The Fire and the Earth, the second full-length book in the Glenncailty Castle series, is now available.
Sean Donovan knows all too well the horrors of Glenncailty Castle. Ten years ago, after a young woman’s death, he boarded the place up himself—and almost lost his own life doing it.
It would be easy to avoid Glenncailty, if it weren’t for the woman who now runs it as a hotel. Something about the angel-faced redhead calls to him—and calls him to protect her from the darkness seething in the castle walls.
Sorcha has gotten used to calming rattled guests who claim to have met a spirit from the castle’s tragic past. But two years after Sean’s attempt to convince her to leave melted down into an unforgettable kiss, she realizes she needs his help.
The ghosts of the castle are restless, and growing more so. When one of the staff is attacked, Sorcha turns to Sean, not knowing the kind of danger she’s put him in. Working together blows the lid off desire long denied, but laying the ghosts of Glenncailty to rest means facing her own past. If she doesn’t, the ghosts might tear Sean apart from the inside out, and that would mean never knowing what could have been…
(C) Lila Dubois 2013
The Cold Stones
Glenncailty Castle Grand Opening, Two Years Earlier
Séan Donnovan knew Glenncailty was haunted, knew it was not a fit place for any person. He wanted nothing to do with the darkness that draped it, and yet he found himself taking the road down to the castle on that Saturday night, parking in the freshly laid gravel lot and joining the press of people headed for the castle’s newly opened pub.
Séan wedged his Jeep into a space and got out. Standing in the dusk light, he examined the scene before him. Light and music spilled from the doors of the east wing, pushing away the quiet night and seeming to fill Glenncailty with life. There were lights on in the first floor of the main wing, but the west wing was dark.
“Surprised to see you here.”
Séan nodded to one of his mother’s friends, who had parked beside him. He held out his arm. “And a good evening to you, Mrs. Hennesy.”
Eve Hennesy patted his arm. “Your mother will be sad she missed this. Is she having a good time in the west?”
“She is.” Seam measured his stride to match hers.
“Just like your father, so quiet.” Mrs. Hennesy crossed herself. “God rest his soul.”
Séan looked up at the looming castle, touched by her words but not wanting to talk about his father’s death.
If not for Mrs. Hennesy on his arm, he would have gone back. His fear and distrust of the place was hard learned. Eight years ago a girl had died wandering the then-ruined castle. He’d been one of the people to find her body, and afterwards…
Before he could suppress it the memory of a shimmery gray figure with hair long and as white as that of an old woman but the smooth, lovely face of a girl. She’d raised her hands toward him, eyes pleading. The ghost’s face had turned hard, her eyes disappearing until there were two gaping dark sockets in her face. She’d raised her hands and raked her nails down her cheeks, seeming to scrape strips of flesh from the bone. Her mouth opened, and kept opening, the gaping maw too large, the jaw dropped down like a snake’s.
Séan stilled as cold swept through him. Luckily Mrs. Hennesy was waving at someone she knew and she didn’t notice that he was frozen. She patted his arm and took off, leaving him behind looking up at the forbidding stone walls.
He wanted to believe it was safe. All those years ago, after what he’d seen and been through, himself, his father and the parish priest had blessed the place, casting out the evil and darkness, but for Séan it would always be haunted. His memories were dark enough that in the eight years since he’d see the ghost he’d never come back to the castle.
Tonight was the grand opening of Glenncailty Castle, which was now not just their local ruin but a fancy hotel, restaurant and pub. In the past months, this end of the valley had been alive with people as the buildings were gutted and repaired. There’d even been some new additions to their little village as the owner of the castle, Seamus O’Muircheartaigh, brought in experienced people to staff and run the hotel.
It took Séan twenty minutes to make it from the door to the bar. The pub was full of people from Cailtytown, and he was greeted by friends and acquaintances with each step. The pub had only been open a few nights and the novelty—not only of having a pub of this size in their glen, but of being at Glenncailty Castle—had brought out most of the village.
It was strange to see everyone here, a place that for most of Séan’s life had been a dark blight in their little valley and the source of much of the suffering in their history. There was no one in this room who could claim ignorance of the castle’s past—what little was known of it. Built centuries ago as a fortified manor home for the Englishman who’d been “given” their land to rule, the castle was a part of their past and, until now, had no place in their future.
Séan’s father—dead a year now, may he rest in peace—had occasionally told stories about previous attempts to renovate and open the castle. None had ever succeeded. Both limbs and lives had been lost to the renovation attempts, and the overgrown grounds were treacherous to any who ventured onto them. Children had been maimed or died falling into overgrown wells, others crushed by stones as they tried to climb the crumbling walls of outbuildings.
