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Once I stepped into the gangway connecting the plane to the terminal, I inhaled deeply. The canned air I was forced to breathe during the trip didn’t really agree with me too much. But I guessed the seven-hour flight from New York City to London followed by the two-hour layover, in which I could see none of the city, and then the two-hour flight to Aberdeen didn’t help much. Recycled air, bad food, and a drunk lady who sobbed about her cancelled spa reservation for most of the flight made for a terrible start to my first ever international vacation.
Luckily, the next leg promised to be much more interesting. Since I didn’t want to drive all the way from Aberdeen to Nairn, I decided to see the Scottish countryside in style, by way of a fancy first class train ticket with my name on it. Well, sort of my name since it read Savanna Abelson instead of Savannah Adelson.
I lugged my massive suitcase up the two steps to the train and tried to sling my purse higher on my shoulder without disrupting my heavy midwife bag on my wrist. It was a delicate operation made harder by the gaggle of teens waiting for me to board. They made their annoyance at my struggle known, which almost made me want to stop moving all together and stand in the doorway. But a chance to relax in the plush, velvet seat I was promised and order something strong to drink was too tempting.
The train itself was packed with people. I followed the line of passengers toward the front cabins, wondering at what point I would feel less like a steerage passenger on the Titanic and more like the dowager countess in Downton Abbey going on a magical holiday in the Scottish Highlands.
I dragged myself and my bags through the cars as the train whistled and a disembodied voice said we were set to leave the station. I kept walking until I got to the section of the train made up of fancy compartments that reminded me of the Harry Potter series, where the newly-minted wizard searched for a seat on his way to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But I didn’t have magic powers, because if I did, I wouldn’t have been too late to find my seat before the train whistled again.
As I got to the second to last compartment in the car, the one with my number over it in shiny gold, I peeked inside the long window in the door to see a lone man with golden-blond hair sitting there with a suit jacket draped over the seat beside him. The sleeves of his dress shirt were rolled up to the elbow. There was something about that slightly dressed-down appearance that made me feel like some Victorian-era pervert, drooling over a flash of forearm.
He was reading a book and I squinted to see the cover through the glass when the train decided to move and I was pitched over to land hard on the floor on my ass.
The door snapped open and the man stood there, impossibly tall and looking remarkably familiar, although I couldn’t put my finger on where I had seen him before. “Are ye alright, miss?” His deep voice rolled over the Rs to give me a taste of a wonderful Scottish accent.
“What? Oh, yeah, I was just looking for my compartment, but here it is… lucky number two.” I cringed inwardly. I sounded like an idiot, but I was embarrassed and blabbering.
“Here, I suppose we should get ye sorted before we really pick up speed.”
He held out his hand and I took it, enjoying the firm warmth beneath my fingers. As soon as I was upright and began straightening my sweater, he scooped up my midwife bag for me and waved an arm toward the door.
“Good as new. Please, have a seat and I’ll get your suitcase.”
I slipped past him, put the bag on the carved wood rack above my head, and sat down. The feeling of living the Scottish high life was finally there among the dark wood and green hills rolling past. The seats were textured red velvet and matched the small curtains framing the windows. It was much better than the only train I had ever been on in America, the New York City Subway, which constantly smelled like pee and bad decisions.
The man came in and deftly hoisted my luggage above my head to store it neatly out of the way then sat across from me. “I’m Rhys.”
“Savannah. Thanks for helping me. My last flight was delayed, so I was a little late getting here.”
“So, what brings you to the Highlands, if I might ask?”
I wanted to tell him I was in Scotland a week ahead of schedule to escape my cheating ex who I was basically, completely over, but still hated with the passion of a thousand suns, but thought better of it. Jet lag was giving me funny ideas. No one wanted to be trapped in a train compartment with someone who was travel weary, sick of love—not to be confused with lovesick—and had only just began toying with the idea of jumping back into the dating pool but had completely forgotten how to swim.
“I’m here to visit some friends for a few weeks,” I answered simply.
I couldn’t really remember where exactly my friend Rose said her fiancé Lachlan’s castle was, only that it was near Nairn’s train station. But it wasn’t like I needed to worry about making sure a complete stranger knew exactly where I was going to be. “They live near Nairn. Is that where you’re heading?”
