Off Kilter (A Scottish Highlands Mystery)

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9780425265826: Off Kilter (A Scottish Highlands Mystery)

National bestselling author Hannah Reed brings mystery lovers the first in a brand-new series, in which a young writer finds herself swept up in a murder amidst the glens and lochs of the Scottish Highlands...
 
After the recent death of her mother and the dissolution of her marriage, thirty-something Eden Elliott is seriously in need of a fresh start. At the urging of her best friend, bestselling author Ami Pederson, Eden decides to embark on an open-ended trip to the picturesque village of Glenkillen in the Scottish Highlands, to do some hands-on research for a book of her own. But almost as soon as Eden arrives in the quaint town, she gets caught up in a very real drama...
 
The town’s sheep shearer is found murdered—clipped with his own shears—and the locals suspect Vicki MacBride, an outsider whose father’s recent death left her the surprise heir to his lucrative sheep farm. Eden refuses to believe the affable heiress is a murderer, but can she prove that someone is out to frame her new friend before she finds herself on the receiving end of more shear terror?

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About the Author:

Hannah Reed is the national bestselling author of the Queen Bee Mystery series, as well as the Scottish Highland Mysteries. Her own Scottish ancestors were seventeenth century rabble-rousers who were eventually shipped to the new world, where they settled in the Michigan Upper Peninsula. Hannah has happily traveled back to her homeland several times, and in keeping with family tradition, enjoyed causing mayhem in the Highlands. 

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Queen Bee Mysteries

Scottish Highlands Mysteries

 

CHAPTER 1

Sometimes my best friend, Ami, can go way overboard. Like earlier this month, when she presented me with her gift of a round-trip ticket to Scotland. With a return date six months out! What had she been thinking?

“I hate to appear ungrateful,” I muttered under my breath as we stood beside a security checkpoint in one of Chicago O’Hare’s international terminals, “but going away from July to December is just too long. I shouldn’t have agreed to this craziness.” I was seriously reconsidering how easily I’d caved to Ami’s whims. It was the story of our friendship, really, her bossing me around—though the truth was, her whims were usually pretty good ideas in retrospect. That’s also probably why she was such a successful businesswoman. And she’d been so adamant—pushy is more like it—when she set out to take full advantage of my fragile state of mind with her surprise gift. I’d tried to turn it down, but it had been too late. She’d taken care of all the arrangements in advance. I was stuck.

“You can come home to Chicago anytime you want to,” she repeated now, just as she had every time I’d expressed regrets out loud. “You don’t have to stay all six months, but you wouldn’t make it through customs without a return ticket. Thank God for smart travel agents. According to her, the max you can stay on a tourist visa is six months. I didn’t know what to do, so I went for it.”

What kind of logic was that? “You could have asked me first.”

“I was flustered.”

“You’re never flustered. Are you trying to get rid of me?”

“Of course not. I’m looking out for you. Stay six months or come home next week, it’s your choice. But for now, relax and enjoy, Eden. You deserve it after what you’ve been through.”

What I’d been through was the year from hell—I was thirty-eight years old, freshly divorced after six years of marriage, almost one year to the day after my husband had filed, and two days after I’d buried my mother, who’d finally given up a long, ugly battle with MS last month. For a long while she’d stabilized, but over the last five years I’d watched her fade away and finally pass on peacefully. After I’d witnessed the extent of her suffering, the end had been a welcome relief for both of us. I’d gotten married right before my mother took a turn for the worse, and while I’d felt responsible for her, my husband had resented the attention I’d given her instead of him. We never really had a chance. And now those two events, the loss of my mother and the finality of the divorce decree, each right on top of the other, had rocked my world. And I don’t mean that in a good way, either.

What exactly was I to do next? And more importantly, what was the point of it all?

I’d been awarded my mother’s small life insurance payout as a consolation prize, and my ex-husband bought out my share in the condo we’d owned together, although there hadn’t been much equity in it. After he’d filed last year, I’d moved into my mother’s small apartment to care for her, leaving all the furnishings we’d purchased together behind, taking only my personal belongings. I hadn’t wanted constant reminders of what had ceased to be.

The unexpected bit of cash allowed me time to pause and examine my life up to now. Not much of interest to report, I’m afraid. Nothing concrete to fall back on. I’d done some freelance editorial work in the past, as well as one ghostwriting gig, and had really enjoyed both, but as my mother’s condition had worsened and my marriage imploded, I’d put aside my ambitions. Until now.

“Look,” BFF was saying over the airport din. “You can do this.”

I nodded, toying with my boarding pass and passport. “Of course I can do it. But why should I? I’m having second thoughts. Third and fourth thoughts, actually.” Numbers five and six flitted through my mind as well. But there was also something else. Was that excitement underlying the pounding of my heart? Or simply a nervous response to an uncertain future? Was I ready for this?

