Excerpt: Briarwood Cottage

Book 4 : Castlelough Series

Briarwood Cottage (Castlelough Series) by JoAnn Ross

New York City

Duncan McCaragh had always trusted his instincts, which had kept him alive more times than he cared to count.

When Diane—the stylish brunette executive assistant who’d flirt a bit whenever he came to Manhattan—kept her gaze glued to her computer screen while he cooled his heels in the outer office of the Global News Network, his Spidey senses began to tingle.

Duncan had survived an IED explosion in Iraq, a firefight in the Hindu Kush, and had sweated bullets convincing a Syrian military officer that he was merely a correspondent in the country covering the civil war. He’d had his phone confiscated during his brief imprisonment, but had lived to tell the tale.

Over the years, some had called him brave. Others, who envied his knack for being in exactly the right place at the right time, claimed he was merely lucky. Still others, mostly his competitors, insisted that his earlier military deployments had made him a reckless adrenaline junkie. Hence the nickname Mad Dog McCaragh.

The sudden buzz of the intercom shattering the hushed silence caused a flare of heat in his chest. Diane picked up the receiver, cast a quick, unreadable glance his way, then said, “Yes, sir.”

She hung up. “He’ll see you now.” The sympathy in her intelligent brown eyes was not encouraging.

Steeling himself for the verbal whiplashing he knew would be coming, Duncan rubbed the heel of his palm against the fire burning beneath his ribs, then walked down the long hallway appropriately painted the threatening gray of the sky just before the storm.

The man in the custom tailored suit sitting on the other side of the heavy antique desk didn’t bother to look up as Duncan waded across the thick pewter carpet.

Although his nerves were nearly as tangled as they’d been during that Syrian strip search, and the lingering remnants of a hangover had him feeling as if terrorists were shooting rockets into his head, Duncan kept his face neutral and his eyes directed straight ahead.

 “So, Duncan.”  After what seemed a lifetime, Winston Armstrong III finally put down the gold pen he’d been signing papers with, braced his elbows on the top of the desk, and linked his fingers together. “Would you care for something to drink? Coffee? Water?”

He did not, Duncan noticed, offer the single malt Scotch from the bar hidden behind one of the bird’s-eye maple wall panels.

“I’m fine. Thank you.” If you ignored a jaw as stiff as the suspension on the Humvees he’d bounced around in during deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Well, then.” The president and CEO of GNN slanted his head. Looking hard. Looking deep. “Why don’t you sit down? And take off the damn glasses. I prefer to look a man in the eyes when I’m speaking to him.”

“I’d just as soon stand.” And face the firing squad straight on, like a man. But Duncan did pull off the shades.

The older man sighed heavily as he took in the blooming black eye the glasses had been concealing. “Why do you always have to make everything so damn difficult?”

Never one for introspection, Duncan had, actually, been asking himself that same question since returning Stateside. And hadn’t managed to come up with a satisfying answer. “I guess it’s my nature.”

“Your father’s a tough man,” his employer and godfather allowed, telling Duncan nothing he didn’t already know himself.

“Dad comes from a long line of pirates.”

Duncan’s family financial roots went back to an ancestor who’d been one of the original founders of the Philadelphia Stock Exchange. Established in 1790, it was the oldest stock exchange in the country. Duncan had been invited to join the exclusive club but had found even the dog-eat-dog, winner-take-all mentality of trading too tame for his liking.

He’d also never found the idea of making money for money’s sake the least bit appealing. Having been on the go since he’d dropped out of Princeton the second semester of his junior year to join the Marines, Duncan figured if it didn’t fit in a duffle bag and backpack, he didn’t need it.

“James can be ruthless,” Armstrong agreed. “But he’s never been self-destructive.”

“And you’re saying I am?”

“You’ve taken unnecessary risks.”

“Excuse me,” he said through gritted teeth. “But despite the phone and tablet chargers they’ve installed at the tables, it’d be a little difficult to do my war correspondent’s job from a booth at The Breslin.”

Okay. That might not have been the brightest thing to say. The Breslin Bar & Dining Room was one of Manhattan’s top power restaurants. It was also Armstrong’s favorite watering hole.

“True,” the older man said with that all-too-familiar patrician tone Duncan would be subjected to whenever he managed to make it back home for a family holiday dinner. “Just as it would be difficult for me to ensure continued sponsors to fund your globetrotting from some godforsaken outpost on the Pakistani border.”

“Point taken.” Duncan knew that he was fortunate to even have work these days. Recently he’d watched more and more fellow correspondents forced to polish up rusting resumes and learn to blog after their newspapers had closed down or their network gigs outsourced to indie news-gathering operations.

