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Kristin Hart heard the soft burr of a Scottish accent, and something inside her sang.
She crept closer to the edge of the open door and listened. A man spoke on the telephone. He was obviously not from around here. What was he doing in her small-town Vermont factory? And why was he in her boss's office?
" I cannot I'm sorry you did not.." The man pronounced "cannot" like "canna" and "you" like "ye."
Kristin missed most of the other words he said. But the man with the deep, rolling voice was Scottishthat was no mistake.
Her spirits brightened. For as long as she remembered, she'd wanted to travel and visit the country of her grandmother's birth, the land of castles and Highlanders.
Take me away, she thought.
Kristin rubbed her arms and stared down the corridor, lined with boxes and the remnants of their labeling-machine going haywire.
Outside, it was a gray, late-January morning, threatening snow, and inside, the cold factory was dimly lit and quiet.
Besides her, there was only a skeleton shift: three hourly workers and Kristin. As production engineer she was supervising an emergency crew while they manually affixed labels to shipments that were already several days late. Kristin had opened the doors early that morning and let everyone in with a key not usually entrusted to her, since her plant was rarely open on the weekend.
At least her makeshift team was assembled from volunteers who wanted the overtime. Kristin was a salaried employee, and she had lost her day off. Like living in the movie The Breakfast Club, stuck in detention, Kristin had been ordered into the building on a Saturday. But she was determined to make the best of it and find the silver lining somewhere. The factory floor smelled great: like the jars of the honey body cream they labeled. The people she worked with were kind, too. Unlike Andrew, the plant manager, none of them gave her trouble.
Everything had been sailing along just fine, until she'd headed to the break room to grab a hot chocolate for Mindy from the managerial staff's coffee machine, and she'd been sidetracked by the Scottish accent.
Now her feet seemed rooted to the wooden floor. She couldn't see the man with the deep, sexy Scottish burr, but she heard him from her spot in the corridor.
"Goodbye, love, I have to go now."
Kristin closed her eyes and sighed. Her imagination could very well conjure up a big, burly, kilted Highlander saying that to her.
Not forever, of course, just for well, an afternoon would be great. With no worries or fears. Just enough fun to satisfy a sense of adventure that had felt squashed in Kristin latelyfor far too long, actually.
Kristin sighed again. She wasn't delusional. Her kilted Scottish Highlander was a fantasy. A nice fantasy, but a fantasy was all he was.
Oh, but that accent
Daydreaming will give you only trouble, she chided herself. Move on. Go back to your crew in the factory . She shook her head. No, she had to do something. The Scotsman was inside Andrew's office. Her big boss. The manager in charge of the plant.
The guy who was very unhappy with her at the moment.
Kristin chewed on her thumbnail. Andrew's door had been locked when she'd walked past an hour earlier. He was hypervigilant about keeping everyone out of his space. And now it was silent on the other side of the open door.
If Andrew found out that she'd been aware of an intruder inside the building and had done nothing about it
Kristin rubbed her arms over her coat sleeves. Her throat seemed to close with fear.
Drawing in her breath, she grabbed her heavy metal flashlight from inside her coat pocket and then shrugged the garment off so that her arms were free in case she needed to defend herself. For a moment she thought of calling to Jeff on the plant floor as a backup, but Jeff was seventy-two years old, and he had diabetes and a bad hip.
Be careful. Be smart.
She grabbed her cell phone from the other pocket of her winter-wool coatat least she had 9-1-1 on speed-dialand then crept to the edge of the door.
He sat right out in the open as if he belonged there, though at present, his back was to her.
He had short hair: dark brown, almost black. He wore a hunter-green collared dress shirt with the sleeves pushed to his elbows, as if settled in to work. He'd tossed a black coat over the desk chair, and by standing on tiptoe and adjusting the angle of her gaze, she could see that he wore a tie.
Nobody wore a tie at Aura Botanicals. Even the CEO, Jay Astley, showed up in jeans, T-shirt and Birkenstocks, like the hippie he'd once beenat least until his passion for bees, coupled with his late wife's passion for making body products from the resulting organic honey, had resulted in Aura Botanicals. "Aura," derived from his wife's name, minus the L. God, Kristin missed her.
