A Lady by Midnight / Page 13

Page 13


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He trembled, too. All over.


He wasn’t so far away anymore—but he wasn’t quite home yet, either.


She raked her fingers through his hair, desperate to bridge that last divide. Perhaps she could have wriggled free of his grip now. But she couldn’t leave him wandering in that shadow world, with bombs and blood and whatever other unimaginable horrors it held.


“It’s safe now,” she whispered. “It’s safe to come back. I’m here.” She stretched her neck and pressed a light kiss to the corner of his mouth. “I’m here.”


She kissed his mouth again. Then again.


Each time their lips met, his mouth warmed a degree. She prayed his heart was warming back to life, too.


“Please,” she murmured. “Come back to me.”


And he did. Oh, he did.


The change in him was swift, abrupt. And it meant a complete inversion of her world.


Once again Kate found herself breathless, scarcely understanding what had happened. Last she’d known, she’d been pressing chaste kisses to his lips.


Now his tongue was in her mouth, and hers seemed to be partly in his. Her fingers were tangled in the sticky mess of his hair.


They were fused together. One creature. And all she could think was . . .


Sweet. He’s so sweet.


The sugar-musky tang of melon was everywhere. She kissed him with abandon, thirsty for more of it—and just so happy to know he was here again, and not worlds away. She still sensed all that raw, frightening power coiled in his body. Only now it wasn’t marshaled to the task of survival, but another instinctive, basic drive.


Desire.


“Katie,” he moaned again, pulling her closer still. Her breasts flattened beneath his broad chest. As he kissed her deeply, his muscled firmness rubbed and chafed against her nipples. The teasing sensation was unbearably exquisite. It drove her wild in her skin, made her forget everything.


His leg snaked between hers, pressing her thighs apart. When he thrust his tongue deep into her mouth, his hips rocked against hers, setting off a cascade of unprecedented pleasure. She moaned, mindlessly craving more.


Then he stopped abruptly, gasping for breath. Raised his head. Swore.


And then Kate realized what she couldn’t have noticed, in her single-minded determination to bring him back from shadow and hold him skin close.


Everyone was watching them. Sir Lewis Finch. The entirety of the Spindle Cove militia. Oh, heavens . . . even the vicar. They’d all come running to track the melon’s trajectory. And they’d come upon her and Thorne, tangled on the ground. Kissing like lovers.


Thorne rolled to the side, blocking her from their view. She tried her best to evaporate into the air. Meanwhile, he gruffly scolded the men for the mishap and ordered them back to work.


When they were gone, Badger came out of hiding and attacked Kate with puppyish vigor, licking the melon juice from her wrist and cheek.


Thorne stood and paced the small area. “Damn it.” His hands were still faintly trembling. He balled them in fists. “Are you well? I didn’t hurt you?”


“No.”


“You’re certain? I want to know the truth. If I hurt you in any way, I’d . . .” He didn’t complete the statement.


“I’m unharmed. I promise. But how are you?”


He kept pacing, dismissing her question with a small flick of his hand. As if his own well-being were completely irrelevant.


“Has . . . that ever happened before?” she asked.


“I’m not mad,” he said. “If that’s what you’re thinking.”


“Of course not. Of course not. It was an absurd accident. I mean, what are the chances? A melon, of all things. A soldier is trained to react to bombs, grenades, cannon fire. No one’s prepared for a melon. I understand completely.”


He drew to a halt. He wouldn’t look at her.


She closed her eyes, frustrated with herself. “That was a thoughtless thing for me to say. I don’t understand at all. I can’t possibly imagine what it is to go to war.” She approached and laid a tentative touch to his sleeve. “But if you’d ever want to tell someone, Thorne, I am a good listener.”


His cold blue eyes held hers for a long moment, as though he were considering. “I’d never burden you with that.”


“It might as well be me. I am your betrothed, for the time being.”


“Still?”


She nodded. There was no denying that something between them had changed. They’d survived a battle together—even if it had been an imaginary siege. The fearful pounding of her heart had been very real, and the same was true of the cold sweat on his brow.


She had long been accustomed to thinking of Thorne as an enemy, but after that incident . . .


They were on the same side.


The two of them, against the melons of the world.


Kate smiled. With her fingertips, she flicked a seed from his sleeve. “You have to admit, this solves one problem. They’ll all believe the engagement now.”


“That’s one problem solved, perhaps. But several more created.”


She gathered his meaning. Her pristine reputation was now spattered in melon pulp. Unless she were proved to be a Gramercy and offered a living outside Spindle Cove—it would be nearly impossible for Kate to call this betrothal off.


Kate declined Thorne’s offer of an escort home and hurried back to the rooming house. By the time she arrived at the back entrance, the late morning sun had dried the moisture from her sticky frock. She took the back stairs two at a time, ducking into her room to wash and change.


Exhausted from the morning’s excitement, Badger made a nest of her discarded gown and curled up to sleep.


When Kate had made herself presentable, she went downstairs and found the Gramercys assembled in the parlor. As she entered the room, she stopped dead in the doorway.


Oh, Lord.


