A brand new enemies-to-lovers, no-strings-attached romance, set in the Scottish Highlands, is coming next week from Samantha Young, and I have the Prologue for you. This is the second book in The Highlands series, a spin-off from the Adair Family series.
Ardnoch Estate, Scotland
Sitting on my porch, sipping my morning coffee, I gazed out at the North Sea. Waves gently lapped at the shore below, seagulls squalled in the cloudless sky above, and I felt … content. If not happy, then content. The heat wave that hit the rest of the Western Hemisphere had found a home in the Scottish Highlands too. The early-morning sun turned the waters of the North Sea a Mediterranean turquoise along its shallow depths toward the beach. A slight breeze offered a cool caress against what was an unusually warm temperature for this time of the morning. Thank goodness my father had thought to fit the house with air conditioning, despite being advised it was pointless in this part of the world. If he’d listened to that advice, I wouldn’t have slept last night.
Last summer, my first as hospitality manager at the exclusive members-only club in the Highlands, was a roller-coaster ride of weather. This summer, the film and television professionals who paid a fortune to have access to one of the most secure estates in the world had spent much of it outdoors because of weeks filled with sunny days. I’d never seen so many members take advantage of our private beach or require security to protect them as they enjoyed guided tours of the Highlands. Not to mention, the use of the spa doubled. In fact, I’d hired extra seasonal staff this year, more than Ardnoch had ever required.
Ardnoch Castle was meant to buzz with life and energy … but, honestly, I wanted Hollywood to return to work. I longed for September to arrive so they’d hurry home or onto their next project in whichever corner of the world it took them to. As long as it wasn’t here.
The estate could never be like LA, but fill it with people from LA and it became uncomfortably close.
Glancing at the elegant Rolex my mother had given me for Christmas, I quickly threw back the last of my coffee and hurried into my house. It was technically my parents’ house, but I lived in it year-round while they (mostly my mother) visited for the summer. Spotting Mamma’s jewelry scattered over the breakfast nook, I hurried quietly through the downstairs. I didn’t want to wake her.
My mother had descended upon Ardnoch weeks ago, and even though I was busy at the castle with work, she still wore on my last nerve.
Grabbing my purse, phone, and car keys, I tiptoed toward the front door so the sound of my heels wouldn’t echo upstairs.
My mother’s husky voice stopped me in my tracks. I’d inherited that sultry huskiness, but not the sultry Italian accent that went with it. Taking a deep breath, I turned and watched Mamma descend the staircase like she was on a photo shoot. Her silk robe billowed open, flashing her long, perfect legs. Dark hair that she’d been dyeing since she was thirty to cover premature gray was tied up in an artfully messy bun as she frowned at me. Because of the fillers she had injected into her lips every few months, it seemed as if she was perpetually pouting. To be fair, she usually was.
“Morning, Mamma,” I answered, straightening instinctually. My entire life, my mother, the supermodel, had drilled it into me to keep my shoulders and spine straight.
“No daughter of mine will have a hunchback.”
“Coffee?” she asked as she stepped down into the hallway and crossed the distance between us.
“There’s some in the kitchen.”
Her dark eyes narrowed. “You’re leaving? Again?”
I sighed inwardly. “Mamma, you know I work here.”
“All you do is work. Do you not get a break?”
“Summer is our busiest time. You know that.”
“I’ve hardly seen you.”
Biting back a response, I took a second to control my irritation. Snapping at Mamma only led to days of drama. However, I found it ironic that my mother wanted to spend time with me only after I became an adult and no longer needed her in the way I used to. As a child, I spent a lot of time with nannies and overworked personal assistants. My dad was Wesley Howard, legendary movie director, and he spent a lot of time away from home when I was a kid. My mom, a famous Italian supermodel, was always off in some exotic location shooting for a magazine or an ad campaign.
When they were home, I wouldn’t say they weren’t involved because they were. My parents did their best to show that they loved me and my sister, despite how busy they were. But the truth of the matter was, they didn’t raise me. And when Allegra unexpectedly came along when I was ten years old, I—and not our absent parents—raised my younger sister.
I’d sacrificed going to the college of my dreams and stayed home in Malibu to commute to the University of California in LA so I could be there for my little sister. After my first two years at UCLA, my mother retired from modeling. With her home, I’d suggested I transfer and head to the East Coast. Mamma had such a dramatic meltdown at the thought of me leaving that I stayed for Allegra’s sake.
Our mother had never been more involved in our lives. I was grateful that Allegra got that time with her (even if it hadn’t stopped her from going off the rails), but it frustrated me to have to deal with Mamma’s constant calls and texts now, too many years after I actually needed her.
“I should get to work.” I finally settled on a calm reply.
