I walk along the icy dirt road, my hands shoved in my pockets. I don’t bloody know where I’m going or why, but sometimes when I need to clear my head, nothing works better than a good, brisk walk where the clouds meet the sky, and the mountain air makes everything seem clearer.
Leith wants me to prioritize a job I never expected him to assign me. He wants me to find the writer of the Clan Chronicles, and he wants me to find her now. His words from an earlier conversation still play in a continual loop.
“No doubt she’s a woman, Tate, and she thinks we can be fucking toyed with. But she’s a spy, and a dangerous one at that. Find her.”
Bailey, our resident dog, trots dutifully beside me. He’s my sister-in-law Cairstina’s, but he likes to hang around with the rest of us, and as soon as he sees me putting on my boots, his ears perk up and he gives me puppy dog eyes. I’m grateful for the company just now.
I like that he keeps up with my brisk strides and isn’t deterred when the icy wind picks up. He faces it bravely, and when snow begins to fall, he gives me a friendly look and laps at the falling flakes. Makes me smile, before I sigh and continue my walk.
I’ve got other things on my mind, too.
Today’s the anniversary of when we found our eldest brother, Tavish Cowen, was gone. I don’t like to remember the details, but none of us can forget Mum’s cry, or the way she collapsed against Dad when she heard the news. It’s the worst memory I have, one I wish I could eviscerate forever.
I don’t allow myself to forget it, though. I force myself to dwell on the memory sometimes, when I need to remember who I am and what my purpose is.
I’m second-in-command of the most powerful mob in Scotland. The name Cowen inspires both fear and respect to anyone who hears it. I can’t afford to go soft. I can’t fucking afford it.
Mum gets a bit melancholy around now, but it helps having little ones about. Cairstina and Leith’s wee bairn’s started toddling around, and Mac’s wife Bryn’s expecting their first in a few months.
Mum loves having bairns in her lap, and it seems half the time I find her in the library reading a book, it’s a dog-eared board book and she’s got the wee one nestled in her lap.
She’s preoccupied, though. I know she is. And today I need to find out why. I’d like to give her some space to grieve, for a little while.
I loop around the cave that flanks the side of the mountain, the furthest spot away from the rest of the homes that surround our main lodge. Deep in the Scottish Highlands, we’re hidden from the view of most people, the large lodge the epicenter of our entire Clan, surrounded by our wee, privately owned chalets that encircle it. The inner members of our Clan live nearby, dozens nearly within arm’s reach. Hidden, though. Even from where I’m standing, the only telltale sign of civilization is the chimney smoke rising high in the air.
The moon’s beginning to rise, the sky around us a bluish hue as the sun settles below the mountain peaks. Suddenly, without warning, a woman’s high-pitched scream pierces the night air.
I’m instantly alert. Bailey freezes and meets my eyes, his body tense, nose pointed in the air. Adrenaline surges through me.
“Where the bloody hell is that coming from?” I mutter, whipping my head to the left, then right. Between the mountains and the wind, it’s impossible to tell the location of the scream, when a second scream follows the first.
“Find her, Bailey,” I tell him. “Go, boy.” Fully trained, he’s off at a run before I’ve finished my sentence, heading toward a barren, desolate spot on the side of the mountain.
I watch my footing, as the terrain’s rocky and icy, but Bailey doesn’t wait. He races ahead, intent on finding whoever’s in distress, so I focus on following him.
Who is it? It’s hard to tell from a woman’s scream who she is, but it could be anyone. My two sisters, my brothers’ wives, my mother, and grandmother all live here. Not to mention the occasional visitor from the McCarthy Clan in Ireland.
Bailey takes a sharp turn, and I keep up with difficulty. Suddenly, the trees give way to a clearing, and I can see everything. I freeze, heaving from the effort of sprinting in the frigid air at Bailey’s pace, and it takes me a minute to process the scene before me.
Looks like every damn one of the girls is bundled in fluffy coats, with hats, gloves, scarves and boots, taking turns sledding down the mountainside into a valley below. I can’t even identify them all from here, but I can make out my sister-in-law Cairstina, and my sisters Islan and Paisley. Two more girls are apart from the rest, at the top of the hill, preparing to go sledding down.
The three girls standing at the top of the hill quickly turn to look our way.
“Jaysus,” I mutter as I approach, trying to quelch my rising anger. Did they even bother to think about the impact a scream might have on one of us? I try to keep my voice light but fail. “You shouldn’t scream like that.”
