“More tea, Miss Taylor?”
“No, thank you.” Kate sipped the weak brew in her cup, masking her grimace. The leaves were on their third use, at least. They seemed to have been washed of their last vague memory of being tea.
Fitting, she supposed. Vague memories were the order of the day.
Miss Paringham put aside the teapot. “Where did you say you’re residing?”
Kate smiled at the white-haired woman in the chair opposite. “Spindle Cove, Miss Paringham. It’s a popular holiday village for gently bred young ladies. I make my living offering music lessons.”
“I am glad to know your schooling has provided you with an honest income. That is more than an unfortunate like yourself should have hoped.”
“Oh, indeed. I’m very lucky.”
Setting aside her “tea,” Kate cast a surreptitious glance at the mantel clock. Time was growing short. She despised wasting precious minutes on niceties when there were questions singeing the tip of her tongue. But abruptness wouldn’t win her any answers.
A wrapped parcel lay in her lap, and she curled her fingers around the string. “I was so surprised to learn you’d settled here. Imagine, my old schoolmistress, pensioned just a few hours’ ride away. I couldn’t resist paying a call to reminisce. I have such fond recollections of my Margate years.”
Miss Paringham raised an eyebrow. “Really.”
“Oh, yes.” She stretched her mind for examples. “I particularly miss the…the nourishing soup. And our regular devotionals. It’s just so hard to find two solid hours for reading sermons nowadays.”
As orphans went, Kate knew she’d been a great deal happier than most. The atmosphere at Margate School for Girls might have been austere, but she hadn’t been beaten or starved or unclothed. She’d formed friendships and gained a useful education. Most important of all, she’d been instructed in music and encouraged in its practice.
Truly, she could not complain. Margate had provided for her every need, save one.
In all her years there, she’d never known real love. Just some pale, thrice-washed dilution of it. Another girl might have grown bitter. But Kate just wasn’t formed for misery. Even if her mind could not recall it, her heart remembered a time before Margate. Some distant memory of happiness echoed in its every beat.
She’d been loved once. She just knew it. She couldn’t put a name or face to the emotion, but that didn’t make it any less real. Once upon a time, she’d belonged—to someone, somewhere. This woman might be her last hope of finding the connection.
“Do you remember the day I arrived at Margate, Miss Paringham? I must have been such a little thing.”
The old woman’s mouth pursed. “Five years at the oldest. We had no way to be certain.”
“No. Of course you wouldn’t.”
No one knew Kate’s true birthday, least of all Kate herself. As schoolmistress, Miss Paringham had decided all wards of the school would share the Lord’s birthday, December 25. Supposedly they were to take comfort from this reminder of their heavenly family on the day when all the other girls had gone home to their own flesh-and-blood relations.
However, Kate always suspected there’d been a more practical motive behind the choice. If their birthdays were on Christmas, there was never any need to celebrate them. No extra gifts were warranted. Wards of the school made do with the same Christmas package every year: an orange, a ribbon, and a neatly folded length of patterned muslin. Miss Paringham did not believe in sweets.
Apparently she still didn’t. Kate bit a tiny corner off the dry, tasteless biscuit she’d been offered, then set it back on the plate.
On the mantel, the clock’s ticking seemed to accelerate. Only twenty minutes before the last stagecoach left for Spindle Cove. If she missed the stage, she would be stranded in Hastings all night.
She steeled her nerve. No more dithering.
“Who were they?” she asked. “Do you know?”
“Whatever do you mean?”
Miss Paringham sniffed. “You were a ward of the school. You have no parents.”
“I do understand that.” Kate smiled, trying to inject some levity. “But I wasn’t hatched from an egg, was I? I didn’t turn up under a cabbage leaf. I had a mother and father once. Perhaps I had them for as many as five years. I’ve tried so hard to remember. All my memories are so vague, so jumbled. I remember feeling safe. I have this impression of blue. A room with blue walls, perhaps, but I can’t be certain.” She pinched the bridge of her nose and frowned at the knotted carpet fringe. “Maybe I just want to remember so desperately, I’m imagining things.”
“I remember sounds, mostly.” She shut her eyes, delving inward. “Sounds with no pictures. Someone saying to me, ‘Be brave, my Katie.’ Was it my mother? My father? The words are burned into my memory, but I can’t put a face to them, no matter how I try. And then there’s the music. Endless pianoforte music, and that same little song…”
As she repeated Kate’s name, the old schoolmistress’s voice cracked. Not cracked like brittle china, but cracked like a whip.
