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|Mulligan Stew by Deb Stover|
A cursed Irish castle, star-crossed lovers, destiny, and comfort food….
Widowed mother and aspiring chef, Bridget Mulligan, leaves small-town Tennessee, the only home she’s ever known, to take her son to Ireland and the in-laws she’s never met.
Bridget and her son are welcomed by all but one member of the Mulligan Clan—her brother-in-law, Riley—who believes Bridget is a fraud and fortune-hunter. However, when the old Mulligan Curse lures Bridget to the sealed castle on their land, Riley Mulligan must face all his demons—the past and present—along with the powerful longing both he and Bridget battle for each other.
"Take a down-home Tennessee single mom who's astonished to learn the man she thought abandoned her has actually bequeathed her a share of an Irish castle, and you have the makings of a rollicking tale that's as tasty as the title."
"Deb Stover just took flight on wings of magic and landed in Ireland in a pot of Mulligan Stew hot enough to singe your eyebrows off with her extraordinary characters that jump off the pages into your heart. This book has everything necessary to keep you flipping the pages because from the moment you meet Bridget and Riley you know there are other forces at work to bring them together to break the curse on the Black Castle that has stood vacant for l00 years. I highly recommend this book." ~ Suzanne Coleburn, Reader to Reader
4 1/2 Stars! A Romantic Times "Top Pick"
"Utilizing the same magic that made her historical/time travel novels such a delight, author Deb Stover brings emotional depth and passion to this terrific contemporary tale. As a writer, Deb Stover has a unique style and voice that are a pleasure to read in any genre."
"Deb Stover writes with a stunning beauty and wry wit that resonates throughout all of her novels, but never so profoundly as with Mulligan Stew. Like the stew for which it is named, this novel offers something for everyone's taste in this artful blend of Irish contemporary romance, an ancient curse, a haunted castle, gothic overtones and the struggle to reconcile the past with the present. Characters are vividly realized from the heroine who will kick another woman in the shins for hurting her child's feelings, to the hero who cannot forget the dead brother he loved so deeply. Stover creates a poignant tale of loss, healing and recreation that will linger long after the last page is turned. Yet another Stover novel to add your keeper shelf, Mulligan Stew earns the WordWeaving Award for Excellence."
~ Cindy Penn, WordWeaving
"Deb Stover has taken a delightful heroine, a tortured hero, a whispering castle, stirred in an ancient curse for spice and served up a deliciously rich, warm Irish stew."
~ Bestselling Author, JoAnn Ross
"Humor, passion and the warmth of family fill the pages of Mulligan Stew, drawing the reader into a magical place of possibilities and the wonderful healing power of love. Deb Stover has created a captivating tale grounded in the basic tenets of life... nothing is more powerful than family and the love of two hearts joined together. I highly recommend Mulligan Stew for a hearty dish of romance and passion."
~ Terrie Figueroa, Romance Reviews Today
"I read this book in a matter of hours. It drew me in from the prologue to the very last satisfying page. Not only was this book sensual from the get-go but the charming heroine with her Southern twang added just the right amount of comic relief when it was most needed. Add all this to a dark gothic-like castle with a curse attached to it, and you have a not to be put down, must read book!"
~ Kathy Boswell, The Best Reviews
"Author Deb Stover spiced up this romance novel with just a dash of magic. At times I felt as if the past and the present were one and the same. I found it delightful to see a strong modern heroine in the haunting setting of a gothic tale, taming a stubborn man who fit the dark setting so well. Somehow the author was able to put it all together while showing the reader how breathtakingly beautiful Ireland really is. Highly recommended! Five stars!"
~ Huntress Book Reviews
"A recipe for romance--star-crossed lovers, a dark Irish castle, a witch's curse, and a heaping helpin' of destiny. Deb Stover cooks up a satisfying contemporary gothic-style romance, chock full of humor, passion, and mystery. Bon appétit."
