Her Highland Secret (Prequel Bonus Chapter)

July 1689, Carlisle Castle, Cumberland, England

Do not breathe! Ella held her breath as she pressed her body into the alcove of the castle wall. She hid behind a tall statue of some long-dead general in the English army, his tall and stout stone figure masking her small and slender body. She strained in the darkness, listening to the heavy footfall of the soldiers as they hurried by. Don’t find me…

She waited, still not daring to breathe, in case they found her. Some of the footsteps passing her were so loud, they reverberated off the walls and echoed through her entire body. She curled her hands into fists, creating half moon marks in her palms in fear. Then the footsteps faded, and all grew quiet again. The only sounds were the distant muffled cries of the soldiers, probably drunk or jeering once again.

She dared to breathe, peeling open one eye as she looked around the alcove that she had made her hiding place. There were heavy cobwebs above her and damp spots on the grey-stone wall that had not been cleaned in years. She backed away from the dirt and collided with the vast stone figure. Trembling, she hurried around it, backing across the corridor and staring up into the face of the statue.

He was brooding in the darkness, the narrowed eyes scarcely visible. The single shaft of moonlight from a nearby arrow-slit that stood for a window fell across one of his eyes. It was as if that eyed was pinned on her.

He is too like the Commander for comfort.

Ella swallowed nervously and turned her back on the statue, hurrying down the corridor as quickly as she could. She kept glancing back as she walked, checking to see if any of the soldiers had heard her and had come to chase after her.

“Why in God’s name did you move us here, Father?” she whispered aloud, as if somehow the air would give her more of an answer than her father. Her father, Viscount Pearson, was an English gentleman. When she was young, she could remember an illustrious manor further south in England, and a father who was much respected, with visitors coming day and night, keen to call and pay him reverence.

Those memories were fading now, drifting into darkness. Such thoughts were being replaced by the experiences of dark Cumbria, the heavy mountains and the vast lakes. There was always infernal silence in this place, even when she was permitted out of the castle walls, which was rare indeed. The last time she had stepped foot outside with her sister, two weeks ago, they had commented on how quiet it was. That silence had only been pierced by red kites and buzzards cawing in the air as they hunted.

The soldiers’ footsteps grew louder again.

Ella halted, straining to listen as she flicked her head around. On a nearby wall, she spied swords nailed into the stones. Those blades, aging and worn, were testament to the battleground that these lands had once been in the Jacobite rebellions.

Swallowing a panicked gulp, she gripped the skirt of her gown and ran the last length of the corridor. Darting up a small spiral staircase, she didn’t dare look back, in case she came to face the very man who liked to haunt her in this castle, like a persistent ghost. Damn the Commander with those beady eyes of his.

At the top of the stairs, she reached for the door of her chamber and flung it open, stumbling inside.

“Oh!” Amelia cried out in panic.

“It’s Ella,” Gwen said assuredly, running forward and helping to close the door behind Ella.

“Yes, it’s only me, sister,” Ella assured Amelia, who was now coming out from her hiding place behind the bedhanging’s. Just fifteen, she was small and lithe enough to fit behind the one post with its heavy curtain.

“Where have you been?” Gwen, her maid, asked running toward Ella. “You have cobwebs in your hair!”

“I do? Well, that is hardly surprising.” Ella pulled out the pack she had been carrying under her arm, tucked into a tight bundle. “I have been hiding from those soldiers.”

“I wish we could always hide from them,” Amelia said and threw herself onto the bed. “Why did father bring us here? There are soldiers everywhere you look. They are hardly like the gentlemen from father’s old evening parties, are they?”

“I cannot argue with that. They’re nothing like them, but here, perhaps this will cheer you up.” Ella unwrapped the muslin pack she carried, just as Gwen continued to pull the cobwebs out of her hair. She laid the pack down on the bed, revealing pastry doucets and cinnamon-dusted marzipan.

“Ah, my favorite.” Amelia reached eagerly for the confectionary, pushing back her fair blonde hair that was so like Ella’s own. “I thought Commander Evans always ate these.”

“He usually does, so I had to be quick.” Ella sat down with her sister on the bed, pushing some of the pastries toward Gwen too. Gwen shook her head, but Ella insisted again. “Gwen, please. Take some.”

Gwen smiled and took the smallest pastry from the muslin.

“Commander Evans takes everything in this castle,” Ella added bitterly as she sat back against the bedhead, toying with a bit of marzipan between her fingers. “He worries me.”

“Me too.” Amelia nodded. “He is not joining us for dinner again, is he?”

“I do not doubt he will be there.” Ella shuddered at the thought, strangely having lost her appetite now as she continued to stare down at the marzipan.

It was always the same, whenever they ate dinner with Commander Evans. Those black eyes, like beetles, stared at her. He seemed to want to eat her rather than the dinner. It didn’t matter how sharp she was with her tongue, what insults she spurted, he continued to stare at her in that voracious way, sometimes passing a hand over his receding and slimy hairline. He frightens me.

“I just wish I knew why our father would prefer to spend time with a soldier who has as bad a reputation as Commander Evans, rather than the fine gentlemen he used to keep company with,” Ella muttered darkly. “It’s as if he’s become a different man.”

Gwen sat down suddenly on the edge of the bed. She looked crestfallen, with her eyes full of tears.

“Gwen, what is it?” Ella asked, prodding her delicately and ushering her to take another cake before Amelia ate them all. “What’s wrong?”

“I… I fear I know why your father has brought you here,” she stammered. “I overheard it whispered between the other staff.”

Ella and Amelia exchanged wide-eyed gazes, then both sat forward, with Amelia nearly squishing all the cakes and Ella nearly falling off the bed in their haste.

