The debut novel from Grace Grahme
“Please remind me how I let you talk me into this?” Kathryn Reilly gazed at her chest, which swelled dangerously above her gown’s neckline.
“Wow,” Janet gave an appreciative whistle. “WonderBras don’t have anything on these getups. Why did we ever quit wearing them?”
Kathryn tugged at the restrictive lacings of her bodice. “Probably because we realized we couldn’t breathe. How are we supposed to work in these?”
“By focusing on the fact that Sporran Enterprises sponsors this festival. You said you wanted that corporate training account bad enough to do anything, right? Showing the company you share their interests is a smart place to start.”
“But a Renaissance festival?” Kathryn frowned at her reflection in the mirror, tucking a long tendril of blond hair back under her cap. She wasn’t a complainer, but she resented losing an entire Saturday, which could have been spent preparing the training outline for the new account she started on Monday. Plus, with her boobs stuck out and her waist cinched in, she was sure she looked ridiculous. She was much more comfortable in heels and a pencil skirt.
“It isn’t a Renaissance festival exactly. This is a Ceilidh—which means a Scottish gathering. At a ren-fest, you’ll see folks dressed as Scots, Vikings, barbarians, pirates—anything goes.” Janet flounced her skirts. “But here, this one’s all about Scotland, and who doesn’t love men in kilts?”
“If they’re in a Hollywood blockbuster, that’s one thing. Otherwise, pants will do just fine, thank you.”
“It’s been so long since you’ve had a date, I wouldn’t think you’d be too picky,”
Kathryn bit back the bitchy reply on the tip of her tongue. Janet’s opinion of her love life, or lack thereof, wasn’t a surprise.
“I’m not looking for anything, and you know it. Between running the business, marketing, and pursuing new clients, I barely have time to go to the gym, let alone the added distraction being in a relationship would cause.” She opened the leather bag built into the costume’s belt and stuffed her PalmPilot inside, along with her money and keys.
“Having a bit of fun wouldn’t kill you, though. And don’t you dare take that damned PDA out while we’re here. I can’t believe you brought it.”
“And how long have you known me?” Kathryn said. “I promise I won’t take it out—unless I have an idea I need to write down.” She patted the pouch. “But if this is going to be as fun as you claim, I won’t have time to think about all the work I should be doing today, right?”
Kathryn shoved her resentment aside and vowed to cheer up. This whole thing was Janet’s idea. Kathryn wanted her assistant to think outside the box and discover creative ways to help her company get noticed. She would humor her, at least. She pinned the volunteer medallion on her bodice and took another look in the mirror.
“Aye, lassie. There be men aplenty to tease.” Janet said, with a horrible accent, pulling her out to the fair’s grounds.
It might have been 1998, but everywhere Kathryn looked, there were people in costumes that made it feel like it was hundreds of years in the past. The men wore kilts, some rustic and homespun, while others were polished and detailed. Similarly, the women wore gowns ranging from simple, peasant style to elaborate, ornate affairs that must have been incredibly hot in the August sun. As if in sympathy, sweat trickled down her back as they walked across the field. She heard music in the distance, and the tents and booths around her were festooned with flags and banners. The tempting scent of food wafted on the breeze.
“Where are we working?” She asked, shading her eyes to see better in the bright sun.
“We’re assigned to the Royal Kitchen. We take the orders and their money and serve the food. We’re called ‘kitchen wenches.” Janet said.
“That sounds easy enough. What kind of food?” Visions of something called haggis came to Kathryn’s mind.
“Not a clue, but that’s where we’re going.” Janet pointed to a structure built to resemble a castle.
“Merciful angels, it looks like they’ve got misters set up. I take back what I said about breathing. I’m more worried about heat exhaustion.” Kathryn said, fanning herself.
The early afternoon sped by, and Kathryn laughed and flirted with the customers, enjoying the day more than she would have guessed. Perhaps it was the sense of make-believe, but there was a reckless gaiety in the air. She hadn’t reached for her PalmPilot once.
“Why don’t you take a break?” Janet suggested during a lull in customers.
“I don’t need one.”
