“Introducing Miley Cycats, our new baby calico.”
I should have been excited about my first trip to England. Yet there I was, boarding a train to the countryside, still watching a video of my ex for the millionth time.
And his new girlfriend.
And their new cat.
Our breakup had been a few months ago, but I thought, hey maybe we’d work it out to get together before my sister’s wedding.
No such luck.
So now I got to travel solo while wallowing in the fact that the guy I’d been with for over three years had moved on and gotten a precious kitten son while I had nothing. We’d grown apart by the end and I’d realized maybe I shouldn’t have followed him when he pursued his gaming career and left college.
A small detail my mom and sister didn’t know about. They thought I was still going to classes, not following the ex along to seedy motels for conventions while I told them I was attending lectures.
Classes that my sister had paid for…
Now that I was seeing them face to face, after five months, and I’d have to explain everything.
After the wedding, hopefully.
As if the universe completely had it out against me, my suitcase lobbed to the side, the giant purple monstrosity pulling me to a halt in the middle of the aisle.
“Seriously,” I muttered, putting my phone in my pocket and bending down to adjust the suitcase wheel now stuck in the corner of the carpeted aisle. I tried to pull and simultaneously jimmy the carpet, hoping maybe it would miraculously move. “Come on, you stupid thing.”
“Do you need a hand, Miss?” a brogue accented voice asked.
It didn’t sound like my brother-in-law’s English accent. Maybe he was Scottish? Irish?
I didn’t even look at the guy speaking, gritting my teeth as I tried to pull the suitcase loose once more. “No, thank you. It’s fine. I’ve got it.”
“Doesn’t look like you have. Here. Let me help so other people can get by.” He gripped the handle of my suitcase.
Briefly, I glanced at him—five o’clock shadow, a pair of dark green eyes, and a head of shaggy dark blonde hair. A pretty boy trying to show off his strength was not something I needed right now.
“It’s fine. Seriously, I have it,” I said as nicely as I could without gritting my teeth.
“Obviously ya don’t. Come on, just let me help, then these nice people can get by,” he said, keeping his voice even, though the veins in his forearms bulged as he struggled with the suitcase.
A line of people was forming behind him, some whispering, some giving annoyed grunts.
I jerked backward, trying to pull the wheel with me. Last thing I wanted was to make a scene. “It’s fine, really.”
“Here, just let me try to get this unhinged. I’ve almost got it,” he boomed.
“I said, I’ve got it,” I yelled, finally having enough. I planted my heels in the ground and used every bit of strength I had.
I don’t know if it was my years of lifting a lot of plates at the diner I worked at or if the guy actually did something, but the resounding RIIIIPPPP of the zipper erupted between us and the bag exploded open.
Everything I’d packed in my suitcase was pressure released onto the aisle.
Great. I got down on all fours, scrambling to stuff everything back into my bag while other passengers went either around me in the aisle or just walked off in another direction.
Except for the damned gentleman who was now kneeling in front of me, holding a pair of my Hello Kitty underoos.
“Thanks for breaking my suitcase,” I muttered, praying my heated face wasn’t as red as the lacy bra I also scooped up along with my underwear. Hopefully no one saw that.
“I was trying to help you, no need to get your Little Cat knickers in a twist over it.”
“They’re Hello Kitty undies, sir. Get your facts right,” I grumbled, keeping my head down as I stood up so he wouldn’t see my face.
“Are you sure you’re okay? You’re looking a little aff, and not just from the kerfuffle with your luggage.”
I looked up to see his wide smile full of pearly white teeth and complete with one dimple in his cheek. Combined with the accent, I assumed any other girl would find it charming enough to spill everything. But this was a random guy in the middle of a train in a country I’d never been to. I couldn’t tell him my life story.
I’d already spilled enough with my undies.
I shook my head. “You have no idea.”
“How about I get ya a drink at the bar car and you tell me about it?” he asked, crossing his arms so his pale blue button down stretched across his broad chest. The fabric didn’t even wrinkle against him. What was that? Some secret expensive material?
I glanced down at my own outfit of cut off jean shorts and a faded t-shirt. Nothing about me screamed I was desperate, but something in me lit up at the thought that maybe someone other than my ex was interested in me. Even if it was just a drink at a bar car.
Not with some random guy on a train though, Madison.
I chewed on my bottom lip for a minute before slowly looking up to meet those soft green eyes. I swore a flicker of something crossed his stare as we locked eyes, but I could have just been seeing things.
“I’m sorry, but I really need to get to my seat. Maybe I’ll see you around.” I forced a smile before I turned and quickly made my way toward the back. After finding my seat, I placed my suitcase in the overhead bin, then plopped down.
I focused on the window instead of whoever was about to take the spot next to me.
Luckily, it stayed empty and I had the area to myself.
