In Sunshine or in Shadow

 

Ballycashel, Ireland, 1850

 

Her worst enemy was her last hope.

 

Siobhán Desmond stood before the heavy wooden door, shivering as the cold, wet autumn wind knifed through her threadbare cloak. Squaring her shoulders, she raised her hand and lifted the dragon-headed brass knocker.

 

You’ve no choice, she reminded herself.  You must do this. You must.

 

The door creaked open, the mournful sound loud as a banshee’s wail.

 

“Yes?”

 

Biting her lip to still its trembling, Siobhán gazed up at the tall, broad man with the craggy face and wintry blue eyes. A chill raced down her spine as she forced herself not to flinch from that cold, superior gaze.

 

Lord Percival Glenleigh.

 

The one man she hated above all others.

 

“Are you one of my tenants?”

 

He didn’t know her. She, her mother and father and their parents before them, had all been his tenants, yet not a spark of recognition flared in his icy gaze.

 

“Aye, Your Honor. Me name’s Siobhán Desmond, sir.”

 

“Desmond? I don’t recall the name. But no matter. One cannot keep track of all one’s tenants. Well, get

on with it then, Shi…vaun. What is it you want?”

 

Siobhán swallowed against the surge of hatred boiling in her throat. Remember Ashleen. She would do anything, even beg scraps from this repulsive man, if it meant her daughter would survive.

 

“I-I’m after lookin’ for work, sir,” she murmured, her head lowered, her voice barely audible. “’Tis desperate I am. The money’s run out, and ‘tis all I can do to keep body and soul together. I’ve knowledge of cooking and cleaning, and I make lovely lace. Please, sir, I’ll do anything…”

 

Oh, God, how she hated the note of pleading that crept into her voice. Oh, Michael—Ashleen…

 

Forgive me…

 

“Come in, then. What did you say your name is? Shi…vaun?”

 

Siobhán nodded as Glenleigh ushered her into the drawing room. It felt blessedly warm inside, the fire blazing cheerily, the thick carpets soothing her bare, blistered feet. She longed to throw herself onto one of those deep-cushioned brocade sofas and sleep. It would be soft, she knew. And she could pull one of those heavy throws over her shoulders and be warm again…

 

If Glenleigh would hire her, she could bring these things home…

 

“So it’s work you’re seeking, is it?”

 

“Y-yes, sir. I’ll do anything, Your Honor. I can cook and clean and do mending. Just give me a chance…”

He was staring at her, she realized, gooseflesh springing onto her arms and crawling up the back of her neck like a thousand poisonous spiders. A small smile played around his thick lips as his gaze traveled from her face to the pitifully undernourished body barely concealed beneath her worn woolen cloak.

 

‘Tis the very green of yer eyes, darlin’,  Michael had once told her, his own blue eyes sparkling with love.  But sure, those eyes put Erin’s green fields to shame, so they do.  She forced her mind from past to present as she heard Glenleigh’s arrogant voice. “Are you clean, madam?”

 

“I…clean?” For a moment, Siobhán could not understand his words, then all her Irish pride rose up in her. “Aye, ‘tis clean I am, Yer Honor. We’ve not much more than a sliver of soap at home…” Her words trailed off as the real meaning of his words hit her.

 

This evil old man actually thought—wanted…

 

With his words, all the pain and anguish she and her family had suffered washed over her as if it were yesterday. The hunger, the little ones dying. The executions.

 

And now this man actually thought she would sell herself? To him? And for what? A moldy crust of bread? A bag of meal? A banquet served at the enemy’s table?

 

No! her mind screamed. She wouldn’t—couldn’t lower herself to that. No matter what, she would find some other way to keep them all alive.

 

Wildly, she shook her head, her long curls bouncing about her shoulders. Yet even as she did, he reached for her, his soft, white gentleman’s hands tugging at her cloak.

 

“Here, now, don’t be shy, my dear. If you cooperate, I’m sure I can find some food for you—the servants can’t possibly eat all they prepare. If you’ll just come in for a moment—”

 

“Take your filthy English hands off me!” Was that voice really hers? Furiously, she struggled to free herself. “I’ll not be yer whore, Your Honor. I’d not be sellin’ meself so cheaply, not if you promised me a banquet in Heaven itself.”

 

“Why, you little Irish bitch!” His fingers biting into her shoulders, he lowered his mouth to hers. Hatred surged in her heart as she twisted in his grasp, frantic to free herself. He rammed his tongue into her mouth and she shuddered with revulsion. A low moan tore from her throat.

 

Then, just as suddenly as his assault had begun, Lord Percival Glenleigh’s hands went slack and a harsh sound gushed from his lips. His eyes bulging, he clutched wildly at his chest. When he opened his mouth to speak, only a strangled gurgle emerged.

 

Siobhán watched impassively as the mountainous man fell to his knees on the lush Aubusson carpet. She stared in silence at the hand he held out in supplication.

 

“Please—water,” he croaked. “There—on the table—water, damn you!”

 

Impassively, Siobhán looked from Glenleigh to the sparkling array of decanters and glasses set on an elegant cherry wood table. They were crystal from Waterford, she knew, the best that money could buy.

 

Money that could have bought food to feed her starving people.

 

It would be easy, she thought. So easy to fill one of them, to hand it to His Honor… Memories flooded over her—her mother and sisters looking to her for food that wasn’t there,

two beloved bodies swinging from the Hanging Tree, her baby sister dying in her arms.

 

What had Glenleigh ever done for her?

 

As the Master of Ballycashel House fell prostrate on the floor, his struggles stilled, a high, wordless cry rose to Siobhán’s lips. It was a cry of rage, a cry of anguish, a mourning cry wrung from the very depths of her tormented soul.

 

She spun on her bare heels and ran into the dark, salt-sprayed night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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