Snow fell, the cold stinging my cheeks as I raced through the night toward the back door. If Papa knew I wasn’t sound asleep in my bed, he would be furious.
That thought had almost stopped me from sneaking out. Almost.
But I knew Carter was waiting for me.
In a letter I had received from him this morning, he had mentioned that he was going to be helping his cook make dessert; my favorite dessert, Apple Charlotte, a delicious piece of heaven made out of cake and custard.
I didn’t mention in my responding letter that I would be showing up tonight, but I knew Carter would be waiting for me. He always seemed to know what I wanted before I even voiced it.
I suppose as a lady I didn’t need to go through the back door like some sort of criminal in order to have dessert. If I had knocked on the door and asked for some, the cook would have more than happily offered me a piece. But where was the thrill in that?
The servants’ door was open. Left unlocked by Carter, no doubt. I pushed it soundlessly open, easing it softly closed behind me. Tiptoeing into the kitchen, my mouth was practically salivating at the idea of the dessert waiting for me.
But there was no Apple Charlotte prepared for me on the long servants’ table. Instead, a piece of parchment rested there, Carter’s writing scratched across it. I picked it up.
You didn’t think I would make it that easy for you, did you? If you want your treat, you are going to have to find it first. But as I am such a kind and generous person, I will gift you with a hint: the treat you desire is best served warm.
I suggest you hurry before it gets cold. Or I eat it.
I couldn’t help the grin that spread across my lips at his words. Aside from Lydia, Carter was the best friend I’d ever had. The way that he joked with me and cared for me often caused a stirring deep inside me that I couldn’t explain.
I knew exactly where Carter was waiting for me: the grand fireplace upstairs. It had been so cold outside that my entire body ached and I was obscenely grateful he had thought of that.
Lighting a candle, I climbed the stairs, glad I had decided not to wear my corset. If I had, I was certain I’d have passed out from how many steps it took to go from the servants’ quarters to the rest of the house. I stepped carefully on the wooden stairs so as to avoid any creaks and giving myself away.
Pushing open the door at the top, I thought I heard something and froze, ears straining. I peered into the Lord Lawrence’s study, waiting to see if there was anyone awake besides Carter.
There was that sound again, but it wasn’t coming from the study. It was from somewhere else, somewhere further in the house. It almost sounded like the whimpering of a wounded animal.
There were many things I was incapable of, such as beating Carter in a sword fight or closing my ears to Lydia’s gossip. It just so happened that I was also incapable of ignoring my own relentless curiosity. Which is why I ventured closer to the noise, scared that it was something dangerous but also having my blood rush excitedly through my veins.
The sound led me toward the sitting room Carter and I often lovingly referred to as the Room of Fire and Grass due to the massive golden fireplace cut into the entirely too green walls. That is the room I had assumed Carter was waiting for me in with my Apple Charlotte. As I got closer to the partially opened door, the soft crying of the animal turned into the whimpering of a boy.
Blowing out the candle, I pressed my back to the wall beside the door and listened carefully, recognizing the voice of a man I knew well.
“You are nothing more than a rat,” Hugh’s voice hissed. “You are a rodent that scuttles around at night, stealing—"
“I was not stealing,” came Carter’s voice. It was so much smaller than Hugh’s. It was rather easy for me to forget he was just a child when I was with him. There always seemed to be a weight to Carter that made him act like an adult, like he had several responsibilities which he knew no one else could handle except himself. But though his voice was younger, it was as tough as steal. “I made it—" He cut off as there was a collision inside the room, the sound sharp and hard, making me jump in surprise.
Not able to help myself, I pressed my eye to the space left open by the door. I could just make out Carter’s strong silhouette in front of the fireplace, the flames stretching high over his kneeling form. He was leaning forward over a velvet ottoman, his hands fisted so tightly that his knuckles looked white even from where I stood. His shirt was lying on the floor some ways away from him like it had been carelessly tossed aside. The sweat on his trembling forearms shone in the dim firelight. His entire body was shaking so hard, not from the cold but from something else entirely. His hazel gaze was glued to the ground like it helped him to focus on something.
Hugh paced past the fireplace, something clutched in his hand, but I couldn’t tell what it was. He towered behind Carter, glaring at him. “You made this dessert without permission using the food purchased with my money. That is stealing, boy.”
“But Mrs. Miller said I could—"
Before I could even blink, Lawrence slammed what he held against Carter’s back, the sound echoing in the massive room. I gasped, covering my mouth as Carter clenched his jaw to keep his cry from exploding in the house, the sound that had led me there. I squinted against the glare of the fire to see Hugh held a belt in his hand, the buckle dripping red with Carter’s blood.
“You do not ask Miller for permission to take from my kitchen,” Hugh said. “You ask me. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Carter gasped.
I pressed a hand to the wound in my back which still throbbed from the last punishment Papa had given me, tears springing to my eyes as I watched Carter sucking air into his lungs, his eyes squeezing shut in pain before popping back open and locking on that spot on the floor again.
Hugh stared at him a moment. “Apologize.”
Carter didn’t respond, his gaze unflinching, unblinking, concentrating as if he were wielding his sword against a daunting opponent.
“Did you hear me, boy?” Hugh demanded. He whipped him again, Carter snarling. The buckle hit his skin so hard, it got stuck in his flesh.
