Book 1 in the Cursed Clan Series
His duty was all that mattered.
Callum Lennon has one goal in life: protect his cousins. His failure in the past to do just that is what drives every action. When they discover a chance for redemption, Callum is willing to try. But trusting an outsider isn’t acceptable.
A woman in need of a new beginning.
An expert in archeology, Phoebe has always felt dwarfed by her parents’ shadow. In college by thirteen, she’s never measured up to her parents’ high standards. When the Lennons contact her, she decides to take a chance…and finds herself intrigued by the most insufferable man.
A passion impossible to ignore.
One argument leads to a kiss and to an unbearable desire they cannot seem to fight. When an old enemy threatens their fragile new love, Callum will have to choose between believing his mind or trusting his heart.
Book 1 in the Cursed Clan Series
Death would be too kind for the Clan McLennan.
Donedella McWalton clutched her husband’s faded plaid to her chest. Even as fear slithered down her spine, she knocked on the door to the witch’s remote cottage. As she waited, a chilling gust of wind stole through the thrashing branches of the winter-bare trees.
From above, an owl screeched. She shivered. Before her nerves settled, the door creaked open. Donedella saw no one standing before her. She hesitated in the gaping doorway, which earned her a disembodied cackle.
“Come in, my lady,” an ancient voice called from behind the door.
Donedella’s heart skipped a beat. Bolstering her courage, she skittered over the threshold, eyes darting around the room. With only the light from the hearth’s fire, it took a moment for Donedella’s eyesight to adjust. No bats hung from the ceiling. No potion boiled over the fire. But as the flames danced, the shadows moved and dread twisted through her.
“You are Lady Donedella.”
She jumped at the sound of her name and toward the voice. Donedella had imagined the woman to be older, scarier. But this woman was not much different from herself. The kerchief on her head covered what looked to be a mop of curly gray hair. Her simple peasant clothing draped over her generous figure. Even as Donedella noted the normal dress, she sensed dispassionate study from the woman who earned her keep off the misery of others.
The witch walked forward, her steps sure and steady. She stopped within an inch of Donedella.
“You want to kill someone?”
“Nay.” She shook her head. “That would be tae easy, tae nice.”
The old woman humphed and paced away. Donedella watched her, wondering if the witch would do what she requested. Or could. This witch was her last chance. Her last hope. Without the woman’s help, the vile McLennans would ‘ner pay for their crime. Panic raced through her, curdling her stomach. She swallowed the bile in her throat.
The witch glanced over her shoulder, and Donedella almost gasped. The cold, calculating gleam in the other woman’s eyes sunk into her bones, chilling her from the inside out. She fought the shiver that raced down her spine.
“For this you shall pay…handsomely?” The smile she flashed Donedella had nothing to do with pleasure.
Drawing in a deep breath, she nodded. “Aye. I’ll pay anythin’ to have my revenge on the McLennans.”
The older woman glanced at the plaid Donedella held.
She’d almost forgotten she’d brought it. “I see you have the plaid. You know what you are asking? You know that this curse is not done lightly?”
Before she could allow her conscience to get the better of her, Donedella let the pain of the last four months bubble up inside her. The death of her beloved, the murder of her sons, and the ending of their clan as they knew it was too much to bear. Even as she knew that the spell she sought would condemn her soul to hell, she could not stop the hate. It swept through her, whirled into her heart, into her soul, demanding vengeance.
“I want them tae suffer.”
“’Tis as you wish, my lady.” The fire snapped, the flames jumping as the witch nodded again and turned from her. “They will suffer, indeed.”
Present Day, Edinburgh, Scotland
Callum Lennon dropped the file folder into his briefcase and sent his younger cousin an irritated glare. “You said she would be here at two, Angus. It’s now four, and I’ve got a meeting on the other side of town. I’ll never make it on time.”
Angus adjusted his wire-rimmed glasses and studied him. The younger man graced Callum with an expression rife with his legendary patience.
Damn. Every department head claimed when they received The Stare, they knew they’d lost the argument. Callum supposed this wasn’t any different.
“She’s running a little late. It isn’t her fault London was fogged in,” Angus pointed out.
Callum grunted. “It’s her fault for coming from London in the first place. Bloody Sassenach.”
Angus smiled but said nothing in return. Everyone in the family knew Callum distrusted all things English. His younger cousins could have the luxury of an open mind. But Callum’s memories were still ripe, even after all these years. But then, no man walked away from watching his family and friends butchered with a whole heart or soul.
“She’s the only expert who would travel here on short notice to talk with us.”
