Highlander for the Holidays (2 page)

BOOK: Highlander for the Holidays
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Merissa twisted to lean against the wall and arched a delicate brow. “A hairball, Jess? You honestly think that guy believed Toby was coughing up a
hairball
?”
“I couldn’t very well admit my dog would have gone for his throat if he smacked me again. We’d have been thrown out of here faster than the man and woman we stole this table from.”
Merissa looked out at the crowded bar. “Exactly where
is
here?” Up went her brow again. “Because honestly? I think we overshot New England by several hundred miles and are in Newfoundland or something.”
“We’re still in the U.S. of A.—although just barely. We’re about fifty miles from the Canadian border.”
Merissa’s other brow arched. “When you came up with this crazy notion of moving to New England, I thought you meant
Boston
.” She waved at the throng of people. “Half the men in here have more facial hair than Toby.”
“Oh, come on, Mer. Where’s your sense of adventure?”
Merissa patted her pockets. “I’m pretty sure I had it when we left Atlanta. No, wait; I distinctly remember watching it fly out the window when you drove past
Boston
.” She turned serious. “Okay, I get New England in the fall, as the ride up here was positively Norman Rockwell. But again, why
Maine
? And not even Portland, but some forgotten little mountain town a hundred miles north of nowhere. For a woman who’s determined to get her life back, it sure looks to me like you’re hiding from it instead.”
Jessie leaned her cane on the edge of the seat near the wall and then shrugged out of her coat. “It’s called baby steps, Mer. Pine Creek has a population of less than eight hundred year-round residents, which means I’ll finally have a sense of community instead of feeling lost in a sea of strangers.” She leaned on the table to continue talking when a soft ballad started on the jukebox. “You have to admit, the TarStone Mountain Ski Resort is everything the brochure promised.”
“Including a perfectly nice restaurant and lounge,” Merissa shot back. “But did we go there? Oh, no; we dumped our bags in the room, headed into town, and stopped at the first bar we came to.”
Jessie adjusted the leafy silk scarf around her neck. “I wanted to get an immediate reaction to Pine Creek so I’d know for certain I’ve made a good choice. I swear I could feel the knot in my gut loosening the farther north we drove, but . . . but I still don’t know if it’s far enough.”
Merissa blinked in surprise. “Are you saying you’re not
sure
? Jessie, every worldly possession you didn’t give away is right now on a truck headed for Pine Creek, and you don’t even know if this is where you want to live?”
Jessie turned in her seat to look around, taking note of the patrons thoroughly enjoying themselves, eating and drinking and dancing, then turned back to Merissa. “I’m pretty sure.” She gestured over her shoulder at the crowd. “They look like a nice bunch of hardworking and funloving folks to me, and the atmosphere in here is friendly.” She leaned on the table again and lowered her voice. “And I’ll bet they couldn’t care less about what happens in Atlanta. This is my best chance for a real do-over, Mer. In Pine Creek I can be plain old Jessie Pringle instead of poor, tragic Mrs. Eric Dixon.”
“I hate to ruin your fantasy,” Merissa drawled, “but they probably get the national news in this three-car town. You know you can’t run from your past any more than you can hide from it.”
“Four years and a couple thousand miles is a damn good start.” Jessie sucked in a calming breath when Toby sat up and rested his head on her thigh. “I have a chance to be my old self here,” she said, rubbing Toby’s ear to soothe him. “So it won’t matter if someone eventually does put two and two together, because instead of seeing a woman to be pitied, they’ll already have decided that I am
not
a victim.”
Merissa smiled crookedly. “Actually, it’s these poor, unsuspecting shmucks I’m worried about, when they discover there’s a backbone of steel hidden inside what only looks like a fragile woman.” She shook her head. “The good people of Pine Creek aren’t going to know what hit them the first time you get a bee in your bonnet about something. I just wish I was going to be here to see—Ohmigod,” she hissed, her eyes widening as she stared past Jessie’s shoulder. She grabbed Jessie’s arm when she started to turn. “No, don’t look! We can’t let them think that we’re interested.”
“Them?” Jessie echoed, grinning. “As in
male
thems?”
Merissa groaned. “Okay, you already know beer isn’t my problem. I only need to get a whiff of testosterone to turn into a bar slut,” she said, fluffing her short hair with her fingers as she shifted her gaze past Jessie again. “Throw in broad shoulders and a manly swagger and I can be talked out of my clothes faster than a guy can say ‘your place or mine?’”
