Deleted Scenes:

DUKES ARE FOREVER

In the finished novel, Kate is kidnapped before they leave for the ball, but in the original draft, she is kidnapped from the ball itself. You’ll understand when you read this why this ending didn’t work and had to be rewritten, but many of the bits were folded into the final book...except that Kate never makes it to her ball after all.

            Kate flinched as Hubert Ackley stepped on her toes. Again.

            How the man was able to keep injuring her so, and during a quadrille no less, was a wonder which had her dreading the first waltz. Thankfully, she would switch partners for that, ironically to Mr. Ackley’s older brother William, but if a lack of dancing skills ran in the family, she feared she might not be able to walk in the morning.

            The waltz should have been Edward’s, as her guardian and the man introducing her to society, but since he’d refused to escort her tonight, she’d given it away to the first gentleman who asked. Not that she cared with whom she danced if it wasn’t Edward. Her encounter with him earlier still had her reeling with confusion and heartbreak and aching inconsolably. After tonight, she would be able to return to Brambly, but she would never again have Edward. Would the compensation be enough—her medicine for her heart?

            The ladies spun back into their places, and with a flourish, the dance ended. Hubert placed her hand on his arm to lead her back to Augusta, who was happily chatting with the endless stream of people approaching her, all wanting to meet Strathmore’s ward.

            Kate wanted to be anywhere else tonight but at a ball, surrounded by hundreds of people gawking audaciously at her, watching her every move. But she would simply go through the motions until the hour grew late enough when she could convince Augusta she’d developed a headache and needed to leave. With every dance, she had no idea how she was able to remember the steps, and always, a roomful of eyes followed her wherever she went, a trail of whispers in her wake.

            It had been like that since the moment she and Augusta arrived and the master of ceremonies announced their names. Every head in the already packed ballroom swiveled toward her to finally see for themselves the woman about whom rumors were running through London as freely as the Thames. Immediately, the women surged forward to meet her, the men to fill her dance card, and the more daring among them to ask Augusta if they could call on Kate at Strathmore House—and the countess, too, of course.

            “Of course,” Kate heard Augusta say again, “we would be delighted if you called on us.”

            Kate sighed; she couldn’t have cared less. And none of it mattered, not anymore.

            Mr. Ackley returned her to Augusta’s side, then released her hand and sketched a bow. As he retreated into the crush, her feet felt immediately relieved.

            Augusta leaned toward her. “Are you enjoying yourself?”

            “Very much.” A lie, but she didn’t want to upset Augusta with the truth. Not when she would be hurt enough when she found Kate gone in the morning. And not when she beamed like a proud mother presenting her own daughter.

            “You are the diamond of the ball, my dear.”

            She sighed, “Just like Cinderella.”

            Augusta looked utterly aghast at the notion. “You will not turn into a scullery maid at midnight!”

            Kate’s gloved hand flew to her lips to cover her surprised laugh—the only one she’d managed all evening—but she couldn’t stop the flush coloring her cheeks. In the short time she’d known the countess, she’d come to adore the woman, especially at moments like this.

            “My mother would have loved this night,” she told Augusta, squeezing her arm affectionately. “But I think she’d be happy to know you’re here with me.”

            Kate leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. Augusta blushed scarlet, fluttering her fan rapidly and too flummoxed by the display of affection to formulate a response.

            Kate pulled her hand away and turned toward the orchestra under the pretense of wondering how long the musicians would take to start into the next dance, but she really needed a moment to blink back the tears which had threatened all evening. She was going to miss Aunt Augusta very much.

            “Countess!” A tall, broad man with dark blond hair stepped through the crowd toward them. “You look absolutely regal this evening.”

            “Ah, Nathaniel—I am surprised to see you here.”

            He took Augusta’s hand and bowed over it. “I’d heard a rumor that Strathmore was introducing his ward this evening, so I stole an invitation.” His eyes cast a sideways glance at Kate. “Wouldn’t miss that for the world.”

            “He means he wouldn’t miss causing embarrassment for the colonel,” another man corrected with a slap on the first’s back.

            “Embarrassment, abject ridicule…” The blond shrugged with a lop-sided grin. “I’ll take either.”

