“I’m dying to see the fair,” Lark said.
“A little sea-bathing would set me up nicely,” said Aunt Marmoset.
“I’m quite keen on the idea of a stay in Spinster Cove,” said Harry, tugging her waistcoat straight as she rose from her chair. “It will make Ames deliciously jealous.”
“So you see, Miss Taylor, it’s ideal. This way, we needn’t take you from your friends, but we’ll have ample time to grow acquainted.”
“Yes, about that . . .” Kate bit her lip. “This is a small village. Might I ask that we keep this potential kinship to ourselves? I should hope to keep speculation and gossip to a minimum, in case . . . in case it all comes to naught.”
She could only hope that there weren’t three girls pressing their ears to the parlor door this moment.
“Yes, of course,” Lord Drewe said, pausing a moment to consider. “We have a hearty dislike of gossip, too—one bred from familiarity, sad to say. As far as people outside this room are concerned, we are engaging your services as Lark’s personal music tutor. Will that suffice?”
Lark moved to her side. “In truth, I could use the lessons. I’m a disaster on the pianoforte, but perhaps I’d take to the harp.”
The young lady’s warm smile touched Kate’s heart. So did Harry’s reassuring nod, Lord Drewe’s confident demeanor, and the lingering taste of Aunt Marmoset’s spice drop on her tongue.
They were a family, and they wanted to spend time with her. To know her. Even if it only lasted a few days, that alone was worth anything—even suffering a bit more awkwardness with Thorne. Here was one benefit to his cruel rejection in the heather. Now she knew better than to imagine any feelings on his side.
“Well,” Kate said, turning a guarded smile from one Gramercy to the next. “I suppose it’s all settled.”
As she crawled into bed some time later, Kate felt anything but settled.
When last she slept between these linen sheets, she’d been an orphan and a spinster. During the course of this wild day, she’d managed to accumulate four potential cousins, a mongrel puppy, and a temporary betrothed.
“Settled” did not describe her state. Quite the opposite. Her mind was abuzz with excitement, possibility . . .
And that kiss.
Even after all that happened with the Gramercys, she still couldn’t forget that kiss.
This was horrible. She was bone weary and mentally exhausted. She desperately wanted to fall asleep. But every time she closed her eyes, she felt the heat of his strong lips on hers.
If only she’d kept her eyes open for the kiss, maybe she would have avoided this association. But no. The connection was drawn: eyes shut, kiss recalled. The instant her eyelashes fluttered against her cheeks, her lips plumped and her whole body throbbed with heady, unwanted sensation.
She should have taken more pains to be kissed years ago, so the feeling wouldn’t be so novel now. Really, what self-respecting girl had her first kiss at the age of twenty-three?
She didn’t even like him. He was a horrid, unfeeling man.
Think of family, she admonished herself, staring wide-eyed up at the ceiling beams. Think of birthdays in February. Think of that unabashedly naked woman in the portrait, lovingly patting her swollen belly. She might have been your mother.
If she was going to lie abed sleepless, it ought to be these thoughts that kept her awake. Not a kiss that had meant nothing, given by a man who didn’t feel a damned thing for her, who saw engagement to her as a means of career advancement.
She would not think of him any longer. Would not.
She grabbed the pillow, put it over her face and growled into it. Then she clutched the same pillow to her chest and hugged it very tight.
“See the garden of blossoms so fair. Roses in bloom, orchids so rare.”
She whisper-sang the familiar words into the darkness, letting the melody curl around her like a blanket. The silly nursery song was Kate’s earliest childhood memory. The lilting tune always calmed her nerves.
“Lilies tall and sweet,” she continued. “Rounder mums, too. All of them dancing, dancing for you.”
As the last note faded, her eyelids slipped shut and stayed there.
She dreamt of a hot, stormy kiss that lasted all night long.
“Oh, Miss Taylor! I was so hoping you’d come in this morning.”
Kate froze in the entryway of the All Things shop.
Sally Bright, the village shopgirl and gossip, looked up from her ledger and cast her a sly smile. “I can’t wait to hear everything.”
Oh, please. Please, don’t let word have gotten around.
Kate herself could scarcely believe last night’s interview with the Gramercys, much less be pressed to explain it. “Hear everything about what?”
“Everything about you and Thorne, of course. Miss Taylor, you must tell me. I’ll forgive your entire line of credit, but I want to hear every detail. I heard you’re betrothed.” The girl hopped for emphasis. “Betrothed!”
Kate closed her eyes. Oh. That. The girl wanted to hear about her and Thorne. She was having a hard time crediting those events, too.
“Did you say betrothed?” In her peripheral vision she saw a lace cap swivel.
Kate adjusted the heavy basket on her arm. Mrs. Highwood, a matron in her middle years, stood at the far corner of the shop, accompanied by the eldest of her three daughters, Diana.
“Who is betrothed?” the older woman demanded.
Mrs. Highwood was a woman of advancing age—but when it came to the subject of matrimony, her hearing was positively canine in its acuity. Between her voracious interest in all things nuptial and Sally’s love of gossip . . .
Well, at least this would be over quickly.
“It’s Miss Taylor and Corporal Thorne,” Sally jumped to inform her. “It happened just yesterday, on their way home from Hastings.”
“How do you even know all this?” Kate asked, marveling.
