It’s early September in Glenkillen, Scotland, when American expat (and budding romance novelist) Eden Elliott is recruited by the local inspector to act as a special constable. Fortunately it’s in name only, since not much happens in Glenkillen.
For now Eden has her hands full with other things: preparing for the sheepdog trial on the MacBride farm—a fundraiser for the local hospice—and helping her friend Vicki with her first yarn club skein-of-the-month deliveries. Everything seems to be coming together—until the head of the welcoming committee is found strangled to death with a club member’s yarn.
Now Eden feels compelled to honor her commitment as constable and herd together the clues, figure out which ones are dogs, and which ones will lead to a ruthless killer...
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Queen Bee Mysteries
Scottish Highlands Mysteries
“You should’ve asked my opinion before you went off half-cocked,” Kirstine MacBride-Derry scolded her half sister Vicki from behind the counter of the wool and yarn shop they owned together on the outskirts of Glenkillen, a small village in the Scottish Highlands on the North Sea, along a protected bay called Moray Firth.
No way was Kirstine going to take her eyes off of Sheepish Expressions’s cash register for a single second, or relinquish that spot to anybody else. She was in full command of the till, even though the shop wouldn’t open for a few more hours.
“What do you think, Eden?” Vicki said, dragging me into the middle of the sisters’ dispute, which served me right for walking into the shop and getting between them. Before I could think of a reply she went on, “Should I have to postpone my first yarn club skein-of-the-month deliveries just because of the charity sheep dog trial event? I mean, the club members have paid dues in advance, and I promised the yarn kits would be ready on the first of every month. Today is the first of September, in case anybody needs a reminder. When the shop opens, my members are going to start showing up. I’ve made a commitment to them.”
Vicki’s eyes pleaded for my support. I looked away as her trademark perfume wafted my way, the light fragrance of roses and jasmine mingling with the tension in the air.
I really didn’t see the big deal, but I was making an effort to understand both sides.
Today the MacBride’s farm was hosting the September sheep dog trials in the field next to the lane, an annual charity event sponsored by the Glenkillen Sheep Dog Association to raise funds to keep the town’s hospice operating in the black. And since Kirstine and her husband, John, have been responsible for the majority of the work in preparation for the trials, it wasn’t surprising that Kirstine was stressed. She was a bit grouchy even on a regular day.
The Glenkillen Hospice Center had taken quite a hit during the most recent economic downturn and needed an infusion of cash to assure its continued service to the community. The sheep dog competition was only one of many events held for that purpose throughout the year, but this one was the grand finale and the largest. Others had included 5k runs, a cycle challenge, several charity golf days, and lucky-number drawings that operated much like lotteries—tickets were purchased, winners were announced, and prizes awarded.
Spectators at the sheep dog trials could support the hospice in a number of ways. Aside from paying an entrance fee, they could buy a printed program with the dogs’ running order so they could support their favorite local shepherd. Or purchase teas, sandwiches, and cakes from the massive refreshment tent that had been set up near the trial field. Or—and this one was sure to be the most popular—they could buy raffle tickets for the opportunity to win products from local businesses, including many donated by Sheepish Expressions.
“How many yarn members do you have?” I asked Vicki, glancing at a pile of beautiful and bright-red-colored skeins that my friend had hand-dyed herself. Not only was the wool from the MacBride farm’s sheep, but it had all been handspun by Vicki as well.
“Thirty-five!” Vicki replied with visible pride. “Fifteen more than I expected just starting out. I even had to close membership until I can figure out how to speed up production, and already just in the last few days there’s a waiting list of another fifteen or so who want to join.”
“Wow!” I said, sufficiently impressed. Vicki had only recently come up with the yarn club brainstorm and had done little in the way of promoting it beyond a few handmade flyers strategically placed in hot spots around Glenkillen (and, of course, inside Sheepish Expressions). Word of mouth was a powerful tool, especially in the Highlands. News of any sort traveled dizzyingly fast around here.
Originally, I’d signed up for the skein-of-the-month club as a show of support for Vicki’s new venture, even though I can’t knit a stitch. But as new membership requests poured in, I’d bowed out to make room for those with actual ability.
“I’ll teach you soon,” Vicki had assured me, obviously appreciating my commitment to her cause, but relieved at the same time. We both knew I needed to start out with a simpler project, like a pot holder. Besides, I was left-handed and Vicki was right-handed. She was going to need a lot of patience when that day came.
