Read an Excerpt
His insult was the last straw. Cassandra Elliott launched herself at her half-brother in yet another attempt to retrieve the remains of her letters. But James was too big and too strong. He fended her off with one long arm, using the other to push the torn fragments of paper into the depths of the fire. Cassandra could do nothing but watch, while they twisted and blackened in the flames. 'You are hateful,' she spat, with a sob that was part fury, part frustration. 'You have no right—'
'I have every right! Now, you will tell me his name.'
Cassandra shook her head vehemently. 'Never! You can—'
James pushed Cassandra roughly on to the oak settle. 'I am the head of this family, and I will not have you bring disgrace upon us by your wanton behaviour.'
'My wanton behaviour? I have done nothing but receive a few harmless love poems. Nothing more. But you, Jamie Elliott—'
'You are the one who spends every other night in the whorehouse. When you are not lifting the skirts of our own maids, that is. It is not I who bring disgrace on the Elliott name. You—'
'You forget yourself, sister. I am a man, and the laird, besides. I—'
'You are a—'
'Enough! Hold your tongue!'
He towered over her, menacing, his brows drawn together in a black frown, his fists clenched.
Cassandra tried not to cower away from him. She must not give him the satisfaction of knowing she was afraid. If only she were not so alone.
'No one but you would dare to question my actions. I will have no more of it. You are only a lassie. You will do as you are told. And if you don't…'
He bent down so that his face was within an inch of hers. She could feel his fury like the waves of heat from a roaring fire.
'You'll not be forgetting what happened to your mother, will you now?'
His voice had suddenly sunk to a snarling undertone, far more terrifying than all his bellowing. At the mention of her mother, Cassandra's heart began to race. Now she was surely lost.
'I can put you in the Bedlam just as easily as Father did your mother. There's no man here will gainsay me. They all know what a mad, headstrong lassie you are—have always been. I have only to say that you've been playing the harlot, following in your mother's footsteps, and every man among them—aye, and the women, too—will help me carry you through the Bedlam door.'
She reached a hand out to him. 'You would not—'
'Do not put me to the test, lassie. Remember, I am my father's son.' Snatching up the single candle, James strode to the door and left the little parlour, without once looking back.
Cassandra heard the sound of the key turning in the lock. She did not need to try the door. She was imprisoned—again—and it would be a long time before James relented and permitted her release. If she were truly unlucky, he would not even allow her food and drink.
She looked around the room in the feeble glow of the dying fire. She must have some light. She could not bear the thought of being shut up alone, in the dark, in this bare and hostile chamber. She knelt before the hearth to light a spill from the embers but, as she touched the flame to the tallow dip, she noticed a scrap of paper on the floor behind the chair leg. It was the last remaining evidence that anyone in the world truly cared for Cassandra Elliott.
She pulled the fragment from under the chair and smoothed it once, then again and again, as if willing it to be whole again. At least one person did care. Just one. But he could not help her.
Impatiently, she brushed away a tear. It was anger. Only anger. She was not so weak that her half brother could make her cry. She was not!
She caressed the paper yet again. There was so little left. It was barely an inch wide and held only a few disjointed words, part of three lines of Alasdair's bad poetry. She had smiled when she first read it, recognising the evidence of the boy's calflove. He might be only fifteen, but he idolised her. He saw himself as a knight, winning her love by deeds of great daring. But if James Elliott once discovered the lad's identity, the daring would be thrashed out of him. She would never betray his name, no matter how much James threatened.
She dropped on to the hard oak settle once more and stared at the scrap of paper. Like her Trojan namesake, she, too, could prophesy, all these centuries later. She could prophesy that the Elliott family was doomed. First her father, and now her half-brother. Drunkards and gamblers, both. Neither of them caring anything for their land, or their people. Both of them wasting their substance in the pursuit of pleasure. Both of them treating their womenfolk worse than their cattle.
