Abducted by her Highland Lover (Preview)
Where is he?
It was snowing. Elizabeth Lennox watched the white flakes drift lazily from the tall window of her father’s study. Her face was inches from the glass where her fingers pressed to feel the cold wind seeping through. It had been a bitter January, and a storm brewed along the horizon. She had been waiting for almost half an hour, and now, evening burned the edges of sunlight sky with orange and red, throwing tall shadows across the yard. Blue ice blanketed the grounds of the grand Goodwood estate, nestled in the country outside of West Sussex. She was born here in the winter, during a snowstorm almost exactly twenty-two years ago. Her mother told her because of this, the winter was part of her soul. She believed it. To Elizabeth, nothing was more still or peaceful than a dark night in mid-January. When others would hide away from the lonely night, Elizabeth found the abrupt coldness calmed her. She would stay out after supper and let the snow drift onto her eyelashes and kiss her nose. The wind whispered secrets between the trees, and she could clear her mind.
But now, she was not calm. Now, her heart thundered in her chest, and her breathing grew shallow. It fogged, collecting on the glass. All of her thoughts jumbled in a twisting pile.
He is late.
The golden face of her father’s pendulum clock ticked monotonously and filled the study. The whole space felt dead without the presence of her father. She had only been in it with other company. Never alone. Not like this. His desk looked barren and pointless without its owner. A breath of wind rattled the windowpane, shaking the glass.
When the steward told her to hurry to her father’s study, her stomach flipped. There was one rumor running through everyone’s mouth. Marriage. Elizabeth was, after all, the eldest of the three Lennox children, and it was a known fact that she and the handsome Captain Thomas Adler were growing quite fond of one another. Some of the servants feared she would never be wed, but Elizabeth was in no rush. She, unlike her sisters, never dwelled on the idea of settling down. Her life goals did not revolve around a wedding and creating heirs to the estate. That was until four years ago when she met Thomas at a dinner party her father hosted after England finally beat the Irish rebels in the Glorious Revolution. At that moment, she knew he would be worth the wait. He was tall and athletically built, always carrying himself with an air of importance–back straight, with the posture of a true military man. She was drawn to the way he spoke with confidence and intellect, and when he smiled, his eyes flashed with a brilliance like fire.
Yesterday evening, her father returned from London after attending to matters with King William. Thomas joined him on this venture. Lost in the excitement of it all, she was half certain the discussion of their union had been addressed on their journey. Her heart fluttered once more at the thought.
Elizabeth tucked a fallen strand of her chestnut hair behind her ear and smoothed the emerald ribbon on the front of her navy blue gown. She found that part of her wished it was the Captain coming to meet her. Her light grey eyes flicked towards the door. The handle twitched then pushed open. There her father stood. His white wig of loose curls sat atop his head, falling to his shoulders. His face was permanently serious, but the snowflakes gathering on the lapel of his overcoat and the redness of his cheeks made him look almost friendly. He smiled quickly, sweeping away the last few remnants of snow. A mix of excitement and adrenaline pooled through Elizabeth.
“Look at you,” he smiled, reaching his arms out for an embrace. Elizabeth ran to him, burying her face into his chest. He smelled like the outside air, fresh and bitter. Even though he returned yesterday, neither she nor her sisters had seen him until now. His hands wrapped around her for a moment and then released promptly.
“I hate to say it, but you are looking more like your mother every day.”
“Why do you hate to say it? Mother is lovely.”
“But I prefer it when people compare us. It flatters me to be similar to someone so beautiful,” They were in many ways comparable, but not in looks. Although they did share the same sharp grey eyes that Rose, the youngest daughter, often likened to a cat’s. In every other aspect, Elizabeth was her mother through and through, tall and slender with a delicate heart-shaped face and a slightly crooked smile. But she and her father shared many mannerisms, and she often joined him to go riding or hunting. The Duke of Richmond was pleased one of his daughters enjoyed sportly activities. Though he never spoke it, he wished one was a boy. He patted her back lightly.
Elizabeth took a seat in the velvet chair across from her father’s desk, but he remained standing. His hands toyed with the cuffs of his jacket.
