Big Sky Ever After
A Romance Duet
A bundle in the Trouble Wears Tartan series
Two bestselling authors. Two new novels in two new series. One big sky!
Welcome to Montana a land of fine whisky, big-spread ranches, and an open prairie of possibilities…
TARTAN TWO-STEP BY GRACE BURROWES:
Scottish whisky distiller Magnus Brodie’s long-anticipated bicentennial batch of whisky has been sabotaged. His sole hope to prevent financial disaster? Buy the Logan brothers’ Montana distillery. It’s the only way to secure Bridget MacDeaver’s services as a “cask-whisperer.”
Bridget refuses to sell her grandpa’s distillery, even to save her brothers’ ranch. When an old enemy threatens, her only ally is the man who’s determined to steal her grandpa’s legacy—and her heart!
NATHAN’S BIG SKY BY M. L. BUCHMAN:
Chef Nathan Gallagher’s escape from New York lands him in the most unlikely of places: Montana. With his past dumped and his future unknown, he seeks something new. If only he knew what.
Former rodeo star and born-and-bred cattle rancher Julie Larson loves the land and the horses. The cattle and her three big brothers? Not so much. The cowhands and ranchers’ sons, even less. When she rescues a lost chef, the only place her future and her heart can thrive lies under Nathan’s Big Sky.
Order your copy
Order your copy
Enjoy An Excerpt
Magnus Cromarty swirled the glass of whisky beneath his nose and breathed in the scent of betrayal.
“Tell me what you think,” he said, as casually as he’d offer his cousin a new blend of coffee.
Elias Brodie went unsuspecting to his doom. He didn’t bother to nose his wee dram, he took a sip and winced. “This is not up to your usual standard, Magnus.”
“No need to be diplomatic.”
Now, Elias took a whiff of the whisky. “A hint of wet dog, muddy boots, rotten eggs, or something…”
“The technical term is foxy. The damned stuff is foxy, like cheap burgundy or fraternity moonshine. This was supposed to be my signature batch of whisky, Elias, the year that all the judges at all the international competitions sat up and took notice of Cromarty Distilleries, Limited.”
Elias set down his glass. “They’ll take notice of that and promptly call the poison control hotline. Can you fix it?”
Whisky-making was as much art as science, which was part of what Magnus loved about being a professional distiller.
“I don’t know. Do you trust me to serve you an antidote?”
“There is no antidote. The finish is as bad as the nose.”
Magnus crossed the study and fetched two clean glasses, a pitcher of water, and a bottle of whisky.
“Give this a try.”
Elias was used to these sessions and knew better than to resist direction. He obliged Magnus, though this time he took a sniff of his drink before trying a taste.
“That is lovely. That is…” He held the glass beneath his nose.
“That is what my best batch should be,” Magus said. “That is damned fine whisky.”
Elias peered at the label. “It’s American? Is nothing sacred? I’ve never heard of Logan Bar whisky.”
Magnus poured himself a scant portion, inhaled, and took a taste of six-year-old Logan Bar single malt. In the dark of a blustery Scottish evening, sunshine bloomed on his tongue. The nose had notes of butterscotch and apples, a touch of citrus, and a hint of banana taffy.
Exquisite, ladylike, and elegant on the palate too.
“The Logans are sitting on a damned gold mine,” Magnus said, “and they don’t realize it.”
“It’s their gold mine,” Elias countered. “Americans take their property law quite seriously.”
“I take my whisky more seriously still. You have to admit this is outstanding for a young single malt.”
“I’m sure we have better here in Scotland,” Elias said, taking another sip, then another.
Magnus put his glass aside, lest the contents distract him from the discussion. Elias was the senior director on the board of Cromarty Distilleries, Ltd., and his business acumen had preserved Magnus from more than one wrong turn. Elias was family too—a second cousin—so Magnus could be honest with him.
“That’s the problem with the rest of my board, Elias. All they think about is Scotland. Whose eighteen-year-old batch isn’t finishing worth a damn for the third year in a row. What’s Dewar’s got up their sleeve, and can we get them to include our overstock in their next blend?”
Elias propped his feet on a hassock, and because he had the Cromarty height, they were large feet. His right sock had a hole near the big toe, which was damned silly. Women had adored Elias since he’d first pinned a kilt around his chubby toddler knees. Surely some girlfriend or fiancée might have bought the man a decent pair of socks?
Magnus made a mental note to stuff a few pairs of his favorite organic wool hiking socks into Elias’s overnight bag.
“Your board of directors has an average age of eighty-seven,” Elias said, pouring himself another dram. “This American whisky is charming. I don’t picture you acquiring anything charming.”
This discussion was taking place in Magnus’s study, a temple to Scottish Baronial interior design. The furniture was heavy, comfortable, and upholstered in plaid. The carpet was more plaid, and the curtains yet still more plaid. Some multiply-great-grandmother had chosen to inflict on her menfolk the Cromarty hunting tartan, a jarring weave of green, black, yellow, and red.
And the lot of it was even older than Magnus’s board members.
“This whisky is more than charming, Elias, it’s exactly what I need to get Cromarty’s into the US market. Logan’s has the brand recognition that can get my whisky out of the country clubs and into the honky-tonks and hookup bars.”
Elias held his glass up to the light. “Hookup whisky? You aspire to peddle hookup whisky? Most of your board members won’t know what a hookup is. Won’t you command a better price at the finer establishments?”
Magnus’s grasp of the term hookup was a dim memory at best, but his dream of putting Cromarty Distilleries on solid footing was all too real.
Though, if Magnus couldn’t convince Elias to consider an American partner, he’d never convince his board.
“Americans are willing to pay a decent sum for their drink of choice, regardless of venue. I’m not in the same league as the snobs. I haven’t a twenty-eight-year-old crop that will sweep all the awards and enthrall the Malt Whisky Society. I make a good, vastly underrated whisky. Americans love to find a bargain, and with the right entrée, Cromarty’s can be that overlooked gem that a savvy cowboy knows to order for his date.”
Though not if Magnus’s flagship bottling had all the appeal of vintage rat poison.
“Honky-tonks and savvy cowboys,” Elias said. “Not a market the average Scottish distillery would pitch to, I’ll grant you that. I like this whisky more the longer I drink it.”
