C. A. Szarek
From the world of the Highland Secrets Trilogy! Historical romance author Ashlyn George is an uninspired author. Writer’s block plagues her imagination, so her agent encourages her to go on a trip to Scotland that’s geared toward writers. She’ll try just about anything to put words on the page, since her latest manuscript is overdue. She collides with a blue-eyed hottie that looks just like an old portrait she bought in an antique shop in Inverness. As laird of his clan, Eoin MacLeod has been charged with protecting the famed Faerie Flag. When it changes hands, he has to ensure it’s safe—no matter when that may be. Using the Faery Stones, and his Fae blood, he time travels from the eighteenth century. He’s done it again and again, but this time he wants to bring the Flag back with him. He didn’t count on a bonnie lass from the twenty-first century to argue, and claim it for herself. Her passion brings out desires in Eoin that make him want to put aside his duty and stake a claim of his own…on her.
C. A. Szarek's
Ashlyn sighed and glared at the laptop. She gritted her teeth at the stupid—really flippin’ stupid—blinking cursor and resisted the urge to slam her computer shut. However, it wasn’t the machine’s fault the words wouldn’t come. They just wouldn’t.
Screaming didn’t help. Neither did cursing. Or jumping on the bed.
Pulling her hair just gave her a headache.
Her agent was past being nice, and her publisher…well, to say they weren’t happy was mild. Very very mild.
“Fired is more like it,” she muttered.
“I thought you weren’t supposed to work.” Kate’s voice made her jump.
When she looked up into the sea-green eyes of her best friend, Ashlyn frowned. “Well, you see, books don’t write themselves.”
She rolled her eyes, and her head with it, making her auburn ponytail dance. She was dressed casually—for a poshy clothing designer—in jeans and a V-neck tee that had ‘I make fashion trends’ spelled out in jewels and sequins. Kate propped a shapely hip on the corner of the desk Ashlyn was sitting at. “Then why the hell are we here?” She gestured around the adorable cottage, with the antiques hanging on display and the handmade multicolored quilts on the neatly made side-by-side single beds.
Framed tartans were on display on the walls, clan names and mottos hanging from wooden plaques underneath each, strung together with tiny chains. Clans from their current geographical location, according to the owner of the place their tour group was staying.
“Inspiration,” Ashlyn forced out.
“So you dragged me to the Scottish Highlands for…”
She tried not to glare. Didn’t need crap from Kate, too. “You know, you’re a lot like the heroine in this stupid book, who is obviously allergic to happily ever after. A pain in the ass.”
Her friend smirked. “Maybe she’s irritated at you.”
“Why? What did I do to her? I’m trying to give her an awesome life. A hot laird in her bed and a freaking castle.”
Kate laughed. “I swear it doesn’t matter how many times I hear you talk about your characters like real people, it still throws me off. They have meds for that. Voices in your head and such.”
She narrowed her eyes. “The longer you stand there, the longer you risk one of two things.” She shot two fingers high, but not in a peace sign. “I’m gonna hit you or…”
“Kill me off in one of your books.” Her bestie laughed as she finished the familiar threat.
“Yeah, what kinda friend are you, anyway?” Ashlyn pouted.
She pulled the chair next to the desk and folded her curvy form into it gracefully. “The best. Of course. You know I love you, Ash. I let you drag me to Scotland when I have two runway shows next month, didn’t I?” Kate cast her eyes upward, then met her gaze again. The playfulness in her expression was gone; her pretty seafoam eyes were serious. “I hate that you’re struggling. But you can growl at your computer at home. Treat this trip like a vacation and it might actually, I dunno, help your writing.”
“Or lack thereof.”
“You know what I mean. Unblock the block, or whatever.”
“Right. I’ve just about lost all hope.”
She shook her head and grabbed Ashlyn’s hand. “The tour group might be full of writers, but you’re the only famous one locked away. Everyone else is jotting notes, snapping pictures, taking in the sights, and plotting stories for later, not that I understand any of that shit.”
Kate grinned. “I said all that, and you only latched on to the part I give you shit about?”
Her best friend been calling her ‘semi-famous’ since her eighth book had come out last fall, and Ashlyn had hit a few lists. Lists that let an author feel validated, but unfortunately, it didn’t make writing the next book any easier.
It had excited her agent and her publisher, of course. She’d hit a goal, and they saw dollar signs…more books, another series, but it just put her head in a vise. The pressure was stifling. And affecting her writing.
“Remember, some of your colleagues were swooning over the fact you’re here with them. Bank on that. Sign autographs or something. I know it’s anti-author, but we came like a million miles. Socialize or something, for God’s sake.”
