ you in the washtub,” she said, and together Darcy and Vaughn laughed at his disgruntled expression.

Vaughn absorbed Darcy’s laugh as he would a ray of sunshine. Her smile was worth any cost, the way it lit her lovely features. He couldn’t shake this peculiar feeling of tenderness and awe he felt toward her…and he didn’t want to.

Chapter Thirteen

Vaughn hauled water for Rory’s bath and heated it. Darcy preserved Rory’s modesty by waiting until he was submerged to wash his hair and scrub his face and ears. “Scrub like that all over,” she said, handing him the soap and soft brush.

“I’ll scrub off me hide,” he complained.

“Your hide’s a lot tougher than a wee brush can strip,” she told him and bent to kiss his cheek.

Shad thanked her for the meal and Vaughn led her out the door. He carried her basket as they strolled along the outskirts of the village.

“You did a fine thing,” she said. “Takin’ the boy in and making a home for him.”

“You’ve done as much as I.”

“But I hadn’t the means to give him a home. There’s a crown in heaven with your name on it.”

“His home will be wherever the work takes us,” he told her. “At least now he’ll be seeing the outsides of the prisons and not the insides.”

“‘Tis a kind thing you’ve done.” She observed his handsome profile in the moonlight. “You’re not the same rowdy boy I remember. You and Scully used to fistfight at the slightest provocation, and I recall once you got chased out of Reverend Flanagan’s garden.”

“Scully and I still go ’round now and then. ‘Tis what brothers do.”

“Seems you were sweet on one of the tinkers’ daughters before you and your father left.”

“She married a farmer and raises sheep, don’t you know. Has five bairns Da bemoans could’ve been his grandchildren.”

“You didn’t want to marry her?”

“She’s a bossy one, she is. Her husband must like to take orders.”

“You didn’t?”

“I was young, more interested in makin’ my way in the world than pleasin’ a woman.” He’d missed a few opportunities because of his focus on his job, but he trusted God’s leading for his future.

“And now?” she asked.

He took her hand and gently stopped her progress. They stood facing each other under the darkened sky. “There is one woman I’ve been hopin’ t’ please.”

The moment stretched between them, sweet and silent, stars winking overhead and a lilting breeze fluttering the tails of her shawl against his arm.

“I’ve been thinkin’ about kissin’ you, Darcy. Can’t get the thought out of me head.”

“Get on with it, then,” she said in her bossiest voice, making him laugh.

He set the basket on the ground and touched the backs of his fingers to her impossibly soft cheek. “Your skin’s as soft as I dreamed, t’ be sure.”

Darcy rose on tiptoes. “Do make this kiss worth the tongue-lashing I’ll get when I reach home.”

Chapter Fourteen

Vaughn touched his lips to Darcy’s in a tentative kiss that quickly changed to eager and accepting. He kissed her just the way he’d imagined, and she didn’t pull away. He wanted to hold her and feel her heart against his, but he wouldn’t risk frightening her or spoiling this moment.

Cupping her jaw, he touched her shoulder. Between them, she raised her hand until she found his cheek with cool fingertips.

A heart-stopping moment later, she pressed her cheek to his and then lowered her heels to the ground, leaving him aching.

“Was it worth a tongue lashin’?” he managed to ask.

Her smile assured him before she spoke the word he anticipated. “Aye.”

“I mean no disrespect, but your father… He’s a harsh taskmaster.”

“I know it well. I was so young I can’t remember, but I often wonder if my mother felt the same stern disapproval. The way you and your da are with one another, well, it’s like nothing I’ve ever known. He appreciates and speaks highly of you.”

“He’s a kind man. He was a strict teacher and a diligent businessman, but he always carved out time for play. Losing my mother broke his heart, it did. He loved her with all of his being.”

“My father has never once told me he loved me,” Darcy said softly. “I believe he does, but he has no regard for me. A small gesture of appreciation every now and then would have gone a long way.”

“Would have?”

“It’s too late now. I plan to leave Castleville. I want a different life from this.”

Vaughn held both of her hands in his large, firm grasp. He had calluses at the base of his fingers, and the rough difference intrigued her. “Well, I think you’re smart…and pretty, besides being a good cook. And I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

Picking up the basket, he took her hand once again and they continued on.

Vaughn didn’t like the weighty sense of loss he experienced as she entered her cottage. He didn’t like the thought of her setting off on her own. But even if he didn’t travel for his work, there was nothing he could do that would make a difference. Darcy didn’t want to stay in Castleville.

