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The world seemed to look favorably upon Katherine Sutcliff. Her face and figure were admired, at least by the residents of Little Brookings, her tiny Dorset village. Her mind and humor were considered quick and sharp. She had ample funds and a loving family who forgave her occasional lapses of memory, decorum and common sense.
Of course, her life was not as tranquil and carefree as it appeared: she had at least one—secret and very serious—problem.
Her most immediate dilemma, however, was her inability to fall asleep.
She lay in bed, sighed and stared at the ceiling. She'd been trying for at least two hours, and neither warm milk nor a large dose of Milton's Samson Agonistes had helped at all. Even conjugating irregular French verbs had failed.
Kate supposed she could blame her insomnia on simple nerves and an unfamiliar bed. It was only about twelve hours since she'd arrived—dusty from several days of travel—at her brother Robert's smart London doorstep. He would be getting married in the autumn, and she planned to stay with him in town until that time. That meant she'd be there for the entire season, and although she'd resigned herself to this fate, she wasn't too pleased about it. Oh, she got on with her brother tremendously well—it was the reason behind her visit that was causing her distress.
She needed to get married herself. She didn't want to, but there it was.
Kate sat up in bed, Milton sliding dejectedly to the floor as she did so. Marriage. It was a horrible but unignorable fact, and the only way to get that horrible thought from her mind, even temporarily, was...
A glass of brandy, preferably a large one. That would at least make her sleepy; it had better, since simple determination wasn't doing the trick.
She climbed out of bed, pulling on her robe as she did so, and slipped out her bedroom door. She padded lightly down the spacious hallway toward the study, feeling rather furtive beneath the disapproving glares of looming ancestral portraits. The house was completely silent, and even though she was doing nothing wrong, she crept along guiltily like a thief. Everything in her brother's house was large and dark, and she felt dwarfed inside it. She pulled open the heavy study door, lit a lamp, and in the dim light poured a generous glass of brandy. Robert's study smelled vaguely of smoke. She pulled out the heavy leather chair at his desk. Sitting down in this ultra-masculine seat and regarding the room in front of her somehow made her feel more in control.
So, too, did the brandy.
Marriage. Most girls did it. Some even had to do it, and so what if she was joining their ranks? Surely worse things happened at sea.
Several long minutes of mentally debating this question had passed when she became aware of a knocking at the front door. She listened intently for a moment and it came again, louder this time and more insistent. Standing, heart racing, she crossed the room to peek from the window. It was well after midnight and the sky was pitch-black, so dark that the stars shone against it in sharp relief. Kate could see a carriage in the drive, a very elegant gilt-trimmed one at that, and she could just make out the shadowy figure of a man at the door. It was too dark to see his face or any details of his form.
Another knock. "Robert, you're a bastard if you don't let me in...I know you're in there—your light's on...I need to borrow a bed for the evening." Knock, knock.
Kate made up her mind then and there. Her nervousness was ridiculous. She should really go rouse Robert's butler, as it wasn't entirely proper for her to open the door so late at night, particularly whilst wearing her dressing gown. But the butler would have gone to bed hours ago, and her dressing gown was so demure it was nunnish; her everyday dresses were more revealing, and that didn't say much considering she was determinedly unfashionable. Besides, the man on the other side of the door was clearly just some friend of her brother's, in search of nothing more than a place to rest his probably inebriated head for the rest of the night. Who but a friend would speak about him so disparagingly?
Still slightly uneasy, but convinced that she was being ridiculous, Kate walked into the hall. She squared her shoulders, pulled her thick dressing gown tightly around her body and opened the door.
Lord Benjamin Sinclair, eldest son of Viscount Sinclair, was nine-and-twenty, wealthy and handsome enough to make most women temporarily mute the first time they laid eyes on him. It was a rather odd experience, then, to have the tables turned: for a moment, it was he who forgot how to speak.
Hand upraised to pound on Robert's godforsaken door one last time, he merely stared at the vision before him—one of the most stunning girls he'd ever seen. She was quite tall, reaching just past his shoulders, but despite her height she appeared almost delicate—slim frame, fair skin and full, slightly parted lips. Her eyes were indigo, and so surprised...crowning all this was glorious hair, cascading around her shoulders. Maybe it was merely brown in the light of day, but by candlelight her hair was the richest auburn, highlighted with strands of red and gold.
All this he digested slowly, indicating his interest through nothing more than a slightly raised eyebrow.
Kate stared back. Shouldn't she be the one speaking? Right now she wasn't sure she knew what to say. The dark shadow she had seen from the window had done no justice to the man standing in front of her— tall, broad-shouldered...light brown hair streaked with gold, sun-burnished skin over chiseled jaw, accented by a snowy cravat and velvet coat...she realized she was gaping and closed her mouth. Speak, you ninny, speak.
"Hello." Well, that was pathetic, she thought scornfully. Pull yourself together. "Are you a friend of Robert's?"
Ben grinned, not missing a second of her reaction and frankly pleased that he had this effect on women. Who was this girl answering his friend's door so late at night? Robert was engaged to be married and Ben had yet to meet his bride-to-be...he supposed this girl could be she, but it seemed unlikely. The wedding was still a few months off, and the bride-to-be would hardly be spending the night. It was also improbable that Robert would keep a mistress in his own home, if indeed he'd keep one at all given his upcoming nuptials. This girl's innocent blush and cultured voice refuted such a possibility, anyway. Ben always liked a mystery, however, and as she didn't appear ready to speak, he stepped through the door, brushing past her lightly on his way in.