“No, I’m goin’ on to Inverness.”
I set my purse on the seat beside me and smiled. His voice was hypnotic in this friendly, rugged way that made me want to keep him talking. “Really? I’ve read about Inverness in the guidebooks, but I’d love to hear what a local thinks.”
“What a loaded question,” he said, raking a hand through his hair. “Depends on what you’re interested in. Do ye care overmuch for history or would ye rather know the best restaurants?”
“Why not both?”
“Well, it depends, are ye meetin’ a boyfriend here maybe?”
The tone of his voice was decidedly curious and I smiled. “Nope, just me meeting some friends. I’m not seeing anyone.”
A knock at the door stopped Rhys from responding and an old man pushing a tea cart poked his head in and asked, “Anything from the trolley?”
“Oh, my God, it is just like Harry Potter,” I whispered, picking up my purse and digging through it for my wallet.
Rhys held up a hand. “My treat. A wee welcome gift to the Highlands. What’ll it be?”
It had been years since a good-looking guy had bought me a drink. Even my ex always had us split the bill when we met up for cocktails and we were together six years. “You’re the Scot, surprise me.”
“Two blue blazers, if you please,” he ordered. I watched as he reached into his jacket pocket and extracted a few bills. “A dash more sugar in both, if you can.”
I thanked the man as he handed me a glass cup filled with warm amber liquid and a sprig of lemon peel. I was glad for the temperature, even if I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about hot alcohol. The day had been nice enough, for the short spurt I had actually been outside for, but being tired made me cold and even holding the glass seemed to revive me a bit.
When the man had left and Rhys had his glass in his hand, he lifted it toward me. “Sláinte!”
“Slawn-cha?” I mimicked, my tongue rolling over the word.
“It’s a cheer that means health.”
“I’ll cheers to that, since all this traveling will be the death of me.” I gingerly took a sip, closing my eyes as the warmth flooded through me. It was sweet and tangy. “Mmm… this is delicious.”
“Isn’t it? It’s some of the finest whisky in Scotland.”
“Expert, are you?”
His face grew serious, but his full lips were twitching with the hint of amusement. Then he held his glass up to the sunlight and swirled it gently. “This is a 2005 brew, distilled twice, and aged for…” He took a sip and paused a moment before saying, “Ten years in a refurbished bourbon cask. It’s what adds the extra spice at the end.”
I raised my brows, unsure if I should believe him. “Okay, so I don’t know enough about whisky to know if you’re bullshitting me, so you’re going to have to help me out if you’re joking.”
“It is true, so I’m no’ bullshittin’ ye. But don’t be too impressed. I only know because I used to work for this company in college.”
We sipped our drinks, each regarding one another over the rims of our glasses. I liked Rhys from the half hour I knew him. He was not only my seat savior, but not hard on the eyes either. Speaking of his, they were gorgeous in the way only men’s seem to unfairly be, a bright green with thick, black lashes. They were kind but held a hint of mischief I wanted to delve further into, if only the ride was a little longer.
“There’s no better way to travel than in a train car with good company,” he said, leaning back a bit.
“And better drinks.”
He placed a hand over his heart. “Savannah, are ye sayin’ I rank lower in your opinion than finely aged Scottish whisky in likability?”
“Maybe,” I said, taking a dainty sip. “Give me something else to like and perhaps I’ll change my mind.”
I couldn’t believe I said that. I had been out of the dating game for a long time and hadn’t flirted in ages. With that little quip, it was like I was getting back in the proverbial saddle and getting back in the game. It seemed a little quick, since I had just broken up with my ex a little more than a month before, but it was refreshing to share a bit of banter with a stranger I’d never see again.
“Well, if I have to sell myself… do ye like kids?”
“I’m a midwife so it comes with the territory.”
“A real-life midwife? Well, then, I’ll have ye know I’ve just come from my goddaughter’s sixth birthday celebration. It was last night and the wee lassie kens how to throw quite a craic. She says I’m her favorite, which is a given since children adore me.”
“And that’s your main selling point, that kids love you?”
He shrugged and drained his glass. “I have more.”
“I have the time,” I replied in the same, casual tone. Yep. Right back in the saddle.