***

“Ye were with Mr. Donnelly, weren’t ye?” Ambros asked. He was sitting on a chair by the fire.

“I was.”

“He’s not a fitting suitor, and I won’t have you making a fool of yourself with the likes of ‘im.”

“He’s not a suitor. He’s a friend.”

“No doubt he took that ragtag Gilchrist boy home. You’ll not be convincing me that you didn’t have a hand in that. Next time I’ll go straight to their home and bring you out meself.”

“I don’t seek your displeasure, Father, but I am old enough to choose my friends and visit whomever I please.”

He slammed his hand on the table beside his chair, rattling it so hard a cup fell to the floor. “No daughter of mine will be making a fool of me by carrying on with that man. Stay away from ‘im.”

“Have you forgotten I’m not a child?” she asked. “Other women my age are married with families of their own.”

“You’re fortunate you don’t have to sweep some farmer’s dirt floor and birth a sickly baby every year. You have a comfortable home and are well provided for.”

“If I wanted to marry a farmer, Father, I would do so, no matter what you said or did.” She put away the basket and took herself to her curtained-off area near the kitchen. The door to her father’s room closed.

Trembling, she stepped to the cracked cream pitcher that hung on a nail beside her bureau and silently slid the coins onto her bed. Many of their neighbors had sought passage on ships to America, and to be sure she’d thought of it more than once. Tonight only proved that nothing was going to change unless she left. She would learn how much a ticket cost.

Even if leaving Vaughn broke her heart.

Chapter Fifteen

In the week that followed, Darcy found a few opportunities to slip to the worksite and check on Rory and Vaughn. She stole a few minutes here and there to bake them a loaf of bread or simmer a pot of vegetables and share them.

Her father’s disapproval was evident in his dark glares and the set of his mouth when he looked at her. She had always felt his stinging disapproval, so this was merely another level. She dealt with it by remembering she’d soon be gone.

The tickets to America were costly, she learned, so she wouldn’t be able to afford much in the way of supplies to last the voyage. Whenever she thought of a land where everything was unfamiliar, her determination wavered.

Soon enough news of Jack Murphy’s death reached her, and she tied a few of her precious coins into a handkerchief to give to his daughters at the funeral.

She and Rory climbed the hill behind the stone church before the service began. Vaughn and Scully were already there, only their heads visible as they hollowed a spot in the ground for the resting place of their neighbor. Finished, they helped each other out of the hole. Vaughn brushed dirt from his clothing before the sisters and the congregation joined them.

Nora, Bridget and Maeve clasped hands in a stair-step row. Nora was tall and Maeve tiny, Bridget between.

Reverend Larken started with a prayer. “When we lose someone we love, it seems that time stands still. What moves through us is a silence, a quiet sadness, a longing for one more day, one more word, one more touch.”

Rory reached for her hand, and Darcy gave his fingers a gentle squeeze. This child understood loss.

From where he stood on Rory’s other side, Vaughn met her gaze. The reverend’s words were exactly how she felt whenever she thought about leaving. It had been easy to plan before, but now there were invisible ties binding her. As harsh as the rest of her life was, her stolen moments with Vaughn made it all bearable. How would she survive without him?

Nora moved forward stiffly and tossed a handful of dirt on the casket. Bridget and Maeve followed in turn. Maeve’s tear-filled eyes followed Vaughn and his brother as they once again rolled back their sleeves and took up their shovels.

Mrs. Donovan offered the sisters her condolences and drew them away from the grave. Darcy joined her neighbors in offering them her sympathy and pressed the handkerchief holding her few coins into Nora’s hand.

Darcy took Rory to the crest of the hill, where they looked over the roaring ocean below until Vaughn and Scully finished their grim task. Shad joined them and they headed back to the village.

Chapter Sixteen

“‘Twas a nice stone you left at Mr. Murphy’s grave,” Rory remarked as he, Darcy and the Donnellys walked back to Castleville. “People cared about ‘im, did they?”

“They did, lad,” Vaughn replied. “Jack Murphy was a good man. He had a lot of friends.”

“Is he in heaven?” Rory asked.

“Aye. I’ve no doubt he’s singin’ with the angels right now.”

“And me mother, too?”

“Was your mother a God-fearin’ woman, lad?”

Rory nodded his head emphatically. “Said our prayers every night, we did.”

“You can be sure, then, that your dear mother is in heaven.”

