Seduced by Highland Lies (Preview)
Richmond, England, 1650
Seton House, winter
Lady Cecily Ridley had never been renowned for her rebellious nature. That distinction belonged to her dear sister, Helen, especially within the more refined circles of England. However, in that particular moment, as Cecily stealthily navigated the corridors of Seton House under the cloak of night, her heart pulsed with a newfound sense of rebellion. An exhilarating sensation coursed through her, infusing her with vibrant, tingling energy, though it was not without its dangers—evident in the rapid rhythm of her heartbeat as she approached the door nestled within the stone passage, where her brother’s study was settled.
The candle she carried was dwindling, its flickering light casting wavering shadows as a droplet of wax seared her hand, sending a swift pang of pain through her. Suppressing the urge to curse, she bit her lip, resolved not to reveal her whereabouts or her purpose. This constant need for concealment within her own home had become a prolonged ordeal. As the pain subsided, she reached into the pocket of her robe to retrieve her half-brother Anthony’s key. Casting furtive glances in both directions along the dim corridor, she slipped the key into the lock, turning it with a delicate touch. She entered the room beyond in silence, gently closing the door behind her. She felt like a criminal lurking around the house in the middle of the night and going through Anthony’s things without his knowledge.
I’ve done it.
Releasing the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding, she advanced into the room and placed her dwindling candle upon her brother’s imposing wooden desk. The same desk that had once belonged to her father, a poignant reminder of his warmth and affection, now served as a stark emblem of her brother’s severity. Anthony lacked any hint of kindness or affection. Though he treated her better than he did Helen, their relationship was far from the camaraderie of true siblings.
“I must find something,” she whispered to herself, furrowing her brow as she embarked on her quest amidst the scattered documents strewn across the desk’s surface.
At that moment, nothing revealed itself to her eager eyes. Frustration began to chip away at her determination as she rifled through drawers, extracting assorted documents.
Cecily’s desperation to aid her sister, Helen, was profound. A few months earlier, fueled by animosity toward Helen’s audacity and her resemblance to their Scottish mother, Anthony had dispatched her on a treacherous mission: to spy in Scotland and gather intelligence regarding the Scottish movement during the Anglo-Scottish War. Helen’s reluctant compliance had hinged upon Anthony’s menacing threat—to force Cecily into an unwanted marriage.
Helen’s departure had occurred without resistance, despite Cecily’s impassioned pleas. The burden of guilt gnawed at her ceaselessly. Not a moment passed without Helen occupying her thoughts—her worries unending. While Helen possessed adept skills in gathering information and defending herself, the inherent danger of her undertaking was undeniable. Cecily’s uncertainty lingered; she questioned whether Anthony would honor his promise and spare her from an undesirable marriage even if Helen’s mission succeeded. Thus, she undertook her late-night journey to his study while he caroused elsewhere, presumably drowning himself in drink. Her goal was clear: to unearth any leverage she could use against him, compelling him to bring Helen back to England.
Each successive letter from Helen had carried escalating tension. Her perilous and exhausting work ignited Cecily’s fear for her sister’s safety, especially when Helen recounted her exploits of extracting information from inebriated men at taverns. While Cecily sorted through a stack of letters, the sound of footsteps resonated in the corridor. She froze, her heart pounding, waiting for confirmation if it was merely a maid concluding her nightly duties. The hushed tones that followed shattered her hopes, filling her heart with trepidation.
Cursing under her breath, she swiftly returned the letters to their drawer, tightly clutching her candle. Her only option was to conceal herself behind a long tapestry adorning the wall. Extinguishing the flame, she positioned herself, her heart pounding audibly in the silence. The tapestry cascaded to the floor, veiling her in obscurity. Though she believed herself inconspicuous, her heartbeat felt deafening in her ears.
No, this wouldn’t do. She retreated from that position, choosing instead a tall cabinet adjacent to the tapestry. She squeezed inside, grateful for the superior cover it provided. Her hope was that the tapestry would cease its swaying before her brother entered. Her heart raced as she braced herself for the impending seconds.
