Her Highlander’s Promise (Preview)
“You know it’s best not to keep his lordship waiting, my lady,” A knot of worry formed in Rebecca’s brow. Alice knew this signaled that her young maid was afraid.
“I know, I know,” Alice replied. Her uncle had summoned her back to the manor house a quarter-hour past. She knew she should make her way back to see what it was that he wanted, but the summer sunlight was dancing beautifully off the cliffs, and the clouds sat high and white against the bluest sky. The view of Dunstanburgh Castle sat atop the cliffs in the distance, or at least what remained of the ancient fortress. In recent years, a group of Scottish settlers made their way to settle along the castle’s borders. They grew wheat and barley trying to make life a little bit better for their families. The settlement went all the way down to the harbor below, and when Alice was young and her parents still alive, she remembered going to the place with her father. While he discussed farming techniques with the men and women, Alice played in the fields and on the sandy harbor beach with the settlement’s children. The fresh sea breezes toyed with her chestnut locks, as she ran about, truly free.
Alice sighed. It was the last time she had felt so free, so full of possibility. Now, sitting in the green grass in her stocking feet, if she tried, she could almost hear the waves crashing against the shoreline and the squeals of laughter from herself and the other children. Staring into the distance, she wondered what happened to those families. Did the fight between their countries cause them to be forced away? Were they harmed? Did the children she played with as a young girl grow up to fight like her brother had?
She shook her head fiercely as if the action alone could rid her of the negative thoughts. It was a glorious day, there was no need for such somber feelings. She could not afford to waste what little sunshine she had been able to capture on what-ifs. She forced herself instead, to think of how close to a new life she was. She need only be patient for it.
It had rained non-stop for four days hence. The storm clouds and fog obscuring any view from the manor’s windows. So, this beautiful day she had felt trapped inside with nothing to pass the time except for dull embroidery and music lessons. Both might be considered accomplishments for most ladies of her age, but for Alice, the relentless tutelage and expectations of what a lady should know and what a lady should do were tantamount to a prison sentence. A shudder moved along her spine at the thought of prisons.
Really, Alice, while Christopher suffers so, she thought, tucking a loose chestnut curl behind her ear as she picked up her skirts and slid back into her discarded slippers.
She hadn’t heard from her brother in over two years, and by all accounts should have no idea where he was, but servants talk. And Alice could always trust Rebecca to tell her news of Christopher. It was due to a rare kindness from her uncle years ago, and one Alice certainly didn’t imagine to have been given freely, that instead of meeting the gallows as a traitor, her brother had been sent to a work camp at a sea-coal mine north of their home. Alice knew when he left, his sympathies were with the Stuarts, but she also knew he sought his fortune for their future. Either way, he was foolish. Even though she loved him dearly, she was still angry. The choices he made had influenced her life, as well. Surely, he had to see that. But Alice loved her brother dearly and would always accept him, regardless of his choices. She was his greatest supporter. Even when he made mistakes, he made them from a place of wanting to better both their lives.
She couldn’t know how long his sentence was. Christopher had been gone so long. It had to be drawing to a close soon. She desperately wanted him to come home and take them both away. She wondered what the harm would be in asking her uncle directly, but thought better of it when the mere mention of Christopher sent him into a rage. Those days it felt as if she had to be cautious of what she said. The longer Christopher was gone, the more her uncle grew irritated with her. She longed to be free, and she knew Christopher was the only one willing to stand up to her uncle on her behalf.
“Come, Rebecca,” she said, reaching for her maid’s hand. “Let’s go see what is so urgent that Uncle wishes to call us in from this wondrous day.”
The calm and peace she claimed during her jaunt to the cliffs instantly faded away into the deep brocaded velvet drapery of her Uncle’s study as she sat in wait. Uncle Felix never allowed the servants to open the windows, no matter how lovely the day outside.
