After the recent death of her mother and the dissolution of her marriage, thirty-something Eden Elliott is seriously in need of a fresh start. At the urging of her best friend, bestselling author Ami Pederson, Eden decides to embark on an open-ended trip to the picturesque village of Glenkillen in the Scottish Highlands, to do some hands-on research for a book of her own. But almost as soon as Eden arrives in the quaint town, she gets caught up in a very real drama…
The town’s sheep shearer is found murdered—clipped with his own shears—and the locals suspect Vicki MacBride, an outsider whose father’s recent death left her the surprise heir to his lucrative sheep farm. Eden refuses to believe the affable heiress is a murderer, but can she prove that someone is out to frame her new friend before she finds herself on the receiving end of more shear terror?
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Queen Bee Mysteries
Scottish Highlands Mysteries
Sometimes my best friend, Ami, can go way overboard. Like earlier this month, when she presented me with her gift of a round-trip ticket to Scotland. With a return date six months out! What had she been thinking?
“I hate to appear ungrateful,” I muttered under my breath as we stood beside a security checkpoint in one of Chicago O’Hare’s international terminals, “but going away from July to December is just too long. I shouldn’t have agreed to this craziness.” I was seriously reconsidering how easily I’d caved to Ami’s whims. It was the story of our friendship, really, her bossing me around—though the truth was, her whims were usually pretty good ideas in retrospect. That’s also probably why she was such a successful businesswoman. And she’d been so adamant—pushy is more like it—when she set out to take full advantage of my fragile state of mind with her surprise gift. I’d tried to turn it down, but it had been too late. She’d taken care of all the arrangements in advance. I was stuck.
“You can come home to Chicago anytime you want to,” she repeated now, just as she had every time I’d expressed regrets out loud. “You don’t have to stay all six months, but you wouldn’t make it through customs without a return ticket. Thank God for smart travel agents. According to her, the max you can stay on a tourist visa is six months. I didn’t know what to do, so I went for it.”
What kind of logic was that? “You could have asked me first.”
“I was flustered.”
“You’re never flustered. Are you trying to get rid of me?”
“Of course not. I’m looking out for you. Stay six months or come home next week, it’s your choice. But for now, relax and enjoy, Eden. You deserve it after what you’ve been through.”
What I’d been through was the year from hell—I was thirty-eight years old, freshly divorced after six years of marriage, almost one year to the day after my husband had filed, and two days after I’d buried my mother, who’d finally given up a long, ugly battle with MS last month. For a long while she’d stabilized, but over the last five years I’d watched her fade away and finally pass on peacefully. After I’d witnessed the extent of her suffering, the end had been a welcome relief for both of us. I’d gotten married right before my mother took a turn for the worse, and while I’d felt responsible for her, my husband had resented the attention I’d given her instead of him. We never really had a chance. And now those two events, the loss of my mother and the finality of the divorce decree, each right on top of the other, had rocked my world. And I don’t mean that in a good way, either.
What exactly was I to do next? And more importantly, what was the point of it all?
I’d been awarded my mother’s small life insurance payout as a consolation prize, and my ex-husband bought out my share in the condo we’d owned together, although there hadn’t been much equity in it. After he’d filed last year, I’d moved into my mother’s small apartment to care for her, leaving all the furnishings we’d purchased together behind, taking only my personal belongings. I hadn’t wanted constant reminders of what had ceased to be.
The unexpected bit of cash allowed me time to pause and examine my life up to now. Not much of interest to report, I’m afraid. Nothing concrete to fall back on. I’d done some freelance editorial work in the past, as well as one ghostwriting gig, and had really enjoyed both, but as my mother’s condition had worsened and my marriage imploded, I’d put aside my ambitions. Until now.
“Look,” BFF was saying over the airport din. “You can do this.”
I nodded, toying with my boarding pass and passport. “Of course I can do it. But why should I? I’m having second thoughts. Third and fourth thoughts, actually.” Numbers five and six flitted through my mind as well. But there was also something else. Was that excitement underlying the pounding of my heart? Or simply a nervous response to an uncertain future? Was I ready for this?
Ami went on cheerleading. “You had to fly free eventually. And I mean that figuratively as well as literally. It’s time you stopped working special projects for me and started working for yourself. You’re more than talented enough. . . . You are. Don’t look at me like that!”
I studied my longtime, dearest, most loyal friend, who had been with me through thick and thin since our good old college days. How much fairer she’d weathered the storms. Ami Pederson wore her marriage to her beloved husband, Brad, like a diamond necklace, while even before my divorce I’d worn mine like an albatross around my neck. She hadn’t married the wrong guy or had to care for a terminally ill family member. Nothing so common for Ami Pederson. Yes, that Ami Pederson—the bestselling, prolific, world-famous historical romance author. Millions of copies sold of every single novel, dozens of exotic foreign translations. I’d lost count of how many by now.
