Four novellas by Grace
A bundle in the Highland Holidays series
Four contemporary romance novellas featuring the kilted version of true love…
Kiss and Tell
Jane DeLuca, Esquire, thrives on advocating zealously for her clients in Damson County’s courts, but her solo practice leaves no time for a personal life. She’s opposed in a nasty divorce case by dour, stubborn Scotsman, Dunstan Cromarty. And yet, as the clients’ case grows more complicated, so do Jane’s feelings for Dunstan—and his for her.
Crossing personal lines the middle of a case could cost each of them their license to practice law, and in a small, rural jurisdiction, they’ll oppose each other frequently. Neither can afford to give up their livelihood or their professional integrity, but can they give up each other?
As a favor to his cousin, art history professor Liam Cromarty agrees to show American attorney Louise Cameron the Scottish sights. He doesn’t expect that his guest will challenge and charm him, until all he can see is the possibility of a shared future with Louise.
She’s at a professional crossroad, between the courtroom and the creative career she was robbed of as a younger woman. Liam is the perfect partner for exploring all of the wonders of Scotland, and he also inspires Louise to renew her artistic ambitions. When Liam realizes his actions were responsible for cheating Louise out of her dream years ago, he knows that whether he keeps silent about the past or reveals the truth, he could lose Louise forever.
Love on the Links
American attorney Julie Leonard has come to Scotland on a working vacation, determined to improve her golf game and thus earn a leg up in the judgeship sweepstakes. Niall Cromarty pulled the short straw for the job being Julie’s golf coach, and if that weren’t trouble enough, Niall’s neighbor-turned-nemesis, Declan MacPherson, has finally found the family will that can jeopardize Niall’s plans to expand his golf course. Julie thinks she wants to wear that black robe, but when Niall and Declan ask her to resolve their dispute, she realizes she really wishes she’d been asked to wear Niall’s ring.
My Heartthrob’s in the Highlands
Florist Megan Leonard has come to Scotland for her sister’s wedding, though it’s crunch time for Megan’s business back home, and the loan that will allow her to expand is finally, finally about to close. The best man, Declan MacPherson, is a Scottish farmer who strikes Megan as wed to the land his family has been working for generations, though Declan can be tempted to frolic with her in the greenhouse. As she gets to know Declan better, Megan sees that she’s not the only person with a worthy dream, but if she wants to be with him, she’ll have to give up everything she’s worked for. Will love put down roots in Scotland, or wither in the face of more practical priorities?
Enjoy An Excerpt
Kiss and Tell
Attorney Jane Deluca has agreed to attend a lunch meeting with Dunstan Cromarty, a Scottish-born attorney who’s likely to oppose Jane in an upcoming divorce. They’re in an Eritrean restaurant, a family with a baby seated at a table near them. Jane keeps telling herself this is a business lunch….
“You don’t care for children?” Cromarty asked as the waitress moved off.
“I like children a lot,” Jane said, “but the rug rat will start bellowing here directly, as soon as Mom and Dad try to have an adult conversation. They’re always teething when they’re that small.”
The little family trundled by, the baby nothing more than a pink, sleepy face among soft blankets and padding.
“The bairnie’s too wee to teethe yet,” Cromarty said, his tone wistful. He turned a green-eyed gaze on Jane as she inhaled another bite of injera. “I admit to some puzzlement, Ms. DeLuca. You’re having bread with your bread and bread with your extra potatoes, and I heard mention of dessert. Are you the only American female who doesn’t fret about her weight?”
He posed this question without so much as a hint of a wandering eye, a skill necessary if one was to cross-examine witnesses effectively.
Or hide genuine curiosity.
“I like food, Mr. Cromarty, and though I’m usually careful about what I eat, sometimes a good dose of carby bliss can make an otherwise unpleasant chore bearable. Like your wee dram.”
He comprehended the analogy, but—let the record show—did not concede the point. “Is carby a word, then, Ms. DeLuca?”
The baby-family settled in two tables away, and Junior uttered nary a peep.
“There you go being Scottish again. In American, when the punch line is bliss, some leeway is allowed with the modifiers.”
“For a Scot, when the punch line is bliss, no modifiers are necessary. Have you any reason not to send the Almquists to mediation over the custody issues?”
He took the injera in one hand and tore back a strip with the other, the way he might have torn off a strip of paper to jot down his phone number. The gesture was fastidious and gave Jane an entire second to shift from carby-bliss to unpleasant-chore mode.
“Yes, I have a reason for avoiding custody mediation. My guy doesn’t want to waste the money. Why spend four hours in court-ordered mediation if you know ahead of time you won’t get anywhere?”
“A psychic client. How I wish I’d been retained by one myself. I don’t envy you.” He poured his heather beer into its special beer glass, letting the liquid dribble down the side in the exact quantity necessary to form a foamy head without spilling over.
“Not psychic,” Jane said. “Broke. Have you talked money with your client?”
“Some. Shall I pour your ale, Ms. DeLuca?”
“Please.” Because competence in any regard, but especially when it involved a man’s hands, was a pleasure to watch. “The Almquists are trying to maintain a decent lifestyle on one income, and mediation could cost them a grand they don’t have. Why don’t we at least try to come up with a parenting plan for them? They’ve already parted with the retainers, and they have only the two kids.”
Cromarty remained silent while he poured Jane’s ale, as if putting beer in a glass was his equivalent to savoring carby bliss. When the beer ritual was complete, he passed Jane her drink, then touched his own to it.
“To a quick, equitable, durable settlement.”
She sipped, because that was what the moment called for, and found…designer beer? “This tastes like flowers.”
“The heather is infused. The results don’t always turn out this well. I’ll ask Doreen if she’s amenable to a four-way meeting on the subject of parenting and try to come up with some proposals before we meet with you. I take it we’re going forward without fault grounds?”
The Toothless Wonder stirred to life. A small fist waved above the batting and blankets, and a thin cry sounded.
“That child wants a beer,” Jane said.
“That child wants a cuddle,” Cromarty countered, but softly, and as he spoke, the dad extracted the kid from the kid-carrier and cradled him against his shoulder. Junior went immediately quiet.
“Do you have children?” Jane asked. Cromarty wore no ring, but—family law, much?—that didn’t mean he wasn’t a father.
“Cousins, siblings, nieces, nephews.” He drew his finger around the rim of his ale glass. “It’s in the Almquists’ favor that they don’t have fault grounds. Their divorce might not be too bad.”
Fault grounds, meaning adultery usually. On that cheery thought, the yesiga sambusas were brought to the table. The spicy, meaty scent went surprisingly well with the ale.
“Have one of these,” Jane said, holding the plate of sambusas out to him. He was watching the baby, the infant again in charity with the world and grinning over the dad’s shoulder. Jane waved the plate a few inches either direction. “Earth to Cromarty, food’s here.”
That look passed over his features again, a careful non-reaction that pretty much shouted displeasure. In the courtroom, she wouldn’t mind putting that look on his face from time to time. Over lunch, however…
“My name is Dunstan, Ms. DeLuca. Dunstan Lachlan Cromarty.” He put one of the meat pastries on his plate.
“Is that an invitation to use your first name?” In this enlightened age, Jane did not presume with the guys in any manner she wouldn’t want them presuming with her.
And the Laird of Damson County’s Family Law Bar probably wouldn’t take kindly to presuming from anybody.
Dunstan Lachlan Cromarty unfastened his tie tack—a gold unicorn with a blue gemstone for an eye—and undid a button midway down his shirtfront. Next, he slipped his tie into the gap in his shirt, leaving the button undone, Continental-style.
He looked up when he’d finished rearranging his attire to protect his tie from flying gravy, and the sternness remained in the cast of his features, while in his eye…
A goddamn twinkle?
“How does one put it in American? Me Dunstan, you Jane?”
He bit off a tidy corner of the sambusa, while Jane tried not to choke on her ale. Mr. Cro—Dunstan—would be a terror on cross-examination, well prepared, quick, to the point, merciless, and blessed with excellent timing. Poor old Calvin wouldn’t know what hit him—again.
But Dunstan Cromarty would be a magnificent terror.
If they went to trial, Jane would just have to be magnificent-er.
