C1 Chapter One
North Carolina, 1823
Caitlin bent to pluck a small purple blossom from the grass, her dark hair falling around her fair face like a curtain before she rose again to hold her find against the sky, examining it. It was small—no bigger than one of her fingernails—but the petals were a creamy shade of amethyst that seemed to glow when the sunlight shone through them from behind, rimming the flower with a halo of violet light. She tossed it into her basket. Looking down at the rest of its contents, she frowned. She’d only managed to gather a sparse handful of wildflowers, and most of them were just as diminutive as the little lilac beauty she’d just picked. This was not owing to some unfortunate circumstance of weather—it had rained often that summer—or some natural lack of colourful foliage in the North Carolina countryside . It was because of the the fact that, for the past two months, she’d been roaming this particular area on the outskirts of the O’Brien property like a madwoman, gathering wildflowers as an excuse for her trespassing.
She stooped down again, this time to pick a dainty buttercup from beside the hoof-worn dirt trail she was so careful not to let out of her sight. She added the flower to her collection, laying it to rest among its equally petite companions, hoping that today would be the day she’d finally need to display them—a colourful if rather pathetic excuse. She would pretend to have been so caught up in flower-gathering that she’d scarcely noticed straying off her own family’s property and onto O’Brien land, of course. She’d smile, laugh and pretend to be surprised to have wandered so far and to have run into—of all people—Aaron O’Brien , Squire O’Brien’s oldest son. And then, if she was lucky, maybe he’d kiss her again.
She blushed furiously at the thought, adding another buttercup to her collection. The first of May was two months past, but she could still feel the warm weight of Aaron’s lips against hers when she thought about it. The O’Brien estate was an empire built on iron, but all of their dozen furnaces and even the forge had been abandoned for that wonderful summer holiday, Beltane. Each and every person had forgotten about work for one glorious day, from Squire O’Brien himself to the forgemen. The O’Briens had hosted a wonderful Beltane celebration on the grounds of their manse, and their Irish neighbours had gathered from miles around to throw a rather raucous harbinger of summer. Caitlin’s family had crossed the Atlantic from the Emerald Isle seven years ago to farm some North Carolina land acquired by an uncle who had come before them and had attended. Their presence at the celebration had not been in vain.
Caitlin sweated slightly in the humid southern July heat, but she wouldn’t have forgotten it even if it had snowed every day since. How could she possibly forget the way Aaron had seized her around her waist as she circled the maypole and stolen an airborne kiss?
Not in a thousand years.
The real question, she had long since decided, was whether the kiss had been a spontaneous outburst of giddy celebration—perhaps aided by a pint too many of ale—or a manifestation of genuine attraction. She hoped, quite badly, that it had been the latter, but there was only way to find out…and that was to meet Aaron face to face again.
She’d hardly seen him at all since Beltane , except for a couple of times in brief passing that had offered little more than a chance for a greeting shouted from the seat of a wagon. She was determined to encounter him again—preferably alone—and so had begun to resolutely strip the edge of the O’Brien property of its wildflowers, hoping to meet him riding on the nearby path she knew he favoured. So far she’d been unsuccessful, but she refused to give up hope—her father was fond of telling her that ‘you make your own luck’, and she’d taken the saying to heart.
She glanced up at the path as she continued to scour the wild summer grasses, her heart sinking for what seemed the thousandth time when the horizon proved to be devoid of human or animal presence. The sky had grown dark.
Sighing, she straightened, shifted her basket into the crook of her elbow, and prepared to begin the journey home.
Maybe I can beat the rain this time .
With that incentive, she gathered up her skirts and stepped quickly through the grass, casting one last wistful look at the path that wound across acres of empty fields and, eventually, into a narrow strip of forest. She nearly dropped her basket when a horse and rider appeared on the road, coming towards her at a brisk pace, perhaps trying to race the storm home.
Frozen in expectation, her heart beating wildly, she stood several paces from the road, watching the figure on horseback transition from a discernibly masculine figure blurred by distance to a distinctly tall, well-muscled young man with a full head of red-gold waves that fell almost to his shoulders, shining even beneath the grey sky.
She’d been hoping for two months to meet him here, but now that he was actually approaching, her mouth was dry and her heart raced. She clutched her basket handle so that her fingers wouldn’t visibly tremble and turned to face him with the best smile she could manage as he reined his sorrel gelding to a halt.
