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"Some best friend," Gemma Wentworth muttered between clenched teeth.
He'd left her? Here? In the wilds of Scotland, a little over half-way along the famous West Highland Way?
Gemma felt the impact of what he'd done fully smack into her. She stared at the young Irish couple who'd delivered his message.
"Are you certain?" she asked faintly. Her stomach gave a sickening little pitch. "You saw him leave?"
The girl nodded sympathetically. "We did. He climbed right into the lorry and took off, he did."
Butbut she'd only gone to the bathroom, Gemma thought, her mind gauzy with shock. She turned toward the little store, then scanned the parking lot and surrounding area just to make sure that Jeffreyher oldest and dearest friendwasn't going to magically appear.
"He said to give you this," the guy chimed in, handing her Jeffrey's backpack. It felt lighter, meaning he'd taken his clothes and pounds of grooming products. Her friend was more particular about his appearance than she was, the great jerk. "Said he wouldn't need it anymore and that he was sorry," the young man finished, evidently finding the message and the words distasteful.
Sorry? Anger bullied the initial shock aside as she considered what he'd done to her. Sorry? She gave a grim laugh. Oh, he'd be sorry all right. What sort of friend abandoned another so-called best friend without so much as a goodbye in the middle of a foreign country? One entirely too sure of her devotion, obviously. One who was certain he'd be forgiven. One who had met an attractive Scot ten miles back and, given the choice between her company and that of a handsome stranger, chose the latter. Argh!
In retrospect, she should have predicted this. After all, hadn't Jeffrey disappeared at many a ball game and party over the years? Particularly when the possibility of romance had presented itself? She whimpered low under her breath. Still, the coward should have had the nerve to tell her he was leaving, not just disappear and leave it to this couple.
"You're welcome to walk with us," the girl offered with a pitying smile that confirmed she was under the mistaken impression that Jeffrey had been Gemma's boyfriend. They were often mistaken for lovers, but aside from the fact that she'd never felt romantically interested in him, Gemma lacked something Jeffrey needed in a partnera penis. The girl looked up at her companion. "Isn't that right, Willem?"
Red-headed, gangly and freckled, Willem nodded. "Spot on, Jenny. It's better to be with a group than off on your own," he said.
"You are going to continue, aren't you?" Jenny asked anxiously, as though the thought had just occurred to her. "You've come so far. It'd be a shame to quit now."
That was true, Gemma knew. Still The West Highland Way was a ninety-five mile hike that began in Miln-gavie and ultimately concluded at Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. Both her grandmother and mother had made the walk. It had been a rite of passage, so to speak, for the Wentworth women, who were of Scottish descent. While everyone had their own reasons for treading the path, according to her mother, Wentworth women had never failed to find clarity and peace on it, a sense of their higher purpose. They insisted that, for whatever reason, walking this trail had some sort of mystical way of putting their feet on their life's proper path.
Truthfully, Gemma didn't know if she bought into the hocus-pocus aspect of itshe was definitely dissatisfied with her life at the presentbut she'd felt compelled to make the journey all the same, had felt this bizarre need to do as the Wentworth women before her. Though she would admit to feeling a strange sense of homecoming upon landing in Scotland, a loosening in her chest as it were, she was still no closer to discovering what it was that was going to make her life worthwhile, a credit to the world.
She grimaced. But she did know that her position at the bank, where she worked as a loan officer, wasn't doing it for her and if she didn't make a change soon the right oneshe was going to suffocate under her own skin.
Initially Gemma had imagined that she would have rather traveled the country in a car or luxury coach, but she had to admit she was happier making the actual walk. There was something about knowing that her feet were walking the same ground as her mother and grandmother, that they were seeing the same thingsalbeit generations apartand that, while the actual journey was the same, their experiences were wholly unique. She'd met a host of interesting people, all of them of the same mind with the same ultimate goalreaching the end of the journeyand the breathtaking views of moors and lochs were something she knew she'd never forget.
