A Lady by Midnight / Page 41

Page 41


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“I said no.”


Payne straightened his cravat. “Really, Thorne. I’m only trying to help. ‘No, thank you’ might be more polite.”


“Etiquette isn’t my strong point.”


“Yes, but that’s why I’m here, isn’t it? It’s why you came to me for help. If you mean to win that woman—that lady—and make her your wife, you’ll have to make it your strong point. And quickly.”


Thorne shushed him. The small orchestra had struck up a new tune, and he strained to hear.


“That’s the waltz,” Payne confirmed. “You’re on.”


Bram clapped Thorne on the shoulder. “Go to it, then.”


“No pressure,” Payne said. “It’s only your one chance at happiness, you know. It’s only the rest of your life.”


Thorne cut him a glare as he shouldered open the door. “Not helping.”


As he made his way through the connecting door and down the short stretch of corridor to the ballroom, nerves danced in his gut. But once he spied her at the opposite end, all his anxiety disappeared—replaced by awe.


He hadn’t laid eyes on her in nearly a week.


And he’d never seen her looking like this.


Good God, she was beautiful. She stood in profile to him, deep in conversation with Minerva Highwood, the new Lady Payne. He stopped in his paces a moment, just to drink in the sight of her. And to remember how to breathe.


She wore deep blue silk, the color of fathomless oceans and dark night skies. Set off by the lush fabric, her shoulders were smooth, pale perfection. Tiny brilliants spangled her dark, upswept hair, and satin gloves sheathed her arms to the elbow. He heard the sparkling melody of her laughter float high above the music.


She was too elegant for him, too beautiful for words.


But he’d come this far. He would dare to ask for her anyway.


He started to move. The crowd shifted around him. Across the hall, Katie shifted her weight and swept the room with an unfocused gaze. She looked right through him, with no hint of recognition—then went back to her conversation.


He strode toward her, moving with purpose now.


When he’d covered half the distance, her eyes darted to him again. Once, fleetingly. Then a second time, narrowing. As though she were trying to place him. The wrinkle of her brow was one of mild concern. He could almost hear her thoughts. Who was that hulking, overdressed brute across the ballroom, staring her down?


God. She didn’t know him.


It’s me, Katie. You know me.


Their gazes connected. He felt it in his bones, the moment recognition struck. That sweet jolt of affinity shot down his spine.


Then a waltzing couple twirled between them, blocking his view.


Damn it.


Damn, damn, damn. He had to see her reaction. That was his entire purpose in coming here and making an entrance. How would she greet him? Would it happen this time, at long last?


By the time the waltzers passed, the whole crowd had shifted. He pushed his way through the throng, scanning for her. His heart pounded so fiercely, he thought it would burst.


“Samuel!”


He turned on his boot heel.


There she was, poised on tiptoe, her neck elongated like a swan’s, the better to call over the crowd.


He changed course, veering for her. And stopped, two paces away.


Waiting, with his heart in his throat, to see if she’d light up for him.


She didn’t glow. Her eyes didn’t twinkle. No small flame of joy flickered to life behind her expression.


No, this was so much better than that. It made everything worthwhile—not just the past week, but the lifetime before it.


She went incandescent with the brilliance of a thousand fiery stars.


“Samuel. It’s you.”


Kate struggled to compose herself. He had a lot of nerve, keeping her waiting all this time and then showing up looking like this. He was still his unbearably handsome self, only . . . he was more.


More, in every way.


She could have sworn his new, fashionable Hessians made him a full inch taller. The tight fit of his black tailcoat made his shoulders look a touch more broad. She couldn’t begin to articulate what the clinging buff breeches did for his thighs, or she might suffer an attack of light-headedness.


His hair was clipped with precision, glossed with a touch of pomade. Even from an arm’s length he smelled wonderful—like leather and cologne and clean linen, blended with the essence of raw, manly strength.


Most of all, there was an air about him. It wasn’t quite elegance or refinement, but perhaps . . . self-possession. Purpose. Oh, his face was still hard, and his eyes remained chips of ice. But beneath it all, there was fire.


“Might I have this dance?” he asked. So suavely. The velvet darkness of his voice sent a thrill coursing all the way to her toes.


“I suppose you may.”


What was this game they were playing? Were they supposed to pretend they didn’t know one another? All she wanted to do was fly into his arms.


But she put her hand in his. As he led her to the dance floor, her heart fluttered.


They faced one another, and he fit his hand between her shoulder blades. The expression on his face was so stern.


“You look magnificent,” she whispered. “So handsome.”


She waited for him to compliment her gown or her hair, but she waited in vain. The expression on his face was both intent and somehow uncertain. What did it mean?


“I’ve missed you so much.”


He swung her into the waltz. They moved through several bars of the dance, haltingly. He never said a word.


“Samuel, are you . . . Have you changed your mind?”


He blinked. “About what?”


“About me.”


He frowned at her, as if chiding her for the question. “No.”


She waited for further assurances. He didn’t give them. Her heart began to pound. She didn’t know what it was, but something was wrong.