And that was why Magnus had noticed the Logan Bar distillery. The whisky spoke for itself, in tones all the more seductive for being intelligent and charming.
“You like that whisky now,” Magnus said. “You’ll be in love before we finish the bottle.”
“I’ll be asleep in your guest room within the hour. Where did you say this distillery is?”
“Never been there. I hear it’s full of cowgirls.” Elias drained the last of his drink. “Will you run away to join the rodeo on us, Magnus?”
Elias had played the international polo circuit, hung out with the racing set—cars and horses, both—and had at one time been engaged to some earl’s daughter. He had the sort of natural athletic talent that should have earned him the undying enmity of his fellow man, and was a genuinely decent person.
“You sound wistful when you mention running away, Elias.”
“And you are married to that damn pot still,” Elias retorted, pushing to his feet. “I will approve the expenditure of funds to send you to negotiate with the Americans. You’ll need the full board to approve a final offer, and that will be an uphill battle. I don’t care for the idea of acquiring an American business in the current international environment, but this is the only way you’ll leave the distillery for more than a bank holiday.”
“You’re approving a trip to Montana so I can watch a rodeo?”
“No, Magnus. I’m approving this trip so you can get acquainted with a few cowgirls.”
As long as those cowgirls didn’t mind paying for a fine Scottish single malt, Magnus would be their new best friend. If one of them could repair the damage done to his signature vintage, he’d go down on bended knee and kiss her fancy cowgirl boots.
“Montana State has more than fifteen thousand students,” Bridget MacDeaver said, “and out of all those young minds eager for knowledge, why do the ones who are also eager for a beating have to show up here on Friday night, as predictably as saddle sores and taxes?”
Bridget’s brother Shamus turned and hooked his elbows on the bar so that he faced the room. “A fight means Juanita can change up the Bar None’s décor. You ladies like hanging new curtains.”
Bridget didn’t bother kicking him, because Shamus was just being a brother. In the mirror behind the bar, she watched as Harley Gummo went nose to nose with yet another college boy.
“One of these days, Harley’s going to hurt somebody who has a great big trust fund, and then our Harley will be getting all his mail delivered to Deer Lodge.”
Montana State Prison, in the southwest quarter of the state, called Deer Lodge home.
“What’s it to you if Harley does a little more time?” Shamus asked, taking a sip of his beer.
“He’ll ask me to represent him, and I can’t, though he’s a good guy at heart.”
Also a huge guy, and a drunk guy, and a guy with a temper when provoked. College Boy was provocation on the hoof, right down to his Ride A Cowboy T-shirt and the spankin’-new Tony Lama Black Stallions on his feet.
“Pilgrims,” Shamus muttered as College Boy’s two friends stood up, and the other patrons drifted to the far corners of the Bar None’s dance floor.
“Do something, Shamus. Harley’s had too much.”
Bridget’s brothers—step-brothers, technically—were healthy specimens, all over six feet, though Harley came closer to six-foot-six.
“He has too much too often,” Shamus said. “This is not our fight. Let’s head out the back.”
Behind the bar, Preacher Martin was polishing a clean glass with a white towel. Bridget knew a loaded sawed-off shotgun sat out of sight within reach of his left hand. Preacher looked like the circuit parsons of the Old West—full beard, weathered features, slate gray eyes—and he’d been settling fights by virtue of buckshot sermons since Bridget had sat her first pony.
“We can’t let Harley just get in trouble,” she said, “or let that idiot jeopardize what few brain cells he hasn’t already pickled.”
“Bridget, do I have to toss you over my shoulder?”
“Try it, Shamus, and Harley will come after the part of you still standing when I’ve finished putting you in your place.”
Bridget hadn’t the family height, so she made sure to punch above her weight in muscle and mouth. Three older step-brothers had taught her to never back down and never make empty threats.
The musicians—a pair of fiddlers—packed up their instruments and nodded to Preacher. A few patrons took their drinks outside.
Bridget was off her stool and wrestling free of the hand Shamus had clamped around her elbow when Harley snarled, “Step off, little man,” at the college boy.
A stranger strolled up to Harley’s left. “Might I ask a question?”
“Who the hell is that fool?” Shamus murmured.
“Never seen him before,” Preacher said, towel squeaking against the glass. “Bet we won’t see him again either.”
The stranger was on the tall side, rangy, and dressed in blue jeans and a Black Watch flannel shirt. His belt buckle was some sort of Celtic knot, and his hair was dark and longish. Bridget put his age about thirty and his common sense at nearly invisible.
He was good-looking though, even if he talked funny.
“A shame to see such a fine nose needlessly broken.” Bridget took noses seriously, hers being one of her most valuable assets.
Shamus shot her a women-are-nuts look.
Harley swung around to glower at the stranger. “What did you say?”
“It’s the accent,” the guy said, patting Harley’s arm. “I know. Makes me hard to understand. I wanted to ask what it means when you tell somebody to step off. I haven’t heard that colloquialism before, and being far from home, I don’t want to offend anybody if I should be told to step off. Does it mean to turn and count my steps like an old-fashioned duel, or move away, or has it to do with taking back rash words?”
The stranger clearly expected Harley to answer.
“He’s either damned brave or a fool rushing in,” Shamus said.
“He’s just standing there,” Bridget replied, because a brother in error should never go uncorrected. “He sounds Scottish.”
“He sounds like he has a death wish.”
“You don’t know what step off means?” Harley sneered.
“Haven’t a clue,” the stranger said. “I’m a fancier of whisky, and I’m sipping my way through my first American holiday. Don’t suppose I could buy either of you a drink, if that’s the done thing? I wouldn’t want to offend. My name is Magnus, and this is my first trip to Montana.”
He stuck out a hand, and Harley was just drunk enough to reflexively stick out his own.
“That was brilliant,” Bridget said. In the next instant, College Boy was shaking hands too and introducing himself, then shaking with a puzzled Harley.
“Never seen anything like that,” Preacher commented. “Harley Gummo ambushed by his mama’s manners.”
There had also been a mention of whisky, which recommended the Scotsman to Bridget more highly than his willingness to intervene between a pair of fools. Somebody should have intervened. For a stranger to do so was risky.
