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Despite the vast improvements to many of the roads, the majority of those who could well afford to journey about the land remained unwilling to suffer the discomforts of winter travel unless the trip was totally unavoidable. Consequently Miss Katherine O'Malley had found no difficulty in attaining rooms for herself and her maid the previous afternoon, when a strengthening wind and the threat of snow had persuaded her to veer on the side of caution and seek refuge in a superior posting-house. Fortunately at some point during the night the wind, having changed direction, had eased considerably, and Katherine had woken to discover a landscape prettily laced with only the finest covering of snow and bathed in watery winter sunshine.
After glancing out of the window to view the highly encouraging sight of a carriage bowling along the road, Katherine returned her attention to her companion in time to see a freshly baked roll, liberally covered with jam, being consumed with relish, and succumbed to an imp of pure mischief.
"Most people might be forgiven for supposing that the substantial amount of strawberry preserve with which you manage to coat your bread would succeed in sweetening your disposition, Bridie. But I have known you far too long, and therefore do not hold out much hope."
The instant she had swallowed the last mouthful, Bridie showed no reluctance in responding in kind. "And to be sure 'tis a mystery to me how anyone with a tongue sharper than a barber's razor could have the brass-faced nerve to criticise an easygoing soul like myself."
Reaching for her coffee cup, Katherine silently acknowledged the truth of what her lifelong companion and self-appointed protector had said. Ashamed though she was over this undeniable flaw in her character, the fact of the matter was that she had never been afraid to speak her mind, not even as a child.
Regardless of the fact that in recent years she had attempted to control her occasionally ungovernable temper, she was still sadly inclined on occasions to wound with a cutting barb, and remained impatient of folly. This did not mean, she sincerely hoped, that she had become so intolerant, so self-willed, that she wasn't prepared to listen to the views of others. At least, she amended silently, she would always try to take account of the feelings of that plump and loving female who had taken care of her with such touching devotion for a score of years and more.
"We should be with your aunt and uncle by early afternoon, providing we suffer no further mishap." Bridie tutted. "But I'll say it again, Miss Katherine, "tis plain daft to be gadding about the country at this time of year."
A tender smile went some way to dimming the teasing gleam in Katherine's strikingly coloured blue-green eyes. "You know full well why I was determined to make the trip." She paused to sample the contents of her cup. "You didn't truly expect me to forgo the pleasure of celebrating my cousin's engagement, and enjoying the company for a week or so of the only family I have left in the world, simply because of the few discomforts I must be prepared to suffer in travelling at this season of the year?"
"I know you well enough, Miss Kate, to be certain sure that when your mind is set on something there's no reasoning with you, and that you had every intention of attending the party. Though why in the world your cousin couldn't have arranged to become betrothed in the spring, like any sensible girl, when the weather is warmer and law-abiding souls can journey about the land without fear of becoming stranded, I'll never know!"
"It wasn't through choice, as you're very well aware," Katherine reminded her. "Caroline's future husband is a soldier. Captain Charlesworth wouldn't be able to obtain leave at the drop of a hat. He still has duties to perform, even though the war with France is now, hopefully, at an end."
"To be sure, that's true enough," Bridie acknowledged, before transferring her gaze to the clock in the corner of the private parlour, and rising to her feet. "And I suppose we ought to be thinking of making a move, if you wish to arrive in plenty of time to have a wee rest before the party. The weather's fine at the moment, but there's no saying it'll remain so. I'll away now to check our overnight bags have been returned to the carriage, and arrange for the post-boys to have the vehicle waiting at the door."
After nodding assent, Katherine remained for the time it took to put on her bonnet and collect her reticule and gloves from a side table, and then followed her Irish maid's example by going out into the coffee-room, where she discovered only the landlord lurking in the shadows.
Eager to recommence the journey, she wasted no time in settling her bill, and then made her way towards the front entrance, slipping her purse safely back inside her reticule as she did so. Consequently she didn't observe the tall gentleman, swathed in a voluminous grey cloak, entering the inn, and promptly collided with what felt like a solid wall of bone and muscle. Air left her lungs in a rush, and it was only the two long-fingered hands which immediately clasped her upper arms which saved her from reeling from the impact.
"I'm so very sorry, ma'am. I trust you are unhurt?" The deep voice clearly betrayed concern, and Katherine didn't hesitate to assure him, the instant she had regained her breath, that she had suffered no real harm. "And it was as much my fault as yours, sir," she added, graciously accepting her share of the blame, "for I wasn't attending where I was going."
The continued clasp of strong hands was oddly reassuring, and strangely reminiscent of a certain someone's touch in the dim and distant past. Katherine raised her head, only to find the breath leaving her body in a faint gasp for a second time as she gazed at the swarthy, wholly masculine features looming above.
For a moment it was as much as she could do to stare into thickly lashed, dark eyes, as she tried ineffectually to capture an elusive memory. She saw them widen fractionally, clearly revealing a hint of appreciation in their warm brown depths, as they calmly began to scan every contour of her face. Although not precisely unaccustomed to receiving admiring glances from members of the opposite sex, she was forced silently to own that there was something both faintly disturbing and remarkably engaging about the directness of this tall gentle-man's unwavering gaze.