~ Leslie Tramposch, PNR Reviews
Bridget's Bodacious Mulligan (Hillbilly) Stew
4 - 5 lbs chuck roast
1/4 cup drippings (bacon for the real experience)
1 cup of sourdough starter
1/4 cup of flour (seasoned with salt and pepper)
6 russet potatoes, cut into 3/4 - 1 inch pieces
2 large onions, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 humongous head of garlic, peeled and chopped
4-6 cups water
1 cup of chopped, fresh okra for thickening
1 cup of cooked pearl barley
3 Tablespoons of fresh parsley
1/4 cup of chopped celery
3 tbsp salt
4 tbsp fresh black pepper (more if you like it hot and nasty)
Cut the meat into pieces approximately 3/4 - 1 inch (or use stew meat) in size, removing any excess fat. Put into a bowl and dredge in sourdough, then coat with seasoned flour. Into a pre-heated pot, add the drippings and when melted and very hot, add the meat. Brown the meat quickly. When brown, add the onion, garlic, parsley, and celery--cook for two minutes, stirring often. Reduce the heat, add water and reduce heat to low. Cook about 1 1/2 hours, then add the potatoes, pre-cooked barley, and okra. Place all in crockpot for entire day, or cook 1-2 hours on stove top. Adjust seasoning as desired. Serve with warm cornbread.
Perched high atop a craggy cliff, the black castle loomed over the rocks and shore below with an imperious air. It seemed almost human, some claimed, though most God-fearing souls believed whatever force troubled those halls descended not from this earth, but from the shadows of darkness. Indeed, within the boundaries of cold, forbidding stone, something sinister surely lurked.
Along the passageways and battlements of the forsaken tower, in the dank shadows of haze-veiled belfries, timeless injustice, tragedy, and passion clung like mist to the forsaken walls. Fog, turned blood red by the distant sun, shrouded the parapet, issuing a silent warning to any who dared approach. The massive doors remained closed, and no hint of welcoming light shone from the leaded windows.
A lone figure stood in the long shadow cast by the tower as the sun sank into the sea beyond. The breeze whipped his shaggy dark hair about his shoulders, revealing a face square of jaw and nearly as complex as the decaying castle. He cocked his head at an angle, his expression so intent it seemed he strained to hear the voices of the past.
As if part of the land itself, a magnificent black horse stepped up to his side and nuzzled his shoulder. The man's face softened as he stroked the exquisite animal and a ghost of a smile tugged at his full lips.
With a longing glance at the castle, he gave an emphatic nod. In one fluid movement, he swung himself onto the beast's bare back and urged it into a reckless gallop.
Like the wind, man and horse vanished into the ripening shadows of dusk, leaving Caisleán Dubh alone again with its secrets.
Thunder boomed in the distance--undoubtedly Granny Frye kicking open the Pearly Gates. If Saint Peter knew what was good for him, he'd take his coffee break about now.
Standing beside the open grave at the Eternal Peace Cemetery, Bridget Colleen Mulligan glanced down at her dark-haired, six-year-old son and gave his hand a reassuring squeeze. Even with Granny gone, she wasn't completely alone. She had Jacob.
But poor Granny was definitely dead. The old woman had never even seen the truck that hit her as she'd chased General Lee--dear departed Grandpa's deaf and senile coon hound--across the highway.
Unfortunately, General Lee didn't possess enough integrity to have thrown himself beneath the screaming tires along with his benefactress. Now that stupid old dog was sprawled out on Granny's bed, waiting for someone--namely, Bridget--to come home and feed him. Didn't seem right for that dog to outlive both Granny and Grandpa.
Danged unfair to Bridget, too.
She turned her attention back to the funeral service, trying not to grieve over Granny's death or the dog's insatiable appetite. Granny had been saying for years that she was ready to go on to her reward.
Lord, y’all best play Bingo every Friday night in heaven or there will be hell to pay.
Grateful no one could read her mind, Bridget glanced around the sparse gathering and adjusted the umbrella over her son's head. She suppressed a shiver as the damp March wind whipped through the threadbare fabric of her old coat and the black dress she'd bought at the church rummage sale.
Brother Marvin's nasal voice droned on and the biting wind blew even harder. Though she knew it was irreverent, Bridget wished the service would end so they could all go home.
Granny would've cursed the sun for not shining on her funeral, and she wouldn't have been very happy about the low- budget coffin and lack of flowers either. Of course, the old woman hadn't exactly been a realist. Her life insurance policy had devalued to the point where it didn't even cover the cost of this service, let alone anything more extravagant. Bridget had been forced to ask for an advance on her wages to make up the difference.