Since her father’s passing, fear had been her constant companion—a dread of others’ perceptions and actions. Now, at last, it seemed to have reached its zenith. Why had she embraced this rebellious course? If she were discovered, the retaliation Anthony might exact was something she deeply dreaded.
Her choice of the cabinet now appeared ill-advised, despite its practicality. It struck her that this must have been Anthony’s hunting repository, holding garments splattered with hunting blood and an assortment of weaponry. Gripped by dread, she dared not make a move, anxious about unintentionally dislodging an object or inadvertently revealing her hiding place. Yet, amid her fear, an unsettling note intruded—the distinct scent of blood permeated the cabinet’s air. The odor was potent, as though the blood was fresh. However, she was unaware of Anthony having hunted recently.
“Why the concern for those documents? They’re not your concern, but mine. I am the Earl of Seton, cousin, not you,” Anthony’s voice asserted, carrying an undercurrent of tension.
Cecily remained motionless, her heart racing, as she strained to identify the person arguing with her brother. She leaned slightly forward, peering through the door’s gap. It was their cousin, William Cavendish—or rather, her father’s distant cousin. His typically cold demeanor appeared inflamed by anger, a sight she’d seldom witnessed. He was typically passive, but now his visage was flushed with rage.
“It’s prudent for someone else to be privy to such matters, cousin, to know their whereabouts,” William retorted, his hands resting on his hips. “You can’t safeguard such secrets, or the title will falter. Surely, that isn’t what you desire.”
Cecily observed that the man wore a peculiar yellow ensemble—an odd choice of clothing, comprising a yellow jacket, a shirt and cravat of faded yellow, and yellowish breeches. This incongruity momentarily diverted her attention from the intensity of the exchange. She questioned why Anthony wasn’t mocking the man’s attire instead of arguing with him. Moreover, she pondered the purpose of William’s presence; to her knowledge, he and Anthony were not on friendly terms. Deeper into the cabinet she withdrew, her fear intensifying.
They’ll leave soon. They’ll inspect the documents and then depart.
She tried to steady her breathing, but a shift in her position revealed dampness. One of the coats hanging within the cabinet bore fresh bloodstains. A wave of revulsion surged through her as she confronted the sight and scent of it, so close. The familiarity of the scent shocked her—how had she become acquainted with the odor of blood? Her spine tingled with a fresh wave of anxiety, and she tightly closed her eyes, attempting to suppress the urge to retch. Despite her efforts, a sneeze escaped her, and she clenched her hand over her mouth. Fortunately, her brother’s sudden hand slam onto the desk coincided, muffling the sound—she hoped.
“I’ve no inkling as to why you’re even here, cousin!” her brother’s voice rang out, revealing his inebriation.
She kept her hand over her mouth to stifle her breathing, hoping the cabinet’s confined space would mask the unintended noise. For a time, silence descended, only to be broken by William’s inquiry. Anthony’s gaze flickered momentarily toward the cabinet, then returned to fixate on William. The exchange provided her a momentary reprieve from her precarious concealment.
“No, I heard nothing,” Anthony replied with a hint of irritation. “Now, cease avoiding my question.” His finger jabbed at William’s chest.
“I’m here to ensure you haven’t misplaced that wretched document, Anthony,” William retorted, his tone tinged with a snarl.
Cecily frowned, her father’s cousin had never spoken to her for this long or engaged in a dispute. What document could be of such consequence? Observing her brother’s stance stiffen, she sensed he was summoning his most authoritative tone. However, his response surprised her.
“I’ll show you, and then you can leave me be!” Anthony declared, his words slightly slurred.
She watched as he scanned the papers on his desk, mirroring her earlier search. She was profoundly relieved that he failed to notice any evidence of prior exploration in his documents and correspondence. William leaned over him, scrutinizing his actions. When Anthony’s initial search yielded nothing, he impatiently pulled out a drawer.
