County Donegal, Ireland ~ 1698
She was gone.
Joseph teetered on the brink of insanity. Could someone feel numbness and anguish at the same time? He didn’t trust his mind.
Joseph could feel Father’s arms. Mama softly cried. Others, heard above the rush of the wind, sniffed in dignified grief. Then everyone grew quiet. The Reverend Fontaine spoke.
He was trapped in the now, filled with all its agony, as they laid his wife to rest.
The wind, as it cried through the trees was the answering call to the empty wails of his heart.
“It is time, son.” Father’s hand rested on Joseph’s back. The coffin bearing his life rested at the bottom of the grave. Yet, for him, there was no rest.
He picked up a handful of dirt. Panic inched its way to his soul. Kathleen loved being with people. Now she lay alone.
The reverend’s words filtered through. Kathleen was not in the grave. She lived with her Savior. What they buried today was an empty shell left behind by her faithful spirit.
Deep inside Joseph, the words rang true. Kathleen, free of earthly cares and woes, no longer knew pain. Rather it was his own soul sliding off faith’s edge.
He unclenched his fist, letting the dirt slip through trembling fingers onto the coffin. A simple task, yet it rent Kathleen from his grasp.
He could not let her go.
Too late, he grabbed at the dirt. His hand, like his heart, remained empty. He watched the lightest of the particles drift from his fingertips to the pine box below.
Release her. Cling to Me. The voice cajoled, invoking the image of a heavenly hand reaching down to him. The same hand that snatched Kathleen away.
“No.” He fled the cemetery.
“I ache for him, Antoine.” A salty tear pooled at the corner of Louise’s lips. “I understand he is a grown man, but he is still my son. My child. I want to take away his pain.” She dabbed at her eyes.
“Je sais, ma petite, I know.” Her husband drew her close. “He will need time.”
Louise walked with the love of her life to their home. Others followed.
Antoine glanced over his shoulder at the entourage following them back to Edenmore, their estate. “We will have much company today.” Family and friends, both young and old, gathered to pay their respects.
The manor came into view. Louise sighed. They had landed on English shores with only what they could carry. So much had happened over the past quarter century.
Antoine guided her through the door of their home—the home where her children had been raised.
“Josephine, we are arrived.” Louise removed her cloak, tying on her apron before slipping upstairs to the nursery.
Josephine LeSeure, more family than servant, had remained behind this day to care for Louise’s new grandson. Wee Joseph slumbered in Josephine’s arms, unaware that his mother also now rested.
Louise stroked her grandson’s feathery hair. He favored Joseph at that age. “How I would love to coddle you, ma petite, but I have work to do.”
Leaving the babe to Josephine’s care, Louise returned downstairs to examine the sideboard. Oui, there were enough savory oatcakes and black tea for those wanting refreshment before leaving.
By sunset, most of the callers were gone. That is, except for Sarah Stewart. As far as Louise was concerned, she might as well be one of her brood. As Louise watched the girl help her daughters put the house to rights, she was struck by how the frecklefaced tomboy who could outrun the boys bloomed into a willowy and spirited young woman.
While the guests departed, Louise noted the lass slipped upstairs, presumably to check on Wee Joseph. Now that all the visitors were gone, Sarah sat in the nursery rocking the baby, cooing in his ear.
“Merci, Sarah. I thank you for all your help today.” Louise leaned over the young woman’s shoulder, looking on her grandson again for the hundredth time.
“I’m glad to help. He’s so…small.” Sarah turned a misty glance at Louise, and then back to Wee Joseph. “I need to be telling ye something.”
Louise waited. Sarah’s profile showed her fine bone structure and classic features. All were enhanced by delicate freckles and rogue tendrils of russet-tinged hair. Oui, she had grown into a beauty.
Sarah continued to focus on the baby. “Kathleen and me, we had a talk about a week ago. Back then I told her it was stuff and nonsense, but now I’m thinking she might have known something like this could be.” She rocked slower as she spoke.
“About what did you speak, dear heart?”
“We’d been going through all the wee things she made, and our talk turned to whether the babe was to be a boy or girl. She turned to me and she says, ‘Oh, I know tis a boy.’ ‘Oh, ye do,’ says I, and she says, ‘Aye, he’ll be a fine, strapping boy and we’ll name him after his father.’”
