A Bittersweet Garden is now in the hands of the formatter, almost ready to greet the world. I cannot believe this is my fourteenth novel! I still remember so clearly what it felt like to see my first novel in print. This never gets old (of course, the nerves about a new release never go away, either).
For those of you who enjoy previews, I’m posting an excerpt from the first chapter below.
Here’s the blurb:
Nora McNeill has always dreamed of exploring her Irish roots. When she finally gets the opportunity to spend a summer in the village where her grandparents grew up, the experience promises to live up to her very high expectations. Except for the ghost that is haunting her rented cottage and is soon invading her dreams.
Briana Devlin has arranged her life the way she likes it: a good dog, good mates, and work with horses. There’s no room in her life for a relationship. Especially with an annoyingly clumsy—and attractive—American who is only going to be around for a few months.
The weeks fly by, and Nora’s ghost becomes more demanding, seeking her help in solving the mystery surrounding her death. Briana watches as Nora becomes more wrapped up in the past, seeming to fade away before her eyes.
Past and present are on a collision course, leaving Nora and Briana caught in a ghostly intrigue that could cost them not only their chance of a future together, but their very lives.
And here is the excerpt:
Nora McNeill pressed her forehead to the glass, peering through the airplane window, trying to see through the clouds below. The sun, brilliant here above the cloudbank, was blinding. The video screen built into the back of the seat in front of her showed their little plane had been flying over Ireland for the past thirty minutes as it descended toward Dublin, but she hadn’t been able to see anything.
She’d wanted to come here her entire life—maybe even longer than that, she sometimes thought.
The flight crew had already cleared all the coffee cups and debris from the breakfast they’d served to the sleepy passengers nearing the end of their overnight flight. Most of the older people around her seemed to know one another and were apparently all part of the same tour.
She’d carried on a stop and start conversation with Iris, the grandmotherly woman beside her, who had knitted nearly the entire night, her green and yellow baby blanket spilling onto Nora’s lap. Nora now knew that Iris was a widow from a little town an hour west of Minneapolis, had five grandchildren—with a sixth on its way, thus the baby blanket—and had never flown outside the States. Neither had Nora, for that matter.
“And you’re traveling alone? I could never do that. Don’t you think you’ll miss home?” Iris had asked upon learning that Nora’s plans were to spend the next three months in Ireland. Iris had only been gone a dozen hours, but claimed she was already missing her grandkids.
Deciding it was probably more diplomatic not to scoff, Nora simply shrugged. “Probably, but I’ll be visiting family.”
Nora snugged her seatbelt as the plane bounced through a bit of turbulence. The window was suddenly obscured by white. When the plane emerged from the clouds, there was Dublin, spread out below them in the distance.
Her heart pounded at her first glimpse of Ireland. Beside her, Iris harrumphed, clearly unimpressed, but Nora ignored her. It didn’t matter that it was gray and dreary and looked almost like the view of Northern Virginia around Dulles airport. She sat back with a sigh. Nothing mattered except she wasn’t going to be stuck in Fredericksburg for her entire summer.
The plane quickly descended and, soon, Nora was wheeling her carry-on off the plane with her backpack slung over both shoulders, following Iris and all the other passengers through the airport toward the baggage claim carousels. She grinned at the signs, all written in English and Irish. She’d been studying and could read some of the words. Of course, being able to say “That’s a yellow bicycle” or “I have a black cat” probably weren’t the most practical phrases, but still.
When she’d collected her one checked bag and had her passport stamped—“my first stamp!” she’d said stupidly to the sleepy-looking agent—she made her way through the airport, bustling even at this early hour. Following the directions the customs agent had given her, she went outside to find the bus, her luggage trailing behind her.
The morning was misty, and the air smelled of diesel fumes, but nothing could dampen her excitement. She found the bus, with a uniformed driver chatting to another man in a different uniform with a reflective vest.
“This is the bus to Galway?” she asked.
The driver turned to her, looking her up and down. “American?”
She nodded and shrugged out of her backpack straps.
“That’ll be a hundred fifty euro,” he said.
She froze, her hand searching for her wallet inside her backpack. “A hundred fifty? I thought the website said eighteen?”
“Not for Yanks.”
She stood there, her mouth open, until his buddy burst out laughing.
“Stop teasin’ her.”
The bus driver grinned and climbed into the bus where he punched a few buttons on his console. It spit out a ticket that he handed to her as she passed him a twenty-euro note.
“Just leave your bags,” he said, pointing to a few others sitting on the pavement as he handed her change. “I’ll load them.”
