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Loving Her Lonely Highlander -- Maeve Greyson

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Loving Her Lonely Highlander
Time to Love a Highlander – Book 6

Her fit of anger becomes a leap back through time into the arms of a man she can never have.

21st century bookshop owner, Lorna Merriweather is known for her patience. Especially regarding her fiancé. Tonight he’s promised to go to the cliffs to watch for the northern lights. He must have something special to share if he’s willing to treat her to the Aurora Borealis in the bitter cold that he hates. But when his something special turns out to be a cruel betrayal impossible to forgive, she throws his ring in his face and storms away, stumbling over the cliff straight into the arms of the most amazing northern lights show of her life. But she doesn’t fall to her death. When her head clears, it’s morning and she’s back on the hillside in the middle of a snowstorm. Where is the glow of the town’s colorful festival lights? And where is her terrible ex-fiancé? Everything looks familiar—but not. Thank goodness a strange woman and her family come along in an antique carriage and offer her a ride back to town. Or at least where town is supposed to be.

17th century Gunn Sinclair, 6th Earl of Caithness and chieftain of Clan Sinclair, has been widowed twice. He loved both wives and can’t stand the thought of going through that heartbreak again. But his beloved daughter Arabella needs a mother, and he needs an heir. The only solution is an arranged marriage to a woman he will never love. An amicable passionless union is what he seeks.

Young Arabella is not about to let her father marry a woman so cruel to her son and lady’s maid that they tremble when she is near. But she decides that the nice Mistress Lorna would do quite nicely for a new mama. And Mistress Lorna has seen how wicked Lady Murdina is, so Arabella knows she will help her get that she-devil out of Thursa Castle. They form a pact to stop the wedding and save the chieftain from the disastrous match.

But what Lorna doesn’t know is that Arabella isn’t planning on halting the ceremony, the wily nine-year-old merely wants to switch brides.

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excerpt

Chapter One

Thurso, Scotland

December 1, 2022 

“They’ve drained the mock ale again. Were ye expecting this big a turnout?”

“Not half so much, honestly.” Lorna Merriweather tightened her hold on the bright red banister of the raised cashier platform, trying to keep from shouting with joy. Excitement and pride coursed through her. “I wish Miss Agatha could see all this. She wouldha thought it grand for sure.”

“She sees it, hen.” Gracie, her best friend since forever ago, hugged an arm around her. “I guarantee she is smiling down on all of it.” With a theatrical sweep of her arm, she took in the quaint, multilevel bookshop that had squatted on Thurso’s primary thoroughfare for as long as anyone could remember. “’Tis a grand day, for certain. Just look at it all.”

Customers filled the newly renovated place, browsing through the antique oddities, crafts from local artisans, and collections of used books filling the shelves.

“The way ye spruced the place up. Ye know she wouldha loved it,” Gracie said. “After all…” She gave Lorna a teasing shake before offering a dramatic curtsy. “Ye never could do wrong in her eyes, m’lady. Ye know that well enough.”

“I dinna ken about all that,” Lorna said.

But she knew why sweet old Agatha Crowley had left her the store and all her accounts. Of course, that was a special secret between her and the grand dame. They had discovered a kinship as soon as they met. Sisters in the realms of the forgotten, Miss Agatha always said. Neither of them had any family, so they adopted each other. Memories of their happy times and days of laughter made Lorna smile. She hoped the precious old soul was in heaven now, entertaining the angels. Memories of the grand lady’s effervescent cheeriness brought tears to her eyes. The world wasn’t as bright without Miss Agatha.

She straightened her spine, standing taller as she forced her grief back into the shadows. “I think we have enough lemonade and cola left to mix up one last barrel of mock ale. Surely that will get us to closing time, ye think?”

“Lonnie can put it together,” Gracie said. “He’s been standing guard over the refreshments to keep those hooligans from Greer Street out of it. That fool bunch probably thinks it is the real thing.” She slowly twirled, modeling her seventeenth-century attire. “Besides, we mustn’t stain our rentals, aye? Lonnie’s tunic and kilt are his own. If the drink splashes whilst he’s mixing, ’tis no great bother. Cybil will scrub it clean for him. A mess on ours wouldna be so easily remedied.”

“Aye, we must keep ours spotless or we lose our deposit.” Lorna smoothed her hands down the dark gray waistcoat. Its snugness and the stiff embroidered stomacher behind the laces in the front took some getting used to. She had refused the uncomfortable-looking boned stays attached to one of the petticoats the costume clerk assured her she needed. That level of realism for Seventeenth Century Day at the shop was entirely unnecessary. The plain linen chemise, bum roll, and wool skirt in a lovely shade of soft grayish blue were ample for the event. All those layers stopped the winter winds, too. As did the fine, heavy cloak that completed the outfit.

