I stumbled, my vision swimming as I caught myself against the wall of one of the rooms in the house, blinking several times as I tried to bring the world back into focus. My pulse was racing and my breaths were too fast, sweat dotting my head again. I pressed my forehead against the wall as I waited for the shakiness to dissipate from my limbs.
Something was terribly wrong with me.
“Elizabeth?” I turned my head to see Catherine standing there, blankets in her arms. “Here they are.”
I shook my head in bewilderment. “What?”
“You asked for extra linens?” She frowned, studying me. “Are you ill?”
I answered with complete honesty. “I don’t know.”
Some of the loathing that usually shone in her gaze when she looked at me softened and she offered me her arm. “Come on, you can’t be seen here.”
With great difficulty, I moved away from the wall, clutching Catherine tightly. “You’re all right?”
“Yes, of course, I’m all right,” she responded. “Have you found the siblings yet?”
I shook my head as she led me through a doorway into the servants’ hall where we wouldn’t be seen by the duchess or anyone else. “Not Nathaniel. Sierra was in the yard. She had just learned what had happened to her son. Carter sent her back to the ship with part of the crew but he returned to the house to find his brother.”
“Where did he go in the house?”
I leaned back against the thin white wall, finally feeling my heart start to slow. “I’m not sure. After Nathaniel had told Sierra what had happened to her child, she had run away. She said that nothing bad was ever supposed to happen in that room. Carter seemed to know what she meant.”
She nodded. “The conservatory. That was always their favorite place.” She glanced at me. “Perhaps you ought to wait here until I—"
“No. I’m going with you.” Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath and pushed off the wall. “Let’s go. Where is the conservatory?”
She went further down the hallway, around twists and turns like she had the entire labyrinth mapped out in her mind. She stopped in front of a door that looked the same as all the rest, pushed it open, and immediately turned into another door beside it.
She went in without a second thought, but I stood in awe as I took it in. The conservatory was a sort of greenhouse attached to the house, a couple of white iron benches hidden inside, but the majority of the room was taken over by large vegetation. It was like we had stepped out of civilization into a jungle, green branches stretching to block my face, flowers blooming from all directions, there were even vines dangling from the ceiling. It was absolutely breathtaking.
Catherine had disappeared somewhere among the plants but I could hear her as she called, “Nathaniel! Where are you?”
Moving the branches away from me as delicately as I could, I went in the other direction from Catherine, trying to cover more ground by splitting up.
My eyes were naturally drawn to a corner filled with color. Strips of flowers grew, tipped down like fragile cups allowing their contents to trickle to the ground, their vibrant purple petals mesmerizing. Foxglove. My favorite flower. I wasn’t sure what it was about them that magnetized me to them but somehow seeing their familiar shape stilled the shakiness within me, sent all thoughts of visions and hallucinations tumbling away in the wind, making me feel lighter than I had in a long time.
The sound of whispering slowly filtered through the branches of greenery. Brows furrowed, I edged further into the conservatory until I could make out the voices.
“But how could you do such a thing?” an unknown female voice was saying. “I thought you loved him.”
“I did. I do.” Gretchen’s voice. “But he said this was the only way for me to end it.”
“I don’t understand.”
Suddenly, a hand clamped over my mouth. My eyes flew wide and I instinctively began screaming.
“Shh!” I was spun around until my gaze landed on Nathaniel’s kind hazel eyes. He held a finger to his mouth as he released me and inched closer to the voices.
“Nathaniel?” I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I found him, but it was something much more staggering than finding him perfectly fine in the conservatory. “What—"
“Shh.” He pointed through the leaves where I could just make out Gretchen through the leaves sitting on one of those benches. The other woman she was with was standing too far to the left for me to see her through the branches. “Listen,” Nathaniel whispered.
“But why the pirate?” the other woman was asking.
“I do not know. All he said was if I did so, the captain wouldn’t be able to resist going.”
The woman sighed. “I do not see how a filthy criminal could be so import—"
“Because he is not simply a filthy criminal,” Gretchen said. “Impossibly, he’s found someone like Sarah.”
There was a pause. “There is another one?”