Though there were several people who were camping along the wayin designated areas, of coursemost were like her, looking for an open room at a bed and breakfast or hostel. It was nothing to pass someone at one juncture of the journey and later have them pass you, sling-shotting across each other's path over and over again. That's what had happened with Willem and Jenny, which was probably why Jeffrey had entrusted them with his message and pack. The traitor, she thought again. She still couldn't believe that he'd actually left her. That he'd bailed in such a cowardly fashion, gallingly, via proxy.
They'd also been crossing paths with a beautiful, bold Scotsman she wished she hadn't noticed. Ewan MacKinnon had first caught her attention on day one from the corner of her eye and her heart had given a strange sort of jolt. Before she could get him properly in her sights, he'd vanished behind a small crowd of people, leaving her curiously dejected, as though she'd had a present snatched out of her hands. By the end of day two she'd been covertly watching for him with a keen sort of unprecedented anticipation, she'd been gratified to catch him watching her. Jeffrey's gimlet eyes hadn't missed it, either, and he had tried to get her to act on her obviously mutual interest.
An incurable romantic, Jeffrey had cited the once in a lifetime opportunity to "bag a Scottish hottie" and had reminded her entirely too helpfully about her nonexistent sex life. She and her last boyfriend had parted ways eight months agooddly enough, she didn't like sharing and fidelity turned out to be beyond Andrew's graspand, despite Jeffrey's insistence that she needed a little orgasm therapy, she simply hadn't been in the mood.
She'd been having fantasies about Ewan, dreaming of him at night and daydreaming about him come the dawn. Wicked, depraved scenarios which had involved lots of heavy breathing and copious amounts of clotted cream. It was insane and yet completely undeniable. Her belly clenched, remembering, and she felt heat sizzle over the tips of her breasts. The need was secondary to the strange expectation she felt, though, this bizarre sense of destiny all tangled up with the desire.
Neither of which she had time for, especially now.
With effort, she pushed his distracting image aside and told herself to focus. She'd just been abandoned by her best friend, quite unceremoniously, on foreign soil. She grimaced.
Clearly she had bigger issues.
A quick inspection revealed that Jeffrey had left her a first-aid kit, a package of granola and quite a bit of cash. Guilt money, she thought, but it would spend just as easily and now that she'd be footing the bill for her room by herself she was going to need it.
No doubt he'd be seeing Scotland the way he'd wanted to see it to start within grand style, touring all the places she'd like to see as well. Rosslyn Chapel and the Royal Mile, Sterling Castle, Culloden Battlefield, Loch Ness. Though she hadn't had a chance to talk to him about it, she'd planned on asking him about changing their return tickets and spending another week in the country. It seemed a shame to leave when there was still so much she wished to do. And curiously, the idea of going back to Jackson, Mississippieven to the quaint little farmhouse she called homefilled her with varying degrees of dread and panic.
Regardless of anything, she refused to become Wil-lem and Jenny's third wheel. Though she and Jeffrey had started on the trail early in the week, planning ahead so that the end of their walk would fall on the more congested weekend, there were still plenty of people along the way. Sticking strictly to the path, she would be safe. Or as safe as she could be, at any rate.
Perhaps this was for the best, Gemma told herself. Neither her mother nor her grandmother had taken a friend along when they'd made their walk. Maybe this was a journey she was meant to make on her own. Her gaze took in the beautiful, lush green landscapethe shaggy highland cows in the field across the street, the enormous rhododendronsthey were more like trees here than the decorative shrub variety she was used to seeing at home, the lovely thistles bobbing in the breezeand a little sigh slipped past her lips.
Determined to think of the glass as half full, she couldn't imagine a better setting.
No doubt about it, Ewan decided. The animated hand-talking American guy had left her. Gemmahe'd overheard her tell someone in that lilting southern drawl. Something about her name conjured a soft warming in his chest. Caused a bizarre shift that made the balls of his feet tingle and his heart race. Ridiculous.
