Me Laird.” The Laird of the Dunne Clan didn’t turn at the knock on the door. He swirled the wine in the goblet he had, staring out at the foggy land laying beyond his window. At high noon, the land was green, bright, beautiful. At dawn, nothing could be seen across the expanse but white. Henson eased the door further, wincing at its creak. He slipped in and closed it gently, praying the sound hadn’t bothered the Laird too much. When he looked back up, he saw the Laird lift his goblet to his lips. “Me Laird?” Henson spoke again, inching forward in the darkness. “What is it?” Even though the Laird’s tone was soft and low, Henson flinched. He’d only been the Laird’s advisor for three weeks, despite the Laird’s fearsome reputation, and he was no more used to him as he was the day they’d first met. It didn’t help that Henson was such a small man, with constantly quivering hands. “Ye’ve received a letter, Me Laird.” Henson took a step closer and bumped into something. The resulting crash had him freezing in terror.
He stared at the Laird, waiting to see his reaction, but the other man did nothing but raise his goblet to his lips again. “Is that why ye’ve disturbed me?” asked the Laird as if nothing had just happened. “Because of a single letter?” Henson held on tightly to the paper in his hand, trying to still his trembling. A useless feat, but he tried all the same. “It is a letter from the Laird of MacTavish, Me Laird.” Laird Dunne whirled so quickly, Henson was not prepared for him. He yelped, then tried to swallow the sound a second too late. The Laird’s body was swathed in shadows, his black hair and black eyes appearing like a demon straight out of hell. He moved slowly as if he savored the fear emanating from Henson’s skin, as he rested the goblet on a nearby side table. “Are ye aware of its contents?” the Laird asked.
“N…no, Me Laird,” Henson exclaimed quickly. “It has only just arrived and I rushed to yer room the moment I had it in me hands. But—” “But?” Henson licked his lips. He wondered if his sweat was soaking through the letter he clutched. “There are rumors, Me Laird. I daenae ken if they have anythin’ to do with the sendin’ of this letter, but—” “But ye have reason to believe that it does.” Laird Dunne reached his hand out, gesturing with two fingers. “Hand it here.” Henson swallowed, nodding shakily. He stepped around the pieces of the broken vase and gave the crumpled letter to Adrian.
The moment the paper was out of his hand, Henson took two large steps back and released a low breath. The Laird unfolded the letter and began to read. For the next few seconds, there was nothing but silence—which only put Henson even more on edge. He resisted the urge to shift from one foot to the other, tried to keep himself perfectly still as he watched the Laird’s still features. It was the most unnerving thing about him. How easily he could mask the rage that was lurking underneath. But his quiet words and his calm movement could not hide the look in his eyes, one that could send stronger men than Henson running for the hills. Without saying a word, Laird Dunne ripped the paper in two, then four, and tossed it to the floor. Henson almost moved to pick up the pieces but then thought against it. “Me Laird?” Henson probed, steeling himself.
“What does the letter say?” The Laird turned to face the window again, crossing his arms. He leaned against the sill as if nothing was amiss—even as his finger tapped periodically on his upper arm. “He says that me deeds will nae go unpunished. He says that I will meet me end if I do nae give him back what is his.” “M…my.” Henson wiped the sweat on his upper lip. “The Laird has never been that bold in his threats before. What do ye think he is talkin’ about?” “I daenae ken. And I daenae care to ken.” “But, Me Laird,” Henson braved a step forward.
“I daenae think this is somethin’ that ye can ignore. From the rumors that I have been hearin’ and the letter that ye’ve just received…Heavens, it may truly be war if ye daenae handle this properly.” Laird Dunne didn’t move a single inch. Henson had to remind himself that this was simply how he was, and that it was not because he didn’t care about his territory. “Ye ken I daenae like it when ye beat around the bush like that, Henson,” said the Laird in a low voice, sending a chill down Henson’s spine. Henson stood straighter. “A…aye, Me Laird. When last I was in the nearby town, I heard that the son of the Laird of the MacTavish Clan has been kidnapped. They say that his chambers were in a mess, with a note in blood.” The tapping finger went still.
Henson swallowed. “And ye are tellin’ me this now?” asked the Laird. “I dinnae ken how accurate the information was, Me Laird,” Henson explained, trying not to sound too desperate. “But now that ye have received this letter from the Laird, it is clear that nae only has Laird MacTavish’s son truly been kidnapped, but they think that ye are the culprit.” “Aye, it would seem so.” “What shall ye do, Me Laird?” “Right now?” The Laird moved and Henson stiffened. Slowly, he turned to face him. “I will go to me bed. I am tired.” “B…but, Me Laird—!” “Leave me be.