            “You shall have neither, I’m afraid,” Augusta informed them. “Strathmore was not feeling up to joining us tonight.”

            The man’s smile faded. “A relapse?”

            “An attack of conscience,” Augusta corrected. She looped her arm around Kate’s. “Miss Benton, may I present to you Thomas Matteson, Viscount Chesney, and Major Nathaniel Grey.” Each man sketched a bow in turn. “Gentlemen, Strathmore’s ward, Miss Katherine Benton.”

            “A pleasure to meet you, my lord,” Kate curtsied politely to each, “Major.”

            The viscount’s sapphire eyes trailed over her. “So, you’re the one,” he drawled softly. “You’re not at all what I expected.”

            “I know,” Augusta beamed, squeezing Kate’s arm with delight. “A country blue-stocking…Isn’t she simply wonderful?”

            His brow rose. “Stunning, I daresay.”

            “I never would have thought that the colonel…” Grey murmured thoughtfully. Then, as if catching himself, he cleared his throat. “You are lovely, Miss Benton.”

            Mumbling her thanks, Kate kept smiling, despite the oddest feeling that the three of them were sharing some private conversation over her head yet that all three approved of her. Exceedingly. She only wished she knew for what.

            Grey stepped forward and gave her a charming smile, one she was certain had fluttered the hearts of many women but only left her missing Edward. “Do you have any spaces left on your dance card, Miss Benton?”

            “Certainly not for you two,” Augusta interrupted swiftly with a touch of admonishment, as if they should have known better than to even suggest such a thing.

            “Then a dance with you, Countess,” he offered, unperturbed.

            “I am not dancing this evening, Nathaniel.”

            “Pity,” the viscount clucked his tongue as he took Augusta’s hand, rakishly raised it to his lips, and murmured, “If only I were ten years older…”

            Giving a laugh, Augusta slapped him gently on the shoulder with her folded fan. “Scamps, both of you! Now, go—you’re frightening off the other gentlemen.”

            With a laugh and polite bows toward Kate and the countess, the two men excused themselves toward the gaming room. The next dance began as the first flourishing notes of a waltz floated through the ballroom.

            “Miss Benton,” William Ackley smiled as he appeared at Kate’s side and held out his hand. “I believe this is my dance.”

            “You are mistaken, Ackley,” a deep voice purred at her shoulder. “This waltz is mine.”

            Her heart fluttering, she turned to find familiar dark eyes staring down at her, and despite the anguish she still carried inside her, a shiver of heat fell through her. Just as it always would for this man. “Edward.”

            Ackley’s eyes narrowed. “I daresay, Strathmore, that’s—”   

            Ignoring him, Edward held out his hand to her. “Shall we?”

            Kate hesitated. She didn’t want to be hurt again, but the pleasure of dancing in his arms, even once, tempted her with a longing that left her aching. “I don’t think—”

            “Dance with him!” Augusta ordered with obvious delight, swiftly sliding between them and a peeved Ackley, then nudged her forward. “Go!”

            With amusement flickering in the dark depths of his eyes at her consternation, Edward took her hand and rested it gently but possessively on his arm to lead her toward the dance floor. He seemed oblivious to the whispers and stares rising in the crush around them at his unannounced appearance, his attention focused solely on her as he expertly twirled her into the waltz.

            Following effortlessly as he led her through the steps, she gazed up at him, aware that she was staring and helpless to stop. He looked breathtakingly handsome in his black superfine jacket, snow-white silk cravat with its diamond and sapphire pin, and blue brocade waistcoat that matched her dress. Westover blue. She knew that everyone in the crowd would notice how they matched, how the color seemed to silently announce that she belonged to Strathmore, and the whispers would start again.

            Especially since he held her far closer than propriety allowed, yet she couldn’t bring herself to push him away. Not even when her skirt swirled around his legs as he circled with her. Not even when his hand stroked against her back, gently and slowly so no one would notice except her. But oh, how she noticed that soft motion, how heat prickled everywhere her body touched his. A bittersweet torture.

            “This waltz doesn’t change anything,” she told him, knowing he was there not for her but Augusta and remembering the torturous exchange earlier in her bedroom. She didn’t know whether to be overjoyed at having him here with her or cry. He wanted her in his bed and in his life, but not in his heart.