Callum raised a dark brow. “That should tell you something.”
Angus continued as if Callum hadn’t even responded. “And despite your assumptions, she is considered the best in the field. Her published works in archeology alone would qualify her. With her interest in Celtic legends and her ability to read so many dead languages, she’s a godsend. We were lucky to catch her between projects.”
Unusual restlessness forced Callum to his feet. Even as he approached the window, he could feel worry for his cousins settling around his shoulders like a familiar cloak. Duty bound him to protect the clan at all costs, and he had fallen short of shielding them more than once.
A fine mist covered the window due to an abnormal November shower. The weather fit his mood. A burst of wind rattled around them, a sound he found oddly calming. Callum was well acquainted with the cold. For years he had lived with it in his blood, chilling his bones, freezing his soul. Each year he seemed to slip a little further into the depths of it, until he wondered if he’d ever be free. Even if they won this battle, he knew well he might have already lost the war.
Callum didn’t like Angus’s plan, but with everything he and his cousins had faced, he owed them this bit of hope. The other four were so optimistic about what their discovery could mean. And, hating to crush their expectations, he allowed it. It was naïve and desperate, but he understood why they wanted the quest to be true.
But it could be true.
Callum viciously squashed that voice in his head, the one that spun gold out of midair. As laird, he had to ignore the lure of fantasy and keep his feet planted firmly on the ground. If this dream shattered, as it had all the times before, and their lives returned to “normal,” he would handle their pain, their loss. It was his duty to look after them.
Angus’s mobile rang, breaking into Callum’s brooding thoughts. After a few short sentences and a quick laugh, Angus hung up.
“That was Fletcher. They’re on their way up.”
He shot Angus another irritated glower, and then turned to look out the window again. They wanted this expert, but that didn’t mean Callum had to be nice, especially since they were paying this woman a bloody fortune.
“Promise you’ll keep an open mind about this, Callum.”
“I said I would.” He couldn’t—wouldn’t—hide his animosity or his impatience.
“Be civil to Dr. Chilton. She’s the top of her field and was supposed to take a bit of a breather between assignments. She only returned from a dig last week.” He paused, and when he spoke next, his tone was measured and all levity had dissolved from it. “This might be our last chance.”
Pushing aside his annoyance, Callum nodded—once. Angus was right.
“I’ll be professional. By God, we’re paying the woman just to meet with us. I never promised to be civil.”
When Angus didn’t reply, Callum realized his cousin’s attention was focused on the door. The anger there melted into a smile that Angus reserved only for women.
“It’s so refreshing to meet a man with such honesty.”
The voice—crisp and thoroughly English—held a tone of amused condescension that grated down Callum’s spine. He felt the heat of embarrassment creep up his throat to his face. Knowing that their guest had finally made her entrance, he turned to greet her. The moment he saw her, every bleeding thought in his brain vanished.
Phoebe Chilton wasn’t anything like he expected. He’d seen pictures of her in her file and on the back of her books, but apparently the woman didn’t photograph well. If she had, he’d have been prepared to behold the Botticelli angel who stood before him.
A wealth of curly blonde hair surrounded a gently rounded face. Fat drops of water clung to the curls, which had been in some kind of an arrangement, but half of it had fallen out and was now draped over her shoulders. Pale lashes framed green eyes that reminded him of the sea. One blonde brow rose as his gaze moved to her cute, slightly upturned nose, a lush, pink frowning mouth, and a pointed chin—which she lifted ever so slightly. The shoulders of her ill-fitting, tweed, brown jacket were damp from the rain, as was her skirt, which seemed to be a size too big. The run in her hose and unattractive pumps completed the outfit.
Angus made the introductions. She didn’t offer her hand. Her gaze raked over him, reeking of disapproval. Though they did not touch, her attention sent heat leaping through his veins, not only surprising but frustrating him.
When she made eye contact, she said, “I would say I was delighted to meet you, but then my mother taught me never to lie.”
Sarcasm often amused him—unless it came from those on his payroll. He pushed back at the urge to respond to the woman’s barb. He definitely didn’t like the sharp punch of lust to his gut for what amounted to an employee—and an English one at that.
“I apologize that you overheard my comments.”
She smiled without humor. “But not for saying them?”
He shrugged. “I don’t apologize for my opinions.”
This time she laughed. The light, joyous sound took him by surprise, as did the dance of anticipation his pulse did when he heard it.
“Forget it. I deal better when someone is honest with me. I don’t need anyone to pump up my ego. It’s rather big enough on its own.”
