The Caroline

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A question best not asked.

“I am curious. What did you wager against the estate?”

“This boat, the Caroline. Your namesake, which I still own, of course.”

“So he died, and it was almost an accident? That is like being almost pregnant or being almost alive. It was either an accident, or it was not an accident.”

“It was a contrived accident. He was alive when he went into the wheel but not when he left it.”

“Just as you won that estate with contrived certainty, deception, cheating!” His earlier words and the strangeness of them had stuck with her.

“Something like that. I provoked him to do something unwise against which I needed to defend myself, and in the process he struck his head on his way into that stern wheel and was lost overboard. That is why he is out there and I am here. I do hope you are not disappointed. Old Man River will tell no one, and the chances of his body being found are slim, and of being recognized, even less. So you are the only surviving sibling, and both of your brothers and father are dead.”

“What else are you contriving?” He looked at her and could barely suppress a chuckle at her jaundiced perception of him.

“I had rather not say. What a picture would be portrayed of me, contributing to the death of the brother, as well as of the father of the woman I—”

Of the woman I…? Please continue.”

He looked at her. She was smiling charmingly at him, but her eyes were not smiling. She was annoyed with him; he sensed that. “And just how did you contribute to my father’s death? The story was that he had disappeared.”

“…Of the young woman I am dining with. Not many women would be relaxing or would dine so easily with a man who admitted having a hand in such violence. No, Caroline. Your father did not just disappear. He died in New Orleans, and yes, I killed him too, to save my own life and the lives of others. I told you a little of it when we were in Vicksburg that night.” She vaguely remembered him telling her something of that.

“I shall think about it. You would have been wiser to have said yes straight away, which you just essentially did. So you killed my brother as well as my father? And never mind all this evasive flummery of contributing, to their premature demises.”

Not many young women would be able to relax with any man who had just calmly admitted to killing her brother and her father, both, but she was able to.

Wyatt still smiled. “Oh dear. I appear to have met my match in crossing wits with you, and you now know far too much about me and my abhorrent and violent character, though we seem quite well matched that way. You did shoot a man yourself not so long ago. I am not sure that I like the way this conversation is going. You might believe that I have such a vendetta against your family that I have my sights set upon you next.” She did not seem worried by that.

If only she knew.

“That does not seem likely. You offered to give me back that estate. If you plan to murder me too [she obviously thought that to be unbelievable], I doubt you would give it back to me first. You have also had a dozen opportunities to see me off, too, and throw me into the river, even in Liverpool, and yet I am still here.” He continued to smile at her understanding of the matter. “So you admit that you killed both my father and my brother. I think I must believe you, and yet I do not feel threatened by you. There were many men who would have killed either or both of them if they were given the chance. I even considered it myself more than once. It does not matter to me. Many times, I wished my father dead and both of my brothers after the pain they caused me. At least you didn’t kill Jefferson, though I would not care if you had.”

He said nothing. She sighed and drank more of the wine. “Let us talk of something more pleasant, if that is possible after what we have just discussed so calmly. Though after that, anything would be pleasant.”

He cleared his throat. “I had thought of destroying those notes and saying nothing to anyone, and then you would have inherited, and no one the wiser. Somehow, however, you learned of that game and began asking your questions.”

“And being a man who would not lie to me, though you would lie to others, you were trying to evade answering me in every way you could, although when pressed directly, you eventually relented and told me of your winning.”

“When a woman persists along one line of questioning, it is a wise man who soon sees the futility of dragging it out any further.”

“So why did you not just destroy his promissory note?”

“I thought about it and realized that the safer course would be for me to say nothing and to hold on to that note for some time.”

“Why?”

“I recalled something I had overheard... that your brother had married. If he left a wife and possibly an heir, then he would have managed to cheat you there too. This way, he can’t.”

“So you were thinking of me?” She could not understand that.

“Yes, Miss Henstridge, it seems that I was.”

“Why? You seem to have thought about me many times now. In Liverpool, on board the Osprey, that second night in my cabin on this boat, and then following that in Vicksburg, and now.” She did not know the half of it. “Why? I think I am too much in your debt already.”

“Because it was once your home, and I believe there was a time when you loved it dearly. I sensed that in our conversations.”

“But what if I choose not to accept it?”

He smiled at her. “We went over that. I shall never claim it, and I shall vehemently deny knowing anything about it if anyone asks. I told you I would lie. Yes, there is one thing at least that I will readily lie about.”

“I find I cannot judge you for that. Where my family was concerned, it was sometimes safer to lie. I did. I am still not sure what to think. You are a strange man, Mr. Wyatt.”

“So I have been told.” She seemed to be less uneasy, but then he had told her more than he had ever intended to, to try to bring her around, except she had managed to corner him rather cleverly and had learned more than he had intended ever to disclose to her.

“I think, one minute, that I understand you, and then I find that I don’t.” How she had found out about that game, he did not know, but it was too late to fret about it now. He would rather have said nothing and let her find out that her brother was not on the boat when they reached Helena, and then she could have gradually recognized that she was the only one likely to be on that estate from that moment forward, and would have seen the necessity of her staying. Except for that possibility of an heir surfacing.

“You still seem uneasy. Understandable, I suppose, learning a villain like me contributed to your brother being dead and knows more about the death of your father than might be comforting for a young woman to know.”

She seemed to be struggling with another thought. “I have a further question I would ask you.” He waited. “You told me what it was that you won. Was that all that you won?”

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