A Lady by Midnight / Page 11

Page 11


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Kate fell back on her backside with an oof. She laughed as Badger devoured the bacon from her hand, then set about licking every trace of salt from her palm and fingertips.


“You will get me into so much trouble,” she whispered. “And I’ve no strength to chide you.”


Badger knew it, too. He cocked his head. Then his ear. Twitched his nose. Wagged his tail. As if to say, Look upon my arsenal of adorable behaviors . . . and tremble.


“This naughty little dear is Badger,” she said. “He’s the reason I came in today, Sally. I was hoping you’d have something I can use as a leash. Carrying him in the basket obviously won’t do. And perhaps you’d have some stray bits of something for him to chew? Last night, I let him destroy a copy of Mrs. Worthington’s Wisdom.”


Sally crossed her arms. “I might have a dog lead in back. As for things to gnaw . . .” She considered a moment, then snapped her fingers. “I know. What about Finn’s old leather foot? He’s been fitted with a nicer prosthetic now.”


Kate shuddered at the thought of Badger gnawing away at a human limb, even a false one. How macabre. “That’s a . . . creative . . . thought, but perhaps we’ll just stick with Mrs. Worthington’s Wisdom. It is a very useful book.”


Mrs. Highwood came down from the stepladder and examined the dog. “Wherever did you acquire such a mongrel, anyhow?”


She gave Badger a brisk rub. “Corporal Thorne picked up the little urchin from a farmer.”


Sally perked up. “That’s Thorne’s dog?”


“Well, he’s my dog now.” She covered Badger’s ears, lest he hear himself being disparaged. “It’s only a mongrel pup he took in on a whim.”


Kate knew she couldn’t offer a growing puppy the most suitable of homes. But she could give Badger love, and that was what he needed most.


Sally shook her head. “Are you certain? Rufus told me Corporal Thorne’s been wanting a coursing hound. He’s had one on special order from a breeder. The pups come quite dear, I understand.”


Kate stared at the dog in her arms. Valuable? Badger? Such a funny-looking thing, all long, thin limbs and patched fur that was not quite straight, not quite curly. He was like an animated heap of cowlicks.


And if Thorne prized him, surely he would have told her so.


“Sally, I think you must have your puppies confused.”


“For the love of St. Ursula!” Mrs. Highwood cried. She’d moved to the window. “This, I’ll have you know, is why this place is called ‘Spinster Cove.’ While you featherbrained girls carry on about mongrel dogs, there is a gentleman walking down the lane. A tall, marvelous-looking one, carrying an expensive walking stick. I detect no hint of marriage in his demeanor.”


Diana laughed. “Mama, you cannot determine a man is single just by viewing him from across the lane.”


“But I can. My intuition has never failed me.”


“His name is Lord Drewe,” Kate said. “He’s here on holiday with his two sisters and an aunt.” She prolonged the suspense another moment. “And he’s a marquess.”


“A marq—” Mrs. Highwood swayed on her feet. “An unmarried marquess. Oh, my nerves. I will faint.”


The men of the Spindle Cove militia were not particularly interested in a visiting marquess. And the addition of a few more female oddities to the Queen’s Ruby coterie was simply the normal course.


But it wasn’t every day they had a chance to needle their commander.


“Engaged to Miss Taylor?” Aaron Dawes exclaimed, once drill was finished for the morning.


Thorne ignored the question. He stretched his neck to one side until it cracked.


“Thought you went to Hastings for a hunting dog,” Dawes said, “not a wife.” The blacksmith shook his head. “I must say, never saw that coming.”


“None of us saw this coming,” said Fosbury. “Exactly how did you woo her, Corporal?”


“This is Thorne we’re discussing,” Dawes said. “He doesn’t woo. He commands.”


“But that wouldn’t work on Miss Taylor. She’s got spirit.”


“And humor,” said the vicar. “And good sense.”


Yes, Thorne silently agreed. All that, plus distracting beauty and a mouth so lush and sweet, he’d spent the whole night dreaming about it and woken with a rod of forged steel between his legs.


“Yes, Miss Taylor’s a very sweet girl,” Fosbury said. He eyed Thorne with good-humored curiosity. “Makes a man wonder . . . What’s she see in you?”


Nothing. Nor should she.


“Enough,” he said. “We have a great deal to make ready before the ladies have their fair. My personal affairs are none of your concern.”


“Don’t think we’re concerned for you,” Dawes said. “We’re concerned for her. Miss Taylor has a great many friends in Spindle Cove. None of us want to see her hurt. That’s all.”


Thorne cursed silently. If all Miss Taylor’s friends knew the truth, they’d thank him. He was only trying to protect her from a far more dangerous threat.


The Gramercys.


It made no sense that the family would so eagerly take up residence in Spindle Cove, and even less sense that Lord Drewe himself would remain. Thorne could only conclude the marquess was reluctant to let Miss Taylor out of his sight. Why would he feel so protective of an illegitimate second cousin?


Higher mathematics might not be his strength, but he knew when something didn’t add up.


“Corporal Thorne!” Rufus Bright called down from the turret. “Miss Taylor’s climbing up the path.”


Thorne dismissed the men with a curt nod. “That will be all. Go assist Sir Lewis with the trebuchet.”


