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Highland Hiatus

A Menu for Passion Romance (Vol. 1)

Toni Carrera

Copyright 2017
Sunao International


Arriving in Scotland

I don't know what I expected when the train finally stopped in the Aberdeen station. The doors opened with a hiss that brought to mind steam engines. I glanced up, following the thought like rising clouds of steam, and was surprised by the ceiling of the large station.

Iron arches still spanned the broad space, anchored to old stone walls. The bright kiosks seemed out of place, necessary but out of step with the proud history still holding everything together.

That's what I need, I thought. A little history to glue my life back together.

I followed the flow of passengers out of the train station and found myself reflected in the shining glass front of Trinity Center. The modern shopping mall was saved by street vendors with stuffed tables. I knew I should be looking for my contact, but after the long train ride I was starving.

Contrary to every joke I'd heard about traveling in Scotland, I did not have to eat haggis. Within seconds I was befriended by a friendly vendor who just happened to be Italian, and my first food in Scotland was a mouth-watering calzone.

"American," my new friend said in a thick Italian accent.

I nodded. "New York City."

He laughed. "Go fast, hurry, hurry?"

"Vacation," I told him.

Then it finally sunk in. I had left New York City an ocean behind. No traffic jams, no dinner rushes, and no work for a whole week. No produce to inspect, no prices to haggle over, no menus to select, and no marathon nights in the hot gauntlet of a gourmet kitchen.

My head started spinning. Had I completely lost my mind?

I found a bench and sat down, blaming my hunger for my spinning thoughts. As I devoured the hot and gooey calzone, I tried to figure out exactly what I was doing in Scotland. This whole vacation idea wasn't mine. If anyone was at fault it was the owner of my restaurant. I might have been her star chef, but Madison Gardner called the shots.

And she had called me burnt out.

"You deserve a break, London," she had said. "Don't you have family or someone you can visit? Head overseas, see the world, and it'll make all the difference."

Madison was right, though I would still die before admitting that aloud. I had made headlines early as a young, female chef in New York City. The scrutiny I had endured for the last year would be enough to send even the most seasoned chef packing. So, I had reluctantly agreed.

"I'm not going to Paris," I had told Madison. "If I'm going to get away, then I'm going to get away from the five stars and the Michelin guide too."

I tossed my calzone wrapper away and congratulated myself on finding delicious street food within minutes of my arrival. Food didn't have to be for anything but survival now. It felt like a foreign concept, but I was determined to take a real break. Madison's orders.

My phone buzzed and I sighed. "Speak of the devil."

Madison's text message was peppered with uppercase letters, yelling the important bits as she often did in person. The latest reviews were in. My waning inspiration had been noticed but the majority of food critics deemed me worthy of the wait.

My finger floated over the link for a long time. It would only take a few minutes to read and every competitive, career-minded cell in my body screamed to do it. If Madison had sent it then why not? Just because I was on vacation didn't mean I had to ignore my life.

"London! There you are. Hello!" A loud but cultured voice rang out across the shopping center.

Shepherd Ross strode through the crowd. At 6' 4", he sailed over the shoppers like a gleaming yacht in muddy waters. His glossy hair was carefully smoothed back and he flicked a piece of lint off his expensive suit before extending a hand to me.

"Professor Ross, thank you so much for meeting me." I stood up and dumped my over-stuffed carry-on bag on the ground.

"Please, call me Shepherd. I'm so glad you remembered our meeting in New York. Welcome to Aberdeen." He stood smiling at the milling shoppers while I knelt down to gather up my things and stuff them back in the carry-on.

"Your lectures were memorable," I told him.

Shepherd Ross ran a popular series of lectures set in the highest rated restaurants. He had presided over a table at my restaurant for nearly two weeks during which time I had avoided the main floor as much as possible. When I mistakenly mentioned Scotland to Madison, she had immediately organized the set-up.

I didn't know anything else about my host except he was Scottish and handsome, but I seriously doubted Madison's matchmaker skills. Shepherd Ross was also pretentious and a complete snob.

"I'm sure you've got a busy schedule at the University, so I won't keep you long," I said.

"Nonsense," Shepherd said. He led the way as I hauled my rolling suitcase along. "I've set you up at the best hotel in Aberdeen. The restaurant there has four stars in the Michelin guide."

I stopped short and my rolling suitcase knocked me in the heels. "You didn't need to do that. Madison just thought it would be nice if I saw a friendly face when I arrived. I can handle my own accommodations."

"No time," Shepherd said. A black car was waiting for him at the curb. "We've an early dinner to get to. A nice selection of connoisseurs, even a few that have been to your restaurant in New York."

The driver pried my suitcase from my hands and put it in the trunk. I had no choice but to get into the car with Shepherd.

"I'm a little tired from the trip," I said.

"Of course." Shepherd signaled to the driver. "We have just enough time for you to get cleaned up before our reservation."

The black car slid away from the curb. The beautiful mix of old stone and modern glass buildings blurred past my window and I felt trapped.

A tight giggle escaped me and I had to answer Shepherd's arched look with a gritted smile. "Just remembering a little travel advice my sister gave me: 'no matter where you go, there you are.'"

Shepherd said nothing and glanced down at his phone. I stared out the window and wondered how I'd gone over an entire ocean only to find myself stuck in the same rut.


Change of Plans

"Just tell me you're going to be nice, Ian. That's all I ask."

"Saints alive, Georgie, what do you think I'm going to do?" I asked. I glared at my phone as if he could see me. "I can be nice."

"Can and will are two very different things with you, Ian Reid." George took a deep breath before he could continue. "Shepherd Ross' recommendations send a lot of business to our little town and don't you forget it."

