The Stolen Highland Kiss (Preview)
Lady Adelaide Cavendish struggled to keep the chill out of her skin as she walked down the passageway of her father’s prison. Granted he was an earl, so he had been given more palatable lodgings in comparison to street thieves and cutthroats, but still she shivered as she followed a greasy-lipped warden with a toothpick in his mouth to his rusted door. The doors were made of iron and locked tight with heavy keys.
This was not the way she had imagined her life being. Adelaide jumped when a prisoner called out to her, stretching his arms out between the spaces of his gridiron door, widening his eye in a grotesque manner. She gasped, staring at him for only an instant before she hurried on, pulling her shawl around herself more tightly.
Adelaide had always considered her father to be the best of men. Growing up, and even more so since her mother passed, he had been so loving and kind to her, giving her everything she could have desired. He had wanted a good life for her, and he’d done his best to strive for it. They’d been doing well enough, but when he received the title of earl… well, everything seemed to change.
She couldn’t exactly describe what had come over him, but it was something akin to bloodthirstiness. He had been hungry for the title, status, and wealth, but as soon as he had achieved it, he’d turned into a different person. She had no longer recognized him and she she’d tried her best to pull him back. But then she’d seen how he’d treated his cousin Cecily, and things slowly became clear. He was not her father anymore, not the person he had used to be. He was someone else entirely, solely focused on getting more.
And while it had stunned her to find out that he had killed his own cousin, Cecily’s brother Anthony to get the title, Adelaide had not been entirely surprised. But when she’d seen him nearly kill Cecily as well as her now-husband Kai by locking them inside of a room and setting it alight, all the love and hope she’d still had for her father had died instantly. This was not her father, she had to keep repeating to herself. The man she had so loved longer existed. And so, as she tugged her shawl out of the grasp of yet another prisoner who had reached out to her with a few lascivious words on his tongue, she resolved that this would be the first and the last time that she would visit him in prison.
I have a life of my own, I shall not hang on to the past. Father has created scandal enough.
She was an earl’s daughter and yet the whole of London knew what her father had done, staining her reputation as well. She lived in shame.
“Here we are, My Lady,” the warden said, jangling his keys in the air and giving her a toothy grin. “Ye will find him calm and content. He’s been a good prisoner these past months.” The man whistled low and shook his head. “A murderer, what a thing to have amongst us. The rest of this lot are petty thieves, but at least they get a bit of sunlight during the day.”
She nodded, not wishing to spend a moment longer in that hellhole than she had to. With another grin, he unlocked the door, and opened it with a clang. He dragged it back, scratching along the stones of the floor. Adelaide put a handkerchief to her nose when a strange smell hit her. As they were paying for better lodgings, Adelaide could not imagine what the poor were subjected to. She stepped inside as the guard moved out of the way and stuffed the handkerchief into her sleeve, in an attempt not to embarrass her father in these conditions.
Foolish girl. I am much better off without him.
“Father,” she said, surprised to see him rising with difficulty from the chair in front of his ramshackle desk. He still wore one of his ridiculously colored suits, this one a deep blue, but it was dirty and stained. His hair was greasy, his beard getting long.
The door shut and locked behind her, the warden telling her to knock for her to be released. A grin from her father at her arrival showed her yellowed, dirty looking teeth. She had been sure to provide him with all the necessary items to tend to his appearance and cleanliness, but they must have been pilfered instead.
Care not. He has done a grievous wrong left only scandal in your wake. There is not one person in London who does not know you are the daughter of a murderer. There is no hope for you now.
“I am glad to see you, Adelaide. I have sent you many letters, why have you taken so long to come? It has been more than three months, my dear.”
Adelaide shifted on her feet, pulling at her shawl as if it could protect her from the slight twinge of guilt. Of all the letters he had sent her, none of them, except for the most recent one, had moved her in the slightest. She just wanted to be done with the visit, but she did not say that.
“I needed to make sure that all was set right, Father. You left a mess in your wake. Not forgetting that I now must reconcile with the fact that my father is a murderer. There is no one on the streets of London who will look upon me as they once did. Your deeds, they have stained me as well.” Adelaide was annoyed that a tear had slipped down her cheek as she had talked, and she furiously wiped it away.