If only she could get away. But where could she go? She had no money and no friends in Galloway who would dare to take her part against the laird. Everyone hereabouts knew exactly who she was. It would be impossible to hide from James on this side of the Solway. If she did run away, James would find her and bring her back. He might even carry out his threat to lock her away in the lunatic asylum. Cassandra's own mother had died there, imprisoned on trumped-up accusations of adultery. Had she been mad? Not at first, perhaps, but certainly at the end. And her husband, Cassandra's father, had shut the door on her as if she had ceased to exist. From the day she was put in the asylum, he had never visited her, never sent to ask after her, and never once mentioned her name.
James Elliott was capable of doing exactly the same to Cassandra if she did anything more to thwart his plans to marry her off. She had to protect Alasdair. But if James really believed she was unchaste—
Cassandra shuddered and dropped her head into her hands. She would not weep. She refused to be so craven. She would—
The key grated in the lock.
Cassandra quickly wiped her face and squared her jaw. If James had returned so quickly, it boded ill. She hastily tucked the precious scrap of paper into her pocket.
'Miss Cassie?' It was Morag, Cassie's maid, who had served the family since Cassandra was a child. 'I've brought you some warm milk, dearie, and some bannocks and cheese. The laird is in a fearful temper with ye, but he's off to the whor— He's gone out. He'll not be back till the morn, ye ken.' Morag put a pewter plate and a mug on the low table. 'Eat up, Miss Cassie. I'll be back in a wee minute to take they things away.' She said nothing more. There was no need. They both knew that if James discovered what Morag had done, she would be dismissed on the spot.
Cassandra ate greedily. She had had nothing since early morning. The cheese was strong and delicious, the oatcakes newly baked. All too soon, the plate was empty. Cassandra licked her finger and ran it round the rim to pick up any stray crumbs. She was still hungry.
Ross looked up at the sky. He had become used to the longer days as he moved north, taking advantage of the extra hours of daylight to put the greatest possible distance between himself and the pain of London. Here in the Scottish border country, the light held till well-nigh midnight when the weather was fine, as it had been for most of his journey.
But now the weather was changing. And suddenly. On the western horizon, huge black clouds were rearing up like angry stallions, ready to attack with flailing iron-shod hooves. A mighty storm was coming. And there was precious little shelter available for a solitary traveller and his faithful mare.
Ross touched his heel to Hera's chestnut flank. She needed little encouragement to quicken her pace. She had probably smelt the coming storm long before Ross had noticed anything amiss. He began to regret that he had decided to travel on to Annan instead of stopping on the English side of the border, where there were good beds to be had, and good food for man and beast. Here, so close to the Solway, there was no sign at all of any habitation as far as Ross could see. Probably the ground was too treacherous.
In the distance, he spied a small copse of trees. Dangerous, of course, if there was lightning. He looked up at the sky again. The black anvil clouds were swelling even before his eyes. And they were racing towards him. He had no choice.
He turned Hera towards the copse. He dared not go in. But, in the lee of the trees, they would find some shelter from the increasingly sharp wind, even if not from the wet. He pushed Hera on, urging her to a faster pace than was truly safe in the deepening gloom. 'Not far now, my beauty,' he murmured gently, laying a gloved hand on her neck. The mare's ears twitched at the sound of his voice. She was unsettled by the coming storm. Even her master's voice was not enough to calm her. 'Not far now,' Ross said again.
The mare slowed at the edge of the copse. Its old and misshapen trees had been bent almost double by the prevailing winds. 'Better than nothing, I fancy,' Ross said half to himself, preparing to dismount.
An enormous flash of lightning split the sky, followed by seconds of eerie silence. Hera laid her ears back and rolled her eyes in fear. Then came the thunder, growling like a pack of ferocious wolves. Hera tried to rear up, but Ross held her steady, automatically reaching out his hand to calm her.