"Aye. I hear you." I slammed the rusted door of my car shut and headed across the university green. "The plan's simple: run into the professor, have a nice chat, and remind him what good old school chums we are."

George snorted into the phone. "Just try not to make it sound like a threat. Like you're trying to smudge up his perfect polish by revealing his humble roots. Wouldn't want our posh professor to stop sending tourists our way."

"Posh? Skinny Shep wouldn't have survived his childhood if I hadn't stood up for him. I know he's one of those 'foodies' now but I remember him being forced to eat mud when we were little," I said.

"And what did you do?" George asked.

"Gave those bullies a taste of my fist. Those were the good old days," I said.

George groaned. "Just please tell me you put on a sport coat. Did you shave?"

"Gotta run, Georgie. Report back later." I shoved my phone in my pocket and headed back to my car for the sport coat I'd tossed in the back seat.

I scrubbed a hand over my stubbled cheek and cursed Georgie for not reminding me sooner. Then I caught a glimpse of a woman in my car window, and forgot all about shaving.

She paced back and forth across the university green, in and out of the shade of one of the hundred year old trees. The sunlight teased out flashes of red in her blonde hair, and she flipped it over her shoulder impatiently as she talked on her phone.

"I don't even know what I'm doing here, Trina," she said. "It's a disaster, and, no, my host is not a tall Scottish dreamboat. He made me sit through seven courses last night. Do you know how hard it is to eat when you're jet-lagged, much less make polite conversation?"

The American checked her watch, swore, and jumped onto the sidewalk in front of me. I didn't mind the view and her desperate-sounding conversation was just the distraction I needed.

"I'm at the University of Aberdeen now. Yes. Where Mom and Dad met." She brought a slim hand up to rub her shoulder as she raced along. "No. No inspiration. Nothing."

I thought of a dozen ways to inspire the pretty woman, and decided to follow her a few hundred feet more.

"I don't know where Dad proposed to Mom. The what? Sands of Fovie? What is that?" she asked.

I stumbled on an uneven cobblestone. The nature preserve she mentioned was practically in my back yard. The strawberry-blonde American was getting more interesting by the minute.

"Yeah, maybe," she mumbled into her phone. "If I can escape. I swear to god, Trina, if I have to sit through another snobby discussion of the correct use of coriander I'm going to stick a fork in my eye."

I laughed at that and the American spun around. "I'm sorry, is there something funny?" she asked.

She stood all of 5' 5" but her brown eyes flashed with irritation. In my opinion most Americans had a overly strong sense of importance, but she was clearly used to being in charge.

"Sorry, luv. It'd be a shame about the fork in the eye, though. Such lovely eyes," I said.

"Shut up, Trina," she said to her phone as she hung up.

"Your sister?" I asked.

"Look, buddy, I don't know what your deal is but most people don't like it when you listen in on their phone conversations," she snapped.

I held up both hands but couldn't get the smile off my face. "In my defense you were talking at full volume. Bit rude, even by American standards, isn't it?"

She bit her petal-pink bottom lip and looked ready to murder me with her bare hands. "You're calling me rude?"

"No harm done, beautiful. You enjoy your day now." I backed off but couldn't resist tossing her a wink.

Her eyes narrowed and she took a step forward only to freeze. She blinked rapidly and reached up a hand to smooth down her hair.

I glanced behind me and barely contained a groan. Shepherd was striding towards us, nodding at students like some sort of dignitary. The female students all fluttered their eyelashes at him, and I felt a knot of anger over the fact that my fiery American was acting the same.

"Ian, is that you?" Shepherd called across the green. "Terrible timing, old chum, I've got an out-of-town guest."

The American made a strangled sound. She stood as if rooted to the ground and I cursed Shepherd's ridiculous good looks for the ten thousandth time in my life.

"Have you met my charming American guest?" Shepherd joined us. "London Cartwright, this is Ian Reid. Ian, this is London, the five star chef I was telling you about. She just got into town last night."

"For a seven course meal?" I asked.

London stiffened, realizing just how much I had overheard. "Nice to meet you, ah, Mr. Reid," she said.

I shook her hand then didn't let go. "And I bet he's got something even better planned for tonight. Our Shepherd's the epitome of the cultured connoisseur."

"Actually," London said. "I've had a change of plans. My sister, Trina, reminded me that I promised our parents I would visit where they got engaged. It's called, um, the Sands of Fovie?"

Shepherd laughed. "The dunes? You can visit and be back in time for dinner. In fact, Ian here could give you a lift. He's from the town of Balmedie."

I almost reminded Shepherd he was from the same small town, but the American's expression was more interesting. "If you really want to go, my car's just over there."

"Great," she said. "Let me just get my stuff."


Fish & Chips

"You need your entire suitcase for an afternoon sight-seeing?" Ian asked.

I crammed my suitcase into his trunk and gently shut it. The whole car looked like one hard knock and it would fall apart. "Is this things safe to drive?" I asked him.

The Scotsman snorted. "It goes. Shall we?"

He opened the rusted car door for me and I slipped carefully onto the passenger seat. Shepherd stood frowning at us from the university green and Ian stopped for minute to speak with him. They were old friends, Shepherd had assured me, and Ian was completely trustworthy.

My stomach fluttered as I measured him myself. Ian Reid was a few inches shorter than Shepherd but he still tall, at least 6'. His black hair fell back in wild waves that he ignored even when they blew across his eyes. Dramatic black eyebrows animated his conversation and I didn't need to be out of the car to know what he was saying.

Ian was teasing Shepherd, something I couldn't have imagined in a million years. Then his eyebrows furrowed as he brought up something serious. He was asking Shepherd for a favor.

I jumped when Ian glanced over at me. He was asking for a favor in exchange for driving me to Balmedie.

