Harriet Taylor’s knees locked and she gripped her ankles as he’d instructed. Blood rushed to her head, adding to the giddiness already making her mind whirl. She knew what was coming and every muscle fiber tensed in anticipation of the first blow. She couldn’t quite believe how she’d got here, how her world had changed in only a few short days.
He’d carried her like a ragdoll to an area behind the refreshment hut. The throng of the crowd cheering just beyond made her tremble; it would only take one person to see what was going on here and all hell would break loose.
“Did I not tell you to stand still, lassie?” Archie’s voice was more of a growl and she realized she’d been swaying. She tried to hold the pose but it was an impossible task. “Do I need to secure you?”
“No, no, sir, I’ve got it.” The last thing she wanted was not to be able to stand upright and bolt if they were caught.
She took a breath, calmed herself, and was rewarded with the click and glide of a belt being unfastened and pulled off.
If ever a sound had liquefied her it was this. Was he going to punish her with leather? Harriet bit into her cheek and squeezed her eyes tight shut, which only served to throw her off balance again and Archie MacDonald put his strong palm on her lower back. A low groan escaped his throat and Harriet could imagine him staring at her upturned ass. Fiery heat spread through her flesh from where his hand lay.
The air was electric around them and Harriet wondered if time had actually frozen.
Her hair fell loose from its pin and over her face; she tried to peer through it when Archie’s hand left her body. She could just make out him winding the leather belt around his right fist and she twisted her neck to see his expression. His gaze was absolutely intense and she caught a glimpse of his tongue darting out over his lips in hunger, absolute hunger, for her.
The sound cracked the atmosphere and for a second, Harriet thought it had come from elsewhere. But only for a second. The sting was searing even through her skirt, which barely covered her ass in this pose anyway, but still, she hadn’t quite expected it to be so sore.
A second blow came and tears smarted in her eyes.
“Ouch,” she said, unable to keep quiet.
“Did I also no tell ye tae keep yer mouth shut. The mair ye struggle, the worse it will be for ye, lassie. Do you understand?”
He bent low and fisted his hand in her hair, turning her head slightly.
“I asked you, do you understand?”
Harriet nodded and he released her hair, but not before giving it an extra quick squeeze. Delicious shivers ran up Harriet’s neck and back, travelling to meet the burning nerve endings on her backside. The pain subsided, leaving a hot stingy stripe right across both buttocks. It had been perfectly placed, just above the point where her thighs met her bottom. Though, she wasn’t sure she wanted another right there.
Thwack! Too late, the strike was harder this time and a little higher, then another came, placed slightly differently, Harriet could envisage the pattern, like lattice work adorning her flesh.
Her pussy welled with excitement, desire pooling at her entrance, threatening to leak out and expose her arousal from this brutal treatment.
Her ass was on fire; four hard strikes of the belt was way more than she’d ever taken but she was so hot and ready now, it didn’t feel like enough. She wriggled her hips slightly to encourage him.
“Ahhh, a filthy wee glutton for her punishment, is she? Well, let’s see if she deserves any more.”
And with that, he carefully lifted up the back of her skirt to reveal her nakedness beneath. Harriet watched his feet as he dropped the fabric and hopped back a little.
“Hey, wait there, lassie, are you telling me, you’ve had that tiny wee skirt on wi’ nothing underneath all this time?”
Harriet maneuvered her position to see his expression. She expected it to be full of playful menace but instead, she got the shock of her life. He was furious.
“You let me carry you, over my shoulder, past all these people and ye werenae wearin’ any knickers?”
What could Harriet do but admit it? She certainly couldn’t lie and tell him she’d only removed them after he’d carried her from the middle of a games field and deposited her head down and bent over behind a beer tent. He’d had his hands on her the whole time.
“Yes,” she said meekly and chewed on her cheek again. She was caught in a state of complete mind-altering arousal and mortification at her actions. “Sorry, sir.”
His fury was white hot, she could feel it as he roughly yanked the scrap of fabric up over her ass to fully expose her to the world.