As she observed him hunched over the desk drawer, Cecily’s gaze remained fixed on William, noting his subtle shift. He tracked his cousin’s movements in their search, but her curiosity piqued as she watched him reach into his pocket, extracting a slim blade. Her mouth fell open, a gasp teetering on her lips, a desperate attempt to intervene rising within her. Swiftly and with astonishing dexterity, William thrust the blade into Anthony’s neck.
Her hand flew to her mouth once more to suppress the scream that threatened to escape. Blinking in shock, she bore witness to the horrifying sound of flesh being rent and the subsequent groan of agony as Anthony crumpled from the drawer to the floor. Just as adeptly as he had executed the act, William withdrew the knife and concealed it within his pocket.
For a few suspended moments, he surveyed the prone figure, the fury that had possessed his visage now supplanted by his customary frigid facade. Retrieving a handkerchief, he cleansed his hands of the bloodstains before departing the room.
When the sound of the door closing echoed in her ears, Cecily hastened to emerge from the confines of the cabinet, her steps directed towards her fallen brother. Lingering hope had whispered of a chance to rescue him, but his lifeless form extinguished that glimmer. The vitality in his eyes had dimmed, and Cecily sank to her knees, a hand muffling the sound of her sob.
Grief for him mingled with the dread of what his demise might signify for the title, yet not enough to elicit tears. Anthony’s cruelty had spanned her memory, a ceaseless torment. Gradually, she rose to her feet. The household needed to be informed of Anthony’s death, but they mustn’t learn of her presence in the room, so she was left with no choice.
Quietly, she left, softly closing the door behind her.
A week later
Sleep had evaded Cecily in the tumultuous week following her half-brother’s passing. A whirlwind of confusion and sorrow had swept over her as his body was prepared for burial and the somber funeral unfolded. Yet, the prevailing question in everyone’s thoughts pertained to the heir of the earldom. With no apparent successors, uncertainty gnawed at Cecily. Neither she nor Helen could inherit, leaving the identity of the next earl a source of unease. The family attorney had been summoned, but his arrival was delayed due to business in London, and he could not arrive until that very day.
Tea sat untouched upon a tray by the hearth, but Cecily couldn’t bring herself to sit down and partake. Who would be the new earl? And where had William gone after committing the unthinkable act? The secret of her presence as a witness burdened her; she dreaded the possibility that William might turn his malevolent intentions toward her if he discovered her vantage point in the closet. As she paced, the anticipation of Helen’s company tugged at her, even as her sister’s letters from the past week had taken a swift turn and now celebrated her newfound love and commitment to remain in Scotland as a clan’s lady. Cecily shared in her joy, yet that meant Helen’s return was postponed.
Once the new earl takes on his responsibilities, I’ll journey to see Helen. Staying here, among those who aren’t my close kin, serves no purpose. The notion provided solace—a promise of an impending departure as soon as the new earl assumed his role. However, Cecily wondered why the attorney hadn’t sent a message to inform her of the successor’s identity.
At that very moment, the door swung open, and Cecily let out a soft gasp at the sight of William’s approach. He wore a deep crimson suit this time, from coat to waistcoat to cravat.
“William,” she greeted, her posture stiffening as she clasped her hands together. “What brings you here?”
She had to maintain the pretense of encountering him for the first time in a while. He offered a smile and a slight bow, his demeanor as malicious as ever. She’d never quite understood why she’d felt an aversion to him all these years. However, now, having witnessed him extinguish another’s life, the same malevolence seemed to emanate from his features. Not unattractive, his green eyes gleamed with suspicion and malice. Tall and slender, he had slicked-back white-blond hair.
“Is this how one greets a cousin, Cecily?” he asked, his smile widening—a sight that heightened her unease. “I am here to offer comfort during your time of need. With your guardian gone and your sister absent, you stand alone. I thought you might appreciate companionship.”
“Why arrive only now? It’s been a week since Anthony’s passing.” She swallowed, trying to maintain her composure as William approached, his hands concealing their sinister intent.
