About the book
He longed to feel her touch, even for just one night…
Nothing makes Lady Thalia Williamson happier than the thought of her upcoming wedding.
A wedding that never takes place, for the day before, the unthinkable happens: her betrothed gets kidnapped. And she knows who the culprit is. A certain reclusive Laird with a reputation of being ruthless.
Adrian Seether, Laird of Dunne, is a man feared by all. After he allegedly killed his parents, nobody has dared get closer to him...until a feisty Englishwoman shows up at his castle and demands her betrothed back.
Their quest to find Thalia’s betrothed takes a turn when the undeniable attraction between them comes to a head. Convinced that their journey has been fraught with lies, Thalia is determined to revisit painful memories to get to the truth. With time wholly against them, a well-established scheme threatens to kill them all. The same way it killed Adrian’s parents all those years ago…
The Laird of the Dunne Clan didn’t turn at the knock on the door. He swirled the wine in the goblet he had, staring out at the foggy land laying beyond his window. At high noon, the land was green, bright, beautiful. At dawn, nothing could be seen across the expanse but white.
Henson eased the door further, wincing at its creak. He slipped in and closed it gently, praying the sound hadn’t bothered the Laird too much. When he looked back up, he saw the Laird lift his goblet to his lips.
“Me Laird?” Henson spoke again, inching forward in the darkness.
“What is it?”
Even though the Laird’s tone was soft and low, Henson flinched. He’d only been the Laird’s advisor for three weeks, despite the Laird’s fearsome reputation, and he was no more used to him as he was the day they’d first met. It didn’t help that Henson was such a small man, with constantly quivering hands.
“Ye’ve received a letter, Me Laird.” Henson took a step closer and bumped into something. The resulting crash had him freezing in terror. He stared at the Laird, waiting to see his reaction, but the other man did nothing but raise his goblet to his lips again.
“Is that why ye’ve disturbed me?” asked the Laird as if nothing had just happened. “Because of a single letter?”
Henson held on tightly to the paper in his hand, trying to still his trembling. A useless feat, but he tried all the same. “It is a letter from the Laird of MacTavish, Me Laird.”
Laird Dunne whirled so quickly, Henson was not prepared for him. He yelped, then tried to swallow the sound a second too late. The Laird’s body was swathed in shadows, his black hair and black eyes appearing like a demon straight out of hell. He moved slowly as if he savored the fear emanating from Henson’s skin, as he rested the goblet on a nearby side table.
“Are ye aware of its contents?” the Laird asked.
“N…no, Me Laird,” Henson exclaimed quickly. “It has only just arrived and I rushed to yer room the moment I had it in me hands. But—”
Henson licked his lips. He wondered if his sweat was soaking through the letter he clutched. “There are rumors, Me Laird. I daenae ken if they have anythin’ to do with the sendin’ of this letter, but—”
“But ye have reason to believe that it does.” Laird Dunne reached his hand out, gesturing with two fingers. “Hand it here.”
Henson swallowed, nodding shakily. He stepped around the pieces of the broken vase and gave the crumpled letter to Adrian. The moment the paper was out of his hand, Henson took two large steps back and released a low breath. The Laird unfolded the letter and began to read.
For the next few seconds, there was nothing but silence—which only put Henson even more on edge. He resisted the urge to shift from one foot to the other, tried to keep himself perfectly still as he watched the Laird’s still features.
It was the most unnerving thing about him. How easily he could mask the rage that was lurking underneath. But his quiet words and his calm movement could not hide the look in his eyes, one that could send stronger men than Henson running for the hills.
Without saying a word, Laird Dunne ripped the paper in two, then four, and tossed it to the floor. Henson almost moved to pick up the pieces but then thought against it.
“Me Laird?” Henson probed, steeling himself. “What does the letter say?”
The Laird turned to face the window again, crossing his arms. He leaned against the sill as if nothing was amiss—even as his finger tapped periodically on his upper arm. “He says that me deeds will nae go unpunished. He says that I will meet me end if I do nae give him back what is his.”
“M…my.” Henson wiped the sweat on his upper lip. “The Laird has never been that bold in his threats before. What do ye think he is talkin’ about?”
“I daenae ken. And I daenae care to ken.”
“But, Me Laird,” Henson braved a step forward. “I daenae think this is somethin’ that ye can ignore. From the rumors that I have been hearin’ and the letter that ye’ve just received…Heavens, it may truly be war if ye daenae handle this properly.”
