Entering the stables, I screeched to a halt, my feet slipping slightly on the smooth floor. Carter’s chest knocked into my back and he grabbed my waist to stop me from tumbling to the ground.
I hardly noticed the warmth of his grip, my gaze locked on the scene before me.
Robert was patiently holding out a brown bag, presumably filled with the herbs he thought Stone would need.
Stone was leaning against a pole, his good hand clutching at his stomach, his face incredibly pale. Lydia stood beside him, her face full of concern. And next to her…
Mom stared at Robert, her mouth hanging open, her eyes wide as saucers. She was a statue, standing so perfectly still that I couldn’t even discern if she was breathing.
Robert’s arm dropped and he smiled politely. “Perhaps I ought to introduce myself. My name is Rob—"
“Tom?” Mom took a small step closer, tears beginning to fill her eyes.
Robert’s brows furrowed. “No, I’m—"
“Mom,” I cut in, running to stand in front of Robert, forcing her gaze to me and away from him. As casually as possible, I put my arm around her shoulders, gently urging her in the direction of the exit. “Carter needs us on the ship right away. Why don’t you come with me and—"
“How is this possible?” she breathed, not allowing me to steer her away. “You died.”
Robert laughed warmly. “Begging your pardon, madam, but it would seem you’ve been misinformed.”
“I saw you.” Her voice never reached above a whisper, and yet it seemed to shake the ceiling. “I buried you. I went to your grave.”
“Mom,” I said softly, pulling more insistently at her shoulders, “we have to go—"
“I can assure you,” Robert said, “I am very much alive.”
Mom laughed, the sound more heartbreaking than any sob she could have made. Tears fell over her cheeks and she took another step toward him, reaching out to touch him, her hand suspended in the space between them. “Tom?”
“Elizabeth,” Carter said, eyeing my mother, “we need to get her out of here. Now.”
“Go. We’ll meet you there.” I looked at Stone and Lydia. “You, too. We’ll follow.”
“You are the physician, are you not?” Robert asked warily, looking to me for some explanation.
Mom’s smile froze and then fell away completely when he stared apprehensively at her outstretched hand. “Tom, it’s me,” she whispered.
“Please forgive her, Robert,” I said. “She hasn’t been feeling well—"
“Oh, not to worry.” He smiled at me, stretching the scar on his face. “I suppose I have one of those faces. I did not wish to keep you any longer than necessary, but I wanted to make sure Jenny had those herbs for her patient as soon as possible.”
“Thank you.” I took the bag from him. “We greatly appreciate it.”
“Elizabeth…” Carter prodded.
Mom shook her head several times like she was waking from a trance, smiling shakily as she stared at the man wearing her husband’s face. “I’m very sorry, I just thought—" She cleared her throat. “Lizzie, go with the captain. I’ll follow you shortly.”
“You don’t know where the ship—"
“Tom—I mean, Robert will help me.” She kept her gaze locked on his. “That is, if you don’t mind.”
“I would be honored.” He bowed slightly. “It is always a pleasure to make an acquaintance of Lady Gallagher’s.”
“Mom, I’m not sure that’s—"
“Go, Lizzie.” She turned to Stone and Lydia. “Go ahead.” She looked back at Robert, not bothering to wipe another tear as it fell. “There is something I wish to discuss with Robert.”
“About the herbs?” he asked.
She paused before nodding jerkily. “Yes.”
I tried, “No—"
But Robert cut me off. “Not to worry, my dear. I should be happy to answer any questions the lovely lady might have.”
Carter took my arm, gently steering me out of the stables. “We have to go,” he whispered. “They will be fine.”
Family is a very puzzling thing. Since my mother showed up on Carter’s ship, every single conversation we’ve ever had has been filled with tension and barely restrained fury. I have wanted nothing more than to avoid her presence entirely. And yet, staring at her in that moment, watching as another tear trickled down her face, seeing her smile tremble as she struggled to hold it in place, I didn’t want to leave her.
Carter must’ve read it in my face because his eyes softened and his voice was gentle as he said, “Either you remain here with your mother, or you come with me now. I will not blame you, whichever you choose, but you must decide now.”