“I was visiting a friend in Scotland; it took a while for me to return. The attorney needed time to locate me.”
She recognized his lie, suspecting that he’d been lurking somewhere nearby. Fury surged within her; her life had long been controlled by ruthless men, and she’d grown weary of it. She wished he would leave, for she was well aware of her own strength. Cecily couldn’t hold back, allowing the one thing she shouldn’t say to slip from her lips.
“Well, cousin, I must admit, the color yellow suits you far better.” Her teeth clenched as she exhaled, instant regret washing over her.
Comprehension dawned in William’s eyes, her heart skipping a beat as the door opened. An older man with spectacles stood behind the housekeeper.
“Mr. Wallen, Lady Cecily. Your father’s attorney,” the housekeeper introduced.
“Thank you, Mrs. Fields,” Cecily replied, fighting to steady herself as the old man entered the room with a bow.
“Lady Ridley, I am Mr. Wallen, and I have come to convey your father’s will and announce the next heir,” he said, turning to William. Cecily introduced them.
“Ah, splendid timing, Mr. Cavendish. It’s fortunate you’re already here.” He extended his hand to shake William’s.
“What do you mean?” Cecily inquired, the dreadful truth slowly dawning.
“This gentleman, your father’s cousin, shall assume the title of Earl of Seton.”
A chill raced through Cecily as her face drpaled; her grip on the back of a chair was her only anchor against fainting. Meanwhile, William smiled at her.
“I trust you don’t mind, Cecily. It will be wonderful to reconnect as family. There’s much to discuss. Mr. Wallen, please, have a seat. I’ll call for refreshments, and we can delve into the details.”
He led the attorney toward a table, but Cecily was paralyzed. As William neared the door, he paused beside her, gripping her arm.
“Join us, cousin,” he suggested, and as they moved toward the table, he leaned in and whispered, “Stay with me Cecily. I know you want to be with your sister. But if you do, you’ll lose the only family you have left. Because I will find her and repeat my actions.”
Cecily straightened, allowing William to guide her to the table alongside Mr. Wallen.
One year later
Cecily gazed down at the sparse words she’d managed to write for her sister.
I know that I have still not come to see you in some time, but I am doing well here at Seton House.
She let out a sigh, hovering the quill above the paper as she pondered her next words. The transformation of her life since William took over as the new earl had upended everything she once knew. With his daughter Adelaide now part of their household, Cecily had forged a genuine friendship, a solace amidst the changes. But the absence of her sister lingered, a constant ache in her heart.
Cecily had discovered William’s habit of reading her letters not long after his arrival. From then on, her words had been constrained, veiled in a facade she knew he expected. The thought of escaping had crossed her mind, but the fear of William’s wrath, whether directed at her or Helen, had rooted her in place. With a heavy sigh, Cecily continued to pen the version of reality that William dictated.
It has been such a pleasure in the past year to help William and Adelaide set up the house. He has done well as the new earl, and he has made quite an impression in the society. Adelaide and I are like sisters, and I feel like father’s cousin is the father I have been missing for years. Anthony was no good at it; you know this, and now I feel safe under his guardianship. We are happy here all together, as if we are a new family. I am sorry that you have not yet had a chance to see them and meet Adelaide.
But how is Cory? I know you were eager for me to come and visit you, as I was, but there is so much to be done here, and William needs me. I cannot abandon them. Once they are more settled in, I might perhaps be able to come and visit you both at long last. Tell me all about your home and the clan. How has it been to be a Scottish lady? Mother would have been so proud of you.
Cecily quickly brushed away a tear that had trickled down her cheek. She couldn’t risk smudging the ink with her tears. If William didn’t notice the tear, Helen surely would, and her perceptive sister would demand answers. Cecily felt trapped, more so than ever. Since the day she had hidden in the closet in her brother’s study, she had felt like a ghost haunting her own life. Even when Anthony was alive, despite his flaws, he hadn’t made her feel so utterly powerless. Most of the staff who were present during Anthony’s time had been replaced by William’s own people. Their polite demeanor concealed their watchful eyes, reporting her every move to William. If only she could find a way to communicate with Helen without alerting William. Suppressing her fleeting hope, she dipped her quill into the inkwell and continued to write.
