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"Kathryn, my sweet dove, you're the only woman for me. Say that you'll be my wife, I beg of you!'Lord Ravensmede plucked her svelte figure into his arms and placed an ardent kiss of love upon her perfect pouting lips. His glossy dark hair mixed with the rich red-brown ringlets dancing temptingly at the sides of her beautiful face. He moved back to stare into her eyes, eyes that were of a serene silver coloration and not at all a bland grey. "I love you, Kathryn Marchant!'he declared with passion and kissed her again, mindful not to spoil the arrangement of her new and highly fashionable lemon silk dress.
"Kathryn, Kathryn! Stop wool-gathering and attend to me at once! Are you deaf that you cannot hear me calling you?" Lottie stared at her cousin with narrowed eyes. "For heaven's sake,'she whispered loudly, "you're here to assist me, not gawk around like an imbecile.'Her voice resumed its normal tone and with one white and perfectly manicured hand she gestured vaguely in the direction of the floor. "The hem of my dress has caught on the buckle of Miss Dawson's slipper. Disengage it before any damage is done."
As Kathryn stooped to free the offending article, which proved to be more difficult than anticipated, she listened to Lottie's conversation. Dear Lord, she thought. The pair of them are as vainly empty-headed as ever! Then had the grace to blush when she remembered the content of her own sweet daydream.
"Jane, I declare they're both prodigiously handsome. I couldn't pick which man is the better of the two."
"Well, they're rakes, both of them. My mama has warned me to stay clear of their sort."
"Tush, Jane, you're such a ninnyhammer at times. They may be rakes, but they're titled and wealthy to boot...and so devilishly good looking. Would your mama say no to you landing a lord?"
"They're looking over here, Lottie." 'No!" 'Yes, indeed, it's true." 'Look away, quickly! Don't let them see that we've noticed them."
Not only did Miss Dawson avert her head but, in a moment of preoccupation, which can only be supposed to have resulted from her excitement over the gentlemen in question, she also stepped back.
Kathryn gasped as Miss Dawson's large foot inadvertently trod on her fingers. The good that resulted from this was that Lottie's dress was freed in an instant. The bad, aside from Kathryn's bruised digits, was that a small tear appeared in the hem.
"Dear Lord, I don't believe it! My dress is ruined. This is the first time I've worn it and, thanks to Kathryn, it's ruined. I may as well go home this instant." Tears pricked at Lottie's blue eyes, rendering them brighter and bluer, if that were at all possible. The tiniest flush of pink crept into her cheeks, completing, in Kathryn's mind at least, the perfection of her beauty.
"No, dear Lottie. It's scarcely noticeable. A small stitch will soon have that remedied," Miss Dawson soothed her friend.
Lottie's pale eyebrows arched in irritation as she peered down at Kathryn, who was trying her best to conceal the damage. "You did that on purpose, just to ruin my evening!"
Then she turned to Miss Dawson once more. "Kathryn's such a spiteful cat. You'd think she'd be grateful, wouldn't you? Saved from destitution by the kindness of my family."
Miss Dawson's eyes opened wider. She tried to speak. "Lottie—"
But Lottie was in full rant as she warmed to one of her favourite subjects. "And what does she give in return? Humble gratitude? Most certainly not."
Miss Dawson tried again. "Lott—" 'If you would be so kind as to let me finish, Jane. As I was saying, all she gives is jealousy and stupidity!"
"Indeed, life can be so tedious sometimes, Miss Marchant, don't you think?"
The deep masculine drawl caused Lottie to jump. She turned startled eyes in the direction from which it had sounded. Her expression of spiteful fury transformed instantly to one of demure innocence. "Lord Ravensmede," she uttered faintly. And looking beyond the breadth of his shoulder, "Lord Cad-mount." Belatedly, and with a countenance that had stained ruddy, she made her devoirs.
Kathryn looked up from her knees and saw Lord Ravens-mede so very far above her. Not like this. Please, don't let him see me like this! She swallowed her embarrassment and rose swiftly to her feet, allowing the two quizzical glances to wash over her. The thumping of her heart was so loud that she feared the whole ballroom would hear it. On either side of her were the taller forms of Miss Dawson and Cousin Lottie in all their finery. And not three feet in front stood the subject of her daydreams—the Viscount of Ravensmede. This time there was no lemon silk dress for Kathryn, no pretty dancing ringlets. The reality of their meeting stood in stark contrast to her dream. Still, she mustered a stiff little smile.
