About the book
He wanted to make her his; for now and infinity to come...
Bernadine Nibley grows up in a household nurturing an insurmountable hatred for Scots. When her father insults a Highland Laird while attending the ball of the year, her reality shifts abruptly in the most unexpected way.
Donnan Young, powerful Laird of his clan, leads the brutish life of a Highland warrior. Short-tempered as a bull, he loses his mind when an obnoxious Englishman attacks him, speaking badly of his kin. Deciding to avenge him, he kidnaps his daughter from under his nose.
But while the lass ultimately wins his heart, he fights to win hers…
Until the day mysterious occurrences start happening in Vernuit Castle. With an unseen con man lurking in the shadows, the couple has only a few hours to outrun the evil that has been unleashed upon them...
Bernadine Nibley wiped a stray lock of hair from her face as she slowed her horse to a trot. She had just finished a late afternoon ride, a bracing jaunt through Hyde Park. It was her favorite part of the day, the one time when she did not have to think about propriety or the season or any of the other myriad things that usually occupied her thoughts. All she needed to do was focus on the path ahead of her, the reins in her hand, and the wind on her face.
But as she neared the stables at the back of her father’s large townhouse, she saw the man himself standing with his arms crossed and one foot tapping impatiently. And suddenly, all the good feelings that came with outdoor exercise vanished.
“Bernadine! You should have been back an hour ago. What did I say about staying out too late?” Her papa told her as she alighted from her horse and handed the reins off to a footman.
“I believe it was something about missing Lord Hammilton’s ball and the scandal it would create,” she told him, taking his arm as he led her back into the house.
“Exactly. So what led you to defy my orders?” he said, a raised eyebrow and harsh tone telling Bernadine she would do well to give an honest answer.
And so she did. She said, “Well, Papa, if you must know, the conditions were simply too good for me to waste. It is perfectly cool and clear out today, all the trees in the park are in bloom, and there was not a soul about, which meant I was able to go much faster than I ought.”
Her father shook his head and patted her hand as they walked up the back staircase toward the front hall. “Well, I suppose I cannot argue with that. But do make haste, my dear. We leave in an hour and a half, and I expect you ready not a moment later than seven o’clock.”
“As you wish, Papa,” Bernadine told the man, smiling widely at him as she dropped his arm and made for the staircase.
“And wear something befitting your station!” her father called after her. Bernadine was glad she was turned away from him, since it allowed her to roll her eyes without the danger of him seeing. She knew it was insolent, but the last thing she wanted to do that evening was get dressed up and attend yet another infernal ball.
It was only her second season, and already she found the whole event rather tiresome. Making idle chitchat with men she didn’t care for, dancing until her feet were sore and her ankles ached, nibbling on cakes far too sweet for her own tastes. It was all such a bother.
“Mademoiselle, do not scowl! It will give you wrinkles!” Anne, Bernadine’s maid, told her as she walked through the doorway to her chambers.
“Oh Anne, do not fret,” Bernadine told the woman as she undid the hat from her head. The hair underneath was, to put it kindly, looking something akin to a bird’s nest, and Bernadine saw her maid wince when she surveyed the remnants of Bernadine’s carefully-quaffed updo from that morning.
“Goodness, what do you do when you are riding that makes your hair always looks like this?” Anne tutted as she pointed Bernadine to the bath near the hearth. Bernadine smiled as she saw the steam coming off the water, already imagining how glorious it would feel to slip her tender, sore muscles under the hot water. But first, she had to undress.
“I ride very fast and go against the wind, of course,” Bernadine said, allowing Anne to help her out of her jacket, chemisette shirt and skirt, the three of which made up her riding outfit.
“Well, it will take me hours to fix this mess, and we do not have such time! You know,” Anne said. “When you marry, your husband will not allow you to go on such rides. He will not be nearly as lax with you as your father has been.” Anne punctuated her statement with a sharp pull on Bernadine’s stays, which loosened the strings enough for her to wiggle out of the contraption.
“Then let us hope I do not marry for some time,” Bernadine said, relishing the pained look Anne gave her in response as she slipped the shift over Bernadine’s head. She did so love to tease her maid.
