About the book
He pretended to hate her, though he dreamed of her every night...
Lady Astrid Downie knows her days as a spinster are limited: her father cannot wait any longer for her to get married. So, he chooses her a husband, and the worst one of all: the man who named her “the Ice Queen”.
The Laird of Findlay, Campbell Young, marries only for the political alliance: he has no intention to fall in love. That’s why he chooses the woman he hates the most. But she comes and brings with her the happiness he has been missing…
Astrid opens his curtain and his heart, making Campbell vulnerable: he falls in love for the first time.But as their love grows, someone cannot abide with their marriage. And they discover a horrible truth, that might cost Campbell his lairdship…
Had she learned about this meeting earlier, perhaps Astrid would not have to suffer from the coiling dread currently eating away at her insides. Perhaps she would have had more time to come to terms with the fact that she was no longer going to be in charge of her own future, and that her life would be placed in the hands of another man.
The thought made her shudder and for the tenth time that morning, she looked ruefully at her father, hoping he would sense her unease so that she wouldn’t have to voice it. If she dared to, it might only spark an argument she had no hope of winning. She need only take one look at her father’s stony eyes and Astrid knew that he was set in his decision.
Ian Downie, the Laird of the Whyte Clan, ignored her withering looks.
Astrid cleared her throat, brushing anxiously at her hair. Glancing at her father once more, she broke the silence, “Who is he?”
Laird Whyte didn’t look at her. He didn’t even answer.
“Is it someone I ken?”
He still didn’t answer.
Letting out a sound of frustration, she whirled away, resuming her agitated pacing. Now, she couldn’t help but think it was the son of the Laird of Gaile, a massive and unattractive man and the thought made her shudder.
At that moment, there was a knock on the door. She turned to face the door as a guard slipped in, standing at attention before he said, “Yer guests have arrived, Me Laird.”
“Show them in.”
It was the moment of truth. Astrid wasn’t ready. She’d never been very good at surprises, especially when the surprise came in the form of a strapping young man who she would be tied to the for the rest of her life.
Oh goodness, what if he isnae young? Faither wouldn’ae be so cruel, would he?
Her mind began racing as fast as her heart and, losing some strength in her limbs, she sank into the closest armchair, staring at the door in tense apprehension. Soon enough, she heard footsteps and then a figure stepping around the threshold.
The first person to enter the room was an older man, with black hair and green eyes. The moment Astrid laid eyes on him, her heart sank and she thought her fears had borne fruit. She thought her father had truly arranged a marriage between her and a man far older. But when someone else walked in right behind him, all those thoughts disappeared.
First came the shock.
Her jaw fell, her eyes widened, and a gasp might have left her lips, though she was too focused on the man standing by the door to notice. He was as tall as the last time she saw him, that irritating smirk playing around his lips. The same black hair falling in shining waves around his face and tied to the nape of his neck. The same blue eyes glittering with mirth as he met her eyes. And that same heavy build, with broad shoulders and obvious muscles to match the hard jawline.
To others, she supposed he might be deemed handsome. Devilishly so, perhaps. But to her, she saw nothing but her worst nightmare.
“It is good to see ye again, Miss Astrid Downie,” Campbell Young, the Laird of Findlay greeted.
Astrid’s mouth opened and closed, grappling with what to say in response. Slowly, she rose, not tearing her eyes away from his satisfied expression for a second.
“Faither—” she began but her sentence trailed away, disbelief sinking. Somehow, this was worse than all the other things she’d feared.
“I suppose since we all ken each other,” her father spoke up from behind, coming to stand next to Astrid, “we daenae have to go through long introductions.”
“Ye might be right about that, Me Laird,” the older man with the black hair said. Astrid didn’t look at him, didn’t take her eyes off Campbell. “But I think the last time we held a feast at Findlay Castle, I was away on business. As a result, I dinnae get to formally introduce meself to Miss Astrid.”
“Ah, I see.” Her father cleared his throat. “Astrid?”
She jerked, eyes darting to the Laird. “A… aye?”
Her father gestured to the older man, his eyes unyielding. “Allow me to introduce ye to Mr. Nicholas Young, the Laird of Findlay’s uncle as well as his advisor.”
Mr. Young approached, extending his hand. Astrid barely remembered how to move her stiff limbs, her shock enough to override all her senses. Somehow she accepted the hand he held out.
“It is a pleasure to finally meet ye, Miss Astrid.”
“The pleasure is mine,” she murmured. She couldn’t help herself; her gaze drifted back to Campbell, who silently waited by the door with his arms crossed. He still wore that infernal smile, as if he knew far more than she did. She didn’t like it one bit. She didn’t like anything about him.
“Shall we all sit?” her father offered, breaking her out of her thoughts.
