Saturday, June 24, 2023



Chapter 1



LEANOR LIFTED HER long skirt and moved the toe of her brand-new boot toward the steaming manure. And giggled.

“El! Don’t you dare,” her companion called after her.

Eleanor smiled slyly at the young maid, her best and only friend, Hannah, who’d been her constant shadow for as long as she could remember. “Lady Beth will have these thrown away if they stink and I want her to throw them away. They hurt my feet. I wish I could wear my old ones.” She crinkled her nose. “And the boy’s clothes, too. I hate dresses.”

Hannah nodded in agreement. “Yes, it was easier pretending to be boys than ladies. We fought like the Chaddertons and got as dirty as the Miller twins.”

“I know.” Eleanor held her toe over the fresh horse dropping a moment more,

“I wonder what those boys would think of us now if they could see how we’ve changed.” She stepped back without soiling her slipper, let her skirts sway, and sighed. “I don’t much like learning to sew and paint and play that horrible pianoforte, but I don’t want to be an insignificant servant with a meaningless life either.” She caught the look on Hannah’s face and was instantly sorry she made that comment.

Eleanor, since she was a little girl, had been allowed to run free, dressed in a stable boy’s uniform of baggy but belted pants and a coarse-woven shirt that billowed when she cantered through the meadows, risking another beating for a moment’s freedom. Her upbringing at Ingledew castle had been secretive. Lady Beth had kept her existence hidden from all who called at Ingledew by disguising Eleanor as a boy. It was easy when she was little, but as she changed into a young woman, she’d had to layer vestments to hide her bosom. Hannah, too, had been trained to disappear with Eleanor, whom she’d had to call El and never Eleanor. The sounds of visitors’ carriages and the clip-clop of hooves would send the pair into the stables or the forest or, if they were in the castle, down into the cellars. Hiding, always hiding. Fearing Lord Edgeworth’s whip or the butler’s cruel hand, and as always, the stablemaster’s thrashings.

“I rather like the pianoforte,” Hannah said. “And I like being called Hannah and not by my last name.”

“Hannah Pascoe of Feock, Cornwall. You must never forget where you came from. I wish I had such memories. My mother is a vague wisp of a dream and Lady Beth won’t tell me much. I don’t know who I am.”

“I’ve heard Cook call you the Hanover heir. Perhaps you’re a cousin of King George’s.”

“More likely the unwanted child of a scoundrel.” She waved a delicate hand in the air. “An embarrassment. And so I’ve been punished for my parents’ sins. That would explain the cruelties, but why are they suddenly grooming us?”

They continued walking around the side of the stable. Eleanor changed the subject. “I do miss riding.”

“Lady Beth said you could use her side-saddle.” Hannah stroked the long braid she’d pinned on this morning. It would be several more months before either of them would have hair long enough to style in the latest fashion.

“Ew,” Eleanor groaned when she noticed what Hannah was doing, “how can you touch that thing? Cameron cut it from his dead mother’s head not six weeks ago.”

“And lucky for us he did. Your aunt paid him a week’s wages for it. Not a single grey hair.” She fingered the end and brought it up to tickle her nose. “You’re going to have to wear the other one tomorrow when we leave Ingledew. Oh, I’m so excited. To leave here at last. I can’t imagine. Our lives have gone from mud to stardust.”

Eleanor snorted her amusement at Hannah’s glee as they entered the stable, the warm fustiness enveloping them in the scents of hay and mildew and horseflesh. “Those honey-blonde locks may work on you, but I need something darker. I have a plan.” She withdrew from her skirt pocket a pair of shears with wide, looped handles. Hannah frowned and Eleanor explained, “Old Brownie won’t miss half his tail.”

At the sound of their voices several horses nickered.

“I’m more than a little sorry that we have to leave before May-Day Eve,” Hannah sighed as she held Brownie’s tail out.

“As am I.” Eleanor clipped and clipped. “I shall miss the fires and our mischief night.” She made a final cut and watched as Hannah smoothed the strands. “Though I don’t suppose we’d have as much fun encumbered by these skirts.”

