Elsie startled awake. She heard shouting, a voice she recognized filtering up to her. Panic seized her and she struggled out of the bed.
Alba had come to take her back to Connell.
Take her back to hell.
She couldn’t do that.
She had to run.
Had to get away.
No one to stop her this time, she snuck out of her room and down the back stairs, her heart pounding as she rushed out the door and ran through the garden. Blinded by tears, she didn’t look where she was going, didn’t see her surroundings, or the people looking at her strangely. All she did was run.
Charles, on his way to Crawley House, saw a blur shoot through a bush at the back of the garden. “Dear god,” he breathed as he turned and began to run after the retreating figure. The light glancing of white hair told him just exactly who it was. He had no clue why Elsie was running. No idea what had happened, all he knew was that he had to catch her before she got hurt.
Elsie ran as fast as she could, her lungs protesting the gasping breaths she was taking. Her eyes were still blurred with tears, her brain in a fog of the same repeated phrase over and over.
I mustn’t let her send me away again.
I mustn’t let her send me away again.
The words kept swirling around her brain, blocking out the sound of Charles’ voice calling out her name.
Charles felt his heart stutter in his chest when he saw Elsie trip and fall, his feet and legs moving faster towards her. “Elsie,” he called as he stopped beside her. “Elsie. Lass, it’s Charles.”
“No. No. I have to run. I can’t go back. She can’t send me back!” Elsie cried as she struggled to get up, her ankles caught in a bramble.
“Easy, Lass.” Charles kept his voice low. “It’s Charlie. Look. Look, Lass.”
Elsie blinked and looked up. “Charlie?”
“Yes. It’s me. I need you to hold still so I can free your feet. Okay?”
“I have to go, Charlie. She’ll send me back. You promised I wouldn’t have to go,” she cried.
“Elsie, you’re not going anywhere. I always keep my promises, especially the ones made to my favorite blue eyed, Scottish lass.” Charles smiled then moved and carefully untangled Elsie’s feet.
Elsie calmed somewhat as she waited for her feet to be free. She knew Charles meant safety, but she also knew her sister. She would send her back, no matter what Charles promised. Feeling her feet finally free of the bramble, she pushed herself up and started to run again.
“Elsie!” Charles called as he took off after her. Easily catching up to her this time, he gently grabbed her arm. “I’m not going to hurt you, Lass.” He assured her when she looked at him wildly. “I don’t know what’s happened. I only know that if you keep running, you’ll get hurt worse than you are. You’ve no coat or shoes, Elsie.” He watched her face crumble, tears rolling down her cheeks.
“She’s here, Charles.” Elsie whispered around a sob.
“Oh Lass. Who?” Charles asked as he pulled her gently to him, doing his best not to frighten her. “Let me hold you?”
Elsie leaned against him, remembering that this embrace was safe. Charles’ chest was solid, his arms strong, but she knew that he would never hurt her. He had only ever protected her. “My sister. She’s here to take me back,” she finally answered. She felt Charles tense and tried to pull away, frightened by the reaction.
“No, Lass. Easy. I’m not angry at you.” Charles gently assured her as he rubbed her back. Feeling her shiver, he let go long enough to take off his coat and wrap it around her. “Now, let me take you home.”
“No. No.” Elsie shook her head. “Please. She’s there.”
“And when I take you back, I will be there. I promised, Elsie. She won’t take you back.”
Isobel had been shocked at the venom of the woman who called herself Elsie’s sister. She’d tried to explain that Elsie was not to be disturbed, that she was resting because of her head hurting, but the woman was having none of it.
Then Richard had come in.
And all hell had broke loose.
She’d never seen her husband so angry.
She’d certainly never heard him speak so rapidly and in another language, one she vaguely recognized as his native Gaelic.
Then, in the midst of the yelling match going on, another man had stormed through the still open front door, his face going pale as he heard and understood what Richard was saying.
It was then that Isobel realized, Elsie’s sister had stopped yelling, her own face showing her…something…what Isobel wasn’t sure.
Looking at her husband, Isobel finally understood what he was saying, though she still didn’t understand the language. When she saw the man, she assumed must be Elsie’s brother-in-law, fall back against the wall, she reached out and touched Richard’s arm.
