Moira Shaughnessy’s booted feet hit the ground in front of the Family Medicine Clinic. Slamming the door of the dusty white Park Service pickup, she considered ignoring her boss’s orders, peeling out of the parking lot, and heading for the Baxter Pass trailhead. She had a crew to oversee, goddammit. And a work project to complete. But her boss, John, had been painstakingly clear, both yesterday at Park Headquarters in Three Rivers, and just ten minutes ago on the sat phone. Granted, he’d been far more pointed on the phone.
“It’s not a suggestion, Moira,” he’d growled. “This is a directive—from me. I want to hear from someone with MD after his name before I authorize you to head up that work detail. Do not set one foot on that trail before you receive my orders, e-sign them, and e-mail them back to me.”
“But that’s usually a formality—”
“Not this time. No buts. I made you an appointment at the clinic in Bishop that clears some of our crews. They’re open until six. I already lost two rangers this summer in the Pinecrest fire. That was two too many in my book, so get your butt into that clinic.”
Moira had thought she could avoid dealing with the whole mess by leaving the office early yesterday and taking one of the northern passes over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but John had tracked her down.
Phooey. I ran, but guess I couldn’t hide…
It was downright annoying that her boss needed a doctor to reassure him she wouldn’t collapse or something in the backcountry. For the briefest of moments, she felt like pounding her fist into the nearest tree—then she pulled herself together. Nothing was wrong with her, except her slimy, cheating husband. Sure, she’d lost a few pounds since she’d moved out, but she hadn’t been all that hungry.
Problem was John remembered similar struggles from years ago when she’d first started working as a park ranger. She hadn’t eaten enough then, either, and had gotten far too thin. Just her luck, he’d been overseeing a backcountry work detail when she’d gotten woozy and fallen off one of the mules.
Understanding surfaced. Her boss cared about her. That wasn’t a bad thing. The anger bled out of her with a whoosh.
“May as well get this over with,” she muttered. Moira walked briskly to the clinic, pushed the door open, and went to the counter.
“Yes?” A young woman with dyed red hair looked up from her computer screen with eyes so green she had to be wearing colored contact lenses.
“Moira Shaughnessy. I think you’re expecting me. My boss called from Kings Canyon-Sequoia Park Headquarters.”
The receptionist clicked a few keys. “Your insurance card, please.”
Moira blew out an impatient breath. She dug through her fanny pack for her wallet, extracted the plasticized Blue Cross card, and handed it over. “I’m really in a bit of a hurry—”
“Here’s your card back.” The clerk gestured at the nearly full waiting room. “The doctor will be with you as soon as he can. He had a full schedule before he agreed to work you in.”
“Is it okay if I go outside for a few minutes? I need to lock my truck. I, uh, didn’t think I’d be in here for very long.”
“Sure. So long as we know where to find you.” The phone trilled. The woman picked it up, Moira obviously forgotten. “Family Medicine, how may I help you?”
Moira paced up and down the parking lot. Fall had turned the aspen trees lining Bishop’s streets to shades of red and gold that were really quite striking, but all she could think about were the minutes ticking by. It was twelve miles from the trailhead to the top of the pass, and a couple more to where her trail crew was. Leaving today would be foolhardy at this point. She’d never even make the pass before night fell.
“Damn it!” She glanced at her watch. How long was this going to take anyway?
“Ms. Shaughnessy?” A man’s voice sounded from behind her.
She spun, surprised out of her funk. And stopped dead. “Tim?” Moira stared at the tall, rangy man with long, white-blond hair and ice-blue eyes. He was dressed in teal scrubs and sandals with a stethoscope draped around his neck. A broad grin split the clean planes of his face. She’d forgotten how heartbreakingly beautiful he was.
“I saw the name and hoped it was you.” He held out a hand, but she felt frozen in place. “After all, how many Moira Shaughnessys could there be?”
She just stood there, flabbergasted. What were the odds? She hadn’t seen Tim O’Malley since they’d both graduated from U.C. Davis. When she realized her mouth was hanging open, she shut it with a snap.
“Is that any way to greet an old friend?” One corner of his mouth turned down in an expression she remembered all too well.
