Thorne snorted. So that’s how she meant to play this. A war of wills.
Well, she’d made the first fatal mistake in battle—underestimating her opponent.
He leaned against the wall—as far away from her as he could possibly put himself, in the small round cell.
“You can’t wear me down,” he told her. “You cannot outlast me.”
“We’ll just see, won’t we?” She looked up at the shards of blue sky. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Kate stayed true to her word. She didn’t go anywhere.
Neither did he.
Of course, that didn’t stop all Spindle Cove from coming to them. Over the course of the day it seemed every man, woman, and child in the village had a turn at peeking through the barred door and sharing words of encouragement or wisdom.
The vicar came to offer counsel. The Gramercys came to call. Evan gave them his blessing, in case Samuel was waiting on it. Samuel made it clear he wasn’t. Aunt Marmoset passed Kate spice drops through the bars.
Mrs. Highwood dropped by to suggest, in rather obvious fashion, that if Lord Drewe were still interested in getting married today, her Diana would be available.
At suppertime the Fosburys brought over some food. Kate offered Thorne a morsel of cake with her fingertips, but he warned her off with a stern glare.
She popped it in her own mouth instead, making a show of licking her fingers clean.
Don’t think you’re hiding that flash in your eye.
He was so stubborn. After the fight last night, he’d thrown everything he had into building up one last fortified wall. But she would break it down. She’d be damned if she’d let him live in that cold, unfeeling prison he’d constructed. Not now, when she knew how much love and goodness he had to give.
And as Kate saw it, she was simply repaying a favor. All those years ago, he hadn’t left her behind. His conscience hadn’t let him leave the Hothouse without her. She would not leave this gaol without him.
By evening the whole village had gathered on the green. Kate and Samuel’s standoff had turned into an impromptu festival. Ale was flowing freely, thanks to the Bull and Blossom. The militiamen organized a betting pool, placing wagers on how long the couple’s imprisonment would last.
As the sun was setting, Badger came by. After depositing the gift of a limp church mouse just outside the door, he settled down in the grass and propped his head on his paws. Waiting. For hours. Until moonlight poured through the gaps overhead, like streams of quicksilver.
“Think of the dog,” she crooned. “Look at him. You know he won’t leave. He’s going to sit there all night long. Out, exposed in the elements. Poor little pup, shivering in the cold.”
Thorne made a dismissive noise. “This is all his doing.”
Well, if concern for the dog wouldn’t move him . . .
“I’m cold.” She trembled for effect. “Won’t you come sit beside me, or are you just going to let me shiver, too?”
At last she’d found the argument to move him. With obvious reluctance, he came and sat beside her on the small, unyielding bench.
She caught his wrists by the iron manacles, still chained together, and ducked her head to slip into the circle of his arms. He didn’t fight her as she leaned against his chest, snuggling into his warmth. Pressing her ear to his shirt front, she found his heartbeat, strong and steady.
“You should go,” he murmured. “Go back to the Queen’s Ruby and sleep in a warm bed.”
“A warm bed sounds lovely indeed. But only if you’re in it. I’ll wait to go home with you.”
His hands flattened against her back, pulling her close. With his thumb, he stroked light caresses up and down her spine.
“I’m not leaving this place without you, Samuel. You didn’t leave the Hothouse without me.”
“That was decades ago. We were children. There’s nothing you owe me now.”
She laughed wryly. “Only my life, health, happiness, and all the love in my heart.” She slid her arms around his waist and looked up at him. “This isn’t about the past, Samuel. It’s about our future. I can’t imagine being happy without you.”
“Katie, you must know . . . it’s only because of you that I can imagine being happy at all.”
She swallowed back a lump of emotion. “Then why are you resisting me now, after everything? Is it solely a matter of your bull-headed pride?”
A half smile tugged at his lips. “If my ‘bull-headed pride’ is inconvenient, you should know that any pride I have is entirely your fault.”
He closed his eyes and pressed his brow to hers.
“It’s all your fault.” His voice was rough with emotion. “You listened when I needed it. Laughed when I needed that. You wouldn’t go away, no matter how I scowled or raged. You loved me despite everything, and you made me look deep inside myself to find the strength to love you in return. I’m a different man because of you.”
Her heart swelled with joy.
“But that’s not enough. I’m not enough. What if I’d hurt you last night? What if it happens again?”
“You didn’t hurt me,” she insisted. “You’ve never hurt me. Even when you’ve . . . slipped away in the heat of the moment, you’ve always come back. You’ve always kept me safe.”
“What if . . .” His voice trailed off. He cleared his throat and continued. “There’d be children. I worry about children.”
She hugged him tight. “We needn’t be in any rush to start a family. You’ve been one year back in England, after spending a decade on campaign. Give yourself some time to heal. You don’t have to quarantine yourself to some uninhabited wilderness. The darkness will ebb eventually. When it does, I’ll still be here.”
“You shouldn’t have to wait. You deserve someone who’s not broken and brutish and . . .” He exhaled roughly and gripped her tight. “There are better men, Katie.”
