Carrowbeg Manor is the home of Lord Fintan Desmond, the Earl of Carrowbeg, an eccentric old rascal who carries an ancient blackthorn stick wherever he goes. It protects him from fairy mischief, he says, and I don’t doubt he needs it. Carrowbeg is a remote and eerie place. The house stands on the remains of castle dungeons, one of its spookier features, but the gardens are spectacular, and Cousin Fintan is a hoot.
I’m thrilled skinny to be going. Mayo is lovely, and the people are so friendly. I’m sure I’ll have no trouble learning whatever I can for Uncle Peadar simply by visiting little shops and making a purchase or two.
* * * * *
The Morrigan was one of my more prudent purchases, one realized with the generous bequest I received when the sole surviving member of my second husband’s family passed away. I named the helicopter after the shape-changing goddess from Irish mythology who specialized in swooping over battlefields in the guise of a big black raven to spur the warriors on beneath a rain of fire and blood.
I like that.
My Morrigan is a shiny black multi-mission helicopter. Her retractable weapons and modular components allow her to easily transform herself from a luxury aircraft to a lethal gunship. When an invasion recently threatened Ireland, she blew the stuffing out of an enemy arsenal and blasted a missile-wielding gunboat to the bottom of the Irish Sea.
The Morrigan has the teeth to keep peace, but she was in executive mode the day we flew to Mayo. The ground crew configured her white leather seats for VIP transport and stocked the galley with a variety of culinary delights. Our favorite music played on the entertainment console, and the two-zone environmental unit kept the humid outside air at bay.
With Neil content in the pilot’s seat, I set out some snacks and found a deck of cards to help pass the hour-long flight. A game of rummy with our two-man security escort ensued.
Barry Malone sat opposite me, next to a big round bulletproof window. The dark cabin wall provided a dramatic contrast to his short-cropped yellow-white hair. “This is the first time I’ve been in this thing that she hasn’t been in combat mode,” he said in his easygoing way. “She rides quieter than my old da’s car.”
“The soundproof cabin is a pleasure,” I said, shuffling the cards.
Rory Doherty tapped each card before he picked it up. Neil often said he’d never met a better flight engineer or winch operator than Rory, this young fella whose nose was a tad too big for a face framed by short brown curls that always seemed in need of a comb. I’ve met many superstitious people, but none come close to having the faith in magic our Rory has. He walked around his chair three times for good luck while I dealt.
Apparently, it worked. He took the top card from the stockpile and wasted no time setting down his discard. “My old granny’s advice, God rest her, has never failed: circle your chair three times while the sun shines on your opponent to get good cards.”
Barry rolled his eyes. “Oh, that really makes me want to keep playing.”
“My old granny saw her father floating on the ceiling the night before she died, y’know.”
Furrows of annoyance creased Barry’s forehead. “What the devil are you talking about?”
Undaunted, Rory sat back looking like Saint Smug. “Everyone knows when you’re about to die a loved one who’s gone before comes to meet you. To show you the way. Granny never knew her father. He died when she was three, and she only ever saw a picture of him. It was that picture she saw floating on the ceiling. Her father himself, coming for her, to show her the way.”
“I wish someone would come for me so’s I won’t have to listen to your blathering.” Barry drew the next card. “You’re astray in the head!”
While Barry studied the card, I studied him. A handsome man, our Barry. A fine winchman/paramedic, he was the cousin of a cousin and wasn’t afraid to call me Talty.
He grew surlier with each game Rory won. “What’s in your pocket besides your luck penny? Boiled daisies and gooseberry thorns? I’m within an aim’s ace of tossing in my cards.”
Glancing up from the cards he held in his left hand, Rory picked an almond from a bowl of nuts. “That’s a fine attitude. Giving up like a jellyfish, and you supposed to be laying down your life to guard Neil and the Lady Princess while we’re in Mayo.”
Barry slammed his cards down. “I’ll be better at that than at playing cards with you!”
“Big feat!” Rory popped the almond into his mouth. “There’s nothin’ in Mayo but a bunch of fuckin’ cows.” And then his eyes bugged. “Oh, excuse me, ma’am!”
I pressed my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing and offered to fix everyone a sandwich. Before I got busy in the Morrigan’s little galley, I slipped into the cockpit and kissed Neil’s cheek.
“Would you like something to eat?”
“No time. We’ll be landing in a few minutes. Go buckle in, love.”