Ami could grace the cover of one of her own novels. She’s tall and slender, with long-flowing locks, and always perfectly groomed as though perpetually ready for a television interview. Lights, camera, action: that’s Ami from the moment she rises in the morning to the time she wraps up her writing late at night.
Me? I was already feeling rumpled and wrinkled, and I hadn’t even boarded the first leg of my journey yet. I’d memorized the drill: seven-plus hours in the air, arrive in London in the wee hours of the morning, a lengthy layover at Heathrow, then a flight to Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, then pick up a rental car for a short drive to my final destination, a small town called Glenkillen. Ami had been to the village once and highly recommended it.
I shifted my carry-on from one shoulder to the other, resigned to whatever fate awaited me in the Highlands.
Ami must have sensed my surrender, because she gave me a warm, wide smile, and said gently, “Remember why you’re going to Scotland in the first place. Because you just happen to be under contract to a New York publisher to write your fabulous book!”
The thought did give me a blush of pride, which I quickly damped down. “Which I couldn’t have accomplished without your help and connections.” Not to mention that Ami had been extremely involved in the outline for the story and had suggested the Scottish Highlands setting.
“Nonsense!” Ami said. “You’re a great writer. And you’ve been hanging around me long enough to learn all the ins and outs of writing romances. All I did was help you brainstorm and then get your work in front of the right editor.”
Ami’s comment about my familiarity with romances was true enough. I’d read every one of her books, along with many by her contemporaries. I was a romance junkie from way back. And to be fair to myself, I had written my opening chapters without Ami’s input. Right this minute, though, I was feeling a little fearful. The publisher was taking a chance on me mainly because of my friendship with Ami. I didn’t want to let her or the publisher or myself down. That was a lot of pressure.
“Another wonderful reason for your trip comes to mind,” Ami continued. “Because your ancestors on your father’s side came from the Highlands. Lucky you! It will be such fun to check out your ancestral homeland, trust me. I’d join you if I didn’t have a deadline looming.”
The mention of my father wasn’t a welcome one. The man had abandoned me and my mother long ago, back when she’d originally been diagnosed with MS. Yet we’d both continued to use his last name—Elliott—maybe because it was the only thing we still really had from him. At first Mom had waited patiently, certain that my father would return. My mother had been more charitable than me, more forgiving; until the end, she always wondered if something had happened to him, rather than his having left us behind. Later, by the time she’d given up, she was too sick to care about pursuing a divorce. Either way, there’d been no second chance at love for her.
Ami was still talking up my destination. “All those hunky Scottish men! A romance novel set in the Scotland Highlands . . . Well, it’s a fantastic location for a romantic interlude. Both on the page”—Ami gave me a conspiratorial glance—“and off.”
Not this again. My best friend was bound and determined to see me involved with someone as soon as possible. I had other plans. More realistic ones that better reflected my personality and the more recent past.
I’d been an introvert my whole life, whether by choice or by demand, it didn’t really matter. I’d learned to cherish and protect my personal space and time. As far back as I could remember, reading had been my escape. It was only a matter of stages: I started trying my hand at writing journal entries, then progressed to short stories and the discovery that the creative process gave me a much needed outlet.
In my teens and early twenties, I’d been a voracious fiction reader, mostly romances, but at this stage in my life it was time to learn to sort fact from fiction. The whole concept of Prince Charming was unrealistic, a fantasy. Happy endings were best suited for fairy tales—and all the best romances. But those things didn’t happen in real life. Opposites attract, that’s for sure, but lately I’d been reconsidering whether they made for good matches. I’d married one—extroverted to my introverted, someone with enormous energy who loved people and parties while I preferred a good book and spent my efforts doing what I thought was right, which was tending to my mother until the end.
Would a man with traits more like mine have understood and stayed by my side?
Well, it was way too late to know. And I had better uses for my time than regretting the past.
Yes, the more I thought about it, the more I decided that the future belonged to me—by myself, alone. I wasn’t about to share it with someone who expected me to do piles of laundry and serve him meals in front of the television set, all the while trying to maintain my own career around his demands.
Besides, I rarely suffered from loneliness and I wasn’t afraid to be alone.
What did I need a man for?
Absolutely nothing, that’s what.
“I better go,” I said to Ami after checking the time and glancing at the long line of travelers snaking through security. I shuffled over to the end of the line.
“Remember, turn off roaming,” Ami warned, tagging along. “In fact, don’t use your cell phone at all; it’s way too expensive. We’ll keep in touch through e-mail. Take a few days to acclimate, then get to work. You’re booked into the local inn for two weeks, but you can always extend that if you decide to stay longer.”
The line moved a few inches, then a few more. Ami stayed with me.
“You can’t go any farther,” I told her when it came my turn to show my boarding pass at the first security checkpoint. Ami hung back but didn’t leave. As I grabbed a bin and began to unload my things into it, she shouted out her parting words, much to my dismay: “And make sure you find out what’s really underneath those sexy kilts!”