“Aye of course!” Mr. Young turned to Campbell and gestured that he sit first, out of respect. Campbell came forward then, filling the air with a strong sense of authority. He sank into the armchair right across from Astrid, on purpose she guessed. He would always do whatever he could to get on her nerves.
“Faither?” she said finally, speaking slowly. “What is he doin’ here?”
“Astrid, I’m sure ye ken the answer to that question,” her father said in response, sounding just a little exasperated.
“Nay, I must be wrong,” she pushed. “Because ye couldn’ae have done what it looks like ye did, Faither. He cannae be the one.”
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Young spoke up, looking alarmed. He glanced between Astrid and Laird Whyte, clearly confused. “Is there somethin’ the matter?”
“I must have forgotten to let ye ken, Nicholas,” Campbell spoke up, the mirth in his voice enough to drive Astrid insane. “Miss Astrid isnae particularly fond of me.”
“Isnae fond of ye?” she echoed loudly, incredulous. “I downright despise ye and ken it!”
She couldn’t forget the first time they’d met. It was three years ago, during a wedding between the son and daughter of neighboring Lairds. During the nightly celebration, she had gotten a little too intoxicated on wine and, as a result, had been quite… energetic. She’d approached him, introduced herself, and proceeded to talk his ear off. To this day, Astrid couldn’t remember what she had been babbling about. All she remembered was how rudely he’d cut her off, told her she was the most irritating thing he’d ever met, and that she shouldn’t approach him again.
Ever since then, her dislike for him had only grown. It didn’t help that they would see each other at the feasts and gatherings she had been attending as of late. It felt as if he would always go out of his way to bother her, and they would always end up butting heads somehow. Campbell Young was the absolute last person she thought she would see today.
Campbell made a low whistle. “Despise is a strong word, ye ken.”
“I daenae—” She broke off, knowing very well that he was doing what he did best. Provoking her into stepping out of character. She wasn’t the type to get angry very easily, wasn’t the type to let things bother her. But there was something about this man that could do just that with ease.
“Faither, ye still have the power to stop this,” she begged, turning to the Laird. “Ye can call this off.”
“Astrid,” he hissed, his eyes going to narrow slits. “It’s too late. Now stop actin’ like a child.”
She was acting like a child. But how could she not when she saw the future that she was now being faced with? Spending the rest of her life with Campbell Young? She would much rather die alone.
Mr. Young didn’t seem to know what to do with this situation. He cleared his throat, facing the Laird. “Perhaps we should all leave, take a walk, and—”
“There is nay other time, Mr. Young,” her father said sharply. “The wedding is today and—”
“Today?” Astrid exclaimed, shooting to her feet. “And I’m kennin’ about this now? Is that why ye wanted us to meet so early in the mornin’, Faither? I should have kent that somethin’ was off!”
“Astrid!” Her father rose to full height as well. In that moment, he was no less terrifying than a bear, one with full intent to kill. And though Astrid knew she had nothing to worry about, she felt a tremor of fear as she looked up at him. “Ye will learn to hold yer tongue, especially when ye are in the company of others. Now, he will be yer future husband so ye had better learn how to respect him now because ye will have to spend the rest of yer life with him.”
Astrid crossed her arms, ready to argue. Before she could, Campbell stood as well. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw how much he towered over her, his annoying smirk enough to bolster her rage.
“I’m sure Miss Astrid will learn to tolerate me presence over time,” he said. To her surprise, he reached out and grasped her hand. Astrid was far too surprised to consider pulling away. She watched, her heart stopping dead in her chest, as he leaned over and pressed a kiss on the back of it. Then, he raised his eyes up to meet hers once more. “And I can only hope that that day comes soon.”
He let go of her hand before she came to her senses. Astrid curled her hand into a fist, annoyed with herself for letting him do that so freely. For a few seconds, she could only stand there, her fury simmering within her. But she knew she was jumping into a fight she was bound to lose.
At the end of the day, her father had made a decision and there would be no changing his mind once he did. She was to marry Campbell Young. Today.
“Please excuse me,” she said stiffly and began walking toward the door without waiting for a response. She expected her father to order her to stay, and was fully prepared to disobey him—company or not. But, as if he knew his command would fall on deaf ears, he said nothing as she took her leave. Astrid hated walking away from a fight like this, but it was necessary.
She would need her strength for the rest of the day, at least.
She wouldn’t be able to go far. In a few hours, the wedding would begin, and she would have no chance to escape. Campbell was sure that, at most, she would take a heated walk around the castle grounds before submitting to her fate.
The thought wasn’t nearly as amusing as he thought it would be. The thought of her tiny frame stomping around the castle, enraged at the thought of marrying him on such short notice, only filled him with chagrin. He sipped his chalice of wine, trying not to grimace at the memory of her stalking out of the Great Hall with everyone staring at her.
