Chapter Twenty Nine
I smoothed my hands down the skirt of my black gown as I exited the carriage, feeling like I had been completely enveloped by the dark storm cloud that had been shadowing me since I’d gotten the news. The chill in the air sent goosebumps up my arms and I pulled my cloak tighter around myself.
My eyes landed on James and Gretchen first. Her arm was hooked in his and she gazed at him like he had hung the moon just for her. The crack in my heart from that look was not one of jealousy, but one of betrayal and embarrassment. The entire city had heard news of our broken engagement by now and I was sure it didn’t take a giant leap of the imagination to guess why James had so quickly placed my ring on her finger.
My gaze found Lydia’s next and she offered me a small smile, her own black gown much more grand than me, glittering and splendid. I headed straight for her.
“How are you?” she asked me as we climbed the stairs of the church.
“I’m not sure,” I answered truthfully. “How is one supposed to feel at a time like this?”
She nodded in understanding. She had always been able to understand me, one of the few who could rightfully claim so. “I suppose it is the not knowing that is the worst part,” she said. “Are we to mourn the loss of their lives or pray for their safe return?”
“Both, I imagine,” I said as we took our seats in the pew. There were two painted portraits on either side of the altar, one of each sibling, surrounded by flowers and candles.
Lowering her voice in respect for the hallowed place, Lydia whispered to me, “We are dressed as if we are at a funeral, yet we’ve no bodies to bury.”
“God will hear our prayers,” I stated as if it were a well known fact.
“I do hope you are right.” She looked around the room, at all the women in their big hats, crying into the handkerchiefs, and all the men, standing stoically beside them. “It is disgraceful,” she hissed.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, just look at them. Sobbing as if they knew Nathaniel and Sierra at all, as if this loss will affect them in the least. I tell you, it is a blessing their parents are not alive to see this.”
“Lydia!” I gasped.
“What? First, the eldest son shipwrecks somewhere not even our most experienced naval heroes can locate him, then the last remaining children are swiped while on a pleasant walk in the city. Do you wish for Lord and Lady McLeod to have lived through such suffering?”
I stared at her. Before Carter, there hadn’t been a single secret between Lydia and I. She was my closest and most trusted friend. Yet, I couldn’t tell her that Carter lived. She would surly turn him in, or, worse, she would tell Lord Hugh. Though no ring lay upon her finger, it was only a matter of time before the betrothal was made official. It would only make sense for her to relay news of Carter’s survival to him, and that simply couldn’t happen.
“No,” I said, turning forward, “I suppose not.”
She studied me with her keen blue eyes, taking my gloved hand in hers and giving it a reassuring squeeze. “You knew all the McLeods better than any of us. You are the most entitled to shed tears today.”
I shook my head. “I had not spoken to the McLeods since Carter left.”
“Still,” she said. “Should you feel the need to cry, I promise you will not endure any of the judgment I cast their way.”
I smiled at her. “I will keep that in mind.”
She turned forward, watching as the priest finished getting the last bits of the service in order. “Will you be saying a few words?” she asked.
“Me? No, no, I wouldn’t think of it. Their family should be the ones to speak.”
“They haven’t got any family,” she said. “You are the closest kin they’ve ever had since the fire.” She gave me a look. “It would be nice.”
I searched for an excuse. “I hadn’t told the Father—"
“It is not a regular Sunday mass, Beth,” she pointed out. “It is a memorial service. The same rules do not apply.”
I frowned at her. “Have you been to one of these before?”
“No, but Lady Josephina—"
“Ah, of course.”
She tried to look offended but the smile on her face ruined the fierceness. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Not a thing,” I laughed. “I tend to forget that my friend does little else than exchange stories with others.”
“I am a social butterfly,” she sniffed. “Neither you nor anyone else will clip my wings.”
“I am not sure that’s how—"
“Would everyone please be seated?” Father Paul asked as he stood before the altar. He was a rather old man, every single hair on his head having turned a bright white long ago. Father Paul had been the priest that baptized me and he was the priest that was supposed to have married James and I. He was one of those people in your life that seemed permanent, always there when one most needed him but never encroaching when one did not.
