Snatching the False Sassenach (Preview)
Lydia hated storms. A loud rumble of thunder filled the air around her and slashed against the roof of her father’s manor. It was a wintry night, and as she stood by her chamber window, ignoring the cold that seeped into her bones, she dragged in a deep breath to quell her fear.
What do I do now? she thought bleakly. Three days had passed since her sister, Jane, had gone missing. They had scoured the town in search of her and then the docks, to no avail. Lydia couldn’t untangle the knots in the pit of her stomach. Every sliver of her intuition told her this was the Duke of Bingham’s doing, but she had no way of proving it.
Lydia recalled the last time she had seen the Duke. Her father was a frequent host of dinners and balls. He always invited the town’s wealthiest men and their wives, and Lydia had met many dukes and earls since she entered society.
Oh, of all the men she had met, why did the Duke of Bingham have to be the one who had asked for her hand?
Even now, she shivered at the memory of his ire when she had refused his rude proposal. The duke had been inconsolable and had vowed to change her mind—one way or another. Simply put, Elijah Bingley scared her. She could not imagine spending an evening with him, let alone a lifetime—let alone a bed. The thought of being his wife made her prickle all over with goosebumps.
He was renowned all over the country; he had amassed a sea of wealth over the years by doing business with the English. Lydia had first met him when he paid a visit to her father for the same reason, and he had made his interest for her clear from the start. He had attempted to speak with her whenever he attended their gatherings. He’d always ask her to dance, and she’d always reluctantly accept.
Her father was aware of the rumors surrounding his misdemeanors, as their kind so often phrase it, and she was glad he had allowed her to refuse his offer of marriage that night. Her father’s compliance had surprised her—he was so rarely supportive of his daughters.
It almost seemed like they were mere assets to him. He had made that clear enough at their debutante ball, then every day that had followed. Lydia could still remember what he had said to her on the eve of her debut: you owe it to our family to find a suitor; do your best to make sure you do not disappoint me.
But she had not found a suitor that season, and his disappointment had indeed been immeasurable. Lydia could feel the disapproval in his gaze every time his eyes fell on her. On the other hand, Jane was left to her own devices. She lived without care or repercussion, her father paying so little attention to her that Lydia feared she might one day fade away… Somehow, she wished she could be more like her.
Now, Jane was gone, and the duke’s proposal still loomed overhead.
As she stared out into the rainy night, she was plagued by fear — wondering where the two of them were. She might have gone for a walk if the skies hadn’t opened wide; she might have entertained her younger brother, Andrew, if her heart hadn’t been pounding with worry.
How could everything be so right in one moment, and so terrible the next?
Lydia sighed. She turned away from the window when a soft knock sounded on her bedroom door.
“Come in,” she murmured.
Her lady’s maid entered the room cautiously. She curtsied before her and extended both hands to Lydia. “A letter has arrived for you, milady,” Daphne said, her head still lowered.
Lydia took the letter and eased her back up. “Thank you, Daphne. You may leave.”
As Daphne closed the door behind her, Lydia looked down at the envelope in her hands. Its familiar red seal made her heart lurch painfully in her chest, and her limbs began to tremble.
It’s the duke, she thought and licked her dry lips. An image of the duke’s cruel smile came to memory again, and she shuddered. She moved to the bed to keep from fainting, sucked in a breath, and opened the letter.
You have three days to make up your mind.
Or your lovely sister never returns.
Bingley, The Duke of Bingham
Lydia felt her heart stop. So, she had been right all along. Her father would not hear of it, but Lydia had known. Jane was not missing but kidnapped. She supposed she should be relieved to finally have an answer… but who knew what the duke was doing with Jane while he waited? Even Lydia could not surmise the true extent of his malice.
She read over the letter again. Yours truly? she thought sarcastically. There was nothing true about Bingham. He was wealthy and powerful. He was a bully and a man who would crush those around him to get whatever he wanted. She would not let him control her too. She would not play his games. She would find another way to save her sister.
Rising to her feet, trying to push her fear aside, Lydia made her way out of her chamber and headed toward her father’s study. He seemed at long last to be changing his tune. With his help, she could make certain the duke did not get his way.
She knocked once on the door of the study before pushing it open. When she spotted her little brother inside, she immediately masked her horror with a smile. Little Andrew glanced at her over his shoulder; beaming.
“Lili!” he called in a gentle voice. He jumped out of the chair he was sitting in and dashed over to her. Lydia sank to a crouch and snatched him into her arms; hugging him tightly for a brief moment. She drew back, brushed her fingers through his short, blonde hair, and gazed deeply into the green of his eyes. One of hers was of the same shade, the other a murky brown.
