Eight years later
It was a beautiful day to find a new home. And a new roommate.
I stepped out of the damp, old stairwell of my Georgian apartment building into a stunningly hot day in Edinburgh. I glanced down at the cute white-and-green-striped denim shorts I’d purchased a few weeks ago from Topshop. It had been raining nonstop since then, and I’d despaired of ever getting to wear them. But the sun was out, peeking over the top of the cornered tower of the Bruntsfield Evangelical Church, burning away my melancholy and giving me back a little bit of hope. For someone who had packed up her entire life in the US and taken off for her motherland when she was only eighteen years old, I wasn’t really good with change. Not anymore, anyway. I’d gotten used to my huge apartment with its never-ending mice problem. I missed my best friend, Rhian, whom I’d lived with since freshman year at the University of Edinburgh. We’d met in the dorms and hit it off. We were both very private people and were comfortable around each other for the mere fact that we never pushed each other to talk about the past. We’d stuck pretty close freshman year and decided to get an apartment (or “flat” as Rhian called it) in second year. Now that we were graduates, Rhian had left for London to start her PhD and I was left roommateless. The icing on the cake was the loss of my other closest friend, James, Rhian’s boyfriend. He’d run off to London (a place he detested, I might add) to be with her. And the cherry on top? My landlord was getting a divorce and needed the apartment back.
I’d spent the last two weeks answering ads from young women looking for a female roommate. It had been a bust so far. One girl didn’t want to room with an American. Cue my What the fuck? face. Three of the apartments were just . . . nasty. I’m pretty sure one girl was a crack dealer, and the last girl’s apartment sounded like it got more use than a brothel. I was really hoping my appointment today with Ellie Carmichael was going to go my way. It was the most expensive apartment I’d scheduled to see, and it was on the other side of the city center.
I was frugal when it came to my inheritance, as if as if spending as little of it as possible would somehow lessen the bitterness of my “good” fortune. But I was getting desperate.
If I wanted to be a writer, I needed the right apartment and the right roommate.
Living alone was an option, of course. I could afford it. However, the God’s honest truth was that I didn’t like the idea of complete solitude. Despite my tendency to keep eighty percent of myself to myself, I liked being surrounded by people. When they talked to me about things I didn’t understand personally, it allowed me to see things from their point of view, and I believed all the best writers needed a wide-open scope of perspective. Despite not needing to, I worked at a bar on George Street on Thursday and Friday nights. The old cliché was true: Bartenders overhear all the best stories.
I was friends with two of my colleagues, Jo and Craig, but we only really hung out when we were working. If I wanted a little life around me, I needed to get a roommate. On the plus side, this apartment was mere streets away from my job.
As I tried to shove down the anxiety of finding a new place, I kept my eye open for a cab with its light on. I eyed the ice cream parlor, wishing I had time to stop in and indulge, and almost missed the cab coming toward me on the opposite side of the street. Throwing my hand out and checking my side for traffic, I was gratified that the driver had seen me and pulled up to the curb. I tore across the wide road, managing not to get squashed like a green and white bug against some poor person’s windshield, and rushed toward the cab with a single-minded determination to grab the door handle.
Instead of the door handle, I grabbed a hand.
Bemused, I followed the tan masculine hand up a long arm to broad shoulders and a face obscured by the sun beaming down behind his head. Tall, over six feet, the guy towered above me. I was a smallish five foot five.
Wondering why this guy had his hand on my cab, I took in his expensive suit, wondering why this guy had his hand on my cab.
A sigh escaped from his shadowed face. “Which way are you headed?” he asked me in a rumbling, gravelly voice. Four years I’d been living here and still a smooth Scots accent could send a shiver down my spine. And his definitely did, despite the terse question.
“Dublin Street,” I answered automatically, hoping I had a longer distance to travel so that he’d give me the cab.
“Good.” He pulled the door open. “I’m heading in that direction, and since I’m already running late, might I suggest we share the taxi instead of wasting ten minutes deciding who needs it more.”
