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Classification Harm & Mac / Romance / AU
Length Approximately 39,000 words; 95 pages (8 ½” x 11”)
Spoilers Through Season 10, after Cresswell’s arrival.
Rating IM15
Author's Notes I’ve been wanting to write a story that takes Harm and Mac out of the office and instead, deposits them “on location” in a beautiful place with many possibilities (also – lots of fun with civies!!) This is set in season 10, a couple of weeks after the general’s arrival. There’s no Dr. McCool, certainly no Alicia but the rest stands the same – until I tweak with Mac’s past just a little (mwahahahaha.) In my JAG dream world at that time, it was my firm belief that allowing Harm and Mac to get away by themselves for a bit would have done a world of good for both of them. So, that’s what I did. There’s a little bit of plot, a lot of romance and maybe even some magic along the way. But I couldn’t write a story featuring Ireland without having a bit of harmless fun with faerie lore…
 
Summary A startling discovery about her past takes Mac to Ireland. And guess who comes along for the ride?

 

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

 

 

 

Prologue

Macauley Cottage
Ballyvaughan Village
County Clare, Ireland
Year 1730

 


He will leave again. The thought of it alone is nearly enough to destroy me. His gilded sword stands upright against my doorframe; his knapsack rests nearby - a rough, brown heap, filled for the journey he’ll make at daybreak. My hair has long since fallen from the tight, blonde coil at my neck, my proper garment of linen and lace, a memory. I’m warmed from the hearth, alive with red-orange flames. But it is his hands, the growing thoroughness of each subsequent touch that scalds me to the bone.

I curl my fingers into the flowing strands of his hair, black as coal, and force his piercing green eyes to mine. “Don’t go, Declan. I can’t bear it.” My voice is low, thickened both by the blazing remnants of passion and the frigid sense of loss that has come hours before the fact.

He takes my mouth again in a searing kiss. “You know I must,” he says. The late summer wind passes across my window in a low, brassy hum, like a bell that never stops ringing. “The land is at stake. I’ll not neglect my duty now.”

I bury my head in the crook of his shoulder. Duty. Here is his duty. In this place. I know his desire and it is me. Though he’s made no formal vow of family and future, I know it will come when the battle is won. The battle, the fight for his clan – it lives in his skin. It’s this I must accept if I am to love this man. And I do. With everything inside of me. I lift my gaze. “I love you,” I declare for at least the hundredth time.

A heavy sigh is his only reply. It always is.

“I know you feel it. Can’t you say it, then? Even now?” I question, the tears burning.

He kisses my cheeks dry and draws me closer. “There is only you, Kathleen. I would kill for you, a thousand times. I would rescue you from any foe. And it is you I will come back for.” In a flash, his hand shifts and he presents a golden hairpin with a spray of deep blue stones circling a single diamond in its center. My head cranes from side to side, searching for the hiding place, wondering if the trace of magic in his blood played a role in this surprise. “This holds the color of your eyes.” He fastens the pin in my hair. “Riches like this will be yours overflowing. Land, further than you can see, will be at your command. Nothing will be denied to you.” His mouth is poised at my lips. “Isn’t that enough?”

He kisses me again, in this place where ivy clings to walls and roofs and faeries scurry beneath the wild, green hills, and where time is a cruel, merciless robber. No, I fear it will never be enough. For the only thing he would deny me is his heart.



~~~~~~~~~~
 


November, 2004

The letter looked odd among the daily pile of drudgery she was used to fishing out of her box. It was odd in a refined, elegant sort of way, with its ivory parchment envelope and proud raised type detailing a return address she wasn’t expecting. Ireland? Mac lowered her brows and read the words again. It had been sent from the legal offices of O’Leary and Kelly, Ennis, County Clare, Ireland. With a curious sigh, she topped the rest of her stack with the strange letter and headed for her desk.

Too impatient to locate the always missing letter opener, she ran her thumb along the top edge of the flap and drew out a single sheet of paper. Dear Lieutenant Colonel Sarah Mackenzie, it began. And the words that followed made her heart stop.
 


~~~~~~~~~~
 


She was shaking by the time she reached Harm’s office. With the letter clamped between two fingers, she stood in the threshold and waited for him to notice.

“Mac?” he offered when the act of lowering the gigantic coffee mug from his mouth to his desk brought her into view. Barely 0900, it was already one of those days that had him wishing he could just hook himself up to an I.V. full of the rich, black, life-giving substance. “C’mon in, sit down. You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”

She eased herself into a chair and waved the paper like a flag. “I think you’re closer to the truth than you realize.”

Harm cocked his head and leaned forward on his elbows.

Mac drew in a deep breath and began. “I got this letter a few minutes ago. It’s from a lawyer in Ireland, a Martin O’Leary. He’s settling the estate of a woman named Margaret Brennan who recently passed away.” She glanced down again at the words for what was probably the tenth time. But they never changed. “Apparently, I’m the sole beneficiary of her estate and am now the proud owner of a tiny cottage in the village of Ballyvaughan.”

“A cottage? But how…?”

“Margaret Brennan was my great aunt. On my father’s side.”

Harm straightened and looked into Mac’s eyes. They were glazed and hollow, windows to the trouble and confusion lurking behind them. “You’ve never mentioned a Great Aunt Margaret.”

“That’s because I didn’t know about her.” She flattened her palm across the cool, linen surface of the paper. “It’s common for people to have relatives they’ve never heard of, especially when they live abroad. But, my family…there are so few of us. I guess I thought my father would’ve mentioned her.” Then again, she thought her father should’ve done a lot of things.

“But she obviously knew about you.”

Mac suddenly felt a twinge of loss for this woman she’d never known to care about. “That’s what’s so strange. She never contacted me. If I’d known, I’d have gone to see her, or at least called or…”

“There has to be a reason, Mac.”

“Yeah.”

He took another sip from the mug. “What are you going to do?”

