The last miles of the journey stretched eternally, and Watson’s Landing pulled more and more on Barrie’s finding gift. The ache at her temples had never been absent since she and Eight and Seven Beaufort had flown out to San Francisco to retrieve her godfather’s ashes. Now the pain swelled to a pounding pressure.
Seven turned the Jaguar off the bridge from the mainland onto Watson Island. Slitting her eyes, Barrie tried to avoid the afternoon sun slanting through the oaks that shadowed the road along the water’s edge. The blackwater Santisto River surrounded three sides of the island, but the Atlantic Ocean on the Eastern side added a familiar tang of salt to the tannin-scented air and made her more eager still. A few miles later, the car clattered across the smaller wooden bridge
spanning the creek that separated the Watson property from the other half of the island, and a historical marker stood at the edge of the high wall that skirted the rice plantation Barrie’s family had owned since 1692. Beyond the bricks lay the Watson woods, with the Fire Carrier’s Scalping Tree at their heart. The thought both drew Barrie and repelled her.
“There, you see? Almost home.” From the backseat behind her, Eight reached over and lightly touched Barrie’s shoulder. “You’ll feel better in a second, Bear.”
Barrie smiled absently in the passenger seat, tightening her grip on the boxed urn she held in her lap. She braced herself as Seven swung into the driveway. The car stopped in front of the wrought-iron gate decorated with its ornate gold W and swirling hearts.
Perceptions were fickle things, as formless as smoke and just as dangerous. Weeks ago, when Barrie had first seen the plantation her mother had run away from in her teens, the light clawing through the haunts of Spanish moss along the avenue of ancient oaks had seemed ominous, and the down-at-the-heels mansion beyond the trees had appeared forbidding.
So much had changed since then. The things Barrie had considered “safe” at first had tried to kill her, and the spirits and the landscape that had frightened her initially were part of what she’d missed the most these past four days.
Leaning forward, she waited for the gate to open. It occurred to her only as the sticky heat blasted into the car from Seven’s lowered window that the entrance shouldn’t have been shut at all—not on a Sunday afternoon in tourist season. Trying and failing to tamp down a twinge of panic, she turned to Seven, who had reached out to press the intercom button set into the thick brick pillar.
“Why is the gate closed?” Barrie asked.
Seven didn’t answer, and in the backseat, fabric rustled across the leather as Eight shifted and slid his eyes away. Not that their evasions delayed the truth for long.
The Watson gift for finding lost things had continued to grow stronger since Barrie’s mother’s death. A tug of pressure pulled her toward the answer, which was hidden from view by Seven’s shoulder. Craning her head around him, she discovered that someone had taped a sheet of yellow paper over the plaque on the gatepost:
Tearoom and gardens
closed to the public
until further notice.
“All right, what’s going on?” Fighting to keep her voice level, Barrie skewered Eight with a glare. “What happened? Did Pru hurt herself? Where is she?”
“Your aunt’s okay,” Eight answered at the same moment Seven said, “Pru’s just fine.”
Barrie looked from one to the other, but it was Seven who had spent the most time on the phone with Pru. “Out with it,” Barrie commanded. “What are you hiding?”
In the rearview mirror, Eight and Seven flicked each other looks that acknowledged guilt.
“There’s been a bit of trouble with reporters and ghost hunters since the story broke about the explosion,” Seven hastened to say. “Nothing to worry about. Pru and I decided it was better to close up in an abundance of caution.”
“You and Pru decided . . . ,” Barrie repeated. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
Seven’s face smoothed into the typical Beaufort for your own good expression that drove Barrie nuts. He jabbed the intercom button again, and Barrie aimed an expectant and disapproving eyebrow in Eight’s direction.
“Well?” she asked.
A hint of red spilled across Eight’s cheeks. “Come on, Bear. You were already dealing with packing up the rest of your mother’s things.” Losing his usual confident calm, he waved a hand toward the box on Barrie’s lap. “Not to mention Mark.”
