“The left hand of a dead man dipped in a milk pail causes cream.”
—Old Irish saying
All his life, Ryan Cartwright dreamed of Ireland. Despite his mother’s disparaging comments—“The Irish are crazy. Why would anyone in their right mind want to be Irish?”—he was sure there was the blood of Celtic kings somewhere in the family tree.
When he got the chance to represent his marketing firm for a deal in Dublin, he jumped on it. He cashed in a few favors and added three weeks of vacation to the trip, then rented a compact sedan and happily set out on his adventures, with only a map and a Gaelic phrasebook for company.
Even with the map, he was soon thoroughly lost among the switchbacks and dirt lanes crisscrossing the countryside. Not that it mattered. This was what he had always wanted—to putter about the Irish moors.
He drove over a slight rise and skidded to a halt with a screeching of brakes. Stepping out of the car, Ryan leaned over the frame of the door. “It’s beautiful…” he breathed to no one in particular.
In the hollow beneath him was a picture-postcard village, complete with thatched roofs and sheep pens. The Sun was beginning to slide behind the horizon, and its slanting rays gilded the little cluster of dwellings with golden light.
It’s just like I always pictured it. Even down to the collie sleeping in the dooryard. Wow. What are you waiting for, boyo? Get down there!
Ryan climbed back in the car and inched down the hill into the town square. Hardly more than a handful of structures, “square” was a bit pretentious for the dusty wide spot in the road, but it was framed on three sides by buildings, so he guessed it counted.
He parked in front of the largest edifice, a two-story affair with a swinging sign proclaiming it to be “The Harp and Hound.” A pair of plaster wolfhounds flanked the swinging door, and a gilt harp hung above it.
Ryan grinned to himself. Now there’s a pub if I ever saw one.
He pushed through the swinging door and paused just inside, letting his eyes adjust to the dim interior. Half a dozen patrons were clustered around the oak bar against the far wall as he strode forward. “A pint of bitters if you please, sir,” he called, stepping up to the counter and laying down a five note.
“American, is it?” asked the publican as he set the mug on the scarred bar. He took the bill and moved to the ornate brass register.
“Yeah. That obvious, huh?” Ryan downed half the pint in one draught. “Whew, that’s good stuff!”
The barkeep grinned, handing him his change. “We like to think so. That’s a local brew, that is.”
“Well, my compliments to the brew master. I’ve never tasted anything like it.”
“Hear that, Pete?” the barkeep called down the counter to the broad-shouldered young man with the slouch cap who sat at the end. “He likes this batch of yours. You finally got it right!”
The publican stuck out his hand. “The name’s Timothy Dugan. Welcome to The Harp and Hound.”
“Ryan Cartwright,” he replied, shaking the outstretched hand with alacrity. “This is a great town you’ve got here.”
“We like it. ’Tis quiet for some, but we manage all right.”
“What do you do for entertainment around here?”
Timothy shrugged. “We are a simple lot. Good friends, pleasant conversation, mayhaps a bit of dancing in the square—that’ll do for a Saturday night.”
The man named Pete spoke up from his place at the end of the bar, “And High Tea of a Sunday. The ladies love a bit of fancying on a Sunday.”
“High Tea?” Ryan asked, shaking his head in amusement.
“Oh, aye,” replied Pete with a solemn nod. “Full board—tea, cakes, fresh cream, them little finger sandwiches made with cucumbers. ’Tis a grand affair.”
What the hell, it’s Saturday…and I’m not expected anywhere until next Thursday. This might be fun. Pretty Irish colleens in linen and lace…I can think of worse ways to pass the time, Ryan thought to himself.
“I might just have to see that.” He grinned. “Is there any place in town I could get a room for the night?”
Pete gestured toward one of the others with his beer mug. “Ian there has been known to let rooms when he takes the notion.”
“On occasion,” agreed Ian. “Might be that I could find you a corner somewhere.”
Tim set a full pint on the bar in front of Ryan. “On the house, lad. There will be dancing after dusk, and mass in the morning before tea. You are welcome to join us at both.”
“I’m not Catholic.”
“The Lord won’t hold it against you as long as you know His name,” replied Tim solemnly.
Ryan sipped the fresh pint. Yeah, I could really learn to like it here.
He spent the next hour trading tall tales with the men around the bar, and then the sounds of fiddle music and excited chatter started to filter through the doorway.
Ian slapped him on the back. “The dance is about to start, me boy. Come and meet my sister Siobhan.” He winked at Ryan. “She’s a fine lass, if I do say so myself.”
Ryan followed Ian and Pete outside. A bonfire had been lit on one side of the square and benches placed around the perimeter. A crowd was forming, laughing women setting out pies and cakes on a trestle table set against the wall of the pub. Pitchers of cider were placed beside them, and a small keg tapped at the other end.
Ian introduced him to a flirtatious redhead with a come-hither smile and hair that rivaled the flames. Ryan was instantly captivated and danced with Siobhan until the Moon began to set and his head to swim from the strong ale.
As he sat with the girl on one of the benches near the trestle, a woman scurried up to Timothy and began to whisper urgently to him. Curious, Ryan strained to hear what they were saying.
“’Tis all gone over, Dugan. Every drop. What are we going to do?”
“Hush, woman. Don’t be daft. It can’t all be bad.”
“But it is, I tell you! Not one blessed dribble for tomorrow, and you know that we must have cream for Sunday.”
