His Cinderella Heiress
A castle to call home…
After years in foster care, Jo Conaill has never settled anywhere. Traveling to Ireland to claim a surprise inheritance—a castle!—is a chance to reconnect with her past. And when she's rescued by handsome landowner Finn, their sizzling chemistry is undeniable…
Except Finn turns out to be Lord of Glenconaill, whom she must share her inheritance with! Jo has no plans to stay, but living in the castle with gorgeous Finn is an unexpected temptation. Has she found the home she's always craved in Finn's arms?
A woman was stuck in his bog.
Actually, Finn Conaill wasn’t sure if this land was part of the estate, but even if this wasn’t the property of the new Lord of Glenconaill he could hardly ignore a woman stuck in mud to her thighs.
He pulled off the road, making sure the ground he steered onto was solid.
A motorbike was parked nearby and he assumed it belonged to the woman who was stuck. To the unwary, the bike was on ground that looked like a solid grass verge. She’d been lucky. The wheels had only sunk a couple of inches.
She’d not been so lucky herself. She was a hundred yards from the road, and she looked stuck fast.
‘Stay still,’ he called.
‘Struggling makes me sink deeper.’ Her voice sounded wobbly and tired.
‘Then don’t struggle.’
Of all the idiot tourists… She could have been here all night, he thought, as he picked his way carefully across to her. This road was a little used shortcut across one of County Galway’s vast bogs. The land was a sweep of sodden grasses, dotted with steel-coloured washes of ice-cold water. In the distance he could see the faint outline of Castle Glenconaill, its vast stone walls seemingly merging into the mountains behind it. There’d been a few tough sheep on the road from the village, but here there was nothing.
There was therefore no one but Finn to help.
‘Can you come faster?’ she called and he could hear panic.
‘Only if you want us both stuck. You’re in no danger. I’m coming as fast as I can.’
Though he wouldn’t mind coming faster. He’d told the housekeeper at the castle he’d arrive mid-afternoon and he was late already.
He spent considerable time away from his farm now, researching farming methods, investigating innovative ideas, so he had the staff to take care of the day-to-day farming. He’d been prepared to leave early this morning, with his manager more than ready to take over.
But then Maeve had arrived from Dublin, glamorous, in designer clothes and a low-slung sports car. She looked a million light years away from the woman who’d torn around the farm with him as a kid—who once upon a time he was sure he wanted to spend his life with. After a year apart—she’d asked for twelve months ‘to discover myself before we marry’—what she’d told him this morning had only confirmed what he already knew. Their relationship was over, but she’d been in tears and he owed her enough to listen.
And then, on top of everything else, there’d been trouble lambing. He’d bottle-fed Sadie from birth, she was an integral part of a tiny flock of sheep he was starting to build, and he hadn’t had the heart to leave until she was safely delivered.
Finally he’d tugged on clean trousers, a decent shirt and serviceable boots, and there was an end to his preparation for inheriting title and castle. If the castle didn’t approve, he’d decided, it could find itself another lord.
And now he was about to get muddy, which wasn’t very lordly either.
At least he knew enough of bogland to move slowly, and not get into trouble himself. He knew innocuous grassland often overlaid mud and running water. It could give way at any moment. The only way to tread safely was to look for rocks that were big enough to have withstood centuries of sodden land sucking them down.
After that initial panicked call, the woman was now silent and still, watching him come. The ground around her was a mire, churned. The bog wasn’t so dangerous that it’d suck her down like quicksand, but it was thick and claggy so, once she’d sunk past her knees, to take one step after another back to dry land would have proved impossible.
He was concentrating on his feet and she was concentrating on watching him. Which he appreciated. He had no intention of ending up stuck too.
When he was six feet away he stopped. From here the ground was a churned mess. A man needed to think before going further.
‘Thank you for coming,’ she said.
He nodded, still assessing.
