The Secret Chord – Prologue and First Chapter

Prologue

April, 2004 – Dingle Peninsula, Ireland
The house was still far from empty. Apart from a few personal items sent to hired storage it remained intact, the fate of its contents left for others to judge. He was grateful for the illusion of permanence the furnishings offered, helping sustain the pretense that he had something left to lose.

He considered it another small mercy—one he’d not always appreciated—that they’d never been the sort of family that collected things. His mother, with her abiding air of transience, had eschewed the decorative bric-a-brac colonizing every surface of the typical Irish household. She was singular in this respect among others. Brigid McBride was the ultimate esoteric day-tripper, fluent in the geography of dimensions most never visited. She traveled light and gathered no souvenirs.

He remembered a particular period during his boyhood when her ways had seemed unbearably eccentric to him. Once, for a Christmas gift, he’d bought a cheap ceramic bird at a school jumble sale—a goldfinch, neck stretched in song, anatomy truncated by a clunky base encasing the area where its legs ought to have been. He presented the bauble with the half-formed hope of tickling some dormant gene, to nudge her into becoming someone more conventional, someone more like the mothers of his friends.

She made much of the gaudy little ornament, and so much of him for his thoughtfulness that he’d felt sheepish, and almost relieved when it quickly disappeared from view. A few weeks later he caught sight of the thing on her bedside table, nestled into a tiny bower of dried sage and hawthorn twigs. It should have looked hopelessly cloying and twee but it didn’t. The painted eyes gleamed in the shadows, seeming to peer straight at him, and a heady energy had passed through him. Suddenly, he was everywhere and nowhere at once, like lying on his back and staring too hard at the sky. He sensed an unseen presence sizzling the air close around him and was frightened, then somehow knew he needn’t be. It was the first time he’d experienced this pulsing aura but not the last, and it was the moment when he recognized how wrong it would be to try changing his mother.

So, it wasn’t for any sentimental bits of rubbish Conor mourned, wandering back and forth through the house like a greedy ghost wanting to haunt all the rooms at once. It was for the aroma of its interior, every molecule saturated in decades of peat smoke, and for the ivy on its exterior walls rustling in tune with the ocean breeze, reflecting pieces of sunlight in its polished leaves. And for the land itself, arranged in parceled acres all around him. The unconditional love for a small patch of earth—and the desire to keep and hold it no matter how rocky, desolate or unforgiving—was the immutable obsession of his people. He’d thought to escape it at one time, but the land had captured him in the end.

In the growing darkness Conor drifted into the kitchen and registered the ice-blue glimmer of computer light leaking from the adjacent pantry-turned-office. Bending around the door he found his farm manager, Phillip Ryan, where he’d left him hours earlier. Conor opened the door a little wider.

“Jaysus, awfully late isn’t it? I didn’t know you were still here.”

Phillip raised his eyes from the laptop, surveying him with the jaded stare that had grown habitual over the past week. “You look half-dead. Are you all right?”

“I’m okay. Just tired.”

“I brought some lunch ’round hours ago. It’s in the fridge—the only feckin’ thing in the fridge, in fact. Eat before you fall over for Christ’s sake.”

“I’ll have something later. Thanks, though.” Conor smiled. “Next you’ll be telling me I need a good dose of Bovril.”

“Bovril’s your only man for puttin’ the life back into you.” Phillip glanced up as though he might play along, but then gave a dismissive shrug of his broad shoulders and dropped his eyes back to the keyboard. “But go ahead and fall over, if you’d rather.”

He’d turned up in the local pub more than five years earlier, a penitent émigré looking for re-entry, happy to absorb any insult to his Americanized accent if it led to a job. Conor was twenty-six at the time, grappling with his brother’s disappearance and the chaos left behind for someone else to fix. He was in over his head and got talked into hiring Phillip. He wasn’t sure he even wanted a farm manager, but two weeks later Conor wondered how he would have survived without one. The two of them worked well together and their camaraderie had grown stronger over the years, a fellowship that helped him overcome the bitterness and confused anguish of his brother’s desertion.

For that and so much more, he owed Phillip Ryan a great deal. Certainly he owed him a better ending than this. In selfish moments and in the face of his friend’s new aloof distrust, Conor ached for confession but couldn’t risk it. His secrets were not safe for sharing. Phillip couldn’t understand—nor should he be expected to—so the sacrifice of a friendship became one more penance to absorb as he went about the business of ending things.

“That’s it, then.” Phillip shut the laptop and got to his feet, running a hand over his wiry rust-colored hair. “Thanks for letting me have it. I wiped it clean. Your stuff is all on the flash drive. You’re flying out in the morning?”

“I am.”

“Should I tell her you’ll be there tomorrow, then? She wants to know.”

“Oh…ehm, not tomorrow, no. Can you say about a week?”

“A week? Where are you—ah jayz, forget it.” Phillip scowled. “I suppose I can tell her that.”

“Thanks. What about you? Have you got something lined up, yet?”

“Yeah, they had a place open up on the ferry run over at Dunquin. Keep me going through the summer, I guess.”

