Maidstone School for Young Girls

England, 1811

Ellie Mathews was just sixteen years old when she saw Gabriel Ravenscroft for the first time, all tall and distinguished and darkly handsome. Of course, he barely noticed her, acknowledging Ellie as "Bea's Little Friend" and nothing more. Beatrix Ravenscroft was Ellie's only friend at Maidstone… or anywhere else for that matter.

"It's practically a miracle you get to meet Ellie, Gabriel," Bea had said joyously. "This is the first time in the two years I've been here that you come to visit and Ellie isn't confined to her room. And now my two favorite people in the whole world get to meet."

Ellie had grinned, all single minded youthful recklessness, "I didn't get caught this time." She had said, strangely unafraid of the imposing man in front of her with his dark, short hair and eyes like black ice that only warmed when resting on his sister.

"Ellie is forever… testing her boundaries." Bea explained diplomatically. "And forever being sent to her room."

"Without dinner."

Gabriel smiled briefly. "I'm no sure I want you influencing my sister, Miss. It's easier for me if she's shy and well behaved."

"Brother, I've never been shy."

"Or well behaved," Gabriel agreed shaking his head. "But I had hoped this school would correct that."

"Oh, hush." Bea said, annoyed.

Ellie had plastered a smile on her face though her heart ached. Bea and Ellie had been drawn together partially because they were both parentless… but Bea had her brother, a brother who really cared for her. All Ellie had was a distant uncle whom had stuck her at Maidstone and was probably already stealing away her inheritance.

It wasn't fair, and Ellie had wanted to cry at the thought of never leaving Maidstone, where each day had been pure hell until the day Bea came along. But Ellie wouldn't cry, and if she did if would be when she was alone, the door shut tight, with no one to bear witness of how unhappy she really was.

After that, Ellie had made herself agreeable for the next few minutes and then declined Bea's invitation to join her and her brother on a shopping expedition. Gabriel was Captain of a merchant ship, and he didn't know when he would be back in London, so he wanted to make sure Bea had everything she might possible need or want. Which was sweet of him, but it only made Ellie feel more alone in the world, so she excused herself and went to her room… without dinner as to not mess with tradition.

"She's lonely," Bea had told Gabriel as the made their way to the street. "No one ever comes to visit her and she isn't really allowed to go out. You know, in the last two Christmas she didn't even get a letter from her guardian. It was so sad."

"Bea," Gabriel said in a low, warning voice, knowing fully well by Bea's tone that she was up to something. And when Bea was up to something, it generally was up to no-good. "To the point."

"I was just going to ask you… that next time you send me a present, you send Ellie one too."

"Bea, I'm not the child's keeper, it's not my place."

"Do it for me, Gabe, please? You're so rich it would mean nothing to you!"

"Beatrix," Gabriel said suddenly serious. "More respect and less of this Gabe-business."

"Bother," Bea countered in the same serious tone. "You know I didn't want to come here, right? That I was happy living in the ship with you and the others, but you made me come because you thought it wasn't a good enough life for me –which is arguable, but never mind – and Ellie Mathews is the one person who has helped me, and has stuck to me and who has made my time at Maidstone bearable. She's my best friend and I don't want her to be so sad all the time. If you knew her, you would do the same."

Gabriel sighed, long and taut, "All right… a gift on Christmas won't hurt in the great scheme of things, I suppose."

"Thank you, Brother." Bea said, throwing her arms around him in an exuberant hug. "And her birthday is on September 17th," She added and began to walk fast towards the shops.

Gabriel groaned and complained, but from that day on, he kept present Ellie's birthday as much as Bea's, and every Christmas twin presents arrived at Maidstone, whatever Bea got Ellie got one as well.

And though Ellie knew it was probably just pity – and Bea's well meaning, if a little humiliating, interfering – Ellie cherished each gift and held them close to her heart.

She always wrote very long and heartfelt 'Thank You' notes to Gabriel – notes that always made him smile, though he wouldn't admit it.

And so, the little agreement continued, and Ellie got to collect a silver-backed hairbrush, a set of silver combs and hairpins, a music box, a shawl and, Ellie's favorite, a figurine of a panther craved on a volcanic crystal Gabriel had called Obsidian. It was the weirdest of gifts, but Ellie loved it best; she loved the sleek powerful lines of the animal's back, and the intent jade eyes.

Most of all, she loved that it was hers.

Ellie allowed herself to be lulled into a false sense of home… she knew it was fake but she clung to it all the same…

And then Bea had met Lieutenant Charles Townsend and fell in love and married, and moved all the way to the Caribbean… And Ellie was left alone again.

She couldn't expect Bea's brother to remember her now, and that nearly broke her heart.

But soon something else would happen that would not only strike her heart but her will as well… and for once, Ellie was going to do something about it…