Immediately, those still standing around the edges of the room took a seat.
“As part of this community, I have had the privilege of getting to know each and every one of you,” the father said, his voice soft and gentle. “You all help to make up our Father's family, and I am honored to share in that love with all of you. Which is what makes today so difficult.” He paused as he looked out at the sea of faces listening intently to him. His eyes were rimmed in red and it was obvious that the disappearance of the McLeod children had shaken him just as much as the rest of us. “In times like this, all we can truly do is pray for God’s mercy that our brother and sister be kept out of harm’s way. That is why we have gathered here today. To pray, and to exchange stories of who these wonderful children were, so that their memory may live on, whatever our Lord may have planned for them. I understand their guardian, Lord Hugh Lawrence, would like to say a few words. Hugh?”
Hugh stood up from where he was sitting in the front of the church and approached the altar.
“Get comfortable,” Lydia murmured, sitting back in her seat.
“Why?” I asked.
“There is little else that Hugh enjoys more than the sound of his own voice. Brace yourself for the longest dedication you’ve ever heard.”
My home, Sulhall House, was right on the ocean. There were many times throughout my life I had wished I could jump into it and swim away from everything. I settled for walking over to the edge of the yard where it dropped off into a cliff, the waves crashing into the rocks below. I sat, letting my legs hang over, tilting my head back and closing my eyes. The sky above was a bright overcast and there was just the slightest bit of mist in the air. The cool breeze washed over me, drying the tears that had started as soon as we'd returned home.
Lawrence had wanted to host the reception at his home, but Mama had insisted it be here. She hadn’t taken no for an answer, and now our house was filled with people that had never known the McLeod children but had desired free food.
I heard footsteps and skirts rustling as someone sat down beside me.
“You know every time you do this, you scare years off of my life,” Lydia said.
I cracked an eye open to see her peering over the cliff nervously. “Then why do you always join me?” I asked, shutting my eye again.
“Because if you fall over, who else is going to scream bloody murder and run away?”
I snorted. “I’m glad to know I can rely on you.”
“Always.” She didn’t say anything else, but I heard her clothes shifting again as she laid flat on her back. We had spent endless afternoons just like this, the two of us, talking about everything and nothing as the waves serenaded us below.
“I thought I saw him,” I said softly.
“Carter. I thought I had seen him at the church. But when I blinked, he was gone.” I hadn’t seen Carter since I’d denied his proposal and my chest ached with how much I missed him.
“I know, I know. It couldn’t have been him.” I let out a deep breath and laid down beside her.
Her voice was very quiet when she said, “Talk to me, Beth. And don’t tell me you are all right. I know you better than that.”
“It is my fault,” I whispered, my eyes beginning to burn again.
“Nathaniel and Sierra. Since Carter left, I hadn’t said so much as a pleasant hello to them. I should’ve taken better care of them. If Carter knew—"
“Shh, Beth, you can’t think like that. There is no possible way—"
“But what if there was, Lydia?” I turned to her, meeting her concerned blue eyes. “If I had taken care of them like Carter would have wanted, then I would have been on that walk with them in the city. They would be resting easily in their beds tonight instead of God knows where. That is, assuming they haven’t been killed yet.”
“Or you could be in just as much danger as they are right now. Beth,” she said, shaking her head, “you cannot live your life in what ifs. It will drive you mad.”
I looked back up at the sky, at the way the clouds blocked the sun. They drifted together as one entity above, and the sun was not strong enough to show itself. The waves crashed, the wind blew, the mist fell. “I miss him, Lydia. I miss him terribly.”
“I know,” she said tenderly, and she did. She had seen how I hard I had cried when he’d been reported dead. She had never much liked him, but she had watched me grieve for the boy she had thought little more than another spoiled heir. She hadn’t known him like I had, but she did know how I felt. She always knew.
“Perhaps you are right,” I said, sitting up again.
“Right about what?”
I stared out at the sea, hoping against all hope that I would glimpse Carter’s ship sailing on the horizon. But aside from the typical slamming of water into the rocks below, the sea was silent. “Perhaps I have gone mad.”