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The Love of a Lifetime
He came upon her in the light of the silver moon and knew instantly she was the one. It was right, he thought, that they should meet without the trapp...
The Love of a Lifetime
He came upon her in the light of the silver moon and knew instantly she was the one. It was right, he thought, that they should meet without the trappings of wealth, family, and formality. For in the end, in the sweetly scented darkness, it would be just the two of them. Donal O'Flaherty didn't see English versus Irish. He say only Nell, and that was enough.
But Fate had another plan. Soon Nell is swept away from the treacherous Tudor court. Yet through the centuries and across generations, she would prove that neither prison bars nor the hands of time could stop the power of a love meant to be...
Praise for RITA Award Winner Jeanette Baker
"Baker is a forceful writer of character and conflict."—Publishers Weekly
"A shining example of Ms. Baker's exceptional gift for storytelling."—RT Book Reviews
Jeannette Baker has held countless readers spellbound with her RITA Award–winning tale that weaves past and present into one evocative love story that surpasses the bounds of time.
About the Author
Jeanette BakerAward-winning author of fifteen novels, including the RITA Award winning Nell, Jeanette Baker has been hailed by Publishers Weekly as a forceful writer whose novels are “irresistible reading.” Jeanette lives in California during the winter months where she teaches literature and writing, and in County Kerry, Ireland during the summer.
County Down, Northern Ireland, 1972
In Jillian’s mind, Francis Maguire would forever be associated with the pungent, woolly smell of wet dog. It never occurred to her...
County Down, Northern Ireland, 1972
In Jillian’s mind, Francis Maguire would forever be associated with the pungent, woolly smell of wet dog. It never occurred to her that it was the slightest bit unusual for the closed-in world of the Kildare kennel to evoke images of a boy’s callused palms and defined calf muscles, of his thin, sun-browned hands and rich, healing voice, of black hair and winter-gray eyes, of warmth and giving and all that she’d ever known of acceptance and compassion and sharing. Considering the privileged circumstance of Jilly’s birth and the underprivileged one of Frankie’s, the way she felt was beyond unusual. It was extraordinary.
Jilly’s mother, Lady Margaret Fitzgerald, had expressed on more than one occasion, to anyone who would listen, that the seed of her daughter’s fascination with the son of a Catholic working-class kennel keeper was rooted in nothing more than the unorthodox manner of their introduction. After all, everyone knew that the Fitzgerald children were crazy for animals, especially sleek gold collie dogs with white bibs and soulful brown eyes, the same dogs that rested in the sweet, prickly hay of the Kildare kennels, raced through the long grass of the Kildare boglands, and slept at the feet of generations of Kildare masters.
Others took one look at the archangel beauty of Frankie’s features, and another at the bunched muscles of his lean, spare body with its promise of height and breadth of shoulder, and stroked their chins. They watched the way his hands caressed the flanks of a trembling collie, imagined what those hands would be like several years later on another, quite different kind of body, and drew their own conclusions.
The truth behind the children’s symbiotic attraction to each other lay somewhere within the core of them, a remote gene that had transferred itself from generation to generation, occasionally hidden but always there, through thousands of years of Maguire and Fitzgerald ancestors, to germinate in the minds and hearts of two children who were the best of those who had gone before.
Jilly, the long-awaited daughter of Pyers and Margaret Fitzgerald, was born with a penchant for fairness and a keen sensitivity entirely missing from most of her class and certainly from her generation of Fitzgeralds. It was only natural that a child like Jilly, craving acceptance and answers and finding none, should be drawn to a boy who had both. That she was rich and he poor meant nothing. The Catholic/Protestant thing meant even less. While Jilly was impetuous, needle-sharp, and completely without prejudice, Frankie was deliberate, compassionate, and tirelessly patient with the small girl whose indefatigable questions nearly pushed him over the edge of tolerance.
Their unusual relationship began in the middle of a rainstorm. It was an unusual wetting for the farm country of middle Ireland, more typical of the drenching sheets that battered the cliffs of Galway, pounded the minerals from the soil, and left the exposed western coast nearly uninhabitable by all but stone-faced fishermen, descendants of Viking raiders who had pillaged and raped and left their height, their love for the sea, and their distinctive ice-flecked blue eyes in every family who hailed from the western isles.
