Color of Deception by Ruth J. Hartman

1818

Lambeth, England — three weeks earlier

The frog-like man staring at her acted like he’d delight in inviting her as his special guest for dinner. Thank goodness Kitty wasn’t a fly.
Color of Deception
Color of Deception by Ruth J. Hartman
“How may I be of assistance today, Miss Sullyard?” Worsley Butler grinned, his mouth stretching wide across his ghastly face. Uneven teeth poked out from between his lips, resembling fallen logs in a felled forest. His skin, pock-marked from some childhood illness, bunched at the corners of his mouth in unattractive pouches. “I require some sky blue and butter yellow today, please.” Lately her visits to the colorman’s shop had become frequent since her cousin insisted she and her sisters sell more paintings. Worsley watched her intently. Even with a deep work counter between them, he was entirely too close for Kitty’s liking. “Certainly, my dear.” His eyelids closed and then opened over bulging dark eyes, but he neither turned away nor made any kind of movement to indicate he would execute the task. Kitty drummed her fingers on the counter, the sound like the pelting of rain against a window. Nothing happened. She tapped her boot on the wooden floor loud enough for her great-aunt, who had fallen asleep on a bench near the front window, to hear. Still, he didn’t budge. Dreadful man. Why did he always do that? Clearing her throat, she lowered her eyebrows at Worsley, glaring at him even though she was loath to maintain eye contact, as if she might catch some terrible disease simply by sight. He snapped out of a sort of trance and, with a dreamy expression followed by a sigh and finally turned away, waddling to the small room where he mixed the colors for her paints. She let out a breath and slumped against the counter. How she hated going there. There were other colormen in Lambeth, but blast it all, he was the best. She wasn’t quite sure how he achieved it, but his colors were truer to nature’s hues than anyone else’s. Perhaps he was blessed with that gift because he himself was so hideous to behold. Why couldn’t his work be as unappealing as his appearance? Then she wouldn’t have any qualms about going elsewhere. Business being what it was, however, she needed the very best colors to paint her toy panoramas. If her cousin Robert’s foul mood that morning was any indication, their family’s finances were stretched very thin. And getting worse by the moment. She peeked over her shoulder at the window. Tiny beams of sunlight streamed through the shop glass, glinting off the metal hinges of a large wooden chest that sat just to the right of the front door. The rain had stopped, at least for a while. Perhaps she’d be able to sell some of her panoramas at the Pantheon Bazaar later that day. If she had her way, she’d sell more than she currently was. All it would take was for her to stand in the main aisle of the bazaar with her work. As it was now, she stood off to the side out of the way. If someone happened to glance over and see her tiny paintings, all to the good. Everything in her longed to stand closer to the entrance and entreat people to see what she had for sale. Alas, Robert forbade it. She knew he wouldn’t mind her doing it in theory, but had no wish for one of his cousins to be made a spectacle. Kitty found his rules confusing. If their finances were so dire, wasn’t earning money more important than what others might think of them? With nothing but a slightly raised voice and a pleasant countenance, Kitty was convinced she could catch people’s attention. Surely that couldn’t hurt in attracting more buyers. Especially men, who made no qualms about regaling her with compliments of her beauty. She wasn’t above adding a wiggle to her step, either, in those cases. Anything to help put food on her family’s table. Well… maybe not anything. Rules and propriety demanded that she act like a respectable woman, not speaking unless spoken to, not finding enjoyment in attracting the attentions of men. Something in her, though, something deep down lured her into behavior that would be deemed by most as unseemly. Kitty found it all a game, of sorts. Flirt with men and then back away. She’d certainly earned the term of tease. But that had never bothered her. The door squeaked open, startling Kitty from her musings. A cool breeze preceded someone who entered the shop. The sound of footsteps approached from behind. Clothing rustled as whoever it was now stood to her left. Kitty glanced down at the large, gloved hands that settled on the counter close to hers. Not old cracked gloves like Robert wore. These were expensive, dark, and unblemished. Curious about who wore them, Kitty looked at the man’s face. Her heart lurched. She took a quick peek at her great-aunt who was sitting on a bench in the corner, but the old woman was still dozing. That wasn’t uncommon. Kitty was convinced her great-aunt had been a feline in a former life, always napping wherever she happened to sit. Especially if she found a spot in the sun. From the corner of her eye, Kitty took in the man again. He was tall, with broad shoulders beneath a black coat, light hair with a slight curl at the ends, and piercing blue eyes that were at the moment fixed directly on her. “Good day.” His voice was the verbal equivalent of warm honey on a scone. Heavens above. He’d actually spoken to her. They’d not been introduced. She had no problem with that, but most men followed the rules better than she. Except rakes. She’d always had a special fondness for those. To a point. As long as they flirted but didn’t push her too far. She knew she played a dangerous game with men, but she couldn’t seem to help herself. They were there. She was there. Why not have a little innocent fun before she settled down to marry someone who wasn’t a rake. She had a plan. When the right man came along, someone who was respectable, decent, and caring, she’d know it. Rakes were only for now. While she was young and could have some enjoyment. Kitty compared his mode of dress to hers. From that standpoint, they were worlds apart in status. She wasn’t used to interacting much with men of the gentry, except when she was trying to sell her panoramas. What should she do? Her normal bravado was easy to assume with men of her own station. But this gentleman? Kitty’s knees quivered. Suddenly, whatever greeting she would normally give someone flew out the door and was taken away by the strong current of the wind. Where was her boldness? Her throw-caution-to-the-wind mentality? “I, um… mmm…” She shook her head back and forth like a window shudder flapping in a strong breeze, trying to hopefully loosen some coherent thoughts into her mind. Why couldn’t she say something intelligent? When had she ever been at a loss for words? “You… don’t think it’s a good day? Perhaps all the people I met on the street who wished me thus were mistaken.” A dimple appeared in one cheek as he gave her a one-sided grin. Kitty blinked. “It’s… well…” What’s wrong with me? I’m unable to utter anything that isn’t nonsensical. He angled his chin slightly to the side. Just enough that his eyes reflected a gleam of light from the window. The man’s eyes actually sparkled like he was a genie who could grant her deepest wish. Kitty reached out her hand toward him, then lowered it without ever making contact with his sleeve. “I’d like to… that is… er…” Heat flooded her face. What am I doing? It was as if she’d suddenly forgotten the fine art of flirtation. He raised one perfectly arched eyebrow before glancing the other direction. Did he think her daft? Mad? Someone he should avoid? She half expected him to step away. Kitty had never laid eyes on him before, had never seen anyone who was or ever could be as handsome. Would he be a kind gentleman or a rake? “Pardon me, sir.” “Yes?” “I’m not usually so…” She flipped her hand back and forth like a fish flopping on a dry river bank. “So…” He watched the motion, unblinking. Was he mesmerized? She lowered her hand to the counter, nervously tapping her fingers on the hard surface. “That is, on a normal day, I speak much more coherently.” “I wasn’t aware today was abnormal.” One side of his mouth rose again. Amused, was he? Well, hadn’t she given him cause? She had sounded imbecilic. If some stranger had acted of unsound mind while speaking to her, she might have tried to run away. Usually she was scolded by her family for being too outspoken. Always speaking her mind. But not this time. Not with him. Her throat felt constricted like a winter scarf had been tied too snugly. Without doing so consciously, Kitty leaned toward him. A scent of cologne drifted to her. She inhaled and then sighed. He blinked and tilted his head. “You’re quite lovely, you know.” “Oh.” She took a step back. “Th-thank you.” What am I doing? Standing too close and sniffing someone of the gentry, acting like a bloodhound. Panic crept up, surrounding her. What if someone saw what I’ve done? Word would get back to Robert and— “Miss Sullyard?” Worsley now stood on the other side of the counter. Kitty gasped, heart hammering at being caught, and glanced at him. “Um, yes?” Worsley was glaring now at the stranger. “Good day, Mr. Bexley.” Now she at least knew his name. Mr. Bexley eyed Worsley. “I need to purchase some colors for my mother. The same kind as before.” “Of course. However, you’ll have to wait, as I am still working on an order for Miss Sullyard.” “I don’t mind waiting.” His mouth formed a wide grin as he glanced at Kitty, his gaze roving from her face to the neckline of her dress and back. “Not in the least.” “Humph.” Worsley frowned, pivoted and returned to the other room. Kitty’s skin was so hot where Mr. Bexley had looked at her, it nearly steamed. Yes, definitely a rake. The front door opened again, and two women entered. Kitty eyed the small distance between her and Mr. Bexley. With haste, she took a step away. She’d been so enamored and gawking at him that she’d not even noticed they were entirely alone in the room. Except for her slumbering relative. And the interruption by Worsley. But frogs didn’t count. Kitty, what are you doing? Yet there was something about Mr. Bexley that was almost… intoxicating in the same way she’d felt last Christmas when Robert had allowed her a small drink of his port. As if she could only tear her attention away from Mr. Bexley with difficulty. Didn’t want to stand too far away from him in case she’d miss something wonderful he said or did. It made no sense, but her body nearly ached to be near the man. Something down deep in her belly stirred, an entirely new sensation. What was it? Had she gone mad from working with paint fumes all these years? Was her brain now hopelessly addled? She was an admitted flirt and allowed men kisses and embraces, but Kitty didn’t have experience with men beyond that point. Men only assumed she did. When they got too amorous, she was quick to make herself scarce, lest she get into real trouble. The two women who had entered, members of the beau monde if the stylish, expensive appearance of clothing was any indication, glared at Kitty. She was used to that. Being a part of the artists’ working class, the upper classes had nothing but disdain for her and her family, but that didn’t stop some of them from purchasing the toy panoramas the Sullyards painted. Thank goodness. But what about Mr. Bexley? His manner of dress suggested wealth. The way he was eyeing her, however, appeared to be with anything but disdain. Shivers ran through her, ending at her toes. This one would definitely be trouble. A shuffle and then boot stomps preceded Worsley back to the counter. He held out a package toward her. “Your colors, Miss Sullyard.” Kitty reached for them and set the usual payment on the counter, barely giving Worsley a glance. “Thank you.” She focused on Mr. Bexley again. Chances were she’d never see him again. And why would she? They were from two different worlds. But the unexpected encounter certainly had made going to Worsley’s shop a more enjoyable diversion. After giving a nod to Mr. Bexley, Kitty hurried across the shop to wake her great-aunt. As they left the store and stepped onto the street, Kitty glanced back. Mr. Bexley was watching her through the window. Chapter Two Nathaniel Bexley sat back and stretched his arms over his head. His wooden desk chair squeaked in protest. He loved working for the Sporting Magazine, but sitting for hours at his work table was sometimes even more exhausting than a strenuous walk in his uncle’s vast woods. But then, having a lame foot did make walking more of a challenge. Even in light of that, a stroll right at that moment sounded wonderful. Birds chirping. A soft breeze tugging at his coattails. Too bad he couldn’t drag his work area outside and at least get some fresh air while he labored. While a good portion of his duties took place inside, there were times when he was required to scout out possible ideas for future stories. Since it was a men’s sporting magazine, those almost always took place out-of-doors. With the warmer weather approaching, his uncle would soon have need of Nathaniel to do just that. It was fine by him. More than fine. Not only did he enjoy being outside, it also gave him a respite from his obnoxious— “Taking a break, are we?” Nathaniel jumped and swiveled in his chair. His cousin, Stratford, strutted into the room. Yes, strutted, because there was no other word for his lifted chin and puffed out chest. As if the entire world should stop and take notice of him simply because he drew breath. Simply because he was. While Nathaniel resembled his cousin in appearance and coloring, he’d never walked around like a peacock showing off its colors. For one reason, peacocks didn’t limp. Plus, he was more the type to stand in the background, watching others do things he wished he was brave enough to do and hoping he wouldn’t make a fool of himself in any way as he kept his vigil in the corner. The resemblance between the cousins was close enough that people who didn’t know them well might confuse them unless they stood together. Nathaniel was one inch shorter, skin a shade paler, and had not the bulk in his shoulders. Always slightly lacking, it seemed. “A well deserved break, if you must know.” Nathaniel eyed the case clock in the corner, which struck ten. He’d been toiling away for hours already. “By the way, where have you been, Stratford? I’ve been here doing the work of two while you’ve been elsewhere.” “Getting a little cheeky with your betters, aren’t you?” Stratford raised one eyebrow, eyeing Nathaniel like he was an insect he wished to squash. Nathaniel clenched his jaws together. While it was true that Stratford was higher up in the company than he, it wasn’t that much higher. The fact that Stratford’s mother came from money made Stratford point out, and often, that Nathaniel wasn’t his equal. And never would be. Since Nathaniel lived with his aunt and uncle, he didn’t have the luxury of avoiding Stratford. Perhaps the fact that his wayward cousin was often absent from work was a sort of blessing. At least then Nathaniel got some relief from his constant prattling on. Stratford smirked. “If you must know, I’ve just come from the colorman’s shop on an errand for Mother.” Well that explained some of it. Aunt Hortense could be quite demanding. But his cousin’s expression was puzzling, as if he were a cat who’d found a vat of fresh cream hidden in the kitchen and didn’t have to share with his fellow felines. Why would doing his mother’s bidding amount to all of that? Usually Stratford whined like a small boy when he had to do anything for someone else. “And while I was there—” Stratford removed his coat and hat, hanging them carefully on wall hooks nearby. “—I met the most luscious young woman.” Ah… Now it made sense. Because there was never a time when Stratford did anything for anyone out of kindness. If he didn’t gain something of what he deemed to be of value from it, he’d complain incessantly about the toll the task had taken on him. Nathaniel restrained himself from the eye roll that threatened. “How nice for you.” “Yes, it was. More than nice. I very nearly lifted her skirts right on the spot.” He tugged at his cravat. Did he find the room too hot? “The woman, a red-haired vixen, had alluring green eyes and was quite tall for a female. The top of her head came to my chin. For a little while she and I were quite alone, if you didn’t count the old woman asleep on a bench. I might have had opportunity to do more with the young woman than talk had the annoying little man who works there not happened to interrupt.” Surely a person wouldn’t actually do more than talk in a public place. Nathaniel eyed his cousin. Although if anyone dared, he would. It was always the same. Stratford set eyes on yet another beautiful woman, made promises of wedded bliss, seduced her, bedded her, and tossed her aside like smelly refuse. Then went on the hunt for his next conquest. Poor women. Nathaniel wondered from time to time if any of those unfortunate females ended up with child. He glanced at his cousin again, highly doubtful he ever gave it a thought. Once he’d had his fun, he appeared to care not what happened to his conquests. But even if they didn’t end up with child, what would their lives be like? If they weren’t already a light-skirt, if for some reason the woman was from a good family, then she would be ruined for anything resembling a good life with a husband after that. It was all so selfish on Stratford’s part. His cousin was nothing if not self-absorbed. Stratford sat down in his chair across the large room. He smirked as if he’d already gotten away with something and couldn’t wait to share the details. “If I could only get my hands on that delectable body…” His fingers clenched and unclenched, acting out grabbing onto said woman’s flesh. Nathaniel did roll his eyes that time. It couldn’t be helped. It was always the same with Stratford. There would be more work accomplished in the office if his cousin didn’t speak so often of this woman or that. And discuss doing despicable things to whoever the unlucky woman at present happened to be. Nathaniel thought of his cousin, Annabelle. Didn’t Stratford ever stop to think about his own sister’s possible plight when he took advantage of those women? How a disreputable man could do the same to Annabelle some day? No, probably not. That would involve scruples, of which Stratford had no possession. As for Stratford’s younger brother, Walter, how was he to become anything other than a rake while watching Stratford his whole life and trying to emulate him? The young man believed Stratford was the sun, moon, and a lemon tart all rolled into one. Nathaniel tapped his fingers on his knee. Although… a small part of him did often wonder a bit about what it would be like to be with a woman, to do more than kiss her. To touch her and… Enough of that. Those thoughts will only get you into trouble. Still, he’d yet to meet a woman who stirred more than a desire for kisses. It was one thing to suffer through his cousin’s version of making love to a woman. But somehow with the ladies Nathaniel had kissed, he couldn’t imagine wanting to do more with them. Was there something wrong with him? “You should have seen her, Nathaniel. Full plump lips with just a touch of red to entice me to want to rub my tongue across them. Hips broad enough to grab onto as I have my fun with her. Breasts large enough to—” “Please.” Nathaniel held up his hand. “Spare me the details.” “You’re certainly out of sorts.” Stratford narrowed his eyes as he scrutinized Nathaniel. “Perhaps if you bedded a woman or two you’d have a better outlook on life. Might loosen you up a bit. You’d certainly be more fun to be around.” He shook his head slowly. “Being skin to skin with a soft female, inhaling her scent, tasting her lips… There’s nothing like it. Everything all hot and moist…” Heat crawled up Nathaniel’s face. Many other young men of his acquaintance chose to bed several women before the benefit of marriage, but he wasn’t one of them. “That’s none of your affair, cousin.” Stratford snickered at the word affair. “I could be of assistance, you know. Give you some advice. Point you in the direction of women with loose morals.” He grinned. “Introduce you to my favorites, the ones who will do absolutely anything a man desires. Tell you the best way to go about—” “No. Thank you.” The notion of doing anything with a woman who would lift her skirts for just anyone nearly made him queasy. With a one-shouldered shrug, Stratford said, “As you wish. Only trying to help a fellow out. We are family, after all.” That kind of help, Nathaniel didn’t need. The idea of being with a light-skirt was distressing enough. But imagining it with someone that Stratford had already— No. Don’t think about it. Nathaniel forced his attention back to his work. But he couldn’t stop the images from crashing through his mind. Of women. Beautiful, desirable women. Given the chance, would he even know what to do? Not that he would accept Stratford’s advice. Ever. If it were the right woman for Nathaniel, surely he’d know instinctively how to proceed. Loud footsteps came from the hall. Nathaniel would recognize his uncle’s lumbering gait anywhere. He turned, ready to receive the weekly scolding Uncle Gilbert gave both of them for not getting their work done. Funny how when he berated them, he always addressed Nathaniel not by name but by staring at him. Although Stratford was the one who neglected his work. Uncle Gilbert entered through the open door and slumped down in the nearest empty chair. Severely overweight, the poor man always appeared to be exhausted even if he’d only walked a few yards. Nathaniel often wondered how long the man would live. Surely his heart was on borrowed time. Stratford, still not doing anything productive, set his quill on the blotter and angled his chair around. Stratford’s expression was sincere, and his hands were placed politely on his lap. Ever the dutiful, hardworking son. Nathaniel nearly lost his breakfast. “Gentlemen,” wheezed Uncle Gilbert between breaths, “the magazine is floundering. Floundering, I tell you.” The fact that he said the exact same words weekly and the magazine continued to thrive didn’t seem to make any difference. Perhaps it made him feel that he was doing something of importance to belittle them. Uncle Gilbert pounded his fist on his knee for emphasis, then scowled down at his lap as if someone other than himself had just inflicted discomfort. “We must, must come up with some new ideas for growth. Scour the city if necessary, but we desperately need different incentives for gaining additional readership.” Again, Nathaniel could nearly say the recitation word for word in his head along with his uncle. Did the man not remember that he’d said the same words seven days ago? And every week before that? Or did he just not care? Uncle Gilbert didn’t have to work, of course. But spending time at his magazine office seemed to calm him somewhat. Perhaps being with Aunt Hortense too many hours of the day was overwhelming. Nathaniel could understand that. The woman was an acquired taste. Stratford, as the son and someday heir, didn’t need to work either. But Uncle Gilbert insisted that Stratford spend time at the office. Did his father think Stratford would someday end up in a loveless marriage as he had? That he would need an outlet, an escape from his wife? “Find me some new ways to lure people in to subscribe to Sporting Magazine.” He pointed his stubby finger at Nathaniel. “Or you might both just be out of a job come this time next month.” Stratford would never lose his position. Nathaniel was certain that even if Stratford set the building on fire, Nathaniel would get the blame. Yes, that’s me, the irresponsible one… With much effort and not a little heavy breathing, Uncle Gilbert pushed against the arms of the chair, teetered once, and finally straightened, as much as he ever could, to head back out of the room. Nathaniel turned back to his desk, noticing from the corner of his eye that Stratford did the same. Their movements resembled a much practiced choreography that occurred once a week. Stratford didn’t act worried about his position at the magazine. But then, why should he? He was never reprimanded, at least not directly. His father seemed to think he could do no wrong. What would that be like? To have all the money one could ever want, to wile away the hours of the day doing something one oughtn’t and still be treated like a prince. I’ll never know. That’s for sure. His own parents had died of consumption so long ago, Nathaniel barely remembered them. Maybe that was just as well. He was grateful for a place to live with his uncle and also a paying position, but watching Stratford get away with so much was hard to take. Of course, it had always been that way. Even as boys. Stratford stole the freshly baked tarts cooling on the windowsill. Nathaniel got blamed. The gates to all of the horses’ stalls were left open, and the horses had to be corralled again. Nathaniel was denied dessert for a week. And on it went. When they were young, it had bothered Nathaniel but the stakes were higher now that they were adults. To lose one’s livelihood was just the tiniest bit more important than not getting cake or tarts for a sennight. Then there were Stratford’s conquests and his constant need to brag in detail about them. Sometimes Nathaniel couldn’t sleep for the mental images his cousin had conjured up for him earlier that day. Images of blondes, brunettes and redheads tortured him in his dreams when he finally did drop off to sleep. Many women had shown him interest. Until they discovered he wasn’t Stratford. They’d flutter their eyelashes or drop their handkerchiefs where he was sure to notice. But when he’d draw nearer to them as he tried to hide his limp, they’d blink, murmur something under their breath, and suddenly scurry away like frightened mice. Resembling his cousin was a curse. He let out a sigh and went back to his work, but he couldn’t shake all of Stratford’s earlier talk of the lovely red-haired goddess. Would there ever be a special woman for Nathaniel? One with whom he could share everything — thoughts, dreams, love? A woman who would be interested in him for him instead of his resemblance to Stratford? Time would tell. Though with his cousin always hanging about, what chance would Nathaniel ever have? Chapter Three Kitty closed her eyes briefly against the memory. When she left the house that morning, her cousin had been livid. Eyes bulging and face florid. Shouting curses and flailing his arms. Kitty and her sisters were trying so hard to sell their miniature panoramas, but making them available and convincing people to buy were two very different things. It would be easier if the girls could simply paint while Robert sold their wares. Apparently, her cousin had no interest in that. No, it was all up to the girls to produce the work and make sure someone — anyone — purchased it. She pulled out three of her best panoramas, setting two on the counter behind her. Would today yield any better sales results than the last few had? Many people stopped to admire her artistry, but very few purchased them. Comments about her incredible talent always brought warmth to her face. But she’d forego every kind word if someone would only buy one. “The gods of good fortune must surely be with me.” Kitty gasped. That deep voice. The one like honey. The one attached to the gentleman from the colorman’s shop. Mr. Bexley. She blinked against the glare from sunshine pouring through a nearby window as she squinted to see him better. “Good day.” She gave what she hoped was an acceptable curtsey, but her legs suddenly felt like they might fail to hold her up. Why did this particular rake disturb her so? “What have we here?” She frowned. “Pardon?” He reached out his hand. What was he doing? Was he trying to touch her? Although she’d been temporarily overcome by his charms in the shop, they now stood out in public with many people passing by. Kitty glanced to her left, hoping her sister was close, but Patience stood several feet away and was speaking to an older couple. She opened her mouth to ask what Mr. Bexley thought he was about. “Are you an artist, then?” Was he asking because she’d purchased colors from Worsley’s shop? Kitty glanced down. Oh. Right. She was still holding one of her panoramas. The one depicting a scene from Astley’s Amphitheatre. “Um… yes. I am.” “May I have a closer look?” He wasn’t the type of person who was normally interested in her work. Most often, women were the ones to take notice, subsequently cajoling their husbands into a purchase for them or their children. However, not so much lately. She gave a shrug. “Certainly.” He reached for her hand but didn’t remove the panorama from her fingers. Instead, he wrapped his own around hers, his skin warming her through their gloves, and brought her hand up near his lips. Her breath hitched. Was he— Mr. Bexley rotated her hand slightly, gently removed the panorama and then kissed the back of her hand. Without meaning to, Kitty gazed from his lips to his eyes. Eyes that were the exact color of the London sky peered at her with such intensity she fought the impulse to sit down. Heavens above. From his full-lipped, one-sided smile to his blue eyes with long lashes that screamed beauty over handsomeness, the man was pure sensuality. Kitty tugged her hand away, afraid if she remained that close to him a moment longer she’d melt into a hot steamy puddle on the path. That would certainly gain people’s attention. Not that it would help her cause of making sales. Mr. Bexley unrolled the tiny panorama the rest of the way to see it to the end. He studied it for a couple of minutes, head bent low to scrutinize the minute brush strokes. “Extraordinary detail, Miss Sullyard.” Worsley had mentioned her name in front of Mr. Bexley, but hearing him speak it gave her a jolt. “Thank you.” “Have you done this long?” He tapped the panorama with his finger. “Since I could hold a paintbrush.” He peered closer at the picture. The trick rider stood atop four horses at once, his left foot on the back of the horse to the far left, his right foot likewise on the back of the far-right horse.