Louise Cameron has slept off the jet lag of her flight to Edinburgh, and expects a day of seeing the sights of Scotsman Liam Cromarty. Her day doesn’t begin quite as planned…
“Hullo, the house!” a man’s voice called.
Dougie sprang from the bed and disappeared into the hallway, tail up, a cat on a mission.
“Gimme a minute!” Louise bellowed back. The clock said 7:45, but perhaps Liam had brought more scones. The leftovers from yesterday were in the fridge, minus the chocolate chippers that had been Louise’s dessert and snack.
Also her dinner. One of her dinners. The other had been a grilled cheese-on-rye sandwich.
She slipped into jeans and a T-shirt, then grabbed a flannel shirt for the sake of modesty and padded after the cat.
The guy standing in her kitchen was not Liam. “Who are you?”
Bonnie Prince Charlie’s grandpa left off munching one of the cinnamon scones Louise had been saving for Liam. He was white-haired, tall, thick-chested, and wore a red plaid kilt along with boots, knee socks, and bright red T-shirt.
“You were fishing yesterday, weren’t you?” Louise asked.
He’d been wearing plaid waders—the better to attract Scottish trout?—and singing something about rantin’ and rovin’. Louise had stuck to the path and quietly passed by, and when she’d returned, he’d been gone.
“I might ask the same question, lass: Who are you? I see you’ve passed muster with ma’ wee friend Dougie.”
Dougie stropped himself against heavy boots, clearly comfortable with the intruder. Louise sensed no threat from the guy, no menace, though the cinnamon scone was rapidly becoming history.
“Did you find the butter?” she asked.
“Aye, thank you, and the coffee’s on. I’m Uncle Donald. Welcome to Dunroamin Cottage. I expect you’re Jeannie’s latest American?” He passed her the box of scones, which held one plain and two raspberry.
Louise had never had an Uncle Donald. Now might be a fine time to acquire one. “If you made coffee, you’re welcome to stay,” she said. “Did I see you fishing yesterday?”
“I’m in the river most days, though I seldom call it fishing. What brings you to Scotland?”
A need to see fairy lights at dusk, and find strange old fellows making her coffee? The coffee maker hissed and gurgled, and a heavenly aroma filled the kitchen.
“I wanted to get away, and I’ve never been here before. Shall we sit?”
Uncle Donald put whole milk on the table and a bowl of white and brown lumps of sugar. Dougie sat before the fridge, switching his plume-y tail, until Uncle Donald took down a quarter-size green ceramic bowl from the cupboard and filled it with milk.
“The beasts train us, poor dumb creatures that we are,” he said, passing Louise the milk and setting out two plates. “You Americans like your orange juice, am I right?”
“Please. Are Scottish men all so well trained?”
“I’m a bachelor,” Uncle Donald said. “One learns to fend for oneself.”
For an instant, blue eyes focused on Louise, not unkindly, but as if the statement had some significance she wasn’t awake enough to figure out.
“Do you drink coffee?” she asked.
“Perish the notion. I drink tea, and whisky, of course.” He produced a flask covered in green and blue plaid. “Shall you have a wee nip?”
Whisky in the fudge and whisky for breakfast. No wonder people loved Scotland. “No, thank you.”
He tipped back the flask, his wee nip not so wee. “I do love a good island single malt. What’s your name, Yank?”
Louise was torn between a sense of privacy invaded, and the novelty of having company for breakfast.
“Louise Cameron, attorney at law, sort of.” She could go a-lawyering again if she had to, couldn’t she?
“Camerons are thick on the ground here, though they haven’t always been popular. Eat, child. Are you and Jeannie off to the city, then? Fine day to see the sights.”
Louise dipped a corner of the raspberry scone in her coffee.
“Liam is taking me into Edinburgh today. We’re supposed to see the portrait gallery, then tool out to Rosslyn Chapel, and finish with a climb up Arthur’s Seat.”
Another not-so-wee nip. “Busy folk, you Americans. Shall you put butter on that?” He nudged the butter dish to Louise’s side of the table.
She nearly said, “Aye,” such was the Scottish gravitational pull of Uncle Donald’s company. “The butter here is good.”
“The food here is good,” he countered. “We don’t go for those android crops you make in your laboratories. Our dairy is largely organic, as is much of our produce. You must also try the whiskys, though Liam won’t be much help in that regard.”
“You’re his uncle?”
“I’m the Cromarty uncle-at-large, more or less. You mustn’t mind Liam.”
Family was family the world over. Aunt Evangeline had probably said the same thing about Louise to half the bachelors in Atlanta. You mustn’t mind Louise. She went to school Up Nawthe.
“What does that mean, I mustn’t mind Liam?” Louise liked Liam, right down to his t’s, and d’s, and the crow’s-feet around his eyes.
“We try to include him,” Uncle Donald said, “but the boy’s not very includable. Hasn’t been since—”
A sharp rap on the door interrupted whatever confidence Uncle Donald had been about to inflict on her, and Louise was relieved. Lawyers probably heard more dirty family laundry than therapists, and she certainly didn’t want to hear Liam Cromarty’s.
She opened the door to find the man himself on her doorstep. The cat shot out between his legs, while Uncle Donald remained at the table, munching the last of Louise’s raspberry scone.
“Uncle, what a surprise.” Liam clearly wasn’t pleased to see Donald, and neither was he surprised.
“Liam, good day to ye. Help yourself to a scone, and the coffee’s hot.”
Liam wore a kilt, another black T-shirt, and a wool jacket. The only resemblance between the two men, though, was size and blue eyes.
“I have an aunt just like Uncle Donald,” Louise said, patting Liam’s chest. “Every bit as presuming, though not half as likable. You might as well have some coffee. I’m not quite ready to leave.”
“Liam doesn’t eat meat,” Uncle Donald observed as he dusted his fingers. “Makes him skinny and cranky, but a day in the city will do the boy good.”
“At least I don’t housebreak uninvited,” Liam remarked, taking up Dougie’s empty green bowl and running it under the tap. “You’ll cost Jeannie her business one of these days, old man. Miss Cameron’s a lawyer. She can sue you for unlawful entry and pilfering her scones.”
Liam sounded more Scottish—“auld mon”—and he looked more Scottish in his kilt and boots. He smelled the same, though. Spicy, woodsy, delightful.
“Save me the last raspberry scone,” Louise said, “and Uncle Donald, it was a pleasure to meet you—mostly.”
With two Cromarty men in the kitchen, the space became significantly smaller. Louise took herself upstairs, grabbed a shower, finished dressing, and came down to find Liam alone, putting the last of the dishes away.
“You can relax,” Louise said. “Uncle Donald hadn’t really warmed up before you got here, and your deep, dark secrets are safe for now.”
Liam draped a red plaid towel just so over the handle to the oven. “You have an aunt like him?”
“She has to let everybody know I graduated first in my law school class, and that business with art school was a funny little idea I picked up from the Yankees, bless their hearts.”
Liam stared at the towel, his hands tucked into his armpits. “And every time she says it, you hurt a bit, but you’ve learned not to show it. I don’t drink spirits.”
Every time Aunt Evangeline dismissed four years of hard work and heartbreak as a silly little phase, Louise died inside. When Aunt Ev started in on that awful man and the silly business about the pots, Louise spent days in hell.
“Sobriety is a fine quality in the man who’ll be driving me all over Scotland, Liam.”
His shoulders relaxed, his hands returned to his sides. “I enjoy a good ale, and I’ve been known to have a glass of wine.”
The topic was sensitive, though, and personal, so Louise changed the subject. “Do we pack lunch, or eat on the run?”
“We’ll eat atop of Arthur’s Seat, unless you have an objection to picnicking?”
Louise had not gone on a picnic for… she couldn’t recall her last picnic. “No objection at all. Let me grab my jacket and purse, and last one to the car is a rotten egg.”
When she joined Liam at the car, he held the door for her, and she climbed in, prepared to enjoy a day that combined art, architecture, exercise, and natural beauty.
Also some company, though who would have thought: Liam Cromarty, that Scottish male monument to relaxed confidence and easy grace, had deep, dark secrets after all.
