Author of historical romance and romantic suspense novels set in the UK and Ireland
Faction fightinghas left the parish of Doon divided between the followers of the Bradys and the Donnellans. Caitriona Brady is the widow of John, the Brady champion, killed two years ago. Matched with John aged eighteen, Caitriona didn’t love him and can’t mourn him. Now John’s mother is dead, too, and Caitriona is free to marry again.
Michael Warner is handsome, loves her, and he hasn’t allied himself with either faction. But what secret is he keeping from her? Is he too good to be true?
Read Chapter One…
Caitriona had attended wakes which had begun well before the person to be waked had drawn their last breath. This would be another. She sighed and looked behind her as the cottage door opened and an elderly couple peered inside before quickly retreating. She turned back to the bed, fervent murmuring barely audible from those gathered around it. Father Liam Warner, his prayers interrupted by a shout of laughter from outside, frowned to himself and ran his fingers around the inside of his collar but carried on. Another louder shout of laughter followed and Mary, Caitriona’s sister-in-law, glared across the kitchen at the small window.
“Have they no respect at all?” she snapped.
“Ah, now, Mary, hush.” Her husband, Thady, patted her hand. “Leave them be, it’s only a bit of high spirits.”
“High spirits while your mother is dying,” she raged.
Father Warner glared at her and Mary quickly bent her head again.
Caitriona stood and quietly lifted her chair back from the bed. Dropping her rosary beads into the pocket of her black cotton dress, she opened the cottage door and left the stifling heat of the kitchen.
Closing the door, she glanced around her. At least thirty people had congregated in front of the thatched cottage, seated on upturned tin buckets, sitting on the remains of the rick of turf, or just leaning against the whitewashed wall. When she was noticed, a few polite men stood up, pulling clay pipes from their mouths and removing their hats. One of them – Tommy Gilleen – edged forward, producing a fiddle from the depths of his blue coarse woollen coat.
“Has she gone, ma’am?”
“She has not gone,” Caitriona replied. “But it won’t be long. Father Warner has just anointed her. Please stop them making so much noise, Tommy, you’ll all have time for that later when she has.”
Tommy shrank back from her, quickly hiding the fiddle under his coat. “I’m sorry, ma’am, we didn’t mean to be disrespectful.”
Caitriona sighed. “No, well—” She stopped, catching sight of Michael Warner – the priest’s brother – on the mountain path, unbuttoning his coat of fine black wool, and halting with his hands on his hips to catch his breath after the steep climb. “It shouldn’t be long now,” she added, turning back to Tommy. “But please be quiet. Let Bridget go in peace. God knows she’s seen little enough of it during her life.”
Tommy and many of the other men moved uncomfortably and peered down at the stout blackthorn sticks at their sides. Caitriona looked down at their sticks, let them see that she was looking at their sticks, then opened the door and went back inside.
* * *
Michael Warner turned off the mountain path just as Caitriona Brady closed the door. The large gathering outside the cottage appeared glum so he took off his hat.
“Has she gone?” he asked the man nearest to him.
“No.” Danny Mullen chuckled. “The old girl’s still to the good.”
“Then why was Mrs Brady outside?” Michael frowned and saw Tommy Gilleen run his fingers over his stick. “What were you doing now?” he demanded.
“Nothing,” Tommy replied angrily. “Just having a bit of fun, that’s all. Waiting for the old girl to go.”
“Fun?” Michael glared at him. “That old woman’s been dying for months.”
“Aragh, don’t you start, we’ve just been told.”
Tommy walked away and sat down on an upturned bucket but immediately jumped to his feet as they heard a long, high-pitched wail from inside the cottage. A few moments later the door opened and Caitriona Brady came outside, pulling a black fringed shawl around her shoulders. She pressed her lips together before sighing as everyone waited expectantly.
“Bridget Brady is dead,” she announced and each person crossed themselves. “May she rest in peace.” Mrs Brady walked out through the gathering who were now clamouring to get inside to pay their respects and get at the whiskey and tobacco. She stood on the path, stared out over the valley then down towards the village of Doon, inhaling and exhaling another long breath.
“Mrs Brady?” Hearing his voice, she spun around, and Michael nodded to her. “I’m sorry for your trouble.”