As he looked around the pub, breathed in the smell of malt, chips and fresh wood, Séan wondered if this time it would be different. Previous attempts to bring the castle to life had been at the hands of Dubs, down from the city trying to impose themselves on a place and a people they saw as culchies.
Now it was the owner himself who’d undertaken the revitalization. The O’Muircheartaighs were nearly as old as the glen, and Séan had once heard that it was they who’d named it Glenncailty—valley of the lost.
He scanned the room again, idly curious if Seamus was here. The O’Muircheartaighs were a solitary group, and Séan wasn’t sure how many of them were still around. He knew Seamus, who’d been five years ahead of him in school, had gone off to Galway to university, then traveled and worked for nearly ten years before returning home. Now he was back and apparently planned to change their little corner of Ireland.
He scanned the room for Seamus, but instead he caught sight of her—the redhead.
He’d seen beautiful women before. Even been with one or two. Sorcha was more than beautiful. There was something about her that called to him. The way she tilted her head, put her hands on her hips and laughed with her whole body made him want things he’d long ago stopped dreaming about.
He’d first met her two weeks ago, in the market. Turning away from the display of vegetables, he’d seen her—a vision in a simple dress with her hair hanging over her shoulders and framing a face so lovely his breath caught. She’d looked at him, and for a brief moment their gaze held, before Séan hurried away, bag of tomatoes in hand. Luckily he had to go no further than the checkout to find out who she was.
A friend of his mother rang him up and told him what she knew about the redheaded newcomer, as Séan did his best not to look as if he’d just been knocked on his ass. His mother’s friend told him that Sorcha had moved to Glenncailty only a few months ago and was part of the staff that would turn the main body of the castle into a hotel. Séan hadn’t asked exactly what she did, how old she was or if she was married. His mum had yet to give up on marrying him off despite the fact that he was thirty, and if he showed interest in any woman his mother would move heaven and earth to try and make the relationship happen. He’d settled for what information he had, happy he knew her name.
A cluster of older men Séan recognized had taken over a table near an open space on the floor. A few of them nodded solemnly to Séan as they unpacked their instruments, the nods a recognition of him and of his father, whose loss was still heavy in the hearts of Cailtytown. After the first awkward notes of fiddle and guitar being tuned, they started thumping out traditional songs. He watched as Sorcha accepted the hand of old Mr. Ruin, the butcher. Mr. Ruin was in his seventies and still as spry and charming as his son, James, who was the actual butcher, but no one would grant him that title as long as his father lived. Mr. Ruin led Sorcha to the center of the open space—an impromptu dance floor.
Together they kicked up their heels in a formal set dance. Soon others joined in. Laughter and shouts of encouragement spurred the dancers on. The barman set a pint of Smithwicks at his elbow and Séan nodded his appreciation. Holding his drink in one hand, his elbow on the bar, he settled in to watch Sorcha. She tossed her head as she danced, red hair catching the low lights of the pub, her tresses as luscious as old rubies. The skin of her cheek was creamy smooth, her blue eyes bright.
The song ended, and while the musicians gathered themselves for the next, the dancers dispersed.
Sorcha turned and their gazes met.
Séan tensed, and the noise and movement of the pub seemed to freeze. Even from across the pub he could see her eyes widen, her lips open.
He wondered if that meant she felt what he did—a stirring deep within the soul. He’d felt it the first time he saw her but tried to tell himself it was a fluke.
The musicians started another song and Sorcha turned away.
Séan dropped his gaze to his beer, jaw clenched.
He watched her dance whenever he wasn’t busy having a chat with friends and acquaintances who hailed him with smiles and nods. When the pint was done, he set the empty glass on the bar and stood from his stool. His threshold for people and noise had been reached.
Séan pushed through the crowd, eyes on the door. He was vaguely aware that a merry jig had stopped, and the tin whistle was now playing a slow song.
He cut across the corner of the dance area as many of the dancers returned to their seats to listen to the high, sweet notes of “Will Ye Go Lassie, Go?”
Séan absentmindedly hummed along, distracted enough that when Sorcha stepped out in front of him, he bumped into her. They each fell back a step, and Séan was painfully aware that this was the closest he’d ever been to her.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, heart thumping. “I…You…”
“I’m sorry.” She smiled. “I don’t think we’ve met, but I know I’ve seen you in town. I’m Sorcha.” She held out a hand.
“Séan.” He took her fingers in his for a brief moment, letting go as quick as he could and pressing his fingers against his thigh to stop the tingling.