The painting. It was still there, on the mantelpiece. Half draped, at least, to conceal all the flesh. She hoped no one else had taken notice of it. She would take it up to her room later.


“Why, Miss Taylor!” Lark looked up from a book. “What a pleasant surprise.”


Lord Drewe, being a conscientious gentleman, rose to his feet and bowed. “We weren’t expecting you yet. We thought you’d be occupied with music lessons, over at the Bull and Blossom.”


“Not just now. I thought I’d come and . . . sit with you, if you don’t mind.”


“Don’t be silly.” Aunt Marmoset patted an empty section of divan. “We’re in this village for you, dear. We don’t mind.”


“But please don’t let me interrupt,” Kate said. “Just be as you are, and go on as you were.”


From her seat at the escritoire, Harry laughed. She set her quill aside and sprinkled a letter with blotting powder. “We’re hardly busy. Lark’s reading quietly. Aunt Marmoset’s aging quietly. I’ve just finished venting my spleen with a scathing letter to Ames. As for Evan—” She swept a hand toward her brother, who’d taken a seat by the fire. “Evan’s sitting with his precious agricultural newspapers and trying to pretend he’s not a tightly wound ball of seething passions.”


“What?” Evan lowered his newspaper and regarded his sister over it. “I do not seethe.”


“Of course you seethe. You seethe the way other men drink brandy. A little bit daily as a matter of habit, and more than’s good for you when you think no one’s looking.”


With a bored sigh, Lord Drewe turned his gaze to Kate. “Do I have the appearance of a man who seethes?”


“Not at all,” Kate answered, studying his calm expression and unperturbed green eyes. “You look the picture of equanimity.”


“There, Harriet. Satisfied?” He raised his newspaper again.


“Don’t let appearances fool you, Miss Taylor,” Lark whispered. “My brother only looks even-tempered. He has fought no fewer than five duels in his life.”


“Five duels?”


“Oh, yes.” Lark’s eyes brightened. She counted them down her fingers. “Let’s see. There was the one for Calista. Before that, three for Harry—”


Kate looked to Harry, who was dressed today in the same divided skirt and tailored waistcoat. The outfit was something like a riding habit, only . . . there were no horses about.


“My goodness, Lady Harriet. Three?”


Harry shrugged as she folded and sealed her letter. “My season was eventful.”


“And one for Claire,” Lark finished, reaching her little finger.


“Claire?” Kate asked. “Who is Claire?”


Aunt Marmoset lifted her brows. “We don’t talk about Claire.”


“To the contrary,” Lord Drewe said from behind his paper. “You all talk about Claire a great deal. I refuse to join the discussion.”


“Because you prefer seething,” said Harry.


“Because it’s not kind to speak ill of the dead.” The tone of his voice told everyone the conversation was finished. A snap of newspaper served as punctuation.


The ensuing silence was awkward.


“Oh, dear,” said Lark. “I was hoping to avoid it. But Harry, I think you had better acquaint Miss Taylor with the truth.”


The truth?


“What is the truth?” Kate asked. Her heart pounded in her chest. Perhaps Thorne was right, and they’d been hiding something from her.


Harry put away all her ink and paper. “The truth is . . . as aristocratic families go, we Gramercys aren’t what you might call—”


“Civilized,” Aunt Marmoset suggested.


“Typical,” Harry finished. “It goes back to our childhood, I think. We spent the entirety of it up North, at Rook’s Fell. Enormous old place, more cobweb than mortar in its walls. Our father suffered with a very prolonged, debilitating illness, and our mother was devoted to his care. The servants couldn’t make us mind, and no thought was ever given to school. No one expected Evan would inherit the title, of course. It was to stay in your father’s line. So we simply ran wild, like vines in a neglected garden. Until Aunt Marmoset came to mind us, and even then it was too late for us older ones. Except for dear, sweet Lark there, we’ve all of us grown up twisted in some way.”


“Twisted?” Lark echoed. “Harry, you do make it sound so perverse.”


“If Kate is to associate with us, she should know. The plain fact of it is, we are not really ‘good society.’ But we are obscenely rich, highly ranked, and so utterly fascinating the ton cannot look away.”


“That’s going to change,” Lord Drewe said. “The ‘good society’ part. I am determined that Lark will have the debut she deserves. I have failed twice to bring out my sisters with any success. Harriet’s season was an unmitigated debacle.”


“Only if you judge by Society’s standards.”


“That is the entire point of a season. To be judged by Society’s standards. And by the end of your season, we were not only judged by Society, but convicted, sentenced, pilloried, and exiled for the better part of a decade.” Lord Drewe folded his papers, set them aside and massaged the bridge of his nose. “Calista never even made it to London.”


“She didn’t want to,” Lark said. To Kate, she explained, “She fell in love with Mr. Parker, the stable master. Now they live together at Rook’s Fell, and we cleared out this summer to give them run of the place. Calista always did love horses, and she and Parker have turned their efforts to breeding.”


Aunt Marmoset tittered with laughter. Kate tried not to join her.


“What?” Lark looked around, bemused. “What have I said now?”


“Nothing,” Harry assured her. “Do not think on it, chicken. You are everything good and pure, that’s all.”


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