A Lady by Midnight / Page 8

Page 8


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Then the old woman sharply addressed the room. “All of you, be calm.”


They were all of them instantly calm. Even the one who was a marquess.


“The only way to tell this is as a story, I think.” Aunt Marmoset’s papery, age-spotted hand clasped Kate’s. “Once, there was a man named Simon Gramercy, the young Marquess of Drewe. Like all Gramercys, he tended toward tempestuous, inappropriate passions. Simon’s particular interests were art, and the charms of a highly unsuitable girl. The daughter of a tenant farmer from his Derbyshire estate, can you imagine?”


Kate shook her head, her tongue still puckered around the evil spice drop.


“Simon’s mother, the dowager, was scandalized. The girl’s parents disowned her. But Simon would hear no censure. He set up a love nest with his muse at Ambervale. They lived ensconced there for several months, merrily painting and posing and making passionate—”


“Aunt Marmoset.”


“Really, after the portrait, I don’t think it can come as a shock.” The older woman continued, “Anyhow, poor Simon’s health took an ill turn. The next the family heard of him, he was dead. Suddenly, tragically, dead. And no one knew what had become of the farmer’s daughter. She seemed to have vanished completely. Perhaps she’d taken ill, as well . . . Perhaps she’d gone on to be another man’s muse. No one could guess. The title passed to Simon’s cousin, my brother-in-law. And then, on his death, to Evan.” She waved in Lord Drewe’s direction.


“Are you confused yet?” Lark asked.


“We’ll draw you a chart later,” said Harry.


Kate stared at the painting. “We do look rather alike, I’ll admit, but I’m only twenty-three. And I have this.” She raised her hand to her birthmark.


“Oh, but that’s a family trait,” Lark said. “Several of the Gramercys have something like it. Harry has only the small beauty mark, and most of mine is covered by my hair. Evan’s is behind his ear. Show her, Evan.”


Lord Drewe gamely turned to display the side of his neck. Yes, he did have a port-wine mark that disappeared beneath his crisp, immaculate cravat.


“Is it making sense now?” Lark asked. “When we found this painting in the attic, we knew she must be Simon’s lover. But no one ever knew she was pregnant. The question was, what became of the child?”


“Dead, we assumed,” Harry said. “Otherwise we surely would have heard something. But Lark couldn’t resist the chance to investigate.”


Lark smiled. “I do love a mystery. If the babe had been born from Ambervale, we knew some record of the birth ought to exist. So we went to the local parish, but there we learned that the church had burned in 1782 and not been rebuilt for a decade. Some sort of accident with a censer and a tapestry . . .”


Lord Drewe cleared his throat. “Keep to essentials, Lark. For Miss Taylor’s sake.”


Lark nodded. “So there were no records. During those years, the parish was divided between the three neighboring churches. We decided to make family outings, visiting one per week.”


“Only in this family,” said Harry, “would we consider it high entertainment to go searching musty parish registers for a stillborn cousin.”


Lark ignored her sister. “We started at St. Francis, the closest. No luck there. This week was a choice between St. Anthony in the Glen and St. Mary of the Martyrs. I must admit, I was lobbying for St. Anthony’s, because I liked the pastoral sound of it, but—”


“But our resident martyr had his way, and St. Mary’s it was.”


“Yes, thank goodness. The book, Evan?”


Lord Drewe withdrew a large volume that looked to be a well-thumbed parish register. Kate was surprised he would have been allowed to remove it from the church. But then, he likely paid the vicar’s living. She supposed any requests from the local marquess would be difficult to deny.


He opened it to a previously marked page, found a line with his fingertip, and read aloud, “Katherine Adele, born February the twenty-second, in the year seventeen hundred and ninety-one. Father, Simon Langley Gramercy. Mother, Elinor Marie.”


“Katherine?” Kate’s heart began to pound. “Did you say Katherine?”


Lark bounced in her chair with excitement. “Yes. We scanned the next several years’ worth of records—no death listing. No christening either, but no death. We asked the vicar if he knew of any Katherine living in the area who might be the right age now. He replied that he didn’t. However, he said he’d recently received a letter.”


“A letter?” Badger nosed at Kate’s shins, and she lifted the pup into her lap. “My letter?”


For the past several years, she’d played the organ for Sunday worship at St. Ursula’s. She asked no financial compensation for the service. Only a favor. Each week, Mr. Keane gave her an hour in the vicar’s office. She chose a parish from his enormous Church of England directory and penned a letter, requesting a search of parish registers for any female children born between 1790 and 1792, given the Christian name Katherine, who had since fallen from the local record. She’d begun with the parishes nearest Margate and worked outward.


Slowly. Over weeks and months and years.


The vicar signed and posted the letters for her. He also did her the favor of keeping them secret. Most of the villagers would have laughed at her for spending so much time and effort on a fruitless enterprise. In their eyes, she might as well have spent her time sticking notes in bottles and heaving them into the ocean.


But Kate hadn’t been able to let the idea go. She’d made hope her weekly habit. Every time the post brought another crushing “No”—or worse, when months passed with no reply at all, letting her know a perfectly good stone had gone unturned—she listened to that voice inside her heart: Be brave, my Katie.


