» Excerpt for Her Highland Fling

Excerpt for Her Highland Fling

HER HIGHLAND FLING Cover

Coming soon as a digital-only release from Avon Impulse, January 27, 2015!

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Fling (n.): “Vigorous dance” (associated with the Scottish Highlands), from 1806. Or,  a period of indulgence on the eve of responsibilities,” first attested 1827.

From the Online Etymology Dictionary

 

Chapter One

Moraig, Scotland, 1843

All the world hated a hypocrite, and William MacKenzie was no exception.

But today that trouser-clad hypocrite was his brother, James, which made it a little hard for William to hate him like he ought.

As James sauntered to a stop beneath the awning of Moraig’s posting house, his laughing gaze dropped to William’s bare knees and then climbed northward again. “If you’re trying to make a memorable impression,” he sniggered, “all that’s missing is a good breeze.”

“You are late.” William crossed his arms and tried to look menacing. “And I thought we agreed last night we would share this indignity.”

“No, you agreed.” James shoved his hands in the pockets of his trousers and offered up a shite-eating grin. “I listened and wisely withheld a formal opinion.”

William bit back a growl of frustration. For Christ’s sake, he knew well enough he looked like a fool, standing in the thick heat of early August, draped in the MacKenzie plaid. And there was no doubt he would be teasing James unmercifully if the reverse were true.

But today they were both supposed to look like fools.

And James had a far better set of legs.

As though summoned by his brother’s fateful words, a ghost of a breeze stirred the wool that clung to William’s sweat-moistened skin. He clapped a hand down over his sporran, ensuring the most important parts remained hidden. “You live in Moraig, just as I do,” he pointed out to his errant brother. “You owe it to the town to help me make a proper impression for the reporter from the London Times.”

“Oh, aye, and I will. I had thought to say something properly memorable, such as ‘Welcome to Moraig.’ ” James raised a dark, mocking brow. “And we shouldn’t need to put on airs. The town has its own charm.”

“Well, the tourists haven’t exactly been flocking here,” William retorted, gesturing to the town’s nearly empty streets. Hidden in the farthest reaches of Scotland—far enough, even, that the Atlantic coast lapped at its heels—the little town of Moraig might indeed be charming, but attempts to attract London tourists had fallen somewhat short. If William had anything to say about it, that was going to change, starting today.

The only problem was he should have said it a half hour ago.

He took off his Balmoral cap and pulled his hand through hair already damp with sweat. While he was willing to tolerate looking like a fool in order to prove Moraig was the perfect holiday destination for Londoners seeking an authentic Highland experience, he still objected to having to look like one alone. “We’ve an opportunity to get a proper story printed in the Times, highlighting all Moraig has to offer.” He settled the cap back on his head. “If you have an issue with the plaid, you could have at least bestirred yourself to put on a small kilt.”

James burst out laughing. “And draw attention away from your bonny knees?”

As if in agreement, a series of catcalls rang out from a group of men who had crowded onto the sidewalk outside the Blue Gander, Moraig’s inn and public house.

One of them held up his pint. “Lovely legs, MacKenzie!”

“Now show us your arse!”

William scowled in their direction. On another day, he might have joined them in raising a pint, but not today. Moraig’s future was at stake. The town’s economy was hardly prospering, and its weathered residents couldn’t depend on fishing and gossip to sustain them forever. They needed a new direction, and as the Earl of Kilmartie’s heir, he felt obligated to sort out a solution. He’d spent months organizing the upcoming Highland Games. It was a calculated risk that, if properly orchestrated, would ensure the betterment of every life in town. When David Cameron, the town’s magistrate, had offered to invite a reporter up from London, it had seemed a brilliant opportunity to reach those very tourists they were aiming to attract.

But with the sweat now pooling in places best left unmentioned and the minutes ticking slowly by, that brilliance was beginning to tarnish.

William peered down the road that led into town, imagining he could see a cloud of dust implying the arrival of the afternoon coach. The very late afternoon coach. But all he saw was the delicate shimmer of heat, reflecting the nature of the devilishly hot day.

