The quilting ladies of the Scottish village of Gandiegow are known to piece together more than just fabric . . .
Life isn’t going as planned and Sadie Middleton is rethinking her whole future. Thankfully one thing is staying the same: She’s able to share her love of quilting with her grandmother Gigi. The two of them enter a contest and win an all-expenses-paid trip to the Kilts and Quilts retreat in the Scottish Highlands. But their victory turns hollow when Gigi passes away before they can go. Sadie is grief-stricken, but her brother convinces her to take the trip to Gandiegow anyway.
There she meets a charming circle of quilters who remind her of her grandmother—and Ross Armstrong, a handsome fisherman who brings a smile to her face. Newly single, Ross intends to enjoy his freedom. That plan goes awry as he comes to know Sadie—and a surprising spark is lit. Too bad some well-meaning folks want to protect Ross from getting hurt again and are determined to keep him and the American lass apart. . . .
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A light Scottish summer breeze deposited a leaf on the hood of Ross Armstrong’s red truck. He brushed it aside, dropped the rag he’d been using into a bucket, and stepped back, admiring his masterpiece—a newly restored 1956 Ford F-1. Ross hadn’t done it all by himself, not by a longshot. His brothers, John and Ramsay, had helped, and Doc MacGregor had been invaluable, from rebuilding the engine to the new paint job. But Ross felt a sense of accomplishment anyway.
As if the wind had dropped something heavier than a leaf—perhaps an anchor—a thought hit him, crushing his good mood. Now what am I going to do?
For the last seven months he’d spent every spare second on the pickup, when he wasn’t working on the family commercial fishing boat or helping out at NSV, the North Sea Valve Company. He’d filled his time, hoping to keep the women, and men, of Gandiegow from bugging him, trying to set him up with their daughters and granddaughters. Now that Pippa—his ex-long-intended—was married, the town thought he should be hitched, too.
Didn’t everyone have enough to fuss over with Moira and Father Andrew’s upcoming wedding than to try to marry off Ross, too?
He had his own plans. Robert and Samuel were out of school for the summer, so they could take his place on the fishing boat while Ross did something else.
He just didn’t know what.
He’d spent a lot of the time working on the truck thinking about a new career, how he might step out from the life everyone else had chosen for him from birth. His little brother Ramsay had made a change from being a fisherman to running his own business. Ross could do it, too. He’d been toying with the idea of hiring out his truck to haul goods, but it didn’t seem quite right.
“There you are.”
Ross groaned as he glanced back at Kit, the town matchmaker, barreling toward him. She might be his sister-in-law, but it didn’t give her the right to meddle in his nonexistent love life. Sure as shite, she held her damned matchmaking notebook to her chest, and right beside her was Harry Dunn looking intently at him, too.
Ross tossed the bucket into the bed of the pickup, pulled his keys from his pocket, and hopped into the front. “Gotta run.”
“Wait up,” Harry hollered. “My niece is coming in today for the quilt retreat. She wants to meet ye.”
Kit glared at Ross. “You’ll never find another woman if you keep running away.”
He turned the key and revved the engine. “Sorry, Harry. Sorry, Kit. Can’t hear ye over the noise.” He cranked the window up as fast as he could and pulled out.
“That was a close call,” Ross said to the refurbished gray interior of the truck.
He wasn’t being rude, only preserving what little sanity he had left. He’d done what the town had wanted. He’d waited years for Pippa to return so they could marry. She’d returned, all right, but instead of marrying him, she’d met and married her true love, Max. Max was a hell of a guy, and Ross wholeheartedly gave his blessing to their quick wedding. That should’ve been enough to satisfy Gandiegow. But no. The second Pippa was married, Kit started pestering Ross to take out the new schoolteacher, Kirsty. Against his better judgment, and to get Kit and everyone off his back, he’d gone to dinner a time or two with Kirsty. She was okay—nice-looking and everything—but his time would’ve been better spent chopping bait.
As he drove from the community parking lot and up the bluff, he caught a glimpse out of the rearview mirror of Kit with her hands on her hips. There’d be hell to pay for foiling her plans. He was going to have to talk to his brother Ramsay about setting his wife straight. Ross couldn’t be tied down right now. This was his time to play the field. Hell, he wanted to wear it out!
Maybe he should drive to Lios or Fairge to do just that. But first he had to pick up some goat cheese at Spalding Farm for Dominic and Claire, Gandiegow’s restaurateurs.
Farther up the road over the bluff, just past NSV, a coach bus came into view. Ross eased his truck to the side to let it pass. Harry’s niece was most certainly on that bus headed for the quilt retreat. Just like before every Kilts and Quilts retreat, the gossip mill had been abuzz, but Ross had done his best to ignore it. He pulled back into the road and kept going.
He glanced back in his mirror at NSV, Pippa’s father’s factory. Ross worked there sometimes and had invested what cash he had, not regretting the decision. NSV would make money one day, but in the meantime, what was Ross going to do? A looming dread fell over him. Have I wasted my life up until now? His little brother Ramsay, for gawd’s sake, changed his life. Ross had always worked on the family fishing boat. And that was fine, but shouldn’t he want more? What did he own besides this truck and a few shares in NSV? He’d spent his thirty years doing the right thing, being an honorable man, and what had it gotten him?
As if a thick fog had lifted, everything became clear. He was done doing what everyone else wanted, done doing what was expected!
He glanced over at the quilted grocery bags beside him. Except today. He would run errands for the village. But later . . .
Later he would make a stand and take back his life.
At twenty-two, Sadie Middleton didn’t like zombie movies, but as she stepped off the bus a mile out of Gandiegow, Scotland, she felt like the lead in her own dreadful film. Sadie of the Dead. Not some glamourous zombie either, but a plain zombie who wanted to vanish. The other women around her were excited, giddy about their first evening at the quilt retreat. Sadie felt only waylaid. Shell-shocked. Miserable. If she was still at home in North Carolina, she would be sitting on the porch with Gigi, her grandmother, drinking sweet tea and waiting for the July Fourth fireworks to begin.
