Sheeva plodded along the road to the castle, troubled by Mrs. O’Leary’s words. What had really happened to Catherine?
She took a deep breath, letting the fresh sea air fill her lungs, and tried to imagine what Catherine’s life must have been like…as Ronan’s wife. Sheeva envisioned his full lips on hers, sending gooseflesh up her arms. She could almost feel his hands moving across her skin in a light caress. A searing heat coursed through her, and she knew her cheeks must be red as a berry, but she didn’t care. Letting her daydream continue, she imagined his fingers along the nape of her neck, drawing little circles with his thumbs. But then his grip tightened, and she gasped for air.
Sheeva heard a sh, sh, sh. Was that her last dying breath? Could Catherine have been murdered? Such an evil thought froze her. On the mountainside—knee-deep in flowers—a girl cut whins. The blades of her shears tore through the air. Sheeva shook her head, clearing the dark, deadly vision from her mind. She needed to stop letting her imagination run wild. It would serve her no good to let local tales and nightmares rule her. This was her home now, and she had better settle in and make the best of it.
As she wound around the dirt road, she looked below to where fishing boats dotted the calm waters, reassuring her that life on the island was simple. Her stomach gurgled, a reminder she’d missed lunch. Sheeva pulled the oatcake from her pocket, then took a bite.
A stone whizzed by her head. She spun around and caught sight of Irial a few yards to her right. He stood poised, a rock in hand, ready to hurl it at a poor unknowing rabbit grazing along the roadside.
“Don’t you dare,” Sheeva yelled. She dropped the oatcake and charged at Irial.
At first, he appeared too stunned to do anything except stare, but as she neared, he made to bolt. Sheeva lunged, grabbing hold of him, and they toppled into the dirt. Irial kicked wildly, encircling them in a dust cloud. She rolled on top of him, using her weight to end his attacks. With both his arms and legs pinned, she whispered in his ear, “It’s all right. I’m not going to hurt you.”
She felt his breathing relax a little. “I know how terrified you must have been, seeing me come after you like that, but imagine how scared that poor little rabbit must have been when you fired rocks at it.” His hazel eyes opened wide. “I want to be your friend, but I have no tolerance for cruelty. If we are to get on well together, you must remember that. It is our obligation, Irial, to respect all living creatures.”
His face, smudged with dirt, registered understanding. Sheeva relaxed her hold a bit. “Once we start our lessons together, I will teach you about all the animals that live around the castle. We will scour the countryside discovering how each and every one has a definite purpose here on earth.” A slight smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Sheeva laughed, hoping he would join in. “It does sound like fun, doesn’t it?”
Horse’s hoof beats pierced the air, not far from where they lay. Sheeva grabbed Irial, and they rolled off the road, landing in a ditch. The horse reared onto its hind legs. Irial struggled on top of her, digging his elbows into her ribs, but Sheeva held tight. “Don’t worry, he can’t hurt us. We’re out of the way,” she assured him.
The rider brought the animal under control and jumped down, sending a flurry of stones their way. He towered over them with hands on hips, his feet slightly apart. Sheeva’s gaze flicked over highly polished riding boots to brown leather gaiters drawn over tight black trousers, up to a crisp white shirt open at the collar. His loosely tied silk handkerchief did little to conceal the vein bulging at the side of his neck, but it was his face, reddened by anger, that gave her reason to panic. Ronan’s face.
He took a slow breath, clearly grappling with his temper. “What have we got here? Seems like two very careless people who could have caused my death, not to mention their own.”
Sheeva sprang to her feet, pulling Irial up with her. She tucked an unruly strand of hair behind her ear, then dusted the front of her dress. “I…I’m sorry. We were running and f…fell.” She grabbed Irial’s hand and squeezed tightly.
“Why is it that I keep finding you in the middle of the road so that I almost trample you?” Ronan asked.
She shrugged, too embarrassed to reply.
“This dangerous sport of yours must stop.” His voice was stern. He mounted his horse with ease, and his glance swept over Irial. “Wash up for dinner.” His icy gaze landed on her. “I’ll see you in my study, immediately.”
Sheeva bristled. Before she could answer, he rode away. Yes, she would see him, but not because he issued an order. She would tell him exactly what she thought of his patronizing manner. Where was the compassionate man she’d met in Ballycastle? And who was this cold stranger who had taken his place?
She looked at Irial, his small hand clammy inside hers, and saw that his legs were trembling. My heavens, he was scared to death of Ronan.
“Irial.” Her voice was tender. “Your father can be harsh at times, but he loves you.”
After letting go of her hand, he bolted over the stone wall and disappeared into a field of heather. “Irial,” she called. It was useless. He was gone, most likely not to return until nightfall when everyone had retired to their rooms and he could sneak into the castle undetected.
She padded up the road, not knowing what to make of either father or son. She ran her fingers through her snarls and glanced down at her dress. She had chosen the gray silk to look professional, but judging by the torn hem and dirt stains, her color choice was the least of her worries. Unfortunately, she was not off to a very good start, and it was only her first day on the job.
Taking a deep breath, she opened the door to the great hall. Which way should she go? Ronan had said the study, but she had no idea where that might be.
“Second door to yer left. Follow the passage to the end. Master Ronan’s study’s on the right. Ye better hurry. He’s waitin’ for ye.”
Sheeva spun around. Mrs. Daily stood with her arm outstretched, pointing toward the north wing. How was it that woman seemed to be everywhere? Sheeva clasped her hands together to quell their trembling. “Thank you.” She lifted her chin and strode off in the direction of Mrs. Daily’s finger.
Excerpt of Mistress of Raghery:
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