Money--there was never enough. She had a child to feed and bills to pay, but at least Granny's rundown old trailer was paid for. It was the only home Jacob had ever known, and the only one Bridget could remember.
Now all she had to pay to keep a roof--such as it was--over their heads were the taxes and lot rent. She could handle that. Since Granny had spent every Social Security check the minute she received it, Bridget had been paying the bills anyway. Barely. She hadn't been forced to accept Food Stamps in order to feed her son yet. However, if it came to that, she would swallow her pride and do what needed doing. Jacob came first--even before her pride and dignity.
Pity General Lee wasn't a hog or a cow.... She bit the inside of her cheek in self-chastisement.
Fortunately, Bridget's employers were generous. Cleaning house for the only lawyer in town and his wife had its advantages. They didn't mind her bringing Jacob along, and meals were included in her salary. Hers and Jacob's. Plus, Mr. Larabee had agreed to go over Granny's will and transfer the deed on the trailer without charging Bridget for his services.
The service ended, and Bridget forced her attention back to the present. Mourners filed past to pay their respects, such as they were. The Widow Harbaugh reminded Bridget that Granny had borrowed her red patent leather handbag in 1967 and never returned it. Bridget promised to look for it right away. Mrs. Poole asked for Granny's raw apple cake recipe, and Bridget made yet another promise.
Of course, most of the good women from First Southern Baptist Church had brought casseroles, pies, and cakes by the trailer. Bridget had frozen as much as possible to make the sudden windfall last, and thanked them all profusely, grateful the mourners would not gather at the home of the deceased as custom dictated. Their trailer couldn't hold more than six adults, plus Jacob and General Lee. For once, she was grateful for the minuscule size of her home, because entertaining folks this afternoon would've exhausted the very last of her tact.
The truth was, these people had scorned and belittled Bridget all her life--a legacy handed down from her parents, who'd married during high school after Bridget was conceived in the back seat of Daddy's old Chevy. When Bridget herself had eloped with a handsome stranger with a beguiling accent and more charm than the law should allow, that had clinched her reputation.
Momma and Daddy were both dead and gone now, but these people still looked down their high and mighty noses at their love child twenty-eight years later. Well, Bridget had done all right without Reedville folks, and she only tolerated them now out of respect for Granny. Once the thank-you notes were sent and the Tupperware returned, they need never darken her door again. And vice-versa.
Soon, the only people left in the cemetery were Bridget, Jacob, and the men from the funeral home. Even Brother Marvin beat a hasty retreat the moment he could. Who could blame him? March in Tennessee could be as fickle as a forty-year-old spinster.
Right now, Bridget wondered if they'd ever feel warm again. With a sigh, she gazed down at Granny's coffin. "Well," she said, clutching her son's hand and swallowing the lump in her throat. "I'm not going to say good-bye, because you'll always be in my heart."
She'd always loved that wise old woman, even though Granny had dipped snuff and cursed like a Marine. If not for her grandparents, Bridget would've been lost and alone after her parents' deaths. Granny and Grandpa hadn't thought twice about bringing their only grandchild into their home.
And now Bridget and Jacob were the end of the line. Except for General Lee, of course.
Bridget's eyes stung and she sniffled, willing herself not to cry. Jacob squeezed her hand and she glanced down at his large green eyes. Granny's eyes. Yes, the old woman would live on through both of them. Bridget would see to it.
"Let's go, Jacob," she whispered.
She walked down the tree-lined street to the edge of town, where her employers' grand home stood. The brick house was three stories high with white shutters and a broad expanse of porch that would've made Scarlett O'Hara proud.
Bridget had promised Mrs. Larabee she'd stop by on her way home and she always made every effort to keep her word, no matter what. Of course, she suspected the real reason her employer had asked her to stop by was to make sure Jacob had a decent meal. The Larabees were good folks and she never let a day go by when she didn't thank God for her job and being able to keep a roof over her son's head and food in his belly.
Once upon a time she'd nurtured dreams of going to cooking school to become a famous chef, and maybe even teaching folks the forgotten art of down-home cooking. She'd never be a Martha Stewart--not that she couldn't carve butter into flowers if she wanted--but maybe folks would like learning about good old-fashioned home cooking. Comfort food. If there was one thing Granny had taught Bridget, it was how to fix the world's finest comfort food.