Sarah’s voice grew taut. “Then she says to me, ‘Sarah, if something should go wrong…’ I stopped her and said nothing would go wrong, but she held up a hand. ‘If something goes wrong, please tell me you will care for me men. Both of them. Promise me. Joseph won’t be knowing what to do, and this babe will be needing ye.’ ‘You’re talking foolishness,’ says I, but she says, ‘Promise me, and I’ll be talking no more foolishness.’” Sarah’s voice softened to barely a whisper. “I told her ‘Aye, I promise,’ and we spoke of it no more.”
Continuing to rock, she took a slow breath before turning to meet Louise’s gaze. “Now I have a promise to keep.” Tears ran down her cheeks, glistening in the firelight.
A glimmer of hope flickered in the darkness of Louise’s grief. Perhaps in the flurry of Sarah’s words was the answer to her prayers for Joseph.
Bending, she kissed the top of Sarah’s head. “Never in all my days have I known a more loving person than you, Sarah Stewart.”
The wind pushed Robert Crockett along, hurrying him like some dilly-dallying child. In many ways, Robert saw himself that way and didn’t like it. Here he was, at twenty years of age, still running errands for his mother.
Of course, he would have done it without her asking, if only he’d thought of it first.
Lights peeked through the cracks of the Stray Dog, gleaming slashes against the dark. A shebeen, though barely a pub and little more than a stall, it had hosted many a celebration. The Stray Dog was a handy place for the men of the area to share their news, give advice, and drown their sorrows. The host, a discreet little man with a pleasant grin and a mildly shady repute, went by the name of Cullen O’Keefe. With a heart as big as his girth, he served Catholics and Protestants alike. Most turned a deaf ear to the rumors concerning Cullen’s past and considered the Stray Dog an oasis of truce.
Another time, Robert would have heard Cullen call out a hearty greeting and ask, “What’ll it be, lad?”
Tonight, though, he just gave Robert the briefest of nods and motioned with a quick shake of his balding head to a back table.
Robert followed the direction, finding what he’d expected. Ignoring the chatter and the sour smell, he made his way through the less than half-filled room to his brother.
Joseph’s hands were buried under his dark mane. The golden bottle of whiskey at his elbow emptied. His brother made little sounds, more like a child’s cry than drunken snoring.
Robert pulled up a crate and sat, wondering if he should wake him or let Joseph sleep it off. Apparently, the liquor had failed to alleviate his suffering. Even in his stupor, Joseph reeked of devastation.
A noisy entrance across the room drew Robert’s attention. A swirl of auburn hair stormed in. “What in the world is Sarah doing here?”
Most of the regular patrons held their tongues in respect for the lass, but one drunken lout pushed up from his bench by the hearth and staggered toward her.
“Aye, an’ looky what the wind’s blown in, laddies. Come on o’er here an’ give us a kiss, lass.”
“Twill be the back of my fist ye’ll be kissing, Christopher Dougherty, or maybe ye should be thinking more about the hands ye should be kissing if your sainted wife finds out how yer talking to me.”
Sarah’s retort only added fuel to Christopher’s fire, but all he could do was stutter and sputter.
Robert sprang to Sarah’s side, beating some of his neighbors to her defense. He overheard Christopher muttering something about a tren targer as Robert steered Sarah toward Joseph’s table. There were many things he could think of to call Sarah at this moment, but that wasn’t one of them.
“What are ye doing here?” He grabbed her elbow and whispered in her ear. “This here’s no place for the likes of you.”
“I can handle meself, Robert Crockett.” Sarah hissed back. “I’ve come to find Joseph and take him home.”
“Then we’re of the same mind.” He led her to the table Joseph held down with his head.
“Well, what are ye waiting for? Ye take one side. I’ll take the other, and we’ll oxtercog him out of here.”
Robert sighed, and with Sarah’s help, struggled to haul Joseph to his feet.
Sarah gritted her teeth and glanced at Robert. “Maybe tis a blessing we both came looking.”
Robert merely grunted.
Out cold, Joseph gave no resistance or help at all. His arms slid to his sides as gravity pulled his body toward the floor.
Finally, with Cullen’s assistance, Robert flung one of Joseph’s arms around his neck and Sarah did the same.
Joseph’s head lolled from side to side as they maneuvered three abreast around tables and benches.
Cullen held open the door. The wind threatened to tear the plank off its hinges.