Pulling out my sketchbook and charcoal pencil—I never went anywhere without them—I tried to make out the smattering of trees outside the window. Lately inspiration had been lacking. Maybe if most of my views for the last few years hadn’t been of my ex-boyfriend Chris at gaming conventions, I’d have something to draw.
The outlines of the birches, barely visible through the downpour, cast shadows against the bricks outside the station, as if they were little kids playing a game of tag. My pencil moved as if on its own volition, tapping to the same rhythm as the drops on the window.
“Looks like we’re in for a helluva trip if this rain keeps on.”
I froze, and turned to meet the smug smirk of the guy who’d insisted on playing hero when he wasn’t needed. He lounged in the seat across the aisle from me.
“Are you stalking me?” I swallowed hard. Deep down I sensed there was nothing wrong with this guy, yet I couldn’t hold back my knee jerk response.
“Are you stalking me? he asked, tilting his chin down, those big green eyes of his daring me.
I rolled my eyes, more so I wouldn’t have to keep matching his stare and possibly have my face flush again. “I don’t even know your name or have the foggiest idea of you are. Don’t be so full off yourself.”
He laughed, leaning back against the seat. He was so tall that the tuft of his wavy dark brown hair could be seen over the fuzzy blue of the chair. “Fair enough.”
He then turned toward me, scooting forward as he put a hand out across the aisle. “I’m Jacob. Not a stalker. Just a lad headed to Webley who happened to find a damsel in distress and decided to be chivalrous and help. A damsel who then tried to turn down her knight.”
I pressed my lips together, but my shoulders still shook as I tried to hold back my laugh. Before I couldn’t contain it anymore and burst out, I covered my mouth so I didn’t snort in the guy’s face.
He cocked an eyebrow. “I didn’t think my statement was that funny.”
I sucked in a deep breath before dropping my pencil so it rolled down my sketch book and onto my lap. “I’m hardly a damsel in distress and unless your name is Sir Jacob, I highly doubt you’re a knight in shining armor. Maybe shining Prada loafers, but grabbing my fallen clothes doesn’t exactly make you a knight or my savior.”
Something crossed his face that was between a frown and a smirk, but just as quickly he was back to that annoying little dimpled smile. “Very well. Then what should I call you if not damsel?”
“Madison. I’m Madison,” I said before picking up my pencil again.
“Madison,” he repeated, as if savoring my name. “You seem to have quite an eye for art. I can’t even see anything past those dark clouds, yet you have an entire forest laid out.” He stretched across the aisle to take a closer look, but I pulled my book to my chest.
My heart thumped hard against the paper. Sure, I went to school for art, but no one aside from my professors and maybe some random strangers who would pass me at cons saw my work. Especially not chicken scratch sketches.
“Um, thanks. I was just playing around.”
“With this weather, it’s going to be a bloody long ride, so hopefully the conductor sees those trees better than I can.”
“Is it the conductor who drives the train? I thought that was just the guy who walks around and makes sure that everything is okay? Like a cruise director or something.”
He laughed. “I’d never heard someone use that term like that, bonnie, but that does sound right.”
“Um, my name’s not Bonnie.”
He grinned, flashing that damn dimple. “It’s a Scottish term of endearment. I guess it’s like you American southerners calling everyone darling.”
My heart did a little jump at his words and how they rolled off his tongue like a lullaby.
That’s where the accent was from.
And now I had to regain my wits, so I swallowed hard as I tried to tamp down whatever my heart was doing right now. I blamed jet lag and a recent break up for the reaction.
“How did you know I was from the South?”
He nodded toward my shirt. “Your shirt. Raleigh is in North Carolina, right? Or do I have my geography off.”
I glanced down at my clothing, heat flushing my cheeks as I wished I had a better response. “Oh…yeah…it is.”
The train still wasn’t moving, the rain pelting harder against the windows, echoing like a bad DJ trying to mix a beat at a night club.
An older man in a dark blue sweater and matching captain style cap, complete with gold emblem, strutted down the aisle. “Ladies and Gentlemen, please remain in your seats.” His voice boomed. “We are waiting for the storm to pass, then we’ll be on our way. No need to worry.”
I tried to focus on what else he was saying, but then another sound wafted to my ears.
Jacob stifled his laugh as he glanced at me, then mouthed ‘cruise director’.
Biting down on my bottom lip, I looked down at my lap so I wouldn’t burst out in my own fit of giggles, which probably turn into a snort fest. Traveling cross country with little sleep could get a girl slap happy.
To try and listen to the conductor, I pulled my sketch book back out, absently scratching my pencil against the paper. Once I had a rough sketch, I leaned over the aisle, catching the eye of the Scottish stranger who was the closest person I had to talk to. If we were going to be stuck here a while, I figured sharing in the fun was better than being lost in my own head.
“Pssst, what do you think?”
I handed him the sketchbook and he pulled it over to his lap.