Several travelers turned and followed Ami’s gaze back to me.
Maybe I did need some time away.
* * *
The flight from Chicago to London went fairly smoothly. I’d chosen a window seat way in the back, and the others in my row weren’t interested in making conversation. But while I still couldn’t sleep for several reasons—mainly because I’d never perfected the art of dozing off in a sitting position, and my wayward heart wouldn’t stop beating to its own Scottish tune at the realization that I was on my very first trip out of the country—coming in for the landing at dawn the next day revived me.
Unfortunately, weariness set in during the layover, and I promised myself a nice nap on the flight to Inverness.
It didn’t happen.
Almost as soon as we’d boarded, Chatty Cathy’s twin sat down next to me in a seat that didn’t completely contain her.
“Vicki MacBride,” she said, introducing herself while I caught a strong whiff of her perfume, a combination of rose and jasmine. “I’m from London, until very recently. Now headed back to live in the place of my birth.” Her accent didn’t sound very English, even though she’d just told me she was from London. It was a blend of some sort, and I wondered if she’d lived elsewhere as well.
Vicki wasn’t a huge woman—plump but not fat, strong-boned but not manly. I guessed her age to be somewhere around mid-forties. She wore her blonde hair tied up in a knot on top of her head and gave me a wide-toothed smile as she dug in a tote and pulled out a beautiful skein of yellow and blue yarn along with knitting needles, and began adding rows to a few existing ones without stopping her flow of talk. “And who do I have the pleasure of meeting?”
I readjusted in my narrow seat, scooting as close to the window as possible in search of a little personal space. “Eden Elliott,” I said by way of introduction, then paused when she asked the reason for my trip to the Highlands. That was a good question. Was I searching for something? A new beginning? Purpose to my life? I went with a more concrete, less introspective response. “I’m going to write a novel.”
“Really?” Vicki’s eyes widened. “What kind of novel?”
“Contemporary romance,” I said. Gillian Fraser, my heroine, would be a strong modern woman struggling with present-day issues and conquering them. I hoped to get into character.
“Lots of sex on the page, I’d imagine?” Vicki said, nudging me with her elbow.
I laughed weakly. “I’m not that far into it yet.” Several thin, first-draft chapters after a polished first chapter didn’t amount to much. I hadn’t yet tried Ami’s advice, to write one of the love scenes first. “Your story will grow organically from there. And don’t be afraid to add lots of juicy details,” she’d said with a wink.
“My favorite reads are romances about American cowboys,” Vicki told me, her knitting needles clicking away. “The hotter, the better. Make sure some of the scenes are right steamy and it’ll be a bestseller.”
“Mmm,” I said noncommittally, then leaned back into the headrest and closed my eyes as the plane gained altitude.
Unfortunately, Vicki MacBride wasn’t the sort to take obvious hints that a person wanted to be left alone.
“I hope Pepper and Coco are doing all right in the hold,” she said, sounding anxious. “They’re my two wee West Highland terriers, and they aren’t used to travel.”
I sympathized with her anxiety over her dogs. Sometimes I think I like animals more than people. Correction: more than sometimes. Change that to “almost always.” They are so much more loyal and aboveboard—loving, caring, never wavering from a constant state of affection and devotion. They don’t run off when you need them the most. And they don’t win your heart, then snap it in two like an insignificant twig.
Once an animal befriends you, it’s for life. Unlike some ex-husbands I could think of.
It was his fault I’d been without the companionship of a pet. Him and his allergies. And my mother’s apartment hadn’t allowed pets. When the lease was up in a few months, I planned to move someplace pet friendly and get one of my own.
“We were supposed to be on an earlier flight, but our plane had mechanical problems and we were all herded over to this one,” Vicki lamented. “I’ll be lucky to make it back in time, what with collecting my boys and finding my car in the lot. Good thing Glenkillen isn’t too far from the airport.”
“Glenkillen? That’s where I’m going,” I said, opening my eyes in surprise.
“Well, fancy that! We’ll have to stay in touch. Are you in need of a ride over? I have room, if you don’t mind budging up with my little pets and our luggage.”
“That’s very nice of you,” I said. “But I’ve reserved a rental at the Inverness airport.”
“Ah, of course you have. Will you be staying at the Whistling Inn or with friends?”
“At the inn.” I yawned. So exhausted! I only half listened as she talked for the better part of the flight.
“My half brother and half sister used to be my best little pals,” I heard at one point, listening to the faint sound of the needles working away, my eyes once again closed. “I’d visit every summer from London and we’d run wild on the Highland hillsides, scaring the sheep, dressing the newborn lambs in baby clothes, all of us without a care in the world. Ah, those are fond memories. Then my mum moved us to the States—California—when I was thirteen. You know how teenagers are, so busy with their own lives they forget about everybody else.”