Laird Dunne didn’t move a single inch. Henson had to remind himself that this was simply how he was, and that it was not because he didn’t care about his territory.
“Ye ken I daenae like it when ye beat around the bush like that, Henson,” said the Laird in a low voice, sending a chill down Henson’s spine.
Henson stood straighter. “A…aye, Me Laird. When last I was in the nearby town, I heard that the son of the Laird of the MacTavish Clan has been kidnapped. They say that his chambers were in a mess, with a note in blood.”
The tapping finger went still. Henson swallowed. “And ye are tellin’ me this now?” asked the Laird.
“I dinnae ken how accurate the information was, Me Laird,” Henson explained, trying not to sound too desperate. “But now that ye have received this letter from the Laird, it is clear that nae only has Laird MacTavish’s son truly been kidnapped, but they think that ye are the culprit.”
“Aye, it would seem so.”
“What shall ye do, Me Laird?”
“Right now?” The Laird moved and Henson stiffened. Slowly, he turned to face him. “I will go to me bed. I am tired.”
“B…but, Me Laird—!”
“Leave me be.”
And that was that. Henson knew he couldn’t argue any longer. Even though he was terrified of the man, he’d learned to read his tone. And right now, he had made his decision and there would be no changing it.
“Very well, Me Laird. I bid ye goodnight.” Knowing very well that the Laird was watching him, Henson turned back to the mess he’d caused and bent to pick up the remaining pieces.
“Leave it be,” came the Laird’s gruff voice. “A maid will take care of it in the mornin’.”
“But, Me Laird, if ye were to step—” Henson glanced over his shoulder and caught a glimpse of the Laird’s dark features. His entire body went cold. Trying to wet his tongue, he rose, nodded stiffly at the Laird, and turned to the door.
He made his escape without any more incident, to his relief. Once the door was closed behind him, Henson sagged onto the wall, putting a hand to his racing heart.
I cannae do this anymore. This man is far too terrifying! And how could he react so nonchalantly to such an accusation? Could it…could it be true?
There was no denying that the Laird had secrets that even Henson was not privy to. He was like a locked chest, one that would only release demons if one dared to open it. Henson was far too afraid of him to come close. For the past six years, he’d wanted to leave and had been too afraid to chance it. But now—
Henson resisted a shudder and lifted his chin. If he dared to leave, what would happen to him?
Thalia dreamed of children that night. She had four of them, running around the wide hallways of a castle in Scotland. There were two toddlers, barely able to wobble toward their older siblings who ran ahead of them with loud laughter. Two girls, two boys. In the dream, Thalia sat watching them play with a bright smile on her face and no worries. Why would she have any need to worry when she’d finally gotten the family that she wanted?
One of the children, one of her daughters, tumbled to the ground, landing heavily. Thalia rushed to her feet, picking up the skirts that bore the Clan colors of her dear husband—green and blue. She hurried over to her daughter.
“Are you all right?” she asked in her English tongue. She was yet to adopt the Scottish accent, but she would in time.
“Mother?” she asked. She was a beautiful child, with bright blue eyes and a head of straight long hair brushing her lower back. She had all the energy Thalia had once had as a child, but as Thalia stared down at her, she could not remember her name.
But it didn’t matter. Thalia gathered the girl in her arms as the others crowded them, even the waddling toddler who did not know what was going on. The girl’s crying turned into giggles, and one by one, they all began to laugh happily together.
Her husband was away. In the back of her mind, she knew that. She told herself that he would be away for the rest of the day—that he might not return to the castle until the morning. But it didn’t matter. What mattered was that she was with her family, her children—and though they cried, though she did not know their names nor the face of the man they’d adopted their blond hair from—Thalia was happy. Because all was well.
Slowly, Thalia opened her eyes and a smile stretched across her face. Staring at the patterned cornice in the corner of the ceiling, she thought back on the lovely dream she’d just had and felt her heart go lighter. Soon, that dream would become a reality, for today was the day she would be married.
With a happy sigh, Thalia sat up, running her fingers through her wavy brown hair. She ran her gaze throughout the room, noticing that it was just coming on to dawn and that her lady’s maid should be here shortly. When her eyes landed on the two figures by her door, she gasped loudly.
“Who’s there?” she exclaimed, her hand flying to her chest. “Show yourself!”
“Be at ease, Thalia,” came a gruff voice. The taller of the two figures took a step closer, coming into a ray of gentle sunlight that barely illuminated the room. Thalia let go of her pent-up breath.