He wondered if she knew how easily she commanded the attention of everyone around her. It was the first thing about her that had irritated him.
“Are ye ready?”
Campbell shrugged. Now that he thought about it, he didn’t think she knew that he was the one who asked for her hand and not the other way around. Maybe if she did learn of that, she might truly have fainted right then and there.
It wouldn’t make much sense, after all. He disliked her as much as she disliked him. Whenever they were at the same event, they actively avoided each other. And whenever they couldn’t do that, they would always argue. It was a wonder Nicholas hadn’t known about it before.
But he needed a wife. And, after hearing Laird Whyte’s long complaints about her unmarried state after he had indulged in a little too much ale, Campbell hadn’t thought twice about asking for her hand. Completely sober and aware of himself, he had done something he never thought he would do. And today was the fated day.
Not knowing how to explain any of it to Nicholas, because he couldn’t explain it to himself, he shrugged again and said, “It will all work itself out.”
“I hope so.” Nicholas drained his chalice, a bit of the wine dribbling onto his hairy chin. He wiped at it with the back of his hand. “For such a small woman, I was a little afraid of what she would do just now. She resembles her faither in more ways than one.”
“Aye, her temper isnae anythin’ to scoff at.” But it also wasn’t anything Campbell was afraid of. If anything, he was intrigued. “That is the exact reason Laird Whyte decided to wait until this late to let her ken about the weddin’. I surmise she would have done somethin’ outrageous if given the time to think of a plan.”
“Like run away from her home?” Nicholas probed.
The disbelief in his voice was enough to make Campbell smile, mostly because he could see Astrid doing just that. Donning a brown cape, carrying only a satchel full of items, and stealing a horse to escape a marriage to the man she despised. “Perhaps,” he responded, finishing his wine.
At that moment, there was a knock on the door. Campbell looked up, expecting to see Astrid walking through. He hadn’t expected the stab of disappointment when he saw that it was only a guard. “The courtyard is ready, Laird Findlay,” the guard said.
“Thank ye,” Campbell said to him and the guard nodded, taking a step back. Campbell looked back at his uncle. “Are ye ready?”
“I should be askin’ ye that,” he responded.
“I’ve been ready since I opened me eyes this mornin’.” Perhaps too ready. “Then let’s go, shall we? It’s time for me to get married.”
Nicholas grinned at that, gesturing for Campbell to lead the way. Campbell did just that, meeting up with the waiting guard who proceeded to guide them to the courtyard. Whyte Castle was a massive structure, stretching far and reaching high. By the time they arrived, Campbell didn’t think he would be able to make it back to the Great Hall on his own.
The courtyard had been decorated in a rather simple style. The petals from mountain avens littered the pathway leading up to an archway where he and the bride were meant to stand. Unlike other weddings of Lairds, the only persons in attendance were Laird Whyte, a few maids and guards standing by, and the waiting priest. Even so, the gentle sound of a lyre drifted through the air, a tune far too romantic for what was about to take place.
They didn’t have to wait long. As soon as Campbell got settled, the doors opened once more. He looked up expectantly, but the sight before him was more than anything he could have imagined.
She’d somehow become more radiant, despite the clear scowl she wore. The dress she wore had a massive tartan skirt in the Whyte clan colors, while the bodice of the dress was fitted to her body and held using strings. It forced her bosom to the top of the dress, the creamy flesh jerking with every step she took.
Campbell swallowed harshly, dragging his gaze away from her bosom to her sensual, downturned lips, her brown eyes spitting fire at him. Her hairstyle changed, most of the braids taken out so that the curls could be tied to the nape of her neck. It was as elegant as it was sensual and suddenly, he was happy he had decided to wear his kilt rather than his tartan trews.
There was no ignoring the obvious displeasure on her face, however. Campbell imagined that after storming out of the Great Hall, she would have had to return to her bedchamber before too long so that she could get ready. It seemed Laird Whyte’s plan went off without a hitch.
“Ye look lovely,” he said by way of greeting, knowing that it would only upset her further.
Just as he expected, she rolled her eyes and turned to face the priest. A part of him was disappointed in the fact that she hadn’t given him a barbed response, instead simply ignoring him.
The priest began right away, as if he sensed the reluctance emanating from the woman who stood before him and did not want to risk her backing out. As he proceeded, Campbell’s mind began to drift to other things, to the fact that after the celebration was over, they would be returning to his castle. Alone.
She always smelled like primrose. He supposed that was partly the reason why so many men fell for her charm so easily. He’d always prided himself on being strong enough to withstand her beauty, mostly because she irritated him, but right now, it was a struggle to keep his eyes to himself. The tantalizing look of her generous breasts spilling over the top of her dress—in both an alluring but reserved manner—was enough to drive any man insane, he told himself. Whether they disliked her or not.
