A Lady by Midnight / Page 7

Page 7


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“No, no. That won’t do, my dear.” The inn’s landlady tugged her inside. “One can only keep a marquess waiting so long.”


“A marquess?”


While Mrs. Nichols closed the door, Kate turned to catch her reflection in the looking glass. She jumped in her skin when she found herself nose-to-button with Corporal Thorne instead.


“I thought you weren’t coming in,” she accused his lapel.


“I changed my mind.” When she finally dared look up, she found his eyes narrowed in suspicion. He asked, “Do you know any marquess?”


She shook her head. “The highest-ranking man I know is Lord Rycliff, and he’s an earl.”


“I’ll go in with you.”


“I’m sure that’s not necessary. It’s a parlor, not a crime den.”


“I’ll go anyway.”


Before they could argue it further, Kate found herself being hustled into the parlor. Thorne followed close behind. Several of the rooming-house guests lined the corridor. They gave her wide-eyed, speculative glances as she moved past.


When they reached the parlor, Mrs. Nichols pushed Kate through the door. “Here’s Miss Taylor at last, my lord and ladies.”


With that, the landlady shut them in. Kate could hear her on the other side of the door, chasing the residents away from the corridor.


There seemed to be a dozen guests in the parlor, though a quick count assured Kate they numbered just four. Wealth and elegance crammed the room. And here she stood in a torn, dirt-streaked frock. Her hair wasn’t even pinned.


A dark-clad gentleman rose to his feet and bowed. Kate had barely managed a slight dip of a curtsy when a loud, collective gasp nearly guttered the candles.


“It is her. It must be her.”


Kate swallowed hard. “Er . . . I must be who?”


A pretty young woman rose from a chair. She looked a few years younger than Kate, and she wore a frock of spotless, snowy muslin and an embroidered jade-green shawl. As she came to the center of the room, her expression was one of pure wonderment. She regarded Kate as one might a ghost, or a rare species of orchid.


“It must be you.” The girl raised her hand and stretched two fingertips to the birthmark at Kate’s temple.


Kate flinched out of instinct. She’d already been called a witch and a child of shame for that mark today.


Now she found herself wrapped in a warm, impulsive hug.


Caught between the two of them, Badger yipped.


“Oh, dear.” Kate pulled back, flashing an apologetic smile. “I’d forgotten him.”


The young woman in front of her laughed and smiled. “The pup is right to object. Where are my manners? Let’s begin again. Introductions first.” She stuck out her hand. “I’m Lark Gramercy. How do you do?”


Kate clasped the proffered hand. “Delighted, I’m sure.”


Lark turned and indicated her companions in turn. “Here we have my sister Harriet.”


“Harry,” the woman in question said. She rose from her chair and pumped Kate’s hand firmly. “Everyone calls me Harry.”


Kate tried not to stare. Harriet, or Harry, was the most stunningly beautiful woman she’d ever seen. Without a trace of adornment in the form of rouge or jewels, her face was a symphony of perfection: pale, luminous skin, wide eyes, wine-red lips. A small beauty mark on one cheekbone added a sultry punctuation to the sweep of her dark eyelashes. She wore her jet-black hair parted to the side and pulled back in a severe chignon that emphasized the swannish curve of her neck. And despite all her classic feminine beauty, she was dressed in what seemed to be men’s attire. A chemisette with hardly any frill at the neck, a waistcoat cut in the style most gentlemen wore, and—most shocking of all—a divided skirt of gray wool, hemmed several inches too short for modesty.


Good heavens. Kate could see the woman’s ankles.


“My brother Bennett is off traveling the Hindu Kush, and our other sister, Calista, is married and living up North. But we have with us Aunt Marmoset.” Lark patted the shoulder of a seated woman in her later years.


Kate blinked. “I’ve heard you wrong. I thought you said Aunt—”


“Marmoset. Yes.” Lark smiled. “It’s properly Millicent, but as a child, I could never pronounce it. It always came out Marmoset, and the name just stuck.”


“I resemble the name more every year,” Aunt Marmoset said good-naturedly.


“Yes, old dear,” said Harry dryly. “I was just complaining the other day, if I have to pluck you down from one more tree—”


“Oh, hush. I meant I’m small and spry and infectiously adorable.” The diminutive older woman stretched a bony hand toward Kate. Her grip was warmer and stronger than Kate would have expected. “It’s remarkable to see you, child.”


Before Kate could puzzle out the old woman’s meaning, Lark was making her final introduction.


“And this is our brother Evan. Lord Drewe.”


Kate turned to the gentleman standing near the window. The marquess, she presumed.


Lord Drewe made a deep, formal bow, which she tried to repay with her best curtsy. Here was a man, as they said, in his prime of life. Handsome, assured, worldly, and though he was doubtless responsible for hundreds, if not thousands, of tenants and dependents, he appeared to be in command of no one more than himself.


Kate found herself rather awed in his presence. She could understand Mrs. Nichols’s excitement now.


“The ancestral home is in Derbyshire. But we have a property over near Kenmarsh,” Lark explained. “It’s called Ambervale. Just a cottage, really. We’ve been summering there.”


“It’s a pleasure to meet you all.” Kate dropped into a chair so the marquess might be seated. “And you’ve come to Spindle Cove for . . . ?”


“For you, Miss Taylor,” Lark said, taking a seat nearby. “Naturally.”


