A Lady by Midnight / Page 31

Page 31


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Thorne accepted the brandy and made excuses for the handshake. His right arm was still numb from the elbow down, though he was slowly regaining sensation.


As he drank, he sized Bram up, noting the changes a few months’ time and new fatherhood had made on the man. One thing was clear—he ought to dismiss his valet. Only late afternoon, and Bram was dressed in a waistcoat and a rumpled, uncuffed shirt. To Thorne’s eyes, he looked exhausted—but he’d venture to deem it a contented exhaustion, quite different from the grim fatigue of campaign.


Lady Rycliff reappeared, her arms full of wailing infant. “I’m so sorry,” she called over the din. “She’s a very fretful baby, I’m afraid. She cries with everyone. Our first nursemaid’s already left us. No one under this roof is getting much sleep.”


“She sleeps for me,” Rycliff said. “Give her here.”


His wife did so, with obvious relief. “Two months old, and she’s already Papa’s darling. I fear we’re in for a time of it.” She looked to Thorne. “I do hope you weren’t planning on a quiet, restful stay in Town.”


“No, my lady,” Thorne said. “Just business.”


And when he wasn’t occupied with business, he imagined he’d be spending long hours engaged in self-castigation and regret. Distraction of any kind would be welcome—even if it came in the form of a wailing infant.


“Go on ahead,” Bram told his wife. “I have her. I know you’ve dinner to oversee.”


“Are you certain you don’t mind? I’ll just check on the corporal’s rooms upstairs.”


“She always sleeps for me,” Bram said. “You know that. Come along, Thorne. We can discuss our business in my library.”


Squalling daughter in one arm and brandy in the other, Bram backed out of the parlor. Thorne followed him across the corridor to a richly paneled library.


Bram kicked the door shut behind them, placed his brandy on the desk blotter, and readjusted baby Victoria’s weight in his arms. He paced the floor back and forth, jouncing the wailing baby as he went. His persistent limp from a war injury gave his steps an uneven rhythm.


When he caught Thorne’s inquisitive look, he said, “Sometimes the walking helps.”


Not every time, apparently.


When the babe’s crying still didn’t abate, Bram swore quietly and pushed his rolled sleeve to mid forearm. He fixed Thorne with an authoritative look. “I’m still your commanding officer. You are never to tell Susanna I did this. That’s an order.”


He dipped the tip of his little finger in the brandy, then popped it into the babe’s mouth. Little Victoria went quiet instantly, contentedly suckling.


“God help me,” Bram muttered down at her. “You’re going to be a handful when you’re sixteen.”


He released a heavy breath and looked to Thorne. “So. Are you certain you want this?”


“Want what?” Thorne asked, wary.


“An honorable discharge from the army. Not the infant. Loud as she might be, I’m not willing to part with her.”


“Of course not.” He cleared his throat. “To answer your question . . . Yes, my lord. I’m certain.”


“Enough with the ‘my lord,’ Thorne. I’m not asking you lord to servant, or even commander to soldier. I’m asking you friend to friend.” The baby released his finger, falling into a shallow sleep. He lowered his voice and resumed pacing the room, slowly this time. “I want to make sure this is really your desire. You could make a good career for yourself in the army. I’m well enough placed now, I could easily grant you a commission, if you wished.”


The words gave Thorne a moment’s pause. What Rycliff offered was no small favor. If he accepted a commission, he could be assured higher standing in Society and a steady income for the rest of his life. Enough to support a family.


“That’s very generous of you to—”


“It’s not generous at all. It’s piss-poor compensation. You saved my life and my leg, and you served under me faithfully for years.”


“It was my duty and an honor. But I don’t belong in England anymore, if I ever did. I need someplace bigger. Less civilized.”


“So you’re going to America. To be a farmer?”


Thorne shrugged. “Thought I’d start with trapping. I hear there’s good money in it.”


“No doubt. And I can’t deny it would suit your talents.” Bram bounced his daughter. “I’ll never forget that time in the Pyrenees, when you used nothing but a bayonet to skin and gut that . . . What was it, again?”


“A marmot.”


“Yes, marmot. A tough, greasy bastard. Can’t say I’ll be requesting marmot stew on the menu anytime soon, but it tasted fine when it was the first fresh meat in a fortnight.” Rycliff nodded at his ledgers. “Can’t I lend you some funds? Let me do that much. We can call it a loan.”


Thorne shook his head. “I have money set aside.”


“I see you’re determined to be stubborn and self-sufficient. I can respect that. But I insist you accept a gift, friend to friend.” He tilted his head at a long, gleaming rifle from the mantel. “Take that. It’s Sir Lewis Finch’s latest design.”


When Thorne’s eyebrows knitted in skepticism, Rycliff hastily added, “Professionally manufactured, of course. And thoroughly tested.”


Thorne lifted the weapon with his good left hand, testing its balance. It was a fine rifle. He could see himself out tramping the woods with this gun in his hand. Of course, to make the picture complete, he’d need Badger at his heel.


Damn it. He would miss that dog.


Thorne watched with curiosity as his friend gently rocked the sleeping baby in his arms. “You love her,” he said. “The baby.”