“But you’re living in London now?” I asked, opening my eyes.
“I needed a change of scenery, and London was as good a place as any, one where I knew my way around. That’s all changed now. I’m on my way back to Scotland for my father’s funeral and to move into the old family house there.”
“I’m so sorry about your father,” I murmured.
She went on, “It’s fine, really. My da wasn’t much of a father to me. It was his second wife, Moira, who encouraged me. She was the one who rang at the beginning of each summer and invited me. After that marriage ended, my father never rang to ask me to visit. But by then we had an ocean between us.”
“I know exactly how that feels,” I told her. “My dad took off when I was a kid and never came back. I don’t even know if he’s dead or alive.”
“You poor dear. But you have a good mother?”
“Had. She was the best. And you?”
“A wonderful woman, passed on now as well.”
“Then we were both blessed.”
Vicki smiled. “But now my da’s up and died, and suddenly my circumstances have changed overnight. Earlier in the week I flew to Glenkillen to meet with the solicitor, who’s also acting as executor of the estate, and imagine my surprise to find I’ve inherited the whole lot! Until then, I was a part-time pet stylist on the dole, unable to find permanent work and running out of funds. Now I’m moving out of the city and may never have to work another day in my life unless I so choose. Life’s full of surprises.”
That was quite the inheritance—as an only child to an ill single mother, all I’d inherited beyond her house and life insurance were the bills. Even if other family members had existed to make claims, there hadn’t been much in the way of material possessions to argue over when my mother passed away. But if I ever found myself in that situation, I swore I’d just give everybody whatever the heck they wanted and back away. It just wouldn’t be worth the hassle.
Vicki’s head was down as she concentrated on her knitting. “Wonder what I should do with all of my time now that I’m secure,” she said. “It won’t be spent catching up with my half siblings, that’s for sure. They didn’t take kindly to my return and to the terms of our da’s will. Maybe I’ll write a story, too, Eden Elliott. What do you think of that?”
I must have dozed off after that, because the next thing I knew we were beginning our descent. The fog had lifted, giving me a breathtaking view out the airplane window of the countryside surrounding Inverness and a spectacular view of the River Ness, home to the famous Loch Ness Monster. Everything was so lush and green!
“I’ll look you up after I tend to my family business,” Vicki said as we deplaned. “I could use a friend.”
Couldn’t we all, I remember thinking as my flight companion hurried off to claim her terriers and I went off to claim a rental car.
Somewhere between Inverness and Glenkillen, my rental car broke down.
After trying everything I could think of to get the thing going again, I gave the tire a swift kick in utter, absolute frustration. My foot connected, the impact hurting me much more than it did the car. Which only angered me more.
My foot was in mid-swing again when I heard the sweet sound of another vehicle approaching. Finally! But it was too late to halt what was already in process, proving the theory that a body in motion stays in motion. Or in this case, a leg in motion.
A white Land Rover pulled up behind my rental car on the curvy, impossibly narrow excuse for a road. More like a mountain-goat path, if you ask me. I adjusted my attitude into a semblance of cool, calm, and collected for the benefit of the driver. I needed road assistance, and acting like a lunatic wasn’t likely to get it for me.
I plastered a welcoming smile on my face and really hoped it didn’t make me look totally insane.
The driver’s window slid down, and a guy around my age stuck his head out. “Winning the fight, are ye?” he said, in a lilting Scottish accent that I would have found attractive under normal circumstances. But I was too cranky to be charmed. Between my jet lag, the need to constantly remind myself to stay on the opposite side of the road from the right as I was used to—not to mention driving from what felt like the passenger seat—and the discovery that I’d rented a car with a manual transmission (a skill definitely not on my bucket list), well . . . things weren’t going exactly as planned.
“The steering wheel started pulling hard to the right,” I explained, calling back. “Now the stick thing won’t move.” I winced at my lame attempt to describe a mechanical problem. Who knew that most rental cars in Scotland were manuals and that you had to specifically request an automatic in advance? Not me, clearly. And, wouldn’t you know it, by the time I realized my mistake, there hadn’t been a single automatic left. The rental agent had been sympathetic and even gave me a lesson in shifting and clutch work, but to say I was completely frazzled would be an understatement.
Thank God everyone here at least spoke English, or some version of it anyway. I was only processing about half of what had been said to me since landing on this unfamiliar terrain. Coming from Chicago, I was used to hearing foreign accents on a daily basis, and I’m usually pretty good at deciphering most of them. But this Scottish one had to be the hardest.
The guy slid out of his vehicle and came toward me.
Now that someone had finally stopped, my stranger-danger warning bells went off, and I wondered what the odds were that this guy got his kicks out of committing atrocities on stranded female motorists. Leave it to the airlines to take away a woman’s line of defense. I’d forgotten all about the little canister of pepper spray in the bottom of my purse when I’d gone through security in Chicago. The body search hadn’t been pleasant.