Ashlyn rolled her eyes. “I socialize.”
Kate gave her a long look that made her want to squirm.
She didn’t bother contradicting her. Her bestie would jump on her in a second for BSing. Ashlyn wasn’t introverted like a lot of authors, but she didn’t get out much, even at home in Dallas.
Her best friend had moved to New York when her clothing line, Kateour, had taken off a few years before, and she didn’t have other friends nearly as close as she was to Kate. They talked all the time on the phone, and even Skype, but it wasn’t the same as when they were roomies. Begging her to come on this trip was part I-can’t-do-this-alone and part I-miss-the-crap out of-you.
Ashlyn sighed for the hundredth time that morning. A feat—since she’d only been up a few hours.
“The group is going on a shopping trip. Don’t make me force you,” Kate said.
“Shopping? Ugh.” She wrinkled her nose.
Her friend shook her head. “You. Are. Going.”
“Dude, we’re in Scotland.”
Somewhere she’d always dreamed of going. Right. Kate didn’t have to say it. Especially since she’d been locking herself away every stop the tour had made so far.
They were only in this cottage overnight, then were heading north as a group. The trip was guided and planned extensively. They were hitting all the famous spots the country had to offer. They’d started in Edinburgh on day one, and were now in Inverness until mid-afternoon the next day.
Ashlyn had been writing about historical Scotland and the clans for years, and had hoped this trip would bring her books to life in a way research couldn’t. She’d written a trilogy about Clan MacLeod of the Isle of Skye, and was most excited about seeing the clan’s stronghold, Dunvegan, which would be the last stop on their trip. Not only was it still standing, but people lived in it. A real castle! The stuff of her dreams.
“You just want to play fashionista in another country.”
Kate flashed a grin. “Maybe. The people of Scotland need my sense of style.”
Triumph crossed her bestie’s expression. “C’mon, you know you have obligatory souvenirs to buy, anyway.”
“You’re right. I guess.”
“Oh wow. Don’t sound so happy about it.”
She hated shopping. Bought most of her clothing online, even bras and panties. Kate had chastised her about that for years, too. And the fact she’d wear her clothes until they fell apart. Her closet was only about a third filled, which was an insult to all women, according to the couture fashion designer.
“We’re only in Inverness tonight. When we go further into the Highlands, civilization will be few and far between, so let’s go with the group and shop now. Please?”
“I think you’re exaggerating about civilization, but fine. I’ll go.”
Kate’s eyes lit up. She leaned over and kissed Ashlyn’s cheek. “You won’t regret it. I might even buy you something.”
Her friend jumped up, changed into really cute boots Ashlyn could never pull off, and ignored her lack of enthusiasm.
She frowned when Kate pulled her toward the little shop with, “Enchanted Keepsakes” painted on a large plaque in the window. It was written in big white calligraphy-style letters, and didn’t seem to have the ability to light up. The items in the window display varied, shouting that the place would have mostly eclectic goods. “Since when do you like antiques?”
“There’re more than antiques in there. Let’s go check it out!”
Ashlyn studied the items in the window again. There was a large blue vase with a modern edge to it, and what looked to be an antique bicycle right beside it, but also a small display case with fancy jewelry on the other side of that. A black velvet-looking necklace and earring holder sat to the right of the small glass case, and it had a ruby and diamond set on in it.
Things that didn’t seem to fit together. Things that were un-Kate-like, to boot. Besides the jewels, anyway.
“Are you sure?” She hesitated, pulling against the grip on her wrist.
“Geeze, for a history buff, you’re being weird. I thought you’d be all over something like this little store. It’s like stepping into the past. You could put it in one of your books. Just look at it. It’s quaint and adorable.”
“That’s what you said about the cottage,” Ashlyn muttered. “Not very fashion designer of you.”
She laughed. “I don’t have to have everything couture. Let’s go look around.”
Even the bell that announced them opening the door was old school. The scent of old and new hit Ashlyn’s senses and she inhaled. There were other smells too, like sandalwood and lavender, so maybe the shop sold incense as well.
The wood floors creaked as they moved forward, but that made her smile. It really was like going back in time in a way, and it was comforting. Enveloped her so she wanted to look at everything all at once—and there was a lot to take in.
It had a pleasant, homey feel that she’d been looking for since she’d come to Scotland. Funny how this little shop had given her what she’d been seeking all week. It drew her in, like a warm embrace.
Ashlyn let her eyes feast.
Tapestries that looked to be from all over the world, some canvas and some embroidered, were on display. There was a rack of rolled ones in front of that. A shelf of globes of all sizes grabbed her attention, from ones that appeared very old to a brand-new, bright blue one front and center.