“I admire anyone who has artistic ability. And yours far surpasses those of any I’ve seen.” Kitty slumped her shoulders and twisted her hands together in front of her. Men like him, the ones who flirted with her, generally only wanted one thing. And it wasn’t an interest in her art. “Now you’re just being kind.” “Kind or not, it’s the truth. Who taught you to paint with such care? Such attention to the tiniest detail?” By the condition of her worn clothing, surely he knew she couldn’t have had any formal instruction in art. “My cousin.” Mr. Bexley looked directly into her eyes. “He’s a painter, as well?” “He used to be. But his hands are knotted with arthritis, and he can no longer hold a brush for very long.” “That’s a pity.” “Very much so. But my sisters and I all paint.” Why was she telling him so much about herself? She didn’t know him. Memories of how she’d clamored for his attention at their earlier meeting reminded her of what a hoyden she must have appeared to someone of his status. “Without even making their acquaintance, I am most assured that you are the loveliest.” He winked. Kitty’s face heated. She’d often been told the same by those who had seen all three sisters together. She didn’t know why she’d been blessed with such an appearance. But for Mr. Bexley to say something so brash to her and without even having set eyes on her sisters made something in the pit of her stomach quiver like a new leaf in a strong breeze. She opened her mouth to tell him that in fact he could see one of her sisters if he’d look ten feet to the left, but the way he was staring at her, right into her eyes, stole whatever words she’d been about to say. If the man wasn’t interested in buying some of her art, was only wanting to ogle her, she needed to find a polite way to get him to leave. Flirting was one thing, but she was there to try to sell her artwork. Robert demanded a precise accounting at the end of each day to see how many the girls had sold. Reaching out her hand, Kitty hoped he’d return the panorama without her having to ask. She forced herself to meet his eye. “Thank you for your kind words about my painting, Mr. Bexley.” He moved the panorama just out of her reach. “I’m not so sure I want to give it back.” “Pardon?” She frowned and lowered her hand. Was he thinking to abscond with her work? With something she’d spent countless hours on? Her back and neck still hurt from the work she’d done the evening prior. He raised one eyebrow. “I’d like to purchase it. If it’s for sale, that is.” “Oh.” Her inner self clapped for joy. “Of course.” “What is your price?” He held up his hand. “Wait. Don’t tell me.” With narrowed eyes, he studied her from chin to eyes. “Perhaps there’s a way to—” “To what?” she blurted. Mr. Bexley leaned toward her slightly. “Will you come with me?” Anger shot through her. Go with him? “Forgive my impertinence, but I don’t believe I like the direction this conversation is headed.” Kitty tapped her boot on the path. What in the world was he playing at? She wasn’t some bit of muslin he could simply whisk off for a quick tumble. But when you flirt, isn’t that what you lead most men to believe? He laughed, a deep rumble that flowed over Kitty’s skin, making her tremble. “It’s not how it sounds, I assure you.” Kitty swallowed hard. “And why should I trust you?” Mr. Bexley stepped closer. “Surely there is someone here with you?” “My sister.” She tilted her head toward Patience. They’d attempted to get their great-aunt to accompany them, but she’d insisted it was time for her afternoon nap and stayed home. Robert hadn’t blinked an eye when he told them to go without her. “Ah. Your sister is indeed lovely. However, I stand by my earlier assessment of your beauty.” Was he mad? Speaking to her like that with people passing by who could overhear? “Mr. Bexley—” “I don’t have anything untoward in mind, I assure you. As a matter of fact, I’d like to take you — and your sister — to my place of employment.” “I don’t think—” “Please.” The word was uttered so softly she imagined it was the whisper of the breeze instead of his voice. “Only if you tell me the reason. I’ll not go off with a man… with anyone simply because he asks.” Even if his eyes were the bluest she’d ever seen. Mr. Bexley held up the panorama. “Because of this. I think with your talent and my business knowledge, you and I could have something mutually beneficial.” Mutually…. “No… No I couldn’t.” She was fairly certain he wasn’t speaking of her work anymore. That he’d like to spend time with her doing something inappropriate. Something warned her that he was the type to not take no for an answer. He sighed. “Miss Sullyard, if I had an interest in absconding with you, couldn’t I have simply grabbed your hand and tugged you away from your wares, no matter who witnessed it?” “I suppose…” Kitty glanced around at all the people milling about the bazaar. If one person tried to leave with another against her will, someone would notice. Mr. Bexley was correct. Suddenly the notion of him acting in such a fashion seemed ridiculous. “Let me ask you this. How have your sales been here lately? Making a nice profit?” She tamped down instant irritation at his impertinence. “That’s none of your concern.” “True enough. I beg your pardon. I only wished to convey my reason for wanting you to accompany me. I work for Sporting Magazine. I assume you’ve heard of it?” “Of course.” Not that her family could afford to buy a subscription. “It is my family’s company. My father has tasked me to find new ways of enticing readers to buy a subscription.” Mr. Bexley held up the panorama. “And I truly believe that this might be the key.” Kitty hadn’t told Mr. Bexley about her sales. Had she done so, it wouldn’t have been a pretty tale. She tilted her head as she studied him. He seemed sincere. If he really could help her to make more money by painting something for the magazine, shouldn’t she at least hear him out? Kitty caught her sister’s eye. Patience had finished her conversation with the older couple and was watching Kitty with one eyebrow raised. Although their great-aunt should be with them when they accompanied Mr. Bexley, at least they would have each other. It was of the utmost importance that Kitty go with Mr. Bexley that day. It would be a travesty if she missed out on something to help make more money for her family. Wouldn’t it? Also, if she made Robert happy, that would only help the tense atmosphere at home. Decision made, she gave a single nod. “Splendid.” Mr. Bexley smiled at Kitty. “Shall we?” Chapter Four The scuffing of boots on the hardwood floor reached Nathaniel. Irritation caused him to grind his teeth together. Would his lazy cousin never put in a full day’s work? It was no wonder Nathaniel had to work late into the night at times. Someone had to complete the work that Stratford left undone. Wait. He frowned. More than one pair of boots? Nathaniel angled around. A woman, tall and red-haired, stood next to Stratford. Her clear green eyes took in the surroundings of the office. Stratford offered her his arm and led her nearer. Nathaniel stared at the woman. It couldn’t be helped. Her flawless ivory skin begged to be touched, as did tiny wisps of red curls that hung just below the brim of her bonnet. Without his consent, Nathaniel’s hands curled in his lap, a longing to press his fingers against her skin so strong it nearly hurt. A sharp punch-like thump hit Nathaniel’s chest. Had lightning just struck his heart? Something was making his heartbeat flip like a jester at the circus. His mouth went dry, but his palms perspired profusely. He wiped them on his trousers. What am I thinking? This is madness. Yet, the longer he watched her, the more forceful the feeling became. Her dress appeared to be that of someone who hadn’t a lot in the way of money. It was clean and mended but definitely not new. Who was she? And why was she with— Stratford glanced at Nathaniel. “Mr. Bexley, I’d like to introduce you to the Miss Sullyards.” Nathaniel hadn’t noticed the blond young woman standing behind Stratford. She was pretty but paled in comparison to the red-haired beauty. Suddenly aware that he still sat at his worktable, Nathaniel stood so quickly his wooden chair wobbled on two legs behind him, threatening to topple to the floor. Heat spread over his face and he grabbed the back of the chair to right it on all four legs. He swallowed with difficulty, his mouth even drier than moments before, like the dust that swirled around his aunt’s garden in the middle of a hot rainless week of summer. Nathaniel gave a slight bow, hoping he didn’t fall over as his chair had nearly done. “Good day, ladies.” The women curtseyed, but Nathaniel only focused on one. She blinked, her long auburn lashes brushing against her cheeks, echoing the way Nathaniel’s fingers wanted to caress her skin. A smile curled her lips as she answered, “Good day.” Her skirts rustled as Stratford helped her to sit down on the chair next to Nathaniel’s. The blonde was invited to take a seat across from them. His Miss Sullyard peered up dreamily at Stratford, making Nathaniel’s blood boil. Why did his cousin always attract all the women? Was it simply the way he flirted with them? Touched them when he shouldn’t and devoured them with his stare? Nathaniel had said no to Stratford’s offer of help with women because he didn’t need it. He’d grown up with his cousin and knew pretty well how to act as Stratford did. He’d just never seen the point. It wasn’t his way. Nathaniel watched Miss Sullyard, her cheeks pinkening after Stratford gave her a wink. Nathaniel sat down, as well, longing to be as close to her as possible. What in the world was happening? It was as if she had some kind of power that he couldn’t resist. In the past, he’d never been a believer of spells, but perhaps he would believe now. The woman was truly unforgettable. Magical. Ethereal. Ethereal? Nathaniel shook his head hard, hoping to regain his good sense. I really am losing my faculties. Stratford stood on the other side of her, his hand settling proprietarily on the back of the chair. Fire burned in Nathaniel’s belly, and he longed to pummel his cousin in a fit of jealous rage. I’ll not have it. Not this time. This woman is different. She’s to be mine. Saints above. Nathaniel gulped a deep breath. For a man normally quiet and mild, the harsh feelings assailing him were almost frightening. Yet there they remained. It couldn’t be helped. He didn’t understand it. Couldn’t explain it. Neither could he stop it. Part of him wasn’t sure if he even wished the images to leave because an excitement he’d never experienced had taken over his body and heart. Maybe he enjoyed it a little. Maybe more than a little. “Nathaniel?” Stratford’s voice startled him back to reality. “Um, yes?” “The sisters are artists.” “I… see.” So she was talented as well as lovely. “I’ve taken it upon myself to speak to Father about the elder Miss Sullyard.” Nathaniel lowered his brows. What was he saying? Speak to his father? Had Stratford an idea to offer for the woman’s hand? No, I won’t hear of it. Nathaniel opened his mouth, ready to say something. “Father has a few minutes just now, so I’m off to speak with him about possibly doing business with Miss Sullyard.” “Business?” Concern ran through his mind. What was he— “With her paintings. As I explained to her on the way here, the magazine often makes use of trinkets and such as a way to entice readers to buy a subscription.” Stratford touched Miss Sullyard’s shoulder lightly, as if he had the right. Had permission to stand so near. She peeked briefly at his hand and then quickly away. Her face colored an attractive rose, making her even lovelier than before. If that was possible. “Oh,” was all Nathaniel managed to say. “So, I’m off to speak with him. I would mention the younger Miss Sullyard’s work, as well, but her sister wanted to wait because of her youth. I’ll be back straight away.” Stratford pivoted, giving a backward wave as he left. Alone. I am in this room alone with her. What an idiot he was. They weren’t alone. With a quick glance at the younger sister, Nathaniel gave her a brief nod before returning his attention to Miss Sullyard. A strange sensation settled over him. His fingers tingled, ready to fall asleep, and a not unpleasant lethargy took hold of his arms and legs, but his heart thudded hard. There was something about her. Something he couldn’t explain. All he knew was she was special. Perfect. His. If he was to have a chance with her, any chance at all, he need to adopt Stratford’s way of action. Much as he loathed being anything like his cousin, if the way Miss Sullyard had watched Stratford leave the room was any indication, she was already becoming smitten. No. If I must act the part of the rake to gain her attention, so be it. If she one day would be mine… He shook his head. When she is mine, I can show her my true spirit. That I’m gentle and loving and — Nathaniel cleared his throat. “Miss Sullyard, how pleasant to hear you are an artist. What do you like to paint?” She reached into her reticule and produced a small wooden cylinder a few inches high. What in the world was it? It surely didn’t remind him of anything artistic he’d ever seen. Had Stratford only given her compliments on it to lure her to the office? Wasn’t that something his letch of a cousin would do? To his amazement, Miss Sullyard handed the cylinder to him. What was he to do with it? Pretend amazement at her artistic ability of the wooden item? His breathing hitched when she reached toward him, grasping one edge where he now noticed a sliver of paper peeked out. With a smile, she said, “If you’ll just give this a light tug, you can see the panorama.” Panorama? An image of a huge painting by Robert Barker at Leicester Square ran across his mind. Was the beautiful young woman perhaps daft? He hoped not. It would be a shame for such beauty to be marred in any way. But what was he to do? Miss Sullyard peered directly at him, the corners of her eyes squinting and her mouth curving up. Gingerly, almost afraid he’d break the tiny, nearly weightless object, Nathaniel did as requested and lifted the edge that ran in a perfect straight line down the cylinder’s side. As he tugged, the paper came out away from its roll and a rainbow of colors appeared. He leaned down. Why, it was… A group of horses ran inside a ring, a lone rider standing astride on top of their backs. Vivid colors surrounded the white horses as they ran past a vast crowd of onlookers. “Astley’s Amphitheatre?” A becoming blush bloomed on her cheeks. “So it is recognizable, then?” Nathaniel gave her his best wink, mimicking Stratford’s actions. “Miss Sullyard, I have never seen its equal. You do indeed have quite the talent. And the paintings are so diminutive. However did you manage to portray so much detail in a tiny space?” She lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “I know not. It’s something we’ve just always done.” “We?” “My sisters and I.” She tilted her head to the other young woman. “And Cousin Robert. That is, he used to. Before his arthritis.” The sister stood and strolled to the opposite wall. With her back turned, she appeared to be admiring the framed covers of past issues of the magazine. Nathaniel lowered his voice and tapped the paper lightly. “Your siblings are this talented, as well?” She ducked her head. “My younger sisters are more talented than I.” “Hard to imagine.” Nathaniel leaned ever so slightly in her direction. “Thank you for the kind words. But it’s true. Lydia and Patience are incredible artists. I only wish I had their gift.” “I haven’t seen their work and don’t know of their gifts, but I honestly cannot envision anyone possessing more talent than you have conveyed in this tiny panorama.” “You are most kind. Might I inquire… how are you and Mr. Bexley—” She tilted her chin in the direction of the hallway. “—related?” Blast! Why did she want to talk about Stratford? “Cousins.” Unfortunately. “I’m afraid I’m not fortunate enough to have siblings as you do.” “There are days I wish I was an only child.” Her words came out as a whisper. She bit her lip, and her eyes crinkled at the corners. Was she trying not to show mirth? “There are days I—” Nathaniel darted a quick glance to the open doorway and back. “—wish I had no cousins, as well.” Laugher bubbled up from his chest, which seemed to give Miss Sullyard permission to add her own mirth. Adorable giggles popped from her lips, the sound quite like the champagne his aunt insisted on at Christmas dinner. Nathaniel was vaguely aware of people moving past the room in the hallway and of Miss Sullyard’s sister several feet away. But somehow, the thrill of being in the room nearly alone with her, even though the door was open and they weren’t truly alone, overshadowed anything that was happening apart from Miss Sullyard and him. “Your cousin told me some of what he does here at the magazine. What is it you happen to do, Mr. Bexley? Most of Stratford’s work and all of mine. Again with the cousin. At least she wanted to know something about Nathaniel too. He waved a hand. “A little of a lot of things.” “If you’ve talent in many things, then I daresay you’re quite important to the company.” “I don’t know about that. While it’s true that the business is run by my family, I’m only a nephew, not a…” “Son?” Nathaniel’s face heated. “Not that I have any complaints, mind you.” He slid a quick glance at the doorway, relieved to see no one there. Wouldn’t that be just perfect if Stratford or Uncle Gilbert happened along right then? She placed her hand on his arm. “Oh, of course not. I hadn’t meant anything untoward by that. Please don’t…” Heat seeped through his clothing to his skin under the spot where her hand was. Extraordinary that he’d feel such intense warmth when he had not only his shirt over his skin, but his coat. Nathaniel peered directly at her, not letting his natural backwardness take over. He neither blinked nor looked away, willing her to know how her touch affected him. Miss Sullyard gasped. She pulled her hand away and placed it in her lap. “Pardon me for—” “Nothing to pardon. Nothing in the least.” Nathaniel captured her gloved hand in his. I cannot believe I’m doing this. “Oh.” A smile touched her lips, and he had a very strong urge to see if her skin there was as soft as it appeared. Would it be— “Well, now. What have we here?” Nathaniel jumped just as Miss Sullyard gasped and leaned away. Stratford stood a few feet from them, arms crossed over his chest. His glare was aimed directly at Nathaniel. “Just admiring Miss Sullyard’s panorama.” Nathaniel stood and forced a pleasant expression. If only his pesky cousin could have stayed away a little longer. With a grin directed at Miss Sullyard, Stratford bowed. “You’ll be pleased to know that my father would be delighted to commission you to paint some of your extraordinary panoramas as enticement to potential subscribers.” Her eyes brightened “How wonderful.” An expression of relief passed over her features. Was it so important to her to have gotten this position? Nathaniel eyed her dress again. Perhaps, yes. The other women that Stratford paraded around were dressed to the nines. Miss Sullyard’s apparel, however, appeared to have been worn a tad too many years. Nathaniel’s attention moved to his cousin. Why are you sniffing after her, Stratford? She’s not your usual type. No, his type were ones he met at night. Ones who lived in a different part of town. Was there some other reason his cousin was interested in someone like her? Miss Sullyard accepted Stratford’s proffered hand to help her stand. She took a deep breath, which showed her décolletage to its finest advantage, and gave a sigh. Perhaps it wasn’t such a mystery, after all. Chapter Five “What have you been up to?” asked Lydia. Kitty eyed her younger sister, who always assumed everyone else was doing something they shouldn’t. She should have been a nun. “I’ve been doing what Robert said. To try to sell some panoramas.” “Where is Patience?” Guilt traveled up Kitty’s spine and she hunched her shoulders. While she had spoken with Mr. Bexley as they’d ridden in his carriage, she’d nearly forgotten her youngest sister’s existence. “She’s outside playing with one of the cats.” Lydia scowled and brushed a strand of dark hair from her face. “You’ve been gone for hours. I had to make the meal all on my own. Have you at least some money to show for your tardiness?” Kitty stared at her boots. “How many?” asked Lydia, her tone strident. “Hmm?” Just go away, Lydia… “How many did you sell today? Robert has been acting like a black storm cloud for the last two hours.” Kitty glanced from side to side, leaned closer, and whispered the word, “None,” hoping it might make the hearing of it somehow easier. “What?” Lydia’s voice screeched like the crow that spied on them from her nest in the tallest tree. Kitty grabbed her sister’s arm. “Lydia, lower your voice.” “I’ll not. Robert is—” “He will be glad when he hears what I’ve done.” Kitty released her sister’s arm but kept her own hand close and at the ready in case she needed to grab her again. “And just what have you—” Lydia squinted her eyes half-closed and studied Kitty from top to bottom. “—done?” Was she checking to see if Kitty’s clothes were disheveled? Her hair mussed? Kitty was two years older, but Lydia often treated her like a child. “It’s not anything untoward. But I—” Two handsome faces crossed her mind. Similar in coloring yet each had his own distinct attractions. “Kitty, why are you blushing?” “I’m not.” Even as she denied it, she pressed her fingers to her face. “Your cheeks resemble Mrs. Smith’s persimmon tart.” Kitty bit her lip, trying to hold in the words wanting to escape. Words about handsome men. Wealthy surroundings. How her knees had felt weak when— Lydia’s fingers dug into Kitty’s arm. “Ouch.” “I know that look. Kitty, you’ve been… flirting again, haven’t you?” Lydia’s voice lowered on the word flirting. Did she think that uttering it out loud would cause mayhem to descend on the household? “I wasn’t.” Lydia removed her hand but simply stared at her. They’d both have visible finger marks on their arms at that rate. “Fine.” Kitty let out a breath. “I was… but just a small bit.” “Who was it this time? The baker?” She nearly gagged. The baker was so broad across the back he surely must consume nearly all he baked. “I think not.” “Then who? Oh… Was it that Worsley from the colorman’s shop?” Kitty shuddered, trying desperately not to think of hideous frogs. “No, it was someone else. Someone… actually two someones.” “You didn’t. Two?” “It’s not what you think. They were cousins. The Mr. Bexleys were—” “Two of them? What am I to do with you?” She shook her head, dark curls bouncing around her face. “You need to go to church more often.” “You don’t need to do anything with me. I’m quite capable of caring for myself, thank you.” “Obviously not, when you find yourself in a position with not one but two men who—” Kitty grabbed Lydia’s arm and gave a yank. “Stop saying the word two like that. I haven’t done anything wrong. Patience was with me.” Of a fashion… all the way across the room. “Then just what did you do?” “I’d like to know that myself.” Kitty jumped at her cousin’s deep voice. When had he snuck up on them? He’d not even been in the room when Kitty had come home. “Robert…” Kitty swallowed hard. “I, that is—” “Well, speak up.” “You see, I met a man today—” “Two men,” piped in Lydia. “And one of them, a Mr. Bexley—” “Which Mr. Bexley?” interjected Lydia. “Mr. Bexley has invited me to paint some panoramas for his father’s magazine as an incentive for his customers to buy more subscriptions.” Her cousin’s thick eyebrows rose. “You don’t say? And there are two of these men?” Kitty let out a slow breath. Would her news please Robert? “Yes, I met Mr. Bexley, the son of a man high up at Sporting Magazine, and also his cousin. With the way things… are here, I assumed it prudent to accept the son’s kind offer.” “And flirt,” Lydia whispered and smiled sweetly. Kitty narrowed her eyes at her sister. Robert rubbed his hands together and grinned. “Good work, Katherine.” Relief flooded through her. “Thank you.” His pleasant expression fell like Kitty’s hair on a humid day. Oh no. He took a step closer. “And just how are you to get to this office of a morning? I’ll not be paying for a hackney, and I can’t assure you our carriage will always be available.” “Not to worry. Mr. Bexley—” “Which one?” Lydia asked. “—is going to send a carriage for me.” “I see. Wealthy, is he?” Robert’s brow rose as his interest seemed suddenly piqued. “He certainly appeared to be.” Expensive coach, shiny Hessian boots, clothing of such exquisite fabric she fancied it had been spun by talented butterflies. Her cousin’s eyes gleamed. “Good. Very good.” He chuckled as he walked away. Was he already counting the coins Kitty would bring home to him? Lydia grabbed her arm. “I wish you’d quit doing that.” Kitty peeled her sister’s fingers off and pushed away her hand. “Kitty, one of these days you’re going to get yourself in trouble.” “What do you mean?” “You know… trouble.” She formed her hands in a circle around an imaginary large belly. “Lydia. What must you think of me?” Did Patience think the same thing about her? Had Kitty’s flirting been obvious with the Mr. Bexleys? Lydia’s cheeks colored. She averted her gaze. “It’s only that you… you’re always… well…” “I’ve never done that.” Not that she hadn’t imagined it, but— “That’s good to hear, at least.” Kitty crossed her arms and huffed out a breath. “You make me out to be some sort of light-skirt.” Lydia raised one dark eyebrow. “I’m not.” Kitty stomped her foot, the sound an unsatisfying thud. “I just happen to enjoy being in the company of men. And Mr. Bexley—” “Which Mr. Bexley?” “Stop doing that.” “Listen,” Lydia grabbed Kitty’s hand and led her to sit down on their settee. “I’m just concerned that something might happen to you.” “Nothing will happen. Nothing bad, at any rate.” “You don’t know that.” Kitty reached up and brushed a few strands of hair from Lydia’s cheek. “You worry too much.” Lydia tapped her finger on the palm of her other hand exactly ten times, a sure sign she was agitated. “It’s my job.” Kitty giggled but stopped when Lydia didn’t join in. “No, your job is to be my smart, pretty younger sister. And that’s it.” “I’m pretty?” She touched her fingers to her cheek. “Of course you are.” Kitty tilted her head to one side and blinked. “Who says you’re not?” “That Worsley person.” “You’re listening to him? Oh, Lydia. The man is a toad.” Giggles bubbled up from Lydia and surrounded them with mirth. “Well he certainly acts fond of you.” “Quite. Aren’t I the fortunate one?” Lydia sputtered another laugh. “He’d marry you, you know. If you’d have him.” A shiver ran through Kitty. “I’d rather die alone.” “Surely he wouldn’t be that bad?” “Lydia, have you gotten a good view of the man?” Kitty tried very hard not to look at him directly unless she had to. “Appearances aren’t everything. Sometimes we need to see past the surface.” “True, but I rather think a wife shouldn’t feel the urge to lose her dinner at the sight of her husband.” “You might have a point. So the Mr. Bexleys are handsome?” “Oh my goodness, yes.” “Is one… more to your liking than the other?” That stopped Kitty short. She’d not considered it until then. They were both enchanting and had paid her much attention. She’d spent a little more time with Mr. Bexley the son, though his cousin had also made her heart race. If she had to choose between them, could she do it? Would there ever be a need? Kitty, you’re being a dolt. They might never see you as more than a worker for the magazine. Chapter Six Nathaniel climbed down from the carriage and waved away help from the coachman. With determined steps while trying his best not to limp, he made his way to the front of the small house where Miss Sullyard resided. He raised his hand to knock, jumping back when the door opened before his hand connected with the wooden frame. A girl of about eighteen or so, pretty with dark hair and eyes, stood just inside. “Are you… him?” Nathaniel chuckled. “If you mean am I Mr. Bexley, I am.” He gave a slight bow. “At your service, miss.” She gasped then covered her mouth with her hand. With a high-pitched squeak, she closed the door. Nathaniel heard footsteps rapidly moving away from the door. Hmmm. Now what was a fellow to do? Knock again? Go sit in the carriage and hope Miss Sullyard finally appeared? He retrieved his timepiece from his pocket. They would need to leave soon if they were to catch the beginning of the race. Ready to return to the carriage and wait, Nathaniel glanced at the door when it opened once more. “Oh. It’s you.” Miss Sullyard, the one he had intended to see, stood in the doorway. Was she disappointed that he wasn’t Stratford? “Why does everyone in your household act surprised that I’m here? Were you not expecting to be escorted to the agreed upon venue?” Miss Sullyard peeked over her shoulder, back again, and held up one finger. “If you’ll excuse me for just one moment?” “Uh… certainly.” The door closed. Again. With him on the outside. Again. What in blazes was going on in there? He should have realized that someone who was dressed as she had been the day prior most likely did not reside where there might be a footman. Surely they had the common sense to invite a man in instead of making him— For the third time, the door opened. “A million pardons, Mr. Bexley.” Miss Sullyard, now wearing a pelisse and in possession of a reticule and a much larger cloth bag that appeared to be half-filled with small items that moved about when she turned, gave him a dimpled smile that nearly brought him to his knees. She stepped aside as an older woman, short and stout, peered up at him behind small spectacles. She resembled a sleepy owl. Must be the chaperone. He offered his arm to the older woman, but she waved him away and started toward the carriage. Nathaniel held out his arm to the object of his desire, and she placed her free hand on his sleeve. “Miss Sullyard, may I carry that bag for you? It appears cumbersome.” She blinked and tilted her head to the side. “How sweet. But I’m quite used to it, I assure you.” Nathaniel eyed the distance from the front door to the waiting carriage. Not far. With a light shrug, he accompanied her as slowly as he could to the conveyance, hoping she wouldn’t notice his slight limp. He waved away any assistance from the coachman and helped her into the carriage himself. She sat down along one bench seat next to her chaperone and placed her bag on the seat beside her. With large eyes, she glanced around the interior. Uncle Gilbert spared no expense on his carriages or anything else. Even if the man swore he was nearly destitute. Miss Sullyard tilted her head toward her companion. “Mr. Bexley, may I introduce Mrs. Caruthers, my great-aunt.” Nathaniel murmured, “Good day.” The woman gave a nod but said nothing. Then she angled toward the window, produced a small book from her reticule, and commenced reading. How odd. Settling against the back of the seat opposite her, Nathaniel tried to suppress a grin as he prepared to have sport with Miss Sullyard. He leaned forward slightly. “Is it the habit in your home to leave poor unsuspecting gentlemen to stand alone out in the elements?” Her mouth dropped open, exposing the edges of her teeth, the top row straight and the lowers a tad out of line. But somehow on her, when surrounded by plump pink lips, the effect was memorizing. “I…” Her face reddened. “You see—” He held up his hand, palm out. “Please forgive me. I was only teasing you.” She snapped her lips closed, her throat moving as she swallowed. She glanced out the side window, blinking rapidly. Was she going to cry? After checking to make sure the chaperone wasn’t paying attention, he scooted forward on the edge of his seat. “I never meant to—” “No. It’s… Since we might be seeing each other from time to time, that is, unless today was the only time you will be escorting me…” Not if I have my say. He shook his head slowly. “Then you might as well know how things… stand.” Stand… Was there trouble afoot at the Sullyard’s home? “It’s my…” She glanced out the window again as if afraid someone might be peering in, spying on her. “If something is troubling you, don’t feel you must tell me. That is, unless you want to. Of course, I don’t mind listening.” Remembering to keep up his ruse of being a rake, he winked. “Someone as pretty as you should never have to beg for attention.” He darted a glance at Mrs. Caruthers again, but she seemed not at all interested in their conversation. Was she hard-of-hearing? “Oh… Thank you.” Miss Sullyard let out a sigh. “My pleasure.” He leaned back again, trying to appear relaxed, like he took carriage rides with beautiful sensuous women every day. No. That would be Stratford. She coughed delicately into her gloved hand. Was she unsure of how to say whatever it was that troubled her? He forced himself to remain silent when everything in him wanted to take her in his arms and say something reassuring to her so that her lovely smile would return. As if I had so much experience holding women. A few stolen kisses from time to time, yes, but beyond that… Time to put myself into Stratford’s mindset, much as I loathe it. Nathaniel couldn’t erase the memory of Miss Sullyard’s reaction to Stratford, like his cousin was the sun and she a wilted flower, longing, hoping for him to notice her and give her some warmth. Finally, her eyes met his. She let out a slow breath and then spoke. “My parents died when I was quite little. I live with my two sisters, my great-aunt, and… Cousin Robert.” Had she just shivered? The movement was slight, but he didn’t think he’d imagined it. What was amiss with her cousin? A snort erupted from Miss Caruthers. Nathaniel looked in her direction. Good heavens the woman was asleep. And snoring. Miss Sullyard appeared not to notice. Perhaps it was a common occurrence and she was accustomed to it. “Go on.” Nathaniel motioned with his hand. “Well, Lydia, Patience, and I all paint the panoramas. I believe I told you that yesterday?” He’d dwelled on little else but her and all that she’d said to him since then but simply gave a nod, trying to appear unaffected. “Robert is… he’s… I think when his wife left, it did something to him. Broke him somehow.” Left? How terrible. Nathaniel lifted his hand, ready to reach out to her before he even realized, but once he did notice, he quickly lowered it to his lap. From watching Stratford, he knew not to show too much sensitivity. At least not the kind where a woman would think him weak. He nodded once, encouraging her to continue. “Now that I’m older, I can understand, maybe a little, why my cousin’s wife left. As a child, I never saw the dark side of him. He didn’t show us his anger until after she left. I’d hear them arguing, and sometimes his wife, Mary, would cry when she thought no one could hear. But once I was older, Robert began to raise his voice to me. To all of us.” Clenching his fist, trying to control his fury at a man who would treat his beautiful young cousin so, Nathaniel took a deep breath and let it out. “What happened then?” “We’ve never been anywhere near affluent, only having enough to meet our basic needs, but after she left, Robert began to rail on and on about money. All the time. It’s all he speaks of. And if we, that is, my sisters and I, don’t earn enough to satisfy him, he becomes angrier still.” Perhaps it was just as well that Nathaniel hadn’t been admitted inside the Sullyard’s house. If their cousin had happened to be there and had shown his anger in front of him, Nathaniel would have— You would have what? You’ve never struck another person in your whole life. Would he even know how? “And that is why, Mr. Bexley, although you spoke of it in jest, you weren’t invited inside. I didn’t want there to be a chance that Robert might…” Nathaniel could stand it no more. He had to touch her, to somehow convey that he understood her reasons. Slowly, much like trying to coax a butterfly onto his hand, Nathaniel leaned forward, reached out, and rested his hand over the top of hers, which was sitting on her knee. A thrill shot through him as he realized what he was doing. If her hand wasn’t there, his hand would be directly on her leg. His breathing quickened. Calm down, Nathaniel, do you want to give away that you’re a novice in the art of dealing with women? He gave her hand a very unsatisfying pat and, with reluctance, removed his once more. Miss Sullyard lifted one corner of her lips. “Thank you for understanding. Forgive me for being so forward in… in addressing a private family matter with someone of whom I’ve just made an acquaintance. It was only… I didn’t want you to think our family wasn’t civilized, forcing a gentleman to stand out in the elements and all.” Nathaniel let out a laugh when she used the very words he’d used only moments before. “Nothing to forgive, Miss Sullyard.” He gave a mock scowl. “Now, if it had been frigid temperatures and swirling snow, perhaps I’d think you uncivilized.” She bit her lip as her nostrils flared. Giving up, she let out an adorable giggle. The carriage slowed as they neared the Epsom racetrack. The scent of horses, and what they tended to leave behind, wafted toward them. Nathaniel liked horses and walking out-of-doors, but he also cherished times of quiet when he could read and be contemplative. Admitting that last part, however, wouldn’t help his cause with attracting Miss Sullyard. The way she’d appeared to blossom in Stratford’s presence indicated to Nathaniel that she preferred the type of man who was more physical than smart. He glanced to Miss Sullyard, who jostled her great-aunt awake and then reached for her cloth bag, readying herself to depart the carriage. Would Nathaniel have the opportunity to speak to her further as she worked to sketch the horses and riders? Perhaps he shouldn’t bother her. After all, she was there for business, not pleasure. Would someone of her financial status even have much time or money for leisure pursuits? Time would tell. However, from what she’d said about her cousin’s temper, Nathaniel would be shocked if Miss Sullyard had a chance for much besides trying to earn a few coins. The coachman opened the door and helped Miss Sullyard down before Nathaniel had the chance. Nathaniel glared at him just in time for the man to give Nathaniel an annoying smirk. Blast him. But there wasn’t much he could do about it since the coachman worked