Highlander’s Forbidden Paradise – Lydia Kendall

ROWENA MORGAN DARTED along the abbey cloisters, with the two halves of her torn gown flapping behind her like peculiar wings. Having ripped it upon a fence, she was eager to reach her chamber to fix the matter before Abbess Connelly—the vicious matriarch of this grim place—could catch her and punish her savagely for the transgression. Though you will never have the satisfaction of seeing me break, Abbess, even if I remain an oblate for the next fifty years. Rowena had tried to escape thrice in her seven years here, and the violent penance she had paid had never been worth it. Her back still bore the silvery scars of every vengeful lash she had received, though she knew she was lucky to still have her life. After her third escape attempt, the Abbess’ lashing had been so brutal that the nuns had gathered to give her last rites, and she had been forced to pull through out of spite alone. Starve me, beat me, spurn me, whip me, I cannot leave, and you cannot be rid of me. We are stuck with one another. Running faster on malnourished legs, Rowena avoided the startled gaze of the nuns and oblates who were walking in the pretty abbey gardens beyond. Surely, word would find its way back to the Abbess now, but there was nothing Rowena could do about that. “Brazen as anything!” she heard one of the nuns whisper. “Seven years, and the young lady lacks even a speck of decorum!” another chimed in, though Rowena was fairly sure it was a sin to cast judgement on others. She had just skidded around the corner at the end of the open cloisters, ready to sprint with everything she had left down the adjoining corridor, when she almost ran headlong into a tall, skinny, gray-haired figure walking in the opposite direction. She veered off just in time, her shoulder colliding with the hard, lichen-spattered surface of the stone wall. However, that temporary pain was nothing compared to the seething disgust etched across Abbess Connelly’s hawkish face, and the abhorrence in her pale blue eyes.

“Goodness grief, girl! Have you learned nothing? A lady does not run, and an oblate certainly does not, either!” the Abbess spat, her nobbled fingers clenching as though around an invisible cane. Rowena immediately dipped her chin to her chest and clasped her hands together. “My apologies, Abbess. I had an errand to attend to. I should not have run, you are quite right, and I am sincerely sorry for doing so.” “There is nothing sincere about you,” the Abbess retorted, as a rather unholy shriek escaped her thin, crinkled lips. “What have you done to your gown, you wicked girl?” Rowena gulped, bracing for a slap or worse. “I tore it in my rush to attend to… uh… my errand, Abbess. I was on my way to my cell to remedy the unsightly matter and change my attire, though I assure you I would have darned it without delay, just as soon as the day allowed.” “You lie so freely; one must wonder if you have ever uttered an honest word in your life.

” The Abbess clicked her tongue in annoyance. “Sins are not discretionary, you unseemly slattern. They are absolute, yet you see fit to indulge in almost all of them. I knew you would be difficult when you arrived here, but I always hoped there was a chance of improving you. That has dwindled with every year that has gone by.” I am rather certain that wrath is also a sin, Abbess, but it would be impolite of me to point out such a thing. Rowena drew in a slow breath. “I apologize for continuing to disappoint you, Abbess. It is not my intention.” “Fortunately, you are no longer my concern, so perhaps my abbey will find peace and order once again.

” The Abbess’ long, beak-like nose wrinkled as she observed Rowena’s ripped gown one last time, before she strode forward, her skeletal hands clasped across her abdomen. It took Rowena a moment to realize she was supposed to follow. In truth, she only understood when the Abbess barked an infuriated, “You are to come with me!” back down the corridor. Holding onto her bruised arm, Rowena hurried after the Abbess, though it was hard to keep her promise of not running when the older woman moved so quickly. “Am I being cast out?” she asked, catching up to the Abbess. “I did not think you were allowed to do that, considering I have been given as a tribute to the Lord?” The Abbess sneered. “You are no tribute. You are a thorn in my side and, as of today, that thorn is being blissfully removed.” She raised her haughty nose higher. “Your mother and father are here, and they are waiting for you.

” Rowena arched an eyebrow. “Pardon?” “I believe you heard me,” the Abbess replied sourly. “As you never attained the title of ‘nun’ despite being of age, you are permitted to leave the abbey and never darken our doorway again. Thankfully, your mother and father have seen fit to take you away, so we do not have to urge you to go.” They marched past the square of open cloisters where curious nuns and oblates watched on, and down an endless array of identical, echoing gray stone corridors that made every footstep sound as though they were being followed by a horde. From some of the arched wooden doorways, more nuns and oblates peered out with keen interest, apparently knowing more about what was going on than Rowena. “Why would my mother and father come for me? They have not even visited me in the seven years I have been here. Indeed, the day they left me here as a child is the last time I saw them.” She tried a different tactic as they took a left, onto a somewhat wider hallway that whistled with the flow of an icy draft. The Abbess snorted.

“They can answer your questions. I have been told only to bring you to them. After that, you are no longer my concern, for I only contend with true tributes to the Lord.” This cannot be good news… Rowena’s mind raced with a bevy of the worst possibilities. If both her mother and father were here, then no harm could have befallen them. So, was something wrong with her sister, Cassie? Had her sister died? Though their relationship had been strained before she came to the abbey, she would never have wished any ill-will upon her older sibling. “Please, Abbess, tell me something of what awaits me,” Rowena begged, but the Abbess said nothing, apparently choosing now as her moment to begin a vow of silence. After a few more rights and lefts down the cavernous hallways, Rowena’s every step sounding like the ominous drumbeat that heralded an execution, they reached the double wooden doors that concealed Abbess Connelly’s private domain. It was a room Rowena had entered more times than she cared to count, to receive her creative and unrelenting punishments, though she had never been more fearful of entering than she was at that moment. The Abbess gave her a firm push over the threshold, making her stumble across the smooth, feet-worn flagstones.

Lifting her worried gaze, she met the eyes of two familiar strangers, who stood beside the roaring fireplace on the far side of the room. Another aspect of the Abbess’ life that could have been considered a sin, for while she stayed warm, the rest of the abbey shivered through the cold seasons. “Mother. Father.” Rowena dipped into an awkward curtsy; her limbs forgetting how. The Abbess smiled politely. “I will leave you in privacy. You may call for me when you are done, and our failed oblate is ready to depart.” You could not resist, could you? “Thank you, Abbess,” her mother replied, with a sincere gratitude in her voice that made Rowena’s blood boil. What do you have to thank her for? She has done nothing but torment me these seven years, though how would you know of such a thing when you have all but forgotten me? Her father, the Earl of Fleming, folded his arms behind his back.

“It has been a long while, Rowena, but the day has come when necessity has called you home.” “I thought there was no place for me there anymore?” Rowena could not hide the hurt in her voice, for it pained her to see her parents again after they had abandoned her here due to what she would have called youthful exuberance. It agonized her all the more to hear them groveling to the cruel Abbess, when they had not even attempted to write to her or inquire after her welfare. Her father cleared his throat. “There is another place for you, my girl.” I am not your girl. You dispensed with the right to call me that when you dispensed with me at eleven years old. She held her tongue, knowing it was futile to seek an apology where she would never receive one. “Another nunnery?” she said, instead. Her father shook his head.

“No, though there will be vows involved.” “I am afraid I do not understand.” Rowena’s chest clenched in a vise of unease for, despite her words, she had a feeling she understood perfectly. “You are to be wed, dear,” her mother interjected. “You are to marry your sister’s betrothed.”

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