“Are you alright, my darling brother?” she asked him, still forcing a smile.
Andrew nodded as he answered, “I am alright.” He grinned. “Will you play with me in the nursery? Nanny is sleeping,” he explained in a light voice.
“Yes but I shall like to speak with father alone first. Go wake Nanny, and I will be with you soon,” she said. When she looked at her brother, she longed desperately to be as joyful and free as he was—to be oblivious to all the pain of adulthood. How she missed the innocence of her youth.
He hasn’t a clue about what’s going on, Lydia thought as Andrew nodded. He flung his arms around her neck and hugged her. She pecked his cheeks before he scurried out of the study, reaching up and closing the door behind him.
Lydia stood at last. She turned to face her father, who was still sat in front of his large, mahogany desk, his eyes glued to the correspondence in front of him.
She sucked in her cheeks and started towards him, holding out the letter she had received. “Father,” Lydia began, but he raised a hand to stop her before she could say anything more.
Lydia pressed her lips together as she watched him scribble, not even glancing up at her. She had always been unnerved by him, for he never smiled. The only time he ever seemed happy was the night Andrew was born—the night her mother died. He had held the babe up high, his eyes filled with pride, and had uttered, “My only heir.”
Oh, he was a stern man indeed, with the coldest set of striking jade eyes she had ever seen. His hair was a mass of whitish, blonde locks that draped down to his neck. His appearance was as formidable as his tempers, and Lydia knew better than to challenge him… but her fear was superseded by something stronger, now.
She needed to rescue her sister.
“I hope you have good reason for bothering me. What is it, Lydia?” he asked her with an arch tone, still refusing to look at her. At last, he raised his head, and she took the chance to speak.
“A letter arrived from the duke.”
He barely seemed to care, though his eyes took on a glint of amusement. “And?”
Lydia bit the inside of her cheek, hardly believing what she was about to say. “He has admitted to taking Jane. He has threatened to kill her if we don’t… if I don’t agree to his proposal. I know it sounds ludicrous, but it’s true. Look.”
She handed him the letter and held her breath as she waited for him to read it. Lydia gauged her father’s expression, and she saw his eyes flicker over the words before his jaw tightened.
“He has dared to threaten us,” he said matter-of-factly, rising to his feet. Lydia gasped when he slammed his palm flat against his desk, luminous with anger. “When did you receive this?”
“Not long ago. Daphe brought it up,” she replied; weeping. She wiped her cheeks with both hands. The rain was still heavy outside, the thunder growling ferociously. “We need to do something. We cannot let the duke hurt Jane,” she pleaded. “We must save her. I’ll do whatever it takes, I swear it. If he hurts her, then…” Lydia whined, and her voice trailed off. She didn’t what to think of what could happen to her sister.
Her father had fallen silent. His jaw was set in stone, his shoulders tense. He would act, he must, without hesitation.
He looked at her then, and the darkness in his eyes made her heart clench. “I need to think,” he said in a raspy voice, and she swallowed back her words. He sat back down in his seat and brought his fingers to a point before his mouth.
Lydia’s ears rang as she waited for his answer, barely keeping her desperation at bay. She was quivering beneath her gown, counting the seconds that passed as the silence festered.
Her father huffed. “There is nothing I can do,” he finally declared, his voice low and full of shame.
“What? What do you mean?” Lydia cried. Her gaze met his again, and the meaning of his words bled into clarity. “You want me to accept his proposal? You want me to marry him?” she croaked and took an involuntary step back. “Father, no. There must be another way! If we contact your peers, the law, anyone—”
“The duke is a powerful man, Lydia. We can try to fight him, but it will be a waste of time. We will never win. Say we do reach out for help—who would believe us? It is in our best interests to choose the winning side. If he is so adamant, marry the Duke and save your sister. That is the only option we have left.”
Lydia’s jaw dropped open, and she tried to mutter words as her tears flowed harder down her cheeks. She shook her head, frowning as she hurriedly said, “You swore it was fine to turn him down. You sided with me and asked him to leave. How can you change your mind so suddenly? How can you lay down your arms before you’ve even tried? This is my sister! This is my life! Father, you are damning me to misery. If the duke is so callous as to use Jane to secure my hand, what makes you believe he will be content to stop his toying there?”
“I don’t know what you expect me to say, Lydia. I cannot challenge a duke. You’re grown enough to know the way of things—your sister’s fate lies in his hands, Lydia. Would you really rather let her die so you can hold onto your childish dreams of marrying for love?”
His words twisted like a knife in her chest. She tried to speak, but she could only sigh, “No.”
“Then you know what must be done. I shall write a missive now if you are so determined. That is all I can do.”
