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Authors: Patience Griffin

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BOOK: Meet Me in Scotland
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*   *   *

When Emma and Claire got back to the restaurant, all the customers were gone. Dominic was nowhere in sight, but Gabriel was there, clearing tables. He said hello to Claire but didn't make eye contact with Emma. It stung, but she guessed he was still angry from earlier when she'd dismissed him from her presence at Quilting Central. She glanced at him once more, then followed Claire upstairs to the flat.

Once inside, Claire stripped off her coat. “I think I'll go soak in the tub.” She hugged Emma. “That was a nice evening. Don't you think?”

Emma thought they should be downstairs, helping with the dinner dishes. “Sure,” she finally answered. “Nice.”

Claire glided down the hallway and disappeared into the loo.

As Emma settled onto the sofa, the door creaked open to the flat. She turned around to see Dominic in the doorway, looking haggard, which wasn't easy for the big, hearty Italian that he was. She stood.

“Where's Claire?” he asked.

Emma pointed down the hall. “The tub. Are you all right?” She'd been fond of Dominic from the very beginning. He'd always given her a warm bear hug and kind words, treating her like a beloved sister. She took a step toward him now.

“Don't.” He put his hand up in roadblock fashion. “I've only come for a few things.” He grabbed a pillow, two quilts from the basket near the couch, and a book
from the table. “I'll be getting out of your way and back to cleaning up.”

He was gone without giving Emma a chance to say another word. She understood; he was too distraught for niceties.

Claire appeared in her bath towel, water dripping all over the hardwood floors. “What was that? Did I hear someone?”

Emma winced, not wanting to say, but finally did. “Yes. Dominic.”

“Where is he now?” Hope radiated in her desperate eyes. “Was he looking for me?”

Emma went to stand by her. “He grabbed some things. I think he's taking your words to heart and sleeping downstairs.”

Claire burst into tears, her good mood from the evening with the baby ruined.

Emma walked with her down the hall to the Russos' bedroom, grabbing her pajamas off the hook by the door. “Get dressed while I make you some herbal tea. It should help you sleep. We have an early morning.”

Claire sniffed and took the pajamas from her. “Early morning. Yes, the baking. But you sleep in. I'll be fine alone.”

“I've missed working with you in the kitchen,” Emma insisted. “I'll be up with you. Which scones are we making?”

“I'll have to check the schedule.” Claire was definitely distracted if she didn't know which scones were on for tomorrow. Scones were Claire's life, always first and foremost in her mind. Claire prided herself that she had a scone recipe for every day of the year and was always on the hunt for something new to try.

Emma had an uncharitable thought toward the
precious MacTavish family—Amy, Coll, and baby William. They seemed so nice but they might be to blame for Claire and Dominic's problems. Dangling that beautiful baby in front of Claire in her present state of mind couldn't be healthy. Not for the Russos. Not for the people of Gandiegow, who had to deal with them every day. And definitely not for Emma and Gabriel, who loved Dominic and Claire the most. Baby William might be the sweetest babe in the whole world, but he'd rained down a heap of trouble on all of them.

*   *   *

Dominic spread the blankets over a stack of pallets next to the hundred-pound sack of potatoes. Not the most comfortable bed and not his first choice. But dammit, what could he do? He couldn't trust himself to be near Claire. It didn't make any difference how mad he was—her naked and him horny was a recipe for disaster. A bambino disaster. The storeroom was a good compromise. Here he wouldn't accidentally ravish his wife and get her pregnant. He had only one reason for postponing a child: It came down to economics. Cold, hard cash and the lack thereof. Claire understood how financially strapped they were as well as he did. But for some reason she wasn't in the state of mind to care anymore. Why wouldn't she see they had to wait to have a baby?

He stretched out on the pallets but lost his balance and rolled off. He pounded his fist on the floor.
Why did I ever come to this godforsaken village?

This town put those blasted baby thoughts into Claire's head. They hadn't been here five minutes before every bastard in Gandiegow had wanted to know when they'd be having their first
bairn
.

First bairn.