Kirstine scowled, not used to anyone else in the shop making decisions, no matter how minor or insignificant, no matter how little it might affect her personally. Forty-two years old, a few years younger than Vicki, she would be pretty if her mouth turned up more. Instead, she had deeply furrowed frown lines.
After a lengthy estrangement, Vicki’s appearance after their father’s death to claim her share of the MacBride estate inheritance (a sizeable fortune in land holdings and business enterprises), had been difficult for Kirstine to accept. Kirstine had been educated in England, but had spent the better part of her adult life managing this woolen shop, and her Welsh husband, John, continued to run the farm operations as he always had. Vicki and her mother, her father’s first wife, had lived in London and California, and Vicki had only visited the MacBride farm on occasion as a child. Even so, she was now committed to making a go of her new life here.
“You decided this without checking with me first, I might add,” Kirstine continued, with only a faint hint of a Scottish accent. She couldn’t let it go. “I would have informed you that we’d be too busy with the trials to deal with your yarn club members traipsing in at the same time,” she said. “Between tourist buses arriving and spectators underfoot, I’d have thought you could have waited to begin next month. Or at the very least until next week.”
“Kirstine,” I said, “it doesn’t really seem like it would be much effort to keep the kits behind the counter and distribute them to members. Aren’t those club members who come for their yarn kits going to be likely to stick around for the trials and drop more cash?”
Kirstine didn’t seem to hear my voice of reason. Her lips were pressed together in a line of discontent. “Look at you, causing trouble as usual, Eden Elliott,” she said, not mincing words. “Why don’t you go off and make yourself useful elsewhere. Go on.”
That’s me. Eden Elliott. Troublemaker and major meddler, according to Kirstine. She hasn’t come right out and said it aloud, but I know she wishes I’d disappear for good. And she wouldn’t be too concerned about the method of my departure as long as it took me far away from the farm and shop. It’s in her tone and in the snarky comments she reserves exclusively for me.
I’m an outsider in this community, having arrived here in Glenkillen from Chicago three months ago. The trip had been unexpected, courtesy of my overly pushy and well-off best friend back home, Ami Pederson, who’d decided I needed a change of scenery and had bought me a ticket to the Highlands. Generous to a fault, as they say . . . the fault in Ami’s generosity being that my return ticket had been for six months down the road, which, as she explained to me, was the maximum length of time I was allowed to stay in Scotland on the standard travel visa.
In spite of my doubts and resistance, those first months had flown by. I suppose I had needed a change. I’d gone through some stressful personal events—a divorce and my mother’s death—but now I had a small amount of cash and the freedom at thirty-eight years old to go on this adventure.
Amazingly, I’d also accomplished what I’d set out to do, which was to write a hot contemporary romance novel set in the Scottish Highlands. Glenkillen turned out to be the perfect backdrop for my inspiration to flow, and the first draft of Falling for You had practically written itself.
Which is a good thing, because to make it equally scary, I was already under contract to write it. I’m convinced that Ami pulled some strings with her publisher (yeah, she’s that Ami Pederson, international mega-bestselling historical romance author), though she denies having anything to do with landing this amazing opportunity for me. But even if she had helped orchestrate the beginning, it was still up to me to make it all come together in a real-life happy ending.
The pressure, mostly created by a mind that tends to overthink things, was on. I had to perform and perform well.
Regardless of my current insecurities, however, the beautiful Scottish Highlands saved my sanity, restored my self-confidence, and I’ve made lasting friendships here. I’m planted firmly at the MacBride farm, after an invitation from Vicki. I met her on my first day of travel on a connecting flight to Inverness out of London, and we’ve been fast friends ever since.
And to my good fortune as well as hers, she’d commandeered the farm’s main house that had been vacant after her father passed. Kirstine and John have their own home in Glenkillen near the harbor, and no intention of actually living at the farm, claiming they had devoted enough of their lives to the family enterprise without needing to live and breathe it any more than they already did. “Besides,” Kirstine had sniffed, “Da should have built a bigger house, but he was as thrifty as they come. John and myself, we need more space.”
The MacBride farm’s lands might extend in all directions, the estate enormous with the house, shop, several cottages, barn, and numerous outbuildings, and the bank balance most likely above anything I could imagine, but no one involved was allowed to slack off. These people were hard workers. My friend included.
Vicki had brought so much to Sheepish Expressions in the short time she’d been a contributing partner. In my opinion, the current arrangement had the potential to benefit all concerned. The sisters might snipe, but they really complemented each other. Kirstine oversees stocking of the woolen wear that graces racks in one section of the shop—kilts, accessories, tartans, scarves, and much, much more. And although the MacBride farm’s own Glenkillen yarn is featured, she also orders other Scottish yarns, skeins of which fill every nook and cranny in the other half of the shop.
