Reed Savage stood on the shoulder of Castle Road and watched the tow truck driver hook up the rental car. The car, its headlights pointing drunkenly to the night sky, had slipped off the icy road into a culvert. Reed hunched his shoulders against the Connecticut wind. Here, at the base of the hill, the road seemed suddenly steeper than he remembered.
“Sure ya wanna walk it?” the tow truck driver asked.
Reed nodded and hooked his backpack over his shoulder. “I’m sure. If you’d drop my bags at the Bea and Bee that would be great.”
The tow truck driver accepted his fee and a tip to cover the bag delivery then climbed up into the cab of his truck. A spray of sleet spit across Reed’s hiking boots as the truck pulled away.
A few steps later, Reed regretted his decision not to hitch a ride and head straight to the bed and breakfast. The road was worse than he’d first thought, but he’d promised Logan Sinclair he’d be on time for dinner, and he was already an hour late.
The December wind stung Reed’s cheeks, but he could see a glow up ahead. He doggedly trudged the last quarter mile up the only real hill in Savage Bay. The road was slick enough to skate on, the shoulder little better. When he finally crested the hill, relief washed over him.
Welcoming strings of twinkling lights gleamed on a set of stone pillars, the left one etched with Sinclair House and the date, 1752. Sinclair Mansion was more like it. Two huge wreaths hung on the tall iron gates.
And then he saw her.
Reed stood in the shadows a moment and admired the slim figure in jeans, a white down vest and hat, who slipped through a small gap in the gates and began to chop at the ice and slush where the automatic gates met.
Logan’s baby sister. Reed grinned. He hadn’t seen Kara in seven years. He remembered her as a cute and mouthy college freshman.
She was swearing like a stevedore. It was good to see some things hadn’t changed in Savage Bay.
She whooped with delight as the gates swung open. She said something into the gizmo that allowed visitors entry to the property, bending over to do so.
Before he could call out to her, she trotted off to the little John Deere snowplow sitting on the grassy verge inside the gates, stowing her shovel behind the seat. He remembered riding the mini plow with Logan. Usually too fast to do much good—and often drunk.
He hoisted his backpack higher on his shoulder to cross the road, then paused. A car was coming up the hill. Fast. The headlights swept across him. A limo.
As the limo swung into a wide turn, he thought, it’s going to hit me.
He jumped back. One moment he was standing, swearing at the driver, the next he was wheeling his arms to remain upright. He lost the battle and slid off the road, cracking his head on the rock lining the culvert. He lay there stunned for a second before he realized the culvert held several inches of icy water. He struggled to his feet and clawed his way back onto the road bed.
Someone grabbed his backpack and helped him up. He looked into Kara Sinclair’s face.
“He almost killed you,” she said.
“Yeah.” He tugged off his glove and put his hand to his forehead. Luckily, his baseball cap had taken the brunt of the fall, the bill now bent.
“Oh, you’re bleeding.” She bit her lip. “Come with me.”
Before he could answer, she’d wrapped an arm around his waist and was hauling him across the road.
“You’re bleeding,” she repeated.
She managed him to the plow. He suppressed a grin as she half heaved him onto the seat beside her.
“I’m so sorry. You could’ve been killed.”
“Not your fault,” he said.
“My guest. My fault,” she answered shortly, then prattled on about loving a white Christmas, but not the ice that came with it, her voice as shaky as the old plow bumping over the frozen ruts.
Reed realized that she was nervous, that she hadn’t recognized him. He supposed his beard must have thrown her off. He didn’t have the strength to rectify the matter. His energy had oozed away as if connected to the blood dripping into his eye. He’d been sitting in airport lounges for two straight days. He was dirty, tired, and hungry.
The limo blinded him as it barreled back down the drive, forcing Kara to swerve onto the lawn.
“Moron!” she yelled and nearly dumped him out the side trying to regain control of the plow. He said a silent prayer and resisted an urge to grab the wheel.
As Kara pulled into the circle in front of the house and parked, he stared. A huge Christmas tree stood in the center of a landscaped plot, decked out as if it were on the White House lawn, its lights shining through a lacy drape of snow. He dragged himself out of the John Deere, hauling his backpack after him.