“So, it is with the greatest pleasure that I now announce ye man and wife,” the priest said a little louder, pulling Campbell out of his thoughts. He blinked, a little taken aback at the fact that they had gotten to this point and all he had been able to think about was the woman by his side. The priest smiled at him. “Ye may kiss the bride.”
Astrid stiffened. Campbell smirked, turning to her. It was tradition to kiss, but they didn’t have to. There were no guests to impress after all and he was certain everyone present knew how reluctant she was to do any of this. But she faced him too, her eyes shooting daggers, daring him.
Campbell had never been one to ignore a dare.
He took her hand, leaning forward. He took a brief moment to breathe her in, half expecting her to pull away, to hiss at him, to even slap him if she was irate enough. But she didn’t move, standing there long enough for him to plant a chaste kiss on the side of her mouth. He’d meant to bother her with the touch, but when he pulled away, his body was flushed with heat, his heart racing a little faster. He supposed he always got a little overexcited whenever it was time to provoke the Ice Queen.
“I hope ye’re ready to spend the rest of yer life with me, Ice Queen,” he couldn’t help but taunt.
She narrowed her earthy-brown eyes at him, the venom within them enough to tear at even the strongest of men. “I assure ye, Campbell Young of Findlay. Ye will regret this.”
“If ye say so, Astrid Young.”
She shuddered at that and he tried not to laugh.
She was married. In a matter of hours, she’d gone from dreading the thought of meeting her betrothed to becoming the wife of the man she hated. A part of her still couldn’t believe it had happened, but as she watched her father’s good mood grow with every tankard he filled, the reality of this situation grew weightier and weightier.
“Are ye all right, Me Lady?”
Astrid didn’t look away from her father and Mr. Young at Evie’s question. The maid had been by her side nearly the entire day, her quiet presence an odd source of comfort.
“I’m quite fine,” she said to Evie in response. She didn’t take her eyes off Campbell, hating the fact that he had decided to take his white linen shirt off. His rippling muscles were not what she needed to see right now.
Astrid could feel Evie’s eyes on her but she ignored it. “Ye daenae seem fine, Me Lady,” she said after a while. “And it is quite fine if ye arenae.”
Astrid let out the sigh she’d been longing to release. “Would it change anythin’? Me fate has been decided for me and there isnae anythin’ I can do about it now. Nothin’ but accept it.”
Evie sighed as well. “I suppose when there isnae any good ye can see comin’ out of this, is there?”
“Good?” Astrid echoed, incredulous. “That man isnae anything but a tyrant. A mean, provokin’ bastard who wants nothin’ more than to see me unhappy. I wouldn’ae be surprised in the slightest if that is the reason he’s decided to marry me. Because he kens it is the last thing I would want.”
“Surely he isnae that bad—” Evie sounded contemplative, as if she was trying to ascertain if the jovial man before them was truly capable of such spiteful acts.
Astrid had no doubt in her mind. She wasn’t fooled by his hearty laugh, nor the way his face softened at the sound of it. And she wasn’t going to let the sight of his hard, muscular chest and bulging arms distract her from what she knew to be true. Campbell Young liked her no more than she liked him. And it didn’t help that he was the one who first dubbed her the ‘Ice Queen’.
Astrid sighed, looking over at Evie. Though the lass was a few years younger than Astrid, she’d always considered her to be her closest friend. Evie knew nearly everything about Astrid and, whenever they would go out into town together, they would often be mistaken as sisters—even though Evie’s blond hair was nearly as white as cotton and straight as bone. She also opted to wear her hair in a tight bun at the nape of her neck, while Astrid always let her curls loose. The similarities grew with their eyes, doe-shaped and brown. Astrid was extremely grateful for the fact that she would not have to leave Evie behind as well.
“I suppose there is no use lingering around here,” she said to Evie, trying not to sigh again. “We should leave before night falls.”
“I will stop calling ye Miss now. Lady Findlay would be much more suitable. Or Me Lady.”
Astrid let out a loud groan. “Daenae even start with that.”
Evie giggled behind her hand as Astrid turned and walked toward the massive dining table dominating the center of the hall. Her groan must have been louder than she’d thought. Or perhaps they had noticed her before she began to approach. But as she drew nearer to the table, the men turned their attention to her, their smiles slipping.
“Ah, it seems me wife is ready for us to leave,” Campbell spoke first, and that rage-inducing grin stretched across his face. Despite his flushed cheeks, he still had that innate power to make any woman’s heart flutter, even a woman who hated his guts.
She crossed her arms under the cloak she wore. Evie had helped her out of her wedding dress and into her riding gear while Astrid went on and on about how much she hated this situation.