“For Pete’s sake, get out there and explore. I’ve already had a break. If you have this much fun behind the counter, imagine how it will be on the other side. Don’t be such a workaholic on your day off.” Janet gave her a shove.
Kathryn untied her apron, handing it to Janet. “I do need to go to the restroom. When should I be back?”
“At least an hour, enjoy yourself. Come back sooner, and I’ll tan yer hide, ye hear, missie?” Janet said, shaking the apron—the terrible accent was back.
“Ye’d drive a woman to drink, wench.” Kathryn tried her best to mimic her friend, and it sounded even worse.
“Only if I’m lucky,” Janet called after her.
A drink sounded like a marvelous idea. After a necessary visit to a modern restroom, Kathryn stopped at the pub she had passed near the entrance. She bought a bottle of cider and wandered the festival’s grounds, watching the crowds and peeking at the merchandise for sale in the tents.
The wail of bagpipes was easily heard over the sounds of the festival-goers, and she followed it. A group of pipers and drummers played on a stage, and Kathryn squeezed through the crowd to get a better spot. There were five men in kilts, two playing the pipes, one on a wooden flute of some kind, and two on drums. One drummer played a traditional snare drum, but the other played a flat, round drum that resembled a big tambourine without the bells.
Kathryn watched, fascinated as the drummer with the odd instrument played. His hands cupped, flattened, and even swiped across the face of the simple drum, creating a primal rhythm that drove the music. The song ended, and she applauded with the rest of the crowd, taking closer note of the drummer. She had cataloged in some corner of her brain that he was good-looking. Still, on closer inspection, she decided that word paled in comparison to the reality.
While there wasn’t an individual element standing out in his appearance, they all blended to create a man that she could only describe as, “Wow.” He was on the tall side of average, with dark hair and dark eyes, and if his nose was maybe just a bit too big, it fit well on the rest of his face and made his attractiveness unique. He was fit as well; his toned arms and legs were shown off by the sleeveless shirt and kilt that he wore. A leather belt sat low on his hips, giving him a rakish appearance.
The band began a new song, and she watched him analytically. Janet wasn’t kidding when she lamented Kathryn’s lack of love life, and to be drawn to any man was a novel experience. His face filled with emotions as he played. He would frown with a look of concentration, which broke with a smile or a laugh toward one of the band members. His personality radiated from him, and she bet he would be playful and cocky and funny, as well.
Kathryn shifted her gaze to the crowd. She was not alone in her attraction to the drummer as quite a few women watched him with interest. Turning back to him, she was determined to figure out what his allure was and was startled to see his eyes fastened on her. She blushed under his stare and glanced away; the sun suddenly felt much too hot, and when she peeked back, he appeared to be lost in the music.
The band finished the song, and Kathryn set her bottle down on the stage to applaud. She couldn’t help but overhear the loud conversation of the two costumed women in front of her.
“I’d sure like to know what the laddie with the hand drum wears under his kilt.”
“You and me both. I’d die if he were a true Scot.”
The women laughed, and Kathryn watched as they walked away from the stage. What did men wear under their kilts? Her lips twitched into a smile, guessing the answer to that question. She turned back to the stage and reached for her bottle, but it was gone. Looking around, she realized her drink dangled from the drummer’s fingers as he stood behind her.
“How about you, lassie?” He asked, his eyes intent on her.
“Excuse me?” She said, glancing around, not sure why he was talking to her.
“Would ya like to know what a Scotsman wears under his kilt?” His voice was deep and intimate, his accent strong. He raised the bottle to his lips and took a drink, his Adam’s apple moving as he swallowed.
“Why should I care? And that’s my cider you’re drinking—give it back.” A combination of annoyance and embarrassment flowed through her.
“Ah, it must have been your appreciation for our fine Scottish music that had ya watching me like I was a bowl of cream and you a sweet little cat.” He said, tipping the bottle to his mouth again.
“Does that kind of line usually work for you, or is that why you have to use a silly accent?”
“Hook line and sinker, little cat. The accent is just a bonus. Or are ya sayin’ I imagined that you couldn’t quit starin’ at me during the set?” He gave her a sly grin.