Her pride in the success of the marketing event made her insides all bubbly with daring. “I know it might be risky, but I plan to wear mine out tonight. A bit of a walking advertisement for the shop, aye? I canna wait to see what Patrick thinks of it. Hopefully, I won’t spill anything at dinner. He made us reservations at Old Town Road. Verra fancy, ye ken?”

“Aww, hen. No!” Gracie made a face and groaned. “Ye promised to dump that scabby roaster weeks ago.”

“I did not.” Lorna backed up a step, flinching as she bumped into the new cash register and triggered an irritating alarm that trilled like an annoying bird. “Bloody thing!” She punched in the code and calmed the sensitive new computer. “I am still none too sure about this gadget. The old one was not nearly as complicated.”

“Ye are changing the subject.” Gracie sidled around and cornered her with an accusing glare. “And ye did promise to break it off with him. I remember it clear as day.”

“I said I would think on it.” Lorna hated to admit she had a fatal weakness for underdogs, and the man was definitely that. Surely, she could help him. All he needed was a little support and positivity. But a wee voice inside her head mocked her, harping on what she already knew in her heart but refused to accept. It was time to cut her losses and give up. She had wasted enough time trying to reform a man who would never change. “And I have been thinking on it,” she repeated without conviction.

Gracie thumped the banister. “How much more of yer life do ye intend to waste on that fool? And why in heaven’s name would ye even consider marrying him? Makes me furious the way he pulls yer strings and makes ye dance to whatever tune he fancies.” She snagged hold of Lorna’s left hand and tapped her ring finger. The ill-fitting engagement ring slid to one side, revealing a green circle staining her skin. “Not only that, his ring is a feckin’ piece of shite. Just like him.”

Lorna snatched her hand away and hid it in a fold of her skirt. “It is all he could afford. And besides, the ring doesna make the engagement. ’Tis the feelings behind it.” She struggled to sound more certain than she felt. “I am helping him come around. He is a work in progress, ye ken?”

“Ye canna change a piece a shite into anything other than a turd,” Gracie retorted. “Once a jobby, always a jobby.”

“That’s the truth of it!” Lonnie called up from the main level. He yanked open the door to the storage closet in the base of the cashier platform. “I never left Cybil wondering if I would show or not. Never forgot her birthday, either. And I sure as hell never hurt her feelings by insulting her hair. That bloke deserves a swift kick in his arse.”

“Ye fight tooth and nail for everyone else,” Gracie said. “Why will ye not stand up for yerself with that rat?”

“Can we talk about this another time?” Lorna made a subtle jerk of her head toward their customers. Folks were staring and migrating closer so they wouldn’t miss a word. Gossip traveled faster than grass through a goose around here. She wanted the shop well known and talked about in all of northern Scotland, but not because of her rocky love life. Besides, Patrick wasn’t so bad most of the time. They just never caught him at his best.

The front door’s bell jangled a cheery hello to the newest patron coming in off the street.

“Well, speak of the devil.” Gracie offered an elaborate bow. “Yer knight in shining armor has arrived, m’lady.”

“Gracie.” Lorna fixed her friend with a pleading look. She didn’t want this evening to begin with a poor start and put Patrick in an impossible mood. “Be nice, aye?”

“I will not.” Gracie took a defiant stance and hiked her nose higher. “I dinna like the way the man treats ye. He can go straight to the devil far as I am concerned.”

Patrick made his way to the cashier platform, giving the shop a critical once-over as he sauntered past the displays and sale tables. “Looks nice. Bet all this set ye back a tidy bob or two. Got anything left in those accounts the old lady left ye?”

“That is none of yer bloody business,” Gracie snapped. “Did yer mam never teach ye if ye couldna say something nice, dinna say anything at all?”

“Feck off, Gracie.” Patrick shot a sneer her way, then turned his attention to Lorna. “We got reservations in thirty minutes, hen. Dinna be dawdling about getting out of that garb.”

Lorna forced a smile even though her cheeks burned with embarrassment. She might still save this evening. At least, she hoped so. She tried to overlook his rudeness. Up to a point. He had not had an easy life, and she did her best to keep that in mind. But in the last few weeks, his behavior had gotten worse, and she refused to be abused. This might very well be their last evening together.

With a model’s pose, she turned and displayed the gorgeous authenticity of her costume. “I am wearing this. Along with the loveliest cloak that came with it. What better advertisement for how we have made the shop into so much more than merely a store for used books?”

