“Oh!” Lark exclaimed. “I’m so stupid, I forgot. That’s the entire reason I wanted to speak with you today. Evan says we must keep it all quiet a few days longer. But you’ll be wanting to tell Corporal Thorne, of course. Now that you’re part of the family, he’ll be marrying into the Gramercys, too.”
Kate’s breath left her. “I hadn’t even thought of that.”
Goodness. If ever a man needed the acceptance of a family, it was Thorne. And despite his rocky start with Evan, if the Gramercys would so happily bring her into the fold, they would surely accept Thorne, too. Why would he want a cold, lonely cabin in the American wilderness when he could be a part of this?
But that would mean marrying him. And staying married to him, so long as they both should live. No simple prospect.
“Should you like to have the wedding at Ambervale?” Lark asked. “I thought it might be nice, since your parents were so happy there. It’s your birthplace, you know. Your true home. I know you have your own plans, but promise me you’ll discuss it with Corporal Thorne.”
“I promise you,” Kate said. “We’ll discuss it.”
“Have you been letting the dog chew books?”
“What?” Miss Taylor smiled. “Thorne, when I asked to speak to you alone, it wasn’t about Badger’s discipline. I told the Gramercys I’d be down to join them for dinner. We don’t have much time.”
Thorne glanced around the rapidly emptying castle grounds. The fair was over, and daylight was fading. Everyone had gone down to the village for drinks and refreshments at the Bull and Blossom.
He pulled a small green volume from his pocket and waved it at her. “I had to pull this away from the dog yesterday. It’s Lord Drewe’s, you know.” He displayed the chewed binding. “Now it’s ruined. I don’t know what to do about it.”
“Well, don’t concern yourself overmuch. Lord Drewe has other books to read, I’m sure.”
Thorne snorted. Didn’t he know it. Fosbury had told him the marquess had two full crates of books delivered to the village, along with all his other belongings.
Two crates of books. What possible use could a man have for them all? The sheer puzzle of it irritated him.
And the books themselves weren’t even useful. He glared at the shredded volume. “Who the devil is . . .” He blinked and frowned at the letters again. “Ar . . .”
She took the book from him and peered at the chewed spine. “Aristotle. It’s a Greek name.”
“More Greeks? I don’t suppose he was one of the men fighting over that Helen of Troy.”
“He was a philosopher.” She sighed. “It’s not important right now.”
“It is important. You shouldn’t be letting Badger chew on these.”
“I know, I know. He must have gotten that one when I wasn’t looking.” She shrugged. “We can get a replacement. Evan won’t be angry.”
“Evan?” Thorne jerked his head in surprise. A bright red burst of irrational jealousy pulsed through him. “So he’s ‘Evan’ now?”
“Yes. That’s what I needed to tell you. It’s the most wonderful news. Lord Drewe has—”
She broke off abruptly and clapped a palm over her mouth.
A quick glance down told him why. A freshly killed rat had just been dropped at her feet, its hairless, wormlike tail still twitching.
As for the puppy who’d proudly delivered the kill—his furry tail was wagging like mad. A pink tongue dangled loose from a canine grin.
“Don’t scream,” Thorne warned her in a low, calm voice. As he spoke, he crouched beside the puppy and gave him a firm, affectionate rub. “Don’t scold him, either. You’ll only confuse him. This is a good thing.”
“This?” she squeaked through her cupped palm, gesturing toward the lifeless rat with her free hand. “This is a good thing? I think I’m the one who’s confused.”
“After the fair, people will have left refuse everywhere around the castle. Apple cores, little morsels of cake. Draws the vermin. Badger chased down a rat, caught it, and denied himself the pleasure of eating it. That’s precisely what he’s been bred and trained to do, and now he deserves praise.”
“What do I do?” she asked, still staring wide-eyed at the lifeless rat. “Don’t ask me to touch it. I can’t possibly touch it. It’s only just stopped moving.”
“You don’t need to touch it. Just act like it’s the best, most charming thing Badger’s done in all his furry little life. And distract him, so I can toss the bleeding thing over the cliff.”
She nodded. “All right.”
While she fawned and cooed over the pup, Thorne found a shovel and disposed of the rat. Once he’d finished the work and rinsed his hands, he returned to find her cupping the pup’s funny face in both her hands.
She made kissing noises. “You are the most clever puppy in all Sussex, Badger. Did you know that? So very brave. I just adore you.”
Thorne watched her, quietly amazed. It just came so easily to her—loving encouragement. He supposed this quality was what made her a successful tutor.
She’d handled the shock of the rat quite well. Better than most ladies would, he imagined. She deserved some encouraging praise of her own—someone to frame her lovely face in his hands and tell her she was clever, beautiful, brave, adored.
But Thorne just didn’t have that talent. It wasn’t born in him, and he’d never had lessons, either. If love were music, he would be tone deaf.
“So what was your wonderful news?” he asked. “From ‘Evan.’ ”
“Oh, yes.” With one final loving pat, she released the dog and stood. “Lord Drewe says the family will claim me as their cousin.”
