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The ghostly fog made Julia feel as though she had slipped into the primordial past. She couldn't believe she'd made it to the Highlands of Scotland where a castle beckoned, filled with secrets, intrigue, and hunky Scots-with any luck. Hopefully, none of them would learn why she was really here and put a stop to it.
Nothing would dampen her enthusiasm as she and her friend Maria Baquero headed for Baird Cottage, within hiking distance of Argent Castle-and the end of her writer's block.
At least, that was the plan.
After flight delays and missed luggage, they'd had trouble getting their rental car at Inverness Airport-following a mix-up when a Scotsman declared their car was his. Another man had creeped Julia out when she realized he was watching them, and she'd felt apprehensive at the way his thin lips hadn't hinted at a bit of friendliness. But then she dismissed him as she and Maria finally set off in late afternoon with Maria driving the rented Fiat into the deepening fog.
The laird of Argent Castle, Ian MacNeill, had been a royal pain to deal with concerning filming the movie at his castle. Luckily, as assistant director, only Maria had to do business with him. Pretending to be Maria's assistant, Julia was to watch from the sidelines and take notes. But not for the film production. For her breakout novel. Julia Wildthorn was one of the United States' most successful werewolf romance novelists and the only one, she was sure, who had ever suffered a writer's block like this one.
Dense fog obscured the curving road as it ran through rocky land on either side. Pine trees in the distance faded into the thickening soup, which offered glimpses of quaint dry-stone dykes that must have stood for centuries, snaking across the land and dividing someone's property from another's.
Despite Julia's enhanced wolf vision, she couldn't see any better than a human in the soup.
Eyes widening, she caught sight of something running in the woods. Something gray. Something that looked a lot like a wolf and then melted into the fog like a phantom.
Heartbeat ratchetting up several notches, she tried to catch another glimpse, her hand tightening on the door's armrest as she peered out the window, her nose almost touching the glass. "Did you see anything?" she asked Maria, her voice tight.
Maria gave her a disgruntled snort. "In this fog? I can barely see the road. What did you think you saw?"
"A... wolf." Julia strained to get another glimpse of what she'd seen. "But it couldn't have been. Wolves here were killed off centuries ago."
Off to Julia's left, the mist parted, revealing older aspen, the bark covered with dark lichen stretching upward, while tall, straight Scots pines and stands of willowy birch clustered close together in the distance. But no more signs of a wolf. Julia blinked her eyes. Maybe because she was so tired from the trip, her eyes were playing tricks on her.
Julia straightened and faced Maria. "Maybe it was a lupus garou, if I wasn't imagining it." She smiled at the thought. "A hunky Highland werewolf in a kilt."
She'd never considered she might run across a lupus garou in Scotland. Not as elusive as their kind were, hiding their secret from the rest of the world. Unless she bumped into one and could smell his or her scent, she wouldn't know a lupus garou from a strictly human type.
"Hmm, a Highland werewolf," Maria said thoughtfully, sliding her hands over the steering wheel, "although getting hold of a Spanish conquistador would be just as intriguing."
An Iberian werewolf whose ancestors had been turned by a wolfish conquistador, Maria was a beauty with dark brown hair and thick, long eyelashes.
Being a redhead with fair skin, Julia turned heads on her own, but the two of them together often stole the show.
Maria was still stewing about the laird who was in charge of Argent Castle. "Laird Ian MacNeill is being a real hard ass about the filming particulars-restricting our use of the castle and grounds, the times, the locations, and who knows what else when we arrive."
"Maybe he won't be so bad once the filming begins." Although Julia didn't believe that-and the sour look on Maria's face said she didn't, either. Julia pulled the laird's photo from her purse. Maria's boss had paid a private investigator good money to obtain the picture. "Exactly how did the guy get a picture of the laird like this if it's so difficult to catch a glimpse of him?"
"The P.I. followed him to a Celtic festival. The laird was surrounded by his men and a couple of women, so the detective snapped one shot right before the laird took part in a sword-fighting demonstration."
"The laird and his men. According to the P.I., the MacNeills had a real workout against the Sutherlands. Bad blood has existed between them for centuries. The fighting looked so real, he thought organizers of the show might step in and stop the demonstration."
