Chapter 1, The Good Chase
I need a hot guy in a kilt.
Shea Montgomery snorted a most unfeminine snort as she read the text that had just come through from her best friend, Willa.
Gently moving aside a box cradling some pretty divine bottles of Scotch whisky, Shea nudged back a flap of the white tent that would be her home for the day. Down an easy slope, out in the middle of a large, open field, a group of two-hundred-plus-pound men milled about, early morning sunshine on their faces, a brisk late-May breeze kicking up their kilts. Some of the men sat stretching on the grass, some rotated their arms in warm-up, some jogged slowly around the field's perimeter.
The first throw of the Long Island Highland Games would go off in about two hours.
Smiling, Shea texted back to Willa: Funny, that's exactly what I'm looking at right now.
Bring one back to the city for me.
Shea peered hard at the massive guys gathering inside the flag ropes. I take that back. Lots of kilts. None hot. Sorry.
Take a pic. Let me decide.
Shea laughed. I'm working. And no way to be stealthy about it when no one else is over there.
You are dead to me.
Shea tucked her phone into the back pocket of her black pants.
"Always good to start the day off with a smile. Right, Big Boss?"
Dean, her best employee at the Amber Lounge in Manhattan, stepped into the tent, rolling up the sleeves to his white button-down shirt. She so rarely saw him outside her bar—and in daylight, no less—that she'd never noticed how much silver there was in his curling black hair.
"Hopefully it's a sign," she said, blowing out a big breath. "Help me with the inventory, will you? The master list is right there."
He read her the names of the bottles while she fingered the necks of each kind of Scotch whisky she'd curated for the day's tasting, making sure each had made it from the Amber's cellar to out here in Suffolk County.
When they were done, Dean stood back and admired her stash with hands on hips. He whistled in a high arc as he took in the bottles of port- and sherry-wood barrel-aged, and the twenty-seven-year single malt, and the eighteen-year-old blend.
"Nice choices," he said. "Not exactly starting at the bottom, are you?"
Shea tossed an empty box underneath a billowing tablecloth. "Yeah, well, you have to pay a hundred dollars extra just to come in here for a tasting. It was made very clear to me I had to make it special."
Dean's eyes bugged out. "A hundred bucks? No shit?"
Shea pulled her long hair back into her trademark ponytail and glanced with chagrin out at the blue velvet rope delineating the entrance to her tent. She sighed, snapping a rubber band around her hair and letting her arms flop down. "No shit."
In the distance sounded the day's first bleat of a bagpipe, a little shaky at first, but then smooth and lovely as the piper warmed up and the notes took shape. Shea recognized the tune and it gave her pause, made her smile to herself.
This was why she planned to attend and do whiskey tastings—of Scotch and others—at so many New England Highland Games this summer. Because they reinvigorated her. Because they shaped her dreams of things outside the walls of the Amber Lounge. Because they brought back memories of Scotland. Because they recalled those days, so many years ago, when she'd actually begun to live.
It was a perfect day for the games. For the sun and laughter, for watching powerful, kilted athletes compete by throwing around heavy implements like the hammer and the caber. For lying back on your elbows and surrounding yourself with the heartbreaking, beautiful sounds of pipes and drums, telling history through song. For cheering on young folk dancers and obedient sheepherding dogs.
Even if these particular games had its nose up in the air as opposed to right down in the peat and heather where it should be, the reminders of her Scottish ancestry warmed her heart.
But alas, she would get to do none of the fun events. Today was about the whisky.
The white tent rippled and flapped around Shea and Dean as they skillfully set out short-stemmed tasting glasses and made artistic towers of boxes and glassware behind the makeshift bar. High, circular tables draped with white linen and tied with blue bows peppered the center space, with squatter tables and cushioned chairs set outside under a canopy.
And then there was the goddamn velvet rope.