“It would seem so. And if he has one then it makes sense Hugh would have to go to such great lengths.”
“I do not want to hear your judgement,” Gretchen cut her off sharply. “I do not have a choice. He will ruin me if I refuse.”
Skirts rustled and I imagined the lady was pacing as she processed what she had been told. “Then I suppose you cannot refuse,” she relented. “But how will the pirate know?”
“Hugh instructed me to have this conversation with you. He said that the captain would understand after I’ve told you.”
There wasn’t an immediate response from the lady but when she did speak, it was barely a whisper and I leaned forward slightly, straining my ears to hear her. “Do you think we are being listened to at this very moment?”
Gretchen blinked, her eyes flicking around the plants, her gaze tracking closer to where Nathaniel and I were hiding.
I met Nathaniel’s eyes and he nodded wordlessly, the two of us turning in unison and heading back the way we’d come.
“But what does that mean?” Catherine asked when we were back at Kendon, looking back and forth between Nathaniel and me.
“I am not sure,” Nathaniel said. “But it is something I intend to discuss with my brother.” He turned to me. “Where is Sierra?”
“On the ship. Carter thought that was best.”
He nodded. “He was right.”
“But it doesn’t make sense,” Stone said. He was sitting up now and Mom was tending to the burns on his back. She hadn’t looked up at me once since we’d returned. Even though that was what I had asked for, it still caused my blood to boil in anger.
“What doesn’t make sense?” I asked.
“When Hugh spoke of Springriver—what he said—it sounded like…” He trailed off, his gaze falling to the stump at the end of his right arm. A look came over his face as he stared, a look not simply filled with physical pain but something else entirely. “Perhaps I was mistaken.”
Lydia silently reached for him, stopping short of his hand, resting hers beside his. He smiled stiffly at her.
“Maybe he wanted you to tell us that,” I offered. “He wanted us to hear Gretchen. We were only there because of your warning.”
Catherine nodded. “It was planned.”
“Where is the cap’n?” Stone asked. “Why didn’t he come back with you?”
“I assume he’ll be back shortly,” Nathaniel said. “Once he realizes I am no longer there.”
I nodded, my mind already trying to work something else out. “Lydia?”
She had been studying Stone but she looked up when I called her.
“Do you know of anyone named Sarah?”
“I’m afraid you need to be more specific,” she said. “That is a rather common name.”
“It was something Gretchen had mentioned,” Nathaniel offered. “She said that Carter had gotten another Sarah.”
Lydia frowned. “Another…”
“You know something,” I said.
“Not really. Just words whispered a few months ago. Around the same time you went on holiday,” she recalled, looking at me. “I do not know how much truth there is to the rumors—"
“Anything you have could be helpful,” I said.
“Well,” she started, her brow furrowing as she thought, “Lady Josephina had once told me of a sorceress who had the ability of looking through the pages of time to speak words that had yet to be uttered and paint images yet to be seen.”
“That’s the Sarah they were speaking of?” I asked. “A fortune teller?”
“Not a typical fortune teller,” Lydia corrected. “From what I’ve heard, the sorceress’s body couldn’t handle all that power, leaving her mind broken.”
“She went mad?” Catherine asked.
Lydia nodded. “That is all Lady Josephina had told me on the matter.”
“They think Carter has a sorceress,” Nathaniel said, turning to me. “They must’ve meant you.”
“Me?” I shook my head emphatically. “I haven’t been able to predict a single true thing since Max—"
“Do they know that?” Catherine cut in.
“They couldn’t,” Stone agreed. “Whether or not you are truly capable of such feats doesn’t matter as long as Lawrence believes you are. Perhaps he plans to destroy you even before the McLeods so they won’t have your help when Lawrence tries to secure the inheritance for himself.”
I blinked several times at him. “You think they want to kill me?”
“Even if that were true,” Lydia said, her voice calm and measured as she tried to stem the fear she could see rising inside me, “how would they get close enough to do it? If Carter is not with you, then either Stone or Nathaniel or William or someone else who can protect you always is.”
“Not that I could defeat a child wielding a loaf of bread at the moment,” Stone put in bitterly as he glared at his missing hand.
