Four Years Ago
My nose and jaw throbbed as I dropped into the backseat of an iconic Edinburgh black cab. I cursed under my breath when my ass hit the leather and the jarring made another sharp bolt of pain shoot from my nose.
“Where to, sir?” The cabbie glanced at me in the rearview mirror, his accent heavy and a gray woolen cap pulled down low over his forehead.
I kept my sleeve pressed against my nose in an attempt to keep the blood from ruining my shirt, and I tried to pluck the name of my hotel out of my alcohol-soaked brain. “The, uh, the Dalhousie Castle.”
His eyes widened and he paused for a beat before he shrugged and pulled away from the curb. “That’s a nice place. The real McCoy. King Edward the First was a guest there once upon a time.”
“Yeah, I know.” Spare me the history lesson.
Thankfully, the man shut up as he navigated away from the venue, turning from one darkened street into another, and then another. Leave it to my brother to make us travel all the damn way to Scotland and then not even have the decency to choose a place close to anything.
I groaned as I leaned against the seat, tilting my head back in the hopes that I could stop using my sleeve to stem the tide of blood. Maybe even see if there was any crunching of bone if I poked myself.
Holy hell, I can’t believe Finn did this. Who knew he had it in him?
All my life, I’d thought my brother was the type to sue rather than throw a punch. Guess I was wrong. Asshole.
I sighed, but then I gagged when I realized I was still bleeding—into my mouth now that my head was tilted back—and that the taste of blood and whiskey didn’t go well together. I slid my sleeve to my nose again, sitting up as a wave of irritation rolled through me.
“Fucking Finlay. Sucker-punching me like a coward. The nerve. The fucking nerve.”
As I vented to myself, the cabdriver glanced up again, but this time, he took a proper look at me in the mirror, saw I was bleeding everywhere, and jerked the steering wheel to pull over. “You’re going to have to get out, sir. I won’t have blood on my seats. It’s the festive season. I’m too busy to get her cleaned.”
I bristled, my eyes narrowing as I glared at him. “Just take me to the hotel and I’ll pay extra.”
“No, sir. You can get out here.”
“You’re kicking me out?” Disbelief rippled through me. “Seriously? It’s fucking freezing out there.”
The man nodded. “I’m sorry, sir. You’re bleeding.”
“Yeah, I know.” I shook my head and then immediately regretted it when more pain flared through me. Gritting my teeth, I dug into my pocket with my free hand, pulled out a bill, and tossed it at him before I climbed out. “Thanks for nothing, dick.”
Unfazed, the man took my money and waited patiently for me to slam his door before he drove off, leaving me alone on the dark, icy, cobblestone sidewalk without a clue about where I was. Now in an even worse mood than I had been before, I looked up and down the street, trying to get my bearings.
And another cab.
But as luck would have it, I was surrounded by buildings, most of the lights already off, and there was not another vehicle in sight. I blew out a heavy breath, keeping my sleeve pressed against my nose, and I wandered off in search of a cab, a bar, or a hotel with a bar where I could wait for a cab.
“The family business definitely isn’t worth all this bullshit,” I grumbled to myself as I walked the streets of Edinburgh at one a.m., lost, cold, in pain, and more than a little bit tipsy. I stumbled around for what felt like an hour, but it looked like he’d dropped me in the sticks, without a trace of decent civilization in sight.
Following the sound of light traffic coming from somewhere in the distance, I walked along blocks through what appeared to be a residential area before I started seeing a stronger glow of lights emanating from around the corner.
A group of people spilled out of a bar, one girl ending in an orange pool of light under the streetlamp. I blinked hard, wondering if it was the alcohol or a possible head injury speaking, but I could’ve sworn she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.
Thick and curvy, she was still shimmying into her coat as they left the establishment they’d been in, and I got a glimpse of a full rack, wide hips, and a good ass before she covered herself in the black parka. Lifting long, layered black hair out of the hood before she flipped it up, she was in the process of turning back to her friends when her gaze landed on mine.
I couldn’t make out the color of her eyes, but her brow furrowed when she saw me, her gaze sweeping across my face before she rushed over. “Oh, my god. Are you okay? You’re covered in blood, sir.”
Snark was my middle name, but for some reason, it just didn’t come to the fore as she gazed up at me. From this close, I could see the smattering of freckles across her nose and rosy cheeks and the real concern in that puckered brow and deep frown.
“I’m fine. It’s worse than it looks.”
Her dark eyebrows shot up, her sparkly, light eyes drawing me in as she stared up at me. “Let’s go. I’ll help you get cleaned up.”
“You will? Why? You don’t know me, so why do you care?”
She scoffed. “You’re injured in a foreign country after midnight and you clearly have no idea where you are, so just stop asking questions and come with me.”
It was then that I realized her accent was American instead of Scottish, my brain clearly slow as a result of the whiskey—or the head injury, which I still didn’t know if I had. The girl turned back to her friends, still standing outside the door and watching us with varying degrees of impatience, confusion, and curiosity on their faces.
“You guys go on. I’ll catch up later.”
She didn’t wait for a response before she wrapped her arm around mine, a bundle of surprising strength and energy for such a tiny person, and she dragged me across the quiet street. She couldn’t have been more than five-foot-four, yet she commandeered my person like I was a ship she was taking charge of, marching me toward a bank of bright lights around the next corner.
She led me into a twenty-four-hour store. I blinked hard, squinting against the sudden intrusion of light after so long in the dark. She hummed under her breath as she kept marching with my arm held tight in hers, her strides purposeful and sure.