Whisky shouldn't be untouchable, relegated to only a certain level of social drinker, but that's exactly what Shea and her bottles were today, hidden away in this too-fancy tent. No one could enter who wasn't wearing the yellow one-hundred-dollar wristband. Laughable for a Scottish festival.
Shea just wanted to talk whisky, just wanted to serve what she loved. Not for the first time, she wondered if opening up such an exclusive bar had been an error in her development as a businesswoman. It clashed too much with her personality. Maybe she was better suited to running a corner pub with worn seats and scary bathrooms, but with the same access to amazing drinks. Take away the hoity-toity atmosphere, but keep the rare, good liquor.
Throughout the day, she tended to the few tasters who did manage to wander into her tent. During the long lulls in between, she gazed out at the heavy athletic field, watching the massive caber flipping end over end, and listening to the excited announcer and the enthusiastic crowd's applause. She ended up sending Dean back to the city to open the Amber.
In the early afternoon, two couples ducked out of the bright sun and came in laughing. The taller husband, the one in a plaid, short-sleeved button-down shirt, was holding a set of stacked, empty beer cups. A Drinker, Shea pegged him, who'd come in here chasing the buzz. The other man, the one in a blue T-shirt, headed right for Shea, nodding as though they already knew each other. He was either a Hot Air—someone who thought he knew a lot about the good stuff—or a Brown Vein—someone who really did know.
Of the women, one wore a red visor that parked itself around her ears and extended far over her face. The other had a short, blond ponytail. Neither woman looked particularly interested in why they'd come in here, though all four people sported wristbands.
Shea spread her arms across the table and gave them all a welcoming smile. Didn't matter why anyone came in, when it came down to it. They were giving the drink a chance, and educating newcomers was one of her favorite parts of her job. Sometimes that was the best kind of challenge, to win over someone who'd been skeptical—a Squinter—or someone who had cut their teeth on whiskey by sneaking their parents' ten-dollar plastic-bottled swill bought at the corner bodega.
"So what do these get us?" Drinker waved his yellow wrist.
Always genial, always polite. "Tastes of three amazing whiskies and a walk-through of each, by yours truly."
"That's a big deal, my friend," added the other man. To Shea he gave a deep nod, lips pursed. "Saw you on the History Channel the other night." He didn't mention which special.
"Really? That's always great to hear. Glad you came by." Perfected responses to almost every comment from almost every type of customer.
She turned to her artful setup of bottles beneath the large banner with the Amber logo, and swung back around holding a tray of glasses. She flipped each glass over and slid it across the white tablecloth with smooth, practiced ease. One glass, two, three, four—
A fifth yellow wristband appeared at the elbow of the blue-shirted man she was leaning toward pegging as a Brown Vein. This new wristband wrapped around an arm that was crusty with caked mud. The newcomer's fingers and palm looked like he'd tried to wipe them somewhat clean, but black still clung under his nails. Shea followed that arm upward, which widened out significantly at the biceps. He wore a red-and-black-striped rugby shirt, soaked with the efforts of a recently completed match. His short, dark hair was sweat damp and stuck out all over the place in a way that shouldn't have looked good, but did. His cheeks and forehead were sunburned, and he leaned his elbows on the table with drowsy ease, leaving mud smudges behind.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw one of the wives nudge the other.
"Welcome," Shea told Rugby.
"Hi," he replied.
She nodded at his shirt. His perfectly fitted shirt. "How'd you do?"
"Thirty-five to seventeen. We were not the higher number."
She winced. "Ouch. You at least get a try?"
"I did, actually." He blinked and straightened, looking pleasantly surprised that she knew rugby scoring terminology. "You know the game?"
"You could say that." She returned the tray to its place off to the side and set out the three bottles she was guessing this crew would like. The uninterested wives were throwing off Shea's drink-matching radar, but she'd work with what she had.
She said to Rugby, "So what I'm hearing is that you need a drink."
"Something a little finer than water, exactly." Rugby let out a small laugh. He twisted one of the whisky bottles to read the label. "Whatcha got here? What does a hundred bucks buy—wow."