The waitress set a heavy tray on the table. “Prelude Special for you,” she said, setting two frosted glasses and two bottles in front of them. “And Pumpkinhead for you.”
“No popcorn?” Merissa asked, eyeing the large platter of appetizers on the tray.
The waitress set the platter between them. “I can go get you a bowl if you want.”
“We didn’t order appetizers,” Jessie pointed out.
“Pete sent them, compliments of the house.”
Jessie shifted uncomfortably. “Does Pete give free appetizers to all his patrons?”
The waitress tucked the tray under her arm. “It ain’t what you’re thinking, honey. Pete usually comps the firsttimers if he thinks they’re from the resort. TarStone has a live band on the weekends that we have to compete with, so he hopes you’ll go back and tell the other resort guests that Pete’s Bar and Grill is a right friendly place.”
Jessie relaxed, feeling bad for thinking the bar owner had been patronizing her. “Oh. Then tell Pete thank you for us, will you?”
“Sure, honey. You need anything else, you just holler for Paula.”
“Wait,” Merissa said when Paula turned away. “Can you give two single women far from home a little advice as to who’s safe and who’s not?” She smiled crookedly. “I just spent four days cooped up in a car, and my legs are in serious need of exercise.” She waved toward the dance floor. “Are there any lechers out there we should avoid?”
“Well, now,” Paula drawled, “that would depend if dancing is the only exercise you’re interested in.”
Merissa arched a brow. “I guess that would depend on the guy.” She leaned to the side to see past Paula. “Like those two,” she said, covertly pointing at the end of the bar. “If I were to ask one of them to dance, would I be risking life and limb?”
“Those two?” Paula asked in surprise. “Hell, you don’t mess around kissing a bunch of frogs, do you?” She shrugged. “If you don’t mind dealing with brawn
and
brain, the MacKeages are good men.”
Merissa took a long swig of her ale straight from the bottle, wiped her mouth on her sleeve, and started to slide out of the booth.
“Hey,” Jessie yelped, reaching across the table to grab her arm. “You can’t just walk over and ask one of them to dance.”
“Why not? Paula said they’re harmless.”
The waitress snorted. “Honey, calling a MacKeage harmless is like calling a tiger a pussycat. I said they’re good men; I didn’t say anything about them being harmless.” She leaned down when the music stopped and lowered her voice. “The only complaint you’ll get from any woman brave enough to leave here with a MacKeage is that dawn arrives way too early.” She looked at Jessie then back at Merissa and smiled sadly. “I suggest you ladies might want to start a bit lower on the food chain.”
Jessie groaned inwardly. Now she’d done it; Paula might as well have just clanged the dinner bell. Nobody loved a challenge—especially one that involved the opposite sex—more than Merissa.
Her friend actually rubbed her hands together. “Oh, I don’t know,” Merissa said, eyeing the two men at the bar again. “I’ve always felt kissing frogs was a waste of time.” Her eyes suddenly widened. “Ohmigod, they’re coming over,” she said, grabbing her bottle and taking another sip.
After giving what appeared to be a sympathetic look, Paula disappeared into the crowd. Jessie poured her ale into her frosted glass, only to notice her hands were trembling. It didn’t help that Toby had sat up again to rest his chin on her thigh, his big brown eyes filled with concern. “I am so going to kill you,” she said as she gave Toby a reassuring pat.
“Hey, you’re the one looking for adventure,” Merissa countered, sneaking another peek at the approaching men as she raised her bottle to her mouth again.
“Baby steps, Mer,” Jessie reminded her. “I’m not sure I’m ready to deal with brawn
and
brain. And by the look in your eyes, I don’t think you’re ready, either.”
“What you’re seeing is pure, unadulterated lust,” Merissa whispered, leaning on the table. “They’re positively gorgeous.”
“Then where the hell are they?” Jessie asked, not daring to look. She sighed in relief. “They were heading to some other table, not ours.”
“No, somebody stopped them to talk.” Merissa finally poured her ale in her frosted glass, only to discover there was barely a sip left. “Damn. I didn’t even taste it. Okay, here they come. Put Toby next to the wall so they can sit down.”
Not really sure how Toby would react to two strange men invading their space, Jessie nudged him over her legs. Oh God; she had thought she was ready for this, but her racing heart said differently.