Vicki’s talent lies in dealing with customers, something sourpuss Kirstine could learn from. People skills go a long way in selling gifts to tourists. Tour buses stop at intervals throughout each day of the week, either on the way to or returning from several attractions, whether hoping for glimpses of minke whales, harbor porpoises, and bottlenose dolphins off Moray Firth, or following the whisky trail and visiting the numerous distilleries in the Highlands. A bright and cheery welcome from the person behind the counter could sell more stock than the surly one who usually greeted them.
Vicki had also started knitting classes, and she’s hoping to add spinning lessons if there’s enough demand. The woman is amazing with fibers, from the moment the wool is shorn from the sheep all the way through the spinning and dying process.
Kirstine’s husband, John, has his own niche, too, tending to the fields and animals. Anyone who meets the gruff Welshman can tell how much he cares about his sheep and working dogs. He’d rather be with them than with people, which is exactly how I feel some days.
Vicki, with my help, had taken on the task of restoring one of the two cottages on the property that had fallen into disrepair. The other one had been past fixing, its stonework crumbled, the interior little more than a shell. But we’d managed to salvage the other. Last week I’d suggested that I move out of the main farmhouse and into the cottage. Vicki hadn’t put up much of an argument, knowing I needed my personal space.
The cottage consists of a small kitchen and sitting room on one end of the rectangular building, and a bedroom and bath on the other end. The furnishings are simple—a scarred dresser in the bedroom and an iron bedframe with squeaky springs, yellowing wallpaper in the sitting room, and two armchairs before a small wood-burning stove set in a corner. The kitchen is nothing more than a wooden table, two chairs, sink, stove, a tiny counter, and a hodgepodge of cookware. But it’s adequate for my needs, especially if I’m only going to be in the country for a few short months more. The most important features are indoor plumbing that actually works as it should, along with an electrical system John updated after being coerced into repairing the rodent-chewed wiring.
Right this minute, I missed the coziness of the little cottage, and the solitude it provides.
Vicki had turned her attention back to her skein-of-the-month kits, which were beautifully packaged in a paper satchel with a fancy label that read A Sheepish Expressions Exclusive: Poppy Sox Knitting Kit. Each kit contained an exclusive pattern for cable-knit stockings along with a special knitting needle, and the yarn that Vicki called Poppy Red, because of its rich red poppies-in-the-field hue.
I glanced up and out one of the shop’s windows, noting the dawning day. September in the States would mean shortening days, but in Scotland we were blessed with close to fourteen hours of daylight. I smiled at my good fortune—to be here in this rural setting, at this beautiful time of the year. Since Kirstine suggested I make myself useful, I went outside and stood on the shop’s porch to admire the view, trying to decide what to do next.
My scenic view was partially hidden due to the arrival of the sheep dog competitors, which had been going on since well before dawn. The day was shaping up to be another unusually sunny one. We’d been having a rare run on sun since Thursday, and it was expected to continue through today. Perfect weather for a fund-raising event. I’d give anything to duck out of the responsibilities I’d agree to early on. Vicki and I had both volunteered our services for the sheep dog trials, and Kirstine had decided that Vicki would be giving spectators tractor rides out to the far fields for the competitions (a role assigned, I suspect but can’t prove, to keep Vicki away from the shop), while my assignment was to help at the welcome table right outside Sheepish Expressions. I, along with several other volunteers who worked for the hospice, would disburse information, sell programs, and in general, handle any minor problems.
I shuddered at the thought of a full day wasted at the welcome table. I’d much prefer to spend that time out in the field, watching the working dogs round up sheep. A few stragglers driving vans and trucks, some hauling trailers, were still pulling off the main road and parking up and down the lane wherever they could find space. I could see them starting to double-park as spots became scarce.
The parking lot before me was empty though, due to a large sign Kirstine had erected warning that the area was strictly for Sheepish Expressions customers and carried an accompanying threat of prosecution. Ignore at your own risk.
A familiar white van pulled up close by. I recognized the vehicle mainly because of the heavily tinted windows that made it impossible to see inside.
The welcoming committee for the big event was converging.
I sighed heavily and stepped down from the porch.
The arriving van belonged to Oliver Wallace, who I’d met at the first of our organizational meetings. Oliver stepped out first, followed by his two passengers.