Sinclair House was three stories of cedar shakes and multiple chimneys. Its collection of additions spoke of its age and the prosperity of each successive Sinclair. The house had at least twelve bedrooms and as many bathrooms. He knew some of the furniture was original to the house. He also knew anything tacky in Sinclair House had been bought by Logan’s mother, who thought leopard spandex was stylish.
Kara darted around the plow to where he stood and took a firm grip of his arm.
“Now, just come with me. Don’t let anyone intimidate you. They’re just my family and a few friends. I’ll explain what happened, and then we’ll get you fixed up. Mrs. Costa, our housekeeper, is better than any nurse, any day.”
It was starting to amuse him that Kara didn’t know him. He clamped his tongue on a retort that Mrs. Costa was also the best cook in town, and he needed some of her ravioli way more than her bandages.
All the smells of Christmas assaulted Reed as Kara drew him inside. Pine, baking pies, bay candles, a real fire.
Then he saw a blur of faces as Kara’s guests crowded into the foyer. He locked gazes with Logan Sinclair who stood in the back of the group. He was in full Scottish mode from kilt to glass of whiskey in his hand. When he saw Reed his grin disappeared. Reed gave Logan a quick wink and shake of the head, tipping his head in Kara’s direction. A look of puzzlement crossed his friend’s face, but he brought the glass to his lips instead of speaking.
Kara patted Reed’s arm. “Logan, Julie, this man was almost run over by Iain’s limo. It was Iain’s limo wasn’t it? Where is he?”
Julie, the middle Sinclair sibling, with dark hair swept up into a ponytail, said their guest was unpacking.
Kara pulled Reed away from the staring group who didn’t seem to recognize him either though he knew them all. Kara hustled him down a hallway that led to the kitchen. He squelched along in her wake.
Mrs. Costa, affectionately known as Mrs. C by everyone, stood at the stove, stirring something that smelled like her famous red sauce. Unlike Kara, Mrs. C appeared almost unchanged. Still a fireplug of a woman though some gray salted her short black hair.
“This poor man was almost run over.” Kara repeated her story as she pulled off her gloves and scarf. When she tugged her hat off, her auburn hair fell in vibrant disorder about her shoulders.
His senses went on alert as if he’d downed a gallon of coffee. She tossed her vest onto a hook by the kitchen door, revealing a snug red top decorated with tartan bows.
Kara Sinclair was all grown up.
He kept his thoughts to himself, aware he was under the scrutiny of a woman who would smack him with her wooden spoon just as quickly today as she had when he was six. The housekeeper’s glance bounced between Kara and him as Kara continued to babble.
Why was she so nervous?
When Mrs. Costa smiled and shook her head Reed figured she also recognized him and also found it amusing that Kara thought him some homeless guy walking the roads on Christmas Eve. Kara hadn’t actually called him anything as rude as homeless guy, but it was there in all her sweet references to his need for care. And maybe something to eat. And maybe some clothes if Logan could spare them as they were of a size.
Mrs. Costa slapped her spoon into Kara’s hand, saying simply, “Watch the pot.”
The housekeeper led him to her personal bathroom that was part of her suite of rooms off the kitchen, and helped him out of his wet coat. He tucked his ruined Vancouver Canucks’ cap into the pocket.
“How you doing, Reed?” Mrs. C patted his cheek and continued on before he could answer. “You do look like something the cat dragged in. I think we should get you into some dry, warm clothes before we treat that cut. A shower ought to take care of most of your problems.” She stepped closer, examining his cut. “What really happened?”
As she pulled out towels and turned on the water, he unbuttoned his flannel shirt. He realized Logan hadn’t mentioned his visit to Mrs. C either. When Logan said something was a secret, he really meant it. “Just what Kara said.”
“A fall in a culvert doesn’t give you bloodshot eyes.”
“Oh, a whole forty-eight hours of bad preceded the fall. Ten hour delay in Vancouver. Missed my connection in Chicago, took half a day to get another flight to New York. Hit snow on I-95. And to top it off, I slid off the road at the bottom of your hill. I’ve walked Castle Road so many times, I just told the tow truck to go.