Harold Williamson, the Duke of Althing, had quite a knack for moving silently. Very often, Thalia would find herself in a state of surprise whenever she would turn around and suddenly find her father standing behind her. Sometimes, she wondered if he did that on purpose, just to see her reaction, though he liked to pretend it was innocent. Whether he did or not, Thalia enjoyed his secretive playful side, which he didn’t let out very often when he was around his wife.
“Father,” she sighed, “must you stand there in such a manner? I think you frightened ten years off my life.”
“Thalia.” The other figure also came forward and Thalia wasn’t surprised to see that it was her mother, wearing her usual disapproving frown. “Must you always speak so crudely?”
Alyssa Williamson, the Duchess of Althing, was the opposite of her husband in nearly every aspect. Not only did they look different—the Duchess with white-blond hair and sharp green eyes, and the Duke with soft brown hair and brown eyes—but the Duke was far gentler and welcoming than his wife was.
Growing up, Thalia had always feared her mother and her strict looks, but now she was far too used to it for it to be as intimidating as it once was. That didn’t mean, however, that Thalia was willing to risk getting on her bad side, but she knew how to push the limits.
Thalia flipped her hair over her shoulder, holding back her smile. “Why should it matter how I speak when it’s with my dear parents?”
“If you continue like that, you are bound to say something you should not before someone else.”
Thalia only shrugged as she swung her legs over the side of the bed. Her mother’s nagging didn’t bother her this morning. Nothing could ruin her good mood. Not when, after searching for so long, she was finally going to be married.
Idly, Thalia played at the knots that had formed in her long, brown hair during her sleep while she tilted her head at her parents. “To what do I owe the pleasure, Father? Mother? Why have you come to my bedchambers so early in the morning?” Before they had a chance to respond, Thalia gave them a broad grin, lifting her eyebrows. “Don’t tell me you two are feeling sad that I will be leaving your home today?”
The Duke opened his mouth to speak but Thalia was already rushing on without thinking, excitedly, “Oh, don’t worry! Though I will be leaving to live in Scotland, you can always visit when you miss me, all right? No amount of distance is too much between parents and their daughter, after all.”
Her teasing words, which usually made her father smile and her mother sigh, only brought silence in its wake. Thalia’s smile slipped a little.
“This is about Keith, isn’t it?” Thalia went on, trying to hide her sudden nervousness. She twisted her hair around her fingers, avoiding her parents’ eyes by heading to her vanity table. “Is he upset about something? You know he can be a tad temperamental, but you should not mind him.”
“This is not about Keith, Thalia.” The Duchess’ sigh was heavier than usual. Thalia tensed. “Thalia, face us.”
Something was wrong. Steeling herself, Thalia let her hands fall into her lap as she turned to face her parents.
The Duke had his head hung sadly as if he was too ashamed to meet his daughter’s eyes. The Duchess, on the other hand, came toward her, her back rigid, her eyes direct, and her hands clasped before her. “Brace yourself for what I am about to tell you,” she said.
“Your betrothed has been kidnapped.”
The world around her seemed to come to a full stop. Her chest caved in, her breathing labored. For a rare moment, Thalia was utterly speechless as her mother’s words descended. Had she been standing, she was certain she would have collapsed to the floor.
No…that couldn’t be. We only just met!
Thalia licked her lips, not taking her eyes off her mother’s face. “Surely, you jest?” she whispered. But even as she asked the question, she knew it was not so. She knew that her dream of a beautiful family was slipping out of her grasp.
The Duchess shook her head gently. “We received word of it this morning. I am afraid the wedding will not be taking place.”
“But how can this be?” Thalia shot to her feet, her voice rising. Her hands trembling at her side, she curled them into fists. “We are to be married today! Everything went so perfectly so how could he be—”
At that moment, the Duke rose. Without a word, he came to her side, took her hand, and enveloped her into a gentle embrace. Thalia didn’t know whether to cry or scream. After waiting for so long, after finally believing that her time had come and she’d be able to clear the way for her brothers, how could this happen?
“What…” Thalia swallowed, her legs growing weak, “what happened? How could this have happened?”
“Get dressed,” said her mother. She was not as tender as her father, but she was more vocal. If Thalia wanted answers, the Duchess would lead the way. “Once you are finished, come to the drawing room. We will explain all that we know then.”
“Don’t worry about anything, all right?” said the Duke, pulling away from her. His words sounded forced as if he didn’t believe them himself. But ever the comforter, ever the one she could lean on, he stepped into his role without hesitation. “Everything will work out the way it should.”
