I crossed my arms tighter across my chest, shivering as I scooted closer to the fire, the light of it dancing against the dark night sky. “I have a question,” I said.
Nathaniel waited expectantly from where he sat beside me.
“Is it safe to light a fire on a ship made of wood?”
He laughed. “In this weather, it is a risk I am willing to take,” he said, eyeing the way his breath was visible in the cold.
I nodded, rubbing at my arms.
Stone had come out of his room about an hour ago and now he sat on the other side of the fire, staring into the flame as if he was waiting for it to divulge some well hidden secret.
“You needn’t worry about him,” Nathaniel told me, nodding at Stone. “That man is one of the strongest I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Not even the loss of a limb could change that.”
I paused, a thought occurring to me. “You know him.”
Though, it wasn’t a question, he answered, “Of course I do.”
“But I thought you had been taken at the same time Carter became a pirate.”
He put his hands out closer to the fire as he tried to warm himself. “I assume my brother told you how long it had been since he’d last seen us before he rescued my sister and I?”
I nodded. “Five years.”
“And he told you he’s been a pirate for seven?”
My brows furrowed, really truly doing the math for the first time. “You mean, even as a pirate, you saw him?”
He shrugged. “He is my brother. He could never abandon us.”
I looked at the door to his study. He hadn’t ventured out of that room even as the sun had lowered below the horizon and the pirates had gotten rowdier thanks to their rum.
“Did you know he was a pirate during those two years?” I asked.
He shook his head. “We were too happy when he was home to ask where he had been.”
“He left you all alone with Lawrence—"
“He didn’t leave us,” Nathaniel said sharply, his eyes swinging away from the fire to mine. “He didn’t. Hugh had only ever been cruel to him. Never to Sierra or myself. He knew we would be safe.”
I didn’t say anything immediately, my gaze drifting back to the fire as I processed that.
“You, of all people, should not blame him.” Nathaniel’s voice was soft but I didn’t miss the accusation in them. A muscle in his jaw ticked, yet again reminding me of his brother. “You are the reason he felt.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. “I didn’t—"
“I’m sorry,” he cut me off, shaking his head. “That was not fair of me to say. Whatever the reason, he is back now. That is what matters.”
I blinked, staring at Nathaniel. He didn’t sit up straight, he didn’t jut out his chin, his didn’t maintain the lack of emotion that all aristocratic Englishmen did. He never had the chance to learn any of that. “How are you doing?” I asked.
He frowned in confusion.
I elaborated, “I mean, with everything that’s happened, no one has asked how you have coped with the last five years.”
“Oh.” He dropped his head. “I did not suffer the way Sierra did.”
“That doesn’t mean you didn’t suffer.”
“I was not alone.” A small smile flittered over his mouth. “The single blessing of the entire ordeal. I had Catherine.”
“You knew her before you were taken?”
His smile vanished. “No. I hadn’t even known she’d worked on the property. Carter was much more well acquainted with her.”
“I suppose you know her much better than he does now.”
“Perhaps.” His gaze took on that unfocused glint, like he was far away, in a different place, a different time. “Catherine and I kept each other sane. Safe. We were all we had for five years. And now…” He let out a deep sigh, his breath fogging all around him, his gaze moving to the dock in the hopes she would appear there. “Now, I suppose we are no longer necessary to each other. And, like I said, Carter was more acquainted with her.”
I put my hand on his shoulder, offering a sympathetic smile. “Do not disregard five years, Nathaniel. That time together, whether bearable or torturous, has forged a bond between you two that no one can take away from you.”
That small smile widened, lighting up his face. “Only you could know the exact words to make me smile instead of allowing me to stew in worry while we wait for their return.”
I laughed. “I’m glad I could do that for one of us.” My gaze went back to Stone on the other side of the fire. I couldn’t understand how his eyes weren’t burning from staring at the fire for so long. He had fashioned a sling for himself from a sheet he must’ve found in his room and his right arm rested in it, his good hand rubbing it absently.
“Do you think he is all right?” Nathaniel asked, but he wasn’t talking about Stone; he was watching Carter’s study again.
I answered honestly. “I don’t know.”