“Bugger it all,” he muttered. “How late can a coach be? There’s only one route from Inverness.” He plucked at the damp collar of his shirt, wondering where the coachman could be. “Mr. Jeffers knew the importance of being on time today. We need to make a ripping first impression with this reporter.”

James’s gaze dropped once more to William’s bare legs. “Oh, I don’t think there’s any doubt of it.” He leaned against the posting house wall and crossed his arms. “If I might beg the question . . . Why turn it into such a circus? Why these games, instead of, say, a well-placed rumor of a beastie living in Loch Moraig? You’ve got the entire town in an uproar preparing for it.”

William snorted. “Sunday dinners are enough to put this town in an uproar. And you know as well as I that the games are for their own good.”

Though, God forbid his nolly-cocked, newly married brother lift a hand in the planning.

Or be bothered to put on a kilt, as it were.

William could allow that James was perhaps a bit distracted by his pretty wife and new baby—and understandably so. But given that his brother was raising his bairns here, shouldn’t he want to ensure Moraig’s future success more than anyone?

James looked up suddenly, shading his eyes with a hand. “Well, best get those knees polished to a shine. There’s your coach now. Half hour late, as per usual.”

With a near groan of relief, William stood at attention on the posting house steps as the mail coach roared up in a choking cloud of dust and hot wind. Scrawny chickens and stray dogs scuttled to dubious safety before the coach’s barreling path, and he eyed the animals with a moment’s concern, wondering if perhaps he ought to have tried to corral them into some hidden corner, safely out of sight.

But it was too late now.

A half hour off schedule. Perhaps it wasn’t the tragedy he’d feared. They could skip the initial stroll down Main Street he’d planned and head straight to the inn. He could point out some of the pertinent sights later, when he showed the man the competition field that had been prepared on the east side of town.

“And dinna tell the reporter I’m the heir,” William warned as an afterthought. “We want him to think of Moraig as a charming and rustic retreat from London.” If the town was to have a future, it needed to be seen as a welcome escape from titles and peers and such, and he did not want this turning into a circus where he stood at the center of the ring.

As the coach groaned to a stop, James clapped William on the shoulder with mock sympathy. “Don’t worry. With those bare legs, I suspect your reporter will have enough to write about without nosing about the details of your inheritance.”

The coachman secured the reins and jumped down from his perch. A smile of amusement broke across Mr. Jeffers’s broad features. “Wore the plaid today, did we?”

Bloody hell. Not Jeffers, too.

“You’re late.” William scowled. “Were there any problems fetching the chap from Inverness?” He was anxious to greet the reporter, get the man properly situated in the Blue Gander, and then go home to change into something less . . . Scottish. And, God, knew he could also use a pint or three, though preferably ones not raised at his expense.

Mr. Jeffers pushed the brim of his hat up an inch and scratched his head. “Well, see, here’s the thing. I dinna exactly fetch a chap, as it were.”

This time, William couldn’t suppress the growl that erupted from his throat. “Mr. Jeffers, don’t tell me you left him there!” It would be a nightmare if he had. The entire thing had been carefully orchestrated, down to a reservation for the best room the Blue Gander had to offer. The goal had been to install the reporter safely in Moraig and show him a taste of the town’s charms before the games commenced on Saturday.

“Well, I . . . that is . . .” Mr. Jeffers’s gaze swung between the brothers, and he finally shrugged. “Well, I suppose you’ll see well enough for yourself.”

He turned the handle and then swung the coach door open.

A gloved hand clasped Mr. Jeffers’s palm, and then a high, elegant boot flashed into sight.

“What in the blazes—” William choked on his surprise as a blond head tipped into view. A body soon followed, stepping down in a froth of blue skirts. She dropped Jeffers’s hand and looked around with bright interest.

“Your chap’s a lass,” explained a bemused Mr. Jeffers.

“A lass?” echoed William stupidly.

And not only a lass . . . a very pretty lass.

She smiled at the men, and it was like the sun cresting over the hills that rimmed Loch Moraig, warming all who were fortunate enough to fall in its path. William was suddenly and inexplicably consumed by the desire to recite poetry to the sound of twittering birds. That alone might have been manageable, but as her eyes met his, he was also consumed by an unfortunate jolt of lustful awareness that left every inch of him unscathed—and there were quite a few inches to cover.