“It’s been an hour already?” Standing on my toes to see past the empty gunner’s chair, I peeked through the windscreen. Carrowbeg Manor sat below us, a jewel in a ring of eighty green and glorious acres. I returned to my seat and snapped the safety belt around my waist. Moments later, Neil set us gently down on Carrowbeg’s brick helipad.
We’d barely landed when an earsplitting caterwaul akin to the prolonged honk of a lovesick goose brought Rory galloping into the cockpit. “What the devil is wrong, Neil? I’ve never heard that before!”
Neil grinned and completed the shutdown process. “It’s not the chopper,” he replied, raising his voice to outdo the din. “Look outside. Old Fintan has a welcoming committee standing by, complete with bagpipes.”
As the Morrigan’s normal landing sounds receded, the bagpipes grew louder, sounding now like the bray of a mortally wounded donkey. Clearly amused, Neil descended the air steps and took my hand. The four of us walked toward Fintan as solemnly as we could, no easy task, as we were all struggling to contain our laughter at the worst pipering I’ve ever heard.
The piper stood with several members of the house staff, some of whom I recalled from prior visits. A bouquet of pink Princess Taillte roses rested in the head housekeeper’s arms.
The lord of the manor stood apart, his six-foot frame proud and erect, his white beard blowing in the breeze. Dressed in his best tweeds—the outfit included an American baseball cap—Fintan held his man-sized blackthorn stick in his left hand. His right hand held a leash attached to a panting wolfhound whose gorgeous gray head was as high as my chest.
I curbed the urge to give Fintan a hug. The old relic obviously planned to do it by the numbers, so Neil and I waited in our formal stance while the piper finished doing whatever it was he was doing.
Joy shone in Fintan’s clear brown eyes. He bowed ever so slightly and pointed his blackthorn stick toward the three-story mansion. “Welcome, royal kin, to Carrowbeg Manor.”
I held out my right hand, as was proper. He grasped it and kissed it. “Your visit honors us, Your Highness.” I stepped aside and patted the dog’s head while Fintan repeated the process with Neil, who hadn’t been a prince long and was unaccustomed to people kissing his hand.
Neil introduced our Fian escort. Handshakes followed, and then Fintan nodded to his glowing housekeeper. She presented the roses to me, and we all went in for tea.
* * * * *
That evening, Fintan treated us to a marvelous dinner accompanied by perfect wines and entertaining stories. He’s the Boru clan’s official shanachie, or storyteller, and he’s always been one of my brother Liam’s heroes. Fintan’s supper anecdotes included pirates, banished snakes, and praise for the three wives he’d outlived.
With every glass of wine, he embellished each wife a little more. By the time we’d finished dessert, he was smiling like the rascal I knew him to be. “I’m growing old. This big house is a lonely place. I have my eye out for a suitable lady to share my remaining days.”
“A handsome fella like you will have no trouble.” I hoped that wife number four would have better stamina than her predecessors, but Fintan’s naughty little chuckle left me in doubt that such a woman existed.
The clock on the mantle read ten. The day had been long and we planned to rise early. Neil and I said good-night and retired to our suite.
We found Jenna drawing the curtains to block Ireland’s late-setting sun. “Thank you, Jenna,” I said. “I’ll manage.”
My faithful aide had grown more sensitive to my implied hints to make herself scarce since I’d married Neil. With a poker-faced “Good-night,” she left us to ourselves.
Fintan had placed us in a lovely, rustic apartment whose focal point was an ancient hearth some forgotten crusader had snagged on his way home from Syria. A remote controlled gas fire flickered on its grate, creating one of many melds of antique and modern in the rooms. The four-poster bed and oak armoire were archaic, yet a data port beside the desk would get my laptop online in a jiffy. In the bathroom, multicolored light streamed through medieval stained-glass windows over a sauna and whirlpool, both in which I intended to laze at least once before we returned home.
Standing at an arch-topped window, I enjoyed a perfect view of Croagh Patrick, St. Patrick’s sacred mountain, though the archaeologists say it was sacred five thousand years before the old fella went up for his forty-day fast. The triangular peak looked as if someone had dropped a pyramid onto the bumpy ridge from which it rose.