He muttered a few choice expletives under his breath and passed a hand over his face. This was not his concern. She was not his concern. He shouldn't care that her happy-go-lucky boyfriend had abandoned her and yet
He couldn't seem to overtake her, had purposely hung back so that he could make sure she was okay. His lips curled. Which sounded chivalrous, until one considered he'd been ogling her ass for the past six miles.
And intermittently and hungrily over the first forty they'd traversed.
There was nothing bloody noble in the way his dick had been straining against his drawers, that was for damned sure. Over a plump-reared American female whose laugh made his pulse leap. It boggled the mind.
He'd first noticed her when they'd left Milngavie, just a fleeting glance as she blended in with the initial crowd, but there'd been something significant, for lack of a better explanation, about that small glimpse that had stuck with him and made him purposely continue to seek her out despite the fact that she was obviously attached.
But not too attached, he thought, smiling. Because inasmuch as he seemed to be insanely fascinated and attracted to her, she appeared to be equally affected by him. Bad form since she clearly wasn't alone, but gratifying all the same. Hell, who didn't want to be irresistible?
Nevertheless Ewan was supposed to be taking this opportunity to figure out just exactly what it was he wanted to do with the rest of his life. This journey was supposed to be about inner reflection, getting away from the noisethe expectations of his familyand simply discover what his true path was meant be. He'd jumped around from job to job within MacKinnon Holdings, his family's business, and hadn't been even marginally satisfied with any of them. Sales, marketing, web innovation they'd all left him feeling bored and unfulfilled. He needed to be moving, to be making a difference on a larger, global scale. To make matters worse, his father had made no bones about the fact that he was ready to retire and, as the oldest, Ewan was certain his father wanted him to step in and fill his shoes.
The mere idea made him physically ill.
Holed up in an office all day, wearing a suit and tie to work, making decisions which would impact the family's bottom line and the ultimate income of hundreds of people, decisions that, despite having a business degree, he felt no confidence in making.
At least he was in good company, Ewan thought, because none of his younger brothers wanted to take over for their father, either. In fact, his little sister was the only one who'd ever been interested in the workings of the family company and certainly had a better grasp of it than any of the rest of them did. Surely their father would see sense soon and realize that putting Genevieve in charge would be best for all of them.
It was disconcerting that this journey was more than half through and he still didn't have a bloody clue what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. The only thing he could confidently say he wanted to do was her. He chuckled low, pulled his water bottle from his side and took a healthy drink. Gemma trudged on ahead of him, her shapely rear making those horrid cargo pants she wore look impossibly sexy. He could tell she was tiring. She'd slowed a bit and paused every once in a while to stretch and gaze at the scenery. He wasn't fooled, of course. She needed the break.
Though he hadn't spoken a word to her, he'd be willing to bet that she'd never attempted a hike of this sort, or any other, for that matter. Her boots were newno doubt her feet were killing herand he'd glimpsed the top of a plain cotton tube sock when she'd paused to retie her shoe. Tube socks? Seriously? He'd thought, smiling. Newbies always underestimated the value of a good sock. He'd paid fourteen pounds for the pair he was wearing and didn't regret a single cent of it.
Self-preservation told him that he needed to avoid her, that her misfortune didn't mean he had to be her hero. He didn't have time to be anyone's hero, reluctant or otherwise. Just because she was an inexperienced hiker alone in a foreign country didn't make her helpless. After all, she'd pressed on when her boyfriend had left, right? Definitely ballsy. But could determination, irritation and stubbornness get her up Devil's Staircase and down into Fort William? Unharmed? Shit.
They were nearing Crianlarich and he fully expected her to find lodging there. He had planned to do the same thing, but had hoped to have enough daylight to press on to the other side of town before stopping to get a jump on the next day's hike.
He'd lagged behind her instead and now that was no longer an option. Because he'd abandoned any semblance of objectivity or good sense, Ewan knew he would "conveniently" find lodging where ever she stayed and would continue to "conveniently" mother duck her along the rest of the journey, following behind to make sure that she didn't come to any harm.
And, of course, he would stare at her ass. His lips quirked.
One had to find perks where one could, after all.