“Miss Taylor is right,” Lord Drewe said. “We must prove it’s not merely coincidence. I’ll dispatch men to interview at the school, canvass the local area around Ambervale. I’ve no doubt we’ll find the link between your infancy and Margate easily enough, with a bit of digging.”
Thorne knew Lord Drewe’s men would find no link between that parish register and Margate school. He could have cleared his throat and informed them precisely where Kate Taylor had spent her early years. She could see how eager these people were to claim her as a Gramercy then. There was high-class scandal, and then there was immoral squalor.
He said, “Miss Taylor isn’t going anywhere with you. All you’ve presented are suspicions of her identity. And we don’t even know who you are.”
Miss Taylor bit her lip. “Corporal Thorne, I’m sure—”
“No, no,” the mannish one interrupted. “The good corporal is absolutely right, Miss Taylor. We could be a gang of white slavers, or bloodthirsty cannibals. Or occultists looking for a virgin sacrifice.”
Thorne did not believe the Gramercys to be white slavers or cannibals or occultists—though they seemed to him the genteel version of bedlamites. And though he knew something of Kate Taylor’s childhood, he had to admit—he could not say with certainty that they were not her cousins. It was possible, he supposed. She hadn’t been born in that place. And she had the right name, the right year of birth. Those facts, plus the portrait and birthmark, made an argument that couldn’t be easily dismissed.
Still, the odds remained against it, and he didn’t trust these people. There was something wrong about them and their story. Perhaps they were mistaken about the connection—in which case Miss Taylor would end up dismayed and potentially the object of ridicule. Alternatively, they were her relations and had somehow misplaced her for the better part of twenty-three years, allowing her to languish in cruel, isolating poverty.
They were careless, at best. Criminal, at worst.
He didn’t trust them with the next five minutes of Miss Taylor’s future, much less the entirety of her life.
“She’s not leaving with you,” he repeated. “I won’t allow it.”
“Remind me,” Drewe said coolly, “exactly who you are. In relation to Miss Taylor, I mean.”
Thorne saw the choice before him, clear as a fork in a road. He either spoke the words hovering on the tip of his tongue—words he would never have dared to dream, let alone give voice. Or he let Miss Taylor go with the Gramercys, surrendering any claim on her safety and happiness. Forever.
There was no choice at all. He spoke the words.
“I’m her betrothed,” he said. “We’re engaged to be married.”
Kate startled in her chair. Surely she’d misheard him.
Engaged? To be married?
“Congratulations, dear.” Aunt Marmoset squeezed her hand. “Have another spice drop.”
“Truly,” Kate said, finally finding her voice. “I’ve no—”
Before she could get the words of protest out, Thorne’s big hand landed on her shoulder. And squeezed, hard. It was a concise, unmistakable message:
“No one mentioned that you were betrothed,” Lord Drewe said, looking suspiciously from Kate to Thorne and back. “Not the vicar, not the landlady . . .”
“We hadn’t told anyone yet,” Thorne replied. “It’s recent.”
“She accepted me today, on the way home from Hastings.” Thorne lifted his hand from Kate’s shoulder and smoothed a stray wisp of her hair, subtly calling attention to its unbound state.
Kate’s cheeks burned as his implication spread through the parlor, working as a joist to lift eyebrows in every corner of the room.
Lark beamed. “Oh, I knew there was something between you. Why else would you have come home so late, looking so . . .” Her voice trailed off as her gaze wandered to Kate’s bedraggled hem and her mussed hair. “ . . . so natural.”
Her chair legs screeched as Kate shot to her feet. “Corporal Thorne, might I have a word?”
She excused herself with a nervous smile in the Gramercys’ direction.
“What are you on about?” she whispered, once he’d followed her to a corner near the pianoforte. Kate knew from experience they could speak quietly there without being overhead. “Hours ago you told me you don’t feel a . . . a dratted thing for me, and now you declare that we’re engaged?”
“I’m looking out for you.”
“Looking out for me? You just implied that we . . . that we’ve been . . .”
“They were already thinking it,” he said. “Believe me. I brought you home late at night, looking like you’ve been tumbled.”
“And then you told them I gave you a puppy. What else are they going to conclude?”
Her cheeks blazed and she looked away.
“All that blushing doesn’t help, either.”
How could she keep from blushing? Her face heated further as she thought of his fingertips teasing that lock of her hair so presumptively.
“We won’t go through with it,” he said. “Marriage.”
“We won’t?” In the ensuing silence, Kate worried that she’d sounded disappointed. “I mean, of course we won’t. I’ve no desire to marry you. I’m going to tell the Gramercys so right now.”
“That would be a mistake.” His hands went to her shoulders, keeping her in place. “Hear me now. You’re overwhelmed.”
“I’m not over—”
Her voice broke. She couldn’t even find the strength to complete the objection. Of course she was overwhelmed. Overwhelmed, exhausted, confused. And it was at least partly his fault. Perhaps mostly his fault.
To his credit, he didn’t deny it.
