Join A Highlander – Rebecca Preston

Sarah Elway gritted her teeth as she tried to get comfortable in the back seat of the rickety bus that seemed to be on the verge of shaking apart completely. She’d been expecting the roads of Scotland to be rocky, but she’d assumed that the vehicles would have at least some kind of suspension in them. That didn’t seem to be the case here. And to make things worse, she was stuck in the back of the bus, surrounded by a bunch of half-drunk tourists who were clearly more interested in the night life of Scotland than the sights. Then again, she supposed she couldn’t judge. At thirty-four, she was almost too old to have signed up for a tour like this one… but she’d done so with a distinctly ulterior motive. An ulterior motive that had obsessed her for the last four years and counting. An ulterior motive that made any amount of travel sickness more than worth it. An ulterior motive that went by the name of Damon DeBeers. She finally found a comfortable spot and leaned against the window, staring out at the rather beautiful countryside beyond. She was a long way from home. Sarah had never been particularly interested in travel – Boston was home, and any trip further than the state border of Massachusetts had never piqued her interest. No, this trip was strictly business. Her work had never taken her to the other side of the world before, though, and despite her laser-focus on her objective, it had been interesting to learn a little bit more about the world outside of her hometown. The tour bus had been a cost-cutting measure, mostly.

There were hundreds of old ruins in this part of Scotland, and the info she had on DeBeers just said he’d stashed the jewels in the ruins of an ancient old building on the Isle of Skye – ‘probably a castle’, her source had said, though they hadn’t been certain. At the time, she’d been thrilled – how many castles could there be in such a small area? But a quick call to a travel agent had dashed her hopes – there were dozens of places that fit the bill. A few more phone calls had shown her that the cheapest way of getting to as many old ruins as possible was by taking a castle tour. So here she was, sitting at the back of a bus full of rowdy young tourists from around the world, playing the part of a tourist… and quietly searching every ruin they visited for a stash of hidden jewels. DeBeers had been working for a long time, but this latest heist was particularly galling. Sarah’s client Agnes had a world-famous jewelry collection – she’d been touring with it across Europe when DeBeers had struck. He’d even had the audacity to show off his heist at the London Diamond Exchange, listing a few famous pieces for sale for just long enough for the authorities to be tipped off before disappearing without a trace. Well, not exactly without a trace, Sarah grinned. The detective firm she worked for had a long history with DeBeers, and when the case had come across her desk, she’d jumped at the chance to give it a go herself. A bit of good old-fashioned phone work had led her to an old partner of DeBeers, a man he’d double-crossed and left for the cops to pick up.

He’d been more than willing to share a few choice pieces of information once Sarah had found a few ways to make his prison stay a little more comfortable … including the fact that DeBeers had often bragged about a hiding place in a castle on the Isle of Skye. So here she was – on a kind of weird working holiday. Anyone else would have jumped at the chance to relax and sightsee on the company dime. Her boss had all but encouraged her to try to have a good time while she was searching for DeBeers – but for Sarah, it was impossible to relax while she was on a case. She wouldn’t be able to enjoy herself here in Scotland until DeBeers was safely in custody, his stolen diamonds returned. Maybe then she’d be able to enjoy the scenery. But until then… Sarah was beginning to lose track of how many castles they’d visited. This next one, apparently, was distinctive because of how well-preserved its lower levels were. The upper levels were seriously damaged as a result of its placement on the edge of a cliff – the salt air and sea wind had all but destroyed it – but the labyrinthine basements, their guide informed them, were remarkably intact. She’d sat forward at that information, intrigued not by the historical significance, but by thoughts of her jewel thief.

Were the well-preserved basements of Castle Dunscaith where he’d chosen to stash his prize? Well, she’d find out soon enough. They’d be pulling up to the castle in an hour or so, with just enough of the afternoon sun left to explore thoroughly before heading to their nearby hotel for the night. Sarah flipped through her notebook, written in her own chicken scratch handwriting… and, for good measure, with a simple cipher over the top, so that anybody glancing over her shoulders at her notes would see only gibberish. She’d done her best to keep to herself on the trip mostly, despite the earnest attempts of the tour guide to get them all to make friends with each other, but the other tourists were nosy, and she didn’t want any of them finding out what she was actually doing. The last thing she needed was a dozen other people searching for diamonds along with her. Being a private detective had never been her plan. As a young woman, she’d wanted to follow in her mother and father’s footsteps – to be a cop like them, like their parents before them, and their parents before them. Both of her older brothers went off to the academy when she was still in high school, and she’d been determined to join them. Little did she know that the asthma inhaler she carried with her everywhere she went would be her undoing. To her utter dismay, despite acing the entrance exam and nailing all the fitness requirements, it was her routine medical check that had sealed her fate.