            “Hopefully, it changes everything,” he answered enigmatically.

            His voice tickled warm against her ear and sent a ripple of yearning into her chest. Then she did shift away from him and stared up into his eyes. “I thought you weren’t coming tonight.”

            “You’d rather I left?” he asked evenly.

            Despite herself, her hand tightened around his, as if to prevent him from doing just that. “I think you’d rather I left.”

            “That’s the last thing I want.”

            But his words only tore at her heart. He didn’t want her to leave, but he couldn’t bring himself to love her.

            “I need to speak with you. Privately.”

            “Edward—” When he looked into her eyes, the anguished regret she glimpsed in their dark depths choked the words from her. Yet there was so much to regret, for both of them, and regret didn’t signify for love.

            Forcing herself to keep breathing and not misstep in their waltz, she glanced around, noticing that they were center of attention. His arrival had caused quite a commotion. She hadn’t had a minute of peace all night, and finding a way to have a moment alone with him would be impossible.

            And she wasn’t certain he deserved it. Her heart was still broken, their dance only a temporary bandage on a wound that would never heal.

            She shook her head. “You’ll have to wait until the ball’s over.”

            “I cannot.” He pulled her into one last circle as the ending notes of the waltz died away, holding her in his arms longer than necessary.

            Reluctantly, he released her, then gave her a sweeping bow before placing her hand on his arm to return her to Augusta.

            “I need to speak with you,” he told her again in a low voice. “Meet me in the morning room at midnight.”

            “I won’t be able to get away,” she returned in the same tone. “My dance card is full.”

            “Then break their hearts by not dancing with them, angel,” he whispered hotly into her ear as they reached Augusta, “but don’t break mine.”

            Her breath caught painfully in her throat as he lifted her hand from his arm and kissed it, his lips lingering against her fingertips. And her heart? Would he make it whole again or shatter it irreparably?

            “Meet me at midnight,” he repeated. Then he released her hand and, with a nod toward Augusta, excused himself to disappear into the crush.

            Kate could only stare after him, her body already cooling from the loss of his arms around her. She briefly pressed her eyes closed to steady herself.

            “So, Strathmore came tonight after all.” Augusta beamed, and for a moment, Kate thought she might actually clap her hands with glee. “Oh, my dear, this is marvelous—truly marvelous!”

            “Yes…marvelous,” she repeated dumbly as a swirling sensation spun through her, as if she were still dancing, circling away on a riot of emotions.

            Augusta gazed at her with an expression of motherly affection, then frowned. “Are you all right?”

            “I’m fine,” she assured her. “Just a little winded.”

            “Yes,” she smiled smugly, “I suppose you are…Lady Hamilton! How good to see you again.”

            Kate took a deep breath and wondered when her world would stop spinning.

 

 

*****

 

 

            For the next half hour, Kate continued to dance and smile, graciously greeting everyone she met, but her eyes strayed toward the clock on the stairwell landing. Even as she danced and maintained her end of mindless conversations, she was aware of every passing minute bringing her closer to midnight.

            Even now, she wasn’t certain she should meet him. He’d hurt her so deeply already and had the power to wound her even more, but when he danced with her, he seemed changed, and in his eyes she’d glimpsed…Well, she would have said love if he had been anyone else except the man who said he could never love her.

            “Katherine,” Augusta touched her arm, “are you certain you are well?”

            “I’m just a little light-headed.” She waved her fan but never felt the air. “It’s warm in here, with all the people—”

            Midnight struck, the bells sounding dimly against the noise of the ball, but each chime reverberated through her like cannon fire. She wasn’t certain whether she paled or flushed, but the concerned glance Augusta gave her told her she looked nothing like herself. She felt nothing like herself.

            And she knew then what she needed to do. “Excuse me!”

            She pushed her way through the crush, her pulse racing harder with each step. The swirling spun through her as she started up the stairs, and without a glance, she passed the clock she’d stared at all night, forcing herself to walk calmly so as not to draw attention. But every chime made her want to run.

            She found the door of the morning room and reached for the handle, flung open the door and rushed inside—

            Into an empty room.