Paisley’s eyes glance up at me, and her mittened hand comes to cover her mouth, her blue eyes a bit worried. The youngest of the lot, she’s a bit timid but quick to smile.
“Sorry, Tate,” she says apologetically. She doesn’t like upsetting any of us and looks genuinely repentant. “We didn’t think anyone else was out here.”
Islan grins. “Fancy a jaunt yourself?”
I grunt in reply, and the lass standing next to her—my brother Leith’s wife, Cairstina—giggles with the lot of them. “You look” —she giggles— “like you’ve just come running to save someone.”
“Ha. Ha.” I shove my hands back in my pockets and roll my eyes. “Just out for a stroll.”
“Oh, Tate,” Paisley says, as it suddenly dawns on her. “You heard us screaming and thought someone was hurt, didn’t you?”
“I bloody well thought—”
The sled with the other two takes off, and the girl in the front shrieks, as Bailey throws his head back and howls. The sled takes flight and careens down the hill with building momentum.
We watch, and it becomes evident within seconds they’ve gone off course. A patch of ice derailed them, and they’re no longer heading down the trail that leads to a large, open path below, but toward a thick swath of snow-covered pines. Their screams get louder, and everything seems as if it plays out in slow-motion. I take off at a run, prepared for the worst, but I won’t get there in time to help them. The girls scream behind me as the sled collides with a massive, unyielding pine. The screams from the sled come to an instant, eerie stop.
I’m the first one there. It’s a fucking bloody mess of snow and ice and scarves and hats, as I fall to my knees beside the girls. One I recognize immediately as Mac’s wife Bryn. She looks stricken but otherwise unharmed.
“Fran, Tate. She’s hurt, oh God—”
Anyone but fucking Fran.
I reach for her. She’s covered in snow and clearly passed out, blood below her hat trickling down her face into her eyes.
“We lost control,” Bryn sobs, scrambling through the snow toward Fran. “Oh, God.”
Paisley and Islan arrive at the same time, breathless and panting. They fall into the snow beside Fran. Paisley’s crying along with Bryn now, but Islan glares, as if her anger could prevent injury. “Bloody hell. Bloody fucking hell,” she mutters.
“Is she alright?” Paisley sobs.
I don’t answer. I’m lifting Fran gently out of the sled, brushing piles of snow off of her.
A chill goes through me at the stark sight of crimson blood against the whiteness of the snow. I kneel, laying her across my lap so I can inspect her.
“She’s out cold,” I mutter, inspecting her carefully. If she injured her neck, I can’t move her too quickly.
The lodge is yards away from us. I can’t risk putting her back in the sled to take her back, not if anything’s broken, or worse.
“She’s hurt her head,” I tell them. At the very fucking least. I jerk my head at Islan. “Call the doctor, have them prepare. I’ll carry her back. It’s the safest way to keep her still.”
In recent years, with Dad’s declining health, we’ve boarded a Clan doctor. It comes in handy in times of emergency. Like now.
It’s a somber affair, all of us walking back to the house. Islan manages to get a signal on her mobile and runs ahead of us. She’s trained hard in the workout room in the main house, running and weightlifting, and she’s got a good lead on the rest of us.
I focus on my job, moving as quickly as I possibly can without jostling or hurting Fran, but when I nearly trip, she comes to with a cry.
“Where am I? Oh, God, what happened?” She hisses in a breath, and I’m sure it’s from pain, poor lass.
“You’ll be alright,” I mutter. “Be still and quiet now, we’re taking you to see a doctor. You’ve injured yourself and can’t risk a sudden movement.”
She doesn’t listen, though, of bloody course, but begins to panic.
“My arm hurts. Is it broken?”
“We’ll find out soon. Stay still, Fran. You don’t want to risk further injury.”
I’m only paces away from the main house when someone flicks a light on, and Fran blinks her eyes from the brightness. She whimpers, then quickly stifles it.
“You’ll be alright,” I tell her, but my tone is gruff. It angers me they were out doing something so fucking dangerous. If she wasn’t fucking injured, I’d shake her. “Shouldn’t have fuckin’ been out there at twilight with the ice over the snow like that, dammit. Do you have a death wish?”
“Save the bloody lecture.” She winces. “Looks like Mother Nature already chastised me.”
I close my mouth but still glare.
“Am I too heavy?” she asks softly.