“Aye, ye two should be goin’ along yer way,” her father agreed, nodding his large head as he lifted his tankard to his lips. He drank sloppily enough to dot his own chest with ale. When he was done, he rose to his feet, scraping the chair backward.
Campbell stood as well, facing the laird. “I wish we had more time to hear all about yer tales from yer youth, Me Laird,” he said. “We should get together again soon.”
“Aye, we should.” And then the Laird turned to her.
Astrid was still very mad at her father. So mad that she could hardly speak, even as he approached her. His jubilant mood seemed to dim a little as he took in his only daughter and for a second, there was nothing but silence.
Then, he pulled her into a tight embrace. Astrid blinked in surprise, her arms remaining stiff by her side. Her father was not an emotional man and though she knew he loved her, she couldn’t tell when last he’d said the words. Nor could she recall the last time they’d hugged.
“I did this for yer own good, Astrid,” he whispered to her. “Soon ye will come to see that.”
She couldn’t think of a single thing to say, couldn’t even bring herself to grow more upset. She only embraced him tightly, realizing then that she would no longer be able to wake up and see him every day. If she wanted to see him, she would have to travel for hours.
She wanted to tell him that she would miss him, his stoic expressions and his cryptic ways of speaking. She would miss sitting with him during mealtimes and talking to fill the silence, content to jabber on while he listened. She would miss watching him training in the courtyard, miss scolding him for drinking too late into the night and then begrudgingly joining in for a night of fun.
By the time they pulled away from each other, she was certain he knew all that without her having to say it. It had been the two of them for so long, after her mother passed away when she was just coming of age. Now, she was leaving him all alone.
Astrid stepped away, clearing her throat. Then she shot Campbell a look before saying, “Let’s go.”
She walked away, not waiting to hear his response.
Astrid couldn’t wait to get away from him, hating the fact that he was the only thing she could think about. It bothered her, and she was almost certain that it bothered him as well, but she couldn’t help herself. He was just… unusually quiet.
She didn’t expect this. She expected him to aggravate her, to taunt her, to argue with her. She expected him to reveal his true colors now that they were alone—even though Evie followed behind on her horse. Nicholas Young had decided to remain at Whyte Castle, and planned on returning tomorrow.
Still, Campbell said nothing. The drunken behavior from before had disappeared and he was his usual somber self. Much like the man who would remain by himself during gatherings without saying anything to a single soul.
She should have been grateful for his silence, especially since she didn’t feel much like having angry conversations. But this was far too disconcerting for her liking.
And it certainly didn’t help that they were sitting atop the same horse.
“I’m sure ye dinnae need to take yer shirt off,” she couldn’t help but grumble. Only to steady herself, she gripped the sides of his kilt, trying to keep from touching him unnecessarily. Her back ached because of it, but she thought it was worlds better than having her bosom pressed against his back.
“Aye, I dinnae,” he confirmed, his voice a deep rumble that seemed to echo throughout her body, despite the distance she was trying to maintain. “But how could I nae when I kent it would bother ye?”
“Goodness,” she sighed, rolling her eyes in annoyance. “I am married to a bampot.”
“A handsome one,” he corrected. She could hear his grin and it made her grit her teeth this time.
“Is that why ye insisted that we sit astride the same horse?” she accused. “Because ye were well aware of how uncomfortable it would make me?”
“Me horse is far better suited for the landscape surroundin’ Findlay Castle than yers are, so I thought there would be nae need for Laird Whyte to give up one of his steeds. Though, I suppose botherin’ ye is a very good reason in itself.”
“I cannae believe me Faither actually agreed to that.”
“It is because he is rather fond of me. He trusts me judgment and I cannae blame him.”
Astrid scoffed at the cocksure attitude. “An arrogant bampot, ye are. The worst kind.”
To her annoyance, he only laughed. “And what of ye, Ice Queen? Surely ye ken that ye cannae berate me when ye share the same sins?”
“I’m nothin’ like ye,” Astrid defended, cocking her chin higher even though he couldn’t see her.
He turned his head to the side, and she instinctively looked the other way, pretending as if the motion hadn’t made her heart skip a beat. “Are ye nae? Perhaps I am thinkin’ of another person. Someone else who confidently stood atop a chair during a gathering and howled the wrong lyrics to an old folk song.”
“That was one time!” Astrid cried out without thinking. Embarrassment colored her cheeks. She’d completely forgotten about that embarrassing moment, which had only been shared with the handful of people who had stayed at the castle overnight. Regrettably, Campbell had been one of them.
He laughed loudly, the sound reverberating through her body. “And I daenae think I will ever forget it. Daenae worry, Ice Queen. I thought ye looked quite adorable, even though me ears were close to bleedin’.”