“My trouble?” she repeated and smiled humourlessly, rolling her eyes to heaven.
“Bridget Brady was trouble to me, if that’s what you mean, Mr Warner.”
He moved awkwardly from one foot to the other. “Well, I had heard the two of you didn’t get on,” he said diplomatically and she just smiled again and held her shawl tight to her throat as a strong gust of wind blew into their faces.
“I hated her and she hated me, Mr Warner. Everyone knows that and I’m telling you now, seeing as you’re not long living in the parish. I wouldn’t be wanting you to be getting the wrong end of the stick.” She stamped her foot in frustration and he winced. That unfortunate expression certainly hadn’t been the right one to use and he discreetly looked away. “If she’d had her way, I’d be the one lying in Doon graveyard, my face battered into nothingness – not John. My only crime was that I was his wife, and I was still alive to remind her every day that he wasn’t. That was all.”
“John Brady was a brave man and a good fighter, I heard,” he said.
“John Brady was a fool,” she said simply and Michael stared at her. She didn’t sound very proud of him – a hero in many eyes. “A man’s head can only take so much of a battering and John’s took more than most. I told him to stop fighting – even his saintly mother told him to stop fighting – but he wouldn’t.”
“You must miss him,” Michael added, wanting to see her reaction.
She remained impassive, which made him feel ill at ease. Surely a widow of only two years must still miss her husband?
He had seen John Brady’s grave only the previous day, having gone to the graveyard with his brother. Brady had been beaten to death in a faction fight aged only thirty-seven, leaving behind a young widow but no children. Brady seemed to have been an awe-inspiring man – one of the local champions – and someone who was loved and hated equally by each side, judging by what Michael had heard about his death.
“No,” she replied. “John loved his damned blackthorn stick and fighting more than he ever loved me. No wonder it was the death of him. And that woman—” She pointed back at the cottage.” Every single day since he died I’ve had little jibes as to why I never fell pregnant. Well,” she continued angrily, “all he wanted to do was fight. All he wanted to do in bed was sleep. No wonder there were no children, and I’m glad that there weren’t, I had enough to put up with – with her.”
Shrugging her shoulders, she smiled at his astonished expression. John Brady must have been mad to have only wanted to fight. When he had first heard of the Widow John Brady he had imagined her to be a withered old crone of eighty and not a beautiful young woman of twenty-five or so. Brady must have had all the brains knocked out of him to have not wanted his wife in bed. Dark brown curls were blowing around her face and neck and he was forced to make a pretence of rubbing his forehead in order to cover a flush which had spread across his cheeks.
“There you are.” Both turned to see Liam walking towards them. He went to unbutton his black coat but another – even stronger – gust of wind forced him to abandon his plan. “If you don’t hurry, you won’t get anything to drink at all.”
“I’m not thirsty, Father, thank you,” Mrs Brady replied. “I hoped Mary looked after you?”
“Oh, yes, she did. Thank you.”
“What about you, Mr Warner?” she asked, turning to him and he slowly lowered his hand, hoping he could trust his face.
“I’ll look for a drink later, Mrs Brady, thank you,” he replied quietly, his hand near his chin.
“Well, Bridget’s with God now.” Liam stood between them and they looked out over the valley. “She must have been a good age, from what I’ve heard.”
“Seventy-three,” Mrs Brady replied.
“And you?” Liam turned to her.
“I’m twenty-six, Father.”
Liam smiled. “No, what I was going to say was, what are your plans?”
“My plans?” She stared at Liam and Michael grimaced. It was a bit early to start asking her that.
“Do you think it’s safe for you to carry on living up here on this mountain now you’re alone?”
“My mother-in-law and I have lived up here alone since my husband was killed,” she replied stiffly.
Let her be for the time being, Michael told his brother silently. The mother-in-law wasn’t even cold yet and Liam was starting this. From what he could make out, Mrs Brady was intent on enjoying herself and her new-found freedom. For the first time in her life, she was her own mistress and she was going to make the most of it.
“But your husband had many enemies, Mrs Brady,” Liam persisted. “I’m only thinking of your safety.”
“Father, if anything was going to happen to me, don’t you think it would have happened long before now?”