Bridget should have intervened.
Harley and College Boy let their new friend escort them to the drink station a yard to Bridget’s left at the bar. She overheard earnest explanations of the rivalry between the Seahawks and the 49ers, which then degenerated into an explanation of American football.
Man talk. Safe, simple man talk. Thank God.
“I do believe I see Martina Matlock all by her lonesome over by the stage,” Shamus said. “If you’ll excuse me, Bridget.”
He wasn’t asking. Martina was all curves and smiles, and Shamus was ever a man willing to smile back on a Friday night. He embodied a work hard/play harder approach to life, and of all of Bridget’s brothers, he was the one most likely to miss breakfast at the ranch house on Saturday morning.
“Find your own way home, Shamus,” Bridget said.
Harley and his recently acquired buddies had found a table, and College Boy’s companions took the two remaining free seats. The musicians unpacked their instruments, and Preacher left off washing glasses to help Juanita with the line forming at the drink station.
Magnus—was that a first name or a last name?—ordered a round of Logan Bar twelve-year-old single malt for the table, the first such order Bridget had heard anybody place all night.
As Preacher got down the bottle, Bridget approached the stranger. “May I ask why you drink Logan Bar?”
“Because it’s the best American single malt I’ve found thus far. Would you care to join us?”
His answer could not have pleased Bridget more. “You’re on your own with that bunch of prodigies, but if you want to dance later, come find me.”
“The lady doesn’t dance with just anybody,” Preacher said, setting tasting glass shots on a tray and passing over a menu. “Get some food into Harley, and this round will be on the house.”
Magnus took the tray. “My thanks, and my compliments on a fine whisky inventory.”
His voice sounded like a well-aged whisky, smooth, sophisticated, and complex but forthright too. A touch smoky, a hint of weathered wood and winter breezes.
He leaned a few inches in Bridget’s direction as the fiddlers arranged chairs on the stage. “I’ll take you up on that dance, miss, just as soon as I instruct my friends regarding the fine points of an excellent single malt.”
The finest single malt in the country. “You do that.”
Bridget didn’t wink and didn’t smile, and neither did Magnus. He appreciated her whisky and was about to teach others to do likewise. If he made a habit out of advertising her single malt, Mr. Magnus could be her new best friend.
Or the Logan Bar distillery’s new best friend, which amounted to the same thing.
Magnus could explain whisky all day and half the night. He had a routine that included the history of distilling—if the monks did it, we know it’s good for us—and a demonstration of the traditional whisky glass’s ability to hold a correct sipping portion when toppled on its side.
When Harley and the three college students were sagely sipping their drams, Magnus rose.
“If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen, I’ve a dance to catch. The sandwiches should be here shortly, and I’d be obliged if you’d consider this my treat. I would never have puzzled out that part about the four downs and ten yards.”
American football was as tedious as cricket, though considerably more profitable.
Harley considered his drink. “You asking Bridget to dance?”
It was more the case that Bridget had asked Magnus. “I thought I would. Why?”
“Go easy,” Harley muttered. “And mind your manners.”
The lady had asked Magnus about his choice of whisky, and was thus another potential convert. She was back on her barstool near the drink station, and as Magnus approached, he was mildly surprised to realize that Bridget was… pretty.
Her name suited her, for she had freckles sprinkled across her cheeks, dark auburn hair, and green eyes that held neither flirtation nor guile. She was between average and petite in stature and appeared to be drinking ice water with a slice of lemon.
“If the offer of a dance is still open, I’d like to take you up on it.” How much easier to start a conversation when the woman had done the initial asking.
“I’m Bridget,” she said, offering her hand. “And we either dance now, or the floor will soon be too crowded.”
Magnus took her hand. “Let’s seize the day, shall we? Or the night?”
In Scotland, he would never have stood up with a strange woman. He’d been dragged to endless ceilidh dances as a child and spent most of them nipping from the adult’s drinks. As an adolescent, he’d seen the potential rewards for actually learning the dance steps and subjecting females to his company on the dance floor. What the females had got out of the business, he could not have said.
The fiddlers tuned up, the lights dimmed, and as luck would have it, Magnus was about to spend the next five minutes slow dancing with a pretty stranger.
“You’re sure?” Bridget asked, taking another sip of her lemon water.
“Over there,” she said, sliding off her stool and marching through the tables.
Magnus followed and got looks from the other men, particularly one man sitting with a leggy blonde in the corner. The other women didn’t look at him so much as they inspected him.
The Scots had invented the you’re-not-from-around-here glower. Magnus smiled back at all of them. Bridget had asked him to dance, after all.
The introduction was in triple meter, the violins in close harmony. Magnus arranged himself and his partner in waltz position, though Bridget kept him at a firm distance.
“I’m not very good at this,” she said. “I know most of the line dances, but not this couples’ crap.”
Americans could be blunt. Magnus liked that about them. “We’ll stick to a box step, then,” he said, guiding her through an awkward square. “Or we can sit this one out.”
“I offered, and sooner begun is sooner done.”
“Why did you offer?”
She was looking down, clearly trying to anticipate their movements rather than let Magnus lead. “Ask me when I haven’t grown two extra feet and lost my sense of direction.”
“We’re dancing in a square. We’ll stay right here, getting acquainted with left, forward, right, and back, until—”
She tromped on his foot. “Sorry.”
“No worries.” He pulled her closer when another couple went careening past. “I’ll talk you through it. Left, forward, right, back. Left, forward, right, back.”
Verbally directing Bridget meant thinking in mirror opposites, but that spared Magnus from focusing too closely on being near a woman for the first time in months. Years, possibly. He was not married to his pot still, but he’d outgrown casual encounters long ago.
By degrees, Bridget relaxed, and soon, Magnus’s directions were no longer needed. Bridget stopped watching her feet, and for two whole minutes, Magnus simply enjoyed partnering a lady on the dance floor.
“Thank you,” he said as the violins died away to a smattering of applause.
“Thank you,” Bridget replied, grinning out of all proportion to the moment. “I haven’t slow danced since twelfth grade, when Jimmy Jack Cavanaugh knocked me on my keister in front of the whole class. I’m back on the horse now.”