Now that she thought of it, Laura's death had marked the start of Andrew's campaign against her.
Andrew was the one person who made coming in to work upsetting for Kristin. Just last week, a friend of his from one of their suppliers had joined a group of them for lunch. The friend had returned from a cross-country trip, and Kristin had been interested in seeing his photos, imagining herself taking the same drive and living vicariously through him. But Andrew had sneered at her in front of everyone.
"I'm tired of you being distracted and lacking commitment," he'd said. She'd been mortified. But his lack of faith in her hadn't stopped there. From her own supervisor, Kristin had learned that Andrew often told his other managers she wasn't serious enough. "A liability," he called her.
Sometimes after a rough day of Andrew's opinions, Kristin went home and cried. She tried her best to prove herself in her job through hard work, but beyond that, what could she do? She stayed at Aura Botanicals because there were so many other reasons why this company was the best place for her, and she knew she shouldn't let the small "bads" outweigh the more important "goods."
If she did go inside and confront the stranger in Andrew's office, she'd need to be careful. Maybe the man was in the office with Andrew's permission. That was the most likely scenario. So she needed to be circumspect in how she dealt with him. And no curious questions about his accent.
She was standing there, still weighing her options, when the door swung open. The big, dark-haired Scotsman strode out, down the hall away from her to the end of the corridor and into the smallest office, shoved into the corner like an afterthought. Her office. Her private space.
Shock flooded her. Without thinking, she walked quickly after him.
And then the Scot, who was trespassing in her office, reached over and turned on the portable electric heater. Her heater, that she'd brought from home.
"Hey!" She gasped in protest. "This is my space."
He swiveled in her desk chair, caught off guard. "Jay-sus!" he said, when he saw her standing before him.
She froze, clutching the flashlight and her phone. His brows drew down, and his lips settled into a thin line of disapproval.
She stepped back. With the exception of Andrew, she wasn't used to anyone being so outwardly angry at her. Aura was peopled mainly by gentle types: laconic Ver-monters. Like her goofy supervisor, Dirk, who really should be here at the plant with her instead of moonlighting at his weekend wedding DJ gig.
"Um, that is my desk you are sitting at," she said to the big Scot.
He gazed up at her. Blinked for a moment. Regarded the flashlight in her hand and made no expression at seeing her clutching it like a weapon. Instead, he remained seated, adopting a poker face. He looked cold and arrogant, which didn't jibe at all with the pleasant, romantic voice she'd heard him using on the telephone.
"I was directed to sit here." He said it in a way that let her know not only did he think there was nothing wrong with his barging into her office, but he was also irritated by her presence. His lovely, romantic Scottish accent was gone, replaced with a regular, nonexotic New England voice, much like she heard every day.
She was dying to ask where the Scots' accent had gone. But she behaved as a professional, only asking businesslike and relevant questions that would not upset Andrew if he found out.
"Who directed you to use this office?" she asked, her palm sweaty on the metal in her fist.
"This is a company office, is it not?" That scowl was still on his facehe was not backing down from her. "And a company desk?"
"Well yes," she said.
He stared back harder at her. She felt herself shriveling inside. Was she making yet another mistake? Maybe she'd missed a directive given to everyone in a staff meeting?
No, that was impossible. Placing the flashlight carefully on her bookshelf, she forced herself to smile at him. "For all I know, you could be a corporate spy, sneaking in here to steal trade secrets," she said in a light voice. "I'm sure many companies are dying for the secret formula for Aura's bestselling Organic Beeswax and Shea Butter Shampoo."
He stared at her for another moment longer. Then he leaned back. He didn't seem so arrogant anymore. "That's a reasonable concern, actually."
"I thought so."
He nodded. "It would alarm me, too, if I worked here." He made a half smile at her. Though it was creaky and awkward, the gesture did come off as charming. He seemed to be making a conscious effort not to be so personally offensive.
She felt herself relaxing. "Are you here with one of the managers?" She should have checked the cars in the parking lot before she'd strode in without thinking. That would've given her more of a clue as to what was going on.
"Yes, of course." He nodded again. "I was escorted by Andrew Harris."
