Cian Sneak Peek
Loneliness isn’t about being alone. It’s being in a room full of people where every one of them stare. Where they judge. Where they whisper to each other behind raised hands that don’t block their hateful words. And Dónal Sheehan takes every opportunity he can to be the center of attention, making sure I’m right by his side. Not because he actually wants me there, but because then he can put on a front of doting Da to his fat, ugly, and motherless daughter. So all those people can applaud his efforts at raising her after his first wife—my mother—and second wife both died. Except it’s nothing but a show. A façade. If they only knew what went on behind closed doors.
I’m not sure they’d care.
“Would you like another cup of tea, Miss Sheehan?” The housekeeper asks from the doorway of the library.
Deirdre dips her head and leaves me to the book I’ve been trying to read for the same number of hours that Dónal has been gone. He stopped being Da a long time ago. If I do address him, it’s always sir. Even that is more than he deserves. I push my glasses farther up my nose and finger the end of my braid draped over my shoulder, nervous gestures I can’t help. Not when I don’t have a clue when he’ll be back.
It’s just one more thing I hate him for.
Books let me escape. It doesn’t matter that it’s only for a few short hours. Not long enough to forget, but long enough that I can blissfully ignore reality. My reality. At least for a little while. Except I can’t even do that. Not tonight. Because I have to be ready for his return. A low fire burns, providing an extra bit of light in the dim room. An ember pops, causing a small spark to fly and me to jump. I sit back in my reading chair and stare into the flames. If I were anyone else, maybe I’d lose myself in a daydream. But I stopped daydreaming years ago. It’s pointless.
The rattle of metal startles me, and I whip my head in the direction of the door. The heart that dropped into my stomach returns to its place, beating a bit faster than it had a moment before. Deirdre steps into the room carrying a serving tray. She sets it on the side table next to me, picks up the teakettle, and fills my nearly empty cup.
“Thank you, Deirdre.”
“Yes, miss.” She places it back on the tray and exits the library, no doubt to also prepare for the return of her employer.
From down the hallway, my mother’s grandfather clock bongs, calling out the hour.
It’s the middle of the night, and I should be sleeping. Only sleep won’t come. It never does when Dónal goes out. Because going out means drinking. Gambling. Losing more money. Worse than that, it means adding bruises to the collection he’s already given me.
One would think I’d be used to it after all these years. I take a sip of my hot tea, blowing on it to cool it down enough not to burn my mouth, and stare into the fire again. My eyes burn with fatigue, but my mind races and my palms sweat.
Another hour’s passing is marked by the sound of the clock. Five a.m. And still I wait. Maybe he finally cheated the wrong person. Maybe I’m free.
In the distance, there’s a crash. My eyes slowly close and I curse the stupid part of me that dared to hope.
“Where’s that ungrateful daughter of mine?” Dónal bellows, his words slurred from drink. “Nessa. I know you’re still awake. Get your fat arse out here and help me.”
Setting down the book, I stand and head out of the library to where the bastard waits. I learned the first time he hit me not to stall or ignore him. It’s only worse when I do. I step into the entryway where he struggles taking off his jacket. His porcine face with its flappy jowls is red. A mix of alcohol, rage, and exertion, I’m sure. His shirt is missing a couple buttons, and the pasty white flesh of his round belly peeks through the gap.
“Don’t just stand there,” Dónal snaps.
I take a few quick steps forward, grab the neck of the jacket, and tug it down his flailing arms, which is only making it more difficult.
“If you’d keep still, I could get it.” I’ve just managed to get both of his arms out of the sleeves, so I’m left with the coat dangling from my hands. Which means I can’t block the blow.
The back of his hand collides with the side of my face. Stinging pain follows, my head snaps to the right, and my glasses fly off my face. There’s a ringing in my ear which muffles whatever Dónal is saying. I cover my hot cheek with my palm and turn toward him. He glares at me with hatred burning in his eyes.
“Hang that up and come to my office.” He curls his lip and walks down the hallway.
Deirdre comes rushing around the corner and scoops my glasses up off the floor. “Let me help you, dear.”
I shake my head and take them from her, putting them back on. “No, I’ll do it.” If nothing else, it gives me an extra minute to compose myself.
Once the jacket is put away, I head toward more punishment for imaginary infractions. The minute I step through the door, a painful and vicious grip wraps around my upper arm. Nails dig into the underside of it, and I can’t bite back that whimper of pain. The fingers only clamp down harder as Dónal drags me across the room.
“Make me a drink.”
He nearly pushes me toward the bar, his steps unsteady, despite the fierce hold he maintains. At last, he releases me. My entire arm flares with pain, and already I can feel the finger-shaped bruises forming on my skin. I pour the exact amount of whiskey he prefers into the glass, and with shaky hands, pass it to him. He tosses it back in a single swallow. Then he paces. I remain standing there, doing my best to make myself invisible. He mumbles and runs his hands through his hair, leaving it to stick up all over.
Dónal’s bleary gaze lands on me and he sneers. “You might finally be good for something.”
Uncertainty fills me. What does he mean?
He glances at his watch and then out the window. Faint light shines in as dawn approaches. His eyes return to me and scan me from head to toe. There’s no disguising the disgust in them. I’m wearing a shapeless flannel nightgown that hits mid-shin and pulls around the waist and hips. My feet are covered by tall wool socks that disappear beneath the hem of my sleepwear. I’m dressed for comfort not fashion. It’s not as though anyone is going to see me anyway.
“Any minute, Cian Donnelly will be here.”
Dónal hates the Donnellys, and vice versa. Why is one of them coming here? Especially at this hour? I don’t ask any questions. A slap or punch is always the answer I’m given when I do.
“You’re going to go upstairs and change into something less…pathetic before he arrives. Something that doesn’t make you look like a cow, if such a thing exists.”
After twenty-six years, I should be immune to his insults, yet they still have the power to dig in where it hurts the most.
“Why?” It slips out before I can stop it.
An open-handed slap is his response. Even drunk, Dónal has enough strength to make me bleed. Thankfully my glasses stay put, but they’re knocked slightly askew. I straighten them and swipe at the small cut in the corner of my mouth.
“Stupid. How many times are you going to make me do this? If you would just listen the first time I tell you something.”
Yes, because him hitting me is always my fault. If only I were smarter. Thinner. Prettier. Less of a burden. I quickly bypass him and rush out of the hated office. I make it to the entryway just as Deirdre opens the front door. In steps the man I first dreamed about when I was twelve years old. Back when I still believed in dreams.
I come to an abrupt halt and swallow. On his heels is one of his brothers, although I’m not familiar enough with either of them to be sure which. Cian’s sapphire blue eyes travel down the length of me, stopping at my feet. I curl my toes inside my socks. He raises his gaze back up to meet mine, pausing at my mouth for a fraction of a second. So fast, I’m sure I imagined it. His expression is blank. Then his gaze shifts over my shoulder, past me, and that changes in an instant.
His lips curl in disdain. “I’m surprised you didn’t find some hole to crawl in and hide like the rodent you are, Sheehan.”
I pivot a half turn and take a step back. My gaze bounces between the two men. The air is thick with hate and tension that makes me nervous. What’s going on?
“You’re not welcome here. Take her and go,” Dónal bites out. “Consider my debt paid.”
Take who? What debt? I blink and my mind races. Is he here for me? But why? I glance at his brother behind him, but he’s focused on Dónal as well.
Cian’s gaze leaves his enemy’s and collides with mine again. “Let’s go,”
“Go? Go where?” It comes out on a whisper.
He moves to the door and glances over his shoulder. “You belong to me, now.”