Sam pulled the draw cords of her hood tighter, squinting against driving rain. She shivered, willing her legs to move faster. Even in the northern latitudes, it got dark eventually during what passed for summer, and the light was definitely fading. One foot sloughed into a hole. Cursing roundly, she yanked it out, noting the mud added what felt like ten pounds to her tired leg. Going on a ramble—as the locals called it—by herself had seemed like a good idea earlier in the afternoon. Now she wasn’t so sure. It had been hours since she’d seen another soul. The air felt heavy—and threatening, somehow.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she scolded herself. “My imagination’s off the clock, working overtime.”
A flash off toward the river was followed almost immediately by a rumbling crash. It started raining harder. The sky lit again, casting the wet greenery and surrounding mountains in a macabre glow. Thunder sounded so loud it made her ears ring. The next lightning flare sparked off a rock not twenty feet away. Sam’s heart sped up. She stared at the mountains ringed about her. Why wasn’t the storm up there? Lightning was supposed to be drawn to high points, not meadows saturated with water.
As if determined to prove her wrong, another flash struck the ground off to her left. She threw her hands over her ears but the thunder reverberated in her brain as if someone had struck an anvil right next to her. Shaking her head to try to make her ears stop hurting, she started walking again. Lightning struck inches from her feet. Sam lurched to a stop, blinking to clear the afterimage. Even as wet as it was, the air felt electrified, thick with sharp edges. She could almost see marauding electrons reaching for her, hungry little mouths wide open.
Fear raced along her nerve endings, making her feel as if she’d downed half a dozen double espressos in a row. The breath whooshed out of her and her head spun crazily.
The storm’s trying to kill me.
Oh, please, she answered herself. Sam hated her tendency to engage in two-way inner dialogue, but she’d done it all her life.
An excruciating twenty minutes and half a dozen lightning strikes later, she thought it might be safe to move. It was raining like a son of a bitch, but after striking what looked like a circle around where she stood, the electrical part of the storm had left as quickly as it had come.
Guess the storm gods didn’t want me, after all.
Why should they? No one else does.
Sam sank into a funk. Shit, could I possibly be any wetter? Weather in the British Isles had been particularly wretched this summer. “Yeah, sort of like the rest of my life,” she muttered as she tried to assess if she’d be better off staying on the track or cutting cross-country toward where she thought a roadway was. Resolutely, she struck out for the road and promptly stepped into calf-deep water. It ran over the top of her boot and soaked her thick, woolen sock before she could jerk her foot back to solid ground.
So much for that idea. Obviously, there’d been so much rain the ground on both sides of the track had turned into a bog. She’d never seen one before this trip to Scotland. They were hideous. Miles of saturated ground with water deep enough to reach her knees in some places. Sam glanced at her watch and groaned. She’d been walking for close to five hours. No wonder it was getting dark. The village she was aiming for shouldn’t actually be all that far away. In fact, she should have been there long since. About to tuck her watch back under her sleeve, she took one last look at it and realized the second hand had stopped. She tapped the crystal with her finger but nothing happened.
Crap! Wonder when it quit? Must be the damp.
Yes, another less pleasant voice piped up, it also means I have no idea how long I’ve been walking. Peering through mist-shrouded countryside, she looked for some signs of Beauly Village but all she saw were sheep.
Sam told herself to keep walking. It wasn’t as if there was anywhere she could even sit to consider her options. Everything dripped water. Her jacket and pants, which had always provided adequate protection from the elements back in the States, were woefully inadequate here. She was afraid to pull out her cell phone. Electronics and water definitely weren’t compatible. Yeah, just look what happened to my watch. Dark thoughts crowded her mind. Why had she thought it would be romantic to spend a year in Scotland?
You know why, an inner voice—the nasty one—sneered. It was your infatuation with Clint. Sam gave her resident maven a point for accuracy. Clint, with his spiffy Scottish intonations, dreamy blue eyes, and red-blonde curls, had sweet-talked her into bankrolling a trip to his home. Between his ever-so-broad shoulders, washboard abs, and nice, tight ass, he’d barely let her out of bed for a month. By the time she’d figured out the reason he had so much time on his hands was because he didn’t have a job, it was too late. She was head over heels in love. And hoping desperately that this time it would lead her to the altar. After all, it wasn’t as if he had to work. All he needed to do was treat her like a queen. She had plenty of money for both of them.
