So here it is! An advance look at Can’t Tie Me Down. I hope you enjoy it. Bear in mind that this hasn’t been proofread yet, so if you come across any howling mistakes, just carry on and pretend you never saw them! Happy reading. 🙂
It was an idyllic summer’s day on Scotland’s Kintyre peninsular. The sun was shining. The sky was blue. Gentle waves lapped at the shore beside the village of Arness. The Atlantic was calm, and through the morning haze, you could just about make out the coast of Ireland. The old grey stone buildings dotted around the village were postcard perfect and there was purple heather growing on the bluff above the sea. Even the fields seemed greener than usual. Mairi Sinclair half expected a couple of Disney-style bluebirds to flutter past her bedroom window, carrying a sheet to hang on the line. It was perfect, until someone pounded on her front door.
“You need to get your bum out of bed and answer that,” Agnes, Mairi’s roommate and sister, snapped from the bathroom. “I’m getting ready for work.”
And there went her chance at a lazy day in bed.
Reluctantly, Mairi threw back the bed covers, just as there was another round of loud and impatient thumping at the front door.
“I’m coming,” Mairi shouted, with quite a bit of irritation.
She threw on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt with a photo of Princess Leia holding a blaster and the words, Don’t Mess With A Princes and, barefoot, she ran for the door.
And that’s when Mairi’s realized there would be no way to salvage her potentially perfect day.
Because at eight thirty on a Saturday morning, she opened her front door to find Captain Kirk smiling at her—a five foot four, Pakistani, Captain Kirk.
“You are surprised.” He beamed. “This is good.”
Mairi blinked several times, but no, he was still there. “Amir?”
“Who else would it be on this fine Scottish morning?” He tugged at the hem of his gold captain’s uniform.
“Amir? In Scotland? At my house?”
He opened his mouth to say something else, but Mairi needed a minute. She held up her hand. “Just a sec.” And shut the door.
“Who was that?” One of Mairi’s three older sisters, Agnes, was dressed for a shift working reception at one of the hotels in Campbeltown. She wore a navy pantsuit, black heels and a crisp white shirt. Her golden blonde hair was in a neat French knot and her make-up was minimal. She looked every inch the hotel manager she aspired to be, and no doubt would be, once she’d passed her final exams. “Mairi, pay attention. Who’s at the door?”
“Amir.” Mairi wondered if more coffee would help her brain process finding one of her online boyfriends on her doorstep.
“Amir who?” Agnes headed for the kitchen alcove in their living area.
“He’s an online boyfriend.”
Agnes stopped dead and turned slowly toward her. “One of your geeks is here? In person?”
“How does he know your address? I thought the agency you work with said those details would never get out. I thought all these guys were supposed to stay firmly online.”
“Yeah.” There was nothing else to say.
When she’d been a little girl, Mairi hadn’t dreamed of growing up to become a fake online girlfriend to a bunch of socially inept men. Nope, she’d dreamed of castles, and princess gowns and white knights. She almost burst out laughing at the thought. It was so far from the truth to be hysterical. In all of Mairi’s childhood dreams, she’d been the knight. And she hadn’t been concerned with saving any foppish princes either. No, Mairi had wanted to travel the world, seeking adventure and fighting dragons. Instead, she was stuck in Arness, sharing a tiny flat with her grumpy-arsed sister and dealing with an unwelcome Captain Kirk wannabe. This was not the happy ending she’d hoped for.
“Why is your online boyfriend here?” Agnes demanded, jarring Mairi out of her maudlin thoughts. “How did he get your address?”
“I don’t know.” And she didn’t like it. There was a reason this job was perfect for her, it meant she got to keep men at arm’s length. No chance of getting in too deep. No chance of falling in love and getting her heart broken by trusting the wrong man again.
“Well, ask him!” Agnes did that toe-tapping thing that Mairi hated, which was even more intimidating when she was dressed in her power suit.
With a scowl at her sister, Mairi turned and opened the door, to find a beaming Amir, exactly where she’d left him.
“Amir, how did you get my home address?” And why the hell did you fly all the way from Pakistan to visit me? Didn’t he realize their relationship was fake? He paid her weekly—that should have been a clue.