Before Callum could respond, Angus gestured to the seat behind her. “Dr. Chilton, why don’t you have a seat?”
She turned her attention toward Angus and smiled again. This time it reached her eyes, lighting them from within. Angus, full-grown man that he was, blushed to the tips of his ears.
“Thank you, Mr. Lennon.”
As she settled into the chair, Angus spoke in a voice just solicitous enough to agitate Callum. “I think to keep confusion at a minimum, you should call us by our first names.”
Her smile turned impish, dimples winking at the corners of her mouth like a mischievous fairy. “I completely understand. With three Dr. Chiltons on a site, my parents and I tend to be informal as well.”
Apparently forgetting about Callum and Fletcher, Angus eased his hip up onto the corner of Callum’s desk. He wore the expression of a besotted puppy as he leaned forward and rested his forearm on his leg. Callum would be amazed if Angus didn’t expect a pat on the head or a scratch behind his ear.
“That’s right. You sometimes dig with your parents. Your husband is in the same field, correct?”
Her happy expression faded, and her eyes lost some of their lightness. “He did. My husband passed away eighteen months ago.”
“Oh.” Angus straightened and cleared his throat, breaking the beat of silence that followed his comment. “I’m sorry.”
She shook her head and patted Angus’s hand, the short contact annoying Callum. “No need to apologize. Unless you move within archeological circles, you wouldn’t have heard.” She sat back and then turned her attention to Fletcher, who had taken the seat next to hers. “Thank you once again for retrieving me from the airport.”
The smile Fletcher offered oozed charm and seduction. “It was definitely my pleasure, lass.”
When she didn’t do more than return the pleasant expression and then direct her attention to Callum, Fletcher frowned. Callum bit back a chuckle. Fletcher wasn’t accustomed to women ignoring his charm, and it was damned refreshing to meet a woman who was immune to it.
When he turned back to Dr. Chilton, her practiced, professional smile was back in place. Frustration crawled through him until he stopped himself. Why should he care if she didn’t give him a warm smile? He didn’t, not when she was destined to be another disappointment.
When he said nothing, that damn eyebrow rose again. “Since you seem a bit anxious, why don’t you tell me what you want, and we can get down to business.”
Phoebe Chilton didn’t get flustered easily. Her life had never allowed for that. Starting college at the age of thirteen and earning her second doctorate by twenty-two, not to mention the constant lectures she gave, supplied the experience needed to think on her feet, even when males outnumbered her three to one.
In her field, she was accustomed to men, but nothing in her experience even came close to the masculine beauty surrounding her now. The testosterone filling the office was enough to make her dissolve into a puddle of very feminine lust.
When Fletcher Lennon had met her at the airport, she’d had a hard enough time not drooling. At least six feet tall, blue eyed with brown hair tipped in bronze from the sun, he turned the head of every woman between the ages between two and ninety-two. There was a rugged appeal to his face, with the strong jaw and wide, thick shoulders. Not to mention the outfit: a chambray shirt, worn, butt-hugging jeans, and cowboy boots. Cowboy boots on a bloody Scot!
Unlike many other handsome men, he didn’t make her nervous. Oh, at first her tongue had been double-tied in knots. With the ease of a longtime friend, he’d joked with her on their trip to the Lennon house, and before she knew it, she found herself relaxing. It was a pleasant surprise when he made the pretext of flirting with her. For him, it was second nature, she understood. But there was no way she would ever be seriously interested in a man who was more beautiful than she. Besides that, she could never take a man who wore cowboy boots in Edinburgh seriously.
She turned her attention to Angus, whose jade green eyes sparkled behind his glasses. Where Fletcher was all practiced seduction, Angus held an air of forgetful genius. She’d talked with him on the phone, never realizing he would be so scrumptious.
His face was lean, as was his body, but not skinny. Sandy blond hair, a bit overgrown, kept falling into his face, which he absentmindedly brushed out of his eyes every few minutes. As he studied her, she sensed deliberate calculation. It didn’t bother her, as she tended to study people and situations in the same manner. And though his voice was gentle, there was an underlying strength beneath that calm. His solicitous behavior reminded her of many research assistants she’d encountered over the years.
Callum Lennon was another story altogether.
Before coming to Scotland, she had researched the Lennon family, especially their leader. It was her way. Any smart woman would do the same before embarking alone on a mysterious trip like this. Other than the fact that he headed up one of the most successful corporations in the UK—if not the whole bloody world—Phoebe found precious little else. No pictures, no personal information. A man with this sort of money usually took pains to be seen out, a beauty on his arm, attending benefits, galas and whatnot. Truthfully, though, she doubted any photo could have lived up to the flesh-and-blood man standing before her. And what beautiful flesh it was.