“You mean to pay me a compliment.”
By waltzing with him, Bridget had obviously cleared some social hurdle. If her smile was any indication, she’d be waltzing again soon.
“Jimmy Jack went ass over tin cups in front of the whole class too, and then headfirst into the Homecoming queen’s bustle. Ruined her dress, and Joellen Plymouth still sets a lot of store by her wardrobe. So where are you from, My-Name-Is-Magnus?”
Magnus was tired—he’d driven four hundred miles before finding his hotel—and the room was loud. Deciphering Bridget’s meaning took him a moment.
“Scotland,” he said. “West of Aberdeen.”
She resumed her perch on the barstool and patted the empty seat beside her. “And you like whisky.”
“I enjoy good whisky in moderation. I’m on holiday, so I drove up from Denver and toured a few distilleries.”
Interesting businesses, and far more varied than the single malt industry in Scotland. Americans didn’t stick to barley. They also made grain into bourbon, rye, corn whisky, blended concoctions, experimental products… The whole market was more complicated than its Scottish counterpart and no less competitive.
“Everybody who didn’t catch the microbrewery wave has opened up a distillery,” Bridget said. “Are you drinking?”
He was staying in the hotel two doors up from the Bar None Tavern and Taphouse. Instead of merely sipping from an interesting flight, he could savor a dram on a chilly night.
“Perhaps you have a recommendation?”
She looked him up and down, far more carefully than she had before they’d taken to the dance floor. “Preacher, pour us some of the Edradour.”
Edradour was usually referred to as the smallest legal distillery in Scotland and still made its whisky on the farm where operations had started in 1825. They valued excellent quality over quantity, but Magnus hadn’t tasted their product recently.
“What are we drinking?” he asked as the bartender poured two pale gold drams into tasting glasses.
“Fifteen-year-old single malt finished in Madeira casks,” she said, the way some women might have discussed Belgian dark chocolates.
“You know something about whisky-making.”
“Enough to know that whisky is aged in oak barrels and those barrels give it most of its flavor. Hush now and let me pay my respects.”
Bridget was interesting when she focused on whisky. She took a few slow breaths, closed her eyes, and brought the glass under her nose. A whisky’s first impression was called the nose for that reason—the impact was primarily olfactory, which meant the same drink could come across differently to different people.
“Farmland,” she said. “I love that, with a hint of horses and freshly turned fields.” Her smile was dreamy, as if she could see the farmland, hear the horses munching grass in their pastures, and feel the sun’s reflected warmth rising from the cropland ready for planting. “A barn full of fresh hay, and then there’s peat, of course, but gentle peat. The hint of last night’s fire.”
She spoke in tasting notes, in the precise sensory descriptions favored by whisky connoisseurs.
“And the palate?”
She took a sip and held the glass away. “The peat remains unobtrusive, and the wine comes through after a polite tap on the door. Green tea, cooking apples—Winesap, not those boring Red Delicious—and whole wheat toast, scythed grass, a touch of black pepper. God, to drink this on a picnic blanket with afternoon sun beaming down.”
Magnus did as Bridget had done, nosing the whisky before sampling it, and Bridget’s description was astonishingly accurate.
“What would you say about the finish?” he asked.
She took another taste, her eyes closed again. “Still bucolic, but with a hint of the pungent quality of livestock immediately upwind. I like a contradictory whisky, and this one has both elegance and earthiness.” She opened her eyes and gazed at Magnus directly. “Scrumptious.”
Elegance and earthiness. Exactly.
He’d taken another sip of his whisky before he realized that her last comment—scrumptious—might not have been exclusively aimed at the whisky.
Bridget wasn’t a cowgirl, as Magnus’s cousin had probably meant the term. Her hair was French braided into a tidy bun, her green blouse looked to be silk and showed not a hint of cleavage. Her jeans were comfortable rather than fashionable. She wore some kind of ballet-slippery things on her feet and no makeup that Magnus could detect.
The only scent he picked up from her in the increasingly crowded confines of the Bar None was a subtle hint of lavender.
“Was that another compliment, then, Bridget?”
She ran her finger around the rim of her glass. “I’m not sure. Let me finish my whisky, and we’ll find out.”
Bridget rarely drank whisky. She sampled, evaluated, analyzed, and loved it, but didn’t consume it. Tonight was special, in a queasy, upset, uh-oh-feeling way.
She’d argued with her brothers. Not a squabble, a spat, a dustup, or difference of opinion, this had been an argument. Patrick had slammed doors, Luke had trotted out his best epithets, and Shamus had threatened to spend the summer skiing in New Zealand.
Bridget had raised her voice. She never raised her voice.
She also never slow danced, but that had gone better than her attempt to bellow sense into her brothers.
“You are very serious about your whisky,” Magnus said.
The Edradour was seriously wonderful, a comfort and an inspiration. “I’m serious about most things. What about you?”
“Serious to a fault,” he said, holding his glass up to the light and swirling the contents. This Edradour was light-bodied, meaning the whisky didn’t cling to the sides of the glass.
“Not too serious to take a vacation.” What would that be like? A vacation? To leave not just the Logan Bar, but Montana, or even the United States? Go someplace where walking down the street didn’t mean greeting somebody who’d gone to third grade with you?
“I’ll tend to a bit of business before I go back to Scotland. Is something troubling you, Bridget?”
Just the rest of her life. “Had a difference of opinion with my brothers. We’ll get past it.” They’d get past it just as soon as Bridget capitulated to her brothers’ wishes.
Which was not going to happen.
“Would it help to talk about it?”
“Nope.” Talking might lead to more yelling or possibly crying. The brothers had ambushed her at the damned dinner table this time. Ganged up on her and started in with the consider-the-bigger-picture and we’re-thinking-of-your-best-interests bullcrap.
“Would it help to complain about it?”
“My brothers are stubborn, and there are three of them and only one of me. They think I should go back to lawyering, but I’m not meant for that.”
“I studied law. I never intended to go into private practice, but a legal education has been useful. When I do need to rely on outside counsel, I’m not at their mercy.”