He cradled Thalia’s cheek gently, giving her an encouraging smile that Thalia didn’t feel. Her body was going cold, numb. She couldn’t bring herself to smile at her dear father.
With that said, the Duke stepped back to his wife’s side. The Duchess was a small woman, but she had an air of power that could bring bigger men to their knees. Unlike the Duke, who usually went along with whatever his wife said.
A knock sounded on the door. “You may come in,” the Duchess called over her shoulder. A moment later, the door opened and Thalia’s lady’s maid, Susan, entered. She kept her head bowed as she curtsied.
Thalia couldn’t bring herself to speak. She could only stare silently, her throat burning with tears, as her parents left and Susan stepped forward.
With stiff legs, Thalia managed to sink onto the chair before her vanity table, staring blankly at the mirror. All she could see was the night she’d finally met the man she would marry. A man with blond hair, an easy smile, and who was influential enough to protect her. How could such a person disappear so suddenly? What vile person would want to steal him away from her at such an important moment in her life?
The tears retreated and in their place came burning anger. For now, she would coddle the feeling, clinging to it until she found her answers.
Thalia’s legs began to tremble as she descended the staircase that led to the first floor of Althing Manor. Thalia gripped the banister, keeping her chin cocked. She tried to pretend that she was well, even though every slow step she took toward the drawing room made her apprehensive.
Behind her, Susan was quiet. Ahead of her, the butler watched her approach. And in that drawing room, waiting for her to arrive, were people who would tear her to shreds.
Somehow, she managed to reach the base of the staircase without sinking to her knees. The brave face she wore faltered as she turned down the hallway and spotted the doors of the drawing room in the distance. Thalia grasped her hands tightly, her morning gown moving fluidly around her legs.
Once she reached the door, Thalia paused. She took a deep breath. She told herself that she’d faced these people so many times already, that this time should be just the same. She should not be apprehensive, but determined. She should have faith that they would understand this difficult situation she’d been put in.
Nothing but dread bloomed in her, but she’d already nodded at the butler and he reached to open the doors.
The first person she saw was Keith. As the Marquess of Lanefield, he wasn’t at Althing Manor very often and only came by whenever he was invited by the Duke and Duchess. He resembled the Duchess the most, save for his tall stature, and carried himself nearly the same way as she did. Except, Keith was cruel.
He spotted her before all the others as well and scowled. “Ah, here she is. Dear Sister, how do you fare? I pray the terrible news hasn’t disturbed your appetite?”
A rush of cold went through her at her brother’s words. He said them with a smile, but Thalia saw the sneer that laid underneath. She saw the anger that shone within his eyes. Discreetly, she wiped her hands against her dress.
“My appetite has never suffered before, so I doubt it,” she responded slowly. She knew she would only upset him further but she could not keep herself from talking back.
Crossing his arms, Keith moved away from the sash windows he stood by and came to a stop right before Thalia. She met his eyes unflinchingly, even though her heart thudded in her chest.
“It appears you will not be married again, Dear Sister,” Keith murmured in a low voice. Up close, Thalia could see his age in clear detail—he’d long since shed the boyish handsomeness of his youth now that he was well past his thirtieth year. That smile…it held nothing but disdain.
“Keith, leave her be.” Thalia’s heart sank at the sound of Cain’s voice. Sitting opposite the Duke, he lowered the newspaper he had in his hands and gave Thalia a smirk. “It is not her fault she was born with such terrible luck.”
Even though Cain was a few years younger than Keith, they looked nearly identical—but that was where the similarities ended. Keith was more obvious with his hatred of her—though he didn’t dare to show it before their parents—but Cain’s sneakiness made his actions difficult to predict.
She could remember a time when they’d both been fond of her, when they’d both treated her kindly as their little sister. But as time went on, as months dragged into years with Thalia remaining unmarried, their fondness had turned into resentment. As the only daughter of the family, at two-and-twenty years old, she was nothing more than a tree they were tethered to, unable to move on with their lives and get married themselves, according to their father’s wish, if she remained so stubbornly in place.
She could not blame them for their actions when she was the reason they could not live.
The Duchess, who’d chosen to sit on a chaise lounge by her husband’s side, sipped gently from her teacup, then rested it on the sideboard nearby before waving a hand to Thalia. “Come and sit,” she ordered in a soft tone.
Thalia was happy to comply. She hoped her brothers wouldn’t see how she shook as she made her way to her mother’s side.