Except they weren’t in the US.
And Gigi was dead.
The gravel crunched under Sadie’s feet as she made her way, along with the other quilters, to the North Sea Valve Company’s factory door. Their bus had died and coasted into the parking lot, and they were to wait here until she and the others could be transported into the small town. She leaned against the building, unfolded the printed e-mail, and read it again:
Dear Sadie and Gigi,
Pack your bags! Your team has won the grand prize in the quilt block challenge. Congratulations! You are coming to Gandiegow! For complete information regarding your Kilts and Quilts Retreat and all-expense paid trip to Scotland, please e-mail us back.
Owner, Kilts and Quilts Retreat
Having read the note a hundred times, Sadie shoved it back in her pocket. It seemed a cruel joke from the universe—to receive this letter only hours after Gigi’s funeral.
At hearing the news about the retreat, her brother Oliver had gone into hyper drive, using his grief to propel him into action. While insisting Gigi would want Sadie to fulfill their dream of a quilt retreat abroad, Oliver had made all the arrangements for Scotland—packing her bags and having her out the door before Sadie knew what had happened. His bullying made the trip feel more like a kidnapping than a prize.
Sadie’s grief had immobilized her, made her want to crawl under a quilt and never come out. She waffled between feeling despondent and angry. But the one constant was her guilt for the part she’d played in her grandmother’s death.
Her quilted Mondo bag slipped from her shoulder . . . the bag that matched Gigi’s that they’d made at their last quilt retreat together. Memories of that glorious weekend were stitched into Sadie, the moments long and meaningful. She pulled the bag up, held it close, and squeezed her eyes shut.
The last twenty-four hours were wearing on her. Sadie was exhausted, depleted. But she had to keep it hidden at all costs. She glanced over at her ever-helpful brother as he assisted the rest of the women off the bus. Good. He was being kept busy. She was sick to death of Oliver fussing over her and telling her what to do.
At that moment, two vans pulled up. A tall, nice-looking man got out of one and a very pregnant strawberry blond got out of the other. As they spoke to the bus driver, the woman handed over her keys to him.
Oliver, who had only just finished unloading the last quilter from the bus, hurried to the couple who’d brought the vans. “Excuse me?”
“Yes,” answered the man. From his accent, he clearly was from the States. Texas, perhaps.
Oliver pointed to Sadie. “My sister needs to be in the first group into town.”
Embarrassment radiated from her toes to her scalp. Dammit, Oliver. Sadie ducked behind another woman as the two newcomers turned in her direction.
“Sure,” the man said. “We can take her into Gandiegow first. I’m Max, by the way.”
Oliver introduced himself, too, and unfortunately felt the need to explain further. “My sister is ill.”
The couple’s curious eyes transformed into compassion. The women around Sadie spun on her with pity as well, staring at her as if they hadn’t just spent the last couple of hours on the bus with her in quasi-normal companionship. To them, Sadie had been another quilter, a fellow retreat goer. Now, she wasn’t. She was to be flooded with sympathy. No longer included. On the outside because of her disease.
Oliver spoke to Sadie but pointed to the vans. “Get in. They’ll get you to town.” He’d said it as if Sadie’s problem was with her ears and not her kidneys.
Without a word and anxious to hide her red face, Sadie walked to the van with a compliant exterior. On the inside, though, she was seething. She climbed in and took a seat in the back. A minute later, others were climbing in as well. No one sat next to her, leaving her alone to frown out the window at her overly responsible brother.
The couple climbed into the front of the van and began chatting with the other quilters. Sadie found out more about them and their connection to Gandiegow—Max and Pippa were engineers at the North Sea Valve Company and newlyweds. They kept up a steady conversation, asking the quilters about themselves, and explaining about the upcoming wedding between their Episcopal priest and a town favorite. Mercifully they left Sadie alone.
A few minutes later, when they reached Gandiegow’s parking lot, a group of men and women were waiting for them.
“We’re a closed community,” Pippa explained. “No cars within the village. Everyone is here to help carry yere things to the quilting dorms.” Sure enough, many of the women had wagons beside them, while the men had their muscles. “Deydie will want everyone at Quilting Central as soon as possible. She’s the head quilter and town matriarch.” Pippa made it sound as if they better do as Deydie bid or there might be trouble.
One by one, they disembarked from the van. When Sadie got out, a young woman in a plain plum-colored dress with a double-hearted silver brooch moved forward. Next to her was a young girl.
“I’m Moira,” the woman said, “and this is my cousin Glenna. We’ll help ye get settled into the quilting dorm.”
Sadie followed them, immediately pleased with both of her handlers; Moira and Glenna seemed blessedly quiet and shy.
Even though it was early evening, the sun was still in the sky, due to how far north Gandiegow was. They walked through the minuscule town along a concrete path that served as a wall against the ocean with no railings for safety. Moira pointed to where Oliver was to stay, Duncan’s Den, and then took Sadie next door to the other quilting dorm, Thistle Glen Lodge. It was nothing more than a bungalow set against the green bluffs of summer, which rose nearly straight up at the back of the town.
Glenna shot Sadie a shy glance, then turned to Moira. “Should I let Deydie know that she’s made it?”
“Aye. We’ll be along shortly,” Moira said. The girl ran off between the buildings.
Moira led Sadie inside to the way-too-cheery interior and down the hall to a room with three beds. The decorations were plaid and floral—a little French country on the northeast coast of Scotland—and too optimistic and exuberant for Sadie.
Moira motioned for her to go in. “You can store yere clothes in the armoire. The kitchen is stocked with tea, coffee, and snacks. But all yere meals are provided either at Quilting Central or the restaurant. I can bring ye scones and tea in the morns, if ye like, though.”
Sadie set her Mondo bag on one of the beds. Moira was nice, but Sadie wanted only to be left alone to crawl under the quilt and hibernate until life wasn’t so crushing. And she was so very tired. People didn’t understand that though she looked fine, she was often exhausted and feeling generally cruddy . . . her new norm. Patients with chronic kidney disease, CKD, usually weren’t diagnosed until it was too late, already in stage four like herself, and in need of a kidney transplant.