“He used to do this back home, too. Sierra used to be able to get through to him then, but that doesn’t seem like an option anymore.” He looked at me hopefully. “There is one more person who could potentially…”
“It’s been a while, Nathaniel. I don’t think I have that kind of influence—"
“Being absent for so long does not mean I’ve gone blind,” he said. “You could just look in on him. Make sure he hasn’t done anything too stupid.”
I took a deep breath, staring at that door. There were several different versions of Carter waiting for me behind it, most of them incredibly unpleasant. But looking at Nathaniel’s pleading hazel eyes, I found myself rising to my feet. “Fine. But if I don’t come back, I want it known you are the one responsible.”
He chuckled. “I promise.”
Crossing the deck, I knocked softly, waiting for a response. I didn’t hear anything. As a matter of fact, it was eerily quiet on the other side. I rapped again. “Carter? Are you okay?”
When there was still no answer, I closed my eyes and twisted the handle, pushing it open slowly. I poked my head around the door, not spotting Carter behind his desk. I heard movement through another threshold, the actual bedroom corner of the captain’s quarters.
A gust of wind blew through the door I held open, sending the pages of a book on his desk flipping furiously. Knowing I’d probably regret it, I stepped into the study, closing the door—and any hope of witnesses—behind me. “Carter?”
All was silent in the room, not even stirring from the other room. The book on his desk had writing scribbled all over it, and against my better judgement, I was curious. Looking to the bedroom again, I tried one more time, “Carter? Are you there?”
Another page turned in the book and that sealed my fate. I hurried to the desk, grabbing hold of the book.
Timothy Bailey, 25
Jane Bailey, 24
Isabella Griffiths, 36
Edward Harper, 29
Henry Harper, 14
Mary Harper, 13
And the list went on and on. Names and ages spanning pages and pages. I frowned as I studied them, unsure what they meant, turning another page, this one blank. Flipping further, I found there were only three empty pages in the entire notebook. I paused at the last page. One name was scrawled at the very bottom. Carter McLeod.
“What are you doing?”
I slapped the book shut, looking up at Carter from across the desk. “Nothing,” I stuttered. “I didn’t—I mean, I was looking for you.”
“Why are you at my desk?”
“I was just—"
“You’ve found the names.” His voice was strangely subdued and his eyes were glassy, not seeing clearly. If the metal cup in his grasp was any indication, he hadn’t skipped out on the rum the rest of his crew were enjoying outside.
I swallowed, remembering what had happened last time I’d found him drunk. “I don’t know what they mean—"
“Names and ages. But you probably figured that out on your own.” He glanced at my pale face and chuckled. “Oh, don’t look so terrified, Liz. I wanted you to find it.”
I blinked several times as he came closer. “You did?” I asked.
He didn’t answer my question. “What are you doing in here?”
“I wanted to make sure you were okay.” I paused. “Are you?”
He took a swig of his drink. “I am alone in my room, drowning myself in alcohol. I think you can answer that question for yourself.”
“I know you are upset—" I started.
“Tell me, Liz, please, I beg you,” he said, sarcasm dripping from his words. “Tell me that you know what it feels like to be so filled with anger you have taken another person hostage with the intention of murdering them and come to find out someone has stolen that away from you. Go on.” When I didn’t say anything, he laughed, taking another gulp and dropping into a chair on the other side of the desk.
“Of all the different ways I have seen you behave,” I said, glaring at him, “this is the one I hate the most.”
“Good. She’ll be glad to know that.”
He stared at his cup like he hadn’t even heard me. “Perhaps I should be drunk more often.”
I blew out a sharp breath. “You wanted me to find that book. Are you going to tell me why?”
He looked down in dismay as a drop of the alcohol fell on to his white shirt. “I am debating whether I’d like to be sober enough to see your reaction or if I’d like to drink some more before I reveal the reason.”
“Personally, I’d like for you to just come out with it.”
He smiled but it was filled with sadness. “Would you like to hear a secret?”
I crossed my arms over my chest, not wanting to answer him. His lids hung at half mast over his beautiful hazel eyes, his limbs were loose and sluggish, and his white shirt was undone almost all the way down to his bellybutton, allowing me a view of his strong torso.