“There’s the morning milking. You can get the cream from that.”
“That’s no guaranteed thing. You know that sometimes there is no decent cream from a milking.” She glanced over to where Ryan sat cuddling Siobhan, and when she turned back to Tim, her voice was so low the American couldn’t catch it all. “…other way…stranger,” she whispered.
Timothy glanced over at them, a frown creasing his forehead. Ryan was amused.
Tim looks as if he’s chewing on tinfoil. Maybe there’s something I can do.
“Is something wrong, Tim? Can I help?”
Dugan’s scowl deepened. “You’re a good lad, Ryan Cartwright. This isn’t your affair.”
“But, Dugan—” began the woman.
“Be still, Moira!”
Ryan stood up. “Really, Tim, if there is anything I can do—”
“You don’t know what you are saying, boy.”
“Let me help.”
“He wants to do something,” Moira prodded.
Timothy sighed, nodding his head reluctantly. “If ’tis the only way. Heaven knows we couldn’t do without the cream for one blessed tea.”
“Timothy Dugan!” From the tone of Moira’s voice, one would think that Tim had suggested attending mass buck-naked.
“Siobhan, come here a minute, girl.” Tim motioned her to him.
Ryan drew himself another mug of ale while Timothy whispered earnestly to Siobhan in the shadows. The girl let out a little cry of protest, but Timothy took her arm and redoubled his efforts to convince her of whatever it was he was trying to sell her. He pressed something into her hand, glancing nervously at Ryan.
Ryan chuckled. Whatever it is Tim wants, he’s having the devil of a time convincing Siobhan it’s a good idea.
Finally, Timothy planted a kiss on the center of Siobhan’s forehead and pointed her back toward Ryan. The smile she gave to Ryan was tremulous around the edges, but she pressed against him eagerly.
“Would you be willing to come to the barn with me, Ryan Cartwright?” she murmured, her voice husky with desire.
Ryan was more than a little drunk, but never one to turn down a willing woman who was thrusting herself upon him. “Sure, darling—just show me the way.”
Siobhan bit her lip, and even in the dim firelight, he could see that there were tears standing in her eyes.
“Sugar, if you don’t want to—” he began.
“Oh, no, Ryan. I want to. More than you will ever know.” She took his hand and pulled him from the square.
They passed out of the firelight and threaded their way behind the buildings surrounding the square. A second cluster of structures loomed before them, and Siobhan guided him into a long, low barn that smelled of hay and fresh manure. Five or six cows regarded them sleepily from their stalls.
“Have you ever milked a cow before?” Siobhan asked, lighting a lantern and turning to him.
“Can’t say that I have. But isn’t that a morning thing?”
“Usually. But it isn’t as if there is no milk in the cows between noon and daybreak. Would you like to try?”
Ryan laughed. “Sure, why not? How many people can say they milked an Irish cow at midnight?”
“Not many,” she replied in all seriousness.
“It was just a joke, honey—” He tried to put his arms around her, but she slipped away.
Damn, now I’ve done it. She’s angry with me…
But that didn’t seem to be the case as she helped him situate the stool and bent over his shoulder to direct his efforts. Her breasts brushed his back, warm beneath the thin calico of her dress, and he had to force himself to concentrate on the task at hand.
Somehow, he managed to fill the pail with the milk, and he turned to her with the bucket raised triumphantly. “One pail of milk, my lady.”
“Aye,” she acknowledged, “and a fine job you did too.” Her eyes glowed with intensity as she drew him toward a nearby pile of hay. “Time for your pay.”
Ryan grinned, the expression a bit lopsided. His head still spun from the ale, but it appeared that he was going to make out better than he had expected from the evening’s entertainment. “Whatever you say, mistress.”
With a coy simper, Siobhan let her dress fall to the floor, and Ryan felt himself react to the sight. He set the pail down in the hay to undress, and Siobhan adjusted its position more securely.
Stepping out of his jeans, Ryan reached for Siobhan, but she shook her head.
“Lie down,” she ordered. “I’ll take care of you.”
With a wicked grin, Ryan lay back on the pile of rough hay. He felt himself tense with anticipation. Siobhan lowered herself onto him, and he moaned appreciatively. “God, that feels good.”
She began to move, teasing him ever closer to release. Ryan felt as if he would explode. Just before the climax, she dipped her hand into the pail of milk and poured some of the fresh liquid over her breast. Bending down, she offered him a chance to lick it off, and he took it eagerly.
Milk never tasted this good before…
“Now you,” she whispered, nuzzling his ear.
“Dip your hand in the milk.”
Ryan’s world was coming apart at the seams. At that moment, he would have done whatever this enchantress asked of him.
As she drew him over the edge to full climax, he thrust his hand into the pail as ordered. He cried out in pleasure, which slid into pain as Siobhan thrust a knife home between his ribs and twisted it sharply.
He looked down at the bone handle in dull surprise, reaching instinctively to pull it free, but Siobhan pinned his left hand into the milk pail and the right to the straw. “But, why…?” he asked, the edges of the world beginning to blur.
“You are a stranger, darling. How could we kill one of our own? But we needed a dead man’s hand, you see.” Tears rolled unchecked down her cheeks. “I will miss you, lad…and think of you often…but you must understand…”
As consciousness slipped away like the last sand from an hourglass, Ryan heard her whisper, “We must have cream for Sunday.”
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