She’d found out only last month. Gigi had promised to be with Sadie every step of the way. But Gigi was gone, leaving Sadie to deal with everything alone. Oliver couldn’t; he had his own life, his cyber-security consulting business. He didn’t have time to sit with her while she had her blood drawn week after week. He couldn’t put his life on hold while Sadie waited for the day to come when the doctors would move her to the active transplant list.
Sadie looked up, realizing she’d slipped into herself again, something she’d been doing a lot ever since her diagnosis.
Moira, though, seemed to understand and went to the doorway. “I’ll give ye a few minutes to settle in. Then Deydie expects all the quilters at Quilting Central for introductions and the quilting stories.” It was another warning that Sadie shouldn’t dawdle.
She jumped at the sound of hard knocking at the front door.
Moira put her hand up, either to calm Sadie’s frazzled nerves or to stop her from going for the door herself. “I’ll see who it is.”
Sadie dropped down beside her bag and smoothed her hand over the pinwheel quilt that covered the bed. A minute later she heard her brother’s exasperating voice at the entrance. Heavy footsteps came down the hall. She thought seriously about crawling out the window to escape what was sure to be more nagging.
She didn’t turn to greet him. “What do you want, Oliver?”
“I came to walk you to the retreat. We have to hurry though. One of my clients needs me to hop online and check for a bug.”
If only Gandiegow didn’t have high speed Internet, then Oliver wouldn’t have been hell-bent on coming to Scotland to keep an eye on me. But her brother’s IT business was portable.
Moira saved Sadie. “Don’t worry. I’ll get her to Quilting Central safely.”
He remained where he was. Sadie could feel his gaze boring into her back.
“Go on, Oliver. Your customer is waiting.”
She still didn’t hear him leave. Sadie rolled her eyes heavenward and heaved herself off the bed. She plastered on a fake smile before facing him. “I’m fine. Really.”
“Okay. But if you need me, I’ll be next door at Duncan’s Den.” The other quilting dorm, only a few steps from this one.
Oliver held his phone up as if to show her he was only a call away.
“Come,” Moira said. “It’s time to meet Deydie and the other quilting ladies.”
Oliver pinned one more worried glance on Sadie, then left. She grabbed her bag and a sweater.
Outside, Sadie trudged along, wishing to be anywhere but here.
Moira peeked over at her. “Gandiegow only has sixty-three houses.”
“It’s very quaint.” For the first time, Sadie really looked around. The village arced like a smile facing the ocean, the little stone cottages an array of mismatched teeth, but seemed to fit together. The rounded green bluff loomed at the backs of the houses, a town blocked in, but cozy. Yes, the village was quaint with its oceanfront views from nearly every house. But sadness swept over Sadie once again. Gigi would’ve loved it here, as she’d often reminisced fondly about the small town in Montana along the Bitterroot River where she’d grown up.
Moira stopped in front of a building with a sign that read Quilting Central. “This is it.”
Without realizing that she should prepare herself, Sadie opened the door and stepped in. A tidal wave of anxiety hit her, the emotion so overwhelming, she wanted to flee.
The smell of starch.
White- and gray-headed women.
Fabric stacked and stashed everywhere.
All the things that reminded her of Gigi. If that wasn’t enough to have Sadie bolting for the door, a crowd of women scuttled toward her. She backed up.
One tall, thin elderly woman clasped her arm, stilling her. “We’re so glad ye’re here. I’m Bethia.”
A short battle-ax of a woman barreled through to get to Sadie, grabbing her other arm. “I’m Deydie. We’ve been waiting on ye.”
Sadie was short of oxygen. She desperately wanted out.
Gray-haired twins, wearing matching plaid dresses of different colors, stepped in her path. The red plaid one spoke first.
“Sister and I were distraught when we lost our gran.”
They knew. Sadie looked at the faces around the room. They all knew.
The green-plaided one bobbed her head up and down. “That was many years ago. We’ve all experienced loss.” She gestured toward the crowd. “We understand what ye’re going through.”
The other whispered loudly to her sister. “But not about the kidney disease.”
No! How could he! Sadie wasn’t the all-out swearing type, but internally she formed a string of obscenities to sling at her brother that made her cringe.
“Back,” Deydie said to the twins. “Give the lass room to breathe and to get her bearings. She’s not well.”
Well enough to scream!
A thirty-something woman, carrying a baby, made her way to Sadie. “I’m Emma. And this is Angus.” She had a British accent, not a Scots like the others. She turned to Deydie. “I should take over, don’t you think?”
Deydie nodded vigorously. “Right. Right. It should be ye.” The old woman cleared the others away.
“Come sit down,” Emma said. “The town can be a bit overbearing. But they mean well.” She led Sadie to a sofa.
Deydie called everyone’s attention to the front and began welcoming all the quilters.
Emma leaned over. “I’m a therapist. Most people when they’re grieving should talk to someone. I wanted to let you know that I’m available if you need me.”
A moment ago, Sadie thought the woman had her best interest at heart, but she was like the others, trying to suffocate her, trying to tell her how to deal with her grief. Sadie didn’t deserve their attention. Her selfishness had killed her grandmother. She opened her mouth to set the well-meaning therapist straight, but the woman’s baby fortuitously spewed down his mother’s blouse.
“Excuse me.” Emma stood with the little one. “We’ll talk later.”
Emma’s leaving should’ve given Sadie’s senses a reprieve, but in some respects, all the women smothering her had been a distraction. The room, this place, was too much; she couldn’t sit here with a huge group of women reminding her of her grandmother. And with Gigi newly buried. The guilt. The grief . . . everything. Sadie had to get out of here . . . escape.
She looked longingly toward the door, only ten feet away. Everyone was listening to Deydie, finally not focused on her. Sadie stood nonchalantly and walked toward the exit, slowly and with purpose, as if she’d left her curling iron on back at the dorm.
Two more steps. She eased the door open so carefully that the bell above the door barely jingled.
She slipped out, gulping in the cool evening air as though it was water. But it wasn’t enough. The town still felt claustrophobic. She’d do anything to get out of here.