Adorable. The description should have bothered her, but butterflies filled her stomach instead. Bothered by the reaction, Astrid mumbled, “I’m nae speakin’ any longer.”
“Och, and just when it was gettin’ interestin’.”
She ignored him, glaring out at the vast land to the left of them as silence fell.
But before long, her gaze wandered back to him. As the sun began to dip toward the horizon, he seemed to grow even more attractive. Shadows dipped between the planes of his muscles, every move he made making those shadows shift and waver. It easily spoke of the man before her, the one she simply could not understand.
Astrid didn’t want to break the silence, didn’t want to risk hearing his teasing voice once more. If she did, she was afraid the memory of the simple kiss he’d given her would plague her once more. Her heart had stopped dead in her chest when he’d leaned forward, in front of the priest and her father. And she’d feared it would never start again when his lips pressed briefly against the side of her mouth. It was hardly anything of note, she’d tried to tell herself, and was not anything like what she’d hoped her first kiss would be like. And yet, every time she thought about it, her body grew hot, her mind a little muddled.
To her complete dismay, she couldn’t get it out of her head during the hours that ensued while they made their way to Findlay Castle. It only bolstered her annoyance… and filled her with growing trepidation of what was to happen when they arrived.
“Welcome, Ice Queen,” Campbell spoke up again, “to yer new home.”
Astrid’s heart skipped a beat at that and she tried to push aside the tremors of apprehension she felt watching the looming castle grow larger. “Stop callin’ me that,” she mumbled half-heartedly.
“As ye wish,” he drawled and she gritted her teeth. The closer they came to the castle, Astrid could think of only one thing now.
The wedding night. The night every girl should look forward to, instead of dread. The night she would truly become a woman, despite the four-and-twenty years spent on this Earth. The night Astrid had always been a little scared of, even though it was one of the only things she was truly looking forward to.
What will he do? How will I even get through this night with a man like him?
Her stomach twisted into knots, Findlay Castle growing larger as they came nearer. Unlike the rocky mountainous region she’d grown up in, Findlay Castle was surrounded by nothing but lush grass that moved under the gentle night’s wind. It sat atop a knoll but that was all she could see, the land that extended behind the castle invisible in the growing darkness.
A part of her had expected a building made of dark stone that promised penetrating cold. But it was far more homey. Guards wearing kilts in the Clan’s colors of two different shades of blue greeted their Laird heartily and offered Astrid bright smiles as they trudged up to the massive front door. Stable hands rushed out to assist them as they dismounted their steeds and other maids helped Evie with the luggage. Amid the slightly growing chaos, Astrid just barely noticed that Campbell was walking away, not sparing them another glance.
She followed, but only because there was no use milling around outside. Not because she was curious about this place, her new home. And certainly not because of him. But as soon as they stepped into the grand foyer, he turned to face her.
“Follow me,” he ordered.
Astrid opened her mouth to protest, to tell him she had no intention of doing so, to argue. But he turned and walked away from her before she had the chance.
Evie came to her side, touching Astrid gently on her arm as if she could sense Astrid’s rising emotions. Astrid drew in a deep breath, letting it slowly out her nose, and then looked at her maid. She didn’t have to say anything to her. She only gave her a smile, one that told Evie she would be fine even though she felt anything but.
Evie didn’t look very convinced but Astrid walked away without another word, following her husband.
The hallways were wide, with a lovely auburn rug stretching down the length of all of them. They passed by a great many closed doors, with end tables sitting nearby. Some of the end tables sported vases, others with paintings above them. All the windows they passed by had drawn drapes.
Silence hung heavy in the air. She couldn’t even hear their footsteps against the rug. Before long, she couldn’t deal with the quiet any longer.
“I daenae understand ye,” she said.
Campbell’s stride didn’t falter. He didn’t look at her. And for a few seconds, she wondered if he planned on answering her at all. “I’m nae surprised, Ice Queen.”
“Daenae call me that,” she snapped. “And daenae act as if this isnae completely wrong.”
“What about it? Marriage is a normal thing between a man and woman.”
She hated his casual, almost dry, tone. As if he was only answering to appease her. “Ye could have married anyone else. Any lass ye wished. But ye seem hellbent on makin’ me life a misery, are ye nae?”
“Ye think too highly of yerself, Ice Queen.”
“Daenae—” She broke off, trying to tamper her rage. “Then why? I daenae understand.”
“Ye daenae have to.” Suddenly, he drew to a halt, turning to face her. Astrid made sure to keep a few feet between them, glaring into his sea-blue eyes. “All ye need to do right now is just accept what has already happened.”
She resisted the urge to fold her arms, knowing she would only end up looking like a child. It would often work whenever she was arguing with her father, but she doubted it would have the same effect on the impenetrable statue before her.
