But aside from that, and from being three times my age, Lord Carlson is also a vile, wicked man. It’s common knowledge that he enjoys beating on his household staff. And when he’s not beating them, he’s forcing himself on the female help, and fathering bastards with them.

That’s my soon-to-be husband.

…Yuck.

Behind me, Catriona and Rhona busy themselves smoothing out the train of my gown and fixing the wreath of flowers set atop my dark brown hair.

Una presses a flagon of wine into my hands.

“Ails, marriage is…”

She trails off, frowning, her mouth moving like she’s still looking for words she can’t find as she tucks her red hair behind her ear. She looks up, her lips twisting.

“Sorry,” she mumbles.

I smile wryly. “It’s fine, Una. It is what it is.”

We can’t all be as lucky as Una. Of the four of us, myself and Rhona are in arranged marriage situations to men we don’t know or even like. Una was, but two weeks ago when she met Lord Hamish Ballentyne, the man she was to marry, on their very wedding day, something incredible happened: they fell madly and instantly in love.

So, I know she wants to give me some words to help me get through this, but it’s not the same thing. Her husband, Hamish, is everything Lord Carlson is not. He’s handsome beyond belief, and kind, and powerful, and strong. And he worships Una.

…That sort of marriage is not in my future.

“Well, we could always just steal this boat and sail away,” Cat says mater-of-factly. I turn, grinning at her as I take a sip of my wine

“We certainly could.”

Rhona rolls her eyes. “Of course, none of us know how to sail.”

Cat shrugs. “How hard can it be?”

I laugh, grinning at my friends.

“Thank you, you guys. For being here.”

Cat scowls. “Are you really brushing off my escape plan so easily?”

I sigh. “Okay, we teach ourselves to sail in the next five minutes, and then we go… where, exactly?”

Cat arches a brow at Una. “Her castle. Hamish would be fine housing some fugitives, wouldn’t he?”

I roll my eyes. Besides the fact that Lord Ballentyne is a guest at the very wedding that’s about to happen on the very dock we’re moored to, I’m quite sure letting a runaway bride stay at his castle would be out of the question. Even if I am one of his wife’s best friends. The lords of the highlands have a brittle truce these days, and even if Lord Carlson is a vile man, allowing the bride who ran from him to stay at his castle would almost certainly mean war for Una’s husband.

“Hey Cat?”

I smile as I take my friend’s hands. “Let’s just get this over with, okay?”

She scowls, but slowly, she nods.

“Do you want a minute or two alone?” I turn to Rhona and nod.

“Yeah, if it would be okay.”

“Whatever you need,” Una says with a smile, squeezing my arm before she and the other two turn for the door. When it’s closed, I sigh the strong front I’ve been trying to put forward crumbling around me.

I turn back to the mirror, and when my gaze meets my own eyes, I tremble as the thoughts I’ve been trying to hold back come swirling and rushing through my head. And no, they’re not thoughts about the imminent wedding. They’re certainly not thoughts about Lord Carlson.

…They’re thoughts about him. The wicked one. The gorgeous tempting devil himself.

Lord Malcolm McAuley.

I want to shake my head free of these thoughts of him, but I can’t. I’ve been trying to for two weeks, and I know I just can’t.

Not after that kiss.

It was wicked, and wrong. And I’ve felt like a sinner bound for the pits of Hell ever since. But I just can’t stop thinking about it. Or him.

I take a deep, shaky breath, holding my gaze in the mirror.

I’m marrying Lord Carlson.

“I’m marrying Lord Carlson,” I mutter out loud, as if that may force me to accept this with a little more gravity.

It won’t be good, but I can make it… less bad, I suppose? It’s a life, and it is what it is. And who knows? Maybe with his interest in screwing his maids and cooks, Lord Carlson won’t have time to do so with me. I shiver, blanching at the thought I’ve done my hardest not to dwell on since I was told about this marriage—the idea of Lord Carlson taking my virginity.

I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to force down the queasiness.

Just get through today.

I take another breath, centering myself and just letting myself feel the gentle swaying of the boat. The way the water laps the sides. The way it moves so seamless through the—

I freeze. The boat isn’t just swaying, it’s moving.

My heart jumps into my throat as I whirl, running for the door and bolting up the stairs to the main deck. I tumble out onto the main deck, my eyes wild and wide as I turn to see the dock festooned with white flowers and garlands fading away.


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