He seemed reluctant to release her, but after a further unsettling moment he allowed his hands to fall to his sides. "Are you certain you are all right, ma'am? Perhaps I should summon the landlady. You are a little pale, if I may say so."
"I am perfectly well," she assured him swiftly, if not quite truthfully. "But I thank you for your concern, sir."
Bemused by the peculiar sensations this enigmatic stranger had somehow managed to evoke, Katherine successfully slipped past him and out into the crisp morning air. Fortunately he made no attempt to detain her further, but she could almost feel those attractive, almond-shaped eyes boring into her back as she hurried across the fore-court to the waiting carriage.
"Why, you look as if you've seen a ghost!" Bridie remarked the instant her young mistress had scrambled into the post-chaise and had begun to make herself comfortable on the seat opposite.
"I feel as if I've just seen one," she didn't hesitate to admit. "Did you happen to notice that tall gentleman who entered the inn a few minutes ago?"
"Can't say as I noticed a soul, miss. Why, was it someone you know?"
Katherine frowned in an effort to remember, for there was something there still lurking in the dim recesses of her memory which she just could not capture. "He seemed oddly familiar, yes. But for the life of me I cannot imagine where I've seen his face before — certainly not in Bath, I feel sure."
"And was it a handsome one?" Bridie couldn't resist asking, thereby earning herself an impatient glance.
"I wouldn't have described it so, no. He was attractive, certainly, but not what I would call handsome." Katherine paused to straighten the skirt of her dark blue carriage dress. "Not that it would have made a ha'p'orth of difference to me if he had been a perfect Adonis."
"No, I know it wouldn't!" Bridie retorted, with the speed of a striking snake. "And we both know why, don't we?"
Katherine elected not to answer, and turned her head to stare resolutely out of the window, a clear indication that she considered the conversation at an end. Unfortunately the action didn't prevent her from thinking about her maid's prompt rejoinder.
She didn't suppose for a moment that Bridie had intended to be heartlessly cruel. It was not in the woman's nature. In fact, the opposite was true. Bridie, loving and unfailingly loyal, had always been there to offer comfort and encouragement. Which was possibly just as well, Katherine reflected, for she sometimes felt she would never have survived the many heartaches she had suffered in recent years without the constant support of that occasionally infuriating and frequently overprotective Irish woman.
It was from Bridie, who had been there to witness the event, that Katherine had learned that she had been born during what had been one of the worst storms to hit Ireland in living memory. While the high wind had been battering the country, leaving a trail of devastation in its wake, Charlotte O'Malley had been giving birth to a daughter, a protracted and agonising ordeal that had almost brought about her own death and had resulted in her not being able to have any more children.
Oh, yes, she had indeed been a scourge to those close to her since the day of her birth, Katherine reflected dismally. Although blissfully unaware of the fact during her idyllic childhood, she had been forced to accept in recent years, after the series of tragic events which had struck her life, that she did indeed bring ill fortune to those for whom she cared most deeply. Only one person seemed immune to the lethal Katherine O'Malley curse.
She couldn't prevent a tiny sigh escaping as she instinctively cast a glance at the plump, middle-aged female seated in the opposite corner of the carriage. It would be foolish to hope that any prospective husband might be similarly protected, and Katherine certainly had no intention of burdening her conscience further by encouraging the advances of some poor unsuspecting male. It was perhaps fortunate, therefore, that her silent resolve never to marry had not been tested thus far.
During the six years she had lived in Bath, she had been introduced to numerous very personable gentlemen, and yet not one had ever succeeded in arousing in her more than a faint interest. Not once had she ever experienced the pull of mutual attraction... At least, she silently amended, never until today.
She couldn't deny that she had felt oddly drawn to that tall gentleman back at the inn. His touch had been strangely reminiscent of her father's — gentle, yet wholly protective. It was perhaps just as well that their paths were unlikely ever to cross again, for she very much feared that the enigmatic stranger might be just the type of man who would test her resolve to remain a spinster to its limits. * * *
By early afternoon, when the hired carriage had pulled up outside her aunt and uncle's charming house in Hampshire, Katherine had succeeded in thrusting the brief encounter with the disturbing stranger from her mind. After being admitted to the house by Meldrew, the very correct manservant, and discovering that both her aunt and cousin were at home, Katherine removed her outdoor garments and, leaving Bridie to take charge of the unpacking, went directly into the comfortable parlour where she discovered the two female members of the Wentworth family happily engaged in their favourite occupation.
Mrs Lavinia Wentworth, raising her head at the opening of the door, betrayed her delight by a warm smile. Setting aside her sewing, she was on her feet in an instant, her arms outstretched in welcome. "How lovely to see you, my dear!" she announced, after placing a kiss on the face which so closely resembled her dear, departed sister's.
After returning the embrace with equal warmth, Katherine turned to the only other occupant of the room, who betrayed no less delight at her arrival. "You look blooming, my dear Caro. Captain Charlesworth is a lucky man! I trust everything is in readiness for the party tonight?"
"Yes, indeed," Caroline assured her. "Mama and I have been busy all week finalising the arrangements. We are expecting around a hundred guests. And I'm so very glad that you are to be among them. When you failed to arrive yesterday, both Mama and I began to fear that you had changed your mind, and didn't choose to risk making the journey, after all."