Love on the Links
The guy who was supposed to meet Julie Leonard in the lobby of an Edinburgh Hilton had been described as the quintessential aging Scottish gent.
The man who prowled toward her had the walk of a federal prosecutor who specialized in violent crimes—and he hadn’t aged much past thirty.
“You’ll be Jeannie’s latest American, then?” His voice was prosecutorial as well, no wasted energy, all quiet self-possession and straight to the facts.
Julie liked that voice and she liked his straight, dark hair. Too long for courtroom fashion, the casual hair added an individualistic note to worn jeans, a black T-shirt, and faded brown corduroy jacket.
“Julie Leonard,” she said, sticking out a hand, and brandishing her best, gladiatorial smile. Grown men accepted very stingy plea bargains on the strength of that smile. Delinquent youth re-evaluated their life choices in more prudent directions.
He shook her hand with a big, calloused paw, and no excesses of strength. “Niall Cromarty.”
“You’re not Jeannie’s Uncle Donald.”
The hotel lobby was a busy place. A group of women were chattering happily over by an empty hearth in what sounded like a Scandinavian language, a conversation in Italian took place between a bell hop and the reception clerk.
The gaze Niall Cromarty narrowed on Julie obliterated all the surrounding distractions, substantial though they were to an American who didn’t travel much.
Recognition hit, like seeing a defendant who closely resembled a Most Wanted poster. Julie had seen that same look from those same blue, blue eyes somewhere before.
“You’re the noticing sort, Julie Leonard. I’m not Uncle Donald, but a man can dream. Give me twenty more years of the Longmorn 18, and you won’t be able to tell Donald and me apart.”
A self-mocking smile accompanied that pronouncement, and again the sense of déjà vu assailed Julie.
“I’m not getting into a car with a guy I don’t know, Mr. Cromarty. Jeannie said she’d send this Uncle Donald, and for all I know, you’re the Edinburgh slasher.”
He wasn’t the Edinburgh slasher. Compared to any US city of half a million, Edinburgh had next to no weapons crimes, but Julie was a single woman—thank God and Circuit Courts of Damson County, Maryland—and a criminal prosecutor.
Common sense was common sense. A Scot ought to understand that.
“You have your cell?” Mr. Cromarty asked.
“Then take my picture, send it to Jeannie, and she’ll vouch for me. Donald’s back went out, which it tends to do when he’s feeling stubborn. You probably have an email in your queue to that effect.”
Julie had thought simply to talk to Jeannie, but a picture was a better guarantee of identity.
And who wouldn’t want a picture of this guy? He was on the tall side, six one, six two, and broad-shouldered without being bulky. His strength was loose, easy, and—Julie suspected—he’d be quick as hell. His eyes were the sort of blue that came from time in the sun, brilliant when contrasted with a complexion darker than Julie expected on a Scot. Now that she studied him, his dark hair had plenty of red highlights, another legacy of time in the sun.
Julie shouldered her purse and made a grab for the handle of her suitcase, but Niall beat her to it.
Quick—and old fashioned. Interesting combination.
She took a seat at a grouping behind the happy Scandinavians, snapped a picture of Niall looking handsome, impatient, and just possibly amused, and had an answer from Jeannie nearly before she’d hit send.
“Niall Cromarty, to the life,” Jeannie emailed. “You’re safer with him than you would be with Uncle Donald, more’s the pity. Cheers the noo! Jeannie.”
Safe was good. Any woman who’d spent five years working in the state’s attorney’s office didn’t take safety for granted.
“Jeannie says you bear a resemblance to a guy she dated briefly in college. He was a mouth breather. I’m not to go anywhere with you.”
Not by the twitch of an eyebrow did Niall show a reaction.
“Niall, I’m teasing you.”
He resumed possession of her suitcase handle. “We believe in retribution here in Scotland, have made an entire history of it, in fact. This is your only warning.”
He extended his free hand down to Julie, a challenge masquerading as a courtesy. His features were as stern as the granite-built city where they’d met, but his eyes were laughing. Julie accepted his assistance to get to her feet—jet lag was a bitch—and let him hold doors for her until they’d bundled into his Volvo and were tooling through the busy streets.
“How long until we get to where we’re going,” Julie asked.
“You vacation on a schedule?” Niall drove with the casual efficiency of a man on his home turf, though driving on the wrong side of the road—and sitting on the wrong side of the car—added to Julie’s sense of fatigue and disorientation.
“I do most of life on a schedule,” Julie said, yawning. “This is a working holiday, and if Donald’s back is out, then my plans are disrupted. I’m here to perfect my golf game, not swill whisky and tour castles.”
A few minutes later, their route took them over a body of water, a big red bridge to the right. Beyond that bridge, a steel blue North Sea shimmered off to a pewter horizon.
“You don’t perfect your golf game in two weeks,” Niall said. “Not in two lifetimes, either. Donald will be up and about in a day or two. Until then you’re stuck with me.”
Oop ’n aboot. Julie glanced at Niall’s left hand, though maybe Scottish men didn’t wear wedding rings.
No ring, a sense of humor, and a gunslinger’s walk. Maybe life after a crappy divorce held a few pleasures after all.
Niall Cromarty did not like lawyers—they didn’t play golf, they played at golf, most of them—but he was fond of women, despite how troublesome they could be. Julie Leonard had trouble written all over her.
Any sane person would catch a nap after an Atlantic crossing—in biological time, Niall’s passenger was awake at six in the morning after having stayed up all night. Julie Leonard was studying the surroundings as if the North Sea was one of the wonders of the known world.
“I assume you’ll want to rest this afternoon.” Niall did not make it question because he wanted his afternoon free, and damn Jeannie for pulling the familial guilt card.
“I dozed on the plane. I’m good.”
Julie was an attractive woman in a blond, put-together way. Even after traveling through the night, her hair was in a tidy bun, and a crease ironed into her jeans was evident below the knee. Her green silk blouse was a bit wrinkled though her beige blazer was spotless, and her perfume—a grassy fragrance with hints of pine—was tantalizingly fresh.
The golf courses along the shore bore a hint of those same scents in spring.
“You might find once we reach your destination that the fatigue hits you like a shore breaking wave,” Niall said. “Then too, airplanes are notorious incubators for respiratory ailments.”
He’d been on enough airplanes to be an expert on their hazards.
“I’m healthy as hell,” Julie said. “Comes from being around the incarcerated population, which tends to be sickly. Care for a piece of gum? It has caffeine in it.”
Niall took the package from her and stuffed it in his inside jacket pocket. “Don’t be daft. Half the reason people come down with colds after they travel is because they short-change themselves on sleep. Scotland will still be here after you have a wee nap.”
Julie Leonard was pretty when she was plotting revenge. Her mouth was a lush, rosy pair of lips made for smiling, and the harder she worked to suppress that evidence the more Niall enjoyed watching her.
“Give my gum back, Mr. Cromarty, or I’ll tell Jeannie you’re stealing from her guests.”
Niall turned off the M90, though a detour meant his afternoon was effectively shot whether Julie Leonard admitted exhaustion or not.
“Jeannie is a relatively new mother,” he said, “and a single mother now that she’s run off that—a single mother. She’s well aware of the dangers caffeine products present to young children. I hope you are too.”
A drawing down of blond brows suggested this was news to Miss Leonard. Her brows weren’t symmetrical. The right swooped a bit more than the left, giving her a skeptical air when she frowned.
Skeptical, or piratical—and still pretty.
“We’re supposed to take the M90 up to Perth,” she said, “and you don’t need gas. Where are we going?”
The day was going straight to hell, but many of Niall’s days took that direction.
“If you need energy, then we’ll get some decent tucker into you. It’s not like you’re carrying any extra meat on those bones. Despite plundering by the Vikings and English, and various other indignities, Perth hasn’t gone anywhere for centuries.”
Julie Leonard was skinny, though well endowed. Niall suspected the skinny part was in an effort not to add to her well endowed aspects. Women were daft, and American women among the most daft—also the most fun, when they allowed themselves to be.
“I’m not hungry, Mr. Cromarty. Please stick to the planned itinerary.”
She used that tone of voice as if Niall were three years old and plagued by a guilty conscience—which he was not, not about this.