She sounded Australian, he thought, and she was young, or youngish, maybe in her mid to late twenties. Her body was lithe, neat and trim. She had short cropped, burnt-red curls. Wide green eyes were framed by long dark lashes. Her face was spattered with freckles and smeared with mud; eyeliner and mascara were smudged down her face. She had a couple of piercings in one ear and four in the other.
She was wearing full biker gear, black, black and black, and she was gazing up at him almost defiantly. Her thanks had seemed forced—like I know I’ve been stupid but I defy you to tell me I am.
His lips twitched a little. He could tell her anything he liked—she was in no position to argue.
‘You decided to take a stroll?’ he asked, taking time to assess the ground around her.
‘I read about this place on the Internet.’ Still he could hear the defiance. Plus the accent. With those drawn-out vowels, she had to be Australian. ‘It said this district was famous for its quaking bogs but they weren’t dangerous. I asked in the village and the guy I asked said the same. He said if you found a soft part, you could jump up and down and it bounced. So I did.’
His brows lifted. ‘Until it gave way?’
‘The Internet didn’t say anything about sinking. Neither did the guy I asked.’
‘I’d imagine whoever you asked assumed you’d be with someone. This place is safe enough if you’re with a friend who can tug you out before you get stuck.’
‘I was on my bike. He knew I was alone.’
‘Then he’d be trying to be helpful.’ Finn was looking at the churned-up mud around her, figuring how stuck she truly was. ‘He wouldn’t be wanting to disappoint you. Folk around here are like that.’
‘Very helpful!’ She glowered some more. ‘Stupid bog.’
‘It’s a bit hard to sue a bog, though,’ he said gently. ‘Meanwhile, I’ll fetch planks from the truck. There’s no way I’ll get you out otherwise. I’ve no wish to be joining you.’
‘Thank you,’ she said again, and once more it was as if the words were forced out of her. She was independent, he thought. And feisty. He could see anger and frustration—and also fury that she was dependent on his help.
She was also cold. He could hear it in the quaver in her voice, and by the shudders and chattering teeth she was trying to disguise. Cold and scared? But she wasn’t letting on.
‘Hold on then,’ he said. ‘I’ll not be long. Don’t go anywhere.’
She clamped her lips tight and he just knew the effort it was taking her not to swear.
To say Jo Conaill was feeling stupid would be an understatement. Jo—Josephine on her birth certificate but nowhere else—was feeling as if the ground had been pulled from under her. Which maybe it had.
Of all the dumb things to do…
She’d landed in Dublin two nights ago, spent twenty-four hours fighting off jet lag after the flight from Sydney, then hired a bike and set off.
It was the first time she’d ever been out of Australia and she was in Ireland. Ireland! She didn’t feel the least bit Irish, but her surname was Irish and every time she looked in the mirror she felt Irish. Her name and her looks were her only connection to this place, but then, Jo had very few connections to anything. Or anyone.
She was kind of excited to be here.
She’d read about this place before she came—of course she had. Ireland’s bogs were legion. They were massive, mysterious graveyards of ancient forests, holding treasures from thousands of years ago. On the Internet they’d seemed rain-swept, misty and beautiful.
On her lunch break, working as a waitress in a busy café on Sydney Harbour, she’d watched a You Tube clip of a couple walking across a bog just like this. They’d been jumping up and down, making each other bounce on the spongy surface.
Jumping on the bogs of Galway. She’d thought maybe she could.
And here she was. The map had shown her this road, describing the country as a magnificent example of undisturbed bog. The weather had been perfect. The bog looked amazing, stretching almost to the horizon on either side of her bike. Spongy. Bouncy. And she wasn’t stupid. She had stopped to ask a local and she’d been reassured.
So she’d jumped, just a little at first and then venturing further from the road to get a better bounce. And then the surface had given way and she’d sunk to her knees. She’d struggled for half an hour until she was stuck to her thighs. Then she’d resigned herself to sit like a dummy and wait for rescue.
So here she was, totally dependent on a guy who had the temerity to laugh. Okay, he hadn’t laughed out loud but she’d seen his lips twitch. She knew a laugh when she saw one.