Had her asthma been minimal, maybe she’d have been fine, but her’s was severe, unfortunately. “But I have medicine,” she said to her mother over and over, sitting at the kitchen table with tears streaming down her cheeks and dripping onto the rejection letter. “My inhaler – I’m fine. My attacks aren’t that bad…” She knew it was a lie. Her attacks were nearly always life-threatening when they happened, usually triggered by smog and toxins in the air, things hard to avoid in the city. She’d plunged into a long, deep depression then – it had been months before she felt well enough to get out of bed, to find a new life to replace the one that had been taken from her. Maybe she was still hanging onto some of that resentment, even more than fifteen years later. She’d certainly become a rather single-minded kind of detective. Her boss commended her regularly on her work ethic… she was like a bulldog, never letting go of a case until she had her suspect. And having family on the police force was handy, too – her older brothers were always willing to do what they could to help her out with her work.

It still wasn’t what she’d spent her whole childhood dreaming of… the blue uniform, the brotherhood of the police force, the knowledge that she was keeping the city she loved safe. But sometimes you just didn’t get what you wanted in life, wasn’t that true? So, she focused on one case at a time, taking solace in the fact that she was still getting criminals off the street… just in a different way. And she was proud of her work, proud of her career. Proud of what she’d managed to achieve, despite the asthma that still troubled her regularly. Automatically, she reached into her pocket to take a quick puff on her inhaler. Being out in the countryside like this had been good for her, actually – she’d found herself needing the inhaler far less – but still, better safe than sorry. They were about to reach Dunscaith, and the last thing she needed was an asthma attack. Especially if this was where her nemesis had stashed his stolen jewels. Her nemesis. It felt stupid, calling him that in the privacy of her own head… but it helped, somehow, to keep her focused.

She’d certainly been spending enough of her time thinking about him over the last few months. If only she’d ever experienced a similar interest in a man for other reasons… she shook her head, grinning a little ruefully. Sarah fit the definition of ‘married to the job’ to the absolute T. There was no room in her life, or in her mind, for a romantic interest… to obsess over a man the way she obsessed over her quarry? Unthinkable. But it had occurred to her, more than once during this particular chase, that it was a little sad that a jewel thief motivated her this much, where even the prospect of going on a few dates with a man was too much to consider. She’d tried, of course. When she’d started heading for her thirties with no significant relationship under her belt, she’d begun to suspect that she was missing something. So many of her friends and colleagues were getting married, starting families, buying houses and settling down… well, she owned her own apartment, that was something. But as for a husband or a family… she’d be lucky if she managed to keep dating a guy for more than a month or two. Was it her fault? Were her standards too high? When she did find the time to date, was she too critical? It wasn’t that… she just didn’t have the time or the motivation to put in the work that was required to sift through potential matches to find the kind of man she could spend her life with.

And there were plenty of contenders – at least, plenty of men who’d be happy to have her. She knew she was attractive, for all that she did her best to dress down for work – she’d had plenty of compliments on her enormous green eyes, her delicate features, the way her platinum-blonde bob framed her face. It was useful, being pretty – she’d charmed her way past plenty of suspects in the past, batting her eyelids and playing dumb… but it didn’t really change anything when it came to the dating world. If anything, it made her suspicious that the men she was seeing weren’t actually interested in her – that they saw a pretty face and not much more. It was a lonely life, sometimes. But what was she supposed to do? Every time she shook off her resistance, reinstalled the dating apps, reached out to friends to set her up with any likely bachelors in their lives… well, she was just underwhelmed by the whole experience. Having to dress up and go out, get to know people over and over again, make the same boring small talk about her job and her life… she could never get beyond that initial contact, never find any reason to keep dating. DeBeers was probably the closest thing to a long-term relationship with a man she had that wasn’t just a friendship… and she was certainly committed to him, wasn’t she? Hadn’t she followed him all the way across the world? She shook her head as she climbed off the bus amongst the horde of groaning, hungover tourists. This was their second stop of the day, and a handful of them had elected to just stay on the bus and keep sleeping off their hangover. They’d be drinking again tonight, though.

