Chapter Thirty Four
Mr. Jenkins led the two of us into the dining room where Carter and Catherine were already waiting for us. Carter was dressed like a proper gentleman, a suit and bowtie. It was obvious the clothes weren’t made for someone so large, the seams straining against the muscles in his shoulders and arms. When Nathaniel and I entered the room, he rose to his feet, his chair scratching against the floor and cutting through the obvious tension in the room.
“Good evening,” he greeted with a slight bow to each of us.
I raised my eyebrows in surprise. “Good evening…”
“He’s practicing,” Catherine explained as she stared at him a beat longer than necessary before turning to us.
“Lady Elizabeth,” Mr. Jenkins said, sweeping his arm toward the chair beside Carter, “if you please. And Lord Nathaniel, if you would sit opposite?”
“Of course,” he responded.
“Where’s Stone?” I asked as I moved toward the delicately carved chair.
Mr. Jenkins answered, “He preferred to take his dinner with Lady Hall in the study.”
We took our seats, and I looked back and forth between Carter and Catherine. Brows furrowed, I asked, “Is everything all right?”
“Yes,” they answered simultaneously, making eye contact briefly before training their eyes away.
I pretended that look wasn’t weird. “Right,” I said, clearing my throat awkwardly in the tension. “The lessons are going well, then?”
“He is a fast learner,” Catherine said, her voice low as she glanced at Carter.
“You forget,” Carter said as a footmen leaned over his shoulder with a tray of food. Carter picked up the polished silver tongs and placed a bit of whatever they were serving on his plate. “This was my life once.”
“But it’s not been that way for some time,” Catherine said.
That same tension began to coagulate around us so I cleared my throat yet again and asked, “So what’s the plan?” The footman came around to me and I copied what Carter’s movements had been.
“Were you not listening this morning?” Catherine said.
I narrowed my eyes at her. “I was listening just fine, but I’m not entirely clear on the details. We’re going to steal Lawrence’s inheritance…how? What is all this training amounting to?”
“It isn’t stealing if it belongs to you,” Nathaniel corrected as the footman went round to him next. When I looked his way, he offered me a small smile and immediately all the awkwardness and discomfort melted away between us.
“Hugh has only two options when it comes to getting the fortune,” Carter said as another footman began making the rounds with even more food. “Either kill off the McLeods, or implore his father to change his mind. Thus far, one of those options has failed him miserably every time.”
“I’m still not following,” I said, doing my best not to feel like an idiot as Catherine rolled her eyes at me.
Carter set his knife and fork down on the table, turning those mesmerizing hazel eyes on me and giving me his full attention. “Hugh has hurt people. He hurt Lydia. He hurt my sister, my brother, Catherine. He hurt Robert, and by doing so hurt both your mother and you. Each and every time, I have allowed it to happen, but I will not stand for it anymore. It is time that he tastes that same metallic hurt we all have.”
“So we’re going to kill Lawrence,” I stated, looking around the table for affirmation.
“No,” Nathaniel said.
“Death is a kindness he has not earned,” Carter said in that low voice that made a chill crawl up my spine. “He has spent his entire life stealing that which we love most. It is only fair we do the same.”
I shook my head. “And how are we going to do that?”
Catherine sighed, “For the love of—"
“Right now, neither Hugh nor Carter actually possess any inheritance,” Nathaniel said. “Hugh has been fighting us in preparation of his sickly father passing.”
“I have been practicing the art of a gentleman so that we might pay the old Lord Lawrence a visit,” Carter said.
I frowned. “You aren’t going to…hurt his father, are you?”
“But it would make sense for Hugh to think we are,” Nathaniel said. “After all, it shouldn’t take too long for the news of the long lost Carter McLeod visiting the young Lady Josephina to spread to wherever Hugh might be.”
“That’s where Lord Lawrence Senior is?” I asked. “With the gossip Lydia had told us about?”
“Apparently he’d gone there for a friendly visit with her parents when he’d fallen ill,” Catherine said.
“So we’re going to go see Hugh's father and, if everything goes according to plan, Hugh will show up and we’re going to…what? Take him prisoner?”
“Yes,” said Nathaniel.
“And you will be happy to know that your mother has cleared Lydia to leave with us in two day’s time,” Carter added.
My eyebrows rose in surprise. “So quickly? Is she sure?”
“As long as it’s nothing too strenuous, Jennifer assures us Lydia will be all right.”
“That’s great news!” I exclaimed, feeling as if a weight had been lifted.
“Until our departure, you are to train with Nathaniel, morning and night.”