“How were your travels?” she asked, barely able to stand another moment.
“Long, boring. I missed my girls every second. King William had some troubles even after our victory at the Battle of Boyne, but since then, it seems to have silenced the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland. They are finally beginning to accept the true crown.” He paused, pressing his hand along his chin. “This is the matter I wanted to discuss with you.”
Elizabeth immediately felt embarrassed about herself. Her mouth went dry, and her posture slumped slightly in the seat. Did I really let myself become so foolish? Her father was dealing with matters of the king and politics, not her marriage. She was not even sure if Captain Adler still considered her as his prospect. He had been off fighting for England against those who supported James II for the last two years and had written to Elizabeth infrequently. But every letter he wrote, she kept hidden in her desk. She felt quietly ashamed about how she adored every trivial word. If her sisters knew, they would tease her as she had done to them so often. But when they last met, Thomas suggested he would ask for her hand.
He took several steps toward the window, then stopped. Sensing his daughter’s defeat, his brows softened.
“I spoke to the Captain.”
“You did?” She scooted forward. Her fingers gripped the arms of the chair.
“I’m sorry, Elizabeth.”
“Sorry?” She waited. The ticking of the clock once again became the only sound until her father spoke once more.
“As the century changes, England changes as well, finally unifying.” The hard, deep lines of age around his eyes softened. “Elizabeth, King William, and I have decided to push forward and help secure the potential for peace between England and Scotland. You are going to help with this.”
“I am? Father, you are confusing me. What of your conversation with Thomas?”
He nodded painfully slow. A brief pause filled the room, and then the Duke took a deep breath, preparing to strike a blow.
“You are to marry the Laird of clan Maclain. He is a powerful man, leader of an ancient, well-respected clan in Scotland. He has agreed to the marriage, and this motion will speak volumes to the other clans who are uncertain of their allegiance. Clan Maclain has still to swear fealty to the crown, and they fought against us at Killcrankie.” He continued to speak about all the reasons behind his decision, but Elizabeth could not hear another word. She felt as though a rock had been dropped on top of her. It grew heavier and heavier as it continued to squeeze every last breath from her throat. Shock molded into anger. Her eyes flickered upward.
“You mean to use me as some pawn?” she interrupted him, standing up.
“No, no, dear child, listen to me. You will be securing an ally for your nation. Right now, there are two crowns atop one head.”
“Father, I cannot do this. Before your journey, Thomas and I spoke. We both agreed that–” Her father’s face hardened as she had seen it so many times throughout her life. Elizabeth adored him, but he was blinded by pride and cautious about upsetting authority. As the illegitimate son of a past King, he constantly feared the loss of his position. Although he had called it a discussion, she knew it was not. Elizabeth felt her head grow light. “What of my sisters? Rose and Mary do not have serious suitors.”
He blinked slowly as if it pained him to carry on.
“You are my eldest. If I marry one of them, your spouse could claim Goodwood for himself and create a division.”
“Thomas would never! He would understand.”
“Darling, I know you are fond of the Captain, but you must listen to me!” His deep voice echoed through the study and out the door. Elizabeth flicked her eyes in that direction. She knew her sisters would have their ears pressed against it, hoping to uncover more gossip. Now was their chance to listen.
“I hear you, father. It is an easy thing to do when you shout demands at me!”
“Hate me if you want. Be angry. I do not care. As the Duke of Richmond, England and the crown are my rulers. You should be honored to have been chosen by the King and Queen, themselves.”
“I have not even met this man! What if he is awful?”
“Elizabeth, marriage is not about love. It is about creating a household. You will learn to love this man as your mother and I have learned to love one another. It is a stronger bond, not of feelings or infatuation. A small part of me wishes to wed you to the Captain, but a much greater part recognizes this far better opportunity for you. Your future husband controls much of the Highlands. Those are invaluable lands, for our soldiers and ports of trade.”
“I have never heard a good word about the Highlanders.”
“They are strong and courageous people.”
“Is that why you insist on going to war with them?”