Her eyes washed over my outfit. “Oh, darling, cover your arms. You haven’t used those weights I gave you at all, have you?”
For the whole twenty-eight years of my life, I’d put up with my mother picking apart my appearance. She thought it was her way of showing she cared. I was pretty sure she probably fretted over my cute baby-fat rolls when I was a newborn.
This morning, she was referring to the sleeveless silk blouse I wore tucked into my pencil skirt. “It’s hot out,” I said.
“The castle has air conditioning. Wait here and I’ll get you something to cover up, okay?” Mamma patted my shoulder with a loving smile. “You need to look your best if you are ever to catch a handsome man’s eye.”
“Mamma, please join the rest of us in the twenty-first century.”
“Oh, pfft.” She waved a manicured hand as she turned, her robe billowing behind her. “Just because a woman thinks romance and companionship are important does not mean she’s not a feminist.”
“Coming from the woman who sees her husband a few times a year.”
“Exaggeration,” my mother threw over her shoulder, “and distance does make the heart grow fonder. Your father and I still cannot keep our hands off each other.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” I muttered under my breath. My parents’ passion for each other was not something I’d ever questioned. “I’m going!”
“No, coccolona, I’ll be just a minute!”
“And don’t call me that!” My patience ended, and I hurried out of the house before she could stop me.
Coccolona translated to cuddly. I was my mother’s cuddly one. It was her affectionate way of referring to the fact that I was a pudgy child. As a teenager, I’d eaten small meals and never snacked, so I could maintain an impossible weight for my bone structure. I spent most of my time in class holding my belly so people wouldn’t hear it rumbling. And even then, my mother still made comments about my weight. Finally exhausted by the constant dieting, I gave up and embraced the fact that I was born to be a little overweight. Maybe if Mamma wasn’t always pointing out the things I least liked about myself (like my arms!), I’d be more comfortable with my body. I’d be proud of my “tall voluptuousness,” as Allegra called it.
Catching sight of my arms in the reflection of my BMW’s window, I fought the urge to go back into the house to change. It was hot, goddamn it! So I didn’t have slender, toned arms like my mother and Allegra. So what? I’d inherited my figure from my father’s maternal side of the family and that was that.
My mother couldn’t leave soon enough.
Slamming into my car, I accelerated away from the house with more speed than necessary. Our house was one of only a few large, private, member-owned homes along the estate’s coastline. My father was on the board of Ardnoch Estate and had called dibs on one. The anti-drone perimeter that encapsulated the entire estate protected us. The main lodgings for the rest of the members were in the castle itself.
The ancestral estate of Hollywood actor Lachlan Adair, he’d turned his family home into a lucrative business and haven for Hollywood’s elite. Lachlan had retired from acting to run the Ardnoch and his other business ventures, but when his wife gave birth to their daughter Vivien, he’d stepped back from his duties to be a hands-on dad. I respected the hell out of that decision and appreciated it because it gave me a job to escape to when I’d desperately needed it. I’d never expected I’d love the Scottish Highlands so much. While my job title was Hospitality Manager, I’d taken over for Lachlan and was running the place. I didn’t mind. It kept me busy and fed my love of organization and bossing people around.
While the castle hosted most of the rooms, dining area, and entertainment spaces, separate buildings housed the spa, gym, and swimming pool. The property also offered tennis courts, a golf course, two small lochs, a private beach, and luxury lodges for members who preferred more privacy.
Including having to liaise with the head butler, a maître d’, head chef, head housekeeper, and all of their staff, I had to oversee beauty therapists, personal trainers, physical therapists, masseuses, a yoga, Pilates, and mindfulness instructor, golf and tennis coaches, lifeguards, and one of the best private security teams in the country. Never mind that I was also the person members wanted to talk to when there was a problem.
Moreover, I was the welcome wagon, and today we were expecting our latest member. North Hunter, a renowned Scottish actor. I’d seen him in a couple of meh rom-coms he’d made. What? So I was kind of a film snob. I could say without bias my dad was one of the greatest directors of all time. Blame him for my film snobbery.
However, I had caught an episode of North Hunter’s TV show, King’s Valley, that had catapulted him to fame these past few years. He played a serial killer and won a Golden Globe for his performance last year. I’d been surprised by his acting chops when I saw King’s Valley. I hadn’t expected him to go from cocky, charming Scot to intensely charismatic and complex sociopath.
After I saw the show, I reached out to his management to see if he’d be interested in a membership. Part of my job was to bring fresh blood to the estate, and I wanted that fresh blood to be the cream of the crop. North had just bagged the lead role in what was sure to be the next big spy action movie franchise. Rumor had it filming started at the end of the year. It thrilled me when North paid for a membership without even coming to tour the estate. He’d apparently heard enough about Ardnoch through the grapevine and understood that membership here was gilding for credentials. Yes, that sounded elitist and pretentious, but it was the truth. There was a long waiting list for membership to Ardnoch. To bypass that waiting list meant you’d made it.