Instead of fame and fortune, fate had given Bridget a beautiful little boy. Her eyes blurred with tears of pride as she glanced down at him, walking quietly at her side. Her breath hitched and she had to bite her lower lip to keep from blubbering right there in public. Then what would Jacob think of his momma?
She always wanted him to think well of her. The worst thing in the world would be to have her own flesh and blood ashamed of her. Bridget couldn't bear the thought, let alone the reality. It would destroy her.
So, by God, she wouldn't allow it.
Regaining her composure, she led Jacob through the garden gate and along the cobblestone path through Mrs. Larabee's prized rosebushes. There would soon be a profusion of fragrant blossoms, but now only twisted, thorny vines lined the path.
Bridget and Jacob were tired and cold and hungry by the time they slipped through the back door into the warm, spacious kitchen. She immediately removed her son's damp coat and hung it from a hook on the back porch, and hers joined his.
"I'm going to put some soup on to heat while I see what Mrs. Larabee needs me to do today."
"Mmm, chicken noodle?" Jacob asked, and she ruffled his almost black curls.
Bridget opened the cabinet door and removed the familiar red-and-white can. "Chicken noodle it is." She opened the can, mixed in the required amount of water, placed the dish in the microwave, and punched a few buttons. "Granny would've loved having one of these for her instant cocoa."
"Yep. The kind with them little marshmallows." Jacob opened a drawer near the pantry door and removed the coloring books and crayons Mrs. Larabee had bought for him, then sat at the table.
"You're a good boy, Jacob Samuel Mulligan." Bridget's heart swelled with love for her son. She had no regrets for those few nights in her husband's arms. None at all. "Sometimes you look just like your father."
She never referred to the man who'd married her then left her alone and pregnant as Jacob's daddy, because he never had been. Sowing his seed didn't make a man a daddy.
But it sure as heck made a woman look the fool.
No, she didn't mean that. She had loved him in her own way. If not for that hurried trip to the Justice of the Peace and a honeymoon at the Super 8 out on the highway, Bridget wouldn't have Jacob. Besides, someday her son would want to know about his father, then she'd have to find the man.
She sure hoped someday didn't come too soon.
She'd chosen to keep her married name after the divorce, especially once she learned she was expecting. Culley Mulligan hadn't seen fit to respond to Mr. Larabee's letters or even acknowledge the divorce papers. Eventually, the law allowed the divorce decree to be finalized without his cooperation. Or child support...
Jacob flashed her one of his best smiles and she melted inside. She'd do anything for her son. Anything at all. Even look up that no-account father of his when the time came, and she reckoned it would. Kids were naturally curious about things. She just hoped Jacob took his sweet time about getting around to curious.
She blew her son a kiss and said, "I'll be right back, darlin'. Stay put."
"I will, Momma."
And she knew he would. She slipped through the swinging doors and passed through the dining room before she heard voices coming from the study. Mr. Larabee was home, too. They'd offered to attend Granny's funeral, but Bridget had asked them not to. She couldn't bear for them to see how skimpy the funeral had been, despite their generosity. With a sigh, she lifted her hand and knocked on the heavy paneled door.
"Come in, Bridget," Mrs. Larabee said, swinging open the door. "It's a dreadful day, but
I suppose that's only appropriate. Considering."
"Yes'm." Bridget didn't bother to explain that Granny would've preferred a sunny day for her laying to rest, because her wishing it wouldn't change the weather. Besides, it was too late.
"Have a seat, Bridget," Mr. Larabee said, rising from his massive leather chair behind his equally daunting oak desk.
She swallowed the lump in her throat and willed her hands to cease their infernal trembling. Was she in trouble? Had she forgotten to do a chore she'd been asked to perform? No, never. If anything could be said of Bridget Mulligan, it was that she excelled at being conscientious.
Her knees turned to the consistency of that wretched green gelatin Granny'd loved as Bridget sat gingerly on a dark burgundy wingback chair across from Mr. Larabee. Mrs. Larabee stood beside her husband, and when he returned to his seat, she perched on the arm of his chair, her hand resting on his shoulder. They both looked solemn and Bridget gulped.
"I've been going over your grandmother's estate," Mr. Larabee said.
