Star Cursed - Page 25/73

Maura raises one eyebrow. “You say it as though you disapprove.”

“No. I’d just hate to see you lose basic kindness in your quest for popularity.”

Maura chortles. “I hardly think you, of all people, have the right to lecture me on kindness.”

She hurries upstairs, hips swaying, and Tess follows.

I hesitate, one hand on the banister. “I’ve never seen you and Maura argue like that.”

Elena shrugs a shoulder. “She hasn’t forgiven me.”

I stand on the bottom step, looming above Elena. I’d forgotten how petite she is; she has that kind of presence. “You toyed with her to get to me. I don’t blame her.”

“I haven’t forgiven myself, if that helps.” Elena drops her gaze to the wooden floorboards. “Be careful, Cate. I’m not the only one she’s still angry with.”

“Cate! Come on!” Maura calls imperiously from the second-floor landing.

“You’d better go. She hates being kept waiting,” Elena sighs.

“You’re not coming with us?” The Elena I left a month ago would have been eager to insinuate herself into our every conversation.

“No. I’ll let the three of you sort things out yourselves.”

My sisters lead me to their room on the third floor. Maura ties back the heavy green curtains, staring out at the snow-covered garden. Tess is inching her trunk across the floor toward the bookshelf. She kneels and undoes a false satin lining beneath her dresses, revealing two dozen books. She pulls out a battered copy of The Metamorphoses first, hugging it to her.

“I could hardly leave them behind for the Brothers to burn,” she says, catching my smile. She rifles through the rest and hands me Arabella, Brave and True. “This is for you, from Mrs. Belastra.”

I thumb through my favorite childhood novel, touched that Marianne thought of me. I hope that someday I’ll get to make amends with her, to show her how much I appreciated the sacrifices she made for Finn and me to be together, even if it didn’t seem like it at the time. “How is Marianne?”

“Did you know they burnt most of her books?” Tess’s gray eyes flash. “She smuggled a few out to customers like Father, but the rest of them—they built a bonfire right in the town square and threw them in by the wheelbarrow load. Brother Winfield even gave a speech about how important it is to guard our minds against the insidious sin of novels!”

“It must have killed Marianne to watch that.” And her son wasn’t there to comfort her. Guilt saws away at me.

“You could see the smoke for miles. We could smell it all the way at our house.” Tess cuddles her book as though protecting its delicate ears from the fate of its friends. “Father was furious. I was furious.”

“Speaking of Marianne,” Maura says, turning from the window, “I can’t believe Finn Belastra joined the Brotherhood. He doesn’t seem the type.”

She’s staring right at me, obviously waiting for my answer. How much does she know? “He isn’t.”

“Everyone at home is saying that’s why you joined the Sisterhood. Because Finn jilted you.” Maura slides the jeweled combs from her hair and lays them on her dressing table. “Is it true?”

My hands land on my hips. “No. I joined the Sisterhood to protect the two of you, because Elena was threatening you. You know that.”

“That’s too bad,” Maura sighs. “I was rather impressed. My big sister, having a scandalous love affair with the gardener! It was like something from one of my novels. You mean there was nothing between you? No stolen kisses out by the gazebo?”

“No. Well, yes. I mean, it’s not what you think,” I insist, flushed and flustered. “He didn’t jilt me. He’s not like that.”

“Of course he is. You poor thing.” Maura’s reflection stares at me from the mirror. Tess is watching, too, her gray eyes bright with sympathy. “It must have been an awful shock. Betraying his own mother, then throwing you over. He was always ambitious, wasn’t he? I remember him in Sunday school when we were little. Such a know-it-all.”

“Maura!” Tess chides. “She doesn’t want to talk about it. Stop needling her.”

“I’m not needling. I’m comforting. Perhaps I’m not very good at it.” Maura kneels and pulls a shimmering gold dress from one of her trunks. She looks up at me, her face sad, vulnerable. “I know what it’s like to be toyed with. You could have come to me, Cate. Confided in me.”

“That’s not how it was with Finn and me,” I protest. “It wasn’t like you and Elena.”

A mask slides over her face as she stands. “Of course not. I’m sure what you had was deeply profound—until he jilted you for Brother Ishida. At least now we know why you wouldn’t marry Paul. Unhook me, Tess, will you?” Maura turns her back to us.

Drat. I’ve said the wrong thing. How do I always say the wrong thing with her?

Tess obligingly begins to unhook the row of buttons down the back of Maura’s green gown. I close my eyes and pray for patience. “I wasn’t in love with Paul. Didn’t you once tell me I should only marry someone who made my heart pound?”

Maura steals a look at me in the mirror. “I wouldn’t fret about Paul. He was surprised, certainly, but he seems to be getting along well enough without you.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” I say dryly. “So he’s come back to New London?”

“Yes.” Maura’s voice is muffled as Tess pulls the dress over her head. “To take a job at Mr. Jones’s architecture firm. He said there was nothing left for him in Chatham.”

I shouldn’t ask. She wants me to ask, and I’m loath to give her the satisfaction. But I can’t resist my curiosity. “Downstairs, you said—you implied—did Paul come to call on you?”

“Don’t sound so shocked!” Maura laughs. “I am adorable, you know.”

“I do know.” She’s more beautiful than I am, more outgoing, and cleverer. She loves the city, just as Paul does, and she wants adventures. It’s not the first time I’ve thought they might make a good match, but I’m still surprised. “It’s just that the last time I saw him, he proposed to me, and the last time I saw you, you were—”

“The last time you saw me, I was a fool. My feelings for Elena were nothing but a two-minute infatuation for a teacher. I was lonely, and she flattered me, made me feel important. I was foolish enough to think it meant more than it did. I’m past that now.” Maura’s voice is clipped and angry; she doesn’t sound entirely past it.

“Now you have feelings for Paul.” I look at my sister, standing there utterly unself-consciously in her ivory corset and petticoats, red curls tumbling down her back, and I feel a strange splash of uncertainty, as though I’m looking at a stranger. Do I know her at all?

“You said I’d change my mind about marriage when I found the right man. Perhaps I have. And Paul was so hurt when you left. You didn’t even say good-bye, much less give him an answer to his proposal. He deserves better than that.”

He does, I don’t deny that, but—