Elias in Love
Book 2 in the Trouble Wears Tartan series
Scottish business whiz Elias Brodie has inherited a genuine medieval castle, the title of earl, and a huge pile of debt. If he wants to preserve his family’s legacy, the only asset he can immediately sell is a parcel of Maryland countryside he’s never laid eyes on.
In all her years working the land in Damson Valley, Violet Hughes has never seen a genuine Scottish earl, though her first glimpse of one is mighty impressive. Elias is charming, a hard worker, and excellent, um, company, but then Violet learns that he’s determined to sell the largest farm in the valley to a no-good, polecat of a developer. What’s a kilted laddie to do, when he must choose between his true love and his legacy?
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Enjoy An Excerpt
“If Zebedee weren’t already dead, I’d have to kill him for this.” Elias Brodie meant every disrespectful, dismayed word of that threat too.
“Your uncle was a generous man,” Angus Whyte replied, pushing more papers across a desk so large, it had probably been built in the office it dominated. “He held mortgages for half the family, assisted with the educations of any niece or nephew who showed the initiative to better themselves, and spent a fair bit of coin entertaining and housing you, Elias Brodie.”
Elias sat back rather than rip the papers to confetti.
“These investments are pipe dreams and unicorn flatulence, Angus. Emu farms and lavender crops? Organic flowers and solar canal covers? It’s not as if Uncle refurbished the lodge solely to keep me out of the wet.”
Angus pushed to his feet and leaned over his desk, which only underscored how short Uncle’s solicitor had become, or perhaps how tall Elias was in comparison.
“You young fellows,” Angus began in the broad accents of the native Aberdonian. “You think you’ll live forever, and never stop to consider maybe the old fellows don’t exactly plan on having a coronary. Zebedee was as fit as any man his age, and he’d brought the earldom back from ruin twice in the last fifty years. These investments are sound, and you’d be smart to hold onto them. Organic flowers aren’t simply profitable, if the bee die-off isn’t to—”
Elias rose to his full height, for the petty pleasure of looking down on the person who might have warned him the family finances had flatlined five years ago.
“Spare me the green sermon, Angus. You should have let me know Zeb was frittering away a fortune, and you bloody well had a duty to mitigate the worst of his queer starts. I was supposed to be in Italy this afternoon, making some new friends.”
Angus sat with an unceremonious plop, followed by the wheeze of the chair cushion as it conformed to his slight weight.
“New friends, bah. You’re more like Zebedee than you want to admit. He loved the ladies, and they loved him.”
Elias donned his reading glasses, then took the nearest list of figures to the window where natural light made deciphering the numbers easier. On the street below, every stoop and window box was festooned with flowers that could never out-cheer the grimness of native Scottish building stone.
Though Zeb had loved those flowers and the hard granite from which so much of Scotland’s enduring architecture was built.
“I have learned to avoid the ladies,” Elias said. “Both of my former fiancées were ladies, lest you forget. I am fond of women, though from the looks of your balance sheet, the women won’t be half so fond of me by this time Monday.”
“Then they were never really fond of you, were they, lad?” Angus withdrew a pipe from the pocket of a coat that had gone shiny at the elbows decades ago. Harris Tweed, doubtless, for Angus favored durable goods. “Not too many genuine earls left these days. Can’t blame the women for wanting to be your countess.”
Elias wouldn’t mind having a countess, provided she was also interested in being his wife. “What is this golf course halfway down the page?”
“Your cousin Niall’s property in Perthshire. Zeb took a fifteen percent share to help Niall get started. Niall is gradually buying it back.”
If there was one thing Scotland did not need, it was another golf course. “Tell Niall the payment schedule just accelerated. He had sponsors on the pro tour once upon a time. Let them help him get started.”
Elias had crossed paths with Niall on that tour, shared a few beers, wished his cousin luck, and left him to his golf groupies. That had been… a while ago.
“Niall finally got himself a wife, Elias, and being a Cromarty, that means there will soon be children. He’s also recently finalized plans to expand the golf course to eighteen holes and that necessitated taking on another partner of sorts—a MacPherson of all the dodgy characters. You can’t accelerate the note on Niall now.”
Well, shite. Elias recalled choosing the obligatory bottle of wedding whisky from Zeb’s cellar only a few months ago, though lately, the Cromarty branch of the family was enjoying an epidemic of weddings.
