A Lady by Midnight / Page 1

Page 1


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Chapter One

Summer 1814

Corporal Thorne could make a woman quiver, from all the way across the room.

An inconvenient talent, so far as Kate Taylor was concerned.

The man didn’t even have to try, she noted with a rueful twinge. All he had to do was stride into the Bull and Blossom, claim a bar stool, glower into a pewter tankard and keep his broad, hulking back to the room. And without a word . . . without so much as a glance . . . he had poor Miss Elliott’s fingers trembling as she laid them to the pianoforte keys.

“Oh, I can’t,” the girl whispered. “I can’t sing now. Not with him here.”

Yet another music lesson ruined.

Kate never had this problem until a year ago. Before then, Spindle Cove had been chiefly inhabited by ladies, and the Bull and Blossom was a quaint tea shop serving iced cakes and jam tarts. But ever since a local militia had been organized, the establishment had become both the ladies’ tea shop and the gentlemen’s tavern.

She wasn’t opposed to sharing—but there could be no “sharing” with Corporal Thorne. His stern, brooding presence took up the whole room.

“Let’s try again,” she urged her pupil, striving to ignore the intimidating silhouette looming in her peripheral vision. “We almost had it that time.”

Miss Elliott blushed and knotted her fingers in her lap. “I’ll never get it right.”

“You will. It’s only a matter of practice, and you won’t be alone. We’ll keep working at the duet, and we’ll be ready for a trial performance at this Saturday’s salon.”

At the mere word “performance,” the girl’s cheeks went crimson.

Annabel Elliott was a pretty young lady, delicate and fair—but the poor thing flushed so easily. Whenever she was flustered or nervous, her pale cheeks blazed as though they’d been slapped raw. And she was flustered or nervous far too much of the time.

Some young ladies came to Spindle Cove to recover from shyness, or scandal, or a debilitating bout with fever. Miss Elliott had been sent in hopes of a different cure: a remedy for stage fright.

Kate had been tutoring her long enough to know that Miss Elliott’s difficulty had nothing to do with a lack of talent or preparation. She only needed confidence.

“Perhaps some new sheet music would help,” Kate suggested. “I find a folio of crisp, new-smelling music to be even better for my spirits than a new bonnet.” An idea struck. “I’ll go into Hastings this week and see what I can find.”

In truth, she had been planning to visit Hastings for a completely different purpose. She had a call to pay there—one she’d been putting off. Purchasing new music made an excellent excuse.

“I don’t know why I’m so stupid,” the blushing girl lamented. “I’ve had years of excellent instruction. And I love to play. Truly, I do. But when others are listening, I always freeze. I’m hopeless.”

“You are not hopeless. No situation is ever hopeless.”

“My parents . . .”

“Your parents don’t believe you’re hopeless, either, or they wouldn’t have sent you here,” Kate said.

“They want me to have a successful season. But you don’t know the pressure they’ve put on me. Miss Taylor, you can’t possibly understand what it’s like.”

“No,” Kate admitted. “I suppose I can’t.”

Miss Elliott looked up, stricken. “I’m sorry. So sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. How thoughtless of me.”

Kate waved off the apologies. “Don’t be silly. It’s the truth. I’m an orphan. You’re absolutely right—I can’t possibly know what it’s like to have parents with such high expectations and soaring hopes.”

Though I’d give anything to experience it, just for one day.

She continued, “But I do know what a difference it makes to know you’re among friends. This is Spindle Cove. We’re all a bit unusual here. Just remember, everyone in the village is on your side.”

“Everyone?”

Miss Elliott’s wary gaze slid to the enormous, solitary man seated at the bar.

“He’s so big,” she whispered. “And so frightful. Every time I start to play, I can see him wince.”

“You mustn’t take it personally. He’s a military man, and you know they’re all addled by bomb blasts.” Kate gave Miss Elliott an encouraging pat on the arm. “Never mind him. Just hold your head high, keep a smile on your face, and continue playing.”

“I’ll try, but he’s . . . he’s rather difficult to ignore.”

Yes. He was. Didn’t Kate know it.

Even though Corporal Thorne excelled at ignoring her, she couldn’t deny his effect on her own composure. Her skin prickled whenever he was near, and on the rare occasion that he looked her way, his glare had a way of slicing deep. But for the sake of Miss Elliott’s confidence, Kate set her personal reactions aside.

“Chin high,” she quietly reminded Miss Elliott, and herself. “Keep smiling.”

Kate began playing the lower half of the duet. But when the time came for Miss Elliott’s entrance, the younger lady faltered after just a few bars.

“I’m sorry, I just . . .” Miss Elliott lowered her voice.

“Did he wince again?”

“No, worse,” she moaned. “This time he shuddered.”

With a little gasp of indignation, Kate craned her neck to view the bar. “No. He didn’t.”

Miss Elliott nodded. “He did. It was terrible.”

That sealed it. For him to ignore her pupils was one thing. Wincing was another. But there was no excuse for shuddering. Shuddering was beyond the pale.

“I’ll speak with him,” Kate said, rising from the pianoforte bench.

“Oh, don’t. I beg you.”

“It’s all right,” Kate assured her. “I’m not afraid of him. He might be brutish, but I don’t believe he bites.”