From his expression to his dress, black suited him. Ebony hair, peppered with bits of gray, was cut ruthlessly short. Like his office, he was dour, and more than likely as predictable as a schedule. Where his cousins seemed approachable, Callum’s demeanor was a red light.
The only thing appealing about him, other than the fact that he possessed one of the best bodies she’d ever seen, was his eyes. The shape of them would be considered bedroom sleepy, seemingly half-closed. The lazy sensuality was belied by the vigilant alertness she sensed in his study. This man missed nothing, but that wasn’t their most amazing quality.
The color held her almost mesmerized. Blue, a completely boring description, would not do justice to their beauty. Flecks of gold lightened the dark, sapphire hue. And when light struck them in just the right manner, there was a hint of green. She’d sigh over them, if it wasn’t a completely adolescent thing to do. She’d just have to wait until she was in her room alone. With the lights turned out.
“First, we need to talk contracts.” The burr in his voice had thickened since she’d first heard him speak, making her belly flutter. When his words registered, she sighed in regret. Such a beautiful man, completely out of her league, but she’d hoped they’d work on friendly terms.
“No. First, we need to talk about what you want me to do.”
He didn’t respond for a moment, clearly taken aback by the fact someone disagreed so openly with him. There was a flash of irritation and something akin to admiration—which was an odd combination, to be sure—in his gaze.
“There is no discussion of anything until you sign a contract. We, meaning Lennon Enterprises, must protect our name.”
He crossed his arms over his broad chest and gave her what she was sure was his most intimidating stare. Silly man, didn’t he know anything about her? She was handling professors who were just as intimidating when she was barely thirteen. And nothing would stand between her and the grant she needed to complete her most important work ever.
“No. As I discussed at length with Angus before I traveled here, I made it very clear that once I arrived, I wanted information up front. I will sign a confidentiality agreement, but I will not sign a binding contract. I understand the need for secrecy, but I assure you there is no problem. I have a reputation that far exceeds even your valued standing in the business community.” One ebony brow rose in aggravation—or respect?—for her snooping. “All I know is that it’s a serious matter dealing with an artifact you found and need help translating. We will work much better together if I understand what I am dealing with.” She offered him her best business smile, the one she used on interviewers and donors.
“I’ll no’ risk my family name, our honor, to be sold to the highest bidder. The information you could gather would be more valuable on the open market.”
She could tell he was angry. His brogue had thickened to the point that she could barely understand him. But she was irritated too. Her temper wasn’t quick to ignite, but was a dangerous thing once it did. And Callum Lennon was perilously close to burning.
She took a deep breath. Then another. “Are you questioning my integrity? That something in your twisted logic thinks I would take what information you give me and sell it, my reputation be damned, is an insult to me!”
By the time she finished, her voice had risen almost to a shout, but the moment she stopped talking, deadly silence filled the room.
Callum’s eyes flashed and narrowed. “I doona know or care about your reputation. I have a policy for dealing with this situation. I willna have my family used.”
She counted backwards from ten, then did it twice more. Questioning her honor, was he? Granted, she wasn’t being completely honest with him, but she knew if she rolled over on this one, he would either be suspicious of her motives or think he would win every argument.
Phoebe pushed herself to her feet even as she told herself smacking a six-and-a-half-foot broody, totally delectable Scotsman wasn’t a good idea.
“Phoebe.” She didn’t even flinch when Angus tried to interrupt. “Dr. Chilton.”
She ignored the worry in the younger cousin’s tone. Locked into a stare down with Callum, Angus’s voice didn’t completely register. The room, and everything in it, faded away until only she and Callum remained. Fire leapt in his eyes, showing his barely-controlled temper. His rigid stance bespoke his command over his emotions. He probably hadn’t said even a tenth of what he was thinking, and she was already offended.
She was no coward, but she tended to work with people, negotiate. Her parents had taught her from an early age to be diplomatic. So, it was a complete surprise that the urge to push him further, question his integrity and make him slip over the edge of control, almost overwhelmed her.
Before she could stop herself, she stepped closer to the desk. His expression shifted, turning from anger to something that resembled…lust? Her heart tripped over itself, and her nipples tightened against her cotton bra. His nostrils flared. A charge filled the air, drifting over her, heating her. Bloody hell, every drop of moisture in her mouth evaporated.