Jilly had wandered down to the creek, nearly a mile from the house, when she felt the first of the raindrops. A mewling sound from the woods stopped her from turning back toward the house. After pushing her way through thick undergrowth, she climbed the bank and found fourteen-year-old Guinevere, her father’s favorite collie, caught in a poacher’s trap. Jilly could see that the dog was close to death. There was no time to find help.
Using a tree branch as leverage, she worked at the trap, wedging the wood under the metal jaws, pushing and straining and grunting, tears of frustration rolling down her cheeks. Again and again she plied the trap until blood seeped from the torn blisters forming on her palms. “Nell!” she cried, sobbing in earnest now. “Nell, where are you? I need help. Please, find me!”
I’m here, a voice called out, behind you.
Jilly turned toward the sound. Walking toward her through the slanting rain was a girl, about fifteen or so, dressed in leather trews and a full-sleeved white blouse. She did not appear at all affected by the weather.
She knelt beside the dog. What happened?
Jilly struggled to control her tears. “It’s Guinevere. She’s caught, and I can’t free her.”
Nell ran practiced hands over the dog’s gaunt rib cage. Then she examined the trap. This is dreadful. How does it work?
Jilly looked startled. “Haven’t you seen a trap before?”
Not like this.
“There’s no way to release it unless you pry the mouth apart. I’m not strong enough by myself. Both of us could manage it, I think.”
Let’s give it a try, shall we?
Jilly nodded and held out the branch. “If you wedge it open, I can pull Gwenny’s paw out.”
Choosing a spot near the dog’s injured paw, Nell worked the branch between the metal jaws and bore down. The mouth widened enough for Jilly to lift the paw free.
Nell released her hold on the wood, and the trap snapped together again. There now. We should get the two of you home.
Rain, cold and sharp as ice-tipped needles, sliced through Jilly’s Aran sweater and the dog’s matted fur. Miraculously, Nell was not the slightest bit wet. She smiled encouragingly, slid her arms under the injured animal, and effortlessly lifted her from the ground.
Even under the best of conditions, a girl Nell’s size would have struggled under the weight of a full-grown collie. Laboring uphill through what was now a barrage of falling water should have rendered it nearly impossible.
Jilly, arms aching and throat burning, led the way, stumbling through the trees and across the meadow, wondering how it was that Nell always appeared at just the right time, somehow managing the impossible. “Please, God, don’t let Gwenny die,” she whispered. “Please don’t let her die.”
The words became her refrain, forcing her numbed legs forward against a wind that ripped through fields, flinging boulders, felling trees, and sweeping her back half as many steps as she moved forward. Jilly could never say how long she walked under that icy rain. It could have been minutes or hours. She only knew that somewhere, before she reached Kildare House, Nell had given her Guinevere and that she had stumbled into the kennel, a sodden, wild-eyed girl clutching a half-dead collie against her chest as if it were a child.
Frankie was alone, filling in for his father who had taken the train to Newry. He took one horrified look at the little girl and another at the dog in her arms and decided against voicing the questions forming on his lips. Instantly, he crossed the floor, extricated the animal from Jilly’s arms, and carried her to an empty stall. “Call your father,” he said tersely, laying the dog on a blanket.
“He’s not home.”
Frankie swore under his breath, remembered the child, and controlled himself. “Find some milk, eggs, and brandy,” he said, automatically moving toward the medicine cabinet, “and tell your mother to get the vet right away.”
Jilly gulped and rubbed her cheek with a filthy hand, leaving a peat-colored smear. “She’s not home, either. Nell says no one can get across the bridge in this rain, but I’ll call anyway.”
He barely heard her. After setting the kettle to boil, he pulled out several clean cloths, a roll of gauze, and a tube of ointment. Overhead, the lights flickered twice and went out. This time Frankie made no effort to curb his language. Cursing fluently, he pulled two oil lamps from the cupboard over the stove and lit the wicks from the gas flame. The refrigerator ran on a generator. He opened the door, found a bottle of antibiotic, added it to his supplies, and poured boiling water into a bowl. The dog was still unconscious. Frankie knelt by her side and began cleaning the gnawed and wounded paw. He sensed rather than heard Jilly slip back through the door.