The tide was up and the ocean was slapping itself against the walkway with increasing ferocity and passion. The sea was alive, the waves crashing, telling her to run.
And on the breeze, she heard the strangest thing . . . male voices singing. It was surreal. She followed the sound, heading back in the direction of the parking lot where the van had dropped them off. She stopped outside the first building in town, a pub called The Fisherman where the tune was coming from. The song pulled her up the steps and had her opening the door. As she crossed the threshold, the song came to an end.
The room was mostly filled with men, all sizes. The vast majority looked as if they could’ve done a magazine shoot for Fishermen Now. A few looked her way, but being plain, she didn’t have to worry about anyone hitting on her or even approaching.
She put her head down, made her way to the bar, and sat at the far end on the only open stool. Next to her was a particularly large, rugged, all-muscle—and what she could see of his profile—handsome man, undoubtedly one of the fishermen, too. Another man, short and squat, stepped between them, partially blocking her view of Handsome.
Squat clamped a hand on Handsome’s shoulder. “Ye’d like my niece, Euna. She can cook and sew. She’d make ye a good wife. I promise, she will. At least meet her while she’s here for the retreat.”
The way Handsome was scowling over his drink, Sadie was certain he hadn’t been one of the men singing moments ago. He looked as if he’d given up singing permanently.
The bartender waved to Sadie. “What can I get ye?”
“Water,” she said automatically. Cola and alcohol were out-of-bounds. She would do everything she could to keep off the active transplant list for as long as possible.
Handsome glanced her way, and damn, he was good-looking. Not that a guy like him would notice someone like her. Sure enough, he went back to his drink without a word.
Squat was fidgeting, beginning to look desperate. “What do ye say? I told Euna ye’d see her. Take her to dinner. Or maybe have a stroll to the top of the bluff.” He chewed the inside of his cheek. “She won’t mind the exercise.”
Sadie felt sorry for Handsome. Couldn’t Squat see that he didn’t want to do it? The bartender set her glass in front of her and left to help a patron at the other end.
“Dammit, Harry,” Handsome growled. “Ye’re putting me in a hell of a spot.”
Sadie made a snap decision. She reached for her glass and accidentally knocked it aside, spilling water all over Harry.
He jumped back. “What’d’ya do that for?”
She reached for the towel at the end of the bar and began blotting at the water on Harry’s shirt. “So sorry. I guess I wasn’t paying attention.”
When Harry wasn’t looking, she tilted her head at Handsome for him to make a run for it. This fisherman was no dummy. He was out the door before she could order Harry a drink to make up for the drenching she gave him.
Once Harry was settled and complaining to the barkeep about her clumsiness, Sadie decided to leave before she brought any more attention to herself. She headed for the door, no closer to finding a way out of Gandiegow.
Outside, she paused on the top step and spoke to the vast ocean in front on her. “I have to get out of here!” That’s when she realized she wasn’t alone.
Leaning against the edge of the building a few feet away stood Handsome. He walked toward her and stuck out his hand to help her down the last few steps. “I owe you, lass. Tell me where you want to go. I’ve got a truck.”
Ross couldn’t believe the lass had not only saved him from Harry and his dreadful niece, but had read his mind, too. I want out of here as well. Her hand was warm in his and she held on tight. He glanced down at them linked together, and though it felt strange, it felt right, too. When he looked up, he saw his brothers, John and Ramsay, coming up the walkway that kept the sea at bay. Andrew MacBride, Gandiegow’s Episcopal priest, was with them, too. Ross dropped Sadie’s hand.
When John got close enough, he nodded in the lass’s direction. “New friend?”
“Aye.” Ross wasn’t in the mood for explanations. Hell, he had none to give.
Andrew in his cleric collar looked at the two of them curiously, but said nothing. Ramsay wore a look of surprise that spoke volumes.
Aye, earlier Ross had skipped out when Kit, Ramsay’s wife, had tried to set him up. And now here he was with a stranger . . . headed off to God-only-knows-where.
When Ramsay opened his mouth, John gently shoved him toward the steps.
“We better get inside before all the drink is gone,” John said. “’Night, ye two.”
“Good night,” Ross said.
When his brothers were inside, he looked down at the lass again. “Were ye serious about getting out of town?”
“You have no idea,” she said firmly.
He cocked an eyebrow at her. “And ye’d run off with a man ye don’t know?”
She didn’t hesitate, as if she already had his number. “I figured you for nice guy from the get-go.”
She shrugged. “If I hadn’t rescued you, you would’ve agreed to go out with Harry-there’s niece. And I’m not completely sure that you’re off the hook yet. I expect you’ll be strolling with Euna to the top of the bluff before the quilting retreat is over.”
She was probably right.
And she wasn’t done. “I watched as you slipped from the pub. The townspeople seem to respect you by the way they were nodding in your direction as you left.”
This lass saw too much.
She gave him a solemn stare. “Then the two who looked like you”—she pointed to where John and Ramsay had stood.
“My brothers,” Ross interjected.
She nodded. “Your brothers saw us together. Witnesses, you see.”
Ross shook his head. She may be right about him, but what if she’d been wrong? “Ye can’t go around hopping into anyone’s vehicle who offers.”
She put her hands on her hips. “You don’t know how badly I want out of here.”
The lass was determined, he’d give her that. “Fair enough.”
He really looked at her. She was shorter than him by at least a foot, with an innocent young face and brown bangs setting off her deep brown eyes. She had a birthmark above her mouth that reminded him of a heart. She seemed sweet, but her full-of-wisdom eyes contested her age, and at the same time they spoke of sadness and distress, too.
A wave of protectiveness came over him. “Do ye want to tell me what’s going on?”
She shook her head no, as if that was her final answer. She glanced back at the rest of the town and then pointed to the parking lot. “Can we get going?”
“Aye. This way.”
She walked beside him the forty-some steps it took to get there.
“Is that your truck? The red pickup?” She walked toward it with purpose.
It was the only truck in the lot.