He wriggled in his seat, leaving a dumbfounded Lydia to stare at him. Her mind was spinning, the betrayal so strong she feared it might rip her in two. How could he be so spineless? So unconcerned? She had hated her father’s callousness her entire life—but she wished for retribution, now.
“Father… I can’t believe it. Please, there must be another way. You must fight for Jane—we have the guard, we have friends. If we rally together, we can put an end to this madness tonight.”
“You would send our men, our allies, to slaughter? The duke will have them killed on the grounds of unfair threat. And he would be right,” he interrupted. “We have lost, my daughter. It’s time to face our defeat with a modicum of grace.”
Lydia felt as though she were in a dream. Not a dream, a nightmare. Panic washed over her so strongly she feared she might faint. She felt alone—completely, and utterly alone—and she was the only one who could save Jane. A one-woman army.
So, this is it? He’s won, just like that. I have to wed the man. I was a fool for trusting my father the first time… She had been a fool, had she not? Was she still being a fool, now? It all felt too perfect, too strange. She eyed her father furiously as doubt crept up her spine.
“Are you doing this because you truly believe you cannot win a fight against the duke? Or because you simply do not care about what happens to me? Or—” she hesitated, “because this is exactly what you wanted?”
Her father shot her a dark look, but there was knowing in it. He didn’t care. This was a convenience. For all she knew, he had incited the duke to pursue Lydia, damn all that might come from it.
I was right about him… he has never cared for me or Jane.
Misery enveloped her, and her father did not spare her another glance. He simply licked his finger, plucked a fresh sheet of paper from a pile, and leveled his quill. “So, what shall I write?”
Lydia couldn’t bring herself to speak. She simply shook her head and ran out of his study, dashing up the stairs to the first landing where her room was. Once inside, she dropped on her bed and sobbed.
She emptied her heart for what felt like hours, crying herself dry. Her tears finally subsided when the heavy torrents of rain slowed to a drizzle. When Lydia lifted herself from her bed again, she got up and walked over to the writing-table in her chamber.
She would not trade her sister’s life for her freedom. With heaviness in her heart, she reached for a quill, dipped it in ink and pulled a parchment close.
Dear Elijah, she began, sealing her fate with pleasantries.
Alister rubbed the back of his neck as he entered his study. His shoulders ached, every muscle in his body was on guard, and his nerves were alert. The pounding in his temples only served to aggravate the pain. As he paced around his study, he felt he needed to do more. He couldn’t keep waiting.
I need to find out who these men are and who sent them.
This was his keep. It was his duty to protect it. He had to fight back, not cower like a common coward. Alister ruffled his hair with his fingers before balling his fists. His entire body ached with rage and a desire for war.
They had come in the middle of the night, and they had taken what they wanted. He would not let that stand.
He had spent the entire day riding through the village in pursuit of the invaders, to no avail. They had captured two of the men, but they had been hired and knew nothing of importance—not even their buyer. The others had gotten away. He had ordered Kam, his advisor, to take their captives to the dungeon and interrogate them further. He needed something, anything that would be of use.
The clothing the men wore did not indicate their clan. Still, Alister could not quiet the feeling in his gut. Aye, there was only one clan foolish enough to strike at them; only one clan with reason enough to risk oblivion.
After Alister had rejected Laird Cambell’s senseless proposal weeks back, he had known there would be chaos. The laird never took no for an answer. The beast always swore vengeance on anyone who denied him. Alister had made sure to avoid their ire so far. He never asked them for aid, never drew up any treaties… but Laird Cambell hadn’t taken notice. And now he had crossed his borders and stained Alister’s keep with his passing.
He hadn’t expected the laird to be bold enough to invade his castle in broad daylight. And the fact that it had worked meant someone else was involved—someone who knew the laird would be out accompanied by his men. So far, none of them had reported anything missing in their treasury or armory. Nothing seemed amiss besides—
Alister cut his thoughts short. He dropped on a chair, buried his head in his hands, and dragged in a haggard breath to steady his aching insides. It’s nae possible. They could be hiding somewhere in the stables, or anywhere in the castle. They cannae be missing!
He wouldn’t be able to bear the grief if his suspicions were correct.
You’re all I have left. It must be a coincidence that ye are missing. It must be.
Alister needed hope. No, he needed answers. Only Kam could give him reprieve. When his study door burst open minutes later, he was on his feet immediately.
Kam entered the room and closed the door behind him. When Alister met his gaze, the blank look in his eyes made his stomach coil with fear.
The man’s stature and dark features made him look fierce beyond belief. Not a man, but a beast—and he had a temperament to match. He would never cower away from what needed to be said or done… but, now, something was different.