He summoned her yet kept her waiting. Alice knew such would be the case. However, had she tarried any longer, he would have known and prepared a severe tongue lashing. He loved to make an entrance, and he loved to be thought of as the most important of men. Alice shook her head at the ridiculousness of her uncle. He always had to prove he was the head of the home, ever needing to bend her will before him. Alice exhausted of this routine.
An uneasiness settled in her chest, and a chill raced down her spine, leaving small bumps of raised flesh in its wake. The fire was barely enough to keep the cold out of the stale air. The study always reeked of cigar smoke and stale cheese. She did not understand how her uncle could spend so much time in such a dreary and depressing place. It was likely because the space around him matched how he felt inside.
The heavy wooden door opened, and Alice turned to see her uncle enter the room, followed by two servants. One of whom carried a tea tray with a kettle, two cups, and a platter that looked to be filled with all sorts of pastries and sandwiches.
How odd, she thought.
She was never offered refreshment, certainly not formally or from her uncle. Most days, Alice was left to fend for herself for every meal save for dinner, where she was expected to be dressed and in the dining room precisely at seven. Where she was either ignored or despised as a frivolous chit and burden.
The only thing her uncle cared about was coin: how much of it he had, and how he could secure more. To say he was a miser would be too kind. He had briefly been married to a young lady of means. Her dowry offering tripled Uncle Felix’s land holdings, and the young miss tragically died in childbirth with the babe. All of this took place before Alice’s birth. Christopher told her of her poor dead aunt when they had left their family home to be taken in by Felix. Alice had asked if the babe was a boy or girl, not understanding that it didn’t matter one way or the other. Christopher was gentle with his response and stated that he never found out.
Alice often wondered if Uncle Felix had loved his bride and if her loss had been what turned him bitter. Perhaps, if that had been the case, she might have produced some bit of sympathy for him. But for now, all she felt was a bitter distaste towards the man who was supposed to be family but rarely acted as such.
“My dear, thank you for coming at my request,” Felix said curtly. He seemed to be going out of his way to avoid her gaze. Instead, he was intent on looking at a stack of correspondence on his desk, at the drapes, the hearth, anywhere but right at Alice. His clothing was untethered. His cravat was loose where Alice had never seen it other than perfectly knotted. He was not wearing an overcoat, which for the time of day, was most unusual. His white hair normally brushed back in preparation for a powdered wig was frazzled and unkempt. Alice found it all terribly unnerving. She could sense that something was amiss about this moment. It felt like a moment she would remember, the way all of the uncomfortable details stuck out to her then.
“Uncle, I always come when you request. How can I be of service?” If she didn’t know any better, she would think he was torn about something. Not knowing what could rattle the usually stern and withdrawn man, Alice drew her skirts around her, swiping at imaginary dust.
“I’m afraid I have news that you may find most unpleasant. Yet I also have news that you should find pleasing. Which would you prefer to have first?”
Her eyes shot up; she could not pretend to be nonplussed. He never gave her news. He never included her in any topic of his knowledge. She was used to his cold silence, his distant orders on decorum and comportment, but was not used to seeing him silent and distracted. Alice worried what had him so disassembled.
“Why don’t we begin with the pleasant news? You seem to look as if you could use it.” Alice meant what she said. Whatever had her uncle out of sorts must be horrid. She would just as well start with what it was that he thought was pleasant. Although she could not imagine what news he would have that she would find as such.
Ignoring the tea, her uncle moved to the sideboard. Alice watched as he poured himself a small draft of brandy. He lifted it to his lips and swallowed it in one gulp.
“Yes, well, as you must know, your care and that of your brother over the last ten years has not been easy on this household’s coffers.” She was taken aback if this was how he started pleasant news, Alice was terrified of the bad.
“Do not interrupt child, you have been taught better.” He snapped, and Alice blanched at his abrupt change in tone. “As you may know, it has been my intention from when I first learned of my sister’s untimely demise, that you should be raised as a proper lady and to have you marry well. In fact, it was a condition of my taking you on as my ward. That is why, when you first arrived, I had settled upon you a substantial dowry.”