“What about these townhouses?” Elias asked. “One in Edinburgh and one in Glasgow. They’re forty-five minutes apart if the roads are dry, and we have apartments in both cities. Can’t these be sold?”
Angus used a square nail to clean out his pipe, tapping the bowl ever-so-patiently on an ash tray made of a lathe-turned curling stone.
“Those properties house your cousin Morag’s pottery shop, and your cousin Elspeth’s book shop. Your great aunt Helga lives in the one in Edinburgh, and her sister Heidi lives in the Glasgow property.”
Helga had a recipe for tablet that could make little boys sit still and say grace by the hour. Heidi had taught Elias how to smoke a cigar without inhaling when he was fourteen.
“Then the whisky has to go, Angus.”
“Not the whisky, Elias,” Angus replied in scandalized tones. “If we auction Zeb’s collection, the value of every asset you hold will halve overnight and your property taxes will mysteriously climb when next it’s time for an appraisal.”
As the Aberdeenshire sun drifted into the long, slow hours of late afternoon, Elias went down the short list of assets, and the endless list of liabilities. Obligations to family cut off the quickest sources of cash, and common sense precluded others, until Elias had gone through two drams of Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban.
And his entire store of optimism.
No significant assets were left that didn’t involve breaking a trust, triggering complicated tax ramifications, or taking a significant loss over the longer term.
“Next you’ll be telling me I have to marry for money, like some damned Englishman,” Elias said. The figures on the page had started to blur, not because of the whisky, but because this wake for the earldom’s finances had inspired the beginnings of a migraine.
“Can’t you find an Italian baroness with a weakness for whisky and wool, lad?”
“They tend to prefer Italian barons, silk, and excellent wines. I can lease the lodge—put it on one of those fancy ‘rent a castle in the Highlands’ websites, and let golf-mad trust fund babies wreck it weekly for an exorbitant sum.”
“You’d rent the lodge?”
The lodge was Elias’s home, the place Zeb had taken him the first summer after the accident. A fellow could contort himself into a hundred comfortable postures in any one of the lodge’s two dozen padded window seats. He could read away entire seasons, impress his friends, or hide from them, and even—when travel, keeping up with Zeb, or chasing clients and baronesses grew wearying—hide from his own life there.
“Better to rent the lodge than lose the castle.” Elias pinched the bridge of his nose, which set up a peculiar tingling behind his eyes. “We’ll have to call it a day, Angus, or I’ll be useless for the rest of the week.”
“You young people have no stamina.”
“You old people have coronaries at the most inconvenient times. Does one of the aunties have room for me?”
Angus stopped shuffling papers, squeaking about in his chair, and fussing with his pipe.
“You’d move in with one of those two? Helga MacQuiston tried to enter the caber toss at Braemar when she was nineteen years old, and Heidi MacGregor put her up to it. They’re daft, the pair of them, and they’ll wheedle all the good Speysides from you before Christmas.”
Angus, of course, favored the milder, more complex Speyside whiskies to the peaty kind. He and Uncle Zeb had spent the last fifty years arguing over which distilleries produced the best single malts. Elias had advocated for variety in one’s pleasures, and neither old man had spoken to him for weeks.
“I’ll pay my rent in single malts,” Elias said. “Spend half the year with each auntie.” Except the cities were too loud, too busy, and too gray. If Helga and Heidi didn’t drive him daft, city life would.
“Ye canna let those two old harpies have the Speyside,” Angus said, coming to his feet. “Your grandfather bought some of those bottles, and that collection is the envy of half the royal families still standing.”
“If I don’t get somewhere quiet and dark, I won’t be standing,” Elias said. “We can continue this tomorrow morning.”
“Tomorrow I have pipe band rehearsal,” Angus shot back. “Maybe you should go to Italy and sit around in a conspicuous location swilling expensive wine and wearing silk. You’ve the Brodie good looks, and they’re worth something.”
Elias had spent many a pleasant afternoon sitting around some Italian countess’s swimming pool, swilling expensive wine under the Tuscan sun, and wearing nothing but a smile.
Foolish of him, in hindsight, but lovely memories nonetheless.