“Good morning!” he called, tipping his head in her direction. His hair gleamed a deep red as it caught what sombre light managed to filter through the storm clouds. Butterflies erupted into nervous flight somewhere in the pit of her stomach as his blue eyes met her dark ones.
“Caitlin McCarthy, isn’t it?”
The butterflies went mad at the sound of her name rolling off his full lips, which had curved into an amicable smile.
“Yes,” she managed to reply breathily, pressing one hand to her belly in an attempt to still the winged creatures that rioted there.
He remembers my name.
“How pleasant to meet you, Aaron. I was just…gathering wild flowers for a bouquet.”
And hoping to God you’d ride by.
She extended her basket as if to prove her claim, baring its contents beneath his gaze.
“Well,” he said, grinning as he bent slightly in the saddle to peer into her basket, “looks like you have the makings of a fine bouquet for the wee folk.”
Caitlin blushed as she stared down at her collection, remembering again how pathetically small the flowers were. A fairy bouquet indeed…maybe the wee folk could make a fine centrepiece of it, but she’d have to put the blossoms in a thimble if she intended to display them in her own home. Why hadn’t she thought of a better explanation for her presence than her tiny specimens?
The first raindrops struck her cheek as she silently lamented her foolishness.
“Another storm,” Aaron said as a raindrop landed below his left eye and streamed down his cheek, giving the illusion of a tear. “I swear it’s been raining every day for the past two weeks.” Thunder rumbled somewhere in the distance.
You don’t have to tell me .
She’d returned home drenched and dripping with a basket of drowned flowers several times over the past couple of weeks.
“Aye, it has, but it does a wonderful job of keeping the crops green.”
Aaron nodded. “That it does, but you’ll catch your death if you traipse home in the rain. Let me take you.” He extended a hand to her from the saddle. “It’ll be no trouble,” he said as she hesitated.
She clutched her basket handle so tightly that her knuckles went white as she willed her knees, which had suddenly gone weak, to remain steady. This was going as wonderfully in her dreams, and however surreal it seemed, she would not spoil it by pinching herself! She extended a slightly trembling hand and placed it in his, allowing his warm grip to envelop hers. Strangely, the trembling stopped as her fingers disappeared inside his—his touch seemed to calm her nerves, an effect that she certainly hadn’t expected.
He pulled her up easily and she wrapped her arms tentatively around his waist as she settled behind him, smoothing her skirts down over her legs as best she could—and upending her basket and spilling her flowers in the process.
“Sorry about that,” Aaron said, carefully avoiding staring at her exposed, creamy-white calves and frowning down at the fallen blossoms instead. “Shall I pick them up for you?”
“No,” Caitlin replied, embarrassed both by the flowers and her exposed skin. “They wouldn’t have made much of a bouquet, anyway.” The rain was falling harder now, and she wouldn’t have let him stoop to gather her flowers in it even if she had wanted them.
“Aye,” he said, “but it might have been nice to have something to appease the wee folk, should we chance upon any during our journey.” He turned to grin over his shoulder at Caitlin, who found herself unable to resist smiling back at him.
He’s got the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen.
They’d fluttered shut when he’d kissed her on Beltane, his golden lashes beating softly against his cheek as he’d pulled her into a brief but fierce embrace, pressing his mouth against hers…
“You live just across the creek at the edge of the McCarthy land, don’t you?”
She nodded, flattered that he knew not only her name, but where she lived. Perhaps he had taken notice of her before their kiss…and perhaps he’d thought of her since. Hope flared bright within her at the thought, and she tightened her arms around his waist just a little as he turned his horse in the direction he’d come from. The rain fell heavily, and, by the time she worked up the courage to speak again, her clothing was thoroughly soaked and Aaron’s body heat was the only thing keeping her teeth from chattering.
“It was a lovely Beltane celebration your family held this year,” she said over the rain’s steady thrumming. Heat crept into her cheeks.
Does he remember?
Aaron replied without turning, sitting as straight in the saddle as ever. “I’m glad ye thought so,” he said. “Myself, I haven’t had such a good time since.”
Caitlin thought the tips of his ears, which barely peeked from his red waves, went pink, though it might only have been a trick of the dull light. Still, his words caused the butterflies in her middle to burst into flight again as she wondered whether he was remembering the feel of her lips, just as she was remembering his.
God send he hasn’t forgotten the kiss altogether.