“Did you bring everything?” he asked, his eyes intent on his task.
“Is the vet coming?”
“He said he would try. No one knows if the bridge is out.”
Frankie nodded and tied up the bandage. The dog didn’t move.
“Will she live?” Jilly whispered.
“I don’t know. She’s lost a lot of blood.” He nodded at the bag in her hand. “I’ll take that. You stay here. Touch her if you want. Dogs are like people. They need to be touched. I’ll mix up some medicine.”
Too miserable to speak, Jilly nodded and reached out hesitantly to stroke the beautiful narrow head of her father’s champion breeder.
Frankie moved about the kennel, cracking eggs, pouring milk, mixing in brandy, sugar, and medicine. After dipping his finger into the mixture, he tasted it, poured in more brandy, and carried it to the stall where Jilly waited.
She watched as the boy lifted the collie’s head and spooned the liquid into her mouth. The dog’s long jaw remained slack, and the medicine drooled out. Again, Frankie tried, and still again.
Tears pooled in Jilly’s eyes. “Please,” she begged. “Please drink, Gwenny.”
Frankie looked at the small girl. The glow from the lanterns rested on her hair. She was dirty and wet and most likely colder than a banshee’s curse. But she cared nothing for herself, only for the dog. Frankie’s eyes narrowed. It wasn’t the expensive prize-winning collie that the child mourned. Guinevere was her pet, an old and beloved family friend.
Setting his jaw, Frankie redoubled his efforts. He wrapped the blanket around the weakened body, handed the bowl to Jilly, and lifted the dog into his lap. Cradling the delicate head in his hands, he rubbed her jowls. “Spoon it into her,” he ordered, caressing her throat over and over.
Jilly lifted the bowl and tilted it into the dog’s mouth. Frankie stroked and stroked, coaxed and whispered, until at last the tight muscles relaxed and the dog gulped. A low moan came from Jilly’s throat. She burst into tears and threw herself at Frankie, wrapping her arms around his chest and shoulders, burying her face in his neck, careful not to disturb the dog in his arms.
Rigid with shock and embarrassment, Frankie forced himself to remain completely still. He was fourteen years old and couldn’t remember the last time anyone had hugged him. His mother was dead, and the relationship he had with his father and sister, although loving, did not include displays of physical affection. The boneless feel of the small girl’s body, the way she melted against him, warmly damp, needy, and terrifyingly intimate, disturbed him. He had never before set eyes on Jillian Fitzgerald, but he knew that tomorrow, when her flood of emotion had run its course, she would regret that the son of her father’s kennel keeper had seen her cry. He responded in the only way he knew how, by pretending that it wasn’t happening.
Moments passed, and Jilly’s tears continued to flow. Frankie’s self-control was near its breaking point. Something had to be done. Awkwardly, he lifted his hand and rested it against her head. “Easy, lass,” he said softly, stroking the silky hair. “Don’t take on so. She’ll be all right now.”
Finally, under the magic of his slow-moving hand, her sobs turned to sniffles and then to hiccups. “You saved her,” she said at last. “All by yourself, you saved her.”
“I don’t know about that. Who was it that brought the eggs and spirits? And who poured it down her throat? Who carried her back here to Kildare House?”
“I brought the eggs and spirits, but Nell carried her all the way to the gate.”
Frankie smiled into her hair. “You and Nell saved her. She wouldn’t be here without the two of you.”
Jilly lifted her head to look at him. If it made him happy to think she’d helped, she wouldn’t contradict him. “What’s your name?”
“Francis Maguire. Frankie, if you like.”
“How do you know so much about sick dogs?”
Frankie shrugged. “My father taught me. Some things I taught myself by treatin’ animals that no one thought would survive.”
“Will you become a kennel keeper like your father?”
It was an innocent question. Jilly had no idea what she’d done wrong, but she knew instantly that her new friend was offended.
“I’m going to become a veterinarian.”
Jilly pressed her hands together reverently. “That’s wonderful. Perhaps I’ll become one as well, and we can work together.”
