A Lady by Midnight / Page 33

Page 33


“I need to get you inside. We have to get you warm.”

Her eyes met his, suddenly lucid and piercing. “I remembered, Samuel.”

God. When she said his name, his heart made a mad, frantic attempt to escape his chest.

She collapsed against his body, curling her fingers into the fabric of his shirt. Her breath was a puff of warmth against his skin.

“I remembered you,” she whispered. “You, the music, the song. That night. I remembered everything.”

Chapter Eighteen

I remembered everything.

Thorne refused to think about the implications of her words. He needed to get her to dry shelter as soon as possible. Everything else could wait.

The castle was barely a quarter mile off. He could have put her up on his horse, but the beast was exhausted from slogging through mud all afternoon. Thorne would have needed to walk alongside, which meant there’d be no speed advantage over simply carrying her himself.

So that was what he decided to do. At least she’d be able to borrow his heat.

Thorne wrapped one arm around the small of her back and slid the other beneath her thighs. With a flex of his muscles and a grunt of effort, he plucked her off her feet and settled her weight against his chest. She was a good bit heavier than when he’d done this last. But then, he was bigger and stronger, too.

He ducked his head, using his sleeve to wipe the raindrops from his face, and started walking. His boots squelched through the muddy flat, slowing his progress. When he finally reached the bluffs, he had firmer rock beneath his feet.

Of course, he also had to trudge uphill.

He paused to rebalance her weight. “Can you put your arms around me?”

She obeyed, sliding her chilled arms free and reaching to lace them around his neck. It helped. If nothing else, the secret thrill of her touch against his skin made his heart beat faster, powering a new surge of strength to his limbs.

He made the final climb in determined strides, carrying her straight to the heart of the castle—the keep, where his personal quarters were.

Once he had her inside, he lit a lamp and assessed her state more carefully. Her damp, chilled condition appalled him, but it also gave him something to do. He made a mental list. First, dry clothing and blankets. Second, a fire. Third, nourishment. Then he’d see about restoring her gown to rights.

Badger shook himself, spraying muddy droplets everywhere. Thorne threw him an old quilt, and the dog nosed and rolled in it.

“That’ll have to do for you,” he said to the dog. “She comes first.”

He rolled up his sleeves and went to work. There was nothing sensual in the way he helped her out of the sodden, mud-spattered frock. He moved briskly, willing himself not to notice anything of her bare body save the pale, bluish tinge of her skin and the way her muscles quivered. To take any pleasure from this would be disgusting and base.

As she sat on the hearth rug and hugged her knees to her chest, he toweled dry her hair and helped her into one of his own clean, dry shirts. For modesty’s sake, he draped it over her head and shoulders before reaching beneath to unbutton and remove her chemise. He tried his best to keep his cold, coarse fingers from scraping against her bare flesh. He averted his eyes from the flash of her red, turgid nipple as he switched one garment for the other. As he pulled the folds of crisp, soap-scented lawn down her midriff, he tried to ignore the way lamplight cast her slight, nubile form in silhouette.

He couldn’t, not entirely. What a beast he was.

He would rather let her tend to such things herself, but she seemed incapable at the moment.

Once he laid a fire, she stared dully into it, mute and shivering. He wondered if it was the shock of remembering the Hothouse, and the squalid conditions there. Perhaps her mother’s loss had suddenly become real to her, and she was suffering the pangs of grief.

In any event, he didn’t want to rush her or press her to talk. He just relished the chance to take care of her, here and now—where this was his right, his responsibility, and no one else’s. He was happy for her to stare into the fire. When she came back to herself, those hazel eyes would no doubt turn on him and fill with loathing. It might be the last time she looked at him, ever again.

“Here,” he said, crouching beside her and offering her a steaming mug of tea, well-doctored with sugar and brandy. “Drink this. It will help you get warm.”

He put it in her hands, wrapping her fingers around it. She held it, but only stared blankly at the contents.

“I c-can’t seem to stop shivering.”

He reached for another blanket.

“No.” Her head turned, and her eyes focused on his face. “I want you, Samuel. I want you to hold me. Pl-Please.”

Those words—just the words alone—found some aching chasm in his soul and filled it. But damn it, he was trying to be honorable. If he took her in his arms, he wasn’t sure he could keep his thoughts protective.

“I should tend to your frock,” he said. “It’s almost dry, but it needs—”

“The frock can wait.” With trembling hands, she set the mug of tea on the floor. “I can’t.” Another chill racked her body. “I need you.”

Reluctantly, he sat beside her on the small, threadbare rug. He stretched one of his legs behind her, propping her up with his bent knee. His other leg sprawled toward the fire. And then he put both arms around her, and she sank into his embrace, nestling close to his chest. Her cool cheek rested against his pounding heart.

“Tight,” she whispered. “Hold me tight.”

He obeyed, flexing the muscles in his arms.

Her discomfort was his enemy. Any chills that dared rack her frame would have to rattle him, too. He had heat and strength enough for them both.

He bent his head, burying his face in her curling hair and letting his breath warm her ear and the back of her neck.