Grief didn’t make Barrie fragile. She would have told Eight that, but the intercom crackled, and her aunt’s voice came across the wireless system.
“Hello? Who’s there?” Pru asked.
Seven’s expression softened as it did whenever he spoke to Pru. “Just us,” he said.
“Well, thank God for that. Hold on, and I’ll buzz you through.”
It was so good to hear the honey-slow pace of her aunt’s South Carolina drawl that Barrie’s train of thought evaporated briefly. But then the exchange only heightened her sense that the situation was worse than the Beauforts let on. Turning in her seat, she studied them. They were a matched set in their pastel oxford shirts, with their stubborn-jawed faces and their hair lightened by the sun.
She wasn’t sure which of them frustrated her more. They both had the infuriating bossiness that came with the Beaufort gift of knowing what people wanted and being compelled to give it to them. Seven even more so, as Barrie had discovered the past few days. But Eight? He was supposed to be on her side. He shouldn’t have kept things from her. Not about Watson’s Landing.
Technically, the plantation still belonged to Pru, but it was Barrie who was bound to the land by blood, magic, and inheritance. The house, the gardens, the woods where the Fire Carrier disappeared each night, and the spirits of the yunwi that the ancient witch kept corralled on the island with his nightly ceremony of fire on the river were all Barrie’s responsibility.
The word felt right as Barrie thought it. She was responsible. Because who else could be? Pru barely had the Watson gift at all; she had never been the true heir. As the younger twin, younger than Barrie’s mother, Lula, the gift had touched Pru only incidentally, and she couldn’t see the spirits or feel the land as strongly as Barrie did. And how was Barrie supposed to protect the yunwi or keep Watson’s Landing safe if no one let her know what was going on?
She had every intention of telling Eight exactly why he was wrong and what kind of betrayal it was to keep secrets from her, but before she could open her mouth to speak, he leaned closer with his uncanny green eyes intent on hers.
“You’re right, we should have told you,” he said, echoing her thoughts the way the Beaufort gift so often let him. “But what was the point of worrying you? You couldn’t do anything while we were away.”
“Can’t do much even now. The Santisto’s a public river,” Seven said.
Barrie swung her attention back to him. “What does this have to do with the river?”
“There are a few boats using it to watch what’s going on here. Reporters and people hoping to see the Fire Carrier.” Seven pushed the car back into gear. “Don’t worry. The excitement will die down after your cousin’s hearing and
Wyatt’s funeral. Everything will go back to normal.”
In front of them, the black iron gate trembled and began to slide. A dozen or more knee-high figures with mischievous, childlike faces rushed through the opening toward Barrie’s side of the car. Their shadow-shapes were hard to see because of the daylight and the speed with which they moved, but their eyes etched dim trails of fire and gold into the air behind them. Barrie smiled and rolled down the window to stretch out her hand.
A movement on the six-foot wall beside the gatepost made her pause.
There was a man sitting up on top. He was dark from head to toe, dressed in a black suit with a sheen that blended into his skin and an aubergine silk shirt, and he was reading a newspaper so casually, he could as easily have been sitting at home on his sofa. He turned and looked dead at Barrie. Thick rows of dreadlocks swung past his shoulders, and when he lowered the newspaper, something white flashed in sharp contrast against his wrist.
Barrie shaded her eyes, and he smiled . . . and vanished. Between one blink and the next, the top of the wall was empty except for a large raven sitting in the spot where the man had been. The bird peered at her with its head tilted considerably.
“Bear? Are you all right?” Eight grasped Barrie’s shoulder. “What happened? You’ve gone as white as a sheet.” He
managed to avoid the five-day-old stitches where a piece of her uncle’s exploding speedboat had sliced into Barrie’s muscle as she’d tried to swim across the river, but she flinched anyway, and shivered.
“There was a . . . ,” she began, but before she could mention the man she had seen, she couldn’t remember what she had meant to say.
