A Lady by Midnight (Spindle Cove #3)

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06.03.2019

As Kate—and all the Gramercys—looked on, the matron turned away, walked two steps, and hurled her closed fan with such force that it smacked an unsuspecting man on the back of the head.

“Music,” she half growled. “Now.”

The man rubbed his head, offended, but he drew out a fiddle and began to saw a few creaky strains of a dance. Around the tavern, guests came to their feet to clear tables and chairs.

“Oh, look,” said Mrs. Highwood, turning back to the Gramercys with an innocent smile. “There’s going to be dancing. What a happy surprise.”

Kate shook her head, dismayed. Of course the woman would do anything in her power to engineer a dance between her eldest daughter and Lord Drewe. But dancing wasn’t a good idea for Diana. The last time she’d danced with a lord in this tavern, Diana had suffered a serious breathing crisis.

“Lord Drewe, I do hope you will honor us with a dance,” said Mrs. Highwood. “Spindle Cove offers no shortage of lovely partners.” She nudged Diana a step forward. “Ahem.”

Kate began to grow truly panicked. She didn’t know how to stop this. Even if he had no interest, Lord Drewe would not embarrass Diana with a refusal. And Diana was too shy and sweet to countermand her mother in company.

She cast a frantic, pleading glance at Thorne. He must understand what was going on. But unlike the others involved, he wasn’t the sort to let etiquette stop him from doing something about it.

Standing tall, he lifted his voice and called to the fiddler. “No dancing. Not tonight.”

The music died a quick, plaintive death. Around the room, guests muttered with discontent. Once again Thorne had single-handedly destroyed the celebratory spirit.

Only Kate knew the true reason, and it wasn’t surliness. Neither was it a lack of empathy.

Quite the opposite. There was good in him. Raw, molten goodness, bubbling deep in his core. But he didn’t possess the charm or manners to control it. It just erupted periodically in volcano fashion, startling anyone who happened to be nearby. Whether they were neighbors he prevented from dancing or teary-eyed spinsters he kissed in fields of heather.

He recalled the color of her hair ribbons on the first day they met. And she’d been blind to his essential nature all this time.

“Of course we can’t have any dancing,” Diana said, restoring peace with a smile. “How could we think of it, when we haven’t yet raised a glass to the happy couple?”

“That’s right,” someone called. “There must be a toast.”

“I’ll say something. I’m the host.” Fosbury raised a glass from behind the bar. “I don’t think I’ll be speaking out of turn to say this betrothal came as quite the surprise to everyone in Spindle Cove.”

Kate glanced at Lord Drewe, worried he’d suspect something was amiss.

Fosbury continued, “For a year, we’ve all been watching these two square off on opposites of every argument. I had it on good authority that Miss Taylor had diagnosed Corporal Thorne as possessing a stone for a heart and having rocks in his head.”

A wave of laughter rippled through the crowd.

“And considering these infirmities”—the tavern keeper stretched his glass in Thorne’s direction—“who would have thought the corporal could make so wise a choice?” He smiled at Kate. “We’re all terrible fond of you, m’dear. I think I speak for the entire militia when I say—we wouldn’t let you go to anyone less worthy. Or less capable of calling us up on court-martial.”

“Hear hear!”

Everyone laughed and drank, and the collective affection in the room created a knot in Kate’s throat. But it was another emotion that made her chest ache.

Fosbury was right. Over the past year, she’d abused Thorne thoroughly, to his face and behind his back, when he’d done nothing more egregious than ignore her. After tonight, she suspected all that neglect had been his clumsy attempt at chivalry.

Here she was, surrounded by friends—and possibly family—who believed her to be in love with the man. Engaged to marry him. But in reality, she knew she’d treated him ill.

He told her he had no feelings to hurt, but no one could be completely without emotion. And if all Thorne’s brusqueness had goodness beneath . . .

What sort of heart was hidden under all those staunch denials?

She regarded him now: arms crossed, face hard, eyes glazed with ice. He was a living suit of armor. If she listened hard enough, she might even hear him creak as he walked.

He wouldn’t surrender any secrets willingly. If she wanted to know what was truly inside the man, she would have to crack him open to find out. It seemed a dangerous proposition, and a sensible, clever young woman—a “Kate”—would turn and run the other way.

But she wasn’t a “Kate” to him. He’d called her Katie. And Katie was a courageous girl, even in the face of her fears.

Be brave, my Katie.

Yes. She would need to be.

Chapter Ten

“I must say, that’s a true disappointment. He hasn’t any phallus.”

“What?” Kate asked, laughing.

When they’d reached their picnic spot, Harry placed her hands on her hips, clenched her teeth around a cheroot, and regarded the immense green slope a few pastures distant.

“No phallus at all.” She exhaled a puff of smoke. “And here I had such high hopes, considering he’s known as ‘the Long Man’.”

Kate exchanged amused glances with Lark. They both turned to regard the giant outline of a man carved into the chalk hillside. The ancient figure ranged over the entire slope, standing out in white lines against green.

“Ames and I went to see the Cerne Abbas carving in Dorset,” Harry went on. “The giant depicted on their hillside is magnificently pagan. He has a horrific grimace on his face, and he’s waving a big, knobby club in his hand. Not to mention, sporting a monumental erection.”