She hoisted her backpack up the steps onto the bus and dropped into a seat, stashing her backpack in the seat beside her. She listened to the low conversations taking place around her and realized all the other passengers seemed to be either American or European—anywhere but Ireland. She supposed she’d been stupid to think anyone from Ireland would be catching a bus from the airport. Of course they’d all be tourists like her. She was also the only person on the bus traveling alone.
It doesn’t matter. It’s going to be like that all summer. All that matters is that you’re here. She unzipped her backpack and dug out a bottle of water and a granola bar.
Within a few minutes, the bus was pulling away from the airport. She craned her neck, trying to take it all in. The bus passed through Dublin, pausing at a couple of stops to let more people on. She snapped photos through the bus windows with her phone, half-wishing she’d planned to spend some time here, but money was tight, and she hadn’t felt quite brave enough to tackle Dublin on her own.
“I’ll be back,” she whispered as the bus drove along the river with its arched bridges.
She fought to stay awake and take in the views of the flat countryside outside the city, but her eyes fluttered closed and her head bobbed as she fell asleep despite her efforts.
When she woke, the bus was winding its way through Galway’s streets to the bus station. She stood with the other passengers to collect her bags as the driver unloaded them from the cargo compartment, and then stumbled into the station where the pleasant young woman at the ticket counter checked the bus schedule for the next leg of her journey.
“You’ve just over an hour before your bus leaves,” she said.
Nora paid for the ticket. “Is there anyplace close by where I can get a cup of coffee?”
“Sure there’s a Starbucks just round the corner,” the ticket agent said, pointing. “You can leave your bags here if you like.”
Nora stashed her luggage and thanked her before going in search of caffeine.
By the time the next bus was underway, she was jazzed on a double-shot cappuccino and a scone.
Unlike the express bus, this one stopped in several towns as it made its way north. The terrain had changed quite a bit, becoming hillier and the roads much narrower. She held her breath a couple of times, wondering how on earth the bus and the oncoming vehicles—on the wrong side of the road—were possibly going to pass without scraping each other or the hedges and stone walls bordering either side of the road. She whispered several prayers of thanks that she’d decided not to rent a car and drive herself.
The bus’s elevated height gave her a great view of small houses with neat front yards—gardens here, she remembered—separated from the road by low walls. She chuckled at the tiny cars tucked into impossible parking spaces, sometimes seeming to have just been pulled up onto the sidewalks.
The sun came and went as clouds drifted, soft rain misting the windows and then passing to allow slanting beams of sunlight to sparkle on the drops. Passengers boarded and left at each stop along the way. She tried to catch snatches of conversation, delighting at the accent.
Her caffeine was wearing off, and the jetlag was beginning to weigh on her as the bus neared her destination.
“Cong,” called the driver.
She roused herself to wheel her bags along the center aisle.
“Visiting?” asked the driver as he carried her bags down for her.
“For the whole summer,” she said.
He winked. “Have a grand summer, then.”
The driver waved as the bus drove away. She stood in front of the Crowe’s Nest Pub, debating whether to go in for a real meal, but the day was fading and she had a ways to go yet.
She hoisted her backpack straps higher on her shoulders and took a suitcase handle in each hand, rolling them along the street. The narrow sidewalk was crowded with people, most of them part of a tour, judging by the badges they wore on lanyards around their necks and the cameras and phones they held up, snapping photos as they walked. She dropped off the sidewalk into the street, her head swiveling as she walked, trying to take in everything. Some things felt as if she’d been here before: the corner with the Celtic cross the bike flew around, Cohan’s pub. She’d watched The Quiet Man so many times, she had the dialogue memorized. She especially loved the scenes with the villagers who’d been the extras in the movie.
“There we are,” Mamma said every time, pointing.
“Oh, those were fine days,” Pop said, his pipe firmly clamped in his teeth as he nodded fondly.
From the time she was sitting on her grandfather’s knee, she’d listened to the stories of how the movie people had come to their tiny village, transforming it for those months, even bringing in electricity where it hadn’t been before.
Nora couldn’t wipe the grin off her sweaty face as she tromped along, passing the ruins of the abbey, walking past the ivy-covered cottage that had been the vicar’s house in the movie. When she reached the church at the curve of the road, she paused to catch her breath. It was Church of Ireland, but it had served as a Catholic church for the movie. She leaned on the wall, panting. Behind her, a vehicle’s motor drew near. She turned to see a dark green Land Rover approaching. The driver braked as he passed her and backed up. The door was emblazoned with “Ashford Castle”.
“Where are you bound, Miss?” he asked.
The young man jumped out and hurried around to her. “I’ll give you a lift.”