Whatever it was, they agreed upon because there was a hard handshake and then Ian rounded his rusted car and climbed into the driver's seat.

"He still thinks you'll be back for dinner," Ian said.

"And I won't?" I waved to Shepherd.

Ian popped the clutch and rattled us away from the curb. "Shep set you up at some fancy boutique hotel but your suitcase is in the back of my car. You tell me."

I had no idea how close the two men were, so I chose my words carefully. "I didn't ask him to do that and I don't want to overstay my welcome. Is there a hotel in Balmedie?"

Ian chuckled. "Ah, that's my friend Geogie's favorite question."

The drive was short from the University of Aberdeen to the small hamlet of Balmedie, and Ian took me directly to a whitewashed old house with a wide front porch. The sign over the door swung in the stiff ocean breeze.

"The Nag's Head Inn?" I asked.

"Plenty of time to change your mind," Ian said. He parked the car and ran around to open the rusted car door for me. "I told Shep I'd be happy to drive you back when you're ready."

"And if I decide to stay overnight?" I asked.

The Nag's Head Inn looked primitive at best but I couldn't stand the idea of another stuffy night with Shepherd and his sycophants.

"Tell Georgie I sent you," Ian said. He pulled my suitcase out of the trunk and hauled it up to the wide front porch. "It might not look like much but Georgie makes the best cup of coffee this side of Hadrian's Wall."

Ian gave me another dizzying wink and climbed back into his car. He waved out the car window as he drove away and left me facing the misty gray ocean.

At least he was right about Georgie's coffee. When I explained my uncertain situation, the innkeeper let me lock my things in the hall closet while I explored. He poured me a Thermos full of coffee and wrapped a scone in a napkin for me to take along. Then he pointed me out the door to the Sand of Fovie.

It was mid-morning and I was starving but the coffee was the best I had ever tasted. The rolling sand dunes and glittering sun on the ocean were beautiful, but all I could do was sit down and devour the scone as I savored the coffee.

The warmth, the way the aroma lingered even in the ocean breezes, and the hints of blueberry in the dark roast were heavenly. I stretched my legs out across the sand and realized why coffee was such an important morning ritual for so many people. It comforted and encouraged, a necessary cup of inspiration that helped a person keep going.

I blinked and looked around as if I had just landed in Scotland. This was why I had come. When everything in New York City had turned into routine, all it took was one cup of coffee to remind me why I became a chef in the first place.

Amazed, I got up and spent the rest of the morning shuffling through the sand dunes and staring out at the sea, so perfectly content that I didn't realize the time until my stomach started to growl again.

Shepherd's recommendation for lunch was an upright old building with stately windows and white linen clothes on the tables. I caught sight of my windblown reflection in the window and laughed out loud. I couldn't have made it through the door looking like that even if I wanted to. And another impressive and stiff menu was the absolute last thing I wanted.

I wondered where Ian would recommend. He hadn't even given me his cell phone number. When I'd asked how I'd reach him he had just shrugged and said Georgie would know where he was. He reminded me it was a small town and if I could remember what his car looked like, then I could find him nearby.

It stung a little that he wouldn't give me his number. Ian was handsome in a dark and brooding sort of way, but I had gotten the wild notion he was interested in me. Then he'd disappeared with no more than a wave.

Trina would have laughed at me. My sister would have seen it as further proof that I always fell for the wrong guy.

Still mulling over my rejection, I followed my nose down the cobblestone main street of Balmedie. The delicious aroma of fried batter wafted out of a pale blue storefront. I pushed open the door of the fish and chips shop and almost fell flat on my face.

Ian lounged against the tall counter, chatting with a customer but he stood up when he saw me. "There you are, beautiful. Hungry?"


Flirting with Disaster

I was sure she was going to turn her nose up at my food. If Shepherd Ross was the kind of man she went halfway around the world to see, then London would never be happy with fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. Shep assured me my food was delicious but that was only when he was in a generous mood.

My food was mundane, pedestrian, as basic as beans on toast.

Then I watched London wolf down a full order and lick her fingertips. There is nothing sexier than a woman that eats. I mean really eats. Smacks her lips, grunts and nods when you ask if she wants vinegar, and rolls her eyes to the heavens in between bites.

"This is delicious. What's in your batter? What kind of seasoning do you put on your fries, I mean, chips?" London sat back in her chair.

She was by the window at one of three tiny cafe tables I had set-up there just for show. No one stayed and ate inside my little chip shop. Not unless they had Balmedie gossip to be spreading. Neighbors had already walked by twice just to confirm that a woman, a beautiful woman, was sitting there.

"No one asks questions like that," I told London. "It's fish and chips. Simple."

"I think that's what I like the most about it," London said. "It's simple but only because it has everything."

"Except vegetables, leafy greens, anything remotely healthy," I pointed out.

She stood up and tossed out her crumpled up newspaper wrapper. "Do you hear stuff like that a lot?" she asked.

"Not from the locals," I said. "Speaking of, I gotta close up shop for a bit. Tourist bus is due down at the sands."

"Do you mind if I tag along?" London asked.

I stopped and gaped at her like a fish. If I had told myself that one day a woman would just appear in front of me, ask for a ride (or was it an escape?), then stick around, and want to 'tag along,' I would have called myself three kinds of fool.

"What would Shepherd think?" I asked.

"What?" London giggled and her nose crinkled up. "I'm not dating Shepherd. We're not seeing each other. We've never been seeing each other. Not like that."

The nervous repetition of her answer was comforting. "So you really just want to come along and help me sell fish and chips to tourists?"

"Is that so crazy?" London asked.

I nodded. "What exactly are you doing in Scotland, anyway?"

She leaned on the tall counter in front of me and sighed. "I was starting to lose it at work and, in my line of work, people would have noticed. So, my boss sent me on a vacation. To find myself or something like that."

