Nineteenth century Ireland. Blacksmith Gavin O’Malley is a bitter man, with a heart as hard as the iron he forges. He wants his life back—the one that was stolen from him the day his wife died in childbirth—taking their firstborn son with her.
When Aislinn Deirbhile, an immortal, shape-shifting fae, arrives on his doorstep, he knows he’s in luck. For Aislinn can give Gavin everything he’s been missing: A devoted-seeming wife in the image of his beloved Mairead, and children who are sure to outlive their father. Now, all he has to do is find a way to keep her—without losing his immortal soul in the process.
But Aislinn has an agenda of her own. On the run from a vengeful fae lord who’s vowed to either make her his or end her existence, she knows the iron that allows Gavin to take her captive will also keep her pursuers at bay. In order to put herself permanently beyond her enemy’s reach, however, Aislinn will need something more. She’ll need to win Gavin’s heart and convince him to willingly part with a piece of the very soul he’s trying to save.
That Christmas was the happiest Gavin had known since childhood. He was up early for Christmas Mass, leaving the house shortly before dawn, and leaving a pouting Aislinn in his bed with the promise he’d be back within a few hours time to fix breakfast for her.
While the world lay silent and cold, he made his solitary way into town, his path lit only by the stars that sparkled overhead and the Christmas candles that burned in the front window of every house he passed. And a thought occurred to him, as he walked along the empty lane, that each flame was a sign of hope for the future—and that, perhaps, he could feel an answering flicker, newly kindled in the darkness of his own heart. And he laughed at himself then, for putting on such airs and for the absurdity of his thoughts and his breath puffed out in little white clouds that melted away in the frosty air.
When he got to Saint Ita’s he found a seat in the very last pew, where he’d be sure of being among the first out the door when mass ended. He didn’t take Communion, although he’d made his Confession just the day before and he was sure Father Cullen would remark on that fact the next time he saw him. But too much had happened between then and now and his soul did not feel easy with the thought of it. Although he’d still have sworn to anyone who’d asked him that the woman he’d made love to the day before had been his wife, a small part of him doubted whether the Church—or Mairead herself—would choose to see things in quite the same way.
Not that he regretted his actions of the day before. To the contrary, he felt more at peace with himself that morning than he had in many a year. But his mind was so consumed with thoughts of repeating the act he barely heard a word of the service and hurried off as soon as it was over, before anyone could engage him in conversation, or take notice of his agitation.
Then it was home again, where breakfast and a sulky fae awaited him. Aislinn was wearing her own, repaired green dress and, at Gavin’s request, she once again resumed her impersonation of Mairead. It was obvious she was less than happy about it, however. But Gavin was in a good and generous humor so, once the goose was cooking, he took a few minutes to tease her out of her bad mood. He sat her on his lap, just as if she were his bride in truth, and fed her pieces of orange, tickling her as she tried to eat them until she laughed and then licking at the juice as it ran down her chin, until, finally, her smile was restored. And she rewarded him with several songs while he saw to the rest of the meal.
He did nearly spoil things again, though, before the food was even on the table for he would speak mockingly of the fae and their heathen ways, and question the usefulness of a woman who couldn’t even cook a decent meal for herself, just to watch her eyes smolder. And, also, to remind them both that she was not Mairead. But when at last he bowed his head to make his prayers—over Christmas dinner, at his own table, and with the semblance of his wife seated across from him, once again smiling at him indulgently—he was all but overcome with gratitude. Even knowing it to be an illusion, and a short-lived one at that, he still felt as though he’d been granted a taste of the life he’d once hoped would be his and he felt anew the wonder of the day.
And the prayers he said were humble and heartfelt and Aislinn was among the blessings he counted. For though he was still bemused by the strange course his life had taken, over the past few days, he was not unmindful of the fact that she was the root cause of much of his present contentment.
Finally, when dinner was over, and they were relaxing by the fire—Gavin with his pipe and both of them with pints of mulled porter—he asked her a question that had been uppermost in his mind for the past two days.
“So, tell me, lass, what is it about the iron that makes the fae dislike it so much?”
She looked surprised, as though the question had caught her off-guard and, for a moment, it seemed she didn’t know how to answer. Finally she shrugged. “It is an anathema. Even its stench—which you seem not even to notice—is repugnant to us. It binds our power so that we grow weak in its presence. Its touch is painful to us, or so I’ve always been told. Never having touched it myself, nor known anyone foolish enough to try, I canna say exactly how that would be. But I’m sure that it is bad for I can sense its presence and something there is about it that warns me off. Like the heat of a fire, if you get too close, will signal danger. You do not have to touch the flames, do you, to know they will hurt you? Its proximity alone provides a warning you cannot deny.”
Gavin stared at her. “Its stench? Good Jesus, woman, if it’s that distasteful to ye, whatever put the thought of coming here into your head?”
Aislinn shrugged again and sipped at her porter. “My need was great. And, as I’ve already told ye, ’twas the druid oracle I consulted who told me where to find thee. She said your hearth could ward me from Tiernan’s wrath.”
“What’s that you say?” Gavin asked, growing alarmed at the thought that he might have been singled out. “My hearth? Why mine? Why not someone else’s?”
“I do not know,” she answered. “And it might not be just yours that would suffice. But ’twas yours she mentioned.”
Gavin shook his head. “Bloody, damned druids. What have I ever done to any of them, I’d like to know, that they should be after bringing me into this mess of yours? And what is it this Tiernan fellow wants from ye, anyway, that it’d drive ye to such straits that you’d consent to hide out here, in my stinky forge?”
Aislinn’s eyes flashed with amusement. “Would it be so hard for you to believe he might want me for my own sweet self? I have been told by some who’ve known me that I’m quite beyond compare. Do you not find me so?”
“Aye, you’re a beauty, sure enough,” Gavin admitted. “And well ye know it too, I’m thinking. But, for all o’ that, I’d still not be out scouring the countryside in search of one who so clearly does not wish to be found.” He stopped then, as a thought occurred to him. “He does know you doona want him, doesn’t he? For when I met up with the scoundrel yesterday he claimed you two were to be married.”
Aislinn stared into the fire. “He knows what my feelings are. There has never been any doubt as to my unwillingness to marry with him. The great lengths to which he’s gone to try and ensure I’d have no choice in the matter attest to that.”
“So what is it he wants?” Gavin repeated, adding when she seemed reluctant to answer. “I think I’ve a right to know what ’tis all about, seeing as you’ve seen fit to stick me in the middle of it.”
“Some of it, perhaps.” She gazed at him speculatively for a moment then smiled. “A bargain for ye then, mortal. I’ll tell ye why it is that Tiernan pursues me so ardently. And in exchange I want to know about this wife of yours, to whose memory you cling so tightly even though it does not seem to me you had much joy of each other.”
Gavin scowled. “My marriage does not concern you, Fae. Nor my wife either.”
“Oh, indeed?” Aislinn smiled mockingly. Spreading her arms wide to draw attention to the form she wore, she threw his own words back at him. “And yet, it does seem you’ve seen fit to stick me in the middle of it, does it not?”
‘It does, I suppose,” Gavin admitted grudgingly. “Very well, then. But I’ll also be wanting to hear more about this druid witch and what she had to say. And I’ll make no bargain with ye for that piece of knowledge. For, if she mentioned my name, I’ve a right to know what it is she said about me.”
Aislinn nodded. “Agreed.”