Her fingers gathered a fistful of his shirt and clung tight. They remained like that several minutes. He kept a close watch on her bottom lip. When it pinked and ceased quivering, a stupid surge of triumph rushed to his head. He had the brief, idiot notion he’d done something good for her.

Then he remembered who she was, and who he was, and precisely why they were here. And he reminded himself that this would be the end.

He pressed his face into the curve of her neck and inhaled deeply of her lemony clover scent. He’d hold her while he could.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “That’s better.”

When he lifted his head, she relaxed her grip on his shirt.

“I’ve remembered it for you,” she murmured. “The amusing story from your childhood. It’s like I told you, everyone has one. You see, there was this girl who shared your attic. A pestering little thing who tugged at your sleeves when you would have rather been running loose with the neighborhood boys. But late at night, sometimes, when she couldn’t sleep, you took it on yourself to make her laugh and laugh—with games and shadow puppets and sweets nicked from the kitchens downstairs. One night, you bundled her up in every cloak and cape and muffler she had, and told her it was time to play gypsies. We were going to have a grand adventure, you said.”

She looked up at him, eyes wide in the dim firelight. “Why didn’t you tell me everything? You told me the truth of my mother, but you neglected to tell me the truth about you.” She touched his cheek. “Why didn’t you tell me that you saved my life?”

He swallowed hard. “I didn’t save your life.”

“I think you did. Or something close to it. I told you, I finally remembered.”

She gazed into the fire, contemplative. “All my life, I’ve kept this shadowy recollection in my thoughts. I’m in a long, dark hallway, and I can feel pianoforte music coming up through the floor. I hear the song, that same little verse about the garden. There’s something blue flashing in the darkness, and someone says, ‘Be brave, my Katie.’ ”

A knot stuck in his throat. He couldn’t speak.

“It was you, wasn’t it? We were up in the attic, and we were escaping that place.”

He forced out a reply. “Yes.”

“You took my hand and opened the door. We hurried down the stairs, and we never went back. You delivered me to Margate.”

“It was what your mother wanted. Before she died, she made her wishes clear. You were clever, and everyone could see it. She’d read about Margate in some subscription magazine and knew they took in foundlings. She wanted you sent to that school.”

“But I wasn’t?”

He shook his head. “After Ellie Rose died—”

“Why can’t I remember her?” she interrupted, distressed. “I remember you now, in little bits and pieces. But no matter how I search my brain, I still have nothing of her.”

“Perhaps you’ll recall more, in time. It’s not your fault. We had to stay out of our mothers’ way, for the most part. Else we would have been branded as troublesome, and landed ourselves on the streets. Anyhow, after your mother died, weeks passed. Then months. I knew they never meant to send you to that school. They never meant to let you go at all. They would have kept you there, made you one of them far too soon. For God’s sake, they were already teaching you the song.” His stomach turned, just thinking of it.

“They taught me the song?”

“The place . . .” He blew out his breath. He hated telling her these sordid details, but they’d come this far. She needed to know everything. “It was an opera house, mainly, with music and dancing girls cavorting on stage. But all manner of other things went on abovestairs. They named it the Hothouse, and all the dancers were called ‘blossoms.’ ”

“Like Ellie Rose,” she said, understanding. “Instead of Elinor Haverford.”

“Lily Belle. Pansy Shaw. Molly Thorne.” He winced. “That verse you remember . . . it’s what they sang for the gentlemen at the start of every performance.”

“So they were teaching me . . .”

“To be part of it, yes. They’d dress you up like a doll, push you out on the stage. At first, just as a poppet to sing and smile for the crowd. But the devil only knew how long it would take, before they wanted something more of you.”

“Oh.” As his meaning sank in, her face twisted. “Oh, God. That’s horrible.”

“I know it’s horrible. I know. That’s why I had to take you out of that place. That’s why I never wanted you to hear this.” He ran a hand through his hair in agitation. “Katie, don’t ask me about it anymore.”

“All right. We’ll speak of other things.” She reached for his right wrist. “How is your arm healing?”

“It’s better. Still clumsy, but improved. If I ever did save your life, I think you returned the favor that afternoon. We’re even now.”

“I doubt that.” Her fingers found their way to the border of his open collar. She pulled the gaping shirtfront to the side, exposing the hardened surface of his chest.

She stroked her fingertips over the most prominent of his tattoos. He sucked in his breath, trying not to let her touch affect him. Too late. His groin was already rock hard. So disgusting. So wrong, that he should be aroused by her, so soon after relating that tale.

“These make me so curious,” she whispered. “Where did you get them?”

“Different places,” he answered dismissively. “None of them worth your notice.”

“But I want to know.”

She pulled away from his embrace. A fresh gleam of determination lit her eyes. She ran her hand down his shirtfront, then gathered the linen hem and began hiking it, exposing his belly.

His abdominal muscles flinched and went rigid. “What are you doing?”

“Won’t you call me Katie? I like it when you do. Something about your voice when you say it, in that low, dangerous growl.” She gathered the folds of his shirt in both hands now and raised it.

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