Weddings were not Edan’s thing. Especially not since his own wedding had gone belly-up a couple of months back. Especially not when his attendance required him to wear a tie, like the one actively strangling him. Maybe he’d tightened it when he meant to loosen it. Anything was possible—he’d taken healthy advantage at the reception’s open bar in order to forget how much he hated weddings. He’d had a couple of drinks, or ten, who was counting, but enough that a friend had dropped him home, swerving around a Smart car that was parked in front of the old family inn Edan owned and managed.
And was going to sell, just as soon as he could.
In his office, he pulled off his suit coat, then used both hands to try and manhandle the bloody stubborn bit of silk from his neck, managing to tear the tag from the underside of the tie in the process. He was panting with the exertion when he thought he heard something. The walls of the old Victorian residence that was the Cassian Inn were pretty thick, and he couldn’t be sure what he’d heard.
There it was again—someone was ringing the little bell at the reception desk.
He flipped through the mental catalog in his sodden brain for who would be ringing the bell. No one. No one should be ringing the bell because there was an enormous sign out front proclaiming the Cassian Inn was closed for new business. Edan was tired, he was grumpy, and he was in no mood to be courteous and cheerful to whoever had ignored his sign.
The perpetrator tapped the bell again. What bloody numpty ignored the closed signs and walked into the reception area anyway? Better yet, what numpty had left the door unlocked? All right, bloody hell, that numpty would be him. Everyone around here knew he often forgot to lock the front door.
Edan scrubbed his face with his fingers.
The bell sounded again, ding ding.
Whoever it was ought to at least allow a minute or two to see if the first dings would be answered before tapping again. But no, Whoever did not wait, and just for that, Whoever could do the waiting. Edan unbuckled his sporran and tossed it onto his chair. Rosalyn, the bride, had begged him to wear a formal kilt, because God forbid a Scotsman show up at any American event in anything other than a kilt. “The girls love it,” Rosalyn had gushed.
The girls did love it.
Whoever now saw fit to pound the daylight from the little silver reception bell. Or at least it seemed that way to Edan’s throbbing head. All right then, he didn’t particularly want a contretemps, but he’d bloody well have a go all the same. He marched out of the offices and strode down the hall to the reception area.
But he hesitated with his first step through the door. He didn’t know who exactly he’d expected—an impatient elderly couple, as was wont to wander these parts—but he had not expected the lovely young woman in the hiking boots, the alarmingly short shorts, and her caramel-colored tangle of hair tied up rather haphazardly in a silk scarf.
“Oh! Hello!” she said with great exuberance and surprise when she spotted him. Her finger, Edan noticed, was poised precariously above the silver bell’s little knocker. “I didn’t think anyone was here!”
“Perhaps because the sign at the door states we are closed?” he asked curtly.
She blinked. Her finger slowly receded from the ringer. “Irish?”
“Your accent. Irish?”
If this pretty interloper thought she could simply employ a master level deflection technique on him, she was wrong. “No’ Irish. May I help you? We’re closed.”
“Scottish!” she said triumphantly. “Of course, you’re wearing a kilt! I didn’t notice it at first.” She smiled. “Nice kilt, by the way.”
What in bloody hell was this woman doing out here on a Sunday evening trying to guess his ethnicity? No one came this far around the lake on Sundays, unless it was an ambulance on its way to the care home up the road. She had a rather large bag strapped to her back, and attached to that was a rolled-up yoga mat. Jesus, she wasn’t one of those hippies who occasionally appeared at the lake around the time of the music festival, was she? Last year, some of the tools from the shed had gone missing after a tribe of hippies had sauntered through, leaving a trail of marijuana smoke behind them. That was the problem with this inn. Lake Haven was the playground of the rich and famous, who could reach it by train from New York City in an hour. But no one came around to the less popular side of the lake except old people and shifty-types and people who wanted to relive Woodstock. Was she a celebrity, then? From time to time celebrities seeking to escape appeared with enormous dark glasses and knit caps and cigarettes dangling from their lips.
“Umm…so anyway, you’re wearing a kilt, and you have a very nice but very not-American accent, so I’m going to have to assume I’m right and hope that you have a room available?”
Edan opened his mouth to answer, but that question made absolutely no sense.
“Actually,” she said, holding up a slender finger, “I don’t just hope it. I’m praying for it. Like…really praying. It’s been an insanely long day.”
Edan was about to remind her the establishment was closed—PER THE SIGN—but she rubbed her earlobe in a manner that suggested she was a wee bit nervous. For some ridiculous reason, that gave him pause. She seemed a tiny bit fearful. It shouldn’t matter to him—he was closed. He was closed, he was closing for good, he was so closed he’d locked up most of the bedding. That being said, it wasn’t impossible to give her a room. It was quite possible, actually. He still had his final two bookings arriving this week. All he had to do was hand her a key. But it was the principle of the thing! One did not appear at a closed inn and demand entrance. One did not.
