“I think I could come to love him,” she said. “If he would let me.”
Evan’s thumb rubbed a lazy circle on the back of her hand. “It’s plain you have a brave and generous heart. I imagine you could love just about anyone, if you made up your mind to do it. But you deserve a man who can love you in return.”
Kate smiled a little, nervously.
His grasp on her hand was warm and firm. “I mean to take care of you. I want you to know this. If there’s no legacy allotted in the terms of Simon’s estate, I will ensure that you have one. You will be an independent woman of significant wealth. A woman with choices.” He leaned meaningfully on that last word.
She swallowed. “Evan, you needn’t do that for me. I’ve never had any expectation of—”
“I have expectations of myself, Kate.” His eyes glittered in the dark. “I have a passion for protecting this family. And that passion now extends to you.”
A silence opened between them. As they regarded one another, Kate’s curiosity grew.
He had a “passion” for her. The insides of her elbows tingled. What did that mean, exactly?
“Corporal Thorne is a good man,” she said.
“Perhaps. But is he the best man for you?” He looked down at where their hands remained linked. “Kate, it’s possible we won’t accumulate enough evidence to satisfy the courts of your identity. But that’s not the only way I can give you the family name.”
She stared at him through the flickering shadows. Surely he didn’t mean that the way it sounded. He couldn’t possibly be hinting at—
A floorboard creaked, and Kate startled.
Evan released her hand. “Just the dog. Don’t be alarmed.”
Relief washed over her. Nothing improper had passed between the two of them. At least, she didn’t think it had. But she cringed to imagine how the scene could have looked to a gossip-minded villager. That would be a juicy rumor for Sally Bright to stock in the All Things shop—Miss Taylor holding hands with Lord Drewe, when she was engaged to Corporal Thorne?
But no one would believe that rumor, Kate assured herself. A girl like her, courted by two virile, powerful men—and one of them a lord? She felt silly for even entertaining the idea herself.
Wrapping her dressing gown tight around her chest, she rose from the chair and gathered Badger.
“I’d best go back to the rooming house,” she said. “Please don’t stay up too late seething on my account.”
He gave her an intent look and a cryptic smile. “I make no promises.”
By Spindle Cove custom, the midsummer fair was a children’s festival. But readying the crumbling Norman castle for its annual day of merriment required all the foresight and strategy of a military campaign.
There were so many preparations to complete. Music, dancing, food, displays, general amusement. Kate was responsible for the first two items on that list, and she’d worked hard toward the success of the latter three as well.
By mid-morning, however, she seemed doomed to fail at them all.
First Miss Lorrish brought distressing news about the decorations. “Miss Taylor, we’ve tried three times now. The swags simply won’t stay put on the southeastern turret.”
Kate shaded her brow with one hand and gazed up at the limp purple bunting dangling sadly from the crenellated parapet. “I’ll ask the militiamen to climb up and secure it.”
Next, it was Miss Apperton’s turn for a crisis. “Oh, Miss Taylor. I’ve broken the last good string for my lute.”
“You may borrow mine,” she offered.
Another hour smoothed most of the wrinkles, as children and families began to stream in from the countryside and village.
But then there was Miss Elliott. Poor, petrified Miss Elliott. The hapless young lady came skittering to Kate’s side moments before the ladies were to sing the madrigal.
“I can’t.” Beneath her bonnet’s wide brim, her cheeks blazed scarlet. “I just can’t do it.”
“You won’t be alone,” Kate assured her. “We’re all singing together.”
“But there are so many people. I didn’t realize—” Her voice broke. “Please don’t force me.”
“Don’t weep.” Kate drew her into a tight hug. “Of course I won’t force you. Just as long as you understand, I’m not giving up on you, either. We’ll hear you sing another day.” She pulled back and tilted her head to view under Miss Elliott’s bonnet. “Now, then. Chin high, keep smiling. Right?”
Miss Elliott sniffed and tried to smile. “Yes, of course.”
When Kate considered that she might have been reunited with exacting relations like Miss Elliott’s, she felt the magnitude of her good fortune.
Her gaze slid to the Gramercys, seated under the canopy reserved for guests of honor. In the center were two flower-bedecked thrones. Kate had asked Evan to sit as ceremonial king of the fair, with Diana Highwood playing the part of his regal, placid queen.
After the dancing, Kate had a short break while the children’s hoop race went off. She made her way toward the canopy, meaning to check on Aunt Marmoset’s comfort.
Mrs. Highwood intercepted her, however, and drew her quickly aside. “Don’t they make a handsome couple?” she said. “I always knew Diana would do better than Minerva. Minerva might have caught herself a viscount, but now Diana will be a marchioness.”
“Mrs. Highwood,” Kate whispered through her teeth. “Please. They’re sitting just a few feet away.”
But the matron went on, undeterred. “Lord Drewe must fancy her. Why else would he have stayed in the village so long?”
“I’ve been giving Lady Lark music lessons.”
Mrs. Highwood erupted in laughter. “Oh, Miss Taylor. Do you expect me to believe a man of Lord Drewe’s fine looks, intelligence, manners, and stature would remain in this tiny village just for you?”