"In Scotland?" The idea made me laugh.

London smiled. "There are a few other places on my itinerary too."

"And Shepherd?"

"My boss' friend. She thought it would be a good idea if I knew a local to show me around," London said. "Make it easier to connect with the real Scotland."

I laughed about that the entire time I packed my truck and trailer. London helped, seeming to know what I needed to take, and I would have thought about that more but the idea of Shepherd representing the real Scotland was still cracking me up.

The only thing that sobered me up was how natural it seemed for London to jump into the passenger seat of my truck. She'd been out all morning at the sands but she was still fresh. In the close confines of my truck, I caught the scent that had driven me wild all the way from Aberdeen. Like peaches and some kind of heady spice. I couldn't be falling for the American.

"Look out your window," I told London. "There's the real Scotland."

She gasped when she saw the toppled ruins of the castle. It jutted out on a high section of cliff, but the sea still tossed up spray as high as the outer wall.

"Oh, Ian, it's amazing. And you just drive by it like it's nothing. Hundreds of years of history. All those lives and loves." London sighed.

"So, you're not in love with Shepherd?" I asked.

London sat up in the passenger seat. "Why do you want to know?"

I pulled into the gravel semi-circle where the tourist buses parked and turned off my truck. "I want to know if the field's clear before I try to make a pass."

"What? No." London put her hand on the door handle but it was stiff and wouldn't open for her.

"You'd say no?" I asked.

London turned to me but pushed her back all the way up against the door. "No. I mean, I wouldn't say no. I mean, I'm not going to become one of those vacation cliches. Woman goes to Scotland and has a fling with some handsome but rude Scotsman. No, I can't do that."

"I'm not wearing a kilt, so technically it's not a cliche," I told her.

London laughed and I felt it dance straight through my entire body. "Don't you have to turn on the fryers?" she asked.

"I do. Wait, did you say I'm handsome?" I asked.

She tugged on the door handle again but it wouldn't budge. "Please. You don't strike me as the insecure type."

"And how about you?" I asked. "Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?"

"Do you have any idea how overused that line is?" London shot back.

I had to get out of the truck. It was either that or kiss her right then and there. I walked around the front of the truck as slowly as I could, trying to let the ocean breeze cool me down.

How had she gotten under my skin and set me on fire so fast?

I opened the passenger side door for her, but didn't move as she stepped down. She didn't like lines so I just stood there, inches from her. London was irresistible, sharp tongue and all.

"What are you doing?" she squeaked.

"You don't like lines so I was thinking of going right in for the kiss," I told her.

Her brown eyes went soft and dark, and she wet her bottom lip with a nervous frown. She dropped her gaze from the far horizon to my mouth and I felt a surging wave of desire.

"Tourists!" London gasped before our lips could meet.

I turned to curse the incoming tourist bus, and that's when London slammed my hand in the door of my own truck.


Prove It

"Nothing broken," the nice doctor from Sweden said. "Swelling should go down in a day or two. Lots of ice. Oh, and you'll be pretty clumsy with that hand for a while."

"Thanks, doc," Ian said. He smiled as the tourist rejoined the group visiting the castle ruins.

"Ian, you need to go to the hospital," I said.

"You heard the doctor, nothing's broken," Ian said.

He fumbled with the trailer doors, swung them wide open, and then turned on the portable fryers. The little concession trailer was fully equipped and little pockets of tourists were already noticing the menu.

I pointed to it. "You can't make any of these things with only one hand. Ian, you need to go get x-rays."

"It's not that bad," he said. He dropped the fry basket when he tried to transfer it to his injured hand.

I stepped up into the compact trailer. "Do you have any ice?" I asked. "The doctor said to use ice to keep the swelling down. If you're not going to go to the hospital, the least you can do is follow that advice."

He kicked the dropped fry basket, but took the bag of ice I handed him.

"You can't just close up and leave?" I asked him.

Ian frowned. "Tourist season isn't very long here and my little shop needs the cash flow."

"Fine then." I stepped in front of Ian when he tried to climb into the concession trailer. "You can direct me and I'll do the cooking."

"Are you insane?" Ian asked me. "I applaud your 'can-do' spirit, but you can't just pick up an apron and make fish and chips."

"I can if you tell me what to do." I stood over the skinny prep station and tried to act casual.

Ian had no idea what I did for a living. He was the only person that Shepherd had yet to inform about my career, my well-reviewed restaurant, or my high Michelin rating. I had a feeling that was why Ian was the only person I felt relaxed around.

"You have to bread the fish first. . ." Ian rattled off the entire production in the hopes of scaring me off.

I couldn't tell him how excited I was to be cooking again. Learning the secret ingredients to his delicious battered fish while over looking the romantic ruins of a caste with the ocean surging in the background. It was a cooking fantasy I had never been daring enough to invent, and now it was real.

"Tell me about the castle." I started to dredge the first piece of fish before breading it.

Ian sighed, adjusted the ice on his hand, and leaned against the side of the trailer. "Well, I'm not much on history, but there is a ghost story attached to that castle."

Under Ian's sharp eye, I had to slow down, try to hesitate, and do things in a sloppy way that I couldn't stand. "I love a good ghost story," I told Ian.

"The story goes that long ago a beautiful princess visited the castle. She was on a quest when a terrible storm stopped her travels and she was caught here in our little seaside village." Ian paused to take a few orders from the now-returning tourists.

"What was she looking for?" I asked him.

Ian shrugged. "Inspiration, love, happiness. Who knows? Instead, she found a handsome knight that loved her. But, when he asked her for a kiss she slammed his hand in a door."

I groaned. "Really? That's the best you could come up with?"