Heat blossomed across her face as she realized he had caught her studying him. “You don’t seem to lack female admirers.” More than a few women were watching her talk to the drummer. “I suggest you move along and find someone more interested in your, um, charms.”
“How could I notice anyone else when your big blue eyes have been gazing at me, sweeting?” He stepped closer to her, and she moved back, keeping distance between them.
“I guarantee you won’t find me sweet if you don’t hand over my drink.” She held her hand out, and he took it, pressing it to his lips, where he bit it ever so lightly. Her pulse jumped, and she yanked her palm away as if burned.
“Ya taste sweet to me.”
“Hey, Ian. You going to play, or what?” One of the band members called to him from the stage.
“I’m playin’ now.” He said, his eyes never leaving hers.
Outrage raced through her, along with something different and much more dangerous. Still, the smugness in his voice galvanized her into action.
“Well, I don’t play fair.” She stomped on his foot, snatched her drink from his hand, and fled into the crowd. Laughter welled up behind her, including his. It wasn’t a mature way to handle the encounter, but he could use being knocked down a bit. Cocky was the wrong description for him. Arrogant was a better fit. She wandered the grounds for a bit longer, avoiding the stage where the bagpipes were still playing until she had come full circle back to the kitchens.
“You’re back early.”
“Trust me, Janet. I’ve seen more than enough.” Kathryn tied her apron and turned to help the next customer in line, glad to have something to distract her from thinking about the drummer. It was silly to have been knocked off balance by him. He was just a man—an arrogant, seductive, handsome man who had for some reason tried to flirt with her. And she’d stomped on his foot. She shook her head and turned her attention to the next customer, managing to push thoughts of him from her mind.
“Wouldn’t it be great if this could be a job?” Janet asked during a lull in business.
“You could always go work at Disney World.” Kathryn stretched, arching her back against the tight lacings. “I would want something a bit more fulfilling in my life, though.”
“Like assaultin’ someone who is just tryin’ to be friendly?” A familiar voice asked. Kathryn spun around to find the drummer lounging against the counter.
“More like keeping men who are too aggressive in their place. How did you find me?”
“The wee pin yer wearing gave ya away, sweeting.” He reached to touch it, and she backed away, almost tripping on her skirts.
“What do you want?”
“A man canna live on ale alone. Though, he can try. His eyes were a dark blue, she noticed.
“I’d like to apologize,” his Scottish accent was gone. “And buy you a drink to replace the one I took.”
“You need a break.” Janet butted into the conversation, and Kathryn glared at her assistant. Janet winked at her.
“In that case,” he said, “I’ll take one of those fine bowls of stew, and it would be my honor to escort ya to the pub. After injurin’ my pride, it’s the least ya can do. Fair’s fair.” His accent was back.
She should say no. She was out of her league with this guy. But his grin was infectious, and the playfulness she had seen from him on stage called to her. She slipped out of the booth, accepting his offered arm.
He tucked her arm against him and put his hand over hers. “Now, I find I have a beautiful woman on my arm, but I dinnae have a name to call her by.”
“My name is Kathryn.”
“And I am Ian. It would please me very much to hear ya say it.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Ian.” She smiled at him, and he returned it with a grin that made her knees weak.
“Ya have a beauty to make the faeries jealous, Kate. The pleasure is mine.” The emphasis on the word pleasure sent a current up her spine. He stopped shy of the pub counter and turned to her. “Tell me what will soothe your thirst, bonnie Kate.”
“Another cider, please.”
“Verra well.” He said, guiding her in the direction of a vacant table. “If ya would be so kind as to hold our spot, I will fetch us refreshment.”
Kathryn watched as Ian strolled to the bar and ordered their drinks. How had this stranger managed to turn her head with not much more than a kind word and an infectious grin? He probably had more women than he knew what to do with, judging by the reactions she had seen when he was performing. The thought brought back a measure of her self-control. This guy wasn’t somebody she should be interested in.
“Here ya are, Kate. And, I promise not to take it from ya again.”
“I’ll watch it better this time. So, tell me about the group you play with.”