A warm hand touched my lower back and pressed me gently forward. Dazed, I somehow let myself be manhandled into the cab, sliding across the seat and buckling up as I silently questioned whether I’d nodded my agreement to this. I didn’t think I had.
Hearing the Suit clip out Dublin Street as the destination to the cab driver, I frowned and muttered, “Thanks. I guess.”
“You’re an American?”
At the soft question, I finally looked over at the passenger beside me. Oh, okay.
Perhaps in his late twenties or early thirties, the Suit wasn’t classically handsome, but there was a twinkle in his eyes and a curl to the corner of his sensual mouth that, together with the rest of the package, oozed sex appeal. I could tell from the lines of the extremely well-tailored expensive silver-gray suit that he wore, that he worked out. He sat with the ease of a fit guy, his stomach iron flat under the waistcoat and white shirt. His pale-blue eyes seemed bemused beneath their long lashes, and for the life of me I couldn’t get over the fact that he had dark hair.
I preferred blonds. Always had.
Yet none of them had ever made my lower belly squeeze with lust at first sight. A strong, masculine face stared into mine—sharp jawline, a cleft chin, wide cheekbones, and a Roman nose. Dark stubble shadowed his cheeks, and his hair was kind of messy. Altogether, his rugged unkemptness seemed at odds with the stylish designer suit.
The Suit raised an eyebrow at my blatant perusal and the lust I was feeling quadrupled, taking me completely by surprise. I never felt instant attraction to men. And since my wild years as a teen, I hadn’t even contemplated taking a guy up on a sexual offer.
Although, I’m not sure I could walk away from an offer from him.
As soon as the thought flashed through my head I stiffened, surprised and unnerved. My defenses immediately rose, and I cleared my expression into blank politeness.
”Yeah, I’m American,” I answered, finally remembering the Suit had asked me a question. I looked away from his knowing smirk, pretending boredom and thanking the heavens that my olive skin kept the blushing internal.
“Just visiting?” he murmured.
As irritated as I was by my reaction to the Suit, I decided the less conversation between us the better. Who knew what idiotic thing I might do or say? “Nope.”
“Then you’re a student.”
I took issue with the tone. Then you’re a student. It was said with a metaphorical eye-roll. Like students were bottom-feeding bums with no real purpose in life. I snapped my head around to give him a scathing set-down, only to catch him eyeing my legs with interest. This time, I raised my eyebrow at him and waited for him to unglue those gorgeous eyes of his from my bare skin. Sensing my gaze, the Suit looked up at my face and noted my expression. I expected him to pretend he hadn’t been ogling me or to look quickly away or something. I didn’t expect him to just shrug and then offer me the slowest, wickedest, sexiest smile that had ever been bestowed upon me.
I rolled me eyes, fighting the flush of heat between my legs. “I was a student,” I answered, with just a touch of snark. “I live here. Dual citizenship.” Why was I explaining myself?
“You’re part Scottish?”
I barely nodded, secretly loving the way he said “Scottish” with his hard “t”s.
“What do you do now that you’ve graduated?”
Why did he want to know? I shot him a look out of the corner of my eye. The cost of the three-piece suit he was wearing could have fed me and Rhian on crappy student food for our entire four years of college. “What do you do? I mean, when you’re not manhandling women into cabs?”
His small smirk was his only reaction to my jibe. “What do you think I do?”
“I’m thinking lawyer. Answering questions with questions, manhandling, smirking . . .”
He laughed a rich, deep laugh that vibrated through my chest. His eyes glittered at me. “I’m not a lawyer. But you could be. I seem to recall a question answered with a question. And that”—he gestured to my mouth, his eyes turning a shade darker as they visually caressed the curve of my lips—“that’s a definite smirk.” His voice had grown huskier.
My pulse took off as our eyes locked, our gazes holding for far longer than two polite strangers’ should. My cheeks felt warm . . . as did other places. I was growing more and more turned on by him and the silent conversation between our bodies. When my nipples tightened beneath my T-shirt bra, I was shocked enough to be plunged back into reality. Pulling my eyes from his, I glanced out at the passing traffic and prayed for this cab ride to be over yesterday.