“Just as I got to the top of the hill, the limo came up. You know the rest.” He pulled off his t-shirt. “I think Kara assumes I’m some bum who needs shelter on a cold winter’s night. I can stay in the stable if you have no room here at the inn.”
Mrs. C handed him a pink plastic razor and smirked. “The horses would mind. You stink.”
Reed smiled and took the razor and the hint. “So who’s the guy with the limo?”
“Oh, that would be Iain MacLeod. His father married Mrs. Sinclair last week. Iain’s here to meet the Sinclair side of the family while his dad’s honeymooning in Bali.”
“Mrs. Sinclair got married again?” He stared at the housekeeper in disbelief.
“She’s Mrs. Charles MacLeod now. Married a genuine highland laird this time complete with a castle in some remote part of Scotland. Fourth time’s the charm.”
He began to shiver from the wet jeans and really wanted to drop them and get in the shower, but Mrs. C wasn’t budging. Instead, she stood like a guard by the door and stared at him.
Two could play this game. He waited.
“What are you doing, Reed?” she finally asked. “Why aren’t you in town with your family?”
He didn’t owe Mrs. C an answer, but he figured she wouldn’t be the only one to ask why he was at Sinclair House on Christmas Eve and not at home. He might as well give his answer a dry run. “If Logan didn’t tell you I was coming, then he’s planning a surprise. You know Logan and his surprises.”
Mrs. C frowned. “That’s no answer.”
He placed his hands on her shoulders and kissed her cheek. “It’s all I’m saying.”
“Your dad will be so hurt.”
He saw only concern in her eyes, not condemnation.
“I’ll be stopping over there, just not tonight.”
“Promise me, Reed. I know they really miss you, especially your dad.”
I doubt that.
Reed gave Mrs. C a hug and turned her to the door. “You overestimate my attractions.”
She sighed and finally left him alone. He dropped his wet jeans on the floor, then thought of the housekeeper’s formidable wrath and folded them neatly on a little bench.
At last, he stood under the shower spray. The hot, stinging water worked out some of the kinks in his back from sleeping in airport chairs. He also figured it was cleaning the cut on his face and that was a good thing as Mrs. Costa was brutal with antiseptic.
As he contemplated the choices of peach or lilac body wash, he wondered for the fourth or tenth time why he had accepted Logan’s invitation to dinner on this particular night. It only raised questions he didn’t want to answer. The fact he’d chosen not to stay with his family might raise some eyebrows, but let them speculate. It wasn’t anyone’s business but his, and it wasn’t as if he’d had an invitation from them.
They’d parted in acrimony and except for his sister, Tracey, who was a Facebook fanatic, they’d done little except exchange the obligatory birthday and holiday gifts and cards in the years he’d been gone.
He closed his eyes as the water sluiced over him and conjured the very alluring package that Kara Sinclair had become. She’d metamorphosed from a cute kid into a beautiful woman. Long legs. Great ass. Perky breasts. And that lush, generous mouth.
“Down, boy,” he muttered, shutting off the thoughts along with the water. This was Logan Sinclair’s baby sister.
Reed wiped the steam from the mirror and contemplated his reflection. He didn’t look like a bum, he looked like something the cat dragged in. And gnawed. And discarded. He picked up the razor.
Ten minutes later, when Reed opened the bathroom door and contemplated the clothing Mrs. C had spread out on the bed for him, he threw back his head and laughed for the first time in forty-eight hours.
Kara fisted her hands on her hips and glared from her sister, who was perched on the arm of the sofa, to her brother who stood before the fire, his arm propped on the mantle. “I don’t care if the man could be an ax murderer, Logan, he almost got killed at our gates. The least we can do is feed him. It’s Christmas Eve. We have enough for an army.”
They were in the family room away from the other guests, who were helping Mrs. C in the kitchen. The family room was part library and part television room.
Logan lifted his chin in the infuriating way he had when he was going to be stubborn. “What do you think, Julie?”
Julie shrugged. She was wrapping her ancient and beloved lab Max’s collar with a red plaid ribbon. “He sure looked like an ax murderer to me, but it is Christmas Eve.”