Something primal that she’d never experienced before leapt in her blood. Her breath tangled in her throat. All she could think of was touching him, moving her hand over his flesh. Bare flesh. Thankfully, before she could embarrass herself, Angus interrupted her thoughts.
The rebuke in his cousin’s voice reached the dark leader. He shook his head as if to clear it, and that was enough to bring Phoebe to her senses. She needed to keep her head straight or she would surely give herself away.
Drawing in a deep breath, she dropped back into the chair, her body still humming from the confrontation. Callum abruptly turned to face the window.
“Since Phoebe is here for at least a week, why don’t we get her settled in her room? She can freshen up and then we can discuss the particulars of our working relationship,” Angus offered.
Her unprofessional behavior shamed her. She could blame it on Callum Lennon, but she knew better. Shaken to her core, Phoebe nodded. Unwilling to make eye contact with Angus, her gaze drifted to Callum. He nodded, once.
Fletcher stepped in, trying to ease over the tense moment. His voice was gentle when he spoke. “I’d be more than happy to show you to your room, Dr. Chilton.”
Fletcher offered her his arm. Releasing a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding, she accepted and rose from the chair. Unable to meet the gaze of either of his cousins, she said nothing more before leaving the room.
Once Fletcher closed the door, he motioned with his hand down the hall. Without a word, she stepped forward, losing herself in her thoughts. She needed to recoup, pull herself together for her next confrontation. And there would be one. Callum Lennon struck her as a man who wouldn’t give an inch unless forced to. She admired that, even though it irritated her. It wasn’t a situation from which she would shy away.
As they walked, their footsteps against the polished wooden floor were the only sounds echoing down the hallway. No servants or workers peeked out of doorways. It reminded her of a museum. The atmosphere would have been oppressive to some, but she took comfort in it.
As she mentally put aside her confrontation with Callum Lennon, she noticed artifacts hanging on the walls she had missed on her way in. There was a magnificent collection of weaponry that looked to be from the eighteenth century, not to mention a multitude of oil paintings depicting what she assumed where Lennon family ancestors. She’d love to get her hands on several of the pieces, including the jeweled dirk she spied. It was a testament to just how harried her trip to Edinburgh had been that she hadn’t noticed them.
“I hope you won’t worry about my cousin.” Fletcher’s relaxed tone soothed her.
She glanced at him. “I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’ve been handling domineering men most my life. Your cousin doesn’t worry me.”
“So you like domineering men?” he teased, gesturing to a staircase that led up.
She started to climb the stairs. “No. In fact, I have a feeling I was seen as a bit of a ‘fish wife’ when I was married.”
Simon had loved using that term for her, and it still bothered her. He’d employed it whenever he sought to make her feel guilty, which was often. Of course, at the time, it had worked. Now…it no longer had the power to hurt her.
After stepping up on the last step, she moved aside to wait for Fletcher. “But in my academic career and line of work, I’ve become familiar with men like your cousin.”
Fletcher stepped up then edged closer, smiling down at her. There was a hint of approval in his gaze, along with a dash of sexual interest. Oh, bother. She was sure he didn’t fancy himself in love with her. And he probably wasn’t even interested in her. Men like him flirted as easily as they breathed. They weren’t interested in her—not without another reason.
“I don’t think Callum has had someone stand up to him like that in…well, ever. Not since he took over the family business.” He gestured with his hand to the right. “Your room is this way.”
“I can’t believe that you and your other cousins don’t give him a hard time about other matters. From what I understand, all of you have some say in the company.”
He tossed her a smile that would likely melt most women. “There is that, but family is different.” He shrugged. “We all know that when it comes down to it, Callum will do what is best for the company.”
“How long has he been running Lennon Enterprises?”
His shoulders tensed ever so slightly, the only indication she had tread on hallowed ground. Curious. It fit right into the strange absence of information on the Internet about the family. In all the research she’d done on the Lennons, Phoebe had not been able to find out how the company had been started. Stranger still, there hadn’t been one news story outlining when Callum Lennon took up the reins.
She knew from Fletcher’s reaction that she wouldn’t get much information from him. It was only a moment or two before the lazy sensuality returned to his face again, like a smoke screen.
“For too long, if you ask me,” Fletcher finally answered. “But it’s what drives him, what he craves.”
“I take it he had a lot to live up to?”
He looked at her blankly.
“With it being a family company, I assumed that he’d been trained by his father or maybe an uncle?”
“From birth, Callum always seemed to be ready to take control.”
Which wasn’t an answer. “I just thought it odd that you didn’t have any pictures of board members or of Callum out and about at charity events.”
Fletcher shrugged. “Callum isn’t that photogenic.”