“A legal education is only useful if people listen to you,” Bridget said, closing her eyes and inhaling the scent of fifteen years of nature’s alchemy. “They don’t listen to me.”
And that hurt bitterly. The men whom she called family, the ones who’d probably die to protect her, couldn’t be bothered to give her a fair hearing. Shamus might try, if his older brothers weren’t pacing and pawing in the same room, but Shamus might also bolt for southern climes.
He was at that moment sitting nearly in Martina Matlock’s lap. No chance he’d be willing to have a reasonable discussion out of Luke’s and Patrick’s hearing, and the Bar None was no place to air family differences.
Enough brooding. “Tell me about yourself, Magnus. What are you doing in America, and how do you come to know your whisky?”
If Bridget hadn’t been watching him, she would have missed his smile—a fleeting, self-deprecating lift of one side of his mouth and a momentary glint in his eyes.
Blue eyes, not that eye color mattered for doodly-dang-squat.
“I am an only child,” he said, an interesting place to start his self-disclosure. “I manage a business that my family began generations ago, which isn’t unusual in Scotland. I was overdue for a change of scene, and I’d never seen the American West before.”
All very prosaic, and yet, he wasn’t a prosaic guy. He’d walked up to Harley Gummo and diffused a fight that could have turned ugly.
“And?” Bridget prompted.
“And what I’ve found here is well worth the journey,” he said, turning those Highland-blue eyes on Bridget. “Unexpected and intriguing.”
Well, now. Bridget fumbled around for a snappy comeback—I’m all yours, Braveheart, struck her as a little undignified, also not quite true.
Magnus turned on his stool as if to survey the dance floor where scooting, swinging, flirting couples were shuffling back to their tables for drinks between sets.
“I think this is where you toss your drink at me,” he said, “except I’d ask you not to waste such a fine single malt. Witty banter was never my strong suit, and I’m out of practice.”
“I’m not much of one for bantering myself so spare yourself the effort. Where did you have your first sip of good whisky?”
“On my mother’s lap, I suppose. Possibly my father’s.”
“And your favorite whisky is?”
The American whisky industry employed a number of Scots, and Bridget loved to hear them talk. The accent was charming, but even more attractive was their passion for the water of life. The most dour and retiring Scot would wax eloquent in the face of a well-finished eighteen-year-old single malt, and bad whisky reduced them to unintelligible tirades.
Bridget loved those tirades, because without comprehending a single word, she could agree with the whole sentiment.
Magnus talked about whisky as if it were a member of his family—difficult, dear, and deserving of every loyalty. Scotland had more than two hundred distilleries, and he rattled off names and products like a horse breeder spoke of lineage and track records.
Listening to him talk, the betrayal Bridget felt from her brothers faded, aided by the Edradour, but also by the magic of hearing a true believer talk about his passion.
Which also happened to be Bridget’s passion.
Somewhere between an argument about Islay versus Campbeltown peaty-ness, the thought strayed through Bridget’s head: What would Magnus the Scot be like in bed?
Bold with notes of soft wool, slow hands, and comfortable silence?
Frisky, surprisingly playful, with an inventive streak and stamina toward the finish?
“I’ve bored you,” Magnus said. “My apologies, but many Scotsmen are passionate about whisky. What of you? How did you become enamored of the water of life?”
The fiddles had re-tuned, and Preacher had turned the lights down again.
“I like challenges,” Bridget said. “Are you up for another turn on the floor?”
Shamus was leading Martina from their table, and her walk said she had plans for her partner after the last waltz.
“I would be honored.” Magnus stood and held out his hand.
Bridget let him escort her to the same corner they’d started out in last time. “If I fall on my butt, I’m taking you down with me.”
He arranged them in waltz position. “Promise?” His expression was solemn.
Magnus spoke plain English, but cultural differences might mean…
“You’re teasing me,” Bridget said as the introduction started.
“I would never make sport of a lady.”
“You just did. I should warn you that thanks to my brothers, I would make sport of a gentleman at the least provocation.”
The introduction was unaccountably long, which meant Bridget was standing more or less in Magnus’s arms and he in hers. That should have felt awkward, or flirtatious.
Mostly, it felt nice.
“I think you’re bluffing,” Magnus said as they moved into a relaxed version of their box step. “I think you would be very considerate of a gentleman’s sensibilities.”
Innuendo lingered in that observation, and Bridget didn’t bother batting it aside. Talking to Magnus had warmed parts of her the whisky couldn’t reach, and helped her gather the composure the day’s earlier arguments had scattered.
Her brothers were damned idiots. Shamus and Martina twirled by, and Martina gave her a little wave and a thumbs-up.
Bridget closed her eyes and tucked closer to Magnus, who accommodated the shift in position as easily as if they’d been dancing together for years. He felt good—warm, solid, and masculine with none of the wandering hands or bumping hips Bridget would have endured from other guys she’d stood up with in recent memory.
When the music ended, she excused herself to use the ladies’ room and found Martina reapplying eyeliner.
“I don’t know where you found him,” Martina said, “but if I wasn’t with Shamus tonight, I’d be arm-wrestling you for that guy.”
Bridget tucked a few stray wisps of hair back into her French braid. “He’s just passing through.”
Martina snapped her eyeliner closed with a twist. “They’re the best kind. If you’re going to be stupid and talk yourself out of a little harmless fun, I’ll tell your brother you stole his Indian head nickels when we were in fifth grade.”
“You stole them, and we were in fourth grade.”
In the mirror, Martina gave her a look. “Go for it, Bridget. Shamus said he owes you an apology, and that means somebody’s temper got out of hand. A little horizontal two-step always improves my mood. You have any protection?”
“You are a bad influence, Martina Matlock.”
“Shamus likes that about me,” she said, digging in her purse and passing over a three-pack of condoms. “Be adventurous, not stupid.” She gave Bridget a hug and sashayed out of the ladies’ room on a cloud of Tom Ford fragrance.
Bridget mentally cataloged scents—citrus, mint, thyme, some close relative of jasmine—and considered the condoms. They were nowhere near their expiration date.
“Be adventurous, not stupid,” she told her reflection, and that was good advice. Where Magnus was concerned, she could be tempted to be both.
“But he’s only passing through, so adventurous will do just fine.”