He looked slightly confused for a second before the smile appeared again. “This is a test, beautiful Mairi. I can answer this most easy of questions. You, yourself posted the address on your website page. Now, I have something of the most importance to ask you.” He rooted around in his trouser pocket.
“Just a minute.” Mairi shut the door and looked at her sister. “He says I put the address on my page.”
Agnes pointed at the laptop sitting on their tiny dining table, and Mairi headed toward it. A few keystrokes later, and she was looking at a notice she definitely had not posted.
I’m tired of being single. As much as I’ve enjoyed being a girlfriend to all of you, I now want more. I want marriage and a family. I want my own happily ever after. The only problem is that I’ve managed to fall a little bit in love with all of my wonderful boyfriends. So, I’m giving you a challenge, a quest—whoever gets to Arness, Scotland, first and wins my heart in person, will win my hand in marriage. So, scale the walls of my castle, woo me with your knightly skills, and save this fair maiden from a life of loneliness and heartache. May the best man win!
It was followed by her street address, and a link to a Facebook page called Mairi’s Wedding Challenge, where supposedly she was going to give updates as things progressed. The message ended with a Photoshopped image of her as Rapunzel, leaning out of a tower and gazing wistfully into the distance for her prince.
“I’m going to vomit.” Mairi bent over and put her head between her knees.
“Get up.” Agnes smacked the back of her head. “Get on that site and delete the post. Write something that tells all those sad sacks you talk to that this is a mistake.”
There was a sharp rap at the door. “Mairi, my love?” Amir called.
Mairi swallowed hard and brought up the login page for the Girlfriend site. She typed furiously. Three times. And then panicked. “I’m locked out. I’m emailing the owner.” She opened her emails and typed. The answer was instantaneous. “Oh no.” Mairi moaned.
“What?” Agnes peered over her shoulder.
“They’ve been hacked.” Mairi resisted the urge to thump her head on the table. It wouldn’t help anyway. “They’re locked out of their own site and can’t change the message either.”
“Mairi, my little Scottish flower, open the door. I have something important to ask you.” Amir’s voice floated into the room.
“You need to deal with that.” Agnes pointed at the door. “Now.”
“Fine.” Dragging her feet, Mairi went to their front door and opened it.
No Amir. A throat cleared. She looked down. He was on one knee, holding out a ring box.
“Mairi, my love,” he said solemnly. “I must be asking you the most serious of questions. I wish for you to be my wife. Together we will explore strange new worlds, and seek out new life and new civilizations. I wish to boldly go where no man has gone before. I wish to be your husband.”
Mairi shut the door and leaned back against it.
“This isn’t good,” she said to her sister.
“You think?” Agnes glared at her.
“Mairi,” Amir called, “is that a yes?”
“Head’s up, there’s a Wookiee coming this way.”
Keir jerked up at his fellow mechanic’s words, and hit his head on the underside of the car hood.
“What the hell are you talking about now?” he asked his fifty-two-year-old, second career, apprentice.
Hamish pointed, and Keir looked through the open garage doors. Sure enough, there was a guy in a huge, hairy costume, sauntering across what passed for the main street in Arness. Keir stepped back from the car, grabbed a rag and wiped the oil off his hands.
“Can I help you with something?” he asked the Wookiee.
“Argharghah!” the Wookiee said.
There was a split second where Keir wondered if he’d inhaled too many petrol fumes and this was the result. Then a short guy wearing jeans and a T-shirt that said, Physicists Do It At The Speed Of Light, ran across the road to join the Wookiee.
“Ignore him,” the short guy said. “He likes to think he’s being authentic. He won’t talk anything but Wookiee while he’s in his Chewbacca costume. He’s a Star Wars purist.”
The big furry guy opened his mouth and warbled.
“No.” The little guy frowned, “I’m not going to translate for you. Every man for himself.” He turned back to Keir. “We’re looking for Mairi Sinclair. The woman in the shop told us she lives over here, in the apartment upstairs. Do we get there through the garage, or is there another entrance?”
Keir put down the rag. Folded his arms over his black tank, making sure they noted his muscles and tattoos, and stepped into their space.
“What do you want with Mairi?” The Wookie opened his mouth to answer, and Keir held up a hand. “In English.”