He slowed down and opened the door to a room, his gaze roaming down her body, then back up. Instead of arousal, a dash of irritation, along with a helping of amusement, stole through her. That he thought he could flirt with her and make her stop sniffing around their company was both insulting and funny.
“Is this my room?”
He blinked, his smile dimming just a bit. Poor Fletcher wasn’t accustomed to a woman ignoring his ploys. If she wasn’t sure he’d take it the wrong way, she’d kiss him.
“Uh, yes, this is your room. Your bags have already been brought up.”
She brushed past him and stepped over the threshold. Before he could follow her in, she placed a hand on his chest and smiled. “Thank you so much for escorting me.”
He looked down at her hand and frowned. “I can show you around your room.”
She laughed. “I can handle it myself. I’m used to travel. Thank you once again.”
Before he could argue with her, she closed the door directly in his face. She needed a break from the testosterone of all the Lennon men for a few minutes. If she didn’t get it, there was a good chance she would faint from the overload—if not the embarrassment of her behavior.
She took a good look at the room. She stood in a small sitting room that opened up into the larger room. As she stepped into the bedroom itself, she sighed. A massive bed, with a mattress so thick there was a step stool beside it for her use, dominated the room. When she stepped further into the room, she noticed the high vaulted ceiling. With it painted in celestial blue, along with the lighter, almost airy quality of the furnishings and bed linens, it felt as if she were walking through the heavens. Still agitated with Callum, not to mention with herself, the atmosphere was a calming influence, bringing her back to her goal at hand.
Phoebe approached the bureau and noticed that her bags were indeed sitting by the foot of the bed. When she looked up, she saw herself in the mirror and groaned. No wonder Callum Lennon had thought she was an idiot. Her suit was a mess, wrinkled and still damp from the rain. Half of her hair was still piled on top of her head, while the other half hung down in a mess of tangled curls. What makeup she had worn was now either smudged on her face or was gone. Good God, she looked like she’d rolled through a ditch before coming to meet them.
Knowing there was nothing she could do about it now, she grabbed her toiletry bag and headed to the bathroom to clean herself up. At least when she met the remaining two cousins, she would look professional, and with her armor back in place, she could better deal with Callum Lennon.
Before she could start cleaning up, her mobile buzzed. The familiar number made her groan. She’d forgotten to contact Kenneth McWalton, the head of the grant board, after she arrived. She wasn’t in the mood to deal with him. However, his say would carry a lot of weight when the grant she needed was given out, so she’d best put up with his blustery impatience and answer. Besides, he would continue to ring her until she did. This was inconvenient enough, but she definitely didn’t want him to ring her when she was with the Lennons.
“Dr. Chilton. I thought you said you would ring me up when you landed,” McWalton chastised.
Phoebe took a deep breath before answering. She hadn’t had to answer to anyone for over eighteen months, and she refused to do it now.
She kept her voice calm and businesslike. “We were fogged in and took off later than usual.”
There was a pause, as if he were weighing her every word, trying to decide if she were telling the truth.
“Hmm. Well, I was worried.” His tone had turned solicitous enough to agitate her. “I thought you might have had second thoughts.”
“I haven’t even had time to freshen up, let alone look over whatever artifact they have for me.”
Another pause. “You are going to try for the grant, aren’t you?”
“As I told you before, I’ll make that decision when I have a chance to evaluate what this is.”
“I was just wondering because Sir Wendell Farthington has contacted me about the grant. Seems he has something he thinks might win over the committee.”
A wave of apprehension washed over her at the mention of her arch rival from college. Whiney Wendell was still annoyed she’d beat him out for valedictorian—especially since he had ten years on her. If he’d contacted McWalton, there was a good chance he knew she was interested.
“I’ll let you know as soon as I can be certain if I’m onto something that will fit what the grant committee is looking for.”
As soon as she reassured McWalton twice more, she rung off and sighed. She’d felt more than a little twinge of guilt for being a bit deceptive. Okay, she felt a lot. She’d built a reputation on being fair and honest. This could tarnish that image. Greatly. But, this was the most important leap of faith in her career, one that could leave her reputation in tatters or give her the recognition, independent of her parents, she had always craved.
Before she could get back into the bathroom, her mobile rang again. When she noticed Isabel Totaro’s number, she immediately answered.
“Where the hell are you?” her former assistant asked.
“Hello, Isabel. How are you?” She laughed.