“Ah, the band. The boys and me have been together for a few years now. Even have two CDs out. It’s nothin’ we’ll get rich off of, mind you, but we make a merry time of it.”
“I don’t know much about Scottish music, but I enjoyed it. There’s a beat to the songs you played that stirred me. I’m not sure I have felt anything like that before.”
“You’ve an old soul, Kate. I knew it as soon as I saw ya.” He met her gaze and held it with his own. “The past stirs certain people. You. Me. These old instruments and old melodies, they stir our souls. After all, no one can convince me that the bagpipes are a melodious instrument. Even I admit the sound is akin to screeching cats.”
She laughed at the comparison. “You’re right about that, at least.”
“Ya feel it, yes?” He reached out and took her hand.
“The pull between us, Kate. Two old souls reaching out for each other.” The conversation had taken a romantic turn, and Kathryn pulled back on her hand.
“Look, my coming with you has maybe given you the wrong idea. I’m pretty sure what you’re looking for, and you aren’t going to find it with me.” She stood to leave, but Ian didn’t release her hand.
“How would ya know what I’m looking for?”
“I must be psychic.”
“So am I.” He turned her hand over, staring at her palm. “I see ya are a woman of tightly controlled passions. I wonder what would happen if ya let them loose?” He ran a finger over her open palm and a shiver raced through her.
Kathryn yanked her hand from his. “That’s palmistry, and my passions are none of your business.”
“Ach, I was never one for keeping my nose from where it doesnae belong. Would ya come with me, Kate?”
“Duty calls. I’ve another set.”
“I have to get back to the kitchens—my shift isn’t over.”
“Don’t go, Kate. I’d like to see ya in the crowd and play for ya.” Ian’s demeanor changed from smooth and slick to something more vulnerable as he pulled her hand to his chest.
The words were out of her mouth before she’d decided to agree. “Just for a song or two.” Ian’s face lit up with another of his grins that tickled her down to her toes. He drained his bottle and pulled her out of the tent, into the crowd.
“I need to check in with my friend first,” she said tugging him in the direction of the kitchens. Ian shifted easily and went with her.
“You’re back?” Janet asked with a frown.
“I’m going to go to the next show that Ian is playing, if you can manage here.”
Janet looked over her shoulder to where Ian was waiting, and her face broke into a grin.
“Ian is it? I didn’t know you had it in you, Kathryn.”
“I’ll be back to help in a few songs.”
“Right,” Janet nodded skeptically. “Just don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“I know you—there isn’t much you wouldn’t do.”
“Exactly.” Janet gave her a wink and waved her off.
“Do ya have her permission to stay out a bit after dark, sweeting?”
“She practically pushed me out.”
“And why would that be?”
Kathryn hesitated before answering. “She would say I don’t get out enough.”
“And would she be right?”
“I guess it depends on whose point of view you’re looking at, wouldn’t it?”
Sunset was approaching, and the shadows on the ground were stretching longer. There were still a lot of people at the festival, and a crowd gathered around the center stage; the sound of bagpipes was already audible.
“I must leave ya now. Stay close to the front, aye?” His accent was more pronounced.
“Give us a kiss for luck?” He turned his cheek towards her.
Kathryn eyed him before leaning in, aiming for his cheekbone. Ian turned at the last minute and kissed her full on the lips, his hand wrapping around her waist to keep her close. The band members hooted, and Ian released her after a second. Kathryn’s face burned, and Ian flashed a devilish smile at her.
“Stolen kisses make ya taste even sweeter, Kate,” Ian said, before leaping on stage.
Blood roared through Kathryn’s veins as the crowd quieted. The effect Ian was having on her was ridiculous. If a simple kiss would send her into such a tizzy, Janet was right. She needed to get out more. Ian picked up his odd drum and jumped to the front of the stage, addressing the crowd.
“Good eve to ya, my fellow Scotsmen. We are The Rapscallions of Scotland, and we have a braw show for ya this evening.” As the sound of the bagpipes behind him continued, he turned and pointed. “An effort in futility—bagpipes tuning.” The crowd laughed, and Ian responded with a few more jokes, each more ribald than the last. After the last joke involving a farmer, a sheep, and a dark, stormy night, Kathryn wished she could loosen the laces on her bodice, she was laughing so hard.