He pounded the floor again and yanked the blanket from the pallet. The floor was hard and cold, but it was
as good a place as any to spend a sleepless night. Maybe he was punishing himself more than he was punishing Claire. But dammit, he wasn't giving in. Not this time.

Chapter Five

W
hen Gabe woke the next morning, he had a problem. A big one. Actually it was a three-part problem.

Emma Castle.

The hard-on she gave him while he slept.

And when the hell would she get out of town—and out of his life?

His obsession with her was beyond his ken. She wasn't at all what he wanted in a woman. She was too high maintenance. Too prim. Too much.

He rolled out of bed and rushed to get ready. If he hurried, he could get coffee and scones from the restaurant before he saw his patients.
If there are any.
This afternoon, though, he planned to make a house call and see how Amy and Coll's baby was getting along.

Another reason to get to the restaurant was to check on Dom and Claire. Was it too unreasonable to hope Emma had changed her mind and performed a miracle overnight with those two knuckleheads? Or maybe Claire and Dom patched things up for Emma's sake because she'd come to visit.
Yeah, I'm living in a dreamworld
. Both Russos were as stubborn as a resistant strain of strep. A pang of sympathy for Emma overcame him. Here she'd come all the way
from LA to see her friend, only to find the Russos in a row. It had to be tough for her.

Gabe shoved his feet into his boots and stepped outside. A sheen of ice coated everything. He reached back inside the doorway and grabbed the trekking pole to help manage the ice. It wouldn't do anyone any good if the town's doctor broke his neck. That is, if they ever bothered to come see him.

It was bitter outside. A Scot himself, he should be able to handle the cold weather, but he was still adjusting to the Highland's brutal winter climate. As he maneuvered down the path from the doctor's quarters to the restaurant, the tantalizing smells of breakfast welcomed him. Claire had a gift when it came to scones. He had wondered on more than one occasion if she hadn't slipped in a narcotic to make them so addicting.

As he opened the door and stepped inside, he let out a
“Brrrr.”
Everyone turned to him. Even
her.

Emma!

He stopped in his boots and gaped. She stood there, staring back at him with a crisp white apron tied around her waist and a notepad in her hand.

Her Majesty, taking the MacDougal brothers' order?

Gabe couldn't wrap his brain around it and what he knew about little Miss Prim and Proper. Wasn't she more likely to be the one giving the orders than taking them?
Huh.
Still holding eye contact with her, he felt a goofy grin spread across his face.

“Claire,” Thomas MacDougal hollered, breaking the moment. “Where've ye been hiding this lovely?” He waggled his eyebrows at Emma and gazed at her with a greedy once-over.

A lion roared inside of Gabe's chest.
Ah, hell.
He knew Claire could handle these horny bastard fishermen, but Emma was too refined, too fragile.

Lochie, Thomas's brother, grabbed Emma's hand. “Oh, my
luve
is like a red, red rose, that's newly sprung in June.”

Gabe sprang into action, advancing on the MacDougals' table. Emma put her hand up, stopping him.

She unhinged Lochie's hand and hollered to Claire, too. “Bucket of ice water for table one.” Sounding just like a seasoned waitress.

The MacDougal brothers laughed and Emma smiled. No harm done. But Gabe chose the far end of the counter to linger close to the MacDougals, in case their ardor got out of control again.

Claire started a new pot of coffee. “Gabriel MacGregor, don't expect Emma or me to serve you. Get your arse over here and take care of yourself.”

“What happened to the days when women were at a man's beck and call?” he kidded.

Claire put her hands on her hips. “All those men died off.”

“Of starvation,” Emma added as she passed by.

“Well, I can't stand for that. I'm wasting away as it is.”

As if stealing the opportunity, Emma skimmed down his body with her evergreen eyes, searching for emaciation. She seemed satisfied with what she saw.
As well she should.

He lumbered behind the counter to fix a cup of coffee and to grab a cherry scone.

Emma strolled into the kitchen with a tray of dirty dishes.

“I'll put your breakfast on your tab, Gabriel.” Claire wiped down the counter. “You know, the one where you clean up the kitchen for us girls. We have an errand to run.”