“Well, I need to phone this Mr. O’Leary.” Then she shrugged and spoke quietly, the realization coming to life with each word. “And it looks like I’m going to Ireland.”


~~~~~~~~~~


“Yes, Mr. O’Leary. Shocked would be an understatement.” Mac twirled her phone cord and gazed absently out her office window at the raindrops that were building from sprinkle to shower.

Thousands of miles away, Martin O’Leary adjusted his reading glasses. “Margaret, Ms. Brennan, mentioned that you’d never met her. But she was very clear that you were to receive everything.”

Even in this, Mac couldn’t help but smile at the gentle lilt of his voice. “Just what exactly is everything?”

“Well, she’d had been living in a private assisted living facility here in Ennis for the last ten years. The majority of her estate went to pay for the fees. Her cottage, or shall I say, your cottage, is in nearby Ballyvaughan. Charming place it is, I assure you. She’d sold off all of the furniture and left it vacant, although her estate allowed for a neighboring farmer, a Jason Flynn, to act as caretaker.” He paused and drew out a sheet from the bottom of the file. “I’m afraid the rest of her possessions fit into a smallish box. It’s being held in the facility where she passed. You need only come and claim it and sooner is preferable to later in these matters.”

Mac’s thoughts turned to General Cresswell. Her relationship with her new CO was shaky at best and having to approach him with this was not going to be one of the high points of her day. “I’ll see what I can do, Mr. O’Leary.”


~~~~~~~~~~
 


A summons into the general’s office for Mac and Harm a few minutes later saved her from having to approach the temperamental marine on her own.

Harm had arrived before her and was dying to quiz her about the phone call. It would have to wait, though. He did notice that she’d brought the letter with her. He watched as she eased into the chair next to him, every bit the proper, stoic marine. But he knew that her mind was busy with at least a hundred other things. It showed in her gestures, the way she clenched her hands together around the slim white paper. And the way she faced their commanding officer, with due respect, but seeming to stare right through him.

“You both have been hard at work on the Taylor case.” It was more statement than question.

“Yes, sir,” the two officers said in unison.

Cresswell shuffled through a set of papers on his desk. “As you know, the court martial was slated to begin next week. I’ve just received word that it’s being pushed back three weeks due to some scheduling conflicts.” He looked up, splitting a sharp gaze between them. “I trust you’ll both make ample use of the extra time.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Absolutely, sir.”

The general was about to dismiss them both when Colonel Mackenzie drew something from her lap that caught his eye. “Colonel, is there something you would like to add?”

Mac stole a quick glance at her partner. “Actually, sir, it’s of an unrelated matter. It’s all right, Commander Rabb is aware of the situation,” she added when the general motioned to send Harm away.

She lifted the paper and explained the little she knew of the situation.

“Well,” he said at length, “this is very interesting. I’m assuming you’d like to make the trip and get all of this settled. Fortunately, you’re no longer due in court on Monday. I’m trusting that a week will be enough?”

Shocked that it had been that easy, she stumbled over her words a little. “Yes, um…it should be fine. Thank you, sir.”

He nodded and made a move to dismiss them for the second time this morning when Commander Rabb signaled for his attention.

Harm glanced at Mac in that telltale, furtive way of his that had her worrying before the first word was spoken. “General, in light of recent developments, both, with the Taylor case and with the Colonel’s family situation, I’d also like to request the next week off.”

Stunned, Mac whipped her head around to face Harm. An inkling of an idea of why he was suddenly requesting leave raced into her mind but she waved it off just as quickly. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. There was no way possible.

But then he continued. “Sir, I have more than enough leave. And I’ve heard that Ireland is particularly pleasant this time of year.”

Cresswell snorted, half in amusement, half in utter disbelief. “I’ve heard it’s wicked cold, Commander. Not to mention windy.”

Harm shrugged sheepishly. “Colonel Mackenzie might require some assistance in tying up her family matters, sir.”

Mac simply felt like smacking him across the head. It took every ounce of restraint to keep quiet but that was exactly what she did. Surely the general would shut this down immediately. She’d just murder Harm later on.

General Cresswell rubbed his aching temples, entertaining various possible responses to Rabb’s odd request. The phrases ‘hell no’ and ‘have you completely lost your mind’ had made the short list. But at that very moment, something happened that he would find no explanation for. When he opened his mouth, poised with a sharp retort, quite the opposite managed to burst out. “Fine, take the week, then,” he declared. Perplexed, he shook his head quickly as if to clear it. And then he ordered the two officers in front of him directly out of his office as if his sanity hinged upon it.

Finding herself alone with Harm in the anteroom, Mac faced him with fire in her eyes. What little she could find of her voice came out in a furious whisper. “What the hell?” Her arms flailed as she gestured to the closed door. “You just…how could you assume…?”

His finger flew to her lips, shushing her. Of course, he was infuriatingly calm and collected. “Mac, just hear me out, okay?”

Damn, why did he have to be so gorgeous when he was trying to be convincing? She loathed him for it. But she released her vehemence in a long, slow hiss of air and nodded.

He hesitantly removed the finger. “I can’t remember the last vacation I took. And Paraguay doesn’t count by a long shot.”

She couldn’t help but agree but still said, “So go to Hawaii.”

He rolled his eyes. “Mac, when I had to go to Russia, you insisted on coming.”

“That was different and you know it.”

“What I know is I needed you then. I wouldn’t admit it, but you saw right through it and forced yourself on that plane.”

She dropped her head, studying the ancient, scuffed floor tiles. “What if this is something I need to do by myself?”

“Then I’ll play tourist and give you all the space you want. But c’mon, Mac. Who knows what you’re going to find over there. Do you really want to go alone?”

It was the word ‘alone’ that got her. For months, that had been exactly what she’d wanted. And he’d respected her wishes, the offer to talk an ever-present option. But now, she couldn’t deny the aching fact that ‘alone’ was starting to feel rather, well, lonely. “All right,” she conceded with the wave of a hand, “I’ll make the arrangements.”

He smiled brilliantly as they wove through the bull pen towards his office. “Come for dinner and we’ll sort out the details. 1900?”

“Okay.” She gestured back to the general’s office. “But answer me this. What in God’s great earth happened back there? Our relationship with him is barely above precarious and you get him to agree to a sudden spree to Ireland? On personal business?” She tugged one of the sleeves of his dapper dress blues and hiked a brow. “Got any other tricks lurking up there?”