“Mr. Cromarty was my grandfather. It might have escaped your notice, madam, but I am a human being, the hour approaches noon, and it’s just possible I am hungry. I suspect in your schedule and itinerary you neglected to plan for meals.”
Another frown, slightly puzzled, as if planning meals was a custom only practiced by those quaint Scots.
“We can grab a bite, but I tell you, I’m not—”
“Your belly isn’t aching, perhaps, but what about your mind? Sharp as a whip, are you? Does your head throb a bit? A general ache in the joints plaguing you? Irritability and poor recall? You’re hungry.”
“I’m—” She hefted her shoulder bag about on her lap, the gesture worthy of any put upon granny. “I’m tired, is all. Good lord, look at the flowers. Stop the car.”
Between one sentence and the next, Julie Leonard became a different woman. She went from ignorant of her own bodily needs to awestruck by the scenery. They were passing through one of the dozens of villages decorating the Fife countryside, and even in early spring, the more ambitious shop owners had pots of flowers adorning windowsills and stoops.
“The days lengthen quickly this far north,” Niall said, slowing down. “And winter makes us keen for the sunnier weather. The flowers were probably started on the kitchen window sill, and they’ll be magnificent in another month.”
“I want to take a picture.” Not a demand, but a wistful, wishful, longing from a woman who didn’t understand when she was hungry, and possibly, not even what she was hungry for.
“There will be more flowers where we’re going, I promise,” Niall said, “and we can stop on the way back through if you’d like.”
She slumped against the seat. “I’d like. I could stare at the flowers all day. My mother loved flowers and they loved her too.”
Flowers figured prominently in Niall’s plans for his property. He paid attention to the coverage each year of the Master’s tournament. Some golf, but a lot of azaleas, flowering cherry trees, artfully informal beds, a dramatic white dogwood or two.
Julie Keep-to-the-Schedule-Boy-o Leonard was in raptures over a few pots of petunias.
Niall turned down a road too narrow for lane markings, and pulled to the verge to accommodate oncoming traffic.
“Where are we going?” Julie asked.
She was much concerned with locations and plans, and not enough concerned with her own welfare, particularly for a woman on holiday.
“We’re going to lunch at the establishment of a friend I’ve known for years. Good food, reasonably priced, though the décor is unpretentious. I favor a quiet place to eat.”
“As long as the service is fast.”
Oh, for God’s sake. Niall said nothing, but when they arrived at The Jolly Coo, he came around to hold the door for his guest—she’d already opened it—and led her to the pub’s front door.
While she peered at exposed Tudor timbers and rioting pots of geraniums, Niall discreetly pitched her damned gum into the nearest waste bin and made plans to have a very pointed chat with Uncle Donald.
Julie had expected Scotland to be all high, craggy hills, and sea coast, with a few golf courses, a bagpiper and some and crumbling castles tucked here and there. She’d expected to be able to understand the people when they spoke, and to get from the hotel straight to her first driving range for two hours practice.
Zero for three, Leonard. A prosecutor got used to days like that, even a good prosecutor.
Niall led her to a table at the back of an establishment straight out of the Keebler cookie Black Forest. Dark beams, brilliant white plaster, profusions of flowers at each window box. The interior was solid wood floors, deep-set windows, and low, dark exposed ceilings any Tudor traveler would have found welcoming.
Niall held Julie’s chair, which was both charming and annoying.
“Not very crowded,” Julie said, which could mean faster service or worse fare.
Niall passed her a worn menu on green card stock. “That means it will be quiet, and we can hear each other when we make our polite chit-chat. Why come to Scotland for golf, Julie Leonard? You can play golf all over America and spare yourself the jet lag and some expense.”
Julie needed her glasses to see the menu, and those had disappeared somewhere in the depths of her purse, buried under tissues, a spare package of the world’s saltiest peanuts, six pens, sunglasses—
“Use mine,” Niall said, holding out a pair of horn-rimmed glasses.
“What will you use?”
“I don’t need my specs to order fish and chips and a decent ale.”
He was laughing at her again. Hilarious guy, Niall Cromarty. Julie ignored the proffered glasses. Derek had told her to get contacts when they’d planned the wedding, but contacts had never corrected her vision adequately.
“Fish and chips will do for me too, then.”
She’d never had fish and chips before—not exactly a Maryland restaurant staple—but it turned out to be melt-in-your-mouth, batter-fried white fish, and thick, perfectly cooked fries, upon which Niall sprinkled vinegar of all things. With a beer the name of which Julie couldn’t pronounce, the combination was gustatory bliss.
“Now that you’ve fended off starvation for a few hours,” Niall said, “perhaps you could answer my question—not that you were hungry, of course.”
Julie sat back, in charity with life, with Scotland, and even with arrogant dudes smirking at her from across a worn wooden table that didn’t sit square.
“For that meal, I will forgive you much,” she said. “I’m in Scotland to learn to play golf. Learn from the best, forget the rest.”
How could a man look philosophical, sexy, relaxed, and a touch sad while he ran a finger around the rim of his beer glass?
“Golf is a good teacher,” he said. “I don’t know as it’s the best teacher. Children are good teachers, too, and the elderly.”
He’d misconstrued Julie’s meaning—or had he?
“It’s like this, Niall. I’m a lawyer, a very competent prosecutor, but if I don’t want to spend the next thirty years dealing with criminals and their charm-free, defense weasels, then I need to go after a judgeship. The logical progression is state’s attorney, master, judge, then appellate judge and so forth. Judges play golf.”
“Now that’s odd,” he said, taking a sip of beer as if wisdom itself came in a glass. “I was under the impression judges went cavorting about in black robes, hearing cases, and dispensing justice, but what would I know about the American courts?”
“Judges do that too,” Julie said. “But they play golf to do their judicial politicking. I can’t keep up with the guys on the long game, but I can hang out at the country club, talk golf, and do well among the women. They’re learning to play golf too.”
The food was hitting Julie’s bloodstream, making rational arguments an effort, and weighing each limb down with its own jet-lag induced cinder block.
What had she done with her caffeine gum? The stuff tasted awful, but it worked in a pinch.
“Are you ordering dessert?” Niall asked.
Dessert would mean squinting at the menu. Derek had said she looked like his fifth grade teacher, Sister Mary Francina, when she squinted.
“Are you?” Julie asked.
“The sticky toffee pudding here is outstanding.”
If the fish and chips were any indication, the sticky-toffee-whatever would be heavenly. Also full of calories.
“Can we split one?”
Niall’s look was pitying. “Yes, we can split one, but when you’re all kitted out in your black robes, who will notice whether your figure is less than perfect?”
Her figure was less than perfect. Derek had said he ‘loved her anyway,’ the bastard.
“Tell me about the courses we’ll play,” Julie said, because Niall’s question was rhetorical and those were permitted in oral argument.
“What are you looking for from the courses?” he countered.
A better score, of course. A better sense of how to play the game. Some exercise, if necessary.
“What do you mean, what am I looking for? I’m looking to up my game and cut my score.”
He ordered their dessert from a waitress who looked about sixteen years old—and infatuated with him—then took the last few swallows of Julie’s beer.
“We have nearly 700 golf courses in Scotland, which is more than four times the per capita ratio in the United States, and we’re a country the size of South Carolina. If it’s scenery you want, we have that. A windy game is easy to find. Par 5’s until hell freezes over, driving ranges until your arms fall off. Why golf, Julie? Why golf in Scotland?”
A growing sense of disorientation made concentrating on Niall’s question difficult. This was how a witness felt after two hours of hostile cross examination. Reckless, loopy even.
“I should not have had that beer,” Julie muttered.
“You didn’t come to Scotland simply for the golf.”
Fatigue, a good meal, and the vagaries of the post-divorce emotional rollercoaster conspired to hide Julie’s self-restraint from her mouth. She’d never see this guy after she got back on that plane in two weeks, so she tucked a serving of fresh, cold honesty between courses of his lunch.
“I came to Scotland because I am ashamed, Niall, and so god-damned pissed off I couldn’t trust myself in the courtroom any longer.”
The waitress chose that moment to approach with what looked like bread pudding slathered in a glaze redolent of whisky, topped with ice cream that had flecks of real vanilla in it.