Their new stepbrother, Iain MacLeod, entered the room and must have heard their discussion.
“I feel very responsible for the man’s injuries,” Iain said.
Kara sensed an ally in this unknown stepbrother. “Exactly.”
She examined Iain MacLeod. Tall and drop-dead gorgeous, with a sexy Scottish burr in his voice, he’d been here less than an hour, yet looked pretty much at ease as he sank into an armchair and stretched his long legs toward the fire. He had dark blond hair, hazel eyes, and a roguish smile. Then she frowned. He was going to make a formidable opponent if he sided with Logan on anything. “Where’s your kilt?” she asked.
Iain lifted his eyebrows. “I never wear a kilt.”
Logan grinned. “We’ll see about that.”
He’d rolled his white dress shirt sleeves over his forearms and looked every inch a highlander who could toss a caber or throw a hammer and win his clan the top prizes in the local highland games.
Logan loved Christmas and had been orchestrating their Christmas Eve celebrations since their father had died twelve years ago. He called it Feast of the Seven Fishes Highland Style, and Mrs. C had been serving up the feast for ten of the last twelve years.
Logan glanced over Kara’s shoulder, and she saw he was struggling not to smile. She whipped around.
The man standing in the doorway, his arms folded over his chest, looked anything but homeless.
Kara felt the heat rise on her cheeks as she realized she was likely the only person besides Iain who hadn’t recognized this man. “So much for sheltering ax murderers,” she muttered.
The heat on her cheeks deepened as Reed greeted Logan and Iain with a warm handshake and Julie with a hug. When Reed turned to her, she kept her distance.
“You look much better.” The words came out more stiffly than she’d intended.
“I hope you’re not disappointed.” He smiled.
A jolt of sensation ran through her. His smile could power the town of Savage Bay, she thought. He still had sun-streaked brown hair, but he’d shaved and looked nothing like the bearded and scruffy man she’d rescued.
But still . . . she should have known him. And he should have introduced himself when it was obvious she didn’t.
Why had he been hiking Castle Road on Christmas Eve?
Reed had left town right before she’d left for college. He’d gone into the Marines, and then formed a construction company operating in the Pacific northwest. Looking him over, she thought that time and experience had hardened him. He might be smiling, but she imagined when he stopped, he’d look as hard as the muscles hinted at by one of her brother’s shirts . . . and kilts.
Reed wore a kilt as well as Logan did, right down to the sporran and socks. He wasn’t wearing shoes so she figured that was why he’d been able to come up behind her so quietly.
“Why couldn’t you guys just wear jeans like everyone else?” she asked.
“Then the Highland part of the Feast wouldn’t make sense, now would it?” Logan wrapped his arm around her neck and squeezed.
Her cheeks felt as red as her holiday top.
“How’s your head?” she managed to ask. Reed’s right cheek was swelling. There was a laceration on his temple that Mrs. Costa had closed with a neat row of butterfly Band-aids.
He touched the long cut with the tips of his fingers. “Mrs. C thinks I’ll live.”
Logan punched Reed in the upper arm with his fist. “Let’s eat. I’m starving.”
Kara noticed that Mrs. C had not only helped Reed Savage with his head wound, she’d also rearranged the dining room table to accommodate another guest and penned him a place card in her elegant script. Kara found herself beside her new stepbrother and across from Reed. Logan sat at the head of the table as he always did, with Mrs. Costa at the foot.
Their mother had not been present for Christmas since their father’s death, preferring any sunny locale to Connecticut in the winter. As Kara looked around the table, she realized there had always been friends, old and new, for the Highland Feast, but never her mother. Her absence at Christmas had long ago become a dull ache, but tonight, with the new stepbrother at the table, all Kara’s resentments threatened to boil up. She clamped them down, shook them off.
Logan stood up. “I think I should make some introductions.” As everyone groaned, he frowned. “For Iain’s sake. And I’ll be fast. Don’t touch that lobster until I say so.” He aimed the last at Julie who looked at the ceiling in feigned innocence.
“On my right,” Logan continued, “is Julie, middle sister, animal lover, pain in the ass.” Julie raised her wine glass in a mock toast.