She opened the passenger side. “I like it. It has character.” She slid in and shut the door.
He did the same on the driver’s side. “Where to?”
He liked her resolve and how she knew what she wanted. He pulled out of the lot and up the bluff, leaving Gandiegow behind.
In contented silence, they drove for an hour, maybe a bit more. He should’ve asked for her name, but he didn’t want to spoil the unspoken peace between them. From time to time, he would glance at her. The farther away from Gandiegow they went, the more relaxed she became. She mostly gazed out the front windshield, but if they passed something that caught her eye, she would look out her side window, too. She seemed to come awake, as if she’d been asleep for a long, long time.
When he pulled over the next rise, she grabbed his arm.
“This is it.”
He slowed. “This is what?”
“Can we stop?” She pointed to an outcropping of rocks that overlooked the North Sea. “I need to sit right there.”
“Sure.” He pulled off the asphalt onto the grass.
She was out of the vehicle and shutting her door before he turned the ignition off. He got out, too, and watched her make her way through the tall grass to her spot.
She turned suddenly. “What’s your name?”
She could’ve been part of a postcard. She wore a simple T-shirt dress and boat shoes. Her backdrop was the sea. A picture of purity.
“Ross,” he answered hoarsely.
“Thank you, Ross.” She turned back toward her destination.
He didn’t move, watching her climb up and get settled. Maybe he should’ve asked her name back, but it felt perfectly natural to have things sit the way they were, part of the crazy magic since he’d met her. The next twenty minutes or so, he hung out at his truck. No one drove by on this Highland road, which was normal in these parts. As it grew later and the sun started to set, he made his way through the grass, too, to join her on the rocks.
As soon as he was settled, she gazed over at him.
“I like it here. I could stay in this spot forever.”
“Aye. It suits ye.”
They were quiet as the sun descended, but it was the strangest affair, as if they were at a symphony performance. Hushed. In awe. The air filled with tones of color. Ross had never experienced the sunset like this before. He looked over to see if the lass heard it—felt it—too. She was transfixed on the spot just off the horizon where the sun rested before falling into the edge of the ocean.
When it was over, she spoke very quietly as if they were in church. “I’m Sadie.” She sighed with contentment. “Sadie Middleton.”
The name jarred him out of the spell.
He hadn’t listened to the gossip before the retreat goers had arrived, but invariably some had seeped in. And he sure as hell knew about this one! She was the one for which Deydie had said to take extra care. Her gran had recently died. And the lass was sick. Not a cold or anything minor, but truly sick. What a nightmare.
He hopped off the rock and glared up at her. “I’m taking ye back. Now!”
She cocked her head to the side as if she hadn’t heard him correctly. Then she glared right back, or at least he thought it was a glare as the moon was rising.
She crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Ye’re going back.” Quick and decisively, he reached up and wrapped his hands around her waist. She gasped. Carefully, so as not to hurt her, he lifted her from the rock and set her on her feet. She weighed nothing. “Now, do I carry ye back to the truck, or will ye walk on yere own accord?”
Her stubbornness faded. He saw it by the slump of her shoulders.
She laid a hand on his arm. “I can’t go back. Not yet.” Her hand was cold.
“Lass, why didn’t ye tell me ye were chilled?” He rubbed his hands over her arms. “Get to the pickup so I can turn the heat on.”
“In a minute.” She stilled one of his hands with hers. “First, hear me out.”
He should have asked her straightaway who she was. He never should’ve let her sit on that damned rock so long. The town would crucify him if the American lass took ill. Or became more ill.
“I’ll listen. But can you at least put yere sweater on? I’ll get it from the truck.”
She nodded. And as he walked away, the stubborn little thing scrambled back up on her perch.
He hurried. While he was at it, he also grabbed the quilt that Maggie, John’s wife, had tucked behind the pickup’s seat. You never knew when you might get stuck out on a Highland road. He took the items back to Sadie.
“Here.” He handed her the sweater, then climbed up beside her, wrapping the quilt around her shoulders. “Now talk.”
When she didn’t immediately speak, he gazed down at her.
She was worrying her lower lip. “I could sit here for a year.”
“Well, that isn’t happening. Ye’ve got five minutes.”
She ignored him, her eyes fixed on the horizon, captured by the massive full moon. “The ocean is vast and makes my worries seem small in comparison.”
Now that he understood. “I’m a fisherman. Sometimes I think the Almighty made the sea for just that purpose.”
She was quiet for a long moment. “I can’t go back tonight. I need this time.”
“Ye can’t sit out here all night either.”
She pulled the quilt tighter around her shoulders and he squelched the urge to wrap his arm around her to keep the quilt in place.
“I promise to go back tomorrow,” she said in a small voice. “Just don’t rush me. I know what I need, and it isn’t a bunch of people.”
A strange notion hit him. She didn’t need a bunch of people, but she needed him?
“All right.” The words came out before he knew what he was doing. He sighed. There would be hell to pay for this. “Let me call my brother John and tell him what’s up. Then I’m going to take ye down the road. There’s a B and B that might put us up for the night. And we’ll go back early in the morn. Agreed?”
He allowed her to stay on her rock until the moon fully rose. When he went to get down, she didn’t argue, but willingly slid down, too. As she walked beside him, she was quiet, subdued, but better than when she’d come into the pub hours ago in Gandiegow.
She kept the quilt around her shoulders as she climbed into his truck. It occurred to him that she was the first woman besides one of the old quilt ladies to actually ride in it with him.
After going a couple of miles down the road, he pulled into the lane with the B and B sign, the one he’d seen many times when he’d driven to Inverness. Thankfully, the lights were still on.
He left the pickup running. “Stay here while I see if they have a vacancy.”
As he walked to the front door, he pulled out his phone and called John.
There was no polite hallo. “Hold on,” his brother whispered. The bed creaked, the door opened and closed, and then he was back on. “Why are you calling so late? Ye know I have to get up early for the boat. And so do you.”
“I know. But I might be a few minutes late in the morning.”
“If ye’re not there, we’ll leave without you. I have to set an example for Samuel and Robert.” Maggie’s teenage cousins.