Ravensmede's gaze did not linger, returning instead to Lottie, who was frantically fanning herself to remove the scalded heat from her cheeks. She batted her eyelashes, looked coy, and did not offer to introduce her cousin. Neither did his lordship request an introduction. Indeed, he had looked at her, in Kathryn's own view, as if she were no more than a crumb upon the floor.
Attraction retreated. Indignation rallied. Anger advanced. Quite clearly Lord Ravensmede's handsome looks were not matched by a handsome temperament. Why, he was possibly one of the rudest men Kathryn had ever met. And then it dawned on her exactly why Lottie had made no introduction. Lord Ravensmede thought her a servant, and Lottie, dear Cousin Lottie, wanted it to appear so to excuse the chastisement he had interrupted. Two fiery patches erupted on Kathryn's cheeks. She might be an orphan, and poor. She might live under the name of companion and work as a servant. But through all her shabby misery she still had her good name, and that knowledge lent her courage. Might well they talk of a breach of manners! She set a stubborn tilt to her jaw and in a frosty tone uttered their given names. "Lottie, Jane, gentlemen—"she eyed Lord Ravensmede with special dislike '—please do excuse me." She saw the arrogant arch of his eyebrow. With a degree of satisfaction and her head held high, she turned on her heel and walked away.
Ravensmede noticed her then, the small sparrow of a girl with her ancient grey gown and her ruffled dignity. The look that she shot him from those stunning silver eyes was not one the Viscount was used to seeing in women: disapproval, dislike and disappointment all wrapped up into one. A spark of interest ignited. Ravensmede followed the retreat of the girl's straight back until she disappeared into the crowd. Even then, he continued to trace her steady progress weaving through the crush of guests until he heard Cadmount say with the glimmer of a laugh, "One just can't get the staff these days."
He watched while Miss Dawson creased with embarrassment and glanced nervously at Miss Marchant, whose bland prettiness seemed only mildly perturbed. Neither replied. Ravensmede tucked the matter away for later consideration and idled away a little more of his time before announcing, "Ladies, please excuse me. I have a rather pressing engagement." Then he headed off on the real purpose behind his attendance at so dull an affair as Lady Finlay's ball.
Kathryn had almost made it out of the ballroom when she was halted by a woman's haughty voice.
"Just where do you think you're going?" Aunt Anna loomed behind her, reticule in hand, resplendent in a cream-and-rose creation.
"The ladies' retiring room." Kathryn forced a politeness to the words that she did not feel. It was the only way of dealing with Aunt Anna. Every other means only worsened the situation. That she was reliant on her aunt and uncle's charity for the roof over her head and the food in her belly was something that she never forgot. Neither, for that matter, did they.
"You've left Lottie alone?" The question was in her aunt's usual imperious tone. Kathryn could have sworn that it was edged with accusation.
"No. She's with Miss Dawson." Kathryn looked at her tall well-dressed relative and waited. She omitted to mention the conditions under which she had abandoned the younger women. No doubt Aunt Anna would find out soon enough.
Mrs Marchant frowned, as was her habit when addressing her niece, and averted her gaze. "Then you had best be quick about your business. You're here as Lottie's companion, try to remember that. My patience wears thin with reminding you."
Still Kathryn stood, betraying nothing, her face a mask of polite indifference.
"Well, what are you waiting for? Get on with it." Mrs Marchant waved her hand in a dismissive gesture.
Kathryn turned and walked away.
She sighed and rubbed at her brow to ease the knot of tension. In truth Kathryn had no need to visit the retiring room; it was merely an excuse to avoid the loathsome Lottie. No matter the cost, Kathryn knew that she needed some little time away from the spoiled spite of her cousin and the arrogant disregard of Lord Ravensmede. She'd already done quite enough damage on the Lottie front, the repercussions of which would no doubt be reaped in the very near future. And as for Lord Ravensmede...
Walking as briskly as she could, she passed unnoticed through the throng of hot, perfumed bodies and escaped into the hall. Quite where she was going she did not know—anywhere would do as long as it gave her the respite she sought. Just five minutes to cool the splurge of temper that had risen too readily. Over the past three years she had learned to school such reactions, to bear all with a stoic countenance. It was better, after all, to show nothing. And now, despite all of that practice, she had almost lost her temper.
