There were those in the village who claimed that Michael Joyce must be mad. What else, they asked, could make a man leave the green fields of Ireland to risk life and limb all over the world?
"Besides," Mrs. Sheehan, proprietor of Sheehan and Sons Victualers, had told him just last week after he'd sold her husband a dressed hog destined for bacon and chops, "if it was trouble you were seeking, Michael James Joyce, you needn't have gone farther than just across your own country's borders."
"Aye, it's a good point you're making, Mrs. Sheehan," he'd replied through his teeth.
Despite some less-than-subtle coaxing from locals -- and wasn't the butcher's wife the worst of them? -- Michael never talked about those risk-filled years he'd spent in places where the voices of sanity had gone first hoarse, then mute. Nor had he discussed the incident that had nearly succeeded in getting him killed. Not even with his family, and certainly not with one of the biggest gossips in all of Castlelough.
Still, there were times he was willing to admit -- if only to himself -- that perhaps those who questioned his mental state might have a point. He may well have been touched with a bit of madness as he'd traveled from war zone to war zone throughout the world. Given an up-close and personal view of man's inhumanity toward man through the lenses of his cameras, Michael had begun to wonder if insanity was contagious.
Despite having grown up in a large, loving family, he'd long ago decided against bringing a child into a crazed world where innocent people could be blown up by terrorists in a Derry railway station or burned out of their homes and murdered by a political policy gone amok called ethnic cleansing.
Whatever part of him had stupidly believed he could make a difference in the world had been blown out of him, and now, like the prodigal son in his grandmother Fionna's well-worn Bible, he'd returned to hearth and home, content to spend his days working his farm and his evenings sitting in front of the warm glow of a peat fire reading the epic Irish tales that had once spurred a young west Irish lad to seek adventure.
His first few months back in Ireland, he'd been haunted by ghosts who'd show up in his bedroom nightly like mist from the sea, ethereal and always so damnably needy, wailing like a band of banshees on a moonless night. No amount of Irish whiskey could silence them; deprived of a voice during life, they seemed determined to make themselves heard through even the thickest alcoholic fog. They'd succeeded. Admirably.
Their bloodcurdling screams had caused him to wake up panicky in the black of night, bathed in acrid sweat. It was then he'd grab yet another bottle of Jameson's and go walking out along this very cliff, which, given his state of inebriation on those occasions, he now realized had been as close to suicide as he'd ever want to get.
But just as he hadn't died covering wars, nor had he died reliving them. And so, as he'd always done, Michael had moved on. In his way. And while the specters from those far distant places still visited on occasion, he'd managed to convince himself that he'd given up his dangerous ways.
Now, as the wind tore at his hair and sleet pelted his face like a shower of stones, Michael realized he'd been wrong.
It was the first day of February, celebrated throughout Ireland as St. Brigid's Day. When he'd been a child, Michael had made St. Brigid crosses with the rest of his classmates. The crosses, woven from rushes, supposedly encouraged blessings on his household, something he figured he could use about now.
Elsewhere around Ireland, devout pilgrims were visiting the numerous holy wells associated with the saint. While he himself was out in a wintry gale, trying to keep his footing on a moss-slick rocky ledge high above the storm-tossed Atlantic.
The nuns at Holy Child School had claimed that the holy well in Ardagh had been created when Brigid demonstrated prowess as a miracle worker to St. Patrick by dropping a burning coal from her apron onto the ground. There were also those, including old Tom Brennan -- who'd cut the hair of three generations of Castlelough men and boys -- who insisted that toothaches could be cured at the well at Greaghnafarna, in County Leitrim.
"If you're listening, Brigid, old girl," Michael muttered, "I wouldn't be turning away any miracles you might have in mind for the moment."
Despite being the very date his Celtic ancestors would have celebrated as the first day of spring, the day had dawned a miserable one. A gale blowing in from the sea moaned like lost souls over the rolling fields; dark clouds raced overhead, bringing with them a bone-chilling cold and snow flurries. A ghostly whiteness spread over the bramble thickets, clambered up the trunks of the few oak trees on the island that had escaped the British axes, and probed the nooks and crannies of the gray flagstone cliff.