Bram looked at him like he’d gone mad. “Of course I do. Yes.”


“How do you know?”


“She’s my child.”


“Not every father loves his child. How do you know you love yours?”


Thorne knew this strayed beyond the normal boundaries of their conversation, but if Bram wanted to do him a favor . . . this was a favor he could use.


Bram shrugged and looked down at his sleeping daughter. “I suppose it’s a fair enough question. I mean, as of yet she doesn’t do much, does she? Except deprive me and her mother of sleep, food, peace of mind, and sexual congress.”


Bram lowered his weight into the desk chair. Slowly, so as not to wake the babe. “When she’s freshly washed, she smells better than opium. There’s that. And even though I know it’s not statistically likely, no one could convince me she’s not the most beautiful infant in Britain.”


“So she’s pretty. And she smells good. That’s all you have?” If that was all there was to love, Thorne thought, he would have been chest-deep in it for ages.


“What can I say? She’s not much of a conversationalist yet.” Bram shook his head. “I’m no philosopher, Thorne. I just know how I feel. If you require a definition, read a book.”


Sliding his daughter to his left arm, he reached for his brandy and drew a healthy swallow. “Does this line of questioning mean there’s truth to the rumor? You’ve taken up with Miss Taylor?”


“Taken up?”


“Susanna’s had some very strange letters from Spindle Cove. There’s some talk of an engagement.”


“It’s only talk,” Thorne said. “No truth to it.” Not anymore.


“If there’s no truth to it, then how would the rumor be started?”


Thorne set his jaw. “I’m not certain what you mean.”


Bram shrugged. “Miss Taylor is Susanna’s good friend. I just want to be certain she’s been treated well.”


A white flare of rage rose in Thorne’s chest. He worked hard to conceal it. “My lord, when will this discharge go into effect?”


“You’ve permission to speak freely now, if that’s what you mean.”


He nodded. “Then I’ll thank you to mind your own affairs. If you make any further insinuations that disparage Miss Taylor’s virtue, we’ll have more than words about it.”


Bram stared at him, surprised. “Did you just threaten me?”


“I believe I did.”


He broke into low laughter. “Good God. And here Susanna and I were placing wagers on whether you even liked her. Now I see she has you utterly tied in knots.”


Thorne shook his head. She did not have him tied in knots. She hadn’t held him tied in knots for at least . . . fifteen hours.


Bram raised a brow. “Don’t take offense. Stronger men than you have been brought to their knees by Spindle Cove women.”


Thorne harrumphed. “What stronger men would those be?”


A knock sounded at the study door.


“How do you do it?” Lady Rycliff asked, marveling at the sleeping babe in Bram’s arms. “For a gruff old soldier, you charm lambs and babies with remarkable ease. Corporal Thorne, what is his secret?”


Bram gave him a stern look. Don’t tell. It’s an order.


Thorne wouldn’t disobey an order. But neither could he let that “stronger men” remark go unanswered. “It must have been the . . . the lullabies, my lady.”


“Lullabies?” Lady Rycliff laughed and turned to her husband. “I’ve never heard him sing a note. Not even in church.”


“Yes, well,” Thorne said. “His lordship sang them very softly. And then he made little kissing faces. There might have been a story about fairies and ponies.”


Bram rolled his eyes. “Thanks for nothing.”


Chapter Seventeen


After the midsummer fair, activities in Spindle Cove returned to the usual routine. Still nursing an adder-bitten heart, Kate embraced the familiarity as some comfort.


The ladies of the rooming house followed a predictable schedule during the summer. On Mondays they had country walks. Tuesdays were sea bathing. On Wednesdays they turned their hands to gardening.


And Thursdays were their day to shoot.


On this particular Thursday—a rather overcast, gloomy sort of morning—Kate had invited the Gramercys to join the ladies’ target practice at Summerfield, Sir Lewis Finch’s estate.


“I’ve always wanted to learn this,” Aunt Marmoset said. “It’s so exciting.”


“Watch first, shoot later.” Kate demonstrated the proper loading of a single-barrel pistol. “You must measure out the charge carefully with the powder horn,” she said. “Then the ball and a patch. Like this, see?”


As she tamped down the bullet, Kate could sense Aunt Marmoset’s impatience.


“That’s all very interesting, dear, but when do I make it go bang?”


Kate smiled. “Let’s shoot together this first time, shall we?”


She moved behind the older woman and helped her raise the pistol in both hands, bracing her arms straight as they aimed at the target.


“You’ll want to close one eye,” she said. “For precision. Then cock the hammer like so. And once you have it aimed and steady, gently squeeze the—”


“Oh,” cried one of the other ladies, “here comes Lord Drewe!”


“Evan’s here? Where?” Aunt Marmoset swung around, turning Kate with her. Together they pivoted with the loaded pistol braced in their outstretched hands—like a compass needle veering toward north.


All the ladies gasped and ducked.


“Get down!” Kate cried, struggling to regain control.


“Evan, look!” the Aunt Marmoset called. “I’m learning to shoot!”


Realizing he stood in the line of fire, Evan froze in place. “Brilliant.”


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