Michael smiled to himself. Get out of that one, Liam.
“Your parents are from Dunmore Parish, aren’t they? You could go home?”
“Home?” she exclaimed with clear revulsion. “No, Father, I will not go home. I am content here, thank you.” With that, she turned on her heel and walked back to the cottage.
Michael immediately turned on his brother. “Leave her alone, Liam, for God’s sake. Her mother-in-law hasn’t even been buried yet.”
“Her husband was loved and hated with intense ferocity, Michael. She could be set upon at any time. Do you know what that could spark off? This parish is in a bad enough state as it is for violence.”
Michael frowned, he was beginning to see that. “Well, at least leave her be until the funeral is over, then talk to her; though, I doubt you’ll get far.”
“Yes, she is strong-willed.” Liam glanced back at the cottage. “I just hope she sees sense.”
* * *
Anyone entering the cottage and not seeing the deceased in the hag bed in the alcove near the fire would be forgiven if they assumed a wedding party was in full-flow, not a wake.
Caitriona stood at the door for a moment, watching as Tommy Gilleen seated himself on a three-legged stool near the fire and began to play his fiddle in direct competition to the women keening a lament at the bedside. A group soon gathered around him, tapping their feet and singing. What was it Tommy had said earlier about being disrespectful? She fought her way through the throng, went into the bedroom, and shut the door. She had just sat down on the bed when Mary came in without knocking.
“Happy now?” the older woman demanded, her eyes red and starting to look puffy.
“What?” Caitriona asked wearily. Surely Mary wasn’t going to start a row with half the parish in the next room?
“You know damn-well what,” Mary snapped. “You couldn’t wait for her to die.”
Caitriona remained silent for a moment, clearly disconcerting Mary somewhat, who had been expecting an outburst. Instead she spoke calmly.
“I nursed Bridget these last six months as you said you couldn’t because of the children. Aren’t children a blessing?”
“Well, you wouldn’t know, would you?” Mary recovered quickly. “I mean, look at you –you always resented being matched with John – having to marry him and leave fancy Dunmore Parish for a life on a mountain. You never loved him, so it’s no wonder he took to the fighting.”
“You know full-well John fought ever since he was able to hold a stick.” Caitriona smiled sweetly at her. “You’re not jealous, are you, Mary? Of the fact that my husband didn’t give up the fighting through lack of nerve?”
Mary’s jaw dropped. “You bitch,” she breathed. “You’ll have to leave here, you know? You’ll never manage living up here on a mountain on your own. You’ll have to go home and I can only hope your parents can teach you some manners.”
“I am not going home,” Caitriona announced and Mary leaned back against the wall. “This is my home and my land now and I’m staying. Now, kindly get out of my bedroom.” Her voice rose and the crowd in the next room fell silent.
Mary heaved herself away from the wall, flung open the door, and stomped across the kitchen to her husband. Caitriona got off the bed and walked to the door as Mary sat down with her back to her.
Caitriona looked around the larger of the two rooms in the cottage and everyone stared back at her, clearly wondering what she would have to say, and how she had managed to silence Mary Brady. Her eyes rested for a moment on Michael Warner, standing just inside the front door, before addressing them all.
“You’re not slow to miss an argument, are you?” she asked with a weak smile. “Mary thinks that as I’ve no-one to look after anymore, I should leave here and go home to my parents in Dunmore. Well, I’m not going home,” she stated firmly, widening her eyes to show that she really meant it. “I’m staying here, and anyone who has anything to say about it, then go ahead.”
She waited for a moment or two but no-one made a move to speak. She nodded and continued;
“My husband is dead these two years. Now his mother is dead, too. I’m beholden to no-one now but myself. None of you can tell me what to do now, do you hear? My married name may be Brady but that doesn’t mean I support one or other side in the fights around here. I don’t support any side. I hate the fights, not just because they took away John, but because they are so meaningless. I was asked whether I felt safe here – whether I’d mind being alone here on the mountain. Well, I don’t mind and I want you all to know that I am on no side, so no side can claim to fight on my behalf. I’m staying here, alone, and safe.”
She smiled again, turned and went back into the bedroom, closing the door quietly behind her.