Kate sighed. No, she didn’t expect Mrs. Highwood to believe it.
She didn’t expect anyone to believe it.
Two days had passed since the night she came upon Evan playing the pianoforte in the Bull and Blossom, but those days were wholly consumed with preparations for today’s festivities. There hadn’t been any quiet opportunity to talk.
She kept thinking back to his cryptic comments that night. “That isn’t the only way I can give you the family name.”
Never in her life would she have dreamed that a marquess would hint at marrying her. And Mrs. Highwood was right—no one else would believe it, either.
It didn’t matter, anyhow. Kate was otherwise engaged. Her public intentions, private attention, and, increasingly, tender emotions were all engaged by the man now taking the green.
The hoop race finished, and the militiamen claimed the center of attention for a short rifle drill. As they marched forward in formation, Kate delighted in the opportunity to stare. Pride swelled in her heart.
Thorne was a sight to behold. He wore his best officer’s coat, of course. The uniform was designed to make any man look tall and fit, and when the man in question was already tall and fit, it made him look positively godlike.
“Of course,” said Mrs. Highwood, “you should not feel bad, Miss Taylor. You have snagged yourself a corporal, and that is nothing to sniff at. For a young woman in your circumstances, a corporal is a fine catch indeed. Though I do think you could have managed a lieutenant. That would have been better.”
Kate couldn’t imagine any man looking fitter, stronger, or more attractive than Thorne appeared to her eyes right now. She would not have traded him for a prince.
Lately, everyone—Mrs. Highwood, Evan, even Thorne himself—kept telling Kate she belonged with a different man. Perhaps common sense would argue the same.
But her heart was saying otherwise, and she couldn’t ignore it any longer. There was a connection between them. Some bond she simply couldn’t give up.
As the militia review concluded and Sir Lewis prepared for the grand finale—his demonstration with the trebuchet—Kate couldn’t stay away.
She left the canopy and plucked the shiny brass helmet from a displayed suit of medieval armor. Jogging across the green, she presented it to Thorne. She just had to be near him.
“Here,” she said, breathless but smiling. “In case of melons.”
He took the helmet and gave it a stern glare.
“Still no laugh?” She ducked and tilted her head, trying to catch his attention. “I was hoping you’d smile, at least. Well, I suppose I’ll just have to keep trying.”
His icy eyes met hers. “Don’t.”
She winced at the curt rejection. It seemed that whatever progress they’d made in Wilmington had vanished. He was shutting the door again.
She would find a window. “I mean to stay after the fair, to help put things to rights. We need some time to talk. Alone.”
“I don’t think—”
“We need to talk. It’s important.”
She took his silence as reluctant agreement.
Kate turned to see Lark careening at her like a lawn bowl. Laughing, she grabbed Kate by the hand. “I’m stealing her, Corporal. Don’t try to stop me.”
Little did Lark know, she wasn’t likely to encounter much resistance from Thorne’s quarter. He looked only too pleased to see her go.
“What is it?” Kate asked as Lark tugged her away to a quiet corner of the ruins.
“Oh, Kate.” The young lady flung her arms wide and captured her in an effusive hug. “I’ve been dying to talk to you alone. This is the perfect time, while everyone’s paying attention to the demonstration.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing’s the matter. Everything’s perfect. Evan tells me we’re going to consider it official. He has solicitors coming down to meet you and make everything right. We’re going to claim you as a Gramercy.” Lark gave a little squeal. “We’re cousins. Isn’t it wonderful?”
“Yes,” Kate agreed, grinning. “It is.”
Lark clasped Kate’s hands, swinging them back and forth a bit. “Our holiday will be ending soon. We’ll be leaving Spindle Cove.”
“Oh. Oh, I’ll miss you all very much.”
“Goose.” Lark squeezed her hands. “You’ll come with us to Town, of course. I need you. I have ever so much shopping to do for my season, and it will be so much more fun if you’re there. Harry couldn’t care less about plumes and bonnets. I suppose I should have some actual music practice, too.”
Kate turned her head and blinked hard.
“What’s wrong, dear?”
“I . . .” She tried to smile. “It’s too much to believe. I only wish I knew why you want me.”
Lark put her hands on Kate’s shoulders. “Because you’re you. And because you’re family. Family above everything.” She cast a glance toward the bailey. “Honestly, I’m not sure why you’d want us, either. We’ve little to recommend ourselves, save pots of money.”
“No,” Kate said, earnestly shaking her head. “No. I would want to be a Gramercy even if you were poor pig farmers on the Isles of Scilly.”
Lark laughed. “Well, Evan does pay a great deal of mind to agriculture. It’s rather a bore sometimes. Don’t worry about anything. There may be a touch of gossip, but this family has weathered many a scandal. Once the ton has a chance to meet you, you will only improve our overall standing, I suspect.”
Kate couldn’t quite believe that, but living with the Gramercys was social acceptance enough. When it came to the ton, she would simply do her best to stay out of the way.