Eager to grant her prince whatever he wanted, she’d readily agreed when he’d talked longingly of going back to Scotland for a while. Except he’d had a personality transplant practically the second they’d landed in Glasgow. In the month-and-a-half since they’d arrived, she’d scarcely seen him. He was always off with his mates, as he called them, drinking or climbing. There were weeks when he hadn’t returned to their rental flat in Inverness at all. Worse, she suspected some of those mates were gay. When she’d asked him if he swung both ways and that was the reason why he’d stopped fucking her, his eyes had turned to blue ice chips. He’d twisted away and slammed out of the house. That was the last time she’d seen him.
Water ran off the bill of her hood. Some of it dripped into one eye. “Oh to hell with it,” she snarled. “I’m catching the first plane out of here—without him.” She sighed, feeling sad and angry by turns. Clint was far from the first man who’d taken advantage of her. As soon as they found out she was an heiress to a whiskey fortune, they promised her the moon and then fleeced her for everything they could get. She’d gotten pretty cagy in the years between sixteen and her current twenty-five. She’d even rented a modest apartment in Seattle and pretended she lived there when she met someone new.
Eventually, though, when she thought a guy might be different, she took him to the Capitol Hill mansion she’d more-or-less inherited after her parents relocated to one of their many other homes. No matter how promising a relationship looked, the truth of that rambling mansion was always the beginning of the end.
Her mother had talked her into coming to Zermatt the previous year, luring her with a promise that the men were simply amazing. After five frustrating weeks there, Sam had booked a ticket on the first departing plane that had space—never mind it was only economy class—and fled. Granted she’d only dated a handful of guys in those few weeks, but she’d met enough to discern that Swiss men were insufferably straight-laced. Until they got her alone. Then they were all over her. And not in a good way. Once they were satisfied—which didn’t take long—they zipped up, told her how much they were looking forward to being a part of her rich family, and went home. No cuddles, no endearments, not so much as a what nice tits you have, my dear… Sam blew out a frustrated breath. All it did was rearrange the water dripping down her face.
“Goddamn it,” she snapped. “I hate this place. No wonder the Scots are so hardy. They had to be or they’d all have committed suicide centuries ago.”
After another fifteen minutes, she thought she saw lights ahead and forced herself to hurry. She’d been considering digging through her small backpack for her iPhone—and holding herself back. As it was, it hadn’t liked the damp climate at all and had become increasingly cantankerous after she’d dropped it in a puddle the previous week. Even if I got it out, who the hell could I call to help me? Do they even have a 911 system here? Sam felt foolish. After all, being lost scarcely qualified as an emergency.
“Where are your sheep, lad?” A deep voice from somewhere behind Sam startled her.
She turned, seeking its source. “I’m not a lad,” she protested, gratitude sluicing through her that she wasn’t alone anymore.
“But ye’re wearin’ breeks.” A tall figure moved out of the mist toward her. Dark hair splayed down the man’s shoulders halfway to his waist. Sharp green eyes gleamed in a strong-boned face. He wore some sort of kilt—except it was too long—with matching fabric wrapped around his torso. Knee-high leather boots were secured with laces. She wondered fleetingly why he wasn’t shivering.
“Oh,” she breathed, understanding. “You must be one of those reenactors.”
“Whatever that may be, I am nothing of the kind.” He sounded indignant. Moving practically nose-to-nose with her, he peered intently at her face. “Why, ye’re a woman fully grown.” He stepped back a pace, a shocked look on his face. “Whatever are ye doin’ out here by yourself, wearin’ men’s clothing when night is about to fall? Who are your folk, lass? Where be your village?”
Great! If he’s not a reenactor then he must be nuts. She drew in an unsteady breath, unsure what to say. If he were truly mad, she didn’t want to antagonize him, not with them so far from anyone who could help her.
“Have ye gone dumb, lass? I asked you a question. Several, in fact.”
“Yes. I know. I was thinking—”
“Ye need to think about who your folk are?” He stepped back another pace.
It was her turn to look more closely at him. He sounded just as suspicious and rattled as she felt. “Well, you see…” she began nervously, glancing about for the lights she’d seen earlier. How far was the next village, anyway? And was it even the right one?
He cleared his throat and tossed his mane of wet hair back over his shoulders. He was tall, well past six feet, with a chest so broad it made her feel small. Sam smiled inwardly. It was rare for her to feel feminine. At five-foot-eleven, she was scarcely a delicate creature. No size sixes for her. Not since she’d been about twelve, anyway.