Eight’s forehead creased into worried lines. “There was a what? A person? Another reporter? Someone snooping around?”
Barrie tried to focus. She was supposed to remember something. . . . Her thoughts were sluggish, as if she were trying to think through quicksand. What had she been looking for? Why was she staring at an ordinary raven on the wall?
“Sorry. Nothing.” She shook her head to clear it. “It was nothing.”
The look Eight threw her was as sharp as it was reproachful. “One of your ‘nothings’ usually means there’s something. You’re not going to start keeping secrets again because we’re back, are you?”
“Pot, kettle, black, baseball guy. You’re the one keeping secrets.”
She watched the raven fly away until it was only a smudge of receding darkness. She was going crazy; that was all there was to it. Not that it was any wonder, with everything that
had happened and the migraine that hadn’t let up in days.
Seven had stopped to look around instead of driving through the gate, which wasn’t helping any. Rubbing the ache at her temple, Barrie nodded toward the entrance. “Can we please just go?” she asked.
The relief was instantaneous. The moment the car tires crunched on the white oyster shell and gravel of the avenue between the oaks, the Watson gift released its grip, as if Barrie had merely been another lost object that she was compelled to return to its proper place.
She sagged into her seat and filled her lungs with air scented by jasmine and magnolia. Fingers of moss hanging from the oak canopy overhead swayed in the breeze from the river, and the graceful old mansion at the end of the drive glowed white and gold in the waning sun. For once, all the dark green shutters hung straight and properly in place.
Ghost hunters or not, it was a relief—a joy—to be back. Barrie took in the wide lawns and the maze of hedges between the house and the Watson woods where the ground sloped gently toward the river that formed the boundary between Watson’s Landing and the Beaufort and Colesworth plantations on the opposite bank.
But a blue-canopied speedboat and two smaller craft marred the view.
Barrie wasn’t prepared for the way the sight felt wrong.
The boats staked out beyond the rippling expanse of marsh grass made her muscles tighten as if her whole body had turned into a charley horse and needed to be unclenched.
She wasn’t afraid; the claustrophobic feeling wasn’t one of her usual panic attacks, which, thank goodness, were becoming rare. This was something different, an anger that came from an urge to protect Pru and Watson’s Landing. Barrie wasn’t even sure how much of that emotion came from a natural sense of violation on hearing about the intruders, and how much stemmed from the magical binding that connected her to Watson’s Landing more strongly day by day.
With a glance at the yunwi running alongside the car, she drew the box with Mark’s urn closer to her chest. “Those are the boats you were talking about, the ghost hunters? How does anyone know the Fire Carrier was involved? Eight and I never told the police—or anyone.”
“You didn’t need to mention it.” Seven’s voice and eyes had both grown cold. “Enough people have claimed to see the flames on the river over the years, or at least they’ve heard the legend of the fire at midnight. Someone was bound to put two and two together when Wyatt’s boat exploded at that time of night—”
He broke off abruptly, but it was too late. Tears pricked Barrie’s eyes, and the memories swept in before she blinked: the face tattooed on the back of Ernesto’s skull, the strength of
his grip, the ache of his booted feet connecting with her ribs. None of it had faded from her nightmares yet, but it was her uncle’s voice that haunted her. Wyatt’s voice ordering her into the boat so they could take her out to kill her.
She couldn’t be sorry that he and Ernesto were dead.
She refused to be sorry.
A muscle ticked along Eight’s jaw as he read her, and he leaned toward her in concern.
She shook her head and turned back to Seven. “There isn’t anything you can do about the boats? There has to be some way to get rid of them.”
The instinct to protect Watson’s Landing was so new, she didn’t understand it herself. She didn’t expect Seven to mirror her outrage, but his eyes flashed, something real and raw sparking behind them before he seemed to get hold of himself. Then he rubbed his head with an exhausted wince, as if Barrie’s migraine had been contagious.