Alice actually had no idea. Titles, power, and ranking meant nothing to her. She knew she was a proper age to start thinking about marriage but living under her Uncle’s tight thumb meant she very rarely encountered any members of the opposite sex… and certainly no callers, gentlemen or otherwise.
“That’s very generous of you, Uncle.”
“It’s no matter. That money was quickly recalled as it was needed for estate upkeep. It is no simple thing to keep you housed and fed in comfort, girl. The dowry has long been gone.”
A simple ‘oh’ was all that Alice could muster in response as she wondered if this was actually her uncle’s bad news. If so, it wasn’t that bad at all. She had always hoped that if she did marry, it would be for love. She wanted to live a simple life, perhaps in a cozy sea-side cottage surrounded by friends and family. Christopher knew this and promised upon his return that he would have earned enough funds to give her a simple dowry and support her dream. The loss of funds, of which she was unaware had been bestowed on her, mattered not.
“Fear not, girl. I have found you a much better alternative. For quite some time, I wondered what to do with you. You are old enough now for marriage… quite passed old enough. I cannot keep housing and feeding you without some recompense… the estate simply cannot afford it. It is most fortunate that Lord Samual Childwood responded.”
Most of what her uncle had just told her made no sense to Alice. She searched her memory, yet could find no picture of a Lord Samual Childwood.
“I beg your pardon, Uncle?”
“Lord Samual Childwood of Sussex. He is the new Earl of Treadmont. A newly minted earl, but quite a wealthy one. He has offered for your hand. He is approaching five and forty and needs an heir. You are young and I have assured him, quite comely. Instead of needing a dowry, the man has offered to refill my coffers for the expense of having you as my ward for the last decade. We are to be partners in my shipping venture. In return, he is only asking that you marry him and provide him with an heir and spare. Isn’t that a pleasant turn of events?”
“I do not know how to respond.” Her uncle had sold her as if she were chattel. And of all the places he could send her off to, Sussex?
Sussex? But it’s so far away, she thought, gripping her hands at her sides into tight fists. Her uncle’s demeanor darkened.
“You respond by thanking me, girl. You will be quite a valuable source of information for me in the new Earl’s household. After all, one does have to protect one’s own investments. I will periodically send for you and ask you to provide me with information. He is traveling, as we speak, on his way here. I expect him to arrive within a sennight, and I expect you to greet him warmly to assure him he has not made a mistake.”
“But Uncle, what of Christopher? He will be home soon, will he not? He has promised to provide a dowry for me. A simple one for certain, but I am convinced once my brother is free, we will be able to pay you back for your kindness. I do not need to be sold in marriage to some distant lord.” She had wanted to keep the desperation out of her voice, but she found she simply could not.
How could her uncle think this would be met as pleasant news? Should all women of her age be thrilled to be sold away from their homes and used as a spy for another man’s greedy relations? How could she be content in a place she had never been to? A place with no roots, with a man she had never met and who had never met her.
“Christopher? Ah, yes, well. In fact, it is the news I had received of Christopher that prompted me to send out the letters offering your hand in marriage.”
She didn’t understand. What did her brother have to do with any of this? Surely, Christopher would never agree to sell her away from their home. Also, whatever the news of Christopher, there had been clearly enough time to write and receive correspondence. Alice was beginning to feel as if she was still a child. Why was he only speaking to her now? She needed clarification and while she would usually never question her uncle out of fear, her need for answers outweighed her reservations.
“Whatever do you mean, uncle?” He glared back and moved to pour himself another brandy. Alice, too wished for something stronger than tea to drink. But she would not dream of asking.
Her uncle brought the drink to his lips and again finished it within a breath’s time. “Why, Alice, Christopher is dead.”
Alice felt her legs give way beneath her, crumpling to the floor with a hand to her mouth. Tears fell from her eyes. Christopher? Her Christopher was dead.