He lifted his arm and the next thing Harriet knew was the searing stripe of the leather as if she’d been branded. Twice he gave her a good strapping on her bare behind and euphoria spread throughout her.
“You are in extreme trouble, lassie. Don’t think this is over.”
And with that, he placed his hand on her lower back ready to right her skirt back over her striped hot bottom.
Harriet whimpered, feeling bits of herself fragment off. Her knees were weak as she waited patiently for him to bid her stand back up.
Harriet clicked the laptop shut and tipped her head back into the headrest, which was tilted in the wrong position. She pinched the bony bit of her nose at the bridge and tried to squeeze out the remnants of last night’s hangover.
The drinks trolley clattered through the door at the end of the carriage and she decided that since she’d refused a gin and tonic already, it would be impolite to do so again, especially since it was now after eleven in the morning. That was the best thing about travelling, she mused, you got to imagine who you were and simply be that person. The first class tickets were only fifteen quid more than standard and looking at the menu, which the guard assured her was complimentary, she’d more than eat and drink her way through that. Her socialist side shuddered—she felt a bit like a vegan in furs but pushed the thoughts down deep when the smiling trolley man stopped beside her.
“You ready for that drink yet?” he asked, already pouring the Bombay Sapphire into the glass pre-loaded with ice cubes.
She smiled and took the gin. “Well, when it’s delivered with such grace, how can a girl refuse?”
The guard smiled back.
“Business trip, is it?” He must be needing a chat—the first class coach was practically empty. Harriet usually avoided conversation at times like this; her job was talking to people, so she took any chance she could to not engage when she didn’t have to.
“Yes, actually, it is.”
“You going to the end of the line?”
“Yes, and then some. All the way up to Aberdeen, then a four-hour bus ride.”
The man stood up straight with a wistful look on his face. “Ahhh, I met my wife in the bonnie highlands. You’ll love it.”
“Might I ask what your business is up there?”
Harriet pulled a brochure out of her bag. “I’m covering the Braemar Gathering.”
“Oh, a sports journalist,” he said looking as if he wanted to start talking football or some other vile outdoor event.
“Gosh, no, there’s allegations of impropriety so I’m going up to investigate.”
“Impropriety?” The guard laughed heartily. “What’s happened, someone greasing up some other guy’s caber? Or let me guess, the whisky was diluted with water?”
He was really giggling now and to her shock, Harriet found she was offended, even though she’d used words of a similar vein when her boss had given her this assignment. “Actually, if you must know, Highland Games are big business around the world; there’s been talk of performance-enhancement drugs, misogyny, and dodgy financial goings-on.” There actually hadn’t, but Harriet was suddenly defensive about the importance of her trip.
The guard’s shoulders stopped heaving and he wiped his face, clearly delighted by his own joke. “Listen, lassie,” he said, a glint in his eye, “you got on the train at London, didn’t you?”
“Seems to me like you’re being sent away.” His gaze softened and he looked like he was going to reach out and pat Harriet’s shoulder. “Sounds like a nonsense story to me. What’s happened? You offended the wrong colleague?”
A shiver ran up the back of Harriet’s neck. This guy was a better investigative journalist than she was.
“Let me guess, a ‘friend’ of the boss muscling their way in on your column?”
What the hell? Harriet smiled at the guard, knocked back the gin, and held her glass out for another.
“Almost. His new ‘girlfriend’—some college intern who thinks just because she has over a hundred Twitter followers she’s some sort of social media guru, and has him convinced the same.” Harriet looked around the carriage. It held only a couple of other travelers and they were absorbed in headphones and books. She looked at the guard’s name badge and took the second gin. “Thank you, Jack.” She was glad to see he smiled at the use of his name—not too familiar then, as she had feared.
“So you let your feelings be known and now find yourself on a train to the other end of the country. Such a cliché. Don’t you worry, you’ll uncover something on this ‘non’ story. I’m convinced of it.”
