Chapter Thirty Three
That next morning, I had Lydia’s lady’s maid, Annabelle, dress me quickly. She was either exceptionally good at her job or she had spoken with her lady because she chose the perfect outfit for that day—somehow, she’d managed to find pants small enough to fit a woman and a blouse that allowed me more freedom than any gown I’d worn since I’d been here. Both pieces were pitch black, matching the gnawing feeling of loss in my stomach. Then she tied my long, frizzy brown hair in a tight bun, up and away from my face. In the ensemble, I felt more like the twenty-first century girl I was than I had felt in a long time.
I went down the stairs to the study where Lydia was. As soon as she heard the door open, she turned her head to smile at me. They had gotten her a pillow to rest her head on and a blanket to keep her warm in the chilled house, making the desk on which she rested a makeshift hospital bed.
“Good morning, Beth,” Lydia greeted me weakly.
Everyone else was already in the room: Stone in his chair beside Lydia, Mom standing next to her, and Catherine, Nathaniel, and Carter grouped together closer to the fireplace. At Lydia’s words, they all turned to stare at me, Nathaniel’s and Carter’s eyes going wide in identical expressions of surprise.
But Stone was the one who asked the question. “What the bloody hell are you wearing?”
Lydia answered him, “Exactly what I told Annabelle to dress her in. How do you like it, Beth?”
I approached the desk, studying her expression. It was clear she was still in some pain from the pinched muscles by her eyes, but somehow she still found the strength to give me a genuine smile. “How are you able to even think about fashion when you’re recovering from a stab wound?” I asked.
“They should raise a statue in my image,” she said playfully, “honoring the great lengths which I would go for the people I love.”
I took her hand in mine, feeling the slight clamminess of her palm. “How are you feeling?”
“Better than I look,” she promised, blinking slowly. “There is something to be said about the numbing effects of alcohol.”
“I gave her rum,” Stone explained. “She fought me, but I eventually got the stuff down her gullet.”
“Only because I let you,” she argued, her eyes moving lazily to Stone.
“Of course, love,” he said appeasingly, resting his hand by the side of her face. There was a certain gentleness present in Stone’s brown eyes that only ever showed itself when he was around Lydia.
“You need to rest,” Mom ordered, her voice hoarse and severe.
Lydia gave me an apologetic look. “Doctor’s orders,” she murmured with a tiny shrug. “And you need to speak with the Pirate anyway.”
“What about you?” I said to Stone and it looked like it took a physical effort for him to pull his gaze away from Lydia. I asked him, “How are you doing?”
“Besides the torturous throbbing where my hand ought to be and the boiling agony coursing down my back, I am doing swimmingly,” he responded, his grin tense.
“Isn’t there something—"
“Your mum is doing all she can,” he assured me. “The pain lessens with each day. Now, come on,” he said as he rose from his seat, nodding to the group by the fire.
Carter was still staring at me like I had grown a second and third head, eyeing my clothing. “You must change,” he told me.
“I will not,” I responded.
“You are a lady,” he said. “And ladies do not dress like some cheap—"
“Choose your next words very carefully,” I warned.
“No matter what she chooses to wear, Lady Elizabeth always looks stunning,” Nathaniel said, smiling at me. I thought of last night and couldn’t help the blush that spread over my cheeks. “And in any case,” he continued, “there’s no need for her to look extravagant today. Isn’t that so, brother?”
Carter’s brows were furrowed as he stared at Nathaniel, like he was trying to ask him a question with just his eyes, but he nodded. “I suppose.” He cleared his throat before saying, “Gretchen’s words were more effective than she could’ve possibly hoped. Already this morning, I’ve received twenty letters from different members of the nobility asking me to pay them a visit. I have lost all anonymity.”
“So what do you want us to do?” Stone prodded.
“We must prepare,” he said. “You, Lydia, and Elizabeth are all incapable of fighting—"
Stone was offended. “Captain—!”
“Just as I am incapable of returning to that life of rules and etiquette,” he pacified. “Should we try to face Lawrence now, we would surely lose. Therefore, Catherine and Lydia are going to teach me how to survive the lords and ladies of the court while Nathaniel works with Elizabeth and Stone on how to survive the actual fi—"
“I do not need lessons—"
“Yes,” Carter cut Stone off, his eyes sympathetic, “you do.”
“But what’s the point?” I said and they all looked at me with confusion in their eyes. “We’re going to learn to fight and you’re going to learn to be a gentleman. Why? We should be concerned with finding this Sarah that Rob—"
“And we will,” he said. “But first we will make Lawrence pay for what he’s done to those we love.”
“Right, so do you know where he is, then?” I asked. “Are we going to raid his secret hideout?”
“Everything Lawrence has done was in an effort to regain the inheritance that was given to my siblings and myself. Neither one of my siblings have ever wanted the money or the title, nor have I.”
“Which we all know…” Catherine said, gesturing with her hand for Carter to get on with it.
“We have never wanted it,” he repeated. “And Lawrence is always going on about what is rightfully his. However, he has failed to realize that he has always been wrong. That money he so dearly desires is not his. It is mine.” He looked at his brother who smiled at him conspiratorially. “So I am going to take it.”
I blinked hard as sweat dripped into my eyes, blinding me momentarily. Reaching with my aching arm, I wiped the wetness from my forehead.
“Do not show even a moment of weakness,” Nathaniel barked before jabbing his fist into my stomach.
