Never mind the beatings, the lashings, the years of prison . . .
Thorne knew, without a doubt, the next three hours would be the harshest punishment of his life.
The strangest thing happened during their first hour on horseback. Before Kate’s eyes, Corporal Thorne transformed into a completely different man.
A good-looking one.
The first time she stole a glance at him, letting her gaze make the slow, perilous climb from his lapel to his face—she found his appearance just as hard and intimidating as ever. The planes of his face were lit with harsh, late afternoon sun. She cringed.
But then, a few hundred yards farther down the road, she glanced up again as they passed beneath a stand of trees. This time she caught him in profile, and his features were touched with shadow. She fancied him to look . . . not so much forbidding as protective. Strong.
The wall of heated muscle at her back only reinforced this impression. So did the massive arm braced around her middle and the effortless manner with which he guided his horse. No shouting or flicking the crop—just gentle nudges of his heels and the occasional quiet word. Those words shivered through her bones like cello notes, each one settling to a low, arousing thrum at the base of her spine.
She closed her eyes. Deep voices touched her in deep places.
From that point on she kept her gaze stubbornly trained on the road ahead. Nevertheless, her mental image of Thorne continued to change. In her mind’s eye he went from forbidding and stern, to protective and strong, to . . .
Wildly, improbably, outrageously handsome.
No, no. It just couldn’t be. Her imagination was playing tricks. Kate knew many of the working-class women in Spindle Cove fancied Corporal Thorne, but she’d never understood why. His features just didn’t appeal to her—probably because he was usually employing them to send a frown or a glare in her direction. On those rare occasions when he looked in her direction at all.
By the time they traveled another few miles, the puppy had fallen asleep in her arms. Kate had rummaged through her many unpleasant encounters with the man and succeeded in reminding herself that she did not find him attractive.
One more look, she told herself—just to confirm it.
But when she did glance up, the worst possible thing happened.
She found him looking down at her.
Their gazes locked. The piercing blue of his eyes invaded her being. To her distinct horror, she gasped aloud. And then she hurried to look somewhere, anywhere else.
His features were seared on her imagination. When she closed her eyes, it was as though the back of her eyelids had been painted with that same intense, transfixing blue. Now the idea came to her that he was perhaps the most handsome man she’d ever seen—an assessment with no rational basis whatsoever. None.
Kate realized she had a grave problem.
She was infatuated. Or mildly insane. Possibly both.
Mostly, she was miserable. Her heartbeat was a frantic trill, and close as they were situated on this saddle, she knew he must feel it. For God’s sake, he could likely hear it. That racing, prattling beat was spilling all her secrets. She might as well have piped up and said, I am an affection-starved, addle-brained fool who has never, ever been this close to a man.
Desperate to create some small buffer between them, she straightened her spine and leaned forward.
Just then the horse stepped into a rut, and Kate lurched perilously to one side. She knew the brief, helpless sensation of falling.
And then, just as quickly, she was caught.
Thorne corrected the horse with a flex of both thighs. He pulled on the reins with one hand, and his other arm contracted about her waist. The motions were fluid, strong, and instinctive—as if his whole body were a fist, and he’d gripped her tight with everything.
“I have you,” he said.
Yes, he did. He had her so tight and so close, her corset grommets were probably leaving small round marks on his chest.
“Are we almost there?” she asked.
She stifled a plaintive sigh.
As the sun dipped toward the horizon, they stopped at a turnpike. Kate waited with the puppy while Thorne purchased a tin pail of milk and three loaves of hot, crusty bread from a cottager. She followed him as he carried this picnic out over a stile and onto a nearby slope.
They sat near one another in meadow ablaze with flowering heather. The fading sunlight touched each tiny purple blossom with orange. Kate folded her shawl into a square, and the puppy circled it several times before settling down to attack its fringe.
Thorne handed her one of the loaves. “It’s not much.”
The loaf warmed her hands and made her stomach growl. She broke it in two, releasing a cloud of delicious, yeasty steam.
As she ate, the bread seemed to fill some of the yawning stupidity inside her. Sensible behavior was a great deal easier to manage on a full stomach. She could almost bear to look at him again.
“I’m grateful to you,” she said. “I’m not certain I said that earlier, to my shame. But I’m very thankful for your help. I was having the most miserable day of my year, and seeing your face . . .”
“Made it that much worse.”
She laughed in protest. “No. I didn’t mean that.”
“As I recall it, you burst into tears.”
She ducked her chin and gave him a sidelong glance. “Can this be a flash of humor? From the stern, intimidating Corporal Thorne?”
He said nothing. She watched him feed the puppy scraps of bread dipped in milk.
“My goodness,” she said. “What will be your next trick, I wonder? A blink? A smile? Don’t laugh, or I may faint dead away.”
Her tone was one of mild teasing, but she meant every word. She was already suffering these fierce pangs of infatuation on the basis of his looks and strength alone. If he revealed a streak of sharp wit in the bargain, she might be in desperate straits.