At least he seemed…solid. Built for rescuing women from bogs? He was large, six-two or -three, muscular, lean and tanned, with a strongly boned face. He was wearing moleskin trousers and a khaki shirt, open-necked, his sleeves rolled above the elbows to reveal brawny arms.
He was actually, decidedly gorgeous, she conceded. Definitely eye candy. In a different situation she might even have paused to enjoy. He had the weathered face and arms of a farmer. His hair was a deep brown with just a hint of copper—a nod to the same Irish heritage she had? It was wavy but cropped short and serviceable. His deep green eyes had crease lines at the edges—from exposure to weather?
Or from laughter.
Probably from laughter, she decided. His eyes were laughing now.
Eye candy or not, she was practically gritting her chattering teeth as she waited for him. She was totally dependent on a stranger. She, Jo Conaill, who was dependent on nobody.
He was heading back, carrying a couple of short planks, moving faster now he’d assessed the ground. His boots were heavy and serviceable. Stained from years of work on the land?
‘I have a bull who keeps getting himself bogged near the water troughs,’ he said idly, almost as if he was talking to himself and not her. ‘If these planks can get Horace out, they’ll work for you. That is if you don’t weigh more than a couple of hundred pounds.’
Laughter was making his green eyes glint. His smile, though, was kind.
She didn’t want kind. She wanted to be out of here.
‘Don’t try and move until they’re in place,’ he told her. ‘Horace always messes that up. First sign of the planks and he’s all for digging himself in deeper.’
‘You’re comparing me to a bull?’
He’d stooped to set the planks in place. Now he sat back on his heels and looked at her. Really looked. His gaze raked her, from the top of her dishevelled head to where her leather-clad legs disappeared into the mud.
The twinkle deepened.
‘No,’ he said at last. ‘No, indeed. I’ll not compare you to a bull.’
And he chuckled.
If she could, she’d have closed her eyes and drummed her heels. Instead, she had to manage a weak smile. She had to wait. She was totally in this man’s hands and she didn’t like it one bit.
It was her own fault. She’d put herself in a position of dependence and she depended on nobody.
Except this man.
‘So what do they call you?’ He was manoeuvring the planks, checking the ground under them, setting them up so each had a small amount of rock underneath to make them secure. He was working as if he had all the time in the world. As if she did.
She didn’t. She was late.
She was late and covered in bog.
‘What would who call me?’ she snapped.
‘Your Mam and Daddy?’
As if. ‘Jo,’ she said through gritted teeth.
‘Just Jo.’ She glared.
‘Then I’m Finn,’ he said, ignoring her glare. ‘I’m pleased to meet you, Just Jo.’ He straightened, putting his weight on the planks, seeing how far they sank. He was acting as if he pulled people out of bogs all the time.
No. He pulled bulls out of bogs, she thought, and that was what she felt like. A stupid, bog-stuck bovine.
‘Yes,’ she said through gritted teeth, and he nodded as if Australians stuck in bogs were something he might have expected.
‘Just admiring the view, were we?’ The laughter was still in his voice, an undercurrent to his rich Irish brogue, and it was a huge effort to stop her teeth from grinding in frustration. Except they were too busy chattering.
‘I’m admiring the frogs,’ she managed. ‘There are frogs in here. All sorts.’
He smiled, still testing the planks, but his smile said he approved of her attempt to join him in humour.
‘Fond of frogs?’
‘I’ve counted eight since I’ve been stuck.’
He grinned. ‘I’m thinking that’s better than counting sheep. If you’d nodded off I might not have seen you from the road.’ He stood back, surveyed her, surveyed his planks and then put a boot on each end of the first plank and started walking. The end of the planks were a foot from her. He went about two-thirds along, then stopped and crouched. And held out his hands.
‘Right,’ he said. ‘Put your hands in mine. Hold fast. Then don’t struggle, just let yourself relax and let me pull.’
