Chapter 17: A Dash of Violence
Perhaps it was because Carina knew this would be her last meal with the Turnbell family, or that the chef had prepared a meat dumpling soup, either way, she couldn’t help but savor each delicious bite.
“Maura,” Josiah said, breaking the silence.
Carina repressed a shudder. When was the last time he’d even bothered to say Maura’s name?
“My Lord,” she answered as she lowered her fork.
“Your mother tells me that Countess Constance came to visit you today?”
“That is correct, my Lord.” She waited a moment, relishing his uncertainty and confusion. Doubtless, he was asking what the rest of the family was thinking.
‘Why had the Countess come to visit her?’
‘What had they talked about in the garden?’
“The Countess merely wanted to ensure I was in good health,” Carina supplied with an innocent smile before she resumed eating.
Josiah and Helena exchanged glances.
“But—” Helena said hesitantly “—why did she ask you to go to the garden?”
Carina chewed her food carefully as she considered this. “We often take walks in the Countess’ garden. Perhaps she missed my company.”
“Walks?” Helena’s fork slipped from her fingers. “But you—” She cut off abruptly and collected her fallen utensil from her plate.
“I wasn’t aware the relationship between you was so intimate,” Josiah interjected, unaware of his wife’s discomfort. “Why is it you she’s taken under her wing?”
Again, Carina chewed her food, and delicately wiped her lips on her handkerchief before answering. “Perhaps she believed that I needed extra care and attention.”
‘Since I get none of that here.’
“I—see,” Josiah murmured, his gaze darkening as his eyes shifted accusingly towards Helena. “And did you accompany her on these visits to the Countess?”
“No,” Helena admitted. “But that was how the Countess wished it to be!”
“And how long has this been going on?”
“Six years,” Carina answered when her mother hesitated.
“Six—” Josiah seized his glass of wine and drank deeply. “I suppose it’s no wonder than the Duke of Hawthorne sends his family physician here every day to look after you.”
His gaze shifted between mother and daughter, dread and paranoia whirling up behind those green eyes that had lost their edge long ago.
Helena joined her children in their silent contemplation of the exquisite meal before them while Carina contentedly chewed her food.
“What is it?” Josiah snapped as he looked between his unusually quiet children. “What’s wrong? Is meat suddenly not good enough for you?”
“No, Father,” Lincoln replied quickly and dug into his bowl.
“What exactly do you do over there?” Sophya asked, her eyes narrowed in suspicion. “At the Countess’ home?”
Helena picked up her glass with a shaky hand but then set it back down.
Carina took a sip of her cold berry tea and dabbed her lips. “A lot of things,” she replied cheerfully. “The Countess never lets me have so much as a moment’s rest.”
A barely audible moan came from Helena, who pressed her fingers between her brows.
“What the Bloody Saint’s is wrong with you, woman?” Josiah snapped.
“Nothing, I—I just feel a bit fatigued,” Helena whispered.
“But what sort of things?” Sophya asked persistently.
“I think I’ll excuse myself—” Helena pushed back her chair.
“It’s difficult to summarize. She teaches me things like the proper etiquette, reading, writing, the poets, arithmetic, dancing, some philosophy as well,” Carina expounded as the family around the table gawked at her in stunned disbelief. “That sort of thing.”
“What?” Helena sank into her chair.
“You learning arithmetic?” Lincoln scoffed.
“Yes, I’m at the intermediate level now. I had hoped to begin the advanced level next year, but that probably won’t happen since I’m being married off,” Carina said as she placed her fork by her finished bowl. “You can’t begin to imagine how disappointed the countess was when she heard I was to be married. She said it was far too soon as she wished to prepare a dowry for me.”
Not a single face at that table dared to meet her gaze, except Sophya, who appeared to be fuming.
“She wants to give you a dowry?” Sophya sputtered as a half-chewed piece of venison dropped from her mouth.
That was a lie. The countess never so much as broached the subject of marriage, but it achieved the desired effect as Sophya wiped her chin with a trembling hand.
“How much?” Sophya demanded.
“Sophya, that’s enough,” Josiah interjected quickly. “What matters is that your sister has a benefactor who has expressed interest in our family.” Despite his polite simpering words, Carina could see his eyes calculating the potential gain she might bring him.
“But of course, that’s off the table now,” Carina lamented.
“What? Why?” Josiah demanded.
“Because she doesn’t approve of Lord Lennox,” Carina said with a shrug. “She said he’s too old to be marrying when his sons already have heirs. And she thinks it’s a waste of my potential.”
The gravity of the countess’s disapproval on the match arranged by himself sank its teeth into Josiah’s premature dreams of future wealth that shriveled and died the moment his ass slumped back into the chair.
“But how much dowry was—” Sophya’s petulant question was cut off as Josiah’s fist smashed against the table.
“I told you to be quiet!” he roared, startling the servants so severely that one of them dropped the pitcher of tea. The tin container bounced as liquid and ice splattered across the carpet, and the unfortunate maid gasped in horror.
Carina turned towards the disturbance and recognized Judith. Once more, their eyes locked, but this time the maid’s gaze held only terror as she dropped to her knees.
The thud of footsteps snapped Carina’s attention towards Josiah as he rounded the table, kicked the fallen pitcher away, and struck the maid’s shoulder with his cane.
“Is it not enough—that I have to feed—each and everyone—of you miserable beasts!” His cane rose and fell again and again.
Carina clutched the arms of her chair. In the reflection of her glass cup, she saw the dark outline of Josiah’s arm rise and fall incessantly. Judith’s sobs and pleas twisted the knot in her stomach as her courage and outrage sputtered and died.
‘Speak now and take her place?’
‘Is she even worth protecting?’
‘But would he harm you now that he knows your connection to Lady Constance?’
‘But if I take that risk—and her place—everything I’ve done to change the future could fall apart.’
She sucked in a breath as Judith fell suddenly silent. Lincoln leaned casually onto his elbow as he peered around her to enjoy the show.
“My Lord!” Helena found her voice as she rose from her chair. “It is only water and berries. It’s not as if she dropped the wine.”
Josiah stilled, his back panting with effort, his silver cane streaked with a glint of red. “Fine,” he muttered in frustration, then snapped his fingers at the butler. “Clean that up. Not a spot on the carpet come morning, do you hear me?”
The butler, pale but composed, bowed, then assisted the footman in carrying Judith’s unconscious body from the room.
Carina’s gaze followed their escape. She stared through the ajar doors, unable to look at her family, unable to stomach the sight of them. Her small victories now tainted by the sight and smell of blood in the carpet behind her.
“I thought you liked that one,” Lincoln joked.
“Keep your mouth shut, boy, unless you’re filling it with food,” Josiah snapped as he returned to his seat.
Dampness, along the back of her neck, drew Carina’s attention. She reached back and felt something warm.
Blood stained her fingertips. The image of Ivy’s flayed back sprang before her eyes.
She could feel Lincoln’s gaze long before her eyes rose to meet his.
He was smiling, clearly waiting for her to react.
But Carina’s hand remained still as she wiped the blood away with her handkerchief, never breaking eye contact. When she finished, Carina rose from her seat and dropped the handkerchief in her chair.
“Where are you going?” Josiah demanded.
“To my room,” Carina replied as she left the table.
“What’s the hurry? You haven’t had dessert?”
Carina turned to face him. Her hands closed into fists as he devoured his meal with renewed enthusiasm.
“I have no appetite. Good night.”
‘May you all burn in hell!’