Niall pushed the dessert across the table to Julie. “Not bad reasons for coming to Scotland. We know a lot about shame and rage, here. Makes for interesting golf. Dig in. You’ve earned it.”
Badgering a woman when she was exhausted, hungry, thirsty and far from home sat ill with Niall, but if Donald didn’t get over his snit, then Niall’s next two weeks would be spent with Julie Leonard, her moods, and her damned scheduled itinerary.
Niall did not have two weeks to waste on some American lawyer’s judicial ambitions, but for a woman trying to recover her dignity, he’d make some time.
“Shall I order a dessert for myself?” he asked.
Even enraged, Julie Leonard knew how to properly respect a sticky toffee pudding.
“You’re trying to put me in a food coma,” she said, skimming her spoon into the caramel whisky sauce blending with the melted ice cream. “It’s working.”
Simple fatigue was working, but a woman who didn’t know when she was famished probably wouldn’t know when she was exhausted.
“I owe the game of golf a great deal,” Niall said. “Took it quite seriously for years, and gained a lot of perspective as a result. One thing I learned: The Coo is an excellent place to refuel an empty belly.”
Julie pushed the best part of the dessert to Niall’s side of the table. The ice cream was half-melted, the sauce had thoroughly soaked into the bread, and good whisky perfumed the lot.
Niall picked up his spoon, though Julie’s wistful expression suggested he was about to devour all her hopes and dreams.
“You’re sure you don’t care for any more?” he asked—which was naughty of him. Julie Leonard wasn’t the sort to change her mind.
“I had ten bites. Ten bites is my limit with a dessert.”
No wonder Julie was enraged, if she never finished her treats. Niall dug in, ignoring the fact that she watched him eat dessert the way the women among gallery groupies had watched his backside.
Good food shouldn’t go to waste. Good women shouldn’t either, but a man couldn’t take on every challenge life threw at him.
“The Ladies is to the left of the bar if you’d like to freshen up while I finish this,” Niall said. “We’re still an hour or so from Dunroamin Cottage.”
Julie fished around in the depths of her bag, a shapeless black canvas sack that screamed pragmatism on the outside, and likely lacked any sense of organization on the inside.
“I changed some money,” she said, extracting a worn brown billfold that might have spent twenty years crammed into Uncle Donald’s sporran. “I agreed to this meal, and I agreed to split the dessert, though I know the exchange rate fluctuates, and I’m not clear on how the tipping—”
Niall closed his hand over hers before she could start waving bills around. The woman was absurd.
“Keep your money, Your Honor. Scotland is a hospitable place and you barely touched this dessert.”
Julie Leonard’s hands were cold, but her smile was astonishingly warm. Brilliantly warm, in fact, and bashful to the point of transforming her from a brisk, brittle, business traveler to a lady whose short game might be intriguing. With a single expression, she conveyed pleasure, surprise, mischief and even a sort of dignified capitulation to Niall’s generosity.
“Thank you,” she said. “I can’t recall the last time somebody bought me lunch.”
The last time she’d allowed anybody to buy her lunch?
Niall saluted with his spoon. “You’re welcome. Give me a few more minutes with my pudding and we’ll be back on the road.”
She daintily blotted the smile away, rose, and moved off to wash her hands ten times, or inspect the location of the fire extinguisher. Americans were odd that way. Niall should probably have insisted she drink water after the long flight, though that would have been a sacrilege with The Coo’s fish dinner.
Niall finished every bite of the pudding, paid the bill and went outside into a spring day gone a trifle chilly.
Scottish weather wasn’t burdened with an overdeveloped sense of reliability. Gray-bellied clouds clipped in from the east, and the breeze bore a damp warning, while the sun still stabbed down in golden shafts between the overcast to the west.
Julie Leonard came through the front door, her cell phone in hand. She turned and snapped a picture of The Coo, or of its boxes full of red geraniums and some yellow flower Niall didn’t recognize.
“That was good food,” she said, marching over to the car, “and we’re still inside my margin for flight and baggage delays. If we arrive at the cottage within an hour, and the driving range isn’t—why are you looking at me like that?”
He was smiling at her, at her determination, at her silly schedule, at her dutiful acknowledgement of the quality of the meal, and her complete lack of awareness of her surroundings.
“Are you to drive us the rest of the way, Julie?”
She had her hand on the car’s door handle, then realized what country she was in. The passenger side and driver’s sides were reversed in Britain compared to what she was used to in America.
“No, thank you. No driving for me,” she said, scooting around to the other side of the car. “I’ll probably make that mistake every time we go somewhere.”
“Because you’re focused on where you’re going, not where you are,” Niall said, opening the door the passenger’s side. “You can’t play golf like that, not on a good course.” The best golfers knew how to play from where they were to where they needed the ball to go. For a time, Niall had been among them.
Julie settled in, buckled up, and heaved out a sigh. “You have to practice law like that, always three moves ahead of opposing counsel, getting ready for cross examination while the witness is still fielding questions on direct, like a chess match. I hate chess.”
Then why make your living at it?
“An ability to plan ahead is an asset. Did you still want to take photos of the flowers in the village?”
“Yes.” She tapped at her cell phone, possibly checking the time in two different zones an ocean part. “No. Let’s keep moving.”
Niall slid behind the wheel, vaguely disappointed with her reply, though they’d see lots more flowers. His nearest neighbor, the dratted Declan MacPherson, grew flowers as a form of horticultural revenge.
On what or whom, Niall had yet to fathom.
In any case, Julie Leonard would see other, more impressive flowers in the next two weeks, though Niall nearly told her that rain would wreck the rest of her afternoon’s plans. She struck him as a woman who’d endured a fair amount of disappointment already, so he kept the weather report to himself, and let her figure it out when the first fat drops splatted against the windshield.
My Heartthrob’s in the Highlands
Megan Leonard rubbed gritty eyes, blinked, and tried not to stare. “That man is offering his beer to a sheep.”
Morag Cromarty barely glanced at the guy lounging at the corner table in The Wild Hare pub. He held the sheep on his lap, a small, fluffy beast that Megan might have mistaken for a dog if she’d been any more tired.
She’d never been more tired, though.
“That’s just Declan,” Morag said. “Let’s order some lunch before we get the key to the cottage. You look flat knackered, and I’m peckish.”
“Who names a piece of livestock Declan?” Megan asked, sinking onto a hard chair. The pub was straight out of a Robin Hood movie set—thick whitewashed stone walls, low dark beams, and an enormous fireplace full of blue and white potted pansies.
A tavern was a tavern was a tavern, and yet this place could not have been anywhere in Megan’s native Maryland except maybe a Renaissance fair. The guy behind the bar was singing about being a baron’s heir in a Scottish accent so thick Megan could not make out any other words except maybe a mangled reference to “gin.”
Plaid was a part of the landscape, from Morag’s backpack, to the curtains over the windows, to the cushions on the benches, to the—
“The guy with the sheep is wearing an honest-to-God kilt,” Megan said. To go with his plain black, pleated kilt, he wore combat boots that laced halfway up muscular calves and a denim jacket with a streak of dried mud creasing one shoulder.
He leaned forward to push his beer away from the sheep.
“Is that a hoofprint on his back?” Megan asked. A perfect horseshoe of mud, open end up to catch the good luck, even.
“Probably,” Morag said. “I’ll place our orders. I’m for fish and chips. You?”
Megan still had difficulty understanding Morag, not only because she had a heavy Scots burr. Morag also spoke quickly, and tended to be halfway to her next destination, tossing words over her shoulder as she marched along.
“Grilled cheese if they have it,” Megan said. “And ginger ale.”
Comfort food, because transatlantic travel was tiring, and Megan had been cross-eyed exhausted before she’d caught her flight from Dulles International Airport. She was nearly dozing with her eyes open when a set of small, cloven hooves and furry little knees came into her line of sight, along with the scents of fresh cut hay and expensive hand cream.
“Are you the maiden of honor?”
In contrast to the fluffy little sheep cradled in the guy’s arms, his voice was all dark lochs and shadowed mountains. He was tall and muscular, both, which was probably the definition of the word braw, and his dark auburn hair hung nearly to his shoulders.