I surprised Ian by producing the first few orders. The first tourists took their newspaper packets of fresh fried fish but lingered outside the trailer.

The woman was a little over sixty with a mischievous light in her blue eyes. She gave Ian an appreciative look before turning to me. "Why shouldn't a kiss be the quest? Life would be a lot more fun."

"Doris, you leave those kids alone," her husband said. The older couple jostled each other and laughed.

"How's the food?" Ian asked.

"Delicious," they said in unison.

Ian raised an eyebrow at me. "Not bad, princess."


Can't Look Away

The tourist's teasing words rung in my ears all afternoon. Why shouldn't a kiss be the quest? I certainly wanted to kiss London.

The way she moved around the small trailer, unafraid of the fryers, tossing the chips with a new blend of spices, and chatting with the tourists that came to the window. I couldn't take my eyes off her. She left the back gate of the trailer down, letting out the heat, and letting my gaze in to rove all over her.

She was as quick as a switch and just as skinny. I preferred women with a little more shape, but London had delicious curves hidden under her quick movements. I liked that she didn't advertise them with gaudy, tight shirts, or jeans that impeded her every move. Instead she seemed more relaxed on the move and her clothes shifted to reveal her sexy curves in teasing flashes.

"Why are you staring at me like that?" London asked. "Am I doing something wrong?"

"Where'd you learn to cook?" I sidestepped the question but moved closer to her.

London wiped her hands on her apron and her pretty petal pink lips screwed up into a small pout. "Who says I learned how to cook?"

I leaned on the door of the trailer and smiled. "A natural talent then?"

I could practically see the walls coming up inside her. Her shoulders went stiff. Luckily for me another couple came to the window and ordered. As she put together their food, London loosened up again.

I stepped into the minute space and grabbed a chip. "I like the new spice mix. Very warm."

London had to face me in the tiny trailer. "Thanks. I hope you don't mind. I like experimenting."

"They seem to like it." I nodded out the window at the group of tourists, the majority of which were licking their fingertips when they were done.

"I think that's everyone," London said.

I reached up and slid closed the service window. "Time for a break, then," I said.

Her brown eyes watched me carefully but I could see a spark of excitement, a honeyed gleam in her look that stole my breath. All conversation fled from me, and there was nothing else I could do.

I kissed London.

Her gasp made me smile against her sweet lips, but that faded when she kissed me back. We could have tipped off the cliffs and into the sea and I wouldn't have noticed. All I knew was the way her lips moved against mine.

London's hands slipped up my chest but did not push me away. Instead, her fingers splayed, testing my muscles, and making me weak in the knees. I leaned into her touch, and reached around her to put my hands on the counter.

She felt me wince and pulled back. "Your hand! Are you okay?"

"Doc said my hand would be fine in a day or two. Not sure about my bank account." I muttered the last bit, more mad that our kiss had been interrupted.

"Oh! I didn't even think about that. What about your dinner rush?" London asked.

"Dinner rush?" I had to laugh. "In Balmedie I'm looking at more of the pre and post pub crowd. They'll just have to go home to their wives' cooking tonight."

London put her fists on her hips. "No. I can help."

"Aren't you supposed to be on vacation?" I asked.

She laughed and my insides tipped over. "Vacations are boring. There's only so much sightseeing I can handle before I have to do something," she said.

Like me, I immediately thought, not hating the idea.

So I agreed to let her come back with me to the shop. I knew it wasn't fair to London for me to want more, for me to extend my quest past a kiss, but I felt her now like a gnawing hunger. If I couldn't have her, at least I could have her near me. And I was surprised at how happy I was with just that.

London ran around my small fish and chip shop with so much excitement that I almost started to see it as new. Through her eyes, the little historic building, once the town post office, was quaint and perfect.

"Except for the condiments. You really should have them down here on the left. Easier for the patrons to see, easier for you to grab when you've got the fish hot from the fryer," London said.

I slumped down on my worn wooden stool and glowered at her. "No need to go crazy. There's not that much of a rush here."

"But it would be more efficient," London protested.

"Americans and your bloody efficiency," I muttered. "People would be put out if I tried to rush them out the door."

It was hard for London to adjust to the pace of my small town. There were long stretches between customers, and sometimes people just came in for a quick chat. She fidgeted around behind the counter, cleaned everything in sight, and peppered me with suggestions for 'modernization.'

"Fish and chips shouldn't be modernized. You'd suck the soul right out of it," I told her.

London snagged a chip and ate it thoughtfully. "It does have soul. How? It's such a simple, plain menu."

"Thanks," I said.

"No, I'm serious. I find all of this so inspiring. Like you said, it has soul. I just don't understand where it comes from," she said.

"Trying to export my magic, eh?" I asked.

London smiled at me. "Magic. I like that."

I cursed her phone three ways from Sunday for disturbing our chat. London had been softening, making me think another kiss was not out the realm of possibility, but that disappeared when she saw who was calling.

"Sorry," she said, inching towards the back door. "It's Shepherd."

I had to listen in. I justified it as conscientious spying. After all, he was my friend and I had to know if I was overstepping.

"No, I'm fine at the Nag's Head," London told him. "Well, the hotel is just down the street. Yes, I will meet you. Fine, see you tomorrow."

So, Shepherd was coming for the weekend. But, I hadn't heard any endearments, any hints of intimacy, and London didn't seem particularly excited when she shuffled back into my shop.

Maybe my quest wasn't so ridiculous after all.


Dog Gone

Maybe Scotland was getting to me. Or maybe Ian's kiss had turned my head completely around. All I could think about was Ian and what he had said about magic.

I knew there was magic in cooking, but I had always thought it was term for that special something a talented chef managed. Now, as I watched the post-pub customers holding their newspaper packets of fish and chips with both hands, as if carrying something precious, I realized it wasn't just a term.