            Edward wasn’t there. Her shoulders sagged, and struggling to regain her breath, she winced at the stab of disappointment that pierced her. Oh, what a fool she was for daring to hope—

            “Katherine.”

            She turned with a soft gasp, her heart leaping into her throat.

            He leaned casually back against the closed door, but there was nothing casual about the heated look in his eyes or the determination on his handsome face. He flipped the lock, its soft click reverberating through her, landing with an tingling pang between her legs.

            She swallowed hard as he pushed himself away from the door and stalked across the room toward her. Her body wanted him—Lord help her, it would always want him—but her heart knew better. She was a fool to think she could be his lover and not lose herself in the pleasures he brought her, that she could be in his arms and not long for his love as well as his body.

            She couldn’t let that weakness have her again. Not even tonight, no matter how devastatingly handsome he looked, no matter how warm and inviting his arms.

            “What do you want, Edward?” She crossed her arms over her chest to keep herself from reaching for him.

            “I found something of yours.”

            A warning pulsed through her at hearing him repeat the same words from that morning at Brambly which nearly destroyed her. Oh, God, to go through the agony of that again—she vehemently shook her head. “I don’t want anything.”

            His eyes staring softly into hers, he reached beneath his jacket and withdrew a folded sheet of paper. He solemnly held it out to her. “Read it, please.”

            Hesitating, her hand trembling with a mix of dread and wariness, she took it from him and slowly unfolded it. Her gaze moved over the page…No, this couldn’t be—it simply couldn’t be true!

            It was a legal agreement releasing her from his guardianship and care, the document which banished her from his life. A sob rose in her throat, so painful she couldn’t breathe, so devastating that her heart shattered as she read the words and saw his signature crossing the bottom.

            Only a few weeks ago she’d wanted nothing more than exactly this. But now, the thought of no longer having him in her life, even if only under a legal contract, devastated her. Once again, she’d been signed away by the man who should have cared about her, protected her, and loved her but didn’t. The irony of it was so horrible that a tear slid down her cheek, the misery unbearable.

            “I don’t understand…” The words choked her. To bring this to her now, in the middle of her debut ball, she would have accused him of playing some kind of cruel joke, but his expression was deadly serious. Edward could be many things—hard, proud, unforgiving—yet he was never cruel. Even when he’d sent her to the moors, he’d exiled her for his own self-protection, to keep his own heart from breaking over the deception he thought she’d committed. She’d forgiven him for that.

            But this, to give this to her now when he knew she loved him, when she needed his help with Brambly, when she couldn’t bear this new punishment of being cast completely from his life…oh, this was beyond cruel. It was simply merciless.

            Her hands shaking, somehow resisting the urge to rip it to shreds, she inhaled an excruciating breath and dug deep to find the sheer will to not sink to the floor in helpless grief. Her eyes blurred as she looked at him. “Why?” she begged for understanding. “Why would you—”

            “Turn it over, love.” He stepped closer and covered her hands with his, and she gasped at the burn of his touch, but he wouldn’t let her pull away as he helped her shaking fingers turn over the page. “This,” he murmured gently, “is what I offer you.”

            Kate looked down and saw the single sentence…To my angel Katherine, I give you my heart, now and forever—Edward.

            She stared at the paper, stunned, her lips parting in swirling confusion. Rapidly turning it over in her hands, reading both sides again and again and trying to comprehend what he was truly offering her, struggling to not give over to the hope stirring inside her, the same hope which had been dashed so many times before in her life. Was it possible? Was he truly giving her both the freedom she wanted and the heart she desired? She couldn’t dare hope…

            When she looked up at him, the tenderness she saw in his dark gaze stole her breath away. She swallowed hard against the rising trembling inside her, praying with every ounce of her body and soul that she understood correctly. “Does this mean…you love me?”

            “This is what I have to give you.” He drew a deep breath, an anguished regret darkening his face. “I know what you want, but I can’t say it, Kate—not yet.”

            “Edward,” she whispered, her heart not knowing whether to leap for joy or break.

            “I know that probably makes me a coward,” he grimaced, “but I’d rather prove myself to you with deeds than words.”

