We barely stepped over the threshold before the crowd of pirates stopped in front of us. Being in the back of the group, I couldn’t see what could have made Carter freeze in the foyer. I stood on my tiptoes but it was useless; they were all so much taller. I started forcing my way through, elbowing men as I pushed forward.
“Elizabeth,” Mom hissed, glancing anxiously at the pirates that shot me dirty looks, “what are you doing?”
I didn’t bother answering her. “Carter,” I said when I was right behind him, “what’s going…”
My mouth clamped shut when I realized what had caused the awkward pause. There were at least a dozen maids standing in the foyer, some with feather dusters in their hands, others had rags, one had climbed a massive ladder to clean the diamond chandelier. None of them moved. All of them stared.
I whispered to Carter, “I thought you said only the most devout staff members were here.”
“Well, this isn’t—“
“I beg your pardon!” exclaimed an elderly man as he hurried toward us, his face red with anger. His full head of hair was gray, his face clean shaven, his brown eyes clear. He said, “You cannot just barge into someone’s home without an invitation. I must request you to leave at once.”
Carter didn’t budge. “What are these people doing here? I was told the house was empty. And where is Davis?”
The man stammered, “We-I-you must—“
“Davis hasn’t worked here since you left,” Nathaniel murmured to his brother before turning to the man. “It has been some times but surely you’ve not forgotten me, Jenkins.”
Jenkins paused, narrowing his eyes, leaning closer and examining Nathaniel’s face closely. He jerked back, his lids flying open and his jaw dropping open. “Master Nathaniel?”
He grinned. “In the flesh.”
I was surprised to see the old man’s eyes tear up and he swallowed hard like something had gotten lodged in his throat.
“Is it truly you?” A rather short woman approached from the mass of young maids. She was a tad older than the maids around her but much younger than the butler, about my mom’s age if I had to guess, maybe slightly older. Her blonde hair was tied away from her face with two drapes of braids pinned behind her ears.
Nathaniel’s eyes softened. “It is, Mrs. Brookes.”
She stopped beside Jenkins who was still staring at Nathaniel completely stunned. He said, “We thought you were dead.”
Mrs. Brookes slapped Nathaniel’s arm and he jerked back in surprise. “Damn you, ridiculous boy! Do you have any idea—“
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” But he was laughing as she swat at him.
An immense smile broke across her face and a tear fell down her cheek. “Well don’t just stand there, boy, give me a hug.”
Nathaniel obeyed, bending down to wrap his arms around her. Jenkins watched them with a fatherly smile trembling on his lips.
Beside me, Carter held perfectly still, his hands fisted at his sides as if he were having an internal war with himself.
Jenkins looked up and realized that all the maids still stood frozen mid-cleaning. “Perhaps we ought to welcome His Lordship in the parlor? Anna, would you make sure there aren't any stragglers tidying up in there?”
“Yes, Mr. Jenkins.” The girl ran off to do as he said.
Mrs. Brookes released Nathaniel, taking a step back and wiping at her eyes. Slowly, her gaze strayed to all of us standing behind Nathaniel. “Lady Gallagher, Lady Lawrence? Your Lordship, who are all these people?”
“They are my guests.”
Mrs. Brookes stared at him like she wasn’t sure if she should laugh or call the constable to come take us away.
“If they are guests of His Lordship’s, then they are welcome here,” Jenkins said. “Please, follow me. Mr. Parker,” he said, turning to a footman standing off to the side, “would you fetch our visitors some tea?”
“Yes, Mr. Jenkins.” And he took off.
Jenkins led us down the many hallways into a large room that quite literally knocked the breath right out of me. If I thought James’ home and Springriver were impressive, this mansion was immaculate. There was not a thing in the room that was not trimmed in gold, from the blindingly pristine fireplace to the emerald colored sofas to the clock that rested on the mantlepiece. Everything sparkled and shined, and I didn’t want to even breathe for the fear I might blow something out of place.
“Have a seat anywhere you’d like,” Jenkins said. He stopped short when he noticed the filthy clothes the men were wearing and his smile stiffened slightly. “Of course, if you’d rather stand, that would be just as well.”
Lydia and Mom did as he said and sat on the very edge of one of the couches.
“Enough of this structured politeness,” Mrs. Brookes insisted, grabbing Nathaniel’s arm and shaking him slightly. “Nathaniel McLeod, you are going to tell us what is going on, and you are going to do it right now.”
Nathaniel grinned as if being scolded was something he had dreadfully missed. “Perhaps you should sit—“
She shot him a look that was filled with threats and he immediately snapped his mouth shut.