"Are you?" he countered with seeming nonchalance, although his amber eyes were piercing as he turned to face her.
"Friend or foe. You must be one or the other." Kate's head began to clear as she realized that her own question had been turned around on her. "I suppose I'm a friend—when I'm not an enemy, that is. I'm Robert's sister. And you are...?"
Understanding slowly clicked in Ben's mind. "Friend. Benjamin Sinclair. Sorry to disturb you so late." He let his gaze wander over her body, not really sorry at all. When she blushed, he continued. "You see, I've been at sea for the past several months...arrived only this evening. I didn't want to spend another night aboard ship, and was going to go rouse my housekeeper...but then I saw the light on at ol' Robert's...has he retired for the evening?"
The man's familiar name should have put Kate at ease. Benjamin Sinclair was one of Robert's best friends, and she had actually met him many years ago when her brother had brought him home from school. Now that she knew his name, in fact, she couldn't believe that she hadn't recognized him right away....
Oh, no. She was suddenly and distinctly ill at ease— was, in fact, ready to groan aloud as she recalled the one and only time she'd met Benjamin Sinclair. She'd been eleven and she'd dumped a glass of water on his head for teasing her. He'd disparaged her looks, an easy enough feat when she was a scrawny girl. He was so handsome, and she'd been so ugly then, so clumsy and unfeminine...she'd quite hated him for it. Thank goodness he didn't seem to remember her.
Benjamin Sinclair was a scoundrel; his name was the stuff of legend. Stories of his misconduct had even made it as far as Little Brookings, and instead of relaxing, Kate was immediately on her guard. Perhaps it was the strange color of his eyes, neither a simple brown nor gold, but the way he looked at her made her exceedingly uncomfortable...uncomfortable and something else. A less familiar but equally disturbing sensation. She became suddenly and painfully aware of her inappropriate dress, her loose hair and her slippered feet peeking out from beneath her robe.
"He is asleep. I'm sorry. But please come in. I'll wake Mr. Perch and he can prepare a room for you. Do you have any baggage?"
"Nothing that can't remain in my carriage for the night. My driver can fetch it in the morning." He motioned to his driver from the doorway and then closed the door behind him. "And please don't bother about Perch. I'll settle myself in somewhere. I usually take the green room..." At her blush, he grinned again, "...or is that where you sleep...Katherine?"
She blinked in surprise. "I haven't given you leave to use my Christian name...I haven't even told you my name. How do you know it, sir?"
"We've met before. I'm wounded that you don't remember."
"I do remember. I'd rather hoped you didn't." Kate practically squeaked this admission, thinking about how annoyed he'd been by the water...goodness, he'd even threatened retribution!
She had to ask. She just couldn't help herself. "You don't still plan to thrash me, do you?"
He looked utterly bewildered by her cheekiness. "Surely I didn't say that."
"You surely did," Kate retorted.
"Then, yes, I suppose I must keep my word," he rejoined, his lopsided smile belying his words.
Kate felt her face go up in flames and could have kicked herself for being so cheeky. Why could she never behave like the proper young lady she was? She was certainly no match for Robert's rakish friend, and he seemed to know it. He didn't bother to wait for her to respond, guessing—correctly—that she was speechless. Instead, he turned and entered the study. She heard the sound of a drawer being opened and the thud of a glass being placed on the table. He was pouring himself a drink.
What bloody nerve.
Kate closed her eyes and counted to ten. "So, why are you up so late, Miss Sutcliff?" he called from within, forcing her to follow him to the study in order to answer his question. She didn't fully enter the room, however, not wanting to commit to any more of his banter. She merely hovered by the door, mouth open, ready to tell him that she had only come down for a book and was now returning to bed.
But before she could formulate these words, he noted the half-empty glass of brandy perched on the desk. He raised an eyebrow. "Been drinking by yourself, have you?"
She cringed. "I was having trouble sleeping."
"It's a rather unhealthy habit, you know. Care for some company?"
Kate didn't want his company, but he refilled her glass to match his, not giving her an opportunity to decline his invitation. He settled into the capacious leather chair—the one she'd occupied before his arrival—and nodded at the smaller chair across from it, indicating that she should sit as well.
She still hesitated in the doorway, sensing that the situation was beginning to get out of hand. "I really should go to bed. I have a lot to do tomorrow, but thank you...."
Even as she turned down his offer, he rose from his chair, walked to the doorway where she stood and lightly grabbed her by the hand, placing her glass of brandy in it. His touch was hot, and his unsettling eyes never left her face—"no," apparently, was not an acceptable answer. He returned to his seat, and Kate had no choice but to sit down as well. She gulped, her nervousness threatening to overwhelm her. He gazed at her with a mixture of amusement and curiosity, and she raised her chin in annoyed defiance. Damn him. She didn't know why he was forcing her to stay. She didn't really know him, didn't know what to say to him...the last thing she wanted to do was have a drink with this strange man in the middle of the night, and she suspected he knew it.