“You do realize that it was only my call to the police commissioner that kept you from landing in jail after that bar brawl?”

“It wasn’t a brawl.”  Exactly. Giving up, Duncan threw his body into one of the leather chairs on the visitor’s side of the desk. “And I paid the damages.”

“You took on five sailors the first day of Fleet Week. Five. I’d say that’s pretty much setting yourself up for a less-than-positive outcome.”

The sailors in question, who, despite having spent a good part of the day and night trying to drink New York dry, had recognized him immediately. And instead of being impressed, they’d accused him of belonging to some elite media club that slanted news to its own chickenshit antiwar agenda.

Which was when his temper, admittedly fueled by alcohol, had flared. Duncan might not always approve of the way wars were run, but no one could accuse him of not respecting the men and women sent out to fight those wars. Especially since he’d been one of them.

He was a Marine. One of the Few. The Proud. The Brave.

Not some squid sailor who spent deployments sleeping on a comfy rack, taking daily hot showers, and eating steak in the “dining facility” (the chichi name that had replaced Mess Deck) while he’d been wolfing down MREs between mortar attacks in the godforsaken Afghan mountains.

“Since you now essentially have both police and Naval targets on your back, I assured the commissioner and police chief, not to mention the responding MAs, that you’d leave town for the remainder of Fleet Week,” Armstrong said.

The trio of Master of Arms (MPs in the Marines, but for some freaking reason the Navy had to be different) had managed to take control of the situation before New York’s finest arrived on the scene. The fact that they’d been the size of giant sequoias had added to their authority.

“My bags are packed.” They always were. “So, I’m guessing the Middle East.” The one region of the world that could always be counted on for a story.

“Not this time.”

“I’ve always liked the blintzes at the Moscow Marriott’s brunch.” The hotel, located in the center of the city, on the edge of Red Square close to the Kremlin, was where high-ranking Russian government types tended to hold conferences and drink. Which led to a lot of breaking stories.

“You’re getting closer.” Armstrong leaned back in his chair, obviously enjoying dragging this out. “Try Ireland.”

Duncan narrowed his eyes as he considered that surprise. “The Troubles are started up again?”

A silver brow arched. “Did I say Northern Ireland? You’re going to the Republic.”

“What’s happening there?”

“You’re the correspondent. Isn’t it your job to tell me?”

“I’m a war correspondent. Unless Great Britain has decided to take Ireland back again, I can’t see what I’d be covering.”

“There’s been a sighting of The Lady.”

Damn. Duncan rubbed the scraped and bruised knuckles of his left hand. “You’re not talking about the Virgin Mary.”

“Nope. The Lady you’ll be covering is in Castlelough, on the west coast. The same one depicted in Quinn Gallagher’s horror novel. And the Academy Award-winning movie.”

“That’s fiction.” He’d read the book and seen the movie about the mythical lake creature that was Ireland’s answer to Scotland’s Nessie.

“So some say. Others believe otherwise.”

“Tracking down tabloid stories isn’t my beat.”

Though it did appear to be what his estranged wife was forced to cover these days. Duncan suspected Cassandra hated writing about alien abductions as much as he would. Of course, she wouldn’t have to stoop to such tripe if the frustratingly stubborn female would only accept the support checks he sent every month.

“Your beat is what I say it is. But you have a choice.” Armstrong picked up a blown-glass globe paperweight and began moving it from hand to hand. “You can go to Ireland and or take a two month leave of absence. You are, after all, long overdue for a break.”

Two freaking months? After ten years spent in places that most people probably couldn’t even find on a map, Duncan might not be the idealist he’d once been. And the adrenaline boosts from being in the midst of a battle were proving more and more elusive. But that didn’t mean he’d have a clue what to do with himself for sixty long days. And even longer nights. Nights that were mostly spent thinking of the one woman he’d never been able to get out of his mind.

“I could quit.”

 “You could.” The older man didn’t appear to be quaking in his Gucci oxfords at that prospect. “But here’s where I remind you that your contract has a no-compete clause. Which would essentially put you out of the news reporting business for a year.”

“I’ll take two weeks,” Duncan countered.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d taken a vacation. Even his delayed honeymoon, coincidentally spent in Ireland to coincide with an EU conference held to address the burst of the country’s property bubble, had been cut short by violent fractures in the democratic hopes born of the Arab spring.

“Six weeks,” Armstrong returned.

“Three.”

“Four. And that’s my final offer. And I’m also assigning you to send back a week long series of human interest stories about the Lady to end the evening news on consecutive Fridays.

“You’re not serious.”  Duncan’s vision of hell had always been spending eternity forced to do saccharine reports about high school sweethearts finding each other again on Facebook after seventy-five years apart and the birth of baby pandas.

