Chapter Thirty Seven
Carter was not in his room when I woke up. A few times during the night he had asked me to leave or suggested it would be for the best. Every time, I denied. It felt familiar lying beside Carter, natural. His sleep was restless that night—not that I would have expected it to be otherwise. It was no wonder he had awoken before me.
I went down to breakfast, and found Lydia, Stone, and Catherine already there, though the brothers were nowhere to be found. I sat next to Catherine, looking across the table to Lydia. “How are you feeling today?”
She waved her dismissively. “Fine.”
“She stayed up the entire night with Sierra,” Stone told me, his face pinched in concentration as he tried to stab the food on his plate with his left hand.
“And how is she?” I asked as I spread a napkin over my lap.
Sighing, Lydia said, “Not well, Beth. She was awake the entire night, yet she didn’t say a single word.”
“Does that surprise you?” Catherine asked, chewing a bit of food.
Lydia ignored her. “I do not know what to do. How am I supposed to help her if she will not speak?”
I took a bite of a scone, taking only a moment to enjoy the way it practically dissolved into a million particles of delight in my mouth, before I asked, “What about the brothers? Have they seen her yet?”
“Carter did.” She paused, biting her lip, telling me all I needed to know about that conversation. “There was no change in her demeanor.”
“What about Nathaniel?”
“He thought it would be best to give her some space,” Catherine answered, turning to me. Though her tone was just as unpleasant as it typically was, there were bags under her eyes and there was a slight redness to them that hinted she had just as difficult a night as they rest of us. “He and I will talk to her tonight.”
Stone slammed his fork down against his plate, the sound making us jump as it echoed in the large dining room. All the food on his plate had gotten messily mashed together, the yolks of eggs running all over the pastries and bacon, and Stone was staring at it like he wanted more than anything to send the plate crashing into the wall.
Without a word, Lydia took the fork from his hand, punctured a piece of food and held it to his mouth. He looked up at her, something I couldn’t decipher in his gaze, before his lips parted and he accepted her help.
Clearing my throat, I asked, “Where are the brothers now?”
“Oh, right,” Catherine said, remembering, “Carter said you’re to meet Nathaniel for your training as soon as you’ve finished eating. He should be waiting for you in the yard already.”
“Right.” Taking a final bite of my scone, I put my napkin on the table and pushed my chair back.
Making my way to where Nathaniel and I had been training the past few days, every muscle in my body pulsed with pain, that fatigued soreness that comes from pushing your body harder than you had before. I half thought my legs would give out before I even reached Nathaniel.
But when I got to the clearing where we’d been practicing, he was not there. Brows furrowed, I called, “Hello? Nathaniel?”
No answer. If I had to search the entire grounds of Kendon Hall for Nathaniel, I was sure that, not only would I never find him, but I would get lost as well.
Just then, I heard grunts coming from further into the trees. Following the noise, I came to the lake Nathaniel seemed to like so much.
Nathaniel and Carter were there, their shirts tossed to the ground, metal swords in their hands, slicing at each other with a fervor I’d never seen. Each of them were sweating buckets as they attacked, a stronger crash of metal each time. They grunted with each hit.
I hid behind a tree, not wanting to interrupt. There was something in the way they sparred, a certain gracefulness to it, almost like the steps of a dance they’d memorized long ago. It was truly a sight to see.
Carter swiped his sword at Nathaniel’s feet who easily leapt into the air to avoid the blade. While he was still airborne, Carter pulled his legs out from under him. Nathaniel landed with a grunt on the ground, and Carter pointed his sword at his throat.
“You cheated,” Nathaniel accused, chest rising and falling from exertion.
“It is not cheating to be a better swordsman than you.” They both wore smiles on their faces and Carter offered his hand to hoist his brother up. “Perhaps we should try a different sport? One in which you might have a chance at beating me. Archery?”
“You know you will best me in archery. You’ve cheated again by the mere suggestion.” As he turned to go back to his side of their presumed ring, Nathaniel’s eyes met mine and his brows rose. “Elizabeth! Is it time for your lessons already?”
I came out from behind the tree confidently as if my cheeks weren’t blazing with mortification to have been spotted. I shrugged nonchalantly. “Captain’s orders.”
“Right. Carter, could she use your blade?”
Carter hadn’t turned to see me peer around the tree, his large back to me, the scars crisscrossing over it stretching with each large breath he took. He nodded to his brother and held the hilt out to him.
Nathaniel gave him a funny look. “For the lady, brother.”
Carter hesitated before turning around, his hazel eyes ramming into me like a freight train. I knew he was doing everything in his power to forget his moment of weakness last night, and yet I could see it plainly in his eyes. He offered me his sword.
“Shall we begin?” Nathaniel asked, waiting for his brother to go.
“If you don’t mind,” Carter said, “I would like to see how her training is coming.”
He was going to see me get my ass kicked. “That isn’t necessary,” I answered with a reassuring smile. “Nathaniel is doing a good enough job—"
“I don’t doubt it.” He moved to lean against the tree I’d hid behind, crossing his arms over his chest. “I would like to see it, all the same.”