Darcy appreciated Vaughn’s attention to the boy’s concerns and his generosity toward others. While her father hadn’t attended Jack Murphy’s funeral, Vaughn and his brother had dug the grave for the grieving sisters.

Vaughn took her hand as they walked down the hillside. Darcy looked up at him in surprise.

“I’ll be makin’ a lobscouse this evenin’,” he told her. “Is there a chance you might join us?”

She glanced about and withdrew her hand. “My father threatened to drag me home should I go to your cottage again.”

“Then perhaps I could meet you somewhere else, somewhere we’d have a chance to speak.”

She thought it over. “I shall be at your cottage for supper, after all. We can talk afterward.”

Chapter Seventeen

Vaughn served the mutton stew with beetroot and cabbage. “Do ye ‘ave a garden?” Shad asked Darcy.

“A small one, aye, but I purchase most of my vegetables from the penitentiary’s garden. The land there is well-fertilized with seaweed each spring and fall, and produces a fine crop.”

“I harvested and sold seaweed to the farmers as a lad,” Vaughn told her. “No bigger’n the laddie here I was.”

“How did you haul it?” Rory asked.

“With a cart and donkey.”

“Can I do that, too?”

“Ye be helpin’ us,” Vaughn told him. “We have months of work left on the prison. After that we’ll see where the work takes us.”

Rory nodded, his easy acceptance plainly showing he had no particular attachment to Castleville. What about her? Would he miss her? She couldn’t let herself think of it.

After they’d eaten and shared the chore of washing and putting away the dishes, Vaughn excused them and ushered Darcy out into the cool evening air. She tugged her brat around her shoulders.

He led her to the cliff, where they stood looking out at the thundering waves crashing below.

Finally, Vaughn spoke. “I have feelin’s for ye, Darcy. But I don’t want to be unfair to ye.”

Her heart leaped. She found her voice. “Unfair how?”

Chapter Eighteen

“These last years, Da and I have rarely been in Castleville. We go wherever the jobs take us. Sometimes we pitch a tent and live out of it and our wagon for months at a time. It will be the same for Rory, but he’s just a lad and he’ll enjoy the adventure.”

Vaughn had been gone a long time, to be sure. But what did that have to do with her?

“My mother spent most of her days waitin’ for us to return. It’s no life for a woman. If I believed I was to be stayin’ ‘ere for any length of time—and if you didn’t want to leave Castleville—I’d ask ye t’ marry me. Right now. Tonight.”

Vaughn’s words echoed in her head—and her aching heart.

“And I’d make a home for ye and the boy.”

He would ask her to marry him. She’d never expected to hear that. He would ask…except that he wasn’t in Castleville to stay. She’d known his work took him to other parts of the country, so that was no surprise. The surprise was that he wanted to marry her. He’d kissed her, yes. She had feelings for him…but she’d never let herself think of anything serious between them. Certainly not marriage.

What had this thing between them been, then, if not something real?

“It’s not fair t’ you—or to Rory—to make it appear that we’ve intentions toward each other. There’s nothin’ I like more than spendin’ time with ye, Darcy, but it’s not right anyone should be hurt when we go. Or when you go.”

A lonely ache widened in Darcy’s chest. She’d had no expectations, so what had she lost? She’d had nothing before Vaughn Donnelly came home to Castleville this time, but she’d have good memories when he left. “I don’t want Rory to become attached and be disappointed. The last thing I want is for him to feel abandoned again.”

“I don’t want you to be disappointed, either, Darcy.”

“I had no hopes, Vaughn. You haven’t misled me in any way.”

“But I kissed ye. That means something. And I want to kiss ye again.”

Her warm affection for him hadn’t diminished. She managed a smile. “Ye don’t have to marry a lass to kiss her, now, do ye?”

Vaughn pulled Darcy close. He’d wanted to hold her, but hadn’t allowed himself. He wasn’t a man to toy with a woman’s affections. He’d never thought himself selfish until now—until his feelings for this woman kept overriding his common sense. He was mad for Darcy Keegan, but he had nothing to offer her.

With waves pounding below and the tang of salt air on their lips, he kissed her. It was a sweet-sad kiss, sweet because of how much he cared for her and sad because this was all that could ever exist between them.

He released her and wrapped his arm around her shoulders, turning her so they gazed out over the ocean.

Chapter Nineteen

“Rumor has it the Murphy sisters have decided to set sail for America,” Vaughn said, not wanting to leave her, and yet not knowing what else to say.