“Mac,” he said upon a low chuckle, “I’m not a man who tells.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~
 


Harm was tearing arugula and romaine lettuce into a glass salad bowl. He wondered if Mac would notice that he’d taken the time to set a vase full of fresh flowers on the table along with a few white votive candles. The stereo had been set to play a random mix of jazz piano and guitar and the lights were dimmed. It wasn’t as if this was a special occasion or anything. But after the year the two of them had gone through, just having Sarah Mackenzie, not only in his home tonight, but by his side for a week in a little patch of a charming, green island, was cause enough to celebrate.

He’d just dunked a spoon into a bubbling pot of marinara when he heard the knock at the door. He opened it to find his guest wearing low cut jeans and a thick ivory sweater, holding a set of papers. “Hey, Mac.”

She offered a genuine smile as she inched her way in, waving the papers in the air. “Hi. Looks like we’re all set. Out flight leaves tomorrow night out of Dulles.”

He observed as she went into the living room and found a place for her belongings. Before dropping her purse, she drew out a small hairbrush and smoothed out a few tangles. He could’ve stood there watching her all night, but the water for the pasta was beginning to boil. He turned towards the kitchen and cracked open the window to release some of the steam. “I take it you spoke with Mr. O’Leary again?” he asked, dunking a handful of noodles into the pot.

“Yep. I’ll tell you over dinner.” Mac walked up to the counter and accepted a frosty bottle of mineral water from his outstretched hand. She stretched her neck forward. “And speaking of dinner, what are we having? It smells delicious.”

“Chicken Cacciatore and salad. And maybe, if you’re good, I’ll let you have some of the leftover brownies Mattie and Jen sent over.”

She batted her eyelashes. “Anything for chocolate…”

“Well now, your mood seems to have changed from this morning. Does that mean you’ve forgiven me for my little maneuver in Cresswell’s office?”

She snorted. “The jury’s still out on that one, Commander.” She spun the bottle cap on the counter then glanced up. “You know, O’Leary did mention something about a box of Margaret’s things. I’ll just let you schlep that around for me.”

Harm pegged her with a pot holder and they shared a laugh. Then he plated the food and led her over to the table.

Mac fingered a pink stargazer lily from the vase in front of her and smiled before cutting into her chicken.

“So where exactly is this Ballyvaughan? The last time we were in Ireland, it was Belfast and we weren’t there for the scenery.” Harm bit into a cherry tomato.

“It’s on the western coast in the county of Clare. We fly into Shannon and then it’s an hour’s drive north. O’Leary mentioned that the caretaker will be back in town in a few days and he’ll show us the cottage.”

“O’Leary is in Ennis, right? How far is that?”

Mac shrugged. “He said it’s a half hour drive. I’ll need to visit his office to sign some papers. While we’re there, I want to stop at the rest home where she died and pick up her things.”

“How old was she, Mac?”

She cast a faraway look around the table then met his gaze. “Ninety five. She died of natural causes.”

Harm nodded solemnly and returned to his food.

Mac followed suit and twirled some of the noodles with a fork and spoon. “This is great, by the way. Thanks for inviting me.”

“Anytime,” he said softly. And he truly meant it, a great deal more than his face probably let on. “Where are we staying?”

One corner of her mouth sprung up as she recalled the earlier inquiry. “Well, the two major inns in Ballyvaughan are full. Apparently there’s a quilter’s convention there every year.”

Harm raised a brow. “A village full of quilters, huh? Could be dangerous.”

She let out a little laugh. “No doubt. Anyway, I did find two rooms at a bed and breakfast a few minutes out of town. It’s run by a married couple and the wife is so gracious you’d think she was ready to adopt me.”

It was a happy image and he grinned, while the thought of spending a week with this woman in a cozy B&B brought a warm feeling to more than a few places inside of him. “You going into the office tomorrow before we leave?

“Nah, I tied up everything. And I have an appointment at Bethesda before packing.”

Despite her casual tone, Harm immediately looked up from his plate and set down his fork. He stared at her intently, his bottom lip dropping open slightly.

“It’s just a follow-up,” she murmured. He’d looked at her so seriously, with such concern that she suddenly felt the need to reassure him instead of the other way around. “It’s gonna be okay, Harm,” she said, more feebly than she’d intended. And maybe not quite well enough to make herself believe it.

All eating had stopped and suddenly the music was barely audible. The room was numb and dotted with the flickering candle flames that were more often used to commemorate happier times. More certain times. “I know. You’re going to pull through this, Mac. You always do.” He took her hand, giving it a squeeze. “And you’re not alone.”

She squeezed back, her eyes glazed. “No,” she said and even laughed a little through the awkwardness. “You proved that when you weaseled your way onto my flight.”

“Damn straight.”

They shared the rest of the meal in companionable silence. Later, Mac helped him with the dishes, her sleeves rolled up to her elbows and her forearms dunked into the sudsy water.

As he dried a plate, he watched her as she stared out the rectangular window, whether at the stars or the moon, or even something higher, he didn’t know. But he did know that her mind was turning, fast and furious- scraping, clawing for something to believe in. To be sure of. And something told him she wasn’t thinking about her health or family. “You miss him?” he dared to ask.

There was no need to ask who him was. Immediately she faced Harm, her lips, slick and halfway parted. But both were startled by the sudden opening of the door. And the question was forced to remain there, suspended, in the quiet air between them.

“Hey guys!” Mattie said cheerfully. Less than two steps into the room, she noticed the dimmed light, the music and even the flowers and found herself backing up. “I’m sorry, I didn’t…”

Harm came into the living room. “No - we were just finishing up dinner. Come on in.”

Mac steadied herself and walked around the counter. “Hi Mattie, I was wondering why you hadn’t joined us. Do you want some chicken? There’s plenty.”

“I could smell it all the way down the hall, but no thanks.” She hooked a thumb over her shoulder. “Jen and I are going to the mall and we’ll just grab something at the food court. I actually came to talk to you about this.” She waved a white square card in front of Harm before he took it.

“Hmmm, the Thomas Payne High Autumn Ball.”

Mattie shrugged. “It’s in a couple of weeks – you’ll be back from Ireland by then. Besides I didn’t make it to the spring dance last year so I’d really like to go.” Her eyes wandered around the room before meeting Harm’s penetrating gaze again. “I sort of have a date for it,” she added nonchalantly.