He stared at her as though waiting for the punch line. “Ye are joking, right?”

“I am not, and if ye dinna like it, ye can bloody well cancel on me like ye did last time.”

His attitude had worn her last nerve as thin as could be. Gracie’s harrumph frazzled it even thinner. “Ye are being an arse, Patrick. I deserve better.” Her old fears of being alone again squeezed her insides until she couldn’t breathe. But she stood strong, refusing to apologize and take it all back to appease him. Being alone was better than being mistreated or taken for granted.

He waved off her criticisms as though swatting flies. “If ye want to dress like a damned eedjit, go for it. Makes me no never mind.” He cast another glance around the shop and checked his watch. “We best be about it, then, and at least get some food for my hard-earned money. I had to give that bloke my credit card number when I made the reservations. Stingy bastards charge ye if ye dinna show.”

Every customer in the shop stared at them, their browsing through the rare books and antiques forgotten. Their faces told her exactly what they thought. Her stomach tightened with that same queasy feeling of embarrassment he always triggered whenever they were out in public. Gracie was right—she should have broken it off months ago. But he could be so disarmingly sweet sometimes, and anybody was better than nobody at all.

Or so she had thought after being alone all her life. But loneliness might be a better partner than Patrick, after all. She had survived it before. She would bloody well survive it again.

“If ye canna afford the place, we dinna have to go,” she said in a hushed tone. She forced a fake smile for the onlookers, wishing they would go on about their business.

He motioned for her to join him. “Come on, will ye? I just said they charge if ye dinna show. I’ll be damned if I pay for wasted air. We can share a salad and have nothing but water for drinks. I hear tell the bread’s free with it. After that, I thought we could go to the cliffs and watch for yer mirrie dancers ye’re always going on about.”

“Just go. Ye can have the whole feckin’ salad.” She held so tight to the banister that her knuckles ached. The reassuring weight of Gracie’s hand on her back helped keep her strong. “Besides, ye hate the cold and the wind is up. It will cut right through ye on the cliffs. Go on wi’ ye now. I will be staying here.”

A change came across him, as if a curtain had dropped to reveal a different personality. He tucked his chin and sheepishly rocked from side to side. “Sorry, hen. Had a hard day stocking shelves, and they told me I have to take the night shift permanent from now on. Canna sleep worth a shite during the day, and they bloody well know it.” He resettled his stance and apologetically shook his head. “But none of that is yer fault. Ye know I’m sorry. Come on, Lorna. Ye know I dinna mean it when I get ratty. ’Tis just after a bad day.” With the beguiling smile that always doused her irritation with him, he motioned for her to join him. “Come on, hen. We will eat us some dinner, then watch for those northern lights ye love.” He shrugged. “And we need to talk over some things. Important stuff, ye ken?”

Gracie tugged on the back of Lorna’s jacket, trying to keep her in place. “He is full of shite,” she said for Lorna’s ears alone. “Throw him his ring and send him on his way.”

Lorna turned and rested a hand on her friend’s shoulder. “I have to handle this as I see fit, aye?” She wouldn’t shame Patrick publicly. When she broke it off, it would be in private.

Gracie’s mouth tightened into a disapproving pucker, but she said no more.

After an appreciative nod for her friend’s rebellious silence, Lorna hurried down the steps to join Patrick. “I’ll be in bright and early to set things right after today’s celebration,” she called back over her shoulder. As she settled the cloak’s heavy richness around her shoulders, she shot her friend a beseeching look, wishing she wouldn’t pout. “Did ye hear me, Gracie?”

“Aye,” Gracie said. “See ye in the morning.” She turned to the register to help a customer.

“Leave the heavy cleaning for me,” Lonnie said while glowering at Patrick. “And call if ye need anything, aye? Me and Cybil dinna go to bed till late on Thursdays. Too many decent shows on the telly.” He held the door for them, his scowl getting darker by the minute. “Call no matter how late, Lorna. Cybil would never forgive me or herself if we weren’t there when ye needed us.”

She gave his arm a grateful pat. “I promise. See ye in the morning, aye?”

“Aye,” he said with a curt dip of his head, then closed the door.

“What do ye see in them?” Flipping his collar up against the cold, Patrick shot a disgruntled look back at the shop.

“They ask me the same about you.” She tried to focus on the colorful holiday lights twinkling in the store windows and strung across the buildings. Their bright jolliness helped lift her spirits—at least until they reached the restaurant with a closed until further notice sign propped in the window. The evening she had held such high hopes for unraveled even more. He had lied. Again. “Do ye even have a credit card, or was that a lie too?”