“I’m not entirely surprised they’re going. Their father’s death left them without a home or an income. Escape probably seems the best fate, even if the future is uncertain.”

Perhaps I can escape with them! Darcy stumbled over the idea. She wouldn’t be entirely alone if she joined the Murphy sisters. They’d known each other their whole lives and she was confident they’d welcome her into their company. Perhaps this was her answer from God.

“Many of our fellow countrymen have gone,” he said. “The laws have changed ship conditions to prevent overcrowding, and there are now physicians aboard each vessel. I pray our friends know a safe journey.”

“Aye,” she whispered.

They watched the play of moonlight on the ocean for a time and eventually he saw her home.

That night Darcy lay awake until the wee hours of the morning. If she intended to go through with this, she needed to speak with the sisters immediately.

Confusing thoughts swam in her head. She had no enthusiasm for a life in a new country.Would she be better off simply finding employment in County Galway, as had been her first plan? And what about her father? Would he try to stop her? Perhaps she should stay, just until Vaughn and Rory finished their work on the prison….

If she wasn’t confident in her plan to go with the Murphy sisters to America, perhaps she wasn’t hearing from God. Slipping from her bed to kneel, Darcy clasped her hands and bowed her head. While she prayed, a verse from the book of James came to her: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. Well, she certainly lacked wisdom; she had no idea what to do from here. “Father God,” she whispered. “Liberally grant me wisdom to make the right decision—and give me confidence about my choice.”

She thanked the Lord with her next breath and, feeling more at peace, got back into bed. Within moments she fell into restful sleep.

For the next few days, Darcy simply waited. She visited the Murphy sisters and listened to their plans, but didn’t mention joining them. If God wanted her to go, there would be time.

Meanwhile she thought about everything Vaughn had said, and her deep sense of regret and sadness was replaced by hope and optimism. Long ago she’d felt a girlish attraction to Vaughn. Seeing him all these years later had intensified the allure. But it was no longer a girlish infatuation.

She’d fallen in love with him.

Chapter Twenty

Darcy recalled Vaughn’s words: “If I believed I was to be stayin’ ‘ere for any length of time, I’d ask ye t’ marry me. Right now. Tonight.” He’d hesitated because he was leaving Castleville. He hadn’t said he didn’t have feelings for her; in fact he’d said the opposite.

He was willing to take Rory with him…why not her?

Perhaps he didn’t think she’d want to go with him. She’d told him of her plans to travel. Maybe he thought she’d find a husband better suited to her.

Her mind still consumed by thoughts of Vaughn, Darcy scrubbed potatoes and heaped them into a bin beside the brick oven before turning to her chore list. Eggs to boil next. She set an enormous kettle on the worktable.

Vaughn didn’t want to marry her and then have to leave her while he worked in other parts of the country. Darcy agreed it wasn’t an ideal situation. But a partial life with him would be better than what she had now. She’d even be willing to travel with him and live in a tent. What was a home without love? Without appreciation for each other?

People who loved each other should be willing to do anything to share their lives, shouldn’t they? Vaughn didn’t want to disappoint her, but this devastating loss was disappointing her.

“Is something wrong, Miss Keegan?” Mrs. Cullugh asked, and Darcy realized she’d been standing beside the worktable without moving for several minutes.

“Actually, something is wrong,” she replied. “Very wrong.” She removed her apron and hung it beside the door. “But I’m going to fix it.”

“Your chores aren’t finished!” the woman called after her.

Darcy ignored her and paused at the prisoner’s washbasin to splash her face with cool water. She left through the servants’ door and made her way to the construction area.

She found Vaughn erecting an oven almost as big as the one in the building where she worked. At her approach he set down a brick and removed a pair of gloves. “Darcy!”

“I…I need to speak with you.”

“Of course.”

She glanced about. “Somewhere where we’ll be alone.”

“Give me a few minutes to wash and I’ll meet you in the grove.” He tipped his head. “Over there.”

She waited beneath the blossoming apple trees, enjoying the scent of earth and growing things. It took only a few minutes for him to join her, his hair wet and his face freshly scrubbed. “Is something wrong?”

“Something’s very wrong.”

He took both of her hands. “Do you want to sit down?”

She shook her head. “God has been opening my eyes to a few truths. And one of them is the fact that I’m in love with you.”

Vaughn’s expression changed swiftly from concern to surprise and back to concern. “Darcy, I—”

“Don’t say anything yet,” she asked. “I love you, Vaughn. You’re a kind man, tenderhearted and generous. And you love the Lord, follow His Word, and live your life to honor Him.

