A Lady by Midnight / Page 17

Page 17


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As she and Lark helped unpack and arrange a tray of jewel-bright jam tarts, Kate realized there was one question her charts hadn’t helped her settle. “Who is this Ames that Harry’s always talking of? Another cousin? A family friend?”


“No,” Harriet called back, overhearing them. “Not a cousin and certainly no kind of friend.”


“Now, Harry,” Lark said. “Just because the two of you had a little argument . . .”


“A little argument?” Aunt Marmoset scoffed. “More like a waterless reenactment of the Battle of Trafalgar, with saucers and teacups launched in place of cannonballs.”


“Ames must have been playing Lord Nelson, then,” Harry replied. “Because she has been dead to me ever since.”


“ ‘She’?” Kate had been picturing someone male.


Lark sighed and drew her into confidence. “When my sisters and I were younger, Miss Ames was our paid companion. And now . . . now she is simply Harriet’s companion. Her life companion.”


“Oh,” Kate said. And then, more slowly, as the import sank in—“Oh.”


“I know it’s not very usual. But nothing is in this family. Are you terribly scandalized?”


“No, not . . . terribly.” Though the revelation certainly put a few things in perspective. “But what of all those engagements? The duels Lord Drewe fought?”


“Harry tried her best during her season, and she loved the drama of suitors battling for her attention. But she could never go through with the weddings,” Lark explained. “Her heart was with Miss Ames all along. Don’t let her ranting mislead you. They’re devoted to one another. They’ve had a falling out, but they always mend it in time.”


“I heard that,” Harry said. “And you’re wrong, Lark. This time, we’re through. If we were true companions, as you say, she would have allowed me to accompany her to Herefordshire.”


Lark tilted her head. “Oh, Harry. You know Miss Ames’s family isn’t nearly so understanding as ours.”


Very few families were, Kate imagined.


“I know it well. They’re horrid to her.” Harry kicked at a tent pole with the squared toe of her boot. “Always have been, or else she wouldn’t have needed to be a paid companion in the first place. If she’d let me go along, I could have protected her.”


“I’m certain she misses you sorely,” Lark said.


Harry looked off at the horizon and released a sigh. “I’m off for a ramble. Perhaps the Long Man’s phallus is embarrassingly small and only visible on closer inspection.”


As Harry started off across the pastures, legs striding free in her divided skirt, Kate watched her with a twinge of sadness. Obviously, it pained her to be parted from someone she loved.


And what pained Harry, pained Kate. She was truly coming to care for these people. To lose them now would devastate her.


As if he knew her spirits needed a lift, Badger came shooting up from the meadow, attacking Kate’s skirts with muddy paws, sniffing around all the refreshments and smothering her in delightfully cold, tickling kisses.


Thorne approached soon after, but offered no pawing or kisses. A keen disappointment.


Aunt Marmoset tapped Kate’s shoulder and pointed. “There’s a picturesque church in that direction. I noticed it as we drove by, but I couldn’t make out the name. Be a dear, Kate, and satisfy my curiosity. Corporal Thorne,” she added, “kindly escort her.”


Kate smiled and rose to her feet, glad of the excuse to walk. She pocketed a few meat pies for Badger, and the three of them set off across the field, walking in the direction of the church.


Once they were safely out of earshot, Kate said gently, “You could try to be a little more sociable, you know.”


He made a gruff noise. “I’m never sociable.”


True enough, she supposed. “Why do you dislike the Gramercys so much?”


“I’m looking out for you.” He looked over his shoulder at the picnicking group. “There’s something not right about those people.”


“They’re unusual, I’ll grant you. But it’s only eccentricity. It’s what makes them so amusing and interesting and lovable. It’s what gives me hope that they might accept and love me. They value family bonds above scandal, disagreements, convention. Just because they’re a bit odd, I don’t see any reason for suspicion.”


“I do. I don’t trust them or their story.”


“Why not?” she said, hurt. The more agitated she became, the faster she walked. By now they were hurrying toward the church, and Badger ran to keep up. “Because you don’t think I could possibly be related to lords and ladies?”


He pulled to a halt, turned and fixed her with an intense look. “If I hadn’t spent the last year thinking of you as a lady, I promise you—things would be different between us.”


Her face heated. Other parts of her heated, too. She hadn’t regarded him this closely or directly in days, and now . . .


He was so stunning it hurt.


For a man with few manners and little grace, she now saw he was always immaculate in his attire, be it full uniform or what he wore today—crisply fitted breeches and a simple, dark coat that stretched capably across his broad shoulders. Nothing was fussy, just precise. It was as though fabric didn’t dare rumple in his presence. No button would be so bold as to fall out of line. His boots were polished to a blinding gloss.


And his face . . . Almost a week now since he’d seen her home from Hastings, and every time she looked at him, she still found his face to be that inexplicable, unbearable degree of handsome.


“Must you make this so difficult?” she asked. “You must know I’m all nerves, purely on the Gramercys’ account. They’ve been so kind. I want to be open and honest, and yet I’m afraid of letting my hopes soar too high. I don’t know my place with them, and that’s difficult enough without feeling confused about you, too. I’m pulled in too many directions.”


