Authors: Doreen Owens Malek
Linn listened, and she could tell by his tone that she wouldn’t like what was coming. A breeze blew through the trees, sprinkling them with an aftershock of raindrops. She shuddered as Con leaned back against a tree trunk and hooked his thumbs into his belt, continuing his tale.
“I don’t know why I didn’t realize that to her I was just an entertainment, a toy like the Corvette and the speedboats. That will tell you how green I was, grass green. I suppose I was something different, a breed apart from the usual stud service. A curiosity to be served up at cocktail parties along with the canapés. A romantic figure,” he spat derisively.
Linn waited, her head averted now.
“Well we went on that way for a while, I in my ignorance, she in her playful mood. We were happy enough until, as I recall, I brought up the subject of marriage. I was also foolish enough to suggest that I didn’t want to live off her father’s money.”
Linn said nothing.
He sighed. “What a clod I was. She laughed at me. Trying to separate that girl from her da’s greenbacks was like trying to separate sunshine from summertime.”
Con straightened, frowning at the clearing night sky. “And then I began to see myself as she had seen me all along, an half wild bogtrotter totally unacceptable as a husband but desirable enough for . . . other pursuits. She wasn’t paying me by the night but she might as well have been for all the difference it made. It was quite a revelation, I can tell you.”
Linn could hear the old pain, buried but still present, in his words. She found her voice. “Don’t put that on me, Con, just because she hurt you,” she said softly. “She was thoughtless and cruel. I’m not like that.”
His eyes swept over her face. “Are you not? I wonder.”
“No, I’m not!” she responded heatedly. “Just because she was American you assume that I’m shallow and selfish too. That’s ridiculous and totally unfair.”
“You’re Kevin Pierce’s daughter!” he shot back.
So they were back to that again. “Why should that make a difference?” Linn demanded.
“It makes a world of difference to me. I mean to bear it in mind in future.” He moved to take her arm. “Come along, I’ll take you back to the house.”
Linn snatched herself away from his grasp. “I’m not taking one step from this place until you tell me exactly what my father did to make you so bitter,” she stated firmly.
“I’m not bitter,” he replied, in a manner that belied his words. “I was merely a madman to forget for a minute who you are.”
“I mean it. I’ll stay right here until you tell me.”
He shrugged. “Suit yourself, my lady. The ruins are said to be haunted but I’m sure the spirits are locals. Just tell them who you are and they’ll trip all over themselves to bow and scrape before you.” He started off down the slope.
Maddened beyond endurance, Linn ran after him and dodged in front of him, blocking his path. He stopped short to avoid plowing her down.
“How can you be so unreasonable?” she said, clutching at his hands. “You’re blaming me for something and I don’t even know what it is. Please, don’t I deserve an explanation? Connor, you owe me that much.”
For just an instant his fingers returned her pressure and she could see him relent. He inclined his head in his habitual way.
“So I do,” he agreed. He stepped back from her and folded his arms. “Your father seduced my mother and then abandoned her,” he said.
Linn’s eyes widened in shock.
“You did not know it?” Con asked.
Linn shook her head dumbly.
“I thought not. No doubt your father wasn’t too anxious to reveal the reason for his departure from Ildathach. Nor would I be, in his shoes. When my mother proved to be a problem putting an ocean between him and the irritant was thought to be the solution.”
Linn stood rooted, stunned.
“It’s an old story, the lord of the manor using the servant girl and then making …other arrangements. I’m sure it was very effective for him but it wasn’t too helpful to my mother. She loved him to her dying day. She never got over him. Never.”
Con’s fists clenched at his sides. “Kevin ruined her life and her husband’s life as well. My father was a good man. He deserved to be loved. When I was a child in bed at night, I’d hear them arguing long after they thought I was asleep. He would plead with her, ask her to give him a chance, beg her to try to forget the man who’d so easily forgotten her. She tried, I know she tried, but even I could see that she was not able to do it. The night my father died he said to her, ‘You never loved me, Mary. You’ve been Kevin’s wife in your mind from the start. We’ve slept three in a bed all these years.’”