Harriet sighed. “Well, I thank you for your optimism, Jack, but I’m actually hoping for a quiet week. I booked the most expensive spa hotel on the company credit card and I intend on ‘reporting’ a fair bit from the Jacuzzi.”
Jack let out a chesty laugh again and started to clear the debris and organize the trolley. “And a first class ticket, of course,” he said, winking at her.
“Yes, that too.” Harriet grinned. “Listen.” She leaned forward, causing him to pause. “How do you read people so well? It’s like you’re some sort of psychic or something.”
“Don’t be daft, gal, I’ve worked these trains for coming on forty-five years, I’ve seen it all, darlin’, seen it all.” He finished up and started to drag the trolley backwards. “But I wish you well. I hope you find something up there.”
As she let the bubbles flood her tongue and slide decadently down her throat, Harriet felt calmer than she had for a long time. Meeting Jack had been a peculiar and soothing experience. Usually Harriet played her cards very close to her chest and hated anyone knowing her business but today, it had been a comfort to be so transparent to this stranger.
Let her idiot boss, Malcolm, and his fancy piece, Stacey, get on with it. She’d tried to warn him so it wasn’t her fault if he didn’t listen.
Harriet had gone into work a fortnight ago to log on to the website to compose her latest blog piece only to find she couldn’t get in. She’d reported a problem to IT—i.e., Tony the geek—who had simply forwarded a message from the management.
Going forward, Stacey will now be responsible for all social media and uploading to the website so send all copy to her for approval and she will publish to the site.
Harriet had been livid. She’d managed her own space on the news blog for the past three years. And now an intern, who was supposed to be getting trained by the company, not bloody running it, had full control!
On the first day, Harriet had picked up on several of Stacey’s grammatical and spelling errors and sent a discreet email directly to her to politely enquire whether she would like Harriet to proofread her work—after all, she was an ‘editor’—but there had been no reply. She’d then gone to her boss who’d rolled his eyes and muttered something about sour grapes. Harriet had been crushed.
She’d not known how to handle it. Everything she picked up on or tried to improve had been met with the attitude that she was jealous because Stacey had been given responsibility. It made her feel demoralized and betrayed. The girl had the ego that only youth can capture, and maturity and experience erodes. Malcolm had fallen for all of it.
Harriet tortured herself further by setting up a separate Twitter account so she could keep tabs on Stacey’s posts. They were terrible.
The train rumbled on and Harriet began to be soothed by its motion, letting London and Malcolm and Stacey and passwords and conflict drift away. Maybe Jack was right, maybe she would find a real story to report on. Research so far had brought up large gruff men in kilts tossing cabers and throwing hammers. There had been one picture that had caught her attention—the world champion caber tosser, Archie MacDonald was a rather fine-looking man. She clicked through a few more images of the fine man when a headline grabbed her attention: ‘Reporter Assaulted by Games’ Champion.’ The article revealed nothing further and any more mentions of Archie in the news seemed only to be about his subsequent wins. Whatever had happened, someone had been well and truly warned off. Perhaps there was a story here after all. Harriet flicked back to the images section and did more visual ‘research’ on Mr. MacDonald. A warmth emanating suspiciously low in her abdomen spread through her as the gin and swaying of the train took hold and she fell into a deep if slightly uncomfortable sleep.
Harriet slid back down into the soothing hot bathwater. It really had been a long journey; the bus ride from Aberdeen had basically been a headache in a can with her head pounding from one too many gins from Jack, a six a.m. start, and two screaming kids on the seat in front who apparently didn’t understand their mother. She kneaded her fingertips into her neck and closed her eyes, letting the grime of the day float away. The last leg of the journey, while being a challenge to her pain threshold, had been utterly spectacular. Jack had been right, she had fallen in love with the place already. Imposing mountains with fierce skies that would suddenly break into fleeting sunlight, it was dramatic and awe inspiring. She really ought to have taken some photos but she couldn’t be bothered. She’d found a perfect spot for resting her forehead on the glass to get some cool relief to her brow.