“Your new music pupil came in the shop. Lady Lark, is it? She popped in first thing this morning for tooth powder and told me everything.”
Mrs. Highwood crossed to the counter. “Miss Taylor? Betrothed to Corporal Thorne? I cannot believe it.”
“Is this true, Kate?” Diana asked. “I must admit, that’s . . . rather a surprise.”
Of course it would be a surprise. She and Diana were friends, and not only had she never said a thing to the eldest Miss Highwood about liking Corporal Thorne—she’d given every indication of despising the man.
Because she did despise him. He was horrid and cold and unfeeling and now . . .
“It’s true,” Kate said, inwardly cringing. “We’re engaged.”
It’s all right, she reminded herself. It’s only temporary.
“But how did this happen?” Diana asked.
“Very suddenly.” Kate swallowed. “I’d gone into Hastings for new music, and I missed the last stagecoach home. I chanced across Corporal Thorne in the street, and he offered me a ride home.”
“And then . . . ?”
“And then we stopped to rest the horse near a turnpike. We . . . discussed the past and the future. By the time I settled in for the night at the Queen’s Ruby, we were engaged.” There, all of that was the truth.
Sally pouted. “That is the worst recounting I’ve ever heard! You owe us more than that. Did he go down on one knee, declare mad love for you? Was there a kiss?”
Kate didn’t know how to answer. Yes, there had been a kiss. And her first kiss should have been an occasion to bubble over with excitement and regale all her friends with breathless details. Instead, she just wanted to conceal her humiliation.
“Look at your face,” Sally said. “Red as sealing wax. It must have been a very good kiss indeed. The man’s no kind of monk. You’ll be a lucky bride, Miss Taylor. I’ve heard such tales . . .” She scribbled in her ledger.
Mrs. Highwood snapped open a fan and worked it vigorously. “Insupportable. My Diana’s poor health has us confined to this seaside hamlet, while all England celebrates the allied victory. Here we stay, doomed to watch her chances of marriage sail by, like so many ships viewed from the shore. And now Miss Taylor is engaged?”
Diana gave Kate an apologetic smile. “Mama, I believe what you mean to say is that we are thrilled for Kate, and we wish her much joy.”
“Much joy,” the older lady muttered. “Yes, Miss Taylor may have much joy, but what of us? I ask you, Diana, where is our joy? Where?” She drew the last word into a wavering lament. “Everyone who is anyone is in Town this summer. Including your sister, who—I remind you—has recently married a viscount.”
“Yes, Mama. I do recall.” Diana coughed pitifully into a handkerchief. “It’s so unfortunate my health has taken a sudden turn.”
“You do look very pale today,” Kate said.
Diana and Kate exchanged knowing looks. Minerva Highwood’s recent marriage to Lord Payne was the entire reason for this subterfuge. Left to her own devices, Mrs. Highwood would have descended on the newlyweds within a day of their arrival in Town, demanding introductions be made and balls be held. Diana wanted her sister to have a quiet honeymoon—hence the mysterious and sudden “decline” in her health.
“I tell you,” the older woman muttered, “in my youth, I should not have let consumption, malaria, and typhoid put together keep me from the celebrations of the Glorious Peace.”
“But you would not have been much fun at parties,” Kate couldn’t help but say. “All that hacking and shivering with fever.”
Mrs. Highwood sent her a sharp look.
Just then Sally Bright slammed her ledger shut. “There, that’s done. Now, Miss Taylor, spill everything.”
What Kate spilled were the contents of her hamper. Inside it, Badger startled at the crack of the ledger closing. The pup leapt from the wicker basket, then darted about the shop, rocketing from one corner to another.
“It’s a rat!” Mrs. Highwood cried, displaying the spryness of a woman ten years her junior as she climbed a nearby stepladder.
“It’s not a rat, Mrs. Highwood.”
The puppy scampered under a bank of shelves.
Kate ducked and scouted under the cupboards. “Badger! Badger, do come out.”
“Even worse,” the matron moaned. “It’s a badger. What sort of young woman carries a badger in a handbasket? It’s like a harbinger of the End of Days.”
“I believe it’s a puppy, Mama,” Diana said. Crouching, she joined Kate in the search. “Now where’s the dear thing gone?”
Down on hands and knees, Kate peered under the cupboard. Badger was there, wedged far at the back. She stuck her hand into the gap and groped for a handful of scruff. Drat. Just out of her reach.
Diana knelt beside her. “Poor dear. He must be frightened.”
“Here. Try this.” Sally joined them, holding out a bit of salted bacon she’d taken from a barrel in the storeroom. “Before he leaves a puddle under there.”
Kate blew out a swift breath, lifting a lock of hair that had fallen over her brow. The puppy had already left two puddles in her room at the Queen’s Ruby. One on the floorboards, and another in her bed. By the time she’d returned from breakfast with a slice of ham and a roll tucked in her pocket, the little beast had chewed up the handle of her good fan and one half of her most comfortable pair of slippers.
“Come now, Badger. That’s a good boy.” Kate pursed her lips and made encouraging noises. The pup sniffed and advanced a little, but not quite far enough.
Recalling Corporal Thorne whistling for the dog yesterday, she pressed her lips together and gave a short, chirping whistle. That did the trick. The pup came darting out—a furry bullet shooting straight into her lap.