“Right, so.” Conor paused before adding, “For what it’s worth Pip, I hate this, too.”

“I know you do. I see that much, anyway.” Phillip’s face softened into something approaching its old affection and he offered a parting handshake. “Look after yourself boss, and be careful, yeah? ‘Be wide,’ like they say. Be dog wide.”

AN HOUR BEFORE dawn he walked to the barn one last time and stood in its doorway, staring through the shadows at the floor’s rucked up layers of sawdust, waiting to see if he would weep. A breeze rumbled against the tin roof, sending an echo like a rolling drum into the empty space below.

Like a final farewell.

It had been his decision, and he’d needed it to happen quickly, but watching his birthright stripped almost to bedrock within a few days had torn something from him he’d never get back.

Conor turned away and headed back across the pasture, dry-eyed.

He was too damned tired to cry.

Chapter 1

Hartsboro Bend, Vermont
FROM THE SOUTH-FACING WINDOW OF HER ATTIC STUDIO, KATE Fitzpatrick surveyed a landscape that usually enchanted her and blew out a sigh. Yesterday, the first grass of spring had uncurled to stretch over the long rolling meadow below her house, but now only twenty-four hours later, the new blades lay stunned, smothered under a snowfall coating them like a layer of rock salt. She sensed their shock and disappointment as keenly as her own.

In the distance, the bowl-shaped surface of Lake Rembrandt was colorless, its thinning crust of blue ice again obscured by a winter that had long ago outworn its welcome.

Kate tossed her brush into a canning jar where it clattered against the others. A full complement of paint-free artist brushes. Stopping herself from sighing again, she gathered up the dark copper hair that fell around her face and let it drop behind her shoulders. A shadow caught the corner of her eye and she turned to the front window, which faced a dirt road that was falling short of even the lowest expectations for its Class 3 status. Already pot-holed by the sweep of winter plows, the road had thawed, rutted into impressively deep furrows . . . and then had frozen again.

Jared Percy was on its opposite side, head down and slump-shouldered, lumbering up the steep driveway toward the barn. After a full day’s work on his own property the young farmer was on his way to milk her sixteen cows.

“I should go help him.” Kate noted a habitual surge of guilt and indecision as soon as the words left her mouth. She tracked his weary progress to the top of the hill before turning back to her easel, but the room had grown cold and the blank canvas confronted her like an accusation. Surrendering, she crossed the floor at a trot, pulled the door shut on the ascetic chill of the artist’s garret, and fled down to the more hospitable domain of the innkeeper.

The temperature rose as she descended to the first floor but Kate’s mood remained low. The Rembrandt Inn was just starting the second month of its annual two-month closure, and an inn on hiatus projected a forlorn emptiness that didn’t exist in one simply waiting for its next guests. She went looking for comfort in the kitchen and found while she’d been moping, her chef—with sleeves rolled up under a blue tartan jumper—had been making more productive use of the day.

Abigail Perini had transferred the entire contents of the spice cupboard to the stainless steel prep counter and was scouring the shelves as though they’d never been washed before. She turned at Kate’s entrance, her plump face warm and red, and pushed aside the graying brown hair escaping from an improvised bun.

“You’re in a mood,” she observed and went back to her shelves, transparently confident in her analysis. “Have you been painting?”

“By which you mean ‘not’ painting. No, I didn’t really try today. It isn’t that. It’s the weather.”

Her chef responded with a guttural croak that conveyed a wealth of meaning, and Kate glared at her broad sturdy back. “A ‘harrumph?’ Why a ‘harrumph?’ You don’t think I can be in an ugly mood about the weather?”

Abigail glanced back, offering a peacemaking smile. “Ugly moods are few and far between where you’re concerned, sweetie. I’d say you’re entitled to one. Anyway, cheer up. Supposed to hit sixty tomorrow and then rain like hell later this week. Have you got a check ready for Jared? I just saw him on his way to the barn.”

“I saw him, too. Maybe I should take over again for a few weeks.”

“Take over the milking?” Abigail dropped the sponge on the shelf and turned, hands on hips. “You tend not to enjoy that Kate, and the cows know as much. Makes them nervous, and as I’m sure you recall—”

“Makes them want to kick me. Yes, I remember.” Kate absently stroked her left forearm, fractured by one such kick six months earlier. “I feel guilty for not helping more. I could give Jared a break, at least. He’d probably appreciate some time off.”

“I think what he appreciates is the extra money, and I think he likes helping you.”

Kate slid on to a kitchen stool. “Sure. The lonely widow Fitzpatrick and her crazy hillside dairy farm. Everyone wants to help. It’s like a Disney film.”

“Lord, you are in a mood.” Abigail rolled her eyes. “When is the Irish fellow going to turn up, anyway? He’s supposed to be a farmer. Couldn’t he—” She paused as Kate sprang up, grabbing the stool before it toppled to the floor. “What the hell’s the matter now?”

“I’d forgotten about him, and I haven’t looked at my email for days. What if I was supposed to pick him up somewhere?”