“Our newest victim is Reed Savage. Best friend. Vagabond guy.”
Reed raised his beer.
“Next to Reed is Cindy . She’s runs Whimsey. That’s a shop, Iain. She’s also the one who decorated our house from top to bottom. Mòran taing, many thanks, Cindy. Did I say that okay?” Logan directed his question to Iain who grinned and gave a sheepish shrug.
Cindy blushed and ducked her head. Reed whispered something in her ear. Cindy’s flush deepened. Kara didn’t like the flair of jealousy that stabbed her. Cindy was one of Kara’s best friends, but she was also petite and ethereal. Kara suddenly felt large and gawky; she hid her hands in her lap.
“Cindy’s next to her mom, Bea Hamilton, the Bea of the Bea and Bee where tourists hive to enjoy themselves.”
While everyone groaned, Logan spoke over them. “On my left is our new stepbrother, Iain. A MacLeod.” Logan paused and all as one they said, “There can be only one.”
Everyone except Iain laughed and banged the table with their fists, Reed as well. The line was from one of their favorite old movies, Highlander. Kara figured someone would explain it to the puzzled Iain after dinner. Or maybe not.
Logan continued. “On your left, Iain, is Kara. Baby sister, another pain in my ass.”
Kara wanted to say something clever, but her mind was blank, so she did as the others had, raised her glass and smiled.
“Brian Taylor is next, wearing the black watch kilt. He’s one of our town’s finest. I won’t say finest at what. Some legends need no explanation.”
Kara watched Brian fake an exaggerated leer. He was another man who looked great in his kilt. He was also a great kisser. She smiled into her wine glass, remembering a time in high school when she and Brian had done some mutual research on the art of kissing.
“Next to the legendary Brian is Mrs. C’s daughter, Rose. We’re glad, as usual, that she can join us. For Reed and Iain’s sake, Rose’s husband always volunteers his time at Christmas to Doctors without Borders. He’s somewhere in Peru right now, so we’re looking after Rose for him.”
Mrs. C patted her daughter’s hand.
“Last, but never least, the star of the evening, Gina Costa.”
Everyone cheered. She stood briefly and curtsied, holding out imaginary skirts as she was wearing yoga pants and a sweatshirt.
Logan lifted his wine glass. “God bless us everyone. Let’s eat.”
Brian reached for one of the covered serving dishes, but snatched his hand back when Mrs. Costa coughed. She said a proper grace then asked the men to remove the covers. Her cheeks pinked as everyone oohed and ahhed over the bounty of food before them.
Lobster, King Crab legs, clams casino, shrimp, scallops grilled with brown butter and herbs, salmon flown over directly from Scotland by Iain’s father, and Mrs. C’s signature crab cakes vied for space on the table with sides of salad, ravioli, meatballs, and garlic bread.
Kara watched Iain stare, his wine glass halfway to his mouth, as everyone grabbed. At any other meal, the dishes would have been passed in a calm and orderly fashion, but on feast night, it was every man and woman for themselves.
Rose, the Hamiltons, and Brian had been coming to the feast for the last three years and knew what to expect. It took Reed only a moment’s delay to leap in and fight for his share of the food. For the next quarter hour chaos reigned.
“Thank God Iain didn’t bring haggis,” Reed said, sliding a portion of salmon onto her plate.
“Shhh!” Kara said.
Reed wagged his eyebrows at her, and she suddenly felt shy of him. He’d been a relentless teaser when she’d been growing up, calling her Beanpole or Barely There Sinclair. It had taken her a couple years to realize he’d been referring to her flat chest and not her collection of teddy bears.
He was way too attractive in the candlelight. The flickering candles etched intriguing shadows across his face. The cut, a bruise forming along with his swollen cheek, only added a dangerous edge.
Beyond the dining room archway, dangling from the foyer chandelier hung mistletoe. Reed’s seat placed him in line with that chandelier. The mistletoe appeared to be hanging over his head. She’d never noticed how well shaped his mouth was.
The room was suddenly hot.
Everyone gathered in the family room, the men by the fireplace, and Logan raised a toast to Mrs. C and her fabulous feast. “Here’s to our real mom,” Logan said.