“I’m fine. I’m always fine. You, on the other hand, were supposed to have lunch with me tomorrow and your new assistant—who has the manners of a goat—called me to cancel.” All of this was delivered in a mixture of heavily accented English and Spanish. When irritated, Isabel had a habit of slipping in and out of different languages.
“She doesn’t have the manners of a goat. She’s efficient. Besides, you quit.”
“She was rude and wouldn’t tell me where you were. I was worried you went back to Egypt with Barbie and Ken.”
Phoebe sighed. She wasn’t used to this, although she should be after three years. Isabel had bounced into her life during the horrific last months of Simon’s illness. Five-foot two of dynamite that one was. She’d refused to allow Phoebe to wallow in self-pity. Her resignation last month had been bittersweet, but she’d fallen in love with an Italian businessman and they were moving back to the continent. It was hard to lose your only friend.
Phoebe smiled, but she still felt she should admonish her friend. “I wish you wouldn’t call my parents names.”
“You know you like it. So, tell me where you are.”
“What the bloody hell are you doing there?”
“I’ve thrown caution to the wind, and I’m having a mad affair with four Scotsmen.”
“About damned time.”
Phoebe laughed. “No, I have a chance to look at an artifact from the Lennon family.”
“Lennon Enterprises? Hold on.” Phoebe heard a deep murmur in the background before Izzy came back. “Roberto wants to know if you met Callum Lennon.”
Just hearing his name sent a shiver of awareness across her nerve endings.
“Yes, in fact, I’ve met two of the others also.”
More murmuring, then Izzy giggled. “Roberto said he’s a real bastard.”
“He’s met Callum Lennon?”
“Roberto negotiated a deal with them a few years ago. They want you to look at an artifact? What is it?”
“I haven’t heard, but apparently it might work for that grant I wanted to go after.”
Izzy said nothing for a moment. “Don’t do this.”
“Poppet, I love you. You know I do. So I’m saying this for your own good. Your parents aren’t worth it.”
“They will never accept you.”
A sharp shard of pain stabbed her heart. Izzy was right. They both knew it.
“I don’t give a damn about them accepting me.” She drew in an unsteady breath. It was the truth, even if it took her almost thirty years to accept that. “What I want is to study Celtic myths full time.”
“Then do it. You have enough money.”
“I can’t…well, I can. It’s just…” How did she say she wanted to stick their noses in her success without sounding like a horrible daughter? She would never be free of their shadows if she couldn’t make it on her own without their help. They would always try to influence her career unless she made a clean break.
“You want to say shove it to Barbie and Ken.” Amusement infused Izzy’s voice. “I wholly approve.”
Phoebe chuckled. “I thought you might. They won’t say a word if I get a reputable historical society to back me. But none of that is going to happen until I get a look at what the Lennons have. I can’t do that until I negotiate the terms with Callum Lennon.”
“What was that?”
“I said, I can’t—”
“No. There was something in your voice. You…oh, my. You’re attracted to him.”
Phoebe swallowed. “Him?”
Bugger. Izzy always could tell what Phoebe was feeling even before Phoebe knew. “You can tell that all from the tone in my voice?”
“Yes. There was a little heat in your voice when you talked about him.”
“It’s because he’s a pompous ass.”
Izzy laughed. “You are attracted.” Phoebe opened her mouth to lie, but her friend was too fast for her. “Don’t even fib to me. I’ll let you go, but I want regular updates.”
Phoebe sighed. As if she could talk Izzy out of it… “You got it.”
After ringing off, Phoebe looked at her reflection in the mirror. Her hair was still a mess, her makeup still streaked her skin. This was not the most auspicious of beginnings.
As soon as Fletcher escorted Dr. Chilton from the room, Callum shifted weight from one foot to the other, trying to calm his body’s reaction to her. Bloody hell, he’d practically jumped over the desk and kissed her, not caring who was there to witness.
Be truthful, Callum. You wanted to do a whole lot more than kiss the lass.
Aye, he did. She made his blood pump, and he wanted to know if she’d look as heated when she moaned his name.
“Just what the fucking hell was that?”
Angus’s cursing wasn’t normal. Callum knew he deserved the rebuke, but it didn’t mean he cared for his younger cousin’s tone.
“You willna question me on this, Angus. Nothing happened and nothing will.”
Callum turned and watched the younger man approach him. As leader, Callum allowed discussion, but with his body still aroused, any debate was like pouring salt into the wound. Not only was he angry with himself for the desire still curling in his belly, but he’d shown disrespect to a woman by showing such blatant lust, not to mention giving her a way to use him. If she had any idea how much he wanted her, she could get just about anything she wanted. He never bedded women who worked for him. Ever.