"Estate?" Bridget coughed and shook her head. "I don't hardly think we can call a trailer house older than me an estate."
"No, but with her insurance and such, everything together is her estate...for legal purposes." Mr. Larabee drew a deep breath and folded his hands on his desk in front of him, his eyes gentle as he stared straight at her. "Did you have any idea about your grandmother's gambling problem?"
"Gambling?" She shook her head, searching Mrs. Larabee's sympathetic expression.
"Granny liked her Friday Night Bingo. Is that what you mean?"
"Yes, and I'm afraid she was betting on the ponies at the fairgrounds, too." Mr. Larabee bit his lower lip, then reached up to pat his wife's hand where it still rested on his shoulder. "However, the situation isn't all bad."
The flesh around Bridget’s mouth went numb and her blood turned colder than the rain that had pervaded Granny's funeral. "Exactly what do you mean, Mr. Larabee? I have a right to know."
"Yes. Yes, you do," Mrs. Larabee said in her soothing way. "No matter what you decide, though, I want you to know you always have a position here, as long as you want it. Don't worry about that. And a room if you ever need it."
Thank heavens. Bridget slumped back in her chair, her breath releasing in ragged spasms as she tried to make sense of nonsense. Girding her resolve, she pinned Mr. Larabee with a look she hoped would get to the bottom of this in short order. "Give it to me straight, sir. Please?"
"Fair enough." He leaned forward and leafed through a stack of papers on his desk. "After your grandfather died, your grandmother gambled away his life insurance money, then took out a loan from a finance company in Marysville."
"Oh, dear Lord." Bridget's heart thudded louder with every breath she took. "The trailer. She gambled away the trailer."
Mr. Larabee closed his eyes for a split second, then nodded. "In all honesty, the finance company never should've loaned her so much. I doubt the trailer's worth half of what she owed on it."
Mr. Larabee looked up at his wife, then faced Bridget again. "It was already in foreclosure before the accident. I'm sorry, Bridget, but it's no longer a matter of how much. There's a court order to vacate the premises by the end of this month."
"Granny knew?" She forced herself to breathe slowly. "But...she didn't know that truck would run her down."
"Of course, she didn't," Mrs. Larabee said in a gentle voice. "Bridget, we both know your grandmother was a dreamer. She probably thought--believed--the next time she would win enough to pay everything."
"Yes, I'm certain of it." Mr. Larabee cleared his throat. "I'm sorry. I know this is hard, but--"
"Hard? It's all I have--all I had." Bridget clenched her hands together in her lap, determined to maintain her dignity, no matter what.
"Not all, child," Mrs. Larabee said quietly. "Tell her the other, Donald."
"Other?" A nervous laugh came from Bridget's mouth, though that hardly seemed possible. "She had other debts?"
"No, except for her Sears card, but the balance on that was small. It's been taken care of."
Mr. Larabee made a motion of dismissal with his hand, and Bridget knew he had paid off Granny's Sears card. They were good folks, but she dearly hated taking charity.
Then she remembered her little boy coloring in the kitchen. Right now, she didn't have any choice but to take charity. Jacob came first.
"Thank you," she said steadily, though she felt anything but steady. "You'll both go to heaven for your generous hearts."
Mrs. Larabee moved away from her husband. "I'll entertain Jacob. Is he in the kitchen?"
"Yes'm. We were heating soup in the microwave."
"I'll dish it up and we'll have a nice chat." She paused at the door. "I bought some more of those little oyster crackers he loves." Her lower lip trembled and she bit it, then drew a shaky breath. "Chin up, Bridget. Everything’s going to turn out fine. You’ll see." She cast her husband another glance and left the room.
Bridget waited until the door clicked shut, then she faced the man again. I told Granny she'd live on in my heart, but I didn't know it would be heartburn. Guilt pressed down on her. No. No, I don't mean that.
"I hope you won't be angry with me," Mr. Larabee said.
She looked up at her employer. "Why in tarnation would I be angry with you, sir? This isn't your fault."
Mr. Larabee's cheeks reddened. "I've kept something from you."
A chill permeated her bones, her heart, her soul. "Tell me everything, please," Bridget urged, eager to end this nightmare so she could determine where they would go once the trailer was gone. "What did you keep from me?"
"I finally heard from Culley Mulligan's family, but I...I postponed telling you until after the funeral."