In the corner, there were paintings. Some were framed and leaning against the wall and each other, and prints were in a bin, each secured to cardboard backings. She spotted landscapes and portraits. Even a painting of a horse with a cat sitting on his wide back.
Kate left her side to go explore on her own. Ashlyn heard her boots on the hardwood, sounding as if her friend had headed to the back of the store.
She wandered to a glass case and scanned its contents. Like the front window, the shelves contained a plethora of items. More jewelry, from big oversized rings that looked ancient, to a bank of single-stone diamond engagement rings, then lockets of various sizes laying in rows on velvet clothes.
Under those were some carved daggers and dirks, which also looked very old. Next was something Ashlyn loved—books. They were big and small, some lying open and some standing on end in a neat row, like they would on a bookshelf.
“Can I help you find something?” A pleasant voice caught her attention. It was odd, accent-less, as if the woman could be from anywhere, or everywhere. Definitely not the Scottish inflection she’d expected.
Ashlyn looked up to meet a pair of…violet eyes? Yes, violet. More purple than blue, and mesmerizing.
The woman’s face was just as gorgeous as her eyes. Porcelain skin, flawless across her high cheekbones. Red lips that couldn’t be a natural color, but she didn’t spot any obvious makeup. She had long red hair, brighter in hue than Kate’s. It was loose and cascaded to her waist in waves.
She wore a gown, and it shimmered in the light, making it seem neither blue, nor purple, but more like a mother-of-pearl finish that brought out those incredible eyes. It was timeless in style, and as ethereal as the woman herself.
Her beauty stunned Ashlyn speechless.
She smiled gently, as if the reaction happened all the time—and hell, it probably did. “Did you spot anything you’d like to get a closer look at?”
The question was also gentle, and jarred Ashlyn from her frozen staring. What a freaking idiot. She’s gonna think you’re a lesbian, and you’re gonna hit on her!
Heat kissed her cheeks and scorched the back of her neck. Even her ears burned. “Ah, I’m just looking, but thank you.”
“All right, please let me know if something catches your eye.” The woman’s face brightened, as if the prospect excited her.
Ashlyn forced a nod—like a dummy—and wanted to flee from the counter. Or melt into it. Maybe she’d locked herself away so much trying to write, she’d lost her skills to function in public. She was socially inept, after all. She turned on her heel and slipped away from the woman.
The paintings beckoned, so she headed there, looking first at a landscape done in pastels that dominated the wall in front of her. It was Thomas Kincaid-esque, but the only building was far off, a castle on a hill overlooking a grassy field and a pond.
She thumbed through the prints in the wooden bin. There were dragons, unicorns, other animals, and more landscapes. Ashlyn stopped at all the castles, studying them to determine if they were Scottish or English, or from other places in Europe. All seemed to be real places, and some of the prints looked old, but some modern; some were even photographs.
There was even a painting of a castle in Romania she recognized as Vlad the Impaler’s home. She shuddered and shook her head. Who would want that?
This place had something for everyone.
Next to the large bin and the stacked framed paintings, was a small metal circular rack. It had all sorts of things on it—greeting cards, post cards, as well as funny sayings on small plaques. It was the first thing she’d consider touristy in the shop.
Ashlyn turned the display and it squeaked. She almost jumped, then yelled at herself for being startled. Her shoe bumped the rack’s base, and it shook, like the whole thing could tip over. She winced and stilled it with one hand, but she could feel the tremors beneath her fingertips, like it was fighting her.
Movement caught her eye when something floated to the planked floor.
She bent to retrieve it when it hit with a soft thud.
It was a small piece of canvas, no bigger than a postcard, and its fragility was immediately apparent. Ashlyn turned it over in her hands, trying to be as careful as she could.
Bright blue eyes peered up at her, and her gaze darted over his face. A portrait. He was handsome, with long dark hair that graced his shoulders. He was clean-shaven, which drew her even more when she scanned his strong jaw and chiseled features.
The painting only consisted of his head and shoulders, like a bust, but the recognizable MacLeod tartan pattern was slung over one shoulder, held up with his clan brooch. It was too small to make out, but the clan’s motto, “Hold Fast”, would no doubt be etched on it.
The detail and clarity of the image belied the age of the piece, Ashlyn guessed. She couldn’t look away from the painted blue eyes. The man was gorgeous, and the small canvas took her breath, which was so silly, but it captivated her.
“Wow,” she whispered.
“What do you have there?” The redheaded woman appeared by her side, that pleasant smile on her full mouth, those violet eyes twinkling.
