Authors: Donna Grant
All Iona wanted to do was get a few items. What should have been a quick errand was turning into an event. It was everything she could do not to just walk away from them all. She carried her basket, filled to the brim, to the counter and checked out without another incident. A glance at her watch showed it had taken almost an hour.
Iona was carrying her purchases to her car when someone called her name. She looked to find Thomas MacBane, her father's attorney.
“Hello,” he said with a smile as he walked up. “I was going to call you tomorrow and let you know the bank is ready for you to come in so they can sign over John's accounts.”
She nodded woodenly. “Right. I can get there sometime tomorrow.”
“Would you like me to come with you?”
Iona stilled and tried not to read anything into his question, but there was no doubt he was asking for much more than to accompany her by the look in his eyes. “I appreciate that, Thomas, but I think I can handle it.”
“There will be taxes that need to be paid as well on the inheritance.”
She adjusted her bags in her hand and forced a smile. “And you have the paperwork needed?” she guessed.
He beamed. “I do. We can go over it tomorrow and get that out of the way.”
“Sure,” she said. The sooner she finished her dealings with Thomas the quicker she could distance herself from him.
“Perhaps we could have lunch?” he offered.
“Hey, Iona,” Sammi said with a bright smile as she walked to them. “I was hoping I'd run into you.”
Iona could have kissed Sammi she was so happy to see her. “Hey there.”
Thomas looked from Sammi to Iona. “So what do you say, Iona?”
Iona hesitated, and Sammi quickly said, “Oh, Thomas, I'm sorry. Iona and I have lunch plans tomorrow.”
“That's too bad,” he said, his face downcast. “Another time then.”
Iona waited until he was out of earshot before she looked at Sammi and said, “I owe you big time.”
“Come to the pub and grab a bite with me and we can talk about that,” she said with a wink.
Iona wondered if the excitement coursing through her was because she wasn't going to eat alone, or if it was all at the prospect of seeing Laith again.
Sammi grabbed a booth in the back corner and slid into the seat with a smile. Iona was slower to join her, though Sammi noted how Iona made a point of looking at the bar. The disappointment that showed wasn't hidden fast enough for Sammi. She took note of the obvious interest Iona had in Laith. Even more intriguing was the way Laith was fascinated by Iona.
Sammi wasn't into matchmaking. As a mate to a Dragon King, she knew the importance of their secrecy, but there was something about Iona she liked immensely.
It might be Iona's aloofness or her reserved nature that reminded Sammi of herself before she came to Dreagan. At least Iona's life wasn't in dangerâa first in a while for a woman who came to Dreagan.
“What?” Iona asked as she raised a brow at Sammi.
Sammi shrugged. “What do you mean?”
“It's the way you're looking at me. You're deep in thought, and I've a suspicion it's about me.”
Sammi smiled wide and motioned to Glen at the bar for drinks. “You're good. I'll give you that.”
“Are you going to tell me what you were thinking?”
Sammi waited until Glen set the ales in front of them and walked away. “I was just thinking how you remind me of myself before I came here.”
“How's that?” Iona asked before taking a drink of ale.
“I owned a pub near Oban.”
Iona's brows rose. “Really? Why did you leave?”
“My business partner laundered the Mob's money through my pub. I didn't know about it until he began skimming money from them.”
“That's something you hear in the movies, not real life.”
Sammi's lips twisted. “I can attest to how very real it was. I was shot while trying to escape.”
“And you came here? Why here?”
“My half-sister.” Sammi smiled and played with the edge of the coaster. “Jane is married to Banan, who is part of Dreagan, and they took me in and sheltered me.”
“And you found Tristan.”
Sammi couldn't think about her mate without her blood heating. “Yes.”
“I find it curious that you say Tristan and Banan are part of Dreagan instead of saying they work for Dreagan.”
Sammi looked into Iona's dark eyes and realized Iona was much more observant than ordinary people. “That's because they own part of Dreagan. They do work the land with the others, but Dreagan is them, and they are Dreagan.”
“I see,” Iona said softly and sat back.
“Would you like a tour of Dreagan?”
“You want to show me how beautiful it is, I suppose.”
Sammi shrugged and held her gaze. “Of course. Dreagan is beautiful. It's also my home. However, I thought you might like a personal tour of the distillery.”
“I was being nice, Iona.”
“People aren't nice unless they want something.”
Sammi snorted and shook her head. “You're reading things into this that aren't there. I'm extending a hand of friendship.”
“I don't have friends.”
Iona said it so unemotionally that Sammi knew she was speaking the truth. “I see. That's too bad.”
“That came out terribly rude. I apologize,” she said and grabbed one of the menus stacked against the back of the table. “Is the fish and chips any good here?”
“The best,” Sammi answered without missing a beat. If Iona wanted to change the subject, she would comply. The more she was with Iona, the more she learned about her.
Without a doubt, Con wanted Laith to get close to Iona, and it wouldn't be difficult. But Sammi knew there were things a woman would only tell another woman, which was why she had taken it upon herself to befriend Iona. Though she hadn't lied. She would have befriended her regardless.
Iona set aside the menu. “I think I'll get that then.”
Sammi slid out of the booth and went to place the order herself in the kitchen. She was walking out when she heard Laith's voice coming from the back office. He would leave as soon as he was finished placing the orders with his vendors, but she knew once he saw Iona he would stay.
Sammi walked back out to the pub and returned to the table. Iona's ale was half gone and she was busy looking at all the photos along the walls.
“It's been a long time since I've been in Scotland,” Iona volunteered.
Sammi set down her glass after a long drink and asked, “How long exactly?”
“That explains why you don't have the Scottish brogue.”
Iona licked her lips. “I lost it pretty quick after two years in Kent, four in London, three in Paris, and then two in Spain.”
