The tenth book in the Mighty Quinns series, 2006
THE HOUSE WAS QUIET except for the ticking of a clock somewhere in the room. Ian Quinn tried to focus on his grandmother’s words but his mind continually returned to the clock as he counted the seconds. His younger brothers stood on either side of him, dressed in their Sunday best of well-worn pants and ill-fitting jackets.
Just five years old, Marcus clung to Ian’s arm, his face half-hidden from their grandmother’s piercing gaze. Declan’s rigid posture hid the fear they all felt, cast into this strange place with a woman they’d never met.
“Well,” she said, folding her hands over the head of her cane. “I suppose we must make you something to eat.”
Ian shook his head. “We had supper on the plane, ma’am. We’re not hungry.”
She frowned, then slowly rose from the high-backed chair she sat in. Marcus’s grip tightened on Ian’s arm and he winced. “You may call me Nana Callahan, not ma’am. Though we are strangers, we are family and there is no need to be so formal.”
“Yes, Nana Callahan,” Ian said obediently. He jabbed Declan in the ribs and his brother nodded his assent, mumbling the words. Marcus simply retreated farther behind Ian’s arm.
They’d arrived at the big stone house just a few minutes before, transported from the airport by a black car with leather seats. The flight across the Atlantic Ocean had taken almost seven hours with Ian trying to entertain his younger siblings with cards and books. In truth, he’d been trying just as hard to distract himself from his own fears.
He knew he ought to be thankful for the chance to visit a place as famous as Ireland, thankful that his grandmother had sent the money for the tickets, thankful that the plane hadn’t crashed into the ocean and they’d all died. But Ian was having a hard time being thankful for anything right now.
Since his mother’s illness had been discovered last fall, the family had been in turmoil. Though Marcus and Declan had been oblivious, Ian had overheard the conversations, mostly about money, insurance, hospital bills, treatments. No matter how hard his father worked, there wasn’t enough to make his mother well and support seven children.
Grandmother Callahan had money. A lot of money. But their mother had steadfastly refused to ask her for help. When the annual invitation had come from Ireland for all the Quinn children to visit during summer vacation, Paddy and Emma Quinn were finally forced to accept. But only for the three younger boys.
Ian’s other brothers, Rory and Eddie, were old enough to find jobs and his sisters, Mary Grace and Jane, would help keep the house and care for their mother. Ian had begged to stay, promising his father that he’d find work, but in the end, he was sent away, too. Nine years old just hadn’t been old enough.
There had been no hugs or welcoming smiles when they’d arrived at Porter Hall, no assurances that they’d have a good time during their summer vacation. Instead, they’d been hustled inside by their grandmother’s driver, Mr. Grady, then escorted into the library by her butler, Mr. Dennick.
“Well, then, how is your mother?”
Ian blinked. He wasn’t sure how to answer. “She’s fine, ma-I mean, Nana Callahan.”
“She’s not fine or you wouldn’t be here,” the old woman snapped. “I know she’s sick.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ian murmured. The fight between his mother and his grandmother must have been a big one, he mused. His father’s parents wrote lovely long letters and sent cards and gifts on their birthdays and at Christmas, at least until Grandma Quinn had died last year. But no one ever talked about Grandma Callahan. Only whispered.
For good reason, Ian thought. He already hated her. She looked down her nose at them as if they were nothing more than trash. And though her house was ten times bigger than the house they’d left behind in South Boston, it was cold and dark and smelled of musty, old things. The sooner the summer was over, the happier he’d be.
“And I suppose your mother told you you’ve been sent here because they can’t afford to keep you anymore.”
Ian blinked, her words slicing into him like shards of glass. “That’s not true,” he shouted. “My ma and da love us. They sent us here because they feel sorry for you. You’re old and you’re mean and you don’t have anyone who gives a shit about you. And I can see why!”
Her only reaction was a slight tilt of her head. “You speak your mind,” she said. “I suppose you got that from your father.” She paused. “If you speak to me like that again, I will not be afraid to use the strap.”
Go ahead, his mind screamed silently. She could beat him until he was black-and-blue and he still wouldn’t love her. “We’re tired,” Ian said. “We’d like to go to bed now.”
Her lips pressed into a tight line and she nodded at the butler who stood behind them. “We’ll speak more in the morning. Breakfast is at eight. You’ll be expected to be dressed by then. Dennick, show them to their rooms.”