Linn’s eyes filled with tears. It was a heartbreaking story. She could imagine Con as a little boy, desperately trying to alleviate the anguish of his beloved father, sensing that something was wrong between his parents. And when he got older his growing understanding brought resentment of the source of their unhappiness: Linn’s father, Kevin Pierce.
Con saw her reaction. “Yes, it’s a sad story. Sadder to me because I lived it. Kevin was a shadow between them all their lives, the one that got away, the man she wanted but could not have. My father was a very distant second and he knew it. He had to settle for Kevin’s leavings, for the shell of a woman Kevin ditched after he was through with her and had taken off to new conquests across the sea.”
Linn swallowed with difficulty. She couldn’t equate Con’s description of the careless, callous seducer with the warm, loving father she’d known, but what reason would Con have to make up such a terrible lie? And it explained so much—his attitude toward her when she arrived, the undercurrent of suspicion and hostility which she’d sensed from the moment they met.
“What became of your mother after my father left?” she managed in a low tone.
“Oh, Dermot married her off to my father, sent them to England where my da supervised the mines. I was born ten months later. A husband and a family to help her forget, don’t you know.” His eyes were cold. “But my mother had a tenacious memory.” He lifted his chin, his demeanor hard and unyielding. “I inherited that from her.”
“But you can’t hold me responsible for what happened between them so long ago,” Linn said softly. “You’re heaping your memories—of Tracy, of your parents—on my head, on the head of a person you’re judging by the behavior of other people. I’m not Tracy, and I can’t change now what my father did over thirty years ago.” She spread her hands in appeal. “What else can I say? I have two strikes against me and neither of them is my fault.”
Con sighed. “That well may be, Aislinn, but it changes nothing. I’m sorry I let this go so far; nothing good can come of it. Let’s give it up as a bad job, shall we? You look exhausted and should get some rest. Come with me now, we’ve been too long away.”
His distant, resigned tone chilled her to the bone. Linn would have preferred his anger to this emotionless surrender to the insurmountable past. He clearly thought that the barriers between them were too strong, too high to scale and too thick to penetrate. He simply wasn’t equal to the effort.
Linn let him lead her onto the mountain path and she walked down it with him in silence.
Everything was wet from the rain. Con picked his way carefully, supporting Linn, catching her once when she slipped on a patch of mud. The beauty of her surroundings, the washed clean sky and the gleaming leaves splashing her with cool, crystalline droplets, was lost on Linn as she trod in Con’s footsteps. They retraced the route they had taken and were back to Con’s car too soon.
Bally was quiet. Linn glanced at Con’s set profile as he handed her into the front seat and slammed the door next to her. She felt something like despair. He had been reminded again of his reasons to hate her; she knew he wouldn’t forget a second time.
Con drove efficiently back to Ildathach, concentrating on the road and saying nothing. He walked Linn up the steps to the door of the house, waiting while she fiddled nervously with the lock.
The door swung inward. Linn looked up at Con inquiringly.
He towered over her, his face inscrutable.
She put a tentative hand on his arm. “Con...”
He shook his head. “Best to leave it. Enough tonight. I’ve said more than I ever meant to already.” He looked at her a moment longer, and then turned and ran lightly down the steps.
Linn went inside in a dreamlike state, trying to absorb all the information she’d just acquired. It was too much. She shut the door behind her and leaned against it, lost in thought. A movement to her left caught her eye and she jumped. It was the cat, Ned. He was perched on the entry table, staring at her and swishing his tail.
Linn exhaled noisily. “That’s the second time you’ve scared me,” she informed him, picking him up and smiling into his little foxy cat face. He blinked and purred loudly.
