Bravery isn’t born. It’s forged in the nightmare places where fear tears the mind apart. For Barrie Watson, her cousin Cassie’s plantation across the river from Watson’s Landing had become such a place. There, it was all too easy to see how shards of past events could turn into weapons, until one bad choice led to another, and memories became prisons that trapped people as surely as any door.
Between the memories and the migraine that always formed when she was away from Watson’s Landing, Barrie fidgeted in the passenger seat of her aunt Pru’s old, black boat of a Mercedes. The sun-pinked skin exposed by her sleeveless top stuck to the leather in the sodden Southern heat and plastered her long, pale curls to the nape of her neck. Her traitorous fingers itched to grab the steering wheel and tell her aunt
to turn around. Even the sun slanting low through the oaks that lined the winding drive seemed to whisper a warning, transforming the veils of Spanish moss into something ghostly and macabre.
But Barrie couldn’t change her mind. No matter how excruciatingly hard she had tried to make the right choices recently, she had kept hurting other people. She had to set that right, and the first step began here at Colesworth Place.
Pru eased the Mercedes to a stop at the edge of the visitor lot closest to where the lane continued on toward the ruins of the old plantation mansion and the smaller, modern house where Cassie and her family lived. Barrie adjusted the foil over the chicken casserole that Pru had hastily assembled and pushed the door open. Pru didn’t move. Sitting there with her hands gripped tightly at the top of the steering wheel, her fine, blond curls haloed around her in the fading light, Barrie’s aunt resembled a lovely and slightly demented angel.
Barrie hated what all this was doing to her. “Are you all right, Aunt Pru?”
Pru’s lips lifted wryly. “Look at us. We’re a fine pair, aren’t we? I’m trying to talk myself into getting out of this car, and for all your determination, you look like you’d rather turn around and run.” She reached out and touched Barrie’s wrist. “Let’s just go on home, sugar. At least for tonight. You don’t owe it to your cousin to break the Colesworth curse, and you
certainly don’t owe a thing to this Obadiah, or whatever that magician of yours calls himself.”
“I’m not sure ‘magician’ is the right word, exactly. More like a shaman,” Barrie said, avoiding the question.
“You know I ought to have my head examined for even considering letting you come over to look for him, don’t you? Not that I seem to be able to prevent you from doing anything. I wish you’d just forget all this.”
“We can’t forget. This isn’t about owing Cassie or Obadiah. We can’t walk away when the curse is hurting Mary and her family, too. And Obadiah promised he would break the Beaufort binding if I found the Colesworth treasure. If we don’t break that, Eight will be stuck at Beaufort Hall when Seven dies, and I’ll be across at Watson’s Landing, and we’ll have no chance of ever being together. Too many things all center on Obadiah being able to help us. At the very least, I have to know whether he’s still alive.”
“Can you call it living when someone is more than a hundred and fifty years old? I’m still not sure I believe that, but it’s one more reason why I ought to be grounding you for a month instead of bringing you over here and letting you get involved with that man again.”
Switching off the ignition with an emphatic motion and a jingle of keys, Pru sat there a moment looking so small and defenseless that it made Barrie’s heart swell with guilt. But
Pru was stronger than she looked. The more Barrie had come to know her aunt, the more she had seen the quiet core of steel that Pru didn’t even know she possessed.
Strength was a bit like courage, Barrie thought. She herself had found both only when she couldn’t live without them, and they had come to her when she had needed them the most. But fighting to protect the people you cared for was one thing. Trusting someone you loved to fight for themselves took a different kind of strength and bravery.
Leaning over from the passenger seat, she dropped a kiss on Pru’s smooth-skinned cheek. “Thank you, Aunt Pru.”
“For what?” Pru looked over, startled.
“For not grounding me. For coming over here to help distract Cassie’s mother. For believing in me and not telling me that letting Obadiah take away the Watson gift like he threatened would have been the obvious solution.”
Pru’s smile was misty-eyed and ephemeral, and she pushed the door open with fresh determination. Barrie, too, got out, and they stood on the brittle and cracking asphalt looking at each other across the top of the car. “I’m sorry I yelled at you when you told me everything. The fact that I did that makes it harder for you to be honest with me in the future, I know that, and I promise you, I’m through with ignoring problems and hoping they’ll go away on their own. I’m done with letting life happen to me instead of living it. Obadiah’s already had plenty
of opportunities to hurt you, if that was what he wanted, and anyway, if he can change himself into a raven and make himself invisible, there’s not much you and I are going to do to stop him coming to Watson’s Landing. I’m already having enough nightmares about—”
Barrie looked over as Pru cut herself off. “About what?”