And though she had said the statement in jest, there was a part of Bernadine that was reluctant to get married. She was twenty years of age, had had her debut two years before, and many of her female acquaintances were already married, however Bernadine was not going to settle for just anyone. She wanted the perfect man, but the more she looked, the more it seemed that there truly was no one suitable.
Lord Hansen had been too talkative, Lord Finley too quiet, and Lord Fletcher had had the worst breath Bernadine had ever had the displeasure of smelling. It didn’t matter that they were some of the most eligible bachelors of the English ton, nor that they had all three proposed to her halfway through her first season. They simply weren’t right for her.
Bernadine supposed she should count herself lucky that she had a father who was happy to let her find her own spouse. Many of her female acquaintances had been pushed into hasty marriages with frightful men because their families were worried that another proposal might not come their way. She, however, was free to refuse as many proposals as she liked, so long as she did eventually agree to one.
However, sometimes Bernadine daydreamed that she need not wed at all. She would be perfectly happy to spend the rest of her days splitting her time between the family’s house in town and the estate in Cornwall, where the sea air, vigorous walks, and long rides along the cliffs always made her feel hardy and strong.
But of course, ladies of her station had to marry. The Nibley family needed to maintain its position in society, and it could not do so with a spinster daughter. Her father might be content to let her decide her chosen husband and give her a few years to do so, since she knew he was reticent to let her go just yet, but he wouldn’t allow her to dilly dally forever. Her papa’s patience with her would run out eventually, and soon, Bernadine would have to make a choice.
She just wished she had good suitors to choose from. Ones that would be the father she needed them to be, when the time came.
“The men are so dreadful this year, Anne. Even worse than last year. Do you know half of them cannot even shoot?” Bernadine told her maid as she climbed into the bath, lowering herself into the tub slowly. “Can you imagine? A member of the English ton, a gentleman, not knowing how to work a rifle! It is a disgrace! An embarrassment! It—”
“Does not matter! You are so picky, mademoiselle. Please, do me the favor of at least trying to make conversation with a man at this ball. Word has it that a great many new faces will be there. Perhaps you will finally take a liking to one, and we can move from this house into a gentleman’s estate!” Anne told Bernadine as she handed her a bar of soap with which to wash.
“We already have a gentleman’s estate, Anne. My father’s,” Bernadine said, rolling her eyes.
“It does not count,” Anne replied, huffing with displeasure as she began to comb through Bernadine’s hair, not bothering to be gentle as she undid each tangle.
Bernadine snorted in rather an unladylike manner at her maid as she finished soaping up her arms and moved onto her legs. She knew the woman wanted nothing more than to be a lady’s maid to a wealthy, married woman, and Bernadine’s continued spinsterhood was doing much to infuriate Anne.
“Fine, fine. I shall do my best,” she said as she handed Anne the bar of soap so her maid could wash her back. They were both silent during the rest of the bath, which took only a few minutes more. Time was of the essence, after all, and though Bernadine could happily banter with her maid all day, she knew that distracting the woman would only slow down the agonizing process of dressing and attending to her toilette.
Anne had chosen a dark-emerald gown for the evening’s festivities, which, when paired with a gold necklace, pearl earrings and a simple plaited bun, were enough to make Bernadine look rather lovely, if she did say so herself.
She left her room just before seven o’clock and made her way down the stairs quickly, taking them two at a time. She was eager to catch up with her father, who was waiting patiently for her at the door to their townhouse.
Next to him was Guinevere, Bernadine’s nursemaid and old governess and the only true mother she had ever known. After Bernadine had grown out of the schoolroom, her papa had offered the woman the choice of a cottage in Cornwall, or a permanent place as a house-guest. She had chosen the latter, reasoning that she was used to being around company, and did not want to spend her last years on earth alone.
“You look lovely this evening, my dear, but there is a devilish glint in your eye I do not like,” Guinevere said as Bernadine approached the two of them.
“I was being horrid to Anne again. She is growing quite frustrated with my lack of husband,” Bernadine joked, leaning down and placing a kiss on Guinevere’s cheek. It was soft and unwrinkled, despite the woman’s advancing years. Bernadine sometimes wondered how it was that the woman who had nursed both her mother and her seemed not to have aged even a day.
