Harry nodded. “It was the year Father’s illness began. There were so many doctors, coming and going. I remember Mother’s face was always grim.”
“Your lives had changed so much, so swiftly. A new home, new titles, new responsibilities. I took over the running of the household. I oversaw the servants, attended to correspondence. I received any guests to the house . . .” She paused meaningfully. “So I was there the day Simon’s lover came back, babe in arms. And I sent her away.”
At the words, Kate felt as though she’d been dunked underwater. The air felt slow and thick around her. Cold. Her vision went wavy and a dull pulse throbbed in her ears.
She couldn’t breathe.
“You sent her away?” Lark’s voice echoed from a great distance. “Aunt Marmoset. How could you do such a thing?”
Kate forced herself to surface, to listen.
“You’ve no idea,” Aunt Marmoset said. She wrung Harry’s handkerchief. “You’ve no idea how many charlatans crawl out of every ceiling crack after a marquess dies. Every day, I was chasing another away. Some came claiming his lordship owed back wages or gambling debts, others said that his lordship had promised them a living. More than one girl showed up with an infant in her arms. Liars, all. When Elinor arrived and claimed to have married him . . . I didn’t believe her. A marquess, marry a tenant farmer’s daughter? Preposterous. I never suspected, until the day we found the parish register, that the girl might have been telling the truth.”
Kate’s fingers went to the pendant dangling at her breastbone. She skimmed her fingertips over the polished teardrop of stone, begging the glossy smoothness to calm her emotions. “So that’s why you had her pendant. You took it from her. You had it all along.”
Aunt Marmoset nodded. “She offered it as some sort of proof. I didn’t see what meaning it should have, just a chip of stone. I did save it, however, in case she came back. But she never did. She never went to the solicitors. She disappeared.”
Lark paced the room, clearly struggling to contain her emotions. “Why didn’t you tell us the truth weeks ago?”
“I was ashamed,” the old woman said. “And what was done was done. I didn’t see how it could do any good to relate the story now. We all agreed to make it right for Kate. We were going to welcome her to the family, give her all she was due. But then last night, when you told us about the bawdy house . . .” Aunt Marmoset’s tears renewed. “Oh, it was my fault. I was so sharp with the girl. When she asked me where she should go or how she should live, I . . . I told her she wouldn’t get a penny from us, and she should go live like the slattern she was.”
“Oh, no.” Kate covered her mouth with her hand. “You didn’t.”
Kate stared at Aunt Marmoset, uncertain what to say or do. In the past weeks, she’d come to think of this woman as . . . as the closest thing to a mother she would likely ever know. And now to learn she’d been turned away, even as an infant.
For a moment she was back in Miss Paringham’s sitting room, swallowing dishwater tea and dodging blows from a cane. No one wanted you then. Who on earth do you think will want you now?
“I’m so sorry,” Aunt Marmoset said. “I know you may never forgive me, and I’ll understand if you don’t. But I’m so fond of you, dear.” She sniffed. “I truly am. I love you like one of my own. If I’d only known that my moment of peevishness would have such dire consequences . . .”
“You didn’t know,” Kate found herself saying. “You couldn’t have known. I don’t blame you.”
She shook her head honestly. “I don’t.”
Miss Paringham’s scornful words that day hadn’t altered the course of her life. She doubted a few moments’ ugliness from Aunt Marmoset had been enough to determine her mother’s entire future. For Elinor to grow so desperate, more than one door must have been closed in her face. Or perhaps she’d simply been unwilling to live by others’ rules. Kate would never know.
Aunt Marmoset clasped Kate’s hand. “Do you know how she responded that day, when I turned her away?”
Kate shook her head. “Tell me, please. I want to know everything.”
“She lifted her chin, bade me a good day. And she walked away, smiling. She kept her dignity, even after I’d lost mine.” The older woman’s papery hand squeezed Kate’s. “You have so much of your mother’s fire.”
Your mother’s fire.
At last, Kate had a name for that small flame warming her heart. She did have something of her mother. She’d carried it inside her all along, and it was more precious than a memory of her face or a verse her mother might have sung. She had the courage to smile in the face of cruelty and indifference—to clutch her dignity tight when she had nothing else. That inner fire was how she’d survived.
She would find an answer to this situation, and it would not involve marrying anyone. Anyone other than Samuel, that was.
“Should we tell Evan this?” she asked. “Perhaps he’d feel less obligated to marry me if he knew that—”
“Less obligated?” Harry cried. “Surely you know him better than that, Kate. If Evan hears of this, he’ll have us scraping your shoes in penance. He’ll dress Lark in sackcloth and ashes for her debut. He will certainly not feel less obligated.”
Kate chewed her lip, knowing Harry was right.
She did have one last source of hope, however. Susanna. Perhaps Susanna could make Lord Rycliff see sense and release Samuel from the gaol.
Just then, Susanna and Minerva entered through the parlor door. Badger scampered to the floor as Kate stood to welcome them.
Susanna wasted no time on pleasantries. “It’s no good, I’m afraid.”
“He won’t be moved?” Kate asked, deflating back into her chair. “Oh no.”
