Read Bride of the Solway Online
Authors: Joanna Maitland
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
—Wednesday, 22nd June, 1815
Ross gritted his teeth and started for the door. Once through it, he might just have a chance of breathing again.
'Captain Graham.' Julie's beloved voice was full of concern.
Ross turned back to her, slowly, trying to school his features into mere friendliness.
'Pray do not leave us, sir,' she said quietly. 'There is so much still to discover. And so much to thank you for.'
He shook his head at her, forcing a smile. He found he could not speak.
'And you must have so much to say to your friends here.' She nodded in the direction of their hostess and her escort, talking together in the far corner of the room, sharing thoughts so intimate that they had brought a slight blush to the lady's cheek. There stood a man whose love was returned, Ross thought. A fortunate man.
'Most of all, my dear friend,' Julie continued rather earnestly, 'I should like you to know Pierre, to have him esteem you as I do.'
She was looking past Ross as she spoke, her eyes searching the room before fixing on a point beyond Ross's shoulder. He knew, without turning, that her eye had lighted on her lover. The sudden softening of her glance and the glow of her complexion betrayed the depth of her feel-lings for the man.
Another shaft of pain stabbed deep into Ross's gut.
Swallowing hard, he steeled himself to act the part of the gentleman and friend, the part he had been forced to play for months now. Yesterday, he had had hopes of winning her. No longer. All that was left was pride.
He bowed slightly to her. 'Mademoiselle, I am at your service, as ever.'
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
, 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,
the evidence of the boy's calf-love. He might be only fifteen, but he idolized 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,
, and some bannocks and cheese. The laird is in a fearful temper with ye, but he's off to the
— 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
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.