***Special thanks to Karri James of Harvest House Publishers for sending me a review copy.***
Friends Old and New
Youth must with time decay…
Beauty must fade away…
Castles are sacked in war…
Chieftains are scattered far…
Truth is a fixed star….
From “Aileen Aroon” GERALD GRIFFIN (1803–1840)
New York City
It was a fine summer evening in the city, the kind of sweet, soft evening that made the young delight in their youth and the elderly content with their lot.
On this evening Daniel Kavanagh and Tierney Burke were indulging in one of their favorite pastimes—stuffing themselves with pastries from Krueger’s bakery as they lounged against the glass front of the building. As usual, Tierney was buying. Daniel as yet had no job and no money. But Tierney, with a week’s pay in his pocket from his job at the hotel and a month’s wages due from his part-time job at Patrick Walsh’s estate, declared he felt rotten with money and eager to enjoy it.
It had been a good day, Daniel decided as he polished off his last sugar kucken. His mother was visiting, as she did every other Saturday, delivered as always by one of the Farmington carriages. Every Saturday without fail, a carriage either brought her to the Burkes’, or came to collect Daniel for a visit at the Farmington mansion uptown, where his mother worked.
In truth, Daniel thought he preferred the Saturdays he spent at the Farmingtons’, for then he could visit with his friend, Evan Whittaker, and the Fitzgerald children, as well as his mother. He enjoyed his temporary living arrangement with Uncle Mike and Tierney, but often he found himself missing the daily contact with his mother and the Fitzgeralds—especially Katie.
The thought of Katie brought a smile to his face and a sting of worry to his mind. Katie was both his friend and his sweetheart; they would marry when they were of age—that had been decided long ago.
So committed to their future plans was he that Daniel paid little heed to Tierney’s relentless teasing about his “lassie.” The fact was that Katie Fitzgerald had been his girl from the time they were wee wanes back in the village, and he did not mind who knew it. But Katie had ever been frail, and the famine and the long, horrific ship crossing had taken a fierce toll on her.
Daniel could not help but fret about her health. He would have thought the good, plentiful food and proper medical attention she was receiving at the Farmingtons’ would be enough to have her feeling fit by now. Instead, she scarcely seemed improved at all.
Still, as his mother had reminded him just today, three months was not really so long a time—not with all the troubles Katie had been through. “You must be patient, Daniel John,” she had cautioned him. “You must be patient and faithful with your prayers.”
He was trying to be both, but it was hard, all the same, not to worry.
Shifting his weight from one foot to the other, Daniel turned his attention to Pearl Street. Although darkness was gathering, most of the neighborhood seemed to be in no hurry to return to their cramped living quarters. The sultry August atmosphere carried the sounds of children playing, mothers scolding, dogs barking, and men arguing. Most of the voices were thick with Irish brogue, although German and an occasional stream of Italian could also be heard.
Almost as thick as the cacophony of immigrant voices were the odors that mingled on the night air. The ever-present stench of piled-up garbage in the streets had grown worse with the recent warm temperatures; the fumes from sewage and animal droppings were more noxious than ever.
Still, there was no spoiling the pleasure of such a fine evening. Besides, Daniel was growing accustomed to the aroma of New York. Indeed, the smell rarely bothered him at all these days; it was negligible compared to the stench of Ireland’s rotten potato fields and the countless dead bodies lying alongside the country’s roads.
“So, then,” Tierney said, downing a nut kipfel in one bite before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, “will they tie the knot soon, do you think? Your mum and my da?”
It was a question Tierney seemed bent on asking at least once a week, a question that continued to make Daniel feel awkward—almost as if his mother were somehow under an obligation to marry Uncle Mike. More and more Tierney’s prodding put Daniel on guard, made him feel the need to defend his mother—never mind that he secretly harbored the same question.
“I don’t suppose it’s for either of us to guess,” he muttered in reply. “Sure, and Mother does care a great deal for Uncle Mike.”
Tierney gave a curt, doubtful nod, turning the full intensity of his unnerving ice-blue stare on Daniel. “If that’s so,” he said, “then why is she still holding out?”
Daniel bristled. “It’s not that she’s holding out,” he protested. “She just needs more time, don’t you see? They haven’t seen each other for more than seventeen years, after all! She can hardly be expected to jump into marriage right away!”
Tierney regarded him with a speculative look, then shrugged. “You’re right, of course,” he said cheerfully, shoving his hands into his pockets. As if no friction whatever had occurred between them, he tilted a quick grin at Daniel. “I expect I’m just impatient because I’m wanting to see them wed.”
Not for the first time, Daniel found himself disarmed by his quicksilver friend. The older boy had a way of making abrasive, outrageous remarks, then quickly backing off, as if sensing he had caused Daniel discomfort.
