Sister Bernadette Ignatius and Tom Kelly sat in the back seat of a black cab, driving from Dublin's airport through the city. She felt jet-lagged from their flight from Boston and all the weather delays, but full of anticipation about what she was about to find out. Although she hadn't been here in over twenty years, Dublin looked so familiar: the lovely Georgian townhouses with their fanlights and brightly painted doors, stone bridges arching over the River Liffey, the columned facades of imposing government buildings.
"Well, look at that," Tom said, leaning across the seat to point at the cozy brick bar with hot pink petunias spilling from glossy black window boxes. "O'Malley's Pub. It's still here. Remember? Our own personal Tir na Nog. That's where . . ."
"Some things never change," she said quickly, to stop his words. "I wonder if Mr. O'Malley is still behind the bar."
"I wonder what he'd think to see Bernie Sullivan in a nun's habit."
"With the convent right around the corner, I doubt he's shocked by the sight of a nun."
"No," Tom said. "But then, you're not just any nun."
"Tom Kelly," she said sternly. "We're either going to do this the hard way or the easy way. I'm voting for the easy way."
"You're the boss, Sister Bernadette," he said. "You always have been."
She nodded once, hard. He was right about that: she was his employer. Tom was the foreman and groundskeeper at Star of the Sea Academy in Black Hall, Connecticut, where Bernadette was Superior. He and his crew kept the lawns manicured, the gardens blooming, the vineyard producing, and the old stone walls and buildings from falling apart. He had quite a vested interest in the place; it had once been the mansion and grounds of his paternal great-grandfather, the well-known industrialist and philanthropist Francis X. Kelly.
Bernadette slid a glance across the seat, saw Tom staring out the cab window. She tried to read his expression. She had known him forever, or at least most of their lives. They had met at Star of the Sea, at summer picnics when his family would invite hers down to the beach for the day. Francis X. Kelly had employed her great-grandfather, Cormac Sullivan, to build all the walls on the property. Their families had long histories, and so did Bernadette and Tom.
Tom had thrown away his family riches to work the land. He was passionate about social causes and justice, caught up in the legacy of his ancestors' poverty, hunger, and fighting spirit. He had gone to private schools, then turned his back on a life of luxury and ease. He liked to keep his hands dirty and his feet planted solidly on the ground. Bernie loved him for it. She doubted she could have a better foreman and knew she could never have a better friend.
He looked tired, she thought. This trip was possibly more challenging for him than it was for her, and that was saying something. She knew that he had very strong hopes, in terms of the outcome. And she knew, even before they really set forth on their quest, that he would be disappointed.
"Here we are," the driver said in his bright Irish accent. "The Convent of Notre Dame des Victoires."
"Guess which one of us is staying here," Tom asked him.
"Very funny," Bernadette said as the driver chuckled.
Although the driver started to help her with her bags, Tom took over. She saw him reach into the trunk, pull out her suitcase. She rarely used it, hardly ever leaving Star of the Sea, except for the occasional monastic conference or retreat. Since her family--her brother John, his wife, Honor, and their three daughters--lived on the Academy grounds, she usually spent her week's vacation right there at home.
She had applied for a sabbatical last year, hoping to go to Florence to study her beloved Fra Angelico, but had never found the time to take it. The Academy always needed her--to run the school, make decisions in the convent, keep the vineyard operating.
This trip to Dublin fell under the category of "personal time." As Superior, she had granted time away to Sisters with sick siblings or parents, funerals to attend, family emergencies. For her own leave of absence, she had made arrangements very quickly, left Sister Ursula in charge of everything, including the hectic start of the school year. None of her nuns had ever needed to deal with anything like what she herself was about to face, and the thought of it sent chills through her body.
"Are you cold, Bernie?" Tom asked, seeing her shiver, standing on the curb.
"No," she said. "I'm fine."
"Coming down with something?"
She shook her head, gazing past him at the convent's curtained windows. She thought she saw the fabric move and a shadow pass behind the glass.
"Well, I'll be at the house," he said. "You have my number if you need me. If they don't have orange juice, or you need some aspirin or something, you know who to call."
"I'm sure they'll have everything I need," she said dryly, slipping her hands into her sleeves.
