Minerva added, “And I knew I couldn’t deprive Mama of her new son-in-law much longer, either. But in truth, it was our husbands who suggested we make the trip.”
“Truly?” Kate asked, incredulous. “Lord Rycliff and Lord Payne wanted to come? To Spindle Cove?”
“I think they secretly miss this place, though they’d never let on,” Minerva said.
Susanna winced a little.
“What’s wrong?” Kate asked.
“Oh, nothing. I’m just a bit achy, that’s all. When the baby hasn’t nursed for a few hours, it’s uncomfortable.” She looked to the ceiling. “Perhaps I’ll just slip upstairs to the nursery.”
“Can we come with you?” Kate asked. “I’m dying to meet little Victoria myself, and . . . and I’d very much appreciate the chance to talk.”
“She’s so beautiful,” Kate whispered. “Her hair is just like yours.”
“This is the only time she’s quiet,” Susanna said, gazing down at her suckling babe. “Unless her father is holding her. Bram has some secret method of calming her that he refuses to share, the impossible man.”
“I’m so glad Colin’s happy to wait on the childbearing score,” Minerva said. “He’s recently taken control of his estate. I’ve so many scholarly works in progress. We’re not at all ready for parenthood.”
“But, Min, how . . .” Kate lowered her voice. “How can you be sure you won’t conceive?”
“Well, one can never be completely sure. But we take precautions. Colin’s had some experience on the male side of things. You see, when a man spends his seed—”
Susanna gave her friend a look. “Min,” she whispered, “perhaps we could save the specifics for another occasion.”
“Right,” Minerva said apologetically. “You know me, I speak of natural topics at all manner of inappropriate times. Anyhow, Kate—there are ways. Susanna’s given me some herbs. Those help, too.”
“How clever of you both,” Kate said.
She was glad for Samuel’s caution the other night. It wasn’t as though she disliked the idea of bearing his child. Nothing would make her happier, someday. Thinking of him as a father, cradling a tiny babe in the crook of his arm . . . it made her heart float. But with so much uncertainty now with the Gramercys, a pregnancy would be ill-timed.
Especially since the father of the child had disappeared.
“Kate, what’s wrong?” Susanna asked. “You look so troubled.”
Kate paused, biting her lip. And then she took a deep breath and told them everything. All about the Gramercys. All about Thorne. The portrait, the melon, the snakebite, the inheritance, her night with Samuel, and Evan’s proposal just now in the coach. Everything.
“My goodness, Kate,” said Minerva, adjusting her spectacles. “You’ve been busy.”
Kate laughed at the absurdity of the statement, and it felt so good. This was what she’d been needing—her best, closest friends to listen and help her see everything clear. Susanna and Minerva would not be on Thorne’s side, or the Gramercys’ side.
They were on her side, unequivocally.
“I always knew that someday you’d have your fairy tale,” Susanna said. She called in the nursemaid and handed her the now-sleeping babe. “I didn’t predict this, of course. But we all adored you so. I knew you couldn’t go unnoticed for long.”
“I never did go unnoticed,” she said. “Not really.”
Samuel had noticed her, even that very first day in the Bull and Blossom, when she pulled her India shawl tight around her shoulders and turned the other way. He’d always been looking out for her, asking nothing in return.
She cast a wistful glance at the darkened windowpane. Where was he now?
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “Samuel has vanished. The Gramercys are depending on me to save them all. Evan wants to know whether he can introduce me as Lady Kate or his soon-to-be Lady Gramercy. Meanwhile, I feel like a maid who pilfered her mistress’s gown and stole into the ball. I don’t know how I’ll manage as a lady of any sort.”
“The same way we do,” Minerva said. “Look at Susanna and me. A year ago we were confirmed spinsters, never the belle of any ball. Now she is Lady Rycliff and I am Lady Payne. And we may be a bit awkward in the roles, but society will just have to struggle on despite it.”
“We’ll form our own club, Kate. The League of Unlikely Ladies.” Susanna came to sit beside her. “As for what you should do . . . I’m certain you already know, in your heart.”
Of course she did. She loved Samuel and wanted nothing more than to be his wife. But if at all possible, she must find some way to help the Gramercys, too. They were her family, and she couldn’t abandon them.
Minerva bent over and stared Kate in the bosom. “I’m admiring your pendant.”
“Do you know what sort of stone it is?” Kate asked eagerly. “I’ve been wondering, but I’d never seen its like.”
“This is an easy identification.” After peering for a moment through her spectacles, Minerva released the teardrop-shaped stone. “It’s called blue john. A form of fluorite. Quite a rare formation, only found in one small area of Derbyshire.”
Kate clutched the pendant. “It was my mother’s. She was from Derbyshire. She must have worn it always to remind herself of home.”
How strange, then, that Elinor would have left it behind at Ambervale. Perhaps she’d worried it would be lost during travel.
Minerva patted her arm. “Kate, I don’t think you should worry overmuch. I have a strong suspicion your problems will work themselves out, and in hasty fashion.”