But before he could think it all the way through, she said, quite needlessly, “I know I don’t have a reservation. Unfortunately, I’ve been forced against my will to pass through town.” She paused, as if rethinking that. “Well,” she said with a slight shrug, “not exactly pass through. I hadn’t planned to come here at all. Not that I wouldn’t come here, because this inn is darling, but the truth is that circumstances have sort of put me in, what do you call it,” she said, making a whirring motion with her hand. “Dire straits.” One fine brow rose hopefully above the other.
Edan flicked his gaze over her. He noted her excellent figure because he was a man and it was impossible not to notice a figure like that, especially after several whiskies. Long, slender legs. A waist that curved perfectly into hips. Breasts that were neither too big nor too small. She was physical appealing. But that did no make him suddenly interested in her unfortunate event, because he was developing a massive hangover as he stood, his inn days were all but over, and he still hadn’t gotten past his annoyance that she’d ignored the sign he’d labored over.
On the other hand, it was rather late, and the last thing he wanted to do was argue, or be the one to put out a woman all alone into the night. Frankly, he’d sooner have this over and done than prolong the agony of standing here. So he reached for the ledger.
“Not that this isn’t a beautiful place,” she said, holding up a hand. “I don’t mean that this is the dire straits.”
What? Did anything she say make sense?
“It’s gorgeous,” she added, a little too enthusiastically. “But I had this change of plans at the last minute, and I got a ride from a friend—well, not a friend, exactly, but a friend of a friend...I think. Actually, I’m not sure who he was. Anyway, he was on his way home, and apparently he lives up in the hills somewhere, at a compound from the sound of it if I’m being honest, and he wasn’t going all the way to East Beach, but he mentioned an inn where I could definitely get a room, because he said no one ever stayed here, but that maybe I should call someone in East Beach first, because if he let me off here, no Uber was going to pick me up, and all the cabs are in Black Springs, and you’re, like, really off the beaten path, you know?”
Jesus, this woman could natter on. He stared at her impatiently. Her cheeks pinkened and she said quickly, “Anyway. I really hope you have a room, because if you don’t, I’ll have to sleep on one of the benches outside.” She smiled in that way women had of smiling when they thought something was too preposterous to even contemplate.
It was not too preposterous to contemplate.
But Edan glanced down at the ledger and thought of the rooms. He’d been systematically going through them, stripping the beds, storing the linens, turning off the toilets. He was about halfway through the mansion, but there were some rooms around back he’d not yet cleared, leaving them open for the final bookings. “How long?”
“On the bench?”
He looked up. “Just the night, then?”
“That’s a start,” she said, and laughed nervously as she pointed a red-tipped finger at him and said, “That, sir, is an interesting question. You know what’s funny?”
“No’ as yet.”
“What’s funny is, I might need more than one night. I mean, if you don’t mind. Well, you probably do, but the thing is, I don’t exactly know how long.”
How could she not know? He tilted his head to one side and studied her a little more closely. “Are you homeless?”
“Homeless!” She laughed, too loudly and too long, and then sobered a little. “Sort of,” she admitted. “I mean, not technically. But sort of.”
She didn’t really look homeless. She looked like the type of woman who appeared in advertisements for feminine hygiene products, all pretty and fresh.
“Wait—I am not homeless, if that’s what you think. I have a home,” she said adamantly, pressing her hand to her chest in earnestness. “But it’s in California. I’ve been on a road trip with a guy I thought was...well, I thought he was something he is not, and he surprised me, but not in a good way, and now, I’m suddenly single!” she exclaimed, casting both arms wide, as if announcing she was actually a celebrity he ought to know.
Edan didn’t know what he was supposed to say to what sounded like a right bloody mess. “Why do you no’ go home, then?” he asked curiously.
She was a hippie, all right, and it didn’t sound like she was planning a short stay. He would give her one night. Two at most. One night to nurse her wounds, one to figure out how to get to East Beach, the trendy tourist village on the other side of the lake, or wherever she intended to go next. The Woodstock shrine, probably. All things considered, giving her a room was really very decent of him. After he booked her in, he’d give himself a healthy pat on the back.
She tugged nervously at a thick strand of wavy hair. “I mean, there is obviously more to the story, but I didn’t figure you’d want the play-by-play.”
She figured correctly.
She pressed her lips together. “But you’re really open, right?”
Lord. “No. Just as the rather large sign on the entrance indicates, aye?”
She tried to look surprised. “What sign?”
“I didn’t see a sign,” she said without looking in the direction he pointed.
He arched a brow.
“Okay, I saw the sign,” she admitted, deflating a little. “I was hoping I could talk my way in. I’m just really stuck, Mr... ?”
“I’m really stuck, Mr. Mackenzie. My mind is spinning and I really don’t know what to do with myself. This breakup was very inopportune, you know?”
