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No amount of jet lag could make Rachel Woods take a nap, not when the Wild Atlantic Way beckoned just outside the door of the cozy bed-and-breakfast she would call home for the next three months. Leaving her suitcase and her backpack on the bed, she quickly changed her shoes, slipping her bare feet into a comfortable pair of leopard-patterned ballet flats. Through the casement window, sunlight glittered on the distant ocean and she could hear the cry of seabirds overhead. Low stone walls edged the greenest fields she had ever seen and tiny blobs of white told her there were flocks of sheep grazing there. Grabbing a lightweight jacket and her phone, she locked her room and made her way downstairs.
Mrs. O’Leary, the owner of the B&B, appeared from the back of the house, her face wreathed in smiles. “Ah, there you are, Miss Woods! I just put on the kettle for tea if you’d like a wee bit of refreshment. You’ve had a long trip, all the way from America.”
“Oh, thank you, Mrs. O’Leary,” Rachel said, “but I thought I’d go for a walk. I can’t believe I have a view of the ocean from my bedroom!”
Mrs. O’Leary laughed. “Oh, yeah, it’s not that far. Turn left out the gate and follow the road until you come to the church, and then bear right. You’ll see a livestock gate and, beyond that, a path through the fields. If you follow the path to the top of the hill, you’ll have a fine view of the sea and the cliffs.”
“Through the sheep field?” Rachel repeated doubtfully. “Isn’t the land private?”
“Paddy Cullen owns the field and he will not mind you walking through; everyone does. Pay no mind to the sheep; they’ll stay away from you. Stay on the path and you’ll avoid the bogholes.”
Rachel laughed, sure the other woman was joking. “Bogholes? What’s a boghole?”
“The fields can be wet, especially this time of year. A boghole is just a hole filled with mud and water, but it’s not very pleasant to fall into one.”
“Maybe I’ll just stay on the road,” Rachel ventured. “I’m not really one for hiking through sheep fields.”
“Well, it’s up to you, of course, but the best views are from the top of the hill.”
Rachel smiled. “In that case, if I’m not back in an hour, send out a search party.”
“You’ll be fine. I’ll have the kettle on and tea ready when you return,” Mrs. O’Leary promised. “Since it’s lambing season, you’ll likely see some wee lambies as well.”
“That seals the deal for me,” Rachel declared, holding up her phone. “I’ll gladly brave bogholes for a picture of a lamb.”
Mrs. O’Leary laughed. “Very good, enjoy, and mind you close the gate behind you! We don’t want our own sheep escaping.”
Stepping outside, Rachel paused to breathe deeply. The air was tinged with salt, and fragrant with the smells of the ocean and the fields, and the peat smoke that puffed from the chimneys of the nearby houses. She still couldn’t quite believe she was here. The landscape that spread out in front of her seemed surreal in its beauty, and so far removed from the glossy skyscrapers and urban sprawl of Chicago that she almost pinched herself to be sure she wasn’t dreaming. She was really in Ballylahane, a small village in the heart of County Donegal, home of Ireland’s oldest weaving mill. The McDermott family had been handweaving and manufacturing tweed and luxurious textiles in this village for nearly two hundred years. Tomorrow, she would begin a three-month internship at the mill as part of her graduate studies, the last step in earning her MFA in textile design.
The O’Leary B&B sat just on the edge of the busy town center, a little back from the road. The gravel parking lot in front of the house was surrounded by a low wall with a white iron gate. Several sheep grazed at the edge of the driveway and eyed her cautiously as she slipped out of the yard and pulled the gate closed behind her. She stood for a moment and looked up and down the main street, which was lined with brightly painted shop fronts. From where she stood, she could see the pub, the post office, a tea-and-bake shop, a small clothing boutique, and a locally owned supermarket. There were also two woolen and tweed shops and a small hotel. Rachel laughed softly. Ballylahane was certainly a far cry from Chicago, in every way possible.
Setting out in the direction of the church, Rachel turned her face toward the sun and smiled. Could anything be more lovely or magical than Ireland in the spring? Here she was, mere steps away from the quaint village center, strolling along a gravel lane edged with stone walls and green creeping vines. Overhead, the sky was a brilliant, cloudless blue. She passed an older couple walking in the opposite direction, each of them carrying a walking stick. They nodded politely and greeted her with a smile, but Rachel didn’t miss how they stared at her leopard-patterned shoes. She could see the curiosity in their eyes, and wondered if she stood out as an American.
At the small stone church with its ancient graveyard, she turned right. The road narrowed to just two ruts, and she could see the wide expanse of field ahead and the steep hill that must overlook the entire countryside. The wide, metal livestock gate was closed, but there was an opening at the edge with a wooden step built into it for walkers to access the field, and a wooden sign with a crudely painted arrow that read, Ballylahane Head—2 km.
“This must be the way,” she murmured, and climbed through the opening.
