Excerpt: Fair Haven

Book 2 : Castlelough Series

Fair Haven (Castlelough Series) by JoAnn Ross

Chapter 11

“So, does this seeming change in attitude mean that you’ve dropped whatever grudge you were holding against me?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she lied.

“Don’t you?” He lifted his gaze from her hand to her face. “You have a very open face, Erin O’Halloran. And it was obvious that you weren’t particularly pleased to be meeting me.”

“You were the one who was rude and uncommunicative.”

“Aye, I was,” he surprised her by allowing.

“Let me guess…You’re one of those old-fashioned chauvinists who don’t believe that women belong on the front lines.” Hadn’t she heard that enough times over the years?

“I’ve been called old-fashioned from time to time,” he admitted mildly. “Even occasionally chauvinistic, which I’m not. I’ve spent too much time myself hunkering down in foxholes with female journalists to not consider them equals.

“Indeed, I’ve known some who’ve asked the kind of hard questions and sent back stories that resulted in terrorist leaders putting contracts out on their lives. I’ve no doubt that you’re very good at what you do and people all over the world have been fortunate to have you caring for them so deeply, even at the risk of your own safety. As a matter of fact, Tom once described you as a cross between a wildcat and a mule.”

“Well, that’s certainly complimentary.”

“He meant it as praise. I took it in the same vein. Yet his words had me expecting a different sort of woman than you turned out to be.”

“And what sort would that be?”

She brushed an errant, windblown curl off her cheek, bringing Michael’s attention to her hands, which though they were currently covered by a pair of cranberry-red wool gloves, he remembered being as lovely as the rest of her. They were smooth and narrow, with long, slender fingers. Surgeon’s hands, he supposed, though he preferred thinking of them as lady’s hands. Or better yet, musician’s hands.

Aye, it was a great deal more comforting to picture this woman strumming a harp, dressed in a silk blouse and velvet skirt that skimmed the floor, than cutting off gangrenous limbs in a battlefield hospital.

He realized she was waiting for an answer. “Well, for one thing, I didn’t think you’d be so…” He struggled for the proper word, remembering why he’d taken up photojournalism for a career rather than using words to get his thoughts across, as his father had. “Delicate, I suppose.”

“Delicate.” She nodded at that in a way that, despite the rapidly dropping temperature, had Michael feeling vaguely as if he were sitting on the edge of a smoldering volcano about to blow its top. “You were expecting an Amazon with hips as broad as a battleship and arms the size of hams, I suppose?”

“I’m not certain I had any expectations. Still, Tom’s tales of your heroic deeds –acts of bravery that would make Queen Medb’s adventures appear to be child’s play — I suppose had me envisioning you as being a bit more physically formidable.”

“Maeve?” Her tongue had twisted a bit on her pronunciation of the Irish name, but she’d done well enough for a beginner.

“The Celtic warrior queen of ancient Connaught. A woman with blood rumored to be so hot her bath water would set to boiling whenever she sank into it. Surely, being of Irish ancestry yourself, you’ve heard the stories?”

“I’m an American. We have our own tales.”

“And grand ones they are, I’m sure. But Tom’s a natural born storyteller. I’m surprised he hasn’t shared any of our Irish folklore with you. Especially since he was the one to compare you to Medb in the first place.”

“We were a little too busy performing emergency amputations on innocent women and children to waste time spinning stories.” Her tone was decidedly drier than the weather. “And I’ve certainly never thought of myself as heroic.”

“True heroes never do. But I’ve met my share of relief doctors, Dr. O’Halloran, and it’s my impression that many of you are, if not heroes, card-carrying idealists. Why else would you risk your life for the price of an airline ticket to misery-ridden places, primitive room and board, and a few miserable pounds per month salary?”

Erin had long ago quit trying to explain her motivation. “I may have been a bit of an idealist in the beginning.” She was surprised to hear herself admitting anything so personal to a virtual stranger. It was the damn intimacy of sitting out here on the edge of the world together beneath a sky that seemed to have lowered to engulf them, she decided. “My first massacre changed that.”

He was silent for a time, appearing to consider her words. “So, if you’re not a hero or an idealist, how would you describe yourself?”

“I’m not particularly comfortable talking about myself.” She wrapped her arms around herself, the gesture as much one of self-protection as an attempt to keep from freezing. Since the stone she was sitting on now felt like an iceberg, she stood. “In fact, now that you bring it up, it’s always annoyed me that reporters seem to always zero in on me whenever they finally show up at the camps.”

“That’s because you’re lovely,” he told her, rising from the ground with a lithe, easy grace that was surprising for such a large man “Good looks are a plus on television, and any man would be a fool if he’d rather spend time with some male doctor than you.”

“For an Irishman who claims to believe in women’s equality, that’s an incredibly chauvinistic remark.”

“Perhaps,” he allowed. “It’s also true. You shouldn’t let it disturb you so,” he said when she snorted her dislike of this subject. “If it helps get your message out, why would you be caring that your gender and beauty cause you to be the doctor chosen from the crowd for an interview?”

Erin, who’d never considered herself the slightest bit beautiful, was unsettled by the way he had her almost wishing she was wearing something more feminine than flannel-lined jeans, a bulky down parka, and hiking boots with thick practical soles.

“I care because whenever I take precious time away from my work to tell the world about the atrocities taking place, reporters invariably waste time asking personal questions about my life and motivations.”

“Personalizing a story tends to strengthen it.”

“I can understand that, I suppose. But mostly I think all those pampered, well-fed, wealthy reporters find the idea of any doctor –but especially a young female one –turning her back on a nice, safe, lucrative suburban medical practice beyond their comprehension. So, in the end, the story becomes more about me than the message I’m trying to get out. Besides, as I said, I really don’t like talking about myself,” she repeated.

“Humility was yet another virtue Tom mentioned. But why don’t you humor me and try?”

“Why should I humor you?”

“Because, despite your denial, I believe that deep down inside, you’re an idealist, Dr. O’Halloran. And idealists — like saints and madmen — have always fascinated me.”

“I’m neither idealist, saint, nor madwoman.”

“Then how would you describe yourself?”

Erin shrugged. “Since you refuse to drop the subject, I suppose I’d have to consider myself a witness.”

He nodded again. Slowly. Gravely. “Don’t be looking now, Dr. O’Halloran, but it appears that we have something besides Thomas in common.”

“No offense intended, Mr. Joyce.” She kept her tone neutral. “But I truly doubt that.”

“No offense taken, Dr O’Halloran. But you’d be wrong.”

There was a quiet force in his voice that made Erin go silent for a long moment.

“Don’t they ever haunt you?” she asked softly.

“Who?” he asked, even though she knew that he knew exactly who she was talking about.

“The ones whose deaths you witnessed.”

It was a question she’d only ever asked one other person. Tom.

His eyes narrowed. As she watched the quick click of comprehension, Erin belatedly realized that in the asking of it she’d revealed a secret she’d until now managed to keep from everyone but her dearest friend.

The secret about the ghosts who dwelled in the private hell of her own personal nightmares.