Tierney had an incredible energy about him, a tension that sometimes made it seem that any instant he might leap from the ground and take off flying. He was impatient and blunt, decisive and headstrong. Yet he had an obvious streak of kindness, even gentleness, that could appear at the most unexpected moments.
Living with him was akin to keeping company with a hurricane. Wild and impetuous one moment, eager and conciliatory the next, he was entirely unpredictable—and a great deal more fun than any boy Daniel had ever known.
He liked Tierney immensely. In truth, he wished his mother would marry Uncle Mike so they could be a real family.
“If they do get married,” Tierney was saying, watching Daniel with a teasing grin, “you and I will be brothers. How do you feel about that, Danny-boy?”
Daniel rolled his eyes, but couldn’t stop a smile of pleasure. “Sure, and won’t I be the lucky lad, then?”
Tierney wiggled his dark brows. “Sure, and won’t you at that?” he shot back, perfectly mimicking Daniel’s brogue.
Avoiding Michael’s eyes, Nora stared at the flickering candle in the middle of the kitchen table.
The silence in the room, while not entirely strained, was awkward, to say the least. Nora had sensed Michael’s impatience early in their visit. She thought she understood it; certainly, she could not fault the man for wanting more of a commitment than she’d been able to grant him thus far.
On the other hand, she didn’t know how she could have handled things between them any differently. From the day of their reunion—Nora’s first day in New York City—she had done her best to be entirely honest with Michael. She had told him then—and on other occasions since—that she cared for him deeply but could not marry him for a time, if ever.
In the weeks and months that followed her arrival in New York, Nora’s life had changed radically. All that she had once held dear, everything familiar, had been mercilessly torn away from her. She had lost her home and her entire family except for Daniel John. Yet much had been given to her as well.
God had been good—and faithful. Daniel John had a home with Michael and Tierney, and she and the orphaned Fitzgerald children were safe and snug in the Farmington mansion with Lewis Farmington and his daughter, Sara—people who must be, Nora was certain, the kindest human beings God ever created.
Aye, she had fine lodgings—even a job—and she had friends, good friends: Michael, Evan Whittaker, Sara and Lewis Farmington, and Ginger, the Farmingtons’ delightful housekeeper. There was more food on her plate than she could eat, and a fire to warm her bones for the coming winter. Had any other penniless widow-woman ever been so blessed?
Yet when it came to Michael, something deep within her warned her to wait, to go slowly. There were times when she wanted nothing more than to run to the shelter of the man’s brawny arms and accept the security he seemed so set on offering—the security of a friendship that dated back to their childhood, the security of marriage and a home of her own. But in the next instant she would find herself drawing back, shying away from the idea of Michael as the solution to her problems.
She needed time, perhaps a great deal of time. Of that much, at least, she was certain. Time to heal, time to seek direction for her life. God’s direction.
And time to forget Morgan Fitzgerald…
“The Farmingtons seem more than pleased with your work for them,” Michael said, breaking the silence and jarring Nora back to her surroundings. “They cannot say enough good things about you.”
Struggling to put aside her nagging melancholy, Nora smiled and made a weak dismissing motion with her hand. “Sure, they are only being kind,” she said. “?’Tis little enough they allow me to do. I suppose they still think me ill, but in truth I’m feeling much stronger.”
“I can believe that,” Michael said, studying her with open approval. “You’re looking more fit each day. I think you might have even gained a bit at last.”
Surprised, Nora glanced down at her figure. She did feel stronger physically, stronger than she had for months. “Indeed. Perhaps with all this fine American food, I’ll grow as round as Pumpkin Emmie,” she said, trying to ease the tension between them with reference to daft Emmie Fahey, one of the terrors of their youth.
“You’ve a ways to go, there,” Michael said, meeting her smile. “But you are looking more yourself, lass, and that’s the truth.”
Unnerved by the way he was scrutinizing her, Nora glanced away. “Our sons are becoming good friends, it seems.”
Michael, too, seemed relieved to move to safer ground. “Aye, they are,” he answered eagerly. “And I couldn’t be happier for it. Your Daniel is a fine boy—a good influence on that rascal of mine.”
“Oh, Michael,” Nora protested, “I think you’re far too hard on Tierney! He doesn’t seem nearly the rogue you paint him to be.”
With a sigh, Michael rose from the table to put the kettle on for more tea. “I’m the first to admit Tierney’s not a bad boy. Nevertheless, he can be a handful. And unpredictable—” He shook his head as he started for the stove. “Why, I don’t know what to expect from the lad one minute to the next, and that’s the truth.”
“It’s not an easy age for him, Michael. Don’t you remember how it was, being more grown-up than child, yet not quite either?”