"And if they don't, you'll get it," he said. "You do know how to take care of things, I'll give you that." He squinted up at the convent, as if assessing the brickwork. "There's some crumbling mortar there, needs repointing," he said, pointing at the front steps. It was probably a very effective way to block out his memory of the last time he'd dropped her off at this address.
"Not every convent can be lucky enough to have you on staff," she said.
He gazed down at her, the squint not letting up one bit. She waited for a smile, but it didn't come. What did she expect? For him to thank her for the compliment? Not likely, not Tom Kelly. Under the circumstances, it probably sounded to him meager at best.
"At least, most likely, they don't have a resident vandal," he said, giving her a quick, mischievous smile. "What was that message, carved in the stone?" He paused, seeming to think, even though she was sure he knew the words by heart. She felt the heat in her neck and face, and she shook her head. She never would have expected Tom to be so mean. "Tell me the words, Bernie. The ones that appeared first, early in the summer . . ."
" 'I was sleeping, but my heart kept vigil,' " she murmured.
He nodded. "That's right," he said, lifting her bag, carrying it up the sidewalk. "How could I forget?"
"You didn't," she said coolly, unlatching the wrought-iron gate at the foot of the front steps.
As they climbed the steps, she felt years falling away, almost as if she were coming to the convent for the first time, preparing to join the order. Her mouth was dry, and she was filled with a sense of trepidation, fear that she might be making the wrong choice.
"You sure you want to do this?" Tom asked, the same question he'd put to her twenty-three years earlier.
"The choice has already been made," Bernie said, echoing her own response.
Just then the door opened, and a nun stood there smiling widely, gazing at Bernie with warm green-gold eyes. She was tall and thin, and looked exactly as Bernie remembered her, all those years ago, when they were novices together.
"Sister Bernadette Ignatius!" the nun said in her Kerry brogue.
"Sister Anne-Marie," Bernie said.
Tom slid the bag into the front hall, standing back as the old friends embraced and Bernie wiped away tears.
"Is that you, Tom Kelly?" Sister Anne-Marie asked, beaming.
"It sure is," he said. "How're you doing, Annie?"
"I'm fine," she said, throwing herself against him in a big hug. Bernie watched the affection in both their faces, and she fought to keep her own expression as blank as possible. She knew this wasn't going to be simple, and she had to maintain as much control as she could.
"Okay, I'm off," Tom said. "You have my number, Sister Bernadette. I'll see you tomorrow morning. Take good care of her, Sister Anne-Marie."
"You know I will," she said with mock sternness, locking arms with Bernie, and pulling her into the inner sanctum, closing the door behind her.
Bernie's heart was pounding. She looked around the hall, saw the delicate marble statue of the Blessed Mother standing in the alcove. The aroma of good cooking wafted down the hall, and she also smelled hints of incense from the chapel just off the front hall. Memories were flooding back, making her feel almost faint. She heard the car door slam, and when she glanced past the curtain, she saw Tom watching out the car window as the driver pulled away.
"Feels like it's happening all over again," she said in a low voice.
"It's not, though," Sister Anne-Marie replied, standing just behind her.
"I'm not sure why I came," Bernie said. "This story has already been written. Right down to 'The End.' "
"A kinder way to look at it," Sister Anne-Marie said gently, her tone bringing hot tears to Bernie's eyes as she eased her around, taking her hand, "is that the story is just beginning. 'Once upon a time . . .' "
Bernie opened her mouth to reply, but just then she heard heavy footsteps coming through the parlor--the room where she had seen the shadow behind the curtain. And she knew without turning around that this was the person she dreaded seeing more than anyone in this world.
Merrion Square was one of Dublin's finest addresses, hands down, and it was there that Tom Kelly directed the driver to take him. The large Georgian square was surrounded by museums and brick townhouses with wrought-iron balconies, ivy growing up the brick, bright front doors crowned by segmented fanlight windows, and commanding brass door knockers. Prosperous Dubliners had lived here since John Ensor laid out the square in 1762; the Kellys had moved in a quarter-century later.
Three townhouses along the north side formed Dublin's Kelly stronghold. They all had sea serpent door knockers--the same image engraved on Tom's gold crest ring, that of the legendary sea monster said to have risen from the deep to protect Tadhg Mor O'Kelly, Tom's fierce kinsman who fell "fighting like a wolf dog," defending Ireland against the Vikings in the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.
