A Lady by Midnight / Page 29

Page 29


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Before Kate could even begin to object, a smiling Harry nudged her toward the staircase.


“We’ll just go freshen up for breakfast, Mrs. Nichols. I do hope we’ll be treated to some of your delicious currant bread this morning.”


When they reached the top of the stairs, Harry steered them both to Kate’s bedchamber. She followed Kate inside, set the puppy loose, and flopped dramatically against the closed door.


“There now.” She gave Kate a conspiratorial grin. “That was satisfying. And just as I told you, no one suspects a thing.”


“I don’t understand.” Kate sank onto the edge of her narrow bed. Hers was a small bedchamber, tucked under a far corner of the eaves. The bigger rooms were reserved for the visiting ladies with larger wardrobes and more accommodating purses.


“I lied for you, of course,” Harry said. “I used to do it for Calista all the time. It was obvious enough why neither you nor Thorne showed up at the tavern last night. So when someone remarked on your absence, I volunteered to go check. I told everyone you were wretchedly ill and resting in your room. I even went to the trouble of waking Mrs. Nichols for a headache powder.” Her lips curved in a smug smile. “I’m very good at these things.”


“Evidently,” Kate said. Her head was spinning.


“I must say, it almost makes me jealous. When two women want to be alone, the sneaking around is far too easy.” She came to sit near Kate on the bed. “I do hope you enjoyed your night. But next time, be a dear and give me some advance warning?”


“Oh, Harry.” Kate let her head drop into her hands. She knew her cousin’s interference was well-meant. But it was poorly timed. Just when she’d vowed to make a clean breast of things. “It’s not at all how you think.”


“You don’t have to make excuses to me, Kate. Of all people, I’m not going to judge.”


“I know. But I’m being truthful. I swear, nothing like that happened. In fact—” She broke off, overwhelmed.


Harry clucked her tongue and patted Kate’s shoulder. “Did you and Corporal Thorne have a row? Tell me what the scoundrel did. Don’t worry, you can abuse him to me thoroughly. When you two make things right again, I’ll never let on. I say the most horrid things about Ames when I’m vexed.”


“I don’t think this will ever be made right.” Kate raised her head. “I ended the engagement.”


“Oh.” Harry moved closer and put her arm around Kate’s shoulders. “Oh, no. I’m so sorry.”


“Are you? I didn’t think any of you liked him.”


“Well, no. But you liked him, so we were trying our best.”


Kate smiled, even as tears welled in her eyes.


Harry handed her a handkerchief from her waistcoat pocket. In her typical style, the linen square was gentlemanly—unadorned with lace or fancy monograms.


Kate’s heart twisted as she traced the neatly hemmed border of the handkerchief. She hated to think their family bond might all be a lie, a misunderstanding.


Harry asked, “You didn’t break off with Thorne for our sakes, did you?”


“No. No, it was something else altogether.” Kate sniffed and dabbed at her cheeks. “I must speak with Evan right away. This morning, if possible. I need to explain to him about last night.”


“Oh, no.” Harry’s eyes flew wide. “Kate, you can’t. You can’t tell Evan anything about last night. He’ll go into one of his . . . episodes.”


“His episodes?”


“You’ve seen the man seethe. But you haven’t seen him explode. And nothing sets him off like knowing one of his female relations has been compromised. It wasn’t only for your sake that I lied last night. I’ve grown fond of this little village, and I should hate to see it laid waste.”


Laid waste? Surely Harry had to be exaggerating.


“You’d believe me if you’d been there when Calista was discovered with Parker,” Harry said. “Good Lord, it was like something from a didactic medieval tapestry. One duel, two outbuildings burnt to the ground, at least a half-dozen valuable horses running wild on the moors. Took the grooms days to retrieve them all.” She shook her head. “It made Evan’s efforts on behalf of my honor look like a few friendly bouts at the club.”


“And what about Claire?” Kate couldn’t help but ask.


“The less said about Claire, the better. Let’s just say there’s a gentleman somewhere who’s missing parts. Vital parts.”


Goodness. Kate tried to reconcile these accounts with the Evan Gramercy she knew and had come to admire. He seemed so collected and elegant. When they’d played together that night, she had sensed the depth and intensity of emotion beneath the surface. But violence?


“I must risk it anyway,” she said. “In truth, my virtue has not been compromised. My conscience is clean.”


“Kate,” Harry said sternly. “I am not one for social convention. But even I know, if you spent the night with Thorne, you are compromised. It doesn’t matter what happened or didn’t happen.”


That was exactly what Thorne had said. If two human beings as completely opposite as Thorne and Harry agreed on something, Kate could only conclude it must be true.


Harry squeezed her hand. “I beg of you. Unburden your heart to me, if you wish—or find a way to tell Evan part of the truth. But unless you wish true harm upon Corporal Thorne, do not let Evan know about last night. And for the love of everything, change your frock before you speak with him.”


There was a knock at the door.


Kate sucked in a deep breath and hastily dabbed at her eyes. “Who is it?”


“It’s me.” The door opened a crack, revealing Lark’s sweet countenance. When she laid eyes on Kate, she flung the door open wide. “Kate, what is it? Are you still ill?”


Kate shook her head. “No. I’m fine.”


