Wind swept through the trees, through the grass, whipping my hair out behind me. The sun showered me in warmth and I tilted my head back, drinking it in as I ran. I laughed so hard my stomach cramped, but I kept going, holding up the skirts of my ball gown so I wouldn’t trip and lose the game. I glanced behind me, seeing that he was still hot on my trail. “You won’t ever catch me!” I yelled at him.
He didn’t bother responding, ducking his head and sprinting faster.
I spun forward, determined. I was not going to lose. I pushed my legs as I climbed over the grass-covered hill, fighting against the restrictive corset, and spotted the docile lake at the bottom, our finish line. I won.
I nearly skated to the bottom and just as I was about to cross that line, something heavy slammed into me from behind. I shrieked as I tumbled to the ground, the two of us rolling the rest of the way down the hill.
I landed on my back with him on top of me, the weight of him crushing. I wheezed and gasped, my cheeks aching from how widely I smiled. “Off, off,” I panted. “Before you suffocate me.”
He pulled himself on to his elbows and looked down at me, the sun making him into a mere shadow above me, but I could still see the white of his smile. “I do believe this means I’ve won, Lady Gallagher.”
“Absolutely not,” I argued, smiling up at him, breathless. “It simply means I haven’t. Yet.”
He shook his head. “According to the rules—“
“What rules?” I demanded.
“The ones I’ve just created.”
I laughed again.
He grinned at me. “They state that as long as I am preventing you from reaching the end, you forfeit your ability to win.”
“You will have to move some time,” I pointed out.
The clouds above shifted and I could clearly see the beautiful hazel eyes of my friend. His brown hair fell forward, brushing against my forehead, and I suddenly became hyper aware that I had challenged him while he was tending to the horses, meaning he wasn’t wearing a shirt and was covered in dust and sweat.
When he smiled at me this time, there seemed to be a completely different meaning behind it, not a friend’s meaning, a deeper meaning, and his eyes held a dare. “I will move,” he whispered, his lips less than an inch from mine, “the moment you force me to.”
My breathing became even more uneven and the heat from his body seeped past the many layers of my dress into my skin. “You should watch what you say, Lord McLeod,” I murmured. “One might mistake your words as indecent.”
“And how do you take my words?” he asked, his voice rumbling through me.
We’ve always teased each other, always harmlessly flirted, but, at that moment, his words did not seem light or untrue. “They are…” I moved my leg beneath him and smiled up as his face changed, “the beautiful sounds of your embarrassing defeat.” I kicked my leg out, catching him off guard.
He fell to the side with a grunt.
Immediately, I struggled to my feet among all my skirts and hurried toward the finish line. I didn’t get much further before my legs went out from underneath me and I shrieked as I tumbled again.
Right into the lake.
The water closed over my head and my skirts acted like an anchor, dragging me all the way down to the sandy bottom. I fought against the weight, but nothing I did made any difference and I sank further and further.
Panic seized me and my lungs burned as I started flailing. It almost seemed like the light had vanished and darkness had taken over completely. Although consciously I knew that couldn’t possibly be true because the lake wasn’t that deep, but it still felt like I was sinking into an abyss. Coldness clawed its way into my mouth, slithering down my throat, strangling me, choking me, and it seemed like the oblivion swallowed every scream that ripped through me.
Just as I thought my heart was going to pound out of my chest, strong arms wrapped around me and hauled me toward the surface. The light returned and I gasped in as much oxygen as physically possible, water rushing down my hair and into my eyes. The adrenaline kept flowing and I continued flailing uselessly until a voice broke through my hysteria.
“Liz. Liz! I’ve got you! I’ve got you.”
Slowly, I opened my eyes, meeting his strong, reassuring hazel gaze. His arms hugged me snugly to his bare chest and he brushed my hair out of my face, cupping my cheek.
“Carter?” I sputtered, blinking the water out of my eyes, my entire being trembling. “Carter?”
“I am here, Liz.”
I relaxed, sinking into his warmth as he wrapped his arms tighter around me.
“I’ve got you.”
I dug my nails into the skin of his shoulders, goosebumps popping up all along my flesh. His eyes were wide open with his own panic and I felt the tension drain out of his body when my vision cleared. His head sank forward in relief, his forehead resting against mine.
He whispered, “I’ve got you.”
“What are we doing?” Mom hissed at me as we climbed out of the carriage behind Lydia, staring up at the large mansion in front of us.
I didn’t even bother answering her as I hurried to catch up with Nathaniel. He was dressed in a suit but not the footman’s uniform he’d been wearing since I’d met him. Now, he wore clothes fit for royalty—a pristine white shirt covered by a blood-red vest with swirls of gold and a perfectly pressed black coat donned his shoulders, a top hat resting upon his head. He was almost unrecognizable from the emaciated young man we’d found. Even the way he held himself seemed to change, his back straight as a board, his hands clasped behind his back, his chin held high.
“Where are we?” I asked him as he hesitated at the bottom of the steps. Lydia stopped beside us, studying him.
He took a deep breath, gazing up at the large structure with equal parts trepidation and longing. “Home.”
My eyebrows nearly hit my hairline. “This is your home?”
The mansion stretched at least a mile to either side of us, the stone building reaching so high I had to crane my neck in order to see the top. Three large towers rose from the behind the structure and one smaller tower that grew out from the front of the building above the hundreds of windows. Each archway and each window was framed with intricate stone banisters. Marble stairs led up to immense wooden doors with a lion’s head carved into each one.
“This is not home,” came Carter’s harsh voice from behind me. “This is Kendon Hall.”
“This is the estate Lawrence was supposed to inherit,” Lydia added.
I looked at Nathaniel. “But this is where you lived.”
He nodded. “After the fire.”
“It’s breathtaking,” Mom sighed.
Although Carter stood behind me, I could feel his muscles tense and he whispered to me, “I can understand the reasoning behind your insistence to join us here, but I cannot for the life of me fathom why your mother had to come as well.”
I gazed at him over my shoulder, surprised to find him standing so close. As soon as my eyes locked on his hazel ones, I froze and the dream I had last night rushed back to me, the one that hadn’t felt like a dream, the one that had almost seemed like a memory. Heat swam through my body, swirling its way up until it landed in my cheeks and I could feel them turning a deep dark red.
Carter noticed my reaction and his brows furrowed slightly in confusion.
I quickly cleared my throat and tilted my chin up. “She is my mother. I will not leave her behind.”
“But why are we here?” Lydia asked. “And why is Nathaniel the only one of you dressed like he even remotely belongs here?”
“Because I am more able to behave than my brother.” He grinned at Carter.
Carter’s lips twitched in response but he didn’t allow his smile to break completely through. “And my identity is to remain a secret for some time longer.”
“Which is why you look like a servant,” Mom mumbled and we all turned to her in surprise. She looked slightly panicked to be the center of attention and shrunk closer to me, clutching my arm tightly.
I put my hand over hers to calm her. “And why are we here exactly?” I repeated Lydia’s question.
“Because this was Lawrence’s home as well,” Carter said, coming around me, several members of the rest of the crew following closely behind, the both of them carrying trunks filled with our clothes. “No one else has lived here except those most devout in our staff. If he were to seek refuge anywhere, this would be the first place he’d go.”
“If that’s the case, wouldn’t he know this is the first place you’d check?” I asked.
“Exactly,” Nathaniel said.
Carter put his shoulder to the front door and pushed it open. “His insatiable desire for our inheritance is precisely what we are counting on.”