She straightened, tilting her head to one side and holding Mr. Larabee's gaze. "So the scallywag decided to surface at last, did he?"
"Bridget..." Mr. Larabee's expression grew very sober. "Your ex-husband is dead."
"Oh." No other sound escaped her as she turned icy cold. Though she'd tried desperately to convince herself to hate the man who'd married and abandoned her within seventy-two hours, she'd never completely let go of the fantasy that Culley might return for her one day. Now she knew one day would never be. His wicked grin and roguish charm would remain forever silent.
"Dead." An odd tingling sensation spread across her face and down her throat. "How? When?"
Mr. Larabee drew a slow breath and pushed his glasses farther up on the bridge of his nose. "The same day you last saw him."
"What?" Disbelief thundered through Bridget. "How? What happened? He was healthy as a horse the night before." Fire flamed in her cheeks as the words left her mouth and the vivid memory of her brief but fertile honeymoon flooded her mind.
Mr. Larabee cleared his throat and she noticed the redness in his cheeks. He was too much of a gentleman to comment on her unladylike remark.
Avoiding her gaze, he said, "Car accident right outside of Marysville."
She nodded slowly. "He...he said he had some business over there."
"As far as the highway patrol were concerned, his identification indicated they had a dead Irish citizen on their hands in a rented car." Mr. Larabee shrugged and shook his head. "They had no way of knowing about your marriage or that you should've been contacted." He arched a brow. "You didn't notify the police about his disappearance. Remember?"
Scalding tears filled her eyes. "We...we had a fight that morning about what his family would think about me not being Catholic." Though she'd been more worried about it than he had. "I thought..."
Mr. Larabee sighed. "So you thought he changed his mind about being married?”
She nodded vigorously, unable to speak. After clearing her throat, she dabbed her eyes dry and lifted her chin. "So they sent him back to Ireland?"
"He's buried in Marysville, but his possessions were returned to his family in Ireland."
"He told me about his momma, a sister, and a brother. And his granny." Bridget's eyes burned and her throat clogged with unshed tears. "All these years I've raved at the man for leaving me...and he was dead. All this time. I can't believe it."
"It's like losing him all over again." A thought made her breath catch. "What should I tell Jacob?"
"I'm not sure. He never knew his father." Mr. Larabee lifted one shoulder. "It depends on what you decide to do. Maybe it would be best to tell him nothing at all."
"And let him grow up believing his father--his daddy--abandoned him?" Bridget shook her head and lifted her chin a notch. "I'll tell him the truth. I've done the man wrong by believing the worst. I owe him this."
"Whatever you think best." A gentle and bewildering smile curved Mr. Larabee's lips. "You know I sent the divorce papers on to his last known address in Ireland."
"Yes, I remember."
"They’ve been hidden until now."
Mr. Larabee lifted an envelope with an unusual looking stamp. "According to this letter from Culley's mother, she found the envelope containing the divorce papers among her late mother-in-law's personal belongings."
"She hid them?" Perplexed, Bridget furrowed her brow. "Why?"
"Mrs. Mulligan said her mother-in-law probably thought it best the family believed her grandson died unmarried, rather than married to a woman who would, uh, 'stoop' to divorce."
Liquid fire suffused Bridget's cheeks. "That's hogwash. She didn't know what--"
"Of course, she didn't know, but that's past now," Mr. Larabee continued. "I received this letter the day after your grandmother died, and I wanted to wait until everything was settled."
"What's there to settle?" Her throat turned drier than August dog days. "I've lost my home, my granny, and learned my husband died instead of abandoning me. Mercy, what a lucky break." Bitterness edged her voice and her hands trembled.
"Don't you see, Bridget?"
"You and Jacob have family. In-laws." A shock of white hair fell across Mr. Larabee's forehead and he shoved it back with slender fingers. "And there's property."
Swallowing the lump in her throat, she wiped her sweaty palms and reached for the letter. "Property? I don't understand."
"Mrs. Mulligan believes you have a right to your share, especially since you weren't notified of your husband's death."
Culley's momma...? "Is the property valuable? Can I sell it?"
Mr. Larabee smiled. "Being unfamiliar with Irish real estate, I can't--"
"Irish? Of course, it's Irish. I wasn't thinking." Bridget leaned forward. "So Culley's property is in Ireland."