Harm executed a series of slow nods, contemplating the word ‘date’ while rubbing his chin. He looked briefly at Mac, who was thoroughly enjoying this exchange, her arms crossed at her chest and an amused look on her face. “Sounds fun,” he finally decided. “And will you and said date be needing a ride to this event?”

“No thanks, he, uh, he has a car.”

“A car? But…”

Mattie nibbled her bottom lip. “He’s sort of a senior.”

Harm gestured broadly with his arms. “A senior?!” he erupted. “Well he must be…”

“A very nice boy, I’m sure, or Mattie would never have accepted,” Mac interrupted, stepping forward, but not before flashing an exasperated glare at Harm. “Where did you meet him?”

Mattie had already shifted her attention towards Mac, whom she seemed to be having much better luck with. “His name is Dave and we know each other from volleyball.”

“See,” she said to Harm in mock contempt, “they’re both athletes so they already have something in common.” She faced Mattie. “Let me guess, you need something special to wear?”

Mattie fingered the sleeve of her green Addidas track suit. “Yeah, I can’t exactly show up in something like this.”

As both women looked at Harm, he marveled at the sheer power of female persuasiveness before reaching into his back pocket and pulling out his wallet. He sighed deeply as he handed Mattie his Visa card. But his eyes were shining.

She stood on her toes to kiss him on the cheek. “You’re the best!”

His voice made her stop halfway out the door. “Hey! Make sure it has sleeves and reaches way below your knees.”

She gave a thumbs-up.

“And stay out of Neiman Marcus!” he yelled, though the door had already closed. He spun around to find Mac smiling wistfully. “What?” he questioned, suddenly feeling a little self-conscious.

“You’re good for her,” Mac said.

“We’re good for each other,” he countered, then asked, “coffee’s ready, you want some?”

“Sure. And don’t you dare forget the brownies.”

Because she’d moved to the couch, Harm fixed a tray of coffee and dessert and set it gently on the low table. He handed her a cup and she took a long sip then closed her hands around the base, drawing in its warmth. It was quiet again. And before thinking better of it, he drudged up the question that had been gnawing at him all evening. “Earlier, before Mattie came in, I asked you if you missed Webb.”

She tensed and studied the floor, grinding the toe of her shoe back and forth against the wooden planks. “And you’re asking it again?”

His hand cupped her shoulder so that she finally turned her head. “I’m…I’m sorry, Mac. The last thing I want to do is upset you. I just want to know how you’re doing.”

“Well I guess that’s fair enough.” She stood suddenly, wandering around the living room, aimlessly at first, as if the answer both of them needed happened to be hiding there – somewhere. Anywhere. Then she planted herself near the kitchen, her eyes focused again out the window. “You mean, do I miss the deception? Or the manipulation? Do I miss the gnawing feeling that each day I spent with him was a waste?” She paused as the realization came. “No. I don’t miss him. More than anything, Harm, I miss myself.”

He said nothing, only unfolded his legs from the sofa and moved to her. He gathered her into his arms and held her close.

Mac felt an overwhelming rush of comfort there - closer, thicker, warmer than she could ever remember feeling. And it was precisely at that moment, with her head resting against his shoulder and her eyes raw and damp that something unexplainable occurred. Something that even years later, she’d never forget, nor relate to anyone else.

She’d heard a faint scratch against the glass. And when she lifted her head barely an inch or two, she saw a bluebird poised upon the windowsill. Harm, still holding her and facing the doorway, never noticed. But she did. Incredulous, she watched as it turned its tiny beaded eyes towards her.

And then, amidst a veil of blackness instead of morning, with his dainty stick feet shuffling across the ledge, it sang, paused - and sang again.

 

Chapter 2

 

Ireland was in her blood. The surname she signed everyday was a testament to this. Mackenzie, fire born; son of a wise ruler. Yet growing up, it was her mother’s side that had staked a clearer presence in her life, its native language, the one she’d learned early on. Her father’s line had always been the sparse, dark side, the mysterious piece of her that was never talked about and never questioned. But as the Aer Lingus jumbo jet crept slowly from sea to island, the Irish in her began to wake.

She’d been here a few years before. But she’d been too busy with danger and duty to feel the pull of this land that came now with exotic, heated force. Ireland called to her now as a sister. Her voice was both ancient and new, steeped with emerald green planes and the mighty sweep of jagged cliffs. Her melody was harp and flute, tangled with legend and poem, famine and faerie lore.

The picture out of the tiny oval window was of water and grass. A scatter of clouds hovered over Shannon, revealing craggy parts of rocky structures that melded with modern buildings. The river brought life. She tracked its movement up the center of the landscape until the wide, blue-black mouth come into view. They would land soon.

She glanced to the side at her partner. He was still asleep as he’d been for most of the flight, his head half shielded by a flimsy green blanket. His breathing was steady and silent under the constant drone of jet engine. She took this rare glimpse into the quiet of him to ponder his behavior lately. She hadn’t been so preoccupied with her own problems not to notice the shift in him in the last six months. Where was her commitment-phobic, haunted, restless sailor who was often about as emotionally available as a two-by-four? Where was the man who couldn’t seem to complete a personal thought about the two of them for years?

Instead, she looked at him and saw a man that had researched her illness, who’d taken on the role of father and did it brilliantly, who’d repeated time and again that he wanted to be in her life – the one who always seemed to be there lately, by her side, at her door, in her mind. Even in her heart. Somehow, he became the man that would never leave her alone. Even when she could still name a hundred reasons why he should.

Mac rubbed her dry, tired eyes and knew they’d look even worse than they felt. Unlike him, she hadn’t been able to sleep for a minute. She rarely did on planes. And this time, there was just too damn much to think about.
 


~~~~~~~~~~
 


Harm’s steps were bright and eager from customs to the baggage claim area and she hated him for it. “Wait, wait, wait,” she called, causing him to stop and turn. Then she motioned with her aching head to a vending cart. “I think I smell coffee over there. I’d tell you I see it too but I don’t trust my eyes right now.”

He chuckled and pointed to the moving belt just ahead. “Go get your fill, Marine. I’ll find our bags and meet you over there. Bring me a double?” he added but she’d already scurried off.
 


~~~~~~~~~~
 


“Better?” he asked, a few minutes later.

