She made eye contact, hoping he’d know her.
It’s me. Come back.
Something flashed in his blue, unfocused gaze—but what it was, she couldn’t tell.
The primal growl building deep in his chest now erupted from his throat. With a hoarse cry he lifted the quarterstaff, swinging both weapon and Kate with violent force, slamming her against the nearest wall.
Several ladies screamed.
Kate couldn’t have screamed if she’d tried. The impact knocked all air from her lungs. For a moment she floated loose in her own body—robbed of sensation, of presence. She didn’t feel any pain—not yet. But she was certain it must be coming. An impact that strong must have broken her somewhere. Her spine, perhaps. A few ribs at the very least.
Then a dizzying rush of air entered her lungs. Her vision sharpened. She could breathe again, freely. The pain still hadn’t arrived.
After a moment’s reflection she understood why. He’d slammed her not against the flat wall, but into a niche. As the quarterstaff was much wider than the recessed alcove, the beams on either side had taken the impact. She was unharmed.
Unharmed, but shaken to her marrow.
If he’d thrown her mere inches to either side, the full force of the quarterstaff would have crashed into her rib cage—wounding her, surely. Killing her, possibly. But even in his darkest, most unthinking moment, Thorne had protected her from himself.
He’d saved her. Now she had to return the favor.
She ignored the room packed with onlookers. She ignored the quarterstaff holding her pinned into the narrow niche. She kept her gaze locked with his. He was far away, and she had to bring him home.
“It’s all right,” she said, speaking in the lowest, most soothing tone she could manage. “Samuel, it’s me. Katie. I’m unharmed, and so are you. You were having a disagreement with Lord Drewe here at Summerfield. But it’s over now. It’s all over. There’s no danger anymore.”
She caught a flicker of awareness in his eyes. He drew a sharp breath.
“Yes,” she encouraged him. “Yes, that’s it. Come back. Back to me. I love you.”
If only she could touch him, it might make all the difference. But the quarterstaff kept them apart.
“Let her go.” Evan appeared at Samuel’s side, pressing a blade to his throat and undoing all Kate’s efforts of the past minute.
“Evan, don’t. Please. You’ll make it worse.”
“Get the hell away from her,” he growled at Thorne.
“You don’t understand, Evan. He didn’t hurt me. He would never hurt me.” She ignored her cousin then and focused on Thorne again, staring deeply into his eyes. “Samuel, you must come back to me. Now. I need you here.”
That did it.
His breathing steadied and recognition smoothed the creases in his brow. His eyes focused—first on her face, then on the quarterstaff and their position against the wall.
“Oh, Jesus,” he breathed. Anguish tweaked his voice. “Katie. What did I do to you?”
“Nothing,” she assured him. “Nothing but remove me from the path of harm. I’m fine.”
“Bollocks,” said Evan. “You could have killed her.”
“Don’t believe him,” Kate said. “I know the truth. You didn’t hurt me at all. You’d never hurt me.”
Bram appeared then, reaching for the quarterstaff. “Stand down, Thorne. The fight’s over.”
Samuel nodded, still clutching the weapon tight. “Yes. It’s all over.”
“Don’t say that,” Kate pleaded, pushing against the staff that kept her pinned. She needed to touch him, to hold him tight. If only she could get her arms around him, she could change his mind.
He seemed to know it, too.
“I can’t risk it,” he whispered, holding her off. “I can’t. I love you too much. I thought I could make myself into the man you need—a husband fit for a lady—but . . .” His face twisted as he swept a tormented gaze down and then up her body. “Look at this. I don’t belong in this world anymore. If I ever did.”
“Then we’ll go find another world,” she said. “Together. I’d give up everything for you.”
He shook his head, still holding her off. “I can’t let you do that. You say this life doesn’t matter, but if I take you from it . . . you’ll come to resent me, in time. I’ll resent myself. Family means so much to you.”
“You mean more.”
“Drewe,” he said, still staring into Kate’s eyes, “how soon could you marry her?”
“Tomorrow,” Evan answered.
“And you’ll protect her? Against rumor, scandal. Against those who would treat her ill or use her for her fortune.”
“With my life.”
“Samuel, no.” Kate fought back tears.
He nodded, still looking at her. “Then do it. I’ll leave England as soon as I know it’s done. As soon as I know she’s safe.”
“I won’t marry him,” Kate objected. “And Samuel, you won’t let it happen. You say this now, but do you mean for me to believe you’ll sit in the pews of St. Ursula’s tomorrow morning and watch, while I walk down the aisle with another man?”
At that, he hesitated.
“You wouldn’t let it happen. I know you wouldn’t.”
The argument seemed to make some inroads.
But unfortunately, they took him in the wrong direction.
“Bram,” he called.
“Still here,” Lord Rycliff answered.
“When you were shot in the knee, you made me swear, right there on the battlefield, that I wouldn’t let them take your leg.” Samuel spoke in a firm, controlled voice. “No matter what the surgeons said, no matter if you hovered at death’s threshold. Even if you lost your mind with delirium. I swore I wouldn’t let them amputate, and I didn’t. I sat by your bedside with a pistol cocked, scaring off anyone with a saw. When they threatened me with court-martial, even when my own powers of reason argued against it . . . I stayed true to my word.”