“And we’d never catch the fairies.”

Eleanor startled Brownie with her laugh. “You still believe in fairies?”

“Of course. And there will be plenty of them to dance with when we get to Scotland.”

“Scotland? I thought …”

“Oh, El, I shouldn’t have spoken. Lady Beth told me it would be a surprise, but she hinted of the Highlands.”

“I … hmm. Well, she’ll certainly tell us more tonight.”

“Hasn’t it been odd … how nice Lord Edgeworth is to us now?”

Eleanor bobbled her head in a noncommittal answer then tucked the shears back into her pocket. She leaned toward Hannah to sniff at the horse hairs. “We’ll have to braid it and then soak it in rose water.”

Outside there came the sound of hooves and squeaking carriage wheels, the shout of a driver, the whinny of a horse and here, beside the girls, the answering neigh of old Brownie.

“Oh, no. They can’t have come to fetch us a day early, can they have?”


KEIR MCKELVEY CHUCKLED as his nephew, barely seven, struggled to lift the claymore.

“Aye,” Keir said, his voice gentle yet resonant, “ye be too wee a lad to heft the claidheamh mòr me own great-grandfather swung in battle. ’Tis a great sword she is. To be handled with both hands.” Under his breath he added, but gently as ye’d touch a woman.

The boy, Huey Beldorney, repeated the Gaelic words and copied the wide-legged stance his uncle modeled for him. He gripped the handle and hoisted the blade a few inches off the flat rock. Keir’s shadow moved over him as he dropped the weighty metal. The clang of steel on stone echoed down the hill.

“Try the axe, will ye? ’Tis lighter.”

Huey turned to the stump where the battle axe had been thrown. He grabbed the handle with both hands and tried to wiggle it free from the wood. No luck. For his second try he pressed his foot against the stump for leverage. When he at last succeeded, the force of his pull with the weight of the axe sent him falling on his backside. Keir’s quick hand swiped the weapon up and away from the boy’s face before the blade could halve him.

His sister’s maternal voice cut through the air from the cabin doorway. “Ye’ll nay be teachin’ me son yer tricks, Keir McKelvey. Ye’ll have him killt of his own hand afore he’s old enough to grow a whisker.”

“The lad’s got nary a scratch,” Keir assured her. “He needs fatherin’ and learnin’ of such things. I’m happy to take it upon myself while his father is away.” His grin, which made all the maidens in the nearby village gasp, had no effect on his sister.

She shook her head at him. “The fields need a plough and I’ll thank ye to let that be yer favor to me husband.” She waggled a finger at Huey. “Come inside, lad.”

Keir glanced across the fields toward the mountains. A small green loch at their base reflected their majesty in the early morning light. Farming wasn’t his first choice, but he was pleased with his work, and he’d do anything to help his sister. He’d planted the broad beans, peas, and cabbage for her last week. Now he’d do the kale and radish. His gaze fell to the untouched soil. The earth had the scent of spring, warming its outer layer.

This was the murkiest morning of the spring, though, but it promised to brighten and make him grow hot behind the plough. He sloughed off his shirt and tightened his kilt. He tilted the felt hat he wore so its feather leaned forward to provide a small degree of shade across a nose prone to burn. An hour later his chest glistened and his biceps rippled as he guided the heavy wooden implement through the soil. His thoughts were on the news he’d received, a letter from England, coded with double meanings. It hadn’t taken him long to figure it out. King George was teetering on the brink of insanity. Again. Trouble was brewing. His secret connections to factions unnamed would send his sister into paroxysms of fear. If she found out. But she would never find out. She’d chosen this simpler life, without intrigue; her husband was a good man, equally as settled though he had some patriotic ambitions. As soon as he returned, Keir would have to leave for Castle Caladh.

He worked until the sun was high. Huey brought him water twice and once a hunk of cheese. Grateful Keir was for the relief it gave him.