Ian's menu was serviceable, plain, and not inspired, but the food was more than delicious. It satisfied something deeper in his customers.

He refused to rearrange his small shop, saying that customers only came in and out again, but that wasn't true. No one sat at the small tables like I had, but everyone stayed to relish their food and talk with the chef.

Yes, I had spent nearly the whole day frying up fish and chips and that didn't seem like much of a vacation, but I was inspired. This was exactly what my restaurant owner and boss had said I needed.

Madison would love that I found it in a small fish and chip shop on the coast of Scotland. And she would love that I found inspiration in a handsome Scotsman.

I stopped in the midst of scrubbing his counter clean. Ian was my inspiration. He was the magic that made the food so good, the shop so welcoming, and the customers return again and again.

Ian Reid was rude, gruff, and stubborn, but he had the magic I was missing.

I watched him argue with a pair of regulars over football. How could I ask what his secret was when he didn't even know what I did for a living? I should have told him already because now it would just sound crazy.

A five-star chef, running away from New York City, in search of something she couldn't even define. Plus, I had spent all day slinging fish for him and lying about my cooking skills.

Ian didn't strike me as the kind of man that would discover a lie and take it lightly. He poked a finger into the chest of the regular that disagreed with him and reiterated his point with sharp jabs.

I didn't want that to be me. What I really wanted was another unexpected kiss.

I started scrubbing the counter again with a vengeance. The shop was closing and I was running out of excuses to be around Ian. Did he realize I had worked all night in the hopes of another kiss?

My cheeks were heated when the regulars agreed to disagree and headed out the door. Ian looked back and me and noticed my rosy cheeks with a inscrutable frown.

"You didn't need to do all this, lass," Ian said. "My hand's just bruised and I'm not really a charity case."

I untied my apron. "The way I look at it, you saved me from a day of boredom. I would rather spend the rest of my time in Scotland doing this than wandering around buying little trinkets and taking pictures."

"You would?" Ian held the shop door open for me with his good hand.

Now my blush was obvious. "I'm not much of a traveler, I guess," I said.

Ian laughed. "Me neither. I work here and I live there."

He pointed to a small cottage just across the street and my heart sank. The Nag's Head Inn was just up the street, I could see the sign waving in the ocean breezes, and I was all out of excuses for being near Ian.

"The breeze feels nice," I said just to say something.

Ian nodded. "You look a bit flushed. What you need is a drink."

I ran my hands through my hair and thought I was in no shape to head to the local pub. "I'm not sure I'm fit for the public eye," I said.

"Well, I've got whiskey and a back porch," Ian said.

I was so happy that all I could do was nod. We headed across the narrow street, his hand light on the small of my back. All my friends in New York had joked that I needed a fling but I couldn't picture it. And now it was happening with the moon bright above us. His house was a charming stone cottage overlooking the sea. It was all too good to be true.

Instead of pinching myself, I stopped on his front steps and looked at Ian. His dark hair was ruffled in the ocean breeze, and I couldn't read his eyes in the dark.

"Door's unlocked," he said. His voice was quiet against the rhythm of the ocean waves.

Panic set in. I hadn't been in a relationship in over a year, and it was almost that long since I had slept with anyone. One slip up with an ex-boyfriend didn't count, and I knew I was completely out of practice. I was going to embarrass myself for certain.

With a shaky hand, I tugged open his hardwood front door. It flew open, pushed by a flurry of gray fur and long legs.

"Beck!" Ian shouted but the dog didn't listen.

It shot down the short path and cleared Ian's front gate in one easy leap.

"Oh, Ian, I'm so sorry!" I ran to the gate and raced down the road but the dog was long gone. "Was that a dog or a horse?"

Ian caught up to me and chuckled. "Beck's a wolfhound, more leg than brain."

"I'm so sorry. I'll find him." I trotted in the direction I had last seen the giant dog.

Ian caught my arm and threaded it through his own. "We'll find him, and we don't have to exhaust ourselves doing it."

"But he could be anywhere. What if he gets hit by a car?" I asked.

Ian laughed. "What cars?"

He was right. We were walking down the middle of the street and there was no traffic whatsoever.

I took a deep breath and tried to think. "If I was a wolfhound, where would I go?"

"To the pub," Ian said. He shrugged at my accusatory look. "It's where he always goes when he gets out."


Pints at the Pub

The long-legged gray dog was exactly where Ian said he would be, lounging by the fireplace at the local pub. When he caught sight of Ian, the dog heaved himself to his feet, ambled over, and licked the back of Ian's hand. Ian patted his head and ordered two pints.

"So, does this happen a lot?" I asked.

Ian gave the dog another pat. "Almost nightly, eh, Beck?"

The dog wagged his tail.

The bartender tossed Beck a bit of leftover sausage before he handed Ian the beers. "He's practically the mascot."

They both laughed at my shocked expression. All I could think about was the hundreds of health inspectors I had met over the years and how they would shriek at the sight of the giant fur ball.

Ian picked up the beers and nodded me towards a booth by the fireplace. Beck resumed his place in front of the warm fire and watched us with a happy panting.

"Slainte!" Ian said, raising his pint glass.

I heaved mine up and tried not to spill when he knocked his pint glass hard against it in a toast. The beer was dark with a thick, tan head, but the taste was light and thirst-quenching. I took a long gulp before setting down the heavy pint glass again.

"So, when are you going to tell me what you're running from?" Ian asked.

I choked on a second sip of beer. "Who says I'm running from something?" I asked.

"You. You're not a traveler, you haven't been out of New York City in years, and now suddenly you're in Scotland." Ian leaned across the polished wood table. "So, what are you running from?"