In a reflexive motion, Kate snapped tall in her chair.
Sharp eyes regarded her. “Miss Taylor, I advise you to abandon this line of inquiry at once.”
“How can I? You must understand. I’ve lived with these questions all my life, Miss Paringham. I’ve tried to do as you always advised and be happy for what good fortune life has given me. I have friends. I have a living. I have music. But I still don’t have the truth. I want to know where I came from, even if it’s difficult to hear. I know my parents are dead now, but perhaps there is some hope of contacting my relations. There has to be someone, somewhere. The smallest detail might prove useful. A name, a town, a—”
The old woman rapped her cane against the floorboards. “Miss Taylor. Even if I had some information to impart, I would never share it. I would take it to my grave.”
Kate sat back in her chair. “But…why?”
Miss Paringham didn’t answer, merely pressed her papery lips into a thin slash of disapproval.
“You never liked me,” Kate whispered. “I knew it. You always made it clear, in small, unspoken ways, that any kindness you showed me was begrudged.”
“Very well. You are correct. I never liked you.”
They regarded one another. There, now the truth was out.
Kate struggled not to reveal any sign of disappointment or hurt. But her wrapped bundle of sheet music slipped to the floor—and as it did, a smug little smile curved Miss Paringham’s lips.
“May I ask on what basis was I so reviled? I was appropriately grateful for every small thing I was given. I didn’t cause mischief. I never complained. I minded my lessons and earned high marks.”
“Precisely. You showed no humility. You behaved as though you had as much claim to joy as any other girl at Margate. Always singing. Always smiling.”
The idea was so absurd, Kate couldn’t help but laugh. “You disliked me because I smiled too much? Should I have been melancholy and brooding?”
“Ashamed!” Miss Paringham barked the word. “A child of shame ought to live ashamed.”
Kate was momentarily stunned silent. A child of shame? “What can you mean? I always thought I was orphaned. You never said—”
“Wicked thing. Your shame goes without saying. God Himself has marked you.” Miss Paringham pointed with a bony finger.
Kate couldn’t even reply. She raised her own trembling hand to her temple.
With her fingertips, she began to idly rub the mark, the same way she’d done as a young girl—as if she might erase it from her skin. Her whole life, she’d believed herself to be a loved child whose parents had met an untimely demise. How horrid, to think that she’d been cast away, unwanted.
Her fingers stilled on her birthmark. Perhaps cast away because of this.
“You fool girl.” The old woman’s laugh was a caustic rasp. “Been dreaming of a fairy tale, have you? Thinking someday a messenger will knock on your door and declare you a long-lost princess?”
Kate told herself to stay calm. Clearly, Miss Paringham was a lonely, warped old woman who now lived to make others miserable. She would not give the beastly crone the satisfaction of seeing her rattled.
But she would not stay here a moment longer, either.
She reached to gather her wrapped parcel of music from the floor. “I’m sorry to have disturbed you, Miss Paringham. I will leave. You needn’t say any more.”
“Oh, I will say more. Ignorant thing that you are, you’ve reached the age of three-and-twenty without understanding this. I see I must take it upon myself to teach you one last lesson.”
“Please, don’t strain yourself.” Rising from her chair, Kate curtsied. She lifted her chin and pasted a defiant smile on her face. “Thank you for the tea. I really must be going if I’m to catch the stagecoach. I’ll see myself out.”
The old woman lashed out with her cane, striking Kate in the back of the knees.
Kate stumbled, catching herself in the drawing room entryway. “You struck me. I can’t believe you just struck me.”
“Should have done it years ago. I might have knocked that smile straight from your face.”
Kate braced her shoulder on the doorjamb. The sting of humiliation was far greater than the physical pain. Part of her wanted to crumple into a tiny ball on the floor, but she knew she had to flee this place. More than that, she had to flee these words. These horrible, unthinkable notions that could leave her marked inside, as well as out.
“Good day, Miss Paringham.” She placed weight on her smarting knee and drew a quick breath. The front door was just paces away.
“No one wanted you.” Venom dripped from the old woman’s voice. “No one wanted you then. Who on earth do you think will want you now?”
Someone, Kate’s heart insisted. Someone, somewhere.
“No one.” Malice twisted the old woman’s face as she swung the cane again.