Down the lane, Isla Lindsey, the leader of the pack, scurried toward us from her parked camper van, and came to a halt next to the van. Isla wore a lightweight calf-length burgundy tartan skirt wrapped around her ample girth, thick cream-colored knee-high stockings, and a clunky pair of hiking boots—not to mention several metaphorical hats on her inflated head. She was the volunteer service coordinator, using whatever coercing and bullying tactics necessary to get locals involved whether they wanted to be or not. She also acted as treasurer, keeping the financial aspects of the many fund-raisers in order.
“Where should we set up?” I asked.
“Next to the shop,” Isla said to me, sharp and commanding. “And if you’d been at the last meeting, you would have been informed as such. Stop dawdling and help us unload. And you”—Isla’s head swung toward Oliver—“are late, as usual.”
I’d watched Isla seize control of the welcoming committee from the start, and almost immediately regretted having signed on. Because her husband, Bryan, was president of the Glenkillen Sheep Dog Association, Isla presided over every single aspect of this fund-raiser as though she were queen of the kingdom, wielding her special brand of obnoxiousness the minute she had us all in her clutches. She was the main reason I’d stopped attending the meetings. Really, how much advanced planning was required to set up a little tent and produce a stack of programs to sell? We were volunteers, for goodness’ sake. Her job should have encompassed coordinating each of the volunteer areas, not micromanaging the four of us who had been unlucky enough to be on the one committee she’d decided to rule with an especially iron fist.
To be fair (from my limited experience with volunteerism), finding someone to head such a project as this must be a major feat. Maybe it takes a control freak like Isla to pull off a successful fund-raiser.
A scary thought.
Oliver Wallace, the only male in our bunch, was Isla’s designated gofer due to the fact that he was the only one of us who owned a vehicle with toting capabilities. Oliver claims to be a direct descendent of Scottish freedom-fighter William Wallace, and usually puts on airs as though this were the fourteenth century and his lineage actually mattered. He’d been an active volunteer throughout the fund-raising year (he seemed to be on every committee and board associated with the hospice), and didn’t seem to mind taking orders like an indentured servant. Although he annoyed Isla plenty, so maybe he wasn’t quite the follower he appeared to be. Now he opened the back of the van, with some effort involved as the latch resisted, and pulled out a stack of poles.
Oliver’s passengers were the other two welcoming committee members—Lily Young, who worked housekeeping at the hospice, and Andrea Lindsey, a nurse in clinical services who also happened to be Isla’s husband’s younger sister. Between them they carried the blue-and-white welcome tent and a bag of stakes.
I noticed that most of the welcoming committee members looked sunburned. Sun in the Highlands is an anomaly, especially when the clouds go “on holiday” and it manages to shine for three days straight, as it had recently. That means lots of burnt skin for these fair-haired Scots. Isla’s cheeks were rosy, the skin of her nose starting to peel; and Oliver’s face and neck above his golf shirt were burnt red, a shade altogether different from his cropped red hair.
I’d also inherited fair Scottish skin and ginger tones in my hair from my paternal side, but I’m careful of the sun’s rays. I’d rubbed on plenty of sunscreen this morning, hoping to escape unscathed.
“Step lively,” Isla called out in military fashion.
Lily, even more sunburnt than Oliver and Isla, wore no makeup whatsoever, and her fine, straight brown hair hung limply to chin length. She had a pear-shaped body, lots of hips with narrow shoulders. Lily had made an unsuccessful attempt to take control of the welcoming committee at the beginning, and—as she’d confided in me one evening at the pub when she’d had a pint or two too many—was hoping to break out of housekeeping and into a paid fund-raising position. She still hadn’t gotten over her defeat to Isla, judging by the occasional dagger glares she cast Isla’s way.
Rumor had it that the two of them had been on opposite sides of the ring since childhood, with Isla always coming out on top, pounding her opponent into the ropes with perfectly executed sucker punches.
Andrea, Isla’s sister-in-law, is a mouse of a woman, nondescript in physical characteristics as well as conversationally, with hardly an opinion to call her own. That must suit her sister-in-law just fine, giving Isla one more person to walk all over. Andrea, I’ve heard, is a competent nurse under that passive exterior, making up for her lack of interesting qualities with a superb bedside manner. And displaying a good deal of common sense, in my opinion, since she was the only one on the committee besides me who wasn’t toasty crisp from too much sun.
The little group marched over to a grassy area beside the woolen shop, led by Oliver, who was wearing a pair of gray wellies made colorful by bright yellow soles. Isla attempted to outpace him, but despite her effort, came in second.
I reluctantly followed last.
By the time I arrived, Isla had already started complaining.