“I’m not pulling you anywhere. I’m staying close enough to look out for you, without interfering.”


“Of course you’re interfering. You interfere with my breathing, you teasing man. I can’t just ignore you, Thorne. I’ve never been able to ignore you, even when I disliked you. Now I’m a toy on your string, dangling on your every move and word. One minute, you’re paying me no mind at all, and the next . . . you’re staring at me the way you’re doing now. As though you’re a voracious, starving beast and I’m . . .”


His jaw tightened.


She gulped and finished in a whisper, “Edible.”


His exhalation was prolonged, measured. An impressive display of restraint.


“Well?” she prompted. “You can’t deny it. There’s something between us.”


“There isn’t nearly enough between us, and that’s the danger. Don’t you have a modest frock in your wardrobe? For God’s sake, just look at that gown.”


She cast a glance downward. She’d dressed for the outing in her best traveling frock—a handed down dove-gray silk. The hues were modest enough, and the sleeves rather long for summer. But from the direction of his gaze, she supposed he’d taken an interest in the row of ribbon bows that marched down the front of the bodice, holding two edges of gray silk together across a thin slice of white lace. It was all part of the gown’s design, of course, but the garment was cleverly stitched to create the illusion that just a few ribbon ties stood between demure modesty and a state of undress.


“You’re like a gift,” he said, his voice rough. “All wrapped up for someone else. A man can’t look at you, but think of loosing those bows, one by one.”


“They’re false bows,” she stammered. “They’re sewn together.”


His gaze never left her bodice, surveying. Strategizing. “I could rip them with my teeth.”


And then what? a foolish part of her longed to ask.


They stood like that, facing one another. Saying nothing, breathing hard, and imagining far too much.


Eventually Badger nosed at her boots, impatient to be on with things. They couldn’t stand here and look at each other all day. No matter how exhilarating it was.


“It’s only physical,” he said, walking on. “It will pass. You’ll be able to release me soon enough.”


It would have been comforting to believe so, but Kate wasn’t convinced.


“I need to know something of you,” she said as they neared the church. “Lark is always asking me questions about you. About us. And I don’t know how to answer. What’s your birthday, to begin?”


“Don’t know it.”


Kate felt a twinge of sadness for him, but then—she’d survived without a proper birthday for twenty-three years.


“How about your favorite color?”


He threw a careless, sidelong glance at her frock. “Gray.”


“Be serious, please. I’m engaged to you, temporarily, and I know nothing of you. Nothing of your family, your history, your childhood.” And after their engagement party, Kate knew he’d been paying a great deal of attention to her.


“There’s nothing to tell.”


“That can’t be true. I was raised at a miserable girls’ school, but even I have amusing stories from when I was a child. There was the time it was my turn to help in the kitchens, and I decided to be creative with the seasonings for our evening soup. I accidentally dumped the entire contents of the pepper pot into the broth, and I was too afraid to own up to it. And then it was supper, and I still couldn’t say a word. I’ll never forget watching all my friends and teachers take that first mouthful of soup—”


She broke off, laughing. “Oh, I caught so much trouble. Everyone went to bed hungry, of course. They had me copying out Proverbs for days.”


She waited for him to dredge up some similar story of youthful foolishness. Everyone must have at least one. Everyone. But she waited in vain.


Before she could ask him another question, Badger suddenly perked to attention. His funny little ears stood straight up, pointing skyward like twin church steeples. Then they flattened and he was off like a flash of lightning, streaking toward the church.


“Badger, wait,” she called, rushing after the pup.


Thorne paced her in easy strides. “Don’t call him back. He’s got his sights on a hare or a rat, most likely. Chasing is what he’s bred to do.”


The dog darted toward the small churchyard tucked behind the main buildings. Evidently, the pup’s quarry had escaped through a small hole in the bottom of the stone wall. Badger wriggled through the crack, disappearing from their view.


“Drat,” Kate said, breathless. “We’ll have to go around.”


“This way.”


They quickly skirted the circumference of the small cemetery until they came to the wrought-iron gate. Thorne opened it, and she rushed past him, into the crowded jumble of the high-walled churchyard. Mossy, timeworn monuments tilted at various angles, like rows of rotten teeth.


“Badger! Badger, where have you gone?” Kate started down a row of monuments, ducking and peering at the uneven ground. Remembering the meat pie in her pocket, she fished it out and held it as a lure. “Here, darling. I have a lovely treat for you.”


Thorne skirted the slab of an aboveground sepulcher and came to a halt in the center of the churchyard. He whistled.


After a brief pause, Badger came bounding out from behind a bit of crumbled stone.


“Thank goodness. Did he catch something?” Kate was almost afraid to look.


“No. But that’s good. He’ll run faster next time.”


There was real pride in his voice. And genuine affection in the way he rubbed the dog’s scruff and ears. He must care about that dog, despite all his disavowals.


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