“The Speyside can be auctioned,” Elias said. “I’ll rent out the lodge. Tell the charities I’ll no longer waive my director’s dividends, and find me a few more boards to sit on. Zeb donated enough to his friends’ pet causes that I ought to have some value as a fundraiser on behalf of hermaphroditic okapis, or whatever the latest eleemosynary fad is.”
Angus wrapped a black watch plaid scarf around his neck, though spring was giving way to summer.
“Are ye drunk, lad?”
“Not even close. Working on a migraine.” Also grieving.
“There aren’t any okapis in Scotland that I know of,” Angus said, tugging a green Harris Tweed newsboy’s cap over his head. “I’m not even sure I know what an okapi is.”
“They’re a sept of clan giraffe.” Maybe Elias was a bit toodled, though two drams over the course of an afternoon wasn’t nearly enough to get him tipsy. “Apparently, there isn’t any Strathdee wealth in Scotland, either. Maybe we should auction the Campbeltown whiskies too.”
“Cease your blaspheming, Elias Brodie, or Zebedee will have no choice but to haunt your dreams.”
Elias hoisted his rucksack to his shoulder, passed Angus a black watch plaid umbrella, and surveyed the documents, folders, and curling lengths of calculator paper strewn about the desk.
“You’ll just leave your office like this? A full scale model of the massacre of clan Brodie’s finances?”
The massacre of Elias’s freedom, his home, his life?
“Spare me your Scottish drama,” Angus said, tossing the end of his scarf over his shoulder. “This isn’t the potato famine.”
“I’ll not lose the castle, Angus. If I have to marry a damned octogenarian duchess, or audition for margarine commercials, the castle stays in our hands.”
“Margarine is bad for you,” Angus said, leading the way from the office. “You’d marry an English duchess to keep the castle?”
Zeb had, fifty years ago, and he’d recalled her fondly once she’d left him her fortune.
“I’d sponsor Helga in the Over-Sixty caber toss, lend her my kilt to compete in, and flash the queen, but that won’t raise much cash.” Might be fun, though.
Angus used a key that could easily have doubled as a bottle opener to lock his office. “Did I mention that you own a wee farm in Maryland?”
A wee farm could not pay the taxes on a grand old castle, much less finance its refurbishment.
“Zeb never mentioned a Maryland property.” Maryland was in the eastern United States. Hot and humid, probably as a result of proximity to the American seat of government, which source of overheated air bore the entire responsibility for global warming, according to Zeb.
“Inherited it from some golf-mad spice heiress about ten years ago,” Angus said, leaving the key atop the lintel. “No accounting for Americans, though this farm usually makes money.”
So of course, Angus had waited half the day to disclose its existence. Elias paused at the bottom of the steps and braced himself for the torture of bright sunshine.
“How much money?”
“You raise alpacas on this property, I think, or llamas.” Angus marched out onto the sidewalk, into brilliant afternoon light that drove daggers into Elias’s eyeballs.
“Some sort of runty camel,” Angus went on. “The fur is worth a fair bit, something like $10 an ounce finished, and a breeding pair can bring a pretty penny.”
A pair of refugees from Clan Camel would not a castle rescue. “You think living with runty camels preferable to living with Heidi or Helga?” And in the great swamp of the American seaboard? America had mosquitoes with measurable wingspans.
Angus paused on the street corner. “I think anything is preferable to selling the whisky, my boy. Zeb would agree.” He jaunted along, an old man with a young man’s stride.
Angus was wrong though. Zeb would have excused Elias for selling the whisky, for flashing HRM, for selling his very body, if that meant the castle stayed in Brodie hands.
Elias’s temples had begun to throb, and even his vintage Vuarnets didn’t help with the pain. A memory niggled beneath the gathering weight of his headache.
“Zeb owned that farm free and clear,” Elias said. “Eight-hundred-forty-three acres of excellent farm land less than 70 miles from Washington D.C. Seventy miles is nothing to an American, a hop, skip and a toddle.”
“Proving the lot of them are daft,” Angus said, touching his hat brim to a pair of teenage girls walking a white terrier. “You don’t have to live with your aunties. You can live in your farmhouse, and rent the estate properties, and in a few years, when the market has re-aligned and interest rates—”
“We’re selling the damned farm, Angus. Not in a few years, now. If it’s within commuting distance of the Washington suburbs, then it’s going to waste growing corn and potatoes. Email me the particulars, and we’ll get it on the market within the week.”