As we walked, I glanced down at her, noticing her thick, long eyelashes as her gaze darted up and down an aisle that held some basic medical supplies. Without wasting time, she selected some gauze, a small bottle of disinfectant, band-aids, and water, and then she marched us to the checkout counter and paid for it all before I could even wrap my hazy mind around what was happening.
After she dropped her change in a small tin on the counter in support of some charity, she took my arm again and marched us right back outside into the cold. Once again, her strides were purposeful and I frowned.
“Where are we going?”
“The hostel I’m staying at is right around the corner,” she said, peering up at me without breaking stride. “Do you want to tell me what happened to you? You weren’t mugged or something, right?”
I chuckled. The movement caused more pain to flare from my face and I winced. “I wasn’t mugged and I still don’t get why you’re helping me.”
“Us tourists need to stick together, right?”
One of my eyebrows arched without my brain having given it the conscious command to do so. “You’re a tourist? You seem to know your way around pretty well for that.”
She shrugged, dropping her gaze back to the street instead of looking at me. “I’ve been here for a while. The hostel is right down here. Come on.”
“Wait. This hostel is nice, right? Like, it’s not the kind of place where they’re going to put me in an ice bath and carve out my kidneys?”
She let out a bark of surprised laughter. “Well, I wouldn’t say that it’s nice, but I’ve been staying there for a bit and I haven’t seen an ice bath yet, so I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
“Funny how you didn’t mention whether you still have your kidneys,” I mumbled.
The girl laughed again, shaking her head at me. She pulled me toward a door in a wall without even a sign over it. It was a hole-in-the-wall kind of place—literally—and definitely not someplace where I’d usually stay.
In fact, I wouldn’t usually be anywhere near it, but here I was. I followed her in. Heat rolled over me once we stepped inside, and I breathed out a sigh of relief. We were in a lobby with a huge fire burning in a fireplace, a quiet bar off to one side, low ceilings, and mismatched, well-used furniture dotting the space.
The lights were dim, but the girl didn’t seem hesitant or scared at all. In fact, she seemed kind of at home here, which made me wonder just how long she’d been staying. She shrugged off the parka when we got to a sofa right in front of the fireplace. Then she opened the bag containing the supplies she’d bought and motioned for me to sit down.
“I promise, no one here wants your kidneys. Just relax.”
I darted another look at the old stone walls and the faded flags from all sorts of different countries hanging from the wooden beams overhead. “I’m not sure about this.”
“Just sit down,” she instructed gently as she sat. She caught my hand and pulled me with her. I went, allowing her to drag me down with her and wondering if she was hiding something. No one was this kind to a perfect stranger who was covered in blood and no one was so insistent about helping them, but she was so gentle and she seemed honest, so I stopped fighting.
At least if she kills me, I’d have been murdered by the most beautiful, tender serial killer in the history of the world.
Strangely, I was okay with that—and I also wasn’t getting any serial-killer vibes from her, so I was pretty sure I’d be okay. At the thought, I let myself relax a little, finally pulling my hand away from my face and turning to her.
She scrunched up her nose at whatever injuries she saw now that my hand wasn’t in the way, but she went about dabbing some of the disinfectant on the gauze without commenting on it. Meanwhile, I stared at her openly, examining the face of the woman who had come to my rescue.
In the soft light of the fire and with my head a little bit clearer after walking back here in the cold, she was even prettier than I’d clocked her to be out there on the street. Her features were delicate, and now that she wasn’t wearing the fur-lined hood of the parka, I could see that her face was heart shaped and her cheekbones were high.
Those eyes were a bright, happy, sparkling green and her touches were gentle as she brought the gauze to my cheek. I winced at the initial sting, and her nose wrinkled, her eyes filling with sympathy. “If it helps, I don’t think you’re going to have a scar. The cut doesn’t seem to be that deep.”
“Damn. I’ve heard that chicks dig scars.”
“Something tells me you don’t need a scar for chicks to dig you.” She flashed me a small, amused smile, then giggled when she caught me staring at her so intently. “What?”
“Nothing. You’re beautiful, is all.”
She burst out laughing, doubling over, and she shook her head at me. “And you’re drunk.”
“I’m not that drunk anymore.” I leaned forward, wishing her head was still right in front of me instead of halfway to her lap as she laughed. “What can I do to thank you for showing mercy to a pathetic stranger on the street?”
The girl straightened up again and swiped her index fingers under her eyes as if she’d laughed so hard, she’d cried. Her fingernails were festively painted red, white, and green, with little Grinches on the nails of her ring fingers.
While I wondered what on earth would possess a person to have their nails done like that, she jerked her head toward the bar. “How about a cup of coffee?”
It wasn’t what I’d choose to drink, but I nodded again. “Coming right up.”
“I’ll have whipped cream on mine.”
I frowned as I got up, my brows climbing when I realized she was serious. “Whipped cream?”
I laughed. “That’s more of a milkshake than a coffee, but okay. You’re the good Samaritan here, so whatever you want, you get.”
“Milkshake?” she echoed incredulously.
I strode toward the pocked, thick wooden bar and caught the attention of the bartender. I chuckled as I placed our order, but he didn’t seem surprised at all about the whipped cream. In fact, he immediately looked past me, saluted the girl, and then broke away from me to make our drinks. I turned and leaned against the counter while I waited, watching as she dropped the used medical supplies back into the bag and settled into the sofa, her eyes on the fire where the flames danced in the hearth.
This girl was fascinating, and after the night I’d had, I didn’t think it was possible for me to end it like this. On a positive note. One that would end with me in her bed—whether she knew it yet or not.