“If you don’t want to be here,” she said, “I don’t want to force you.”


He made no reply. Except to curtly sigh with impatience and stare at the orchestra.


“Won’t you speak to me? I’ve been waiting for you all week. Hoping all night. I couldn’t believe you would leave me feeling so abandoned, and now you’re finally here—”


“I’ve been here for hours.”


“Then why did you take so long to come find me? Were you ashamed? Uncertain?” Her voice broke. “At least look at me.”


He came to a halt. “Blast. I can’t do this.” He looked about the room, his eyes searching out every possible exit. “We need to talk somewhere, alone.”


Kate struggled to keep her worst fears tightly leashed, but they had tenacity. And sharp teeth.


Perhaps her new identity as a lady was too much for him. Maybe he’d decided he couldn’t be part of her life.


“This way,” he said.


She followed him out the nearest set of doors and down a long paneled corridor, until they passed into Sir Lewis’s famed medieval hall, where the aging antiquarian’s collection of arms and armor was most impressively displayed.


“It’s quiet here,” he said. “And safe.”


Kate supposed it was. On either side of the long, narrow hall a half-dozen suits of ancient armor stood sentry. Like an escort of Arthurian knights, solemnly standing guard on either side of a plush, rose-red carpet.


A pair of wall sconces at either end provided the hall’s only illumination. Candlelight quietly gleamed off the polished suits of centuries-old armor, limning the edges of their swords and the points of their staves.


The setting was either wildly romantic or vaguely threatening.


Samuel motioned for her to sit on a bench nestled into an alcove. The cool stone beneath her thighs made her shiver.


He sat next to her. “Katie, you have to let me explain.”


“Please do. If you’ve been here at Summerfield for hours, why didn’t you come to me at once? Why did you make me wait all night?”


“You want the truth?”


“Always.”


“Because I can’t dance. I only had time to learn the waltz. I couldn’t come claim you for the gavotte or the sarabande. I had to stand in the library like a damned fool and wait for the orchestra to play the one dance I knew.”


Her heart twisted in her chest. “Oh.”


“And I couldn’t even manage it. For Christ’s sake, it shouldn’t be more difficult than marching, should it? Payne told me not to stare at my feet, but . . .”


“Oh, Samuel.”


“But you looked so lovely. Every thought went right out of my head.”


Now everything made sense. This explained his stern, uncertain expression and his refusal to speak or look at her. He’d been trying so hard to keep step with the dance, he hadn’t been able to spare concentration for niceties.


And did he say Lord Payne had advised him? Samuel despised Lord Payne. But he’d sought the man’s help. He’d asked for dancing lessons.


Heavens. He could have spelled out his love for her in fifty-foot letters, right on the hillside beside the Long Man of Wilmington, and it wouldn’t have been any more obvious.


Those clear blue eyes sought hers, shining true through the dark. “Look at me. This is who you’ll be stuck with, Katie. A clumsy oaf who can’t count to three in his head and tell you you’re beautiful at the same time. What the hell are you doing with me?”


“I’m in love with you, you foolish man. Falling deeper every moment.” She let her brow fall to his chest and listened sharp for the deep, steady beat of his heart. “I know you love me. You don’t have to say it. I can feel it. I know.”


He drew a ragged breath. “Katie, you know the life I’ve led. It’s been brutish and bloody and cruel, and I don’t know that I can ever give you the kind of tenderness you deserve. You tell me I love you . . . but I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t understand what the word even meant, or how a man like me could ever feel such a thing.”


“It’s all right,” she said. “I don’t need the words.”


“I brought some words anyhow.” He stared into her eyes. His gaze was a breathtaking, penetrating blue. “ ‘Love is composed of a single soul, inhabiting two bodies.’ ”


“Samuel, that’s . . .” Her voice broke. “That’s absolutely beautiful.”


“It’s Aristotle. I did some reading.”


Oh. He’d done some reading. Kate’s heart was doing some wrenching and aching.


“I never thought Greek philosophy could make a damn bit of sense to me. And most of it didn’t, but those words just seemed right. ‘Love is composed of a single soul, inhabiting two bodies.’ ” He took her by the shoulders, drawing her close. “It rang true for me, in a way nothing else did. Whatever soul I had, Katie, I think I placed it in your keeping twenty years ago. And now, it’s as if . . . every time we kiss, you give a little piece of it back.”


She nuzzled his smoothly shaven cheek, inhaling the rich fragrance of his skin. Shaving soap and his natural musk and just the slightest hint of cologne.


He raised his head. “But I don’t want you giving anything up for me. I want you to have this life. This family. Your birthright. You are a lady, and I’m no gentleman.”


“It doesn’t matter,” she protested, feeling a sudden stab of panic. “It will never matter. You’re a good man. The best man I know.”


“You need a husband who is a gentleman. One who understands your new life, and all its demands. A man who can be your partner in society and help manage your inheritance.”


“But I don’t want any—”


“I mean to be that man, Katie. Or I mean to become him, as best I can.”



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