“This isn’t the tent I told you to order,” she said to Oliver as though noticing the blue-and-white tent for the first time. “I specifically asked for bright yellow.”
“No yellow to be had,” Oliver mumbled. I knew for a fact that he hadn’t placed the order until the last minute. Possibly his lapse was an intentional act of defiance.
“And the size is all wrong!” she continued to gripe.
“It’s the exact size you requested.” Oliver began assembling the poles.
“’Tis not. This won’t do at all. Ye’ll just have to find the proper tent, is all there is to it.”
Lily and Andrea ignored the exchange, making busy rather than getting involved. I’d learned my lesson moments earlier inside the shop, so took a page from them and kept quiet, too.
Isla, realizing that Oliver was hopeless, turned on the women. “Couldn’t one of you have managed this bloke?” Then her gaze found me. “And you! A fat lot of good you’ve been. Useless Americans.”
“Let’s get on with it,” Lily said, while I stood dumbstruck by Isla’s audacity. “Save yer breath to cool yer broth.”
Which was one of the few Scottish phrases I was actually familiar with, having heard Kirstine use it on occasion, prompting me to seek a definition from Vicki. Lily had just told Isla to quit complaining and get to work. Good for her.
It was bad enough trying to referee Vicki and Kirstine, but having to withstand Isla’s bickering with the welcoming committee members over every little detail was going to do me in. I had to find a way out.
But just when I thought all was lost, and I had no choice but to suffer through the day next to the parking lot, two welcome additions arrived (separately but almost simultaneously):
Detective Inspector Kevin Jamieson and Special Constable Sean Stevens.
To the inspector’s continuing chagrin, the local powers that be had decided to incorporate volunteer cops into the main corps of professionally trained police officers. Odd, but true. When I first learned of it, I thought my leg was being pulled. It wasn’t.
Scotland’s new volunteer police force draws citizens from all walks of life, giving them the opportunity to work side by side with experienced law enforcement officials. After a brief training course, these special constables wear similar uniforms and have the same powers as regular officers. My mind still boggled at the concept.
Anyway, Sean Stevens, a former security guard, had eagerly signed on, and since he was from the Glenkillen area he had been promptly assigned to Inspector Jamieson, bringing the inspector’s long and happy history of working solo to an abrupt end.
Since that fateful day, the inspector has spent much of his time dodging Sean or, when all else fails, creating busywork to keep his “special constable” occupied elsewhere. To his credit, Sean has countered those efforts with some pretty fine tracking techniques, managing to hound the inspector pretty much wherever he goes . . . though the inspector’s Honda CR-V is simple to tail once one has it in sight. Its horizontal yellow stripes framed by blue and black checkers give it away easily.
Today Sean, driving his red Renault, was hot behind the CR-V. They both parked in the restricted area, inside the parking lot designated for customers. The inspector pulled in near the shop, while the rookie headed for the far end, maneuvering and backing in for a quick dash if the inspector managed to get a few steps ahead of him.
Neither of them acknowledged Kirstine’s warning sign. At least there still were a few individuals out there who she couldn’t control with her threats. I smiled at that.
As they approached, I couldn’t help comparing the two men. The inspector was a widower in his late fifties, graying at the temples. He wore a blue button-down shirt with the top button open, a solid tie knotted loosely, and a pair of beige trousers, his hair a little mussed. Sean, a bit younger than me in his early thirties, wore his standard police uniform—white short-sleeved shirt, black tie tight and perfect, his peaked cap with insignia perfectly aligned over his buzz cut, his carriage erect, his chin held high. He was right behind his boss, having to hurry since his shorter legs had to do double the work of the long-legged inspector.
“Vicki’s inside the shop,” I called to Sean, and smiled as he turned on his heels and headed for the porch leading into Sheepish Expressions. The special constable had been giving Vicki special attention. “He’s a young pup,” Vicki had said when I’d pointed that out.
“Age means nothing these days,” I’d argued.
“Off with you!” she’d replied. But the light in her eyes and the blush on her cheeks when he was around spoke volumes.
I’d met Inspector Jamieson my very first day in the Highlands, and not exactly under the best of circumstances. But over the following months, I’d come to consider him a friend, and I hoped he felt likewise. He did seem relatively comfortable around me, possibly due to the twenty-year difference in our ages and my utter lack of romantic interest in him. Single men of the inspector’s age are considered hot commodities by many of the local widows and divorcees, but I’m hardly a threat to his chosen way of life. At this point, I’m not a threat to any man’s freedom. My divorce and my mother’s death following her long battle with MS have left me ripe for life changes. I’ve learned that being by myself isn’t nearly as lonely as being with the wrong person. In fact, I’m relishing it. I have no desire to jump right back into a relationship. One thing I’m definitely not looking for is romance. I have more than enough of that on the pages of Falling for You.