My living situation has improved; I’ve been moved to a new room that offers a breathtaking view of the sunset. It’s a small comfort to watch the sun dip below the horizon, knowing you might be doing the same. William has allowed me to personalize it to my liking, and I’ve taken full advantage by selecting the most exquisite curtains.
Your tapestries have found their place here, adding a touch of home to my surroundings. And that dress you gifted me for my birthday fits me like a glove; I’m wearing it as I write this letter. It’s as though I’ve found a way to bridge the distance between us through these simple things. Know that I hold you dear in my heart, Helen.
I miss you terribly and eagerly anticipate the day we can reunite.
Until then, remember me and think of our moments together.
With love, Cecily.
She signed her name with a flourish, stifling the tears that threatened to overwhelm her. As she blew on the ink and folded the letter, Cecily knew that Helen would read her words and believe the facade she had crafted. Her sister would remain blissfully unaware of the truth that lay beneath the carefully constructed sentences. Cecily’s gaze wandered around the cramped room she was confined to—a stark contrast to the luxurious life she had once known. The windows were bare, devoid of curtains or tapestries. Any that she had received had been swiftly claimed by William and offered to Adelaide instead.
The gown gifted by Helen was the sole remnant of her sister’s affection, yet even that now hung loose on her diminished frame. Over the past year, Cecily had been treated more like a servant than a family member, and the once plentiful meals had become scarce. She caught her reflection in a dusty mirror, her appearance now a far cry from the vibrant young woman she used to be. Her radiant cheer had faded, replaced by weariness and neglect. Dark circles clung beneath her eyes, constant reminders of the sleepless nights that had plagued her since the traumatic events in her brother’s study. The sound of footsteps echoed from above, causing dust to rain down from the ceiling. This cramped space beneath the stairs, her new abode, was a cruel reminder of her fall from grace.
She had been forcibly relocated from her spacious bedroom on the hillside to this desolate corner. She couldn’t help but wonder if William had orchestrated this confinement deliberately, imprisoning her not only physically but also emotionally. The mere mention of his yellow suit still tormented her thoughts, the weight of her mistake haunting her daily. If only she could erase those fateful words and find sanctuary within the walls of Helen’s castle, free from William’s grasp.
At least Adelaide remained a source of solace; that was the only truth in the letter. A gentle knock at her chamber door pulled her from her thoughts, and she rose with a yearning for a reprieve from the mundane tasks that dominated her existence. As she opened the door, a surge of hope coursed through her—it wasn’t another servant bearing instructions. Instead, Adelaide stood there, a welcoming smile lighting up her features.
“There you are,” Adelaide chimed, stepping into the room and casting a curious gaze around. Despite their strained situation, the family resemblance between them was striking. Both had cascading blonde hair, fair complexions, and vivid green eyes. The topic of their likeness had faded with time, yet their shared features still drew attention.
“Cecily, I wish you’d allow me to speak with Father. This situation is preposterous. You’re family, yet he’s assigned you to these quarters. The room he had refurbished for you has been ready for weeks now. There’s no excuse for this any longer.”
Cecily hesitated, her own predicament tightly bound by her knowledge of William’s watchful eye.
“No, please, Adelaide, I beg you not to intervene,” Cecily implored.
She feared that if Adelaide intervened, it might worsen their situation. William might even take measures to keep them apart, and Adelaide was the one bright spot in Cecily’s life.
I couldn’t bear that.
Adelaide put her hands on her hips. “Very well, but don’t think I’ll let this go. Anyway, I came to tell you that Father has suggested you go with us on a trip to McLaren’s land in Scotland.”
