Wishes of the Heart
Ballycashel, County Galway, Ireland, 1880
The shrill, wailing cry tore her from her sleep.
Neave Devereux bolted upright on her straw pallet and gazed wildly around her tiny cottage. Had the cry been real?
Swallowing hard in an effort to slow the wild pounding of her heart, she stared into the blood-red coals on the hearth from which she drew her strength. Focus. She breathed deeply, inhaling the familiar tangy scents of drying herbs and turf smoke.
She forced herself to utter stillness. No sound disturbed the night except the distant hoot of an owl outside the cottage, the shrill whistle of the wind round its white stone walls. Slowly her breathing returned to normal, her limbs softened, and her eyes drifted shut.
The cry had been in her mind.
But for whom?
Unable to rest, she threw off her thin blanket and padded barefoot to the hearth. Shivering, she stirred the embers until they blazed blue and red and orange. She let her eyes slip out of focus, emptied her mind, searched the dancing flames.
Fire and smoke melded into the shadow of a man. Tall, he was, and broad shouldered. A smile curved his full, sensual lips. His dark curls tumbled over his high forehead and around a fair-skinned face lightly dusted with freckles. But ‘twas his eyes that caught Neave’s attention. Blue, they were, and green, with all the jewel-like changeability of the sea.
She knew that face. She’d known and loved it since she was a wee lass hovering wistfully on the borders of Ballycashel land. The outsider looking in. She’d watched with helpless longing as he rode magnificent hunters across wide green fields. And as she grew older, she dreamed of him, yearned for him. Fell in love with him.
Thomas O’Brien of Ballycashel.
Second son of the landlord. Destined to inherit the estate. Sensible, dependable, so he was, but Neave had watched him, had seen the spark in those magnificent eyes. A spark that needed but a tiny breath of air to make it burst into conflagration.
She searched the fire once more, trying desperately to divine the threat to the man she loved from afar. The flames changed, became indistinct. Another pair of eyes appeared, eyes without color or face or form, filled with terror. A woman’s eyes. A man’s hand—Thomas’s hand?
Neave squeezed her eyes shut against the terrifying vision.
“Ah, Tine. Fire. Sure, it cannot be him, for his hands are long-fingered and gentle, not square and thick like those I see now.” A shudder racked her body. “’Tis a man’s hand, to be sure, but an evil man, a man bent on destruction.”
As suddenly as the flames had blazed, they dropped to glowing embers. Cold damp slipped through her, penetrated her thin night rail, sent chills to rack her body. Shaking with cold, she rose to her feet and wrapped herself in the blanket her mother had made so long ago.
She’d learn no more this night.
“Please, God, keep them safe. Keep them all safe.” She whispered the prayer into the darkness that permeated her very soul. Tears stung her eyes as she snuggled into her bed of straw, and a picture of a man stole into her heart. “Keep Thomas safe.”