"Work," I admitted. "I was losing my edge, my inspiration, and decided I needed a break."

"And you chose Scotland?"

The warmth of the fire plus the refreshing taste of the beer started to loosen my tongue. "I didn't decide to take a vacation. My boss told me I had to go. I tried to get out of it, didn't plan anything, so my sister chose Scotland for me."

"Aberdeen is where your parents fell in love," Ian said.

"How did you know that?" I asked.

Ian shrugged. "We've spent some time together, you and I."

I liked the way he said that. I was starting to like everything about Ian Reid. His eyes had gone from gray to green in the warmth of the pub, and he smiled at me over the rim of his pint glass. It sent fissures of excitement through my body.

"Thanks for the beer," I said.

"Have another." Ian leaned forward farther. "Unless you'd be wanting that whiskey I mentioned earlier."

I gulped down the rest of my pint in record time and nodded. Ian stood up and held out his hand. I was sure he could feel the tremors of excitement and fear in me, but I put my hand in his and let him pull me to my feet.

Beck led the way to the pub door and out down the empty street. Here and there lights were on in the cozy cottages, but mostly it was just us and the bright moonlight. It reflected off the restless ocean and hypnotized me.

By the time we got to Ian's front gate, I wasn't almost calm. Then he kissed me.

The surge of desire hit me so hard that all I could do was throw my arms around his neck and hang on. Ian flung open his front door, and pulled me through, my feet barely sweeping the floor. The dog raced in just before Ian slammed the door behind us and pushed me up against it.

His body pressed against mine, holding me just above the ground, even with his hunger mouth. We devoured each other's kisses before I had to taste his stubbled cheek, and the throbbing pulse of his neck.

Each time I touched my lips to Ian's skin, I could feel his pleasure. He moved against me like the ebb and flow of the ocean until I was dissolving into wet desire.

Then Ian pulled back, his lips still panting against mine but his body skimming just out of reach. I couldn't lose him; I was still aching with a longing I hadn't felt in a long time.

"Please," I said. "I want this."

His breath came out in hot drafts against my cheek as he held me close, still holding back. So, I reached out my tongue and swirled it across his bottom lip before catching his surprised gasp with my lips.

Ian crushed himself against me, his own obvious desire pressing into the valley of my legs. The friction there pulled a limp moan from me that ended in a deep-throated chuckle. I hadn't wanted someone so bad in so long. It felt glorious.

He responded to my pleasure with a long, slow stroke of his hard body. His chest skimmed over my sensitive nipples, his tightly-muscled stomach gliding up from my hips, and his own passion nestled deep in the folds of my dress. I wanted to feel every inch of him and squirmed against my restrictive clothes.

"Bedroom?" I asked, surprised at my own boldness.

Ian shook his head, then kissed me. Against my lips, he murmured, "kitchen."

"Yes." My voice was breathless but he felt my broad smile.

Ian pushed us away from the door and lifted me up higher. I wrapped my legs around his waist as he backed down the narrow hall. When we got to the kitchen, I slipped down from his arms in shock.

"This is your kitchen?" I asked.

The small stone cottage opened up to a large addition all glass skylights and wide windows. A large range, and sleek cupboards filled the back wall while the center of the spacious kitchen was dominated by a marble-topped island. Beyond that was an uninterrupted view of the ocean that almost stole my breath away more than kissing Ian.


I spun around and pulled Ian back into my arms. This time he came to me slowly, the teasing smile on his handsome face only fanning my desire hotter. When our lips finally touched I melted into him and was glad when his strong arms caught me up again.

He carried me around the island before he lifted me onto the marble-topped counter. Between molten kisses I could see the ocean and the flash of the moonlight on the water. The wild, surging water and Ian bowing down as his tugged my panties off. He let them fall at my ankles and waited for me to kick them free.

When I did he came back against me, searing lips and hungry tongue. Our breath came in bright pants as my hands sought to draw him closer.

"You want this?" Ian asked, his voice hoarse.

I pulled back, stunned by his stormy face awash in passion. He was electrifying and I felt every nerve in my body tremble. All I could do was nod.

Ian's hands skimmed up my thighs, drawing my dress to my hips, and then he pulled it higher, knotting it into his fists. He was trying to control himself, I could feel it in his quivering muscles. To know he felt that way for me, so wild, so unbound, made me swell like a rushing river. I wrapped my legs around his waist and guided him closer.

It had been so long; I was too tight; Ian was too large. Then he breathed my name against my gasping mouth. A molten warmth spread where our bodies met, and I swear it melted my heart. I felt like the icing on a cake, warm enough to be painted into tight spirals higher and higher.

Ian matched me, delicious stroke for stroke, and it was heavenly to taste and be tasted. He bit my shoulder, his body shuddering with pleasure, and I exploded in his arms. When I opened my eyes, saw the wild, beautiful sea over Ian's shoulder, and hoped I would never cool down and harden again.


Five Stars

I couldn't remember the last time I was happy to wake up. Mornings were always too soon, my body aching and my mind stumbling into the race of the day. But waking up next to London was different.

As if the contented peace extended beyond my little cottage, the ocean was calm. Even Beck was laying quietly in the corner. Normally the giant dog was leaping around my bed, combatting my bad morning mood with his clumsy antics.

I was afraid to move. It felt as if the whole spell would break once London woke up. She would leap up, shocked and dismayed to have ended up in bed with some gruff Scotsman. She would see my neglected cottage, bare of most luxuries, and go running back to Aberdeen.

Then she turned over and smiled at me. "Good morning."

"It is, isn't it," I said.

London laughed into her soft pillow. "Why do you sound so surprised?"

"Not much of a morning person," I mumbled. Her musical laugh had woken up more than my forgotten sense of contentment. I shifted my body away from her to hide my rush of desire.