Offshore toward the west, a last valiant stuttering of setting sun broke through the low-hanging clouds for an instant, touching the Aran Islands with a fleeting finger of gold.
He'd spent the summer of his sixteenth year in back-bending toil on Inishmaan, helping out on a second cousin's farm, working his ass off in stony fields that had been reclaimed from the icy Atlantic with tons of hand-gathered seaweed mixed with manure and sand atop naked bedrock.
The elderly cousin was a typical, taciturn -- at least to outsiders -- islander. He rose before the sun, worked like the devil, spoke an arcane Gaelic Michael could barely comprehend, and went to bed before dark. Michael had never been more lonely.
Until he met Nell O'Brien, the widow of a fisherman who'd perished in a squall two years earlier, and was even lonelier than Michael. Originally from County Clare, her speech was more easily understood than many on Inishmaan, yet they hadn't passed a great deal of time talking. They'd not confided ideas or hopes or dreams; rather, they'd shared a narrow feather bed and their bodies, about which Michael had learned a great deal, and after the harvest, when it was time for him to move on, neither had suggested he stay.
That youthful summer affair had set the pattern for other relationships. Lacking a driving need to take any woman to wife, he always made a point to steer clear of those seeking a future, and with the exception of one hot-tempered red-haired Belfast lass, who'd cursed him roundly with words she definitely hadn't learned in convent school, he and his lovers had parted friends.
"You realize, of course, we could easily die out here," he scolded the woolly object of all his vexation. "One slip of the boot and we're both bobbing in the water headed for Greenland or America."
The ewe's coat had been marked with a fluorescent red paint to designate her as part of his flock. Her frantic bawling baas told Michael that she wasn't any more pleased with this latest adventure than he was.
Atop the cliff, now safe in a cart attached to the rusting green tractor he'd bought used from Devlin Doyle, her lamb from last year's birthday answered with an ear-aching bleat.
"I should have just let you drown," he muttered as he wrapped the thick hemp rope which was attached to a winch on the front of the tractor around her belly. A sheep was not the most pleasant-smelling animal at the best of times. A wet sheep was a great deal worse.
"You're certainly not the only bloody goddamn ewe in Ireland." When he tugged to ensure the knot would hold, she began to teeter on her spindly black legs. He caught her just in time to keep her from tumbling off the ledge. "Only the most stupid."
Instructing her to stay put while he went to start the winch, Michael gingerly made his way back up the steep, impossibly narrow path slick with moss and seagull droppings, keeping one booted foot in front of the other. Far, far below, he could hear the roiling surf crashing against the cliff, carving out new curves in ancient stone.
In the distance, a bit to the south and east, Lough Caislean was draped in a silvery fog. A lough beastie was rumored to reside in the mist-shrouded glaciated lake that had given the town its name, a huge green creature with scales that allegedly gleamed like polished emeralds.
He'd never actually seen the beast himself, yet both his father and nephew claimed to have spoken with her. Having witnessed far more implausible things in his thirty-three years, Michael was not one to doubt their veracity.
The ewe's increasingly frantic bleats rode upward on the salt-tinged wind. He told himself that the fact that she was the first animal he'd bought when he'd returned home was not the reason he was out here. Only a ridiculously sentimental man would risk his life for livestock, especially a stupid, smelly sheep he was sorely tempted to turn into mutton stew.
Still lying to himself, he insisted that neither did he care that she was a good mother, which, he suspected, was how she'd landed in this fool predicament in the first place. He guessed that her equally dim-witted lamb, in search of a bit of green growing over the cliff, had been the first to fall, followed by its mother, who, amazingly, must have heard the plaintive cries over the howl of the wind and stupidly gone to its rescue.
Of course, none of this would have happened if Fail had been herding the sheep, but in a bit of bad luck, the border collie -- named for Failinis, the mythical Celtic "hound of mightiest deeds" -- was undergoing surgery in Galway after having been hit by a German tourist who'd come around a blind corner too fast in his rental car.
The vet had not been encouraging, but knowing that Fail had not just the name, but also the heart of the legendary mythical dog, Michael refused to give up hope.
