Chapter Twenty Five
The ballroom of the Lowrey home looked very similar to the last time I had attended a party here; the same ornateness, the same liveliness, the same sparkling chandeliers, the same clinking of wineglasses.
Except nothing was truly the same.
Not the way Lydia nervously pulled her cloak tighter around her neck as she looked into the sea of dancing guests.
Not the way Carter stood all too tensely beside me, his hands fisted at his sides.
Not the way my heart was calmly beating along in my chest, not a single ounce of fear in my veins. That was perhaps the strangest thing of all.
Stone and Nathaniel had entered the house with Catherine through the servants’ quarters. I wasn’t entirely sure where they were searching for James or what they expected to find. I just knew Lydia and my job was the same as it had always been: distract.
“Is there a particular reason you felt you had to enter the same way as us?” I asked without actually looking at Carter.
His words were overly cordial when he spoke. “If they’ve hidden him in the upstairs rooms it will be much less noticeable for someone dressed as I am to venture up there.”
“That’s debatable,” I responded. “Footmen have access everywhere in the house—"
“As much as I enjoy listening to your constant bickering,” Lydia cut in, “shouldn’t we all get to work so we can get out of here as soon as possible?”
“Right.” Carter cleared his throat before turning to the two of us, his jaw clenched and his eyes bland. “In exactly one hour, I want all of us to meet—" He stopped short as his eyes landed on something behind me.
Frowning, I turned but I didn’t see anything. We were surrounded by men in suits and women in gowns, either twirling around the floor or standing to the side as they whispered about those who were twirling around the floor.
Lydia’s confused blue eyes studied Carter. “Is something wrong?”
“Closed,” he muttered, turning to look over his shoulder, his hand moving to his side, grasping for his sword. He flinched when he remembered he hadn’t taken it with him. Too conspicuous at an event like this, he’d said.
“What is it?” I whispered.
“Look around,” he told me, his eyes flicking over inch of the ballroom. “Look, Elizabeth.”
“I am,” I insisted, glancing over people’s heads. “I don’t see—"
“Beth,” Lydia said, going very still, “the doors.”
Brows furrowed, I looked back the way we’d come in. The large wooden doors were shut. As were the doors on the other side of the room and the ones that led out onto the lawn.
“Okay…” I said slowly. “But that doesn’t—"
“Doors are never closed during a ball like this,” Lydia said. “Never.”
I turned to Carter. “So what does this mean? What’s happening?”
“I’m not exactly sure.” I could see the gears furiously working in his mind as he tried to process the situation and his next move.
I said, “We knew this was going to be a trap. If this is it, shouldn’t we be glad it’s in a beautiful room full of witnesses?”
“You mean instead of somewhere hidden from view like the servants’ quarters?” Lydia said, her face pale.
Stone, Nathaniel, and Catherine. My blood ran cold and I turned to Carter. “You don’t think—"
“We have to get out of here.” Immediately, he started pushing through the crowd back the way we’d come in, not even bothering to be polite as he shoved people aside.
Suddenly, the music cut out, replaced instead by the bright chiming of someone tapping their wineglass. The crowd began muttering in curiosity and they all turned toward the stage where the band had been playing.
Gretchen was standing there, a massive smile on her face as she stopped clinking a spoon to her champagne chute. “Hello, dear friends,” she greeted pleasantly. “I do hope your evening has been enjoyable thus far.”
“I suppose this is her promised surprise,” Lydia whispered in my ear.
I looked to Carter who had momentarily paused in his pursuit for the door, glaring at Gretchen, the muscle in his jaw twitching.
“I suppose you are all wondering what the occasion is for such festivities,” she continued. “As it so happens, I have recently received news so joyous I simply I had to share it with all those dear to me. Tonight,” she said, her eyes scanning the crowd, raising her glass higher, “is a celebration. I am sure you all remember when are beloved Elizabeth Gallagher announced her return to England at my party not too long ago. It was a blissful night of reacquainting and reuniting. In that same spirit of welcoming, I couldn’t think of a better place to introduce another one of our long lost kin to all of you than right here.”