“Yeah, I’m slowly coming back to life.” She threw her carry-on over her shoulder. One hand pulled the wheeled suitcase; the other held the gigantic coffee with a death grip. With Harm at her side, she walked through the automatic doors and into Shannon.

The crisp November air and the wind, its blustery cohort, tendered a coat-clutching welcome upon the pair. As they walked the short distance to the rental car lot, the spotty puffs of clouds that had appeared innocent enough from the plane had now merged together into a cumbersome, gray mass across the sky. Drops began to fall and splash. Umbrellas were fished out of carry on bags and quickly put to use.

“There’s the rental company,” Mac stated.

A short, podgy [pudgy] attendant in an appropriate, bright yellow coat produced the paperwork and lifted a set of keys from a brass hook. He pointed to the rows of parked cars. “Yours is in space 12. Need a bit of help with where you’re going this morning?”

Harm took the keys but held up a map. “No, thank you. We’re headed to Ballyvaughan but I think I can navigate this without too much trouble.”

“As you wish.” The man couldn’t resist a belly laugh as the pair walked off.

Brows lowered, Mac asked, “Does he know something we don’t?”

“I can’t imagine what.” They walked the line of cars before Harm came to a dead stop. “Oh no. You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Puzzled, Mac turned. “Hmmm?”

“Look at our car!” He pointed to the bright blue something sitting in space 12. If it truly was a car, then it was the smallest specimen he’d ever seen. “Is this all they had?”

Mac tried her best to stifle a giggle. “Chalk it up to last minute. Besides, what did you expect? An SUV? We’re headed for the country, Harm. Most of the cars in Ireland are small because the roads are smaller.” Her giggle quickly overflowed into roaring laughter when Harm dropped his bags, rain and all, and did circles around the tiny hatchback.

“Nuh-uh. There’s no way. I’ll have to push the seat all the way back to the rear window.”

Still holding the umbrella with one hand, the other went to her hip. “Well, at least you’re not going to find yourself in the middle of our usual argument about who gets to drive.” She yawned once, then twice. “You got all the sleep. Besides, I know which side of the road they drive on here and it’s not my side.”

Harm was a little surprised by her statement. Mac didn’t usually admit her weaknesses that easily. But, then again, she also respected her limits. He heaved a sighed and picked up his suitcase. “Well, then let’s get this midget-mobile on the road.”
 


~~~~~~~~~~
 


After much ado, they managed to cram themselves, bags and all, into the car. Mac was inches away from sleep but fought it for the sake of scenery.

And it was breathtaking.

When they reached the northern edge of Shannon, the road took them into a storybook of fertile land and white-tipped ocean. The rain seemed to be moving southward, leaving a wide, blue stretch of sky to chase. There were limestone ruins and bleating herds of animals and she fell in love with the tiny stone cottages with wisps of smoke rising out of chimneys.

There was only one minor hitch. The reason for the rental car attendant’s laughter became painfully clear as they drove further into the country. Ireland and adequate road signs were definitely not synonymous with one another.

“I guess we need to master the art of landmark driving,” Harm offered dryly. He’d just crumpled himself back into the driver’s seat after finally consulting a local on the roadside. “At least we’re not that far off.” He made a u-turn and, this time, took the proper turn where four large shrubs grew in a perfect circle.

Mac laughed a little. “Makes you wish you had your radar, huh?”

Harm glanced to the side at her face. Every inch of it was exhausted, but never enough to mire the pretty. “Mac, flying is child’s play compared to this business.” But he smiled and even the baffling roads hadn’t done a thing to dampen his mood. He was out of that damned courtroom, alone with the person he’d rather be with than anyone else, in a beautiful place he would gladly stay lost in.
 


~~~~~~~~~~
 


Soon they reached Ballyvaughan, the tiny port village snugly encased by the southern tip of Galway Bay to the north and the Atlantic to the west. They bypassed the village center and headed straight for the countryside where a rock-lined path led them to Carroll House. The old wooden manor was both grand and inviting, painted in pure, brilliant white. It was topped by a dusty gray roof and a set of three pointed gables keeping the watch. The weary travelers were glad to step out of the car and they stretched and swept their necks from side to side before getting their bags.

They wiped their feet in front of the cheery red door. A sign on a brass plaque read, Failte. Welcome. A bell was hung from a ribbon looped around the doorknob, signaling their arrival with its high-pitched ding.

The entryway was stuffed with antiques and flickering candles in sconces. The floorboards were rustic black walnut, left marred and scratched with age and use. And the smell was divine – a comfortable mix of sweet and savory that wafted down the hallway as the kitchen door swung open.

“Good day. You must be Sarah Mackenzie.” The medium-toned voice preceded the woman that came into view from the hall. “I’m Eileen Carroll.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Mac said and accepted the outstretched hand. Their hostess appeared to be in her early fifties, with a hearty mane of hair, more blonde than gray and worn in a loose chignon. She was slim but solid, with a kind, graceful face and hands well accustomed to a full days’ work.

Eileen turned to the dashing man next to Sarah. Her lightning-fast survey from head to toe caused her automatic smile to brighten a few degrees. A Yank with the looks of him was going to cause a bit of a stir in this town.

All charm and wide-toothed grin, Harm offered his hand. “I’m Harmon Rabb, ma’am.”

Eileen nodded and found her cheeks growing flushed. “Well, we’ve been expecting…” her words were cut off by the loud “flap” that came from the rear of the house.

The trio turned as a burly redheaded man in jeans and a blue flannel [shirt] barreled down the hall. “Sorry. I’ve been meaning to fix that blasted door.” He eyed the guests, smiled, and poked out a hand. “Robert Carroll.”

With greetings out of the way, Robert scratched his beard-covered chin and counted the luggage. “Eileen will see to your stomachs and I’ll handle these for you.”

Before either of them could protest, Robert was a quarter of the way up the stairs with both large suitcases.

Eileen leaned in close and snickered. “He’s a bit eager, my husband. There’s a rugby match on in ten minutes.”

Mac tried to laugh but a yawn came out instead.

Eileen’s hand went to her shoulder. “You poor dear. You must be exhausted from your travels. Your room is the first on the right if you’d like to rest. I’ll bring up a light lunch for the both of you in a few minutes.”