“What happened?” she asked instantly, urgency in her tone. “You said you would explain everything when I came. How could this happen?”
“It is your brother who received the message,” the Duchess explained, gesturing to Cain who still watched Thalia with that eerie smirk. “Apparently, your betrothed’s room was found in a mess. There, they found a note written in blood stating that no one should go in search of him or else he will be killed.”
It couldn’t be. That couldn’t possibly be—
“Those cowards!” Keith growled. He barked a laugh, but it only grated her ears. “How dare they steal a man away on the day of his wedding?”
“I believe that only makes the Clan that much more upset, do you not think?” Cain suggested, lifting the newspaper once again. “I am quite impressed.”
“Impressed?” she blurted out before she could stop herself. “And do you not care that someone might very well be in danger?”
“I care more than you think, Dear Sister.”
She gritted her teeth. Dear Sister. Thalia hated when they called her that. “A bit of compassion would make sense if that were true,” she mumbled, then turned her attention back to her parents.
Cain chuckled, and the sound grated Thalia’s already fragile nerves. She wanted to scream at him, to tell him this was not something he could speak so lightly about. But it felt as if her heart had been ripped out of her chest and stomped on. But no more words could pass her lips. She simply felt…defeated.
It was certainly not a feeling she was used to. She should be filled with vim, demanding to know solutions on how they would get him back. She should be trembling with outrage at the audacity of having her future husband treated this way. Certainly, that was what they all expected from her.
But Thalia found the defeat sinking into her bones and rendering her unable to speak.
She had not known her betrothed for long. For a month before their meeting, she’d only known his name—Bryde Wakefielde, heir to the Lairdship of the McTavish Clan. Her father had known the Laird for some time now and had approached with the proposal of having Thalia marry his oldest son, desperate to keep her from living a life of spinsterhood.
After all, her first betrothed had passed away from a sudden illness. Her second had run off to marry a servant girl. And now her third had been kidnapped.
Only upon seeing him five days ago had Thalia learned that he had golden-blond hair and beautiful blue eyes and such a charming personality that she’d instantly warmed to him. There was no love there, no infatuation. But Thalia had been so eager to finally be married that such simple details had not mattered in the slightest.
Her dream…it felt so bleak now.
Cain scoffed loudly, shaking his head at Thalia. Folding the paper, he looked at both the Duke and Duchess, saying, “What shall we do now? Surely, we must take action, or else she will remain unmarried for more years to come. When will another chance like this come around?”
Thalia’s cheeks went red with annoyance. It was already shameful enough that she could not secure a husband before. She did not need her brother’s reminder. Now, she truly wondered if fate was against her.
“We must go in search of him, of course,” Keith spoke up. He paced the room, looking just about ready to fetch his pistol. “It is not as if we do not know who has taken him.”
Thalia sat up at that. “You do?”
Keith didn’t bother to spare her a glance. He went over to the sideboard in the corner of the room and though it was still morning, he reached for a decanter of brandy.
“If you know something, you should tell me,” she insisted. She gripped her dress, resisting the urge to get to her feet. She shared her brother’s habit of pacing when she was overwhelmed with emotions but that was the last thing she wanted to do. She looked to her father, the person who knew the most about the MacTavish Clan. “Father?”
The Duke rubbed his forehead wearily, glancing at his wife. Oddly enough, the Duchess was simply drinking her tea even though she wore a small frown of clear distress. Thalia wished she could hold such composure, but that was far out of her limits.
“Those who know Laird MacTavish know his rival,” the Duke stated. “Or should I say, an enemy. Much bad blood runs between Laird MacTavish and Laird Dunne that I fear it might have come to head.”
“What do you mean?” Thalia murmured, her voice breathy. “Why would Laird Dunne go so far as to kidnap someone’s son?”
“It is because he believes someone within the MacTavish family is the one responsible for the death of his parents.”
“Foolish man,” Keith spat, throwing his drink to the back of his throat. “What has it been since the death of the last Laird? Two years? Four?”
“Six,” her mother said simply.
“Six years.” Cain shook his head. “You would think he would be focusing on more important things now that he holds the Lairdship.”
That was all Thalia needed to hear. She shot to her feet, hands fisted by her side.
“Oh?” Cain’s voice was curious. Thalia didn’t trust it. “If this topic troubles you, Dear Sister, you may return to your bedchamber. I understand this must be difficult for you to hear.”