They fell into silence as the music flowed around him.
“It’s good craic, isn’t it?” she said, motioning around them.
He nodded—like the damned fool he was.
Her smiled grew, kicking up one corner of her mouth. Her gaze skimmed him from chin to waist. “Did you want to dance?”
He stared at her, stunned by the question. Unable to muster the words to answer, he held out his hand.
When she slipped her slim, pretty fingers into his, Séan had to lower his eyes so she wouldn’t see his pleasure. He led her onto the floor. Most people had taken their seats, but a few couples remained—all of them over fifty.
Sorcha put her hand on his shoulder, and he put his on her waist, their other hands clasped together.
Séan couldn’t stop himself from drawing her closer as they began to sway side to side. She looked up at him from beneath her red-brown lashes. This close, her eyes were bluer than he could have imagined.
A guitar joined the flute, and after a moment one of the old men started to sing. His voice was deep, rough with age and life.
Séan bent his head to Sorcha’s, inhaling her scent, savoring the contact. She shivered a little, her fingers trembling in his. He pulled her closer to warm her, and her breasts brushed his chest. Her lips parted, and her pink tongue darted out to moisten her lips.
They danced gently, barely moving, as the music flowed around them like water. When the song ended, they stood, unmoving, in the middle of the pub. Neither was aware that another song had started until the returning dancers jostled them. Sorcha bumped into him, and Séan wrapped his arms around her. He could feel her breath on his neck, and her body was a soft weight against his side.
Sorcha lifted onto tiptoe, her lips brushing his cheek as she whispered in his ear. “Follow me.”
Her hand slid from his shoulder, down his arm. Séan laced his calloused fingers with hers. Sorcha turned, headed not for the door, but toward the back of the pub. Not sure where they were going, Séan nonetheless followed her willingly.
As they skirted one of the snugs, he saw that there was a back door. He slipped ahead to hold it open for her. Together they stepped out into the cold, quiet night. Séan tensed as he looked left to the looming main wing of the castle. He jerked his gaze away, not wanting to think about old sadness when there was the possibility of something wonderful in front of him.
There was a concrete slab outside the back door, and Séan could imagine it full of people in the summer as those who needed it stepped out to have a smoke. He could make out the inky shapes of trees and bushes beyond that.
“Where are we?” he asked. The cold air had cooled the desire in him. If it hadn’t, he might have pushed her back against the wall and kissed her.
She considered him for a moment, as if debating answering. Séan swallowed, realizing that being pushed against the wall and kissed is probably why she’d brought him out here—not to have a chat.
But Séan barely knew her. Even the fact that they’d held hands seemed as if he’d been too forward. She wasn’t some Dub down for a day in the country, looking to have her moment with a farmer—she lived here, she was new, but she was a part of his village, his community. He would treat her with the respect she deserved. As far as Séan was concerned that was a proper conversation before kissing her senseless.
“The newly poured smoking area.” She pointed into the darkness. “Those are the gardens. The back of each wing opens onto them, though they’re not finished yet. Over there—” She pointed to a place against the wall of the main wing where the ground had been dug up and construction equipment waited in neat rows, “We’re building a new kitchen. The restaurant will open once it’s done.”
Her voice was bright with enthusiasm for the project. There was no reservation or fear in her. “Do you know the history of this place?”
She tipped her face up to his. “Some.”
“It’s not a good—”
The sounds of the pub spilled out of the back door before a woman said, “Sorcha.”
They both turned. A slender woman with blonde hair pulled up in a neat twist was holding open the back door. Sorcha jerked her hand from his.
“Elizabeth. Is there a problem?”
“I need your help for a moment. The kitchen is backed up.”
“Of course.” Sorcha turned to Séan. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
Sorcha smiled and disappeared into the pub.
Séan stuffed his fists into his pockets. His hands were tingling with anticipation for her return. They hadn’t exactly had a proper conversation, but he didn’t think he’d be able to keep his hands off her much longer.
He took the few steps down from the smoking patio into the gardens, hoping to distract himself and cool the fire of need in his belly. Gardeners’ twine on stakes marked out a path, while the hulking shapes of rosebushes and shrubs still in their tubs squatted between the old trees. He followed the path idly, calming his raging desire for Sorcha and trying to think about anything other than the fact that he was walking Glenncailty’s grounds.
The path curved west, paralleling the back of the main wing. A low bench was already in place beside the path, and Séan stepped up on it to get a better view of the in-progress gardens. The gardens were as wide as the castle itself, stretching from the edge of the west wing to the edge of the east, where the pub was. They extended back at least fifty meters in his estimation, and from what he could see now that his eyes had adjusted, there was a wall at the back of the gardens, separating them from what lay beyond. He could make out the roofs of at least two structures on the other side.