“Quite the to-do,” the inspector said now as I left the welcoming committee to greet him. “I’ve managed tae stay away until noo.” I enjoyed hearing his thick Scottish brogue; even though I heard Scottish accents spoken on a daily basis these days, I still wasn’t immune to the charm.
“You don’t like crowds?” I asked.
“Bloody uncomfortable, if ye ask me. The main reason I’m here is tae shake our Sean, and then I’ll be gone.”
“We open to the public at nine,” I warned him, in case he wanted to disappear before then. With the good weather, Kirstine and John expected attendance to far exceed the projected two hundred spectators.
“At least they are clubbing together to raise funds fer a worthy cause.”
“Yes, there’s that to appreciate.”
“I’ve decided to put Officer Stevens on traffic duty first thing,” the inspector informed me, “and he’s not tae leave until the very end o’ the trials.”
I nodded. “Smart of you.”
The inspector and I gave each other knowing looks. Mine said he’d cleverly managed to waylay Sean once again, effectively distancing himself from the overeager officer in a manner that suited both of them. Sean would hardly complain about his post, because it would keep him close to Vicki. The instigator’s expression told me he was pretty pleased with himself, too.
“Officer Stevens has put in a request fer his own beat car,” Inspector Jamieson said next. “I’m considering putting him on a bicycle instead. That should slow him down sufficiently.”
I pictured Sean pedaling like crazy to follow the police vehicle and grinned at the image.
Then a thought popped into my head—a glimmer of a workable plan to extricate myself from Isla’s clutches. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” I told Inspector Jamieson, “but the only problem with your plan is that Kirstine has already arranged for two young men to direct traffic into another field across the way once our visitors begin to arrive.” I watched disappointment flicker across his face. “Here they come now.” Sure enough, Kirstine’s two volunteers had parked off to the side of the field I’d indicated, and were now in position to make use of the bright traffic flags they carried.
The inspector seemed put out, but it wouldn’t be for long. I continued on with growing glee. “Isla could use him in the welcome tent,” I told him. “I’m sure Sean won’t mind lending a hand there.”
“Brilliant!” the inspector exclaimed, getting his enthusiasm back.
It was brilliant on my part, if I did say so myself. Jamieson would be rid of Sean, I’d be free from Isla’s clutches, and Sean really wouldn’t mind, especially since Vicki was giving tractor rides from a position right next to the welcoming committee. With a small amount of effortless reorganization, I’d just made all three of us very happy.
“The two of us need tae have a chin wag,” the inspector said next, placing a hand lightly on my elbow. “A private one, if ye don’t mind.”
Isla, as if sensing she was about to lose one of her minions, called over, “We could use a helping hand over here with the tent, Eden. We don’t have much time left. Ye cannae expect the others tae do all the work!”
“I’m afraid Ms. Elliott is occupied in a matter o’ important police business,” the inspector informed Isla with the proper authority in his tone. Then, lower to me as we moved farther away, “Let her stew over that fer a while. Besides, it won’t hurt the nag tae work with her own hands for a change instead o’ exercising her mouth muscles.”
We handed an amiable Sean over to the welcoming committee, where Isla promptly put him to work moving Oliver Wallace’s van into the shade of a silver maple at the far end of the parking lot.
“Over there,” she ordered, pointing to the general area of Sean’s own Renault. “On the far side o’ that beat-up old clunker.”
Sean grimaced at the insult, but Isla didn’t notice. “Oliver always leaves the keys in the ignition, so no need tae track down the slacker,” she complained. “I don’t know how he manages tae disappear every time I turn my back.”
“And yerself,” she turned to Lily Young, who’d appeared on the shop porch with Vicki, whose arms were filled with paper satchel kits containing this month’s skeins of yarn. “Pull yer finger out.”
Pull your finger out? I shot a questioning glance at the inspector, who clarified. “It means tae hurry up.”
Instead of obeying, Lily ignored Isla. As we watched, Vicki shook her head firmly and tucked the kits protectively against her body. Lily was obviously disappointed as she walked slowly over to help erect the tent.
“What’s the story there?” the inspector asked me.
I explained about Vicki’s new project with the yarn club and how overly successful the venture had been (if such a thing even exists in the business world—I suppose it does; too much demand, not enough supply). “I suspect Lily didn’t get in on the initial wave of members,” I said as Vicki joined us, “but was still hoping to claim a kit.”