“What is it, Gwen? What is it you have heard?”

“It is no good thing.” Gwen wiped the tears from her eyes before they could fall down her cheeks. “They say…” She hesitated, clearly building the courage to speak. “They say that the Commander is fond of gambling. Which means…”

“Ah.” Ella nodded, not needing to hear anymore.

Amelia sighed loudly and flung herself back on the bed, her head falling on the pillow as she grimaced.

Ella knew exactly what this meant. She and Amelia had been aware for the last few months that their father’s gambling habit was growing increasingly worse. He may not have told them, but the whispers had abounded enough for them to hear it through other channels. He preferred to spend his evenings gambling these days, or at a bawdy house, his tastes in life growing more and more wretched compared to the refined company he used to keep.

“So that’s it then,” Ella whispered. “He keeps the company of a man like Commander Evans because he’s foolish enough to think he can take the soldier’s company.” She glanced miserably around at the cold stone of the gray chamber. Though her father had not told her as much, she was beginning to suspect that the reason they had come to this castle in Cumbria was because he had lost so much money at the gambling table that they could not afford to live anywhere else.

“Why is this pillow so hard?” Amelia thrust a hand down onto it again.

“Wait. No.” Ella reached to stop her, but Amelia pulled out a thin diary from beneath the pillow. Ella’s face heated, blushing a deep shade of red as her younger sister flicked through the pages, her eyes lighting up with delight. “Do not read it –”

“How I wish we could get away from here,” Amelia read aloud. “Don’t we all!” she added from her own thoughts.

Ella dived to get the book from her grasp, but Amelia jumped up and danced away around the bed.

“My greatest secret, my greatest desire, is to return to London. Maybe at a soiree or an evening dinner, I will meet an elegant English gentleman someday, with fine manners, kindly ways, and soft eyes. That is the man I dream to marry.”

Ella chased her sister and at last managed to snatch the diary back, mortified in her embarrassment as Amelia continued to laugh. Ella closed the book tight, but she said nothing.

Was there anything wrong with having such a dream? She didn’t think so. Maybe this English gentleman she dreamed of, with soft eyes and kindly manners, would take her away from this place someday, and give her a future far from the likes of Commander Evans.

“You are missing your plate, Commander,” Ella muttered coolly. At her side, Amelia snorted into her glass, clearly trying to hide her laughter.

Ella glowered back at the Commander through the candlelight. The entire dinner, he had not stopped staring at her. Those beetle-black eyes stared hungrily at her far more than they did his plate, causing his fork to slip into the tabletop instead of the meat before him. He is an odd man.

The Commander stabbed the meat successfully this time, though his eyes quickly returned to her.

“Ahem.” Pearson cleared his throat. He was dressed flamboyantly tonight, though Ella could see in the candlelight it was an illusion of wealth that was fraying. His dandy-style, heavily laced sleeves were torn a little, and the glittering doublet was dulled. He smiled, his gaze dwelling on the fine Commander’s clothes instead.

“Ye’ll have to forgive me daughter’s sharp tongue, Commander,” he said with an easy laugh.

“She is eager not to talk to me,” the Commander observed.

Ella didn’t deny it. All evening, she had been ignoring any attempt he had made to talk to her.

“She has been away from society for far too long. She needs curbing, a husband to shepherd her in the right direction.”

Ella dropped her fork to her plate and glowered at her father. Am I a sheep to be herded by some rabid sheepdog?

“A husband, eh?” The Commander sat uncomfortably tall in his chair. Now, Ella chose to look everywhere but at him.

“If you don’t find a husband soon, Ella, you’ll die an old maid,” Pearson said drunkenly, reaching for his cup of claret and tipping it to his lips. Some of the red liquid stayed there, gleaming a little like blood.

“Father…” she warned, her voice icy cold. “We have had this discussion many times. I think in company we can surely find something else to talk about.”

The Commander smiled, as if she had spoken some great jest instead of the cutting remark.

“We have to talk about it some time, Ella,” Pearson went on, topping up his glass.

Ella looked at her sister, but Amelia had paled and long-lost interest in eating her own dinner. Her cutlery froze over the plate and her breathing had quickened. Ella knew that fear, for it was her own. They did not want to be separated. If Ella had to marry and move away, what would happen to Amelia in this God-awful place?

“Perhaps we should arrange our next game, Lord Pearson?” the Commander suggested, talking to the viscount but his eyes roved over Ella instead. She pointedly wrapped her shawl around her shoulders, trying to hide herself from him.

“Let it be tonight,” Pearson said hurriedly. “I am feeling lucky tonight.”

Or drunk. Ella kept this thought to herself.

“Are ladies permitted to join this game of cards?” Ella asked, wondering if she would have a better chance at holding onto their money than her father.

“No.” Commander Evans laughed mockingly. He shook his head and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table.

Ella felt movement beneath the table. He was trying to brush his leg up against her own. She snatched her feet away and hid them as best as she could under her chair.

“Ladies’ attention and energy should be saved for… other things.” He left Ella in no doubt of what he thought those other things should be as his eyes wandered down her again. She wrapped the shawl around her body now as if it was a bedsheet, covering her completely.

I know what I must do. Ella made up her mind. Every night she would sneak up to watch her father play his games from now on, so she could know exactly how much they were losing to Commander Evans.

As Pearson laughed and determined a time for their game, Ella sat back in her chair and looked at the ceiling. High over her head, the stone was arched and dark, pepped with cobwebs that hadn’t been swept away in years. She continued to stare at the stone, wishing she could somehow look through the dark mass and up to the clouds and heaven above.

God, if you’re there, please, send me the love of my life that I dream of. May he take us far away from here and show me what true happiness is.


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