"You know it?" Shea's turn to be pleasantly surprised.
"Heard of it, yeah. So that's why these things were so expensive." He waved his wrist so the loose end of the yellow wristband flopped about. "Took out a second mortgage to buy one."
The tall man in the blue T-shirt looked down his nose at Rugby and jabbed a meaty finger at the bottle in Rugby's hand. "That's made by a distiller in Scotland that still uses the original 1840 peat kilns to smoke the barley."
Shea fought for a straight face. Hmmm, maybe this guy was more Hot Air than Brown Vein. He was correct, but who voluntarily spouted off that kind of information to a stranger?
"Impressive." Rugby's eyebrows shot up exaggeratedly as he pursed his lips at Shea. Hot Air didn't get the subtle sarcasm, but she did and had to suppress another smile as she removed the bottle's cap. Customer equality and all that.
Out in the distant field, the athletes were taking a rest between events. A small contingent of pipes followed a line of old men dressed in military kilts as they marched onto the grass, Scottish and American flags whipping in the wind. The pipes started up, a wave of music drifting into the whisky tent.
"No bagpipes, huh?" Shea teased.
"For shame. Leave my tent immediately."
Rugby's cringe twitched toward a wan smile. And in that moment she became distinctly aware that he'd been monopolizing her attention, with four other tasters to entertain. How'd he do that?
"Why are you at the Scottish games," said Hot Air, who was tipsier than he'd originally appeared, "if you don't like the pipes?"
Rugby plucked at his dirty and sweaty shirt. "I go where the team tells me, hit who they want me to hit. Run wherever there's a goal line." He turned back to Shea, "You like bagpipes?"
Glancing out at the small parade making its way around the field, she felt the cool, familiar glass of the bottle in her hand and replied, "I do. Very much."
When her gaze drifted back to the five people standing on the other side of her table, Rugby was staring at her so hard she swore he might have been the source of all gravity.
"So," he said, throwing her a bright smile that tipped heavily to one side, "do you remember me?"
That blinked her out of that weird trance. She remembered regular faces, especially those who repeatedly visited the Amber Lounge, but with so many tastings and traveling and hired events and interviews these days, transient people tended to dissipate from her memory.
Yet there was something familiar about him. Something about his off-center smile set against the tanned skin layered with sweat and specks of dirt. But she couldn't place it right away, and she'd spent enough time away from the other four tasters.
She gave him one of her careful, noncommittal smiles. "I'm sorry. I don't."
A little cocky of him—but not quite obnoxious—to assume that she'd remember him based on one name. She didn't.
"Just Byrne." His smile widened, tilting even more to one side. Holy crap. He was far too easy on the eyes. She hadn't dared to think that about any guy who'd stood on the other side of her bar since Marco, and look how that had turned out.
"Shea Montgomery," she replied blandly, then turned to select a bottle. Too late, she realized she already held one in her hand.
"Yes. I know," said Just Byrne to her back. And then he chuckled.
The sound of that laugh, soft and low, slid an invisible hand around the nape of her neck, took a featherlight hold, then dragged itself seductively down her back.
Oh no. This did not happen to her while she was pouring.
She shook it off because she had to and turned back around to face her tasters, meeting the eyes of everyone but Byrne. She poured a shallow tasting amount in each glass, starting at the far end with plaid-shirted Drinker and ending with Byrne, who nudged his glass a little closer to her.
"Last summer?" he prompted.
She made the colossal mistake of lifting her gaze, of getting a good, long look at his eyes. Powder blue with a dark navy ring around the edge. Gorgeous. Flirtatious. Really fucking dangerous.
"At the Highland Games up in Gleann, New Hampshire." And now the dangerous eyes were smiling, too. "That cow wiped out your tent. Me and my team helped you clean it up."