She couldn't be positive, but those r's in her boss's name sounded rolled, like a native Scottish speaker would pronounce it.
She peered at him.
His gaze narrowed back.
Maybe if she kept him talking, she could trip him up, and he'd slip into the Scots' accent again.
"I didn't know Andrew was here today," she remarked lightly, strolling over and standing in the blowing force of her electric heater. She pocketed her phone and held her hands palm up to the warm air. "Usually when Andrew works on the weekends, he stops by the plant floor to say hello to everyone."
"He left early."
Three carefully spoken words. She waited, but he had no further explanation.
"Where did Andrew go?" she asked patiently, hoping he would slip and roll another r.
Slowly and carefully again, he muttered, "Family emergency."
"Oh, my gosh!" she exclaimed, turning from the heater. "Did Robin go into labor?"
The stranger seemed to flinch. "Ah, if Robin is his wife, then, yes, it appears so."
Two rolled r's! They were very, very slightbut those delicious burrs sent an unmistakable shiver up her spine.
The question was killing her. She couldn't help asking; she was dying inside.
"So, are you from Scotland, or not?" she blurted point-blank.
He gave her a murderous expression.
And then she realized she was doing it again. Too many questions. Too adventurous for her own good.
Malcolm MacDowall had been assured that the only people present at the Aura Botanicals plant were located on the other side of the building, inside the factory proper, and that these workers would not be interfering with himcertainly not entering the managerial offices where he had only one day to gather the data he needed.
"No," he snapped at the woman, hoping she'd go away. The worst thing he could let slip was a Scottish accent. If she found out why he was here and who he was affiliated with, it would be disastrous. Letting his guard down and smiling at her had been a mistake.
But the blonde only blinked at him. She was just so damn different from what he was used to. Younger than him. Female. Short and curvy, bundled up in a turtleneck and woolen jumpersweater, he corrected himself. The building was so cold inside, it made his fingers stiff on the keyboard.
That's why Andrew had suggested he set up shop in this cubbyhole of an office. For the heater.
"I'm sorry," she said, sounding honestly contrite. "I shouldn't have asked about that. But if you want, you can use a Scottish accent when you talk to me. I don't mind."
He crossed his arms. "That was a private conversation you heard. A joke between two people."
She tilted her head at him. Loose, butterscotch-colored curls brushed the top of her shoulder. "So, you've never lived in Scotland?"
"No," he lied. "What is this line of questioning about? Who are you?"
She crossed the room and reached behind some binders for a purse, hidden on the bookshelf. The sudden movement unnerved him. He had every right to be on guard. There were several very good reasons why she couldn't find out who he was, who he worked for, and where he came from.
She held forward her company badge. "I'm Kristin Hart. I'm an engineer for Aura."
He didn't take the plastic-laminated name tag she offered, but he looked at her photo, verifying her name and job classification.
He felt his brows rise. Interesting. She was the last person he would've pegged for an engineer. He supposed he had an image in his head of one who practiced the profession, and she was definitely not it.
Not that he was prejudiced against women as engineers. On the contrary. It was just that she seemed too young for the job, for one thing. She was pretty, with a Botticelli face and shoulder-length blond hair that curled, giving her a soft look that, on second thought, maybe made her appear younger than she was. A staff position at Aura required a four- or five-year college degree.
Still, she looked more like a cosmetic salesperson than an engineer in a manufacturing plant with noisy, automated equipment. How did she hold her own within the realities of factory life? The CEO of the company-former CEO, though Kristin didn't know it yetwas laid-back and kind. But Andrew, the man who'd deserted Malcolm to this young woman with the Botticelli face, was aggressive and foul-tempered. Not someone Malcolm would trust with his sister, but then again, there weren't many people he did trust.
"What kind of engineer are you?" he asked her.
"Industrial." A frown crossed her brow. "I'm with an overtime crew today. One of our labeling machines broke and we're here to finish packing an order by hand."
She was very free with her information. In a sense, it fascinated him.
"Does that happen often?" he couldn't help asking.
She laughed. She had a nice laugh. As she tucked her badge into her purse, her gaze kept sliding to his. "How did you learn to talk in a Scottish accent like that? Because it sounded real to me. Did you ever live there?"