A Lady by Midnight (Spindle Cove #3)

36,565
06.03.2019

With a flick of her thumb, Kate uncocked the hammer.

“Aunt Marmoset, please.” She gripped the old woman’s frail wrists and pulled downward, until the pistol was safely pointed at the ground. Despite her racing heartbeat, she made her voice calm. “Why don’t we set this aside for now? Lord Drewe looks as though he has something to say.”

Evan recovered himself. “Indeed I do.” He clapped his hands together and rubbed them briskly. “I have exciting news for everyone.”

“What is it?” Charlotte Highwood asked.

“Sir Lewis has agreed to loan me Summerfield’s great hall for an evening next week. My sisters and I . . .” He paused for effect. “ . . . will be hosting a ball.”

All the ladies went dead quiet. Nervous glances were exchanged. Kate thought she heard someone mutter a prayer.

“Did you . . .” She cleared her throat. “You did say a ball, Lord Drewe? Here at Summerfield?”

“Yes, a ball. It will be our way of thanking Spindle Cove for all the warm hospitality we’ve been shown during our holiday. We’ll invite the militia, all the rooming house residents. We’ll have a grand time.”

The ladies’ silence clearly wasn’t the reaction Evan had been expecting. He looked around at the somber young women, nonplussed. “I don’t understand. Do you not like balls?”

“We do,” Kate assured him. “It’s just that Summerfield balls . . . well, the last two both ended in violence and mayhem. Last summer, the ball was over before it even started, due to a tragic explosion. And then at Christmas, a French smuggler crashed into the ballroom and held poor Miss Winterbottom hostage all night. So we’ve developed a bit of a superstition, you see. About Summerfield balls. Some people say they’re cursed.”

“Well, this one will be different.” Evan pulled up to his most lordly, commanding stature.

“Of course it will be,” Lark said, “if the Gramercys are hosting it.”

“Oh, yes,” Harry added. “We are known for always showing our guests an unforgettable time.”

Kate might have argued that the first two Summerfield balls had been unforgettable in their own ways.

Diana Highwood smiled, saving them all with her ever-affable nature. “Mama will be very pleased. And I can scarcely wait myself. A ball is a lovely idea. Lord Drewe, you and your sisters are very good to us.”

Evan bowed. “Thank you, Miss Highwood. It is our pleasure.” To Kate, he added, “Miss Taylor, will you take a turn with me and my sisters in the garden? We’d like to solicit your advice with regards to the music.”

“Very well,” Kate said. She disarmed and disassembled the pistol and stored it safely away. To Diana, she whispered, “Please don’t let their aunt anywhere near another weapon.”

Diana laughed a little. “Don’t worry. I won’t.”

Before heading for the garden, Kate collected Badger from the Summerfield groundskeeper. While she supposed a top hunting dog should theoretically be inured to gunfire, she hadn’t thought it wise to have him underfoot during target practice.

Once they’d rounded a hedge and disappeared from the other ladies’ view, Kate addressed the whole family. “I’m so sorry for that incident just now with the pistol. So very sorry. It was unforgivable of me to even put the weapon in her hand. I’d no idea the old dear would prove so strong. Or enthusiastic.”

“Never mind that,” said Evan. “Sir Lewis just finished showing me his medieval hall. Believe me, no humble pistol could chill my blood after viewing his collection of ancient torture devices. That’s not what we called you aside to discuss.”

“It’s not?” She arched a brow. “Are you sure?”

“The ball,” Lark whispered excitedly. “We need to talk about the ball. You do realize, it’s for you. It’s all for you.”

“The ball is for me?”

Lark vibrated with excitement. “Yes, of course.”

Harry cut in. “What Evan said about showing our appreciation . . . that was true, too. But we want to bring you out, Kate. Give the debut you never had.”

“But I’m twenty-three. That’s much too old for a debut.”

Evan said, “A debut, a come-out . . . they’re just words that mean ‘introduction to Society.’ That’s precisely what’s in order here. We need to tell all England about you, Kate. But it only seems right to begin here. In Spindle Cove. All your friends will be so happy for you.”

“I suggest a dramatic announcement at midnight,” Harry said. “Make them all tingle with anticipation.”

Kate tingled with some other feeling. She thought it might be dread.

She couldn’t understand why this idea made her uneasy. Being announced as a long-lost lady, at a ball held in her honor—it ought to sound like a dream. A moment of fairy-tale triumph for a girl who’d grown up feeling outcast and alone. Her friends would be thrilled for her, to be sure. Except for perhaps Mrs. Highwood, who would likely go apoplectic with envy.

Still, she couldn’t imagine the moment without feeling a flutter of anxiety. If she was going to stand before all her friends and neighbors and be announced as Lady Katherine Gramercy . . .

Kate wished she could be certain she believed it herself. Remembered it, in some undeniable fashion. Any small detail would do. With each passing day, she felt more certain that the memories were there, closer to the surface than ever before. She just needed to find the courage to unlock them.

As they turned into another section of the garden, Badger lunged at a wandering peafowl, scampering across a bed of herbs. Kate broke away from the group. She leaned down to touch a teacup-sized pink rose blossom, sliding her finger along the velvety petal. The delicate texture held her transfixed, and a melody rose in her, instinctive as breath.