Excited and confused murmuring spread throughout the guests as they searched the crowd for who she could possibly be alluding to.
Carter had spun back around, pushing toward the doors again with renewed vigor just as Gretchen raised her glass higher. “Dearest family and friends, please join me in toasting the much hoped for return of Lord Carter McLeod, third earl of Kendon Hall.”
Everything seemed to freeze; my heart stopped beating, my lungs stopped breathing, my eyes stopped blinking. I couldn’t have heard her correctly. She couldn’t have just said Carter’s name. She simply couldn’t have.
And yet, when I turned to look at him, ignoring the shocked outbursts and murmuring of the crowd, I saw that he, too, was staring up Gretchen in stunned silence. He had paused in his rush for the door and for the first time looked like he truly had no idea what he was supposed to do next.
Gretchen was grinning at him from across the room, the candles behind her head lending more sinister shadows to her expression.
Slowly, one by one, guests in the crowd turned their heads in Carter’s direction, recognizing him, spotting him, pointing at him. The sea of faces all faced him, staring in utter shock.
“Yes,” Gretchen said, “the report of his unfortunate shipwreck seems to have been most exaggerated. Let us welcome him back home, shall we?”
As one, the crowd began applauding, smiles stretching across bewildered faces. I was sure not many people knew Carter personally, but these people—despite the obvious malice of their hostess—were kind. They were truly happy to see that someone—once presumed dead—was, in fact, quite well.
Carter’s chest rose and fell rapidly as he looked around him, at everyone staring at him, clapping, waiting. He looked like a wild animal that had been backed into a corner, skittish, panicked. His wide eyes met mine a beat before they returned to Gretchen’s.
“Please, dear friends,” she said, her voice somehow carrying above the cacophony of applause, “make way for him.”
Immediately, an aisle formed through the crowd, creating a straight stretch from Carter to the stage and Gretchen.
Carter didn’t budge, his eyes going back to mine, begging me to give him a strategy that he had not thought of, a way out. But I had nothing. All I could do was stare helplessly as hands grabbed Carter and forced him toward the stage.
“What is she doing?” Lydia hissed as she watched Carter step up beside Gretchen. “Why make such a public announcement?”
I shook my head in answer as Gretchen put a glass in Carter’s hand, clinking hers to his. “I am sure I speak for all of us,” she said, looking out at all her friends, her eyes finding and locking on mine, “when I say we would love to hear all about what has happened to you in the last—gosh, seven?—years since you’ve vanished.”
There were cheers of agreement in the crowd. Carter was staring at Gretchen like he was imagining what it would be like to strangle her, but he clutched the glass in his hand tightly to stop himself from doing anything rash.
“Won’t you say?” Gretchen prodded.
I couldn’t hear him when he spoke but I read his lips as he responded, “No.”
“Oh, forgive me,” she said, laughing. “I’d forgotten how little you enjoy attention. In any case—” Again, she held up her glass, the crowd following suit, “—I should like to make a toast. To Magic,” she said, her eyes glittering with secrets as she turned to Carter. “In two cases now it seems the explanation for such gifts can only be Magic. Though it had been hidden for what seemed far too long, it managed to finally emerge from its little shack of a house just to lend a helping hand to you, Lord McLeod.”
Carter stared at her with his jaw ticking, slowly struggling to decipher the double meaning behind her words.
“I can say honestly,” she continued, “I have spent many days and many nights searching for such Magic and have never been as fortunate as you to have come face-to-face with it. So, I must congratulate you, Lord McLeod, not only on your return from whatever danger you might’ve found yourself in these past years, but also on your successful location of Magic, for it is he who will borne any hardships, any sins, which you may have acquired in the time you’ve been away, so that you may arrive back to us a clean and new man.”
Carter’s expression froze as her words sank in and I could tell by the way the muscle in his jaw stopped twitching that she had just said something incredibly threatening.
