Chapter Thirty Eight
Lydia and I rode in a carriage alone to Lady Josephina’s house. Carter had insisted there wasn’t enough room in the carriage for all of us, so we’d taken a total of three. Carter and his brother rode in the one ahead of us, and Sierra, Catherine, and Stone were in the one behind us.
Sierra’s presence had been a heated debate between the siblings. Ultimately, it was decided that she could not be left alone at Kendon and so she would accompany Stone and Catherine to the servants’ quarters.
“Who is this she that he keeps mentioning?” Lydia asked me. She sat on the bench opposite me, allowing me full view of her enraged expression.
“He won’t tell me.”
“It doesn’t make any sense,” she said, shaking her head. “Why would he kiss you and then run away? I’ve never taken the pirate for a coward—"
“I don’t know, Lydia, can we just drop it?” I said, watching the trees move past the window as the carriage rattled on.
“No, we cannot drop it, Beth.” She was glaring so hard, I was glad that I had waited until we were safely in the cab before telling her what had happened. “I am going to ask him directly.”
“No,” I said sharply. “You will not.”
“But…” Her hands flittered uselessly around her and I could tell that’s exactly how she felt. “I have to do something!”
“No, you don’t. Now, can we change the subject? Please?”
“Fine,” she sniffed, turning her head away from me to scowl out the window in case I had made any mistake she was over this conversation.
“Oh, stop it, Lydia. We’re here.”
She pointed at me with narrowed eyes. “We will speak of this later.”
I didn’t respond as I stared at the building that came into view. One would think that eventually the shock of such beauty would wear off, but my jaw still dropped as I gazed at it.
The best way to describe Josephina’s home would be a slightly smaller version of Windsor Castle. Towers lined the entrance, windows spanning the wide expanse of stone. Unlike Springriver or Kendon, there were no intricate design of cherubs or saints watching our arrival, no Roman columns for our carriage to drive under. Autumn Grove Estate didn’t need that kind of pomp to be impressive. It relied merely on its sheer massiveness to take its guest’s breath away which it accomplished better than it could’ve possibly imagined.
The carriage jerked to a stop as it awaited the raising of the sharply pointed metal gate. Once on the inside, I was yet again blown away by the beauty and detail of the yard. A swirling design twisted through the bright green lawn and deep emerald bushes were trimmed into precise pyramids. It was—in one word—astounding.
When we finally reached the front door, it seemed as if the entire staff of the house was watching our approach, maids and footmen alike standing with their hands stiffly by their sides. At the center of the mass of people were two extravagantly dressed women, their gowns bursting with rubies, sapphires, and pearls.
“The one with her tied back so tightly it looks like her face may split in half is her mother,” Lydia told me. “And the one with her smile stretching a mile long is Josephina.”
“I thought she was your friend,” I said with brows furrowed.
“She is,” she said. “And I cannot stand her.” The carriage door was opened at that exact moment and Lydia plastered a smile on her face as she jumped out, her voice exploding with excitement. “Josephina!”
“Lydia, darling!” The girl rushed forward to take Lydia’s hands in hers. She had long blonde hair which she allowed to swing at her back, held away from her face by smartly weaved braids in her hair. Her green eyes sparkled as she squealed in delight at seeing Lydia. “I feel as if it has been ages since the last time I saw you. Why has it been so long?”
“I cannot imagine.” Lydia turned to me as I exited the carriage. “And, of course, you remember Elizabeth Gallagher?”
“Oh, how could I forget!” She released Lydia to grab hold of my hands. “Words cannot describe how elated I am to see you again.” She was practically vibrating with excitement, the pearls around her neck trembling when she smiled harder at me. Suddenly remembering, she turned to the woman standing behind her. “Of course, Mama and I have been looking forward to seeing you all week. Isn’t that right, Mama?”
“Yes,” she replied regally, her nose tilted so high up in the air I wondered if she was actually looking at us or if she was gazing at the clouds. Her hair was a chestnut brown, pulled sharply back in a tight bun that made my head ache just looking at it. Pinned to the side of her head was a large hat, several blue feathers swaying from it. Her eyes were a superior ocean blue as she gave the two of us a closed lip smile.