Aithe stood facing the ruins of what must have been a glorious old stone castle. The waves from the sea below crashed against the sandy beach, and the breeze rustled his hair. He picked up a smooth stone and cast it into the dark blue waters. He had hoped for a skip, for luck, but the water was much too choppy. The stone sank to the bottom making him feel as if it was a sign of the difficulties he was facing.
It had taken him almost four months to reach this stretch of the British coast. It hadn’t been easy. He finally felt a sense of peace. He was close to her, he knew it. It wasn’t easy being a highlander in England, and for the first time since he left home almost six years prior, he desperately missed the clear, ice blue waters of Cadney Loch and his home.
He was recently released from the torture of the sea-coal mines with only his sword and three shillings to his name. He was convinced the only reason he had been released was due to his injuries. How could a highlander with a mangled leg be much of a threat to a country as great as England?
He looked down at his scarred, dead, mangled stump of a leg. It usually ached him fiercely, especially in the damp English weather, but on this day, the sun was bright and the breeze fresh. The warmth radiated through his body and made moving easier for the day. He only had a passing ache every now and again. There was no dampness in the air at all and even if there had been, Aithe had a mission to complete. He may not be much of a warrior any longer, but he still had his honor. He would fulfill his duty; if not for himself, for Christopher.
He would have come sooner had he healed faster, had he known that Winterborne was not the uncle’s surname. It had taken him time in the local villages to learn of Alice Winterborne’s actual whereabouts. Once he knew that the cruel uncle his friend warned him of was Lord Felix Westing, Earl of Terwick, and Alice Winterborne was his orphaned ward, it had been easier to send word. He discovered after much searching and asking that they resided at Terwick Manor, and now finally, he was within an hour’s trek of the manor house. He sent a brief letter of introduction prior to his arrival. He had struggled over the best way to break the news of his friend’s death to the sister Christopher was so fond of.
He kneeled down, picking up another smooth flat stone. He flexed his arm, preparing to throw it again.
“Won’t do ye any good, sir.” A little lad crept out from behind a large rock on the sand. Aithe was shocked to hear a Scottish accent this far to the south. He eyed the lad, giving him a wink as he rolled the rock between his hands.
“Ye dinnae think so?” He replied.
“Nay, th’ water’s tae rough fer skippin’. Me Da says it needs tae be calm. Are ye a Scot?” The boy stopped suddenly and looked up at Aithe. “I’ve never seen someone as big as ye.”
“Aye, I am. And where I come from, there are men much bigger than me,” Aithe laughed. He wondered what the boy would think if he saw his Da, or his uncle Lucas and Nathan. All three men were brawny and hefty.
“Is that so?” the lad replied.
“What’s yer name, lad?”
“Callum, but me Ma an’ Da call me Cal.” Callum was a strong Scottish name. Aithe could not help but smile as he looked down a the lad. He wondered if his parents were the friendly sort. Perhaps he could intrude upon them and ask some questions about Westing. It would be good to know what he was walking into.
“Say, Cal. Do ye think ye could take me tae yer Da?”
“Aye, I can, follow me, sir.” The lad did not look entirely convinced that Aithe was an okay sort, but if he had to put coin on it, Aithe would say that it helped that he shared a brogue with the boy.
As Aithe and Callum walked up the rocky beach, Aithe was pleased to see a village built on what looked to be the old castle harbor. He had heard tales of Scottish travelers making a comfortable life for themselves beyond the border with England, but he had thought it was merely tall tales. Yet here he was proven wrong. There was a scattering of small shacks. Some of which had fences for livestock, others netting and barrels, which Aithe thought must be for the fisherman. He looked up the beaten path to the castle above and was surprised to see wheat, barley and oats growing. Whoever these settlers were, they were making a good go of it far from home.