Dr. Chilton had been attractive in a rumpled sort of way. He had a feeling that under the ill-fitting jacket, she had curves he couldn’t find on women today—ones he thirsted to explore. He still didn’t trust her. Not many people would turn down money just because of a simple contract. Callum couldn’t put his finger on it, but something about the woman bothered him. Other than the fact he wanted her beneath him, digging her nails into his back.
Sweet Jesus, when she’d stood up to him, mild interest had shot to heated desire in the blink of an eye. The force of it had left him shaken to his soul.
“We can’t have you tupping the help, Callum.”
He smiled, knowing it was all teeth and no humor. “Have you ever known me to?”
“No.” Angus looked out the window, and Callum could almost hear his mind turning over the problem. When he met his cousin’s gaze, Callum realized he wasn’t angry but worried. “But I’ve also never seen you act like that.”
“I’m hardly a virgin.”
Angus smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes, a hint of sadness darkening his gaze. “I know that. Seriously, if it were anyone else, I would say take her to bed for a week—even if I think you two are completely wrong for each other. You have a business mind, she has a scientific mind and you would never—”
“Sweet Jesus, Angus, just get on with it.”
He sighed. “This is too important.”
Guilt, familiar and uncomfortable, had the muscles in his gut clenching. He knew he’d failed before when it had counted the most. But he refused to let his emotions get the better of him again. Even for a woman with the fire Phoebe Chilton showed—especially when she held their future in her hands.
“Doona fash yourself.”
Before Angus could reply, Fletcher returned, Anice following close behind him. A frown puckered her brow as she kept darting nasty looks at Fletcher.
Without preamble, Fletcher said, “I think we need to be careful of Dr. Chilton.”
“You have no basis for that.” Anice had crossed her arms which was a sure sign she was ready to fight.
“For the love of Christ, you haven’t even met the woman. I have, and she was asking too many questions about us and the company.”
“The company?” Callum asked, his suspicion rising.
“She wanted to know when you took over Lennon Enterprises and who was in charge before you. I tried to dissuade her, but she kept on it until we reached the room.”
“I’m sure she forced you to answer her.” Disgust ripened Anice’s voice. “You’re over six feet tall, and she is barely five and a half feet.”
“I’m not saying she forced me but that she was persistent.”
“Enough!” Callum shouted. When brother and sister got going, they could make him barmy.
He thought of her refusal to sign the contract, possibly turning down a healthy amount of euros. People just didn’t do that without cause. Now she was asking about them. She was insistent enough to make Fletcher question her motives, and he rarely thought straight when a woman was involved.
“I want you to check out her background.”
Angus studied him with a frown. “I did. I double-checked it, in fact. There is nothing to indicate she would sell out.”
Callum gritted his teeth and then blew out an aggravated breath. “Triple check. I want to know everything there is to know about Phoebe Chilton, especially if this turns out to be the cure we’ve been searching for.”
“Since I missed my meeting, I need to ring up the supplier and set a new one. I’ll be having dinner by myself with her tonight,” Callum said.
All three cousins looked at each other. Angus, the one who had always been their spokesperson said, “I don’t think that is a good idea.”
“I didn’t ask.”
Callum sensed that Angus wanted to say more, but nodded instead.
“I need some privacy to get this done so I can meet Dr. Chilton for dinner. The sooner she gets it translated and decoded, the sooner she is gone.”
Anice, the peacemaker, stepped in. “And the sooner we will be able to start working on a resolution to our problem. Come on, boys.”
Fletcher curled his lip. “I take offense to being called ‘boys,’ especially at my advanced age.”
But he followed his sister just the same. Angus looked to argue again, but Anice said, “Come on, cuz. We have a meeting with department heads, and we’re already late.”
When the door shut and Callum was blessedly alone, some of his tension eased. He stared out at the garden again, watching the wind blow the naked limbs this way and that. He knew the feeling, the loss of control to outside forces—the impotence over the failure to shape your own destiny. He’d sworn never to feel that way again.
If it meant he had to resist a golden-haired angel with the temper of the devil, so be it. He would ignore the momentary loss of control and find another woman to satisfy his needs. Angus was right. Tupping the help would not only be bad for business, it could dash any hopes the other four had. That and he still didn’t trust her. This diary could hold the secrets that could save them—or doom them to the hell they now suffered. He couldn’t chance it. Regret shifted through him when he realized he would enjoy sparring with the woman and slowly conquering her. But even as a surge of fire lit through his blood, Callum ordered his body and soul to ignore it.
The clan was all that mattered.