“I’ve just been telling her a very sad, tragic story,” Harry said, rising to her feet. “And she was deeply moved by the moral of the tale.”


“Harriet. Don’t provoke her so. At least not until she’s stuck with us for good.” Lark turned to Kate and smiled. “Evan has visitors at the tavern. The solicitors, I think. He’s asking to see you.”


Chapter Sixteen


As many times as she’d been in the public room below, Kate had never visited the rooms above the Bull and Blossom.


At Fosbury’s direction, she made her way up a narrow staircase and emerged into a long, windowless corridor. She froze, struck again by that same familiar image.


She was in an endless, shadowy tunnel, and her future lay at the other end. Pianoforte music came up through the floor, tingling in the soles of her feet. She closed her eyes, and blue flashed behind her eyelids.


“Kate, is that you?” Evan’s voice carried out from the first room on the left.


“Yes.” She shook herself and smoothed a hand over the skirt of her fresh sprigged muslin before entering the room.


“Come in, come in.” Evan waved her forward. “I trust you’re feeling better this morning.”


She stepped into a small yet comfortably furnished sitting room. She knew at once it had to be the Fosburys’ private parlor. They must have vacated it to offer Evan a full suite of rooms, worthy of a marquess.


“Miss Kate Taylor, I’d like you to meet two of the family solicitors, Mr. Bartwhistle and Mr. Smythe.”


“How do you do.” Kate curtsied to the two men, who were dressed in brown coats so similar as to be nearly identical.


“And this”—Evan turned her attention to an older woman in a faded indigo day dress several years past its peak of fashion—“is Mrs. Fellows.”


Kate smiled and nodded, but was dismayed when Mrs. Fellows made no acknowledgment in return. Instead, the older woman remained seated in the tufted armchair, facing the window and staring straight ahead.


“Cataracts,” Evan whispered in her ear. “Poor old dear’s nearly blind.”


“Oh.” Understanding the remoteness of her demeanor now, Kate moved forward to take the woman’s hand. “Mrs. Fellows, it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”


Evan closed the parlor door. “Mrs. Fellows was just telling us about her tenure as housekeeper at Ambervale, twenty years ago.”


“Ambervale?” Kate’s heart skipped an alarming number of beats. Evan had told her in Wilmington that they meant to canvass for former Ambervale servants, but he’d never mentioned it again.


He pulled up a chair for Kate, and she accepted it gratefully.


He took a seat as well. “Tell me, Mrs. Fellows. Did you keep a large house staff in my cousin’s time?”


“No, my lord. Just me and my man. Mr. Fellows is gone now, some eight years. We had a cook in those days, and a girl came in daily for scullery. We sent the laundry out. Most of the house was closed up, you see. There were never any guests. His lordship and Miss Elinor liked their privacy.”


“Yes, I would imagine.” Evan smiled at Kate. “And then Miss Haverford became pregnant, is that right?”


The frankness of the question obviously pained Mrs. Fellows. But she answered. “Yes, my lord.”


“And she gave birth to a child. Was it a son or a daughter, do you recall?”


“A baby girl.” Mrs. Fellows still faced the window, and she smiled at the dust motes whirling in the sunlight. “They named her Katherine.”


From the other side of the room, Mr. Bartwhistle cleared his throat. His keen gaze fell on Kate—or more particularly, on the birthmark at her temple. “Mrs. Fellows,” he asked, “do you recall whether the infant had any . . . distinguishing marks?”


“Oh, yes. Unfortunate little dear had a birthmark. Right on her face.”


Unfortunate little dear? For the first time in her life, Kate blessed that mark on her temple. If she could have stretched her lips like India rubber, she would have kissed it.


She leaned forward in her chair, training her ears so hard, she felt her eardrums bending under the strain.


“If you ask me,” said Mrs. Fellows, “it was the wine. If I told Miss Elinor once, I told her a hundred times—a woman shouldn’t be drinking aught of claret while she’s breeding. It’s unseemly. But she had a taste for a sip from time to time, and sure enough, when the babe came, there was a great splash of it on her temple.”


“Can you describe the mark in any further detail?” Evan asked. “I know it’s been many years.”


Mrs. Fellows shifted in her chair. “But I remember it, clear as day. It was just here.” She lifted an age-spotted hand to her own temple. “Had almost the shape of a heart. I’ll never forget that, because they laughed about it, you know.”


“They laughed about it?” Kate asked, forgetting that she wasn’t the one conducting the interview.


“Laughed with each other, yes. They were like that, always laughing with each other about everything. I heard the lady tell his lordship, ‘We know she’s yours, don’t we?’ That was on account of his having a birthmark, too. But the late Lord Drewe insisted the mark was from Miss Elinor’s side. Because she wore her heart on her face, and so the child must as well.”


On the other side of the room, Bartwhistle and Smythe were furiously scribbling, taking down every word.


Evan reached for Kate’s hand and squeezed it. “I knew it. I knew you were ours.”


“It sounds as though Simon and Elinor were very much in love,” Kate said, choked with emotion.


“Oh, yes.” The old housekeeper smiled. “Never seen a couple so madly devoted to one another.” Her smile faded. “And after his lordship died, so sudden and so soon . . . oh, she took it so hard.”


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