He held the sheep with one hand and his beer with the other, though one of those seventy-pound longswords probably numbered among his fashion accessories.
“I’ll be the maid of honor at Julie and Niall’s wedding,” Megan said, smoothing her palm over a wooly, knobby little head. “Hello, Declan. I don’t know as I’ve ever met a sheep who likes beer, but then, I’ve never met a sheep, much less one with its own name. Your date seems a little low on charm.”
“Has Morag already got you drunk, then?” the guy asked, settling into the chair at Megan’s left elbow.
“Scotland has got me bushed. I’m Megan Leonard. Nice sheep.”
The sheep bleated, a ratchety, scratchy noise that would draw the attention of every hungry predator on the premises.
Had there been any.
“This is wee Mary,” Kilted Wonder said, holding his beer up to the sheep’s nose. “She’s a curious sort. I’ve brought her here for practice, because she’ll be a gift to the bride and groom. Those with flocks will bring a lamb to the pub after the wedding, and Julie and Niall will have a good start on a herd.”
The sheep sniffed the beer but declined to take a sip. A teetotaling sheep, apparently.
“You’re saying there will be livestock loose at the wedding reception?” And this was the country where Julie Leonard, M.A., J.D., summa cum laude graduate of the George Washington University’s National Law Center, had chosen to settle down? “Does my sister know she’s marrying a vassal of Robert the Bruce?”
Morag was engaged in conversation with the bartender, but something—besides the sheep whisperer—smelled good and homey, like a grilled cheese actually being grilled.
“Your sister is marrying my cousin,” the guy said. “A cousin several times removed. I’m Declan MacPherson, best man and friend of the groom.”
The two weeks Megan had stolen from her business calendar just got more interesting.
“We’ll be seeing a fair amount of each other,” she said, “but I’m warning you, mister, if your sheep eats the flowers I arrange for my sister’s wedding, we’re having lamb shish kebabs at the reception.”
He leaned closer, bringing those grassy, meadowy scents with him. “I don’t eat lamb, mutton, veal, or beef, but I can be tempted to take a bite out of an uppity little Yank who has no respect for rural customs.”
Men did not intimidate Megan, not even handsome Scotsmen who could throw her across the room like one of those Viking sledgehammers at the Highland games.
Megan was a florist, one who’d handled the flowers for more hysterical brides, bereaved spouses, forgetful husbands, and harried event managers than Declan the Delicious could imagine. Men were like ferns. They had a place in some bouquets but were never the item of central interest.
She patted MacPherson’s chest. “You’ll take a bite out of me? I might like to nibble on you too, sweetie. That’s a custom where I come from. The members of the wedding party hook up, and a good time is had by all. Hopefully, nobody starts a herd, though, and you’d have to lose the sheep. Three-ways aren’t my thing.”
His eyes underwent a subtle, diabolical change, thawing from the Wrath of the Clans to the ruin of a grown woman’s dignity.
“I don’t share either,” he said, winking. “Except my beer. Have a sip, because Morag won’t get free of old Hamish for another five minutes at least. Would you like to hold my lamb?”
Two weeks. In two weeks, Megan would go home, close on the damned loan she’d finally wangled from the Damson Valley Bank and Mistrust, and reconcile herself to sending Julie a Christmas card every year.
Megan extracted the livestock from the grip of its owner, the lamb accepting the change of venue calmly.
“‘Would you like to hold my lamb’ has to be the worst pickup line I have ever heard, Mr. MacPherson. Also the most original. If I fall asleep before lunch gets here, kiss me awake.”
He kissed Megan’s cheek. “Now you can dream of me instead. I’ll see what’s keeping Morag. Take good care of my best girl.” MacPherson patted the sheep’s head and sauntered away, the kilt swinging tantalizingly with his every step.
Megan met the sheep’s gaze. The damned beast looked sympathetic.
“Men,” Megan said, taking a sip of MacPherson’s beer. “Baa, humbug, so to speak.”
Declan MacPherson had attended a few weddings, but they’d mostly been days to put on the formal clan attire and drink a little more than was prudent. Livestock had to be fed and watered, morning and night, and that limited both the duration and the extent of any frolics.
Of all frolics, in fact.
Weddings apparently entailed a lot of silly superstitions, traditions, and assumptions Declan hadn’t encountered while tending his acres, one of them being a temporary pairing of the best man with the maid of honor.
“You’re not interested in finishing that?” he asked Megan. Half a grilled cheese sandwich sat on her plate, oozing cheddar made from the milk of Declan’s own dairy. Megan had parted with Mary only when the food had arrived, and the lamb wandered the premises, sniffing over everything, sheep-fashion.
“I couldn’t possibly finish this,” Megan replied, taking a sip of Declan’s beer. “Maybe Mary Queen of Scots would like it?”
“I’d like it,” Declan said, before Morag could snatch the food away. Morag was small, but she could put away tucker like a farm boy during haying.
“If you’re going to lollygag about the trough, Declan,” Morag said, “I’ll leave you to get Megan to the cottage. Julie will be by to say hello once she’s done picking out desserts for the reception.”
“And why wasn’t the best man included in the thankless undertaking of selecting desserts?” Declan asked, standing and grabbing Morag by both shoulders. She was a twitchy little thing. A man had to be quick with a kiss to her cheek. He swooped in, planted a smacker, let her go, and sat back down.
“Declan MacPherson,” Morag growled, swiping the back of her hand over her cheek, “on an old man, that kind of forwardness is cute. On you, it’s…”
Declan picked up the grilled cheese. “Charming, I know. You needn’t thank me. Be off with you, More. Tell Julie I’m partial to raspberries on my sweets.”
“Megan, I do apologize,” Morag said, grabbing a shoulder bag woven of more colors than Declan’s greenhouse had in April. “Declan is Niall’s choice, so my hands are tied. Watch him. He’s apparently in a frisky mood, and he’ll kiss you before you see it coming.”
“He already did,” Megan replied. Her accent wasn’t Southern, but it would sound sweet in the darkness, the vowels broad, the consonants rounded. “So far, I’m liking Scotland just fine. Thanks for the lift, Morag, and we’ll see you at the wedding.”
Morag whisked off, leaving an odd sense of returning calm in her wake, like when a storm clears and the birds start singing again.
“Morag’s on the rebound,” Declan said, tearing off the crust from the sandwich and nibbling a bite. “She needs to regain her confidence, but she’ll soon be back in good form.”
“That was Morag on a bad day?” Megan asked, taking another sip of Declan’s drink.
“That’s my beer you’re swilling, love. I’m quite healthy, but you barely had anything to eat and now you’re downing the ale.”
She tipped the mug to peer at the contents, which were dwindling fast. “This isn’t like me. I’m already a little tipsy.”
“You prefer to be a lot tipsy?” Declan asked.
“Not tipsy at all. Julie can be an endearing drunk, but I’m… we’re sisters.”
Declan had had a sister once. For twenty-three years, he’d had a sister. “You’re sisters, which is why you’re the maid of honor.” In case Megan needed reminding why she’d ended up in Scotland.
“Julie and I are different. She’s tall, blond, smart, pretty, and charming.”
The cheese was scrumptious and the bread perfectly toasted and buttered, while the company was apparently daft.
“You’re short, dark, stupid, homely, backward, then?”
Megan Leonard was the prettiest version of homely Declan had ever laid eyes on. Her dark hair was full of ideas, waving and curling around her head, wisping away from the braids and bun she’d afflicted it with. Her complexion was roses and cinnamon—a few freckles to hold a man’s interest. She had curves to hold a man’s interest too, and she wasn’t overly tall.
“I’m the older sister who was always mistaken for the younger because I’m shorter,” Megan said, giving Declan’s shoulders a measuring, disapproving look. “This has probably never happened to you.”
“I’ve never been mistaken for anybody’s younger sister, you’re right.” Declan gave a short, sharp whistle, and Mary came scampering over. “Let’s get to the cottage before you’re asleep in my beer, Megan Leonard.”
She stood, then sat back down immediately. “I’m mostly tired, though I’m not much of a drinker. I missed the corporate tax return deadline in March and I hate that. I tried to get the schedules together before leaving for the airport and nearly missed my flight too.”