As he stood before him, Kam rubbed his chin. For a brief moment, his jaw trembled, and he held his breath. In the brief silence that followed, the air around them tensed, and Alister’s panic level rose another notch.
Dear Laird in Heaven…
“Tell me,” he ordered. In some way, he already knew Kam was going to confirm his suspicions, but he did not want to believe it.
Kam grunted. “The men admitted to plannin’ their attack but nothin’ else. The other guards that were sent out came back with more…” Kam paused and his neck bobbed. “I’m sorry, milaird. They found them dead at the border. Yer bride-to-be. Yer sister…”
Alister’s world came to a grinding halt. When he could finally speak, his voice was steady but hoarse. “Did they tell ye who did it?” he graveled, fresh anger coursing through his veins.
Kam’s head hung low as he muttered, “They confessed it was Laird Cambell.”
Alister erupted. He let out a roar as he turned away from Kam. His fury was threatening to consume him. As blinding rage overtook him, he let out another growl. He circled his study, tossing aside whatever he could get his hands on.
Another pained growl exploded from him as he hit the wall, once, and then again, trying to fight back his tears. The tightness in his chest built to a crescendo; it made it difficult for him to breathe. He could not think, he could only feel—and it was fire.
This isn’t happening! Why did it have to be them?
“Milaird,” he heard Kam call, but his friend’s voice sounded far away. “We will make them pay.”
They will pay for this. Kam’s words were all that sounded in his mind. He would rain fire down on the Cambells. He would take from them what they took from him—everything. His grief was too strong. He needed to leave. He needed to leave and think.
Alister stormed out of his study, not caring that he nearly ripped the door off its hinges as it flew to a close behind him. Kam called for him, but he ignored that too. He saw servants scurry away from him as he made his way out of the keep. He was hot and hollow. He was dead inside.
When he arrived at his stables, he mounted the first mare he saw and rode out the gates. Alister galloped away, not knowing where he was going, the heavy wind in the air brushing against his face.
Adrenaline rushed through him, heightened every sense. Even after passing through the main village, he did not slow down. He kept riding, not wanting to stop.
“This was all I had left! They were all I had left!” he thundered as he rode. “I’ll make ye pay, ye bastards! I’ll make ye pay!” His heart grew heavier with each passing second, and the stabbing pain in his chest shifted to his stomach and the rest of his insides.
He approached a valley and slowed to a canter as he drew closer to the hill ahead of him and further away from his land.
His father had died, and now the rest of them were gone too.
He had spent nights floating through the pain of the laird’s demise, suddenly consumed by the reality of having to rule his people alone. With Kam’s help, he had scaled through in the end, and all that had mattered to him, all he had held onto was the rest of his family.
I am alone now.
Gritting his teeth again, Alister dismounted his mare. He was now at the edge of the hill, and once his feet touched the ground, he fell forward, landing on his knees. A gut-wrenching cry escaped his lips and the tears fell in torrents. As he cried, allowing his grief to flow through him, he lifted his head and stared directly into the grey skies overhead. The air smelled of coming rain.
Alister had never felt more alone as he looked up into the heavens.
He had no idea how long he had been on his knees in that patch of nowhere. Even when the rain began to fall, he did not move an inch. The droplets brushed up against his skin and slid down his cheeks, but he just stayed still. He closed his eyes and felt his pain one last time. He knew that once he rose, he would bury everything inside.
Maybe the rain will wash my pain away? Will the wind take away my sorrows?
No, they would not. They had killed his father, three years ago. He had been too young to do anything. Not this time. Laird Cambell had made a mistake, and Alister would not let him live to suffer its consequences.
His clan had already been through so much devastation and now Freya and Kathleen were gone too.
I will never see them again and they must pay.
I willnae stop until I have my pound of flesh.
I will have my revenge, and naething will stop me… naething at all.
A long time had passed, and by the time Alister returned to his castle, the rain had begun to fall heavily. His shirt and kilt were completely soaked, but he felt nothing. He marched into the castle, oblivious to everything around him, to find Kam and a few guards waiting for him.
“Gather the council in the grand hall immediately,” he ordered Kam as he entered the keep. He took long strides towards the grand hall, the chills in his body increasing.
“Aye, milaird,” Kam replied with a nod.
As he walked through the grand, oaken doors, Alister released a deep breath and balled his fists at his side. I will give Laird Cambell the same misery he has delivered unto me. I will rob him of everyone and everything he has ever held dear. I will make sure he pays for this with blood.
That was his new dream. Not happiness, not love, nor family and marriage. There would only ever be revenge. Revenge and a plan.
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