But a quick glance at his Land Rover showed that he was towing a fishing boat, and besides, he had a cute border collie riding with him. In a split second of decision-making, I applied a partially formed opinion of his character, using good old intuition to decide he was A-OK. What animal lover (an assumption I made based on his canine friend) could possibly be a bad guy? Besides, I figured I had to trust him. Who else did I have to turn to out here in the middle of nowhere? Still, I planned to remain alert to any trouble.
I rubbed the back of my neck, considering the symptoms of whiplash after so many sudden starts and stops. I’d heard it takes a few hours for aches and pains to settle in. “I’m fine, really,” I told him.
“Ye don’t look so fine,” he said, then, apparently realizing that I might misinterpret his remark as a critique of my personal appearance, amended, “I mean, ye look fine, but . . . uh . . . yer situation doesn’t.” He gave me a slightly crooked smile. “Did ye use yer mobile to call for help?”
It wasn’t as though I hadn’t considered that option, but my cell phone hadn’t worked since I’d landed (not a fact I wanted to broadcast to unfamiliar men; it would be like using a black magic marker to write Helpless Prey on my forehead). Never mind that I hadn’t the faintest idea who to call. Ami, back in Chicago? Not much help there. What was the magic number for emergencies here anyway? It certainly wasn’t 911.
“And how exactly do I do that?” I said instead, immediately realizing I’d made a stupid mistake in showing my ignorance.
“In the future, ye call nine-nine-nine,” he informed me. “Yer from the States, then?”
I strained to catch a tone of disdain in his voice, but, to my relief, didn’t hear anything negative. He was simply making a statement. I was aware that we Americans weren’t exactly beloved worldwide. Trying to beat up an innocent car was a perfect example of how not to act in a foreign country.
I admitted I was, and he studied the car situation while I covertly studied him. He really was a nice guy, I could tell. And it didn’t hurt that he was also tall and attractive, with sandy blond hair and a little natural red facial hair, like he hadn’t had time to shave this morning. He was wearing jeans and a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up, showing well-muscled arms, and he smelled nice, too, like fresh air and open fields—unless that really was the great outdoors giving me sensory overload. And he had those Scottish blue eyes I’d been admiring since landing.
Everything about this guy seemed relaxed, from the casual way he wore his clothes to the hair on his head (just a little too long, which happened to be just right in my book). I wanted to think I had the same sense of self-confidence that wafted from him, but I had to admit, in the short time since I’d arrived in Scotland, some of my poise—all right, most of it—had bailed on me.
He opened the driver’s door, slid in, started it up, and tried to shift through the gears. Yup, they were locked in place for him, too.
“Can you fix it?” I asked anxiously, wrapping my cardigan a little tighter around my body, realizing that the temperature here was much cooler than a July afternoon back home. I’d have to replace it with one made from Scottish wool.
“Did ye hear any loud noises?” he asked, a hint of amusement twitching his lips.
“Yes. A big bang.”
He got out and tinkered under the hood. The internal workings of cars have always baffled me, so instead of observing I walked over to the rover’s partially open passenger window and introduced myself to the border collie. “Eden Elliott,” I said as the dog stood up and wagged her tail madly. I reached in and gave her a pat on the head along with an ear scratch. “You’re a sweetie.”
I heard the hood close, and I walked back to my car for the damage report.
“Eden, is it?” the guy said, inclining his head to the dog. “I overheard ye introduce yerself to Kelly there. I’m Leith Cameron at your service. Yer not all that familiar with a manual, are ye?”
“Not really. This is . . . was . . . my first attempt.”
Leith’s eyes swept over my faulty transportation. “The transmission is fouled up a bit. That extra pedal on the floor is a clutch, in case ye were wondering.”
“I know that. I had a lesson before driving off.”
“Must o’ been a wee one.”
“I told the rental person it was a big mistake not to make more effort to locate an automatic for me.”
We both looked at my big mistake. I’d been right—as usual—when it came to my lack of mechanical abilities. When they’d passed out those brain connections, I must have been in a far corner reading a book.
“Where are ye heading?” he asked next.
“Let’s grab yer things, then,” Leith said. “Glenkillen is right around the bend, and it’s where I’m goin’. I’ll see tae the car, but I’ll need the hire agreement.”
I fished around in the front seat and handed over the paperwork.
Leith pulled the keys out of the rental car’s ignition, popped the trunk (or rather the “boot,” as the rental agent had referred to it), and transferred my bags into the backseat of his Land Rover, moving so quickly that I didn’t have a chance to pitch in and help.
“Ye don’t mind sharing a seat with Kelly, do ye?” he asked.
“Not at all,” I said, climbing in.
“Ye’ll be staying at the Whistling Inn?”
“How did you know?” I asked warily.
“Only place around these parts to stay.”