The terrier trotted over to sniff at Elias’s jeans. Elias waited rather than make the dog choose between obeying its masters or its instincts.
“The arable land is farmed by the locals,” Angus said, “and Zeb had some caretaker living in the house and minding the livestock. Should be a fairly nice dwelling, based on the appraisal.”
At least the property wasn’t devoted to organic pansies or rain resistant lavender. “The farm will be the first asset to go.”
The terrier finished its inspection and returned to the girls, who were smiling bashfully at Elias. He smiled back, which sent them giggling on their way.
“Stop your damned flirting, Elias. Somebody should take a look before we sell it, and you’ll have to sign all the paperwork to get the real estate people off the mark. I hear you can work on your tan in Maryland this time of year.”
“I wasn’t flirting, I merely smiled.” At a pair of schoolgirls. “I’ll not be flying across the ocean to make the acquaintance of a herd of American camels, old man. You go. Overnight whatever documents I have to sign, and I’ll sell only half the Speysides.”
Angus came to an abrupt halt. “Not even for your arrogant ungrateful lordship would I miss the pipe band competition. You own that farm, you should have a look, and while you’re larking about I’ll hide the whisky so you can’t sell it. Just have a wee dram or three before you board the plane and you’ll be fine.”
All the whisky in Scotland could not make a trans-Atlantic flight “fine” for Elias Brodie, Earl of Strathdee and a damned lot of frozen assets.
“Find me those charities, Angus. Start with half a dozen. I’ll sell my titled soul in addition to my camel park and my whisky.”
“Your charm has apparently deserted you, but then, Zeb always said you took after the Cromarty side of your family more than the Brodie’s.”
“Zeb said a lot, most of it utter, blethering nonsense. Get me the information on the farm, and I’ll arrange the travel. Best of luck with the pipe band competition.”
Angus’s old face creased into a fierce smile. “We were runner up last year, and we’ve been practicing. Those damned MacDonalds won’t know what hit them.”
Elias stuck out a hand, for he needed to find darkness and a dose of painkiller. “Save me a CD of the final round.”
Angus shook, a good, firm grip. “I’ll send it to your camel plantation. Don’t fret about the flight, Elias. Catch a wee nap, watch a few movies, flirt with the flight attendants, and you’re safe on the ground.”
Then Angus was off, whistling an off-key version of “Scotland the Brave.”
Brave didn’t come into it. Elias was angry, but he’d fly over the Atlantic every day, sell the farm, sell his father’s sunglasses, the salmon fishing at the lodge, the apartments in Paris and London, the whisky and his soul, if necessary.
He’d be damned if he’d be the Brodie who lost the castle that had protected his family’s fortunes for more than a thousand years.
Dogs were like crying babies. They had cranky barks, worried barks, feed-me barks, and furious barks. Violet couldn’t decipher the message behind the racket Sarge and Murphy were making, and that in itself was cause for worry.
She closed her blog post file and peered over the porch railing at the Hedstrom place, where a big black pick-up sat in the lane before the farm house. Big black pick-ups were common in rural Maryland, but activity at the Hedstrom farm had become a novelty. The two cats who’d been hanging out there over the winter had gradually migrated to Violet’s summer kitchen, leaving the neighboring property to deer, rabbits, raccoons, possums, and the occasional teenage couple in need of a barn to park behind.
Two guys got out of the truck, men not boys. One was dark-haired and wore a black kilt, and the other was… dark. All over dark. Dark hair, dark suit, dark backpack hanging casually off one broad shoulder, dark glasses.
Sharp-dressed, like a god-damned, no good, parasitic, profit-sucking, land-violating developer. Violet shut down her computer, and whistled for the dogs to get back in the house. She ran upstairs, threw on a bra and a clean T-shirt, decided the yoga pants were OK, and slid into her garden clogs.
The two guys were still standing around in the driveway across the lane, Kilt pointing to the barn, while Suit lifted luggage from the back of the pick-up.
If these guys were the bellwethers for a land developer, the surveyors would come next, leaving odd little piles of dirt around the property, making sure the soil would percolate water at an adequate rate. Then would come a test well or two, and surveying stakes.