The air burst out of my lungs and I slammed onto my back, my bones shaking with the force of the impact. “How are you more cruel than your brother?” I groaned as I stared up at the cloudy sky.
He chuckled as he approached, his own sweaty face backdropped by the overcast sky. “It is the only way I know to make you better.” Smiling, he reached his hand down to help me up.
I took it, allowing him to haul me to my feet. I felt like an old woman with arthritis in every existing joint, and I let out a moan to match the pain. “Well, it sucks.”
“Perhaps you ought to rest while I assist Stone?”
“Thanks, mate, truly,” Stone said as his sword whistled on its way to slam into a wooden post. His swing was so weak it hardly even marked the wood. “But I don’t need—"
“I will simply spar with you. That is all,” Nathaniel assured. Turning back to me, he gestured to a pouch resting against the tree behind me. “There is some water in there. Catch your breath. When you are ready, we will start again.”
I gratefully plopped down beside the tree, gulping water down greedily as I watched Stone and Nathaniel start their own training, the slowly setting sun painting them in gold and red. It amazed me that after spending hours going rounds with me he could just as easily switch to sword fighting with Stone. Granted, neither I nor Stone were really difficult opponents at the moment. Still, he barely looked winded.
When the pain had obviously become too much for Stone, Nathaniel dropped his sword and instructed him to return to the house to allow my mother to check on him. The light had nearly completely vanished along with the sun and the clouds above had thickened, the temperature having dropped significantly.
Nathaniel stood over me, that easy smile still in place on his face. “I don’t suppose you feel much like going again?”
“I think if I even attempt to move right now, my whole body will shatter,” I responded.
Laughing, he sat down beside me, stretching one leg out and bending the other one to rest his arm on it. “You did well today.”
I massaged the muscle of my arm, a bruise already starting to form. “Don’t you dare lie to me.”
He clenched his jaw to keep from laughing at me again and amended, “You will improve.”
I sighed as I leaned back into the rough bark of the tree. “I have a question for you.”
“Just one?” He held his hand out for the water pouch and I passed it.
“You were held captive for years,” I said, “yet you’re almost as strong as your brother and Stone, and you fight just as well.”
His throat worked as he took a large gulp, his hazel eyes shining as the sky darkened further. “That wasn’t a question.”
“I guess, I just want to know…how?”
“How did a twelve year old manage to be such a good fighter?” He shrugged. “Carter had started to teach me how to fight well before Sierra and I had been taken. He had taught Catherine much more than he had been able to teach me. Being held against our will together without knowing when or if we would be saved…Catherine and I taught each other everything we knew. We had begun planning our escape since the moment we were taken.”
“You talk about what happened to you so easily,” I observed.
“It happened. And now it is in the past.”
“Are you trying to make me dissolve into a pathetic weeping mess?” he asked, though he was smiling.
I laughed. “No, of course not. Sorry. I’m just…trying to understand.”
He bumped his shoulder with mine. “I know.”
We sat in comfortable silence as the sky turned black and the only light came from the windows of the house. “How do you suppose Carter’s gentlemanly lessons are going?” I asked.
“About as horribly as yours went, I should think.”
“Hey!” I shoved him over.
He fell to the ground, laughing, his hands up in surrender. “No, please,” he begged sarcastically, “do not hurt me with your undeniable strength.”
“I don’t need fancy lessons to beat you up,” I said as I slapped him playfully.
He pretended to grab his arm in pain. “Mercy, please, I beg.”
“I have no mercy,” I said, slapping him again and again, completely ridiculous hits that would make even someone like Lydia gag at how weak they were.
He started laughing and then I started laughing and then neither of us could stop laughing. It was such a relief from the tension that had occupied my body since I’d seen my father in that tree. It wasn’t that I wanted to forget what had happened or what Dad had endured—because I very much didn’t. But it was a much needed reprieve to be distracted from it for even just a moment.
Nathaniel started tickling me and I threw my head back, laughing so hard that I snorted which made me laugh even harder. “No, no, no,” I gasped. “No, stop, oh, my God, please, stop—" I fell back under the incessant assault, kicking at Nathaniel when he didn’t let up.
“I thought you had no mercy,” he teased as he sat on my legs, preventing me from injuring him.
“No, please, I take it back,” I said, still swatting uselessly at him as I tried to squirm away from his hands. “Mercy! Mercy!”
He took hold of my wrists when I got just a bit too close to slapping him across the face, and pressed them into the ground, finally allowing me to breathe again. My cheeks hurt from how wide I’d been smiling and I panted as I tried to catch some air.
Nathaniel’s eyes gleamed above me as he, too, fought to stop laughing. His light brown hair had fallen over his forehead and he flicked his head to get it out of his eyes. Our chests rose and fell against each other, and, slowly, the humor in the air began to fade, replaced by something else as we gazed at each other. It was odd, not totally alien but completely different than the playfulness of tussling together. Suddenly, an image of Nathaniel in the lake danced in the back of my mind, and my face burned red hot. The picture was immediately followed by one of Carter and me in this same position not too long ago.
It was enough to shatter whatever kind of moment this was. Swallowing, I softly said, “Perhaps we ought to check on Carter and Catherine?”
He blinked several times, as if coming back from a dream, and nodded. Hurriedly, he responded, “Yes, of course.” He quickly rolled off of me, not even looking at me when he offered his hand and pulled me up.