After another yawn, Mac nodded. “That sounds perfect.”

Eileen turned to Harm. “And your room is the second on the left.”

“Thank you. Are we the only guests?”

“Today, yes. But tomorrow, we’re expecting a family of five out of Dublin. Mr. Fagan has business in Ballyvaughan twice each year. The whole family always comes along.” Eileen paused, her head rising to the ceiling in thought. “This’ll be the fifth year. So enjoy the quiet now because it’s sure to get a bit livelier around here come tomorrow.”

Harm chuckled, folding his arms across his chest. “It can’t be all that bad. You keep letting them come back.”

Eileen squared her shoulders. “Oh, I’ve got the lot of them handled by now. The little ones know there’ll be no sweets for them if they act up.”
 


~~~~~~~~~~
 


After parting with Harm down the hall, Mac found her suitcase perched upon a big, fluffy bed covered in white damask. It was a princess room, with white paneled wainscoting and floral wallpaper. Rose pink curtains were gathered aside with cording to reveal a gabled window with a view that went for miles.

“This is actually our bridal suite.”

The voice from the doorway caused her to turn. “Well, I’m afraid that’s wishful thinking at this point,” Mac said, her tone, wistful and sarcastic all at once.

Eileen laughed, a clear, melodious sound. She had a hunch that the handsome military lawyers - work partners, they’d said - had a story that had followed them all the way from Washington. Yes, they would be great fun to have around. There was magic in this land. And few could escape it.

She ventured in and set the silver tray upon a little round table. “There’s tea and a cup of vegetable soup and a sandwich of roasted chicken. The potato bread’s fresh from the oven.”

Mac snuck a peek and swooned. “Eileen, you’re my hero.”

When the kind woman had gone, Mac kicked off her shoes and barely stayed awake enough to enjoy the delicious lunch.

Minutes later, she was tucked into the fragrant sheets and blankets. She closed her eyes and listened. There were no familiar city sounds of racing engines and blaring horns. A pair of birds sang at her window. Then it was all wind. It came suddenly, as it usually did in these parts. Just as she succumbed to the pull of sleep, a mighty gust rattled the glass and she could’ve sworn she heard the faintest sound of weeping.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

After a two hour nap, Mac rose from the bed and rubbed her eyes. She ran a brush through her hair, eased her feet into a pair of black driving mocs then ventured into the hallway. She pointed her feet towards Harm’s room but stopped and lifted her brows at the raucous laughter and cheering coming from the lower level.

She padded down the sweeping wood staircase. It was old but sturdy and creaked and crackled every few steps. She followed the odd, primal sounds, decidedly male, into the parlor at the base of the stairs. Hovering at the threshold, her mouth curved up at the sight of Harm and Robert Carroll, perched upon the edge of a long leather sofa. There were glasses half full of beer on the coffee table. The TV was blaring and the image, unmistakable. It was rain and sweat. It was blood and grass and piles of flailing limbs.

It was rugby.

“Are females allowed in here?” Mac asked but sauntered over to an empty spot next to Harm anyway.

He rubbed her knee playfully. “Hey, how’d you sleep?”

“Like the dead.” She leaned into the soft cushions and grabbed a throw pillow for her lower back. The parlor was large, longer than it was wide. Various conversation areas had been set up with wing backed chairs and tables perfect for late night coffee and dessert. One side of the room boasted a shiny black grand piano, the other, a game table for four with a chessboard waiting. She turned to the gentlemen. “So rugby, huh?”

Robert scratched the end of a graying sideburn. “I was just educating your friend here on the ongoing feud between these particular teams.” He took a long swig of the amber-colored lager and lowered the volume with a remote. “Makes for a fine match, I’d say.”

Mac glanced from Harm to Robert and pursed her lips. “Did Harm tell you that he played a little rugby at the Naval Academy?”

Impressed, Robert gave the younger man a friendly nudge on the shoulder. “You don’t say?”

Harm shrugged. “Actually, I only played a few games. My goal of going to flight school would’ve been shot if I’d graduated with only one eye. And the odds of just that happening were too much to keep me on the field.”

“Spoken like a wise man, Mr. Rabb,” Eileen voiced from the doorway. She deposited a stack of magazines on an end table and sat on the sofa arm next to her husband. “Now that you’ve rested, what do you have planned for the afternoon?”

Harm looked at Mac. It was her show. “Do you want to check out the cottage?”

She tilted her head in thought then shook it hesitantly. “No, the caretaker won’t be back until tomorrow morning. I wouldn’t mind a day or two of doing next to nothing, so we can wait.”

Eileen’s face fell a little. “Sarah, I wish Robert and I were able to give you more information on your great aunt.”

Mac lifted a shoulder. “Well, she’d been living in Ennis for ten years.”

“And we’ve only been in Ballyvaughan for six,” Robert said. “There are many in town that’ll be glad to help. What cottage is it, then?”

“I was told it’s just off of Cappabhaile Pass, wherever that is.”

Eileen silently consulted her husband and turned to Mac. “Well, we’re not acquainted with your Margaret but most of us know that cottage. It’s barely large enough for a family of rabbits but ‘tis on one of the finest pieces of land in these parts.” She smiled wistfully. “Steps from the ocean cliffs, it is.”

Robert polished off his beer and set down the glass with such a bang that Eileen rolled her eyes. “In the meantime, if it’s leisure you’re after, there’s the village. And the Cliffs of Moher are something to see. The bay also has a fine view. But I’m sure I don’t have to tell you to keep to the shore this time of year.” He chuckled and leaned in close. “Things are liable to fall off in those waters.”

Harm laughed richly along with Mac. “Duly noted.”

Mac peered out the large picture window on the opposite wall. The wide expanse of green glistened in the afternoon sun. “I think I’d just like to walk,” she declared softly and looked at Harm in a silent invitation.

