Authors: Donna Grant
Iona laughed and shook her head as she watched Sammi. “She's something else.”
“Aye, she is. Everyone likes her.”
“I can see why. She has a way about her. I wish I didn't like her.”
“Why do you say that?” he asked before he thought better of it.
Iona shrugged and turned her head back to him. “I move around a lot, and I'm never in one place too long. It seems pointless to become friends with anyone only to leave them behind.”
“You could see them again.”
“It's doubtful. It just saves time.”
Laith leaned back, one arm resting on the back of the booth and the other on the table. “That's a lonely way to live your life. Everyone needs someone.”
“No, not everyone. There are those who prefer to be alone.”
“And you're one of them?” he asked with one brow lifted.
She chuckled lightly. “I am.”
“I doona believe that. I saw you with Sammi. You were laughing and talking, just as everyone else is.”
“I can't deny that. It's not something I normally do, but Sammi wasÂ â¦ persistent.”
Laith glanced at Sammi as she moved from one customer to another, a smile always in place. “She is that.”
“Is that how she got Tristan to fall for her?”
It was an odd question, but Laith would play along. He shook his head. “Tristan pursued her, and then she pursued him before they finally came together.”
“If two people were meant to be together, why must it be so difficult for them to reach that point?”
“The best things in life are rarely easy. The harder you work for something, the more it will mean.”
“Are you Buddha now?”
Laith grinned. “No' even close.”
“You've lived a very different life than me,” she said, her tone suddenly serious as she took a swallow of ale.
Laith watched her carefully. “In a way, perhaps. I think we all make our own way, and along that path, we make decisions depending on where we are at the time.”
“Yes. Though my decisions were made based on things my mother told me.”
“About your father?” Laith guessed.
Iona rolled her eyes as she nodded. “I truly believed everything she told me about him.”
“Until you returned and learned that some things were no' true?”
“I didn't want to believe it, but the more people that came up to me and spoke of my father led me to realize the man I remember from when I was eight is not the man he was.”
“A child sees their parents in one light, while the rest of the world sees those same parents in another. It's the way of things.”
Her coffee-colored eyes locked with his. “Is it the way for a child to think the worst of her father?”
“Is that why you remain here?”
“Perhaps. There are other things I need to take care of regarding my father's things anyway.”
“The time off will be good for you, I think.”
Her face suddenly brightened. “I did take some amazing photos today. I can't wait to load them on my computer and see how they turned out.”
“There's plenty around for you to photograph. That will keep you busy.”
“I'm going to go deeper into the woods behind the house tomorrow,” she said before taking a drink. She swallowed and set the glass down. “I can't remember ever going past the waterfall as a child.”
Because she hadn't. Laith didn't tell her that, however. The waterfall was one of the boundaries of magic between Campbell land and Dreagan. The magic should be enough to keep Iona out, but Laith had his doubts. She was tenacious enough to push through any reservations that assaulted her.
“How are things progressing with John's estate?” Laith asked to get the talk off the forest.
Her face fell. “As well as can be expected. I'm to go to the bank tomorrow and get the accounts signed over, then I'll need to pay the taxes.”
“It sounds all under control.”
“And the estate? What will you do?”
She smiled softly. “Everyone is curious, aren't they?”
“Of course. The Campbells have been a part of this village for generations.”
“I was so sure I was going to sell when I came. Then I learned I couldn't.”
“What's wrong with that?” he asked.
She sighed loudly. “Nothing, I suppose.”
Laith waited, but she didn't continue. So he prodded further. “You might find it's a good home for you.”
“What do I need with the land and cottage? I don't have time to take care of it or worry about it.”
“It could be a place for you to holiday at, a place where you could return home.”
She lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “I have a flat in London.”
“Are you there often?”
“No,” she replied. “I can't remember the last time I was.”
He shifted so that both arms were on the table as he sat forward. “It sounds as if you need a place to get away.”
“Probably,” she said with a half-smile.
Her words hung between them as Laith found himself drowning in her gaze. She had seen more of the world than others would ever guess existed. She had been in the midst of battle and deep in the African plains, and yet she was withdrawn from everyone and everything. She might not talk, but her pictures did, whether she knew it or not. Iona was remarkable, brave, and astonishing.
She suddenly looked down at her ale. “We've been talking about me. Why not tell me more about you?”
“There isna much to tell.”
“I'm bad at this,” she said with a laugh as she glanced up at him. “But I do know that people normally like to talk about themselves.”
Laith was enamored. Totally, completely. Utterly. “What do you want to know?”
“Everything.” Her gaze slowly lifted to meet his once again.
He couldn't tell her everything yet, but he would talk, if for no other reason than to keep her there. “The pub has been in my family for what seems like an eternity.”
“Did you always know you wanted to take over ownership?”
“No' really. It kinda fell upon me, and I wanted to see where things went.”
She nodded as he spoke. “So there is someone else in your family that can take over if you no longer want it?”
“Something like that,” he said evasively. “I've found the work pleases me. I enjoy interacting with people and learning about those who work for me.”
“You think you'll remain here then?”
“Without a doubt.” He smiled at her and caught her gaze when she tried to look away. “Have you seen the beauty that surrounds us? Why would I want to leave this?”
She laughed as she said, “I don't know.”
“You've walked the woods today. Tell me there isna something about this land that doesna take hold of you and sink into your verra soul.”
Her smile slowly faded. “It did. How did you know?”
“You were born here, Iona. You were part of this land, just as it's a part of you. You've been gone a long time, but it still remembers you. You just needed to remember it.”