“She’s going to be my wife,” the little guy said with pride. The Wookiee roared with what was clearly a protest. The other guy scowled up at him. “How are you going to propose? She doesn’t speak Wookiee. You shot yourself in the foot wearing that costume. It’s not my fault I’m going to win.”
Keir uncrossed his arms and pressed his fingers to his temples. “Win? What the hell are you two talking about?”
The smaller guy dug into his pocket and came out with a phone. He flicked at the screen before turning it to Keir. He was looking at a website called Girlfriends for Hire. And there was a photo of Mairi, smiling out at him from a fake Medieval tower, and telling him that she specialized in online relationships with geeks. Geeks? Keir shook his head and kept reading. Under her photo was an updated message to her “men”. One that obviously hadn’t been written by Mairi. For a start it said she wanted to get married. If this was the real deal, he’d eat an oily rag and wash it down with antifreeze.
“Mairi wants a husband,” the little guy said. “She challenged her online boyfriends to woo her.” He looked up at the Wookiee. “Do people still say woo?”
The Wookiee shook his head and made some noise.
“Wait a minute,” Keir said, as the words sank in. “Why the hell would you want a girlfriend who only exists online?”
“Hiring an online girlfriend is a sensible alternative to being alone forever.” The little guy actually sounded like he believed what he was saying. “Most of us work in male-dominated industries, like tech, or research. Or we live in isolated areas. We don’t have a lot of time to meet women, and most of us don’t have a clue what to do with them when we do. That’s how we ended up on the Girlfriend site. For a small weekly fee, you get to interact with a woman who helps you learn how to, well, interact with women. It gives you confidence. Practice. That sort of thing. It’s all above board. Strictly no nudity.” He looked so disappointed about the lack of nudity that Keir almost laughed.
The Wookiee started gesturing and making Wookiee noises.
“Yeah,” the little guy said, “and it means we can get people off our backs about relationships. My parents totally stopped setting me up with random women once they’d Skyped with Mairi.”
Keir stared at the two of them for a minute, letting their explanation sink in. A campervan rolled past the garage and came to a stop outside the village shop. Two more guys got out. One wore jeans and a black T-shirt, and looked normal, the other wore a short sleeved checked shirt with a clashing tie. There were pens in his shirt pocket. It didn’t take a PhD in logic to figure out Keir was looking at yet another boyfriend.
“How many of you are there?” Keir asked.
The short guy checked with the Wookiee. “About thirty, we think. Mairi capped the number because she wanted quality time with each of us.”
More likely, she capped the number because that was the limit her fluffy little brain could cope with. “And you all know each other?”
They nodded in unison, before the little guy spoke. “She specializes in geeks. And being geeks, we formed an online forum to talk about her. Kind of like a boyfriend support group, or a Mairi fan club.”
“You don’t care that she’s fake dating all of you?” Keir said.
“We’re smart guys. We knew it was a business deal. And then she changed everything with her declaration. Now, the boyfriends are at war, and the forum has been disbanded until one of us wins her heart for real.”
“You’re serious? This isn’t some kind of nerdy Cosplay event? You really want to marry Mairi?” Keir glanced around, wondering if someone was going to jump out and shout ‘punk’d’ at him.
“Dude, have you seen Mairi? She’s hot, and she’s a fangirl.”
He received a look of derision. “She can geek with the best of them. She knows the names of all the Start Trek TOS episodes, and she understands the wrongness of Jar Jar Binks.”
The Wookie said something, and the little guy nodded. “That’s true. She doesn’t know anything about anime, it’s her one flaw.”
Keir pinched the bridge of his nose. It was going to be a long, long day.
“I have a couple of questions,” Hamish said from beside Keir. The older man folded his arms over the shirt and tie he insisted on wearing to work every day, and frowned at the Wookie. “In this internet message Mairi wrote, she told you to romance her with your best effort. Did you really think dressing like a scabby bear and yawning your words, was your A-game?” He turned to the little guy. “And for your information, doing it at the speed of light isn’t something you should advertise, son.”
“What am I going to do?” Mairi said. “I need a plan. And a rope ladder. Amir has blocked our entrance, and I can’t use the stairs down into the garage or I’ll have to deal with Keir. If I had a rope ladder, I could go out the bedroom window and make a run for it.”
