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Chapter 1

Charity can be a mixed blessing for those who receive it. While it fills an immediate need, it often exposes a deeper vulnerability. Fergal Griffin did not feel that the wedding gift from his cousin Colm O’Brien had been an act of charity. When he accepted the offer to manage East Ridge—a winery in New York’s Finger Lakes region that Colm had bought as an investment—Fergal suspected his cousin in Ireland was also providing him with a means to bolster his self-confidence. This was a challenge far greater than his previous one: managing Pogue Mahone’s, Colm’s already popular pub in Sunnyside, Queens. If Fergal, a native of County Clare, could revive this failing Keuka Lake winery with no previous training in the industry, he’d have proven that despite his lack of a business degree, he had the instinct for success. That gap in his education had always made Fergal feel second best.

These thoughts were at the forefront of his mind that moonlit evening in November as he strolled through the vineyards. Fergal and his wife Brídgeen had been running Loughmare Winery (as they renamed it) at a slight profit for four years now and this year—2007—had been hot and dry, a perfect growing season for the new vineyards of red vinifera and hybrid grapes. Their winemaker from Penn Yan, Will Reilly, was actually going to bottle some of the young crop to see what quality of wine it would produce.

While the Griffins were excited about that prospect, they were overjoyed that one of Will’s wines, the Late Harvest Niagara, had just taken a silver medal at a dessert wine competition. It was Loughmare’s first award, and to celebrate, they were hosting a party to thank all who had made this dream possible. Their good friends Maeve Kenny and Andy Krall (whose wedding was to be held at Loughmare next June—another first) would be coming up from Binghamton, and even his cousin Colm (flying in from County Clare for his annual visit) would be there for the celebration.

Brídgeen planned a menu featuring foods and produce from the rich agricultural bounty throughout the Finger Lakes. Fergal’s cousin Shane, the vineyards manager, and his wife Emily were in charge of arranging the entertainment for the event. (Shane was well connected with the traditional Irish music scene in Rochester.) There might be some céilí dancing, and with Colm there, the craic would be ninety! (In other words, it was guaranteed to be a brilliant time.)

Fergal wondered if it was too soon for such a celebration, thinking that they were barely keeping this winery afloat. Just as that thought passed, a ghostlike white-winged creature swooped silently over a fallow field up ahead, then turned directly toward him.

“What the feck is that?” he exclaimed as he spun around and watched it fly overhead and flutter onto the top of the faux turret of the winery. Was it an owl? He remembered his mother talking about the owl his father saw the night before he died. The Celts believed owls were guardians of the underworld. It had arrived to lead him to eternity, Gráinne told her sons. (Although she was steeped in Catholic devotion, she was prone to Celtic superstition.) Was this winged specter some sort of omen about the winery, or worse, himself? Fergal scratched the sudden twinge in his left shoulder and headed back to the farmhouse on the property where he lived with his family.

Och, there was so much on his mind right now. After he and Brídgeen tucked their young son MacDara and newborn daughter Tríona into bed, Fergal and his wife studied for the test they’d be taking next Friday morning, before their weekend celebration.

“Who makes federal laws?”

“Easy one, luv,” Brídgeen said. “Congress. OK, Fergal, who can veto a bill?”

“Och, these are too easy. It’s the president, of course. All right, let me give ye a tough one: If both the president and vice president can no longer serve, who becomes president?” Fergal grinned as he waited for her reply. He didn’t have to wait long.

“Speaker of the House! I thought you said tough questions.” They laughed.

“Jayz, luv, in a few days, le cúnamh Dé, we’ll be Americans. Can ye believe it?”

Brídgeen smiled and let out a sigh. “No! Fergal, I couldn’t be any happier. We’re living the American dream, don’t ye think? The 2007 vintage could be our best yet, the café is doing great business, and we have a beautiful home and two gorgeous children. It’s just.…”

“Just?”

“Just, I’m so afraid of it all collapsing.”

Fergal leaned toward Brídgeen and rested his arm around her shoulders.

“Now who put such a dark thought in yer pretty head?” he asked as he kissed her hair.

“No one. It’s just that I don’t know anyone whose life has gone as smoothly as ours has.”

“Aren’t ye forgettin’ the day MacDara wandered into the vineyards across the road and we couldn’t find him until the middle of the night? I wouldn’t call that smooth-going.”