“But there is no way I’ll be suitable to fight after just two days.”
“No,” Carter said, taking a sip of his wine, “but perhaps you’ll be skilled enough to delay your death in a fight until someone more adept saves you.”
I scowled as I took a bite of the delicious food on my plate. Even with the training, I was still a damsel in distress. I hated it.
I threw the sword down to the grass with an angered shout, kicking it as far away from me as I could. “Every time. She beats me every bloody time.”
“At least you’re gracious about it,” Carter responded as he sheathed his sword.
“What are you teaching her that you’ve not taught me?” I demanded. “How is Catherine winning every time we spar?”
“The blade is her weapon,” he stated as he came closer to me. “It is not yours.”
“Then what is mine? Please, tell me. I hate to lose.”
“You know, one day your competitive streak is going to really get you in trouble.” He leaned against the tree and watched me stalk back and forth.
He had seemed distance ever since the announcement of James and my engagement. Whereas before he’d have surely cracked a smile at my ridiculousness, he simply stood back stoically and studied me.
As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I missed him horribly. I missed the way we used to be together. The ease with which we teased each other. That seemed strained now, and I hated the distance.
I sighed and stopped pacing. “If the sword is not my weapon, why don’t you train me using what is?”
“Because if this is how you are when you cannot fight, I should be terrified to see how you’d behave when you can.” The corners of his lips turned up in the tiniest smile.
I chuckled. Tilting my head to the side, I ventured closer to him. Immediately, he stiffened, the glimpse of a smile vanishing from his face as he watched me closely. I leaned against the tree beside him, frowning when he maintained that same tense posture. “Carter…talk to me,” I said. “You’ve been acting strangely.”
“Yes. And you’ve been spending much too many hours a day with that Catherine.”
“Catherine?” He cocked an eyebrow at me.
I began blabbering. “It’s no secret that she fancies you. She is constantly meandering about the stables, desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of you like some lost puppy. Of course, I am sure she is jealous.”
“Jealous of what?”
“Well, me, of course.”
“Is she, now?” Did he look like he was laughing at me?
“It is only natural,” I said. “She knows how close we are. Or, should I say, how close we used to be. Honestly, there is no need for her heated emotions as it seems there isn’t much for her to envy any longer. If there was ever a moment for her to attempt to catch you, now would be that time. I am to be married to James, and you can hardly stand my presence. It would seem I have done half of the hard work for her. If she can somehow find it in her to wash her face—or, at the very least, her hair—she might actually have a chance at capturing your heart. She is already seeing you for those ridiculous fencing lessons when it is obvious she does not need anyone’s help in that department. Perhaps she doesn’t know? If she knew you no longer cared for me, perhaps she would be more—Wait, where are you going?”
Carter had spun around and begun walking back toward the stables without so much as a word.
He stopped and spun on me, his beautiful hazel eyes burning with fury. “I have grown tired of listening to your nonsense, Liz. When you have tired of spouting it, you may find me in the stables.”
I pushed off the tree. “Nonsense? But I thought—"
“If you think I am going to stand here and explain to you why your words are foolish, you must have me mistaken with the other gentlemen of the court who you might so easily manipulate.”
“I do not manip—"
“You do!” he shouted and I cringed away. Never before had I seen Carter so infuriated by me and I’d no clue how to react. “That is all you ever do, up there in your large fancy house with your fancy servants and fancy dresses and fancy parties and fancy guests. All you ever do is bend people to your will. And I will not be one of them. Not anymore.”
Embarrassing tears filled my eyes and I tried to blink them away before he saw them but it was no use. “What do you mean?”
He blew out a sharp breath as he stared at the wetness on my cheeks, shaking his head and dropping his gaze to the grass. “You are wrong, Liz. I have not stopped caring for you. I cannot stop caring for you.”
I came closer to him, but he took a step back. I paused. “Carter—"
“But it doesn’t matter. I cannot do this. I am leaving.”
My brows furrowed. “Leaving? Where are you going?
“Away from here.” He looked up. “I cannot do it anymore, Liz. I just can’t.”
“You don’t have to leave just because I—"
“I sail tonight.”
“And what of Nathaniel and Sierra?” I asked. “What are they to do without you here to protect them?”
“They will be all right. Lawrence would never touch them. If I had even the slightest doubt to the contrary, I would not go. They will be all right.”
I swallowed hard, a lump forming in my throat. “When will you return?”
“I do not know.” He turned around and left. I stared after him, feeling a dark hole rip open in my chest, expanding the further away he walked from me.