Chapter Thirty Nine
I took a bite of my dinner, not really conscious of what was happening around me. It simply didn’t make any sense. How does a dead body vanish from inside a locked coffin? The only explanation is that it had been stolen, but…why would anyone want to steal Dad’s body? And Mr. Jenkins had said the lock was untampered with. If he was stolen, wouldn’t that mean the lock would be broken, or at the very least scratched? How could he have just disappeared?
“Elizabeth,” Abigail said from across the table, “are you quite all right?”
The large dining table seemed rather empty. Only Nathaniel, Lydia, and I sat with Josephina and her mother. No one occupied the seat at the head of the table, and Carter and Catherine were noticeably absent.
“Beth?” Lydia prodded.
I looked up at her and then across at the Bentons. I thought about sitting there for the next hour or so, pretending to be someone I wasn’t, and realized I simply couldn’t do it. “I do believe I’ve come down with something,” I said. “I feel just awful for asking, but would you excuse me—"
“There is no need to feel bad,” Josephina assured me. “Please, go rest.” She gave me a smile and I felt a small pang of guilt. She may be a little too easily excitable, but she was a kind person.
Apologizing to both her and Abigail, I exited the dining room. But I didn’t want to go to my room where I would be left alone with my continuously more panicked thoughts.
Our entire reason for being at Autumn Grove Estate was to see Lawrence’s father. Yet, his name hadn’t been mentioned once. I decided then that I wanted to see this Lord Lawrence and meet the man who could have raised someone like Hugh.
Instead of turning into the room designated for myself, I kept walking down the hall, pausing only when I heard something on the other side of a door. It was slightly ajar, letting just a small amount of candlelight escape across the floor.
I raised my hand to knock but paused when I suddenly recognized one of the voices. They stopped talking, and, for a moment, I thought I had been spotted. But curiosity forced me to stay put and peek inside. Brows furrowed, I put my eye to the small slit.
It was Carter and Catherine. She had her arms thrown around his neck, he had his hands at her waist, and their lips were pressed firmly together.
I jerked back as if I had been slapped, blinking several times as my mind tried to process what I had seen. It was like the glass of my heart had been taken and slammed into the ground, shattering through every part of me, pain shooting through my body, making my hands tremble.
I stumbled further down the corridor, hand to my mouth as I tried to keep from making any sound. I felt that familiar sting in my eyes and I cursed at myself. I would not cry over him. I would not. He had warned me time and again. It was no one’s fault but my own that I hadn’t listened to him.
But he had been so kind to me. He had tried to get my father laid to rest in the Gallagher tomb. He had kissed me. How could he do something like this when—
“Are you all right, my dear?” asked an elderly hoarse voice from the door beside me. Looking over, I saw an old man peering at me from the middle of a large bed.
“Yes,” I responded quickly, “I’m fine.”
“You do not look fine.” He gestured to the chair beside his bed. “Why don’t you sit down?”
“No, I need to—"
“Please,” he said, giving me a slight smile. “Will you not keep an old man company?”
Swallowing hard, I inhaled, doing my very best to gather myself before entering the room. The bedroom was just as grand as one might expect in a house like this, a large canopy bed in which the old man laid sat in the center of the room with a matching armoire and dressing table opposite. The walls were draped in delicate satin cobalt fabric and the floor was covered by a golden rug.
The man himself was dwarfed by the size of the enormous pillows behind his head as he laid in the middle of an even larger bed. He had kind blue eyes, open and earnest, shining as brightly as his nearly bald head. He smiled gently, encouraging me without words that I was welcome.
Wiping my trembling palms against the skirt of my gown, I sat in the small chair at his side. He gave me a wrinkled smile, his lips tinged slightly blue. “Now, I will not pry into what could make such a beautiful young woman such as yourself so upset. Should you wish to tell me on your own, however, I will not object.”
That made me chuckle slightly. “Thank you.”
At that moment, he started coughing, hacking so hard that his body come up to a sitting position. He had a handkerchief in his hand which he held to his mouth as the violent coughing continued. Up close, it was easy to see how frail he was. The nightgown he wore hung loosely off his thin frame and his skin shone with perspiration. When the hacking subsided, he fell back against his stacked pillows, tired and breathing heavily. The handkerchief fell away from his mouth, stained with blood.
Turning his head against the pillow, he took in my expression and gave me a tiny small. “Do not feel embarrassed, darling Elizabeth. I suppose I hardly resemble the Gideon Lawrence that you remember.”
Gideon Lawrence. Hugh’s father. He did have the same blue eyes as his son, but his slow and gentle demeanor were in complete opposition to Hugh’s. “Are you in much pain?” I asked.
