Lark turned to Kate and gave her an uncertain smile. “There you have it. To be a Gramercy is to be embroiled in one scandal after another, it seems. Do you despise us already? Do you want us to leave?”
“Not at all.” She looked around the room. “I’m so happy, I can’t tell you. I’m delighted that you’re not fusty and proper, or I don’t know how I’d ever fit in. I’m in heaven just sitting here, listening to you talk and tease and turn the pages of your newspapers. You can’t know what a pleasure it is for me, to be in the presence of a family. Any family.”
“We are not just any family,” Lark said. “We may be your family.”
“If you’ll have us,” Harry said. “I shouldn’t blame you if you won’t.”
Kate looked around at their earnestly hopeful faces. “In all my life, there’s never been anything I wanted more.”
But as she spoke the words, they had the faintly acid taste of a lie. Earlier that day, she’d craved a man’s touch with a fierce, primal intensity. She’d wanted it more than comfort, more than family. More than breath. Beneath her skin, her muscles still yearned and ached.
She closed her eyes and willed the forbidden feelings away. “I only wish there was some way we could be certain.”
“I’ve begun inquiries,” Lord Drewe said. “I’ve already sent letters directing my man of business to Margate, to see what he can stir up there. We’re also exploring other avenues.”
“I don’t suppose it’s too much to hope that you might . . . remember something?” Lark asked. “I don’t want to pressure you, but we thought that perhaps after seeing the portrait and being around our family, some forgotten detail might shake loose.”
“Perhaps it will in time. But truly, I have so few memories.” Kate let her eyes go unfocused. “I’ve tried, so many times, to recall. It’s as though I’m traveling down a dark, endless corridor, and my past is at the end of it. And I know . . . I just know . . . if I could open the door at the end of that corridor, I’d remember everything. But I never quite get there. I only hear pianoforte music, and I have some memory of the color blue.”
“Perhaps it’s the pendant,” Lark said. She fetched the portrait from the mantelpiece. “The one about her neck, see?”
Kate looked closely. She’d noticed the pendant before—but in the dark last night, it had appeared to be black. Now she could see that it was actually a deep, almost indigo blue. Too dark to be a sapphire. Perhaps lapis?
She lifted her head, excited. “I suppose that could be the blue I recall. Especially if my mother wore it always.”
“She must have done,” said Harry. “She even wore it when she wore nothing at all.”
Kate startled. “Oh. And there’s a little song. A song about flowers.”
She sang it all the way through for them, beginning with, “See the garden of blossoms so fair . . .”
“It’s been lodged in my memory all my life, but in all my years of teaching music, I’ve never met anyone else who knew that song. I always fancied my mother sang it to me. Is it familiar to any of you?”
The Gramercys shook their heads.
“But the fact that we don’t know the song doesn’t mean anything,” Lark said. “We never would have met your mother at all.”
Kate’s shoulders relaxed. “It would be nice if that could have been the link. The proof. But I suppose it was too much too hope.”
“Nothing is too much to hope.” Aunt Marmoset patted her hand. “And dear, we really must decide what to call you. If you’re family, ‘Miss Taylor’ just doesn’t seem right.”
“It’s not even my name at all,” Kate admitted. “The surname Taylor was assigned to me at Margate. Really, I’d love it if you’d call me Kate. All my friends do.”
Even though her full name had been listed as Katherine, she’d always gone by Kate. It simply fit. “Katherine” sounded too refined and regal. “Kitty” brought to mind a flighty young girl. But “Kate” sounded like a sensible, clever young woman with lots of friends.
She was a “Kate.”
Except to someone, somewhere, she’d once been “Katie.”
Be brave, my Katie.
And today, when Thorne had pinned her to the ground, acting with courage to guard her life with his own—even if the threat was a wayward fruit, rather than a mortar shell—he’d called her “Katie,” too. So strange.
“Will you show us the local sights?” Lark asked. “I’m dying to explore that old castle on the bluffs.”
Kate bit her lip. “Perhaps we should save that for tomorrow. The militia are undertaking some drills. But I’d be delighted to give you a tour of the church.”
“Hold that thought.” Lord Drewe held back the curtain. “I believe our things have arrived.”
Kate watched, amazed, as a caravan of one, two . . . three carriages pulled up before the Queen’s Ruby, all of them bursting with valises and trunks. They must have contained enough belongings and supplies to launch a small colony.
“Thank the Lord,” said Aunt Marmoset. “I’m down to my last three spice drops.”
Thorne was a man of habit.
That evening, after all the men had left, he returned to his solitary quarters—one of the four turrets that comprised the Rycliff Castle keep. He brushed the dust from his officer’s coat and polished his boots to a fresh shine, so they’d be ready the next day.
Then he sat down at the small, simple table to review the day’s events.
This, too, was routine. In the infantry, he’d served under then-Lieutenant Colonel Bramwell, now Lord General Rycliff. After every battle, Rycliff would sit down with his maps and journals to painstakingly recreate the order of events. Thorne would help him to recall the details. Together, they laid it all out before them. What had happened, exactly? Where had key decisions been taken? Where had ground been gained, lives been lost?