Ah. True. Research had told me tourists usually made Inverness their home base and traveled from there on day trips to take in the sights. But I’d wanted more total immersion. In spite of Glenkillen’s popularity as a coastal town, it didn’t encourage overnight revelers. In fact, I’d read that it closed up relatively early each night. It was exactly what I’d been looking for, and Ami had agreed.
“You won’t be able to run to the comfort of other Americans in a place like that,” she’d said with a wicked little grin.
She’d certainly been right about that. And if only she could see the Scot who’d come to my rescue. She’d absolutely flip with glee.
“Well, Eden Elliott,” Leith said, “let’s get ye to yer destination.”
And we were off, heading through the rolling hills of the Scottish Highlands. I finally had an opportunity to sit back and enjoy the scenery. Right outside my window, which I rolled all the way down to enjoy all the sensory delights, were glorious purple-hued heather-covered hills on both sides of the road. Mountainous peaks rose in the background. The air smelled very much of honeysuckle, sweetly and powerfully fragrant.
Sheep dotted the hills and valleys like clumps of cotton, some all white, others black-faced but with white bodies, as well as the occasional proverbial black sheep, all grazing contently. Hand-built stone walls edged both sides of the road, sometimes branching away and meandering off over the tufted grass, crumbling here and there with age.
“Did ye come for the funeral?” Leith asked rather loudly, since we both had our windows down.
“James MacBride’s. Should be quite the turnout for it,” he said.
He must be talking about Vicki’s father, I realized, deciding to feign total ignorance, curious what Leith would say about James MacBride and the rest of the family.
“An important man?” I asked.
“Ye could say that.”
That was all the prompting he needed. The gist of it, if I understood right (which was questionable, considering Leith’s brogue and my unfamiliarity with several Scottish idioms he threw in), was that the elderly James MacBride had been an important community member who’d recently suffered a rapid series of strokes. The last and final one had stopped his heart for good. He’d owned a large hill sheep farming operation where, not only were sheep raised for their wool, but all stages of the process to create yarn for retail sale and for commercial wool product distribution was conducted. MacBride’s place was one of many tourist attractions in these parts, with regular sheep-shearing demonstrations and a gift shop specializing in all kinds of finished wool products and yarns.
Despite having done a fair amount of research before this trip, I hadn’t come across anything about the MacBride farm, probably because it was on the outskirts of Glenkillen. I was more eager to visit the village pubs and shops. At the top of my list was a pub called the Kilt & Thistle, Glenkillen Books, the Whisky Stop, and A Taste of Scotland, which advertised sweet oaties, Dundee cakes (whatever those were), and six flavors of shortbread. And the Whistling Inn, where Ami had reserved a room for my extended stay that included a full Scottish breakfast.
“The funeral is today at five o’clock, and the family is feuding something fierce,” Leith gossiped as Kelly and I got to be pals. “Story is, James MacBride left everything to his oldest daughter, who he hadn’t seen since she was a bairn. Worse, his two grown children from his second marriage were left out of his will altogether, and one of them even runs the family business with her husband. An’ none of ’em will cry baurley-fummil.”
That last part flew right past me, although I was pretty sure the barley part didn’t involve any grain.
“Whose side are you on?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“I don’t take sides. ‘Live and let live’ is my motto.”
We crested the top of a hill, and Glenkillen and the North Sea came into view. In its harbor and as far out into the ocean as I could see, sailboats rode the waves, their colorful spinnakers flying. A few fishing boats were heading out into the vast rolling water, and other boats of varying sizes were tied to moorings, rising and falling with the waves. Through my open window, I breathed in salty ocean air.
“What do ye think of it?” Leith asked with obvious pride.
“It’s more beautiful than I imagined.” My tiredness gave way to excitement. Soon we were driving along Castle Street with its quaint shops, exactly like the images I’d seen online. People crowded the streets, shopping, eating, drinking, milling about. I loved seeing this village and all its energy, even in my travel-weary state.
I heard a bagpipe jig coming from inside a pub.
“‘Biddy from Sligo’,” Leith muttered, glancing my way.
“Excuse me?” Was he calling me a biddy? And if so, did that mean the same thing in Scotland as it did at home?
He laughed when he noticed my expression. “Name of the jig, that’s all.”
I laughed, too, at the misunderstanding, one of many more to come, I was sure.
Leith pulled over next to a discreet hotel sign, hopped out, gathered my bags, and deposited them inside the entryway, again refusing my assistance when I tried to offer it. I thanked him, then turned to his companion.
“Good-bye, Kelly,” I said to the friendly canine through the open window. “Hope we run into each other again.”
Leith grinned. “Don’t worry there.” He opened the driver’s door, then turned back. “Ye should come to the pub tonight,” he said. “Everybody’s invited after the funeral, for a proper send-off.”