He chuckled. “I will not lie to you, it isn’t a pleasant experience.” His eyes were pinched and his chest rattled with each breath. It was difficult to watch.
“Is there anything I could do to make more comfortable?” I stood, wringing my hands uselessly. “Fluff your pillow, perhaps? Or I could fetch you some food—"
“No, no, please, child,” Gideon said, pointing at the chair once again. “All I desire is the brilliance of your company and nothing more.”
I sunk back into the chair reluctantly, folding my hands in my lap. There is a certain urgency that fills one’s body when looking at someone they know is going to die, a certain insistence that begs for a solution. It was a feeling I’d had while sitting in the hospital room with my father. Staring at the decrepit old man before me, I had that same gnawing feeling in my gut.
“Will you not tell me what has made you so distraught?” he asked me.
I blinked, Catherine and Carter flashing on the backs of my eyes lids. Clearing my throat, I said, “Carter and Nathaniel McLeod have returned to court.”
Gideon jolted slightly, staring at me with wide eyes. “My boys?” he asked in disbelief. “What do you mean they have returned? How could they have returned? I thought…” He trailed off, not wanting to give voice to his worst nightmares.
“No, Gideon, I assure you, they are alive and well.”
He stared at me with glassy eyes. “Truly?” He barely breathed the word.
I smiled warmly. If the McLeods had never had to deal with Hugh, if Gideon had gotten to be the father he had clearly wanted to be, I was sure their childhood would have been incredibly different.
Though it took a massive amount of effort, he pushed himself up into a sitting position, reaching and taking hold of my hand in his trembling fragile one. “And what about my dear Sierra? Has she been found as well?”
I knew that Carter and Nathaniel would not want anyone to know about their sister. But looking at Gideon’s hopeful eyes, it quite literally made my chest ache to say, “I am sorry, my lord, no. Sierra remains lost.”
He swallowed, absorbing that bit of information with a nod, taking the moment to mourn her for what I was sure was not the first time. He leaned back against his pillows again with a sigh before looking back at me with a smile. “But my boys? Have you seen them?”
“How do they look? Are they well?”
“Yes.” For a moment, I debated telling him where the McLeods currently were, afraid the news would be enough to make his chest explode right then and there. But then I grinned and said, “As a matter of fact, both Carter and Nathaniel are here. In this house.”
His eyes almost fell out their sockets. “You mean to say that, at this very moment, we share a roof?”
Biting my lip, I nodded.
He threw the blankets off, and struggled to get up. “I must see them immediate—" He was cut off by another nasty bout of coughing, pressing the handkerchief to his mouth again as he fought to regain his breath.
Standing, I pushed him back into the bed, covering him back up. When his cough ended, I said, “You stay here. I will fetch them for you.”
“Yes, please, would you? Send them here straightaway.”
“Of course.” I spun on my heel, heading out the door, hearing Gideon’s ecstatic and disbelieving laughter follow me down the hall.
I ran into Carter first, going down the corridor in the same direction as me. When he heard footsteps, he spun around and said, “Elizabeth. I was just coming to find you. There is something I wish to tell you—"
I cut him off, “I am come to tell you that Gideon would like to see you.”
Brows furrowed, he said, “I will go, but I wish to answer a question you’ve asked me—"
“I suggest you hurry,” I said, moving past him, feeling as if my heart had shriveled up and curled into a ball in my chest. “He seemed rather excited to see you.”
He ran to catch up with me, rounding in front of me and blocking my path. “Elizabeth, listen, I want to tell you why I have acted the way I have—"
“I do not care why.” I tried to shove past him, but he was like a boulder. Refusing to meet his gaze, I locked my eyes on his massive chest.
“I don’t understand.” He grabbed my arms, and I had to clench my teeth to keep myself from doing anything I might regret. “Don’t you want to know why I have treated you as I have and why that fisherman—"
“It doesn’t matter,” I replied. “I am simply here to tell you to speak with Gideon.”
“You’ve pestered me relentlessly to tell you these things and now you will not even look at me?”
Sadness and rage fused together in an ugly mixture of scorn inside me. I jerked my eyes up to his with deliberateness and said, “I do not care why you do the things you do. I do not care why you treated me as you have. I do not care why you killed the fisherman, or why you’ve killed anybody else. I do not care. I am simply here to tell you that Gideon wants to see you in that room down the hall.”
Carter’s hazel eyes stared hard into mine. With much effort, I built an impenetrable brick wall around my heart, not allowing him to see how much he had hurt me or how much I still wanted him despite the hurt. I looked him square in the eye and dared him to find even an ounce of emotion in my gaze.