Robert stumbled out with his load into the nearly starless night, dragging Sarah along on Joseph’s other side. The door shut tight behind them, and at once the world became black.
Howling winds made it too difficult to talk. That didn’t stop Robert from berating himself with every step for not thinking to bring a wagon. Drunk like this, Joseph was as heavy as an ox. He surely must be a strain on Sarah, although she never complained. Perhaps the wind kept her complaints at bay.
What was she doing here in the first place?
Robert knew why he was here. He was the dutiful son, responsible now that Gabriel studied in Glasgow and Joseph no longer resided at home. That left James as the only other brother at home, yet he wasn’t there either. How did that big brother get elected the family messenger? One by one, Robert’s brothers, all grown men, made their way into the world and left him behind. He could feel the familiar resentment begin to rise.
But he had no time to dwell on it. The faint outline of the two-room stone cottage Joseph built for his bride came into view. Robert needed to get the three of them inside.
After he fumbled with the door until the latch gave, he shoved it open with his shoulder. They stumbled in, struggling to get Joseph the last few yards to the bedroom. Despite Robert’s best efforts to be gentle, Joseph dropped with a thud on the bed.
Sarah turned her back and lit a lamp while Robert undressed his brother.
He drew a handmade quilt over Joseph’s intoxicated form. “I’ll fetch something to get this fire started. You’ll stay with him?” Robert knew the answer even as he spoke.
“Aye, I’ll be keeping watch.” Sarah brought the lamp closer to the bedside.
He paused at the door, observing as she pulled a three-legged stool next to Joseph. With a shake of his head, he left.
Silence filled the room. Sarah, fists opening and closing at her side, viewed the sleeping figure of her childhood friend. Joseph had always been her favorite of the Crockett brothers. “Aye, and ye still are, Joseph.” He didn’t stir, so she braved more whispers. “I always could tell ye my secrets. And since ye are asleep, I’ll tell ye one more.” Her gaze traveled to the doorway and back. “I’ve kept every letter ye sent me while ye were away to school.”
She had memorized each one from reading them a thousand times over.
“Oh, Joseph, why my cousin? Why Kathleen? I loved her like a sister. Never will ye know how ye killed me inside.”
Sarah had silently watched while Joseph and Kathleen married and began a family, dying a thousand deaths it seemed. And now? Now she had this promise to keep.
This would be so much harder than she thought.
She squeezed her eyes shut, took a deep breath, and slowly counted to ten. It was an old trick she used to handle her temper, one she should have remembered back at the Stray Dog. Only this time, it wasn’t her temper that was out of control.
Slowly she let out her breath and glanced about the room. Spotting a bucket, she set it on the floor beside the bed.
Just in case.
And because sitting still only made things worse.
Lamplight carved shadows over Joseph’s face, making him look older that his twenty-two years. His beard showed coarse on his hollowed cheeks. A sable-colored forelock tumbled across his brow. The sight tore at her heart.
He stirred and mumbled.
She leaned forward and brushed damp curls from his face.
Raising his arms, he pulled her to him, his azure eyes glassy. “Kathleen.”
Her soul ached at his touch.
“I’m not Kathleen, Joseph.”
Instantly his eyes focused, his face flushed. As if she had burned him, he jerked his hands from her. “Oh, God.” A sob choked his voice, followed by the heartbreak of another. And another.
Unsure of what to do, she moved to the edge of the bed and held Kathleen’s husband.
She was still consoling him when Robert brought in the peat.
After giving her a sympathetic nod, the younger brother went to the hearth. Moments later, the earthy smoke of the fire seeped into the room. She could hear him brush his hands over his breeches before taking a seat in the front room.
When at last Joseph’s grief had spent itself, she eased him back to the pillows. Restless sleep claimed him.
She wiped his face once more and drew the coverlet over him. Then she moved into the front room with Robert and eased herself into the rocking chair Joseph had made for Kathleen.
“What happened?” Robert leaned back with his eyes closed. “I thought he was out for the night.”
“Nothing. He just thought me Kathleen ’til he saw the truth of it.” And it broke his poor heart. “He’s out for the night now, I’m thinking.”
“Aye.” Robert sighed. “Still, twill be a long night.”
She nodded, sure his prophetic words were understated.
“So why were you at the Stray Dog?” He almost sounded uninterested, but not quite.