It was a five-minute drive through woodland to the castle, and I was one of the first to park my vehicle in the staff lot. I liked to be early to work. Hurrying into the castle’s cool interior, I nodded hello to the staff who had just arrived or were coming off the night shift, and greeted Wakefield, our head butler. He wore his formal black-and-white butler uniform of tailcoat and white gloves. In the year I’d been working at Ardnoch, I’d never beaten that man to work.
“Good morning, Wakefield.”
He gave me a small bow. “Ms. Howard. Mr. Hunter has arrived.”
I stumbled to a stop on the edges of the opulent reception hall, my heels squeaking on the parquet flooring. The room was empty. No sign of North Hunter. A grand staircase descended into the center, fitted with a red-and-gray tartan wool runner. It led to a landing where three floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows spilled sunlight. Then it branched off at either side, twin staircases leading to the floor above, which I could partially see from the galleried balconies at either end of the reception hall. It was too hot for a fire in the huge hearth on the wall adjacent to the entrance and opposite the staircase. Tiffany lamps scattered throughout on end tables gave the space a warm glow, as it wasn’t the most light-filled space.
Opposite the quiet hearth sat two matching suede-and-fabric buttoned sofas with a coffee table in between. This was usually where new members awaited my arrival.
“Already?” I asked, turning back to Wakefield. “Where is he?”
“I took the liberty of showing Mr. Hunter to the dining room. Chef has provided breakfast for him.”
“Good. Good. He’s very early.” We hadn’t expected North until this afternoon. I had a meeting this morning first thing with Jock McRory, our head of security. “Wakefield, can you tell Mr. McRory I have to postpone our meeting until nine thirty and have Mr. Hunter brought to my office as soon as he’s finished breakfast?”
“Of course, Ms. Howard.”
“Where is his luggage?” I asked.
“Mrs. Hutchinson recalled you wished to have Mr. Hunter stay in the Bruce Suite, so I had his luggage delivered to his room.”
My lips twitched at the thought of our head housekeeper. “I swear that woman has supernatural abilities.” Agnes Hutchinson seemed to know everything that went on at the castle and had my schedule memorized.
“Indeed.” Wakefield’s eyes glimmered with amusement.
“Thank you, Wakefield. I’ll be in my office.”
“Shall I have coffee brought to you?”
Wakefield was the best.
My office was Lachlan’s “stage office,” as he’d called it. His real office was in the staff quarters and was a dismal, dreary little room next to Jock’s office. This stage office was where he took meetings with members. He’d insisted I take it as my own, and I did not argue. The room was like a smaller version of the estate library. Wall-to-wall dark oak bookshelves, an impressive open fireplace, and two comfortable armchairs situated in front of a captain’s pedestal desk. A floor-to-ceiling window adjacent to the desk let in light so it didn’t feel too dark. Tiffany lamps aided in chasing off the gloom too. Luxurious velvet curtains at the window pooled on the wooden floors, most of which were covered in expensive carpets.
I rounded the desk and took a seat in the ergonomic chair that was specially designed to fit in with the room’s traditional opulence. My small keyboard sat on the leather top of the pedestal desk, and I stared at it and the blank screen on my computer for a second.
No doubt a million emails awaited me as soon as I switched it on.
So I took a breath and let it out before I reached over and woke up the monitor.
Not a minute later, there was a knock at the door, and Wakefield arrived with hot coffee and a breakfast pastry.
“Mr. Hunter is just finishing up. Would you like me to ask him to wait in the reception hall for a few moments?”
“No, just bring him in.” Although he was early and it wasn’t my fault, he’d been waiting long enough.
As per usual, nerves threatened to take over. This happened anytime I was meeting someone new. But I’d learned to pour on self-assurance like it was a role I was playing. Glancing down to make sure I was presentable, I frowned at the sight of my bare arms and cursed my mother for bringing them to my attention. I suddenly wished I was wearing anything but the silk blouse. Truthfully, I was probably too busty for silk. Mamma always said silk was for elegant figures. My breasts wouldn’t know how to be elegant if they were strapped down with a mile’s worth of boob tape.
I straightened my shoulders just as the knock came at the door.
Wakefield entered. “Mr. North Hunter, Ms. Howard.”
“Thank you, Wakefield.” I stood as the Scottish actor entered the room.
Our eyes locked and I was barely aware of Wakefield leaving the office as goose bumps suddenly prickled across my arms. Penetrating, beautiful gray eyes stared intensely into mine and awareness shivered down my spine.