He stiffened, wondering if she was mocking his aspirations. Staring into the guileless eyes, he decided that she was sincere. “I’ve never heard of a woman veterinarian,” he began cautiously. “You’re no bigger than a minute. How could you possibly move large animals around?”
“I’m only ten. I’ll grow.”
For the first time that day, Frankie grinned. “I expect you will.” He held out his hand to clasp hers. “We’ll set up practice together.”
Jilly beamed. He was really very nice. She admired the lovely lilting way he spoke. “I like you very much, Frankie Maguire. Will you come to the house for tea?”
His face flamed, and suddenly the words that flowed from him so comfortably refused to form. “Nnnuh-nnnuh-nuh tha-tha-thank you,” he stammered desperately.
Jilly’s forehead wrinkled. Why did he look like that? Everything had been going so well. “I’ll go inside, then, and come back later with your tea,” she said at last. “You can’t go home until the rain stops.”
Frankie relaxed. She didn’t expect him to go up to the manor house and sit down to tea after all. “Thank you, miss, for thinkin’ of me,” he said formally.
She stood in the doorway, framed by sheets of slanting rain. “Call me Jilly, and it is we who are in your debt, Francis Maguire.”
Frankie stared at the door for a long time. The small girl with the fawn-colored hair had unsettled him. He had never spoken with a woman outside his own class, and he wondered if she was typical of hers. He shivered and pulled the dog closer to his chest. It was cold, and with the bridge out, the night was sure to be a long one.
He was sleeping when she came back with lamb stew and a Thermos of sweet, hot tea. Cook had included a basket of bread and a crock of broth for the dog. Jilly left the food in the oven, lit the pilot, and settled in for however long it would take Frankie to wake up. Not for the world would she have disturbed him. She looked at him, really looked at him, for the first time. “He’s very nice, isn’t he, Nell?”
Very nice, indeed.
“I wish he could see you.”
Oh, Jilly. I’ve explained it all before. No one can see me but you.
“I just wish, that’s all.”
Frankie lay curled up on his side with one arm thrown protectively around the dog, the other pillowing his head. In the full throes of exhausted sleep, he breathed deeply. Thick black lashes rested on his cheeks, and hair the same color curled over the collar of his threadbare woolen shirt. He was thin and long, and his trousers were too short and badly mended. Soaring eyebrows framed heavy-lidded eyes over a well-shaped nose and a mouth that looked as if it smiled often and spoke with kindness. Jilly sighed with satisfaction. She measured all young men against her brother, and, fortunately, nothing about Peter Maguire’s son reminded her of Terrence.
Her eyes moved to his hand resting on the dog’s fur. Jilly noticed hands, and this one was especially nice. It was long and brown like the rest of him, with callused tips and chipped nails, a worker’s hand, completely different from the soft, pale ones of her older brother. Jilly’s mouth curled. Next to this boy, Terrence Fitzgerald was a poor specimen.
Frankie felt her eyes on him. Slowly, fighting a fatigue that never quite left him, he sat up.
“Is she better?” Jilly asked.
He rested his palm on the dog’s flank and felt the steady rise and fall of her heart. “Aye. A wee bit better.”
Jilly scrambled to her feet. “I brought some food. I’ll get it for you.”
“Y’ needn’t wait on me, lass,” he said gently, uncomfortable with the child’s adoration.
“I don’t mind.” Already, she had arranged the plates on the table. “I’ll sit with Guinevere while you eat.”
“There’s no need. She’ll sleep the night and more.” He stood, waiting for her to leave.
Jilly knew he wanted her to go. Somehow, without speaking, he had communicated his need. She hesitated, took another look at the dog, and moved regretfully toward the door. “I’ll come back tomorrow,” she said. “To see the dog, of course.”
Was he mocking her? Jilly didn’t think so, but she couldn’t be sure. Whether he wanted her there or not, she would come back tomorrow.
Kildare, Ireland, 1537
He came upon her in the gloaming, two leagues from the gates of Maynooth, and knew instantly that she was Eleanor Fitzgerald. It was right, he thought, that they should meet this way without the trappings of wealth, family, and formality, for, in the end, in the sweetly scented darkness hemmed in by ocean and forest and bog, it would be just the two of them, and they must find their way together.