            With a soft sob, she stepped into his waiting arms and buried her face against his shoulder as he pulled her close against his strong body. Held safe within his arms, she felt the love in him, then, the caring and desire he held for her, the protection he would always give, his need to be with her. Her belly tightened at the bittersweet happiness swelling inside her.

            “I don’t understand,” she murmured, her arms holding him tight around his waist and never wanting to let go. “Why did you sign that agreement, then, voiding the guardianship?”

            “Because I want you to give yourself freely, Kate,” he whispered, his lips tenderly caressing at her temple. “I want you with me because you wish to be with me.”

            “Oh, I do,” she breathed, unable to find her voice through the gathering tears. “I do wish to be with you, Edward.”

            She’d wished for nothing else than exactly that since the night of the storm when she’d kissed him at the Mulderry’s, when she’d tried to put into her kiss how much his kindness and protection meant to her, how much her heart loved him even then. Even before she’d realized it herself.

            And he loved her. She knew now that he felt it and that he would never harm her the way her father had hurt her mother, would never take from her the freedoms she needed. He’d given her his heart, and that was what mattered.

            It hurt to know that he couldn’t tell her, but this paper proved it. In time, he would say the words, and until then, she would give him the understanding and patience he needed. Because she loved him.

            Raising her head to gaze up at him, she curled her fingers into his chest. “What happens next?”

            The same question she’d asked him the morning after they first made love, but this time when he smiled at her, she knew he had an answer. “You marry me, and we’ll live at Hartsfield Park but visit Brambly often.”

            She stiffened. “And my medical work?”

            “As a duchess, you’ll be expected to maintain a certain propriety, so there won’t be any more rides through storms to birth babies.” Knowing how much her work meant to her, he tempered that news with a touch of his lips to hers. “But you can hire a doctor for the village, and there’s no reason why you can’t continue with your medicines and experiments when we’re in the country. And in the city, you can be a hospital patroness and do charity work on a larger scale, help even more people.” When she only stared up at him silently, he cupped her face in his hands. “I’m proposing a compromise, Kate—part duchess, part doctor. That was what you wanted, wasn’t it? Marriage only if you could continue with your medicine.”

            She nodded, choking back tears of happiness. “Yes,” she whispered, finding her voice as gratitude swelled in her heart. “Yes—oh, yes!”

            She flung her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly against her, kissing his cheek. Happiness flooded through her, and she bounced in his arms, then kissed him again. Lifting her from the floor and twirling her into a circle, he laughed, and she drank in the wonderful sound.

            Then he took her chin in his hand and raised her face until she was forced to look into his eyes. “And we’re marrying as soon as possible. Unless you want a Scottish wedding, we’re getting a special license.”

            She lowered her eyes shyly, but part of her was secretly thrilled at the possibility, “Because I might be with child.”

            “Because I can’t keep my hands off you.” He drew her toward him. “You’re all I think about…how much I want your body, your hands and mouth on me, mine on you. All the things I want to do to you,” a wolfish grin spread slowly across his face, “all the things I want to teach you to do to me.” As if in promise, he leaned down and licked his tongue over the curl of her ear, sending a delicious, hot shiver through her. “If you’re not with child now,” he told her honestly, “you will be soon, because I have no intention of denying myself of you.”

            And neither did she. Rising up onto her tip-toes, she claimed his mouth in a breath-taking kiss. She touched the tip of her tongue to his, needing to taste and touch all of him to prove him real and not some wonderful dream.

            In response, his hands slid down the length of her, fire blossoming beneath her skin wherever he touched, and he tore his panting mouth away from hers to nip his teeth at her throat and the raging pulse she knew he could feel beneath his lips. Then he dared to kiss lower and caress his lips across the top swells of her breasts. She trembled and arched herself against him

 

 

[Deleted love scene went here]

 

 

            When he’d spent every drop of himself inside her, he guided her gently to the floor, then followed down after her to pull her into his arms. She clung breathlessly to him, throbbing and on fire, every inch of her pulsating with pleasure even as she sobbed helplessly in his arms. It had always been wonderful to make love to him, but it had never been like this before, never this primal and shattering, never this vulnerable. Never this…complete. She loved him, with every ounce of her body and soul, and she’d tried with her body to show him what her heart felt.

