Tucking the doll under her arm, Rory scurried down the stairs to join her family. In the midst of a discussion about what they'd unpacked from one wagon and what waited for them in the second, Rory slipped in quietly and took a seat between Clark and James. They were all present and accounted for. Clark, the eldest sat to her left, and James, two years younger, to her right. Across the fire and seated on the ground, Anne, Sarah, Aaron and Rachel were lined up like little ducklings. The twins, Sophia and Eliza, youngest of the Caldwell children, were perched in Isabelle's lap and fussing as usual.
Rory stood and delivered Beloved into their small hands. "This should keep you quiet for a time."
Isabelle mouthed the words, "Thank you."
Rory studied her sister. Her midnight hair and blue eyes were a remarkable contrast to her ivory skin. In her bare feet, she reached her husband's chin, average height for a woman. Her body was lean and nimble, despite the nine children she'd borne every two years after marrying Jon. Like Rory, a smattering of freckles bridged her small nose and high Gaelic cheekbones, compliments of their mother, Rebecca.
Rory remembered little about her parents, and what she knew, she'd heard from Isabelle while growing up. The Hudson family left Ireland and set sail for America when Rory was a toddler. The sisters and Jon landed on American shores but Rory’s parents had drowned at sea during the journey. “Mother took her usual evening stroll on the deck of the vessel with Father at her side,” Isabelle had said. “Onlookers claimed while watching a school of dolphins frolicking in the turquoise depths, she leaned over the railing. When next they looked, a waterfall of red hair had tumbled overboard. Father leaped over the banister but the sea took them both.
Isabelle had raised her alone until Jon came along. They were the only parents she'd ever known. She looked at Jon and her heart soared with fond memories. He presented a rugged demeanor, but his heart was softer than corn mush. His dark hair revealed strands of silver now, matching the thick mustache shading his upper lip. Hazel eyes twinkled when he laughed and lightened when he looked at her sister. His children adored him, relied on the man to dispense wisdom along with some belly laugh.
"Rory, did I ever tell you and the children how I met your sister?"
"Yes, Jon." Rory grinned. "At least a thousand times but tell us again."
"I left my beloved Scotland and immigrated with my parents into Northern Ireland at the age of seven. When the great potato famine stormed the land, I left the bosom of my family."
"Why did you not stay to help them, Father?" Rachel's star–kissed eyes looked up at him.
"Too many mouths to feed already. I knocked around several provinces, hiring out for work during the day and lived on the rat–infested streets at night."
"You didn't have a roof over your head?" Sarah's eyes widened. "Were you not set upon by wild beasts?"
"Girls, are you going to allow me to tell the story or not?"
"Rachel, Sarah, let your father to tell his tall tale."
"During those dark days, I met your mother, Isabelle Hudson."
Sarah leaned forward. "What happened next, Father?"
"Wandering the streets of Dunboe one sunny afternoon a lass prettier than Molly Malone caught my eye. Hair the color of coal fell in a wild tangle down her back, and when she lifted her chin, fiery blue eyes stopped the breath in my lungs."
"What did Mother's eyes remind you of?"
"The depths of the ocean before a storm, Anne.” I said to myself, “Jon, you're a foolish one if you let the girl pass without a hello."
Isabelle's chuckle caught Rory's attention. "Tell the children where you were when you said, 'Hello', Jon."
"Now, darlin', must you spoil the story?"
Anne exchanged glances with her parents, not about to let her mother’s suggestion pass. "Where were you, Father?"
A sheepish grin crossed Jon's features. "I bent down to pick up a shiny coin—"
"Jon . . . ?"
"All right, Isabelle, go ahead and tell them. We'll all have a good laugh then."
"First, I didn't lift my chin, your Father lifted his." Isabelle leaned forward in her chair and smothered a laugh with her hand. "The reason he had to look up is because his backside graced the wooden sidewalk—near the foot of a lamplight if I recall."
Sarah giggled. "What were you doing on the ground, Father?"
"He wasn't looking for coin, I can attest to that." Isabelle clutched her belly. While ogling the likes of Molly Malone, he ran headfirst into the pole."
