“What happened?” Evan asked.
“We never knew,” Mrs. Fellows replied. “The doctor said mayhap the midwife brought in a contagion. I always suspected the painting, myself. Can’t be healthy, staying shut up all day with those horrid vapors.” She shook her head. “However it happened, he was gone. We were all desolate, and Miss Elinor was beside herself. Alone in the world, with a newborn babe? And there was no money. None. His lordship had never kept much in the house, and we hadn’t any way to keep purchasing goods on credit.”
“What did you do?” Kate asked.
“We closed up the house. Miss Elinor took the babe and left. Said she’d go back home to Derbyshire.”
Evan leaned toward Kate and murmured, “I suppose she never made it that far, or certainly someone would have heard. If only we could know what happened between the closing of Ambervale and your arrival at Margate.”
A sense of desperate bewilderment settled on Kate. She was heartily sick of lies and deceit. She wanted to do—and say—the right thing. But she didn’t know what the right thing was.
How could she explain to Evan about “Ellie Rose” and the Southwark bawdy house—in front of two solicitors and the housekeeper who’d held her mother in such obvious regard? Did it even matter? Perhaps Thorne’s story was irrelevant. The little girl he’d known might have been someone else.
The most maddening thing of all was knowing that her own brain was holding the truth hostage. The memories were in there. She knew they were. But she could never quite reach the end of that corridor.
“I wish I could tell you,” Kate said. “I wish, more than anything, that I had some clear memory of that time.”
“The good Lord must have taken her to heaven,” Mrs. Fellows said. “I can’t imagine Miss Elinor would part with her child for anything less. I’ve six of my own at home, and I’d go to war with the devil for each of them.”
“Of course you would, Mrs. Fellows,” Evan said.
Impulsively, Kate reached forward and squeezed the aging housekeeper’s wrist. “Thank you,” she said. “For taking such care of her. And of me.”
Mrs. Fellows fumbled for Kate’s hand. “Is it you, then? Are you Katherine? You’re his lordship’s daughter?”
Kate looked to Evan, and then to the solicitors. “I . . . I think so?”
Mrs. Bartwhistle and Mr. Smythe conferred. In the end, Mr. Bartwhistle answered for them both.
“Between the parish register,” he said, “the striking physical resemblance, and the statement of Mrs. Fellows with regards to the birthmark—we feel it safe to conclude in the affirmative.”
“Yes?” Kate asked.
“Yes,” said Mr. Smythe.
Kate sank into the depths of her armchair, overwhelmed. The Gramercys had burst into her life less than a fortnight ago. Evan, Lark, Harry, Aunt Marmoset—each of them had accepted her into the family, individually. But there was something about the dry, actuarial “Yes” from the solicitors that made the brimming cup of emotion overflow. She buried her face in her hands, overcome.
She was a lost child, found. She was a Gramercy. She had been loved.
She couldn’t wait to pay another call on Miss Paringham.
Mr. Bartwhistle went on, “We will draw up a statement for your signature, Mrs. Fellows. If you will be so kind as to offer a few more details. Were you present at the birth?”
“Oh, yes,” the housekeeper said. “I was present at the birth. And at the wedding.”
Kate’s head whipped up. She sought Evan’s face, but his expression was unreadable. “Did she just say ‘the wedding’?”
After Mrs. Fellows and the solicitors had gone, Kate sat with Evan in the small upstairs parlor. The musty parish register lay open before her on the table, flipped to a page just two leaves prior to her birth record.
“Simon Langley Gramercy,” she read aloud in a quiet voice, “the fifth Marquess of Drewe, married to Elinor Marie Haverford, the thirtieth day of January, 1791.”
No matter how many times she read the lines, she still found them hard to believe.
Evan rubbed his jaw. “Cutting it a bit close, weren’t they? Whatever scandal they began in, it seems Simon wanted to make things proper when it counted.”
Kate looked up at her cousin. “Have you known this all along?”
He regarded her steadily. “Can you forgive me? We always meant to tell you, of course, once we’d—”
“We? So Lark and Harry and Aunt Marmoset . . . they all know, too?”
“We all saw it together, that day at St. Mary of the Martyrs.” He reached for her hand. “Kate, please try to understand. We needed to be sure of your identity first, to avoid disappointing you, or . . .”
“Or tempting me to stretch the truth.”
He nodded. “We didn’t know you at all. We had no idea what kind of person you might be.”
“I understand,” Kate said. “Caution was necessary, and not only on your side.”
“That’s why you pretended an engagement to Corporal Thorne?”
She warmed with a guilty flush. How had he guessed? “It wasn’t a pretense. Not exactly.”
“But it was a convenience. Invented on the spot, right there in the parlor of the Queen’s Ruby. He wanted to protect you.”
She nodded, unable to deny it.
“I’ve long suspected as much. Don’t feel badly, Kate. When I think of how we surprised you that night . . . It was the strangest, most unpredictable situation. For us all. Both of us held information back. But we were only guarding ourselves and our loved ones as best we could.”