“It’s just … I mean I never expected…” She felt warmth rise from the open neck of her buff-colored uniform shirt. Heat suffused her face until she was certain every freckle was outlined in bright, living color.
“Hey, mo ghrá. I know we didn’t split up under the best of circumstances…”
“No shit. And you can skip the beloved part.” A familiar anger stirred, but she batted it aside.
“Moira, I’m sorry. I was sorry then, and I still am.” He sounded so sincere, it tugged at her heartstrings. Part of her wanted to believe him, and part of her was afraid to.
“Grannie told me some of it—about the arch druid stuff. And you having to be celibate or something.”
His brow creased. “I’m glad she did. I was sworn to silence about druid affairs.” He cleared his throat. “In fact, I still am.”
“What she told me didn’t make it any easier. I tried to call you—a bunch of times.”
“Christ, Tim, it’s been close to ten years.”
He looked chagrined. “I suppose I know that, too.”
Her heart, already damaged from her sham of a marriage, squeezed painfully in her chest. She’d loved Tim once. And thought he’d loved her. They’d known one another since they were children growing up in the same sprawling Irish immigrant community.
“So what happened?” She eyed him, struggling for equanimity. “It’s a long way from druid to doctor. Or are you a nurse here?”
“Nope, I’m the doc. My training took up eight of the ten years since—”
The clinic door flew open. A harried-looking, overweight woman in white scrubs rolled her eyes. Her short brown hair stood up in spikes. Her muddy green gaze shot darts. “There you are. Dr. O’Malley, you have patients.”
He waved her to silence. “Fine, Bridgette. I’ll be in soon.”
He made shooing motions with both hands. “I said I’ll be in soon.”
Bridgette’s face screwed itself into a disapproving frown. “Whatever,” she snapped and banged the door shut.
Tim closed the few feet between them and laid his hands on Moira’s shoulders. “Can I buy you dinner? Or maybe just a cup of coffee, if you’re still mad at me and not willing to risk an entire meal.”
“I’d like that, but I’m on my way to work. See…” She took a big breath and let an annotated version of her story tumble out of her. She mentioned her divorce and her lack of appetite, but skipped the low points about her marriage, figuring it wasn’t really any of Tim’s affair. “Last time I wasn’t very hungry happened was right after you and I broke up. I’d just started working for the Park Service. Unfortunately, my boss has a long memory.”
Tim listened until she was done talking, and then placed his stethoscope in his ears. “Take a deep breath.” He moved the bell to several locations on her chest, and then had her turn around and positioned it on her back. “Your heart sounds healthy to me.” He gripped her wrist, taking her pulse. “You should be fine so long as you start eating again. What is it your boss needs?”
“A phone call, I think.”
“Not a fitness for duty statement?”
She shook her head. “No. Nothing so formal.” Not yet anyway.
“Good, because that would require a real physical and some labs. Jot his number down for me.” He pulled a small notebook out of a pocket and handed it to her along with a pen.
As she gave it back, he caught her hand in his. “I’ve thought about you so many times over the years. I guess I always believed—” His voice broke off, and it was his turn to redden. “When will you be back through Bishop so we can talk? Or, better yet, I’ve got a few days off. I could backpack with you—”
“Uh-uh.” She shook her head. “It’s against regulations to bring civilians, other than the trail crew, on Park Service work projects.”
Blue eyes twinkled at her. “You told me you were going in over Baxter Pass.”
“Yeah.” She found herself smiling back at him. “So I did. I’m also telling you not to follow me.”
He bent his head and his lips brushed hers. It was so sweet and so fleeting, she was flooded with memories. She pulled away, her heart doing flip-flops. “If it won’t be different this time, don’t start.”
“Things will be different. I would have called you. Almost did a hundred times, but I felt so rotten about—”
“Dr. O’Malley.” Bridgette clumped across the yard and grabbed his arm. “You have patients.”
He shook her off. “When have you ever known me to leave before I’ve seen each and every one of them?”
“Never.” She sounded sullen.
“And it won’t happen today, either. Get back inside, and hold down the fort. If you could take vitals on everyone it would be a big help.”