His eyes flipped from the paper to the conductor a few rows ahead of us, then back to the paper as he covered his mouth. His eyebrows raised as he tilted his chin forward as if he was asking ‘him?’
I nodded, looking down so I didn’t catch the eye of the conductor. The one who I just sketched outfitted in a life jacket and flower lei with the words “Don’t worry, a little rain won’t stop this cruise. Who wants to play Bingo?”
Jacob’s face scrunched, his cheeks pinched as his body shook, holding back his laughter.
Which of course started me on a fit of giggles of my own, my cheeks quickly hurting from smiling and trying not to snort out loud.
“Miss?” A chipper voice sobered me as I sat up straight, finding an older blonde woman pushing a cart. “Drinks? Snacks?”
Clearing my throat, I nodded, pulling out my purse. “Yeah, um, do you have Coke?”
She reached into the bin, pulling out a plastic bottle that was probably going to run me airport prices, but my throat was dry from laughing and a little splurge couldn’t hurt.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got that,” Jacob’s voice rose over the cart, holding up something I couldn’t see on the other side.
“You don’t need to buy my drink,” I tried to say eloquently as I eyed him, but it came out in a rushed stutter of words.
“It’s the least I can do. Most I’ve laughed in years.” He paid the woman who then pushed past us, off to the next row, dealing drinks and snacks, possibly to distract from the fact that the train was delayed.
Jacob held up the Coke bottle, his eyebrows slightly raised. Even in the dull overhead lights, the man had the brightest pair of green eyes I’d ever seen. They were like a spring meadow after an early rain, and it was a color I wished I could mix myself to paint.
“How about we share it? I have my hydro flask we can pour some in.” I fumbled through my backpack, trying to find the bottle somewhere in my bag amidst all of my other travel supplies.
“A flask? You got some scotch in there, too?”
“What? Is that even legal to transport overseas?” I asked, pushing aside an array of pens and scratch pieces of paper until I found my pink water bottle. My sister Natalie had given it to me as a Christmas gift when the forty-dollar hunk of steel had been what every girl had carried around campus.
Now, after living paycheck to paycheck for so dang long, it felt like a waste.
But I wasn’t going to let Natalie know that, especially since my sister was marrying an-honest-to-god English Lord.
My sister hit the jackpot.
Well, I was flirting with a stranger on a train, stuck in the middle of the English countryside. But, damn, when he smiled, flashing that one dimple in his left cheek, it was hard to think of anything else.
“Ah, that seems to be more of a water bottle, not something I see some of the country folks carrying when they go to dry wheat in the back fields.” Jacob grabbed the bottle as I handed it to him, balancing the Coke in one hand and the bottle in the other, pouring the caffeine I so desperately needed.
“And are you one of these folks? Sir Jacob of the Wheat Fields?” I asked, thinking it was an innocent enough question to ask about his job.
His shoulders stilled slightly then jolted, spilling some of the liquid. It dripped down his hands and onto the floor.
“Ah, shite,” he muttered, setting both bottles down.
“Oh, eep, sorry, I didn’t mean to distract you. I might have some napkins in my bag,” I fumbled around again, hoping that magically something other than pencils would come out if I kept reaching.
“It’s all right, just taken a little off guard, I guess.” He pulled a white cloth from the front pocket of his blazer, dabbing at his hands then picking up my bottle, cleaning that off as well.
But it wasn’t so much a cloth as it was a…was it a hankie? Complete with a little embroidered dragon on the corner.
“I guess you could say I’m sort of a property manager. What about you, damsel, what’s your story?” he said as if nothing had just happened, handing me the bottle before tucking the wet hankie back in his pocket and stretching back out in his seat.
I took a big gulp of my drink, trying to think of an eloquent response.
“Well, I uh, currently work at a diner.”
He smirked. “Thought you were one of those co-eds heading to the countryside for an adventure after graduation.”
I could blame my over tiredness, or the recent break up that had me smiling at the sexy Scottish guy with the whitest smile I’d ever seen. But ultimately it was just me who needed to pour everything out. “I was in school. Then decided to follow my boyfriend across the country for gaming conventions and some minor competitions, which didn’t make him or me any money. So I ended up full-time waitressing at a diner and haven’t gone back to school to finish my last semester.”
I rolled my eyes. Was that the only thing he got out of that?
“Ex. Recently. I apparently crushed his dreams because I wouldn’t move with him to his grandma’s basement in Tennessee so he could be a professional gamer. Never mind that we both still had only one semester left of school. So when I said no, instead of moving in with his grandma, he moved in with some other gamer girl. Now they have a cat together and post videos that I seriously need to stop watching.”
“Sounds like a real tosser,” Jacob said.
I laughed, not because the statement was all that funny, but more because I’d never actually heard that term said out loud and in my tired stupor, it made sense.