‘You can’t do anything,’ he told her. ‘If you struggle you’ll make things harder. You can wiggle your toes if you like; that’ll help with the suction, but don’t try and pull out. If you were Horace I’d be putting a chain under you but Horace isn’t good at following orders. If you stay limp like a good girl, we’ll have you out of here in no time.’
Like a good girl. The patronising toerag…
He was saving her. What was she doing resenting it? Anger was totally inappropriate. But then, she had been stuck for almost an hour, growing more and more furious with herself. She’d also been more than a little bit frightened by the time he’d arrived. And cold. Reaction was setting in and she was fighting really hard to hold her temper in check.
‘Where’s a good wall to kick when you need it?’ Finn asked and she blinked.
‘I’d be furious too, if I were you. The worst thing in the world is to want to kick and all you have to kick is yourself.’
She blinked. Laughter and empathy too? ‘S…sorry.’
‘That’s okay. Horace gets tetchy when he gets stuck, so I’d imagine you’re the same. Hands—put ’em in mine and hold.’
‘They’re covered in mud. You won’t be able to hold me.’
‘Try me,’ he said and held out his hands and waited for her to put hers in his.
It felt wrong. To hold this guy’s hands and let her pull… Jo Conaill spent her life avoiding dependence on anyone or anything.
What choice did she have? She put out her hands and held.
His hands were broad and toughened from manual work. She’d guessed he was a farmer, and his hands said she was right. He manoeuvred his fingers to gain maximum hold and she could feel the strength of him. But he was wincing.
‘You’re icy. How long have you been here?’
‘About an hour.’
‘Is that right?’ He was shifting his grip, trying for maximum hold. ‘Am I the first to come along? Is this road so deserted, then?’
‘You’re not a local?’
‘I’m not.’ He was starting to take her weight, sitting back on his heels and leaning backward. Edging back as the planks started to tilt.
The temptation to struggle was almost irresistible but she knew it wouldn’t help. She forced herself to stay limp.
Channel Horace, she told herself.
‘Good girl,’ Finn said approvingly and she thought: What—did the guy have the capacity to read minds?
He wasn’t pulling hard. He was simply letting his weight tug her forward, shifting only to ease the balance of the planks. But his hold was implacable, a steady, relentless pull, and finally she felt the squelch as the mud eased its grip. She felt her feet start to lift. At last.
He still wasn’t moving fast. His tug was slow and steady, an inch at a time. He was acting as if he had all the time in the world.
‘So I’m not a local,’ he said idly, as if they were engaged in casual chat, not part of a chain where half the chain was stuck in mud. ‘But I’m closer to home than you are.’
He manoeuvred himself back a little without lessening his grip. He was trying not to lurch back, she realised. If he pulled hard, they both risked being sprawled off the planks, with every chance of being stuck again.
He had had experience in this. With Horace.
‘Horace is heavier than you,’ he said.
‘Thanks. Did you say…two hundred pounds?’
‘I did, and I’m thinking you’re not a sliver over a hundred and ninety. That’s with mud attached,’ he added kindly. ‘What part of Australia do you come from?’
‘I’ve seen pictures.’ Once more he stopped and readjusted. ‘Nice Opera House.’
‘Yeah.’ It was hard to get her voice to work. He’d released her hands so he could shift forward and hold her under her arms. Once more he was squatting and tugging but now she was closer to him. Much closer. She could feel the strength of him, the size. She could feel the warmth of his chest against her face. The feeling was…weird. She wanted to sink against him. She wanted to struggle.
‘We…we have great beaches too,’ she managed and was inordinately proud of herself for getting the words out.
‘What, no mud?’
‘Excellent. Okay, sweetheart, we’re nearly there. Just relax and let me do the work.’
He had her firmly under the arms and he was leaning back as she forced herself to relax against him. To let him hold her…
The feeling was indescribable—and it worked!
For finally the mud released its grip. Even then, though, he was still in control. He had her tight, hauling her up and back so that she was kneeling on the planks with him, but she wasn’t released. He was holding her hard against him, and for a moment she had no choice but to stay exactly where she was.