Slowly, he leaned back, frowning, eyes confused. Then, he straightened his shoulders, his forehead smoothed out, and he stood tall, alone. He pointed at Gideon’s open door. “That one?”
I nodded and immediately he moved in its direction. I let my eyes squeeze shut for just a moment before opening them again, smoothing my hands down my skirt and making my way back down to Josephina where I knew Nathaniel would be keeping her occupied.
I was shocked to find in the small amount of time I’d been gone, about twenty or so more people were now milling about the drawing room. How had I not heard any of them arrive?
Spotting Nathaniel’s light brown hair amidst the crowd, I politely made my way toward him. When he saw me, he smiled and excused himself from the conversation he was having.
I grabbed his arm, hissing in his ear, “Where did all these people come from?”
“Josephina thought we would like the surprise.”
Of course she would. “Right, well, Hugh’s father is upstairs. He wishes to see you. Carter is already there.”
He nodded, setting his glass of scotch on a silver tray and going straight for the staircase without a moment’s hesitation.
Someone’s fingers wrapped around my arm and I turned to see Lydia smiling widely at me. “They went to go speak to Hugh’s father?” she asked, rather too loudly.
“Keep your voice down,” I whispered.
“I want to go see him, too.” She swayed slightly on her feet and I put my hand at her back to stop her from stumbling.
“How much did you have to drink since I was gone?” I asked.
She waved her hand dismissively. “Not more than twenty. Beth, come on, let’s go listen to what they’re saying. It’ll be fun! Just like when we were mischievous children eavesdropping on our parents’ evil plans.” She yanked at my arm, whining, “Please!”
“Shh! Okay, okay, we’ll go, but you’ve got to be much quieter than that.”
“Oh, I’ll be so silent, you’ll forget I’m even there.” She mimed locking her mouth and throwing away the key.
Taking the wineglass from her hand and setting it beside Nathaniel’s, I sighed and led her out of the crowd toward the stairs.
When we were just a few feet from Gideon’s room, Lydia paused, putting her hand to the wall and holding her stomach. “I don’t feel very well.”
“That tends to happen when you down almost twenty glasses of wine in less than half an hour.”
She looked at me guiltily and confessed, “It wasn’t all wine.”
Rolling my eyes, I bit my lip to keep from laughing. “Lydia—"
“I think I am just…I am going to freshen up.” She put her hand to her mouth, making it obvious her freshening up would much more likely be vomiting into a bush.
“Come on.” I began guiding her in the direction of the bathroom, but she jerked away from me.
“You have to tell me everything they say in that room,” she ordered.
“No, you need me—"
“I’ll be fine, Beth,” she assured me with a hiccup. “Go. I will expect a full report when I return.”
“Are you sure?” I didn’t want to leave her alone as she was.
She nodded, grabbing a random doorknob beside her. “See? I’ve already found the powder room. Now, go! Before you miss something good.”
“That isn’t the powder—" The door slammed behind her and I huffed. I didn’t care what she said. If she was going to puke into someone’s water basin, I was going to be there for her.
But I froze with my hand on the knob when I saw a familiar figure standing down the hall. He was silhouetted against the light of the party below, but I knew exactly who it was.
“What are you doing here, Hugh?” I demanded.
“Same as everyone else,” he responded. “I came to enjoy the party.” It was disturbing that I couldn’t see his face, and it made him seem even more dangerous and menacing than I already knew him to be.
I said, “You aren’t going to—"
“No,” he said. “I am not. Because it seems your captain has already done everything for me.” He turned around and the light just barely caught the slight evidence of a grin on his face. “Good evening, Lady Elizabeth.” And then he vanished just as quickly as he had appeared.
A terrible, chilling shout burst from Gideon’s room, echoing down the corridor until it reverberated in my ears. Adrenaline flooded my veins. Hiking up my skirts, I charged for the room.
I stopped in the threshold, hands on either side of the doorway as I took in the scene.
Nathaniel stood as far from the bed as he could get, staring in horror, tears spilling freely from his eyes. Following his gaze, I saw Carter standing beside the bed, face covered in blood, a dagger in his hand, dripping the ugly crimson on the rug.
And Gideon Lawrence—poor, kind, gentle Gideon Lawrence—stared unseeing at the canopy of his bed, his throat slit, blood drenching the entire mattress, seeping into his clothes, covering his entire torso.
I looked up at Carter. His eyes were watery as they met mine, his breathing ragged and the dagger trembling in his grip.
Shaking my head, I forced words past the lump in my throat as I whispered, “What have you done?”