“Enough, Darling,” she whispered.
Richard calmed instantly at his wife’s touch and soft voice. Turning, he pulled her to him, burying his face in her neck, ashamed of his actions – of letting his anger get the better of him.
“My god, Alba. What have you done?” Sean finally managed to whisper. “What have you done?”
“I don’t believe you.” Alba said as she glared at Isobel and Richard who had parted from their embrace and now stood side by side.
Richard’s hand that rested on Isobel’s hip, tightened its grip. “I assure you, I wasn’t lying. Nor did I tell you everything. Would you like to know the rest? Or would you simply believe I’m making that up as well?”
Sean blinked. “There’s more? My god, what kind of monster was this man?”
“The worst kind.” Isobel answered.
The tone of Isobel’s voice told Sean all that he had begun to fear was true. He felt physically ill and was just about to rush outside when the tall, broad form of Charles Carson filled the door. “Mr. Carson,” he breathed then frowned at the figure in the man’s arms, his coat blocking out the face, leaving nothing but tangled white hair visible.
Charles paid the man no mind, his eyes were fixed on Alba. “Get out,” he told her, his tone one of controlled seething. It would have been his usual booming, commanding tone, but the woman in his arms would have been frightened by it and that was the last thing he wanted.
“Mr. Carson, what happened?” Richard asked as he moved to check the battered feet and legs dangling over Charles’ arm.
“She heard that woman and panicked,” he whispered, his gaze never leaving Alba. “I was coming here and saw her come out of the garden in a blind run. I chased after her and caught up with her when her legs got tangled in a bramble.”
Isobel, her jaw twitching as she tried to control her anger, turned to Alba. “Out of my house. Now.”
“That isn’t my sister.” Alba insisted.
Charles narrowed his eyes. “Move the coat away from her face,” he whispered, knowing that Elsie had sobbed herself to sleep.
Richard reached up and gently moved the coat way so that Elsie’s face was exposed. He heard the gasp and looked up to see the man he’d realized was Alba’s husband swallowing several times.
“Dear god.” Sean breathed. “Oh Elsie.” He moved to touch Elsie and Charles stepped back.
“I’m sorry, but you can’t. If she woke while you were touching her, it might frighten her.” Charles explained quietly.
Sean nodded then turned and looked at his wife. “Get out, Alba, and don’t bother going home. You aren’t welcome. You sent your sister into hell, Alba. And for what? Your bloody jealousy? Leave.”
Richard, finished with dealing with the woman that he had the strong desire to hit, guided Charles into the sitting room where they gently laid Elsie down on the settee. “Isobel,”
“I’ll get the warm water and your bag,” she smiled at him as she turned back to see just Sean standing in the door. “You may stay if you’d like. I think Elsie might be okay seeing you.”
Sean nodded. “Thank you.”
“Close the door, please, and then go into the sitting room and have a seat.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Sean closed the door then slowly made his way into the sitting room. Stopping when Charles looked up at him, he swallowed. “I promise, I won’t do anything to scare her.”
Charles nodded then returned his attention to Elsie who began to stir. “Easy, Lass. Dr. Clarkson is going to take care of your legs and feet then we’ll settle you in your bed. You’re safe, Elsie. She’s gone.”
Elsie, her gaze fixed on Charles’ saw what she needed then reached out and clasped his hand. “Don’t leave me, Charlie.”
“Never, Lass.” Charles assured her. “There’s someone here that would like to say hello.”
Sean moved so that Elsie could see him. “Hello, Lassie.”
Elsie’s eyes widened and she squirmed to get away. “You said she was gone!”
“Easy, Elsie.” Sean told her. “I sent her away. She’s gone. Charles didn’t lie. I’ll leave if you’d like.”
Looking back at Charles, Elsie studied him again. “True?”
Elsie clasped his hand again and settled back down just as Isobel came back. “My head hurts,” she murmured.
“We’ll take care of that.” Richard assured her. “As soon as I finish cleaning your scratches and cuts, I’ll give you something that will help all of the aches. I promise.”
Elsie nodded, keeping her eyes on Charles. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“No, Lass. No need to be sorry. You were afraid. It’s alright.” He smiled and gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “It’s alright and you’re safe. That’s all that matters.”