He swept a look around the crowded tavern. This might have started as a party. It was going to end as someone’s funeral.
“Wasn’t it a nice idea?” She forced a smile. “Your militiamen planned it.”
“Oh, did they?”
Thorne turned to the bar, where his militiamen stood in a lazy, substandard line. Pursing their lips like buglers, to keep from laughing aloud.
He wanted to murder them all. One by one by one. Unluckily for them, he’d left his pistol at the castle. But there had to be knives in this place.
She took a few steps closer. With every labored breath he drew, he now got a dizzying lungful of her lemon-clover scent. It calmed him in some ways and inflamed him in others.
“It wasn’t my idea,” she murmured at the floorboards. “I can see you were frightened. I’m so sorry.”
“Not frightened,” he replied curtly.
Just ready to fight. And she needed to stop looking so pained, or he’d be seriously tempted to put his fist through the wall.
Fosbury, the tavern keeper and confectioner, came out from the kitchen wearing an embroidered apron and bearing a large tray. “Come along, Corporal Thorne. Even you have to celebrate sometime. Look, I made you a cake.”
Thorne looked at the cake.
It was baked in the shape of a melon, iced with green. There were letters swimming on it—they spelled out congratulatory wishes, he supposed—but he was too angry and exhausted to push them together into words. Heaped atop all his other frustrations, that last insult to his pride was enough to turn his vision red.
“There’s a fly on it,” he said.
Fosbury bristled. “No, there’s not.”
“There is. Look close. In the center.”
The tavern keeper bent his head and peered closely at the center of the cake.
Thorne grabbed him by the hair and pushed downward, mashing his face straight into the icing. The man came up blinking and sputtering through a mask of green, sugary scum.
“Do you see it now?” Thorne asked.
A thick glob of piped icing fell from Fosbury’s brow. It landed with an audible plop. The entire room had gone silent.
They were all staring at him, aghast. What’s the matter with you? their horrified looks said. We’re your neighbors and friends. Don’t you know how to enjoy a party?
No. He didn’t.
No one had given him a party before. Never in his life. And the way everyone was staring at him, it was clear that no one would ever dare to give him one again.
Then it started. Just a light ripple of musical sound, coming from Miss Taylor’s direction. It grew louder, gained strength, until it was a full-force cascade.
She was laughing. Laughing at him, laughing at the stupid cake, laughing at Fosbury’s green-covered face. Her peals of melodious, good-natured laughter rang from the exposed ceiling timbers and shivered through his ribs.
Before Thorne’s heart could remember its rhythm, everyone else was laughing, too. Even Fosbury. The mood went from black to some iridescent color only found in rainbows and seashells. The party was a party again.
Damn. If only he had it in him to love, to give her what she needed—he would claim her for his own and keep her so very close. To tease him, to kiss him back from the shadows, to laugh merrily when he terrorized his friends. To make him feel almost human, every once in while.
“For goodness’ sake,” she said, still laughing behind her cupped hand. “Someone fetch the poor man a cloth.”
A giggling serving girl handed a rag over the counter, and Miss Taylor took the cake from Fosbury’s hands so he could wipe his face clean.
She stuck her finger in the mussed icing, then held Thorne’s gaze while she sucked it clean. “Delicious.” She held the cake out. “Care to try?”
God above. No man could resist that. He had to take at least this much.
He reached—not for the cake, but for her wrist. While she stared at him, wide-eyed, he dipped her finger in the icing and brought it to his own mouth.
He sucked the creamy, sugary confection from her finger, and then he sucked the sweeter treat that was her bare fingertip, working his tongue up, down, and around it. The same way he would savor her nipple, or that hidden nub between her legs.
She gave a little gasp, and he fancied he heard pleasure in it. If she were his, he’d have her making that sound every night.
He released her hand and pronounced, “Delicious indeed.”
A raucous whoop went up from the assembled crowd.
She gave him a chastening look. Her cheeks were as red as his coat.
He shrugged, unapologetic. “It’s our engagement party. Just giving them what they came to see.”
Sometime later, Kate was seated at a corner table with Thorne and the Gramercys. Slices of half-eaten cake sat before each place.
She was having a difficult time attending conversation—not only because the tavern had only grown louder after two rounds of drinks, but because her thoughts were entirely absorbed by a tongue.
She’d gained a great deal of familiarity with that tongue today. It was nimble, impertinent, and had a way of ending in places she wasn’t expecting. It also gave her an inordinate amount of pleasure, when he wasn’t employing it to send her harsh words.
But right now, perhaps his tongue was fatigued from the day’s exertions, because he wasn’t using it. At all. He’d been sitting at this table for a half hour, at least, and hadn’t spoken a word.
“Why don’t you tell us how you and Corporal Thorne met,” Aunt Marmoset said.
Kate sent a nervous glance in Thorne’s direction. “Oh, no. It’s a boring story.”
Harry lifted her wine. “It can’t be a more boring topic than estate management and agriculture, and that’s all we ever hear from Evan.”
Beneath the table, Kate twisted her fingers in her lap. There was no way she could spin a plausible tale of courtship. She didn’t want to lie to the Gramercys at all, and Thorne’s taciturn presence across the table would only undermine any tales of romance she might concoct.