“So, what now?” she asked. She raised her chin challengingly, hoping he wouldn’t notice the tremor of fear in her voice. She didn’t have to ask, though. She knew what was going to happen next.
They would go inside. He would force himself upon her. And it would hurt… a lot.
She tried to remain valiant in face of that terrible possibility, but as they stood there staring at each other, she couldn’t help but wonder if he sensed her growing fear. He searched her eyes, his dark brows dipping ever so slightly.
Then, he reached for the handle of the door and pushed it open. He didn’t head inside, only gestured to the opening with a sweeping arm. “Now, ye go to bed.”
“Me?” she repeated, unable to hide her surprise. “And what of ye?”
“I dinnae think ye would care so much about what I do,” he drawled.
“I daenae,” she retorted quickly. “I just thought—” Astrid quickly shook her head, shoving the thought away. The rush of relief was making her tongue a little too loose, she guessed. “Never mind.”
Not wanting this to last any longer, she headed into the bedchamber. Campbell reached for the door handle as soon as she was inside, murmuring a soft, “Goodnight, Astrid.”
He closed the door before she had the chance to face him again. She was alone again. For some reason, it wasn’t nearly as comforting as she was hoping it would be.
She let out the breath she had been holding, releasing the tension that had been steadily building in her limbs. Her hands began to shake and, on unsteady legs, she made her way to the large bed near the center of the room and sank onto the firm mattress. After a moment, she collapsed backward, staring up at the dark ceiling.
So many things happened today. Her life took a sharp turn, for the worse she believed. But at least she had one thing to be grateful about: the fact that she would be sleeping alone tonight.
She let her eyes drift close, not caring to properly get ready for bed now that the fatigue was steadily setting into her bones. She was prepared to fall asleep quickly, to slip into a dreamless state of unconsciousness.
She was not, however, prepared to see a pair of blue eyes following her into her dreamscape.
“Me Lady? Me Lady Astrid?”
Astrid stirred at the call of her name, groaning a little under her breath. As a bit of a light sleeper, she was already waking up, her mind already grappling with the fact that she wasn’t a ‘Miss’ anymore. It brought a scowl to her face, even before she opened her eyes.
“It is a little past dawn, Me Lady.” It was Evie, Astrid noticed. “Because of yer trip last night, I thought I should let ye sleep a little while longer, but I ken ye daenae like wakin’ up too late.”
Astrid sighed, letting her eyes drift open. The drapes had already been drawn apart, showering the large bedchamber in golden light. Astrid enjoyed her mornings, preferred waking up early for a light stroll through the still dewing air before getting ready for breakfast. But, remembering that she was not waking up in her own bed, her mood was already plummeting and the thought of leaving this room made her want to sigh once more.
Evie didn’t seem aware of her quiet contemplations. She was moving around the room, her steps hurried. Astrid listened as the hearth was brought alive and then to her wardrobe—which she was sure Evie had unpacked when she was still asleep—being rummaged through.
“One of the maids showed me around the castle early this mornin’, Me Lady,” Evie was saying as she prepared Astrid’s morning wear. “I believe I remember most of it so, rather than going for a walk outside the castle this mornin’, perhaps ye would like for me to take ye on a tour. It would do well for ye to get used to yer surroundin’s.”
“Very well.” Astrid sat up. Her hair had come loose from its hold and now tumbled down the side of her face, a mess.
“Wonderful. I was also informed of the fact that breakfast will be served within a couple of hours, so we have more than enough time to—” Evie sighed. A strand of her white-blond hair fell out of its hold and she stopped what she was doing to tuck it back into place. “Allow me to help ye, Me Lady.”
As Astrid got out of bed, Evie approached and proceeded to assist Astrid in stripping out of the clothes she’d worn to bed last night. Finished with stripping Astrid to nothing but the light chemise she wore underneath, Evie stepped back with a soft smile. “Now, what would ye like to wear? And I suggest that ye choose quickly because, in a few minutes I believe, maids will be coming in to set yer bath.”
“Goodness, ye’ve already gotten yerself comfortable, haven’t ye?” Astrid said, marveling at Evie’s efficiency.
Her maid only shrugged. “It isnae anythin’ worthy of note.”
Astrid snorted at that but said no more when there was a knock on the door. True to her word, a few maids came spilling into the room bearing buckets of hot water, heading to the side of the bedchamber that was sectioned off using a divider. Astrid hadn’t realized that a wooden tub lay behind it, the same tub that would be filled with hot water in a few minutes. She quickly shed her chemise as soon as the maids left and sank into the comforting heat, eager to chase away the kinks of her night’s rest.
