“A woman's love is strong, more powerful than all the ghosts in Ireland...”
Daughter of a village girl, step-daughter of an Irish landlord, Ashleen O’Brien was never certain where she belonged. But after a year in America, she yearns to return to the green land that is her heart’s home.
War and betrayal had taken everything from Cavan Callaghan – his home, his family, and the woman he loved. A hero of the Irish Brigade’s Antietem campaign, he’s seeking the Irish family he never knew.
Love and treachery await Cavan and Ashleen along those emerald shores, as the ghosts of a past that can never quite be forgotten rise to threaten their newfound happiness.
The Atlantic Ocean, 1867
He was going home.
Home. Such a simple word. And for so long now, such an unattainable dream.
Yet as he stood on the deck of the Mary O’Connor, he thought maybe he’d finally find a real home once again.
When Johnny comes marching home again . . .
He looked seaward. The salt wind tugged at his hair. Spray stung his eyes. Gulls wheeled and shrieked overhead. Open water lay beyond the horizon, and beyond that still, his new life. In a few weeks, the Mary O’Connor would dock in Galway Bay, and from there he’d head for the small village his parents had spoken of with such love. He felt a stirring of emotion, the first spark of excitement since—
Deliberately he cut off the thought. He was no longer a soldier. There would be no more Rebel yells, no more guns, no more battles. He was no longer Captain Callaghan, so-called hero of the Irish Brigade.
He was just plain Cavan Callaghan, an Irishman searching for peace.
What would Ireland be like? For as long as he could remember, he’d heard his parents speak wistfully of the country they’d left behind. The green fields and sea-swept coast. The heather-strewn countryside filled with wild strawberries and prickly gorse. They’d spoken of the people, too, but especially of his father’s brother.
The last of the Flynns now, except for himself.
His mother had said the village of Ballycashel lay some nine miles from Galway City. What would he find there? He knew about the Hunger, of course. Had any of his family survived?
Or would he find the same devastation he’d confronted on his return from the war?
A ripple of sound floating on the briny breeze told him he wasn’t alone. Recognizing the delicate notes of a penny whistle, he glanced around. One of his fellow passengers, obviously an Irishman, lowered the instrument from his lips and smiled, his foot tapping in jig time.
The piper began playing anew, and a raw slash of anguish ripped through Cavan’s gut. He knew the words well, and the tune the man played so effortlessly and with such emotion.
He’d prayed never to hear them again.
The minstrel boy to the war has gone,
In the ranks of death you’ll find him . . .
He squeezed his eyes shut, the ‘ranks of death’ marching through his memory. So many friends, his comrades-in-arms, who would never return . . .
With a hard shake of his head, he strode away from the haunting melody.
He was going home. And there he would find peace.
There would be no more war.
“‘Twill not be long now.”
Ashleen O’Brien turned to the young man standing next to her on the deck of the Mary O’Connor. A steerage passenger, Danny O’Shea kept everyone on the ship entertained with sweet tunes and stories of the black-haired colleen he planned to marry when he returned to Ireland.
“‘Twill do all our hearts good to be home again,” Ashleen agreed with a smile. She could hardly wait to see her family. It had been so long.
“And have ye a young man waitin’ for you there?” A tease lurked in Danny’s blue eyes. “Sure, a lovely lass like yerself must have a string of young lads after ye.”
“Oh, a dozen at least. But none’s managed to catch me yet.”
“Or could be ye’re just waitin’ for the dark one to give you the twinkle of his eye?”
Startled, Ashleen looked up into Danny’s kindly face. So he too had noticed the tall, dark man who haunted the decks at all hours of the night, prowling restlessly as if driven by demons.
Who could help but notice him? He was easily six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a well-muscled frame. His raven curls constantly tumbled over his forehead in the stiff ocean breeze, and his dark-brown eyes could pierce a woman’s soul.
A gust of briny wind blew her hair into her eyes and she brushed it back with trembling fingers, trying without success to laugh off Danny’s probing question. “Ah, Danny, ‘tis you’re the born matchmaker, so you are. Sure, you go home and marry your darlin’ Maura. The only men I’ve any wish to see right now are my da and my little brothers.”