“Scotland?” Cecily asked, her mouth going dry. “I did not know that he was seeking a husband for you outside of England.”
Adelaide grimaced, and she picked up a book idly and flipped through it. “Nor I, but apparently, he wants the strength of a Scottish clan behind him. I had hoped that after his own disastrous marriage, he would allow me to choose, but he will not. So, will you come with us? We travel soon.”
“Yes! I will get ready as soon as possible!” she hurried to gather her things, and Adelaide laughed.
“Tomorrow we leave, Cecily, you do not have to prepare now.”
“Oh.” She stopped and smiled, trying not to give away the plan that was now forming her mind. “Very well. Thank you for including me.”
“Of course. You are family, and we are friends.” Adelaide squeezed her hands with affection.
Yet all Cecily could focus on in that moment was the hope that this trip to Scotland might provide her with the opportunity she needed—to slip away to Helen’s castle and find the freedom she so desperately craved.
Kai McLaren’s ears reverberated with the rhythmic pounding of his own heart. Amidst the chaos of the battlefield, the cacophony of agonizing screams and the clamor of clashing swords melded into an otherworldly din. Every sound seemed to drift to him as though he were submerged beneath the depths of a loch, far removed from reality. Time itself had slowed, and his own movements followed suit. Blood-stained the earth, transforming the grass into a morbid tapestry of crimson.
His gaze fell upon the figure of his brother, Torion, and a shout tore from his throat. Torion pivoted, a momentary smile illuminating his face at the sight of Kai still alive amidst the ferocious skirmish. Yet, a lurking shadow emerged, an enemy soldier stealthily advancing upon Torion. Before Kai could muster a cry of warning, the soldier’s blade descended, striking Torion down to his knees. A scream tore from Kai’s chest, an agonizing heartache that reverberated through his entire being. But his own fate soon caught up with him—a searing white pain engulfed him as his vision blurred.
Glancing downward, he found a blade buried between his ribs, agony radiating through every nerve. A panoramic scan revealed neither Torion nor his other brother, Rae, among the chaos. Collapsing to his knees, sweat drenched his body. The fight was over for him, and hands promptly seized him, hauling him toward a waiting cart. Bound and weakened, he was unceremoniously thrown inside. His screams blended with the anguished cries of others, fading as the distance grew. Darkness claimed him.
The piercing ordeal subsided as his eyes snapped open, and Kai lay there, grappling for breath. The bed was drenched with sweat, a cruel testament to the relentless grip of his recurring nightmare. Reality flooded back; he was ensconced within his bedroom, miles away from the battlefield’s horror. He touched the area on his side, once occupied by a blade, only to find the pain absent, replaced by healed flesh. Wearily, he pushed himself up, propped on his elbows, and covered his eyes.
The relentless intrusion of these dreams gnawed at him, leaving him feeling powerless and vulnerable. Each time he awoke, bathed in perspiration, he struggled to remember the true extent of his safety, untethered from the shackles of captivity. Freedom was his now, unburdened by the chains that had bound him. If only his mind could be convinced of this truth during the torment of sleep.
The recurring weakness of these nightmares left him feeling as though he was still shackled to the past, captive in ways beyond the physical. Even now, with his enemy defeated and his role as laird solidified, his psyche remained ensnared. Yet, he was free, and his younger brothers, Rae and Torion, were secure.
With a groan, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and rose, his feet making contact with the icy stone floor. Progressing to the tall mirror in his room, he cast a scrutinizing gaze upon himself. Sleep had been undertaken in the nude, and despite his formidable build, the scars that adorned him revealed a narrative of past suffering. His shoulders and ribs were etched with these markers of his history. Fingers traced their path, an act of commitment, a means to acknowledge and assimilate the unchangeable past.