Ami went on cheerleading. “You had to fly free eventually. And I mean that figuratively as well as literally. It’s time you stopped working special projects for me and started working for yourself. You’re more than talented enough. . . . You are. Don’t look at me like that!”

I studied my longtime, dearest, most loyal friend, who had been with me through thick and thin since our good old college days. How much fairer she’d weathered the storms. Ami Pederson wore her marriage to her beloved husband, Brad, like a diamond necklace, while even before my divorce I’d worn mine like an albatross around my neck. She hadn’t married the wrong guy or had to care for a terminally ill family member. Nothing so common for Ami Pederson. Yes, that Ami Pederson—the bestselling, prolific, world-famous historical romance author. Millions of copies sold of every single novel, dozens of exotic foreign translations. I’d lost count of how many by now.

Ami could grace the cover of one of her own novels. She’s tall and slender, with long-flowing locks, and always perfectly groomed as though perpetually ready for a television interview. Lights, camera, action: that’s Ami from the moment she rises in the morning to the time she wraps up her writing late at night.

Me? I was already feeling rumpled and wrinkled, and I hadn’t even boarded the first leg of my journey yet. I’d memorized the drill: seven-plus hours in the air, arrive in London in the wee hours of the morning, a lengthy layover at Heathrow, then a flight to Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, then pick up a rental car for a short drive to my final destination, a small town called Glenkillen. Ami had been to the village once and highly recommended it.

I shifted my carry-on from one shoulder to the other, resigned to whatever fate awaited me in the Highlands.

Ami must have sensed my surrender, because she gave me a warm, wide smile, and said gently, “Remember why you’re going to Scotland in the first place. Because you just happen to be under contract to a New York publisher to write your fabulous book!”

The thought did give me a blush of pride, which I quickly damped down. “Which I couldn’t have accomplished without your help and connections.” Not to mention that Ami had been extremely involved in the outline for the story and had suggested the Scottish Highlands setting.

“Nonsense!” Ami said. “You’re a great writer. And you’ve been hanging around me long enough to learn all the ins and outs of writing romances. All I did was help you brainstorm and then get your work in front of the right editor.”

Ami’s comment about my familiarity with romances was true enough. I’d read every one of her books, along with many by her contemporaries. I was a romance junkie from way back. And to be fair to myself, I had written my opening chapters without Ami’s input. Right this minute, though, I was feeling a little fearful. The publisher was taking a chance on me mainly because of my friendship with Ami. I didn’t want to let her or the publisher or myself down. That was a lot of pressure.

“Another wonderful reason for your trip comes to mind,” Ami continued. “Because your ancestors on your father’s side came from the Highlands. Lucky you! It will be such fun to check out your ancestral homeland, trust me. I’d join you if I didn’t have a deadline looming.”

The mention of my father wasn’t a welcome one. The man had abandoned me and my mother long ago, back when she’d originally been diagnosed with MS. Yet we’d both continued to use his last name—Elliott—maybe because it was the only thing we still really had from him. At first Mom had waited patiently, certain that my father would return. My mother had been more charitable than me, more forgiving; until the end, she always wondered if something had happened to him, rather than his having left us behind. Later, by the time she’d given up, she was too sick to care about pursuing a divorce. Either way, there’d been no second chance at love for her.

Ami was still talking up my destination. “All those hunky Scottish men! A romance novel set in the Scotland Highlands . . . Well, it’s a fantastic location for a romantic interlude. Both on the page”—Ami gave me a conspiratorial glance—“and off.”

Not this again. My best friend was bound and determined to see me involved with someone as soon as possible. I had other plans. More realistic ones that better reflected my personality and the more recent past.

I’d been an introvert my whole life, whether by choice or by demand, it didn’t really matter. I’d learned to cherish and protect my personal space and time. As far back as I could remember, reading had been my escape. It was only a matter of stages: I started trying my hand at writing journal entries, then progressed to short stories and the discovery that the creative process gave me a much needed outlet.

In my teens and early twenties, I’d been a voracious fiction reader, mostly romances, but at this stage in my life it was time to learn to sort fact from fiction. The whole concept of Prince Charming was unrealistic, a fantasy. Happy endings were best suited for fairy tales—and all the best romances. But those things didn’t happen in real life. Opposites attract, that’s for sure, but lately I’d been reconsidering whether they made for good matches. I’d married one—extroverted to my introverted, someone with enormous energy who loved people and parties while I preferred a good book and spent my efforts doing what I thought was right, which was tending to my mother until the end.

Would a man with traits more like mine have understood and stayed by my side?

Well, it was way too late to know. And I had better uses for my time than regretting the past.

Yes, the more I thought about it, the more I decided that the future belonged to me—by myself, alone. I wasn’t about to share it with someone who expected me to do piles of laundry and serve him meals in front of the television set, all the while trying to maintain my own career around his demands.