“I have one. Over the limit on it, though.” He shrugged deeper into his coat. “And this week’s pay damn sure couldna bear one of their meals. Sorry, hen.” With an irritating grin, he tipped his head toward the sign. “All worked out for the best, though. Them froze pipes shut them down with no notice. Canceled our reservations and didna even try to charge me.”

“Why did ye not just say that back in the shop instead of blowing hard and loud about eating at an expensive place?” She turned and headed back down the street through the freezing drizzle. Enough was enough.

He caught hold of her arm and stopped her. “Dinna be like that. A man’s got his pride, ye ken? What was I supposed to say in front of all them folks?”

“The truth.” She yanked free of him, tugged the hood of her cloak farther over her face, and charged onward.

With a sidling hop, he got in front of her and blocked the way. “I got enough bank to get us a few bottles of ale and some chips. We could pack it all to the cliffs with us. Have a right fine picnic while we chat. If ye have a fiver to chip in, I could even get us some of those biscuits ye like.”

“Go to the pub and good riddance. I am going back to the shop.” She shoved her hand in his face, showing him the wetness filling the air. “Ye need good weather for the northern lights, so once again ye are off the hook for whatever ye promise but never deliver.”

“The weather’s set to clear. Radio said so.” He angled around, doing his best to herd her in the other direction. “If ye dinna believe me, step inside Hagerty’s. Old Rob will tell ye.” With a nod at her clothing, he winked. “Ye wanted to show off yer outfit, aye? The lads’ll love it.”

No matter what she did now, she would feel like a pathetic loser for letting him manipulate her as long as he had. His pals in the pub would laugh and make fun of her, and if she returned to the shop to get to her apartment above it, Lonnie and Gracie’s pity would be more than she could bear. Or she and Patrick could stand out here in the weather arguing and, with any luck, he would catch pneumonia. That was the only option that truly offered any promise.

“I am going home,” she said, hoping she could climb the fire escape in the back without tearing her costume. At least that way, she would avoid Lonnie and Gracie. “Ye do whatever ye wish.”

“But we need to talk.” He fidgeted in place like a lad about to wet his pants. “It’s important.”

“So talk, then.” She hugged her cloak closer, fighting to keep it from flapping in the wind. A scowl upward confirmed the mizzling rain had stopped. A starry blanket of blackness chased away the soft gray of low-hanging clouds. Just like he had said it would, damn him straight to hell. Still cold as the dickens and her fingers numb, she wished she had worn her gloves. “Well? What do ye have to say?”

“Rain’s stopped. Since ye dinna want to go to the pub, let’s just go on to the cliffs.”

She studied him, trying to figure his angle. “Why are ye so dead set on going to the cliffs? Ye hate watching for the lights.”

He jutted his chin and shoved his hands deeper into his pockets. “Trying to do better by ye. That’s all. Were ye not nagging me just the other day that we never do anything ye want to do?”

“I dinna nag.” She sniffed and rubbed the end of her icy nose. “I was calling ye out for not showing up when ye said ye would.”

“Whatever.” He scowled up at the sky, then leveled his glare with hers. “We need to talk about our engagement, and I thought the cliffs would be nice and private.” His nose wrinkled as if he smelled a stink. After a disgruntled look up and down the street, he gave her a curt nod. “Ye canna take a shite in this place without everyone talking about it.”

That part was true enough. The gossips had already whispered in her ear several times about him and Lucy Hamstead. Gracie and Lonnie swore they had heard about them sneaking around too. But it couldn’t be so. Not with him working extra shifts when everyone said they had seen them together. She had even spotted his wreck of a car in the parking lot at the warehouse during the times in question.

But something was off about him tonight. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it. An uneasy realization filled her. A premonition of sorts. One way or another, be it good or bad, tonight would forever change their relationship. She felt it in her bones. She might as well return his ring now.

“Well?” He stomped his feet and blew into his hands. “My car’s parked just up there. Are ye coming or not?”

“If ye try to throw me off the overlook,” she warned, “I will take ye with me. Just so ye know.” She was only partially joking. He had never been physically abusive, but with tonight’s strange mood, she wouldn’t be surprised. Woe to him if he tried. She might tolerate his rudeness, but if he attempted to physically harm her, she would defend herself with ease.

He eyed her as if she had lost her mind, then shook his head. “I canna believe ye would say such a thing.” His voice shifted to the tone he always used when trying to make her feel guilty. “Shall I get the car?”

