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THREE WEEKS AGO, Cassie Crow left Chicago armed with a naked charm bracelet and a full box of condoms. Now, she sat alongside her traveling companions and dearest friends, crammed together on a wooden bench of indeterminate age in the great hall of an ancient Scottish castle. Cassie shifted and glanced down; the silver chain at her wrist sparkled in the late morning sun streaming in from a row of arched windows high overhead. She tilted her arm, enjoying the soft tinkle of charms that marked her travels through Italy, Spain, France, the Netherlands, and most recently, Scotland. No longer bare, her bracelet was loaded with tiny keepsakes she’d found in shops all over Europe.
The condom box, however, was still full.
Nearing the last leg of her vacation of a lifetime, Cassie still had not gotten the one souvenir she’d been looking forward to ever since she and her friends had first started planning this dream trip ages ago—a fabulous, wanton fling. A heart-pounding memory she couldn’t stick in a photo album, plop on a shelf, or wear on her wrist.
This trip was supposed to be her chance to let go, to be impulsive, to take the risks she refused to even consider back home. Opportunities had come her way, sure, but something always seemed to stop her from sealing the deal. There had been that one guy in Monte Carlo, panty-dropping sexy, but he’d been looking for something more, um, adventurous than what she’d had in mind. Even if she spoke perfect French, how was she supposed to know “Wanna play with my monkey?” was not just a euphemism?
Oh, who was she kidding? Cassie knew what the problem really was—her. Even though she’d promised herself that once she was on vacation, she would finally let loose, the truth of the matter was, she wasn’t the type to talk a perfect stranger into a one-night stand. Maybe that had been the flaw in her plan all along. In all her years of dreaming about steamy foreign encounters, she’d never envisioned how she’d actually hook up with her fantasy fling. Her brain simply skipped to the good stuff.
“This place could be on the cover of one of those romance novels you’re always reading, Cass.” Cassie’s best friend, Bonnie, pushed the tumble of red curls away from her face and stared up at the wide wooden beams bracketing the ceiling.
“Yeah,” Cassie agreed. She wasn’t going to admit she’d already been thinking the same thing—had been, in fact, since the moment they’d arrived at Edinburgh Castle and she got her first up-close glimpse of the towering turrets. As she and her friends climbed the stone steps, Cassie had imagined a hulking warhorse, hooves drumming across the courtyard, kilted rider yelling something appropriately battle worthy, eyes flashing in his fierce yet handsome face.
She took in the rows of ancient battle axes and claymores lining the walls, picturing a broad-shouldered Scotsman wrapping a brawny fist around the hilt of one these weapons, muscles bulging and kilt swinging. Cassie sighed. “Sadie and Ana are going to be so sad they missed out on this.”
“Don’t worry about those two,” Delaney muttered from Cassie’s other side, tossing her long, strawberry-blond ponytail over her shoulder. “I think it’s safe to say they had more than their fair share of whisky last night.”
“What time did they get back to the hotel?” Cassie asked.
“No idea.” Delaney shrugged. “But when I left our room this morning, they were still in bed, nursing authentic Scottish hangovers.”
“Well, I’m not going for a hangover today … just a nice buzz.” Cassie nodded toward a stout little man with jowls like a bulldog who was walking between trestle tables laden with rows of empty shot glasses, checking the IDs of the crowd gathered for the castle’s whisky tasting. Bulldog paused at their table and ran a jaundiced eye over their passports before handing each of them a plastic bracelet.
Though they were all in their late twenties and well past Scotland’s legal drinking age, Bonnie’s sweet, freckled face looked much younger. “I think he growled at me,” she whispered, sliding the bracelet on her wrist.
“Be glad he didn’t bark.” Delaney grinned and put her own bracelet on. “He looks like he bites.” Another stout little man appeared, this one with a frothy, white beard bristling beneath a cherry-red nose. Delaney’s grin widened. “And he looks like Santa Claus.”
“Makes sense.” Cassie chuckled in agreement. “He is bearing gifts, isn’t he?”
Santa proceeded to pour each of them a measure of amber liquid.
“‘O thou, my Muse! Good old Scotch drink!’” Bonnie recited as she lifted her glass.
Cassie turned to her best friend and blinked. “What was that?”
“You haven’t even tried a sip yet,” Delaney argued.
“No, Robert Burns. Famous Scottish poet,” Bonnie explained and raised her glass higher, striking a dramatic pose. “‘Inspire me, till I lisp and wink, To sing thy name!’”
“Um, if you say so,” Delaney muttered, unimpressed as she lifted her own glass. Bonnie had been spouting literary passages all over Europe, ever since the start of their trip. Delaney took a whiff of her drink and coughed. “Hel-lo.” She held the whisky at arm’s length. “I think I’m getting drunk off the fumes.”
“Oh, come on,” Cassie teased. “I know you preschool teachers hit the hard stuff on a regular basis.” Cassie downed her own shot. “Whoa,” she wheezed, eyes watering.
“Told ya.” Delaney smirked.
Cassie chugged a glass of water and refilled her tumbler from the pitcher on the table. While waiting for Santa to pour their next round, she pulled out her phone.
“Ugh, are you on that thing again?” Bonnie’s usually smiling rosebud mouth dropped into a pout.
“Excuse me, but some of us can’t completely disconnect from our jobs.” As teachers, both Bonnie and Delaney had the summer off to do as they pleased. Even Sadie was on hiatus, having recently wrapped up her role on a daytime soap opera. Of her traveling companions, Ana was the only other one doing anything resembling work, and that was mostly checking out restaurants in the name of “research” for her catering company. “It’s just a quick check of my email, okay?”
“I thought you were still on break from taping the show, anyway.” Delaney downed the last of her first shot and gagged.
“I am.” Cassie squinted at her phone. It was taking more effort than normal to log into her work account. Fingers sliding clumsily over the keys, she realized it wasn’t a Wi-Fi issue. Delaney was right, the drink was potent. Or maybe she wasn’t used to hitting the bottle before noon. One shot in and she was getting tipsy.
“ChiChat is in rerun rotation until September, but I asked Therese about scheduling a meeting when I get back next week, before the new season starts.” Cassie had been working up the courage to discuss her idea for a new position with the executive producer of the morning Chicago talk show for months, and decided to bite the bullet right before she left town, hoping being on vacation would help keep her from fretting. Of course, she couldn’t stop thinking about it. Bonnie was right, she’d been obsessively checking her phone the entire trip. “If Therese gets back to me, I don’t want her to think I’m ignoring her.”
“Well, I think you’re ignoring us.” Bonnie grabbed Cassie’s phone and dropped it into her purse.
“Hey!” Cassie yelped as she watched her phone get swallowed into her best friend’s cavernous bag. “You better not squash my phone,” she warned.
Bonnie patted the side of her purse, which was big enough to hold the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and probably did—the unabridged version. “Your phone will be fine.” She paused while Santa poured the next round. “And soon enough, you’ll be home, selling Therese on how you plan to change lives with serious news stories.”
Once all their glasses had been refilled, Bonnie raised her fresh whisky in a toast. “To old friends and new beginnings.”
Cassie clinked glasses with Bonnie and hoped her friend was right. She had a lot riding on that meeting. With a prayer for her future, Cassie downed her drink, gasping for breath as the alcohol singed her vocal chords. “How many rounds are in this tasting?” she croaked.
“Check the list.” Bonnie held up the tasting brochure.
Copyright © 2019 by Melonie Johnson.