“You got to see a lot of the world while still young,” Sammi said, impressed.
“I got to see my mother go from one relationship after another.”
That one statement summed up Iona more than she realized.
“I didn't know my father. He's an American who had an affair with my mother, but chose another woman to marry. He lives in the States, and has for years. Jane is the one that found me. Before her, it was just me and my mum.”
“You were close?”
“Inseparable,” Sammi said, sadness weighing on her heart as it always did when she thought of her mother. “She died a few years back.”
Sammi lifted the glass, but stopped short of bringing it to her lips. “Are you close with your mum?” she asked and then drank.
Iona rolled her eyes. “Lord, no. She texts me about once a week, to let me know where she's at. She likes men, and she likes money.”
“Relationships with our parents are never as cut-and-dry as we'd like to hope.”
Iona chuckled loudly. “No truer words have been spoken.”
Sammi was happy to see Iona smiling again. It was time to turn the conversation away from her mother, which was obviously a sore subject. “So how did you get involved with your photography?”
“I've been fascinated with cameras for as long as I can remember. I received my first one when I was seven. It was a Christmas present. I was never without it. When Mum and I left Scotland, I hid behind the camera much as other children did their favorite stuffed animal.”
“And you found a passion,” Sammi guessed.
Iona's smile was slow but wide. “Yes. I worked relentlessly to hone my craft, and entered countless photography contests. I knew I wouldn't win, but I always got incredible feedback from the judges. I then took what they said and poured it back into my art.”
“You have a gift. There's no denying that.”
Iona looked down, but the pleased smile remained. “Thank you. I'm lucky to get paid to do something I love.”
“I know what you mean,” Sammi said and looked around the bar. “My pub was bought with the help of my mother. It was precious to me, and when I lost it, I didn't know what I was going to do. Then there was Tristan, and luckily Laith offered me a job. It feels good to be back behind a bar.”
“Mixing drinks isn't exactly an easy thing to do. That takes talent as well.”
Sammi laughed and looked at her. “Perhaps. I learned a lot about others behind my bar. You discern to read between the lines of what people say to what they really mean.”
“Ah, so you're a psychologist, only with drinks instead of a couch?” Iona asked with another chuckle, this one louder.
Sammi threw her head back and laughed. “I've never thought of it that way.”
“But you help them, don't you?”
“I suppose I do. I listen. Most times that's all people need.”
“Is that what you're doing to me?” Iona asked, her dark eyes still crinkled in the corners.
Sammi shook her head, and then smoothed her hair out of her face. “Of course not. I'm not behind the bar,” she added with a sly smile.
That had Iona laughing out loud, and just as Sammi suspected, it brought Laith out of his office. From the corner of her eye, she could see him standing in the doorway staring at Iona.
“What about any men in your life?” Sammi asked, knowing Laith could hear them.
Iona snorted as she set down her glass and swallowed the last of the ale. “There aren't any men.”
“Thomas MacBane would like to be one.”
“Ugh.” Iona dropped her head in her hand and groaned. “He's persistent, I'll give him that.”
Sammi glanced at Laith to see a small frown on his face. “Thomas will ask you out again. I'm afraid you might have to be very firm with him.”
“Do you have this kind of problem often?”
Iona ran a hand through her long hair and studied her empty glass. “No. I tend to keep my distance from men as a general rule.”
“Because you don't trust them?”
“Because of how I watched my mother go through man after man as if they were pieces of candy. She showed me there is no such thing as love or soul mates or any of that nonsense.”
The smile was gone from Sammi's face now. She was looking at Iona with new eyes. “I hate to disagree with you, but there is such a thing as true love and mates.”
“It's what everyone wants to believe. A few even manage to keep their vows, but take a look around, Sammi. How many people stay married? How many of them actually work at a relationship? How many take the vows seriously? Not many. People live with each other as if it's no big deal. Moving in with someone isn't just important, but significant. We went from living with one man after another constantly. It's why we moved around so much.”
“Did you ever think it might just be that your mother can't love?”
Iona hesitated for a moment and then sighed. “Yes. Unlike my mother, I'm not going to go through a string of men. I have my work. That's enough.”
Sammi leaned forward. “I'm not saying what your mother put you through is right. It wasn't, but that was only one kind of relationship. Love exists, Iona.”
“I'll take your word for it.”
“Have you had a relationship with a man before at all?” Sammi asked, unable to help herself.
Iona smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes. “Not really.”
“Do you mind if I ask how long you stayed with one man?” Iona stared at her long enough that Sammi added, “I'm sorry. I'm just trying to understand your view on things, that's all.”
A month. Sammi slowly let out a breath. That wasn't a relationship. That was a fling. How could Iona know if she was like her mother or not if she didn't try?
“I've shocked you,” Iona said.
Sammi started to deny it, and realized that Iona would know she was lying. “A wee bit, yes. It takes longer than a month to know if a relationship can work out, and even then it took me a good half dozen before I met Tristan. It was only by me learning from mistakes and what I knew I didn't want from those earlier affairs that I saw what could be with Tristan. I knew I would walk through Hell itself for him, and in some ways I did just that.”
“Love isn't meant for everyone,” Iona said softly. “It isn't meant for me.”
Laith braced a hand on the doorway and listened to the conversation between Sammi and Iona. It had been Iona's laugh that pulled him from his office. He knew it was her without even looking.
Her wavy blond hair looked like spun gold next to the black shirt she wore. She sat straight against the back of the booth, her posture denoting that she had closed a wall between her and Sammi.
Though he was guilty of having a string of human lovers, Laith also kept relationships from developing. That hadn't always been the case, however. At one time he thought he had found his mate. It was eons ago, right before Ulrik's lover tried to betray him.