“Doesn’t sound like my kind of event,” I told him, thinking of the MacBrides and their personal problems. “Especially if the family is fighting like cats and dogs.”
Leith grinned. “Ye don’t strike me as a woman who tiptoes around. Ye certainly weren’t tiptoeing back when I found ye, now, were ye?”
“No, I guess I wasn’t.” More like trying to kick the car into a zillion pieces.
“If ye come, I’ll buy ye a pint,” he said, his smile its own form of enticement, “And give ye an update on yer car.”
“Another time, perhaps,” I heard my voice saying. What was wrong with me? Why was I making excuses instead of taking this handsome knight in shining armor up on his offer? Ami would be deeply disappointed in my behavior.
Leith seemed a bit disappointed. Or was that my imagination? “If ye change yer mind,” he said, “I’ll be there.” Those blue eyes met mine. “Ye better stay off the roads until ye learn how to operate that car properly,” he advised me. “Our roads can be treacherous if ye aren’t used to them.”
I didn’t say so, but I had absolutely zero interest in learning how to drive that particular one. I wanted an automatic car, one without all those gears and extra pedals and the need to multitask the entire time. Tomorrow, I vowed, I’d call the rental company and beg for a different car.
It was the safest thing for me, and for all of Scotland.
I watched his Land Rover pull away, Kelly’s nose pressed against the window, her border collie stare drilling into me. Had I lost my mind? One of these days, I’d have to work on the introverted side of my personality, beat it out of the forefront, where it seemed to always control my actions. Those pesky old habits were hard to overcome, though.
I paused at the entrance to the inn to take in the lively and colorful view up and down the street.
Here I was, standing on a cobblestone street in the heart of the Scottish Highlands, savoring the exciting possibility of romance and intrigue . . . even though I’d turned down my first opportunity a few minutes ago. Serenity, reflection, acceptance, creativity. It all could be mine.
I finally made it to Glenkillen. Thank you for giving me the push I needed, Ami.
If I’d only known what awaited me, I would have been on the next flight home.
The Whistling Inn was a family-run bed-and-breakfast, rather simply designed with cream-colored stone on the exterior and pastel colors within. The owners lived on the premises and cooked for their guests each morning. A warm and inviting breakfast room was off to the side of the registration desk. The inn met my needs nicely, with Internet access available and the single bedroom en suite. No way would I feel comfortable trotting down the hall to a shared bath. My own bathroom had been a requirement from the very beginning.
“Yer paid up two weeks in advance,” a young woman with a heavy Scottish accent said from the opposite side of the desk. “So yer all set. I’m Jeannie Morris, if ye be needin’ anything.”
Jeannie couldn’t be more than in her early to mid-twenties and though she had red hair, none of her brassy highlights had the natural beauty of Leith Cameron’s or some of the other heads of hair I’d seen. Hers were clumps of fiery copper, mixed with about six other man-made shades. Definitely from a box, or rather from several boxes. And she wore a nose ring. Not a discreet jeweled stub, but rather a large hoop that reminded me of a bull’s ring.
If Jeannie wasn’t exactly the best first impression, the room was everything I imagined it should be: cozy, with wonderful natural light from my second-floor window, a desk that would function perfectly for my writing, and a thick lush duvet on the bed.
After sending Ami a quick e-mail to let her know I’d arrived safely, and briefly mentioning the breakdown and the guy who’d picked me up, I put my things away and stretched out on the bed for a few minutes of downtime. As I lay there, I heard bagpipes on the street below. This time I recognized the piece: “Amazing Grace,” which always makes me cry. Being played on the bagpipes turned it into the most mournful, soul-wrenching rendition I’d ever heard. Sure enough, tears ran down my cheeks. I sang along softly: “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
I got up and peered out my window to see some sort of procession passing through the village. A solitary piper was in the lead. Next came a horse and a cart adorned with strips of plaid ribbon, carrying a coffin. An actual horse and cart! This had to be the MacBride funeral. Mourners at the front of the advancement were dressed in kilts and colorful clan tartans, except one woman—off a bit from the others—who wore an ankle-length black dress. Sure enough, I recognized her as Vicki MacBride. The others must be her half siblings. They were followed by a bevy of folks I assumed to be locals, many also in kilts. If it weren’t such a sad occasion, I would have thought the sight very festive.
Despite my jet lag and bone weariness, why wasn’t I out there? I reminded myself that absorbing Scottish culture and observing local traditions firsthand was exactly why I’d traveled to the Scottish Highlands. And Vicki looked so sad and lonely as she passed by. She’d said she needed a friend, hadn’t she?
I made an impulsive decision. I splashed water on my face and rubbed my hands along my wrinkled shirt in another attempt to smooth my clothing. With a burst of energy induced by sheer willpower, I left the inn for my little adventure. I hurried out into the street, following the mourners to the village cemetery.