“I know, maybe it’s that when I consider all Maeve and Andy have been through, I feel somewhat embarrassed by our run of relatively good luck. I mean, och, the poor girl, they became engaged four years ago and the wedding is just becoming a reality.”

“Well, ye know Andy; he just wants to be as rehabilitated as possible before he ties the knot. I think progress has been slower than he’d expected after the stem cell treatments.”

“Oh, Maeve understands and accepts that, it’s just that I feel bad for her. She deserves the perfect wedding.”

Fergal snuggled close to his wife. “Brídgeen, luv, is there ever a perfect wedding?”

“Ours was right up there.”

“Of course, luv. But for the common people, is there ever.…” Brídgeen pulled out the pillow supporting her head and batted her husband with it.

“Can you ever be serious, Fergal?”

“Not likely, luv!”

They hadn’t told anyone about their naturalization interview in Rochester. Not that they worried they’d fail the test. If they passed, it would be a fun surprise to add to the celebration.

* * *

Downstate from them, the next afternoon Andy Krall rolled his wheelchair onto the stage of Binghamton High School’s Helen Foley Theater. A few snickers erupted in the crowd of students followed by shushes from teachers. Andy winced at the bright spotlight as he reached up to grab the microphone from the stand. He sat there for a few minutes, taking a thorough look at the juniors and seniors seated before him. They fidgeted in their chairs as they waited in awkward silence. He stalled for a few more seconds, to make them as nervous as possible viewing a disabled person.

Finally he spoke.

“Wassup, my peeps?” A boy whooped and the audience laughed. Andy grinned. He had them now. “Hi, I’m Andy Krall, a BHS alumnus and a cyber-geek. In my spare time I write computer gaming software.”

“That’s dope,” a student in the front row said with a nod.

“But full time, as you can see, I’m a gimp.” A few students chuckled but most looked uncomfortable with his candor. “I’m also a coffee fiend.” That broke the awkward tone of the room.

“On top of all that success, I am—well, to be more accurate, I was—very stupid. You see, when I was a junior in college at SUNY Geneseo, my buddies and I got the great idea that we wanted to visit some chicks we knew at Cortland State. So we called them up, decided where to meet them, and headed off for an awesome road trip. Well, we went to the party at the sorority house they told us to go to, but our friends didn’t show. We drove two and a half hours to get stood up…in Cortland! But it gets worse….” The crowd laughed.

“We had to make the trip worth it, so we wandered into a downtown bar, showed our fake IDs and proceeded to get pretty hammered. We met some townie chicks and they were nice, but nothing to write home about.” That got the boys in the audience laughing hard as their female classmates shot them dirty looks.

“There was nothing else to do, no place else to go except home. Brett, our designated driver, didn’t live up to his promise. He’d done a couple shots of Stoli and had more than a few beers. We didn’t notice because we were all so trashed and he seemed pretty sober to us. So we get back in his car to head back to Geneseo in the middle of the night. Oh, and it was raining. Pouring! So Brett’s speeding down this rural country road, we’re all passed out, and doesn’t the sonofabitch fall asleep!” The students giggled at his profanity and looked toward the principal to see his reaction—there was none, but you could sense they knew where the story was heading next.

“We woke up in a cornfield, the car flipped on its side. Unfortunately, the car was leaning on the right passenger side. Guess where I was sitting.” Andy looked down at his legs. “I couldn’t feel my legs and thought they were broken, or hopefully, just asleep. They were asleep, all right.”

Andy felt the crowd holding its collective breath in anticipation of his next words. Students leaned on the edge of their chairs.

“For eight years now, this has been my main form of transport. You were all about 10 years old back then. Imagine where you’d be today if a drunk driver hit you at that age, paralyzing you?

“For the past eight years I’ve been trying to undo the damage done to my life in a split second by someone else’s stupid decision to drive drunk. In 2004, I began a series of experimental stem cell treatments in Belgium. Now I exist basically for my therapy sessions. But it’s paying off.” Andy whistled and one of the students who’d been standing back stage carried out special leg braces and a walker. Andy placed the microphone back in its stand, and then rolled the wheelchair over to meet her. He strapped on the braces, locked on the parking brake for his wheelchair, held the handles of the walker tightly, and then pulled himself up out of the chair to an upright position. The audience cheered raucously.

