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THREE WEEKS AGO, Cassie Crow left Chicago armed with a naked charm bracelet and a full box of condoms. Now, she sat alongside her traveling companions and dearest friends, crammed together on a wooden bench of indeterminate age in the great hall of an ancient Scottish castle. Cassie shifted and glanced down; the silver chain at her wrist sparkled in the late morning sun streaming in from a row of arched windows high overhead. She tilted her arm, enjoying the soft tinkle of charms that marked her travels through Italy, Spain, France, the Netherlands, and most recently, Scotland. No longer bare, her bracelet was loaded with tiny keepsakes she'd found in shops all over Europe.
The condom box, however, was still full.
Nearing the last leg of her vacation of a lifetime, Cassie still had not gotten the one souvenir she'd been looking forward to ever since she and her friends had first started planning this dream trip ages ago — a fabulous, wanton fling. A heart-pounding memory she couldn't stick in a photo album, plop on a shelf, or wear on her wrist.
This trip was supposed to be her chance to let go, to be impulsive, to take the risks she refused to even consider back home. Opportunities had come her way, sure, but something always seemed to stop her from sealing the deal. There had been that one guy in Monte Carlo, panty-dropping sexy, but he'd been looking for something more, um, adventurous than what she'd had in mind. Even if she spoke perfect French, how was she supposed to know "Wanna play with my monkey?" was not just a euphemism?
Oh, who was she kidding? Cassie knew what the problem really was — her. Even though she'd promised herself that once she was on vacation, she would finally let loose, the truth of the matter was, she wasn't the type to talk a perfect stranger into a one-night stand. Maybe that had been the flaw in her plan all along. In all her years of dreaming about steamy foreign encounters, she'd never envisioned how she'd actually hook up with her fantasy fling. Her brain simply skipped to the good stuff.
"This place could be on the cover of one of those romance novels you're always reading, Cass." Cassie's best friend, Bonnie, pushed the tumble of red curls away from her face and stared up at the wide wooden beams bracketing the ceiling.
"Yeah," Cassie agreed. She wasn't going to admit she'd already been thinking the same thing — had been, in fact, since the moment they'd arrived at Edinburgh Castle and she got her first up-close glimpse of the towering turrets. As she and her friends climbed the stone steps, Cassie had imagined a hulking warhorse, hooves drumming across the courtyard, kilted rider yelling something appropriately battle worthy, eyes flashing in his fierce yet handsome face.
She took in the rows of ancient battle axes and claymores lining the walls, picturing a broad-shouldered Scotsman wrapping a brawny fist around the hilt of one these weapons, muscles bulging and kilt swinging. Cassie sighed. "Sadie and Ana are going to be so sad they missed out on this."
"Don't worry about those two," Delaney muttered from Cassie's other side, tossing her long, strawberry-blond ponytail over her shoulder. "I think it's safe to say they had more than their fair share of whisky last night."
"What time did they get back to the hotel?" Cassie asked.
"No idea." Delaney shrugged. "But when I left our room this morning, they were still in bed, nursing authentic Scottish hangovers."
"Well, I'm not going for a hangover today ... just a nice buzz." Cassie nodded toward a stout little man with jowls like a bulldog who was walking between trestle tables laden with rows of empty shot glasses, checking the IDs of the crowd gathered for the castle's whisky tasting. Bulldog paused at their table and ran a jaundiced eye over their passports before handing each of them a plastic bracelet.
Though they were all in their late twenties and well past Scotland's legal drinking age, Bonnie's sweet, freckled face looked much younger. "I think he growled at me," she whispered, sliding the bracelet on her wrist.
"Be glad he didn't bark." Delaney grinned and put her own bracelet on. "He looks like he bites." Another stout little man appeared, this one with a frothy, white beard bristling beneath a cherry-red nose. Delaney's grin widened. "And he looks like Santa Claus."
"Makes sense." Cassie chuckled in agreement. "He is bearing gifts, isn't he?"
Santa proceeded to pour each of them a measure of amber liquid.
"'O thou, my Muse! Good old Scotch drink!'" Bonnie recited as she lifted her glass.
Cassie turned to her best friend and blinked. "What was that?" "Burns."
"You haven't even tried a sip yet," Delaney argued.
"No, Robert Burns. Famous Scottish poet," Bonnie explained and raised her glass higher, striking a dramatic pose. "'Inspire me, till I lisp and wink, To sing thy name!'" "Um, if you say so," Delaney muttered, unimpressed as she lifted her own glass. Bonnie had been spouting literary passages all over Europe, ever since the start of their trip. Delaney took a whiff of her drink and coughed. "Hel-lo." She held the whisky at arm's length. "I think I'm getting drunk off the fumes."
"Oh, come on," Cassie teased. "I know you preschool teachers hit the hard stuff on a regular basis." Cassie downed her own shot. "Whoa," she wheezed, eyes watering.
"Told ya." Delaney smirked.
Cassie chugged a glass of water and refilled her tumbler from the pitcher on the table. While waiting for Santa to pour their next round, she pulled out her phone.