“I’ve drawn ye a bath for yer efforts,” his sister said when he finished. “And thank ye for all yer work. I’ve baked yer favorite pie so once ye’ve bathed, come inside.”

Keir nodded and glanced toward the side of the stone hut where the barrel tub was steaming. His sister must have been boiling water and lugging pots for an hour. Upon a rope strung between trees hung his second set of clothes, clean and dry.

“Thank ye, Fenella. Ye’re a good sister.” It was hard to look too long at her; like his other two sisters she resembled their mother, lightly freckled and fair of skin, red of hair.

This time she returned the grin before closing the door to give him a small measure of privacy. Bathing in the open air was something he’d done all his life, usually in the loch, but also in the pond at Castle Caladh though not so often in the cold weather. He scratched his fingers through the short beard that had grown during his stay here.

The birds chirped as he dunked himself into the small tub, water splashing over the side and onto flat stones. Keir remembered how he’d helped his brother-in-law lay those stones years ago so Fenella wouldn’t be dismayed by mud. Thoughts like that made him think of how much he envied their marriage. Fenella, the oldest of his three sisters, had eschewed her dowry—much to his father’s delight—and married for love. He longed to do the same. He could have chosen any girl or woman in Scotland, but none had stirred his soul. Yet.

He rose from the water and dried himself with his old shirt, then plunged it into the water and swirled it around a few times. Clean enough, he thought. He twisted and rung it out, stepped naked toward the rope line and hung it on the end. The evening air moved the sable brown hairs on his body. He shivered, quickly redressed, and slipped his feet back into his deerskins. His stomach rumbled; he was more than ready for that pie. Already his mouth was watering at the thought of minced mutton and onions and that double crust.


“ARE WE HAVING a banquet?” Eleanor asked the cook as she and Hannah entered the kitchen. There seemed to be a flurry of activity for this early in the afternoon. She gave the cook a warm hug and gestured to Hannah to hide the horse’s tail in her apron pocket.

The tables were laden with copper pots and pewter plates. Two footmen and the scullery maid were shadowing the kitchen maid, holding trays. The aroma of roasting chickens flavored the air.

Cook finished draining some grease and responded, “A banquet indeed. And in your honor.” She put a finger to her lips. “But you’re not to know that. Captain Luxbury believes he’s the one deserving of this honor. Lady Beth purchased his commission for him. He is indebted to the Lord and Lady of Ingledew and thus …” she squinted at her helpers to determine their interest and lowered her voice further “… he will be your escort on your journey. You must be careful.”

Eleanor swung her head toward Hannah and whispered, “Perhaps this is a test of our manners.”

Hannah giggled in a falsetto voice. “I know a fork from a spade, m’lady, but conversing with a captain? These new servants undoubtedly know more than I. We will surely fail.”

Eleanor entwined her arm with Hannah’s and, in a volume to match the clatter of an empty tray slipping to the stone floor, said, “Come along, Hannah, we best get changed for dinner.” She looked back at Cook, who knew all the castle’s secrets including how recently these two women had transformed. The others, though, would have thought magic or the devil was involved in changing the pair into attractive young ladies, had they seen them before. There were whisperings, however, amongst these hires, that Eleanor and Hannah must be addled-brained heirs or ill-bred wards, for all the mistakes in manners they seemed to make. The gossip didn’t bother them; they were just happy the stablemaster and the old butler were gone.

Hannah squeezed back Eleanor’s grip as they climbed the dank steps upward to the main hall. “I shouldn’t be here except as a maid. Lady Beth reminds me often of my good fortune in being placed as your companion. I wish we could have learned the proper ways sooner.”

“In truth, the good fortune is all mine in that you’re my friend.” She graced Hannah with a smile and added, “Or rather, my sister.” She loosened her grip. “And haven’t we had more than a little fun pretending to be lads? Now, I’ll race you up the last ten steps.”

It was Lady Beth’s stern face that stopped their race and their giggles as they reached the landing.

