by Cheryl St.John
Vaughn Donnelly's work as a builder has taken him to many different villages over the years, and he's never regretted having to say goodbye to anyone in them. Until he promises to help Darcy Keegan rescue an orphaned boy from prison and he realizes that with her, he's found the one person he never wants to leave.
But Darcy is not planning on staying in Castleville, either. She wants to start a new life far away from the small townand far away from her father, who makes her feel more like a servant than a person. Only, the more time she spends with Vaughn, the more she dreams of something else entirely a family, a home, a husbandVaughn.
But Vaughn's nomadic lifestyle isn't going to change. How can he stop Darcy from leaving when he's got nothing to offer her?
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"I've brought a sandwich for you, Mr. Donnelly."
With surprising agility, Vaughn climbed down and jumped the last several feet to stand before her. He removed his slouch cap and stuffed it into his back pocket. "'Tis a generous kindness you've provided. Thank you."
She handed him his lunch. On the other side of the wall, the bell rang for the men's dinner.
He unwrapped the bread and paused. His dark hair had a decidedly reddish cast in the sunlight. "Thank You, Lord, for providing nourishment. Bless the hands that prepared this food. I am Your grateful servant." He glanced at her. "I'm happy to share."
"Thank you, but I have a meal waiting for me. I just wanted to thank you for intervening on Rory's behalf."
"The real crime is holdin' children in these places. What could the boy 'ave done to deserve such a harsh punishment?"
"I heard he ran from the Bristol workhouse." She glanced at the rock walls. "I can understand why he ran. Who wouldn't want to leave this depressing place and not look back?"
"Many of our countrymen go to the workhouse simply for meals and a bed," he said. "For them this prison is far better than starvin' to death."
"Aye," she replied. "I am thankful for a home and food." She studied him a moment. "This is the first you've been back to Castleville in several years."
"I was thankful for the opportunity. This job lets Da enjoy the comfort of our own cottage. The travel and harsh conditions are gettin' more difficult for him. We go where there's work, and sadly the only work is adding wings to overcrowded prisons."
"'Tis not the country of our youth." She hadn't meant to sound wistful.
Vaughn's expression remained stoic, but he swallowed hard and looked at the sandwich he held. "Seems there's somethin' we should do."
"About the plight of our country?"
He fixed his blue gaze on her. "Not the entire country, lass. Not much we can do about that. But we may't make a difference for one person at a time."
He meant a small defenseless person like Rory Gilchrist. She gave Vaughn a somber nod. The scrawny lad had touched her heart, too. It was frightening to feel all alone in this world. She had to do something for him.
"I can't say what good it will do, but I'll speak with my father."
"You needn't concern yourself with prisoners, Darcy. Your attentions should be focused on your job."
"I never shirk my tasks, Father. Please, I simply want to know more about the Gilchrist lad."
Ambros Keegan searched a drawer in his tall wooden file cabinet and pulled out a few papers. "Ran the whole way from the Bristol workhouse naked, he did. He was arrested stealing trousers and a shirt from a wash house in the village."
Darcy tilted her head in thought. "Seems he's a clever lad. Prisoners are charged with stealing the clothes they're wearing if they leave."
Her father ignored her remark.
She pushed on. "He left the clothing behind so as not to break the law. That's commendable."
"Leave it to you to reach that conclusion."
"But why was he at the workhouse in the first place?"
"That's not our concern."
"You treat them all as though they're hardened criminals. He only needed clothing. There must be something we can do about this one boy."
Ambros returned the folder and closed the drawer with a loud click before going back to his desk. "It's not your place to question the laws, Darcy. Rulings are in place for a purpose. We have decent jobs here. We have a home. If you must look the other way, then do so. This is our livelihood."
His expression told her there would be no further discussion on the subject. Stiffly, she turned and marched from the room, wishing it was this village she was fleeing and not merely her father's office.
The only difference between herself and the prisoners was that she went somewhere else to sleep at night. But even at home she cooked and cleaned and did her father's bidding.
But not for much longer. She'd been saving for two years. She almost had enough funds stashed away to leave Castleville and start a new life in a place where hard work earned appreciationif there was such a place.
She lived for that day.
Thinking of Vaughn's compassion for Rory in contrast to her father's, she pulled the office door closed and went in search of the boy. She found him pouring water into a trough. "Hello, Rory."
He pulled off his blue-and-white cap and straightened.
"Do you think we could speak for a moment?"
"Long as I keep workin'. Mr. Boyle don't take kindly to jabberin' on the job." He jammed his hat on and untethered the donkey.
Darcy followed him as he tied the animal in another spot. "Do you mind telling me how you came to be at the workhouse?"
He shrugged a bony shoulder. "Me da died and the landlord put us out from our cottage. Mother couldn't find work, so we went to the workhouse for food and beds." He watched the donkey drink. "Then Mother took sick and she died, she did. They buried her in a grave with no stone a'tall. I marked it meself when no one was lookin'. A neat piece of cunning, it was."
Her heart went out to him. "I'm sorry about your mother, Rory. I I lost my mother, too."
He nodded thoughtfully. "I heard landlords was hirin' footmen, so I stole clothes. I got caught, though, so here I be."
Darcy glanced up and found Vaughn atop the scaffolding in the sun. Their brief encounter had prompted her to act on Rory's situation, but to no avail. Oddly, she felt as though her failure so far was letting down both the boy and the kind-hearted man.
She wouldn't rest until she'd done all she could.
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