“Go with him, Lizzie.” Mom’s eyes didn’t leave the apothecary’s as she spoke to me. “Please.”
Robert turned to me, nodding. “Perhaps you ought to do as she says.”
“Come on.” Carter pulled me again and this time I let him guide me out of the stables.
At some point, Lydia must’ve stepped away because now she followed us with the reins of Flame and another blonde horse in each of her hands.
“Only two?” I asked, looking between the horses on either side of her.
“I only have two hands,” she said, “and if we are in a hurry…”
“It will do,” Carter said impatiently, taking Flame’s reins from Lydia and mounting the creature easily. He looked down at me, hesitating for a split second before he said, “Get on.”
I blinked. “But…that’s Flame.”
“Yes.” I met his eyes, my limbs refusing to move. Not Flame. I was not supposed to touch Flame, let alone ride her. She was off limits to everyone but Carter.
He sighed. “If you do not get on in about thirty seconds, I will leave you here.”
Lydia had already mounted her horse and Stone was struggling to climb up beside her, the action a difficult feat to accomplish with only one hand and a back mostly covered in burns.
“I am not allowed near Flame.” My voice seemed distant, like it wasn’t my own, a distortion heard under water.
Carter held his hand down to me. I stared at it, and then tilted my head up, our gazes locking. “Yes, you are,” he said in a voice so soft I didn’t think either Lydia or Stone could hear him.
Those three words—such short, simple words—made my heart beat double time. His eyes didn’t flinch away from mine, holding me captive, urging me to take hold of his hand. I could easily recall the fury that had filled his face when he had told me to stay away from her, so different from the openness in his expression now as he waited for me to join him.
Very slowly, I slipped my hand into his warm one, the callouses scratching my palm. His eyes never left mine, making a pleasant shiver roll down my spine as I climbed up behind him.
Hesitantly, I grabbed the sides of his shirt.
His voice was rough when he next spoke. “You will fall if you do not hold on tighter.”
Swallowing against the sudden dryness in my throat, I wrapped my arms around his waist, pressing closer to him. The strong muscles in his back tensed slightly and I could feel his breath hitch as my hands locked against his stomach.
My gaze briefly flitted to Lydia. Stone, having successfully situated himself, sat behind her, his good arm wound entirely around her. Her eyes were closed as she took several deep breaths, her hands visibly shaking as they gripped the reins. Stone murmured something in her ear and she clearly relaxed, her grip easing on the reins.
“Right.” Carter cleared his throat, nodding to Lydia. “Let’s go.”
As soon as we boarded the ship, William came running toward us. “I am sorry, Captain,” he said. “I don’t know how it could’ve happened. He must’ve been taken when we had left—"
“Slow down,” Carter said. “What’s happened?”
Sierra came charging out of the stairwell, Nathaniel rushing after her. My eyes widened as she lunged at me, screaming like a banshee. She slammed into me so hard my feet went out from under me and I crashed to the floor, her angry red face looming above me from where she stood. “Liar!” she screeched.
“Sierra—" Nathaniel tried.
She jumped on top of me, slapping and clawing at me. “You said he’d be here! What have you done with him?”
I threw my hands up, screaming as I tried to block her but she was ruthless, her nails drawing blood.
“Sierra, stop!” Carter wrapped his arms around her, pulling her off of me even as her legs kept swinging and her fists kept flying.
“No!” she cried. “She promised me!”
Lydia pushed forward, grabbing the wild girl’s hands and pressing them between both of hers. “Shh,” she soothed. “Sierra, look at me.”
Her eyes jerked away from where I lay on the floor to Lydia who gave her a gentle smile. Sierra shook her head. “She said he’d be here.” Sierra pointed her finger accusingly at me. “But she lied!”
Nathaniel gave me an apologetic look as he helped me back up to my feet.
“Are you all right?” Carter asked me as he slowly released his sister.
I nodded, dabbing where my cheek stung, grimacing when I saw blood on my fingers. “I’ll be fine. What is she talking about?”
“James is gone,” Catherine said, coming up beside Nathaniel.
“Gone?” Carter spun on William, his eyes burning.
