But mostly, she was just a girl named Kate, in love for the first time in her life.
She loved Samuel. She missed him, terribly.
From the corridor, a call went up. “The carriages, ladies! They’re here.”
As they emerged into the corridor, Kate was startled by the sight of a ravishing woman in red emerging from a side room. She was quite sure she’d never seen this lady before. Her dark hair was piled high in a profusion of sensual curls. A thick rope of gold and rubies encircled her elegant neck.
The woman turned.
Kate gasped with recognition. “Harry? Harry, is that truly you?”
Her cousin smiled. “Of course, dear. Did you think I’d wear trousers to your grand introduction ball?”
“I wouldn’t ask you to be anyone but yourself,” Kate said, hoping her cousin would feel the same toward her.
Harry shrugged. Her ruby-red lips curved in a seductive smile. “I do enjoy a lavish gown on occasion. Sometimes I like to remind them all just what it is they’re missing.”
Lark appeared at her sister’s side, looking fresh and pretty in diaphanous white.
“Oh, Lark. I didn’t know if you’d be joining us, since you’re not yet out.”
The young lady smiled and blushed. “Evan’s making an exception tonight. So long as I don’t dance.”
Their loyalty was so touching. Look at all they’d done for her, Kate thought, tonight alone. Harry had put on a gown, and Lark was willing to undercut the excitement of her own debut. All this, at the end of a summer holiday they’d completely rearranged for the sake of spending time with her.
Little did they suspect that she was planning to bid them farewell in a matter of days. Forever. Would the Gramercys be able to understand her reasons for leaving, or would they feel betrayed?
She’d miss them, no question. But she had to be with Samuel, and he couldn’t stay here in England. He needed open land and the sort of opportunities England couldn’t—or wouldn’t—afford a man of low birth and criminal background. After the way he’d suffered, it was her turn to make the sacrifices, and she would do so gladly.
She owed that man everything. Everything. If not for him . . .
She couldn’t bear to contemplate her life if not for him.
Samuel, where are you?
Instead, it was Evan who stood in the Queen’s Ruby entryway, watching them come down the stairs. He pressed a hand to his chest and pretended to stumble. “What a stunning collection of ladies.”
Evan was rather stunning himself. Dressed in a black tailcoat and a waistcoat of embroidered gold silk, he looked every inch the marquess. And his black gloves . . . My, but the man always had the most elegant, exquisitely fitted gloves. They made his hands look ready for all manner of deeds—charitable, sensual, ruthless.
As Kate reached the bottom of the stairs, he offered her an arm. “All the other ladies have gone ahead in Sir Lewis’s carriages. There’s just the two family coaches left.”
They walked out into the front garden. Indeed, the two coaches emblazoned with the Drewe crest stood waiting at attention, drawn by perfectly matched teams of warmbloods.
Evan handed Aunt Marmoset, Harry, and Lark into the first of the coaches, then signaled the driver to be on his way.
“Will it be just the two of us, then?” she asked, surprised.
“Do you mind?” He handed her into the second coach, then followed and sat opposite on the rear-facing bench, out of deference to her skirts. “I was hoping we could talk alone. Before the ball.”
“Oh,” Kate said as the carriage rolled into motion. “Oh, good. I was hoping the same.”
He smiled. “I’m glad we’re in accord.”
“I’ve been thinking—”
They both uttered the words at once, speaking over each other. And then they both laughed.
He motioned with his gloved hand. “Please. You first.”
“Evan, I’m not sure you should announce me as your cousin tonight.”
He was silent for several moments, and Kate was sure she’d ruined everything.
“I agree,” he finally said.
“I’d prefer to introduce you as my future wife.”
Pure astonishment stole Kate’s breath. “What?”
“That’s the reason I wanted this time alone. I meant to ask you to marry me.”
“But why? You can’t be—” She tried again. “Evan, you don’t seem to have those kind of feelings for me.”
“I’m very fond of you, Kate. We have interests in common, and we get on well. If I didn’t think we could make a happy life together, I would never suggest it.”
“But there’s something else,” she intuited. “Some other reason you’re proposing now.”
“I won’t insult you with a denial.” He leaned toward her. “Kate, I’ve told you there would be an inheritance.”
“But I haven’t told you the precise size of that inheritance.”
“Well, what size is it?” She scanned his worried expression. “Precisely?”
He looked her in the eye. “You’ll have everything, Kate. Everything. I’ll keep Rook’s Fell—the one entailed property that comes with the marquessate. Aside from that, the entire Gramercy family fortune is yours. Eight properties. Several hundred thousand pounds.”
Kate gripped the edge of the seat. “But . . . I don’t want all that. What would I even do with such wealth? A fortune like that is a full-time occupation, and you’re the one who has always managed everything.” She blinked hard. “What of Harry’s income? Lark’s dowry? Aunt Marmoset’s living?”