He watched as the lad raced ahead to one of the cottages. A tall, thin man was standing outside, and Callum jumped into his arms. For a moment, Aithe’s chest constricted. He used to do the same when he would see his own Da after a long day away. Though his father was long gone, there were moments still where he was greeted with the grief as if it wasn’t an old friend. He slowly ambled up to the house.
“Callum said he found ye wanderin’ on the beach, trying to skip a stone in the surf; the name’s Fergus.” Callum’s Da leaned over a smallish fence that currently was keeping in three sheep and one lamb. His sheers held in one hand as if to warn Aithe not to try anything funny, while his gaze was steady on Aithe’s bad leg. “We dinnae get many newcomers in these parts. We like tae keep tae ourselves. What brings ye this way?”
“I made a promise tae a friend. I’m here tae make good is all. Looks like a fine little village ye have here. How long have ye been on this land?”
“Not too long, me own Da was one of the first to settle in. Once the castle emptied, it was rumored the crown chose tae leave th’ land fer rot. That’s when a group came down from Edinburgh and settled in. I grew up here meself, as did me wife and most of the others. Like I said, rare that we see newcomers.”
So Fergus had been here his whole life, Aithe thought. He must ken something of Westing and the lass. “Tell me, Fergus, what do ye ken of Westing?” He nodded in the direction of a manor house.
Fergus leaned back and set down his sheers, realizing Aithe was no threat to his family. He stroked his ginger beard and looked to the path.
“Not much to tell, really. The Earl, Westing, as ye call him. He keeps mostly to hisself. The lass is an orphan, sweet girl. Havenae set eyes on her in years. Not since her parents left this earth. She and her brother used tae come tae th’ village with their Da when they were young. Winterborne, that was the gent’s name.”
“Aye, I ken as much. I was friends with her brother, Christopher.” Even saying his name aloud caused Aithe to flinch. The wound of his friend’s death was still fresh. “Do ye ken anythin’ of the lass now?”
“Cannae say I dae. But me wife might. Why don’t ye come in, rest yer leg? Me wife, Meg, makes a good Shepherd’s pie. Share a meal, ye must be hungry.” At the mention of food, Aithe’s stomach betrayed him with a long, low growl. “I see ye are, friend. Ye’ve been traveling long?”
“It feels like I’ve been traveling forever. But I willnae turn down yer kindness.” Fergus let out a deep belly laugh.
“’Tis one thing we never run out of here, that’s kindness.” Fergus extended his hand to Aithe, and he took it, shaking it hard and firm. He could use a meal, and if Meg knew anything of Alice, it would only serve to help him keep his promise to Christopher.
He had been on his way for a long time, a few more hours in good company, to rest his leg before the rest of his walk could not hurt.
“Callum!” Fergus called, “Tell yer Ma tae set another place at th’ table we’ve company.” He clapped Aithe on the back and directed him toward the cottage.
“Where are yer people from, Aithe?”
“Have ye ever been tae Cadney?”
Aithe was supplied with all the comforts of home in Fergus and Meg’s home. The smell of freshly baked bread hung in the air, and the table around which they sat was kept warm by the glowing hearth. For the first time in many years, he felt comforted, cared for, and at home, even if it was a stranger’s home.
“’Twas a mighty fine meal, Meg,” Aithe used a spare scrap of cloth to wipe his mouth as he leaned back in his chair. He offered up a smile to the woman who gave him the first home-cooked meal he had had in four long years. Fergus was a lucky man, indeed. And based on the way he wrapped his arms protectively about his wife’s waist and pulled her into his lap, Aithe would gather he knew it.
“I wish I could tell ye more about the lass in the manor house. I dinnae remember much from when her Da used tae come tae th’ village. I couldn’t have been much older than Cal is now, but ye ken how bairns are. We were more interested in gettin’ intae trouble than learnin’ about our friends.” Speaking of the lad, Aithe had been impressed with how quickly Callum had eaten his fill, then dashed off, presumably to go with the other village children. “But I ken I played with the lass. That I do remember. Not many English came tae our village back then,” Meg said.