Thalia ignored the taunt. Any other day, it would have slid off her back. She would have brushed it off and put it to the back of her mind. She might have given him a few snappish comments of her own. But the rage rushing through her was too much to contain.
She was troubled. But she wouldn’t go to her bedchamber to cry and wallow.
“For now, Thalia,” her mother spoke up, always the one to come with the solutions, “you should remain quiet and wait for updates on the situation. I’m certain Laird MacTavish will not sit still, so we should hope to—”
She usually listened to her mother. Everyone in the Manor listened to the instructions from the Duchess of Althing without much question, even the Duke. Her kind father was great in social circles but often fell to the will of his wife in private. Thalia normally fell in line just like the rest of them.
But the anger would not let her rest. The despair had her chest caving, the defeat too potent to handle. Even as she nodded, sinking back into the seat and keeping quiet, she knew she would not heed her mother’s orders. Even though her brothers continued to plan to intervene, while the Duke weakly suggested that they leave it up to the Laird of the MacTavish Clan, Thalia was plotting.
She could not sit still knowing that her betrothed was at the hands of such a man.
Thalia waited for her moment. She kept herself in her bedchambers, thinking through each move she would make while knowing that was what she was about to do was incredibly foolish. But it didn’t matter. She had to do something. Sitting around on her hands had never been a skill of hers.
Thankfully, her family had been far too busy about the stressful situation they’d been placed in. With Bryde gone, it meant Thalia was once again without someone to marry, and at her age, finding someone suitable might prove difficult. It meant she would have to face the resentment of her brothers, who could not marry themselves until she had. It meant her family would be subject to the rumors that she was destined to be alone.
It meant Thalia could not stay still and let this be.
Susan knew that something was on Thalia’s mind, but as timid as she was, she didn’t ask about it. So, until night fell, Thalia kept to herself, hoping her parents would only think she was distraught by the kidnapping.
When it came, the cover of darkness from the moonless night was enough to bolster her determination. Sliding out of bed, Thalia hurried to the vanity table and tried her best to wrap her hair into a simple chignon. It was a sloppy effort, but it would have to do. She didn’t want to waste any more time.
She moved easily, despite the lack of candlelight to guide her way. She pulled a riding habit and cloak from her armoire and proceeded to get dressed. To her annoyance, it went much slower than she was used to since she did not have Susan’s assistance, but she couldn’t wake the girl. If she did, the entire Manor would know of her plan before dawn.
At long last, Thalia was ready. She had asked around, and learned toward where she needed to start. The route she would take filled her head, stretching across her mind’s eye with perfect clarity. She wrapped the hood of the cloak over her head and left her bedchamber, the note she’d prepared lying on her pillow.
Susan would find it in the morning. By then, hopefully, she would be well past the border.
Her heart hammering, Thalia hurried down the hallway to the back staircase the servants used. She rushed down the steps and prayed that no one was awake to see her. She knew her family was already asleep, but she was not aware of the movement of the servants. To her relief, no one was awake when she got to the first floor.
It was foolish to leave with nothing on hand but her reticule. Though she’d never traveled to Scotland before, Thalia knew it might take a few days to arrive where she wanted to go. But she would have to wake someone if she wanted something prepared and that wasn’t a risk she was willing to take. Hunger was. To delay the inevitable, Thalia quickly went into the larder and wrapped up some bread, cheese, and apples for the ride, and headed straight toward the stables.
It was better than nothing.
Cold wind stung her cheeks as she hurried to the stables. She went to the first horse she saw, fetched a saddle and riding crop, and thanked God her father had taught her how to handle horses as a child. Not for a second did she think knowing how to saddle a horse would come in handy.
“I’ll call you Velma,” she whispered to the horse, patting its side gently as she coaxed it out its stall. “We have a long ride ahead of us. I hope you’re prepared.”
The horse snorted.
Thalia nodded as if she understood. Nervousness coiled in the pit of her stomach, her heart racing madly, but her voice was steady as she said, “I have little choice, Velma. The Laird of the Dunne Clan will have to contend with me if he dares to take my betrothed.”
It was easy enough to ride out the stables. Wind whipping the hood from her head, clutching her riding crop tightly in her hands, Thalia tried to leave her trepidation behind and focus on one thing—making sure she had her happy ending.
She never knew the sun could be this unforgiving. It bore down with no remorse, scorching nearly everything in sight. Only a day earlier, Thalia had been happy for the sunshine, happy to have a wedding during the summer. With roses from Althing gardens woven into her flower crown while she wore the Clan colors of her future husband. It would have been so beautiful. But that dream felt so far away now, so unattainable when she had no man to marry.