“I am sure that your quips and jokes do not help your cause,” her father told her, leveling her with a hard stare before breaking into a smile.
Bernadine knew that most of the ton saw her father as a hard-faced, intolerant man. He was open with his opinions, many of which were of a rather negative variety, and he had more foes than friends. But around her, he had never been anything but her gentle, warm, loving papa.
“Yes, well, it is your entire fault, really, Papa. You taught me to be headstrong and fearless and look where it has gotten me!” Bernadine said, smiling fondly at her father as she accepted his outstretched arm.
“Indeed. Well, do be nice this evening. One of us has to,” he said, grinning at her.
“Both of you enjoy yourselves. I imagine the party will be quite interesting. Two warring factions brought together to mend the strain that the malt tax caused us all. Why the government ever decided to pass a law taxing the Scots for their malt in the first place is beyond me!” Guinevere said, shaking her head.
“But no matter,” she continued, waving the thought off with her hand. “Seeing Scots and Englishmen intermingling this evening should be fascinating,” she said, signaling for the footman to open the front door.
“Perhaps if they were not so fond of their drink, they would not have made such a ruckus in the first place!” Bernadine’s father shouted over his shoulder. Bernadine saw Guinevere shake her head at him, but to her, she blew a kiss and mouthed, “Be good.”
Bernadine nodded and whispered, “I will.”
“What was that, dear?” her father asked, turning his head at her as they descended the last step in front of the house and made their way to the carriage door.
“Nothing, Papa. Let’s get in. We do not want to be late!”
Donnan Young was not particularly looking forward to Lord Hammilton’s ball. For one thing, being anywhere South of the Scottish-English border made him feel as though every person he passed were glaring at him with ire in their eyes and fire in their hearts.
This feeling was in part due to the recent difficulties between the Scots and Sassenachs thanks to the malt tax that had caused so much strife in his country. Even though he had not been among the rioters, in Glasgow or in any other Scottish city, it did not change the fact that for the time being, the English looked at him and anyone dressed like him, in a kilt, sporran, and vest, with suspicion.
This was, in fact, why he had accepted Lord Hammilton’s invitation in the first place. There was always business to attend to as clan chief of the Youngs and Laird of Venruit Castle, but he knew how important it was to mend relations with the Sassenachs after what had happened. His father had taught him the importance of keeping peace with their southern neighbors, and Donnan was doing his best to heed the old man’s wishes even after his death.
“Do not worry, my friend. You will not be the only one of your kind at the gathering. I have invited a veritable mass of Scotsmen, and I am sure there will be many familiar faces for you to take comfort in, though I would urge you to speak to some of my own countrymen as well. The only way we will ever solve the strife between us is with conversation and perhaps, that social lubricant, good Scotch whiskey,” Lord Hammilton had written in his letter inviting him to the ball.
Donnan knew a few of the lairds in neighboring areas near Venruit Castle were attending, and it did indeed comfort him to know he would not be the only man to turn up to the event in his plaid.
But that did not change the fluttering in his belly as he climbed out of the carriage he had hired to take him to the Lord’s townhouse.
“Thank ye,” he muttered to the driver who opened the door for him. He slipped the man a coin for his troubles, and then looked around him.
The street was lined with carriages just like the one from which he had just alighted and stepping out of them were all manner of fancy lords and ladies.
The women were dressed in frocks finer than any he had ever seen, their hair piled high on their heads in the latest fashion. The men were turned out in soot-black coats and trousers, their boots shined to a high gloss.
Donnan reminded himself as he ascended the steps that though they might look different on the outside, they were all the same inside; human beings trying to right the wrongs of the past. And there could be nothing wrong with that.
His feet were inches away from the marble floor of the entryway, the chatter of the ton all around him, when he happened to raise his eyes to take in the sights in front of him. Lord Hammilton’s house was rumored to be among the finest in all of London; the man himself had told Donnan that an Italian sculptor had assisted with the flooring, and that the candelabra had taken three months and over fifty artisans to mold from glass.
But as Donnan looked ahead, he saw not the clean gold and black marble floor under his feet, not the glass candelabra above his head. All he saw was the woman in front of him, a golden-haired vixen with her eyes locked on his.