And now . . .


Now Aunt Marmoset’s spice drop had nearly dissolved in her mouth—and the older woman was right. A thick, delicious sweetness coated her tongue.


Kate savored it.


“Yes,” Lark said. “It was your letter. And I just knew in my heart, our Katherine must be you. We set off at once, traveled all afternoon, and arrived here a few hours ago.”


“We showed your vicar this”—Harry indicated the painting—“and once he recovered from his small apoplexy, he told us that Miss Kate Taylor did indeed bear a remarkable resemblance to the portrait.”


“From the neck up, of course.” Lark directed this comment—and a timid smile—at Corporal Thorne.


“So there you have it, my dear.” Aunt Marmoset patted Kate’s knee. “The tale has a miraculous ending. We have found you. And by all evidence, you seem to be the long-lost daughter of a marquess.”


The words hit Kate like an avalanche. In the aftermath, her emotions were frozen, scattered things. It was all too much. She had parents named Simon and Elinor. She had a birthday. She had a middle name.


If . . .


If this could all be believed.


“But I never lived anywhere near Kenmarsh,” she said. “I was raised as a ward of Margate School until just four years ago. That was when I came here to teach music lessons.”


“And before Margate, where were you?” Lord Drewe asked.


“I haven’t any clear memory, unfortunately. I asked my schoolmistress for details.” Goodness, had her horrid interview with Miss Paringham only been that afternoon? “She told me I was abandoned.”


Kate stared at the woman in the portrait. Her mother, if this could be believed. Had she died? Or given her baby up, unable to care for a child on her own? But it was plain from the way the woman’s hand draped affectionately over her rotund belly, she’d loved that infant in the womb. How amazing, Kate thought, to think she could be in that painting, underneath the skin of it, fetal and wriggling and . . .


Loved.


“You poor thing,” Lark said. “I can’t imagine how you must have suffered. We can’t undo those years, but we will do our best to make up for them now.”


“Yes,” Drewe agreed. “We must install you at Ambervale as soon as possible. When I’m home tonight, I’ll send a lady’s maid to help with your packing.”


“I’m sure that won’t be necessary.”


“Did you already have your own lady’s maid?”


Kate laughed, astonished. “No. I haven’t that many belongings to pack. What I meant was, it’s not appropriate for you to invite me to your home.”


Lord Drewe blinked. “Of course it’s appropriate. It’s a family home.”


A family home.


The words made her breath catch painfully. “But . . . wouldn’t I be an embarrassment?”


“Absolutely not,” Harry said. “Our brother Bennett holds the position of family embarrassment, and he jealously guards it against all would-be usurpers.”


“Why would you embarrass us, dear?” asked Aunt Marmoset.


“Even if all you say is true . . . I’m your illegitimate second cousin, by a tenant farmer’s daughter.”


Kate waited for the import of her words to sink in. Surely people at the Gramercys’ level of society didn’t associate with bastard relations?


“If you’re concerned about scandal, don’t be,” Lark said. “Scandal comes with the Gramercy name—along with enough wealth that no one much cares. If there’s one lesson Aunt Marmoset instilled in us from our youth, it’s—”


“Beware of spice drops,” said Harry.


“Family above everything,” countered Lord Drewe. “We may be a motley assortment of aristocrats, but we stand by one another through scandal, misfortune, and the rare triumph.” He pointed to the parish register. “Simon claimed his daughter and gave her the family name. So if this infant is you, Miss Taylor . . .”


A dramatic pause thickened the air in the room.


“. . . then you are not Miss Taylor at all. You are Katherine Adele Gramercy.”


Katherine Adele Gramercy?


Like hell she was.


Thorne clenched his jaw. He wasn’t a man of words. This situation called for eloquence, but he could only think of action. Chiefly, he wanted to fling open the door and turn all these queerly chattering aristocrats out on their arses. Then he’d lift Miss Taylor in his arms and carry her upstairs to have the restful lie-down she’d been needing for the past several hours. Her cheeks were deathly pale.


He would want to lie down next to her, but he wouldn’t. Because unlike these presumptive intruders, he had restraint. Thorne had heard of aristocratic inbreeding being to blame for imbecility and bad teeth. This family seemed to have contracted a sort of verbal cholera. Everything they spouted was rubbish.


He couldn’t believe these people proposed to take Miss Taylor away. He couldn’t believe she’d consider going with them. She had sense.


And she promptly displayed some of it.


“You’re so kind. But I’m afraid I can’t leave Spindle Cove so hastily. I have obligations here. Lessons, pupils. Our midsummer fair is just a week or so away, and I’m responsible for all the music and dancing.”


“Oh, I love a fair.” The youngest one bounced in her seat again. She had an irritating way of doing that, Thorne noticed.


“It isn’t much, but we have a good time with it. It’s a children’s festival, mostly—up at the ruined castle. Corporal Thorne and his militiamen are helping, too.” After throwing him a hesitant look, Miss Taylor continued, “At any rate, surely you’d wish for this . . . connection . . . to be more official before inviting me to your home? If we find that your suppositions are wrong, and I am actually not your relation . . .”


“But the portrait,” the young lady protested. “The register. Your birthmark.”


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