“Right, then.” Nathaniel turned to me, the muscles in his torso clearly tensed under his brother’s watchful eyes. He gave me a slow nod and asked, “Ready?”
No. “Yes.” I held up my sword, the butterflies in my stomach doing little to steady my hand. I felt like a performer that had suddenly been thrust on stage and forgotten every single one of her lines.
Nathaniel came at me—much slower than he had when he’d been battling Carter moments before—and I blocked it. We parried a few times before Nathaniel landed a particularly heavy blow and the sword fell out of my hand.
I turned to look at Carter as I picked it up and saw he was doing a terrible job of trying to hide the smile on his face. Spinning back around, I felt my cheeks burn. Copying the ready stance Nathaniel had taught me, I prepared for the next attack.
And again, the sword plopped to the ground. By the fifth time it happened, Nathaniel felt the need to explain. “It has only been two days. She’s improved much since the beginning, but you cannot fault her for the struggle she—"
“It was ridiculous to think I could handle a sword in two days,” I told Carter. “And laughing at me doesn’t help.”
“I am not laughing at you.” His gaze moved back to Nathaniel. “What say you about her potential?”
Nathaniel blew out a hard breath as he studied me, tilting his head to the side, staring. I cocked an eyebrow at him, feeling mildly insulted that he was taking so long to answer. The longer it took him to respond to his brother, the more annoyed I became. I jabbed the sword into the ground and leaned against it, rolling my eyes.
Finally, he offered unconvincingly, “There is some?”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I snapped.
“There is no need to turn your venomous tongue on my brother simply because he speaks the truth,” Carter said, still leaning arrogantly against the damn tree.
I glared. “Did you stay just to insult me?”
Carter ignored me. “Why do you think she struggles so?” he asked Nathaniel.
“Like I said,” he answered, “she’s barely even begun training. She’s had no time.”
“Wrong.” Carter pushed off from the tree and came toward me, stopping several inches away, his arms still crossed. He hadn’t bothered to put his shirt back on, offering me a stellar view of his massive biceps. “The blade is not your weapon. It never has been.”
“If you knew that,” I exclaimed angrily, “then why waste two whole days making your brother train me?”
He shrugged. “To prove a hunch.”
My jaw dropped. “To prove a—you know, at this point, I don’t think a single person would blame me if I jabbed this sword into your abdomen.”
“Nathaniel, would you hand me that?” He pointed at something behind the tree nearest his brother.
With brows furrowed, Nathaniel did as his brother asked and returned with a bow and quiver. He shot his brother a questioning look. “I don’t understand.”
Carter turned to me expectantly. “What are you waiting for?”
I tilted my head to the side as I returned his gaze. “You’ve been in a lot of fights, right?”
He frowned. “Yes.”
“During these fights, how many times were you knocked in the head?”
He chuckled and took the bow from his brother, offering it to me. “This is your weapon. You will learn to use it.”
“But, Carter,” Nathaniel said, “archery is not—"
“Just try.” I wasn’t exactly sure who Carter was trying to assure but he pushed the bow into my hands and stepped back, leaning against that tree again.
The bow was made of a long curved piece of wood, a deep brown, almost the color of Carter’s hair. It was smooth and my fingers wrapped easily around it.
Nathaniel cleared his throat awkwardly as he pulled an arrow out of the quiver and handed it to me. “Right, um, so you place the arrow here.” He pressed the arrow against the string of the bow and gestured for me to raise it. “And then you, um, aim. Pull back and release.”
I stared at him and he just shrugged in response, scratching his head. With a deep breath, I lifted the bow, setting my sights on a tree on the other side of the lake. I yanked at the string of the bow, surprised it was such a struggle to stretch it back. Narrowing my eyes, I aimed the arrow and released.
It fell straight to the ground at my feet. “Uh…” I looked up to Nathaniel for help.
“Right, so, um, you don’t want that to happen in a fight—"
“Brother, why don’t you go back up to the house?” Carter said as he came to stand beside me again.
“But I am supposed to train—"
“I will train Elizabeth in archery. Perhaps you ought to go see Sierra,” he said gently. “I am sure she would be glad to see your face.”
Nathaniel looked down at the ground, his jaw clenched. “I thought she’d like some more time to herself.”
“I think she’s had enough of that. She needs your help to come back to us. You may take Catherine with you if you’d like.”
He paused a beat, considering, before giving Carter a single nod, grabbing his shirt off the ground and trudging back through the trees.
I turned to Carter. Though my heart had suddenly decided to break into an all out sprint, I couldn’t help but watch Carter with suspicion. “Why do you want to train me?” I asked slowly.
“Because I am better at archery than my brother,” was his simple answer. He clasped his hands behind his back, suddenly very serious and intent. “Try again.”
I picked up the arrow by my feet and placed it against the string, holding up the bow and fighting to stretch the string again. But just like the last time, the arrow went nowhere.
“Pick it up and do it again, but do not release.”
I did as he said, pulling the string back and holding still.
He studied me for a few moments before shaking his head. “No. Stop.”
I lowered the bow and stared at him as he came closer, the warmth of him tickling my left side. His voice was very near my ear when he next spoke. “Inhale as your bring the bow up again.”