“Does mother think well of your idea?” Elizabeth knew her mother would only encourage her to listen to her father, to respect her elders. Her hands clamped into two solid fists. Even though she was twenty-two years old, she would have to obey. Rebelling against this would turn her family into a mockery. Thomas would never have her now. It all felt so maddening.
“It is not an idea, nor does her opinion on it matter! I am the head of this house. Elizabeth, no more. You are well past the age of marriage. Many are beginning to raise questions about our household. It was decided several weeks ago. I do not wish for this to turn into a futile argument. You are to leave first thing in the morning.”
Defeat drove her wildly, tearing away the rage and replacing it with vile frustration. Elizabeth wanted to cry. She could feel the flush of her burning cheeks. The water collecting in the corner of her eyes became a hard lump choking the back of her throat. This was what she got for waiting to marry. Waiting for a partner she valued. Breathing was becoming difficult, but she blinked the tears away. She did not want her father to think of her as weak or running off with emotion. These were traits he declared only weak men carried, so she bit her tongue until she tasted the bitterness of blood. The tears receded.
“I accept this then, as my duty,” she said firmly. “But I do not do it gladly, nor shall I see you the same.”
Her father nodded.
“I understand. Perhaps one day, when you have children of your own, you will change your mind.” Children. The whole idea of bearing some strange Scottish man’s baby made her stomach roll. If she had been born a boy, she could have married whomever she liked, maybe even had several spouses. Alas, she was not. This was the cruel fate of being born a woman. She was to be wrapped up and served to some Scottish brute like a present in the name of duty.
“Am I excused then? I only have the day left here to be with my sisters.”
“You are.” He nodded. She wanted to hate her father. Every part of her was screaming to loathe him, but she could not. She doubted this was his idea. If father loved me, he would have–how can this be? She made her way to the door. Again the howl of wind blew against the windowpane. Snow swirled in a chaos of beauty outside. Her fingers found the handle of the door, but before she opened it, her father cleared his throat.
“Remember, you leave immediately in the morning. I cannot have you late upon meeting your husband. Be happy, Elizabeth, and thank the Lord, you have been so blessed. This is a joyous day.”
Evander touched his lips to the warm glass bottle and drank; the smooth whiskey passed behind his teeth to his throat. The Highlander leaned against the door frame, peering out into the smoky tavern from under the hood of his cloak. He wiped his strong jaw with the back of his hand, the liquor warming his chiseled face. He was nothing more than a looming shadow with dark blue eyes searching for a distraction in tonight’s revelries.
The men and women sat at the wooden tables, drinks in hand. Flirts and secrets were whispered in various ears under the smoke of the fire. It helped hide the sin that gathered in Scotland’s cold night. Thieves, laborers, whores, and fishermen, all were spending their wages to drink away the day’s work. They drank to forget. The people of Carradale were the type Evander enjoyed. They were honest, hard workers who kept to themselves. His eyes flickered to Seamus, who stood at the front counter with the innkeeper. Seamus’s daunting frame leaned over the stout old man while he absentmindedly stroked the hairs of his trimmed beard. That bastard was counting each gold the innkeeper paid him like a crow staring at a shiny object. Seamus never missed one piece. His eyes followed the gold as they slipped between dirty fingers. Evander did the work, and Seamus attended to the business. It was the perfect partnership. And now, his dear friend collected the payment from their most recent hit job, an easy one at that. Evander did a sweeping job on an English lord who owned too much. The money would never be missed. That was another part of Carradale Evander liked. The people were not afraid of crime, and that did good business for hired hands and smugglers. There was always a lord or lady to pinch, an estate to rob, and goods to sell. In their brief visit of one month, they made more than in the past three years.