In one word, Julia summed up Laird Ian MacNeill's appearance: dangerous.
It wasn't his handsome features-his short, very dark coffee-colored hair, the rich color of his eyes, the rigid planes of his face, and his aristocratic nose-that made him appear that way. Not his broad shoulders or firm stance or unsmiling mouth, either. It was his unerring gaze that seemed so piercingly astute, like he could see into a person's very soul.
That worried her.
In the photo, the man was prime hunk, wearing a predominantly green and blue kilt, an ermine sporran belted in front, and a sword sheathed behind him. From the looks of the hilt partially peeking over his shoulder, the sword served as a warning that he was armed and deadly, much more so than just his looks. He wore a shirt belted, hanging open to the waist, and revealing sexy abs a woman would love to caress. At least this woman would. Just as rugged, his castle sat in the background, formidable, commanding, and resilient.
She could just imagine him wielding that lethal sword against his enemy.
Maria shook her head. "He's arrogant, hard-nosed, too far above us, and on top of that, we're Americans and working-or at least he'll think you're working-with the film crew he so despises. So just remember that in case you're getting romantic notions from that picture of him. He's too wickedly sexy for his own good... or maybe I should say, for your own good."
Maria was probably right. Julia wanted to see the laird up close and personal for the sake of writing her manuscript, but she didn't want to hear the disparaging things he might say to her. That would ruin her image of him as the hero type. And if he looked at her the way he did in the picture, she feared he would see right through her.
Just then, they topped the hill and faced a sea of white, curly fur blocking their way. Maria gasped and slammed on the brakes. Julia's heart rapped a triple beat, and she grabbed the dashboard. Like a pastoral scene from an old-time painting, the mob of sheep was making its way to the other side of the rocky glen. Several sheared sheep-ewes, a curly horned ram, and lots of lambs-crossed the road, along with a sheepherder with a gnarled walking stick in hand and his collie.
Instantly, Julia thought about the wolf.
Once the sheep had passed, Maria started driving slower than before and cleared her throat.
"As soon as we drop off our carry-on luggage, I have to drive over to the estate for a meeting."
Harold Washburn, the producer of the film, and most of the staff were staying at a local mansion. Maria had insisted on leasing Baird Cottage, citing its closeness to the castle. In truth, it was to hide that she and Julia were lupus garous and that Julia wasn't truly working for Maria.
"At this rate, I'm not going to make it in time. I haven't seen a sign in a while, and... I thought we would have been there by now," Maria continued.
Julia strained to see into the distance, searching for another road sign, but the fog that had parted in places for her to glimpse the trees was again too thick to see a thing.
A shadow of gray bolted across the road. The wolf. A gray wolf.
Maria gasped and slammed on her brakes. Julia's mouth dropped open, but the squeal died in her throat as headlights reflected off her side mirror. The headlights barreled on top of them. It was too late.
Rubber and brakes squealed behind them. Heart pounding, Julia braced for the crash, the wolf forgotten.
Bang! The rental car flew off the road like an airborne mini-plane. Then it landed hard, tearing down the incline. Bouncing. Jolting. Teeth jarring. A white cloud filled Julia's vision and she gasped.
A shotgun blast! A horrible jolt. Another bang!
Before Julia could process what had happened, the white air bag deflated, and a snaking wall of rocks loomed before them only a couple of feet away in the fog.
"Hit the brakes!" Julia screamed.
As soon as he heard the explosions ahead, Ian MacNeill slowed his car and watched the road and the shoulders, looking for signs of a collision. Some poor fool must have been driving too slowly in the fog, while another had been driving too fast, hence the horrendous noise in the distance.
His youngest brother, Duncan-which being quadruplets meant only by minutes-peered out the passenger window.
"It had to be a car wreck," Duncan said, his tone concerned.
"Aye." Ian watched for lights that might indicate vehicles ahead. Their wolf hearing was so enhanced that the sounds made could have been some kilometers distant.
"I don't see anything, Ian. Not a thing. No tire skids, no broken glass. But the explosive sounds were loud enough that the vehicles had to have damage."
Unease scraping down his spine, Ian agreed.