“The first thing you will do,” Luke Logan said, turning the chair around and straddling it so he faced his brother across the kitchen table, “is apologize to Bridget.”
Patrick stared straight past him, but then, what had Luke expected? “I already put my quarters into the potty-mouth jar.”
Luke had put ten bucks in. “You could put your whole soul into the potty-mouth jar, and that’s not the same as apologizing for raising your voice to the only person remaining in this household who qualifies as a civilizing influence.”
Wrong thing to say. But for nearly a year, everything had been the wrong thing to say to Patrick Logan. Every look was the wrong look, every silence was the wrong silence.
“Bridget gave as good as she got.” Patrick sounded eight years old and guilty as hell.
Luke had had more conversations with his brothers than the Montana night sky held stars, most of them trivial or related to running the ranch. This conversation could not be allowed to become trivial.
“Bridget will always give at least as good as she’s gotten. That’s no excuse for how you acted.”
“You weren’t exactly the United Nations peacekeeping envoy.”
“So I will apologize. I’ll do it in front of you, in front of Lena, in front of my damned horse. You were out of line, Patrick.”
Patrick sat back. “We all were. Shamus would rather be catching the last of the spring skiing, not buried in our bookkeeping. He always gets restless as winter ends.”
True enough, which had nothing to do with anything.
“He gets restless because we paid corporate taxes this spring, same as every year.” They’d paid as much as they could. Shamus had until September to figure out how to make that amount be enough to appease the bottomless IRS pit.
The kitchen door swung open, and Lena stood there in her nightie and bare feet, clutching a book. Her braids were lumpy, meaning she’d done them herself.
“I finished my homework and brushed my teeth and watered Mama’s violets, Daddy. Will you read me a story?”
She held one of those books about rabbits and possums and old Mr. McGregor. They were stories for a child younger than eight, in Luke’s opinion.
Patrick scrubbed a hand over his face. “Sure, Pumpkin. I’ll be up in a minute.”
“You always say that.” Lena’s tone was hesitant rather than accusing. Everything about the girl had become hesitant, while her father’s approach to life had become aggressively heedless.
“See the clock?” Luke asked. “I will keep track of the time, and when it has been five minutes, I will remind your daddy that he’s given you his word, and up the stairs he will go.” On the end of Luke’s boot, if necessary.
“Thanks, Uncle Luke.” Lena scampered across the kitchen and gave him a good squeeze around the neck, bashing him in the ear with her book, then scampered out the door without even looking at her father.
“Get back into counseling,” Luke said. “Find salvation, find another woman, take holy orders, or bay at the full moon, but you can’t go on the way you have been.”
Patrick tossed the ketchup bottle in the air and caught it. “Yes, boss.”
“You’d better be up those steps in four-and-a-half minutes, or you’ll have another apology to make.”
Patrick rose and took a longneck out of the fridge. “What’s one more when I have so many? Leave me alone, Luke.”
And leaving Patrick alone also wasn’t the right thing to do, but Luke apparently had a bedtime story to read—another story. At least for the damned rabbit, there would be a happy ending.
“You were holding Miss Bridget a mite close,” the bartender said.
“She was holding me just as closely,” Magnus replied, and that had felt better than it ought to have. By the end of the second dance, Bridget had been pliant and relaxed in his arms, following his lead instinctively, though he’d been doing little more than swaying to the beat and trying not to get too obvious an erection.
Which had also felt better than it should have.
The bartender braced both hands on the bar and leaned close. “Friendly warning. You mess with that little gal, and Harley will be the least of your troubles. She has three brothers who will swing first and ask questions when they’re done stompin’ on your Scottish ass.”
Magnus would place Bridget closer to thirty than twenty-five and put her intelligence—emotional as well as academic—at well above average.
“You disrespect the lady if you think I could impose on her and survive the encounter. She has a mind and will of her own, and those she calls friends ought to respect her judgment.”
Gray eyes grew as cold as a Hebridean winter sky. Too late, Magnus recalled that America was saturated with guns by Scottish standards.
Then a grin split the bartender’s face, and he extended a hand. “I’m Thaddeus Martin. Everybody calls me Preacher, ’cept Juanita. She calls me whatever she damned well pleases. Any friend of Bridget’s is a friend of ours.”
Magnus shook, because making friends with bartenders was part of his job. At an establishment serving liquor, bookkeepers were also surprisingly influential when it came to what inventory was ordered and in what quantities, but bartenders actually dispensed the product and monitored those consuming it.
Bridget emerged from the hallway leading to the facilities. She had a neat way of moving, neither timid nor bold. She was comfortable here, alert but not on guard, and she had no need to call attention to herself.
Somewhere in the middle of that last dance, Magnus’s body had begun to notice her, and thus Magnus had begun to notice his body. He worked out, he played golf. He’d been dragged on his share of hill-walking dates and preferred not to die of an avoidable coronary, so he watched what he ate.
Magnus had come of age regarding sexual attraction as a normal preoccupation for the male in his reproductive prime. Managing that preoccupation fell somewhere between a delight and an ongoing chore. Since turning thirty, the preoccupation had faded, and Magnus had told himself that was normal too.
Maybe spending a pleasurable few hours with a friendly stranger when on holiday was also normal.
“Shall we enjoy another dram?” Magnus had to bend close to Bridget to be heard over the crowd now stomping and whooping on the dance floor.
“Your choice of single malt, and then let’s move to the lounge.”
That was a yes. Magnus chose a lovely eighteen-year-old Speyside that never failed to impress. He paid the bar tab and the total for the group at Harley’s table, then followed Bridget from the bar. She led him down a plank-floored corridor lined with vintage rodeo posters, and the noise of the dance floor faded behind them.
“Tell me about living in Montana,” Magnus said as they took a small table in a quiet corner. “I’ve never seen terrain like this before.”
“I suspect life in Montana is like life in your Highlands. Self-sufficiency is prized, but we try to look after one another. Tons of scenery, and the weather does whatever the heck it pleases. This is a great whisky.”
“This whisky is an old friend. You don’t speak of your home state with any great affection.” And that was sad.
“Maybe I need to travel elsewhere to see what a bargain I have here. The standing joke is we have ten months of winter and two months of road construction—or relatives.”