“As a heart attack. Take it or hand over your credentials and go home.”

Which they both knew Duncan couldn’t do. Because, other than the Manhattan apartment where he occasionally landed between assignments, he had no real home. Life was, and had been for years, on the road.

 “You realize, of course, that this is going to be a total waste of my time and your money.”

The closest thing to a smile he’d seen thus far, or perhaps it was a smirk, twitched at the corner of Armstrong’s mouth. “Fortunately, I happen to have the money. And you will make the time.”

Four weeks. Hell, he’d survived worse situations in worse places for a lot longer than that.

“Sold,” he said with a shrug. One thing Ireland had that Afghanistan and the Middle East had been sorely lacking was a plethora of pubs.

“I’m glad you agreed.”

Armstrong reached into the middle desk drawer and pulled out an airline folder and a small manila envelope. “Diane reserved a seat for you on tonight’s Aer Lingus flight to Shannon. Although the town’s swarming with Lady seekers, she also used her considerable powers of persuasion to book you a place to stay. You can pick up the key at Brennan’s pub in Castlelough. I’m assured you can’t miss it, since, according to the Google map printout Diane included, it’s in the center of town right across from the harbor.”

After leaning forward to take the folder, Duncan glanced inside at the e-ticket and travel information. “Briarwood Cottage?” He didn’t bother to hide his distaste.

“I realize it’s not your usual level of five-star accommodations. But this is last-minute. And beggars can’t be choosers.”

He could choose not to go. For a fleeting moment, Duncan considered that throwing his press badge onto that gleaming desk would be preferable to covering a ridiculous tabloid story from some rundown wreck of a thatched-roof cottage that was probably filled with shamrock and leprechaun kitsch.

Having always been a realist, Duncan reluctantly decided that even tacky ceramic leprechauns would be better than losing his job and—God help him—having to take up blogging.

“I’ll go.”

“Good.” The older man’s self-satisfied smile assured Duncan that he’d expected no other outcome.

Duncan was halfway to the door when Winston Armstrong’s next statement stopped him in his tracks. “And while you’re over there in the back of beyond, figure out what you’re going to do about your marriage. Before you spiral down so far you end up living in the subway.”

“My marriage is my business.”

“I’d define it as a lack of a marriage,” Armstrong countered. “And, as your godfather, I’m not about to remain silent while you destroy your life. Not to mention disappointing your father.”

“I’ve been doing that pretty much my entire life.”

“You’re mistaken about that. But you’ve got a trip to take, so we’ll save that discussion for another time. Even if you don’t care about winning approval, Duncan, perhaps at least you wouldn’t want to break your mother’s heart.”

Damn. “That’s hardball,” Duncan muttered.

“I didn’t get where I am by playing beanbag.” Armstrong sighed heavily. “Look, it’s obvious that your personal problems are affecting your work. So, do whatever the hell it takes. But get your head straight, Duncan. Before it’s too late.”

In no mood to argue that his Fleet Week reaction was just a temporary glitch, that those sailors had managed to jerk his chain during a time he’d just as soon forget, Duncan merely snapped a brisk salute.

Then walked out the door, down the hall, and out of the office, taking the elevator to the lobby, where a black car, right on cue and obviously already ordered by Winston Armstrong’s ever-efficient Diane, glided up to the curb.

As he sat in the gate, waiting for his flight to Shannon Airport, Duncan idly watched the departing flights flash by on the oversized screen. When a pending flight to Portland, Oregon, caught his eye, he was tempted to ditch his trip and head off to the Pacific Coast instead. He could rent a car in Portland and be in Shelter Bay, Oregon, in two hours.

Absently rubbing the gold band he continued to wear on his left hand, he rationalized that he would, after all, be getting out of the city, as instructed. And, rationalizing the idea even more, the man he’d known all his life had told him to get his head straight and fix his marriage.

Which he damn well couldn’t do in Ireland.

But just maybe…

The Portland flight turned out to be filled with a long list of standbys. Which wasn’t as much of an obstacle for him as it would be for the ordinary traveler. Duncan’s fame, along with the fact that he’d garnered more frequent flier miles than he’d ever be able to use in several lifetimes, would easily get him bumped to the front of the line and into someone else’s seat.

He was considering doing exactly that when the boarding announcement for the Shannon flight came over the loudspeaker.

Reminding himself that his impulsiveness hadn’t exactly won him points in his short-lived marriage, nor in that Midtown bar, and since there was no way he was going to waste time talking to crazy people who’d supposedly seen some imaginary lake creature, Duncan decided he might as well use his four weeks in the Emerald Isle to plan the mission to win back his runaway bride.