“Hold on, hold on,” he said laughing. “It gets better.” Andy began walking with a hesitating lurch across the stage. There was utter silence in the auditorium except for the slow squeak of his sneakers across the hardwood stage floor. It took him several minutes to make it to the opposite side. When he did, the students rose soberly to applaud him, each clap of their hands acknowledging the enormity of the steps Andy could now take. When the ovation finally quieted, Andy made his way back to the microphone stand.

“You see, I’m getting married in June and I want to be able to walk down the same path as my bride. I’ve got the steps down pat; it’s just the speed issue I’m having some trouble with.” The audience laughed.

“Obviously, my message for you guys today is to think. Remember hearing that story about Thomas Watson who founded IBM just west of here in Endicott? That was his motto, ‘Think.’ That’s all I ask of you. The vast potential of your lives can be narrowed severely in mere seconds if you get in a car with a driver who’s been drinking. C’mon you guys, don’t let your friends drive drunk. The life you save may be your own. Think!”

The principal walked on stage and took the microphone.

“Thank you, Mr. Krall, for bringing an important message to our students. I know they have plenty of questions for you now, serious questions,” he said as he glared at a few raucous boys. He handed the microphone back to Andy. A senior wearing a NY Giants football jersey stood up.

“Yeah, bro, I wanna know, can you have sex?” The principal rolled his eyes at Andy and gestured to him to take another question.

“Don’t worry, I’ll answer this kid. I get this question a lot. Yes, my friend, let’s just say the parts are in working order. I’m very lucky, though. My injury did not sever the spinal cord. If it had, things would be different.”

A nervous-looking girl stood up. She never really made eye contact with him as she spoke softly.

“Speak up, Annie, we can’t hear you,” the principal said. She turned scarlet as she knotted her fingers together.

“Do you get teased a lot because of your handicap?”

“My disability? Sometimes. Whatever. Those type of people are best ignored. I like to think of them as brainycapped.” The girl giggled and finally turned to look right at Andy’s face. “You see, they’re the same type of morons who use handicapped parking spaces when they don’t need them. That makes me REALLY angry. Are there any other questions?” The students were looking bored now. Time to end the show, Andy thought.

“OK, my peeps. Remember: THINK!”

* * *

Maeve Kenny was cooking lasagna for dinner at her father Martin’s house. Martin walked into the kitchen with a bouquet of sweetheart roses he’d won at the senior center card party that afternoon.

“Oh, those are lovely, Dad. The card shark returns with all his booty.”

“I prefer to be known as the Canasta King, daughter. How did Andy’s speech go today?”

“He texted me that he rocked the house.”

“Good for him. You know, I feel like he’s my son-in-law already and I couldn’t be prouder of all he’s accomplished. What a role model for those high school kids.”

“I know. Actually, what a role model for us all!”

“Did you bring home any brioche from the Ithaca bakery branch?”

“Of course, Dad. I knew you wouldn’t let me stay the weekend if I came home empty handed.”

Martin peeked inside the bread drawer and grinned at visual confirmation of his daughter’s words.

“That’s my girl. Have you and Andy found a place to live in Ithaca yet?”

“No,” she said as she slid the pan of lasagna into the oven. “And it’s making me nervous. The wedding is seven months from tomorrow.” She wiped her hands on the kitchen towel tied to the oven door. “Andy’s parents said there was no rush for him to move out of the house, but I’d like to start our married life in our own place. Thank God, Elise has been letting me stay in her apartment since Anne made me manager of the Parlor City Patisserie II in Ithaca. Elise said there will probably be more notices in the classifieds soon as Cornell and IC students prepare to graduate next May.”

“Just put it in God’s hands, Maeve. Everything will fall into place soon enough.”

“Honey! I’m home!” Andy called from the back door to the kitchen. That entrance had two small steps instead of the steep porch steps out front. He could park his wheelchair on the back patio, put on his leg braces, grab the walker and come in the door now completely unassisted. It wasn’t always so, of course. Maeve hated the days when he insisted that she stand back and let him get into the house on his own accord, even if he fell. There were more than a few times when Andy’d sported a face-plant rug burn after his walker got stuck on the carpet.

She rinsed lettuce in the sink as he came up behind her, set the walker to the side and gave her a warm kiss and a hug. How Maeve savored the miracle of these moments, an intimate tenderness she’d wondered if they’d ever share.