“It’s the end of a very long day,” he said. “Your schoolmistress treated you ill. The cart driver treated you ill. I treated you worst of all. Then these people show up with their fairy tale, their pockets full of candy and riches. You want to see the best in them, because that’s your nature. But I tell you, there’s something not right about them and their story.”
“What makes you say that?”
A long hesitation. “It’s a feeling.”
She opened her eyes and regarded him keenly. “A feeling? I thought you didn’t possess those.”
He ignored her baiting comment. “You can’t be sure what they’re after. They’re not yet sure of you. This is a risky situation, and you have no guardian or relations to safeguard your interests. That leaves me. But I can’t claim an interest in your well-being without making some claim on you.”
A claim on you. Kate didn’t know how to take those words. Her whole life, no one had ever tried to make any claim on her. Now two in one night.
The entire situation had an air of unreality about it. The lateness of the hour, the string of coincidences, the sheer strangeness of the Gramercys. She didn’t know whom or what she could trust at the moment—after the foolish way she’d thrown herself at Thorne that afternoon, her own desperate heart seemed the least reliable thing of all.
She needed an ally. But him?
“You’re honestly suggesting we pretend to be engaged? You. And me.”
He frowned. “I don’t do playacting, Miss Taylor. There’d be nothing pretend about it. I’m proposing a real betrothal, so that I can offer you real protection. As soon as your situation is more certain, you can release me.”
“Release you,” she echoed.
“From the engagement. A lady can break an engagement at any time, and her reputation suffers no ill effects. If you’re proved to be a Gramercy, no one would expect you to go through with marrying me.”
“And if I’m not proved to be a Gramercy?”
His brow quirked. “No one would expect you to go through with it then, either.”
She supposed they wouldn’t. As all of Spindle Cove knew, she and Thorne were the social equivalent of oil and water. They didn’t mix.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked, searching his hard expression for clues. “Why do you care?”
“Why do I—” With a gruff sigh, he released her. “It’s my duty to look out for you, Miss Taylor. In the next fortnight I’ll be seeing Lord Rycliff about my honorable discharge. If I’ve just handed his wife’s closest friend to the custody of questionable strangers, he might not look so favorably on my request.”
“Oh,” she said. “I see. That does make sense.”
Well, at least his stone-hearted, emotionless response was a touch of the familiar.
“I’m sorry,” she said, turning to the Gramercys. “I should have mentioned the engagement earlier.” She reached for Thorne’s hand and tried to gaze affectionately into his eyes. “It’s only so new. We haven’t even had time to tell our friends, have we . . .” Her voice trailed off as she realized she didn’t even know his Christian name.
Use a pet name, she told herself. An endearment. Dear, darling, sweetheart, pet, love. Anything.
“ . . . have we, Cuddles?” she finished, smiling sweetly.
Ah. Now there was a crack in the ice sheeting those blue eyes. His grip tensed around her palm. Kate felt oddly comforted by these overt signs of his annoyance. Somehow, needling him made this all seem normal again.
Lord Drewe stood tall in the center of the room, radiating nobility and command. “Here is what will happen.”
And Kate had sudden, complete confidence that whatever Lord Drewe said next would indeed happen. Even if he announced that spice drops would rain from the sky.
“Miss Taylor, I can see that we’re rushing you. You have this midsummer fair in the offing, personal affairs to attend. And naturally, you’re reluctant to leave when you’re so newly betrothed.”
She leaned into Thorne’s arm. “Yes, of course.”
“Obviously, we can’t ask you to leave Spindle Cove at this time.”
She exhaled with relief. Thank goodness. Lord Drewe was a clear-headed man, and he understood. He would return with his family to Ambervale, undertake his investigations, and notify her of the result. In writing, perhaps, rather than with a midnight visit.
“You’re busy,” Lord Drewe went on, “whereas we are merely on holiday. But there’s no reason we can’t spend our holiday here.”
Kate swallowed hard. “Y-You mean to stay here in Spindle Cove? In the Queen’s Ruby? All of you?”
“Is there some other inn in the village?”
She shook her head. “But this one doesn’t accept male guests.”
Lord Drewe shrugged. “I noticed a tavern across the green. Surely the proprietor has a room or two for let. I don’t require anything special.”
Oh, of course not. You’re only a marquess.
This was an unforeseen complication. It was one thing to tell these people she was engaged to Thorne, and another thing altogether to live so here, in Spindle Cove.
Heavens. No one in the village would believe it.
Drewe said, “I’ll speak with Mrs. Nichols about securing rooms for the ladies, and I’ll send the coaches for our things straightaway.”
“Surely this isn’t necessary,” Kate said.
“Holidays rarely are,” said Aunt Marmoset. “That’s the beauty of them, dear.”
“I don’t want to inconvenience you.”
“It’s no inconvenience. Spindle Cove is a seaside resort for unconventional ladies, isn’t it?” Lord Drewe spread his hands, indicating his sisters and aunt. “I happen to have three highly unconventional ladies in tow, all of whom will be glad for the amusement. As for myself, I conduct all my affairs through correspondence. I can do that from anywhere.”