As we approached Princes Street and another diversion caused by the tram project the council was heading up, I began to wonder if I was going to escape the cab without having to talk to him again.
“Are you shy?” the Suit asked, blowing my hopes to smithereens.
I couldn’t help it. His question made me turn to him with a confused smile. “Excuse me?”
He tilted his head, peering down at me through the narrowed slits of his eyes. He looked like a lazy tiger, eyeing me carefully as if deciding whether or not I was a meal worth chasing. I shivered as he repeated, “Are you shy?”
Was I shy? No. Not shy. Just usually blissfully indifferent. I liked it that way. It was safer. “Why would you think that?” I didn’t give off shy vibes, right? I grimaced at the thought.
The Suit shrugged again. “Most women would be taking advantage of my imprisonment in the taxi with them—chew my ear off, shove their phone number in my face . . . as well as other things.” His eyes flicked down to my chest before quickly returning to my face. The blood beneath my cheeks felt hot. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had managed to embarrass me. Unaccustomed to feeling intimidated, I attempted to mentally shrug it off.
Amazed by his overconfidence, I grinned at him, surprised by the pleasure that rippled over me when his eyes widened slightly at the sight of my smile. “Wow, you really think a lot of yourself.”
He grinned back at me, his teeth white but imperfect, and his crooked smile sent an unfamiliar shot of feeling across my chest. “I’m just speaking from experience.”
“Well, I’m not the kind of girl who hands out her number to a guy she just met.”
“Ahh.” He nodded as if coming to some kind of realization about me, his smile slipping, his features seeming to tighten and close off from me. “You’re a no-sex-until-the-third-date, marriage-and-babies kind of woman.”
I made a face at his snap judgment. “No, no, and no.” Marriage and babies? I shuddered at the thought, the fears that rode my shoulders day in and day out slipping around to squeeze my chest too tight.
The Suit looked back at me now, and whatever he had caught in my face made him relax. “Interesting,” he murmured.
No. Not interesting. I didn’t want to be interesting to this guy. “I’m not giving you my number.”
He grinned again. “I didn’t ask for it. And even if I wanted it, I wouldn’t ask for it. I have a girlfriend.”
I ignored the disappointed flip of my stomach—and apparently the filter between my brain and my mouth. “Then stop looking at me like that.”
The Suit seemed amused. “I have a girlfriend, but I’m not blind. Just because I can’t do anything doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to look.”
I was not excited by this guy’s attention. I am a strong, independent woman. Glancing out the window, I noted with relief that we were at Queen Street Gardens. Dublin Street was right around the corner.
“Here’s good, thanks,” I called to the cab.
“Whereabouts?” the cab driver called back to me.
“Here,” I replied a little more sharply than I meant to. I breathed a sigh of relief when the cab driver’s turn signal started ticking and the car pulled over to a stop. Without another look or word to the Suit, I handed the driver some money and slid a hand along the door handle.
I froze and shot the Suit a wary look over my shoulder. “What?”
“Do you have a name?”
I smiled, feeling relief now that I was getting away from him and the bizarre attraction between us. “Actually, I have two.”
I jumped out of the cab, ignoring the traitorous thrill of pleasure that cascaded over me at the sound of his answering chuckle.
As soon as the door swung open and I first saw Ellie Carmichael, I knew I was probably going to like her. The tall blonde was wearing a trendy playsuit, a blue trilby, a monocle, and a fake mustache.
She blinked at me with wide, pale-blue eyes.
Bemused, I had to ask, “Is this . . . a bad time?”
Ellie stared at me a moment as if confused by my very reasonable question considering her outfit. As if it suddenly occurred to her that she was in possession of a fake mustache, she pointed at it. “You’re early. I was tidying up.”
Tidying up a trilby, monocle, and a mustache? I glanced behind her into a bright, airy reception hall. A bike with no front wheel was propped against the far wall; photographs and an assortment of post cards and other random clippings were attached to a board braced against a walnut cabinet. Two pairs of boots and a pair of black pumps were scattered haphazardly under a row of pegs overflowing with jackets and coats. The floors were hardwood.
