ANY SCOT OF MINE
(MacLarens of Balmorie, Book 4)
Today was the day.
Nerves skated along Harper’s spine as she went down the wide stairs and into the breakfast room at Balmorie Castle. A nice spread of homemade fare waited on the sideboard, but her stomach was too twisted with anxiety to eat. Since she’d made the decision to come to Scotland weeks ago, random bursts of fear, anticipation, and butterflies had been a regular occurrence, and it was really starting to tick her off.
She’d had twelve years to get over Ross MacLaren.
Twelve years and an ocean apart to forget, to mend the heart that had been broken at seventeen, and move on. The time should have been enough, but deep down Harper knew it hadn’t been. Obviously, she hadn’t moved on at all because she was right back where she’d started—the feelings she was experiencing now, the anxiety, the nerves, the excitement, were all too familiar.
Just like before.
Just like every time Ross had walked into a room, looked into her eyes, and smiled that bad boy smile of his, the one that held secrets and intimacies only they shared…
She forced a smile at the few guests already eating and went for the coffee station. Her hand trembled as she poured and it made her mood dark as she stirred in sugar and cream, grabbed a piece of dry toast, and then found a small table by the window.
Sitting there, frustrated tears stung her eyes. She was strung so tight and hadn’t felt normal in weeks. Not since her father had died. Not since she agreed to his plan...
Ross would certainly be shocked when he saw her.
Would he act like nothing had happened? Would he apologize?
No. Ross MacLaren had walked away from her twelve years ago and never looked back, not an explanation or a single word. He didn’t see fit to apologize then and it was doubtful he’d apologize for it now.
A heavy sigh breezed through her lips as she gazed at the loch through the tall windows. He’d have a family by now, a bunch of Ross look-a-likes running around the pretty Highland hills. No doubt they’d all be gorgeous little things.
Harper had imagined more than once how the years might have shaped him. At eighteen, he’d been the stuff of teenage dreams—tall, wide shoulders, black hair and gray/blue eyes. He’d been magnetic, a bad influence, and a tortured soul all rolled into a sexy package and tied with a Scottish-accented bow.
Kind of hard to resist all that.
And even though they’d been about to become stepbrother and sister, it had been impossible for her to look the other way. But then, maybe that had added to the attraction. The forbidden. The impossible romance. The risk.
Of course, the marriage between her father and Ross’ mother never happened. And the MacLarens had left the States suddenly--twenty-four hours after she gave her virgin self to Ross.
Well, it was more like twenty-two. But who was counting?
“Looks like it’s going to be a sunny day. Refill?”
Lucy MacLaren stood by the table with a pot of coffee. Harper moved her cup to be filled. “Thanks.”
“Perfect weather for sightseeing,” Lucy said with a friendly smile as she poured. Lucy had checked Harper in yesterday evening and Harper instantly liked the pretty, down-to-earth American transplant. During their conversation, Harper learned Lucy had married Ian, one of three MacLaren brothers who owned Balmorie Estate.
“Actually I’m here on business. I’m looking for someone.”
Interest flashed in Lucy’s round eyes. She slid into the empty seat and put her elbows on the table. “I’m still pretty new to the area, but between me and Ian, and the Grahams…” Lucy flicked a look at the elderly woman who was clearing a vacated table nearby. “Fran. Harper is looking for someone,” she called, and Harper cringed. She hadn’t wanted an audience. Just a little info.
Fran wiped her hands on her apron and came over. “Good morning, Miss Harper. Sleep well?”
She’d slept horrible. But Harper smiled. “Fine, thank you. The room is lovely.” Which was true. It was huge, with stone walls, a fireplace, and a view that overlooked the loch. Very romantic.
Harper had chosen Balmorie Estate as her base of operations since it was close to the home Ross had once shared with his mother. She was pretty sure, well hoping, that he still lived in the area. He was a MacLaren. Lucy was a MacLaren through her recent marriage, and Harper hoped they could point her in the right direction. The sooner she got this over with the better.
“I was hoping you might know Ross MacLaren. He’d be about thirty now. Has a younger broth—”
“Liam,” Lucy said with a bright smile. “Oh yeah, we know them well. They’re first cousins of my husband. Ross lives up the road past the old distillery.”
“Would be no trouble to ring him if you’d like,” Fran offered.
“Oh no.” Her heart dropped. “I was hoping more to . . . surprise him.”
She could tell by the looks on Lucy and Fran’s faces that they thought there was some romantic possibility between her and Ross. Surprise wasn’t her goal, of course. She just wanted to face Ross on her terms.