Thirty minutes later, after a great deal more cursing, the two lamebrained smelly animals were back in the pasture where they belonged. The sight of his farmhouse eased Michael's aggravation, giving him a quick, private stab of pride, as it always did, and making him appreciate those same roots he'd wanted so to escape when he'd been younger.
A former crofter's cottage, which had first been built on this piece of Joyce land five hundred years ago, he'd enlarged it with stones dug and carried from his own land with his own hands. The old-fashioned thatched roof kept his home warm in winter and cool in summer, but he hadn't chosen it for its insulating superiority over slate. The truth was, the rounded roof appealed to his aesthetic tastes, and since he had no one but himself to answer to, he'd chosen to please himself.
Now it was a generously sized home with modern plumbing that included a horrendously hedonistic whirlpool tub he'd had shipped from a supply warehouse in Dublin, which had caused quite a buzz in the village.
There had been bets made at the Irish Rose pub regarding just how many women a man with Michael Joyce's international reputation as a lady-killer could fit in such a bathtub. More bets were laid down as to what type of women they'd be, George Early putting down five pounds on a certain Danish supermodel who'd won herself a top spot on the front page of the normally staid Irish Times after having been arrested for splashing "in the nip" in the cascading fountains of the Anna Livia statue while on a photo shoot in Dublin.
"I tell you," George insisted, "it'll be that blond model."
"I'll match your five pounds and double it," Hugh Browne said, slapping the bills down on the bar stained with circles from centuries of pints. "It'll be that French redheaded actress filming down Waterford way. The one with the tattoo of a flame-breathing dragon on her bum."
More women known for breast size rather than brains or depth of character were added to the list. Then betting began as to when these ideals of female pulchritude might begin arriving.
After a few weeks, when not a single woman had shown up at the Joyce farm, the talk about supermodels and actresses began to lose its appeal and people went back to discussing crops, sheep, and -- always a good topic for conversation -- the weather.
But still, secretly, they waited.
And still the women didn't come.
Living his solitary life, building his house, reading all the great books he'd never had time for while soaking muscles sore from rehabilitation exercises in his hedonistic bathtub, the object of all the villagers' conjecture paid scant attention to their speculation.
Last summer, after he'd given the weathered gray stone a coat of whitewash that had made it gleam like sunshine on sea foam, a rich American tourist had come to his door and offered him a staggering sum of money. Michael hadn't been the slightest bit tempted to sell off his heritage.
He left his muddy boots on the back stoop and entered by the kitchen door. The aroma of the vegetable soup he'd left simmering on the stove offered a warm and comforting welcome.
He hung his jacket on a hook beside the door and pulled his wool sweater, which had gotten wet as well in the rescue effort, over his head. He'd grabbed a linen dish towel from a ring beside the sink and begun rubbing his shaggy hair dry when he suddenly realized that he was not alone.
A knee-jerk instinct had him stiffen, on some distant level expecting shrapnel to come crashing through his flesh as it had during that hellish time in Sarajevo.
Reminding himself that he was not in a war zone but in his own kitchen, which was unlikely to harbor a sniper, he slowly turned around.
The woman seated at the wooden kitchen table was as solidly built as a keg of Murphy's stout, with a face that looked as if it had been chiseled from stone. Her hair was a great deal grayer than he remembered, but a few auburn strands wove through the tight bun like defiant flames sparking through smoke. Her eyes were as steely gray and cold as the wintry Atlantic, and her mouth was set in a grim, disapproving line he recalled all too well. 0
First the German who'd mistaken the narrow, hedge-bordered road for the autobahn, then the bloody fool sheep, now Deidre McDougall invading his kitchen. What next?
Although he'd stopped believing in God a very long time ago, as he faced the female who could make Lady Macbeth appear saintly by comparison, Michael found himself bracing for plague and pestilence.
New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author JoAnn Ross has been published in twenty-six countries. A member of the Romance Writers of America’s Honor Roll of bestselling authors, she’s won several awards, including RT Book Reviews’ Career Achievement Awards in both category romance and contemporary single title. In addition, she received RWA’s national service award and was named RWA Pro-Mentor of the Year. JoAnn lives with her high school sweetheart, whom she married twice, in her beloved Pacific Northwest.