“All yours as well. I set the money aside in trusts, but they’ll no longer be valid. Legally, the money was never mine to give away.”
“Oh dear. Oh, Evan.”
He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “So now you understand, this is the quandary that’s kept me up nights.”
“Seething,” she whispered.
“Yes, seething.” He lowered his hand and gave her a bittersweet smile. “I will no longer make pretensions otherwise. I have been exceedingly worried over the future of the family. Not for myself, but for my siblings. The Gramercys have always been a queer lot, but we’ve been wealthy enough that we’re forgiven our eccentricities.”
“And that won’t be the case anymore.”
Kate was no solicitor, but she understood Evan’s dilemma. If she married Thorne, the entire fortune would be out of Gramercy hands. Evan would have no means to protect and support his family. They would all be her dependents—or if she married him, Thorne’s.
That would be an awkward situation.
“If I’d only known about you,” he said, staring out the window. “We had other properties from my mother’s side. Foreign land holdings, mostly. In India, the West Indies. But then Bennett went to view them, and he came back . . . changed. I sold all the land at a loss years ago, wanting nothing more to do with plantations or slaving. The land here in England was more than enough, I thought.”
“You thought right,” Kate said. “You did right. And you needn’t fear. I won’t abandon you. We’ll find some way. Can’t I just refuse the inheritance, or give it all back?”
He smiled. “It’s not that easy, I’m afraid.”
“What if I went away?” This might be the answer to both their problems. She could go to America with Thorne, and Evan would remain the head of the family. “I could leave the country. Or stay here in Spindle Cove. No one needs to know I exist.”
“I will know you exist. We all know, and it wouldn’t be right. Kate, I want to secure my siblings’ future, but I refuse to destroy our souls in the process. We can’t simply deny your existence. To do so would be to deny your parents’ love for each other, to deny their love for you. You can’t want that.”
No. She supposed she didn’t.
“We wouldn’t want that, either,” Evan went on. “And what’s more, Kate, the solicitors know about you. Legal proceedings have been set in motion. If you were to disappear now . . . we’d have to wait seven years with everything tied up in court, and then petition to have you declared dead.” He made a grimace. “So please don’t think of it.”
“But it’s just so unfair,” she said. “You’ve been so generous and welcoming to me, and now you must pay this terrible price.”
“You are the one who has suffered unjustly,” he argued. “Never think otherwise.”
“Did you know all along? Even when you first came to find me, did you know that I could be taking the entire fortune?”
He nodded. “I suspected.”
“But you came to find me anyway. With no hesitation.”
“Yes, of course.” His intelligent brow lifted. “Family above everything. That’s the Gramercy way.”
He was so very decent and good, and under different circumstances, she should have been overjoyed to marry a man like him. But she was in love with Samuel. She was committed to Samuel. She’d been intimate with Samuel. There was no way she could marry Evan now.
He took her hand. “Kate, if you’ll marry me, I swear—I will devote everything to giving you the life you deserve. The life you always deserved. And together, we will help our family.” He gave her a half-joking smile. “If you won’t have me, I’ll be forced to pursue some obnoxious heiress with social-climbing parents.”
But would he be able to find social-climbing parents who’d eagerly support unconventional Harry, or decrepit Aunt Marmoset, or Bennett, off wandering the Hindu Kush? And poor Lark, losing her dowry just months from her debut.
Kate cast a desperate glance out the carriage window as they pulled up in the Summerfield drive. This was intolerable. To have found her family after all this time, to feel so loved and accepted by them . . . only to destroy their lives and happiness?
“So,” he said, preparing to exit the carriage, “which will it be? At midnight, will I be introducing you as Lady Kate? Or may I introduce you as the future Lady Gramercy?”
“You need some time,” he finished for her. “Of course, I understand. I’ll come find you before the midnight set.”
And then he was out of the carriage and extending his hand to help her alight, and there was no privacy to discuss it any longer. Before them, the golden candlelit splendor of the Summerfield great hall beckoned. They were being watched by many sets of curious eyes.
“Smile,” he whispered, offering his arm. “And be happy. This is your night.”
As she entered the Summerfield ballroom, Kate scanned every corner and alcove of the hall. Her heart skipped every time she caught a flash of red. There was one militiaman she was particularly hoping, against all odds, to see.
She didn’t find him, but she found the next best thing.
“It’s us. Over here.”
She whirled on the heel of her slipper, heartened by the familiar voices.
“Susanna. Minerva. Oh, it’s so good to see you.” She embraced her friends warmly. Until Susanna’s arms went around her, Kate couldn’t have realized how desperately she needed a hug.
She could use some friendly advice, as well.
“I’d no idea you’d be here.” She looked from one friend to the other—Susanna, now Lady Rycliff, with her flame-red hair and freckles, and Minerva, the darker, bespectacled middle Highwood sister, recently married to Lord Payne.
“We all came down from London together,” Susanna said. “Papa was growing desperate to see his first grandchild.”