“I can’t imagine what Pete was thinking when he tucked you two lovely ladies way back here in the corner,” a deeptimbred voice said from above her. “He usually likes to show off his prettier patrons.”
Jessie looked up, her smile freezing only half-formed when her eyes landed on the tall, green-eyed, broad-shouldered, clean-shaven man standing next to another equally gorgeous and no less intimidating giant.
Nope; she definitely wasn’t ready for this.
“Would you ladies like some company?” the second man asked.
Merissa immediately scooted toward the wall. “We’d love some,” she said as she motioned for Jessie to do the same.
Toby scrambled right back across Jessie’s legs when she scooted over and planted his solid body between her and the giant sliding into the booth beside her. She immediately clamped her hand over Toby’s snout when the man reached down to him. “Just let him sniff your fingers,” she instructed. “He’s rather . . . protective.”
The guy gave a chuckle. “So I noticed. Is that part of his job description?” he asked, turning his hand palm up to tickle Toby’s chin as the dog sniffed his thumb.
“He sort of comes by it naturally,” she said, releasing Toby when she felt him relax against her leg.
“I’m Duncan MacKeage,” the man beside Merissa said. He gestured at the man sitting beside Jessie. “And this is my nephew, Ian MacKeage.”
“Nephew?” Merissa repeated, her gaze darting to Ian then back to Duncan. “But you look the same age.”
Amusement twinkled in Duncan’s deep green eyes as he nodded toward Ian. “His mother is my half sister, which makes
my
mom his grandmother.” His smile widened. “And our fathers are cousins, so I guess that makes us cousins, too.”
Merissa burst out laughing. “Oh, man. If that’s your best pick-up line, no wonder you were sitting at the bar waiting for new victims.” She felt her forehead. “Am I wearing a sign that says
gullible city girl
?”
Duncan looked wounded. “Scout’s honor, lass, it’s true.”
“You ladies decide the TarStone lounge is too tame for your liking?” Ian asked, apparently deciding to redirect the conversation.
Jessie stiffened. “How do you know we’re staying at the resort?”
“I saw the two of you arrive this afternoon.” His easy smile kicked up a notch. “I was leaving the parking lot in the side-by-side when you were unloading your luggage.”
“Side-by-side?”
“The two-seater ATV. Miss . . . ?” he asked, holding out his hand to her—much the same way he had to Toby.
Well, since Toby hadn’t bitten him, she shook Ian’s hand. “Jessie Pringle.”
“Merissa Blake,” Merissa chimed in. “And Jess and I are just
friends
. So, do you guys work at the resort?”
“Ian does,” Duncan said. “I’m in construction.” He motioned for Paula to come over. “Can we buy you ladies a drink?”
Jessie lifted her glass to show it was still half-full. “I’m good.”
“Another one of whatever Merissa is having,” Duncan told Paula. “And could you tell Pete to give us
real
Scotch this time, please?”
Paula’s eyes widened. “Are you saying he gave you guys the cheap stuff?”
“No,” Ian said with a chuckle. “He claimed it was a new brand he was trying, and asked our opinion.” He gestured at the appetizers. “Order us up another sampler while you’re at it, would you, only ask Mike to leave off the wings and double the ravioli.”
Realizing Ian and Duncan were regulars here, Jessie couldn’t decide if that was a good thing or not, considering they appeared to be settling in for the evening.
“Where are you ladies from and what brings you to Pine Creek?” Duncan asked, his own easy smile directed at Merissa. “If you’re leaf peepers, I’m afraid you missed the fall foliage by over a month.”
“Actually, Jessie’s moving to Pine Creek,” Merissa said. “And I’m just along for moral support. I have to fly back to Atlanta at the end of the week.”
Both men looked at Jessie. “You have family here?” Ian asked.
“No,” Jessie told them. “Well, my maternal grandmother was born in Maine, but she moved to New York City when she married my grandfather.”
“Is she from Pine Creek? What was her maiden name?”
“It’s Beal, but she was from a small town down on the coast.”
“So are you both from Atlanta?” Duncan asked. “Because neither one of you has much of an accent.”
“I’m originally from Chicago,” Merissa explained, “and moved to Atlanta six years ago.” She nodded at Jessie. “She moved there four years ago from Dallas, although she’s really a New York City girl.”
BOOK: Highlander for the Holidays
12.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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