Bridgette’s gaze moved from Tim to Moira. Pursing her lips, she went back into the clinic.
Tim turned to Moira. “It was wonderful to see you again. Here.” He scribbled something on one of the tiny sheets of notebook paper, tore it off, and handed it to her. “My cell. Call anytime.”
“I just may take you up on that.”
Tim wasn’t ready to go back into the clinic. His emotions were too close to the surface. He watched Moira’s truck drive out of the parking lot and down West Line Street. The last time he’d seen her ate at him like an out-of-control cancer. They’d spent hours in his apartment arguing. Though he’d dissected it many times trying to figure out what he could have done differently, he’d never come up with anything useful.
He made an effort to stuff the memory into its subterranean hidey-hole, but it wouldn’t cooperate. Knowing the professional objectivity he’d need to face a waiting room full of patients had just scattered like so much dust, he set off at a brisk pace intending to circle the block. Bridgette and the clinic would just have to give him a few minutes more.
* * * *
“I tell you I’m done.” Tears streamed down Moira’s face. It was swollen and blotchy. “I’ve waited for you since I was sixteen years old, Tim O’Malley. That’s six years. I didn’t expect much back then, but we’re nearly done with college. You won’t do any more than kiss me. You won’t live with me. You won’t talk about getting married.” She jumped to her feet and ran to a window.
He grabbed her arm. “I—I do love you, Moira. I’ve told you I want to save sex until after I’m married.”
“Well I don’t. Just in case you’ve forgotten, you never asked me to marry you.”
“You’re not being fair. There are things I can’t tell you.”
She whirled, golden eyes on fire. “Fine. Keep your fucking secrets. And keep your fucking virginity. I talked with Father O’Brannigan—”
A chill marched down his spine. “You what?”
“You heard me. I had to talk to someone. Even he said it wouldn’t be the end of the world if we had sex. He said God would forgive me so long as we got married. What’s the problem? Do you like boys? Jesus, even the clerk at the corner store is hotter for me than you are.”
“Don’t ‘mo ghrá’ me.” She twisted out of his grasp. “Just get out of here. Don’t worry. I’ll be gone by the time you get back.”
“For the love of Christ, just leave. If you ever loved me—” Her face crumpled.
Feeling like he was being torn in two, Tim stormed out of his apartment. The minute he got to the bottom of his steps, he began to run. He loved Moira. Loved her with every fiber of his being. But he understood his duty to his druid heritage, too. Slated to be the next arch druid, he was forbidden physical congress with women. His magic needed to be honed to the highest possible level. Sex would interfere.
Tim ran until sweat streamed down his sides despite the chill of an unseasonably cool June in California. A full moon hung low, clinging to the horizon. It was a lover’s moon. He cursed, drowning in irony. A lover’s moon, but not for him.
He wasn’t surprised when he ended up ten miles north of Davis at the druids’ priory. Despite it being three in the morning, he pulled the bell chain. Its somber chime matched his mood.
The intercom next to the carved oak door crackled. “What business brings you here?” It was a standard druid greeting, though the speaker sounded half-asleep.
“I must see Liam. Now.”
“Tim O’Malley. Is that you?”
Tim blew out a ragged breath. “Yes. Now let me in, goddammit.”
A tone sounded and the door swung open soundlessly on well-oiled hinges. A man he didn’t recognize hustled up the long hallway. “Master.” He inclined his head.
“I am no one’s master. Go back to sleep. I know the way.”
Liam McAllister’s quarters were on the third floor of the rambling stone structure that had once been a Catholic monastery. Tim pounded up the stairs, stomach so tight he wondered if he’d vomit. He’d just raised a fist to pound on Liam’s door when it opened and the arch druid stood before him. If the older man had been asleep, it didn’t show.
“Welcome, son.” Liam held out his arms, but Tim shook his head. Without waiting for an invitation, he stalked into the spacious quarters with leaded glass windows. The moon mocked him, front and center in those windows.
“You must release me from my vows.”
Liam’s thick brows drew together. “You must know I cannot do that. You did not take vows. You were born to your calling.”