Her father took a step closer, and she took a slight step back. She had no wish to be close to him, to remember the father of yore that she’d loved. He held out his arms as if to embrace her.
“Please Adelaide, you must know that it was all for you. All that I did and planned; it was for your future.”
Adelaide shook her head and took another step back. He was using the voice he used to use when she’d believed him to be the best father that ever lived. She would not fall for it again, not when she now had evidence of the blood on his hands. The callous way he’d killed a member of his family and then treated cousin Cecily thereafter.
She spoke firmly. “Do not say it was for me. It was for your own selfish gain. You only wanted to that title.”
It surprised her to say it as strongly as she did, and he reacted to it as well, lifting both brows, his lips parting.
“Now,” she said, looking away from him and reaching into her reticule to pull out his stained and folded letter. She dragged it out and shook it in the air. “I am here because you begged me to come.” She would never admit to him her desire to see him one last time before she put all that behind her. “So, what is it that is so urgent, Father? Why did you need to see me?”
He recovered quickly enough, even brandishing a smile as he put his hands behind his back. He stepped closer, looking to the left and the right before he did, as if he expected someone else to be in the cell besides the two of them.
“I brought you here,” he whispered, “because I am in danger.”
She snorted but then put a gloved hand to her lips. Of course, he was in danger. If he was not an earl, then he would have been hanging from a noose by now. If things changed, then he certainly would be, and Adelaide knew that he deserved little better than that.
“Danger? Of what, from whom?”
He cleared his throat and leaned close to her. She could smell the stench of him, but she concentrated hard to focus on his whispered words. “They might come to kill me, you know. For my sentence is uncertain at this time, and the earldom is unprotected. Anyone would be interested in taking advantage of such a situation. Anyone who would stand to gain by my death.”
Adelaide let out a breath, and she folded the letter again and shoved it back into her reticule. “Is this what was so urgent, Father? If it is going to happen anyway, then why would someone wish to kill you to make the process happen faster? And as you cannot act on your duties as an earl from prison, it is just a matter of time before the earldom is given to the next in line.”
Her father leaned back, stiffening. “That I know, and I will regret it forever. But there is something I simply must tell you, Adelaide, something no one else knows.”
She bit the inside of her cheek to remind herself to be patient. Soon, she would be back out of the prison and free again. This was her last act of duty towards him. Then her father would be out of her life forever.
It is for the best.
“I will be giving over my title, as you know, to my distant cousin Thomas Frenzby.”
“Yes, I know.” Adelaide clenched her gloved fists, trying yet again to keep her patience intact. This was not news to her. “What of it?”
“I was able to win the title after Anthony’s death, but it was by a very small margin, in terms of our blood ties to the Ridley family. But now that I am going to give it up, Thomas is the last man I wish to have the title. It must be kept from him.”
“Why?” she asked tiredly.
“Because my son is the real heir.”
Adelaide nearly dropped the reticule that was in her hands, and she pressed her hand onto the side of the stone wall to keep her balance. “A son? I have a brother?”
He nodded and turned away from her, going to sit on the edge of the desk, looking slightly nervous. “Yes. I never told you, for he is an illegitimate child, and I never wanted his existence to tarnish your reputation in any way.” He then folded his arms across his chest, looking more serious than before. “However, he is the legal heir to the earldom, and I fear that if Thomas finds out about his whereabouts, then he will kill us both so that he can take the title for himself… Just as I did.”
Adelaide was so angry that she could feel the tears pressing at the backs of her eyes. Yet again, more lies, more danger lingering in the background. What was the problem with the men, or at least those in her family? All bloodthirsty, eager for power and status over goodness and morality.
“I do not know what you expect me to do about it, Father. It seems I am at the whim of three men, even though I have done nothing wrong to deserve such a thing.”
To his credit, he looked slightly ashamed as he replied. “I had been searching for him for a long time. His mother was a Scottish woman. I left her, like the cad I am. However, the thought haunted me from the moment I left, and so I began to search for him. I only learned of his whereabouts after she wrote to me on her deathbed. My son has lived and in Scotland his whole life and has been imprisoned for being a part of a group of men that tortured Scottish soldiers. Now that my name is so public, I fear that all these secrets will come to light, and I cannot afford that. I beg you, my sweet Adelaide, to find Cillian and to help him get out of prison so that he can take over the earldom.”
