A Claddagh Story
Saratoga, New York, 1862
“Don’t worry, Da, I’ll help Ryan with the chores. You and Ma take your ease tonight.”
Whistling a merry Irish jig, Cavan Callaghan swung out the door of his parents’ small white farmhouse and set off toward the barn. There was a spring in his step, and elation filled his heart.
The house had been empty when he and his parents and little sister had arrived. Ryan must be bedding the animals down for the night.
He drew in a deeply satisfied breath of warm air, enjoying the sweet smells of freshly-turned earth and growing things. He loved springtime on the farm.
Spring. Ma always said spring was a grand time to be in love.
And so he was. In love with Sam, the loveliest girl he’d ever known, the prettiest girl in three counties. Just picturing her exquisite face, framed by long, silky black hair, her mysterious grey eyes, and that knowing way she had about her, made him smile, even as his body ached to possess hers. Her sultry beauty had attracted every buck in the county.
And she’d chosen him.
He could scarcely believe his luck, couldn’t even quite understand what she saw in him.
Cavan was the quiet one, not nearly as handsome as some of the other boys who’d vied for her attention
at church, at the local dances, everywhere she went, in fact. He was too serious, and just a little shy.
Why should she want him?
But she did. And when he’d finally screwed up the courage to ask her to be his bride, she’d accepted him. They’d set the wedding date for October, after the last of the crops had been harvested.
Only a few more months.
Drenching desire shot through Cavan at the thought of their wedding – and their wedding night.
A sliver of light shone beneath the barn door. Guilt pricked Cavan’s consciousness. He’d been visiting the Clarks all day, enjoying the company of family friends while his younger brother had stayed behind to do the chores.
The least he could do now was offer him a helping hand.
He pushed the door open, and a shiver of unease crawled up his spine.
He paused, glanced around.
Nothing seemed out of place. The cow, the mule, even Biddy the goat were all in their usual places, placid and calm as always. A lantern hung from a nail near the door, its soft, golden glow undisturbed.
The sound came again, a breathy murmur, followed by a husky purr of laughter.
A knowing smile crept across Cavan’s face. So that was why Ryan had offered to stay home today. Sure, he must have found a girl of his own. But why hadn’t he confided in him? Ryan had to know nothing would make Cavan happier than to see his little brother settled with a girl of his own.
He was about to turn to go back to the house when he heard a voice that froze the blood in his veins.
“I knew it would be like this – that you would be like this.”
God – no!
It couldn’t be!
“Sam, darlin’ – this isn’t right – we shouldn’t – the family could come home any minute…” Ryan’s voice dissolved into a muffled groan.
Burning anguish screamed through Cavan, momentarily paralysing him. It couldn’t be. Not Ryan. Not Ryan and Sam.
Not Ryan and Sam.
He moved forward, not even aware he was doing so. Closer. Closer to the revolting sounds of laughter and passion and betrayal.
There. In the hayloft. His eyes, accustomed now to the dim light of the barn, picked out the entwined forms.
His throat closed.
Ryan held Sam tightly in his arms, his face buried in the vee between her neck and shoulder. Her beautiful black hair spilled over his arm like the fine glossy wing of a blackbird. Her naked body was snuggled up against his, her legs wrapped around him…
Cavan took the steps of the ladder two at a time, a banshee’s furious howl tearing from his throat. Ryan and Sam broke apart.
A look of horror crossed Ryan’s face and he tried to pull free of Sam’s grasp. “Cavan.”
“Cavan –” Ryan stammered again. “Cavan – I’m sorry. I – I never meant for – this – for any of this to happen – I –”
Cavan stared disbelievingly at his brother, hurt and anger and betrayal roiling in his gut. His fists clenched at his sides, he struggled to draw breath.
Then he saw Sam’s face.
A slow, lazy smiled curved her luscious lips, and her eyes flickered with contempt – or so it seemed to Cavan. Bile rose to scald his throat.
She gave a husky laugh, rising from the hay to stand unashamedly naked before him. “Really, Cavan, don’t be so old-fashioned. Surely you understand.”