The entire room seemed to shrink in North Hunter’s presence. He was tall, perhaps six feet two. Dressed in a black fitted T-shirt and dark blue jeans, I noted the broad shoulders, the hard, sculpted biceps, the long, lean, athletic physique. Dark blond hair cropped fairly short.
Angled jaw, thin, serious lips, and a strong, straight but sharp nose. High cheekbones.
My feet felt stuck as he held my stare, his expression changing from surprised to curious to smoldering in an instant.
North Hunter was a rugged, beautiful man.
I’d met many beautiful men, but I’d only been attracted to a few. Usually, it took more than several seconds in their presence for that tingle between my thighs to let itself be known.
Then North smiled. A wicked, boyish smile that made my belly flip like I was a freaking teenager.
Fear scored through me and I stiffened, dismay chasing away the fear.
My tone sounded brittle even to my ears as I rounded the desk and reluctantly held out my hand. “Mr. Hunter, welcome to Ardnoch. You’re early.”
The last sounded accusatory.
His smile only deepened, causing his eyes to crinkle sexily at the corners. “That I am.” His gaze leisurely moved down my body in inappropriate perusal. My hand wavered. I knew from my research that North had been dating British pop star Cara Rochdale for two years. So when he finally deigned to drag his attention back to my face and there was no mistaking the heat in his eyes, I struggled not to hide my distaste. I wondered how many women he’d cheated on the English beauty with.
North took hold of my hand, his grip tight. “You look different in real life,” he mused in that lilting accent that was unfairly attractive.
He looked different too. Or rather, his magnetism was muted in film. I could practically sense his energy vibrating up my arm, and as he held my hand for too long, I felt a tightening in my breasts.
Sucking in a breath, I yanked my hand out of his.
I’d been fooled before by hot looks and charisma. Never again. Ignoring the comment that suggested he’d googled me (there were a few red carpet shots online of me with my family, but the last one had to have been taken at least four years ago), I moved back behind my desk. I’d put a key card for North’s room in my drawer last night.
“As you know, I’m Ms. Howard, and I run Ardnoch when Mr. Adair is otherwise occupied. However, we have a full staff who are at your disposal. There is information in your room regarding spa treatments, personal trainers, physical therapists, golf lessons, tennis lessons, yoga, Pilates, mindfulness, tour guides, and things to see in the area. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to press zero on the telephone in your room to be connected to our liaison service.” I grabbed the envelope with his key card and rounded the desk again to hand it to him. “Welcome to Ardnoch.”
“You said that already.” He took the envelope and glanced inside it.
I waited for him to leave.
Laughter twinkled in North’s eyes. “Is that it, then? Is that my warm welcome?”
I tried not to let my discomfort show. “Is there anything else you require, Mr. Hunter?”
“Well, I’d love it if you’d call me North.”
Since that would be inappropriate, I didn’t respond.
A furrow appeared between his brows. “Have I done something to offend you, Aria?”
“Ms. Howard,” I insisted gently. And maybe stop looking at me like I’m something you want to eat. “Of course not. However, I am late for a meeting, so if you’ll excuse me.” I crossed the room and pulled open the door.
When I glanced back over my shoulder, North’s eyes were on my ass.
Indignation filled me and I cleared my throat, even as I wondered if he was looking at my ass because he liked it or because its largeness surprised him.
He didn’t appear even a tiny bit sheepish about being caught as he strolled over to the door. “Thank you for the short and not very sweet welcome.” North halted inches from me, and I fought the urge to step back. He searched my face like I was a puzzle he couldn’t figure out. “I do feel as though I might have offended you somehow, and that bothers me more than I like.”
He sounded sincere.
That was the thing about actors.
They were very good at pretending.
“Of course you haven’t offended me, Mr. Hunter. We’ve never met until today. It’s just a busy morning here at Ardnoch.” I noted Max, one of our valets, waiting outside. “Max here will show you to your suite. I took the liberty of procuring the Bruce Suite for your stay. It has a wonderful view of the North Sea. If, when you return to Ardnoch, you would like us to reserve a particular room or lodge, please give us plenty of notice and we’ll do our best to accommodate.” Even as I spoke, I fought the invisible pull to lean closer to him, to breathe deeply of his sandalwood and citrus cologne.
A coolness entered his expression at my crisp formality. “Very good, Ms. Howard.” He strode out of my office without looking back, and I quickly shut the door.
Resting my forehead on the wood, I exhaled shakily.
What the hell was that?
Whatever it was, my alarm bells were ringing. The last time I was attracted to an actor, he ripped my fragile self-esteem to shreds.
And this actor was one of my members.
I needed to stay as far away from North Hunter as possible.