Sisters of Castle Leod: A Novel
by Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard
**Finalist in the 2022 American Writing Awards**
Millions are fans of Diana Gabaldon’s popular Outlander books and television series, but few know that Gabaldon’s fictional Castle Leoch was inspired by a real Scottish castle, Castle Leod. The two sisters who lived there at the turn of the twentieth century were among the most fascinating and talked-about women of their era.
Lady Sibell Mackenzie is a spiritualist, a believer in reincarnation, and a popular author of mystical romances. Petite and proper, she values tradition and duty. Her younger sister Lady Constance, swimming champion and big game hunter, is a statuesque beauty who scandalizes British society with her public displays of Greek-style barefoot dancing. The differences between the sisters escalate into conflict after Sibell inherits their late father’s vast estates and the title 3rd Countess of Cromartie. But it is the birth of Sibell’s daughter that sets in motion a series of bizarre and tragic events, pitting sister against sister and propelling Sibell on a desperate mission to challenge the power of fate.
Sisters of Castle Leod, by award-winning author Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard, is the emotionally charged story of two sisters torn apart by jealousy and superstition, and the impossible leap of faith that could finally bring them together.
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DAWN OF UNDERSTANDING
From across the street, we saw Constance exit her private car in front of the theater. Her outfit had a distinctly Japanese flair, a long, loose-fitting brown robe gathered at the waist with slits up each side. In a Bohemian way, she looked quite stylish. Half a dozen photographers surrounded her as she swept across the sidewalk to the entrance.
Edward and I remained in our taxi, watching a line forming outside the box office. Our seats had been reserved in advance. We planned to claim them at the last moment, after the lights had dimmed.
“This will be the first time you’ve seen Constance dance. Do you think your heart can take it?” I said, trying to lighten our otherwise somber mood. Neither of us was looking forward to confronting her after the show, but how else were we to find out anything? If, at first, I’d doubted that she and Austin could really be in such dire financial straits, I didn’t any longer. Selling that necklace, as I now felt sure she’d done, had to have been a last resort.
Edward patted my hand reassuringly. “If it’s too much for me, I’ll close my eyes and take a little snooze. But I don’t see why we have to sit through her performance. We could have arranged to speak to her afterwards.”
“You’re not in the least bit curious about her dancing? If one can look past her skimpy costume, I’m sure there’s much to appreciate.”
“Don’t you suppose the entire audience will be looking past her costume? That is what it’s designed for.”
I rolled my eyes. “Very amusing. Remember, we will not lecture her about propriety or anything of the sort. If we do, she’ll never open up to us. Our purpose is to see how we might assist her and Austin to get back on their feet.”
“First, we need to understand how their situation came about to start with. Constance had a tidy sum in her dowry when she married, and, to all appearances, Austin was a prosperous landowner.”
“Don’t we know plenty of people accustomed to being wealthy who’d rather die than admit they no longer are?”
“That’s not my point. I’m talking about the possibility of a deeper problem …”
He grimaced slightly. “Lots of things can cause people to spend more money than they have. All I’m saying, Sibell, is that before you hand over any sizeable sum to bail them out, you’d better be sure they’re going to use it appropriately.”
He was right. Many a young nobleman had frittered away his fortune on some secret addiction. But how likely was Constance to admit the root of their problem if, indeed, it was something heinous? “Let’s not speculate. We’ll find out what we can and, hopefully, figure out the rest. And say nothing about the necklace. It would only make Constance feel we’d been spying on her. I know exactly how she’d react. Clam up in an instant, and we wouldn’t get another word out of her.”
“The necklace is another problem. We’ll need to solve that one ourselves. If that young fellow, Khoury, thinks he can manipulate us into paying twice what the piece is worth, he’s sorely mistaken.”
For a split second, I considered telling him everything. Asking him to accompany me to the jewelry store tomorrow so we could present a united front against Demetrius’s demands, whatever they might be. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it, for fear he might sense what I wished not to admit even to myself. My attraction to Demetrius had not diminished with the years. Though I no longer questioned my devotion to Edward, how could I explain away this feeling that still haunted me? The belief that my soul was bound to another.
Whether or not I wanted it to be.
The intertwined melodies of two flutes signaled the velvet curtain’s rise, revealing a backdrop of lush woodland crowned by a glowing silver orb. A painted prop, yet the setting reminded me of home and how much I missed it. How I would have loved to pluck my sister from among the tall, faceless buildings of New York City and drop her onto the windswept moors of Ross-shire, where both of us belonged! I wished I could know if she regretted the decisions she’d made. Might she long to return to life the way it was, before she’d decided that her duty was to scandalize the civilized world?
Was she simply too stubborn to admit her mistake?
My sister’s sudden entrance onto the stage, pirouetting across the floor with her arms in a graceful arc above her head, elicited a collective gasp from the crowd. Though one couldn’t see everything through the gauzy film of her diaphanous robe, what could not be seen was easily imagined. A wave of whispered chatter was followed by a smattering of hoots and calls, the latter leaving little doubt as to why some members of the audience had come. Yes, Constance was beautiful, as perfect a womanly figure as nature had ever created. She continued her dance, whirling about the stage in a self-induced trance, veils flowing, bare feet flying, and I was mesmerized. But what I saw was surely different from everyone else. I was watching a soul take flight.
Unprepared for the plethora of emotions that flooded over me, what I felt most keenly was guilt. I should have listened, from the beginning, when she tried explaining herself to me—when she talked about beauty and what it means and how she wanted to teach others by example. But I’d brushed her off as brash and egotistical. Was her desire to dance so different from my desire to write? Despite critics who called my pagan-inspired tales shocking, I kept on. Writing had become one of the few things in life about which I was unwilling to compromise.
Wasn’t Constance entitled to feel the same about dancing?
Violins, like a rush of wind, swelled and died, and then out of the silence came again the plaintive melody of the flutes, beckoning the dancer along a woodland path. One by one, other instruments joined in and, as they did, her dance became more exuberant, her moves more daring. A gazelle-like leap, then spinning with arms outstretched, head thrown back, gazing at the multitude of stars in her imaginary sky. Round and round, faster and faster. I stared in wonderment. How could anyone do that and not become impossibly dizzy? But, of course, this was my sister, the consummate athlete. Master of every physical challenge. Champion of every sport she’d ever tried. My God, I was proud of her!
And then it happened.
Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard
A former touring musician/songwriter and public relations professional, Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard is the author of two Amazon bestsellers: THE BEAUTY DOCTOR, “a compelling historical novel steeped in mystery with strong elements of a medical thriller” (Readers’ Favorite, 5 stars), and TEMPTATION RAG: A NOVEL, a “resonant novel … about the birth and demise of ragtime … luxuriously crafted” (Publishers Weekly). Her books have been finalists for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, National Indie Excellence Awards, and Arizona Literary Contest; they have received 5-star ratings from Readers” Favorite, Book Readers Appreciation Group, and historical fiction Discovered Diamonds. Elizabeth and her family live near Phoenix, Arizona.
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