Gabe nodded. “Fine. I'll be back in a bit. Office hours, you know.” He would wait around at the surgery for a
while and then put a sign on the doctor's quarters to let everyone know he was at his second job: scullery maid at the restaurant.

Emma returned. He walked over to her and was as bad as Thomas and Lochie a moment ago. He couldn't help but drink her in. “Damn.” This dichotomy she had going on—upper-crust meets French maid—sucked him in and turned him on.

“Keep your opinions to yourself,” she hissed.

“You don't know what my opinions are,” he countered back.

“I can guess. You think it's funny that I'm waiting tables.”

“Oh, right. You've caught me,” he laughed. It was a good thing she didn't know where his dirty mind had gone: He'd like to peel that apron off her slowly and get down to her soft middle.

Emma glanced back to where Claire was arranging silverware. “We need to talk,” she whispered to Gabe.

“About what?”

“The Russos,” she said.

He checked his watch. “I have to run right now. Stop by later.”

Emma chewed on her lip. “It'll have to be much later. I'm going with Claire to Inverness. On an errand.” She didn't seem happy about it.

“Aye. She told me.”

Shock flooded Emma's face. “She told you about the lingerie?”

Gabriel laughed. “No. But you just did.”

“Effing A.”
Emma's hand flew to her mouth and her cheeks turned all shades of red, spreading downward to her neck.

He laughed harder. “Be careful. Or you might get your pretty little mouth washed out.” And because he
was feeling a little devilish, he added, “You might need a spanking, too.”

Emma straightened. “I'd like to see you try.”

Aye, I would like to try. It would be entertaining as hell.

He shouldn't be flirting with her. He wondered as she huffed off if maybe he'd pushed her too far. But she'd said she wanted to talk to him later. Maybe there was a cease-fire in their future.

On the way back to the surgery, he saw Mrs. Bruce juggling her youngest baby in her arms while she dropped a letter in the postbox. His own mother popped into his thoughts. Had his mother yearned to have him as badly as Claire wanted her own child? He'd never considered it before. His mother had been years older than Claire when she'd given birth to him.

Gabe would never forget how Amy glowed when she looked upon her babe's face for the first time, then the look she'd given her husband. It was a moment of pure love. It filled the room, more completely than the air that surrounded them. Had his mother looked upon him and his da that way? Coll's exuberance had been priceless, too, as he strutted around the cabin at what he had done, or at least his hand in it—the proud peacock. Gabe witnessed how fatherhood, from the first second even, could change a man. Being a father was one of the most important things in a man's life.

Suddenly, Gabe's feelings shifted. Dom had it all wrong. He was missing out by putting off having a child. Gabe could see Claire was perfectly right.
Now
was the time to have a baby.

Life was short, dammit. Gabe's mother had only had a year with him before she'd died. Claire deserved her baby. Money shouldn't be a factor. Hell, Gabe would pay for his niece or nephew if they'd let him.

A strange kind of peace came over him. He and Emma
were now on the same side and they could work together to make sure Dominic saw the logic of having a child now. A baby would fix everything. The bairn would glue the Russos together forever. Gabe was counting on it.

*   *   *

Emma checked out the last customer and closed the cash register drawer. She was exhausted but not from working all morning. She blamed the ocean for keeping her up half the night with the endless waves crashing against the containment wall. Give her sirens, dump trucks, cars roaring down the street any day—those noises she could deal with. Mother Nature slamming against concrete all night? Not a chance.

As she hung up her apron, Dominic showed up to prep for the lunch crowd, scowling like the prime rib had been left out all night to rot.

Emma nodded to him.

“Mornin',” Dominic groused, glaring at Claire.

“How did you sleep last night?” Claire purred.

“You know damn well how I slept. Terrible.” He pointed to the storeroom.

“Stop yere whining.” Claire hung her apron on an empty hook. “Ye could've been in your own bed with yere willing wife.”

Emma would have to remind Claire she could catch more sperm by being nice than by badgering her husband. The couple faced off, the tension as heavy and thick as the Alfredo sauce on today's menu. Because harsher words were about to fly, Emma stole upstairs.