“Miss Penelope Tolbertson,” she said, extending her gloved hand as though she were a man. “R-reporter for the London Times.”

He stared at her hand unsure of whether to shake it or kiss it. Her manners might be bold, but her voice was like butter, flowing over a body until it didn’t know which end was up. His tongue seemed wrapped in cotton, muffling even the merest hope for a proper greeting.

The reporter was female?

And not only female . . . a veritable goddess, with eyes the color of a fair Highland sky.

Dimly, he felt James’s elbow connect with his ribs. He knew he needed to say something. Preferably something that made the ripping first impression he’d planned.

He raised his eyes to meet hers, giving himself up to the sense of falling.

Or perhaps more aptly put, a sense of flailing.

“W-welcome to Moraig, Miss Tolbertson.”

***

Penelope fought to keep her expression neutral.

It wasn’t as though she hadn’t been teased for her stammer nearly every day of her life, the merciless jeers from Brighton’s summer visitors bending her but never quite breaking her.

Instead of delivering a witty retort—which experience foretold would only emphasize her infirmity—she forced herself to smile pleasantly at the man who had just delivered the insult.

Whoever he was, he looked very much like the penny-dreadful version of a Highland warrior, with his dark, windswept hair, bulging biceps, and endlessly looped plaid. Of course, the penny dreadfuls didn’t make her stomach contract in quite the same nervous fashion.

And impressive or no, she had little patience for a person who thought it fun to mock a lady’s stammer.

She tried to push away the stirrings of self-doubt such things always brought. Her sister, Caroline, who’d married Moraig’s magistrate last year, had always sought relief from her childhood demons by swimming. But Pen had retreated from her tormentors with words—books and poetry and newspapers. Eventually she had uncovered a talent for putting her words on paper, probably because they became so tangled on her tongue. With that discovery, the anxieties about her stammer had finally begun to subside.

She did not enjoy having them rekindled today.

She turned her attentions to the more familiar gentleman standing in wait. “It is good to see you again, Mr. MacKenzie.” She smiled at her sister’s handsome friend and pushed a damp strand of hair from her cheek. “I must say, it is much warmer than it was d-during my last visit.”

“You’ve visited Moraig before?” the rude Highlander interrupted.

“Yes,” Pen said patiently. It seemed he was bound to either repeat questions already answered or else struggle to keep up with the conversation. She framed a gentle smile to her lips, the kind that made people nearly always underestimate her. “As I just said.”

She would have liked to ignore him but suspected it would be a close to impossible task, given that he seemed nearly twice the size of most men. Her gaze scooted lower, to the thick, muscled calves peeking out from beneath the folds of fabric. She was used to her share of bare legs, growing up in Brighton as she had. But she wasn’t used to legs that looked like this.

She schooled her cheeks against the flush that wanted to claim them. She would not blush like an adolescent schoolgirl. After all, she was an independent, modern woman, even if her tongue sometimes became a bit tied. She had boldly negotiated this position with the London Times—the first woman reporter they had ever hired. She had a job to do here, and she needed to do it well. It did not matter what a brawny, belted Highlander thought of her.

It mattered only what she thought of Moraig and what she chose to write about it.

In contrast to the village idiot, James MacKenzie’s green eyes sparkled with mirth and intelligence. “Miss Tolbertson is David Cameron’s new sister-in-law. I was fortunate enough to take dinner with them when she visited over Christmas,” he explained to the befuddled giant. He cocked his head, studying her. “I must say, this is quite a surprise, Miss Tolbertson. Cameron told us to expect a reporter from London, but he didn’t say it would be you. Don’t you work for the Brighton Gazette?”

She nodded, pleased he had remembered. Then again, a female journalist was enough of a novelty she supposed it might be a difficult fact to forget. “I did. But I’ve just b-been awarded a position with the Times and moved to London.” It was the first job she’d ever applied for. Fought for. Though her initial work with the Brighton Gazette had been enjoyable, she couldn’t help but feel her experience didn’t quite count, not when it was the newspaper her father had once founded. “This is my first formal assignment,” she admitted. And even if her brother-in-law had helped procure it, she felt a driving need to make sure it went well.