Iona couldn't remember the last time she woke soÂ â¦ happy. Her thoughts immediately went to Laith. It couldn't be just him. Could it?
She smiled with laughter following as she rose from the bed. Try as she might, she couldn't recall the last time she'd had a night of conversation as she had with Laith.
It amazed her that he could be so open and willing to talk when she had such a difficult time doing the same. Yet, he managed to set her at ease as he had from the first moment she saw him. Whether he did it naturally or he actively set out to lessen her discomfort, it worked.
Iona walked into the kitchen and inhaled the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. She poured some into a large mug, added a bit of cream and some sugar, and looked out the window to the forest.
She had told Laith things she hadn't told another soul, and though that took her aback, she didn't regret it. In the crowded pub, they had been left alone, cocooned in the booth. Laith told her stories of her father and of the town.
Iona laughed more in one night than she had inÂ â¦ years.
She blinked. Could it really have been that long? Surely that wasn't right. Surely she laughed. Didn't she?
“What has my life turned into if I can't remember laughing?” she asked herself.
With all the traveling she did, she didn't watch TV. She did catch a movie every so often on a flight or in a hotel room. Being so disconnected from the world kept her privacy as she wanted it, but she was then left completely out of the loop on, well, everything.
Did Laith notice? Had he realized how much she shunned the world? Suddenly she forgot about the good time she'd had and began to worry that she hadn't been witty enough.
He had laughed. She recalled that, because the sound was infectious and had her joining him more often than not. And his smile. Lord, did he have the best smile. It was in turns sweet, seductive, and downright sexy. How could a man look so good without even seeming to try? Laith was charming, enticing, handsome, and fascinating.
If she had to classify him, it would be sex-on-a-stick.
In the space of one night while talking to him, she had pictured herself having sex with him so many times she lost count. She wondered how his lips would feel as they kissed, how his hands would feel on her skin.
More importantly, she wondered how his skin would feel beneath her hands.
Iona closed her eyes and imagined lying down as he rose above her, his cock sliding inside her, stretching her. She bit her lip and moaned. Need tightened low in her belly.
She snapped open her eyes and pulled her mind out of that fantasy. It could do her no good. Iona went back to drinking her coffee and staring at the woods. After some toast and jelly, she changed and threw her hair up into a ponytail. She stuffed some water and granola bars into the camera bag, then slung it over her shoulder as she walked out of the house.
Iona took her time walking in the woods. This time she headed to the right, away from the house. With her camera out and ready, she snapped photos as she walked.
A glance at the sky told her it wasn't going to be the beauty yesterday had been. Overnight, clouds had come in and it was all the sun could do to peek through them every so often.
As overcast as the sky was, it didn't deter her from the hike. She knew how easy it was to get turned around in places, which is why she had a compass on her watch, one on her phone, and another in her camera bag. It was an unfortunate event that had taught her one compass was never enough.
She shuddered just thinking of that time in Iraq when she had gotten turned around in the desert and her watch, which had the compass, smashed on the rocks when she fell. Had the unit of U.S. Marines not stumbled upon her after she was separated from the British troops, she didn't know where she would've ended up.
It had been one of her most embarrassing days, but a day full of lessons as well. She was always prepared, and sometimes over-prepared for things, but she never wanted to be in a situation like that again.
The morning waned to noon as she continued her trek. She managed to catch a herd of elk grazing in a field before they caught her scent and ran off.
She stopped beside a stream and saw salmon swimming in the shallow water. It was when she was checking the photos on her camera that a pine marten came bounding to the stream on the opposite bank. Iona stilled and watched as he drank, his gaze riveted on her. After a few seconds, he turned and sprinted away.
The more time she spent in the forest, the harder it was for her to think of leaving. Laith was right, there was something about the land that seeped into a person's soul.
Iona laughed at her thoughts while she climbed to her feet. She found a narrow part in the stream that was piled high with river rocks. They were smooth and all different colors as they glistened just beneath the surface of the water.
She crossed on top of the rocks, with her boots barely getting wet. In her camera bag, she had even stuffed a windbreaker. It might have been a long time since she lived in Scotland, but she remembered how wild the weather could get in the Highlands.
Suddenly, Iona stopped, unable to go any farther. Something kept telling her to return to the cottage. Instead of listening to her subconscious, she remained, staring into the forest.
A memory, long buried, sprang up of her father warning her never to cross the stream and go into the forest.
“The Dragonwood,” she mumbled.
How could she have forgotten the Dragonwood? Her father had explained that it wasn't their land, and that dangerous animals lurked in the shadows.
His words had scared her enough as a child never to venture past the stream. As an adult, she wasn't as fearful of the shadows as she had once been. Still, there was a part of her that wasn't so keen on going into the Dragonwood.
“I've been in the middle of battle, faced lions, and scaled mountains. I can walk into the Dragonwood.”
It took her two more times of stating those words before she was able to lift her foot and walk into the forest.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Laith bit back a string of curses and dropped his head against the bark of a pine tree. Just as he expected, Iona hadn't stayed out of the Dragonwood.
He had been following her from the opposite side of the stream for miles. She meandered through the trees with no purpose, going wherever something caught her interest.
But she wasn't blas
about anything. She checked the sky and the compass on her watch often. Many times she would stop and turn around to look back at the way she had come as if memorizing things, and then she would pivot back around and continue on her way.
Laith didn't worry about her becoming lost. He worried she might venture onto Dreagan. It wasn't so much that she would see something during the day, but if she were brave enough to do it in the daylight, she would eventually try it at night. That's when she really might see something.