She’d been stuck in mud for an hour. She was bone-chillingly cold, and she’d been badly frightened. Almost as soon as the mud released her she started to shake.
If he didn’t hold her she could have fallen right off the planks. No, she would have fallen. She felt light-headed and a bit sick.
He held and she had to let him hold. She needed him.
Which was crazy. She didn’t need anyone. She’d made that vow as a ten-year-old, in the fourth or fifth of her endless succession of foster homes. She’d yelled it as her foster mother had tried to explain why she had to move on yet again.
‘It’s okay,’ she’d yelled. ‘I don’t need you. I don’t need anyone.’
Her foster mother had cried but Jo hadn’t. She’d learned to never let herself close enough to cry.
But now she was close, whether she willed it or not. Her rescuer was holding her in a grip so strong she couldn’t break it even if she tried. He must be feeling her shaking, she thought, and part of her was despising herself for being weak but most of her was just letting him hold.
He was big and warm and solid, and he wasn’t letting her go. Her face was hard against his chest. She could feel the beating of his heart.
His hand was stroking her head, as he’d stroke an injured animal. ‘Hey there. You’re safe. The nasty bog’s let you go. A nice hot bath and you’ll be right back to yourself again. You’re safe, girl. Safe.’
She hadn’t been unsafe, she thought almost hysterically, and then she thought maybe she had been. If he hadn’t come… Hypothermia was a killer. She could have become one of those bog bodies she’d read about, found immaculately preserved from a thousand years ago. They’d have put her in a museum and marvelled at her beloved bike leathers…
‘There was never a chance of it,’ Finn murmured into her hair and his words shocked her into reaction.
‘Freezing to your death out here. There’s sheep wandering these bogs. I’m thinking a farmer’ll come out and check them morn and night. If I hadn’t come along, he would have.’
‘But if you’re not…if you’re not local, how do you know?’ she demanded.
‘Because the sheep I passed a way back look well cared for, and you don’t get healthy sheep without a decent shepherd. You were never in real danger.’ He released her a little, but his hands still held her shoulders in case she swayed. ‘Do you think you can make it back to the road?’
And then he frowned, looking down at her. ‘You’re still shaking. We don’t want you falling into the mud again. Well, this is something I wouldn’t be doing with Horace.’
And, before she could even suspect what he intended, he’d straightened, reached down and lifted her into his arms, then turned towards the road.
She was close to actually freezing. From her thighs down, she was soaking. She’d been hauled up out of the mud, into this man’s arms, and he was carrying her across the bog as if she weighed little more than a sack of flour.
She was powerless, and the lifelong sense of panic rose and threatened to drown her.
She wanted to scream, to kick, to make him dump her, even if it meant she sank into the bog again. She couldn’t do anything. She just…froze.
But then, well before they reached the road, he was setting her down carefully on a patch of bare rock so there was no chance she’d pitch into the mud. But he didn’t let her go. He put his hands on her shoulders and twisted her to face him.
‘You were forgetting to breathe,’ he said, quite gently. ‘Breathing’s important. I’m not a medical man, but I’d say breathing’s even more important than reaching solid ground.’
Had her intake of breath been so dramatic that he’d heard it—that he’d felt it? She felt ashamed and silly, and more than a little small.
‘You’re safe,’ he repeated, still with that same gentleness. ‘I’m a farmer. I’ve just finished helping a ewe with a difficult lambing. Helping creatures is what I do for a living. I won’t hurt you. I’ll clean the muck off you as best I can, then put your bike in the back of my truck and drive you to wherever you can get yourself a hot shower and a warm bed for the night.’
And that was enough to make her pull herself together. She’d been a wimp, an idiot, an absolute dope, and here she was, making things worse. This man was a Good Samaritan. Yeah, well, she’d had plenty of them in her life, but that didn’t mean she shouldn’t be grateful. He didn’t need her stupid baggage and he was helping her. Plus he was gorgeous. That shouldn’t make a difference but she’d be an idiot not to be aware of it. She made a massive effort, took a few deep breaths and tugged her dignity around her like a shield.