“I’ve seen the glances ye’ve been exchanging with him, lass.”
Ashleen shivered, drawing her fine cashmere shawl more closely about her shoulders. Katie had insisted on buying it for her as a farewell gift, saying the shades of blue and green exactly matched her eyes. To Ashleen, it had seemed a needless extravagance, yet now she welcomed its comforting warmth.
“Sure, Danny, ‘tis nothing but a bit of harmless flirtation.”
“Harmless if they both be unattached,” Danny retorted. “What do you know about this man? Nothing.” A wave crashed against the side of the ship, dashing water up and over the rail. “There be a storm brewin,’ and no mistake. Will ye go below, then?”
“Soon. I’ll see you later, Danny.”
Danny nodded and Ashleen watched him go. Probably he was thinking of his happy reunion with his Maura when the ship docked in Galway. She felt a tiny pang that no devoted lover awaited her, but it was quickly replaced by excitement at the thought of seeing her family again.
She’d had a wonderful year in America. Her sister Katie had taken her everywhere—the theatre, balls, musical teas. And she’d enjoyed meeting her young nieces and nephews. There’d been the races at Saratoga, too, where she’d gambled and won, and lazy days at Katie’s summer home in Cape May.
Katie had wanted to send her home first class, of course, but Ashleen wouldn’t hear of it. She wasn’t a grand society lady like her older sister. She was just plain Ashleen O’Brien, a peasant Irish girl, and she had no wish to pretend otherwise. A second-class cabin would do nicely, thank you very much.
Of course she’d enjoyed wearing pretty dresses and meeting fashionable people in America. It had been fun for a while. Yet even as she had danced and laughed and flirted with a dozen handsome boys, her soul had yearned to breathe the fresh, heather-scented air of her native land. She’d missed the cry of the sea birds and the sweet smell of the hawthorn. She longed to once again run barefooted along the Ballycashel strand or gallop her mare, Princess Niav, over the soft, spongy turf.
Now she was finally going home. She’d missed her mother and her stepfather, her young brothers and sister, and her great-grandmother, Grannie Meg. And she longed to see her Uncle Tom and Aunt Nora, her mother’s best friends, and their three little girls. And Paddy Devlin, who was like a big brother to her, and played the penny whistle almost as well as Danny. And Liam Brady, a great friend of Grannie Meg, whose magical hands could make his grandfather’s fiddle sob or chuckle at a second’s notice.
Oh, ‘twould be so wonderful to see them all!
And yet, as she’d told Danny, there was no young man eagerly awaiting her return, no suitor hoping for her hand. There’d never been anyone special at home. Most of the local boys kept their distance because of who she was—Ashleen O’Brien, the girl who didn’t quite belong. She knew Katie had hoped she’d meet some young man in America, perhaps fall in love and marry. But she couldn’t bear the thought of living away from her beloved Ireland.
The wind whipped around her, sending spray rushing up from the sea to make her skin tingle. She laughed out loud, shaking back her hair, reveling in the freedom the ship offered. If only she could make the winds blow them faster, faster, toward the home of her heart.
Ballycashel . . .
A sudden movement beside her made her turn. She caught her breath, her heart leaping in her chest and hanging suspended for an endless moment.
He was watching her, a tiny smile lifting the corners of his full, sensual mouth. His eyes were dark and rich as American chocolate and framed by luxuriant black lashes. Coal-black curls blowing back in the wind exposed a high forehead and finely sculpted cheekbones. His skin was deeply tanned, with a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of his nose. His ancient Aran sweater— was the pattern familiar?—emphasized the width of his shoulders, and his worn breeches looked as if they’d been molded by years of hard riding. He stood ramrod straight, an air of command about him as compelling as it was intimidating.
He was the most beautiful creature she’d ever seen.
“I’m sorry.” His voice was low and gravelly with just a faint hint of Irishness. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Oh, you didn’t. I was just—” she broke off, afraid she would sound foolish, yet equally terrified he might leave—“just . . . remembering.”