“Ladies, you are well past the age of running.” She harrumphed her disapproval, her high-coiffed curls wavering as she spoke. “Captain Luxbury is in the library; he might hear you. Go change your clothes. I’ve had the upstairs maid pack your trunks.” She paused to eye their dirty hems. “I have last minute instructions for you. After you play some simple tunes for the captain, he and Lord Edgeworth will retire to the study and I’ll accompany you to your rooms. I have much to explain.”

Eleanor nodded, afraid to speak, but happy to know she might finally get some answers. Where exactly were they going? Why now and why in such a rush? What would be expected of her? Was Lady Beth marrying her off without a warning? She certainly hoped not, but she’d been suspicious of this ‘week away’ that had suddenly come up.

She and Hannah both curtsied as Lady Beth dismissed them. They walked as elegantly and unhurriedly as they could down the stone hallways and up another set of stairs to their adjoining rooms.

Hannah pulled the strands of Brownie’s tail out of her apron. “I’ll soak this now. Perhaps I can dry it and make your braid before dinner. It wouldn’t do to have this captain see you with light hair now and dark tomorrow.”

“The lace cap will hide the ends. No one will know.”

Hannah tightened her lips, nodded, then excused herself to her room for a moment. She returned carrying a lovely silver gown, laid it next to Eleanor’s, and said, “There. Brownie’s braid is soaking in my basin.”

They washed their hands and faces in Eleanor’s porcelain bowl and helped each other get dressed. When Hannah had trouble with her hair, Eleanor had an idea. “We’ll use the candle wax to secure the braids. You can wear both of Cameron’s mother’s braids tonight.”

Hannah blushed. “I promised to send them back when my own hair grows out.” She sat in the chair before the dressing table and folded her hands in her lap as Eleanor tipped the candle over her head. “Be careful.”

She was. Not a single drip of hot wax fell anywhere other than the precise spots Eleanor deemed necessary. She curled her nose in distaste as she touched the dead woman’s strands. She’d seen Cameron’s mother a handful of times in the past year. And Cameron twice as often. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. About leaving right when her interest in the opposite sex was blooming. Same for Hannah. Undoubt-edly Hannah was thinking of the handsome young man in the same way as Eleanor was. But of course, he was beneath Eleanor’s sudden new station. Perhaps she should ask her aunt if Hannah might be betrothed when they returned. It wasn’t out of the ordinary to let a house servant marry a farm hand.

She pressed her fingers against the warm wax and proclaimed the hair style finished. Hannah picked up a hand mirror and turned her head from side to side. Satisfied, she rose and stood before the cheval glass to admire herself from head to toe.

“Oh,” Hannah exclaimed as she saw Eleanor’s reflection behind her. She turned and assessed her friend. “The waist line is higher. A new fashion.”

Eleanor touched the tucked stitches beneath her bosom. “I’m thankful the hoop petticoats are out of style.”

“Cook says they’re still worn at court. How do you think she knows such a thing?”

“Perhaps from the new staff.”

“Of course. Lady Beth brought them back with her from her last visit to court. Cook told me Lady Beth spoke twice to Queen Charlotte who complimented her on her jewelry.”

Eleanor half-smiled at this bit of gossip. “My dear Pascoe … I mean Hannah … are you hinting at wearing jewels tonight?”

“I think we should. Pearls, the teardrop earrings, and a brooch would look nice on you.”

“And the same for you?”

“Yes, and perhaps a tiara to help hold the wax in place.”

Eleanor nodded. “You’re so clever, Hannah. A tiara for you and a bonnet for me.”


CAPTAIN BERNARD LUXBURY sat stiffly as Lord Clive Edgeworth stroked his chin and chatted amiably with him about his commission. Luxbury was beholden to the Lord and Lady for his current political and military standing. They could never know, of course, that he’d manipulated his way into their good graces, earned their favor, and taken advantage of them, however it was all for a worthy cause. He knew this in his heart. He’d researched the rumors and followed the tittle-tattle. He’d confronted Lord Edgeworth two months ago and offered a solu-tion. Now, at last, he’d see if it was all for naught.