“Here we are,” Aaron announced as the dirt trail turned, winding into a stretch of woods housing a stream from which Caitlin had fetched water many times. She could hear the water rushing, the stream engorged with rainfall, its froth surely lapping higher against the banks than usual. There was a bridge across the stream, though, sturdy enough for a horse to cross. It came into clear view as Aaron directed his horse around a cluster of poplars, and Caitlin’s stomach plummeted.
“The bridge,” she exclaimed, “it’s flooded already!”
Its wooden surface was barely visible beneath several inches of rapidly flowing water.
“Aye,” Aaron said, frowning as he glanced over his shoulder at her. “I can’t think of another place to cross. Do ye know of any?”
“Not if the bridge is flooded,” she replied. “There are some stepping stones about a quarter of a mile downstream that would do on a dry day, but they’ll long since have been submerged.”
“Well, I daren’t force my horse across this,” he said. “The water looks too strong.” The rain fell even harder as he spoke, creating a froth of miniature splashes on the creek’s surface as the drops plummeted, dashing themselves against the rushing water and becoming one with it. “I fear we’d be washed away.”
Caitlin nodded, her cheek grazing Aaron’s rain-soaked shirt, damp but slightly warm with his body heat. “I expect we would be. I’ve seldom seen the bridge so badly flooded.”
“Well, then, we’ll ride for my house, and you’ll be welcome there until the water calms. When it does, I’ll see you safely home.”
Her heart suddenly leapt and sped and she hoped he couldn’t feel it, beating against his back like a war drum.
“I…” She had been about to say that she didn’t want to impose, but realised that would have sounded idiotic. What else could she do? There was no other crossing point for miles—she was trapped on the O’Briens’ side of the creek.
“I thank ye, Aaron,” she said quietly. “You’re most kind.”
Her cheeks flushed with heat as she spoke, as she imagined spending an entire afternoon in his home, waiting for the creek to stop raging.
Thank God he came along today . I’d likely have been drowned or frozen without him .
She tightened her arms a little more around his waist as he turned the horse, relishing his heat as she cast one last look over her shoulder at the uncharacteristically violent stream.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he replied. “I’d be a devil not to offer you a warm place to bide during the storm.” Thunder cracked overhead again, louder this time.
“But if you hadn’t stopped to speak to me and offered to take me home when the first drops of rain fell, I’d have been in a terrible lot of trouble.”
“Don’t thank me for that, either. Any man with two eyes in his head would have counted himself lucky to have a chance to stop and speak with ye. I was hardly acting out of kindness.”
Caitlin was glad Aaron couldn’t see her cheeks, because she could tell by their sudden warmth that they’d gone a burning shade of red. Hoping desperately that he wouldn’t turn to look over his shoulder at her, she pressed her eyes shut and willed her face to return to its normal colour as cool raindrops streamed down it.
“Well,” she said, fighting the mixture of satisfaction and self-consciousness that his unexpected reply had sparked, “all the same, I’m glad I met you today.”
“Aye, well, come to that, so am I.”
Thunder rumbled—the loudest yet—and Caitlin was glad it allowed no opportunity for a reply. After all, what would she say? The butterflies in her stomach were cavorting wildly, apparently of the opinion that Aaron had noticed her and
thought of her since—and perhaps before—Beltane.
Could it be that he’d been just as pleased to meet her by the side of the road as she’d been to meet him? The thought struck her as lightning flashed, unbelievably brilliant and accompanied by a deafening peal of thunder. Blinded, she reeled as the horse rocked beneath her.
I’m going to fall.
The realisation swept through her being, causing her heart to leap in trepidation. She held on to Aaron for dear life. His hard abdominal muscles shifted subtly beneath her grasp as he laboured to control their panicking mount.
Oh God, don’t let me fall!
By the time he’d managed to still the horse—mostly—Caitlin’s head was spinning, and she realised for the first time that she’d closed her eyes. She opened them slowly and redness filled her vision—the dark crimson of Aaron’s rain-soaked hair, to be exact. She still clung tightly to him, her cheek pressed against his shoulder and her breasts against his back, which had remained straight and strong even during the upheaval. She forced herself to lean back a little, trembling.
“Sorry,” Aaron said. “This horse is young and still green yet. That’s why I rode him so far from home today, to get him accustomed to such frights as he might encounter in the wilderness.” He paused. “Though, to be fair, there aren’t many horses that wouldn’t have spooked at this.”