Boredom was about to set in. Seamus forgot the time, but then, a bonnie lass with sweet curves and blonde hair like spun golden silk caught Evander’s gaze. She leaned against the counter near Seamus, waiting for another worker to fill the pitcher of ale. Her corset hugged tight around her waist. Evander calculated how long it would take him to pull each thread. Not long. Their eyes met. He motioned, subtly beckoning her to him. If Seamus was going to take his sweet time, then there was no reason Evander could not indulge a bit. He was already half a bottle deep. Perhaps they could stay in Carradale one more night–make that one more hour. Either way, he could make it work. She rolled her eyes with a wistful grin, took the pitcher of ale, and returned to making her rounds between tables. Teasing. He was not the only one she had caught with her beauty, but Evander was patient. He stood like a statue, indulging in several more sips until she finally found her way to him.
“Can I get ye somethin’, traveler?”
“Nae, just wanted a good look. Ye was standin’ too far away.”
“Oh? And let me have a good look at ye. What a mystery ye are! Standin’ here hidden under that cloak.”
Evander smiled slightly, taking another swig of his drink. The whiskey swished in the bottle with the movement. His hard features lightened slightly, watching her from the corner of his eye. He stood at least a head and half over the lass.
“Nae, no’ much mystery here.”
“Then why ye wearin’ that hood?”
“‘Tis cold out.”
She rolled her eyes, unaccepting of his answer. She reached up with one flick of her wrist and yanked the hood of his cloak away. Evander revealed a charming but arrogant smile.
“What? Did ye think I’d be ugly?” Evander let her take one last look before he pulled the hood back over his face. If he wanted to share a bed with a lass, he had to give her a chance to examine him. Most women thought he had something horrid to hide. He pushed back the strands of his copper hair that fell over his face. The drunkenness was spreading like melted gold through his core, hot, slow, turning to want.
“Ye dinnae look like the other men here. Too pretty.”
“Is that bad?”
“Perhaps.” She eyed him for a moment. “Is that why ye’re hidin’?”
“Och! Ye!” a deep voice barreled through the room. Fack me. Evander frowned. That’s why. The tavern fell into suffocating silence as a beastly man rose from the table farthest in the back, his massive chest rising with repressed rage. Evander did not move a muscle. His body went rigid, praying the man was speaking to someone else, anybody else. But every pair of eyes were attached to him. Seamus whirled around from the counter. His stoic face turned into a disgruntled frown as a line of curses passed his lips. Unfortunately, this was not the first time this type of encounter happened. Evander assumed the lass belonged to the brute. It would not be worth his time or worth the risk if any redcoats caught wind of a fight and found him. They were not too fond of Evander. He pinched the bridge of his nose. Seamus would be enraged, and he did not want to deal with the bitching. There would be no end to it.
The man continued. His broad shoulders flexed as he pointed a giant finger straight at the Highlander like an archer aiming his bow, “I know ye!”
Evander patted his chest softly, glancing behind to his left then right. Perhaps he wanted a lad behind him. No, there was no one. The man shook his head with a snarl. His overgrown beard bobbed against the wall of his chest.
“Aye, ye twat.”
“Nae, impossible. I’ve ne’er seen ye before.” That was not a lie. Evander could not recall ever uttering one word to this face, but that did not mean there was no previous relation. Evander had a nasty habit of his drunken self making enemies and his sober self not remembering.
Seamus stepped forward smoothly. His arms folded over his chest as he stepped between them. He was buying Evander time.
“Perhaps there’s been a misunderstandin’. My man’s ne’er been to Carradale.”
“Aye, he has, ye twat!” He whipped his gaze back to his prey. He reached for a glass and smashed it in his hand. The glass shattered and fell to the floor. “I’m goin’ to kill ye.”
“Oh, good.” Without letting one-second pass, Evander backed out from the entry and into the streets. Moonlight shone brilliantly in the village as the smoke and sounds of the tavern plumed behind his back. The winter chilled the air as fresh snow made its way down heavily, contrasting with the dense heat of the inn. The streets were lively in the small center. Dogs barked over the lull of the chatter as villagers passed through the night. Beggar children trampled over the snow as they chased one another. A musician played out into the night while the smoke rose from the chimneys of homes clustered near the loch’s shore. It was maddeningly difficult for Evander not to run right into someone. He had not realized how drunk he actually was until he needed to expertly maneuver through the crowds.