She was about to miss half the afternoon.
Declan popped the last bite of grilled cheese in his mouth, took Megan by the hand, and drew her to her feet.
“You’re tired and you’re tippling. I know a nice, soft, fluffy bed in a bonnie wee cottage, and that bed is calling your name right now. Mary, stop eyeing Hamish’s basil and come along.”
The lamb obligingly hopped down from the windowsill, suggesting she’d already done more than sniff the potted herbs Hamish grew there.
“Will you throw telephone poles this afternoon, or whatever it is best men do in Scotland?” Megan asked.
“I’ve been known to toss a caber or two, but today I have an appointment with my accountant.”
Then Declan would stop by the feed store to dicker over last month’s bill—off by 50 pounds again—and catch up on the gossip, look in on the afternoon milking because Dundas was getting on and wouldn’t ask for help if he were having four coronaries. At the greenhouse, Declan would check the soil moisture levels against the growth of the potted salvia which was turning up temperamental. If necessary, he’d rotate inventory so the blooming varieties were out front, and if he was lucky, not interrupt Deirdre and Robert at their pleasures for a damned change.
He’d best get some groceries too, having subsisted on peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches longer than a grown man liked to admit.
Declan paused by the door of the Wild Hare to snag a sensible green suitcase by the handle, then waited another moment for Mary to sniff it over.
“The customs inspector thinks I’m smuggling contraband,” Megan said, brushing a hand over the lamb’s head. “You are much nicer to pet than any smelly old dog.”
“She likes your scent,” Declan replied, holding the door so the lady and the lamb could precede him to the Land Rover. “You smell of greenery and happy occasions.”
Megan’s fragrance was also elegant, floral, and complicated, like a greenhouse full of rare varieties of orchid.
“I think that was a compliment,” she said, peering into the driver’s side of the Land Rover, then circling to the passenger’s side. Declan tossed her suitcase into the back—he’d washed his vehicle that very morning, else the suitcase might have been covered in peat moss for the next few weeks. Mary, he placed in the back more gently, though she looked none too pleased to have her place on the front seat usurped.
“We don’t have far to go,” Declan said, getting behind the wheel and buckling up. If they hadn’t had Megan’s suitcase, he might have suggested they walk across the cathedral grounds and through the woods along the river.
But they did have the suitcase, accountants charged by the hour, and the maid of honor was dead on her feet. Then too, Declan was already hungry again, and another PB/Nutella had no appeal.
“Just so you know, I didn’t want to come here,” Megan said as Declan pointed the Land Rover down the high street. “Our parents are gone, though, and Julie and I don’t have brothers or cousins. If I hadn’t come, she would have had no family at all at her wedding.”
Declan would have no family at his wedding—if he ever married.
“You mustn’t fret about Julie,” he said. “She’ll get a passel of Cromartys to call her own, people who’ve known Niall since he was a nipper. We’re not like Americans, who move a thousand miles from their folks just for a bit more money.”
“We move for opportunity, Declan MacPherson, and a lot of us, a few generations back, moved away from Scotland to find that opportunity.”
Was she proud of having pilfered some of Scotland’s best and brightest?
“My family stayed put,” Declan said, “and thus I have the opportunity to work land that’s belonged to MacPhersons for generations. I live in the house where my great-grandfather was born, and likely his great-grandfather too. Land that has fed my family and provided generations of sustenance shouldn’t be abandoned for something as fleeting and insubstantial as opportunity.”
“Land, Katie Scarlett,” Megan responded in a mock baritone. “You’re preaching to the choir, Declan. I’d no sooner pull up stakes and leave my flower shop on a whim than Julie would have tried one of her criminal cases without any evidence.”
They tooled past stone buildings festooned with geraniums, pansies, and other colorful flowers as well as the occasional cat sunning itself on a stoop. Children stood on the bridge, throwing rocks into the water as children had probably been doing from that same bridge for centuries.
“You’re not so different from your sister, Julie,” Declan observed. “Julie’s a reasonable sort, but I gather when she fixes on an objective, she can be very determined.”
Lucky Niall, that Julie’s determination had swung in his direction.
“If you have a crush on my sister, I will hit you,” Megan said as they turned past the park and back toward the woods along the river.
The same sister she’d dropped everything and come to Scotland for?
“I haven’t a crush on your sister,” Declan said, “though Julie’s a fine woman. Farm life is hard, physically demanding, with impossible hours. The weather can be against you in any season, foot rot can take half your livestock, and competing successfully with environmental cretins is nearly impossible. I’ve no time for foolish crushes on women smitten with the local golf god.”
“The flower shop is the same for me,” Megan said, yawning behind her hand. “Work, work, work, and I finally have something to show for it, though it has taken me years. I won’t throw my dreams away for some guy who thinks I’d look cute in his kitchen.”
Megan Leonard would look very cute in Declan’s kitchen. Also in his greenhouse or his bedroom. In the hay mow, that wild hair of hers allowed to fly free, a thick tartan blanket beneath them…
The sporran was an accessory developed to protect a man’s dignity. That it held Declan’s wallet, change, comb, and phone was merely coincidence.
“So what is expected of me as a best man?” Declan asked, turning down the lane that led to Dunroamin Cottage. “Other than to stand up with Niall at the ceremony and keep track of the ring?”
“You throw the bachelor party. You show up at the rehearsal dinner and keep the groom from getting too drunk. You charm the in-laws and pretend I’m the date you’d choose even though I’m forced on you by circumstances and I can be a regular bitch when my lantana gets droopy.”
“The dreaded droopy lantana. Anything else I should know about?”
“Are you making fun of my lantana?”
So fierce about her flowers. “Yes, and possibly of you as well.” Declan parked the Land Rover and peered in the rear view mirror. Mary stood on top of the suitcase, doubtless scouting the surrounding ferns and bracken for snacks. Like farmer, like sheep.
“If I’m to be your escort for the next two weeks, tell me the real stuff, Megan. What can I do to be helpful? Niall and I have recently settled some longstanding differences, and I don’t want to muck this up.”
Declan turned the ignition off and sat with the maid of honor in the Land Rover beneath the leafy canopy. From thirty yards away, the gentle lap and murmur of the river made a soothing countercurrent to the tension subtly filling the vehicle.
“I hate weddings,” Megan said. “They’re so full of hope and cluelessness. Like your lamb. She doesn’t know she’s going to end up as mutton stew. Between then and now she’ll grow up to become a smelly, muddy, stinky sheep, with dingleberries and burdocks in her coat.”
Somebody’s lantana was definitely droopy.
Declan got out of the Land Rover, retrieved the suitcase, and followed Megan up the porch steps.
“Mary will go to a breeding herd, but how does a nice florist like you even know what dingleberries are?”
“I live in western Maryland. We have sheep. Anybody who’s seen the back of a sheep knows what dingleberries are. Nice, fluffy, pretty sheep up front. Dingleberries and grossness behind. Weddings are full of dingleberries, figuratively. The ushers get drunk, the bridesmaids get high. The in-laws fight, the bride makes out with the groom’s best friend, or with her own maid of honor. The buffet gives everybody food poisoning, and the DJ sucks. The lantana droops, and somebody always has to make a lewd comment about the anthurium.”
The cottage was a snug two-story stone structure with a lot of picture windows. Not a very practical place, but pretty. Couples had honeymooned there, a fact Declan kept to himself.
“Is anthurium that red flower with the,”—Declan wiggled a single finger—“willy sticking out of it?”
Megan trooped inside after him. “The very one. In the language of flowers, anthurium symbolizes a bride who hasn’t got a clue and a groom who five times a night had better be able to—I like this place.”
Declan liked her. Liked her honesty and her loyalty to a sister she didn’t have much in common with. Liked her defiant hair, and her willingness to deal with weddings, despite all their problems.
Mary stood outside the door, looking in through a picture window.
“My lamb has taken a fancy to you,” Declan said. “I can leave her with you, if you want the company.”
Megan opened the door, and Mary came strutting in, the wee tramp. “That is so sweet. You’d lend me your lamb?”