Caitlin became aware of a crackling sound and realised the red invading her vision did not come solely from Aaron’s rust-coloured locks. She turned her head slightly to the side and was greeted by the sight of flames, blazing brightly from the brush at the edge of a strip of woods no more than twenty yards from them. The lightning had struck closer than she’d realised. The golden-red hairs that grew on Aaron’s forearms stood on end below the edges of his rolled-up sleeves. Had his hair not been soaked, it probably would have been doing the same. Her mouth went dry.
She swallowed what she had been about to say, slipping into shocked silence as the burning underbrush at the forest’s edge exploded, emitting a howling ball of flame that streaked with alarming speed towards where they sat on the barely-calmed horse.
The fire ran on four legs, and Caitlin thought she caught the distinct glimmer of fangs as she stared, wide eyed, at what seemed to be the thing’s mouth. A particularly anguished howl triggered her memory, teasing her nostrils with a phantom whiff of Carolina night air. She’d heard that sound before. As the creature barrelled towards them, the scent in her memory was replaced by that of burning hair. Long, dark toenails extended from the creature’s foremost foot in almost graceful arcs. The shrieking, flaming beast was no demon, as the horse, which was rapidly losing what little composure it had regained, seemed to think. It was a coyote!
It was no larger than most, but tongues of fur-fed flame added several inches to its height and gave the illusion that it had leapt straight out of the jaws of Hell, rather than from a strip of pines and poplars. Its yellow eyes shone, terrified, from beneath their fringe of fire as it galloped away from the failed shelter of the forest, roused, perhaps from sleep, by thunder and flame.
“No!” Caitlin cried as the creature leapt directly towards their horse, blinded either by smoke, terror or both.
The coyote collided with Caitlin and Aaron’s mount, a cannonball of flaming fur hitting a wall of cool, rain-soaked muscle. The horse went ballistic, shrieking loud horse-screams above the frightful, confused yelps and growls the coyote issued from somewhere underfoot. Caitlin clung to Aaron as their terrified steed somehow managed to jump straight up into the air, and Aaron sawed desperately on the reins. The horse, understandably eager to escape the ball of fanged and clawed flame that was writhing loudly beneath its belly, would have none of it. Seizing the bit in its mouth and nearly jerking the reins from Aaron’s hands, it leapt forward, breaking into a frantic gallop that might have made it a prize-winning racehorse under different circumstances.
Caitlin managed to hold on well enough until the crazed creature encountered a fallen tree and promptly launched itself over it, overcompensating by at least two feet. Temporarily airborne, Caitlin’s life flashed before her eyes—the parts involving Aaron, anyway. Once, she’d felt just as weightless as she did now, but it had been a completely different experience. His strong arms had supported her and his warm kiss had grounded her. Only the rain touched her now, pummelling her face and body with tiny blows, as if to aid gravity in forcing her back to the ground as quickly as possible. Strange that it should end this way, she thought, feeling oddly detached from her own terrifying circumstance—their promising reunion ruined by a flaming coyote.
She hit the ground with a heavy combination of a thunk and a splash , and the rainwater that sat atop the saturated earth embraced her, translucent arms arcing over her in sprays of water created by the impact, each and every drop glimmering in the sudden brilliance of another lightning flash.
“Caitlin! Caitlin !”
She wasn’t sure how long she’d been lying on her back in a puddle when she heard Aaron’s voice. It seemed to her that both a very long time and a very short time had passed at once. Colourful motes danced against the sky above, remnants of the lightning’s dazzling brightness. She blinked, willing them away, as Aaron appeared above her. She realised just how pointless the blinking was when his eyes met hers—she could hardly focus on anything else.
“Caitlin… Are you…? Do ye think you’re badly hurt?”
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I don’t… I mean, I don’t feel very bad.” She was cold, above all, and the back of her head ached, but the water seemed to have absorbed the worst of the impact, and the wet ground had been a mercy. “Where’s the horse?”
“I leapt off,” Aaron said. “I couldn’t get the beast under control. He’s probably halfway to the stables by now.”
“Oh.” Caitlin exhaled as Aaron forced an arm under her neck, half cradling her.
“I’ll help you up,” he said. “If anything hurts, just tell me, and I’ll stop.”
“All right.” She took a deep breath and braced herself, but no pain came, save for a few minor twinges and aches, and she was soon on her feet. “That’s lucky,” she breathed, remembering her moment of airborne introspection that had accompanied a calm premonition of impending death.