Och, she’s perfect. I must speak with her.
Donnan had been to few balls in his life, but he knew enough about English society to know that introductions at a ball were usually done by an acquaintance of one or both parties. Therefore, it would be improper for him to just go up to the lass and ask her name. But at that moment, Donnan found he cared little for propriety.
Walking toward the lass, who seemed, at least for the moment, to be unaccompanied, he smiled. “Good evenin’, me lady. I am Donnan Young, of the Young clan of Scotland. Ye seem lost. Might I ask what ye call yerself?”
The woman looked speechless for a moment, though Donnan was pleased to see that she recovered quickly and a warm smile spread across her lips as she tipped her head toward him to welcome him and she said, “I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Young. I am Miss Bernadine Nibley. I am afraid I belong to no clan, and I hail from old Cornwall.”
Donnan smiled, glad to see the lass had a bit of wit in her. He was about to make a pithy remark back when a hand reached out and tugged Bernadine away. Donnan could not see who the hand belonged to, and the crowd around them suddenly thickened, preventing him from following her. The last thing he saw were her blue eyes staring at him at she was dragged away.
“Lord, it’s crowded in here. And it smells like stale whiskey and sweat…” Bernadine’s father muttered as they made their way down the corridor and into the crowded ballroom.
She tried to ignore her father’s comments. She knew she ought to reprimand him – after all, her mother certainly wasn’t there to reign him – but the one time she had tried, he had not taken kindly to it.
“Papa, I think you ought to be more charitable, more open to people. All this anger cannot be good for your constitution,” she had said some months before, after a particularly – spirited tirade against the influx of Indian immigrants entering London. She thought that perhaps wrapping her reprimand in the guise of concern over his health might ease the blow. It had done nothing of the sort.
“On the contrary, it is good for one’s heart to race now and again, and nothing gets mine pumping like insulting those barbarians,” he had told her, before going back to his dinner of roast chicken and leeks.
Guinevere had told Bernadine when she was a young girl that her father had become obsessed with his health after Lady Nibley, Bernadine’s mother, died in childbirth.
“He worried about dying suddenly and leaving you all alone. The moment the funeral was over, he fired the French cook, ordered livestock and suddenly we were eating roasts and rhubarb pudding instead of duck à l’orange and blancmange. “I confess, I did not mind the change,” Guinevere had said to a ten-year old Bernadine. “But his exercise regimen does worry me so. Surely a man should not be so tied to exercise that he walks in the snow!”
Looking at her father now, Bernadine could see that while his concern for his and her health might occasionally border on obsession, it had served him well. Though he was a man of nearly fifty, his face was youthful, his hair thick, his posture straight. She had occasionally seen him helping the tenants with their roofs, hauling massive bales of hay by himself.
But though his outer strength was clear, it was his inner strength that worried Bernadine. Once he harbored an opinion of something or someone, it did not change. Her father had hated Scotsmen for as long as she could remember, and while it had always distressed her, it had never embarrassed her before.
However, it embarrassed her now. They were in a room full of Scotsmen, many of whom were within earshot, and here her father was insulting them openly. She had to say something. She had to try. But before she could open her mouth, Bernadine’s eyes fell on that man again, Donnan. She had first seen him when they were entering the house, his height setting him apart from the crowd surrounding them.
Many of the Scotsmen in attendance were tall, but Donnan was positively gigantic. His long legs were socked up to his plaid kilt and had to reach at least to her belly, and the width of his shoulders was unfathomable. He radiated strength, and his clear, blue eyes were cold and assessing as they had turned toward her.
But the instant their eyes had met, the blue had softened, taking on a darker, calmer shade, like the ocean on a clear, sunny summer’s day. He was facing away from her now, his front turned toward what would soon become the dance floor, so Bernadine took the opportunity to admire the back of him.
His legs were so muscular she wondered what exactly he did for a living. She had only seen muscles like that on laborers, but there was no way that a man of such low class would be invited to Lord Hammilton’s ball.
Though he had not used a title when he introduced himself, Bernadine suspected he must have been part of the landed gentry in Scotland, then, though his rugged queue of dark brown hair, the scruff she had seen lining his jaw, and the raw power she sensed in his stance told her that no matter how noble a life he led, there was a touch of something wild about him. It rather thrilled her.