“You have a wonderful laugh.”
Heat rose to her cheeks, and it wasn’t from the bite of the wind. “I . . . thank you.”
Their eyes met, and Ashleen became acutely aware of their surroundings. The high-pitched cries of the gulls sounded sweeter than they had a moment ago, the sounds of the waves the loveliest of music. The briny scent of the ocean filled her nostrils and dusted her lips with salt.
But all she really saw was him.
“My name’s Cavan—Cavan Callaghan.”
Her breath seemed to catch in her throat. “I’m Ashleen O’Brien.”
“You’re Irish.” It was a statement, not a question, and Ashleen couldn’t help but smile.
“And you’re American.”
He smiled back, melting her insides and weakening her knees. “I’m as Irish as you are.”
Her eyes widened. “You talk like an American.”
The rising wind blew a lock of her hair across her eyes. Cavan raised one hand and gently smoothed it back, his fingers barely touching her. Yet that touch burned right to her soul.
“I may talk like an American,” he acknowledged, abruptly dropping his hand, “but I’m just as Irish as you are, even though I haven’t your lovely accent. I was born in County Galway.” He hesitated, a shadow of pain flashing across his face. “My father brought us to America when I was little.”
“During the Hunger?”
“A few years before.”
She took a moment to digest that surprising bit of information. Cavan Callaghan had lived most of his life in America. Why was he returning to Ireland now? Did he merely want to see the country of his birth? Did he plan to settle there? Or was he, like Danny O’Shea, planning to marry a sweetheart when he arrived?
A tiny pang stirred her.
As if reading her thoughts, Cavan said conversationally, “My mother and dad spoke so often of Ireland, I decided to come see the place for myself.” His voice hardened as he continued, “I may still have family there, although I can’t be sure.”
Before she could ask him any more, a wild gust of rain-drenched wind blew in from the sea, saturating them both.
Reluctantly, Ashleen said, “We should be getting below decks.”
“Yes, we should,” he agreed, but made no move to leave.
Torrents of rain pummeled the deck, but neither of them moved. Cavan reached out to trace one finger along her cheek and under her chin, bringing her gaze up to lock with his. His touch was gentle, the callused pad of his finger not quite abrasive. His eyes flared with a fire she didn’t quite understand. “I want to see you again, Ashleen O’Brien.”
She swallowed hard. This was so different from the meaningless flirtations she had known up to now. “I . . .” She faltered, feeling almost on the verge of tears. Oh, how she longed to see this dark man again! “We’ve at least another week. The ship doesn’t reach Galway until then.”
His voice deepened with something like urgency. “Will you be on deck tomorrow?”
She took a tiny step back, shaking her head to clear it, trying in vain to sort out her whirling emotions. Yet in the end, there was only one reply she could give—one reply she wanted to give. “I . . . yes.”
“Tomorrow, then.” His hand lingered on her cheek, the touch so intensely tender she almost cried out with dismay when he dropped his hand. Then he spun and strode away, his dark head bent against the rain.
Ashleen stood there a moment longer, watching him go, one hand on her cheek where his fingers had been. She yearned to keep the memory of his touch forever.
* * * *
Cavan automatically adjusted his long strides to the rolling motion of the ship as he made his way to his second-class cabin. But his mind wasn’t on the coming storm, or even on the fact that soon he would be in Ireland.
He was thinking about the girl.
He’d noticed her the very first day. How could he have missed her, laughing and talking with the other passengers? She was as much at home among the steerage folk as she was with the first-class passengers. But he’d never been able to catch her alone.
She’d looked so lovely on deck, gazing out over the ocean, her red-gold hair whipping around her shoulders, her fair Celtic complexion pinkened by the cool sea wind. And her eyes. The most glorious shade of blue-green he’d ever seen, like deep, turquoise pools, filled with life and promise.
But it was her laugh that really captured his attention. He’d heard it before, of course. But never had it sounded so free, like the pealing of a thousand silver bells, joyous and loving. Healing.