“I’ll try to make it, but do what ye have to do.”
“Who was it that ye left with tonight?” John asked.
Ross reached the B and B’s front door. A note had been pinned to it:
Ring bell, then go around to the back entrance.
“Nobody,” Ross answered. “I’ve got to run.” He hung up.
Within a few minutes, Ross had secured a room. A room. He walked back to his truck . . . Maybe his news would make Sadie want to return to Gandiegow tonight.
He opened her door.
A line between her eyebrows formed. “What’s wrong? Didn’t they have a place for us to stay?”
“Aye. They have a room.”
“Good.” She slipped from the vehicle.
But he blocked her from going farther, keeping one hand on the door and the other on the truck, and knelt to get closer to her eye level. “One, lass. They only have one room.”
“Oh.” She chewed her lip again, but this time it looked as if she was adding sums in her head. After a moment, she looked up at him. “Okay.”
“There’s another problem.” Gawd help him for lying to the owner. “To secure the room I had to tell her I was with my new bride.”
Sadie stepped back, bumping her legs against the truck frame. She stared up at him, incredulous. “No one is going to believe that.” She waved a hand at him as if it was an awful joke. “Seriously. No one.”
“They will. The missus was apologetic that there’s only twin beds in the room.”
“Thank God for small favors.”
“I told her we’d make do.”
Sadie’s mouth fell open. Then she slammed it shut. She acted as if she might try again to say something, but then only shook her head.
“Come. Let’s get you inside.” He offered her his hand. “We’ve got to make her believe it. The missus was suspect at first, but I convinced her we’re fiercely in love.”
Sadie snorted. “It’s going to take more than a little hand-holding to make it believable.” But she laid her hand in his anyway.
They walked from the gravel driveway to the trellis at the edge of the garden. She stopped suddenly, tugging at him. “Wait.” She let go and transferred a ring from her right hand to her left. “There. The illusion is complete. Thank goodness for Gigi’s ring.”
“Gigi?” he asked.
“My grandmother,” she said quietly. “She gave it to me when I graduated in May.” Sadie went still, as if the thought had flipped a switch that rooted her feet to the grass.
Gawd, he hoped she wouldn’t start crying.
The missus of the B and B leaned out the back entrance. “Are ye coming in?”
Ross wrapped an arm around Sadie and continued walking, leaning down to speak in her ear. “I know I’m asking a lot, but can you pretend that ye’re happy until we get to the room? As much as I love my truck, it would be damned uncomfortable to sleep in it tonight.”
But the missus was watching them like a hawk. Ross kissed the top of Sadie’s head. When they got nearer, he spoke to the woman, not believing for a second Sadie could hide her grief.
“Is she all right?”
Ross led the American lass inside. “We’ve had a long day. She’s tired is all. She’ll be fine once I get her in bed.”
The missus looked concerned. And then as if she was only now noticing, she glanced at their hands. No luggage. She glowered at their absence. “Just remember this isn’t some manky hotel. This is my home.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ross said, glad the woman had already taken his money.
“The room’s upstairs.” The missus stared at him hard for another moment.
Ross pulled Sadie to him tighter. “Come, luv.” He ushered her to the stairs and up.
Once he had her inside the room and the door closed, he sighed with relief. The bedroom wasn’t much, but it had the two requisite beds, simple patchwork quilts, and pillows. The only luxury as far as he could tell was the two fluffy robes hanging inside the opened armoire.
Sadie eased herself down on the closest bed. “Sorry.”
“Ye’ve nothing to be sorry for. Do you want to use the loo first?”
“Yes.” She rose gracefully and left the room.
He’d gotten himself into a tight spot. He wasn’t sure how to handle the lass. Even worse, how was he going to handle Deydie and the rest of the quilters when they found out he’d taken her from the village and had her out all night?
He went to the window and stared out at the ocean until Sadie came back. He didn’t say anything or look in her eyes as he walked from the room to take his turn in the loo. When he came back, she was wrapped in one of the robes, but he could see she was still fully clothed, the hem of her dress showing.
“I was cold,” she explained.
He crossed the bedroom. “Lie down. Let’s get these covers on you.” He pulled the top quilt from his bed and spread it over her bed, too. He couldn’t help himself—he tucked the covers around her like his mum used to do for him when he was a wee lad.
Sadie wasn’t a wee bairn, but she needed his compassion so he gave it.
She gazed up at him with her deep brown eyes. “Thanks. For everything.”
What could he say? It was his pleasure? Well, it had been . . . up until the point he’d learned who she was.
He turned off the lights, and the room went dark. The moon was high, though, and he had no trouble making it to his bed. He pulled back the remaining cover and lay down. How strange the day had turned out.
“Ross?” she said into the darkness.
He watched as she wrestled with the quilts to face him, his tucking-in job wasted.
“Why aren’t you married?”
“Where is that coming from?”
“I’m curious. I was right about you. You’re a nice guy, and Harry’s trying to set you up? There has to be a story behind it all.”
They’d spent most of their time in silence today, but now she wanted to talk? He guessed he could say anything under the blanket of night . . . even the truth.
Ross sighed. “I was engaged once. Do ye have a beau back in the States?”
Sadie snorted again. “Not hardly. Tell me about your engagement. Unless, of course, it’s too painful.”
Ross could’ve produced his own snort, but he didn’t. “Nay. Not painful at all. Her name is Pippa. She’s a childhood friend. She runs the factory just outside of town. Our das set it up when we were kids.”
“I met Pippa today, and her husband Max. They drove us into town after the bus broke down. You were engaged to her? An arranged marriage?”