Until then, I’d made myself focus on my mission, on keeping her still and moving swiftly. I didn’t think about who I held. I didn’t think about how she affects me. I have one job to do: bring her to safety. But at her question, I look down at her in surprise. I don’t answer right away.
Tears and snowflakes dot her thick black lashes like gleaming diamonds. Even injured and bloodied, the woman’s gorgeous. Her deep brown eyes, like crushed velvet, look up at me, and for one startling moment, I’m afraid I might kiss her.
Until recently, Fran was married. Off limits. But now…
Jesus, I’m carrying the woman to the doctor and have to get my damn act together.
“Too heavy? You girls are out of your bloody minds. Always worrying about being too heavy, like I can’t bloody carry you.” I roll my eyes. “Didn’t even get winded.”
She opens her mouth to protest, then winces.
“Lie still and stop troubling your damn head,” I mutter. Concern’s made me irritable as fuck.
I try to think of this as a job, like Fran is one of my sisters I’ve been bound in duty to protect.
She isn’t my bloody sister, though, dammit.
We dated once—so briefly it hardly even counts, but I’ve had my eye on her ever since.
She married last year, and I fucking hated that she did something so stupid. Met her ex-husband online, married him a week after they met in person, and caught him cheating on their wedding night.
You’d think it bloody ended there, but it fucking didn’t.
I shove the memory away and keep going. It only makes me angrier.
Islan’s ahead of us, and she opens the door.
“As luck would have it, the doctor’s nearby,” she says. “He said to bring her into the study, since the light’s good in there and you can lay her on the chaise.”
I walk in through the kitchen, the entire staff watching us as I traipse through. A fire burns in the hearth, and someone stirs food at the stove, but I walk past and go straight to the study.
Leith’s waiting for me when I arrive, watching me somberly.
“What happened?” he asks Islan, who quickly tells him. I’m assuming his wife Cairstina filled him in before we got here.
“Jesus,” he mutters. “Knew we should’ve cut that damn tree down when they started sledding down that bloody hill.”
Islan snorts. “Leave it to you to level a damn tree like we’re children that need protecting.”
Fran opens her mouth as if to say something, then winces, closes her eyes, and doesn’t say a word. I imagine the pain’s intense.
Bright lights shine, as the Clan doctor waits.
“Rest her here, Tate,” he says. I put her down with reluctance, as gently as I can.
I liked holding her. When I held her, I knew that she was safe, almost like I could control this. Control… something.
“Ooh, got a right good gash on your head, there, lass.”
“Ah, is that what the throbbing is? Thought I hit the Jameson a bit too hard last night.” Fran smiles wanly, and even injured and in pain, she’s bloody beautiful.
She looks up quickly at me and winces from the sudden movement. “No need to growl, Tate, you did enough of that on the way back.”
I didn’t even know I was bloody growling. Did I?
I grunt in reply, as the doctor examines her. A moment later, he sits back and shakes his head. “You’re awfully lucky it wasn’t worse, lass,” he says gently. “An inch or so to the left and you’d have injured an eye, likely beyond repair.”
Her jaw drops, and she looks down at her hand. “And my arm?”
“Doesn’t look broken, but it would be best if we had an x-ray. I don’t have the proper equipment here. I’ll put a brace on to keep it steady, but you’ll need that seen with a specialist first thing tomorrow and time off, days or even weeks.”
She winces. “I have to work tomorrow,” she says with a sigh. “I have no vacation time left. If I don’t get to work…” Her voice trails off. She works at the little bookstore in town, in Inverness Centre.
“Sorry, lassie,” he says, shaking his head. “You have to. You could risk something so much worse if this isn’t properly treated.”
He hands her a few white pills. “Here, take these. It’ll help with the pain.”
Fran sighs, pops the pills, then drinks down a glass of water. He continues inspecting her with a frown, meticulous and thorough. We hired him because he’s the best there is.
“Why so long for a head injury?” Fran asks.
“Head injuries are bloody dangerous,” I tell her. “Don’t you know what could’ve happened? You could’ve gotten fuckin’ brain damage, or worse.”
Islan rolls her eyes but Fran just blinks at me in surprise. The doctor continues his examination when a knock sounds at the door.
“Come in,” I say. Mum comes in carrying a plate, laden with soup, bread, and a steaming pot of tea. It’s well past dinner time, but it’s in her nature to feed people when they’re injured. Says it helps with recovery and all that.
“How are you doing, lass?”