“Bernadine? Did you hear me?” her father asked, and Bernadine turned to realize her father was looking at her expectantly.
“I just said that I am going to go and find Lord Hammilton. Do you need anything before I go wade through this crowd of barbarians?” he asked her.
Bernadine shook her head. “No, Papa. I am fine.”
“Just as well,” he grunted. “These infernal thieves seemed to have completely crowded the path to the drinks. Lord knows how long it will take me to reach the wine. The Crown should have jailed the lot of them,” he grumbled.
Bernadine was about to answer when the man whose form she had been so fixed on a moment before turned and leveled a murderous gaze at her father.
“What are you looking at, you brute? Can't you see this is a private conversation, or do they not teach the art of fine speech in your godforsaken country?” her father told the Scot.
“What did ye say, Sassenach?” Donnan whispered, his brogue a sharp cut in the suddenly still air surrounding them. They were in a crowded room of people that numbered in the dozens, and yet at that moment, it seemed as though they were the only three people in the room. Bernadine could hear the agitated exhales of her father’s breath next to her, could practically hear the cogs in his brain turning, trying to form an answering insult to the Scot’s question.
“I called you a brute. Are you deaf as well as dumb? For whatever language you just spoke in, it was most certainly not the King’s English,” he replied, and Bernadine had to hold back a groan. How was her father, a man so kind to her and Guinevere, capable of such rudeness? It never ceased to amaze her. And distress her, as well.
Donnan took a step closer to Bernadine’s father, the toes of their boots nearly touching. The Scot towered over her father, a full head and a half taller than him. For the first time in her life, Bernadine thought her father looked…well, weak.
“I’ll take ye to think of the consequences of such a speech in this room, sir,” he said.
Bernadine’s father scoffed, dismissing the Scotsman’s words with a wave of his hand.
“I’m sure I’m not the only one in this room wondering just what the likes you are doing polluting an English ballroom. However, for the sake of our host, I shall cease,” Lord Nibley said giving a small bow to the Scotsman.
“Though,” he said, raising a finger as he stood back up. “I think you ought to know that in this country, we wear trousers rather than skirts. You ought to try it, my friend. Else someone might mistake you for a lady if you’re not careful,” he said, looking pointedly at the Scot’s kilt.
Bernadine didn’t blame the Scot for what he did next, which was to lunge toward her father and grab him by the collar. It was done no doubt in an effort to halt the insults and scare him back into some sense of propriety, but it sadly had the opposite effect.
“Unhand me, you savage!” Lord Nibley yelled, ensuring that anyone who had not yet noticed the spectacle near them was now staring straight at the trio. Bernadine wished that she could have disappeared in that moment, with so many pairs of eyes burning through her. She had never felt so embarrassed in all her life.
However, distasteful as the goings – on might be, they would not cease without her intervention, and so Bernadine mustered all her strength and abilities, put a hand to her forehead, and began to sway back and forth.
A few women near her gasped, no doubt realizing the signs of a woman near to fainting. The arrival of a new modiste in town who specialized in the tightest of whalebone corsets meant that more than one young female of the ton had fainted that season, and everyone was on high alert for woozy young ladies.
“Sirs! Stop this! Your daughter!” Lord Barrett, one of her father’s friends in Parliament, cried from next to Bernadine.
Her father looked around, his mouth open, no doubt in preparation to spew further insults at the man whose hand was still grasping his wilted white collar. Donnan looked toward her as well, his brow creasing with worry when he saw her swaying. He released her father at once, and then turned toward her, as though he wanted to reach out to her, to steady her.
“Bernadine? Are you well?” her father asked, his voice hoarse from being choked.
“No,” she said, letting her voice waver slightly. “I’m feeling terribly ill…” she said, purposefully tripping over her own feet. Of course, her train was so long that a fake trip turned into a very real one, and Bernadine nearly went face down on the glossy ballroom floor.
The sheer shock of nearly ending with her skirts in the air, combined with her strong attraction to the Scotsmen and her fear that her father was making rather a fool of himself, resulted in Bernadine’s actual fainting.