“I’m an organ donor. I own my own home. I can cook. I love dogs and my favorite color is blue.”
“I’m also an organ donor. I only rent because I only want to dump my savings into a home or a nice-end townhouse when I settle down. I can only cook things with less than four ingredients. I also love dogs and my favorite color is green.”
“Ye can’t cook?” he asked.
“Oh, because I’m a woman, I should be able to cook?”
“That’s no’ what I meant. It’s the modern world, I thought everyone could cook enough to make sure they did no’ starve.”
“I’m still alive, aren’t I?”
“Fair enough. So, did I pass muster?”
I took another sip and regarded him over my glass. I could tell by the way he was looking at me, mouth half-cocked with the whisper of a grin and his eyes boring into me; he liked the little game as much as I did. Strangers were really the best to test out one’s skills on when they were working on dusting the rust off the cogs.
“I’ll need your resume with references attached.”
He laughed shortly. “That can be arranged.”
I glanced over to his book again, the one I had been trying to read the title of, which now lay upon the seat beside him. “Anything good?”
“No, no’ really.” He held it up and it read Spanish for Beginners. “I’m rubbish at Spanish, but I really want to know as many as I can.”
“How many do you speak?”
“English, Gaelic, French, Dutch, German, and a wee bit o’ Russian.”
Hot, polite, funny, good with kids, and apparently intelligent. It made my high school level French seem pretty terrible in comparison. “I guess you should slip that into your resume.”
“Mais bien sûr, Mademoiselle,” he replied in picture perfect French. “But of course.”
“Wow.” I took another long swallow, my cheeks flushing. This guy was straight out of a paperback romance novel.
As the ride wore on, Rhys listed the top places to visit while I was around, including a few castle, a walking trail, and more than one church he promised were worth the visit. I hung on his every word, drinking in the rolling Scots lilt of his voice. It washed away the past day of checked luggage, no leg room, and tiny airport bathrooms.
“Arriving in Nairn in five minutes,” an announcement proclaimed. “Nairn in five minutes.”
“I suppose we’re no’ meant to be more than two passing ships in the night, doomed to never meet again,” Rhys crooned dramatically.
I giggled. “Love the accent, but that’s a little gloomy.”
“Love the accent do ye? I’ve always been told it would work wonders with an American lass.”
“Just keep it in mind for the next you meet.”
The train began to slow and Rhys stood, reaching over my head to take down my suitcase. I could smell his cologne, a clean, citrus scent that reminded me of summer, my favorite season. For a brief second, I thought about throwing caution to the wind and staying on the train. Inverness and Nairn were basically neighbors… well, according to my map anyway. But Rose was waiting for me at the station and I didn’t want to worry her, especially since my iPhone had died somewhere near Aberdeen.
I rose from my seat and shouldered my purse, putting my empty glass on the sideboard. “Thanks for keeping me company and helping me with my suitcase and for getting me a drink and—”
He laughed. “You’re welcome. Do ye need help getting off the train?”
“No, thank you.” I pulled up the handle on my luggage and bit my lip, wishing I could prolong the moment. “It was great meeting you, Rhys.”
“And you, Savannah. Have a safe journey.”
I gave him a final smile and turned away, trying to walk with more assurance and grace than I had entered with, just in case he was watching. I thought it was a shame I had met him in such a way where I couldn’t actually get to know him. But at least, thanks to him, I knew I could still flirt without making a complete fool of myself.
The thought followed me out to the platform and my gaze caught his through the train window. I figured I’d have to chalk our meeting up to one of those small portions of time I could think about in my old age and file in the what-could-have-been drawer in my mind. Rhys had been charming, handsome, funny, had an accent that could curl toes, and knew how to order a drink.
To make myself feel better about missing out on something potentially perfect, I reminded myself I couldn’t let my head get turned by a pretty face and a bit of French. I was a career woman with a lot of important responsibility, a bridesmaid in Scotland to see my girl down the aisle, and I was in charge of so much. I needed to focus on the big picture and act like the responsible adult that I was.
But as I stood there, waving Rhys off, I remembered one teensy, tiny, little thing. My midwife bag was still on the train.
End of Excerpt