for his uncle. He waited as Mrs. Caruthers was assisted very laboriously down the carriage steps. Holding out his arm for Miss Sullyard, Nathaniel gave a scowl over his shoulder to the coachman. Then he glanced ahead at Mrs. Caruther’s retreating back. The woman had appeared sleepy and inattentive but moved quickly for a woman of her years. Too bad they had to have a chaperone. Otherwise, he’d enjoy some time alone getting to know Miss Sullyard better. Stratford had already voiced his disapproval of Nathaniel taking her today. Not for appearance’s sake, but because Stratford wanted her all to himself. Thank goodness Uncle Gilbert had found Nathaniel’s offer to escort Miss Sullyard a good suggestion. Anything his uncle said was usually law. At least as it pertained to the magazine. Nathaniel led Miss Sullyard to the family’s usual seats. From their vantage point, she would be able to view everything quite well. The horses, coats gleaming with sweat and nostrils flaring in the heat of the race. The jockeys in their bright colors, hunched low, leg muscles taut, fingers gripped tightly on the horses’ reins. Clods of dirt flying from the horses’ hooves when they rounded the track. A group of ladies gaped at Miss Sullyard, eyeing her from hat to boots. Admittedly, their seats were in a section where members of the gentry sat. Nathaniel cared not for any of that. Expensive garments and carriages had never meant much to him. He wasn’t poor, could pay his own slight expenses, but didn’t have the advantages Stratford did due to Aunt Hortense’s money. With a relieved sigh, Nathaniel was pleased to see that Miss Sullyard hadn’t noticed the other women’s reactions. No, she was too busy staring around them. At the horses near the starting gate. The jockeys as they tried to quiet their mounts with words and calming touches. “Would you care to sit down, Miss Sullyard?” She let out a tiny gasp and then bit her lower lip, the edges of her teeth pressing down ever so slightly on her perfect full lip. “Pardon. Didn’t intend to startle you.” “You didn’t. Well, you did, but…” “But you didn’t want to admit it?” “Something like that, yes.” Her grin rivaled the sun that had finally popped out from behind a large fluffy cloud to lend warmth to the day. Nathaniel’s heart swelled, knowing her smile, at least that one, was only for him. He assisted Mrs. Caruthers to a seat, but she shook her head and moved away to slump down in one several feet away. It was all well and good with Nathaniel, but he hoped whoever would normally occupy the space wouldn’t be at the race that day. Miss Sullyard accepted his offer of assistance to sit, and he took up his position next to her. Fascinated, he watched as she retrieved a tube of rolled paper — six inches long — a pencil, and a sizeable book from her larger bag. She placed the book on her lap. Nathaniel raised his eyebrow. “Planning on reading? I can assure you, the race will not in any way be monotonous.” “That,” she said as she pointed to the tome, “is my desk, so to speak.” “Ah… I guess it might be difficult to hold the paper in your hand to draw something. It would be unsteady and cumbersome, I imagine.” “Exactly.” She tilted her head. “You are such an understanding man. I’m sure you have many good friends who enjoy your company.” Friends? Warning bells flashed in Nathaniel’s head. He didn’t want her to see him as simply a friend. Much as he didn’t like it, he needed to act more the rake. And he needed to start now. Chapter Seven A light breeze ruffled strands of Kitty’s hair that had come loose from her hat. What a lovely day. People had begun to fill in some of the seats surrounding them, but not all of them were taken as yet. A giggle floated up from her throat when she glanced over at Great-Aunt Anne. Yes, she was already dozing. How could the woman sleep with all the noise and confusion going on around her? Maybe some of it was that she could no longer hear very well. Or perhaps she just wished to ignore distractions and go into her own little world. Kitty had to admit there were times she’d wished to do the same. Escape her present circumstances with Robert. Meet a wonderful rich man who would take care of her, treasure her. Love her forever. With a sigh, she got her paper situated on her large book and began to sketch one of the horses. It was a large black one, solid in color except for the white patch between its eyes. The horse’s muscles rippled and its tail whipped in the breeze as a man led it to the starting gate. Did the horses enjoy running? Trying to win a race? The shading and details of the drawing she could add later. When her subjects were moving, she couldn’t very well ask them to stand still while she tried to draw everything she saw. Besides, she doubted very much the owners wanted their prized possessions to be docile. At least not on race day. Warmth caressed her leg as Mr. Bexley leaned closer. A thrill shot through her even though the contact was brief. Was he curious about her drawing? Trying to view her work in progress? She’d been doing it since she could remember but found that the process often fascinated others who were not artistically inclined. She lifted her pencil and turned to ask, startled that his face was so close. His gaze met hers, his eyes like two pools of sun-kissed ocean, the color so inviting she could almost believe herself at the seaside town of Brighton, of which she had once seen a painting with its clear blue waters. His lips were full and looked soft. Would they be if she were to reach out her hand and touch them? Or if she angled her chin just so and pressed her lips against— “—the race?” She swallowed and leaned away. “P-pardon?” One side of his mouth rose, slowly, so slowly she was afraid to glance away lest she might miss even one slight movement. “I asked if you were able to properly view the race.” It had started? She darted a quick glance below them to the track. Sure enough, the horses were running. Running? How had she missed that important development? Something about Mr. Bexley grabbed hold of her, threatening to heat her from the inside out until she feared she’d burst into flame. No one had ever affected her thusly, except… The other Mr. Bexley. But they were both rakes. And rakes weren’t to be taken seriously. A shout from someone nearby startled her. A large man, his coat a size too small, stood up, shaking his fist at the goings-on of the track. What on earth? Something soft and light touched her arm. Mr. Bexley, grinning, pointed his thumb toward the man. “Guess his horse isn’t in the lead.” Right. If she’d had money riding on a certain horse and lost, she’d be upset too. Still, the mere idea of having any extra money at all, much less to throw it away on a slight chance of an animal reaching its destination before the other animals, was ludicrous. What would it be like to have that much wealth? She nodded to Mr. Bexley. What a farce to act like I have any idea what goes on in his world. With a jolt, she remembered why she was even there. To sketch the race. To earn some much needed money for food and clothing. She eyed Mr. Bexley’s nice coat and shiny boots. Not that he would ever understand that. Forcing herself to concentrate, she leaned forward over the paper. As the horses came around a curve, she was able to see the different colors of each individual rider a little better. Goodness, the men were small. Was that on purpose? With a glance at the large man to her right, who was still grumbling about his horse performing poorly, she nearly giggled. Wouldn’t it be awful if someone of his… uh… mass, were to ride one of the horses? The poor defenseless animals might crumble beneath his weight. “Something wrong, Miss Sullyard?” “Pardon? Oh, no. It’s nothing.” She bit down on her lip, hard. Kitty, do your work and stop allowing distractions. People seated all around them cheered or moaned. Easy to tell whose horse was ahead. With renewed determination, Kitty quickly sketched the outlines of the horses, their hooves striking the dirt or angled behind as the horses moved forward. Strong thighs, muscles flexing as they increased their speed. Tails sailing out behind them. Next she added the riders, small caps pressed close to their heads, long-sleeved shirts and tight-fitting breeches. Faces in frowns of concentration, boots pressed solidly in stirrups. It wasn’t too difficult to outline them hurriedly, seeing as the horses were all the same shape and nearly the same size. Since she’d already done the panorama of the horses at Astley’s Amphitheatre, she was familiar with the equine form. The jockeys appeared to be about the same height and weight. Later Kitty would add the colors but jotted quick notes on another small piece of paper of the colors she’d use for the people, animals, and track. If she were drawing a still scene, such as a river bank or buildings along a street, she could afford to add more detail at that time. Kitty had a feeling, however, that even if she asked nicely, the horses wouldn’t stand still, holding their poses like ladies for a portrait, in order for her to finish her work. A sudden image of the large beasts, standing together in a line, wearing frilly dresses, hats, and slippers over their hooves nearly caused her to sputter a laugh. She covered it with a light cough. Control yourself. Pressing her lips together in an earnest attempt at remaining businesslike, she glanced around. Oughtn’t she to add some spectators to her drawing? She’d want the large man, for sure, in his tight black coat and tall hat. Next to him was a woman as thin as he was large, her bonnet alight with pheasant feathers and yellow ribbons, which dipped down slightly on either side of her face. She wouldn’t draw them exactly as they were, as she’d not want someone to possibly recognize themselves and not appreciate the way she’d portrayed them. Better to depict someone with similar characteristics and leave it at that. The men and women sitting near them, young and old, all had one thing in common — they were dressed in amazing finery. And just to attend a horse race. She might understand if they were, say, going to a ball somewhere. Not that she’d ever been to one, but she could imagine wearing one’s best for such an occasion. A shadow appeared on her paper as Mr. Bexley once again leaned closer. His focus was on her drawing. She pulled her hand away from the paper and caught his attention. His face reddened. “Pardon. I hadn’t meant to interrupt your work.” “You didn’t. Did you… want to see it?” “May I?” She handed him the edge of the paper and he ran his finger beneath the race in progress. “Fascinating.” “In a… positive way?” He glanced toward her and beamed. “Quite.” “Thank you.” She’d gotten many compliments on her drawing in the past. Why did his words seem to mean so much more? Make her heart warm and her spine tingle? His cousin was just as handsome, but there was something about this Mr. Bexley. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Would she have the opportunity to discover what it might be? “I’m barely able to write legibly. Always in too much of a hurry to get work done, I suppose. This must take much concentration.” “It does.” Especially when someone like him was sitting so near. He leaned a little closer toward the paper. “And what is… this?” He tapped the paper lightly with his finger. “Ah… you’ve a good eye. That is something my sisters and I all do in our paintings. If you check very closely, you can see it’s the letter S, for our surname.” Kitty had drawn the tiny symbol and tucked it just behind one of the horses’ ears. “When I first glanced at the picture, I didn’t see it. I just happened to notice it when I took another look. Does it have some meaning?” She laughed. “Only to us. It’s a game we play. We try to find it in each other’s work. It’s like a game of hide and seek.” “This is only in pencil. Will it be easier to see once you’ve used colors?” “Actually, it will be more difficult. The colors draw the eye away from minute details.” “I see. That’s how I could view it so easily now.” He gave her a frown, but one side of his mouth twitched. “Not at all. I daresay there would be few who would have caught it as quickly as you.” He smiled and studied her, his eyes deep pools of blue. “I hope you don’t mind my interest.” Interest? In her? Her heart gave a little jolt, but the excitement quickly faded. Wait. He means interest in my art. And remember, he’s a rake. She swallowed down disappointment. “Of course I don’t mind.” Time to get the focus off of herself and take the conversation in a different direction. “I’m sure you’ve been told before, but you and your cousin certainly do bear a close resemblance.” Was it her imagination, or had he just lowered his brows in a frown? It had happened so fast she couldn’t be sure. But why would that be? The two men, aside from being related, worked together. Surely they were close? He sat up straighter in his seat and blinked. “Why yes. I’ve been told that many times. Not sure if that’s good or bad.” He laughed, but it came out sounding forced. Had Kitty stepped into a hornet’s nest of some sort? Not caring at the moment if anyone saw her, she lightly pressed her fingers to his sleeve, wanting to soothe away whatever bad feelings she’d invoked. “It’s good, I assure you.” He tilted his head to the side and gave her a wink. “Is that so?” What am I doing? She whipped her hand back to her lap. “P-perhaps I’d better finish my sketch.” She pointed toward the winner’s circle. When had that happened? Kitty. You’re here to work, not flirt. “Now that the horses are standing still, I can sketch the patterns of their clothing a little better.” “Clothing?” “They’re wearing items made of cloth, are they not?” “Yes, but… It’s normally referred to as their colors.” “Oh.” Heat crawled up her cheeks. Just another reminder that they came from two different worlds. She avoided eye contact with him and instead focused on the horses. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Mr. Bexley’s hand reach out, hesitate, and return to his lap. Her heart thudded against her ribs. Had he been about to touch her? Why had he stopped? It doesn’t matter. Keep working. Time to cease allowing distraction from her job of earning money for Robert. Kitty quickly outlined a few shapes that would later be people. Right then she only wanted to get the spacing right as to where the spectators were sitting. She regarded the area around them to pinpoint a few other items that might be of interest in her drawing. Boundaries surrounding the track. Grassy areas to the side and back of the spectator stands. That evening when she was at home and could add more detail and color, she wanted to have those things in mind. Otherwise, she’d draw the horses and riders and then be stumped on what else to add. The rustle of skirts and pounding footsteps startled her. All around them, people were rising from their seats and moving toward the main aisles. Would she and Mr. Bexley be required to leave, as well? Perhaps someone else had claim on these seats for the next race. About to ask, she was surprised when Mr. Bexley, peering at something over Kitty’s head, stiffened. With a forced smile, not unlike the one he’d given Kitty when she commented on his cousin, Mr. Bexley stood. The limp that Kitty had noticed earlier caused him to nearly stumble, but he caught himself in time. He bowed to a young woman. “Good day, Miss Queensbury.” Kitty, unable to keep from staring, realized her mouth hung open and snapped it closed. Miss Queensbury was striking. Blond hair so light to be nearly white, honey-colored skin with just a touch of pink on her cheeks, and eyes the color of grey storm clouds. Every man who passed by openly admired her, even though an older woman stood just a few feet behind her. Her chaperone? Her dress, a lovely gown of buttery yellow, had white lace trim at the bodice and sleeves. A matching yellow bonnet was decorated with white daisies and thin ribbon. Suddenly Kitty realized the other woman was staring at her too, eyeing Kitty’s attire with distaste. “Good day.” Only after speaking did Miss Queensbury offer her hand to him. Mr. Bexley bowed over her hand to give her glove a kiss, but his lips never actually touched the fabric. He quickly released her and straightened, giving a nearly silent sigh. Kitty wondered if it reached Miss Queensbury’s ears. The other woman changed her focus back to Kitty. As if having forgotten Kitty stood right next to him, Mr. Bexley softly gasped. Good heavens, was he so smitten with Miss Queensbury that he took no notice of anyone else? He indicated Kitty with a wave of his hand in her direction. “This is Miss Sullyard. May I introduce Miss Queensbury?” Kitty set down her paper, stood, and gave her best curtsey, which granted wasn’t much. She didn’t have occasion to worry about performing it just right very often. “Good day.” How silly she must have appeared performing a curtsey while still holding her pencil in one hand. Miss Queensbury, living up to her name, inclined her head in a royal fashion but said nothing directly to Kitty at all, instead giving her a glare that said, You’re not worthy to breathe the same air that I do. Clenching her jaw, Kitty held in the curse she wished to mutter. But it didn’t stop her from thinking rotten things. Snooty woman of the gentry, too pretty for her own good, her personality is probably as stiff as the skirt of her dress. There. That felt a little better. Kitty relaxed her jaw then, noticing her fist was clenched at her side, opened her hand. Mr. Bexley looked from the other woman to Kitty before turning back to Miss Queensbury. “How does the day find you? Good, I trust?” Miss Queensbury stepped forward, nearly tromping on Kitty’s scuffed boot, and grabbed Mr. Bexley’s arm, though it had not been offered. How dare she? She very nearly knocked me over. Mr. Bexley darted a quick glance at Kitty. Apologetic? That was something, she supposed. At least that time he noticed her presence. Wait. Why are you so upset anyway? You won’t see Mr. Bexley, either of the Bexleys after the work assignments are completed. Much as it vexed Kitty to admit it, she needed to stick to her work and not give attention to anyone she came in contact with who wouldn’t give her the time of day in any other circumstance. Mr. Bexley waved a hand toward Kitty. “Miss Sullyard is creating a miniature panorama for the magazine.” With narrowed eyes, Miss Queensbury observed the race drawing as if purveying a disgusting insect on her boot. “What is it supposed to be?” Kitty’s neck and face heated. The witch. Mr. Bexley had identified her other panorama of Astley’s Amphitheatre right off. Surely this one wasn’t so vastly different? A slight frown marred the beauty of Mr. Bexley’s face. “Why, can you not see that it’s of the very race that just completed its run?” The vile woman sniffed and lowered her thin eyebrows. “Indeed.” Kitty’s hand clenched so tight she nearly snapped her pencil in two. Don’t do that. Supplies are too expensive. Miss Queensbury, who hadn’t yet let go of Mr. Bexley’s captured arm, tugged him even closer. Any nearer and his chest would be pressed against her— “Oh!” “Something amiss, Miss Sullyard?” Mr. Bexley regarded Kitty with what seemed to be genuine concern. She flapped her hand in his direction. “No. Fine. I’m fine.” With yet another tug, Miss Queensbury had her hand nearly beneath Mr. Bexley’s armpit. “I was so hoping you would have a free moment to take a quick stroll around the grounds with me?” He pulled away from her, slowly, causing her to pout. “I’m afraid today is not a good day for that.” Miss Queensbury frowned. “Why ever not?” He indicated Kitty again. “I’m Miss Sullyard’s escort. But perhaps you could be seen safely home…” “Yes?” “I could have my coachman drive you.” Miss Queensbury gasped. “Oh, no. That will not do.” “Then I’m afraid I’ll not be able to accommodate you today.” “Well.” With a sniff for Mr. Bexley and a look in Kitty’s direction, Miss Queensbury turned and left. Kitty sighed. As much as she was enjoying her time with Mr. Bexley, minus of course the visit from that woman, she shouldn’t take too much of his valuable time away from his work. Besides, what if the Miss Queensbury was someone he actually enjoyed spending time with and Kitty had caused him trouble? “Since I have the rough outline I need for the panorama, I can easily finish the drawing details and add color once I reach home.” He blinked. “Oh.” Was that disappointment on his face? “I was hoping…” “Yes?” “That is to say… Would you enjoy seeing another race? There’s one just about to begin. Perhaps it might aid you in your work.” Did he want to spend more time with her, or was he only trying to be helpful so she could accomplish her work more quickly and make himself come across better to his uncle? Either way, she wasn’t about to refuse a pleasant day with a handsome gentleman. Besides, her great-aunt hadn’t yet finished her nap. Chapter Eight Nathaniel waited as Miss Sullyard put her pencil and paper away in her bag. “Ready to depart?” She tied the strings of her bag closed. “Certainly. Shall I be returning home now?” “Not quite yet. That is, unless you’ve a need to go at once.” “Not at once. Is there something else you’d like me to draw?” He reached out for her hand, hoping no one else noticed his forwardness. A quick look around assured him that nearly everyone else had left the seating area. He needed for Kitty to believe him a rake, but others who knew him might raise eyebrows at his uncharacteristic actions. His reputation among his peers had always been that of a quiet, well-mannered man. Unlike his cousin. Miss Sullyard glanced down at their joined hands, and her face colored pink. Was she embarrassed by his boldness? Or pleased? Nathaniel took it a step further and drew their joined hands close to his chest. “What would you say to a stroll?” “I…” She glanced up toward the entrance to their section of seats. “Would you rather not?” Perhaps he’d been too bold. Had scared her off. “It’s not that.” She raised one shoulder in a shrug. Something was amiss. His first impulse was to ask what was wrong. No. He mustn’t. What would Stratford say in this situation? Nathaniel rubbed his thumb over the back of her hand. “The day is nearly perfect. A walk with someone as beautiful as you would make it complete perfection indeed.” She blinked, raised her head and stared into his eyes. “It would?” “Without a doubt.” He angled his body a little so they were now face to face. And standing very close. A woman four rows up who hadn’t left yet gasped loudly. Nathaniel took a deep breath and then let it out slowly. You can do this. You must do this to keep her attention away from the likes of your cousin. She gave him a tremulous smile but still hadn’t turned to leave the seats. He waited, hoping she would tell him what the trouble was without him having to ask. “Mr. Bexley, while a stroll with you sounds delightful, I’m a little confused.” “Are you?” He rubbed her hand a little more. Tell me why. She tilted her head toward the other patrons who were leaving. “The woman who… your acquaintance, that is…” “My…?” He glanced to where she pointed with her free hand to just behind them. “Oh, Miss Queensbury?” “Yes. She… er, you had told her you didn’t have time. For a stroll.” Ah… So that was it. “The difference, Miss Sullyard, is that I had no inclination or desire to share a walk with her.” Or anything else. “You, on the other hand…” “Me?” “I’d very much like to do that with you.” “I see.” She glanced down but peeked up at him from beneath her exceedingly long lashes. Nathaniel turned, as did she. Not that he’d given her much choice, as he was still in possession of her hand. “Shall we?” “Yes.” Reluctantly, Nathaniel released Miss Sullyard’s hand when she pulled away to fetch her great-aunt but captured it again soon after. They made their way through the stands, out into the main lobby, and to a large expanse of grassy area beyond. Wanting to hold her hand again but suddenly nervous, he held out his arm for her instead. Why do I have qualms about acting the rake? Must I be so overly sensitive? Obviously showing a kinder side doesn’t work. If it did, wouldn’t I have been married to some lovely girl quite some time ago? He was determined, however, to pour on the charm again once they were alone. Or, as alone as they could get in a fairly crowded venue. Mrs. Caruthers had already found a bench on which to read and appeared not at all concerned with her niece’s activities. Out in the field behind the track, there were not very many people milling about at the moment. Good. Now maybe he could proceed with his flirtation without witnesses. A stiff breeze tore at Miss Sullyard’s skirts, lifting the billowing fabric enough so Nathaniel got a glimpse of her ankles. Full and shapely. Would they feel as firm as they appeared? His pulse quickened. Desire shot down to his nether region. All from a woman’s ankles? He could scarcely imagine how he’d feel if she were naked. “Mr. Bexley? You’ve gone pale. Are you—” “Fine. Yes, fine.” Nathaniel tugged at his cravat and swallowed hard, trying to think of anything but Miss Sullyard sans clothing. He wasn’t having great success. He led her along a dirt path that ran between two grassy areas. Their boots crunched on tiny stones embedded in the dirt. They stopped not far from a small sturdy-looking shed. Through a window, Nathaniel eyed what appeared to be wooden handles leaning against a wall. Perhaps tools for keeping the grounds tidy? What should he do next? He was already holding her hand, which was more than he would normally have done with a woman he’d just met. As they ambled along, Nathaniel tried to imagine what Stratford would do now. Well of course there was that. But Nathaniel wasn’t willing to go that far. He glanced at Miss Sullyard. Not that he hadn’t wondered about it. One thing that might help was to become better acquainted. “Miss Sullyard?” “Yes?” “A woman as breathtaking as you most assuredly has a lovely name. I feel I must know your Christian name.” She stopped and took a half step back. “You… must?” Hmmm. Too forward? “Mine is Nathaniel.” Her throat moved as she swallowed. Had he made her nervous? “And I’m Kitty.” “A lovely name.” “It’s short for Katherine, but my cousin is the only one who calls me that.” “I think Kitty fits you.” He took her other hand, as well. What else could he say? It must be something to catch her attention. Something she’d find intriguing. Possibly outlandish. Think, Nathaniel. “I… I had a dream last night.” “Oh?” “About you.” “Did you?” Her eyebrows lowered slightly. He tugged her a little closer. “Indeed.” “And… what happened in this dream? Were… you in it, as well?” “Oh, yes.” She blinked. “I see.” She opened her mouth again to speak but then closed it again. Had she wanted to ask what happened in the dream? I can certainly oblige. As soon as I think it up, of course. Why couldn’t I have had this story in place before I blurted that I’d had some dream about her? He watched her until she met his gaze. Ah, there she is. Nathaniel took his backwardness by the horns and forged ahead. “In the dream, you and I were walking, much like we are now.” She nodded. “And… I…” He swallowed. “Perhaps it would be better if I simply showed you.” “Showed me…” She raised one eyebrow, looking uncertain. “I held your hands in mine.” Kitty tilted her head. “Just like now?” “Right. Just like now. Then I… gave them a gentle squeeze and released them.” She glanced down at her hands as if wondering how on earth it happened that they were now not embraced by his. “And then what?” He reached up with his hand and cupped her cheek, running his thumb over her high cheekbone. “Your skin is so soft.” “Did you say that in the dream?” He shook his head. “Just wanted to say it now.” She bit her lip. “Go on.” “Then, I… I pulled you closer and—” A startled yell came from their right, somewhere near the track. The thump of hoof beats, close by, came from the same direction. Nathaniel whipped his head around. “What the—” A large brown mare, nostrils flaring and the whites of her round eyes showing, leaped over the boundary that separated the outer perimeter of the track area from the grassy field. The horse hurtled toward them in a flurry of whinnies and thunderous hooves striking the ground. Kitty screamed. Nathaniel scooped her up in his arms and dashed to the right of the frightened animal bent on plowing down whatever or whoever was in its path. An instant later, he realized his mistake. The horse, its eyes rolling in fear, veered at the last second. Nathaniel, panicked, tightened his hold on Kitty, and dove to the ground. His knees took the brunt of the force of their combined weight. He rolled on his side, tugging Kitty close against his chest as he lowered his chin over the top of her head to hopefully keep her safe from errant wild hooves. Two men came running toward them, following the direction of the horse. Nathaniel clutched Kitty closer, willing her to calm, to know he’d keep her safe. He raised his head to see what was going on. The horse, blowing fiercely through its nostrils, had stopped running. It shook its head from side to side, but one of the men was able to grab hold of the reins and lead the animal back toward the track. As soon as their footsteps had died away, Nathaniel released Kitty and sat up. She turned to him and sat up, as well. She took a deep breath and peered around. “Is it… over?” “Yes. Are you hurt?” She frowned and studied her gown. “No, just… a bit dirty.” “Let’s get you brushed off, shall we?” Nathaniel stood and pulled her up. He brushed at some dirt and pieces of grass on her sleeves and back. There was a large patch of dust on her bottom. He started to reach out and stopped. Do I dare? He wouldn’t normally, of course, but Stratford would. He glanced around, making sure no one was watching. With clenched teeth, he murmured, “Hold still.” With a light touch, he flicked away a small amount of the grass and dirt. Kitty stiffened beneath his touch but said nothing. Much as it’s highly improper to touch her there, it at least had the desired effect. Once finished, he angled her so they were facing again. “Sure you’re unharmed, Kitty?” She nodded. Her glance drifted to his hand on her shoulder. Was she thinking about him touching her in a very private, very personal area just moments before? Well so am I… Chapter Nine Kitty stood at the front window. Surely Nathaniel would be there soon to pick her up. Memories of nearly being trampled by a horse made her shudder. When she’d come home afterward, Lydia’s scowl at Kitty’s appearance had been more pronounced than usual. After all, being tossed to the ground and nearly crushed did mess up one’s hair and clothing. Clothing… Nathaniel’s hand brushing off her shoulders, back, and her— Heat slithered down to her core and swirled around. That sensation was coming more and more often. Ever since she’d met Nathaniel. Robert shouting from the back of the house startled her. Please, Nathaniel, hurry up and get here. Robert already made us cry once today. The clip-clop of horses’ hooves settled her nervous stomach. Now she could leave. She already wore her pelisse in anticipation of going but grabbed her reticule and bag of art supplies. Not wasting any time, or waiting around for Robert to notice she was still home, Kitty slipped outside, tugging Great-Aunt Anne in her wake, and hurried to the carriage. Manners held that she should have waited in the house for Nathaniel or his coachman to fetch her. But manners had never met Robert. The coachman was speaking to Nathaniel, who had his back to her. She smiled as he turned and— Kitty stopped short. Not Nathaniel. Mr. Bexley, the son, bowed to her. “There’s the lovely and talented Miss Sullyard. You were in such a rush to get out here. Must have been excited to spend time with me, hmm?” Kitty swallowed, trying to moisten her suddenly dry mouth. “Of-of course, Mr. Bexley.” Hopefully he wouldn’t take her reaction as anything negative toward him. She introduced him to her great-aunt, and then the coachman helped the older woman into the conveyance. Mr. Bexley motioned the coachman to step aside as he himself helped Kitty into the carriage. His hand brushed her bottom lightly. Had that been on purpose? What was it about the Bexley cousins and Kitty’s posterior? She sat down, willing her racing heart to slow. Calm down. Mr. Bexley sat opposite her and Great-Aunt Anne on the other bench, where Nathaniel had been the day previous. “Come now, Miss Sullyard. I’m guessing you were expecting my cousin again. Was your sunny expression really for him?” She knew her great-aunt would already be buried in her current book of choice, so Kitty didn’t even bother to look in her direction. She bit her lip hard, hoping a suitable answer would surface. “My good man, I admire both the Mr. Bexleys.” He laughed, his white teeth gleaming from an errant ray of sun through the window. “How diplomatic you are. And I admire your quickness of wit.” He stared at her breasts, but only for an instant. “Among… other things.” Kitty’s mouth went dry. Wherever his gaze landed, heat seared her skin. Hoping to divert his attention from staring at her, Kitty pointed toward the window. “Isn’t it a lovely day?” He tilted his head, peering intently at her face. “Lovely. So lovely.” Nervousness threatened to shatter the tiny moment of calm she’d experienced only moments ago. Reaching up to grab the edge of her pelisse, she tugged it over her breasts. He caught her eye. “Going to deprive a man of your incredible charms? Such a pity. And here I’d hoped we were becoming friends.” Kitty bit her upper lip as she tried to come up with something to placate him. Robert, already angered, would explode if she were to somehow jeopardize this chance of making money from the magazine. “But, Mr. Bexley, we are friends.” With a laugh she had to force, she released her hold on the fabric, letting it fall to the side, once again exposing the white round tops of her breasts. Was it her imagination or had a cool breeze entered the carriage? A shiver ran across her bare skin, making gooseflesh rise. He unabashedly raked his eyes over her again. He must have noticed the gooseflesh, because one side of his very sensual lips rose, causing the blasted dimple to form. The kind of dimple his cousin had. The kind of dimple that could get Kitty into all sorts of trouble. Trouble she