Linn carried him into the kitchen, where he expressed an interest in the plate Bridie had left in the icebox. Linn had little appetite and wound up feeding her dinner to Ned, who enjoyed it greatly. She left him with the remains of his feast and went to her room, where she undressed in the dark and crawled into bed.
A thud jarred her awake in the middle of the night. Ned had arrived and remained. She awoke in the morning to find him draped over her like a fur piece, fast asleep.
It seemed she had lost one potential friend but found another.
* * * *
After breakfast Linn began the process of going through the house and examining its contents, determining what to keep, what to sell, what to throw away. Precious little fit into the latter categories. She couldn’t bear to part with most of the mementos of her family’s past. She simply repacked pictures and books and silver and china, storing them for an uncertain future. Bridie assisted her, grumbling that Linn wasn’t accomplishing anything, merely redistributing the clutter. The older woman followed her from room to room, commenting on each piece Linn handled, filled with stories about the grandfather Linn had never known. They removed sheets and dust covers, rummaging in drawers and chests trying to create some order out of the chaos that had surrounded the eccentric old man. He had been a pack rat, hanging onto artifacts that had far outlived their usefulness, but Linn was fascinated by the hidden treasures contained in the old house. She spent several days covered with grime, crouched on the floor amid piles of her grandfather’s knickknacks, while Bridie snatched them up and wrapped them in newspaper. Bridie complained loudly that they would never finish if Linn insisted on examining them all as if they were priceless museum pieces. In this fashion they made slow but steady progress until most of the items were put away in crates and boxes. The rooms were aired, the rugs beaten, the windows washed. Linn did most of the heavy work; Bridie leaned on brooms and dust mops and talked. Linn didn’t mind. She was good company, and her chatter took Linn’s mind off her preoccupation with Con’s conspicuous absence.
Linn saw him, but only from a distance. He never came to the house. She would watch him from a window as he worked around the grounds. She saw him mowing the lawn on a tractor, cutting the weeds along the drive with a scythe or white washing the stucco facing on the barn which adjoined the gatehouse. Once she saw him walking at night; he stopped under a tree and stood looking up at the house, his shadow long and dark in the moonlight. But he didn’t approach Linn and she waited in vain for him to do so. As she had feared, her double burden of being Kevin Pierce’s daughter and Tracy Alden’s countrywoman was too heavy for him to shoulder. He had decided to stay away.
As the days passed and Linn watched him from afar, grooming the property as he’d been doing all his life, his antagonism toward her upon her arrival became more understandable. He’d been here for years and years, caring for what was not and had never been his. Then she had arrived on a plane from a distant somewhere, a stranger descending from on high to take it from him. It was more than his memories of a self-indulgent American girl that separated them, more still than her father’s behavior toward his mother; as he had said, she was the landowner and he was the serf. For a man of his pride and sensitive nature, that was a distinction impossible to dismiss.
A week went by, and Bridie was making tea in the kitchen one afternoon when there was a knock on the front door. Linn’s heart leaped into her throat. Was Con ready to break the silence?
Not so. When she answered the door, the visitor was a pleasant looking young man with a clipped moustache and a rough thatch of brown hair who greeted her.
“How do, miss,” he said, grinning. “You must be the new lady. I’m Sean Roche; I have the milk route. That’s my truck beyond the hedge there.”
Linn looked past him to the van that stood in the drive. It was emblazoned with Roche Dairy, Ltd., on the side.
“Yes? What can I do for you?” she inquired.
“Will you be carrying on with the same schedule as before?” he asked. “I’ve not received any new instructions since the old man passed on.”
Bridie walked into the hall. “Is that you, Seaneen? What are you after, boy?”
Sean looked uncomfortable. “Hullo, missus. I was just checking about the deliveries. Will you have the same as always?”
Bridie shot him an arch glance. “And why not? Wouldn’t I have called you if there was to be a change? You wouldn’t be using that as an excuse to snatch a peek at our young lady here, would you?”