Bridget leaned her head against the cushioned upholstery, exposing a graceful line of shoulder, throat, and jaw.
“You are tired.” Magnus was too, having driven beyond his scheduled itinerary. He’d run out of distilleries to visit and hadn’t been interested in starting on the breweries. Driving on the wrong side of the road and sitting on the wrong side of the car meant the whole undertaking was more nerve-racking than a holiday ought to be.
“I’m weary to the bone,” Bridget replied, “but it’s always that way by the end of winter. The calving and lambing are brutally demanding, and just when you think spring has finally beaten winter into submission, one more blizzard—the third one more blizzard of the month—comes roaring down on an Alberta Clipper.” She took another sip of her drink. “I argued with my brothers at the supper table.”
The location apparently exacerbated the offense. “I’m sorry. They upset you.”
“They live to upset me, and I return the favor.”
Magnus asked the question his father had taught him to pose when harm had been done among family members. “Can you make it right?”
“No, I cannot. They want too much, and I’m saying no because I mean no.”
That was a relief, actually. If Magnus offered his company for the night, Bridget would turn him down flat unless she was genuinely interested. No should mean no.
“Maybe time will help. I nearly came to blows with my great-uncle recently. Fergus is eighty if he’s a day and speaks the Doric dialect with an aggressively unintelligible accent. He venerates the past and accuses me of venerating profit.”
Elias had been the only other person present during that altercation. He’d made what peace he could between Magnus and a curmudgeon determined to turn a distillery into a monument to maudlin sentiment.
Bridget brushed a glance over Magnus. “Are you ashamed of what you said?”
A useful question. “No, but I might have said it more respectfully.”
She patted his hand. “Don’t do that. If you’d been more polite, he would have steamrolled right over you. Some people don’t listen unless you shout, and I’ve begun to suspect that’s my fault too.”
Magnus caught her hand and kept their fingers linked. “You shout out of habit, do you?”
“I let them ignore me until ignoring me becomes a habit. I’ve trained them, the way a horse trains us to react when it paws in the crossties.”
The moment called for flirtation, a kiss to her knuckles, a witty quip, a toast, but Magnus was too annoyed with her brothers to bother with any of that.
“Untrain them, Bridget. Or perhaps this disagreement was the first step in that direction?”
She smiled that big, beaming, happy smile. “You catch on fast, Magnus. Makes me wonder where else you might be a quick study.”
“Are you flirting with me?”
Her smile wavered. “If you have to ask, then it’s not very effective flirting, is it? Tell me some more about this whisky.”
“For the first time in years, I’m not interested in talking about whisky.” Magnus wanted to know how she kissed and what her hair looked like when not all tucked up in that fancy braid. He wanted to learn the contours of her bare shoulders and how she best liked to cuddle.
“What are you interested in, Magnus?”
He was interested in her and being intimate with her, but why was this conversation so difficult? Magnus recalled the moves—they were hardly complicated—but Bridget was complicated. She wasn’t on the prowl, wasn’t trolling for a ride, wasn’t forgettable enough for a man who’d be back in Scotland a few weeks hence.
“I’m interested in inviting you to my room,” Magnus said. “My hotel is two doors up.”
Oh, that was smooth. Bridget looked at him as if he’d spoken in Uncle Fergus’s Doric dialect, which was barely related to English on Fergus’s most sober day.
“Accompanying strange men to their hotel rooms is not my usual style.”
Nor was inviting strange women to bed Magnus’s style. He’d done his share of rebounding in stupid directions, taking what was on offer, but Bridget wasn’t on offer in that sense, nor was she a stupid direction.
Magnus wasn’t quite sure what Bridget was, but he liked what he knew of her, and attraction seemed to grow from that liking rather than the reverse.
But the lady apparently wasn’t feeling the chemistry. Bollocks. “Then we will enjoy the rest of our drinks, and you will recommend the local sights to me. I’m not due at my next destination until the day after tomorrow, which puts me at loose ends.”
He was ahead of schedule, which for a vacationing man was probably a form of failure.
Bridget slid closer on the bench they shared, so she and Magnus were hip to hip. “I could use a distraction right about now, Magnus. I mean no disrespect, but you’re passing through and I’m plotting DEFCON 1 for my brothers. You would be nothing but a distraction, and then so long, cowboy. Happy trails and all that.”
That had been Magnus’s public service announcement until five years ago, though he preferred sailing analogies to talk of cowboys.
Magnus looped an arm around her shoulders. “I’ll be your distraction, Bridget, and you can be mine. Shall we order something to eat?”
“Now that is a fine idea,” she said, settling against him. “I was too angry at dinner to do justice to the cooking, and I intend to be up tonight well past my bedtime.”
Magnus passed her the menu and signaled the server.
College for Bridget had been a blur of book learning stashed between doing her part for the ranch and figuring out from Grandpap MacDeaver how to run the distillery business—not simply how to make whisky, which education had begun before Bridget could read. Whisky-making was regulated by local, state, national, and even international bodies, though Logan Bar had yet to test the crowded and shark-infested whisky-export waters.
Grandpap had favored staying in control to staying up with the times. Bridget had promised to honor that legacy. He’d gone so far as the let Mama change the name of the business upon her marriage—from MacDeaver’s to Logan Bar—but that had been his only concession to the passage of time.
Running the business, as opposed to minding the still, took a level of know-how Bridget hadn’t gravitated to instinctively. Her strength was her nose, not a head for numbers. Law school had allowed her a semblance of a social life. She’d had the occasional hookup, friends with benefits, casual relationships, and a few near misses.
“I’m not a prude,” she told her reflection in the mirror of Magnus’s hotel room. “I’m not Martina either.”
Martina spent about eight seconds on each bronc, as it were, and made no apologies for enjoying variety—not that she should.
Bridget hadn’t been in the saddle since… she couldn’t recall since when.
She emerged from the bathroom to find Magnus sprawled in a wing chair. He was an attractive man, even when he was just checking messages, though Montana was full of handsome specimens.
“Everyone okay back home?” Bridget asked, taking the second wing chair.
“Everyone’s fast asleep,” Magnus said. “Or just about to wake up. Have you let somebody know where you are?”