Sarah had asked herself that question more than once. “I overheard Ann Wallace carrying on about how Joseph had run off. I didn’t want yer mother to worry.”
In truth, Sarah hadn’t wanted to worry.
“She wasn’t worried. She sent me.” Now a touch of irritation crept into his voice.
“Oh.” Well, she wasn’t about to explain about the promise she’d made to Kathleen. Robert would never ken.
And he might tell Joseph.
She leaned back in the rocker and closed her eyes. “Twill be a long night.”
The peachy-pink fingers of dawn pulled the sun up over the eastern horizon as Sarah cracked opened her eyes. She rubbed her sore neck and gazed about the room.
Robert still slept in his chair, looking remarkably like his brother, only without the etched pain.
She noticed his blanket before realizing that she too was covered. He must have put a quilt over her and taken one for himself while she dozed.
She stretched and stood. Wrapping the coverlet about her, Sarah walked over to stir the fire and start the water for tea. That done, she tiptoed outside, breathing in the crisp morning air.
This was her favorite time of day. Most days she reveled in the newness. Today her heart was sore.
Robert came out and joined her.
She suddenly wished she’d taken time to rebraid her hair. Loose as it was, it must be as wild as a lion’s mane. “What say we let him get all the sleep he can? I’ll fix us something to eat.” She needed to do something, anything.
“Aye.” He stared at the horizon. She went back inside, poured them each a cup of tea, bringing his to him. “The brochan will be ready in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.” She retraced her steps.
After making her hair more presentable, she prepared the porridge. Then she folded the borrowed blankets and put them away while it cooked.
Kathleen always kept a tidy home.
When the porridge was ready, she called to Robert but received no answer. The only sign he had been there was the empty cup resting on the sill.
“Now how am I to keep a watch on Joseph here and still go to take care of Wee Joseph?” She brought in the cup.
Her hope that Robert would stay with his brother while she went for the baby was postponed for the time being. She wasn’t too concerned, though. What with his grandmother and Josephine, not to mention his three new aunts—Lucy, Mary Frances, and Sarah Beth—that little one would receive a lot of attention.
The sound of blankets being thrashed brought her to see to her ward. Joseph sat on the edge of the bed, elbows posted on knees, his hands clutching his head.
She averted her eyes from those long legs.
“Morning, Joseph.” That was too happy. Don’t sound so happy.
He minutely turned his head to the side, peering at her from the corner of his eye. “What are you doing here?”
She winced. “I’m here to help.”
“Not s’loud, woman. Where’re my pants?” He waved off her explanation. “Just point.”
Obediently, she indicated where Robert had tossed them, then left the room.
A minute later Joseph stood in the doorway, needing the support of the doorpost.
“Sit and I’ll dip ye up some brochan.” She held up a ladleful.
One look, however, and he retreated to the bedroom.
She could hear the bucket being used. Perhaps porridge hadn’t been the best idea.
Soon he staggered back, this time making it as far as the front door. He stood on the threshold, leaning against the post.
She brought him a cuppa.
He took the tea, tried a sip or two. “Thanks.”
She waved her hand. “Tis nothing.” The awkward silence became unbearable as she rocked back and forth onto her toes. “I’ll be in the kitchen.” So it was a cowardly retreat. After last night, what might he be thinking?
The porridge pot bubbled, so she stirred and moved it away from the flame before gathering up the things to be washed. All the while she kept an ear out for Joseph.
However, after an extended quiet, she peered around the door.
She was now alone at the cottage. Oh, that man. Sarah plopped in the rocker. Just like his brother. There one minute and gone the next. Not even a thank you for sleeping in a chair all night or keeping watch. Nothing. Why did those Crockett men have to always be going somewhere?
She rocked harder. She should have just let the ungrateful oaf suffer. Except, God help her, it hurt to see someone suffer. Especially when she cared for that someone very much.
A tear dripped off the end of her nose as she pulled the rocker to a halt. She swiped it away. She would not cry. It had been foolish to think she might ease the man’s pain.
However, there was Wee Joseph to think about. No matter what, she wouldn’t—couldn’t—go back on her promise to his mother.
God, what should I do?
Sarah listened but heard no answer. Pulling her shattered pride and feelings together, she rose. Who knew better how to handle Joseph than his mother? She would speak to Mistress Crockett.
For Wee Joseph’s sake.