After Fran and Lucy gave her directions, Harper left the castle on foot. The walk would be a few miles, but it was a beautiful, warm day, and it gave her time to think, to prepare, to run through the words and scenario yet again.
She’d dressed in jeans and a snug T shirt, hiking boots, and had tied a light jacket around her waist. Her long hair was twisted up like usual, and she hadn’t troubled herself too much with make-up—just a light dusting of powder, some mascara, and lip balm. She wasn’t going to try and impress him. He’d used her and dumped her, and there was no part of Harper Dean that was going to revert back to that seventeen year old lovesick dummy she’d been.
He deserved nothing from her. Nothing. Hell, he’d already done enough damage, leaving her with trust issues that ran so deep that Harper could never fully accept love. Or give it in return. She knew. She’d tried.
He’d said he loved her.
The memory came through so clearly it made her chest hurt and her throat thicken. His heavy weight pinning her to the bed as he stilled inside of her, the heat of his skin, the whispered, ragged words. The conviction in his voice had rang so true.
And yet, in the end, it had meant nothing.
The old distillery finally came into view, pulling her from her thoughts. Ross’ family had owned the place, had made whisky there for over a hundred years.
Years after Ross’ father had died, his mother, Mary, had met Harper and her father during their tour of Scottish distilleries. Even then the place was declining. But it had been beautiful to Harper—the old stone buildings lining both sides of the road, the rushing creek behind the still house, the entire complex reminding her of a tiny village.
Mary MacLaren had cut her losses and moved with Ross and his younger brother Liam to Kentucky to be with Whitney Dean, third generation bourbon-maker. Dean’s was a name known around the world. A bottle of it would cost you eighty dollars and up. Bourbon-making had been in Harper’s family for as long as Scottish whisky had been in Ross’. And, like Balmorie Distillery, Dean’s was now in decline. The economy had had a terrible impact on luxury items.
Her father was gone, and so it had fallen on Harper to save the family business.
Ross MacLaren owed her. Big time. And she wasn’t above cashing in. He’d taken something from her, and now she’d come to collect something from him. Simple as that. She’d get what she came for. After all, stubborn was a gene inherent in the Dean family.
Harper kept moving, past the distillery and up the road as it curved between two hills before leveling out again. The stone bridge was up ahead. She crossed it, taking a moment to admire the creek rushing beneath her.
In the distance was the house Mary MacLaren had lived in. Harper had been in that house—once, when she and her father first met Mary and were invited to dinner after they’d toured the distillery. The same stone used on the bridge made up the house’s walls. The yard was nice and neat and there were old trees dotting the landscape.
Her heart was already beating faster and knots were forming and un-forming in her stomach. Twelve years, she reminded herself. She’d moved on. Totally moved on.
And she hated him, so there was that.
Harper pushed open the iron gate and walked up the path to the front door. A few nerves were to be expected, of course. No big deal. With a steady inhale and squaring her shoulders, she lifted her hand and knocked, and listened for the sound of little feet and voices.
But no one came.
She knocked again, then peeked through the front window before walking around the side of the house. The driveway was empty, but there was an old pickup truck parked at the far end of the yard, near a stone shed, and the constant familiar thud told her someone was chopping wood.
As she drew closer, a red-haired old man tossed a log in the back of the truck with a laugh.
Her mouth started to go dry and she could hear her pulse pounding through her eardrums. There was another voice, this one deeper and richer and . . . oh God. She couldn’t do this. Stupid, stupid idea.
He was on the other side of that truck. Just hearing his voice, packed with so many memories, was like a kick in the gut.
As the old man tossed another log into the bed of the truck, he made eye contact, surprised to see her standing there. “Ye need some help, lass?” he asked, smiling through a russet-colored beard shot with gray.
Harper couldn’t answer. She tried, but nothing came out.
And then he appeared, casually walking toward the back end of the truck, coming around the old man, the ax resting on his shoulder. Big. Sweaty. Devastating. Ross MacLaren. An old, light blue T-shirt, streaked with dirt and sweat clung to his form, the arms tight around his biceps. That black hair she remembered, the way it waved and never really conformed, was dampened from hard work. His features were the same dark beautiful ones she remembered, but now he was harder, bigger, and tougher-looking than she ever imagined.
And one look at him destroyed her.
The half-cocked smile on his face died at the sight of her. If it was possible, his features went harder and his eyes took on the glint of hard steel.
Harper did what any level-headed country girl would do when faced with insurmountable odds. She cut her losses and ran like hell.