"Ugh, are you on that thing again?" Bonnie's usually smiling rosebud mouth dropped into a pout.
"Excuse me, but some of us can't completely disconnect from our jobs." As teachers, both Bonnie and Delaney had the summer off to do as they pleased. Even Sadie was on hiatus, having recently wrapped up her role on a daytime soap opera. Of her traveling companions, Ana was the only other one doing anything resembling work, and that was mostly checking out restaurants in the name of "research" for her catering company. "It's just a quick check of my email, okay?"
"I thought you were still on break from taping the show, anyway." Delaney downed the last of her first shot and gagged.
"I am." Cassie squinted at her phone. It was taking more effort than normal to log into her work account. Fingers sliding clumsily over the keys, she realized it wasn't a Wi-Fi issue. Delaney was right, the drink was potent. Or maybe she wasn't used to hitting the bottle before noon. One shot in and she was getting tipsy.
"ChiChat is in rerun rotation until September, but I asked Therese about scheduling a meeting when I get back next week, before the new season starts." Cassie had been working up the courage to discuss her idea for a new position with the executive producer of the morning Chicago talk show for months, and decided to bite the bullet right before she left town, hoping being on vacation would help keep her from fretting. Of course, she couldn't stop thinking about it. Bonnie was right, she'd been obsessively checking her phone the entire trip. "If Therese gets back to me, I don't want her to think I'm ignoring her."
"Well, I think you're ignoring us." Bonnie grabbed Cassie's phone and dropped it into her purse.
"Hey!" Cassie yelped as she watched her phone get swallowed into her best friend's cavernous bag. "You better not squash my phone," she warned.
Bonnie patted the side of her purse, which was big enough to hold the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and probably did — the unabridged version. "Your phone will be fine." She paused while Santa poured the next round. "And soon enough, you'll be home, selling Therese on how you plan to change lives with serious news stories."
Once all their glasses had been refilled, Bonnie raised her fresh whisky in a toast. "To old friends and new beginnings."
Cassie clinked glasses with Bonnie and hoped her friend was right. She had a lot riding on that meeting. With a prayer for her future, Cassie downed her drink, gasping for breath as the alcohol singed her vocal chords. "How many rounds are in this tasting?" she croaked.
"Check the list." Bonnie held up the tasting brochure.
Cassie glanced at the names of whiskies and their descriptions. As she tried to do the number-of-shots-to-speed-of-getting-wasted math, she heard a squeak from Bonnie. Or maybe that was a hiccup. Cassie eyed Bonnie over the top of the paper. "You okay?"
Bonnie shook her head, blue eyes wide, mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water. Cassie set the brochure down and frowned at her best friend. If Cassie was a drinking lightweight, Bonnie was a featherweight. "What's wrong? You're not going to puke, are you?"
"Puke?" From the other side of Bonnie, Delaney leaned to the side with ninja-like reflexes, her long, strawberry-blond ponytail whipping out of harm's way. "Who's puking?"
"Nobody's puking." Bonnie sucked in a breath and flipped the tasting menu over. "Look!"
Still poised for escape, Delaney read the section Bonnie was pointing at. "Some local author is visiting the castle today." She relaxed and eyed Bonnie, who was practically vibrating in her seat. "So? Why are you so excited? All your favorite authors have been dead for eons."
"Nice." Over Bonnie's head, Cassie slapped Delaney a high-five.
"Very funny." Bonnie waved the paper in Cassie's face. "It says the author is giving a lecture today, and it's open to the public. And it's in the castle library."
Cassie and Delaney groaned in unison. Bonnie was a library whore. The mere glimpse of an old book got her more worked up than a boy-band fangirl with a front-row seat and a backstage pass. Country after country, Bonnie had dragged them into every historical library and used bookstore in every city they'd visited so far. Rome had been the worst. Prior to this trip, Cassie didn't know the Italian city was home to some of the most gorgeous libraries in the world. But she knew now. She'd been in them. All of them.
To be fair, Bonnie had returned the favor and indulged Cassie's desire to visit as many museums as possible. As the bearded whisky-bearer approached with the next bottle, Cassie consulted Delaney.
"Well? Do we let her go fondle some books?"
Bonnie's gaze darted between them, feet tapping, knees bobbing, rattling the bench they were sitting on.
"Why not?" Delaney hopped up and adjusted her ponytail. "That first shot was more than enough for me, anyway." She waved a hand over her barely touched second drink. "No more for me, Santa. Thanks."
Cassie held out her glass. "I'll take one more. For the road."
Santa pulled back the decanter and frowned, the corners of his mouth disappearing into his beard.
"I'm kidding!" Cassie giggled. "We took a tour bus."
Santa poured her third shot, eyes narrowed beneath his bushy brows. "The whisky doesna leave this room," he warned, "you ken?"
"I ken." She giggled again. A sucker for that accent, she could eat him and his Scottish brogue up.
"You're getting rather giggly there, missy." Delaney observed in her teacher voice.
"Come on, Cass!" Bonnie wriggled off the bench.