Duncan leaned against the passenger door and then motioned toward the incline. "Taillights in the fog, down there."
"And scraps of red metal from a vehicle up here," Ian said as his headlights glinted off pieces of metal and part of a taillight reflector.
He pulled off onto the soft shoulder, turned off the ignition, and exited the vehicle. With Duncan at his side, he hurried down the incline toward the cherry-colored fog.
"Hello, anybody hurt?" Ian called out, his dark voice traveling over the glen. He took a breath and swore he smelled a hint of the acrid odor of gunfire.
No one answered his call, and another trace of unease wormed its way into his blood. Then he heard a moan. A woman's moan.
"Hell, probably a woman driving way too slow and got hit," Duncan growled, quickening his run.
Duncan should know since he'd smashed into the rear bumper of a woman's car just the month before for the same reason. Ian hoped to hell no one had life-threatening injuries.
The odor of burning tires, scraped raw metal, and refrigerant gas leaking from the car's air-conditioning system drifted to them. Then smoke.
"Smoke," Duncan said, racing to the car.
"Hello!" Ian called out again as they scrambled to reach the vehicle smashed into the dry dyke, the front bumper looking like an accordion, the red metal crumpled against the windshield. Glass everywhere sparkled like diamond shards on the ground. The windshield was shattered, and the driver's side window, a spider web of cracks. White sheets of material covered the shattered dash-deflated air bags.
The two rear tires had blown out, and the rear bumper was smashed and the metal torn from its moorings, one end now touching the ground. But Ian didn't see telltale signs of another vehicle's paint on this one. Yet after considering the rear bumper, he assumed someone had to have hit the car hard.
Ian reached the driver's door first, but the frame was so badly bent that the door wouldn't budge. He peered in through the window as Duncan reached him. No one inside the vehicle. He glanced around, raised his nose, and smelled... petrol, hot and burning.
"Duncan!" Ian grabbed his brother's arm and yanked him away from the car.
Boom! The forceful explosion threw them several meters away, heat singeing their eyebrows and zapping the moisture out of the cool, wet air. His ears ringing, hearing deadened, eyes and nostrils filled with smoke, Ian lay still in the grass, dazed. Then he jerked to a sitting position and looked for his brother.
Duncan was sitting nearby, shaking his head as if clearing the fog from it. "Hell. The driver had better sense than we did." His black clothes were now covered in gray soot and splotches of brown mud.
Ian agreed. "The car had a couple of small suitcases-someone on holiday."
"A lass from the looks of it," Duncan added.
"Aye, one of the suitcases was pink, and I glimpsed a handbag sitting on the center console."
They both watched as orange flames consumed the car. No worry of anything else catching fire, as damp as it was. The rains that morning had turned everything to mud, which Ian's light khaki-colored trousers were now soaking up. Ian stood and wiped the mud off his hands and onto his trousers. "You okay?"
"Aye. Can't hear anything worth a damn. Your voice sounds a million kilometers away. And my head is splitting."
"Same here. Come on. Let's find the woman. She's probably in better shape than we are." Ian cast Duncan a dark smile. "You look like hell, brother."
Duncan snorted. "You don't look much better."
Ian slapped him on the back, and the two made a wide circle around the car, looking for any indication of where the driver would have gone. Heel marks. Not one, but two sets of prints. "Two," Ian said, pointing to the tracks. "Lassies, both of them."
"Do you smell something?" Duncan asked.
"If you mean burning rubber, petrol, smoke, hot metal, and mud, aye. Was there something else you smelled then? A woman's perfume, maybe?"
Duncan tilted his head up, took another deep breath, and then coughed. "Let's move away from the fire. I can't smell anything but smoke. But I thought..." He shook his head.
Ian moved away from the burning car, but something in Duncan's voice made him take another long look at his brother. Duncan was frowning, concentrating, and sampling the air, trying to locate the women.
"Blood?" Ian asked, thinking maybe Duncan had smelled an injury and was concerned about it. The smoke and burning petrol were wreaking havoc with his own sense of smell now.
"Aye, well, that and..." Duncan looked at him with an odd expression. "...the faint scent of wolf."