Enough thinking as if I won’t get a chance at that again. If all goes well, Bryde and I will be married in a matter of days.
Nodding decisively to herself, Thalia lifted her sheepskin bottle to her lips, drinking hungrily. Ever since she’d set out from her home, she’d been nursing this single bottle, trying to stretch the water for as long as she could. She grimaced when she realized that it was all finished, her meager parcel of food also spent
How much longer will I have to go?
She was well aware of how reckless she was being. A part of her wished she could turn back, but she’d already come too far. Not only had she dared to run away from home in the dead of night, on the same day she’d learned of Bryde’s kidnapping, but the note she’d left behind had been so simple that she was already beginning to regret it.
I’m going to find him.
She must have been out of her mind.
Hysterical laughter bubbled up her throat as she brought her horse to a stop. Stretched ahead of her was nothing but green plains, dotted with jutting stones. Her poor steed was having a difficult time already considering they had been traveling for nearly two days, but it was not used to the terrain either. She’d stopped for directions many times since passing the border only one day prior and, in the last village she’d passed, a kind woman had directed her this way, saying that she didn’t have much longer to go.
The end was still not within sight.
Thalia swallowed the laughter, gritting her teeth. Now that her water was gone, her food depleted, and her horse almost as tired as she was, she didn’t know how much farther she could go. But her determination burned like a star within her. She’d come this far. She was not leaving without Bryde.
As if summoned by her fervor, a stony castle came into view. Thalia whispered a grateful prayer, perking up with renewed vigor.
“Can you go for a little longer, Velma?” she asked her horse, patting her gently on her neck. “Just a little while longer.”
Velma only shook her neck, as if irritated by Thalia’s words. It brought a smile to Thalia’s face.
She looked ahead, watching the stark building grow closer. It was nothing but black stone, cold and imposing within a sea of green. A mixture of impatience and trepidation swam within her as the distance grew yet shorter and soon, Thalia could see that there laid a moat surrounding the Castle, a bridge stretching from the mouth of the gloomy building to the end of the water-filled trench. Boldly, Thalia began leading her horse across the wooden bridge, the sound of Velma’s heavy hooves filling the silence.
Thalia flinched at the bark. Two guards rushed up to her, swords slung by their sides. Their general lack of clothing, wearing nothing but red-and-green kilts, made her feel quite overdressed. They even had a knife strapped to their legs, but they reached for neither one of their weapons as they faced her.
“What is yer business here?” one asked. The other studied her, wariness in his eyes. Thalia wondered what could be so suspicious about a lady in a riding habit to warrant them approaching her like this.
“I have come to see the Laird,” she told them.
Both guard’s brows shot upward when she spoke. Thalia held her back straight, gripping Velma’s reins so tightly she could no longer feel her hands.
“Ye come from across the border?” asked the second man.
“Yes,” she told them, “may I speak with the Laird? Is he present?”
The guards looked at each other, then back at her. After a moment, the first guard who’d spoken nodded. “I’ll fetch someone for ye,” he said before he turned and walked off.
“Thank you.” Thalia swung her leg over Velma and slid down onto her feet. She handed the reins to the remaining guard. “Prepare a place for her to rest, along with water and food. She has been ridden for some time.”
She walked off before the guard could say anything, following behind the other man. Standing so close to Dunne Castle, Thalia felt a chill come over her. It seemed to cut straight into the sky with no promise of light or warmth within. Her nervousness grew as she drew closer to the massive wooden doors that served as the entrance, but she didn’t allow herself to give in to it.
To her surprise, the inside of the Castle appeared far more welcoming than she’d expected—though it was not the sort of welcome she could ever get used to. Stretched out before her was a wide pelt rug and lording over it was a massive head of a bear, its jaws open wide. Thalia’s apprehension only grew stronger, but by now, she knew how to hide it.
“If ye’ll wait right here,” the guard said to her before he turned and went down a wide hallway to the left of them. Being left alone in the massive area—quite resembling a foyer much like in Althing Manor—was the last thing she wanted.
“What shall I say to him?” she murmured to herself. She began to play with the strands of hair that had fallen from her hasty chignon, trying to avoid the eyes of the dead bear.
Talking to herself helped to settle her nerves, helped her to gather her thoughts, and to ignore how outrageous it was for her to leave the comfort of her home to confront the man who was ruthless enough to kidnap her betrothed so violently.