“Right.” He wiped his hands on his thighs nervously. “Where do I begin?”
“Allow me,” Carter said, stepping forward. “You’ve already met Lady Lydia and Lady Elizabeth. That woman there is Lady Elizabeth’s…friend. The rest of these men work aboard a ship, and I,” he said with a smile, “am Caspian Rogers, the captain of the aforementioned ship.”
Both Jenkins and Mrs. Brookes froze, the easiness with which they’d held themselves immediately vanishing. They exchanged a glance before Jenkins ventured, “Caspian Rogers? As in—“
Mrs. Brookes clasped her hand to her chest. “Oh, my—“
The footman from the foyer entered, a tray with a tea set held in his hands. He looked slightly alarmed at the sudden silence and looked questioningly at Jenkins.
“Just leave it on the table, Mr. Parker. Thank you.”
Parker hesitantly did as he was told, looking back over his shoulder at Jenkins. “Oughtn’t I to pour—“
“Thank you, Parker, that will be all.” Jenkins pulled out a handkerchief, dabbing at the sweat that had suddenly appeared on his brow, not once taking his eyes off of Carter.
The door clicked softly as Parker left the room.
Very quietly, Mrs. Brookes said, “Nathaniel…what is the…special occasion to which the captain has decided to honor us with a visit?”
“Might I answer that question with one of my own?” Carter prowled to the other side of the room where the freshly made tea sat. Jenkins and Mrs. Brookes watched him very carefully, tracking his every move. I could see the sudden shaking that had started in Mrs. Brookes' hands. As Carter began pouring himself some tea, he said, “We are in search of a man who has…wronged us. We expected to find him here.”
“Here?” said Jenkins. “Who could possible have—“
Carter put the pot down, the porcelain clinking against each other, and spun around, making Jenkins and Mrs. Brookes jump. “Why are you here?”
“I beg your pardon?” Mrs. Brookes squeaked.
“Caspian,” I said softly, “perhaps we can—“
He glared at me with the wrath I was sure that man and his son had seen right before he’d ended the fisherman’s life. I shut my mouth.
He turned back to the butler and housekeeper. “This house has been practically deserted for years, has it not?”
Jenkins swallowed before nodding.
“And yet, we walked into a room full of busy servants bustling about, cleaning and scrubbing as if the queen herself was coming to visit. Why is that?”
Jenkins dabbed at his forehead again and stuttered out a response. “Every member of the, um, the staff, received a, um, letter from His, um, Lordship, requesting our immediate r-return to the estate with an order that it be in t-tip top shape.”
“I see.” Carter took a sip of the tea, nodding. “And by what day is the house expected to be livable?”
“We…don’t know,” he mumbled.
He raised his eyebrows. “You don’t know?”
“You expect to believe—“
“Please,” I interrupted when I saw Carter’s face change into that dark expression of Caspian Rogers, “if there is anything else you can remember from the letter, it would be extremely helpful.”
Jenkins and Mrs. Brookes both still eyed Carter. I rose from the couch and approached them, their eyes whipping to me. I held up my hands. “We are not going to hurt you.”
Carter’s tone was dark when he warned, “Elizabeth…”
I put my hand up to stop him, locking my eyes on Jenkins and Brookes. “I promise you. We just need some assistance finding Lawrence.”
“Why?” asked Brookes.
“Your place is not to question,” Carter said to them, and then turned to me, towering over me and hissing, “And your place is not to interfere.”
“We need their help,” I argued, not flinching away from his gaze. “Scaring them is not the way to get it.”
“Mr. Jenkins, Mrs. Brookes, if you will not assist them, perhaps you might help me,” Lydia said from where she perched delicately on the couch. “He is my…husband, and from the day of our wedding, I have not seen him.”
“You need our help plus that of twenty or so pirates?” exclaimed Brookes.
“I’m afraid I do.”
Jenkins’ and Brookes' eyes wandered from Carter to the crew to Lydia to me and finally to Nathaniel. Jenkins asked him, “Do you truly trust this lot or is this some sort of coercion—“
Carter stepped forward with a growl as if he were offended at the suggestion, but I grabbed his arm, silencing him. When he turned to glare back at me, I mouthed, “Wait.”
Nathaniel met his brother’s eyes before returning their gazes. “They are family.”
There was a pause where Jenkins and Brookes stared at Nathaniel, utterly dumbfounded, and even the crew seemed to stand completely still, speechless. The muscles in Carter’s arm relaxed in my grip and the muscle stopped ticking in his jaw.