didn’t need. Yet trouble she might have to endure if she wanted to keep her position with the magazine. The carriage bumped along the road, slowing to allow a man and his horse and cart to cross their path. The man gave a cordial wave, appearing not to care how slow he was or if he made the driver of the carriage wait. It reminded Kitty of her new painting assignment. Since it was of a stream where men would like to fish, the setting would be quieter than the noisy atmosphere of the race. She stifled a sudden yawn, remembering how late she’d stayed up the night before working on the panorama of the race. She’d gotten the rest of it sketched in, including spectators, trees, and enclosures. A sigh escaped her, though, and she tamped down an impulse to grumble because she hadn’t even begun to use actual paint on it yet. She’d need night upon night to finish it. Being particular, Kitty wouldn’t declare a painting complete until the tiniest detail was just right. That kind of work took a very long while, as well as a toll on the artist. At times, she was tempted to do mediocre work just to finish it. But that wasn’t her. She’d be guilt stricken if she didn’t do her best. Not to mention Robert would grow purple in the face if he ever imagined she’d not given it her all. Sometimes she wished he could see that while it was admirable to aim for perfection in one’s work, if his main concern was making more money, and making it more quickly, then he asked for the impossible. Kitty tried to keep her focus on studying something, anything, out the window, hoping Mr. Bexley would do the same. But a quick glance showed his attention still locked on her. She swallowed hard. Why did she suddenly feel that he was trying to picture her without clothing? He gave her a sweet grin and a wink then did as she’d hoped and watched the scenery pass by the carriage window. You are such a dolt, Kitty. He really seems quite charming, even though he’s rakish. But what of other men? Not for the first time, Kitty wished her cousin Mary hadn’t left them. Especially not before telling Kitty and her sisters about life, love, and yes… the attitudes and appetites of men. With a side glance at Great-aunt Anne, who was already dozing in a shaft of sunlight, Kitty remembered once trying to ask her about men. Her great-aunt had been married before, but had gone pink in the face, stammering a few unintelligible words and refusing to hear such talk again. How was Kitty to gather the knowledge she needed? She spent so much of her time at home painting. And when she was someplace where she’d encounter a man, her first impulse was to flirt. In general, most men she came across were friendly. Maybe too friendly? Then there was Robert. Kitty hoped against hope that if she was fortunate enough to someday marry, he wouldn’t be like her cousin, who was disagreeable at best and a snarling viper on his bad days. As far as Kitty could tell, Nathaniel wasn’t like Robert. And neither was Mr. Bexley. Maybe she was being too judgmental, too quick to assume the cousins were something they were not. Determined to give them the benefit of the doubt, she picked up her reticule and bag as the carriage slowed to a halt. The coachman opened the door and helped her down. She stepped aside. Where was her aunt? Mr. Bexley descended with a puzzled expression on his face. She waited for Great-Aunt Anne to follow, but she didn’t. When Kitty stepped close to the carriage’s open door, she peeked in. “Aren’t you coming?” Her great-aunt waved her away with her gloved hand. Settling back against the squabs of the seat, she turned the page in her book. Short of dragging the woman out of the carriage, there wasn’t much Kitty could do. With a shrug, she glanced around at the towering oak trees, swaying green grass and from just over a small ridge a few yards away, she heard the gentle shushing of water washing over stones. She’d not asked exactly where they’d been headed, as she’d been absorbed in watching Mr. Bexley watch her. Remembering his hungry gaze over her chest, she reached up and once again tugged her pelisse tighter. She jumped when he touched the small of her back. “Come now, Miss Sullyard. Covering up again so soon?” Deciding not to directly address his question, she pointed in the direction of the water. “It’s lovely here, but I must admit that I don’t have a clue where we are.” Instead of answering, Mr. Bexley took her by the hand and led her toward the water’s edge. Her legs stiffened, and her feet refused to budge from their spot. How could she possibly be alone, totally alone with him? At least with Nathaniel there’d been other people nearby and her great-aunt had been just a few seats away. Kitty checked over her shoulder. The carriage door was still open. But bless her heart, her great-aunt was asleep. Again. What choice did Kitty have? Certainly she could request that Mr. Bexley take her back home, but that might anger him. And an angry employer’s son probably wouldn’t gain her any more work. Which would in turn upset Robert. Kitty allowed Mr. Bexley to lead her closer to the water. Enchantment pushed aside her anxiety as they neared. Tiny birds, perhaps some sort of swallow, darted over the surface, dipping their beaks down into the water. Were they searching for insects to eat? A light breeze tugged at wisps of hair from just beneath Kitty’s bonnet. “Here. This might make it a little more comfortable for you.” Kitty scrunched her eyebrows together. What was he— She glanced down. A forest green blanket was spread out over the grass. When had he done that? Wasn’t it a public area? She glanced around at the lack of other people. Wait. This didn’t have the appearance of a place to do work for his father’s company. It looked more like a place to— “Won’t you sit down?” Mr. Bexley smiled, causing those blasted dimples to appear. Her knees, suddenly wobbly, threatened to buckle if she didn’t comply. “O-of course.” Once she was seated and had arranged her skirts over her feet, he sat down, as well. Very close. “Now…” He shook his head. “I think we can dispense with the Mr. Bexley.” Oh dear. Hadn’t she just had a similar conversation with his cousin? “That being said,” he took her hand in his. “My name is Stratford.” He tilted his head and waited. Very well. It seemed she wouldn’t escape giving her name. “I’m Kitty.” He chuckled, and his eyes crinkled at the corners. “Of course you are.” What did that mean? Kitty slid her hand from his. Was he having sport with her? Mocking her name? Would he have done the same had she said it was Katherine? “Perhaps I should begin sketching the scene.” He frowned, appearing confused. “For… your father’s magazine.” He rolled his eyes. “Ah, yes. Work. If you must.” How else was she to get paid? Stratford looked at her, pausing a few beats longer at her breasts and her— Heat suffused her whole body. The expression on Stratford’s face indicated there might just be another way, a much different way for Kitty to earn some money. But she couldn’t. Wouldn’t. When men had given her that expression in the past, she’d always been able to subtly escape the situation. Unless she chose to go sit with her great-aunt in the carriage, which wouldn’t allow her to sketch the scene very well, she had to stay where she was. Hastily, she grabbed her bag and dumped the contents of paper, pencils, and paints on the blanket, making sure to put them between her and Stratford. Maybe he’d get the hint. With lowered eyebrows, he glanced down. “I suppose the right thing to say would be how much I admire someone who is hardworking…” Kitty waited for him to go ahead and affirm the sentiment, but he didn’t. With a loud sigh, Stratford reached down and grabbed a pencil. “Guess I’ll have to be content with watching a talented artist at work.” How had she irritated the man so quickly? Better make light of things. “Oh, not so talented.” “On the contrary. I’ve seen your work, remember? Quite impressive.” “Thank you.” “Thank you…” He moved his hand in a circle. “Uh… very much?” “How about saying my name?” “Um. Thank you… Stratford.” He closed his eyes and inhaled as if hearing her speak his name was a lovely fragrance he enjoyed. Perhaps it was, if the way he’d been staring at her was any indication. Kitty, get to work. She reached down and picked up her paper and a pencil. Realizing he’d never answered her earlier question, she asked again, “Where exactly are we?” “The Bexley estate.” His family’s home? Shock coursed through her. It was so personal. So intimate. Why had he brought her there? A loud splash startled her. Kitty giggled when a newt swam across the water. She quickly sketched what was visible of its head and dark spotted back as it made its way to the bank. Stratford leaned closer. “Fascinating.” Kitty gave him a quick glance, relaxing when she saw him studying her drawing instead of her. “Those little creatures really are.” “I meant the way you captured it. I don’t think I could draw anything that would be recognizable.” “I imagine you could. With practice. Keep in mind I’ve been doing this my whole life.” “Would you show me?” “Pardon?” “How to draw.” Was he serious? “Well…” She lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “It would mean a great deal to me, Kitty.” When he said her name, warmth from his voice washed away her anxiety. His expression was so earnest, so genuine. Had she misread his earlier comments? The way he’d looked at her? If only she’d had someone to tell her how to understand men. “Of course.” Stratford grinned and winked. This time, Kitty didn’t tense. No, it felt more like one friend asking a favor of another. And that was something she could do. First she drew an outline of the bank and sketched in some trees. She held out the pencil. “Would you like to try?” He shook his head. “Perhaps for our first lesson, I’ll simply watch.” First lesson? With a slight frown, she went back to her sketch. Ripples of water and smooth stones appeared on the page below the tip of her pencil. Once she began a sketch, her pencil almost became a part of her, like another finger, outlining and shading, bringing a scene to life. She added in the family’s signature S between two closely situated stones sitting low on the bank above the water’s edge. Though she was engrossed in her efforts, heat from Stratford’s leg so near hers worked its way through the fabric of her skirt to her leg. What would it be like to be with a man… to give him her body as well as her heart? Similar memories had assailed her with Nathaniel when he’d rescued her from that runaway horse. He’d held her close, his arms wrapped around her, his body pressed— “Where were you off to just now?” Kitty jumped. “Just… daydreaming.” “Dare I hope it was about me?” Close… it was your cousin. She forced a pleasant expression. “Don’t you know a woman never reveals her secrets?” He threw his head back and laughed. “Will wonders never cease… I’ve found a woman who’s beautiful, talented, and amusing.” He’s found a woman? What did he mean by that? Rakes didn’t want women for any good purpose. But he’d made it sound like… No, Kitty, there you go being a dolt again. He’s only being polite. Why did men and their words have to be so confusing? Chapter Ten Nathaniel glanced out the carriage window, barely taking in the green countryside before he looked back down. When had his hands tightened into fists? Probably shouldn’t be surprised, since he’d wanted to beat the life out of his wayward cousin. The nerve of him racing away to collect Kitty early the previous morning before Nathaniel could even get there. His face heated remembering Kitty’s sister’s expression when she told him that another Mr. Bexley had already arrived in a carriage for Kitty. When he’d spoken to Kitty the first time they met, teasing about how sometimes he wished he hadn’t a cousin, he’d been joking. Mostly. Today, however, he’d love nothing more than to vanquish Stratford to someplace unbearably hot or hostile. Why not both? Forcing himself to calm down, Nathaniel relaxed his hands. He couldn’t, however, stop his boot from tapping so hard it might have left a bruise had the floor been a person. Since Stratford hadn’t shown his face at the office, Nathaniel had once again been forced to stay and complete all the tasks for both of them. When he’d discovered his cousin’s duplicity, he’d made quick work of making sure his uncle knew about it. But Nathaniel hadn’t told Uncle Gilbert. No, that would have come across as being a tattler. Instead, he slipped some coin to one of the magazine’s workers, instructing him to let it slip to Uncle Gilbert that Stratford hadn’t been at work that day. Nathaniel snorted. Couldn’t that be said of most days? Stratford made himself scarce as if the concept of work might cause him to break out in some terrible disfiguring disease. But knowing his cousin as he did, it wouldn’t surprise him to learn that Stratford really did feel that way. After taking a deep breath, Nathaniel finally succeeded in keeping his feet still. No use showing up on Kitty’s doorstep with evil intent in his heart. She might think his sour mood was due to her. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nathaniel’s body heated at the thought of Kitty. Holding her as they’d lain on the ground after the horse had escaped caused perspiration to form beneath Nathaniel’s cravat. Dire circumstances to be sure. It had allowed him the opportunity to embrace Kitty as he might not have had the chance or the bravery to do it otherwise. At least not yet. The carriage pulled up in front of Kitty’s house. Nathaniel had gotten halfway to the door when it opened. When he glanced up and saw Kitty with a huge grin on her face, he relaxed. As glad as he was to see her, he was nearly as glad that he wouldn’t have to endure seeing her sister again so soon. Had she assumed him a sad kind of buffoon for coming for Kitty when his cousin had beat him there? Kitty’s great-aunt slipped past them and headed for the carriage like she owned it. The coachman raised his eyebrows at Nathaniel but said nothing as he helped her onto the seat. Nathaniel turned back. “Miss Sullyard, how wonderful you look today.” She stepped nearer and whispered, “Hadn’t we agreed to address each other by our Christian names?” Leaning down until his lips nearly brushed her ear, he said, “Only when we are alone.” She glanced up at him. “Oh.” Her cheeks colored, a very becoming sight indeed. He hadn’t exactly meant the comment to come out as rakish, but had she taken it that way? So much the better. As difficult as it was for him to act the part of the rake, he’d take any help he could get. Kitty took his proffered arm. “Where are we to go today?” One side of her mouth curved up in an adorable teasing manner. All he wanted to do right that moment was to grab her, whisk her away, and kiss her senseless. After he removed her great-aunt from the carriage… Was playing a rake beginning to take over his mind? Or was it that Kitty was so delectable, so irresistible that he couldn’t stand not to be near her. “Are we ready to depart?” Kitty peered up at him, her long lashes framing her eyes, her auburn hair glinting in sunshine as a few of the many clouds parted for a moment. He swallowed. Stop woolgathering. “Of course.” Get a hold of yourself, man. You mustn’t allow her to see you as you really are. How do you hope to compete with Stratford if she thinks you’re cork-brained? Nathaniel tugged her a little closer, purposefully brushing his arm against the side of her breast. If her intake of breath was any indication, he’d hit his mark. He pushed aside a vision of what she might be like beneath the worn dress. Because if his mind kept pursuing its current course, he’d become a rake in more than name only. He helped her into the carriage and assisted her to her seat. Once he sat down and made sure Mrs. Caruthers wasn’t eyeing him, he leaned forward to be a little closer to Kitty. He gave her a wink and a slow seductive — at least he hoped it was seductive — smile. Her fingers fidgeted with the fastener on her large cloth bag. “Where are we headed today… Nathaniel?” His name from her lips caused something warm and delightful to course through him. How could a woman’s voice speaking his name cause him such a reaction? He reached for her hand, pulling it away from her bag, and cradled her fingers between his hands. “We are going to the London Tower Zoo. Have you ever been?” As soon as he uttered the words, he wished he could reel them back. How thoughtless. While she might not have been, everyone in his set would have attended multiple times. “Well, no. I’m afraid I haven’t had the pleasure.” He squeezed her hand, rubbing his thumb across the back of her glove. “Then it will be doubly delightful for me to be the first to show it to you.” Show it to you… Inappropriate visions of them disrobing and showing each other their— Kitty gave a small gasp, almost as if she’d heard his inner voice. When she glanced toward the window, Nathaniel got a delightful view of her graceful, ivory neck. He longed to stroke his fingers along the soft skin and then spread light kisses down the same path. Something was definitely coming over him, but it wasn’t simply lust. No, this went much deeper. To the center of his heart. How had he lived a whole life before meeting Kitty? Because when he was with her, colors appeared brighter, the air smelled more fragrant, the— “—today?” Nathaniel blinked. “Pardon?” “I asked if you had something specific you wanted me to paint today.” Your self-portrait as a gift to me. “I guess you’ll have to wait until we arrive.” She raised one eyebrow. “Are you being a tease?” “Is that something you’d like?” Her mouth dropped open and she just as quickly snapped it shut. A pinkish hue traveled from her face to the top of her bodice. He didn’t even try to stop himself from following the path with his gaze. The coachman guided the carriage to the entrance of the Tower Zoo. After Kitty, her great-aunt, and Nathaniel stepped down, Nathaniel gave a nod to the coachman, who drove the carriage a few hundred yards down the street. Kitty tilted her head and watched the conveyance roll away. Nathaniel furrowed his brow. “What’s the matter?” She glanced over her shoulder at her great-aunt, who was standing nearly in the middle of the pathway, forcing others to step around her as she read her book. “My dear great-aunt is not the most attentive, but I’m relieved we have a chaperone accompanying us. With Stratford…” She cleared her throat and then quickly focused on his shoulder. Anger jolted through Nathaniel. She also addressed Stratford by his Christian name? And what was that business about the chaperone not being with them? He bit the inside of his cheek and took a deep breath until the anger subsided. No use upsetting Kitty when she’d done nothing wrong. No, surely all the blame would rest with his cousin. He offered her his arm. “Shall we?” They entered through the main gate, sidestepping a large group of men and women who corralled some rowdy children. An earth-shattering roar came from their left. Nathaniel jumped but was fairly certain Kitty had jumped higher. The way she clutched his arm made him wonder if he’d made a mistake bringing her there. He angled his head toward hers. “Are you frightened to be here?” “No… no, I love animals, especially cats. The lion’s roar was so loud.” “Indeed.” He guided them to a nearby bench. When he indicated to Mrs. Caruthers that she could take a seat, she shook her head and headed to a bench a few feet away. Did she not care for Nathaniel’s company, or was she that way toward everyone? He shrugged. What did it matter if it gave him more opportunities to speak with Kitty alone? Kitty stopped in front of the bench and spun toward him. She stared at him for a moment then away, fidgeting her fingers. Was she nervous about something? About being with him with her aunt not sitting on the same bench? But she hadn’t seemed nervous at the race. He blinked. “Is something amiss?” She jumped, even though the lion wasn’t roaring. “I… No. I brought something for…” “For…” She opened her reticule and pulled out a small roll of paper. “It’s not much. I had a few moments before I retired last night and, well…” “May I?” “Of course.” He reached out and took the offered paper, sucking in a breath as he unrolled it. Done in pencil, the majestic black stallion pranced with one front leg up, its tail whipping, caught in a strong breeze. The horse had no rider but was saddled, as if waiting for someone to climb on. “It’s amazing.” She brushed some strands of hair from her cheek and bit her lip. She said nothing but waited. Was there something she wanted him to notice about the drawing? Nathaniel leaned closer to the foolscap, running his gaze slowly over the image. Long tail, rippling muscles, flared nostrils, thick neck… It was a masterpiece but he didn’t see anything— Wait. Right at the corner of the dark eye, which was surrounded by a white patch, was a dark wavy sort of line. It was a… He grinned. “It’s an N.” She let out a breath and smiled. “Yes. I knew you would find it. You saw the S in the one from the race so easily when most people, except for my family, never do.” He couldn’t believe she’d taken the time to draw something especially for him. And to add his initial was a most precious gift. “I will treasure it always.” Color rushed up her cheeks. She waved a hand. “Oh, well… I just imagined since you’d discovered the letter in one, it might be fun to have one with your initial from a place at which you’d recently spent time.” “It is, indeed. I thank you.” He gave her a bow. She giggled and accepted his help to sit on the bench. Nathaniel gently rolled the paper and tucked it into his coat pocket. Once he got Kitty settled on the bench, he sat down, but not too close. So many people were coming and going, he’d not want anyone to think there was anything improper going on. Still, Nathaniel wasn’t sorry Mrs. Caruthers had a mind of her own and enjoyed being a little apart from her niece. No, not in the least. His lips curved up until he remembered what Kitty had said about not having a chaperone while with Stratford. But then, why wasn’t he surprised? It was Stratford’s usual way, was it not? Aren’t you hoping for the very same thing? Glad that the great-aunt is not sitting with you? It wasn’t the same. Not at all. He glanced at Kitty, a few wisps of her red hair dancing about her forehead as she dug into her cloth bag for supplies. No, what Stratford wanted was what he always wanted from women. To have them, use them, and then throw them aside. I’ll not do that. Not to Kitty. Never to Kitty. While he might be playing the rake to try to compete with his cousin for Kitty’s attention, Nathaniel’s ultimate intentions were much, much different. “Are you going to tell me?” He startled. Had he spoken his musings aloud? Please not that. “Tell you—” “What is it you wish for me to draw for the magazine?” He let out a breath. “It’s really no secret. I’ll let you choose.” “Truly?” Her face lit up. “It that such a novel concept?” “Actually, yes. The small drawing of the horse was an exception. I never get to choose what I draw and paint.” What a shame. “Well today, my dear, the choice is yours. Choose any animals here you’d like and capture their likenesses on a panorama.” Kitty’s eyes squinted at the corners. Her expression was one of someone who had just been presented with a special gift. But if she never got to use her talent for her own pleasure, perhaps it was a gift of sorts. Warmth filled Nathaniel’s chest at being the one to give her something she’d love. “Which animals will it be?” “Hmm…” She glanced to her right. Nathaniel looked that direction. The majestic lion sat on his haunches licking a massive paw. “Splendid choice.” “Do you think your uncle will approve of the lion? I can choose something else.” He patted her hand, careful not to leave his there too long, though he wanted to. “He will approve of anything you paint, I assure you. My uncle’s magazine often has pictures of animals, both wild and domestic. I’d say any creature residing here will do. I realize I’m merely one of his workers, but I made sure to get his permission before our outing today.” “I can’t tell you what a pleasure this will be.” After retrieving her pencil and paper from somewhere in the murky depths of her huge bag, Kitty prepared to draw. “What is it about the lion that captures your interest?” She lifted one shoulder in an adorable shrug. “I adore cats. All kinds. However, I must admit this is my first chance to actually see a wild cat. Up until now, it’s only been in pictures I’ve had the chance to view.” Nathaniel watched, fascinated, as Kitty sketched the outline of the giant cat, using the sharp point of the pencil. Then came the face, with large eyes, a regal nose, and a muzzle with whiskers. The paws were next, followed by the tail. She flipped the pencil on its side and shaded in a few shadows beneath the eyes and around the whiskers. He smiled when he watched her draw a tiny S in the lion’s mane, his heart warming again that she’d taken time to draw him the horse. Kitty had only sketched in the barest of details so far, but already it was a masterpiece. What a shame that she’d never experienced even coming to the zoo. But then, if her cousin was as she’d said, there wouldn’t be time for Kitty and her sisters to do much beside work. Determination filled Nathaniel’s mind and heart. Kitty, I make you a vow. You shall have an abundant, happy life in the future. I’ll see to it personally. He watched the lion in its enclosure for a moment and then peered back down to see the progress of the lion coming to life on the paper. Incredible. “How many cats will you draw?” She blinked and peered up at him. “I may draw more than one?” “Of course. Draw all of the cats if you’d like. You could create a wild cat parade. They could all be carrying parasols and wearing pink slippers.” Kitty snorted. Several people turned to glare at her. “Oh dear.” “Don’t mind them,” whispered Nathaniel. “Many of the ton were born without hearts.” With a loud pop, Kitty smacked her hand over her mouth. Her eyes crinkled at the corners, and moisture gathered on her lashes. Trying not to laugh? He handed her his handkerchief. Kitty dabbed at her eyes. Her grin was infectious. “You should not do that out in public.” “Hand you my handkerchief? I assure you, it’s a common thing. Everyone does it. I hear it’s all the rage.” “No,” She giggled. “Make me laugh so hard I… I—” “You… what? Appear even more beautiful than before? Which I hadn’t imagined could happen, yet you’ve proven me wrong.” “I…” She blinked. “Thank you.” “I’m only speaking the truth, Miss Sullyard. But, as I see I’m hindering your work, I’d best let you get to it.” She touched his sleeve. “You’re not leaving… are you?” “Wouldn’t dream of it.” “Good. I’m glad.” “As am I.” You have no idea. Chapter Eleven Kitty had completed her rough sketches of the cats. Next she needed to fill in greater detail. More shading around the haunch of the cat’s leg that was visible in the picture and between its giant paws then some textured effects for the fur along the muzzle and tail. That would make it easier when she worked on painting the panorama that evening. She’d have to make sure she had the correct shades of tan and brown for the fur and mane. “Good day, Mr. Bexley.” She glanced up at the same time that Nathaniel stood and performed a quick bow to an older white-haired gentleman. “Good day, Mr. Williamson.” Nathaniel glanced at Kitty and back to the other man. Mr. Williamson peeked around Nathaniel, catching Kitty’s eye. Quickly, she averted her gaze and continued to draw, feeling like she’d been caught spying on a private conversation. “Who’s your lovely companion, Mr. Bexley?” A nearly imperceptible sigh came from Nathaniel. Had he not wanted the other man to acknowledge her? “May I present Miss Sullyard? She’s doing artwork for the magazine.” The older gentleman inclined his head.. “Good day.” “Good day.” Kitty set aside her paper, preparing to stand. “Please, stay seated.” The man inclined his head. “I’d not want to interrupt your work.” He leaned over slightly, glancing at her paper. “Marvelous.” Kitty smiled, not sure what to say. She’d been told not to stand, should she— “Listen, Mr. Bexley, might I have a word with you? In private?” Nathaniel looked down at Kitty, his eyebrows raised. Was he asking her permission? Surely not. Kitty lowered her head and started sketching again, hoping it would send the message that she was quite busy and couldn’t be bothered to get in the men’s way. She was only doing work for Nathaniel’s uncle, not someone in whom Mr. Williamson would be interested. “Certainly,” Nathaniel said to Mr. Williamson. Then to Kitty, “If you’ll pardon me, Miss Sullyard. I shan’t be long.” With another nod, she watched them depart then resumed her drawing. Boot steps drew near. Had Nathaniel forgotten something? “Working on your little pictures again?” Kitty startled at the feminine voice. She peered up. Miss Queensbury. Perfect. “Little pictures? Well, the panoramas are miniature, so I suppose, yes.” Why was she there? Without invitation, Miss Queensbury took a seat next to Kitty. The nerve. The last thing Kitty wanted to do was spend any time with her. Maybe if she just ignored her, she’d go away. Movement from the corner of Kitty’s eye drew her attention. Miss Queensbury’s boot tapped out a rapid beat on the ground. Was the woman irritated about something? Take your worries someplace else, please. A gentle clearing of the throat came next. Was she not going to leave Kitty alone? After letting out a long breath, Kitty set her pencil down on top of the paper in her lap and gave Miss Queensbury her attention. But she didn’t say anything. Let her do the speaking. I’ll not go out of my way to accommodate her. “Miss Sullyard.” Kitty continued to watch her, unblinking. Miss Queensbury’s face colored a ripe-apple red. “It seems to me that you are insinuating yourself in places you do not belong.” “I’m quite certain I’m allowed at the zoo. Even wild animals are permitted here.” “Not the zoo,” she forced out between clenched teeth. “We’re not at the zoo?” Kitty lowered her eyebrows and tilted her head to the side. “Imagine my embarrassment at sketching a lion. What must people think of me?” “Cease your inane jabbering.” Kitty bit the inside of her lip, hoping not to laugh. “What I meant was you’re attempting to align yourself with your betters.” “How so?” Miss Queensbury’s stare darted in the direction of Nathaniel and back. With a shrug, Kitty eyed the other woman. “I know not what you mean. I’m here on business, as… Mr. Bexley previously stated.” Thank goodness she caught herself before saying Nathaniel’s name. “Oh, I think you do. You’re dressed as a pauper, but I see some intelligence behind those eyes.” She fisted her hands in her lap. Not that she’d strike the woman. But she’d certainly enjoy doing so. “Pardon me for the inconsequential state of my attire. Not everyone can come from money.” Miss Queensbury raised one eyebrow. “My, my… Such a scathing tongue you have.” Kitty flipped a hand in her direction. “We all have at least one talent, I suppose.” Miss Queensbury’s gaze drifted to the sketch in Kitty’s lap. “Such a pity you’ve only got one.” If I grit my teeth together any tighter, they are sure to snap off. “What is it exactly I can do for you? I am here on assignment. Some of us must work to put food on the table.” As she leaned closer, so close Kitty was nearly overwhelmed by her scent of roses, Miss Queensbury lowered her voice. “You can stay away from Nathaniel Bexley.” “I beg your pardon.” “You heard every syllable.” She jabbed her finger at Kitty’s face. “Stay away.” “That’s a difficult request, considering I’m doing work for his uncle’s magazine and he has accompanied me here.” Miss Queensbury tapped her boot on the ground again. “You thought what I said was a request? It was an order.” Kitty snickered. “Really, your sense of humor is quite absurd.” “Sense of… Absurd?” Her mouth opened and closed unattractively like a dying fish. “As nice as this conversation has been, I really must return to my work. That mane won’t sketch itself, you know.” Moving her head slowly, Miss Queensbury eyed the lion in question and blinked. She appeared to be quite out of sorts. Perhaps no one had ever dared speak to her like that before. In that case, I’m pleased to be the first. Miss Queensbury shook her head as if trying to rid herself of her sudden lethargy. With eyebrows lowered, she stared at Kitty. “You will regret that.” Kitty, legs trembling slightly beneath her skirt, lifted her chin. “I think not.” “Let me use small words so even you can understand.” Kitty’s fist tightened to the point that her knuckles grew white. “Just because you’re wealthy and I’m not doesn’t give you the right to be so condescending.” “My, my. What a large word. I’m shocked you know what it means.” The pencil in Kitty’s hand was in danger of being snapped in two. “Say whatever it is you feel you must and go.” “Very well. You will stay away from Nathaniel Bexley because he is mine.” “I highly doubt he sees the situation as you do.” “He’s mine, even though he sports that embarrassing limp. But I can put up with that if I must.” Miss Queensbury gave a toss of her head. “He just doesn’t realize yet that we shall be man and wife. Oh, but we will.” “And you think to convince him?” Kitty wanted to strike the woman for her comment about Nathaniel’s limp. The nerve. It wasn’t all that noticeable. But even if it was, Kitty found everything about the man to be endearing. “Do you think he’ll take a second glance at you?” Miss Queensbury laughed, but it held no humor. “Such a simple girl you are, painting your little pictures, desperately hoping someone will buy one so you won’t starve.” “If you’re so concerned about discussing money, perhaps you’re sniffing around the wrong cousin. Nathaniel doesn’t claim to be the wealthy one.” “I know that.” “Then why—” “My father insists that I wed one of the Bexley men since our families have been long acquainted and Father’s lands are adjacent to theirs. He says he won’t give me a large dowry unless I do. If it came to that, I wouldn’t be able to find a suitable husband.” She gave a haughty sniff. “Walter is much too young. I find Stratford to be a distasteful womanizer. But Nathaniel on the other hand…” “Did I hear my name mentioned?” Kitty sucked in a