From my position at the back of the crowd, most of the ceremony was lost on me. I still hadn’t completely adjusted to the Highland dialect. The jumble of words that drifted over my head from the front might just as easily have been in Swahili. Even when I thought I caught some phrases, I was often confused—like with the concluding remark: “Deep peace o’ the running waves tae ye.” What did that mean?
Toward the end, a woman directly in front of me glanced up into a nearby hawthorn tree, and pointed out something to the man beside her. “A corbie,” I overheard her say. “Nothin’ good aboot that.”
The man, an elderly gentleman with unruly salt-and-pepper gray hair and an enormous walrus mustache that covered his entire mouth, turned slightly to follow her gaze. “Aye,” he said. “Nothin’ at all good.”
Scanning the tree for this corbie creature, I spotted a large crow. Or maybe it was a raven. Either way, the bird cocked its head and turned a wary eye on me before taking flight and disappearing from view.
A corbie. Huh.
Frankly, I was starting to wonder if the travel guides I’d studied were going to be much use to me here.
* * *
After the graveside service, the mourners began assembling at the Kilt & Thistle, which turned out to be conveniently located right next door to my accommodations. And the whole village really was invited, judging by the number of people flowing through the outer doors.
The Kilt & Thistle had great atmosphere and welcomed me in from the moment the door opened. I glimpsed a warren of small, oddly shaped rooms tucked away here and there, with the main pub area sizeable enough for a gathering of this magnitude.
“Well, who do we have here!” I heard from behind me. “Come get a hug, Eden Elliott!”
I turned to see Vicki bearing down on me with a big, friendly smile and her arms spread in preparation for an embrace. Call me easy, but I let her. Although I wasn’t sure I had a choice. After a strong squeeze enhanced by the equally powerful musky aroma of roses and jasmine I remembered from the plane, she backed away, beaming at me.
“How was your drive from Inverness?” she asked. “It takes some getting used to, doesn’t it?”
I shuddered, remembering. “I doubt I’ll ever get used to it.” Then: “I’m so sorry about your father. Are you okay?”
“I barely knew him,” she reminded me. “Mostly, I’m in mourning for what could have been. But now . . . it’s the living I need to reconcile with, and that’s going to be the hardest part.”
“I have faith in you,” I told her. From what I’d seen, Vicki seemed like a warm and genuine woman. She’d manage just fine.
A lone man began to sing, his voice powerful and rich. Others joined in until the entire room resonated with raised voices.
“Scotland’s national anthem,” Vicki said quietly. “Flowers of Scotland.” I saw tears form in the eyes of those nearby just as mine had when listening to “Amazing Grace.”
“Well, new friend,” Vicki said when the song was finished, tucking her arm through mine, “thank you very much for coming. You’ve renewed my strength, which tends to ebb in times of turmoil and conflict. Now let’s get some nibbles, shall we?”
Whisky and ale flowed freely, and a band complete with bagpipe, fiddle, and accordion started playing Gaelic tunes.
The MacBride family had to be well-off to offer up such a smorgasbord of meat pies, sausages, fish and chips, and cheese-and-fruit platters to such a large gathering. With my new friend’s encouragement, I helped myself to a small plate of assorted food items. I tried to sample a little of everything, not realizing until that moment how hungry I was.
When one of the servers called Vicki away to make some small decision regarding the menu items, leaving me alone, I moved to the bar. I really enjoy a good beer, but decided to wait and indulge another time—considering how little sleep or food I’d had over the last day or so, I worried it would go straight to my head and I’d make a public fool of myself. What I wanted more than anything was to be accepted by the locals, to blend in. To assimilate. Not to become a laughingstock.
I’d read that Irn-Bru was the national nonalcoholic drink of Scotland, at least according to the travel guide. I figured now was a good time to try it.
“Aye,” the bartender said in the local lilting accent when I asked if they carried it. He was blond and goateed, and when he brought my drink, he gave me a friendly, conspiratorial wink as though he knew I didn’t really belong here.
Eden Elliott, funeral crasher. That’s me. Vicki had been welcoming, but maybe the other family members would consider me an intruder.
I took a cautious sip of the beverage. It was overpoweringly sweet, metallic, and bitter all at once. Just as my face scrunched at its fizziness, I heard a familiar voice by my side.
What People are Saying About This
“If you fancy a quick, inexpensive trip to the Scottish Highlands, then Off Kilter is your ticket. Join writer Eden Elliott as she journeys to Glenkillen to research and write her first book, then go along for the investigation into the death of the town’s sheep-shearer. Hannah Reed’s new series will please Scotophiles everywhere, and they’ll soon be eager for another trip to Glenkillen.”—Miranda James, New York Times Bestselling Author of The Cat in the Stacks mystery series
“Hannah Reed’s series debut captures the appeal of the Highlands, and features a plucky, determined heroine surrounded by a cast of quirky but believable characters.”—Sheila Connolly, New York Times bestselling author of the County Cork Mysteries