Lord Drewe frowned. “Really, Harriet. That’s enough discussion of phalluses. I don’t see why you and Ames should even care.”

Harry sent her brother a look. “It’s an artistic appreciation.” She gestured at the ancient carving on the slope. “This one’s just an outline. No facial expression whatsoever. Rather rigid and staid-looking, isn’t he? And confined, locked up between those two lines.”

“I think they’re staffs,” Kate suggested. “So perhaps that’s some consolation. He’s missing the monumental erection, but he does have two impressive staffs.”

Harry took the cheroot from her mouth and gave her a shocked look. “Why, Miss Kate Taylor.”

Kate knew a moment of pure distress. What had she been thinking, to overstep and speak so crudely? The Gramercys were the aristocracy. She was their poor relation at best, and a complete stranger at worst. Just because Harry could make scandalous jokes, that didn’t mean she should do the same.

Harry turned to her brother. “I like her. She can stay.”

“She stays, whether you like her or not.”

“I suppose that’s right,” Harry said. “If amiability were a requirement for inclusion in this family, Bennett should have been handed his permanent exile years ago.”

Kate breathed a sigh of relief. She couldn’t cease marveling at the notion that she might be a part of this. This wild, impolitic, eccentric, creative assortment of individuals. They liked her.

Now, if only Thorne would join in. The pagan figure carved on the distant hillside was a more active participant in the conversation.

He’d separated himself from the group, on the excuse of letting Badger tumble through the heather. As she looked closely, Kate thought he had the dog engaged in a training exercise. However, she couldn’t follow quite what he was training Badger to do, because she kept getting distracted by the flexing of his thighs whenever he crouched to praise or correct the pup.

It wasn’t only his physical firmness that drew her attention. His character was solid, too. She’d long known him to be stern and immutable, but since their engagement party, Kate was beginning to glimpse the good qualities his silence masked. Patience, confidence, steadfastness. Such traits didn’t clamor for attention. They just quietly . . . existed, waiting to be noticed.

She’d made it her hobby these past few days—noticing. And the more she noticed, the more she yearned to know more.

“Well, that’s a lovely view for a picnic,” Aunt Marmoset said, joining them. “I do enjoy gazing upon a well-carved man.”

“He’s called ‘the Long Man of Wilmington,’ Aunt Marmoset.” Lark scribbled in her journal.

“How odd. I’d been under the impression his name was Corporal Thorne.” Aunt Marmoset came and put her hand in Kate’s pocket. “My dear, hold onto that one. Tightly, and with all four limbs.”

Kate blushed. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Yes, you do. We have similar tastes.”

The old lady withdrew her hand, leaving Kate’s pocket oddly heavier—full of spice drops, she assumed.

“Remember what I told you,” Aunt Marmoset whispered. “Strong. Overwhelming at first. But with a bit of work, you arrive at the sweetness.”

Kate had to laugh. “I am coming to adore you, Aunt Marmoset. Even if you’re not truly my aunt.”

Over the past few days, she had begun to sort out the web of Gramercy family relationships. She knew Harry had meant it as a joke the first night, but she secretly had made herself a chart. Aunt Marmoset was Evan’s mother’s sister, come to live with the family when their father took ill. Therefore, the old lady was not a Gramercy and no potential blood relationship to Kate whatsoever. But that fact didn’t seem to diminish Aunt Marmoset’s efforts to welcome her with warmth and good humor and a great many spice drops.

All the Gramercys had blended in with Spindle Cove life. Drewe had rightly pointed out that the village was a haven for unconventional ladies—and Harry, Lark, and Aunt Marmoset certainly met the standard. They’d been enjoying regular activities with the other ladies: country walks, sea-bathing, making decorations for the fair.

But today the family had decided on an outing—not only to satisfy Harry’s curiosity about the Long Man, but to give them time alone. In the village, they’d still kept the possibility of kinship a secret. Here, they could speak freely.

Kate haltingly approached Lord Drewe. As always, his aristocratic presence and sheer male splendor humbled her. His gloves alone . . . they held her rapt. They were things of seamless, caramel-colored perfection, encasing deft, elegant hands.

“Any news from your men of business?” She hated to pry, but she knew from Sally that he’d had several expresses since arriving in Spindle Cove.

“No information of value at Margate,” he said regretfully. “No information at all.”

Kate only wished she could claim surprise.

“But now they’re canvassing the area around Ambervale, looking for any servants from Simon’s time. Perhaps one of them would remember Elinor and the babe.”

“That sounds like a possibility.” If a slim one.

His gloved fingertips touched her elbow, drawing her gaze up to his face. “I know the uncertainty is difficult to bear. For us all. Lark, in particular, is growing very attached to you. But today we should simply enjoy the outing.”

“Yes, of course.”

On the flat green, two liveried servants had been working hard to erect a canvas pagoda, topped with red banners gaily striping the blue sky.

The Gramercys did nothing without a certain degree of pageantry, Kate was coming to understand. From the carriages, the footmen unloaded two large hampers stocked with a variety of savory dishes and freshly baked sweets provided by the Bull and Blossom. This might be a picnic, but it wasn’t a rustic affair.