No matter how tiny the town they stayed in, there was always a pub with enough beer and whisky to get them all drunk as lords. It was exhausting… but at least it meant that Sarah was usually free to go back to her hotel room and spend a quiet night going over her notes. To her surprise, there was another tour group here. That wasn’t unusual, she supposed – it was summer, seemingly peak tourist season here on the Isle of Skye, and this must have been a popular ruin to visit. From the road, it didn’t look too spectacular – a few walls, mostly crumbled under the force of the ocean wind that whipped at her hair. It was the basement level, wasn’t it, that made it so interesting? But as Sarah’s eyes roamed across the surroundings, her heart stopped, and all thoughts of the ruin were banished from her mind. Because there, milling about among the group of unfamiliar tourists from the other bus, was none other than Damon DeBeers. S CHA PTE R 2 he’d know that face anywhere. He might have been wearing a hat low over his eyes, might have grown a shaggy beard to disguise the sharp contours of his face, but she recognized him – his height, his sleek blond hair, and even a flash of those steely gray eyes. That was the face she’d studied in mugshot after mugshot, the face that had haunted her for months since she’d taken on the case… that was him, in the flesh.

He was here. Her heart pounding in her chest, she shuffled into a group of her fellow tourists. He hadn’t seen her yet. He was striding along at the side of an oblivious-looking family who were talking and laughing as they headed for the ruins… and Sarah’s heart lurched when she saw that he had a satchel tucked under his arm. Something about the way he was holding it piqued her professional interest… a little too tightly for it just to contain a packed lunch and a sweater for the chilly Scotland evenings. There was something important in that satchel… something that was affecting his gait, making him glance around with the barest hint of suspicion in his deliberately casual demeanour. If that satchel didn’t contain his stolen diamonds, she’d eat her hat. Everything fell away… the irritation she’d been feeling with her fellow tourists, the tedium of the long day on the bus, even the crick in her neck from trying to read in the cramped, uncomfortable seats of the bus. All that existed was her quarry, the diamond thief attempting to blend in with the tourists. He still hadn’t seen her, and she wasn’t going to let him, either.

Grateful that she’d gotten into the habit of dressing just like the other tourists – inconspicuous, a little dorky, a baseball cap over her eyes and a wind jacket that made her curvy frame look blocky and average – she affected interest in one of the castle’s crumbling walls, moving casually over so that she was in his blind spot, behind him. Then she waited, looking at the walls, keeping DeBeers squarely in her peripheral vision. He drifted around for a little while, affecting an interest in the ruins, but she could tell from here that it was just as artificial as her own fascination with the rocky walls. He was waiting for his opportunity, waiting for a moment… and it wasn’t long before he found it. The other tour guide gathered the group around a central pillar of the ruin, and DeBeers was away, almost too quickly for her to see where he’d gone – but she was on his heels, her heart pounding, her mind icy-calm in the heat of the pursuit. This was it. This was what she was here for. He was descending a rocky staircase, deep into the famous catacombs of the castle – she waited a few seconds before following him, keeping her feet as quiet as possible on the rocky, uneven stairs. To her surprise, the ruins opened up beneath ground level. Sarah could see why the basement levels were of such interest to historians and tourists alike – they were much better preserved.

But she didn’t have time for sightseeing. She followed DeBeers’ footsteps, listening hard, keeping well back so he wouldn’t hear her, too. They descended another staircase, and another – claustrophobia began to prickle at her, idle thoughts of what would happen if the whole place caved in on them. Would her tour guide notice she was missing? Or would the bus roll off without her? No point giving those kinds of thoughts any time, she thought, shaking her head. If the ruins had stood for this long, they weren’t going to collapse now. There was one final flight of stairs at the end of the corridor she was walking down, lit by electric torches that had been carefully installed along the ground – battery powered, presumably. And although a sign proclaimed that this area wasn’t for tourists to explore, there was nowhere else DeBeers could have gone. She took a deep breath, stepped over the low fence that was there to block foot traffic, and began her final descent. She’d apologize to the tour guides later for ignoring their rules… but there was a jewel thief to be captured, and she wasn’t letting the rules stop her now. The plan was to stay quiet, to find the diamonds and take them back… that was her job.

It had been made very clear to her that capturing DeBeers was a non-mandatory aspect of this case. The diamonds were everything – especially to her client Agnes, who was distraught without them. As far as Agnes was concerned, DeBeers could run off and spend the rest of his life robbing other people. But privately, Sarah was desperate to catch him. Getting the diamonds back would be great, sure – but if DeBeers got away, he’d simply conduct another heist some other time. She wanted him behind bars. She wanted him hunted down for good. She’d sent a quick message to the local authorities when she’d spotted him, so backup would be on its way – but they were a long way out, here, and she had no idea how quickly they’d turn up. It was on her to keep him where he was – to either capture him herself or keep him busy long enough for the local police to arrive. And she had to admit, she was looking forward to seeing him again.