“Oh. Were you wanting music lessons? I offer instruction in voice, pianoforte, harp . . .”


All the Gramercys laughed.


Behind her, Thorne cleared his throat. “Miss Taylor has had a long day. Surely your business can wait for the morning.”


Lord Drewe nodded. “Your concern is duly noted, Mister . . .”


“Thorne.”


“Corporal Thorne,” Kate put in. “He’s in charge of our local militia.”


She might have embellished the introduction, she supposed. He’s good friends with the Earl of Rycliff, or He served honorably on the Peninsula under Wellington. But she wasn’t feeling particularly charitable toward him at the moment.


She lifted Badger. “He gave me a puppy.”


“And it’s a lovely puppy,” Aunt Marmoset cooed.


Lark clapped her hands with impatience. “Corporal Thorne is right. It’s ungodly late. Harry, just show her the painting.”


Harry rose and came forward, bearing a rectangular, paper-wrapped parcel.


As her sister removed the paper covering, Lark chattered away. “I needed a summer project, you see. Ambervale is quiet, and I do go a bit mad without something to occupy my hands. So I decided to go through the attic. Just old crockery, mostly. A few moldering books. But tucked back under the rafters, I found this canvas wrapped in a tarpaulin.” Her voice pitched with excitement. “Oh, do hurry, Harry.”


Harry continued at the same pace. “Settle your feathers, pigeon.”


At last she had the thing unwrapped and held it up in the lamplight.


Kate gasped. “Oh my Lord.”


She clapped a hand over her mouth, horrified by her accidental blasphemy. Cursing, in front of a marquess?


The Gramercys didn’t seem perturbed, however. They all sat quite calmly and quietly as Harry revealed a painting of a reclining, flagrantly nude woman tangled in white bedsheets and a red velvet counterpane. Swollen, ruby-tipped breasts rested like twin pillows atop a rotund, creamy belly. The woman in the portrait was obviously pregnant.


And she looked like Kate. She looked a great deal like Kate, save for some differences about the eyes and chin, and the absence of any birthmark. The resemblance was uncanny, disturbing, and readily apparent to everyone in the room.


“Oh my Lord,” Kate breathed.


Lark beamed. “Isn’t it gorgeous? When we found it, we just knew we had to search you out.”


“Put that away.” Thorne stepped forward. “It’s vile.”


“I beg your pardon,” Harry replied, proudly propping the nude painting on the mantelpiece and standing back to admire it. “The female form is beautiful in all its natural states. This is art.”


“Put it away,” Thorne repeated in a low, threatening tone. “Or I will make it kindling.”


“He’s just being protective,” Aunt Marmoset said. “I think it’s sweet. A little savage, but sweet.”


Harry yanked Lark’s jade-green shawl from her shoulders and draped it over half the painting, obscuring most of the nudity. “This backward little village. Philistines, all. When we showed it to the vicar, he developed a stammer and visible hives.”


“You . . .” Kate swallowed hard, staring at the painting now boldly displayed above the fire. “You showed this to the vicar?”


“But of course,” Lark replied. “That’s how we found you.”


Kate crossed her arms over her chest, feeling unaccountably exposed. She leaned forward and peered at the face of the woman in the painting. “But it can’t be me.”


“No, Miss Taylor. It’s not you.” With a long-suffering sigh, Lord Drewe stood and addressed his siblings. “You’re making a right hash of this, I hope you know. If she wants nothing to do with us after tonight, you’ll have only yourselves to blame.”


What on earth could he mean? Kate’s brain made a lazy twirl in her skull.


The corporal addressed the room in a deep, commanding voice. “I’m giving you one more minute to start making sense. Otherwise, I don’t care if you are lords and ladies—you’ll be leaving. Miss Taylor’s under my protection, and I won’t have her treated ill.”


Lord Drewe turned to Kate. “I’ll make this brief. As my youngest sister has attempted to explain, I am the much-beleaguered head of this traveling circus. And we’ve been waiting for you, Miss Taylor, because we believe you may be a part of it.”


“I beg your pardon,” she said. “A part of what, precisely?”


He gestured with one hand, as though it should be obvious. “A part of the family.”


Chapter Five


The room swam in Kate’s vision. Badger scampered to the floor, and she made no effort to stop him. All around her, the Gramercys argued.


“I told you we shouldn’t have sprung it on her this way.”


“It’s been sprung on us all. It wasn’t as though we knew, starting out this morning . . .”


“Oh, dear. She’s so pale.”


They were such a . . . such a family. Kate could scarcely believe that she might be a part of it. The temptation to hope was so great, and optimism came to her too easily. But she didn’t want to make a fool of herself. She had to make some sense of this first.


While the rest of them talked, Aunt Marmoset came and sat next to her. She pulled a small, paper-wrapped candy from her pocket. “Have a spice drop, dear.”


Kate accepted it numbly.


“Go on,” the old woman urged. “Eat it now.”


Uncertain how to refuse, Kate unwrapped the sweet and popped the hard lozenge into her mouth.


Oh . . . blazes.


Her eyes watered instantly. The disc of pure, sugared fire burned on her tongue. It took everything she had not to spit it out.


“Strong, isn’t it? A bit overwhelming at first. But with patience, and a bit of work, you’ll arrive at the sweetness.” Aunt Marmoset patted Kate’s arm. “This family’s like that.”


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