Susanna shook her head with so much agitation, her freckles blurred. “What good is a ‘code of honor’ if it flies in the face of all common sense? Bram insists that he’s bound to do as Thorne asks, even if he personally disagrees. He won’t hear any argument. It’s all wrapped up in pride and brotherhood and his wounded leg. I tell you, whenever that dratted leg is concerned, Bram’s impervious to reason. If the man ever had a sensible bone in his body, it must have been his right kneecap.”
She sat down next to Kate. “I’m so sorry. I tried my best.”
“I know you did.”
Minerva added, “I considered asking Colin speak to him, as a last resort. But I worried it might work against us.”
Kate tried to smile. “Thank you for the thought.”
“Surely one of them can be worn down, over the course of days,” Susanna said. “This can’t last forever.”
But even if it lasted days, it would be too much. No one could understand just what it meant for Samuel to be confined. Here was a man who’d etched the date of his release on his own arm, working carefully despite the teeth-gritting pain, because he knew he was in danger of losing all hope and forfeiting his last shred of humanity. Accepting chains must be torture for him.
“We’ll find another way,” Susanna said. She looked around the parlor at Lark, Harry, Aunt Marmoset, Minerva . . . finally coming back to Kate. “This is Spindle Cove. Here we have six intelligent, resourceful, strong-willed women in one room. We will not be thwarted by a few unreasonable men and their silly toy-soldier games.”
“That’s right,” Minerva said. “Let’s go through all the alternatives.”
“I can’t run away,” Kate said, ticking them off on her fingers. “Marrying Evan is out of the question, as is marrying anyone else.”
“I know!” Lark said. “Kate, you could take religious vows, so you’re forbidden to marry anyone.”
Aunt Marmoset coughed on her spice drop. “A Gramercy woman, sent to a nunnery? That would be unspeakably cruel—to the abbess, most of all.”
Harry wagged a finger, eyes keen. “Wait a moment. Perhaps she could marry Evan just for a few minutes, and then apply for a dissolution or annulment.”
“I can’t do that,” Kate said. “I did think of it, but the vicar told me annulments aren’t easy to obtain. Plus, it would be dishonest. Evan’s been so good to me—I couldn’t lie to his face that way, reciting vows I’ve no intention to keep.”
“Susanna had the right idea,” Minerva declared. She adjusted her spectacles. “In this village, we beat the men at their own games. If they want to play soldiers, we’ll assemble our own army of ladies. We’ll have at them with bows, pistols, rifles—even a trebuchet, if Sir Lewis will lend it—and stage a jailbreak by force.”
Aunt Marmoset perked up. “My dear, I like the way you think.”
“No, no,” Kate said. “That’s certainly an . . . exciting . . . idea, Min. But we can’t. There’d be too much chance of someone getting hurt, and the last thing Samuel needs is another siege.”
His unpredictable reaction to blasts was at the very heart of the problem.
“Besides, even if we were to break him out of the gaol, that wouldn’t change his mind. We’d just be back where we were last night.”
Kate believed, with all her heart, that she and Samuel could build a happy life together. But when he’d made that bargain with Evan last night, he revealed his own doubts. He’d passed her into someone else’s keeping, the same way he’d left her at Margate two decades ago. He doubted his own worth. And he didn’t believe her when she said she’d give up everything for him. She had run out of ways to convince him with words.
And there was still the problem of public scandal. She couldn’t adopt the family name, then turn around and drag it straight through the seediest lanes of Southwark. Even after Aunt Marmoset’s confessions, she wouldn’t wish that on any of the Gramercys—and she didn’t want that cloud hanging over a marriage to Samuel.
In a nervous gesture, she twisted the ring on her finger, turning the pale pink stone this way and that to catch golden flashes of sun. So beautiful. She couldn’t imagine ever removing it. Samuel had chosen it especially for her.
The stone had inner fire. So did she.
“Well, we must do something,” Minerva said. “Print pamphlets. Stage a hunger strike in the green. Go without our corsets until someone relents. This is Spindle Cove. Heaven forbid we let etiquette and convention carry the day. Just look at your dog. Even he agrees with me.”
Kate looked down at Badger, who was happily gnawing his way through yet another copy of Mrs. Worthington’s Wisdom for Young Ladies.
She bent and scratched him behind one funny, half-cocked ear and whispered, “This is all your fault, you know.”
If not for Badger, she might never have pulled the truth from Samuel after the adder bite. She might never have come to know his softer side, and grown to love him for it. Melons would have far less meaning in her life.
In her mind, the wisp of an idea began to coalesce. Maybe . . . just maybe . . . Badger could be the key to this problem, too.
“I think I may know just what to do,” she said, growing excited as she looked around the room at her family and friends. “But I’ll need help getting dressed.”
So this was Spindle Cove’s excuse for a gaol.
Thorne had always wondered about this tiny building settled on the village green, not far from St. Ursula’s. At first he’d assumed it to be a well house for a spring that had long dried up. Then someone told him it used to be a baptistery for the original church.
At any rate, now it was the gaol.