But he was not thinking about his mare at all. He was concentrating on the sound that he had picked up in that tiny silence. Galloping hooves. Someone else was out on this wild night. By the sound of it, his horse was bolting.
Ross peered into the night, trying to identify the sound against the keening wind. Yes, there! The horse was racing towards him. And its pace had not slackened one jot.
He turned Hera towards the sound, readying her to intercept the stranger. But he had reckoned without the storm. Just as the unknown galloped past him, there was another flash of lightning. Hera reared up again. This time she almost unseated Ross. He wasted precious seconds regaining control, and even more in persuading her to follow the bolting horse.
He had no choice. For in that flash of lightning, he had clearly seen a terrified bay horse and, on its back, an equally terrified girl dressed in what looked like a long white shift and with her dark hair streaming behind her. Heaven knew what she was about, fleeing alone into the night. She might be a thief. She might even be mad. But whatever she was, Ross could not leave her to the mercy of the Solway and the terrible storm.
He kicked Hera into a gallop and cursed loudly when she baulked. 'Come on,' he breathed, leaning over her neck. 'Come on, Hera. Don't let me down now.'
Obedient to his voice, the mare started bravely forward once more. Ross knew that his chances of catching the girl were slim—she was already well ahead of him and he did not dare to force Hera to match the pace of the bolting horse—but he still had to try. Somewhere in front of them lay the Solway with its quicksands and unpredictable tides. Unless the horse stopped of its own accord, it would probably kill itself and its rider. The odds were against him. But Ross knew he had to try.
Another huge lightning flash, followed immediately by thunder. This time, Hera's only reaction was a nervous twitch of the ears. Ross was almost sure that he had seen the girl, a long way ahead. There was something white up there, certainly. He urged Hera to move faster.
Now they were in the eye of the storm. The thunder was almost constant. Lightning forked to the ground. The storm seemed all around them, and very dangerous. The sudden drenching rain of high summer had started, too. Ross could feel it soaking through his clothes and running down on to his saddle. He gripped the slippery reins more tightly. He was sure, now, that he was gaining on her. Her horse must be tiring. In that last glimpse, she had seemed much nearer than before.
There was another bright flash and a huge crack of thunder, directly overhead. Ross saw the girl about fifty yards ahead of him. Her horse reared in fright, unseating her. Then it started off again, pulling the white-clad figure behind it.
Ross breathed a curse. She must be caught in the stirrups! The animal must slow now, surely, with such a weight dragging behind it? But the girl… How would she survive such an ordeal?
It seemed to take an age before Ross caught up with them. He reached out to grab the horse's bridle and force it to a steaming halt. Only then was he able to do anything about the fallen rider.
He threw himself out of the saddle and knelt by the sodden body on the ground. The girl was not moving. Perhaps she was dead? He put a hand under her shoulders to raise her inert form.
'I can shift for myself, thank you, sir,' said a sharp voice from underneath the mass of wet hair.
Ross sprang back as if stung.
The girl sat up and tried to push the hair from her face. Then she thrust an arm up in triumph. 'He thought he had the better of me,' she cried. 'Ha! As if I would ever let go.'
In her right hand, twisted round her palm, were the horse's reins.
'You could have been killed,' he said, aghast. 'Why did you not let him go?'
'Because I need him,' she said simply, looking up at Ross through her unkempt mane of hair. 'Without him, I could never escape.'
Ross shook his head. Perhaps she was mad, even though she did not sound it. 'Hold my horse,' he said sharply, thrusting Hera's reins into the girl's free hand. 'Now…' He jumped to his feet, hauling the girl up after him. Then he took off his coat and placed it round her. She was shivering with cold. And she was wet through.
'You must not, sir,' she said crossly, trying to push the coat off her shoulders. 'I am perfectly well as I am. I was only—'
'Nonsense,' he snapped. 'You will get the ague if we do not get you warm. Now…I presume you are from these parts? Is there any shelter to be had hereabouts?'