“Are you sure?” she asked, but he was already loading her bags into the cargo area.
“It’s my pleasure. I’ve just got to drop off these guests for dinner, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all. Thank you.”
He got in behind the wheel as she climbed into the passenger seat. She smiled and nodded at the couple in the rear seat.
He drove into the village along the way she’d just come, stopping at Cohan’s. He got out to open the rear door for the woman, confirming a pickup time for later that evening.
“Your first time in Cong?” he asked Nora when he got back in.
“Does it show?”
He chuckled. “Just a bit. You’ve got that gleam in your eye.”
She laughed. “I guess I do. My grandparents were born here. They’ve told me about Cong my whole life.”
“Is that a fact? Who are they?”
“Brigid Cleary and Thomas McNeill. I’m Nora McNeill.”
“And I’m Craig O’Toole,” he said. “Do you still have family here?”
“I have cousins, second or third, I guess,” Nora said. “My grandparents’ siblings’ grandchildren. It’s so confusing. I mean to look them up while I’m here.”
Craig had taken a different road out of the village, Nora realized.
“Why aren’t we going back the way we came?”
“One way into the village,” Craig said.
He took a right and drove past a vast stretch of manicured grass with a few golfers in the distance. As if he knew what her reaction would be, he stopped the Land Rover at the curve where the castle came into view. He grinned at her gasp. It was better than her dreams, the picture-perfect stone castle with the crenellated towers and the lake just beyond.
“Do you ever get tired of it?”
“I don’t, no. I keep seeing it through fresh eyes when I drive guests here.” He chuckled. “Would you like to visit the castle? I can drive you up to the Lodge after.”
As tempting as it was, Nora could feel her body rebelling if it didn’t get sleep soon. “That’s really nice of you, but… I’ll visit it tomorrow.”
Craig drove on, pointing out the Thatched Cottage restaurant before taking a turn that bore them left and then right again, through deep shadows and mossy trees until they emerged into golden sunlight and a different view of the lake, with small boats bobbing in the cove below.
“Here you are. The Lodge.”
He opened the tailgate and insisted on carrying her bags inside for her. “Got a guest for you, Sarah. She was walking all the way from the village.”
“Oh, you poor thing.” Sarah clicked her computer keys, fingers flashing with vivid red polish.
“See you later, Miss McNeill,” Craig said with a cheeky wink in Sarah’s direction.
“McNeill?” Sarah stared at her screen. “Here you are. Three nights with us, right?”
“Yes.” Nora sighed. “I wanted to stay at the castle, but…”
Sarah laughed. “No more need be said. We’ve a lovely location at a fraction of the cost.”
Nora nodded sheepishly.
“How about I make you a reservation for tea at the castle tomorrow evening, if you’ve no other plans?”
“I don’t have any other plans. That would be wonderful.”
Sarah scanned Nora’s credit card and handed her a key and a stack of brochures. “Just call if you need anything.”
Nora found her way to her room. As soon as she got inside, all her plans to wander the grounds were forgotten when she saw the puffy white duvet on the bed. It was only mid-afternoon here, and she knew all the travel advice said to stay up and get used to the new time zone, but…
“I’ll just close my eyes for a minute,” she muttered as she stretched out and promptly fell asleep.
* * *
The room was nearly dark when she woke. She sat up, feeling shaky and drugged, her mind sluggish, as she tried to remember where she was.
Cong. She was at Ashford. She flopped back down with a happy sigh.
Her stomach growled, reminding her she hadn’t fed it anything healthy in several hours, and that airplane meal hadn’t gone down well.
She glanced at her watch, mentally moving the time ahead five hours. Almost nine o’clock here. She had no idea what would be open at this time.
She rinsed her face, patted it dry on a luxurious towel, ran a brush through her honey-blonde hair, and went in search of food, grabbing her stack of pamphlets on her way out.
A few minutes later, she was seated at a table in the bar with a bowl of creamy vegetable soup and thick slices of hearty brown bread.
Sated, she sat back, sipping her tea and letting her body settle. She leafed through the brochures. Among them was a map of the Ashford grounds and surrounding area. She scooted her chair closer and leaned over the map. She already knew the layout of the area around Cong from her grandparents, but it was cool to see it drawn out like this.
She pushed back from the table and gathered her papers. On her way back to her room, she stepped outside where a misty rain was falling.
“’Tis a nice, soft evening,” she said, chuckling to herself.
Today, despite all the obstacles and opposition, she’d arrived at the destination of her dreams. Tomorrow, she’d start living her dream.
copyright © Caren J. Werlinger 2019