A Lady by Midnight / Page 38

Page 38


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God damn it. It was as though every time he dared to reach for her, some cruel, vengeful deity pulled her just a little further out of his grasp. If he found a way around this hurdle, what would be next? She’d be revealed to be a princess? A mermaid?


“We’re still going to marry and go to America,” she said. “That’s all I want, is to be with you. To be your wife.”


A marquess’s legitimate daughter, living as a trapper’s wife in a humble, rough-hewn cabin. In Indiana.


Lady Katherine of the Prairie. Right.


“You’re not angry with me, are you?”


“Angry with you? Why would I be angry with you?” Even as he spoke the words, he was aware that they sounded . . . well, angry.


He forced himself to take a deep breath and then exhale slowly.


She was right; it didn’t matter. Not after what they’d just shared. They must marry, whether she was a charwoman or a fairy queen. He couldn’t waste time feeling worthless or counting all the ways he wasn’t good enough for her.


Whatever sort of woman she was . . . he had to be the man she needed.


Thorne scrubbed a hand through his hair, trying to fit his brain around the notion.


“Of course you’re a lady,” he said finally. He reached for her hand. “You always were, to me.”


“They haven’t told anyone yet,” she said. “Only the family and the solicitors know. Evan’s made arrangements with Sir Lewis to host a ball at Summerfield next week. It’s supposed to be the Gramercys’ parting gift to Spindle Cove, but they secretly plan to introduce me as their cousin that night. From there, we were meant to go to London.” She reached for his hand. “But I’ll explain to them that we’ve reconciled and plan to marry, as soon as possible.”


He held up a hand for silence and listened. “The rain has slowed. The hour isn’t even that late. We can dress, and I’ll take you down to the rooming house. Then I’ll explain matters to Drewe.”


She paled. “Oh, no. We can’t go to him like this. Not tonight. He has a famous temper. There’s no telling how he’ll react if he knows we’ve—”


“If he’s any sort of man, he’s out searching for you already. They could be pounding at the door any moment.”


“Then I must go.” She scrambled from the bed, wrapping one of the sheets about her torso for modesty.


He rose from the bed as well—making no such modesty attempts. “Katie, I won’t let you walk home alone.”


“You must. Otherwise, it will be obvious what’s happened between us, and Evan would . . .” She pulled her shift over her head. “Samuel, there’s a very real chance he would try to kill you.”


Kill him? Thorne couldn’t help but chuckle at that. His lordship was welcome to try.


“Just let me break the news gently,” she said. Her fingers worked desperately to do up her buttons. “Please.”


He swore, despising himself for causing her such obvious distress. Of course she wanted to break the news gently, because there was no way in hell a family of aristocrats—no matter how eccentric and unconventional—would rejoice to see their legitimate cousin marry a man like him.


Even he couldn’t rejoice at the idea. The two halves of his being were at war—the half that wanted the best for her, against the half that simply wanted her.


He gathered a pair of loose trousers and pulled them on.


“I think I’ll have a little money,” she said, rolling a woolen stocking up her leg and tying it off with a simple garter. “That’s the good news. We can buy ourselves a fair slice of America.”


Smiling, she reached past him to take her frock from the screen. He took the garment from her hands.


“Turn away,” he said. “Arms up.”


He helped her into the frock, taking time with all the buttons and laces. His right hand was still clumsy, so several moments passed.


When he’d finished, he put his hands on her slender waist. “Katie, how can you truly want that life? How can you want me?”


She swiveled to face him. “How could I want anyone else?”


To be sure, she said such sweet things now. But in time, he worried she’d come to resent him. A solitary life on the American frontier would give her far too many quiet hours to ponder all she’d left behind. A comfortable, lavish home and every convenience money could purchase. Her pupils, her friends. The family she’d waited her whole life to find.


“You will miss them.”


She nodded. “I will miss them. And I’ll be happy with you. The two conditions can coexist.”


Not knowing what to say without contradicting her, he instead bent his head and took her mouth in a kiss.


What started out tender quickly became passionate, feverish. He clutched her tight against his body and swept his tongue between her lips. She opened to him readily, no hint of shyness or restraint, and he kissed her as deeply as he could. Probing, searching. Desperately seeking the reassurance that would give his guilt-stricken soul some peace.


Convince me. Make me believe I can make you happy.


Light up for me.


When they broke apart, her cheeks were flushed and her eyes were glassy. But he couldn’t exactly say that she glowed. Damn.


“Samuel, I won’t claim loving you is easy. But it’s scarcely the hardship you’re making it out to be, either.” She stretched to touch his face, rubbing the spot between his eyebrows with a single fingertip. “I want to iron this flat. Stop fretting so.”


“I’m not fretting. Men don’t fret.”


Men acted. If he saw a problem, a real man addressed it. He took bold risks, made life-altering changes.


“I’ll let you go home to the Gramercys tonight,” he said, “on one condition. Don’t tell them anything just yet.”


“But I’ll have to—”


He shushed her by placing two fingertips to her soft pink lips.


“Not a word of this. Not yet.” He caressed her cheek. “I want to ask for you properly. I must speak to Drewe myself, Katie. Man-to-man. You cannot deny me that.”