Hurrying to her office behind the registration desk, Kate sat at the computer and scanned her messages. Nothing. She sank against the chair, relief turning to annoyance. When was the Irish fellow going to turn up? It was a bit rude to keep her guessing. If he was coming at all.

The request had been odd enough, but the source of it—her late husband’s Irish cousin—had been the greater surprise. Her attitude about Phillip Ryan had always remained ambivalent. God knows she could never repay what he’d done for her, but gratitude had not come quickly or easily, and even now it was layered with a vague hesitation.

Her husband had died. A horrible accident and not Phillip’s fault, but in her grief it had been easy to blame him, to hold him responsible for the worst day of her life. Upon receiving the first of his annual Christmas cards five years ago she’d thrown the envelope away unopened, unable to separate the man from the memories he evoked.

She’d come a long way since then. Now, she could prop his ubiquitous seasonal greeting on the mantelpiece without a second thought and send back one of her own, and remember him with a bittersweet gratitude. Still, when his name had appeared in her inbox, a twinge of reluctance made her hesitate before reading the message.

Kate began thumbing up the piles of clutter on her desk like a botanist searching under rocks, and eventually found the printed copy of Phillip’s note and their follow-up communications. He’d seemed to anticipate her guarded reaction in his very first line:
Dear Kate,

I hope you’re well. No doubt it strikes as something odd to hear from me outside of the Christmas season. The fact is I’m writing about a lodger I’d like to send your way. He’ll be a paying one of course, but might be looking for an extended stay, if you allow such a thing.

His name is Conor McBride, and I’ve been working as his farm manager for a good few years. For various reasons—his mother’s recent death and some personal issues—he’s sold his land and is leaving Ireland for America.

In your last holiday card (thanks for that, by the way), you mentioned no end of trouble keeping managers engaged at your place. Conor’s experience might be useful to you there. He’s a good farmer, though he’s maybe not fit for work straight away. He was nearly killed with pneumonia a month ago and he’s still a bit shook. A dose of your mountain air would set him right, I’m thinking.

Kate, please will you let me know as soon as you can if you’ve the space, and the inclination, to board him for a while.

Kind Regards,

Phillip
Kate’s eyes skimmed over her acceptance and request for arrival details, and Phillip’s apologetic reply.

Sorry not to be able to give more exact information. He says he’ll arrive in about a week.

That had been a week ago. Kate was still frowning impatiently at the print-out when she heard a heavy footstep on the porch, and then the doorbell.

“Come in out of the cold, Jared.” She rooted around the clutter in a fresh search, this time for the check she’d written earlier. The front door opened a crack.

“Afternoon.” Jared’s low voice came through the opening. The lazy cadence of his Vermont drawl always made him sound like he was just up from a nap, but he was one of the hardest working young men she knew. “I’m okay out here, Kate. I’m pretty muddy and it ain’t that cold, so—.”

“Oh, who cares? I’ll be washing all the floors down here, anyway. What’s a little more mud?”

Kate came from her office, smiling at the disembodied bearded face peeking around the door. With a bashful grin, Jared’s eyes dropped to the floor and he shuffled inside.

“We haven’t seen you for breakfast, lately. Abigail misses cooking for you.”

“I been missin’ it, too.” Jared sighed. “Been kinda crazy up the house, with Dad and all.”

“Oh, his knee surgery! I’d forgotten.” Again, guilt poked a sharp finger into her chest. “How is he?”

“Doin’ okay. Ornery as hell, so I guess that’s good. He had fifty bucks on the ice-out contest. His last pick went by yesterday, so now he’s pissed about that, too.”

Kate laughed. “I only put down ten but I nearly cried myself when I saw the lake this morning.”

“What date is your last pick?” Jared’s eyes darted to her face and tailed away again.

“Today. Like, now.”

“Shit.”

They both laughed.

“Well, there you go.” Jared summed up the injustice with equanimity. He swept a hand through his mop-headed tangle of brown curls. “I better get back.”

Kate executed a quick maneuver to tuck the weekly check into his pocket. He was expecting it of course, but could acknowledge it only with a soft grunt and duck of his head. Holding the door as he left, her eye wandered to the corner of the hallway.

“Oh, wait a minute, Jared. Can you hang this back up for me on your way down?”

She lifted the wooden sign and gave it a final inspection. Rembrandt Inn, Hartsboro Bend, Vermont. Here at least, was an artistic project she’d finished without paralyzing seizures of self-doubt. She re-painted the sign every year and its installation ordinarily signaled they were accepting guests.

Jared’s sleepy eyes widened. “You open already? Thought you stayed closed until May.”

“We do, but I’m taking on a long-term guest, and it sounds ridiculous but I don’t know when he’s getting here, or how, or if he’s still coming. I want to be sure he knows the place when he sees it. If he sees it. God almighty, why did I get myself involved in this? Just hang the sign. If he hasn’t shown by the time the ice goes out, I’ll take it down again.”

“Unless the ice don’t go out ’til May.” Jared chuckled.

“Not even funny, Jared.” Kate reproached him with a teasing scowl. Not the least bit funny.”