Maud's face was taut with rage. "Katherine Alice. How could you sit here and listen to...to this nonsense! I loved your mother."
I goggled at her, unsure if I was really seeing her or not. "Maud? Why are you here?"
She snorted, delicately, and stepped into the seat Clay scrambled to offer. Ignoring his furious blush and his protests that he hadn't meant it, that he'd only thought she was involved in the beginning, she looked straight at me, seething.
"I came here.....because Minna Clairborne called me. She seems to think you needed me to be here for this festival of yours, that you needed me to see what you've done over your summer. Now I walk in here and you're listening to lies. Katherine Alice, did I raise you this way?"
Porter's hand was warm around mine, his presence calming. His eyes when they met mine were confused but steadfast. He had no idea what was happening, but offered love and support.
"No, Maud, you didn't. I'm really glad you came for the festival. This is, though, my home, and you should have called to let me know you were coming.Clay and Porter and I were discussing the night my mother disappeared. Do you have something to add?"
Maud made a rude noise. "I'd love to hear this conversation."
Porter looked over at her, his dark eyes flashing. "The night Katie's Mama disappeared, you were here. What happened, Maud?"
Maud was vibrating a little in her chair, the anger pulsing up from her clenched hands into the taut cords in her throat. I could tell she really wanted to tell the gardener's son that he was meddling in things that weren't any of his business, but she held it in. "Katie? You call her Katie?"
Porter nodded. "I do."
Maud dismissed him with a flick of her eyes and centered in on me. "You know she was wandering out of the house at night, right?"
I shook my head. Clay nodded. "I did hear something about that."
I shot him a narrow-eyed look but kept silent.
Maud snorted. "Two gorgeous babies, a husband that adored her, a new house, gardens to play in. None of it was enough for her. She wouldn't sleep, wouldn't eat, wouldn't nurse you - she said she could feel her life being sucked out of her when she did - walked all over the property in her nightdress (Maud's voice was scandalized. You'd have thought poor Mama had been caught voting Democrat) and wouldn't tell us what was wrong. I begged her, Katherine Alice. She was asleep. Like her light had gone out. We'd bring her the baby - you - and she'd smile and coo but the minute we left her with you she'd just let you cry.
She started stalking the grounds soon after that. You were hungry all the time. We tried you on goats milk and cows milk and honey and water, but you were never full. Never happy. Always red-faced and screaming. It got so your Daddy was the only one who could talk Alice into feeding you at all, and only if he distracted her long enough. Most of the time she'd listen to him for awhile then reach down and yank you away, and you'd squall loud enough so she'd leave. Go walking in her gardens, her blouse all rucked up and barely covering her.
Maud went on, her finger stabbing the air for emphasis. "She was going to leave your father, you know. She was going to move back home - Stanton tried to talk her out of it, but she was determined - and leave Dover with a toddler and a baby. And Alice wouldn't have looked back."
"There was something broken in her. And she was getting wild. There were nights when I'd come up to Bailey and she'd not come to bed all night. Dover would rock you and rock you and rock you, but even though you were wailing loud enough to wake the neighbors - Minna even offered to feed you, since she'd just had Julia, but your father wouldn't hear of it - your mother was indifferent. She'd coo at you during the day, but the night times were different. It was like she was made of stone."
Clay handed me his handkerchief, and I realized then that my cheeks were wet. My heart and my head hurt.
"So Mama didn't want a baby. Where did she go, Maud?" Maud looked down at the table and I knew. Cold ice shooting down my spine, I let go of Porter's hand and sat up straight in my chair. "So...your niece wasn't doing well with motherhood, and she was going to leave her husband and go back to her parents' house." My voice was eerily calm. "Great-Aunt Maud? When did you decide you had to kill her?"
Maud's head snapped up and she focused a look of loathing at me. "Can you really see me murdering your mother? My brother's daughter?"
I blew out a breath. "No, I can't, really. But I'll bet you do know what happened to her." I could tell by the way she looked away from my gaze and winced that I wasn't wrong.
Clay learned forward. "Maud, it's been so many years. Where did Alice go?"
I opened my mouth to snap that I knew Alice hadn't just gone away, but Maud blew out a long troubled breath and I stilled.
Maud's voice was so quiet we all leaned in as one. "I would never have hurt Alice. I couldn't. I was furious with her, angry that she wouldn't see what precious gifts she was throwing away and broken-hearted when she wouldn't let any of us get close to help her, but hurt her? No."
"It was almost two in the morning, and Alice was up, pacing the house. I had sent your father to bed an hour before. This was getting to him, too, and he'd been hitting the whiskey. I was standing in the kitchen holding you, and you were screaming so hard your face was blood red, and it was like we weren't even in the room. She was like an animal. And all she wanted to do was escape."
Maud was looking at her hands folded in her lap. She sucked in a deep breath and then focused on me. "Kitty, I let her out of the house. I thought it would do her some good to get out in the fresh air (the rain had stopped for a bit that night) and while she was gone I could try and get you to take a bottle and maybe you'd fall asleep." She sighed. "You didn't like the bottle. I didn't realize how long Alice had been gone until I heard the clock chime. I put you in your bassinet there by the stove and went out to find her."
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