But as she repeated the question to herself, she did not know the answer. What could she say to him? How would she bring up the kidnapping without inciting him to do the same thing to her? Thalia twisted the ends of her hair, pacing the space before the doors.
“Who is this?”
Thalia turned at the sudden voice. It was that of a woman, a rather busty one at that. Her sizeable chest was the first thing Thalia noticed. The fact that she wore a gown much like her own was the second.
The woman came to a stop before Thalia, running her eyes down the length of her. She crossed her arms, the bottom of the red-and-green patterned shawl around her shoulders held up in her hands. She was quite a beauty, with hair as dark as midnight and rosy lips that were turned downward.
Thalia suddenly remembered her manners. “Good day,” she greeted. “I was told I could meet with the Laird of the Dunne Clan?”
“Why do ye need to meet with him?” the woman asked. She didn’t bother to hide her perusal of Thalia, walking around her as if she wanted to capture every little detail she hid. “Ye look like ye daenae hail from around these parts. I cannae imagine what business a lass like ye would have with the Laird.”
Thalia didn’t take her eyes off the woman for one moment. She didn’t like the way she openly studied her like that, but there was a twinge of relief in knowing that there was another woman like her around, even though she was not an English noble.
“That business,” Thalia responded firmly, “will be said to the Laird when I meet with him. Are you his advisor?”
The woman stopped before Thalia again, giving her a smile that looked more like a sneer. “I am his sister. Me name’s Moira.”
“I see,” Thalia answered blandly. If Moira thought Thalia would suddenly change her tune with her, she’d made a sad mistake. “Well, Moira, could you escort me to wherever the Laird is? I hope not to waste time standing here any longer. It has been a long trip, you see.”
“Aye, which makes me wonder why ye bothered to make it.”
“That is for the Laird to know and you to find out if he so wishes.”
Moira’s brows shot upward in surprise, which only put Thalia on edge. “Brave lass, are ye? I should have the guards take ye out of the Castle but I’m too curious to see how this will play out.”
Well, that doesn’t sound good at all.
Moira’s smile shifted into a smirk and she chuckled. Thalia kept her eyes on her, wondering if she was laying herself out to be eaten whole by the woman before her.
Without a word, Moira turned on her heels and began to walk away. Thalia made sure not to fall behind. For some reason, she doubted she’d successfully convinced Moira to do as she asked, but she didn’t plan on asking about it. If Moira was leading her to the Laird, then that was all that mattered.
They walked in silence for a while, traversing long, empty hallways until they came out into an open courtyard. It was so wide that Thalia could hardly believe they were still on the Castle grounds. The grass was much drier here, breaking away under their footsteps as Moira led her toward the center of the clearing.
There, she saw him.
In truth, Thalia had not known what to expect. Bryde had been tall and muscular, clearly capable of battle as she’d learned Scottish men often were. But the person she saw before her was not man, but a beast—one who was wielding an ax in each hand as he cut through invisible men. The way he moved, with silent precision and such intense force, Thalia felt her knees grow weak. She stubbornly kept herself standing, knowing very well that Moira was watching her reaction. Perhaps this was why the woman had so willingly led her to see her brother. Perhaps it was because she knew it would be difficult to face such a man who could most certainly kill her without dropping a single bead of sweat.
“Ye said ye wanted to meet the Laird,” Moira said, sounding quite satisfied. She crossed her arms under her large bosom and jerked her chin toward the man slicing dangerously at the wind. “Then go right ahead.”
“Thank you, I shall.” But Thalia’s bold words didn’t rid her of her sudden fear. Even though she lifted her chin and set forward, she struggled to think of what she would say when he noticed her presence.
The Laird stopped suddenly, letting his hands hang by his side. Slowly, he turned his head to look at her approach. Thalia faltered for a moment, her heart racing in her chest, but then she kept going.
She didn’t know beasts could be so handsome.
Like his sister, his hair was as dark as a raven’s, his eyes nothing but black pools. He had a sharp jaw and a hard mouth, a hard chest that moved silently under his heavy breathing, and broad shoulders that extended into muscular arms. And…he wore no shirt. Sweat dripped down his bronze skin, glistening under the glow of the sunlight. Thalia tried to keep her eyes on his face and hated herself for finding it so difficult.
The Laird said nothing as she stopped, six feet of distance between them. Thalia clenched her fists tightly by her side, willing herself to ignore his heated gaze, trying to find the strength in her next words.
They came rushing out of her before she could stop them. “What have you done with my betrothed, you brute?”
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