breath. She hadn’t realized just how close she’d been to Miss Queensbury until she spotted Nathaniel standing in front of them. How must that have appeared? She sat up straight, wishing the other woman would leave. How was Kitty going to explain what Nathaniel had interrupted? With as artificial a smile as Kitty had ever seen, Miss Queensbury simpered and batted her eyelashes at Nathaniel. He angled his head a little to the left, studying her like she was some rare creature he’d never seen before. And wasn’t at all impressed with. Kitty bit her lip, hoping to keep hold of her mirth. So much for the other woman having claimed to have Nathaniel’s interest. I take that back. He does appear interested, just not in the way she might wish. “How… pleasant to see you today, Miss Queensbury.” Nathaniel gave a barely imperceptible bow. Was that to discourage her or embarrass her? Miss Queensbury, expression frozen in place, put out her hand for him to take. After Nathaniel scarcely made contact with the air surrounding her glove, Miss Queensbury glanced over at Kitty. “It appears I’ve once again happened upon your office worker. Slaving away on her little painting.” Having already heard the woman’s derisive evaluation of her work, Kitty forced a grin. Was that the best the woman could do? Simply repeat her thinly veiled insult from before? Such a pity. The woman was a raving beauty but didn’t act very clever. Not at all. Nathaniel let go of Miss Queensbury’s hand and straightened. With a warm smile for Kitty, he glanced down at her drawing of the lion. “I happen to think our Miss Sullyard is a genius.” Genius? Kitty nearly swallowed her tongue. What lofty praise. Or was that only for Miss Queensbury’s benefit? “Well, I…” Miss Queensbury sputtered a few unintelligible words and finally snapped her mouth closed. Thank goodness. With her spine as straight as a fireplace poker, she stood. “I’m afraid I mustn’t tarry any longer.” “Oh?” asked Nathaniel. “What a shame.” “Yes, you see…” She pointed vaguely in the direction of a group of people a few yards away. “They are… um, expecting me, and I—” “Please, don’t let us keep you.” Kitty said the words with a sober countenance but wasn’t sure how she’d managed it. A brief frown crossed Miss Queensbury’s face, and then she batted her eyelashes at Nathaniel. “Until later, then?” He bowed, this one a little deeper than the last. Was he relieved to see her go? With a flounce of her skirts, she sailed off in the direction of the group. Kitty watched for a moment. It was just as she’d imagined. When Miss Queensbury reached the party, she stopped briefly, glanced back toward Nathaniel, and slid by them to disappear around the corner. Good riddance to— “So,” Nathaniel reclaimed his seat on the bench. “Have a pleasant time with Miss Queensbury?” Kitty’s mouth dropped open. It couldn’t be helped. She stared at Nathaniel. And waited. One second. Two. There it is! The left side of his mouth twitched. “I’d say, Mr. Bexley, that I enjoy her company—” She raised one eyebrow. “—every bit as much as you do.” His laughter startled the lion, which roared. Kitty shook her head, giving a mock frown that would have done Lydia proud. “Now see what you’ve done. The lion has changed positions. My drawing is ruined.” He leaned over to study her work. “But surely you can—” With a quick glance at her, he blinked. “Oh. You’re having me on, aren’t you?” “Your quickness astounds me.” Her lips quivered, asking, pleading to be set free to indulge in a smile. Her mirth faltered. How am I doing this? Speaking in such a way to someone like him? What if she angered him and he— Nathaniel reached down and briefly squeezed her hand. “You, my good woman, are not only beautiful and talented, but a delight to converse with.” Her face warmed, both from the compliment and his nearness. “Thank you.” “I should be thanking you.” His glance roamed over her face, neck, bodice and back up. “It’s not everyday I get to be in such close quarters with someone who—” He glanced away and back. “—Makes a man wish he and the lady were somewhere more private.” Kitty swallowed, remembering being alone with Stratford by the stream. What would it be like to spend time with Nathaniel? The men were cousins, after all. Wouldn’t they be somewhat alike in certain ways? “I… that is…” He leaned close, keeping his voice low. With people moving about along the path, Kitty doubted they’d hear his words anyway. “My dear, do you have any idea the affect you have on me?” She jerked and stared at him. His eyes were half-closed, his breath coming in rapid puffs on her cheek. Did he mean to kiss her? But he wouldn’t. Not here! Kitty gave the paper in her lap a rustle. “I really should get back to my sketch. Unfortunately, it won’t complete itself.” Nathaniel blinked. And gave a slow, lazy grin. “As you wish.” He leaned back against the bench and crossed his arms, his focus now on the passersby and not her. A part of her was relieved. Yet disappointed. But wasn’t that what she’d wanted? Rakes, under no circumstances, were to be taken seriously. Chapter Twelve When Nathaniel offered Kitty his arm, she took it gladly. Spending time with him was becoming a very pleasant habit. Though he’d done some things rakish in manner, somehow she didn’t mind as much. Why was that? When other men had behaved in that fashion, she’d backed away, afraid it might go in an undesirable direction. She glanced up at him, his warm smile causing her lips to curve upward. The coachman had the carriage parked a few yards ahead. Great-aunt Anne hurried toward it. Was she afraid she would miss a nap if she didn’t get there in time? A loud screech made Kitty jump. The noise had come from around the corner of a small building. As they made their way closer, she noticed a stone wall. She gasped and tugged on Nathaniel’s arm. “Oh my. It’s a cat.” Nathaniel’s brow lowered. “I believe it might be caught in something.” He let go of her hand and hurried toward the wall that stood a few feet high. Following in Nathaniel’s wake, Kitty rushed to see for herself. The poor cat did appear to have its paw stuck in a crevice between two stones. Kitty longed to reach out and comfort the animal and try to free it. As soon as she knelt down beside Nathaniel, the cat screeched louder. “He’s scared,” she said. “Yes.” Before she could lay her hand on the white fur, Nathaniel’s large hand pressed lightly on the cat’s back. With his voice kept low, Nathaniel spoke encouragingly, telling the animal that everything would be fine. The cat’s howls ceased. Sudden calm surrounded them, even as people walked past on the path. Huge green eyes peered up at them from a dirty, white face. A low rumble came from the cat, growing louder the more Nathaniel stroked the matted fur. “Extraordinary.” Nathaniel startled and blinked. Had he forgotten she was there? “What’s extraordinary?” I spoke that aloud? She bit her lip. “Just… how you seem to have a way with the cat, calming it.” A slight frown came over his face, and he gave a small shake of his head. Was he irritated at her words? “It must be… well… perhaps the cat is partial to men. Yes, that must be it.” Was Nathaniel ashamed for Kitty to have witnessed his display of tenderness? It appeared to have come naturally to him even though he also acted the part of a rake. Why would that be? “Why do I keep finding you two together?” Kitty turned at the familiar voice. Stratford, arms crossed, stood behind them with a fierce scowl. “Good day, Mr. Bexley.” He stiffened at her address but surely he didn’t expect her to call him Stratford in public? “Good day.” He waved a hand in their direction. “What have we here? Why are the two of you crouched near the ground?” Stratford stepped closer. Nathaniel eyed his cousin but didn’t bother to stand. “This poor cat has gotten itself caught in the stone.” “So?” So? Kitty stopped herself before letting her mouth drop open. “Yes,” said Nathaniel. “And our hope is to free it.” “You and your sensitivity.” Stratford barked out a laugh. Sensitivity? Kitty regarded Nathaniel, whose face had gone suddenly red. He didn’t remove his hand from the cat but kept glaring at Stratford. “That is neither here nor there. A creature is suffering, so help it we must. What would you have me do, simply allow it to stay here and starve to death? Even you—” “Such a waste of time, Nathaniel. When there are far more pleasurable pursuits to be had.” Stratford eyed Kitty, but his eyes didn’t stay on her face for long. Her skin nearly burned as the intensity of the man’s gaze roved slowly over her. Didn’t he care that there were people close by? That his own cousin could witness the way he leered at Kitty? All she wanted to do was clout him, hard, for his words about the poor cat. How dare he? “Stratford.” Nathaniel’s voice came out so loud, so sharp, that even those passing by paused to stare. Finally, he stood, helping Kitty to stand, as well. Giving his attention back to his cousin, he stepped closer to the other man. When they stood side by side, Kitty was once again struck with their resemblance. Remarkable, really. Since they weren’t even brothers. She and her sisters were all so different in appearance. “If you’re not of a mind to lend assistance, perhaps you should go.” “Go?” Stratford’s chest puffed out, and his jaw tensed. Oh no… are they going to fight? Here? “Listen,” Kitty stepped between them. “Why don’t we help the poor cat and be on our way?” She lowered her voice when she noticed that some of the passersby had stopped and were openly staring at the exchange. Stratford blinked and peered down at Kitty. “If that’s what you wish, Miss Sullyard.” Why did his voice come across as so stern, so distant? Had she angered him? With a nod, she stepped away, hoping the two men would end the tension and move apart. The cat behind them squalled. Was it frightened again now that Nathaniel wasn’t calming it? Nathaniel ignored Stratford but gave Kitty a brief smile. “Now that the drama is past, let’s free the cat, shall we?” He held out his arm to her. With a brief glance at Stratford’s glowering expression Kitty accepted Nathaniel’s arm. Crouched near the ground once again, Kitty suddenly wondered why Nathaniel hadn’t simply asked a zoo worker to perhaps take care of the cat. Their job was to see to animals’ needs, after all. But when she glanced at his face, she had her answer. His features had changed from his aggravation with Stratford, to a softening, a… could she say a tenderness? What a captivating idea. Could it be that Nathaniel was more than a rake? More than she’d originally thought? Or was he simply a lover of all creatures and couldn’t stand seeing one suffer? Nathaniel reached toward the cat again, so slowly Kitty had to concentrate not to miss the movement. “Here, little one,” he said. “I’m only trying to help you.” As Nathaniel grasped the paw, the cat gave a hiss. Poor creature, how his paw must pain him. Kitty touched the cat’s head, gently rubbing the fur between its ears. “It will be fine, kitty.” A chuckle caught her attention. One side of Nathaniel’s mouth rose as he said, “Do you realize you just called the cat by your own name?” “I…” She glanced back to the cat. “Oh.” She giggled. “Unintentional, I assure you.” “Adorable, none the less.” Adorable? “Now.” He leaned down a little more. “I’m going to give a tug and try to make it quick. No need to scare the poor thing more than he already is.” She moved closer. “If you would, please gently grasp the cat around its middle. Be ready to hold on when the paw comes loose. Ready?” She swallowed. “Ready.” Quick as lightning, Nathaniel tugged the paw free. The cat yelped. Kitty did as instructed and held on tight. Paws and a tail went in five different directions as Kitty pulled the cat away from the stones. But when she pressed the cat close to her chest and petted the soft fur, Kitty felt the animal go limp. “Ah,” Nathaniel reached out to rub the cat’s nose. “Finally relaxed?” She sighed. “Poor dear. How scared he must have been, caught like that.” “He appears a trifle thin too. Let’s get him to the carriage. I may have a morsel or two of food somewhere. I’m guessing he’s hungry enough to eat just about anything.” As they headed toward the Bexley carriage, Nathaniel’s hand touched the small of her back and slid lower to rest just above her tailbone. A few moments ago, a sweet, caring rescuer of cats, and now a rake once more. Kitty shook her head. The man was a conundrum. But an enticing one. She’d never felt drawn to a man like him before. She glanced over her shoulder. Stratford stood there, arms crossed, a glower on his face. It was as if a bucket of cold water had been poured over her bare flesh. She needed her position. Irritating the owner’s son wouldn’t do her any favors. Much as Kitty disliked him at the moment, she needed to get back in his good graces. Kitty cradled the cat even closer. “What shall we do with him?” “I know not.” Nathaniel touched the cat’s pink nose. “Perhaps you’d like to take him to your office? He could keep you company at your desk.” Nathaniel was shaking his head before she’d even finished. “You saw how Stratford reacted to the cat.” Indeed. “Maybe you should take him?” What would Robert think of that? Probably would hate it. He despised the stray cats that she and her sisters fed out in the yard. But if Kitty told him Mr. Bexley — she needn’t say which one — suggested it, Robert just might go along. “I think I will.” The cat let out a contented purr, like he knew he’d just found a home. “What will you name him, Kitty?” “No. I won’t name him Kitty.” “Oh, I didn’t mean—” Try as she might, Kitty’s lips quivered. “Ha!” Nathaniel pointed to her mouth. “You’re having sport with me.” “Maybe a little.” “All right, then. What will the name be?” “Hmm. I think I’ll have to spend a little time with him before I decide.” She took a step away from Nathaniel, intent on putting some distance between them physically and otherwise. She’d need to make it clear that she was interested in both cousins for her job’s sake but that she didn’t want anything more. Now she was starting to regret her impulse to have drawn the horse for Nathaniel. What had she been thinking? As much as she’d like to think he’d have an interest in her, he was a rake. If she allowed herself to get too deeply involved with him, it would be even harder to walk away when her work for the magazine was concluded. Nathaniel blinked and frowned. “Certainly.” Chapter Thirteen Nathaniel chortled at his cousin’s joke. When had Walter developed such a grand sense of humor? “Well, if you must know, Walter, I—” The front door slammed shut, and loud footsteps came toward the parlor. Everyone in the room — Uncle Gilbert, Aunt Hortense, Walter and Annabelle — stared at the open doorway. Stratford, seething, stood there. Hands clenched into fists at his sides. Chest rapidly moving in and out. Face a horrific shade of dark red. He glanced around the room, finally glaring at Nathaniel. That did not bode well. “Problem, Stratford?” Nathaniel stayed in his chair, hands calmly in his lap, but his insides quivered like pudding. “How dare you?” “I beg your pardon?” Aunt Hortense held up a hand. “Stratford, what is—” He cut her off with a sharp slice of his hand through the air. “Now see here.” Uncle Gilbert stood and set the book he’d been reading on his chair. “Please explain the reason for storming in here, frightening your mother and siblings.” And his cousin… Stratford, not bothering to look at his father as he spoke, advanced toward Nathaniel. “My issue is with him.” Uncle Gilbert lowered his eyebrows. “I still don’t think—” “Father… please.” With a frown, Uncle Gilbert reclaimed his seat. “At least take your anger out-of-doors where the women can’t hear.” “Fine by me.” Stratford stared at Nathaniel and raised one eyebrow in challenge. Letting out a slow breath, Nathaniel stood. He faced his aunt and inclined his head. “Please excuse us.” Without another word, Stratford left the room in a flurry of loud boot steps and cursing under his breath. Nathaniel followed, but his limp slowed him down. He knew not what the trouble could be, yet he had an inkling. The longer he followed his cousin, the stronger the feeling grew. This is about Kitty. Stratford didn’t stop until he reached the back garden, which was not visible if one glanced out a house window. Had he done that on purpose? So whatever happened between them couldn’t be seen? Finally spinning around, Stratford glowered at Nathaniel. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Knowing full well, yet loath to enter into an argument, Nathaniel gave a shrug. “I don’t know what you mean.” Stratford barked out a humorous laugh and stepped closer. “Of course you know. Why are you sniffing around Kitty Sullyard?” The harsh stench of liquor hung on his breath. “Why are you?” This time his laugh held some humor. “How long have you known me, Nathaniel? I live for finding beautiful women and seducing them. Bending them, figuratively and literally, to my needs. It’s all about the conquest. The chase.” “And you think you’re the only man who enjoys beautiful women?” Stratford shook his head. “Since when do you give a damn about women? How many times have I offered to help you find a woman to spend time with?” “Your idea of spending time and mine are vastly different.” “There’s my point. Where you might be content to sit and talk to a woman, I can think of nothing but throwing her on the nearest flat surface and lifting her skirts.” “You disgust me.” “And why would that be? I’m only being honest about what I desire. You, on the other hand, never give a damn about women, but suddenly, you’ve developed a tendré for Kitty. And isn’t that just the sweetest thing you’ve ever heard?” He fluttered his eyelashes like a woman. Nathaniel’s hands formed into fists. “Shut your mouth.” “Why?” He stood taller and leaned so close Nathaniel had to take a step back. “I can say whatever I wish. Always have.” “That’s true enough. You get away with so much.” “It’s not my fault that my parents are wealthy and yours were not, dear cousin.” Nathaniel shook his head slowly. Was Stratford really so self-absorbed that he didn’t see anything wrong with the way he seduced women and tossed them aside? “That’s not even the point.” “Then what is?” “You take advantage of… of women and…” Stratford snorted. “You can’t even say the words. What a clown you are. Such a joke. What woman would ever be interested in you?” Nathaniel’s gaze drifted down to his fisted hands, which he then relaxed. “Kitty.” “Now I know you’ve gone mad. She would never look twice at you.” “Then why all the anger?” He spread his hands. “Why are you so upset? If you’re not worried that I—” “You could never cause me a second’s worry.” “Then all this is for naught.” Stratford crossed his arms. Was he trying to appear nonplussed, or did he do it to hold in his anger? “I don’t for one second fear you could ever gain Kitty’s affections, but you are causing me difficulty in making a play for her myself.” “Why? Because I’ve spent some time with her?” “You’re stepping in where you don’t belong. Where you’re not wanted. Kitty doesn’t want you.” “And she wants you?” Stratford puffed out his chest like a peacock. “She longs for me. For my touch.” Negative thoughts crept in. Was that true? Had he misread her interest? “She’s told you this?” “Didn’t have to. I see it in her eyes. Hear it in her whispered words.” Nathaniel crossed his arms to mirror Stratford’s earlier gesture. “I don’t believe you.” “Believe it, Nathaniel. When she’s with me, I have her so full of desire she practically writhes in my arms.” An image of Stratford and Kitty holding each other and kissing nearly made him ill. “You’re revolting, speaking of her like this.” “No, I’m honest. You can trust my words.” “You’re as trustworthy as a viper.” Stratford grinned. “I’ll take that as a compliment.” “You would,” he spat out. “This is getting us nowhere.” Stratford came a step closer, his warm breath fanning across Nathaniel’s face. “What I came out here to say to you is this — stay away from Kitty.” “I beg your pardon?” “I did not mince my words.” Stratford poked Nathaniel once in the chest. Hard. “You understood me perfectly.” “That doesn’t mean I’ll comply.” “Why are you doing this? Thwarting my plans? You’ve never done so in the past.” Nathaniel shrugged, trying to keep his voice nonchalant. Because if Stratford knew how much he really cared about Kitty, nothing would stop him from trying his best to seduce her. “Maybe I enjoy spending time with her.” “Well, stop. She’s not yours to spend time with.” “And you think she’s yours?” “I know it.” “One of these days your overconfidence will get the better of you,” Nathaniel uttered through clenched teeth. “At least I have confidence.” “At least I have scruples.” “You amuse me, cousin.” Stratford shook his head. “How so?” Nathaniel wanted to take a step back, not be so close to his cousin, but he also had no wish to back down from his interest in Kitty. “You make it sound as if having scruples somehow means something.” “It does to me. To most people, in fact.” Why am I not surprised it wouldn’t to him? “Perhaps, but does being in possession of them bring you good fortune? Help you attain your desires?” Nathaniel blinked. Did it? When had being the good cousin ever gotten him anywhere? Not in business, not in finance. Not in life. Certainly not in love. “I see I have your attention now. So hear this.” He grabbed a fistful of Nathaniel’s cravat, making it difficult for him to catch his breath. “You will stay away from Kitty. I will have her. She will be mine.” He gave a small shove, just enough that Nathaniel barely caught himself before tumbling over backward. Damn his lame foot! Stratford straightened his own coat, smoothed his hair, and turned. His walk back to the house was much slower, much more controlled than his angry stalk to the garden had been. His words rang in Nathaniel’s ear. “She will be mine.” No, cousin. On that point you are wrong. Chapter Fourteen Kitty was relieved to have slipped out the door without her sisters coming along. She knew it wasn’t proper for her to be strolling about without at least one of them, but a part of her wanted — needed the independent feeling that came with being on her own. At least for a time. Ever since she’d been little, it had given her a tiny thrill to be out alone, walking. She carried the parcel she’d purchased from Lambert’s colorman’s store, careful not to bend the pages of the precious tome. The art instruction book was small enough that she could slip it inside her largest reticule for safe keeping. Her cousin had taught them the basics of drawing and painting, but there were times when Kitty felt the need for other advice. Since they could not afford a private tutor for art, she occasionally found help in an instructional book. It pained her to have parted with even the small sum, but since it was something that she and her sisters could refer to time and time again, she desperately hoped Robert wouldn’t put up too much of a fuss. The toe of her boot caught on a large stone, and she stumbled. Thankful to have only fallen on her knees and not her face, Kitty stood up and brushed off her skirt. Hopefully no one had witnessed her clumsiness or— The unmistakable plod of horses’ hooves in dirt and the squeak of carriage wheels came from behind. “Say there! Miss Sullyard?” Oh no… Kitty smoothed down her wrinkled skirt and turned. It was the Bexley carriage. She hated to be caught in such a predicament, alone on a seldom used back road, but the thought of seeing Nathaniel again caused her heart to tumble madly about against her ribs. As the carriage slowed and pulled up beside her, Kitty gulped. Stratford. Why did the cousins have to be so similar? Wishing she hadn’t gone on her quick errand alone, Kitty eyed the carriage. Stratford was driving. Where was his coachman? He climbed down. He took his time looking at her, as if taking a lazy stroll. And then downward. A shiver ran across her back. She swallowed past the sudden lump in her throat. “I saw you stumble. Are you injured?” He took her hand, tugging her closer. “I’m fine.” “Pleased to hear it. I’d be quite upset if something happened to my special lady.” What? She couldn’t have heard him correctly. He made it sound like— “I was hoping to come across you, actually.” “You were?” Out on this barely used back road? “I stopped by your house and spoke to your sister Patience. She told me of your errand. She was even so kind as to tell me the route you normally take to the colorman’s shop. “Did she? How sweet of her.” The fingers of Kitty’s other hand fidgeted wildly. How had Patience known what Kitty’s plans were? Did I say something and not realize? Talk in my sleep? By now, Lydia had probably heard what Patience had done, guessing that Kitty could possibly be in Stratford’s company. I’ll surely have another lecture from Lydia on my behavior when I return home. But today it’s Patience’s fault. “Thank you for your concern, Mr. Bexley—” “Stratford.” Kitty let out a sigh. “Stratford. I can assure you, however, that I’m quite unharmed.” She hoped he’d be on his way. Too much time spent in his company alone might get her into trouble. “Good day.” She turned but was brought up short when his hand clasped around her upper arm. “Wait, Kitty. There’s a reason I was trying to find you.” She’d hoped he’d forgotten about that. “Oh?” “Yes, you see… after my first art lesson with you, I’d assumed we might, that is…” He sighed. “I would love another lesson, if you’d be so kind.” She blinked. “Today? Now?” He shrugged. “I find I can think of little else since our encounter. Could I perhaps entice you to accompany me back to my father’s estate? You’ll have to admit it was quite lovely there beside the water’s edge.” “I… I couldn’t possibly.” “Why ever not?” “I…” Think Kitty. “I don’t have my supplies with me. So you see it wouldn’t do any good to have a lesson.” “Ah, that’s but a minor point.” “I don’t see how.” “When I stopped by your house, your sister was so good as to lend me your art supplies.” He tilted his chin toward the carriage. “I have your bag in there.” Kitty clenched her teeth together. “My sister is just brimming with good intentions today.” “Very much so. Shall we?” It’s a bad idea. I shouldn’t go. I mustn’t be alone with him again. With the refusal on her lips, ready to be given voice, Kitty opened her mouth. Stratford took a step closer. He closed his eyes and inhaled her scent, much as she’d done to him that first day in the colorman’s shop. She swallowed hard. Wanting to turn and run away, yet held in place by the reminder that she needed to keep him as an ally for her employment, Kitty didn’t budge from her spot. He reached up and ran one gloved finger down the side of her face. “So incredibly lovely.” She tried to pull away. “I really shouldn’t go with you.” “Kitty.” The word came out on the wings of a whisper. “It would mean a great deal to me, a very great deal, if we could continue our—” His eyes lowered to her bodice and back up. “—lessons.” On the inside, Kitty’s pulse raced, the words I couldn’t possibly ran in a continual loop through her mind. Yet her answer came out simply as, “Of course.” As she allowed herself to be propelled toward his carriage, she still couldn’t believe she was going with him. The man was a rake. Heaven only knew what he had in mind. But every time her impulse was to refuse one of Stratford’s requests, an image of Robert, angry and volatile at Kitty not making enough money, ran through her mind. There’d been times when Robert had blamed Kitty for something or other but ended up taking out his wrath on one of her sisters. And that would not do. Not at all. If she could absorb some of the worry and trouble away from Patience and Lydia, then do it she would. Once they were seated side by side in the carriage, she glanced to her left. And today, it seemed, Kitty would be giving another art lesson to Stratford. At least, she hoped that was the only type of lesson he had in mind. But try as she might, she couldn’t convince herself of that fact. Stratford chatted on about this and that as they made their way to his family’s estate grounds. Kitty answered his direct questions and would nod in affirmation but otherwise kept quiet. Every so often, she would glance around, hoping no one she knew saw her sitting there with Stratford. Alone. She twisted her hands around her reticule. A cold layer of perspiration had coated her back beneath her dress. Kitty could barely contain the urge to reach around and unfasten the top of her gown in order to help her skin dry. Relief swept through her, though she didn’t know why, when he brought the carriage to a stop not far from their place by the water. Their place… She shoved the thought away, determined to give him an art lesson and nothing else. He helped her down from the carriage. Her back tingled as Stratford placed his fingers on her gown just above her bottom. Did he realize how low his hand was and where exactly he touched her? With a glance up at him she had her answer. His wink spoke of his love of being flirtatious. But was it only flirting? Or was it more? Taking her hand in his, he led her back to the same spot beneath the large tree. Once again, there was a blanket spread over the ground. She inhaled sharply. How had he known he would even find her today that he’d had the blanket arranged ahead of time? Or did he keep one there at all times in the event he wanted to entertain a woman? Any woman? After Kitty was situated on the blanket, Stratford joined her. And sat very close. Sudden panic grabbed her heart. What was she doing? Out there where no one else was nearby with a handsome, wealthy gentleman who — she gave a quick peek to the side — whose hand was at that moment making its way toward hers. Kitty, you’re an idiot. You never should have come with him. “Something amiss?” He stroked the back of her hand lightly. She leaned away a little, enough to feel like she could at least breathe without feeling faint. “I… perhaps we shouldn’t be—” “My dear, surely you won’t back out on your promise for my art lesson. It means a great deal to me. A great deal.” He leaned close and reached for her hand. He pressed his lips to her palm. Kitty needed to do something to divert his attention. And quickly. “Hand me my bag, won’t you?” He pulled away and blinked. With a shrug, he reached behind him for the cloth bag and set it closer to her. “Thank you Mr.