He didn’t really, because he’d never heard anyone describe a breakup as inopportune. Was there such a thing as an opportune breakup? But then again, maybe he did understand, because come to think of it, his breakup had been spectacularly inopportune. The wedding venue had been booked. Tickets had been purchased. Gowns had been bought.
She didn’t wait for him to muddle through to his answer. She suddenly melted onto his countertop, spreading her arms across the surface and resting one cheek against it. “This is a disaster,” she moaned.
“You’re right, I’m being totally unreasonable.”
He hadn’t said that.
“I’ll just park on your bench for the night. I don’t suppose you have a blanket I could borrow? Or maybe a pillow or something? If you don’t have a pillow, that’s okay. I’ll just use my bag. It’s soft,” she said. “Except for the bottom, maybe, where I have my laptop and cords. But I can—”
“Miss, I’ll give you a room,” he said.
She gasped. She lifted her head. “You will? Ohmigod, thank you so much.”
“But for the night, aye? No more than two.”
“Right, a week at the very most. I really appreciate it.” She carelessly let her bag and yoga mat fall off her shoulder to the floor with a sudden laugh. “There for a minute, I thought it was me and that bench.”
He took a registration card from the box. “I’ll need a bank card.”
“Sure. I happen to have one right here.” She leaned down and rummaged around in her bag, then stood up with her wallet and opened it. The little embroidered pink thing held more cards than a bloody bank. She eyed a few, settled on one, and handed it to him.
He handed her the registration card and a pen, took her bank card and ran it through the machine.
“You’re a lifesaver, Mr. Mackenzie,” she said as she filled out the card. “You know, I loved this place the moment I saw it.”
“It was dark when you first saw it,” he reminded her. He looked at the bank card: Jennifer Turner. He began to enter information into the ancient computer system he would be happy to abandon when he returned to Scotland. He handed her the card. She did have nice legs. He’d always been attracted to nice legs. And eyes. Aye, he appreciated lovely blue eyes like hers. And breasts—well, obviously, he liked those a lot. And bums. And hair, and—
“I can’t believe more people don’t live on this side of the lake,” she said. The woman was clearly much at ease chatting with only herself. “I’d buy a house here if I could. I’d have a little cottage with window boxes full of flowers by the lake. Cottages always look so tranquil, but you don’t see them much anymore. Everything has to be ginormous, have you noticed that? What’s wrong with small and cozy, I ask you?”
Good God. Surely she’d take a breath before long. He turned around to a board and lifted a key from one of the pegs.
“But you know how it is, you find a place and you really dig it. I have to say, I’m getting a great vibe from this inn. You must have, too, at some point, right? I mean, is that why you’re here?”
He handed her the key. “Room 215. Turn right at the end of the hall.” He pointed.
“Great! Thank you.” Jennifer Turner picked up her bags. She started in the direction he’d indicated, then paused and glanced back at him. “Is it too late to place an order with room service?”
“Room service?” he echoed incredulously. She could not possibly think he’d open the dining room for her, too.
Jennifer winced. “Do you think I could get something to eat? Maybe a sandwich? I’m starving. I’ve only had a bag of chips today.”
“The dining room is closed,” he said impassively as he glanced at his watch. Actually, a sandwich sounded quite good. Perhaps he’d make one for himself once she stopped talking, if that was even possible, and went on to her room.
“Ah. Okay.” She pressed a hand to her abdomen. “I’ll just…eat my shoe or something. I don’t know why I didn’t think to pick up an energy bar in case of an emergency. My friend Brooke always has one in her purse. She’s a runner,” she said, making quote marks in the air and rolling her eyes. “Which means she won’t go near a good burger. I don’t know what the point of running is if you can’t eat what you want. Give me yoga any day.”
Her stomach suddenly let out a wail of hunger. She blushed. “Sorry about that.”
Damn it all to bloody hell. Edan sighed. “Aye, then. I’ll make you a sandwich.”
She made a soft cry of delight. “Would you? And maybe some chips?”
Who was this creature who had appeared out of the night to torment him? “Anything else?”
She shrugged. She fidgeted with the strap of her yoga mat. “If you had a cake or a cookie, that would be great. Sugar is my go-to for stress eating.”
Well. Edan grudgingly had to respect a fellow stress-eater. “Kitchen is just through those doors,” he said, pointing in the opposite direction of her room. “Come at half past the hour.”
“Thank you!” She picked up her bag and yoga mat and started in the direction of her room. “We’re not dressing for dinner, are we?” She laughed at his expression and said, “Kidding!” and then disappeared.
Right. Well this was going to be an interesting pair of days from the look of things.
But a ham sandwich and crisps sounded like the perfect thing to soak up the whisky hangover that had melted over Edan’s brain. And frankly, he, too, wondered if there was any cake.