When Lady Beth entered the room, he jumped to his feet, grabbed the bottom edge of his red coat to yank any wrinkle out of existence, and bowed. Edgeworth was slower.

“My dear Bernard,” Lady Beth crooned, offering him her hand, “it’s so good of you to do us this favor.” She turned toward the door. “Come in, ladies. Allow me to introduce you to Miss Eleanor, er uh, Beldorney, my niece. And our ward, Miss Hannah Pascoe.”

Luxbury’s reaction was instant. He picked up his tricorne hat that had sat on the end table and brought it to his chest as he bowed again, keeping his bloodshot eyes fixed on their faces and not their bodices. Both women were comely, but the flash in Eleanor’s blue eyes, the sparkle, drew him in, whereas Hannah, the completely unimportant one, lowered her gaze to the carpet.

“Ladies, it is a great pleasure to meet you.” He took a step forward to gently take each gloved hand in turn and hold it briefly. His eyes remained on Eleanor.

He was sure he held up his end of the conversation as they moved to the dining hall. As they had the soup course. As they enjoyed the fish and chicken. As they relaxed with an assortment of Cook’s best sweets and Lord Edgeworth’s finest wine. But in truth Bernard Luxbury tripped over his tongue as often as he stared at Eleanor.

When they reconvened in the music room, he sat barely breathing as Eleanor played a simple tune on the pianoforte. He’d heard better in other households, but nothing as captivating. It wasn’t her faulty playing as much as her boyish snorts when she made a mistake and the unabashed grin she’d toss his way.

The performance was over too soon and the ladies were whisked out of the room by Lady Beth.

“I am smitten with your niece … and your ward. Such charming ladies,” he said to Edgeworth once he and Edgeworth retired to the study. “’Tis certainly a vexatious and lamentable circumstance that you have hired me to spirit them away to hide forever in Scotland.”

“Not forever.” Lord Edgeworth winked at Bernard. “Bring her back once you’ve found the parchments.” He lowered his voice. “I’ve had word her mother may be near Kilmahew. The documents will achieve our success. Get them.”


Eleanor pressed her fingers against her aunt’s elbow as she helped her up the stairs. “Beldorney? You introduced me as Eleanor Beldorney. My last name is Beldorney?”

“Shush,” her aunt warned. “No, it is not. I’ll explain in the privacy of your room.”

Once into the suite Hannah held the chair for Lady Beth and then both girls settled themselves on the edge of Eleanor’s bed, a simple four-poster with a single pillow.

Reluctantly Lady Beth began, “No, your pedigree is not Scottish, but the captain himself chose that name for you. He has Scottish relations and he will install you into their care.” She blinked several times. “Eleanor … you are a Hanover … a cousin of King George’s.”

“A cousin?” Both girls whispered the word together.

“Is she an heir to the throne?” Hannah dared to ask. Her surprise grew as she fingered the lace that fringed the top of her bodice.

“No … well, maybe … she is a princess, it would seem. But … there’s a plan. Captain Luxbury has warned us. Queen Charlotte will, unfortunately, die by her own hand … or at least it will be arranged to appear so. King George will have to remarry.” She took a deeper breath. “And … it would be best … if it were … you.”

The silence was complete. At first Eleanor thought she meant Hannah and that she was speaking to her. Then her aunt’s eyes found Eleanor’s and she understood.

“Me? Marry the King?” Every horrible thing she’d ever heard about the regent raced past through her head. He was crazy. He was cruel. He was a disgusting old man. The tingling up her spine and down her arms felt icier than goose bumps. She flashed on the footman, the carriage driver, the huntsman, even the young farmer, Cameron. She’d be less disgusted to wed any one of them. But the King? No. Never.

“Did you hear her, El?” Hannah shook her arm again. She was barely aware that more had been said. “Lady Beth says it’s all to prevent a palace revolution. The King will be poisoned after you marry and then you will be Queen. You will save the country.”