The men groaned. But they obeyed, crossing through an arch and wandering out to the bluffs where Sir Lewis Finch had his monstrosity erected.


Spindle Cove denizens whispered a prayer whenever the aging, eccentric Sir Lewis approached a trigger, a fuse, a powder charge—or in this case, a medieval catapult designed to lay whole cities to waste. However, instead of launching flaming balls of pitch over fortified walls, this trebuchet’s sole purpose was lobbing melons out to sea. Just a bit of show for the midsummer fair.


The mechanics of the ancient weapon were apparently more sensitive and twitchy than a virgin’s inner thigh. A great many test runs were needed before it would be ready.


Sir Lewis’s sonorous baritone carried over the castle ruins. “Ready, men! Three . . . two . . .”


A great whomping and whooshing noise coincided with the count of one, as the men released the trebuchet’s counterweight. The sling made its groaning orbit upward, then lurched to a halt and sent its missile soaring in the direction of the sea.


In the direction of the sea. Not all the way there.


From the loud squelch that followed, the thing couldn’t have flown more than fifty feet before smashing to pulp on the rocks.


“Corporal Thorne?”


“Miss Taylor.” She’d appeared out of nowhere while he was distracted, Badger nosing at her heels.


“I’ve a matter to discuss with you. Can we have a private word?”


He led her through the remains of a crumbled archway and around a low sandstone wall. It was a place apart, but not enclosed. The armory was no place for her, and he damned well couldn’t take her into his quarters alone.


If he got her anywhere near a bed . . . this temporary engagement could all too easily become permanent.


God, just look at her this morning. The sunlight gave her hair hints of cinnamon and threw gold sparks in her eyes. The exertion of a steep climb up the bluffs showed her slight figure to its best advantage. And the heart-shaped mark at her temple . . . it was the worst and best of everything. It made him painfully aware she wasn’t some unearthly apparition, but a flesh-and-blood woman who’d warm in his embrace.


None of this was for him, he reminded himself. Not the careful curl of her hair, nor the spotless new gloves that gave her hands the look of bleached starfish. She wore a pale blue frock that seemed more froth than muslin. A border of delicate ivory lace trimmed the low, squared neckline. He shouldn’t be noticing that lace. Much less staring at it.


He wrenched his gaze up to her face. “What’s wrong? What do you need?”


“Nothing’s wrong. Except that I’m not accustomed to having a puppy for a roommate.”


“Ready to give him back, then?”


“Not a chance. I adore him.” She bent to give the dog a brisk rub. “But how do I keep him from chewing things?”


“You don’t. It’s what he’s born to do—chase down small animals and rip them apart.”


“My. What a little savage.”


He pulled a handful of rabbit hide twists from his pocket. He tossed one to the dog, then offered the rest to her. “Give him these, one at a time. They should last a few days, at least.”


“Can I buy more at the shop when these are gone?”


“I wouldn’t know. I don’t purchase them.”


He expected her to give the knotted bits of scraped hide a faintly disgusted look, now that she knew just where they’d originated. Instead, she regarded him with the same soft, liquid eyes she used on the pup.


“You had all those prepared? She must have been right. You do value this dog.”


“What? Who must be right?”


She pocketed the extra rabbit hide scraps. “Sally Bright told me—”


“Sally Bright says a lot of things.”


“—that you had a puppy on order from a breeder. Bred from some kind of superior hunting stock. She said the pups come very dear. Corporal Thorne, if Badger means something to you, I’ll give him back. I just need to know he’ll be cared for.”


Not this again. “The dog is mine. That’s all I should need to say.”


“What’s so horrible about admitting a fondness for the creature? I’m a music tutor, as you well know, and music is just another language. Unfamiliar phrases come easier with practice. Say it with me now, slowly: ‘I care about the dog.’ ”


He didn’t say a thing.


“That’s a very intimidating scowl,” she teased. “Do you practice that look in the mirror? I’ll bet you do. I’ll bet you glare into the looking glass until it shatters.”


“Then be a clever girl and turn away.”


“Unfortunately, I can’t. I came up here to talk privately because we need to make our stories straight. The whole village has heard of our betrothal already. Everyone’s asking me how we came to be engaged, and I don’t know what to tell them. Aren’t the men asking you the same? What have you said?”


He shrugged. “Nothing.”


“Of course. How could I forget? No one expects you to talk. You’re Corporal Taciturn. But it’s different with la—”


Shouts from the other side of the wall interrupted. “Ready, men! Three, two . . .”


Thunk. Creak. Whoosh.


Then, a few seconds later, splat.


“More sand in the counterweight,” Sir Lewis shouted to the men. “We almost have it.”


“It’s different with ladies,” Miss Taylor said, continuing where she’d left off. “You don’t understand. When a girl gets engaged, they want to know everything. Every glance, every touch, every whispered word. I can’t abide lying to them, so I’d prefer we hold to the truth. We became engaged yesterday. Our first kiss was on the way home from Hastings. We’ve—”


He held up a hand, halting her mid-sentence. “Wait. You’re telling people about the kiss?”


She blushed. “I haven’t really, not yet. But I think I must. They’re skeptical as it is. No one believes we’ve been courting. Because we haven’t been.” Her gaze dropped to the turf. “Oh, this is miserable. I should have never agreed to the idea.”


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