"No!" Clark slapped his thigh and joined the captivated audience in a round of laughter. "I've heard that story a hundred times, but never that version."
"Oh, Jon." Isabelle descended into giggles. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry as a sow without an acorn in the morning, I'll bet."
"Is it true?" Rory asked.
"Every word," Jon shook his head and joined in on the mirth. "Staring at your mother, I ran smack into the lamppost."
"That's really how I met your father, children."
"Aye, and I've been looking up to you ever since, darlin'."
Isabelle stood and then crossed the short distance between them. Bending down, she kissed his forehead. "Forgive me for spoiling your tall tale."
"All is forgiven." Jon motioned upward with his hands. "Come along now, children, time for bed."
Rachel balked. "So soon?"
"Morning comes early around here. We still have a wagon to unload. Come on, now."
Isabelle gave her husband an adoring smile. "I'll douse the fire and Rory and I will join you soon."
Rory flinched. Isabelle hadn't swallowed her story about stumbling along the trail.
When the front door closed behind Jon and the children, Isabelle grabbed a nearby pail of water, soaked the fire and turned to her. "Want to tell me what really happened on your walk today?"
"An ordinary girl took a walk and scared up an animal."
"Oh, lass, you are anything but ordinary." Isabelle sighed. "Where have all the years gone? Not long ago you were a rambunctious child, full of questions, energy and spirit. Now the little girl has grown into a woman; a beautiful lass with the elegance of a gazelle and eyes that shine like precious jades."
"Me thinks the only thing jaded is your opinion of me."
"I know beauty when I see it, inside and out. You turned many a head in Boston. I saw it coming but tried to ignore the warnings."
"Well, of course. If you're all grown up, that makes me old."
"You'll never seem old to me, Isabelle. You've aged a little but with timeless grace. There's a difference."
Isabelle laughed. "Now whose opinion is jaded?"
"Maybe both." She put a finger to the corner of her lip. "Why was I cursed with this tangled mass of ginger hair and you entered the world with black silk tresses?"
"Your hair is not ginger, more like burnished umber. Probably the same reason I have blue eyes and yours are green."
"Yes, that's what I'm asking."
"I forget sometimes that you never knew our parents. You don't remember them, do you?"
"I have vague memories of Mother." She tapped her skull. "Locked in here somewhere. I recall a mass of long, red hair."
"I think of it as chestnut with deep shades of cinnamon. Her eyes were green; more olive than…" Isabelle closed her eyes. "Shamrock green like yours."
"Ah, I take after him, hair the color of tar pitch and blue eyes." Isabelle gave her a cockeyed look. "Are you questioning your parentage, wondering why so many years separate us?"
"No, absolutely not. No one could look at us side by side and dispute our bloodlines."
"I know I act like your mother most of the time, but I am your sister. Forgive me for smothering you."
"Nothing to forgive. I know you’ve always had my best interests at heart."
She sighed. "Ah, Rory, one day a special man will forge a path into that independent heart." A cackle left her lips. "Lord help him."
"And where do you think I acquired that independence?"
"I wanted you to have confidence, rely on no one but yourself if–if…."
"Something happened to you?"
"I guess so, yes. But I'm still here and if you ever need to talk to me, share something, I'm never too busy. You know that, don't you, lass?"
"I've always known that." Rory battled over telling her about the man in the woods but the event seemed insignificant now. She'd never see him again, no sense upsetting her sister. "I told a white lie today. Not because anything bad happened, but I overreacted to an incident and felt foolish when I returned."
"We've all been there a time or two."
"It's not important but I have a need to clear my conscience."
"Lass, I knew the moment I saw your face something happened that had nothing to do with the scratches."
"I've never been able to hide my emotions from you."
"No, not very well, but I remind myself at times to respect that independence and spirit I fostered in you."
Rory walked forward and drew her into her arms. "Cross my heart, I'll never shut you out of anything important in my life."
Isabelle gave her a solid hug. "Now that you've cleansed your soul of the little white lie, how about we turn in? Another long day awaits us."
Arm in arm they walked into the house. Rory climbed the stairs to her room, grateful for the few minutes alone she spent with Isabelle.