The bottle slipped from her fingers. Just an inch or two, but it made a graceless clink on the table. She did remember him now. How he'd tried to openly flirt with her the first night after his team had won the tug-of-war competition, and then more subtly the next day after that damn loose cow had destroyed hundreds and hundreds of dollars of good whisky.
She also remembered that she'd been briefly intrigued by him. Extremely reluctantly intrigued, but intrigued nonetheless.
That damn crooked smile layered a boyish tint over his confident, intense focus on her, and she suddenly realized that his sojourn in here and all his amusing comments weren't entirely about the whisky.
Good luck with that, buster, she wanted to say. I don't ever date tasters.
"Oh yeah." Cool as the breeze, that was Shea. "Didn't you guys win the tug-of-war?"
"So you do remember." The way he said it, all drawn out, was packed with suggestion.
He was acting way too encouraged, like their witty banter would actually go somewhere. She shrugged. "That's about all I remember."
She turned her back on him and stepped to the center of her tasters, then poured herself her own tiny glass.
"So you do, like, a lot of these things?" slurred Drinker down at the end.
"You mean the Highland Games?" she asked, and when Drinker nodded, she replied, "Last year was my first doing the tastings. Got a couple more this summer."
"Lot more people up in Gleann," Byrne said, looking around her empty tent with an odd, thoughtful expression. Gleann's tent last year had been nonstop, from open to close.
"I am grateful for each and every taster," Shea replied carefully.
"But you wish there were more people?" he asked, meeting her eyes again.
"I always want to share whisky." God, she was starting to sound like a brochure. Throwing on a smile, she returned her focus to the two couples. "Are we finally ready to drink, folks?"
Drinker held up the small, squat, stemmed glass. "Why not the flat-bottom glasses? What do you call those again?"
"These are better for nosing the whisky," Shea replied. "Here, hold the base like—"
She didn't mean to look over at Byrne again. Habit, really, to take in everyone at the tasting table, to make sure she had their attention and that they each knew they were important to her. Hot Air was grasping the glass underneath, resting the bowl in his palm. But Byrne had the base balanced lightly in his fingertips. Correctly.
She ripped her stare from him and focused on the couples. "Hold it like this." She showed them how to hold the base of the glass and not grip the bowl like a Viking. "What we're going to do first is nose the whisky three times, each time slightly longer than the last. One second, two seconds, three seconds. I'm going to count. Why don't you all watch me as you do it."
The women shared a glance and laughed, and Shea wondered how many of those empty plastic beer cups had been theirs.
Shea lifted the glass to her face, inserted her nose, and inhaled.
The couples followed suit, and displayed pretty much the range of reaction she'd expected. Everything from I-Don't-Give-A-Shit-Let's-Drink, to Ew-This-Is-Disgusting, to dramatic, chest-pounding coughing because she'd inhaled too deeply and too long. Hot Air's expression said that this was nothing he hadn't already known.
And then there was Byrne. Nose in his glass for about a quarter second longer than was necessary. Powder blue eyes lifted just over the rim. Set solely on her.
Did he think he was the first guy to give her The Eye from the other side of the bar? This flat surface in front of her was No-Man's-Land. Quite literally.
"Should be different the second time, now that you got the shock of the alcohol out of the way," she heard herself saying. "It should be sweeter."
The corner of Byrne's mouth twitched, a hint of that crooked smile, then he buried his nose in the glass again, exactly matching her movements. Concentrating. This time not looking at her. Black lines of dirt had settled into the deep grooves of concentration along his forehead. He must be a few years older than her, maybe midthirties. He wore his years extremely well.
Stop it, stop it, stop it.
On cue, Hot Air started spouting off to his companions a list of all the things he smelled in the whisky. While there were never any right or wrong suggestions to specific scents or notes—whisky was an entirely personal experience—he was messing with Shea's rhythm.
"And the third?" Byrne asked Shea, cutting into Hot Air's thesaurus recitation. Hot Air shut up.