The two of them had only met once… and she’d definitely not come out on top, with DeBeers not only putting her off her guard, but managing to outwit her completely and get away. But this time would be different. She was prepared for his tricks. She wasn’t letting him get out of this castle. Not this time. But as she was heading down the stairs, she felt her foot slip as a part of the crumbling staircase gave way. Sarah caught her breath, suppressing a scream as she felt herself fall – she caught herself on the bannister before anything catastrophic could happen, but she’d made more than enough sound to alert DeBeers to her presence. And sure enough, she heard the quick sound of footsteps ahead of her as she straightened. Cursing, she accelerated, peering through the gloom down here as she dug her phone out of her bag to use as a flashlight. But she needn’t have bothered.

Down here, there was only one room at the end of the corridor that followed the staircase. And there stood DeBeers, his satchel on the ground before him, his arms folded as he waited for her. The beard he’d grown didn’t do anything to stop her recognizing him, and she narrowed her eyes as she shone her torch’s flashlight full into his handsome face, making him wince and raise a hand to block the light. “Miss Elway, that’s quite unnecessary.” “DeBeers,” she said, stopping her voice from shaking through force of will. It wouldn’t do to let on the way her heartrate had skyrocketed, the way adrenaline was coursing through every part of her body. Playing it cool was always the best option. Make him feel like she was in control of the situation… though from the wry smile playing about his lips, she had a suspicion that she might have missed the boat on that one. “I have to say… I’m impressed. It’s not just anyone who can follow me without my noticing.

” He had a crisp, rather formal-sounding English accent when he spoke normally… at least, she thought he did. He spoke several languages and was very skilled at putting on a range of accents, altering his voice to suit the situation… she’d heard him do an impeccable Boston accent on the phone, and his range of European accents was even more impressive. “It’s over, DeBeers,” she said quickly, one hand straying to her hip, where her gun was. “The local police are on their way. Make it easy on yourself.” “Oh, I don’t think so,” he said, his eyes dancing. “As much as I’m flattered by your… rather dogged interest in me, Sarah, I’ve got far better things to do with my time than stand around chatting with a beautiful woman in a moldy old dungeon.” She gritted her teeth, irritated by the compliment. To her chagrin, it had been his casual habit of flirtation that had put her off her guard last time, enough to let him escape. She’d spent years of her career being insulted, threatened, yelled at, harassed… all of that glanced off her armor without so much as a second thought.

But the instant a suave, handsome man actually flirted with her… it was just that it made her uncomfortable, of course. She wasn’t actually attracted to this scumbag. She knew too much about how he operated – about the damage he’d done, the trail of injured and dead women he’d left behind him. “Save it. Are those the jewels?” He looked down at the satchel at her feet, his gray eyes widening. “This satchel? Why, of course not. Just my camera and a packed lunch.” He nudged the bag with his foot, and she narrowed her eyes at the unmistakable sound of jewelry shifting around. “How did you find me, out of interest?” “You’re not as good as you thought at keeping secrets,” she replied. He shrugged… then reached down to pick up the satchel.

“Stay still.” “Or what? Are you going to shoot me with that funny little weapon you’ve got on your hip?” He grinned at her lazily. “I don’t think so. You’re not a policewoman, Sarah. You don’t have the callouses on your soul that are required to kill —” “You’re not a cop either,” Sarah snarled, annoyed despite herself by the little jab at her career. “Didn’t seem to stop you killing half a dozen women to cover your trail –” “True enough.” He shrugged. The lack of repentance… that was a part of why she hated him so much. “Didn’t work though, did it? Here you are… suppose they all died for nothing. What a shame.

Anyway, as delightful as this has been, I’ve got places to be.” And with that, he turned – and before she could react, ran from the room, tearing through a doorway at the back of the space they were in. Swearing to herself, Sarah followed, adrenaline coursing through her as she gave chase. He must be desperate. There was no other way up from this lower level – all she had to do was corner him. Sure enough, the next room was a dead end – no doors in any of the walls save the one she’d come through, except for one small door that could maybe only be considered big enough for a child. Surely it couldn’t lead anywhere. It was probably for storage. But where was DeBeers? He’d gone through this door – he couldn’t be far. She quietly shut the door then moved into the room toward the small door, feeling the adrenaline surge in her, she opened the small door and crawled through, but as she made it to the other side of the threshold, she suddenly heard footsteps behind her.

He’d gotten around her somehow – she heard the door across the room from her, the one she’d used to enter the larger room, opening as he made a break for it. How had he managed that? The room had been empty, she’d been so sure! Sarah turned and crawled back through the small door then ran after him, and in her single-minded focus on her quarry, failed entirely to notice how much the ruins around her had changed…

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