Nathaniel leaned forward, his jaw clenched. “Gretchen said that Carter would not be able to resist going. Going, where?”
Before anyone could speculate, the crew members Carter’d had accompany him sauntered into the stable, Carter bringing up the rear. He looked shaken, like he’d been told something which he’d never thought would pass his ears. His eyes stuck on mine for a moment before he quickly turned them away.
“On your feet,” he barked. “We’re going back to the ship.”
Catherine was the first to stand, opening her mouth to speak.
“I do not want any questions,” he cut her off. “No questions, and no arguing. I am not in a particularly patient mood at the moment, so if anyone has an issue with my order, you may remain here. Everyone else, we leave now.”
Immediately, Nathaniel and Catherine followed the rest of the men out. Stone struggled to his feet, stumbling slightly as his face went pale and his lips went purple. Lydia stood by helplessly, obviously wanting to go to him but unable to climb over the mental block that was holding her back.
Mom looked from Carter to Stone. “He can’t move yet. He’s not ready—"
“I am all right,” Stone assured her, his hand fisting at his side as he did his best to smile. “We’ve got to get to the ship.”
“Absolutely not,” she said, turning back to Carter. “He’s lost too much blood and he’s in too much pain to even begin—"
“I am grateful for all you’ve done for him, but we are going.” Carter turned to Stone. “If you are not well enough, I will arrange for you to stay—"
“No,” Stone cut in sharply, his brown eyes burning as he glared at Carter. “I am fine. I’m going with you.”
Carter nodded once. “Right, then, let’s go.”
“Carter,” I said softly, “could I talk to you for a minute?”
“No.” And he started walking out the door.
I rushed after him. “But it’s important!”
“You may tell me when we are back on the ship.”
Mom came running out of the stables too. “Now, hold on a minute. I am his doctor, and I am telling you that if you move him, he could get an infection or he could—"
Carter whirled on her, his flaming eyes going back and forth between the two of us. “Bloody hell, women, don’t you ever just do as you’re told?”
“No,” we answered simultaneously.
He drew in a deep breath, the muscle ticking in his jaw. “Right. Jenny,” he said, looking at Mom, “if he says he is all right to travel, then he is all right to travel. Many men have suffered worse than him and have survived. Now, would you go back inside and tell those two to hurry up?”
When Mom didn’t budge, his cheeks colored red with aggravation. Clenching his jaw harder, he ground out, “Please.”
She narrowed her eyes at him a second more before spinning on her heel and going back into the stables.
“Nathaniel and I heard something,” I spoke quickly. “When we were in the conservatory. It was—"
He began walking again, toward the house. “Stop.”
“I really think—"
He spoke over his shoulder, his long legs eating up the distance of the backyard so easily, I had to run to keep up with him. “In case you hadn’t noticed, my sister was not in the greatest mental health when we last spoke. She is my only concern right now.”
“I understand, but if you could take your emotions out of it for a second, maybe you’d realize that nothing happened.”
He stopped and I almost ran into his back. He spun around. “I beg your pardon? Nothing happened?”
“I don’t mean with your sis—think, Carter, why had we gone into Springriver in the first place? It wasn’t to watch Sierra mourn her lost child.”
Besides the stark color, there was something about Carter’s eyes that always mesmerized me. Just by the way he studied my face, the way his gaze flicked back and forth between my eyes, I could see the gears and cogs of his brain turning, working to process the information I’d just given him. His jaw clenched and he began walking again, faster. “We need to get back to the ship. Now.”
“I was trying to tell you, Gretchen—"
We paused, looking up to see Robert Sharp heading toward us. He was waving enthusiastically, a bright smile on his familiar face. “It’s good to see you. Elizabeth, Captain” he greeted. But he didn’t stop to speak with me like I had expected. Instead, he continued passed me, calling over his shoulder, “I’ve just come to drop off more of that mixture your physician asked for and then I’ll be on my way.”
I turned with wide eyes to Carter, my heart dropping. Like a bullet, I took off back toward the stables.
“What are you doing?” he called after me.
“What does it look like?” I responded.
I heard him curse before he took off running after me. “Why are you—"
“My mother’s in there!”