London snuggled closer. "But today is a good morning?" she asked.

I slipped an arm around her waist. "It could be better."

London's intimate giggle turned to a shriek. "Is that the time? I have to meet Shepherd in twenty minutes!"

My friend's name worked better than a bucket of cold water. "Shower's in there. I'll make coffee."

She flew into the small bathroom only giving me a glimpse of her naked body. It was enough to flopped me back into bed with a frustrated groan. Beck took that as his cue to pounce and I had to wrestle one hundred and twenty pounds of goofy wolfhound before I could get up.

"Coffee's on," I called when I heard the shower turn off.

London raced into the kitchen, her cheeks blazing up when she saw the island and remembered our night. "I'm sorry. Shepherd's expecting to meet me at the Nag's Head, and I have to change."

"Coffee to go then," I said.

"Ian?" London moved around the kitchen island and put a hand on my arm.

"You don't have to say anything, lass. I had a wonderful night and I'm not going to spoil it with worries," I told her.

She kissed me full on the lips. "Please join us for lunch."

"Oh no, I'm not a third wheel."

London gave me a pained look. "He's your friend, isn't he?"

"He's also a total wanker when it comes to food. I'd rather eat breakfast with Beck," I said.

"Me too." London kissed me again and rushed out the door.

Beck barked after her as I settled down on my front step to watch her run. The Nag's Head Inn was just down the street and she barely made it up the front steps before I saw Shepherd's sleek car round the corner.

"Ian! How about you clean up and come eat a decent meal," Shepherd called out his car window.

Beck leapt the gate and put his muddy feet on Shepherd's car door. "Thanks but no thanks," I said.

"My American friend will be there." Shepherd shoved Beck off and fretted about his dirty hands.

"What's the story with you and her anyway?" I asked.

Shepherd smoothed back his glossy hair. "Mutual admiration."

"How chaste and chivalrous of you."

Shepherd scowled at me. "Just come to lunch. You can't try hitting on her from your front step, now can you."

That was enough of an invite and challenge to get me on my feet. I still didn't know what tied Shepherd and London together, but I wasn't going to miss a chance to see her again.

Minutes later, I glared at the maitre d' as he tipped up his nose at my wrinkled shirt. "Shepherd Ross' party," I growled.

The snobby man's eyes lit up. "Oh, yes. London Cartwright just joined him. They are in the King's Hall."

"You mean the private dining room?" I waved away the pretentious man and headed to the back of the fancy restaurant.

I furrowed my brow and wondered why the maitre d' was so excited. It wasn't as if we didn't get Americans in our little village from time to time. Why did he know her name?

Then I saw her.

London stood next to Shepherd looking sleek and sophisticated in a dove gray dress. She smoothed down a thin strand of pearls as she smiled graciously at the half dozen or so guests Shepherd had invited.

They were fawning over her with Shepherd standing there as if showing a prize pony. Who was London Cartwright?

"Isn't it great?" A thin man with thick glasses asked me. "It's not every day we get a rock star chef in Balmedie."

"Rock star chef?" I asked.

"London Cartwright." The man shoved his glasses up the bridge of his nose and looked at me as if I'd crawled out from under a rock. "The famous New York City chef. She's up for the James Beard award."

I nodded as if anything he'd said made sense to me. London had spent the previous day slinging fish and chips for me and hadn't once mentioned her cooking pedigree. I must have looked and sounded the fool all day long.

"Her kitchen is one of the best I've ever seen," the thin man said.

I winced, thinking of her crammed into my dirty little concession trailer. "She's a true gourmand, eh?"

The man sniffed. "A cut above that even."

I turned towards the door and prayed London hadn't seen me. There was no way she wanted me and I needed to get out of sight as quickly as I could.

"Ian?" London caught me in the hallway.

"I was just leaving," I muttered.

"Why? I asked Shepherd to invite you and he said he had already. I want you here." London drew closer to me. "I asked you this morning, remember?"

I shook my head. "That must have been someone else."

London looked pained. "It doesn't matter that I'm a chef, does it?"

"It matters that you lied. You let me make a fool of myself. Talking fish and chips all day. You go have a laugh about that with your high-class friends." I headed for the door.

"But I don't want to be with them. I didn't ask for any of this," London protested.

I snorted. "Look. I know when I don't belong. Good luck to you, Ms. Cartwright."

I left her standing in the narrow hallway, and refused to look back. The elegant woman there was far out of my league and I couldn't stand the longing.


Rain Check

"I don't understand," Shepherd hissed.

We stood in the narrow hallway of the restaurant. He tugged at my arm but I refused to go back into the private dining room.

"Thank you for going to all the trouble, but this isn't what I want," I said. "I came to Scotland to get away from all the flash and the fans. I came to find out what real cooking means to real people."

"Real people?" Shepherd asked. "Like Ian?"

I stiffened. "What's wrong with that?"

"Ian's a charming bastard, I'll give him that," Shepherd said. "But he's not worth your time. He hasn't changed that fish recipe of his in nearly ten years. Madison said you were looking for inspiration. Here's where you'll find it."

I shook my head. "This is just glamour, Shepherd. It's not real. I need to roll up my sleeves and remember what it's like to really cook."

"And Ian's fish and chip shop is going to help?"

He sounded so disdainful that I no longer felt bad for leaving. "His food might not be fancy or pretty or use exotic ingredients, but it has soul."

"Fine. I'll just tell your admirers that you're having a fight of artistic pique." Shepherd smoothed back his hair and turned back to his elegant party.

I ran out the front door.

Ian wasn't at home and his shop was still shuttered. I stood in the cobblestone street and wondered where he would go. The morning had turned misty and I needed to find him before the skies opened up.

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