“Aye. Fetch it.” While she waited for him to return, she pushed the engagement ring around her finger with her thumb. A nervous habit she had adopted since he first gave her the ill-fitting thing. When she had suggested having it resized, he talked her out of it. When her finger started turning green, she understood why. But none of that had mattered. Until lately.

His rusted-out, beat-up excuse for a ride backfired twice as he pulled up beside her, then motioned for her to come around and get in.

“Chivalry is most definitely dead,” she grumbled. She yanked on the dented door with all her might, pried it open, then slid into the seat.

“Gonna take a while for the heat to get going,” he said as they pulled away from the curb. “Least we’re out of the wind, though.”

“I suppose so.” She hunkered down into the heavy wool cloak, thankful she had worn the layered costume.

“What’s with ye tonight?” The car backfired again, then sputtered and jerked as he shifted gears and gave it more gas.

“I am going to need a little more to go on before I answer that.” She had an idea what he meant but wasn’t about to make it easy on him. Her patience had taken too long to run its course with Patrick Inverarry. But she had finally reached its end.

“Ye’re a right wee snippy bitch tonight.” He took the turn that lead to the cliffs just outside of town. “Nearly bad as Gracie.”

She snorted. “I will take that as a compliment.”

He shot her a quick scowl, then returned his focus to the road. “I’ve not done a thing to deserve such treatment.”

A bitter smile came to her. “Aye. Ye are right. Ye’ve not done a bloody thing.”

The auto’s engine groaned as the incline grew steeper. Patrick urged it to where the pavement ended and parked. “I canna leave it running. Have ye seen the price of petrol?”

A heavy sigh escaped her as she stared straight ahead. Such a beautiful overlook. Nothing but the sea and starry sky. And yet here she sat unable to enjoy it because she had caved to her fears and become a coward. Well, no more. Without a doubt, being alone was better than being with Patrick.

She slipped the ring off her finger and turned to give it to him.

“I dinna ken how to say this,” he said before she could speak. “So, I’m just gonna say it. I need the ring back. Me and Lucy are getting married next week. She’s up the kyte.”

She sat there and blinked, shocked into a stupor. Then rage, regret, and an explosive jumble of angry emotions fought for control of her. Slow-burning rage won out. She trembled with its intensity. “What?” She needed to hear it again. Just to be sure.

“Pregnant. Couple months, I think.” He shrugged. “That one time without a condom bit me in the arse, so now I gotta pay. Marriage or child support. Leastwise with marriage, I’ll get me house cleaned and meals cooked.”

What a despicable, self-centered arse. She truly felt sorry for Lucy Hamstead. “So when ye told me ye were working extra shifts, ye were really working her. Right?” Not that it mattered. What made her angriest was he was breaking up with her before she could break up with him.

He shrugged again. “It’s different for a man. One woman ain’t always enough.”

“Well, I’ve got news for ye—ye now have one less woman to treat like shite.” She shoved the ring into his mouth. “Here’s yer bloody ring. I hope ye damn well choke on it.”

Without waiting for his reaction, she shouldered open the door and wrangled her way out of the car. The heavy layers of cloak, skirt, and petticoat worked against her, tangling around her feet. Angry tears burst free. How had she let herself believe she could change him? Fury at being made to look like the greatest sort of fool grew stronger. Bitterness at her gullibility made her sob. She didn’t look like a fool. She was one.

The sky chose that moment to explode into rippling bands of brilliant green, violet, and red. Shafts of light danced tall and proud across the horizon as far as she could see. The icy wind roared in her ears as it shoved against her back, making her stumble forward.

“I have been such a feckin’ idiot,” she shouted at the breathtaking spectacle. “Why?” Blinded by tears, deafened by the wind and sea, she dropped to her knees. Or tried to. But the land was gone. She pitched forward, frantically clawing to stop her fall. The colors of the aurora borealis increased in intensity. They swirled around her, becoming so bright she squinted against the phenomenon’s brilliance. An eerie humming vibrated through her, making her feel as if her bones were about to shake off her flesh.

She balled up and tumbled faster, bracing herself for the final impact. She just hoped the pain didn’t last long. Whether she hit frigid water, razor-sharp stones, or both, death was imminent. Vertigo took over. Or maybe the world was spinning and not her. She couldn’t tell anymore. Why was the fall lasting so long? Or was she already dead and hadn’t realized it till now? An ear-splitting howl made her slap her hands over her ears. Churning nausea hit, sending the burn of bile into her throat. She gagged and retched in midair, then dry-heaved until her insides felt turned inside out. Everything went black and silent.

Then she hit. Hard.