Thankfully, Lord Barrett was nearby to catch her, though not so deftly that he did not cause her bodice to go slightly askew in the process. Which was how Bernadine Nibley ended up baring quite a lot of skin at Lord Hammilton’s ball, an occurrence that would not doubt follow her for the rest of the season, and perhaps the one beyond, as well.
“I cannot begin to express my apologies, Laird Young. Please forgive both me and my friend Lord Nibley for tonight’s events,” Lord Hammilton told Donnan later that evening.
He felt for the poor man. He knew that Lord Hammilton was trying to do a good thing with this ball, bringing the Scots and Sassenachs together and trying to mend the rips between them. And it wasn’t Lord Hammilton’s fault that his friend was ill-mannered and resistant to change and deserved a sound thrashing.
Still, that didn’t mean that his odium for Lord Nibley did not cause him to clench his fists as he made his way past the refreshments and toward the house’s exit.
Donnan had planned at first to dismiss the encounter and give the poor old man the benefit of the doubt. After all, he had caused his daughter to faint, and surely that was punishment enough for his crimes of slander.
But when Donnan had offered to help carry the Sassenach lass to a drawing room where she could recover, her father had not only refused, but had managed, though he was carrying his daughter’s lower half as he did, to mutter words far more insulting than any others he had said thus far that evening.
“Get away from her, you perilous thing. You think I would let someone like you sully her with your hands? Go back to your ale and get your fill of free English malt. No doubt you’ll need the energy it gives you to incite a riot over some other trifling matter when you return home, which I do so hope you do soon. London has enough pollution as it is,” he had rasped.
Donnan would not be insulted without recompense. A clan chief, a laird, and a warrior, he had generations of strength in his blood that meant he did not back down from a challenge. And once insulted, he would accept nothing but revenge from the offending party.
He was only too happy when the revenge involved a beautiful woman, as his did on that particular evening. For no sooner had Donnan taken leave of Lord Nibley’s company than a plan had formed in his mind, one that involved kidnapping his daughter. It was only fair, after what the man said to him. Donnan operated on the principle of an eye for an eye, a concept that had served mankind well for the last few thousand years or so. And who was he to argue with tradition?
As Donnan had made the rounds in the ballroom, introducing himself to one nobleman and another, he had managed to stealthily inquire about the living arrangements of Lord Nibley and his daughter, one Bernadine Nibley, the true object of his inquiries. He needed to be certain that the house he was breaking into that night was the one that housed the blonde beauty.
“Miss Nibley is unmarried, yes. Still lives with her father, I think, in that old house in Mayfair. Isn’t it correct my dear?” Lord Shipley, Earl of Derby, had asked his wife.
“Indeed, yes, right near that lovely little hat shop I always take the girls to. Number 41 or 42 Mount Street, I believe, though it does have an official name as well,” Lady Shipley had replied. Donnan was confident that it would take little more than a bit of coin to bribe the Nibley’s footmen for him to discern exactly which room house the lass, which window he needed to climb into to abscond with her in the night.
Once that was done, he could slip inside, and steal what Lord Nibley seemed to hold most precious: his daughter. It was what he deserved, after his insults. No one treated a Scotsman foully. Donnan would teach that lord a lesson, one he would never forget. And in the process, he would get himself the finest maiden that he had ever seen. He did not yet know just what he would do with her, but he could figure that out later. Once she was in his arms, everything else would fall into place.
Bernadine took the footman’s proffered hand and gingerly stepped down from the carriage. She was still feeling weak and woozy after her faint and was looking forward to nothing so much as taking off her uncomfortable frock, putting on her favorite nightdress, and crawling under the sheets with a saucy novel.
Nothing soothed the soul quite like the antics of Miss Fanny Fosterkew, the favorite literary heroine of Bernadine’s readings. When Bernadine had last left Miss Fanny, she was just about to leap off her horse in pursuit of the highwayman who had stolen her mother’s prized locket.
Bernadine couldn’t wait to find out who the highwayman was. She had her suspicions, but the author, a Mr. P. L. Richards, was known for leading his readers to a conclusion only to offer the exact opposite of what they were expecting. It was one of the main reasons he was Bernadine’s favorite writer. She did so love a surprising adventure!