Very nice. I looked back at Ellie with a huge grin on my face, feeling good about the entire situation. “Are you on the run from the mafia?”
“Oh.” She laughed and stepped back from the door, gesturing me into the apartment. “No, no. I had friends over last night, and we had a little bit too much to drink. All my old Halloween costumes were dragged out.”
I smiled again. That sounded fun. I missed Rhian and James.
“You’re Jocelyn, right?”
“Yeah. Joss,” I corrected her. I hadn’t been Jocelyn since before my parents died.
“Joss,” she repeated, grinning at me as I took my first steps inside the ground-floor apartment. It smelled great—fresh and clean.
Like the apartment I was leaving, this one was also Georgian, except it had once been an entire town house. Now it was split into two apartments. Well, actually, next door was a boutique, and the rooms above us belonged to it. I didn’t know about the rooms, but the boutique itself was very nice, with handmade, one-of-a-kind clothes. This apartment . . .
The walls were so smooth, I knew they had to have been plastered recently, and whoever had restored the place had done wonders. It had tall baseboards and thick coving to compliment the period property. The ceilings went on forever, as they did in my old apartment. The walls were a cool white, but were broken up by colorful and eclectic pieces of art. The white should have been harsh, but the contrast of it against the dark walnut doors and hardwood flooring gave the apartment an air of simple elegance.
I was in love already, and I hadn’t even seen the rest of the place.
Ellie hurriedly took off the hat and mustache, spinning around to say something to me, only to stop and grin sheepishly as she tore off the monocle she was still wearing. Shoving it aside on the walnut sideboard, she beamed brightly. She was a cheerful person. Usually I avoided cheerful people, but there was something about Ellie. She was kind of charming.
“I’ll give you a tour first, shall I?
Striding to the door on the left nearest me, Ellie pushed it open. “Bathroom. It’s in an unconventional place, I know, right near the front door, but it’s got everything you need.”
Uh . . . I’ll say, I thought, tentatively stepping inside.
My flip-flops echoed off the shiny cream tiles on the floor, tiles that covered every inch of the bathroom except for the ceiling, which was painted a buttery color and inset with warm spotlights.
The bathroom was huge.
Running my hand along the bath tub with its gold claw feet, I immediately envisioned myself in there: music playing, candles flickering, a glass of red wine in my hand as I soaked in the tub and numbed my mind to . . . everything. The tub sat in the center of the room. In the back righthand corner was a double shower stall with the biggest showerhead I’d ever seen. To my left was a modern glass bowl situated atop a white ceramic shelf. That was a sink?
I tabulated everything quickly in my head. Gold taps, huge mirror, heated towel rail . . .
The bathroom in my old apartment didn’t even have a towel rail.
“Wow.” I threw Ellie a smile over my shoulder. “This is gorgeous.”
Practically bouncing on the balls of her feet, Ellie nodded, her blue eyes smiling brightly at me. “I know. I don’t get to use it much because I have an en suite in my room. That’s a plus for my prospective roommate, though. They’ll get this room pretty much to themselves.”
Hmm, I mused at the lure of the bathroom. I was beginning to see why the rent on this place was so astronomical. If you had the money to live there, though, why would you leave?
As I followed Ellie across the hall and into the huge sitting room, I asked politely, “Did your roommate move away?” I made it sound like I was just curious, but really I was scoping Ellie out. If the apartment was this stunning, then maybe Ellie had been the problem. Before Ellie could answer, I stopped short, turning around slowly to take in the room. Like all these old buildings, the ceilings in each room were pretty high. The windows were tall and wide, so tons of light from the busy street outside spilled into the lovely room. On the center of the far wall was a huge fireplace, clearly used only as a feature and not for a real fire, but it pulled the casually chic room together. Sure, it’s a little more cluttered than I like, I thought, eyeing the piles of books that were scattered here and there along with silly little items . . . like a toy Buzz Lightyear.
I wasn’t even going to ask.
Eyeing Ellie, the cluttered room began to make sense. Her blond hair was pulled back in a messy bun, she was wearing mismatched flip flops, and there was a price sticker on her elbow.
