Her protests were a little too strenuous for Thorne’s liking, and Drewe was definitely suspicious. But he was reasonably certain they’d managed to cover any real evidence.
That was, until Drewe’s gaze fell to the two discarded stockings on the floor.
In the dark, his eyes flashed with unholy rage. “You rutting bastard,” he seethed. “I’ll kill you.”
“Evan, stop. Stop!” Kate grabbed her cousin by the sleeve, wrenching him away. “Don’t do this. I’ll explain. We’re going to be married.”
“Married?” Evan’s face twisted. “To him?”
Thorne approached and placed one hand at the small of her back. “I meant to come speak with you, Drewe. I meant to ask for her hand properly, but—”
“But what? You decided to defile her in a darkened room first? You bastard.”
Evan lunged at him again, and Kate jumped between the two men just in time.
“Wait,” she called out. “We need to talk. All of us. But we’ll never manage it if you’re leaping at each other’s throats.”
She put one hand on either man’s chest and pushed them toward opposite sides of the hall. “Just give me a few moments.”
“Very well,” Evan said. He added ominously, “A few moments.”
More voices reached them from the shadowed corridor. “Kate? Evan? Is everything all right?”
Harry, Lark, and Aunt Marmoset stepped into the candlelit entryway of the long narrow hall.
“The dancing’s been paused for supper. We were hoping to make the announcement soon,” Harry said, eyeing the men’s furious expressions and Kate’s disheveled gown. “But it looks as though you’re . . . busy. Corporal Thorne, what a surprise.”
“We’ll just pop back inside,” Lark offered.
Aunt Marmoset smiled. “I hear there’s a fresh bowl of punch.”
“No, stay,” Kate said. “Please, stay. All three of you. This concerns you, too.” She laid a hand flat on her belly, just as she did when she needed support to sing loud and clear. “Corporal Thorne and I have reconciled. We’re going to be married.”
From his side of the hall, Evan fumed. “Kate, you can’t. Do you have any idea who this man is? I had him investigated, you know. Back when we first arrived in Spindle Cove.”
“You had him investigated?”
“Yes. I had your welfare in mind. And that of the family. I wanted to know just whom you were marrying. And it’s a damned fortunate thing I made those inquiries, too. This man is a convicted felon, Kate. He spent years in prison.”
“I know that. He’s told me everything. He was convicted of poaching as a youth, but he was released to join the army.”
“Where he committed even more villainous offenses.”
“I know that, too. But then he mended his ways and served honorably under Lord Rycliff for years. Like I said, he’s told me everything.” She turned to Thorne. “I’m sorry to do so much speaking for you. Would you rather defend yourself?”
“Doesn’t matter what I say,” Thorne replied. “He’ll see in me what he wants to see. My lord, I don’t much care what you think of me, so long as Katie—”
“How dare you.” A wash of red pushed from the line of Evan’s crisp cravat all the way to his hairline. “How dare you speak of her in such a familiar fashion? She is Lady Katherine to you.”
“He may speak to me however he wishes,” Kate said, taken aback by the fury in Evan’s voice. “We are in love. We’re going to marry.”
“Kate, you haven’t even heard the worst of it yet. Do you know where this man came from? His mother was a harlot in some disgusting, low-class bawdy house in Sou—”
“In Southwark,” Kate finished. “I know.”
“He told you that?”
“No, I know because I remember it. Because I lived there, too.”
The ladies gasped. Kate hated to shock them by bringing it up at this time and place, but could such an announcement ever come as anything less than shocking?
Evan said, “You lived together? The two of you, in a . . . ?”
“We were children, both of us. It seems that’s where Elinor ended, after leaving Ambervale. She lived under a new name, Ellie Rose, and yes—I spent my first four years in a bawdy house. All my memories of it were hazy until just the last few days, but with Samuel’s help I’ve pieced them together.”
“He’s lying,” Evan said, eyeing Samuel with a dangerous glare. “He’s convinced you of something that isn’t true.”
“I wish for my mother’s sake that it weren’t true. But I remember it, Evan. I can’t imagine why she ended there. Perhaps she was too afraid to seek help. Perhaps, as a farmer’s daughter, she felt unequal to the task of living as a lady.” On that score, Kate could sympathize.
She approached her cousin with caution. “Please don’t worry about the family. We’ll find some way. I’ll . . . I’ll simply sign everything over to you before the wedding. All the properties, all the money.”
“Like the devil you will,” Thorne said. “Your inheritance is your birthright, Katie. You grew up alone, with nothing. You deserve this now. That’s why I came here tonight. I won’t let you give it up. Not for me, and most definitely not for a puling reptile like him.”
“And I won’t let a convicted felon destroy what remains of my family’s name,” Evan interjected. “If you care for her at all, why would you connect her with that place again? Marry her, and the truth will come out. All England will know her as the marquess’s daughter who was raised in a whorehouse.”
“I don’t care,” Kate said. “I don’t care about idle gossip, and neither does Samuel.”