Besides, I rarely suffered from loneliness and I wasn’t afraid to be alone.

What did I need a man for?

Absolutely nothing, that’s what.

“I better go,” I said to Ami after checking the time and glancing at the long line of travelers snaking through security. I shuffled over to the end of the line.

“Remember, turn off roaming,” Ami warned, tagging along. “In fact, don’t use your cell phone at all; it’s way too expensive. We’ll keep in touch through e-mail. Take a few days to acclimate, then get to work. You’re booked into the local inn for two weeks, but you can always extend that if you decide to stay longer.”

The line moved a few inches, then a few more. Ami stayed with me.

“You can’t go any farther,” I told her when it came my turn to show my boarding pass at the first security checkpoint. Ami hung back but didn’t leave. As I grabbed a bin and began to unload my things into it, she shouted out her parting words, much to my dismay: “And make sure you find out what’s really underneath those sexy kilts!”

Several travelers turned and followed Ami’s gaze back to me.

Maybe I did need some time away.

*   *   *

The flight from Chicago to London went fairly smoothly. I’d chosen a window seat way in the back, and the others in my row weren’t interested in making conversation. But while I still couldn’t sleep for several reasons—mainly because I’d never perfected the art of dozing off in a sitting position, and my wayward heart wouldn’t stop beating to its own Scottish tune at the realization that I was on my very first trip out of the country—coming in for the landing at dawn the next day revived me.

Unfortunately, weariness set in during the layover, and I promised myself a nice nap on the flight to Inverness.

It didn’t happen.

Almost as soon as we’d boarded, Chatty Cathy’s twin sat down next to me in a seat that didn’t completely contain her.

“Vicki MacBride,” she said, introducing herself while I caught a strong whiff of her perfume, a combination of rose and jasmine. “I’m from London, until very recently. Now headed back to live in the place of my birth.” Her accent didn’t sound very English, even though she’d just told me she was from London. It was a blend of some sort, and I wondered if she’d lived elsewhere as well.

Vicki wasn’t a huge woman—plump but not fat, strong-boned but not manly. I guessed her age to be somewhere around mid-forties. She wore her blonde hair tied up in a knot on top of her head and gave me a wide-toothed smile as she dug in a tote and pulled out a beautiful skein of yellow and blue yarn along with knitting needles, and began adding rows to a few existing ones without stopping her flow of talk. “And who do I have the pleasure of meeting?”

I readjusted in my narrow seat, scooting as close to the window as possible in search of a little personal space. “Eden Elliott,” I said by way of introduction, then paused when she asked the reason for my trip to the Highlands. That was a good question. Was I searching for something? A new beginning? Purpose to my life? I went with a more concrete, less introspective response. “I’m going to write a novel.”

“Really?” Vicki’s eyes widened. “What kind of novel?”

“Contemporary romance,” I said. Gillian Fraser, my heroine, would be a strong modern woman struggling with present-day issues and conquering them. I hoped to get into character.

“Lots of sex on the page, I’d imagine?” Vicki said, nudging me with her elbow.

I laughed weakly. “I’m not that far into it yet.” Several thin, first-draft chapters after a polished first chapter didn’t amount to much. I hadn’t yet tried Ami’s advice, to write one of the love scenes first. “Your story will grow organically from there. And don’t be afraid to add lots of juicy details,” she’d said with a wink.

“My favorite reads are romances about American cowboys,” Vicki told me, her knitting needles clicking away. “The hotter, the better. Make sure some of the scenes are right steamy and it’ll be a bestseller.”

“Mmm,” I said noncommittally, then leaned back into the headrest and closed my eyes as the plane gained altitude.

Unfortunately, Vicki MacBride wasn’t the sort to take obvious hints that a person wanted to be left alone.

“I hope Pepper and Coco are doing all right in the hold,” she said, sounding anxious. “They’re my two wee West Highland terriers, and they aren’t used to travel.”

I sympathized with her anxiety over her dogs. Sometimes I think I like animals more than people. Correction: more than sometimes. Change that to “almost always.” They are so much more loyal and aboveboard—loving, caring, never wavering from a constant state of affection and devotion. They don’t run off when you need them the most. And they don’t win your heart, then snap it in two like an insignificant twig.

Once an animal befriends you, it’s for life. Unlike some ex-husbands I could think of.

It was his fault I’d been without the companionship of a pet. Him and his allergies. And my mother’s apartment hadn’t allowed pets. When the lease was up in a few months, I planned to move someplace pet friendly and get one of my own.

“We were supposed to be on an earlier flight, but our plane had mechanical problems and we were all herded over to this one,” Vicki lamented. “I’ll be lucky to make it back in time, what with collecting my boys and finding my car in the lot. Good thing Glenkillen isn’t t...

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