“I didn’t admit my feelings to myself at first. I told myself we were just friends. I assured myself I only wanted relief from my situation, and being with you took me away from my life, if only for a few moments.”

“Oh, Darcy, I’d gladly take you away from your situation forever if that be what you need. I will.”

“I’m not coming to you for rescue. I’m not. I have options. I’ve saved enough money to accompany the Murphy sisters to America. I was nearly set to buy a ticket. I still can.”

He stared at her, the sun-kissed color draining from his face. “You would do that? You would take one of those ships?”

“Yes.”

“I had no idea.” His shock was genuine.

“I didn’t truly share how desperate I am to change my life. I didn’t want to burden you or make you feel like you had to do something.”

“I would have.”

“That’s why I didn’t tell you.”

“I knew you worked hard and wanted to leave the prison behind, but I didn’t realize you wanted to go that far.”

“I may’t as well be one of the weavers,” she told him. “I rise before daylight. I work in that kitchen all day long. I go home late and cook for my father and do his laundry. I’m not one to shirk hard work, mind you, but even the prisoners have the Sabbath to rest. I serve their meals even then, with nary a word of thanks.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t see, Darcy.”

She shook her head. “It would be a sin to complain when there’s such hardship all around. I don’t want sympathy. I’m only telling you now so that you know I was prepared to leave…but now I want to stay—with you. I want to marry you and I’ll be glad to live in any arrangement that lets us be together even part of the time. I could live in your cottage while you’re gone and keep it up. I could care for your father. No doubt I would lose my position at the penitentiary, but I would find other work. I could grow a garden, cook for a landlord, anything. Or I’d travel with you and live in a tent. I don’t care. As long as we’re together.”

She paused to gauge his expression. “If you want me, that is.”

“Darcy—”

“If what you said before was an excuse to spare my feelings, say so now and spare me the humiliation.”

“Of course it wasn’t an excuse.” He squeezed her fingers. “I love you, Darcy. But I don’t want to enter into a marriage only to disappoint you. I was sincere about that.”

“What if the alternative is crushing disappointment? What if I can’t bear the thought of living without your love?”

He smiled that smile she knew so well by now. The smile that touched her heart. “I could never leave you behind,” he said softly. “I’d want you with me, even if we share a tent. I couldn’t bear being apart from you.”

“I’m glad you said that. It’s what I want, too.”

“I want us to be together,” he assured her.”It will be the most wonderful day of my life to stand before the reverend and pledge my love.” He dropped to one knee.

Darcy’s heart filled to overflowing.

The sunlight through the apple trees dappled his head and shoulders with a fascinating play of light and shadow. The love in his eyes took her breath away and brought unexpected tears. With Vaughn and Rory—Shad, even—she felt valued. She knew a purpose. With them she would never lack for love. She would have a family. Vaughn had told her once that he hoped she found what she was looking for. And she had. With him.

“We’ll make it work,” he promised her. “I shall love you all me live-long days, Darcy Keegan. Will you marry me?”

She smiled through the blur of tears. “Aye, Mr. Donnelly. It shall be my pleasure to marry you.”

***

It was a brisk morning two short weeks later when the Donnelly family stood on the cliff above the churchyard, among the headstones and white wooden crosses. Shad held his hat to his chest and Scully played a hymn on his battered fiddle. Scully’s wife and two children stood respectfully nearby.

“Thank ye for bringin’ me mother to lay in peace above the ocean,” Rory said. Tears glistened in his eyes. “She would’ve liked it here.”

Vaughn knelt and hugged him soundly. “She deserved a place with family, don’t ye think?”

Darcy dug a clump of goats-beard and planted the yellow blooms at the foot of the stone marker. Her gaze moved to Vaughn’s mother’s grave and then only a row away to her own mother’s.

Walking to the cliff’s vantage point, she spotted a ship sailing toward the horizon.

Vaughn stepped beside her and wrapped his arms around her waist. “Do ye suppose the Murphy sisters are on that ship?”

“Quite likely. Their ship left today.”

“Are ye happy with your decision to stay, Mrs. Donnelly?”

She turned into his waiting embrace and eagerly raised her face for a kiss. “Aye, Mr. Donnelly. I’m the happiest wife in all of Éire.

“And the prettiest,” he added.

“They’re kissin’ again,” Rory said, and the lilting sound of laughter floated above the grassy hillside.

THE END

 

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