“Liz? My secret?”
His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed and he rested his cup on his thigh, looking into its depths like it was easier to tell the rum his secrets than it was to tell me. His chest deflated and he murmured, “I am broken.”
“I have been for most of my life. The things I’ve seen, the things I’ve done…there is no way to fix it, to fix me. I thought getting my siblings back would do it, but…they have been shattered, too. Even knowing all this, I search for ways to redeem what is irredeemable.” He looked up at me suddenly, rising to his full height, coming around the desk slowly, towering over me. “That is why I can’t seem to do it.”
My breath caught from his nearness. “Do what?”
“You had told me that you couldn’t be with me because you had loved James. Not me. I had never known real pain until that moment. I had finally understood the words ‘broken heart’ because it had truly felt like the last untouched part of my life had crumbled and slipped through my fingers. It wasn’t until you reappeared in my life that I realized…” He blinked several times, the glassiness leaving his gaze as he came closer to me, making me crane neck to keep our eyes locked.
His face had softened, the cruelty that had accompanied his drunken state completely replaced by something else I couldn’t name. It caused my heart to leap in my chest and my lungs to constrict.
“Realized, what?” I whispered.
“She was my friend.” Immediately, I knew he was talking about Elizabeth Gallagher. “She had always been my friend. But when it came to anything remotely serious, she couldn’t do it. She was too lively to ever take anything seriously. But you…” He cupped my cheek and I froze. “The only time the pain of being broken dissipates is with you.”
His mouth was so close that I could feel the warmth of him and smell the alcohol on his breath. “Carter…”
His other hand went around my back to press against my scar which was tingling so much I half expected him to jerk his hand back from being burned. His chocolate brown hair fell over his forehead as he leaned forward, so close his words vibrated against my lips. “That is the reason I cannot do it.”
He squeezed his eyes shut almost in pain as his mouth came even closer. “She was right.” He pulled me against him so tightly that I could feel the way his chest was rising and falling with each shaky breath.
“Don’t speak,” he murmured, his nose running along my cheek, my jaw. “If you do, I will not be able to do this.”
He pressed his burning lips to my neck, placing a gentle, tender kiss, the hair on my arms standing up, adrenaline shooting through my body as I gasped, the tips of my fingers tingling. Slowly, he ran his mouth to the hollow of my throat, the stubble on his cheeks scratching my flesh so pleasantly, I shivered. His hand on my back fisted, clenching the fabric of my dress. “I am an addict,” he growled against the skin of my neck. “Every time I see you, all I have wanted is to taste the nectar of your lips again.”
My pulse was rushing so fast, I almost couldn’t get the words out. “Then why haven’t you?”
He groaned, his chest rumbling against me. “Liz—" He pressed his lips against my neck again and my lids drifted closed as my head lolled to the side, giving him better access. I felt him swallow and he pulled me impossibly closer to him so that I could feel each and every part of him. He let out a deep breath, searing the sensitive skin behind my ear. “The book.” His voice was hoarse as he tried to speak, filled with both longing and pain. “The names of all those people.”
I ran my fingers through the soft tendrils of hair at the back of his neck. “I don’t—"
“I murdered every single one of them.”
I froze, my eyes snapping open. Carter dropped his forehead to rest against my shoulder, defeated. But I jerked away, gazing at him, shocked beyond words.
He laughed humorlessly, looking at the appalled expression on my face. “There it is.” He gulped the last of the cup’s contents and sent it crashing into the opposite wall.
I winced but didn’t blink as I stared at him, completely stunned. Swallowing hard, I asked, “Why did you do it?”
He chuckled again, his eyes dead. “Would it matter?”
He hadn’t said he had killed them; he had purposely said murdered. Page after page after page of lives he had snuffed out. Could there be any reason that would be justifiable? “No.”
Carter turned around, grabbed a corked bottle that had been sitting on the ground off to the side, pulled the cork out and took a long swig. When he looked at me again, his eyes were the drunken, dark ones that I loathed. “You can show yourself out.” Then he staggered back into his room.