Tim spun to face the man who’d been like a father to him. Long, white hair framed his clean-shaven face. Bright blue eyes radiated concern. The arch druid was tall—of a height with Tim—and wraith-thin. Black robes flowed around him. “But it’s not like I’m the Dalai Lama.” He took a breath to steady himself. “You don’t understand. I love Moira. It’s tearing me up inside that I can’t have her. Christ! I can’t even tell her why I can’t make love to her—or marry her.”
Liam nodded slowly. He reached a kindly hand toward Tim. “Actually, you are a lot like the Dalai Lama. ’Tis the goddess who picks our progression. Would you care to sit, son? I believe a spot of spirits might calm you.”
“Irish whiskey will not solve this.”
Liam furled his brows. “A dram of good Irish whiskey will solve practically anything. Or at least soften it till it feels more manageable.”
He pulled a decanter close and poured amber liquid into two cut crystal shot glasses, pushing one toward Tim. “You will be able to wed once your training is complete and you sit in my place.”
Battling frustration, Tim drained his glass. The whiskey burned going down. It matched the fire in his soul. “You don’t understand. That may have worked hundreds of years ago. Not anymore. Look at you. Goddess willing, you’ll live another twenty or thirty years. Maybe more. By then Moira will be long since married to another. Hell, she could be a grandmother.” He banged a fist on one of the tables scattered about the room. A lamp rattled ominously and he reached to steady it.
“Please,” Tim begged. “At least let me tell her why I can’t wed her.”
Liam shook his head. “I cannot do that. The workings of our society have always been secret. ’Tis how we shielded ourselves from the machinations of the Church.”
“The Church isn’t still out to get us. Not actively, anyway.”
Liam turned on him, blue eyes ablaze. “Thinking like that will land you in trouble. Have you not followed their exorcisms? Or their dogma? And ’tis not just the Catholics I’m talking of here. What do you believe clerics think of those like us who can call magic, engage in spirit travel, and commune with gods, spirits, and the dead?”
Tim’s shoulders sagged. He felt like a sail with the wind knocked out of it, attached to a ship that would never find port. “That we were evil.”
Liam nodded. “Organized religion’s raison d’être is to rid the Earth of wickedness. Moira is Catholic. She goes to confession. I tell you, son, we cannot risk it. ’Tis not been so very long since they killed one of us. Surely you recall Sean Newbry. ’Twas scarcely an accidental drowning. His astral self came to me whilst he was dying.”
“The parish priest had caught him in the midst of a blood offering ceremony, talking with Earth spirits. Sean was certain the cleric followed him since he’d taken care to go deep into the Sierra foothills.”
Tim fought a sinking feeling. “You said drowning.”
“And are you certain you want the grisly details?”
“Four priests waylaid him late one night, bound him, gagged him, tied a heavy weight about his waist—”
“Enough.” Tim sat heavily. He dropped his head into his hands and remembered what Moira told him about talking with Father O’Brannigan. “But I don’t want to live without her. Hell, I don’t know if I can.”
“I understand.” A considered intake of breath and Liam continued. “I gave you permission to attend medical school. That was a concession, as I’d rather you were here by my side. Then you came up with that idea about a public health degree.
“Mayhap it would be best if you did not see Moira—or even call her—at least for a while. Try to immerse yourself in your studies. Believe me, son, when I tell you the goddess takes care of her own.”
A sob rose from the depths of his soul. Mortified, Tim tried to swallow the next one back down. He stuffed a knuckle in his mouth and bit down hard. Liam was there, then, just like he’d always been since Tim’s parents had died, arms close around him.
“’Tis all right. Life does not give us easy choices.” He patted Tim’s back. “There is no shame in tears.”
* * * *
Forcing himself to return to the present, Tim took a deep breath, and then another. He wasn’t twenty-two anymore. He could stand up to Liam if it came down to it. He pulled open the side door to the clinic and went to the tiny staff room, where he knew he’d find the afternoon’s schedule posted. Despite reliving painful memories, he felt more alive than he had in years.
The goddess had brought Moira back into his life. Things would be different this time. He was going to see to it, even if it meant confronting Liam and walking away from druidry forever.