"Yes. Culley Mulligan didn't own anything in the States."
Except my heart. "I know." She shook her head. "If I had a brain..."
"You have an excellent brain, and don't ever forget that." He placed both palms flat on the surface of his desk and leaned forward. "Your husband's family owns a farm in County Clare. That's on the west coast of Ireland."
"What do I have to do?" Property for her son? But in Ireland? Of course, once upon a time, she'd believed she would go home with Culley....
"It's a fairly large farm by Irish standards, and it includes the original keep."
One corner of Mr. Larabee's mouth turned upward. "A castle, Bridget."
"A castle?" Crazed laughter erupted from her throat. Here she'd been fretting the loss of an old trailer, only to learn her dead husband had owned a castle. After a moment, she wiped her eyes dry and cleared her throat.
Culley had never mentioned the castle, though she remembered him talking about his family with love. He'd described his home so vividly, she'd laughingly accused him of painting pictures with words. Except for the castle...
She really had loved the man. A shaky sigh escaped her parted lips. He's dead. She would have to visit his grave to convince herself of that fact.
"The property--there has to be a catch," she said, bringing herself back to the present.
"It's part of his family's estate." Mr. Larabee flipped through the papers on his desk and removed one. "This is a printout of the microfiche file from Dublin."
With trembling fingers, Bridget took the document.
"As you can see, the family has clear deed to the land, but it's an entailed estate. You can't take your share and sell it unless the rest of the family agrees. In writing."
No sense getting greedy at this late date. "Right. His family." A family full of Irish folks she'd never met sounded like more trouble than General Lee that time Mrs. Baldwin's poodle went into heat.
But Jacob would have a granny, an aunt, and an uncle. In fact, he might even have little Irish cousins near his own age. Children were what made a family a family. She'd never had brothers, sisters or cousins to play with. Until this moment, she hadn't realized how much she wanted that for her son.
"What do you think about all this?" Mr. Larabee asked gently.
"Not only is this written in legal mumbo-jumbo, but there are words here I'm pretty sure aren't even English. Do you know what it really says, Mr. Larabee? The bottom line, sir, if you please?"
Mr. Larabee returned the document to the folder and removed another. "Read this letter from Fiona Mulligan instead. It might make more sense."
She took the letter and removed it from its envelope. Neat handwriting on crisp white paper leapt out at her. It was brief but friendly. "She wants to meet me."
Mr. Larabee nodded, his expression compassionate. "That makes perfect sense. Her son died and left a wife behind she's just now learned about."
"Yes, I reckon she's curious."
"When I spoke with her on the phone, I got the impression she's a lot more than just curious."
Realization made the flesh around Bridget's mouth tingle again and she had to swallow several times before she could speak. "You...you told her about Jacob."
Mr. Larabee's cheeks reddened. "It should have come from you, but...the divorce settlement Culley never received did mention child support. I'm sorry."
A huge grin split Mr. Larabee's face and his eyes twinkled behind his spectacles. "She said, 'I want to hold me boy's flesh and blood in me arms, and see the lad's face with me own two eyes.'"
Bridget had to laugh at Mr. Larabee's attempt at an Irish accent, though nothing about this was humorous. The man she'd married was dead, and his momma wanted to meet his son. Bridget owed Culley that. "I understand." She leaned closer, sliding the letter across the desk's smooth surface.
"I'll be blunt, Bridget." Mr. Larabee sobered again. "Mrs. Mulligan indicated to me that her older son--Riley, I think she said--believes you might try to con the family out of their land."
"Con?" Silently seething, she tried to quell her rising indignation. And failed. "Con?"
"Mrs. Mulligan also said that Riley will want proof."
She stiffened. "I don't need to prove anything to anybody. I know the truth."
Mr. Larabee cleared his throat. "Your mother-in-law had just the opposite reaction, however. She can't wait to meet you and Jacob. In fact, she reminds me of you."
That's what Culley said. Her heart stuttered and she warmed from within, realizing with a start that she could now give herself permission to have loved Culley Mulligan. "Culley's momma wants us to come for a visit?"
Mr. Larabee nodded. "More than a visit, Bridget. She wants you to bring her grandson home. Her words."
"Where he belongs, according to her."
