Book 1 in the Trouble Wears Tartan series
Scottish whisky distiller Magnus Brodie has a problem: His long-anticipated bicentennial batch of whisky has been sabotaged, and he needs the skills of an expert to prevent disaster. He’s been approached by the Logan brothers about buying their Montana distillery, and if that’s the only way Magnus can secure Bridget MacDeaver’s services as a “cask-whisperer,” he’ll do it.
Bridget refuses to sell the distillery she inherited from her grandpa, even if her brothers claim that’s the last hope they have for saving the Logan Bar Ranch. When an old enemy threatens everything Bridget holds dear, her only ally is the man who’s determined to steal her grandpa’s legacy—and her heart!
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.”