Kate heard its crisp whack against the doorjamb, but by that time, she was already wrestling open the front latch. She picked up her skirts and darted out into the cobbled street. Her low-heeled boots were worn thin on the soles, and she slipped and stumbled as she ran. The streets of Hastings were narrow and curved, lined with busy shops and inns. There was no possible way the sour-faced woman could have followed her.
Still, she ran.
She ran with hardly a care for which direction she was going, so long as it was away. Perhaps if she kept running fast enough, the truth would never catch up.
As she turned in the direction of the mews, the booming toll of a church bell struck dread in her gut.
One, two, three, four…
Oh no. Stop there. Please don’t toll again.
Her heart flopped. Miss Paringham’s clock must have been slow. She was too late. The coach would have already departed without her. There wouldn’t be another until morning.
Summer had stretched daylight to its greatest length, but in a few hours, night would fall. She’d spent most of her funds at the music shop, leaving only enough money for her passage back to Spindle Cove—no extra coin for an inn or a meal.
Kate came to a standstill in the crowded lane. People jostled and streamed about her on all sides. But she didn’t belong to any of them. None of them would help. Despair crawled its way through her veins, cold and black.
Her worst fears had been realized. She was alone. Not just tonight, but forever. Her own relations had abandoned her years ago. No one wanted her now. She would die alone. Living in some cramped pensioner’s apartment like Miss Paringham’s, drinking thrice-washed tea and chewing on her own bitterness.
Be brave, my Katie.
Her whole life she’d clung to the memory of those words. She’d held fast to the belief that they meant someone, somewhere cared. She wouldn’t let that voice down. This sort of panic wasn’t like her, and it wouldn’t do a bit of good.
She closed her eyes, drew a deep breath, and took a silent inventory. She had her wits. She had her talent. She had a young, healthy body. No one could take these things from her. Not even that cruel, shriveled wench with her cane and weak tea.
There had to be some solution. Did she have anything she could sell? Her pink muslin frock was rather fine—a handed-down gift from one of her pupils, trimmed with ribbon and lace—but she couldn’t sell the clothes off her back. She’d left her best summer bonnet at Miss Paringham’s, and she’d rather sleep in the streets than retrieve it.
If she hadn’t cut it so short last summer, she might have tried to sell her hair. But the locks barely reached below her shoulders now, and they were an unremarkable shade of brown. No wigmaker would want it.
Her best chance was the music shop. Perhaps if she explained her predicament and asked very nicely, the proprietor would accept his music back and return her money. That would afford her enough for a room at a somewhat respectable inn. Staying alone was never advisable, and she didn’t even have her pistol. But she could prop a chair beneath her door and stay awake all night, clutching the fireplace poker and keeping her voice primed to scream.
There. She had a plan.
As Kate started to cross the street, an elbow knocked her off balance.
“Oy,” its owner said. “Watch yerself, miss.”
She whirled away, apologizing. The twine on her parcel snapped. White pages flapped and fluttered into the gusty summer afternoon, like a covey of startled doves.
“Oh no. The music.”
She made wild sweeps with both hands. A few pages disappeared down the street, and others fell to the cobblestones, quickly trampled by passersby. But the bulk of the parcel landed in the middle of the lane, still wrapped in brown paper.
She made a lunging grab for it, desperate to save what she could.
“Look sharp!” a man shouted.
Cartwheels creaked. Somewhere much too near, a horse bucked and whinnied. She looked up from where she’d crouched in the lane to see two windmilling, iron-shoed hooves, big as dinner plates, preparing to demolish her.
A woman screamed.
Kate threw her weight to one side. The horse’s hooves landed just to her left. With a squalling hiss of the brake, a cartwheel screeched to halt—inches from crushing her leg.
The parcel of sheet music landed some yards distant. Her “plan” was now a mud-stained, wheel-rutted smear on the street.
“Devil take you,” the driver cursed her from the box, brandishing his horsewhip. “A fine little witch you are. Near overset my whole cart.”
“I—I’m sorry, sir. It was an accident.”
He cracked his whip against the cobblestones. “Out of my way, then. You unnatural little—”
As he raised his whip for another strike, Kate flinched and ducked.
No blow came.
A man stepped between her and the cart. “Threaten her again,” she heard him warn the driver in a low, inhuman growl, “and I will whip the flesh from your miserable bones.”
Chilling, those words. But effective. The cart swiftly rolled away.
As strong arms pulled her to her feet, Kate’s gaze climbed a veritable mountain of man. She saw black, polished boots. Buff breeches stretched over granite thighs. A distinctive red wool officer’s coat.