“I hope you’re right,” Kate said. But despite her natural bent for optimism, this was one situation where she had a difficult time seeing an easy solution.
“Well,” Susanna said, standing. “I suppose we’ve hidden ourselves up here as long as we dare. We had better go find our men before they create some mischief.”
“This is a Summerfield ball,” Kate agreed. “There seems to be something in the ratafia that makes male passions . . . explosive.”
Thorne’s patience was nearing the end of its fuse.
Tucked away in the Egyptian-themed library of Sir Lewis Finch, he paced a small square of carpet, patrolling back and forth. His new boots pinched his feet. His starched cuffs chafed his wrists. Sheer agony was his companion.
And the agony had a name: Colin Sandhurst, Viscount Payne.
“Let me give you a bit of advice,” Payne said.
“I don’t want any more of your advice. Not on this.”
“You don’t want to admit you want it,” Payne replied smoothly. “But I shall talk to myself, and you can merely be nearby, not listening.”
Thorne rolled his eyes. He’d spent the better part of the past several days “nearby, not listening” to Payne. Through shopping trips, appointments with solicitors, lessons on . . . an activity Thorne hated to acknowledge in thought, let alone speak aloud.
Payne tossed back a swallow of his drink and propped one boot on an inscribed sarcophagus. “Before I found Minerva, I’d passed nights with more than my share of women.”
Thorne groaned. Don’t. Just don’t.
“I’ve passed time with duchesses and farm girls, and it doesn’t matter whether their skirts are silk or homespun. Once you get them bare—”
Thorne drew up short. “If you start in on rivers of silk and alabaster orbs, I will have to hit you.”
“Easy, Cinderella,” Payne said, holding up his hands. “All I meant to say is this. Beneath the trappings, all women crave the same thing.”
Thorne made a fist and clenched it until his knuckles cracked.
“What? I’m speaking of tenderness.”
From his chair behind the desk, Bram rubbed his temple. “I think what my cousin is trying to say is, just because she’s Lady Katherine Gramercy now and not Miss Taylor, that doesn’t mean that she’s changed inside.”
Thorne resumed pacing. Perhaps he shouldn’t have told them everything. He’d needed their help, but he hated that they knew he needed it. Feeling weak wasn’t something he was accustomed to, and he didn’t like it. His impulse was to crash through the doors, find his Katie, pick her up in his arms, and carry her away someplace warm and small and safe.
But he couldn’t take her away. That was the whole point of tonight. She had a family now. Not only a family, but a place among the English peerage.
This new life of hers . . . it meant she could never be entirely his. No matter the promises she made about leaving everything behind and sailing with him for America, he knew it couldn’t work that way. As a Gramercy, she was part of a family. As the daughter of a marquess, she would have obligations and duties here. As a lady, she would always be above him—the reminder of it would sit before her name on every letter she received or penned.
He didn’t want to share her. But he must, if he wanted to be a part of her new life. Most of all, he was utterly resolved: He would not bring shame to her, ever.
So tonight he was pacing the library carpet, waiting for his chance. He was hardly Cinderella, but at least he’d wedged his scarred body and ashen soul into a smart new outfit.
From behind the desk, Bram regarded Thorne. “I can’t believe you went to my cousin.”
I can’t believe it, either.
“If you needed anything, Thorne, I would have helped. You need only have asked.”
Payne smiled wryly. “Yes, and I was only on my honeymoon. I had nothing better to do than scrub up a noble savage, take him shopping, and teach him to dance.”
“What?” Bram looked at Thorne in astonishment. “No.”
Thorne turned away.
Bram’s smug inquiries pursued him. “You danced? And Colin gave you lessons?”
“You act as though the pleasure should be mine,” Payne said. “It was rather a trial on my part, I’ll have you know. But thanks to my darling wife’s influence, I’m learning to embrace my academic duty. I’ve long been a scholar of the female sex. Since I’m now happily married and devoted to one particular woman, it would be miserly of me to hoard such accumulated knowledge for myself.”
“No doubt.” Bram laughed. To Thorne, he said, “Good God. If you put up with this for a week, you must really love that girl.”
Payne resumed his suave, professorial demeanor. “It’s like this, Thorne. If you mean to ask for a woman’s heart, you have to be willing to take risks of your own. Real ones. Not just dancing lessons.”
Thorne set his jaw. He’d given up his home for Katie. He’d spent years hungry in the countryside, then hungry in prison, then hungry and marching in the army. “I’ve sacrificed for her. I’ve given her as much as a man like me can give.”
Payne chuckled. “You may think so. But they want everything, man. You can empty your pockets and lay down your body, and they still won’t be satisfied. Not until you serve up your heart, still beating.”
Bram sighed. “Once again, I will translate for my cousin. Just tell Miss Taylor you love her. That’s all they really want to hear.”
Love. It all kept coming back to that word. It would be easy enough to tell Katie he loved her. Speaking the words wasn’t any great task. But to tell her so in a way that made them both believe it . . . that was the challenge.
“Did you want to practice again?” Payne asked.
“I don’t mind taking the lady’s part. I’m secure enough in my masculinity.”