He drained the rest of his beer. “Let’s get our coats.”

When they were halfway out the door, they turned back at the sound of Eileen’s voice.

“I forgot to mention that dinner is always included on your first day. I’ve a lovely piece of fresh salmon and pecan tarts in the oven.”

Harm grinned and grabbed the doorknob. “We wouldn’t miss it.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

The sunlight was full and strong, but nearly powerless against the frigid air that heralded the coming wintertime. Wrapped in the black wool coats that would get much use on this trip, the pair set off on foot. Carroll House rested on a stretch of land beneath a hearty, rounded hillside. They’d been told that this was the Burren region of Ireland, so named for the ancient, gray-black limestone rocks that formed the towering sea cliffs. The rocks were found inland as well, some crafted into fence walls, others found in sporadic rows and clumps in the middle of the grasslands.

They saw flowers. Though well into fall, a few white and purple blooms stubbornly grasped on to the crumbling edges of the season, their vines woven over and under the base of green and gray.

Curious as to the secrets that might be found on the other side of the bordering hill, they set forth to climb it. The terrain wasn’t steep but Harm still pulled his hand from his pocket and offered it to Mac.

She took it and stole a look into his eyes. They exchanged no words, but smiles, genuine and shy. It was a few seconds later, on their first steps up the base of the hill, that she heard it again. It was the faint but distinctive sound of weeping. A woman weeping – so mournfully she felt a tinge of heated pain inside of her before she’d even thought to question the source. Or her sanity. Earlier, in bed, she’d blamed it on the exhaustion. Now, there was no explanation. “Did you hear that?” she asked her companion.

“Hear what?” he questioned.

A shiver raced up and down her back. “I guess it was nothing.”

Harm nodded, still facing forward. “The wind makes all sorts of weird sounds.”

“Yeah.” But she tucked the thought deep inside her mind. After a few more steps, they reached the hilltop, a new view unfolding in front of them. “Harm, what’s that?”

He followed her stare to what looked like an old, stone ruin. “I think it’s a cottage. Or it used to be.”

“Let’s check it out.” But she had already quickened her pace, dragging him along.

They reached the group of rounded stones that used to form a perfect square. One wall was half-standing; another reduced to a pile of rubble only a couple of feet high. Harm stood in what was once a doorway. “This is probably hundreds of years old. We should ask the Carrolls about it.” He turned to explore the back section.

She would’ve answered but her attention was drawn to the right hand wall. Her breath hitched in her throat when a bluebird fluttered by and perched upon a craggy rock. It chirped sweetly then flew off into the countryside. She would’ve thought nothing of it, had it not been the exact shape and size as the mysterious creature she’d seen two nights before in Harm’s kitchen. Again, it had to be a coincidence. But her pulse continued to rise.

There was an eerie feeling about this place that she couldn’t ignore. She tried her best to shake it off and turned to find Harm. He was seated on a flat section of rocks, a makeshift bench, on the opposite end of the ruin facing the peaceful landscape they’d just come from.

“Thinking about anything in particular?” she asked and sat beside him.

He slowly wound his head to the side. “Just the fact that two days ago I was at my desk, suffocating under a mound of paperwork. And Bud was trying to rope me in for help with those budget reports.” He sighed and cracked a smile. “I could go on and on.” He swept his hand in front of him. “And now look at this.”

“I know. With our jobs, we travel so frequently and many of those places have a lot going for them. But we’re always too busy to notice.”

She snuggled further into her coat, amazed by the solitude and firmly convinced that this had been exactly what she’d needed. “I’m glad you came,” she said at length, almost imperceptible amidst the sudden gust of wind that rustled the tips of the grass at their feet.

He was sure that few words would’ve meant more to him than those. Unafraid, he took her hand again. “So am I.”

Maybe it was the faraway setting, but the need to finally talk to this man rose up suddenly, forcing the words into her throat. So much had been left unsaid. “I know I’ve been quiet the past few months.”

“Yeah. But your whole life was turned upside down. It’s been a hard year - I understand.”

“Thanks for giving me space. I know it’s hard being the one in the dark.”

It had been hell, but he rubbed the warm hand within his. “Did you figure anything out?”

She met his gaze. “I realized something one day, not too long ago.”

Though his heart jumped, he stayed silent as she gathered her words.

“You know, when I was a little girl, I never told any of my friends at school about my father.” She let out a brief puff of air. “I always told stories about how great my family was - all the fun things we did and the toys he bought me. I’d created my own little safe place to hide. A world of pretend. Maybe I thought that if I talked about it enough, or made it real enough…maybe if I wanted it bad enough, it would somehow come true. Even though it was all a lie.”

The raw honesty of her words was a thin strand of pain that tightened around his soul. “God, I’m so sorry, Mac.”

“No. I’m not looking for sympathy. In fact, I think I know now. I think I know why I’ve done some of the things I’ve done lately.” She shrugged her shoulders under the warm, black wool. “The last few years, I’ve done it with love, Harm.” Her voice began to thicken and she scraped her free hand along the jagged rock. “I’ve said the ‘I love yous’ and built lies around them, just trying to make the situation I happened to be in into the right one…into what it should be, even when it wasn’t.” Her gaze dropped to the green below. “Even when it never would be.”

At her stunning revelation, his eyes turned dark as he slowly let out his breath. “Mac,” he whispered fiercely.

“Harm, when I grew up, I forgot to stop pretending.” Her head stay low as she released her words into the tranquil landscape that went for miles and miles. There, they would find rest.
 