Her heart jumped. She knew this coat. She’d probably sewn the brass buttons on these cuffs. This was the uniform of the Spindle Cove militia. She was in familiar arms. She was saved. And when she lifted her head, she was guaranteed to find a friendly face, unless…
Unless it was him.
“Corporal Thorne,” she whispered.
On another day, Kate could have laughed at the irony. Of all the men to come to her rescue, it would be this one.
“Miss Taylor, what the devil are you doing here?”
At his rough tone, all her muscles pulled tight. “I…I came into town to purchase new sheet music for Miss Elliott, and to…” She couldn’t bring herself to mention calling on Miss Paringham. “But I dropped my parcel, and now I’ve missed the stage home. Silly me.”
Silly, foolish, shame-marked, unwanted me.
“And now I’m truly stuck, I’m afraid. If only I’d brought a little more money, I could afford a room for the evening, then go back to Spindle Cove tomorrow.”
“You’ve no money?”
She turned away, unable to bear the chastisement in his gaze.
“What were you thinking, traveling all this distance alone?”
“I hadn’t any choice.” Her voice caught. “I am completely alone.”
His grip firmed on her arms. “I’m here. You’re not alone now.”
Hardly poetry, those words. A simple statement of fact. They scarcely shared the same alphabet as kindness. If true comfort were a nourishing, wholemeal loaf, what he offered her were a few stale crumbs.
It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter. She was a starving girl, and she hadn’t the dignity to refuse.
“I’m so sorry,” she managed, choking back a sob. “You’re not going to like this.”
And with that, Kate fell into his immense, rigid, unwilling embrace—and wept.
She burst into tears. Right there in the street, for God’s sake. Her lovely face screwed up. She bent forward until her forehead met his chest, and then she heaved a loud, wrenching sob.
Then a second. And a third.
His gelding danced sideways, and Thorne shared the beast’s unease. Given a choice between watching Miss Kate Taylor weep and offering his own liver to carrion birds, he would have had his knife out and sharpened before the first tear rolled down her face.
He clucked his tongue softly, which did some good toward calming the horse. It had no effect on the girl. Her slender shoulders convulsed as she wept into his coat. His hands remained fixed on her arms.
In a desperate gesture, he slid them up. Then down.
What’s happened? he wanted to ask. Who’s hurt you? Who can I maim or kill for distressing you this way?
“I’m sorry,” she said, pulling away after some minutes had passed.
“For weeping all over you. Forcing you to hold me. I know you must hate it.” She fished a handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at her eyes. Her nose and eyes were red. “I mean, not that you don’t like holding women. Everyone in Spindle Cove knows you like women. I’ve heard far more than I care to hear about your—”
She paled and stopped talking.
Just as well.
He took the horse’s lead in one hand and laid the other hand to Miss Taylor’s back, guiding her out of the street. Once they reached the side of the lane, he looped his horse’s reins about a post and turned his sights toward making her comfortable. There wasn’t anywhere for her to sit. No bench, no crate.
This disturbed him beyond reason.
His gaze went to a tavern across the street—the sort of establishment he’d never allow her to enter—but he was seriously considering crossing the lane, toppling the first available drunk off his seat, and dragging the vacated chair out for her. A woman shouldn’t weep while standing. It didn’t seem right.
“Please, can’t you just loan me a few shillings?” she asked. “I’ll find an inn for the night, and I won’t trouble you any further.”
“Miss Taylor, I can’t lend you money to pass the night alone in a coaching inn. It’s not safe.”
“I have no choice but to stay. There won’t be another stage back to Spindle Cove until morning.”
Thorne looked at his gelding. “I’ll hire you a horse, if you can ride.”
She shook her head. “I never had any lessons.”
Curse it. How was he going to remedy this situation? He easily had the money to hire another horse, but nowhere near enough coin in his pocket for a private carriage. He could put her up in an inn—but damned if he would let her stay alone.
A dangerous thought visited him, sinking talons into his mind.
He could stay with her.
Not in a tawdry way, he told himself. Just as her protector. He could find a damned place for her to sit down, as a start. He could see that she had food and drink and warm blankets. He could stand watch while she slept and make certain nothing disturbed her. He could be there when she woke.
After all these months of frustrated longing, maybe that would be enough.
“Good heavens.” She took a sudden step back.
“What is it?”
Her gaze dropped and she swallowed hard. “Some part of you is moving.”