I drew in a deep breath and lifted the bow, this time bringing the string back easily.
“Which tree are you aiming for?” he asked.
“The one right by the edge.”
“No.” He pointed at another one much further away. “Aim for that one.”
“But that’s too difficult,” I argued. “And I don’t even know—"
“You can do it,” he assured me. “You will hit it.”
There was something in his voice that made me believe that to be true. I nodded and changed my trajectory.
“You’ve got it?”
His hands were suddenly on my waist, and I jumped slightly at the contact. He turned me until my back was flush against his front. “You must always be at a ninety degree angle with your target.”
I blinked several times as I tried to ignore the tingling that was now shooting up and down my legs.
His knee pressed gently against the side of mine. “Spread your legs wider. Give yourself a base to work with.”
I did as he said.
He moved his hand from my waist to where I grasped the wood of the bow in my left hand. He wrapped his fingers around mine, his touch gentle but firm. “Tighten your grip here.”
I curled my fingers around the wood. I could feel each of his soft breaths against my cheek, and the warmth of his hand over mine was making it very difficult to concentrate.
His other hand moved down my neck and over my shoulder, making goosebumps stand up all over my flesh. “Relax your shoulders,” he murmured into my ear. His touch smoothed down my arm to my elbow which he raised slightly. “Bring your arm higher.” His hand didn’t stop until it had met my right hand, shakily holding back the string. He gently rested his fingers against the back of my hand, guiding it closer to my face. “Use that space between your thumb and forefinger to anchor your hand against your jawbone.” He touched the curve of my jaw by my ear. “It will help you to stop shaking.”
I refrained from telling him that there was an entirely different reason behind my shaking as I hooked my hand against my face.
“See your target in your mind,” he coaxed. “Imagine it is right up against your arrow. The moment you release, you know without a doubt in your mind it is going to hit that tree. When you are ready, inhale, and—ever so slightly—part your fingers to let the arrow fly.”
Squeezing one eye shut, I tried to do as he said. See the tree in front of me. With a massive amount of effort, I tried to ignore his mouth by my ear, his hand at my waist, his warmth against my back.
Drawing a slow deep breath, I let go.
The arrow sailed across the lake and—boom. It hit the tree.
I lowered the bow and stared in amazement. The arrow shook right in the middle of the trunk. “I did it,” I said dumbly.
“Of course you did.”
A ridiculous giggle bubbled out of me. “I did it!”
I turned to look at him, freezing when our noses almost touched. His hand still sat at my waist and his other still covered my own hand. He hadn’t stepped back or pulled away. He stood still and unmoving.
“That has always been your weapon,” he said, his chest rumbling against my back. “Your arrow always lands where you intend.” His eyes were deep and slumberous as we stared at each other, the hazel of them turning to a dark evergreen.
Swallowing past the dryness in my throat, I couldn’t help the way my gaze dropped to his lips. We stood like that for seconds or hours, I wasn’t sure, but he didn’t move any closer or any further.
Something inside me snapped. I wasn’t sure if it was the exhilaration from the bow and arrow or the adrenaline that flooded my system whenever I was around Carter, but something forced my feet to push me up to my tiptoes and—very hesitantly—I pressed my lips to his.
It was a small kiss, a test, feather light and incredibly soft. I pulled back a fraction of an inch, just enough to see the pained expression in his face. Then, his hand fisted at my waist and he kissed me again, harder this time.
The bow fell out of my hand to the ground and I turned into him. It felt like my heart would explode as I reached up and buried my fingers in his hair. His bare torso was like a furnace as he pulled me tighter against him, crushing our bodies together. A low growl rumbled in his chest and I could feel his hands tremble against my spine.
I ran my hands over his back, feeling the ridges of his scars, the knowledge of the pain he’d endured making me cling to him tighter. His mouth moved against mine and he reached up to undo my hair, the whole length of it tumbling down my back. He ran his fingers through it as he kissed me, cradling my head in his hand as he moved his lips away from mine to trail down my jaw, to my neck, shiver after shiver melting down my spine as his burning mouth pressed against the sensitive skin there. He started urging me backward, walking me toward the tree a few paces behind.
My foot caught on something and I tripped slightly before regaining my balance. The quiver. I kicked it out of the way and reached for Carter again.
But his eyes had locked on the object and it was almost as if he had awoken from a dream. He started shaking his head. “No.”
“No.” He took a step away from me, the sudden air between us terrible and cold. “I can’t.”
He shook his head again, backing up even further. “I can’t do it.”
The rapid pattering of my heart was slowing and I blinked several times as embarrassment started to burn my cheeks. “I don’t—"
“I’m sorry, I—" He swallowed hard as he stared at me, Adam’s apple bobbing. His lips were slightly puffy and I could feel the pulsing in my own from how hard he had kissed me. He ran his hand through his already mussed hair. “She said—I’m sorry I can’t.”
“Who said that?” I demanded.
Again, he shook his head, his eyes wide like he had committed a terrible sin. “I am sorry,” he repeated before he spun around and vanished into the trees.