Anxiety, anger, and fatigue grabbed at Violet as she crossed her yard and traveled on down the lane. In the middle of Kilt’s gesturing toward the ridge across the valley, Suit caught sight of her.
He was big, with the elegant proportions of a men’s magazine model, and his teeth were bright white against a tan no local would have before high summer. The suit looked hand-tailored, and—surely a sign of the agricultural end times for the Hedstrom property—a gold ring winked on his pinkie.
Then he smiled, and for that gorgeous, charming smile alone, Violet decided not to trust him.
“Cease bletherin’, Dunstan. My neighbor has come calling.”
Dunstan Cromarty had up and gone for a lawyer, which transgression Uncle Zeb had paid for. Worse, Cousin Dunstan now lived in the States, in the same valley where Uncle’s property lay.
Elias’s property now.
“Damn it, Elias, the woman’s not even introduced herself and you’re flirting.”
“You can flirt too,” Elias said, as five feet and possibly two inches of soft curves and bright red hair came striding down the drive across the lane. “Women like flirting with old married men like you, because all you can do is flirt.”
“Jane would beg to differ,” Dunstan said. “I’ve no idea who this is.”
This was a female, a fine place to start. She moved with the easy grace of a woman at home in her body, wearing nothing more than a lavender T-shirt and black yoga pants. Elias liked a lady who knew how to make the most of her assets, but he loved a lady who didn’t wear too many clothes.
Less to take off that way.
Her footwear dimmed his smile. They were a pragmatic choice, and Elias had lately had a bellyful of pragmatism.
“Hello,” the woman said, walking right up to them. “I’m Violet Hughes. I live across the road.”
“Dunstan Cromarty,” Elias’s cousin said, sticking out a hand. “Pleased to make your acquaintance. My wife Jane and I live about two miles up the valley in the old Yoder farmhouse. This is my cousin, Elias Brodie.”
Elias shook hands, the woman’s grip businesslike and… calloused?
“Mr. Cromarty, Mr. Brodie, may I ask what your business is here? The guy living on the property hasn’t been around for several months. I haven’t seen any sign of foul play, but his leaving was odd.”
I will kill Angus Whyte. “Odd, how?” Elias asked.
“Here one day, gone the next,” Miss Hughes shot back. “Left his cats without a word, and didn’t bother to spay the female either.”
“That explains why Angus’s letters have gone unanswered,” Dunstan muttered.
“As my question has,” Miss Hughes retorted.
Part of Elias wanted to march her right back across the lane, because this was his property, and what he did with it was none of her business, but he’d been raised in Scotland. Taking an interest in the neighbor’s situation was simply prudent, and often well-intentioned.
“I now own this farm,” Elias said. “Inherited from my uncle, and Dunstan and his missus own a law practice in Damson Valley.”
A fat marmalade cat strutted out from under a yew bush and stropped itself against Miss Hughes’s ankles.
“Zeb’s gone?” she asked, as orange cat hairs collected apace on her clothes.
“Heart attack,” Dunstan said, sparing Elias the necessity. “Quick, and apparently inevitable.”
Miss Hughes had a lovely mouth—wide, lush, full—made for smiling, though she positively glowered down at the cat.
“Zebedee Brodie wouldn’t have said anything if he’d suspected a heart problem,” she said, “because he was a stubborn old Scotsman who thought himself indestructible. Dammit to hell. I’m sorry.”
She picked up the cat and buried her face against its furry nape. A feline rumbling ensued and more orange cat hairs cascaded onto Miss Hughes’s T-shirt.
Elias shifted to stand upwind of her and her cat hair factory. “Thank you for your condolences. I’ve inherited the property, and was under the impression we had a fellow living here, minding the buildings and dealing with the livestock. You say he ran off?”
Elias wanted to run clear back to Scotland. Dunstan wasn’t even sweating, and Miss Hughes appeared perfectly comfortable, while the afternoon sun and an empty belly were broiling up a headache at the base of Elias’s skull.
He could go two years without a bad headache, but they’d come with ferocious frequency since Zeb’s death.
“Haven’t seen your tenant for nearly three months,” Miss Hughes said, “possibly longer. I gather you’re both Scottish?”
“Aye,” Dunstan replied. “I’ve been in the States for many years, Elias landed at Dulles earlier today, though he’s visited before. Is that one of the orphaned cats?”