From her window at the B&B, the field had looked like a uniform sweep of green velvet. Up close, Rachel could see the ground was wet and marshy, with tussocks of grass that grew in great clumps, surrounded by spongy earth. But the path was easy enough to follow, and she made her way upward for what seemed like an eternity, until eventually she had to stop when she became overheated and out of breath. Bracing her hands on her knees, she looked back the way she had come and realized she’d traveled farther than she’d realized. The church and the road now looked tiny, but she was barely halfway up the hill. She could see the B&B and the miniature white tufts that were the O’Learys’ sheep in the front yard. Glancing upward, she saw a small flock slowly making their way along the ridge above her and among them were several lambs, cavorting alongside their mothers. Seeing them, she straightened, determined to reach the top. She stripped off her jacket and tied it around her waist.
“I can do this,” she muttered. “And when I get back to the States, I am so joining a gym.”
She continued on until she came to a shallow stream that was too wide for her to easily cross without getting wet. Gingerly, she stepped off the path and picked her way across the field in search of an easier spot to cross. The ground squelched wetly beneath her feet and she tested each footstep for firmness until she found a spot where the stream narrowed and she thought she could jump across. The ground on either side looked soft and mushy, and there were no hummocks of grass here as there had been near the path. Drawing in a breath, she leaped across the water, slipping a little as she landed in the mud on the other side, realizing her shoes were completely impractical. Regaining her balance, she searched for the best way back to the path, but everything looked marshy, and suddenly she felt less certain about continuing on. From where she stood, she could no longer see the path, although she knew where it must be.
Hearing voices, Rachel looked up and saw three men appear over the rise. They wore shorts and running gear, and she watched as they jogged easily through the field. Noticing her, one of the men lifted a hand in greeting and Rachel waved back. Aware they were watching her and feeling self-conscious, she took two steps forward and then shrieked as her feet sank into a murky quagmire. Thrown off-balance, she fell forward, but there was no solid ground to break her fall, only thick, wet mud that sucked at her hands and feet and threatened to pull her down. She scrabbled for purchase, reaching for something—anything—when a strong hand suddenly caught her beneath her arm.
“Easy, I’ve got you.”
One of the runners had come to her rescue. Rachel clung to him as she felt herself sinking deeper into the hole, past her knees. “I’m still sinking! It’s like quicksand!”
“Hold on, I’ll pull you out.” He was tall and strong, and in one easy movement, he hauled her upward. The mud made a wet, sucking sound as it released her, and then Rachel was free. Feeling unaccountably shaken, she collapsed against the man, her muddy fingers clutching the front of his jersey.
“Thank you, thank you,” she gasped, and then started to laugh. The absurdity of the situation, combined with her relief at having escaped certain death, released something inside her and she laughed until tears streamed. Aware that her rescuer was watching her in bemusement, she made an effort to pull herself together. Wiping her damp cheeks with one hand, she managed to speak. “So that’s a boghole!”
“It is, yeah. Have you hurt yourself?”
He was looking at her as if she had lost her mind, and aware that she was still clinging to him, Rachel pushed herself away, balancing on one foot. “No, I don’t think so, but I seem to have lost a shoe.”
Worse, she was covered in thick, reeking black muck up to her thighs, and her arms and front were wet and muddy from where she had fallen.
“Right, well, let’s get you onto firmer ground first, and then we’ll find the shoe.” He held on to her arm as she half hopped beside him, back to the path where the other two men waited. “She’s okay, lads. Why don’t you go on ahead and I’ll see her safe into town?”
With a wave, the other two men continued their run. For the first time, Rachel got a good look at the man who had rescued her. She guessed him to be no more than thirty. He was tall and lean and had bright hair that glinted with burnished gold and copper highlights in the sun, and the bluest eyes Rachel had ever seen.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” she said, feeling herself blush beneath his regard. “If you hadn’t come along—”
“You’d be just another tourist gone missing down a boghole.” Seeing her horrified expression, he grinned. “I’m joking. Truly. I’m glad I could help. You’re American, yeah?”
She liked his accent and the way he rolled his r’s, so that tourist sounded like toor-rist.
“Yes, I’m Rachel.” She extended her hand, only to swiftly pull it back when she realized it was covered with black mud. The front of his jersey was also filthy where she had grabbed on to him. “Sorry.” She gave him an apologetic look. “Looks like I owe you a new shirt.”
He laughed. “It’s fine, really. I’ve plenty more where this came from.” Extending his own mud-covered hand, he grasped hers and smiled into her eyes. “I’m Conall. Pleasure to meet you.”
“Same here.” Aware that she was still smiling stupidly at him, she withdrew her hand and tried to pull her scattered thoughts together. “Mrs. O’Leary did warn me about bogholes, but I honestly had no idea they were so treacherous.”
“They can be, yeah,” Conall agreed. “Most folk take a stick with them when they go hill-walking, to test the ground.”