Before she realized she was staring and tore her gaze away, Sam let it wander up and down the stranger’s physique. He was quite attractive in an atavistic sort of way, even-featured with a dark shadow of stubble coating a well-formed jawline. And those eyes. They were a clear green, like fine agates, with flecks of gold near the pupils.
“Shall we start with the simple things then, lass?” His voice had softened, as if he were talking to a simpleton or a child. “What is your name?”
He snorted. “And what sort of name would that be for a lass?”
“Ah, it’s really Siobhan. Is that better?” Sam fought down annoyance. She was getting wetter by the moment.
He nodded fractionally. “Aye. Your folk? What is your clan name?”
“Look,” she sputtered, “I don’t have a clan name. My last name is Macquire.”
“’Tis Irish, ye are?” He sounded surprised, and then added half to himself, “I canna see her hair. The lass might speak true.”
“The lass does speak true,” she muttered. “My hair is red, if that’s what you’re wondering. But what does that have to do with anything? I was headed for Inverness, by way of Beauly. I have lodging there.”
“By yourself?” He sounded scandalized.
“Yes, by myself.” Exasperation was getting the better of her. She made an effort to add a touch of little-girl-lost to her tone. “If you could just point me in the right direction, ah, sir, I’ll be on my way.”
Quirking a brow, he added, “I hanna heard tell of Beauly. Is this a place ye’ve been afore?”
“Not exactly. I found it on a map. See, I went out for a walk. Left Inverness, planned to return by way of Beauly. Thought I’d hire a cab to take me back to my lodging.”
“Ye have a strange way of speaking, lass…” He eyed her again. “’Tis not lookin’ as if ye have the means to hire aught.”
She would have rolled her eyes but didn’t want to provoke him. He was definitely taking this reenactment thing way too far. “Well, your speech is odd to my ears too.” Sam put her hands on her hips. “Are you going to help me or not?”
Her directness seemed to throw him off guard. Maybe in his eighteenth century universe, women were seen and not heard. At last he said in the same soothing voice he’d used earlier, “Certainly, lass. Of course I will come to your aid. If ye’d follow me then?”
Can I trust him? Sam looked around her. It would be truly dark soon. She did not want to be out in the wet Highlands after dark. Not after all the Celtic myths she’d taken to reading once Clint had exited stage left. She hadn’t even brought as much as a flashlight with her. Never mind warmer clothing. A shiver tracked down her body. For the first time, it occurred to her how vulnerable she was. I might die out here. Maybe this guy is an ax murderer… She thought about her phone again and wondered if she could latch on to a signal.
Almost as if he could read her mind, the man put a bit more distance between them. “My name is Angus,” he said. “Of Clan MacTavish.” He gave a formal little bow. “Surely ye’ll have heard of me.”
Why you arrogant son-of-a… she thought and stifled a snort. “No, actually, I haven’t. But I do need to return to Inverness. If you can help, that would be great.”
“Great? Are ye meaning bigger? There isna Great or Small Inverness, lass. There’s only the one.”
She did roll her eyes this time. “Oh, let’s just get going.” She mouthed a prayer to whatever Celtic goddess might guard the Highlands, asking for protection. As soon as they got to Inverness, she’d dump this turkey and give her travel agent a call. If she woke him up, so what?
Angus is a pretty good-looking specimen, one of her inner voices piped up.
Sam just made a noise that sounded like hmmmph, and trotted through the muck after her self-appointed protector. Her feet squelched in wet socks as she walked. She wasn’t certain she remembered feeling quite so wretched at any other time in her life. Not even when her outdoorsy father had insisted on dragging her along on horse-packing trips in Canada and it had snowed on them—for days. Those trips had yielded dramatic photographic materials for Seagram’s commercials, though.
Whenever she’d complained, her father had reminded her that the video crew was far more miserable than she since they couldn’t manipulate their equipment with gloves on. That was her dad, though. Anything for Seagram’s. Rah, rah, rah. Maybe when I get back I’ll take him up on that job offer, she thought morosely. In the couple of years since she’d earned it, her MBA had done nothing but gather dust on a shelf.