“I-I-I…found this.” Stuttering? Really? She held the painting out to who she assumed was the shop’s owner.
“Oh my! How did this get here?” Her red-orange brow knitted and she took the canvas with a soft touch. “I’m glad it wasn’t damaged. Let me frame this for you.”
“Ah, wait, I—”
The woman whirled away, her gown twirling around her as she sauntered to the counter and ignored Ashlyn’s protest.
I never said I wanted it.
But she did. She wanted to stare at it again. Study the sapphire eyes and the handsome details of his face. Even look at the portion of his ivory shirt visible, as well as the MacLeod plaid.
He would’ve been wearing a kilt, her gut said, if that part of him had been painted, too.
She went back to the glass showcase, where the redhead was humming to herself as she looked through a basket of frames.
“Hmmm, shall we go with gilt for Eoin?”
“Eoin?” Ashlyn whispered.
The woman nodded and her smile widened. “This is a portrait of Eoin MacLeod. Laird MacLeod in the mid-1700s.”
The historian in her perked awake. “Where can I find out more about him?”
The woman held up an engraved gold frame. It was gilt-style, as she’d mentioned. “This is perfect!” She flashed a grin that Ashlyn didn’t doubt could bring any man to his knees. “This is the one.” She didn’t answer Ashlyn’s query, just handled the small canvas like an expert. Still humming, too. “Try not to touch the painting, all right? It’s old…” she laughed.
Kate made her jump when she came to the counter. “Did you find something?” she asked.
Ashlyn peeled her eyes away from watching the shopkeeper work, but she didn’t want to. She wanted to catalogue what the redhead was doing with Eoin MacLeod’s painting. Then she wanted to look at it again.
Her friend smiled and held up a pair of jeweled Renaissance ladies’ slippers in her hands. “I did, see?”
“That doesn’t sound like a good wow,” she pouted. “I’m not gonna wear them. I’m gonna plan a design or two. Maybe make a gown to go with something like this. Or branch out into a line of shoes. Been wanting to do that forever. This trip is for inspy, right?” Kate waggled her eyebrows and hugged the shoes to her bosom.
Ashlyn laughed. “I guess so.”
“So, what’d you find?” Her seafoam eyes lit up.
“Ah, a painting.” For some reason, she didn’t want to share her find, not even with Kate.
She ignored Kate’s frown and glued her gaze back to the redheaded beauty. Her long hair swayed with her movements, but it wasn’t more than a second before she held the small painting up, snug in its new frame.
“Here you go! I trust you’ll take care of him.”
Kate said something, but Ashlyn tuned her out and retrieved the frame with both hands.
She needed to look at him again. His deep blue gaze compelled her to stare. She imagined his smile—since he wasn’t in the painting.
It would be a great smile; one worth swooning over. He would sound yummy, too. A full brogue that’d make a girl’s knees weak.
Like all her Scottish heroes, he’d call her lass.
“Well, he sure is hot.” Kate peered down at the image, over her shoulder.
Ashlyn fought the urge to squeeze it against her, hide it from view.
“Geesh, doesn’t someone have a new precious?” Her friend smirked.
“You wanted me to come in here,” she quipped.
Kate flashed a grin, then looked at the owner of Enchanted Keepsakes. “What do we owe you?”
Enchanted Keepsakes, indeed.
Ashlyn was certainly enchanted with the painting of Eoin MacLeod. She grinned and hugged the small frame; she didn’t care if Kate teased her.
She felt a story coming on, finally! She’d write Eoin MacLeod’s love story. She didn’t need to know about his real life—though the research might be fun.
Ashlyn would give him a true love in her current stubborn heroine. The storyline was still unplanned enough to change things around without starting over. She hadn’t gotten too much into the hero’s head anyway. Maybe the chick would cooperate if Eoin was her hero. He was hot enough.
Excitement bubbled up from her tummy. “We have to go back to the cottage,” she told Kate as they exited the small shop.
“I can finally write!”
He friend giggled. “See? All it took was a hottie. Toldja!” Kate winked. “Too bad he’s not real.”
“Sure he’s real, he was a laird. A real person.”
She arched an eyebrow. “Well, the problem with that sentence is, ‘was.’ Maybe we should go to the pub, and you can get inspiration from a ‘now’ instead of a ‘was.’ Like a real Highlander, ya know? They’re still tall and hot.”
Ashlyn shook her head. “Let me start with the ‘was’ guy for now. Get some words down. Then I’ll go with you. Promise.”
Her bestie snorted but didn’t answer.
Highlander's Portrait: Enchanted Keepsakes (Enchanted Secrets) by C. A. Szarek
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