"On the third nose," Shea said, "you should smell some fruit, going deeper into the intricacies of the glass."
Her tasters followed her actions.
"Byrne! You done in there yet? Come on, let's go!"
Byrne swiveled to the sound of the chorus of male voices. Outside in the sun, the rest of his team, muddy and disheveled in red and black, beckoned to him. No other rugby players wore yellow wristbands.
Byrne acknowledged them with his glass, then took a perfect taste of what Shea had poured.
The brown liquid disappeared slowly into his mouth. His jaw worked it over for a good four or five seconds. Biting it, chewing it. Savoring it, as it should be done. Then he swallowed it back, his throat working.
Exactly like how she was about to instruct her newbies.
Byrne lifted his eyes to Shea without a hint of pretentiousness or flirting. "Excellent, thank you." Then, with a nod to the other four tasters, he left her tent.
She watched him go.
He had a long stride, masculine but oddly graceful. A leisurely confidence to his gait, contrasted by the clumps of turf stuck to the bottom of his cleats. He was built exactly how a rugby player should be with those ridiculous legs—tanned and thick and strong, with a distinct pronunciation of his quads. Might as well have rugby player tattooed down the side.
Goddamn it. In her mind she held one of those giant cartoon mallets and was whacking herself on the head.
Outside, the rest of Byrne's team had moved on except for one guy with a stocky build and longish blond hair. Byrne gave the other guy a "just a minute" gesture and disappeared in the opposite direction of his team.
Shea shook her head of his image and poured the next whisky for the couples, answering their questions about the Speyside distillery and the mashing process and what the years of aging on the bottle meant.
Then Byrne ambled back into view. Just a red-and-black-striped figure in her periphery at first, but her stupid brain demanded she look out through the tent flaps again, and so she did, beyond annoyed at herself. Distantly she thought she heard a nearby clearing of a throat, but she couldn't rip her stare away from Byrne.
His friend had drifted out of sight, but Byrne didn't seem to be looking for him. Instead Byrne went down the grass slope to where two couples, possibly in their forties, had spread out a blanket along the flag rope just outside the athletic field. The hammer toss was going on, but Byrne ignored the event and instead tapped one of the women on her shoulder. He gave her that incredible, crooked smile.
Toast. That woman was toast.
But then all four of the strangers were listening to Byrne say something, nodding up at him enthusiastically.
Byrne reached into the pocket of his rugby shorts and pulled out four yellow wristbands. One of the men reached for his wallet, but Byrne waved him off.
Shea gasped. Why on earth had he done that? Four hundred dollars. Four hundred dollars! Not to show off or to try to impress her, she hoped, because tossing around money was the absolute wrong way to do that.
To be generous, maybe? But still, four hundred dollars on whisky, given to complete strangers? Who was this guy?
As the two new couples slapped on the wristbands and stood, folding up their blanket, Byrne headed in the direction his team had gone. As he passed by the whisky tent, he turned his head and instantly found Shea. Caught her staring.
She quickly ducked her head, blindly grabbing for the third and final bottle, but not before she was blasted by the full impact of that crooked smile, far too bright in the sunshine.
That smile promised a lot. Things she hadn't allowed herself—or been afforded—to think about in a long, long time. Things that hit her right where she hadn't been touched in an embarrassing number of months.
It disturbed her greatly, to be disarmed while in uniform, so to speak. It disturbed her even more that the man who'd done it was a taster—quite possibly a Brown Vein—met while she was working, and apparently in possession of some kind of money. No-nos, all around.
He wouldn't win.
He had to know that even though he'd caught her staring, and even though she'd looked away like a shy virgin at a bachelor auction, it didn't mean that he'd gained any sort of ground with her. She had strict personal rules to uphold, a hard-won reputation to maintain, and a business to keep at the top of the New York scene.
But when she looked up to tell him all that with her cool, disinterested expression and Stay Back eyes, Byrne was gone.
(c) 2014 Hanna Martine