Josephina’s eyes grew wide as the door to Carter’s carriage in front of us opened, actually jumping a couple inches in the air. “Is that him?” she whispered to us, not taking her eyes away from the opened door. “What does he look like now? Lydia, do you remember those sculptures of those Roman warriors we had seen? I’ve heard he’s more breathtaking than any of them. And I’m also told he was something of a flirt before his disappearance.”
“Where did you hear that?” I asked.
She waved her hand. “Around. Oh, look he’s stepping out.”
And he did, squinting up to take in the grandness of the estate. Nathaniel got out of the carriage right behind him, immediately turning to smile warmly at Lady Josephina. “Good afternoon, my lady,” he greeted.
Josephina scurried over. “How great it is to see you again, Nathaniel, after so long. Thank you for coming.”
“I wouldn’t dream of passing up an invitation from the wonderful Lady Josephina Benton,” Nathaniel said, kissing each of Josephina’s cheeks. Looking back at Carter, he said, “I don’t believe you’ve met my brother. Might I introduce Carter McLeod. Carter, this is Josephina Benton.”
Carter had been looking up at one of the windows of the estate intently, like he had seen something. Now, he dragged his gaze away to smile at Josephina. I wasn’t sure if anyone else could tell, but he looked incredibly uncomfortable in his restricting suit and the corners of his lips were pinched. Nonetheless, he spoke smoothly. “The pleasure is all mine.” And he actually leaned over and kissed her gloved knuckles.
“Oh, good Lord,” Lydia murmured in my ear. “Perhaps we ought to send for a physician now, before her heart completely gives out.”
I bit my lip to keep from giggling as Josephina fanned herself, her cheeks flushing a bright red in her porcelain face. Catherine must’ve known the members of the English court better than we could’ve anticipated because there was no doubt in my mind she had instructed Carter to greet Josephina just like that in the hopes of that exact reaction.
“Upon my word,” Josephina sighed, as she watched Carter rise back to his full height. “That is quite a greeting.”
“Lady Abigail,” Nathaniel said, expertly moving the introductions along. Josephina’s mother allowed each of the boys to kiss her cheeks. Her daughter stood the side, eyeing Carter like he was the last roll at the dinner table.
We were ushered in just as Stone’s carriage pulled around to the back of the estate, toward the servants’ entrance.
“I do hope you’ve not completely tired yourselves out with travel,” Josephina said. “I was hoping we might sit down for some tea before we ready for dinner?”
“That would be splendid,” Lydia answered, leading us through the house into the drawing room.
It took an exorbitant amount of effort to school my features and not react to the ornateness of the estate’s interior. Everything about it screamed of wealth, from the gold threaded tapestries hanging on the walls to the diamond chandeliers dangling from the ceilings.
Eventually we entered a room that was decorated in whites and golds with several satin couches set up near a fireplace. There was already a tray with a steaming teapot and several teacups waiting for us as we came in.
But it wasn’t the beauty of the room that made us pause when we entered the room. It was the fact that sitting on one of the sofas was Gretchen Lowrey, dressed all in black.
Her face was incredibly pale and her blonde hair was tucked beneath a black veil, matching the plain black gown she wore. Her brown eyes were rimmed in red and when she looked up at us, her eyes empty. A teacup sat forgotten in her lap, and she stared down at it just then as if she suddenly remembered where she was.
“I believe you all know Lady Gretchen?” Abigail said as she continued farther into the room and sat on one of the sofas across from Gretchen.
Lydia was the first person to collect herself. “Of course. We heard about your husband. It is a terrible tragedy.”
“Yes,” she said softly, her eyes looking somewhere in the distance. “It is.”
“Perhaps some company will cheer you up,” Josephina suggested as she swept her arm for us to take our seats.
Nathaniel and Carter moved together to sit on the last available couch, and Josephina practically sprinted to squeeze in beside Carter.
Lydia sat beside Abigail, leaving me with only one option. I swallowed a sigh and sat beside Gretchen. Looking at her just then, in her mourning clothes, it was hard to summon much sympathy for her, knowing everything she’d done to the McLeod family.