“That’s it exactly,” Vicki agreed. “She’s on the waiting list, but that one has a bit of push and shove in her makeup, I’d say. I’m going to enlist Sean to help me hand these out to the actual members and to guard them from the likes of Lily.” And off she went, still defensively clutching her treasures.
After that, the inspector and I walked up the lane. Despite what he’d told Isla about having important business to discuss with me, whatever was on his mind didn’t seem to be too pressing. Why, I wondered, was he still here?
Perhaps the inspector’s official business announcement had been for Isla’s benefit. Or rather mine, to get me out of there. Whichever, I appreciated the excuse to escape. If he had anything to discuss, he’d get around to it. Our conversation centered on topics such as the current sunny skies, and which of the sheep dog competitors stood the best chance of winning the trials. The inspector favored Bryan Lindsey.
“Herself has hen-pecked that man practically into an early grave,” the inspector said, referring to Isla. “But he’s still the best sheep dog trainer in Glenkillen. Nothing like a wife such as that tae keep a man’s nose tae the grindstone.”
I laughed. The inspector had found some positive in with the negative, but he was more generous than I was. In my opinion, Isla and her ilk were best appreciated from afar. Life is too short to let others drag you down.
I heard the tractor start up inside the barn, which was a honey-colored structure that fit the Highland landscape to a tee. We stood aside as Kirstine’s husband, John Derry, drove it out through the open barn doors, pulling a large wagon filled with hay bales intended as seating for arriving spectators. The trial field wasn’t especially far out from the parking area, but those who had difficulty walking or who were accompanied by small children would appreciate the ride. John nodded an almost imperceptible greeting as he drove past us, and slight as it had been, I decided I was making progress with him, if not with his wife. I’d take the nod as a hopeful sign.
While the inspector stayed outside to answer a call on his cell phone, I went inside the barn to collect a couple of lawn chairs to carry over to the field. Jasper, the farm’s barn cat, greeted me with a soft meow from the hayloft above. Ordinarily he’d be sunning himself outside the barn doors, but he was a classic introvert who chose to disappear when too much activity was going on around him.
“Does that call mean you have to leave?” I asked when Inspector Jamieson returned the phone to his pocket.
“I have a bit o’ time tae spend.”
We walked past the refreshment tent and over to a spot along the perimeter of the field where another group of volunteers had just finished putting up gates in strategic places. Six sheep bleated and huddled together nervously within an enclosed pen. Since spectators were beginning to assemble, I knew it must be nine and the show was about to begin.
As the newcomer that I am to Glenkillen’s community events, experiences such as this sheep dog trial have an aura of mystery and excitement about them. I could feel it in the air, an unmistakable electric energy. Vicki’s next-door neighbor, Leith Cameron, and his border collie Kelly would be competing in the early afternoon. Kelly had been a superior herding dog in her youth, and was sure to take the older dog division.
As Leith had explained to me, sheep trials were an important part of Highland life. They were healthy competitions among shepherds to see which of them had the best sheep dogs. While a sheep dog could be any type of dog capable of learning the ropes, the Scots insisted that the only true herder was the border collie—based on what I’d seen of Kelly, they were highly intelligent, blazingly fast, and really loved to work.
“Trials are run over an obstacle course,” Leith had told me, “and competitors are assigned points by the judges based on their performance. Each dog is scored on different aspects, including the time it takes to complete the course. The object is to move yer sheep as steadily as possible without spooking them. If that happens they run every which way. That’s why ye’ll see the handlers signaling to the dogs to lie down before approaching slowly.”
I couldn’t wait to see the trials with my own eyes.
Harry Taggart, the man responsible for spearheading these events and one of today’s judges, arrived on the field, signaling the beginning of the sheep dog trials. Harry was tall and thin, well into his fifties, and had never married. Perhaps that accounted for his coltish physique, not having access to as much comfort food as the typical married man. With his round shoulders and wire spectacles, I’d easily pegged him as the financial type. A banker, perhaps. Which I’d learned he had been at one time, before accepting the position at the hospice several years back. Now he was the chief executive officer of the Glenkillen Hospice Center.
The spectators gathered, some with their own dogs—all on the required leashes. An eager young black-and-white border collie and his handler appeared on the field, the apprehensive sheep were released, and the youth division was under way.