“No, it’s not.” Thorne conducted a quick, silent assessment of his personal equipment. He found all to be under regulation. On another occasion—one with fewer tears involved—this degree of closeness would have undoubtedly roused his lust. But today she was affecting him rather higher in his torso. Tying his guts in knots and poking at whatever black, smoking cinder remained of his heart.
“Your satchel.” She indicated the leather pouch slung crossways over his chest. “It’s…wriggling.”
Oh. That. In all the commotion, he’d nearly forgotten the creature.
He reached beneath the leather flap and withdrew the source of the wriggling, holding it up for her to see.
“It’s just this.”
And suddenly everything was different. It was like the whole world took a knock and tilted at a fresh angle. In less time than it took a man’s heart to skip, Miss Taylor’s face transformed. The tears were gone. Her elegant, sweeping eyebrows arched in surprise. Her eyes candled to life—glowed, really, like two stars. Her lips fell apart in a delighted gasp.
“Oh.” She pressed one hand to her cheek. “Oh, it’s a puppy.”
She smiled. Lord, how she smiled. All because of this wriggling ball of snout and fur that was as likely to piss on her slippers as chew them to bits.
She reached forward. “May I?”
As if he could refuse. Thorne placed the pup in her arms.
She fawned and cooed over it like a baby. “Where did you come from, sweeting?”
“A farm nearby,” Thorne answered. “Thought I’d take him back to the castle. Been needing a hound.”
She cocked her head and peered at the pup. “Is he a hound?”
Her fingers traced a rust-colored patch over the pup’s right eye. “I’d suppose he’s partly many things, isn’t he? Funny little dear.”
She lifted the pup in both hands and looked it nose-to-nose, puckering her lips to make a little chirping noise. The dog licked her face.
“Was that mean Corporal Thorne keeping you in a dark, nasty satchel?” She gave the pup a playful shake. “You like it so much better out here with me, don’t you? Of course you do.”
The dog yipped. She laughed and drew it close to her chest, bending over its furry neck.
“You are perfect,” he heard her whisper. “You are just exactly what I needed today.” She stroked the pup’s fur. “Thank you.”
Thorne felt a sharp twist in his chest. Like something rusted and bent, shaking loose. This girl had a way of doing that—making him feel. She always had done, even years upon years in the past. That long-ago time seemed to fall beyond the reach of her earliest memories. A true mercy for her.
But Thorne remembered. He remembered it all.
He cleared his throat. “We’d best be on the road. It’ll be near dark, by the time we reach Spindle Cove.”
She tore her attention from the dog and gave Thorne a curious glance. “But how?”
“You’ll ride with me. The both of you. I’ll take you up on my saddle. You’ll carry the dog.”
As if consulting all the concerned parties, she turned to the horse. Then to the dog. Lastly, she lifted her gaze to Thorne’s. “You’re certain we’ll fit?”
She bit her lip, looking unsure.
Her instinctive resistance to the idea was plain. And understandable. Thorne wasn’t overeager to put his plan into action, either. Three hours astride a horse with Miss Kate Taylor nestled between his thighs? Torture of the keenest sort. But he could see no better way to have her swiftly and safely home.
He could do this. If he’d lasted a year with her in the same tiny village, he could withstand a few hours’ closeness.
“I won’t leave you here,” he said. “It’ll have to be done.”
Her mouth quirked in a droll, self-conscious smile. It was reassuring to see, and at the same time devastating.
“When you put it that way, I find myself unable to refuse.”
For God’s sake, don’t say that.
“Thank you,” she added. She laid a gentle touch to his sleeve.
For your own sake, don’t do that.
He pulled away from her touch, and she looked hurt. Which made him want to soothe her, but he didn’t dare try.
“Mind the pup,” he said.
Thorne helped her into the saddle, boosting her at the knee, rather than the thigh, as might have been more efficient. He mounted the gelding, taking the reins in one hand and keeping one arm about her waist. As he nudged the horse into a walk, she fell against him, soft and warm. His thighs bracketed hers.
Her hair smelled of clover and lemon. The scent rushed all through his senses before he could stop it. Damn, damn, damn. He could discourage her from talking to him, touching him. He could keep her distracted with a dog. But how could he prevent her from being shaped like a woman and smelling like paradise?
Never mind the beatings, the lashings, the years of prison…
Thorne knew, without a doubt, the next three hours would be the harshest punishment of his life.