He didn't flinch from her probing gaze. "I think it was Frank and Joe Kerrigan."
The Kerrigan brothers again!
Chilled to the very marrow of her bones, she rubbed her hands over her arms in a futile attempt to warm herself. It seemed her destiny was forever tied to the brothers who'd destroyed her life so many years ago. Would the past never leave her alone?
"Was it because of me?" she asked, her voice no more than an aching whisper.
He heard, though. Abruptly he turned to her and gathered her into his arms. He felt warm and solid and safe. "No, my love, it wasn't you. It was because of me. I dismissed the Kerrigans on Tom's advice. The night he and Nora married, Eileen O'Farrell lost her crop to a fire. Now Tom and Nora's cottage goes up in flames. It's no secret in the village how Charlotte died. Wouldn't Frank and Joe Kerrigan think this a fine way to punish me?"
She heard the pain in his voice and gazed up into his face, raw with anguish. She reached tentative fingers to caress the lines around his mouth and eyes, smoothing away the soot and perspiration he'd accumulated while fighting the fire.
"It wasn't your fault," she whispered, her throat aching with tenderness. She knew this was another burden her wounded love would take upon his shoulders. "Rory, it wasn't! Sure, Frank and Joe Kerrigan were causing trouble in Ballycashel long before you came. Why, look what happened with Michael and Sean!"
"It's different this time," he insisted, and she felt his body shudder against hers. "They're cowards, Siobhán. They won't go after me directly. Instead they will attack me through my people. Who will be next? Old Liam Brady as he's coming home from Donahue's pub? Paddy Devlin as he comes back from courting his girl in Clifden? You?"
A great sense of weariness swept over her. "They've already taken my husband and brother. What more can they do to me?"
"They can take you away from me."
His quiet intensity sent a jolt of molten desire through her. What did those words mean? She'd never belonged to him--not really. Did he truly value her that much? Or was she just another one of his tenants?
"I cannot lose you, Siobhán. Not now, when I have only just found you. I've been a bloody damned fool, thinking if I sent you away, you'd be safe. You will never be safe with me--no one ever has been. But I cannot bear to let you go!"
"I don't want you to!" she whispered vehemently. "I love you, Rory O'Brien, and love is worth any risk in the world." Raising up on tiptoe, she pressed her lips to his in a kiss that bespoke forgiveness, healing and passion.
He broke the kiss and glanced down at her, something like wonder in his eyes. With great tenderness, he skimmed his fingers down her cheek, sending little shivers through her. But his eyes were filled with torment. "I do not know if I can do this, Siobhán."
"Do what, my love?"
"This! Any of this!" He gestured to the small thatched cottages, the fields of potatoes and corn, then to Ballycashel House. "I don't know if I can be lord of Ballycashel. I cannot keep the crops safe, I cannot keep the tenants safe. I just don't know if I can do it all. I don't know if I can be everything to everyone!"
Siobhán touched his face tenderly. "You don't have to," she told him softly. "You don't have to be anything but what you are. You're such a good man, Rory O'Brien, responsible and caring. You've brought Ballycashel back to life. Sure, you're the best landlord this village has ever known, and we're lucky to have you."
"I'm the lucky one," he countered, his hands moving in warm, gentle circles over her back. "For in coming back to Ballycashel, at long last I think I've finally come home."
She pulled him close, so close she could feel the mingled beating of their hearts. "Then come," she whispered against his cheek. "Come all the way home, my love."
He watched her for a long, intense moment, and she could feel the awareness pulsing between them. Then, as if he'd found what he sought in her eyes, he released her, drew off the cloak that fluttered about him like a storm cloud, and tossed it to the ground. He knelt upon it, then turned to her and held out his hand.
"Come home with me, Siobhán."
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