Bernadine’s father was silent behind her as they walked up the stone steps and were let into the house by a sleepy-looking footman. The hallway was dark, most of the house already abed, and Bernadine and her father’s footsteps echoed in the quiet.
“I am sorry,” her father whispered behind her, his voice barely audible.
“Pardon, Papa? I did not hear you.”
She had, of course, heard him, but she wanted to hear him say it again. Louder. Like he meant it.
That evening had taught Bernadine that she had gone far too long without bringing up the subject of her father’s prejudices. She should have persisted after he dismissed her complaints before. If she had, perhaps tonight would not have happened. Perhaps they would not have made such a scene. Perhaps she would not have lost any hope of striking up a conversation with that intriguing Scotsman.
“I am sorry, Bernadine,” her papa told her, his voice louder, though still lacking its usual strength. “I…I embarrassed us both tonight, and for that I am deeply, deeply sorry.”
“Are you sorry for what you said, or merely for the consequences of your words?” she asked. It was uncouth of a young lady to speak so plainly with her father, but then, she and her papa had never had a normal relationship. How could they, when he had raised her practically as a son, rather than a daughter?
She saw his eyes narrow, no doubt hating the scolding he was being given by his daughter, but instead of a reprimand, the words that came out of his mouth were even more contrite than before. “For both. I…I should have kept my opinions to myself. Should,” he corrected, “keep them to myself from now on. These are changing times we live in, and I would do well to adapt to them, I think. Would you…would you help me?”
Her father looked insecure, for the first time in her entire life, and it melted her heart.
“Of course I will, Papa. Together we will turn you into the most loving, open-minded man the ton has ever seen.”
“Ha!” Her father barked out a laugh, and Bernadine smiled, pleased that she had brought levity to such a grave conversation.
“I am not sure I will ever get quite that far, but with your help perhaps I can stop being such a deuced curmudgeon,” he said.
“I think that is entirely possible,” Bernadine replied, leaning in and kissing her father on the cheek. He smelled like peppermint and pipe tobacco, and the scent calmed her. He was a flawed man, but a good one at his core. She hoped that in time, other people would see that as well.
“Good night, Papa,” she said, drawing away and turning toward the staircase.
“Good night, dear Bernadine. I don’t deserve you, but I’m happy to have you all the same,” he said, a sad smile on his face as he walked down the hallway toward his study, no doubt to pour himself a large glass of something potent.
Bernadine only wished she could partake of the same substance, but then, that was not what ladies did. And so, she walked to her room, eager to drown her sorrows in Fanny Fosterkew’s antics.
Donnan motioned to the men behind him, all of whom were cloaked in black. He slowly tiptoed down the curved path leading toward the back of the large house. The Nibleys’ carriage driver had been only too happy to tell him exactly where the lass slept, after Donnan greased his palms, of course. He had learnt his target was the window, four floors up and third from the left. Donnan knew it was the right one as he had got a glimpse of Bernadine at the window before everything got dark.
Between the payment to the driver as well as to the small crew of fellow Scotsmen, most of them familiar faces from back home, it was turning out to be one of the more expensive nights of Donnan’s life, but if his plan succeeded, the expenditure would be well worth it. The lass would be well worth it.
Turning, Donnan regarded the men behind him. Though none were quite as strong as he, they all looked more than able to give him a leg up so that he could climb to the window.
Wordlessly, he handed the men one end of a thick hemp rope, the other end of which was tied to his sporran, which was, as always, affixed to the front of his kilt. The plan was for him to scale the wall, an easy enough feat for a man of his size and stature, and then, once inside the lass’ room, tie his end of the rope to the window. Then, the lads could keep the rope steady as he and the lass climbed down and made their escape.
After checking that he had the bit of cloth soaked in alcohol in his sporran to muzzle the lass, Donnan checked the knot on his sporran and nodded at the men.
“Shandt be more than a few minutes, lads,” he whispered before turning toward the wall.
The climb turned out to be an easy one; ivy covered much of the brick wall, and between that and the generous bit of plaster between each brick, Donnan had no trouble finding hand and footholds that carried him up to the fourth-floor windows.
Climbing sideways to the right was slightly more of a challenge but having grown up around the rocky masses in Scotland, spending his youth scrambling through them with naught to protect him, Donnan was used to difficult climbs.