Everyone in the room somehow knew exactly what to say to those they were sitting with, striking up a conversation as if it were the easiest thing in the world. Or, in Nathaniel’s and Carter’s case, simply sitting back and allowing Josephina to vomit words.
Gretchen and I sat in uncomfortable silence. I sipped my tea awkwardly, feeling as if this was going to be an incredibly long day. Hopefully, we wouldn’t have to stay here long before Lawrence heard of our visit and we could get on with whatever Carter had planned.
“You hate me,” Gretchen said suddenly and I turned to her with eyebrows raised. “Don’t you?” she asked.
After a pause, I answered, “You’ve not done much to make me feel the contrary.”
“Because of what I have done to your pirates. Because you are in love with their captain.”
“Because you have hurt innocent people,” I corrected.
She shook her head as she looked down into her teacup again. “Can I ask you a question, Elizabeth?”
I shrugged and raised my cup for another sip.
“Do you have an especially close bond with either one of your parents?”
I paused with the cup halfway to my mouth. “Excuse me?”
“Your father or mother? Are you close to either of them?”
I put the cup back on its saucer. I wasn’t exactly sure what she was getting at but I would play her game if she insisted. “My father.”
She nodded, running her finger along the rim of her teacup. “I was never close to either one of my parents,” she told me. “My father was more concerned with the money I would bring from an advantageous marriage, and all my mother did was groom me to make sure that happened. There was no laughter in my house, no smiling, no enjoyment of any kind.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I stared at her drawn face, at the tired lines bordering her mouth.
“Being a child in a house like that…there’s a certain amount of desperation that comes over you. It frays your nerves and instills only a single thought in your mind: escape. Even now, I can remember that hysterical need to just get out.”
“I don’t want to listen—"
“Have you ever wondered why Hugh has done the things he’s done?” She lifted her brown eyes from her teacup to meet mine.
“I know why he does it. For the inheritance.”
“Yet you’ve never thought to ask why I would help him.”
I opened my mouth to respond but then I realized she was right. I had never even thought to ask her the question.
“You know the only way for a woman to escape a house like mine,” she said. “She must marry a gentleman so that he might take her away. No one seemed better suited to rescuing me than James Lowrey. He was kind and chivalrous and funny and when he smiled I swear, Elizabeth, I could practically see the future we would have together in front of me. But he would not marry me,” she said, meeting my eyes. “He wanted you. There was only one way to make sure I could have the life I wanted. Only one way to force a man into a marriage.”
“I do not see what any of this has to do with the McLeods,” I said, feeling awkward with the direction of her confession.
“Elizabeth, if you knew having a child was your only chance out, and if you knew you would only have one opportunity to conceive this child, what would you do?”
I blinked. “I don’t know.”
“Would you not do everything in your power to ensure you would conceive?”
I simply stared at her.
“That is what I did. And, just as I had planned, James proposed. From that day, I have never had to concern myself with my parents’ thoughts or worries again. Their opinions hold no sway over me. I was free.” She looked down at her hands in her lap and whispered, “I loved him.”
“Wait,” I said, stilling her hand as she raised her cup to take a sip. “What do you mean you ensured you were successful? What did you do?”
She did not answer me. Gretchen simply gazed at me with her sad eyes, waiting for the truth to hit me, for me to understand what she could not say out loud.
My eyes widened as I understood. “Your son. James is not the father.”
She swallowed hard. “No.” But she still stared at me, telling me there was more to it than just that.
My hand fell limply into my lap with incredulity and I stated, “Hugh is.”
The cup in her hand started trembling so hard that she had to set it down on the table beside my abandoned tea. “I was young,” she said. “I did not understand the power I was giving Hugh by asking for his help. At the same moment I gave him the ammunition to completely destroy my reputation, I also handed him the power to take my child away from me.” There were tears in her eyes again as she looked at me. “I am not like my mother, Elizabeth. My son is the dearest thing in the world to me. I would do anything to keep him with me.”
“Even ruin the lives of the McLeod family.”