“Where are ye goin’? Come back here!” The deep voice ruptured through the waves of people, pushing them aside. Evander slipped between them. His head low, bobbing among the crowd, using them for cover. They had been in this village too long. He did not want to admit it, but Seamus had been right. Bastard better no’ bring it up. Another thing for him to bitch about. He took one last swig from his bottle, finishing the dark liquor like it was a drink of cold water.
“Seamus!” he shouted to the man who was several paces behind him. Blessed thing Seamus was fast. His long arms reached out and shoved Evander into a slender alley, barely wide enough for two men. A shadow fell over them. Each breath, gasping for air, gathered before them in the bitter air. Seamus’ brown eyes narrowed. They flickered with anger, like the burning of deep forest wood. Sweat trickled from the line of raven black hair down his nose.
“What were ye daein?”
Evander shrugged in response, catching his breath.
“How drunk are ye?”
“I lost that gold ‘cause of you! Left it there on the counter!”
“That is no’ my fault.”
“I saw you talkin–” He stopped.
“Where are ye?” The man’s hoarse voice roared through them. He was close. Evander frowned, glanced down, and then shoved the empty whiskey bottle into his friend’s hands. “Be a good lad and hold this fer me.”
Seamus’ fingers twisted around the bottle, and he scowled.
Evander pressed his hands on either side of his shoulders and squeezed. The two Highlanders were almost identical in height, tall and sturdy, but Evander had a bit more muscle on his frame. Although that was not easy to tell under the dark wool cloaks they both wore. Evander was thankful for that now.
“That man back there is lookin’ fer me, not ye, so I just need ye to lure him away. If he draws any more attention, we could get caught.”
“Och, so now ye suddenly care about attention?”
“Aye! I’ve always cared.”
Seamus’ dark green eyes narrowed.
“Is that why ye open yer mouth to every bonnie lass in sight? Nobody is after me. I should just turn ye in fer myself. Make a good amount off yer bounty. Ye’ve cost me enough coin tonight” At that moment, a rusted knife flew through the air between them. It whistled its song, pierced the air, and landed deeply into the frozen ground. A gust of cold, bitter wind swept through the street, wrapping underneath their cloaks and whipping against their skin. The crowd of villagers grew silent.
“There ye are,” the pursuer grumbled in his chest.
“Well, fack me then,” Evander muttered. “Are ye happy, Seamus?” He shoved him back out of the alley and into the gathering crowd. A small circle cleared between them.
Evander staggered a bit, half regretting the bottle of whiskey he had downed all too quickly. He pushed back the strands of hair that clung to his forehead and sized up his opponent. He was massive. Height and width wise–a fisherman most likely. The days spent toiling in the sun aged his skin with deep lines and ruddy color. Thick muscle corded over his shoulders like he was more boulder than man. He was not even wearing a proper cloak for the winter, just a tunic and trousers. A nasty brute. He had seen his share of fights as well. A jagged scar carried from his eye down to his jaw. Evander weighed his odds; they were not favorable. Perhaps if he was just a wee bit soberer.
“I dinnae ken who ye are!” He tried one last attempt at reasoning.
The man’s face hardened. Evander’s slow brain tried to recall this face. It was one too ugly to forget. “Can we no’ talk this o’er a glass of ale? Perhaps we can come to some understandin’?”
“I think ye’ve had enough to drink.”
“Nae! No one tells me when I’ve had enough to drink.”
The man’s face twisted.
“Ye stole my sister’s honor after ye promised to wed ‘er!”
Seamus covered his face with a hand, shaking it slowly out of embarrassment. Evander frowned. Again, this was not the first time this had happened either.
“I did no such thing!” he stood indignant.
“Aye, ye did, and now, her reputation is ruined.”
“I may‘ve had her, but I was no’ promisin’ no weddin’. Yer sister lied to you.” Evander regretted the last bit as it fell off his tongue as another dagger flew from the man’s hand. This time it caught the meat of Evander’s thigh, ripping through his thick trousers. Now, he was thankful he was intoxicated. Well, this just got interestin’.