“Roommate?” Ellie asked, turning around to meet my gaze. Before I could repeat the question, the furrow between her pale eyebrows cleared and she nodded, as if understanding. Good. It hadn’t been that hard a question. “Oh, no.” She shook her head. “I didn’t have a roommate. My brother bought this place as an investment and had it all done up. Then he decided he didn’t want me struggling to pay rent while I do my PhD, so he just gave it to me.”
Even though I didn’t comment, she must have seen the reaction in my eyes. Ellie grinned, a fond look softening her gaze. “Braden is a little over the top. A present from him is never simple. And how could I say no to this place? Only thing is, I’ve been living here for a month and it’s just too big and lonely, even with my friends hanging out here on the weekends. So I said to Braden that I was getting a roommate. He wasn’t keen on the idea, but I told him how much rent this place takes in and that changed his mind. Forever the businessman.”
I knew instinctually that Ellie loved her (obviously quite well-off) brother and that the two were close. It was there in her eyes when she talked about him, and I knew that look. I’d studied it over the years, facing it head on and developing a shield against the pain it brought me to see that kind of love on other people’s faces—other people who still had family in their lives.
“He sounds very generous,” I replied diplomatically, unused to people spilling their private feelings all over me when we’d only just met.
Ellie didn’t seem bothered by my response, which wasn’t exactly warm with tell me mores. She just kept smiling and led me out of the sitting room and down the hall into a long kitchen. It was kind of narrow, but the far end opened up into a semicircle where a dining table and chairs were arranged. The kitchen itself was as expensively finished as everywhere else in the apartment. All the appliances were top of the line and there was a huge modern range in the middle of the dark wood units.
“Very generous,” I repeated.
Ellie grunted at my observation. “Braden’s too generous. I didn’t need all this, but he insisted. He’s just like that. Take for instance his girlfriend—he indulges her in everything. I’m just waiting for him to get bored with her like he does with the rest of them, because she’s one of the worst he’s been with. It’s so obvious she’s more interested in his cash than in him. Even he knows it. He says the arrangement suits him. Arrangement? Who talks like that?”
Who talks this much?
I hid a smile as she showed me the master bedroom. Like Ellie, it was cluttered. She prattled on a little more about her brother’s obviously vapid girlfriend, and I wondered how this Braden guy would feel if he knew his sister was divulging his private life to a complete stranger.
“And this could be your room.”
We were standing in the doorway of a room at the very back of the apartment.A massive bay window with a window seat and jacquard floor-length curtains; gorgeous French Rococo bed, and a walnut library desk and leather chair. Somewhere for me to write.
I was in love.
I wanted to live there. To hell with the cost. To hell with a chatty roommate. I’d lived frugally for long enough. I was alone in a country I’d adopted. I deserved a little comfort.
I’d get used to Ellie. She talked a lot but was sweet and charming, and there was something innately kind in her eyes.
“Why don’t we have a cup of tea and see how we get on from there?” Ellie was grinning again.
Seconds later, I found myself alone in the sitting room as Ellie made tea in the kitchen. It suddenly occurred to me that it didn’t matter if I liked Ellie. Ellie had to like me if she was going to offer me that room. I felt worry gnaw at my gut. I wasn’t the most forthcoming person on the planet, and Ellie seemed like the most open. Maybe she wouldn’t “get” me.
“It’s been difficult,” Ellie announced upon her reentrance into the room. She was carrying a tray of tea and some snacks. “Finding a roommate, I mean. Very few people our age can afford somewhere like this.”
I had inherited a lot of money. “My family is well-off.”
“Oh?” She pushed a mug of hot tea toward me as well as a chocolate muffin.
I cleared my throat, my fingers trembling around the mug. Cold sweat had broken out across my skin and blood was rushing in my ears. That’s how I always reacted when I was on the verge of having to tell someone the truth. My parents and little sister died in a car accident when I was fourteen. The only other family I have is an uncle who lives in Australia. He didn’t want custody of me, so I lived in foster care. My parents had a lot of money. My dad’s grandfather was an oil man from Louisiana, and my father had been exceptionally careful with his own inheritance. It all went to me when I turned eighteen. My heart slowed and the trembling ceased as I remembered Ellie didn’t really need to know my tale of woe. “My family on my dad’s side originally came from Louisiana. My great-grandfather made a lot of money in oil.”
