A fresh wave of guilt washed over her. A fifth child on the way, and now she was a widow. Her other children had fled. She prayed they would come back when their grief and anger subsided. Surely they would not leave her for good.
But something told her that their family had permanently shattered. More important — the future of the entire world had splintered. Together, her children might’ve completed their father’s work. Separately, they had gone into the world with secrets powerful enough to change history. Judging from what Gideon had told her, each of them carried a serum that would fundamentally alter their chemistry, instilling greatness and talents to them and their descendants for generations to come. They might be saints or monsters, kings or villains, but Olivia feared that separately, the children of the Cahills would never achieve Gideon’s dreams. They would keep fighting, struggling with one another as they had always done, but now their squabbles would shape the course of civilization. The world would be their battleground.
We will be together again, Gideon had said — a cruel last memory of her husband. She looked down at his lifeless form and clasped his fingers. His gold ring glinted, its strange rows of engraved symbols even more pronounced with soot filling the grooves.
Many times she’d pleaded with Gideon to hide the ring or send it away, but he’d insisted that he could only keep it safe by keeping it close. Now that burden fell to Olivia.
Above all, Lord Vesper must never have it, Gideon once told her. If he asks about it, tell him it has sentimental value. Perhaps an heirloom from your family, which you gave to me as a token of our marriage, eh? Perhaps that will keep him from demanding it. The man is like a crow. Shiny things catch his eye.
Olivia’s eyes fixed on the golden band. Blood rushed in her ears, and she was so overwhelmed with dread and grief that she didn’t hear the approaching footsteps until Damien Vesper said, “My dear Olivia. I’m so sorry.”
Vesper so rarely spoke to her, at first she was too astonished to respond.
He was dressed in black velvet, with soft leather boots and a silver chain around his neck. His expression was appropriately mournful, but his eyes were bright and greedy. Like a crow, Gideon had remarked.
Vesper’s hand rested on the pommel of his sword. She noticed his eyebrows had been scorched clean off. Behind him stood two guards — men she’d never seen before. Already he’d replaced the two he’d lost in the fire.
“You demon,” Olivia spat. “You did this. Your men are in the ruins, dead. You killed my husband.”
Vesper’s expression hardened. “I assure you, madam, I did not. As for my men, I’m sure they came here to help. I grieve as much as you do. I consider this fire a great tragedy.”
Olivia realized that he meant it but for all the wrong reasons. He cared nothing for his dead servants. He barely looked at poor Gideon’s body. Instead, Vesper was mourning the ruins of the lab — all those valuable secrets gone.
“Gideon thwarted you,” she said. “Whatever you were looking for, it’s been destroyed. Though I suppose you’ll want to pick through the ruins yourself.”
He met her eyes. Olivia did not flinch. Vesper had a reputation for reading faces, but Olivia was an actress of great talent. She’d grown up in a family of older brothers, all of them smart and strong. She could lie as needed, and swaggering men like Lord Vesper did not scare her.
“You know of Gideon’s research, madam?” he asked.
“I’m a woman,” she said flatly. “What would I know of such things?”
Vesper hesitated, then nodded. Olivia marveled at how blind men could be. Vesper might be a genius, but women and children were alien species to him. Gideon had been right. Hiding the formula with his family had made it nearly invisible to Lord Vesper.
“Your family is safe?” he asked, though he did not seem terribly concerned.
“Gone to the mainland,” she said. “They could not bear the sight of these ruins. Or of you, my lord.”
“Indeed? Leaving you all alone?”
“I’m sure they’ll be back soon,” she lied, “with the priest and the town elders and a good number of townsfolk. Gideon was well loved by your people.”
Lord Vesper tensed, and Olivia knew he understood her meaning. Vesper might have many servants and allies around the world, but he was not well loved by his own people. If word began spreading that Vesper had a hand in Gideon’s death, killing a man the peasants believed was a saint, working to free them from the plague …
“I see.” Vesper backed up a step. He looked down at Gideon’s body, and his nose wrinkled with distaste. Then he froze. Vesper had noticed the ring.
“A beautiful trinket,” he mused. “It looks different somehow….”
“A token of my love to Gideon,” Olivia said as casually as she could manage. “An heirloom of my family.”
“Will he be buried with it?”
Olivia felt the moment’s importance, as if she were poised on the edge of a knife. Generations of Cahills — the future of the world itself — might be shaped by what she said and did next.
She tugged the ring off her husband’s finger and thrust it toward Lord Vesper. “Do you want it, my lord? My wedding token to Gideon? Would you deprive me of that, too? Go on, then. Take it!”
Vesper’s lip curled. He stepped away, immediately losing interest.
As Olivia had hoped: Anything freely given couldn’t be worth much to a man like Damien Vesper. And a token of love? Worse than useless. He was a predator, a hunter by nature.