When I was a child, I learned that some of Mayo’s ancient rocks were of volcanic origin. I loved to pretend Croagh Patrick was a volcano ready to burst and smother the bogs with molten rock. My overactive imagination painted menacing black ribbons of hardened lava over the pinnacle to remind the region’s inhabitants of prior eruptions. Of course, the mountain poses no threat. Quite the opposite, Croagh Patrick’s gray quartzite summit emits a benevolent aura of eternal protection. I savored its ancient spirit, and then I closed the curtains and turned to my own mountain of protection.
Neil sat in an overstuffed chair removing his shoes. His cheeks always took on a dusky hue so late in the day. I loved it.
My precious friend and lover glanced up and turned from a prince to a rogue before my eyes. “I know that look, darlin’. Come over here and sit on my lap.”
I gasped at the lusty suggestion, but then, I always do. The change in the contour at the junction of his thighs promised a cozy cuddling session, and so I crossed the room and straddled those magnificent thighs. He held me close and kissed me. He’d just touched his tongue to mine when someone knocked.
He started to answer. I put a hand over his mouth. “No!”
“Yes.” He squeezed my breasts. “Don’t forget where we left off, babe.” Seizing my underarms, he lifted me up and away, crossed the room, and opened the door.
Fintan and his blackthorn stick barged in without apology and asked if we were comfortable. I bit my tongue, figuratively speaking.
“The accommodations are top notch,” Neil said. “Thank you, Fintan.”
Fintan’s intrusion left me miffed, but he couldn’t rattle Neil if he tried. Neil possesses a patience lacking in the more volatile Borus like me, though his temper, once roused, can be fierce.
The old fella snickered and pointed his blackthorn stick at the four-poster bed. “Just so you know, legend has it that both your fathers were conceived in that bed.”
I didn’t ask how he knew. I simply said, “Thank you, Fintan. Now if you’ll pardon us, we have to be up early if we’re to reach Dunmona in good time.”
A scowl cut short his chuckling. “You’ll want to keep your heads down if you’re going to Dunmona. Do your lads have weapons, Neil?”
“Yes, to keep Kieran happy. There’s nothing up there but cows and sheep.”
Fintan shook his head. “There’s trouble up there, Neily. If I were one of the Fianna, I’d come with you, but I’m only an old shanachie.”
“Only?” Neil smiled with gentle affection. “No one can match your storytelling, Fintan.”
Fintan smiled. So did I, and then I jumped when his blackthorn bashed the floor.
“Young Liam can! After I’m gone, Liam will tell the tales.”
I didn’t mention that Liam hadn’t waited for Fintan’s demise to tell stories.
“I’ll have my best cars ready for you,” he continued. “Watch for invaders when you go north. Remember your Fian vows! Truth in your hearts!” Bang went the blackthorn. “Strength in your arms!” Bang! “Dedication to your promise!”
One last bang and he spun from the room. Neil closed the door and turned the lock. Amusement—or was it worry?—had chased the lust from his keen blue eyes. I wanted it back and wasted no time moving in on my handsome prey.
My fingers clutched his belt. I tugged until our hips collided. “Where were we?”
He reached behind me and gripped my rump. “Here somewhere.”
When he started grinding against me, an outrageous thought made me push him away. “Do you think Fintan has a hole in the wall he peeks through?”
He laughed and came at me again. “If he does, we’ll give him a good show. Maybe we’ll come back some day and conceive somebody’s father in the bed.”
Before I could say another word, he scooped me up and tumbled me onto the mattress. I could hardly speak when he started unbuckling his belt, but I managed. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. That monster of a house you built would be more of a home with children running through it. What do you think?”
He sat beside me and stroked my cheek. “You said you wouldn’t be ready for that until you settled things with your father.”
“That doesn’t matter. I want to take out the implant. I’m not getting any younger.”
That seemed to amuse him, though no further discussion followed. His smile held a secret warmth he revealed to few people. I’d always felt blessed to be one of them. Tonight, I felt doubly blessed to see that smile, and when I reached for him, I knew that one day, we’d have the most beautiful children the world had ever seen.
His loving was unusually intense that night. I could only surrender and let him lead me through the steps of a delicious dance. When at last our pounding hearts calmed, he put his arm around me and said, “I love you, Tal.”
Those tender words concluded even our steamiest bouts. This time, however, I sensed a fervor in them that signaled our arrival at some new level of devotion.
I’d been right to want to give him children sooner rather than later, just as Fintan had been right to warn us of the dangers lurking in north Mayo.