“Oh, how interesting.” She sounded sincere. “Did your family move from Louisiana?”
I nodded. “To Virginia. But my mom was originally from Scotland.”
“So you’re part Scottish. How cool.” She threw me a secret smile. “I’m only part Scottish as well. My mum is French, but her family moved to St. Andrews when she was five. Shockingly, I don’t even speak French.” Ellie snorted and waited on my expected commentary.
“Does your brother speak French?”
“Oh no.” Ellie waved my question off. “Braden and I are half siblings. We share the same dad. Our mums are both alive, but our dad died five years ago. He was a very well-known businessman. Have you heard of Douglas Carmichael and Co.? It’s one of the oldest estate agencies in the area. Dad took it over from his dad when he was really young and started up a property development company. He also owned a few restaurants and even a few of the tourist shops here. It’s a little mini-empire. When he died, Braden took it all on. Now it’s Braden everyone around here panders to—everyone trying to get a piece of him. And they all know how close we are, so they’ve tried using me, too.” Her pretty mouth twisted bitterly, an expression that seemed completely foreign to her face.
“I’m sorry.” I meant it. I understood what that was like. It was one of the reasons I had decided to leave Virginia behind and start over in Scotland.
As if sensing my utter sincerity, Ellie relaxed. I would never understand how someone could lay themselves out like that to a friend, never mind a stranger, but for once I wasn’t scared of Ellie’s openness. Yeah, it might cause her to expect me to reciprocate in the sharing, but once she got to know me, I’m sure she’d understand that wasn’t going to happen.
To my surprise, an extremely comfortable silence had fallen between us. As if just realizing that too, Ellie smiled softly at me. “What are you doing in Edinburgh?”
“I live here now. Dual citizenship. It feels more like home here.”
She liked that answer.
“Are you a student?”
I shook my head. “I just graduated. I work Thursday and Friday nights at Club 39 on George Street. But I’m really just trying to focus on my writing at the moment.”
Ellie seemed thrilled by my confession. “That’s brilliant! I’ve always wanted to be friends with a writer. And that’s so brave to go for what you really want. My brother thinks being a PhD student is a waste of my time because I could work for him, but I love it. I’m a tutor at the university as well. It’s just . . . well, it makes me happy. And I’m one of these awful people who can get away with doing what they enjoy even if it doesn’t pay much.” She grimaced. “That sounds terrible, doesn’t it?”
I wasn’t really the judging kind. “It’s your life, Ellie. You’ve been blessed financially. That doesn’t make you a terrible person.” I’d had a therapist in high school, and I could hear her nasally voice in my head: “Now why can’t you apply the same thought process to yourself, Joss. Accepting your inheritance doesn’t make you a terrible person. It’s what your parents wanted for you.”
From the ages of fourteen to eighteen, I’d lived with two foster families in my hometown in Virginia. Neither family had a lot of money, and I went from a big, fancy house and expensive food and clothes to eating a lot of SpaghettiO’s and sharing clothes with a younger foster “sister” who happened to be the same height. With the approach of my eighteenth year, and the public knowledge that I would be receiving a substantial inheritance, I’d been approached by a number of businesspeople in our town looking to take advantage of what they assumed was a naive kid and secure an investment, as well as a classmate who wanted me to invest in his Web site. I guess living how the other half lived during my formative years and then being sucked up to by fake people more interested in my deep pockets than in me were two of the reasons I was reluctant to touch the money I had.
Sitting there with Ellie, someone in a similar financial situation who was dealing with guilt (although a different kind), I felt a surprising connection to her.
“The room is yours,” Ellie suddenly announced.
Her abrupt bubbliness brought laughter to my lips. “Just like that?”
Seeming serious all of a sudden, Ellie nodded. “I have a good feeling about you.”
I have a good feeling about you, too. I gave her a relieved smile. “Then I’d love to move in.”