“It’s been a year,” she said. “So long ago. Truthfully, I’m not even sure I could remember the time and place of our first—”
“It was here.”
The reply came from Thorne. The silent oracle had spoken. The collective surprise was such that the glassware rattled on the table.
Even more astonishing—he appeared to have yet more to say.
“I arrived with Lord Rycliff last summer, to help assemble the local militia. Our first day in the village, we entered this tea shop.”
Lord Drewe looked around. “I thought this was a tavern.”
“It was a tea shop then,” Kate explained. “Called the Blushing Pansy. But since last summer, it’s been the Bull and Blossom. Part tea shop, part tavern.”
“So go on,” urged Aunt Marmoset. “You came in to the tea shop, and . . .”
“And it was a Saturday,” Thorne said. “All the ladies were here for their weekly salon.”
“Oh,” said Lark with excitement. “I see where this is going. Miss Taylor was playing the pianoforte. Or the harp.”
“Singing. She was singing.”
“She sings?” Drewe looked to Kate. “We must have you perform.”
“It’s a rare thing to hear her,” Thorne said. “Too often, she’s accompanying one of her pupils instead. But that first day, she was singing.”
Dreamy-eyed, Lark propped her chin with one hand. “And right there, that first moment, you were struck by her celestial voice and rare, ethereal beauty.”
Kate cringed. Celestial? Lark was taking it much too far. Surely he’d balk at confirming that.
Thorne cleared his throat. “Something like it.”
Lark sighed. “So romantic.”
Of all the words Kate had never expected to hear applied to Thorne, “so romantic” had to rank near the very top. Right beneath “talkative,” “dainty,” and “choirboy.” She had to admit, he was doing an admirable job of making this sound believable, without resorting to lies. He must have worried she’d give away the truth, with all her hesitant stammering on the subject.
“What was she wearing?” This question came from Lord Drewe. It had the sound of a quiz, not friendly curiosity. As if he didn’t believe Thorne was telling the truth.
“Lord Drewe, it was a year ago,” Kate interjected lightly, trying to divert this line of questioning. She was lucky they’d progressed this far without a misstep. “Even I don’t remember what I was wearing.”
“White.” Thorne regarded Lord Drewe across the table. “She was wearing white muslin. And an India shawl embroidered with peacocks. Her hair was dressed with blue ribbons.”
“Is that true?” Lark asked Kate.
“I . . . If Corporal Thorne says so, I suppose it must be.”
Kate struggled to conceal her shock. She remembered that shawl. It had been on loan from Mrs. Lange. Since she was angry with the husband who’d given it to her, she’d let Kate have use of the shawl all last summer. But Kate never imagined that Thorne would recall it. Much less the matching peacock ribbons in her hair.
She stole a glance at him as the serving girl removed the empty glasses. Had he truly been “struck by her” that day, the way Lark said?
“So he clapped eyes on you right here in the Spindle Cove tea shop,” Lark said dramatically, “and he knew at once—he must make you his own.”
Kate’s cheeks burned with embarrassment. “It wasn’t like that.”
“You know nothing of men, goose,” Harry said. “It’s been a whole year. Corporal Thorne is a man of action. Just look at him. If he’d made up his mind to have her, he would have done so long before now.”
“See, he didn’t like me,” Kate said. “Not at first. Perhaps there was some superficial attraction, but no emotions were involved.” She looked at him over her wineglass. “He didn’t feel a thing for me.”
“Oh, I won’t believe that.” Aunt Marmoset unwrapped another spice drop. “I think he liked you too well, dear. And he made up his mind to stay away.”
Kate looked to Thorne. She found him staring back at her with unnerving intensity.
“Well?” Lark asked him. “Does my aunt have it right?”
Does she? Kate asked him silently.
She didn’t know what answer to read in those ice-blue eyes, but she discerned there was a great deal going on behind them. For a man who claimed to feel nothing . . . the “nothing” went very deep.
“Miss Taylor, are you going to keep our new friends all to yourself?”
Kate shook herself back to the present. Mrs. Highwood stood behind her, Diana and Charlotte in tow.
“Introduce us, dear,” the matron said through a clenched smile.
“Yes, of course.” She rose, and so did the men at the table. “Lord Drewe, Lady Harriet, Lady Lark, and Aunt Marmoset, may I introduce Mrs. Highwood and her daughters, Diana and Charlotte.”
“I have a third daughter,” Mrs. Highwood said loftily, “but she is lately married. To the Viscount Payne of Northumberland.” The older woman turned and made a strange, awkward motion with her fan.
“Congratulations,” Lark said, smiling at the matron and her daughters. “We’ve seen you in the rooming house, but it’s a pleasure to be properly introduced.”
“Yes, of course,” said Mrs. Highwood. “What a boon it is to have a family of your caliber in Spindle Cove. We are quite starved for society this summer.” Once again she turned and made the same swoop of her fan.
“Are you swatting a wasp?” asked Aunt Marmoset.
“Oh, no.” Mrs. Highwood flicked an agitated gaze toward the same corner of the room. “It’s nothing. Will you excuse me for just a moment?”