A few minutes later, Claire joined her. “Get your coat. We're going.”

Claire had a superior air about her. She must've won the battle downstairs, or at least had fewer casualties. Dominic was sharp. If he'd had a good night's sleep, he could handle his wife. Emma had seen it before. The two of them were meant for each other. Dominic was a
strong man and had a way of taming his somewhat wild wife and making her,
well
, manageable.

Emma did as she was told and grabbed her coat. When they walked back downstairs, Emma saw Claire glancing around for Dominic. His swearwords rang out from the kitchen. Claire stomped out the front door.

Outside, the sky was gray and the air thick with moisture. They picked their way carefully along the boardwalk coated by last night's sleet and snow. White birds circled above and every few minutes they'd swoop, snatch a fish, then take it to the snowy shore to eat. Ah, a lovely mottle of entrails and blood on the beach.
A picturesque Highland scene.

Emma glanced over at Claire as they trekked along. “How exactly are we getting to Inverness? Did you and Dominic buy a car?”

“No,” Claire said, not offering more.

By now they'd reached the parking lot at the edge of town. Claire didn't go to one of the parked vehicles but went to an ancient postbox painted green instead.

“Och, Claire,” Emma said in her best snarky Scottish imitation, “are we mailing ourselves, then?”

Her friend smiled sarcastically and opened the small red door on the front of the postbox. “Ye're not as smart as ye think you are, Emma Castle. It's not the post. It's where we store the keys to the community autos.”

Sure enough, five sets of keys lay in the innards of the green postbox.

“Who maintains the autos?” Emma asked.

“The village. We pay as we go. There's a sign-out sheet at the grocery.”

“Clever.”

Claire retrieved a set of keys and plodded off to the blue Subaru. “Come on. We've got a lot to do.”

Emma got in the car, rehearsing in her head the speech
she was going to deliver to Claire:
patience, compassion, and compromise
. Emma had spent the past three years being in the middle and it was very unpleasant.
Especially when divorce was inevitable
. A sick feeling swept over her—the sticky feeling of a broken marriage and what that ultimately meant.

Dominic and Claire—
together
—had been a constant in Emma's life while she'd been drowning in a sea of breakups. The Russos had given her a small inkling of hope that marriage could survive. Not like her parents' marriage of convenience, but one of love, commitment, and possibly even happily-ever-after. With Dominic and Claire not being
Dominic and Claire
, Emma's world felt precariously off-balanced, tilted. She just might drop off the edge and never find her way back.

Claire reached over and squeezed Emma's hand. “I can feel it. Dominic and I are going to be fine. This little errand is going to remind him just how
fine
we really are.” She slid the key into the ignition. “I just need to remind that Italian Stallion what he loves most in life.”

“And what's that?” Emma dared to ask.

“My body.”
Claire revved the engine and they were off.

But it was slow going up the hill because of last night's sleet. “Tonight I'll get Dominic straightened out,” Claire said cheerily. “By this time tomorrow, everything will be back to normal. Better than normal,” she added emphatically. “Ye'll see.”

Emma did not
see
. She opened her mouth to say so, but Claire derailed her.

“How long do you think you can stay in Gandiegow with me? It's been ages, years really, since we've had a proper visit.”

“It depends,” Emma hedged.

“On what?”

On how stubborn you can be. How long I can stand being in the middle of this mess.

And then there was the other factor Emma didn't even want to examine.
Gabriel
.

The auto made it to the main road and she breathed a sigh of relief.

“I'm waiting,” Claire reminded her. “How long can you stay?”

For Emma, it was safer to go back to the rehearsed speech in her head. The problem was, she'd given up marriage counseling and the words she was about to say . . . sounded as if she hadn't.

“Claire,” Emma finally tried, “you know you have it all wrong, don't you? Your problems with Dominic have nothing to do with spicing up your sex life. Whether you want to admit it or not, it's more complicated than that.”

“Hogwash,” Claire said. But in the next second, she chewed her lip, not looking anything like the confident woman Emma knew her to be.

BOOK: Meet Me in Scotland
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