“Yeah. I guess you could call him a tosser. Whatever that means, it sounds right. Though, I could be the tosser in this situation, because I’m the one who can’t seem to move on.”
I blinked hard, then took a large gulp of the drink, pushing back the emotion that was threatening to bubble to the surface. I’d cried enough the last few months when I should have been getting my act together. And now I was having the longest conversation I’d had with anyone since Chris and I had broken up, and it was a stranger on a train.
Jacob’s gaze was locked on my face as if he was studying my reaction. “Tosser means fool or idiot. And I don’t think you’re either of those. Maybe a little hardheaded, but it seems like this ex is the real tosser.”
“Is he? But I’m the one who dropped school and followed him across the country. Annnnnd my mom and sister don’t know any of this, and now I’m going to have to break it to them right before my sister’s wedding. She’s marrying an English Lord and here I am, showing up late with news of dropping out of school.” I shook my head, the emotions that were raking through me now pushing to a hard pounding in my chest.
“We’ve all done stupid shite for a relationship.”
I spun toward him, raising an eyebrow, wondering if he was going to continue.
His face was stoic, as if he was deep in thought, with his jaw tight.
Then he laughed, shaking his head, like he was trying to get rid of whatever memory crossed his mind. “If we’re going to swap stories, mind if I sit next to ye, so we don’t have the whole train listening?”
I took a deep breath as I ran my hands through my mess of frizzy red hair. If I looked half as bad as my tired limbs felt, then he couldn’t possibly be interested. But what could it hurt having a conversation—maybe more light flirting—with a guy I’d probably never see again?
“Sure.” I finally grabbed my bag, scooting toward the window, the rain pelting down beside me, the train still on the same tracks.
He grabbed his own bag and got up, sliding in the seat next to me. I scrunched into myself as if somehow, I could become smaller and not have my arms rub against his expensive-looking suit coat, though I did get a nice whiff of whatever cologne he was wearing. It smelled like mint and clean laundry. I’d been around a pot smoking gamer for so long, I forgot what normal men dressed and smelled like.
“So, where were we?” he asked, taking a small sip from his bottle before screwing the cap back on, the action so casual, yet I couldn’t stop staring at the way his lips pursed and his Adam’s apple bobbed when he drank.
He smiled, god, that damn smile and dimple were really getting to me.
“Well, I’m sure you don’t want to hear about my ex, but I’m no stranger to bringing bad news home to my family when things don’t go right.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Care to elaborate? That’s pretty dang vague.”
He shook his head. “Let’s just say, being the oldest son in a traditional Scottish family comes with a lot of expectations about relationships, jobs, and everything else. Sometimes it’s hard to live up to those.”
“So, you’re saying we’re both the odd ducks of the family?”
He laughed, raising his glass again. “Quack, quack.”
I clinked my bottle to his. “Quack, quack.”
It was almost an hour before the train was given the okay to move. Time crawled even as the dreary landscape sped by, the sky still blacker than a tar pit. How the heck the driver saw anything was beyond me.
I should have probably taken a nap, or called my sister, but with barely a connection because of the weather, I didn’t bother.
Instead I spent way longer than I thought enthralled in conversation with a guy I’d just met, who asked me more questions about my life than Chris had in our entire relationship. Yet all I seemed to know about Jacob was that he was from Scotland and had a complicated family history, thus he was going to England, to meet up with some relatives he hadn’t seen in a while.
When we finally rolled into the Webley train station, I checked my phone for a signal and caught the time.
“Holy shit, when did it get so late?” I said more to myself than anything as I hopped off the train, stepping under a metal awning as rain drops continued assaulting it.
“Shite, it is late. Do you have someone coming to get you?” Jacob asked, looking down at his own phone.
I knew he was right behind me as we got off the train, but I expected him to go off and find whatever family was waiting for him.
“Um, well, I was supposed to call my sister when I got in.” I glanced around at the darkened buildings. “But it’s really late now and I don’t know if I want to wake her up…or my mom for that matter.”
He nodded. “We both don’t want to bother our family members or make them get out in this weather, so why don’t we check into an inn? In the maps I’ve seen online, there’s one right on the square. I’m sure they’ll have two rooms for us.”
Warning bells went off in my head about the casual way he was making plans for us. I mean, it was a good plan and we’d each get our own room. I could also send a text to Natalie once I was settled and let her know where I was.
Jacob reached into his pocket, pulling out a small silver coin as he took a step closer, holding the object between us.
“How about we flip a coin?”
He nodded. “Heads, we go to the inn and get a room. Tails, we go our separate ways now.”
Maybe it was jet lag or the long ride, but my lips moved before I could really think. “Okay flip it.”
He grinned, his eyes meeting mine as he tossed the coin up, catching it and holding it on his palm.
The face of Queen Elizabeth looked at me in profile.