~~~~~~~~~~
 


They returned to a feast in the formal dining room of herb-roasted salmon, tiny, red buttery potatoes and a salad with spinach and peppery watercress. Harm couldn’t stop thinking about the statements Mac had made less than an hour before. There’d been so much that he’d wanted to say. But he’d held back, shoving his feelings to the side once again, realizing that the time at the ruin had been all about her. She’d had her say and, soon, very soon, he would have his. For now, he was content to savor those words, hard-fought and painful, but cathartic all the same. He took them as a gift.

While Eileen cleared the table, they were shooed into the parlor with the promise of dessert. Tall ivory tapers in silver holders danced on the mantle, in contrast to the lively flames that roared beneath them in the brick fireplace. They chose a set of burgundy leather club chairs, separated by a round table, as Robert trudged in with an armload of logs. Eileen followed with a tray and set cups of coffee and golden pecan tarts in front of Harm and Mac.

Mac wasted no time in taking a bite. “Eileen,” she slurred as a few crumbs fell from her fork, “this is amazing. I wish I could bake like this. I’m hopeless.”

Pleased, Eileen beamed. “Then you’ll have a lesson. Tomorrow?”

“Really? You’re going to teach me to cook?”

“I’d be happy to. With the Fagans coming, I’ll be in the kitchen most of the day.”

Harm also tasted the decadent concoction and was nearly reduced to tears. “It’s a brilliant idea.” He grinned cheekily and looked at Mac. “Then I can be her baking guinea pig when we get home.”

Mac rolled her eyes. “See what I go through?”

Eileen chuckled and lifted the tray which still held her and Robert’s portions.

“No, please stay,” Harm said. “Besides, we wanted to ask you about something we saw earlier.”

Eileen considered this for a half-second and nodded. Then she motioned for Robert to bring over another set of chairs. “All right, then.”

When the two couples were settled, Mac asked, “The ruin, on the other side of the hill, what is that?”

Instantly, Robert’s eyes met those of his wife, who gestured for him to answer while she ate. “That’s what’s left of Macauley cottage. It was built more than three hundred years ago.”

Harm cocked his head. “What happened to it? I mean, there are many structures here that are older and still standing.”

Again, the Irish couple consulted each other briefly, silently, with movements of heads and eyes and mouths – their own invented language. Then Robert spoke. “There’s a legend about the cottage. It’s widely known in these parts.”

Suddenly, Mac grew uneasy and her voice broke slightly. “A legend?”

Eileen set down her mug on a lace doily. “Well you can’t come to Ireland without experiencing a bit of faerie lore, so this will be your time,” she declared, splitting her gaze between Harm and Mac. At their consent, she continued. “As Robert said, the story began over three hundred years ago. There was a fair maiden named Kathleen Macauley. She was known across the land for her stunning beauty, with hair of corn silk blonde and eyes as blue as the ocean. She’d lost the lot of her family early on and she was left with a tiny stone cottage to tend. When she came of age, she took a lover – he was Declan, of the O’Reilly clan. Now Declan had a fine singing voice, melodious and rich. And there were few as handsome or brave. But he was troubled by the threat to his family and the land he would inherit by a menacing neighboring clan. The battles were legendary and caused much bloodshed.

Declan was smitten with Kathleen, but would not reveal his feelings, though real and true, they were. His heart remained closed. Yet, Kathleen loved him deeply. She begged and pleaded, but Declan would not stay. He had to fight. It was his duty. He promised to return to her and left a sapphire hairpin set in gold with a single diamond in the center– a gift to wear and hold dear to her heart in his absence.

Kathleen fell into a dark depression at his departure. Without Declan’s vow of love, her heart grew forlorn and bitter and her own love was overshadowed. Many months had passed with not a word from her lover. Her faith was lost. In a moment of weakness, she went to another who admired her. He readily vowed his love and devotion and she went on to marry him.

But early in the marriage, Kathleen began to deeply regret her decision, though her husband was good and kind. Already with child, she began to pine for the true love of her life. On his journey homeward, Declan got word of what Kathleen had done. His heart became enraged with hurt. In a fit of anger, he went to the cottage Kathleen had deserted and destroyed it.”

Eileen paused to take a bite of her dessert. The rain came then without preamble, so abruptly thick, it poured in wide ribbons down the glass of the nearby window. Still holding the rapt attention of the other three, she went on. “Now the legend is as follows. It was said that Declan had a trace of faerie blood in him. It was likely this that kept him alive through the treacherous battles, time and again. But the Faerie King looked upward from beneath the emerald hills and saw the travesty of the heart that had been done. Both Declan and Kathleen had been grossly foolish. The Faerie King was angered and the pair would be punished for their actions.

Declan’s lot was this. The Faerie King cursed his closed heart and the words of love he’d withheld from his lips. As a result, he became mute – both his hearing and his gift of voice were instantly taken away. It’s said that this region of our country owes its history of fine music to this curse. It is Declan’s legacy. It was his voice that has spurned these gifts.

Kathleen did not escape unpunished. Her descendants for generations would struggle in pain and heartache in life and love. And though she’d heard no words of love from Declan, she’d failed to see this love manifested as it was through his actions, loyal and honorable as they were. She’d gone to another. Thus, the Faerie King took her sight on that very day. Her sight, from eyes of deepest blue, became a bird. The bluebird also held her joyous spirit within it. This too was robbed.”

Mac shifted uneasily in her chair. While Eileen was relating the legend, she was hit by coincidences so sharp, they made her skin tingle. But it was when the bluebird was mentioned that Mac completely lost her breath. She’d seen this bird and what that meant about the legend was too much for her to comprehend.

Harm noticed her paling complexion. “You okay, Mac?”

The others quickly turned to her, but she waved them off. “Yes, it’s nothing. I’m just tired. Please continue, Eileen,” she managed. Though anxious beyond belief, she needed to hear the ending.

Eileen studied the younger woman’s face for half a breath then went on. “The last decree of the Faerie King stated that neither Kathleen nor Declan would find rest in death, nor could they reach one another. Declan was cursed to roam, still deaf and mute and deeply repentant for his actions. He was overrun with guilt for withholding his love. The pain was with him daily. Kathleen died a sad, bitter woman, blind and forever pining for the love she’d rejected too quickly. She’d learned her lesson but was powerless against the decree. She too, roams this land and weeps for her love. The weeping comes with the wind, but only a chosen few can hear it.”

The weeping. Somehow Mac knew it before Eileen gave the explanation. And now it had hurried inside of her – settling in a weighty burden upon her heart. Her eyes flew to the side as a log snapped and crackled in the fire, shooting out a flaming mist of sparks. Its warmth, though, she no longer felt.

“There is an end to the punishment. A love from the family line must come. It must be an everlasting love that rises above the cursed adversity, a true and abiding love. This will be enough to bring Declan and Kathleen together at last.”

Intrigued, Harm leaned forward on his elbows. “So, Declan can’t get to Kathleen. And he can’t speak to her.”

Eileen nodded. “Aye’, that is part of his curse.”

Mac absently dabbed her fork into the pile of flakey crumbs left on her plate. “But he’s also deaf. So Kathleen’s weeping for him – he’ll never hear it.”

The eyes of the older woman met those of the other across the little round table. “And that, Sarah, is part of hers.”
 

 

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