“She was an orphan, so I bottle fed her in my kitchen,” Declan said. “We had a cold, wet spring, which meant she spent more time with me than most orphans. She took to following me around, and she’s learned a few commands.”
Declan would miss her, which was pathetic in a man who called himself a farmer.
“Then yes, I’d like to borrow your lamb.” Megan said, closing the door. “So far, I like having you for a best man, Declan MacPherson. Now shoo so I can fall asleep on the couch.”
“Bedroom’s upstairs,” Declan said, hefting the suitcase and heading for the steps. “Kitchen is stocked, according to Niall, and Mary will be fine with what she can forage in the yard, though you’ll have to give her water.”
Megan declined to follow him upstairs, which was fine. The less he saw of her in proximity to a bed, the better for them both. He needed to pop into Perth some Friday night and behave like a single adult male for a change.
Declan set the suitcase on the stand in the bedroom, cracked a window to let in some fresh spring air, and generally indulged in a bit of nosiness. He’d not been inside this cottage often, but it was a cozy, peaceful place.
When he came back downstairs, Megan was sprawled on the couch, her feet bare, Mary cuddled up by her side.
“No need to worry about me,” Declan said, scratching the lamb’s shoulder. “I’ll be fine without you.” He scrawled his number on a note pad by the phone and stuck it to the fridge with a bagpipe magnet. “No worries at all.”
He unfolded the All Scotland plaid afghan from the back of the couch and draped it over the sleeping woman, then let himself out of the cottage.
The woods were beautiful this time of year, with shafts of mellow sunshine slanting down between green boughs and stately trees. The redwoods mixed with the oaks created a unique fragrance, and the river wended placidly along on the other side of the hiking trails.
To a farmer who loved the land, the moment should have been lovely.
“I’ll miss a damned sheep,” Declan said, getting behind the wheel of his Land Rover. He navigated the single track back to the road and turned toward town, mentally trying to prepare for the quarterly ordeal of meeting with the accountant.
Declan would be on time, his ledgers up-to-date, and the totals showing a tidy profit, as they had for the past five years. That profit was a source of pride, despite the brutal hard work necessary to earn it. As Declan took a seat in a pleasant baronial office that had probably cost too much to furnish, he was plagued by a question.
If he never had children, then for whom was he preserving the legacy of the MacPherson farm? To whom would he pass it on? If the answer was nobody, or some toff from Edinburgh who wanted a vanity farm, then what was the point of all that hard work?
“So this is the bachelor party?” Megan asked, peering around a wood, glass, and stone structure that Declan said belonged to a Cromarty cousin.
“This is a family dinner,” Declan said, “and Liam and Louise agreed to cook. Niall doesn’t want to sit around getting drunk with the men, and Julie wants your company, so here we are.”
Though Megan had slept like the dead yesterday afternoon, evening, and night, she still felt muzzy-headed. A walk with Mary along the river this morning had helped, but then the afternoon had been spent on the computer and on the phone with the flower shop staff back in Maryland, the accountant, and the bank.
“Is there protocol here?” Megan asked as Declan led her up a set of stone steps. “I mean, do you toast the queen, not mention the queen, take your shoes off, never drink until the host has taken a sip? I don’t travel much and—”
She’d been an observer at so many rituals—weddings, showers, family reunions, funerals, retirements—but never a participant.
“I wish I had a great big urn of gladiolus to hide behind,” she went on. “I think half the contribution flowers make to any occasional is their scent. They’re beautiful and full of life, but the simple scent of them calms everybody down.”
Everybody being herself. Megan. Sister of the bride, which bride might never return to Maryland again.
Declan kissed Megan’s cheek, and apparently his scent calmed her down too. He was in a kilt again, not plain black, but a pretty gray, red, and blue pattern with a black V-neck sweater. The wool must have done good things for his aftershave, because he wore the outdoors, the mild night air, the velvety sky in that scent.
“Settle yourself, Meggie Leonard. You’ll be fine, and if you aren’t, I’ll just explain to everybody that you’re Julie’s crazy sister from America. Crazy relatives are something of a cultural fixture here.”
He didn’t knock, didn’t ring a doorbell, but simply opened the door.
“I never met such a man for kissing, Declan MacPherson. The Scottish Tourism Board ought to make a calendar out of you, or you and Mary. She’s good company, though a guy in a kilt and a sheep might not be exactly the impression you want to—”
He tugged her through the door and kept hold of her hand during an endless succession of introductions. Julie had stopped by last night while Megan had been snoring her evening away and left a note. She’d come by again for breakfast, but had been in a hurry to join Niall at a whisky tasting in preparation for the wedding.
Plenty of time to talk about the flowers later, of course, because clearly, that wouldn’t happen tonight either.
The evening passed in a blur of laughter, excellent food, stories, and more laughter. Julie had never looked lovelier, and her fiancé, Niall, never left her side for long. Various other Cromarty cousins ringed the table, some drinking wine, some beer, and some single malt whisky sent by a cousin referred to as an honest-to-God earl.
“You had enough?” Declan asked, handing off a baby boy named Henry to another guy whose name Megan forgot.
“More than enough.” She wanted to fall asleep on the couch back at the cottage, Mary beside her, the soft scent of the woods coming through the window.
“Then let’s go.” Declan rose and pulled Megan to her feet. “Niall, Julie, we’ll see ourselves out. Megan hasn’t quite got herself on Scottish time yet, and unlike you lot, I have to get up in the morning. See you the rehearsal.”
And then they were outside, heading for Declan’s Land Rover.
“That was simple,” Megan observed. Holding Declan’s hand was simple too. His entire palm was callused, but his grip was warm and easy.
“They’ll tell stories half the night,” Declan said. “Then tell the same stories when Alasdair, Cameron, or Morag tie the knot, drinking more of the same celestial whisky cordially sent over by their cousin, the Earl of Strathdee.”
Who would tell stories for Megan? And when would they tell them, if she never married? Scotland was making her philosophical, or crazy.
“Julie isn’t exactly obsessing about her flowers,” Megan said as the Land Rover bumped along the dirt lane.
“She’s in love, Megan,” Declan said gently. “If she’s obsessing about anything, it should be Niall.”
“You know, one of the things I like about you Declan, is that you’re big enough I could smack you and not hurt you.”
“One of the things I like about you, Megan Leonard, is you’re not given to gratuitous dramas. Shall I pick up Mary?”
Damn. “You might as well.” Megan closed her eyes, tired in ways that had nothing to do with jet lag. “I hate weddings.”
“I know, love.”
Her phone buzzed. “I hate my goddamned idiot, never-ending, ceaselessly annoying cell phone.” The shop was calling, for the third time that day.
She swiped the screen and put the damned phone to her ear. “Megan here.” Part of her was also not here, caught in some time warp between home and away, happy and sad, exhausted and wired.
“Yo, boss. You got a message from that guy at the bank. They want you to fax over some document and it’s closing time here so I thought I’d let you know.”
Tony was a genius with flowers, finesse itself with nervous brides, and a complete zero in the administrative skills department.
“What document, Tony?”
“Hold on, boss lady. Looks like… your articles of copulation. I can’t read Dixie’s handwriting.”
“My articles of incorporation, which I cannot fax until tomorrow morning, assuming I can find a fax machine, or scanner and fax, because I have the frickin’ useless, stinking, infernal, damned articles with me.” The original was in the bank’s safe-deposit box, of course.
“So… how you likin’ Scotland?”
Declan pulled into the cottage driveway and shut off the ignition.
“I’ll be back on the tenth, come fire, flood, or fungus. Do not store your beer in the walk-in, or I will fire you.”
“Oh, Dixie! Save me! Megan’s blood sugar is low again!” In the background, Dixie hollered profanity, and Tony dropped the cartoon falsetto. “Go drink some whisky, boss woman, and you’re welcome.”
“Love you, too, Tony.” Megan ended the call. “The bank wants a copy of my articles of copulation.”
“I wouldn’t mind having a look at those myself, but for now, how about I retrieve my sheep?” Declan asked, climbing out of the Land Rover.
End of Excerpt
Highland Holidays is available in the following formats:
Grace Burrowes Publishing
January 20, 2016
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