Tom shook his head. One hour in Dublin and he was already lost in the ancient history of another millennium. Or, more to the point, another decade. Climbing the stairs of the middle house, the one with the bright red door, he felt exhausted by his journey. His knock was answered by a maid as Elizabeth Kelly, his cousin William's wife, came charging down the stairs.
"Tommy, you've arrived already!" she exclaimed. "Billy'll be beside himself. Why didn't you tell us your flight so we could've sent a car?"
"Liza, hello. I didn't want to put you to any trouble," he said, hugging her.
"Your first visit here in twenty-three years, and you think we wouldn't want to welcome you in Kelly style?"
"Oh, you know me," he said, smiling at her warmth, happy to see her again. "I like things simple."
"That's right," she said. "I remember. No fancy airs about you, not like your cousins Billy and Sixtus and Niall and Chris and the rest of them. You've spared yourself hearing about the latest Mercedes, but not for long. Billy'll be home soon enough, and he'll show you his toys. Clara, take Tom's bag up to his room now."
Tom gave the young maid a glance, shook his head to let her know he'd carry it himself. Liza either didn't notice or decided not to care.
"Where's Bernie, now?" she asked.
"She's staying with the Sisters."
"No," Liza said, her face falling. "Even on a vacation, they force her to stay in the convent?"
Tom nodded, not really having the heart to explain that Bernie didn't take vacations, and that in any case this was far from a vacation.
"Darn it," Liza said. "I was counting on spoiling her the way she spoiled us the last time we visited Star of the Sea. I still dream of that bed, with its view over the vineyard to the Sound. And the fresh flowers she brought every day . . . She's certainly kept it a showplace; your great-grandfather would be so pleased with her."
"Yes, he would," Tom said, although he wasn't sure of that at all.
"Well, I must tell you," Liza said, her eyes sparkling, "when we heard the two of you were coming, we couldn't have been more pleased. All of us. Sixtus and Emer, Niall and Isobel, as well as Billy and myself. Emer, though . . . she was a little confused."
"About what?" Tom asked.
"Well, the part about you traveling together. She said nuns weren't allowed to go places with men, but we all assumed that since you've known each other so long, and you work for her and all, that would be the special exception to the rule. Which is why we thought Bernie would be staying here."
"Ah," he said. He should have known that the family gossip mill would be churning. He shook his head, hoping the dim hall light would hide the flush he felt spreading up his neck.
"Well, Emer had it wrong. That's all. Tommy, you must be dead on your feet. Clara, where'd you go?" She stared down at his bag, sitting in the middle of the floor, then looked around for the maid with no small degree of panic. But Tom put his hand on her wrist, stopped her.
"It's okay, Liza," he said. "Let me get that. Is it the same guest room? On the second floor?"
"Yes, Tom. The Blue Room, we still call it."
He kissed her cheek, and started up the stairs before she could offer the lift. These narrow townhouses were tall and steep, with just two rooms on each floor. The flights were different than in the states. Here in Ireland, he had to remember that the first floor was called the ground floor, and the second floor was called the first floor, and the third floor was called the second, and so on. In any case, by the time he reached the third flight, his thighs burned from climbing so many stairs, and he relished the feeling. His body felt ready to explode with pent-up energy.
When he passed the laundry room, he smiled to see a treadmill in there beside the ironing board. Tom and his cousins were at that age when they had to start taking care of the Kelly heart--especially with all the fine dining and drinking his cousins probably did. Living at the Academy, tending the grounds, gave Tom a constant workout.
Closing the Blue Room's door behind him, he stood at the window, gazing out at the square. The Convent of Notre Dame des Victoires wasn't visible. It was blocks away, but Tom saw it in his mind's eye. He wondered what Bernie was doing, whether she had decided to confide in Sister Anne-Marie or not. He wondered whether she had encountered the Mother Superior yet, and if so, whether she had managed to keep her emotions in check.
He closed his eyes, pressed his forehead against the cool glass windowpane. If he stood very still, he could block out Dublin and almost see the words scratched into the stone of the Blue Grotto back at home, on the Academy grounds. I was sleeping, but my heart kept vigil.
He sighed, shaking his head.
"Bernie," he said.
And then, because he was worn out from his flight and everything else, he kicked off his shoes and lay down on top of the blue bedspread, and tried to sleep.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from What Matters Most by Luanne Rice. Copyright © 2007 by Luanne Rice. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.