He stepped off the bench, impressed despite himself. It seemed that Seamus was planning to do the place up properly. Séan still didn’t like the idea of anyone anywhere near this cursed castle, and he was resigned to the idea that Seamus would fail as all those before him had, but it would be an almighty spectacular failure.
He looked up at the back of the main castle. Like every lad, he’d come here when he was in primary school, sneaking onto the grounds with his mates so they could tell each other the ghost stories, laughing even though they were afraid. He’d always assumed it was the power of suggestion that had him walking away from this place with the feeling that he’d only barely escaped something evil.
He should have headed back the pub—the last thing he wanted was for Sorcha to think he’d left.
As he turned away, something caught his eye. Séan’s gaze jerked back to the castle. There was a light in a window on the third floor of the main wing. The light moved, disappearing behind the frame. Séan took a step forward, ready to warn whatever fool was up there. From what he’d heard, they hadn’t started work up there, meaning it wasn’t safe.
A figure appeared in the window. He couldn’t see it clearly, but the head and shoulders were a pale gray silhouette against the darkness behind it. The light reappeared, passing though the silhouetted figure.
Séan’s heart leapt into his throat and his muscles tensed as adrenaline spiked in his bloodstream. He started toward the castle, twine snapping as he caught his foot on the string outlining the path. He moved fast, narrowly avoiding gaping holes and the potted plants that waited beside them. Circling a tree, he saw the rear terrace. What had once been overgrown with ivy and vines was now clear and clean, though drenched in shadow. As his foot hit the lowest step, the rear double doors creaked open.
He had a moment to make a decision. Last time he’d run from the ghost, and he’d learned nothing. He was older now, wiser, and he would not run.
“Wait,” he yelled, mounting the steps two at a time.
The doors slammed shut. He stopped, standing uncertainly on the terrace as the breeze rustled around him. Ten seconds passed, then twenty. After a minute, Séan rubbed his stubbled jaw, not sure if he’d imagined the ghost in the window and the doors opening. He took a few steps, wanting to at least check the doors to see if they were unlocked.
One door opened, slamming back to hit the stone wall with a reverberating thud. A gray figure stood in the opening. Séan had a moment to absorb what he saw—a female figure with white hair, wearing some sort of long dress, a translucent candle hovering in the air above her left shoulder. She took two steps out onto the terrace. Now he could see her face, which was lovely and calm. For a moment she appeared almost peaceful—like a gray toned portrait or painting.
Then the woman’s dress faded away, leaving her in a ragged undergarment ripped at one shoulder, revealing her left breast. As Séan watched, long black scratches appeared on her exposed flesh. It was both familiar and freshly horrible. Her shoulders hunched and she curled her arms around her belly. Thick chains crawled out of the darkness behind her. The chain moved as if it were a living thing—a snake of linked iron that climbed her body, wrapping around her ankles, wrists and neck.
“Holy Mary Mother of God,” Séan whispered. The longer he looked, the more solid the woman became. He could no longer see through her, and the wounds that covered her were now more burgundy than black.
She was coming alive before him, and it was a terrible thing to see.
“Missus,” Séan said voice gruff with fear and alarm, “who are you?”
Her head jerked up, and just like the ghost he’d seen all those years ago, there were no eyes, only empty sockets. She raised her chain-draped hands to her face.
He couldn’t watch this again. “Don’t, please. I’ll help you.”
Her eyeless face turned toward him. “Imigh anseo mo, chol cathair.” Her voice echoed as if she were speaking at one end of a long pipe, as unholy a sound as he’d ever heard.
Séan hesitated, struggling to translate the strong country Irish. Her raised hands reached out to him, the fingers curled into claws. “Imigh anseo mo, chol cathair!” Her scream sent spikes of pain through his skull.
Séan slapped his hands over his ears. Every instinct told him to run, but he wouldn’t turn away from someone in need. He wouldn’t fail her again.
The ghost turned her head, as if she looked over her shoulder with those sightless eyes. Séan took a step to the side, stomach heavy with dread at what he might see behind the apparition.
The woman whipped back around, and Séan heard the chains clank. “Rith!” Her scream was an assault on his senses, freezing him in his tracks, but it wasn’t until she came at him, fingers clawed, mouth open wide, that he ran.
Séan stumbled down the steps, racing through the garden along the back wall of the main wing. He skirted the construction zone for the new kitchen, headed toward the lights and noise of the pub. As he skidded to a stop on the smoking patio, the door opened.