“Never you mind.” Pru pushed her old-fashioned white patent purse up to the crook of her elbow and slammed the door. “My point is that you were right. As much as I wish we could, we can’t leave things the way they are.”
They set off shoulder to shoulder through the trees that cut the visitor parking area off from the cemetery where Cassie’s father had so recently been interred. Pru’s expression was unreadable, but the kitten heels of her shoes clicked on the asphalt in a decisive rhythm. Barrie juggled the casserole, and as they rounded the corner, the shoebox house where the Colesworth family lived came into sight at the edge of the woods between the Colesworth property and Beaufort Hall. Farther on, toward the river, the ruined columns and crumbling chimneys of the old mansion cast long shadows over the kitchen, slave cabins, and other outbuildings that Wyatt Colesworth had been obsessed with restoring. Watched over by a dozen ravens perched at the top of the columns, the archaeological dig area that had recently been torn up by violence was surrounded by yellow police tape, and on the far
side of it, two sheriff’s deputies sat in their cruiser beneath a thick-trunked oak.
A sickening wave of lostness pulled at Barrie from the dig site, a physical reminder that, regardless of what she wanted, her gift wouldn’t let her walk away. Along with the lodestone that anchored the Colesworth curse and the angry spirits who had cast the evil magic—not to mention eight million dollars, give or take, of stolen Union gold—Charlotte Colesworth’s skeleton was still buried down there. Somebody had to get her out, and the archaeologists had already made it clear they were going to continue the excavation.
That was the problem with Watson Island. There were too many secrets and dangers lurking beneath the surface, waiting for someone to stumble over them.
All three of the pirates who had founded the plantations—Watson’s Landing, Beaufort Hall, and Colesworth Place—had built secret tunnels and rooms so well hidden that they’d long been forgotten, the way unpleasant things in a family’s past were easier to forget when you shut them away. Their descendants had locked the doors, sealed the rooms, moved to the other side of oversize mansions, or let the grass soften the ashes and crumbled bricks of the families’ mistakes. They’d put statues of angels with fists raised against the sky over empty graves.
Hiding things was easier than repairing the damage that
they had all left behind them. Barrie had learned the hard way that when it came to emotions, you couldn’t heal until you acknowledged what was lost. And thanks to the bindings that came with the magic in all three families, none of the eldest heirs could leave the plantations without suffering migraines that in the past had driven people crazy or moved them to suicide. There was no way to escape.
Thinking of the bindings made Barrie stop abruptly. “Would you mind going ahead without me for a minute, Aunt Pru? I want to try Eight again before I talk to Cassie. I’m worried that he still hasn’t called me back.”
“Of course.” Pru adjusted her purse and took the casserole dish Barrie handed her. Then she patted Barrie on the cheek. “Don’t worry too much if he won’t talk yet, though. He’s got a good streak of the Beaufort stubbornness, but as mad as he may be that you didn’t tell him about the binding, you’d only known about it a couple of days. His father kept it from him his entire life. Those two have a lot of ground to cover, and I’ve no doubt that’s keeping Eight distracted.”
Barrie wished she were as certain of that as Pru. She dialed Eight’s number while her aunt walked on toward the small brick house with its too-bright shutters and overly ornate front door.
The phone rang and rang. Then abruptly Eight’s voice
was there, that soft drawl with a sultry hint of gravel. “Stop calling me, Bear. I’ll call you when I can talk.”
Eleven little words, that was all, but his voice was raw. Barrie wondered if she’d ever stop seeing him the way he had looked that morning at the dig site when she’d finally told him about the Beaufort binding. A salt-edged breeze from the Atlantic had swept up the Santisto River to stir his hair, and his lips had still been reddened from kissing her. But he’d hunched in on himself as if she’d hit him when he’d realized she had known he was going to inherit the binding that would confine him to the place he’d been wanting to escape from all his life.