The group launched into one fast tune after another, and a group of brightly costumed ladies gathered near the center of the stage, dancing to the lively music. She alternated between watching them and watching Ian. The dancers broke into the crowd and pulled members of the audience with them.
“Ye want to dance, I’ll show ye how,” said one dancer as she pulled Kathryn into the center over her protests. The dancer demonstrated a few basic steps and Kathryn copied her moves.
Kathryn swirled and turned to the beat as the band played. The dancers would grab her hand and spin her as they moved, and her heart raced from the quickness of the movements. An arm encircled her waist, and she twisted away only to realize it was Ian. Without losing a beat, he twirled her around and led her in the dance. Kathryn laughed with the simple joy of dancing and allowed him to guide her through the steps of a reel. His face was flushed, and his hair fell across his forehead. His enthusiasm was irresistible.
“You’re so bonnie, Kate. Your face is a-glowin’ with excitement.” He said, spinning her again.
“I can’t remember the last time I’ve had so much fun,” she shouted over the music, and stepped on his toe. She burst out laughing, leaning over to give her lungs more room to breathe in the tight corset. “Thank you for asking me to come.”
“Aye, I’m glad ya are pleased, but now you’ve gone and stepped on my sore foot.” He said with an exaggerated grimace. “I think I need to return to the stage where it is safer for my wee piggies.” He leaped to the stage and picked up his instrument as the song ended.
Kathryn edged away from the dancers and closer to the stage as Ian addressed the crowd. “Now, I’d like to give all you fine dancers a rest. This next song is dedicated to my bonnie Kate. It is a song about true love that is never given a chance to bloom. It’s a sad song, lads and lasses—get out your hankies.”
The tune echoed over the crowd, which fell silent with appreciation. The bagpipes seemed to cry in lament, and the drums pulsed with the beat of a funeral march. Ian’s eyes fixed on her, and Kathryn looked away, unwilling to return the intimacy of his gaze. As the last note of the song faded, Ian began a quicker rhythm. The band moved with the music, interacting and joking with the audience, but every time she glanced at Ian, his eyes were on her.
As the band finished, Ian introduced each member, and the dancers circulated through the crowd accepting donations. Kathryn applauded. Men and women approached the stage, greeting the band, getting CDs autographed, and having their pictures taken. She leaned against a tree as Ian laughed and joked with the swell of women around him.
It was irritating to find such a flirt attractive. Ian could have his pick of women, and he had picked her today. And as crazy as it was, she was enjoying it.
There was no harm in enjoying an innocent flirtation. It’s not like she’d ever see him again. Ian’s voice broke her thoughts.
“Now, how can my bonnie Kate be frowning so mightily when she confided to me only minutes ago, she was having such a fun time?”
“Sorry, I was just thinking about something.” She said, banishing the dour thoughts. She was having fun, like Janet suggested, not planning a life with Ian.
“Come with me—I know the thing to put a smile on yer face and a glow in your stomach.”
“And what’s that?”
“More ale, of course.”
“How much do you drink at these things?”
“As much as I’d like,” Ian said without a trace of guilt.
The pub area was dimly lit and full of people talking and dancing. Ian went to the bar and came back with two bottles and two shot glasses filled with amber liquid.
“What’s that?” She asked.
“This, sweeting, is uisge beatha, the water of life. Single malt scotch and a smoother drink cannae be found. From the bartender’s private stash, too.”
“I don’t think so. I don’t drink much.”
“Ya’ve danced the Highland fling and ya’ve kissed a Scotsman. What’s left but to savor a bit of Scotland itself?”
“You’re as Scottish as that costume you wear.”
Ian grew serious as he fingered his kilt. “This costume is genuine. It’s the tartan of my family. I bought it several years ago while I was in Scotland.”
“You’re truly Scottish?”
“Except for what I wear under my kilt,” he said, winking at her. “Now raise your glass for a toast—unless you cannae hold your liquor.”
Kathryn heard the challenge implicit in his tone. Before she could list the fourteen reasons why this wasn’t a good idea, she accepted the glass.