She nodded. “If that was the price for my son, I would pay it.”
I studied her for a beat. The grief in her eyes was real, yet I was still confused. “Why did you tell me this?”
“James is dead,” she said flatly. “It doesn’t take a large stretch of the imagination to realize who is responsible for that. Hugh has become more dangerous than I would have thought possible. I cannot stop him from doing the horrible things he desires to do.” She picked uselessly at the seams in her black gloves. “I suppose I just wanted you to know that I do not want to harm you or your friends. I simply do not have a choice.”
My eyebrows furrowed and I was surprised to discover some of the coldness I had promised to always harbor for Gretchen had started to melt away as I stared at the beaten woman before me. She had been a stupid young girl, not knowing the consequences of her actions. But could I blame her for wanting to protect her child?
The Benton butler entered the room with a silver tray in his hand. He approached Carter and bent so that he could see what was in the tray. “A letter for you, Your Lordship,” the butler announced.
Carter frowned as he took the paper from the tray, mumbling a “Thank you” as he quickly broke the seal and read the contents of the letter. I watched his face carefully, searching for any sign of distress or concern, but he gave no hint of anything.
“Is everything all right?” Abigail asked from beside Lydia.
Carter folded the letter back up and gave her a reassuring smile. “Yes, there is nothing to be worried about. Do you know, Lady Benton, I couldn’t help but admire the beauty of your grounds when I arrived.”
Abigail inclined her head in thanks. “Our gardeners have worked hard on it.”
“I don’t suppose you’d mind if I stepped out for a bit to see them fully?” he asked, already standing up from the couch, much to Josephina’s dismay.
“Not at all.”
Josephina gave him a dazzling smile and said, “Perhaps you’d like some company while you stroll?”
“Yes, you are right. Elizabeth, would you accompany me?” There was an urgency in his gaze that told me this was definitely more than a relaxing stroll through the garden.
I stood with a nod. “Of course.”
Josephina frowned, and Nathaniel was quick to swoop in and distract her.
I took Carter’s arm and he quickly led me out into the fresh air, the coolness of the breeze making the hair stand up on my arms. “What is it?” I asked as soon as I was sure no one would hear us.
Without a word, he handed me the letter, continuing to walk casually so anyone watching wouldn’t know there was anything amiss.
The letter read as follows:
Please allow me to express my deepest apologies for interrupting what I am sure is a wonderful day with the Bentons. I felt that it was imperative I should inform you about something rather peculiar that has happened.
As you requested, Mister Robert Sharp was placed in a locked coffin, stowed safely away until a more proper burial place could be found for the gentleman in the Gallagher mausoleum.
I glanced up at Carter. “You asked for him to be put in my family’s—"
“Keep reading, Elizabeth.” Though he didn’t look at me and his jaw stayed clenched, I still felt my heart swell that he had thought of something like that.
Biting my lip to keep from saying anything more, I turned back to the letter.
After much time and care, I managed to procure a tomb for him. However, when the men and I began the process of moving his body, it seemed we were bereft.
You see, Your Lordship, I thought it best we check on the poor fellow before moving him, to ensure nothing unwanted had managed to find its way into his final resting place. The strange part of it is there was no body found in the casket this morning, yet the lock remained unopened and untampered with. Without the key, Your Lordship, that coffin should have been impossible to get into.
To put it frankly, Your Lordship, Mr. Sharp is nowhere to be found, with no explanation as to how he could have gone missing.
If Your Lordship should desire it, an empty tomb can still be made in remembrance of Mr. Sharp.
Please offer Lady Elizabeth my most profuse apologies. I am baffled as to how this could have happened, but I shall do everything in my power to locate her friend.
Butler of Kendon Hall
Blinking several times, I looked up at Carter. “He’s…missing?” I said.
“It would seem so.”
“How is that even possible?” I demanded, angry tears beginning to burn my eyes. “And why would anyone want to steal his body? He was just an apothecary. Is there a large market in England for the remains of a dead apothecary?”
“Where is he?” Why would anyone have taken him? How could anyone have taken him? A locked coffin…
Carter sighed. “I do not know.”