For a few minutes, standing beside a beautiful Irish girl on the deck of a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Cavan felt there might be light again. The darkness in his soul had receded, leaving a tiny flare of joy.
Could he learn to live again? Not just exist from one day to the next, but actively participate in everything life had to offer? For so long he had lived in shadow—even before he’d come home to find everything and everyone he’d loved gone forever.
Now, alone in his cabin, he looked into the future and saw a tiny light at the end of his very dark existence.
But could it last?
The nagging question taunted him. How could anything so good last? Nothing ever lasted—at least, not for him. Not his family, not the farm. And certainly not Sam.
Better to keep it light and casual. He would see her again. He couldn’t stay away, even if he wanted to. He was drawn to her in some mysterious way he couldn’t fathom. Her beauty and spirit were irresistible.
But he must limit the relationship to casual flirtation. Nothing more.
For that was all it could ever be.
* * * *
Ashleen sat curled in a chair in her small, well-appointed second-class cabin, a book of Shakespeare sonnets in her hand and a pot of hot chocolate on the little marble-topped table beside her. Outside, the ship’s steam engines pulsed while waves pounded the bulkhead. But the chocolate had gone cold, she hadn’t turned a page in long minutes, and she scarcely heard the noise of the storm.
Her mind was too full of him.
She thought of Cavan Callaghan now as he had been on deck, tall and broad and, oh, so very masculine. His wonderful smile had reflected in his eyes, which were surrounded by tiny lines. Were they evidence of a sense of humor? Yet she sensed a darkness in him. Could those lines have come from squinting into the sun? Or glaring at an enemy, perhaps during the war that had nearly torn his country apart? Was he haunted by a painful past?
And his touch! So gentle, so tender, yet sensation had burned through her like wildfire. She’d wanted him to go on touching her. She’d even wanted to touch him in return, to explore the texture of his black curls, feel the roughness of his clean-shaven chin, touch her lips to his . . .
Shocked at her wanton thoughts, Ashleen jumped up from her chair, nearly toppling the pot of chocolate as her book tumbled to the floor. Hurriedly she began to undress, hoping the activity would cool her heated longings. She slipped into the lace-trimmed nightrail her mother had made for her before she’d left Ireland, but her trembling fingers snagged in the leather string she wore around her neck. Carefully untangling them, she stared down at the tiny pendant, a small reminiscent smile playing about her mouth.
Made from Connemara marble, the precious stone was like wearing a little bit of home. Tom, who’d been like an uncle to her as long as she could remember, had given it to her just before she’d gone to America.
Ashleen had always had a special bond with Tom Flynn. He’d stood by Ashleen’s mother during some of the worst times in her life. For a while he’d been almost a surrogate father to Ashleen. But even more than that, Tom had been her father’s best friend.
Ashleen had never known her real father, who had died when she was only two. And though she adored Rory O’Brien, who’d adopted her shortly after the birth of her little brother, Sean, she’d longed to learn more about the man who’d sired her.
Tom had told her about Michael Desmond, of his childhood, the young man he’d been when courting Siobhán Kilpatrick, the rebel he’d become as he’d watched his desperate neighbors die during the Hunger.
“Michael was my best friend from the time we were boys,” Tom had told her when he’d given her the pendant the night before she’d left for New York. “And your mother was like a little sister to me. I love you just as much as I do my own three lassies.”
Tenderly she stroked one finger over the pendant, watching the colors sparkle and swirl in the soft lamplight. What would Michael Desmond have thought of Cavan Callaghan? Would her father have approved of the handsome young man who had touched her so gently—touched not only her cheek, but her soul? Or would he have been distrustful of the darkness in him?
Tom would know.
Ashleen had to laugh at the absurdly romantic thought as she climbed into her bunk and extinguished the lamp. She had exchanged a few flirtatious words with a young man. That was all. Nothing would come of it. In a week or so, the Mary O’Connor would dock in Galway, and they would go their separate ways. They’d probably never see each other again.
She tried to ignore the pang of sadness that gripped her at the thought.