Chapter Twenty Three
I blinked several times, forcing my eyes to focus again. My stomach was rolling painfully and something was dripping from my mouth, but I didn’t pay much mind to that. The world around me was behaving like a seesaw, rocking me up and down and all I wanted was for it to sit still. My head felt stuffed with cotton again and there was a static buzzing in my ears.
Vaguely, I could hear the soft murmuring of my mother. “It’s all right,” she whispered in my ear, smoothing my hair back. “You’re all right.”
My stomach revolted violently and everything I had eaten that day spewed out of my mouth, burning my throat and making my eyes water. My legs nearly gave out, but Mom caught me, somehow supporting all my weight with her small body.
When my vision finally started to clear, I could see that I was looking down at the ocean, pressed against the banister of the ship, vomit dripping down the sides.
Squeezing my eyes shut, the earth slowly, slowly began to still and the violent movement in my stomach very gradually began to calm. I nodded to my mom. “I’m fine,” I croaked.
She glanced over her shoulder at the crew. “Could I have a napkin or a tissue? And some water?”
Carter was already there, a handkerchief I never knew he owned held out in offering.
Mom’s voice was sharp and her eyes full of loathing as she bit out, “Not you.”
“I’ve got one,” Nathaniel said, handing over a cloth identical to the one Carter had.
Mom took it and wiped it against my mouth and nose. I struggled against her, still weak from the…whatever these things were. “I’m fine,” I insisted.
“Water,” Stone offered, holding out a leather pouch.
“Beth, what happened?” Lydia asked, staring at me as I gulped the water, desperately trying to get rid of the taste of bile.
I took a deep breath, holding onto the wood, collecting myself. “I’m okay.”
“You are not okay,” Catherine said. She looked at my mom. “This isn’t the first time she’s had a spell like this. Whatever it is, it’s getting worse.”
“What?” Mom demanded, turning back to me with angry eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“That’s not important right now.” I let go of the railing, stumbling slowly back to my seat by the fire, trying to ignore the worried looks I was getting from everyone. “Lydia said she knew where James was. How do you know?”
“Wait, hold on,” Mom said, following me. “If this is happening to you a lot, then we need to find out why—"
“The why doesn’t matter.” I felt light headed and I had to shut my eyes again before I passed out. “Lydia said—"
“Do you have any ideas, Robert?”
Robert looked surprised to be included. “Well, I—"
“I can save you the investigation,” Carter slurred as he dropped down on the other side of the fire, taking a swig from his metal cup. “The sickness probably arose from my mere presence.” He grinned conspiratorially at Mom, like he expected her to find deeper meaning in his words. “I tend to have that affect on those that know me.” His glassy eyes met mine for just a moment before I looked away.
“This may be difficult for you to believe, Pirate,” Lydia said, coming to sit on my other side, “but your presence is not as striking as you wish it to be.” She smiled at me, putting her hand on my shoulder. “Are you truly all right?”
The nausea had completely dissipated and my vision had righted itself. Save the shakiness in my knees, I felt perfectly normal. I nodded. “I’m fine. Now, will you tell us how you came to know about James?”
“And, more specifically, where he is?” Some of the rum trickled out of the corners of Carter’s mouth as he took another gulp.
“Right.” She still watched me like she expected me to be sick again, but she started, “I left William and Catherine to do the shopping while I turned my attention to speaking with my closest friends. And by closest friends, of course I mean those I know always have their ears closest to the ground. If you think Robert is skilled at gathering secrets, you must have never met an English noblewoman. I spotted Lady Josephina outside one of the dress shops and was surprised to hear that Lady Lowery and her husband were throwing a ball tomorrow evening.”
Carter very slowly set his cup down, giving Lydia his full attention. “Her husband.”
Lydia nodded. “And Lady Josephina was much more excited for this ball than seemed strictly necessary so I questioned her about it. She informed me that Gretchen had promised there would be a rather mysterious—but surely astonishing—surprise announced to her guests at this party.”
I offered, “Do you think she plans to present her husband with all his injuries and--"
“No.” The muscle in Carter’s jaw ticked as he thought carefully. “She would never wish to use her husband as a spectacle like that.”
“Then what do you suppose the surprise is?” Nathaniel asked.
“Cap’n,” Stone ventured, “if Springriver wasn’t the trap, are you not the least bit concerned that the Lowrey House might be? The surprise could be—"
There was a loud crash behind me and we all jumped, heads swinging to see Max, a box on the floor by his feet, the lid open and the ropes inside spilled out haphazardly. His eyes were peeled wide open, rolling around in his head like a terrified animal, his lips moving but no words coming out.
“What’s wrong?” Catherine asked, rising to her feet. “What are you trying to say?”
“He’s been spouting the same nonsense ever since we’d found him,” Stone said, unconcerned.
“What does he say?” Catherine watched Max as he began waving his arms back and forth frantically.
