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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A Highlander Walks into a Bar

A Highland, Georgia Novel

Highland, Georgia (Volume 1)

Laura Trentham

St. Martin's Paperbacks

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

Chapter One


“I brought home a surprise!” Rose Buchanan threw her arms out wide as if embracing the world. From the stories she told to the way she entered the room, Rose was exuberant and entertaining and enjoyed being the center of attention.

Isabel Buchanan, who was perfectly content on the fringes, pushed her wavy hair off her sticky forehead with hands that trembled from the nightmare drive through Atlanta to the airport to pick up her mom. Her mom’s trip to Scotland had doubled as both research and vacation. The jammed stop-and-go traffic had left Izzy flustered and already dreading their exit from the airport.

Rolling her stiff shoulders, Izzy stepped around the bumper of the car, popping the trunk open on the way. Her mom had a beautiful plaid scarf of greens and browns and blues tossed over her shoulder and what appeared to be new earrings. Either purchase might inspire her mother to gush, and she would expect reciprocal gushing from Izzy.

Making an educated guess, Izzy asked, “Are those earrings your surprise?”

Without waiting for an answer, she hauled one of her mom’s giant wheeled suitcases closer and prepared to heave it into the back. The sooner they got out of Atlanta, the sooner she could get back to work planning the Highland festival. Or she might pour an extra-large glass of wine and escape into a book. A guilty pleasure, considering how much she still had to get in order in three scant weeks.

“Allow me, please.” A bearded man who had been rolling cases to the curb stepped forward with a grin and an accent Izzy couldn’t place.

She checked her pockets and winced. No cash to tip the man, and no hope her mom had thought of something so inconsequential.

“Do you like them? They’re hammered silver.” Her mom flipped her bobbed matching silver hair to the side and displayed one earring with her fingers. “And as a matter of fact, I did buy them from a lovely shop in Edinburgh, but I brought something bigger home. Something more exciting.”

“Your scarf? It’s lovely.” Izzy gave her mom limited attention while she watched the man load suitcase after suitcase into her trunk, fitting them together like a puzzle. More luggage than her mom had left with. She waved to catch the man’s attention. “Hang on. That’s not all my mom’s stuff.”

For the first time, Izzy really looked at the man. He was close to her mom in age, and good-looking in a bearlike way with a gleaming white smile highlighted by a salt-and-pepper beard. His full head of hair was a shade darker, but graying heavily at the temples. The expression on the man’s face when he looked in her mom’s direction—a mix of adoration and amusement—cleared the fog of confusion.

Lord have mercy, her mother had brought back a six-foot, two-hundred-pound-plus souvenir from Scotland.

Izzy stumbled backward, her heels catching on the curb. She stumbled and was on her way to a bruised bottom—not to mention ego—when her mom’s Scottish souvenir grabbed her arm and steadied her.

“Alright there, lassie?” His eyes were dark gray, not black but close, except for sparks of amber around the centers. He wore good-natured amusement like a comfortable sweater, and Izzy could imagine gathering around a fire and listening to him tell jokes and stories.

Izzy pulled out of his grasp and sidestepped toward her car. “Thanks for the save.”

The man turned to her mom and held a hand out. She notched herself under his arm, the two of them facing Izzy as a united front. Instead of wilting from jet lag, her mom beamed at the man with all the energy of a college graduate on spring break. With his dark good looks and her mom being a certified silver vixen, they made a striking couple.

“Name’s Gareth Connors.” The man held out his free hand, and Izzy took it automatically in a shake. “Your mum has told me all about you, Isabel. I feel as if I already know you.”

The burr in his voice was charming and attractive and friendly, yet Izzy couldn’t get over the fact her mom had brought a man home. A man she’d known less than two weeks. It was impetuous and irresponsible and unreal.

Was Izzy dreaming? She swiped at her forehead again. Nope, not a dream unless the house had caught fire around her. The heat radiating off the concrete had hit inferno-like levels.

“I’ve invited Gareth to stay with us at Stonehaven. I’m going to show him around Highland. Everyone is going to adore you, darlin’.” Her mom was too occupied straightening Gareth’s collar to catch Izzy’s pointed, panicked look.

A whistle blew and all three shifted to stare down the sidewalk toward an airport security guard stalking toward them. They were taking too long in a loading zone.

Izzy froze. Was she actually going to bring a stranger home to Highland with them?

Gareth shut the trunk and nudged his chin toward the guard. “We’d best be going, Isabel, before the wee, angry man reaches us.”

With one last glance at the security guard, Izzy made a decision she feared she’d regret in the dead of night with a strange man roaming the house with sharp cutlery laying around. “You might as well call me Izzy.”

She slipped into the driver’s seat, feeling like her sane, ordered—slightly boring?—world had skidded through an Enter at Your Own Risk sign. Even worse, her mom and Gareth had slipped into the back seat together.

“You should have warned her, Rosie,” Gareth said. “We’ve shocked her.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Izzy loves surprises, don’t you, darlin’?” Her mother’s singsong accent was Southern old-school genteel.

Rosie? Izzy shook her head to clear her shock. Even her daddy had never used a pet name for her mom. It was weird-sounding and spoke of an intimacy that seemed impossible after so short an acquaintance.

Izzy couldn’t spare the attention needed to parse the new information coming fast and furious. She had to navigate out of the airport and back onto the interstate. Almost absentmindedly, she said, “You’re the one who loves surprises, Mom. I hate them.”

“Pish-posh. This is a good surprise though.”

“Is it?”

Izzy glanced in the rearview mirror to catch an apologetic grimace reflected on Gareth’s face. Her mom leaned close to whisper something in his ear, inspiring another of his merry-looking grins. If they started making out like teenagers, Izzy would pull over on the side of the road to separate them, life-endangering traffic be damned.

Cars and trucks weaved in and out of the lanes like in a video game. Her palms grew sticky on the steering wheel. The worst traffic jam in Highland, Georgia, had involved a standoff between old man Hicks and Mrs. Fortunato at the four-way stop in the middle of town.

As she exited the interstate for the two-lane road that weaved to Highland, her shoulders unscrunched and her fingers loosened on the steering wheel. The rolling green foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains worked their usual magic.

Now she could keep an eye on the couple in the back seat without the danger of rear-ending another car. Her mom and Gareth were close, but not on top of each other, thank goodness.

Her mom was busy playing tour guide. She pointed out such scintillating roadside attractions like the “big rock” that teenagers spray-painted as a rite of passage and the boiled peanut wagon set up next to the pickup truck selling produce in a gravel pull off.

“Do stop, darlin’. Gareth must try the peanuts.” Her mom touched Izzy’s shoulder.

Izzy didn’t say anything, but swung the car around on the two-lane road and pulled in next to the blue and white Ford truck with a bed piled high with summer produce. The farmer lounged on a metal foldout chair, fanning himself with a straw hat.

Izzy remained in the air-conditioning while Gareth and her mom took their time picking over what the farmer had to offer, coming back to the car with tomatoes, corn, and squash along with a steaming bag of peanuts.

“Izzy and I can whip up something delicious with the vegetables for dinner tonight, can’t we, darlin’?”

She was to be their cook along with their chauffeur? “Sure, why not.”

Her sullenness was a throwback to her awkward teenage years. Considering she still lived in the same town and in the same house—with her mother no less—the ghost of her doubt-riddled adolescent self took great pleasure in haunting her with regularity.

As the miles ticked down and while she had her mom and Gareth trapped in the car, she needed to ferret out what the heck was going on.

“Where are you from exactly, Gareth?”

“Cairndow. An estate in the Highlands. I’m the caretaker.”


Copyright © 2019 by Laura Trentham