Lucy’s unhappy wail dragged Kate out of what might have been the worst sleep, ever. Edward’s dark revelations of the night before had stuffed her head full of nightmares, and she had tossed and turned for what seemed like ages before falling into a fretful doze. Trying to blink the sleep out of her eyes, she cast her arm about, looking for the cane. Once found, she used it to hook her boot on the floor, bringing it close enough to grab.
Lucy burst into her room as she was lacing the steel-encased leather around her leg. Her cousin had half of her hair pinned up, and the rest looked like it had come too close to a fire, the ends singed and curled up, much shorter than they ought to be.
“Lucy, my god! What happened to your hair?”
“I don’t know!” Lucy wailed, and threw herself into Kate’s arms. “I took the tongs out of the fire, and this just happened! What am I going to do, I look hideous!”
“Oh, hardly that.” Kate ran her fingers through Lucy’s damaged hair. “At least it wasn’t close to your skin. Ring for Sally, and we’ll see if we can salvage some of this. At least shorter curls are in fashion right now.”
A short time later, a long swath of fair curls littered the floor and Lucy’s sniffles had subsided, giving way to red-rimmed eyes and a watery smile in the mirror. “Oh, Sally,” she said, “You’ve managed a miracle. It‘s much prettier than I expected.” Lucy’s hand drifted to her shortened hair. It curled beguilingly around her face. “I must go and show Mama!”
Lucy bounced out of the room, and Kate met Sally’s eyes in the mirror and grinned. “I wonder ...?” Kate mused, her hand going to her own dark hair.
“No. My lady, don’t you dare.” Sally’s voice of reason cut into her thoughts. An expressive face, indeed.
“Oh, blast. You’re right, Sally. I’m too old to pull that off. But it would have been so much easier.” She sighed, “did you bring coffee up with you, by any chance?”
“So easy that you wouldn’t even need me anymore,” Sally huffed. “No, my lady, Lady Warwick is awaiting you both in the morning room. You were to break your fast together this morning.”
“Of course I was. Thank you, and I will always have need of you. Now, please assist me with dressing.”
The Chattering Horde descended upon them as soon they passed the receiving line at Almack’s. Lucy’s new hairstyle was an instant success, and several of the young lady’s in attendance would likely be chopping off their own hair before too long. Kate giggled to herself as she imagined herself the leader of a revolution of short-haired debutantes. Both of the Es were back tonight, well she really could say all three of them, but she didn’t count Eversliegh as just a vowel. Other letters were available: Dunbarton, Caldwell, Barton, and Amesbury. A fine start to the alphabet. After several minutes of inane chatter, Lucy wandered off with a few other girls, and Eversliegh escorted her to a row of chairs, with the Marquess of Dunbarton trailing behind. She expected them both to take themselves of to find dancing partners for the evening, but Dunbarton seemed curiously reluctant to leave.
He took a seat beside her, sitting a little too closely for her comfort. His thighs brushed hers, and he turned to look at her fully, contemplating her face. “You are a beautiful woman, Lady Kate. I’d like to further your acquaintance, if you’ll let me.”
“Lord Dunbarton, I’m flattered.” Kate’s eyes went wide, and she looked him over boldly. Dunbarton was a fine figure of a man. Lean, and if not terribly tall, at least he wasn’t short. He had a narrow face that showed lines of dissipation around his mouth and eyes, but for an older man, he was still quite handsome. His hair was still thick, dark and straight, with silver shot through it, cropped close to his head in the manner of a man who may have worn a wig at one point. She wondered if he was old enough to have lived through that fashion, and was heartily grateful that she herself was not. “I have no objections, to furthering our acquaintance, only.” She chose her phrasing with care, reluctant to completely refuse him, but not quite willing to admit that there might be an attraction there. She could certainly do a lot worse, at her age, but his eyes were a cold blue, and they unsettled her.
“Thank you, my lady,” he reached and ran a gloved finger down the side of her face, and Kate drew back in stiff disapproval. “I think we will suit nicely. I’ll be at your aunt’s tomorrow morning to pay my respects to the both of you.” He stood and sauntered away before Kate could think of anything to say.
Did he need a wife? Kate looked down at herself, muffling a nervous laugh. He could certainly find a better one than she, but she watched him walk through the crowd, at ease with everyone, making short conversations, and moving on to the next. Yes, there could be something there. In the span of a few moments she had gone from happy with her life, living with her aunt, chaperoning her cousin through the season, and being content to sit on the side, watching happy people, to watching a powerful, handsome man walk away, and suddenly she wanted more.
That man could give you more. Children, a home of your own, a handsome husband that others had tried to snare for years. Thoughts and longing for a possible future spun through Kate’s head. She was so caught up in her own musings that she failed to notice the man behind her for a long moment.
An awareness of him came to her slowly. The fine hairs on the nape of her neck lifted and a slow heat began crawling up her spine. She knew who it was without turning around. This wasn’t attraction, she told herself. This was alarm.
“My lady.” His voice held a richness in it that she hadn’t heard before. It sent a small shiver through her.
“Your grace. Would you care to have a seat?” She still hadn’t turned around, almost afraid of facing him now, because seeing his stark, ruined beauty after talking to the marquess would be too much to compare. And she didn’t want to overshadow the moment, when she could have all of the things she dreamed of, and it was because of the man who walked away; not the darkly alluring duke behind her.
“Not yet,” he replied, and she felt a feather-light touch on the back of her neck. A bare fingertip traced a curl that drifted downward along her spine. She caught her breath and stilled herself, not pulling away, and his finger traced the curl back upward, to caress the back of her neck. A large hand curled around nape, the heat from it stealing into her cheeks as she flushed. It felt like a mark, a brand of possession, and god help her, she didn’t want to pull away. His thumb lazily traced circles in the dip of her shoulder, and her breathing quickened. A slow beat of arousal pulsed in her belly, and she wanted to know what his hands would feel like on the rest of her. Crazy, heated thoughts, that were completely unworthy of her. Hadn’t she just agreed to another man’s suit?
His hand moved from her flesh as soon as he felt her withdrawal, and when Kate gathered her courage to turn around he was gone.
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