Etta shifted in her seat, drawing a look of concern from Nicholas, who’d been studying his water for the entire duration of the conversation, as if he couldn’t quite believe there wasn’t dirt swimming in it.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” Alice said again, this time with more steel in her tone, “but who are you, and why are you here?”
Might as well have it out than keep burning time. “My name is Etta. I’m her daughter.”
Nicholas sprayed the water he’d just taken a sip of, subsequently pounding his chest and choking on what he’d managed to swallow. He spun toward her in disbelief.
“Daughter?” Alice said, her voice changing completely. She was practically chirping. “That’s wonderful! My goodness. You look so much alike it’s startling. I should have known. Etta—is that short for something? What century were you born in? It’s so confusing to meet out of order, you know.”
A flood of confusing, conflicting emotions—anger, excitement, hope, frustration—swept through Etta, and it took her a second to catch her breath and process this.
“Henrietta,” Etta said. “And this is Nicholas Carter.”
“Your servant, ma’am,” Nicholas said with a nod. He put a steadying hand on Etta’s shoulder and kept her firmly in place. Etta was grateful, as she felt she was about to float up out of her skin.
“But, darling, who’s your father?” Alice asked. “Henrietta…is it…is it possibly Henry?”
Etta felt the world bottom out for the second time in less than a minute. “Henry?” she whispered.
“Etta doesn’t know her father,” Nicholas explained. “I’m afraid the situation is rather complicated.”
He did the best that he could to explain what had brought them both to her doorstep—a far better job than Etta would have managed with the thousands of thoughts rattling around her head. She watched Alice’s expression transform again, from horror to amazement to something that looked like genuine fear.
“Then you’re like us?” Etta asked. “I’m not even sure where to start with my questions.”
“I wish!” Alice let out a faint laugh, looking as overcome as Etta felt. “Professor Linden—your great-grandfather—was cousin to my father, a great friend and mentor. Neither he nor I inherited the ability from the Linden side of our family.”
“A guardian, then?” Nicholas confirmed.
Etta sat back, stunned. In her heart, Alice had always been the grandmother she’d never had. Love had been enough to sustain that feeling, even knowing there wasn’t a drop of shared blood between them. But apparently they were from the same family; distantly, maybe, but both Lindens all the same.
Alice had aged like anyone else. And when Etta’s mother had escaped Ironwood, Alice had gone to find her. Etta felt the tears prick her eyes again, swamped with the now-familiar guilt, the frustration of knowing the truth too late.
Alice protected us. She was a guardian in every sense of the word.
“They had quite the little game going,” Alice continued. “The professor would ‘happen upon’ some relic and use my father to bring it into the museum. It was very hush-hush, of course.” She lifted a chain from under her plain uniform dress, showing them the coin hanging from it. “Rose brought this back from a holiday in Greece. Greece before Christ.”
“How did she end up with the Ironwoods?” Nicholas asked.
“The professor worked very hard to keep her away from the other families, especially them,” Alice explained. “I’m sure you know, but they were at war with one another over who should be making the laws for the families—and then it was all about revenge for the natural times that were rewritten and the loved ones murdered. The professor always said that the traveler lines were on the verge of destroying themselves. As the last two living Lindens, they simply hid, rather than take sides. Once Ironwood’s control over traveling was secured, and the professor passed away…Rose spent some time with a group that banded together to travel. They called themselves refugees?”
Nicholas set his empty glass down on the side table with a bit too much force. “Refugees, you said?”
“I’ve heard of a group like that,” Nicholas explained, giving Etta a sidelong glance. “Refugees, to us, are people who, after the timeline is changed, find themselves without a home to return to. I might have been prevented from leaving my time—exiled to it—but they lost their natural times. The years they were born to, the ones they had grown and thrived in, were lost.”
“Sophia mentioned that,” Etta said. “That when the timeline changes and a traveler’s natural time is affected by a big enough shift, they don’t cease to exist, but everything and everyone they’d known might be lost.”
“Precisely. It happened constantly during the war between the families. The timeline became so unstable, so unpredictable, that many began to fear what might happen if it continued. Some of the remnants from the Jacaranda and Hemlock families eventually came to Ironwood and pledged their service and allegiance. But there was a group that dogged him for years, trying to sabotage his business holdings and retaliate on behalf of their dead loved ones…Thorns. That’s what Ironwood calls them. They’re constantly trying to create snags in the timeline that will restore their futures. That’s a dangerous group for your mother to have aligned with.”