“Oh, I’ll be better soon,” Fran says with a self-deprecating laugh. “How’s Bryn?”
“Bryn walked away without a scratch.”
“Thank God for that,” I mutter, and Fran gives me a curious look.
“Just that Mac would lose his bloody mind.”
“Aye, he would,” Islan says. “It’s the way you all are, isn’t it?”
I don’t reply. It is how we all are, but I can’t quite place the look on Fran’s face.
The doctor takes his leave, with strict orders she rest and allow people to help her, followed by Leith and Mum. The other girls have gone off to take care of the children and Bryn, perhaps sensing that Fran doesn’t want a lot of visitors right now. She’s in so much pain, even the bright lights seem to hurt her eyes.
It’s just me, Islan, and Fran now.
I should go. I have work to do. Her best friends are right here, in this very house. Surely they can make sure she’s alright. I’ve got a pressing job Leith wants me to tend to, but I can’t seem to make myself do it.
“We’ll get you situated here for the night,” Islan says. “Not the best accommodations, but I do think it’ll be best for you, give you a little privacy. There’s a toilet nearby the kitchen, and you won’t have to walk upstairs.”
“And it’ll be easy enough to get you to the car to go to get your x-ray in the morning,” I say.
She frowns. “Might be a little hard to drive like this—”
“Of course you bloody well can’t drive,” I snap.
She blinks, then her cheeks flush a little pink. “Excuse me?”
“Now, Fran,” Islan begins, her hands outstretched as if to placate her. “No need to get you riled up.”
“Riled up?” I ask, astounded that that’s even a question. “Of course she bloody well won’t. She’ll lie right there and obey the doctor’s orders.”
Fran pushes herself up to sitting higher on the chaise, as if the adjustment in height gives her an advantage, which it definitely doesn’t, especially because she winces again in pain.
“And… somewhere between me cracking my skull on the side of your tree, and you playing the hero carrying me back up to the house like some sort of… Tarzan or something,” she spits out the word as if it’s distasteful, “you got the idea you have some say in this?”
“I do,” I tell her. “I’ve got an errand in town tomorrow and will take you.” I want her to feel obliged to me, though I wouldn’t admit that out loud.
I can’t keep the irritation out of my voice.
“Oh, I’ll be fine,” she says, fuming. “No need to trouble yourself, clearly.” She rolls her eyes. “Honest to God, I’m no concern of yours.”
Is that what she thinks?
Islan rolls her eyes. “You’ve nearly grown up here, Fran, you know how they all are.”
She purses her lips and narrows her eyes, and I half expect her to wise off with her smart mouth again, when her head suddenly lolls to the side a little like she’s tipsy. She blinks, then blinks again. What the fuck?
“Y’alright?” Islan asks.
“Just feel a bit… a bit…” Fran giggles. “Can you hear those words, or is it in my head?”
Islan turns to me. “Oh, dear.”
Is she… high?
I look at Fran in puzzlement. She shakes her head as if to clear her thoughts. “Was just saying, I can’t bloody well skip work tomorrow. No way.”
“They’ll be fine,” Islan says with conviction. “Or I could cover for you. Your boss is so bloody distracted, she wouldn’t even notice the difference.”
I look from Fran to Islan, then back again. Islan’s tall and willowy and blonde, and Fran’s all lush brown hair and buxom curves.
“Are you fuckin’ legally blind?”
Fran gives me a reproachful look, then begins to giggle. It’s… adorable.
Islan rolls her eyes. “Oh, whatever,” she says. “I just mean I could go in and be a sort of temp for the day or something.” Leith’s said for a while the girls have been spoiled and honest to God, I didn’t see it until now. I always kind of took the girls’ side when it came to his overbearing tendencies.
I shake my head. “Leith would say no, and I’d agree with him. For Christ’s sake, you’re making one stupid decision after another.” Islan’s brows snap together, but I’m not finished. “First, you decide sledding down that hill is something fun to do, even though you could’ve killed yourself. Second, now you want to go take a job in the city centre, knowing full well who you are and how that puts you in danger? Are you out of your bloody mind?”
“I see what you mean,” Fran mutters, giving Islan a sympathetic look.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask.
“Oh, nothing,” she says airily, and I swear her eyes look a bit unfocused. The doctor’s given her some heavy pain relievers, and it looks as if they’ve kicked in. “Only your sisters may have mentioned once or twenty times that you boys are all a bit overprotective, and I think she has a point.” For some reason, she finds this outrageously funny, and the next thing I know, her head falls back and she snorts with laughter. Literally snorts, so loudly Islan jumps. She looks at me in alarm.