“Well, that would make sense, but I only just arrived today and I’ve never been hill-walking.” She laughed. “Until now, I’ve never even seen a bog.”
“Right. Well, let’s see if I can recover your shoe. Stay here, don’t leave the path.”
“Don’t worry,” Rachel assured him. “You don’t have to tell me twice.”
She watched as he made his way carefully back to the spot where she had fallen. He had an athlete’s physique, with broad shoulders and long, muscled legs. Bending down, he plunged his hand into the boghole and triumphantly came up with her shoe, dripping with mud and water.
“Success,” he said as he retraced his steps and handed her the shoe.
Rachel grimaced. Turning the ballet flat over, she poured out the mud. “Oh, that smells terrible! These are definitely ruined.”
“Might as well put it back on,” Conall said cheerfully. “You’re already covered in the stuff and it will at least protect your foot from rocks on the way back.”
Using his arm for balance, Rachel managed to push her bare foot into the wet shoe. “Ugh, that feels disgusting!” In fact, she was extremely uncomfortable with her jeans clinging wetly to her legs and mud squelching between her toes. And the smell was beyond anything she had ever experienced. “Why does it smell so bad?”
Conall laughed. “That’s literally millennia of decomposed plant material.”
“Oh, it’s awful!”
“I agree. Let’s get out of here.”
Conall led the way back down the hill, reaching out to help her over the tricky spots, and checking to make sure she was able to keep up. “Doing okay?”
“Yes. I can’t wait to take a hot shower.”
“Staying at O’Learys’ B&B, are you?” He took her hand and helped her across the stream at the point where she had previously left the path. He made it seem effortless.
“Yes. Do you know the O’Learys?”
“Oh, sure. Pauline’s a good sort and she’ll treat you well. You’ll be sitting by her fire and sipping tea before you know it.”
“That sounds like heaven,” she confessed. “Then . . . a long nap.”
“Where are you from, in the States?”
“Chicago, born and bred.”
“Ah, the big city. This must be quite a change for you, then.”
Rachel thought of the small apartment she shared with her cousin, Lori, in the middle of the city. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d visited the countryside or had seen the ocean. Her apartment building was surrounded by other high-rises so she never saw a wide-open vistas unless she went down to the waterfront and looked out over Lake Michigan. At night, she fell asleep to the sounds of sirens in the streets and the rumble of the Metra train that ran behind her building. It was the third week in March, but Chicago was still encased in ice, while Ballylahane was already vibrant with color. The only green she’d seen back home had been the Chicago River on St. Patrick’s Day, when the local plumbers union had dyed it green in celebration of the Irish holiday just a week earlier.
“You have no idea,” she said with a huff of laughter. “Ballylahane is like something out of time. It’s so quaint.”
“Yeah, it is that.”
They reached the livestock gate, and Conall gave her his hand as she negotiated the wooden step through the opening that led to the road. Soon they reached the gate to Mrs. O’Leary’s yard, where her three sheep still grazed. Rachel turned to Conall with a smile.
He stared at her for a moment, and a lopsided smile curved his mouth. “You have mud on your face. Quite a bit of it, actually.”
“I do?” Rachel rubbed her fingers over her cheeks.
“Ah, you’re just making it worse,” Conall said, laughing. “Here, let me.”
Carefully, studying her face with all the intensity of an artist surveying his subject, he swept a thumb over her cheekbone and came away with a thick dollop of black mud. “That’s the worst of it.”
“Thank you again,” she said.
“Nah, don’t mention it. But if I could make a suggestion, you might want to wear some proper trainers the next time you go exploring.”
“Er, runners. Sneakers. Lace-up running shoes. They won’t come off so easily if you fall into another boghole.”
Rachel raised her hands, laughing. “No worries, I have absolutely no intention of ever climbing that hill again.”
“I hope you don’t mean that. The views from the top are spectacular. I could show you, if you’d like.” He glanced at her feet. “Once you have a proper pair of shoes, that is. And I promise to keep you out of bogholes.”
“Thanks, but as you probably noticed, I’m not much of an outdoors type,” she confessed, her tone rueful. “I’m probably safer sticking to paved roads.”
Conall tipped his head as he looked at her. “If you don’t get off the beaten path, you’ll miss all the best parts.”
Rachel realized he was right. If she hadn’t ventured into that field, they might never have met. She might have taken a nap, instead, and he would have jogged straight past the O’Learys’ B&B and they never would have crossed paths.
“Maybe you’re right,” she conceded with a smile. “Can you recommend somewhere to buy a good pair of trainers?”
Conall grinned. “I can, actually. There’s a shop called Heart and Sole on Drumbarron Road that can sort you out.”
“Great, thanks.” She turned toward the gate and then paused. “Maybe we’ll see each other again.”
“No doubt we will. It’s a tiny wee town, after all.”
End of Excerpt