“A decision we can only hope serves us both well, given our hopes for a positive outcome for Moraig.” James gestured to the man standing beside him. “May I present William MacKenzie. My brother, and occasional Highland warrior when the circumstances call for it.”

Pen turned back to the perspiring behemoth and studied him with greater interest. This was James MacKenzie’s brother? She could imagine now seeing some resemblance there, in their shared height and dark hair, but the Highlander was far broader about the shoulders and chest, and his scowling features lacked the easy handsomeness of James’s welcoming smile. Then again, Pen could allow she looked little like her sister Caroline, who was tall and brunette.

Only their penchant for impropriety identified them clearly as sisters.

She tried to smile. “P-pleased to meet you, Mr. MacKenzie.”

Confused brown eyes swept her from boot to bonnet. “I dinna understand. You are saying you are the reporter we’ve been expecting from London?”

No matter his slow pattern of thought, the deep swell of his voice made her heart shift into a less-than-ladylike pattern. She couldn’t countenance the reaction. Despite the impressiveness of his calves, he was none too handsome about the top. His face was as broad as his chest, lacking even a dimple to soften the stark impression of masculinity. His nose was slightly hooked, as though it had been broken once and left to set however it wished.

And there was clearly not much going on between those ears.

“Yes. I am the reporter,” Penelope said, still smiling through her clenched teeth.

“But . . . I’ve never heard of a female reporter.”

Penelope sighed. Perhaps he had belted his plaid too tightly this morning. “Perhaps not in Moraig, b-but I assure you, the world is a bit larger than this.” Of course, most people outside Moraig had never heard of a female reporter either, but she didn’t think it a worthy enough fact to point out. There ought to be more female reporters.

And she intended to prove herself an excellent one.

The coachman chose that moment to bring her valise. He held it out to William MacKenzie, but Penelope snatched it and hefted it against her chest.

“I c-can manage my own luggage,” she said, perhaps a bit more forcefully than was needed. But the bag held her notebook and her pencils, the very tools of her trade, and this MacKenzie didn’t seem the brightest of souls. Should her things be misplaced or mishandled, she would have a devil of a time finding replacements in a little town like Moraig.

The Highlander scowled. “It seems wrong.”

A flare of irritation uncurled in Pen’s stomach. “I assure you, I am a very c-capable j-journalist.” She winced to hear her words begin to jam up. Her stammer always worsened when she was agitated, which was one of the reasons she tried so hard to maintain a calm, serene demeanor. But something about this man’s bumbling presumptions and his bare, flexing calves made it difficult to keep her thoughts focused.

He shook his head. “No, it seems wrong, a lady carrying her own bag to the Blue Gander. What will people think?”

“Oh, I do not p-plan to stay at the Gander.”

William MacKenzie’s head jerked back, and his blue feathered cap fell off his head. “But . . . how will you report on its suitability for tourist lodging if you don’t actually stay there?”

Pen narrowly avoided rolling her eyes. Did he even understand what half those words meant? He’d clearly not applied himself to the understanding of the earlier bits of the conversation. “As your b-brother said earlier, I am Mrs. Cameron’s sister.” She spoke slowly, so he would be sure to understand. “I had thought to s-stay in their home.”

William MacKenzie stared at her, a dumbfounded expression on his broad face. Clearly she had taxed the limits of his imagination.

And he had taxed the limits of her tolerance.

She turned to James MacKenzie, knowing that there, at least, there was a spark of intelligence she could rely on. “Mr. MacKenzie, might I b-beg upon your assistance? I had not written ahead of the timing of my visit. I had hoped to surprise Caroline, you see.”

The younger MacKenzie chuckled. “I’d be happy take you to Cameron’s house.” He gestured her forward but wisely made no move to relieve her of her bag. “And if a wee bit of surprise was your hope for the day, I’d say well done.” A crooked grin split his face. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen my brother rendered speechless before.”

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