“Need help with anything?” he said leaning on the counter as he waved at Martin.

“I’m just going to dress the salad and slice the garlic bread. Have a seat at the table.”

“How’d it go today, son?” Martin said as he poured three glasses of Loughmare’s Rose of Clare wine.

“As Fergal would say, ‘feckin’ brilliant’!”

Martin raised his glass to clink with Andy’s, “I’d second that. Have you ever thought of videotaping your speeches, maybe putting them on the web?”

Andy sat back in his chair. “Whoa, Mr. Kenny! Gettin’ all cyber on me!”

“Hah-hah! I’ve learned from the best, Andy. And please, call me Martin, will ya? You’re making me feel like your commanding officer.”

Andy saluted his future father-in-law and grinned.

“You know, Dad, that’s a fantastic idea,” Maeve said. “Your video could go viral, too, Andy.”

“You might be hired as a speaker all over the country. Possibly the world,” Martin said as he patted Andy’s back. “Imagine that. You could write inspirational books, you could create seminars. Before long you’ll have a talk show on TV.”

“Basically, you want me to provide for your later years as well as take care of your daughter?”

Martin laughed. “Now you’ve got the picture, son.”

“Translation,” Maeve said as she mixed garlic butter in a bowl, “he wants you to send him to the Canasta World Championships in Vegas.”

“You got it, Mr. K,” Andy said as he fist-bumped with Martin.

They do have a father and son bond, Maeve thought as she watched them reading the newspaper while they waited for dinner. How did she get so lucky to have these wonderful men in her life? She agreed with her father that Andy’s inspirational message could travel far, but the thought that he might end up being on the road for long stretches of time concerned her. Maeve knew there were plenty of women out there, like Krista, his scheming physical therapist in Belgium, just waiting to take advantage of a lonely husband on the road.

There goes my imagination again, she thought. Andy had already proven himself to be trustworthy. She just had to have faith in him and hope that whatever direction his career went, she’d be right beside him.

“Hey! Did you see your friend Governor DiGregorio is getting married?” Martin asked Maeve. Andy snickered.

“He’s not my friend. Just an acquaintance.”

“That’s because when the former senator walked in the Binghamton bakery, all you’d sell him was the brioche,” Andy said. Maeve raised an eyebrow at him and tried to feign annoyance, but she broke up laughing instead. She hoped and prayed that her fiancé would never find out about then Sen. John DiGregorio making a pass at her during Loughmare’s grand opening celebration while Andy was getting therapy in Belgium. The thought occurred to her that had she not spurned John’s advances, she might be about to become New York State’s first lady. Maeve laughed even louder to herself.

“What’s so funny?” Andy asked.

“Nothing. Who’s the lucky girl, Dad?”

“One of his staff. Some woman named Nina Selezneva.”

Maeve dropped the knife she was using to spread garlic butter over the loaf of crusty Italian bread from the bakery. “Is there a photo? Let me see that article!” Sure enough, there was an official portrait of the engaged couple standing on the front steps of the Executive Mansion. “Oh…my…God!”

Maeve shoved the photo in front of Andy’s face.

“Does this woman look familiar to you for any reason?”

Andy studied the face of the red-haired woman with glasses, and then began noting her lovely figure.

“No. I think I’d remember those legs.”

“Her face, look at her face!”

“Well, she’s not a typical trophy wife.”

“OK, picture her with blonde hair, no glasses and a Scoop!TV microphone shoved in your face.”

Andy pushed the newspaper away from him. This was the woman responsible for the scurrilous Scoop!TV exposé alleging that a harmless website Andy had created for his future fiancée was misleading miracle seekers around the world. It made Maeve lose her job at the local newspaper.

“What the deuce? That’s Toni Sellars! What crypt did that evil she-devil crawl out of? Isn’t she supposed to be in prison somewhere?”

“Her ex is, thanks to you; but she pleaded innocence if I recall.”

“But how did they meet? Does Gov. DiGregorio know about her past?”

“Guess not. But just think about the power that we have now—we could blackmail the governor and first lady.” Maeve’s eyes sparkled, though she was kidding.

“Guess this means I’ll be going to that canasta tournament in Vegas, then,” Martin chuckled.

“What a freaky world,” Andy said, shaking his head.