Chapter Twenty Two
I pulled my legs up to my chest, wrapping my arms round my knees and resting my forehead on them. The Springtons had been searching for me for hours, but I just couldn’t bring myself to enter that house again. I couldn’t ever go in there again.
The stars in the black night sky above blurred as more tears burned my eyes. I’d often read in novels that a lie told many times to enough people can become a truth to the one who tells it. Never before did I believe a word of such a contradictory statement until that night.
“Beth!” It was Lydia. She walked right past the hedge I was hiding behind, scanning the rest of the yard for any signs of me. “Please, Beth, come back to the party!”
I sniffled, shaking my head. She didn’t know what I had seen. If she had, she most certainly wouldn’t encourage me to go back.
“Perhaps we ought to leave her be?” That was James’s hesitant voice. I shrunk further into the bush when I heard him.
“Absolutely not. I know Beth better than anyone. There is no feasible explanation why she would leave a party early unless there was something truly wrong.” Her voice began to fade as she walked further into the yard, James following her. “We have to find her. Beth! Beth, please!” And then they were gone.
The leaves beside me rustled. I didn’t even need to look over to know who it was, but I did anyway, surprise distracting me from despair for a moment. “Have you tired of the ocean so quickly?” I asked.
“Sierra’s birthday is in a few days,” he responded. He looked bigger, stronger, than he had the last time I’d seen him. There was a certain harshness to the lines of his face that hadn’t been there before, but the look suited him.
I put my head against my knee again. “Perhaps you ought to go find her, then.”
“What’s happened?” he asked.
“I do not want to talk to you about it.”
“All right.” Carter sat down beside me, crossing his ankles and leaning back against the hedge. “Then we will not talk.”
Brows furrowed, I turned to him. He had his head craned back, gazing up at the sky, the light of the moon painting his face in strong shadows. I was surprised that he didn’t say anything else, that he didn’t look at me expectantly. He simply sat there, studying the sky as if it were a marvelous portrait in a gallery.
I narrowed my eyes at him. “I will not go back to the party with you.”
“I didn’t ask you to.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
He looked at me then, his face open, not even a sliver of the tension that had been there for the past year since I’d accepted James’s proposal. “I am still your friend, Liz. Despite any angry words we might have exchanged.” When the suspicion didn’t leave my eyes, he said, “I just want you to know I am here for you if you need me.”
Catherine’s warning rang in my ears. Was it fair for me to allow him to be there for me? I purposefully hadn’t done the same for him for a year. If he sat here with me, would I only be tightening the binds I’d inadvertently chained to him?
The image of what I had just witnessed at the party flashed behind my lids and I couldn’t help myself. Tears filled my eyes again and I instinctively reached for him, burying my face against his chest. His arms came around me, his cheek resting against my hair, letting me cry until his shirt was soaked, whispering soothing noises in my ear.
When the tears abated, he still didn’t speak, combing his fingers through the strands of my hair. I’d had my maid perfectly braid it for tonight, more than excited to see my betrothed. Now, with each piece Carter undid from the style, I could feel my control returning, my eyes finally drying and the furious shaking in my hands finally calming. Yet, I didn’t pull away from him, finding the cocoon of his arms much too comfortable.
When I spoke, I kept my eyes focused on where my hand gripped his shirt on his chest, unable to bring myself to meet his gaze. “I do not know what to do, Carter.”
He hesitated a beat, not exactly sure what to say. “About what?”
“I saw him,” I whispered.
“James.” I swallowed hard, forcing the words past the lump in my throat. “I saw him with Gretchen.”
Every muscle in his body stiffened and his voice was dangerously low when he said, “How do you mean?”
I squeezed my eyes shut as the image surfaced again. “I was looking for my father, and Lady Springton said she thought she’d seen him go up to his room so I went up there too, but…I opened the wrong door. And they were in there—” My voice choked off, unable to speak the words.
Carter didn’t say anything for a moment but my ear was pressed to his racing heart which was all I needed to hear to know he was absolutely enraged. “I will promise not to do anything until you’ve broken it off with him,” he said, “but after that, I am going to—"
I pulled back, sitting up and looking at him in confusion. “Break it off with him?”
“Well, you are going to end the engagement, aren’t you?”
For a brief moment I entertained the possibility, but the scar at my back throbbed and I knew it would be foolish to even consider it. “I cannot.”
He sat up straighter, his hazel eyes shining in the moonlight. “What do you mean you can’t? Of course, you can—"
“I don’t want to.”
“Are you mad?” He stared at me like I was speaking a foreign language. “After what you’ve seen, you know he does not love you. How could you go through with it?”
Sitting back against the hedges, I opened my mouth to tell him I didn’t have a choice, to tell him Papa needed the money, to tell him my feelings had never mattered so it didn’t make sense that they should now. “I love him,” I lied, not looking at him.
“All men are entitled to an indiscretion or two,” I recited, keeping my gaze locked on the stars above and not Carter. “It is expected. To wish for a husband that does not desire such things is a mere fantasy. If he will still have me, I will gladly marry him.”
“You cannot be serious.”
“I am.” I bit my lip to prevent anymore tears from forcing their way out of my eyes. “No one else had seen them. No harm was done.”
“That isn’t true.” He covered my hand with his and I couldn’t help but meet his gaze that time. “He harmed you. He’s hurt you.”
“I am not hurt.”
“Then why were you crying?”
Because I do not want this life. Because my back still burned from yesterday’s punishment. Because seeing proof that my fiancé preferred another woman was enough to make me crack. Because I never wanted to go back in that house again. Because I wish you would take me far, far away on your ship. Because, because, because…
“It was a shock is all.” I wiped the wetness from cheeks and nodded to him. “I thank you for your concern. I suppose I ought to return to the party. Good night, Lord McLeod.” I stood, taking a few deep breaths as I collected myself.
He looked up at me. “Liz—"
I repeated more firmly, “Good night, Lord McLeod.” I turned my back on him and began making my way back to the house.
I heard the leaves rustle as he jumped to his feet. “Wait.”
My voice was expertly devoid of emotion as I said, “They must be missing back at—"
I froze. My lungs stopped working, my heart didn’t beat. I couldn’t move, sure I had misheard him. Very slowly, I looked at him over my shoulder, forcing my voice past the sudden dryness in my throat. “What?”
He stepped closer, his eyes bright. “It is no secret that I have loved you since we were children. I would never treat you the way that Lowrey has. I could make you happy, and I have the money—"
He jerked back like I had struck him. “What?”
“I will not marry you, Carter.”
“Why not?” he demanded. “I have the ability to sustain us financially and my family’s name is well respected—"
“I said, no.” When I turned away from him again, my heart felt like it had quite literally broke in my ribcage. I could easily see the life we could have together, one where I would be happy.
But I knew the lengths Lawrence would go to ensure the inheritance remained his own. Accepting Carter’s proposal was as good as signing his death certificate. I could not do that to him. As long as he was away, sailing across the oceans under his pseudonym, he would never have to fear Hugh. I would do anything to make sure that continued.
“I do not want to marry you.” The words tasted like poison in my mouth. “I want to marry James. Good night, Lord McLeod.”