She swallowed and nodded. “I understand. Will you come down to the village tomorrow?”


He shook his head. “I need to return to London. I need some time to make arrangements first.”


“Will you be long?”


“A few days, that’s all.”


Her eyes shimmered. “Promise you’ll return?”


“You have my word.”


She had his word, his heart, his soul, his life. Always.


And he had a few days. A few days’ time—to change his life and place a wild, reckless wager on the future.


Chapter Twenty-One


Kate stood before a mirror in the Queen’s Ruby.


Fretting.


It was all very well and good for Samuel to say men didn’t fret. But he was cruel to give her so much reason to fret herself. Nearly a week had passed since their night at the castle, and she hadn’t heard a word. While she had no reason to doubt his intentions, the longer she went without breaking the news to the Gramercys, the more of a liar she felt.


All week long the Gramercys had gone about making plans for Ambervale and Town. Parties they would host, places they would take her to see, people to whom she would be introduced. Kate tried to limit her responses to noncommittal nods and polite smiles, but she knew she was giving them the impression that she meant to come live with them forever.


Now it was the night of the ball. In a matter of hours she would be introduced as Lady Katherine Gramercy to all of Spindle Cove. To be sure, this was not exactly English high society—but word would spread to London, and soon. When she eloped to America with an enlisted man just weeks thereafter—wouldn’t that be a public embarrassment for the Gramercys?


And if her connection to the Hothouse ever became public . . . if the gossips of London ever learned that a onetime Marchioness of Drewe had lived as a Southwark opera dancer . . .


That would be a scandal of the worst order. It could affect the entire family’s standing and destroy Lark’s prospects.


Kate knew she could spare them pain by leaving quietly with Thorne. The inheritance didn’t matter to her. But it must be done before they made her identity public.


She couldn’t wait for Samuel any longer. She needed to speak with Evan, tonight.


She twisted and turned before the small mirror, judging her reflection. The color had been Lark’s suggestion—a lush cobalt-blue silk with a lace overlay in a darker, midnight shade of indigo. The hue seemed rather daring for an unmarried lady, but they wanted her to stand out. And she always felt her best in blue.


“Oh, Kate. Aren’t you lovely.”


Aunt Marmoset entered the room. The older woman was dressed in a long, draped violet gown and matching gloves. An ostrich plume adorned her wispy, upswept hair.


Kate fidgeted with a curl at her temple, trying to arrange it just over her birthmark. “I can’t make this curl cooperate.”


“Let me try.” Aunt Marmoset plucked a hairpin from the dressing table, beckoning Kate to duck her head. “There now.”


Kate stood and looked in the mirror again. Aunt Marmoset had pinned the curl back, smoothing it away from her face entirely.


“Don’t hide the mark, dear. It’s what makes you one of us.”


“I know. I’m sorry. It’s an old habit, and I can’t help being nervous tonight,” she confessed.


The older woman came to stand beside her in the mirror, sliding an arm about her waist. The ostrich feather barely grazed Kate’s shoulder. “Lark always likes it when I stand beside her,” Aunt Marmoset said. “She says I make her look tall.”


“I don’t know about tall, but I do feel stronger when you’re near.” In the mirror, Kate watched a tentative smile spread across her own face.


“Ah,” said Aunt Marmoset. “I knew your appearance wasn’t quite complete, but I couldn’t place the deficiency. That smile was missing.”


“Thank you for helping me find it.”


“You might wish I hadn’t. I was on the verge of giving you this instead.”


Aunt Marmoset unclenched one frail, knobby hand. From it unfurled a slender gold chain. And at the end of the chain dangled a pendant.


The pendant.


“Oh my goodness,” Kate gasped.


A quick glance toward her mother’s portrait confirmed it. It was the same teardrop of dark blue stone, veined with amber and white. So distinctive, that stone, with its lacy, scalloped layers of light and dark. It reminded her of when Sir Lewis showed the ladies a bit of butterfly wing under a magnifier.


“Where did this come from?” Kate asked, amazed.


“I asked the servants to pack my jewelry from Ambervale and send it down for the ball. Evidently, the maid found this hidden away in the dressing table and assumed it was mine. But it isn’t mine at all, is it? It’s yours.”


“How wonderful.”


“Let’s have it on.” Aunt Marmoset fixed the chain about Kate’s neck.


Kate turned to view it in the mirror. The indigo-blue pendant dangled just at her breastbone.


“It’s lovely,” Aunt Marmoset said.


“It’s a miracle.” Kate turned to the older woman and, bending low, kissed her on the cheek. “Your kindness is worth more to me than any jewelry, Aunt Marmoset. I don’t think I’ve thanked you properly for helping me feel at home in this family, but—”


“Bosh.” Aunt Marmoset waved off the remark. “You are at home in the Gramercy family. When will you accept that?”


I don’t know, Kate thought. I don’t know.


In her heart, she did believe that she was Katherine Adele Gramercy. She also knew herself to be the daughter of an unfortunate Southwark prostitute, as well as an impoverished orphan who’d been raised as the ward of a school. Perhaps all these things could eventually be reconciled into one existence, but . . .


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