An odd tremor of fear and excitement coalesced and pulsed through Bridget. Her cheeks grew warm and she clutched the fabric of her skirt in both fists. "He belongs with me."
Mr. Larabee pulled off his glasses and leveled his gaze on her. "Mrs. Mulligan's said her late husband's will was pretty specific."
"Specific?" She knew it was too good to be true. There was probably some catch to all this that would keep Jacob from receiving his inheritance.
"I mentioned earlier, this is what's called an entailed estate. One family member can't sell any portion without the permission of them all."
"Your son will be entitled to an inheritance when he reaches his majority."
"That's good. Culley would've wanted that."
Mr. Larabee sighed. "They may require proof of paternity since the marriage was sudden and secret--"
"I'm not the one who kept it secret."
"I know, but they can probably prevent Jacob from inheriting anything, or at least drag it out for many years." Mr. Larabee met her gaze. "Going there will show good faith, and--let's face facts--you have nothing here except your job with us."
Bridget reminded herself of the eviction notice. She had a child to feed, and that child's daddy might finally come through with some support. Remembering Culley's laughing eyes, tears welled in her own. She'd much rather have had Culley with her all along than have his property now without him.
In fact, she owed it to Culley to make sure his son took his rightful place in the Mulligan family. Pride made her lift her chin and square her shoulders. A slow, determined smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. "Then I reckon I'll take my son to meet his daddy's family."
"That's the spirit." Mr. Larabee returned her smile. "When shall I tell Mrs. Mulligan to expect you?"
A sinking sensation struck Bridget. The final blow. Her mouth went dry and her eyes burned. "Never." She held her hands out, palms up. "I don't have the money for the trip." Her breath came out in a whoosh and she fell back against the chair. Defeated. "I guess that's the end of--"
"No. It's just the beginning." Mr. Larabee smiled again and handed another envelope to Bridget. "Open it."
Shaking from the inside out, she leaned forward and took the envelope and looked inside. "It's full of cash."
Mr. Larabee nodded. "Mrs. Mulligan wired the money for you and Jacob to use for plane fare."
"I see." Bridget stared at the money in amazement. "And she trusts me enough to believe I won't use this for something else?"
"She said if you don't bring Jacob to Ireland, she'll assume you lied about his paternity."
Bridget’s pride reared its offended head and she rose, her knees quaking beneath her. "I never lie."
Mr. Larabee rose as well and gave her a satisfied nod. "I know."
After several deep breaths, she trusted herself to meet his gaze again. His eyes twinkled approvingly.
"Now what do I do?" She held the envelope against her chest, afraid it might vanish as magically as it had appeared. "I don't even have a passport. And what about General Lee?"
"We'll walk you through the process, but it will take a few weeks," Mr. Larabee promised. He rolled his eyes heavenward and chuckled. "And, heaven help me, we'll take care of General Lee."
She laughed along with him, and a strange new emotion filled and empowered her. A feeling she'd rarely known in her twenty-eight years.
"Is there enough here to buy plane tickets and repay you and Mrs. Larabee for your generosity?"
"That's not ne--"
"Yes, it is necessary." She met his gaze and he nodded.
"Very well. I'm sure there's plenty."
A huge grin spread across her face and she hugged the envelope close. "A real castle, Mr. Larabee?"
He nodded, smiling. "Caisleán Dubh--Cash-Lawn Doov. At least that's how Mrs. Mulligan pronounced it."
"Doov?" Bridget echoed. "I wonder what it means."
"Mrs. Larabee said you'd want to know, so she looked it up on the Internet. We think it means black."
"Black? So Caisleán Dubh must mean Castle Black."
"Or Black Castle, I suppose." He folded his arms across his lean abdomen, his expression paternal. "We're going to miss you, but I think you're about to embark on an adventure."
"Lord, yes." Bridget stared out the window at the soft drizzle. "An adventure."
"I think I'm jealous."
She smiled. "You're just going to miss my biscuits and red-eye gravy."
The man blushed to his ears and gave an emphatic nod. "And everything else you cook."
"I'll leave recipes."
She released a long sigh and grinned. "By golly, that finance company can have the trailer with my blessing."
"Good for you."
"After all," she hugged herself to make sure she was awake, "who needs a rundown old trailer when they have a castle?"