She crossed the room and came to a stop just behind Corporal Thorne’s shoulder. She almost gathered the courage to tap the tasseled epaulet of his red uniform.

Almost.

Instead she cleared her throat. “Corporal Thorne?”

He turned.

In all her life she’d never known a man who could look so hard. His face was stony—composed of ruthless, chiseled angles and unyielding planes. Its stark terrain offered her no shelter, nowhere to hide. His mouth was a grim slash. His dark brows converged in disapproval. And his eyes . . . his eyes were the blue of river ice on the coldest, harshest winter night.

Chin high. Keep smiling.

“As you might have noticed,” she said lightly, “I’m in the middle of a music lesson.”

No response.

“You see, Miss Elliott is anxious when it comes to performing for strangers.”

“You want me to leave.”

“No.” Kate’s own reply surprised her. “No, I don’t want you to leave.”

That would be letting him off too easily. He was always leaving. This was their standard interaction, time after time. Kate screwed up her courage and attempted to be friendly. He always found some excuse to promptly leave the room. It was a ridiculous game, and she was weary of it.

“I’m not asking you to leave,” she said. “Miss Elliott needs practice. She and I are going to play a duet. I’m inviting you to lend us your attention.”

He stared at her.

Kate was accustomed to awkward eye contact. Whenever she made new acquaintances, she became painfully aware that people saw only the bold, port-wine splash on her temple. For years she’d tried to obscure her birthmark with wide-brimmed bonnets or artfully arranged ringlets of hair—to no avail. People always stared straight past them. She’d learned to ignore the initial hurt. In time, she went from being just a birthmark in their eyes, to being a woman with a birthmark. And eventually they looked at her and just saw Kate.

Corporal Thorne’s gaze was altogether different. She didn’t quite know who she was, in his eyes. The uncertainty set her on a razor’s edge, but she kept struggling to find her balance.

“Stay,” she dared him. “Stay and listen while we play our best for you. Applaud when we finish. Tap your toes to the rhythm, if you like. Give Miss Elliott a bit of encouragement. And shock me to the fingernails by proving you’ve a smidgen of compassion.”

Eons passed before he finally gave his succinct, gravelly response.

“I’ll leave.”

He stood, tossed a coin on the counter. And then he walked out of the tavern without looking back.

When the red-painted door swung shut on its oiled hinges, mocking her with a loud slam—Kate shook her head. The man was impossible.

At the pianoforte, Miss Elliott resumed playing a light arpeggio.

“I suppose that solves one problem,” Kate said, trying, as always, to see the bright side. No situation was ever hopeless.

Mr. Fosbury, the middle-aged tavern keeper, arrived to clear Thorne’s tankard. He pushed a cup of tea in Kate’s direction. A wafer-thin slice of lemon floated in the center, and the aroma of brandy drifted toward her on a wave of steam. She warmed inside before she’d even taken a sip. The Fosburys were good to her.

But they still weren’t a substitute for a true family. For that, she would have to keep searching. And she would keep searching, no matter how many doors slammed in her face.

“I hope you don’t take Thorne’s crude manners to heart, Miss Taylor.”

“Who, me?” She forced a little laugh. “Oh, I’m more sensible than that. Why should I take to heart the words of a heartless man?” She ran a fingertip around the teacup’s rim, thoughtful. “But kindly do me a favor, Mr. Fosbury.”

“Whatever you ask, Miss Taylor.”

“The next time I’m tempted to extend an olive branch of friendship to Corporal Thorne . . . ?” She arched one brow and gave him a playful smile. “Remind me to whack him over the head with it instead.”

Chapter Two

“More tea, Miss Taylor?”

“No, thank you.” Kate sipped the weak brew in her cup, masking her grimace. The leaves were on their third use, at least. They seemed to have been washed of their last vague memory of being tea.

Fitting, she supposed. Vague memories were the order of the day.

Miss Paringham put aside the teapot. “Where did you say you’re residing?”

Kate smiled at the white-haired woman in the chair opposite. “Spindle Cove, Miss Paringham. It’s a popular holiday village for gently bred young ladies. I make my living offering music lessons.”

“I am glad to know your schooling has provided you with an honest income. That is more than an unfortunate like yourself should have hoped.”

“Oh, indeed. I’m very lucky.”

Setting aside her “tea,” Kate cast a surreptitious glance at the mantel clock. Time was growing short. She despised wasting precious minutes on niceties when there were questions singeing the tip of her tongue. But abruptness wouldn’t win her any answers.

A wrapped parcel lay in her lap, and she curled her fingers around the string. “I was so surprised to learn you’d settled here. Imagine, my old schoolmistress, pensioned just a few hours’ ride away. I couldn’t resist paying a call to reminisce. I have such fond recollections of my Margate years.”

Miss Paringham raised an eyebrow. “Really.”

“Oh, yes.” She stretched her mind for examples. “I particularly miss the . . . the nourishing soup. And our regular devotionals. It’s just so hard to find two solid hours for reading sermons nowadays.”

As orphans went, Kate knew she’d been a great deal happier than most. The atmosphere at Margate School for Girls might have been austere, but she hadn’t been beaten or starved or unclothed. She’d formed friendships and gained a useful education. Most important of all, she’d been instructed in music and encouraged in its practice.


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