“Of course.” She moved forward, reached to stroke a languid hand down his arm. Cavan recoiled, his eyes wide with hurt and disbelief. “Don’t you see, darling? It was always Ryan. He’s the golden boy of the county. Every girl’s fancy.” She turned away to run a hand through Ryan’s hair. Ryan ducked, but all Cavan saw through the red haze of his anger were Sam’s fingers caressing his brother – his brother! “Handsome as sin, he is, with all that golden hair, and those wonderful blue eyes.”
“Damn you –”
“He can charm the birds from the trees, our Ryan.” Her eyes glittered fiercely. “Ryan’s everything you’re not, Cavan. It’s always been Ryan. Why do you think I’m so eager to marry you?”
The words tangled in his throat. “Why?” he croaked. “Damn you, why?”
“Darling, you really are blind, aren’t you? Marriage to you means I’ll have the farm, of course. It might be a bit dull, but at least I’ll still be close to Ryan.”
“Cavan – I swear, I didn’t know – I – she – I never meant –”
An astonished laugh burst from Sam’s lips. “Darling…”
“I said get out! The wedding’s off. I never want to see you again.”
Another purr of laughter. “You’ll change your mind.”
Cavan scarcely heard her, scarcely realized what he was doing as he spun around and smashed his fist square into Ryan’s jaw.
Ryan stumbled back against the wall, but he stayed on his feet. His blue eyes widened with shock, but he didn’t try to fight back. Boiling hot fury screamed through Cavan’s blood.
“Stand up and fight, damn you.”
Ryan’s face was raw with hurt, but Cavan only heard the single calmly uttered syllable. His temper flaring, he hit him again, and again. “Fight, you damned traitor! What’s the matter with you?”
“I won’t fight you, Cavan. Not over her.” Ryan’s dispassionate gaze flicked over Sam’s still-naked body. “She isn’t worth it.”
“You’re a coward.” Cavan flung the words at his brother, watching as his eyes grew wide with anguish. He’d never said anything so cruel. Not to Ryan, who’d always idolized his older brother, who’d followed him around from the time he could walk. Ryan was not just Cavan’s brother, he was his best friend. It was the two of them against the world.
He stared mutely as Ryan’s face bled white, his hands curling into fists at his sides.
Ryan stared at him in silence for a timeless moment, his shoulders drooping, totally defenseless.
At last his brother spoke, his voice vibrating with pain. “I’m not a coward. I made a mistake, Cavan. I swear, I never meant for this to happen. But I’m not a coward. And by God, I’ll prove it to you.”
“Oh, aye, indeed you will.” Cavan heard his own voice, filled with sarcasm, slicing through the charged air. “And how will you be after dong that, little brother?”
“I’m not a coward,” Ryan repeated stubbornly. “I’ll show you, Cavan. I’ll prove to you I’m not a coward.”
All the fight drained from Cavan. He watched as Ryan turned away, not even glancing in Sam’s direction, and descended the ladder in silence. A wave of despair swept over him.
He’d lost Ryan, just as surely as he’d lost Sam.
* * * *
He spent a sleepless night, tossing and fighting his covers until the cock crowed at dawn.
Blinking in the bright sunlight, he rolled over and dragged his aching body from his bed, scrubbing at his eyes. A heavy sense of desolation engulfed him. He stumbled into the kitchen, alarmed to find Ma and Emily crying, his father grim-faced and silent.
Dread clogged his throat. Ryan. “What’s wrong?”
Dad slid a folded piece of paper across the table. “From Ryan.”
Cavan’s hands shook as he unfolded the note.
I am not a coward. I made a mistake, and I beg your forgiveness.
Please don’t worry about me. I shall be fine. I’ve gone to New York City to join up with the Irish Brigade. Thomas Meagher is a fine man and an Irishman.
I love you all.
Dread formed a Celtic knot around Cavan’s stomach. He gazed from his father to his mother to his baby sister and saw the same terrified dismay reflected in their eyes. Guilt chewed at his heart.
Ryan had left because of him. Cavan had called him a coward, and this was his way of proving he wasn’t.
If anything happened to his little brother, it would be Cavan’s fault.
And it would be a sin he could never atone for.