Donnelly's Promise

Donnelly's Promise
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Vaughn Donnelly's work has taken him to many different villages over the years, and he's never regretted saying goodbye to anyone in them.Until he promises to help Darcy Keegan rescue an orphaned boy from prison. Darcy dreams of a family, a home, a husband… But can Vaughn offer Darcy what she needs?


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Donnelly’s Promise

Cheryl St. John

Castleville, Ireland, 1850

Atop his scaffolding, Vaughn Donnelly set a brick in place and stood to arch his sore back. He removed his cap and swiped a hand across his perspiring forehead. This spring day he was thankful for the generous warmth of the sun and the scent of heather from the nearby hillside—and even more thankful for the trade his father had taught him. While he had work, most of the prisoners in the yard below were serving time for stealing food.

From his vantage point, he observed the prisoners below, the men and women divided by a rock wall. The numbers were fairly equal, and all were dressed in coarse blue-and-white-striped prison uniforms. Adults weren’t the only residents. Children had been sentenced to hard labor for their supposed crimes, as well. His work provided too many sickening glimpses into their senseless punishment and abuse. He’d once seen a child die at the hands of a heartless guard, and the sad regret that he’d been unable to prevent it remained with him to this day.

Conditions were marginally better in Castleville, and he suspected he knew the person responsible for giving Castle Carraig a heart. Vaughn knelt and buttered a brick with mortar, keeping a watchful eye on the door that led from the kitchens. A young woman appeared, as he’d known she would, not dressed in prison garb, but in a pale blue dress and a white apron. Under her white cap, a long, strawberry-blond braid hung down her back. He smiled to himself. Darcy Keegan. She’d been two years behind him in school, and they’d attended the same church. Her father was the chief warden of Castle Carraig Penitentiary.

Just as she carried a lunch basket toward the tables set end-to-end near the building, he spotted a young boy leading a donkey from the far end of the yard toward the female weavers. Heavily burdened with bundles of brown coir used to make rope and mats, the obstinate animal balked and sat on its hind legs.

Obviously frustrated, the lad grabbed the donkey’s lead and tugged for all he was worth. The donkey shook its head and sent the boy tumbling sideways. He landed in a heap right where Darcy had been about to step. She fell over him, her petticoats flashing white eyelet in the noonday sun. Sandwiches spilled from the basket onto the dirt.

Vaughn stifled a chuckle at the sight of Darcy hurriedly adjusting her skirts and picking herself up. Obviously, the only injury was to her dignity. At that point one of the guards insinuated himself into the situation, and Vaughn went on alert.

“Ye’re a clumsy eejit!” the tall man shouted at the lad, then grabbed him by the collar and hauled him up. “Made a right hames of it, ye ’ave. Thick as a ditch, ye are. Just look how much food ye’ve wasted with yer shenanigans.” He cuffed the lad, and instinctively the boy covered his head, his elbows pointing at the sky.

Vaughn dropped his tools and shot toward the ladder side of the scaffold. Experience had taught him just how harsh the boy’s treatment could get, and he would not stand by if he could spare the lad a beating—or worse.

Darcy reached for the guard’s arm just as the man drew back for another swing. The forward momentum threw her off balance and she stumbled. Vaughn was only halfway down the scaffold, but he jumped the rest of the way and hit the ground running.

Darcy Keegan wasn’t keen on landing in the dirt for the second time this day. She caught her balance and turned back to have a go at the guard who’d lit into the small laddie. Mack Boyle was half again her size, but the boy was pathetically skinny and obviously terrified, and she wasn’t going to stand by and see him abused.

Before she could say anything, footsteps pounded behind her. “Seems there’s a bit of a misunderstandin’,” came a familiar voice.

Vaughn Donnelly cast a foreboding shadow over the red-faced guard. A warm sense of relief flooded Darcy. Vaughn and his father were building yet another wing onto the prison, and his broad-shouldered frame and natural smile had been a regular sight at Castle Carraig for the past several weeks.

Boyle swiveled his attention. “Ain’t none of your doin’, Donnelly. The lad deserves a lesson, ’e does.”

“Saw the whole thing happen, I did,” Vaughn told him. “’Twas an accident, pure and simple. The lad meant Miss Keegan no harm. If anyone deserves a tongue lashin’, it’s this cantankerous beast here.”

“An irritable brute, ’at one is,” Boyle agreed, backing down now that he’d been confronted.

Darcy picked up her lunch basket. “I can feed the dirty sandwiches to the pigs, and the rest are still fine.”

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