            Breathing hard, his body shaking, he gathered her close. He gently cupped her face against his palm and kissed the tears from her cheeks. “Kate…Kate, darling…don’t cry.”

            She opened her eyes, and his dark gaze stared down at her with an intensity she’d never witnessed in him before.

            “You said you needed me,” he whispered simply, as if that explained why he’d taken her so fiercely, so desperately. As if that could ease away the tears he’d brought out of her.

            “Yes,” with a faint smile, she brushed a sweat-dampened curl away from his forehead, “I did.” She touched her lips to his. “I do.”

            He frowned at her with concern. “Then why the tears, darling?”

            “Because I’m so happy.”

            Shaking his head, he pulled her against him and mumbled, “I’m never going to understand women.”

            A bubble of laughter escaped her, and she leaned up to touch her lips to his. “Oh, so much better than you think,” she sighed.

            He laughed and pulled her closer.

            He held her like that for a few precious minutes more before he finally shifted away, to help her to her feet and straighten their clothes. When they were finally somewhat presentable again, he took her shoulders and brought her against him to kiss her one last time.

            “We need to get back to the party.” He reluctantly released her and moved to the door. “I’ll leave first. Wait ten minutes before following.” As his eyes roamed over her, he arched a brow at her. “You might want to straighten your coiffeur.”

            Her eyes widened in horror, and her hands flew to her hair, her stomach sinking at the unruly curls falling down everywhere from their pins. “Oh, no…How do I look?”

            “Delicious.” He gave her a rakish grin. He opened the door to peer into the hallway and warned again over his shoulder, “Ten minutes.”

            Then he slipped away.

 

*****

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            The party was at its height when he strolled back into the ballroom, his expression carefully composed. He took two glasses of Madeira from a passing footman and weaved his way through the crush to Augusta, bowing his head politely at Lady Penelope Hawthorne and stifling a smile at her expense.

            “Nice of you to join us tonight.” Augusta arched an eyebrow as he handed her a glass. “Off playing games, were you?”

            “One could say that.”

            “And did you win?”

            “Oh, yes.” His lips twitched. “I certainly did.”

            In front of them, lines of dancers swept forward, then retreated, then forward again to circle their partners. The room was a flood of colored silks and muslins, black jackets, white gloves, and flitting fans, and in the light from the crystal chandeliers, the sparkle of jewels flickered brilliantly.

            But Edward didn’t see any of it. His eyes were focused above all the glamour and glitter at the top of the stairs where Kate would appear at any moment, looking absolutely magnificent, if slightly mussed, and finally belonging completely to him. He didn’t want to miss that.

            “Miss Benton excused herself quite a while ago,” Augusta commented. “I asked Lady Penelope to check on her. Apparently, Miss Benton needed privacy and locked herself into the morning room.”

            Edward made no reply and lifted the glass to his lips.

            Augusta’s gaze never wandered from the sets of dancers spinning in front of her. “So then, will the wedding be in London or at Hartsfield?”

            “London, I think,” he answered evenly, not registering a beat of surprise at her sudden question. His aunt had always been the sharpest person he’d ever known. “We will need a special license, of course.”

            “Of course.”

            And then surprise did register on his face, and he smiled slowly. “You’ve already procured one,” he accused. “This was your endgame from the beginning.”

            “My dear Edward,” she said with affection, “I have raised you since you were a boy, and I know you better than you know yourself. It only took one look at your face when you returned from Sussex to know she was the right woman for you.” She looped her arm through his. “All I did was help you see that for yourself.”

            “Thank you.” He leaned over to place a grateful kiss on her cheek.

            Beaming with happiness, her eyes glistening, she cleared her throat to keep back the emotion. “You two have worked everything out, then?”

            “Not quite everything.” He still had not told her he loved her. He couldn’t bring himself to do it, not even after the way he’d so fiercely made love to her. And it had been fierce and passionate, every bit of his body and soul attempting to put into actions what he couldn’t yet put into words.

            But he wasn’t worried. Kate would marry him now, and he would prove to her how happy they could be together. After all, he had the rest of their lives to convince her.