Barrie’s breath hitched, and she felt stupid and lost all over again. In the time that she had known him, Eight had shown her weaknesses inside herself she would never have explored without him, shown her possibilities she had never even considered. Holding the phone to her ear, she looked out across the excavation area, where the evening sunlight glinted on the plastic sheeting that covered the hole that Ryder’s and Junior’s pickaxes had made in the arched ceiling of the hidden room that morning. The sight was a reminder of what happened when you tried to keep secrets buried.
“Tell me we can fix this, Eight. Tell me what I can do,” she said. “At least tell me you’re all right.”
“How can I be all right? My entire life has been a lie, and
the future I wanted isn’t going to be a possibility. You knew that, and you didn’t tell me. You made choices for me because you didn’t think I could handle the truth—”
“I never intended to make decisions for you. I was only going to help Obadiah break the curse before I told you—I wanted to be sure it was possible and safe before I got your hopes up about him breaking the Beaufort binding—” Barrie cut herself off and sighed. “It sounds like I’m making excuses for myself, and I don’t mean to do that. I was wrong. I know I was wrong. I should have told you. At first Obadiah’s magic was messing with my ability to tell you anything, and then I thought that if you and your father were ever going to have any kind of a relationship again, he needed to be the one to tell you, but that wasn’t fair to you.”
“You’re still making excuses. I don’t need you to protect me. You chose your gift over me, and you didn’t trust me to understand the choices you were making. You lied to me. Over and over again, and I always forgave you. This time, I’m not sure I can. All along, you’ve been worried about my gift making me want what you want and about whether I want you for yourself. I never cared about that, but I don’t want someone who can’t be honest with me. I don’t want to be with anyone who manipulates me. I get enough of that at home. And since my gift makes it harder for me to separate what I want from what you want, at least for now, I can’t be with you.”
Barrie stared at the ground. There wasn’t anything she could say to counter that. All she could do was tell him how she felt. “I should have explained. You’re right. I was afraid of losing my gift, and I should have trusted you to understand. I should have known you would. I don’t want to lose you, Eight. Don’t shut me out. I get that you need some space, but give me a chance to show you that I can do better. I swear I can. I want you to be involved in all the decisions from now on. I’m over here at Colesworth Place, and the archaeologists are coming back to start digging again tomorrow. We still have to get rid of the curse—”
“We don’t have to do anything. I’m done caring about Cassie, her curse, or her stupid treasure. I have my father to deal with, and I have to go to Columbia tomorrow to meet with the baseball coach again and finalize things at the university for next semester.” He paused, and his voice grew softer. “I’m not sure I’m going to come back.”
“What do you mean?” Barrie’s chest clenched, and for the first time since Eight had walked away from her that afternoon, she let herself consider the possibility that she couldn’t fix what she had broken between them. That he was really done. But she couldn’t—wouldn’t—consider that. “Don’t leave,” she said. “Running away doesn’t solve any problems. You’re the one who taught me that. We have to talk—”
“No,” Eight said. “We don’t. My whole life is up in the air, and I need to figure it out myself.”
He hung up before Barrie could say anything else, and she stood with tears burning her eyes and the phone digging into her hand, listening to the silence, as if by some miracle Eight would pick up again and assure her that he’d eventually forgive her. That they could find a way to work things out. But miracles didn’t happen, and no form of magic would let her rewind her mistakes. She couldn’t make him get over the way she’d hurt him or forget that she hadn’t trusted him with the truth.
She had to find a way to fix things. Hurting Eight was the very last thing she had ever meant to do. Losing him had shown her that she couldn’t bear to lose him.
She looked up as a bird fluttered out of the lower branches of an oak to perch on the upraised arm of the angel statue above Charlotte’s grave. Feathers ruffled and yellow eyes bright, it cocked its head to peer at her. Barrie’s heart filled with outrage and dread and hope in equal measure, because it was Obadiah who had pushed her into all of this with his magic and his threats. She reached out toward the bird with her own magic, but she was still too inexperienced, too uncertain of the way the Watson gift had been growing and changing since her mother’s death.
The raven wasn’t lost. It didn’t need returning. As to
whether it was one of the ravens that often accompanied Obadiah or the man himself, on that subject, her gift was stubbornly unhelpful.
Taking a step toward the bird, Barrie held her hand out. “Obadiah? Is that you?”