Harriet held her nose and slid right under the bubbles. Silky bath foam ran through her hair and she gently swooshed her head from side to side, feeling her locks sway under the water. She’d always loved doing that—feeling like a mermaid. Fashions came and went but she’d always kept her hair long just for this small sensual self-pleasure. She breathed out bubbles through her nose and emerged feeling much fresher and more awake. Pulling out the plug with her toe, she reached for a towel and pushed to standing.
Her stomach rumbled as she dried off and she realized it had been hours since she’d last eaten on the London train. Delicious though it was, the small caramelized onion and goat cheese tarte with its side of arugula had not entirely filled her up, and now she was starving.
Quickly running though her hair with the drier, Harriet was too hungry to dress properly for dinner and pulled on her slouchy sweatpants and daubed her face with some moisturizer. Hair up in a messy ponytail, she gathered her laptop and phone and headed down to the bar. She’d check out the proper restaurant another night. Good old pie and chips would do her tonight.
After a very short internal debate over whether she was becoming alcohol dependent finished with her ordering a pint of local beer, Harriet asked for the Wi-Fi password and settled down at a corner table to wait for her food and check her inbox. The 4g on her phone was completely nonexistent and she’d made a point of switching it off earlier anyway, hoping to put more than just physical distance between her and her work if only for one day. The bar was exactly how a bar in the highlands should be—bar wasn’t the right word; this was definitely a pub. Heavy oak beams and tables with tartan carpets and stags’ heads mounted on shields on the bare stone walls. There was a huge log fire roaring despite it being a mild September evening outside but it was perfect for this place.
There were pictures of Highland Games’ athletes through the ages dotted about, some with signatures across the images. Harriet guessed this must be where a lot of the visitors and participants came to drink. After all, it was a small town that transformed into a tourist hot spot at this time of year. There was one photo that caught her eye. It was clearly recent as it was in full color and hadn’t quite faded into its surroundings yet. It was of Archie MacDonald, the man she thought she might investigate. She still struggled with calling them ‘athletes’—after all, they were only chucking logs about and probably all had other jobs.
Harriet opened up her laptop and put in the code for the internet. The ping of her email notifications started going mad and she ignored them, preferring to flick through the news pages, checking in on her own paper. She rolled her eyes at the terrible attempt at click-baiting by Stacey. ‘Ten Ways to Refresh your Autumn Wardrobe,’ really? They’d branched out into fashion? Harriet sighed. Perhaps she’d write a piece on how to bag a highlander. ‘Five Ways to Catch a Kilted Hero.’ If that’s the way they were going, maybe Malcolm would approve. Financial corruption was everywhere in sport, who even cared anymore? But get an Outlander to wine and dine you—now there’s some interest. It made Harriet sick. Tips for this, advice for that—from who? Girls like Stacey who were just out of school?
The absolute confidence of youth these days astounded Harriet. She’d watch YouTube channels run by teens with literally millions of subscribers and she’d be baffled by it. Normal people turning themselves into celebrities by doing a makeup or craft tutorial or simply filming themselves playing GTA or some other game. Maybe Malcolm was on to something with this Stacey. Celebrity talked. People wanted to be told what to do; they didn’t want real news or current affairs. Who could blame them really? Even she became overwhelmed by the constant barrage of media and opinion.
Harriet decided she’d research her actual story and began by opening up her folder of pictures she’d downloaded of Archie MacDonald. It was all in the name of research of course, she told herself as she lifted her pint to her lips without once tearing her gaze from his torso. Maybe there was a YouTube channel devoted to very strong highland men in their kilts doing manly things. That warmth spread to her abdomen again and her body suddenly liquefied. It must be the hunger, beer, and heat from the fire. Her stomach rumbled as the barman came over with her huge plate of food.
“Here y’are, our specialty, Aberdeen Angus pie with a whisky sauce and some good chips.”