“Something like that.” He told her what had happened over Christmas, how his life had gone from settled to up-in-the-air. “Max came into town and stole Pippa’s heart. I’m happy for her. We were never more than friends.” And he’d made his mind up that if he was ever to marry, it would have to start out with fireworks like it had with Ramsay and Kit. And Max and Pippa. Love at first sight. That way Ross would know for sure that what he was doing was the right thing and not wasting his time. And in this future relationship with his unidentified-as-yet wife, they wouldn’t be great friends at first . . . friendship would come later. In this way—hell, in all ways—his mystery wife would have to be the opposite of Pippa. He didn’t even know what that would mean exactly, but she would just have to be nothing like her. He finished telling Sadie the rest, admitting one of his greatest flaws. “But I was going to go through with it and marry her anyway. I believed that doing what my father wanted me to do—hell, what the whole town wanted—was more important than what I wanted. That it was the right thing.” And somehow, doing what everyone else thought was right, turned out to be wrong for Ross.
“I know what you mean. Gigi and Oliver wanted me to become a dental hygienist, so I became one.”
Ross could hear the frown in her words. He wanted to ask her about it, but then she spoke.
“Have you ever lost anyone?” Her voice was quiet, but her grief was palpable.
He thought about his da.
“A close friend?” she clarified.
The images of Duncan, his best mate, flashed through his mind. “Aye.” It had been one of the hardest things he’d ever gone through, to watch his friend fight leukemia and lose. “What about you?”
“Gigi was my closest friend.”
“I lost my closest friend, too.” Ross found himself opening up about Duncan. He hadn’t talked about it with anyone, because everyone he knew had lived it along with him. Even though it tore at him to share with Sadie what had happened, it felt right at the same time. Then he went back a little farther and told her how the loss of his da hadn’t been any easier. It had been sudden, no time to prepare, and no time to say I love you once more.
Sadie’s bed creaked. He saw her rise and pad toward him. “Scoot over. I’m cold.”
He could’ve argued that he was a big man in a small bed. But who was he to turn away a woman who needed him? He opened his arms and she slipped in. She didn’t feel cold, but warm, and smelled of the outdoors, the ocean, and sunshine. He pulled the covers around them.
Sadie spoke into his chest. “I know what you mean about not getting to say I love you one more time. My parents went out for the evening and never came home. They were hit by a tractor trailer. I was six.” She shivered.
He rubbed his chin over her hair. “Aw, lass, I’m sorry.” He’d been lucky at least to have his father until he was grown.
“What about your mother?” she asked.
“She’s in Glasgow. She moved in with her sister to care for her. Aunt Glynnis isn’t well.”
Sadie was quiet for a long moment. She was probably thinking about how she wasn’t well either. Her silence gave him time to dwell on how bizarre this was. He was holding this sweet woman with no intentions of putting the moves on her. Not because he didn’t find her intriguing, and not because she didn’t fit up against him perfectly. He just wasn’t the sort of man to take advantage of a woman in distress. She was completely safe with him. She was nice, and even adorable in a quirky kind of way, but not his type. He yawned. In the middle of it, he had a fleeting thought . . . This lass is the opposite of Pippa.
Sadie couldn’t believe she’d been so bold. But she had to do it. She wasn’t cold when she’d crawled into Ross’s bed. He was the one who needed to be held. He was hurting and needed a hug, something a man like him would never admit. She had not done it for herself, no matter how good it felt to be in his arms. His yawn made her yawn, too.
She closed her eyes and snuggled in deeper. “Ross?”
“Hmm?” The hum of him relaxed her even more.
She sighed contentedly. “I know I promised to return to Gandiegow.” She yawned again. “But can I have one more day to sit on the rock by the ocean before we go back?” She breathed him in and fell asleep.
Sadie woke, relaxed, well rested, and still snuggled against the Scotsman’s chest. For a moment, she could imagine having this pretend life—whole, healthy, and sleeping in the arms of a kind man. But her current reality wasn’t real.
His breathing was even and she was afraid if she moved, she’d wake him. But the restroom called. She slipped from his arms and stood. He rolled over, an arm and leg hanging over the side of the bed in the process. He was even more handsome in his sleep, if that was possible. She quietly left and went down the hall.
When she returned, Ross laid his phone on the bed and bent over to tie his army boots. “Get yere shoes on. We’ll go downstairs, grab our breakfast, and leave.”
Her heart dropped—they were leaving? Going back to Gandiegow? Now? Going back to being smothered? Rebellion had her planting her hands on her hips, making it feel as if she was speaking up for herself for what seemed like the first time. “I’m not leaving.”
He stopped and glanced up. “Oh?”
As quickly as it came, her steam ran out and she dropped her arms.
He went back to tying his boots. “So ye’ve changed yere mind. Ye don’t want to sit on yere rock?”
Her heart soared. “You’re really going to let me have my day?”
He grinned at her and stood. “Part of the day. I texted my brother that we’ll be back by supper.”
She squeezed her hands together. “Thank you.”
“I smell bacon. Can you play the satisfied bride for the missus below?”
Heat poured into Sadie’s face. She still couldn’t believe the woman had bought that they were a couple, even for a second, and even a little bit. Ross—incredibly handsome and incredibly nice—could date anyone he liked. Sadie didn’t belittle herself over her appearance; she liked who she was, had accepted she would never be beautiful. She was a realist. She peeked over at her fake husband. Handsome didn’t come close to describing him. He was more, much more. He was nearly perfect.
She ducked her head. “Yes. I can pretend we’re together.” But how could he?
“Good, because I’m hungry.”
They sat at the owner’s table and ate their breakfast with the woman of the house looking on. Ross played it up to a tee and Sadie could see he had a mischievous streak. Whenever the missus checked in on them, Ross would pour it on thick, either kissing Sadie’s fingertips or making love to her with his eyes.
Sadie, though she enjoyed every second, couldn’t help but blush all the way through her porridge and bacon.
Oliver Middleton rubbed sleep from his face and walked into the small kitchen of Duncan’s Den. On the counter, he found fresh scones, sausages under foil, and hot tea—very thoughtful. He rushed through his meal. He’d been online late last night with his client and never made it to the quilting retreat to see how Sadie was doing.
He was worried about her; she’d been dealt a shitload lately. Last month her terrible diagnosis and this month, Gigi’s death. Pain cut through him about his grandmother, about Sadie, about everything, but he squelched it. Taking care of his sister, making sure she was okay, was his number one priority. He’d promised Gigi. He hated that his grandmother had made him vow to keep it a secret from Sadie. He could tell her the truth now, but it wouldn’t make any difference. It wouldn’t bring Gigi back. But if Sadie had known beforehand, she might’ve been prepared for their grandmother’s death.