“But first,” Lady Beth hurried to say, “we must get you to Scotland. You’ll have not only a week away, but several months of tutelage. I’ve been remiss in your education. The Beldorney clan will see to teaching you what you need to know.”

“But … really? I’m a Hanover? Who … is my mother? My father? I thought … I thought you were my aunt.”

Lady Beth wrung her hands. “It’s a long story, but I may never get another chance to tell you.” Her eyes flitted about the room. “Your mother stayed here when she visited. She had some standing at court and her family was rich. She eloped with the third son of King George the Second and Caroline, the one they never speak of. A rogue. A scalawag.” She shook her head violently. “Poor Mary—that was your mother’s name—she believed his lies. But the King claimed the documents were forgeries, the priest a fake, the marriage a sham. She was utterly undone.” Lady Beth began to tear up. “You were born here, Eleanor. Secretly. She stayed with us for three years. Lord Edgeworth allowed it. She was going to take you to the colonies. But the royals desired to further cover up the scandal.”

Eleanor let her breath out. “What happened?”

“Your father insisted the marriage was real and he visited once a month though the King and Queen forbade it. Then he died suddenly, suspiciously, but he’d left money and instructions to send Mary and you to Scotland and then on to Boston.” She withdrew a handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at her lashes. “Mary went on ahead to secure arrangements, but I’ve never had a single letter from her all these years. I fear she must have died.”

Hannah put an arm around Eleanor’s shoulders as Eleanor choked back a sob.

“And yes, I am your aunt. Your mother was my half-sister, though we lived in separate households. A quiet scandal, it was.” A longer sob broke loose. “I had news … that you were to be found and … disposed of. You were in my care then. That’s when I started dressing you as a boy. The rumors finally stopped circulating and Lord Edgeworth and I were accepted at court after King George the Third took the throne.” Lady Beth started weeping loudly at that point and Eleanor rose to comfort her.

“It’s all right, Auntie. You saved me.”

“You were my responsibility. I had to keep you safe. It was my husband’s idea to keep you hidden. And now … there are new rumors. I must say I don’t approve of this plot to dethrone the King, to murder poor Charlotte, but my husband is a part of it all. Still … it is divinely fortunate that we have you. In the end … you can pardon us.”

Eleanor, kneeling by the chair, continued to hug Lady Beth. “I don’t want to be queen or princess or anything. Send me to Scotland if you must, but I shan’t be a part of this. What of the King’s sons? Ernst or Frederick or Edward or George?”

“They’re too young. The country needs a ruler who can think for himself. Or herself.” Lady Beth took Eleanor’s hands in her own. “I’ve watched you grow. You are smart and kind and honest. Good qualities for a woman. But you are also like a man. Decisive. Passionate. Fiery. Perhaps that is why Clive, er, Lord Edgeworth was so hard on you.” She peered intently at Eleanor. “And you have what a king should have … the wisdom of Solomon, the patience of Job, and the courage of David.”

Eleanor stifled a laugh and lost her balance, plopping onto her backside, her skirts crumpling in a circle, but her aunt still claimed her hands. She rose and drew Eleanor to her feet and into a deep embrace. She whispered in her ear, “Go because Clive commands it. But I will understand if you rebel and find a way to refuse to go along with this absurdity. Trust no one. If you must, look for your mother and hide with her or find passage to the colonies. Clive vowed to have your mother killed if she returns. She has important documents; destroy them if you can.” She squeezed once more, harder, a warning in her touch.

Eleanor looked over her shoulder at Hannah. “Give us a moment, please.”

Hannah scooted through the adjoining door and closed it completely.

“Auntie Beth, how will I find her? I don’t know what she looks like. And what name might she go by?”

Lady Beth raised a hand toward the painting by the bed. “There she is. You’ve seen her all your life. She’ll have aged fifteen years, but she’ll be wearing that brooch. You have its match. Wear it always and Mary Ainsworth Fletcher may find you,” she touched above Eleanor’s heart, “if she yet lives.”

end of sample Click HERE to find THE HIGHLANDER'S SECRET PRINCESS on Amazon.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.