“Better to let the interest die down on its own,” he said. “Anything we do is only going to create more publicity. Your aunt’s put up NO TRESPASSING signs around the dock and shoreline, and so far that seems to be working. She hasn’t seen anyone coming ashore here the way the treasure hunters have done at Colesworth Place—”
“Treasure hunters?” Barrie’s voice was sharp. “I thought we were finally done with Cassie’s imaginary treasure.”
Seven swerved to avoid the white peacock and pair of peahens that had strayed too close to the road. “The treasure might not be so imaginary after all. One of the reporters found an old newspaper article while he was snooping around. Alcee Colesworth took up the family tradition of privateering during the Civil War—”
“Piracy,” Barrie said. “Call it what it is.”
“Privateering sanctioned by the Jefferson Davis government,” Seven corrected, “at least in this instance. Although, in typical Colesworth fashion, Alcee never shared his last prize with anyone. His ship sank outside Charleston Harbor, and by the time they managed to raise it, the gold had disappeared. It’s not a stretch to assume he kept it for himself.”
Not long ago, Barrie would have argued Seven’s assumption. She would have said it was unfair to jump to conclusions merely because of the feud that had existed between the Colesworths and the Watsons and Beauforts for three hundred years. Barrie was, after all, a Colesworth, too, on her father’s side. But she had learned the hard way that the feud existed because the Colesworths weren’t capable of being honest with anyone, or of accepting a hand offered to them in friendship. Why her mother had ever run off with one of them, Barrie would never understand. But Lula had spent the remainder of her life paying bitterly for that mistake.
The idea that Cassie had actually told the truth about the
treasure . . . about anything? Barrie didn’t believe that, and what her finding gift had sensed at Colesworth Place hadn’t felt like gold or money.
She stared through the trees to the dark water of the Santisto, gleaming with the dull sheen of tarnished silver. On the opposite bank, the jagged columns and shattered chimneys that were all that remained of the ruined Colesworth mansion stood atop a shallow rise. As always, the sight made Barrie thankful that Watson’s Landing was still intact. A little frayed at the edges, like one of her aunt Pru’s well-worn sundresses, but perfect and beautiful and familiar.
Only the boats were wrong. Barrie shivered as she remembered the last boat the Fire Carrier had encountered, and her breath came easier once the river was out of sight.
The Jaguar crawled to a stop in the circular drive below the columned portico. At the top of the wide front steps, one of the double doors flew open, and Barrie’s aunt hurried down to meet them. Barrie was barely out of the car before Pru was there, flinging her arms wide and then squeezing hard enough to make Barrie’s stitches groan.
“Lord, I’ve missed you! It seems like a month since you left.” Pru stood back to look at Barrie critically before giving Seven a baleful frown. “Didn’t you feed this child while you were gone, Seven Beaufort? She’s likely to disappear on us.” Leaning forward, she kissed Barrie on the forehead. “Now,
don’t you worry, sugar. We’ll get you straightened out in no time. I’m making a beef roast with sweet potatoes for supper, and I’ve got bourbon chocolate cake for dessert. That’s the only upside to having the tearoom closed: there’s plenty of time for cooking.”
Barrie shifted the box to her other arm and gave a reluctant nod.
Pru eyed the box a little wildly. “Is that . . . Oh, honey, have you been holding him all this time?”
“I couldn’t put him in the luggage.” Barrie was pleased her voice didn’t tremble.
“Do you want any help finding a place to put . . . him?” Pru turned helplessly to Seven, but he was watching her as if she were a slice of his favorite whoopie pie cake and he wanted to eat her up.
Barrie couldn’t help an inward smile. “You and Seven go do whatever you need to do in the kitchen.” She held her hand out to Eight as he popped the trunk to get the suitcases. “Eight can come and help me.”
Apart from needing to find a safe place for Mark, she and Eight hadn’t had a moment all day to be alone.