I whispered to Lydia. “What does that mean? What is she saying?”
“I don’t know.” I could hear the same frustration in her voice that was coursing through my own veins as she yanked harshly at the seams of her gloves.
Gretchen hitched her glass even higher in the air. “To balance the weight of one’s own sins is difficult enough, but to add another’s to the load is not something to be taken lightly. So here’s to Lord McLeod—though Magic may sag like a tree with much too heavy leaves—that you may stretch strong and tall into the sky for all your days to come. To Lord McLeod!”
“To Lord McLeod!” was the reverberating response from the crowd as glasses sparkled in the air and their contents swallowed.
Gretchen and Carter exchanged a glance which only they seemed to understand before Carter quickly stepped off the stage and tried to head back our way. He was stopped almost immediately by a group of guests that desperately wanted to know what had been happening to him while he’d been gone, how he was doing, what he would do now that he’d returned, and so on, and so on.
His hazel eyes found mine above the heads of those speaking to him and I nodded in understanding. “Come on,” I said, grabbing Lydia’s hand and doing my best to politely squeeze past the enormous circle now forming around Carter.
I plastered a smile on my face as I broke through the group and gave a ridiculously fake laugh. “Oh, do excuse my rude interruption, but Lord Carter, there is someone at the door asking for you. It seems quite urgent.”
“Of course. Excuse me, gentlemen, ladies,” he said, nodding at each one and then following quickly behind me.
The doors had been opened and I wasn’t sure whether that was another part of the trap nor did I have time to care. Lydia, Carter, and I went straight through the doors and cut across the front lawn.
“Explain, Pirate,” Lydia demanded.
Carter spoke to us over his shoulder, not slowing down in the least as he rounded the corner of the house. “We have to find the rest of them.”
“And we will,” I said, hurrying to keep up with his large strides. “But what was Gretchen talking about?”
“Lawrence is smart,” he responded. “He knew only three of us would go into the ballroom while everyone else searched for James. Split a group of six in half and we are still a fighting force. But split up the group of three, and we’re barely a threat at all.”
“What does that mean?” Lydia asked, hiking her skirts higher as she followed closely.
“It means if I explain her toast, Lawrence will get exactly what he wants.”
“You’re not making any sense!” I exclaimed.
Carter led us through the edge of the yard, into a sea of trees, taking us further and further into the forest until even the moon was blocked from view and I could hardly see Carter in front of me. “She wants us to go into the trees,” he said.
“And we are doing so for what reason, exactly?” Lydia said, grabbing my arm to stop herself from tripping on a large root.
“And how did you know she wanted that?” I asked.
“'Magic finally emerged from his shack of a house,' she had said,” Carter quoted. “'And though he sags like a tree with too many leaves' and whatever the bloody hell else she said. She told us exactly what was happening. James is out here.”
“Trees equate to James, how?” I asked incredulously. "And who is Magic supposed to be?"
“This is just more of the same trap?” Lydia prodded.
Carter answered Lydia, “Yes.”
“And we’re walking further into the trap?”
“Brilliant,” she muttered as she struggled over another root.
Suddenly, he stopped, his head cocking to the side, listening like a hound on the hunt. His head whipped to the left and he narrowed his eyes into the darkness. Abruptly, he undid his bowtie, throwing it to the ground. “Lydia, Elizabeth,” he said, pulling a dagger out from behind his back, “stay here.”
“Not bloody likely,” Lydia said, stepping around Carter, pointing in the direction he had been looking. “It’s this way, then?”
He glared at her and then turned to me as he pulled another dagger out of his shoe. “I am warning you—"
A scream that was incredibly familiar exploded out of the trees, seeming to come from the area Carter had been looking at.
My eyes flew wide and I pulled my skirts up, charging toward it without a second thought.
Carter grabbed my arm. “I really don’t think you should—"
“Let go of me right now,” I snarled.
“That was my mother’s scream, Carter!” And I yanked my arm out of his grip, taking off through the trees.