Fortunately for her vulnerable emotions, he responded with his usual absence of charm. “I’m the lieutenant of the Spindle Cove militia in Lord Rycliff’s absence. You’re a resident of Spindle Cove. It was my duty to help you and see you home safe. That’s all.”
“Well,” she said, “I’m fortunate to fall within the scope of your duty. The mishap with the cart driver truly was my fault. I’d dashed into the lane without looking.”
“What happened beforehand?” he asked.
“What makes you think something happened beforehand?”
“It’s not like you to be that distracted.”
It’s not like you.
Kate chewed her bread slowly. He was correct, perhaps, but what an odd thing for him to say. He avoided her like a sparrow avoids snow. What right had he to decide what was and wasn’t like her?
But she had no one else to talk to, and no reason to hide the truth.
She swallowed her bite of bread and wrapped her arms about her knees. “I went to pay a call on my old schoolmistress. I was hoping to find some information about my origins. My relations.”
He paused. “And did you?”
“No. She wouldn’t help me find them, she said, even if she could. Because they don’t want to be found. I’d always believed I was an orphan, but apparently I . . .” She blinked hard. “It seems I was abandoned. A child of shame, she called me. No one wanted me then, and no one will want me now.”
They both stared at the horizon, where the oozing egg-yolk sun topped the chalky hills.
She risked a glance at him. “You have nothing to say?”
“Nothing fit for a lady’s hearing.”
She smiled. “But I’m no lady, you see. If I know nothing else of my parentage, I can be certain of that.”
Kate lived in the same rooming house as all the Spindle Cove ladies, and a few were true friends, like Lady Rycliff or Minerva Highwood, lately the new Viscountess Payne. But many others forgot her when they left. In their minds, she fit the same pigeonhole as governesses and companions. She would do for company in a pinch, but only if no one better was available. Sometimes they wrote to her for a while. If their valises were too full, they gave her their cast-off frocks.
She touched the muddied skirt of her pink muslin. Ruined, beyond repair.
At her feet, the puppy had crawled halfway into the milk pail and was happily licking his way back out. Kate reached for the dog, turning him on his back for a playful rub.
“We’re kindred spirits, aren’t we?” she asked the pup. “No proper homes to speak of. No illustrious pedigrees. We’re both a bit funny-looking.”
Corporal Thorne made no attempt to contradict her statement. Kate supposed it was what she deserved, going fishing for compliments in a desert.
“What about you, Corporal Thorne? Where were you raised? Have you any family living?”
He was quiet for an oddly long time, given the straightforward nature of her question.
“Born in Southwark, near London. But I haven’t seen the place in almost twenty years.”
She scanned his face. Despite the gravity in his demeanor, she wouldn’t put him much older than thirty. “You must have left home quite young.”
“Not so young as some.”
“Now that the war is over, you’ve no desire to go back?”
“None.” His gaze caught hers for a moment. “The past is better left behind.”
Point taken, Kate supposed, given the disaster that had been her day. She plucked a long blade of grass and dangled it for the puppy to nip and bat. His long, thin tail whipped back and forth with joy.
“What do you mean to call him?” she asked.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Patch, I suppose.”
“But that’s horrible. You can’t call him Patch.”
“Why not? He has a patch, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, and that’s exactly why you can’t call him that.” Kate lowered her voice, gathering the pup close and smoothing the splash of rust-colored fur around his right eye. “He’ll be self-conscious. I have a patch, but I shouldn’t like to be named for it. It’s not as though I need a reminder it’s there.”
“This is different. He’s a dog.”
“That doesn’t mean he has no feelings.”
Corporal Thorne made a derisive noise. “He’s a dog.”
“You should call him Rex,” she said, tilting her head. “Or Duke. Or Prince, perhaps.”
His gaze slid sideways. “What about that dog says ‘royalty’ to you?”
“Well, nothing.” Kate set the pup down and watched him scamper through the heather. “But that’s the point. You’ll balance his humble origins by giving him a grand-sounding name. It’s called irony, Corporal Thorne. As if I were to call you ‘Cuddles.’ Or if you were to call me Helen of Troy.”
He paused and frowned. “Who’s Helen of Troy?”
Kate almost betrayed her surprise at his question. Fortunately, she caught herself just in time. She had to remind herself that “corporal” was an enlisted officer’s rank, and most of the army’s enlisted men had only a basic education.
She explained, “Helen of Troy was a queen in Ancient Greece. They called hers the face that could launch a thousand ships. She was so beautiful, every man wanted her. They fought whole wars.”
He was quiet for several moments. “So calling you Helen of . . .”
“Helen of Troy.”
“Right. Helen of Troy.” A small furrow formed between his dark eyebrows. “How would that be ironic?”
She laughed. “Isn’t it obvious? Just look at me.”
“I am looking at you.”
Good heavens. Yes, he was. He was looking at her in the same way he did everything. Intensely, and with quiet force. She could all but feel the muscle in his gaze. It unnerved her.