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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Darcy's father stiffened, but he shook Vaughn's hand and that of Shad Donnelly, Vaughn's father, when he came to stand behind his son.
"'Tis a magnificent mornin', is it not?" Vaughn asked. "We left a fine lamb stew a'bubblin' on our hearth. Would you and your bonny lass care t' join us now?"
Surprised by the invitation, Darcy imagined one of them would notice her heart pounding beneath her dress or hear the blood pumping in her ears.
Ambros appeared confused. Her father's gruff demeanor and position at the prison didn't garner many invitations. He avoided looking at her when he said, "We have plans."
She wanted to shout that nothing sounded better than an afternoon away from the drudgery and boredom. "That old hen can wait another day," she said instead, knowing she would later pay for her boldness with her father's disapproval. "Lamb stew sounds delicious. If you have a supply of flour, I can make biscuits."
Her father's brows lowered. He speared her with a glare of displeasure, but he could hardly refuse now. She wanted to laugh.
Ambros turned back to Vaughn. "Thank you, Mr. Donnelly. We'd be pleased to share your stew."
The walk to the Donnelly cottage was a short one. Darcy felt so light she almost skipped. Vaughn ushered them into his comfortable home. The fire in the stone fireplace had cooled, but Vaughn added fuel. He showed Darcy the ingredients, and she made a batch of biscuits and hung the heavy skillet over the heat.
For two bachelors who had been away from the village for quite some time, their small home was surprisingly inviting. Darcy listened as Vaughn's father spoke of his relief at being back in Castleville. "I'm pleased to sit in front of me own fire," he said. "And happy to stay home all day if me bones are achin'."
"Ye 'aven't missed a day's work yet." Vaughn's brogue thickened whenever he spoke to Shad.
"But I can if I 'ave a mind to." The white-haired man glanced at their guests. "Vaughn is set on takin' over for me, so I can rest on me laurels. He thinks I'm getting feeble in me old age."
"You're puttin' words in my mouth and I have plenty of my own," Vaughn told him. "What I said was ye'd be more comfortable in your own bed at night, and would surely enjoy takin' care of a garden."
Shad snorted. "Meanin' I'm gettin' feeble."
Her father remained silent through the exchange, and she sensed he was uncomfortable with the other men's discussion. She and Ambros never had visitors and were rarely invited out. They never shared friendly conversations like this one.
"How long 'ave you been a widower now, Mr. Keegan?" Shad asked.
Darcy tensed, waiting for his reply. They never spoke of her mother.
"Almost ten years," Ambros replied.
Shad nodded. He took a pipe from a wooden case and poked tobacco into the bowl. "My Catherine's been gone nearly as long. 'Tis a difficult life for a woman."
"Darcy's mother never had a strong constitution," Ambros declared. "Not like Darcy here."
Strong constitution? She might as well be a mule.
"'Whoso findeth a good wife findeth a good thing,'" the old man quoted from the book of Proverbs.
Darcy excused herself from the conversation and went to set the table. Vaughn got up, as well, and used the long iron hook to remove the pan of golden biscuits from the fire.
"Appears your lass is a fine cook," Shad said. "She will make a good wife for the lucky man who marries her."
Darcy tucked away Shad's small gift of appreciation. Her father never acknowledged her cooking unless his meal was a few minutes late. What would it be like to have someone praise her effortsor at the very least thank her for them? It must have been the same for her mother.
At the mention of Darcy as a wife, Ambros's gaze traveled from Vaughn to his father and back, as if doubting their intentions. "If it's ready, let's eat. Darcy must serve the prisoners their noon meal."
The ocean would dry up before her father gave any man his blessing to marry her.
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