His words made her think of her argument with Thorne. She’d been so furious with him for withholding what he knew—or thought he knew—about her past. Hadn’t Evan committed the same exact transgression?
But she wasn’t leaping from her chair and shouting at Evan. She wasn’t heaping insults on Evan’s character. Nor was she flouncing from the room in an airy huff of indignation, vowing to never see Evan again.
Why the distinction? she asked herself. Were the two men’s actions so fundamentally different? Perhaps smoothly spoken Evan just explained his reasons more deftly than Thorne.
Or maybe it was merely this: Evan had concealed happy news, while Thorne’s story represented a painful “truth” she’d prefer to reject. If so, she had dealt with him most unfairly.
But it was too late for regrets now.
With one long, elegant finger, Evan tapped the parish register. “You do realize what this means, don’t you?”
She swallowed hard. “It means they married before my birth. It means I’m legitimate.”
“Yes. You’re the legitimate daughter of a marquess. Which means that you are a lady. Lady Katherine Adele Gramercy.”
Lady Katherine Adele Gramercy. It was too much to be believed. The title felt like a too-large gown, borrowed from someone else.
“Your life is about to change, Kate. You will move in the highest circles of Society. You must be presented at court. And then there is an inheritance. A significant inheritance.”
She shook her head, faintly horrified. “But I don’t need all that. Being your illegitimate cousin already felt like a fairy tale come true. As for an inheritance . . . I don’t want to take anything away from you.”
He smiled. “You will not be taking anything. You will have what was rightfully yours all along. We’ve merely had it on loan, these three-and-twenty years. I still keep the title, naturally. The marquessate cannot pass to a female child.”
He patted her hand. “The solicitors will sort it all out. Of course, you’ll have a great deal to discuss with Corporal Thorne.”
“No,” she blurted out. “I can’t tell him. He’s gone to London on business. And before he left, we . . . I broke the engagement.”
Evan exhaled in a slow, controlled fashion. “I am sorry, Kate—gravely sorry—for any hurt this has caused you. But for myself and for our family, I cannot pretend to be disappointed. I’m glad it ended before today’s interview, rather than after.”
“You needn’t have worried,” she said. “He’s not mercenary. He wanted no part of marriage to me, even once he knew you were planning to claim me as a Gramercy. If he hears I’m a true lady, it will only drive him further away.”
Thorne’s words echoed back to her:
If I hadn’t spent the past year thinking of you as a lady, I promise you—things would be different between us.
“Evan, you must be relieved on all counts,” she said. “Now that the solicitors have accepted me, there’ll be no need for you to . . . devise another way of giving me the family name.”
“By marrying you, you mean?”
She nodded. It was the first time either of them had admitted the idea aloud.
“The relief should be on your side, I think.” A smile warmed his eyes. “For my part, I would not have viewed it as a hardship.”
She cringed, hoping she hadn’t caused any offense. Evan didn’t seem to love her romantically, but then . . . After yesterday, what did she know of reading men’s emotions?
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to suggest that I . . . that we . . .”
He took her bumbling apology and waved it smoothly away. “Kate, you will have so many options now. Every door will be open to you. Corporal Thorne may be a fine enough fellow. He troubled himself to protect you, and that speaks well of his character.”
You’ve no idea, she thought.
He’d taken a melon for her. And a snakebite. He’d given her his dog.
“But,” Evan continued, “you can do better in your choice of a husband. You deserve better.”
She sighed. “I’m not so sure that’s true.”
“Corporal Thorne! Here you are, at last.”
Thorne made a bow. “My lady.”
Lady Rycliff herself welcomed him at the door of a new, lavish Mayfair town house.
“You know you can dispense with all that.” Stray wisps of copper floated about her smiling face as she hurried him inside. “It’s good to see you. Bram’s been so looking forward to your visit. Now that the baby’s arrived, he’s outnumbered by females again.”
The piercing wail of an infant drifted down from the upper floor.
Lady Rycliff bowed her head and pinched the bridge of her nose. When she lifted her face, her mouth twisted in a wry smile. “Evidently, little Victoria is eager to meet you, too.”
“Did I wake her?” he asked, worried.
“No, no. She scarcely sleeps.” Lady Rycliff showed him into a parlor. “Will you mind waiting here for Bram? I’m so sorry to abandon you when you’ve just arrived. We’re between nursemaids.”
She disappeared, and Thorne stood awkwardly in the center of the room, surveying the evidence of genteel disorder. A few pillows lay scattered on the floor. The room smelled . . . odd.
He could scarcely believe that this was Lord and Lady Rycliff’s home. Rycliff had been born and raised in the military. Order came as naturally to him as breathing. And as for his wife . . . she’d been quite the managing sort, in Spindle Cove.
Shouldn’t they at least have servants?
As if reading his mind, someone said from the doorway, “Good God. This house is in upheaval. How is it that no one’s offered you a drink?”
Thorne turned to see that Rycliff had joined him.
He bowed. “My lord.”
Rycliff brushed off the honorific. “It’s just Bram in this house.”
He offered Thorne a tumbler of brandy with one hand and a firm handshake with the other. “It’s good to see you.”