What she really hoped to be rid of, however, was the image that seemed to be branded onto the inside of her eyelids. Campbell’s humor-filled blue eyes, the rippling muscles, the slight smirk of his lips. She’d spent the entire day hating every second of that, and yet had fallen asleep dreaming about nothing else. Even as she woke up this morning, he was the first thing that came to her mind, the massive bed growing even larger in his absence.
It was hard ridding her mind of the thought and by the time she was finished with the bath, the water had grown tepid. Evie had cleaned up her room while she soaked and was already ready to assist her into her morning gown—a simple white and red dress that clearly had no affiliation to any clan. Astrid didn’t feel comfortable wearing the Findlay colors. Not yet. Probably not ever.
After her hair had been brushed until it shone, she was finally ready to leave the bedchamber. “Do ye think it would be completely terrible of me to return to Whyte Castle this afternoon?” she asked Evie, gently closing the door to the room. The way a guest would, in a home that did not belong to them.
Evie gave her a thinly veiled skeptical look. “Surely, ye’re nae serious?”
Astrid chuckled lightly. “I’ll take that as me answer then.”
“It surely wouldn’ae be a good look for ye to leave the day after yer weddin’.”
“It happened so quickly that I daenae even think anyone kens of it just yet,” Astrid responded with a wave of her hand as they set off down the hallway, following Evie’s lead. “I dinnae even ken about it until the mornin’.”
“Rumors travel quickly, Me Lady.”
“And as do I.” Astrid crossed her arms, pursing her lips in thought. “How far do ye think I could get before anyone notices that I’m missin’?
Astrid shook her head, determined to go on. She’d wanted to talk about this from the moment she’d learned of her father’s plan and so now, as she and Evie left her chambers, Astrid couldn’t help lamenting about the fact that she was married to her worst nightmare. She still couldn’t believe it. But at least talking with Evie—who replied with sarcastic, humorous little comments—she felt much better and ready to take on the day.
“He should be thrown in the dungeon,” Evie drawled to a comment Astrid had made about the time Campbell had refused to bring her a tankard of ale.
“I agree!” Astrid exclaimed and smiled a little when Evie giggled. “Ye jest but that is just one instance of when he has been completely rude to me. So none of this makes sense. The only way I can think to explain it is vindictiveness. He wants me to suffer. I’m sure of it.”
“Let us hope that isnae truly the case.”
Astrid snorted, already convincing herself that she was right. Suddenly, she realized that they had been traveling in near complete darkness for a while now. The drapes had been drawn over all the windows lining the hallway, not allowing even a sliver of light to slip through.
A maid was sweeping the floor at the end of the hallway. Astrid drew to a slow halt as she approached her, pointing at the window nearby with a frown. “Good mornin’,” she greeted kindly and the maid offered a tiny smile. “Why are all the drapes drawn? It’s already comin’ down to late mornin’ and it almost feels like nighttime in here.”
“That is how the Laird wants it, Me Lady,” the maid responded, clutching the broom close to her chest. “He wishes all the drapes to remain closed at all times.”
“That sounds like utter nonsense,” Astrid said without a second thought. “How does he expect any fresh air to come in? And I’m certain that will affect the health of his clansmen if it remains like this.”
“Och, well—” The maid glanced anxiously at Evie then back at Astrid, not knowing what to do.
“Have all the drapes undrawn and the windows opened,” Astrid ordered, softening her tone. She knew she could be a little overbearing at times, and the last thing she wanted to do was scare the poor lass. “And if the Laird has a problem with it, ye can tell him that I ordered ye to do it.”
The maid hesitated, then nodded. “Aye, Me Lady.”
Astrid gave her a kind smile, then turned to the window. With one forceful tug, she pulled the drapes aside, showering them all with golden sunlight. Her smile widened. “See?” she said, looking between Evie and the maid. “It’s better already.”
The maid’s smile widened as well and she gave a shy nod. Astrid inclined her head to her in farewell then, picking up her heavy skirt, continued along her way.
“I daenae think the Laird is goin’ to like that,” Evie said after a moment.
Astrid just shrugged. “Even more reason to do it, do ye nae think?”
Evie only sighed at that and Astrid hid her grin. Together, they went through the castle and ordered that all the windows be opened to let the light and air in. It was done, despite the reluctance of the maids, and when they were finished, Astrid opted to go to the kitchens to give her greetings and inform them of what she would like to have for breakfast.
The Cook and her kitchen help greeted her warmly. Astrid instantly liked them and, before long, grew comfortable enough to engage in conversation that had nothing to do with her meals. Before she knew it, more had joined in, even a few men who had come from outside to take a break from their work. Astrid was so caught up in her conversation, that she hadn’t noticed that she was the center of attention.
Then a sharp voice rang out, stopping Astrid’s heart dead in her chest. “What is the meaning of this?”
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