“There is no need to search the ruins,” he decided. “Nothing could have survived.”
“Because you were here when the laboratory exploded,” Olivia guessed. “You saw it yourself.”
Vesper smiled coldly. “We’ll leave you to your grief, madam.”
Olivia eased Gideon’s head off her lap. She stood, clenching her fists. “You’ll do more than that, my lord. You’ll leave this island, and you’ll never come back.”
The guards frowned, obviously confused. Had a ragged, soot-covered woman just ordered Lord Vesper to leave?
“This is Cahill land,” Olivia said. “Given by royal charter. You are a guest here, but no longer. Leave now, my lord. I must bury my husband.”
Vesper stared at her, his knuckles white on the pommel of his sword. Olivia met his eyes and let him know that she — a woman, a grieving wife and mother — was more dangerous right now than any weapon he could ever create. She would get her way, or she would destroy him.
One dangerous predator to another, Lord Vesper seemed to understand her. He nodded, his cold eyes boring into hers.
“Very well,” he decided. “There is nothing left here worthy of my attention, at any rate. But, madam, I am still the lord of these lands. I will keep my eye on you and your family. If I find you have deceived me, if I come to suspect that you have hidden anything from me —”
“A widow and her children?” Olivia asked, feigning amazement. “How could we hide something from the eyes of Lord Vesper?”
Vesper wavered, perhaps catching a whiff of her sarcasm, but his pride won out. “Indeed,” he muttered. “Remember me, madam. For I will remember you.”
He turned and left, his guards falling in behind him.
Olivia did not relax until they reached the docks in the distance. She watched as the guards began preparing the lord’s boat for crossing.
She turned to the ruins of her family house, the burned garden, and the dining table sitting in the fields, the only part of her old life left unscathed.
She looked down at her husband’s pale face. No one would help her bury him, but she would manage. She would lay him to rest in the same graveyard where Cahills had been buried for generations.
Olivia might not be ladylike, young, or beautiful. She might not warrant a second look from a man like Lord Vesper, but she was strong. She could handle a shovel as well as a dagger or a cooking fire.
She slipped Gideon’s gold ring on her finger, though it was much too big. She would need a chain to put it around her neck, she decided.
“I will keep it safe, Gideon,” she promised. “Vesper will never have it.”
Whatever Lord Vesper was hunting, he wouldn’t succeed — not as long as Olivia Cahill drew breath. And she had a more important goal to keep her going. She must find a way to bring her children back.
“Some day, Gideon,” she swore, “our family will sit again around this dining table. We will come together.”
She glanced up as the morning sun illuminated the cliffs. Near the top was the cave where Gideon had proposed to her, and where Gideon’s great ancestor, Madeleine the Matriarch, had surveyed the island and claimed it for her own.
Olivia rested her hand on her belly, though she could not feel the child kicking yet.
“I will name you Madeleine,” she said. “You and I will preserve this place and bring our family back together.”
Olivia kissed her husband’s golden ring. She would keep the ring a secret, next to her heart, for the rest of her life.
She must be strong. She needed no serum for that. She only needed her faith in her family. Someday, the Cahills would reunite. No one, not even Lord Damien Vesper, would stop her from succeeding.
She picked up a shovel from the garden and went to dig her husband’s grave.
MADELEINE CAHILL 1526
As the last student fell unconscious to his desk, Madeleine Babbitt thought about lies.
She’d lived inside them all her life. Lies and secrets. Now she could shout out the truth, and no one would hear it. She smiled as she pulled a pencil from under the face of a slumped-over Flynn O’Halloran. His head thumped, echoing through the Xenophilus Institute of Alchemy, a grand name for a one-room schoolhouse made of clay and dried peat.
Maddy Babbitt, scared as a rabbit, they called her. She had acted the part almost all of her nineteen years. To keep attention away. To keep from being noticed. She almost believed she was that person. The stammer and the apologies had become part of her until her bolder side nearly faded away. Today, when Flynn had swiped her project notes and read them aloud, she had shrunk away. A sleeping potion — aren’t you boring enough? he’d taunted. Everyone had dared her to demonstrate. So she had.
And it felt wonderful.
“Sleep well, my friends,” she said, capping a vial of amber liquid. She glanced outside, looking for Professor Xenophilus, who had missed class today. A pity. He was probably lost in his own laboratory work, concocting medicines and marvelous inventions.
“As you only sniffed the potion on a handkerchief,” she continued to the silent class, “you will waken in five minutes, fizzy and refreshed. Had it entered your bloodstream directly, it would take an hour.”
Her stammer was gone. How liberating to speak to a stupefied audience! As she placed the vial into a pouch that hung around her neck, she felt fit to burst. Two decades of pent-up secrets bounced around inside her like unruly puppies before an opening door. “And also,” she blurted out, “my name is not Maddy Babbitt! It’s Madeleine …”
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