Sorcha was silhouetted by the light, her hair glowing like fire. A smile lit her face as she closed the door, muting the sounds of revelry.
“Ah, there you are. I’m very sorry to make you wait, but now the night—”
“You cannot stay here.” Séan grabbed her hand, dragging her off the concrete slab into the garden, where he ignored the path and headed away from the castle.
“Séan, where are we going?” Her voice lilted with a laugh.
The fact that she was so terribly unaware of the danger around her made him all the more determined to get her, and then the rest of them—every person in that pub—away from this place.
“As far away from this place as we can get.”
“Are you well?” The laughter was gone from her voice, replaced by uncertainty.
“I will be when you’re safe.”
They’d rounded the corner of the east wing. He could see the front drive, and the parking lot beyond that. The need to leave this place was a raging in him.
“Séan, wait, I don’t understand.” Gravel crunched under their feet as they crossed the drive.
“You’re not safe here.”
“What are you talking about?” Sorcha’s hand wiggled out of his hold.
Séan turned to her. There wasn’t enough light to see her face, but her silhouette was visible. She stood with her hands on her hips, head high.
“That’s hardly news.” She tossed her head, strands of hair catching the starlight. “I know it’s haunted.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Because it’s my job. Actually, this is my dream job. And ghosts aren’t real. The stories about it being haunted are priceless as far as giving the hotel character.”
“No job is worth this.”
“Worth what?” Sorcha shifted. “It wouldn’t be a proper old building if there weren’t a few ghost stories.”
“They aren’t stories. The ghosts are real, the danger is real.”
“You’re afraid of the ghosts.”
There was a note of pity in her voice, and Séan gritted his teeth. He wanted to tell her that he wasn’t scared of the ghosts, but this was too important to lie. “Yes, I’m terrified of them. Whatever’s in there is so tortured that even a priest’s blessing didn’t help. The souls left here have suffered. They’re suffering still and anyone who stays here might end up like them.”
She fell back a step, and Séan realized he’d raised his voice, something he almost never did.
“You seriously believe the ghosts are dangerous.”
“I’ve seen the bodies of people who didn’t believe this place was dangerous.”
“You mean the people who died in construction accidents? We’ve had more engineers than I can count out here, and we know where there are structural issues and what’s dangerous. Everything’s being repaired.”
“That may fix the building, but it won’t touch the ghosts.”
“The ghosts didn’t kill anyone, and the building is something—”
“I’ve seen the ghosts.” His word cut through the night. He heard Sorcha take a breath, waiting for more. “I saw one just now, while I waited for you. It’s a woman, tortured and wearing chains. And I’ve seen another one, a woman in gray, eight years ago. It may even be the same being. That woman—ghost—is in the castle right now and I know there’s worse things than her in there.”
Sorcha’s arms dropped to her sides, her fingers tugging the fabric of her pants. “You saw a ghost, just now?”
She turned her head away, hair hiding her face. “There are a lot of scientific explanations for people seeing ghosts—”
Séan grabbed her by her arms, jerked her against him. He wanted to shake her, make her understand, but as her quick breathing made her breasts brush against his chest, his need to shake her changed into something else. His blood was up, as his mother would say.
Séan wrapped one arm around her back, the other hand cupped the back of her head. He kissed her.
For a moment she was stiff with surprise, their lips pressed hard together, but then she melted against him, her body soft in his arms. She tasted like apples, and her lips were willing. The kiss lasted a minute, an hour. Séan lost himself in her, until all he could feel was the heat of desire, no more cold dread and fear.
He shifted the arm at her back and her hands wrapped around his waist. Soon the kiss wasn’t enough and he slid his hand down, finding the hem of her sweater. She gasped when his fingers touched the warm skin of her back.
Her gasp was like a splash of cold water, reminding him of where they were and what they were doing. Séan released her.
Sorcha raised a trembling hand to her mouth, touching her lips.
Séan wondered if he’d hurt her, grabbing her like that, wondered if he should apologize for kissing her without her permission.
But he said nothing. He felt empty now, as if the encounter with the ghost and now the kiss had drained him of energy and feeling.
Of the two, it was the kiss that had him more rattled.
Kissing her had been more than he’d imagined—more powerful, more enticing. What might have been only an infatuation, a moment of silliness in his otherwise staid and boring life was now a real, burning desire. He wanted her.
Sorcha fell back one step, then two. With a jolt, Séan realized she was leaving.
“Sorcha.” He raised his hand.
“No.” She held up both of her hands, palms out. “No,” she said again.
Séan watched as she turned away from him and ran back to the castle.