Ian gave her a cold look before he grabbed his brothers’ hands and led them from the room. Why the hell had his parents sent them here? They didn’t belong half a world away from the people who loved them. He felt tears pressing at the corners of his eyes and he swallowed them back, refusing to surrender. This wouldn’t be a vacation, it would be like spending time in a horrible prison.
“Can we go home now?” Marcus asked as they climbed the stairs.
“Not yet,” Ian whispered.
“She’s a witch,” Declan said. “I swear if she would have hit you, I would have pounded her face.”
“Shh!” Ian sent Dec a warning glance, then nodded to the butler, who was waiting for them on the landing. “You’ll listen to me now. Da said that I was in charge. I’m to take care of you both. I’ll make sure it’s all right. I swear.”
When they reached the landing, the butler led them into a dimly lit hallway and pointed to the first door. “This would be Master Marcus’s room,” he said as he opened the door and stepped inside.
“We share a room,” Ian said. “At home. The three of us. We’ll do that here.”
“I don’t wanna sleep alone,” Marcus said.
The butler’s eyebrow arched. “Madam says you are each to have your own room. It would go better for you lads if you minded her.” He paused. “You grandmother sleeps in the east wing. She won’t disturb you here.”
Ian gave the butler a nod, understanding the man’s meaning. “It’s all right, Marky,” Ian said, giving his brother a gentle shove. “Dec and I will just go see our rooms and then we’ll come back and tuck you in.”
Marcus nodded mutely then slowly walked into the room. He stood right by the door, watching as Dec and Ian followed the butler down the hall, peering around the doorjamb with wide eyes.
Ian had always complained about sharing a room with his younger brothers, but now that he had the chance to have his own room, it didn’t seem like such a treat. Each room was dominated by a huge bed with heavy fabric hanging off the posts at the corners. The same fabric hung at the windows, faded by the sun and time.
When Ian reached his room, he walked over to the fireplace and stared at the huge portrait hanging over the mantel. A young boy sat astride a beautiful horse. His face looked familiar, but Ian knew he’d never met the boy.
“That’s your grandfather,” Dennick explained. “This was his room when he was a lad. You look like him.”
Ian glanced over his shoulder. “What happened to him?”
“He died in the war. He was a soldier and was killed by the Germans in France.”
“Did you know him?” Ian asked.
Dennick shook his head. “I wasn’t yet born when he passed. My father cared for the family back then. He told me Edward Porter was good and kind man.”
“Porter? I thought his name was Callahan.”
“You’ll have to ask your grandmother about the ins and outs of your family’s history,” Dennick said. “The bath is through that door. You share it with your brother Declan. Clean up after yourselves and we’ll get along fine.”
The door closed behind Dennick and Ian let out a tightly held breath. Three months. That’s how long they were expected to stay. Though Ian hated school, right now he almost wished that it ran over the summer so he and his brothers wouldn’t be stuck here.
He glanced up at the painting above the fireplace, his eyes fixing on the boy’s face. He had to admit, they did look a lot alike. The three younger Quinns had always favored their mother’s more refined features rather than Paddy Quinn’s rugged looks.
The boy was dressed in fancy clothes, a blue jacket and white pants with shiny boots that reached his knees. He held a black stick that looked like a little whip and his eyes appeared to be staring into the distance, as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
Ian glanced nervously around the room, then grabbed the chair from the fancy wood desk and dragged it to the fireplace. He climbed up on it and reached for the painting, smoothing his fingertips over the boy’s face. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected to find, but all at once, there was a connection. It was as if they knew each other, somehow shared the same fears.
His hand trembled and he drew it away, then stumbled down from the chair. His mother used to talk about ghosts and spirits, but he’d never believed in those things. Now, as a chill ran through him, Ian wasn’t sure he’d been right.
A soft knock sounded at the door, startling him out of his thoughts. He spun around in time to see Dec and Marcus slip into the room, dressed in their pajamas. Ian smiled and they both rushed over to him.
“I hate it here,” Declan said. “We have to call Ma and tell her we want to come home.”
“We can’t,” Ian said. “Ma says we have to be here now and we’ll do as she says.”
Marcus stared up at Ian, his eyes watery with tears. “Do you think she doesn’t want us anymore?” he asked.