—” He held up one finger. “—Stratford.” He smiled. Time to get to work and get his mind on drawing and off of anything else. Kitty took out a scrap piece of foolscap for the lesson. It was a fairly good sized piece, so there’d be enough room for him to practice on, but she didn’t want to use one of her precious rolls that she’d saved for doing actual panoramas. She took the large book she kept in her bag out and placed it on the blanket between them. Doing so forced Stratford to move away a few inches. Good. She handed him a pencil. With one eyebrow raised, he took it. “Um… I’m not proficient at drawing. Hence the lesson.” “The best way to learn is to just try it.” “I can think of other things I’d rather try.” She gave him a single shake of her head and tried to appear stern. “Very well. What do I do?” Kitty glanced around them, looking for something easy he could try to draw. There. A small yellow flower bravely held its ground very near the water’s edge. It was surprising it could have deep enough roots in the shallow soil there. “How about that?” She pointed to it. “A flower? That’s not very…” “What?” “Masculine.” She giggled. “Drawing isn’t about masculine or feminine. It’s about art. Expressing your feelings by what you see and how you portray it.” He heaved a heavy sigh. “If I must.” “You must.” She bit her lip trying not to laugh again. He leaned down over the paper and placed the tip of the pencil in the middle of the page. And stopped. “Go on.” “What if I do it incorrectly?” “That’s the wonderful thing about art. There is no right or wrong.” “If you say so.” He glanced up at the flower and back. Slowly, he moved the pencil in a curved line, creating the edge of a petal. “Good.” “Really?” She made a motion with her hand. “Keep going.” He made another half circle next to it and then three more, going around the page. “Like this?” “Yes.” Kitty was so thankful he was actually drawing and taking a lesson instead of… well, she’d rather not think about that. He drew a round circle in the middle of the petals and darkened it in. “What else should I do?” “How about… try flipping the pencil on its side and with light pressure, make tiny striated lines on the petals.” “What do you mean? Show me.” She took the pencil and demonstrated the technique, adding texture and definition to two of the petals. “Here, now you—” When she looked up, he had leaned over toward her. Too close. When she tried to back away, he caught her wrist in his hand. “I can no longer pretend to be interested in drawing a silly flower when what I really desire is to kiss you.” “Kiss me?” She shook her head. He nodded. “Oh, yes. Come here, my dear.” No… This can’t be happening. He’d been drawing. She’d hoped things were progressing as they ought… You’re an idiot, that’s what you are. How could you have believed he’d really settle for an art lesson? With all the strength she could muster, she tugged her hand free and stood. “I’m afraid our lesson is over.” He smirked. Did he think she was joking? That she would tell him it was all playacting and she really did mean to kiss him? After a few seconds, his lips turned downward, as did his eyebrows. “I see.” He stood and brushed off the front of his coat. Without another word or a backward glance, he stomped away to the empty carriage, leaving her standing by the tree. Kitty let out a breath. She’d really done it now. Would he see to it she lost her position at the magazine? But honestly, what other recourse did she have? She wasn’t about to actually let him kiss her, no matter what Robert had demanded. Yes, while she’d flirtatiously kissed men before, Stratford was a rake and might not back away if she let things go that far. Chapter Fifteen The only noises in the room, aside from a steady purr from the rescued cat in Kitty’s lap, were the scratching of pencils and swishing of paintbrushes on paper. Kitty was determined to finish her panorama of the lion, tiger, and panther she’d started at the zoo. Lydia, painting a row of horses and carriages letting off people to attend a ball, broke the silence. “Have you decided what to name him?” She pointed to the cat with the end of her paintbrush and then tapped the utensil on the table three times. Kitty had long been used to Lydia’s strange quirks. “Not yet.” “We can’t just call him kitty.” Kitty bit her lip, thinking of Nathaniel’s reaction when she’d teased him about that very thing. “No, I won’t call him Kitty.” “You know what I mean.” She nodded. “Of course.” Patience, who sat to Kitty’s left, worked away on her painting of Thames River. “I like the name George.” Lydia raised one eyebrow. “You only say that because you like to flirt with the butcher’s son by the same name.” “Nevertheless, I still like the name. But it’s up to Kitty, of course.” She gave an absentminded nod but couldn’t stop thinking of the day prior. If anyone had happened upon her sitting alone on that blanket with Stratford, her reputation would be in tatters. But when she finally convinced Stratford that she needed to go home posthaste, they returned to the carriage. She shook her head. Time to get her mind on more pleasant things. Like the sweet ball of fur in her lap. “Hmm.” Kitty ran her fingers through the cat’s fur, “What say you, cat? Does the name George suit?” The cat meowed and stretched then pivoted in a circle and curled up again on Kitty’s lap. Lydia giggled. “I think he approves.” “Too much talking going on in here!” Robert’s loud voice startled them. Immediately, they all lowered their heads and resumed painting. Why did their cousin have to be so disagreeable? George arched his back and hissed, which caught Robert’s attention. “Why is there a cat inside the walls of this house?” There were cats that roamed outside that Kitty and her sisters fed and cared for, but Robert had never allowed one to come in. Kitty’s hand went protectively around her pet, remembering how scared the poor thing had been when caught in the Tower Zoo wall. “He-he’s a gift.” “A gift? Have you an admirer, then?” Oh, how she wished. “It’s from Mr. Bexley.” With a quick glare at Lydia, Kitty stopped her annoying sister from asking again to which Mr. Bexley she referred. “Ah, well that’s fine then, isn’t it? If he’s giving you gifts, perhaps we can hope for more than a position at the magazine?” Kitty shrugged. “I know not.” Anything more from Nathaniel would be wonderful, but it hadn’t happened, and she feared it never would. Robert sat down at the table and drummed his gnarled fingers on the surface. “When might we expect to see some payment from this establishment?” “I’ve only just finished the first panorama of the race. I’ll make sure it’s delivered tomorrow.” “What’s taking you so long?” Kitty gritted her teeth. “I’m doing my best. You wouldn’t have me produce poor work, would you?” She grimaced and held her breath. Speaking to Robert in such a tone usually got her into trouble. He frowned, the wrinkles on his forehead appearing to collapse into one another. “Just try to hurry up the process.” Kitty blew out a long breath. She calmed George with one hand and finished sketching the lion’s mane with the other. A cat in my right hand, another in my left… Robert leaned closer to inspect her work. “Very good.” A compliment? From her cousin? How odd those words were from the man’s lips. “Th-thank you.” “Listen, this gift from Mr. Bexley…” “Yes?” With her head kept down, she tried to appear as if concentrating on her work. At times, direct eye contact with her cousin had been known to send him into a rage. It reminded her of someone staring directly, in challenge, at some wild beast, giving it cause to go on the attack. “Our family is in dire straits. Extra money from someone of his status could save us from being thrown to the streets. If he is showing you appreciation beyond your painting, it would be in your best interest, the best interests of all of us if you were to…” She forgot herself and looked up. “To what?” “Well…” He drummed his fingers on the table a few times and switched his attention to the side. Did he mean to pursue Stratford? She had no desire whatsoever to do that. But she wasn’t going to correct his assumption that the gift was from the son. She’d already tempted fate once by speaking up about the quickness of her work. To contradict him again would be madness. “I’m certain the gift of the cat was nothing more than a… goodwill gesture on his part. Um… more on the part of the magazine.” “I see.” He eyed her from forehead to chin. “You’re a pretty girl.” He tilted his head and squinted. “I’m sure if you showed some interest in him, it might go a long way toward securing something…” “Something?” “A proposal would be nice.” “What?” “Calm yourself, girl. It wouldn’t be the first time a young woman cornered a man into wedded bliss.” Shock rolled through her. “I-I don’t know…” He grabbed her wrist so tight she dropped her pencil. “Well, I do know. You will be nice to the son. Flirt with him if you must.” Kitty caught Lydia’s eye, but her sister wasn’t making sport of her this time about the flirting. “I’ll do my best, Robert.” “Just make sure Mr. Bexley finds you irresistible. Because if he doesn’t offer to marry you, you won’t have a home here to come back to.” Robert pushed away from the table and stood. Kitty’s hand shook in George’s fur. She’d be homeless? Robert had threatened many things over the years, but that one was new. Perhaps she could merely pretend to pursue him. Let her cousin think she was doing his bidding. Robert rubbed his hand down his face. “There’s something else. And this goes for all three of you.” Lydia and Patience abandoned their panoramas, glanced at each other and Kitty, and focused their attention on Robert. “I know you girls have that silly little game of putting a scrolled S in your work.” Was he going to ask them to stop? It had always been such an enjoyable game for them. And heaven knew there was little enjoyment to be had in their household at present. Kitty opened her mouth to protest. He held up his hand. “I’ll not insist you stop, but in light of that, there’s something I want you to do for me.” He reached in his pocket and placed a small piece of foolscap in the middle of the table. Kitty squinted to better see the small drawing. Had Robert done it? If so, it must have taken him forever with his gnarled hands wrapped around the pencil. The image was an odd shape, kind of a triangle with an arm protruding from each side. What did it mean? She pushed the paper closer to her sisters so they could view it better. Robert pointed to the paper. “From now on when I instruct you to and only then, all three of you will place that image somewhere in your panorama. You’ll hide it, just as you do with your scrolled S, so it can be found but won’t be obvious at first glance.” Why would he want them to do that? “But I don’t understand—” He frowned. “You don’t need to understand. Just do it.” He spun on his heel and stomped away. Kitty heard the door slam as he left the house. How odd… Robert had always been demanding, but that was the first time he’d asked something of them that made absolutely no sense at all. Lydia leaned across the table and rubbed Kitty’s hand. “What are you going to do? About Mr. Bexley?” “I don’t know. He’s not someone I want to pursue. He’s a rake, not someone to have serious intentions toward. Yesterday he said he wanted an art lesson, but I’m sure that’s not really what he had in mind.” Patience’s eyes moistened. “I feel awful about telling him your whereabouts. Now I realize how stupid that was of me.” Kitty hated that Patience felt guilt about giving Stratford her location. She knew her sister would never intentionally hurt her. Most likely, she’d imagined it romantic that Stratford wished to find her, and in her youthful exuberance, had given him information she shouldn’t have. Kitty patted her sister’s hand. “It’s fine. Everything is fine.” “Do you like Mr. Bexley? Even a little? If he were kind, would it be so bad?” “Patience,” Lydia snapped. Kitty frowned. “Let’s not argue among ourselves.” Chagrined, her sisters nodded. Lydia tilted her head. “Not to make sport of your dilemma, but which Mr. Bexley would you rather…” Her face colored. Kitty closed her eyes briefly. “I know which Mr. Bexley I wish it to be.” Patience sighed. “Nathaniel?” “Yes.” “But that’s not the one who’s wealthy,” Lydia said. “No. Nathaniel isn’t the wealthy cousin.” Patience dipped her brush in paint the color of a summer sky. “You prefer Nathaniel. Does he admire you?’ Kitty remembered the way he caressed her face, held her hand, and rescued her from the runaway horse. “I believe so, yes.” “So then, he fancies you and you, him. But because of—” Patience angled her head toward the front door where Robert had departed. “—you feel you must… uh, pursue Stratford. Correct?” “Yes. It’s all so hopeless. Though Nathaniel is also a rake, I’m not sure that would make any difference in the end.” “I have an idea.” Lydia and Kitty both stared at their little sister. “What is it?” asked Lydia. “Well, it sounds to me like you need someone to accompany you who would… perhaps, catch Nathaniel’s eye. Leaving you free to, well…” Lydia frowned. “And just whom did you have in mind?” Patience winked. “Why you, of course.” “What?” Lydia stood up so quickly her chair teetered on its back legs before stopping. Kitty nodded. “It might work. I… If I can’t spend time with Nathaniel, then I’d rather it be someone I love and trust.” Lydia’s face reddened. “You’re not thinking clearly. Patience hasn’t a clue what she’s proposing. She has no experience in the ways of men.” “Neither do you.” Patience pouted. “That’s my point.” Lydia sat back down, tapping the table continually with the wooden end of her paintbrush until Kitty reached over and snatched it from her. “Listen,” Kitty glanced from one to the other. “I have no intention of actually pursuing Stratford. But Robert needs to believe that I do. So we must play along.” Lydia tapped the table with her finger. “Can’t you simply tell Robert you flirted with Stratford but then you actually don’t?” “You know how red my face gets when I try to tell a falsehood. It’s this blasted pale skin of mine. He would see right through my lie. Yes, it’s horrible what Robert is demanding, but you know how he can be if he doesn’t get his way. I’d rather not be homeless, given a choice. My hope is that he’ll tire of his demand and over time and assume that Stratford has no interest in proposing.” Her sisters nodded. “That being said, Lydia, if when you’re with Nathaniel, you would consent to—” “I’m not doing that.” “No, of course not. But perhaps you could spend time with him as a friend, while I… well… act friendly toward Stratford. For the sake of my employment. At least until the panorama projects are finished.” Lydia took Kitty’s hand. “Are you certain? I wouldn’t feel right.” “Yes, I’m sure. Better you than—” A memory of Miss Queensbury crossed her mind. “—someone else.” Kitty wasn’t sure she could stand it if that shrew got her claws into him. Patience leaned forward and glanced from one sister to the other. “So, we have a plan?” Kitty glanced at Lydia, who shrugged and then nodded. “We have a plan.” Chapter Sixteen The door to the outer office opened then closed. Nathaniel didn’t pay it much mind. But when he heard female voices, one of whom he felt sure was Kitty’s, he pushed away from his desk and walked toward the open doorway to the room he shared with Stratford. Kitty and her sister — Lydia, was it? — were talking so intently to each other they paid no attention to where they were headed. “Ah, good day!” Nathaniel caught Kitty’s shoulders before she would have crashed right into him. One side of her mouth rose but just as quickly lowered. “Good day, Mr. Bexley.” Why did she appear not at all pleased to see him? He forced a pleasant expression. “What brings you lovely ladies to the magazine today?” Kitty touched Lydia’s hand and gave it a squeeze as if for reassurance. Was one or both of them nervous? “Have you met my sister, Mr. Bexley?” The fact that Kitty addressed him formally grated on his nerves. Yes, it was the proper thing to do since they weren’t alone. Still… “Not officially. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Sullyard.” She gave a brief curtsey and smiled. She was lovely. Just in a different way. Where Kitty was red-haired with light freckles across her nose, her sister had dark hair and eyes. Time to dispense with the annoying Mr. Bexley. He took the sister’s hand and bowed over it. “Please call me Nathaniel, as you sister does.” Usually. “Well…” Her face reddened. She darted a glance at Kitty. “I…” She cleared her throat. “I’m Lydia.” “What a lovely name.” “Th-thank you Mr. Bex— er that is, Nathaniel.” He knew neither why they were there nor the reason for all the seemingly nervous chatter, but he was thrilled to see Kitty again nonetheless. “Would you ladies like to sit down?” He waved his hand toward a small grouping of chairs in the corner. Kitty clutched her reticule tight against her chest. “No. That is, I need to speak with your uncle… about my panorama.” Nathaniel smiled. “The one from the race? May I see it?” He held out his hand but lowered it when she didn’t comply. “I… I really would rather show it to him first. You understand, don’t you?” Do I have a choice? Embarrassment burned in his chest. “Certainly.” Kitty raised one eyebrow at her sister. “But if you wouldn’t mind keeping Lydia company for a little while? While I’m gone, that is.” “Of course.” What in the name of heaven was going on? Was he now a nursemaid for her sister? He watched, forlornly, as Kitty left the room. Lydia walked across the room and claimed one of the chairs. She smiled but didn’t say anything else. It appears I must entertain her. With a pleasant expression he didn’t feel, Nathaniel took the chair next to Lydia. Should he play the rake with her, as well? If his guess was right, the sisters talked about everything together. He’d better act the same way with Lydia as he did with Kitty. To a point. There certainly wouldn’t be any touching or hand holding. Still, he could put a little bit of the rake in with his speech and mannerisms, couldn’t he? “Tell me, Lydia. How is it that two such beautiful women can come from the same family? Surely that’s unfair to other families whose daughters are plain.” She raised one eyebrow and sat up straighter. “I’m certain I couldn’t answer that, Nathaniel. It’s not something I’ve been asked before.” Why do I feel that I’ve been scolded by my governess for misbehaving? Lydia’s posture and prim expression made him think she was perhaps more serious than her sister. “Surely you jest. How could your beauty not be commented on by every man who meets you?” Her scowl deepened as if he’d somehow insulted her. She tapped her finger several times on the wooden chair arm, the sounds as evenly spaced as that of a metronome. “Is this the way you speak to my sister?” Only because I have to, to keep her attention. “And why shouldn’t I? Have you any idea how rare it is for two sisters to be so—” She held up her hand, cutting him off. “I’m not comfortable hearing such sentiments.” Lydia might as well have slapped him. “I… well, I beg your pardon.” A small smile crossed her lips. “You are excused.” What proper miss she was. Acting the rake with her apparently would do no good. I wonder if Stratford would have any better luck speaking thusly to her? Could it be that I’m just not convincing enough in the role? It was time to change direction. “Kitty mentioned that you as well as your other sister—” “Patience.” “—Patience, paint panoramas.” “That’s true.” He waited for her to elaborate. She didn’t. “Er… what do you like to paint?” “Whatever Robert instructs me to.” He frowned. With her words and what Kitty had already mentioned, Robert sounded perfectly delightful. “What’s something you’ve painted recently?” Her round-eyed stare reminded him of an owl. “You certainly are full of questions.” Nathaniel nearly laughed. Quickly, he halted the inclination. Lydia was quite serious. “I suppose I’m just interested. In your family’s area of talent.” She blinked but didn’t reply. Why was having a simple conversation with the woman so vexing? There was never any trouble speaking to Kitty. But then, he was genuinely interested in Kitty. With Lydia, he was only trying to pass the time until Kitty— Footsteps approached from the hall. Kitty entered the room, a giant grin on her face. It was like the room had been dim in her absence but brightened with a burst of sunshine. Relieved for her return, Nathaniel smiled. “Good news, I trust?” Kitty took a seat on Lydia’s other side. Disappointed, Nathaniel held back a frown. Why hadn’t she sat in the unoccupied chair beside him? She set her bag on the floor next to her chair. “Your uncle was very pleased with it.” “I’m not in the least surprised.” Kitty giggled. Now there’s what I like to hear. He gave Lydia a quick glance, noticing she neither laughed nor cracked a smile. Odd, that. “Your uncle is a charming man,” continued Kitty. Nathaniel did chortle at that. “I’m not sure I’ve ever heard that adjective paired with him before.” “But he is.” She leaned forward to see around Lydia, who shook her head in Kitty’s direction. Did Lydia scold her sister as she’d done to him? How strange that the two women are so different. “Did you tell him of others you’re working on?” She nodded and her face colored. Suddenly, Nathaniel remembered the day when he’d gone to collect her in his carriage and Stratford had already been to the house. Where had they gone? Had she painted something while with him too? I hope so. Nathaniel’s hand fisted in his lap. Because if she wasn’t painting, what else had they been— More footsteps approached. Stratford rounded the corner and stopped short when he saw the group. He stared at Kitty but didn’t appear to be pleased. Usually he did all he could to be near her. Had something happened between them? Do I really want to know what it was? Kitty cleared her throat and looked up at Stratford. “Good day.” He gave a nod, but that was all. Then he shifted his gaze to Lydia. A grin, the kind he usually wore with Kitty, snaked across his lips. “And a very good day to you.” He bent over, retrieved her hand, and placed a kiss on the back of her glove. Kitty’s mouth fell open, and she let out a gasp. Lydia, however, instead of giving Stratford a stern glare, fluttered her eyelashes. Why didn’t she react that way toward me? Perhaps it was a matter of Stratford being a successful flirt, whereas Nathaniel was only just attempting the art. Kitty let out a huff and stood, putting herself between Stratford and her sister. What was she up to? With a grin, Kitty placed her hand on Stratford’s arm. “I’m so pleased to see you again.” He scrunched up his features. “Are you? I wasn’t so sure the last time we were together.” Nathaniel longed to punch something. Preferably his cousin’s nose. What had happened between them? Had Stratford tried something inappropriate with Kitty? Of course he had. He’s Stratford, for heaven’s sake. Kitty pressed closer to Stratford. “Of course I’m pleased to see you.” Stratford’s mouth drew up on one side. “Glad to hear it.” He looked at her mouth. Pardon me. There are others in the room. Nathaniel’s jaws clenched so tight, he feared he might shatter a tooth. Kitty winked — winked — at Stratford and then released his arm. Turning to her sister, she stepped close to her. “Lydia…” Kitty tilted her head in Nathaniel’s direction. Lydia glanced at him then back. What in the world is going on? While Nathaniel shook his head and gaped, Kitty once again took Stratford’s arm. They headed out of the office. Where were they off to? He jumped when Lydia suddenly appeared beside him. Without a word, she angled her head in the direction of the empty doorway. Did that mean she wanted to go along? And am I meant to accompany her? Not quite believing what he was doing, he watched in amazement as his elbow lifted for Lydia to take. It was as if his arm knew something of which he did not. Why am I doing this? Where are we going? And why am I not the one with Kitty? Lydia took a tighter hold on Nathaniel’s arm and practically dragged him behind Kitty and Stratford. When the other two climbed into Uncle Gilbert’s carriage, Kitty glanced down at her sister and gave a slight tilt of her head. Without preamble, Lydia addressed Nathaniel. “Well?” “Well…” “Aren’t you going to assist me into the carriage?” “Uh… certainly.” The coachman rolled his eyes but made no attempt to offer his services. Had he tired of Nathaniel always shooing him away when he’d assisted Kitty in the past? Nathaniel forced a pleasant expression and helped Lydia up. She sat down opposite Stratford and Kitty and watched Nathaniel expectantly. With a glance back at the building — Who would take care of today’s duties? — he climbed in and sat next to Lydia. The carriage pulled away from the building. Nathaniel fumed as he watched Kitty press closer to Stratford’s side. Why was she doing that? Was the time she’d spent with Nathaniel meaningless? Perhaps I wasn’t at all convincing at being a rake. He glanced to his side. Lydia certainly had acted immune. She kept her stare locked on her sister. Was she waiting for something important to take place? It almost felt as if the sisters had planned it. Whatever it was. Kitty chattered on about everything and nothing, but only to Stratford. He appeared amused by her antics and winked at her so often Nathaniel wondered if his cousin might lose an eye. Lydia, on the other hand, didn’t talk. To anyone. She did however keep staring across the carriage at the other two. Was she waiting for something to happen? But then, she had come across to Nathaniel as being very proper. Perhaps she didn’t approve of the way her sister was fawning over Stratford. I certainly don’t. Nathaniel spent so much time watching Kitty, and watching Lydia watch Kitty, he failed to notice where they were headed. When he finally glanced out the window, shock rolled through him. Stratford had instructed the coachman to take everyone to the Bexley mansion? Nathaniel edged forward on his seat and pressed closer to the window. Why on earth was that their destination? What could Stratford possibly be thinking? And wouldn’t Uncle Gilbert be irritated if he found out that the reason his son and nephew weren’t in the office was because they were at his home? With women? Perspiration gathered around Nathaniel’s cravat. He had no wish to anger his uncle and possibly lose his position. Unlike Stratford, who got away with everything, Nathaniel didn’t have rich parents who would give him funds whenever he asked. Hopefully the subject wouldn’t come up. Are you really so daft that you expect Uncle Gilbert not to notice your office is empty of workers? But there was nothing for it now. If Nathaniel put up a fuss about missing work in front of Kitty, she’d have even less reason to believe him a rake. No, he needed to keep quiet about it. Act as though missing work and doing as he pleased was his normal habit. He forced a smile and tried to relax. On the inside, however, his stomach churned and guilt niggled at his mind. You’re doing this for Kitty. She must believe you are who you pretend to be. He glanced again across the carriage. She only had eyes for Stratford. Competition was fierce for her attention. Have I already lost my chance? The carriage angled at the fork in the long drive. Instead of heading toward the house, they went to… Nathaniel frowned. The stream? What on earth would they do there? Kitty grabbed Stratford’s arm as soon as the carriage had rolled to a stop. Stratford raised one eyebrow at her. “In a rush, are we?” Kitty blushed and winked. Something akin to queasiness beset Nathaniel’s stomach. It really was too late. He’d lost his chance with Kitty. Obviously, she preferred Stratford. If only she knew what his cousin usually had in mind for women he’d taken a fancy to. But perhaps she did know. And that was why she was with him now? With sadness, Nathaniel followed the others from the carriage. He vaguely noticed that Kitty and his cousin had headed off by themselves. Nathaniel couldn’t even summon the energy to try to follow them. What good would it do? Obviously, Kitty had her heart set on Stratford. Something nudged his arm three separate times in rapid succession. He glanced down. Oh. It was Lydia. He’d nearly forgotten she was even still there. She narrowed her eyes. “Would you care to take a walk? Or… something?” He raised one eyebrow. What an odd young woman. But what else did he have to occupy his time? Stuck there, with her, until Stratford and Kitty returned from wherever they were going to do whatever it was they’d be doing. However, he had a pretty good notion what it would be. With a heavy heart, he held out his arm to Lydia. He peered around the area, glad not to see anyone that far from the house. Perhaps no one would have to know that he and his cousin had taken off, chaperoneless, with two young ladies. As she tugged him in the opposite direction from her sister, Lydia kept peeking over her shoulder. “Is something amiss, Lydia?” She jumped? “Pardon? Um, no… not really.” “You just seemed to be watching Kitty.” “I wasn’t watching her.” “You weren’t?” Nathaniel wondered why Lydia’s steps had quickened. And since she had a tight hold on his arm, his hastened, as well, but his limp made that quite difficult. Why was she in such a hurry to take a walk? Her cheeks reddened. “No, I was looking at…” Her voice trailed off. “Sorry. Didn’t quite catch that.” “Never mind.” She hurried even more. What was she doing? “If you’re of a mind to run, I’ll let you go on alone.” “No, I’m not of such a mind.” But she didn’t slow down. In fact, she nearly pulled Nathaniel from his feet in her haste to get wherever it was she was headed. In the wake of Kitty going off with Stratford, Nathaniel cared not at the moment for politeness. “What on earth are you doing?” His words came out as almost a shout. That got her attention. “What?” “You act as if your skirt is on fire.” Her mouth dropped open. “I beg your pardon?” “Obviously, you’re troubled. It’s almost like you’re running away from something. Or someone.” He turned his head toward the direction in which Kitty had gone. “Are you trying to distance yourself from your sister?” “Don’t be ridiculous.” But as she said it, she once again tugged him further down the path. Too morose about Kitty to care, Nathaniel didn’t say anything more to Lydia about dragging him away from the others. Finally, after they must have gone at least a half-mile, Lydia stopped. She glanced around. “Where are we?” “You’re asking me?” “Isn’t this your uncle’s property?” “Well yes, but… you’re the one who was determined to come this way.” He narrowed his eyes. “Or was it that you didn’t have this destination in mind, just as long as it was away from Kitty?” Lydia glanced down at her boots. Her cheeks and neck deepened to an apple red. “Lydia?” Nathaniel placed one finger beneath her chin and raised her head. “What has you in such a state?” “I… I can’t tell you.” “Why not? Is it a secret?” She lifted one shoulder. “In a way.” “Does this have to do with Kitty or Stratford?” Lydia hesitated. “Both.” “I see. Tell me first about Stratford.” “I’d rather not.” If it was possible, the color of her cheeks deepened. “You dragged me all this way and don’t even know where you are. To pass the time you could at least converse with me.” She let out a deep sigh. “There’s something about your cousin. I don’t know… He’s—” “Handsome, charming, and irresistible to women. Yes I know.” Lydia twisted her hands together. “Besides that. There’s a wild quality about him. It makes me want to…” “To what?” She lowered her voice and whispered, “Tame him.” Nathaniel shook his head. Speechless, he could only stare at the prim miss in front of him who’d uttered those words. Tame… him… She fidgeted her fingers at her waist. “I can’t help it. I’m so drawn to him.” “Isn’t everyone?” “No.” “What was that?” “Nothing.” He grabbed her shoulders. “Lydia. What did you mean, not everyone? Did you mean Kitty?” “I wasn’t supposed to tell you.” He gave her a slight shake. “You’re going to tell me everything. Now.” “Perhaps it would be easier if I simply showed you.” She spun abruptly and headed back up the path the way they had come. What was she doing? She’d dragged him all the way out there, and now she was practically running back? He did his best to keep up, his foot nearly dragging along the stones in his haste. Out of breath once they stopped, Nathaniel pulled out his handkerchief and mopped the perspiration from his brow. He glanced around. Where was— Lydia pointed. “There, beside that tree.” Nathaniel’s heart nearly stopped, for there by the stream stood Kitty. In Stratford’s arms. And they were kissing. Chapter Seventeen Nathaniel had ruminated on little else but Kitty. And the fact that he loved her beyond reason. But his jaws clenched whenever he remembered seeing her in Stratford’s embrace. Did she love his cousin? Nathaniel wanted more than anything to go to her, tell her of his feelings. Profess his undying devotion and offer for her hand. And he would do just that, were it not for two things. First, if she was in love with Stratford, she might not want to settle for second best. And that would break his heart. Secondly, Nathaniel’s income was meager compared to Stratford’s. He could provide for a wife, but barely. Is that the life he wanted for Kitty? Is that what she would want? With all she had been through with her cousin’s demands and the fact that she had no money to speak of, surely she wanted something better for her and her sisters. Balling his hands into fists, Nathaniel strode the short distance from one side of the gamekeeper’s old cottage to the other. After he’d seen the way Stratford had acted toward Kitty, Nathaniel had grabbed a few necessary items and moved in there. He couldn’t stand the thought of being around his cousin and hearing him speak of Kitty. Though neither had told Uncle Gilbert what had happened to cause the rift, the older man was wise enough to know that something of importance had occurred and that the two young men needed to be separated at least for a time. Thank goodness he no longer had to share an office space with his cousin. Nathaniel had gladly taken a small room down the hall in which to do his work, leaving Stratford the large room to himself. Uncle Gilbert had even mentioned keeping a closer eye on his son lately. A tiny smile graced Nathaniel’s lips at the image of poor Stratford having to put in an actual workday. Would he even know how? His good humor fled just as quickly when he remembered Kitty wrapped in his cousin’s embrace. How Nathaniel wanted to offer for her hand. Make her his wife. Love her forever. He glanced around the tiny room. But what could he offer her? Even if by some miracle Kitty accepted his proposal, she was obviously smitten with Stratford. Besides, Nathaniel had no home of his own, no large salary. No inheritance. If what Kitty said about her cousin demanding money was true, Robert wouldn’t be satisfied with Kitty marrying the likes of Nathaniel. No, from that standpoint, Stratford would be a better provider. But the admission was like a knife to his heart. A knock on his door startled him. It only took him a few steps to reach the door and open it. “Annabelle?” His cousin stepped inside and gave him a timid smile. “I didn’t want you to think we forgot.” “Forgot… what?” She held out a small covered plate. “Your birthday, silly.” Nathaniel blinked. He’d lost track of the date. It was his birthday. He glanced down at the plate and then uncovered it. “A lemon tart.” Annabelle giggled. “I know it isn’t a cake, but…” “No, it’s wonderful.” He kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you for remembering me.” She glanced around the small room. “Are you… comfortable here?” He shrugged. “I have everything I need.” “I miss you… at the house.” “I miss you, as well. All of you…” He turned his head, peering out of the small window instead of finishing his thought. “Except, you don’t miss Stratford?” Nathaniel placed the plate on the kitchen table. He then faced Annabelle. “If I were to say I missed him, it would be a lie.” “I see.” “I’m sorry if that upsets you, but—” She held up her hand. “I don’t know what happened between you two, but I’m wondering if it perhaps involves a woman?” Nathaniel stiffened. How could she possibly know that? “I’m guessing a matter of love is the only thing that might tear family members apart. Am I right?” “Yes.” “You love her, then.” Nathaniel let out a long sigh. “Very much.” “Would you like to tell me about her?” A warmth enclosed Nathaniel’s heart. He’d had no one with whom to talk about Kitty. No one to confide in. Or pour his heart out to. As much as he would have liked to have continued to see Kitty, it hadn't seemed a wise thing to do. He couldn’t offer for her. Still, his pent-up feelings and frustrations about not being with her had to come out at some point. Some way. “I would love to tell you about her.” He took Annabelle’s hand and led her to the worn settee against the opposite wall. Once seated, Nathaniel felt suddenly shy about speaking of Kitty. “I don’t know where to begin.” “Why not start by telling me her name?” “Her name is Katherine, but she goes by Kitty.” “Kitty.” Annabelle tilted her head. “What a sweet name. I don’t suppose she likes cats?” Her mouth tipped up at the corners. He chuckled. “As a matter of fact, she loves them.” “Then she and I would have something in common.” “Yes, you would indeed.” “And her appearance? Is she beautiful?” “Oh, yes… She has the most lovely red hair and green eyes. She’s tall. Not that much shorter than I.” He could almost see her sitting there beside him, an impish grin when she teased him. “Kitty sounds exquisite.” He sighed. “Very much so.” “Nathaniel, I don’t mean to pry, but would this by any chance be the woman who was doing some work for the magazine? I’d heard Stratford describe her to Mother.” He let out a breath. “Yes. So now you’ll know that she’s—” “It matters not her status, if you care for her.” “Thank you so saying that. It’s exactly how I feel, but some wouldn’t agree.” Annabelle raised her eyebrows. “Stratford? “He doesn’t see Kitty the same way that I do, I’m afraid. His motives don’t appear to be sincere.” Annabelle narrowed her eyes. Was she figuring out more of the puzzle? “Well, you’ve