“Not sure,” Stone replied. “Something about shivering or the like.”
“Shivering?” Her brows furrowed as she studied him.
“We think either ‘no, she shivers’ or ‘gnashing shivers’,” I offered.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” she said.
“We know.” Carter’s eyes were clear as he tried to figure out what to do about Gretchen’s ball, his focus shifting away from Max to the possibility of retrieving James.
Nathaniel’s gaze held the same laser concentration as his brother, their similar hazel eyes meeting as Nathaniel said, “That is the man that destroyed our sister.”
“Stone is right,” Carter said. “It is most certainly a trap.”
“You will ask us to remain here while you alone risk your life to avenge what has happened to Sierra,” Nathaniel stated as if he already knew it to be fact.
Carter didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”
“She is my sister, too,” Nathaniel said. “I want the man dead as much as you.”
He nodded. “Then the two of us will—"
“I am your first mate,” Stone said, stepping forward. “I will go with you.”
Carter was shaking his head before he even finished speaking. “You are not well enough.”
“I can handle it.”
Stone’s good hand clenched into a fist but his face betrayed nothing. He was not a person accustomed to being told he was incapable of something and I could tell he loathed hearing it. “I am going with you.”
“As am I,” Lydia said and Carter’s brows rose with genuine surprise. She shrugged. “Whether you know it or not, Beth and my ability to distract a crowd has helped you more than you can imagine.”
“Are you sure?” I asked her. “The last time you agreed to help at a ball…”
She swallowed hard, licking her lips and looking at Stone. I couldn’t read a single thing in his expression but whatever Lydia saw there was enough to give her strength. “I am sure. I will help.”
“You will need someone invisible to search the house,” Catherine said. “As it so happens, I’ve recently had practice in impersonating a lady’s maid.”
Nathaniel shook his head. “Cath—"
“Five years ago, we made a vow to each other,” she said. “Do you remember?”
He paused, their gazes locked. “Of course.”
“I have never broken a vow in my entire life and I do not plan to start that habit now.” She cocked an eyebrow at him as if she dared him to tell her no.
He studied her a moment more before nodding. “Thank you.”
Mom snorted and everyone’s heads turned to her. She was looking at the lot of us like we were foreigners whose customs she could not possibly understand. “You do realize you are all agreeing to help that monster—" She pointed at Carter, “—kidnap a man in order to kill him.”
“Do you realize that man raped and impregnated my sister?” Carter growled.
“I delivered her child,” she said. “I know the trauma she’s been through. But murder isn’t—"
“If it had been me,” I said, softly, turning to her, “what would you do?”
She didn’t answer right away, stunned by the question. “It wasn’t—"
“But if it was," I pressed. "If it was me that had suffered that way and you knew exactly who was responsible, what would you do?”
She swallowed hard, her forehead creased as she thought hard about her answer. The fact that the answer wasn’t immediately clear to her made me feel cold despite the fire smoldering inches away.
Forcing my voice past the lump in my throat, I asked Robert, “What would you do?”
I nodded. “You’ve often said I was like a daughter to you. What would you do if I had suffered the way Sierra had?”
Robert looked awkward for a split second before he squared his shoulders and spoke decisively, “Begging your pardon for my crudeness, but I would gladly suffer any imprisonment, any torture, any death if it be the price I had to pay to rid the earth of the man who had hurt you in that way.”
A large smile slowly stretched across my face. Minus the proper way it was spoken, that is exactly what my father would have said. I turned my watery eyes to my mother. “Do you disagree, Mom?”
She raised her gaze to mine, not answering but not arguing.
“Right. Then, it’s settled.” I looked at Lydia. “I suppose we’re going to need new gowns.”
“You want to help me?” Carter asked, staring at me. I could feel Stone’s eyes on me as well, and it felt like the entire ship had gone quiet in the wake of his question. I wasn’t sure what it was in his voice, exactly. Not hope, but it wasn’t simply curiosity either.
I murdered ever single one of them.
A shudder rolled down my spine, and I set my chin as I said, “I will not let Lydia handle an entire crowd on her own. I am going for her. Not for you.”
“Right.” He picked up his cup, drained the last of its contents and stood. “Tomorrow, then.” As he staggered back to his quarters, he shot one last look at Mom. I frowned as I looked between the two of them but by the time I had glanced back at Carter, he was already gone, his study door closing shut behind him.
I turned to Mom. “What was that?”
“What was what?” she asked innocently.
“You know what.”
She shrugged. “He’s drunk. Anyway, I’m tired. I’m gonna go to bed.”
I narrowed my eyes as I watched her go down the stairs to her room below deck. Turning back to the group, I asked, “Did anyone else think that was odd?”
“You mean what you just said to Carter?” Lydia said, raising an eyebrow at me. Her eyes were shining, a clear sign she was ready for some gossip, a look I hadn’t seen in far too long. “Yes, that was very odd,” she said. “I demand answers. What did I miss?”