The attacker was already bent forward, his shoulders squared. He raised his fists. Evander groaned, ripping the dagger from his thigh, ignoring the heat of his blood beginning to run down his leg. It had barely bit him.
“No more of these. A fair fight then!”
He threw the dirk to the side, and the crowd jeered. Heavy flakes of snow began to fall upon them. The wind continued to twist around, sinking its grip in the night. From the corner of his eye, Evander saw a bright red coat stood in the crowd. An English soldier. His breath rose in the frosted air, collecting under his cloak. No matter what happened, he must be sure not to let his hood fall. If he were recognized, then a little cut on his leg would be the least of his problems. He was a wanted man in almost all of Scotland.
“I dinnae want to hurt ye, but now, ye’ve left me no choice.”
He counted to three as the man rushed forward. His eyes widened, and his massive form attempted to barrel into Evander like a charging blind horse. Evander stepped to the side at the last moment, forcing the man into the crowd of people. He was quick, much quicker than Evander anticipated. The man flipped on his heels, resuming his counter attack. Again, Evander dodged, but this time, his feet did not cooperate, and he stumbled to the side. A hard punch met his chest. The air escaped his lungs, and the pain ricocheted through him. Och, that bastard, got iron fer hands. They transformed into a chaotic mess of fists. The man was giant, but Evander spent years training. He was fast, even as a drunk. His body knew what to do; the liquor only helped to ebb away the pain. Evander shifted his weight and flipped the man. He fell like an oak log. On top, Evander managed several punches, but he was thrown off as another massive hand swung toward him. He clutched the edge of his hood to keep it over his face, falling to the cold, snowy ground.
The man laughed a deep disgusting gurgle.
“Tryin’ to protect that bonnie face of yers?”
“As a matter of fact, I am!”
Evander had to end this immediately. He lunged forward, away from the fight and into the crowd, straight toward Seamus. He snatched the bottle of whiskey from Seamus’ grasp, spinning in one fluid motion. The glass shattered on the side of the attacker’s head. Shards flew through the air. The crowd let out a mix of screams and cheers, and the brute staggered back then forward, collapsing to his knees. Evander fell with him, letting the ground hold his weight. The snow felt nice and cold against his burning skin. He turned to face the incapacitated attacker.
“Sleep well, my dear friend, and I apologize if I upset yer sister. I honestly cannae remember her. She’s not the first. Take no offense.” He patted the man’s forehead. A shadow fell over him.
“Are ye finished?” Seamus’ hand gripped Evander’s shoulders and hauled him back up. Evander staggered forward with the momentum, barely stopping himself from returning to the snow. The crowd had begun to disperse. The entertainment was over. Seamus’ hand gripped his forearm, dragging him back into the shadows of the street.
“Ye could be the luckiest man alive.”
“Why is that?”
“No one should fight so well when they are swimmin’ in whiskey.”
“Aye, must mean I’m special.”
Seamus shook his head.
“Enough of this, I need ye alive fer the job tomorrow.”
Evander waved Seamus’ hands away from him.
“And I need a drink. Desperately.” His body swayed to the left and then right. He began to laugh, the split in his lip only widened. Blood trickled down his chin.
“Yer an animal, Evander. I’m goin’ to retire fer the night.”
“Come, stay with me. Let us see who else we can piss off fer sleepin’ with their sisters.” Evander’s eyes flashed through the cloudy haze of alcohol, but Seamus remained still like a stone. He shook his head.
“Nae, ye listen to me. Tomorrow mornin’ early, we’ve got serious business to attend to. If yer late, I will personally take ye to the redcoats and see ye hanged.”
“Fine then, I dinnae need ye.”
“Ye do. We both saw that redcoat.”
“Aye fack him, until there’s thirty of ‘em, and yer hanging from one of their nooses like a spider from her web.”
Evander’s smile faded. He ran a hand through his copper hair, now drenched in sweat. He glanced back over his shoulder. The soldier was gone.
“Dinnae ruin my last night in Carradale, Seamus. I’ll be ready fer the job. What are we doin’?”
“Stealin’ a bride.”
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