Scotland, Ellie found, was really nothing at all like Dorset—both in the good and bad ways. Of course, part of that mixed bag stemmed from the fact that she was finding out more about Alec Hardy than she had ever thought she would get to.
The air was crisp and settled deeply in her lungs as she stepped outside; fog was still clinging to the fields and wide lawn spread out around her, the sun only just beginning to rise for the day. The object of her search and the current direction of her thoughts was seated on the porch watching the sky change color, still in his jammies and wrapped in a tartan blanket.
The family tartan, he had explained to her in low tones a couple of days previous. Every Scottish clan had one—this one was a particular shade of deep green, a stripe of light green, and red.
She stopped beside the seat Hardy had claimed as his and sat down beside him, her breath pluming in the air, desperately trying to think of a way to start a conversation. It turned out, though, that she didn’t have to.
“Go ahead, Miller,” Hardy muttered, drinking from a cup that was what she presumed was tea. “Ask your questions. Lord knows you’ll never leave me alone otherwise.”
He had never given her such an opening before, and Ellie was automatically wary of it. She could tell he was uncomfortable and overwhelmed, prone to be more snappish and grumpy because of it, and she had no desire to be his proverbial punching bag. She settled for the generic. “How’d you sleep?”
He side-eyed her, his wry expression letting her know she was fooling no one, but to her surprise a hint of a grin pulled at his mouth. “Should be askin’ you the same thing,” he said, “seeing as you slept in a dungeon last night.” Maybe there was more than just tea in that mug. “Didn’t really sleep, no.” The dark circles under his eyes confirmed that all too well. “Didn’t really expect to, either—never did. Always preferred the house in Glasgow.”
His birth certificate said he was born in Glasgow; his police files stated that Glasgow was his childhood city. Hell, even his accent was distinct Glaswegian. “You didn’t spend much time here, I take it,” she said dryly.
“Could say that. This house was always too big growing up. Still is.” He buried his face and that confession deep in his mug; somewhere behind them they could hear the quiet murmur of voices in the kitchen, the rumble of laughter in conversation. Ellie gazed out at the spread of the grounds that surrounded the old house, the Hardy family home for over three hundred years and felt a little awed despite herself. “Stop that, Miller.”
She jumped slightly. “Stop what?” she demanded, glaring over at him.
“You know what. That reaction is the reason why I never told anyone.”
Ellie thought about that—really thought about it—and deflated. “Suppose it’d be a bit hard,” she admitted quietly, “never knowing whether someone was being a genuine friend or just trying to get the perks.”
Hardy snorted, setting his now-empty mug aside. “Not many perks to the family name anymore. Hasn’t been since me Gran’s days.”
“Not much--? Hardy, are we even looking at the same land right now? This whole place is a perk for someone who hasn’t been raised in it! A twenty-bedroom manor with a stables, grove, and over five hundred acres of land? You’re really telling me that that’s not much?”
“Aye, and since the upheaval of Scottish land titles and classes there’s very little use for an aristocracy.” Disdain dripped from that last word. “Gran told me stories of entertaining Elizabeth II. Her mum, George V. This whole estate is falling into disrepair—or haven’t you noticed?” That last question was said with a hint of snideness.
Ellie bristled again. “Of course I noticed, and don’t knock my detective skills just because you’re angry at your dad. Go and have a row with him if you’re so bloody keen.”
He could make no response to that, not truly; not when she was right. His dad was the only reason why Ellie had discovered anything about his heritage, the titles he kept so tightly under wraps, and despite his tendency to lash out when cornered, this time he had a better target.
It had started when Hardy kept on getting calls from an unknown number—that, and the secretive bastard became even more closed-mouthed about it all than normal. Ellie had asked him about the calls exactly once, curious about the way he seemed to blatantly ignoring those attempts to talk with him—she had seen him pick up a call from Tess, after all, so who did Hardy dislike even more that he would ignore them? Her singular attempt was met with an icy glare the likes of which she hadn’t been the recipient of since Danny’s murder investigation, and she hadn’t dared to ask him about it again. Not yet.
Anyway. It didn’t seem that she needed to inquire about it now because the answer was quite smugly and calmly sitting in Hardy’s living room. Ellie had stopped by at the Hardy’s residence on the way home from work to ask about some paperwork and seen that the sliding glass door was partially open and the quick sharp retorts of an argument grew louder the closer to it she got. Concerned, she had knocked on the glass and when there was no pause in the argument she had let herself in.
“—it’s selfishness that’s driving you, Alec, just like always! He’s asked for you specifically--!” An unknown male’s voice, but with a Scottish accent that was even thicker than Hardy’s.
“And if you understood anything about Dad’s agreement with me,” came Hardy’s sharp retort, “you’d realize the only selfish one here is him!” Oh, he was definitely angry, maybe the angriest she’d ever heard him yet, and even she cringed at how savage he sounded.
Her quiet voice stopped the argument dead in its tracks, voices cut off in mid-sentence, and Hardy came around the corner of the kitchen into view, his hair standing on end the way it did when he ran his fingers through it in agitation. “What, Miller?” he barked, scowling furiously at her.
“Oh, very nice, Hardy,” she snapped, crossing her arms and returning his glare with interest. “I came over to see if you had those files to look over and saw your door open. I wanted to make sure no one had come and murdered you after being insulted one too many times. Sir.”
To his credit, Hardy did look rather shame-faced at the explanation, which was more than he usually gave as apology, anyway. Before he could speak up, his visitor did so for him from over his shoulder. “I think I like her, Alec. Anyone willing to call you out on your shite is fine in my book.” The man stepped into view was just as tall and thin as Hardy, with the same reddish-brown hair, but he had ice blue eyes instead of brown. The family resemblance was definitely there, and she could only stare at him in taken aback silence.
Hardy sighed and rolled his eyes. “Leave it, will you? Will, this is Ellie Miller—Miller, this is my younger brother William. Who was just leaving.” He directed his glare to said brother, but Will ignored him completely and sat down on the sofa instead.
“I’ll do no such thing, Alec, not until you say you’re going to do what Dad asks and come down for a visit.” His smile was far too feral to be genuine, and Ellie’s instincts raised their heads, analyzing and observing this stranger even as she navigated the information that Hardy had siblings. A sibling, at least. “And you know me too well to take that as an idle threat.”
Hardy looked ready to kill, which was truly concerning. He only grew outright hostile to those he hated, after all, and she found herself tensing automatically in case she needed to intercede. “Fine,” he ground out. “Call the bastard and tell him I’ll be there when my schedule allows it.”
Will shook his head. “Not happening. I know you, brother dear—I’m telling Dad you’re coming in a week. No exceptions.” His pale eyes flitted briefly to Ellie. “And you’ll bring your partner, too. Dad will very much want to meet her, after all.” And with that final, rather ominous, remark he stood, brushed off his coat, and left the house as if he had never been there at all-- leaving the door open behind him.