“Aye, it is,” Aaron agreed, gripping the tops of each of her arms rather tightly, despite the fact that she was standing steadily. “I thought you might have been killed.”
“So did I for a moment,” she admitted.
“Well, thank God ye weren’t,” he said, glancing darkly in the direction of the woods that the flaming coyote had exploded from.
Caitlin followed his gaze and was relieved to find the trees and brush no longer aflame. They were barren and they sizzled and popped under the deluge the dark storm clouds were releasing, but the fire had been doused. She cast a look around for the coyote, but there was no trace of it, save for a patch of unpleasantly churned earth where it had collided with the horse. She hoped the rain had put out its flaming coat as well, wherever it had run off to. When she turned back to face Aaron, his eyes locked with hers, deeply blue and brooding. She was seized by the sudden urge to know what he was thinking, to know what was making those shadows shift in the depths of his eyes.
“A penny for your thoughts?” she asked.
Aaron tightened his lingering grip on her arms a little, and he blinked. “I was only thinking,” he said, “how sorry I would have been if the fall had harmed you.”
His pulse throbbed warm and steady in his fingertips, beating reassuringly against her arms. She was overcome by a second urge, equally sudden as the last and either remarkably brave or absolutely mad—she couldn’t quite decide which. She willed herself to act on it, though, deciding that surviving a brush with death merited at least one small act of craziness.
“On Beltane,” she began, taking a deep breath, “you—”
The rest of her words were lost as Aaron covered her mouth with his, warm and slick with rainwater. He didn’t lift her from the ground this time, but rather gripped her arms more tightly, pulling her against him so that the soaked locks of hair that hung around their faces tangled, fire and earth entwined. She felt weightless, anyway, her lips moving without thought, her head spinning. When the kiss ended she swayed, held upright only by Aaron. Had she hit her head harder than she’d realised, or was the sweet taste of his breath mingled with rainwater just that potent?
“On Beltane…” Aaron breathed, sending an enticingly sweet gust of breath against Caitlin’s face.
“You remember, then,” Caitlin said, placing a hand tentatively against his chest as much for the simple pleasure of touching him as to steady herself.
“Remember?” he asked. “Oh, aye… I remember.” He paused to lick a raindrop from his lip, though it was replaced almost immediately. “Not a day has passed since that I have not remembered.”
Caitlin exhaled slowly through her mouth and rain crept in at the corners, carrying with it reminders of Aaron’s taste. “Not a day has passed that I’ve not remembered, too, and wondered if you’d done the same.”
“Well, now you know,” he replied, reaching out to brush a thick lock of dripping hair out of her eyes. “I’ve driven myself fair mad with the memory.” The corners of his mouth curled slightly, hinting at a smile.
Caitlin couldn’t keep herself from smiling back. “And there I was, thinking to myself that maybe you’d just had a pint too many, and might not have even realised which girl you’d snatched from the maypole.”
He snorted softly. “Not noticed? Why, did ye not see the way I skulked like a fool, timing the motion of your dance just right so I could snatch you and steal a kiss, and then have a clear line of escape, lest you decided to strangle me with the ribbon ye held?”
“No. I only saw the whirl of ribbons, and a girl dancing in front of me, and then—suddenly—I was in flight. When I blinked away the sun I saw a flash of crimson and tasted something sweet and wonderfully warm. Before I knew it, I was staring after you, wondering if it had all really happened.” She paused, remembering the feel of the sun on her shoulders and the lingering tingle on her lips. “I tripped the girl behind me, you know, standing there frozen like that.”
Aaron frowned, looking mildly abashed. “I didn’t see that,” he said. “I wouldn’t let myself look back at you, for fear I’d run back and do it all over again.”
“Why didn’t you? If you enjoyed it so, why did you leave me to bide these months in melancholy solitude, wondering if you even remembered?”
“Ah, well,” he said, staring down at the sopping ground, his cheeks colouring slightly, “I figured I’d made quite the fool of myself at the maypole. I didn’t think you’d be pleased with a repeat performance, so I avoided you, hoping that in time you might forget, and a chance to win you over more appropriately might present itself.” He smiled wryly. “I thought that was what had happened today, until you mentioned Beltane just moments ago.”
Caitlin laughed softly.
“So,” he said, “we’ve got a long walk ahead of ourselves, with no horse. If I were to maybe stop along the way to kiss you again…” He leant forward as he spoke, his breath warm against her lips, teasing.
“I would like that very much.”