“Right, then.” Mrs. Brookes took a deep breath, straightening her back and nodding once at Jenkins, and turned to the crowd of pirates. “You are welcome here as long—“
“Mrs. Brookes—“ Jenkins exclaimed.
“If Nathaniel says they can be trusted, that is good enough for me. Now, Mr. Jenkins,” Brooke said, “if you would pour our guests some tea, I will go in search of those letters. Someone is bound to have brought it with them to Kendon.”
“Mrs. Brookes, you cannot—“
She sent Jenkins a no nonsense look and his sentence choked off.
He cleared his throat and puffed out his chest, reluctantly going to the teapot.
“Are you sure about this?” Mom said and everyone stared, Carter’s muscles pulling tight again. I saw Mom flinch from the attention but that didn’t stop her from speaking her mind. “You don’t even know these people. They’re criminals! How can you so easily—“
“Lord McLeod trusts them and we trust him,” Brookes stated.
“And that’s it?” Mom asked incredulously.
“Yes, madam, that is all we need,” said Jenkins, handing Nathaniel a cup and he smiled.
“Is there anything we can do while you await His Lordship’s return?” inquired Brookes.
Nathaniel looked to Carter to answer but Carter had suddenly become distracted by something he saw resting on the golden trimmed desk in the corner of the room, walking toward it instead of responding.
Nathaniel sighed. “I suppose if you could show the crew and ladies where they can stay for the time being, that would be most appreciated.”
“Very good, my lord,” Jenkins said, bowing slightly as he started for the door. “Would you all follow me?”
Some of the men laughed as they went after the butler, obviously not used to such extravagance. Mom eyed me when I didn’t move. “Aren’t we going?”
I narrowed my eyes at Carter’s back as he hunched over whatever had caught his eye. “No, I don’t think so.”
I looked at my mother. “You should hurry after them or not only will you be lost in this giant estate, but you’ll be lost in an estate where pirates lurk the halls.”
Mom’s eyes widened and she swallowed hard before running out the door after them.
Lydia smirked at me as she sipped her cup of tea. “Must you treat your mother so cruelly? Surely you of all people should feel sympathy for her seeing as you’ve just gone through the same thing.”
“You know nothing about my mother,” I said, not taking my eyes off Carter’s frozen back. “There is no one who deserves sympathy less than her.”
Lydia cocked a brow at me and took another sip, but didn’t ask any questions.
“Right, then. You are coming with me,” Mrs. Brookes said, grabbing Nathaniel’s arm and hauling him toward the door. “Tell me, in great detail, how you could’ve been so long without so much as a word as to where you’d gone.”
“Wait,” Carter said very softly and Mrs. Brookes froze. Slowly, he pivoted, his fist closed around something small. When he lifted his eyes to Brookes', there was no anger or malice. Only sadness. “Where did you get this?”
Brookes asked, “Where did we get—"
Carter’s fingers snapped open and presented the small object to Brookes. I squinted to try to make out what it was but it was almost impossible to see it from across the room.
Brookes, on the other hand, knew exactly what it was. “Ah, there is a bit of a story attached to that little thing, isn’t there, Your Lordship?”
Nathaniel’s eyes met his brother’s but he didn’t respond.
“I would appreciate it if you relayed the shortest version of the story,” Carter said.
“Right,” Brookes cleared her throat at the sudden awkward tension in the room. “Well, that there belonged to His Lordship’s older brother some years back—Carter, I think his name was?”
“Yes,” Nathaniel whispered, his gaze dropping to the floor.
“Carter used to the love the horses in the stable, but that ribbon in your hand is made from the hair of his favorite mare. As Nathaniel tells it, his brother was never without it. After his death, Nathaniel insisted that the ribbon be left exactly where his brother had put it,” Brookes said with remorse as she glanced at the young man standing beside her.
I took a couple steps closer to Carter and was able to clearly see the ribbon. It looked like one of those breast cancer pink ribbons I had pinned to my chest back home, but this one was made of blonde horsehair, tied with a dark blue piece of cloth.
“The mare to whom this hair belonged…” Carter said, staring down at the trinket. “Do you know if she’s still here?”
Brookes looked unsure if she should answer the seemingly bizarre question, turning to Nathaniel for guidance but he watched his brother closely, as if he was surprised by his concern. Brookes tilted her chin up. “Yes, she is. In the very stall that His Lordship’s brother always put her in. If you’d like, I can point you in the direction of—”
“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary. I will be in my room until luncheon.”
“Very good, Captain, if you would follow—“
“I will find it on my own.” And he was gone.
Mrs. Brookes stared after him, confusion coloring her face. “I don’t know how I expected a murderous pirate to behave, but he is an odd one, isn’t he?”