“My own Da used tae say that her father, Mr. Winterborne, was a good sort. Cared about people more than politics,” Fergus said. “By the sounds of it, his son was th’ same.”
“Aye, Christopher was a good man. Sometimes a friend made in battle can become closer than a brother.” Aithe looked down at his hands. They used to be strong hands, but they weren’t strong enough the one day it mattered. It was his fault that Christopher died, and that truth clawed at him. He should have tried harder to pull Christopher ahead of himself in the blast, Christopher, who had someone to return home to, someone who needed him. Aithe needed to make it right, and the only way he knew was to protect the one thing Christopher held dearer than any other. Alice. He shook his head, trying to clear the fog of memory and grief that threatened to anchor him to the very spot.
“I’m afraid we were nay much help tae ye, but we are glad ye came through, just the same.” Fergus brought him back to the moment.
“As am I,” he said, smiling at the friendly couple. “And I appreciate all ye’ve said. I’ll be headin’ up tae the manor house. I intend tae keep after the lass.”
“I would caution ye tae be careful when dealin’ with Westing, Aithe,” Fergus added, his face turning serious. “I ken I told ye he keeps to hisself, but that doesnae mean he isnae cruel or cunning man. If he thinks ye are coming between him and something he views as his, he willnae hesitate tae attack.”
“Aye,” Aithe said as he stood, wiping his hands on his trousers. “It’s good counsel, Fergus. I’ll nay forget it. Nay will I forgive yer kindness.”
“Aithe, if ye need anythin’, please consider us friends,” Meg added.
“I will, indeed.” He nodded his appreciation. “But I should leave ye now, I would like tae get tae th’ manor house before nightfall.” The couple walked Aithe towards the front door and they parted ways amicably… Aithe grateful for their Scottish kindness.
Once he was outside, he made his way toward the cliffs. Fergus and Meg both agreed it was the quickest route to the manor house. He looked back briefly and smiled. Fergus stood at the gate to their cottage, offering up a wave, his other arm snuggly around Meg. A pang of something lit in his chest.
Domestic life was never something Aithe craved. Between his own parents and his aunts and uncles, Aithe knew what true love looked like. He understood the value of a happy, loving home. Yet instead, he had convinced himself he wanted something different. He had wished for adventure. Exploration and battle motivated Aithe to seek out the life that led him to the mines. Yet, seeing Fergus with Meg and Callum made him think perhaps he had it all wrong.
As he walked along the cliffside, he looked out into the sea. He and Alice would not be a love match, but he would do right by Christopher’s memory. He could protect her and give her a life. Aithe could only hope she would be open to the idea, to his suggestion at protecting and caring for her in a way he could not care for Christopher. He hoped too, she would accept his apology for not saving her brother.
The manor house was in view. Aithe was impressed by how it rose from the moor. It was clear, by the look of the home, that the Earl of Terwick was most powerful. There was a wall that surrounded impeccably manicured gardens. A stable house sat to his left. There were no people about, but by the sun’s position in the sky, Aithe assumed it was already close to afternoon tea.
The air was sweet with freshly shorn grass, and Aithe wondered if life in the manor house was as horrible as Christopher had made it sound. Everything around him looked rather pleasant, and based on the grandiosity of the manor, there was enough financially to provide. But, Aithe corrected himself, that doesnae mean the inside is as pleasant as the outside. Perhaps he would not be welcomed at all.
A commotion took his attention from the gardens. A woman was running toward him and the cliff’s edge. His heart sped up, she was clearly in distress. The way she ran, looking back in fear, she was distracted. Aithe looked in front of her and gasped.
If the lass didn’t look up, she would run headlong over the cliff’s edge. Aithe broke into a run toward her, yelling and waving his arms. He ignored the pain that moved through his leg and moved as quickly as he could towards her… to do whatever it took to stop her, feeling a deep need to protect this lassie at all costs.
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