“Bruno. He’s friendly. Worst watch cat in the valley, and he’s a soon-to-be father.” She held the cat up at eye level, though the beast just kept rumbling. “Though he won’t be making any more contributions to the gene pool. Bruno and I went for a little ride to see Doc Garcia about a month ago.”
More dependents and another debt to be repaid—just what every impoverished earl dreamed of.
“Would you know how to gain access to the premises?” Elias asked. The alternative was to muck in with Dunstan and Jane, though Elias had only met Jane an hour ago. She and Dunstan gave off the newlywed vibe, and were in the middle of renovating their farmhouse.
For a few days, Elias could manage on his own, in what was the only house he owned free and clear. The farmhouse was pretty, in a rural way. Made of gray fieldstone, with a big, white porch on the front and a few oak trees providing shade. They had that filmy green, new foliage look, and Elias spotted a squirrel’s nest amid the branches.
Zeb would have wanted flowers for this place. Elias only wanted a good price for it.
“You don’t have a key to the house?” Miss Hughes asked, putting the cat down.
“We had a caretaker,” Elias said. “He had the key or keys.” Surely the concept of a caretaker wasn’t uniquely British?
The woman’s gaze went from Elias to Dunstan. Dunstan had the family coloring—dark hair, blue eyes, solid muscular build, and height. Elias was an inch or two taller, had the same blue eyes, but some perverse genetic imp had added enough red that his hair was Titian, at least in strong sunlight.
Which this was. Also godawful humidity.
“Your wife is Jane De Luca, isn’t she?” Miss Hughes asked, peering at Dunstan. “She was in a birdwatching class I took a couple years ago, though she didn’t come very often. I’d heard she’d married a Scot.”
“Jane and I married over the winter holidays,” Dunstan said, smiling at his boots. “She kept her maiden name for professional purposes, and we’ve merged our law offices.”
Though like Dunstan, Jane apparently knew bugger-all about the local real estate laws. She knew how to make Dunstan smile though, so Elias forgave her for stealing Dunstan from Scotland once and for all.
“Congratulations,” Miss Hughes said, returning Dunstan’s smile. “Lovely isn’t it, when a business can be kept in the family?”
They shared a beaming, smiling moment, while a trickle of sweat formed between Elias’s shoulder blades.
“About that key?” he said.
The cat strolled off in the direction of Dunstan’s truck, backed up to a hubcap, and twitched its upright tail. A distinct zang sounded as the cat did what male cats did.
“He smells my cat Wallace,” Dunstan said.
“You named your cat for William Wallace?” Elias asked. “A cat, Dunstan, for one of Scotland’s greatest heroes?”
“My Wallace is independent, never backs down, never submits to authority. The name suits him.”
“Bruno is a name for a cat. Felix, Waldo, even Geeves, but Wallace? Would you name a canary for Rabbie Burns? A dog for old Conan Doyle?”
Twenty years ago, this might have been a matter for fists, but Dunstan only fought with words now, and Elias was desperate to get out of the sun and into the company of a roaring air conditioner.
“I can’t make out your words when you argue with each other,” Miss Hughes said. “It’s kind of cute.”
This smile she didn’t merely flash at Dunstan, but allowed to settle over Elias for a moment as well. Shy, a hint of mischief, and a surprising warmth. Not the smothering warmth of Maryland as summer approached, but the warmth of a good whisky on a cold night.
“I have never been called cute before,” Elias said. “Though arguing with family is something of a Scottish tradition. About that key?”
Bruno had made a thorough sniffing inspection of the visible truck tires. He strutted over as if to sniff next at the last pair of bespoke dress pants Elias might buy, ever, so Elias shifted his suitcase to keep it between himself and the cat.
“As it happens, you’re in luck,” Miss Hughes said. “In the country, you generally let the neighbors know how to get into the house, and your caretaker was no exception. Fred was a quiet guy, though I think he played the ponies at the track in Charles Town. Come along, your spare key shouldn’t be hard to locate.”
She marched off—in this stifling, cloying heat, she marched—and Dunstan fell in step beside her. Elias did not trust the cat so he picked up his suitcase and followed, lest every piece of clothing he’d brought with him end up smelling like cat piss.