“You’re acting like you really are Rapunzel. Get a grip. You can’t run. You need to get online and sort this mess out, before the rest of your fake boyfriends turn up.” Agnes stalked to the living room window that overlooked the Arness main street. “Oh, this can’t be good.”
“What can’t?” Mairi rushed to her side, and together they peeked out from behind the ancient net curtains that had come with the flat. There was a Wookiee standing in the middle of the road, staring up at their windows. “Crap, that’s Jonas.”
He waved, and she waved back. It was all a bit surreal. As she watched, two men came out of the village shop and climbed into a campervan. Twin men. “Oh no.” Mairi groaned. “That’s the Dawson twins.” She watched as they maneuvered the van into the parking lot behind the shop.
“You’re the girlfriend of twins?”
“Fake girlfriend!” Mairi frowned at her sister. “Why can’t anyone remember the fake part?”
“But brothers? Is that even legal?”
“It doesn’t need to be legal. It’s fake!” Mairi stomped away from the window. “And to be fair. Only one of them is a geek. The other one just talks to me for a laugh. He has plenty of real girlfriends.”
“Oh well then, that makes it okay.” Agnes perched on the edge of their wobbly dining table. “As long as it’s fake.”
That’s it. Mairi’d had enough. She stood in front of her sister, hands on hips, and glared. “You’re being judgmental? Really? When my job helps pay for your study?”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.” Agnes didn’t even look contrite. “But twins?”
“Get a grip. It’s fake. It’s all fake. I don’t even like bloody Star Trek!”
“Mairi,” Amir called. “I am still waiting for your most glorious of answers.”
Mairi stared at the ceiling while she counted to ten. The rope ladder idea was looking pretty good. She could climb out the window, hitch a lift to Campbeltown and then catch a bus to London. Surely her sister Isobel would put her up for a week or two until this blew over?
“I know what you’re thinking,” Agnes said. “You can’t dump this on Isobel’s doorstep. She needs time to get used to living with Callum. She deserves to be happy. She’s spent her life sorting out other people’s messes. You need to deal with this on your own.”
Mairi sighed. Unfortunately, Agnes was right. Although…Isobel was living with a guy who was a partner in an international security company. A security company with a genius hacker on board. Mairi perked right up.
“I could call Isobel though, and ask her to get someone to look into who hacked my web page.”
Agnes frowned as she thought about it. “Don’t you think that’s a bit presumptuous? Asking favors from Callum’s business when Isobel’s relationship with him is so new.”
“It’s their honeymoon phase. This is exactly the time to get her to ask him for a favor. Right now, he’d do anything for her to drop her pants. Not that it takes much.” Their eldest sister was a bit loose with her favors. Unlike Mairi, who was nursing a born-again hymen.
“You could offer to pay,” Agnes said.
They looked at each other and burst into hysterical laughter. Offer was all they could do. Every penny the sisters made had either gone into Agnes’s degree or had been used to help Isobel pay off her ex-husband’s debt.
“I’m calling Isobel,” Mairi said, when she’d calmed down a little. “I have to do something. If she can get someone to undo the mess the hacker made, and get me back on my web page, that would be great. I need to tell everyone that I don’t want a husband. I can’t let these guys turn up expecting me to marry one of them. I have thirty online boyfriends, what if they all turn up? What if they camp here forever? You can’t underestimate the stubbornness of a geeky man. They’ll view this like an online game and keep playing until one of them gets the highest score. Me!”
“Calm down,” Agnes said helpfully.
“Calm down?” Mairi glared at her sister. “This is a crisis situation. These guys don’t think like you and me. They think like Gandalf and Luke Skywalker! You read the website message. They think they’re on some freaking quest to vanquish evil and win the fair maiden. Before you know it, they’ll be out there, dueling with lightsabers and mocking each other’s costumes. Trust me. I need to deal with this now, before it gets a whole lot worse.”
“Hey gorgeous,” a deep male voice said. “I hear you’re looking for a husband.”
Both women squealed and spun toward the voice. Keir was standing in the doorway that led down to the garage, grinning like an idiot.
“See what I mean?” Mairi shouted at her sister. “It just got worse!”