            “And her father? Something tells me he will not be invited to the wedding.”

            “No.” His eyes drifted back to the stairs. “I hear Australia is lovely this time of year.”

            The quadrille ended, and the dancers slowly left the dance floor.

            After several more minutes, Kate still had not appeared, during which time the orchestra struck up a second waltz and Augusta smiled apologetically at yet another man who came to claim his dance only to find Kate missing and Edward’s cold gaze on him as if he would like to run the man through with a bayonet.

            “She should have been back by now.” He frowned when another dance ended without a sign of her and set his glass onto the tray of a passing footman. “I’m going to look for her.”

            “We shall both go,” Augusta corrected. She placed her hand on his arm, and he escorted her from the room.

            Just as they reached the top of the stairs and started down the hallway toward the morning room, a commotion went up from the entry hall at the bottom of the front stairs, followed by shouts and horse hooves on the gravel drive.

            Worry flashing through him, Edward released her and ran down the stairs.

            A group of men gathered on the front portico, a mix of well-dressed ball attendees and uniformed footmen, their faces grim despite the pulse of excitement surrounding them. The front door stood flung wide open, all the lamps blazing, and Alexander Sinclair, Earl of St. James, stood in the middle of the confusion, looking extremely put out in his own house.

            “Strathmore!” he bellowed as Edward reached the bottom of the stairs, his brows drawn tightly together. “He says he’s your man.”

            The men stepped back to reveal a badly beaten Hedley leaning against the entryway wall, his clothes torn and muddied, his hand pressed against his forehead to stench the blood dripping from a deep gash on his head.

            “Colonel,” he tried to pull himself to his feet, but Edward put a hand to his shoulder and kept him against the wall.

            “Stay still,” he ordered. “What happened?”

            “I was following Benton. Somethin’ about ‘im tonight seemed suspicious, more so than usual, sir.”

            Edward tore off his cravat to press it against the man’s head and staunch the bleeding. “He attacked you?”
            Hedley winced. “He had help. Two men.”

            Edward glanced at St. James. “Send for a doctor.”

            “Go! Fetch Dr. Brandon,” St. James ordered a nearby footman, who hurried from the house.

            “Where did this happen, Hedley?”

            “Here, sir.”

            He felt the blood drain from his face as fear gripped his chest. “Kate—where is she?”

            “They took the lass, sir.” He slumped further down the wall. “I followed into th’ house an’ upstairs. I tried to stop ‘em. That’s when they jumped me.”

             Edward grabbed his shoulders. “Did they hurt her?”

            “No—I don’t know.”

            “Did you see them leave?” A deep voice cut in calmly behind Edward.

            Hedley’s eyes flicked over Edward’s shoulder at Thomas Matteson, and he nodded. “Aye, sir. To the north. Put her into a black carriage with crimson upholstery an’ brass trim. Broken right lamp.”

            “And the horses?” Thomas asked, his face grim.

            “Mismatched. A bay with white socks on its front legs and a blaze, the other a grey.”

            Edward demanded, “And the men?”

            Hedley shook his head. “Didn’t get a good look, Colonel, ‘fore they bashed m’ skull.”

            “You did well, Hedley.” Edward clamped the man on the shoulder. “Stay here, wait for the doctor.”

            Thomas glanced up at Nathaniel Grey as he appeared at the top of the stairs. “We’re going after her.”

            He nodded. “I’ll send for my men.”

            “Tell them to head north,” Edward ordered. He rushed out the front door toward the horses, Thomas close on his heels.

            As they mounted, Thomas pulled his horse into a circle around Edward’s big colt. “Don’t worry, Colonel, we’ll find her.”

            Edward nodded, his face expressionless, his back and shoulders straight. Unconsciously, he’d assumed the same posture in the saddle that had become second nature in his army years, right before he rode into battle. But that was exactly what he was doing—riding into battle once more, this time to fight for Kate.

            He took the pistol Thomas pulled from beneath his jacket and handed over to him, not blinking an eye that the viscount came armed with firearms to a society ball.

            “If that bastard hurts her,” Edward growled, “I’ll kill him.”

            Then he dug his heels into the horse’s sides, and the colt sprang forward.

© 2019 by Anna Harrington