“Cillian,” she repeated, the fact of having a brother strange to her mind.
“Of course.” Her father approached her, and this time she allowed him to take her hand. “Please say you will find him. Be careful, though, for Thomas is unscrupulous. Saving Cillian will help you to stay alive as well.”
A shock of fear ran through her. Why should she be a target? She was merely a victim of all that had occurred, and she had no real home any longer. She no longer had any real place to go to, unless if she accepted Cecily’s invitation to join her in Scotland and live with her and her husband. And indeed, that was what Adelaide planned on doing.
“I’m not sure I want to get entangled in this, Father…”
“It’s the last thing I’ll ever beg of you. It’s too late for me, Adelaide.”
Adelaide hesitated. She no longer wanted to do anything connected to London, her father, or the damned earldom.
But still, he is my father… I can give him this much and then put everything behind me by starting anew in Scotland.
“I shall help you one last time, Father. I will go to Scotland.”
“Thank you, my daughter, thank you for granting me one last wish.” He dug out a piece of paper from his waistcoat pocket, excitement all over his face. “Here. Cillian is held prisoner at this castle in Scotland, or so he was when I last heard of him a few months ago. You must go to my study at the house as soon as you leave me. In the second drawer, there is a false bottom. Underneath there is the proof and all the information you will need to show that he is my own blood, and that he is deserving of the title of earl when the time comes. You must show it to the proper authorities.”
He shoved the piece of paper into her hand and closed her fingers over it. He looked fearful; his eyes wide as she backed away from him.
“You will do this?”
“Yes,” she said, not sure why she was agreeing, but she was glad she could finally take her life in her hands instead of just sitting and watching as people stared at her in horror. “I will do it, and I will go to see Cecily in Scotland as well.” And probably stay there for good.
“Good. Thank you, Adelaide. I knew that I could trust you to handle such an important task.”
She nodded and turned towards the door, knocking hard on it. When she heard the screech of the lock in the door, she looked back at her father.
“I wish you well, Father,” she said, meaning it but knowing that she would not see him again. A lonely tear ran down her pale cheek.
“And you, my dear. What a beautiful life you will lead. I just know it.”
She hurried out the door as it opened, and she was glad when she heard it clang shut. Looking down at the small paper in her hand, she felt slightly excited that she finally had somewhere to go and something to do, yet she also feared what danger she might get herself into.
One month later
Adelaide couldn’t cry when she had heard of father’s death almost a month before, and she still hadn’t. Instead, she felt numb. A few days after her father had warned her of what was to come, she’d been sent a message from the prison authorities. Her father had been found dead in his cell, hanging from a rope.
Naturally, everyone thought it had been his doing, once again dragging the family name through the mud. ‘Good riddance’ and similar phrases had been uttered when she had passed acquaintances in the street, and they hurt like daggers.
Shortly thereafter, Thomas Frenzby had been declared the new Earl of Seton, and Adelaide had not been able to go to Scotland to begin the search for her half-brother. It had been the same for her father’s cousin Cecily when her brother had been killed by Adelaide’s father. She’d had to stay on until everything was set right. Adelaide remembered how Cecily had planned to go visit her sister Helen in Scotland but had been prevented from doing it, only to practically be imprisoned by her father.
Adelaide had planned her father’s funeral and met with the solicitors. She had met Thomas and had played the role of hostess to him for a couple of weeks, and she had even helped to plan the feast to celebrate the new Earl of Seton, getting Thomas to agree that Cecily and Kai should be invited. Cecily was family after all. Cecily’s sister Helen and her Scottish husband Cory would not able to join them, for they had a young one to care for. But last week, Cecily had written to confirm their arrival with her brothers-in-law Rae and Torion as well. Afterwards, they would all return to Scotland together for Adelaide to remain as long as she wished.
Adelaide was very grateful that Thomas had agreed for her to leave for Scotland. The feast would be taking place that very night, and Cecily was expected to arrive within a few hours. They would be leaving in a few days and Adelaide couldn’t have been more eager to leave. She felt rather uneasy around Thomas, but finally having Cecily there would make everything a little bit easier.
