Chaos. Absolute chaos. Rain slams against the wooden deck of the ship as the crew rushes to their posts, slamming into each other in the process. Thunder crashes above and lightning shoots from the sky, breaking through the thick darkness of the night, offering Elizabeth just a moment to see him across the deck. She hikes the skirts of her gown as high as she can and hurries toward him.
He turns and spots her. There is a look in his eyes that makes her blood run cold with a fear she has never known. Her throat runs dry and she almost stops in her approach. She refuses to believe what he is trying to tell her with his gaze.
She shoves through the panicked crowd of men until she reaches him. “Where is he?” she demands.
He drops his eyes to the ground, scratching at his head sorrowfully. “I don’t know.” His voice is soft...mournful.
Her heart drops to her feet and she can hardly breathe. “How can you not know? Were you not with him?”
“Then where the bloody hell is he, Nathan?”
He doesn’t answer her, giving her that look again.
She shakes her head, disbelieving. “I have to find him.”
He grabs her arm as she turns to go. “No, you can’t—“
“I have to find him!”
For a moment, Elizabeth can’t understand what’s happened. Thunder claps and every single man on this ship falls silent as they stare at the edge of the vessel. Elizabeth watches as the figure of the man she has been searching for staggers onto the ship.
It hadn’t been a thunder clap. It had been a gunshot.
Carter stumbles, clutching at his stomach, blood spilling out. He struggles to raise his head, but when he finally manages it, his eyes easily find hers across the expanse of the deck, a wealth of meaning in them. Then they roll back in his head.
“No,” she breathes as he collapses. She runs for him, ignoring the way her corset digs into her skin or the way his crew remain frozen.
She drops to her knees beside him, cradling his face in her hands. The skin of his face is pale and the muscles are slack. “Carter?” She shakes him hard, but he doesn’t move. “No, no, no, no—Carter? Can you hear me?”
She cries, terrible, painful sobs as she looks into his blank, unseeing eyes. Carter, the man who always pulls her back from the edge, the only man she has ever loved, is—
I snapped the book shut and practically threw it across the room where it landed on a round cafeteria table.
What! He was dead? Really, truly dead? But he was the male lead! How do you kill the lead?
I leaned forward and rested my head in my hands, sighing.
These books were going to be the death of me.
I was sure the lead characters were safe with Sarah Morales. She had written my absolute favorite books for the past seven years. The release of the final book in the Pirates series had been record breaking; every bookstore in America had sold out of the novels in the first day.
And in the last book, she killed Carter.
I moved to the table the book had landed on, picking it up, and scanning over that last page again as if by sheer will I could change the words. But all I accomplished was a deeper feeling of depression and an embarrassing tear that trailed down my cheek.
“Freak,” a girl muttered as she passed me. Giggles followed from the rest of her squad.
My cheeks flushed hotly, and I fidgeted on the metal bench, keeping my eyes downcast.
But I felt them watching me some tables away, their eyes like hot pokers stabbing my skin.
I had heard that saying over and over about sticks and stones, how words couldn’t hurt. Someone should’ve told the creator of that mantra that the eyes hurt more than the words. Constant accusations of “freak” or “weirdo” I could handle; I’d heard them enough. But it was the things unheard that made my cheeks flame, the judgement that radiated from their faces into my back. I let my long brown hair curtain my face from their view and blew out a sharp breath.
It was no wonder I felt so close to books. They didn’t care how I looked or what I wore. They simply allowed me to exist somewhere else, where everything ended happily.
Well, except in the last book, apparently.
As the bell rang, signaling the end of lunch, I slung my backpack over my shoulder and hurried out the door, mentally counting down the days until graduation. Just twenty-five more days, I assured myself. Twenty-five days.
When I got home, a note from my mother sat on the counter.
Gone out with Blake. Be back late. Dinner in freezer.
I sighed as I practically threw the frozen dinner in the microwave. Whether it was her job at the hospital or her new boyfriend, Mom always found a way to stay away from the house.
Away from me.
It was how she coped, she’d told me once. After Dad had died, how could I expect her to be here, where so much reminded her of him? Where I reminded her of him?
Six years. Six years I had been completely and totally alone in this house. What was one more night?
I shook my head, disappointed in myself for feeling disappointed and pulled the dinner out as the microwave beeped.
Loneliness always hit me the hardest when I was lying under my covers, when all was quiet in the house, when I could hear the absence of my mother’s snoring in the next room, when I realized it was only ten o’clock and I was already in bed. And when the loneliness hit, when the isolation became too much, there were only two options: I could cry myself to sleep—which I had done too many times to count—or I could crack open Pirates and allow my only companions to cheer me up.
Last night, I’d read the epic sword fighting scene, but, tonight, I flipped a few pages further to where Elizabeth meets Carter for the first time since they were children. It always amazed me how brave Elizabeth was when faced with the fearful pirate. Carter was by no means the warm and fuzzy type, but somehow this noblewoman found the strength not to cry or cower. She was strong.
I sighed and snuggled deeper into my covers. I wished I could be like Elizabeth. I wished I could go right up to those snickering girls and give them a piece of my mind. I wished I could find the courage to make my mother talk to me, to get her to ask just once if I was okay. But I knew that no matter how badly I wanted to change my situation, there would always be some sort of invisible duct tape sealing my mouth shut.
The words began to blur together on the pages as my lids drifted shut.
Tomorrow, my companions promised me. Tomorrow will be better.