And so, in the space of a moment, after a single startled glance into a girl’s light-filled eyes, he made a decision that all the months of negotiation, the subtle bribes, the exchange of gifts, and the pleas of well-meaning relatives could not, until this moment, force him to make.
Donal O’Flaherty was his own man, chosen in the old Celtic tradition for his ability to lead, rather than by accident of birth or lineage. His views on marriage were as definite as his devotion to the Church and his loyalty to his clan. Marriage was a sacrament meant to last a lifetime, never to be entered into lightly. A satisfactory mate was as necessary as nourishment. In Galway, where the winter nights were long, a man and woman spent many hours in each other’s company. It would be the height of foolishness to choose a bride merely for the dowry she would bring him.
Donal knew Eleanor would be well favored. He could not imagine himself wedded to a woman who was not. And because she was a Geraldine, he knew she would be small, fair-haired, and versed in many languages. But when she welcomed him in his native tongue, he was not prepared for the low and lovely pitch of her voice, or the heart-shattering purity of her smile, or those eyes, the color of brook hazel, that saw deeply, too deeply, into the depths of his soul and stripped him of all but the truth that lay naked and stretched out between them.
Donal O’Flaherty of Aughnanure had not wanted a Sean Ghall’s daughter for his bride, not even a Sean Ghall with the power and presence of Gerald Og Fitzgerald of Maynooth, ninth earl of Kildare. His father, Ruardaigh O’Flaherty, called him a fool. It was the duty of an Irish chieftain to bring gold and powerful allies into his house. Nowhere in Ireland was there a family with the wealth and power of the Geraldines. Some called them the uncrowned kings of Ireland.
Still, Donal hesitated to pledge himself. He was nineteen, young yet for marriage, and his bloodline was pure Celt with a bit of Norse invader to round it out. There was no need to bring a woman of English blood into his house.
The Fitzgeralds had turned Protestant, as English as they were Irish, claiming kinship to Henry Tudor. Their lands encompassed Desmond, South Munster, and nearly all of the counties of Kildare, Meath, Dublin, and Carlow. Fitzgerald castles stretched beyond Strangford Lough on the coast of Down to Adare, and the Fitzgerald fleet patrolled the Irish seas. Maynooth, the principal seat of Kildare, was one of the richest houses in Ireland. It was no small thing to bring such an ally into one’s family. But the taint of England was strong. If he married a Fitzgerald, his sons and daughters would no longer be true Irish. It was a bitter herb to swallow, too much to ask of an O’Flaherty chief, a carrier of the oldest, purest bloodline in all of Ireland.
His reasons for refusing Kildare’s daughter were strong. But Donal was more than an O’Flaherty chieftain. He was a man, a man who noticed how the setting sun outlined a woman’s figure and turned the thick braid of hair hanging over her shoulder into a rope of pure silver.
When she smiled, the knot of resistance inside his chest dissolved. Donal no longer cared that her father was cousin to Henry Tudor or that her uncles’ navy prowled the seas or that the blood of his children would be as English as it was Irish. He saw only Nell, and that was enough. Stepping forward, he held out his hand and smiled. “Da duit,” he said, and introduced himself.
At the sound of his voice, Nell’s hand clenched the fur of the enormous wolfhound that followed her everywhere. For months, ever since her father told her she must wed, she had thought of little else but Donal O’Flaherty. She had first noticed him four years before at Emain Macha during the celebration of Beltane.
For most of the day, Nell had stayed inside her mother’s tent, for only native Irish attended. Nell knew her lineage. She was Sean Ghall, daughter of Maeve O’Conor, an Irish princess, and Gerald Fitzgerald, an Anglo-Irish lord. For a Christian to be seen in the ancient kingdom of Ulster at Beltane would invite the wrath of both the blue-painted druids, who resented the disturbance of their rituals, and the parish priests, who condemned the mystical incantations, the frenzied passions leading up to ancient fertility rites, as devil worship.
But curiosity and muffled laughter from beyond the clearing overcame Nell’s fears. When the flames of the sacred fire burned down, after the priestess had danced, evoked the voice of the goddess, and chosen the great horned stag as her mate, Nell wrapped herself in wool and crept through the clearing to the woods. The night was bright with moonlight, and beneath every bush men and women lay together, their bodies joined in various stages of passion.