Thorne’s insides clenched. Wonderful news, indeed.
“Have they found some proof?” he asked.
She shook her head. “But Evan says there’s proof enough for him. The birthmark, the parish register, the painting. And . . . I simply seem to fit. So they’re making me part of the family. They want me to come with them to Town, to Ambervale . . . everywhere.”
As she spoke of it, her face lit up. There she went again, glowing with happiness. Like a star, only further out of his reach.
He told himself not to be churlish. Perhaps this was the best possible outcome. The Gramercys . . . maybe they truly were just odd, not sinister. If they would accept her, with no further inquiries into her past . . . Katie could have a glittering new life. She would never be forced to face the horrid truth.
This was good for her. And for him. He could go to America and not worry for her. He would think of her, always. But he wouldn’t have to worry.
“Thorne,” she whispered, “you should come. They’re expecting it.”
He shook his head. “Time’s growing too short. My ship leaves from Hastings in just a few weeks. I suppose I could escort you as far as—”
Her hand clasped his. “I’m not asking you escort me,” she said gently. “I’m asking you to come with me. And stay with me. With the family.”
Stay? With the family?
He gazed at her in disbelief. “If you don’t feel safe with them on your own, you needn’t go.”
“I feel perfectly safe. That’s not my meaning.” She paused. “I want you there, too. I know your own childhood was . . . less than idyllic.”
He harrumphed. “Something less than it. Yes.”
“Well, perhaps this can be your chance to feel a part of something larger than yourself. Part of a strange, delightful, loving family. Don’t you want that, deep inside? Just a little?”
“I could never be a part of that.”
He blew out a breath. “You don’t know me.”
She bit her lip. “But I do. I do know you. Because I know myself. And I’ve been a lonely person, too.” She took another step toward him, speaking softly. “I know how it wears on a soul. How it eats little pieces of your heart at unexpected times. How you can go whole weeks happily occupied, feeling no melancholy or deprivation, and then the smallest thing . . . Someone opens a letter, perhaps. Or stitches up a ripped garment that belongs to someone else. And it makes you realize how . . . adrift you are. Not tied to anyone.”
“And don’t try to tell me that you have no emotions. That you’re incapable of feeling anything at all. I know there’s a heart in there.”
It would seem there was. The cursed thing was pounding like a damned drum.
“Think this through,” he said sternly. “You’re not making sense. If the Gramercys make you part of their family, you will move in new circles of society. You could have a gentleman for a husband.”
“A gentleman who wants me for connections and money? Perhaps. I’d rather have the man who wants me.” She slid her arms around his neck. “You said you wanted me once.”
Her nearness tormented him. Like all the ladies, she’d taken a great deal of care with her appearance today. Embroidered flowers covered the overskirt of her lavender gown. The high waistline of her bodice plumped her breasts like twin pillows—pillows edged with gold lace. She wore ribbons and flowers carefully braided into her hair.
It was far too quiet. They were much too alone.
“Of course I want you,” he said roughly. “Every thought in my head is of you. Tasting you, touching you, taking you in ways your innocent mind can’t even fathom. I don’t know a cursed thing about art or music or Aristotle. My every thought is crude and base and so far beneath you, it might as well be on the opposite side of the earth.”
Her cheeks colored. “I’ve told you, you’re not beneath me.”
Damn it. How could he make her understand?
“I own four books. Four.”
She laughed a little. “What on earth does that signify?”
“It signifies everything. Your life is about to change, forever. I won’t let you cling to me just because you’re scared. It’s not right. It’s not what’s best.”
She moved closer. “We could marry, Thorne. I’m not asking for much. You can just . . . be yourself, and I’ll amuse myself trying to make you happy. I know it’ll be a challenge, but I’m strangely keen to try.”
“For God’s sake, Katie. Why?”
“I don’t know how to explain it.” Her gaze searched his face. “Have you ever known true hunger, Thorne? Not just a missed meal or two, but prolonged deprivation. No proper food for days on end.”
He let a few seconds pass before affirming it. “Weeks.”
“Then you must understand. Even now, surrounded by plenty, food looks different to you than it does to others, doesn’t it? It tastes richer, means more. Years later, and you can’t bring yourself to let the smallest scrap go to waste.”
He nodded tightly.
“Let’s not waste this,” she whispered, reaching for him. “I don’t know what it is between us, but I know I’ve hungered for it all my life. Maybe other women could walk away, but not me. Never me.” She touched his cheek. “I think you’re hungry for it, too.”
She could have no notion. None. His heart was starved to a wasted shadow, with nothing left to offer now.
A smile spread across her face, broad with mischief. “Just think of all we could have. Two unwanted orphans, taking on London society. We’d wring more pleasure from every moment than people like the Gramercys can find in a year. Can you tell me honestly that you want no part of that life?”
Staying here in England and living on Lord Drewe’s charity? Enduring endless balls and dinners and hunting parties? Always feeling like the outsider; forever knowing he was so much less than she deserved? He wouldn’t even be able to support her like a real man.