It was fascinating to watch the dogs and handlers work together. Sharp varying whistles combined with short voice commands were all the dogs needed to herd the sheep from one end of the immense field to the other, with some pretty impressive maneuvers through a maze of gates, culminating with the remarkable feat of separating the herd into two groups of three sheep each, and finally corralling the herd inside the pen.
According to the program, twenty-five handlers and their dogs would be competing in three separate divisions based on age and ability—young dogs, older dogs, and those in top-notch condition, but most of the competitors aside from John and Leith were unknown to me.
I suspected that much like John Derry, the other handlers probably tended to prefer the company of animals to humans, and so didn’t frequent the same places I did, or at least not at the same time. John had his share of pints at the Kilt & Thistle in Glenkillen, but I was done with my writing and gone from town before his day at the farm usually ended.
I’ve been spending a lot of my time at the Kilt & Thistle, which was where I did most of my writing. The farm doesn’t have Internet access, which I need for my research as well as for communication with Ami and the rest of the outside world. So nearly every day I make the twenty-minute drive into the main thoroughfare of Glenkillen, taking my life into my hands on the Highland narrow roadways, navigating as best I can on the left side (which is the wrong side where I come from).
The other reason I leave the farm to write is that Vicki isn’t very good at giving me the privacy I need to feed my creative spark. If she isn’t interrupting my train of thought for one thing or the other, her two white Westie terriers, Pepper and Coco, are. The dogs are as sweet as can be, but they demand a lot of attention without any regard for my other obligations.
So I take my laptop to the pub to write. It may seem counter-intuitive, but I find it easier to concentrate when I’m at the pub surrounded by people. I easily tune out pub noise and enter my characters’ world. The drone of voices actually acts as white noise.
Of course, these days, I mostly stare at the monitor, practicing deep breathing exercises to control my blood pressure, and checking for incoming e-mails of the disastrous sort. Right now, Ami Pederson, that pushy and sometimes crazy friend whom I admire so much, is reading the manuscript in spite of my resistance. I’d wanted to go right into yet another round of revisions, but she’d been adamant that I needed to step back for a few weeks and give her a chance to look it over.
Any day now I was expecting an e-mail from her telling me the storyline of Falling for You didn’t work, and I should head back to Chicago to return to the occasional freelance editorial job or ghostwriting contract augmented by any special projects Ami could come up with for me.
To say I was a little nervous about her opinion would be an enormous understatement. My fingernails would be nibbled to stubs if I were the nail-chewing type. It’s disturbing to find out just how paralyzed with fear I can become when my writing is under this kind of intense scrutiny.
I pushed all thoughts of my work in progress aside and concentrated on the trials in front of me.
The last dog in the youth division drove his sheep through a gate and back into a small pen. The pro division was next, and had the most contenders. We watched John work his dogs, then the inspector pointed out Isla Lindsey’s husband, Bryan, as he took the field. Bryan was a slight, unremarkable man who I bet wouldn’t have stood out on his own off the field. Here, though, he had an opportunity to shine. And he did.
From what I could tell as a layperson, both John Derry and Bryan were top-notch handlers, a cut above the others they were competing against. I couldn’t imagine how the judges would be able to decide who would be the winner. It was as clear as mud to me.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the action, caught up in the excitement of the moment. After several more of the working dogs had strutted their stuff, I glanced over and caught Inspector Jamieson watching me instead of the sheep. He quickly shifted his gaze away.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m thirsty,” I said hastily, standing up, feeling uncomfortable after having been observed without being aware of it. What had the astute inspector found of such interest?
“Then it’s tae the big tent fer us,” he muttered, rising with me.
We sauntered over to the tent, which was as big an attraction as the trial field. It had taken major effort to erect yesterday and had required massive manpower. Whoever had decided it needed to go up the day before knew what they were talking about. At the moment, the tent was the place to be.
I’ve discovered in my three months in the Highlands that the Scots love all things deep-fried. The food committee had outdone itself in that department. In addition to the basic fish and chips, there were Scotch pies and sausage rolls, bacon rolls and fried pizza (which I’d been advised was really good with a sprinkle of salt and a little vinegar), and my particular favorite—deep-fried Mars bars. Dangerously delicious.
My eyes took in those offerings, but were drawn to Senga Hill’s cupcake table. Senga, who had been born Agnes but decided to spell it backward and rechristened herself Senga, was a retired bakery owner in her sixties who had sold her business but never lost interest in baking sweet, delectable treats. Today, she was selling adorable sheep-shaped cupcakes, decorated with mini marshmallows for fleece, candy eyeballs, and . . .
Excerpted from "Hooked on Ewe"
Copyright © 2015 Hannah Reed.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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