Harriet closed her laptop and pushed it to the side, taking the plate from the bartender, who’d suddenly become much more attractive when he’d started to speak. This Scottish accent was really doing things to her. She remembered a radio interview she’d heard with James McAvoy and she’d practically swooned through the whole thing. She thanked the barman and tucked right in to the real pub grub. It was utterly perfect. Thick juicy chunks of steak flooded with the most delicious gravy and topped off with the lightest, flakiest pastry. If all else failed and the story bombed, at the very least she could write a column on this pie alone. As she ate, she tuned in a little more to the buzz of conversations going on around her.
It’s funny how you almost think of accents as not quite real or traditions just there for TV but here she was and as she adjusted her ears to take in the voices around her, she was consumed by the beautiful lilt that flooded her ears. It was, dare she say, quite a sexy sound. The room was mainly full of men; there was only one or two women dotted here and there and she noticed a few glances her way from a group of guys at the bar. Goodness, she’d really been absorbed in her thoughts. The group was more of a pack of big burly men. They were clearly getting into a bit of a drinking session and one voice carried above the rest.
“Ach, Jim, stop yer moaning and get it doon ya,” the biggest man said, handing out shots of what looked like whisky to the group.
There was a cheer of slàinte mhath as each man held up their drink and downed.
“There ye go, son, that’s better, eh?” The man slapped who Harriet assumed must be Jim on the back hard enough to make him stumble forward.
The group laughed along and Harriet quickly realized that the burly man doing the slapping was indeed the legendary Archie MacDonald. She didn’t really know what she had been expecting apart from the incredible physical presence but now she was here witnessing it, the huge loud personality that went with it made total sense. He was loud, brash, and seemed to be the life and soul of the party.
He had dark hair with the bluest eyes she’d ever seen; she was surprised to see they twinkled with a real joy and kindness. From what her research had told her, he was the bad boy of the Highland Games circuit and she’d expected to witness a hardness to his person but his reputation was at odds with what she saw. He was forcing someone to do something but smiling with such beautiful camaraderie. Also, Harriet felt a glow rise in her cheeks, especially when Archie MacDonald reached to the bar to gather yet more shots. His arms were as thick as her thighs and the curve of his muscles flexing could be seen beneath his tight t-shirt. She almost gasped aloud at the physical impact the mere sight of him was having on her.
She could not pull her gaze away when an elbow was nudged into the fine physique she was staring at and someone alerted Archie to the fact she was indeed staring. Oh, god.
Archie looked straight at her, raising his eyebrows and flexing his bicep provocatively.
“See something you like, hen?” He laughed and a hard glint in his eye overtook the kind one from before. There was a hunger to it that both thrilled and frightened Harriet.
She quickly lifted her pint and stared at her food, feeling utterly mortified at being caught out leering so blatantly. Oh, god. If only she could just slither under the table. She was in sweatpants, for god’s sake.
She choked on her drink and trying to stifle it in her sleeve only resulted in spluttering beer all over her top. She wiped frantically at her top and managed to spill the rest of her glass over the table. She mopped up as best she could with napkins.
The group of men were laughing heartily at her expense and Harriet wanted to die. How would she ever compose herself? She’d done the wrong thing as usual. She should have met his gaze and smiled demurely. She should have had some dignity and lifted her glass in acknowledgment at being spotted, not behaved like a guilty toddler denying their hand is in the actual sweetie jar.
Oh, fuck. She was supposed to be trying to orchestrate an interview with this man. If she managed to keep her head low and skulk off in the next five minutes, maybe he wouldn’t recognize her the next time they met. If they met. Harriet might be dead by then. She’d never actually heard of anyone dying of embarrassment before but at this moment it seemed like a distinct possibility.
The men seemed to have lost interest in her; either that, or they’d realized her discomfort and deliberately looked away. Anyway it had all died down and Harriet decided it was time to make her escape.
She looked at the still half full plate with dismay. It was a battle of mind over stomach but her mind won, and she gathered her laptop and fled to her room while her heart raced with strange and exhilarated emotions.