It was not just the fact that her father had warned her about his distant cousin being an unscrupulous man. There was something strange about his air whenever she was around him, and he seemed to always be looking at her in a rather inquisitive way.
Sitting in her father’s study, she thought about the documents that lay hidden away. They were proof enough that her brother Cillian was the blood heir. She took them from their hiding place and folded them away before tucking them into her bodice. Thomas could not find them, and she needed to take them on her journey to Scotland with Cecily to begin her search for her brother.
Now is the best time to take them, afore the castle becomes busy with guests and eyes everywhere.
Suddenly, the door to the study opened, and in walked Thomas. She bit back a gasp, but he just smiled at her, lines forming at the corners of his eyes. He was fifteen years older than her twenty years, and rather handsome, as many of the young society ladies whispered behind their fans at balls. With black hair and cold, blue eyes, he stood tall, over six feet, and he had an athletic build. He seemed to be greatly enjoying his newfound wealth and status.
Thankfully, he did not look suspicious about finding her in the study. She brushed her hand across the desk and then stood.
“It normal that you should mourn your father. No wonder you wish to come into his old space and touch his things. You are feeling sad that you are leaving soon? Leaving your house for a time?”
She nodded but smiled. “You are kind to allow me such liberties, and you are right. It feels good to remember him just a bit more before I leave and you make this place as much your own as possible. I shall leave you to it and make sure that all is prepared for the feast.”
She passed by him, so close that the skirt of her dress brushed against his leg, and he turned towards her. “Wait for a moment, if you will, Adelaide.”
She paused and faced him, her heart fluttering a little with fear. Did he mean to question her about other reasons why she might be inside her father’s study? Did he mean to ask her about the bulge of documents hidden inside her bodice?
She held her breath as he gestured to a chair by the fire. “Would you sit? I shall pour us a drink.”
Uneasy about the request but preferring that to him questioning her about why she was in the study, she nodded and went to sit down.
“Good.” Grasping the bottle of wine from a table in the corner, he poured them each a glass and handed one to her before sitting down across from her. Raising it in the air, he said, “To your good health.”
“And to yours.” She smiled before she took a sip. “So, what is it you would like to discuss with me?”
He grinned at her, and Adelaide could understand why the ladies were flocking to him, eager to become a countess, but as for herself, his smile only reminded her of her father’s words. She knew that Thomas had something to do with her father’s odd death, but she had no proof, and she would never confront him about it until she was in a position of safety.
He got comfortable in the chair, leaning back so that his legs stretched out before him, clad in tight, fine breeches. “I thought perhaps you might enjoy remaining here at the house once the feast is over.”
She clutched her glass tightly, eager to finish it one gulp, but she did not want to appear suspicious in any way. “Stay at the house?”
He nodded. “I know you are to go to your cousin’s home in a few days, but I thought you might like to remain here as hostess instead. You have already done your duties so admirably, I should hate to lose you. The house could be entirely under your control. You could take care of the household, and you would have a respectable place to say.”
Even though Thomas had said a lot of words, Adelaide was only focused on one of them. “Respectable?”
He paused in the middle of his speech and nodded. “Yes.” Then he frowned when she did not reply. “Surely you know your reputation because of your father, the murders he committed, and the odd circumstances of his death. It is rather shameful.”
Adelaide winced, amazed that the man could say things so starkly when they had only occurred a month before. She had not wished to see her father anymore, but that didn’t mean she was not mourning his death.
“Yes, I know of it,” she replied through gritted teeth.
I do not need your help to remind me of what sort of reputation I have, sir.
“Well then, you understand how good an idea it is that you should find a way to make yourself respectable. You can go to your cousin’s, of course, but that is only a balm and not a solution for your future. For eventually you will return, and you will still need to find a solution. So, I have a proposition for you.”
Adelaide swallowed, and she felt cold all over. She was glad to be sitting down because she could feel the room begin to spin. A dark ball of dread knotted in her belly, and she tried her best not to reveal her inner feelings on her face.
“Oh?” she asked, taking a sip of wine.
“Yes. I thought perhaps you might like to stay in the house not just as a housekeeper but as something far more dear and far more distinguished. You could stay in the house as my wife.”
If you liked the preview, you can get the whole book here