“What’d he bloody give her?”
I shrug. “Dinnae. Reckon it was something strong?”
Fran’s giggling so hard she’s tipped over to the side, tears streaming down her face. What’s so funny? I don’t bloody well know what to do with her.
“Oh, no,” Islan whispers to me. “Tate, I think she’s high off her nut with the meds the doc gave her, isn’t she?”
I look back at her, and she’s giggling something fierce.
“I think you’re right,” I mutter. “Jesus.”
“The look on your face!” Fran says, as she erupts into peals of laughter again.
“Mine?” I ask.
“Och, aye,” she mutters, deepening her voice and wagging a wobbly finger at the two of us. Her accent’s thick, like a Scottish caricature, as she mocks me. “Are you out of yer bloody moind?”
“What’s she doing?” Islan whispers.
“Doing a right good job of pissin’ me off,” I whisper back.
“Oi’m the head of the fuckin’ mafia!” she howls, wagging her finger in the air. She reminds me of a man I once saw in a pub in the city centre, drunk, running his mouth so loudly in the pub he got a personal escort out. “Or one ‘a the heads of the fuckin’ mafia, whatever and all! And I swear to fuckin’ God, if ye don’t know what’s right for thee, you’d do what yer bloody told or I’ll send you swimmin’ with the bloody fishes!”
Islan snorts and covers her mouth to hide her laughter even as her eyes swing back with concern to me.
“Ought to fuckin’ gag ‘er,” I mutter. “She’s fuckin’ stoned.”
“And oye don’t make mistakes, so don’t even question me! There are two infallible people in the world and one sits in Vatican City, the other right ‘ere in Scotland.”
“Fran!” Islan hisses, doubling over with laughter. “Oh my God, stop!”
“Need to speak with…” But her voice is muffled and I can’t make out what she says. Someone’s name, though?
Islan looks at me in an absolute panic, no more laughing. Her eyes are wide and she’s totally sober.
“Did you hear that?” she asks.
“Hear fuckin what?” I shake my head. “All I hear is her going on and on about bloody nothing.”
“Oh,” Islan says with a laugh. “It’s nothing, nothing at all. She just mentioned… Paisley. Sounded like Paisley?”
What the fuck is she hiding?
I look sharply back to Fran, but she’s passed out. Her hand falls to the side, and she’s softly snoring.
“I’ll stay with her,” Islan says. “Poor thing. She might wake up in pain.” She’s adjusting the blankets and pillows around Fran, tucking them all around her to make her comfortable. “We didn’t even get a chance to help her change out of her clothes.”
I look around the room. There’s no comfortable place for her to stay.
“Islan, you can’t stay here, lass. There’s nowhere for you to sleep, and you’ve got school to go to tomorrow.” I frown at her. “Yet another reason why you can’t go to the bloody bookstore.”
She rolls her eyes. “Oh, Tate, I wasn’t really going to. Her boss will understand, of course. I was just trying to get her to relax.”
“Alright, then, fine. But you can’t stay down here. You won’t get a wink of sleep, and you’ve got to be prepared for your classes.”
She sighs. “Aye, that’s true, isn’t it?” She worries her lip. “She can’t be alone, though.”
I grunt. “I’ll sleep on the couch.”
She looks at me sharply. “Don’t even think of any funny stuff with my mate.”
“Funny stuff? Are you out of your fuckin’ mind? You think I’ve got a bloody somno kink?”
She makes a disgusted face. “Oh, ew ew ew, what does that even mean. Do I want to Google?”
“What do you think it means?”
I can’t help but crack a smile at her look of utter disgust. She actually wipes her hands on her clothes as if to physically rid herself of the memory of what I said.
“I’m literally going to go shower now, thanks to you.”
“Good. Stay the bloody hell away and get some sleep already.”
“Aww, love you, too,” she quips, rolling her eyes again. Jesus, that girl better hook up with a man that can handle the likes of her. The door shuts with a bang, and Fran jumps up, startled, and blinks at me.
“Go to sleep.”
She rolls over and snores loud enough to rouse a deaf man, probably the first bloody time she’s ever done what she’s told without backtalk. Not that she really meant to even this time.
I sigh and try to get comfortable on the tiny excuse for a sofa across from where she lies. It’ll be a long bloody night.