“But I care,” Evan said. “I shall have no choice but to care. To have any hope of salvaging Lark’s prospects, I would have to sever all acquaintance with you both. Publicly and completely. There would be no more outings or balls. No family holidays at Easter and Christmas.” His voice lowered to a hoarse rasp. “Kate, we would be forced to cut you in the street. It would eviscerate me, no question. But I would do it, to protect my siblings.”
Kate knew he would. He’d do anything for them. Her stomach knotted. “But you’ve already told me I can’t simply disappear. Even if I don’t marry Samuel, I’ll be the subject of public scrutiny. I don’t see how the revelation can be avoided.”
“I do. You’ll marry me, and we’ll conceal all this ugliness from public view.”
Samuel swore. “What the hell is this? She’s not marrying you.”
Evan ignored him and spoke directly to Kate. “If we marry, there will be no need for any court proceedings. Anything that’s yours would legally become mine once we wed. No property needs to change hands. The Drewe title and Gramercy fortune will remain united. Then we can avoid all court inquiries and scandal.”
“But Evan . . .” She tried to put the words kindly. “You and I don’t love each other. Not that way.”
“Love.” Evan snorted. “Love is a fierce and intoxicating thing, but I will tell you from bitter experience, it cannot balance the loss of fortune, reputation, and family. On this, Kate, I suspect your own parents would agree.”
For the first time, her cousin’s words gave Kate pause.
And Evan knew it.
“Simon and Elinor were in love,” he said softly. “Passionate, desperate love. They scorned the rules of Society and disobeyed the wishes of their families to be together. Look how their story ended.”
“It hasn’t ended yet,” Samuel said. “But I’ll tell you how it will end. With their daughter being rightfully restored as Lady Katherine Gramercy, heiress to property and fortune.”
Evan spoke only to her, levelly and forcefully. “Kate, think of the family.”
Samuel tightened his arm about her middle. “If there’s any tarnish on the Gramercy name, then be a gentleman, Drewe, and own it. You, or someone in your family, threw her mother to the streets. This convicted felon did what he could to save her from that. And I’ll protect her to the grave now. If you ever—ever—try to shame her for what she could not help, with the aim of keeping your own life gilded and comfortable . . . ? You will answer to me, and there will be blood.”
Evan lunged in anger.
“Stop this!” Kate cried. “Stop this, please.”
She didn’t know what to say or do. They were both misunderstanding each other’s intentions so badly, and so willfully. Neither man was interested in hearing reason. They just wanted an excuse to hate each other, and she was it.
This was disaster in the making.
But there was one way she could end this entire argument. Much as it pained her to announce it to the group at large, she could see no alternative.
“Evan,” she said, “I cannot marry you. Surely you must understand . . . Samuel and I have been intimate. I must marry him.”
Evan was silent for a torturous eternity, simply breathing in and out. “No. You don’t need to marry him.”
“But didn’t you hear me? I—”
“You need to marry someone, yes.” He raised his head and turned a murderous look on Samuel. “That someone will be decided at dawn.”
In unison, Harry, Lark, and Aunt Marmoset groaned.
“Six? Truly? Six? Five was impressive, but six is the setup for a bad joke.”
Evan quelled the objections with a look. “By the rules of dueling, Thorne—I suspect you may not be so familiar with them, not being a gentleman—I issued the challenge, so the choice of weapons is yours.”
Kate was in turmoil. Weren’t pistols the traditional choice? But Samuel’s right hand was still weakened from the adder venom. His aim with a pistol would be disastrous. He wouldn’t have a chance in hell.
“She’s made her choice,” Samuel said. “There’s not going to be any duel.”
Oh, thank heaven. Thank God.
Evan strode about the hall, swinging his arms. “You’re right, Thorne. A duel isn’t necessary.”
Truly? He would give up on the idea that easily? To Kate, this turn of events seemed too good to be true.
Evan stopped before one of the mounted suits of armor and drew the sword from the grasp of the phantom knight’s gauntlet. “Why wait for the morning, when we can settle this tonight?”
Kate took back her prayers of thanksgiving and exchanged them for desperate pleas for deliverance.
Evan hefted the sword in his right hand, testing its balance. Though the weapon must have been centuries old, it was well cared for and polished to a mirror gleam.
He said, “Takes you back to the era of true chivalry, doesn’t it, Thorne? The days when a man cared something for a lady’s reputation.”
Harry spoke up. “Evan, don’t be ridiculous. Everyone here cares for Kate.”
“I don’t want anyone fighting over me,” Kate said. “It’s not worth it.”
“Like hell it’s not.” Samuel turned to her. “Don’t ever say you’re not worth it, Katie. You’re worth epic battles. Entire wars.”
Her heart pinched. “Samuel . . .”
“Yes, Helen of Troy?” She thought she saw him wink as he backed away, reaching for a sword to match Evan’s.
After all this time . . . he would choose this moment to be charming.
“It’s all right,” Lark soothed, drawing her aside. “It’s all a bit of show to preserve honor and save face. You know how gentlemen are.”