He had barely broken a sweat by the time he was gripping onto the lass’ windowsill. The pane was open, no doubt letting in a soft breeze to lull the lass to sleep. Donnan reached an arm through the window, carefully opening it. It gave a small squeak, and he paused, straining to hear if the lass had stirred.
All he heard was the soft, slow breathing of a person in deep slumber, and so he continued his mission, slowly and carefully climbing through the window. He took the rope from his sporran and tied it to one of the hooks on the windowsill; testing the knot to be sure it could hold their combined weights. When he was satisfied, he turned around, taking in the room for the first time.
The space was mostly dark, but the nub of a candle was still burning on a table next to the bed, allowing Donnan to gaze upon the outline of Miss Bernadine Nibley in deep sleep.
Her blonde hair, plaited to the side, had fallen over her shoulder, and some of the strands had escaped and were now caressing her cheeks. A leather-bound book was open and resting on its front on the floor beside her, most likely having fallen from her hand when she dozed off.
One arm was stretched out over the bed, the hand curled softly inward. Donnan longed to reach out and touch that hand, to hold it while she slept. She looked so sweet, so calm, so angelic, and he suddenly wished he could stay the whole of the night, watching her in this calm state.
Suddenly, Bernadine made a sound, a soft, little mewl as she drew her arm in and readjusted her position, turning to the other side. Donnan froze, but she seemed to still be asleep, her breathing not having changed.
As he gazed at her, he wondered how such an angelic creature could be related to the horrible man that had called him a savage, a brute, a thief and a drunkard earlier that day. How could such a man have created such beauty?
But Donnan reminded himself that time was of the essence. He needed recompense for his egregious wrongs, and it would not be in his favor to get caught now. Striding toward the bed and taking the bit of cloth from his sporran, Donnan grabbed the lass under her back with one hand and placed the other over the lass’ mouth.
Donnan watched the lass’ eyes to see if they would stay closed, but after a few pokes and prods did nothing to stir her, he knew she was out for at least thirty minutes, if not more. He had put rather a lot of alcohol on the cloth just in case.
The lass was light in his arms as he lifted her. He turned, and his boots landed not on the hard wood floor, but on something much softer. Looking down, Donnan realized that the lass kept a pair of shoes by her bed.
He stooped down and collected them in one hand, tucking them into his belt as he carried her to the window. The journey to Scotland would be long and cold and she would need something to cover her feet. What she really needed were boots, but he did not have time to look for those, so the slippers would simply have to do.
As Donnan approached the window and saw the rope still secured to the sill, he began to wonder exactly how he was going to climb back down with the lass in his arms. After shifting the lass from one shoulder to the other, Donnan finally decided it made the most sense to carry her over his left shoulder and navigate the rope with his right arm.
It was difficult work, climbing out of the window and slowly making his way back down, not least because Donnan was far more worried going down than he had been coming up. Before, he had had only himself to think of as he climbed. Now, however, there was a small, beautiful woman slung over his shoulder, her life in his hands, as it were.
Finally, they reached the ground and, his men took Bernadine from his arms. She slouched in Seamus’ arms, still fast asleep, while Donnan stretched his arms above his head, trying to release the tension that had built up there from the descent.
“Do we leave the rope, Donnan?” one of his men asked.
“Aye. I want her faither to ken what’s happened. I want him to ken she’s been taken away in the night,” he said, adjusting his kilt and looking over at the lass as he spoke. He felt an odd spark of jealousy shoot through him as he looked at the lass in Seamus’ arms.
I should be the only one allowed to touch her. She’s mine.
“Help me get her onto me saddle, Seamus,” Donnan barked at the man as he stalked over to his horse. He had settled her in front of him, her head lolling on his shoulder, her hair tickling his chin. It was a good feeling, to have her against him. He liked it very much indeed.
Once all his other men had saddled up, they began their journey back home. They were out of the city and still Bernadine did not wake. Donnan started to worry that he had drugged her too much, that he had harmed her, but then, just when he was perhaps thinking of stopping somewhere to splash some water on her face, she stirred.
And when she opened her eyes and turned back to him, she screamed so loud she scared the horses.
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