said you care for Kitty. Does she feel the same of you?” “I believe so. I mean… I believed she did. But then… Stratford came along and, well…” “You don’t need to say more. I know of my brother’s reputation.” Grateful he wouldn’t have to elaborate, Nathaniel gave her a small smile. Annabelle glanced across the room. “You haven’t eaten your birthday tart. Let me get it for you.” A chuckle escaped from Nathaniel. Leave it to his sweet cousin to try to cheer him up when things were going so badly. Annabelle returned with the tart and a fork. She held them out. “Here. I hope you enjoy it.” “I’m certain I will.” He took a bite. “Delicious. Thank you again for remembering my birthday when even I forgot. And also for listening.” That was an even more special gift in his opinion. “I didn’t mind. Not in the least.” She reached up to swipe a wayward lock of hair from her eyes, and then she glanced at the small reticule fastened to her wrist. “Oh, I nearly forgot. Something came for you today at the house.” Curious, he held out his hand as Annabelle retrieved a letter from her bag. She raised her eyebrows as he opened it, acting excited about what it might be, as though it might have been something for her instead of him. He grinned at her. “Shall we find out?” She clasped her hands together in her lap. He read the name of the sender. “Mr. Smyth. I’m not sure I know of…” Annabelle frowned. “That’s the name of father’s solicitor, I believe.” “What in the world would he be contacting me about?” Annabelle pointed to the letter. “You won’t know until you read it.” “True.” He flipped it over and broke the waxed seal. Squinting in the low light of the cottage, he read the words. He shook his head slowly and read them again. “There must be a mistake. Perhaps this was meant for Stratford.” He held it out to Annabelle. “No, I was certain the footman said it was to be given to you. Is it bad news? Do… you want me to read it?” “If you wouldn’t mind. I… I’m not sure I can believe what’s written there. Perhaps you can tell me if I understand it correctly.” “Of course.” Annabelle squinted as well, her eyes moving to and fro as she read the letter. She reached out with one hand and grabbed his sleeve. “Nathaniel. This is wonderful news!” He swallowed. Could it be true? “According to this, since you’re now five and twenty years, you’re entitled to your inheritance.” He stared, seeming unable to blink for a moment. “But I never knew I had one.” She read a little farther. “It’s listed as a trust that would only be made known to you on this very day.” Annabelle handed him back the letter. “Congratulations, cousin. I guess it’s a happy day for you, after all.” Nathaniel read the letter again for himself. Just to be sure. He’d already done so, and Annabelle had assured him of its contents, but it all appeared too wonderful to be real. He’d have enough money to purchase his own home. He would have sufficient funds coming in annually to augment his salary from the magazine. A wide grin crossed his lips. He could afford to marry Kitty. But what if she didn’t want him? Didn’t love him? His mouth pulled down at the corners. “What’s wrong?” Annabelle grabbed his hand. “I’m… having doubts about Kitty. About her feelings. What if she doesn’t feel the same?” Annabelle gave a one-shouldered shrug. “It’s kind of like your letter. You won’t know the truth until you see for yourself.” His cousin was right. He’d never know how Kitty felt about him unless he spoke with her in person. He hugged Annabelle. “You, my darling, are the sweetest cousin there ever was.” She laughed as she gave him a squeeze around his shoulders. “As are you.” He rose suddenly. “Please forgive my abruptness. There are some things to which I must attend right away.” She stood, as well. “Go. Now. Find out how Kitty feels.” “Thank you, dear heart. I shall call on her first thing tomorrow.” He grinned, placed the letter in his pocket, and hurried from the cottage. Chapter Eighteen The drone of people’s voices swam around Kitty as she impatiently waited for someone, anyone, to buy one of her panoramas. She knew she and her sisters did admirable work. Hadn’t they been told that time and again? Going against her cousin’s rules, she had stepped out a little onto the path that wound between the artisan’s booths. Who cared if Robert found out and got angry? If Kitty didn’t do something to make money, and quickly, she might just find herself without a home. At least she’d been honest when Robert had questioned her about Stratford. Yes, she had been nice to him. Yes, she had flirted. And to her mortification, the man had snuck in a kiss when she wasn’t expecting it. She’d been livid but had done her best not to let it show in her expression. At least for the present, she needed to make sure Stratford said nothing against her to his father. I need to keep this position. Though she had talked Lydia into going with her to keep Nathaniel company while she was pleasant to Stratford, Kitty would not be alone with him again. She’d consent to an outing only if her great-aunt, Lydia, or Patience were in company. And she wouldn’t go off with him by herself in the future. Poor Lydia had apologized over and over, because she’d given in and taken Nathaniel back to the stream. Apparently, they’d approached right as Stratford grabbed her and pressed his lips to hers. When Kitty had heard a shuffle of boots and had seen her sister and Nathaniel, him with an expression of sadness mixed with disbelief, a piece of her heart had chipped away. After witnessing what he had, surely Nathaniel would lose any interest he might have had for her. Not that she could blame him. A part of her wanted the employment to end soon so she could give up the ruse of any interest in Stratford. But when that day came, would she ever have an opportunity to spend time with Nathaniel again? Chances were exceptionally good that she would not. With a sigh, she looked to her left, perusing the people strolling past. A group of three women was followed a few feet behind by a young man and a strikingly lovely brunette. Kitty forced a smile she didn’t feel, hoping to entice someone to at least step closer and view her work. Perhaps then she— “Pardon me.” Kitty jumped and pivoted to her right. An older, well-dressed gentleman with thick white hair stood before her, a pleasant expression on his face. “I’d like to see your work, if you please.” He glanced at the unrolled panoramas on the counter behind her. “Certainly.” She edged closer to them and picked up the one nearest to her. It was a scene of a stylish young couple descending from a carriage pulled by two black horses with shiny coats and a majestic white house in the background. She had so enjoyed painting the equines. “This one is quite nice.” He leaned forward and placed spectacles on his nose, still squinting at the image. “No. Not that one, I’m afraid.” She blinked. To each his own. “I have several others if you would care to see them. My sisters and I paint a large variety of subjects.” His thick eyebrows lowered. “Yes. Show them all to me.” Kitty bit her lip. He had acted friendly when he’d first arrived but now appeared to be agitated. His foot tapped against the floor, and his hand fidgeted at his side. “Of course.” She reached for one of a jester performing at Astley’s Amphitheatre. “How about—” He took a brief glance, shook his head. “No. What else?” The man had barely given it his attention. Why was he being difficult? He’d seemed so interested in seeing her paintings. If he didn’t care for her style of work, why did he want to even look at any more of them? Surely a person would assume that an artist’s way of painting would remain consistent from one subject to the next? “Here’s another.” She unrolled one she had just finished the night before of The Tower of London and held it out to him. He practically snatched it from her hand. As he studied it, taking his time, he even ran a finger tediously over the image, as if wanting to memorize the whole panorama. Then his pleasant countenance returned as he peered at her. “This one.” Finally, a sale! She could practically hear her cousin chuckle in delight at her earning some money for him. “Very good choice, sir. Is it to be a gift? I can wrap it for you in a lovely—” “No, no. I’ll take it as is.” He reached for his small purse. She told him the amount, delighted that he’d not squawked about the price. Some tried to barter with her, but she rarely gave in unless it would be her only sale of the day. Robert was very much against taking less money than the price he had set. There were times Kitty wished she could accept less for her work. Not that she wanted to, but wasn’t a smaller amount preferable to earning nothing? “Thank you, sir. Good day and—” “Good day,” he said in a clipped tone. With that brief sentiment, the man turned abruptly and hurried toward the building’s entrance like he had a previous appointment he’d forgotten about until that instant. Kitty shook her head slowly. What a strange encounter. She glanced down at the money in her hand. But she’d made a sale. Surely that was worth putting up with odd characters. And he’d been mostly pleasant except when he grabbed the last panorama from her. One could endure a little rudeness if it ended in the desired result. It wasn’t until she’d stashed the coins in her reticule that she realized the panorama the man had chosen was one that Robert had instructed her to add in the triangle shape. Had the man noticed it? He’d studied it quite thoroughly. She shook her head. Surely not. Why would he? They hid the symbols well, and people rarely saw them unless they were told what to look for. Even then, some never did find the miniscule items they inserted. Except for Nathaniel. He’d found the letter S right off, without even knowing there was something he was supposed to hunt for. Her body warmed at the memory of sitting so close to him at the racecourse. The corners of Kitty’s lips lifted. She couldn’t help it. Anything to do with him made her feel lighter, happier, more alive than she’d ever felt before. But blast it all… Why couldn’t she remember he was a rake? Her mind pushed that part of him away so she could concentrate on his goodness. Sweetness. Kind nature. His combination of rakish behavior coupled with that of a sweet gentleman fascinated as well as perplexed her. Best to try not to think of him at all. Nothing would ever come of it in any case. Easier said than done, unfortunately. She tapped her boot on the floor as she watched Patience speaking to an older woman at the next booth. Had her sister sold a panorama with the triangle as well? The three sisters had tried in vain to figure out why Robert wanted it added, and only to certain paintings. There didn’t seem to be a reason. At least not a sane one. But Robert didn’t always act as though he was in control of his senses. Lydia was on the other end of the arcade with their great-aunt, who was probably already napping in some corner but they were too far away for Kitty to see them. Patience nodded to the older woman and then hurried to Kitty. “I made a sale.” “As did I. Surely Robert will be pleased tonight. Which one did you sell?” “The one of couples dancing at a ball.” Kitty smiled. “That one was lovely. One of my favorites of yours.” A pretty blush rose on her little sister’s cheeks. “Thank you. And you? Which panorama did you sell?” “The Tower of London.” She grinned. “That’s wonderful.” Kitty toyed with the fringe at the bottom of her reticule. “It…” “What?” “The Tower of London was one that Robert had insisted I add that odd shape to. Do you suppose it was a coincidence that it was the only one the man was interested in?” Patience scrunched her blond brows. “I wonder if we’ll ever know his reasons for having us put it in only select ones.” “I know not. But it was almost as if the man was searching for just that one.” “What makes you think so?” “He looked at several, quickly refusing them. But when he saw that one, actually studied was more like it, he acted excited, paid me, and then hurried away.” Patience shook her head. “Who can guess the interests of people? Though we don’t know why Robert wants the triangle in only some, I can’t imagine that someone would buy it simply for that purpose. The image is so tiny as to be nearly invisible. A person would have to really scrutinize the panorama to even find it.” Kitty was just about ready to say that it was exactly what the man had done, but saw a group of people approaching. No time to debate the issue now. She tapped Patience on the shoulder. “Guess we should get back to it.” Patience looked in the direction of the people. She smiled and gave a wave over her shoulder as she rushed back to her own booth. Another man, dressed much like the first, approached and asked to see Kitty’s work. She showed him all that she had. At the very last, she reached for another one of the Tower of London. And the same as before, the man chose that one over the others, barely giving them a perusal. Robert had made sure to mention, more than once, that she was to have at least two of the Tower of London at hand at all times. And that those and only those would have the triangle added until he instructed them otherwise. Was her cousin losing his mind? It didn’t make any sense. Yet for some reason, that particular panorama was the only one people seemed to desire today. She hadn’t noticed the artwork in it to be superior to the others she had done, but maybe she couldn’t be objective about her own work. But to be fair, Kitty enjoyed painting country scenes or animals much more than stuffy old buildings. Perhaps that showed in her work that she wasn’t as interested in painting the Tower as some other things. “Let me see what ya got.” Kitty glanced up at the man standing entirely too close to her and barely stifled a gasp. His clothing was old, soiled, and tattered, and he was quite rough looking. Eyes darting every which way, hands fisted at his sides, and a chest that resembled a barrel. From his odor, it was apparent that he had recently imbibed in liquor but had not had a bath. She tried to breathe through her mouth instead of her nose as she forced a pleasant expression. “I have several different scenes. Is there anything you—” “I said let me see what ya got.” How rude. Why was he so antagonistic? It was days like today she wished Robert would do the sales portion of the business and let Kitty and her sisters concentrate on the painting. “Of course, sir.” She’d used the term lightly. The ruffian was definitely not the type of man who normally bought her work. At least not lately. Especially not that particular day, with the well-dressed gentlemen who’d bought the Tower of London. Trying to keep control of her temper at his rudeness, she angled behind her and grabbed the first one she could reach. “This one is quite nice of the—” “I wanna see them all.” She blinked. “Oh, I—” He leaned close enough that even her mouth breathing didn’t hold back his stench. “All of them now. At one time. I’m in a rush, so don’t dally, gel.” Kitty blinked. “Certainly.” She had three left to show him. She handed him the jester at Astley’s Amphitheatre, the couple with the carriage, and a third one of an old barn surrounded by a barren field. A part of her cringed as his grubby fingers grasped the paper that she’d spent hours working on. If he didn’t buy them, would she be successful in removing the soiled corners so she could attempt to sell it to someone else? He grunted as he perused each one. “No. Not these.” He tossed them to the counter behind her. “What else?” She spread her hands to show there were no more. “I’m afraid that’s it.” With narrowed eyes, he gave her a glare so cold it chilled her to her bones. “There has to be something else.” Fear trickled down her spine and she swallowed hard. “P-perhaps if you’d come back another day, I’ll have something more to your liking. Or, if you tell me what you’d prefer, I can paint a special order for you.” They didn’t normally do those, but Kitty was desperate for him to go away. He turned his head and spat — spat! — on the floor, the disgusting mass coming too close to her left boot. The man stared at her like he tried to memorize her features. “What is your Christian name?” Startled, Kitty pressed her hand to her chest. “What?” How inappropriate. But he glared at her, unblinking, his chest heaving in and out as if he was quite perturbed. Was he not going to leave until she complied? Right at that moment, she’d do just about anything to make him go away. Gritting her teeth together and forcing out the words, she answered, “My name is K-Kitty.” He studied her for a moment. “Kitty. Very well. I’ll be back, of that you can be sure.” She wrapped her arms around her middle as he stalked away. What in the world had just happened? Chapter Nineteen After Kitty and her sisters returned from the bazaar, she gathered some scraps of ham left over from their supper and went out to feed the stray cats. Lately she’d seen two extra besides the three they normally had, so she made sure to take out more food. Glad to sneak out of the house unnoticed for a moment alone, she headed around to the back of the house. A rustling from the nearby bushes caught her attention. Those silly cats must have been napping there again. She chuckled. Or perhaps more was going on in there besides napping. Tossing the scraps beneath a large pine tree where the cats usually congregated to eat, she then opened her mouth to call out to them. “Here—” A hard hand clapped down over her mouth and a vice-like arm snaked around her middle. Help! What was happening? Fear wrapped its cold tentacles around her mind, her heart. What do they want with me? To rape me? Kill me? Kitty fought to struggle free, but whoever held her was too strong. She attempted to kick the person, using her heel, but was pulled too close to bring her leg out far enough. “Let’s put her in here,” a man with a low, raspy voice called from a few feet to her left. The person behind her gave an odd grunt and lifted her until her feet no longer touched the grass. Where were they taking her? Panic welled in her chest. Who were they? What did they want? Twilight had settled around the area, leaving most things shadowed in grey. Kitty was able to shift her focus to the man who had spoken, but the light was fading fast. All she could make out was that he was tall and had on dark clothing. She was half-dragged toward Robert’s old shed. Were they going to put her in there? It was rarely used anymore. The lock was probably rusted shut. Would her sisters think to look for her there? Two quick raps of something hard — A rock? — struck metal. The shed door opened with a creak. Had they broken the old lock to get inside? The closer she got to the shed, the more she fought. Please don’t do this. Don’t make me go in there! What was going to happen to her once she was inside? Did they mean to rape her? Kill her? Her insides froze. It couldn’t be happening. She was only a few hundred yards from the house. The smell of dust and disuse assailed her when her abductor pulled her through the narrow doorway. Please, no… Whatever they have in mind, don’t let them succeed. With a low grunt, the man gave her a shove. Her ankle twisted as she tripped over the wooden handle of some sort of gardening tool. Her chest heaved with panic and fear. When she dared a glance up, a large figure stood in the doorway, his shoulders so broad they nearly touched the sides of the frame. Where was the other one? The one who had held her and— A shuffle of boots on dirt came from her right. What was he going to do now? She tried to call out, but her voice wouldn’t cooperate. Help! Someone! Why couldn’t she form the words? Her mouth was so dry. She swallowed and tried again. Taking a deep breath, ready to shout at the top of her lungs, Kitty opened her mouth wide. Something soft — A piece of cloth? A handkerchief? — was stuffed in between her lips. A piece of rope was tied tightly, keeping the cloth in place. No! Now she wouldn’t even be able to call out. To get help. “Tie her up,” said the one from the doorway. He eased the door nearly all the way closed. Only a small shaft of wan light came through the crack. The man closest to her wrenched her arms together in front of her and tied a rough piece of rope around her wrists. Her eyes teared as the rope caused her skin to burn. “Now her feet.” This was her last chance to try to get free. She managed to get on her knees, hoping to climb to her feet and— “Oh no ya don’t.” She was shoved down again, hard, landing painfully on her left hip. She closed her eyes in frustration as her ankles were tied together. What now? Were they going to have their way with her? Ruin her? The man in the doorway said, “We’re running out of time. Question her.” Question me? About what? And how was she to speak with the blasted cloth in her mouth? The wad holding back her voice was taken out. Finally! She opened her mouth to scream, but it died in her throat. A cold, sharp blade of a knife now rested against her neck, just below her chin. They meant to kill her! “Go on, ask her.” The man holding the knife leaned down very close. His foul breath smelled of liquor, his body of filth. “Where is the money hidden?” Money? She frowned. What was he talking about? “Answer me.” A sharp spike of pain hit her neck and a trickle of something warm ran down her neck. Was she bleeding? Dear Lord… Help me! “Speak up, or I’ll finish the job.” She swallowed hard and tried to calm her racing heart. “W-we have no money.” “Stop lying. Tell us where it us.” “I’m not lying. We’re poor.” The man spat into the dirt, small wet flecks bouncing and striking her cheek. Her stomach heaved. I think I’m going to be ill. The man grabbed her shoulders and shook her hard, causing her head to crash against the hard floor. “Tell us what we want to know about the money or I’ll—” “Kitty? Where are you?” Lydia! Kitty gasped, as the cloth was rammed back into her mouth, covered again with the piece of rope. She must be looking for me. The sound was faint, so her sister must be around the front of the house. “Leave her there. We’ll have to come back in a little while when it’s fully dark, Come on.” Faint light entered the shed as the first man opened the door and crept out. Kitty let out a sigh. They were going to leave. Maybe she could— A jolt of pain crashed over her face as the second man struck her cheek. Nauseated, Kitty rolled to her side, closed her eyes, and held very still. Ever since she’d been little, lying in that position was the only thing that helped her diminish stomach upset. Clenching her teeth around the foul-tasting cloth, Kitty was only vaguely aware of the second man leaving, closing the door firmly behind him. She stayed in that position for a long while. At least it felt that way, although she’d lost all sense of time. But it might only have been a few minutes. Cautiously, hoping the nausea had passed, she turned her head toward the only small window in the far wall of the shed. Total darkness had fallen. Were her sisters worried? Still searching for her? When Lydia hadn’t discovered Kitty’s whereabouts, her tenacious sister would have kept searching until she found her. But would she they think to check the shed? Robert was the only one with a key, so the girls never went in there. As usual, Lydia would assume that Kitty was somewhere, flirting with someone. For once, that wasn’t the case. I wish it was… One of the men had said they’d be back. How much time did she have until— Something rustled outside. Was it Lydia? “That dark-haired girl and a blonde one are going up and down the street calling out for Kitty.” The men were back and standing right outside. Keep calm. She held very still, trying to listen, to see if she could find out what they were up to. “Yeah, I saw them too. We’ll have to wait a bit longer before we take this one to the Epsom racecourse, else someone will see us leave with her.” The racecourse? “Keep your voice down. Want her to hear you?” “Don’t worry. I hit her hard, and she passed out. Was laying there like a lump of coal.” “Fine, but why should we take her to Epsom?” “’Cause my brother works there on the grounds. He told me of a shed way out back where we can stash her and try to get her to talk. We can’t stay here. Someone will find her. And then—” “Then we’ll never get our money that Robert promised us.” Robert? “I swear, if she don’t tell us where the money is hidden, I’ll kill her.” No… My family will never know what became of me. They’ll be heartbroken when they can’t find me. I’ll never have a chance to know Nathaniel better, let him know how I truly feel… “What makes you so sure she knows?” “’Cause she was the one selling those small paintings. Robert had said to only buy the one that had that triangle drawn on it somewhere. Whatever one had it, that was where we could pick up our share of the money.” Kitty blinked. The Tower of London? “But by the time I got to her, she didn’t have any more with that symbol.” “Maybe she don’t know nothin’.” The man gave a low chuckle. “You think them girls are dumb enough to just draw some ridiculous shape into their picture without knowing why?” “I don’t know… that Robert is a shrewd one. And women are stupid.” “No, she has to know where the money is. Either she tells us, or she’s dead.” “Or we could make Robert pay a ransom to get her back.” “Sure. That might work.” The voices stopped and the thump of footsteps grew fainter as the seconds ticked by. Hot tears rolled down Kitty’s cheeks. Why? Why had Robert put her and her sisters in such a terrible position? She knew he was mean, but she had no idea the depths to which her cousin had sunk. How long had he been dealing with people like those men? And in possession of money? Anger briefly overcame her fear. To think we scrimped and went without, him telling us how we were going to end up on the streets. That I had to try to get Stratford to marry me… And all the while Robert had money? She needed to do something, but what? Calling out to anyone with the cloth in her mouth would be impossible. And she wasn’t going to be able to leave the shed since her ankles were tied. She tried pulling on the rope around her wrists, but it wouldn’t budge. As she turned to her other side, something sharp poked her hip. What was it? A stick lying on the floor? Wait. She’d stuck an old, worn-down pencil in her pocket early that morning. Sometimes when she was bored waiting for customers at the bazaar, she drew pictures on scrap pieces of foolscap. Could she possibly leave a message with the pencil? Slowly, using just the tips of her fingers, she tugged the fabric of her skirt around until she could reach the pocket. The opening still wasn’t close enough. With a sharp tug, she was able to pull it near. A small ripping sound caused her to grimace. She’d torn the edge of the pocket. Kitty, what does it matter? Remember where you are. She let out a sigh and worked down inside the pocket. The pencil. There it was. Did she also have some foolscap? A slow, tedious search of the inside of the fabric produced nothing more. What now? How could she leave a message for her sisters to find her? Kitty dropped her head on the floor, suddenly exhausted from angling in all directions to access her pocket. She looked down. The wall. Could she use the pencil to leave a message there? What could she say? Help. I’m being taken against my will to Epsom Racecourse. She shook her head, at once sorry, because the movement threatened to bring back her nausea. With a deep, slow breath, she forced herself to relax. No, she couldn’t leave such an obvious message. What if her abductors saw it when they came to take her back? It was dark, but what if they chanced bringing a lantern and saw her message on the wall? There had to be a way to leave a message for her sisters without using words. Something like the S they put in the panoramas. She could draw a horse, but they wouldn’t know what she meant. Even if they figured it was a racecourse, they’d never been to Epsom and might not assume it was that one. Her fingers tingled. She wiggled them, trying to get some feeling back so she could draw something. Whatever she drew would have to be small and simple. That was going to be difficult enough to do it with her wrists tied. It had to be an image Lydia and Patience would understand but that the abductors wouldn’t, if they happened to see it. Because if those men figured it out, they’d either change the place where they would take her or— Kitty shivered, not wanting to think about the or. If only her sisters had been to the Epsom racecourse with her. Then if they saw a picture of a horse, it might make sense that’s where she’d be. Kitty sighed. It wasn’t going to work. Too many ifs. Nathaniel had been there with her. If Kitty drew a horse, would he understand the clue? But the racecourse grounds were spread out. He’d not know to check in the shed the men had mentioned unless she somehow made it clear. He was to come collect her tomorrow morning for another assignment. Would he still come in light of what he’d witnessed of her and Stratford by the stream? Please, Nathaniel, come. Just this one last time… If he did, would her sisters ask for his help in trying to find her? The clue needed to be something Nathaniel would understand that would point him in the direction of the grassy expanse behind the course where she’d seen the shed the day they’d been there, but not obvious to those other men. Very well. Time was of the essence, because she didn’t know how soon the men would come back. Grasping the pencil tightly, Kitty edged as close to the wall as she could and began to draw. Chapter Twenty Nathaniel could hardly contain himself as he snapped the reins of his uncle’s carriage. He was on his way to see Kitty. To collect her for the magazine assignment, but his foremost reason was something that would change their lives. If she said yes. Doubts slithered in. What if she didn’t? Told him no? That she loved Stratford? Stop the negative musings… If he progressed with that attitude, she surely would refuse him. It was his deepest hope that when he finished professing his love and admiration for her, she’d see him for who he truly was — not a rake, but a warm, caring man who wanted nothing more than to make her his wife. Forever. As he steered the horses to the Sullyard’s house, his heart danced in his chest. It was his chance to finally find some happiness. Not be second best to his cousin. Could he convince Kitty he was the better choice? Time to find out. He slowed the carriage, tied the reins to a nearby post, and climbed down. As he walked purposefully to the door, he wondered if Kitty was watching out the window. It seemed she usually was when she was expecting someone to fetch her for an assignment. His intention was to ask the sleepy aunt to give them a moment of privacy so he could ask Kitty the important question that longed even at the second to spring from his lips. With a grin, he knocked on the door. It immediately flung open. His smile fell. Not Kitty. Both Lydia and Patience stood there. Eyes red. Had they been crying? “Oh, thank goodness it’s you.” Lydia reached out and grabbed him by the hand, yanking him inside the house. What in the world was she doing? Patience flung herself into his arms. “It’s the most dreadful thing ever to happen.” “What…” Lydia pulled him farther into the room and all but pushed him onto a nearby settee. Nathaniel peered up at Patience, then Lydia. “I say… what’s all this about? I’ve only come to collect Kitty.” “She’s not here.” Patience sniffed and dabbed her nose with a handkerchief. Nathaniel’s hand fisted in his lap. Had that letch Stratford done it again? Gotten to the house for Kitty before he could arrive? He stood, forcing the young women to take a collective step back. “Never you mind. I know where her assignment is to be. How long ago did my cousin come and get her?” Lydia shook her head. “No, you don’t understand. He didn’t come for her.” “How do you know?” “Patience paid a young man who’s a messenger to go and see if she was with him. Stratford’s reply was that he hadn’t seen her since the four of you were last at the stream.” “Then where—” Lydia grabbed his hand. “There’s something you must see.” Nathaniel was yanked forward and unceremoniously pulled back outside and around to the back of the house. “Where are we going?” “Just come along.” Lydia didn’t release his hand. To his embarrassment, Patience took hold of his other hand and pulled him even harder. Had Kitty’s sisters lost their minds? As they neared an old shed, Nathaniel frowned. He couldn’t imagine any reason at all why they’d want him to see something like that. He slipped his hands from theirs as gently as he could when they finally stopped. “Listen, I can see something has upset you both and I’d love to help, but I’m really just looking for Kitty.” “So are we.” Patience burst into tears. “My goodness. What’s happened to have gotten you both so upset?” Lydia stepped forward and placed a hand on each of his shoulders. He gasped. Did she mean to kiss him? “Nathaniel, there’s something you must know.” Was she going to profess feelings of fondness? She isn’t the sister I desire. “W-what is it?” Best to get it over and done with so he could tell Lydia he loved her sister. “Kitty is… missing.” His heart thudded hard in his chest. “Pardon?” “We believe that someone has taken her.” “Why would you… how could… but I don’t understand how…” It can’t be true. “Just listen to what we have to say.” “If you truly believe she’d been kidnapped, why haven’t you notified the constable?” His voice rose higher with every word. Patience opened the door to the shed and stepped inside. “Enter and you’ll see why.” Things were getting stranger by the moment. Lydia ducked into the shed, as well. Nathaniel peered inside the dusty interior, able only to make out their dim outlines in the shadows. It was daytime, but back beneath the trees in the dark shed with only one small window, it might as well have been twilight. He jumped when he heard a scratch and a hiss, but relaxed when a lantern Patience now had in her hand came to life with a bright flame. “Come and see what we’ve discovered.” Patience held out a small scrap of dirt-covered foolscap. An odor of some type of alcohol drifted up. “Read what it says.” Nathaniel squinted to view the tiny, nearly-illegible writing. Do not contact the constable or you will be