Five minutes. It surely wasn't too much to ask. Five paltry minutes, and then she'd turn her feet around and return to face it all once more, as if she had never been away. No one need notice. Indeed, no one ever did notice plain Kathryn Marchant, which is why Aunt Anna and Uncle Henry had agreed to have her to live with them after her papa's death. She was the perfect backdrop against which to exhibit their own sweet Lottie, and, of course, it saved on the expense of employing another servant. It was something that Kathryn had firmly resolved not to dwell upon, as such thoughts could do nothing except produce a bitterness that was unworthy of all that her dear departed mama and papa had instilled in her.
The hallway had become a corridor, which continued through a set of doors towards the rear of Lady Finlay's large mansion house. Not another soul was to be seen. Evidently Lady Finlay had the servants engaged elsewhere and no other guest would be so rude or so bold as to wander so freely. The corridor became a gallery and Kathryn paused to examine the paintings that lined the walls. Faces, some faintly reminiscent of the elderly Lord Finlay, peered down at her. Just as she was examining a lofty-looking young man's features, footsteps sounded in the distance.
Lord above, she could not be found here! Why, just imagine Aunt Anna's reaction to the news that her niece had taken it upon herself to inspect her ladyship's family portraits. Glancing around in panic, she spied a single door at the end of the gallery, just at the point where the corridor turned and led away to the right. The footsteps grew louder.
Kathryn did not wait to hear any more. Within the blink of an eye she ran towards the door, and, finding it to be unlocked, whipped into the room beyond. Just in time, for the footsteps, large and plodding, passed her hiding place and continued off into the distance. She heaved a sigh of relief and turned to look at the place in which she now stood.
It appeared to be a large room with a few items of dustsheet-covered furniture clustered around its periphery. There were no candles burning and no fire within the blackened grate. Yet the centre of the room was bathed in a silver light that flooded in through a pair of glass doors. The magical illumination drew Kathryn like a moth. Lottie and Aunt Anna were no more. All else was forgotten as the moonlight lulled her under its spell. Through the panes of glass she could see the deep darkness of the night sky studded with the glitter of distant stars. But the moon itself was what held her attention—huge and white, a glowing orb amidst the darkness. Kathryn stared with increasing fascination. Such a feeling of peace. Within the silent silver room anger ebbed, indignation crumbled.
There had been nothing unusual in Lottie's behaviour; Kathryn had long since grown used to her cousin's high-handed ways. What was it, then, that had instigated her outburst? The question perhaps should have been who rather than what. And the answer, to Kathryn's chagrin, was patently obvious: Lord Ravensmede.
It was one thing to escape the reality of her life by daydreaming, but quite another when those dreams involved a particular nobleman. Unfortunately, she had been thus affected since first seeing the arrogant man across the floor at Almack's Assembly Rooms a month ago. It was just an imagining, a game that she played inside her head, nothing more. Harmless, or at least it had been until now. But she had reckoned without this evening. She knew that no man of quality would look twice at such a plain penniless creature as herself. Witnessing the obvious disdain in which Lord Ravensmede held her was humiliating, as if the cloth had been torn from the mirror and she had been forced to stand exposed before it. Kathryn's life did not make for a pretty picture.
She thought of the past eight years, of the deaths of her parents and her sister. Nothing ofAuntAnna's dislike or Lottie's tantrums could compare with the pain that those losses had wrought. At first she had thought it intolerable, but as the weeks became months, and the months, years, Kathryn had learned to live with the ache buried deep in her heart. She could take whatever Aunt Anna wished to throw at her. Wasn't that what daydreams were for? To make life bearable? To make one impervious to hurt? Lord Ravensmede could not be allowed to change that. His behaviour was an abomination of all that was gentlemanly. He was as arrogant a scoundrel as his reputation told. For certain his place in her dreams was now forfeit. She would not think of him again. Most definitely not. And all the while the cool silver light stroked her with its comforting caress.
Kathryn could never be sure of what it was that made her suddenly draw back into the darkness of the shadows, but barely had she done so when the door creaked open and a large figure slipped inside. The door closed with a quiet click.