Geoffrey—her ten-years-older brother who was supposed to take over company operations—had been killed in a Lear jet crash the previous year. Every time she stepped into his empty office it gave her the creeps. And made her sad. He’d been a wonderful big brother and she missed him. Both her parents wanted family running the company. Family had always run it. They’d spare no expense building her the office of her dreams. But Seagram’s wasn’t what she wanted. Guilt rose hot in her gullet. The second worst thing about Geoffrey’s death—nipping at the heels of her pain at losing him—had been what it meant about her future. Sam felt petty and ungrateful but didn’t know what to do about it.
More to clear her head than anything else, she watched Angus threading his way through the thickening mist. He moved gracefully, amazingly light on his feet for such a big man. For a moment, he reminded her of a large, lithe jungle cat with the swing of his hips and arms. Hatless, his head was tipped upward. Rain had to be running down the open neck of that plaid thing he had wrapped around him, yet it didn’t seem to bother him. She gazed at the strangely long kilt and wondered what was beneath it, then reined herself in. Not now. Not him. Get back to Inverness. Find the first flight out of Glasgow and get out of here.
It took longer than she expected, but after about half an hour, lights came into view, oddly dispersed by fog that had done nothing but get worse. She wondered what had happened to the ones she thought she’d seen just before she met Angus. But when she tried to ask about them, all he did was shake his head and tell her patiently—in a mild tone reserved for the mentally challenged—that she must have imagined them.
Through it all, the rain hadn’t abated one whit. Geez, I thought Seattle was bad. It’s positively sun-drenched compared with this. If anything, the weather was worse now than it had been when she stood in the midst of the bog. A brisk wind plastered her wet clothing against her, leaching the warmth right out of her body. Mercifully, Angus hadn’t tried to engage her in further conversation beyond answering her question about the lights. It seemed that, though they both spoke English, words meant something quite different to each of them.
“Think I’ll be fine now.” She spoke brightly and gestured toward the lights. “If you have somewhere you need to go, or something you need to do, that’s okay by me.”
He spun so rapidly she ran into him.
“Ooph! Uh, sorry.” She took a couple of steps backward, trying not to think about how tempting he’d felt up against her body. For the briefest of moments, a wild light flared in his eyes. It blended with untamed man into something so sexual it was all she could do not to sink her fingers into that dark mane of hair and pull his mouth down to hers.
“What? And leave you alone without protection? That is far from a good idea, lass. I am thinkin’ you are but a simple thing. I’ll release you to your kin, the Macquires, as soon as I can locate them. It may take a few days, but dinna fear, I’ll see you safe to home.”
“I told you,” she said through gritted teeth, “I have lodging in Inverness. Once we’re there I won’t need you anymore. What part of that didn’t sink in?”
He placed his hands on her shoulders. Heat sank into her, making shivers run up her spine. Next he tipped her chin upward so he could look at her in what was left of the day’s light. “What might the name of these lodgings be?”
Close like this, he smelled enticing. A mixture of rain-wet male and something spicy and exotic she couldn’t name. Was it sandalwood? Or maybe myrrh? She shook her head. What had he asked her again? Oh yes, her hotel. “I’m staying at the Regis Arms.”
He cocked his head to one side. “There is no such establishment in Inverness.”
“Oh, please.” She stepped away and moved as fast as she could toward the lights she saw flickering through the misty night air. Footsteps sounded behind her, making sucking noises as he pulled each foot out of the slimy mud. Sam figured it would be impossible to outrun him, but she quickened her pace just the same.
Her heart beat wildly in her chest as fear shot through her. Angus was truly insane. Why had she agreed to let him lead her anywhere? Because I didn’t know where I was. And I wouldn’t have been able to find the way by myself. That last was true. Angus had taken at least two turns off the main track she would have missed if left to her own devices.
The lights were getting brighter. Sam rushed forward, excited to be so close to safety. She started planning what she would do as soon as she got to her rooms. The very first thing was stripping out of her wet-to-the-skin clothing and running a hot bath. The track widened into a street. But there was something wrong. Where was the pavement? The street was cobblestones and mud with water running down the middle and both sides. When she looked up and down it, she saw the light came from lanterns hanging from hooks in front of rough wooden shop fronts.
“That bastard,” she spat, chest tightening in fury. When she turned to look for Angus, he was right behind her. Too tired to worry about inciting someone who was mentally ill to violence, she grabbed his arms and shook him. “Where the fuck have you brought me?” she shrieked. Letting go, she swung one hand in an arc. “What is this? Some sort of reenactment camp? If this is your idea of a joke, Angus—if that’s really even your name—I don’t think it’s very funny. Now which way is Inverness?”