“Really? I’ve yet to meet one.”
As she pressed her lips to his in a sweet, tender kiss, Kate could taste victory. The battle was nearly won.
She kissed the stubble-roughened edge of his jaw and made her voice a sultry whisper. “You know, we could be starting our honeymoon in less than an hour.”
She twisted in his embrace just a little, letting her breasts rub against his chest. Teasing them both with the exquisite sensation. He moaned deep in his chest.
“Do you know what Aunt Marmoset told me once? She compared you to a spice drop. Overpowering and hard at first, but all sweetness at the center. I’ll admit, I’ve been desperate to try an experiment.” She gave him a teasing look. “How many times do you suppose I could lick you before you crack?”
His every muscle tightened.
Smiling, she tucked her face into the curve of his neck and ran her tongue seductively over his skin. “There’s one.”
“Katie.” The word was a low, throaty warning. It made her toes curl.
She nuzzled at the notch of his open shirt, pushing the fabric aside. The familiar musk of his skin stirred her in deep places.
With a teasing swirl of her tongue, she tasted the notch at the base of his throat. “Two . . .”
“Finn,” he called in a booming voice, lifting his head. “Send for the vicar.”
She pulled back, shocked. “Two? That’s all, truly? Two? I’m not sure whether to feel proud or disappointed.”
Finn’s face appeared in the grate. “If it’s all the same to you, Corporal, do you mind holding off another half hour? I’ve got midnight in the betting pool.”
“Yes, I do mind. Fetch the vicar. Now.”
Kate smiled. That was her future husband. When he finally made up his mind to do a thing, no one had better stand in his way. Thank God.
She smiled at Samuel in the dark. “I hope the blossoms in my hair aren’t too wilted.”
“They’re perfect.” His blue eyes roamed her face. “You’re so beautiful, Katie. I haven’t words.”
She didn’t need words. What woman could want flattery, when she could have such pure, raw adoration? The pride and love in his gaze were palpable.
She stroked his unshaven jaw. “You are unbearably handsome, as always. I couldn’t have dreamed a more perfect wedding. All our family and friends are already gathered outside. With a few candles, this funny little building will make a romantic chapel. But do you think Lord Rycliff would remove the irons before we say our vows? I’ve heard men call matrimony ‘getting shackled,’ but this is a bit extreme.”
“Extreme? This from the woman who tied me to a bed.”
She laughed softly, ducking her head to rest against his chest.
His chin settled, square and heavy, on her crown. In the silence, she could feel him thinking, pondering. When he spoke again, his voice had that thoughtful tone—the one he could never seem to muster unless she’d turned her gaze away. She kept her face buried in his sleeve, unwilling to break the spell.
“Bram should leave the irons,” he said, “until after. That’s the oath he swore, and it seems fitting, somehow. For other men, marriage might be a trap or a prison. Not for me, Katie. Not for me.” He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “When I marry you, I’ll walk free.”
Several years later
“Hush! That’s his horse in the drive.”
Kate took a surreptitious peek from behind the blue velvet drapes. There he came, riding his gelding up the white gravel lane at a brisk canter.
He dismounted in one swift, agile motion and handed the reins to a waiting groom. Through the lingering twilight, she could make out the familiar, stern lines of his face. With every passing year, life etched those lines a little deeper, engraving his handsomeness as a permanent, eternal thing. And each time she glimpsed him after a separation, her heart still gave a girlish hop in her chest.
With one hand, she gathered her heavy silk skirts and hastened down the corridor in a smooth, practiced glide. It wasn’t seemly for a lady to run, but a lady with three children had to learn to move fast.
But she wasn’t the first to meet him at the door. Badger, even old as he was, raced her to the entrance hall, nails clicking over the travertine. He nosed around his master’s boots, sniffing out the story of his journey.
As she watched the two old friends reunite, Kate smiled. “I see I’m not the first to welcome you home.”
With a final rub to the dog’s ear, Samuel straightened. “You’re the loveliest.”
He’d brought in with him a gust of cool, autumnal air. The woodsy-scented wind clung to his greatcoat. He shrugged out of the garment and removed his gloves.
Kate took both, and in exchange pressed a kiss to his chilled, weathered cheek.
“Where’s Williams?” he asked, scanning the entryway for the butler.
Kate bit her lip. “Oh, he’s . . . elsewhere.”
She turned away and took her time hanging the coat, afraid to look at him, worried he’d take the servants’ absence as cause for suspicion. But his actions soon made it clear that he wasn’t going to take the servants’ absence as cause for suspicion. He meant to take it as an opportunity.
His hands framed her waist and he pulled her backward, drawing her tight against the firm expanse of his chest. With wind-chilled lips, he pressed kisses to her nape, sending ripples of cool and hot sensation down her spine.
Kate’s eyelids fluttered with sensual abandon. She leaned against his chest and let her head roll to the side, offering more of herself to his kiss. Oh, how she’d missed him.
“How was Wimbley Park?” she murmured.
“A shambles.” His teeth grazed her collarbone.