Ian shook his head, then took Marcus’s hand and pulled him along to the bed. “Nah, don’t think that, Marky. She just has to concentrate on getting well. And by the time we go home, she’ll be right as rain.” He drew back the covers and Marcus hopped up onto the high bed. Declan followed and the two younger boys settled themselves as Ian began to unpack. “It’ll be all right,” he murmured. “It’s only three months. We’re tough, we can make it. We’ll just pretend we’ve been taken captive by an evil witch.”
“What if she throws us in the oven like in ‘Hansel and Gretel’?” Marcus asked.
“She’s not really a witch,” Dec explained. “She won’t hurt us. She can’t if we stick together. And if she tries, we’ll run away, won’t we Ian?”
He turned and nodded, then crossed the room to sit on the end of the bed. He held out his palm. “We stick together, right?” Declan placed his hand on top of Ian’s and Marcus followed suit.
“Brothers till the end,” Ian said. He glanced at Dec and Marcus and put on a brave smile. In truth, he was just as scared as they were. They were an ocean away from everything they knew and loved, with no way to get back. It might seem an adventure for some kids, but Ian couldn’t see it that way. He wouldn’t feel truly safe until he was back home in South Boston, in his own room, with Ma and Da just down the hall.
IAN SQUINTED against the sun, the glare from the windshield piercing his head like a sharp knife. He’d spent the previous evening with his brothers, drinking far too much beer. It wasn’t really a problem since it was Saturday, and as police chief of Bonnett Harbor, he was off the clock. Still, he had to keep an eye on things, at least until he got a cup of coffee and made plans for the rest of his day.
He glanced toward the back of the Mustang, its ragtop neatly folded behind the backseat. A little shade would probably help to get rid of his headache, but riding around with the top up was sacrilege on a beautiful June day like today. He pulled up to the light at Main and Harbor and waited to turn right, knowing it would take precisely thirty-two seconds to change.
“He’s doing it again.”
Startled, Ian jumped, then glanced over at the elderly woman leaning into the passenger’s side of his car. He groaned inwardly and rubbed his forehead. “Mrs. Fibbler. How are you today?”
“You said you’d talk to him,” she snapped. “But he’s still putting his trash on my side of curb.”
The pounding in Ian’s head intensified by a factor of ten. “Mrs. Fibbler, technically the land between the sidewalk and the curb isn’t yours. It belongs to the town. That’s why we can plant trees there without having to ask your permission. I know, you mow the grass there, and by doing that, you believe it’s part of your…domain. But I can’t stop Mr. Cuddleston from putting his garbage out where he wants. As long as it’s on the curb on Tuesday morning then we’re all happy.”
She frowned, her little flowered straw hat sitting crookedly on her head, giving her a slightly crazed look. “But you promised you’d talk to him.”
The light turned green and Ian stuck his hand out and waved the cars behind him ahead. “Did you ever think Mr. Cuddleston does this because he knows you’re going to come over and yell at him? I think he likes you, Mrs. Fibbler. And I think, if you were a little nicer to him, you two might…”
She gasped. “Chief Quinn! How dare you think that I would-”
“Become better neighbors,” Ian finished. “That’s what I was going to say.”
She stood up and smoothed her hands over her flowered housedress. “It’s only been five years since my Sherman passed on. I’m still in mourning.”
Ian sent her a disarming smile, one he’d used so often in his work as police chief. “You’re an attractive lady, Mrs. Fibbler. A man like Mr. Cuddleston would have to be blind not to see that.” He congratulated himself when a tiny smile crept across her stern expression. It was a wonder how little he used his police training here in Bonnett Harbor and how much he relied on his charm.
“Do you really think he’s-” She paused and pressed her palm to her chest, her cheeks coloring with a modest blush. “I-I suppose I could offer an olive branch. Perhaps invite him for dinner?”
“As chief of police, I’d have to say that’s a brilliant course of action, Mrs. Fibbler. Brilliant.”
The elderly lady bustled off down the sidewalk, a wide smile now beaming from her face, her shopping bag clutched to her chest. She turned back once and gave Ian a little wave and Ian returned the gesture with a weak smile.
“Another damsel in distress rescued from certain danger,” he murmured.
When he’d moved back to Bonnett Harbor from Providence two years ago, he’d never expected his social life to take such a hit. It had been easy to date in the city, the available women in endless supply. But here, everyone knew him. If he chose to date someone in town, the entire population knew the details within a day or two. The out-of-town affairs had been satisfying, though short-lived, since his work seemed to consume most of his free time. In the past year, he’d dated three women for a grand total of thirteen weeks.