Bram nodded. “You did. I’m forever in your debt.”
“You’re going to repay me now.”
“Lock me in the village gaol. In irons, tonight. And no matter what happens—even if I rage or plead—give me your word right now that you won’t release me until she’s married. Swear it.”
“Thorne, I can’t—”
Samuel turned to him. “Don’t question. Don’t look at anyone else. This is you and me, and a debt you owe. Just do as I ask, and swear it.”
Lord Rycliff relented. “Very well. You have my word. You can release her now.”
“Get the irons first.”
“For goodness’ sake, Samuel!” Kate struggled again. “What are the chances that a pair of irons are just hanging about?”
She had forgotten to consider that in Sir Lewis Finch’s house, the chances were apparently quite good. Someone produced a pair of iron cuffs, connected by a heavy chain.
Lord Rycliff opened one manacle and fitted it around Samuel’s wrist.
Samuel stared deep into her eyes. “Thank you,” he whispered. “For lighting up for me, just the once. That was worth everything.”
Kate growled and kicked him in the shin—not that her bare foot could do much damage. “Don’t pretend this is romantic, you stubborn, foolish man! If I didn’t love you so much, I’d vow to hate you forever.”
In response, he pressed an infuriating kiss to her brow.
Once the other cuff was fastened, he let go of the quarterstaff and released her.
Then he walked away in chains.
“I won’t let it happen.”
Lark stood in the center of the Queen’s Ruby parlor, looking as firm-chinned and resolute as Kate had ever seen her.
“Kate,” she said, “I love you dearly, but if you try to marry my brother today, I will stand up in the middle of St. Ursula’s and object.”
“Chicken,” Harry soothed, “it’s not yours to say. Evan and Kate are adults. Besides, the vicar will only be interested in your objection if it presents a legal impediment. There is none.”
“There’s an emotional impediment,” Lark argued. “Kate can’t marry Evan. She’s in love with Corporal Thorne.”
Kate squeezed her eyes shut. Of course she was in love with Thorne. If she weren’t completely, eternally in love with him, she wouldn’t feel so miserable sitting here this morning, discussing the possibility of marrying another man.
Her heart ached. Somewhere nearby, Samuel was in irons, locked up like an animal in a cage. He’d spent the entire night in gaol.
She knew how he’d suffered as a youth in prison. He should never have been subjected to confinement again, not even for one night. She was desperate to see him released, and he must have known she’d feel this way. He was holding himself ransom, and the price he demanded was her wedding to another.
The stubborn, impossible man. And to believe common wisdom, women were the sex prone to dramatics?
Lark continued, “What’s more, Evan can’t marry Kate. What about Claire?”
“Claire?” Harry echoed. “My dear pigeon, Claire is several years in the grave.”
“But he loved her once. That’s all I’m saying. He might fall in love again.”
“Let’s hope not,” Harry muttered.
Lark confronted her sister. Anger burned red on her cheeks. “Really, Harriet. Our brother defended you when you broke three loveless engagements. He has supported you in your attachment to Ames. And this is how you repay him? By encouraging him to enter a marriage of convenience and hoping he never loves again?”
As she absorbed Lark’s censure, Harry’s eyebrows rose. “My my, starling. You are growing up so fast.” She drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair, then stood. “Very well, I’ll object, too.”
“Your objections won’t be necessary, I hope.” Kate lifted Badger into her lap and drew him close. “I’ve no intention of marrying Evan, if it can possibly be helped. There must be some other way.”
But even as she spoke the words, she doubted them. What other way could there be? All night long she’d been thinking on the dilemma. She’d exhausted all her powers of logic, imagination, and desperation, and still no solution had come to her.
“Harry and I tried appealing to Evan,” Lark said. “If he withdrew his offer to Kate, Corporal Thorne would have to back down. But he won’t budge, either.”
“He feels too guilty,” Harry said to Kate. “He’s determined to give you the life you deserve, he says.”
“But you all have given me so much already,” she said. “You sought me out and welcomed me with open arms, even knowing it would change your lives in uncertain ways. Your kindness and faith in me has been remarkable, and I . . . I love you all for it.”
“Oh, dear.” Across the room, Aunt Marmoset pressed a hand to her chest. “Oh dear, oh dear.”
“Aunt Marmoset, what is it? Not your heart?”
“No, no. My conscience.” The old woman looked to Kate with red, teary eyes. “I must tell you the truth. It’s my fault. It’s all my fault that you were lost, dear. You mustn’t feel beholden to us. I shouldn’t blame you if you took all the family money and cast us out in the cold.”
Kate shook her head, utterly confused. “I don’t understand. Cast you out in the cold? I’d never do such a thing.”
Lark patted her aunt’s hand. “I’m sure it’s not as bad as all that, Aunt Marmoset.”
“But it is. It is.” The old woman accepted a handkerchief from Harry. “After Simon died and your father inherited the title, I came to Rook’s Fell. My sister needed me. You weren’t even born yet, Lark. But Harry—surely you must remember that time. How difficult it was.”