‘Thank you,’ she managed, tilting her face until she met his gaze full-on. Maybe that was a mistake. Green eyes met green eyes and something flickered in the pit of her stomach. He was looking at her with compassion but also…something else? There were all sorts of emotions flickering behind those eyes of his. Yes, compassion, and also laughter, but also…empathy? Understanding?
As if he understood what had caused her to fear.
Whatever, she didn’t like it. He might be gorgeous. He might have saved her, but she needed to be out of here.
‘I can take care of myself from here,’ she managed. ‘If you just walk across to the road, I’ll follow in your footsteps.’
‘Take my hand,’ he said, still with that strange tinge of understanding that was deeply unsettling. ‘You’re shaky and if you fall that’s time wasted for both of us.’
It was reasonable. It even made sense but only she knew how hard it was to place her hand in his and let him lead her back to the road. But he didn’t look at her again. He watched the ground, took careful steps then turned and watched her feet, making sure her feet did exactly the same.
Her feet felt numb, but the leathers and biker boots had insulated her a little. She’d be back to normal in no time, she thought, and finally they stepped onto the glorious solid road and she felt like bending down and kissing it.
Stupid bogs. The Irish could keep them.
Wasn’t she Irish? Maybe she’d disinherit that part of her.
‘Where can I take you?’ Finn was saying and she stared down at her legs, at the thick, oozing mud, and then she looked at her bike and she made a decision.
‘Nowhere. I’m fine.’ She forced herself to look up at him, meeting his gaze straight on. ‘Honest. I’m wet and I’m dirty but I don’t have far to go. This mud will come off in a trice.’
‘You’re too shaken to ride.’
‘I was too shaken to ride,’ she admitted. ‘But now I’m free I’m not shaking at all.’ And it was true. Jo Conaill was back in charge of herself again and she wasn’t about to let go. ‘Thank you so much for coming to my rescue. I’m sorry I’ve made you muddy too.’
‘Not very muddy,’ he said and smiled, a lazy, crooked smile that she didn’t quite get. It made her feel a bit…melting. Out of control again? She didn’t like it.
And then she noticed his feet. His boots were still clean. Clean! He’d hauled her out of the bog and, apart from a few smears of mud where he’d held her, and the fact that his hands were muddy, he didn’t have a stain on him.
‘How did you do that?’ she breathed and his smile intensified. ‘How did you stay almost clean?’
‘I told you. I’m an old hand at pulling creatures out of trouble. Now, if you were a lamb I’d take you home, rub you down and put you by the firestove for a few hours. Are you sure I can’t do that for you?’
And suddenly, crazily, she wanted to say yes. She was still freezing. She was still shaking inside. She could have this man take her wherever he was going and put her by his fireside. Part of her wanted just that.
Um…not. She was Jo Conaill and she didn’t accept help. Well, okay, sometimes she had to, like when she was dumb enough to try jumping on bogs, but enough. She’d passed a village a few miles back. She could head back there, beg a wash at the pub and then keep on going.
As she always kept going.
‘Thank you, no,’ she managed and bent and wiped her mud-smeared hands on the grass. Then she finished the job by drying them on the inside of her jacket. She gave him a determined nod, then snagged her helmet from the back of her bike. She shoved it onto her head, clicked the strap closed—only she knew what an effort it was to make her numb fingers work—and then hauled the handles of her bike around.
The bike was heavy. The shakiness of her legs wouldn’t quite support…
But there he was, putting her firmly aside, hauling her bike around so it was facing the village. ‘That’s what you want?’
‘You’re really not going far?’
‘N… No. Just to the village.’
‘Are you sure you’ll be fine?’
‘I’m sure,’ she managed and hit the ignition and her bike roared into unsociable life. ‘Thank you,’ she said again over its roar. ‘If I can ever do anything for you…’
‘Where will I find you?’ he asked and she tried a grin.
‘On the road,’ she said. ‘Look for Jo.’
And she gave him a wave with all the insouciance she could muster, and roared off into the distance.