Mark seethed to himself as he led the now ridiculously long group back to the palace. The list of grievances this family was committing was growing in his mind. Amelia had insisted on packing practically her entire house for the journey. Those dreadful girls had demanded to wear the jewelry that had belonged to the first Lady Hillshire and were now proudly displaying their victory over Ella – no matter how idiotic it made them look to have such finery on for a ride through the kingdom. He now had to do his best to keep them to the town roads, which would make the journey significantly longer and more tiresome. They’d mistreated poor Ella. They complained about everything and to everyone, not remaining quiet for more than a few minutes at a time. He’d finally decided to leave the carriage and ride on horseback instead, but he could still hear their loathsome voices. An ear piercing shriek of a laugh rung through the forest as they made their way along the road between towns, and he cringed from the sound of it.
“Don’t blame them, Sir, it’s not exactly their fault. They just don’t know any better.”
Mark gaped at Ella for a moment. “Are you really making excuses for those horrid girls?” he asked her, quite astonished. She chuckled and nodded.
“It’s stepmother’s doing.” She said quietly, “She taught them that anything in the world they decided they wanted was something they deserved. They don’t know proper manners or how to treat others because they just weren’t ever taught. I don’t think she was taught either, so it’s not really her fault. I do hope they weren’t too rude to you.”
He shook his head “I’m more surprised by the way they’ve been treating you.”
“Oh, nevermind about me. I’m used to them by now, it’s been nearly fifteen years since Father died and they became the rulers of our house.”
“Your father was a good man. You deserve better, for his sake.”
“Did you know Father?” her gold and brown eyes caught his and for a moment, he saw Joseph instead of Ella.
“Yes,” he answered slowly, forcing his eyes to the road, “I did. He was a very good man. I tried to convince him not to marry your stepmother.”
He was surprised by her laugh. “Yes, he said many people did.”
“Did he ever say why he didn’t listen?”
“He told me he loved her. He said that love can make a person blind to reason, blind to anything but the love. Love can make you crazy.”
Mark nodded, remembering the adoring way Joseph had looked at Amelia, and the sadness he had felt in his heart at how dissimilar to Genevieve she was. “She wasn’t the right woman for him.”
“But he loved her.”
Once more he turned to see Ella, watched her as she rode. She sat straight, keeping a good posture while moving with the horse easily. He remembered that Lord Hillshire had put her on a horse just as soon as she could hold herself upright.
“You frightened your mother half to death the first time your father let you ride a horse on your own.”
Her eyes snapped to his, filled with surprise.
“Oh, yes.” He laughed. “You were just a few months old, just barely walking. He put you on that horse and led it around the yard. You fell and your mother just about fainted.”
“What was she like?”
The question came out quiet and hesitant, and when he looked at her, her eyes were downcast and her shoulders slightly slumped. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“Mother died when I was very young. I have few memories of her and I’m not even sure how many of those are real, and how many were created in my own mind for comfort. You seem to have known my parents well. Could you tell me, what she was like?”
Mark kicked himself mentally. Of course the girl wanted to know about her mother. Ella had only been two or three when she had died in childbirth. Unfortunately, the child hadn’t survived either. “I was very close friends with your father,” He confirmed. “We both grew up near the palace, as did your mother. She was a wonderful woman. She looked much like you do, except her eyes were different. They were grey, like the sky when it rains. She had the most wonderful spirit, always laughing and finding the fun in everything. And she never let her station as wife to one of the most important Lords in the kingdom spoil her. She was kind to everyone she met and everyone loved her for it, from the king right on down to the men who sweep the streets. Being around her was much like I imagine being in heaven is. Whenever someone was near her, they always felt like the most important person in the world. She had a way of doing that, your mother. She would lift people’s spirits and they’d leave her home feeling rested and happy.”
“I miss her.”
“We all do.”
They fell silent then, watching the road ahead of them as they rode. Mark found himself surprised by the transparency that Ella had adopted with him. He expected someone who was raised the way she was, with such cruel women for family, to be more guarded and closed off. Instead she was open and honest, much like her mother.
“Can I ask you a question?”
She shrugged. “Sure.”
“Why did you let those girls take your mother’s things?”
Her sigh told him the heaviness in her heart. “I wish I had much of a choice. Either I would give them to my sisters and be allowed to come with them to the palace; or I would refuse, and they would steal the jewelry, and I would be punished and left behind. It is more important to me that I reach the palace than it is that my sisters not wear my mother’s things.”