Nell was eleven years old and unawakened. But her mind was quick, and she was not unaware of what went on between a man and a woman. Before she could fully take in the significance of the scene before her, a hand clamped over her mouth, pulling her back against a hard chest. A thick voice whispered into her ear, “So, I’m not too late after all.”
The drug-laced voice and sour breath, the heavy breathing and unnatural stiffness of the masculine body, brought Nell to a fear she had never known before. She began to struggle. The man cursed and released her mouth to cuff her on the side of the head. She fell to the ground only to be jerked back to her feet. “Please,” she begged, striving for the dignity befitting a Fitzgerald of Kildare. “Don’t hurt me. Take me to my mother. My father will reward you.”
Unexpectedly, the man released her. She fell backward into the grass, blinked her eyes, and looked up. Her captor was held at bay by a blade of deadly steel, its handle sparkling with precious jewels. A thin scarlet line of red appeared on the pale skin of his throat.
Nell’s eyes widened. Her savior was young, still a boy, and his face was twisted with anger, but still she could see the strength of his features. “She’s a wee lass, you drunken son of a whore, and not a willing one,” he growled. “You know the law. Rape destroys the magic. ’Tis punishable by death.”
The man swallowed and stepped back, away from the menace of the weapon. “Mercy, sir,” he whispered, falling to his knees. “Mercy.”
The boy lowered his dirk. “Leave here, now.”
The man stumbled into the darkness. Nell waited for the boy to speak. When he did, she was too tongue-tied to answer.
Her silence confused him. “Did he hurt you, lass? Can you speak? I am Donal O’Flaherty, and I swear that he will pay.”
Nell shook her head. “He had no time.” She ducked her head shyly. “I thank you, sir, for rescuing me.”
All trace of anger had left him, and Nell, looking him full in the face for the first time, caught her breath. If a boy could be called beautiful, this one would be. Shining dark hair fell past his shoulders, framing a thin, squared-off face. His high-boned cheeks and thin, arrogant nose revealed his bloodline as surely as did the deep-set, rain-colored eyes and soaring black eyebrows. He was pure Celt, of the ancient line of Talesian, marked by the fey black ring around his pupils. Even if he had not offered his name, Nell would have known him instantly.
The O’Flahertys were kings of the isles and bowed to no one. Their courage was legendary on land, and on the sea, where piracy was a way of life, their feats were extolled by the bards around a hundred great hall fires. Those who tried to apprehend them told stories of men and horses disappearing into the mists and melting into the trees.
He sheathed his sword and stepped forward, his hands rough upon her shoulders. “What have you seen this night?”
Nell blushed and looked at the ground. He shook her slightly, absentmindedly fingering the fine wool of her cloak. “Beltane is not for children. Have you a place to go?”
“Yes.” Too late, she realized her mistake.
“I’ll take you,” he said, reaching for her hand.
“No.” Nell pulled away.
He frowned. “Come, lass. This is no place for the likes of you.”
“You know nothing about me.”
He eyed the sable-lined cloak. “I know that you are noble-born.”
“They’ll think the worst and blame you,” she improvised. “You’ll have to marry me.”
He laughed. “You’re an absurd child. I saved you. They’ll thank me, and there will be no talk of marriage.”
Nell shook her head. “You don’t know them.” She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “My father is English.”
He recoiled, distrust and horror mingling with his sense of chivalry. “What are you doing here?”
“My mother is Irish.”
“Who are you?”
Nell didn’t answer. She took her skirt in her hand and fled. She was thankful he didn’t follow her.
Four years later, he stood before her without recognition, an unwilling applicant for her hand. Nell was no longer too young for marriage. She knew the black-haired boy with the startling gray eyes was Donal O’Flaherty from the Beltane fires. She also knew that he didn’t want a Fitzgerald for his bride. Nell intended to change his mind, for it had come to her, suddenly, like an epiphany, the realization that she would never want anyone else.
Length: 8 in
Width: 5 in
Weight: 0.00 oz
Page Count: 336 pages