Mrs. C’s eyes glittered. “Since my Herb died, you’ve all been my family and Rose’s. Thank you for including us all these years. Now, not another word or I’ll cry.”
They were all in that zone of stupor which follows too much food, too many rich desserts, and too much alcohol. Kara wanted to pop the button on her jeans but didn’t dare.
Reed cornered her by the tree. “I have to say you all went way over the top this year. I’ve never seen such incredible decorations.”
The family room was the most personal of the decorated rooms on the ground floor. It was lined on three sides with shelves laden with books collected through the years by the Sinclairs, including several acquired by her father and once owned by Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The room had a huge fireplace and French doors to a flagstone patio. There were greens everywhere and bowls of clove-studded oranges, lemons, and persimmons scattered about.
The tree was decorated with what Kara called “family junque.” The ornaments ranged from those Julie, Logan, and she had made in grade school to those given as gifts by family and friends throughout the years. She loved the memories accompanying each one.
She had made old-fashioned garlands of popcorn and cranberries for this tree to go with the sentimental nature of the ornaments. “We’ve always taken the holidays very seriously, but Cindy deserves the credit, she did most of it.”
“Yep. She’s hoping to get a few decorating jobs out of it for next year. She made a lot of the stuff, and you can see it all up on her website.”
“How about a tour?”
“May I tag along?” Iain asked, coming up behind her.
“Why not? The more, the merrier,” Reed said, sitting on an ottoman and lacing on his hiking boots that Mrs. C had cleaned for him.
Disappointment stabbed her at Reed’s reply. For a moment, she’d been contemplating being alone with him. He stood up and picked up his beer, meeting her gaze as he took a long pull from the bottle.
Desire zinged through her blood. There was just something about a man in a kilt. Then she looked down at the mug in her hand. Or maybe it was just too much wassail. She put her mug on a side table.
The men followed her as she took them through the string of rooms on the ground floor--front parlor, breakfast room, sunroom, music room, dining room, ending in the foyer with Julie’s collection of antique Santas. Swags of greens, masses of pine cones, poinsettias, ribbons and baby’s breath draped the staircase arching to the upper levels.
Iain rocked on his heels, his hands tucked into the back pockets of his jeans. “A cozy place, you have here,” he said in his Scottish burr. “Warm. Like your family.”
“You live in a castle, don’t you?” Reed said.
Iain nodded. “Built in 1665 during the Restoration.”
“Modernized I hope.” Reed hooked his arm around Kara’s shoulders, and her heart beat faster. His arm was warm and heavy.
“Still a drafty pile of stone. I prefer my flat in Edinburgh.”
The two men discussed the mild winter Iain had left in comparison to the icy and snowy Connecticut one but Kara had trouble concentrating. Was it the wassail or the arm draped so causally over her shoulder?
Mrs. C called for everyone to gather around the piano for carols.
“Oh, no.” Reed groaned. He turned to Iain. “None of the Sinclairs have a drop of musical talent despite a fortune spent on lessons.”
Their piano was an antique pump player, and they had scores of rolls, many holiday themed. Kara could hear someone plinking on the keyboard.
“Hope you can carry a tune,” Reed said.
“How quaint,” Iain murmured.
Kara stiffened. “We Sinclairs like to sing.”
“Off-key.” Reed swallowed the last of his beer and set the bottle between two Santas.
Iain shook his head and trailed away in the direction of the music room.
Reed gripped her around the waist, swinging her around to face him. He lifted his chin, and she looked up at the foyer chandelier.
She tried to back away, but as she did, he pulled her even closer, his sporran the only thing separating them.
Why was she resisting? She relaxed against him.
“Have I thanked you for saving my ass?” he said softly.
“Not yet.” She could barely get the words out. Her breath was trapped somewhere in her chest.
He kissed her. His lips were warm, gentle, a whisper on hers. He eased back a moment and stared at her, his eyes shadowed.
Heat simmered between them. She pulled his head down.
The second kiss was completely different. Hard. Demanding. A tangle of tongues.
Her insides quivered. It was not a mistletoe kiss. It was aggressive. Then it gentled and felt like an invitation. And a promise.