That was hookup safety rule number one, wasn’t it? “Have you?”
“My cousin Elias. I hope I woke him up too, given all the times he’s sent me cheery little texts from Monaco or Budapest or Singapore.”
Magnus surprised her. Guys didn’t observe the hookup safety protocol, but Magnus had. Even Harley’s friends didn’t try to talk him down from stupid decisions, but Magnus had. Guys didn’t linger over a shared dessert of huckleberry cheesecake when the rest of the evening had been agreed to, but Magnus had.
He’d studied business law, with a side of land use—a big deal in Scotland, apparently—and had an undergrad in environmental science.
“You ever been married, Magnus?”
He put the phone down. “I am not married, Bridget, and neither are you. I also don’t have children or a dog, though I am permitted to share my quarters with a pair of geriatric cats. Having second thoughts?”
“Having I-don’t-recall-the-tune, can-you-hum-a-few-bars thoughts.” The whisky glow had worn off, which also didn’t help a gal get her buckaroo on.
Magnus rose from the chair, scooped her up, and resettled with her in his lap.
Bridget was too surprised to fuss him for it.
“Hum a few bars, she says to a man who’s notoriously tone deaf. I liked it when you sat next me, right next to me. I like how indignant you became when my fork ventured too close to your half of a forty-pound piece of cheesecake. I like that arguing with family doesn’t sit well with you, but I wish you could put that aside for a moment and kiss me.”
She scooted around so she straddled his lap. “I can manage that last.”
She’d brushed her teeth twice, and Magnus had found a moment to brush his as well. Another surprise, maybe the best one so far.
Thank God, he wasn’t a pushy kisser. He let Bridget make the overtures, and she wasn’t in a hurry. Heaven knew when she’d find another dance partner, so she intended to savor the one she’d lassoed.
Magnus apparently intended to savor her too.
He slid his hands around her waist, then up her back, tracing bones, exploring muscles, and easing away tension. He threaded his fingers into her hair and cradled the back of her head as she took a taste of his mouth.
They slow danced through their first kiss, and Bridget let go of worries she’d been clutching too close for too long. Things at home had hit the fan, but in this space, with this man, everything was easy and sweet.
In another few minutes, Bridget was lying across Magnus’s lap, unbuttoning his shirt, and toeing off her flats. Her phone buzzed, but it took her a few moments to distinguish the sensation in her back pocket from all the pleasure gathering inside her.
“Phone,” she muttered against Magnus’s mouth.
He eased away, and Bridget scooted around to glower at her screen.
Martina. Everything OK?
Bridget texted back the hotel and room number. Going just fine. For a damned change.
She got a smiley face in return, turned off the ringer, and set the phone beside Magnus’s on the end table.
“You, sir, are wearing too many clothes.”
He rose with Bridget in his arms. “I can fix that. Would you like to use the shower?”
“I’m good.” Her hair was still damp in its braid, in fact, which would make it all ridiculous tomorrow—another reason to be unhappy with her brothers.
Magnus set her down on a hundred-acre bed. “I’ll join you in five minutes. If you want to borrow one of my shirts, you’re welcome to rummage through my suitcase.”
The offer was tempting. Bridget instead filled a glass of water at the kitchenette sink, set her pack of condoms on the night table, and shucked out of her clothes. The shower ran briefly, and doubts resurged.
She was about to… there were a zillion words for what she was about to do. Shag, screw, do the nasty, slam the jam, win the pants-off dance-off, do the horizontal greased-weasel tango.
Cowboys were a poetic lot.
Mostly she was about to take a small, prosaic, unplanned risk. Beneath a frisson of trepidation and a lingering buzz of arousal was some pride. She climbed onto the bed and got under the covers. I am not married to that damned distillery, Lucas Logan, so there.
Magnus strolled out of the bathroom wearing only a towel around his hips. “That is a pensive expression, madam.”
He had just the right amount of chest hair—not a bear-skin rug, not a Ken-doll caricature of a masculine chest. He was well muscled and well proportioned, and as he threw the deadbolt and chain at the door, Bridget wished he’d lose the towel.
But then, she was the one with the sheets tucked up under her arms.
“Lights on or off?” Magnus asked.
Considerate of him. “Up to you.”
He killed the lights in the room, which left a single shaft spilling out of the bathroom. He stood in that beam of light and unwrapped the towel from his waist. Without the towel, well-built became a work of art. His body flowed from muscular legs to smooth flanks, to trim waist, tight butt, long back, and shoulders exactly the right breadth.
He’d hold up well, which was the evolutionary objective of strong conformation.
“Condoms are on the night table,” Bridget said, lest there by any misunderstanding on that entirely nonnegotiable point.
“I have some as well,” he said, prowling across the room. “We’ll use yours, if you’d rather.”
Whatever else was true about Magnus, he understood a woman’s need to be cautious and feel safe.
“Maybe we’ll use both, but we’ll start with mine.”
Magnus sat on the bed at her hip. “Anything I should know? Last-minute warnings? No-tickle zones?”
He was getting it right, moment by moment, move by move. What a pathetic relief that was.
“I’m a traditionalist, if that’s what you’re asking. I haven’t known you long enough to be bored with the tried and true.”
“You’re a realist,” he said, leaning over to kiss her cheek. “I like that in a lover.”
A lover. How comfortably he used the term.
Bridget scooted down to her back, and Magnus followed, nuzzling her neck and chest, then climbing over her. For a moment, he lay on her, only the covers between them. He let her have some of his weight, but didn’t mash her into the mattress.
“What about you?” Bridget asked, ruffling his damp hair. “Any no-tickle zones?”
“Just be yourself,” he said. “Yell if you want to yell, steal the covers, tell me never to call you darling, laugh at me, but please be yourself.”
“Call me Bridget,” she said, patting his butt. “And I’ll call you Magnus.”
End of Excerpt
Big Sky Ever After is available in the following formats:
Grace Burrowes Publishing
April 11, 2017
Grace’s novel is available in print on its own.
Two novels in a single print book would have been a BIG book, so we're doing the ebooks in the Big Sky Ever After bundle, and setting up each print book as a single title. Hope that makes sense!