sorry. He let out a gasp as shock rolled through him. Who had written it? Had someone played some macabre joke? “Now, look at this.” Lydia tilted her head to the left. With trepidation, and still not quite sure what to make of it all, Nathaniel edged toward the far wall. Patience lowered the lantern. There, drawn low on the wall in pencil, was a picture. He frowned. “What is it?” “We were hoping you would know. We, that is, Patience and I, can’t figure out its meaning.” Nathaniel crouched down on the floor, mindful of his lame foot, hoping he’d not lose his balance. When he peered more closely at it, the image began to take better form. It was the back of a large hand, probably that of a man by the thickness and shape of the fingers that were touching a woman’s… bottom. And right above the index finger, tucked beside a fold of the woman’s dress, was the letter K. He shook his head slowly, trying to understand what its meaning might be. What an odd subject for a drawing. Wait… Was it supposed to remind him of the day he helped brush off Kitty’s posterior when they’d nearly been trampled by that horse? Warmth from the memory warred with the cold fear in his heart. Why would Kitty have drawn such a thing? Nathaniel was embarrassed, remembering his reluctance to do it, yet wanting to act the part of the convincing rake. But more than that, he couldn’t forget the thrill at touching her in such an intimate way. His face heated and he feared a blush had crept up from his cravat. Something shuffled in the dirt, and Nathaniel glanced downward. Lydia stood quite close, as she tapped her boot on the floor. He had to tell them the meaning. There was no way around it. Kitty’s sisters were staring at him, obviously waiting for him to enlighten them as to his opinion on the mystery. “I…” He stood and rubbed his hand down his face. How to explain what he thought it meant? To say it delicately and not insult the tender sensitivities of the two young women? “What?” Lydia grabbed his arm. “You must tell us. We have no idea. If you think you know what Kitty meant by leaving this clue, please let us know.” As much as the evidence pointed to something untoward, Nathaniel’s mind still couldn’t believe that someone would have done this to Kitty. There had to be a reasonable explanation. There must be. “Are you absolutely certain someone has taken her?” Please have doubts. Please tell me what I need to hear. “Yes.” Patience sobbed loudly as if she wouldn’t be able to take much more of the strain of not knowing. Lydia patted her sister’s hand. “We think it for several reasons. First, we haven’t seen our sister since last evening.” He dropped his mouth open. “Second, when we finally remembered to check back here, the shed door was standing open.” “But why would that—” “Because we never, ever use it. Robert is the only one with a key, and when he does enter it for any reason, he always locks it when he’s finished. He’s even warned us not to try to come in here.” Panic grabbed hold of Nathaniel’s heart. While he’d been alarmed before, he still thought perhaps there was some reasonable explanation to account for Kitty’s absence. But after listening to what they’d said, he understood why they’d been nearly hysterical and dragged him out there. “Speaking of your cousin, where is he? Out looking for Kitty?” Lydia shook her head. “No. When we went to tell him of Kitty’s disappearance, he was nowhere to be found. We don’t have a clue where he is. And Great-Aunt Anne is visiting her sister in Bath and won’t return for several weeks.” Patience pointed to the wall. “We know Kitty did this because of the K she hid in the drawing. Once we realized that Great-Aunt Anne and Robert would be of no help and that we couldn’t go to the authorities, we hoped against hope that you would be able to help us.” Nathaniel lowered his eyebrows as he studied the picture again. He’d not noticed the roughness of the picture. It hadn’t Kitty’s usually carefully penciled detail. “The lines are so jagged. So rough.” Patience bit her lip and glanced at Lydia, who said, “We’re wondering if whoever took her had tied her hands.” Actual pain lanced through Nathaniel’s heart. Who would have done this? Taken Kitty? Treated her so reprehensibly? Something poked his arm with three separated taps. He glanced down. It was Lydia’s finger. “Nathaniel, if you know something, can think of anything this picture might mean, you must tell us. Now.” He let out a breath. She was right. “I believe that the picture is supposed to be Kitty’s… uh, posterior. And the hand is…” “Whose?” He let out a breath and whispered, “Mine.” Both girls stood with mouths hanging open. “I know it sounds extremely distasteful, but it’s not what you’re thinking.” Lydia scowled. “I’m not sure you know what I’m thinking. Why you’re a—” He held up his hand. “We can discuss that later. I think I know where she is. We must hurry!” Without hesitation, they rushed from the shed and went around front. He helped both sisters into the carriage, and then he climbed up. With a quick glance at them and back at the house, he realized there was no time for propriety or getting a chaperone. Time was of the essence. Chapter Twenty-one The trip to Epsom seemed to take a lifetime. Nathaniel’s heart squeezed tighter the closer they got to the racecourse. And every time Patience sniffled, Nathaniel snapped the reins again, trying to force the horses to increase their speed. Would they be in time to save Kitty? What if Nathaniel didn’t find the right location? He was fairly certain Kitty had meant the grassy field behind the course, because that’s where the runaway horse had been. But even that area was large. They had to be hiding her somewhere. Please let me know where to look… and let me be in time! He pulled the carriage to the front of the course. Not many were around, so it must not be a race day. Nathaniel climbed to the ground. The girls prepared to leave, but Nathaniel put up his hand. “No. Please. I’d feel so much better if you let me go alone.” “Sorry, but that’s not going to happen.” Lydia glared at him and stepped down unassisted from the coach, and Patience quickly followed. He sighed, “Very well. Just please, stay behind me. Will you do that much? I’d never forgive myself if something happened to either of you.” The sisters eyed each other then him and nodded. Though there wasn’t a race, there were a few workers ambling about. Nathaniel hailed a young man. “Pardon me.” Nathaniel gave his most confident smile. “We need to… er, that is…” “Yes, sir?” “You see, there’s a strong possibility that someone of our acquaintance is…” The man raised his eyebrows. “If you would be so kind as to—” A small hand grabbed his arm. He turned. Patience peered up at him and mouthed the words, “Let me.” He certainly wasn’t making any progress, and they needed to get inside the course. The only way to the field out back was to go through the front gate. With a curt lift of his chin, he stepped aside. Lydia gave a harrumph, but Patience didn’t appear to notice as she stepped toward the young man who appeared to be about her age. “Sir.” Patience moved closer and linked her arm through his. “I would be very appreciative if you would be so kind as to let us inside.” “But I can’t.” She fluttered her eyelashes. “I hate to say it, and it’s so embarrassing…” Interest piqued, he tilted his head. “What is it?” “You see, I… I’ve lost my most favorite hat, and I’m certain I had it here last at one of the races.” “Oh?” He leaned a little closer to her, their heads nearly touching. She sighed and, in the process, took a deep breath, which caused her bosom to rise and fall. The young man’s gaze locked on that area until Lydia, from beside Patience, cleared her throat. Patience shook her head and frowned. “That hat is so important to me. My… my mother gave it to me for my last birthday.” Nathaniel glanced at Lydia, who was rolling her eyes at Patience’s lie. The young man chewed his lip. “I suppose if it’s that important to you.” “Oh, it is.” She pressed her shoulder into his. “It would mean the absolute world to me. And…” She reached up and twisted a piece of her blond hair. “I would never, ever forget your kindness.” His face reddened. “Well…” “Thank you.” She jumped up and down, which brushed her chest against his arm. He blinked and looked first at her then Lydia and finally Nathaniel. He gave a shrug. “Follow me.” Once inside, he stopped. “Now, do you remember which section you were seated in for the race? I’ll help you search for your hat.” Lydia took charge. “That won’t be necessary, but thank you for your cooperation.” She took off walking at a fast clip, with Patience close behind. Nathaniel thanked the man and then hurried to catch the women. With a peek over his shoulder to make sure the man hadn’t followed them, he made his way in front of the sisters. Patience let out a breath, like she’d had too much energy and needed some relief. Nathaniel wanted to commend her for her fine work of gaining them admittance but at the same time was certain Lydia would want to scold her for her unseemly brashness. No time for that now. He waved his hand. “This way.” As quickly as his foot would allow, he rushed around the track and to the grassy expanse behind. No one was about. That was good. But now what? If this was indeed the place Kitty had intended in her drawing, where would she be? An old shed stood off to the side. Yes, now he remembered seeing it that day. Although at the time, he’d been too preoccupied with Kitty to give it much notice. The rest of the area was only grass and the pathway they’d taken. He took a tentative step toward the shed. Kitty, please be there… Lydia and Patience were still following him. He stopped. “What are you waiting for?” Lydia’s shrill voice always sounded like she was scolding someone. “I agreed to let you come with me, but I must insist that you wait here.” “But—” He held up his hand. “Please. For Kitty? If whoever who took her is still nearby, Kitty would be heartbroken if something happened to either of you.” “As she would with you,” Patience mumbled. “What was that?” Lydia scowled at her sister. “Nothing. Now hurry and find her.” With a nod, Nathaniel headed toward the shed. He wanted to run but didn’t want to put Kitty in any more danger if she was indeed not alone inside the building. He settled for walking quickly on the balls of his feet, hoping not to make much noise. When he reached the door, he pressed his ear to the rough wood. Was that a shuffle? A mumble? He waited a moment more, hoping not to hear someone’s voice besides Kitty’s. When nothing was forthcoming, he reached out and tried the door handle. Locked, blast it. He gave it a light tug, not wanting to alert anyone inside to his presence. A shuffle came from within, but no shout. Was Kitty in there alone? Taking a chance, in a low voice, he said, “Kitty?” Something brushed against the door. If it were the kidnapper, wouldn’t he have opened the door to fend off whoever had come to enter the shed? Or would they stay inside and lie in wait for an unsuspecting victim? I can’t worry about that now. I have to save her! In a much louder voice, he said, “Kitty, it’s Nathaniel? Can you hear me?” Something thumped against the other side of the door. It came from down low. Was she lying on the floor? “Keep away from the door. I’m going to try to break in.” He waited, heard more shuffling, and then silence. After a few more seconds, he called, “I’m coming in.” He didn’t even spare a glance for Kitty’s sisters, who were surely on pins and needles a few yards away wondering what was happening. He backed up a few paces and ran at the door, commanding his lame foot not to fail him. His shoulder hit the wood hard. Something cracked on the door, but it remained intact. “Stay back, Kitty. I’m going to try again.” He backed up even more, grit his teeth against another impact and ran as fast as he could. As soon as he rammed his shoulder into the door, it burst open. Nathaniel fell to the floor and coughed. When the dust cleared, he looked up. Where was— There. She was curled up in a ball near the far corner. “Kitty!” When he reached her he nearly wept. The first thing he did was remove the handkerchief stuffed in her mouth. She took a deep breath. “Thank you for saving me. I feared no one would find me. That I’d have to—” “Hush now. Let me get these ropes off of you.” Nathaniel untied her hands and then her ankles. He wanted to sit and hold her, tell her how much he loved her, but was too afraid her abductors might come back. “Can you stand?” She frowned. “I… I can try.” He helped her to her feet but she collapsed. “My feet are numb.” “No worries. I’ll just—” “Kitty!” Lydia ran in and hugged her sister, followed closely by Patience. The three chattered over one another like magpies. “Ladies, I know you have much to say to one another, but we need to leave before someone finds us.” He didn’t want to frighten them, but they simply had to go. “Of course.” Lydia returned to her no-nonsense self. She stood and tapped Patience’s shoulder. Patience stood, as well. They stepped outside the small enclosure. Kitty’s eyes teared up. “Oh, Nathaniel, I’m so relieved you figured out the clue I’d left. I wasn’t sure that—” “I know. But let’s get you out of here first.” She shrugged. “But I can’t walk.” “Don’t worry about that. I can.” He bent down and reached for her. She wrapped her arms around him, and he pulled her close, one arm around her back, the other beneath her knees. He stood, waited until she was ready, then moved out into the sunshine. Kitty squinted against the brightness and pressed her face into Nathaniel’s chest. He gave her a reassuring squeeze. “We’ll have you home in no time. I promise.” It took several minutes for them to reach the course again. Kitty was very tall for a woman and a might heavier than most, but Nathaniel cared not a whit. He could have carried her all day and not have grown tired. His Kitty was safely in his arms. When they were once again at the main gate, the same young man was there. He eyed Nathaniel and Kitty. When he opened his mouth to speak, Patience hurried to his side. “Thank you again for your help. Imagine my embarrassment when I realized it was not my hat I’d left behind, but my sister.” The man’s eyes opened wide and then he blinked. But Nathaniel shooed the girls out through the gate before there was time for the worker to say anything. Quickly, they rushed to the waiting carriage. Patience untied the horses’ reins and held them until Nathaniel was in the carriage with Kitty on his lap and Lydia next to them. It was a tight fit, but they all found a place to sit. As they headed away from Epsom, Nathaniel finally allowed a moment to take a deep breath and relax. He glanced down at Kitty. She’d fallen asleep. Chapter Twenty-two Kitty knew she should be embarrassed at the impropriety of lying in Nathaniel’s lap in her family’s sitting room, but she couldn’t conjure up the energy to care. Lydia and Patience were in the kitchen making something for tea, as Kitty hadn’t eaten since she’d been taken and was quite hungry. Nathaniel held her in his arms and stroked her face. “You cannot know the terror I had in my heart when I learned of your disappearance.” He grasped her chin gently and angled her head to the side. “You’ve a bruise, just here.” He ran his finger lightly down her jaw. “They struck you. How I long to pummel the person responsible.” “Don’t think of it now. I’m… I’ll be fine. I just need some food. And rest.” “Of course. Forgive me for putting my need for vengeance before yours of healing and the comforts of home.” “I’m so very tired, but I wanted to tell you about Robert.” “What of him? Your sisters said that when they tried to find him to tell him of your disappearance, he couldn’t be found.” “I think I know why.” “You do?” She nodded slowly, trying not to cause her head to ache any more than it already did. “I overheard the men talking.” “Did you recognize them?” “One of them. He’d come to the bazaar demanding to see my panoramas then got angry when I didn’t have what he sought.” “How strange.” “I thought so too, at the time. And he’d frightened me. It made no sense why he was so upset about a panorama. But when I was in the racecourse shed, I kept my eyes closed and held very still, hoping they’d think me asleep. They must have, because they began talking. And then they mentioned Robert’s name.” “But how could that be? Your own cousin?” She let out a sigh. “I’m afraid so. It appears that Robert was involved in some nefarious business dealings and was using the panoramas for his pursuits.” “I don’t understand.” “A short while ago, he demanded that we incorporate a strange symbol, sort of a triangle shape, into the panoramas. But only in certain ones. And only when he instructed us to. We were too frightened of him to disobey, so we all agreed. He’d told me to put the symbol in one of the Tower of London. I did as instructed but didn’t question him any further as to why.” “Why would Robert want you to do that?” “As I listened to the kidnappers, I found out. Apparently, whatever painting had the symbol, that was where the people he did business with would find some money he’d left for them.” Nathaniel lifted his hand. “Go on.” “When that man, the kidnapper, approached me for a panorama, the ones I’d done of the Tower of London had both been sold. He became irate and threatened to come back. I’d assumed he’d meant that he’d return to the bazaar on another day. Much to my chagrin, he came to the house. For me.” Nathaniel leaned down and pressed a soft kiss to her forehead. “How scared you must have been.” A tear slipped down her cheek. “Yes. So frightened I might never see my sisters again.” Or you… The need for sleep was quickly threatening to overtake her, but she forced herself to stay awake, not wanting to miss a moment of being in Nathaniel’s arms. He was being so sweet, so caring. Was that only an expression of his relief at finding her alive? How she wished it was more. “Once I leave here today, I will go straight to the constable and tell him everything you’ve just told me. Hopefully, the men responsible will be caught.” She sighed. “Sad to say, including my own cousin.” “Yes.” He cleared his throat. “I must admit that this day is completely upside down from what I’d intended.” “It’s not every day a woman who works for your uncle’s magazine is kidnapped.” He chuckled. “True, that. But… When I came to collect you this morning for your assignment, I actually had another intention.” “You did?” “Since the day I met you, you’ve captured my interest. When Stratford brought you into the office, I knew my life would never be the same. Your beauty captivated me. I… I found I couldn’t stop looking at you. While you are lovely to behold, what I found to be true was that I admired your spirit. Your gentle laugh. The way you create art simply by putting a pencil to paper. But what really drew me to you was the way you make me feel. When I’m with you, I’m not simply someone’s nephew or cousin or worker. I’m more than a man with a limp who plays second best to his much-adored cousin. You’ve changed me, from the inside out. You make me feel like I can do anything in the world. Anything. I’ve never felt that before. Never felt special before.” Kitty blinked. Had he just spoken those beautiful words, or had the bump on her head distorted her thoughts? One thing she did know, however, what that Nathaniel was a rake. Even if his words were sincere, could she trust that he’d stop his wild ways? “You’ve acted the rake since we met.” He lowered his eyebrows. “About that—” “With a few exceptions where you were sweet and sensitive, you’ve flirted with me but led me to the conclusion that in that way you’re like your cousin.” Nathaniel hung his head. “I must confess that I’ve been living… a lie.” “You? But—” “The day we were introduced, you acted so enamored of Stratford.” He balled his hand laying across her legs into a fist and then relaxed it. Kitty squirmed, uncomfortable at the reminder of acting like she was more interested in Stratford because her uncle had demanded it. “My cousin is a known rake, as I’m sure you’re well aware.” “Yes.” She’d known he was a rake from the start, but until Robert had made his demands, Kitty hadn’t had any intentions of showing him any interest beyond innocent flirting. “I’d decided that to gain your attention, the only way to compete with him was to try to be like him.” She tried to sit up, but her aching head discouraged it. “You mean you’re not—” “I’m as far from a rake as one of your sisters.” Kitty giggled. “Well, they certainly are not.” She sobered. “So the way you acted with me isn’t…” “No. That’s not who I really am. I’m sorry to say I misrepresented myself. But I’m not sorry for my reason. To try to win your attention.” She pressed her shoulder into his chest. “I must admit… I believed you to be a rake, but there were times when you were also sweet and sensitive.” He scowled, as if he’d been found out and didn’t like it. “No, don’t be upset. I… I like that about you. Your sweetness. And caring.” Nathaniel blinked slowly. “Do you trust me?” “Yes,” she uttered without even thinking. Because it was true. She did trust him. Heart and soul. He let out a sigh, leaned forward, and pressed his forehead briefly against hers. “I have three things to tell you.” She lifted the corners of her mouth in a smile. It felt good to be a little lighthearted in the midst of turmoil. “Only three?” He chuckled. “Yes, but they are three very important things.” “Very well. Go ahead.” She wanted so much to close her eyes and sleep, but what he was saying was too important to miss. “The first one is, yesterday was my birthday. I am five and twenty.” She peered up at him, wishing she’d known so she could have done something special for him. “Happy birthday.” “Thank you. The second is, I received something in the post.” “Oh?” She let out a yawn. “Something for your birthday?” “In a way, but it will also be of interest to you.” He acted so excited about whatever it was, but what could it possibly have to do with her? With what she’d just been through, she wasn’t sure she could take much more upheaval. “What I received was something that will change my life. For the good.” “That’s wonderful.” Any good news was welcome even if it didn’t involve her. How could Kitty want anything but the best for this sweet man? “It is wonderful.” He held up one finger to make his point. “And let me explain why.” She waited, happy to see him so full of joy. “I received a letter from a solicitor. In it, he stated that since I am now five and twenty, I will receive my inheritance.” Kitty’s heart gave a little bump. “Inheritance? But I assumed—” “As did I. I had no idea my father had set this up when I was born. You can imagine my surprise when I found out.” She pressed her hand to his cheek. “I’m so pleased for you.” “You should be pleased for yourself, as well.” “And why is that?” Kitty’s eyelids fluttered closed and back open. He took both of her hands in his. “Because the third item of interest I wanted to tell you is this. Kitty, I love you.” Her breath caught in her throat. Had she really heard those words from his lips? Or was she so tired she was hallucinating? “Oh, I’m not finished.” She blinked. Her mind was suddenly hazy. Had the bump on her head made her feel that way? “I love you and want you to be my wife.” Before she could answer, darkness crept over her. Chapter Twenty-three Second thoughts had been plaguing Nathaniel ever since he’d asked Kitty to be his wife. She hadn’t answered. Instead, she’d fallen into a deep sleep. Not that he could blame her for that. The poor girl was understandably exhausted. Still, tired as she had been, he couldn’t be sure if she’d heard his proposal before she’d succumbed to sleep. What was he to do? Ask again? Hope she brought it up? If he restated his question and her answer was no, he’d be heartbroken. He wasn’t at all sure he had the confidence in her affirmation to ask a second time. Perhaps she had heard him and didn’t want to hurt his feelings by refusing. Had simply allowed herself to drift off instead. But he must know. He stopped the carriage in front of the Sullyard’s house. By now, his horses probably knew the way by heart. Nathaniel climbed down and walked briskly to the door. He knocked. And waited. Would Kitty be well enough to answer the— The door opened, and there she was. The bruise on her jaw was starting to fade from black to purple, but didn’t diminish her beauty in the least. “Nathaniel. I’m so pleased you’re here.” “You are?” Did that mean she had heard his declaration after all? Was going to accept his suit? His heart thudded almost painfully at the possibility. “Please, come in. Don’t want you standing out in the elements.” He chuckled, remembering the first time he’d come. After stepping inside, he waited while she closed the door and came around to face him. “Are you well?” She glanced down and back up. “With the exception of sore limbs and jaw, yes, I can say I am well. My sisters’ tender ministrations, as well as yours, have done me a world of good.” “I’m so glad.” He removed his hat and fidgeted with the brim. She reached for it with a smile. When he handed it to her and she turned and shuffled to a nearby table to place the hat there, Nathaniel scrutinized her movements. She was limping a bit. That makes two of us. Though thankfully, hers would heal and improve. Wish I was so fortunate. “Won’t you sit down?” Kitty indicated two chairs by the window, and he took one. He waited while she sat in the other and arranged her skirts before saying more. Now what? Should he propose again? Hope she’d heard him and came forth with a positive answer? He glanced at her and grinned, so thankful she was mostly unharmed and safely back at home. “What is it?” She touched her fingers to her cheek. “Have I something on my face besides the bruise?” He shook his head. “Just happy to have you back.” She blushed. “All thanks to you.” “No. If you hadn’t left that clever drawing for your sisters to find…” He let the sentence dangle, not wanting to speak of what might have become of her had he and her sisters not found her. The color in her cheeks deepened even more. He frowned. “What’s amiss? Have I said something?” She shrugged. “I…” “What is it?” “The drawing I left. Of your hand on my…” He chuckled. “Yes, clever as your clue was, I must admit to a slight bit of embarrassment when I had to explain it to your sisters.” “I’m shocked Lydia hasn’t scolded me for it yet.” “Give her time. Perhaps she’s allowing you ample opportunity to rest before she does.” An adorable giggle came from her lips. “You’re probably right.” Several seconds of silence brought him discomfort. What should he do now? Repeat his question of yesterday? Don’t be a coward. You won’t know unless you ask. With a nod for self-encouragement, Nathaniel leaned forward on his chair and placed his elbows on his knees. “Kitty…” “Yes?” “I’ve… that is… When last we spoke, I had asked you a question. An important one.” She frowned. “You did? What was it?” He tugged on his cravat. Why couldn’t he catch his breath? “I… um.” “Go on. You may say anything to me. Haven’t you earned the right after rescuing me?” Do it now… just say it. “Yes, well…” She tilted her head and waited. He tugged at his cravat again, wishing it didn’t feel so tight. “I had asked you if you would… um…” He coughed once and cleared his throat. He took a deep breath and let it out. Ask her, you fool. This is your last chance. “I wasn’t certain if you’d heard what I’d said or not…” She bit her lip. “Hmm. I’m not sure I recall to what question you’re referring. Would it be too much trouble to ask again?” No trouble at all… I just feel as it my heart wants to leap from my throat. “Very well. I had asked… I…” He clutched his hands together and forced himself to meet her eye. “Kitty, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?” She blinked then slowly rose from her chair. And left the room. He closed his eyes and groaned. What have I done? She’s so averse to my request she couldn’t even stay in the room. Perhaps I should save us both more embarrassment and leave now before— Footsteps tapped from the next room, and Kitty reappeared. She didn’t give him an answer or even acknowledge his proposal. “I have something for you.” She held out her hand. “P-pardon?” Was she not even going to say anything about what he’d just asked her? It was the most important question a man could ever ask a woman. When he didn’t accept whatever it was she had for him, she reached out for his hand, pried open his fingers, and placed a small roll of paper in his palm. He glanced down at it and frowned. Why was she giving him a piece of paper? Perhaps the bump she’d gotten on the head from the kidnappers had addled her brain. “Aren’t you going to look at it?” She stared at him with eyebrows raised. Nathaniel shrugged, unable to think of anything to say. At that point since she hadn’t answered his question, he knew not what else he could add to the conversation that would have any bearing. He carefully grasped the edge of the paper and pulled. It was a drawing done in pencil of Kitty herself. Nathaniel gave a one-sided smile, remembering when he’d wished for her to do a self-portrait and give it to him. “It’s lovely.” You’re lovely. “Thank you.” She didn’t say more. Just waited. His mind snagged at another memory of when she’d had him study the picture of the horse and had done the same thing. Waited for him to notice something. He held it closer, assuming he would find an S or K. But there was not a letter. There were three. Hidden within the locks of Kitty’s hair in the picture was a word. YES. Nathaniel’s breath went out of his chest like a deflated hot air balloon. He slowly lifted his head and stared at her. She was smiling. Was that yes to his proposal? Yes that she loved him? Yes that she was glad it was Tuesday? Why couldn’t she come out and tell him? Doubt reared its ugly head again, reminding him of how she’d seemed enamored of Stratford. Did she have feelings for him still? Deciding not to ask about marriage, but hoping against hope she had some feeling for him, he asked, “Does that mean you could possibly care for me too?” He glanced down at his foot and back up. “I’ve always been second best, I—” “Not to me. Never to me.” “Darling… Is that true? Are you sure you’d want me?” “More than anything.” “So you’re saying—” She caressed his face. “Yes. Yes I will marry you. Yes I’ll love you forever. Because you deserve nothing less.” “I feel the same about you.” He took her in his arms and pressed his lips to hers. The contact at first was tentative. Sweet. Like she was unsure how he might feel about it. Was this how she kissed? Nathaniel let out a sigh. But he loved Kitty, so it wouldn’t matter. While it didn’t evoke immediate passion, he could surely grow used to— She pulled him closer, shyly running her tongue over her lips, an invitation. He answered her question by opening his lips, letting his tongue explore hers. He ran his hands down her arms, enjoying being so close to her, yet hungry to do more. So much more. Love. She’d said the word, and he could scarcely believe it. But the way she clung to him, kissed him, gloried in their kiss… Yes! his heart cried. Yes, this woman truly loves me. She moaned and wrapped her arms around his neck, tugging him even nearer. How he’d longed for this, desperate for Kitty to return his feelings. Was he dreaming? He pulled away and gazed into her eyes. “Kitty, my darling. I love you. With all my heart. I can’t wait to make you my wife.” She placed her hands on either side of his face. “And I love you. From my soul. The day we marry will be the best day of my life.” With Kitty, Nathaniel was home. Safe. And that would only be the beginning of their joy to come. Epilogue Three months later Nathaniel stood behind Kitty and wrapped his arms around her waist. “Sorry you married me?” “Never.” How could she be sorry when it was her dream come true? “But we’re stuck in this awful old cottage until our house is completed.” “That matters not. I’m with you. That’s all that’s important.” He kissed the back of her neck, causing a shiver to course over her skin. She’d always imagined what it would be like to fully give herself to a man. Making love with her husband was beyond her wildest imagination. Her body and soul came alive when she was in his arms. Nathaniel was hers, and she was the most fortunate woman on earth. He placed another light kiss behind her ear. “Have you spoken to your sisters today?” “No. Not since two days past.” “They are well?” She sighed. “Quite well. They’re very happy living with Great-aunt Anne as their guardian. Robert won’t be getting out of Newgate Prison anytime soon. I’m still in shock over the large amount of money he had stashed beneath our shed. If the kidnappers had only known how close they’d been to the treasure they sought.” “My body nearly turned to ice when I found out that you’d been taken, my love.” “But you deciphered the clue and saved me. That’s why I left a clue I knew you would understand.” “I must admit, your sisters were stumped when they saw it.” “They’d never been to the racecourse in Epsom, so I knew it wouldn’t do any good to leave them a clue from there. And if the kidnappers had seen the drawing I’d done on the wall when they came back to take me there, I was afraid they might…” “Shhh. Let’s not speak of what might have occurred. You’re here now. Safe with me, where you belong. I’m so very sorry it took a near-tragedy for things to improve for you and your family, but I’m pleased you and your sisters are happy and content now.” “And I’m pleased that you and Stratford have finally gotten past your differences.” He sighed. “As am I.” She turned and pressed close to his chest, running her fingers down his neck. “So… what would you like to do for the rest of the morning?” He raised one eyebrow. “I can think of a few things.” One side of his mouth rose in a grin. “Do you trust me, Kitty?” He took her hand as he steered her toward the bedroom. She laughed. “Always. Do you trust me?” “You know I do.” “Then I have a secret to share.” “Share away, my love.” “In a few months, there’s going to be a tiny new Bexley in our home.” His opened his mouth and then closed it. “Are… you certain?” She nodded. With a whoop of joy, he picked her up and carried her to their bedroom.

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