He had attempted to conceal these scars beneath an array of tattoos, yet he knew their location intimately, a map of his torment. His hands brushed the one his dream had centered on—the one he had cloaked with a hawk tattoo, a futile attempt to quell the nightmares. Yet, the phantom pain of the blade’s intrusion remained as tangible as ever, the dream’s vividness akin to the torment of reality. Kai’s fist clenched, despair creeping into his resolve. The nightmares were a relentless reminder, striking terror into his core, yet he could not fathom sharing his vulnerability with another soul. The deep-rooted fear of his past still clung, refusing to release its grip.
A knock echoed at his door, rousing Kai from his introspection. He responded, swiftly dressing in a kilt and shirt, before opening the door.
“My Laird, I wished to inquire about your well-being this morn. The meeting room holds much to discuss,” the voice of his father’s old advisor greeted.
Kai’s gaze bore into the man, irritation simmering beneath the surface. His father’s recent passing had thrust him into the role of laird—a title he felt ill-prepared to carry. His advisor, despite his incessant queries and demands, had offered solace during the turbulent period following his father’s death. Yet, the constant demands, the relentless pace, irked him, preventing even the opportunity to mourn his father’s loss.
“Mr. Murray, I thought that we’ve already mulled over enough for a lifetime?” Kai’s hand raked through his unruly brown hair, his piercing green eyes reflecting his frustration.
“I am afraid nae, my Laird. There is news. Ye should come tae the council room.”
“Very well.” He shut the door and grumbled as he made himself presentable.
Kai McLaren cursed under his breath as his hands plunged into the frigid water at his table. Another inward curse followed as he washed his face and neck, the cloth tracing trails that sent icy droplets trickling through the scruff of his beard. Winter’s sting was ever a surprise, a biting cold that could infiltrate skin and bone if one wasn’t vigilant.
Having grown up amidst the harsh Highland environment, he should have been accustomed to it, yet each year it managed to pierce him anew. It was the sort of cold that, left unchecked, could creep into one’s very veins, turning the body into a vessel of ice. He’d learned to anticipate the biting winds, the frost, and the relentless snow, ready to face the challenges of the season. Awakening before the fires were rekindled was an exercise in enduring the freezing embrace of the morning.
As he tied back his unruly hair and donned his boots, Kai’s coat followed, and he bundled his white shirt into his kilt. His broadsword hung by his side, a steadfast companion, and a hidden dagger resided within his boot. The battlefield that had nearly claimed his life, along with those of his brothers, had left an indelible mark. His weapons were no longer ornamental—they were a lifeline, a constant reminder of his vulnerability, and a lesson he’d been taught by his father. War’s harsh education had shown him the necessity of being ever vigilant, ready to safeguard his loved ones at a moment’s notice.
But the guilt of his father’s passing was an insidious weight that hung heavily upon him. Despite the attempts of his brothers to console him, the truth lingered: he couldn’t protect his father. The pain of that failure would remain with him indefinitely.
Now, the council’s audacity had reached a new height. Mere months since his father’s death, their eyes were already fixed upon the issue of succession. Pressuring him for a wife while he still wrestled with grief and a newfound responsibility was an affront. A growl of outrage had erupted from him upon learning of their intentions. The mantle of a lairdship may have demanded it, but Kai was far from prepared to be a husband or entertain the notion of a wedding.
When he approached the council room, its door stood closed. However, the low hum of discussion within reached his ears. He pressed a hand against it, taking a moment to summon the memory of his father’s wisdom and strength. His father had been a paragon of patience and tact—a stark contrast to Kai’s own bristling demeanor. Clinging to his father’s legacy, he gathered strength before pushing open the door.
Mr. Murray stood, while the other council members held their positions. Every gaze fixed upon him, Kai could sense the weight of their expectations. It was Mr. Murray who broke the silence.
“It is better ye know now than when yer bride arrives,” the advisor began, his tone brimming with an odd mix of formality and sympathy. “The council has made a selection for ye.”
“What?” The word erupted from him, carrying the full force of his disbelief and frustration. This time, he allowed his anger to surface without restraint. Whatever patience he’d invoked just moments earlier had vanished like a wisp of smoke. “Aye, and the lady in question shall arrive today.”
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