Most importantly, they asked themselves this: Could anything have been done differently, to achieve a more favorable outcome?
In most cases, they arrived honestly at the same answer: no. Given a chance, they would do the same again. The ritual dampened any whispers of guilt or regret. Left unchecked, such whispers could become echoes—bouncing off the walls of a man’s skull. Growing louder, faster, more dangerous over weeks and months and years.
Thorne knew the echoes. He had enough of them rattling around his brain already. He didn’t need any more. So tonight he poured himself a tumbler of whiskey and reviewed the events of his most recent conflict.
The Melon Siege.
Could he have reasonably predicted the danger to Miss Taylor?
He didn’t think so. The trebuchet had been firing reliably seaward, if with varying degrees of strength. Sir Lewis had said afterward he could not have replicated that trajectory if he tried. A freak accident, nothing more.
Had he acted rightly to tackle her?
Again he could not regret his actions. Even if he’d been aware that the missile was a melon, he likely would have done the same. Had the fruit been any less ripe, it might not have exploded on contact. She could have been seriously injured. Thorne’s head was still pounding from the impact.
No, it was everything that came afterward. That was where he’d gone wrong. The shock had rocketed him to some other place. A place filled with smoke and the stench of blood. He’d found himself crawling on his belly toward the sound of her voice. For miles, it seemed, collecting scrapes on his knees and hands. Until he found the source—a clear, calm pool of water amidst the ugliness, with her face reflecting up at him instead of his own. He’d lowered his face to drink from it, lapping up that cool, refreshing peace. But it wasn’t enough. He’d wanted to bathe in her, drown in her.
That kiss . . .
Even when he came to his senses, he hadn’t pulled back. Not immediately, as he should have done. He’d never forgive himself for that. He could have truly hurt her.
But Lord. She’d been so sweet.
He lifted—and swiftly gulped—the tumbler of whiskey. Didn’t help. Even a second dose of liquid fire couldn’t burn her taste from his lips. He let his pounding head fall back until it met with the uneven stone wall.
So sweet. So soft in his arms. Christ, she’d been under him, every bit as warm and alive as he’d known she would be. Stroking his face and his hair, murmuring gentle words. The recollection made his chest ache and his groin tighten.
Good God. Good God.
He sipped the liquor again. As he forced the swallow down, a groan of raw pain and longing rose in his chest. All the whiskey in the bottle couldn’t numb this ache.
But he knew one thing.
This lusting stopped here. With these queer, mysterious Gramercys in the picture, she needed his protection. He needed to keep his wits sharp. If he came too close, he risked compromising her and losing his own focus. So there could be no more closeness. Only the bare minimum of contact. Handing her down from carriages and the like. Perhaps he’d be pressed to offer his arm on occasion.
But on this, he was resolved—
There would be no more kisses. Ever.
Someone pounded on the door.
“Corporal Thorne! Corporal Thorne, come out.”
Thorne’s heart kicked into a gallop. He thrust his feet into his boots and punched to a standing position. As he made for the door, he snagged his coat from its hook.
“What is it?” He flung open the door to view a red-faced, out-of-breath Rufus Bright.
The young man’s eyes were serious. “Sir, you’re needed down in the village at once.”
“Where? What’s happened?”
“The Bull and Blossom. And I can’t describe it, sir. You’ll see when you get there.”
That was all Thorne needed to hear. He broke into a run. From there it was a footrace with trouble—which particular kind of trouble, he hated to imagine. Was she sick? In danger? Had the Gramercys heard about the melon incident and departed in disgust, leaving her heartbroken and alone?
Damn, damn, damn.
Walking from the castle to the village normally took about twenty minutes. Going this direction, he had the advantage of the downslope—but with the light fading, a man had to watch his step.
Nevertheless, Thorne would venture no more than five minutes had passed by the time he reached the bottom of the path and plunged into the village lanes. A few moments later he was tearing across the green and throwing open the tavern door.
Bloody hell. It seemed that every soul in Spindle Cove was packed into the place. He saw villagers, militiamen, ladies from the Queen’s Ruby. Like fish in a net they were, just a mass of wriggling bodies with gaping mouths.
To a one, they turned and hushed as he burst through the doorway. Thorne could imagine why. He was panting, sweating, growling, and furious with the need to know just what the hell was going on.
But he was so winded, he hadn’t the breath for extensive questioning. Only three words mattered, in his mind. He used the last of his air to bark them out.
“Where is she?”
The crowd rustled and sorted itself, pushing Miss Taylor forward as if she were the wheat amid the chaff.
He swept his gaze up her body, then studied her face. She was whole, and not bleeding. Her eyes were clear, not red with tears. That alone was enough to make her the most beautiful thing he’d ever beheld. As far as he was concerned, her low-cut, fitted yellow gown was merely in the way. She had better not be bruised or broken under all that shimmering silk.
“Surprise,” she said. “It’s a party.”
“A . . .” He worked for breath. “ . . . A party.”
“Yes. An engagement party. For us.”