"Okay, okay." Cassie quickly tossed back her third whisky and stood. The liquid burned a path from throat to belly as she got to her feet, which were less steady than she'd have liked. "All right." She turned to Bonnie. "I'm ready. Lead the way."
Ecstatic, Bonnie did an impromptu jig as she maneuvered them around tables and benches, auburn curls bouncing.
Once outside the great hall, Cassie held up a hand. The three whiskies, on top of the water she'd chugged, not to mention the monster-size latte she'd had this morning, had suddenly caught up. "You two go on ahead. I'll meet you in a minute."
"This goes against the buddy system." Delaney frowned. "You sure?"
"Yes, Miss Delaney. As long as you're sure this place has modern plumbing somewhere."
"I think the bathroom is that way." Bonnie pointed and then gestured in the opposite direction. "The library's this way."
"See? No problem." Cassie shooed them off.
Before Delaney could argue further, Bonnie yanked her down the hall. Cassie turned and headed the other way, keeping an eye out for signs for the bathroom. She grinned, recalling the funny restroom sign she saw while at a pub last night. It had the usual image for women of a stick figure wearing a triangle as a dress. But on this sign, the stick person for the men's room also wore a triangle — indicating a kilt. Too bad there hadn't been any men at the pub dressed in one. Contrary to her fantasy version of Scotland, hunky, shirtless guys in kilts weren't sprinkled liberally across the country.
Ah well, Cassie bet when people came to America they expected everyone to be dressed like cowboys. She wouldn't mind a cowboy either — or maybe a cowboy wearing a kilt — she'd throw money at a romance novel with that cover. An impromptu fantasy of Fergus McCoy, the Scottish Highland Cowboy, kept her happily occupied until she finally encountered a sign for the WC.
After locating the restroom, with flushing toilets and running water — thank goodness for anachronistic modern plumbing in ancient castles — Cassie took her time retracing her steps. Bonnie loved old books, but Cassie was fascinated with old places and adored touring castles and estates. She had started out as a cultural anthropology major in college, and if not for a stint she'd done sophomore year on the university cable access news show, she'd probably be teaching classes on culture and society, working alongside Bonnie, who was an English professor at a small liberal arts college in the city.
That had been the original plan, but Cassie didn't regret the shift her career path had taken. She loved her job on ChiChat — well, liked it, anyway — she'd love it once she convinced Therese to let her take on more meaty topics, stories with the potential to change people's lives. And while her current role on the show had more to do with social media than social history, Cassie still enjoyed studying cultures and examining the day-to-day details of how people lived.
As she made her way back toward the library, Cassie paused in front of the rooms open for viewing. Like a life-sized dollhouse, each room was decorated in painstaking detail, filled with historical props and dramatic touches so realistic the castle felt alive, as if the inhabitants had just stepped out and would be back any moment. An antique sewing basket rested at the foot of one wing-backed chair. A secretary desk stood open, revealing a stack of letters tied with a ribbon piled next to a stationary kit, complete with feathers and a brass quill knife.
Plush, red velvet ropes blocked most of the doorways, forbidding as giant stop signs, but if she leaned forward and craned her neck around the threshold, the view was worth the risk of landing on her slightly tipsy face. Maybe a little more than tipsy. Cassie blinked, looking around the empty, unfamiliar corridor. Where am I? A woman wearing a headset rushed around the corner, almost knocking Cassie over as she scurried past.
"Excuse me!" Cassie called out. "Do you know where the library is?" The women stopped short and turned around. "Hmm?"
Cassie raised her voice. "The li-bra-ry?" she overenunciated and mimed opening and closing a book.
"Oh, right." The woman pressed a button on a black box clipped at her waist. "Hold on," she barked into the microphone connected to her headset, "I think we've got one more." She returned her attention to Cassie. "Sorry about that." She shifted the microphone away from her mouth and tapped her chin. "The library. Yes. Um, I believe it is ... er ... let me think now ..."
Doubt curled in Cassie's stomach mixing with the alcohol. "You do work here, don't you?"
"What's that?" The woman smiled and nodded. "Aye, I'm working here today, sure enough. Now, the library. You'll be wanting to go down that way." She pointed to the end of the hallway where another corridor broke off on the right.
Cassie squinted down the deserted hall, uncertain. "Are you sure?" The woman nodded again. "Och, quite sure." She waved her hand in brisk dismissal. "Now, if you'll excuse me."
"Thank you!" Cassie called after the woman, who was already zipping away in the other direction. Cassie thought she heard the woman say something about getting ready because she's on her way, but couldn't be sure.
With a shrug, Cassie turned down the corridor on the right as instructed. It didn't seem familiar, but maybe she'd roamed so far off course this was a shortcut back. About halfway down the hall, an odd croaking stopped her in her tracks. Worried she'd upset a loose floorboard, Cassie went up on her tiptoes and took a careful step forward.
The wooden floor remained silent beneath her, but as she neared a doorway, the croaking came again, louder and more distinct this time — a moan, long and low. What the hell?
Excerpted from "Getting Hot with the Scot"
Copyright © 2019 Melonie Johnson.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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