“It isn’t William’s fault, brother.” Nathaniel watched his sister nervously. “They must’ve taken him when the ship was mostly abandoned.”
That muscle popped in Carter’s jaw as he tried to control his anger. “Please tell me you didn’t leave my ship empty—"
“Of course not, Captain,” William said quickly. His brown eyes flicked nervously away from Carter’s for a moment as someone else stumbled up the same stairs Sierra had burst from. “But I took the strongest of us to the house, only leaving the least necessary behind…”
Carter stared as Max emerged from the stairs, his face and arms cut up, his clothes torn, limping slightly, one arm wrapped around his stomach.
“Him?” Stone demanded. “You left him to protect the ship?”
Catherine put out her arm as Max staggered, catching him before he fell. “Are you all right?” she asked, her voice kind.
He looked at her but—not surprisingly—he didn’t say anything.
William said, “I thought you would want all resources focused on finding your siblings.“
Carter was close to exploding. “Do you have any idea—"
“Cap’n, take a deep breath.” Stone took a step forward but when Carter turned on him, he froze.
“Find him,” Carter growled.
William stared. “But—"
“He is mine!” The muscle in Carter’s jaw was ticking furiously. “His death belongs to me. Lawrence will not take that from me. Find him, and bring him back.”
“That is exactly what Lawrence wants. Gretchen said as much,” Nathaniel said, urging him to understand, “That is why we were meant to overhear her. He wanted us to know he had taken James so he could—"
“I don’t care what he wanted us to do.” Carter looked at Max. “What did they look like? The men that took James?”
He blinked, not opening his mouth.
“I asked you a question, and so help me, if you make me ask a second time—"
“He can’t answer you,” I interrupted. When Carter’s wild eyes flew to mine, I worked hard not to flinch. “He hasn’t spoken to anyone since we found him. If we all just calm down and try to think about this rationally—"
Carter turned on his heel, marching toward his study, slamming the door behind him.
No one spoke for a long while until eventually Stone said, “All things considered, that could have been much worse.”
Lydia’s eyes met mine. “Perhaps you should go after him?”
I shook my head. “He needs some time to cool off. We need to figure out why Hugh would take James.”
“We have another problem, too,” William said. “The ship hasn’t sailed for some time. Meaning, we are low on money and food—"
“Go into town,” I said. “Take however many men you think you’ll need but only take the supplies that are absolutely necessary.”
“No.” Lydia stared at me like I had lost my mind. “We cannot steal.”
“We don’t have a choice.”
“Of course we do.” She stepped away from Sierra, jutting out her chin. “I am Lady Lydia Lawrence, wife of the third heir of Kendon Hall. I can afford to buy some food for this lot. I will go with them and legally purchase anything we should need.”
I studied her. “Are you sure you are well enough to travel alone with a group of men?” After what she had gone through and the way she had behaved with Stone seated behind her on the horse—
“I will go with her,” Catherine volunteered.
I was sure Lydia could tell how little I liked that idea because she smiled reassuringly. “We will be fine. We should be back by nightfall.”
Relenting, I said, “Fine. Be careful. William—"
“I will protect them with my life,” he vowed.
Catherine snorted as she grabbed the sword at Nathaniel’s hip and began walking toward the dock. “I will protect myself, thank you very much.”
As William, Lydia, Catherine, and two other pirates left the ship, Stone asked me, “And what of us?” He was practically swaying on his feet and there wasn’t even a speck of rosiness to his cheeks.
“You need to rest,” I said.
“But I can—"
“No, you can’t.” I put my hand on his arm. “Go lie down.”
He debated a moment. “If you need anything—"
“I know where to find you.”
He lowered his head, his good hand holding his other arm as he went to his room below deck.
I looked out at the rest of the crew. “As for you lot, do what you would normally do if none of us were on the ship.”
They nodded and went to do whatever pirates do on a pirate ship.
Nathaniel smiled at me. “You are a natural, Elizabeth,” he said. “I understand it much more now.”
He shook his head, still grinning. “Nothing. Forget I mentioned it. Anyway, what do we do now?”
“Now,” I said, “I suppose we must wait.”