Carter’s controlled moan grew into a howl as Hugh fought with Carter’s back to pull his belt back. Carter held on to the edge of the ottoman for dear life, the wood splintering from how hard he gripped it.
Hugh stumbled back slightly as it came free. A shudder rolled through me as I saw a large hunk of Carter’s flesh stuck on the edge of the buckle.
I slapped my other hand over my mouth to stop the scream that wanted to climb its way out of me as Hugh plucked it off and tossed it into the fire, the sizzle making my stomach turn viciously.
“Apologize!” Hugh commanded over Carter’s hoarse cry.
Carter’s scream slowly faded into words. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He tucked his head into his arms, raising his trembling hands in surrender.
“Better.” Hugh pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, cleaning his buckle quickly. “No matter how many times we do this, you never seem to learn, cousin.”
Carter didn’t respond, his body quaking. Slowly, he raised his head, his eyes immediately finding mine through the door.
I stood frozen, torn between wanting desperately to run to him and turn around and race home.
The pain in Carter’s gaze slammed into me and my tears fell. His head dropped forward again, this time in what looked like shame.
“If nothing else, perhaps you will think twice before taking what belongs to me,” Hugh said, tucking his handkerchief away. He clasped his hands behind his back. “Once you have recovered, you are to go straight to your bed. I will take this,” he said, picking up my delicate dessert which Carter must have set aside for me on the mantlepiece. He took a large bite out of it, making obnoxious pleased noises. “Delicious.” Then, he left, going through a different door across from mine.
It was several moments after he had left before feeling returned to my body, but still I stood motionless. I was certain Carter had seen me, but did he want me to pretend I hadn’t been here? Did he want me to help him?
Carter stayed on his knees, his breathing incredibly ragged, sweat dripping from his hair where it fell over his forehead.
Hesitantly, I pushed open the door, stepping into the room, the room we had played in more times than I could count, my favorite room in the entire house—his torture chamber. “Carter?” I whispered.
He gave no indication of hearing me, his head bowed, his eyes hidden from me.
“Go away.” His voice was scratchy and low.
I knelt down on the other side of the ottoman. “No.” I waited a beat before slowly reaching up and cupping his cheek. With what looked like a lot of effort, he tilted his chin up, his eyes—eyes I knew so well—meeting my own and for the first time in my life I saw someone that could completely understand the throbbing in my back. “You are not all right,” I said.
He tried to laugh but it just looked like a grimace. “I think you are supposed to frame that as a question.”
“I’m going to help you.”
His hand snapped up, his strong fingers wrapping around my wrist before I could even rise to my feet. “I don’t—" His throat worked as he swallowed past the lump in his throat. “I don’t want you to see it.”
I gave him a small smile, brushing the tears off my cheeks. “I didn’t ask you if you are all right because I know you’re not.”
I put my hand over his on my arm, looking him straight in the eye. “I know.”
He stared a beat before understanding flittered through his eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“The same reason you didn’t, I suppose.” I took a deep breath and wiped the last of the tears from my face. Straightening my shoulders, I spoke in a tone that didn’t allow him any room for negotiation. “I am going to help you.” I stood, going round him. “I am going to help you and then I am going straight to Papa and—"
“No!” He reached blindly for me, hissing in pain as it stretched the tenderized skin of his back, his hand barely grasping the skirt of my dress. “No,” he ground out, “you mustn’t tell a single other person.”
“How can you—"
“Please, Liz.” He looked up at me, his gaze full of pleading and fear, real terror. “You mustn’t tell another living soul. Promise me.”
He pulled harder on my skirt, and I gasped as I stumbled back down to my knees not even an inch away from his face. “Promise,” he breathed.
I licked my lips, hating myself for saying the words but understanding his desire to keep it a secret. After all, I had done the same thing for the past eleven years. “I promise.”
“Thank you.” His lids drifted close in relief. When they opened again, his gaze seemed different, lighter, like having someone to share the burden of his secret had lifted some of the weight he had always carried. But as he stared at me, the intimacy of knowing something about each other that not a single other person did caused my heart to stutter with an unknown emotion and I’m sure my face was blushing terribly. “Carter?” I whispered.
“I can’t believe you let him eat my dessert.”
He laughed, wincing as pain shot through him, but at least he was smiling now. “I apologize, my lady, next time I promise to protect your meals more carefully.”
“See that you do.” I got back to my feet. “Now, let’s see to this wound, shall we?” I went round him, clamping my mouth against the gasp that naturally wanted to escape at the mess Hugh had made of his back, one part particularly dreadful where Lawrence’s belt had stuck. Blood covered it, nearly blanketing the other scars that slashed his skin. This was obviously not the first time he had experienced the horrendous torture from Hugh. It took everything in me not to react.
“Liz?” He turned his head slightly, trying to see me over his shoulder. “How awful is it?”
I swallowed hard and spoke calmly. “You always make such a fuss. This is hardly a scratch.”
He chuckled again. “Right. Yet another apology to my lady.”
“This can hardly be worse than your father sticking you in the same spot with a burning fire poker any time you do something to displease him, but the way you screeched you’d have thought you were dying.”
He was silent for a moment. All the humor vanished from his tone when he said, “Does Lord Gallagher do that to you?”
Again, he was quiet. Then, he said, “If you wait much longer to patch me up, I swear I will make you wait twice as long for the next dessert I make you.”
I laughed. “Right. Where does your housekeeper keep the extra linens?”