Quickly, he dressed, finding the weather cooler here in July than in North Carolina. He went next door first, but no one answered when he knocked. He walked down the walkway, passing the General Store and the school. On the other side, he found the building marked Quilting Central and went inside. The place was crowded with quilters. He looked around, but didn’t see Sadie. Two older women noticed him and hurried over.
“You must be Oliver, Sadie’s brother,” said the taller of the two. “I’m Bethia and this is Deydie.”
The shorter, stockier one nodded at him. “Ye don’t look a thing like yere sister.”
Yes, he was blond, and Sadie had brown hair. He glanced around impatiently. “Speaking of my sister, I don’t see her. How is she this morning?”
Bethia shot Deydie a worried glance.
Panic flooded him; alarm bells went off in his head.
Deydie crossed her arms over her chest. “Go ahead and tell him.”
“Come with me, lad.” Bethia pointed to the sofa.
“No.” Oliver stood his ground. “Where’s my sister?”
Bethia laid a hand on his arm. “We’re not sure.”
Oliver’s throat closed and fire sparked behind his eyes. “What do you mean we’re not sure? Where is she?”
Deydie stepped directly in front of him and cranked her head back, staring him down. “She ran off. At least that’s what Coll told his wife, Amy.” She pointed to a younger woman across the room. “Amy let us know this morning.”
“We’ve been in this town less than twenty-four hours and you’ve lost my sister!” Oliver didn’t wait to hear more. He wanted answers and he wanted them now. He marched over to the black-haired woman who at least knew something. She bent over to pick up a baby from a playpen before he reached her.
She gave Oliver a big smile, but it faded quickly. She must’ve known he was pissed. She handed the kid off to someone else, saying something in Gaelic as she did.
When he reached her, he didn’t feel the need to introduce himself. “Where’s my sister?”
“Hold up there,” a male voice said from the doorway. Another man followed.
By the looks of them, the two were brothers, although one was redheaded and the other dark-haired. They approached Oliver.
“I’m John and this is my brother Ramsay.”
The rest of the room went quiet, listening in. Oliver didn’t give a rat’s ass who overhead. “Where is she?”
John put his hand on Oliver’s arm. “Why don’t we go outside and talk.”
Oliver shrugged him off. “No. You’ll answer my question. Now.”
“Yere sister’s in no danger. She’s with my brother Ross. They’re fine.”
“What do you mean? Why is she with your brother? How do you know he has her?” Fear and anger swept through Oliver. “Where are they?”
“They left together from the pub,” John said. “Last night.”
“What?” Why was Oliver only hearing of this now! “Your brother kept her out all night?” Had he kidnapped her? No. That seemed too far-fetched. But didn’t these people realize that he was responsible for his baby sister? “Your brother better not have touched her.”
“The lass looked willing,” Ramsay provided.
Oliver wanted to punch him.
Deydie glowered at Ramsay, but then stepped in front of Oliver as she’d done before. This time, her eyes held just the right amount of compassion, reminding him of Gigi. Tough, but with a good heart.
“Ye’re not to worry, lad.” She patted his arm. “If she’s with Ross, she’s in good hands. No harm’ll come to her.” She thumbed at the other two brothers. “I’d trust Ross over the two of them.” She was a woman who didn’t mince words. As gruff as she was, something about her forthrightness eased the panic that Oliver felt.
Bethia took his arm. “Let’s get ye one of Claire’s scones.”
Deydie latched on to his other arm. “It’ll help.”
He’d already had a scone, but the two of them calmed him. He let himself be led away.
As Sadie sat on her rock and soaked in the ocean, she thought on how the day couldn’t have gone better. They’d picnicked with a hunk of cheese and a loaf of bread they’d bought from the grocer in a nearby village. Ross was a wonderful companion—not suffocating her or giving her any special consideration. He treated her as if she was normal. And he didn’t talk her to death.
She watched as storm clouds formed on the horizon, and her mood grew dark with it.
She glanced over at Ross sitting next to her. “We’re going to have to leave soon, aren’t we?”
“Aye.” He motioned to the increasingly angry sky. “We can’t sit here with that on top of us.”
Sadie wished she’d taken that auto mechanics class in high school so she’d know how to disable the pickup. “I don’t want to go.”
“Sorry, lass. We’ll have to head back and face them.” His stoic demeanor spoke volumes.
He said he’d be in trouble with the people of Gandiegow, but she hadn’t let herself worry over it. But now she felt terrible putting him in the middle. “Then let’s get it over with.”
He jumped off the rock before she could move. With his hands gently around her waist, he helped her down. He was kind, attentive, and she appreciated everything he’d done.
Before leaving, he pulled out his phone. “I’m going to let my brother know that we’re on our way.”
Sadie should call Oliver, but she wanted to hang on to her illusion of independence for as long as possible. Maybe she shouldn’t have purposefully shut off her phone, but she had to put the world on mute to achieve the quiet she needed.
The drive to Gandiegow was filled with comfortable silence and she soaked in every last second, knowing this would be the last of the peace. An hour later, as they were driving down the bluff to the idyllic village, Sadie steeled herself for the barrage ahead.
Ross parked the truck and turned to her before getting out. “Ye’re going to be all right, lass.”
The words themselves were reassuring, and she wanted to believe him, but too much had gone wrong to think things could ever be right again. She rallied a smile for him, opened her door, and let her feet hit the asphalt. Her adventure was over. A deep sadness filled her.
Ross got out and came to her side of the truck. Before she lost her nerve, she grabbed his arm, tugging, until he bent down so she could kiss his cheek. The stubble tickled and pricked her lips. “I’ll never forget what you did for me.” Never.
He stared into her eyes as if registering her for the first time, and he seemed shocked by what he found there. “Lass—”
She swung around to find Oliver barreling toward her. She’d never seen him this upset.
“Where the hell have you been!”