Nora could have answered her own question. Michael had never seemed anything but a man grown, had never appeared to know the meaning of childishness or uncertainty, at least not in the time she had known him.
Returning with the kettle, he offered Nora more tea. When she declined, he proceeded to pour himself a fresh cup. “What I remember most about being a boy,” he said with just the ghost of a smile, “was trying to keep you and our lad, Morgan, out of the soup.”
Nora glanced quickly away. “Aye, you were like a brother to the both of us,” she said quietly.
“It wasn’t a brother I wanted to be to you, Nora,” he said pointedly, pausing with the kettle suspended above his cup. “That was your choice, not mine.”
He looked at her, setting the kettle down between them. “Is it still Morgan, then?” A muscle at the side of his mouth tightened. “Is he the reason you cannot bring yourself to marry me?”
“No! No, Michael, it is not Morgan! I’ve tried to explain all this before. I thought you understood…”
His gaze on her didn’t waver. “Nora, I have tried. But I’m not blind, lass. I see the way things are.”
Nora looked away, but she could still feel his eyes on her. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that Morgan Fitzgerald still occupies a large space in your heart—perhaps so great a space there will never be room for another.”
He waved away her protest, saying nothing. Instead, he went to stand at the window, his back to her. He stood there for a long time in silence. At last, he drew in a deep sigh and said quietly, “We’d be good together, I think. We could build a fine life, a good home—watch our boys grow to manhood.” Stopping he turned to face her. “Perhaps we could even have more children…”
He let his words drift away, unfinished. As he stood there, his gaze fixed on her face, the frustration that had hardened his expression earlier faded, giving way to a rare tenderness. The grim lines about his mouth seemed to disappear, and his eyes took on a gentle smile.
“We go back a long way, you and I,” he said softly. “And our boys—why, they’re well on their way to being brothers already. Ah, it could work for us, Nora! You must see that.” Shoving his hands down deep into his pockets, he stood watching her. “I know I cannot offer you much in the way of material things just yet, but we’d have enough, enough for us all. And things will improve, I can promise you that. I have prospects on the force—”
“Oh, Michael, you know none of that matters to me!”
With three broad strides he closed the distance between them. Bracing both hands palms down on the tabletop, he brought his face close to hers, his eyes burning. “What, then, Nora? What does matter? Tell me, lass, for I’ll do whatever I can to make this work for us. I swear I will! Tell me what I can do to convince you to marry me.”
Nora remembered he had asked her that same question once before, when he was still a young man preparing to go to America. He had done his best then, too, to convince her to be his wife.
That had been seventeen years ago. Seventeen years, and her answer was still not what he wanted to hear.
“Michael, you know you have ever been…special…to me.”
He said nothing, simply went on searching her eyes, his large, blunt hands now clenched to fists atop the table.
“I do care for you…” She did. She was not immune to Michael’s appeal, his almost arrogant handsomeness, the strength that seemed to pulse from him. But more than that, and far deeper, were the memories that bound them, the friendship that even today anchored their affection for each other. She could not bring herself to hurt him, but neither could she lie to him!
Suddenly, he stunned her by grasping both her hands in his and pulling her up from the chair to face him. Holding her hands firmly, he drew her to him. “And I care for you, Nora,” he said, his voice gruff. With one hand he lifted her chin, forcing her to meet his relentless gaze. “I have always cared for you, lass, and that’s the truth.”
Trembling, Nora held her breath as he bent to press his lips to hers. Irrationally, she almost wished Michael’s kiss would blind her with love for him, send stars shooting through her. Instead, she felt only the gentle warmth, the same sweet, sad affection she had felt for him all those years so long ago when he had kissed her goodbye, regret brimming in his eyes, before sailing for America.
He knew. He said nothing, but she felt his knowing as she stood there, miserable beneath those dark, searching eyes that seemed to probe her very soul. Gradually he freed her from his embrace, setting her gently away from him with a sad smile.
“You have been through a great sorrow,” he said huskily. “And I am asking too much of you, too soon. I’m sorry, lass. Perhaps it’s just that I’m anxious for you to realize that when you’re ready, I will be here. I will wait.”
“Oh, Michael, please—don’t…”
He put a finger to her lips to silence her. “Enough sober talk for tonight. Why don’t we have us a stroll? We’ll go and find the lads and see what they’re up to.”
Relieved, Nora nodded, managing a smile. “Aye, I’d like that.”
Michael smiled, too, watching her with infinite tenderness. Framing her face between his calloused hands, he brushed his lips over her forehead. “Remember that I am still your friend, Nora Ellen. No matter what happens—or does not happen—between us, I will always be your friend.”
Nora could have wept for gratitude at his understanding, his gentleness. “Thank you, Michael,” she whispered. “Thank you for being the man you are. And thank you,” she added fervently, “for being my friend.”