” And that was that. Henson knew he couldn’t argue any longer. Even though he was terrified of the man, he’d learned to read his tone. And right now, he had made his decision and there would be no changing it. “Very well, Me Laird. I bid ye goodnight.” Knowing very well that the Laird was watching him, Henson turned back to the mess he’d caused and bent to pick up the remaining pieces. “Leave it be,” came the Laird’s gruff voice. “A maid will take care of it in the mornin’.” “But, Me Laird, if ye were to step—” Henson glanced over his shoulder and caught a glimpse of the Laird’s dark features.
His entire body went cold. Trying to wet his tongue, he rose, nodded stiffly at the Laird, and turned to the door. He made his escape without any more incident, to his relief. Once the door was closed behind him, Henson sagged onto the wall, putting a hand to his racing heart. I cannae do this anymore. This man is far too terrifying! And how could he react so nonchalantly to such an accusation? Could it…could it be true? There was no denying that the Laird had secrets that even Henson was not privy to. He was like a locked chest, one that would only release demons if one dared to open it. Henson was far too afraid of him to come close. For the past six years, he’d wanted to leave and had been too afraid to chance it. But now— Henson resisted a shudder and lifted his chin.
If he dared to leave, what would happen to him? Thalia dreamed of children that night. She had four of them, running around the wide hallways of a castle in Scotland. There were two toddlers, barely able to wobble toward their older siblings who ran ahead of them with loud laughter. Two girls, two boys. In the dream, Thalia sat watching them play with a bright smile on her face and no worries. Why would she have any need to worry when she’d finally gotten the family that she wanted? One of the children, one of her daughters, tumbled to the ground, landing heavily. Thalia rushed to her feet, picking up the skirts that bore the Clan colors of her dear husband— green and blue. She hurried over to her daughter. “Are you all right?” she asked in her English tongue. She was yet to adopt the Scottish accent, but she would in time.
“Mother?” she asked. She was a beautiful child, with bright blue eyes and a head of straight long hair brushing her lower back. She had all the energy Thalia had once had as a child, but as Thalia stared down at her, she could not remember her name. But it didn’t matter. Thalia gathered the girl in her arms as the others crowded them, even the waddling toddler who did not know what was going on. The girl’s crying turned into giggles, and one by one, they all began to laugh happily together. Her husband was away. In the back of her mind, she knew that. She told herself that he would be away for the rest of the day—that he might not return to the castle until the morning. But it didn’t matter.
What mattered was that she was with her family, her children—and though they cried, though she did not know their names nor the face of the man they’d adopted their blond hair from—Thalia was happy. Because all was well. Slowly, Thalia opened her eyes and a smile stretched across her face. Staring at the patterned cornice in the corner of the ceiling, she thought back on the lovely dream she’d just had and felt her heart go lighter. Soon, that dream would become a reality, for today was the day she would be married. With a happy sigh, Thalia sat up, running her fingers through her wavy brown hair. She ran her gaze throughout the room, noticing that it was just coming on to dawn and that her lady’s maid should be here shortly. When her eyes landed on the two figures by her door, she gasped loudly. “Who’s there?” she exclaimed, her hand flying to her chest. “Show yourself!” “Be at ease, Thalia,” came a gruff voice.
The taller of the two figures took a step closer, coming into a ray of gentle sunlight that barely illuminated the room. Thalia let go of her pent-up breath. Harold Williamson, the Duke of Althing, had quite a knack for moving silently. Very often, Thalia would find herself in a state of surprise whenever she would turn around and suddenly find her father standing behind her. Sometimes, she wondered if he did that on purpose, just to see her reaction, though he liked to pretend it was innocent. Whether he did or not, Thalia enjoyed his secretive playful side, which he didn’t let out very often when he was around his wife. “Father,” she sighed, “must you stand there in such a manner? I think you frightened ten years off my life.” “Thalia.” The other figure also came forward and Thalia wasn’t surprised to see that it was her mother, wearing her usual disapproving frown. “Must you always speak so crudely?” Alyssa Williamson, the Duchess of Althing, was the opposite of her husband in nearly every aspect.
Not only did they look different—the Duchess with white-blond hair and sharp green eyes, and the Duke with soft brown hair and brown eyes—but the Duke was far gentler and welcoming than his wife was. Growing up, Thalia had always feared her mother and her strict looks, but now she was far too used to it for it to be as intimidating as it once was. That didn’t mean, however, that Thalia was willing to risk getting on her bad side, but she knew how to push the limits. Thalia flipped her hair over her shoulder, holding back her smile. “Why should it matter how I speak when it’s with my dear parents?” “If you continue like that, you are bound to say something you should not before someone else.” Thalia only shrugged as she swung her legs over the side of the bed. Her mother’s nagging didn’t bother her this morning. Nothing could ruin her good mood. Not when, after searching for so long, she was finally going to be married.