See the garden of blossoms so fair . . .

There was something in that song. Something important. She wouldn’t have remembered it all her life otherwise.

She ground her slipper heel into the manicured white gravel. “Will you excuse me? Please go ahead back to the village. I—I’ve forgotten something. And Badger needs to have his run for the day.”

Without even waiting for an answer, she turned and began walking in the other direction. The puppy followed at her heel.

She had no particular destination. But she had forgotten something.

She would walk and walk, and keep walking until she recalled it. Until she finally reached the end of that long dark corridor.

And when she arrived there—this time, she would open that door.

“Don’t be long, Kate!” Lark called after her. “The sky looks like rain.”

Thorne could not have picked a worse day for overland travel. He hadn’t made it very far south before the sky darkened with ominous clouds. A few hours later he met with the rain.

It hadn’t let up since.

These damned Sussex roads took no more than a sprinkle of rain to go from “passable packed dirt” to “muddy pig wallow.” His progress was slow, and wet. This all would have been easier if he could have skipped returning to Spindle Cove at all and proceeded straight to America after gaining his discharge papers. But he needed to collect his personal belongings and arrange for transfer of the militia command.

And he needed to see Katie. Just one more time, even if from a distance. Conversation wouldn’t be necessary. He just wanted to lay eyes on her and assure himself she was happy and safe and loved.

She deserved to be loved, by people who’d read enough books to understand what the hell “love” meant.

At last he turned off the main road and took the spur toward Spindle Cove. At that point the moors and meadows were more passable than the rutted roads, so he turned his horse off the lane and continued overland.

Through a cloud of swirling fog, the ancient specter of Rycliff Castle appeared on the distant bluffs, seeming to shift and change with every gust of wind. Beyond that the sea was obscured by a wall of gray mist. All the usual sounds of country life—sheep bleating, birds singing—were muted by the steady rain. The entire scene was unearthly. Beneath the many sodden layers of his coat, waistcoat, cravat, and shirt, his skin crawled.

Watch sharp.

At the meadow’s lowest point—just before the rocky bluffs began to rise on the other side—Thorne slowed his horse to a walk. He scouted carefully for the appropriate crossing place. Centuries ago there’d been a deep moat carved here. An extra layer of protection for the castle above.

Over hundreds of years the moat had mostly filled in—but there were still pockets here and there where the meadow dropped out from beneath a man’s feet, and boulders waited to catch him a few yards below.

A strange sound came to him, piercing through the thick felt blanket of rain noise. He recognized it at once.

“Badger?”

Thorne left his horse. The gelding was on familiar ground now; he’d spent a year grazing these meadows every day.

Whistling in this downpour would be futile. He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted for the dog. “Badger! Here, boy.”

The pup’s barking came from one of the deep hollows in the meadow. What was he doing down there?

“This had better not be another snake,” Thorne muttered, advancing to investigate.

It wasn’t a snake. It was a woman.

His Katie, tucked beneath a bit of overhanging turf, soaked to her skin and shivering in a muddy hole in the ground.

“Jesus Christ.”

He stepped down into the pit, bracing his boot on a ledge of stone and stretching his free hand toward her. “Katie, it’s me. Take my hand.”

“You’re here.” Her face was so pale, and her voice was frayed. “I knew you’d find me. You always find me.”

Her arm looked positively ghostly as she reached up to him. He worried he’d make a grab for her hand and discover she’d dissolved to mist. Lost to him forever.

But no. When he tightened his fingers, they seized on real flesh and blood. Treacherously chilled flesh and blood, but he would take her any way he could have her, so long as she was alive.

With a few tugs and a bit of cooperation on her end, he had her out of the hole. She fell against him, and he caught her in his arms.

“Katie.” He stared down at her, horrified. Her thin muslin frock was soaked through, clinging to her skin in mud-streaked tatters. “Are you injured? Are you broken anywhere?”

“No. Just c-cold.”

He released her—steadying her on her feet so he could strip out of his coat. The damn sleeves were fitted too well, and the fabric was damp. He had to struggle, and every moment he wasted was a moment she shivered with cold. By the time he finally had the thing off, he’d rattled through every blasphemy in his vocabulary.

“What the devil are you doing out in this?”

“I . . . I didn’t mean to be. I took Badger out for a run, and we were caught in the rain. I didn’t realize how much he’d hate it. I thought dogs loved the rain.”

“Not sight hounds.”

“S-So I’ve learned. At the first sprinkle of rain, he darted down into the hole. I couldn’t make him leave, and I wouldn’t leave him. I decided we’d just take shelter and wait the downpour out. But then it went on and on. By the time it eased a little, I was so very c-cold.”

He threw his coat around her shoulders and drew it closed. For a summer rain, this one was cold, and God only knew how long she’d been out in it. Her lips were a distressing shade of blue, and now she wasn’t making a damn bit of sense.

“I had to go walking, you see. I had to keep walking until I found the answer. Even if it t-t-took all day and all night. I had to know. But now I do.” Her teeth chattered and she stared blankly into the distance.