'Well… there is old Shona's cottage, I suppose. I was going there when Lucifer bolted.'
Ross laughed shortly. 'He is well named. What on earth made you try to ride such an animal? And dressed as you are, too?'
'You sound like the dominie. Why is it that every man I meet wants to tell me what to do? I am perfectly capable of making my own decisions.'
Ross quirked an eyebrow. She was clearly a lady, but she looked anything but capable. Besides, she was probably no older than fifteen or sixteen. She was soaked to the skin, and her garb was barely decent. And she was riding an ungovernable horse. She clearly needed someone to take charge of her.
'I am not a schoolmaster, ma'am, even if I sound like one to you. My name is Ross Graham, and I am a stranger in these parts. If you will permit—' he sketched a hasty and inelegant bow in her direction, which provoked a hint of a smile '—I will escort you to safety. Perhaps you would… er… point me in the right direction?'
The girl shook her head at him. 'Any man who can remember the courtesies of the drawing room in the middle of a raging thunderstorm must be addled in the brain.'
Ross put a hand firmly on her shoulder and squeezed. He had had enough of courtesies. They were getting wetter by the second. 'Which way, ma'am?' he demanded sharply.
'Oh, very well. Help me to mount, and I will show you.'
'You don't mean to ride that animal again, do you?'
'Of course I do! It will be much quicker than walking, you know. And I shan't let him get away from me again, you may be sure of that. Besides, the storm is passing over. He will be calmer now.'
'Good grief!' said Ross to himself, but he threw her up into her saddle, none the less.
The girl set off at much too fast a pace. Unless she knew every inch of this ground, she risked her horse at every step.
'Have a care!' Ross cried to her retreating back. 'You will kill your horse at such a pace in the dark!'
'Not I!' she retorted over her shoulder. 'Follow me if you dare!'
For ten minutes, he did, wondering all the while whether he was right to risk his mare in such conditions. She had carried him through the final two years of the Peninsular War. It was no fair recompense to risk her on the links of the Solway.
'There!' cried the girl, pointing to a tiny building, almost hidden against a slight rise in the ground. It looked to be little more than a ruined wall from this distance. 'Come on!' She set her heels to Lucifer and pushed him to even greater speed.
Watching her, Ross realised that it was no longer quite so dark. The storm was indeed passing. The rain had almost stopped. He could see the girl quite clearly ahead of him. Her white skirt hung down below the borrowed coat, gleaming against her horse's dark flanks in spite of the many mud stains upon it. And her legs and feet were bare.
Reaching the tiny cottage, she threw herself from the saddle and began to pound on the door. It opened just as Ross climbed down from Hera's back and started after her.
From the doorway stepped a tall, black-browed man, grinning fiercely down at the girl. 'I thought so,' he said shortly, seizing her by the arms and pushing her roughly towards one of the three men who had followed him from the hut. Ross's coat fell from her shoulders to the ground. The speaker took no notice. 'Take care of her while I deal with this blackguard.'
'Let her go!' Ross cried. The girl's captor simply grinned and put a filthy hand across her mouth, muffling her scream of outrage. Ross reached automatically for his weapon. He had none. He had not worn a sword since he had put off his regimentals, and his pistols were snugly holstered by his saddle. He had nothing but his fists. He squared his shoulders. Even one against four, he would show them what a man could do.
The dark man must have sensed something. From nowhere, he produced a pistol and casually pointed it at Ross's heart. 'So you're the man, are ye? Y'are good for nothing but poetry, it seems. Well, we shall see how many lines you can compose among the rats. Take him and bind him, lads.'
The other two men grabbed Ross by the arms and, in spite of all he did to resist, Ross soon found his hands tightly bound behind his back with rough hempen rope, and a dirty piece of sacking tied around his mouth for a gag.
'Put him on his horse and bring him,' ordered their leader. 'Ned, fetch the horses.'